Chapter 1


Sword Art Online.

It was the first virtual reality game to be created. Technology has made it possible to fully immerse a person's consciousness in a brand new world. Its realism has reached the point where players are unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

A fantasy where a castle floated in an endless sky. Its size was immeasurable, the first floor alone rivalled the size of a country with many cities, forests, lakes and mountains. It was just one realm of the one hundred in existence. It was a place where wielding mystical weapons, performing athletic feats beyond human limits and fighting legendary monsters were only some of the things a player can do. In fact, everything that was possible in the real world was also possible in this one.

The expected date of release was in the late fall of 2022, directly after the closed beta test. However the game developer decided at a whim to delay and make changes to his creation. The game would be available everywhere around the globe and the network server capacity would be expanded to handle millions of players, which was a vast improvement compared to the original plan of releasing exclusively in Japan with a network server capacity of only ten thousand players. All other major gaming companies were assimilated, effectively eliminating any possible competition and introducing new game content.

It took a lot of time and effort but finally after two and a half years, the game was released. Nerve Gear – the device that would connect a person's mind to Sword Art Online, made record sales unheard of in human history. From the hardcore gamers to those you would never expect to play games, people from all walks of life could be found possessing a copy. If this game was successful, virtual reality would be accepted and integrated into daily life. It was advent of a new era.

Except nobody saw it coming. A tragedy that stole away the lives of every player who chose to dive into the game. An event that would change the entire world forever.

ooo

A girl silently walked into her room, relieved to be home after finishing the usual intense training exercises. It was the summer break, but a torrential downpour caught her off guard and would probably deny any other outdoor activity for the rest of the weekend. She quickly slipped out of all her clothing and collapsed on the bed. Exhaustion gripped every part of her body and she was tempted to sleep, but the time on her cell phone's lit screen showed that it was still early morning. It also displayed one new message, prompting her to press the play button.

"Hi Suguha," her mother's tired voice came from the speakers. "Sorry I had to stay at the office overnight again. Don't worry, they cannot make me work overtime on a Saturday. I hope. Anyways, you will be pleased to hear that your father is coming home from his trip overseas. We can finally go on that long overdue family vacation and watch you compete in the national kendo tournament. I know that you've been through a lot, but hang in there. We will be waiting for you. Take care, bye."

The recording ended with an electronic beeping sound and she placed the cell phone back onto her bedside table next to an empty plate. She would have sighed, but a piece of toast stuffed in her mouth prevented her from doing so. It was good that they were coming back and hopefully a lot of her problems would be solved. Except that their arrival would probably be late at night and she needed something to pass the time. At that moment her eyes fell on the last object resting on the bedside table, a brand new Nerve Gear.

To be honest, she did not know what was going through her head when she pre-ordered that thing. The only experience she ever really had with electronics was her cell phone for texting and a small computer for web browsing. She strongly disliked video games or the idea of a virtual reality game, since it required sitting in a chair or lying in a bed for long periods of time. It was strange to how people invested so much into a fictional character or story that had no value in the real world.

Perhaps she wanted to find the person who was once very close to her. He chose to throw everything away despite his strength and immersed himself with such devices. She wanted to know why. Maybe he saw something that she did not, that could only be understood by actually exploring a world that was foreign to her. Whatever the reason, it was just another problem on her to-do list, one that bothered her more than the rest.

Her eyes drifted from the locked door of her room to the window, which was still being pelted on the outside with endless raindrops. She then picked up the Nerve Gear, holding it with outstretched arms to study it. It looked like a hockey helmet, enclosing as much as the head as possible. Countless tiny reflective transmitters and receptors lined the inside of the helmet. It was capable of manipulating the five senses by a direct connection to the brain.

On the outside of the helmet was a wire, which supposedly provided a link to the game's dedicated servers through the internet. Alternatively a wireless connection was possible via the company's satellites. There was also a rechargeable battery pack that was plugged by a wire into an electrical socket.

If anything, this new device seemed unsafe. But her intense curiosity was just too strong and she slowly placed the helmet on her head, while relaxing her body on the bed. To activate the game required one simple voice command.

"Link Start!"

Suddenly the world around her faded to black and the strangest sensation overtook her, or to be more accurate, the lack of any sensation at all. It was if she became a ghost, completely conscious yet without a body floating in an endless void. Strangely enough, she felt calm in place of fear, as if a soothing unknown force in her head was telling her to relax.

"Welcome to Sword Art Online," echoed a female voice from out of nowhere. "I will be your guide, programmed to help you start your journey. This is your first time playing, so please be patient as we begin custom calibrations. Initiating all scanning sequences."

Numbers flickered in front of her vision, somewhat like a holographic display, its light illuminating the surrounding area. She definitely was not in her room anymore, instead replaced by empty space as far as the eye could see with a grid like matrix to define it.

"Body scan complete," said the monotone voice. One of the numbers was already at one hundred percent. "Your virtual body is now ready."

The computer finished talking and she felt the cool sensation of air on her skin, only to realize that she had her body again. She read that the virtual character avatar was just composed of polygons, yet it felt and looked exactly like her real body. The amount of detail was amazing, from the deep inhaling of every breath to the simple wiggling of her toes.

"Vocal frequency scan complete," the computer said again, another number also at one hundred percent. "Please try out your voice. We recommend trying every note on the musical scale for test accuracy, but saying anything is fine."

"Okay," she whispered, not even realizing that her voice was temporarily gone in the first place. "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do," she sung without worry. Nobody would hear her even in the case she went off key.

"Well done," the computer praised her with a programmed response. "External scanning complete. All vitals are stable. All other minor scanning sequences will continue as we begin the character creation process."

"Character creation process?" She echoed in confusion.

"In Sword Art Online, or SAO for short, you have the ability to change your physical appearance. There are many things that can be modified from facial features to weight. Just keep in mind that changing certain attributes like height may affect your coordination and may take some time getting used to. You also have the option to be unique by using your original looks in game. We actually recommend it. The game designer has a special surprise prepared for those who do so in the official tutorial later today."

"I see," she said, wondering who 'we' and 'game designer' referred to and what their ulterior motive could be. Although a special surprise was tempting, the idea of strangers knowing what her real face looked like in a role-playing game left her feeling pretty uncomfortable. Acquiring supermodel looks also sounded pretty good. "I want to try changing anyway."

"Very well, please select a race. This is one of the new features in SAO which was not seen in the beta testing phase. You may notice that each creature is built differently than another, for example a giant is stronger than a human but also less nimble."

Suddenly different figures appeared, forming a circle around her. There was a human, a elf, a giant, a dwarf, a beast and even a fairy just to name a few. The human looked exactly like her. Every other figure despite being a different race had her facial characteristics that made them look similar. She wasn't particularly too fond of the beast version of herself.

"Let's try that one," she said while pointing to the figure on her right.

"Fairy race selected. Please select a sub-race," the computer requested. "Note that each sub-race also has different modifiers that differentiate them from each other. For example the Spriggans are skilled at treasure hunting and use illusion techniques to aid them in battle or the Salamanders who are naturally strong and use fire to augment their attacks."

She watched as the figures disappeared from view and the remaining fairy duplicated itself into nine new figures, each with a minor variations such as different colours of hair or the presence of a tail or long, pointy ears. They were familiar, she remembered seeing them before when browsing a random website, except they were from another game that was being planned for release. That company probably got assimilated by the one that owned SAO.

"I want to try that one," she pointed to the figure directly in front of her, who looked human but radiated a magical, graceful aura.

"That is a Sylph. A fairy race who has exceptional natural growth in speed and uses wind to augment their abilities," there was a slight pause. "Are you sure of your selection?"

"Yes," she replied. Her hands then proceeded to manipulate various holographic menus that would change her appearance. It was strange. She was never conscious of her body image, yet here she was, deeply immersed in customizations. It was as if she was creating something from a fairy tale, something that was long forgotten and buried in her childhood memories.

A long time passed until she was finally satisfied with her work. There was a mirror which materialized in front of her and reflected an image she was so familiar with. Beside it was the customized holographic figure which could almost pass for her sister. Compared to her real body, this one was still similar in certain characteristics such as vertical height and facial features. However her black hair with a bluish hue was changed to a golden colour like honey. Her eye colour was changed to a bright green that resembled emeralds. Also her slender, toned figure of an athlete was slightly modified into a lithe figure of a graceful model.

"Are you satisfied with your changes?" The computer asked, noticing that she was admiring her own work. "If so, please create display name for yourself. Please note that offensive words, long strings of meaningless numbers or gibberish cannot be used."

She closed her eyes, thinking of a name. She could have used her own name, but it just didn't feel safe to do so and went against common sense. Her new name also had to be something meaningful, something unique. She searched once again through her childhood memories.

"Lyfa," she whispered after a moment of thought. "That's a good name."

Suddenly there was a flash of pure, white light and a gentle warmth wrapped around her body. When the light faded, everything around her was gone and the surrounding area was once again empty. The mirror also slowly disintegrated into nothingness, but not before she was able to catch a glimpse of her new image.

"There is only one more step to go before you enter the world of Aincrad, the place where a castle floats in an endless sky," the computer said. "You may encounter dangers during your adventure. To protect yourself, please select one weapon. Of course you will have many opportunities in the future to acquire better equipment."

Many items appeared around her, encircling her in the same manner the holographic figures did a few minutes ago. Except that there was so many, the extensive variety made the once expansive space cramped. There was everything from bulky metal plate armour to linen dresses under leather vests. Weapons ranged from vicious looking axes to elaborate long spears.

An object of interest caught her eye, glimmering as it floated past her. She instinctively reached out for it and somehow the object floated to her. It was a sword with a straight edge, with a leather sheath and a strap to carry it. The sword had a dull lustre and was not exactly the best in design, but it felt familiar in her hands. She felt that the weapon suited her.

She also grabbed a sleeveless shirt and short shorts which resembled her athletic attire in the real world. The fine cloth was dark green, its colour like that of evergreen trees. It probably wouldn't give her any defensive protection at all, but it was perfect for swift, unrestricted movement. She slipped into her new clothing and then grabbed boots that seemed comfortable for running.

"Please answer one question before you go," the electric voice sounded lively and genuinely curious. "Why do you wish to exist in this world?"

"I don't-" she paused, unsure of what to say next. It was a very strange question for a computer to ask. "I don't know." She closed her eyes, wondering why she was taking this so seriously. It was then that the image of a certain important person flashed through her mind and she knew how to reply. "Even so. I will always move forwards. Until I find that answer."

There was a short moment of silence, as if her honest response was being processed. "All scans complete," the computer's voice returned to speaking in its normal monotone. "As I mentioned before, there will be an official tutorial today, which is the grand opening event for this game. All you have to do is remain online and you may be rewarded. Are you ready to proceed to the game?"

"Yes," she nodded enthusiastically.

"Confirmed," the tone of the computer's female voice slowed as if shutting down, its purpose finished. "Good luck, Lyfa."

The void which permitted her to float was overcome with gravity. She began to fall...

ooo

It was as if she snapped out a long daydream, her emerald eyes bringing a world that she was unaware of into focus. There was a giant marble fountain, a small orchestra playing music and even fireworks in the sky as if to welcome her. She was no longer falling, but rather standing in a large crowd of people. Every so often, a beam of light akin to a blue flame flickered in an empty space of the city square and a new person, often confused, was left in its place. This area was a starter point for new players.

She was already lost. Even if she knew the mechanics and goal of this game, it didn't change the fact that she was dropped off in the middle of a giant city without any map or directions. She wished that the official tutorial mentioned by the computer wasn't scheduled later in the day. The creators of this game should have implemented a minor help feature or written a specific chapter in the instruction manual for a situation like this. Then again, it could have been their intentions for players to initially explore on their own.

So she wandered off. Asking other players for help seemed silly since this game was less than a day old. Asking the non-player characters or NPC seemed even sillier. She figured that a computer programmed to live a normal life had limited responses to a stranger who didn't know what to do or where to go. There was so many people, she didn't know who to ask even if she did have the right questions.

The flow of people was similar to pedestrian traffic in the heart of a downtown shopping district. The city was huge and it was pretty easy to get lost in a maze of cobblestone roads surrounded by a cluster of buildings. A small fraction of the current player base could permanently live here if they wanted to and it was safe to assume that there were much more starter cities out there.

It was a pleasant atmosphere. The architecture of the buildings reminded her of castles from the medieval ages that she read in a book. There were many houses, inns, tailors, restaurants and shops with so many people in it, she couldn't even tell what they were selling. Amongst the conversing voices were the sounds of music, town criers, vendors, animals and blacksmith hammers. She could even smell delicious food, ranging from grilled meats to spicy curry.

It took her quite some time before she arrived at the iron gates. It was the main entry and exit point through the giant stone walls that surrounded the city. The gates were open and the guards seemed nice to let anyone pass, but the crowd that she followed to this point greatly thinned out and nobody chose to do so. Mustering her courage, she continued on and crossed the oak drawbridge over the deep moat.

The dirt path she stood on led to a beautiful green meadow as far as the eye could see. Its beauty was emphasized by the occasional gentle breeze which swept across the tall, lush grass and causing a ripple effect throughout the field. There was the occasional bush and tree which offered a generous amount of shade from the bright rays of the warm sun.

Which reminded her...

This was the first floor of castle Aincrad. There was supposedly a second floor above her. Yet, she could see no ceiling or any other kind of marked boundary. It was all filled by an endless, clear, blue sky. It was a nice change of pace from the rainy weather from hours ago. Perhaps the vastness of outer space and the countless amount of stars would be in view when night falls.

What was the game creator thinking when calling this place a castle? It seemed to cause misunderstanding, this place was more like a limitless universe. The term, 'parallel worlds' seemed more appropriate than the term 'floors.'

There was no end even after straying off the dirt path. The once large buildings of the city were now smaller in the background behind her. In the distance in front of her were platforms in the sky, each supported by small pillars that resembled tree trunks. A few of these isolated floating islands even had waterfalls pouring into the sparkling lakes below, but she could not see where the water was coming from.

It was a strange place, but beautiful. For a brief moment, she felt that it wouldn't be so bad to get lost out here. Suddenly, she heard a suspicious rustle in a nearby bush.

A four legged animal that resembled a pig walked out, except that it was abnormally larger and had bizarre blue skin. It was grazing on the vegetation, but it looked scary and intimidating with its sharp tusks. Words in red text flashed onto her field of vision, as if she was wearing contact lens with a integrated holographic display.

'Frenzy Boar - Level 1'

According to the instruction manual, this thing was a monster. Defeating it would yield experience points needed to level up. She did not know how levelling up would make her stronger, but she did know that the thing that stood in front of her was potentially dangerous. Just like a wild animal, she did not want to turn her back to it, because that usually led to disastrous results in the real world.

Her right hand reached for her sword that she carried on her back. She then gripped the handle and unsheathed it, causing the ringing sound of metal to echo throughout the field. She took a few steps back, her eyes focused on the animal, watching its every movement.

The frenzy boar glared at her, as if sharing her sentiments. It snorted in anger and scratched the soft earth with the hoof of its right foreleg. It was readying itself for a charge.

The brief silence was interrupted by another light gust of wind sweeping the grass around her and it seemed to magnify the tense atmosphere this time around. It was just a game, where most people would be worrying about experience points and having fun. But it felt too real, the monster in front of her actually seemed to pose a dangerous threat. This would be her first fight with the intent to seriously harm and potentially even kill.

All she had to do was strike a blow that was strong enough to drop the beast and interrupt its charge. Her next move would be determined from the outcome, which was to either run away or finish it off. As a kendo practitioner, she did have a couple of techniques at her disposal. Although a little improvisation was required since the frenzy boar did not exactly have the height of a human.

The animal charged, the giant mass of muscle picking up a surprising amount of speed. She took a stance, assuming a centred posture and straightening her back. She then took a deep breath and raised her sword above her head, waiting for the boar to get into range. New words in blue text unexpectedly flashed on her vision interface.

'Sword Skill: Diagonal'

There was no time to figure out its meaning and she allowed her mind to go with the flow. She swung down with all her might. At that moment an unknown influence guided her movements. It could have been her imagination, but this attack was just too flawless. A faint blue glow enveloped her sword and left a trail of light as it made a clean cut through the frenzy boar's body. It was no doubt a fatal blow.

Her eyes widened when the animal did not drop to the ground as expected. It was too close. She had to dive out of its way. But for some reason, her body wouldn't move!

"Wha- AH!" She cried out in pain. She landed on her back coughing, the wind knocked out of her.

A solid blue line flashed in the top left corner of her vision interface as it decreased in size. It was her hit point bar, a representation of her life force. It would probably be very bad if its value reached zero.

The frenzy boar had an HP bar of its own, which was shown over its weakened figure. The bar's length was shorter and was a sickly yellow instead of a healthy blue. Her last attack must have dealt more than 50% of its maximum health. But it was strange that the percentage was not zero after such a powerful attack.

She plunged her sword into the ground and used it as a support to pull herself up. As luck would have it, she had no open wounds or broken bones. The game was probably set with safety restrictions due to real world ethical laws. It was still pretty realistic to concepts such as pain and there was even a bruise on the place she was hit.

For the second time, the frenzy boar scratched the ground with its hoof. It seemed to be the exact same attack pattern, probably intended to be an easy challenge for beginner players. It definitely explained why it did not trample her when she was down on the ground and vulnerable. She could not lower her guard. There was a possibility that the mysterious sword skill may throw her off balance again.

Even so, she did not hesitate. The blue animal was predictable when it came into striking distance and this time she sidestepped out of its way. There was no system message on her vision interface this time and in one fluid motion she swiped at the beast as it passed by. Her makeshift attack was successful and more blood was drawn from the animal.

The creature roared again in pain, yet it was able to limp away. Once again, its HP bar did not drop to zero. The sliver of health that did remain changed from a sickly yellow colour to a dangerous red. It was evidence that her last attack became significantly weaker.

There was a difference between her first and second attack, a condition behind activating that mysterious force or sword skill. It was a double edged sword, which made attacks flawless and powerful in exchange for a short period of movement delay afterwards. If used properly, it could become a useful asset. Likewise, improper use would result in her downfall. She had a rough idea to make it work consistently.

It was time for her to take the offensive. She kicked off the ground and easily closed the distance to her opponent. The frenzy boar widened its eyes in surprise as if it did not expect the change in her behaviour. She got into stance and raised the sword above her head trying to emphasize her initial movements. As suspected, the system message appeared on her vision interface and a faint blue glow returned to the blade's edge.

'Sword Skill: Diagonal'

It was as if the unknown influence was knocking on the doors of her mind and she chose to go with the flow once again. Her sword diagonally slashed through the frenzy boar's body, its strong force knocking it aside.

It bounced off the ground multiple times, similar to how a flat rock skips when thrown in a pond. With no health left, the life in its eyes faded and its body became colourless. It then shattered into thousands of polygons and a sound similar to breaking glass echoed throughout the air. The fragments scattered and rose, reflecting the light of the sun's rays.

She held out her free hand and caught one of the floating fragments. It felt lifelessly cold to the touch and dissolved into smaller pieces until nothing could be seen. Her gaze then fell upon the dull blade in her other hand. The mysterious force which was referred to as 'sword skill' could really turn any new player into an efficient fighter if given enough time. Though it was no replacement to real skills that was earned with hard work and dedication.

"I'm impressed," came the voice of a stranger from behind. "You actually used the system assist program effectively in your first battle."

She whirled around to face the newcomer. It was alarming to how close this person got without her noticing. Did he have good or ill intentions? Was he alone?

"Who are you?" She asked warily.

"You can call me Kirito," he replied with a calm expression.

This person seemed to be the same age as her, though she couldn't be sure because of any possible customizations from the character creation process. He wore black pants, matching boots, a beige leather vest and a blue shirt underneath. He also seemed to have selected the same sword as her, which was carried in a leather sheath.

"I'm Lyfa," she politely gave her display name in return. She then surveyed the surrounding fields, which appeared to be empty. "What brings you all the way out here?"

It was interesting to note that they were speaking the same language. SAO was an international game and there were players coming from many different cultures. It was possible that a program was actively translating the exchange. Then again, this person could be closer to home than she thought.

"The same reason you are out here I suppose," he shrugged after a brief moment. "Hunting wild frenzy boars and giant insect monsters."

"That's not what I mean," Her grip tightened around the sword's handle, making her feel somewhat safer. "There are miles of empty space around us. The chances of you running into me are virtually non-existent."

"Virtually huh? Nice pun," he gave a mischievous smirk. She in turn rolled her eyes. "Look, it's not my intention to make you uncomfortable. SAO has a program known as the crime prevention code. Any forms of harassment are a one way ticket to the nearest dungeon."

"I didn't know," she trailed off. She didn't really want to interrogate this person, but... "Is player killing a form of harassment?"

"I guess not," Kirito sighed. His expression betrayed no evidence of being offended from her suspicion. "It can't be helped. Such things are common in other games after all."

He leisurely grabbed a handful of grass and tossed it, letting the wind carry it away. His hand then reached for the one handed sword strapped on his back. It made a eerie, familiar metallic ring as it was drawn. He extended his sword arm to the side and began to slowly walk towards her.

"What are your intentions then?" She asked, taking a few steps back.

There was no need for an answer. At that very moment, a very large number of frenzy boars emerged from the other side of a nearby hill. It was a violent stampede.

"I came to warm you of that," he pointed at the now obvious danger. "I wasn't the only one who saw your battle. Maybe they want to avenge their fallen friend?"

"Ah. I see," she muttered in disbelief as she counted almost thirty or forty of them. Also, wild boars are supposed to be territorial and not come in herds. "Why are there so many?"

"Well technically it's not a lot," Kirito replied. "This field was designed for a large amount of players to train in. Unfortunately, not many have found this place yet. That's why it was so easy for me to spot you."

"Shouldn't we run away?" The urgency in voice was building up for every second that passed. They were getting closer and closer. "We are just asking to be trampled here."

"Don't worry," he replied in a confident tone. "I know what I'm doing. We got this."

His assessment of the situation was correct. The frenzy boars did not charge in a straight line, which would have led to a quick, humiliating death for any level one player. Instead, the cluster of enemies broke apart into two groups in an attempt to surround them. It was likely that their programming was written in such a way to make things easy for beginners. Then again how could a beginner possibly fight such a large number of enemies?

Kirito turned his back to her. She responded by doing the same. They would fight back to back and cover each other as much as possible. She had no choice but to trust this boy. If he wanted to attack her, then he would have done so already.

"Just don't get thrown into the air this time," Kirito added.

"Oh," she felt the redness rising in her cheeks. The pain from the frenzy boar's last attack was already forgotten. Too bad the same couldn't be said about the embarrassing memory. "You saw that."

"More or less," he answered. "Anyways, I'm interested to see who defeats the most monsters."

We waved his hand in a certain pattern and a holographic interface of light appeared in front of him. The screen had many options and he scrolled down the list with the touch of a finger. He pressed a button and a virtual keypad appeared, which made it seem like he was accessing a personal computer terminal. After he finished typing, a prompt appeared on her visual interface.

'Player Kirito wishes to form a party with you. Do you wish to accept?'

"Eh?" She blinked. "Are you serious?"

"There's a timer feature built in so we can see how long we take," he replied. He waved his hand a second time to deactivate his holographic menu and it disappeared without a trace. "As for the amount of monsters defeated, we can keep count using a counter that is available when the party is formed. Sort of like a teamwork contribution feature to show who did the most work and who was loafing around.

He was serious. This was a situation where chances of survival were slim to none. The way he spoke sounded otherwise, it was reassuring. He spoke as if his victory was certain in this little competition.

"Alright," she nodded. It was as if a flame of spirit ignited in her eyes. She felt her competitive nature rising up.

She pressed the 'accept' button and her vision interface changed. Kirito's HP bar appeared under her own. There was also a digital timer that began to tick away like a stopwatch. Two counters also appeared next to each HP bar, its value would probably increase for each enemy defeated.

She raised her sword.

"Here they come," Kirito yelled.

A single frenzy boar from his side decided to make the first move. The boy in turn lightly pushed her out of its way. Using the momentum, she spun around and delivered a heavy attack to the boar's exposed side. At the same time, Kirito's blade dug into the back of the boar's head. The animal squealed in pain and fell to the ground.

Kirito's counter value changed from zero to one. The party contribution feature decided to credit him for the kill, which meant that he dealt more damage. Impossible, they both didn't use the system assist that time. His maximum HP was the same as hers, so it was unlikely that he was higher in level. His physical attack also appeared to have less force behind it. So how?

She had no time to think it over. Kirito already went out of his way to attack the next frenzy boar who was out of position. The boy's movements were efficient. It was as if he knew everything about the opponent before him. He managed to get behind it and the frenzy boar had to take the time to turn around. It was too late, a sword skill was already activated.

The attack sent it flying away. A few seconds passed and it exploded into countless polygons. It was just one strike. That was way too fast.

It wasn't over yet. She managed to create a strategy of her own. Her Sylph speed allowed her to quickly reach two frenzy boars that were in close proximity of each other. She then got into stance.

'Sword Skill: Horizontal'

The blade trajectory was barely long enough to hit both monsters. As expected from the her first battle, the system assist added enough power to her attack to deal more than 50% of the creatures maximum health in damage. They staggered back from the blow and desperately attempted to counterattack. She in turn attempted to break out of her sword skill's delay period.

It was close...

'Sword Skill: Horizontal'

Another side to side slashing arc left a blue trail of light through the frenzy boar's bodies, causing both to collapse to the ground at the same time. The sound of two glass objects breaking resonated with each other. She ran through the scattered polygons of light, her eyes already focused on the next two targets. Two attacks gave her two points on her counter, she still had a chance to win.

Ten minutes quickly passed, as indicated by the in-game clock. The counter on her vision interface displayed her score, eighteen frenzy boars. Her steady paced strategy allowed her catch multiple clusters of the enemy. Unfortunately, Kirito who was already fast at taking down single targets, eventually became faster as he established a movement pattern around the field. He was able to get twenty-one frenzy boars.

She sat on the side of the hill, trying to catch her breath. What was the state of her real body right now? Was her real heart beating just as fast as her virtual one? Was there even a difference?

There were other frenzy boars that grazed around. These creatures were oblivious to her presence, which was good. She was too tired and couldn't fight them even if she wanted to. Her attention turned to the figure that was leaning on a lone tree.

"Why aren't we being attacked?" She asked in between heavy breaths.

"The frenzy boar is not an aggressive monster," he replied. His free hand then wiped the sweat off his brow. "It only attacks if intimidated by hunters or if it witnesses the death of its companions."

Makes sense. It explained the cause of the stampede and the beginning of her first battle. The animals around her now were different and had no memories of the fight moments ago. They were spawned by the system to replace their predecessors. The process was controlled and discreet, where each frenzy boar appeared slowly and usually emerged from a bush.

"You seem well informed," suspicion seeded in her mind. "Is that the reason you defeated more enemies than me?"

"Well," he hesitated, unsure of what to say. "The frenzy boar has a weak spot at the back of its head. Aiming your attacks there would multiply your damage dealt and make one hit kills possible."

"How could you have possibly known that?" Her eyes widened in surprise. This person knew a lot for a game that was less than a day old.

There was a longer period of silence as she stared at him with a questioning look. The boy looked down, unwilling to relinquish his secret. She felt a bit guilty for prying in, but she really wanted to know.

"I had the brief opportunity to play this game awhile ago," he spoke slowly. "During the games beta testing phase."

"No way," she muttered, half convinced that it was a lie. The closed beta testing period was only available to a thousand players. It took incredible luck to win the raffle that granted them free access. "That means you know a lot about this game. That's cheating!"

"Knowledge is power," he laughed. "And to be fair, us testers didn't get that far in the game. It was kind of hard even with a six month allotment. Personally, I died a lot of times."

"It's my loss," she groaned in frustration. She then stretched her arms over her head and fell back upon the soft grass. "Though I still think that the competition wasn't fair."

"Yeah," Kirito sheepishly scratched his head. "I would have lost without the knowledge. You didn't hesitate out there. Do you practice a sword sport? Fencing? Kendo?"

"Kendo," she replied, staring at the sky. "In any case, I owe you an apology for being so cold. Thanks for saving me. Without you, I would have probably been overwhelmed."

"You're welcome," he answered, while walking towards her. "Although I think you would have been fine without me. You are pretty good at this. Do you want to train with us?"

"Us?" Her eyebrows raised. She didn't know that there was another person nearby.

"There was another player I found out here. He's pretty hopeless and dresses as a red samurai," Kirito shrugged. "Though he is a nice guy. He's probably wondering what's taking me so long to get back. What do you say?"

"I'd love to," she answered. "But it's way past lunch time. I need to grab a bite to eat."

"No problem then," the boy replied. "Just add me on your friends list and we could contact each other later."

"Okay."

She imitated Kirito's earlier movements and waved her hand around. As expected, a holographic interface materialized in front of her. According to the instruction manual, the 'friends' option should be above the 'log out' button. She used her finger and scrolled down the list. Something was wrong though. There was no log out button.

"That's strange," she muttered.

"What?" Kirito asked in concern.

She waved her hand twice, quickly closing and reopening the game menu. Fear built up in her chest as she repeatedly scrolled up and down. But it wasn't there. She couldn't leave the game.

"I can't log out..."


Sunday, July 1, 2012 - Start of the First Story Arc: Birth of the Black Swordsman


Author's Notes: This story is based on the light novel, Sword Art Online.

Disclaimer: I do not own any of these characters.

I am up-to-date on all the translated volumes of the light novel and I am going to closely follow the anime, manga and its variants. I will write to the best of my ability to accurately portray the personalities and circumstances of every known character.

Hope you enjoyed chapter one of this fan fiction.

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