Chapter 1 - A Spiraling Descent

"This... Is a darn good game! Hahahahaha!" Loud shouting commenced the very moment the four of us stepped into the game, with my buddies running wildly across the Plaza-like spot where we dropped off right after the Nerve Gear System finished it's physical and aptitude exams. Well, true. I couldn't deny myself that this is a pretty good game, for something new to the genre, I can clearly see how much technology has evolved in Japan, it was indeed, truly awesome as I reveled at the beauty of the clear blue skies, the white doves flying across it, the warm, radiant aura of the sun gently embracing my skin, the starting city's plush structures, carefully reproduced in 3D, the NPCs, the characters themselves, specially the female form, everything, I thought as I subtlety ogled a passing female avatar.

It was a sight to behold.

"Hey! Hey Storm! Let's start whacking out some mobs outside! I can't wait to get the feeling of bashing up 3D shiznit bwahahahah!" Shouted Nineball, as she stood on the far end of the street, even though we basically heard just gibberish, the way she waved her hand and pointed towards the town's gate signified what he wanted to do, and what we all wanted to do. I could feel my heart thumping loudly with excitement as I looked back at the rest of my friends.

Yes, they were all here. All the people whom I valued even before this game; Sword Art Online was even placed in the drawing board, nah, even way back before the concept of Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Role Playing Game or VRMMORPG for short, even came into it's creator's mind. They were people I could trust with all my virtual wealth, my deepest closely guarded skill builds, and even with my very own life, in-game that is.

We are brothers, we are comrades, we are friends, we are family. That's the kind of camaraderie we share in whatever Online Game we play, and it never changes. Under the banner "Till Eternity", we fight to excel, to surpass the limits of everybody else, to reach the pinnacle of each and every game there is.

Yes, we play to conquer and dominate.

And with the dawn of VRMMORPG upon us, we decided to further elevate our glory by taking part in the century's very first Virtual Reality based Online Game, Sword Art Online.

And our adventure in this new and unknown world shall start...

...Just about now, as me, Akira and Thornforge ran full speed towards the gate to catch up, our faces feeling the gust of wind softly brushing past them, faithfully reproduced by the system, which made us grin as we went, and even if we were venturing in this new world, I was pretty confident myself that this would be 'just another game'...

...Or so I thought.

"Bwahahahah... Hahahaha!" I couldn't help but laugh my behind off as the boar-like monster just outside the Town of Beginnings was starting to make a mincemeat out of Akira and Thornforge's avatars, with them having a little bit of trouble adjusting to the game's Assistance System because it is indeed, new to everybody else in the group... Except for me.

Reason is because I played the game on it's Beta Test Stage, being one of the lucky 1000 people to be granted the opportunity and honor to be the ones to first step upon the vast lands of Aincrad to savor it's beauty and all. So, within those two weeks that they allotted us, I basically managed to get a grip on how the Sword Skill System works, the very backbone of this game, which makes it more exciting and fun.

Just the concept of inventing your very own moves, up to the idea of giving yourself the freedom of timing of when to execute each move, is flawless. Perfect. It gave us, players more versatility, freedom and flexibility when it comes to playstyle, builds, and possibly even equipment loadout as there will be endless combinations to compensate for every area a player may lack numbers in.

"Oh come on, Akira, you can do better than this!" I remarked sarcastically as I stood behind him, his avatar's ripped frame stood in an awkward battle stance, currently holding a simple straight edged sword, he was simply just a standing dummy for the monster's eyes. "Here, here's how you do it, watch and learn, you noob hahahaha!" I sarcastically added as I drew the small wooden shield and copper colored mace that the game offered as a starting equipment.

The monster Wild Boar stood in front of me, it's glowing red eyes sparkled with hatred against me as I pushed Akira out of the way, effectively re-directing the hate value towards myself. "Now, watch and learn guys, here's how you properly do it, as there aren't any hotkeys for skills in this game hahaha." I bragged as the Wild Boar charged towards me with reckless abandon.

Calming myself down, I carefully tracked it's movement, pure expertise, skill and years of experience in the field of being labeled as the 'Tank' kicking in as time seemed to slow down for him, and sped up for me. At the same time that the Boar's figure lunged up, baring his sharp fangs against me, I raised up my shield at eye level, covering my body.


Then the attack connected, it was weaker in power but it still packed a good punch, but not quite enough to knock me out of stance and not even a little bit strong to penetrate my defense. As the monster got stuck in it's after-attack delay, it's body shook as the shock waves of it's attack being deflected back rocked him, and that was my turn to strike back. I wielded my mace in a low stance, it's body beginning to glow, a signal that the conditions have been met, and the System Assist function is starting to kick in.

At the right moment when the glow was at it's brightest, I gathered strength in my arms then I unleashed the blow, swinging the mace in an upwards trajectory, the bright blue glow exploding into a myriad of both green and blue lights which embraced my entire arm during the swing's duration. The mace sped with ruthless aggression, catching the Wild Boar's chin square on, the particles of light scattering all around both me and the Boar, I quickly checked the monster's HP bar which drained down real quick, down to halfway, to the yellow zone, then on the red zone, then finally to empty.

At that instant, the monster shrieked, loosing a low grunt before being transformed back to it's origins; which is a series of numbers, algorithms and equations, exploding in a bright flash of blue pixels.

That is what 'death' looks like in this world, short, quick and uneventful, but not that it matters anyways, they will just respawn back, I thought to myself as I heaved a deep breath before sheathing my shield and mace back before turning to my mates. "And that is how you use a Sword Skill. You basically have to get in a proper stance to activate the System Assistance function, then at the right moment, release it, and the rest will be done by the System itself, so no need to worry. Learning to chain them is a different story though." I bragged bashfully, making them feel like I was superior, when in fact I wasn't really. I just kinda got used to it since Beta days anyway.

"Haauu~ So... It's pretty much like..." Then Nineball, who stood a good few meters away from us, who is currently engaging a similar monster raised her voice to catch out attention. "...This!" The twin straight double-edged daggers she was dual-wielding were like fangs that bore their deadly tips as they were wielded in a reverse grip by her waist level.

Nineball's blade began to show traces of soft blue light, and in just a matter of seconds, it was totally enveloped by it. "HAAAAAAAAAH!" She took off, her trademark fancy footwork which has always been her best ability in every other game we played carried her swiftly in a collision path with the monster. A loud swoosh sound roared through our ears as her glowing blades connected against the Boar's polygonal flesh, the point of contact briefly shone red before shattering into pixels.

"Hoooh. Cool. You guys are getting used to it already huh... Me and Akira sure feel noob right now that it makes me want to QQ." Came the complaint from Thornforge, who was, by now is still dragging his hammer on the ground trying his best to figure out how to start a Sword Skill. "HRAAAAAH! DEMMET!" Without warning, the big guy started yelling as he charged towards an idle Wild Boar a couple of feet away, his huge hammer held in two hands and...

It was actually glowing faint green, but the Boar quickly drew aggro towards Thornforge, the mad dash it made seemed to rock the very earth, quite impressive for a beginner mob, I could say.

As the distance between them closed, Thornforge, without much of a clue as to what's happening, I would guess just let it flow through him, as the green light completely enveloped his hammer, it's thick body seemed as if it was ablaze with green fire. Then as he swung it wildly, his body began to dance as well, he spun round and round and round, until he looked like a human whirlwind, and in just a few seconds, the violently revolving Thronforge collided against the Boar, a loud crash was heard and the monster's body shattered like glass in one shot, as if it was merely glass struck with a hammer.

A loud silence hung in the air after Thorn's move ended, our jaws hung agape. "...Holy shit." Were the two words that we mentally spoke to ourselves as Thorn clumsily walked back towards us, his steps staggering, most likely because he's either dizzy or he's drunk with his little glory, but that's totally up to him because it was incredible anyway. I'm actually guessing the move he executed, whatever it's official name is, is more or less a mid-level Sword Skill, and for a beginner like him to...

"Bahahahaha. Well, fornicate that feces bro, that shiz was awesome!" With a large grin plastered on to his face, Thorn barked liked a dog who just learned the pleasures of the bone, and he was prancing around too much, enough to attract the aggro of more Boars who were in the immediate area.

"Oi oi, looks like you've got bogeys on your arse huh?" I blurted, drawing my weapons as I saw around four or five Boars beginning to close on him. "Well, not as if it's 'that' bad anyways hahahaha. Come on, let's get our numbers up!" Charging myself into the fray, I could feel myself grinning as well, my soul stirred and my happiness soaring to new heights, it's as if I feel so alive in this world, as if this is a place where I have complete, total and absolute freedom.

Akira and Nineball closely followed my lead as Thornforge went ahead to engage the mobs himself, their faces showing the same expression as mine, laughing and screaming as they went, weapons flailing like the low leveled bunch we are.

"Wheeeew, man I'm beat." Sighed Thronforge as his massive hulk of a body plopped down with a loud thud on the ground as his hands flailed about, hammer lying discarded a few inches from him, exhausted from all the mindless burst leveling we did without rest, for a good four or five hours straight. "Well, not bad. I actually got up to Level 12 with that, and with this I think we could go ahead and ROFLSTOMP our way to the next village eh? I don't particularly like to stay in the Town of Beginnings, it's bound to be crowded soon enough." He added under ragged breath, manipulating his in-game menus a little bit clumsily using his index finger.

"Welp. But this is such a badass game that I think we could easily blitz through it, given our performance just now, and I bet all my Col that no one else have leveled as much as we did in this time frame. We could make a ton of money through RMT this way." Added Nineball, the female avatar who's curves can easily seduce even the baddest of monsters who was leaning on a thick tree which provided us shade.

"Ha! Look at her go, we're just wee bit into the game and she's already talking about RMT, I swear you're such a gold digger." Akira remarked sarcastically as he finished up the last Boar in the area, which was by now, completely empty save for our avatars, almost making it look as if we annihilated Boars on such extremes that we made it extinct. "Well, not that it's a bad thing though hahahaha. Well, we're missing one more gold digger though. Where's your girlfriend, Storm?" He added as he sat down with his legs outstretched.

"Yeah, speaking of. Where's IronMaiden? Didn't she logged on?" Inquired Thornforge as he sat up, hand reaching for his hammer.

"I... Was actually supposed to wait for her just around this area, I already told her beforehand, and not as if she's going to get lost, she was on Beta Phase too." Remembering something that I momentarily forgot, I actually checked a couple of Windows to check if her avatar was online, typing in her usual In-Game Name, which is 'IronMaiden' to try and send her a personal message.

Stormgrace: Hey! Where'd you run off? :o
[SYSTEM]: Recipient Does Not Exist or Is Not Logged On.
Stormgrace: Hey Ly!
[SYSTEM]: Recipient Does Not Exist or Is Not Logged On.
Stormgrace: Lynette! Hey!
[SYSTEM]: Recipient Does Not Exist or Is Not Logged On.
Stormgrace: Lololol AFK?
[SYSTEM]: Recipient Does Not Exist or Is Not Logged On.
Stormgrace: ...
[SYSTEM]: Recipient Does Not Exist or Is Not Logged On.

After sending multitudes of Private Messages, all I got were just a bunch of System Replies stating that she isn't logged on. "Well, looks like she's not here yet... And she did promised me to meet at exactly this time so... I wonder what happened, she never breaks her words..." I hung my head as I felt that something was slightly a bit off, doing my best to remember the conversation we had the other day if I may have been wrong or what but no, I am 200% sure she said "Wait me at the big Acacia tree just outside the Town of Beginnings, at around 2pm." I checked the place, I checked the time, everything's set, she's already late, since it's around quarter to 3.

"Well, something must have come by, don't worry lover boy, she's just going to pop up sooner than you expect." Thornforge commented after seeing my serious face which is by now, pretty long since this is the very first time she ditched me after she promised something.

"No, it's not that..." I sat down on the boulder that was adjacent by the tree.

"What is it then...?" Came Nineball's worried question, as she always had her own way with IronMaiden, as they were more or less bestfriends, money-mates and partners, online-wise that is. They have spent so much time together at previous games, they have farmed millions upon millions of in-game currency which, they sold for real-life money, hence the term "RMT", or Real-Money-Trading, and hell, they sure made a lot of big bucks on that line of trade.

"I'm just... No, uh, how do I phrase it... I..." Casting my head downwards, it was pretty hard to put my thoughts into words, as I am not a person who well, believes in folklore, the unknown, the arcane, those stuff, you know. I'm more of a realist so to say. But I just have this sinking feeling, that certain something tugging at the edges of my mind. "...I have a bad feeling about this..."

"Well, can't say I myself believe all those crap but man, since it's your girl, I think she comes first before this game, don't you think?" Being the big, burly guy he is, Thornforge remarked while poking his cheeks, which, really looked awkward, given his build. "I mean yeah, this is just a game after all, we all have our priorities and stuff like that..." He added. Glancing around, I noticed everybody else was looking back at me, and they were either nodding or just had their eyes closed.

"...Then I'd take that offer then. I'll just logout to quickly check on her then we'll both come running back so hold your horses and wait four our return before grinding up, okay?" Pouting with my arms crossed, I slid a protest, vaguely remembering before when I left just before a New Game Patch which raised a Player's Level Caps, and with them being the MMO addicts they are, shot their avatars up the higher echelons of the society, in a moment's heartbeat.

After hearing a chorus of 'yes' from the group, I stood up and stretched my limbs, the bones cracking with satisfying sounds. I then raised my right hand, flicking my index finger to access the System's Interface Menu, where all the 'Tabs' are. I navigated towards the Options Tab, then scrolling my way the the very button hoping to find...

...The Logout Button but...

"It's... Not there..." I whispered as my lips started to lightly shake. "...The Button... Not here..." Scrolling up and down with precision, I tried searching where the Logout Button was, checking each and every menu for it, but here was none. It was gone. A blank space was in it's place, on the last line under the Options Menu, marked by a gear icon.

It. Is. Not. There.

"Oi, what's wrong? Are you lagging or what?" With an unsure tone, Akira noticed my erratic movements as the sweat hanging from my chin fell down. "Go on and hurry up, she might be waiting for you or something or, well I don't know, just get going!" He then walked up to me, poked his head over my shoulder, seeing the in-game Menu I was manipulating.

My fingers stopped moving, as if they were frozen.

"Uhh... You're joking, right?" This time, sounding alarmed, Akira backed off a couple of steps, before making his own gestures to check his own menu. "Not there... Not here... No... None... What the?! Where is it?!" His fingers rapidly glided, clicked and tap, frantically looking for that missing part of the System. The heads started turning towards the two of us who were like idiots prancing around, manipulating Menus.

"Hey... What are you guys fiddling about?" Nineball stood up nimbly, springing into life quickly, moving closer to us. "Huh?" She scratched her head a few times before finally noticing. "Eh?! The logout button is gone! How can it be happening?! How can we logout? Ehhhh..." Firing questions one after the other, she looked as if she was already panicking more than us.

"No, seriously. It's not there. How can we logout if it's not there? I mean... What's even going on with our bodies? Hooohooo shit." Propping myself down near the tree's shade, I tried to calm down and make things settle. "Maybe this is just some sort of bug, and maybe the GMs are already fixing it, I mean come on, who wouldn't notice this, right? I bet people are already going ballistic back in the starting city." I added just to further calm the people around me who were showing signs of confusion.

"Welp. There's only one way to find out..." Thornforge hoisted his heavy build up with the help of his hammer, and I swear the ground cracked as he did. "Why don't we all go back to town and check for ourselves? I mean, it'd be easier that way, right?" He suggested as he pointed towards the distant large gates of the Town of Beginnings, and as I squinted my eyes, I could even see the small figures of people flocking back into the entrance.

Yeah, maybe it's just a bug. But still, it's scary as hell.


Just then, a chime sound resonated within our ears, along with a System Notification Window that popped out of our peripheral vision. It's red bordered linings indicated that it is a critical announcement directly from the Game Masters of the company, Argus, who published the game itself. Our glances met each other before glancing back at the message, hoping to get some answers.

[SYSTEM]: A message to all Sword Art Online players. We have been notified about the current bug wherein players are unable to locate the 'Logout' button. Please do not be alarmed as we are already working on it. For a further announcement, we request all players to please gather back at the Plaza in the Town of Beginnings. That is all, thank you for your patronage.

"There you go..." Akira and Nineball said in unison as both of them stood up at the same time as well, perfect timing, given their would-be roles as being the team's main DPSers. "...Well, what are we waiting for? Hahaha to be honest, I wanted to get this done quickly so me and IronMaiden could blitz through our levels so we can start farming some moolah. I kinda miss her after being in hiatus from the last game we were on, and besides, I need real-life money as well." Nineball said as she started to skip ahead, towards the City.

"Fine fine." We all sighed as we slowly dragged ourselves back, shot down from the excitement of the premise Sword Art Online had to offer.

"Whoa, it's crowded." Nineball complained as soon as we stepped back into the main town, cramming ourselves as the flock of 10,000 players all seemed to have heeded the announcement earlier, and is now stampeding towards the plaza. I swear, if our HP Bars in the towns aren't locked or protected by the System, and if we can get hurt or killed by environmental damage, we would all be crushed to death by now.

After spending a couple of minutes elbowing our way through the horde of people, we arrived at the plaza, and was able to secure a good spot, where we could oversee what was going on. The rest the gang sat down on the ground while I remained standing, observing and listening in the conversations of the people around me, who were either full of excitement, fear and whatnot.

Who wouldn't be afraid if he suddenly couldn't log out of the game, right?

We waited anxiously, we could even hear dissatisfied rants from some people, complaining that they needed to go do something, or to go somewhere else, and so on. Even I, I couldn't help but mentally complain as I was now seriously worried about where Lynette is, was she doing something else or was she able to log in or what, I was itching to know, as she never broke any of her promises up until today.

As more and more people began to huddle together and complain, the surroundings that were around us started to change, the once blue skies reverted to big WARNING signs which were in the shape of beehive nests, covering the vast expanse of the town's sky, painting our vision red. And before anyone could even react to it, with a loud BANG, a hole was blasted out of the System Messages and as if it was 'bleeding', red, viscous, blood-like liquid dripped from where the hole was, and a large, robed figure slowly descended.

Everybody else's mouth was agape, jaws hung in surprise and astonishment, as all of us were basically clueless as to what was going on. One Player even suggested that this might be some sort of 'Welcoming Ceremony' or even an 'Official Launching' but I don't know, if it is, and they are trying to make all the people currently logged in to attend it, it is a pretty bad marketing tactic if you ask me.

Amidst the loud shouting and protest from the players who were watching the looming red robed figure above us, it just remained silent, as with the rest of my guildies, who, as I glanced back, were still just sitting idly, and were just looking back up at the figure. I swallowed my spit (wait, do we even have spit in this world?) and I just glanced back up at the eerie figure, hovering before us.

I'd seen that robe before. It was the same clothing that the Argus employees who worked as GMs during the beta test had always worn. But back then, the male GMs had a face like an old sorcerer with a long beard and the females had an avatar of a bespectacled girl. They might have used the robe because they lacked time to prepare a proper avatar, but the empty space inside the hood gave me an unexplainable feeling of anxiety.

"Is that a GM?"

"Why doesn't it have a face?"

Thoughts like that were shot by voices which could be heard even if they were whispering, as the air was dead silent.

A pure white glove appeared from the folds of the long sleeve. But this sleeve, like the rest of the robe, didn't cover any sort of body. Then the left sleeve slowly lifted upwards, too. Then with its two empty gloves spread out in front of ten thousand players, the faceless person opened his mouth no, it felt like it did. Then a low, calm, male voice resonated from high in the air.

[Players, I welcome you to my World.]

At first, I couldn't determine what that message meant. The figure, whoever it was, if it really is a 'GM', it of course, certainly have 'godlike' powers inside this space, enabling him or her to bend everything according to their will, but why was he pointing it out right now? I mean, this all looks too fancy to be an 'Opening Ceremony' or something but I don't know. I threw a glance towards my buddies, then the figure lowered it's hands and continued talking.

[My name is Kayaba Akihiko, and right now, I am the one and only person who can control this world.]

"Eh?! What?!" My face went stiff at those words, and my avatar's body became rigid with shock, and my logic twisted itself around. Kayaba Akihiko, I know that name! There's no way I won't. This person, both a game designer and genius in the field of quantum physics, was the one responsible for raising Argus, which was just one of many small companies a few years ago, into one of the leading companies in its field. He was also the development director of SAO and, at the same time, the designer of the Nerve Gear.

As a hard core gamer, I respected Kayaba deeply. I bought all the mags that featured him and read his few interviews until I almost knew them all by heart. I could almost see him in the white overalls he always wore by just hearing his voice. But he had always stayed behind the scenes, refusing media exposure. He had never even been a GM, so why was he doing something like this? I forced my mind to start moving again, trying to make sense of the situation. But the words that came out of the empty hood almost seemed to mock my efforts to understand.

[I think that most of you have already noticed that the Log Out Button has disappeared from the Main Menu. This is not a bug, it is all part of the System.]

At that remark, my usually calm Guildmates all stood up, one by one, their faces all displayed the same emotion.

Fear. Uncertainty. Despair. Anger. Even I myself, if only I could see what expression my face is donning, I'm pretty sure it's just one of those.

[Until you get to the top of this Castle, and clear the game, you cannot log out of your own free will.]

That Castle, the tall, black, iron Castle which loomed before the Town of Beginnings, Aincrad. It's monstrosity towered towards, and above the clouds, soaring up with it's 100 floors, a truly dominating and intimidating sight for any daring adventurer.

Then the next phrase Kayaba uttered blew all my senses blue and black.

[...Also, the disruption of the Nerve Gear from the outside is strictly forbidden. Should these things be attempted...]

A heavy air hung over the 10,000 people who were dead silent, not one dared to move an inch.

[The signal sensors in your Nerve Gears will emit a strong electromagnetic pulse which will destroy your brain, killing your physical body in an instant.]

My roving gaze met with Thornforge's, and for a couple of seconds, we just blankly stared at each other in shock. It was as if my mind refused to believe what I had just heard. But Kayaba's short statement pierced through my body with a ferocity that was both hard and dense. Destroy our brains, or in other words, kill us. Any user who tries to remove the Nerve Gear or turn it off would be killed, that's what his statements flatly indicate.

People in the crowd started muttering, their voices growing louder and louder at each passing second. It was either they couldn't understand, or they just couldn't grasp what he really meant.

Thornforge, a man whom I knew from the online world a couple of years back, and someone whom I personally met during the short time I spent in the United States, raised his right hand slowly, trying to grasp the area where the clasp that supports the chin part of where the Nerve Gear should be in real life, and as he did, he loosed a dry laugh and started talking. "Haha... What's he saying? That man, has he gone nuts? He's not making any sense at all, The Nerve Gear... It's just a game. Destroy our brains... How is he going to do that, right? Stormgrace?" His voice broke at the last few words, Thornforge stared hard right back at me, but I couldn't nod in agreement.

The countless signal transceivers in the Nerve Gear's helmet emitted small electronic pulses to send virtual signals to the brain. They might call this the newest ultra-technology, but the basic theory was the same as a certain household appliance that's been used for over 40 years in Japan the microwave. If there was sufficient output, it was possible that the Nerve Gear would vibrate the water particles in our brains and cook it with the heat from the friction. But...

"...Theoritically it's possible but... He must and should be bluffing. Because if we pull the plug of the Nerve Gear, there's no way it can emit those electromagnetic pulses he is talking about... Unless there is some sort of internal battery or something... Inside the device itself..." I said, trying my best to remember the product's specifications as much as I can.

But I think old man Thornforge already knew why I stopped talking.

"There... Is..." He said, his words almost a scream with a hollow expression on his face. "Thirty percent of the gear's weight is in the battery. But... That's totally crazy! What if there was a sudden power outage or something!?" Kayaba started explaining, as if he had heard what Thornforge had shouted.

[To be a little more specific, disconnection from an outside source of electricity for ten minutes, being cut off from the system for more than two hours, or any attempt to: unlock, dismantle, or destroy the Nerve Gear. If any of these conditions are met, the brain destruction sequence will start. These conditions have been made known to the government and the public through mass-media in the outside world. On that note, there have been several cases where the relatives or friends have ignored the warnings and tried to forcefully remove the Nerve Gear. The result...]

The metallic voice took a short breath before continuing.

[...Regretfully, 213 players have already exited the game, and the real world, forever.]

A long, thin scream was heard. But most of the players couldn't or refused to believe what they had been told, and just stood there slack-jawed or with a wry smile on their faces. My head tried to reject what Kayaba had just said. But my body betrayed it and my knees started shaking violently. I stumbled back a few paces on my weak knees and managed to keep myself from falling. Thornforge fell on his backside, his expression lifeless.

213 players have already...

That phrase repeated over and over again in my head. If what Kayaba said was true, over 200 people have already died? Among them, there would have been beta testers like me. I might have even known some of their character names and avatars. These people had their brains burnt and... Died, is that what Kayaba was saying?

"...Don't believe it... I don't believe it..." This time, it was Nineball, who was sitting limply on the ground, her voice was more like a wail than a statement, and the corner of her eyes were filled with beads of tears, ready to fall anytime soon. "He... He's just trying to scare us. How would he do such a thing? Stop kidding around and let us out, we don't have the time to play around with such bigotry. Yeah... This is all just an event. An opening show or something, right?" Refusing to believe, she clasped her temples as she continued to sulk in the pavement.

Inside my head, the same notion was running rampart. Even I couldn't just simply accept this fact, no. It was impossible, ridiculously impossible.

But as if to dispel our hopes, Kayaba's monotone voice resumed it's explanation.

[Players, there is no need to worry about the bodies you left on the other side. As of this moment, all TV, radio, and Internet media are repeatedly reporting this situation; including the fact that there have been numerous deaths. The danger of having your Nerve Gear taken off has already all but disappeared. In a moment, using the two hours I have provided, all of you will be transported to hospitals or similar institutes and be given the best treatment. So you can relax... And concentrate on beating the game.]

"What?!" And at that remark, I lost all sanity, and I exploded all the feelings I was keeping inside as I shouted. "What are you saying?! Beat the game?! You want us to play around in a situation like this?! This isn't a game anymore, this is utter stupidity!"

Then, as if he heard nothing, Kayaba continued on, hearing the monotone voice once more, I gnashed my teeth in anger while my fists turned into a hard ball.

[But I ask of you all to understand that Sword Art Online is no longer a simple game. It is a second reality... From now on, any form of revival in the game will no longer work. The moment your HP reaches 0, your avatar will be gone forever. And at the same time...]

A cold chill run through our spines, and we could already guess what would come next...

[...Your brain will be destroyed by the Nerve Gear.]

Suddenly, an urge to laugh out loud bubbled from deep within my persona, but I forced it down. I tilted my head upwards, glancing towards to where my HP Bar is located, seeing the long, horizontal line, I squinted to check the numbers just below it, it read as 495/495. Hit points. My life force. The moment it reaches zero, I could kiss my life goodbye. I must have died at least 100 times during the two months of beta testing. I had re-spawned with a slightly embarrassed smile on my face in the palace north of the main plaza, the Black Iron Palace, and ran off into the hunting grounds again. That was what an RPG was: a sort of game where you keep dying and learning and leveling up. But now you can't? Once you die, you'll lose your life? And in addition... You can't even stop playing?

"...No freakin' way... I haven't... Even know where Lynette is... Damn... What the hell..." I muttered under my own breath, thoroughly assessing the situation I am in. In the first place, if death here means death in the real world, then who would want to go out, given these circumstances, right? It's just... So absurd.

Then, as if reading what I was thinking, Kayaba carried his statement on.

[My dear Players, there is only one way to be freed from this game. As I have said before, you must get to the top of Aincrad, the one hundredth floor, and defeat the final boss that resides there. All players still alive at that time will be immediately logged out of the game. I give you all my word.]

10,000 Players stood silent, including us.

It was then that we realized what he was talking about. He was referring to this monstrosity that imprisoned us all who were in the first floor, with 99 more floors stacked on top of each other, towering into the sky in which it floated. He was talking about Aincrad itself.

"C-Clear all 100 floors?! Has he gone nuts?!" Akira suddenly shouted, loosing his usual calm demeanor. "Besides, how would we even do that if all of us would be hampered by the fact that if we die here, we die on the other side as well?!" He continued to protest, glaring up against the red robed figure.

That was true up to some degree, yes. During the two months of Beta Testing, the 1,000 players who were given an opportunity to log in only managed to reach the 6th floor barely, and it took them countless casualties, resources and such just to achieve that feat, and right now, he was telling us to go ascend the 100 floors that loomed eerily before us? How, would we even do it?

Most players who had been forced here would be asking themselves this rhetorical question. The strained silence eventually gave way to low murmuring. But there was no sign of fear or despair. Most people here would still be confused about whether this was a real danger or a seriously warped opening event. Everything Kayaba had said was so horrifying that it felt unreal.

I craned my head back to look at the empty robe and tried to force my mind to accept this situation.

I can no longer log out, ever. I can't go back to my room, my life. The only way that I would get them back was when somebody defeated the boss on the highest floor of this floating castle. If my HP reached zero even once during that time I would die. I would die a real death and I would be gone forever.

But... However much I tried to accept these as facts, it was impossible. Just five or six hours ago, I had eaten the lunch that my mom made, shared a short conversation with my sister, read Lynette's mail about her meeting up here, then walked up the stairs of my house, activated the Nerve Gear and dived in.

Now I can't go back to all that? And this is now the real reality?

Then, the red robe that had always been one step ahead of us swept its right glove and started speaking with a voice void of all emotion.

[Then I will show you evidence that this is the only reality. In your inventories, there will be a gift from me. Please confirm this.]

Right after hearing his words, I flicked the Inventory tab under the Player Menu Window, pulling up a rectangular window with around thirty or so slots, aside from the Monster Drops we acquired earlier, there was one slot who contained a particular item, upon examining it by clicking, it displayed the name "Hand Mirror". Why did he give this to us? I was so curious that I confirmed it and a regular looking oblong shaped mirror appeared in my hands. All it showed was well, just my avatar's reflection, one I've changed to become more muscular and manly, a stereotype for all tank built warriors.

Suddenly, white light flooded my vision, almost enough to make me drop the item I was holding. I counted, one, two, or maybe three seconds before I was able to at least squint my eyes, and a few more seconds before I could open them fully. I glanced around, craning my head left and right and...

"Eh?! Wh-what the?! Th-Thornforge! What the hell, man!" I couldn't keep myself from screaming as my eyes met with the burly big guys Thornforge yet... His face was different, it wasn't what it was gone was the burly bear of a man, and in it's place, was a younger, and more dashing face, similar to the face I met a few years back, when I went to the United States but... How?!

Screams started erupting all around me as well, that certain astonished panic resounding in every part of the plaza. I glanced back towards my other guildmates, Akira, who's avatar was ripped and slender, still retained it's composure, and his face, was far younger than the one he used to have earlier, Nineball, who's tall and slender avatar now became petite and thin, long hair draped her shoulders which swayed as her head craned back and forth.

And lastly, I slowly threw a fit glance towards the mirror which I still held in my hand. the avatar's features whom I customized just before logging into the game was gone. Gone were the Asian features that I admired and tried so hard to mimic. Gone were the squinted eyes which slanted upwards, gone was the wild haircut I had, and the fairer complexion I always loved.. In it's place was just me, the plain, old me.

Dark brown hair which was a little bit longer than usual, blue eyes, pointy nose, narrow lips, pale skin. The best five set of words to describe how I look at the real world, and the way I look as I see myself through the reflection in the mirror. How... How could this even happen? And then I remembered.

The Nerve Gear covers the entire face and when worn for the first time, it scans the body's aptitude and records it in it's Memory Cache. That way, any game or whatever software could reproduce the exact same way he or she looks like in the real world. How clever, Kayaba, how clever.

Amidst the waves of cries, rants and whatnot, the voice rang one last time.

[Dear Players, that concludes the opening ceremony for Sword Art Online. I wish you all good luck.]

Then as suddenly as he appeared, the red robe figure reverted back into the sky, taking all the red Warning signs along with him, restoring the original blue skies back in it's place. Again, torrents of uncertainty were voice by the Players, with people starting to scurry around in different directions, unsure of what to do. Even I myself, I didn't knew what to do, and I just stood in the middle of this chaos, unable to move nor think straight.

I casted my head downwards, reflecting on the events that just happened, and the first thing that came into my mind was Lynette. Lynette Waldorf, a.k.a IronMaiden. My comrade, my friend, my lover. Where she is right now, what she is doing, I do not know. I don't even know if she was able to login into the game, or not, or if she was doing something else, again, I do not know.

Add the fact that this 'death game' might prevent me from ever seeing her again took it's dreaded tool into my mind. I slowly raised my hands, clasping my head as my knees buckled under too much pressure, sending me kneeling on the ground. "Shit... Shit... Where is she... Lynette..." I murmured over and over, trying to figure out what to do next, as the noise around us intensified, filled with wails of despair and hopelessness.

"H-hey... Stormgrace... Get a hold of yourself..." It was Thornforge, who was standing side by side with both Nineball and Akira, their faces too different for me to recognize. "...Come on, let's go, we just have to make a good gameplan to keep ourselves away from harm, haven't we done it before in other games?" He added, holding his hands out to me.

"BUT THIS ISN'T A GAME ANYMORE! WE COULD ALL DIE HERE!" I blurted in a wink of an eye, spilling out my thoughts as if they were mere spit. "ACCIDENTS STILL HAPPEN, THORNFORGE, WE NEVER KNOW! HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO GET OUT OF HERE?!" I continued my argument, earning a scornful look from my guildmates.

It's not about being a coward or something, it's just that... I wanted to see Lynette. I want to hold her so badly. I just... Couldn't go on without her, no...

"Oh you big wuss-of-a-bish!" Suddenly, a pair of hands reached for the collar of my Newbie's Armor Set, the fabric that was part of it stretched taught, which in turn lifted my body off the ground and almost off my feet. "Now listen. Don't be too damn selfish just because all of this happened!" His grip tightened, further raising my leverage, and my neck was caught in the twist, and I began feeling pain. "I know you're worried about your girl. But haven't you thought about any of us? Don't we have families, friends and loved ones waiting on the other side as well? Listen, all we gotta do, is end this game, right? All we have to do is crush his dreams of controlling us forever in this world, right? It's no epic task for us right? Remember what we CAN do, Stormgrace!"

At that moment, the System Message popped up, indicating Player Violence, Thornforge's cursor started blinking momentarily before a shock from the System was sent to his avatar, forcing him to let go of his hold.

Eyes wide open, I massaged my neck a couple of times before it all sank in. Yeah, he's right, I was indeed, being selfish. I was only thinking about myself that I totally ignored the fact that I am just another one out of the 10,000 players currently trapped here, and that those other 10,000 people also have their own lives and other stuff to worry about. But still...

"Haha... Hahahaha... HahAhAHHAhAhHAHAhH!" Letting my head hung between my shoulders, I loosed a maniacal laugh. "So... All we have to do... Is clear this game huh? Hahahahaha. Kayaba Akihiko I... I will show you... I will show you how a true gamer lives for his games... I... I will crush your dreams..." I said as I smacked the hard concrete with my fists, triggering the System Message which read Immortal Object as pain shot through my right arm. "Lynette... I don't know where you are right now but... Just wait, wait for me. I am coming home."

I then took up Thornforge's hand, propelling myself upwards, the tears brimming at the corners of my eyes shaken, I saw Akira and Nineball, who were just as pale faced and worried as me, but they stood firm. Shame on me but, I, as the guild leader should be the one to lead them.

To lead them back home.

A/N: So there we go with the debut of my SAO related fanfic! Although I took some parts from the original novel, I did it to preserve the story's integrity a little bit so atleast from the first chapter, it can pretty much stay canon. Anyways, chapter two we will start bending it to our wills hahahaha. Please look forward to the next installment!

PS: I'll be delaying the release of the next chapter of Accel World: The Wings of Time because I am currently researching about something which will serve as the chapter's integral point. I don't want to risk it being way off target so pardon me.

Greetz, Seiji