"How did it end up like this?"

The harsh howling of the winds surrounded her, constantly pelting her with hail and snow. She had always enjoyed the weather of this floor, but at this very moment, she cursed it. Her grip loosened, and she felt herself slipping further down. This should never have happened, she knew everything about this floor after all.

But she had forgotten the most important fact; this floor was designed to be unpredictable. Even if she knew the paths by heart, the landscape was forever changing, being hidden by the snow. In certain areas, it could be completely buried by snow, leaving no indication that a path once stood there. In her haste, she had forgotten where she was, and there were no recognizable landmarks around her.

She was carrying too much weight. SAO was a realistic game in terms of interaction with the world. Augmented with STR and AGI, a player could easily surpass the limits set by reality, but it didn't help much if you were dangling off the edge of a cliff. Desperately, she tried to pull herself forward, but the snow was light and slippery. She was slowly slipping, and there was nothing she could do about it.

The familiar feeling of dread creeped up from within her, and she felt a coldness that had nothing to do with the weather around her. Was this it then? To have survived this death game all this time... to die like this. She closed her eyes. What was the point then? To have clung to life so desperately, only to see it end like this. To have gotten this far... while others did not. What was she supposed to feel?

She was scared.

She wanted to reach out, to call out, and to have anyone answer her. But she knew that was just a fleeting dream. In this world... and in the other world, she was alone. She had always been alone, shutting off all contact with others. Friends... they never lasted, not in a world like this. Because someone like her did not deserve the comfort of others.

Someone like her...

Maybe it was for the best. She would die, alone and unknown by all. There was no sense clinging to a false hope. She had done that all her life, and look where it had gotten her. The only person who would mourn her death would be her grandmother. A flash of guilt tore through her. The other person... someone who had probably forgotten all about her. Her mother was better off without her.

Acceptance... why then was she crying?

Her hands finally slipped and as the encroaching darkness finally surrounded her, she thought that she had heard a distant voice... calling her name. But that had to be an illusion.

No one knew who she was.

Not even herself.

She had done it.

With her own two hands... she had fought.

To protect.

That was her goal, to save her mother—who was so very weak. The woman who had raised her with glassy eyes, forever scarred by the death of her husband. Someone who cared for her with an absent mind... but she loved her all the same.

She loved her so very much.


Everyone was looking at her with such an awful expression—as if they were scared of her. As if she was the one who had pointed the gun at them.

They looked at her with fear, eyeing the pooling blood at her feet, and the dying man before her, gasping feebly for his life.


Her most precious person... looked at her with such fear—such shock, that it was as if she was staring at a stranger.


She looked down at the one who had started this. His dilated pupils were unfocused, but just as she looked into them, he looked back. In that few seconds of lucidity... he cursed her.

She didn't want this...

The gun in her hands grew heavy, but even with her hands shaking, she found that she could not let it go. She couldn't feel her body.

'Someone... save me... anyone..."

Someone stepped in front of her, blocking her view of the one she had murdered. Her eyes reflexively sought out the person before her. Startling clear eyes of the darkest ebony met her own violet orbs.

He did not look at her with fear.

She realised that he was trying to say something, but she couldn't hear anything. Dimly aware of her surroundings, she focused on his eyes. They seemed so full of emotion... but why wasn't he afraid? Her hands were stained with blood. She was a murderer.

His hands reached out hesitantly to touch her, and he rested a single hand against her cheek.

'So warm...'

He said something in a soothing manner, and suddenly she was pulled into his embrace. Hands wrapped around her protectively, she finally realized how much she was shaking. Her knees gave out and she collapsed against him. Tears falling uncontrollably, she clung to him like a lifeline.

The cold steel fell to the floor.

"It's okay..." He whispered into her ears. "Everything will be okay."

She sobbed as he led her away, away from the scene of death. Away from the looks of fear and accusation. Away from the place that had taken her innocence.

'So very warm...'

I looked over the assignment briefly, looking for a good place to start. Even though it had just been handed out today, it was supposed to be worth a good portion of our grade. Sighing, I placed the sheet back onto the table and got up. The apartment I called home was fairly sparse, but it was quaint and in a quiet area. It was pretty cheap as well.

My grandmother had protested when I had told her about my wish to go to the city in order to attend high school. She had said that a girl like myself shouldn't be all alone in the big city. I told her I was fine, and she eventually relented. I was not like most other girls my age. I was independant, having grown up with an absent-minded mother.

I didn't particularly care for the city. I found the place too loud and crowded to be enjoyable. But the alternative would have been to remain in my hometown. I could stand that even less. The people in that town... they kept looking at me with their eyes filled with pity, as if they understood me. The kids were even worse, they did not have the tact to remain quiet, and instead, they thought it was something to be discussed. Constant questions and pestering had made my school life there a constant annoyance. Even if I closed myself off from the world, it did nothing to stop the looks and rumours.

Everything in that town served to remind me of the day I killed a man.

At least, in this city, I was truly alone. Just another quiet girl among the crowds of students. I much preferred this to the constant staring back home. Not before long, things had finally settled into monotony. I went to school each day, and went back home to finish my homework before going to sleep. It was a good schedule, allowing me to throw myself into the work, and to temporarily escape. As a result, my grades were very good, and I supposed that was something to be proud about.

Yet, I felt empty.

I had thought that monotony would be a welcome change, and for a time it was. But sometimes I couldn't help but wish I had something else. Someone else... to alleviate the boredom. I had tried to make friends, I really did, but... I was too different. What they were interested in were the latest trends and tv shows, most of which I had no idea about. But the most obvious thing that separated me from the other girls was the simple fact that I could not relate. I had no hobbies or interests that stood out, besides reading the occasional book.

Perhaps it was for the best. Having a friend would mean they would become closer to me. Close enough to discover my past, and I had no doubt what they would think of me when my past came to light. I never wanted to see those stares filled with pity once more.

Sitting down at my desk, I stared at the computer screen for a moment before opening the browser. I might as well take a break for the moment, with my mind unable to focus on the assignment. Maybe I would find something that would interest me, however unlikely it was. The internet was an endless source of entertainment... or so everyone kept saying. There wasn't much that caught my attention, although I did enjoy the occasional web novel or two.

It was when I went to see if a novel I was following had updated that I stumbled upon something that caught my attention. It was innocuous enough, being just a simple featured article on the main page of my chosen search engine. But the title... 'Sword Art Online' was very familiar to me. As it should be, since just about the whole world was talking about it. Apparently a next generation game was arriving on a completely new Virtual Reality platform called NerveGear. There was as much attention on the game as there was on its creator, Kayaba Akihiko.

I didn't know what had compelled me to click on the article, maybe it was curiosity brought on by my boredom, but I read the entire thing. It had been... enlightening, the author of the article was obviously a big fan of the whole idea. There were a lot of big words being thrown around, but from my understanding, it was going to be revolutionary. It was not just restricted to the field of games, the technology that Kayaba talked about had many other applications if what he claimed held true. The thing that had stuck with me however, was a simple tagline.

"The world of Aincrad awaits, come discover your true self in another reality."

To discover myself...

It was a pointless idea, I wasn't one to believe in something as sensationalized as that. Yet, the simple idea stirred something within me. I wanted to give it a try. I wanted to see with my own two eyes, a whole new world. There wasn't much to look forward in this one after all...

Going to the website, I filled in all of the required information and applied for the beta. After submitting, I felt my excitement drain away. Realistically, I had little to no chance at getting accepted into the beta program. I had nothing that would stand out, I wasn't even a gamer. With the popularity of the game, the number of people applying would have been absurd. There was no way I would be picked out of everyone else.

With a sigh, I turned off the computer. I had wasted enough time on frivolous things, might as well work on my assignment.

For a time, all thoughts of the game were forgotten.

When the package arrived in the mail, I was surprised. For one, I never received any letters of notice from anyone. If it was from my family then they would have called me first, and even then, a package from them was rare. Any letters I received were usually junk mail that I threw into the trash.

But this package was pretty big, and I had to pick it up at the nearest post-office. When I arrived home and opened it up, I was greeted by a formal letter. It was from Argus industries, and at first I struggled to remember why that was so relevant. Then it hit me... Argus was the company behind SAO and the NerveGear. I was still in disbelief as I read through the letter.

Congratulations, Asada Shino. You have been selected to participate in the beta testing of «Sword Art Online».

I hadn't even given the idea a second thought ever since I had signed up. Being selected in reality... I didn't know what to feel. I was excited of course, because of just how exclusive this was. Only a thousand applicants were selected out of the millions of people who had applied. The chances of being selected were almost astronomical, and yet, here I was.

I unboxed the package containing the NerveGear, examining the immaculate look of the device before taking it out. It felt heavy in my hands, and I could hardly believe that such a tiny device could be used to emulate an entire reality. I put it away after awhile, having examined it to the best of my non-existent technical abilities.

The beta testing would not start for another week, and despite telling myself that I was being foolish... I couldn't wait. For the first time in forever, I looked forward to something.

"Link start."

With those two simple words, the world faded around me. Everything melded into black, and for a split second, I panicked, wondering what was happening. Then, it stabilized and I was introduced into a colourful field of blue. I was awed as I stared at my surroundings, walls of hexagonal crystals moved and blinked in random patterns. The experience was surreal.

This was beyond anything I ever expected. When they had advertised 'total immersion', I did not know what it meant. Now, it was obvious what they meant by 'full dive' when talking about the NerveGear. There was no way for me to tell that I was lying on my bed in the real world, from my perspective I was floating in a world made up of pixels.

I was welcomed to the world by a few messages accompanied by the proper menu screen. The AI was helpful in helping me through the steps in order to create my character. It created a virtual copy of me, allowing me to scan it from all angles. Seeing an exact copy of my body floating in the air was a new experience. My body looked small... frail and weak, much like how I felt.

I did not want my avatar to be a reflection of myself. No, I wanted to distance myself as far as I could from the real me.

Adjusting the various settings, I made sure that my avatar would not be recognizable as Asada Shino, the quiet middle schooler. I chose a very light shade of blue, almost indistinguishable from white at first glance. A unique hairstyle... and an athletic body type that was much taller than my regular height.

[Username: Sinon]

And as I finished confirming my selection, the world faded around me once more. The AI voice that had directed me thus far faded away, leaving me with a brief farewell. This time, it was different.

I blinked as everything came into existence around me. I must have looked quite awkward as I stood there with my mouth gaping. But I couldn't help myself, this... this was beyond what I was expecting. I was in a city of some sort, it was pristine with a focus on clean, aesthetic design. But what astounded me was the detail that surrounded the city. I couldn't distinguish this world from reality at first, it was simply too amazing.

In a daze, I walked past the other beta-testers and into the streets of the city. The atmosphere... the people that inhabited this place, it all felt real. It was almost as if I had been actually dropped into the middle of a medieval town. Was this what the creator had meant when he spoke of a second reality?

There was no other way to describe this place. Everything felt living and alive, and I felt a surge of excitement flow through me. Here, in this second world, I did not have to be Asada Shino; a girl damaged by her tragic past. Here... I could be someone else.

I did not know how long it had been as I strolled through the city, simply staring at the sights, still getting used to the entire concept. I was not alone in my awe, as I could see several other beta testers with the same wide-eyed looks. The servers had opened only a few hours ago, yet it was starting to become filled. Thankfully, the city was more than big enough to hold the thousand beta testers.

After I had done my fair share of sightseeing, I decided to venture outside of the city. It wasn't hard to find an exit, as there were many large gates outside of the City of Beginnings. The area outside of the city was enormous. As far as I could see, were fields of plush grass, and just at the edge of my vision, I could see the signs of forests and other environments. Truly, it was a sight to behold.

I walked along the path in a slight daze, still awed by the detail of this world. I could feel the gentle breeze rolling through the fields, the scent of fresh grass as well as the sounds of distant birds. Crouching down, I smoothed my hand over the grass, and I was astonished by the feeling. There was a slight difference compared to real life, the grass being more brittle than I remembered.

Then there was an odd sound behind me.

Turning around, I had to blink twice to make sure what I was seeing was true. It was a boar... a large blue boar that was eyeing me curiously while huffing. I stood up in haste, trying to distance myself from the dangerous looking monster. It didn't make any more moves, and I took a second to gather myself. If the little I had read before diving in had been true, then these were the weakest monsters in the game.

In a game such as this, one was supposed to defeat monsters and complete quests in order to level up and grow stronger. I really was out of my depth here. Shaking my head, I headed back into the city, taking care not to run into any more of those boars on the way. It seemed like I had to buy some equipment first before I could fight. I had gleaned that much from the included help guide at least.

«Sword Art Online» was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

After I had gotten used to moving around the world of VR, I decided to set out into the fields to try and gain some experience. It had been a disaster. I had to run away from the first boar I attacked, as I just couldn't get over how awkward it felt actually attacking with a weapon. Combat in this game was as real as it got, with the monster making vicious sounds and doing its best to kill your virtual self.

The weapon I had chosen was a spear. I didn't know why I picked that weapon in particular, only deciding on it based on the weapon NPC's suggestion. I decided to give it a shot, and I couldn't deny wielding the weapon felt rather invigorating. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, but there was something enjoyable about being able to swing around a weapon like that with ease.

In terms of 'skill', I had none. Really, I hadn't the first clue in how to wield a spear properly, and besides the starting sword skills that I could activate, my attacks were pathetic to say the least. Awkward jabs and slices where I could, all the while waiting for my sword skills to come off cool down... it was an odd experience.

It took me a long time to learn how to defeat my first boar, but I felt proud that I did not have to ask anyone for assistance. Everyone was a beginner at this game, but some were obviously more adept than most. I could tell that some of them were highly experienced with these type of games, just by the way they moved with confidence. As for me, I had never played an RPG in my life.

But... it was fun.

Logging into this world day after day... it was fun. Each day, I became just a little bit stronger and experienced. I could feel my character growing stronger, and sometimes I really felt myself drawn into the world, not realizing just how long had passed until it was well into the night. I was even late to school once, having slept through my morning alarm clock.

I had even gotten the hang of the spear, or so I liked to think. I had been treating it like a stick, a big stick but a stick nonetheless. When I forced myself to relax, and truly thought out my attacks, it became a lot easier. In a game that had its own physics system—however unrealistic it was—a spear was most effective when thrust. It was when I was experimenting with the various ways to thrust a spear, trying an over-the-shoulder one-handed grip, that I first accidentally threw my spear. My first attempt was dismal, ending in a mad scramble for my discarded weapon and an even messier scuffle with the mob I had been training on, but something about the fight had rang true. I began to purposely throw my spear as a way to initiate fights, incorporating it into a fight-style that was as far as I knew, entirely unique among beta-testers and it was then, that I truly understood the strength of my weapon. The range and power of a spear was comforting to me.

Every day, I dived in and became Sinon, the powerful spearwoman who conquered everything alone. I was embellishing a bit of course, as I was not that good at the game, just being somewhere in the middle in terms of levels. Yet, I had gotten this far by myself, with no help from any other player. It felt nice to have that sense of inner strength.

I don't know what I was thinking really, but perhaps I had thought that if I continued playing, some of the strength that I had gathered as 'Sinon' would transfer back to reality. It really was a foolish thought... but I kept playing. Soon, I felt myself drawn into the game entirely, learning the other aspects of MMORPG-styled games.

For a time, there was nothing on my mind except the world of Aincrad. There, I had gained a reputation as a strong and reliable solo player. I no longer hesitated accepting the party invites, and sometimes I even led the odd party or two. My goal was no longer to get as far as I could by myself. It was to reach the top of this castle, to see what awaited us at the end of this world.

And soon enough, the beta test was over. It was a saddening revelation when I finally took off the NerveGear for what was going to be the last time in a while. I would have to wait until the official release. For now, there would no longer be any way into the world that I had thrived in. No way to become the strong heroine I liked to imagine I was.

Now, I was grounded once more, back to the gray world that I had wanted to escape from. Back to being Asada Shino.

"How are you, Shino-chan?"

I leaned my head against the wall, absently looking out the window. It was raining again, and the pitter-patter of the raindrops was rather relaxing.

"Shino-chan?" The concerned voice on the phone called out.

"I'm fine, obaasan," I replied quietly.

"I see..." There was some shuffling on the other end of the phone. "And how have you settled down, Shino? The new school isn't being too much, I hope."

"It's... alright, I'm doing well for myself." My grades were good as far as I could tell, there wasn't much in my life besides homework these days. Not since the beta testing had ended anyway.

"I'm glad to hear that, Shino-chan." There was a bit of relief in her voice, and I felt guilty for having worried her. I wasn't the most talkative person, even towards my family. My grandmother was the only person that still bothered to reach out to me.

A long time ago, I would have been saddened by that fact. Now, It was a blessing. Dealing with the constant pitying looks from every stranger was enough, but my extended family were even worse. Not only did they whisper behind my back, but the gazes they sent my mother and I, even before the... accident, were unsavory to say the least. I knew that none of them wanted anything to do with me. I shared the same sentiment.

"—Shino-chan, are you still there?" I was jolted out of my thoughts.

"Ah, yes... sorry."

"It's fine," There was a brief pause from the other end, and I could practically sense the hesitation. "... Are you coming back for the winter holidays?"

Going back... I hadn't thought about it in a while. I had left everything behind when I left that town, or at least, I had tried to. Now and again the past tended to catch up.

"It would be wonderful to see you, and of course I'm sure everyone else wants you to visit as well." The few relatives that liked me could be counted on one hand. "And... your mother would love to see you, Shino-chan."

My mother... the very thought of her made me tense. I hadn't spoken to her in months, and even then, the conversations were very brief. She was still as fragile as always, looking around her but not really seeing. I sometimes wondered if she realized just who I was.


Home... was not where I wanted to be, but... I couldn't keep running away forever.

"Okay." I spoke softly, staring out into the heavy rain.

If I wanted to move on, I needed to be stronger. To no longer be filled with doubt and longing, to no longer be plagued by nightmares of the past.

To be free.


As I stared up at the red-robed figure looming down at us, eclipsing us with his shadow, I felt my veins run cold, and a sensation that I dimly recognized as fear enveloped me. His words echoed and sent the masses into confusion; they did not believe him. I could hardly believe him. Not when he was talking about something as absurd as this.

But there was something in his voice that told me all I needed to know. It was the voice of someone with supreme conviction, as if this was something that had been predetermined. As if we were all powerless... and we truly were. SAO, despite its realistic features and settings, was designed as a game. Yet, when the 'fun' factor was taken away, you were left with a completely new world.

A second reality.

I had entered this world in order to find a way to gather myself, to find some sort of inner strength. And, for the few months of the beta, I had done it. As 'Sinon', the highly capable solo player, I had managed to find the courage to move forward. For a time, it had even affected the real me. But... the only reason I had managed to reach this far was because I knew... in the back of my mind, that this was all just a game.

An illusion.

I couldn't be harmed here. Every time I ventured out, risking myself, I was in no real danger. Despite the realism of combat, and the terror that sometimes came with 'death', I held no illusions that this was anything but a game. Now... with that aspect taken away, I was all too aware of what this world was. It was a death trap, the risks that had once been fun were as real as ever.

Dying in this world meant dying in real life.

The mirror item flashed, and enveloped every player in the vicinity. Staring back at me, was the familiar visage of Asada Shino; the quiet girl that was as fragile as the world she had lived in. It didn't matter that I had once braved this world alone, without a single guiding hand. How could I hope to beat this game... knowing that every sliver of 'HP' was as real as the blood that flowed through me in reality.

I couldn't.

Fear enveloped me, and I hugged myself, trying to stop the trembling that rippled through me. I could hear the distant shouts of outrage and despair, but they were drowned out by the cries of disbelief. They had still not come to realize the situation. Every single player was now trapped in this floating castle, a world that was now real.

What could I do? I wasn't strong... I had never been strong. .

Absolutely nothing.

I didn't know how long had passed really, I just knew that it was now at a point where the initial panic had run its course and now the general population was left with a single conclusion. Kayaba had been true to his word, and all 10,000 players were now effectively trapped inside of this game. Already, that number had declined.

In the very first days, even hours, many had scoffed and refused to believe the situation they were left in. The more restless of the bunch had even leapt off the edge of the world, their virtual bodies disintegrating as they fell to their deaths. Some had followed them, all of them thinking that this was all just one sick joke, and that if they proved that they could respawn then somehow the joke would end.

They did not return.

All of those who had jumped off were erased from the system, as if they had logged off. Those who had them on friends lists noticed the greyed out names, and many had believed that they had succeeded in logging out of the game... by dying. Yet, when the first day had passed and there were no sign of the 'joke' letting up, the panic had begun to set in full-force. People took to the streets, screaming and crying for some sort of response. A few of the very brave, or foolish, ran out of the city and into the fields. But the majority of the population did nothing but sit... and wait.

It came to a point where everyone realized that they were not going to be rescued. Any hint of help should have reached us by now. This was not something that the world could ignore, and surely if anything could be done about it, then it was being done. The fact that there had been nothing from the outside world only meant one thing. We were alone.

I sat inside the room of one of the many available inns. As this was the City of Beginnings, the costs for renting the rooms were quite affordable, even with just the initial value of col that a player started with. Almost all of the city's inns were occupied by the trapped players, all of them wanting a place to sleep, a place where they could drown out the heavy despair that enveloped the air.

Sitting on the soft bed, looking out of the large window into the night sky, one could easily mistake this world as reality. To the newer players, who had never experienced virtual reality, they might have even been lulled into a false sense of safety. Because this didn't feel like entrapment, they still had the freedom of movement and the vain hope of rescue. When you closed your eyes, and all signs of the virtual HUD that accompanied your vision vanished, you could somehow believe that you were at home, safe and in your bed.

But I knew... better than most, that this was just an illusion. Despite the freedom we were given, I had no doubt that we were now trapped, dancing to the tunes of a madman. He told us to clear this game, to defeat the bosses of all 100 floors. It might have been doable, and some might have found it fun. But... the difficulty of this game was no longer something that could be overlooked. You only had one life, and I couldn't even count how many times I had died in the beta.

The very first boss battle in the beta had been a disaster. A complete wipe. How could he expect us to clear all 100 floors when the consequences of failure meant death? How could anyone venture out there knowing that every time they encountered a monster there was a good chance that they could be killed?

No, I couldn't imagine anyone that could do that. To put away all of your fears and trepidations in some hope that you could beat this game. That was impossible, it couldn't be done. The majority of the players were just your average citizens... the concept of fighting for your life should have been completely foreign. There was no chance that we could somehow beat this game.

I sat there alone, staring aimlessly out into the night sky, feeling as helpless as ever, but then again, that feeling had never truly left me in the first place.

"Here is your order, dear customer."

The waitress placed the hot plate onto the table, giving me a brief bow before going back to the kitchens. For someone who had already experienced this world, the life-like actions of NPCs still continued to surprise me. Sarah, the NPC that I had become quite familiar with was a waitress dressed in a tavern girl's outfit, equipped with a white apron. Though she did not have many lines of dialogue, her facial expressions and the way she always appeared to be happy was very realistic.

I stared down at the bowl of fresh stew and the side of buttered bread with something akin to contentment. I was not being complacent, I was all too aware of my situation, but everyone had to adapt one way or another—the alternative was better off unsaid. Though I had no illusions of somehow contributing to the clearing effort, that did not mean I could stand simply staying inside of the inn room all day. I had done enough of that during the first week.

Hunger in this game could be ignored if one had the will, you weren't going to die of starvation at any rate. However, the sensation of hunger never left, and it gnawed at you until you forced yourself to eat something. To the players that had holed themselves up in the city, getting something to eat with their meagre funds proved to be a problem. Some of them had even splurged all of their funds on food almost immediately, forcing them to sleep on the streets. Those who had run out of funds had to resort to begging as they were unlikely to know how to earn any col. The ones that were more aware took to questing around the city or scavenging around the nearby fields.

Luckily for the ones that were helpless, there were those who were kind enough to arrange some sort of relief effort. It seemed that a large group of players had formed some sort of guild to try and govern the newbies, and that they were accepting members despite the fact that there wasn't any official guild function this early in the game. Even though they did not have much funds, by pooling together their resources, they proved able enough to feed any players that needed it at the least.

As a beta tester, I did not have any issues with acquiring col. In the «City of Beginnings», there were many available quests. Not all of them required you to ever risk yourself, and in fact, the majority of them were fairly easy to do. By conversing with NPCs and asking them if they needed anything done, you could typically trigger a quest. They varied depending on the type of NPC, but they ranged from courier missions to collection missions and even combat missions. Very few took up the last type of quests, despite the fact that the mobs were at very low levels.

I did not have to move far to find a quest, as the very owner of this inn had multiple quests available. Most of them were very simple tasks; find a certain NPC and bring back the required items. Though they paid out very little col and exp, the good thing about them was the fact that they could be done almost daily. The additional benefit was the stacking rapport that I built with the NPC owner. By continuing to help her out, the owner now regarded me as a 'friend', and as such the costs for both renting a room and ordering a meal was significantly cheaper. Even with my meagre funds, I could afford to eat a full-course meal.

It was a good trade, compared to the majority of other players.

Like many other inns in the city, this one was crowded as well, with most of the rooms being occupied. Three weeks into this death game, and I could still see my own sullen expression reflected in the other players' faces. A few of the players were seated in the dining room as well, most of them nibbling on the cheapest thing on the menu; a roll of bread along with water. I could see several of them looking my way in envy, one of them even looked to be drooling.

It was after I had taken a nibble of the bread that I noticed I was being stared at rather intensely. It was from another player at the table beside mine, and it gave me pause. The player was a girl who looked to be my age, with long brown hair and a wide-eyed expression. She was definitely drooling at my stew.

"Hana." She was not alone, as a blue-haired boy nudged her from the side. "H-hey, you're being rude."

She appeared to be startled for a second, before straightening up and locking gazes with me. I had to fight the urge to look downwards. I had been trying to erase that habit.

"Ah! Sorry about that," she apologized with a sheepish look.

"It's fine," I replied momentarily. I couldn't help but feel awkward at her sincerity. Looking down at my soup, and then back at her, I made up my mind. "Would you like some?"

Her eyes widened, and she clapped her hands together in surprise. "Really!?"

"Hana..." The boy beside her sighed once more, giving me an apologetic look. "Sorry about her, we didn't mean to trouble you."

"That's—It's fine," I reassured them hurriedly, I wasn't any good at social situations like these. "I'm not that hungry."

He appeared to be surprised, but did relent his grip on his drooling friend. "Ah, if you're sure..."


The exuberant girl took a seat next to me, and had a brilliant smile on her face as I handed her the bowl of soup. I sent her a tentative smile as she thanked me loudly before digging in. "Oooh~ This is so good!"

I watched her eat spoonful after spoonful at a ravenous pace, somewhat lamenting the fact that I had given it up. It was a really delicious dish...

"Slow down," the boy chided lightly, before turning his attention towards me. "I'm sorry about the trouble, but thank you very much for indulging her."

I waved my hand, absently nibbling on my bread. "She looked like she needed it."

"Hah... anyway, my name is Kyou." He reached out with a hand, and I hesitantly shook it. "It's nice to meet you...?"

"Sinon," I answered quietly.

"Sinon-san then, it's a pleasure." He smiled and then smacked the girl beside him handedly on the head.

"Ow!" She held her head and sent him a glare. "What was that for?!"

"At least introduce yourself," he muttered with a heavy sigh.

The girl blinked twice before turning towards me, and then her face lit up once more. "Ah, my name is Hana, so nice to meet you, Sinon-chan~"

"Uhm, you too." I gave them my best smile, which didn't really reach my eyes. The two of them were rather colourful, and I had to wonder what their relationship was with each other. It looked as if they had known each other for a long time.

"You stay in this inn as well, right?" Ryou asked with a small smile. "I think Hana has the room next to yours."

"That's right." I recalled seeing the brown-haired girl before, though I had never stopped to make conversation. I had even taken to wearing a cloak outside of the inn, it seemed that my appearance caused many to mistake me as someone very helpless.

"I thought so, you know you're pretty recognizable with that hoody of yours." He was referring to my white cloak that I had received as a quest reward. It was oddly comfortable and I had even taken to wearing it with the hood off indoors. "Not that we stare at you of course," he added hurriedly.

I raised a single eyebrow at his embarrassed look.

"It's just that Hana and I don't have much to do besides hanging out in the lobby." He gestured to the area near the entrance, where several comfortable looking sofas had been laid out.

"That's because you don't want to go exploring, stupid~" Hana spoke up from the bowl of stew, pointing the spoon at him accusingly. "I told you there's so much more to see!"

"Yea yea... even though we already circled the city twice..." he muttered, causing the girl to huff before going back to her meal.

"The city is pretty big," I added quietly. It had been designed to handle 10,000 players after all.

Hana perked up notably. "See see? Even Sinon-chan agrees."

"I don't see the point... the NPCs rarely say anything special, and there is not much to do considering it's just a starting area." He sighed, and then crossed his arms. "Besides... it doesn't feel right exploring with all of those players... staring."

I knew what he was referring to. The streets had their fill of players during the daytime, and there was almost always something in the atmosphere as you traversed the packed streets. The sense of despair and sorrow lingered around every corner, and those who walked with a purpose were looked at weirdly. As if the ones who sought to live in this world were completely alien.

There was a brief moment of awkward silence before Kyou spoke up again.

"Uhm, forgive me if I'm being too forward, Sinon-san..." He shared a look with Hana before looking back at me. "Are you a clearer?"

I blinked, taken aback by the question. Why would he think that I was part of that incredible minority? I didn't think I looked that out of place compared to the others. The majority of the players only had the plain clothes and gear that they started out with, their col being obviously spent on food and housing. Now that I thought about it... I guess I did look out of place.

"Ah, sorry, that was rude of me, you don't have to tell us." He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.

"I'm... not a clearer," I told them simply, absently tugging at the edges of my hood.

They looked surprised.

"But Sinon-chan, you look so professional!" Hana exclaimed excitedly. She appeared to have finished the stew and was now gesturing wildly with the spoon. "You always seem to be going somewhere and with a purpose too!"

"Ah...?" Did I really look like that? Of course I had to move around a lot, the daily quests only existed for a certain time frame and I had to travel quite far to find the right NPCs.

"You're really not a clearer then?" He asked me with surprise. "You had the right look about you..."

I looked down at the gear I was currently wearing. Besides the white hoody that I wore over the plain shirt and pants, there wasn't anything that really stood out. I guess it must have been the way I acted. This city was familiar to me after all.

"The hoody was a reward from a quest," I explained, pointing towards the matron who was cleaning down the bar. "She has several quests that you can pick up daily as well, that's why I always go in and out during the day." They both looked so surprised, had they really not known about such things? "The guidebook tells you all you need to know..." I added quietly.

"Ah, really?" The brown-haired girl opened up the menu with a gesture and quickly scrolled through her inventory to materialize the guidebook. "Wow... was this section always here?"

The first chapter of the book explained several of the features of SAO to beginners, including how to gather enough col to properly gear yourself. In the beta, you could afford to venture out with only a weapon and the plain clothes on your back, but to do so here was rather foolish. Spending a couple of weeks gathering col and buying the needed armour was definitely the proper way if someone was to risk the outsides. There were no potions or escape items this early in the game after all.

"Crap... I definitely skimmed over that," Kyou muttered with embarrassment. "I was too busy looking at the combat sections."

"Combat?" I asked with an eyebrow raised. As far as I had known, there was only the basics released by Argo in collaboration with a few others. Even in the beta phase, I had known who she was, and it seemed that she was going about the same way she had done in the beta.

"Yea, it's a revised edition that was added a couple of days later... do you not have one?" The blue-haired player materialized his own copy and showed it to me. "It was written by a player named, 'Kirito'; it's really detailed."

Taking it in my own hands, I opened up the guide and was surprised at just how many pages had been added. I knew that updated versions were going to be released, but this was almost as if the book had been tripled in size. Turning to the new sections, I immediately knew why it had attracted his attention. It was very detailed, from the way it talked about general footwork and posturing to the sword skills that should be practiced and utilized. There were even subsections where he talked about how to handle certain types of mobs, and even a section on group dynamics; how to handle yourself while in a team fight.

"Wow..." Even I was at a lost at just how much information this contained. It had dawned at me that the name 'Kirito' was familiar as well. Searching through my memories, I finally recalled that he was one of the strongest beta players, and a solo player like me. We might have partied together before, though I had tended to ignore most names during the beta.

"It's very detailed isn't it?" He asked with a smile. "Makes me wonder what it would be like to actually go out there..."

"Ara, you aren't scared, Kyou-chan?" The girl asked with a cute tilt of her head.

"Heh, you'll see... maybe when all of the chaos dies down." Though things had calmed down somewhat, it was still a daunting task to move past the safety of the city. Those who braved the field tended to do so in large groups, and very rare were the ones who ventured out alone. "I would like to see more of this world after all..."

"Me too~" She suddenly gathered one of my hands in her own. "Neh, Sinon-chan, you'll come with us when we do, won't you?"

"Uhh..." I refrained from looking away as she peered at me with her widened eyes.

"Ah, leave her be, Hana, you're bothering her again." He jabbed the girl with an elbow, causing her to pout. "Ignore her, Sinon-san."


Going outside of the city... what a thought. Maybe it was the restlessness that had been stirring inside of me, but the thought was not as appalling as it had been. I was hesitant because I knew that the danger was now real, but the alternative was even worse. To wait here for something, anything to suddenly happen and somehow save me. I knew first hand that that kind of fantasy never happened in reality. To break out of this game, I would have to save myself.

I just didn't know if I could do that.

"We could always join one of those guilds that are starting to pop up, I hear that it's really safe now that the areas have been catalogued," Kyou spoke with a thoughtful tone. "We're in no hurry at any rate... who knows how long until this floor is even cleared."

"Ah, I thought that there was a group that was going to attempt it soon," Hanna added excitedly. "Everyone was talking about it at the square!"

Even I had heard about that. Supposedly there had been a meeting started by one of the clearers in an effort to lead a group of them to the boss, and to somehow defeat it. From what I knew, this boss wasn't particularly hard, especially with the level advantages that the clearers surely had. The issue was that there would be no resets... if they failed here then there was a good chance of a wipe. There would not be a second try.

"Foolish..." I muttered, clenching my hands absently. Didn't they know what would happen if they failed? What little morale that the front line had would evaporate into nothing.

"Don't say that, Sinon-chan." Her voice startled me, and I quickly realized that I had said that aloud. "Even if it's risky... the fact that there are still those out there willing to fight... it's a good thing."

The previously excitable girl looked oddly serious as she gripped my hand into her own. Beside her, the blue-haired boy nodded solemnly, and I realized that they were right. The sheer fact that these players would be risking their lives was admirable. I shouldn't be looking down on their courage... especially when I had little room to judge.

"She's right, we should give them all the support we can," Kyou spoke up with a serious expression. "They are fighting for us, in a way."

I found myself nodding.

"Well, enough of that. Tell me, Sinon-chan, how do you feel about blue hair?" She was back to her normal self it appeared, a smirk on her face.

Her friend looked affronted. "Again with that? What's wrong with my hair!?"

As the two began to bicker and argue in good fun, I found myself following their antics with a small smile. Maybe it was because of how nice the two of them seemed, but I found myself enjoying their presence. I felt that even if I kept talking with them, they would not pry or force myself to act. It was a nice feeling.

We talked for a while, both of them talking about anything that came to mind while asking for my opinion. Personal matters were rarely touched on, and I found myself participating and enjoying myself. Time blurred around me, and it was a surprise to me when the door to the inn was suddenly slammed open.

"Big news!" Someone shouted into the inn, triggering a few chastisements from the NPCs. The newcomer—a rather tall and stocky man—ignored them and waved for everyone to gather around him. Curiously, we approached him, as did the others inside of the inn. It appeared that several others had filtered in through the door unnoticed by me during the time I had spent talking.

"The first floor has been cleared!" He shouted as loud as he could into the air, his hands thrown upwards in a cheering manner.

For a second, nobody moved, unable to comprehend what he had shouted. Then, chaos broke out. Cheering and shouting, and a few were even crying. All of them were in joy however, as they pressed the man for more information. Even as Hana hugged me tightly and started jumping around me, I could do nothing but stare in shock. Then, as the one who had shouted the news was tackled to the ground by one of the cheering players, I felt it. A smile of elation was on my face.

For the first time in a long while... I felt hopeful. There might be a way to clear this death game afterall.

I narrowed my eyes, focusing on the large creature that stared back at me. This one was definitely much bigger than the ones I had grown used to, but it should still be quite easy given my current level. It began to paw at the ground and at the same time, I hefted my spear up over my shoulders, like a javelin. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself to relax, this shouldn't be that hard. I had done this before.

With a running start, I began to close the distance, and the moment that I passed the aggro range, the green cursor above the creature turned red and it let out an angry snarl. Just as it began its charge, I had already made my move. Putting all of my strength into the action, I threw my spear into the air.

It flew straight.

There was a cry of pain from the creature, the spear piercing one of its eyes before dislodging itself due to the immediate thrashing. The creature skidded to a halt, blind and staggering from the critical hit. By the time it had recovered, I had already picked up my trusty spear and had lanced its side several times, leaving large red scars in my wake.

«Greater Boars» were very sturdy mobs, and it was no surprise to me when it began to charge once more, this time with a renewed fury. Its size should have given anyone pause, as the vicious tusks that accompanied the creature were proportional to its immense form. I was lucky then, that I had taken down a numerous amount of these creatures in my time. With all of that power and speed, their weakness was obvious.

Even as it came within thrusting range of my spear, I stayed my hand. Patience was key, and when its tusks came close enough to skewer through me, I immediately spun to my left, leaving just enough room for the enormous beast to plow through without touching me. It roared indignantly, trying to gather itself and turn its massive body toward me. The weakness here was obvious. With such an enormous body, it did not have the control to really pose a threat; its turn rate was incredibly slow.

While it took its time turning, my hands were already guiding my spear into a very familiar set of sequences. A series of rapid stabs left deep indents on the creature's HP bar, and as it slowly completed its turn, I slowly moved around towards its back, leaving the occasional stab and slash where I could. There was no room to use Sword Skills without breaking my current rhythm. Just as the tusks came dangerously close to skewering my side, I leapt back, creating much needed space but allowing the boar to finally steady itself.

I would have been forced to reset my positioning and let the creature charge again, if not for the HP bar which gave me all the information I needed. While its hind legs pawed the ground in preparation of another lunge, I crouched low, bringing my trusty spear to bear. I lunged forward. A red glow enveloping my weapon as I successfully activated the Sword Skill: «Pierce». The force of the skill drove my spear into the area between the beast's eyes. For a scant moment, the creature let out a loud squeal of pain, and I felt the fear of retaliation creep up from within. Not a second later however, the boar was enveloped in a familiar glow as it shattered into a million different polygons with the distinctive sound of breaking glass.

I had done it... and with a heavy sigh I collapsed onto the grass, it had been exhausting—mentally—to fight against the mob alone. Though I had done so many times in the beta, it was entirely different here, where there were no room for mistakes. Even with my advantageous armour and weapons, there were still no rapid-healing items that I could use this early, and in a game where your HP was as good as your life blood, every bit of health was important.

The sound of clapping and cheering filled my ears, and I finally remembered my audience. I turned from my position on the ground to see the familiar visage of the brown-haired girl that I had somehow managed to befriend over the week. Hana and her friend, Kyou, had not left me alone, much to my surprise. Instead, they waited patiently for me every morning and even accompanied me on the quests, making small talk along the way. They were patient with me, somehow understanding my need for space. Somewhere along the way, we had become friends, and somehow they had managed to drag me outside of the city.

"You're so amazing, Sinon-chan!" The exuberant brunette bounced up to me, and promptly enveloped me in a hug, despite the fact that I was half-crouching on the ground. She sent the both of us flying onto the grass, and despite myself, I couldn't relinquish myself from her grip. "The way you dodged that charge at the last second! The -fwoosh- with the spear, and the -shrk-, as you stabbed into its eyes, ah~ you're so cool!"

It was rather embarrassing having her snuggle into me from above, mostly due to the fact that the blue-haired player watched on while laughing. Just as I thought that I might be forced to use my spear, Kyou finally pried the excited girl off of me.

Offering his hand which I took, he sent me a smile. "That was very impressive, Sinon-san, you weren't kidding when you said that you have faced these before."

"Thank you," I muttered quietly, still unsure of how to take the constant praise. I really didn't think I was that good. It was only due to my experience in the beta that had allowed me to do so well.

The beta... that had been an awkward subject. I had been reluctant at first to reveal myself as a beta-tester to them, knowing what the common opinion was regarding beta-testers. But as I was dragged outside of the city and into the fields, it was pretty obvious that the two of them were not experienced in any way. I did not like the idea of revealing myself and perhaps alienating the first friends I had found in this game, but at the same time, I could not stand by and let them go in recklessly.

Yet, to my surprise, they understood wholeheartedly.

"What's wrong with that, Sinon-chan? That just makes you that much cooler!"

"I never understood all of the beta-tester hate, it's not like it's your job to babysit everyone. Besides, if it wasn't for you guys, we wouldn't even have had a guide book at all."

It had been heartening to hear their support, when I knew just how heated some beta-testers were still being treated. It was starting to die down, but it was still a very uncomfortable topic to talk about in public. It was a very ugly topic when you considered just how many blamed the group for the deaths of a friend or loved one. If only people were just a bit more rational, they would realize just how little help a beta tester could have possibly offered; they were just another human being after all.

"Let's go kill some more!" Hana shouted happily, already jogging into another field. Kyou followed with calls to slow down. They were an excitable bunch, but I found their enthusiasm to be very inspiring. Leveling and fighting together with a group... it was kind of fun.

"Slow down, you're going to aggro them all!"

Of course, barring the fact that Hana had little sense of self-preservation.

"Watcha' reading, Sinon-chan?" A chipper voice called from the doorway.

Without even looking up from the piece of newspaper in my hand, I already knew who it was. It was late at night when we had finally decided to retire from the training grounds, and thankfully had a warm meal at the inn before heading to bed. It seemed that I did not remember to close the door on the way in, too engrossed in the article held in my hands.

"It's one of the newsletters, 'Weekly Argo'," I replied quietly, not wanting to break the tranquility of the quiet night.

Hana bounced over with a jump to her steps, an inquisitive look on her face. "Ooh, lemme see."

I obliged her with a wry smile, she was a very bubbly girl, but for some reason it was just impossible to be mad at her. She had an innocence around her that I sometimes envied, and I couldn't help but admire. Hana had a way of making those around her relax their guards, something I had seen whenever we entered the odd party or group. Even more than that, she never pressed me for details, knowing exactly when a topic made me uncomfortable. I had never met someone like her before.

"They're about to clear the 7th floor," I told her as she settled in beside me. "The boss room was found a couple days ago."

She made a noise of surprise. "Wow... that's really fast. Neh, it's that Kirito guy leading the way right?"

"Mmhm... him and his guild," I answered softly. They were a source of great inspiration to all of the players, and even I couldn't help but admire them. To put yourself out there from the beginning, not knowing if success was even a possibility... that took a special sort of will power that not many had.

"You know I saw him the other day?"

"Really?" I blinked. There were an incredible amount of rumours circulating about him, but nobody had a picture just yet. Though there were rumours that you could buy a picture from a certain merchant at a 'reasonable' price. It was all cluttered by gossip.

"Yep!" The exuberant girl gestured with her hands, and took up a pretend serious pose. "He was all stern-faced, trying to look ahead even with everyone staring at him, and you know, he had a large group of girls following him—they are in his guild right? Anyway, he was actually really cute!"

I coughed, and didn't like the look that she sent me afterwards. "R-really?"

"Oh yes, I could almost just eat him up," she confirmed jubilantly. "Say, Sinon-chan, are you into the dark, mysterious types?"

"W-what?" I spluttered, covering my face reflexively as she started to giggle. The blush that followed was unneeded.

"Oh you, you're just so cute!" she declared, before promptly lunging forward and tackling the both of us onto the bed.

In the ensuing tickle fight that followed, I would have liked to say I won, but then I would be lying. The girl had incredibly vicious hands. After she had finished practically torturing me, we laid on the bed, and simply talked. Anything that came to mind, and Hana was very forthcoming with her answers. I learned where she went to school, what she liked there, and how her family life was like. I even learned that she and Kyou had been neighbors ever since they were children, which was why they were so comfortable with one another.

We talked late into the night, and I had fun. Perhaps this was what it felt like to finally have a friend you could trust. It was a nice feeling.

"Sinon." We were both staring up at the ceiling aimlessly, having grown tired from all the talking. "Someday... I don't know when, or how, or if it's even possible... but I want to be able to stand at the front lines. To be able to truly fight for our freedom, instead of relying on those brave few. I... want to be strong, Sinon."

There was a melancholic tone to her voice, and it was reflected in her eyes. I found myself staring into them and finding my own emotions reflected in them. I wasn't the only one who wanted to conquer my fears.

She reached out with a hand and took one of my own. "You'll be there with me, won't you?" she asked in a whisper.

"I will," I promised.

To fight at the front, to erase my fears, and to finally overcome my past... maybe it was possible after all.

We had been about an hour into the forest when we finally acknowledged we had a problem. The majority of the tenth floor consisted of forest land, and as such, many dungeon locations were incredibly well-hidden. We had been searching for one of the only dungeons in the Southern Forest in order to clear it. There were rumours that this dungeon in particular had a guaranteed prize at the end, and was fairly easy to clear.

"We're lost aren't we?" I asked with a sigh, leaning against a nearby tree. The Southern Forest was nicknamed 'The Black Forest', mostly because the trees swayed eerily, often groaning and sometimes even coming to life to attack you. It didn't help that most of the mobs in this section of the floor had the 'evil' motif going for them. Black Wolves, Black Bears, Cursed Trees, and even ethereal ghost types. Traveling through this area was definitely not something I wanted to do.

"Ahaha," the blue-haired player of our group rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "So maybe the information we got was bad," he admitted quietly. "...Maybe that's why it was so cheap."

"Mou, you should have known better, Kyou-kun, we're lost!" The other member of the party stomped her feet before sending him a glare.

"Hey! You're the one who was drooling over the prize," he accused, narrowing his eyes as the girl poked her tongue out at him.

"That was before I knew it was all a lie!"

I sighed as the two broke into an argument once again. If I didn't know any better I would have assumed that the two were an old married couple, with how many times they argued and made up afterwards. "Guys," I cut in before they descended into a brawl. "It's going to be night soon if we don't start heading back. Maybe pick it up again when we get more info?"

They looked at each other before looking back at me, then they nodded at the same time. "Okay."

With a small smile, I started to lead us back towards the main city. It was a good thing that I had a good sense of direction, because I was sure that they would have gotten lost on the way back as well. Luckily this floor was actually rather low for our level, and it was only because of the rumour that we had bothered to venture out. Our traditional leveling grounds should be somewhere around the 20th floor.

It would have been safer leveling with a full party, and definitely more beneficial if we had a guild for support. Somehow we never thought to fully commit to either of them, despite the offers we received. There was something about being just the three of us, venturing out on our own, that made the idea of joining others unappealing.

Over the months, we had gotten far, and I could say with pride that our teamwork was nothing to scoff at. Kyou was a shield-user, and he was always ready to leap in front us when we needed it. He was reliable in that way, and with the way he doted over Hana, I didn't need to worry over her safety. As for our more rambunctious friend, she had chosen the rapier for some reason, and seemed to have grown into her role. Between the two of us, and with Kyou tanking, we could usually tackle dungeons by ourselves.

"Do you guys hear that?" Hana suddenly asked.

I strained my ears, and my senses. There were definitely noises coming from our left. "Other players?" I offered. I couldn't imagine why anyone else would be out venturing here besides us, but it was a likely answer.

"Let's check it out," Kyou answered, and we followed him with our weapons drawn. Monsters typically didn't act out, but it would be foolish to presume that they were going to be the same every time.

I brandished my weapon, the sleek black spear held in front of me as we came closer to the source of the noise. Following behind Hana, with Kyou in the lead, we settled into our typical formation. In theory, most mobs would attack him first, giving us room to retaliate with our DPS-focused builds.

We cleared the bushes and into one of the sparse clearings amidst the desolate forest. There, our eyes were treated to quite an unusual sight. I could sense the confusion coming from the other two as they came to a halt as well. It was definitely not something you could have expected to see.

Dark Elves. It was obvious from the colouring of their skin as well as the length of their pointed ears. Half a dozen of them were circling around a target—a hooded figure cloaked in red—and occasionally lashed out with their swords, seemingly testing the defense of their target. The person in the middle reflected their swings with what appeared to be a dagger, and judging from the frequency of the attacks, she was having a hard time.

"It's not a player," Kyou observed with narrowed eyes.

"What?" Hana was fidgeting, unsure of what to do. "D-do we go in?"

One of the main features about this floor was its elven theme. The main city had its own hierarchy, with a faerie elf queen at the top. To that end, almost all of the quests had something to do with the light-orientated elves. They ranged from clearing the corrupted beasts in their forests, to attacking the evil half of their race. Dark elves appeared to be an evil version of their kind, and the quests featured the war between them. The boss of this floor had been their leader, and with the clearing of the floor, the Dark Elf mobs seemed to have disappeared.

"We should," I finally chimed in, knowing that whatever it was that we stumbled upon, rescuing someone was always the better choice. I leapt into the fray.


I heard their startled shouts, but ignored them in favour of the closest dark elf. He noticed me just as I came in range, and the life-like face on the mob lit up in surprise, just before my spear glowed red and pierced him straight between the eyes. As he disintegrated, all sense of surprise evaporated, and the remaining elves shouted out what appeared to be a curse word in their language before focusing their attention onto me. Humanoid-type mobs were intelligent, and usually quite strong in combat. Their only weakness tended to be the fact that they were as weak as they appeared.

They charged forward with incredible grace and speed, and I suddenly realized that these were elite mobs. It was a good thing that I had backed up, as Kyou and Hana leapt in front of me and took some of the aggro off. Still, I had to contend with three angry elves who swung their swords with actual skill. My spear was used as a staff as I tried to block and parry where I could, but the sheer speed of their attacks left me with no room to counter. Just as I was about to call out for help, something happened that astounded me.

The robed figure that I had saved, sent out a bolt of fire that lanced through the chest of one of the elves, melting through his armour as if it wasn't even there. I didn't have time to be surprised however, as the remaining two elves snarled in fury. One of them began a renewed offensive against me, while the other one dived at the robed figure. It appeared that it was going to be one on one for all of us.

These mobs were vicious, and even with my level difference I felt myself having difficulties, mostly because he did not relent. My spear could not be used in such close quarters, and using a «Sword Skill» was out of the question, if I missed then I would have lost. His glowing green eyes glared down at me, and his sword continually lashed out aimed for my throat. It was a good thing then, that they had the same faults that many humans did.

"Switch!" I called out just as I came within distance of Hana. The girl gave out a cry of confirmation before we sprinted past each other at our respective opponents.

Surprise covered the dark elf's face as I came close and lunged forward with a thrust. He was not ready, and the spear lanced deep into his side causing him to hiss in pain. Utilizing the opening as best I could, I activated my strongest Sword Skill: «Severing Cross». My spear was enveloped in a red glow and with incredible speed, my spear lanced out horizontally before swinging back and slashing downwards. The afterimage of a cross was seen in the red lines across the dark elf's body. He roared in pain even as he shattered into a million pieces.

Having dealt with the elf, I turned my attention back to everyone else, and was surprised to see that they were done with their own opponents. We regrouped as we noticed the hooded figure staring at us from under its hood, only the glowing green eyes could be seen. A hesitant silence fell over the clearing, and we tensed as the figure neared us with slow steps.

"You... saved me," it began, and I could tell that it was a female elf from the soft, articulate voice. "Yet, you are humans..."

We shared a look, and I felt myself being volunteered for the job of speaking. "We are, may I ask who you are?"

The woman hesitated, but brought up her pale hands in order to pull back the hood that covered her. I heard my friends gasp as they took in her appearance, and I didn't blame them. The woman was incredibly beautiful, and it was clear that we were dealing with a high-elf, the noble class of elves. Her features were aristocratic in nature, with sharp green eyes and perfectly shaped. Coupled with her long wisps of silvery-white hair, her appearance certainly befitted one of the nobles. If not for the long, jagged scar that ran across her nose to her cheek, she might have been prettier than the Elf Queen herself.

"I am Nimmith," she introduced, and bowed lightly. I felt compelled to do the same. "Tell me, adventurers... what is it that you seek?"

There were many ways that one could have answered her question. In MMO terms, this step was crucial in order to trigger the next 'event'. I had no doubt in my mind that if I answered wrong, then she would turn us away.

I decided to answer her truthfully. "We are looking for strength."

I could tell from the incredulous stares that Hana and Kyou were not happy with my answer. Most people would have answered something like money or a weapon in hopes of receiving such a thing. It wouldn't have been out of the question too, as something like this was clearly a rare event; the rewards of such were almost always unique.

"I see..." she murmured, and there was a glimmer of something in her wizened eyes. "Then perhaps you are the ones who can help me. Adventurers, listen well. I offer you a quest unlike any other; danger and death await you, yet the reward may just be what you seek. The chance to wield the power of the gods... I ask of you, will you accept?"

The confirmation screen popped up, and I felt excitement as I scanned the contents. It was sparse, and the length as well as reward fields were filled in with question marks. This was the makings of a Legendary Quest.

"We accept."

Hana was humming and skipping as we traversed the streets of Ilsevele; the main city of the tenth floor was beautiful as always. Even in the dim orange glow of the evening, the pristine white streets still glimmered, being lit up by the well-placed lampposts. It was surprisingly busy considering the time, but the streets were filled with people, finishing their shopping or heading off to restaurants. Ever since this floor had been discovered, the main city had been established as a trading hub. It was understandable given its natural beauty, and many were eager to move out of the City of Beginnings as well.

"I can't believe it, Sinon-chan, a legendary quest!" The brown-haired girl was practically jumping for joy as we traveled towards the market area of the spiralling city.

"Not so loud, Hana," Kyou admonished. "We don't want everyone in the world to know now do we?"

I agreed, as something like this would have made headlines. We had discussed it and despite the fact that we could have shared the quest with others, we decided to keep it among us. There was something incredibly exciting about being handed a unique quest like this, and we wanted the honour of completing it by ourselves.

"What do you think the reward is?" she continued unabashed, "I hope it's like a super super rare item! Then we can sell it and become millionaires!"

"A million col isn't that much, Hana."

"Whatever—hey, we can even buy a house!" Her eyes shined with awe. "Maybe even a castle!"

I laughed along with Kyou, both of us amused by her antics. The thought of it was rather appealing—not the castle part, but the house. We were still renting rooms in inns after all, and it was hard to declare a place home when you didn't own any of it. Having a house to call our own... it was a nice thought.

"Maybe we could also buy a dragon," Kyou added with a chuckle.

"Oi, don't laugh, I hear there are actual dragons in this game!"

As they began to bicker once more, I took the lead, and steered us to the busy part of the market, where a lot of the restaurants were located. Many of the popular restaurants were cafes, but there were a couple of them that sold gourmet food. They were very expensive of course, but it was nice to treat yourself once in awhile.

Looking up at the sign that spelled out 'Faerie Garden' in fine English letters, I jolted the two from their debate on the merits of dragon-riding, and gestured to the door. As we entered the establishment, I was immediately hit with the aroma of delicious food; it smelt like heaven. The NPC waiters were dressed to the occasion, and it felt awkward being escorted to our table and being treated with such respect.

A quick scan of the restaurant revealed that we were not alone, and that a few of the other tables were occupied with groups as well. I could hardly deduce what type of players they were, as everyone was dressed casually, but I had a feeling that they weren't the combat types. There were very few who spent their precious col on comforts rather than weapons and armour.

"Wow... they have wine?" Kyou asked dubiously, "Was that always in the game?"

"Wine flavoured," I answered, having read about this tidbit of information somewhere. "There's no effect from it of course."

He nodded in understanding. "Maybe I'll try it then, I've only ever had sake before—on new years."

"Oh, I want to try as well," Hana chimed in happily, and I could just see her legs swinging underneath the table. "You never let me have any alcohol."

"That's because it's bad for you," he answered simply.

She pouted. "That's no fair, I can have it here right?"



I hid my smile underneath the menu, and chose to scan the thing before I ended up laughing at her expense. She was really cute sometimes, despite her childish antics. The menu was filled with extravagantly worded dishes, and they appeared to have a real life counterpart but with certain SAO ingredients like Life Berries, Sweet Herbs, Ragout Sauce. Food in this game was incredibly well-designed—maybe even too well-designed, as I could even imagine the developers having several chefs under their pay roll.

After ordering our appetizers, our waiter bowed and left, while a female NPC appeared with a jar of glistening water that she helped pour. It really did feel like a five-star experience, and I told them as much.

"I know, I don't think I've ever been to anything as fancy as this in... real life." Kyou trailed off near the end, as we were all reminded of the other side. It was something that he didn't like to talk about.

Hana didn't have the same reservations. "We went to that one place in Shibuya before," she reminded him with a smile. "It was really delicious."

He nodded silently, and I got the feeling that he would rather not talk about it.

"So... how should we deal with the quest?" I asked.

They turned their curious eyes at me. "What do you mean?"

"Should we save it for later? It doesn't give us a level recommendation... though the floor is only on the 17th." I furrowed my brow, trying to remember any specifics about that floor. The quest directed us to what was likely a hidden entrance, but from what I recalled, that floor had nothing notable about it.

"I think we should finish it as soon as we can," Hana added, "We have high enough levels for it right?"

"Yea, but..." Kyou hesitated. "We should do this carefully, I really don't like the unknown aspects of the quest."

I nodded. Almost every field save the location parameter was dotted with question marks, and that was enough to make anyone wary. It was likely that the area it led to was dangerous and riddled with traps. We had a very high level advantage for the area, but that was still not enough to disregard the danger entirely.

"Should we recruit a few others?" I asked, and received a set of blinks.

"What? No way! That's our loot," Hana declared. "We can do it, Sinon."

Kyou looked unsure. "Maybe Sinon is right... it certainly wouldn't be bad to have a full party when we do this."

A few more people shouldn't be that hard to round up, especially if they found out about the uniqueness of the quest. The only issue was getting reliable people that we could work with, something that was definitely in short supply.

"We can do this guys," the brown-haired girl stated furiously. "Like everything before this, we can do it by ourselves. Right?"

I found myself nodding slowly, and Kyou did the same with an added sigh. It was decided then, we would be tackling this quest by ourselves. Hopefully, it wouldn't be too hard.

All further thoughts were tossed aside when the waiter returned with our orders.

"This is it?"

I looked over the opening of the cave dubiously, and so did my companions. This area of the floor was as remote as ever, and there was hardly anything of note. As far as the eye could see was the familiar scorched brown earth that was a trademark of this floor, and occasionally the broken down ruins of brick and mortar could be seen in various blots. There had once been a village where I stood, but now there was nothing. It wasn't so much eerie as it was impressive, as the remnants of this floor indicated a highly civilized society.

Finding a cave entrance that pointed into the ground was definitely not something that appealed to me. Especially as this dungeon was definitely a hidden one, and there was no way we would have found it without the coordinates given by the quest. It was hidden in between the rubble of two buildings, and covered by dust and grime. We had to clear past a lot of the destructible rubble to reveal it.

"That doesn't look very safe..." Kyou muttered.

"It's... not that bad?" Hana tried with an unconvincing tone.

I scanned our surroundings once more before sighing. "We could still head back... this is going too fast."

We were unprepared at best, but Hana had insisted that we give it a try. This morning, when I looked at the quest, I was surprised to see that a timer had appeared under the time section. It was surprising considering that it previously had a question mark indicating unknown length of time. As for timed quests in SAO, it wasn't that uncommon, and was usually a requirement when taking on a quest for an NPC that involved taking out a certain amount of mobs.

For this quest however... with no details, it made me wary. I would have much preferred the usual text that accompanied most quests; a quest in SAO usually told you everything you needed to do, and even recommended the level of the player or party that would tackle it. For this one, we were in the dark.

"It will expire soon though..." Hana murmured, brows furrowed in thought. "And this is a one of a kind quest."

Nobody, not even some of the top information brokers had heard of anything involving a unique quest. That spoke lengths about how rare the quest was. My only real concern was the fact that we would be doing so without a full party.

"Hah... fine, let's give it a shot." Our more armoured player sighed before gesturing for us to follow. "We can always use our crystals anyway."

Though incredibly expensive, we had each managed to procure a [Teleport Crystal], and as such, I felt a small sense of relief that we had a back up to fall back on. Still, it wasn't something that was one-hundred percent. Even now, there were rumours of traps being sprung in dungeons that negated all crystals. A trap like that shouldn't be on such an early floor though.

It was in silence that we traversed into the ruins, and down into the dank tunnels. The walls were made of a material that was stone and at the same time not. Each crack in the stone walls glowed with a dim emerald light, and it pulsed ever so slowly, giving me the unique impression that somehow the place was alive. Shivering, I took out my weapon and was relieved to see the other two follow my example.

Soon the tunnels began to turn, and we followed the path uncertainty. It was leading us in spirals, and for several minutes I thought we were going in a loop somehow. But as we finally came upon a door, I realized that we had actually been descending. It was certainly a different theme than the floor it was held on. This particular dungeon seemed to have taken on the ancient civilization idea and ran with it.

The door was large, and filled with the markings of what I thought had to be of an unknown language. There was a pause as we shared looks. Kyou ended up in the lead, with his shield drawn, and we took up his flank. It was time to see what the dungeon had in store.

Kicking open the stone doors, it creaked open almost mechanically. For a brief moment there was darkness, and then suddenly the room flooded with light. Large pillars of pure emerald, glowing an alarming green. It bathed the room in its eerie glow, and I had to repress a shudder as it illuminated the room completely. It was enormous. The pillars spanned endlessly upwards and were separated into two neat columns. The entire room gave me a feeling of anxiety. We would be incredibly open in such a large area.

"Get ready," Kyou whispered before pressing on. Though there were no enemies that didn't mean that none would spawn. It was a common dungeon mechanic for mobs to spawn on the players in an ambush.

My observations remained truer than ever as we slowly shuffled into the room. Looking closer, I could see that the floors, the pillars, and the walls were all inscribed with the same markings on the door. What didn't bode well for us was the fact that the further we walked in, the more that the markings began to glow. It was obvious that our presence in the room was doing something.


I looked to our left, and spotted the thing immediately, it cracked open the floors of the place and crawled out, giving me a first look at what our enemies would be. It was... a machine, or rather, more machine than man. It had wires connecting its silver-coloured limbs, and had a mechanical helmet for a head. What a unique looking mob... I didn't have any more time to ponder as suddenly it leapt forward.

Our sturdiest player met the charge instantly, and the thing crashed savagely into his shield. The blue-haired shield-user grunted before pushing back the mob, and made room as the thing stumbled. That was our cue, and without further thought we jumped in with our weapons swinging, a sword skill at our fingertips. Twin lights of blue stabbed and sliced into the mob respectively, and it gave a metallic groan before it exploded into light.

I sighed in relief. It was clear that the mob was around the same levels of those found around this floor. If this held true the rest of the way then it looked like the quest was doable.

"Now that wasn't so bad?"


We shared a small smile, and began to press on. "Oh... crap."

Following Hana's wide-eyed stare, I turned only to find a sea of red dots gazing back at me. Each one indicated the eyes of the very same mob we had just taken down. The number of them gave us pause, and I wondered if we were in trouble.

"Keep your backs open! Don't let them surround us!" Kyou shouted before going in and taking the brunt of the aggro.

It was a solid plan, and we carefully kept note of our surroundings as we began to attack the mechanical creatures. It was truly a literal sea of them as they swarmed against us, and it was only the fact that they died in one or two hits that made it even remotely possible to fight back. Yet, their sheer numbers would have overwhelmed us if not for the fact that we were constantly moving and making sure we were not surrounded. In that manner we could pick off the few that came close enough while still having room to move back.

For several long minutes there was only the sound of us fighting against the robotic tide. Kyou had even used his emergency healing crystal as his HP went down into the low yellows. He was doing his best at drawing their attention, giving us perfect opportunities to thin the crowd. I reserved my sword skills for the most part, not wanting to risk the chance of getting swarmed while locked in the animation. Their weakness was the head, and a single spear thrust through their forehead was all it took. The sound of breaking glass, and our shouts of exertion were the only things heard in the chamber.

With one last spin, I cleaved through one straggler before twirling and stabbing my spear through the head of the last mob. It gave a gurgled sound of grinding gears before it shattered into light. At last, we had cleared the room.

"Everybody alright?" Kyou asked tiredly, resting his head against a pillar. Hana was crouching as well. That had been a long fight.

"That was close," I murmured, eyeing our HP bars. We had all fallen below half, even with Kyou taking the large majority of the aggro.

"We got them though!" Hana exclaimed cheerfully, and began to sip at a healing potion. Watching her reminded me, and I did the same with my own potion. It was always best to top off your HP whenever you could in a game like this.

As much as I felt prideful at having fought off the swarm of machines, my confidence still wavered. "Should we continue?" I asked slowly, not quite meeting their eyes.

"Well... at least we know its doable now, right?" The blue-haired boy rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. "We could go back and gather some more help?"

I opened up my quest menu before looking back and shaking my head. "Even if we teleport out, I doubt we could come back and finish within two hours." The walking time alone would take a third of that.

"Damn..." he muttered.

"I say we still go," Hana said and dusted off her pants as she got up. "We still have our crystals right? Let's give it a shot."

Still with the same exuberance, I noted with a wry smile. "Alright," I agreed, and Kyou nodded mutely.

With that settled, we began to march forward once more, and as expected, we encountered much more of the machine swarm. It was easier now that we knew what to expect, but it was still tedious all the same. As we fought through the mobs, I began to realize just how effective our teamwork was.

Not a lot of players in SAO could say that. Teamwork in this game was crucial, yet not many bothered to learn past basic switching tactics. It was somewhat understandable, given that trusting another person with your life was not the best idea. It was this mentality that followed the players that went out and formed parties. To fight together was for the safety of all, but it was clear that at the end of the day, they were always going to put themselves first.

Our group didn't have this problem. I would be lying if I said I didn't have any issues with trusting the two, especially on the first few days we ventured out. But as I grew to understand the two of them, I realized just how unique they were. They trusted completely, not doubting for a second that the others would guard their back or come for them when they got into trouble. Even Kyou, our shield user, never faltered in the face of danger even when his HP was typically the lowest. Friends like these... teammates... they were rare.

I found myself smiling as we cleared through the mobs, side by side, and without a doubt in our minds. Soon enough, we were alone once more.

"Oh man... I'm not sure if I can take anymore of this," Hana moaned, clutching at her side.

Kyou huffed from beside her. "You're the one who wanted to go on, idiot."

"What did you just say, you blue-haired... clown!"

I sighed as the two began to bicker again. Really, if they could remain serious at least in the middle of a dangerous dungeon, than they would have been the perfect party members. Even then, I regarded them with a fond smile. It was their way of lowering all of the fear and anxiety that everyone felt in this death game.

Looking past the arguing 'non' couple, I spotted something that caused me to blink. It seemed that we were closer to the goal than I had thought. In the quest text, the only thing that was not a series of question marks was the goal, but even then it was as bare as possible. It was a single sentence: 'retrieve the token of Hecate'. And the altar that was pressed up against the walls of this vast chamber was definitely it.

"Guys... I think that's it," I cut into their argument and pointed to the lit altar. "That thing must be the token."

It was between two thin pillars, and decorated in black and gold. Atop of the altar held several ornate bowls and what looked to be a necklace secured on a stand. The necklace was what we needed, judging by its untarnished appearance.

"That's it?" Hana asked in disappointment. "No boss? No treasure? No nothing?" I could sense the pout in her voice without even looking at her.

"Well, I'd much rather prefer this than a boss... anyway, take it and lets get out of this creepy place, Sinon."

I walked up slowly, and with caution, careful not to trigger any traps along the way. To my surprise, nothing happened as I stepped up to the stone altar and picked up the necklace. I gave it a reflexive scan with the appraisal skill, but was not surprised to see all of the information blanked out. Only the name of the item indicated that it was the correct one. Just as I was about to turn back, there was a -click- sound that sent a jolt down my spine. It happened the moment I put the necklace in my inventory.


The grinding picked up, and it was a terrible sound as the walls began to screech with the force of the grinding. The markings on the walls were now lit, fully illuminating the room into a bright amalgamation of blue and green. We bunched together, preparing for whatever was coming, each of us tense. I knew it was too easy to be true, and I silently cursed myself for picking up the thing so casually. This was supposed to be a unique quest.

I had been foolish.

At last, the horrifying grinding came to a halt, but in its place was something far, far worse. A chorus of voices... each and every one of them inhuman. Guttural mechanical roars that echoed through every part of the chamber.

It was coming from above.

I heard the gasp of surprise from Hana, and I froze at the sight that loomed over us. In the impossibly tall chamber walls, surrounding us from every side and even from the pillars themselves were the tell-tale glows of their eyes. This time however, there was no stopping the rush of fear from enveloping me. There were enough glowing red eyes in the darkness to fill every spot I could see... and they were all climbing down towards us.

"Run!" Kyou suddenly shouted, and jolted me out of my stupor. He took Hana's hand and began to run for it. I quickly followed, knowing that our chances were zero against such numbers. It was no longer a swarm of machines.

It was an entire legion.

We ran as fast we could, but the span of the chamber was incredible. As we reached half way across the length of the room, the first few of them began to arrive. I ducked and dodged where I could, and tried to maneuver towards the door. We all had the same instinct; get to the door and hope we could make it out.

It was endless, the number of them that surrounded us was too many to count, and before we knew it we were surrounded. Fighting them off as they circled around us, and it was only the fact that we had a pillar to our back that prevented all of them from jumping at us. Yet the fury of their onslaughts was unlike before, and even without looking at our HP bars I could tell that we were in trouble.

"Crystals!" I shouted desperately, and stabbed through two of them at once with a quick «Pierce». I recovered quickly, and shouted at Hana, "You go first!"

The girl hesitated, but obeyed and brought out the [Teleport Crystal] from within her quick slot. Her eyes widened as she peered down at the crystal. "It's... disabled!" her panicked voice shouted over the roar of the machines.

Disabled. I felt fear grip my heart at her declaration. From the beginning, we always had a way out. Teleport Crystals were the life jackets of all players trapped in this death game. It was supposed to be infallible, the one thing that you could always count on.

And it was disabled.

"Sinon!" A shout startled me, and I ducked under a punch from a mob that loomed over me. Hana jabbed her rapier straight through its throat, and the mechanical monstrosity exploded. She grabbed my hand and we got up just in time to take down another wave of monsters.

My hands were shaking, I suddenly realized even as I took down two more. This fear that gripped me... it was familiar. It was the same feeling I had all those years ago, when I had came so close to death. What I had did back then had damaged me, and now I was feeling its effects. I could barely wield my spear, and had to rely on a few sword skills to guide my shaking hands. It was inevitable.

We were going to die. There was no way out now, with crystal activations down, and no end in sight. Our HP would run out before we even made a dent in the approaching legions. We were only surviving right now due to our sporadic use of AOE sword skills while the others covered for you. Eventually one of us would falter.

"Sinon." Hana's voice was firm and her pose was not one of nervousness. The brown-haired girl looked almost resolute as she took down mob after mob. "Listen to me, Sinon!"

I didn't understand, why was she so calm? Didn't she understand that we were all going to die?

"Kyou!" she suddenly shouted, and the blue-haired boy locked gazes with her for a split second. "You know what we have to do!"

There was something in his eyes, and it flashed by almost too fast for me to catch. It was fear... and regret, tinged with agony.

"I got it, Hana!" he agreed, and shoved back the wave with a bash of his shield. "Lets do this!"

"We're gonna get you out, Sinon!" Hana shouted, and despite the fact that I was almost useless, she dragged me by the hand and followed the steps of Kyou.

The shield-user was clearing a path. It was with a copious usage of shield bashes and application of strength rather than using sword skills. Slowly, but surely he managed to make a path through the army of mobs. We followed the path as best we could, ducking and dodging past the mobs that tried to grab at us. The relative safety of the pillar against our back was lost, and we were now surrounded on all sides.

"Sinon..." In the cacophony of noise, hers was the loudest. Her tone was serious, and there was no trace of the carefree girl that I had always known her as. "I really really liked spending time with you, Sinon! You're a great friend—my best friend!" She stopped and had to step in to help Kyou as the mobs began to overwhelm him. "And... I know you'll be great—so clear this game for both of us, Sinon... and LIVE!"

"NOW!" With that shout, Kyou activated one of his few AoE sword skills, and his sword glowed a brilliant red as he stabbed downwards. At the moment of impact with the ground, a shock wave was released and it sent a ripple of force around them, sending the swarm staggering back.

One moment I was staring at him in shock, the next I felt both of my hands gripped. Staring into the smiling eyes of Hana, she gave me a sad smile before she threw me. I couldn't even react as I was sent soaring over the army of mobs. She launched me far, I realized, and my landing was rough as I rolled across the ground. Dimly, I realized that I had reached the door, but my attention was held elsewhere.

In the midst of mechanical howls and angry roars, my two closest friends were trapped. I reached out my hand, trying to think to do something, anything in order to save them.

But it was for naught.

I watched on as they were erased from this world, having sacrificed themselves for me.

Death changes a person. Rewrites their entire perception of reality. Some are lucky, they never experience it until very late into their lives, and the most exposure they would receive would be from the news reports and papers. Perhaps they would read about a tragic accident on the highway and shake their heads in sadness, wondering why terrible things happened to good people. Of course, they would promptly forget about it soon enough. Death is still just a concept to them after all.

When Shino was young, too young to remember, she lost her father. It was an accident of course, one of negligence and stupidity, but an accident nonetheless. The drunk driver rammed into their minivan from the side with all the force a speeding sports car could provide. But a car going double the speed limit hitting a van from the side... it was a wonder that there could be any survivors. She lived, and so did her mother. Her father died on impact, and they were in the hospital for weeks. It wasn't a comfort to hear that the drunk driver had also died.

Maybe it was all in her mind, but she could distinctly remember a time where her mother looked down at her with a smile—a true, blinding white smile—and could 'see' her. Sometimes she thought that it was just a dream, because the woman she was used to rarely ever saw her. Her mother was distant, eyes always looking far off into the distance—peering into nothing, or maybe the past. Sometimes, her eyes looked at her with complete surprise, as if just noticing that she had a daughter. It always saddened her, to see the bewilderment in her mother's eyes. But sometimes... rare though the moments might be, her mother truly cared for her, truly... loved her. Tucking her into bed, singing for her, reading books to pass the time, and her laughter; so gentle and full of warmth... full of love. Shino wanted to protect her mother, because she loved her, and she knew that her mother loved her too, even if she was damaged.

Death changes things.

When her hands, clenched around the cursed steel, pulled the trigger, she lost something. The childhood innocence that all children had, she did not lose that. The colourful world that enveloped every child until they realized what reality was... she did not lose that. Those were things that she never really had, because she had to grow up, and not for her own sake. The thing that she lost, was her mother's warmth.

Her mother was gentle, though absent-minded, but her eyes had held only warmth and love for her. Some part of her could always recognize that the little brown-haired girl that looked so much like her... was her dearest child.

Fear, unlike anything she had ever seen, was reflected in her mother's eyes. Not fear at the situation, or fear of what she had done, but pure, genuine fear of her. It hurt... it had hurt more than anything in the world, to see her mother stare at her like that. To have caused her so much pain.

So she left.

Shino was a girl brought up in misfortune. She did not deserve the hand she was dealt, yet, she was not one to wallow in self-pity. She was a realist, a survivor... and a sad, lonely girl. She should have realized what came out of befriending others.

She didn't learn.

It only hurt that much more when she was alone again.

Somewhere... in a distant part of her, she recalled a memory. It was vague, hazy, and distorted. But she recalled a shining light and warmth that had enveloped her so fully... that, for a moment, she felt protected...

'Foolish', she thought in the dim of her thoughts... there was no light for someone like her.

It was dark.

The howling of the wind was the first thing she noticed as she awakened, followed by the faint crackling of... a fire. Her eyes squinted in the dark, bleary and dazed. She could hardly recall how she had ended up here. She vaguely remembered snow, endless white torrents that blocked out anything and everything. She had been moving... away from something. And then... she slipped.

Suddenly, she jolted up as she was reminded of her descent. That moment when she had finally succame to the grip of virtual gravity... she had accepted her fate. She had had a vague idea of where she was when she had fallen, and had known that there was no way she would have survived the drop—even with the snow breaking her fall. So then... how was she alive?

"You're awake."

Sinon had to bite back a scream as the soft voice brought her out of her reverie. Her head snapped towards the source of the noise and found a figure by the fire. He was seated rather calmly, hands warming themselves before the camp fire. He had short black hair and a even more startling shade of dark eyes. He wore a rather intricate ensemble; a leather outfit coloured primarily in black, yet trimmed with royal gold. She knew him.

"Y-you..." she stuttered, almost frozen in shock. He was the last person she would have imagined saving her. Not because he wasn't capable, because surely enough he was the only person in this game that knew who she was. No, she could not imagine him rescuing her because she simply did not believe that anyone could possibly want to save her.

"That was a close call," he remarked almost casually, he was staring out at the fury of the snow storm. "My HP was quite low when we finally hit the ground. You're quite heavy you know?"

If Sinon noticed his quip, she didn't show it. Her stare was intense as she followed his every move, as if just truly seeing him for the first time.

"Really though, you should have known better, that area is treacherous during high weather settings." Kirito got up, and dusted off the snow that had settled on his person. The cave they were in was a godsend, considering just how harried the weather had become. It wasn't like they were going to freeze at any rate, but you could still feel the biting cold as it dug into your skin. "Are you alright?" he asked quietly, stopping a short distance before the hooded girl.

It was incomprehensible to her. The boy that she had constantly scorned and ignored, the one whose attempts at befriending her she turned down at every opportunity. She hadn't wanted his friendship, did not want his companionship despite however lonely she was. It wasn't worth it, to open yourself up again only to be burned. Yet...

"Oi, Sinon, are you okay?" his concerned voice washed over her, and she felt an unknown emotion grip her.

"Why..." she whispered hollowly, barely audible at first. She gazed into his expressive black eyes; they were full of concern for her. "Why did you do that?" she asked harshly, and didn't relent even as he took a step back in shock. "Why!? For someone like me!?"

It would have been better if she had died. All her life, she tried for a semblance of happiness, yet could never achieve it. Normality, a life where she could finally be at peace with herself and everyone around her. It was not to be. One accident after another, ever since she received that damned NerveGear. She should have known better than to try and break out from her bleak life-style. It was as if she wasn't supposed to have happiness.

"Why?" Kirito murmured back, his brow furrowed in thought. "Because you were in danger, Sinon."

Such a simple response... it only infuriated her more. "You idiot!" she shouted, eyes burning with unshed tears. "Don't you understand? I didn't want to be saved! I... I didn't need to be rescued!"

Kirito opened his mouth as if to speak, but stopped. What was he supposed to say to that? To a girl who would have apparently preferred if she had plummeted to her death. "Why?" It was his turn to ask now, and his question caused her to turn her head.

She looked away from his piercing eyes, and into the camp fire. The only source of light bathed the two in its orange glow, yet she felt no warmth. His question was fair, she owed him that much. Then, there was the question of actually going about answering. It wouldn't have made sense to a great many—her reasons were a consequence of her past. And to talk about her past... would be opening a door that she had never opened before.

To finally confide in someone.

"...In the past, there was a happy little girl, and a sad young woman." Her eyes were closed as she spoke, not wanting to see his puzzled gaze as she began to recall. "The older woman was the girl's mother... but she wasn't quite all there. She had lost her husband early in her life, and she never really recovered from that. Growing up, the girl didn't have much, but she was happy. Happy because she had a mom who loved her, happy to have a family to call her own. Her mother was fragile, too hurt to truly be there for her. So, the little girl thought to herself, that she should protect her mother, to do everything in her power to be there for her."

Not really knowing why, Sinon recounted to her saviour her sordid past. How her mother was damaged, how she could hardly work much less take care of the two of them. So Shino instead took it upon herself to cook, clean and do her best to make their house tidy and presentable, all so that her mother wouldn't have to. In time, her mother got better, she smiled a lot more, and played with her almost every day. For a time, she would come home everyday to a smile and a kiss. For a time, she had a perfect home; a place full of warmth.

Then it happened.

It wasn't supposed to happen, she told him absently. They were supposed to be playing at the park that day, but one of their neighbours had requested a favour from her mother; to drop off a letter at the post-office on the way. Her mother should never have been there, and subsequently should never have met that man. She described the intense feeling of fear that had gripped her the moment she began to realize what was happening. A man, hopped on god knows how many drugs, was trying to rob the post-office.

He hurt her mother. That moment, when he had threatened to kill her mother, she lost all feeling. One moment, she was scared, trembling with fear, and the next, she was holding his gun. The trigger was heavy, but she did it. She killed the man who had threatened her mother. Yet... the look of pure fear and revulsion that she received, from her own mother. That was the most terrifying thing of all.

She told him about the police, how incessant their questioning was. How did she get the gun? Did he give it to her? Why did she shoot? They asked as if she wasn't simply a scared little girl. In truth, she recalled very little of what had happened, too caught up in the memory of her mother's horrified expression. It wasn't until the police chief personally came in and scolded the two officers that she was finally rushed to the hospital. They poked and prodded, likely trying to find out the cause of why she was so pale.

Her mother flinched the next time she saw her. Sinon would never forget the way her mother tensed at the sight of her, and she knew instantly what her mother saw in that scant moment. She did not see her daughter, she saw a murderer.

She told him about the therapy, about how the psychiatrists tried to get her to expand on her feelings. They told her that talking would help, that confiding in them would help her move on. They didn't understand, couldn't even begin to. They were not the ones with blood on their hands.

She told him about her school, about her small town. Kids were always the cruelest, their eyes followed her every move as if she was on display. The adults were almost worse in a way, they offered comfort and support, but she could see the way their eyes looked at her. Pitiful. For a little girl not even in middle school to be labeled as a murderer by her peers... she did not have the best of times.

She told him about moving, about striving for a way to move beyond her past. In the city she was granted her wish, and she was left alone. Just another lonely girl in a sea of others. And then, she had done something incredibly out of place for her. She had applied for the «Sword Art Online» beta. In hindsight, she was truly looking for something, anything to dull the monotony of everyday life.

What she had found however, was so much better. For a time, she had been happy. In a virtual world where she could become someone else, where her past did not haunt her, she was free. Too good to be true. Her happiness did not last long, and the beta became but a fleeting memory to her, forever tainted by the brutality of the present death game.

And then, she told him about Hana and Kyou. The two closest friends she had ever made. For a time, she had been content. They were truly the kindest of people, never prying and doing their best to make her smile or laugh. It was never pity in their eyes when they looked at her, only fondness. Somehow, she knew that even had they known about her past, they wouldn't have cared one bit, only offered further support. The mere memory of the two pained her immensely.

Their deaths were so utterly pointless.

To have sacrificed themselves for her, to what end? Even now she was as weak as ever, not even able to fulfill the promise she had made to Hana. To reach the front lines and to clear this game. To finally become strong enough to face all of her fears. She couldn't do that... especially not now.

Kirito listened to all of it without a single sound, yet his eyes never left her. She was telling him everything, every little bit that she held inside of her, she poured out to the black-haired boy in front of her. The door that held her past was bared, and she left nothing out. Sadness, anger, grief. Emotions that she had suppressed all these years finally set free. She was crying without even noticing it.

It was quiet when she finished, and not because of the fact that the fire was starting to die out and that the storm was coming to a close. No, the silence that permeated the air went beyond that.

"Let me tell you a story, Sinon." His voice broke the silence, yet it was with a softness that made her look up. "Once, there was a little boy, and his mother. You see, the mother was going to a business conference and the boy wanted to go—insisted even—and his mother was hardly one to refuse him, especially knowing how little time she had spent with him lately. On the way, they passed by many towns as they took the scenic route, enjoying the week-long trip together. On the way, they passed—"

Her eyes widened as he spoke the name of her town.

"—and stopped by the local post-office on a random monday. The mother had to mail off some important documents to the corporate office, you see. She said it wouldn't take that long, but the little boy came along anyway. Inside the post-office, he saw a little girl with brown hair in cute little ribbons. You know, he really wanted to talk to her for some reason."

Her heart was pounding, and she didn't know why. His words were insane, and yet she found herself believing him. There was nothing but sincerity in his voice.

"Before I could, a man showed up with a gun. I remember vividly, the screams and shouts as he made his demands. My mother had pushed me to the ground, shielding me with her body almost immediately. I was scared, and so was she. Yet, out of everyone in that building that could have done something... it was a little girl that saved us. She pulled the trigger... not to murder a man, but to save lives. She was a hero." Kirito knelt down so that he could look directly into her eyes. "On that day, a little girl saved me and my mother. The saddest thing of all was how scared she was. Probably, she was the most frightened person in the whole building, yet... no one did a thing. So, I got up from underneath my mother and..."

He embraced her, his arms wrapping around her small form. She was cold to the touch, but he was warm. "I hugged her tightly," he whispered into her ears, and did not relent his hold even as she began to tremble. "Do you remember... Sinon?"

She remembered.

A warmth that had surrounded her, blocked out all of her fear and pain. It was someone, a person, and now she knew who it was. It had been that little boy who had walked in with his mother, the dark-haired boy who she had wondered to herself if he would have liked to play with her. A little boy that was now in front of her. "You..." she sobbed, and suddenly she wrapped her own arms around him. "You're... the boy."

The boy who had stayed with her, giving her comfort when nobody else bothered. She had drawn into herself, and could hardly remember anything that had happened after she had shot that man. The memory that had stayed with her... was the loss of warmth. This was the memory she had forgotten.

"I wanted to stay," he told her softly, "but they wouldn't give us any information, and said that it was for your own protection." It wasn't an excuse, he should have tried harder. "I'm sorry, Sinon."

She choked out a laugh in between her sobs. Apologizing... even now? He was truly something else. As she rested contently in his hold, she finally realized that even after all this time, she still remembered the warmth. To have someone embrace her, to give her that sense of comfort and safety that she had been denied... it was cathartic.

It was several minutes later that she had finally dried her tears so to speak, there were no traces of them on her face—this was virtual reality after all. It was truly a wonder, to be here in the arms of a boy from her torrid past, and to feel so utterly safe.

"We should get back soon," he suddenly murmured.

"Back?" she asked, her voice muffled into his shirt.

"Back home," he told her, "you're coming too of course."

Home... that was almost a foreign concept to her.

"We haven't properly introduced ourselves have we?" he mused as he fumbled with his inventory. He softly pried the exhausted girl off of his chest, and took her hand in his. The teleport crystal he gave her was one of the custom ones that was keyed directly to his home. "My name is Kirigaya Kazuto, what's yours?"

Staring into the eyes of the boy who had saved her, who had given her so much, she felt herself smiling.

"Asada Shino."

Author's Note: The end.

Well, now that took a while. Sorry for the long update time everyone, I was quite distracted by other things, like making a SAO rpg of all things.

This chapter is entirely Sinon's backstory, leading up to the reveal that Kirito had been there in her past. Originally I wasn't going to have their pasts interconnect, but I found that it would work rather nicely in this story. Kirito, who was saved by a scared little girl, would surely have become more 'serious' in his manner, and surely less caring of downplaying himself for the sake of others. Sinon as a character is unique. She is an incredibly strong girl, trying to move on by her own strength alone. However, I feel that in the end, all she really wanted was a true friend to rely on.

Hopefully I portrayed her well. This does lead into the fact that she is now the girl with the most development, something which I need to remedy with the other girls. Another reviewer also pointed out how little 'real' romance there are with the other girls, and that's also something I need to remedy.

Anyway, please tell me what you thought of the chapter, and do feel free to start a discussion on the forums if you would want to talk about Sinon some more or on what the future chapters should emphasize. The next chapter should be much faster than this, I give anyone free permission to nag me on the forums for updates.

A big thanks to my beta, n0mster for his awesome work.

See you all next time!

SAO fic recommendation of the day:

Dual Blades » by Nanospeeed

-The basic premise is on the synergy between Kirito and Asuna. Even from the first boss battle, they showed amazing teamwork. So what if they teamed up from the start? Asuna could be quite the influence on Kirito, and vice versa.

-Of course, it is an AU, and the author has added some pretty interesting things to the world, such as time dilation, and actual pain—you can feel every sensation as if it were real. Along with a bigger population of players, and the author taking his time with the setup, it's definitely a new take on the SAO that we love rather than a rehash.

-Do check it out, and nag the author for me, we need more of fics like this.

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