The soft clicks and taps of the menu screen echo all around me as we all make our final preparations. We are standing in a wide, dark hallway, the only light coming from a pair of torches. They flank the sides of the huge stone doors that tower over all of us dauntingly, daring us to enter. There are only about a hundred of us; a small group to take on a boss for sure, but at this point, there aren't very many of us left that are at a high enough level to even stand a chance.

I sigh, scrolling through my own item menu. None of them inspire much confidence in me. None of us know what kind of enemy we will be facing behind those doors, and once the battle begins, there will not be any time to make a weapon switch. The right weapon can literally be the difference between living and dying. With this in mind, I select my strongest sword: a long, heavy claymore I had forged by a master blacksmith from some sort of rare metal I won on a side-quest. I also equip a round shield to my left arm, which, albeit a bit on the smaller side compared to some heavier shields, will hopefully allow me some maneuverability during the battle if I need to run. I have a feeling I will.

"Are you ready?" Heathcliff—the leader of the Knights of the Blood Oath—asks as he stands in front of the double doors, addressing all of us in a pre-battle speech. "The Knights of the Blood Oath will take the majority of damage on the front line. While we do, I'd like the rest to discern its attack patterns, and prepare to change tactics as necessary. It will be a difficult battle, but I have faith that we can prevail. For our day of liberation!"

A loud cheer erupts from those of us that have assembled. I myself shout as loud as I can, trying to fight back my approaching fear. Even after two years of being stuck in this game, that sense of dread, of knowing I might not make it through the battle, still threatens to overwhelm me before a fight. It still does for all of us. I have to be strong though,if not for my own sake, for the ones I left behind.

Back in the real world, before SAO, I had been a second-year university student studying to become a doctor. It had been my dream since I had been a teenager and my mother was diagnosed with leukemia. It was bad. She was almost constantly undergoing chemotherapy treatments, the doctors working tirelessly to try and cure her, or at least let her live a bit longer. A few times, it looked like that they had done it, that they had performed a miracle. That she had been cured. But it always came back, each time even worse than the last. My father was forced to take out a second job to pay for all the bills. And I…I could do nothing. Beyond supplying a bit of cash here and there when I managed to find an odd job, I was completely useless. And I never want to feel that way again, which is why I wanted to become a doctor, so I could actually help try and save people, so I could do something.

Then there was Miyoko. Oh, Miyoko. I met her during my first year of secondary school when I was fifteen, and I developed a giant crush on her. It was not until the beginning of my third year,however, when I finally worked up the courage to ask her out, an invitation she graciously accepted. Shortly afterwards, we started doing everything together, from going to the movies to doing homework to just sitting around and doing nothing. She is so kind, so funny, so beautiful, and I miss her so badly it hurts just to think about it.

I tighten my grip on my sword. Yes, I will win. I will beat this boss, and I will beat this stupid game. I am going to make it back to my mother and my father and Miyoko. There is no other option.

In front of us, Heathcliff walks up to the doors, with one hand beginning to push. The doors swing open almost effortlessly from his touch with a resounding rumble, swinging forward all the way until finally stopping with a loud boom that shook the entire floor.

"Attack!" Heathcliff cries, and charges fearlessly forward into the boss room. As one, we follow after him, shouting our lungs out with war cries as we fill into the circular battlefield. As we reach the middle, we slow, spreading out and taking up battle positions from all sides. I am near the edge of our group on the left, both of my hands gripping my claymore tightly as I wait, tense with anticipation.

Behind us, the double doors we have just entered through close on their own with yet another resounding boom. We hardly seem to notice, even as it fades away, leaving us with no chance of escape. We all knew that once we made this trip, there was no going back. Now it is either kill or be killed.

But yet…as we stand here in the silence, barely daring to breathe as we tense for the inevitable attack, there is no sign of a boss anywhere.

"Nothing's happening…" I hear someone say a little ways away, his whispered voice sounding very loud in the still of the room. I shift nervously, my armor clanking unnaturally loudly as I do so. Where is he? Where…?

Then, someone gasps. "Above us!" she shouts, her voice sounding panicked.

I turn my head upwards and—OH MY GOD!

"Don't stay together!" I hear Heathcliff shout. "Stay away from it!"

Somehow, my legs obey his orders, and the next thing I know I'm standing at the edge of the circular dais, my whole body shaking. I stare in horror as that…that…thing extends itself forward, seeming to choose which target to go after first as it looks down upon us with its four blood-red, glowing eyes. It looks like nothing I have ever seen before, and I have seen a lot of freaky things in the two years I have been in SAO. It is entirely made up of bones, somehow moving and held together without any visible muscles or tendons. It looks like some sort of giant scorpion skeleton with massive legs and dozens of extra, pointy appendages lining its body, complete with an elongated neck, a pair of scythe-like hands, and a skull that looked almost like a cross between a bug and an alien head. As I stare at it, five bars of HP and a little identification tag that reads "The Skull Reaper" materialize above its head.

With a hair-raising screech, it suddenly drops, shaking the entire platform and kicking up a huge cloud of dust. In front of it, I realize with a growing sense of dread that there are two players desperately scrambling away from it, screaming at the top of their lungs. With a flick of its arm, the monster slashes at the two boys, sending them flying away, their torsos lined heavily with red from damage. Before they even hit the ground, they explode, bursting into a flutter of green pixels that drift off into the air.

Dead. Both of them, dead in a single blow.

I take a step back, my body shaking so badly that I can barely hold my sword up. How? How are we supposed to stop something that can kill us in a single blow?

The Skull Reaper hisses, then charges forward into a crowd of players at a breakneck pace, its multiple bone legs allowing it to almost glide over the floor. The players scream and run, all except for one—Heathcliff. Instead of running away, he silently dashes towards the beast, and with a swing of his arm catches a blow from one of the monster's scythes on his shield. It holds. It does not matter. The creature races past him, slashing at the player Heathcliff just saved with its other scythe, killing him instantly in a burst of green pixels.

The creature turns and charges at another player. He screams. This time, a boy in a black jacket wielding two swords—whom I vaguely recognize as the beater known as Kirito—jumps in between the reaper and its target, blocking the blow by crossing his swords in front of him, but just barely. His arms shake as he struggles to hold the appendage back. The Skull Reaper hisses again and swings its other arm at the beater, which is caught by Heathcliff's mighty shield at the last moment. A second later, a girl—the second in command of the Knights of the Blood Oath, Asuna—jumps at the beast, stabbing it with her infamous Flash ability.

The creature jumps back, spitting angrily. Wasting hardly a second, it chargesforward again, dashing to meet the trio of warriors head-on.

"We'll deal with the scythes!" the beater shouts to us as another of the creature's blows is blocked by Heathcliff. "Everyone else, attack from the sides!"

I freeze. Attack that thing? Was he crazy?! I would be killed!

But even as I hesitate a few brave souls jump forward into the fray, crying wildly. A few are cut down by the Skull Reaper's tail, slashing them to bits before they can even get close. But still, more people keep coming, hacking and slashing at the monster.

I grip my sword tightly. No. I cannot just stand here while my friends and fellow players are risking their lives to fight this boss. I am not powerless to do anything, not in this world. And if I want to get back home, to get back to my mother and my father and Miyoko, this boss needs to die.

I grit my teeth, part of my head yelling at me not to do this, to not be an idiot. I drown it out with a battle cry as I run forward, my claymore beginning to glow as I activate a skill.

SLASH! CLANG! BAM! I fight with a furylike never before, swinging my claymore left and right to hit anything I can.

I do not see the tail swinging towards me until it's too late.

The world spins around me as I fly through the air, landing with a thud a ways away. I have been hurt. Even without seeing it, I know my chest is glowing bright red at the moment from the massive blow I just received. And my HP bar…

Time seems to slow down. My HP bar, which had just been completely full a mere moment ago, is down to its last sliver of red and still draining. No. NO! This cannot be happening! I can't die here! Not after I came this far, not after everything that I have gone through! Two years I have been stuck in this world of death, fighting every day, getting strong enough so I could get back to the ones I love. I can't die, not now!

But the bar keeps draining, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. I…I cannot believe it. After all that work, I am never going to be able to see them again. My dream of being a doctor will never happen. I'll never get to wake up in the morning to the smell of my mother's freshly made bread and the sight of her smiling, healthy face. Never be yelled at again to hurry up and get ready before I am late to class. Never get into a friendly argument with my father over the most trivial things, or enjoy his quiet company as we sit in the same room reading. I'll never see Miyoko's smiling face again, hear her laugh, hold her close, whisper soft "I love you"s in her ear, kiss her soft lips, or simply lay by her side for the sake of being with her. We will not have a happy reunion in the real world. We will never grow old together and have that family she said she always wanted.

I…I am sorry. I'm sorry, mother, for not being able to save you. I'm sorry, father, for not being able to help you pay off our bills, for leaving you alone with your sick and dying wife. And Miyoko… I'm sorry I never made it back to you. I tried as hard as I could, but I was not strong enough. I could not beat the game. I failed…

I love you, Miyoko. Mother, father. I love you all oh so much.

And I am so, so sorry…

The last of the red drains from my HP bar, and it blinks out of existence. In its place, a message in a red box appears before my eyes. I already know what it says. I read it anyway.

"You are dead."

Big thank you to Cleuq for doing an absolutely amazing beta-ing job and catching a lot of stuff I probably wouldn't have otherwise! Thanks so much for your help!