Chapter 8: Judgment of the Goddess

"Nyahahahaha!"

Argo's loud laughter filled the café as Sinon finished telling her about what had happened during the meeting. Had there been any other customers, they probably would have complained to the management. Luckily, the shop was empty except for Sinon, Asuna, Argo, and Silica. It was a belated district clearing celebration amongst friends.

"Ah, haha. Ahaha… Ok, I think I've calmed down a bit," Argo breathed out, clutching her sides. "That was brilliant Sinon. I wish I could have gotten a look at his face."

"Serves him right for being mean to Senpai," Silica exclaimed, puffing out her cheeks.

"Oh? Getting angry for Sinonon's sake? You're sooo adorable!" Argo laughed, giving the young girl sitting next to her a tight hug and rubbing her cheek against Silica's.

The young girl struggled in vain to break free before giving up. She looked over at Sinon pleadingly, her eyes already beginning to well up with tears. Her expression, never doubting that her beloved senpai would come to her rescue, was cute enough that Sinon was tempted to let Argo continue for just a moment longer.

"Hey Argo, don't tease my kohai that much," Sinon said, causing Silica's eyes to light up in happiness. "She's not used to your unique personality yet."

«The Rat» grinned but complied, letting Silica go. The younger girl immediately wiggled about in her chair, with the end result being that she was now a few centimeters further away from Argo.

"Speaking of unique personalities, no Ki-bou today?" Argo asked, glancing at the door as if he might enter right at that moment. "I thought you invited him, Asuna-chan."

A loud clatter caused everyone to jump. The source of the noise was none other than Asuna, stabbing her fork down into her plate with such force that the «Immortal Object» tag appeared on the table. She angrily stuffed a bit of cake into her mouth, a vein throbbing at her temple.

"That idiotic Kirito-kun," the «KoB» officer complained loudly, chewing exaggeratedly while pointing the fork across the table at Argo. "Do you know how he answered when I sent him the invitation? 'Sorry, but I can't be bothered. After all, I have no right to celebrate the clearing of the 24th district since I didn't take part. In order to not get left behind again, I believe I need to work at improving my strength in the field. And so, I'll be in the 25th district if you need me for anything.'"

Sinon shrugged and remarked offhandedly, "Well, it is a good time to quest and level up. Most people don't like being in «Creeper»-infested territory in the night. Not that it's all that much darker than the day, to be honest."

Asuna turned around and glared at Sinon as if she was responsible for Kirito's refusal to join them. "You two are insane," she declared. "Why you would even think that hunting alone at night is worth dealing with the anxiety and suspense is beyond me."

"You obviously don't get the point of the horror genre," Argo remarked with a quiet chuckle. "Not knowing what may be lurking around the next corner, taking each step forwards both hoping for an encounter and praying something won't appear out of the darkness before you…"

"Not you too?" Asuna groaned, clapping a hand to her forehead. "Am I the only one around here that's still sane?" Then, as if realizing something, she glanced at Silica apologetically. "Ah! I didn't mean you, Silica-chan."

"I was just kidding," Argo answered with a grin. Asuna made a point of ignoring her.

At the same exact moment, Silica protested, "Senpai is not crazy! She's an amazing person who isn't afraid of anything!"

Her pouty expression was too much for Argo, who once again laughed with delight and threw her arm around the younger girl. Stroking Silica's light brown hair absently, she turned to Sinon and stated, "Aw, this girl is just too precious… I want to take her home with me!" The little girl let out a squeak of dismay and again struggled to free herself to no avail.

"Somehow, I don't think Sasha at the orphanage is going to like that very much," Sinon retorted.

The brown-haired woman in charge of the orphanage could be much more intimidating than her 20-something years and bookish appearance let on. Especially when the children under her supervision were involved.

"Well, she puts up with you bringing Silica-chan out into the field, right?" Argo asked. "I don't mind doing the same for her, letting her learn the tools of my trade."

"You mean making her your partner-in-crime?" Asuna interjected in exasperation. "I think Sinon is a better role model than you would be overall. Even considering her somewhat anti-social behavior."

Argo clapped a hand over her heart in mock pain. "Your words wound me," she laughed. Silica tried to use this opportunity to pull free, but success was elusive. "I'd be a perfectly good Onee-san for Silica-chan. You're interested right? In the exciting business that is gathering information from the front? I guarantee there won't be a boring moment. And I can work my schedule around the days that Sinonon takes you out so that you get more days away from the orphanage…"

The crafty information dealer knew exactly what bribe to use from her past conversations with Sinon. Sinon could almost see the cogs working in Silica's head. On the one hand, taking Argo's offer, if it wasn't just another one of her jokes, meant that she would have to deal with this unpredictable and mischievous senpai on a regular basis. But it would also mean more freedom. And Sinon knew for a fact that Silica hated the days she was confined to the orphanage because of how boring they were. The young girl's pleas to Sasha to let her go out alone had been rejected. In the end, the caretaker just wasn't willing to let a child out into «Aincrad» without supervision.

"Um…er…that is—I don't mind but…" Silica began nervously. Which prompted Argo to cry out with joy and hug her even harder, interrupting the rest of her words.

Sinon sipped from her half-empty cup of tea as her kohai squealed. "You know that Silica's just using you to get outside of the orphanage on more days of the week," she remarked. "Give her time and she'll talk you into taking her out every day."

"Is that so?" Argo asked, giving Silica an appraising look. Then, with another burst of energy, the informant renewed her cuddling session. "You're even more perfect than I thought! Scheming like that is exactly what I was looking for!"

Asuna chastised Argo, "Stop that already, you're going to make the poor girl cry." Then, she added words that caused Silica to perk up, her eyes gleaming. "And you'd be a bad influence on her. I'll have to do something about that…maybe have her come along with the «KoB» so that I can make sure she grows up to be—well—not like you, Argo."

"Oh come on, I'm a perfect role model. Charming, brilliant, knowledgeable, affectionate," Argo counted off on her fingers. "Can't forget modest either."

"Right…" Asuna retorted skeptically, "I don't think the world is ready for a mini Argo-chan on top of the original."

Argo grinned. "Right. I guess that would fall under the purview of 'too much of a good thing.'"

Sinon sighed. Really, her friends were spoiling her kohai too much. She mentally reassessed the power of Silica's seeming ability to warp reality with her cuteness. Thankfully, the girl herself seemed blissfully unaware of her gift, but with a few days or weeks under Argo's tutelage…the world might very well be doomed.

By the evening's conclusion, Silica's future had been decided. Two days per week with each of the older girls and one day off as a break to spend at the orphanage. She had looked confused at first while negotiations were going on at the table, but Silica had quickly jumped at the prospect of all but leaving the orphanage behind. Of course, there was the matter of persuading Sasha, but Sinon doubted that would be an issue. After all, the «KoB» would be able to protect Silica almost as well as if she were inside a «Safe Area»; there was no question about how little danger she would be in if she were with them. As for going out with Argo…well, no doubt the crafty information dealer would find a way to convince the matron of the orphanage.


Corvatz stepped to the side as a goblet flew past his head and collided with the wall, splattering its contents on the floor. Some of the liquid seeped into the rug beneath his feet, dyeing it a dark reddish-brown. He moved away from it a bit, but made no move to clean up. The stain would disappear on its own in time once the drink's durability ticked down to zero.

"That damn bitch…"

Kibaou muttered dangerously as he paced back and forth in front of his desk. The «Striker Division» commander was rarely in a good mood these days. He had become reclusive ever since the boss planning meeting two days ago. Even the news that the upstart «Ranged Division» trainer was planning on leaving the guild soon barely raised his spirits.

"What the hell was with that brat from the «KoB»? 'Speaking of trust,' my ass. That fucking Beater set that up with the «KoB» and the other guilds!" Kibaou ranted. "And did anyone mention how she broke our agreement with the clearing guilds and solicited aid from outsiders? Do they ever talk about her insubordinate attitude and disdain for the rules of the guild? No! They're too busy worshipping the ground she walks on…Idiots!"

Corvatz, unable to find a good time to interrupt his colleague, stood there and waited for the man's tirade to end. It took at least another quarter of an hour before Kibaou finally turned his attention back to the person he had called in to his office.

Slightly out of breath, he asked, "You're still here, Corvatz?" Then, straightening himself up to look more dignified, he picked up the goblet he had thrown and set it back upon his desk.

"You mentioned that you wanted to plan out the detail for how we are to handle the 25th district," Corvatz replied.

"Right," Kibaou said, scratching his head as he thought. "There's no use getting the «Ranged Division» involved this time around. Even if we asked them to do something reasonable like scout, that arrogant little girl will just pass the work along to someone else."

"Then what will we do with them?"

Kibaou shook his head. "Just ignore them for now, they're not important," he answered. "But we'll be in charge of every detail of the boss fight this time around. Got that? If your men find the door to the boss's lair, you report it to me and no one else."

"What about informing Thinker?" Corvatz asked, clearly concerned about leaving the guild leader in the dark.

"You leave dealing with Thinker to me. He doesn't have any idea what's needed in order to clear districts anyway," Kibaou snapped, scowling at the mention of his rival's name. "The «Ranged Division» stole my— our moment of glory. That last boss fight was supposed to be the «Melee Division»'s triumph as we take our rightful place as the saviors of the people…"

The «Striker Division» leader sat down in his chair, propping his legs up on his desk. He waved at the seat across from him, indicating that Corvatz should take it. With a quick nod, the bigger man accepted and sat down, the chair creaking under the weight of his armor.

"When I joined this guild, I did so for a reason," Kibaou continued. "You remember what it was, right?"

"Equality and safety for the populace," Corvatz answered, recalling the motto which had quickly vaulted Kibaou to a position of power in the guild.

"Damn right," Kibaou declared, gesturing wildly with one hand, "and these last few months have been a rousing success. But it's high time we were recognized for our efforts. It's well past time that we, the ones keeping order and distributing necessities, are given the respect we are due. What better way to do that than to come back with the boss's head mounted on a pike? The plan was perfect!"

Kibaou swung his legs off his desk and hammered a fist into the dark wood, causing the table to shake with the blow. The movement was so sudden that Corvatz almost tipped his chair over as he flinched away in shock.

"But that bitch had to go and ruin everything! Well—not this time. We're going to reclaim our honor and do this all on our own," Kibaou snarled. "After all, if those losers at the «Ranged Division» can do it, my own hand-picked men will be able to do it a thousand times better. Can I count on your support, Corvatz?"

"You know what my answer will be," the armored man answered. Erratic as Kibaou's behavior had become, he was still the leader figure within the guild that had a clear vision for the future.

Kibaou laughed, regaining some of the confidence that had eluded him these past few days. He brought out another cup from his desk and poured a drink for Corvatz. Even though alcohol had lost the ability to intoxicate inside of «SLD», the «Striker Division» leader would keep a bottle of wine about to entertain his guests as he felt that the drink added a sense of class to negotiations and visits.

"A toast then!" he declared. "To the future of the «Aincrad Liberation Force»!"

Corvatz raised his cup in response and repeated, "To the future."


Shortly after lunch on the second day following Kibaou's secretive meeting with Corvatz, two other members of the guild held their own private conversation.

"So you're really going to leave the guild…"

Yulier sat atop the stool in Sinon's room as she regarded the girl with a questioning look. The room still held the bare minimum furnishings it had when Sinon had first arrived. In all her time here, the girl had not even tried to make the place a "home" rather than just a place to stay. Sinon stared back at her without blinking.

"I've already fulfilled my promise to you and Thinker," she answered. "The «Ranged Division» is more than ready to take their place as frontliners. It's about time for me to return to my lifestyle as a solo again."

Yulier thought about the girl's words for a moment. True, Sinon had done everything they had asked for from her. In fact, she had worked harder than Yulier expected, given how against guild participation she had seemed at first. Although the initial agreement was that Sinon only had to work with the men for less than half the days of a week, she had taught them without fail on every day she had been a part of the guild. The end result was that the «Ranged Divison» was not only ready for boss battles, they had already been through one without any losses. From a contractual standpoint, it truly was the time for Sinon to depart.

Yulier shrugged. "If that's what you really want, I doubt you'll listen to any objections. But why not stay? The «Melee Divisions» aside, a lot of the people here look up to you. Especially the ones you've worked with these past few weeks."

Sinon shook her head wordlessly. Had this conversation happened even just a week ago, Yulier would have missed the slight hesitation in the girl's body language. As it was, the silver-haired woman was able to discern enough to tell owing to how closely they've worked together.

"I don't know what happened in the past or why you stubbornly think that being a part of something bigger than yourself isn't right for you," Yulier said softly. "I won't even pretend to try to understand since that'll be rude to you. But your time with the people in the «Ranged Division» —are you happier now or when you were alone at the front?"

"That's!—"

The startled expression on Sinon's face conveyed more emotion in one burst than Yulier had seen from the girl in the first few days of her time at the guild combined. Her look of surprise immediately gave way to a sulky glare.

"—completely unfair," Sinon finished quietly.

Yulier responded with a grin completely unbefitting of her position in the guild and said, "Of course it's unfair. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't think about it."

"Right—Well, don't hold your breath waiting for an answer."

The young sniper, under assault from an unexpected direction, tried to brush off Yulier's words and reestablish the cold mask she had designed for herself. Yulier met her eyes with a challenging stare.

"Tell me Sinon. Why do you insist on being alone when people are perfectly willing to support you? Do you think that a few numbers, your stats in this twisted game, are all there is to you?" Yulier asked. When no answer was forthcoming, she added, "Strength like that is an illusion. But the connections you made here are real."

She got up to leave, brushing off her pants.

"Just promise me you'll think on what I said. If you still want to leave the guild afterwards, I'll say no more."

With that, the commander of the «Ranged Division» shut the door behind her, leaving Sinon to her tumultuous thoughts. She smiled gently as she walked away. That girl had changed a lot over the past half month, even if she tried to hide it from herself. Still as stubborn as ever, still just as prone to using harsh words, still trying to maintain her distance from others, but she had changed. Thinker's guess as to what Sinon had needed from the guild had proven to be very close to the truth.

Speaking of which, Yulier had to report to him soon. They had to get started planning on how to handle the next boss battle so that what had happened in the 24th district didn't repeat itself. Stopping in front of the double doors leading to Thinker's office, she hesitated for a brief moment before knocking lightly.

"Are you busy?" she asked, poking her head in.

As usual, the guild leader was sitting behind his desk, a large pile of documents piled before him. At the sound of his subordinate's voice, he set down the paper he was perusing and spared her a tired smile.

"Sorry, I didn't hear you at the door," Thinker apologized. "Were you waiting long?"

Yulier shook her head before looking at the sheets on Thinker's desk. "You're pushing yourself too hard again," she chided.

Thinker looked abashed as he scratched his chin. "Ah, about that…" he laughed nervously. "You're all trying so hard to clear the game. It's the least I can do to make sure everything's running smoothly and everyone has the supplies they need. Looks like the budget is going to be rather tight again, but with the added income coming from the «Ranged Division»'s outings…" He clapped his hands together, "That's right! I almost forgot about this. Here…"

Yulier took the document he handed her and looked it over. It appeared to be a list of names.

"What's this?" she asked.

"Your success in the last district didn't go unnoticed," Thinker explained. "That—would be a list of new applicants for the «Ranged Division». Just give it a look over and let me know if you want to accept anyone."

"None."

"Pardon?" Thinker looked surprised at the quick, almost reflexive, answer from his subordinate.

Yulier elaborated as she set the paper back on top of Thinker's desk, "I'm not going to take anyone new."

"Well, since that's coming from you, I'll trust you have a well thought out reason or two," Thinker said as he set down his pen and gave Yulier his undivided attention. "May I hear them?"

Instead of answering right away, she sat down on the chair opposite him and began to shuffle through the paperwork. As she had suspected, much of the work was material that he could have relegated to others. She began to fill out the information on one sheet, setting it aside when all that was left for approval was the guild master's signature.

"It's a matter of trust," she said after a few moments of working. Picking up the next sheet on the pile, Yulier began to work on that as she spoke. "The «Ranged Division» works together well right now. They've begun to trust one another with their backs and know each other's strengths and weaknesses. Adding a stranger to that group would not only stir up the status quo needlessly, but it would also be unkind to the newcomer. After all, even if your superiors tell you that someone is a part of your team now doesn't really make that true. For now, it's better to leave things as is. Besides—"

Yulier trailed off, her thoughts turning to the young girl who had declared her intentions to leave the guild. How would she feel if she found out that more people had joined the group and needed training? The girl might claim she was a loner with every breath she took, but she also had a strong sense of responsibility. Sinon would probably complain about the scenario as she tore up her notice of resignation (figuratively speaking) before turning right back around and proceeding to whip the latecomers into shape with her distinctive and antagonistic style of tutelage.

"And here I was worrying that you two wouldn't get along," Thinker noted. Yulier looked up at him in surprise. Had she said all that out loud? The guild leader had returned to work, but continued talking to her. "You seemed so against her joining early on that I was a bit concerned whether you two would be able to work together. I'm glad—really."

"Aah…um…" Yulier didn't really know how to respond to that. True, she had been somewhat opposed to Sinon joining originally, but that was out of concern of how much trouble the girl could have caused. That hadn't proven to be the case, so she had quickly changed her opinion on the matter.

In order to cover for the sudden lack of conversation between Thinker and herself, she turned her attention to the work that had accumulated on her guild leader's table and silently continued to assist him. She lost track of the time, only looking up once for a long moment at Thinker. She quickly looked back down once Thinker met her gaze with a questioning expression. The two worked in silence until they were interrupted in the mid-afternoon by loud and urgent pounding on Thinker's office door.


"Boom! Headshot!"

Raker's loud shot filled the room the division used for a shooting range as the bottle he had been taking aim at shattered. He immediately rounded on one of his friends in the group who was clapping sarcastically and trapped him in a headlock. The «Ranged Division» usually spent the early afternoon practicing in this controlled setting before heading out to the field. In reality, it was less about the practice and more about finding some time to unwind.

Today, they had already spent more time than usual here, owing to Sinon's pensive mood. Yulier's question weighed heavily upon her mind and try as she might, she couldn't think of a reason to leave other than "that's what I originally wanted." As for what she wanted now—it was more complicated. She still wanted to her independence, but weighed against the feeling of inclusiveness with the members of the division, it was hard to make a decision.

"You alright there, sergeant?"

Something cold pressed up against her cheek, causing her to flinch backwards.

"Gwah! What're you doing!" Sinon screamed.

"Hey, careful! You'll spill it."

Phileas was standing behind her with a bemused expression, one arm extended out near her face with a glass in his hand. Arching an eyebrow, Sinon accepted it and asked, "What is it?" She took a cautious sip and almost dropped it in surprise. The drink was sweet and had a bit of a fruity aroma to it; the burst of flavor was shocking.

Seeing her expression, the eldest member of the «Ranged Division» smiled warmly. "You looked pretty worn out. The chef recommended something sugary for a burst of energy. He also told me to tell you not to worry, all the sweetness in that drink comes from natural ingredients so you won't put on any weight as a result; or so he claims."

"If I don't put on any weight, it's because we're all still trapped inside a virtual world and food doesn't actually have calories here," Sinon retorted. "Besides, I'm not that fond of overly sweet things…" But the thought of the rotund chef who ran the kitchens and his continued insistence that she eat up in order to grow strong cheered her up a little.

Phileas studied her expression thoughtfully. "I know something's been troubling you. Care to tell an old man what it is?"

"It's none of your—"

"—business," he laughed. "I know. Just humor this old busybody who has nothing better to do, would you?" He sat down on the floor and stretched his legs out with a groan. "Guh, didn't think that this game could simulate getting the cramps…"

He looked at her expectantly, scratching at his beard. A few minutes passed by without Sinon speaking a word. When it became apparent she wasn't going to answer his request, Phileas eased down onto his back, placing his head atop his hands as if he were going to take a nap. Perhaps he was.

In a relaxed tone, he started talking, "Now, nothing I say means anything in particular. These are just the ramblings of a tired old man sorting through his thoughts before his afternoon nap. Call it the prerogative of age and senility catching up to me. You young'uns are better of running about and picking yourselves up if you make a mistake. Don't agonize over your decisions, act; you have people who'll look after you if it turns out you did something wrong. Friends, companions, guild mates…" He yawned dramatically before drifting off.

Sinon leaned over him and waved a hand in front of his face. A light snoring began to escape from his lips. Just to make sure, she gave him a light jab in the ribs. No response, it looked like he had actually managed to fall asleep that quickly.

Unsure as to what she should do in this case, Sinon joined the younger members of the «Ranged Division» at the shooting gallery. She didn't think any further on Yulier's question until much later. After all, it wasn't a decision she had to make immediately.

About half an hour after her conversation with Phileas, the doors to the room burst open. Yulier ran inside and, in between gasps for air, exclaimed:

"We've got trouble."


Thinker was in his office when Yulier and Sinon arrived. Across from him was someone Sinon didn't recognize; however, his dull-green heavy armor marked him as a member of the «Armored Division».

"Yulier, Sinon, good timing," Thinker greeted them. The cheerfulness of his greeting sounded forced. "I've just found out most of the details from Wedge-kun." Turning to face the young man standing before him, he waved a hand at the two members of the «Ranged Division». "If you would, please tell them what you told me."

The man from the «Armored Division», Wedge, gave Thinker a curt bow and turned to face them. Sinon didn't notice when he had been facing Thinker, owing to the cape that was a part of the man's uniform, but his armor was scarred and dented. His face still had traces of fear etched upon them and his words were quaky as he began to speak.

Yulier's expression seemed to darken with every passing moment. The woman kept clenching and unclenching her right hand as if she were itching to throttle someone, most likely Kibaou. Not that Sinon could blame her. At least two dozen men dead based on Wedge's report. Apparently, the «Striker Division» leader had saw fit to set off for the boss's lair without informing anyone else and had taken the entirety of both of the «Melee Divisions» along for the ride. Sinon hadn't really noticed their absence from the guild halls but in retrospect, it had been a lot quieter today than usual.

"That moron," Yulier muttered, all pretense of guild camaraderie with Kibaou tossed aside. "We need to get them out of there at once. Sinon, can you get the «Ranged Division» ready to head out while I send messages to the other guilds?"

"No."

The curt answer was clearly not what anyone had expected and all three other occupants of the room stared at her with their mouths wide open. Sinon met their gazes unblinkingly.

Yulier glared back at her. "We don't have time for your childish games," she said angrily. "There are people's lives at stake here."

"That's exactly why," Sinon replied. "I'm not going to let anyone I know die pointlessly to try to rescue some idiot who doesn't deserve to lead."

"Damn it, stop being ridiculous. Sinon, I've put up with your selfishness and I'd like to say I've been more than tolerant," the silver-haired commander shouted. "But there's more at stake here than just your pride. The other two divisions are triple the size of ours. Kibaou bringing everyone means that there are at least 150 people there right now and we don't know how long they can last."

Sinon sighed and shook her head. "That's not what I meant. Sure, I'd love nothing more than for that arrogant prick to get his comeuppance, but what I'm saying is we need to find out as much about the boss from Mr. Deserter here – good job abandoning your idiot boss and coming back here, by the way – so that we don't all end up trapped inside and needing a rescue effort ourselves."

Yulier's expression immediately softened. Unsure as to how to respond, she turned and met Thinker's gaze. He nodded slowly in his subordinate's direction before addressing Sinon. He stood up and began to manipulate a menu that had appeared in the air before him. His guild uniform, a green military outfit with a knee-length tail, materialized out of thin air. Thinker reflexively caught it immediately with his left hand.

"I'll get in contact with the other guilds," he said. "You and Yulier find out the details from Wedge-kun and begin planning around that. Let's make it our goal to get as many people out alive as we can."

"Is that really ok?" Sinon asked. "The other guilds will be doing their own things today. I'm sure most of them won't appreciate being dragged into our guild affairs, especially after what happened last district."

"I'll worry about that when the time comes!" Thinker declared, tossing on his dark green officer's uniform and heading for the door. "I don't care if I need to beg or bow or even dogeza, it's the job of the guild leader to find a way to help those underneath him."

The door shut behind him noisily, leaving Sinon and Yulier alone in the office with Wedge. They all stared after the guild master for a moment. At almost the exact same time, Yulier and Sinon voiced their opinion of the man who had just exited the room.

"—such an amazing leader."

"—such a shamelessly naïve individual."

The two young women exchanged challenging stares briefly before smiling knowingly at one another. In truth, they each agreed with the other's assessment of their guild leader but had only voiced one part of their thoughts out loud.

"Now then," Sinon said, addressing the man from the «Armored Division» with a look that had him backing up two steps away. "You're going to tell me everything you saw inside the boss chamber. And you'd better not leave out any details."

Yulier clapped a hand to her forehead. "This isn't supposed to be an interrogation…"


"Sorry, but we have no intention of coming to your aid."

The representative of the «Divine Dragon Alliance» spoke plainly as Yulier finished telling the front-liners gathered in the «Black Iron Castle» what they had learned from Wedge. There were a surprising number of people at the hastily called meeting, few of them familiar faces. A few of them nodded in agreement with the «DDA» spokesperson's statement. This meeting had been completely unplanned for and it showed. Most of the regular front-liners were out in the field or busy with other duties. That some clearing guilds were able to spare a force of second-string raiders today was a small miracle already.

"There are people's lives at stake here," Yulier stated, slapping a palm onto to table for emphasis.

"I am aware of that," the man replied. "But I'm not going to risk the lives of my own guildmates to save a group of strangers. I appreciate the information about the fight, but the fact of the matter is, in a lair of the size you described, it'll be easy to get lost and ambushed by the boss. Besides, it sounds like this Kibaou fellow brought this upon himself."

Sinon nodded in silent agreement. Asuna saw this and frowned in her direction before speaking up. "If it's just a rescue mission, the «KoB» will lend its strength to the «ALF». Unfortunately, many of our members are busy today so we won't be at full strength but what we have, we can offer."

There was no need to consult the «KoB» guild leader on the matter. Even had he been present, he probably would have passed the actual decision making down to his officers and sat down to observe the proceedings with a hawk-like gaze. As it was, Heathcliff was absent and none of the «KoB» members seemed to be able to get in contact with him. None of them were concerned about him though; according to members of his guild, "the Paladin" often disappeared into the deepest bowels of the sewers to train alone.

"Thank you," Thinker said, taking center stage. "I appreciate your aid greatly. As for those who are hesitant to help, I hope that you will find it in your hearts to come along today. I know our guilds may not have gotten along in the past and that we've had our share of problems, but all the same. Those are my men out there. In the preparatory time before we head out, I beg you all to reconsider."

Without any hint of uncertainness, the guild leader of «The Army» gave a low bow to everyone present. Yulier made a motion to stop him, then reconsidered and joined her guild master. Murmurs rose up from every corner of the room from people who had been on the fence about this task. But it seemed as if no one wanted to be the first to step up and offer.

"This doesn't look good."

Sinon turned around suddenly. Kirito was standing behind her with a hand under his chin as he studied the rest of the room's occupants with narrowed eyes. He had somehow managed to sneak up behind her with her noticing. She hated when he did that even if he wasn't consciously flaunting the fact that his «Hiding» skill greatly outleveled her own ability to detect it.

"What doesn't look good?" Sinon asked, fighting down her urge to tell Kirito off for creeping up behind her.

"If we don't get enough manpower in there, we'd have to stay in a single group for safety," Kirito explained. "That would make finding the lost members of your guild more difficult."

Sinon stared at him for a moment. "Right…and shouting and hoping they answer back would give away our position to the boss. Not a good idea this time around."

The boss fight this time around was completely different from anything the clearers had encountered previously. When Sinon had first heard that the fight was taking place in a massive area, she had pictured the boss's lair as maybe the same size as 2 or 3 blocks in the 1st district. As Wedge continued to describe the environs, she had come to understand that she was off by an order of magnitude. The boss chamber was at least as big as half of a district. The man from the «Armored Division» also claimed that the "room" was really some sort of underground town with a tangled network of narrow streets.

"The more time we waste here, the more people will end up dying," Kirito whispered. "And I don't think that your guild leader will be able to persuade the majority of the people here to help him altruistically."

"We can't do this without them though," Sinon replied in a hushed whisper.

Kirito nodded in agreement. "It doesn't look like Thinker is willing to go with only a token force either. He's smart enough to realize that this isn't something three dozen people will be able to handle. Wait a second—I thought you hated Kibaou's guts. I'm surprised you actually seem like you want to go in."

Sinon glared at him, "I'm not doing this to save his ass. But letting a lot of people die just to get back at him is too much. Plus, this is a good way to pay back Thinker and leave the guild with a clear conscience...What's with that smirk? Don't you dare make a crack about whether I'm going soft. It's just that if I'm not there and Kibaou did us all a favor and bit the dust, I won't get the chance to put a bullet through his undead corpse."

Kirito grinned at her. "That's the Sinon I know," he said. "But that leaves the problem of getting these guys to go along…I don't suppose you have a plan?"

"No, but it sounds like you might…"

"Just one," he answered, shrugging as if this had nothing to do with him.

"A classic Kirito-style plan or one that actually isn't reckless and makes sense?" Sinon asked with just a hint of sarcasm.

"Well, it's a bit—Wait! You have a classification for the ideas I come up with?" Kirito asked incredulously.

Sinon shrugged, mimicking the swordsman's earlier gesture. "Sure. Asuna, Argo, and I came up with it. Any action that is reckless to the point of idiocy and has a neutral or even negative effect on the person implementing the plan while those around him benefit is categorized as «A Kirito-style Plan». In honor of your brilliant solution to the situation at the post-1st boss fight conflict along with a few other reliable rumors Argo heard about you. Pretty accurate description, don't you think?"

Kirito grumbled about how that was completely unfair but then gave her a sheepish grin. "Alright, you got me there. Do me a favor though—keep Asuna off my back about it for a while after I go through with this, alright?"

"What, worried about what she thinks of you?" Sinon asked innocently. For a brief moment, she considered telling him that the reason Asuna seemed to constantly badger him was because she was working out how she felt about him. But the leave-him-in-the-dark faction of Sinon's thoughts won out and she kept quiet about it. The sniper told herself that her motive was to stay out of her friends' personal affairs and not because of a mischievous desire to see Kirito and Asuna end up in a situation taken straight out of a romance comedy.

"Just—do it, alright?" Kirito pleaded. He waited until Sinon sighed and agreed before he moved for the door.

"Kirito-kun? The meeting isn't over yet." He was noticed almost immediately by the sharp-eyed female officer of the «KoB». She gave him a disapproving glare, hands placed on her hips.

The Black Swordsman chuckled nervously and held his hands up in a mock "I surrender." "This is pointless," he said, his chuckle evolving into a full laugh. To Sinon, he sounded similar to how he did after the 1st district battle. There was more of an edge to his laughter now compared to then, a noticeably more mocking tone contained within. Mocking everyone in the room, mocking the ones who were trapped in the 25th district, but most of all, it seemed directed at himself.

Asuna appeared to have made the connection herself as well, because she moved towards him with a concerned expression etched on her face. Sinon stopped her by lightly grabbing onto her arm as she walked by.

"Sinon! What are you doing!?" she hissed, quietly so that no one else would overhear. "Kirito-kun's going to—"

Sinon shook her head and indicated towards Kirito with her chin. "It's something he thinks he needs to do," she whispered quietly.

"If you're all too gutless to go in, by all means stay here in safety and rot," the boy was saying with a contemptuous smirk on his face. Angry murmurs began to fill the room. As front-liners who risked their lives almost daily, even if they rarely had the opportunity to participate in a boss battle as second-stringers, Kirito's words were a direct challenge to their sense of self-worth. "I doubt I'll be able to rescue anyone on my own, but there's sure to be easy pickings and decent loot in that room; players who have «Turned». So by all means, go ahead and ignore this man's plea for help." Kirito pointed with his thumb at Thinker. "I'll be sure to send your guild leaders a list of the items they missed out on because you cowards couldn't be bothered to earn your keep."

The leader of «The Army» made a move to draw his lance at Kirito's words, forgetting that they were all still in a «Safe Area», before Yulier stopped him by placing a hand on his chest. He took one glance at her face and sheepishly secured his weapon across his back. By the time he looked back up, the Black Swordsman had already slipped out of the room.

The room exploded in an uproar. Between calls for Kirito's head on a platter and arguments about whether they would let that insult stand or head for the district boss's lair, it was difficult to hear anything without blocking out all but a single conversation using the outside system skill, «Distinguish». Sinon counted up in her head, deciding to act once she reached a hundred. When she reached that number, the noise level in the room had actually increased rather than decreased.

Loading a round into the Hecate by manipulating the bolt, she fired straight up into the ceiling, prompting an «Immortal Object» tag to appear where the bullet struck. The noise level in the room immediately dropped to absolute silence. A few players had actually fallen down onto their rears in shock. The only sound that could be heard was the ringing in her ears from discharging her firearm. All eyes were upon her.

As casually as she could manage speaking while clearing out her ear with a pinky, Sinon addressed the room, "If you're going to come to a decision, do it already."

She received her share of angry glares, but thankfully, the guild representatives began to speak with Thinker. Sinon stayed out of it, choosing to move to the side of the room but keeping an ear tuned to her guild leader's conversation.

"I have a condition if we're to go in," the speaker for the «DDA» said. "It's only fair seeing as how we'll be risking our lives for strangers."

"Name it," Thinker replied, although by his expression, he seemed to have guessed what it would be already.

"Any loot we take from the «Turned» stays with us," the man stated. "I don't care about whether the other guilds here get the same terms, but that's what our aid will cost."

Yulier stepped forward, a protest already forming at her lips. This time, it was Thinker's turn to hold her back. Sinon lowered her head to hide her grin. The two of them really did do a good job of keeping one another in check.

"What are you doing, Thinker-san? This proposal is against everything that the guilds at the front have established!"

Thinker waved off her complaint and addressed the representative. "We'll accept your condition." He spoke quietly, but the weight of his words made them seem to echo about the room. "In order to save the lives of those under my protection, I'd even accept help from Kayaba Akihiko himself if it were offered. If material—no… If virtual wealth is all that you require as payment for saving lives, I accept your condition and gladly."


Contrary to Sinon's expectations, Kirito wasn't waiting outside the entrance to the boss's lair for them. It seemed he had kept to his claim and gone on ahead. Asuna glared at the stonework door as if it had offended her, muttering 'reckless' repeatedly under her breath. Sinon ignored her friend for now and studied the design on the door, trying to ascertain any additional clues about what they were up against. The information from Wedge hadn't been very thorough. All they knew was that the boss was fast, much faster than anyone on foot, and had some form of ranged attack.

It didn't tell her much at all; the door's design was decidedly less ghastly than any other boss fight entrance. The carvings showed what appeared to be smooth, rounded rocks piled up half the height of the door. An unmoving tattered banner was raised at the top of the mound. The emblem it bore was a skyward pointing sword. Strange. This was too normal looking. That was when she realized the "rocks" looked odd and took a closer look.

They were skulls.

Upon noticing this, the entire design of the door seemed to shift. The artwork morphed into something more sinister. Grasping hands and bony protrusions, near-human faces contorted in the throes of death, details that Sinon couldn't believe she had missed on her first inspection, now jumped out at her. Startled, she looked around to see if anyone else had seen what she had. Judging by the disgusted looks on a few faces, they had.

When she turned back towards the door, it had returned to its original, bland design. She told herself that it wasn't just a trick of her mind. There really had been two different door carvings just now.

"Right—stick close everyone, but be prepared for anything as soon as you step inside," Thinker commanded, speaking to the members of the «Ranged Division». The leader of the «ALF» and an officer of the «KoB» took their places at the head of the group and pushed the heavy stone doors open.

-o-

Sinon had been prepared to be momentarily blinded by dimmed lighting inside the chamber but that wasn't the case this time around. The room was well lit, but not in a way she had expected. There were still those sickly green ghost-flames floating around the edge of the room, wrapping around so far to either direction that Sinon could barely make out the curvature of the boss's lair but they were far dimmer than the true source of illumination.

The boss chamber, as Wedge had described in his report, was a cavernous underground town. The walls of the room formed a rocky dome that stretched a hundred meters above their heads. Sinon noted what appeared to be large metal pipes crisscrossing high above their heads and realized with a start that those were part of the sewer system for this district. The town in front of the rescue group was not unlike those of the earlier districts. Most of the buildings were two or three stories tall, white with wooden framework, and were closely packed together. The reason why the room was so well lit was because the majority of them had caught on fire.

"This is—," Phileas growled, his hand clenching tightly onto his musket. The other members of the «Ranged Division» instantly went on guard as well.

"Is that a cosmetic effect?" Asuna wondered out loud.

As if in answer to her question, a segment of a nearby structure collapsed, sending flaming timbers down into the street. Sinon focused her attention on the section that had broken off. Each of the objects had a separate health bar and those that were on fire were steadily taking damage.

"I guess not," Sinon answered. "We'll have to be careful of that as we proceed."

Thinker cursed. Sinon turned towards him in shock. Sure, it had only been mild profanity at best, but she couldn't recall him ever lapsing from his usual polite speech. "More delays," he said between gritted teeth. "Kibaou's going to have a lot to answer for. He should have known better when he's been entrusted with the lives of others!"

Before anyone could answer, three red lines appeared, tracing arcs from somewhere within the burning town straight into the group.

"Everyone get out of the line of fire!" Asuna shouted. The de-facto raid leader of the «KoB» had kept a cool head and given the order out nearly instantaneously. Despite her warning however, several members of the group of clearers remained rooted in place out of shock. Worst yet, one of them was the target of one of the three lines, the red beam pointing straight at his forehead.

Something thudded into the ground beside Sinon, followed quickly by a second object which slammed into the ground where the «Ranged Division» had been gathered mere seconds ago. The target of the final «Projectile Path Prediction Line» gave a whimper and threw his arms up to shield his head.

A blur of red and white moved in front of the man, and with a resounding clang, the final projectile was deflected off course. One of the dozen «KoB »shieldbearers gave the man he had saved a brief, unreadable glance before walking back towards his spot in the middle of the his guild's group.

Sinon examined the objects that had just flown into their midst. At first glanced, they looked to be three-meter long spears, but the fletching at the end told her they were arrows. Arrows with rusted steel shafts and heads the length of her arm. The fletching was tattered, but that didn't seem to hinder the accuracy of the shots just now.

"So, how do you want to set up the search, Thinker-san?" Asuna was asking. If getting shot at fazed her, she didn't show it at all. "There's far too much ground here to cover as a single group."

Thinker looked at her with a puzzled expression. "Don't you have someone who can track them?"

The «KoB» officer shook her head. "None of us here right now have that skill and even if we did, we'd end up following their exact trail. From what your underling reported, it sounds like they were lost and may have double-backed on their own trail repeatedly. Following their path would just get us lost as well."

Thinker considered that and nodded. "Alright, so we'll have to split up. How large do you recommend each group be?"

"At least 10 to a team, a dozen would be better," came the reply. "Your group is all ranged, right? You should mix up with some of our men to balance out the groups."

"What about the other guilds?" Thinker asked.

"No thanks," the «DDA» representative answered. "We'd rather not mingle with outsiders if we can help it."

Their opinion wasn't shared by a majority of the people present and in the end, Sinon ended up with Asuna in a group consisting of two other members of the «Ranged Division», one other «KoB» member, and half a dozen members of smaller guilds.

"Wait, how're we going to contact one another if one of our groups finds the missing people?" Yulier asked.

Asuna thought about that for a moment. Then, she withdrew a few items from her inventory and showed it to everyone.

"Fireworks?" Yulier asked.

"This is the system we use out in the field. Use the red ones if your group is in trouble, green if you find the missing people, and blue once every five minutes or so to let everyone know your group is alright as well as your general location," Asuna explained. "We'll split up now and I'll distribute some to the leader of each group."

Within a minute, they were all ready to go. Before they headed off with their respective groups, Sinon addressed the members of her division. "I don't think I need to tell you guys this anymore, but it'd be a pain in the ass if you got killed out there, so above all…"

"Stay alive," they answered back in a chorus, grins plastered across many of their faces.


"This place is way too big," Raker was complaining. "What the hell is with this boss fight?"

They had been walking for about five minutes now, heading counter-clockwise around the room along the perimeter of the chamber. Several times, the party had to make detours to get around burning obstacles in their path.

"Quit whining," a young man about the same age as him replied. "Just think of something positive. Like the loot we'll get."

Raker glared at the other teenager. "I wasn't whining. And what's with that carefree attitude? This your first boss fight or something, newbie?"

"So what if it is? I bet I have more field experience than you have. What kind of idiot only uses ranged weaponry?"

"Fine words coming from someone who named himself 'Jessie-James,' carries a wheel-lock pistol at his hip, and fails miserably at trying to dress like an outlaw," Raker retorted.

Jessie-James gave Raker a glare and made as if he were going to draw his gun. "I don't want to hear that coming from you! What the hell is with the name 'Raker' anyways?"

"Hey! That was uncalled for!" Raker exclaimed. "I picked a couple cool sounding foreign words for a name, but my friends all said 'Regent Ignis Kaiser' sounded stupid and pretentious and made me take out everything but the first mora of each word. 'Re-I-Ka'…"

Their loud argument drew the attention of the most senior member of the group. "Both of you shut the hell up unless you want more of those arrows flying our way," Phileas growled dangerously. "You're making too much noise."

If that wasn't enough, a low groan brought the two bickering teens to attention. Moments later, a grotesque figure in dark green armor shuffled into view. Thankfully, its head was mostly covered by the standard heavy infantry helmet the «Armored Division» wore, but the visor was cracked in such a way that one empty eye socket gazed outwards lifelessly. The undead's movements were only slightly hindered by the spear-like arrow piercing through its left shoulder.

"Sweet! Loot!" Jessie-James exclaimed cheerfully, drawing his pistol.

Phileas yanked him back and brought the boy up to his face. "Have some respect for the dead," he stated. Although his demeanor was calm, there was a bite to his words that he had never used before. "Do we understand each other?"

The boy swallowed and nodded. "Got it," he chuckled nervously.

"This isn't a game, not anymore," Phileas said as he drew his weapon. "There are times when it's alright to act stupid and have a good time. This isn't one of them. Not if you want to stay alive."

The «Turned» player had shambled towards their group with surprising speed during this interval. Its speed was somewhere around that of a light jog, significantly faster than that of a «Creeper». Hands extended, one clutching a shattered sword, it reached towards them.

Without hesitation, Phileas slowly pulled the trigger. From this range, less than 5 meters, it was impossible to miss. The former player's head exploded into a shower of prismatic light effects. The body collapsed backwards onto the ground and followed suit a moment later.

"We've wasted enough time," the elderly member of the «Ranged Division» stated, shouldering his gun after reloading. "The longer we take, the more likely someone else will end up like that unfortunate soul."

"Tceeh," Jessie-James sounded admiringly. Then, quietly to Raker, "He may be a spoilsport, but that old man's pretty badass. He didn't even blink when pulling the trigger! Is he always like this?"

Raker shook his head. "Not really. I think I liked him better when he was carefree and told stories."

The two boys ran to catch up to the rest of their party, ducking down when the flames above sent a shower of sparks around them.


If the male members of the party thought they lucked out in having two girls in their group, they soon learned better. Between Sinon's icy air as she completely ignored the people she didn't know and Asuna's steely no-nonsense attitude towards achieving their goal, the number of attempts to initiate a casual conversation with either girl dropped off to zero within the first few minutes of their trek.

"Strange," Asuna said, looking around. "I haven't seen any sign of the boss or any «Turned» since that arrow barrage at the beginning."

Sinon nodded, and scanned the surroundings with her «Searching» skill active. It really was too silent around. Unnervingly so. The only noise came from the crunching of stones beneath their feet and the crackle of the fires around them.

Their group was responsible for heading straight towards the center of the room. Out of all the parties they had split into, Sinon guessed that theirs had the greatest likelihood of encountering either enemies or survivors from the «Melee Division».

"Shouldn't we call out to them?" one two-handed sword wielder asked. "They could be hiding from the boss and didn't notice us pass by."

"Go ahead," Sinon replied. "Just don't blame us if the boss puts an arrow through your head for your trouble."

"I'm fine with my head in one piece, thanks," he replied. Sinon's comment had the unexpected but pleasing side-effect of reducing the chatter coming from the group following the two girls.

A creaking noise had them all turning about suddenly. A segment of a nearby building came falling down, crashing to the ground in a shower of debris. One clearer was a moment too slow in jumping out of the way and was struck in the leg as he leapt to the side. Members of the «Ranged Division» immediately ran to his aid, pulling him free. As he drank a potion and healed up from the damage he had sustained, Sinon took a moment to closely examine the collapsed wall.

"So that's how it's done," she said. Immediately, everyone seemed to gather around her. "Objects in the field usually have too much durability to destroy without breaking a few dozen weapons bashing at them but they should follow the same pattern as any other zero durability item," Sinon explained. "The reason they don't shatter into a million pieces upon reaching zero durability is that the flames are either a trigger to convert them into segments or the flames affect something that's holding segments together. I don't know which."

As the clearers focused on the section, the item's name should have appeared in front of them as it had for Sinon. «Unfixed Wall Segment». Like the buildings around them, it had its own durability numbers. It wasn't something that would help them at all, but it was relieving to know that the rules of the game hadn't suddenly changed on them.

"All healed up?" Asuna was asking the man who had been struck by the falling debris. "Let's move out then."

As they proceeded, the road twisted and turned in such a way that it became difficult to tell what direction they were currently traveling in. Sinon had taken note of the tallest building in sight, a clock-tower, and was using it to keep her bearings. Most of their group didn't seem as prudent.

"Gah! We're lost!"

"I could have sworn we've seen that burning building before!"

To make things worse, the boss just happened to choose that time to target their group. Four red lines appeared one by one into the middle of the group followed shortly by those massive arrows thudding into the ground, creating large cracks in the paved stone road.

"That's it! I'm out of here! I'm not going to get trapped in here and die like a rat for the sake of people I don't even know!"

The members of the party unaffiliated with the «KoB» or the «ALF» broke off and ran. Asuna shouted something at them that was lost in the din of their panic. Sinon noted dryly that they had scattered in different directions. She hadn't expected second-string members of the other clearing guilds to be as disciplined as the main group, but this was just pathetic.

Their group was now down to five. The «Ranged Division» members other than Sinon seemed a little nervous at having lost half the group nearly instantly but held off their panic admirably. The «KoB» members didn't seem to be affected beyond going into a more alert state. Asuna looked as if she wanted to chase the runners down and drag them back by the ear. However, that was a task that would be impossible even for one swift enough to earn the nickname, «The Flash». She sighed and gave the order to keep moving.

The empty streets seemed even more menacing with fewer numbers by her side. Sinon shook her head and chastised herself. She was getting complacent; too used to having others around to watch her back. She latched on to that thought. She needed to relearn the mindset of her days before joining the guild.

They were just passing a narrow alleyway when a hand shot out and grabbed Asuna by the arm.

"Kyaaa~!"

The «KoB »officer gave a decidedly un-Asuna-like scream, jumped half a meter into the air, and drew her pistol before realizing who had latched onto her arm.

"Nice to see you too," Kirito grinned. He took the barrel of Asuna's gun between his pointer finger and thumb and moved it so it wasn't pointing directly at him. "I'd rather not get shot though, if you don't mind."

"K-k-k-Kirito-kun? Where have you been?" Asuna asked angrily, quickly regaining her composure. She pointed a finger at his face accusingly. "And you have some nerve, almost driving people to a riot with your antics back in the meeting room."

Kirito shrugged. "It got you all here, didn't it? Although come to think of it, I guess the promise of loot wasn't enough to keep those guys who were with you earlier from running off."

"You were there to see that!? Why didn't you meet up with us earlier?" Asuna asked, her voice barely below the level of shouting. The «KoB» members shuffled about nervously as they rarely, if ever, saw this side of their sub-leader before.

"Hello? That little stunt I pulled? Not exactly going to make the people I did that to very happy to see me. The regulars know me well enough to suspect that those weren't my real intentions, but the new guys?" Kirito replied, sounding unconcerned. "But we have more important issues. I scouted ahead and we're close to a group of survivors. They're over in that direction." He pointed a bit to the right in the direction the group had been heading. "The thing is, there's an obstruction and I'm not sure how long a detour will take."

"Why didn't you say something sooner?" Asuna demanded, all annoyance at the swordsman before her vanishing instantly. She ran off ahead, shouting back towards everyone else, "We need to get there now!"

Kirito shook his head and wondered out loud, "And she calls me reckless?" Laughing softly, he rushed after the girl in white.

Kirito led the group in the direction he had indicated. As they walked, Sinon began to hear the sounds of combat creeping closer. One voice shouting desperate commands was, unfortunately, very familiar to her. It seemed Kibaou was still alive.

The "obstruction" Kirito had mentioned turned out to be a three meter high pile of burning timbers. Looking through the flames to the other side, Sinon could make out a fair number of players, a group of about two dozen, beset by an equal number of armor wearing undead.

"Oh wow, looks like they're taking quite the beating," Kirito noted to Sinon. "We need to find a way around this mess, I suppose. Should we take it at a leisurely pace and hope that old windbag bites the dust?"

"Kirito! I can't believe you would even— ," Asuna began to scold him, looking extremely displeased.

Kirito raised his hands to show he had been joking, "I was only half-serious. But they're a pretty tight spot, we might not reach them in time if we take a roundabout way."

"Half-serious?!"

Kirito grinned humorlessly at Asuna. "When the only people you meet on a daily basis want to eat your brains, one tends to develop a rather twisted sense of humor. Anyway…it looks like this barrier is too high to jump normally and there's no way to scale it…"

He pulled Sinon over to the side without warning. The fire cast dancing shadows across his face, obscuring his eyes and making it difficult for Sinon to tell what he was planning. Not that she usually had a clue when it came to Kirito. Expect one thing from him and he would run off in a completely different direction.

"W-What are you doing?" Sinon asked, feeling her face flush. Kirito's seemingly arbitrary actions usually threw her off balance and she hated not knowing what was going on.

"Just stay put over here for a second, alright Sinon?" Kirito requested. "Need to see if this'll work…"

He walked behind her, the sound of his footsteps getting further and further away. A moment later, she heard him returning, quickly. Asuna was calling his name and demanding to know what he was doing. Sinon was just about to turn around when something slammed into her shoulder with great force, sending her stumbling to the side. A streak of black flew overhead, just barely clearing the burning barrier.

"Made it over," Kirito called back over to the group. "I'll go on ahead and buy some time for you guys. Go ahead and find another way through."

Sinon recovered her footing quickly and shouted at Kirito's back as he ran off, "I'll definitely get you back for that one, you moron!"

She was in the process of mumbling a complaint to herself when she heard the sound of footsteps rapidly approaching her from behind yet again. This time, she spun about quickly to see what was going on; an action that proved to be a bit of a mistake.

"Kirito-kun, you IDIOT!"

A shadow descended upon Sinon as she finished her 180 degree turn. All she managed to see was a mass of white before Asuna's boot stepped directly on her face. This time, she ended up falling onto her backside as a white meteor flew after the black one.

"Sorry Sinon!" Asuna called back as she hastily ran after Kirito.

"Damn it Asuna!" Sinon screamed at her friend. "I'm not a—" Her exasperation caught up with her, overwhelming her ability to remain calm. "You know what!? Forget it! You two go ahead on your little date together! See if I care!"

She turned to face the remaining members of her group. Half of them were dumbfounded and the other half had amused grins on their faces.

"What? You want to use me as a springboard too?" she snapped. "Tell you what, I'll make it easy for you. Bend over and I'll punt you across after them. Any takers?" When they all shook their heads vigorously "no", she harrumphed and walked off, calling back to the rest of the party. "I'm going to find a higher vantage point to map out the area. Make yourselves useful and find a way to where those two are. Try not to get yourselves killed; I don't feel like wasting the bullets that it'll take to bring you down when you come back to life as undead."


"Are we going to get out of here as soon as we find where the «Melee Divisions» are?"

Yulier directed her question to Thinker as they walked. He seemed lost in contemplation and didn't answer her immediately. She had some notion of what he must be going through. On the one hand, Kibaou and his followers almost certainly deserved whatever they were facing right now through their own recklessness and pride. It couldn't be easy on him, scrounging up support and risking even more lives for the sake of this task. But, as someone who felt she understood him well, Yulier knew he felt duty-bound to do everything he could for a fellow guild member. She just wished "everything" didn't include risking his own life and limb on the battlefield.

"That depends on the situation," Thinker answered absently. "If there're complications that prevent extracting them, we might need to take down the boss. Not to mention—"

He trailed off and brandished his lance. An enemy had appeared before them, drawn in by the noise their group had been making as they trekked along. With a shout, he lunged forwards, a blue glow enveloping his weapon as he struck. He caught his enemy in the throat with the point of his weapon, whipped the spearhead to the side, and dealt a blow to the back of the enemy's head as he stepped around his foe. Two-hit spear skill «Tidal Crescent», a mid-level attack that was useful in flanking an enemy.

The enemy's health dropped by about 5%, miniscule damage by the standards of a frontliner. His time away from the hostile districts was showing. Yulier swung her whip around and lashed out with it, dealing minor damage as well but more importantly, disrupted the monster's counterattack and afforded Thinker a brief moment to recover from the momentary stun at the end of using a «Skill». While the «Turned» player was still focused on Thinker, a «Striker» from the «KoB» ran in from behind, shredding away the enemy's health with a three-hit curved-sword combo. Lastly, Sataki ended the fight, blowing away the last 20% of the enemy's heath with a well-placed shot to the unarmored part of its head.

"Those guys are pretty tough. I know the strength of a «Turned» is based on the strength of the player and the creature that converted him but still…surviving a combo from one of us!" Godfree laughed, scratching at his beard. "Guess it's alright though. It makes for a good fight at least!" Then, with an apologetic gesture to Thinker. "Ah, that didn't come out right. I'm sorry. I know that «Turned» was once your guild member. But if the others are all as strong as that one, perhaps the rest are still alive."

Thinker took one look at the boisterous man's earnest face and sighed wearily. "No, it's alright. You don't need to try to sugarcoat things. I'm well aware of what a disaster this situation is. What matters is doing what we can to salvage what's left. Let's keep moving."

He began to walk off, prompting Yulier to hurry to catch up. When she fell in stride next to him, he asked quietly, "Do you think any of them are still alive?"

"There's always hope," she replied.

He sighed again, melancholy evident on every feature. "I was thinking, if I was just more attentive to the everyday needs of the people in the guild. If I had just worked a little harder at making sure everyone was satisfied with how the guild was being run…maybe something like this wouldn't have happened."

"Do you want me to get angry with you?" Yulier asked in exasperation. "You're only one person. No one expects you to handle everything yourself and you know well enough that you've done all and everything you could to make the guild as good a place for every member. No one can ask more of you than that."

"You really know how to make a man feel—," he answered before his face turned ashen. Without warning, Thinker threw himself at Yulier, knocking her to the ground. She hammered at his chest, face bright red.

"W-what are you doing?!" Yulier exclaimed. His face was too close and looked blurry for a moment before her eyes adjusted. Her ears were heating up rapidly at this point and she wouldn't have been surprised if steam were issuing forth from them like in one of those old animated films.

That was when she noticed the red beam that extended from somewhere out of view within the town to where she had been standing a moment earlier. The sickening "tchunk!" as the spear-length arrow drove itself into the ground next to them sent chills down her spine. She had been looking away from the direction it had come from. If Thinker hadn't pushed her aside…

"Sorry about that," Thinker apologized. "There just wasn't any time and—"

"Don't worry about it," Yulier snapped back, a little too quickly in an effort to hide her embarrassment. The leader of the «ALF» gave her a nervous smile.

"Save it for the bedroom, you two. Looks like we've got company," Godfree noted, brandishing his claymore with one hand while grinning down at the two of them. It seemed the burly man had misunderstood their relationship.

A loud groan emanating from nearby brought her back to reality. They were still in the middle of hostile territory. Yulier struggled to disentangle herself from Thinker. A group of three «Turned» had just appeared from a nearby alleyway. She readied her whip and prepared to meet the enemy.


"Ah! This is boring!"

Raker rolled his eyes as yet another complaint issued forth from Jessie-Jame's mouth. Of course, he really couldn't say anything himself as he shared the other teen's sentiments. After that initial encounter, their group hadn't run across any enemies, let alone the boss. It was almost as if the boss of this district was purposely trying to lull them into a false sense of security by not targeting them at all.

It seemed to be working too. Most of the group had started chatting about random topics or looking through their inventories without a care in the world. There was one notable exception. Not only was Phileas looking down every alleyway and around every corner as if he expected an ambush, but he continuously scanned the windows of the buildings around them as if the boss might leap out from inside.

"I wish you wouldn't do that," Raker muttered to the older man. "It makes me feel like we're going to get jumped any moment now."

"It's an old habit," Phileas explained, ignoring Raker's wish. "Don't mind me."

"Trying hard not to."

The group continued on in that vein for a while, with Phileas's behavior making Raker more nervous by the minute. In time, he found himself looking at every shadow as if it would start moving towards him with ill intent. He barely managed to keep himself from shooting when he heard the sound of clattering coming from the side, but it was just a piece of masonry falling to the ground.

The burning buildings around them might have illuminated the journey, but Raker found himself wishing for the doom and gloom lighting from the previous boss fight. At least there wasn't the threat of a house collapsing down on top of him there.

"Oh nice! Finally, some action!"

A celebratory cheer came from the front of their group as two of the living dead shambled into view, their rusted swords scraping on the floor as they moved. One still had an arrow jutting through his torso. It made a scraping sound as the projectile's point was dragged along the ground behind the monster.

There was a clatter of shields, weapons, and armor as the group charged ahead down the narrow alleyway towards the enemy. Raker readied his rifle and ran to follow, only to be stopped dead in his tracks as someone grabbed onto his collar and pulled him back. His feet swung out in front as he lost his balance and fell.

"What the hell?" Raker exclaimed, rubbing at his throat. He glared up at the person who had stopped him.

A rumble brought his attention elsewhere a second later as flaming timbers and a shower of bricks rained down into the alleyway in front of them. A cry of dismay came from somewhere underneath that mess; someone had gotten trapped underneath. The cries grew more desperate until, a few seconds later, a burst of light particles escaped from the large pile of debris with the sound of glass breaking. Realizing that could have been him just now, Raker found himself retching.

"Did—did you know that would happen?" Raker asked, wiping at his mouth with the sleeve of his uniform.

"No. I'm not precognitive if that's what you're asking," Phileas replied. "But experience tells me that rushing in when there's so many new and unknown factors is foolish. Keep that in mind if you're planning on staying alive."

Raker stared up at the middle-aged man questioningly. Something about him had changed since they had entered the boss's lair. It wasn't that Phileas was being more strict than normal; the older man usually became deadly serious whenever things required, but he seemed on edge.

"Sheesh, you really took the Sergeant's words to heart didn't you, old man?" Raker exclaimed, getting to his feet. He still felt a little shaken by what had just happened, but at least he no longer felt like he was going to vomit.

"That girl has the right idea as far as living on the frontlines is concerned. I can't agree with her lone-wolf mentality though," Phileas answered. He gave Raker an appraising look. "Feeling alright enough to move? Then we should get going. I don't like standing around waiting for an enemy to show up and we need to rendezvous with the others. Or at least find another group. No offense kid, but you're a bit on the green side and I'd like to have people who can actually handle themselves in a fight in my group."

"What was that!?" Raker exclaimed. "I've got, like, 3 levels on you! Hey wait! Where the hell are you going? Isn't this the perfect time to launch a red firework and stay put? Dammit! I'm coming, so slow down already!"

The boy broke into a run in order to catch up, making sure to keep an eye on the surrounding buildings. He didn't want to test his luck against another avalanche of masonry.


"Will you stop being so reckless for once!? I swear, one day I'll just let you go ahead and fulfill that death wish you seem to have. Do you enjoy causing people trouble? Are you even listening to me!?"

Kirito grinned as Asuna continued her tirade against him, pausing only to decapitate his target before he answered her. "Hey, it worked, didn't it?" he retorted. "Besides, it's not like you didn't go right ahead and follow behind immediately. And for someone who's complaining so much, you seem to be backing me up almost flawlessly."

He wasn't praising her without reason. She was guarding him from being flanked and had prevented him from being surrounded twice already. Not that being encircled would have posed much of a threat to him besides slowing him down a bit, but it was the thought that counted. In addition, she «Switched» in whenever he created a gap in an opponent's defenses and generated many opportunities for him to do the same. She embodied the very essence of a "team player." He found it surprising that her skills meshed so well with his own, considering how rarely he partied with people.

Within three minutes, half the enemy numbers had been slain, buying the survivors of «The Army» some breathing room to regroup. They did so, forming a defensive line in front of the more critically injured members, but the members of the «Melee Divisions» looked exhausted. Their once parade-ready armor was dented and scratched and their shields were battered to the point where Kirito was surprised they offered any protection at all. Still, they held on long enough for Kirito and Asuna to finish off the rest of the foes in the vicinity.

"Huh, that wasn't so bad," Kirito noted. "I thought clearer-tier «Turned» were supposed to be more of a challenge than that."

Asuna slapped him on the back of the head. "Don't mock the dead."

"I wasn't," Kirito replied dryly. "Just commenting on whether they should even be at a boss fight at their level. It's not like they've been to any district clearing raids before, right?" Then with a smirk, he added, "And if you'd used just a little more force, your marker would have turned orange just now, you know. Not something the prim and proper princess of the «KoB» should be seen with, right?"

Asuna brandished her rapier, pointing it just under his nose. "What did you just call me?"

"Absolutely nothing," Kirito replied innocently, leaning back to put a little distance between himself and the weapon. "You must have been hearing things. Now if you don't mind, we should probably get to seeing if those guys are alright."

The members of «The Army» they had just rescued seemed dazed. The majority sat down on the ground, trying to catch their breath. One gave a ragged cheer when he realized they were safe for the time being, but the cry didn't catch on and quickly died. For the most part, they stared wordlessly at Kirito and Asuna as if they hadn't expected to see friendly players ever again; perhaps they hadn't. The fight had gone out of them. Another wave of enemies would likely have spelled their end. One person however, didn't seem to be pleased to see his rescuers.

"Y-you! You're the Beater that killed Diabel-san! You bastard! How dare you come here and steal away my moment of glory!"

Kibaou was screaming at Kirito, his face a bright red. Out of all the players they had just saved, he seemed to be the only one who had any energy left. The rest of them had slumped to the ground and barely seemed to be paying no mind to their leader. Even Kibaou's counterpart in the Armored Division, some burly guy who Kirito couldn't be bothered to remember the name of, was unwilling to do anything other than stare.

"Moment of glory?" Asuna screamed at the raging man. "Do you have any idea how many people died today because of you? There's no glory in this at all!" Kirito held an arm in front of her, preventing her from getting too close to Kibaou.

"Nice to see you too, Cactus head-dono," Kirito answered with mocking politeness. He even performed a graceful European-style bow to emphasize his words. "Glad to see our timely rescue is appreciated. Where are the rest of your men? Between the ones here and the «Turned» we just wiped out, there should be at least a hundred more of you. Don't tell me you got them all killed with your incompetence. About what I'd expect from someone who hasn't been to a boss fight in over 20 districts." He turned around and shrugged. "Oh well, I guess the only thing that matters is that there are some survivors. Asuna, we'd best arrange for the others to come to this spot. These guys don't look like they'll last much longer if more enemies show up and I don't really trust their brain-dead leader to keep them out of combat."

"Graaah!"

With a roar, Kibaou charged forwards with surprising speed and slashed horizontally across Kirito's exposed back. A red wireframe appeared where the blade had passed through. Had this been reality, it was a blow that would have severed the boy's spine.

"Kirito-kun!" Asuna cried out. She drew her weapon but hesitated, unsure as to what to do in this situation.

Kirito turned around, surprise etched on his features as he confronted the newly-turned «Orange Player». "You," he exclaimed incredulously, looking down at Kibaou's curved sword. The commander of the «Striker Division» stared back with a maniacal cast to his eyes and a mad grin plastered across his face. The man's hands were shaking badly. Kirito sighed and scratched his head, the casual movement shocking the man he was addressing. "Really, a perfect back attack; unparried, unblocked, and you only managed to deal a hundred damage? That's pathetic. Your level is no higher than the early 20's, I'd guess. That's barely passable for fighting normal mobs outside as part of a group. What the hell have you been up to since the first district? Sitting on your ass and giving orders the entire time? How the hell did you survive this long inside the boss area?"

Kibaou backed up in horror as Kirito slowly walked towards him. The man held his sword out at arm's length as if it would keep the boy from reaching him. Reaching out, the Black Swordsman wrenched the blade out of the division leader's hands. After studying it for a brief moment, he snapped the weapon in half with his bare hands, watching impassively as the pieces shattered in an explosion of light a second later.

"Overly ornate to the point where its durability is worthless in a real fight," Kirito scoffed contemptuously. Turning to Asuna, he asked in a calm tone, "You don't mind if I tie him up, do you? It'll make transporting him a pain in the ass, but at least he won't try to pull that backstabbing thing on anyone else."

"Ah—go for it, I guess," Asuna answered, still in the process of recovering from what had just transpired.

"Permission obtained!" Kirito exclaimed cheerfully, conjuring a length of rope from his menu. He stretched part of it taut threateningly as he spoke to Kibaou. "Now hold still, I don't want to 'accidentally' tie a noose around your neck instead of a proper restraint."

Needless to say, Kibaou wasn't particularly cooperative. He screamed incoherently, flailed about, and made a commotion that probably attracted every undead within a half-kilometer radius.

"Oy, Orange-kun…I don't think you realize the position you're in," Kirito said with deadly calm. "You see, the system has judged your actions as criminal. That means you have no rights. I could slit your throat, toss you over a cliff, push you into a burning building, or tie you up and leave you here for your former buddies to chow on and, by the rules of this world, it won't be any more criminal than stepping on an ant. So I'd really suggest you don't try my patience, alright?"

Catching onto Kirito's performance, Asuna interjected, "I would listen to him if I were you. He's crazy enough to live out in the field rather than in a district like any sane player would. I wouldn't be surprised if he really did snap and do one of those things…"

The man was so stunned that he didn't even protest until Kirito had finished binding his arms and was beginning to work at lashing his legs together. It was at that point when he finally reclaimed some of his arrogance.

"What do you think you're doing? Do you have any idea who I am? I'll make life miserable for you, you lousy Beater! You hear me? You ca—"

His words were cut off as Kirito stuffed a dirty rag in his mouth. "Right," the boy said as he patted the man's head. "I knew I was forgetting something. Thanks for the reminder."

His task complete, Kirito walked back over to Asuna. She glanced over at Kibaou, who was struggling to break free of his bindings. "You really hate that guy, don't you?" she noted dryly.

"Let's see—he was the one who started this whole 'Beater' nonsense, continued whipping people into a frenzy to stay in power even when it became apparent that most beta players either died early or tried to help in any way that they could, thereby slowing down the progress of the clearing group nearly single-handedly," Kirito began, counting off on his fingers. "He obviously used his men as human shields to stay alive in here, sent Sinon and company off on a suicide mission—oh, and most importantly, he has terrible fashion sense. By the way—what did you mean earlier about me being crazy? I'm perfectly sane!"

"Right…" Asuna replied sarcastically. "No comment. In any case, we'd better contact the others. There's safety in numbers, after all."

"Are they all healed up already?"

Asuna shook her head. "They didn't have much left in terms of supplies. I gave what I could spare out to the ones who needed it most but—"

Kirito nodded, "You did what you could. No one expects you to carry enough healing supplies for 4 full parties worth of people. We should get these guys out of here as soon as possible, but I don't think our job's over just yet."

"Of course it is," she answered. "We're only here to rescue the «Melee Divisions». We're not here to fight the boss."

Kirito pointed to the group behind him with his thumb. Most were still nursing their wounds or shaking in fear. "You see those guys? Call me cynical, but I'm guessing they're the most die-hard of Kibaou's supporters. If your companions were dropping dead one by one from arrows coming out of nowhere, would you stick around waiting to become the next shish kabob?" Asuna frowned at him, hands on her hips.

Kirito grinned and corrected himself. "Alright," he admitted, "maybe you would, but I'd place all of my «Col» on a bet that we have more deserters than just the one who made it back to the «Black Iron Castle»."

"So you're saying you want to search for the rest of them?" Asuna asked. "Do you have any idea how long that might take or how hard it would be? Not to mention the number of people whose lives we'd be risking to do it. We might end up losing more people than we rescue."

Kirito looked her in the eyes. "Are you saying we should leave them here to die, Asuna? I didn't think you were that heartless."

"That's not what I was talking about at all!" It seemed Asuna had reached the end of her patience with him. She grabbed him by the collar and brought his face down close to her own. "You might be fine and willing to get yourself killed trying to save people while playing the part of the hero, but I have responsibilities to keep my own guild members out of harm's way whenever it can be done. It's not something a solo player like you can ever understand!"

"I know it's a hard choice to make," Kirito said softly. He leaned his face in a little closer to Asuna's and looked her in the eye. She let go of his collar hastily and took a step back. It might have been his imagination, but he thought some of the red on her cheeks weren't coming from the light of the nearby fires or from her anger at him. He continued, "That's why I'm not telling you to stay, not that I can do that, in any case. I'm only asking that you do so. My instincts are telling me that we'll have fewer casualties overall if we tackle the boss here and now."

"Just your instincts?" Asuna asked. "That's not a whole lot to go on."

Kirito's face hardened as he turned away from her. "They've kept me alive so far, haven't they? It'd be a lot easier if you just trusted me on this, but we'll continue this conversation later. Right now, I need you to get those guys and bring them somewhere more secure before calling for the others— Hurry!"

She opened her mouth to protest but then she heard what he had too. His high level «Searching» skill had detected the approach of the enemy a few seconds earlier than she did. Wordlessly, she nodded and moved back towards the group from the «ALF».

"What about you, Kirito-kun?" she asked worriedly.

Kirito drew his sword from the scabbard on his back and swung it down sharply to his side. "I think you already know my plan. I'll buy you some time to get away and meet up with you once you launch the signal."

Despite himself, he found himself smiling. The boss was coming. This would be his first major fight in almost two weeks. A burst of adrenaline coursed through his body, heightening his senses. It was funny how alive he felt right now, surrounded by death and decay.

The sound of hooves striking stone came closer with each passing moment. From the corner of his eye, Kirito could see the last of the men struggling to their feet, using their weapons to prop themselves up. This was taking too long. Far too long for his taste.

A loud neigh sounded from the alleyway on the left side of the street in front of him, Moments later, a massive shadow leapt out, slamming to the ground and skidding to a halt with a resounding thud. The ground shook slightly beneath Kirito's feet. There was a cry of dismay from behind him and the boy heard armor clanking rapidly as «The Army» sped up their retreat. The boss had finally shown up.

"Time to get to work," Kirito muttered to himself as he lowered into a running position.

He glanced at the boss, taking in its appearance before looking at its name. The monster was roughly 5 meters tall. The skeletal figure was clad in white robes and tarnished silver breastplate worked in gold. A dented and battered crown encircled the top of the being's head. It carried a recurve bow half again as large as Kirito and a quiver bristling with massive arrows hung at its hip. A pale blue glint escaped from the depths of its eye sockets, drawing a faint trail whenever it moved its head. The boss itself rode upon a steed. It was hard see the horse's hide due to the extent of the mount's decay and the color of the lighting in the room, but the horse was probably once white as snow. Most of the bones were exposed and its head was entirely skeletal. Like its master, a blue glow emanated from within its eye sockets.

Kirito turned his attention to the boss's name and health bar. It had five bars of hp, all of them full except for the first which was at roughly 30%. Despite their heavy losses, Kibaou's men had at least managed to deal some damage to the enemy. It had a simple name that belied the sheer number of people it had been responsible for the deaths of: «The White Rider».

The decrepit horse gave an agitated snort and scraped the ground with a front hoof as its eyes fell upon Kirito. The rider, however, stared past the Black Swordsman at the retreating figures of the «ALF». Slowly and deliberately, it slid an arrow out of its quiver and nocked it. Drawing the bowstring back to its cheekbone caused a red line appeared in the air, centered on the back of the rearmost member of «The Army». The fleeing member looked back just in time to see it release the arrow. His eyes widened in fear.

"No you don't!"

With a shout, Kirito stepped towards the red line. He'd have to time this perfectly if he was to succeed, but he knew somehow that he wasn't going to fail. He swung his sword upwards with as much force as he could muster on short notice, intercepting the arrow just as it passed through the air next to him. The arrow spun end over end in the air and, in a burst of adrenaline and insanity, Kirito caught the shaft of the projectile in his free hand. Running at the boss at full speed, he leapt to the side to avoid being trampled by the boss's mount and stabbed it in the flank with his makeshift spear.

The mount whinnied and wheeled about, trying to stomp this new pest flat. Kirito avoided the hooves of the animal and dealt it a slash to the back of the leg. He could never quite break the habit of attacking that part of an enemy. For the majority of mobs, hamstringing it resulted in a slowing debuff that made hunting a lot easier. On bosses, it had little effect beyond the damage it dealt.

Kirito's position behind the boss allowed him to check on the progress of the retreat. The men were all out of sight already; only Asuna had stayed behind. She made a move to draw her rapier, but he stopped her with a quick shake of his head and a nod to indicate that she should get going. She hesitated briefly, but then took her hand off the hilt of her weapon.

"Don't you dare get yourself killed while I'm not there to watch your back," she shouted before disappearing down a street.

Kirito couldn't help but grin. Get himself killed? As if. Contrary to Asuna's opinion, he was probably one of the most cautious members of the clearing group. He only resorted to flashy, attention-grabbing antics when the alternative was that someone might die. Come to think of it, maybe Asuna had a point about his recklessness. People around him always seemed to be in life-threatening situations.

"Too late to worry about that now," Kirito muttered to himself as the boss turned around to face him.

He hurriedly dodged out of the way of another crushing hoof-strike and countered with a strong upwards blow. The boss's health bar moved slightly from the hit. Kirito looked the boss in the eye for one moment and before turning to his left and dashed down the nearest alleyway. The boss froze for a split second before pursuing, the behavioral algorithm taking a moment to switch from "close range combat" to "pursue."

Kirito kept his eyes forwards as he ran and focused his hearing on the sounds of coming from behind him. The moment he heard the rasping of rusted metal scraping across leather, he ducked and rolled around a corner into another alleyway. An arrow slammed into the ground where he had been a second earlier, throwing up fragments of cobblestones where it struck. Instead of continuing to run, Kirito decided to try something else to keep the boss occupied.

With a brief running start, he took a few steps up the wall of the first building he saw that hadn't caught on fire yet and caught onto the windowsill on the second floor. Using the momentum he still had, he vaulted through the empty frame and into the building, rolling to his feet as soon as his back touched the ground. It was a maneuver worthy of «Acrobatics», but Kirito hadn't actually taken that «Skill». Instead, he had practiced escape techniques over and over until he could perform them without any form of «System Assist». Some players might have scoffed at such a frivolous use of time, but the end result was that Kirito had nearly the same benefit of having taken «Acrobatics» without investing in the skill itself.

Without waiting, he immediately ducked behind cover, his «Hiding» skill automatically making it more difficult for the boss to detect him. He chanced a peek out the window towards the direction he had come from. «The White Rider» stood at the corner of the street, its eyes glowing eerily as it scanned the road for Kirito's presence. Slowly, it walked its mount down the street.

Just as the boss passed the house Kirito was holed up in, he heard something not unlike a distant thunderclap. Kirito looked on as the rider's head was slammed backwards, his horse rearing up in surprise. A fragment of the boss's crown broke off, clanging as it hit the street.

Kirito gave a low whistle. "Nice shot, Sinon," he whispered appreciatively, knowing that there was no possibility of the girl he had complimented overhearing.

Taking advantage of the boss's momentary confusion as it adjusted to the presence of a new enemy, Kirito leapt out of the second story window and, spinning as he fell to add to his momentum, swung his sword full force. It was just a basic «Horizontal», but managing to pull it off while falling was no small feat. In addition, the added speed and force from dropping down as well as rotating in the air added to the power of the overall attack. To top things off, he managed to strike right at the base of the boss's neck, a critical area for any humanoid enemy. The resulting attack did roughly as much damage as Sinon's shot had earlier with the result being that, between the two attacks, another 5% of the boss's first health bar had been depleted.

Kirito landed on his feet and dashed past «The White Rider» as soon as he recovered from using a skill. It sounded as if Sinon's shot had come from the tower about half a kilometer away. From this distance, he couldn't see where she was hiding, but Kirito knew she was probably still looking in his direction through her gun's scope. As such, he grinned, waved, and gave a thumbs-up at the top of the tower as he ran down the street.

Behind him, there was an angry snort and the sound of a bowstring being drawn back. Kirito looked back as he ran, prepared to either dodge or try to deflect the arrow as it flew towards him, but it turned out there was no need. A flash of light came from a window at the top of the tower with a loud bang trailing behind. The boss was knocked off-balance just as it released its arrow and the shot flew harmlessly into the side of a nearby building, knocking down another segment of wall.

That gave Kirito an idea. He fumbled around through his pouch for a smokescreen and deployed it, enveloping the surrounding area in a dark gray cloud. Then, he dashed inside of a burning building and up to the second floor. Focusing his attention on the wall, he was able to determine that the durability of the building was nearing empty; he had figured that the flames were a trigger that slowly sapped away at an object's health. If an enemy attack could knock down a chunk of a building by decreasing its durability, there was no reason why he couldn't as well. Kirito then concentrated on the street below, seeking out the enemy with his «Searching» skill. He made his move the moment the boss was under his building.

Alternating between sword strikes and «Martial Arts» blows, he chained together an attack that struck along the full length of the wall. The boy took a little damage as well from the proximity of the flames, but it wasn't enough to be worrisome. Destabilized by his assault, the wall of the second floor fell outwards on top of the enemy. Kirito grinned viciously as «The White Rider» was buried in rubble.

He didn't have long to celebrate his success though. Moments later, something nearby began to groan. He looked around quickly for signs of a «Turned» before realizing that what he had heard came from the floor above him. Destroying part of the wall had done more than just inconvenience the boss; it also destabilized the entire structure. The ceiling and floor began to tilt dangerously, large cracks beginning to show in the ceiling and remaining walls.

"Shit…not good," Kirito muttered.

Blood pounding in his head as he ran, Kirito jumped out of the side of the building he had wrecked single-handedly, rolling as he hit the ground below. His momentum carried him into the side of the house on the other side of the street. The structure he had been in collapsed seconds later, sending a cloud of ash and dust billowing into his face.

Kirito blinked a few times before sitting up. He surveyed the damage he had done; debris, half of it still burning, formed a slope in the middle of the street, ending a mere half meter from where he sat. The boss was nowhere to be seen although, based on how the pile of rubble was shifting, it would not be held down for long.

There was no point in staying in this area; he had to keep on moving. The sound of an explosion reached his ear and Kirito turned around just in time to see the blossom of green firework fade away. Asuna had completed her task. He should keep his promise to meet up with her. But first, he should pay a visit to the sniper who had backed him up. As he ran towards the tower he had seen the muzzle flash come from, Kirito was struck by a certain thought: Sinon would probably be less than pleased to see him after he had used her as launch pad.


Sinon stayed still in the shadow of an alleyway as one of the «Turned» wandered past. She had parted with her group about a minute ago to head down to the tower alone. Her plan was to head to the top of the structure and map out as much of the area as she could through her scope. Generating mapping data was based on line of sight and, whether it was an oversight on part of the game's programming or a standard feature of the game, what she saw through the scope of the Hecate II counted as line of sight. It was an overwhelming advantage that she exploited immediately whenever a new district opened up. Within an hour of entering a new zone, she could easily map out a square kilometer or two provided there was a tall enough structure nearby to provide an unobstructed view of the surroundings.

She was close to her destination now, but the going was slow. There were quite a few undead roaming around in this area. Silently cursing at her luck, she detoured yet again down a different alleyway to avoid a group of five enemies. It wouldn't take her long to take down these foes with the Hecate, but her plans didn't include attracting every undead within a 100 meter radius to her location. Once again, Sinon lamented her lack of a melee weapon skill. She vowed to take one the next time she reached a milestone level.

The base of the tower was, thankfully, free of enemies and Sinon quickly ducked inside. The door had been battered down which was unfortunate. It meant that an enemy could get in easily. She leaned a few of the remaining boards up against the entryway but the makeshift barrier, barely up to waist level, wouldn't last long if one of the «Turned» wanted to get inside.

She took a quick look around. The ground was filthy; debris, the skeletons of small rodents, and what appeared to be animal pellets were scattered about the wooden floor. The walls were constructed from dull gray stone and were completely windowless. The only light came from the front door and from above. There was a rail-less stone staircase along the wall which presumably led all the way to the top of the tower. Sinon followed it up cautiously to avoid slipping on the dust that had accumulated on the steps. The sound of her boots echoed loudly despite how softly she was treading; a noise that she was afraid might attract attention from something she did not want to meet face to face.

At the top of the stairs was an opening that led to a flat roof. The rusted hinge at the edge of the frame leading to the outside told her that there was once a trapdoor there. Once she brushed off the filth that covered the floor on a spot near the edge of the tower, Sinon quickly slipped the Hecate off of her shoulder and brought the scope to her eye. Then, she began to slowly scan up and down the streets, adding new roads to her mapping data of the room, but also searching for groups of players and enemies to mark down the location of. She resisted the temptation to snipe any enemies she found as it would be inconvenient for her if she attracted a crowd of «Turned» to the base of the tower. Mapping data did her no good if she wasn't able to get it to anyone else.

The smoke from the burning town obscured her visibility significantly; she was only able to map out a circular area with roughly a 1 km radius. She was just about to put her rifle away and head out to another tower she had seen at the edge of her viewing distance when she noticed someone running down the street pursued by what appeared to be a mounted archer. Bringing the Hecate II back up to firing position, she looked through the scope onto to see a very familiar looking figure.

"What the hell are you doing Kirito?" she mumbled to herself. Scanning the surrounding area, Sinon then noticed Asuna leading a group of «Melee Division» troops in the direction opposite to the one Kirito was heading in.

Sinon figured that Kirito would be able to handle the situation on his own, but just in case, she kept an eye on his progress. When he pulled some crazy stunt and jumped into the second floor of a building, she figured he must be trying to hide from the boss. After a brief moment of hesitation, she decided to take a chance and back him up with a snipe. She should be relatively safe this from the boss; it was unlikely that it could return fire at a target over half a kilometer away and 30 meters in the air. Even if it could, she would have enough time to avoid it. Lining up the shot and accounting for the effect of gravity on her bullet at this distance, she slowly squeezed the trigger.

Her shot was perfect. Through her scope, she could see her target's head snap backwards from the force of the bullet. Sinon worked the bolt of her weapon, ejecting the spent cartridge and closing it again so that the magazine would push another round into the chamber. Most people assumed her reload time was fast simply because her gun was a "modern" rifle. That was a part of it, but the real secret lay in a 7 round magazine. Of course, the Hecate only came with a single magazine so she had to manually replenish the bullets within it after using all her shots, bringing her average reload time when firing as fast as she could to about 6 seconds a bullet.

She was just about to move out to a new location when a black blur leapt out from the building near the enemy she had shot and attacked the monster once again. Immediately afterwards, he started running in her direction. Through her scope, she could plainly see him waving cheerfully in her direction—and was that a thumbs-up he just gave her? Sinon sighed and rubbed her brow with the palm of her hand. Clearly she had underestimated Kirito's determination to get himself mauled, maimed, or killed. Nonetheless, she took up a position to shoot once more and waited for a good opportunity to line up a shot. She didn't have long to wait.

The skeletal horseman chased after Kirito with single-minded determination, making it very easy for Sinon to track its motion and prepare a shot. She pulled the trigger just as it drew back the string on its bow. It was a well-placed bullet, striking the monster in the collarbone and throwing off its aim just as it released an arrow.

"You're welcome," Sinon muttered at the boy who had just stalled in the middle of the street. She didn't say it because she expected any thanks from Kirito. Sinon figured he would say, in a manner calculated to tick her off, that he had everything completely under control if she ever mentioned backing him up to his face.

The boy in question then did something that confused Sinon. With a brief downwards cast of his arm, he enveloped the area he was standing at in a dark cloud, preventing her from seeing anything. She wouldn't be able to back him up so long for fear of friendly fire so long as that smokescreen was up. Perplexed, she looked towards the edge of the cloud, expecting him to try to lose the boss and head to her position.

Instead, what happened next was something she never would have expected. An entire building collapsed and fell down into the street, pushing away the smokescreen, but replacing it with a cloud of dust and ash. It was too much to be a coincidence; Sinon figured that whatever had just happened had "Kirito's fault" written all over it. In any case, she could ask him about it shortly. The boy in question had just nonchalantly strolled out of the destruction and was now jogging towards her tower at a brisk pace.

-o-

"What? I figured it was the best way to shake the boss off my tail," Kirito said, giving a shrug. "It worked, didn't it?"

The two were talking as they ran towards another tower Sinon had marked off on her map. The first tower had given her a pretty good view of the streets below, but some areas had been obstructed by buildings and her viewing distance hadn't been enough to map out the whole room. A second high elevation area should help complete most of the important parts of the map. After a brief discussion, Kirito had declared his intention to escort her; he also turned selectively deaf when she maintained she could handle it on her own.

Sinon studied him for a moment. "Let me get this straight," she replied slowly. "Your idea of 'shaking the boss off your tail' is to drop a building on him?"

Kirito grinned. "What can I say? They ran out of bridges. That and I think I had to work off the withdrawal symptoms from missing the last boss fight. You wouldn't happen to know if it's still buried underneath all that rubble, would you? I was hoping it'd be pinned down so we could just start, you know, stabbing it until it no longer moves."

This guy… Sinon didn't even know where to begin with him. Somehow he managed to make his ridiculous feats seem like the logical thing to do. It was as if he twisted the logic of this game world around just by existing. They were both survivors, able to thrive as solo players on the front, but whereas Sinon was more calculative, Kirito seemed to do just fine with instinct and determination.

Sinon shook her head. "I saw it push its way free while you were heading here. I think it was searching for you for a bit before it ran off to the south. I have no idea where it is now." There were only a hundred meters left before they reached the tower. "We're close enough now, why don't you go ahead and run along to where everyone's supposed to be gathering? Tell them I'm coming with the data in a little bit."

The boy began to laugh uproariously. "Trying to get rid of me?" he asked, wiping at the corner of his eye. "It'll be better if I stay here and guard the entrance to the tower. Try and make it fast though, I get the feeling they'll leave us behind if we take too long."

"You managed to annoy Asuna that much in five minutes?" Sinon asked incredulously. "That's a new record even for you."

"Not my fault," he said, shrugging. "All I did was mention that it might be a better idea to tackle the boss right now than wait. Reason being— I get the feeling that when Kayaba started up this death game, he removed all concept of 'reseting.' For all intents and purposes, what has been lost can never be regained."

"Do you have a point, spouting that insightful bit of philosophy?" she asked sarcastically.

"Oh come on now," Kirito said, laughing softly. "I wasn't trying to be deep or anything. What I was getting at was that this place has a semi-destructible environment, right?" Sinon nodded slowly, still not following him. "Well, what I was getting at was that if the buildings all get knocked or burned down," he concluded, "we're going to be up against a highly mobile boss on flat terrain with very little cover. I don't think everyone leaving will reset the area, either. If that's the case, it won't exactly be my idea of a fun time."

She considered his argument for a moment. It did make sense. As a sniper, she knew just how deadly ranged weaponry could get if the opponent had no way to close in on your position before you took him down. And that mount…if Sinon had a method to get away as swiftly as that—it'd practically be cheating.

"Alright, fine," Sinon replied. "I'll consider helping you convince the others. But if you'll excuse me, I have work to do. Go ahead and play rent-a-cop guard at the tower base if you want."

Kirito grinned at her roguishly. "Ouch, that hurts."

"You can handle it," Sinon said, giving him a falsely sympathetic clap on the shoulder before entering the tower. She was feeling good about getting one-up on the boy who seemed to love messing with her head when he called out after her.

"One last thing Sinon. You might want to do something about that dirty boot-print on your face."

She scowled at him before turning on her heels and entering the gloom of the tower alone. But when he was out of view, she scrubbed furiously at her face with her arm, silently cursing at Asuna. She tossed in a few choice ones for Kirito as well for throwing off her inner calm.


"Is this everyone?"

Kirito strolled into the building where the survivors from «The Army» were gathered. Sinon followed him in shortly afterwards. Despite their arriving over five minutes after the signal firework had been launched, it seemed that only half the number that had entered the boss's lair were present.

"We're assuming that a number of groups are occupied with cleaning up the zone and aren't coming anytime soon," Asuna answered.

Godfree grinned at his fellow officer as he added in a gruff voice, "In other words, they're too busy scrounging around for loot to give a damn about safety. I suppose that's why they're second-stringers."

Thinker and Yulier both frowned at this, but kept silent. They busied themselves with tending to the men from the «Melee Divisions», handing out healing supplies. Their items were accepted with grateful nods and tiredly muttered thanks. They all pointedly ignored the bound and struggling man in the corner of the room. Kibaou had been healed up, but aside from that, it seemed as if no one was willing to come to his aid.

"So what's the plan?" Kirito asked. "Still want to completely retreat while there's still people out there?"

"If you're trying to trick me into staying when we need to get these guys out immediately, Kirito-kun…" Asuna warned, her voice taking on a dangerous edge.

"Hang on Asuna," Sinon interrupted. "I don't think that's what he meant."

Kirito shot the sniper a grateful look. It was nice having support sometimes, especially when dealing with Asuna. Sometimes, he had the feeling that she singled him out just because she had nothing better to do. Whatever the case, he seemed to get into a lot of not-quite-arguments with her.

"Sinon has the mapping data for almost the entire lair," he explained. "With that, we can easily get the melee guys out with just a small group." He looked around the room to the 2 dozen clearers who were gathered. "This boss needs to go down today," he declared. "I'm sure you've experienced how dangerous those arrows can be first-hand and if you've seen the boss, you'll know that we'll never be able to run him down on foot."

"Stop wasting our time beating around the bush. You've figured something out about this fight, haven't you?" Asuna asked, slapping a hand down hard on the table they were gathered around. "Out with it."

"The destructible environment," Kirito stated. "I don't believe it'll reset even if we all leave. In the report Thinker and Yulier gave during the meeting, the town wasn't falling apart—at least not at the start. Do we really want to risk a future fight against this boss with no cover at all and the lack of convenient ambush points? At least now we have the mapping data to set up traps and choke-points. If we plan it out right, we could even pen in the boss."

Asuna stared at him challengingly. "You really believe that's the best course of action?" she asked quietly. Kirito met her gaze; he felt that fighting the boss now was the right thing to do, but Asuna seemed set on cutting the losses and retreating.

After a full minute of silence, she gave a sigh. "Alright, you all heard what 'the Black Swordsman' had to say. I'll put it up to a vote. All in favor of retreating immediately?"

The hands of every member of the Melee Divisions shot up instantly. The threat of imminent death had transformed them from potential front-liners to men who wanted nothing more to do with bosses, the undead, or «SLD».

"All in favor of Kirito-kun's suggestion?"

Surprisingly, a fair number of hands went up. There were a few exchanged glances before a couple more hands went up. Kirito did a quick count. Two dozen. Unsurprisingly, many of the players present were engaging in the popular democratic past-time of not exercising their right to vote.

"It looks like a tie," Asuna noted. She paused for a moment and glanced around before looking Kirito in the eye again. With a brief shake of her head, she raised a dainty hand up into the air. "Fine," she said reluctantly, "I'll put my trust in you." She addressed her fellow officer, "Godfree, take a few of our best and make sure you get the ones we rescued get outside safely. They should be able to make it back to town on their own from there. Get back here as soon as you can."

The giant two-handed sword wielder nodded. He quickly obtained the mapping data from Sinon and, turning to the men from the «KoB», pointed at a half-dozen of them seemingly at random. The ones he had chosen silently made their way outside. Turning to the exhausted members of «The Army», he bellowed for them to get moving. The volume coupled with the authority in his voice seemed to shake some of the tiredness out of them as they complied.

Turning to Thinker and Yulier, he said, "You should probably come along too. You two aren't half-bad in terms of skill, but your levels are a little low to guarantee your safety when we engage the boss. Besides, I would think you need to see the rescue portion of this mission to its conclusion."

Thinker nodded and followed Godfree outside, Yulier trailing closely behind. The door slammed shut behind them, creaked for a moment, and then fell outwards with a crash to the ground. Kirito barely gave it a passing glance before turning to face the people remaining. Asuna gave him a look that seemed to say, "Alright, you got us into this, you take over the planning."

He scratched his head and sighed. He liked it better when he wasn't the one responsible for making decisions. Just sit back, let others do the work figuring out tactics, and adjust his actions on the fly if a fight got too out of hand. He was a swordsman, not a tactician. Playing as a solo allowed him to avoid responsibilities and yet here he was, on the frontlines with over two dozen fellow clearers looking at him for advice. Fate had a sense of humor.

"Alright, someone else is going to have to do the actual planning on how we're going to run this boss into the ground, but I have a few observations that might help us in taking it down…"


"We're lost, aren't we?"

"Shut up, kid. We're not lost."

"Then why the hell do you keep checking your map every 30 seconds?"

Phileas quickly put away the menu floating in the air in front of him with a flick of his wrist. It wasn't that they were lost, per say, but they had to keep backtracking because of obstructions in the road. By the time he and Raker had reached the spot where they had seen the firework come from, the area had already been cleared out.

"Just admit it, we're lost," Raker continued. "And the great Captain Phileas, world-renowned traveler and explorer, can't navigate his way out of a paper bag."

Phileas groaned. This kid…It wasn't fun being reminded of how bad he had been back when he was younger. He wouldn't be surprised if some jackass of a Shinto deity was watching him right now, manipulating events and proclaiming something profound about karma while laughing at him the entire time. He really needed to change religions…

"You know what?" Phileas declared, feeling the need to blow off some steam. "You're absolutely right. We're completely lost and wandering in circles. There's no food or water left. Hungry zombies are just around the corner and the boss is secretly plotting our demise as we speak. I have absolutely no idea how to get out of here while everyone else has already left and they haven't realized we're missing yet. Happy now?"

Raker grimaced. "When you put it that way, not really. Can't you be more upbeat?"

"You want upbeat? Fine, I lied about the lack of food and water. We don't actually need it," the older man replied as he peered down an alleyway for signs of movement. Nothing that he could spot, but he made his way down carefully anyways. He didn't trust his low level «Searching» skill much.

"You coming boy? I don't have all day," Phileas called back.

Raker put his arms behind his head and strolled down as carefree as if he were inside the 1st District. "If we're going to die anyways, you don't need to be in such a rush," he replied. The building behind the teen gave a groan and shuddered. With a fearful look backwards, the boy broke into a run. Gasping on the other side of the alleyway, he quickly explained his change of heart, "On the other hand, a nice brisk jog never killed anyone."

The shock of another close call, thankfully, shut the kid up for a few minutes. It wasn't until they reached what looked to be a main road that he addressed Phileas again.

"So—what's our plan?"

Phileas turned towards Raker, raising an eyebrow questioningly. "You've been following behind me for how long now? And you only just decided to ask?"

The boy shrugged and muttered, "Hey, I was distracted and not really thinking calmly."

"Story of my life, kid," Phileas replied. Several dark shapes shambled out into the street about a 150 meters away. "Looks like trouble. We're going to avoid th—hey!"

Raker had unshouldered his rifle and was moving into range to shoot. Try as he might to chase after the younger member of the «Ranged Division», Phileas couldn't catch up to him. The boy had put more points into «Agility» than he had and also, as he had mentioned earlier, was a few levels higher.

"I'm seriously getting too old for this crap," he muttered angrily to himself.

The boy took down one of the enemy swiftly, nailing a headshot from 10 meters away from the enemy. Phileas knew what Raker was planning. The teenager had a habit of shooting from a range that would allow him one reload before the enemy reached him. As expected, he was standing out in the middle of the road, completely exposed as he casually tapped a large caliber lead ball down the barrel of his rifle with a ramrod.

Raker did know what he was doing, but Phileas thought he saw the boy hesitate before pulling the trigger. That lost moment allowed one enemy from the group to lunge at him, knocking the young «Ranged Division» member to the ground. His gun went skittering across the stone road and the heads of the rest of the group of zombies turned towards the noise it made. They stumbled in the direction the weapon had went, bumping into one another in their haste to turn.

"What the hell are you doing?" Phileas shouted, finally catching up. He pulled the walking corpse off his companion and punched it in the jaw, sending it backwards a step but only doing minimal damage.

"T-that «Turned»… it's—" Raker stuttered.

Frowning, Phileas focused on the enemy for the first time rather than his guildmate. He wasn't great with faces but then again, the monster barely had anything recognizable as a face. However, the tattered outfit looked familiar; especially the broad-rimmed hat.

"That's what happens when you don't take things seriously when you have to," Phileas said pitilessly, directing his words towards both Raker and the walking corpse.

The zombie grabbed Phileas by the shoulders and made a move to bite down on his neck. The middle-aged man put a stop to it by jamming his wheel-lock pistol into his assailant's maw. The «Turned»'s head vanished as he pulled the trigger, disappearing in a cloud of smoke and prismatic sparkles. The sound from the discharge earned him the attention of the rest of the enemies in their vicinity.

"We need to go," Phileas noted, helping Raker to his feet.

"Dude—you killed him!" Raker said, looking stunned. "The two of us were chatting—fifteen minutes ago and you just shot him in the face!"

"Kid," Phileas warned. The group of zombies was closing in fast and he hadn't reloaded yet. "There's a time and place for everything. Now and talking, however, do not go together very well. You can whine and bitch to me later. For now, let's put my plan from before into action and get the hell out of here. I want to find a place where I can get a better view of the area."

Raker turned his head towards where Jessie-Jame's undead corpse spasmed on the ground. Phileas could almost see the boy's thoughts as he tried to make sense of things; the two of teens had been trading jabs not too long ago. His mind simply couldn't accept the fact that his ally was gone as reality. Almost as in response to Raker's confusion and denial, the zombie's body chose to follow its owner's head into oblivion with the sound of shattering crystal at that moment. Nodding to Phileas and looking as if he was suppressing the urge to vomit, Raker indicated that he was ready to go.


"Dammit, I told you we should have met up with the others when the signal went up!"

Sataki pushed back against the door as the enemies on the other side pounded furiously, trying to break in. Two other men from other guilds, a wiry two-handed mace wielder named Decker and a muscular gunner who went by the name of Shinta, lent their strength as well. Good thing as well, because with his primarily Agility-based build, Sataki doubted he could hold the small horde on the other side back for long.

"Hey, it could be worse. At least the door still has a ton of durability left. In a real zombie flick that flimsy thing would be battered down in a minute flat," a member of the «DDA» called out from the back of the room where he was recovering his health slowly. Despite their initial claims that they would work by themselves as a guild, it seemed that a few members of the «DDA» had gotten separated from their party members. It was too dangerous to move about alone, so they had sought out the closest party, which had been Sataki's.

Things weren't going very well. They had started to run low on healing supplies a while back and decided amongst themselves that they would save the remainder for life-threatening emergencies only. For now, anyone with over 30% health had to sit still out of view of the windows to avoid getting hit by a random shot from the boss and out of combat in order to heal up. The rest, such as Sataki, were in charge of keeping the undead at bay. Although the door itself was holding out, each time the living dead on the other side collided into the barrier, a small portion of damage was transferred to the people on the other side. It was a matter of time before the horde outside wore them out or battered the door down. By rotating the players who pushed back, they had managed to keep the enemy from getting inside so far.

"Do you smell something?" Sataki asked, sniffing the air. There was a putrid, smoky scent in the air which reminded him of the time his sister had tried her hand at cooking.

One recovering members of the group chanced a look outside the window. He immediately stuck his head back inside to avoid the grasping hands just outside. "You just had to open your mouth, Jin," he exclaimed sarcastically. "It's now 'worse.' Our roof just caught fire."

Everyone began to panic. Between the undead just outside and the roof that would eventually collapse down on them, their future prospects looked bleak. The terror was contagious and had soon reduced the half of the players who were recovering into shivering wrecks. Not that Sataki could blame them, seeing as they were the "closest to death" based on their health bars. Still, the atmosphere was beginning to get to him.

In a move inspired by Sinon, he fired his rifle upwards into the ceiling, jarring everyone to their senses with the noise. A voice inside his head chuckled wryly at how he was mimicking the actions of a teenage girl in order to calm his nerves and restore order. At that moment, another shove from behind as the «Turned» on the other side pressed against the door sent him stumbling a step forwards.

Pretending to be calm as he mentally commanded his heart to stop threatening to burst out of his chest, Sataki righted himself and spoke. "Panicking won't help us here. We need to stay calm and think of a way out of this."

"A way out? You've got to be kidding. Have you seen how many undead there are outside? They're all clearer-class «Turned» too! And if they don't get us, the building's going to collapse and do the work for them!"

"There's always a way out," Sataki insisted. "No matter how desperate the situation, there's always a solution. I refuse to believe otherwise." He glared at everyone present. "Even if you're second-stringers, even if you don't believe in your own abilities; you're frontliners. Act like it!"

His words jolted the men to their senses. At the very least, they seemed to calm down a bit. Sataki, however, felt more nervous than ever. It was as if he had taken all their fears into himself. He felt queasy, his stomach churning due to his anxiety. Why the hell were they all looking at him expectantly now? He had only wanted to get them to quit with the defeatist talk because it was driving him insane. He wasn't cut out for leadership. Sataki turned to the man next to him, opening his mouth with the intent to pass the burden of command to him instead.

"What's the plan?" the man, Decker, asked before Sataki could speak. He, too, was looking at him as if he expected an answer.

Shit…

Sataki scratched his head and sat down with a sigh. Leading was a pain in the ass, one of the reasons why he hadn't taken charge when the «Ranged Division» had lacked direction. It was just so much easier to let someone else do the thinking and issuing of orders. It also meant he didn't have to worry about screwing up and getting people eaten by a horde of hungry dead. Sataki was almost certain that Phileas was the same way. He suspected the old man was more used to giving commands than he let on.

"Alright, let's take an inventory," he finally said, chastising himself mentally. "Do we have anything that might be able to disorient the undead or cloak us if we make a break for it?"

Everyone except for those holding the door shut searched through their inventories. Almost a dozen menus glowed in the air, lighting the room as well as torches would have done. Eyes quickly scanned through list after list, seeking a miracle.

"Nothing but junk. A bit of food, a player-written guide, and a small bit of leftover gunpowder from crafting."

"Sheesh, I need to stop being such a packrat—got some candy, a hammer, a pair of pliers, shears…I thought I got rid of this already!"

This went on for almost a full minute before Sataki heard something that drew his attention. Turning to the young «DDA» warrior who had just rattled off a bunch of item names under his breath, he exclaimed, "Wait…you had fireworks with you? Why the hell didn't you say so earlier?"

"I didn't even know I had them with me," he protested. "Besides, what we would do with them anyways? They're just cosmetic items."

Sataki hit his head against the wall with a soft thud to let some of his frustration out. Chuckling madly, he answered, "Didn't you listen when we first came in here? We can use red ones to signal for help. We didn't have to be stuck in here terrified out of our wits this whole time." He felt something snap inside of him as he began to laugh.

"And what if they've already left?" the boy asked nervously, shuffling his feet as he stood up to face Sataki. "What if no one comes to help us?"

"Then you'd better make your peace, because the only damn alternative strategy I can think of is to mount a full-force push to try to break free of this place," Sataki replied, a roguish grin creeping across his face. He didn't think it would come to that though and the news that they could call for help was the best he had heard since entering this hellhole.


Sinon was helping set up an ambush point when a massive explosion shook the street beneath her. A few fireworks detonated in the sky, painting the town with a veritable rainbow of colors for one brief and thunderous moment. The majority of the explosions seemed centered at ground level, sending a jet of sparks just above the rooftops.

"Sounds like someone might be in trouble," Kirito noted. He clapped his hands together a few times to shake the dust off. "Want to go check it out?"

"Not really," Sinon replied, checking over the wreckage they had moved to create a barrier in the middle of the road. Stretching across the entire street and measuring over 5 meters in height, it wasn't meant to be a fortification. Its purpose was to prevent the enemy boss from fleeing in this direction.

"Aw, come on," Kirito said in a mockingly pleading voice. "You know you want to…"

"Can't say that I do," Sinon replied. Kirito looked at her doubtfully, his eyes glinting the way they had always done in the early days of the death game. "Alright, fine," she said after a moment, "I'll go with you if you insist. It'd leave a bad taste in my mouth if I found out some idiot ended up getting killed over there."

Kirito grinned at her, "I knew you couldn't resist. We'll make a hero of justice out of you yet."

"The idiot I was talking about was you," Sinon snapped at him. "I still haven't paid you back yet that stunt you pulled. Need to keep you alive until I get the opportunity to show you what getting stomped on the face feels like."

Kirito laughed before shouting to the others nearby that he was going to check out the commotion. He spun around and sprinted off, the tail of his coat billowing out behind him. Sinon checked to make sure her gun was fully loaded before running after him. A few others from the group followed after her, their figures getting smaller as she left them behind in the dust.

-o-

Kirito was already at work when Sinon caught up to him. Spinning about in a black blur, he sliced through the neck of one enemy before flipping his sword around to a reverse-grip and impaling the same foe through the stomach with a backwards-aimed stab. His target gave a feeble groan before collapsing to the ground.

"Yo," he greeted. "What took you so long?"

Sinon met his cheerful salutation with a glare. Unshouldering her weapon, she ignored the boy, took aim over his shoulder, awaited the moment when the targeting circle was smallest, and pulled the trigger. The shot caught another «Turned» right in the face.

"Tch," Sinon clicked her tongue. She had been hoping to shake Kirito up a little with that shot but he remained completely calm, turning around rapidly to casually deflect a blow before lopping off his assailant's arm at the shoulder with an upwards slash. She ejected the empty bullet casing and reloaded. Aiming carefully, she annihilated both that target and the one behind it, the bullet blowing a gaping hole through the torso of the first and striking the second with enough force to knock it to the floor. No matter how heavily armored the zombies were, a round from a weapon designed to take down modern armored vehicles would punch through that protection easily.

There was a commotion from the other side of the undead horde and light from their «Death Effects» told Sinon that another group of fighters had also decided to come to the aid of whomever had launched the earlier distress signal. She would have to be careful not to hit one of them accidentally through over-penetrating a target.

The sound of footsteps behind her told her that the frontliners who had been in her group had finally caught up. Almost on cue, a ripple passed through the enemy crowd as the door to the house they had been besieging opened and a barrage of gunfire sounded from within. With an assortment of battlecries, a group of about a half dozen armored players charged outside and fanned out into the gap created by the volley, forming a defensive half-circle. Caught between three fronts, the sizeable crowd of undead thinned out quickly and was completely wiped out in a matter of minutes.

"Why am I not surprised to find you here, Kirito-kun?"

It seemed Asuna had been the one to lead the assault from the other side. She pointed a finger at Kirito as she continued, "Did you finish setting up your area already? I don't need to remind you that trying to kill the boss now was your idea, do I?"

"Nice to see you too, Asuna," Kirito replied, ignoring the «KoB» officer's slightly combative tone as he sheathed his sword on his back. "Despite your hatred of reckless heroics, it seems like you got here in a hurry."

She puffed up indignantly and opened her mouth to speak. Then, as if reconsidering, Asuna made a point of ignoring the swordsman and turned instead to Sinon. She gave her a curt bow and said, "I know he probably troubled you and dragged you into this. Since he obviously has no regard for manners, I feel obligated to apologize on his behalf." Her overly formal tone was an obvious dig at the Black Swordsman.

"Ah—it was—," Sinon began. There was no right answer. Agreeing would her friend would only encourage her to chew out Kirito while disagreeing might be considered a minor betrayal.

A hard smack on her back knocked her off-balance. Turning around, Sinon was confronted by Sataki's broad smile. She hadn't noticed him earlier despite him being a part of her division. Maybe it was because he didn't have any features that made him stand out. Still, she felt a little bad about it.

"I thought that first gunshot sounded familiar," he said in a friendly tone. "Thanks for the assist, we were in a pretty bad spot."

The building Sataki's group had been taking refuge in chose that moment to begin creaking. The flames had engulfed the entire second story and tongues of fire were flickering out of the windows. The clearers eyed the place warily before moving a few meters further down the road as a precaution.

After she got their attention, Asuna began to fill the men they had rescued in on the details of the plan. Sinon noted that they were hanging on the girl's every word as if their lives depended on it. Perhaps their near-death experience had corrected the carefree attitude many of them displayed at the start of the expedition. Only time could tell.

"If there aren't any questions, we'll break off back into our groups," Asuna said. "Decide on who your leader is going to be, I'll give him a stash of fireworks for signaling purposes since it seems like you lot pretty much burned through all the ones you had."

One of the youngest members of the rescued party grinned sheepishly. He muttered something about the instructions in the item description being poorly worded. A quick vote was taken and, to Sinon's surprise, Sataki was unanimously (with one exception) voted as the party leader. He protested loudly that he didn't want the position.

"Shut up," a «DDA» member joked. "The only guy who didn't vote for you was—you. Your objection is overruled. Face your fate like a man."

"I guess that's that," Sataki grumbled to Sinon as they began to split up and head to their positions. "You sure I can't convince you to take my place here?"

Sinon gave him a sympathetic pat on the back. "Have fun," she replied. "Maybe if you're lucky, they won't be as much trouble as you lot were the first few days I was with you guys." She ran off after Kirito who had already disappeared around the corner. Looking back, she met Asuna's gaze and mouthed the words, "Don't worry, I'll make sure to keep him out of trouble for your sake." In her mind's eye, she imagined her friend's face taking on a faint red hue.


"So that's what they're planning…"

Raker stood by idly as Phileas peered through a small brass telescope at the top of the tower. It was one of four identical towers placed in the cardinal directions around the town center. Phileas had chosen to head to the southern tower because it was closest. Trying hard to look casual as he ignored how high up in the air they were, the boy muttered about how this was a waste of time. The older man ignored his complaints and waved for him to come over, handing Raker the telescope.

"Tell me what you see," he said, "Your eyes are better than mine are."

"That's a load of bull. The Nerve Gear doesn't take your real-life vision into account." Raker grumbled some more but complied. "I see a bunch of people moving around a lot of debris. What the hell are they doing? You know, if there're people out there, we should just meet up with them already, shouldn't we?" He handed the telescope back to Phileas. Then, he chanced another peek over the edge of the tower and was instantly seized by a sense of vertigo.

"Fool," his companion replied. "They're obviously going to try to corner the boss. It makes a good deal of sense too, considering how mobile it seems to be." The two had seen the skeletal figure blazing down a street atop its mount from their vantage point a little while earlier. "Learn to use your head and think about what you're seeing, kid."

"Gah! I'm sick of being called kid by you already! Use my damn name," Raker complained, moving away from the edge of the tower. They were pretty damn high up in the air. "And what does it matter if I don't care about that kind of thing? All I need to do is follow orders, stay alive, and shoot things, not necessarily in that order."

"Look kid," Phileas began, earning him a glare from Raker. Unlike Sinon, Raker's glares seemed to be completely ineffective. He'd have to work on that, it was embarrassing to be outdone by a girl several years his junior and a full head shorter. "You're at that time of your life where you'll end up making a lot of mistakes. Some you can laugh off, some you might regret for years—but others are a whole lot more permanent. Especially in this completely fucking insane deathtrap we're all stuck in." The old man sighed melancholically. "I don't mean to be this hard on you, but you remind me too much of myself when I was your age to sit back idly and watch things unfold."

Raker chuckled grimly and snarked, "What century was that in?" Though, truth be told, he felt that this Phileas was a whole lot easier to be around than the one who unhesitatingly blew the heads off of zombies and watched buildings collapse on top of people without flinching.

"The 20th, actually," he answered dryly. "Great time to be a know-it-all brat thinking he was invincible and couldn't do wrong."

Phileas sat down, letting out an exhausted sounding grunt as he did so. The old man set the telescope and his weapon, a crossbow, down beside him before indicating that Raker should sit down and make himself more comfortable as well.

"I did a bunch of stupid things when I was your age," he began. "You probably wouldn't be able to guess how bad I was back then. Thing is, everybody makes mistakes and embarrasses themselves from time to time. But you and me, we're the type that put them all to shame in that department."

"Speak for yourself!" Raker protested. "I'm perfectly fine as I am!"

Phileas chuckled and shook his head. "No doubt. But stop and think for a moment: If you didn't have someone to watch your back today, do you think you'd still be alive?"

Raker considered the man's question. Between the building that had almost collapsed on top of him and his hesitation in killing that «Turned» just because it was someone he had known for a few minutes… The old man had a point. He probably would have died at least 3 times today. Not that Phileas would ever hear a thanks coming from his lips for it. Thankfully, the geezer didn't seem to expect any either.

In any case, the eldest member of the «Ranged Division» seemed to have picked up on Raker's thoughts, because he continued, "As long as you have someone to watch your back, it's alright to be reckless and act like an idiot from time to time. Hell, I myself ran away from home after getting in an argument with my parents when I was about your age."

"Oy, old man, don't get sentimental on me now," Raker said. "Last thing I need is to drag a senile old coot like yourself back to the «Black Iron Castle» with undead crawling all around this area." Phileas slapped him in the back of the head lightly, causing the boy to rub his head and complain, "Ow! Hey, I was serious!"

"So was I," Phileas remarked. "I told you that you reminded me of myself. Part of that has to do with our situation. You're stuck here in another world without any friends from the real world around as far as I can tell. Me, I ran away, lied about my age, and got a job on a freight carrier. Ended up getting ship-jacked by some pirates out at sea somewhere offshore of Africa."

"Oh come on," Raker groaned. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Nope," the old man grinned, showing mirth for the first time in a long while. It felt almost like they were back inside the safety of the guild base. "Ended up having to travel across half the continent with just a canteen, the clothes on my back, and a knife that I pickpocketed off one of the guys who hijacked our ship before stranding us on an island just off the coast."

Raker had no doubt that his face was one of disbelief as Phileas laughed and continued his tale. "Where did you think my travel stories came from? Anyways, I was pretty much forced to join a mercenary unit in order to eat, having no real skills that I could sell. I learned a lot during that time, but also saw quite a few things I wish I hadn't. That's why I was actually glad when you were unable to pull the trigger on that chatterbox-turned-zombie."

"Glad? I thought you were pissed as hell!" Raker exclaimed. "You sure didn't sound that way back there."

Phileas shrugged, "Naïve as you are and harsh as this world is, what you did wasn't wrong, even if it could have gotten you killed. The moment you become willing to kill someone you see as human for any reason, to be directly responsible for ending a life, you lose a bit of yourself."

Raker got up and kicked Phileas in the shin. It shouldn't have hurt, but the boy found it rather amusing how the usually implacable "Captain" clutched at his leg as if it had.

"Guh! What the hell was that for?" the older man exclaimed indignantly. "Didn't your parents ever teach you to respect your elders or has that lesson never penetrated your thick skull?"

"You're seriously creeping me out," Raker replied. "Really, if you're going senile, can you do me a favor and wait until we're out of here before you break down? That philosophical bullshit you were spouting back there?" Raker made a sweeping gesture above his head with his right hand. "Yeah— didn't get any of it."

Phileas stared at him wordlessly for a moment, then began to chuckle. "Right," he answered, shaking with mirth. "I guess I never did expect you to get it. Well, just consider it payback for all the whining I had to put up with from you." He stood up and walked to the edge of the tower, bringing his telescope back up to his eye. "Well, wouldya look at that; looks like they're finally ready. And the closest group is—" Suddenly, he burst out in laughter.

"What is it?"

Phileas shook his head. "You'll find out when we get there," he answered vaguely. "But it looks like I'm not the only one saddled with babysitting duty."

"What did you mean by—" Raker shouted indignantly. "Hey! Geezer! I'm not through talking to you dammit!"

The boy popped open the trapdoor that had closed behind his senior and rushed to catch up.


"Fire!"

Kirito covered his ears as a half-dozen ranged fighters leaned out the windows of the surrounding buildings and opened fire. Of them, only one wasn't using a firearm, choosing to use a crossbow instead. From the red tracer line that accompanied every projectile, he noted that two shots were a complete miss; one passing below the enemy and striking the street while the other passed harmlessly to the side of the boss as it rode towards the melee group stationed in the middle of the road.

"You guys ready?" Kirito asked, dropping into a ready stance, his hand reaching over his shoulder and gripping the haft of his weapon.

"Can I say no?" a slightly older teenage boy replied nervously as he readied his spear. "They never told me how freaking scary cavalry is."

Kirito snorted. "At least this one is ranged cavalry. If it had a lance, I'd be the first to get the hell out of its way."

There was no more time for idle banter as the boss had closed the distance to them by half. The goal was to deal enough damage to force it into a retreat and make it travel in a direction which would lead to one of the many dead ends they had constructed. Dodging to the side, Kirito unleashed the first hit of «Horizontal Square», leaving a gaping red gash in the side of the skeletal mount's flank. «The White Rider»'s momentum carried it forwards enough so that Kirito's second strike came from behind, slicing neatly across its mount's upper shins.

At this point, the boss stalled in its charge, leaving it vulnerable to attack; an opportunity that two spear-users seized upon as they flanked their target and thrust with their weapons. As soon as they recovered, the two retreated; and just in time. Kirito had completed the third swing of «Horizontal Square», mirroring the wound he had caused on the other side, and had just maneuvered to the front of the boss to deliver the final blow. The enemy reared up on its hind legs as Kirito struck, front legs kicking out at him. Moments before he would have been hit, a loud gunshot, easily recognizable as Sinon's even though Kirito couldn't see her, rang out and caused the boss to rear his mount up even more. Kirito recovered from the momentary stun at the end of his skill use in time to avoid the horse's hooves as they slammed down where he had been standing.

"Nice timing, Sinon," Kirito shouted gratefully as he retreated behind the line of more heavily armored melee. Being hit would have meant losing a bit of health, probably not enough to be considered dangerous, but enough to make him lose some time in recovering health with a potion just as a precaution. Time they could ill afford to waste if they wanted to pummel the boss into a retreat.

Kirito stared straight at the boss and it stared back at him, eyes glinting as it recognized him as the annoyance that had led it on a merry chase earlier before dropping a building atop it. He had just enough time to think 'Oh crap" when it completely ignored all the gunfire aimed at it, bypassed the shield-bearers, and went straight for him.

"You've got to be kidding me!" Kirito exclaimed, leaping to the side to avoid being trampled. He quickly got up to find a red beam pointing straight at his chest. "Dammit! What did I ever do to you?" he asked rhetorically as he swung his sword upwards while tilting his head. The spear-like projectile flew past his face, the fletching actually brushing across his cheek as it went by.

"Hey Kirito! It looks like you've made a friend," a girl's voice called out. "Why don't you go ahead and lead him to the trap?"

"Oy…Sinon," Kirito shouted back, quickly glancing at the window the sniper had called out from before returning his attention to the boss. "You're enjoying this a bit too much, aren't you? Kinda in a tight spot here."

"Nonsense," Sinon retorted, sounding as calm as usual. "Why would I ever savor the sight of the always unflappable and cool-acting Black Swordsman in such a position? You're tough enough to handle it, right?"

Well, her words were one thing, but at least her actions were another. The Hecate roared once more and struck the boss right above the eye-socket, chipping a shard of bone off. The boss's health bar moved noticeably. It was now down to about a third on its fourth bar. Dropping a burning house on top of it had dealt almost a full bar's worth of damage before it managed to free itself. Kirito looked around quickly for another building he might be able to try that trick with again. Then he reconsidered. It was a stupid idea. He had almost gotten himself killed the first time and right now, it seemed that his antics had triggered some sort of "kill on sight" programming in the boss.

"I don't suppose we can…" Kirito swung his sword with a grunt as the boss charged past, trying to trample him into the cobblestones again. "Talk things out…can we?"

The White Rider turned around and glared at him with fierce eyes which told him exactly how stupid his proposition was. "Negotiations…failed—as expected, I guess," Kirito muttered. He slipped on his most brazen smile and readied his sword once more, nodding to the melee troops behind the boss and indicating they should move in. "Ah whatever! It's more interesting this way anyway!"

He narrowed his eyes, focusing every ounce of his concentration on the boss. Although the boss snatched an arrow, nocked it, and readied its bow in the span of a heartbeat, Kirito saw every movement. A red beam appeared, pointing straight at his shoulder. With that as his signal, he unleashed his attack.

With a roar, Kirito charged forwards, his blade leaving a green trail as it shot forwards. One-handed Sword Skill, «Sonic Leap», a charging attack which closed the distance between the swordsman and the mounted archer in a split-second.

Up until now, there had been very few enemies with ranged attacks, but all members of the front-liners would have encountered them before. Assuming the behavioral pattern was similar between the «Osseous Archers» and their variants found from the 13th District onwards and this boss, it would take a moment before it was able to adjust to the sudden change in distance between itself and its target. Against a single ranged enemy, it was possible to confuse it by constantly charging and retreating: With time, it would be able to adjust accordingly, but most normal monsters would be long since dead before reaching that point. With multiple ranged enemies, it was better to run if alone unless one wanted to test out whether one's armor could prevent one from becoming a pincushion.

The trick was to be unpredictable. Despite the complex behaviors enemies were programmed with in «SLD», they still relied on that programming to tell them what action to take. Chaos was the key to staying alive; Kirito was confident in his ability to generate chaos.

He lowered his stance once again and faked another charge towards the boss while it was momentarily distracted by the shield-bearers moving in and slicing apart its hindquarters. He changed course as the mount reared up, front legs kicking towards him, and dashed into the nearest building and up to the second floor. Chancing a peek out the window, Kirito noticed the boss looking for him, bow at the ready.

Although most of its attention was focused on finding him, that didn't mean the melee fighters below were able to relax. One shield-bearer, getting complacent since he wasn't the main target, was sent sprawling as the skeletal mount kicked out with its rear legs. From his vantage point, it looked to Kirito as if that player would be alright. His health had gone down to about 70% from that hit, but he wasn't in any real danger as the boss wasn't focusing on him at the moment.

A loud gunshot rang out from the floor above him, prompting Kirito to grin. He hadn't realized it when he had ducked inside, but he had coincidentally ended up in the same building Sinon was using as her sniper's nest. Unable to resist, he headed up the stairs to the next level.

"Yo, Sinon! Hard at work?" Kirito asked as soon as he reached the top floor.

The girl he was addressing was crouched by an open window with her back to the wall, using a mirror in order to look outside without exposing herself to attack. At his words, she immediately set the mirror down on the floor and favored him with a cold glare.

"Shouldn't you be outside? You know…doing your job and swinging that blade of yours around like a barbarian?"

"Even barbarians know when it's better to lay low for a while," Kirito answered. "Besides, can't I drop in on a friend occasionally?" He gave a shrug to emphasize his words.

Sinon snorted. "We're not friends. Just…acquaintances with a common goal, similar traits and mentality, as well as a knack for getting on each other's nerves in a somewhat good-humored way."

"Sounds like friends to me," Kirito said decisively. The sniper gave him an odd look before returning to her task and firing another round outside. "Did the boss switch to another target yet?"

"It did," the girl replied offhandedly, peering through her scope. "They're getting their butts handed to them out there." She winced as a thud sounded from outside. "That was one of the lancers getting kicked halfway across the street. Looks like he's still alive though. At this rate, the shield bearers will get chipped down before they have a chance to recuperate. And once that happens—well, let's just say the rest of the melee won't be able to avoid being skewered by arrows."

"Those arrows can be deflected," Kirito replied. "It just takes a little bit of concentration to get the timing down."

He was surprised when, at his words, Sinon actually stowed her gun away and abandoned her post, walking straight up to him. Glaring up at him with icy eyes, the sniper made him feel as if he were the one who was half a head shorter. She poked him in the chest hard and, thinking it over, poked him once more for good measure.

"Listen. You're the only person I know who's insane enough to even try a stunt like that. A slight miscalculation in the timing and anyone trying to duplicate that lunacy is going to learn exactly what having a rusty two meter pole stuck through them feels like," she exclaimed. Sinon didn't seem angry with him, just exasperated. "Normal people," she continued, stressing the word "normal" like it was supposed to be important, "would try to get out of the way or hide behind something."

"Well, even abnormal people would want to run and hide when you're glaring at them like that," Kirito muttered.

"What was that?"

The look on the young sniper's face took on an even more menacing quality. Kirito cursed to himself; she had better ears than he had thought. "Nothing at all," he said quickly. Then, chuckling nervously, he added, "I'd better head on out. Don't want to distract you from your task for too long…"

Getting away sounded good to him right now. The Black Swordsman didn't like the sound of the words "running away." Strategic retreat, falling back to a more defensible position, and "get the hell out of there before the second girl he managed to annoy today decided to get together with the first and make his life a living nightmare" were all better-sounding alternatives inside his head.

The boss immediately turned towards Kirito as he exited the building. He had heard that skulls always look like they were grinning, but the expression «The White Rider» seemed to be giving off took that to a whole new level.

"I just can't seem to catch a break, can I?" Kirito said as he drew his sword from his back. All things considered, he felt less threatened right now than he had a few moments ago. He charged the boss, diving into the fray once more.


"Let's move! Hurry up and get in formation. The signal said the boss is heading our way!"

Sataki shook his head as a half-dozen men moved into position with an almost carefree slowness. One wouldn't think that they had stared death in the face less than half an hour ago based on their performance now. Really…why did he agree to lead them again? It must have been momentary insanity or something in the air. He could always blame the adrenaline rush from still being alive under the current circumstances as well.

"Looks like you're doing well!"

A hearty slap on the back sent him stumbling forwards two steps. Sataki turned around and greeted his comrades in the Ranged Division with a broad smile.

"Phileas-san, Raker…You guys didn't leave yet?" Sataki asked, truly glad to see familiar faces. Maybe he could get the more experienced Ranged Division member to take over his leadership position in this group. "In that case, why don't you—"

"Nope, that's your job, young man," Phileas answered before he could finish.

Sataki raised an eyebrow. "I hadn't even asked yet."

"You had the look of a mid-level manager about to pass the work onto your underlings," the older man replied with a chuckle as he scratched his bearded face. "I've seen that expression enough times to know what it means."

"Tch, fine," Sataki said. Oddly enough, he didn't feel too disappointed. "Since you're here, why don't you two join the ranged guys behind the shield wall?"

Raker looked over the area Sataki had set up. "This looks like something out of a history book," he noted. "I don't think anyone's made use of lines of riflemen like this in centuries." The boy glared at his seniors. "What's with that look? I paid attention in class…when they go over interesting things at least."

Sataki scratched his head and grinned. "Is that so? Well, you're right about the history thing—I got the idea from some period dramas. But it looked like a pretty effective way of organizing them since we're all stuck using these guns." He hefted his flintlock rifle and gave it an affectionate pat on the stock.

"Not a good idea," Phileas said simply. He pointed at the line of shieldbearers. "It's better to station the ranged players behind actual cover. Your tactic worked well in the early age of firearms because low accuracy meant firing in large volleys was the only real way to hit things and deal damage. Accuracy here is less about luck, unless your name is Raker." The teen shot him a resentful look which went completely ignored. "Don't forget that the boss is using a bow. Shields are meaningless if it decides to just arc its shots over the heads of your defensive line."

"Sounds reasonable—you seem to know a lot about this, Phileas-san," Sataki remarked. "You sure you don't want to—"

"I've worked hard enough keeping someone out of trouble today already," the old man replied, prompting Raker to protest. "Keep at it young man. Who knows? You might find that you like being in command."

A cry of "it's here!" caused Sataki to focus on the men at the defensive line. There was a clatter as the men brought their shields up into position, locking them together to form what was, Sataki hoped, an impassable barrier.

"Ranged! Change of plans, find some cover—quickly! You can fire when you get a good shot but more importantly, duck out of the way if you get targeted!"

They moved swiftly although Sataki couldn't tell whether they were really motivated by his leadership or if they were fueled by fear. He hoped it wasn't the latter; his own knees were shaking at the thought of having to lead these men into battle with the boss. Some, however, did not share his nervousness.

"Time to kick some ass!" one gleeful gunner called out as he ran past Sataki and gave them all a "V for victory."

Sataki groaned before turning to the other two members of his division. "Aren't you guys going to find a safer spot? You were the one who suggested it, Phileas."

There was a resounding crash from the front as the boss rammed into the wall of shields. Despite its overwhelming height advantage, the monster didn't jump over the barrier like Sataki had feared it might. Perhaps it wasn't programmed to do so. From a game-designer perspective, it made a little bit of sense; giving a boss too many advantages would make a battle unwinnable. From what he had observed, Kayaba, madman though he was, had created a harsh world, but also a fair one.

Sataki brought his rifle up to bear, pressing his cheek up against the polished wood of the stock in order to look down the sight. A red circle formed in his field of vision. Grinning, he remembered the lesson Sinon had taught him the first day she had come in to the «Ranged Division» shooting gallery and adjusted his aim so that none of the red circle overlapped with his men out front.

"Ready—Fire at will!" he shouted as loudly as he could.

The sound of gunfire exploded around him, not as a single volley, but staggered as the gunners each took their time to line up their shots. Sataki quickly ducked behind a tree and began to reload. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Raker do the same. Setting the ramrod back in place under the barrel of his gun, Sataki took a half-turning step out and aimed as quickly as he could. His heart-rate had increased, making it more difficult to shoot as the targeting circle kept pulsating in time with his heartbeats, but he managed to strike the boss in the chest.

"So far so good," he muttered.

The boss readied an arrow and returned fire, barely missing Raker as the boy rolled out of the way. The teenager stood up, gave the monster the middle finger, and pulled the trigger on his gun. He then ran out of sight more quickly than Sataki had ever seen him do before.

As the fighting raged on, the ranged members exchanging fire with the boss while the melee kept the enemy at bay, Sataki's aim grew steadily worse. The combination of fighting and the nagging thought that something was going to go wrong made it progressively more difficult to focus on shooting. He paid for his inattention when he barely avoided an arrow that was aimed at him. The shot hit him, cutting a gaping red gash along the outside of his right thigh and taking off a third of his health instantly. It wasn't a well-aimed shot, but it still did a lot of damage.

"Yo, you alright there?" Raker called out.

"I'm fine," Sataki replied through gritted teeth. He returned to reloading his weapon and took aim. His shot went completely off target and struck the side of a building to the side of «The White Rider». Cursing to himself and ducking behind the rubble of a fallen building for cover, he began to reload. As he did so, he noticed that his health had gone down. His hp was ticking down with each passing second. A small icon by his health bar showed a status debuff, a bleed. Sataki's blood ran cold.

He fumbled around in his pouch for a potion. Bullets…more bullets…gunpowder…Shit! He didn't have any left for himself after distributing them to the melee group, thinking they would need those most. If this was the real world, sweat would be beading on his forehead and dripping down the side of his cheek. As it was, his face was turning ashen as his health bar turned yellow. Something clattered to the ground and with a start, Sataki realized he had dropped his gun.

The bleed effect was slowly taking his health away.

His heart beat faster and he stared at the floor without moving. His rifle slid in and out of focus.

His hp dipped lower…

His mind ran in circles. He had no items to replenish his health or normalize his status.

The bleeding wasn't stopping…

He was going to die. He was going to die. He was going to die… Those thoughts looped through his head as his health ticked lower and lower. No one was going to save him. Even if his party members noticed his health dropping, he had grouped with the men at the front; they couldn't break formation to help him without giving the boss an opening to break through. And if it broke through here, it would be freed from the trap they had set for it and more people would die as a result.

His health dipped below 25%; the warning noise starting up inside of his head. Sataki considered shouting for help…no, none of the men inside the buildings would reach him in time.

How was he going to be able to face his wife after this? Sataki wondered why that thought flitted through his head; if he was dead, facing his wife wasn't going to be an issue. This was just supposed to have been a short dive into a virtual world with some friends from real life. They had died shortly after the game had begun. Part of his mind had always denied the fact that if you died here, you died in reality as well. What else could he think? He didn't want to accept that they were gone forever. But here he was now, staring at the health bar slowly draining away at the top corner of his vision; mocking him. Could he continue denying what Kayaba Akihiko had said on the first day when it was his life on the line?

Something clicked inside of him. He was going to die. There was nothing he could do about it at this point. All of a sudden, his vision seemed to zoom in on one object in particular. His gun. He had time for one last shot. One final act of defiance against this world and against Kayaba Akihiko.

Sataki picked up his weapon and took aim, his mind strangely focused and clear. Was it because he had accepted the inevitable? The targeting circle shrank more than it had ever done for him, down to a fist-sized bead centered on «The White Rider»'s head. His finger tightened on the trigger…

"You fucking moron!"

A strong blow to the side of the face sent Sataki sprawling to the ground. Phileas stood over him, rage contorting and adding more lines to his already wrinkled face. In his earlier tunnel-visioned state, Sataki had not noticed him approaching at all. The senior frontliner's player indicator had turned from green to orange, but that wasn't an important issue in Sataki's mind at the moment.

Phileas tossed an object to him. "Drink it," he ordered.

Sataki looked down at the glass vial sitting on his lap. The bright red liquid sloshing about inside was the most beautiful sight he had seen in his life. Uncorking it, he took a deep quaff of the contents, grimacing slightly at the bitter taste; Phileas was the type that claimed medicine should be bitter and added something to his potions which changed the taste. Sataki took a peek at hi health bar. The debuff was still there, but the rate of health gain from the potion had balanced out the health loss; until the potion's effect wore off, he would remain in this world and amongst the living.

"There was no point in giving me that," Sataki told Phileas as he got to his feet, "You only prolonged the inevitable. You should have saved it for someone who could use it more."

Truth be told, he felt a little annoyed at Phileas. He had just finished accepting his mortality and this guy just comes by and offers him a brief respite. Something nagged at him in the back of his mind, but it was the older man who gave voice to those thoughts.

"Then why the hell did you drink it?" Phileas asked gruffly. "Seems to me like you don't want to turn into one of those shambling undead types. Now stay still…I'm going to see if whoever programmed this stupid piece of crap took into consideration real-world medical practice."

Phileas took out a length of cloth and another object which looked like a lead pipe from his inventory. He quickly tied the ends of the cloth together and walked over to Sataki. "Sit down," he ordered. Without waiting for a response, he pressed down on Sataki's shoulders and forced him to sit.

"What are you pla—?" Sataki began to ask. He gave a grunt as Phileas slipped the cloth loop over his leg and used the pipe to wind the excess length down. Sataki felt the cloth squeezing down on his thigh above where he was injured; it didn't hurt, but the pressure was strong enough that he could no longer feel his leg below where it was wrapped.

"It's a tourniquet," Phileas explained. "Keep a hand on that pipe to keep the pressure on it and let me know if you still have that bleed on you."

Sataki glanced over at his health bar again. The debuff icon was still there, but it was grayed out. Presumably it would start up again if he loosened the tourniquet. He tried to stand up, but found it nearly impossible to do so with his leg tied up. In fact, it was almost as if he didn't have that leg at all.

"Kid—get over here and make yourself useful," Phileas ordered, waving Raker over.

"Old-timer, I *am* being useful. Dealing damage and sticking with the plan," Raker shouted back. As if to prove his point, he took another potshot at the boss, missing spectacularly in his haste.

"Get your ass over here," Phileas retorted. "Your accuracy sucks anyways."

"Fine!" the boy replied, sounding aggravated. He jogged over to where Sataki was and helped him to his feet. "Need me to babysit him as well, old man?"

"You said it," Phileas replied, pointing to a nearby building. "Take shelter in there and try to stay away from the windows. I don't exactly have enough materials to make many more of those if you get hit as well."

"What about leading?" Sataki protested. "I need to—"

"You can do that from inside the building," Phileas cut him off. "I'm sure the men won't mind under the circumstances. As the leader of this bunch, you have an obligation to stay alive and make sure everyone is doing their assigned task, not get yourself killed looking pretty out here in the open in order to try to inspire them."

"But—"

"Do as you're told, youngster!"

As Raker helped him inside the building, laughing all the while at his expense, Sataki could have sworn he heard Phileas muttering something about kids these days.


"Get ready! The signal just went up," Asuna called out, brandishing her rapier. "The boss is heading our way and we're going to close this net around it. Let's end this fight here and now!"

Her group, consisting of mostly veterans from the «KoB», was too disciplined to cheer. Instead, they acknowledged her orders by getting into battle formation. The plan was to prevent the boss from getting past before the other groups arrived in an effort to buy time for the fires in the buildings they wanted to pull down to reach a critical level, and then form a gap in their ranks, allowing the boss to run by into the killing field they had set up.

They did not have long to wait. The boss appeared around the corner and charged towards them at a ground-shaking gallop. Its glowing blue eyes created a pale sinuous line that tracked the movement of its head as it approached. Asuna drew her rapier from the sheath attached to her belt and prepared to go in. One red line appeared leading from the boss to their group, but the projectile was blocked by a member of the shielding party and clattered to the ground. Moments later, the defensive line buckled from the impact of the boss crashing into it but held.

"Strikers, move in," Asuna ordered, dashing through an opening that the shield bearers had briefly made to allow them through. A total of five melee damage dealers made it through before the tanks closed the gap.

Asuna concentrated on the target, the boss which had slain so many players. Very few people would be able to tell, but right now, she was seething. Anger directed at the boss, at Kibaou for his idiocy, at the players who had gone in prepared, at herself for being able to only do so much despite her supposed strength, at Kayaba Akihiko for trapping them all in this insane world of his…Her rage was directed at a hundred different sources and it lent her blade strength. Unlike many people, her anger was not the sort that clouded her mind. Instead, it was a focused fury.

She led with «Alcor's Tears», a swift 3-hit thrust combo followed by a quick sidestep and two whip-like slashes with the tip of the blade tracing the shape of a "V". A five-hit «Sword Skill» would usually leave her open for a long enough time that she would risk getting hit, but she chose the move because the sidestep would move her out of the way of the slower members of the Striker group right behind her. And while she usually preferred only using the precise and efficient stabs of other skills, the additional slashes at the end suited her mood today.

She fell into a cycle of hit and runs against the boss, slowly chipping away at its health alongside the rest of the Strikers outside the safety of the defensive line. Their objective was to harry the boss as much as possible and prevent it from focus firing any single target in order to minimize risk and damage taken. Anytime someone was struck, that person would retreat behind the tanks no matter how minor the injury was and someone else would take their place while they recovered. Of the original five who had gone out, Asuna was the only one who did not rotate out yet.

She had become so engrossed in her target that she didn't notice when the members of the other groups started arriving, her attention focused solely on the boss's movements. It was her own group's line of tanks moving aside to let the boss through that clued her in to their presence.

"Damn, your group is professional as hell," an appreciative sounding voice said from behind her. "Hard to believe they're not even the best of the players in your guild. Impressive teamwork."

"If you think so, why don't you join us?" Asuna asked. "And please stop sneaking up on me like that, I keep thinking you're an undetected enemy and it's getting difficult to restrain myself and not turn and stab immediately."

"Not a chance," Kirito replied with a grin.

"Thanks for your hard work," Asuna said, speaking to the silent sniper who was standing behind the boy. Sinon had arrived right on Kirito's trail and the rest of their group was filtering in slowly behind.

"It looked like he was trying to get himself killed a few times," Sinon remarked expressionlessly. "But unfortunately, he didn't seem to manage it this time around." Asuna knew her well enough to translate that as "Kirito was being his usual self, but he didn't take too many risks." Then, her friend added, still sounding unconcerned, "That reminds me. There might be a little snag in our original plan."

"A snag?" Asuna asked. That was usually cause for alarm on the frontlines, but the way Sinon had said it made it seem less pressing.

The boss turned around, its mount snorting as it recognized its mortal enemy. Rearing back, it proceeded to gallop straight for the three teenagers. Kirito took a step to the side away from the girls and the monster automatically adjusted its movement to compensate.

"That would be the snag," Sinon explained. "For better or worse, Kirito seems to have become best friends with that thing. And by that, I mean that it pretty much ignores everyone else and tries to trample him into the ground whenever it catches sight of him."

"You have a really—odd—definition of friends," Asuna noted.

Sinon gave her a bemused look. "Trying your best to beat the tar out of one another…that's how male camaraderie is usually shown in media these days." She turned towards Kirito and added, loudly enough for him to hear easily, "Isn't that right, Kirito?"

The boy she addressed should have been too busy concentrating to retort. Asuna would have expected anyone else in that situation to be fighting for dear life.

"Haha," he shot back dryly. "You've—" He deflected a blow from the boss which was wielding an arrow like a short spear. "Had your fun—" Kirito rolled out of the way of a hoof strike. "Right?" he finished, having bought himself a little room. "I could use a little backup here."

Asuna couldn't resist saying, even as she ran to his aid, "What's this? The great solo player, Mr. 'Guilds-only-hold-me-back' himself, asking for backup? The world must be ending." She admitted to herself that it was an unfair dig at him, but it felt good to vent at him right now. After all, she had to put up with a lot of stress today, roughly half of which was his fault directly.

"New plan," she said as she took advantage of the opening Kirito created to use «Starfall Piercer», a 3-hit rapid stab combo with a short delay before unleashing two more hits. "You're playing the role of bait, Kirito-kun. Lead the boss to the kill zone if you would."

"I was afraid of that," Kirito sighed as he jumped in and attacked the boss without using a skill. He ducked and rolled underneath the boss's mount and sprinted for the defensive line. "Try not to spring the trap while I'm still inside, would you?" he shouted back towards Asuna.

Asuna shook her head. Sometimes she didn't get that boy's sense of humor at all. But he was stronger and more reliable than anyone else she knew, except perhaps the guild leader. If Kirito-kun said he was going to save someone, he would do it. That was why his threats of doing it alone if he had to were so effective. Asuna knew he meant it even if he didn't expect to have to.

Wait… She paused for a moment to think. Exactly why would Kirito's threats be that effective? Thinking about it logically, he was just one of many other players trapped in this game. Many had died already and many would die before they were through. It was almost as if she saw him as an exception to her usual impartial judgments. Why?

The sound of combat brought her out of her reverie. This wasn't the time to be thinking about that. The problem still bothered her, but right now, they had to take down the boss. The last of the other groups were arriving now. A young man was helping another, older man, get to where they were. If she remembered correctly, they were a part of Sinon's division. Their names were…

"Oy! Sergeant! You sure got here fast. Did we miss all the fun?" The boy shouted gleefully as soon as he saw Asuna's friend.

"Raker-san and Sataki-san," Sinon said, turning around to face them. "Wait… you're injured. You shouldn't be here!"

"It's just a flesh wound," Sataki replied with a grin. He stumbled before Raker helped him right himself. "Can't use my leg at all, but that won't affect my ability to pull a trigger, right? I need to thank the old man for that. Is Phileas around?"

"I haven't seen him," Sinon replied. "Was he with you guys?"

A haunted whinny filled the air, echoing through the streets and drawing their attention. While Asuna had been distracted, Kirito had brought the boss to the designated area. Deciding it was better to return to the battle instead of listening in on Sinon's conversation, Asuna headed for where the noise had come from in order to check on progress.

Godfree was overseeing the deployment of the trap they had set up. As Asuna approached, he barked out one final order to the men before turning to face her. "We're almost ready on this front," he said with his usual boisterous cheerfulness. In all the time she knew him, she had never once seen him get angry or disheartened no matter how bad things looked. It was that trait, combined with his force of personality which catapulted him to an officer position in the «KoB».

He was looking down the street with an appreciative smile. The sound of steel clashing upon steel rang out from the direction he was looking in. "Man, that kid sure is something, taking on the boss alone even if he's just focusing on dodging. I asked him if he wanted backup when he ran by, but he just told me point blank to get to work setting up the trap."

"How much more time do you need?" Asuna asked.

Godfree scratched his head and replied, "To be honest, I'm not sure. The ropes are all set up, but I have no idea when the buildings themselves will take enough damage to pull down. At the least, the building we tested it on hasn't budged the last few times we tried yanking on a rope."

"You tried to pull a building down while Kirito-kun is still out there fighting?" Asuna asked incredulously.

"It was only a small tug on one rope to test," the officer replied. "Not enough to bring a whole house down, I'd say."

"That's still…" Asuna shook her head. "No, I guess we have no choice but to do it that way. I'll help with buying time for your men. It seems that this boss isn't too capable in close combat against speed-focused fighters but stand by in case we need back-up."

She told herself that her decision was definitely not because she was a bit concerned about how Kirito-kun was doing fighting by himself.


"Hmmph, I was hoping this wasn't the case…"

Phileas muttered to himself from a position hidden behind some rubble. A large crowd of «Turned» was gathered in the area, attracted by the noise the raiders had made while forcing the boss into a corner. While the barriers they had set up were good enough for keeping the boss from passing easily, the same could not be said for the smaller zombies that infested this lair.

Whether it was an oversight or because they simply didn't have the manpower to defend every point of entry, the front-liners fighting the boss would be in for a nasty surprise if this army of the dead came up from behind them. At the least, it would mean more deaths as they adjusted to the new situation while simultaneously fighting the boss.

He considered the options he had available to him. Warn the others? No, they had enough on their plates. Phileas doubted that the ones who frequented boss battles would have missed this detail. Which meant that they were hoping to wrap things up before the «Turned» arrived. But judging from how close they were already, that hope was doomed to die. Perhaps he could get some melee fighters to create a defensive line around here? No, that wouldn't work either. Even if they didn't need every available hand to fight the boss, there was just no way they would be able to keep the enemy from getting through. Not when the battlefield was rife with alleyways and access points that the zombies could use to bypass their defenses.

He could just walk away. There was no one around to criticize him for taking the "coward's" way out. He'd done it in the past before; it was the reason why he was still alive, unlike the rest of his former company. But Phileas knew that wasn't an option anymore. He was no longer the self-absorbed, egotistic young man he had once been.

Phileas grumbled to himself. The feeling of being some sort of cosmic plaything had just intensified. Reason being that, after all that posturing and lecturing he had given Raker and Sataki about valuing their lives, the only action he could take now was every bit as stupid and suicidal as anything they had done, if not more.

Well, he had to admit that he had been tempting fate a bit when he chose his character's name in «SLD». He had taken his old call-name from his mercenary unit out of a sense of nostalgia; a name that had been jokingly bequeathed to him, taken from a Jules Verne book, when he had declared his intention of seeing everything the world had to offer. The name he was known by what seemed a lifetime ago.

"Fine then…" Phileas said, getting up from his hiding spot with a determined look in his eye. A few nearby «Turned» shuffled around in response to the noise he had made. A malevolent grin spread across his face, a relic of his past that he found himself fighting to suppress ever since entering this world. He declared in a loud voice, directing his challenge to the undead around him, "All journeys have to come to an end. I will personally guide you lost souls to the underworld!"


"The building's starting to give way!"

An almost celebratory shout rang out from the front, almost distracting Sinon as she took her shot. The bullet went a bit high but still hit the target, ripping a hole through the boss's mantle and blowing a chip off «The White Rider»'s collarbone. She gave a small 'tsk' of displeasure.

She peered through her scope again. It was unlikely that Kirito and Asuna didn't hear the shout go up, but the two of them were still busy fighting the monster. The two had been fighting non-stop for ten minutes now. Their fighting prowess was impressive; even someone like Sinon who never fought from melee range when she could help it could tell as much.

"Come on, what are you two doing?" Sinon muttered. "You're going to get caught in the trap if you don't get out of there now…"

There was no possible way they could have heard her from this distance. But if they were still fighting, there must be a reason. Neither Kirito nor Asuna would take risks unnecessarily. If they were staying in, there had to be a reason. Whatever the case, Sinon's job was to back them up from the rear. Anything outside of that, such as worrying for her friends, was just a needless distraction. She was ice.

Kachak…

Fragments of bone exploded outwards from the boss's ribcage.

Sinon reloaded again.

The boss's mount reared back instead of following through with an attack as a bullet struck it in the left kneecap.

She had one bullet left in her magazine. Through her scope, she could see Asuna shouting something at Kirito and pointing back in Sinon's general direction. Kirito shook his head and shouted something back before renewing an assault on the boss.

His attacks were fierce enough that they actually pushed the boss back. Slowly, step by step, the Black Swordsman advanced, heedless of the hits he was receiving in turn. Red gashes appeared in quick succession on his left shoulder, right leg, and at his side, just above the hip. They were shallow cuts, but the damage quickly added up to equal half of his health bar. The buildings to the side swayed dangerously, moving in sync with the men below who were pulling at them with ropes that were wrapped around trees, rusted lampposts, or any other supporting structure that could act as a makeshift pulley.

"You're running out of time, Kirito…that's good enough," Sinon murmured.

Almost as if he had heard her words, Kirito spun about, ducking under an arrow that the boss swiped at him like a spear, and dashed towards Asuna. Seeing him head for her, Asuna also began to retreat out of the zone where the trap would be triggered. The boss, recovering from a brief lapse after its attack, gave chase and rapidly closed the distance.

A shower of debris slowed the monster down slightly, but it was still going to catch up to Kirito before he reached safety. If he turned around to defend himself, he wouldn't be able to get to the edge of the trap before it was sprung.

"Once again, you melee guys leave all the cleanup to the ranged," Sinon said to no one in particular. She pulled the trigger, firing the last shot in her magazine just as the red indicator circle shrank to a gumball-sized dot on the boss's forehead.

A cacophony of gunshots rang out at nearly the same time, sending a thunderous peal skywards as a dozen other players realized that the end of the battle was drawing near and they reacted at different speeds. The end result was spectacular. Bombarded from above at all angles, the boss's mount reared back and was further slammed with additional projectiles, causing it to lose balance and fall. The crumbling structures around it finally gave way, collapsing on top of the struggling monster. A massive cloud of dust, ash, and soot billowed out down the street; it was impossible to tell where Kirito was, or if he was alright.

Swinging the Hecate II onto her back, Sinon raced down to the door of the building she had been holed up in and dashed for the front. She ignored the scattered cheers that rose from the ranks of players celebrating the success of the plan. Her only concern were the two friends she had been supporting. Asuna was alright. Even from this distance, it was impossible to miss her with her long chestnut hair and white uniform laced in red. However, Sinon couldn't see Kirito at all.

"You better not have gotten yourself killed," Sinon whispered softly.

Asuna was waiting where she had been earlier, having not moved a single step. For a brief second, Sinon wondered why, but then realized it must be because the thick cloud of dust and ash made it extremely risky to get closer, in case the boss freed itself quickly or worse, had avoided the trap altogether. Although she said nothing, it was obvious that her friend was fully concentrating on the scene before her, trying to make out any hint of the boy who had fought alongside her a mere minute ago.

A shadow appeared from within the smoke, distorted and vague at first, but growing darker and more distinct as it approached. Based on the size, there was only one person it could be.

"Really Kirito? You're going to make us wait as you take your time and try to look all dramatic exiting the destruction behind you?" Sinon mumbled. "Well, it suits you I guess."

The swordsman appeared a moment later, strolling along the road with a lopsided grin on his face and, it would seem, without a care in the world. He gave a cheerful wave to Asuna and Sinon but did not pick up the pace to reach them. The image was only slightly marred by a thin gray layer of ash and dust that had settled upon his hair and coat as well as the soot that blackened his cheeks.

"Are you alright?" Asuna asked calmly. Though she was trying to act as if she was asking only out of courtesy, Sinon detected a slight waver in her friend's voice. Kirito, however, didn't seem to notice.

"Perfectly alright," he replied, equally calmly. "It'll take a little more than a bunch of falling bricks to kill me."

Asuna opened her mouth to retort, thought better of it, then turned around and walked off towards the men from her guild with a "hmmph!" directed at Kirito. If she was dissatisfied with his answer, it was counteracted by the slight upturn at the corner of her mouth as she left.

Sinon turned to Kirito. "You're a pretty good liar," she said to him quietly so that Asuna wouldn't overhear. "But I'll forgive you this time since Asuna seems like she's in a good mood."

"What do you mean?" he asked with a straight face. His innocent act was irritating in its convincingness, especially since Sinon was well-aware of his real personality.

"You got caught underneath the rubble, didn't you?" Sinon accused. "Even taking into account how slowly you walked out, there's no way it would have taken you that long to get back here. Plus, those rips in the tail of your coat and at the leg of your pants weren't there when you were fighting the boss. Not to mention your health bar is full right now. It wasn't earlier, which means you drank a potion sometime when you were out of sight. You can heal the damage you've taken, but unless you've taking up «Sewing», which I know you haven't because you pretty much define the term 'Munchkin,' you can't do anything about your equipment durability."

"Ahaha…can't get anything past you, it seems," Kirito replied sheepishly. "Well, I'll admit I screwed up a little, but I made it out in one piece at least." Then, changing the subject as Asuna returned with the rest of the «KoB» in tow, he added, "I guess all we can do is wait and see what happens once the dust settles down. I hope that was enough to finish the job though…everyone looks exhausted."

He was right. Even the KoB regulars were looking worn out. While they had only done a small portion of the actual fighting, as the most experienced fighters in the raid, they had been in charge of setting almost everything up and overseeing the members of the other guilds. Although they would be able to last a while longer in combat, it would be a miracle if they could fight at half-efficiency.

The cloud of ash slowly dissipated over the course of five long minutes. In that time, not one person spoke a word; all eyes trying to pierce through the dust. The dust cleared to reveal…nothing but rubble. But just before the cheering could begin, a skeletal hand shot up from underneath the largest mound of debris. It waved about for a moment, clutching at air before faltering and dropping to the ground. A second later, it shattered in what was possibly the most beautiful «Death Effect» Sinon had seen.


-One day later-

"So, you're really leaving?"

Yulier's words did not seem to be seeking an answer. From the start, it was obvious that Sinon was ready to go, having turned in her resignation earlier in the day. In fact, she was officially not a member of the «Aincrad Liberation Force» anymore, having left the guild about an hour ago. The reason she wasn't gone yet was because she had a few things to take care of within the «Black Iron Castle» before leaving. That and it seemed that around every corner, someone was waiting either to pester her for details about what had happened the day before or to say an overly long goodbye.

It actually surprised her a bit; the number of people who actually seemed to want to bid her a friendly farewell. She had been under the impression that, outside of the «Ranged Division», most members of the «ALF» either didn't care to associate with her or were part of Kibaou's crowd. And more surprisingly, she found that she was actually giving them the time of day to do so instead of just going about her business. Which was why she had decided to drop all but the most vital of tasks she had to finish up so that she could leave before she ended up stuck all day in the castle or worse, changed her mind about leaving.

Yulier shook her head and spoke again. "You know, you're an odd one. You've caused your fair share of trouble for Thinker and me, but you've also gone above and beyond what you've promised to do. And while we've had our share of arguments and I was against you joining at first, I can't say I won't be sorry to see you go." The older woman sighed. "What I want to say is, if you ever need help, don't hesitate to ask. I know you'll just ignore what I just said, keeping up the 'tough loner' image, but still…"

Sinon smiled a bit. "It's more likely that you'll be the one coming to me for help," she replied. She turned around to leave before reconsidering. "But… I'll keep your offer in mind."

However, there was one final obstacle to get past before she would be able to get away. They were waiting for her just in front of the massive double doors that made up the main entrance to the «Black Iron Castle».

"Don't you guys have anything better to do?" Sinon asked, placing her hands on her hips.

It seemed as if the entire «Ranged Division» was gathered there despite the ordeal of the previous day. They had lost two members during the boss fight and, while that number might have been a small miracle in itself, there had been an uneasy sense that they could have done better when they had found out upon leaving the boss's lair. Even if they weren't in mourning, by all rights, the living members of the division should be resting today.

"You know us," Sataki replied with his usual cheerfulness. He didn't seem like someone who had almost died in combat less than 24 hours ago. "There wasn't anyone there to make us practice our survival skills in the field so we all ended up slacking off. Coincidentally, we all just decided to slack off right here by the main door."

"Whatever, just let me by," Sinon replied. "You're blocking the doorway."

"Sorry, no can do Sergeant," he said with a smug grin. "We've talked it over and decided that you won't get past us."

Sinon glared at him with such coldness that the man actually flinched. "You're overstepping your authority. In the first place, you answer to me, not the other way around. Now get out of my way."

That brought a smile to the face of almost everyone present, but Sataki didn't back down. "Well, seeing as how you're not a part of the guild anymore…technically I don't answer to you."

Sinon growled. She tried to push through, but the «Ranged Division» members were packed too tightly to get around. Every time she tried from a different angle, they would shift around so that the densest part of the crowd was blocking her. It was infuriating…they never showed nearly this much organization during training. She was just about to go and find a side exit when the sound of running footsteps behind her made her turn about.

"Am I late!?" Raker exclaimed loudly, as he tried to catch his breath. He put his hands on his knees as he looked towards Sataki.

"Slow!" the man shouted back. "After this, give me 5 laps around the base."

"Shut the hell up," the teen replied.

Meanwhile, Sinon was standing about looking more and more confused. "Will someone tell me what's going on?" she asked irritably. "I thought you guys were trying to stop me from leaving?"

"Ah, sorry about that, but it's not every day we get to see you flustered," Sataki grinned. Sinon kicked him in the shin as hard as she could. Even though he didn't actually feel any pain, it was a bit satisfying to see him briefly clutch his leg like it had hurt. He no longer wore a tourniquet on that leg. "Anyways, we weren't really trying to stop you…just delay you long enough for 'Mr. Slow-in-more-ways-than-one' here to get back here before you left."

"Hey! I heard that!"

"I meant for you to!" Sataki shouted back.

Sinon stood there, arms crossed as she waited for their bantering to end. If she didn't know any better, she would have guessed the two were siblings, with how often they engaged in that sort of friendly animosity.

"Oh crap!" Sataki exclaimed before mumbling something about Raker that was completely incomprehensible. "Sorry about that Sergeant, I almost forgot! But you see…it's a cold, harsh world out there…so we all chipped in to get you this."

With a dramatic flourish, he tried to snatch the bundle that Raker had tucked under his arm. The boy refused to let go and the two struggled over the package for a bit, each arguing about how the other was "ruining the moment." Then, breathing hard from exertion, on hand on his knee as he doubled up trying to catch his breath, Sataki handed the wrapped item over to Sinon unceremoniously.

"What's the matter? Your age catching up to you?" Raker challenged.

This time, Sataki didn't let the provocation affect him. In a more serious tone, he told Sinon, "It was actually Phileas's idea to get you a little something when you went. I think he knew that you would choose to go off on your own in the end. Seeing as how he…" He paused, not wanting to finish that sentence. "Nevermind…but this is for you. From all of us. And if you ever find yourself in need of help..."

"Thank you," Sinon replied earnestly. She tore open the package she had been given to reveal a light-tan colored scarf.

"Like I said," Sataki said with a grin. "It's a cold, harsh world out there. Hopefully this will help."

"You guys…" Sinon began. Then she cocked her head. "I've been meaning to ask…what's that commotion going on outside? Not a surprise you guys planned, is it?"

"Oh that," Raker said with a disinterested tone. He turned his head to listen and shrugged. "Nothing you should concern yourself with. Just that disgraced idiot windbag Kibaou mouthing off at the top of his lungs. They've been trying to get him out of his room to shut him up but I think he locked the place up. His rank hasn't been revoked yet either so until Thinker gets back so we can 'forcibly remove' him, we need to put up with his nonsense."

"Nonsense?"

"He's trying to put his own spin on the events from yesterday," Sataki answered. "Not that anyone from the «ALF» will listen to him anymore since he turned criminal. All he has left is…" His eyes widened as he realized that Kibaou still had a substantial number of supporters outside of the guild since his recent screw-ups hadn't been made public.

"I just thought of the perfect gift to get you guys in return for this," Sinon said as she wrapped the scarf around her neck. It was long enough to require a second loop. "I'd feel a bit bad about it if I were still in the guild, but seeing as how I'm not…why don't you guys make sure you have a nice view of Kibaou's window in say, 10 minutes?"

She left them standing there without looking back. She didn't do so to be callous, but in her heart, Sinon felt that if she turned around now, she might just hesitate to return to the path she had temporarily abandoned.

-o-

"Preparations complete…"

Sinon muttered this from her perch at the top of the clock tower. It was the highest point in the town and had an unobstructed view of the front of the «Black Iron Castle». People milled about their business on the street below, each looking no larger than the tip of her pinky. It was the sort of place that gave one the impression that they were above human concerns, that they were set apart from the rest, transcendant; it was the sort of place that made one feel as if they were worthy to judge others.

In short, it was the sort of place that suited Sinon's task for herself perfectly.

She checked the Hecate methodically, making sure each part was in good working order. She hadn't had time to repair it since the boss battle yesterday, but that wasn't a big concern. Then, she checked her pouch and made sure she had remembered to place a «Teleportation Crystal» inside. It wouldn't do to be caught red-handed. When she was satisfied with everything, Sinon leaned the gun on the windowsill and looked through her scope. Her target was easy enough to spot; there was no mistaking that ridiculous hairstyle and even if she had, the man had the decency to mark himself out by wildly waving and gesturing with exaggerated motions.

The bell behind her began to ring, a golden chime that was deafening due to her close proximity to the source. She ignored it. Sinon was ice itself; it could not affect her. The distance to her target was about 700 meters, a respectable distance, but nothing she couldn't handle.

The targeting circle in her scope appeared, but from past experience, she knew that from this distance, it wouldn't be accurate with respect to how much the bullet dropped due to gravity. Sinon adjusted for this manually, aiming above her intended target.

As she prepared to shoot, an errant thought ran through her mind. Was this the right thing to do? She considered this briefly, setting aside the part of herself who wanted to do this for the sake of petty vengeance. This was a man who had lead his followers to ruin out of pride. He was someone who craved power and didn't care if he lowered the survival rate of everyone he interacted with in order to do so.

She made her decision swiftly. In the real world, laws would have put him behind bars long ago. But there were no laws here. None save for those built in to the system and a scant few that players tried to enforce amongst themselves. There were no police, no judges, and no juries here. When Kayaba had created his world, he had given them a blank slate to work with.

And so, on the twelfth peal of the tower bell at noon on May 20th, 2023, the sky was split apart with the sound of thunder. Only a select few knew exactly what transpired that day, but numerous rumors began to spring up almost immediately. Of these, the second most popular was that Kibaou's words were so false that the system itself stepped in to correct them. But the most popular by far in the imagination of the players at large was that the division leader of the «ALF» had been judged by a merciless goddess and had been found wanting.


*notes: Ok, this chapter took forever to get out. Overall chapter length was pretty crazy. It ended up being over 70 pages in Word. Hopefully you enjoyed this epic (in length but hopefully in scale as well) conclusion to "The Army" arc.

And while OCs aren't really that important in the grand scheme of things, Phileas is dead. I'll leave the details to your imagination. Sometimes you die a hero and people remember your deeds for years or centuries to come. Sometimes you die no less a hero but aren't remembered at all because no one was there to witness your story. That's the type of world I envision this version of SAO as.

Not much else to talk about in the notes but if anything wasn't clear or if you have comments on the chapter, drop me a PM or mention it in a review and I'll try to reply if I can.

Edit: Turns out that I accidentally reused a name from a previnous chapter which wouldn't be an issue if the guy in question wasn't dead in chapter 2. It has been fixed. Thanks goes to Guile for catching it.