A/N: Some references to the side story Aria In The Starless Night that are present were cut from the anime. All events here are canon except for one exception I detail at the end.

Pride

"...today, thank you for heeding my summons! Some people know me here, but I will again introduce myself! I am Diabel, and my player class is « Knight »!"

Beautifully chosen words, don't you think? Formally introducing yourself, but greeting the audience like old friends. You're doing well, you're doing well. You remember very well that the first impression lasts. The audience is responding too, some of them are wryly smiling; who wouldn't, when a blue-haired player, still wearing the basic chestplate like they are, steps up and declares himself a knight?

"Well then, to all of you top players here, who I know are active at the frontline, this may seem unnecessary. But I'll just restate for the benefit of those who weren't..."

Easy there. Trail off your voice mysteriously, lower the volume in steps. Nothing demands greater attention than a silent speaker. The people have stopped their chatter in anticipation; you've got them on the hook. Cue the line.

"...that today. The stairs leading to the topmost floor, the twentieth floor of the dungeon, has been found by my party."

Short, sharp, straight to the point.

"In other words, by tomorrow, or at least, the day after, we indeed will reach the Boss Room of the first floor!"

Commotion again amongst the audience. And unlike the unrestrained, relaxed chatter of earlier, the atmosphere has most definitely changed. The words are being whispered now, undertones of fear and anxiety hovering over everyone's head. The time is ripe for another inspiring line.

"One month. It has taken us one month to clear this much, but even so, we have do set an example, don't we? Let's kill the boss, reach the second floor, and show, show those in the Starting City, that this death game is beatable! As the top players, is that not our responsibility? Our obligation? Right, everyone?"

Well done. The audience, even those who weren't so chatty at the start are now clapping and cheering. You've more or less sealed the first impression completely; there's still a handful who aren't responding, see up there? By the steps, high up, a dark-haired boy and a hooded figure sit motionless-

You've seen that boy before, haven't you? His name is pretty simple, his name is-

"Wait a minute, Knight."

Ah, so there's a doubter in the midst. You'll find that player later. Right now, focus more on pacifying this guy and move on to the battle plan, shall we?

"Before that, there's one thing I must clear with you, otherwise I won't join you."

Oh? This is not your usual disbeliever. Could it be? Identify him first, then.

"Opinions certainly are welcome, though shouldn't you tell us your name before speaking?"

"...hmph. I am Kibaou. And in this group of people..about five to ten of them need to apologise."

So, that's what he came for. Alright, this doesn't change much. There's still a way out of this, and it could even be a blessing in disguise; if you want to identify that boy as well...

"Apologise? To whom?"

"Tch, isn't is obvious? They must apologise to the two thousand players, all of whom are now dead! Those guys, they controlled everything, and as a result, those 2000 died in a month!"

He's twisting the point. Seductive logic, but you can work it out, can't you?

"Kibaou. When you say « those guys », do..do you mean the original beta testers?"

Maybe crossing your arms isn't the best idea, but the idea of implicit disapproval, this seems okay for now.

"Obviously! On the day this bloody death game started, they fled the Starting City, leaving behind nine thousand people who didn't know a thing! Monopolising the good grinding spots and quests, letting the weak get weaker even while they got stronger, they have to be here, aren't they..."

On and on he's rambling, and let him ramble. You're a leader, you don't fall for such fallacies of logic. Instead, you disarm them, turn them around, make the critics work for you, right? Let's see who else has got something to say-

Oh. Oh. That guy. The giant with the two-handed axe you waved to yesterday on the 18th floor, the one who was part American, right? Oh good. Backup from the audience, exactly the kind of affirmation a leadership needs. And he's pulled out the « Strategy Guide », the one you know all the beta testers contributed to. You know there's some parts you recognise there, right?

The self-proclaimed Fang King* is silent now, he knows he lost. Still, he's not going to let go of his hand so easily, right? You know what to do after all this is done: meet up, offer an agreement. Someone like him definitely has followers who hooked onto that logical fallacy. He might be useful in his own way after all.

This diversion aside, take back the situation. This loose end can be useful, considering his hate for beta testers.

"Kibaou, I can understand your point, I too, have went into unknown territories and finally arrived here after many near-deaths. But, as Agil has said, isn't it now time to look forward? About original beta testers... no, especially original testers, we need their fighting strength for this boss strategy. If we removed them, and that resulted in the attack failing, what would be the point?"

Looks of awe and agreement are on pretty much everyone's faces. You sure saved the day.

The boy is still there, his expression unreadable. You might be able to deal with him, but how to protect yourself first? Leadership open to challenge is a democracy, but that doesn't say anything about having challenges.


[I need a favour from you.]

[What of it? You and I aren't on friendly enough terms to accept favours for free.]

[Would you reconsider this one if I said it concerned a particular beta tester?]

[...what of it?]

[There's a beta tester, his name is Kirito. English characters. Go through the information dealer.]

[And do what?]

[Offer to buy his sword. The dealer will know it. Sell my identity for nothing less than 100,000 col.]

[Hehe. And how much do you want his sword for?]

[Start off at twenty thousand col and increase by any amount you like.]

[...you realise, neither you nor I have that kind of money on hand?]

[I just want his sword out of action. And you'd want that, don't you. Having that gleaming blade as your own.]

[Fair enough. we have a deal.]

[Don't forget to turn up later for the 'above-the table' ceremony.]

[You need to remind me?]


Wow. Just wow. Even you didn't expect the mapping this fast, right? Seems like players really do need a leader to step in.

You're doing great. The Boss Room and the Boss itself has been mapped; it's « Illfang The Kobold Lord », just as you remembered it.

Oh hang on, slow down. You're not supposed to remember the boss. Quick thinking, quick thinking. You just want to be the leader. Leader of the players in this death game, leading them all safely to the light at the end. So for now, at least pretend you're hanging on to every word in the « Strategy Guide ». And, now that almost everyone is gathered, shouldn't you say something?

"Everyone, right now, let's be thankful for this information!"

The crowd buzzed itself into a feel-good mode. Even Kibaou is pretty quiet today, no doubt pacified by..well, you know what pacifies him, right?

"..Absolutely ZERO deaths. That, I promise you in the name of the Knight!"

More cheers. Whipping the mood. You want them to feel like this isn't a death game, not when a leader is around. Now onto the next part, actually giving orders.

"..so, everyone, please make parties of six with your friends or the people around you!"

Done in a flash. As expected of followers given a just cause. A truly just cause, ain't it?

Okay, maybe you're overthinking things. Just get down to business; which party can do what? Walk around, inspect, assess, and assign. Greet them by their names, or try to remember it. That's right.

Kibaou has already approached Kirito - how on earth you remembered his name, you don't know either - and got him as assistance. He's wearing that unreadable expression again, but it doesn't matter, right?

Oh right, the drops, yeah, set it to the « person who deals the Last Attack ». Umm, that avoids any confusion over who got what, right?


[The offer has gone up to 39,800 col, lol?]

[But did he sell it?]

[No he did not. I let him find out who I was, anyway. BWAHAHA!]

[...this changed nothing. Thank you for the trouble.]

[Nah, leave it to me. You just lead everyone else the current way.]


It's the day, the day of the boss fight.

Everyone's ready and fired. As per your advice, the tank groups went to buy new shields. The sub-group leaders seem happier too, the pride they're getting from leading is getting to them. But that's okay, because all of this was under your leadership, right?

And at this critical juncture, what should a leader say?

"Everyone, what I want to say now, is this!"

(Unfortunately, the sword you're drawing is silver, not black. How are you going to handle this?)

"...let's win!"


The road to the end, bringing death or glory, is one very long road.

Oh c'mon, calm down. Nothing bad can really happen along the way. Sure, the ranged weapon groups were ambushed, but with just a few commands, the ambush was countered swiftly. This was nothing different from the MMORPGs in the past, right? Only this time, you could fight and shout commands at the same time.

At 12.30pm, the top floor was reached again.

12.35pm, the Boss Room was reached.

No one's talking now. Partly because loud shouts can aggro some mobs here, partly because everyone's nerves are strung up high and tight. Everyone's wondering if this is their last fight. Even you are, don't deny it. What's that, a guilty conscience?

You're not just checking the parties for precaution, you're doing it to calm yourself. But at the same time, you're sealing your image as a caring leader. Two birds with one stone, someone will give you that if they actually knew how terrified you are.

Just trust in them. You've cultivated their support already, it won't fail now, right? All that's left is to make sure you get the LA and the drop, before-

Stop. That's for later. And you've run out of parties to check anyway.

Your silver sword is in the air again, eliciting deep nods from every player in the room.

...feels like famous last words, doesn't it?

"Let's go!"


Large.

Much wider than the room in the beta test, wasn't it? You could easily fit a couple of train cars in here from end to end. And is it only for effect that the ceiling is so darn high?

Someone stepped just a bit too much. The spawning triggers; the room instantly brightens and torches blazed to life, revealing the humanoid monster sitting on a stone throne all the way at the back. It's time. The silver sword is raised for the third time, and lowered like a starting flag.

Everyone yells some sort of battle cry, and charges in. Only you hang back to rejoin your group. There's no need for excessive commands now.

Group A goes in first, just as planned.

B switches with them to press the attack. A goes for potions and recovery.

You and your friends, C, switch out with B. A is fully recovered, B goes for potions. The first gauge is down.

A keeps drawing aggro, D and F groups go in with their longer weapons. Second gauge is down.

F and G pull off a flawless chain of sword skills. The third gauge is down!

Decision time, Knight. If Illfang changes to his Talwar now, you can stop the attack and inflict Stun. And if nothing else has changed from the beta, the gauge will be depleted by the third flurry of strikes, of which the Last Attacker will be you!

"Corvatz! Schmitt!** Let's go!"

Uh oh, is that confusion on their faces? This wasn't discussed yesterday. Could that be doubt you're seeing?

No it's not, they make up their mind and follow you. Party of six surrounding Illfang, ready to dodge the wild swipes of its second weapon, you can win this!

The boss is bellowing in anger. Just a scripted event. Brandishing the Talwar, it raised it high above its head, and-

Vanished? No, a jump. Wait- a jump?!

The Kobold Lord is twirling in midair, leaping off the high walls as though it weighs nothing; it's a sword skill, but what!

It's coming for you. Your party members. You and your friends. Get the hell out!

...too late. A pillar of red light surrounds everybody and ugh! It's the queer sensation of damage, enough to knock you straight into the yellow zone.

"Everyone, retreat!"

..or rather, you tried to say. You just realised too late. Limbs that won't move, a mouth that won't speak - Stun status ailment. Only way to get out of it is to wait while someone else tanks the boss now!

But no one is moving. Is your leadership really effective?! Have they actually picked up on your true motive?

No it's not. Everyone is just rooted to the ground in shock. But, bigger problem! The Boss' aggro is now focused on you! You! Block!

...ahh. The Stun status prevents you from using sword skills. Look at your sword, trembling so hard it can't get picked up by the system.

Maybe the boss' roar at you is in fact jeering you for your stupidity. That sword is too thin to be a Talwar, and in the beta, the Talwar definitely wasn't curved. Isn't that a Katana?

Another sword skill. Your health is being chipped down even as you're thrown into the air. That seems to be your 'leadership' going up in smoke as well, is it?! The boss is leering even while you're processing this as though confirming your worst fear.

Upward slash, downwards slash, full thrust. You know the result all too clearly, your HP in the red zone can't take any more-

Oof!

Where are you now? Everything's a blur except for your HP bar. The red dots are disappearing. You want to utter something. Nothing's getting through your blurry mind.

Footsteps. Someone's coming to help! And help better be fast, your HP is just about gone, you turn your head slowly and-

Oh the irony, it's Kirito!

The greatest material threat to your leadership. Who else would you think was capable of taking the LA instead? Who was it you wanted to trip up by buying away his sword, no matter how honorable it was compared to other methods? But his eyes, his eyes are not looking at you with pity, but shock; he recognises you!

Oh now you feel it. That cold spreading throughout your chest, even stronger than the feelings of guilt that's crushing you like a ton of bricks. It's the sensation of nothing, the loss of feeling. Your HP gauge is empty now - guess who said no one was going to die?

You look into those black eyes again. He's holding onto you, gripping your sleeve that is less real with each passing second. But no, you're not comforted, this isn't what you're feeling. Guilt, tons of guilt, guilt for deceiving your rival so deeply he's on the verge of tears because of you!

« You Are Dead. »

If the screen is anything like the beta test, it'll go dark soon, you know you have to say something, something, but what?

"Please, K-Kirito, th-the boss, defeat it-"

Nope, the game seems to declare. No more time for repentance. The view of Kirito fades out, excruciatingly fast. Only darkness surrounds you now.

"Please, Kirito! Do it, do what I couldn't do!"

No answer.

"P-p-please, please, give me one more ch-chance-!"

One more chance? To what, atone for your sins? That depends on whether Kayaba Akihiko believed in karma and reincarnation. There's nothing to see or even reach out here, but you still try, try to grasp something, anything!

You swear you'll ask Kirito for forgiveness if you can meet him again, if you can meet-

fin.

*Fang King is the literal translation of Kibaou, 牙王.

**No OCs for this fic, and hey, they lived, right? Anyway Kirito doesn't interact with them at all until the murder case.