Kirito walked down the steps of the local coliseum with a satisfied and determined expression on his face. A meeting had been called through Argo's information network to discuss a full boss raid. With the boss room's location known things were progressing much faster than before, with this raid happening a full week and half earlier. As a result of this, and the decreased levels of depression and desperation among many of the players due to the quick discovery of the dungeon's boss room, the death count had barely climbed over a thousand.

This wasn't a small number of deaths, and Kirito remembered the depressed look on Argo's face as she told him. Despite the vastness of the number, Kirito couldn't help but secretly be pleased with it, as it was less than half that of the count at this point of events in his previous life.

He found a seat near the back with Suguha, as Argo had volunteered to help lead the discussion. While Suguha listened intently to Diabel's opening speech, something Kirito noted was somewhat less impressive when the man hadn't found the time yet to gather the ingredients for his hair dye, Kirito gazed around the area in a search for any familiar faces. Of the people there, nearly a dozen of them were wearing cloaks that covered their heads, so there was little chance of finding Asuna. Agil's head could be made out from where Kirito sat, as even when sitting down the man was quite a bit taller than everyone around him. Klein and his party could be seen sitting a few rows ahead of Kirito, the man's relaxed composure seeming to infect the people around him.

Kibaou's scripted entrance of jumping off the stands and into the coliseum proper, along with Diabel's tactical progression brought Kirito's attention back to the center of the arena. At the declaration of beta testers abandoning the average player Kirito noticed Suguha's face darkening and he had to place a hand on her shoulder to calm her. Meanwhile, Klein seemed to be about to jump up and protest when Agil calmly stood.

It was a little amusing to Kirito to remember how terrified of being discovered he had been in the past. After spending a few years as a "Beater" it was considerably less troublesome to think about being found as a beta, made all the more easier to deal with considering his current connections.

With Agil's interruption about the guide finished, Diabel seemed to bring everything back into order. The announcement that they should form parties, with no player being under a set level to accommodate the large number of players, a number greater than the forty-eight allowed to participate in a raid. As Kirito gestured for Argo to return to the group a voice interrupted him, and after a moment's hesitation Suguha left to get Argo herself.

"Do you mind if I join your party? I usually play solo, so I'm afraid I don't know anyone here," the brown haired boy asked slightly awkwardly. The innocence of the question did nothing to prevent the shock that ran through Kirito, as well as the moment of fear.

"Is something wrong?" Coper asked.

"Ah, nothing," Kirito lied quickly. "No, that's fine. We need a few extra people anyways." It took a bit of effort to carry on the conversation given his mixed feelings towards the boy. The only time they'd met before they'd gotten along quite well, to the point that Kirito had considered friending him. Had the boy not attempted to kill him before dying himself things would be much simpler. Kirito was saved from having to make small talk with his would-be murderer by another voice.

"Then there should be no problem with myself joining, if you don't mind? I'm glad to see that you made it out of that forest without incident." At that moment, Kirito decided that despite whatever divine intervention he'd received in his favor to travel back in time was exacting its price at that very moment.

"Kuradeel," Kirito greeted stiffly, inclining his head to bow in greeting to the man that had by now discarded his starting leather gear in favor of a shining set of bronze armor. "Yes, I suppose that'll work." Taking a gamble he made eye contact with both Kuradeel and Coper before asking, "I don't suppose either of you have seen a red haired girl about so tall around here, have you? We met up earlier and she's a solo player so I thought I'd invite her to party."

"You mean that chick partying up with Mr. Knight right now? Sorry kid, you missed your chance."

This third voice came from somewhere above Kirito, though before locating it he turned to look at Diabel. Sure enough, there was Asuna with a few locks of hair spilling out of her hood, pushing a few buttons on her menu before waving it away. This action was followed by a smiling Diabel throwing an arm around her shoulder and leading her to the side, probably to introduce her to her new party members.

Kirito felt an odd mix of peace and bile, peace at seeing the woman who was once his wife safe and sound despite his last memory of her being one in which she died, bile at being unable to talk to her.

"She your ex or something? Can't blame you for keeping an eye on her, at least not at your age, but don't forget to stop and look at everyone else too. Aren't many of them, but there are some lookers around, and not all of them are quite as... young."

Kirito finally turned to the person who had pointed out her location, finding a tall man who had apparently found some of the hair dye that was quite rare on this floor, as his spiked hair was a deep blue.

"Ah, sorry," Kirito apologized at his rudeness, knowing that were Suguha there at the moment she would have had a choice elbow for him, as she often did for him nowadays whenever he got lost in thought or she considered his actions rude. "My name's Kirito. And no, she's not. Just... someone I met once."

The man didn't seem entirely convinced but shrugged. "Eh, whatever. I'm Cu, a lancer. I don't suppose you need anyone else in your little group?"

With a last glance towards Asuna Kirito nodded. "We do, actually. Just let me get the rest of my party together and we can go over everyone's build so we can strategize," Kirito hoped he imagined the grimace he saw on the man's face at the word, "and go out for some food. May as well get to know each other."

Kuradeel nodded his agreement to the sentiment, while Cu broke into a grin. "Finally, someone who gets that food, beer and killing go well together. What about you, squirt? You think you can keep up with us?" The blue haired man's gaze was directed to Coper.

The boy gave a small smile. "I can't make any promises, but I'm experienced enough myself."

Argo and Suguha met up with the group outside of a large and bustling restaurant. "So, are these your new friends, Ki-bou? To think I had to blackmail you to join your party, but the moment there's a boss fight you just sign up with anyone that asks."

Kirito frowned as he led the group to an open table. "For all the luck we had when we were scouting him out, «Illfang» isn't an enemy to be taken lightly. It's going to be a lot more difficult to dodge around when that room is full of other players, and we won't always know who he's targeting."

Cu sat forward and looked at Kirito with interest. "So, you're the group that did that scouting raid. Suddenly I feel like I won the lottery with this party. So, did you find anything interesting about that guy?"

Kirito scratched at his chin as he looked upward. "Not too much. He has a different secondary weapon than the beta testers reported, and apparently he can be blinded. Other than that everything else just corroborated what was already known."

Coper spoke up at this. "Blinded? Did you have a poison or something on you?"

Suguha fielded that question. "No, Argo gouged out its eyes with her claws."

The three newcomers stared at the older girl, confusion in their eyes. Kuradeel was the one to finally ask how that had happened.

Argo was slightly embarrassed, probably thinking of the bestial image going through everyone's mind. "Ah, well, it wasn't that much. Kirito had staggered him and I jumped on «Illfang's» back."

"You staggered a boss on your own?" Kuradeel asked, noting the sword on Kirito's back, a weapon ill-suited to staggering, something usually left to axes and hammers.

Suguha allowed a hint of pride to enter her voice as she described the battle in greater detail, her audience listening intently. By the end of it both Kuradeel and Coper seemed suitably impressed, while Cu was grinning wildly.

"Holding a boss off on your own for that long without taking damage? Kid, you're officially my favorite person in this game. After tomorrow you and I are going to have a duel."

"Are you willing to have an audience?" Argo cut in before Kirito could respond.

"S'long as they don't interfere with the fight it's fine with me."

"He'll do it," Argo decided for him.

"Getting back on subject," Kirito began as he pushed his empty bowl of stew to the side, "We should go over everyone's build to begin with. I suppose I'll start off. I use a mix of light and medium armor, so while I can take a few hits or block if I have to I prefer to dodge when I can and rely on faster movement and slower attacks."

"My claws can do quite a bit of damage and have a chance to leave a wound that does damage over time. They're not very good at blocking though, so I have to rely entirely on my speed to dodge," Argo said, having been sitting to Kirito's right.

The group continued around the circle. "Well, my name's Coper. I prefer a short sword and a buckler, and I use medium armor. It leaves me a little slow, but as long as I get my guard up I don't need to worry about the damage from normal mobs."

"Cu. I use light armor exclusively and a lance. I focus entirely on speed and parrying attacks with my lance."

"The name I've chosen for myself is Kuradeel. Each piece of my armor is heavy, and my shield is as well. I'm using an «Anneal Blade» for now, but I hope to find a larger sword at some point. I've become quite adept at blocking."

The group finally rounded on Suguha. "Ah, my name's Suguha. I use a bit more medium armor than Kirito, but I'm not too much slower than him. I'm better at blocking than dodging however."

Kirito looked over the group, considering the stats. "We're fairly balanced then. I'd feel better if we had a second player dedicated to heavy armor, but we're pretty well off. How's everyone in regards to the level limit?"

"Four over," Argo said quickly.

"Two, with just a few more mobs before three." came Coper's response.

"Four, but I need to upgrade my equipment before tomorrow. I prefer to save up and then upgrade everything at once."

"Three, " Kuradeel said succinctly.

Suguha looked around at the group in surprise before responding with her own, "Six, and Kirito's seven over."

"I suppose we'll have to leave the two of you up front then," Kuradeel conceded. "And I could switch in to block some attacks."

"Coper, you and Argo will have to work on getting behind the boss while we keep him distracted, see if you can hit some weak points. And Cu..."

The man in question shook his head. "I'll be everywhere. I'll heckle «Illfang» when I can and make sure those «Kobold Sentinels» are taken care of. I don't like to leave my back to someone I don't know."

Being a man of a very similar attitude Kirito nodded. "Right, we'll leave that to you then. If anything comes our way intercept it if you can, if not at least shout a warning."

The blue haired man rolled his shoulder as he stood up. "I'm off to upgrade my equipment then. The raid heads out tomorrow at eight right?"

"We're meeting half an hour early though so that we can set up a party inventory. Try not to be late."

The man flashed a predatory grin. "This fight? I wouldn't miss it for the world."

The remainder of the group stayed together and chatted for the next half of an hour, though Kirito couldn't bring himself to be too friendly with either Coper or Kuradeel. Eventually Coper excused himself by saying he had business and Kuradeel left to greet a few other players he'd met.

With little reason to stay Kirito, Argo and Suguha began making their way back to the house on the outskirts of town that they'd rented out. Doing a quick «Search» for anyone around them Kirito began a conversation with Argo.

"So, how have things been going so far with Diabel?"

Kirito watched as «The Rat» checked for anyone around herself before responding. "I was able to convince him to let our party participate without having to have everyone's level and equipment checked over. Why did you want me to go through him to set up that meeting though? I'd have thought you'd get that bandit Klein to do it for you."

The thought had occurred to Kirito before. Diabel's command over the first dungeon raid had been, originally, due to his party being the group to find the dungeon boss. Had Kirito wanted, and with the power of Argo's information network, he could have chosen nearly anyone to lead the raid.

"I can't say I like Diabel much, but as you saw today he has the charisma needed to lead the raid. More than that though I want to keep an eye on him." At Argo's questioning look he delivered his premade excuse. "He has a plan to exploit the tensions between Betas and the rest of the players, he's the one that set up that other player to interrupt during the meeting. He's devious, but not particularly cunning so it shouldn't be a problem to expose or discredit him during the boss battle. By putting him up front for all of this it'll make him lose the loyalty of a lot of players that give him their support."

Argo searched his face for any trace of deception, then shook her head with a sigh. "I suppose I should just consider myself lucky that you didn't decide to sell all of your information. None of the information dealers would be able to keep up with you then."

Kirito shrugged. "I only have the cooperation of my sources for a while, so you'll have better information eventually."

"Ki-bou's acting so mysterious," Argo teased. "What about you, Suguha, has he told you anything about all of this?"

Suguha shook her head. "No, it got brought up a few days ago after you left for the evening, but he told me it was a secret until I could solve what's wrong with his form."

Argo tilted her head. "His form?"

"We had a spar a while ago," Suguha began, and Kirito mentally congratulated her for remembering to avoid mentioning the other world directly, "And the form he was using during it was all messed up, nothing at all like the one we both learned. And there was something... weird about it. He told me if I can figure out what's missing from it, then he'll start letting me in on some secrets."

"And you didn't make this deal with me?" Argo asked with a degree of indignation.

Kirito met the tone with indifference. "You're not a swordsman Argo, and you'd be more likely to just find a kendo expert and hire them to analyze me. Besides, you'll probably work out my sources anyway, though I won't make it easy on you."

Argo nodded in assent. "Suguha, if I were to hire you someone to solve this for you, would you tell me what's going on?"

"Ah, I'm pretty sure he'd know if you did something like that."

"I do have a seeking skill higher than even yours, Argo."

"Hmph. Well, we'll see how long you can keep your secrets from me now that I've been challenged," Argo declared as she opened the door to their rented house and dashed up the stairs.

Kirito sighed. "And now she's going to be going through all of her contacts to try and find something."

Suguha shrugged as she walked into the house herself, "I think she probably just wanted to get into the bath first."

"Probably," Kirito agreed. "But she'll probably stay in there until she's gone through her list a few times and decided on who to contact."

"But, that could take an hour!" Suguha complained.

"It probably will. And I rather hope she gets a cold from it as well."

The two settled down on a pair of armchairs upstairs, the door to the bathroom closed and confirming Suguha's suspicions. Silence prevailed for a few minutes before Kirito sighed and stretched, prompting Suguha to speak up.

"Onii- I mean, Kirito, when are we going to have enough money to buy a house of our own?"

Kirito considered for a moment. "Well, we've been setting aside quite a bit recently, no better armor except through upgrading is available on the first floor. Once Argo leaves the party we should be able to level a bit faster, though without her double checking for treasure chests with her skills we'll probably lose out on some gold. The most important thing though is waiting until we find a house that we want."

"I hope we find one soon," Suguha said wistfully. "It'll be nice to have somewhere we can actually go home to instead of moving around every few days."

"That would be nice," Kirito agreed. "Somewhere with a fence, so that people we're not friended with can't get in. A nice lawn to sleep out on."

Suguha shook her head. "How? We're always running from one dungeon to another. There won't be time for that much relaxing."

"Is that how it seems? No, that's just because we're still early enough into things that taking a break would leave us behind where we need to be. Once we get our pace set we can take some breaks."

"That... sounds a bit more like the you I remember. As soon as you finished school you'd run upstairs and start messing with whatever computer you'd scavenged from a yard sale."

Kirito scratched his chin in thought. "I used to do that all of the time, didn't I?"

"For the last few years," Suguha agreed. "Before then you used to, well, spend more time with all of us, even grandfather."

"Well, I don't think you can particularly blame be for avoiding him. After the whole kendo incident it was hard enough to be in the same room as him."

"He could be a little harsh at times," Suguha said a little defensively, "But his heart was in the right place. He just wanted someone to carry on the family tradition."

'I probably wasn't the best person for him to turn to then,' Kirito thought a little bitterly before shaking off the feeling. "You know," Kirito began in an attempt to lighten the mood. "I might have to search around for any school teachers soon."

"...Why?" Suguha asked, a slight look of dread creeping onto her face.

"Well, we don't quite have the time to enroll you fully, but I suppose they could check up on your progress every now and then. I wasn't the best student, admittedly, but I'm sure with a bit of help from some other players we could continue your education. Although I suppose it might be a little difficult to find one given how secretive people tend to be about their other lives."

"...You're joking right?"

"About finding you a teacher, yes. I would like to try and keep your education going as much as I can though. At least enough to get you through your exams to get into high school. I plan to get us out of this game as quickly as I can."

"What about you then?"

"Me? Well, I can't exactly teach myself anything and I doubt Kayaba's left a bunch of textbooks in the game. Quite honestly just being in here is probably giving me more preparation for my career than anything else could."

"Oh? Ki-bou plans on being a game designer?"

Suguha jumped a little at the voice, while Kirito remained motionless. "I didn't hear you open the door."

"Ohoho, what makes you think I ever closed the door? Maybe I felt like having some company~?"

"The door was closed because we didn't hear you filling the tub earlier," Kirito shot down with conviction.

"You're always killing my fun," Argo complained good-naturedly. "Sometimes I wonder why I even party with you."

"Oh, probably because you're too lazy to level on your own. That or you're terrified of fighting without bodyguards," Kirito bantered, the teasing tone in his voice keeping Argo from taking him seriously.

"If that were the case I would have found myself a better bodyguard than you. Suguha could stay though, she seems reliable enough."

"I'm hurt, I really am," Kirito said. "Suguha, make sure you get every single col you can when she hires you. Argo's the type that'll claim you'll be paid on commission then only give you the gold of monsters you kill personally."

"Bah, it was Ryu's own fault that he didn't read the fine print before signing up. Suguha, don't listen to this old man, working for me would be a life of... Suguha?" Argo blinked, looking around the room.

Kirito was equally surprised. "She must have slipped into the bathroom while we were arguing. That's, well, I'm not sure whether to be impressed in her or depressed that the two players with the highest tracking skills in the game couldn't even tell when the only other person in the room left."

"The highest tracking skill in the game, hm? And what makes you so sure of that?"

"My sources haven't told me about anyone having a higher skill than either of us," Kirito bluffed. He took a moment to consider how odd it was that he could fall into this persona so quickly, though it had proven useful whenever he slipped up. He knew that the two of them had been two of if not the first people to max the tracking skill their first playthrough, but whether or not they currently did was an unknown factor.

Argo sighed. "That matches what I've found too. You really know how to make an information dealer feel like it's time to retire, Ki-bou."

"Why would you want to retire? From what I can tell you're the most profitable information dealer in the game."

"Ki-bou, somehow you've managed to destroy my professional pride. I still remember the beta test, and the first time you came to buy information from me, on hands and knees to try and get me to lower my prices."

"That's not how I remember it," Kirito corrected. "I seem to remember finding you surrounded by some mobs you'd aggro'd without meaning to and having to run in before your HP dropped."

"That's when we first met, not the first time you bought information from me."

"It was five minutes later that I bought the information! And I was asking for a discount because I'd just saved you from losing all your items!"

"And yet I still remember you being on your hands and knees, that certainly wasn't imagined."

"I was exhausted, there were a dozen enemies the same level of us and I'd had to jump in front of a few hits going for you."

"So you don't deny you were on your hands and knees because of me then? Ki-bou, I'm flattered."

Kirito threw his hands up in surrender. "Alright, alright, you win. I was so taken away that I couldn't help myself. You really never give up, do you?"

"Not until I've won, no I don't," Argo replied. "Don't you remember why I was fighting all of those golems when you showed up?"

"Not entirely, no. It was quite a while ago," Kirito explained.

"Bah, how do you keep up that network with a memory like that? There was a bug in the money transfer system and one of the other beta testers was exploiting it to cheat me out of some information. After he got what he wanted he triggered all of those spawns down the hall he was in, thinking I wouldn't follow after him."

"And you charged straight in," Kirito continued the story, his memory having been sparked. "Right. And then you talked me into chasing him with you, offered me a reward for helping out."

"It wasn't that hard to do, you were a bit of a sellsword back then. Nowadays it seems like I'd have to explain everything to you. You fit into the role I gave you pretty well too."

"It wasn't exactly a complicated script. We chased him down a bit further in the dungeon, then you had me act like I'd been your bodyguard the whole time. Really just had me stand there and look like a grunt. Even had me switch out my sword for a greatsword and swing it around a few times."

"Eh, intimidation tactics work perfectly when if you use them right. You just have to be careful not to push too hard, or they might faint on you before you get what you want."

"I think the limit should be a little before that. I seem to remember some odd smells coming from him by the time you started describing what you were going to do with your claws. To be honest I almost ran out of there myself at that point. Him caving and giving you what you wanted was as much a relief to me as it was him."

Argo shrugged heedlessly. "You got your money in the end, and a slight discount on some information. What more could you have wanted?"

"There are some things that, when you lose them, you can't get back," Kirito responded with a fake shudder. "We partied a few times after that, didn't we?"

"Out of circumstance, yes," Argo confirmed. "A few raids, and I hired you a couple of times when I was following up on a lead and needed some backup. You cost a bit more than other people on the market, but I could count on you to actually keep an eye out for things. Most of the sellswords on the market would just wait for a battle to start, you could actually keep an eye out for traps."

"I cost more because I wasn't on the market," Kirito defended. "I was a solo player, not a mercenary. Working with you just happened to coincide with my own thoughts."

"Oh, just playing the hero then were you?"

"I wouldn't go that far. I wasn't exactly role playing for that. I was just helping someone who'd helped me out. Besides, I didn't get along with many of the other beta testers."

Argo blinked in surprise. "Oh. So, when you friended me back then..."

"You were the only person on the list at the point. Heck, most of the time I got in contact with other people I knew through you."

It may have been a trick of the dimming candlelight, but Kirito could have sworn Argo's face was tinted red. "Ah, well, it's getting a bit late. I think I'll, uh, head to bed now. Good night, Kirito. Let's make sure we kill «Illfang» tomorrow, okay?"

Kirito watched with his party near the back of the procession of sixty as Diabel motioned for everyone to stop. "Everyone, on the other side of this door is «Illfang the Kobold Lord». He has a high attack stat, but also wields a shield for most of the fight. He's never been shown to use any shield skills, but be on guard for them just in case. He's a humanoid type and all of his weak spots follow those conventions. Our scouting raids have shown that he has four bars of health, and each one is accompanied by three «Kobold Sentinels» that will engage whoever attacks them. Party H has been designated to keep them off of the rest of us, so we're counting on you to land a few hits before they can reach us.

"The rest of you will be joining in the main assault. We'll rotate on and off, two parties attacking at a time. Once his health reaches its critical point he's going to switch weapons to a nodachi he has at his side. He'll be using katana type skills from then on, which none of you will have fought before. Review your guide book for the known katana skills, and make sure that you keep your health up throughout the battle, don't be stingy with health potions. I'll be calling for your party by its leader, so make sure you know which party you're in. Party A is being led by myself, Diabel. B will be led by Vishno. C is led by Argo. D will be led by Degr, E by Lorna, F by Klein, G by Benedict and H by Kibaou.

"The other two parties here will be waiting outside of the boss room and making sure that the entrance here is free of any mobs. We need each of you to stay in for as long as you can, but if you run out of potions or you're in too much danger to use one safely, leave the boss fight. You'll be unable to return and you won't get any of the drops, but it's certainly better than dying.

"Finally, I'd just like to say... That this is just the first battle we'll be fighting. After this floor are ninety nine more bosses and each one is going to be more difficult than the last. Right now each and every one of you are some of the strongest players in this world. Each and every one of you are the people who will lead the rest of the players to victory. Whatever happens today, it's just the first step. What matters is what happens tomorrow, and what's going to determine that is each and every one of you. So I want you all to survive, and defeat the rest of this game alongside me. Now who's ready to kill a boss?!"

Amidst the cheering that followed Diabel's short speech Kirito noticed Argo move to his side. "I see what you meant about him being charismatic. He's picked up more than a few supporters in the last few minutes, a nice mix of praise and fear mongering."

"He's better than I remembered," Kirito admitted. "It's actually making me second guess revealing him. This is just the kind of motivation we need right now, an approach to minimalize losses but keeping us going. My only problem with it is that it may keep us from moving forward as fast as we can, and that I'm not sure I can trust him to keep things balanced."

Argo nodded. "If I were in your position, I'd just let things play out. Besides, he doesn't have quite as much support as you may think. If you look at the other party leaders, you'll find they're nearly as hesitant about this as you are. They'll have quite a bit of control over who their party members choose to follow. And, if it eases your conscious, unilateral decisions wouldn't be good at the moment. He wouldn't be able to hold everything together until the hundredth floor, and when he lost control there'd be a lot of people competing to take his place. And he seems like the type that would try and make the information I sell into a public service."

"Hey, boss!" The blue haired Cu called out as he made his way over to Kirito while the raid group moved into the boss room. "What's up with Argo being group leader? I thought you were the head of this show."

As the rest of Kirito's party formed up around him he explained, "Argo's well known by most of the players, and it's a good chance for her to boost her reputation. I'm more combat oriented, and I have enough on my plate without having to worry about blackmailing people into doing things."

The group nodded their understanding. "I suppose I have something to in addition to what Diabel was saying earlier. Don't do anything stupid. «Illfang» may be fairly stupid, but a good strong strike from him can be deadly. Keep light on your toes, but always be ready to block as well. For this fight, we're all party members, we all look after each other. I'm going to make sure that we all make it out of this alive." Kirito swallowed his stress for a moment, making eye contact with both Kuradeel and Coper. "When we're done with this, let's celebrate at a second floor pub. Given how much you three drank yesterday, I'm not buying."

Coper gave a small smile while Cu nearly beamed. Kuradeel's response was a bit more reserved. "Not one of us drank more than we were able to handle."

"Ah, the kid knows that. He ain't tellin' us off, he's just bein' a man that has his priorities. Can't pay to keep yourself happy if you're always helping out others. Lighten up a little, big guy. He's saying that after we're done here we're all gonna have a little party."

Kuradeel seemed mollified, though a little chagrined still at the perceived attack on his character. "Alright, we'll worry about all that later. We're up now," Kirito said, glad for the interruption that Diabel's call provided him.

Kirito allowed himself to fall behind Suguha slightly as the group ran towards «Illfang», giving him the spacing required to follow up after her sword skill and continue the stagger. While Kirito, Kuradeel and Suguha attempted to put pressure on the boss from its front, Argo and Coper moved around it to attack from behind.

The two parties before theirs had managed to bring the boss' health down by half of one of its bars, so Kirito set finishing the bar off as the goal to reach before he and group D, whose members arrived a few barrages later, retreated. Thoughts of strategy were wiped from his mind as he ducked under a swing from the bone axe.

A few heavy strikes from Kuradeel were enough to make «Illfang» attempt to jump back and gather himself, a move thwarted when Cu began his own assault on the beast, having been content to watch from the side and learn the speed of his enemy. The man was obviously a skilled lance user, able to maintain a fast attack and retreat pattern with the weapon.

"Argo, Coper, go for his legs on your next pass. Kuradeel, give Cu an opening to fall back for a bit," Kirito called out calmly, watching the last of the round of «Sentinels» disappear. "Vishno, we'll try and get him to focus on us for now, if your axe users could be ready with some long cooldown attacks though we should be able to do some good damage."

The man complied and ordered his two axemen to prepare themselves and the battle quickly fell into a system of repetition. Before long Argo's name was called out by Diabel to pull back and Kirito made his way over to Klein's group.

"I see you picked up another player," Kirito noted idly as he approached, catching the chunk of bread that Klein threw to him and biting into it gratefully.

"Eh, just someone who needed a party for the raid. He's been fitting in with us all pretty well though, so we might make it a semi-permanent position for him. You're the one picking players up left and right. Any tips from your experience on this guy?"

"He swings his axe in a full arc from his body to let the weapon get up to speed. You'll have a lot easier time blocking it if you can get in close, but that's when you have to look out for the shield. He'll take a potshot at you if he can."

"It appears that he has the ability to fake a stagger as well," Kuradeel added from Kirito's left. "A few times he drew back as if he had been staggered, then launched an immediate attack. It caught a few players by surprise, and the attack did significant damage."

The two groups fell into silence after that, then separated once Klein's party was called and Kirito found himself focusing more intently on the battle. Most of the players had taken a few strong hits, but no one's health had dropped to the red while Kirito was watching. Kibaou's group was dealing with the other mobs quickly and quietly, forcing each Kobold to engage them without hassling the other players.

It was odd having this much time to rest during a boss fight, Kirito mused, but there wasn't much that could be done to help it. The raid had been organized too hastily to have a set system of switches on the raid level. Without the order that, loathe he was to admit it, Heathcliff had brought to the raids and the solidarity provided by the guilds battles simply couldn't be as efficient as he was used to. Perhaps a more realistic limiter at the time however was the simple size of «Illfang». While certainly large compared to the players, «Illfang» wasn't nearly big enough for large numbers of players to attack simultaneously.

One benefit of the slower fighting though was that it gave Kirito a chance to keep an eye on Asuna, even if he did have to do it surreptitiously. The woman, well, girl at the moment, that had once been his wife. It was a confusing set of circumstances, and one that Kirito was giving a wide berth at the moment, hoping that they would work themselves out. As his eyes tracked the dull brown of the girl's cloak, he couldn't help but selfishly wish for a moment that her switch partner would falter for a moment, giving him an excuse to jump in himself, which would give him reason for some contact with the girl afterwards as well.

The desire only lasted for that moment though before Kirito returned to his usual self, a critical gaze watching her swordsmanship. It was incredibly unrefined to his eye, though that may have been a slightly biased opinion as he'd seen what her style would develop into. That, and it was somewhat unfair to compare it to either his own or Suguha's level of swordsmanship, as both had received some proper training. Comparatively, it was about on par with Kuradeel.

Kirito's group only had the chance to fight one more time before Diabel called all other players off and «Illfang» threw away his axe and shield. While the vast majority of the players obeyed out of confusion at the strange order Kirito tensed himself and prepared to jump in. Diabel was a skilled swordfighter, but recognizing katana skills had a steep learning curve.

Sure enough Diabel's face grew panicked as he struggled to follow the quick and seemingly random movements of «Illfang» as he jumped around the around the room. As the boss began its final leap towards Diabel Kirito sprang into action, intent on launching a «Cross» technique to disrupt the kobold's skill.

Before he could begin the skill however a shape running towards «Illfang» caught his eye. The light of a sword skill shone from the figure's short sword and began a «Star» attack.

"Idiot!" Kirito exclaimed. Fortunately Kirito's legs were still propelling him forward as his brain processed the sudden events. Coper, who must have broken away from Kirito's party at some point, was using a high damage sword skill against the boss' back. His own weapon forgotten, Kirito rushed forward as he watched Coper's blade land the first, the second, the third swings against the Kobold Lord's undefended back...

The fourth and fifth cuts never landed, as «Illfang» changed direction midair, slamming a large and muscled fist into Coper's body. Diabel, saved from the strong skill that had killed him in a previous life, was not spared from the meaty tail the crashed into him, its sheer momentum sending him flying across the room and slamming into a pillar. Halting itself suddenly «Illfang» landed on the ground, then pounced at the stunned and injured Coper, its nodachi swinging in a decapitating arc.

Time seemed to act in complete opposition to all logic as Kirito leaped through the air. His mind seemed to treat the oversized sword that Kirito had just jumped in front of as an impossible fast object, one that now that he'd put himself in the path of could not be avoided by any means. In contrast his eyes seemed to want to slow the scene down, tracking each centimeter of the oncoming blade.

The first strike of the skill was powerful and Kirito was unable to bring his sword up in defense, panicked as he was to rescue Coper. The attack that would have been at head height for Coper caught Kirito along the torso, rapidly depleting his hit points. Somewhere in the moment, as «Illfang» changed his momentum and launched a second strike at Kirito, he found himself regretting both the end of his life and his inability to protect those he'd come back to protect.

Time reverted to its usual flow as a clang of metal heralded the arrival of the hulking mass now standing before him, the bronze metal the man wore gleaming in the room's dim light. "This boy is a member of my party," a deep and strained voice spat out from the figure. "And I will not allow him to die!"

His body acting on instinct Kirito grabbed Coper's body and pulled it away as he got out of the range of «Illfang». Shock and amazement flowed through his body as he watched Kuradeel stand tall, his shield pushed against the vertical swipe the boss had attempted. His eyes were rooted to the scene as he pulled out a pair of health potions for himself and the barely conscious Coper.

Launching himself over the Kobold Lord's head was Cu, his lance stabbing multiple times in the space of the one jump, each strike pulling away a few pixels from the weakened boss' health. Argo darted towards the beast as well, landing a few hits before the Kobold Lord disengaged from his contest of strength with Kuradeel.

It did the Kobold Lord little good however as a mere moment later a large axe staggered him, courtesy of the man Kirito recognized as Agil. A few other players joined in the assault, and after he overcame some of the shock Kirito himself jumped in and landed a few hits.

Among the conversation that occurred between the various members of the raid group as they reminisced over the battle, one player in particular stood out during this renewed assault. Not because of any audacity in strategy or odd fighting style, but from the persistence with which they pressed the attack against «Illfang». It eventually became known that the young girl hounding every action of the boss was named Suguha, and had been a long time party member of the boy that had nearly died.

At the moment however, Kirito felt he was probably the only one noticing his cousin's repeated attacks, the shadow of focus rolling off of her and her face filled with righteous anger.

The end of the fight was somewhat of an anticlimax given the earlier events. A mess of players were engaging the boss when it burst into pixels, a few players from each of the parties launching their attacks, and several sword skills that had already been activated cleaving through the empty air for a while afterwards.

As the cheers roared and saturated the boss' lair Kirito made a quick head count of the players in the room, relief flooding through him as he reached forty eight with Diabel being helped to his feet by Kibaou, an embarrassed smile on his face as he rubbed the back of his neck, likely subconsciously suspecting pain from his earlier collision.

Kirito watched as the man began to clear his throat, signaling the start of a speech. Not willing to give him a chance to gain more followers Kirito called out to the group in the silence that Diabel's noises had made.

"If no one minds, I think we should save most of the post-battle talk for a pub on the second floor if we can find one. There's no point in wasting time in this damp place when we could be enjoying some warm food."

"Motion seconded," Argo's voice called out from somewhere in the crowd, and Kirito made a mental note that he owed her a favor for the timely and subtle assistance.

"Sounds like a plan," Klein chimed in. "That guide mentioned a few things about the second floor, and apparently the main town has some of the best meat pies that have been encountered in the game. I don't know about the rest of you, but I've been living off of bread and water the last few days, and something with a little more substance is something I'd like as soon as possible."

Kirito was pleased to see Diabel's face twitch a little at the interruption, realizing he'd lost his prime opportunity to rally the players, and that after they'd calmed down somewhat from the victory they'd be less likely to listen to him. Nonetheless, the man attempted to re-exert some level of control over the situation. "Well, if that's everyone's plan make sure you heal up before you head out. The town on the second floor is a bit of a walk from the dungeon's exit if the guide we have is accurate and there will be mobs."

The vast majority of the players had separated into their own smaller groups by the time they reached main town of the second floor, and from there they ended up going to different restaurants and pubs. Coper, Kirito noticed, had disbanded from the party immediately after they entered the second floor. It was a bit of a shame too, Kirito hadn't decided whether to give Coper the benefit of the doubt or tell him off yet and now the chance to do either was lost to him.

It did not, however, prevent him from venting his frustrations about the situation when the remainder of his party arrived at a pub alongside Klein and his lot. The quality of the food did cause him to forget to do so however, at least until Klein brought the subject up.

"So, what was with that Diabel guy calling all of us off the attack anyway? Seems like a stupid thing to do considering everything that was going on at the time."

"Eh, the guy probably just wanted to have a good fight from it all. Nothing like facing something that's supposed to outclass you, holding your own against it and then winning all by yourself. Kid probably just overestimated his limits," Cu claimed while Kirito chewed and swallowed his pie.

"Diabel's not quite that, uh, noble," Kirito said, catching himself from using the term bloodthirsty. "He was after two things from that stunt of his. First, he wanted to cement his image as the person who led the first raid, make himself an image that other people want to look up to. Then use that so he can make sure he's always on top of the game.

"The second reason is a bit more immediate," Kirito said as he evaluated his company. Klein and his party already knew he was a beta tester, but Cu and Kuradeel...A few more players entering the restaurant made up Kirito's mind. "There was a mention of something called a Last Attack Bonus in the guide for whoever finishes off certain bosses, and that every floor boss during the beta test had a Last Attack Bonus. Supposedly, the bonus item is better than any normal items players will be able to get for at least a few floors later."

"I can see how that would be tempting," Klein admitted as he scratched at the stubble growing on his chin. "But to risk your life for it? That seems a little extreme."

"He was probably confident that he could handle himself," Argo interjected. "Before «Illfang» switched to katana skills most of his attacks were predictable and telegraphed."

"I'd had a feeling he might try something like this," Kirito said, making sure to keep his voice down. "And when he realized the trouble he was in I could see him start to freeze up. There's no way he'd have been able to counter «Illfang» when he was like that."

"And that's when you ran in," Klein continued, recreating the event. "But that other guy got there first."

"Coper," Kirito confirmed, his annoyance towards the youth that had disappeared without so much as a goodbye growing. "He was a solo that joined my party for the fight. He tried using a skill that would do a lot of damage, probably trying to get the Last Attack Bonus himself, but «Illfang» was too quick to notice him. From what I could see he lost nearly a quarter of his health from the punch alone."

Kirito swallowed as he recalled the next few pieces of events, then stood from his seat. "Kuradeel," he addressed, careful to keep his tone formal, "I apologize for how I've treated you since we met. It's been rude of me." Kirito gave a deep bow to the man. "Thank you for saving my life. The hit that «Illfang» was about to land would have been fatal. I'm in your debt."

Kuradeel accepted the statement with a nod. "If I ever require your assistance I won't be afraid to ask. However, was that not what we agreed to do when we partied with you? Rather than thank just myself, I believe your gratitude should be to all at this table. As our gratitude is to you for saving Coper."

Kirito took his seat again after giving a smaller bow to the group as a whole. "Thank you all for your help. I... there's a lot of things that I still have to do."

"Yeah, touchies and feelies all around," Cu said. "What really matters though is when you and I are going to have our duel. Some of those things you did during that boss fight were impressive, and you were able to get out of the way of attacks before I could even tell an attack was coming. I ain't got the time for a while, gotta check to see if this floor has any bro- any uh, stores that the first floor didn't have. That and I'd like to see if I can close the gap between our levels a bit before then."

"Whenever you're ready for it just get in contact with Argo then. She'll know where to find me, even if I'm in an area that restricts messages. I have to say though, I won't make it easy for you to get closer to my level."

"I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Hey, what's all this?" Klein questioned. "If we're having some kind of battle between these two I want to place some money on Kirito before it happens."

Kirito watched as Argo tried to stifle a smile growing on her face. "Klein, just make sure you get good odds on anything. And make sure you go over all of the details before you sign a deal with the devil. That said, the fact that Suguha hasn't said a word since we got here tells me that it's been a long day, and it's about time for us to go find a place to spend the night. Cu, Kuradeel, we'll see you some other time. Klein and friends, try not to get thrown out of here like the last place we ate at."

As Kirito rose Argo and Suguha followed suit, Argo still smiling at the prospect of riches from running a gambling ring and Suguha seemingly torn between being grateful to Kirito for letting her get some rest, upset at Kirito because he thought she needed rest and amused at Klein's protests about Kirito's parting shot.

Leading his cousin and his friend through the new town in search of a second floor to rent, Kirito couldn't stop himself from letting the troubles of the day melt away. It had been trying and tense at times, certainly, his temporary party members had been... frightening, and he hadn't made any progress in renewing contact with Asuna, but everyone had lived.

"Kirito?" Suguha asked, her voice somewhere between tired and curious. "That Last Attack Bonus, would it have been labeled as that on the loot screen?"

"Yes," Kirito confirmed.

"Right, that makes sense. Um, Argo? How much would one of those be worth?"

"It depends on what the actual stats of the item are, but there are probably players out there that would pay every col they have."

Suguha nodded thoughtfully. "Alright. So, Kirito. I already have the cloak equipment slot filled with this rare drop from before, and it's fairly comfortable. So, how much extra col are you willing to set aside for the house in trade for the Last Attack Bonus item «Coat of Midnight»?"

AN: And there goes chapter three. I'm kind of surprised with how the chapter ended up, honestly. I'd had a good two more scenes planned out for this chapter, but the way everything worked out this seemed like a good place to stop. On the plus side, those two scenes should be relatively quick to write up.

This chapter had a few more characters being introduced and developed, so I suppose I should explain some stuff that won't quite click with people who watched the anime only. Coper is a person Kirito originally met while he was doing the sidequest to get the Anneal Blade. Coper offered to work together to find two, Kirito eventually agreed, Kirito found one, was going to stay around to help Coper find another, Coper triggered a mass monster spawn with the intent to hide and let the monsters kill Kirito, then take the quest item from Kirito's corpse. As it turns out, the hide skill didn't work on these particular mobs, Coper died a horrible death and Kirito escaped. Reasoning for him being around in this? Without Kirito there at the time, he ended up just finding an ovule when no one else was around.

As for Diabel, that one's a bit tricky. So, the anime makes him out as a pretty nice guy who just wanted the best for everyone. Novel had him doing a few underhanded things to be able to Last Attack, and seemed to have something in mind for the other beta testers seeing as he was using Kibaou as a patsy for a lot of things without letting Kibaou know he was a beta tester. Oh, and as an aside, the original reason Kirito went ahead and enacted his beater persona was a mix between the anime version and looking out for Argo, a known beta tester whose name was on all the guidebooks and had ended up supplying the old information on Illfang. If Kirito hadn't set himself up as a Beater, then Argo would have been target number one.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who's read, followed, favorited reviewed!