This is a crossover fanfiction of "Fate/Stay Night" by Kinoko Nasu and "Sword Art Online" by Kawahara Reki that sprouted from two seeds:

One was simply, a straight-forward and easy setting to explain Emiya Shirou getting trapped inside SAO.

Two, was making Kayaba a villain with a magnificent "Evil Plan."

I hope you will enjoy reading about the way these two seeds twined together and grew.


Ilya likes to play video games, and in the time she has remaining, Shirou is more than willing to play the new VR game with her. But when they are trapped inside the game, [Sword Art Online], they determine something even more distressing: Kayaba Akihiko is definitely a Magus.


Link: Start


"Come on come on come on!" Somewhere in there, the words of Ilyasivel von Einzbern crossed a line from "demanding" to "whining", as she impatiently tugged him along. He hadn't even finished saying "I'm home!" before she had latched on to his left hand and started dragging him away. Fortunately he had anticipated this and taken his shoes off first.

"Yeah yeah." Shirou agreed with the good nature of an adult granting the whims of a child. "There's no need to rush so much, Ilya."

"Mou!" Ilya blew air out of her mouth, forcing her bangs up as she pouted. "It's already five minutes to one, niichan! If you hadn't wasted your morning on unnecessary things then we wouldn't be behind schedule!" With that, Ilya grabbed his arm, and tugged him around the corner of the entrance hall and past the dining room.

"Welcome back!" Taiga shouted, without getting up or even turning from where she was slumped over the table. Because it was a school break, she had been spending the majority of her time lounging in front of the television rather than doing anything productive.

"Welcome back!" From the kitchen, came the echo of Sakura's voice. Shirou felt a pang of guilt that he hadn't come back for lunch, but he'd properly called and let them know that he would be eating at the Copenhagen, because the restocking was going to take an unexpectedly long time. But, he also felt aggravation that Ilya and Fujinee had once again allowed Sakura to prepare the food, serve it, and now were completely allowing her to do the dishes by herself.

Well, Shirou felt annoyed with himself for letting Ilya be spoiled so much. He had already given up on Fujinee as a fundamentally lost cause, in many ways.

"Ilya," he began, but he was completely overruled before he could actually start scolding.

"Never mind any of that!" Ilya declared, accelerating in a last spurt before hitting the brakes and smoothly sliding to a stop right in front of his room.

Shirou stumbled. Because he wasn't a child anymore, his skill at sliding around on the hardwood floor in his socks had degraded, compared to Ilya who sharpened her natural talent with daily practice.

Ilya flung aside the door to his room, and Shirou winced as it nearly jumped off the slide track. Ilya was the kind of person who demanded three times as much home maintenance compared to a regular person.

The partition between his room and what he still considered Saber's room was completely opened, with a futon on either side. It had seemed inappropriate to him to have both set up in the same room. Normally he definitely would have lost to Ilya in an argument like that, but he had received some unexpected support from Sakura when he insisted that Ilya and him be in at least these technically separate rooms.

So now the stuffed lion shared his desk with the computer that Ilya had received as a present from Grampa Fujimura, as well as the new one that had been specifically purchased for him to use today. It was also built with equipment and cards specialized for running games, although its specifications were not as high as Ilya's top-line machine. There was only one monitor, keyboard, and mouse on the desk. Since they were only necessary for starting up the software, Ilya had just used a KVM switch instead of bothering to lug duplicate interfaces into the room.

And, of course, the NerveGear helmets that were attached to each machine, resting prominently on the pillows that were placed at the head of each futon.

While Shirou took in the changes to his room in one glance, Ilya latched on to his hand and once again insistently tugged him forward. She pulled him over to his own futon and patted his shoulders. Bemused, Shirou obediently kneeled, and allowed Ilya to reach up and pull the NerveGear onto his head, tugging it into place, and then closing and adjusting the chin strap.

"There!" She announced. Her voice was slightly muffled because of the heavy construction, and there was a slightly distracting whirring sound because of the electronics. In terms of vision, he could still see through the visor, although his peripheral vision was obstructed, which made him slightly nervous. In the upper right hand of the visor's HUD he could see the lighting-and-rectangle logo for a fully charged battery with an external power connection. In the upper left hand was a digital clock with anachronistic block numerals displaying "13:58".

"You don't have to worry about character design at all." Ilya declared. "I imported one of my beta alts, so all you have to do is click [accept] at the prompt to import the beta account details, okay?" Of course, her question was merely requiring a response that he acknowledge what he'd heard. Inside Ilya's head, there wasn't even one thought that considered whether Shirou would be interested in designing his own character instead of the one she'd prepared for him. That was the level of imperiousness that she had.

Thinking like that, Shirou indulgently said "yeah, yeah" even as he shifted around, sliding forward to lay down on his back on top of the futon, resting his head on the pillow. He could hear rusting from beside him as Ilya stuck her own helmet on and laid down on her futon at his side.

"Link Start." Ilya commanded.

"Link: start." Shirou intoned. Unwittingly, he said it with the same cadence as the self-hypnosis that he used when he activated his magic circuits with Trace On. But that thought was pushed aside as his senses dissolved into a white nothingness. Sight was blanked out. Sound was reduced to zero. Touch was absorbed into absolute numbness. Smell was gone and so was taste. When he thought of that, he realized that the numbness prevented him from even touching his teeth with his tongue.

But after only an instant like that, pillars of color drifted past him, and he arrived before holographic blue gears labeled in English. Sight, Sound, Touch, Smell, and Taste were each in turn synchronized. He could feel his body again, but intellectually he realized that it was all virtual sensation from the software being directly injected into his brain by the electromagnetic waves of the NerveGear, while the signals going from his brain to his body were interrupted by the artificial activation of his brain's sleep mechanisms.

A pop up prompted his thought processes and set the system interface language to Japanese based on his defaults. He had considered setting it to English as foreign language practice, but rejected it as a mediocre way to practice in exchange for constant annoyance. Besides, it wouldn't even impress Fujinee. While he was thinking about that, another prompt appeared, two fields for his user name and his password. Shirou was briefly struck by the absurdity of the characters being displayed as asterisks inside a virtual interface where it was absolutely impossible for someone to be spying over his shoulder.

And then the system prompt: would he like to import the beta character data? Briefly, he paused. It wasn't something he'd ever brought up, but if he had simply chosen for himself, then it would have been a choice between a simple copy of his own natural body, or to crossplay as a shorter blonde girl. Being honest with himself, it was a question of whether that would be disrespectful or not.

No, that was too heavy for what was really just a game to play with Ilya. He selected the "yes" in his mind and the system responded, importing the character data that Ilya had prepared for him. The text prompt disappeared and a swirl of electric blue lights converged at the center of his vision and dispersed, and with a sensation like falling, he landed in a crouch.

Emiya Shirou looked up. He was standing in a wide stone plaza. It was a circular space surrounded by tall buildings, with the appearance of Rome in the architecture of the marble columns standing out from the walls. A tall castle with a dark color stood at the north end of the plaza, with a staircase leading up to its gates interrupting the magnificent pillars around it.

The air smelled like spring, with the faint hint of grasses beyond the city pulled across the smell of earth and oils that typified a city. He could hear the hum of voices especially from the plaza, where it was interrupted by the near-constant convergent sound of the teleportation effect as players logged in.

He was short. He blinked, looking around, and then down at his body; his hands had a slightly pudgy look and his proportions were not lanky. He felt a moment of vertigo because of how alien the proportions were. His arms and legs were too short. His torso was too short. His limbs were too thin and lacked the muscle he needed to move the ways he would need to move in an emergency.

Instantly, he forced himself calm, feeling slightly ridiculous over his own disorientation. Remembering the advice Ilya had given him, he swiped at the air to open his menu, and calmly navigated to the character description page, where he read the statistics of the avatar Ilya had made for him. Hair color was set to Red (Auburn highlights). Eye color was set to brown as primary color with gold as a secondary color. His height was 127 cm. His mass was 31 kg. His character name was simply his given name, albeit written in all capital letters as if for emphasis.

As one final check, he placed his hands on his cheeks, determining that yes, they were round, perhaps even pudgy. This character avatar called SHIROU was definitely built on the concept of looking like 10-year-old Shirou.

With a put-upon sigh, he turned and jogged around, deciding to look for Ilya.

"Kyaa!" Even as he heard that, he was swept up over two meters over the ground, swamped by a hug. "You look so cute onii-chan!" With that kind of declaration, Shirou decided that he had probably found Ilya, or rather, that Ilya had found him. Well, that made sense, since she would have already known what his avatar looked like.

A pop-up menu prompt at the left side of his field of view caught his attention. With some difficultly, he reached out and dismissed the harassment notification. "Ilya", he calmly requested, "please set me down".

When she did, he looked at her avatar.

The character Ilya chose was a giant. 253 cm tall, massing 411 kg, without even a single gram of fat on those vast muscles like slabs of stone. The skin hue was set to dark gray, the face was like chiseled rocks, and the eyes and hair were both set to black. The starting equipment of the chest guard looked vaguely ridiculous, an unnecessary effect on the vast monster before him; because there was no shirt item equipped under the armor, Shirou could clearly see that Ilya had set the slider for muscle size all the way to the maximum. In terms of the remaining visible items, Ilya's avatar was barefoot, with a kilt-type equip instead of pants. With an excited appearance and a delighted smile that was both extremely incongruous and deeply unsettling, the giant before him was manipulating a menu he couldn't see.

[Accept friend request from Berserkah? Y/N]

Shirou sighed as he toggled the yes button on the floating prompt. "Did someone already take [Berserker] on you, Ilya?"

With a petulant frown, the giant before him nodded. "Yes! Even all the way back at the very beginning of the beta, it was already taken by someone else!" She (he? it?) crossed those vast arms across that vast chest and pouted.

Shirou could not handle this.

"Let's just go." Shirou said, sighing.

"Okay!" Ilya cheered. "Don't worry, with my help we'll definitely grind all the way to level five before the end of the day!" And after saying that, Ilya seized his hand exactly as she had not even fifteen minutes ago, and started dragging him away. Nearly dangling instead of walking because of the huge difference in height, Shirou sighed patiently even as Ilya started babbling excitedly about what he should equip and what his build should be.


"Alright!" Ilya announced, pointing at the blue-furred pig-type monster. "You're going to start by hunting this boar mob, Shirou!"

Shirou nodded, before responding seriously. "There's only one. Is that really something you can call a mob?"

Ilya pouted. Shirou estimated it would take him at least two months before he would be able to accept that kind of childish look on that kind of terrifying face without looking twice. "That doesn't matter! Just use a Sword Skill on it! You've got the basic one-handed curved type equipped, so just activate Horizontal or Reaver on it!"

Shirou felt slightly foolish, but he casually walked up to the boar, which was contentedly ignoring him and plodding around. He unsheathed his sword with his right hand, raised it carefully, and stepped forward with his leading foot as he slashed his blade down.

With precision and confident speed, the tip of the sword cut down into the neck of the boar deep enough to sever the spine, while the following edge going down far enough to cut through the jugular vein. When the sword cleared, Shirou stepped back as the smooth follow-through brought the sword around to the far side, as he calmly reset his stance.

[Critical Hit!]

Following that cheery announcement, the boar gave a dying squeal as the floating status bar immediately emptied, passing from green, through yellow, to red, before completely emptying out. With the signature futuristic sound, the boar wavered and burst into blue-green pixel fragments which evaporated.

"I've never even heard of someone getting a [Critical Hit] on an attack that didn't use the System Assist." Ilya said, with some amazement in her voice.

"Really?" Shirou said, glancing over his side. "This is almost too easy." Casually he relaxed from the wide stance until he was standing normally, glancing around as he scanned for other monsters, before turning his attention back to Ilya. "I mean, a straight cut with such a light sword against an opponent that's moving so slowly and ignoring you?" He shook his head.

"That's the point!" Ilya protested. "This game is aimed at people who haven't ever even held a sword before! These monsters are just vendor trash for noobs to grind Sword Skills on." Ilya crossed those vast arms again. "Just pretend you're a normal civilian."

Shirou sighed. "Yeah yeah." He conscientiously put a smile on his face and looked up at Ilya. "So how do Sword Skills work in this game, Ilya?"

Ilya nodded vigorously, and drew her own sword, which was the basic one-hand straight sword. She had already explained to Shirou that she wanted to build this character as a strength-oriented two-handed sword user. But for right now, her character looked ridiculous because that initial equip weapon was about the same length and width as her avatar's pointer finger.

"The Sword Skills in the game Sword Art Online are all based on the System Assist for Command Inputs." Ilya proudly said, regurgitating information from the game manual in her own words. "What you do, is hold the sword and take the stance. It's like your body is compressing a spring, and then when you coiled up to the right compression, the system automatically releases the pent-up power and launches the Attack." To demonstrate, Ilya struck a pose, and raised her sword before her, slowly pulling it back as the blade hung parallel to the ground. When the hilt was nearly touching her cheek, a charging sound effect began, and the sword's blade emitted a yellow glow. When the charge sound had stopped changing pitch and become stable, the light effect had also become constant; then, Ilya nodded, and her body moved automatically. She moved forward over four meters in a single step, swinging the sword in a combination attack that began as a cut but finished as a forward thrust. When it was complete, Ilya dramatically held the end position, before standing. "See! Now you try!"

Shirou nodded. He emptied his mind, and calmed his breathing. Even if the breathing was a simulation, he synchronized it with his motions. He raised the sword, adjusting his grip with his fingers. The sword began to glow red. The distinct whining sound effect of the charge animation started up. His body was like a finger threading into the trigger guard and gently resting on the trigger, carefully adjusting to exactly the right position. The red light was stable. The noise was constant.

Shirou pulled the mental trigger. The Skill was the firing pin, the shell, and the gunpowder; his sword was shot without any further requirements from him. His body responded automatically like the mechanism to eject the spent case and reload the next round. His body was like a machine that moved as a programmed result of his input, rather than adjusted by his control.

The sword flashed out, and Shirou felt his body stand motionless for less than a heartbeat when he was finished. That moment of automatic weakness bothered him; even if it was a fraction of a second, it was designed to be make him a target. If there had been an enemy around, it would have terrified him instead of merely bothering him. That moment definitely convinced him that Sword Art Online was a game, not a training simulation. However...

"Mou! First try!" Shirou didn't know why Ilya was complaining about that. Because he was thinking so hard, he wasn't focused on what she was saying. He was thinking: However, even if the step went ridiculously long, even if the swing went cartoonishly wide, even if there was that opening labeled "please counterattack me" enforced at the end, there was certainly something serious at the foundation of the System Assist. The adjustment of grip strength in each finger before, during, and after the cut; the moment when the muscles dynamically flexed to maximum exertion after moving the sword at maximum limberness; even the way the path of the edge, and of the sword's centerline, was kept perfectly aligned along the imaginary plane of the sword's motion: if the basic silhouette was cheap theatrics, the details were murderously realistic.

"Ilya," he began, "How was the System Assist designed?" Shirou asked quietly.

"Eh?" Ilya blinked. "There was a magazine article about that. Kayaba hired all kinds of martial artists and fencers and tournament fighters and blew a medium-sized fortune on motion capture and interviews to revise the motion data. Then the capture data set from that was integrated into a motion-library that the Argus' company programmers used to build the Sword Arts out of. Supposedly Argus is going to license the motion-library to anybody that wants to build a fighting game with the NerveGear." Ilya tilted her head to the side. Seeing that kind of cute motion on that kind of intimidating body still bothered him. "Why do you ask, Shirou?"

Shirou shook his head. "I was just a little curious, that's all." Honestly, that sounded like a perfect explanation for the sensation of the Sword Arts. Realistic details from professional fighters used to assemble unrealistic attacks by professional game programmers. But it was strange that Kayaba could have talked Argus into spending so much money on making those details so perfect.

Well, it wasn't something that concerned Shirou in the end. "Ilya," he said, "let's keep playing."

"Yeah!" Ilya said, punching the air in enthusiasm. "We're gonna farm mobs like crazy!"

Shirou understood the meaning of that sentence, but he would estimate 50% of the nuance went over his head. Still, even so, he simply agreed, saying "yeah yeah" with the same good nature he always had.


Shirou shook his head, even though he knew the disorientation of the forced teleport effect would be unaffected by that. Still, he glanced around casually, seeing as more and more players were teleporting into the plaza. They all milled about, looking impatient and annoyed. Probably they were all offended that something as basic as the [Logout] command was broken on the first day of the launch. Shirou didn't mind the inconvenience for himself, although he hoped they solved it soon. Because if he was still here in an hour or two, then Sakura would start dinner, and cooking both lunch and dinner was simply too unfair to her.

The bell in the tower in the center of the plaza stopped ringing. The sky went dark as red hexagons spread out, popping into existence one after another across the air above the central plaza of the Starting City. A hush fell over the crowd at the theatrical effect; even if the people gathered here were generally annoyed by the bug, the grandeur of the effect mostly replaced the annoyance with a pleased sense of awe.

Blood poured from the gaps of the hexagons. No, it wasn't blood, not really. The virtual fluid, with the same red color as blood, the same viscosity as blood, the same texture as blood, poured out from between the hexagons, it gushed downward and gathered unnaturally. The clot grew as the virtual blood smoothly poured into it from the sky effect. The clot grew, and pulsed, and throbbed as lighting effects arched across it, and twisted around once.

Shirou's gaze didn't break when he sensed the vast hand reaching down. Calmly he simply raised his own arm above his shoulder level and held out his own open hand. When that hand as wide as his torso closed around his own left hand, he could only wrap his grip around the pointer finger, so he did, and gave Ilya a reassuring squeeze.

The twist completed, the virtual blood clot solidified, morphed, changed into a giant figure completely obscured by a thick red robe.

"Game Master?" Ilya murmured. Since the unsettling blood effect had finished, she didn't sound hesitant, but rather just confused by why such a huge effect had been animated.

The Game Master avatar hung in space, suspended in the air above the gate to the huge castle at the north of the plaza. After a dramatic pause, it began to speak. The voice was not especially loud, but it resonated widely so that every player present could certainly hear it.

"Attention Players.

"Welcome to my world.

"My name is Kayaba Akihito.

"As of this moment, I am the supreme entity in control of this world.

"I'm sure you have already noticed that the [Logout] button is missing from the main menu."

The right hand of that floating giant rose with ponderous slowness, and then tapped the air in front of it, calling the menu exactly as if it, the GM, had been a normal player. The menu was scaled proportionate to the GM, and set to global visibility, so even if it was backwards, everyone there could see as the GM navigated to where the [Logout] command should have been.

"But this is not a defect in the game.

"I repeat, this is not a defect in the game.

"It is a feature of Sword Art Online.

"You cannot log out of SAO yourselves.

"And no one on the outside can shut down or remove the NerveGear.

"Should this be attempted, the transmitter inside the NerveGear will emit a powerful microwave pulse, destroying your brain and ending your life."

The GM allowed another dramatic pause. Shirou took the chance to quickly glance around him; the expressions on the faces around him were like beaches with waves of horror crashing onto them. No, they were like the faces of people standing on the shore, watching the ocean withdrawing and building into a tsunami, knowing that there was absolutely nothing they could do to prevent the incoming disaster. Voices were filled with that horror. Several tense conversations whispered around him verified that the NerveGear was technically capable of what the GM was describing.

"Unfortunately several players' friends and family have ignored this warning, and attempted to remove the NerveGear.

"As a result, 213 players are gone forever, both from Aincrad and the real world."

Again the GM navigated his menu, although it had automatically reset to private visibility, so that his motions remained inscrutable until various browser holographs became visible, the floating rectangles displaying various news threads, television news programs, and live videos of involved people.

But while he was doing that, a sensation like a cold blob of iron entered Shirou's chest. Even though it felt like it sat right under his diaphragm, it didn't interfere with his controlled breathing. The iron was heated by his outrage until it was hot. It was shaped and sharpened by his anger at the senseless deaths of 213 people.

"As you can see, news organizations across the world are reporting this, including the deaths.

"Thus, you can assume the danger of a NerveGear being removed is now minimal.

"I hope you will relax and focus on clearing the game."

Although it had been delivered with the same simplicity as the rest of the announcement, as if up until now had been a formality that simply had to be gotten through, it was only now that something like real intent crept into the voice of the floating GM. The outrage in Shirou was forcibly cooled. The iron was hardened. Getting too emotional in battle was a mistake.

"I hope you remember this clearly. All methods to revive someone within the game have been removed.

"If your HP is reduced to zero, your avatar will be lost.

"And simultaneously, the NerveGear will destroy your brain."

Shirou clenched his jaw tightly. It was too early to move, but he imagined that his soul inhabiting this virtual body was ready to launch that sword of anger out of his chest and destroy the GM avatar, to destroy this scenario that Kayaba had created, that had already killed people!

"There is only one means of escape."

The menu was manipulated. A vast cylindrical hologram sprung up, stacked plates. The virtual world of Aincrad.

"To complete the game.

"You are presently on the lowest floor of Aincrad, floor one.

"If you make your way through the dungeon and defeat the floor boss, you may advance to the next floor.

"Defeat the final boss on floor 100, and you will clear the game."

There was another pause. Shirou kept the GM avatar in the field of his vision as he swept his gaze around. He analyzed the people around him. Compared to the horror of inevitable drowning, the expressions were like people that realized the one boat remaining was just a rusty fishing dingy. The chance of survival was above 0%, but it was still so low that it was more like mockery than a real possibility to salvation. The horror evolved into anger at such mockery.

"Finally, I've added a present from me to your item storage.

"Please see for yourselves."

Shirou simply kept staring. He was like a lump of steel shaped like a human. He had no intention of making even one unnecessary movement. Even if it was pointless, he had no intention of cooperating even that much. Still, his menu opened automatically, and navigated through to his item inventory. It scrolled down past the "boar meat" and other bits and pieces that had accumulated over his afternoon. At the very bottom, a new item had been incremented into his inventory. It was a single non-stacking consumable item. It was automatically activated.

The item was called [Magical Mirror] and it materialized as a circle of glass before shattering into pixels. The cold expression on his childish face was apparent to Shirou for only an instant.

There was a flash of blue light, and a pulse of nothingness exactly like he had experienced during character creation, when the sensations from his real body turned off but before the sensations of the avatar body were routed in.

No. It was worse. This dangerous warmth that saturated his brain and spread down his spine, then radiated until it felt like needles piercing the tip of every finger and toe.

That heat was definitely from prana running through him. If it was something that he could feel with every single body sensation interrupted, then that simply meant he was detecting the interference with his circuits. He hadn't been running them, so he wasn't able to scrub the enchantment out of his soul by circulating prana.

Even as the warmth completed flowing leaving only the phantom sensation of heat behind, like stepping out of a too-hot house into the fall air in front of an instantly-closing door, all other body sensations returned from a rebooting avatar. He blinked. His perspective was approximately 40 cm higher from the ground while standing. He glanced down at his body, and felt the most complete sense of déjà-vu he'd ever experienced when he recognized his own body from the inside after operating that childish form for several hours. He glanced to the side, where Ilya looked similarly disoriented. And it was definitely Ilya; the short, pale girl was standing there. The contrast between the mountain-like giant and the fairy-like little girl was extreme. Her equipment had also changed scale, although the lack of shirt under her chest protector now looked indecent rather than absurd.

People were screaming and shouting. Shirou ignored them as he made eye contact with Ilya. His intense gaze asked the question without any need for words. With a solemn expression, that had a hint of embarrassment, Ilya nodded. Compared to the expectations even these previous five minutes have given him, the situation has already gotten much worse than Emiya Shirou had expected.

"At this time I would like to announce the first content expansion for SAO.

"The system for simulating Thaumaturgy has been enabled.

"That is to say, the skills of manifesting mysteries and wonders, individually called [Spells], are now available.

"It is complete and accurate to the best of my ability as a simulator.

"Please note that the item selection and Equippable Skills have been updated to eliminate ambiguities and overlaps with magecraft. [Items], such as [Teleport Crystals], and [Skills], such as [Night Vision], that produce supernatural effects have been removed as redundant and unnecessary.

"I highly encourage you to develop your skills as a magic user. They will be indispensable in clearing the game."

The precision was more disturbing than the content of those words. Shirou pursed his lips, and when Ilya tentatively moved her arm, he reached out to take her hand again. Kayaba Akihito was definitely a magic user. For exposing the secret truth that [Magic is Real] to these 10,000 people gathered here, even if it was in virtual reality. He would definitely be Sealed as a Philosopher and hunted down as a threat to the most important treaty item agreed upon by all true practitioners of the Great Crafts.

More importantly, in doing so, he had made these 10,000 people accessories to his crime. Whether they would be brainwashed with memory alteration or simply executed depended on the skills and inclinations of the investigative body. But with this many gathered witnesses, they would definitely prioritize expedience and thoroughness over smoothing it down, let alone something as useless to them as mercy.

However, there was a critical prerequisite to that situation occurring. Shirou's mind raced as he calculated. Because silencing Kayaba required that the Enforcers become aware of his words in the first place. The announcement was made to 10,000 people, but those 10,000 people were completely cut off from the rest of human civilization by the [Death Game] settings. This situation was like a sealed room murder before the first witness discovered the corpse. Right now, the only people that even knew the crime had been committed were the ones that were directly involved as the sinner and the victims. By the time the room was unlocked, it was already too late to save anyone.

No. The absolute worst case scenario was, that by the time the sealed room was unlocked, by the time the crime scene was found by the Enforcers… they would see only criminals, without any victims. They would simply execute everyone involved without a shred of hesitation.

"Right now, you're probably wondering why.

"Why would Kayaba Akihito, the developer of the NerveGear and SAO, do all of this?

"I will respond without answering by way of an old saying: 'To be a magus is to walk with death.'

"If you wish to uncover my motive, struggle to clear the game.

"I hope that you will endorse my objective when it becomes clear.

"But no matter what, I will be pleased if you all develop into excellent magic users.

"In the meantime, please consider this mystery as the central plot of the game SAO, and endeavor to solve it."

There was a pause as the GM avatar finished delivering the speech. The emotions that had excited the voice as Kayaba described his logic while still leaving his reasons opaque were completed with that paragraph. The following words were delivered as a necessary formality, a ritual that required calm delivery on his part without particular excitement.

"This ends the tutorial for the official SAO launch.

"Good luck."

The avatar slumped midair. Strange vapors escaped from the hood and sleeves as it deflated and began to fall. Before it could fall even ten meters, though, it dissolved into nothingness. It did not shatter into the blue-green triangles and dissolve; it simply faded transparent until it was invisible and presumably gone. Compared to the normal logic of Aincrad, it was definitely an unnatural way for the GM avatar to go.

It was quiet.

The air was thick with tension. It was pressure. It was pushing everyone down. The tension was squeezing everyone like the air was winding into straps around them. No one dared to move. It was like everyone stopped breathing and didn't start up again because it was unnecessary for these virtual bodies.

And then someone screamed.

It was the starting gun at a track meet. People instantly began running, pushing around, wearing among each other and knocking over and about other people without any consideration. Shirou was relieved that it was impossible to lose HP inside a [Safe Zone] because that meant at least no one would be trampled to death or even injured in this riot.

"Shirou." Ilya said. Her voice was uncertain, and tense. Rather than worried about death, he could tell that she experienced the same emotion he did right then: profound uncertainty. Compared to the Grail War that had shaped both their lives, the immediate threat of death was much lower, but the goal of Kayaba Akihito was completely unclear. Even if the method of winning the game was obviously announced, the true nature of the Grail that Kayaba sought was totally inscrutable.

"Shirou," Ilya began, "what should we do?"

Kayaba Akihito had trapped thousands of people in a virtual world for ultimately unknown reasons. They were trapped in a death game. When the game was completed, everyone left over would be tossed out of this tiny pond called Aincrad into the vast ocean called the real world, where they would be devoured for knowing too much.

What should Emiya Shirou do? Like he even needed to ask himself such an obvious question.

"Ilya", Shirou began, "during the beta, where were the starting quests with the highest failure rates?"

Emiya Shirou would save as many people as he could.

The first battle was always the most dangerous, that was a general rule across all warfare. There were differences in the danger of any conflict, due to tactics, asymmetrical preparation, and geography; but for an individual, the first battle, when they completely lacked experience, was by default the most dangerous. In a virtual world like Aincrad, that was even closer to absolutely true than in the real world. When the relative threat could be so easily and accurately assessed with a level mechanic, there was no excuse for getting into a fight you couldn't win. Just put those convenient numbers on a scale, and if it tips against you, retreat. But the exception was level one. Even at level two, it was possible to develop a margin of safety by fighting down. It was manifestly impossible to do so when there was nothing below you. Combining the psychological lack of battle experience with the game mechanic lack of XP: according to Emiya Shirou's estimate, the most dangerous period of the [Death Game] was about to begin.

Disregarding his own loss and gain, he wouldn't seek any XP or items for himself. Rather he would interfere in battles that other people were in danger of losing.

Even if she didn't precisely follow his thoughts, Ilya could understand the general direction. So, she groaned theatrically and puffed her cheeks, frowning as she knit her brows together. "Why can't you just stay with me, Shirou?" There was a plaintiveness, there was a heaviness in that question that deeply underlay her childish antics. "Why do you have to go and save strangers instead?"

Shirou blinked. "Ilya, I can't do this without you."

The darkness evaporated as Ilya's expression cleared. "Eh?"

Shirou frowned slightly as he explained the obvious. "Your experience as a beta tester is a vital tactical edge. I need your knowledge if we're going to prevent people from dying in the early part of the game. I need you with me, Ilya." Shirou pursued his lips. "I'm frustrated at myself for having to put you in danger, but I can't see a better path than this. Just pretend I'm the Servant and you're the Master, and support me with tactical knowledge without entering battle, okay?"

Ilya stared. Her face was slack and her gaze was amazed. Then, like a sunrise, she smiled. She leaned forward and slammed her shoulder into Shirou's belly, wrapping her arms around his waist in a fierce hug. She didn't say anything. It was unnecessary for her to agree or disagree when her endorsement was so clear. She simply hugged Emiya Shirou. Carefully, he patted her on the head with one hand, and dismissed the harassment query with the other.

With the world screaming around them, with people collapsing in despair, screaming in fear, and raging in fear, there was this one island of happiness, where Ilyasivel von Einzbern was hugging her oniichan, Emiya Shirou.