The spectators had all been standing in a stunned silence throughout our short argument. The only sound was Kibaou's sword sliding out of his sheath and Rin muttering "freaking idiot" under her breath. I thought about saying "I heard that," but instead started focusing on the battle, just in case he was better than I expected.

He wasn't. He charged at me as soon as the timer reached zero. I effortlessly parried his sloppy vertical slash. He activated a Sword Skill and moved at me once again in a horizontal cut, but once again I parried without a problem.

"Would you rather have this guy as your leader, or a beater who knows what they're doing?" I threw out to the crowd, sidestepping Kibaou's lunge. "The choice is yours, but so is the responsibility for the deaths." Kibaou's scowl reached a depth I didn't think possible. He once again charged me, attempting a feint – unluckily for him, it was executed very sloppily and our swords clashed once again as I blocked him.

Finally, I decided to go on the offensive myself. He frantically parried my initial thrust, but I could sense him struggling to keep up as I chained slash after slash, not allowing him a single moment of respite.

"I hate people like you. Casting people better than you down just to look good yourself." I cut his cheek with a lunge he'd managed to deflect at the last moment. "Do you really want this guy leading our efforts to get out of here?" I knocked his sword away, slashing at his exposed leg, but he backstepped. "Someone who stands not on their own achievements, but on those of others?" I tired of this exchange of swordplay, quickly executing Sword Skill after Sword Skill. I could see his health bar rapidly beginning to go down.

Finally, I feinted and scored a direct hit on him. A screen popped up proclaiming me the winner, but I ignored it.

"Think about it."

I glanced at Rin in a signal that we were leaving, then began to climb those stairs Kirito had only a few minutes ago.

The awed silence persisted as I walked up to the second floor, my sister jogging to keep up.

As the sunshine once again fell on our faces, we got our first look at the next floor to conquer. Much like the first, grassy plains stretched endlessly outwards, but they were broken here and there by lakes and streams. Small farms dotted the landscape as well, smoke trails rising from their primitive chimneys.

Finally my sister managed to stop looking at the scenery and properly chastise me, as I knew she'd been waiting to do.

"What the hell was that?" she exclaimed, shoving me with one hand and making a displeased expression.

I shrugged. "I think I explained it pretty well back in the dungeon. I don't want to get my head chopped off just because some incompetent idiot like this is leading us." I grinned slightly. "Plus, he indirectly insulted my little sister. I can't allow that."

"If I cared, I would've fought him myself!" she cried, before blushing at the realization of how petty my statement was. "What if you'd lost? What if he'd killed you?"

"The duel mode was set to first strike, Rin. It stops when you get down to half health or you score a direct hit on your opponent." I shook my head. "Besides, I had a feeling I wouldn't lose to that guy."

She still looked mad, but I could tell her anger was subsiding. Then she surprised me. "Thanks," she said softly.

I slowly turned my head to her. "What?"

"You're right." She sighed. "No one else wanted to stand up to him, though."

We stood for a moment in silence. "Yeah," I said finally. "Um...I guess we just as well go to the next village now, right?" She nodded her agreement.

The walk over there was mostly uneventful, only interrupted by occasional fights with the local fauna – a myriad of «Enraged Stags» and «Kobold Scouts». There was the occasional «Octol Boar», a much stronger variant of the one on the first floor, but nothing overly challenging. We reached the village after about half an hour, our health bars still mostly full.

It was a quaint little establishment, about 20 houses scattered around, the only thing really seeming to be anchored in place the village square in the middle of it all. A haphazardly-built inn, oddly leaning slightly to the left, stood just outside the main square. Most of the houses seemed to be this way – wooden plank siding, wooden shingles, and all having some odd architectural oddity.

"I hope there are rooms on the ground floor," my sister said dryly. I silently agreed with her.

The rest of the day, other plays gradually found their way up to Floor 2. Those I recognized from the clearing party all gave me a nod or thumbs-up of some sort for fighting Kibaou, I assumed. Even some adventurers that hadn't been in the dungeon seemed to recognize me.

I leaned back in my chair. From the inside, you could tell the inn was built of sturdy oak, from the spotted bar to the round tables in the main room to the supports overhead. It was a cozy enough place, a fireplace crackling in its cobblestone casing, lending its warmth to the chilly autumnal air. The various chairs around the room were gradually being taken by people passing through the door, the air beginning to bubble with private conversations.

"Didn't take them long to move right up, did it?" my sister asked bemusedly.

"They want to get out of here. I don't blame them," I replied, panning my gaze across the motley bunch of adventurers now crowding the inn from my semi-secluded corner.

Rin turned her gaze to the window outside, cold sunshine falling on her face. "I wouldn't mind staying here that much, if it wasn't just you and me," she said thoughtfully.

I nodded. "It's really not that much different from reality, it's just slightly more dangerous to go out. On the other hand, you won't die of sickness."

"I wonder how many people would rather just stay here." She shook her head slightly and turned back to me, smiling. "Sorry. That was starting to get a little philosophical."

I shrugged. "What's life without asking what it is?" I settled into my chair a little farther. "I'd enjoy it while I can. Everyone's going to be itching to get back out and get clearing again after this night of celebration." As I mentioned 'celebration,' I could already see drinks being passed around and the atmosphere of the inn gradually relaxing further.

"I think I'm going to get a room before they're all taken," my sister said, preferring to distance herself from the gayety of drunk, 20-year-old guys. That is, if you could get drunk in this world. I couldn't blame her, and quickly retreated to my own room as the patrons got evermore rowdy.


The rest of Floor 2 was greatly uneventful – just the usual myriad of quests, monsters, and towns. All in all, it wasn't overly different from the first in that regard. It was when we got to the dungeon that we were faced with a problem.

Through some sort of nonverbal communication, most of the last floor's boss party had made it into the central plaza of the city outside the second dungeon. Unlike when I had last saw most of them, their faces now were somber, determined. Except for Kibaou and a couple others I assumed to be his lackeys, the clearing group retained most of the people who'd fought in that first battle, along with a few new faces here and there.

The problem arose of who would lead, however. We may have all gotten together somehow, but no one had formally organized it. Everyone just milled around in confusion for a while before someone finally decided to step up. Not that he looked like he wanted to.

"I'm glad to see we all made it here today," I said. "I see most of you made it back, along with a few new faces." I nodded to those I recognized as new. "I guess I've kind of made myself the de facto leader now, though I'd rather not. If anyone else would step up, please – I'd prefer to just hack things up." I grinned rather lopsidedly. My sister just looked mildly horrified – whether at my terrible public speaking or that I was going to be leading people, I wasn't entirely sure.

Maybe it was that time of year. Either way, no one stepped forward. "...okay, I guess that's a resounding no. In that case, we should probably start discussing strategy, no?" I panned over the audience. I quickly pointed to the few I noticed didn't have a blank look on their faces after the word 'strategy.' "Let's discuss it inside, shall we?"

I began walking back to the inn, trusting that the players I'd picked would fall into step beside me. Sure enough, they did...and I could only hope they had more ideas than me. There were few enough of us to fit at one of the long tables of the inn in the central city of Floor 2. I recognized most of the faces around the table – Asuna, the swordswoman who had fought with Kirito; Kirito himself, whom I was surprised to see after last floor; a man named Heathcliff, who had been one of the lead tanks; and Lind, another leading tank. I'd come to know all in time as powerful players in their own right; at the time I was too occupied with trying to think of what to say.

Luckily I didn't have to say much of anything, as Kirito had begun to quietly dictate a plan to us. It was much the same as what we did on the first floor – we would be broken into multiple parties by class, each serving its own function in the battle – but with the raid leaders in their own party, not necessarily always together in the battle, able to keep tabs on each other and issue orders accordingly.

Through nodding and quiet agreement, we communicated we liked this plan. After a little ironing out of details, we were ready to send out the scouting parties (a precaution we opted to take after Illfang's surprise attack last floor).

I paced around the middle plaza, a fountain happily bubbling beside. It'd been about four hours since we'd sent the first scouting party, and they still hadn't returned as of yet. Two more had been sent since then, and they hadn't returned either.

The sun continued to turn its gaze down upon us, its rays stretching over the roofs of the city around us. Those of us still gathered in the plaza were beginning to get anxious; others had already left to go and fight some monsters out in the field to pass the time.

Just as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon did the scouting parties finally reappear, four weaker than when they had entered. Quickly they were barraged with questions from those still in attendance, the weariness clearly visible on their faces.

I walked over to the small mob and said, "Okay, okay. Perhaps we can get our answers from them after they've rested up? The boss isn't going away!" I tried to sound stern, but that's not the easiest thing to do at the awkward age of 13.

Nonetheless, the adventurers listened and opened a path to the inn for the scouts. Everyone began to follow them, but I held up a hand. "Let them be. They weren't told to report until morning anyways." A lie constructed to give them some rest, but I'm sure they needed it – their faces were gaunt, pale. I knew it couldn't have been easy losing four of a group that was originally only 18 strong.

As the sun turned its domain over to the moon and night fell upon is, I could only help but wonder if it would soon be night for us, as well.


AN: Hey, everyone! As usual, thanks for reading my story!

I was going to write that this was a really short chapter...but then I noticed how short my other chapters were. I'll try to make a note of expanding them next time; I just wanted to get this one out quickly.

Also, I checked the wiki for some things this chapter - I'll try to stay canon as best I can, but for the most part I'm going to be going off of what I remember from the anime. If I started doing everything the same as the novels did, not only would it take longer but I feel I'd have less of my own creativity in the story. That said, I'll try not to completely break the story, either.

See you next chapter!