A/N: Okay guys, this is probably going to be the last series that I do, although that may change in the future. I plan on following this story at least through the Fairy Dance Arc, but I'm not sure after that. This is essentially a self-insert, as though I were in the story alongside Kirito and co.

I hope you enjoy this fanfiction as much as I have enjoyed writing it, if not more so.

The Law of the Sword

Kirito finished adding Asuna to his party before he noticed another person sitting alone, apart from the others. They were dressed in a black-and-red cloak, and they stood a stiff as a statue. Looking at the girl beside him, he asked, "Hey, do you mind if I ask that guy to join us?"

"Not really," she replied. "The more in our party, the better chance we have a surviving this boss raid, I guess." And with that, she up and left, clearly indicating that the choice was his to make.

Kirito shrugged and walked over to the person. From the build, he could tell that the player was male, but like Asuna, his face was shadowed by his cowl. "Hey there," he said as he extended his hand.

The other player looked up slightly, but not enough to reveal his features. He shook Kirito's hand readily enough, but he did not speak. Since he seemed to be the silent type, Kirito pulled open his menu and said, "So… Do you want to join up in a party? It's only going to be for this round, if you're not comfortable with a group setting. But you heard-"

"Are you going to keep babbling, or are you going to send me an invite?" the other boy interrupted. His voice was somewhat deep and had a vibrant tone, leading Kirito to believe that this player might be a bit older than him. "Yes, I'll join you."

"Oh," Kirito said. He sent the invite, and the other player accepted. Another health bar appeared in Kirito's peripheral vision, along with the name 'Mataras'. Kirito was surprised to see that this player's level matched his own already.

"Kirito, is it?" Mataras asked. "So you'd be Japanese, then."

"Yeah," Kirito replied, somewhat startled that this player had figured out his ethnicity so quickly. In Aincrad, everyone sounded like they were speaking their own native language, due to a high-tech translator system. "And, Mataras? What is that, European?"

"I'd be American, if anything," Mataras replied. "But I'm living in Japan right now, and my name is Spanish origin. Although in the light of the nature of this game, I really wish I could change it now."

"Why's that?" Kirito prompted.

"It means 'you kill," Mataras replied dryly. "I wasn't planning on being a player killer or anything like that, but now if people see my name, they might get the wrong idea."

"Oh," Kirito said again, somewhat surprised. "But, wait, why are you telling me this if you're worried about people getting the wrong idea?"

"You asked," Mataras replied simply. "And you're the first person to want to interact with me without asking for some freebies. I figured I'd show a little gratitude." Standing up, he threw back the cowl on his cloak.

The pale face it revealed was no older than sixteen. The black hair was straight and lengthy, partially obscuring his left eye. The jaw was strong, and the eyebrows thick. The nose was a little on the larger side, but not so much that it made the boy look ugly. The mouth was set in a firm line, and the serious eyes were dark brown- so dark as to nearly be black.

The way he stood showed that he knew how to carry himself properly, with his back straight and his chin slightly pointed upwards. He was of slim build, but there was no mistaking the look of confidence that he had about him. The sword on his back proved that he had every right to carry himself as such.

The sword was called a fakora, and it granted enough stat boosts to keep a player going strong until at least level five or so. It was only awarded for one quest on the first floor. When in the beta, Kirito had heard about it, but when he tried to go for it this time around, he had found that the quest was already completed.

This likely meant that Mataras was a beta tester as well, if he had been able to get ahold of the quest so quickly. Kirito was tempted to ask his new teammate about his player history, but decided against it. If he was wrong, with all the trouble that Kibaou was trying to stir up, he could very well lose a party member.

"Done looking?" Mataras said, snapping Kirito out of his thoughts.

"What?" he said. "Oh, yeah. Uh… So do you want to go get some lunch, or…?"

"I have a lunch already packed," Mataras replied. "I was gonna go do some more levelling before tomorrow's raid and eat on the way. Would you care to join me? And maybe that girl that you were talking to before? Asuna?"

"Hm… I can message her, but she didn't seem too interested in joining in any group activities," Kirito replied as he pulled up his message function on the menu. Mataras shrugged and waited for Kirito to finish his message before beginning to walk towards the field dungeon.

They didn't see Asuna until later that evening in the village again, after they had spent their afternoon levelling up and selling their spoils. Kirito and Mataras were easily able to adapt to the team fighting system. They quickly grew a mutual respect for one another, both as people and as swordsmen.

Mataras noticed that Kirito was warm and friendly, but he tended to avoid other people that were lower level than him. Not out of a sense of superiority, but out of a sense of isolation. He knew that beta testers weren't well-liked due to their natural advantages over the other players, so he seemed to want to avoid causing a scene.

Kirito, on the other hand, couldn't really figure Mataras out. Towards himself, Mataras was nice enough, even going so far as to share his lunch with him. But to the few other players that they ran into, he was nothing short of cold and barely cordial. And Kirito couldn't really understand why, but he decided that it didn't matter. After this boss raid, they would likely part ways and barely ever interact again. After all, they were both solo players.

And speaking of solo players, they both spotted Asuna sitting alone, away from the gathering of front liners. Mataras actually chuckled to himself as he said, "She stole my spot."

"What, you're gonna go kick her off of it?" Kirito grinned.

"No," Mataras replied. "I'm just going to see if she objects to us joining her."

"I thought you didn't like hanging around others," Kirito said as his partner began walking towards the girl.

"I don't like hanging around incompetent people," Mataras replied quickly. "And if she's made it this far on her own like you did, I'd hardly call her incompetent." He approached the girl silently and sat down a couple of feet away from her.

She eyed him warily as he pulled out a loaf of bread and began to eat it in silence. Kirito sighed and sat down between them, Asuna shifting away from them both a little more than necessary.

Noticing that she had the same meal as the two of them, Kirito realized how he could break the ice. "These things taste pretty good, don't they?" he said.

Asuna stopped her chewing and swallowed before cocking her head at Kirito. "You really think these taste good?" she asked.

"They do," Mataras answered, seeing where Kirito was going. "But Kirito taught me a trick to make it better." With that, he pulled out a jar from his inventory and handed it to Kirito. Tapping his finger on the lid, Mataras used the glowing residue that came off to spread a certain substance over his own biscuit.

Asuna's curiosity was piqued enough that she tried it herself. Kirito used the last of the item, causing the container to shatter into a number of polygons that quickly faded from existence. Copying Mataras' actions, she was surprised to find that her bread was now smeared with- "Butter?" she asked.

Kirito nodded and started munching down his dinner. Mataras just started eating without a word. Asuna looked at the bread for another moment, wondering if it might actually improve the plain flavor that had been her usual meals for nearly a month. She took a bite and chewed slowly, unaware of Mataras' eyes on her, waiting to see her reaction. To his surprise, she finished eating with great gusto, wolfing down the food faster than Kirito.

Asuna sighed with contentment. Even if it was a simple adjustment, that was easily the best food she'd had while in Aincrad. Mataras nodded approvingly to himself and finished eating his own dinner in silence.

Kirito, mistaking Mataras' silence for icy formality, tried to warm things up by saying, "So, Asuna. Would you like to know how to get more of that stuff?" He was prepared to explain that once you completed a certain quest, you could unlock the item in stores, but Asuna didn't give him the chance.

"No thanks," she said softly. "I really appreciate the offer, but I didn't come here to eat good food."

"Then why are you here?" The question came from Mataras, who kept his own gaze on the fountain in the town square. His tone was not hostile, but genuinely curious.

Asuna seemed to gather her thoughts before saying, "Because I want to stay true to who I am. I don't wanna lock myself away in the Town of Beginnings and slowly rot away. I want to stay me until the end of this game, even if the end is my death. That way I'll have beat this Death Game before it even begins."

Kirito could think of nothing to say to that, but he didn't expect what Mataras said next. "A noble idea," he said with a smile that to Kirito, seemed almost sad. "But before you go trying to stay the same, ask yourself two things: first, are you who want to be now? And second, even if your experiences in this world do change you against your will, is that necessarily a bad thing?"

"What are you talking about?" Asuna asked, turning sharply to the swordsman. "Everything about this game is evil- how could you suggest that any good might come out of it?"

"I'm older than I look," Mataras simply replied as he stood. "And I've lived long enough to know that even though some would mean certain things for evil, they can still be worked towards good." With that, he walked off to find an inn to spend the night at.

"He's older than he looks?" Asuna repeated. She turned to Kirito, who looked just as confused as she felt. "What does that mean? Everyone looks exactly like they do in the real world, right? The mirrors saw to that- didn't they?"

Kirito could only shrug his shoulders in response.

The next day, the raid party grouped up and set out to find the boss' lair. Asuna and Mataras both walked with their hoods up, making Kirito feel slightly out of place, but he didn't comment on the matter.

It turned out that Asuna had no real idea how to play in a party, so Kirito and Mataras walked her through the various strategies and commands that went into a party fight. They stayed a bit behind the main group to have a little privacy for themselves.

Once that was done, Asuna turned to Mataras and said, "Did you avoid using the mirror, Mataras?" Although his cowl was up, Asuna had the feeling that the other player had raised his eyebrow in an amused gesture at the question.

"No," he replied with a small smirk. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, you only look a little older than me, so I was wondering about your comment last night," she admitted, a little nonplussed.

Mataras chuckled softly in response. "Appearance and age don't always move at the same pace," he said. "But it also depends on what kind of aging you're thinking about. For example, if you are referring to my biological age, then yes, I am as young as I look. But if you take into account the things that I have lived through, then you'd know that an old soul rests within this young body."

"So… Long story short, you've had a troubled childhood?" Kirito asked.

"Something like that," the cloaked swordsman replied.

"Am I ever going to get a straight answer from you?" Asuna demanded.

"Perhaps someday, when you earn it," Mataras replied, traces of amusement back in his voice. The tone annoyed his teammate, but she decided not to press the matter. It was clear that if Mataras didn't want to give an answer, he wasn't going to give one, no matter the person's status or demands.

After battling their way through the dungeon for a couple of hours, the party reached the boss room. Everyone took a short break time to check and make use of their inventory. Kirito, Asuna, and Mataras were positioned in the rearguard to provide backup and hold off the sentinels. If it came down to it, they were to attack the boss, should the first part of the plan go awry. Kirito wasn't sure if they were being treated as aces, or if they had just been snubbed because they were the smallest group.

But the time for wondering was over. Diabel, the raid leader, opened the doors and led the charge inside the room. At first the place was just a cold grey tone all around. But then the boss leaped down from its throne and let out a roar that shook the hall. The floors and walls seemed to respond to the sound, lighting up with myriad of colors of all kinds.

The boss was called Illfang the Kobold Lord, and as soon as it hit the floor, its armored minions began to spawn. The boss itself towered over all the players, measuring several meters in height. To Mataras, it looked like a big, fat, red kangaroo with an axe and a buckler.

Had this not been a life-and-death game, he would have laughed at the sight. But Diabel called his group into action, ordering them to take out the minions. Kirito moved forward in response to block the first blow from one of the mobs, deflecting it with a sword skill. He leaped backwards, calling Asuna out to switch in and stab the creature with her own skills.

Her speed and ferocity impressed both Kirito and his hooded companion- the tip of her rapier moved so fast, they could barely keep track of where she was stabbing her adversary. This combo alone was able to fell one of the minions, leaving Mataras to take the lead for the next monster to appear.

When it came, Mataras surprised both Asuna and Kirito by sliding under the enemy's blow instead of parrying it. Springing upwards, the young man slashed at his opponent, landing a critical hit on its face and killing it instantly. What surprised his teammates more than anything was that he had one-shot the monster without any skills being activated.

But there was no time to question his fighting style as he called for Kirito to switch in for the next minion. Casting aside their questions for now, Asuna and Kirito moved into position.

Nearly twenty minutes of fighting later, Illfang's last health bar dipped into the red zone, and the monster retreated briefly with a roar. As predicted by the guidebook, the monster cast aside his weapon and shield. But unlike the guidebook that Mataras had read, Illfang pulled out an odachi instead of a talwar.

Before he could warn the others though, Diabel was telling everyone to move aside. Mataras' eyes widened as he realized that the man intended to take on the boss alone. Before he could call out to the leader, though, someone beat him to it.

"No, don't!" Kirito shouted as Diabel activated a sword skill. "It's no good!"

His warning came too late. An odachi was longer in reach than a talwar, meaning that Illfang could attack from outside the range of Diabel's cavalry sword. The boss struck twice, faster than Diabel could anticipate. The second blow sent him flying next to Kirito's group.

Kirito trusted Asuna and Mataras to keep the sentinels off of him while he ministered to Diabel. "What the hell were you thinking?" he muttered as he tried to give Diabel a potion before his health ran out. To his shock, Diabel refused to take the item.

"You knew," he whispered to Kirito. "You were… a beta tester?"

"You're just like me, aren't you?" Kirito asked in response. "You were after the last attack bonus- the rare item."

Diabel gave a weak grin, his health points down to a shred. "Your friends there… You have to beat the boss… for everyone here…" His health bar disappeared. Then so did he.

Mataras' eyes widened in rage as he saw Diabel vanish. He had been a good leader, despite his underhanded attempt at trying to get the drop item that would no doubt be dropped should he defeat the boss. Of all the people that had to die, why did it have to be him?

Greed, he thought, pushing the other thoughts aside. No matter how noble he appeared, he wanted to make himself stronger in the end, even if it meant doing something underhanded. Heh. You and I weren't so different, were we? I'm sorry Diabel. The least I can do is honor your last wish.

He and Asuna stood beside Kirito, weapons ready. Asuna's jaw was set, and her posture was radiating determination. Mataras' eyes blazed with anger at the Kobold Lord, and at the world from which it came. Kirito stood up and said, "You guys with me?"

"What does it look like?" Mataras growled menacingly, his glare fixed on the boss, which was now swatting the other players like flies.

"I'll go with you, yeah," Asuna added.

Kirito nodded and the three of them dashed forward. "Let's do this just like the minions!" he cried. "One of us counters, the others attack right after!"

"Who blocks?" Mataras asked just before they got in range.

"Me!" Kirito swung his blade to counter the odachi, moving in fast to get inside the range of the long weapon. When the weapon was knocked back, Asuna used her superior speed to get behind the boss and stab it multiple times while Mataras opened a large wound across the monster's chest.

When it attempted to retaliate, Mataras ducked the blow just in time. He noticed that the boss' health was almost completely gone, and he could land the final blow to end the fight then and there. Instead, he called out, "Switch!"

Not sure why he was doing this, Kirito switched in as Illfang spun around and slashed at Asuna. He missed killing her, but the blow shredded her cloak, dissolving it into polygons. This gave Kirito the perfect opportunity to land the final blow and destroy the first boss.

Letting out his war cry, Kirito swung his blade with all the power he could, laying open Illfang's back and causing it to glow brightly as its final health points depleted. The monster let out one last ear-splitting roar before shattering into thousands of blue and green shards.

The three victors hardly took notice of the fact that they had received a generous amount of col, nor the stat boosts that came from a double level-up, or even that the room had settled back to normal. They were all just too tired to care.

"That was some fine swordsmanship," a deep voice said, followed by a hand that helped Kirito rise from his slouched position. Mataras recognized Agil, the man that had spoken in the defense of the beta testers. "Today's victory is thanks to you three."

Kirito shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "We wouldn't have gotten this far without Diabel. He's the reason we're here."

"Then why'd you let him die, huh?!" a broken, angry voice shouted from the back of the room. The voice belonged to Kibaou, the man that had tried to pin the blame of the S.A.O. incident on the beta testers.

"What are you talking about, you fool?" Mataras asked in a low voice that still carried in the silence of the boss room.

"You heard me!" the man ranted. "Your partner saw what was coming! He knew the boss' attack pattern and weapon! So why didn't he tell us?!"

"Because this wasn't like the beta!" Kirito shouted back. Dead silence followed that particular comment. The young swordsman held his gaze at those that looked accusingly at him. Only those close to him saw his brow sheen with a nervous sweat.

"That's right," Kirito said, feigning confidence. "I was in the beta test. And even though I may not have known that Illfang was going to have that weapon this time around, I definitely knew the skill set that would come with it.

"Why? Because unlike the most of the other testers, I actually knew what I was doing to begin with. Most of the other people that scored a slot in the beta were so green, they didn't even know how to level up. Heh, you guys are even better than they were." As he was speaking, Kirito was actually advancing on his accuser, causing Kibaou to eye him warily.

"But me? I'm nothing like those guys," Kirito was actually managing to imitate an evil grin. "During the beta, I made it to floors higher than anyone else. That's how I knew the boss' attack patterns- because I've fought monsters on higher levels with even better skill sets and weapons." Kirito was now only a few feet away from Kibaou, which is where he stopped walking forward.

"I know a bunch of other things," Kirito added. "More than you can imagine- more than any info broker." Now he waited to see what the reaction from the others would be.

"If that's true…" Kibaou snarled. "Then you're worse than a beta tester- you're a goddamn cheater, that's what you are!"

Others began to take up the call as Mataras joined Kirito in the case of a fight. "Cheater!" someone called.

"Hacker!" cried another.

"He's a beta tester and a cheater!" still another snapped. "He's… he's a beater!"

To their shock, Kirito's dark smile widened as he accessed his menu. "A beater," he repeated. "Yeah, that's good. I like it."

"Wait, what?!" Kibaou sputtered.

"Go ahead and call me a beater," Kirito said nonchalantly. "Just don't confuse me with those other testers again. It's not cool." With that, he equipped the Midnight Coat and began walking out of their midst. But his accusers had one last barb to cast.

"So you think you're better than us, you son of a-" Kibaou's voice was silenced by the presence of a blade at his throat. The sword scratched his neck, leaving a red mark and causing his health to dip down into the red zone. The man found the eyes of the one wielding it to be even more frightening than Illfang's mightiest roar.

Mataras' dark eyes blazed with the wrath of an impending storm. They were devoid of any patience, pity or compassion. They were the eyes of a man ready to kill without hesitation. Kibaou found that the sight locked up his vocal chords, which was exactly what Mataras wanted.

"Are you aware of the law of the sword?" the boy said in a quiet tone that was somehow more frightening than any amount of yelling that Kibaou had expected. When the loudmouth didn't respond, Mataras continued, "The law of the sword is this: if he is more dedicated than you, he will win. Kirito has more drive than anyone here, and that's why he won against Illfang. You were just happy to sit back and let others do the heavy work, Kibaou. That's why at the end of every encounter, you will be the loser. Not because he was a beta tester, not because he has become a beater. But simply because he has the drive to win. Because he understands the law of the sword."

Against anyone else, Kibaou would have shouted obscenities at them. But seeing the look in Mataras' eyes, remembering his skill against Illfang and his minions, and taking note of how fast that blade had appeared at his throat, Kibaou decided to content himself with plotting the two boy's humiliation at a later date.

Seeing that nobody was going to give Kirito any further difficulties, Mataras sheathed his sword and began following Kirito. When they reached the top of the stairs, Kirito looked Mataras in the eye for a moment before pulling up his menu. "I guess this is good-bye," he said as he went to dissolve their party.

"No, it's not," Mataras shook his head slightly as Asuna walked up. "She should try to distance herself from us, but I'll stick with you."

"Why?" Both Asuna and Kirito were surprised.

"Well, they all hate you and me," Mataras replied. "But you, Asuna? You can still claim innocence. You can still become part of a guild, be a part of the assault team. But if you hang around us, you'll be a leper. No one will want anything to do with you. It's best if you find someone you trust and join up with them."

Asuna hesitated, not wanting to admit that what the enigmatic sword-user said made sense. But it did. So she opened her menu and left the party. Then she walked away from the two boys without another word, her expression unreadable. They watched as she went to talk to Agil before moving on to trigger the next floor's warp gate.

"Maybe when things die down, we can meet again on better terms," Mataras said quietly.

"Maybe," Kirito repeated. "Thanks, Mataras."

"For what?"

"In this death game, it'll be real handy having you around," the black-coated swordsman answered. "So thanks for sticking your neck out for me."

"No problem," Mataras replied. "I couldn't just let you take all of that heat on your own. That was… noble of you, to offer yourself to their hate like that. Not many people would have done as much."

Nothing more was said as the two friends entered the second floor of Aincrad.