Party Status

LOL: lv.6, equipped with [Anneal Blade]

Klein: lv.6, equipped with [Sturdy Scimitar]

Dynamm: lv. 6, equipped with [Basic Shield] & [Sturdy Scimitar]

Harry One: lv. 6, equipped with [Hunting Spear]

Dale: lv. 6, equipped with [Basic Cleaver]


His Majesty's execution

The palm leaf ceiling fan. It clashed with the aesthetics of my room, but I liked it.

The oversized Kirby plushie on my bed. I snuggled with it each night.

The wooden bookshelf next to my cluttered desk. It held an arbitrary assortment of YA novels, manga and history books. A severely outdated Pokémon encyclopaedia was in there somewhere.

The poster of a VR game called Sword Art Online. I tore it off the door and ripped it to shreds.

The living room. My living room.

A vicenarian woman whose smile didn't reach her eyes, her green eyes once so full of life. Every one of her affectionate gestures, every "I love you" felt like hollow attempts at distracting herself from the pain she suffered. Depression clung to the woman like a rain-soaked cloak.

A pubescent girl with wounds on her face, her arms, her legs. The bullying should've stopped a long time ago but it didn't and she's hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt …

I could've done something for them. I would've done something. But I didn't, all because of some myopic impulse to play the hero.

A broken home and its broken people. Were these my reward or my punishment?

"This is so unfair."

It was the first time I woke up crying. I pressed my blanket against my wet eyes.

"Fuck you, brain. The most important fight of my life is about to happen and you show me a dream like this?"

With a hollow laugh I sat up on my bed. Thinking about the upcoming boss battle was a better alternative to bad dreams, but not by much.


"Come to think of it, I never did get your opinion."

"My opinion on what exactly?" Liz asked.

"Well, Argo made it pretty clear that she wasn't too keen on me joining Klein and the guys up front but you didn't say anything at all."

"I'd be lying if I told you that I'm not worried. At the same time, I get that you want to help our friends so I'll respect your decision. Besides, Argo pretty much said everything I wanted to and then some. What, did you want me to beg you to stay with tears in my eyes?"

"Nah. You've probably got an ugly crying face. Scratch that, it's just an ugly face in general. Ain't that right Kirito?"

"Oh? Is there something you want to tell me, Kirito?"

"H-hey, leave me out of this."

"I'll treat your lack of refusal as agreement."

"Get a move on already you asshat. Don't keep them waiting."

"I'll see you guys later then. Unless one of you wants to come see us off?"

"Go ahead. I'll wait for Argo," Liz nudged Kirito as she spoke.

"Thanks, I won't be long," he answered with an appreciative nod.

"Say hi to them for me."

"Will do."

A smiling Klein waved as we approached. "Kirito buddy! Did you come to say goodbye?"

"Please don't say it like that, it sounds ominous," the black-haired boy said while bumping fists with Klein. The older man chuckled apologetically.

"My bad. You two get enough sleep last night?"

"I slept surprisingly well," I answered without missing a beat. Kirito nodded in reply.

"Really? But you've got those huge bags under your eyes … nah, I'm just playing. You don't look any different from usual." Klein smirked and clapped me on the back.

Hahaha.

"You guys got everything you need? Do you have enough items for the labyrinth and the boss fight?" Kirito asked.

"Yup. We checked, double-checked and triple-checked our stuff. We're as prepared as we'll ever be," H1 answered. He sighed and drummed his fingers on his leg. "It's all in the hands of lady luck now."

"You're on the diversion team aren't you? It's nice to know you've got our backs," Dale told Kirito. Whenever he was stressed, the large man liked to direct his attention towards those around him. "We're counting on you for the boss fight!"

"You can count on me. I won't let you down."

"Love that confidence man! That's what we like to see," Klein, the ever-supportive friend, remarked with a grin. "Do us a favour and say hi to Lisbeth for us."

"Actually, she told me to say hi to you guys so, um, hi?"

" … Hi." Kirito shifted slightly under Klein's blank stare. Then the good-natured man laughed and ruffled the teen's hair. "Stay safe bro. We'll see you soon."

"Yeah. You guys take care too."

I'm glad to see Kirito opening up to us. It really helps that this is such a friendly bunch.

"Dude, thanks for coming." Dynamm's words snapped me out of my thoughts. "I know I've said this before but we really appreciate it."

"You guys don't get to fight the giant dog-faced monster without me. I want in on the fun too." I flashed him a toothy grin.

"Clearly you and I have very different ideas of what 'fun' means," Dynamm said with a raised brow. "All things considered, going out in a blaze of glory might not be so bad. At least I won't have to work anymore."

"Don't you fucking dare. It's impossible to find anyone half-decent these days," Dale commented exasperatedly.

Dyamm smirked. "You know what? A pay raise might motivate me to stay alive."

"The hell? Go die you ingrate."

Fighting our way through the Floor 1 labyrinth served as a much needed warmup. By the time we reached the deepest part of the dungeon, a bunch of people had already gathered before the Floor Boss room. I spotted Diavel in the middle of a conversation with Agil. There was also this short girl with whiskers who seemed insistent on speaking with me.

"Yo! About time ya got here. Ready for the boss fight?" Argo said. She nodded towards my friends in greeting. Liz stood next to her while Kirito spoke with a robed figure a short distance away.

"Of course. Guys, this is Argo. She's my friend and mentor. Argo, these are the people I mentioned. Dude with the shitty bandana is Klein. He's the one Kirito met on the first day."

Klein punched my shoulder lightly. "Leave my bandana alone. Hi Argo! You wrote the strategy guides didn't you? Thank you so much, those things have been a real life-saver! Feel free to call on us if you ever need help. We ain't much but we owe it to you for everything you've done."

"Appreciate the offer. Thanks for takin' care of my children over the last week."

"Since when did you become our mother?" Liz's query went unanswered.

"The durag man is Dynamm. The college dropout is Harry One but everyone calls him H1."

"Who's a dropout now?" H1 poked my leg with the blunt end of his spear.

"Hello, I'm the durag man. I have no other defining traits apparently."

"Don't worry. You're already way more interstin' than Liz and L put together," Argo quipped with a smirk.

"Ass. Last but not least, this big guy is Dale."

"Yo! Those look sick, are they difficult to use?" Dale was pointing at the claw weapons hanging from Argo's waist.

"Yeah, they've got a pretty steep learnin' curve. That's why most people don't bother with 'em," Argo replied. She then looked me in the eye. "L, do ya remember what I told ya yesterday?"

"Something along the lines of 'don't be a hero' right? And I promised that I wouldn't."

"Good. There's not much I can say at this point, so … good luck. I'll see y'all after we win."

"Take care guys. All the best," Liz added.

A group of three backed out of the Illfang raid and that necessitated some quick adjustments, but otherwise everybody else showed up on time. Frankly I expected the number of absentees to be higher.

" … That's all from me. Any questions before we head in?" Diavel addressed the raid party. Everyone seemed reasonably familiar with our tactics for the boss fight which was another encouraging sign. "Alright. I just have one more thing to say: we're going to win this!"

Multiple things in the dungeon could be cut with a knife: the many monsters, us players and the heavy atmosphere. Dynamm sucked in a deep breath and entered the boss room. H1 took care not to hit anyone with his spear as he shuffled in behind Dale.

"Here we go," Klein whispered. I barely heard him over the thumping of my heart.

What better place to commit regicide than a throne room? Seated on a lofty throne at the end of the long rectangular hall was Illfang the Kobold Lord in all His glory. Covered in velvet red fur, the muscular behemoth was a terrifying sight to behold. Yellow reptilian-like eyes watched us closely as He reached for the weapons laying by His throne. With unhurried movements He rose to his full height, carrying a magnificent bone axe in one hand, a great round shield in the other and a large blade on His back. Such composure truly befitted the creature known as the Kobold Lord!

(Long live the king)

Here we were, challenging a ruler and his elite guard on their home turf. A trio of heavily-armoured, mace-wielding Ruin Kobold Sentinels stood before Illfang. They were no larger than the average human but far more deadly. One could only imagine the bloodthirsty expressions that lay beneath their visors.

"Everything matches the intel. We can win this!" Diavel yelled, snapping everyone to attention. "Commence attack!"

Screeching like banshees, the three sentinels charged with reckless abandon. The diversion team intercepted them while the rest of us circled past the bodyguards and went for their master. Seeing us approach Illfang reared back to strike –

"SHIELDS UP!"

At Diavel's command Dynamm and three other players raised their shields in unison. A grating noise rang out as the Kobold Lord dragged His bone axe across the shield wall, but the stout defence held.

Seizing the gap between Illfang's attacks, Agil's team of damage-dealers rushed in and unleashed a barrage of Sword Skills. For a brief moment Illfang looked overwhelmed but the behemoth quickly recovered.

"FALL BACK! FALL BACK!" Agil shouted. With a bloodthirsty roar the Kobold King moved to bring His fury upon the fleeing attackers –

Illfang looked down to see H1's spear sticking out from its torso. Additionally there was a pair of slash wounds courtesy of Klein and me.

"Fuck. He looks mad."

Astute observation Harry!

Fortunately, we did our job of stopping Illfang from pursuing our allies.

Unfortunately, we were now the focus of the boss monster's ire.

Now it was our turn to run for dear life. The huge bone axe descended on us rapidly but it was stopped by the combination of Dale's cleaver, Diavel's shield and a third player's war hammer.

"That's it! Keep it up!" Diavel said as he helped to parry another mighty blow. I took a moment to catch my breath. The vanguard absorbed the brunt of Illfang's assaults while the damage-dealers attacked in quick, short bursts. Klein, H1 and I provoked Illfang to cover the attackers' retreat, and our cycle of attrition began anew. Kibaou's team kept the cycle going by replacing those players who needed to heal or rest.

As the battle raged on we gradually grew confident: our movements became sharper, our forays more daring. Slowly yet surely Illfang was losing this gruelling battle of attrition. Not even the Kobold Lord, fighting earnestly, could repel the swarm of ants gnawing at His flesh.

With a feral roar the Kobold Lord threw His axe and shield to the side. Now that the second health bar was depleted Illfang would switch to the giant blade on its back – a talwar, we were told.

"H-hold on! Isn't that a nodachi? I thought Illfang was supposed to use some kind of one-handed sword!" Dale said worriedly. The Kobold Lord gripped the Japanese-style blade with both hands and adopted a posture reminiscent of the Ko Gasumi stance.

"That's what I thought too," H1 muttered under his breath.

So the information was outdated after all. What now Diavel?

Perhaps retreating was the safest option but the raid party's morale would suffer, and the issue that was Illfang's unknown second phase would remain unresolved. Moreover, a clean escape was impossible until the diversion team dealt with the new wave of Ruin Kobold Sentinels that had just appeared. At least we were in a good enough condition to test the waters a bit.

"Look alive people! We'll take our time to figure things out!" Diavel bellowed. He certainly deserved much credit for keeping his voice loud and clear throughout the entire battle. "Kibaou, your team's on standby! Agil, attack on my signal! Vanguard, follow me!"

Our shield-bearers barely got their guard up in time as Illfang let loose two swift horizontal slashes. The Kobold Lord then lifted His sword overhead, and the four players quickly formed a line before raising their shields skywards. Judging by Dynamm's expression, the impact was less severe than he anticipated. It seemed that, by changing weapons, Illfang had foregone some of its incredible offensive power for greater attack speed.

"Good job! Keep blocking his attacks! Second row, we're up next! Third row, play defensively for now! Forget about attacking!"

"Yes sir!/Understood!" H1 and Klein replied respectively.

" … Switch!" Diavel, Dale and the war hammer player (aka hammer bro) jumped into the fray once more. The Kobold Lord took a step back, shifting His momentum to the hind leg while bringing His nodachi to the side –

"Scatter!" Dale and hammer bro leapt to the left while Diavel ran to the right. Though the rest of us were safely out of range, watching the tip of Illfang's blade fly towards us made me sweat a little.

Alarm bells went off in my head as the behemoth turned its murderous gaze towards our blue-haired leader.

"WATCH OUT!" Somebody yelled. Diavel dropped to a crouch, narrowly avoiding the sudden sweeping strike. I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding. He quickly regrouped with the other two and they successfully staved off Illfang's next few attacks.

"Third row, prepare to jump in! Agil, attack at will!"

"You heard the man! Get ready!"

Good. If he's telling Agil to act it means he's got a read on Illfang's patterns.

After another botched attack the Kobold Lord hopped back to create some distance; Agil's group did not pass up on the opportunity. Like a swarm of angry hornets they converged on the monster.

Just as a cornered rat will bite back, a trapped boss monster may also respond with a devastating attack. The Kobold Lord spun around to unleash a slashing attack which sent everyone around Him flying. The downed players lay in a circle around Illfang. Each of them was afflicted with the [Stunned] condition; they could do little but tremble before their executor. Such was the fate of those who opposed His Majesty.

"VANGUARD, ADVANCE!" Following Diavel's lead, we charged at the very monstrosity that had, seconds ago, decimated our allies with a single strike. It must've looked as if we had a death wish. "Third row and I will stall Illfang! First row, second row, get those guys outta there!"

Shit, shit, SHIT!

Diavel's blade left a wide cut on Illfang's gut. Nodachi held in reverse grip, the enraged kobold stabbed downwards but Diavel scurried out of the way. Our leader caught the next strike with his shield, though the impact sent him backpedalling. Illfang stepped forth, intent on skewering the blue-haired player –

"Switch!" Klein and I swung our swords in an arc, my Anneal Blade shining blue while Klein's scimitar glowed red. With the spearhead radiating a yellow light H1 thrust his spear forward. Our weapons slammed into the flat side of Illfang's nodachi, knocking it off course enough that it missed its mark.

With Agil's team temporarily out of commission Kibaou's group took over their offensive role. 'Seesaw battle' would be a good term to describe Illfang's second phase: there were multiple moments when I was convinced that someone was going to die but somehow we all managed pull through. Once our incapacitated allies returned to normal, the momentum slowly shifted back to our side. Illfang never got to unleash its special move again. We figured out that the attack would only trigger if the boss monster was surrounded so careful positioning allowed us to avoid that particular outcome.

The Kobold Lord's final health bar was reduced to a small, pitiable chunk. The end of our violent struggle was literally in sight.

"Everyone stay back! I'll finish this!" Diavel yelled while charging up a mighty attack. A beautiful blue light enveloped his blade. The other players stayed put and watched as he ran ahead; it was unclear whether obedience or confusion made them comply with the strange command.

One person, however, went against our raid leader's words and chased after him.

That was me. Seeing Diavel run off on his own filled me with an overwhelming sense of dread; my body was already moving before I realised what I was doing. What was I hoping to accomplish by going after him? I didn't know myself.

Apparently Klein tried to grab me but missed. H1 stopped him from pursuing me.

Diavel leapt. All he had to do was plunge his sword into Illfang's throat and the monster would fall. And plunge he did.

The blade pierced through thin air. To our horror, Illfang jumped back before the attack could connect. The blue light coating Diavel's weapon dissipated; frozen in place, he watched helplessly as the monster sprang high up into the air.

Having closed the distance between Diavel and myself, I threw my Anneal Blade to the side and reached for him.

The Kobold Lord reached the apex of His jump. My hands fastened onto the defenceless man.

Illfang descended rapidly. It swung its nodachi as it landed.

Oh. So this is it, huh.

Lying on the ground with a horrified expression was Diavel. Through a stroke of luck, I managed to half-fling, half-shove him out of the way. I glanced at my fully depleted HP bar …

Then the world turned black.


Just kidding!

Illfang's nodachi slammed into the ground right next to my body, the sheer impact almost throwing me off my feet. Diavel was thankfully unscathed; my frantic efforts had paid off.

Desperate screams filled my ears, and I saw a flash of silver out of the corner of my eye –

*WHAM!*

That was the sound of my body colliding into one of chamber's stone walls at a speed nobody should move at. Losing focus during a fight was a classic rookie mistake.

A-am I alive?

Despite the lack of pain, my head was spinning from the heavy impact. I struggled to even prop myself up with my wobbly limbs. If Illfang wanted to finish me off there was nothing I could do.

I'm out of the fight. At this point I'm either a liability or a casualty.

The dizziness started to subside. Leaning against the stone wall, I reached for the health potion at my waist. Somehow the glass vial remained intact throughout all the mayhem.

My HP's in the red. If that attack had hit my neck or my head …

A pained howl grabbed my attention; I looked up to see Illfang swaying unsteadily. The Kobold Lord weakly raised its nodachi but the weapon fell from His grasp and onto the marble floor. Both creature and weapon shattered into tiny fragments.

Standing before its fading remains were Kirito and Argo. Judging from their posture, they were clearly responsible for landing the final blow.

Aha. Nicely done.

I gulped down the potion in my hand, almost choking on the bitter liquid.

We're supposed to do this ninety-nine more times? That's crazy.

"Are you alright!?" I looked up to see a very concerned Diavel.

"Yup. Still alive." He exhaled in relief.

"You saved me. I owe you my life."

"Well, it was either you or me, and frankly – "

"You fucking dumbass!" A familiar voice rang out from my side.

Oh. Crapbuckets.

"Hey, Klein."

"Don't you 'hey' me! What the hell were you thinking!?" He practically roared. His furious tone made me wince.

"It was, um, gut instinct," I blurted out. Of course, the irony of this whole incident was that I wasn't thinking to begin with. Though I was certain Klein wouldn't take it well if I told him that.

"I was so worried! I won't deny that things ended well this time but you won't always be so lucky. Promise me that you won't pull some dumb shit like this anymore, alright?" Klein said. His forehead pressed against the palm of his hand. It was painful to see his distraught expression, more so because I was the cause.

"I won't, I promise. And I'm sorry for making you guys worry." Regardless of results, it was true that my thoughtless actions caused my teammates no small amount of stress.

Still, what was that just now? It almost felt like my body moved on its own. No. That's impossible.

Dynamm helped me to my feet. He didn't seem particularly happy or sad; the poor man just looked utterly exhausted. "You good? Can you walk?"

"Mhm."

Cheers and laughter filled the boss room. People were high-fiving, hugging or simply trading exuberant words. I saw someone literally jumping for joy. Dale walked up to us with a toothy smile. H1 was the happiest I'd ever seen him. Quite a few enthusiastic players were talking with Kirito and Argo, the heroic duo who – I was later told – ended the fight with an amazing display of skill. Kirito, being the shyer of the two, was content to let Argo handle the conversation. Not a single person wasn't ecstatic about our hard-earned victory.

"SHUT UP!"

Apparently I was mistaken. (You'll hear me say this a lot)

The cheerful chatter died down. We all watched an indignant Kibaou storm towards Argo and Kirito; those in his path quickly moved to the side.

"You! You're the one who gave Diavel all the info about the boss right!? Kibaou rudely jabbed a finger at Argo; she calmly met his glare. Kirito looked unnerved by the man's hostility.

"Yup. Wassup?" Judging by her annoyed expression she likely had a good idea what was about to happen.

"You lied about Illfang's second phase! Because of you, Diavel and that other guy almost died! I bet you and your friend were planning to hog all the glory to yourselves, that's why you set Diavel up to fail!"

"Look, I didn't lie 'bout anythin'. Nobody knew that Illfang was gonna use a different weapon. If ya wanna blame someone, blame Kayaba Akihiko for changin' stuff to screw with us!" Argo retorted. Knowing her, she was probably resisting the urge to roll her eyes. A wave of confused murmurs passed through the crowd of onlookers; it seemed like most of the other players weren't sure what to make of the argument at hand.

"Don't give me that crap! Admit it, you beta testers are conspiring together to exploit the rest of us!" Kibaou roared. Seeing the furious man move closer prompted Kirito to step in front of Argo protectively. It was a very brave thing to do considering his discomfort; without a doubt, this was the moment I truly came to appreciate Kirito.

"That's enough! This is a waste of time," Diavel loudly interjected as he strode forward. The crowd's attention, as well as Kibaou's and Argo's, shifted towards him. "We only managed to defeat Illfang because everyone here contributed. Beta testers, normal players, we all need to work together to beat this game. Tearing into each other won't do us any good."

"But the beta testers are untrustworthy! How do you expect us to cooperate with those lying, manipulative assholes!?" Kibaou protested. His tone was noticeably softer when speaking with the blue-haired player.

"Anyone who risked their life today is trustworthy to me, beta tester or not. Kibaou, please drop this. If you won't trust the beta testers, at least have some faith in me."

The bad-tempered man relented reluctantly; it appeared that his admiration for our de facto leader outweighed his hatred for the beta testers. Argo and Kirito were first to leave the boss room, departing almost immediately once the unwanted conversation ended. Later, the rest of the raid party gradually filtered out of the giant chamber and ascended to the second floor of Aincrad.


Message Log

From: Argo

Text: We need to talk ASAP. Come to my room with Liz


" … I see, so that's what happened. I saw you slamming into the wall but I couldn't tell who it was from where I was standing," Liz recounted as we walked. "I'm glad you're alright."

"Me too, Liz. Me too."

"Still, it was pretty reckless of you to run off like that," she said in the reprimanding tone of a disappointed parent.

"Yeah, I know. I kinda realised that when Klein yelled at me."

"He yelled at you? Wow. That's … rare."

"It really is! And I'm pretty sure Argo's going to yell at me as well."

"Didn't you promise her that you wouldn't do anything stupid?"

"She literally told me not to be a hero," I groaned.

"Uh oh. You'll be missed."

Welp. I totally deserve any complaints she have for me.

All I could do was sign in resignation. "By the way, how did Kirito and Argo end up killing the Floor Boss? I didn't get to see what happened."

"Oh, at that point we'd already beaten all of the Ruin Kobold Sentinels so were watching you guys fight Illfang. Right when Diavel's lunge-attack-thing missed, Argo and Kirito started running. It was really sudden too, Argo was like 'stay here!' and then they took off."

Argo did mention that she and Kirito joined the diversion team so that they could keep an eye on everyone else.

Unexpectedly, Claws was the one who answered the door to Argo's room. It was then I witnessed one of the more bizarre moments of my time in Aincrad: a furious Argo punched Diavel in the gut, dropping him onto his knees. Liz and I watched the violent act in shock.

"Ya greedy little shit! Is the [Last Attack Bonus] so damned important!?" Argo yelled as she grabbed Diavel by the collar. "Ya almost killed my friend, Masaru!"

Winded, Diavel was barely able to get the words out of his mouth. "I-I'm sorry. I screwed up horribly."

"Don't worry, this is his just deserts," Claws told us coldly. The blue-haired young man hung his head in shame.

"Um, I don't understand," Liz said.

"Correct me if I'm mistaken: towards the end of the boss fight, Diavel chose to engage Illfang alone, yes?" Claws questioned. I nodded in reply. "Did you not find that odd at all? There was no need to depart from group tactics. His decision was both unnecessary and risky."

Come to think of it, that was quite strange …

"Do I have to do all the talking or are you going to own up to your mistakes?" Though he remained expressionless all this time, there was no mistaking the venom in Claw's voice.

Diavel met my gaze. It was the first time I saw fear on his face. "I … was greedy. I wanted the L.A. Bonus for myself, and I thought I could beat Illfang on my won. I'm sorry, LOL. You could've died because of my carelessness."

A player who dealt the killing blow to a boss-class monster would receive a special reward known as the Last Attack Bonus which typically manifested as powerful unique items. For an MMO, the L.A. Bonus was an eccentric game mechanic which discouraged teamplay, as evident from Diavel's actions during the boss fight.

"Hey, do the other players know what Diavel did?" Liz asked. "He's supposed to be our leader but if they realised that he almost screwed someone over because of his selfishness then – oh no."

The implications were worrying: if people learned the truth and refused to acknowledge Diavel as our leader, the resulting leadership vacuum could mean serious trouble for our newly formed raid party. Defeating the first Floor Boss without any casualties was supposed to be a grand achievement but now there was the possibility of unexpected complications.

Why does 'trouble' always lurk in the shadows of 'success' and 'progress' like some jealous ex?

"No one's accusin' him of anythin' yet, but I can think of some people who might've caught on. Guess we'll find out sooner or later," Argo replied in an irritated tone. The polar opposite of Claws, who was a personification of the word 'stoic', my mentor wore her emotions on her sleeve. She shot a glare at Diavel. "The real question is, what do we do with him? L, Liz, any thoughts?"

I had not envisioned the challenge of laying down judgement in a lawless land.

Can he be trusted? I don't know him well enough to make an informed decision.

"Hey, Diavel. You nearly got me killed, and you might've jeopardised the raid party's unity," I stated with the nonchalance of someone talking about the weather. "It's definitely not a good look. So, what're you going to do about it?"

"I … won't make any excuses. I completely neglected my responsibility. I understand if you can't trust me anymore – but please, give me one more chance! I know I can do right this time. I swear!" Diavel pleaded desperately.

Apologies are a funny thing.

When I was twelve, my aunt's boyfriend told me that "people often apologise about something they regret, only to repeat that same mistake later". It was a rather harsh thing to say to a child, but it was something I really took to heart, possibly because I'd seen it play out surprisingly frequently.

(At the very least, I've been guilty of that on multiple occasions)

While I didn't bear a grudge against Diavel for endangering my life, I also didn't know him well enough to trust his apology. It wouldn't surprise me if he made a similar screw up in the future. However …

"Obviously I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm willing to give you another chance Diavel. If you want our forgiveness, you'll have to prove that you're more than a bunch of regretful words."

I couldn't allow my cynicism (cowardice?) to rob others of their chance to grow. I suppose deep down I've always been a sappy romantic who believes in the inherent goodness of people.

The others seemed satisfied with what I said. Diavel vowed to do better and was sent away with a few more warning words from Argo and Claws.

"Was that the right call?" I wondered out loud.

"I'm sure he's learned his lesson. Diavel ain't a bad person, he just got overconfident and fucked up stupidly. Right, I think we've talked enough 'bout him. Why don't we discuss the suicidal idiot who almost got himself killed instead?" Argo shot me a glare. I braced myself as the shorter girl took a deep breath – then visibly deflated.

"Fuckin' hell. I don't even have the energy to scream at ya." She hit me in the arm. Her punch felt … tired. "Don't do that again. I'm grateful that ya saved my friend but please take better care of yerself. I don't want anythin' bad happenin' to ya."

"I'm sorry for making you worry. I … wasn't really thinking back then, and I recognise the fact that I got extremely lucky," I replied. Argo rubbed the back of her neck as she sighed.

"Ya broke one promise already. I'll be pissed off if ya break this one as well."

"I'm sure neither of us wants that so I'll definitely be careful about, well, being careful."

"I'll hold ya to that. Hey! All that stuff aside, we beat the Floor Boss and nobody died! Both of ya were amazin' today. I know I say this all the time but I'm proud of ya'll – I really am," Argo told us with a wide smile.

"Gotta say, surviving a Floor Boss is one hell of a confidence booster. I mean, everything else we've fought just pales in comparison," Liz commented.

"Don't get cocky though. You don't want to make it past Illfang only to die to something stupid like … animated grass or something," I said.

"The man makes a good point, I'll keep that in mind. Also, you probably shouldn't sleep on grass. 'Animated grass' actually sounds like it could be kind of scary."

"But sleeping on grass is pretty comfortable," Argo piped up. "Shitty jokes aside, there's somethin' we need to talk about. If it's fine with ya two, I'd like to go off on my own for a bit."

"How come? We only just got back together," Liz asked. She sounded a little sad.

"I'm worried 'bout Kii-bou. Last I checked, he'd already left [Urbus] and was headin' towards the next safe zone. I wanna go make sure he's doin' alright," Argo explained.

After defeating Illfang, those who climbed the stairs up to the 2nd Floor found themselves before the city of Urbus, a large settlement which sat on a seemingly endless savanna. Most of the raid party players had chosen to spend the rest of the day recuperating and celebrating there.

"Why'd he leave so quickly – oh." Liz's expression soured upon realisation. "It's because of Kibaou's accusations right?"

"Bingo. Stayin' in the same place as people who make it their mission to hate ya is just askin' for trouble. Besides, knowin' Kii-bou, he probably doesn't want any of his friends to get involved with the whole beta-tester mess. That's just the kinda person he is."

"I see. By any chance, do you share his sentiments?" I asked Argo.

"What do ya mean?" She was pretty good at putting on a poker face.

"Are you splitting the party because you want to protect us from people who suspect you of misinformation? You're worried that they'll go after Liz and me if they see us being friendly with you, am I right?"

"Ya know, I wasn't lying when I said that I wanted to check on Kii-bou."

"I didn't say that you were."

We both know that you aren't answering my question.

"Can I say something?" Liz interjected. "Argo, we won't stop you from doing what you think is right. Before you leave, can you help us pass on a message to Kirito?"

"Of course. Is it a confession?" Argo said mischievously.

"Hmm. I guess it is a confession of sorts," Liz stated thoughtfully. Her reply caused Argo to perk up. "Don't forget what I'm about to say, okay? Look. A group of idiots treating you beta testers as the enemy won't change things between us. We will forever be on your side, even if the entire playerbase turns against you. A certain beta tester saved my life and I swore that I'd repay her, no matter the consequences."

Liz stared Argo in the eye as she uttered each word.

" … Heh. Are ya sure that was supposed to be a message to Kii-bou?"

"He's one of the intended recipients. Argo, I understand that you've got a lot on your mind right now. Take some time to think things through, but if you take too long we'll probably start pestering you."

"Guess I better do some thinkin' real soon then. Thanks for tellin' me how ya feel, I'm glad I heard all of that. Well, I gotta get goin' or else it'll be difficult to catch up to Kii-bou. See ya later!"

The celebrations will be less lively without you around. What a pity.

Shortly after Argo left Claws decided to excuse himself, stating that he had business back in the Town of Beginnings.

"Thank you. You handled that more maturely than I would've," I said to Liz. "I was too focused on trying to convince Argo. I really should've given her a bit of breathing – or I guess thinking – room."

"Your approach wasn't all that bad. It's important to share our concerns and confront them together as a group. However, it's also important to give people some space so that they can form their own conclusions. Especially when it comes to situations where there's no clear right or wrong."

"Yeah, you're right. Thanks for reminding me. Completely changing topics, are you doing anything this evening?"

"We're definitely spending time with Kleing and the guys, right? I'd like to get our preparations for tomorrow out of the way as well. Why do you ask?"

"Most of the raid party people are going to be in Urbus tonight. It's a good opportunity to meet people, maybe even make an ally or a few," I pointed out.

"Right. I'm not the biggest fan of crowds but it's true that socialising with other players every now and then can be helpful. Oh! If it's about finding allies, I've got someone in mind. Let's go pay her a visit."

"Sounds good. Lead the way."


Omake: Blessed with loyalty

Maybe it's better like this.

Argo's hood was up before she even left her room.

Kibaou's little stunt after the boss fight effectively painted a target on her back. The silver lining was that not too many people seemed to buy into his hateful rhetoric – yet. People's hearts were fickle; a few rumours could easily turn indifference into animosity.

I've gotta find Kii-bou ASAP. Then we'll lay low for a bit.

Her footsteps were quick, yet she took care not to move too quickly that she'd draw attention to herself. As she neared the city gates, a familiar red bandana caught her eye.

Argo hesitated.

If her 'enemies' saw her talking with Klein, there was the risk that they would think that he was in league with her, which could lead to some disastrous outcomes. On the other hand, it was very possible that she wouldn't see him for a very long time …

She reasoned (hoped) that a few parting words would be fine. Besides, she was wearing a cloak. So she stealthily snuck up behind the unsuspecting man …

"Yo!"

"Woah! Oh, it's you. You scared me!"

"That was the point. Good work out there today, where's the rest of your friends?"

"They're at the inn. I'm headed there myself. Um, I'm sorry. We should've kept L safe but he almost got killed and – "

"No, no. It wasn't you guys' fault. No need to feel responsible. It all worked out in the end anyways."

"That's true." Klein was clearly relieved to learn that the girl did not blame him for their mutual friend's brush with death. "By the way, do you know where Kirito is? He hasn't responded to any of my messages."

"He's already left town. I'm goin' to try catchin' up to him."

"Oh, that explains that. Be careful out there, I don't wanna scare you or anything but watch out for people like Kibaou," Klein warned solemnly.

"Yeah, I know. I'll keep an eye out."

"It seriously sucks that they're making you out to be the villain despite everything you've done for us. If any of those ungrateful little shits give you trouble, you can always come to us." Argo could easily tell that the man really meant it when he offered his assistance.

I think I get why Kii-bou and L are so fond of this guy now.

"Thanks. Ya know, we'd all have an easier time if there were more people like ya around."

"Damn! That's probably one of the best compliments I've ever gotten," Klein said happily. "Take care, I'll see you around."

"Bye-bye!"

Argo sighed.

The more her friends insisted that they would not abandon her, the more she feared getting them caught up in her messy circumstances. She reached out to two helpless players on the first day because she wanted to help them; allowing LOL and Lisbeth to be involved in her (practically one-sided) quarrel with Kibaou was decidedly NOT helping them.

Telling her friends that she planned to stay away from them for their sakes would likely lead to them protesting her decision. Argo noted how LOL, who seemed to have an inkling of her thoughts, looked as if he was prepared to do exactly that. Sadly, her friends' reassurances were no deterrent against the very real risks she faced.

The most extreme solution would be cutting ties with her friends but she certainly could not bring herself to pursue that option.

Liz told me to think things through but I ain't gettin' anywhere. Ugh, I hate this.

She was determined that her friends should not suffer on her account. Yet, the more she thought about her dilemma, the more staying away seemed like an unfeasible option.

Wait –

Oh. That's right, I should've realised from the start.

Argo could not help but laugh. The answer was staring her in the face all this time.

Her friends had emphatically declared that they would not abandon her. Even if she tried to isolate herself from them, doing so would only result in them chasing after her, resulting in a farcical cat-and-mouse game where nobody was truly happy. In other words, this was never a dilemma to begin with: Argo really did not have a second option.

I'm blessed to have these idiots as friends.

And now it was her job to tell Kirito the truth. Surely the boy was struggling with the dilemma she'd just dealt with.

Argo walked out of the safe zone with a spring to her step.


A/N: Argo wouldn't let Asuna (or Lisbeth) to fight Illfang, which is why she and Kirito were the ones who dealt the finishing blow.

There's a lot more I want to say here but I can't remember any of it.

By the way, if you're looking for another SAO fic, I strongly recommend Retribution by wildmoors. It's a beautifully written Heathcliff-centric story which adds a lot of depth to that character. Also, it's a completed fic so no need to wait for uploads.

Have a wonderful day! Or whatever's left of it.