A/N: Here it is, the beginning of an adventure that has been nearly a year in the making. I sincerely hope you enjoy what I have done with the story this time around, because it just might be my finest work to date.

For those of you that have read an earlier version of the Red Swordsman story before, forget everything you knew about Mataras and the Moonlit Black Cats. Read this tale knowing that very few things will be the same as before.

Opening Song: Crossing Field by Nathan Sharp (NateWantstoBattle).

The Red Swordsman

The stab to my shoulder caused no blood to spurt out, though the implications of the wound were just as serious. The bar in the upper-left corner of my vision shrank by about ten percent as a result of the wound. I clucked my tongue with distaste and leaped backwards to give myself some distance from my opponent.

Eyeing my enemy with renewed caution, I forced myself to re-examine its movements and the weapons it carried to avoid any further mistakes like the careless parry that had cost me precious health points. The thing standing before me was, of course, no ordinary soldier or fighter. It had the appearance of a tall, thin, bipedal blue lizard. Its eyes glowed an unholy red as it bared its white, needle-like teeth at me in a hiss while settling into a slight crouch.

As if all of that wasn't odd enough in it of itself, it was holding the curved sword that had put a chip in my shoulder- so to speak. The rounded shield it carried in its opposing hand and light armor on its chest and head had thus far deflected a good number of my own attempts to strike it down, but that was going to have to change soon, I knew.

The walking lizard wasn't real, of course. Or perhaps 'tangible' is a better word.

It was an AI program generated and controlled by a system and designated with a single purpose: to destroy the first non-NPC character it came across in its endless wanderings of the dungeon I had made my way into.

The dungeon I was in was also made up of computer code and data. As were the rocks surrounding me on either side of the winding pass that made up a single passageway in the maze I was fighting through. Everything I touched, tasted, saw, heard, and even smelled in this dungeon- in this world- had no more tangibility than a series of ones and zeroes on a laptop screen. It was all just data.

The only things I suppose I could call real were the memories I had of this place, and all the events that had happened in the two years that I had been trapped inside of it. Others might have been able to argue that the bonds we formed with our fellow prisoners was something that transcended the empty feeling that came from knowing that everything we had and were was simple binary coding, but I had long since left such things behind me.

Only one thing mattered to me anymore: striking back at the system that had taken everything precious from me in any way I could. In every way I could. At every opportunity I had.

Gripping my own sword with new determination, I forced my wrist to relax as I counted down the seconds until the creature, otherwise known in this world as a 'Lizardman', would attack again. A loose wrist can make all the difference, I remembered, my own words echoing in my mind. A stiff arm can mean the end. Before my mind could wander any further into places I had forbidden myself to revisit, the blue monster took a half-step forward, and my hard-wired instincts kicked in.

My enemy's silver saber came up and glowed orange, indicating that a sword skill had been engaged, and now it only needed to be executed by the wielder. Moving my dark red blade to nearly brush my shoulder, I felt the hilt vibrate, and a familiar thrill go through my arm as the Guilty Thorn glowed with a cyan light, casting a pale glow on my clothes and face.

The cards were all on the table. It was about timing now.

Motion! The Lizardman shot forward, sword trailing a streak of light like a meteor in the night sky. A very deadly meteor that was aimed to take my head off.

I ducked down below the sword as it split the air where I had been less than a second ago.

"Missed," I growled. Swinging my arm as fast as I could, my sword glowed almost as if delighted while it struck into the lizardman four times in rapid succession. My 'muscles' moved almost of their own will, the scarlet blade in my hand dancing in a pattern called 'Horizontal Square', a four-part attack sequence that left tremendous damage on my foe, the evidence being the huge red gashes lining its abdomen and back. Again, there was no blood, but there were a few red sparkles that could have resembled something akin to blood that floated out of the wounds briefly before fading out of existence.

The monster hissed angrily, turning to bring its sword around for another try at my shoulder, but this time I was well aware of its patterns. I spun to the side, out of the reach of its long, thin arms, and rested my blade near my waist, this time the red metal acquiring a white sheen of light.

"Now you die," I grunted as I leaped forward, my speed rivaling that of a bullet from a rifle. My sword came up in a single, brilliant flash of motion that left another red gash in my enemy, this one starting at the left hip and ending at the top of its ugly, helmeted head.

I said nothing as it swelled with white light and exploded into thousands of blue-and-green shards. Not gooey and smelly bits of flesh and bone, mind you- just tiny crystals that faded like the night stars in the wake of a rising sun that left behind no trace that anything had ever been there at all.

This is death in this world. Instantaneous, often without any time to reflect on what the end means for you, or even the chance to reach out to your loved ones before the void claims your life. Your past does not rush to visit you one last time, and your future abandons you forever.

This is the world of blade and skill, I repeated in my head as I sank down against the rough stone wall that lined the open passageway. Death will claim those that do not remember this doctrine.

My breath was coming out in rapid gasps, though it was more of a habit than anything. In this world, my body did not require oxygen to function, nor did sweat line my brow as it would have back home after such a strenuous exercise. Although it was very likely that my flesh-and-blood vessel was both gasping for breath and sweating freely from the stress it imagined itself to be in, this did nothing to directly affect my physical form in Aincrad. Although, I suppose it was possible that whatever little connection I had to my real body could be reflected in some routine habits like breathing.

I found myself sitting in some soft grass with flowers decorating the path here and there, but none of that held my attention. My mind wandered to what was beyond these verdant fields, in the caves that loomed in the distance. Looking up to the upper-right corner of my vision, the opposite side of where my health gauge was displayed, I noted that it was about three o' clock in the afternoon, or 15:00 in Standard Aincrad Time.

"If you hurry up today, you might make it," a soft, gentle voice said on my right. I rolled my head over to see a young girl dressed in a rich blue garment staring past me, and into the caves beyond. One of her slender eyebrows went up in amusement as I scowled at her, willing her to leave me be.

Seeing that she would not be deterred, I stood up and turned my back on the route, brushing past her without a word.

"Are you just going the opposite direction of what I suggested because you're hoping it'll get me to leave?" the girl teased me. "Did you consider the fact that I might be using reverse-psychology to get you to go home so you'll be safe for the night?"

"If you are, it was my idea," I replied under my breath.

"Whoa, did you actually just acknowledge that I spoke to you?" she pretended to be surprised. "He can improve!"

Truly, either my mind hates me, or this game does, I thought sourly as I started to sift through my inventory as I walked. Either way, I detest both.

"You've come pretty far in this place, you know," the girl said as she strode at an easy pace about ten feet behind me. "Further than any of the others I've seen here."

I'm not like the others, I thought to myself.

"Still, it's not like anyone here is really capable of matching you," she continued, almost echoing my thoughts. "You're nothing if not unique. Of course, I knew that from the start, but I can honestly say that you've really gone past everyone's expectations, even mine."

Go away, Fragment, I growled inside my head. I want nothing to do with you. You only serve as a reminder… Everything that ever mattered to me is gone, and all I'm left with are the memories of a life that is long past.

"You know, one of these days, everyone and everything is gonna catch up with you," my ever-present companion said in a more serious tone. "Your only choice is if you want to go and confront them on your terms, or wait for them to hunt you down."

A dark smile twisted my lips at that. They can hunt for me all they want, I nearly chuckled to myself. But the Red Swordsman is more myth than man now. And myths can live on without their creators…

"No one can outrun the end," the girl said, almost as if she could hear my thoughts. "You know that better than anyone, so stop trying to pretend otherwise."

I didn't let her see my face, but her words did cause me to flinch at some particularly painful memories that I quickly forced myself to repress. "Cease and desist," I snapped as I stopped walking in place. "I carry enough on my shoulders, apparition. I don't need ghosts reminding me of them."

"No, but I think it would do you some good to remember that there are others that would share in your load if you'd just let 'em," the girl said as she too, stopped walking and stood firmly on the path.

"The Red Swordsman walks alone to avoid bloodying the hands of others, remember?" I shot back as I resumed walking at a brisk pace.

"Then maybe the 'Red Swordsman' is the problem," my companion said tightly.

"That's right," I nodded. "He's my problem, and no one else's."

I heard a heavy sigh and the words, "You've always been stubborn, but this is just asinine. You from two years ago would be disgusted with what you are now."

"That's why he's gone, and I'm here," I replied flatly, her lectures beginning to get under my skin. "Because somebody has to do what I do. And since I don't see anyone else with the guts and the qualifications for the position, I'll stay my course."

"Who made you the authority on justice in this world?" the girl demanded.

I stopped walking again and turned around to give a very cold glare. "You know very well who," I growled slowly.

"Do you even remember them?" she asked after a moment. "I mean, actually remember them? Or does your head have nothing but enemies to kill in there?"

My gaze narrowed further with anger, but I could not deny the truth to my own mind, especially since she already knew the answer. "I remember them," I snapped as I walked away. "I remember all of them. The Lightning Flash, the Black Swordsman… the Cats… Even her." I paused in my speaking as I forced myself to swallow a small lump that served to only anger me further. "Of course I remember the people that made me what I am."

"Then you don't remember them at all, because they didn't create the Red Swordsman," the girl said. "Maybe you should spend some time reflecting on who they were- and where you came from."

"You're just stuck in the past," I replied hotly. "That's why you can't see what the future holds for me- for us."

"The past can be a great adviser for the future, remember?" she replied. "Come on- there's no one else around to hear you. Let's take a trip down memory lane, just you and me. If nothing else, you can pretend that you're telling her a bedtime story again."

I glared at her again, but all she did in response was give me a winning smile. Knowing just how stubborn she was and the fact that some part of me did still long for the times gone by, I finally gave in. "Fine," I growled. "If I do that, will you leave me alone?"

"No promises," she grinned.

"At least it's not an outright 'no," I sighed. "Where do you want to start, your highness?"

"Let's take it from the top," she said.

"All the way back?" I asked incredulously.

"Yep," she nodded. "C'mon. It's a long walk home, and you cleared out all the monsters on the way here."

"Rrgh…" I ground my teeth in frustration, but I knew she was right. "All right… Day One: the day we all got screwed over."

"Wow, I can really feel your enthusiasm," she said sarcastically. "C'mon, put some more effort into it!"

"You know I'm already hating this," I said flatly.

"You hate everything," she retorted.

"Fair enough," I admitted after a brief pause. "Fine. Once upon a time, a boy in high school was on his way to pick up his little sister…"

This world is called Sword Art Online. We were told it was a game- now we know it to be a death trap.

A castle of immeasurable size floats in the sky, as if held by the invisible hand of God Himself. This is the place we call home- and our prison.

A team of self-proclaimed experts spent a month examining the first floor to come to the conclusion that the diameter is just over six miles in total. But seeing as that is just a single floor out of one hundred, it's nearly impossible to guess just how much data the entire structure itself represents.

Within these floors are open grass plains, deep verdant forests, cool lakes, freezing mountains, burning lava pits, yawning chasms, vast deserts, and more. Of course, as fate would have it, the areas given the most detail and care by their creator are the dungeons that lie in these diverse landscapes. Each one is filled to the brim with monsters and traps, and while both of these are lethal without one to support the other, if you put them together, the challenge they present is almost impossible to surmount.

Yet surpassed it we have. Although our numbers have slowly dwindled over the last two years to be just over six thousand survivors of our original ten thousand players, the human race of Castle Aincrad has persevered and pressed on against impossible odds to conquer seventy-three floors of the death game.

On floor seventy-four, the players continue to push forward and fight to secure our freedom that was promised to us. Every day the people get closer to the top floor, they get another day closer to home.

But for me, home is a place beyond my reach. My home is gone, and gone I will stay, forever doomed to wander the endless sky castle. My sins are too many, my crimes too great to ever return to my old life. My hands have spilled a river of crimson tears, and my cloak treads heavily with the weight of the lives I have claimed. My hands have borne the color of my namesake too many times for far too long, and now I am beyond redemption.

I am the Red Swordsman, and this is my story.

Kirito: Whoa now.

Mataras: What is it?

Kirito: That was a pretty intense opening. I wasn't expecting that tone, to be honest.

Mataras: Why is that?

Kirito: I guess I'm just used to you being more mellowed out. Probably because it's been a long time since we've seen you being consistently angry.

Mataras: True. Still, it's not like my anger ever really went away in the past stories. I just learned to have a better handle on it.

Sachi: Yeah, and you turned out to be pretty cool when you did.

Mataras: Thanks, Sachi. By the way, just a quick reminder, the first full-length chapter goes up on Thanksgiving Day, so don't miss out on that!

Yui: But Uncle, this chapter was already the length of your average chapter in your other stories.

Mataras: Hehe, this wasn't even one-fifth the length of the first chapter. Try getting your mind around that one.

Yui: Whoa...

Asuna: Gotta say, I'm kinda sad already.

Mataras: Why is that?

Asuna: Well, I know you based this intro off the first chapter in the light novel version of Sword Art Online, so we're looking at you two years into the game. And it seems like Sachi dies in this version, since you were talking to her Hollow.

Mataras: That wasn't Sachi.

Sachi: It wasn't?!

Asuna: What?!

Kirito: Come again?!

Mataras: Why are you all surprised?

Kirito: But... You always called Sachi your sister in the Red Swordsman!

Mataras: So I did. And I will again.

Asuna: Then who wa-

Victoria: 'Sup guys?

Closing Song: Ignition by TobyMac