November 6th, 2022

1300 JST

At the age of fourteen, Kirigaya Kazuto was more excited than any time he could ever remember in his short life. Just minutes ago, the official servers of the first ever VRMMORPG, Sword Art Online, had launched.

Kazuto had been waiting for the release since August of that year, when the game was announced. Being one of the lucky thousand that were chosen to play the SAO Closed Beta had done nothing to quell his anxiety. If anything, the beta simply made it worse. Just the beta was the best game Kazuto had ever played, and he played a lot of games. Kazuto followed simple logic; the finished game is usually better than the beta, therefore, if the beta of SAO was better than anything else, then the finished game must be something made by the gods.

Well, one god in particular. Kayaba Akihiko, the development director of Sword Art Online, as well as the developer of the NerveGear; a helmet-like object in appearance, which would allow players to access the realm of virtual reality by means of "Diving".

Kazuto was completely ready for his Dive. His NerveGear was plugged in and completely booted up. He had already eaten, showered, and used the restroom. There were a few water bottles on the nightstand next to his bed, accompanied by a few small bags of chips and other snacks. Kazuto also told his parents and younger sister to try to refrain from disturbing him. He was completely set for a full night of Diving, with a scheduled break every three hours to freshen up.

Laying down, Kazuto found he was completely filled with energy, and his hands even shook as he lifted the NerveGear to put over his head. Sliding it on slowly, as if the helmet was some type of ancient, frail artifact, Kazuto pressed the power button on the right-hand side of the Gear, which rested underneath a trio of blinking lights. Allowing the Gear a few moments to get itself situated, Kazuto finally laid down to rest his head on his pillow.

"Link Start!"

A tunnel of colors passed by Kazuto, as he neared the familiar log-in UI. Quickly belting out his username, Kirito (The Kiri- from his family name, and -to from his given name), and his password, Kazugaya (An amalgamation of the remaining syllables), Kazuto was greeted by a "Welcome Back" Screen.

"Welcome Back to Sword Art Online, Kirito. Would you like to load your custom character from the Beta?"

Selecting Yes, Kazuto was quickly sucked through another seizure-inducing tunnel, before being deposited in the middle of a crowded town square.

The Town Of Beginnings. Breathing in the fresh digital air, which was stimulated quite magnificently by the NerveGear, Kirito let out a loud exhale followed by the brightest smile he had worn in a while.

Turning on his heel, Kirito sprinted away from the town square, intent on finding the quest which granted the best sword on this floor before doing anything else.

The Anneal Blade was coveted by early-level Beta players once the first person had found it, for the sole fact that the blade had a enhance max of 8, which meant the sword could be upgraded 8 times with a combination of sharpness, heaviness, durability, quickness, and accuracy. Kirito never wasted upgrade slots on heaviness and accuracy, because a lighter sword meant a faster sword, which also ruled out excessive use of the quickness upgrade. At most, he would do maybe 2 quickness enhances; the rest would be a balance between sharpness and durability.

With the help of his Beta knowledge, Kirito also knew that the Anneal Blade would probably be the best sword for the next two or three floors, since no other early sword had that many enhance levels. Allocating the beginning 5 stat points into agility, Kirito began sprinting as one could only in a video game; that is, without tiring. Thankfully, stamina seemed non-existent in this game, the only limitation being how much mental stress you could handle, as that was what all the signals sent by the NerveGear translated into.

On the way to the village of Horunka, which is where the quest was located, Kirito ran through a couple of boars, just for a bit of extra exp. He was slightly surprised at the large amount of exp he had gathered after killing about ten of the boars; his exp bar was filled to an astonishing 60%! Kirito remembered the final days of the Beta, back when he was level 30, and it took countless hours to get that much exp. Hopefully, now that he knew some pretty good grinding spots, he could rush through the lower levels.

Deciding to go all the way, Kirito killed another handful of boars, then put all 5 of the level-up stat points into agility as well, bringing it up to 12 total, due to the base stat of 1 plus the level up bonus of 1 and the 10 points. The Enhanced Anneal Blade would balance out the lack of Strength, and the perks of the One-Handed Sword skill tree would compensate for the rest of the game. If Kirito decided to pour the majority of his points into strength, he would need to use a rapier to make up for the lack of agility. Speed was definitely the more useful stat to use his points on, as every hit would bring him that much closer to death, and being able to dodge those hits would proved invaluable if he didn't want to get setback too much.

With an agility level of 12, Kirito's strides brought him that much closer to his goal, and within ten minutes, the gamer stood outside the hut which housed the quest-giver. Foregoing knocking, as no one would have answered anyway, Kirito quickly navigated through the house, stopping in the kitchen where the NPC was.

"Hello." Kirito said blandly, only greeting the NPC to start up the pre-programmed dialogue.

"Oh, hello, traveler! Please sit, you must be tired after travelling this far."

Taking a seat, the NPC placed a bowl of stew in front of the teen, which he ignored.

"Is there anything I can help you with?"

"Well, my daughter is rather sick, and only an herb found deep in the forest can help her… I can reward you handsomely!" The NPC left the kitchen, returning within seconds, clutching a sword in her hands.

"This is the Anneal Blade, a family heirloom passed down through the generations. We don't need it anymore, since nobody is around to use it… Would you please help my daughter?"

A screen popped into existence in front of Kirito.

New quest available! Help the villager's daughter?

Reward: 100XP, Anneal Blade

Tapping the circle which indicated 'yes', Kirito stood from the table, and began to make his way out of the small hut.

"The medicine is held by creatures called…"

The NPC's voice trailed off as Kirito continued on his way, but that didn't matter. The boy already knew what he had to do; kill a bunch of animated plants called Little Nepenthes. One of the mobs would have a flower atop its head, and that one was guaranteed to drop the required item, a Little Nepenthes' Ovule. Since a Nepenthes with a flower was a rare spawn, Kirito would need to kill several of the mobs to reset the spawns and force one to appear.

Plus, at level 2, killing a bunch of level 3 monsters would give him a considerable amount of exp.

Delving deep into the forest, Kirito came across the first of the Nepenthes. Standing at a meter and a half tall, the monster was a sickly green color, crawling around with root legs and vine arms. It's head was grossly oversized, and a large mouth was situated on it. A strange red liquid was flowing from the mouth of the Nepenthes, dripping down the obscenely large tongue that was also stuck out.

Deciding he didn't want to look at the ugly thing any longer, Kirito lashed out with his sword, far quicker than the monster could react to due to his 12 agility, and struck the mob's critical point; it's tongue. The Nepenthes' health was instantly reduced to less than half, which the gamer quickly remedied with another critical strike, causing the plant to explode into a thousand rainbow polygons. Dismissing the summary of gains, Kirito went back on the hunt.

The hours ticked by, with little success for Kirito. None of the Nepenthes he had killed, which numbered in the hundreds, had spawned with the sought after flower.

Speaking of which, one had just spawned! Along with… a fruit-bearing Nepenthes. That was bad news. Should the fruit be damaged at all, it would release a cloud of gas which attracted hordes of Nepenthes, who would all then attack the player.

Kirito had leveled up three more times, now sitting at level 5. He quickly dumped 5 of his 15 free stat points in strength, then slashed the tongue of a nearby Nepenthes. As expected, it shattered in one-hit, causing Kirito to smirk. His total strength was now 10, due to the +1 to each stat from levelling up, then poured the remaining 10 points in agility, bringing it up to a comfortable 25.

Throwing caution to the wind, Kirito dashed towards the fruit-bearing Nepenthes, and activated the Sword Skill Vertical, to slash through the fruit, head, and tongue of the Nepenthes. Quickly spinning around, Kirito also activated a Horizontal to clear out the few Nepenthes which attempted to ensnare him with their vines, one of which was the flower-bearing Nepenthes he came for. The surrounding area was clear, but Kirito knew it was only a matter of time before the hordes showed up.

He was right. It took less than a minute before numerous monsters began crawling out the woodworks and speeding right towards him. With a grin, the gamer rushed forwards to meet them halfway, swinging his sword with precision, aiming for the Nepenthes' hanging tongues. Kirito was refraining from using sword skills due to the cooldown time that came from it. Even if the cooldown for the basic skills, like Vertical and Horizontal, was measured in milliseconds, that was all the time a mob needed to get a hit. If one mob got a good hit off, he would end up stumbling, allowing the other mobs to chain attacks, eventually ending with his death. So, Kirito decided not to give the monsters the opportunity, and stuck to the basic slash-and-hack approach.

It took at least ten minutes for the monsters to stop appearing, and Kirito's head was starting to throb a bit. He could log out for a half-hour and relax a bit, but he was so close to completing the quest. He could log out after getting the Anneal Blade.

The drops menu showed a sizeable amount of Cor, the currency of SAO, a bunch of herbs which could be later crafted into healing items, and the Little Nepenthes' Ovule. Letting out a whoop of excitement, Kirito turned on his heel and ran back the ten minutes, now eight, it took to get to the Nepenthes spawn area.

Once there, he quickly handed over the Ovule, and was rewarded with the Anneal Blade. Relishing in the old yet familiar weight, he hugged the blade, thankful that nobody was watching him at the moment.

Switching the Beginner Sword with the Anneal Blade, Kirito finally decided to call it quits for… maybe an hour. Opening up his menu with a downward swipe of his left hand, Kirito noticed the time; 0100 hours, 15 hours after he first logged in. Grimacing, Kirito mentally prepared himself for the inevitable rush to the bathroom, and manipulated the menu to access the logout button.

There was an issue, though; the logout button was greyed out.

Kirito spent the next few minutes losing his mind, before calming down slightly.

"I can just contact a GM-they'll know what to do… right!?"

Rattling out a quick message to the admins, Kirito decided to make his way back to the Town of Beginnings, where most of the players probably were, to find out if anyone else was having this issue. Considering his more than doubled agility stat, it took only a few minutes to sprint full tilt back to the Town. He made an effort to go faster at the price of some mental fatigue, because he really wanted to get out of here before his unconscious body shat itself or something.

The first person he met on his way to the town square was a male with roguish looks; long red hair, a multi colored bandana, and a good amount of not-quite-stubble which seemed to be on the way to being a proper goatee. The player was dressed in the beginner gear. Anything else would have been surprising.

"Hey, excuse me!" Kirito called out.

The red-haired man looked away from the NPC merchant he was speaking to, before pointing to himself questioningly.

"Yeah, you. Sorry to interrupt, I'm Kirito." The gamer stuck his hand out, and it was shook by the other male.

"Klein, and it's fine. I was just selling some loot before logging out. You alright, man?"

"No, not really. Speaking of logging out, can you check if the button works?"

Klein looked at him quizzically, as if Kirito had asked him what color his hair was. Deciding to humor the young man, Klein swiped open the game menu, opened the options tab, and scrolled down to the logout button… which was greyed out.

Tapping it a few times, Klein realized that the button really was broken.

"Um, wow. Talk about a disaster. The mods are gonna get so much shit for something like this, it's not even funny… not to mention I've got a pizza on the way! No!" Smashing his balled-up fist against the button uselessly, Klein sank to his knees and let out an ominous moan.

Kirito laid a hand on the man's shoulder, patting it a few times in a consoling manner.

"I wouldn't worry about it too much. I already messaged the admins, and I'm sure a bunch more people have, too. They'll have us out of here eventually."

Klein seemed a bit too caught up in his despair to really notice Kirito's condolences, and let out another groan, curling up on the ground in fetal position.

Kirito was very amused, but got bored after a couple seconds. He kicked Klein right in the balls, eliciting a shout from the other player.

"Hey! What gives!?"

"Relax. You didn't feel any pain, did you?"

Klein seemed confused, sitting up properly, then looking at his crotch, as if unsure that Kirito was telling the truth.

"Huh, weird."

"Not really. Think about it; if someone were to be crushed to death in this game, and the NerveGear were to stimulate that, they would probably suffer from some type of trauma, giving them grounds to sue Kayaba Akihiko."

"...Right. Can I just say that I'm slightly weirded out by the fact that you thought of something like that?"

"No, because I didn't. It was in one of Kayaba's interviews."

"Oh, really? I've never watched one of those, they always looked boring."

"I made a habit out of it. There's always the chance they'll reveal something that will be useful- like this; Open your options real quick."

Following Kirito's lead, Klein navigated his player menu until he reached the desired screen.

"Sensory Stimulation? What's this? And why's it at -5?"

"Don't worry about that, just turn it up to 5."


"Just do it!"

"Alright, jeez! There, done. Now, will you finally tell me what- FUCK!"

Klein's last word was shouted in a pained, high-pitched squeak. Kirito had kicked him in the balls, and the Sensory Stimulation setting had perfectly recreated the pain of the real thing, thus causing Klein to be curled up in a ball on the ground, trying not to sob.

"Wh-Why?" Klein moaned.

"Because it was fun."

"No, it was not! Let me do it to you, then tell me how fun it is!"


"Coward!" Klein shouted, rising into a shaky stand, then hobbling after Kirito, shaking a fist at him, while the other hand cupped his still throbbing crotch.

Kirito laughed, and took off at a light jog, his high agility allowing him to easily keep ahead of Klein. The two continued on like this to the town square, causing a bit of a stir amongst the already present players, but not much. Their attention was held by something much more prevalent; the walls were bleeding.

It was probably not actual (or virtual, in this case) blood, but the resemblance was eerie. What was even more ominous was when the liquid converged on one spot, then vanished, leaving behind a massive, humanoid figure. It wore a large red, gold-trimmed robe, large enough to conceal any type of identifiable trait, except its long, bony hands. It spread its equally long and bony fingers out, as if commanding a large force of marionettes.

"Players, hear me. I am the creator of this world, Kayaba Akihiko."

Several gasps rang out from the crowd, surprised that such an important person would address them, especially so early in the game. They had figured he would send a message after they beat the game or something, so this turn of events was rather unexpected.

"I am sure some of you have noticed the lack of a logout button. I assure you, this was not a mistake, nor a bug, but an intentional exclusion. First off, I would like to thank you for joining me in my world, and embarking on this epic journey. I am truly honored that you would choose to spend your time here, giving my hard work purpose. Secondly, I have come to give you a gift. If you would all check your inventories right about… now, you shall see it."

The ding of opening menus could be heard throughout the square, as many curious, and very excited, players opened their inventories. A free gift from the creator of the game? It would most definitely be useful, and if not, it probably had a high monetary value. At least, that was what the players thought. They also somehow completely ignored what Kayaba had said about the logout button; most likely dismissing it as a joke or something.

Kirito, like the rest, was curious about what he had been given. Upon finding an item in his inventory which was not previously there, Kirito was very confused to find out what it was. The object was simply called Hand Mirror, and true to its name, was a handheld piece of glass surrounded by a thin frame. Kirito's confusion rose to another level after turning the mirror over, and discovering it had no true purpose other than showing the player their avatar.

"Yes, it is a simple mirror, and no, it does not have any special ability. It is, however, still useful. Now, if you would please observe yourselves in the mirror, carefully."

The players decided to humor the man, and peered at their reflection. Upon noticing the edges of their avatar's face shimmering, a few shifted the mirror, trying to see if it was a trick of the light, while some others reached up to touch their face. Kirito just stood there, staring, not completely understanding what was going on.

His mind screeched to a halt when his face shattered into a mass of polygons, along with everybody else's. It was not just his face, either. Their entire body gave off the same effect, and many wondered if they been suddenly killed or something.

His blood froze when, suddenly, staring back from the mirror, was his face. His real face. Kirito felt his eyes widen, and watched as the reflection's did the same. Around him, he heard the default destruction sound, indicating that people had dropped their mirrors in shock. Kirito nearly did, too, but got control of himself just in time. He stowed the mirror away in his inventory, promising himself to examine it later.

Kayaba had given the players a minute to take in their 'new' appearance, before continuing on with his speech.

"You may be wondering, 'why did he reveal our true looks?' My answer is simple. This game will become your life, and how disconcerting would it be to wake up every morning and see a stranger looking at you from the mirror?"

Noticing the looks on the faces of people gathered before him, Kayaba sighed.

"I suppose I should explain what I mean by that."

Multiple screens popped into existence around the GM, showing what many amongst the crowd recognized as news outlets. Those who were closer could even read the headings of the reports… and felt fear like they never knew before.

Hundreds killed by forceful attempts to remove the innovation-turned-deathtrap, the NerveGear.

Players of new VRMMORPG Sword Art Online unable to wake up.

Thousands trapped by Kayaba Akihiko's invention, the NerveGear.

"I did mention earlier that the exclusion of the logout button was intentional, did I not? As you can see, you are now trapped within my world. Should you die in Aincrad, the NerveGear will emit high-powered microwaves into you, effectively frying your brain. The result will be the same should anyone outside attempt to remove the NerveGear. The only way to escape is to die, or to clear the 100th floor of Aincrad."

The town square was filled with silence for several minutes, as the players attempted to digest the magnitude of the bombshell which was just dropped on them.

Kirito was one of them, and tried to run through the information he had just been given.

Nobody could logout of SAO. Outside interference would result in death. The players now had to use their real body. The only way to escape was to beat the game. Oh, and Kayaba Akihiko was a massive prick.

Kirito absolutely refused to consider the possibility of death. He had a family waiting for him in the real world, and he wouldn't let the ravings of a single madman, even if he was a genius, keep him from them. Especially since he hadn't apologized for the way he had treated them in the past.

With a growl of frustration, Kirito turned on his heel, and sprinted out of the town square, intent on getting as far as he could from the place where his previous life ended.