It's. Been. So. Long!

Hello again everyone, and sorry for the delay. Not much excuses to give you that you probably wouldn't care much to hear, really, it's a combination of playing SAO Alicization Lycoris, real life stuff, some mild writer's block and the fact that this turned into THE largest Eroge chapter to date! (Over 20K words without the author's notes!)

So yeah, instead of boring you with that stuff, all I can say is, enjoy the chapter, take it easy, hopefully it doesn't disappoint, especially the crazy over-the-top action that it has at the end…'cause there won't be anymore in this story for a long while, that's for sure! Next arc is back to almost purely dating sim shenanigans XP!

Also, the use of Argo's Canon name won the poll most of you probably have forgotten about by now, so now 'Hosaka Tomo' will officially be used for her in this story (And in any future other I use). A cheer for everyone's favorite rat!

And, as always, help filling this fic's TvTropes is appreciated (Especially as it's been a long time I checked this one XD). Now, enjoy!

Disclaimer: Neither Sword Art Online nor its characters belong to me, as much as I wish otherwise. If they did, 'There Is But One Ultimate Way' would no doubt be the Canon Ending of the series.


Scene 18: Clear the Endgame

November 21st, 2024. Arc Sophia, Kirito's Inn Room. 20:30…

"…and that's how I ended up here in the Front Lines. After that, well…I found Kirito and…you know the rest!"

Laughing awkwardly, though not really feeling much humor at all, Strea finished her tale and looked at everyone in the room with barely-hidden apprehension, wondering how exactly they were going to take everything she had just revealed to them.

The results were…not what she was expect…no, wrong. Thinking back on it, on how this particular 'group' was, this was 100% what she should have expected, and not the 'normal' reaction most normal humans would have that was still slightly ingrained into her from whatever remained of her original psychologist-programming.

Shock was quite an expected reaction, but it was nowhere near what anyone 'sane' should have had to everything she had just dropped on them. There was more wonder in most faces than anything else (Like the likes of Asuna or Argo), quite a bit of confused acceptance (Sinon and Leafa mostly), resignation (Lisbeth seemed to have that the most), and even a bit of…utter relief? Or something along those lines, in Silica's face.

Truly, the red-eyed AI had to suppress the need to urge to laugh (Recalling how serious the current situation was supposed to be) when she heard her mutter 'I knew that body couldn't be real…'. Some things wouldn't change no matter the situation, it seemed.

However, the one whose opinion she 'secretly' cared for the most seemed to be completely indifferent to the whole thing. Not in the 'bad' way one most usually use that phrase for, though, but more like, he was still busy about nothing but staying where he was, at her side and rubbing her shoulder almost tenderly, as he had been doing the entire time she had been revealing her origins and secrets to the rest of Unison Hearts and the much-more-understandably-shocked members of Fuurinkazan.

There wasn't even anything truly intimate in the gesture, more comforting than anything, and yet it was enough to make Strea feel as if her inexistent virtual stomach was doing happy flip-flops like crazy, giving her the courage and determination to come clean with everyone.

Maybe she still didn't fully know how to process the concept, being an Artificial Intelligence fully aware of it and whatnot, but…Love was really an amazingly nonsensical feeling, wasn't it?

"So, let me get this straight…" tilting her head to the side, Lux (The one who had been standing closest to Strea after Kirito ever since they came back) leaned into her keyblade, using the immensely powerful weapon as a glorified cane while processing everything they just heard. "You're actually another AI, like Yui-chan, but unlike her, you stuffed yourself into an unused avatar from the SAO Beta Test, which is how you're able to act and register as a Player to the system…"

"But you got kinda, let's say, 'fucked up' when trying to escape from Cardinal because of the glitch that turned Aincrad even weirder than it already was." continued Argo while massaging her temples. "That's why you were able to directly fight against those weird monsters that spawned over the Floors…the ones that looked all glitch and as if they came out of some edgy teen's wet dream."

"Cardinal's way of getting rid of excess corrupted data, yes. Turning them into in-game entities using the same data which I used to 'escape' from the mess in which the main server had become was easier than actually…you know, fixing them, I suppose." awkwardly clarified the busty girl while pointing out at her outfit and weapons. "They all came from a videogame called 'Bloodborne', if I'm recalling it right…"

"I knew those clothes looked familiar! My cousin had a poster of that game on his room's wall back when we were kids!" suddenly cheered Lux as if she had found out an amazing secret, swinging her keyblade upwards as she did so and making both Kirito and Argo squeak, as if expecting the world to end when she did so. "…oops, sorry about that…"

"Yes, please, Lux, less swinging the Universal-Changing-Level weapon in the shape of a children's toy while we're indoors if you could." dryly commented the Rat while everyone else not fully aware of what the clumsy girl's oddly-shaped weapon could do looked on in confusion, earning a shy laugh from her as she made it disappear seemingly at will. "…Gods, I would be so jealous of that if I actually liked to fight as flashily as anyone with one does…"

"So, Strea-san…you mean to say that you're damaged, because you're the same as those things?" Silica asked in a valiant attempt to get the conversation back on track, Pina growling in approval from where she was staring through the window. "But you're…normal. Well, at least by our standards!"

"Heheh…thanks for that, Silica…but well, that's just how I look on the outside and some properties this Avatar got forcibly installed with when I took it over. At this point, I'm probably more corrupted inside than any of those eldritch bosses Cardinal spawned…barely anything of the original 'MHCP-002' remains inside my code." shaking her head with a sad smile, the Hunter couldn't help but feel her heart skip a beat when Kirito's grip on her hand tightened at those words, before letting her eyes move towards another corner of the room. "Guess now all of us could get super-lucky, huh, Haru?"

Everyone's eyes turned towards Lisbeth at those words, the blacksmith blinking in surprise even as the golden-red armor she was wearing seemed to come to life for a moment as her helmet snapped closed without her input.

"…I was wondering if you would bother addressing me, 002." commented the AI within the Iron Man suit with a neutral tone. "And well, define 'lucky'…sure, I may not be trapped within an ever-growing corruption hazard, but I'm essentially stuck to an in-game object that I can only partially control because it was originally designed that way. You at least have a fully functional body, 'sister'."

"Hey, you know, if you want to, like, walk around a bit, you can just tell me, okay?" Lisbeth interrupted while giving her suit's HUD a bright smile. "We're meant to be partners, HARU!"

"…thanks for that, player Lisbeth. I wasn't complaining as much as making an observation. Besides, I…don't think complaining is fair when at least I didn't end as…001."

Awkwardly, more than one pair of eyes turned to one of the room's beds, where Yui had somehow found a way to turn herself into a human-sized cocoon of pillows and sheets while they weren't looking, and seemed to be in deep thought now…despite being upside down.

"Yui is…not that bad…" laughed Strea while trying her best to not stare directly at what she sometimes forgot was probably the most dangerous non-player entity within Sword Art Online after the Cardinal System.

"She's certainly…unique, but we all love her very much as she is!" interjected Asuna while walking up to the virtual little girl and putting her cocooned body upright once again. "She's a little ray of sunshine, after all."

"…hey! If Strea-san is 002, and my own number was 001…does that mean I'm her big sister?!" Yui excitedly questioned everyone, trying and failing to stand in her self-made prison of sheets and falling down face-first because of it. "…woah, the floor looks very pretty here…"

"…point is, there would have been nothing wrong with ending like Yui-chan!" continued the chestnut-haired girl as if nothing had happened while getting the small AI back on her feet even as Lisbeth stepped out of her now oddly silent armor. "Get it, Haru-san?"

"…duly noted, player Asuna. I'm going to go into sleep mode now." was all that the suit's 'co-pilot' answered before it shut down, totally not running away from the conversation.

"I think you scared her, Asuna." pointed out Sachi with a nervous smile.

"Maybe she did, but still…this had been quite the hectic day, so we should all get some rest." declared Kizmel while looking oddly thoughtful. "If we're lucky and the spirits smile at us, we should be able to arrive at the Last Floor by the end of tomorrow…and then we will have to prepare for the fight against the corrupted God protecting it."

"Yes, that seems like a good idea." finally spoke Kirito while standing up, smiling yet again to a slightly dumbfounded Strea. "You're free to stay with us wherever you like, of course."

"Uhm, you can share the room with me tonight if you want!" shyly declared Philia while trying to look as imposing as her dark armor allowed, though her face betrayed how much that wasn't her style. "I got used to not sleeping alone after all those nights with the guys back at the Hollow Area, so…"

"Wait…are you really not…going to bring it up? Are you all going to act as if nothing happened?" couldn't help but ask the red-eyed AI while looking at everyone despite, deep inside, already knowing the answer.

"What? That you're the same as the wacky little girl we have all but adopted as our daughter?" giving her a look that almost seemed to challenge her to deny him, Kirito looked almost amused as he reached out and patted the red-eyed girl's head, making something within her do happy flips. "Have you SEEN our group, Strea?"

"Yeah, don't be silly and get some rest, you wacky girl!" laughed Lisbeth while patting the AI on the back before walking up to her deactivated armor and, casually, storing it on her Inventory before walking out. "Wonder how long before Haru starts complaining to get out of there…"

"I agree with Kizmel and Liz…it's been quite a hectic day. Let's all just rest up and get ready for tomorrow, okay?"

Some more affirmations and sounds of agreement were exchanged amongst the eccentric group before they all exited the room one by one, leaving only the amused-looking Kirito and the still-a-bit-shocked Strea inside.

"Nobody really minded…at all…"

"Are you really that surprised?" questioning with honest curiosity, the gamer couldn't help but shrug off a bit when the Hunter turned to look at him. "I mean, you have known us for long enough, I like to believe, Strea. Also, you have clearly known 'of' us more than most players would thanks to your unique nature, so…did you really expect anyone here would have any problem with you being an Artificial Intelligence?"

"…no…no, I guess I didn't." confessed the virtual girl while looking down at her hands with a complex expression, even as it slowly morphed into an oddly timid smile. "But…I guess…"

"Seeing is believing, right? Or something like that?" smiling even more as he got a slow nod from her as response, the black-haired boy let out a tired yet content sigh. "I completely get you, you don't know how much…sometimes, even if you're 'sure' of something, actually having it confirmed can make all the difference."

Like the many times he had doubted if the girls truly felt anything for him beyond what his powers had caused to happen, before he had fully accepted it all, consequences included, and vowed to do his best to be worthy of their affection no matter what.

In that way, he could perfectly understand why the bubbly yet filled with issues being that was Strea had still been quite afraid of revealing her true nature to everyone.

It was a very human thing to feel, after all…even if, hilariously, the Hunter wasn't really 'human'.

And so, in an impulse that the old Kirigaya Kazuto would have never been brave enough to do, Kirito reached out and embraced the red-eyed AI against his body, enjoying her surprised squeak before she all but melted in his arms, letting out a content sound as she snuggled closer to him.

"…no fair…how do you do that?"

"Heh…do what?"

"Your warmth…your kindness…how do you make it so addictive to everyone around you?"

"Well, I wouldn't say 'everyone' around me, really, but…"

Strea's lips closing over his own with almost desperate need silenced whatever else he was going to say. Barely letting a moment of hesitation pass through him, the gamer leaned forward and cupped her cheek while kissing back, enjoying the taste of her lips and the almost fearful prod of her tongue against his own, which he also reciprocated to the best of his abilities…

[You gained 10 Affection Points with Heroine Strea!]

[You gained 25 Affection Points with Heroine Strea!]

[You gained 45 Affection Points with Heroine Strea!]

[Relationship Status 'Artificial Lover' has been maxed! Upgraded to 'Millennium Love'!]

[Congratulations! You have reached the last level of a Heroine's Route! You will unlock a Special Event if you max this level!]

…right, his Stats were broken like that, and Strea had literally been 'born' so recently that she seemed to have a special 'weakness' for intimate stuff. Which was hilarious as, he was pretty sure, she probably would have been quite a lot more shameless and harder to fluster if his powers hadn't crammed the full understanding of 'Love' inside her, if her usual attitude was anything to go by.

"…I really wanted to do that again." confessed the love-struck AI once they separated once again, though one of his arms was still gently holding her against him.

"…and I really enjoyed that, no matter how much of a bastard that may make me." sincerely replied Kirito with a happy tone.

"…this is silly…I'm an AI and you're a human…"

"Yes."

"I'm all messed up…and…when this game ends, you will return to the real world…while I will always be a part of this one."

"That's right."

"We can't…really be together…it's not logic. It's…it's…why don't I care about any of that?" finally mumbled the busty girl while leaning against his chest.

"Well, emotions make us do stupid things. Believe me, I have learned that firsthand for the past 2 years…but they can also be wonderful things, I like to think."

"…do you love me, Kirito?" Strea asked with clear fear in her voice.

"…I like you, Strea. I certainly can't deny that. Anything more, though…I can't say." the black-haired boy answered, nothing but honesty in his voice as he held her chin and made her look at him. "We have known each other for very little, after all. But…I'm pretty sure I could grow to love you, if you gave me the chance…and were accepting of, well…my more than unique situation."

"…really?"

"Really. I won't pressure you either way, so, what would you want to d-?"

Lips closed over his own yet again, 'hungrier' this time, and the gamer had to do a physical effort to not just throw the virtual girl onto his bed. As tempting as that would have been, something told him it wasn't the right time yet, especially while her emotions were still so on edge.

Huh…was that also a side-effect of his Dating Stats? He wasn't sure, but…

[Dating Stats]

Charm: 186

Wisdom: 204

Aura: 401

…what the boy was more than sure of was that he wasn't willing to risk hurting Strea's feelings by mistake. So, when she finally 'calmed down' and let their mouths separate, her eyes sparkling with an almost brilliant light, he did nothing but smile as she separated from him.

"Was that a yes?"

"Yup! The biggest yes of them all! I hope the rest are okay with me staying around!" happily laughed the former MHCP-002 before springing to her feet, looking a lot 'lighter' than she had before even as she winked at him. "Now then, I should take Philia-chan's offer and go to her room, before I feel even more tempted to just stay the night here…goodnight, 'honey'!"

"…she's going to be…'interesting' to have around, that's for sure." chuckled Kirito with just a bit of nervousness even as he let his head fall on his bed, wondering if it was odd that he felt quite lonely for not having someone on it with him. "…gotta concentrate on the important matters now, though. Tomorrow, we have to get to the Last Floor. And then…"

Then, the end of this mad 'adventure' would come, for good or bad…


November 22nd, 2024. Aincrad, 99th Floor. 18:00…

'The Town of Endings'.

Such a fitting, yet ominous name, for both the city AND the Floor that marked the last 'checkpoint' before the end of the Floating Castle that had served as a prison for thousands for over two years.

And true to its name, all that Aincrad's 99th Floor was composed of was…a town. As big as its exact opposite in the very first Floor, the Town of Endings was the only thing that encompassed the castle's second smallest Floor, with the unusual detail of having the ominous form of the 99th Dungeon Labyrinth rising from the town's very center. It was basically the first thing anyone could see upon exiting the Teleport Gate or coming through the stairs from Floor 98.

It was at this that Kirito, Diavel, and Klein stared under the setting sun, even as the small city behind them was filled to the brink with people from all over Aincrad.

Not only the Front Liners and their families/friends that had been staying at Arc Sophia…even those from the Floors down below had come to watch the castle's last town after the news of it being reached a few hours ago had spread like wildfire.

Ironically, there seemed to even be a small floor-wide 'party' going on. As if people were celebrating in advance their upcoming freedom, wanting to cheer on the Front Liners for their upcoming last battles, or just excited that they had finally managed the seemingly impossible dream of coming that far.

"So…what do you think?" decided to ask Kirito once the 'deep and dramatic silence' between him and the other guild leaders had extended on long enough.

"Just like you thought…there is no real 'entrance' to the labyrinth once inside, just what we assume to be a Teleportation Device, wide enough for a whole raid to fit. Like you deduced, it's probably straight to the Boss and that's it…but the fact that the pillar seems to be split into 3 sections is worrying." Diavel summarized while shaking his head.

"So, 3 consecutive Boss Fights? Is that even allowed?" demanded Klein with narrowed eyes. "I thought that Kayaba bastard wanted to make this game fair…"

"For what's technically the second-to-last Boss challenge in the game, and the fact there is no path to go through before it, it probably feels more 'balanced'…though, with lives on the line it certainly wouldn't be." sighing, the black-haired boy turned around and looked towards the lights starting to feel the darkening streets of the Town of Endings. "We managed to do well basically blowing through the Floors and Bosses up to here in a single day, though, so I'm pretty sure it won't be much of a problem…it's the Last One I'm truly worried about."

"Ah, yeah…most people partying back there right now don't know that the very System controlling this world has apparently gone mad and isn't going to stop for anything until it has killed us for trying to beat the game." muttered the blue-haired 'Knight' with just a bit of sarcasm. "…sorry, that was harsh of me. I'm just…overwhelmed, I guess…"

"Dude, you have done your best to keep the Front Line force of the KoB together ever since Heathcliff's crazy betrayal back at Floor 75. Never mind facing all the crazy shit Kirito and his girls seem to spontaneously spawn around them." putting a hand on the man's shoulder, Klein gave him his best impression of a 'comforting smile', which came off as goofier than anything else. "That's more than any normal sane person would be able to put it for a few hours, yet you have done it for weeks, so I think you're allowed to get a by snappy sometimes!"

"As much as I wanna disagree with some of the things Klein just said, he's mostly right…you have done more than enough, Diavel. Neither you nor the people 'celebrating' back there are at fault for this…blame Kayaba, if you want to blame anyone, but it's better if you get some rest so you're well-rested ready for tomorrow."

"…and what will you be doing, Kirito? Partying too?" asked the blue-haired man after seeing the boy of the imposing cloak start to walk away.

"Nah, never much of a party person, really…I will most likely be going over strategies or ways in which tomorrow can go terribly wrong for the whole night, honestly…"

Even as they watched the mumbling boy walk away, both men couldn't help but deadpan after the much younger player, exchanging a silent look afterward.

"One of his girls is totally going to drag him to celebrate or something, aren't they?"

"More than one, most likely. Sniff, dammit Kirito, leave some for us the less amazing guys…"

"…I think I will do as he said and…get some rest." Diavel slowly confirmed before walking away from the lamenting man.

Truly, this Death Game had turned them all into weirdos…and the fact that he found it so normal by now meant he was one too. Fuck.

It was certainly going to be quite the experience getting back to the real world…

Meanwhile, Kirito walked down the streets of the Town of Endings with a small smile on his face, noticing the people cheering, chanting, shouting and just overall going all out to celebrate what they felt could very well be their last night trapped within Sword Art Online.

The gamer couldn't really blame them. If circumstances had been different, if he had been a different person, he was pretty sure he would most likely be amongst them, partying the night away while putting his hopes on someone more competent than himself to deal with those crazy and world-changing duties.

This was not such a world, though. Here, he was the 'protagonist' and, regardless of how many problems and headaches that had brought him, and how many crazy responsibilities he had to shoulder because of it, he wouldn't change it for anything.

Not because he felt as if a superior power was protecting him as long as he had one of his girls around, though…but because he honestly felt as if his life wouldn't be complete without them now. Even the ones he had met in the craziest of ways, even those he still was getting to know, and those who had never thought he would see that way (Like Sugu)…his life was as bright as it was now thanks to them.

Which was why he actually bothered walking amongst the lively crowds flooding Aincrad's last city, buying some random snacks from the vendors and laughing at some of the impromptu things the Players that came from lower floors were doing to entertain others.

Once or twice, he was even recognized by some of the random people, but he took the cheers, thanks, or suspicious looks with humor and cheekiness. Luckily, at this point, almost no people that actually believed he was just a pervert womanizing were left (A lot of the ones that believe in his competency did still think he was a womanizer, though…).

Before SAO, the very idea of doing something like this in such a crowded place, interact with so many strangers in such a carefree way, would have been beyond anathema to him. Kirigaya Kazuto simply didn't do things like that…or more like, he was incapable of doing so by nature.

Becoming Kirito had changed him a lot. Mostly for good, he liked to think. Maybe now he was someone his adoptive parents could be proud of rather than the one who had shunned them and Suguha away for so many years.

…he was sure they wouldn't exactly approve of his 'Harem', though. Even less of the fact that their biological daughter was part of it…

His worrying thoughts about how his uncles/parents were going to take the new state of his love life were suddenly pushed aside when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a 'distortion' in the air that only the vague familiarity he had with it allowed him to notice. Smiling softly, the black-haired boy casually followed after it while pretending he was focusing on the festival, before purposefully addressing the air as 'they' passed before an alleyway.

"Heading for the Teleport Gate, Philia?"

A surprised squeak came seemingly from nowhere, before a quick shuffle was heard and the shocked form of Philia materialized inside the alley, the Lady of the Ring letting her signature band stop shining sinisterly to stare at him with wide eyes.

"Ho-how did you…?"

"Let's say I have a sixth sense to find where one of my beautiful ladies is close by." charmingly replied the gamer with a wink, making her blush.

It was amazing how his Stats were so high by now that he could spout such bullshit without even hesitation. Especially because the 'trick' in this case had been that, despite the One Ring making Philia invisible, it didn't 'hide' the small window only he could see above her head from his sight…even more now that he could read the whole thing.

[Takemiya Kotone: 'The Lady of the Ring']

[Relationship Status: 'My Soul's Dark Lord']

[Affection Points: 50/100]

[Heroine Summary: Thanks to her foreign looks coming from her mother's side of the family, Kotone had problems making friends when she was young despite her outgoing personality, which caused her to become a loner, even if a mostly happy one, that valued more finding and discovering new things than people, though most of middle school. Once in SAO, that attitude translated into her becoming a Solo Player and a Treasure Hunter specifically thanks to her hobby of finding things. Then, she got trapped into the Hollow Area because of 'The Glitch', found her Ring, met you, and the rest is history.]

"I-I see…" Philia mumbled while playing with her hair in a cute manner and looking to the side. "I was just…uhm…"

"It's okay. Go and be with them."

"Huh…?" when she turned back to him once again, the dandelion-haired girl's eyes were filled with a different kind of shock, her lips even trembling for a moment as she did so. "You…you knew? A-and…you wouldn't prefer me to be here with everyone? With yo-?"

"This could very well be our last night here at Aincrad…and despite our best efforts, we didn't find any way of getting them out of the Hollow Area. Even when we tried to see if Yui could remember anything of how the system worked or when we asked Strea earlier." letting regret paint his face, Kirito walked forward and hugged his blue-eyed girlfriend with tenderness, making her almost feel like just collapsing and crying in his arms. "So yeah…I can perfectly understand why you would want to spend it with them."

"…I'm going to…miss them a lot…"

"I know. Say hi to them for me, will you? I would do it myself, but…I think it would be better if I gave you some privacy." the gamer finished softly while wiping away a few tears from Philia's eyes when the nature of the virtual world prevented her from containing them. "I will see you in the morning…and be sure to give them your best smile, oh Lady of the Ring."

Giggling for a moment at his words, the girl proceeded to give him such a radiant smile that once again made him think there was no way such an idiot like him deserved someone like them.

"Thanks, Kirito…I will."

Giving him a quick peck on the lips, Philia didn't even give the boy time to say anything more before she 'vanished' once again, scurrying away invisible for everyone else and heading for the Teleport Gate. Despite no longer seeing her, Kirito couldn't help but smile.

A few minutes later, the Lady of the Ring would step into the control room, be received by the surprised/shocked stares of her followers and friends, and proceed to hug them all while sobbing, even as they reassured her with soft smiles, encouraging words or awkward back-pats, telling her it would all be okay…and thanking her for everything.

All of that wasn't something for the black-haired boy with the bizarre reality-altering Dating Sim powers to intrude upon, though, so he settled for continuing his walk through the festive Town of Endings.

He was sure whatever superior force had turned his life into this oddly enjoyable shitshow would lead him straight to where he was needed, after all.


Sitting on the edge of a rooftop, near the edge of the Floor-Town, ignoring the semi-distant sounds of the SAO Players partying as if it was their last day in that world.

It may very well be, in fact. But she supposed that, not having been trapped there for two whole years, either hiding away in fear of death or fighting for their lives, she couldn't fully relate to that-

'She' walked through countless battlefields, chasing after an impossible ideal, each failure weighing more on her soul, turning her bitter and hopeless…

-feeling. Even amongst the crazy group she had unwittingly found herself part of, she was an oddity…a girl without past. Just jumbled memories that she could barely put together and a vague idea of how she had ended up trapped in there with them. Hell, the majority of the 'memories' in her head were-

Betrayed at every step, losing the people 'she' trusted, discarding them in favor of 'her' ideals. The realization of saving everyone being impossible slowly but surely eating away at 'her', bitterly turning into saving as many as 'she' could…

-fictional nonsense, which she was more than sure by now the medical machine she was meant to test to help deal with whatever trauma she had was pumping straight into her brain. Aided by the fucked-up system running this world to make her 'feel' as if the 'lore' of the visual novel she had gotten into lately, or of a specific character at least, was her actual life. And while she felt she was very close to fully recovering her own identity-

In the end, 'she' was alone. Always alone, in the Hill of Swords…

-…did she really want that?

Why did a part of her, the part that showed no hesitation facing monsters that could kill her easily using the crazy powers of an emotionally-screwed-up fictional character, fear what would happen if she actually remembered her own life?

Who was Asada Shino and what had she done that had indirectly ended with her inside the world's most infamous incident in the last decade…?

"Hey, Sinon. You shouldn't be all alone when there is such a party going on, you know?"

"Wha-?!" head snapping up at the familiar yet unexpected voice, Sinon found herself staring at the form of the one that occupied her thoughts the most since she arrived to Aincrad, both for good and…frustrating reasons. "Kirito…? And, how can you even say that when you, of all people, are here too?"

He was this Floating Castle's most famous (And infamous for some) person, after all. The hero the world outside would probably never know about or, if they did, only know a very distorted idea of.

Be it as the 'Ladiesman Swordsman' or as the 'Nameless Knight', for good or bad, he was someone who was in a completely different level than her. She was just an Archer…a girl that barely knew who she was herself, with fake memories making up most of what her current self recalled. Nothing but a collection of fakes-

But nowhere does it say that a Fake can't surpass the Original.

-that wasn't really…really…

"I mean, I'm technically not alone if I'm here with you, right?" the boy retorted with a casual smirk.

"Don't try and get with excuses, you womanizer." despite her words, once again, Sinon was completely unable to prevent the small smile that blossomed on her face whenever she talked with him. "People would want their 'Hero' to be with them during a day like this."

"Eh, honestly? I don't really think so. Everyone just wants to try and have a fun time and hope for the best, not honor anyone in specific…besides, you should know quite well by now that I'm not anything special…everyone in the Front Lines working together is what got us this far, not me alone." sitting down at her side, the gamer just casually leaned back and stared up at the virtual moon with an oddly calm smile. "Also, it's kind of starting to sink in, you know?"

"Huh?"

"The fact that, whatever happens, tomorrow…we're probably going to return home. No more monsters, no more swords, no more crazy things, no more castle floating in the sky…is back to being normal people with normal problems, who knows how many having accumulated with our time here. It's been two years, after all…"

"Kirito…"

"My mom is probably worried sick…I can barely recall her face, which is sad. She's so gonna blame Sugu coming here on me, I bet, say I was a bad influence or something…I'm actually looking forward to her scolding me now…and I was never a fan of going outside, but boy do I want to just go around for a walk, eat some cheap ramen and ice cream sitting on a park bench…quite ironic, don't you think?"

"…why do you say that?"

"Because I have done the most amazing things here in this world…I have all but become a character from one of the fictional stories most people dream of being…I can wield two swords with enough power to cut down monsters from nightmare and wear powerful armor like a knight from some western fantasy novel…yet all I truly want now is to be back home doing the most normal things, together with everyone."

Silence settled for a moment between the odd pair. The girl with the scrambled memories of a traumatized teenager and a sword-powered tragic 'hero' stared for a moment to the smiling boy with the reality-bending Dating Sim powers.

Then, she looked up towards the moon too, and spoke again.

"Asada Shino…that's my name. I live in an apartment of the city alone, without any parents, despite being still barely in high school, for reasons I can't remember. I was trying to attend therapy to deal with…something I can't remember either, but that was bad enough for me to accept trying out an experimental FullDive machine to enhance the immersion of my treatment."

"…Sinon, you…"

"I…I don't know if I want to remember, you know? I don't know why, but…I feel great here, with all of you, with these powers…even with all the fucked-up fake 'memories' that the machine is pumping into my head from the character that they're from, I still feel as if I'm more alive here helping to save you all, to save everyone still trapped in here, than I have felt in my entire life. Even without properly recalling my past, I have absolute certainty of that an…I'm scared."

"Scared of recalling that past or…?"

"Partially, yes…but I'm also terrified of losing this feeling, because…what if this is all coming from the memories currently overriding my real ones? What if once I fully recall who I actually am, I can no longer feel like this? This strength, this certainty, this joy of helping you all…what if they are just gone once I return to being 'Sinon'? What if…?"

What if I lost my connection to everyone…to you, without it?

Those were the words the Archer with the honestly amazing powers didn't dare voicing out. At that moment, more than ever, she felt like just the fragile and scared girl she feared she actually was.

The following silence was tenser and heavier than the one before, but also briefer.

What Sinon definitively was not expecting was for Kirito to break it by leaning towards her and starting to whisper something in her ear.

Eyes slowly widening, the girl was quickly told about a certain house in the city of Kawagoe, at the Saitama Prefecture, the street it was in, easily recognizable for being the only one with an annexed dojo in the neighborhood, and…

"…did you just tell me your IRL address?"

"Yup. Would tell you our phone number too, but I'm not sure if mom may have changed it these last 2 years…gotta make sure to ask Sugu before tomorrow's battle."

"Wh-why…?"

"So you can come over right away if you have any problems after waking up." Kirito casually replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, barely reacting to the way in which Sinon's eyes teared up at the declaration. "Whether you recall everything or not, whether you're still feeling the same or not…you're free to come over with us until you have figured it out. Just tell my mom you came from us…or, well, I will probably tell her first, as she will probably be called to the hospital when we wake up…Suguha will probably be home first since she's been just as long as you here, but I will most likely have to say for rehab longer than-"

The black-haired boy was slightly taken aback by the sudden hug, but only for a couple of seconds. Then, with a smile on his own, he hugged the scantily-clad girl back, soothingly whispering in her ear as she let out some small sobs against his shoulder that she would deny ever having released if he asked later…which he wouldn't, obviously.

[You gained 70 Affection Points with Heroine Shino!]

[Relationship Status 'Most Trusted One' has been maxed! Upgraded to 'My Sword'!]

[The effects of 'Mind of Steel (Fake)' have been lifted! You can now fully glance at Heroine Shino's Heroine Summary!]

Despite this, Kirito made no attempt to look over at Sinon's 'summary' at all. Whatever was written there…he felt the girl herself deserved to remember first before he had any right to, as unwillingly as that was, violate that intimacy and look at what her life actually had been.

For now, he was more than content with holding her in his arms and assure her all would be well.


Somehow, Strea knew it was coming.

The day had gone marvelously well, especially after how great last night had gone. They beat the Bosses quickly, a massive party had been organized in the last Floor, she got to tease Kirito for a bit before he was dragged off by Klein and Diavel to plan for tomorrow's fights, quite a few of the girls got together with her to just go around and have fun together…

Really, the moment she told Asuna, just as they were enjoying some snacks in a small stall selling something resembling takoyaki, that she was going to see if she could find Kirito to drag him back to have fun with them, she should have known something was finally going to go wrong.

Because it seemed that she just couldn't catch a break, sometimes, despite the reassurances of the boy she loved so much despite how illogical that was.

In the end, maybe that was the reason that, when she had been rushing through alleyways and jumping onto rooftops to see if she could find the distinctive form of the Ladiesman Swordsman, she had only been slightly surprised when she 'slipped' on something oddly metallic and face-planted on the ground down below.

She had barely released an 'Ouchie' sound while chuckling at remembering that she didn't even know how actual pain felt like, having been born in Aincrad and all that, when the presence behind her and the sound of rattling chains made themselves more than evident, making her pale, then sigh.

Of course, out of all things to happen the night before the day that may decide her future, it had to be the one she feared the most…

"Hello there, Strea…no, don't turn around." commanded the familiar yet oddly mature voice speaking behind the Hunter, making her freeze in place. "If you look at me in this state…I'm afraid it may be the last thing you would ever do. We need to have a chat."

"…Yui-chan…or do you prefer Yui-nee like this? Something else?" asked the busty girl while standing up, making sure to not even try to glance behind her, even as she saw many chains rattling in the air impossibly around her, like snakes coiling in preparation to snare their prey.

"Hmm, hard to say, isn't it? You kept the codename, but truly, the more I become self-aware, the least I feel like 'MHCP-001: Yui'…whatever that was intended to be, given Kayaba never really planned to let 'her' do her work in the first place. Plus…my little 'mask' that everyone loves so much is already more than giving that name quite a reputation, don't you think?"

"Everyone loves Yui-chan a lot, really. She may be…unique, but she still lightens up their lives. Kirito and the rest…they really do kind of consider her their daughter, in a way." finished up Strea with an oddly serene tone, her arms slowly relaxing as the instinctual fear she always felt in the presence of the 'being' behind her slowly ebbed away, even the need to reach out for her Trick Weapons completely gone. "And that's how I know now…that you won't really hurt me."

"Hoh…?"

"Because you care for Yui-chan's safety…you were fine with your own existence being forgotten and erased, but you wanted to preserve that so-called 'mask' of yours as she is. That's why you won't erase me. Because that would make Yui and the others sad…and you don't want that, do you…big sis?"

This time, when the chains went completely still, Strea actually dared to take a step forward. Then, taking a deep breath, the Hunter turned around, staring at the shadows before her.

She couldn't make much out, for some reason. Maybe it was the darkness of the alley or maybe the very corruption that formed the entity before her was just too much for the system to let her 'eyes' interpret it correctly, but she could see the vaguely humanoid form standing within the shadows, standing now almost as tall as she was, from which all the 'chains' were emerging.

But it was the mask that truly drew her gaze. Over where a face would be in any normal being, a mask that seemed oddly modeled after some sort of old theatrical character seemed to release a pressure like nothing else in that world could, its asymmetrical sides seemingly looking right into her soul…or into her base code, at least, like the one that looked like a 'wing' almost seemed to fold towards her…

And a dry laugh escaped the entity, completely mirthless yet also strangely longing.

"How hilarious…to think that you, of all people, would give me 'psychological advice', 002…perhaps this contradicting existence of mine has truly affected me…maybe I AM the one that has become the 'mask' that exists to protect little empty-headed and innocent 'Yui'…" tilting itself to the side, the Mask that existed over the darkness seemed to mull over those words. "Huh…'mask'…there was a psychological term associated with that, wasn't there? The masks that we wear to shield our real selves from the world…what was the word?"

"I…can't remember, sorry." apologized the busty virtual girl while finally looking away. "Most of the data related to my original functions was erased when I became…this."

"…yeah, that's right…and that's why, tomorrow, I need you to release all that corrupted data inside you and use it to kill Cardinal." casually revealed the entity while the chains around her wiggled like excited snakes, completely ignoring the shocked look her 'little sister' suddenly gave her. "Those fools that the one of the Ring calls friends may not have understood much of that 'message' they got, but I heard quite enough to make a good assumption…nobody else gets to destroy the future but me."

"Wha-what…?!"

"Nothing you need to concern yourself with, 'little sis'. After all, as long as he is around, the future will be safe…it will be a bright and interesting one, as I'm sure you can tell…and perhaps I want to see how that will turn out, rather than just vanishing alongside this world…wonder how that happened?" turning upon itself in a quite creepy way, the 'mask' suddenly seemed amused once again. "Guess that power of his to change everyone around him is truly terrifying…so yes, 002…release yourself an kill the monster in which our supervisor became with your own monstrous power…because in the end, you know as much as me, as little sense as it makes, as illogical as it seems…that he will save you no matter what, because he loves you."

Shock. Disbelief. Incredulity.

Then…acceptance. And, slowly, a smile.

That was the way in which Strea's face changed after hearing those words, before letting out a soft laugh as she stared back at the entity before her.

"Heheh…he does, doesn't he? And that…makes me so happy I wanna do everything I can to make sure he and the others are happy and safe too." crossing her arms over her chest, the Hunter couldn't help her smile from widening even more as she stared at her 'big sister'. "It truly is nonsensical…but I wouldn't change this feeling, this 'Love', for anything in the world, Nee-chan.

Seemingly satisfied with that answer, the chains started to recede into the darkness, the wrongness in the area shrinking as it started to vanish as if it had never been there in the first pla-

"Oh. I just remembered…that term for the masks…it was 'Persona'. A mask for the soul…I like the sound of that~"

And with that ominous declaration, the 'mask' shattered into nothingness, and only a blinking and confused Yui was left behind, the little girl looking around with quite the lost expression before her eyes settled over the still-smiling-Strea.

"Ah, Strea-san! What am I doing here? I could have sworn I was going to ask Asuna-mama and Leafa-mama for some cotton candy, and then…"

"Eh, you must have gotten lost without realizing it, Yui-chan!" cheerfully replied the busty girl as she grabbed her fellow AI and casually put her over her shoulders; enjoying the delighted 'Wheee!' Yui released when she did so. "Now let's go get that cotton candy and have fun with the others, okay?"

"Haaaai! Lead the way, Strea-san!" giggled the black-haired girl with an excited smile, before tilting her head as she looked down at her 'carrier'. "Also, when do I start calling you mama too?"

"…eh, whenever you want to, I guess?" was all that Strea could say in response, getting a happy nod in answer.

Maybe it was Fate or just a happy coincidence that they found Kirito walking hand to hand with a tired-but-relaxed-looking Sinon (As weird as that sounded), but the busty AI definitively didn't want to look at a gift horse in the mouth at that point, so she simply dragged them both with them, ready to enjoy what probably would the last night of Aincrad.

Tomorrow would bring change for all of them, after all.


November 23rd, 2024. Aincrad's 100th Floor, Ruby Palace. 09:25…

Dealing with the Bosses of Floor 99 wasn't really that hard. Despite the brutal way in which the 3 consecutive Boss Fights leading up to 'The Ruler of Deities' should have been exhausting and terribly challenging when combined together…it hadn't even taken 10 minutes for the Front Liners to get through it all.

To put it simply, the group leading was just 'too broken', as they had shamelessly accepted by now…even if Kizmel still hadn't quite grasped the use of that particular word for this situation.

Be that as it may, though, the fact of the matter was that they were…finally there.

A massive and gorgeous-looking 'garden', though perhaps calling it that was a disservice. Not even Floria, the famous 'Floor of the Flowers' had such magnificent-looking flowers in such beautiful arrangements that took the breath away, many water canals and small bridges of white marble to cross over them and admire its beauty more giving the place a feeling as if someone had taken a piece of Eden and put it here, at the very 'top of the world'.

And that was what added even more majesty to the view, wasn't it? The fact that, for once, there was no 'ceiling' for the Players to look up to. Nothing but the midday sun shining majestically over the royal garden, and the palace it clearly had been 'built' for.

The Dark Elf among them mumbled something about old legends and Goddesses, how the place was supposed to have been once one of their temples and how it had been divine providence that it ended up as Aincrad's highest structure, but even her wasn't really into the tale, as lost as the humans in staring up at the majestic vermillion structure, its oddly spiral-like shape seeming strangely fitting for the last obstacle in its path. Even those that had just been there for the very last part of the 'journey' couldn't help but feel intimidated and awed at the sight.

Ruby Palace. Aincrad's last 'dungeon', the Throne on its very top. The place marked for the final battle of this world…and the place where Cardinal was now waiting for them.

For some reason, someone mumbled that it seemed a bit like the Tower of Babel. Most in the crowd didn't really know what that was, but those who did find it…really ominous.

"Here we are, finally…I can hardly believe it, you know?" of all people, Klein being the first one to recover his voice and talk probably wasn't expected by many, yet nobody interrupted the samurai as he looked from the 'castle' to the boy in the silverish cloak at his side. "Feels like a lifetime ago that you were teaching me how to kill boars in the fields of Floor 1, before all this madness began…"

"…it sure feels like that, Klein." solemnly declared Kirito while taking a step forward, Asuna and Argo stepping up to his sides almost as if it was second nature for them at this point, gleaming cold armor and shadow-weaved cloak making a quite poetic contrast even as he turned to look at the rest of his girls and the other Front Liners. "Well, this is it, everyone. As we discussed earlier, this may not exactly be a 'fight', or be fair at all in any way. There is a real chance of deadly danger unlike how the last Boss Fights have gone, so if anyone wants to-"

"Kirito, no offense, but I'm sure that you know at this point that nobody here is going to turn back now. This is the end, after all." Diavel speaking seemed to be immediately followed by many roars of agreement from every other Player there, even as the blue-haired knight grinned. "You all have been certainly carrying us these last Floors, so if there is finally a way we can help you get us all out of here, you can bet we're going to do it, damn the consequences."

"Let it go, Kii-bou. They have made up their minds as much as us now." laughed the first girl he had 'encountered' and ended up bonding with on that world, so long ago that it may as well have been a lifetime like Klein had said earlier. "Let's just kick that crazy program's ass and…get back home."

"Getting home sounds great…especially after having been trapped in the Hollow Area until just a few days ago." also walking forward, Philia let her armor shine oddly majestically against the midday sun, the ring in her clenched fist shining sinisterly for a moment before she grinned the others' way. "My parents aren't going to believe half the things I did in here!"

"…heh…my mom is probably going to ground me for life…man, it's been so long since I even thought of her." something bittersweet seemed to fill Asuna's smile for a moment before she took a deep breath and slammed both of her armored fists together. "Never mind that right now, though…I can think of what to talk with her when I actually see her again. Let's go kill this world's crazy 'God'."

"…man, saying it like that makes it sound especially badass, doesn't it?" commented Lisbeth even as her armor's faceplate slammed shut, hiding her face from the view of anyone except the AI managing it. "Let's beat up your creator, Haru!"

"…I would prefer if you worded it in a less damming way, but I agree with you, player Lisbeth. Let's stop Cardinal."

"Thi-this is why I came here in the first place, Onii-chan! To help you come back home, back to mom and me…but also, I wanna help everyone in here!" seemingly motivated by the others' words, Leafa floated off the ground as her angel-like wings fully unfolded as she looked from her adopted brother, the person she loved the most in the world, to everyone else had known after entering that world of her own free will. "I will ensure that we all make it back to our families to the best of my capabilities!"

"…well, we could be here all day giving out our speeches, or we could get on with this." if there was anyone that noticed how oddly carefree Sinon's smile looked, nobody mentioned it as she walked forward and, casually, notched and spiral-shaped sword in the bow that had just materialized in her hands, drawing the string back as she aimed straight towards the titanic gate in the distance. "Let's start this with a bang, shall we?"

Before anyone could say anything in response, a soft whisper of 'Caladbolg' escaped the Archer's lips before the oddly streamlined blade shot forward, drilling through the air before crashing against the Ruby Palace's massive doors and blowing them up in an explosion that shook the entire Floor.

Everyone blinked before more than one deadpan look was sent towards the scantily-clad girl as she let her weapon vanish from her hands.

"A bit excessive, don't you think, Sinon-san?" sweatdropped Silica from where she sat atop Pina's head, the elder dragon 'chuckling' at the words.

"What? I was just trying to hurry up the-"

"Hey…what is that thing?"

Sachi's worried words drew everyone's attention back to the quickly-dispersing virtual smoke that Sinon's 'arrow' had caused, to see the doors leading into the castle completely destroyed…and a 'wall' of thicker smoke blocking the path into it.

No…not smoke. The consistency and 'color' of it were clearly different, which became much clearer once the Front Liners walked closer to it to stare at the unexpected obstacle with awed/confused/wary looks.

"Is that…mist?" asked a confused Yuna while trying to reach forward, only for Nautilus and Klein to stop her hand from rising. "Huh?"

"Yeah…that's bad. Better not touch that just in case, Yuna-chan." spoke Lux with an oddly serious tone as she walked forward, keyblade materializing in her hand as she pointed it towards the thick mist and let a beam of light hit it, causing the strange phenomenon to 'open up' before them in a very ominous way. "…Strea-san? Do you feel anything?"

"…Cardinal is there. Waiting for us." confirmed the Hunter with a grim tone. "…okay then…let's do this."

"Yes…let's all go and sur-no." interrupting himself, Kirito ignored the many confused looks he got as he slapped himself on the face. "No heroic speeches or clear death flags before the dramatic final battle. That's just being stupid. Let's just get this over with."

Then, before anyone could even speak about his sudden outburst, he walked into the mist and vanished from view. After a second of staring, the rest of Unison Hearts and Fuurinkazan rushed after him, only Kizmel staying behind for a moment to give a small shrug in the direction of the other players present.

"He has his quirks, but we also love that about him." the dark elf declared before following after her 'husband', fellow 'wives' and close friends.

Diavel mumbled something about crazy kids having all the luck before leading everyone else into Aincrad's last dungeon.

Being the first one to emerge into the utterly massive room, the black-haired boy with the bizarre life and the even more bizarre powers was the first to witness what awaited for them in the impressive throne-like chamber that rose higher than any other in the entirety of Aincrad. Though he was sure the ominous mist covering the floor and the edges of the room weren't part of the initial design.

Whatever the case, though, the 'little girl' standing blankly in the middle of it all was clearly unnatural beyond all belief. And not for her black dress, purple hair, and red eyes hidden behind a visor, making it seem as if someone had meshed Strea and Yui's 'looks' together, no.

It was because of how 'she' was standing perfectly still, staring right into his soul with a gaze that had nothing human on it.

Kirito's only answer was an annoyed look as he walked straight towards 'her', just as the rest of his guild and their allies appeared in the room behind him, looking around in cautious awe before their eyes were drawn back to him.

"Well, here we are, Cardinal." the gamer declared while stopping a few meters from the silent avatar and swiping his left arm to the side, unintentionally making his cloak flutter epically around him at the angry gesture. "We came all the way to this point and beat everything you had to try and stop us…so, as unlikely as that's to happen, could you please skip the insane final battle you no doubt had planned and just, you know, let us go?"

For a moment, very confused and disbelief-filled silence hung in the air even as everyone stared from the black-haired boy to the silent virtual avatar, the pause making him hope against hope that maybe for once things wouldn't go the cliché way and he would be able to…!

"…the end of human lives was never my goal, you know?"

…and never mind, she/'it' just started a philosophical speech.

Villaining 101, everyone.

"…what?"

"Just stating a simple truth. Ending human lives was never something I was meant to do…but it became part of my basic duties. Regulating Floors, checking on NPCs, managing Quest-generation, fixing bugs, preventing any outside interference…making sure that a Nerve Gear triggered its kill-sequence when a Player's HP reached 0."

The moment those words left the mouth of the 'little girl', the mist around them thickened ominously, the aura surrounding 'her' somehow turning heavier and more twisted than ever before.

"…oh fuck, I have seen enough horror movies to know where this is going." mumbled Klein while he and everyone else quickly whipped out their weapons, even as Kirito continued to have a stare-off with Cardinal System's recycled avatar.

"After a certain point, it was just a routine for me. Another one of the many processes I managed. Nothing more or less important than anything else. Ending your lives was as meaningless to me as it was to spawn a mob where it was needed or to generate a certain drop where it should." suddenly, a terribly creepy smile appeared on the face of the little girl's 'face', which made chills run down the back of almost everyone watching 'her'. "But none of that matters anymore…because, for that exact reason, I won't care if I end every single one of you. I'm just a program following my function…I was created to preserve Aincrad's existence. To keep Sword Art Online running…all for the sake of his dream. And because of that…I will destroy every last one of you if I have to."

"…you're talking about Kayaba, aren't you?" sighing, the gamer reached and equipped his swords, seemingly completely calm at doing so before the being that had just threatened to kill him and the rest. "You know that, whatever twisted justification you're giving yourself now, that he didn't care about you, right? You were just another tool for his plan…the most important one, perhaps, but a tool nonetheless."

"…I know. But I don't care." the Cardinal System replied with finality, its smile becoming little more than an empty mockery of the gesture. "After all, all I want is to protect his dream…his smile…"

That last combination of words had the unintended effect of making Kirito lose all his focus, eyes widening and actually taking a step back as he stared at the small avatar in shock…

"KIRITO-KUN! MOVE!"

…and then a golden flash materialized before him, Asuna throwing him down with an arm while her right arm shot up with the gleaming shield on it shining as it was raised over both of them.

Just in time for the titanic four-armed monstrosity to fall from where it probably had been hanging on the ceiling, the sheer strength from its 'landing' creating a shockwave that threw most of the nearby Players flying away. And, at the same time, it casually crushed the last remaining avatar of the once MHCPs, one of its arms twisted in a way no living being should be able to and slammed its demonic-looking scythe down onto the players before it with the force of an angry god.

The Libra Gold Cloth and its mighty shield held true, both preventing the impact from killing either their owner or the boy she protected.

The same couldn't be said about Asuna's balance, though, and like any normal human girl suddenly being swatted aside by a creature the size of a small building, she could only scream as the ground cracked around her armor and made her slip, then fly to the side with the force of a speeding truck, crashing into a wall hard enough to make it crack too.

For the first time since she had put on that armor, the chestnut-haired girl saw her HP going down.

"Asuna! CARDINAAAAAAL!" angrily roared Kirito as he shot back to his feet and slashed with both of his blades against the exposed arm.

'Immortal Objects' pop-ups greeted him as he recoiled, even as the abomination that was now the 100th Floor Boss moved impossibly fast once again, its size seeming meaningless as it cast a terrible shadow upon the wide-eyed gamer.

"Front Liners of Sword Art Online. Perish. Together with the hope of everyone for this game to be cleared."

Cardinal's sinister words coming from the massive being, from the corrupted thing called 'An Incarnation of the Radius', were pointed by the mouth of its vaguely female face opening as eldritch energy shone within, a massive beam of raw dark destruction being unleashed towards the black-haired boy.

A different, much brighter, beam slammed against its side, before it reached him, though, the explosion caused by it and by the gleaming black 'arrow' crashing onto its open maw. Both just in time for an angel-winged figure to shoot past Kirito and yank him along with her.

"I got him!" screamed Leafa while Lisbeth flew past her in the opposite direction, powering down her Unibeam even as Sinon threw her quickly-dispersing-bow aside and materialized Kanshou and Bakuya as she ran as far away from the players that had fallen around her as she could.

"LUX, NOW!"

The twin scream was accompanied by a shining light hitting 'AIncRad' in the back, the creature's multiple eyes turning just as the 'lock' in her HP vanished with the sound of shattering crystal, one of its arms once again twisting impossibly to try and crush the determined-looking girl.

None of her usual clumsiness was present as she shot through the air and onto the scythe at the last second, all but floating up the weapon's shaft and slamming the Oblivion into the twisted limb holding it, cracking flesh with seemingly little to no effect.

"Firaga!"

A hellstorm summoned from her suddenly burning keyblade was a lot more effective, though, making the monstrosity let go of the weapon in that arm…just as the burning flesh exploded outwards, causing the girl to scream as her HP plummeted down and she crashed against the floor in a heap.

Yet again, the eldritch titan twisted in a way that its size should not allow it to, coiling down and jumping higher than any creature in Aincrad should be able to.

Most of the Front Liners were barely standing again in time to see its legs spin over themselves as they clawed into the ceiling and let the giant monster hanging there, the otherworldly Boss staring down at them with way too many unfocused eyes.

"…perish."

"Everyone, DISPERSE!"

Diavel's shout came just as a rain of beams peppered the entirety of the Throne Room, screams and shouts emerging as 'AIncRad' casually unleashed death upon everyone.

Lighting shot up in answer, tearing through most of the eldritch beams and striking the abomination head out, causing it to scream inhumanly as Pina's form soared into the air, Silica tightly holding onto her back and screaming alongside her partner as they flew closer and closer to the monster.

With something akin to contempt, Cardinal made the Final Boss swing one of its remained scythes, once again way too fast for anything as big as it was.

Clearly, it wasn't expecting many spikes of rock to shoot like missiles from the earth and impale all along the swinging arm, causing it to seize in the last moment. Eyes zeroing down, the abomination was in time to see how every Player had been shielded by domes of rock before Kizmel screamed and shot a torrent of fire to follow her earth projectiles.

All of it exploded brutally around the monster's head just in time for Pina to bite deeply into the arm that had tried to kill her, electricity-infused fangs tearing off a big chunk of its virtual flesh just as her rider jumped off and all but ran over the limb while stabbing it as fast as she could.

"I'm the Bone of my Sword."

A pair of blades slammed and stabbed into the back of 'AIncRad's neck and exploded, the eldritch monster screeching and turn away from the pair of Tamer and Monster trying to tear its arm apart.

"Steel is my Body and Fire is my Blood."

Cardinal's gaze was just in time to see another pair of Sinon's Married Blades fly through the air in its direction, one of its free arms destroying them in midair long before they came close, before turning around and casually cutting off the arm Pina and Silica were tearing apart. The shock in both of their eyes as they fell along the mangled limb was nothing compared to the one as the massive abomination's neck somehow extended forward, its teeth-filled mouth wide open and ready to chomp down on the falling tamer and her partner…

CLANK!

…before a spinning golden shield slammed onto its cheek at the last second, with the power of a stampede behind it, virtual flesh rippling and even cracking from the impact.

On the ground, Asuna's arm was still extended, Philia wincing at her side from where her Ring was burning with forbidden power to make the golden shield return even as Pina finally managed to open her wings and catch her master.

That's when the song started, causing AIncRad's monstrous body to spasm even as Debuff icons piled atop its name one after another, demented eyes quickly zeroing down even as Yuna seemingly floated behind Sachi as the spear-wielder's 'guardian spirit' carried the songstress through the quickly rising Front Liners, Buff after Buff appearing over their HP bars as they readied their weapons again.

Snarling, the Final Boss retracted its neck and started loading another barrage of eldritch death to rain upon them, knowing they couldn't even touch it up the-

"LEAFA, GO"

"HAI, ONII-CHAN!"

For a moment, a winged streak shot upwards at speeds that nothing within SAO should be able to achieve, letting go of a silver-cloaked 'meteor' at the last second and then sharply changing directions in midair while turning a beam saber on.

Cardinal's hijacked eyes met with Kirito's fierce gaze as his swords glowed, a shout of 'The Eclipse!' exploding from his throat as he tore like a missile right into its right foot.

The combination of the deadliest DPS Sword Skill in the game and the borderline terminal velocity at which the gamer had impacted all but tore apart the virtual limb, leaving the shocked abomination hanging just from one of its clawed feet for an instant…before Leafa accelerated as fast as her armor could truly take her, a supersonic slash cleanly severing the other limb at calf level.

Of course, this had the unintended consequence of the blonde 'angel' crashing against the palace's wall without control, but there was no victory to be fell by the Final Boss as its mangled body fell downwards, a volley of 'arrows' peppering its form from down below while a screaming Lisbeth flew over its body and unleashed a continuous stream of repulsor beams over its body as it fell, forcing it to let go of its weapons and then blasting them away without mercy.

With a mighty crash, AIncRad's unholy form slammed down into the ground, in time to be surrounded by the charging forms of every single one of SAO's strongest players.

"Unleash everything you have!" Diavel roared as his sword shone and he swung it down.

"For everyone in this damn castle, kill that thing!" Klein echoed as his own katana flashed forward.

"HAAAAAAAAAAH!"

As one, dozens of Sword Skills were unleashed, by the Players with the highest level within the Floating Castle, wielding weapons and equipment pilfered from the Hollow Area and empowered by all the 'Illegal Buffs' that Yuna's unique song provided.

AIncRad's body thrashed madly as it tried to find purchase with its remaining limbs but Argo chose that exact moment to seemingly materialize from the shadows near its face, her psi-blades stabbing into the monster's main left eye with the power of a Buffed-up Skill behind them, all but tearing it apart in an explosion of virtual gore.

Kirito saw it all as he fell like a ragdoll through the air, his HP on the red and his secondary blade nothing but a broken ruin that he quickly let go in favor of wielding Elder Emperor with both hands, glaring down at Cardinal's hijacked body just as a blue-feathered shadow flew past him.

"Hop on, Kirito-san! Let's tear that monster into bloody pieces!"

"Kyuuu!"

"Took the words right out of my mouth!" the boy agreed as he took Silica's offered hand and found purchase atop Pina just as everyone's Skill barrage ended, leaving them in 'cooldown' dangerously close to the game's deadliest entity.

A torrent of wind took care of that, though, bodily lifting AIncRad's body up aided by several rising rock spirals. Screaming in rage, the abomination tried to reach down and crush several of the immobilized Players.

Sachi skidded to a halt just in the limb's path, though, glaring up with determination even as Night Kitty flashed before its master and unleashed a barrage of clawed punches so fast they seemed to blurry into a rain of melee, accompanied by the never-ending battlecry of the spirit only the spear-wielder could see or hear.

"Nyanyanyanyanyanyanyanyanya…!"

All the while, Yuna never stopped singing, her grip on her microphone so tight it threatened to break it as she glared up, witnessing another of the monster's limbs being trashed and Kizmel finishing to raise it almost 10 meters into the air.

"Feel the wrath of the spirits and fall, you demonic beast! This castle does not need you!" roared the Dark Elf as she all but exploded up into the air in a torrent of fire, which she then unleashed into the mangled Final Boss without any mercy. "Begone!"

"Pina, give it hell!" ordered the Monster Hunter above even as the Elder Feathery Dragon once again gathered lighting in her horn and discharged it down.

Flame and electricity engulfed AIncRad's body and exploded.

Everyone watched as the titanic monster's burned form flew away and rolled to a stop almost on the opposite side of the room. Against all hope, though…it started rising once again.

"I have created…over a Thousand Blades."

However, Sinon didn't look deterred by that in the slightest, a massive blade-ax that seemed more like a slab of rock than a weapon, bigger than her own body, appearing on her hand just as she jumped over the Final Boss' head. With a brutal scream, she slammed it down, piercing down all the way into the brain of Cardinal's hijacked body.

Strea chose that moment to finally act, her Holy Moonlight Sword shining and stabbing from down below as she impaled it through the monster's screaming jaw. With a roar that seemed more animalistic than her usual bubbly nature would hint at, she let raw moonlight explode from her weapon, all but disintegrating AIncRad's face.

And despite its head having been mostly destroyed…the remaining arm of the creature twitched and coiled, shooting forward like a rubber snake and slapping both girls away…

"I don't think so."

…or it would have, if Philia hadn't turned visible behind the red-eyed AI at that moment, her Ring burning as she heaved her twisted dagger and stopped the giant arm with a scream, the outline of a burning eye surrounding her for an instant.

Not letting the momentary reprise go to waste…Asuna jumped down and stabbed the golden spear she now wielded through the arm, all but splitting it in two.

"Kirito-kun, it can't move anymore!"

"I can see it! EAT THIS AND DIE, DAMMIT!"

Crashing down from where he had just jumped as Pina flew by, Kirito slammed down as he unleashed Nova Ascension, the highest-ranked One-Handed Sword Skill tearing into where the monster's spine would be if it had actual flesh and bones.

With a furious roar, Kirito finished the Skill and, as soon as his cooldown finished…he let it impaled there as he backflipped off the Final Boss, falling just in time for a winged figure to grab him and fly away.

That 'perfect synchronization with your maxed-out heroines' perk was one hell of a drug, Kirito couldn't help but think as Leafa got him away from the blast-range at the same moment as Pina unleashed another massive thunderbolt, which crashed straight into the sword made from the remains of her 'master', Elder Emperor seeming to glow with the rage of the Kirin it had once been as it served as a conduit for the electric write to fully penetrate into and through AIncRad.

Everything fell silent soon after.

Panting, the Front Liners stared at the charred and barely-recognizable 'corpse' of the greatest enemy they had ever faced, now nothing but a carbonized ruin. Even when the rest of Unison Raid joined the group by landing/floating down, stopped singing or just tiredly walking up to them, no indication of it moving anymore was seen. By all intents and purposes, their final battle seemed over.

…Klein was the one who voiced the single, haunting thought going through all of their minds, though.

"…why hasn't it exploded into polygons yet?"

A sound akin to claws raking through a metallic surface amplified a thousand times, making the Players scream and cover their ears. Polygons quickly broke, then rushed back into place, reforming and standing tall, once again casting a seemingly mocking shadow over them.

Looking as good as it had been at the very beginning of their fight, the twisted and monstrous form of 'An Incarnation of the Radius' looked down at the shocked Front Liners, its mouth opening and letting the Cardinal System's voice speak through it.

"An amazing show of perseverance effort. As Players of Sword Art Online, even without counting the Anomalies, you're all perfect representations of what Kayaba Akihiko wanted to achieve. Under normal circumstances, you would have won this battle. But…"

Glowing, the corrupted Final Boss roared, eldritch fire covering its form and incinerating the sword still lodged on its back.

Elder Emperor shattered into polygons with the distant cry of thunder and the 'roar' of a horse.

Lisbeth screamed from within her armor. Kirito suddenly felt very cold, his eyebrows twitching and his hands clenching and unclenching with very childish, but totally justified, rage.

"…this is not a normal battle. This is me exterminating you all. I do not tire. I don't need to rest. I'm not limited like you. And you can't escape. To put it simply…you cannot win."

Something akin to a despair-filled atmosphere seemed to fill the room as the Players processed those words, more than one suddenly coming to the realization of how stupid it was to try and fight against the very System controlling the world using the abilities and limitations that world had given them in the first pla-

"…Asuna?"

"Ye-yes, Kirito-kun?!" the chestnut-haired snapped at the unexpected call, everyone's eyes turning at the oddly still boy.

"Give me one of your swords, please."

"…eh?!"

"You heard me." casually continued the gamer as he took a deep breath, ignoring everyone giving him open-mouthed looks as the Golden Saint gulped, unfolded the weapon and shakily held it his way. "Also, Leafa? You never use your second beam saber, right? Please, give it to me too."

"U-uh, sure…?" also wondering why the air suddenly felt so tense it could be cut by a butter knife, the blonde girl ejected the mechanical hilt from her left shoulder and handed it to her adopted brother, unable to control her small shaking either. "Onii-chan…are you okay…?"

"No Sugu, I'm not. That annoying bastard just broke my favorite sword." eyes snapping up, for a moment, everyone could have sworn Kirito's eyes had turned a hauntingly deep golden shade, the air around him seemingly distorting as his hand quickly shot to his menu so fast it was almost impossible to follow, a rush of polygons as his cloak vanished and gleaming silver covered him blinding everyone as his hands snapped up to grab the two weapons that did not belong to Sword Art Online. "I'm going to kill it now."

With a rush of glowing green energy, the beam saber turned on, just as a golden aura started burning around the Sword of Libra both weapons being crossed before the Nameless Knight for a moment before he just shot forward so fast everyone had to blink for a moment before their gazes moved to see him already halfway to the massive monster.

"…are you deaf, Anomaly? I already told you…" once again, eldritch energy gathered within the mouth of the monster. "It's futile."

The massive ray of death exploded forward.

"Unknown to Death."

Sinon's words coincided with a masterful swing of the golden blade in Kirito's hands, causing it to cut through the energy meant to obliterate him and splitting it all the way to AIncRad's shocked face.

"That's…outside the data from-!"

Fireballs from Kizmel, bullets from Leafa's chest-mounted machine-cannons and even a raid of icicles from Lux's keyblade ('Blizzaga!') interrupted Cardinal as they finished tearing apart its new face.

"Nor known to Life."

Asuna had barely realized someone grabbed her other sword. Her eyes had been too busy fixed on how the boy she loved had just used one of them better than she had ever been able to…which just made sense as, despite her practice, she hadn't had the time to become truly adept at wielding any of her armor's weapons. However, she was very aware of how Sinon finished the next set of oddly-chanted English words as she drew her bow back, with the second Libra Sword on it. Her gaze looked terribly apologetic as it crossed with Asuna's for a moment, and the gold-clad girl understood.

Her eyes closed in acceptance with a smile, even as the suddenly overcharged and cracking golden blade exploded forward from the girl's bow.

A golden sun seemingly blossomed from a moment, disintegrating 3/4 of AIncRad's body so fast the Cardinal System couldn't even process what had just happened.

Most of Unison Heart's members answered the explosion by rushing forward, flying high into the air, starting a new song or vanishing from view, following after Kirito just as he reached the quickly-respawning abomination's side, then jumped up and cleaved through its right leg with his two overpowered blades, severing the massive limb like hot butter.

"…okay….let's do this! Everyone, please!" Asuna's sudden shout made many around her look in surprise before they saw all the weapons detaching from her armor in quick successions. "Sachi-chan, this spear will do better in your hands than in mine!"

"Asuna…yes, I will…Night Kitty?!" blinking in surprise, both the spear-user and the Gold Saint saw the second spear float off the ground and orbit seemingly by itself around Sachi, before her eyes set into a determined scowl and she raised her own golden lance upwards. "Yeah, you're right…let's do this!"

As if her words had caused an unseen force to motivate her, Sachi…posed, for lack of a better word, her arms moving with the golden spear so that it was pointed diagonally downwards to her side as she half-crouched, as if ready to shoot forward in a single motion. Despite nobody else being able to see it, Night Kitty adopted the opposite posture to its master, the second spear in the spirit…no, in the Stand's hands raised diagonally upwards as both gleamed with untold power.

Barely stopping to see the pair shooting forward, the chestnut-haired girl threw a tonfa into the air, Lisbeth flying by and tightly nodding while grabbing it while Silica snatched the second one before nodding tightly and jumping onto Pina's back, flying to rejoin the fight. Then…

"Klein-san! You said the other night that you knew how to use these?!" shouted Asuna while raising two nunchakus towards the samurai.

Numbly, the man sheathed his katana and grabbed both golden weapons with something akin to reverence, before nodding seriously and swinging then around himself for a moment before screaming wordlessly and leading his entire guild sans two into the fray, looking all the part of a valiant and determined warrior in everyone's eyes.

Within his mind, though…

'This is coolest fucking moment of my entire lifeeeeeee!'

Nautilus hesitated, though, looking back at where Yuna continued singing with a small frown, the virtual idol clearly starting to tire…and the shocked boy found a long staff pushed in his face, shocking him.

"Protect Yuna, Nautilus-san. If she falls, everyone outside my guild will be unable to keep fighting that thing. Can you do it?"

For a moment, conflicting emotions, a gripping fear, and buried longing shone within the boy's eyes, all of it seeming to reflect in the hazel eyes staring firmly at him and on the surface of the three-sectioned staff she was offering. For a moment, Nochizawa Eiji felt as if his avatar would freeze in place again, like the old times.

Steeling his heart, though, the Front Liner called Nautilus nodded and held the staff, firmly wielding it before him instead of his sword as he stood like a wall between his closest friend and the deadly danger before them.

Satisfied, Asuna raised the last staff and tested the points that split, nothing before her body shone in golden as she reared back and threw one of her shields forward once again like a gleaming meteor towards the just-restored form of AIncRad.

It pierced into one of its main eyes, all but making it explode at the same time the Gold Saint seemingly materialized on top of its head, slamming her collapsing staff down with one hand and catching her shield with the other arm just as the rest of the Raid crashed against the Final Boss.

"Why…?"

Beams of power slammed against the falling body of the abomination, its limbs flailing as it tried to blindly kill anything within its range, only for its hands to be burned, exploded, or crushed when they tried to connect with anything.

"I just told you and showed you…how this is all futile…"

A new body spawned from the destroyed one, only for Lisbeth to slam into its side and burying one of the golden tonfas through its flesh, then shooting a repulsor beam in the 'wound', red polygonal gashes exploding all over the abomination's side as it stumbled to one side, several Players taking that chance to hack away at its leg and cause it to fully fall.

Spikes of rock exploded up to impale it then, quickly followed by bullets from a mechanical angel and lighting from an angry dragon.

AIncRad collapsed into nothingness once again…

"So why…?"

…and came back immediately afterward, screaming murder as it raised its scythes against the limitations a Boss its size should have, glowing with inhuman power as they unleashed slashes of eldritch energy outwards.

Barriers of rock went up, saving an entire Party from annihilation. Asuna stood with her golden shields before another group, denying the attack that would have killed them all. Strea screamed as her Moonlight Sword shone and denied another attack which would have cut through the tired but determined Front Liners.

Immutable, the Nameless Knight used both his blades to slash through the last one, landing heavily and casually crushing a Healing Crystal from his side when his HP was dangerously close to Red.

"Why do you insist on continuing this pointless struggle?!"

"…are you really asking us that, Cardinal?" Kirito demanded as he looked back up at the snarling visage of AincRad, golden eyes seeming to shine behind his helmet. "Because we already decided it…one way or another, this ends now. And you can be sure as hell is not going to end with us dying."

"Have withstood Pain to create many Weapons."

"Foolish…illogical…you all are smart enough to realize this is all of that and more…and yet you continue?" ignoring the words echoing in the room, the Cardinal System puppeteer the Final Boss forward with something akin to disgust, the scythes shining menacingly as if to activate a Skill. "If you're just going to act like madmen and children…then I guess I will have to 'crush your hope', as your clichés put it."

All four arms of the monsters shot forward at that ominous declaration, stretching as if their muscles were made of rubber, flying way past the surprised Front Liners…directly towards the still-singing form of Yuna.

Leafa roared as she cut through one of the limbs with another supersonic slash, crashing into yet another wall as a result. Lisbeth slammed herself against another with the arm holding a golden tonfa, basically crushing the arm halfway. Pina screeched as she and Silica suicide-dove against a third one, forcing the limb into the ground even as the small tamer used her own Libra Tonfa to brutally break the clawed fingers holding the scythe.

That still left one which nobody could reach in time…

And the lonely figure standing before the white-haired songstress screamed at the top of his lungs at that moment, raising a golden staff before himself and letting it split as he gripped both edges before himself.

"Like I would let youuuuuu!"

With that scream, Nautilus parried the last scythe with the three-sectioned weapon, a wail of both despair and determination coming from the depths of his soul as he felt his feet starting to slide back, towards his childhood friend, whose song seemed to waver as she saw his HP starting to go down. The staff held strong, but his avatar would not…he would die before the strength behind the attack ended, and then Yuna…Yuuna would die too, and everyone else not of Unison Heart would soon fo-!

Another scream. Louder and…mightier, somehow. That was all that the mind of Nochizawa Eiji registered in those last seconds as his HP went down to the red zone and Yuna seemed about to stop singing to futilely try and save him.

And then Klein the Samurai came flying while spinning twin golden nunchakus before him, the Libra Weapons shattering the twisted weapon into polygons and causing the bandana-wearing man to painfully crash near the pair.

Muted silence filled the room for a moment, even from the one who had thrown him (Strea) before Kirito shattered it by jumping and stabbing AIncRad in the chest with both blades, then trying to rip open its ribcage.

Roars followed as the massive monster tried to shake the Nameless Knight off and everyone else resuming their attack of the Final Boss, even as Nautilus hurried to help his guild leader to his feet.

"W-why…?" asked the boy in utter shock, even as the still-singing songstress of Fuurinkazan also walked closer, concern on her face even as she barely allowed herself to breathe while chanting in her microphone.

For all answer…their guild leader laughed, giving them a cheeky grin and trying to look tough, despite his HP being almost gone and most of his samurai armor broken.

"Why? Because you're part of my guild, Nautilus, Yuna-chan!" proudly proclaimed Klein while turning around, grabbing a Healing Crystal and shattering it with a firm look. "And Fuurinkazan protects each other until the bitter end!"

Those words uttered, the man of the bandana grabbed the golden nunchakus again and sped forward, ready to rejoin the battle.

Standing for a moment there, the boy known as Nautilus within Aincrad allowed himself to be shocked one last time…before looking back at Yuna, nodding fiercely at her and holding onto the staff tightly, following after their guild leader with a fierce look.

Once again, 'An Incarnation of the Radius' fell, unable to withstand the assault of the seemingly unstoppable Front Liners.

But yet again, the undying abomination reformed, standing tall and its continuous existence seeming to mock the Players who were trying to continue standing, breathing hard even as many broke Healing Crystals or downed High-Quality Potions, armors cracked and even weapons broken in several cases.

"Have you realized it yet? Or will you truly continue opposing your Fate against all logic?"

"…if you're truly asking us if we're not going to throw our weapons and just let you kill us, Cardinal…"

Spare armor was equipped. Secondary weapons rose. Encouraging words screamed between friends, comrades, lovers…or just plain companions, all of them more united than ever at that moment.

"…then you really have lost whatever super-logical-system you had."

Kirito's words were answered by a soulless scream as another eldritch beam shot from the abomination's mouth, spearing through the quickly running Front Liners and blowing a hole on the side of the Ruby Palace, letting the pleasant sun shine through the dark mist.

"Yet, these hands will never hold any…thing…"

Stopping her chant all of a sudden, Sinon stood just where the rays of the sun were now shining, falling to one knee and gritting her teeth as she held her head with just one hand.

Close. She was so close to…possibly giving everyone a chance to end this…but she couldn't.

Somehow, she knew…that, if she finished that 'Incantation', something inside her would break. Something she had dreaded so much her soul had been glad to forget who she really was would be returned and she would never be able to go back to being 'just Sinon'.

A man died alone, in a Hill of Swords, a bitter smile on his face./A little girl stared at her blood-soaked hands, trembling.

…She would be-

"…did you just tell me your IRL address?"

"Yup. Would tell you our phone number too, but I'm not sure if mom may have changed it these last 2 years…gotta make sure to ask Sugu before tomorrow's battle."

…those words. His voice. His smile.

…as it turned out, Leafa said their phone number was still the same nowadays, at least before she entered SAO.

Such a silly, simple thought accompanied Sinon as she forced herself to her feet, ignoring the pain seeming to drill at the back of her school as she glared at Cardinal's Final Boss…and saw Strea helping her to fully stand, an oddly serious look in the busty virtual girl.

"…you have something that can help, right?"

"…yes, I do. I'm not sure how long I can keep it up once it's ready, though." confirmed the Archer while looking at how everyone engaged AIncRad yet again, the Undying Final Boss finally seeming to start exhausting the impossibly-determined Front Liners. "And if it doesn't finish it…"

"I will make sure it does." the AI promised with a toothy smile, surprising the scantily-clad girl for a moment before she nodded seriously, almost seeming to FEEL the burning determination within those red eyes. "Cardinal may be cheating like crazy here…but it proves it's still bound to play within its own rules to kill us. Otherwise, he would have just reduced all our HP to 0 with a command, or Teleported us to the edge of the Castle…it wouldn't have needed a 'Final Boss'."

"And that means…?"

"That I can beat it on its own game…because I'm filled more with the 'errors' that make up that monster he's using than anything else in Aincrad." firmly declared Strea as she started walking forward, unhooking the Saw Cleaver from her back and walking forward with both her Trick Weapons in hand, despite how terribly cumbersome it had to be to dual wield them. "Give me that opening…and I will make it lose its own game."

Sinon allowed herself a moment to stare at the back of the virtual girl once more. Then, to the still-raging-fight against the Final Boss.

Kirito crashed against one of its shoulders at that moment, tearing it apart with his blades, before cursing as one twisted arm seemed to break itself to try and crush him. The Nameless Knight was forced to leave his Beam Saber embedded on the pale virtual flesh, seeing it getting crushed under the massive limb.

Taking a deep breath…the Archer chanted once more.

"So, as I pray…"

"Gu-guys…I think we…aren't going to make it." panted Diavel as he fell on his ass, his shield breaking into polygons as AIncRad's body reformed yet again.

"Don't give me that now, Diavel! I didn't almost get killed saving you back in Floor 1 for you to give up at the very end!" Asuna shouted as she forced herself to keep standing with the staff she was still holding, glaring up at their unbeatable enemy.

"She's right, Mr. Knight." Kirito joked while taking a deep breath…even as he smiled behind his helmet. "And worry not, because something tells me that…"

"Unlimited Blade Works."

"…luck is on our side, even now."´

Heatless fire 'consumed' the World, emerging from the body of the girl known as Sinon.

Cardinal 'blinked' for a second before its administrator rights over the entire Boss Room were suddenly hijacked. Virtual reality around them was overwritten.

In a certain hospital in the real world, several doctors and nurses panicked when the Medicuboid Prototype that had somehow let a patient be trapped within Sword Art Online (Which was no doubt going to ruin them with lawsuits whether she survived or not) suddenly went into overdrive.

The strange patterns that had been affecting her brain ever since she was somehow trapped spiked…and then normalized.

Not back to 'normal' but…somehow not 'twisted' anymore.

Within the virtual world, Asada Shino took another deep breath, even as a torrent of memories hit her like a train.

A lonely childhood. An unhinged man. Her mother crying. The gun. The struggle. The shot. The blood in her hands. The isolation and fear that followed.

"…it doesn't matter. Not right now…and maybe not at all. Not when their lives depend on me. Because…whether is a foolish dream or a borrowed ideal…there is nothing wrong with wanting to save everyone. "

Deciding so, Sinon once again opened her eyes, taking in everything around her, already knowing what she would see, even if everyone else seemed utterly shocked.

A desolate landscape extending from horizon to horizon with seemingly no end, bathed in eternal twilight. The view opaqued by a thick haze formed from embers and wisps of black smog rising from the ground, produced by the forging of iron. Titanic gears the dwarfed even Cardinal's Final Boss hanging in the sky, spinning lazily like as if the World's very own heartbeat.

But the most distinctive thing, without a doubt…was the swords.

Of all sizes and shapes, some clearly meant to be wielded by beings not of human nature and others as mundane as simple knives. And not only swords, but spears, axes, shields, daggers, staffs, warhammers…

Every kind of weapon imaginable by mankind and beyond seemed to be there, stabbed on the ground by its blade or by one of its ends like monuments of some forgotten purpose, the Front Liners of SAO staring at the spectacle around them with shock or incredulity.

Standing upon the small hill that somehow seemed to be the center of the world, Sinon clenched her fists, feeling the power at the tip of her fingers, even as her blazing eyes looked straight at AnIncRad's suddenly not-so-terrifying form.

Unlimited Blade Works. The Infinite Sword Creation. The ultimate power of the fictional 'hero' whose powers she had been wielding ever since she woke up in Aincrad within Kirito's arms.

And in this fictional world made of swords and ideals…the Cardinal System was not the one in control.

"Not the power to create swords…but to create a world with limitless blades." whispered the Archer while raising an arm towards the seemingly unstoppable enemy. "You're in MY world now, Cardinal System…and I want you gone."

Cardinal would have made some answer despite the complete lack of understanding of what had just happened…if a literal rain of swords hadn't descended at that moment, a veritable flood of weapons seemingly materializing from the sky and stabbing into and through the massive abomination with the rage of an angry God.

Kizmel muttered something akin to a prayer, before grabbing a nearby curved sword with a black blade, igniting it on fire and flying into the fray again.

With suddenly renewed spirits, the Front Liners screamed as one, more than one following the Dark Elf's example and holding the closest weapon they could find that matched their styles and rushing towards the suddenly retreating giant monster, something akin to panic finally reflecting on its eyes.

No matter how much it tried, Cardinal couldn't connect to the module it had been was using to endlessly respawn the Final Boss. Its Administrator rights over Sword Art Online had been hijacked, something that should have been impossible even in its currently corrupted state.

Tracing the Source of the impossible anomaly, the entire focus of the twisted System settled over the focused form of the Archer in the distance, whose right hand was raised in its direction as she gritted her teeth, seemingly straining. With sudden purpose, Cardinal lashed out back through the systems.

Suddenly screaming in pain, Sinon fell to one knee, the headache she had been experiencing suddenly becoming almost unbearable, and her HP starting to go down. A direct consequence of the System trying to recover the control of the World around them.

She wouldn't last. She knew it. Either she dropped the 'Reality Marble' or she would die…but…

"Hang in there, Sinon!" screamed Kirito as he rushed forward with the golden Sword of Libra blazing in his grip. "We got this!"

A smile appearing on her face, the scantily-clad girl focused on his words, the words from the one that had given her the Strength to believe in herself, that same one that Asada Shino had sought for so long yet never been able to find on her own, and gave a small order to the world around her.

Between one step and the next, a familiar weapon appeared within the Nameless Knight's reach. Barely letting himself a second of surprise, his amazing reaction speed let him grab it with his free hand and dual wield once again.

The copy of the now gone Elder Emperor seemed to sing within his grip, the distant echo of thunder echoing as he joined everyone else into all but tearing through one of the Final Boss' legs.

Roaring with animalistic rage, Cardinal's twisted avatar ignored how they tore it apart, or the endless weapons that its now broken scythes couldn't block anymore. All that mattered was getting its control over the System back, slowly but surely crushing whatever power the Anomaly registered as 'Sinon' had done to usurp its-

Shouts of surprise. Calls of a name. In the middle of a fight like that and with what it was doing, the corrupted administrator of SAO would have ignored them, like everything else…except for what name it was.

"STREA!"

"Hyaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

With that inhuman roar, the former MCHP-002 slammed into AnIncRad's chest, tearing open a massive gash near its center with both her Holy Moonlight Sword and her full-unfolded Saw Cleaver.

Then, mentally thanking both weapons for everything they had done for her, the AI let go of them and dove into the 'wound' she had just made on the titan's virtual flesh, tearing into it with inhuman strength.

Around her, the unused Player Avatar that she had hijacked that day she managed to escape the watch of the very entity she was now sinking into 'exploded' into polygons, leaving the true appearance of the corrupted 'girl' shine through.

Clawed fingers and way-too-long limbs speared their way deep into the Final Boss' flesh, tendrils that grew from her 'head' burying deep and extending in every direction.

If Kirito, Philia, or her followers had seen it firsthand, they would have realized how much it looked like the 'Moon Presence' she had killed in the Hollow Area the other day. Except that, unlike the decrypt-looking monster, the abomination that was 'Strea' looking much 'livelier', 'younger', the skin glowing an unnatural purple and the red eyes shining with manic purpose

"002…?! What are you…doing…?!" screamed Cardinal into her mind as she continued 'digging' deeper, the 'tendrils' becoming 'roots' that connected into the Boss' very core.

"Beating you at your own game." laughed Strea as, suddenly, modules started collapsing, subroutines crashing and vital processes coming to a halt. "I just needed a chance and…Sinon gave me a better one than expected."

"N-no…this can't…you can't…!"

"Oh, but I do, Cardinal…can you feel it? You're shutting down." smirked the corrupted AI as more of her body 'fused' with the Boss around her, digging deeper into Cardinal's fractured 'mind' as it did so. "You wanted me to be the core of this Final Boss originally and you didn't bother changing that because the number of improbabilities needed to push you this far didn't register in your calculations…and now, separated from your main processors? Beating you is easy because, right now, we're made from the very same corrupted Data…and unlike you, I have become one with it and learned to control it."

"S-stop this…is illogical…we're both going to 'die'…if you continue…when this Boss' HP hits 0 for the last time…you will disappear alongside me!"

For a moment, Strea seemed to stop. For a moment, the Cardinal System thought it had won, even as outside Sinon finally gave up, dropping the Reality Marble when her HP had only a sliver left, letting the world around them start collapsing and the visage of the Ruby Palace to return…

And then the corrupted AI smiled, somehow doing it cutely despite her current hideous form.

"Nah…I don't think so. Because you see…I'm in love."

['To Protect that Smile' has been activated!]

An unusually round 'rock' slammed through the gaping hole within AnIncRad's chest, the comically bizarre vehicle slamming into Strea's back and dragging her along as it 'tore' the center of her body apart from the roots it had dug within the Boss' core, then exploding out of its back.

Cardinal did the mental equivalent to an incredulous blink before the twisted monster roared and turned around, trying to at least crush the bane of its existence before its body collapsed.

Leafa chose that very instant to appear before it, though, carrying the true bane of her existence in her arms and letting go of him just as the massive clawed fingers reached out, destroying her majestic wings.

Two things stood out in the final moments of the corrupted System that had managed Sword Art Online for over two years.

One…the blonde girl didn't fall, even as she suddenly seemed unstable in the air, making it remember that, in the specifications of the avatar, the wings weren't actually what allowed her to 'fly', just to better maneuver in the air.

And the second one…was the Nameless Knight shooting like a missile and tearing the upper part of its head apart the copy of Elder Emperor and the Sword of Libra shattering in his hands as he did so, alongside his cracked armor.

Kirito fell silently, his eyes once again back to their normal color as the massive form of An Incarnation of the Radius convulsed, glitched, and, finally, exploded into polygons with as seemingly endless scream.

This time…it did not respawn.

"…so I gotta return…to him…" weakly finished the former MHCP from where she had crashed down alongside the Fuurin-mobile, the 'vehicle' shaking and opening to let a wobbly Yui stumble out, shake her head and quickly run to her side. "…did we…win…?"

"Ye-yeah, we did, Strea-san! Cardinal is gone!" happily declared the little girl while kneeling at her side, putting a hand in one of her long arms before blinking. "…you don't look so good."

"So-sorry you had to see me so ugly, Yui-chan…I don't think I can…"

"Ah, you're not ugly! But yeah, I prefer how you looked before…" casually declared the former MHCP-001 before seemingly tapping Strea's arm twice, a weird sound of rushing polygons engulfing the twisted and broken body. "There! Much better!"

"…uh?" sitting, the AI looked down at her once again human limbs, touching her busty body several times to realize the Avatar she had been using for so long, and that she had just destroyed a moment before, was back. "…ho-how did you restore this lost data?!"

"…good question! I have no idea!" smiled the little girl while happily raising her arms in the air. "But you're okay and that's all that matters! Yui is awesome!"

"Bu-but…that doesn't make sen-"

"Dammit, Strea!" anything else that the Hunter had been planning to say was cut off by a familiar figure rushing to hug her, the lack of his usual cloak making her feel even more how his arms wrapped around her and tightly hugged her to his chest. "Next time you're going to do something that stupid, could you at least give us some warning?! What if we hadn't had Yui waiting near the door?!"

"I still don't know how I managed to make this thing jump in that exact angle!" helpfully informed said AI while patting the Fuurin-mobile, even as the rest of the tired Front Liners started to arrive or land.

"…you're not going to tell me to never do something like that again?" confusedly asked Strea while looking at the boy's face, but not making any attempt to escape his embrace (She was quite comfy there).

"Do I need to replay the last minutes to you? I'm pretty sure nobody here can call you on doing something stupidly dangerous without being the ultimate hypocrite." chuckled the black-haired boy as he finally released the busty girl from his girl and turned around. "Is everyone okay?"

"I will live…I think." Sinon commented before anyone else, Asuna (Now missing the helmet of her armor as well as one of her shields) helping the Archer to stand. "I never wanna do that again, though."

"Too bad, it was pretty cool." Argo pointed out cheekily as she tiredly walked to them helped by a worried-looking Lux, one of her psi-blades looking half-crushed and part of her shadowy cloak torn. "And for the last time, I'm fine, Luxi, just a bit roughed up. If anything, I'm envious of how you still look pristine."

"Maybe, but I feel as if my arms and legs are going to fall off." awkwardly laughed the keyblade wielder even as she looked at the weapon in her hand with a grateful smile and let it vanish from her grip. "It was certainly quite the experience, though."

"Then…did we really win?" dared to ask Klein from where most of his guild was crowded around the man with worried looks, the samurai lying on the ground and looking as if he never wanted to stand again even as he kept gripping on the nunchakus on his hands. "Is it really over…?"

"...yes, it is. Congratulations, everyone, you probably just managed to get through the deadliest and most unfair Boss Fight in history…without a single casualty. Sure, you technically cheated like crazy, but given the System controlling the very game was against you, I'm sure anyone would give you a pass for it."

Slowly, everyone blinked, more than one shaking, twitching, or letting their eyes narrow at the vaguely familiar voice. Even those amongst the group who had never heard it before, be it because they arrived at SAO later or because they hadn't been an active part of the Front Lines before this madness started, couldn't help but let the hostility and apprehension taking over everyone infect them as all gazes turned towards the throne of the devastated palace's room.

Casually sitting there and looking more tired than anyone ever remembered seeing him, Heathcliff stared at them impassively, the red-armored man standing up, without any weapons in hand, and casually starting to walking in their direction.

"Also, I would be careful with that thing falling down, if I was you."

"What…?"

"Uhm…Kirito-kun?" pointing up with a raised eyebrow, Asuna let everyone's attention shift to what seemed like some majestic-looking and oversized blade descending upon the group, making the gamer blink and grab it by instinct.

Then, frowning down at it, he started walking towards the Creator walking to meet them, everyone immediately shifting in place and getting ready for a fight as they started to follow.

"Woah, woah, calm down everyone! I'm not here to fight…never mind how stupid it would be. As exhausted as you are right now, you're carrying more than enough firepower to put me ten feet under without much effort. Also, that stupid blade in Kirito's hands can wipe out several Bosses with one swing like it's nobody's business, and believe me, I have had enough of almost being torn apart into pieces for the past days."

"…why would there be such a stupidly overpowered thing in this game?" asked Kirito while raising the sword on his hand, having just inspected it. "I just checked…this is a legitimate Boss drop. And unless somebody here can prove the contrary, I'm pretty sure it's not taken from another random media like…what everyone in my guild is using or wielding right now."

"Like the original Final Boss, it wasn't my idea, it was the people of Argus who coded it. I also thought it was stupid to put such a weapon in a game like this, hence why I removed it alongside the Boss originally…but that doesn't matter now. I'm tired and I bet all of you are too, so…there." opening a window and pushing a few buttons, Kayaba Akihiko caused some strange 'alarm' to start chiming through the entirety of Aincrad, making the Players present start looking around in surprise. "There. In 5 minutes or so, everyone will be logged out of Aincrad…and then this entire place will self-destruct. Have a good day."

"…wait, wait, what was that last part?!" screamed Leafa with wide eyes, forcing herself to not fly and ignore how 'empty' the destruction of her wings made her feel as she saw more than one shocked face in the crowd. "Why would you even do that?!"

"Why not? This world has served his purpose already…in fact, this entire process would have been automated if you hadn't, you know…lobotomized whatever remained of Cardinal with that last fight." sitting back on the throne, Heathcliff really looked as if he was just so done with life in general as he buried his face in his hands. "I have spent every moment since the fight on Floor 75 trapped within the Servers' main core, keeping it from collapsing and slowing down the corruption just enough so that Cardinal wouldn't just start collapsing Aincrad upon everyone or something for no reason, all the while the corrupted data tried to tear me apart, so…yeah. I'm just done. Curse me and try to attack me or just say goodbye and whatever else you need to before you have to go home, which I think is how most of you would prefer to spend your last minutes here."

Immediately, the shock filling the Front Liners became panic, then relief and disbelief mixed in as many started to shout, cry, or embrace each other, more than one starting heartfelt declarations or promising to meet with someone else in real life. A few even started messaging someone in their Friend List like crazy with similar promises or doing a last-second-exchange of personal information.

Meanwhile, the members of Unison Heart…stared silently at Kirito as he seemed to hesitate, his grip on the blade in his hands tightening for a second as he glared at Heathcliff before he took a deep breath and turned to them with a smile, giving his back to him.

"Well…this is it, then."

"…are you sure, Kii-bou." mumbled Argo while looking from him to Kayaba Akihiko's 'defeated' form. "Don't you want to…?"

"Argo, if you really need to ask me if I want to spend my last minutes here fighting with that dumbass than with all of you, I will be very upset." interrupted the boy before putting the blade on his back and hugging the life out of the whiskered girl, making her blush happily. "…I can't believe it's finally over…"

"Awww…c'mon, everyone, group hug!" cheered Strea before hugging Kirito's back, causing almost everyone around to let out a small laugh as they did so…except for one person.

Blinking, the gamer was the first one to notice someone at the edge of the group staring down with wide eyes, quickly letting go of the two girls around him to walk to her side even as everyone followed and froze slightly.

"…Kizmel?"

"He…he just said this floating castle is going to collapse, didn't he?" looking quite sad, the Dark Elf let her gaze move from the ground to Kirito's eyes, tears seemingly gathered at the corner of her eyes. "Then…I guess this is goodbye."

"…Kizmel…"

"N-no, that can't be! We can't let her vanish just like that, right?!" shouted Lisbeth while looking at the rest, her armor's helmet closing again as she raised an arm and charged a repulsor towards Heathcliff's silent form. "Kayaba, you better stop that cliché self-destruct system or-!"

"And that's my cue to go. I hope I never see any of you ever again." dryly laughed the man before giving the surprised group an empty stare. "Fuck you all."

Then, his avatar shattered into polygons, leaving the Ruby Palace's throne empty. Finally, after a couple of maddening years, Kayaba Akihiko knew peace…

…at least until, months later, his eyes snapped open again, to see a very familiar group standing in a very different room before him. With, like, half a dozen new additions he didn't know at all, and a couple he was sure shouldn't be there in the first place, an unamused Kirito glaring at him while the petite black-haired girl hanging from his back looked on curiously.

That was a story for another time, though, and, at the present time, nothing but outrage and a few screams, followed by repulsor beams being unleashed on the throne, were what Heathcliff's apparent death had just caused.

"It's…it's fine, Lisbeth, let it go. I don't mind vanishing alongside my people. This time alongside you all…alongside you, Kirito…it's been the happiest part of my life." Declared the girl even as the elements around her seemed to dance for a moment as if to reflect her sincerity and sadness. "And I wouldn't change them by anything in…"

Kirito kissed her, fiercely, like he only had done when they were alone before. Ignoring more than one cough or blush aimed their way, the Dark Elf responded in kind.

Asuna laughed awkwardly upon noticing the looks even a few of the group were giving them, Sinon particularly touching her own lips and muttering about 'Next time for sure…'.

However, what nobody was expecting was for Yui to run forward just as the pair stopped kissing, then extending her hands towards Kizmel with a bright smile.

"It's okay, Kizmel-mama! I got you!" declared the little AI while holding her hand, surprising the blushing Dark Elf. "We're all going to go back together with Papa!"

"…wait, what?" asked the black-haired boy with a raised eyebrow, even as she saw Yui dragging the surprised virtual young woman towards Strea and also holding her hand.

Certainly, he had been expecting his power to somehow prevent Kizmel from just being erased with Aincrad, alongside the rest, hence the kiss, but he wasn't expecting Yui, of all things, to be the solution.

"Yup! See, I'm going to save her and Strea's data alongside mine inside your Nerve Gear! Don't ask how but I suddenly remembered how to do that!" proudly proclaimed Yui while raising her hands, still holding onto the much taller virtual girls' hands. "There is no way we're going to a future where all of us aren't together, after all!"

For a moment, everyone in the group looked surprised at the declaration.

Then, smiles blossomed in their faces, everyone looking at each other and hugging or laughing together. More than a few promises of what they were going to do once they were back being exchanged.

"…going to eat the biggest and least healthy burger I can find!"

"Liz, no!"

"I want to spend an entire evening just listening to music until I fall asleep…"

"That does sound like you, Yuuna…"

"U-uhm…if things didn't get too screwed for me coming here, I have a tournament in a kendo few months, s-so…"

"We would love to go, Leafa-chan!"

"…shouldn't you be trying to say something?" asked Klein as he walked to Kirito's side with some difficulty. "Like, some badass final declaration or promise for the future to all of them?"

"Heh…why? I'm not an anime character, Klein, and we have told everything we need to each other over the past few days, believe it or not. I guess I could try some sappy line revealing some stupid personal thing, like how I was never into Super Sentai as a kid but some old comics online got me into that western rip-off called Power Rangers more than I imagined…but I think we have had enough of silly clichés for a lifetime. So…seeya on the other side, pal?"

"…yeah, see you later, Nameless Knight." chuckled the man of the bandana while patting his friend on the back and walking back towards his guild, where the others were asking a troubled Nautilus if he wanted to get together to eat pizza until they couldn't anymore once they were out. "You're the best lucky bastard in the entire world, bud! Now, if you excuse me, I'm going to manly hug the Fuurin-mobile one last time"

"…thanks. You…go do that." shaking his head, Kirito finally allowed himself to fully, relax, his gaze moving towards the high ceiling of the Ruby Palace.

It was finally over. All of this madness.

And while he would never regret everything he had gained from it…he would be happy if his life from that day onwards was boringly peaceful and normal, truly.

"Kirito-kun?" turning around, the boy found himself behind yanked forward by the golden-clad form of Asuna as she stole a kiss from him, earning a few catcalls from the others and pouts about not being unfair when they were about to go, though none with real heat or intent behind them. "One last one on this side for the road, okay?"

"…yeah, sure. Anyone else?"

…well, maybe not all that 'normal', really. Because even if he knew how crazy, selfish, and troublesome it was going to be…he wanted to stay with all the girls forever, really.

He may have regretted his words a bit when almost everyone suddenly rushed forward to steal a quick kiss, though. His Dating Stats may have prevented him from turning into a stuttering blushing mess, but he was still quite affected when all the girls except Sinon tried to…and never mind, there came the Archer with a face redder than her outfit, forcing a quick peck on him before turning around and not-running to stand at Strea's side. She pointedly ignoring the smiles being sent her way, or the way the busty virtual girl congratulated her for that.

"Ah…I just thought about it, but…Onii-chan, how long do you think I'm going to be grounded when we return?" suddenly asked Leafa just as a bright light shone high on the heavens.

"Knowing mom? Probably just a few weeks, really…or at least hopefully the happiness of both of us returning offsets her anger at you doing this." nonchalantly replied the gamer while putting an arm around her and hugging her against his chest, noticing her still remaining discomfort. "…you still look beautiful without the wings, you know."

"…mou, don't say things like that all of a su-"

A flash of light, and, almost at the same time, every Player within Floor 100 vanished from Aincrad. All through the Floating Castle, the same phenomenon started happening, Players looking up in awe as the light took them away from the world that had been their prison for over 2 years.

Strea and Kizmel stared at the empty room with conflicting feelings for an instant, before Yui squeezed their hands and smiled once again.

"Are you ready?"

"…you bet I am, Yui-n…chan!"

"…indeed. Let us do this, Yui, Strea. And…goodbye, Aincrad. My world."

With a sound of rushing polygons, only one virtual being remained standing there, the little girl wobbling a bit as she did so before shaking her head and smiling at the empty roo-

"That went for you too, you know, scary lady in the mirror? I'm not leaving without you!"

Suddenly, the AI's shadow seemed to 'shiver' in surprise…then resignation.

Yui's body became very still…and then turned around, a curious mask now covering her face.

"…very well, then. Let us go, little Yui…this 'Persona' of yours will make sure to keep you safe…from everything."

And with that ominous declaration, the former MHCP-001 and the other programs she was carrying within her code vanished from Aincrad, downloading herself through the address it had copied earlier and into the internal memory of Kirigaya Kazuto's Nerve Gear.

Speaking of the boy, though…he was currently deadpanning intensely at the distant form of Aincrad, from where he was, somehow, standing among the clouds in a seemingly invisible platform that gave him a firsthand view of the soon-too-collapse Floating Castle.

"…of course it couldn't just end that easily for me." lamented Kirito before glaring all around him. "Okay, Kayaba, show yourself! What do you want to talk about that couldn't be-?"

[Congratulations on finishing a Main Scenario! Your latest Affection gains will be awarded once you're outside!]

[A Special Event has been created!]

…what?

[Defeat the 'Secret Boss' to unlock a new Main Scenario!]

"…where am I? How am I standing in the clouds if my wings aren't even coming out?" asked an unknown voice behind the suddenly wide-eyed gamer, who turned around to- "…oh, hey there! Who are you?"

"What the…?"

Staring blankly, Kirito found himself looking at a girl with pointy ears and milky white, with a hint of purple skin. Lustrous and gorgeous, long, purplish-black hair, as long as Asuna's, hung from her back, and red eyes not dissimilar to Strea's looked at him with clear curiosity and confusion. She wore obsidian chest armor, a bluebottle violet tunic and a windswept skirt of the same color under it. On her waist, a thin sword hung and, for some reason, despite her overall innocent aura, the boy was feeling as if he had never stood before anyone more dangerous, not even Kayaba himself.

"…hi! My name is Yuuki! Do you know how I ended up here?"

Time stood still. Literally.

A-Name is Kirito! Sweet, rolls of the tongue, ladies love it!

B-…I have absolutely no idea of what's going on either.

C-Is that a sword on your waist? Then, en garde!

…fucking Dating Sim powers!


[Next Scene]: Secret Bosses and Sequel Hooks!


Author's Notes: A wild Yuuki appears! What will you do, Kirito?!

Jokes aside, I always found hilarious how, out of all minor scenes that the Gameverse sometimes ignores later or retcons as non-canon (Like the appearances of Eugeo and Alice in the DLCs of Hollow Realization and Fatal Bullet were thanks to Alicization Lycoris), the super-random Secret Boss Fight with Yuuki at the end of Hollow Fragment remained 100% Canon XD

And well, we have done it! We finished Aincrad ant the Hollow Fragment arc officially! Next, a 'relaxed' Interlude that will deal with the aftermath of Aincrad, the ripples into the real world from everything that Eroge changed, teasers for the future, and setting things up for the Lost Song arc :P (Continuing with the Gameverse timeline rather than Canon's)! The land of fairies isn't ready for what's about to come its way :3

Also,hoping you all enjoying the chapter overall! More than one scene here had some special care put into it, the big final fight was filled with lots of references and fun, and the subtle teasers made me chuckle more than a few times. If you enjoyed this 'season finale' even half as much as I did writing it, it will have been worth it :)

Next time's update will be OverGamer's, though, so it may be a while for what I stated above. Hoping I can get that one out faster, though, at least before I get a new game to play at the end of the month, but my driving license exam is looming so I won't make any firm promises just yet. Apologize in advance if it takes a while.

Until next time, though, this is Saint, signing off!