Hey there Nain Tarlow checking in.

Okay first off, I am really, really sorry. Almost three months since the last chapter, I am really sorry for leaving you guys in a cliffhanger for so long.

I don't really have excuses, or at least not many. I started working full-time so finding time to write is a bit harder and I have other stories to try and keep updating as much as I can. In my mind it's not an excuse to keep my loyal readers waiting and for that I sincerely apologize.

I make no promises to update faster, working 8 hours 6 times a day is surprisingly tiring but I will promise you I will try my best.

More to the story, I am very thankful to the many reviews I got from you, it is always nice to be reminded that people are actually reading what I write. As for Argo, well, read and see for yourself.

This was a chapter that gave me a very tough time, though I am rather satisfied by the end results. Not my best, far from it but in the end, I like it and that's what counts right? There will be one more chapter before this arc will end finally. Hopefully I will be a bit faster than this time.

As usual, reviews are greatly appreciated and of course favs and follows too.

You waited long enough, thank you for reading my usual rambling. Now onto the story.

Level 19 Shadows in the dark

Natsu considered himself a peaceful person.

It was hard to truly anger him but even then he couldn't say that he hated someone to the bottom of his heart before.

Not his father, while he had a lot of resentment for him because of leaving him and his mother alone, going away with flimsy excuses. Not his bullies who made themselves feel better or special by beating up and belittling him. Not the teachers who didn't seem to show an ounce of care for the bullying he was going through and further admonishing him for his bad grades.

He couldn't even say that he hated Kayaba. Sure the man imprisoned them in this death game and was responsible for a lot of deaths but in his mind, Natsu never had a clear picture of him. He didn't see any pictures of him before starting the game, only having heard his name connected to the game, and even on the first day he only showed up in that faceless avatar of his. Kind of hard to really hate someone you don't even know what they look like.

Sure he had a lot of anger and resentment towards the man who separated so many families. and if he ever got the chance he wouldn't hesitate to punch the man. Yet he never thought of such a strong word like hate when it came to man. He may have been trapped in this world because of Kayaba but the man never did anything directly to him.

But now things have changed. Anger erupted inside him, so hot that he felt his insides trying to melt, trying to contain it, a senseless hate began to pour into every inch of his being as he gritted his teeth, lips pulled back. If he could see himself at that moment, with his hair standing in all directions, his eyes taking on a fiery orange color and his back hunched as he protectively leaned over the fallen form of his friend, he would have looked like a wild animal more than anything.

Because right now without a shadow of doubt he could say that he hated the man in front of him, smirking mockingly, the scythe that cut into his friend resting on his shoulder as if taunting him. The man who wore Diavel's face, the man with violet fires in his eyes.

The last few minutes were so confusing for the young guild leader that in his frenzied mind it took a bit of an effort to recall the path that led to this specific situation.

The attack on the hideout on the Laughing Coffin turned out to be a trap. They were soon scattered into small groups, running into one ambush after another and it seemed that their enemies and their various tricks were neverending. He pulled out of their group holding a defensive formation and rushed forward with Diavel to rescue a comrade of theirs that was dragged off. Until that point things were weird but they made sense. That was where everything changed.

"Argo." he croaked out brokenly as he quickly forgot his anger as she groaned softly, forcing to look at her pale place and curse his carelessness as he weakly held her as if afraid she would disappear any moment.

Unfortunately for him, that was a very real fear at the moment.

Thankfully her hp gauge stopped shrinking but even without watching it closely, it was clear that she barely had a sliver remaining, or maybe not even that. He hurriedly pulled out a potion and forced her to drink it, hoping that it would act before the residual bleeding effect shaved off what remained of her life force.

He let out a barely perceivable sigh of relief as she gulped it down, and slowly her hp stopped its descent but only just barely. She also seemed to have fallen unconscious which was worrying in and of itself, he never heard of anyone able to knock someone out in the game, not even boss monsters had abilities like that. What was worse, there was no debuff icon under her hp bar which would indicate that it was related to the game.

But for the moment she was alive and that was more than he could have wished for.

Of course, that moment of reprieve was broken when he heard an amused snort above him, reminding him that he was not out of danger yet. On the contrary, even with Argo stabilized, their lives were in more danger than ever.

"She survived. What a shame." a voice said, that in the last few seconds he began to hate with a passion. "For getting in my way so much, the least she could do is to die quickly and quietly. Really, the manners of kids these days." he heard a sigh but despite the words, the tone was definitely amused.

Natsu's first instinct was to grab his sword and thrust upwards, hopefully straight at that man's heart, a notion that seemed completely alien to the usually peaceful teen, yet it was there all the same. His right moved to grasp the blade lying next to him but that simple motion reminded him of the weight he was holding in his hands and his thoughts immediately came to a screeching halt.

Leaning forward, so he could shield her body with his in case of an attack, he tensed up before jumping back with all the power he had in his legs, the strength of which forced him to even slide a little after landing back on the ground, the unconscious Argo protectively in his grip as he glared forward, not even sparing a thought to the sword that he left at the feet of his opponent.

He warily eyed the man who wore Diavel's face like a mask but something inside him told him it wasn't the self-proclaimed knight who stood before him. It was nothing more than a feeling, he didn't know the man enough to judge him, yet a part of him was completely sure that the one he was facing wasn't who he said he was. Not like that question helped much at all, but at least it staved off some of the confusion.

Whoever that man was, for the sake of avoiding confusing himself, Natsu decided to call him not-Diavel in his head. At the moment that very same thought process went through his head, he idly wondered how he had time to think about trivialities like that in the middle of a deadly battle.

Gently shaking his head to clear it, Natsu stared at not-Diavel who made no other move so far, only watching him with barely hidden amusement and glee. The scythe that he almost killed Argo with, rested comfortably on his shoulder and as he stared at it, Natus couldn't help but be awed by it, courtesy of spending too much time around sword nerds like Kirito, Ken, or surprisingly Liz.

It was intricate looking and while his experience told him that weapons that looked fancy and decorated tended to break easily if targeted at the correct parts, his gut feeling that told him from the first moment that something was wrong with the man in front of him, told him that would be easier than done and that scythe was also had more than one surprise if he approached it carelessly.

Given what happened because he decided to disregard his doubt about the blue-haired man, he decided to stay on the side of caution this time.

Nonetheless, he watched him warily, looking for the slightest hint of movement. Even though he lost his weapon and had to defend an unconscious Argo, not-Diavel made no move to attack him and finish what he started. Even the other enemies still in the room didn't bother with him, too focused on the rest of their party.

Or maybe their only purpose was to hold back any possible help, his enemy wanting to finish him himself for some sick sense of satisfaction, it seemed.

His mind was running through plans and strategies so fast he felt himself get slightly dizzy but it was hopeless. Until Buzz and the others could somehow push through their opponents, he was alone, weaponless, and had another person to keep safe. He couldn't even try and run toward them, hoping to slip through or jump over them. The instant he showed his back to not-Diavel he was dead, he was sure of it.

"Who are you?" the question slipped out, his usual meek self replaced by a cold, calculating persona that was also incredibly angry at the moment. Thanks to that, the question came out as more of a growl than anything.

"What do you mean Natsu-kun?" the impostor said, feigning obliviousness, even appearing hurt by the question.

If nothing else the man, or woman, at this point he had no idea, was an incredible actor and Natsu was sure he would have fooled almost anybody if it happened under different circumstances. Unfortunately for not-Diavel, to Natsu, it almost seemed to smell, the nauseating sense of wrongness that practically swallowed that person. At least now that he was paying attention to it.

Now, staring at him, he silently questioned how he was able to overlook it in the first place and not attack the man at first sight. Maybe he was more careful with hiding his true nature and only stopped bothering after he showed his hand.

"Don't play the fool, it doesn't look convincing." he stated, his eyes narrowing as he watched even for a slight sign of his opponent trying to make a move."I may not have known Diavel well, but it's clear that you are not him, even if you managed to fool the system somehow."

And that was the worrying thought that stopped him from making a move, something even more alarming than Argo's current defenseless state.

In this virtual world, the game and its system, Cardinal, were absolute. Everything, from the simplest acts, like breathing, eating, or sleeping, to the mob attack patterns, the execution of sword skills, even the probability of critical attacks, all of which were governed and managed by it. There was no escape from it.

There were loopholes, of course, actions that the system had less direct control of, but to actually bypass, confuse or even alter it? That was impossible, for anyone but a GM, that was the law of the world that everyone accepted. That everyone had no other choice but to accept.

Yet this man somehow managed it and for a horrible moment, Natsu thought he was facing the madman behind this very world, Kayaba Akihiko.

Unknown to him as he narrowed his eyes, their color constantly switched between his usual honey-brown and blazing orange, before it settled on the latter as his concentration and resolve slowly overcame his fear and anger.

"Looks like the fabled Hyper Intuition is ever stronger than I anticipated," Not-Diavel commented to himself, his words not making sense to Natsu, yet it still caused something within him to stir at the words. He idly twirled his scythe, as he stared him down, eyes showing a mixture of eagerness and something really insane inside him.

Natsu tensed, awaiting the charge as he subtly brought up his menu and prepared to switch his main to his backup sword. It was a large weakness and frustration to many players that SAO only allowed you to summon one weapon per hand on your body and all other weapons had to be carried in the inventory and could be only accessed by changing the main, or sub-weapon in the equipment screen.

The lack of a secondary weapon made him weaponless at the moment and if he switched to his backup, he lost ownership of his trusted sword, and there was a high chance that he could never recover it.

Of course, in a death and life situation, the loss of a rare sword was nothing, a no-brainer but he still found himself hesitating. His backup sword was much weaker than Benevolent and with the speed Not-Diavel already displayed, he wasn't sure he would be able to keep up with a subpar blade. Or if he could even summon it in time, he thought, sweat breaking out on his face from nervousness.

In the end, the choice was taken away from him when his enemy simply smirked and with a swift move, kicked his beloved blade to him, Benevolent skidding in the ground and stopping just within his hand's reach.

Before he could even utter a word in confusion at the strange turn of events, not-Diavel turned around, acting as if his very presence, even armed with his weapon once again, was nothing to take note of and took a few steps forward to a nearby wall. Then, Natsu got another surprise as he witnessed the wall that was solid and an immortal object just a few moments ago, dissolved like it was never there in the first place revealing a small tunnel leading out of the large cavern.

"What are you-?" he asked, completely shocked at the casual dismissal toward him, and didn't dare to take his eyes off of Diavel's look-alike, not trusting the sudden change of attitude.

"I guess you weren't ready. A pity, I expected more from you," he said over his shoulder, a mocking grin on his face but even that failed to hide the malice in his gaze that caused Natsu to shiver in instinctual fear.

A logical part of him, a small voice in the back of his head knew what he was trying to do. He was baiting him, to follow him into a place of his choice, cut off from any possible help from his comrades, unlike here, where there was a little possibility of help at least.

He knew he shouldn't follow him, Buzz and the others could break through any minute, especially if with the threat of not-Diavel gone, he could join in as well, while also protecting Argo. It was absolutely insane to go after a man who was able to alter the absolute truth that was the game system in this world, leaving behind his friend without any protection.

She could die, he could die, all of them could die, with nothing gained from it. It was so far above what was considered safe, he doubted there was a word for it.

But on the other hand, he also knew that letting the imposter get away would be disastrous too.

Someone with the ability to fake someone else's identity, down to the point even the system appeared to be fooled, Natsu would never feel safe. He would forever watch his back but even with that, he doubted he would be lucky once again to dodge the blade aimed at his back. This man was a danger to all players, to their effort of cleaning the game but most importantly he was a danger to the people he considered a second family.

In the end, neither reasoning won out and his course of action was decided by one single fact. Despite all that maturity, Natsu was only eleven years old.

He might have acted older most of the time, with many lives riding on his decisions, an iron will forged by following a path of constant life and death battles but that didn't change that single fact. With emotions high, his friend injured, lying in his arms and the cause of all of this preparing to walk away, there was no changing his decision. All of those logical reasons were pushed aside as he let out a roar full of rage, grabbed his discarded sword, its weight familiar yet heavier than he ever remembered it being and he charged forward, after not-Diavel who simply laughed at him before fading out of view.

At that very same moment, unnoticed by the teen, Buzz pushed through the almost endless wave of monsters blocking his way, gritting his teeth in frustration as the spear in his hand was barely anything more than a blur. He charged forward where he last saw Natsu heading, worried for his safety but as he reached Argo's fallen form, he barely caught the back of his young charge as he disappeared into a tunnel that he could have sworn wasn't there before.

Cursing at the turn of events, he kneeled down to check on the information broker, relieved that she was still alive but completely unresponsive. He looked back in the direction they came from and saw the others were making progress of their own, especially when a new group, led by a very familiar black-wearing swordsman.

"Kirito!" he cried out, the swordsman immediately looking his way, his expression severe. "Look after Argo and if any of you die, I will kill you myself. I am going after that reckless idiot I call a leader." he didn't wait for any reaction or acknowledgment and went after Natsu, a frown on his face.

He knew he wasn't any less reckless, running after the kid by himself but he couldn't help it. When the game started for real, when reality set in, he swore he wouldn't let a kid die in front of him, he would rather lay down his life, than let it happen. Especially not that annoying, yet brave kid that followed him and Agil since they logged in.

He wouldn't fail the kid. Not now.

-0-

Aaron, a newly introduced member of Laughing Coffin let out a frightened yelp as he hurled himself backward, the tip of the human-sized blade narrowly missing his head as it sailed through the air. His companions similarly kept their distance, warily watching the two insane berserkers chop through into pieces their numbers as if it was wood.

Already the two idiots who seemed easy pickings at first incapacitated half their members, many of those craddling cut off limbs in terror, and save for a few small cuts from unfortunately non-poised weapons, they didn't suffer any injuries. They weren't even tired, despite the simply crazy way they were fighting.

They weren't even using poison or other things to restrain those they defeated. The sheer fear they inflicted on them was enough to convince them that for the time being they should just lie on the ground and play dead.

"What kind of monsters are they?" the player who joined Laughing Coffin on a whim, trying to find some purpose in his life asked fearfully as he slowly climbed to his feet.

That swing that almost took his head off, was swung without hesitation, which confused him. Weren't they supposed to be the so-called good guys? Who wouldn't kill their enemy, even when pressed, giving them an advantage that along with their equipment could even close the gap created by their higher levels?

Seems like these guys didn't get the memo since they seemed to have no reservations to unleash skills that could easily kill them and only thanks to luck that no one died yet. That also explained why most didn't dare to even raise their heads after ending up on the ground once.

"That's pretty bold words from cowards who could only attack from the shadows and with numbers on their side." the one with the dark armor and the massive cleaver that was almost as large as himself commented with definite amusement, facing Aaron much to his horror and casually ignoring the cloaked player next to him that uselessly tried to find an opening in the armor with his small dagger. "It's rude to butt into others' conversation." was all he said before he swatted them away with his free hand, without showing the slightest hint of strain on him, the small form of his comrade impacting the wall and then collapsing like a marionette with its string cut.

Aaron could only gulp in fear, instinctively taking a step. Just what did he find himself in the middle of?

Despite the large weapon in his hand, the black knight was quick on his feet, using acrobatics the like that should be impossible in gear like that to avoid any attacks he couldn't simply block, while his partner was even harder to read, with his large ax no one could safely approach him due to the insane, crazed way he was waving that weapon around.

'It's just a game, it's just a game.' he chanted to himself, this sole thought that gave him the strength to get through the past year. He couldn't believe that someone could really trap this many people, to kill them when their avatar is destroyed.

It must have been some sort of social experiment, a prank, a joke, anything but it could not be a reality where he could die.

He slowly gained the strength to step out of the town of beginnings but he didn't get far. The monsters were simply too lifelike and he felt his legs and arms freeze in place and had to be rescued. He barely managed to hit level 5, yet the frontline was already past the 20th floor. He felt his spirits that were barely raised at all, plunge into darkness as despair caught him in its vice grip.

That was when he was found by Biro, an old acquaintance from high school, who invited him to one of the rallies of Laughing Coffin. At first, it scared him, a guild of nothing but killers but Biro quickly calmed him down. It was just a game after all. There is no chance that dying here would mean death in the real world too.

And then the words of PoH reached his ears and from then on it was as if a magic spell was cast on him. He signed up without a doubt in his heart and he laughed cruelly as he committed his first kill as part of the initiation ceremony. When the news of the coming raid came up, he was sorted to remain behind and watch for stragglers, easy prey to slowly bleed the enemy to death.

Only, no one told them what sort of monsters the frontline players were in reality.

For an instant the pressure that the one called AgraNain exuded slightly lifted as the man turned his attention to his comrade who was making his way through his half of the enemy combatants, his ax spinning around like a deadly guillotine, no visible pattern between his swings, yet it was without a doubt very effective, none could dare to try and block his way.

"Well as fun as it is, it seems like our time playing around is growing short," AgraNain commented sadly as he turned back, a visible slump in his shoulders.

Aaron briefly contemplated trying to use his monologue to try and land a blow on the armored monster in front of him, but as soon as the idea formed it was soon discarded. It was a feint for sure, an opening that was created for the sake of luring the enemy in a position that he could instantly counterattack. And even if it wasn't, even if he was able to get under his guard, there was no guarantee that it would be enough to finish him.

Are monsters like him even susceptible to poison?

"Looks like the majority of the action is not here. I don't mean to be rude but we don't exactly have time to bother with small fries." the man said and despite his words, he sounded sincere as he simply showed his back to them and started walking to his companion."Come, Panzer, it seems they are not the adversary we are meant to defeat. Let them live and we might even get home back for tea."

At the word tea, the raging demon that toyed with them suddenly stopped and lowered his massive ax, and started walking after his partner, a small smile visible from under his hood.

"Good, my supply barely has any left." he commented as he sheathed his weapon, nobody among the red players making a sound or trying to move a muscle as the two monsters walked through their scattered ranks, without even a hint of worry."Argo promised that they found a few unique tea leaves scattered among the upper floors, so I am looking forward to trying them."

"Hahaha! I was wondering how she was able to rope you to join in, my friend." Nain threw his head back as he laughed loudly."It's a shame not all of us sages are gathered but even so, it's great fun fighting at your side once again."

While the two merrily talked, the formerly vicious and murderous Laughing Coffin members looked at each other with confusion, not knowing what to do. Should they try to stab one of them in the back but even if it worked, the other would probably finish them off by himself, or should they just let them leave? Wouldn't that mean going against PoH's orders?

Even those 'defeated' carefully raised their heads, silently asking if it was safe to stop playing possum, or the deadly duo was still nearby, ready to take their heads.

Aaron for his part was happy to let them go. Call it cowardice, he called it survival instincts. After all, what kind of monsters would just shrug off a dozen or two people trying to kill them and actually treat them as if they weren't worth the effort to fight.

Unfortunately, it seemed not everyone agreed with him, because the unnamed leader of their group, grit their teeth and raised their weapon threateningly.

"Stop looking down at us. In the name of PoH-sama, I will-" but that was how far he got before he was silenced as a large mass of metal ran him over, and several of his fellows and stopped just shy of making Aaron a roadkill too.

At first, he feared that the black knight or his partner who called himself a chef came back to finish what they started but as his vision started to clear and he heard the newcomer's voice, a new type of fear started to settle in him.

There was a third of those monsters and they were standing right next to him.

"AH, MY APOLOGIES." a loud, deep voice yelled, deeper than the black knight's and apparently unaware of the concept of indoor voice, forcing Aaron to grab his ears to try and protect them from the auditory assault. "IT'S HARD TO SEE WHAT'S IN FRONT OF ME ONCE I START MOVING. NO HARD FEELINGS RIGHT?" the strange individual gave a laugh as if he said some kind of joke and the remaining red players could only look at him, silently asking if he was stupid.

Aaron instead just gulped, his body trembling as he realized that the large mass that simply bulldozed through them was not a man in armor but rather a massive shield.

No, calling it simply a shield wasn't doing it any justice. It was rectangular, with its vertical edge curved inside, creating the impression of a semi-cylinder. The shield was mostly made of wood, colored bright red, with its edges strengthened with metal and even in the dark, it shined brightly. It was both taller and wider than Aaron, who while not exactly short, was closer to the average height of his age.

In contrast, the wielder of the said shield was a tad less impressive but after meeting the two insane players before, Aaron knew better to judge by someone's looks.

It was a young man in armor that made him look like he just stepped out of a regular Hollywood movie featuring ancient Rome. If he didn't know better and they were in the real world instead of this fantasy game, he would have called the guy a fanatic cosplayer or someone about to go to a LARP meeting. He wasn't judging honestly, but the guy really went for the stereotypical Roman look. He even had a gladius in his other hand.

What made his armor and massive shield even more ridiculous is that he barely looked older than Aaron, who himself only just turned fifteen at the start of the game. He was shorter than him and had a baby face that could be used to deny a few more years off of him. Even that large, childish smile on his face made him look younger than he was.

Yet despite this, he completely terrified Aaron, after all, he simply went through several of his comrades in one rush, as if he was a bowling ball and the unfortunate red-cursored players were simple targets.

"HAVE YOU SEEN TWO OF MY FELLOWS? I SEEMED TO LOST THEM!" he yelled with an uncharacteristically deep voice that stood with great odds with his young face, his smile not diminishing even when nothing but gibberish in reply. "I THOUGHT I HEARD THEIR VOICES SO I IMMEDIATELY RUSHED IN THIS DIRECTION BUT THIS MAZE IS PRETTY TRICKY. I RAN INTO MORE DEADENDS THAN I CAN COUNT." he once again laughed, his voice echoing in the small tunnel.

"Can't you just not yell? Please?" one player who already curled up into a fetal position pleaded in a small voice that was unnoticed by the shield user.

Instead, he turned fully to Aaron, deeming him apparently the one who could be reasonable, ignoring the carnage around him, the mixed looks of fear and rage sent toward him.

"CAN I ASK YOU IF YOU DID PERCHANCE SEE MY COMPANIONS? THEY SHOULD BE THIS TALL," he raised his hand quite a bit above his head, almost having to stand on his toes. "ONE OF THEM IS WEARING PITCH-BLACK ARMOR THAT IS SUPPOSED TO MAKE HIM INTIMIDATING BUT HE IS A REAL SOFTIE INSIDE. THE OTHER SHOULD WEAR A LARGE CLOAK AND REALLY FOND OF TEA." he exclaimed and while the descriptions were rather vague, it was clear to all members of the Laughing Coffin party whom he was talking about.

A shudder ran through them at the mere memory of the two insane players who made short work of them just a minute before. Yes, it could be safely stated that they saw them. And would never ever forget them.

Still, much to Aaron's horror, the man looked at him expectantly, as if waiting for an answer. Knowing better to keep him waiting, after all, what friend of monsters like those guys could be anything else but another one, he raised a trembling hand, weakly pointing in the direction the two went, feeling as if it was taking every ounce of his strength not to faint from fright.

The man followed his hand, nodding to himself before turning back to Aaron with a large smile and patted his shoulders. It looked nothing more than a light pat but Aaron felt as if his back would break from the sheer strength and he saw even his health bar lose a decent part of it.

Just how strong was this guy?

"MOST APPRECIATED. I, CAEMENTICIUM WALL, PROUD DEFENDER OF AINCRAD AND ITS INHABITANTS OFFER YOU MY SINCEREST THANKS. MAY WE MEET AGAIN AND I WILL BE SURE TO REWARD YOU FOR THE HELP BUT I MUST BE OFF. EVILDOERS ARE LURKING AROUND AND I FEAR MY FRIEND WOULD NEED MY AID TO GET THROUGH THE DEADLY TRAPS SET BEFORE US. STAY SAFE MY NEW FRIEND." the short man with a massive shield and a deep voice said in his customary mix between talking and yelling, even saluting before he abruptly turned away and uncaring, or not even noticing the fearful or angry looks sent to him.

Aaron for his part only watched the silhouette of Caementicium Wall with a blank face, idly wondering if every frontliner was this eccentric and rethinking his life choices.

As the Wall finally disappeared from his view, so did the last remains in his strength. Aaron, already exhausted mentally and physically, fell to the ground and took a fetal position, like many of his fellows already did, just wanting this whole raid, the day, and this whole insanity to end once and for all.

He didn't even care what would happen to him and the others if PoH and his chosen should learn that they were unable to even kill one of the invading enemies, that all their attacks amounted to less than mosquito bites to them. Screw PoH, screw Xaxa, and every other nutjob, screw Laughing Coffin. Hell, screw the frontliners, screw this whole insane game, screw Kayaba and everyone else involved with it.

"I want my mommy," he murmured as he slowly lost consciousness, the events of the day finally too much for him.

He dreamed of much simpler times, eating Mom's cooking, working on school projects, getting dumped by girls, and generally being nothing more than a boring nerd. Looking back, he missed that life greatly.

When half of an hour later a group of frontliners stumbled on the scene, they were met with the sight of a dozen Laughing Coffin members on the ground, some clearly delirious, some simply fainted or just simply stood there with a blank face. No one offered resistance and even gladly gave themselves up, much to the shock of the green-cursored players.

All the while Aaron silently wept and promised that he would be a good boy from now.

-0-

Suffocating darkness surrounded him.

In front of him lay nothing but a colorless abyss, behind him was even less. At his sides, he thought there were walls that guided the tunnel but he wasn't sure even of that. There was nothing around him, no light, no reflection. His eyes completely failed him, not even the back of his adversary was visible anymore, he was forced to rely on his instincts.

Not even sound existed in the strange tunnel he ran, following Not-Diavel's departure. He did not hear his footsteps, even though he knew that every step should have echoed in the silent tunnel. He reached out with his hand but he couldn't even find the walls, even though based on the opening, it shouldn't have been a very wide tunnel.

With all his other senses blocked, he could only rely on his sense of smell but even that soon proved to be useless.

Not because he couldn't smell anything, quite to the contrary. The air around him was full with the foul stench of death, of decaying bodies. He had no idea where he ever encountered anything like this before, since he met nothing like that before either in-game or real life, yet his brain almost too easily suggested the source of the smell that almost made him vomit.

Yet it didn't matter. He gritted his teeth, steeled himself, and simply ignored it, chasing after his elusive enemy. There was no time to ponder, no time to feel doubt, only one course of action left for him to take. He had to take the imposter down and end this charade once and for all.

Unfortunately, it seemed that fate had other ideas.

His breathing became harbored, his limbs felt as if they were weighed down and every move became harder and harder until he knew he was slowing down. Worse, he knew that this condition also affected his skills in the inevitable fight coming up, something he couldn't allow. Yet he could not do anything against the exhaustion that hit him.

It was not typical exhaustion, since his body was nothing more than data. A virtual body shouldn't feel tired, his problem came from a different source.

Mental fatigue. One of the most serious problems a player can encounter especially if they are fighting alone. Even if a strike is only a millisecond off, it could easily end up with the attacker ending up dead, that's why players were so serious about only being on the fields for a certain time.

No matter how much you concentrate, after a while your attention will slip, you hesitate for a moment, or simply misjudge an attack coming your way. All could end up in instant death. That was a lesson all former beta testers, at least those who publicly revealed themselves, were keen to pass on to newer players after the game's true nature was revealed.

He shouldn't have been surprised that he was already feeling the drain, not after the last few days he had.

He was stressed enough about the threat of Laughing Coffin, the preparations for the sudden raid, coordinating and producing supplies, as well trying to keep all the preparations away from notice. Not to mention the almost endless fights they had to wade through in these tunnels, ambush after ambush.

Then came the real trap, almost dying and watching Argo just barely survive a blow meant to kill. His anger might fuel him for a moment, but he wouldn't be able to keep it up for much longer. Yet he was still chasing after him, with no end in sight.

He had no idea how long he was running. It might have been only a minute or even half an hour. The darkness, the lack of sounds, completely robbed his sense of time. He might have even lost Not-Diavel completely. Should he stop and turn back?

The thought didn't have much time to turn to anything concrete, unfortunately. As if responding to his thoughts, suddenly the ground under his feet disappeared, leaving him stepping on nothing but air.

For a long moment, he was suspended in air, disbelief, and horror painting his face. There was no warning, nothing to show that there was no ground in front of him. It felt as if the ground under his feet just stopped existing one moment. A moment later time resumed and Natsu fell into the abyss.

His mouth opened to yell but he found himself choking as water surrounded him and air escaped from his lungs. Intellectually he might have known that it was not real drowning, since his virtual body in theory didn't need oxygen, but nothing was stopping the ingrained instincts that served mankind well to survive so far.

Natsu began to struggle, trying to swim upward but something snaked around his body, long tentacle-like limbs ensnaring and trapping him. He tried to cut whatever it was with his sword but he simply couldn't reach around with his arms restrained like that. What few limbs he might have reached, he simply was unable to apply enough strength for his sword to cut.

Fruitlessly he continued to struggle, even as he was aware that whatever caught him was pulling him deeper and deeper, despite no light around. His head felt dizzy from the lack of oxygen and he began to panic, abandoning all thoughts of trying to find a way to get out of the predicament, he started thrashing wildly, his need to survive and blooming panic overriding conscious thought.

It was all too real. Too real, too different from anything else he encountered here. He was gonna die. He was gonna die for nothing, in some kind of hidden lake and when he dies, there will be nothing left of him. There will be nothing left and he will never see the faces of his friends, his second family ever again.

For some reason, the panic began to slowly recede as a memory came to his mind. He remembered a certain night when all of them gathered for a dinner at the, at that time, newly bought guild mansion.

All the original members of the guild, at that time the only members, gathered for a night of relaxation of fun. They invited Kirito, Asuna, Klein, and his guild over, with Argo in her usual fashion inviting herself in.

It was fun, something they had previously little in this world full of danger and death. It was before everything became even more serious before they became one of the so-called leading guilds, before Asuna joined the Knight of the Blood. When they were just a group of friends, doing everything they could to survive another day.

He wanted more days like that. He wanted to blush in embarrassment when Buzz and Agil teased him when Argo made fun of him or forced him into embarrassing situations. He wanted to silently just rest under the shade, with Kirito and the others around him. He didn't want to die alone. He wanted to live, to experience more days like that. To see everything Aincrad had to offer.

He wouldn't allow himself to die here.

His eyes suddenly opened, though he didn't know when he closed them and a strange warmth started to fill him. He ignored his lungs, his throat, which felt like they should have been crushed by the lack of oxygen. He ignored the limbs around him tightening, what sounded like the crack of his bones. He didn't even glance at the health bar by the corner of his eyesight.

It didn't matter. He wouldn't die, he wouldn't be able to rest peacefully, not without getting back to the others and to make Not-Diavel, PoH, whatever he was called, for all the people he killed, hurt, or used. He wouldn't die, that was his resolution.

And the world had no other choice but to bend to his will.

-0-

In his secluded and hidden lab, somewhere in Northern Italy, the genius Verde hummed as he examined the simulated results of his newest idea of trying to break through the constantly evolving virtual walls of Cardinal. It was a very interesting and certainly tricky adversary and the scientist couldn't help but feel a little bit elated at the challenge, if only because of his professional pride.

After all, not many could say they presented something to him that he couldn't figure out, analyze and make absolute in a short amount of time. Truly, it was a shame Kayaba Akihiko wasted his genius on something trivial and meaningless like trapping ten thousand people in a video game.

Verde sat back on his chair, absentmindedly reaching for his coffee as his brain already thought of another way to break or slip through the defenses of Sword Art Online. Iemitsu kept his word, delivered everything he said he needed, no questions asked and his monetary compensation was also on time, which meant Verde out of slight respect dedicated a little more time to solving the puzzle the Young Lion presented him with. While he yielded some results, it was nowhere where he would feel satisfied with himself, hence new and newer ways to approach the problem.

Cardinal was an interesting opponent to face off. The independent system was able to easily ward off most of his attempts to take control of it, and with every approach, it learned and its defenses became even more airtight. It turned to the point where he simply stopped attacking it directly and instead ran simulations on a 'mock Cardinal' he made as a side project based on the data of the original, to run through possible ways to come out victorious.

Of course, without full knowledge of its code and possibly other factors, his was but a cheap copy, nowhere near the real one's potential. Still, it was head and shoulders above any other of its kind, even those found on the black market and while he used it to simulate possible infiltration routes he planned to try on the real deal, he also made use of its other functions to make his lab's own defenses and internal working much more efficient.

Of course, given who he is, he wasn't the type to simply copy other's achievements. He intended to work on his version of Cardinal when he had time, to refine it for his needs and eventually surpass the original. He wouldn't allow anything less of himself.

He began to type again on his computer, instead of trying another simulation, he went over the newest batch of data he obtained from the Cardinal system, to check on the situation regarding his charge, Iemitsu's son.

Well, obtain might be a strong word. As much as it galled him to admit, Cardinal allowed him into its system and while the opening wasn't enough for him to try and take it over, it allowed him to get a lot of information about the inner workings of Cardinal as well as what was happening in the simulated world, Aincrad.

What was strange was that Cardinal almost seemed eager to share information with him, as if expecting his help. It was strange but from what he observed so far, Cardinal was much more intelligent than most humans, and more sophisticated than any other AI he ever heard of or encountered. It was truly a marvel, and without the human concept of pride, it must have recognized his genius and approached him for help in a way that might be logical to the system.

Of course, it didn't stop the AI from hiding the sent information in a really complicated string of codes, that caused even his genius formidable trouble. Privately he had to tip his hat into that budding intelligence, even if he ranted a time or two about the inefficiency the constant decoding was causing to him.

He was snapped out of his thoughts, as several alerts ran through the lab, coming from a computer that was particularly dedicated to monitoring what little he could of the original Cardinal.

He furrowed his brows as he quickly went over. A data update from Cardinal's side was not surprising, something seemed to be going behind the scenes, various errors appearing in its world that were eventually corrected by the system, yet continued to appear. No doubt Cardinal sought him out to help him with that, but even he was stumped.

It didn't look like the system was hacked. In truth, nothing was out of place, at least not at a first look. It was as if something or someone was changing certain things inside the game, altering it in its individual code without using any interface. That was the reason why Cardinal was rather slow at noticing these irregularities and only able to patch up what was changed, instead of finding its source.

And while he currently didn't have any concrete lead, a hypothesis was slowly forming in that brilliant mind of his, though if it was true he wouldn't like its implications. Because it would mean that Iemitsu's kid was in much more trouble than they initially thought.

He might have to accelerate some of his side projects after all the backing and resources of Iemitsu were largely needed for his true projects and he wouldn't want to lose it just because the kid died.

The frown on his face intensified as he started reading through the latest info package. It was more hastily put together than usual and most importantly, lacked the coded aspect. That meant it was hastily put together by Cardinal and whatever was happening was serious. And as he finished reading through it, he had to admit it really was.

"Damn it." he cursed before he furiously began to type, quickly halting everything else, fully concentrating on the task before him.

It seems his worries were right and the worst-case scenario was playing out right now. Well worst case apart from the kid dying, but if nothing happens, it would be a foregone conclusion.

"Parenze! Tras! Come here and make yourself useful." he yelled suddenly and his rather incompetent but at times still useful subordinated piled in the room hurriedly.

The smaller Parenze looked disheveled, trying to pull on his clothes while the taller Tras still had bread crumbs around his face as they quickly stood in front of him in a parody of a salute, the difference between their heights causing the image to be even funnier. Verde of course ignored all of that, used to it and not having the free brainpower to bother with their antics.

While not the best help around, they at least were discrete and hadn't ever thought of betraying him, he made sure of that, so at least he was able to leave smaller matters, matters that didn't require much brainpower.

Without even looking up he sent Parenze to send a message to Iemitsu, it would be prudent for the Young Lion to know of the possible development while he sent Tras to gather some of the equipment for storage, while he continued to type furiously, his mind already working on other matters.

Loathe as he was to admit, he could do very little regarding the current situation with his virtually nonexistent access into Cardinal, he could only observe at the moment. But, and he had to admit it was a big but, if Iemitsu's son survived, this encounter would provide more than enough data for him to form a solid lead toward the real cause behind the irregularities happening inside the game and with it, also getting several steps closer to breaking through Cardinal's defense.

For now, though he would do his best to contain and possibly identify the one causing the irregularity from the system. His professional pride demanded after all.

Another alert pulled his attention away, this one coming from a single hospőital from Japan, but one that held a particularly important patient, and from the sounds of it, things didn't look from that end.

Without even looking he silenced the alert and continued to work furiously but kept an eye on the information coming from the hospital, particularly at the vitals of one Sawada Tsunayoshi.

-0-

"Someone get a doctor, quickly!" a nurse shouted as she tried to stop the struggling of her patient, lest he injured himself.

It was supposed to be an uneventful shift. She was assigned to the ward containing those caught in the 'SAO incident' as the media called it, mostly young kids, with a few older ones between them. She was responsible for checking on their vitals and making sure their iv drips were changed constantly.

Nothing really happened here, save for the visiting families sitting at their bedside or the occasional, thankfully really rare death. For one who dedicated their lives to healing, it was absolutely horrible to witness someone dying right in front of them, their brain fried by the death trap on their head, and be able to do nothing.

The first time it happened it shook her to the core so much that she stayed home for three whole days. But eventually, she resolved herself to come back, vowing to do everything in her ability to help them, no matter how little it may account to.

It soon became a routine, check on their vitals, talk to the occasional visitor and simply hope nothing goes wrong and at the very least no one dies. She should have known to keep such thoughts to herself since life tended to prove her wrong.

Suddenly the equipment of one of the patients began to beep frantically, prompting her to run to their side, worry clenching her heart.

She didn't even have to look at the papers at the foot of his bed, he immediately recognized the young boy, despite the helmet covering his face. Sawada Tsunayoshi, one of the youngest victims of the game, or at least of those who were put into this hospital. She knew about him fairly well, his mother came by almost daily, sitting at the side of her son with a somber smile, sometimes talking with her husband on the phone, the two quietly saying reassurances to each other.

She immediately was at his side, checking his vitals, finding much to her shock that his heart's beating sped up worryingly. Placing a hand on the side of his face, she almost pulled it back in shock, it was scoldingly hot. He was breathing rapidly, though she couldn't tell from so little what was wrong with him.

At first, she thought it was because of the helmet that he was dying but it didn't add up. The helmet showed no change from the usual and other times she was forced to witness it, the death was clean and immediate. Kayaba Akihiko at least offered them this much.

It did nothing, while her patient began to grunt and shift in discomfort, his heart steadily picking up pace. Eventually, he began full-on trashing, face comforted in pain as she and the other nurses tried to hold him down, calling for the doctor.

No matter how much it shamed them, at the moment they could do very little, with the precarious situation these people were in. They would have to be even cautious about what sort of medicine they gave them since, unlike their bodies, their brains were still working, trapped in a virtual world.

Unknown to everyone, under the nervegear placed on Tsuna's head, a small, barely visible flame sparked in the middle of his forehead, burning nothing but steadily gaining strength.

At that time, something changed, for the better or the worse, both in the real world and the one called Aincrad.

-0-

*Cough* *Cough*

The change was quick and unexpected.

One moment he was drowning, helplessly trying to find air, with shadow limbs grabbing onto him and pulling him deeper and deeper, and now he was on solid ground on all fours, coughing out the water in his lungs and trying to breathe air after what felt like an eternity, at the same time.

"What's going on?" the words slipped out in his bewilderment as he slowly stood up, using his sword as a crutch, idly noting that somehow he wasn't wet despite almost drowning, as he looked around.

He was not inside a cave, that was sure. Above him, the night stars shined, a rare phenomenon in this virtual world, where there was no such thing as an open sky, only the bottom of the next floor. To make this scene even more impossible, last he checked it would still be the middle of the afternoon unless he lost consciousness at some point.

But even then came the most important question. How and why was he still alive?

He was in some kind of large circular arena, rows of seats looking down on him as he looked around, standing in the middle of a small field. It reminded him of the Coliseum he saw a picture of two of in his books when he was younger, only it was not halfway destroyed by the trials of time, rather it looked brand new.

Large bonfires were used to light up the arena by its corners, giving it an eerie feeling. Natsu felt uncomfortable, turning his head constantly, feeling like he was being watched but for the life of him couldn't catch the sight of anything alive, neither players nor monsters.

He hesitantly raised his hand, opening up his menu, intending to try and make sense of whatever map data was available when he once again found himself shocked. The menu did come up but instead of showing any information, it came up blank. Not even his character page showed, no button had a name to it, and even pushing them did nothing.

It was impossible. It should have been impossible, for something, anything to disable the menu but here it was in front of him. Natsu felt a chill go down on his spine at the thought, suddenly finding himself much more defenseless than before.

He knew that his enemy was dangerous, on a whole different level than anyone that he faced before but it was getting a bit ridiculous. Was he truly Kayaba Akihiko? Who else would be able to do things like that other than him?

His grip on his sword tightened, his trusted partner the only thing left he could solidly rely on. Dismissing the blank menu, he took a deep breath, trying to calm himself and take stock of the situation.

As if a switch was pushed on inside him, his worries became nothing than dull echoes, as a sense of peace and harmony spread through him. It didn't make him forget about all possible threats that he was facing but it helped to clear his mind and to think rationally.

Closing his eyes, Natsu focused on his senses. He felt the wind traveling in the air, the slight heat from the nearby bonfires, and heard the sounds of his own breathing. It felt real, just as real as anything else in this virtual world, maybe even more so but that sense of wrongness, the feeling of not being real, that he felt from Diavel's doppelganger permeated the air. It was the work of that man, there was no doubt about it.

Opening his eyes, he let out the breath he was holding, feeling his shaken-up resolve settle down. Unknown to him his eyes turned to orange once again, and a barely perceivable sense of power started radiating from him.

„I can't just stay. If there are no other ways, I can only go forward," he told himself, idly moving his sword around, testing its weight.

Before it was heavy in his hand, pulling him down even if he wielded it expertly but now, for some reason, it was much lighter. No, it wasn't the correct term. It wasn't lighter, but more natural, like an extension of him that was always there but he only gained awareness of it now.

His thoughts were cut off as he heard rapid footsteps coming from his right.

Narrowing his eyes, he turned, finding a simple gate leading out of the stadium he found himself in. From the looks of it, it was the only way out, unless he tried to climb up to the seats and try his luck there. It was wide open and judging from the sounds someone was coming this way.

He only just readied his sword just in case when a figure stepped out of the darkness.

It was a skeleton, a simple mob that he encountered many times in the dungeon of the 26th floor. But unlike them, this one was a bit different, instead of the generic look most skeleton mobs sported and usually, their arms and armor were rusted, missing, or just plain broken, this one was wearing full armor, while it had its own share of wear, it wasn't unlike the armor frontliners wore.

More than that as he looked at the skeleton's dark soulless eyes, he felt a horrid sense of familiarity. The forest green brigandine that covered the chest, the long spear in his hands, t's tip of barbed and blackened while the shaft remained pure white. Even the simple arm guards and the pointed iron helmet that was reminiscent of what Vikings wore.

Those pieces belonged to someone he was very familiar with, hence the worry of seeing them on a monster.

"Buzz." he couldn't help but mumble as he watched the mob take a stance that mirrored his friend's to a T but did not attack outright.

What was going on? What happened to Buzz? And does he have some connection to this skeleton or it was just created by his enemy just to confuse and force him to hesitate?

Despite all those worries, Natsu knew full well that he couldn't afford to think about it for long. His real opponent was getting further and further away and he couldn't allow himself to be delayed anymore. And If he beats the answers out of the one in front of him, he thought somewhat uncharacteristically coldly, all the better.

He couldn't afford to fall like he almost did with Argo. Never again.

-0-

This was getting ridiculous.

That was the sole, annoyed thought of Buzz, as the spearman ran through the dark tunnel, chasing after his reckless charge. He was not getting paid enough for always looking after that kid, with his insane stunts.

It must have been quite a few minutes since he entered the tunnel, but it didn't seem to end, despite him running while putting all of his agility stat into use. Nor did he see or hear the kid in question. The darkness around him was so thick, he couldn't even see the tip of his nose, let alone the kid he was chasing. Worse, for some reason, there was no sound to be heard there.

The kid couldn't have been further in than him by that much, yet he heard none of his footsteps. For that matter, he didn't even hear his own footsteps, nor his harried breathing. It was as if after entering the tunnel he lost all of his senses and the only thing he could do was run.

He wasn't even sure he could even turn around, his sense of direction was completely off, yet somehow he wasn't running into a wall. It wasn't even impossible that he was simply running in circles, only unaware of it.

Damn it. He was getting too old for this shit.

Just as he finally started to slow down, his limbs protesting the excessive use, despite nothing but virtual renditions of what his real ones looked like before he was trapped in this game, a light showed up in front of him, it seemed he finally reached the end of that damned tunnel.

As he stepped out of the tunnel he instinctively slowed down, thrusting his spear into a defensive position, even as he was blinded momentarily by the sudden change of light. Yet, despite his wariness, no attack came, trying to take his life.

Blinking the spots out of his eyes, he quickly took stock of his surroundings. Impossibly, it looked like he found himself in a rather detailed rendition of an old roman gladiator arena, through the night sky after spending so many hours with nothing but stone above his head certainly throwing him off.

Finally, his eyes fell to the figure standing in the middle of the arena and his heart almost stopped from shock as recognition shone in his eyes.

A skeleton, eerily similar to the looks of 'Diavel's' teammates, who suddenly turned against them, the skin practically melting from their frame, leaving nothing but bone behind. But what really shocked him was the equipment this particular monster wore.

A set of leather armor, with the sign of a roaring lion on the left shoulder, a half-cape billowing behind. A carefully crafted and maintained longsword in its grip, a long, green line running decorating the middle of the blade. Benevolent, a sword that was a one-time quest reward on the fifth floor, that served its user faithfully, even on the increased challenges of the 26th floor.

"Natsu." he breathed out the name of Benevolent's holder, horror clear on his face.

The skeleton said nothing, only turning towards him, a pair of orange eyes, more like small fires stared at him from the darkened eye holes of the skull.

A grim expression took place in Buzz's face as he cast away his terror, quickly changing his stance to an offensive one. He had no idea what kind of trick that was, who's idea of a sick joke but he couldn't be held up, not more.

He had to find the real Natsu and if he had to get through that pale imitation so be it.