A/N: Welcome, welcome, readers both new and familiar, to the next installment in my interpretation of the Sword Art Online game canon. The last story, Shattered Fragment, covered the events of the Aincrad arc, as well as those of the Hollow Fragment video game. This story aims to expand on that continuity, so things will be (somewhat loosely) based on the story of Lost Song.

If you have not read the first part of this series, you may find it on my profile page, and I do recommend giving it a look, as it's some of my best work to date. However, if you do not wish to do so, or if you just need a refresher on the important events that occurred in Shattered Fragment, I have compiled a summary of the story for your benefit, which is what you will be reading today. The first proper chapter will be up in a few days, and I look forward to what you all have to say about the prospects of Mataras and friends as they embark on a new chapter of their lives.

The artwork for this story was made by me, but if you want to see a better quality version of it in addition to the other pieces I have made for the previous story, please check out my Instagram, the_red_swordsman

Read, review, and most importantly, enjoy.

Shattered Fragments

On November 6th, in the year 2022, the world was rocked by the news that ten thousand people had become prisoners, trapped in the very first Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, Sword Art Online. The players trapped within the floating castle of Aincrad were given an ultimatum by the game's creator, Akihiko Kayaba, which outlined the conditions of their release. If they could defeat all one hundred floors of the game, everyone would be free to go home. However, if their avatars perished within the game, their real bodies would be exposed to a lethal microwave discharge from the NerveGears that they were wearing, which made the full-dive technology possible in the first place. After that, Kayaba vanished without a trace, both in the real and virtual worlds.

Among the number of people trapped within the game was a young man calling himself 'Mataras', along with his younger sister, 'Saphira', and their oldest friend, 'Rivka'. Together, they found another acquaintance from the real world- a boy named Kirito- and formed a party to begin making headway in the clearance of the game. They also offered a man named Klein the chance to join them, but he declined, saying that he owed his allegiance to some friends that he knew from the real world, a group which would eventually become known as the Fuurinkazan guild.

A month passed, during which time the entirety of the first floor was mapped out, save for the main dungeon, where they would find the first boss standing between them and their eventual goal of freedom. However, in all those weeks, there was no sign of help coming from the outside for those trapped in game, and not even those that had been beta testers- Kirito among their number- could determine the location of the first boss lair. As a result, many people lost hope of ever being released, and committed suicide by the hundreds, until over two thousand people were dead within four weeks.

Fortunately, before more people could give in to despair, the first boss was located by a party leader named Diavel, who managed to put together a raid group big and strong enough to take on the floor boss. Mataras' party joined this alliance, and made two new allies in the process; a girl named Asuna, and a mysterious man named PoH. However, a man named Kibaou interrupted the alliance meeting, stating that the beta testers were largely responsible for the deaths of the two thousand-plus players over the course of that month, and that in recompense, they should give up their money and rare items to other, regular players that had started out with less of an advantage.

Angered by this, as he knew Kirito to be a beta tester, Mataras antagonized Kibaou in front of the assembly, nearly bringing the two of them to blows. An outsider named Agil stepped in to diffuse the situation, and the meeting was able to continue on without further hindrance, though Mataras continued to be frustrated with Kibaou's impertinent behavior.

During the first boss fight, all appeared to be going well, until Diavel attempted to finish off the boss on his own, which resulted in him receiving a fatal blow from Illfang, the Kobold Lord. Before his death, Kirito recognized Diavel as a fellow beta tester, after which the alliance leader begged Kirito and his friends to defeat the boss, for the sake of everyone that had followed him there. Mataras then took up the fight, revealing a sword skill unique to him, titled 'Dragon Blood', which allowed him a free range of motion with any weapon of his choosing, though he could not equip other sword skills while it was active. With this ability, he and Kirito were able to lead the fight in Diavel's stead, as well as land the final blows on the boss, clearing the first floor of Aincrad.

However, instead of being praised for their efforts, Kibaou outed them as beta testers, sowing jealousy and distrust among the newly-formed alliance. In response to this, Kirito and his friends took on the monikers of 'beaters', claiming that their skills far surpassed that of even the other beta testers, all in aid of avoiding a witch hunt for the other beta testers, and giving the others a common rival to band together against. Kibaou still wanted them to face a harsher punishment, as he saw them as being responsible for Diavel's death, being unaware of the other man's privileged status at the time. Mataras' temper was then nearly lost, as he all but threatened death upon Kibaou if he tried to do wrong against him or his friends.

After that, PoH left the party, claiming that he did not wish to draw unnecessary attention to himself. Asuna, however, stayed with the group, bringing their numbers up to five elite players, a strong force to be reckoned with at the time.

That evening, the weary players were greeted by someone that they could not have expected. Suguha Kirigaya, who was Kirito's younger sister, had entered the death game with a stolen NerveGear in the hopes of speaking to her brother about a personal manner that she had decided was worth risking her life for, which was the validity of her relation to Kazuto. She claimed that she had learned the fact that they were not, in fact, brother and sister, but cousins. Kirito confirmed this to be true, revealing that his parents had been killed in a car accident when he was an infant, and had thus been adopted by his aunt and uncle. He had only realized it himself a few year prior, which had led to his drifting apart from Suguha, an occurrence that had pained her greatly, as they had been close during their early childhood. In recognition of the risk that Kiriha had taken for trying to uncover the truth, Kirito vowed to try and amend his relationship with his sister.

Kiriha also brought the distressing news that Mataras and Saphira's parents had been killed in a manner similar to Kirito's mother and father, having been part of an accident that involved a distracted driver. The revelation that they were orphans nearly crushed both of them, but it also planted the beginnings of something dangerous in Mataras, though he repressed it by caring for his sister as best as he was able in the days that followed.

Having been encouraged by the news that the first floor boss had been defeated, the mass suicides ceased, and many people flocked to join the battle against the front lines of SAO. Mataras' group was still at the forefront of the battle every day, much to the displeasure of many other faction leaders, but after repeatedly demonstrating the help that they could provide, which often saved lives, they were (begrudgingly) accepted as a part of the Assault Team. During this time, four guilds became the powerhouses of Sword Art Online: the Knights of the Blood-Oath, led by the charismatic and aloof Heathcliff, the Holy Dragon Alliance, which was ruled by a small council, the Aincrad Liberation Army, among which Kibaou held a great deal of influence, and Fuurinkazan, Klein's small-yet-elite guild. Mataras' group easily rivalled theirs' in power, but they never formed a proper guild, as they were all content being a small party throughout.

Disaster struck during the events of the first quarter-mark boss fight, which began with Kibaou attempting to take on the monster with only his guild's men, an effort that led to many deaths under his watch. He refused to concede the battle as lost, or that he even needed aid to defeat the boss, even when Mataras and the others arrived to help. He tried to make them leave so that his guild would receive the credit for the victory, and when they refused, he physically attacked Mataras, which caused something inside the young man to snap.

He brutally attacked Kibaou, initially leaving him to die from a poisoned knife in his neck, but he was snapped out of his murderous rage by his sister, who convinced him to spare the man's life, in spite of how difficult he had made things for them. Mataras let Kibaou go, warning him that he would not show the same mercy if he attempted to strike again.

In the final moments of the boss battle, a maddened Kibaou- having ignored Mataras' warning- took Kiriha (Suguha Kirigaya) as a hostage, intending to use her death as a way to get back at Kirito's group, but he was stopped by Asuna, who wound up getting killed by the boss while she was distracted. Her death wounded the group deeply, and even though Kibaou was taken away to send the rest of his time in Aincrad in jail, Mataras felt that it was not enough of a punishment. Once again, only Saphira stopped his murderous intent from being fulfilled, though it was becoming clearer that one day, even her influence might not be enough to keep it at bay.

Deciding that some time away from the front lines of battle would be good for the group, Kirito led his team down to the lower floors, where they eventually encountered a small guild, the Moonlit Black Cats. After befriending them and some debate between Mataras and Kirito, their group joined the mid-level guild, promising to help train their new companions so that they could fulfill the guild leader, Keita's, dream of being a front-line faction.

Mataras was assigned to work with a girl named Sachi, the weakest and most timid member of the guild. After confessing her crippling fear of death to her new partner, he promised to train her in order to become stronger than her dread, and to protect her with his life until that day came. Over the course of time, they became good friends with a strong student-master relationship growing between them, despite Mataras' initial reluctance to align himself with the weaker guild members.

One day, while the two of them were training, they were accosted by a group of yellow players- people that had committed crimes against their fellow man. After forcing Sachi to escape via teleportation, Mataras dueled the five men on his own, hoping that he could intimidate them into retreating, as his skills far outclassed theirs', but it was not to be. During the fight, Mataras inadvertently killed the criminals' leader, which quickly led him to accepting the fact that he could never take back killing a person. He swiftly killed the remaining criminals, save for one, and this was because his guild mates arrived just in time to prevent him from completing the act.

After that, Mataras felt like a pariah among his new friends, with only Saphira, Rivka, and Sachi seeming to be comfortable with his presence. He considered leaving the guild several times, but the girls always talked him out of it.

Just when it started to seem like he would be accepted back into the social embrace of the Moonlit Black Cats, the unthinkable occurred. During a venture into some of recently-cleared dungeons of Aincrad while Keita went to look at buying a house for their guild, everyone else became trapped in an anti-crystal room, which prevented them from using items to teleport out of the area while it filled up with high-level monsters. Three of the original Black Cats were quickly cut down, but Mataras and the others managed to keep Sachi safe until the last round of creatures came in to battle.

The timid girl was about to be killed by a blow from behind, but Saphira intervened, taking the lethal strike upon her own body, saving Sachi's life at the cost of her own. Mataras went into a blind rage, destroying most of the remaining monsters on his own, though he could later never remember exactly how he had accomplished this feat.

When Keita learned of his friends' deaths, he immediately blamed Mataras, singling him out as the most skilled player, which made it his duty to look out for those in his party that were less capable. Now blind and deaf to reasoning, Mataras grabbed Keita and held him out over the edge of the floating castle, which led to his guild leader plummeting to his death.

Kiriha then attempted to kill Mataras, but was prevented from doing so by the town's safe zones and his superior stats. The boy then renounced his friendships with the others, leaving them behind, and disappearing for more than six months without a hint for them as to where he had gone.

During that time, he found himself in a place called the Hollow Area, which was a testing ground separate from the floating castle, which allowed the Cardinal System to evaluate the strength and efficiency of items yet to be released into Aincrad, the main part of SAO. The system did so by generating 'Hollow AI' artificial replicates with trace memories of players that had died, or those that were considered to be of a higher fighting caliber.

Mataras discovered this when he encountered Strea, a Mental Healthcare Program AI that had recognized his intense mental anguish, and had sought him out to aid him in his endeavor to find some measure of peace. Strea explained that for some unknown reason, her and a few other programs like her had been forbidden from interacting with Aincrad, though she was able to get around this by writing her code onto an unused player's avatar. She also introduced him to his own Hollow clone, which he quickly renamed as 'Crimson', due to their shared affinity for red clothing. Mataras then convinced the two of them to help him in the mission that he had set for himself: the total extinction of the red players in Aincrad, otherwise known as player-killers. Strea was initially against this, as she was created with the sole purpose of helping people, but Mataras won her around to his way of thinking, which saw to her helping him reprogram several Hollow AI to serve his interests.

His first victim was Kibaou, who he arranged to have released from prison early so that he could ambush him the field, outside of a safe zone. After this, Mataras spent several months striking in secret, targeting smaller groups that he could handle on his own, while simultaneously training Crimson to properly use Dragon Blood, as the Hollow had little imagination on how to wield it in a creative manner. As he spent more time with his 'source' identity, Crimson's own personality began to emerge and evolve, becoming something like Mataras, but with a more relaxed attitude and a friendlier disposition than the now-ruthless killer that had recruited him. Despite this, he never questioned Mataras' methods or tried to back out of the mission, and became the boy's most trusted aide.

While Mataras was still executing smaller operations to eliminate red players, an anomaly occurred in the Hollow Area, one that dragged in a player from outside into the world of Sword Art Online. The girl's name was Sinon, and despite having an initial bout of amnesia, she eventually remembered that she had been using a device called a Medicuboid in an effort to help deal with traumatic memories of being forced to shoot a man to death when she was a little girl, an event that afflicted her psyche to the point where she didn't have a single friend in the real world, only people afraid of her and those that would use her past and developed phobia of guns to torment her. At first, she despised Mataras, seeing him as a monster that killed people for his own amusement, but when she realized that similar circumstances had made murderers of the both of them, she began to sympathize with his reasoning. He promised that if she accepted him, that he would never abandon her to isolation again, having recognized a kindred, suffering spirit. Sinon joined his crusade after that, using her own unique skill to wield a bow and arrow as the only archer in SAO, and becoming his most staunch follower and supporter, her loyalty outdoing even Crimson's devotion to their leader.

Because of his growing reputation as a red player-killer, and his habit of dressing in bright scarlet, Mataras became known in whispers as 'The Red Swordsman.'

During the second Christmas in Aincrad, rumors began to float around that there would be a unique item dropped by a special event holiday boss, Nicholas the Renegade. Supposedly it could bring the dead back to life, though how such a thing was possible, no one knew. All that was made apparent was the fact that just about everyone wanted to get their hands on it, though few would be powerful enough to do so- and fewer still would know where to find the boss.

Among those numbers were the Moonlit Black Cats, now being led by Kirito, the Fuurinkazan guild, and the Holy Dragon Alliance. A three-way fight nearly broke out over which faction would get to fight Nicholas, but in the end, Klein's guild decided to fight off their Dagon rivals in order to give the Cats a chance at getting the resurrection item. However, before Kirito, Kiriha, and Sachi could reach their destination, they were ambushed by Mataras, who used paralysis poison on them in order to keep them from interfering with his fight against the boss, as he wanted the item to use on his sister. After a fierce battle, the item was revealed to be real, but it could only revive someone within ten seconds of their avatar perishing, which was theorized to be how long it took for the microwave charge from their NerveGears to build up a lethal burst. Mataras left the item with Kirito, having no need for it, and disappeared once again.

Sometime between these events and Mataras' next appearance, Kirito and Sachi began a romantic relationship, having decided that it would be better to have one another, even if for a little while, as opposed to leaving their feelings unexplored and wondering what might have been.

After this, Mataras' guild, the Fifth Commandment, ramped up their kill counts to an unprecedented pace. Within a year of being active, and only a few months after Sinon and Crimson joined their leader's forays into Aincrad, the crew had over three hundred kills between them, and nearly two-thirds of those belonged to Mataras himself. However, he and Crimson never appeared in the same place at the same time, wanting to keep their dual identities a secret. As such, he was deemed an active threat by the Assault Team, and they began to divide their time between advancing the game and trying to catch him, but to no avail, as they could not follow him to the Hollow Area, nor did they even possess knowledge that there was such a place to begin with.

At one point, Kirito and the other Cats got close to catching him, but were stopped when they found a young girl named Silica, alone in a dangerous forest, who claimed that Mataras had just saved her life. Puzzled by why he would do this, the group gave up the chase as lost for that day, and decided to try and lure out the Red Swordsman another way. They had recently been paid to track down an orange guild called 'Titan's Hand', and Kirito suspected that Mataras would make a play for them, too.

Although he was proven correct, Mataras still managed to outwit him in the end, surprising the Black Cats with the appearance of Crimson and Sinon at the same time that they completed the slaughter of Titan's Hand, one of the few murder guilds left on Mataras' list of enemies. Leaving his former allies confused and in despair, he left Kirito a note with instructions on how to reach him, should he require his aid. He did this with the thought in mind to eventually have Kirito owe him a favor, which could prove invaluable later on.

That same day, Mataras and his friends encountered a new, unusual Hollow- one that had been made in the image of his dead sister, Saphira. Unwilling to reopen his heart to old wounds, Mataras refused to even acknowledge her presence, and continued his work as the Red Swordsman with an unrelenting will.

Some more time passed, during which the Assault Team made it past the fiftieth floor mark, and Silica joined the Moonlit Black Cats as a fully-fledged member. Then a seemingly impossible murder was committed in a safe zone, of which many people assumed had to be the doing of the Red Swordsman. Remembering Mataras' instructions, Kirito set up a meeting with his former friend to determine if had, in fact, been his work that had been witnessed.

Upon meeting the other boy- now being known by a similar moniker, the 'Black Swordsman'- Mataras revealed that it was not him who had committed this murder in particular, even having an alibi to back up his claim. However, he was curious as to how such a thing could be done, so he offered to combine his resources with Kirito on a temporary basis in order to solve the mystery of the murder in the safe zone. Kirito agreed to the idea, agreeing to only bring in Sachi from his team to assist with the investigation, while Mataras called on Sinon to aid him.

In the middle of this, Mataras was summoned back to the Hollow Area by Strea, who had encountered two newcomers in the hidden world. The first was a treasure hunter named Philia, while the other was another Medicuboid user named Yuuki. Philia was familiar with the rumors of the Red Swordsman, and so she held no trust for Mataras and his friends, but Yuuki seemed determined to make peace with them, regardless of what they had done or would do. The pair agreed to stay in the Hollow Area and keep out of the Fifth Commandment's way for a while, in exchange for being allowed to roam the place in search of rare items and equipment to strengthen themselves.

Before Mataras could return to his joint investigation with Sinon and the others, Crimson pulled him aside and revealed that he and Strea had discovered that Akihiko Kayaba was not only living among them as a player, but that he planned to confront the Assault Team as the final boss of SAO. After learning the man's identity for himself, Mataras ordered Strea to erase the information from her memory banks, as he did not want Kayaba to suspect her of foul play, and delete her program accordingly. This made him and Crimson the only ones in Sword Art Online who knew of Kayaba's whereabouts.

After some investigation back in Aincrad, another suspicious murder was committed, this time on the girl that Kirito and Sachi had been using as an informant for the case, though Mataras suspected that there was more to her than how she presented herself, especially as she had presented the idea that the ghost of her old guild leader was the one enacting their vengeance upon them. Apparently, the woman known as Griselda had vanished during what was supposed to be a simple business transaction that involved a rare ring from a monster drop. She left behind an in-game husband, and Yolko feared that her shade was now targeting her former guild members in retribution for the loss of her life. When Mataras had Strea look into the girl, and her slain companion, Caynz, he found that the pair had simply staged their deaths in order to scare another member of their old guild, the one that they believed was responsible for Griselda's death.

Using this ruse, Yolko confronted her former ally, Schmitt, disguised as Griselda's shade, and got him to confess that he had played a part in her demise, though he had never intended her death to be the end result. He also admitted to having a mastermind benefactor behind the plot, whose identity he was still unaware of. During this encounter, the three players were ambushed by several members of Laughing Coffin, the deadliest and most elusive murder guild in SAO, led by PoH, who had once been an ally to Kirito's party.

Fortunately for Schmitt and his old friends, Mataras and Kirito showed up before anyone could be killed, having had a hunch that the show wasn't quite over yet. Kirito fully expected his deadly ally to kill the red players on sight, but Mataras strangely chose to let them go, even though it was obvious that he could have killed the three of them where they stood. He promised to explain his reasoning later, once the present situation had been dealt with.

The former guild mates were grateful to the Red and Black Swordsmen, but their work wasn't quite done. The two of them illuminated the others to several key points of evidence that pointed to Grimlock (Griselda's in-game husband) as being the man behind the curtain, working toward the deaths of his wife and comrades. The biggest piece of evidence to support their theory was that married players shared inventory, so no matter who killed Griselda, the ring would stay with Grimlock. Sinon and Sachi had found and were able to capture the man himself, after which he readily confessed to the crime, without any signs of shame or remorse. He claimed that the ring and its monetary value were of no consequence to him, and that he had arranged for his wife's murder simply because her identity had begun to change into one that he no longer recognized as the woman he had fallen in love with. This, combined with the fact that Griselda had been Grimlock's wife in the real world in addition to the virtual realm, only served to send Mataras into a murderous rage, leading him to kill the man at the cost of his capture by Sachi and Kirito. Sinon managed to escape, and promised to come back with help, despite Mataras assuring her that he had a plan that would see to him returning to her of his own free will.

Kiriha showed up to arrest Mataras, possibly kill him because of his role in Keita's death, but the Red Swordsman chose then to reveal that he had not, in fact, killed their first guild leader. Keita had committed suicide by jumping off the side of Aincrad after Mataras had tried to pull him back to safety, having changed his mind about killing the other boy, to no avail. It had looked like Mataras had killed him, but the player-killer pointed out that his game cursor had not changed on that day, meaning that he was not the one responsible for Keita's demise.

After being led away in chains, and being made to stand before the leaders of the Assault team, who planned to try him for his crimes against the people of Aincrad, Mataras managed to flip the tables on them with blackmail. He offered them an ultimatum. They could free him, and assist in his upcoming battle with Laughing Coffin, the last of the murder guilds, in exchange for the knowledge of Kayaba's chosen disguise that stood among them; or they could put him in prison, and lose any chances at an early release from the death game.

After an intense debate among the Assault Team, it was begrudgingly accepted that the deaths of a few dozen more players was an acceptable loss in the name of setting several thousands more free. Mataras was released back to his companions, who then began to tie up loose ends and train for the battle against their most elusive enemy yet. Thanks to Mataras' direct encounter with PoH and his lieutenants, Strea was then able to track their whereabouts at any given time.

Once enough people had agreed to be a part of the raid, Mataras led his guild and tentative allies into battle against Laughing Coffin. The murder guild was caught completely off-guard, but they still managed to take down a few Assault Team members with them. During the fight, Mataras called upon his Hollow allies, including a replica of Asuna, which unsettled many of their enemies and allies alike, though he refused to explain her presence at that time.

During the fight, Mataras rescued a few green players that were being held hostage by the murder guild, one of which was a girl named Rain. While initially fearful of him, she thanked him for rescuing her and praised his efforts to dispel her captors.

Shortly after, toward the end of the battle, Crimson was struck down by PoH, who had thought him to be Mataras. Even as he was killed, however, the Hollow managed to disarm his murderer for a moment, which gave Mataras an edge as he sought to destroy the leader of Laughing Coffin. Mataras did so, but at a cost.

Before his death, PoH hit his enemy with a special, toxic dagger that depleted Mataras' health points faster than he could regenerate them, even with his strongest health potions. Knowing that he was about to die, he charged Sinon and Strea with looking after Aincrad's green players after his death. They accepted his command and then disappeared with the Hollow AI before anyone could question them.

Kirito and Klein tried to get Kayaba's identity out of Mataras before he died, but at the last minute, he reneged on their deal out of spite. He felt that it was just retribution for all of the grief that the Assault Team had given his guild, and even before that, when he and Kirito's friends were ostracized for having advanced skills and knowledge of the game. He did, however, give Kirito the hint that Kayaba had not fought beside them during the raid, but he really was on the Assault Team.

Mataras' health points hit zero, taking the secret of Kayaba's identity with him, much to the anguish and frustration of those he had tricked. Kirito had other ideas, though, and used the resurrection item that Mataras had given him during Christmas on the Red Swordsman, just in time to save his life. He then took his unconscious former friend back to his home as a tentative prisoner, hoping to get him to reveal SAO's creator when he awoke.

During this time, Kirito met up with Sinon, as Mataras had instructed, and went on to learn the secrets of the Hollow Area, which the archer agreed to let his use, so long as he didn't try to fight the remnants of her guild again. She was unaware of Mataras' return to life, and Kirito decided to keep it that way, as he did not want her to try and rescue her leader once he regained control of his faculties.

Getting the recovered Red Swordsman to talk would turn out to be more difficult than he had anticipated, though not because Mataras refused to cooperate when he finally escaped his mini-coma. As it turned out, the exposure to a nearly lethal dose of microwaves when his avatar died had left him with a severe case of amnesia that rendered him incapable of telling them who Kayaba was. It quickly became apparent that he had forgotten most of his time in SAO, including his entire crusade as the Red Swordsman, and the fact that he was now the sole survivor of his family, though it didn't take him long to rediscover his loss.

Instead of transforming him into a serial killer again, however, he entered a state of severe depression, and it took some time, plus the combined efforts of everyone in the Moonlit Black Cats, to rouse him from his stupor. He slowly began to recover his memories, though he showed no signs of recovering the time that he had spent as the Red Swordsman- not consciously, anyway. He had frequent dreams about his old allies, though no one would tell him who they really were or what they had done together. While he was recovering, Kirito kept the other members of the Assault Team away from his friend, knowing that if they scared him off or angered him, there was no way that they would be able to learn the identity of their captor. He and the others hoped that if Mataras remembered things slowly enough while they counseled him, he would be more willing to aid them when the time came. As he was being cared for by his old guild, Mataras began to realize that he was developing feelings for Rivka, his oldest and closest friend.

Meanwhile, a mounring Sinon and Strea wound up dealing with a copycat guild that claimed it was trying to continue Mataras' work past his death, by killing evildoers in Aincrad. However, they had strayed from their chosen path by killing players that merely committed theft and intimidation. The Fifth Commandment's policy was only to kill red players, though they had often locked up criminals in the game's dungeon while they were active. In response to the offense, Strea and Sinon tracked down the renegade players and killed all but one boy, who revealed that he had been cajoled into the role of player-killer by his family, the other members of his guild. Even so, he was angry with the two women, demanding to know what gave them the right to do what they had done, though he quickly retreated when Sinon threatened to kill him, anyway.

Afterwards, the remaining members of the Fifth Commandment received a timed message from Crimson, who had predicted his own death and left behind a memento accordingly. In it, he told Strea and Sinon that he believed in the possibility of a happy future for the two of them, outside of SAO, something that he knew to be impossible for himself or Mataras. His message gave them new resolve to carry out their mission, even in spite of the fact that he could not be there in person to say it.

Several weeks later, the sixty-seventh boss fight was underway when Sinon was alerted to the fact that the Assault Team was taking heavy losses. Strea wanted to go and fight alongside them, but Sinon went in her stead, as she did not want anything to happen to the AI that had made the Red Swordsman possible in the first place. She soon encountered Yuuki and Philia, who had since left the Hollow Area and joined the Assault Team, though they had said nothing of the hidden world, fearing retribution at the hands of the Fifth Commandment.

She also encountered Mataras, who had arrived mid-battle against the wishes of his friends in order to help. He did not recognize her at first, but once the boss was dead, she summoned the rest of her guild in order to scare the other players off and try to get some answers out of her old leader, as she had believed him to be dead.

During her argument with the Moonlit Black Cats, more of Mataras' memories came back in force, and it didn't take long for him to recall his identity as the Red Swordsman, much to the dismay of the Cats. However, he was also quick to reject Sinon and Strea, having become torn between the knowledge that his old friends still cared for him enough to look past his misdeeds and nurse him back to health, and the fact that he was SAO's most accomplished serial killer.

In the end, he bade both parties farewell and fled to the darkest corner of the Hollow Area, where he was stunned to find his sister's Hollow waiting for him, apparently having predicted his movements after watching events unfold from a monitoring room in the hidden world. From there, she continued to follow him around for several months, despite his best attempts to ditch her whilst also avoiding both parties of his former friends, who had formed an alliance with the sole purpose of bringing him back home. During this time, Hollow Saphira finally managed to get him to speak to her, whereupon he revealed that the only reason he had refrained from killing himself thus far was because he was still trying to recall the identity of Kayaba. Once he could do so, he planned to tell Kirito in order to make amends for his spiteful mistake at the Laughing Coffin raid, which would then be followed by his own demise.

Shortly afterward, he was cornered by Sinon and Strea, who said that they had vital information for him, as well as Philia and Yuuki, who claimed that they owed the Moonlit Black Cats a few favors. During this encounter, Strea revealed that she had discovered Saphira's avatar data to not be that of a Hollow, but a normal player. A freak accident had seen to her being teleported to the Hollow Area instead of being killed by a golem more than a year prior, meaning that Mataras' sister had been alive the entire time.

Given this knowledge, Saphira then forgave her brother for all of his crimes that he a committed in the wake of her death, and the insatiable agony that it had caused him. Because of this, Mataras was able to finally let go of his hatred for the world around him, and begin a new path to healing and redemption.

He began this by rushing in to save his old friends from being killed by the seventy-fourth boss, the Gleam Eyes. The Moonlit Black Cats had gone in to support the Aincrad Liberation Force, a guild that had long since lost its grip on the front lines, and found itself close to being annihilated by the deadly monster. Without extra reinforcements, it was clear that the battle would be lost, and the fact that the room was an anti-crystal trap only made things worse.

Kirito himself was about to be struck down when Mataras intervened, driving back the boss and saving his friend's life. Declaring that he was back for good this time, he and his Fifth Commandment guild took up the fight, now augmented by the presence of Philia and Yuuki, as well as Saphira, whose reappearance shocked everyone. The last two girls took the opportunity to reveal their own unique skills; in Yuuki's case, it was dual-wielding for one-handed swords, and for Saphira, it was the skill 'One-Armed Titan', which allowed her to apply one-handed sword mechanics to the massive two-handed sword class.

Together, Mataras and his allies defeated the boss in record time, and he was able to explain Saphira's return, as well as apologize to each individual member of the Cats that he had wronged. When they all forgave him of his transgressions, he offered to join his guild with Kirito's, which the Black Swordsman accepted, even knowing that it would be an unpopular decision with the rest of the alliance.

With that settled, the guild then set about acquiring a new home, one that could house the newly-grown guild in its entirety. They settled for an estate on floor sixty-five that was to their collective liking, though Kirito had other plans. While everyone else moved in to the new house, he sent Mataras on a quest on his behalf to acquire a cabin on the peaceful floor twenty-two, which would be meant for him and Sachi. With some encouragement from Mataras, he proposed marriage to the girl, while making sure to be clear that his intention was to also marry her in the real world as soon as he could. Sachi accepted, and together they asked Mataras to perform the ceremony, much to his surprise and initial reluctance.

However, because of his bond with Sachi, and the debt that he felt he owed Kirito, he agreed to act as the role of minister for their wedding. The joyous occasion was a good way to bring the newly combined guild closer together, as well as giving Mataras and Rivka a chance to discuss their feelings about one another.

Although they had not changed in the slightest, Mataras refused to act on them, having convinced himself that she would only find misery in his arms, and that she deserved far better than him and what he could offer. He was also plagued by the thought that upon their eventual release, he would be put in jail for the rest of his life, if not executed for his crimes of mass murder in the game. As such, he started to keep a distance from her in a social sense, much to her anguish, though he did not cut off his friendship with her entirely.

After leaving to celebrate their honeymoon together, Kirito left Mataras in charge of the guild as vice commander, something that was not met well by the other guild leaders. Despite this, Saphira was able to use her now-immense strength that she had earned while surviving on her own in the deadly Hollow Area to intimidate the others into accepting her brother's new role among their numbers. Realizing that it would be better to have the Cats as continued allies instead of enemies, the other factions relented and stopped chasing Mataras as a criminal.

Kirito and Sachi then sent word that they had found a child with an unusual background; one that entailed no memories of her life other than her name, Yui, as well as a lack of any sort of avatar cursor. Unsure as to what to make of all of it, they called on the former Fifth Commandment members to evaluate her, as they were the unofficial experts of the strange and unexplained in SAO, due to their time in the Hollow Area, and Strea's administrator privileges, limited though they were.

Yui quickly became attached to the young couple, going so far as to confuse them for her mother and father, a role that the two accepted without much reticence, much to Mataras' ire. He warned them that forming such bonds on a false premise could only lead to heartache on both sides, but his fears were soon proved groundless, as Strea revealed Yui to be a defective MHCP, much like herself. Her memory loss stemmed from an apparent build-up of errors that were the result of her being locked away and prevented from being able to aid the players in anguish that she could only watch for years. Not wanting to cause the young program any pain, the group decided to keep her in the dark about the matter, and continued the narrative that Kirito and Sachi were her adoptive parents.

During these events, Saphira counseled Rivka on how to approach her brother on the issue of their wounded friendship, giving the other girl hope that perhaps one day, Mataras would come around to her. Yuuki also ran into Rain, who was excited by the chance to meet Mataras again, as she had not been able to do so since the day that he saved her life. She was accepted into the guild despite some reservations among the other members, but she was quick to earn their trust by proving herself a skilled and faithful ally, even if she was somewhat fixated on Mataras.

Soon afterwards, the seventy-fifth boss lair was discovered, but when a recon team was sent in to evaluate the boss, they became trapped and unable to warp out. Within five minutes, ten players were dead, as confirmed by the Wall of History that bore the name of every person in SAO, alive or otherwise. If someone had died, then their name would be crossed out, and at that time in the game, nearly four thousand players had met their demise at the metaphorical hands of Kayaba's creation.

Realizing that the boss fight would have to be all-or-nothing, the Assault Team gathered the entirety of its elite fighters and prepared to combat the newest threat. The monster turned out to be similar to one that Mataras and his comrades had faced before in the Hollow Area, and so they were able to predict some of its patterns, though more than a dozen players still lost their lives to the creature known as the Skull Reaper. The battle was beyond anything the alliance had ever face before, and by the end of it, only one man remained standing tall- Heathcliff, the leader of the Knights of the Blood-Oath, and wielder of the Divine Blade skill, which maximized his defense to the point where his health had never dipped into the yellow zone, even during such a fight as that boss fight.

Seeing Heathcliff standing among the half-dead survivors without much concern brought the last of Mataras' repressed memories to the fore, and he recalled that it was the Knights' leader who Crimson and Strea had singled out as Akihiko Kayaba. Armed with this knowledge, he, Sinon, and Strea launched an attack on the man, proving his identity when he was revealed as an immortal object, a status reserved only for players with GM privileges. Since there could only be one player with such power, Kayaba chose then to give up the charade and validated Mataras' claim, also revealing himself to be the final boss that would await them on the top floor.

Enraged by the betrayal, one of the other Knights attempted to attack his leader, who responded by paralyzing everyone in the room but Mataras, Sinon, and Strea. As a reward for discovering and revealing his identity through the means provided to them by the whims of the Cardinal System, Kayaba offered to fight two of the three players without his immortality, promising that if they could defeat him, the game would end, and they would all be freed. Should they decline, then the game would continue on as normal until they cleared it the hard way.

Unwilling to let anyone else die because of his past selfishness, Mataras chose Sinon as his partner, and accepted Kayaba's challenge, on the condition that if they lost, the man would set the other MHCP's in the game go free in order to do their jobs and avoid the same fate as Yui. Kayaba agreed, and the duel was carried out, with Mataras and Sinon as the hard-won victors.

Unfortunately, this did not secure their release as they were promised by their jailer. The Cardinal System managed to find a workaround that would keep them all trapped until they managed to defeat a new Hollow on floor 100 that would act as the final boss for the game. The Cats theorized that it would be Heathcliff's Hollow to be the one to face them, but Strea was unable to verify the ID of the final boss. Devastated, but unwilling to give in, Mataras and the others decided to continue the fight to clear the game, regardless of the setback.

Klein took over as the unofficial leader of the alliance in the wake of Kayaba's defeat, and under his influence, Mataras was no longer seen as a threat to the safety of everyone in SAO. As a result, the Moonlit Black Cats devoted all of their resources to clearing the game alongside the others, aiding their progress by a large margin.

Due to the fact that the floors were getting smaller and smaller, the Assault Team began to clear the last twenty-five levels of Aincrad at a staggering pace, having gone past floor 80 by the time of the New Year. During this time, Saphira confronted her brother about the way that he had been treating Rivka, and managed to get him to relent in his habit of keeping her at an arm's length. She also worked with Strea to concoct a plan that would see her brother freed without facing jail for his past crimes, as she knew that the memories of what he had done would be punishment enough for the rest of his life, in addition to the fact that he had shown genuine remorse for his actions.

During that Christmas, Rivka was able to make tentative peace with Sinon, having long thought her to be interested in Mataras in the same manner that she herself was. The archer assured her that no such thing would ever happen between her and the Red Swordsman, in spite of the bond that they shared. As a result, the two became more amicable toward one another, though they wouldn't go so far as to call one another close friends.

In early January of the year 2025, a newcomer who called himself 'Alberich' approached the front lines with the wish to join the Knights of the Blood-Oath, which had been taken over by Godfrey, Heathcliff's former vice commander. Because many members had deserted the guild after the revelation of Kayaba's hidden identity, Godfrey was eager to augment his numbers, but he was cautioned against accepting Alberich until the other members of the Assault Team had a chance to evaluate his skills.

Mataras, Kirito, and Klein were chosen to interview him alongside Godfrey, and the Red Swordsman immediately distrusted the man. He had advanced sword skills and confidence, but Mataras was suspicious of the fact that he claimed to have been on the middling floors until recently, especially when he suspected that the gear he possessed was high enough quality to have come from the Hollow Area, even though there was no sign that a newcomer had been admitted to the hidden world.

Deciding to test the man's abilities himself, Mataras goaded Alberich until he was angry enough to agree to a duel, on the condition that if he defeated Mataras, he would be allowed to join the Knights. However, in spite of his gear and sword skills, he was clumsy with his execution of the latter, handling himself like a novice player- certainly not someone experienced enough to fight on the front lines of the game without getting himself or others killed. As such, he was swiftly rejected from joining, which caused Alberich to vow revenge against the man that had supposedly wronged him.

Aside from that incident, the Assault Team continued its advance through Aincrad, clearing floor 90 by mid-February. During this time, Yui regained her memories, and set out to find the other MCHP's, which had been freed by Kayaba before his death. She did remain close to her adoptive parents, continuing to live with Kirito and Sachi in their cabin on floor 22.

One day, Sachi invited the others to see Kirito assist one of their neighbors with a fishing quest that was rumored to yield the biggest aquatic creature in Aincrad. In need of a respite from all of the fighting that they had been doing, Mataras and the others agreed to attend the event, along with a small crowd of spectators.

Before the quest began, Mataras noted that Rivka and Sinon were nowhere to be seen. Once the event was completed, and there was still no sign of his friends, Mataras received a threatening message from Alberich, who claimed that he had kidnapped and would kill the girls if he did not cooperate. Telling the others to monitor the situation from the Hollow Area Control Room, the Red Swordsman departed for floor ninety, where he was to meet Alberich.

As soon as he arrived, he found that Alberich was being assisted by Kuradeel, a member of the Knights that Mataras had repeatedly humiliated and caused trouble for. Alberich then locked himself, Mataras, and his friends in a secret room accessible only to those with GM privileges. He then revealed himself to be Sugou Nobuyuki, a man who ranked high in the circles of RECT Progress, the company that had taken over when Argus, the developers of Sword Art Online. He had hacked into a spare GM account that had gone unused when Kayaba had locked out the other administrators at the start of the game, which allowed Alberich to summon and control the avatar of the original boss from floor one hundred. He claimed to be researching the effects of long-term diving on the human mind, and in particular, if it were possible to manufacture a way to mind-control people through the VR technology developed by Kayaba. He also claimed that he had been set to inherit the dynasty and fortune of Asuna's family by marrying her, even though she had despised him in real life. He blamed Mataras for her death, as he had been able to monitor some of the player's movements from the outside, and had put him among the people that had been near her when she died. He declared that because Mataras had robbed him of his rightful future, he would do the same to the Red Swordsman. So Alberich gave him a terrible ultimatum: either let Rivka die and have Sinon become the subject of his mind control experiments, or vice versa. If Mataras refused to choose, he would kill the both of them.

Knowing that the both of them would rather die than be subjected to such a fate, Mataras told Sugou to kill the both of them, saying that he could not stand to see his most trusted ally become nothing but a mindless drone, nor watch the woman he loved being turned into a helpless slave. Before Alberich could make good on his threat, Strea and the others warped in to ambush him and Kuradeel, having stripped the intruder of his administrator's privileges, and rendering him incapable of controlling the boss that he had summoned, though it would not attack anyone so long as it remained untouched.

Mataras wanted to kill Alberich, but Saphira prevented him from doing so, not wanting to see him fall back into his old ways. She sent the others away after promising that she had a way to deal with the both of them appropriately. Once they were alone, she told the two men that while she would not kill them, she would not save them from death, either. She then antagonized the boss in the room before locking Alberich and Kuradeel inside, which quickly led to their demise.

With the last player obstacles in the game, the Assault Team cleared floor ninety-nine on March 16, 2025. They decided to take a day of rest before tackling the final boss and setting them all free, as they did not want to face their last- and what was sure to be the deadliest- obstacle while they were overtired from working so hard.

Mataras chose to use this day to wrap up a few things that he realized he needed to address before leaving SAO. He first made sure to have Strea set up a way for the MHCP's to be able to escape the death game when it collapsed by having them turn their programs into items and storing themselves in the memory space of a chosen player's NerveGear, which could later be offloaded into another game. He then spent a few minutes at his old campsite with Strea and Sinon in order to reminisce about the memories that only they shared together. Once they had left to complete their own errands, he took his time in carving a memorial into a tree that honored Crimson and the day that he had died in his place. He also spoke to the memory of his Hollow, wishing that he could have been standing alongside him on their day of victory.

Meanwhile, Kirito and Klein were devastated to learn that the majority of the alliance had chosen to drop out of the final boss fight for various reasons. Some had grown to prefer their virtual life over their old ones, while others claimed that there was no point in trying after Kayaba's death had not granted them the release that they had been promised, and some just didn't want to see their comrades die anymore. By the end of the meeting, only Fuurinkazan and the Moonlit Black Cats still planned to attack the boss the next day.

Mataras and Rivka, having finally arrived at a mutual understanding about their feelings regarding one another, and knowing that the next fight could be their last, decided to go on a date, properly beginning a romantic relationship between the two of them. This was followed by the guild attending an unofficial nighttime memorial service for everyone that had died in Sword Art Online thus far.

The next day, on March 18, 2025, the Cats and Fuurinkazan were surprised to be joined by about fifty other players, all of whom had decided to ignore their guild leaders' orders, wanting to take part in the final battle for their freedom. Armed with new resolve, the Moonlit Black Cats led the way into the Ruby Palace, where a horrible revelation awaited them.

Instead of meeting the Hollow Heathcliff, Mataras and his friends were confronted by his own shade, Crimson, who had been revived by the Cardinal System to be used as the final obstacle between them and their freedom. Fully expecting to be killed, Mataras fought Crimson in the fiercest duel that Aincrad would ever see. It ended when Crimson purposely destroyed his own weapon mid-fight and allowed Mataras to run him through, ending his life and Sword Art Online with it.

Although devastated by the second death of his doppelganger, Mataras was soon reunited with Crimson in a special vantage point that allowed them to watch the destruction of Aincrad and the Hollow Area. The two of them were also joined by the ghost of Kayaba, though he claimed he was something other than a Hollow. When asked why he had created the world that he did, Kayaba answered that he had been curious to see what humanity would make of a fresh start, given the chance in the form of his floating castle. Despite claiming to be satisfied by the results of his work, Mataras and Crimson argued that nothing had been accomplished, as both were of the belief that humans corrupted anything new that was given to them, and that Kayaba could have seen that repeated many times in the real world's history. Indifferent to their claim, the man bade them farewell, saying that he hoped to meet Mataras again someday.

Crimson, knowing that his time was running out, spent his last minutes helping Mataras find peace with the way that things had been made to end, including his repeated death. The two parted ways as brothers, and Mataras found himself waking up in the real world alongside Saphira in a private hospital paid for by Rivka's father.

The two of them were soon met by Kikuoka, a man in charge of the SAO Recovery Team, whose job was to get a better idea of what had happened inside of the virtual world, as well as seek out recruits for his team to investigate strange happenings in other virtual worlds. He attempted to blackmail Mataras into working for him by claiming that he had enough data to oust him as the Red Swordsman. Saphira quickly flipped the tables on the man by threatening to expose his suspected dealings with with Sugou Nobuyuki, the fact that the Medicuboid had been used on a second patient after it had dragged Sinon into SAO, and that his claims to having data were false, as she and Strea had created a Trojan that infected their monitoring equipment and forced them to do a total memory dump.

Stunned and sufficiently cowed by her guarantees of mutually assured destruction, Kikuoka agreed to drop the charges against Mataras, as well as give them several things that they wanted in exchange for them keeping their mouths shut about his shady dealings. Mataras agreed to work for the man on the condition that he be made Saphira's legal guardian, and that they be given a trust fund that would last them the rest of their respective lifespans. Kikuoka was initially unhappy with this, but he knew that it would be better to have the siblings as prospective allies instead of enemies, so he agreed to their demands, saying that Mataras' work would begin as soon as they were physically rehabilitated.

It took a few months for that to happen, but this also gave the members of the Moonlit Black Cats ample time to contact one another and set up a party at Agil's bar once they were all discharged from their respective hospitals. As this was going on, Mataras and Saphira learned that it was Sachi's estranged father who had caused the accident that had killed their parents, and that her mother had suffered a psychotic breakdown as result of both his death and their daughter being trapped in SAO. Despite her fears that her friends would reject her on account of her late father's actions, Mataras assured her that he and his sister still loved her, and even offered to take her in as his legal ward so that she would not have to deal with an orphanage or foster care system. This was also arranged by Kikuoka, for the price of Kirito's part-time services alongside Mataras' work.

Once everyone but Mataras and Rivka had been settled into a school meant for SAO survivors (as they were too old to continue attending high school classes), the victory party was thrown at Agil's establishment, where the guild was joined by some of their outside allies, such as Argo, a reliable info broker, Klein, and a few others. Together, they celebrated their release, and looked forward to trying out a game that had become popular during their imprisonment- Jump Force Online, a virtual world constructed by the Shounen Jump Corporation. It was also where Mataras and Kirito's first assignment would be located, and their friends pledged their support to them in whatever fashion they needed.

The last thing that the Moonlit Black Cats did in order to put Sword Art Online behind them was to visit the graves of the friends that they had lost to the game. This led to meeting Asuna's older brother, who had been seeking answers behind the circumstances of his sister's death, which Mataras and the others were finally able to provide, giving him a measure of peace. They also visited the graves of Sachi's high school friends, during which Mataras spoke to Keita's grave, hoping that the boy would forgive him for what he did, though he knew that he could not receive an answer. Even so, it was a positive moment of catharsis, and doing so helped him to finish their journey by carving a grave marker in a tree in his backyard to honor Crimson and his sacrifice.

As Mataras and his friends headed off to their new adventure, the shades of their friends stood in attendance, wishing them well on their journeys. Before Crimson's ghost departed, he cast off his trademark red cloak, signifying that the time of Red Swordsman was finally over, and his other self could begin to move on with his real life.

Kirito: We're back?

Mataras: We're back.

Saphira: But this doesn't count as new content! What's the deal, Bro?

Mataras: Hey, at the end of the last story, I said that I would begin the new adventure mid-June. It's not the middle of June yet!

Asuna: Always excuses with you.

Mataras: Don't you start before I've even had a chance to get this story underway.

Saphira: And whose fault is that?

Mataras: I knew I should've just left it at Shattered Fragment... This is gonna be my whole life, isn't it?

Kirito: To be fair, you're essentially arguing with yourself. We're just constructs of Kawahara's imagination that you've employed and altered for this story.

Mataras: Hey! We don't do meta humor here!

Saphira: That's a lie.

Mataras: Next time on The Red Swordsman Lost Wish...

Asuna: Black Moonlight.

Kirito: Coming June 15, 2020.