January 6th. 2026, New Aincrad, Floor 22

I think this is one of the few things I've truly appreciated about the Amusphere headgear. If you would've told me ten years ago I could play a video and do homework at the same time, I would not believe you. Yet here I am in Asuna and Kirito's home with them, Leafa, Strea, Silica, and Lisbeth, doing work. The girls are quietly doing their homework assigned during the break, while I look over artificial intelligence research for our future gaming adventure in Sword Art: Origin.

Thanks to Seven, we got codes for the entire gang here, Klein, Sinon, Agil, and Philia. Rain won't be able to join us due to her career, and though I would like my GGO pals to join, especially Kureha and Rei, they are all preparing for the upcoming Squad Jam. So it'll just be the twelve of us from ALO, but I still have an extra code just in case.

Despite our quiet attention to work, weariness overcomes us all. Yesterday was my birthday, so we had a party today before we settled down into this. Lisbeth rests with her back to my side with a pillow between us, but I know that at any moment she's gonna drop into my lap. In front of me, Silica struggles to stay upright. Asuna doesn't seem to be tired, neither does Leafa, or maybe they're like me, distracting themselves from it as best as possible.

As for Strea, Yui, Pina, and Kirito...shame on them.

"Wake up," Asuna tells Silica who rests on the older girl's shoulder. "If you start napping now, it's gonna be hard to get to sleep tonight. There's three days of winter break left, and your homework won't finish itself. Sinon finished hers before heading back home to visit, and Mr. Smartypants did his last month. Just saying."

Silica stretches and yawns. "I'm so sleepy."

"Poor thing. It's probably because the room's too warm. You want me to turn down the heat?"

Leafa, clothed in a casual dress, laughs. "It's not that. It's the masters of the sleep skill over there."

Asuna looks over to the aforementioned people in shame. Pina rests in Kirito's lap while the AI sisters lay on Pina. All four of them, sleeping. "Oh well, that figures."

"He's been working hard on his project ever since he got back from GGO."

"You mean that gizmo for Yui and Strea he demoed the other day at Agil's?"

"Oh, the Mecha-Phonics?"

I chuckle at the mispronunciation. "Mechatronics."

"Uh, yeah, that. Anyway, he's napping like there's no tomorrow. Look at him. He's making me feel sleepy." Lisbeth suddenly yawns, causing us to laugh. Leafa turns to me, raising an eyebrow. "I'm surprised you didn't take the same class."

"I do have a robotics company, but I'm more interested in the artificial intelligence side of things like my dad."

"Or maybe because you're a little lazy," Lisbeth says as she rests her book on her chest and faces me. "But I do like you're serious about the family business. It makes you happy to study Yui and Strea. I'm sure Rei was something too."

"Yeah. Strea and Rei developed around me, but they're different. They both have different base personalities, were also influenced by different groups when not with me, and of course I'm different. But Origins will give me a new outlook. From the details I'm given, the AI is more complex, but I won't spoil too much, hehe. But the best part is not my work. It's basically Sword Art Online at its core, all the assets and stuff, but without what we know SAO to be. I don't know how different it'll be from the original and New Aincrad, but Leafa, I'm glad to show you what we experienced when we weren't trying to die."

Leafa smiles. "Thank you, Jaymes."

"Anytime. Anyway, I'm glad you have your home back. I was only at the one in SAO once, but this is way better than that place you had in Arun."

Asuna chuckles. "Thank you. I love it so much, it feels right. Oh, hey, do you think, when we get to that point, you two will return to the 48th Floor?"

I...haven't even thought of that. It's been so long, and in that time Lisbeth opened another shop and I have a second home in GGO. But if Asuna and Kirito's is here, then maybe… I look at Lisbeth. "What do you think?"

"Yes. Maybe our home is up there, waiting on us. The town, the bridge, the lake...all of it."

"You two are adorable," Silica suddenly says.

Asuna agrees with her. "You both play your act well, but you two love each other so much."

Lisbeth clicks her tongue and goes back to reading. "Shut up, Asuna and Silica." She says that, but underneath the book, she holds one of my hands. I only smile at the act because of how true it is. The 48th Floor… I make a mental promise to remember this conversation.

I look over the room, seeing three of the four girls resting. Leafa, however, looks too focused to notice. Pretending to care, I tap her shoulder. "And then there were two."

"Huh… Oh my god, seriously? Hey, Asuna, wake up. And that goes for you too, Lisbeth." Both girls groggily move, Lisbeth even drops her book on the floor. As we resume working, some of us change spots. Leafa moves over to help Silica, Lisbeth has the couch to herself, and I stand by the fireplace, drinking the last of the tea Asuna made.

"God, would you look at that," Lisbeth states while staring jealously at the sleeping Black Swordsman. "It's like he's daring us to stay awake."

Our woke host laughs. "I'll make some more tea and it'll wake us right up. Hopefully you don't drink it all."

I shrug while taking a sip of the warm, tasty liquid. "What, it's good. It's still better than mine, but I think I'm getting better." Asuna quickly prepares a fresh pot of tea. After each person pouring themselves a hot cup, the five of us move to the snow-white exterior.

Silica walks off the porch, followed by Leafa. "Hey, look, I guess it stopped snowing while we were sleeping."

"Yeah, it really came down."

Meanwhile, Asuna, Lisbeth, and I stay on the between, with me standing between the two girls. "Oh, have you heard the news?"


"What news?"

"You know, about Zekken? Don't tell me you haven't heard. And you, mister, I told you."

"Zek-ken? Is that some type of rare item or something?"

I struggled to remember such a thing being mentioned. "Well, for Asuna's sake, tell it again."

"Errrh! Wrong. It's the name of a player. Actually, it's not their handle, it's more like a nickname. Anyway, this player's so badass, someone called them Zekken, the name caught on, and there you go. It means 'Absolute Sword'. Ultimate Sword's better though. Either way, this player's tough."

"Really? So, uh, when did you first hear about this Zekken person?"

"I don't know. I guess it was around New Year's or something, maybe a week or so ago. Oh, duh, that explains why you're so out of the loop about it. You've been at your family's compound in Kyoto this whole time. You both were there."

Asuna groans. "I was having a good time but you had to bring that up."

"Listen to the rich girl rebelling against her cushy life. Sounds like a drag."

"A drag is exactly what it was. I had to sit on my knees in a kimono all day greeting people. I brought my Amusphere along, thinking I could dive in at night while everyone was asleep, but you know what? The guesthouse I was in didn't have Wi-Fi. Fun, right? It wasn't."

I point to Asuna while looking at Lisbeth. "It's true, Lis. It's a drag, but I wish I took a picture of you in that kimono. It was hilarious. So glad my family is not that traditional, I can't sit on my knees."

Asuna does smile at that, small as it is. "Thank you for sticking with me when you could, Joshua. I guess that did help…" I nod, but I know that I didn't help much. Had Asuna not told me beforehand about the Kyoto gathering, and my family being invited, of course, I don't have to imagine how boring and uncomfortable it would've been.

Since our respective relationships are not widespread knowledge in the upper society, Asuna was treated to a few potential suitors. My family "broke" such tradition with my grandfather marrying outside our class, my father taking it a step further by marrying a foreigner, but even I was introduced to girls of my age for appearances' sake. They were all good looking, but... Having been around girls majorly over the past three years, and my own girlfriend being pretty...bold, I think it's saying a lot when I find them annoying with that fake, kiss-ass attitude which I know Asuna had to act. For me, the trip only benefited in two ways, I finally got to meet Kureha in person after five years and it deepened my already close relationship with Asuna.

"You even listening? Hello."

"Huh? S-Sorry. I just remembered something lame."

"Yeah, same."

"Wonder what it was? Were your folks trying to hook you up with someone? Maybe you two together?" Asuna and I look at each other and start shaking our heads.

"N-No, not at all! Forget I said anything!"

"Yeah, that did not happen."

"Hehehe, okay, okay. Just kidding." She then looks at me with a face that says "We're not done and I'm not kidding" and I have to accept that fate. Well, not much to tell anyway.

"So, anyway, is this tough new player a PK-er or something?"

"Just a duelist, that's all."

"Were they in any tournaments?"

"Nope. As far as I can tell, this player's a total noob. I have a feeling they might have converted over from another game, though. You should see their skill stats. They're through the roof."

"Well, I have some experience with that. That could explain it." It is how I joined GGO, I brought this account over to that game. Strea, however, managed to hide my true stats, so it seemed I was just a new account, not just a new player. Of course, while my stats were high and my luck was running over, I was not that skilled of a player. Kureha could shoot me to hell and back at the beginning. "Where's this player?"

"You know how, on Floor 24, there's that tiny, little island just north of the main town, the one with the huge tree? Well, everyday at 3:00, you know who shows up under that tree, waiting to take on any challenge one-on-one. Zekken started by posting this 'Opponents Wanted' notice on the MMO tomorrow bulletin board. Fold wanted to teach this cocky ALO noob a lesson, so on the first day, about 30 players showed up. It didn't go well for them, though."

"What? They lost?"

"No way."

"All of them, one after the other, and get this, none of them managed to chip off more than 30% of Zekken's HP. That's a badass."

Silica holds up a miniature snowman. "I can't believe how good Zekken is. Who thought a newbie to the game could fly as good as that? It took me at least six months to learn how to fly and fight at the same time, and I'm still learning stuff."

I smile. "You have done well, my apprentice."

"Did you fight Zekken, too?"

"Not even. I'm no dummy. I watched one duel, and I knew I didn't stand a chance. If you want to know what it was like, why don't you ask Lis and Leafa. They took on Zekken yesterday. They fought and lost like a couple of champs."

Lisbeth groans. "Please don't remind me."

"Is that where you two were doing yesterday?" I fold my arms, trying my best to hold my laugh. If Leafa, who has the most ALO experience out of all of us and is quite equal to us SAO frontliners in skill, had trouble, this newbie might be pretty good. "Lisbeth, full offense, but you can't even stand up to me. What makes you think you could take on someone who took on 30 players by themselves and beat them one after the other?"

"I know."

Leafa giggles. "It was a good learning experience, though."

"So anyway, back to Zekken, if this player's as strong as you say, it's only a matter of time before there are no more challengers to face."

"I don't know about that," Silica responds to Asuna's statement. "There's a pretty cool prize on the line, don't you know?"

"Oh really?" I lower my plate of pie, suddenly interested in hearing of the prize more than a potential duel with this Zekken. It might be worth a try if the prize is good.

"What is it? Some kind of rare item or something?"

"Nope. It's nothing like that. Whoever beats Zekken will get an Original Sword Skill. It's a special move that's supposed to be super strong."

"An Original Sword Skill? Huh. What type? How many hits?"

"Well, it's a general skill for a one-handed sword. Oh, but here's the thing, it's an 11-hit combo!"

Asuna gasps. "No way! 11?"

Lisbeth turns to Leafa "The strongest Original Sword Skill being used right now, how many hits does it have?"

"That'd be the one General Eugene developed, the Volcanic Blazer. It's supposed to be an eight-hit combo. He hasn't passed it on to anyone else yet, and I doubt he ever will."

"I guess that explains why so many players keep lining up to challenge Zekken."

"Excuse me," I say, quite annoyed that I was ignored, "but have you forgotten me?"

Leafa gasps apologetically. "Oh my god, you're right, you have the strongest Original Sword Skill with a ten-hit combo, right?"

"Well, I don't know about strength, Eugene's might be stronger, but Koharu's Fire is a nine-hit combo. It looks like ten because I use Skill Connect with my shield. But in either case, it is the longest chain Original Sword Skill." With that said… When I developed my OSS last summer, it was to replicate Dragon's Fury from SAO, a true ten-hit sword combo. I couldn't get the speed right for ten sword strikes, so I settled for nine. This Zekken got two more on me. Interesting.

"Have any of you seen the sword skill in action," Asuna asks.

"No," Lisbeth says. "I heard Zekken demoed it on the first day of the duels, though. Apparently it blew minds left and right. But since then, it hasn't been used in any of the fights. Maybe the reason for that's cause there hasn't been anyone tough enough to get Zekken to use it. Whoever does has my respect."

"Leafa, what happened when you fought Zekken?"

"Besides losing? It was going good til our HPs dropped below 60%, but in the end, Zekken beat me using nothing but default skills."

"Really… Oh! I can't believe I almost forgot to ask. What's Zekken's race and weapon of choice?"

"An Imp. The main weapon's a one-handed sword. It's about as skinny as your rapier, Asuna, but only just. And Zekken's super fast, too. I couldn't even see the attacks coming at me. That's never happened to me before, I'm still kind of shocked."

"A speed type, huh? If you had a hard time tracking Zekken, I doubt I'd be able to, either. Jaymes, what about you?"

I cup my chin. "I'll have no problem tracking her, but a speed-type does pose a problem. If she is faster than I can defend…"

Asuna nods. "Ah, I know someone who might, though. Mr. Sleepyhead's the fastest player I've ever seen. What do you guys think? Would Kirito go for that kind of challenge?" The girls suddenly laugh. "What? What'd I say?"

"Nothing. It's just Kazuto's already tried it, and boy, did he lose spectacularly."

I almost dropped my pie. "That's a load of bull, Leafa."

"Yeah, I don't believe it. Was he holding back?"

Lisbeth ponders it. "Hmm, kind of hard for me to say. From where I was standing, it looked like it. Yeah, but then I don't think I'm really the best person to judge whether he was or wasn't. He didn't use that dual-wielding trick, that's for sure. So I guess, in a way, he wasn't going all out. But you know what? That kind of makes sense. I mean, it's a duel in a normal game. There's no reason for Kirito to fight like his life depended on it anymore. The only time he'll fight seriously now is if the game stops being a game, when the virtual world becomes the real world. In a way, I hope he nevers goes full tilt in a battle ever again. He's kind of had enough of that. I mean, heck, he gets into enough trouble on his own as it is."

"Heh. Yeah, I guess you're right."

"You too, Jaymes. I think you had enough of the same as well."

Smiling, I rub Lisbeth's head affectionately. She's right, after nearly dying in GGO, I think I had enough excitement when it comes to the virtual and real worlds blurring together. But I don't accept her statement that Kirito did not fight seriously. I also hope she isn't jinxing us when we enter Sword Art Origins… I hope. "Thanks, Lis. I'll try to stay away from trouble. Leafa, what about from your perspective?"

"Well, from where I was standing, I got a different impression. I think Kazuto was definitely giving it his all. He seemed serious and focused and determined. He put up a good fight. At one point, though, something weird happened. Right before the duel was over, they were locking swords, and then they both just stopped. It looked like Kazuto was saying something to Zekken. I couldn't hear what because of all of the cheering. Then all of a sudden, they backed off from each other. Zekken charged him, but Kazuto couldn't dodge it and that's how the duel ended."

"Really," Asuna says. "What were they talking about?"

"I wish I knew. I asked him, but Kazuto wouldn't tell me. Whatever it was, it must be pretty important to keep to himself."

"Interesting. All right, then. I guess the only way to find out what he said is to ask Zekken myself."

"Huh, you think you're up to the challenge?"

"I'm not doing it cause I think I can win. Something about this Zekken person intrigues me, is all. I don't know why, but I think this Zekken person's here for reasons other than dueling."

"Yep, that's what I think, too. But if you want to find out what it is, get ready, cause you're gonna have to put up as good a fight as your boy Kirito and then some."

"Yeah, I know. Will you guys come cheer me on?"

"You know we will. It'll be awesome. We wouldn't miss it for anything. Jaymes, what about you?"

I don't need an Original Sword Skill, and speedy characters I have beaten before. But something about Kirito doesn't sit right with me. Maybe it is because our duels come to near-draws all the time now (of course, I don't use my OSS) but the way Leafa describes how the fight ended… No, I won't voice it. "I have my OSS. Any interest I have in Zekken depends on seeing them in action. But for now, I'll go as a spectator."

"Which character are you gonna duel with? You still have that Sylph account, don't ya?"

"Hmm, I guess I'll use this one. If Zekken's a speed type, it'll probably come down to who can hold out the longest, rather than DPS. And that's that. So 3:00 on the island on Floor 24, right?"


"Then if we meet here tomorrow at 2:30, we can… Oh no!" Asuna suddenly stands up in shock. "It's already 6;00? I'll be late for dinner."

"I guess we might as well call it a day and log out, too."

"Rich girls and their problems, am I right?"

As we get up, Silica and Leafa go over to wake Kirito, while Lisbeth, Asuna, and I clean up. Once I set my plates down, I join Lisbeth looking at the ruckus the other girls are creating. "Hey, Lis."

She turns to Asuna. "What's up?"

"A little while ago, you said you thought Zekken converted over to ALO. The way you described the duels got me thinking. Could Zekken be someone from SAO?"

She nods. "Uh huh. That's the impression I got after my duel. I wanted a second opinion, so after Kirito lost his, I asked him what he thought."

"So what did Kirito have to say?"

"He said that even though the skills were through the roof, Zekken's definitely not a player from SAO. That's not all. Kirito also said that if Zekken really was from SAO, the dual-wielding skill wouldn't have gone to him. It would have gone to Zekken. There's also the possibility that Jaymes' Trojan Horse would have gone to Zekken too."

I look at Asuna, seeing her shocked expression. Kayaba stated that Kirito gained the skill due to his ability to react quickly. While I don't know the origin of how I received the Trojan pair of skills, if Horse, the strongest counter skill in SAO, would have gone to Zekken as well… Asuna has her work cut out for her.