Sword Art Online, Floor 13

"Now that we're settled on the floor, we should probably get started on some quests. Can't let those two get farther ahead than they could be."

Koharu sighs. "I don't know where any of the new boss quests are, so I got nothing."

Yuna turns to her left, facing the serious-faced boy beside. "What about you, Naut?"

"I've been focusing so much on leveling that I haven't doing any quests lately."

I cross my arms. "Let's go back to the hunting grounds to see if we can find any boss quests, then."

"You're gonna decide that all by yourself?"

"Standing around wondering what to do is just a waste of time. Or do you have any better ideas?"

Naut turns away. "No…"

Yuna giggles. "Nice one, Jaymes! Jeez, Naut, you're so immature."

"H-Hey, it's not like I was trying to argue with him or anything. Ugh, I'm going ahead to check out the situation!"

"Nautilus, wait! It's too dangerous to go alone!" Koharu chases after them, leaving me alone with Yuna. Seeing her amused expression cools me off a bit, as it reminds me of another boy-girl pairing besides me and Koharu.

"I thought he was overprotective of you, but it seems like you're the one in control here."

"Hehe, that's because I've been looking after him ever since we were little. Naut may be a sore loser and pretty stubborn at times, but he's kind and always tries his best. He can get embarrassed and become quite a handful, but he's actually a pretty nice guy. So don't think too badly of him, okay?"

"All right. You sound like his big sister...like someone I grew up with in the real world."

"Really? It's always been like this, though. Keep an eye on him for me, okay?"

I look into Yuna's eye and nod. "I'll do my best."

On November 6th, 2022, the NerveGear, a FullDive virtual reality device, launched its first game, Sword Art Online. It's developer, Akihiko Kayaba, told the 10,000 players who logged in they could not log out. And not only were they trapped, if a player died in-game, they would also die in the real world. Amid growing despair, some took up swords hoping to clear the game. Some became isolated and took their own lives. While others ended up turning their swords on their fellow players. This nightmare continued for what seemed like an eternity.

Then, on November 7th, 2024, a heroic player dressed head-to-toe in black, cleared the game and set everyone free. Finally. Close to 4,000 people died in the end. But with the death of the game's creator, Akihiko Kayaba, the nightmare was over. The players who lived through it are known as SAO survivors, and slowly but surely, they're getting back to their lives in the real world.

But in 2026, nearly a year and a half after returning to the real world, the nightmare they once thought over returns, first in the form of a port of SAO called Sword Art: Origins. Unknowingly, our heroes recreated the events that formed the legend of Aincrad's rise, but managed to stop the destruction of Origins. But the real nightmare comes a month later, in a world that is their own...

"Wakawakawakawaka." The sound effect of the virtual game of Pac-Man on our table is the only sound between the five of us. We all keep our eyes on the table, with varying degrees of interest. The three girls are entranced by the game, while I and the other boy look at the game with certain levels of lacking interest. Don't get me wrong, I love Pac-Man, but I love my food more.

Pac-Man reaches the castle, thus ending the game in victory. The girls cheer quietly at our table. "Alright, we cleared it!"

"Great job, Silica! Nice assist, Liz!"

"We all got a hundred points for beating it."

The player named Lisbeth looks at the prize that popped up. "Look! It says we each get a free slice of cake! Sweeeeeeeeet!"

The boy sighs. "You guys play games way too much these days."

"I-I never thought I'd hear that coming from you!"

"Heck, every time we play, we get points to shop at stores. Might as well play our butts off, isn't that right, Jaymes?" Lisbeth places her head on my shoulder, forcing me to stop eating my chocolate chip cookies and attend to her. I could ignore her, but that has consequences of its own.

"Sure, Liz. Such fun that is."

The third girl, Asuna, faces her boyfriend, Kirito, teasing him. "I bet deep down you wanted to play too, didn't you?" He simply grumbles.

"Well, I love this thing," Lisbeth says. "It's super convenient. It lets you watch TV anywhere, it's easier to navigate than a smartphone, and the weather report's a lifesaver. Best of all, we can talk to Yui and Rei whenever we want." On cue, Kirito and Asuna AI "daughter" from SAO, Yui, appears on her mother's shoulder. Likewise, my AI companion from Gun Gale Online, Rei, appears on mine. I'm still not used to Rei being this small, but it is much easier to have her around in the real world like now at this size rather than at full height.

The "it" Lisbeth refers to is the Augma, an augmented reality headset device. As Lisbeth stated, it allows for a multitude of things, but unlike its older sisters, the NerveGear and the AmuSphere, it does not have a FullDive device inside. So instead of the real world becoming the virtual with those devices, the Augma brings the virtual to the real world. I will agree with Lisbeth, this is a neat device, but after years of having the NerveGear and AmuSphere on my head, it does feel different to be here in the real world.

Asuna giggles. "You sound like you're totally sold on the Augma."

"Mm, I wouldn't say that. But hey, they did hand them out to everyone going to the survivor's school, right? So the least we can do is take them out for a spin and see what they can do."

"I'm so sorry for the wait. Here are your bonus treats for clearing the game." Three treats were laid before the girls, with each one being chosen out immediately. I found it impressive that not a single treat was chosen by the same girl. Apparently, they were as well. "The AI's so sharp, it knows what kind of cake we like. It does a thing they call 'Deep Learning'. Pretty thoughtful. It's even more thoughtful than certain people we know."

Kirito and I share a glance, knowing we're the subject of Lisbeth's diss. Still looking apathetic, he turns his eyes to Lisbeth as she takes her first bite. "I hear it can even tell you how many calories are in that cake." Interested, I take a look at the cake just as Lisbeth does. Based on her face as the calories show up, 321 is a lot.

"Wait up, Liz! Where are you going?" As Silica desperately tries to keep up with a calorie-burning Lisbeth, I walk between them and the couple of Kirito and Asuna. Thankfully, the girls are not shopping today at the mall (subject to change at any moment) so the only bag I carry is my sports bag for school. For now, I enjoy the walk, even noticing that Kirito and Asuna fell behind. Deciding to let them be, I walk forward.

Silica and I eventually catch up to Lisbeth, now that the girl has decided to slow down. For a moment, the three of us walk silently together to catch our breath until a thought pops up in Lisbeth's head. "I still can't believe it. All of us at the survivor's school got free tickets to go to Yuna's concert. Going to a concert is kinda weird for a field trip."

"I know. Everything about that school is weird."

"Yeah, but now you get to see your girl crush."

I drop my jaw, feigning that I never heard of Silica's girl crush before. "Whaaaaat? Silica, you're crushing on Yuna? Nice."

As me and Lisbeth step forward, proud of exposing Silica, the younger girl begins to stutter in embarrassment. "What? I-I don't have a crush on her!"

"Who was belting out her songs at karaoke with Suguha? You know every line to every song and I'll prove it!" Lisbeth presses a few on-screen commands and starts playing music through our headsets. A mini stage forms around Silica and she begins to grow nervous as the song continues to play. However, no matter how much she tried to resist, Silica begins to sing the vocals on cue, her earlier bashfulness gone.

Once she finishes a verse and realizes people are watching and cheering our normal Silica returns and rushes to rejoin the four of us. We clap along as well. "You were great, Silica," Yui says.

"Much better than when Master sings in the shower!" I immediately turn my Augma off, stopping Rei from saying more outrageous stuff. I turn around, avoiding my girlfriend's amused eyes.

"Kirito," Silica says, you're gonna come to the concert with us, right?"

"Huh? I wasn't planning on it. I'm not much of a fan if you wanna know the truth."

"What? You should go, it'll be fun! Jaymes is going!"

"Forced to go," I sternly add.

Kirito continues to rub his head. "Well, I don't know, maybe." As Lisbeth sighs in her failure to convince Kirito to join us, he holds his Augma. "Anyway, you got to admit you can do a lot of cool stuff with this gadget. Still, I think Full Dives are more my thing."

"You're kidding," Lisbeth says.

"No. I guess I just got used to living in different worlds."

"I agree," I say, turning my Augma back on, seeing my mischievous AI now on Lisbeth's shoulder. "As bad as Sword Art Online was...there's Alfhiem Online and Gun Gale too, and there was Sword Art: Origins...sometimes they felt more like the real world than this one. It is where I met all of you, after all."

"You doofus," Lisbeth says as she folds her arms. You sound like you wanna go back." I slowly shrug in response. I do admit, as dangerous as Sword Art Online was, I do miss the thrill of the life and death game. There, I was a known warrior on the Assault Team, the Crimson Warrior. I am not bold enough to say I was as powerful as the Black Swordsman or Lightning Flash, but I had the respect of the advance teams. I did meet everyone here in the game..

I met Kirito on the last day of the beta, in which he helped me and a friend out in a dungeon. We reunited in the official release of SAO, in which we assist Klein in getting accustomed to battling before we got the doomed announcement from Kayaba. Kirito and I split for a while, reuniting during a meeting to clear the first level dungeon in which we both met Asuna. Silica and Lisbeth I had multiple run-ins with during the ascent up the floors, helping Silica become stronger and Lisbeth collect materials for her growing smithing business. I fell for Lisbeth in during the final months of the game, and had to wait until we survived SAO, Kirito saved Asuna in ALO, and she (and Silica) finally figured Kirito and Asuna were going to stay together in the real world. Call me opportunistic, but I say it was the first best thing I did. It was the only thing that made me happy after SAO, and a year later, it makes me happy to be in the real world.

Earlier this year, we revisited the world of SAO through a slightly different medium, Sword Art: Origins. Since it was a port of sorts of the original SAO, it brought back almost all the memories of Sword Art Online yet it felt different. At the beginning of the original, I only had Kirito and my friend from the beta; in the beginning of Origins, I had most of my friends now when I started. Also, no threat of death...well, unless you were an NPC. Of course, after getting involved with an AI named Premiere and accidentally reliving the events of the myth known as the Great Separation, Aincrad appeared in Origins. But that's a long story.

"Speaking of Aincrad," Silica starts, "do you guys think that rumor about Ordinal Scale is true?"

"You know, the one about boss monsters from old SAO showing up in it?"

"Oh right. The mysterious event battles."

"Really? Is it like some kind of promotion?"

"I don't know. I haven't had the chance to check one out yet. Those locations are secret till the last minute, so it's hard for folks who don't have a car to get there in time. It'll be awesome to find out, though… Wouldn't it, love?"

I rub my throbbing shoulder. I do have a motorcycle, and I have been interested in the rumor myself. I don't have the heart to tell Lisbeth that she doesn't have the experience of the SAO bosses Asuna, Kirito, and I do, but then again, it isn't like life and death is involved, and she has been with us in New Aincrad and Ainground. However, once Asuna wins rock-paper-scissors, poor Kirito has no choice but to go along with her...and by the look Lisbeth is giving me, I have no choice either.

As we walk out of the mall a few hours later and I hop on my motorcycle, I pat Silica's head farewell. Since it will be unfair if Silica is the only one of us SAO survivors who gets left out, Lisbeth decided to sit this one out...this time. "Silica, do me a favor and make sure Lisbeth doesn't get in trouble."

The lighter brown-haired girl laughs as my girlfriend gives me a sour look. "I will."

I nod then face Lisbeth. "Let me know when you both get home. I'll either see you in ALO or in the morning when you come over?"

She smiles and kisses me on the forehead. "I will, and you do the same. Kick some ass for the both of us. Rei, take care or your reckless master."

Rei salutes. "Will do! I will protect Master for the sake of Master's master." I grumble as Kirito and Asuna pull up beside us. Putting my helmet on, we waved to the girls in the parking lot and drive off for the location of the SAO boss...

Once we arrive, we see a mass gathering already here. It is almost 9 pm, so for such a crowd, the rumors must be true. Besides me, Asuna, Kirito, and Klein (most likely bringing his guild) that makes nine survivors from SAO here. I wonder how many more have come to get a taste of the old days. Were they part of the Aincrad Liberation Squad/Force, the Divine Dragon Alliance, or the Knights of the Blood? Maybe they did not take part in the front, rather using their time to support us or did their best to live in a dangerous world. Whatever the survivors did, would any of them actually want to relive those days in this boss fight?

Personally, they were the best part, if you forget the threat of death.

"About time you showed up! Sweet! You brought Asuna and Jaymes with you!" Speaking of guilds, here comes Klein and his guild, Fuurinkazan. The six men have been together since SAO, even beyond that if I remember correctly. I've worked with them many times in SAO, so I know how great a team they are. They put larger guilds to shame.

"No, I brought them! Kirito didn't want to come, but after I beat the others in rock-paper-scissors, he didn't have a choice! Lisbeth pretty much coerced Jaymes into coming in her place."

"Huh? Yeah, whatever. Guys, let's show her how badass we are!" Klein's clan cheers at their leader's motivation. Sometimes, it is hard to see them as older than us. No, not sometimes...all the time.

"Kirito, Jaymes, it's almost time to start." The three of us take out a small stick that connects to the Augma, then stare straight ahead. "Ordinal Scale, activate!" Jumping into the AR game, our clothes change into an attire of a similar style, with the only difference between me and Kirito is that where his clothes are blue, mine is red. Asuna's color scheme matches mine, but the clothes are designed for a female player. True of our SAO roots, Kirito wields a single blade, Asuna a rapier, and I pair my sword with a shield. Around us, players jump into Ordinal Scale, ready to fight this boss.

I turn to Asuna and Kirito. "The three of us. Just like old times."

Kirito grunts, but I know that he's feeling nostalgic too. Asuna actually smiles. "Yeah. The beater, the other beater, and the beautiful Flash."

"We were beta players too… does that mean we're just like Kirito?" True, I was a "beater" by the standards of those who coined the name, but Kirito was the only named one, so I take offense. Yet I let it go as the clock strikes at the top of the new hour, and the world of reality becomes a virtual one. A town at night transforms into a burning hell on earth around the three of us. Then we hear and see it, a pillar of fire on the opposite end of a courtyard. We each draw our weapons as the boss appears from the fire, a giant samurai with blood-red eyes.

Asuna gasps. "That's…"

'The boss from Floor 10 in Aincrad. Kagachi, the Samurai Lord."

I sigh. "I remember hating this guy."

"He looks exactly like him, doesn't he?"

"Too bad we can't use our sword skills here. I wonder if he's gonna use the same attack patterns."

"Then our best bet to find out is to stay back. We have our memories, but there's no rush to figure him out." From behind Kagachi, a drone flies up and projects a figure on a bridge. That figure turns into a long white-haired girl, physically a few years younger than us. Yet, as all the players do, I recognize her as Yuna, the virtual pop star. Rika and Keiko will kill me if I don't bring this up later, so I press a command for the battle to be recorded.

"I hope everyone's ready! It's time to battle! So start the music!" As the music starts up, we're surrounded by green light coming from a bird beside Yuna. It seems to be a bonus of sorts, yet I don't focus on it much. 10 minutes are on the clock and the battle against Kagachi starts.

As the boss approaches, the nine of us SAO survivors watch as the other players on the ground with us charge forward, some getting wiped out in the few seconds of the battle. If this were SAO, this would be a bloodbath, yet the old rush of adrenaline sparks within me. I'm ready to relieve this fight in a different world. "Hey, Klein, try not to rush the boss alone like you did back then!"

"S-Shut up! Anyway... What do you say, Kiri-dude?"

"Let's wait another minute, in case he pulls out a surprise," he says after staring at his sword. Another minute we do wait, watching as Kagachi wipes out the other players with speed and precision. Gunfire doesn't even affect it from afar, and to make the gunmen pay, Kagachi unleashes a devastating snake-shaped whip attack on the upper levels of the battlefield. The ground is not discriminated against during the attack, separating Furrinkazan from me, Asuna, and Kirito.

"Don't let you HP hit zero," Klein instructs. "Your rank will get docked."

"I know that!" Kirito shouts back.

"Not like it can get worse," I mutter as we come to a stop. We watch as Klein's group advances, blocking the large sword and making attacks of their own. They end up doing a good amount of damage and knocking Kagachi into a building. However, his recovery is quick as hell. Meanwhile, the three of us continue to wait for a prime opening. More players are being eliminated, which lessens the number of "distractions" we can give up. That is evident as Kirito and Asuna dodge the whip while I defend myself successfully. I lose a little HP, but it is worth the risk. I turn to my left, seeing Kirito moving sluggishly. "You good?"

"Body feels heavy. This isn't like VR at all."

"It's coming for you!" Heeding Klein's call, I look up to see Kagachi coming for us. Before I or Asuna can say anything to plan our attack, Kirito takes off with tremendous speed for the real world...only to trip on a brick and slide on the ground, right to Kagachi's feet.

"Deflect and fall back, Jaymes." Sighing while I hear the voice in my head again, I make it in time to deflect the killing blow and allow Kirito to get up and make our retreat. "You're getting sloppy, Kirito!?"

"Holy crap! It's hard to move!"

"You're just a little out of shape, is all!"

"Did you check your calories from what you ate today?"

"I'm not out of shape!" Kirito responds while at the same time breathing heavily. As we slow down, a guy in a tiger avatar fires a rocket at Kagachi. To flex his own speed, Kagaci dodges at the last second, allowing the rocket to continue on its path towards an unintended target, Yuna. However, something sends the rocket back at Kagachi, knocking him down. It happens to be a player with brown hair and eyes, wearing a black and purple attire.

And on his icon... The #2 player.

Mesmerized by the newcomer, we step back at Kagachi recovers and from a second blade, much like he did at critical health in SAO. Mr. #2 advances, giving the rest of us instructions. "He's making his killer move! Tanks! Follow me!" He dodges a dodge of projectile slashes and strikes the boss's leg. His attack inspires the remaining group, including Klein and Asuna. With a minute left, there's no time to dawdle. I follow Asuna, wishing we had weapon arts, but I guess I got something better.

"Rei, configuration two, then switch back to configuration one."

"Alright Master! Go go go!" My weapons switch out from a sword and shield to twin pistols. As Asuna slashes Kagachi, he steps back, giving me the opening to slide on the ground and unleash a barrage of bullets while going between his legs. As I get up and switch my loadout again, I watch as Klein follows up on my attack, drawing Kagachi's attention. The boss attacks with a flurry, blocked by another small shield user of Fuurinkazan successfully and impressively. Meanwhile, the true tank protects Asuna and another member of the guild from another projectile slash. Kagachi's attacks pick up tremendous speed that it becomes impossible to counter, so we retreat while at the same time #2 strikes, landing three strong attacks on the boss. Weakened, this proves to be the opening we need.

"Asuna, go!"

"All right!" To aid her, I "throw" my shield, striking Kagaci in the head to further stun him. Unable to attack, Kagachi is pierced by Asuna's rapier in the back, exploding into blue light upon his defeat. Around us, the crowd of watchers and defeated players cheer for our victory. As I walk up to her, I fist bump my friend. I will give Kirito this, it is much harder doing this in the real world, but it took us hours in SAO to beat this boss (and every boss after it, with increasing time). I'll take these ten minutes.

"Congratulations on defeating the boss!" Yuna shouts. "I just boosted everyone's points. And I have a special reward for the player who worked the hardest." Yuna jumps down from her perch and approaches me and Asuna. She leans forward and...kisses Asuna's check? "You're this battle's MVP. Congratulations! See you at the next battle!" As Yuna leaves, I look to Asuna, speechless as to what just happened. I simply shrug.

"Nice job, Asuna. You too, Jaymes." Kirito clears his throat and faces our left, at the guy who jumped in to save Yuna. "So that guy's number two? He's a powerful player, that's for sure."

"Indeed," I respond, unsure to make an opinion on the matter.

As we part from Klein's group, I walk with Asuna and Kirito back to our motorcycles. I would offer to take Asuna home since I am closer, but being in a relationship myself, I know not to get between them. I sit on my break, stretching my arms. They are a little sore, along with the rest of my body. I'm used to some pain from playing VR, the AmuSphere works like that, but real-life hurts more.

"Are you getting on ALO later?"

I nod at Asuna's question. "Yeah. Gonna eat and shower first before hopping on. Then I gotta prepare for a long weekend with Rika."

Asuna smiles. "Ohhh, you gotta tell me all about it. Maybe you're better at dates than Kazuto."

Kazuto sighs. "It's not a competition, Asuna."

"It is always a competition. You and Josh just don't know it."

I chuckle at their bickering. "You two have not changed since the first day you met. If it wasn't entertaining, I would have long tired of third-wheeling. Anyway, see you two in ALO," With a wave, we drive off in separate directions. "Rei, plot my course home."

"Okay Master." An augmented line appears on the road, and I follow it on route to my house. As I drive, I think about the #2 player. Someone that strong and knowledgeable of Kagachi's attack...assuming he has never appeared before, that would mean this player has had some knowledge of the boss's pattern. I can recall a good number of powerful frontline players from SAO; me, Kazuto, Asuna, Klein, Agil...and her. Maybe that guy was in SAO but I never encountered him on the front lines, but that's very unlikely.

Suddenly, I see a face, not physically in front of me, but from the deep recesses of my head."You think too much, Jaymes. I guess that's why I'm still alive."


The image of a young Asian girl with black hair and emerald eyes vanishes from my head at the sound of Rei. "Hmm?"

"What's on your mind?"

I decided to focus on the former thoughts of my head. "Rei, in your experience in Gun Gale Online, if someone fought a boss that most people were having difficulty with, even those with experience of this boss from earlier encounters, what would you think of that player? Is he just strong, does he know what to do, or lucky?"

"I would say he's just strong. Remember you did a lot of things in GGO that some would say is luck, but you did know what you were getting into at times. That player certainly knew."

"But wouldn't that make him knowledgeable of the boss too? Asuna, Klein, and I did good but without that guy, we wouldn't have won based on what we knew."

"Then maybe he's strong, knowledgeable, and lucky."

I find no counter to that argument. "Good point. But where did he get the experience? He looks familiar, yet I don't recognize him from Sword Art Online... I'll have to talk to Strea, maybe she does."