None of us were looking forward to the long trek back to Taft, and after discussing the matter with Yurielle we decided to hitch a ride with the Army—so to speak. She had brought an item we'd never heard of before—something she called a Corridor Crystal—and used it to open a glowing portal directly to the cell blocks below Black Iron Castle. We stood off to one side as her squads marched the captured orange players through that gateway, and with each bandit that dejectedly stepped through I could almost imagine some kind of virtual gauge for the crime rate on the floor steadily dropping until it all but disappeared. Camilla and I were the last through the portal, and when the crystal in Yurielle's hand shattered, the glowing blue oval shrank until it disappeared with a sound of rushing wind that abruptly cut off.

There was some question of what to do about the green players who had been part of the bandit organization. Viyami had surrendered without any resistance when the Army raid arrived, but we all knew that there were more than a few unnamed others out there who'd acted as spies, lookouts and ringers. Aside from the challenge in identifying them, the main problem was that as far as the system was concerned, they weren't criminals—the prison code wouldn't keep them captive unless their cursor was orange, and it would be otherwise virtually impossible to hold them against their will without triggering the system's anti-harassment code.

What closed the matter—at least in Viyami's case—was my testimony. I explained to Yurielle how she'd risked her own safety to warn me that the bandits were planning a trap for us, and how she'd deliberately left my bindings loose so that I could escape. And if I played up her willingness to help a little bit while glossing over her moral failures… well, I figured enough lives had been ruined for one day.

Mallek had fought back, and ended up as one of the three killed during the raid. Whatever he'd been or become, I knew that there had once been something between them, and that Viyami had cared about him. It was hitting her hard; she moved like a hollow shell of a person, going where she was directed and sitting until she was told to move, rarely raising her eyes from the floor. I had to call her name twice to get her attention and tell her that she was free to go.

When my words finally registered, she nodded almost imperceptibly and pushed herself up to her feet, looking around the cathedral-like chamber that contained the Monument of Life. The massive stone slab that dominated the room drew her eyes, and even without looking closely I knew that she had to be searching for a particular name, looking for the double lines drawn through it that would prove to her that he hadn't somehow escaped; that he was never coming back.

"Thank you," she said, so quietly that it was only the absolute silence in the room that allowed me to hear.

"Kocchi koso," I said after a moment, acknowledging my own debt to her. "In the end, you made your choice after all. And that choice probably saved my life."

In the silence after I'd finished speaking, I heard a small choked-off sound from Viyami. I followed her gaze to a section of the wall where the M player names began, and under the illumination of the full moon that filtered through the skylights I saw what she'd seen.

I glanced back over my shoulder; I could see Camilla and Parida hanging out and chatting under the archway that led out to the vast circular plaza where all of us had begun our adventures in this Death Game. My wife chose that moment to look in my direction, catching my eye and tapping her wrist in a gesture that almost felt anachronistic after months spent in a fantasy world. I nodded and held up one finger.

"I don't know what to do now," Viyami said in a voice so small it made me wonder just how old she actually was. "We were just supposed to play the game. And then… everything happened. And he protected me. Shielded me from the others. And now he's gone, and I don't know what…"

"Make a clean break," I said, interrupting her before she could get any more mired in self-pity. It wasn't that I couldn't sympathize with how she must be feeling, having lost her partner… but my sympathy was significantly attenuated by what an unmitigated shit Mallek had turned into; he'd nearly killed Parida in an excess of cruelty, and I wasn't inclined to forgive and forget on that one. "You're green and you're alive—and that's more than I can say for most of your former companions. It's a chance to start over clean. Be your own person."

A short, sharp whistle came from the direction of the plaza; I didn't need to look to know who it was. Before I turned to leave, I simply added, "Maybe you'll find you like who she is."

When I rejoined the two women at the archway, Camilla inquired quirked an eyebrow at me. "What was that all about?"

"Pep talk," I said without elaborating, even after her other eyebrow went up and joined the first. "We ready to head back?"

Camilla's eyes abruptly shifted to the left, and she reached up and tapped at the air in front of her. "Well, we were… but I just got a message from Yurielle. Thinker wants a word with the two of us before we go."

Parida smiled. "I guess that's my cue. I need to go fix my hair and get back to Hinami anyway; I sent her a message but she's probably still worried."

"I can't thank you enough for your help, Parida," I said as she hugged each of us in turn. "I'm sorry for getting you into this, and for what happened—"

I stopped when I felt her shake her head, and then squeeze me briefly before letting go. "You're my friends. That's all that matters." She stepped back and smiled again, and this time there was a wet glint of moonlight around her eyes. "Come by the pub when you're done, okay? The Black Cats are going to celebrate, and I think everyone would be happy if both of you were there."

We agreed and watched for a moment as she jogged towards the warp gate in the center of the plaza. "So did Yurielle say what they wanted?" I asked.

Camilla shook her head, turning back to the monument and gazing at it as she spoke. "Just a request to come see them before we leave, downstairs where we first gated in."

"That's specific." I shrugged, falling in step as the two of us headed back into the castle. "Well, we kind of owe them. Let's see what they have to say."

But when we caught up with Thinker down in the cell blocks where the orange players were being secured, what he had to say after thanking us for our help was not quite what I'd expected. "We're pulling out of Taft," he explained. "Now that we've captured all of the criminals who were there except for the PKers you mentioned, there doesn't seem to be much need for us to linger. It's unfortunate that those four got away, but based on what you told us, it sounds like they have no further interest in the floor now that the bandit organization there is effectively destroyed."

"But again, thank you," Yurielle added as she rejoined Thinker at his side, all of the criminal players having been secured in their cells. "Training a militia from the players living on that floor has given them the confidence and organization they need to defend themselves. If bandits ever become a problem there again, I think the players of Taft will be able to handle it."

"In the meantime," Thinker said with a smile, "I'm going to have our people keeping closer tabs on the situation on the lower floors. These are the players who need our help the most—and not just with orange players. I'd like for us to be in a position to stop something like this from happening again before it gets that bad."

"What will you do now?" Yurielle asked into the pause that followed.

Camilla and I looked at each other. "We haven't decided yet," I said. "But we do need to get back out in the field and start catching up on levels. We've got a strategy that's worked well for the last several months, and we lost a bit of time dealing with these guys." The last was accompanied by a gesture towards the hallway where the prison cells began.

Thinker nodded. "Well, our guild's doors are always open. Don't hesitate to reach out if you need help… or if you want to be part of what we're trying to do for all the players trapped in this world."

Both Camilla and I bowed to the two of them, a gesture that was returned respectfully in kind. As grateful as we were, I for one was eager to put the Army behind us, and so once we'd paid our respects we headed quickly for the warp gate and returned to Taft.

From what Parida had said, it sounded like we had a party to attend.


When Keita raised his glass, we all did. It was the third toast so far, and this one had been dedicated to freedom from fear. That even brought a smile from Sachi, who I gathered had practically been dragged along on the raid under the assurance—which thankfully ended up being true—that the Black Cats weren't actually going to have to fight. Now that the ordeal was over and the bandit threat had been driven from their floor, her spirits seemed to have picked up considerably. I even caught her joking with Sasamaru, which I counted as a good sign.

With no delivery of actual alcohol to the bloodstream, it was impossible to actually get drunk in SAO, but that didn't stop players from trying—nor did it stop Ducker from hamming it up when the game engine tried to simulate intoxication by blurring his eyesight and upsetting his sense of equilibrium. At one point I thought the kid was going to actually climb up on the table and try to dance; thankfully for the eyes and eternal souls of everyone present, Tetsuo had managed to yank him back down into his seat and get him under control. Camilla was laughing so hard that it was a good thing her avatar didn't need to breathe.

We had already expressed our thanks to Keita earlier for his part in the operation, but when the noise level in at the table reached a lull I felt the need to acknowledge the participation of the Black Cats as a group. "Seriously, thank you all. None of you had to do that, and even though you weren't there to fight, it took a lot of courage." When I said this last, my eyes lingered on Sachi, who averted her gaze to the table with a rosy tint of embarrassment on her cheeks.

Keita sipped at his drink and shook his head. "I was just happy we could help at all. Sometimes it feels like there's nothing lower-level players like us can do to contribute in this game. We read the same news everyone else does, hear all the stories of what the clearing groups are doing… but it's like they exist in another world. They don't seem to pay any attention to what's going on down here on the floors they've already cleared, or how the players who aren't as good as them are faring."

Camilla nodded. "It makes sense if you think about it, though… the clearers are focused on doing just that—pushing forward as hard as possible so that everyone can escape from this world. The more time they take away from that, the more time it will take for all of us to go home."

Keita's expression was uncomfortable. "Maybe. I guess I just can't help thinking that if the stronger players did a little more to help those who aren't as far along as them catch up, in the long run the number of players on the front lines could increase, and everyone would benefit."

I had to admit that he had a good point; from the look on her face my wife was probably having similar thoughts. We'd both been wrestling with our own guilt at playing it safe rather than pushing hard to level up and contribute to clearing the game, and I felt a moment of shame as I measured my own courage and ideals against Keita's. Even though they were lower in level than us, he still felt driven to strengthen his guild as much as possible and eventually make it to the front lines where they could contribute.

"If there's one thing I've taken away from the last few weeks," Keita went on, looking around at his guild members, "it's that there's more we could be doing. I know some of you have been wanting to move on to higher floors. And I know that's a scary thought for some others." I had a pretty good idea which was which; when I looked over at Sachi some of the cheer had drained from her face. "But I think it's time we faced our fears and pushed forward. I'd like for us to set a goal of moving up one floor a week so that we can start closing the gap."

"Don't take unnecessary chances," I cautioned him. "Levels can be gained, but lives can't be replaced."

Keita smiled, shaking his head. "Don't worry, we won't. We're just going to grind harder and stop hanging back on lower floors once they become too easy." He glanced between each of the Black Cats one by one, turning that smile on them. "I have faith in all of you. Every one." Then he directed his next words at us. "What about you two?"

Camilla glanced over at me. "Eighteen?"

It was one floor above the highest we'd tried hunting on yet; it seemed my wife was feeling driven to move on as well. "Eighteen," I echoed, steeling myself for the challenge to come.

Keita grimaced. "Way too high for us yet. But we'll get there. I promise." Forcing the grimace back into a real smile, he added: "And when we do, I hope you'll be kind enough to leave some mobs for us."

We both laughed and raised our glasses. Considering our habit of trailing after higher-level groups and cleaning up their repops, Keita's statement was rich in irony. "I think we can manage that," I said. "Let us know once you get to floor 18, okay? By then we'll know some good spots to grind there."

Keita lifted his glass in answer; the other Black Cats echoed the gesture—even Sachi, after a moment's hesitation. "We'll all see you there," he said with a grin. "Count on it."

As the night drew to a close, there were no prolonged goodbyes—we expected to be returning to Taft at some point in the coming weeks or months, if for no other reason than to have Parida's cooking again. But in the morning we would be off to the 18th floor—and a dedicated push to make it as far as we could, as safely as we could.

Aincrad's shine as a game world had worn off about two minutes into Kayaba's Death Game tutorial, but because of the degree to which game mechanics ruled our lives now, sometimes it was difficult to avoid seeing the world through the lens of a fantasy RPG. I knew that compared to the players who were out there on the front lines fighting to clear the game, we were nothing but side characters. We weren't the real heroes and never would be; if someone ever wrote a book about the fight to clear SAO after we all got out of here, I doubted our names would even come up.

But we'd done some good here in Taft. Maybe not as smoothly as we could have, and probably not in a way that would ever be significant to the high-level players in the clearing groups, but what we'd done had helped people and—in some small way—helped leave the floor a better place. We'd made friends, and made a difference.

Whether we liked it or not, until the game was cleared Aincrad was going to remain our reality—and at the rate the clearing was going, that promised to be a long time yet. There might not be anything we could contribute towards beating the game on the front lines. But perhaps there was still more we could do for those of us who had to live here in the meantime.


Character Name: Kadyn (ケイディン)
Real Name: Seiji Midorikawa (緑川誓地)
Birthplace: Chiba City, Chiba Prefecture (Japan)
Age: 28 Level: 20

Equipped Skills (in order unlocked):
One-Handed Dagger (361)
Searching (350)
Leather Equipment (304)
Acrobatics (80)

At age 16, Seiji was accepted as an overseas exchange student in a Los Angeles high school. While studying there he met a young girl named Rebecca Riley, who was in need of a Japanese conversation partner for the class she was taking. The two quickly discovered that they shared a mutual enjoyment of the same kinds of video games, and long before they graduated they had become an inseparable couple. After high school they moved to Seiji's native Japan together and married, spending their free time immersed in online games together and always playing as a team—to the point where they called each other by their longtime character names as much as or more than their real names. When Sword Art Online was announced, they tried and failed to enter the closed beta, but succeeded in becoming two of the unlucky ten thousand who were trapped in the Death Game on launch day.

Seiji prefers to play stealthy DPS classes, using tactical positioning and Rebecca's skill at tanking to flank the enemy and deliver critical blows at the right moment. While highly effective in PvE combat, in PvP he sometimes struggles against multiple opponents.

Character Name: Camilla (カミーラ)
Real Name: Rebecca Midorikawa (緑川レベカ)
Birthplace: San Francisco, California (USA)
Age: 27 Level: 20

Equipped Skills (in order unlocked):
One-Handed Straight Sword (352)
Shield Equipment (375)
Heavy Metal Equipment (310)
Parry (127)

Rebecca had been an obsessive online gamer since she was old enough to go on the Internet by herself, and when she met Seiji in high school she was serving as the main tank of a weekend raiding guild. She recruited her future husband to play an assassin class, and as the two spent more and more time playing as guildmates in the game and as conversation partners in real life, they knew that they were meant to be together. Sword Art Online was to be like a dream come true for her; she had always yearned for the day when technology would allow gamers to live in the worlds they played instead of just watching them on a screen. Instead it became a nightmare in which she and her husband were trapped.

With her aggressive nature and nobility of spirit, as well as years of experience playing tank classes, Rebecca slipped naturally into a that role in SAO, and briefly made a name for herself on the lower floors as Akavaru—The Red Valkyrie—because of her confrontations with orange players.

Afterword: Thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, and followed The Red Valkyrie! Your support is extremely motivational, and I'm sorry that you had to wait so long for the last few chapters.

To those of you who are looking forward to more of Kadyn and Camilla's adventures, rest assured that I have every intention of writing them. For the remainder of 2012 I'm going to be focusing primarily on Fairy Dance of Death, but provided I can maintain the writing inspiration, you can expect to see more stories about them in 2013.

Thanks again!