Prologue: Game Over?
November 7, 2024
Aincrad: 75th Floor – Boss Room
"Game over, Kirito," declared Heathcliff, as he swung down his blazing red blade to strike down the Black Swordsman.
Everyone in his captive audience were chilled down to the virtual bone at those words, made just as Kirito was caught in the midst of the cooldown lag after shattering his second blade, Dark Repulser, against Kayaba`s unbreakable shield. They had all come to this very room with the purpose of destroying its denizen boss, so as to finally clear the 75th Floor, move on to the 76th, and get one Floor closer to the 100th, highest floor, where they would face the final boss, defeat it, and win freedom from the game. The loss of 14 comrades here, the most in one boss room since the lower 50 Floors, had been both unexpected and unnerving, especially with 25 more Floors to go, and all of them likely more difficult.
Even more unexpected and unnerving was the revelation that Heathcliff, the strongest player and leader of the most powerful guild, Knights of the Blood-Oath, was also their despised warden and jailor, Akihiko Kayaba, as well as the final boss on Floor 100. After Kirito made this discovery, Kayaba paralyzed everyone else in the room and goaded the second-strongest player in SAO into a duel to the death, forcing everyone, including his friends, like scheming, but charitable businessman Agil, failingly-flirtatious but ever-dependable Klein, and even his beloved, beautiful wife, Asuna, to watch, unable to do anything to change Kirito`s fate…
At that moment, when his ever-reliable Dark Repulser failed against Heathcliff`s invincible defense, he experienced outright shock and disbelief, as if it was his arm that had broken instead.
When Kirito had received the Unique Skill, Dual Wielding, the first thing he did was get a second sword to match his powerful monster-drop weapon, Elucidator. This he found in Dark Repulser, which he had earned with the help of Asuna`s friend, the blacksmith Lisbeth. Then, he practiced it in secret, testing this new skill on powerful monsters to devastating effect, before unleashing it in full fury and public view against the Gleam Eyes of Floor 74, destroying it at the near-cost of his life. This skill had further marked him out as unique, and had even helped give him some positive, albeit unwanted, attention in contrast to people`s views of him as a Beater. To see his greatest and signature skill fail so spectacularly paralyzed him almost as much as the lag from using the skill.
All Kirito could do was watch Kayaba activate a Sword Skill, making his blade appear to be coated in flickering red flames, and move to bring it down upon him…
So many feelings were flooding Asuna`s mind that it was nigh impossible for her to think rationally. Anguish, betrayal, fear, grief, helplessness, pain, love… These all were stewing around in her head like so many poorly mixing ingredients for a slop of soup. From the sudden unveiling of Heathcliff`s true self, the Paralyze effect on her and everyone else, Kirito`s denial of an escape, his desperate, hopeless battle, his selfless determination to win at all costs, all these contributed to the virtual waterfall of cascading emotions that defined her present mental state.
There was, however, another feeling brewing deep inside, one that was bubbling to the surface like lava from a volcano. It was anger. But this was not just any anger, it was a burning, passionate fury that a human being feels from a combination of the righteous indignation that a person feels against a great wrong, the complete and total hatred of a person` entire being that is born from a betrayal twice made, and the desire to protect a loved one from a menacing danger. This feeling, however, was not enough for Asuna to do anything about her husband`s predicament, not when she was just as paralyzed as Kirito when he was at the mercy of Kuradeel…
One moment, everyone watched in horror as Kayaba prepared to kill Kirito, and take away from them one of their strongest fighters and best hopes for escape.
The next moment was an all-around case of incredible disbelief.
The reason being that, if their eyes weren`t deceiving them, or the game`s virtual environment wasn`t somehow playing tricks with their NervGears, they could just swear that Asuna, the Lightning Flash, and vice-commander of the Knights of the Blood-Oath, had just somehow overcome the Paralyze effect, because they saw her standing right next to Kayaba, with her Lambent Light drawn, occupying a space between Kirito and Heathcliff, whose were both frozen still by her sudden appearance.
Then Heathcliff`s right forearm burst into fractals, letting his great sword fall harmlessly to the ground.
For the briefest of moments, there was silence, as everyone in the helpless gallery of spectators dared to feel hope once more.
Then, there was a shout- no, a roar, as Kirito recovered first from the unbelievable sight, seeing Kayaba himself caught in a brief lag, his shield held aside to make way for the now-failing sword, leaving the man with perfect defensive ability without defense. Kirito lunged forward, with a powerful killing intent reflected in his eyes, almost making them glow. He could see Kayaba`s brief shock morph into a smile…
And he pierced Heathcliff through with Elucidator.
In the end, as his hit points fell away, two feelings permeated his being: contentment, and pride.
At first, Asuna`s sudden interference was just as much of a surprise to him as everyone else, and right at the moment when he was about to conclude his duel and then head off to the Ruby Palace on the 100th Floor to await the Clearers. He didn`t remember allowing for any cheats that would allow for a player to disable their own Paralyze effect without crystals- oh, wait. Now he remembered Asuna`s report about Kuradeel`s betrayal, where he had in fact poisoned Kirito so as to Paralyze him. She and Kirito must have taken precautions to not get caught off guard like that again, he thought. And she must have only just remembered this to come to her husband`s rescue at the very last second, instead of earlier.
As he looked at them, his slayers, all he could think about was how proud he was of his accomplishment. First, he had created an entire world, filled with its own unique locations, creatures, and landscapes. He had filled with the possibility for adventures of every kind, from the Grand Quest for freedom, to simple everyday life in the towns and cities that dotted the Floors of Aincrad. Then, he populated it with thousands of people, who built new communities, organized an economy, manifested their own culture, and even wrote their own folklore, filled with as many legends as any real world populace. And, from a population of ordinary folk, true heroes had been forged.
Aincrad was a fantasy made real, and he was the architect. He knew that he would pass on having fulfilled his dearest dream, and seeing people make that dream into something greater than he could imagine. How could he not feel pride in his work, and feel content that he had accomplished all he had hoped for. And so, he closed his eyes, and waited for death…
The pain of a sword through the chest suddenly intensified, as his eyes shot open, his body doubled forward, and he coughed out blood.
Then he died, with an expression of pain and disbelief replacing the serenity that had been there only moments before.