The players of a virtual reality MMORPG, Sword Art Online, are trapped and fighting for their very lives. After it is announced that the only way to leave the game is by beating it, Kirito—a very powerful swordsman—and his friends take on a quest to free all the minds trapped in Aincrad.
Kirito, along with his childhood friend, Eugeo, has been tasked with cutting down a colossal tree called the Gigas Cedar. They’re swinging their ax when their friend Alice arrives with lunch. As they eat, the three friends decide to go to a fabled cave.
Kirito wakes up to find himself inside a mysterious world evoking a fantasy game. His memory fuzzy, he tries to log out, but is unable to return to the real world. After wandering aimlessly, he finds himself underneath a colossal tree.
Kirito makes up his mind to journey to Centoria. Since he'll need Eugeo's help, he also decides to fell the Gigas Cedar. Meanwhile, Alice's little sister, Selka is worried about Eugeo, and opens up to Kirito about her concerns.
Kirito and Eugeo realize Selka has taken off to the End Mountains alone, and decide to chase after her. As they enter the cave, they encounter goblins, presumably from the Dark Territory, and must engage in a battle.
In the real world, Kazuto Kirigaya lies unconscious. At Kikuoka’s request, Kazuto is moved to a well-equipped hospital, but when Asuna and Suguha try to visit, they’re turned away. Suspicious, Asuna and the others split up to find out more about Rath.
Asuna infiltrates Rath, the research lab in the Ocean Turtle, where she relentlessly grills Kikuoka about Kazuto's whereabouts. Kikuoka reveals that behind the development of the Soul Translator is a mind-blowing objective of epic scale.
Two years have gone by since Kirito and Eugeo left Rulid Village. In the capital city, Centoria, both boys have attained their goal of being admitted to the North Centoria Imperial Swordcraft Academy.
Kirito finds himself in a duel against the Elite Disciple Volo Levantein, using real swords. As the curious crowd looks on, Kirito is encouraged by Sortiliena, and the duel begins.
Now an Elite Disciple along with Kirito, Eugeo struggles with the question of what he should infuse in his sword so he can become stronger. When he's taunted by First-Seat Elite Disciple Raios and Second-Seat Humbert, Eugeo decides to accept Humbert's request for a duel.
Ronie and Tiese are late getting to the dorm. Kirito rushes out in search of them, but no sooner has he gone than Frenica appears. She tells Eugeo about how she's suffered at Humbert's hands, and that Tiese and Ronie went to confront him about it.
Kirito and Eugeo are now considered criminals for having violated the Taboo Index and are thrown into the underground prison in the Central Cathedral. Meanwhile, on the Ocean Turtle in the real world, Asuna is watching over Kazuto as he's being treated.
Kirito and Eugeo escape from their cell, only to find their way blocked by Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-One, under orders from Alice to lie in wait for them. Kirito and Eugeo struggle against him until Eugeo realizes that he's seen Eldrie somewhere before.
Kirito and Eugeo have been rescued by the young girl, Cardinal, who secludes herself inside the Central Cathedral’s Great Library Room. Her true identity is that of an autonomous program which coordinates the preservation of order in the Underworld, a virtual world. Cardinal explains to Kirito how the Axiom Church and the Taboo Index came to be, starting with the Administrator's past. Kirito can barely hide his incredulity, but Cardinal has yet another revelation: the grave danger now threatening the Underworld.
After being entrusted with the fate of the world by the Cardinal, Kirito and Eugeo head to the top floor of the Central Cathedral. On the way, they find their confiscated swords among a vast pile of weapons in an arsenal, only to be greeted with a hail of arrows by the Integrity Knight, Deusolbert Synthesis Seven.
Kirito and Eugeo are on their way up the stairs of the Central Cathedral when they encounter two girls named Linel and Fizel. Fanatio Synthesis Two, a vice commander of the Integrity Knights, lies in wait.