Preceding Illustrations – SPOILER WARNING!
“…This is the world that you protected, Kirito.”
–Alice Synthesis Thirty: Originally an Integrity Knight under «Administrator», she broke the Seal of her Right Eye after meeting Kirito, and awoke as a true artificial intelligence «Alice».
–Kirito: A boy who dove into the virtual world Underworld. To escape, he reached the top floor of the «Central Cathedral», and sank into a state of loss of consciousness after an intense battle with the Highest Minister «Administrator».
“Lift your heads, and report your names. –Starting over there.”
–Emperor Vector: A Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of an American military corporation who used the super-account «Emperor Vector» to login to the Underworld on the Dark Territory’s side, and began a battle to seize the first man-made artificial intelligence «Alice» .
Lilpin: Tribal Chief of the Orcs
Iskahn: Tenth Generation Chair of the Fist Fighter Guild
D.I.L.: Leader of the Dark Sorceress Guild
Shasta: Dark Knight Commander
Siglosig: Tribal Chief of the Giants
Fer Za: Leader of the Assassin Guild
“Oji-sama. It’s been a long time.”
“Long time no see, Alice.”
–Fanatio Synthesis Two: Vice Commander of the Integrity Knighthood. Alice’s upperclassman; the two don’t get along very well. Wields the Luminous Element-controlling Divine Instrument the «Sky Piercing Sword».
“Hey, little girl. You’re more spirited than I imagined, that relieves me.”
–Bercouli Synthesis One: Integrity Knight Commander. Alice’s mentor, and the world’s oldest and strongest swordsman. Wields the Divine Instrument that can split apart the future, the «Time Piercing Sword».
“My mentor Alice-sama!! I knew you would return!”
–Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-One: Alice’s apprentice, the youngest Integrity Knight. Wields the Divine Instrument which can split its tip into countless ends, the «Frostscale Whip».
Map of the Underworld
The «Underworld» is comprised of the Dark Land «Dark Territory», surrounded by the «Human Empire».
The entire structure is modeled after the logo of «Project Alicization», disguised as everyday corporation «RATH».
This logo references a big and small gear and drive belt, and the shape of a pig’s nose.
Projecting this design thought process onto the map of the Underworld metaphorically represents the Imperial City Obsidia as a driving gear, driving the Human Empire, which is the grinding mortar.
Chapter 14: Subtilizer
Chapter 15: In the Northern Lands – The Tenth Month of the Human World Calendar, 380 [PARTIAL]
Read Tap’s translation of this chapter here. The below is my translation of the second half of this chapter.
NOTE: BEFORE READING THIS CONTENT, READ TAP’S TRANSLATION OF THE FIRST 64% OF CHAPTER 15. THIS IS THE CONTINUATION OF HIS TRANSLATION!
On the twenty-second day of the tenth month, the coldest day of autumn arrived with bright sunshine.
Canceling their walk, Alice and Kirito spent time at the fireside. Originally before the real cold winter arrived, she had wanted to prepare a large amount of firewood as the elderly Garitta had taught her to, but for now there seemed to be no more need.
It had taken her an entire day to write just two pieces of parchment worth of a letter. After finishing, Alice hesitated for a while, and wrote down “Schuberg” in the Common Tongue, then wrote “Synthesis Thirty” in the Sacred Tongue.
She carefully folded the letter, tied them up with two bands, wrote Selka’s name onto one, then left the other one on the table for the elderly Garitta.
They were letters of farewell and apologies. Since the home in the forest had been discovered by Integrity Knight Eldrie, they could no longer live there. Next time, it would not be Eldrie but Knight Bercouli who came. By the time, Alice would not find appropriate words to tell her mentor in swordsmanship that she was indebted to.
So they could only run.
After letting out a long sigh, Alice raised her head and looked at the black-haired youth sitting on the other side of the table.
“Hey, Kirito. Where do you want to go? The highlands of the Western Lands are very beautiful, you know. Or would the forests of the Southern Lands be better? It’s warm for the entire year, so maybe we can pick a variety of fruits for ourselves.”
Although she asked him in a particularly lively voice, Kirito was completely unresponsive as usual.
Blank eyes silently looked at the table. The fact that she had to take this injured youth on a life of vagrancy pained Alice in her chest. However, she could not leave him behind in Rulid. Not only could Selka not spare time to take the job as an Apprentice Sister, Alice did not wish so. Now, taking care of Kirito had almost what Alice lived for.
“…Forget it, let’s leave the destination up to Amayori. Okay… it’s late, let’s go to bed. We need to get up early tomorrow.”
After changing clothes for Kirito and laying him down, she changed into her nightwear, extinguished the lanterns, and climbed into bed.
In the darkness, she listened to Kirito’s breath with full attention. When Kirito sounded asleep, Alice wriggled her body.
She leaned her head against the youth’s bony chest. Beside her ear came a slow but steady thumping.
Kirito’s heart was already no longer here. This heartbeat was but a resonance of the past.
In the months that she had slept alongside him every night, Alice had thought so. But at the same time, she felt that in this deep yet steady resonance, there was still — something that remained.
If the Kirito now was in a state of having a normal heart but unable to express anything, then just how could she explain her current actions to him? Alice smiled as she thought so, and slowly entered the world of dreams.
Suddenly, the body beside her trembled slightly.
Alice opened her heavy eyelids with difficulty. She looked towards the east window with her left eye, but the sky through the gap in the curtains was still pitch black. Judging by her feeling, she had only slept two or three hours.
While Kirito trembled again, Alice whispered:
“It’s still nighttime… let’s sleep some more…”
Closing her eye again, she patted Kirito’s chest to tell him to go back to sleep. However, the soft voice from the youth finally let Alice knew that there was something wrong with him.
The Kirito now did not have wishes of his own. Simple coldness, hunger or others like that shouldn’t wake him. Even so, the boy trembled more violently as though he wanted to get off the bed.
This was abnormal; had he regained his senses? Alice thought as she instantly sat up and directly generated a luminous element, as if lighting a lantern was a waste of time.
The boy’s pupils in his eyes that were faintly lit by white light showed no change from usual at all and reflected the same blank darkness; Alice sighed with slight disappointment. But, if so, what was he—
At that moment, a sharp cry outside the window reached Alice’s ears.
It was the cry of Amayori, who was supposed to be asleep in a corner in the clearing. The sharp cry was sharp and high-pitched as though she was warning her master.
Alice jumped onto the floor, ran from the bedroom to the living room and threw open the door. A freezing night wind blew. It should only carry the fragrant of the forest, but the wind mixed with a sliver of strange odor. This smell stung deep in the nose, can only be a signal of substance being burnt—
She walked barefoot to the vestibule. Looking around the sky, she could not help gasping.
The sky to the west— was burning.
The ominous red glow was undoubtedly a reflection of an enormous fire. Squinting, she could see horizontal streaks of black smoke covering the sky.
A bush fire?!
Although she had thought so for a split second, Alice immediately dismissed that notion. Through the burnt wind came the tinny sounds of clashing metal —and screams.
An enemy attack.
An army from the Dark Territory was attacking Rulid Village.
Letting out a hoarse scream, Alice was to immediately run back inside. However, she stood stock still when she stepped on the porch.
Alice wailed weakly and prepared to immediately run back inside.
Then she stood stock still.
I have to save my sister and parents no matter what.
But… What about the other villagers?
If I were to save everyone, I would have to directly confront the Dark Army. Do I still possess that power now?
The source of power for the Integrity Knight Alice of the past was the fanatic loyalty to the Church and the highest minister. With it shattered along with my right eye, can I still swing the Fragrant Olive Sword and use the Sacred Arts?
The frozen Alice heard—
A “thump” from inside the house.
She opened her left eye wide. In the middle of the living room, there sat an upset chair and the black-haired boy crawling beside it.
Alice hurried back inside with watery legs.
Kirito’s eyes were still devoid of will. But what he meant by his slow actions was very clear.
He reached out his arm straight towards the three swords hanging on the wall.
Alice felt hot lumps rising in her throat and chest. It took her seconds to discover that her vision was blurry and distorted because of her own tears.
Letting out hoarse noises, Kirito moved relentlessly towards the swords. Alice wiped her eyes firmly, ran to the boy, and held his frail body up.
“Don’t worry, I’ll go. I’ll save everyone. So, stay here, and relax.”
Whispering quickly, Alice hugged Kirito tightly.
Thump, thump. Through the chest which Alice was laying on, his heartbeat reached her.
Even though his heart was closed, deep in the beating hid flames of will that would never run out. Although they were weak embers, Alice could certainly recognize the warmth.
After tightly pressing her own cheek to the boy’s, Alice carried the frail body over to a chair.
“I’ll save them and be back soon.”
Then she took down the armor and belt hanging from the ceiling and put them on over her nightwear. Without hesitating, she then ran to the east wall and grabbed her beloved sword.
The Fragrant Olive Sword that she had not held for half a year felt rigid. Alice fixed the scabbard onto the belt, threw her coat on while slipping on her boots and ran to the vestibule again.
Shouting towards the east, a gigantic shadow hastened over and lowered its head.
Alice clambered onto its long neck and commanded sharply:
Whoosh! Flapping its silvery wings, the dragon sprinted and soared into the air.
After gaining some altitude, the pitiful sight of Rulid Village ruthlessly entered Alice’s sight. The rising red-hot flames generally came from the northern side of the village. As expected, the invaders had come from the .
Last night, Eldrie had confirmed that all was normal at the that had been blocked under Bercouli’s command, so they must have moved a large amount of debris in one day. If that was the case, the mobilized soldiers numbered at least twenty.
Since a long time ago, there had been scouting teams infiltrating the three caves running through the Mountain Range at the End, and successfully attacked the Human World. Kirito and Eugeo had said, before they went to the Central Capital Centoria, they had battled a group of goblins in the Cave of the North. She, however, had never heard of such large scale and obvious assault. By the looks of it, the entire Dark Territory was in the mood to launch an attack against the Human World.
As Alice was thinking, Amayori flew over the forest at full speed, reaching the sky above the wheat fields on the outskirts of Rulid.
Without any reins, Alice used her hands to pat the back of the dragon’s neck as a signal to stop.
Alice stretched over and gazed below. At the north of the main path stretching south, Alice could clearly see shadows of the invaders created by the red glow of fire. Those who jumped around as if they could fly were the dexterous goblins. Not far behind, tall orcs advanced.
The vanguard had already met the temporary line of defense set up with furniture and timber on the north side of the Central Square. The goblins had already reached there, crossing swords over the blockings. White blades flashed around the barrier.
Confronting the invaders were the village guard. But whether it was number, equipment or experience, they were no match for the goblin troops. If this went on, as soon as earthquake-like stomps came from behind, the gradually approaching wall of gigantic orcs would arrive and instantly crush the resistance.
Alice fought the urge to immediately rush into battle, instead surveying the situation again.
Flames licked the east and west streets, but the Square and the south side seemed fine. It seemed like the villagers not part of the guard— of course, that would include Selka — had evacuated through the south gate into the forest.
Thinking so, Alice gazed once more at the Central Square and sputtered:
In the circular square in front of the Church, there were countless silhouettes surrounding the fountain. She had not noticed before due to their overwhelming number. Those should be the entire villager population of Rulid.
Why were they not evacuating out of the village?
As soon as the invaders’ main force reached the main defense line, the guards would immediately scatter. It was too late even now to begin moving.
Patting the neck of the dragon again, Alice flew above the village square and shouted:
“Amayori, standby until I call you!”
In one breath she jumped from a height of tens of Mel. Her coat billowing in the wind, she dropped straight down as if she could cut the icy night air in half.
The circular formation of three hundred villagers were probably planning to assume a defensive position for the time being; men wielding hoes and sickles were stationed around the boundary. Besides the two vigorously commanding men, Alice hit the ground.
With a deafening crash, the stone slabs beneath her shoes cracked radially. Although the shockwave of the impact traveled from the soles of her shoes to the top of her head, decreasing her Life a bit, Alice attracted more attention to herself.
The two men — rich farmer Nygr Barbossa and the Rulid Village Chief Gasupht Schuberg — jumped out of their skin in reaction to the suddenly descending shadow.
Alice looked at her father’s face and felt a sliver of dejection, but treasured the sudden silence she created and shouted:
“This place is indefensible! Take everyone and evacuate through the southern road now!”
Hearing her orders, the two men expressed greater surprise.
But a few seconds later, in return came Nygr’s murderous curses:
“What the hell are you saying! For us to leave our homes behind… leave the village behind and run?!”
To the livid wealthy peasant, Alice retorted bitingly:
“We can still get away before the goblins catch up to us! Your wealth or your life: which one’s more important?!”
In place of the speechless Nygr, the Village Chief Gasupht said nervously in a low voice:
“The Guard Chief, Jink, ordered us to form a defensive circle in the Square. In this situation, even as the Village Chief, I can only follow the Guard Chief’s orders. That is the Empire’s law.”
Now it was Alice’s turn to be speechless.
In emergency circumstances, the person with the Sacred Task of Guard Chief would temporarily assume full command of everyone; this was clearly according to a clause inscribed in the Norlangarth North Empire Basic Law.
However, the Guard Chief called Jink was a young man who had just inherited his position from his father. In this situation Alice thought that it was unreasonable to assume that Jink could calmly make decisions and commands. Gasupht’s face showed strong anxiety, but this confirmed that the Village Chief was thinking the same thing.
But no matter what, the Law of the Empire was absolute to the villagers. To immediately begin evacuation, Jink, who was probably still leading the battle on the northern defense line, had to be pulled over and forced to change his command. But no matter how Alice thought about it, there was no time left for that.
What should she do. What would —
At this time, Alice, who was standing still, heard a young yet determined shout.
“Do as nee-sama says, Father!”
She turned around in surprise. In the crowd, there was a delicate young nun using Sacred Arts to treat villagers who appeared to have been burned.
This was wonderful; all was well. Before Alice could step towards her beloved sister, Selka finished treating the villager, stood up, and walked through the crowd towards the three.
She smiled at Alice and spoke to Gasupht, her face taut:
“Father, ever since we were young, has nee-sama ever been wrong? No, and even I know that. At this rate, everyone will be killed.”
Gasupht fumbled for words with a pained expression. His beard trembled slightly and his eyes remained wandering in space.
In place of the speechless village chief, Nygr Barbossa exploded again.
“Children shouldn’t mouth off!! We’re gonna protect our village!!”
His bloodshot eyes darted towards his own properties not far from the square. To be precise, he was more looking for his large stash of newly harvested wheat and gold stores saved over the years.
Looking back at Alice and Selka, the rich farmer yelled in high pitched voice as expected.
“Damn… so it’s like this, I got it, I got it! The one who drew the Monsters of Darkness into the village was you, Alice!! You were corrupted by the Forces of Darkness when you crossed the Mountain Range at the End, weren’t you!! A witch… this woman is a terrifying witch!”
Being pointed at with a meaty finger, Alice was at a loss for words. The noise of the villagers talking amongst themselves, the sound of crossing swords on the defense line, and the screams of the monsters advancing from the north all faded out.
Since Alice started living outside the village, she had helped Nygr fell giant trees numerous times. Every time, this man had thanked her sycophantically. But, just to protect his own wealth, he could say something like this, what kind of —
Alice turned her eye from the man’s ugly half-Orcish expression and muttered softly in her heart.
— Fine, just do as you like.
— I wouldn’t need to strain myself like this. I’ll just take Selka, the elderly Garitta, my parents and Kirito and leave the village to find a new home far away from here.
She clenched her teeth tightly and closed her eye.
But Alice continued to think hard.
— Nygr Barbossa and the other villagers were ignorant, because of the Axiom Church’s hundreds of years’ worth of rule.
Besides the Taboo Index, they invented countless laws and regulations to restrict the people, providing peace like warm water while endlessly taking away what was important.
That was, the ability to think, and the ability to fight.
In that seemingly eternal epoch, where had that amorphous power been stored?
In just thirty-one Integrity Knights.
Inhaling and exhaling deeply, Alice snapped open her eye like a breaking string.
As expected, she saw Nygr’s face draining of color as though he were afraid.
It was the opposite for Alice, whose body filled with tremendous power. A calm yet scorching blue flame. That was what she thought she had lost in the battle on the top floor of the Central Cathedral — the power that had allowed Kirito, Eugeo and Alice to revolt against the Highest Administrator of the Human World.
After taking a deep breath, Alice declared:
“… Discard Guard Chief Jink’s orders. I command you all, scatter this formation immediately; the ones with weapons, lead the way to evacuate to the southern forest.”
Although that voice was steady, Nygr recoiled as though he were struck with something. Even so, his gall to retort in a trembling voice was admirable:
“On…on what authority, can you, an exiled little girl, say such…”
“A knight’s authority.”
“Kn… What the hell is a knight?! There is no such Sacred Task in this village! You just know how to swing a sword, and you arrogantly call yourself a knight, if the knights in the central capital were to find out, you’ll be sorry…”
Glancing at the sputtering Nygr, Alice lightly grabbed her coat on the right shoulder with her left hand.
“I am… My name is Alice. I, who oversee the entirety of Centoria, am the Integrity Knight of the Axiom Church in the third place, Alice Synthesis Thirty!”
Powerfully declaring her identity, she threw away her coat.
As the thick fabric was removed, her golden armor and Fragrant Olive Sword instantly reflected the raging flames, shining with blinding light.
“Wh… I-I-Integrity Knight…?!”
Nygr’s tone of voice changed completely and he fell backwards onto his bottom. Gasupht’s eyes widened.
Alice’s title was no lie. This was because, in this world, there were no humans who were able to impersonate Integrity Knights — that is, to deny the authority of the Axiom Church. The only people who could were Kirito and Alice, but even if she had escaped from the central capital to here, Alice had not give up her sword that confirmed her status as a knight.
The noisy villagers immediately quieted down. The sounds of crossing swords on the northern defense line, and the screams of guards and goblins died down.
The first to break the silence was Selka’s soft voice.
Turning her sight towards her sister, who clutched her hands in front of her chest, Alice smiled kindly.
“Sorry for keeping it from you, Selka. This, is my true punishment. At the same time, it is — my true duty.”
Tears sprang and trembled in Selka’s eyes.
“Nee-sama… I… I always believed it. Nee-sama would never be a criminal. It’s… really beautiful…”
The one who moved next was Gasupht.
Dropping to his knees with a thump, the village chief bowed and cried roughly:
“I obey your command, Integrity Knight-dono!”
Standing up quickly, he turned towards the villagers behind him and gave instructions.
“Everyone stand!! The ones with weapons, lead the way to the south gate!! Once you get out of the village, run to the forest south of the polders!”
Among the sitting crowd, noise of anxiety began to spread. But that was only for a moment. No villager would disobey the village chief’s command, let alone which was based on that of an Integrity Knight.
Immediately, the tough farmers protecting the boundary stood up together, and hurried the women, children and elderly inside the boundary to stand as well. Calling back Gasupht, who was to join the leading team, Alice told him with a withdrawn voice:
“Father, please take care of the villagers… Selka, and Mother.”
Gasupht’s tense expression wavered for just a moment, and replied briefly:
“…Please stay safe as well, Knight-dono.”
This father would now never address Alice as his own daughter. This was the price of being granted power. As Alice was committing that to memory, she pushed Selka on her back, prompting her to move beside Gasupht.
“Nee-sama… please don’t strain yourself.”
Smiling and nodding at her crying sister, Alice turned and looked north. Behind her, the villagers began to move as a whole.
“Ah…ahhh… My… my house…”
Moaning in a good-for-nothing manner, Nygr Barbossa remained seated on the ground. His eyes darted between the running villagers and his house that was about to be engulfed by flames. Deciding to leave him alone, Alice concentrated on the other villagers.
Although she had finally gotten the villagers moving, there were about300 people. It would take time for everyone to leave the village, but the defense line was close to collapse, and the footsteps of the enemy were approaching from both east and west.
Suddenly a young man’s scream came from north of the square:
“We won’t make it! Retreat! Retreeeat!”
That was likely to be Guard Chief Jink. Hearing this, Nygr suddenly blustered at Alice with renewed intensity:
“D…Did you see that?! We should stay here and defend! We’re gonna die! We’re all gonna get killed!!”
Alice shrugged and calmly refuted:
“It’s fine, since this much space is spared. I will stop them.”
“Impossible! How can you manage such a thing?! Even… Even if you’re a real Integrity Knight, the other side has that many monsters; what the hell can you do alone?!”
The shadows of goblins and orcs attacking from the east and west were visible now but Nygr was still cursing. Ignoring him again, Alice spun and looked behind her: even though the line of villagers still extended back to the square, it was now a considerable distance from her.
Alice seized Nygr’s collar and pushed him to the south, then pointed into the night sky and loudly called her beloved dragon:
Immediately, an energetic roar came from the sky. Alice’s raised right arm swept from east to west, and she shouted:
“— Burn everything!”
A storm of wings descended from the sky; Nygr and the abnormal demihumans — goblins that raced into the square all looked up at once.
The gigantic dragon descended by splitting the sky dyed red with flames, and opened its mouth wide. From the depth of its throat, bluish white light flashed—
A blinding beam rushed out. From the west road, the beam of heat sliced through the central square in front of the standing Alice and the sitting Barbossa, cutting into the east road.
In a split second.
Astonishing flames exploded in a straight line, releasing into the night sky. The goblins consumed by it were thrown into the air, shrieking.
The dragon fire that instantly annihilated at least twenty invaders evaporated the water in the fountain at the center of the square; white steam permeated the surroundings. Alice signaled for the passing Amayori to standby again, and checked behind her.
Nygr Barbossa lay on the stone stab as though he was paralyzed; his eyes were about to burst out of their sockets.
“Wh… wha… A… dra-dr-DR-DRAGON…!?”
As Alice was thinking about what happened to the taut-faced middle-aged man, from the other side of the steam approached footsteps of running at full tilt. Showing up were the men of Rulid guards in leather-armor. The early retreat proved to be a correct decision, as the guards who numbered roughly ten had suffered wounds, but there seemed to be no heavy injuries.
The tall youth impressively bringing up the rear, Guard Chief Jink, saw the empty square and shrieked in astonishment:
“Wh-where did the guys in the village go?! Did I not tell them to stay here and defend?!”
“I ordered them to retreat to the southern forest.”
Alice replied. Jink blinked as though he just noticed her and looked her up and down several times.
“You are… Alice…? Why are you…?”
“No time to explain. Are all of the guards here? Is there anyone you left behind?”
“Um… No, there shouldn’t be…”
“Good, then leave with everyone else. And yes, please take Barbossa-san with you as well.”
“B-but… those monsters are right in front…”
Before he even had time to finish—
A coarse scream filled the square.
“Where the heck are they— ! Where did the white Iums go— !”
Plunging out of the steam into the square were goblins, clad in crude sheet metal armor, clutching rough swords that resembled slabs of metal, and wearing long feathers on their heads. Seemingly not of the same tribe as the ones who had just been scorched by Amayori’s fire, their bodies were a little better built.
Alice stared at the demihumans and gripped her sword handle with her right hand. The dragon could not repeatedly breathe fire. Until Amayori could gather enough Thermal Elements again, Alice would have to face the main enemy force on her own.
One of the goblins sighted the shadow of Alice clad in golden armor; its eyes flashed yellow with frightening murderous hunger, as it shouted:
“GIHII!! An Ium woman!! Kill!! Kill and eat it!!”
Alice silently waited for the blade-wielding demihuman, who has abnormally long arms, to come near, muttering in her heart.
—What a terrifying power. So strong that existing can be considered a sin.
Existing as myself, an Integrity Knght
The thick blade that was swung down from high in the air was easily stopped by Alice’s left hand. Although the heavy impact traveled down her arm, there were no fractures of skin nor bone. She effortlessly gripped the blunt blade with her fingers and crushed it as though it were thin ice.
The pieces of metal fragmented, but before they hit the ground, the Fragrant Olive Sword was pulled out by Alice’s right hand and sliced across the goblin’s body.
Glowing in golden yellow, the sword generated a wind that twisted the three goblins near it into its path and blew away the surrounding mist. Without even knowing what happened, four of the round yellow-eyed enemy soldiers were separated at the middle and landed on the ground.
Alice stepped back to avoid the spray of blood and said to herself in her heart:
— Highest Minister Administrator. You had been wrong after all.
— You had concentrated such power into the bodies of just thirty Integrity Knights, sealed their thoughts and raised them as puppets. You wanted to use such a method to control the power that was supposed to be distributed to everyone of the Human World. But power that is too unbalanced will corrupt and disturb the one using it and the ones around them. Even someone as yourself was consumed by overwhelming power and became something inhuman…
With the Highest Administrator dead today, it was no longer possible to rectify that mistake.
Even so, she at least needed to use every last bit of this power for the people.
Not as an Integrity Knight of the Axiom Church but a swordswoman who thought according to her own will and fought according to her own determination. As the two brave swordsmen had before.
Maintaining her position to swing the sword all the way, Alice opened her left eye with determination.
At the same time, the temporary defensive line that was constructed north of the square was completely destroyed.
The wide road was full of the main enemy force. Goblins that numbered more than fifty, and orcs that were numbered less but were covered in metal armor and clutching huge tridents.
Seeing their yellow eyes that gave off bright and cold light, their screaming bodies that reeked of hatred and desire, the guards behind Jink and Nigel Barbossa let out moans of despair.
But Alice’s heart was very calm.
This was not an Integrity Knight’s strength. If they were surrounded by such a tremendous number and attacked with spears from all directions, even a knight would not walk away with minor scratches.
What gave Alice her power was but a new realization.
— From today on, I will fight for my own desires. I will fight to protect my sister, to protect my parents, and to protect this world that Kirito and Eugeo wanted to protect.
Alice clearly felt the self-doubt and powerlessness deep within her heart slowly evaporate in white light. That white light spread all around her body, all converging at her right eye that was covered with a black bandage, generating intense heat.
She clenched her teeth and endured the severe pain that penetrated her eye socket to the back of her head. But that was a pain she seemed to have felt before and made her feel slightly sad. Alice grasped the bandage tied to her head and tore it off.
She slowly opened the eye that had been closed for nearly half a year from that day. Red light radially flooded her black vision and became a flickering flame. It created a double image with her left eye that captured the scene of endless burning homes, which dislocated and slowly disappeared— finally combining together.
Alice looked with both eyes at the black fabric in her left hand.
This eyepatch that had been repeatedly washed and was slowly losing color was something Kirito had made by tearing a strip off of his own clothes. This piece of cloth that had protected the right eye that had been blown away along with the seal for several months, had reached the end of its Life; it began to slowly disappear from end to end as though it were melting in the air. Gazing at that ethereal yet beautiful sight, Alice realized it.
In this half year, she had originally planned to protect and take care of Kirito, who had lost his right arm and spirit. But the one protected was herself.
“…Thank you, Kirito.”
She said, holding the cloth that was close to disintegrating to her lips.
“… I’m fine now. I believe, from today on there will be all kind of confusion, frustration, and mistakes… but I will forge ahead. For you and for what I desire.”
The moment the cloth disappeared, she raised her head emphatically.
Her two eyes fixed ahead of her saw nearly a hundred Goblins and Orcs, screaming and shrieking as one, swarming into the square. From behind came the sounds of the guards and Nigel Barbossa’s fleeing footsteps.
Alice, who had to confront the enemy alone, felt not the slightest bit of fear in her heart.
She inhaled the burnt air and shouted:
“— I am Alice, a Knight of the Human World!! As long as I am here, the blood and massacre that you desire will not be realized!! Now return through the cave from whence you came!”
As though it was an omnipresent pressure, that awe-inspiring declaration caused the goblin vanguard to slow slightly in their advance. Immediately after, the tall orc in the middle of the formation who seemed to be the generals, swung its axe and let out a savage roar.
“GURAAA! You’re just a small Ium girl, I, the Foot-Cutting Morikka-sama will smash you to the ground!”
The goblins regained their energy with this shout. Facing the black wave of enemy forces, Alice waited until they were within range—
By one name call, a gigantic shadow flew down at breakneck speed. Even though it had not generated enough Thermal Elements to breathe out, but the mere sight of a flying dragon and a thunderous roar enough to scare the demihumans flew menacingly over their heads. The troops, frightened by this, wavered even more than before.
Not hesitating for a second, Alice raised the Fragrance Olive Sword high, high into the air and shouted:
“— Enhance Armament!”
Even though she was chanting this after half a year out of practice, and even though it was an extremely simplified version of the that had excluded almost the entire verse, Alice’s beloved sword still reflected her will. With a clear metallic sound, the golden blade split into countless small blades, dancing in the night sky as they reflected the fire.
“Engulf this place — flowers!”
With a whoosh, the blizzard of golden flowers poured towards the enemy.
The first one to be engulfed in a mist of blood was the self-proclaimed Orc general. His entire body was permeated by several bursts of flowers, wasting his entire Life away in an instant; he fell back onto the ground with a trembling crash. The surrounding Orcs screamed endlessly and keeled over.
The Fragrant Olive Sword was a Divine Instrument crafted from the wood of the world’s oldest tree in the center of the Human World from the beginning of the world. With another name of , it could split into hundreds of flower petals through the Armament Full Control Art, with each petal having enough power to go against a famous sword forged by a blacksmith. It was certainly not stoppable by crude cast-iron armor.
The main invading force that had lost its general in an instant was significantly less enthusiastic. The advancing vanguard slowed immediately and stopped within 10 Mel of the entrance to the square.
As the goblins at the very front were confused and unable to decide between desire and fear, Alice fiercely swung the sword hilt in her right hand. Hundreds of flower petals flew into the air softly and formed a finely patterned wall between Alice and the enemy.
Gazing at the demihumans through the golden lattice, Alice quietly declared:
“This is the wall that divides the Human World and the Land of Darkness. Even if you schemed to clear the cave, as long as I’m here, you will not pervert this land! Choose— will you march forward and surrender under a sea of blood, or will you turn around and run back to the Land of Darkness!”
Within five seconds, the goblin vanguard all suddenly turned around.
The lively sounds of knocking rose into the clear blue winter sky.
Alice put her hand to her forehead, watching the faraway wheat fields, besides which rose Rulid Village.
A week had passed since the attack by the Forces of Darkness.
Extending from the northern homes, almost one fifth of the village had burnt down, but the village chief decided for everyone to temporarily pause their Sacred Tasks and change to manual labor, so reconstruction was proceeding very quickly. Unfortunately, twenty one villagers had lost their lives because they were too slow during evacuation; a funeral had been held at the Church three days ago.
After Alice was invited to a ceremony, she immediately rode her dragon towards the Cave of the North to confirm.
The long tunnel that had been collapsed under Bercouli’s command had been widened to a width that could even allow tall Orcs to pass through. Within its depths, at the part nearest to the Dark Territory, Alice found evidence that there had been a long-term camp there.
The invaders could not have cleared the cave in one night. Apparently troops had been sent from the Dark Territory and then their pathway exploded behind them. When Integrity Knight Eldrie was checking that entrance, there were already goblins that had infiltrated the cave and began to clear the path.
Before, neither goblins nor orcs would have scheme such a plan so thoroughly. Just from this incident it could be determined that this time, the invasion from the Dark Side was not just a scouting mission like before.
Once Alice left the cave, she did not immediately collapse the cave, but temporarily blocked the stream flowing out of the center of what used to be the White Dragon Nest, flooding the entire cave. Lastly, she released numerous Cryogenic Elements that she had set up, and used ice instead of rock to seal the cave.
This way, if neither Alice nor a Thermal Element user of the same caliber could melt the ice, there would be no way anyone could pass through that cave again.
Turning her eyes from the white Mountain Range at the End, Alice tied the last travel bag onto Amayori’s foot straps.
Selka, who was holding back tears with all her might and helping with preparations for departure, lowered her head and spoke:
“…Father originally wanted to come and see you off. I always felt that he had been preoccupied since this morning. Father is… really happy that nee-sama has returned. I hope you can believe this about him…”
“I know, Selka.”
Alice gently hugged her sister’s small body, saying softly:
“I left this village having done a great sin, and came back as an Integrity Knight. But next time… when I’m finished with everything, I’ll come back simply as Alice Schuberg. I think, then, I can definitely say it. ‘I’ve returned, Father’.”
“…Yes. That day will definitely come.”
Selka responded, her words mixed with sobs. She raised her head and firmly wiped away her tears with the sleeve of her monastic robes.
Turning to the youth clad in black sunk into the wheelchair besides them, she spoke jovially:
“Kirito needs to perk up as well, become better again and help my nee-sama.”
After she had gently hugged the bowed head and said a prayer for good luck, the young nun backed away several steps.
Alice walked to Kirito’s side and gently took the two swords from him and secured them to Amayori’s saddle. She then gently carried the youth’s frail body and sat him onto the front of the saddle.
She had considering leaving Kirito at the village with Selka. If she had left from the front of east gate, Alice would be busy as the main force of the Human World Defense Force on the front lines, and would definitely be unable to stay by Kirito’s side all day like she was currently.
But Alice still decided to take him with her.
On the night of the attack one week ago, Kirito had definitely wanted to take up his sword and enter the village. It was his nature to fight for others. Then, the only thing that could bring back his heart was probably the battle to protect the Human World.
If there is a change, even if she had to tie him to her back, she would protect him to the death.
Alice tightly hugged Selka for the last time.
“…Then, I’m going, Selka.”
“Yeah. Be careful… Definitely come back, Nee-sama.”
“I promise. …Say hello to Garrita-ji for me. …Stay safe and study hard.”
“I know. I’ll definitely become an outstanding nun… and then, I will, too, one day…”
She slowly stroked her sister’s head, and after letting go, Alice slowly and reluctantly walked towards her beloved dragon, sitting behind Kirito on the dragon’s back.
Nodding deeply to her sister on the ground, she turned her eyes towards the faraway blue sky.
Gently casting away the rope, the dragon ran with tremendous force in the wheat field, oblivious to the weight of the two people and three swords on its back.
There will definitely be a day when she would return to this village.
Even if she wasted away on the battlefield, her heart would remain the same.
Alice wiped away a tear on her eyelashes and let out a sharp shout:
With a floating feeling, they left the ground.
Amayori rode the rising air current, twisting into the sky.
The wide land and forests, with Rulid Village shining in their center, and the figure of Selka who was running and waving with all her might; she engraved them deeply into her eyes—
Alice turned the head of the dragon towards the eastern sky.
Chapter 16: Attack on the Ocean Turtle – July 2026
Even the self-proclaimed super genius Higa Takeru was unable to predict all that had happened in the past two hours.
But, the current situation could be called extremely startling, and could only be described as dumbfounding.
Unexpectedly, a delicate young woman of roughly eighteen or nineteen used her thin right hand to seize and hoist up the collar of a man fifteen centimeters taller than herself. The tasteless Hawaiian shirt was gripped so tightly it was nearly torn apart; heels of sandals floated in the air.
With both eyes, brightly flashing as though they were ablaze, staring straight at Lieutenant-Colonel Kikuoka Seijirou, Yuuki Asuna let words sharp as swords out of her cute cherry red lips:
“If Kirito-kun can’t wake up like this, I will absolutely never forgive you.”
From Higa’s position, it was impossible to see Kikuoka’s expression under his black-rimmed glasses reflecting the ceiling light. But the Self-Defense Cadre who was supposed to be a black belt in both judo and kendo was seemingly crushed by Asuna’s words; he swallowed, and slowly raised both hands to his left and right, as though in a gesture of surrender.
“I understand. I will take responsibility: I will make sure Kirito-kun recovers.”
Solemn silence flooded the dark Auxiliary Control Room.
No matter if it was Higa, who was sitting in the chair in front of the console, or Koujiro Rinko, who was standing besides him, or the numerous «RATH» staff inside the room, no one dared to speak. It was clear how surprising the the youngest woman’s verve was. As it was, that young woman deserved the title of a «Survivor» of a true battlefield. Higa couldn’t help but think this aside.
Finally, Asuna wordlessly released her right hand. Kikuoka, having been freed, let out a long sigh with an almost dispirited expression. Asuna stepped back, swaying on the spot. Rinko immediately moved forward and supported Asuna’s back, her white coat flying.
The female physicist who was a senior to Higa in the research facility tightly hugged Asuna to her chest, whispered with determination:
“It’s all right, everything will be fine. He’ll definitely come back, back to your side.”
Her gentle voice instantly soothed Asuna’s extremely taut face:
“… Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry… for being so panicky.”
Asuna’s eyes leaked tears that had been absent even when enduring the attack. Rinko gently wiped them away with the tip of her finger.
The sound of the sliding door being opened tightened the slightly relaxed atmosphere again. Running into the room was Lieutenant Nakanishi.
Nakanishi, whose dusty white shirt was soaked with sweat and whose shoulder holster revealed a large pistol grip, glanced at Rinko and Asuna and said loudly to Kikuoka behind:
“Report! Complete sealing of blast doors one and two, plus completion of evacuating noncombatants are confirmed!”
Kikuoka adjusted the collar of his Hawaiian shirt as he stepped forward and nodded.
“Good work. How long can the blast doors hold?”
“Yes… That would depend on the attackers’ equipment, although small firearms are unable to penetrate it. Even using tip saws or similar tools to cut through it would take at least eight hours. If explosives are used, it might not hold… I assume, though, they would not, since near the central blast door…”
“There is the light cube cluster.”
Kikuoka finished his sentence, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and sank into deep thought.
But he immediately raised his head and surveyed the slightly small Auxiliary Control Room.
“Good, let’s straighten out the situation. Nakanishi, report of casualties.”
“Yes sir. Civilian research team, three lightly injured, in treatment at the bow infirmary. Our combatants, two heavily injured, two lightly injured, all in treatment with no risk of death. Ready for combat, six, including two lightly injured.”
“Under that kind of fierce attack, it’s a miracle that there have been no deaths… Then, report any hull damage.”
“There are rupture points all over the bottom dock control room. It’s impossible to shut them remotely now. The passageway from the dock to the Main Control Room is the same, but these are just negligible damages. The most severe is, because the main power line has been cut… although the auxiliary line can supply stable power, if we don’t restart the control system we can’t turn the propellers.”
“A sea turtle without fins. And its belly has been bitten by a shark.”
“Yes, sir. Zones One through Twelve of the Lower Shaft and the bottom dock have been completely taken.”
The extremely short-haired Nakanishi, whose face represented strong will itself, unwillingly knitted his brow. Comparatively, Kikuoka’s teacher-like long hairline twisted up, as he leaned onto the console while shuffling his clogs with his toes.
“The Main Control Room, STL Room One, and even the nuclear pile have also fallen into their hands… Most fortunately, their goal is not to destroy.”
“Is… is that so?”
“If they just wanted to destroy, they wouldn’t use submarines to carry out such an exaggerated surprise attack. Striking us with a cruise missile or torpedo would do. That begs the question: who are they… Higa-kun, what do you think?”
At the sudden question, Higa blinked several times, turning his brain that had not yet fully recovered from the impact.
“Uhh, yes, yeah.”
Mumbling meaninglessly as he turned towards the console, he manipulated the mouse with his right hand and brought up an in-ship camera recording on the big monitor.
Although the video window he opened was dark and indistinct, he paused at a random place and adjusted the brightness and contrast. What appeared were a number of figures in combat suits, sprinting forward in a passageway inside the ship. Their faces were half covered by helmets with multi-function visors, and they wielded serious-looking assault rifles.
“…So, as you can see, from head to toe, there are no markings whatsoever, such as flags, that can identify them. From the color and specifications of their equipment, they don’t seem to belong to any regular army. Their rifles appear to be Steyrs, but those are quite common… The only thing we can say is that, from their average physiques, they’re most likely not Asian.”
“Which means, at least they aren’t Japanese Special Forces. How pleasing.”
Kikuoka talked offhandedly about the frightening situation while scratching his chin. Emitting a sharp aura from his calm eyes usually squinted, he looked up to the monitor.
“We can confirm one more thing… These people know the existence of Project Alicization.”
“Yeah, that’s right. After their assault from the bottom dock, they immediately ran to the Main Control Room. Their goal is crystal clear: to seize the STL technology… No, the true bottom-up AI «A.L.I.C.E.».”
In other words, information had severely leaked in long-term work. But Higa did not directly say it; he resisted the urge to scan the face of every «RATH» worker in the room for any sudden motions, and said in an optimistic tone:
“What’s fortunate is, the Main Control Room lock caught up. It’s securer than physically damaging the console; I’ve made sure direct commands to the Underworld aren’t working anymore. Any intervention towards the simulated experiment, and the ejection of the Fluctlight of «Alice» from the Light Cube Cluster just can’t be done.”
“But, it’s the same for us, isn’t it?”
“Indeed. Using this auxiliary console, we can’t execute administrator privilege commands either. No matter if it’s from the opposite side – the Main Control Room – or this side – the Auxiliary Control Room – it is impossible to eject «Alice»’s Fluctlight by way of external commands… But Kiku-san, doesn’t this equal our victory? See, they can’t access the Cluster by physical means or informational means, as long as we wait until our escort Aegis destroyer to dispatch reinforcements for a counterattack, those guys are a piece of cake, a piece of cake.”
“I don’t know what kind of cake… but therein lies the problem.”
Kikuoka’s expression remained solemn as he inquired Nakanishi.
“How about it, has the Nagato moved?”
“Uh… about that…”
Nakanishi channeled power into his chin in an effort to steady his voice, and bowed his head slightly.
“The Nagato received orders from the Yokosuka Fleet Command to maintain its current distance and standby. It seems that Command has classified us as hostages.”
Higa’s mouth dropped open.
“Hostages? But, all hands have retreated back here in an evacuation!”
The one who replied calmly was Kikuoka:
“I’m afraid, those people clad in black have connections with the higher-ups of the Self Defense Force. The Nagato pulled away from the Ocean Turtle at eight in the morning, about six hours before that bunch broke in. By the time Nagato receives an order to come to rescue, they would have seized «Alice»’s Light Cube. Of course, there must be a time limit…”
“That means… those people aren’t just normal terrorists. This is bad… If there are experts on the other side as well, they might find out. The hidden way of collecting Alice…”
“Operating from within the Underworld, right?… Now that they have control over STL Room One, it’s possible to set the virtual console installed within the Underworld to complete the ejection command…”
“What will happen if that command is executed?”
Higa turned around and answered Koujiro Rinko’s question:
“The target Light Cube will be retrieved from the Light Cube Cluster within the Main Shaft and transported by vacuum tube to any control room. It’ll exit there.”
He pointed at a square hatch on the side of the console, and turned his eyes towards the door on the wall inside.
There was a small metal plaque set on the aluminum door, with the words [STL Room Two].
On the other side of that door there were two STLs – that is, «Soul Translators». In one of the machines laid a youth currently under the care of Nurse and Sergeant First Class Aki Natsuki. He, Kirigaya Kazuto, had been playing an important role since the beginning of Project Alicization, and drove the direction of the project even more so today.
Kikuoka turned away and crossed his arms, speaking in a sincere and solemn tone:
“Our last hope will have to rest on his shoulders again. Higa-kun… How is Kirito’s condition?”
Hearing the weak breathing, Higa raised his head and directly met eyes with the intense glare of Asuna, who was being hugged by Rinko.
He sank into a hesitation over how to convey the current situation to her, who was Kirito’s, that is, Kirigaya Kazuto’s lover. Immediately, however, a hoarse but determined voice reached Higa’s ears.
“Don’t worry, I will be fine. Please say it, the true situation.”
Taking a deep breath, Higa nodded.
“To summarize in one sentence… It’s gonna be… It would be a condition just shy of the worst possible.”
Higa said in a newly serious tone, manipulating the mouse again.
The image of the attackers disappeared and another window was opened. What appeared was an irregularly flashing colorful stereoscopic image.
“This, is an imaging of Kirito-kun’s Fluctlight.”
Everyone in the room silently stared at the screen.
“A week ago, since he was injected with succinylcholine in Tokyo, his heart and lungs ceased normal function. Fortunately, he has managed to stay alive, but a portion of his brain… Specifically, his Fluctlight network, has been damaged. Although treatment would be difficult with current medical methods, there might be a chance of recovery if STL technology is used. Therefore, to foster the synthesis of new networks, we attempt to grant new dynamism to Kirito-kun’s Fluctlight through unrestricted STL.”
Higa sighed, picked up the bottle of water on the console and took a sip. He was not used at all to this kind of long explanation.
“To proceed with this treatment, it would be necessary for him to dive into the Underworld. If his Fluctlight cannot move around as though it were in the real world, the treatment would have no results. Therefore, same as his Dive at the Roppongi branch: we concealed Kirito-kun’s memories and let him land at the border of the Underworld… This is what we originally planned. But, even today the reason remains unknown… I’m afraid it is due to the damage to his Fluctlight; his memories had not been concealed at all. Kirito-kun has been placed into the Underworld under his current real-world condition of Kirigaya Kazuto. We just found out from his contact with his from inside…”
“Wait… wait a minute.”
Koujiro Rinko interjected.
“Then, has he, in the time-accelerated Underworld, spent those days as Kirigaya-kun? How many months… inside…?”
“…About two years.”
Hearing Higa’s reply, Asuna’s body that was being hugged by Rinko trembled slightly. Even though his words were likely to be extremely shocking to her, Higa continued, trusting in her earlier promise:
“In that time, Kirito-kun has contacted the artificial Fluctlights in that world. I’m afraid, he also knows that the Fluctlights will eventually, due to the end of this current virtual experiment, all be destroyed… So, his target is installed in the center of the Underworld, and was once the contact console connecting the starting village with the real world. Kiku-san, he was planning to request you to protect all of the Fluctlights.”
Higa glanced to the side; Kikuoka, whose glasses reflected the light of the monitor, was still gazing at the stereoscoping image. He turned back to Rinko and Asuna:
“…This is not something simple, since the contact device is buried in the stronghold of the ruling power, now called the «Axiom Church». Since the Fluctlights belonging to the Church possess absolute status value, Kirito-kun, who was set as a common person, had no way to fight them. Originally, shortly after he breaks into the Church, he would [Die], and log out of the Underworld… But he did it. Being attacked, we could not confirm detailed information from the logs, but we assume that he recruited some people, who of course are artificial Fluctlights… that is, the help of partners. In the fight against the Church, those partners nearly all died, and as a result, when he successfully opened a connection to here, he felt deep guilt. It can be said that he attacked his own Fluctlight. In that instant, those black-clothed people cut the power line, creating a short-circuit that instantly spiked the STL output. As a result, Kirito-kun’s impulse of self-destruction has become reality… His [inner self] has lost activity…”
“Inner self… Lost activity? What do you mean?”
Hearing Rinko’s question, Higa turned back to the console:
“…Please take a look at this.”
He quickly typed on the keyboard and magnified the live feed of the activity of the Fluctlight labeled as Kirigaya Kazuto.
Near the center of the irregularly flashing spectrum-colored cloud, a small puff of darkness like a dark nebula was cradled.
“Compared with the artificial Fluctlights in the Light Cubes, we are still quite far from a full analysis of human organic Fluctlight structure. The general mapping, however, has been completed. This black hole, what was originally in here, simply put, is the [Subject] …Self-Image.”
“Subject …An image of the self determined by the self?”
“Yes. All human choice is determined by a Fluctlight Y/N path: [Whether or not I will proceed under these conditions.] By way of example, Rinko-senpai, have you ever ordered a second bowl in a gyudon restaurant?”
“… Of course not.”
“Not even have the slightest thought of ‘I still want to eat’ or ‘I can have one more’?”
“That is to say, these were the results of Rinko-senpai’s Self-Image circuit processing. Similarly, virtually no decisions can be made and no movements can be undertaken if they do not pass through this circuit. In Kirito’s situation, the majority of his Fluctlight is unharmed. But, because the vital circuit has lost its function, no matter if it is processing external input, or outputting voluntary actions, it cannot be done. What he is capable of now… I’m afraid, are reflexive actions ingrained within his memory. For example, eating, sleeping, and related tasks.”
Rinko bit her lip, as though she were thinking about something. She eventually whispered:
“Then… then now, how is his state of mind?”
Higa hesitated, lowered his head, and continued:
“He does not know who he is, or what he wants to do; he cannot say or do anything… That would likely be his condition…”
Silence permeated the dark room for the third time.
The following part of the syllable was completely drowned out by the deafening noise of hardened boots kicking away a sheet of metal.
A member of the assault team, Vassago Casals, seemed unsatisfied with denting the wall two or three times, and forcefully crushed with his foot an empty candy box that a RATH technician had probably left tens of minutes ago, before finally stopping his stream of profanity.
As proof of the Spanish blood coursing through his veins, he ran a hand through his slightly wavy black hair, moved briskly to the console and seized the collar of the bulletproof jacket of his teammate with one hand.
“You sucker, try saying that again.”
Vassago gripped an exaggeratedly skinny youth, who was as weakly thin as a whip. His golden hair was trimmed very short, and his skin was snowy white as though ill.
This man who wore a pair of rough metal-framed glasses was the only non-combatant in the team. A hacker by the name of Critter, informally employed by the Glowgen Defense Systems Cyber Operation Department [CYOP].
A self-proclaimed internet criminal with an arrest record, with an internet name instead of a real name. But Vassago was the same. Vassago was one of the 72 demons recorded in the «Ars Goetia», also known as the Prince of Hell. There were no parents on Earth who would name their son that. He was also an employee of the CYOP and was not an expert on computers but in combat – of course under Full Dive. Although he was a man with a suspicious record lesser than that of Critter, his VR combat skills were quite outstanding.
In reality —
The twelve members of the «Ocean Turtle» Assault Team, apart from their leader, Gabriel Miller, all had dark pasts, and adopted new identities in exchange for being fed as [Dogs].
As a dog in their midst, Critter expressed no fear whatsoever at being hoisted up by Vassago, replying as he loudly chewed his gum:
“I’ll say it as many times as I want. Listen, this console’s locked as hard as dried shit, and the laptops we brought in aren’t gonna be able to calculate the unlock code until you bastards die of old age. Got it?”
“I ain’t talking ‘bout that, four-eyes! Weren’t you saying that it locked because we moved too goddamn slowly!?”
Vassago shot back loudly. If he tried hard enough, with his wild flair, he was handsome enough to be a successful fashion model, but he was quite frightening when enraged.
“Hey, hey, just telling the truth, man?”
“You were trembling like a leaf during combat, but you sure are one cocky bastard now!”
The other teammates snickered at the two men firing expletives at each other, instead of stopping them. Capturing the right timing, Gabriel snapped his fingers at the two men to attract their attention.
“OK, cut it out, you two. There’s no time to determine who’s responsible. Now we need to think about our next step.”
Then, Vassago suddenly changed to a child-like tone:
“But bro, if I don’t teach him a lesson…”
He wanted to tell him not to say “bro”, but swallowed his words. Vassago called Gabriel this probably because they had both acknowledged each other’s prowess during one-on-one VR training, but no matter how many time he heard this, it felt ill-conceived. To Gabriel, these kinds of ambiguous human relationships only based on emotions, such as friends orpartners, were only convoluted synonyms.
Sooner or later, when the technology of extracting and saving souls was his, all human emotion would be able to be categorized under hue or shape through the «cloud of light». As he thought, Gabriel said to the two in an authoritarian tone:
“Listen to me, Vassago, Critter. I’ve been very satisfied with the actions of the team until today, as we have successfully achieved our first goal of taking over the control room.”
Hearing this, Vassago very reluctantly released Critter’s collar and put his hands on his hips.
“But, bro, there’s no meaning in that ‘cause this important console is locked. Our final objective, the Light Cube Cluster or whatever, is on the other side of this metal wall, right?”
“Look, we’re just about to discuss a way to bring this wall down.”
“But, the JSDF men ain’t shrinking away forever, eh? If we keep going after them, this big stupid turtle’s escort, the Aegis destroyer will send the pros to attack us, and we’ll be in real trouble ‘cause we have only eleven men fighting and one sitting as still as cargo.”
As expected of a Vice Captain hand-picked by Gabriel, Vassago possessed control of the situation at hand that was not a trait of a simple wild dog. Thinking for a moment, Gabriel shrugged and said:
“… As it seems, our client has some kind of secret deal with the higher-ups of the JSDF. The Aegis destroyer won’t do anything within 24 hours of the attack.”
Critter whistled softly. Behind wind goggle-like glasses, his light gray eyes narrowed.
“So, this operation is more than just a burgl… —No, no. it’s better left unsaid.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Gabriel lightly smiled and nodded, surveying everyone again.
“Right, let’s confirm the situation. It’s 1447 hours, Japan Standard Time. From infiltration to now, 40 minutes have passed. We are currently in the Main Control Room of the «Ocean Turtle». Although we successfully secured the target facility, we have been unable to detain a «RATH» technician, and the control system here has been locked. The next objective should be securing the Auxiliary Control Room… Brigg, can you cut through the blast door?”
The hulking teammate who was called slowly stepped forward and replied:
“Doesn’t look good. Seems to be the newest synthetic material. Using the portable cutting saw I have, it’s completely impossible within 24 hours.”
“The Japanese economy is alive and well. Hans, can you breach the wall with C4?”
This time, a tall, slim teammate with a very handsome mustache waved his arms freely.
“I say we forget it. On the other side of that wall is the Light Cube Cluster storage, so I can’t guarantee no harm to the goods before blasting this door.”
Gabriel crossed his arms and thought for a split-second, then continued:
“… Our mission, is to find a particular one from an immense number of Light Cubes and take it along with its interface. We already have the ID information of the Cube. In other words, if we can operate this console, we can effortlessly find the Cube and extract it from the Cluster, and we would’ve been having beers on the return trip at this moment.”
“Goddamn it, it’s all because of that turtle four-eyes, always boasting [My crime is infiltrating the central server of the Pentagon] or whatever, but can’t open a tiny lock.”
“Ooh, didn’t see that coming. I’m actually being told off by a gamer who’s only fired a gun made of polygons.”
Staring at Vassago and Critter who were itching to fight, Gabriel intensified his tone.
“Do you all want to go back empty-handed and be ridiculed instead of rewarded?”
Everyone shouted together.
“Are you all merely laymen who can’t even best an amateur technician?”
“Then THINK!! Prove that the round objects on top of your necks aren’t filled with oatmeal!”
Semi-automatically putting on the [Tough Commander] persona, Gabriel thought by himself in silence.
As the one who seeks souls, Gabriel’s biggest goal was to obtain the first true artificial intelligence «Alice» mankind had ever created and take Soul Translation technology for himself. After he obtained those, he planned to use the nerve agent he had secretly brought in to take care of everyone else, and then escape to Australia.
But, having only reached the current stage, the attack that the NSA had consigned him somewhat counted towards Gabriel’s goal. Now, since system commands through administrator privileges were blocked, they must figure out another way to take «Alice»’s Light Cube.
The one who told Gabriel’s client, the NSA, this codename, was a «RATH» insider informant, [Rabbit].
Gabriel did not yet know [Rabbit]’s personal profile. But, given that the motivation to an organization and disclose its information could only be a handsome reward, he likely would not reveal himself in this dangerous situation and take action.
In other words, they could not expect assistance from Rabbit, on the other side of the blast door. They must utilize the information and equipment they have now, and achieve their goal within a short time.
Time — All was time.
Gabriel, who had absolute control over useless emotions such as nervousness and anxiety, could not help but feel a certain pressure when faced with a slowly approaching time limit of 23 hours.
When the NSA agents had entrusted him with this top secret seizure mission, they had said to Gabriel:
The activities of «RATH» have been severely wavering our vested interest and rights in the Japanese military industry. Therefore, the higher-ups of the Japan Self Defense Force are displeased with the existence of «RATH» — Furthermore, many of them were eager to obstruct the project.
«RATH» was mainly comprised of young Self-Defense cadres who did not hold much power in politics. The NSA was very sure of this, and signed a secret treaty with the CIA at the embassy and some high official of the JSDF navy. The Aegis destroyer Nagato that protected the «RATH» headquarters, «Ocean Turtle», will take no course of action within 24 hours since the attack, under grounds that [the safety of the hostages comes first].
But, after the period of standby, when considering the upcoming media coverage, the Aegis destroyer would eventually have to act. As soon as heavily armed forces came, outnumbered, outgunned, Gabriel’s strike force team would likely be annihilated.
If the situation really developed into the worst-case scenario, he could still escape back to the submarine, alone. But at the same time, without retrieving the important Light Cube, his great journey to seek the soul would retreat to an irreparable state.
Gabriel had already meticulously planned out his long life after this attack.
First he would take Alice and escape to Australia, concealing the Light Cube and STL technology in a villa in the Sovereign Islands in the Gold Coast. Then he would take a plane back to San Diego and report the failure of the attack to the NSA. After it had all blown over, he would return to Australia, construct an STL machine in the vast basement of his villa, and architect his dream virtual world.
The inhabitants of this world would only include «Alice» and Gabriel at first. But that would be much too lonely. As the goal was to study souls, he must increase his resources.
He would search for young and energetic soul carriers in Sydney or Cairns, kidnap them, use the STL to extract their soul and dispose of the unwanted shell. There would be a day when he would cross the seas and trek back to his home country — and travel to the country where Full Dive originated, Japan.
The unique mentality of Japanese VR gamers once deeply charmed Gabriel. Of course, not everyone was like this, but one group of gamers seemed to live there, in the VR game, as though it were more realistic than real life, carelessly casting around their real-life emotions. Whenever he thought of the sniper girl he had met in Gun Gale Online, he would feel a twinge that arose from a strong desire.
The reason was likely connected to the [Real Virtual World] that had existed for only two years in that country. With their machines being hacked by the developers, these young people experienced a death game with real aspects of life and death. The souls of these [Survivors] possessed an adaptability to virtual worlds unlike anyone else.
If possible, even if it were just one, he hoped to obtain them — especially the souls of the elite players who were termed [Progressors]. Although he didn’t know if that sniper girl was one of them or not, he of course also wished to obtain her soul. The Light Cubes sealed with those souls would exude a shine far more precious than any gem.
An ultimate light that the tycoons of the world would be unable to buy with tens of millions of dollars. He would line them into his secret room, selecting whoever he wanted everyday and loading them into his favorite world, playing with them however he wanted.
What was more beautiful was that the souls extracted from humans and sealed into Light Cubes could be freely copied and stored. Broken ones, twisted ones, all could be easily rewound and ultimately sculpted into Gabriel’s favorite posture. It was like cutting and polishing a raw crystal to make it shine with a supreme glow.
When he reached that stage, Gabriel’s long journey would return to the beginning, as if he had been travelling in an enormous circle.
Back to the moment when he was young, under the huge trees of the forest, seeing the beautiful glow of Alicia Clingerman’s soul.
These thoughts flashing in his mind, Gabriel closed his eyes, a slight shiver running down his back.
When he opened his eyes again, he recovered his ice cold mentality.
If he analogized the souls of youths from different countries as ruby, sapphire and emerald encircling a king’s crown, then the great diamond encased in the center could only be «Alice». Only Alice, with the untouched, unblemished, ultimate soul, would qualify as his own eternal partner. Therefore, he had to think of a way to find and obtain her Light Cube, no matter what.
But without destroying the blast door to the Light Cube Cluster storage, he could not seize it through physical means.
Then, he could only control it from the system. That said, even the first-rate digital criminal Critter was helpless against the lock on the console.
Clacking his boots, Gabriel moved behind Critter, who was moving his two hands at top speed over the keyboard.
“How is it?”
Two hands punched the air in response.
“The administrator login is really despairing. What we can do is jealously chew our nails and peek at the fairy-tale kingdom that the Fluctlights up in the Cluster are happily living in.”
Critter moved his finger; a window opened on the big screen on the wall directly in front of them and displayed a wondrous scene.
It was quite unlike a [fairy-tale kingdom]. The sky was soaked in a frightening crimson and the ground was as pitch-black as asphalt.
In the middle of the picture stood several primitive tents made of what appeared to be animal skin. On the side gathered ten or so chubby, bald, strange creatures, causing some unknown commotion.
There were generally humanoid but no matter how you looked at them, were not human. Their backs were bent, their hands were nearly long enough to scrape the ground, while their crooked feet were very short.
Gabriel muttered. Critter whistled softly, saying with apparent happiness:
“Oh, you’re pretty knowledgeable, Captain. That’s right, they don’t look like Orcs or Ogres, so they should be Goblins.”
“But they’re way too fucking large to be Goblins. These are Hobgobs, Hobgoblins.”
Vassago stepped besides them with his hands on his hips and added his own comment. Although he was just an expert in VR combat, he seemed to know much about fantasy RPGs.
At the place where Gabriel was looking, the fuss of the ten [Hobgoblins] escalated. Two of them seized each other’s chests, twisting together in a scrambling fight, while the surrounding goblins cheered with hands raised.
Gabriel felt a certain faint intuition, and spoke to the monk-headed man in the seat.
“These guys… These monsters, are they a part of the system?”
“Hmm, doesn’t look like it. From a certain viewpoint, these guys are real [humans]. They’re artificial souls read from the Light Cubes up there… Fluctlights.”
“For real?! What the hell!”
Vassago jumped and yelled furiously.
“These Hobgobs are humans!? They have the same souls as us!? My granny in Frisco’s gonna die if she hears that!!”
Drumming with a pitter-patter on the monk-head, he shouted:
“Aw, these guys are actually doing this kind of God-forsaken research. Right, are those shiny things full of these goblins, orcs or whatever? Is our Alice-chan one of them as well?”
Annoyed, Critter pushed Vassago’s hands away and corrected:
“Listen, the world called Underworld that the «RATH» guys created is divided into two areas. Located in the center, slightly west, is the «Human Empire» where normal humans live. Then, outside is the «Dark Territory», where monsters like these are all over the place. Alice will of course be somewhere in the Human Empire. It’s so freakin’ big that it’d be impossible to find her if we keep peeping like this.”
“Well that’s easy. Since they’re humans, we can talk, eh? Can’t we just dive into the Human Empire and ask the people there if they know an Alice?”
“Wow, a pig. There’s a pig here.”
“The fuck did you say?!!”
“I’m telling you, the people who made the Underworld are Japanese. Of course, the [guys who live in there] would speak Japanese. Can YOU speak Japanese?”
Hearing Critter’s words mixed with derisive laughter, Vassago revealed a twisted grin.
“Don’t take me lightly.”
Now, not just Critter, the entire team widened their eyes. Vassago had spoken Japanese so fluently that even Gabriel was shocked.
The young Hispanic man changed back to English and continued:
“No problems with communications, eh? Got anything else to say, four-eyes?”
“Y-Yeah. Of course.”
Critter recovered from surprise and snorted.
“There are tens of thousands of people living in the Human Empire. Are YOU going to ask each and… every one of them…”
Critter paused his retort as though he had inspired himself through his own speech and suddenly stood up. Although his monk-head bumped into Vassago’s chin, who wanted to spit out expletives, the hacker shouted unhesitantly:
“Wait. WaitwaitwaitWAIT. It doesn’t have to be one man…”
Hearing this, the faint inspiration in Gabriel’s heart finally burst completely into being.
“… Yeah. Accounts set up to log into the Underworld… They can hardly all be Level 1 normal citizens, can they. Right, Critter?”
“Yes. Yes, boss!!”
Critter tapped the keyboard hard as if it were a percussion instrument; the big screen instantly rolled up lists of names.
“If «RATH» operators wanted to log in to observe or perform internal actions, there should be identities of all classes in their accounts. Military officers… No, generals… No, no, noblemen, royalty… Could even be the King himself…”
“Wow, that’s cool, isn’t it?!”
Vassago shouted, massaging his chin that was about to split in half.
“In other words, we can use a general’s, president’s, or whatever high-class profile to log into the Underworld, and can make whatever commands we want! ‘Army parade! Right, face! Find Alice!!’ or something like that.”
“… Why is it that when you talk about it, something so brilliant would instantly become so stupid.”
Continuing his muttering, Critter scrolled the list with frightening speed.
Seconds later, along with a rare instance of profanity from him, the list was halted.
“Shit, no good. Not just direct commands from here, even using high-level accounts to log in are protected with heavy passwords. Unfortunately, it looks like we can only dive into the Human Empire as normal citizens.”
Clear disappointment floated onto Critter and Vassago’s faces, but Gabriel remained expressionless and tilted his head slightly.
There was not much time to hesitate.
But, that was but a limit of the time in reality. Beyond the screen, in the abnormal Underworld, time was compressed in an astonishing ratio of hundreds of times.
In other words, the remaining 23 hours equated to over a year in the Underworld. With this much time, even if they logged in as normal citizens, after finding and capturing [Alice], it wasn’t impossible to use the internal information console to extract her into the real world.
But that was definitely a long task. Compared to such a time-wasting task, it would be faster to approach from outside the Human Empire.
“Critter. Are there any advanced accounts outside the Empire… prepared for the «Dark Territory»?”
“…Outside? But aren’t the chances of Alice being there infinitely close to zero?”
Although he questioned, Critter’s fingers flashed quickly.
Gabriel looked at the newly opened cluster of windows, replying:
“Mm, yes. But, the border is not absolutely impenetrable, is it? With the parameters given by the account, we might be able to cross the border.”
“Oh, as expected from my bro! Your thoughts are unique as always! It’s that… using a non-human general, or a monster general to fight your way through, right?! That’s burning hot!!”
To the whistling and shouting Vassago, Critter shot at him with utmost hatred:
“If you want to burn, then burn, if you’re the one who logs in: you’ll be a goblin or orc in that world. Eh, you fit the bill anyway… Hm? Ah, this is it, this is it!”
With the click of the keyboard, two more windows popped open.
“Uhh, different from the Empire, there are only two super-accounts…Yes! There are no passwords! Let’s see… One of them is the «Dark Knight» profile. Priority level is… 70! We can use this one!”
“Ooh, that’s great! I’ll have that one!!”
Ignoring the noisy Vassago, Critter activated the other window.
“Then, the other one is… What’s this? The profile’s blank, and there’s no level whatsoever. There’s only a name. This… How do you say this? … [Emperor… Vector]?”
“Oh, an Emperor. Then I’ll take tha…”
Gabriel patted Vassago’s shoulder from behind, as he was just about to continue.
“No, I’ll use this account.”
“Eh? But bro, can you speak Japanese?”
“Not as fluently as you can, though.”
Gabriel replied with three years of Japanese study. Although he had given up on reading and writing from the beginning, he was confident about conversational usage.
“Hah, you’re pretty good. Then my bro shall be the Emperor, and I’ll be the Dark Knight. Now we’re talking! Four-eyes, when can we log in!?”
Completely ignoring the noisy Vassago, Critter continued punching the keyboard. Seeing his focused scanning of information on the screen, Gabriel walked besides him and asked calmly:
“What is it, Critter, is there another problem?”
“… Should I call it a problem, or a slight concern… There’s a strange phrase all over the data, though I can’t really understand it…”
“Oh? What phrase?”
Critter took a deep breath and answered Gabriel’s question:
“«[Final Load Test]».”
Higa considered carefully breaking the heavy silence that engulfed the Auxiliary Control Room.
“Uhh… Well, his physical body… or should I say, the condition of the Kirigaya Kazuto in the real world, is similar to what I just described… not optimistic.”
Seeing Asuna, whose shoulders were gripped by Rinko, tremble her thin body in surprise, Higa added in a panic:
“B-but, there’s still some hope!”
“…What do you mean by that?”
Rinko asked with a sharp, yet seemingly praying voice.
“The Kirito-kun in the Underworld is still logged in.”
Higa looked at the screen that was much smaller than the one in the Main Control Room. He moved the cursor, clicked a few times, and the picture changed: a bird’s eye view of the Underworld, with the round Human Empire surrounded by the Dark Territory, appeared.
“That is to say, although his Self-Image has been damaged, his Fluctlight is dynamic, and undergoing stimulation. If so, even though we are completely out of options in the real world, we can probably heal his soul within the Underworld. Because he overly blames himself, he damaged his soul. If there was someone who could grant him [forgiveness]… it’s hard to say…”
Higa knew that his words were unrealistic.
But those were his unadulterated true thoughts.
Succeeding the NerveGear was the evolution of the Medicuboid Brain-Computer Interface, the Soul Translator. Although Higa had discovered the human quantum consciousness «Fluctlight» through his development of that machine, there were still a great many things yet to be understood.
Was a Fluctlight a physical phenomenon?
Or, was it a conceptual existence unexplainable by modern science?
If it was the latter, Kirigaya’s Kazuto’s injured, exhausted soul would probably only be able to be healed by some supernatural power.
For example — someone’s love.
“…I will go.”
As if Higa’s mind had been read.
A frail yet determined voice resounded in the Auxiliary Control Room.
The people in the room gasped and stared agape at the owner of the voice. Yuuki Asuna nodded at Koujiro Rinko, who was supporting her shoulders, and took a step forward, continuing:
“I, am entering the Underworld. I will find Kirito-kun there and say to him: You’ve done your part; many sad and terrible things may have happened… but you’ve tried your best.”
Higa, who had dedicated his entire life to researching this type of psychological awakening, was dumbstruck by Asuna, her great chestnut eyes flashing with tears.
Kikuoka, with an expression as though he had been struck by something in his chest, immediately concealed his expression with the lens of his glasses and looked to the STL Room on the side.
“… Indeed, there is still one empty STL.”
After saying this, the commander made a complicated expression, continuing:
“But, the current state of the Underworld is in no way stable. According to the predetermined plan, by our time, there are only a few hours left until it enters the Final Load Test.”
“Final… Load? What will happen?”
Higa explained, gesturing with his hands, to Rinko, who wrinkled her brow:
“This… Put simply, the shell is gonna break. The endurance value of «Gate of the East» that has divided the Human Empire and the Dark Territory for hundreds of years will decrease to zero, and an army of monsters will pour into the Human World right away. If the humans have a complete defensive mechanism, they should be able to repel them. But, in the experiment this time, Kirito-kun has destroyed a large portion of the ruling power, the «Axiom Church», so… We really don’t know what’s going to happen…”
“If you think carefully about it, for the situation now, one of us needs to dive in no matter what.”
Kikuoka muttered with his arms crossed.
“As soon as the invasion begins, in the chaos, the «Alice» in the human world is very likely to be killed. If it comes to that, the time we gained when we painstakingly locked down the console will all be for naught… If we can let someone enter with an advanced account, protect Alice, and bring her to the «World End Altar», we can extract her from there to this auxiliary console.”
“Right… Before this happened, you told Kirito-kun that already, didn’t you?”
Hearing Rinko’s words, Kikuoka helplessly nodded.
“Mm. If he’s fine, he will definitely do it. At that time, he happened to be with Alice, so… ”
“So, in the months that have passed according to internal time, the chance of the two of them being together is very high… Is that what you were trying to say?”
This time it was Higa who replied:
“…You… could say that. If so, perhaps it would be better if we had Asuna-san dive in… Aside from her communication with Kirito-kun, we need the combat ability to protect Alice. Among us, the one most familiar with activity in virtual worlds would be Asuna-san, definitely.”
“Then, it would be best to use the highest level possible for the advanced account.”
Nodding to Kikuoka’s words, Higa moved his fingers across the keyboard at breakneck speed.
“Hey, just pick whatever you like. Knight, general, nobility… There are all kinds of advanced accounts.”
Rinko interjected, slightly nervously.
“…The attackers, could they be thinking the same thing? Didn’t you just say it? The hidden way to secure Alice is to operate from the inside.”
“Ah… Indeed. This could very well become their method. In the Main Control Room below, there are two STLs. But they won’t have time to crack the login passwords for the advanced accounts. They can only login as LV1 normal citizens. They just don’t have the Priority to do anything in the terrible situation during the Final Load Test.”
While he was quickly explaining—
Higa suddenly felt a sliver of anxiety, as though he had forgotten something important.
But this concern was dispersed by the quickly scrolling list of accounts.
Chapter 17: Dark Territory – The Eleventh Month of the Human World Calendar, 380
Within the «Ocean Turtle»
The base for the disguised company «RATH» constructed to undergo «Project Alicization», development of a Bottom-Up artificial intelligence, is the independent large-scale floating carrier «Ocean Turtle».
Within the enormous pyramid-shaped «Ocean Turtle», STL Room One and STL Room Two each contain two «Soul Translators» needed to log into the «Underworld». The «Soul Translator» used by Kirito to log into the «Underworld» is within STL Room Two.
At the center of the «Ocean Turtle» there are stored the «souls» of the inhabitants of the «Underworld», which is the «Light Cube Cluster» of the artificial Fluctlights.
Gabriel’s group’s mission is to eject Alice’s artificial Fluctlight from this gigantic mass of Light Cubes through a vacuum tube.
Before the dragon came to a stop, Dark Knight Lipia Zankehl jumped down from its back and ran with full strength across the takeoff pad into the footbridge that connected to the Imperial Palace.
Quickly feeling difficulty breathing, she used her right hand to remove the helmet that covered her face.
Gray-blue long hair billowed out with a flourish. Adjusting it with her left hand and tossing it behind her back, Lipia further quickened her pace. She really wanted to take off her stuffy cloak and armor, but did not want the consuls crawling about the Imperial Palace to see one inch of her skin.
After she sprinted through the winding corridor, between the round columns on her right, a colossal black city erected under the backdrop of the red sky appeared in sight.
Imperial Palace Obsidia was the tallest structure of all in the boundless Land of Darkness — Of course, this did not include the tabooed «Mountain Range at the End» — carved out of the rocky mountains and constructed over a hundred years.
From the throne on the highest floor, it was said to be just possible to glimpse the Mountain Range at the End standing far away in the east, and the great gate embedded in the mountain.
But, there has been no one to confirm the veracity of this rumor for hundreds of years.
After the First Emperor, also the God of Darkness Vector, returned to the underground darkness in ancient times, the Throne of the Land of Darkness had always been empty. The great gate on the highest floor was sealed by a lock with infinite Life, left eternally unopened.
Lipia turned her eyes away from the peak of the pitch-black castle and called to the ogre guards at the castle gate straight ahead:
“In the name of the Eleventh Dark Knight Zankehl! Open the gate!!”
The wolf-headed guards were quite well-built, but turned their heads very slowly; by the time they turned the lever of the opening mechanism, Lipia had arrived at the cast iron gate.
The door made deep “gu, gung” sounds as it opened a sliver; Zankehl slipped sideways through the gap.
She had not seen the castle for three months, yet what welcomed Lipia was the same cold air.
The [Kobolds] doggedly scrubbed the corridors every day, making them spotless. As she ran, her armor clanking on the obsidian slabs, two flirtatiously dressed women showing skin here and there glided over soundlessly.
On top of their shiny, wavy hair, they wore large, pointy hats announcing their statuses as Dark Sorceresses. Lipia intended to ignore them and brush past, but one of the women sharply raised her voice in an exaggerated manner:
“Uwa, how noisy! Is an orc or something running?!”
Then, the other responded with a slight laugh:
“It caaan’t beee, these tremors have to be those of a Giant!”
— If combat were not prohibited within the city, she would have sliced off their tongues long ago.
Lipia thought. She snorted and raced on.
The Human females born in the Land of Darkness usually entered the Dark Sorcery Guild after graduating from Training Schools. The Guild was an organization of extreme indulgence, teaching debauchery instead of rules. As a result, it produced people interested only in decorating themselves, just like the two who walked by.
Even so, they held great antagonism towards women who chose to become Knights. When she was a youngster in the Training Schools, Lipia had been cursed with poisonous insects by a Sorceress who did not get along with her. Things settled down after she drew her sword and sliced off the Sorceress’s proudly tied hair.
In any case, there were only idiots with no ambition in this country.
Often competing, no matter if it were organizations or individuals, basing every decision on the degree of power, the Land of Darkness had no future.
Although danger could be balanced due to the «Ten Feudal Lords Meetings», it was unable to hold for much longer. If, in the imminent battle with the Human World — termed the «Ium Country» by Orcs and Goblins, a few of the Ten Feudal Lords were to die, the balance would be broken, and everything would become a chaos of bloodlust once more.
The one who told of this future to Lipia, was one of the Ten Feudal Lords, the Commander of the Dark Knights whom she directly reported to, and also her loved one.
And now, Lipia had confidential intelligence that he was anticipating.
Therefore, she would not waste a second to curb the Sorceress’ taunts.
Cutting straight through the empty lobby and flying up the wide staircase two steps at a time. Even with plenty of exercise, she was panting and drenched in sweat once she arrived on the right floor.
With the Land of Darkness divided by negotiation between them, among the Ten Feudal Lords, five were Humans, two were Goblins, and the rest were vanguards of the Orcs, Ogres, and Giants. After nearly a hundred years of civil war, they finally agreed on a document similar to a treaty, and ended up with regulations keeping the Five Races in equal standing.
Because of this, on the 18th floor, near the top floor of Obsidia, there were private rooms for each of the Ten Feudal Lords. Lipia dampened her footsteps in the round corridor, and gently knocked three times with her right hand on the door of the innermost room.
A deep voice replied immediately.
Lipia glanced left and right in the corridor; after confirming that there was no one, she quickly opened the door and slipped inside.
The decorations within the room were as low profile as possible. Breathing in the manly smell floating in the air, Lipia genuflected and bowed her head.
“Knight Lipia Zankehl; I have returned.”
“Good work. Come, sit.”
Suppressing her excitement, Lipia raised her head and looked towards the owner of the strong voice.
On the other side of the round table, there was a man sitting in a long armchair with his feet propped high: the Dark Knight Commander — Biksul Ul Shasta, also known as the «Dark General».
As a Human, he possessed an outstanding figure. Although his shoulders were not as broad as those of an Ogre, he did not seem to lose in terms of height. His head of jet-black hair was trimmed very short, and his moustache was very neat.
His bulging muscles nearly popped the buttons off of his plain linen shirt, yet there was not a hint of fat on his waist. Although he maintained a perfect body that looked not a day older than 40, since he had ascended to the topmost throne of the Knights, not many people knew that he continued to undergo a harsh exercise routine every day.
Seeing her lover for the first time in three months, Lipia had to resist the urge to fly into his embrace, instead sitting in the sofa opposite Shasta.
Shasta raised his upper body and handed one of the crystal glasses on the table to Lipia, then broke the seal on what appeared to be aged wine.
“I really wanted to have a glass with you, so I swiped a bottle from the Treasury yesterday.”
Winking, he poured the fragrant, crimson liquid into his glass. His expression was that of a mischievous child, completely the same as his former self.
“Th…Thank you, Your Excellency.”
“How many times have I told you not to call me that when we’re alone?”
“But… I’m still on a mission.”
Shasta shrugged helplessly and they clinked glasses politely. Lipia sipped the expensive wine and felt the Life she had expended on her long journey slowly recovering.
After downing a glass himself, he poured himself another one and changed to a serious expression, asking in a low voice:
“The [Matter of Importance] that you sent a familiar for: what is it?”
Lipia looked to her left and right, then leaned forward. Although Shasta was often candid, he was quite vigilant. This room had many heavy protection spells cast upon it; even the Witch, leader of the Sorcery Guild, would be unable to listen in. Even though she knew this, the intel she had brought was so important that she couldn’t resist lowering her voice.
Staring straight into Shasta’s black pupils, Lipia said simply:
“The Highest Minister of the Axiom Church of the Human World… is dead.”
In an instant, even the Dark General widened his eyes in shock.
A long, deep sigh broke the silence.
“Is this… real…? I know it’s discourteous to ask like this, and I’m not suspicious of your intel… but… that undead…”
“Yes… I completely understand your feelings. I was unable to believe it myself, but after a week of confirmation, there is no error. I made sure by planting «Earworms» in the Central Cathedral.”
“What? That was very reckless. If you were traced, you would’ve been unable to leave the capital, and dismembered by now.”
“Yes. But, since a spell of this caliber has not been detected, it proves that this intel is accurate.”
Filling his second glass of wine, Shasta’s strong-willed face lowered slightly.
“—When, did that happen? Also, what was the cause of death?”
“About half a year ago…”
“Half a year. Indeed, their guard on the Mountain Range had probably been slightly loose at that time.”
“Yes. About the cause of death of the Highest Minister… This is quite unbelievable, but they are said to be [slaughtered by a sword]…”
“By a sword. —You mean that someone cut that undead?”
Lipia shook her head at the slack-jawed Shasta.
“I’m afraid, even if it’s the undead, they have finally depleted their Life. But it was probably to save the spirit of the Highest Minister known as a God, to say some empty words like that…”
“Mm… My guess as well. But… Dead, the Highest Minister Administrator…”
Shasta closed his eyes, crossed his arms, and leaned back into the armchair.
After thinking deeply for a while like this, he opened his eyes with a short mutter.
Lipia instantly held her breath and replied in a small voice:
She immediately got an answer.
“Obviously… One of peace.”
As a word too dangerous to utter in this city, it quickly melted in the air of the room and dissipated.
“Do you consider it… possible, Your Excellency?”
Facing the softly questioning Lipia, Shasta fixed his gaze on the red liquid within his glass, and slowly, but deeply, nodded.
“No matter if it’s possible or not, we must achieve it regardless.”
Downing the wine with a gulp, he continued:
“The Life of the «Great Gate» that has divided the Human World and the Land of Darkness since the world was created is about to be depleted. A large-scale invasion of the sun and land-nourished Human World awaited by the Army of Five Dark Races, you can say is the arrow poised on the bow. In the last Ten Feudal Lords Meeting, there was a large quarrel just about dividing the land, riches, and slaves of the Human World. They are really… an incurable bunch of gluttons.”
At Shasta’s direct and unrestricted speech, Lipia recoiled slightly.
Different from the Human World that had the «Taboo Index», a thick book of law, to rule the nation, there was only one law in the Land of Darkness. That was — seize by force.
In a certain sense, compared with the other nine Feudal Lords whose thirst for power could not be quenched even if they obtained the highest authority, it could be said that Shasta’s consideration of peace with the Human World was heresy.
However, Lipia was deeply fascinated with this man because of his unique thoughts. Besides, unlike the servant women attending to their master, Lipia was not taken by force. Shasta had presented a bouquet on bended knee and convinced Lipia with his truthful words.
Oblivious of his lover wandering in such thoughts, Shasta continued with added gravity:
“… But, they underestimate the Humans too much. Especially, the «Integrity Knights» that have protected the Human World for three hundred years.”
Hearing this name, Lipia nodded, her head growing cold.
”Sure… They are skillful to a frightening extent.”
“They have, quite literally, the strength of a thousand in one. In the long history of the Dark Knights, countless have been slain by the Integrity Knights, but it has never happened the other way around. Their swordsmanship is so excellent, and the Divine Instruments that they carry are powerful beyond measure… Even I have only brought one to an impasse a few times, but I couldn’t manage to kill them. Of course, my defeats definitely number many.”
“That is… due to their usage of mystifying techniques, such as releasing fire or blinding beams from their swords…”
“«Armament Full Control Art». Even though we’ve had our Technique Research Department study it for a long time, we’re still unable to break it down. Just to go up against that skill, even a hundred Goblin Soldiers wouldn’t be enough.”
“Even though you say that… Our army numbers 50,000 while the Integrity Knights number only about thirty. Can we not suppress them with sheer volume…?”
At Lipia’s words, Shasta scratched his moustache with a sarcastic air.
“Didn’t I just say that they have the strength of a thousand in one? If you calculate it, we will lose 30,000 from our army.”
“Why would… It can’t be that many.”
“Hm, yeah. Even though this method of calculation is disheartening, we’ll be pushing forward in the battle with our Knights, Ogres, and Giants, the Dark Sorcerers would be using long-range explosive attacks at the rear, and we’d eventually exhaust the Integrity Knights. But after their last Knight falls, it’s hard to imagine how much we would have lost. Perhaps not 30,000, but losing half is certainly possible.”
The crystal glass was set onto the table with a hard sound.
Shasta extended a hand to stop Lipia, who was about to refill his glass, and sunk his back into his armchair.
“…And the result, would of course be an imbalance in power between the Five Races of Darkness. The Ten Feudal Lords Meeting would become meaningless, and the treaty of equality between the Five Races would leave only its name. If it goes down like that, the «Age of Iron and Blood» that ended a hundred years ago would return. No, it would be worse. Because this time, the everlasting honeyed sea of the Humans would be in front of us. Deciding how to divide that piece of land would take more than a hundred years of war…”
This was the worst future scenario that Shasta often feared and mentioned repeatedly to Lipia. What was worse, the nine other Feudal Lords apart from Shasta did not think that this was the worst future at all — on the contrary, they were looking forward to it.
Lipia lowered her head, gazing at the gleaming light exuded by her pitch-black full body armor, which had been her partner ever since her entrance into Knighthood.
Twice as short as other kids when she was young, Lipia could never become a Knight if she had been born in the «Age of Iron and Blood»; she would have been sold to human traffickers, or abandoned outside the city, ending her short life there.
Although it was shady, she was still thankful for that peace treaty, as she had not been sold into slavery but instead entered the Youth School, benefited from a late-blooming talent in swordsmanship, and ascended to a nearly unattainably high position for a Human female.
Ever since she had become a Knight, Lipia had been gathering children who were abandoned by their parents from remote places rife with human trafficking, and took care of them until they were able to enter school. She used nearly all of her income to run a childcare center like this.
She kept this a secret not only from her colleagues, but even from Shasta. She was unable to explain it herself; why would she do such a thing.
It was just that—
Lipia could not help feeling odd about this country, in which power dominates all. Although she had not the wisdom of Shasta, to be able to turn her thoughts into clear words, she felt that there should be a better, more appropriate form of this country — no, the entire Underworld, including the Human World.
Lipia hazily understood that this so-called new world, is far beyond the peace that Shasta proposed. At the same time, as a woman she was desperate to help the man she loved in order to realize his dream.
“…But, how do you plan to convince the other Feudal Lords, Your Excellency? Not to mention… Would the Integrity Knights accept a negotiation for peace?”
Lipia inquired in a small voice.
Shasta closed his eyes, his right hand playing with his elaborate moustache. Eventually, he murmured bitterly:
“About the Integrity Knights, there is still a turn for the better. As the Highest Minister is now dead, the main commander should now be that old man Bercouli. Although he’s a sly old fox, he’s still a reasonable man. The problem… still lies with the Ten Feudal Lords Meeting. On this side… although it may seem to conflict with our goal…”
Deep within his raised eyelids, two sharply gleaming eyes stared at the ceiling.
“— Seems like we have to slash a few. At least four.”
Lipia gasped in shock and leaned forward:
“Four, you say, Your Excellency…? If my assumption is right, it can only be the two Goblin chiefs, the Orc chief, and…”
“The Leader of the Dark Sorcery Guild. That woman has always been filled with wild desire for Administrator’s secret to immortality, and the day that she ascends to the Emperor’s Throne. She would definitely not accept the proposition of peace.”
Lipia objected in a strained voice.
“That’s too reckless, Your Excellency! Even though the Goblin and Orc elders may not stand against your sword… We do not know what kind of despicable trick the Dark Sorceress would use!”
Even after Lipia finished, Shasta was silent.
But what he said completely took her by surprise.
“Hey, Lipia. How long have you been coming here to me?”
“Hah? It’s… A-about… Ever since I turned 21… Four years.”
“It’s been that long, huh. … I apologize for always keeping you in a shadow of doubt. How about… It’s time, uh, well….”
Rotating his eyes and scratching his head with a rustle, the Dark Knight Commander opened his mouth roughly:
“…Would you, officially, marry me? If you don’t mind me as a middle-aged man.”
Lipia opened her eyes, unable to speak.
She felt a heat slowly seeping out from deep within her heart, and just as she was about to unhesitantly fly into her lover’s embrace…
From the other side of the thick great door, a clear, loud voice as sharp as a whip pierced right through the wide room.
“Big news!! This is some BIG news!! AAHH, what on earth is happening!! Feudal Lords, come with me, quickly, QUICKLY!!”
She faintly remembered this voice: it belonged to one of the Feudal Lords, the head of the Commerce and Industry Guild.
Uncharacteristic of the huge, burly figure in Lipia’s memory, the scream continued completely unexpectedly:
“It’s THE MOST important event EVER!! — In-inside the Throne Room! The sealing lock! It’s SHAKIIIING!!”
Under the identity of Emperor Vector, Gabriel Miller, dominating the Throne Room, surveyed the artificial Fluctlights prostrated on the ground with a hint of awe.
They were all photon information sealed in Light Cubes with each edge two inches long. Even so, in this world, they were true humans with intellect and souls. As expected, however, out of the ten in a line at the very front, half of them were strange-looking monsters.
The ten generals who were called «Feudal Lords» and the Knights and Sorcerers who trailed behind them, and the garrisoned army of 50,000 outside the city, were all [Units] given to Gabriel. From now on, he must appropriately utilize these pawns to annihilate the defenses of the Human World and capture «Alice».
But, unlike real-time strategy games in the real world, these Units were not freely controllable with a mouse and keyboard. They must be led and ordered with presence and spoken word.
Gabriel rose wordlessly from the throne, took a few steps forward, and turned to look into a mirror hung on the wall.
What reflected was himself, wearing a look that was in slightly bad taste.
Only the shape of his face and his extremely light brown hair were the same as Gabriel’s look in the real world. But, a black metal crown encrusted with a crimson crystal rested on his head; on top of a black suede undershirt and pants, he wore a luxurious midnight fur gown. A rapier gleaming with a dreamy phosphorescence hung from his waist, and his boots and gloves were weaved with silver embroidery. On his back, he wore a blood red long cape.
Turning his eyes to the right, a step below the throne, he saw a Knight with both hands behind his head, frantically looking around.
Inside a suit of armor gleaming deep purple like a gemstone was Vassago Cazares, who had logged in at the same time as Gabriel. Although he had already been told not to speak without restraint before the situation is in control , he still resisted expressing his impress with slangs with a difficult expression, clanking around in his shoes.
Gabriel shook his head slightly, and pulled his eyes back to himself in the mirror.
He was used to tailor-made suits, so this attire felt very uncomfortable anyway. But, in this «Underworld», Gabriel was not the CTO of a private military company.
He was the emperor who ruled the boundless Dark Territory.
Also — he was a god.
Gabriel closed his eyes, took a slow, deep breath, and exhaled.
Somewhere in his consciousness, the role he was playing as switched from the [Tough Commander] to a [Merciless Emperor] with a click.
Opening his eyes again, as he turned, tossing back his crimson cape, Gabriel — Vector, the God of Darkness, glared at the ten Generals and said with an absolutely inhuman tone that resounded in the Throne Room:
“Lift your heads and report your names. —You go first.”
The kneeling middle-aged man at the left of the frontmost line jerked up with an unexpectedly quick motion and reported his name in fluent Japanese.
“Y, y-yes, Your Majesty! I am Lengil Gira Scobo, head of the Commerce and Industry Guild!”
Besides the man who lowered his head and prostrated again, an enormous figure as large as a small mountain began to move.
On the body of a Demihuman that stood nearly 12 feet tall, glossy black chains were hung in a cross, with the skins of some wild beast wrapped around its waist. Vigorously raising its face along with its weirdly long nose, the Demihuman introduced itself with a deep voice, so low that it sounded like the ground was shaking:
“Elder of the Giants, Sigrosig.”
While Gabriel was having difficulty in swallowing the fact that this monster had intelligence and a soul, the third man let out an annoying, hoarse sound:
“…Leader of the Assassin Guild… Fer Za…”
When compared to the Giant, the figure in hooded robe was so skinny that it seemed insubstantial; its age cannot be determined, let alone its gender.
Although Gabriel wanted for a split second to order it to raise its head so he could see its face, he considered that Assassins must have some rule that forbid them to expose their appearances, so he put that aside and turned towards the next general.
Then, with great effort, he managed to hold back a frown.
The existence that was the absolute embodiment of “ugly” sat motionlessly in front of him. It was unable to kneel as its legs were too short. A chubby, rotund stomach filled with fat gave off an oily luster; on a neck that was combined with shoulders dangled skulls of small animals.
The head on top looked 70% pig and 30% human. With a protruding, flat nose, and a mouth with visible teeth, only its small, beady eyes flashed with human intellect, making this even more disturbing.
“Elder of the Orcs, Rilpirin.”
Hearing this high and sharp voice, Gabriel immediately wondered whether it was male or female, but instantly abandoned this thought. Since it was an Orc, it would definitely be a low-level Unit in the army. Just something disposable.
Then, what could be described as a boy raised his head and energetically saluted. His reddish golden hair was curled, and he wore only a leather belt on his sun-tanned copper-colored upper body. Putting skintight leather pants and sandals on the lower body, and both hands clad in punching gloves decorated with metallic square nails.
“Tenth Generation Champion of the Fighter’s Guild, Iskhan!!”
Gabriel looked at the youngster who shouted full of energy, and thought for a moment. A fist fighter is a boxer, isn’t he? A soldier for empty-handed combat?
As he was thinking, there suddenly came the “grrrh” moan of a beast.
The one who suddenly raised its head was a Demihuman who was not as tall and muscular as a giant, but possessed a body far from that of a human. Its upper body was nearly completely covered with long hairs. Judging by its completely beast-like head, those hairs weren’t clothing, but its own fur.
It looked a lot like a wolf. A protruding snout, saw-like teeth, and triangular ears. An incoherent noise leaked from its mouth, from which hung a long tongue:
“Gurr… Elder… of the Ogres… Furgur…. Rrr…”
Although Gabriel didn’t know whether that was a name or mere mumbling, he nodded lightly and looked towards the next position.
Just then came an earsplitting shrill squeak:
“I am Hagasi, Elder of the Mountain Goblins! Your Majesty, please grant our brave race the honorable position of the vanguard!!”
The owner of the voice was a short Demihuman with a monkey-like bald head with two thin, long, protruding ears. No matter if it was by height or muscle mass, it was far, far off from the Giant, Orc, Ogre, or even Human who had previously reported their names.
According to the explanation that Critter had provided before they Dived in, in this Dark Territory, there was only one rule. That was, [power dominates all]. If so, what power did the Goblins have in order to be promoted to a position comparable to other races while they seemed weak no matter how he looked at it?
No matter what, although it was the lowest-level Unit, lower even than Orcs, Gabriel looked at the Mountain Goblin’s face with slight interest, and nodded lightly to himself as a sign of successfully answering his own question: it was because of the extreme, intense lust swirling in the Mountain Goblin’s small eyes.
Just as the Elder of the Mountain Goblin finished his sentence, the Demihuman besides him who differed only in skin color shrieked in the same way:
“That’s ridiculous! Compared to those guys, we’ll serve Your Majesty ten times more effectively! I am the Elder of the Plains Goblins, Kuberi!”
“What the hell are you saying, you slug-eater? Has your brain swelled up because of the wet mud!?”
“You’re the one who dried up your noodles in the sun!!”
In front of the two cursing shrilly at each other—
Pachi! Blue sparks flew forth as the Goblin leaders jumped out of the way, shrieking.
“—-You two are in the presence of His Majesty the Emperor!”
With a flirtatious voice, a young female wrapped in clothing that exposed much of her skin retracted her raised right hand. The sparks faded away as soon as she rubbed her thumb on her index finger, as though igniting a lighter flame.
She slowly stood up, bowed as though she was flaunting her full body and coquettish looks and saluted exaggeratedly. To Gabriel’s right, Vassago whistled softly, as if he couldn’t help it.
Her mocha-colored skin gleamed as if it had been brushed with oil; her chest and waist were covered only with enamel leather. Her boots were needle-like high-heeled boots. On her back hung a fur mantle shining black and silver. Long platinum blonde hair hung below her waist.
Her eye-shadow and lipstick were the color of water; seductively narrowing her light blue eyes brighter than her makeup, the woman reported her name:
“Leader of the Dark Sorcerer Guild, D.I.L. I have 3,000 Sorcerers under my command, and my body and soul all belong to Your Majesty.”
To these flirtatious movements and tempting voice, Gabriel, who had never been controlled by sexual desire, merely nodded.
The Witch called D blinked a few times, as though she wanted to say something else, but only saluted and kneeled again.
A wise decision, Gabriel thought, and turned his eyes onto the last general Unit.
The silently genuflecting figure here was a Human, but a middle-aged man of surprising size.
His full-body black armor had innumerable scratches on it, but still shone with a blurred glow. On the bowed face, there were visible light scars on his forehead and the bridge of his nose as well.
Without lifting his face up, a slightly rough baritone came out of the bowed man’s mouth.
“Dark Knight Commander Biksul Ul Shasta. Before devoting my sword… I wish to ask Your Majesty.”
The face that suddenly rose shared the same serious qualities as the few [real soldiers] that Gabriel had seen.
Especially, behind those sharp eyes, there was a certain kind of determination that was completely missing from the other nine generals. The Knight called Shasta stared at Gabriel with a gaze that looked almost piercing, and continued in a low voice:
“What, is Your Majesty looking forward to, returning to the Throne at this moment?”
As expected — These men are not simple programs.
I must remind myself of this constantly, Gabriel thought, and with the mask of a [Merciless Emperor], produced an ice-cold response:
“Blood and terror. Flames and destruction. Death and screaming.”
Gabriel’s hard voice that resembled sliced metal resounded in the hall; the expressions of all ten generals tightened immediately.
Looking one by one at the ten faces, Gabriel flipped his robe, raised his right hand and pointed at the western sky.
From within his mouth, lines filled with false desire for conquest automatically erupted:
“…Of the western land loaded with the powers of the gods who exiled me from the heavens, the protective «Great Gate» will now fall. I have returned… To proclaim my power to all!”
From Critter, he had learned the most he could about the «Final Load Test» that was about to commence after a week in internal time. Gabriel added the information to his tirade, continuing in a dramatic tone:
“When the Gate falls, the Human World shall fall into the hands of my subjects, the People of Darkness! All I desire is the «Holy Maiden» that shall appear in that land by then! I shall grant you all the right to do with all other Humans as you wish! The promised time that all People of Darkness awaited — has arrived!!”
The air that had become silent once again—
Was shattered by shrill, savage screams.
“Giiii!! Kiilll!! Kill those white Iiiuuums!!”
The one stamping its feet and screaming was the Orc leader, its eyes rolling with anger and desire. Immediately, two Goblins raised their arms and followed suit.
“Hooooou!! War!! War!!”
“Urra——!! War, war——!!”
The battle cry instantly spread to other generals and the officers behind them. The black robes among the Assassin Guild billowed along with bodies as thin as twigs; the Witches among the Dark Sorcerer Guild released colorful sparks with flirtatious shrieks.
In the entire wide hall that was filled with primal howls—
Gabriel noticed that only the Knight called Shasta maintained his kneeling position, without a sliver of movement.
Was it due to a soldier’s self-control, or was it due to certain inner thoughts? It was indiscernible from the statue-like armor.
“I didn’t expect bro to have that kind of talent! Ain’t it better for you to become an actor?!”
Gabriel snorted at Vassago’s wretched grin, who threw a bottle of wine to Gabriel.
“Only when necessary. It’d be better for you to remember the speaking techniques just now. Since your rank is higher than theirs.”
He popped the cork of the bottle with his finger; holding some of the ruby-colored liquid in his mouth, he wondered whether he should drink during a mission.
Vassago crudely drank the vintage wine as though it was beer; he belched and replied as he wiped his mouth:
“Compared with orders or playing the part or whatever, I just wanna kill on the front line. You don’t Dive into this powerful VR everyday… This wine, this bottle, everything looks real to me.”
“Comparatively, it’s going to hurt and bleed if you’re cut. The Pain Absorber doesn’t work in here.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
Vassago smirked and shrugged. Gabriel set his bottle down on the table and stood up from the sofa.
The top floor of Obsidia was the Emperor’s private room. It was not inferior at all compared to the lavish decor in the office of GlowGen DS headquarters, and in addition, the faraway night scenery was visible from an enormous window. Although not as bright and colorful as that of San Diego, it had a different, fantasy look.
The ten generals with the statuses of Feudal Lords left the castle to prepare for battle, and torchlights danced non-stop, belonging to the porters moving resources from the storage rooms.
The Head of the Commerce and Industry Guild, who had the role of replenishing supplies, had been ordered to deplete all stored stocks of food and equipment in the city, so the soldiers should not suffer from cold or hunger.
Turning his eyes away from the countless lights, Gabriel walked to a corner of the room, touching the purple crystal plate that was set there — a system console.
He rapidly manipulated the menu and pressed the button to call an external observer. The time acceleration ratio decreased, and with a strange feeling of going back to 1:1, he heard Critter’s quick-mouthed voice:
“Captain?! I literally just came back to the control room after watching you Dive in!!”
“It’s already the first night here. Although I understand it, time acceleration is quite fascinating. Anyway, everything is proceeding as planned. The preparation of the Units will be finished in one or two days, and in two days, an attack against the Human Empire is planned.”
“Great. Remember, after securing «Alice», please bring her there and use the menu to eject her into the Main Control Room, then «Alice»’s Light Cube will be ours. Also, please tell that idiot Vassago what I said.”
As though he had heard Critter, Vassago’s short curse came from behind.
“I can’t operate with administrator privileges right now, so reconfiguring account data is impossible. In other words, Captain, if you or Vassago [die] in that world, you can no longer use that super account. You’ll only be able to start over with a small soldier!”
“Yeah… I know. I won’t go to the front lines for now. Any movement from the JSDF?”
“None right now. It seems like they haven’t noticed you guys Diving in yet.”
“Good. Then, I’ll cut the connection now. The next time I contact you, it’ll be when we’re preparing to leave after securing Alice.”
“Understood, good luck.”
He closed the communication window, and with a slight sense of incongruity, the world returned to the accelerated ratio.
Vassago was still aside, muttering and cursing while wrestling with a buckle on his armor, and finally threw off all of his outerwear; he stood up in just a leather shirt and pants.
“Hey, bro. Why not go have some fun in the city… We can’t, can we?”
“Just resist the temptation for now. After getting the target, I’ll give you a night.”
“Understood. So, no killing no women for today… Then I’ll head off to bed like a good boy. The room over there is mine.”
His joints creaking as he stretched, Vassago disappeared into a neighboring bedroom, and Gabriel took off his crown, exhaling.
He put his gown and robe on the sofa, and threw his sword on top.
In VR games he had played before, the equipment he took off would return to the item storage, but it seems like there were no such conveniences in this world. After a month of living in this room, it would become extremely messy, but he would be leaving the castle the day after tomorrow, and the next time he came back it would be time to log out.
As he unbuttoned his shirt and opened the door across from Vassago’s room, Gabriel’s eyes narrowed in surprise.
In the frighteningly large bedroom, besides the colossal luxury bed — there was a small silhouette, kneeled on the ground.
He should have already ordered everyone, including the servants, not to enter the floor above the Throne Room. There was actually someone who would defy the order of a god; what on earth was this?
For a split-second he wanted to go back and get his sword, but Gabriel entered the bedroom anyway, and closed the door.
“…Who is it?”
He called shortly.
The answer was a slightly hoarse voice.
“…Please allow me to serve as your sleeping partner  tonight.”
Furrowing his brow in surprise, Gabriel slowly walked to the bed in the dark bedroom.
The one with both hands on the ground actually was a young woman in thin clothes. Her ash-blue hair was tied high with a decorative ribbon. From the slightly visible lines, he could not see signs of any weapons.
He sat down on the vibrantly colored silk sheets and inquired:
“Whose order was this?”
After a slight pause, the woman replied in a thin voice:
“Nobody… This is only my duty.”
“Is that so?”
Gabriel turned away his eyes and fell back in the center of the bed.
Seconds later, the woman straightened her upper body and glided onto his right side without a sound.
“Please excuse me…”
Even Gabriel could not help but marvel at the beauty of the exotic-looking lady whispering to him. Her skin tone was slightly dark, but the area around her cheekbones revealed a noble temperament of someone from somewhere in Northern Europe.
Watching the woman softly undo her thin clothing and prepare to loosen her decorative hair tie, Gabriel experienced a certain moving.
Would an artificial Fluctlight actually do something like this?
Even this lady is still not an incomplete AI? If so, to what extent of completion would the finished Alice have achieved?
What moved Gabriel, were not the actions of the woman devoting her body.
It was not like that—
She quickly pulled a small, sharp knife out of her hair and raised it high as Gabriel predicted.
Gabriel grabbed the woman’s hand with ease and his other hand flashed, snatching the woman’s throat and pushing her down onto the bed.
The woman clenched her teeth tightly and fought back with all her might, attempting to thrust the small knife. Her wrist strength was greater than expected, but not enough to make Gabriel nervous. He twisted the woman’s arm all the way back, and lightly pressed his thumb into her windpipe, restricting her movements.
Although the woman’s face contorted in excruciating pain, the determination flashing in her gray eyes did not weaken in the slightest. From her fierce expression just now, her incomplete makeup and toned body, she was definitely not a professional Assassin. This meant the one with rebellious thoughts was not the leader of the Assassins, Fer Za, but one of the other nine generals — most likely within the Human generals.
Edging his face slightly closer, Gabriel repeated the same question he had asked before.
“Whose order is this?”
She replied with the same tone.
“It is my own… will.”
“Then, to whom do you report?”
Gabriel thought as a machine without any sliver of emotion.
«RATH» wanted to break the boundaries of an artificial Fluctlight, which was their nature to be unable to disobey all rules, laws, and orders from people of a higher priority.
Compared to the Human World Fluctlights bound by countless laws, the inhabitants of the Dark Territory seemed able to live more freely, but their nature had not changed. It was only because there was but one rule for the Fluctlights here that they felt free on the surface.
That rule was [power dominates all]. This was a dog-eat-dog world in which people with higher power could dominate those under them. If RATH’s experiment proceeded as they had planned, the orderly Human World and the chaotic Land of Darkness would clash violently even without Gabriel’s intervention, and would end in a breakthrough by war.
But he did not know why, before the plan had proceeded into that stage, there came a Fluctlight in the Human World that had exceeded the boundaries. The spy within RATH had not sent any information regarding a similar existence in the Land of Darkness.
In other words, this woman who had plotted to kill the Emperor with a small knife was also a soul bound by absolute law. Even so, from the situation that even under Gabriel’s questioning just now, no, under his order, she did not divulge the identity of her master. It proves that this woman, even under the order of Gabriel, an Emperor who was also a god, she prioritized her loyalty to her master. That is, she thought her master [stronger] than the Emperor.
In that case, to ensure that the battle goes smoothly, it was necessary to properly display his strength to the general and officer Units, to show them that Gabriel — Emperor Vector was the strongest in this world. But, he couldn’t completely destroy the valuable general Units. What should he do—
He had to dispose of one of the generals anyway. A certain person who put the murderous spirit in this woman.
How should he single out the traitor? Should he contact Critter again, to have him supervise the general Units from outside? No, that would require adjusting the time acceleration ratio back to 1:1, and would waste precious time in the real world.
Considering this matter in an instant, Gabriel scrutinized the woman’s iron-colored eyes again.
“What is your reason for killing me? Were you offered money? Or status?”
He did not need to think about his questions. But the answer he immediately heard was unexpected.
“If you wage war now, the world will fall back a hundred years, no, two hundred years! I cannot let you return the era to when the weak were trampled upon!!”
Again, Gabriel felt a sliver of shock.
Was this woman really in the stage before her boundaries were broken? If so, did her master make her say these lines?
Gabriel brought his head closer, gazing straight into those gray eyes.
Determination. Loyalty. The feeling deep within was…
Ah, so it’s like that.
If that was the case, then there was no more need for this woman. To be precise, there was no more need for this woman’s Fluctlight.
Gabriel complied with his own decision, and without another word, applied force to his left hand, which grasped the woman’s throat.
He felt bones being crushed. The woman’s eyes widened, and her mouth let out a silent scream.
Tightly restraining her struggling limbs, mercilessly tightening his grip around her neck, Gabriel felt a surprise unlike what he felt before.
Was this really a virtual world? No matter if it was the feeling of muscle and bone breaking that was felt by his left hand, or the frightening, painful smell that came from the bare skin, they all stimulated Gabriel’s five senses much more realistically than the real world.
His body trembled unconsciously, and his left hand reflexively closed.
With a muffled crunch, the cervical vertebrae of the unnamed woman were crushed.
Then, Gabriel saw it.
From the forehead of the woman with eyes tightly closed and teeth clenched — floated a prismatic glow.
This, definitely was it — the Soul Cloud once he had seen when he took away Alicia’s life.
In an instant, Gabriel opened his mouth wide, and sucked in every trace of the woman’s soul.
The bitterness of fear, pain.
The sourness of regret and melancholy.
Following these, Gabriel’s tongue was soaked in the heavenly sweet nectar that could not be described with words.
Behind his closed eyelids, a hazy scene was shining.
Small children were playing in the front yard of an old two-story home. There were Humans, Goblins, and Ogres. As they looked over, bright smiles appeared on their faces, and they came running, arms wide open.
That vision vanished, and was replaced with a certain topless man. A wide, thoroughly exercised chest, tenderly, powerfully embracing her.
“I…love you… Your Excellency…”
A tiny voice came, reverberated, and faded away.
After all had disappeared, Gabriel still tightly hugged the woman’s body.
Beautiful. How beautiful of an experience.
Gabriel’s consciousness was largely shaken in ecstasy, but shards of logic attempted to find out the reason for this phenomenon.
The Light Cube that held this deceased woman’s Fluctlight was connected with Gabriel’s Fluctlight through the STL. Therefore, after her Life, or Hit Points became zero, fragments of her released quantum data could abnormally flow to Gabriel through the network.
But, that kind of theory already mattered nothing to Gabriel.
He experienced once more the [phenomenon] that he had been chasing for his entire life. Gabriel extracted and tasted all traces of the woman’s last emotion — [love]. That was like a drop of nectar falling into a stark desert.
Gabriel’s body threw back in a wide arc, and he let out a wordless guffaw.
Ordering the ten generals and the core members of each legion to line up neatly again, Gabriel watched them with a satisfied look as they respectfully bowed down.
Under his orders, they had completed preparations for the attack in two days. By the looks of it, maybe these Units were even more excellent than the fellows sitting on the floor of directors in GlowGen DS.
Really, they should just be classified as [finished products]. The perfect ability to carry out orders, with added loyalty. As AIs piloting robots in war, what else would you need on top of that?
Even so, it should not be forgotten that their loyalty was based on the bug lying in artificial Fluctlights that RATH had been eagerly trying to get rid of. It was only because the general principle [power dominates all] was carved into their souls that these ten people would obey the Emperor, Gabriel — no, Vector. But at the same time, it could also mean that as soon as Gabriel’s power was suspected, anyone could rebel at any moment.
This suspicion had already come true.
In the night two days ago, a female assassin sneaked into his bedroom.
That woman planned to kill the Emperor, who had the highest authority. In her heart, there was a master with a status higher than Gabriel. Someone she called [Your Excellency] at her last moments. And that person, almost for certain, was one of the ten generals in sight.
To her, against Emperor Vector, her own master was the mightier one. Then, the likelihood of the so-called “Your Excellency” not declaring his absolute loyalty to Gabriel was very high. If he took a Unit like this to battle, there would also be the likelihood of being betrayed.
Therefore, the last task before they went to battle was to single out and dispose of [Your Excellency] from the ten people before him.
At the same time, he could demonstrate the power of the Emperor to the remaining nine, forever carving the identity of the strongest into their Fluctlights.
At this time, Gabriel Miller did not consider at all the probability of any of the ten Units before him catching him off guard — in other words, defeating him in a one-on-one fight. To him, the Underworld was no more than an extension of VR games, and was still under the set impression that all Units here were [NPCs].
Dark Knight Commander Biksul Ul Shasta maintained his genuflected position, recalling his mentor’s words from twenty years ago, in the Dark Knight headquarters training field.
“…My mentor’s mentor’s head was taken off and he died instantly. My mentor was then cut in the chest and died on the way back to the castle. But even though I lost an arm, I’m alive today. Well, that’s nothing to be proud of, though.”
His mentor said this, sitting on the glossy black floor with his legs folded under his torso, as he showed his right arm stump sharply severed on the elbow to Shasta. The wound that was only bound with medicine and gauze seemed painful just by looking at it.
The one who had gave him this injury about three days ago, was the eternal enemy of the Dark Knights, or the most powerful swordsman in the world, or the most ferocious monster — Integrity Knight Bercouli Synthesis One.
“Do you know what this means, Biksul?”
Twenty-year-old Biksul could only scratch his head in confusion. His mentor slid a hand under his clothes, closed his eyes, and continued softly:
“We’re catching up, gradually.”
“Catching up — to that person?”
Young Shasta could not help mixing disbelief into his voice. Just three days ago, Bercouli had demonstrated his crushing swordsmanship. In the instant that his mentor’s arm flew high, spurting blood, the piercing feeling that chilled him to the bone like a pillar of ice still lingered today.
“I’ll be 50 this year. Even so, I still don’t feel like I’m holding my sword in the best way, let alone swinging. I think, in five years to ten years’ time, that won’t change even after I die.”
His mentor said quietly.
“…That way, we short-lived people are unable to achieve what that immortal living for more than 200 years can do. Although it’s pretty embarrassing, even in the instant that our swords cross, I still kept it in mind. But after fleeing following a miserable defeat, I realized that this is wrong. All this time, my mentor and all the Knights in the past have endlessly challenged that man, but it wasn’t all in vain… Biksul, what is the strongest swordsmanship?”
To this sudden question, Biksul answered reflexively:
“A «Slash of Thoughtlessness».”
“Very good. Through long years of training, you unify with your sword. One strike that you don’t think of how to cut, draw, or move would be the ultimate swordsmanship. My mentor taught me this, and I have taught you the same. But… Biksul, that’s not it. There’s something stronger. I’ve realized it since I’ve been cut by that monster.”
A hint of excitement floated onto his mentor’s aged, wrinkled face. Shasta maintained his leg-folded seating position, leaned forward, and asked:
“Something stronger… That is?”
“The opposite of thoughtlessness. Firm confidence. It’s the power of will, Biksul.”
Suddenly, his mentor stood up from the wooden floor, and waved his right arm stump vigorously.
“You see. Back then, I sliced down with a right diagonal slash. It was exactly a thoughtless attack; the fastest I have ever swung my sword in my life. At that moment when I drew my sword, I already had the advantage.”
“Yes… I thought so as well.”
“But… But. Normally, my sword should’ve bounced off his defense, but he pressed my sword back, and this arm was sliced off… Can you believe it, Biksul; in that moment, his sword didn’t even touch mine!”
Shasta kept silent, and shook his head dubiously.
“H… How could this…”
“It’s the truth. It was like… the very path of the sword, was completely altered by some unseen force. It’s not a spell, nor is it the Armament Full Control Art. We can only explain it like this: my Slash of Thoughtlessness was defeated by his willpower built up with two hundred years of hard training. Because he pictured where he wanted my sword to go so intensely, it became the unchanging truth!”
Shasta was unable to immediately believe his mentor’s words.
The power of will: something amorphous like that can defeat a real, heavy, rigid sword; no matter what, that can’t be real.
It looked like that Shasta’s mentor expected this reaction. Suddenly regaining the formality in his sitting position, on the glossy black floor, he calmly ordered:
“Okay, Biksul. I’ll teach you my last sword technique. — Cut me.”
“What… What are you saying! It’s difficult for you to…”
Have lived so long; Shasta could only swallow these words. Suddenly, his mentor’s eyes flashed with a strong light.
“Since I managed to live on, there is even more necessity for you to cut me. Since I’ve been defeated by that man in one stroke, I’m no longer the strongest in your heart. As long as I live, you’re unable to battle that man on equal footing. Cut, no, kill me, and stand at the same height as him… Bercouli!!”
His mentor finished and stood, holding his right arm stump as though he was gripping a sword.
“Now, stand up! Draw your sword, Biksul!!”
Biksul cut his mentor, and ended his life.
At the same time, he realized with his body the meaning of his mentor’s words.
The invisible sword that his mentor’s severed right hand held — the sword called [will], let out intense sparks as it crossed with Shasta’s sword, and marked an eternal wound on his face.
His face stained with tears and blood, the young Shasta stood at the zenith that exceeded the «Slash of Thoughtlessness» — on the border of the «Slash of Incarnation».
Time passed — Five years ago.
Shasta finally challenged the archenemy of the Dark Knights, Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli. He was but 37 years old, but he felt that his sword had achieved the highest.
His mentor had exchanged an arm for his life, but Shasta had no intention of returning defeated. Because Shasta had no apprentice as his successor. He did not want his young apprentice to have the executioner’s burden, and bear the destiny of having his life sliced away. He decided to put his life on the line, and sever the blood-stained cycle there and then.
The sword called [will] that carried with it all determination and realization, during its first cross with Bercouli’s, was not deflected at all. But in that instant, Shasta already predicted his own loss. He did not think that he could reproduce a slash of such power.
But, as they crossed swords, Bercouli laughed roughly:
“Your swordsmanship isn’t bad. If you only have murderous intent, you will be unable to block my sword. Go back and think long and hard about the meaning behind my words, and return after five years, little boy.”
Then the Integrity Knight Commander turned and left. But Shasta didn’t know why he was unable to swing his sword towards the Knight’s back, which looked full of openings.
To understand the meaning behind Bercouli’s words, it took a very long time. But he finally understood what happened now, five years later. Then, if Shasta had swung his sword only with hatred and the intent to kill, he would have immediately been defeated. Although it was only one round, he was able to clash with him because he held a realization much heavier than murderous intent.
That was — gratitude to the mentors who put their life on the line to pass on their knowledge, and a prayer for the young one who will become his successor.
Therefore, after receiving news of the Highest Minister’s death, Shasta immediately decided to negotiate for peace. He was confident that, if the other party was Bercouli, he would definitely accept.
For the same reason—
This Emperor Vector, who suddenly descended on Obsidia and decided to wage war without saying anything else, must be cut to death by Shasta himself.
Even as he kneeled and bowed his head, Shasta was shaping out the [Incarnation] that he must load his killing Slash with.
This Emperor that left the Dark World for hundreds of years and suddenly revived was a young man with white skin and golden hair, similar to that of a Human World resident. His figure and looks were not necessarily charismatic.
But, only his extraordinarily blue eyes revealed that the Emperor was not an ordinary man. Within those eyes was a [void]. A bottomless abyss sucking in all light. This man concealed a colossal and evil hunger.
If his exercised Power of Incarnation was engulfed by the Emperor’s void, the blade would be unable to reach him.
If that happened, Dark Knight Shasta would lose his life. But, his will would likely be succeeded by someone after him.
His only regret was that he was unable to convey his determination as he did not see Lipia yesterday. She might be busy with preparation before the attack, or staying in her important [home].
If he told her his intent to slay the Emperor, she would definitely not listen and beg to join him. It was better this way.
Shasta slowly inhaled, building up.
With his hand, he quietly touched the sword that was released from his belt and placed on the floor.
He was about 15 Mel from the throne. He only had to take two steps to reach it.
He must not let anyone notice. He must be thoughtless in drawing his sword.
Purifying and contracting his Power of Incarnation to the limit, he injected it into his sword through his fingers. Then, he emptied his body.
His left hand gripped the sword—
The Emperor spoke nonchalantly with a sound as smooth and rigid as glass:
“Just — last night, someone infiltrated my bedroom. With a short knife concealed in their hair.”
A suppressed gasp wavered the air in the hall.
In the line of the other nine Feudal Lords to Shasta’s left, someone softly held their breath, another let out a low moan from the depths of their throat, and another shrank back into their thick robes. A few among the officers in the back made sounds as well.
Shasta was equally shocked. Maintaining his stance and style before slicing, he thought for an instant.
Besides himself, there were others who came to the conclusion of eliminating the Emperor. Unfortunately, the fact that the Emperor was still alive showed that they had failed — but which of the nine people sent out the assassin?
Not the five Demihuman generals. Passing over the Giant, Ogre, and Orc, even the shorter Goblins were unlikely to have dodged the eyes and ears of the guards and infiltrated the top floor.
If he considered the four Human generals, he could first exclude the young leader of the Fighters, Iskahn, and the leader of the Commerce and Industry Guild, Lengil. Iskahn was just a straightforward boy who purely aimed at improving his empty-handed combat to the maximum, and Lengil would love to make a lot of money out of the war.
Since the attacker had infiltrated the bedroom, the leader of the Assassin Guild, Fer Za, was the most suspicious, and he actually had a few hints for what that man was thinking, but it was puzzling that a short knife was used.
In the inner depths of dark caves, the Assassin Guild specially researched the third power apart from Dark Sorcery and Martial Arts: [Poison]. The race of Fer Za was an organization formed to survive, by those who were not gifted on Priority when it came to controlling weapons and spells. They had a unique restriction: their only allowed weapons were hidden needles and blow darts coated with poison. Short knives were not included.
In the same reasoning, the leader of the Dark Sorcerers kneeling right beside Shasta, D.I.L., would be out of the consideration. This woman with only desire for status, although she could have considered taking and raising high the Emperor’s head, becoming the dominator of the Land of Darkness, the Sorcerers under D would have used spells instead of a short knife.
Looking at it like that, the one who sent the assassin was not any one of the nine generals.
The one left — could only be himself, the Dark Knight Commander Shasta.
However, he had not the slightest memory of doing that. He had already decided, when he was going to eliminate the Emperor, he would swing his sword with his own life on the line. Of course he didn’t give an assassination order to any of his men, or even the decision that he had kept secret, not once—
Could it be?
After the Emperor finished his words, Shasta thought only for the blink of an eye, and noticed that his left finger on his sword grip had instantly become ice cold.
What was originally sharp, surging determination instantly transformed. Fear. Anxiety. Terror. Then — it became a certainty of impending misfortune.
Almost at the same time, Emperor Vector opened his mouth a second time:
“I don’t want to question right now, regarding the name of the one who sent the assassin. Souls that use their own power in a desire to obtain more power are excellent. If you want my head, cut me whenever my back is turned.”
The Emperor looked arrogantly at the bustling hall, and for the first time, an emotion floated onto his white face — a shallow, light smile.
“Of course, I hope that you all understand that this kind of gamble carries with it an equal price. For example… like this.”
From within his dark robes, a hand extended and made a soft gesture.
Then, set besides the throne, a small door on the wall east of Shasta opened soundlessly, and a servant girl shuffled in. She held a large silver bowl in her hands: inside was a cube-shaped object, but it was obscured with a black cloth, so it couldn’t be seen in detail.
The servant girl set the silver bowl in front of the throne, bowed her head respectfully to the Emperor, and exited through the door.
In the deafening silence, the Emperor wore a crooked smile, extended a toe, placed it against the cloth covering the bowl, and kicked it off.
Shasta, whose entire body, even his thoughts, were frozen, caught sight of —
An ice cube, as transparent as the most perfect crystal.
Sealed inside, was the forever sleeping face of his lover.
Shasta’s lips moved soundlessly.
The coldness that enveloped his entire body disappeared, and was replaced with endlessly deep, dark emptiness in his heart.
Shasta knew that Dark Knight Lipia Zankehl was secretly running an orphanage. No matter the races, she sheltered and educated children who had lost their parents, siblings, and were about to die on the street. Shasta saw a hopeful future in Lipia’s actions.
Therefore, Shasta only told Lipia his own ideals. An endless dream in which the long-term state of war with the Human World would be broken, and a mutually supportive world in which there would be no need for constant snatching and seizing would be created.
But, his own words had driven Lipia to attempt to assassinate the Emperor, and ended in this grievous result. Although it was the Emperor who killed her — Shasta also had a hand in it.
Although it was only for a blink of an eye, a storm of insurmountable guilt and remorse raged in Shasta’s empty-feeling chest.
Instantly, it became a black chunk of emotion.
Kill. He must kill that lightly smiling man sitting cross-legged on the throne, no matter what.
Even if he needed to put his own life, and the future of the Dark Territory on the line.
Now, who is that suspicious [Your Excellency]?
Gabriel watched the ten prostrated Leader Units under his eyes with a little bit of interest.
The master of the assassin woman whom she so loved. Gabriel had sucked dry all traces of the emotions that tasted of heavenly nectar, that had been released during the woman’s death: not just the yearning of the woman, he even understood the feelings that [Your Excellency] had for the woman herself — although he just analyzed the emotional patterns as data.
Therefore, he was confident that when he showed the woman’s head, the one called Your Excellency would definitely take action. He would mercilessly execute the opposing, rebellious Unit, and increase the loyalty of the rest of the Units through fear. No different from the simulation games he had played to kill time in the real world.
What a bunch of pitiful and happy people.
Although they have real souls, their intelligence is limited, and can be reproduced as much as one wants even if they are killed and killed again. There will eventually be a day, when the Underworld, its Mainframe, and the Light Cubes are mine, the hunger that has so pained me ever since I was young will be quenched.
Leaning his face against his wrist supported by the throne armrest, Gabriel waited, relaxed.
He was a little more than 15 meters from the Units. No matter what attack from any weapon, he could easily counter it with the sword equipped on his left waist.
Of course, he would be unable to deal with a [System Call] prefixed command attack. But Gabriel’s anxiety had already been wiped clean before they logged in.
The super account «God of Darkness Vector» was set up for RATH workers to undertake forced operations to the Dark Territory. Therefore, the HP called Life would be massive, the equipped sword would be the strongest; and on top of all, Vector possessed a cheating attribute to prevent all commands targeting him.
As Gabriel was protected under so many conditions, even as the leftmost Knight out of the ten Units, clad in jet-black armor, bent his back violently.
Even as his entire body was covered with a halo like a light shadow.
Even as he saw the Knight’s left hand gripping his sword’s scabbard as fast as lightning, flicking up his head at the same time, sharp eyes flashing an inhuman crimson from the middle of his iron face—
He did not fully understood what had happened sequentially as he failed to realize the two facts below:
This world, was not only a program executed by a physical server, but also a «Real Dream» that was built with the same photons which human Fluctlights were made out of.
And, because of this, the pure and intense murderous intent created by the Knight in black, from his Light Cube to the Main Visualizer, and through the photon communication circuit, could reach the STL Gabriel was using.
In the middle of Shasta’s blood-red vision, he could only see the Emperor’s figure.
With the fastest movement he had ever made in his life, he drew his sword with his right hand.
What released from its scabbard was the Divine Instrument he had inherited from his mentor, the longsword «Hazy Mist», but not in its normal form of a gray blade. True to its name, a thick mist like a night haze encircled the long blade, winding into a vortex.
The logic behind this phenomenon, was the same as the ultimate ability of the Integrity Knights that was indiscernible even under long years of research — the Armament Full Control Art, but all of that seemed insignificant.
With an instantaneous scream, Shasta put all rage, hatred, and grief onto his blade, and heavily swung it over his head.
From the northern ends of the Human Empire, to the edge of the Eastern region.
No matter whether it was Integrity Knight Alice, or Amayori, who was born in the Western Empire, it was the first time that they had stepped into the land with the most mysteries of the four empires, the Eastern Empire Eastabarieth.
Between the rolling mountain peaks, surging rivers as blue as glass connected tortuously. The villages and streets that occasionally appeared at the river banks were different from the familiar stone architecture of the north; these were almost entirely constructed with wood.
The people who gazed up and pointed to the sky at them were all black-haired. Then Alice suddenly remembered that Fanatio, the Integrity Knight Vice Commander who could not get along with her, was born here.
Moving her eyes back forward, Alice thought: the Kirito leaning on her back and staring blankly at the sky also had jet-black hair, so could he be born in the east? Would he start to regain his memories if they could land on the streets and let him get in touch with the people here? She soon abandoned this idea, though, as they could not delay, not even a second.
Camping on rural areas at night, they had rushed full tilt for three days, living on dried fruit and fish that Amayori caught—
In the afternoon of the second day of the eleventh month, the Mountain Range at the Edge that stood as same as its northern section, and a valley as straight as if it had been split by an axe, entered their sight.
“…Can you see it, Kirito?”
Alice muttered, gently soothing the neck of her beloved dragon that she forced to fly a long distance with a heavy load. Nowadays, since the magical beasts were virtually extinct, dragons have become the lifeforms with the highest Life and Priority. But, it was definitely not a trifle to carry two people and three Divine Instruments. The strength that Amayori had been accumulating through unrestricted fish consumption had almost been completely depleted.
When we reach the camp, I’ll definitely provide her with fresh lamb to her heart’s content. Alice thought as she shook the reins; Amayori replied with a seemingly restless shriek and vigorously flapped her wings.
The valley that seemed a crack as thin as paper from faraway was definitely not the same up close.
It was about a hundred Mel wide: wide enough for an army of Orcs or Ogres if they were to enter it in a row.
In front of the valley that straightly sliced the mountain in half, was a grassy field spread as though it was encircling the entrance. On the field, a large campsite comprised of countless white tents neatly erected in rows. Steam columns from cooking food rose here and there; around were soldiers training in formation. Alice could almost feel the flashing blades and heavy atmosphere from high up.
Morale was not as low as she had feared — but no matter what, their number was definitely too little. From a rough glance, their total number was less than 3,000. Conversely, the Dark Territory invaders must be at least 50,000. In the Human Empire, the Sacred Task of Soldier and Guard were bestowed upon extremely few; in contrast, everyone in the mountains, regardless of gender or age, was a soldier.
In this situation, it would not make much difference for Alice alone to join the battle. Just how does Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli plan to protect the world…?
Alice deliberated as she flew over the camp; she guided the dragon towards the slight darkness of the valley.
“Sorry Amayori, just a little more.”
She said; as the dragon responded with a “kururu”, the mountain peaks obscured Solus’s light.
As soon as they entered the valley, chilly air immediately enveloped their bodies. The rocky cliffs to their left and right were perfectly perpendicular, smooth surfaces that could only be the work of a god. No organisms, not even vegetation, were visible.
After slowly gliding for a few minutes—
Through the thick blanket of mist, an unbelievably colossal structure eventually became visible.
“Is this the… «Great Eastern Gate»…?”
The vertically standing gray door was probably three hundred Mel from top to bottom. Although it was not as tall as the five-hundred-Mel Central Cathedral of the Axiom Church, the gravity of both did not differentiate between heights.
The most shocking fact was that the double doors were constructed with one stone slab each, without any gap at all. An existence of this caliber naturally could not have been carved by human hands; even creation by way of Sacred Art processing would be absolutely impossible. The largest structures that the Highest Minister Administrator ever constructed were the «Immortal Walls» that divided Central Capital Centoria into four, but each stone slab that connected to form them was far smaller than this huge door.
In other words, this great door was placed here by the hand of a god in order to divide these two worlds — and, in order to instigate the tragedy that would come three hundred years later.
“Stop here, Amayori.”
Having Amayori halted in the middle of the air, Alice looked again up at the great door from a closer distance.
At the altitude of about two hundred Mel, there was Sacred Text inscribed across the pair of doors made out of gray stone slabs.
“Destruct… At… The, last, stage…”
Although she tried hard to pronounce one line in the middle, she had not an inkling of their meaning.
Just as she was thinking with her head tilted, suddenly, a wave of frightening scratching and cracking noises shook the air, stunning Alice and Amayori. When Alice patted the dragon’s neck to comfort her and stared at the scene, she saw a portion of the great door, that had been perfectly smooth before, developing a crack that resembled lightning that was extending downward.
As the crack stretching tens of Mel long eventually stopped, bits of stone broke off around the crack, and disappeared into the deep valley.
Alice raised her head and looked again at the great gate: the cracks and falling stone were not just confined to one area. It would be better to say that the giant door was nearly covered with a mesh of fissures and cracks.
Alice gently shook the reins, coaxing Amayori as close to the great door as possible.
She gingerly reached out her left hand, rapidly drew the Seal of Stacia in midair, and softly tapped the surface of the door.
A purple «Window» popped out, describing the full Life capacity and current value of the Great Eastern Gate.
The number on the left was the highest Life she had ever seen — more than three million. But the one on the right was less than one thousandth of that: 2985. While she sitting staring at it, stunned, the current value was subtracted by one in front of her eyes.
Sweat beading on her palms, Alice counted the amount of time it took for the number to decrease. She then estimated the time until the Life would completely deplete.
“… It can’t be…”
In disbelief of her own conclusion, Alice mumbled:
“… Five days… There are only five days left……?”
The door that had stood dignified between the two worlds for over three hundred years, would collapse after five days — how was this possible?
Selka’s bright smile, old man Garitta’s tanned, deeply wrinkled face, and her father Gasupht’s grave frown — passed through Alice’s mind. It was only a few days ago that she had repelled the Goblins that had attacked them, and sealed the cave with ice. She had thought that those actions would bring peace to Rulid that could last quite some time.
As soon as the great gate collapses five days later, the Dark Army would swarm in like insects, and if our defensive army was unable to defend, the bloodsucking monsters would gush into the Human Empire like floodwater. This flood would soon reach the northern border, and Rulid would be engulfed.
“We have to… We have to do something about it…”
Alice muttered to herself as if in a dream, as she unconsciously pulled the reins. After moving away from the stone slab about to collapse, Amayori slowly rose up, and stopped roughly at the height of three hundred Mel, at the top of the door.
Behind the door, the valley continued in the same unbending way, as though splitting the mountain. However, what appeared there was not blue sky and green plains, but the blood-red sky and the desolate, cinder-speckled wilderness of the Dark Territory.
Alice did not want to see this unsettling sight, but as she narrowed her eyebrows, focusing —
On the hazy, great black landscape, a tiny waving light was visible.
Urging Amayori higher, she fixed her gaze afar. There was not just one light, but many extending outwards irregularly.
A camp. The vanguard of the Dark Army were waiting with their fists held up, for the great door to collapse and the way to the Human Empire to open.
“Five days… remaining…”
Alice mumbled softly again.
Immediately, she turned the dragon around and retraced her path towards the valley entrance. If she looked at those countless bonfires for long, she felt that she would be consumed by a massive urge to attack them alone.
Even if that really happened, if the opponent were merely Goblin or Orc foot soldiers, she was still confident that she would be able to take the heads of one or two hundred before retreating unharmed. But if there were Ogre crossbow archers or legions of Dark Sorceresses within the enemy, things would not be so easy.
Although it was said that Integrity Knights possessed the strength of a thousand in one, it was only one, after all. If a Knight was confronted with a focused long-range attack from afar where neither their swordsmanship nor their Sacred Arts were able to match, they would definitely suffer injuries. Even if the injuries were light, their Life would eventually drop to zero as injuries build up over time. That was what Knight Commander Bercouli had worried for years, the greatest weakness of the Integrity Knights — also of the Human Empire’s defense.
With Administrator, the stickler for gathering power, deceased, the large amount of defense weapons buried in the Cathedral were already distributed among the hurriedly assembled guard team. But their remaining time was too little. At least, if they had 10,000 soldiers, and a year of preparation—
With a soft sigh, Alice pushed away these meaningless thoughts and motioned for Amayori to land.
At the center of the guard team camp, there was a large clearing. Seeing huge tents neatly erected beside it, Alice knew that the clearing could only be a landing field for dragons.
Flying down and landing in an arc, Amayori turned her head to the tent as her talon just touched the grass, and let out a “kururu” call, as if she were trying to be cute.
Quickly, a slightly lower call responded. That was probably her brother-dragon, Takiguri. As soon as the dragon came to a stop, Alice held Kirito, jumped down onto the grass, and helped Amayori unload the heavy load on her feet. Immediately, Amayori shot excitedly towards the tent, and rubbed heads with her brother, who had extended his head out of the tent.
Alice couldn’t help but smile. However, she instantly noticed footsteps approaching from behind, and frantically tightened her face. She adjusted her plain skirt and tucked her wind-blown hair behind her back.
Before she could turn around, a familiar, easygoing voice rang across the landing field.
“Mentor! My mentor Alice-sama!! I knew you would come!!”
The one sliding over with pattering footsteps was Integrity Knight Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-One, whom Alice had drunk a glass of parting wine with ten days ago. Although they were in a long-term camp, his pattan-colored long curls and silver-white armor were as spotless as always.
“… You seem spirited.”
Unfazed by Alice’s cold words, Eldrie was about to say a lot more as if he was deeply touched, but his lips instantly froze.
It was because he had noticed the black-haired youth that Alice supported with her left hand.
Straining one side of his face, throwing back his head, the young Knight put on a look of disbelief and said:
“So… you brought him here. Why?”
Alice threw out her chest in defiance and replied:
“It is obvious. I have sworn to protect him.”
“B-but… If the war begins, we Integrity Knights will need to be at the very front line. What do you plan to do when you are crossing swords with the enemy? To fight while carrying him on your back is definitely not the wisest decision.”
“If I need to, I will do so.”
Supporting Kirito’s frail body that was unable to stand on its own, as if she was trying to pull it away from Eldrie’s sight, Alice drew her right foot back. But, somehow, the squads of soldiers and lower Integrity Knights on break had all gathered around the landing field, looking at Alice and Kirito leaning together with surprised expressions.
To drown out the wave-like hubbub, Eldrie retorted sharply.
“You cannot burden yourself with him, my mentor! Please forgive my directness, but if you carry this useless load to battle, not only will your strength be halved, it is very likely that you will fall into danger yourself! In the coming battle, Alice-sama will…”
He interrupted himself, and suddenly pointed at the surrounding swordsmen with an ornate silver armguard.
“…be responsible as their leader in battle! How can you not give this your all?!”
He had a point. Although he was not wrong, Alice could not easily reply with ‘I understand’. To herself, which one — protecting the world, protecting Kirito; both were equally important. Alice clenched her teeth as she thought of a way to explain this.
At the same time, she was somehow surprised at Eldrie’s enthusiastic speech.
If compared to the Integrity Knight Eldrie that was undergoing Alice’s tutoring in swordsmanship, he had changed significantly. Then, he had worshipped Alice, and had listened to her no matter what she told him to do.
The people in the world had their right eyes sealed by the mysterious «Outside Gods», absolutely not defying laws or authority. To Alice’s knowledge, the only ones who have successfully broken the seal were herself, and the deceased Blue Rose Swordsman Eugeo. Even the highest minister Administrator and the sage Cardinal, said to have Authority of Gods, were unable to defy that seal.
In other words, Eldrie was supposed to be still under the control of that seal. But now — he was not directly disobeying Alice’s words — but he was definitely not in a state of [blind loyalty] like before. He could think for himself, and convey his own thoughts.
The reasons for this change was likely to be Kirito, and Eugeo.
Although he had only come into brief contact with the two biggest traitors in the world, they had certainly deeply moved Eldrie’s soul.
As Alice recalled, even her sister Selka living in Rulid, occasionally revealed dissatisfaction with the formal regulations on the village and resilient figures of authority. Also, the two female students who rushed to where they were when Alice was about to take Kirito and Eugeo from Centoria Training Academy. As normal citizens, and young girls, to actually call an Integrity Knight to stop was in itself impossible.
And, not to mention — even Alice herself had been affected.
Before she crossed swords with Kirito and fell out of the Cathedral, she held not a sliver of doubt against the structure of the world, the rule of the Church, and the godliness of the Highest Minister.
However, in the time that she had to join forces with him to repel danger, accept a truce, and climb up the outer wall, Kirito’s voice, sword, and pitch-black eyes strongly moved Alice — eventually breaking the Seal of the Right Eye…
Yes, Kirito is the sledgehammer that swings towards this world full of false peace and harmony. He expended the strength hidden in his soul, to move the world, shake, and eventually shatter the ancient nail calling itself the Axiom Church, that was driven into the center of the world. But, as price to pay, he sacrificed his friend Eugeo and guide Cardinal, and lost his own heart…
Alice tightly hugged the twig-like body that she supported with her left hand. Then, she looked directly at Eldrie.
She wanted to say it. You are who you are today because you fought him. But, he definitely would not understand it. As far as the Integrity Knights were concerned, Kirito was still no more than a hateful traitor.
Towards Alice who stood there silently, Eldrie wore an expression that looked like he was resisting heavy pain, and just as he was about to continue.
At this time, the wall of people around them, as though parted by the hand of a giant, was suddenly cut open.
The voice that reached her ears from somewhere deep in the crowd, made Alice felt so tearfully nostalgic and painfully nervous.
“Hey, don’t get so worked up, Eldrie.”
Looking away from the young Knight straightening his back, Alice slowly turned around to the owner of the voice.
A front-gathered robe full of east region style worn loosely. A sash tied slightly low. A plain longsword stuck casually on his left waist. Strange wooden shoes hung off of his feet.
This was an outfit far more casual than that of those worn by the surrounding Knights and soldiers. But, the gravity that effused from the completely trained, gigantic body, was thicker, heavier than any armor.
Sweeping his ice-blue hair that was trimmed very short, and of a similar color to his clothes, the owner of the voice grinned:
“Oh, little girl. You’re more spirited than I imagined; that reassures me. Has your face gotten plumper?”
“… Oji-sama. It has been a long time.”
Alice held back her tears with all her might, and saluted to the world’s oldest, strongest swordsman — Integrity Knight Bercouli Synthesis One.
In the six years of Alice’s life as an Integrity Knight, she had only opened up to one person, revered him as her mentor, and admired him as her father. At the same time, she was sure that in this world, he was the only one — apart from Kirito — who she could not win against.
Therefore, she absolutely could not weep in front of him.
If Bercouli said that they could not keep Kirito here, she could only obey. Of course, the Alice now could not be forced by even Bercouli’s orders. But, if she disobeyed in front of everyone else, it would disturb the order of the Knights and guards. In this situation in which they had but five days until the decisive battle, she absolutely could not harm Bercouli’s leadership authority in any way.
As though he had seen completely seen through Alice’s inner hesitation, Bercouli slowly walked over, the corners of his mouth maintaining a plain, gentle smile.
Gazing into Alice’s eyes, he nodded forcefully.
Then, the Knight Commander suppressed Eldrie with a glance, who looked about to say something, and turned to look at Kirito, in Alice’s arms.
Bercouli tightened his mouth. A light like bluish-white flames accumulated into those sharp eyes.
Bercouli inhaled a deep breath. Then, Alice felt the air around her swiftly becoming cold.
Alice squeezed out a strained voice.
Bercouli was building up his aggressive energy. He was preparing to release one of the «Incarnation Techniques» only inheritable by Integrity Knights… The «Slash of Incarnation», a secret technique more powerful than the «Arm of Incarnation» that could move objects with the power of one’s mind.
Imbuing his concentrated will into a sword, and releasing it. That invisible blade could sometimes parry the tangible blade of an enemy. The Armament Full Control Art of the Knight Commander’s Divine Instrument, the «Time Piercing Sword» that could cut even the future, was a technique that first came into existence based on Bercouli’s crushing willpower.
In other words — did Bercouli plan to slice Kirito?
If he was literally going to finish the problem off, then that would be the only thing that Alice could absolutely not accept. If it came to that, Alice must draw her own sword to protect Kirito.
Suppressed by the Knight Commander’s extremely crushing aggressive energy, no matter whether it was the surrounding soldiers, or Eldrie, or even the dragons under the tent, everyone sank into a deep silence. In the air compressed so tightly to the point of suffocation, Alice commanded her right hand fingers to move with all her might.
But, just as Alice touched her beloved sword’s hilt, the corners of Bercouli’s mouth twitched, and a telepathic sound came.
—It’s okay, little girl.
In that instant when Alice held her breath.
Bercouli’s body was completely still, but his two eyes flashed a terrifying light.
At the same time, in Alice’s arms, Kirito’s body jerked violently.
KIN! With a rough noise, the space between Bercouli and Kirito reverberated with a silver flash.
Alice gasped in shock, but Bercouli smiled jovially as though his aggressive energy just now was a fantasy.
Turning towards the numbly mumbling Alice, the Knight Commander scratched his wide chin, the same as when they had practiced together before:
“Little girl, did you see that just now?”
“Ye… Yes, I did. Even though it was just an instant… It appeared to be the flash of a sword clash…?”
“Yeah. I released not a Slash but a light Stab of Incarnation at that young man. If it had struck, it would probably have sliced a bit of skin off of his face.”
“If it… struck? Then that means…”
“Indeed, he stopped it. That young man used his own «Incarnation».”
Alice could not help but stared at the face of Kirito, supported by her left arm.
But, her expectations were shattered. In the slightly open black pupils, there was only empty darkness. No expression whatsoever, as always.
—But, his body did tremble, just now.
Alice soothed Kirito’s hair with her right hand, and looked at Bercouli. The Knight Commander shook his head slowly, and said assuredly:
“It seems like that young man’s heart is really not here… But, it isn’t dead. Listen, the young man was not trying to protect himself, but you, little girl. So, someday, he’ll be back. I think so. Perhaps, when you really need him, it’ll be the time, little girl.”
Alice could only blink back her tears more forcefully than before.
—Yes, he will definitely come back.
—Because Kirito… Kirito is the strongest swordsman in the world. He swung two swords and even killed that demi-immortal.
—Come back for me… is what I wouldn’t say. Come back, for the sake of the many people, living here in this world…
Alice could not resist anymore; she unhesitantly and tightly hugged Kirito. The didactic voice of the Knight Commander passed as if it were a hand comforting Alice, soothing her hack:
“So, Eldrie. Don’t say it so selfishly like that, just one more young man, take care of him..”
The youngest Integrity Knight Eldrie expressed his opinions to the oldest Integrity Knight Bercouli with spirit that may said to be impressive.
“It would be acceptable if he had the least bit of strength, but in this state… Besides, even if he recovered, what can the sword of a student do…?”
With a calm smile, Bercouli’s words were as sharp as knives.
“Have you forgotten? This boy’s partner has won against even me. He’s beaten the Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli Synthesis One.”
Instantly, the entire grassy field was silent again.
“That kid called Eugeo… He’s strong, stronger than you can believe. I even used the Armament Full Control Art of my Time Piercing Sword. I still lost. As you, Deusolbert, and Fanatio did.”
Now, Eldrie was at a loss for words. Of course, a swordsman winning one-on-one against Bercouli, no matter among the Integrity Knights, or in the Dark Territory on the other side of that door, shouldn’t exist — everyone in the Axiom Church strongly believed this.
But, in a certain meaning, wasn’t this a declaration that was too dangerous?
Knight Commander Bercouli was able to lead the assembled guard with the authority of the strongest one. But, he made known the existence of a swordsman Eugeo whom he had been defeated by — and even approved that Eugeo and Kirito had equal strength, then…
As Alice thought up to this point, just as she was about to raise her head.
Bercouli suddenly looked to the sky with a spasm-like jerk.
At Alice’s inquiry, the Knight Commander replied with unexpected words:
“Somewhere far, far away, a wave of overwhelming fighting intent expanded in an instant, and disappeared… Someone I know, has died…”
The Ten Feudal Lords that formed the Dark Empire Ten Feudal Lord Meeting were completely different in personality, character, and hidden ambitions, but there was one aspect that they were all the same in.
That was their better understanding than anyone else of the one law that [Power dominates all].
It was better to say that this law was carved into them since youth, and through endless diligence — training themselves or eliminating non-conformists — they ultimately mounted the summit of this world that washed blood away with blood.
Therefore, when the other nine Feudal Lords, who stood in line with Dark General Shasta in the Throne Room, saw the rightmost Dark Knight draw his sword against the Emperor with sudden vigor, none of them felt surprised in their hearts.
In fact, most understood it as “Oh, you’re brave enough to make a move here; you’re pretty bold.” Even the Elders of the Orcs and Ogres whose language skills and intelligence had deteriorated over three hundred years, thought “Now we can see this Emperor guy’s power,” flashing their beast-like eyes sharply. Even the young Fist Fighter Leader, who respectfully regarded Shasta as an equal who trained to better his own battle techniques, offered silent words of support: “Since you’ve pulled out your sword, slash the Emperor.”
Within them, there were only two who predicted this situation seconds before it happened.
One of them was the Dark Sorceress Guild Leader, D.I.L. She harbored intense feelings of enmity towards Shasta; long since planning to kidnap the Dark General’s lover, she had known Lipia’s appearance for a long time.
Therefore, she was contrarily even more surprised when she saw Lipia’s frozen head. Predicting that this would probably cause Shasta to explode in anger and draw his sword, D deliberated over what to do in that situation.
Although she wanted to backstab Shasta and do the Emperor a favor to take advantage of him, D eventually chose to watch from the sidelines. If Shasta lost against the Emperor, then all would be well; if Shasta won, he would be deeply wounded, and then she would scorch her enemy and take over the Dark Empire herself. D chuckled silently as she suppressed her excitement by licking her lips.
But there was another person who had noticed the Dark General’s intent of betrayal —
And now immediately took action.
With only the word “KILL” in his mind, Shasta violently swung his beloved sword.
If only the intensity of the «Incarnation» fused into the Slash was measured, it already clearly passed his strike while he crossed blades with Integrity Knight Bercouli. His rage and exclamation were so intense that the Armament Full Control Art, which would ordinarily require a prolix incantation, was immediately evoked.
Shasta’s longsword «Hazy Mist» was a Divine Instrument-class Object automatically generated two hundred years ago in the Underworld as part of the VRMMO package. Its property was [Water]; now, reflecting Shasta’s extremely strong murderous intent, the blade transformed into a mist-like shadow without losing its absolute killing power.
The special quality of the Hazy Mist in the state of Armament Full Control was to completely omit the attacking process of what all swords inherently held, [dealing damage by splitting or running through the target object with a sharp blade]. In the instant that one touched the long stream of mist, damage akin to a normal slash would be dealt to his Life. In other words, other than avoiding it, all forms of defense would be meaningless.
In the instant that Shasta drew his sword, Gabriel Miller, as Emperor Vector, drew his own sword from his waist and was about to parry his opponent’s attack.
If things continued like this, Shasta’s mist blade would pass through Gabriel’s sword, strike Gabriel’s body, and inject all of the compressed killing intent.
However, as he was moved at lightning speed, right before he released the killing blow.
He did not know when, but under his left shoulder on the Dark General’s heavy armor, within a joint of the thick plating, a throwing needle was stuck deeply there.
The one slowly standing up behind him was a ghostly thin figure entirely wrapped in a dark gray robe.
The Leader of the Assassin’s Guild, Fer Za. The one hiding behind shadows who had the weakest existence among the ten Feudal Lords and uttered almost not a word during conferences. He glided forward, perhaps in the most striking way he ever had in his life.
Fer Za was able to notice Shasta’s actions before everything happened only because he was the most cowardly and neurotic of the ten Feudal Lords.
The Assassin’s Guild was actually a family where weaklings congregated. It was a group created for people who was born giftless in physicality, magic, wealth or other qualities, but rejecting a torturing, freedomless life of slavery, in order to hone the [Poison Technique] that was shunned even by the Dark Territory.
The poisonous Objects in the Underworld, such as a portion of insects, snakes, and plants, were originally configured as a part of the Load Tests. Therefore, their effects were restricted to the level that the inhabitants could easily recover if they used the required knowledge. Conversely speaking, there was virtually no way to obtain enough strength from it to confront Art rituals and swords.
However, the people who founded the Assassin’s Guild invented the «condensation» technique unconceived even by «RATH» technicians, and over an immensely long period of time, painstakingly produced and strengthened poison. The Assassin’s Guild headquarters set deep under the slum streets of this castle-centered city even had a large cauldron that had been boiling the juice of poisonous fruits for a hundred years, and numerous pots that collected poisonous snakes from everywhere to make them cannibalize each other.
But the painstakingly completed [Lethal Toxin] instead brewed up a tragic internal strife, rampant with clandestine killings within the Guild. Different from Art rituals and all weapons, it was extremely difficult to search out the poisonous attacker since the poison’s effects may be delayed.
Therefore, it was inevitable that the Guild leader would be unable to stay alive if he was not extremely paranoid. He must be able to notice the eyesight of those around him, no, even be able to feel an insignificant sliver of murderous intent hiding in the air.
To Fer Za, the killing intent released by Shasta once he saw Lipia’s head was stronger than even the smell of blood.
And Dark General Shasta was the person whom Fer Za despised the most in the world.
The number of assassination plots he had planned and discarded until now was countless. He was confident that he could achieve the murder. However, if the cause of death was discovered to be poisoning, anyone would know it was the Assassin Guild’s doing. An hour after Shasta’s death, the immeasurably powerful Dark Knights would have attacked the Assassin’s Guild headquarters and quickly kill them all. A direct battle would have no victor.
But, now, if it was in this instant.
He was in the right by piercing his enemy’s body with well-sharpened poisonous darts. Because in the seconds that he drew his sword to take the Emperor’s head, Shasta was no longer a Dark Knight, or a Feudal Lord; he was a mere traitor.
The things that Fer Za pulled out of his robes and threw were hidden weapons passed down through generations of leaders of the Assasin’s Guild. They were extremely thin metallic needles by the name of [Rubelir Toxic Steel], cut from a dangerous ore capable of secreting numbing toxin, and concealable in one’s palm. After they were hollowed out, various poisons could be stored inside.
Stored inside was a lethal toxin, a collection of the essence of the Assassin Guild’s techniques. Gathering rare parasites by the name of [Blood Corroding Leeches], crushing fifty thousand of them together, and a number of condensations and filtrations would yield only a single drop of the poisonous liquid. Since all attempts to breed and raise this type of leech had failed, just the task of creating one drop of poisonous liquid would require an extremely high effort.
Of course, one thing that Fer Za could not possibly know was that every moving creature in the Underworld were all generated by the system according to specified values per each area unit; other than livestock Units, such as sheep and cows, all other artificial breeding was impossible.
In other words, the poisonous needle that Fer Za released was concentrated with all of the power of the Assassin’s Guild from the material used to the poisonous liquid inside. Simultaneously, they could also be described as the crystallization of the resentment of the weak who had suffered hundreds of years of abuse.
As Shasta had concentrated all of his willpower onto his swinging sword, he almost failed to notice the pain of a metallic needle piercing deeply into his body.
But in the instant that he prepared to jump high towards the Throne, his entire body became as heavy as lead, and he suddenly widened his eyes.
His feet lost their strength; as he dropped to one knee with a crack, he finally felt a foreign object in his left abdomen.
After a split-second thought, before an ice-like numbness spread to his left hand, he quickly pulled out the needle. As Shasta realized that this small, toy-like weapon was gleaming a brilliant green, he quickly understood that it was the accursed Rubelir Toxic Steel and immediately began chanting a counter-Art.
However, travelling at a terrifying speed, the coldness spread to his entire body from his left abdomen, quickly reaching his mouth. His tongue lost all feeling before he could finish just the activation command [System Call]; he could not even clench his teeth.
His left hand was also paralyzed; the poisonous needle made a slight sound as it slipped out of his hand and dropped onto the black marble floor.
Finally, his right hand that was holding his longsword high also began to drop slowly, and at the same time the longsword’s Release Recollection state was also lifted: the blade transformed from gray mist back into its tangible form and its tip touched the floor.
He was frozen to exactly the same pose as he was before he drew his sword: left knee on the floor with his head bowed. The black lap of a robe silently appeared in Shasta’s vision.
— Fer Za.
— I didn’t expect to be ambushed by this guy.
“… You’re definitely thinking… ‘How could I lose to this unmentionable little thing’, aren’t you, Biksul.”
Hearing a scratchy sound from above, Shasta could only move his eyes and put on a severe expression.
— What makes a guy like you address me with such familiarity…?
“You want to say that I don’t have a good reason to call you by your name, right? But, it’s definitely not the first time I’ve called you Biksul, you know?”
Slowly coiling his robes on the floor and kneeling down to the same height, the Assassin’s face took up the majority of Shasta’s vision. But a deep hood completely obscured the light and all was shrouded in darkness except for his protruding chin.
The chin moved as if it was trembling, and an even scratchier voice flowed out of the darkness.
“You… don’t remember, do you? The faces of many kids whom you completely defeated in the Youth School, and one of them who could not bear the humiliation, jumped into a water ditch, disappeared from the school forever.”
— What? What is this man saying? The Youth School?
As the son born of a nameless Knight, Shasta was shut into a Youth School affiliated with the Dark Knights from the moment when he could grasp a wooden sword, regardless of whether he agreed or not. From then on, what remained in his memory was the day-to-day training that his life depended on. He won practically every selection test; when he caught his breath he had already been appointed as an Officer of the Dark Knights, selected by his mentor, the former Knight Commander — that was half of his torrential life, devoid of any opportunity to look back upon it.
Of course, he had no way of remembering the kids whom he had swung wooden swords with together thirty years ago.
“…But, I forgot not a single day, you know. From the time when I floated to the underground culvert, picked up by the Assassin’s Guild, in the eternity during which I was freely ordered around as a slave, I’ve always remembered… I built up my knowledge, invented many new poisons, and eventually became the leader of the Guild. As the price to pay, I lost so much… But all of it was for vengeance, Biksul.”
At the same as the contorted voice broke off, the hood tilted slightly, and Fer Za exposed his face in front of Shasta’s eyes.
He still could not remember. No, even if Shasta could completely remember his former classmates, he would not have recalled this man’s name, because, perhaps due to some unknown effects of the poison, Fer Za’s face was severely deteriorated, into a form so bizarre that even an Orc would be frightened.
Within the hood that was pulled down again, there were only two eyes flashing an intense light.
“The poison now injected into your body is developed specifically to kill you, collected drop by drop, spending time on it long enough to drive one crazy. According to my experiments, it can even kill a large-type Ground Dragon with a Life higher than 30,000 in under an hour. With your Life, I’m afraid there are only two or three minutes left. So… It’s time for payback. My hatred and humiliation that I imbued onto you.”
— Hatred, huh?
Shasta moved his eyes away from Fer Za and stared at the poisonous needle lying on the black marble floor.
— I was driven by rage and hatred to murder the Emperor. Fer Za injected this weapon with exactly the same strength to kill me. Therefore, my Slash stopped. The «Incarnation of Slaughter» cannot win against the «Incarnation of Righteousness». Before, the sword technique I mastered when I crossed swords with that man… Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli; in the last critical moment, I still forgot it all…
Unable to support even his position with one knee against the ground, Shasta fell to the left and slid onto the floor.
In the middle of his blurred vision, at where the needle pointed—
There was the cube of ice inside the silver bowl.
Fer Za, the avenger originally named Ferrius Zalgatis, opened his eyes wide, as if he was savoring the instance of joy he had worked so hard for.
Dark General Shasta, who had been playing with glory, was now lying under Fer Za’s feet. His skin, tough for his age, had turned the color of dirt; his sharp gaze was fading away, and his breath was close to stopping.
What an ugly and pitiful way of dying.
Yet Shasta’s death also proved the superiority of Poisoning Techniques over swordsmanship and Dark Sorcery. With this new kind of complex poison made out of Rubelir Toxic Steel and Blood Corroding Leeches, just one needle would not only forcefully prevent the enemies from drawing swords or chanting Arts, but also induce their rapid death.
After seeing this sight, the Emperor on the Throne would also realize how valuable the Assassin’s Guild was. When mass-production of the new poison was complete, there would be no more need to please the Knights and Sorcerers. He could redeem his name, return to the Zalgatis Clan that disowned him, and take over the family as a new dictator…
Fer Za, whose entire body shook as he was intoxicated in the zenith of exuberance, completely overlooked the fact that outside his field of vision, the blade of Shasta’s sword was slowly melting back into mist.
Before his Life ran out, Shasta called out within his heart the name of the only woman he ever loved.
Lipia must have decided to assassinate the Emperor because she was desperate in realizing the arrival of the new age that she had heard from Shasta. Because she believed, as soon as the war of three hundred years ended and new laws and regulations were allowed to shine upon the Dark Empire, then the orphans, even those who would either starve to death or become temporary slaves would gain the privilege to live happy lives.
— Fer Za.
— You were defeated in the Youth School? You couldn’t swallow the loss, so you wanted to end yourself?
— But, at least you had your opportunity. You had parents who paid your tuition, three meals every day, a warm bed and a shelter from the rain. In this world, how many more young lives had their lowest privileges stripped from them at birth, used like they were trash, and disappeared?
— For this world, Lipia risked her life to correct it. I won’t let her Incarnation be in vain. Your pathetic little personal hatred will be——–
“…OUT OF MY WAY!!”
Shasta’s mouth, which was supposed to be completely numb, let out a terrifying roar; at the same time, a gray tornado spun high in the air from the Dark Knight’s right hand.
This was Releasing Recollection of a Divine Instrument, only usable by a few within even the Integrity Knights. Shasta’s indomitable Incarnation began to directly rewrite the Main Visualizer that stored and calculated all information of the entire Underworld.
The gray tornado already became type-less, pure destructive power that broke down everything it touched. With no time to evade, Fer Za’s thick black robe was surrounded by the tornado; with a dry noise, it was reduced to a cloud of dust and dispersed.
The stark naked middle-aged man who was thin as a twig threw up his hands to cover his deteriorated face. But, his hands were quickly broken into countless pieces of flesh and blown around — then, his entire body became a thick mist of blood, swirling around in the air.
In the instant that the strange tornado rose from dying Dark General, the strongest Dark Sorceress D.I.L. had an extremely bad feeling, and with both hands, generated Wind Elements and flew backward at full speed.
But, as she saw that the tornado had touched her right leg, and that everything below her knee had vanished without a trace, that chilling feeling became the greatest shock she had ever felt in her life.
Even when D was bathing or sleeping, she was protected by dozens of Defensive Arts. Apart from magical attacks, these Defensive Arts constituted an iron defense that was able to repel all forms of attack, such as projectile weapons, swords, and poisons.
Of course, if the equal Priority ten Feudal Lords all attacked with maximum strength, there would be a chance of running through the shield and harming her skin. However, directly slicing away her physical body and Life just by touching it as if the shield did not exist, was impossible. Absolutely impossible.
But, no matter how she denied it in her head, she still saw the deadly tornado bearing her down faster than her flying retreat, heavily impeding her right foot. A Sorceress like D could completely revive herself with Healing Arts no matter the extent of damage to her physical body, but only under the condition that she was still alive.
Finally, a shrill scream came from D’s mouth.
But her voice was immediately drowned out by the shrieks of the two scrambling Goblin Elders.
The Mountain Goblin Elder Hagasi and Plains Goblin Elder Kubiri, who had been kneeling at D’s left, ran for their lives on their short legs, wanting to escape the tornado. But it was impossible to evade the expansion of the tornado that could even overtake D, who was flying at top speed.
With a grotesque noise, Hagasi slipped and fell onto the floor. He desperately stuck out his left hand and grabbed Kubiri’s ankle with a viselike grip.
“Higyaaah! Leggo!! Le—!!”
The two Goblin leaders were effortlessly melted into blood mist and dispersed.
D’s right leg was blown away at the hip joint without leaving a trace.
Her beauty severely distorted by horror and despair, the Leader of the Dark Sorceresses watched as — the expansion of the tornado miraculously stopped.
Shasta’s collapsed body was no longer visible. Around there, the diameter and height of the erected obconic storm had already swelled to about twenty Mel. The other six Feudal Lords, who were further away, speedily retreated to the western wall, and the officers of the ten armies lined up south of the Hall closely avoided injury.
Among her extremely chaotic thoughts, with her outstanding reasoning, D deduced the reason that the tornado’s expansion stopped.
To protect the ten or so higher level Dark Knights. In other words, that tornado was created from Shasta’s willpower after all.
As though it were proving this theory, the upper half of the tornado slowly changed shape.
What appeared was the translucent upper body of a colossal man, made out of mist.
Although it was huge, that was undoubtedly the shadow of Dark General Shasta.
As Emperor Vector, Gabriel Miller couldn’t help but watch the erected tornado giant with an expression that looked like surprise.
Publicly displaying the female assassin’s head,; the leftmost Knight drew his sword as soon as he saw it — everything was exactly the same as predicted up until there. To the man who wanted to slice towards Gabriel, the elder of the Assassin’s Guild used numbing poison or something to stop him; that didn’t seem out of the ordinary, either.
Although it was different from his plan of beheading the traitor in one stroke and drive absolute loyalty into the nine remaining Units, a voluntary action to protect the Emperor could be judged as subservient.
It was because of this thought that he still sat and observed the progression of events—
But a gray tornado suddenly spun up from the fallen body of the Traitor Unit, and the Elder of the Assassin’s Guild who was surrounded by it and the two Goblin generals were destroyed in an instant; even Gabriel could not help but halt his thoughts.
The General Units were supposed to be of the same level. Then, if they were to fight each other, it would supposedly be the same as duels in real-world VRMMOs: if someone’s HP dropped, it would heal back.
But now, how was it possible that three Units were demolished in mere seconds? Could it be that there were systems or theories he himself did not understand in this «Underworld»?
Just as he was thinking, the tornado giant opened its mouth and let out an earth-shaking roar.
Under the intense pressure, most of the glass windows decorating the Throne Room shattered in all directions.
The giant slowly clenched its frozen right fist—
And brought it down crashing down towards Gabriel.
Gabriel realized instantly that neither drawing his sword nor evading would have any effect. Glancing left in his vision, he saw adjutant Vassago simply raise and leap out of the way; Gabriel remained on the throne, quietly waiting for the gray fist that came smashing towards him.
The Tornado of Death that was released because of Shasta’s Incarnation before he died was a phenomenon exceeding the estimates of the Underworld system.
It was not measured attack power that decreased Fer Za’s Life and caused his death; [The Will to Die] was directly sent into the Light Cube: it first destroyed the Fluctlight and performed an inverse calculation, shattering the visual physical body.
Therefore, the attack on Gabriel, or Emperor Vector, did not affect his Life.
But, the murderous intent created in Shasta’s Light Cube was transmitted by the photon communication circuit to the STL that Gabriel was using—
The fatal willpower of the one called Dark General Shasta that only a handful of swordsmen in the Underworld could produce directly struck Gabriel Miller’s Fluctlight core — his «Self-Image».
At this time, Shasta felt that he had already completely melded with the full-body strike that he had released, and shot into Emperor Vector.
Suffice to say, the Life of his original body had already been exhausted. As described, this was the last sword of Shasta’s life.
His only regret was that he could not see Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli once again. But, that man would definitely understand. The Dark General’s wishes, and why he killed the Emperor.
Including the Assassin’s Guild Leader Fer Za, the two Goblin Elders, the most bellicose of the Ten Feudal Lords, had already died. It was very regrettable that the Dark Sorceress Leader D had escaped, but it would be impossible to rebirth with a severe injury like that. Along with the Dark Knight Commander, if even the Emperor died, the remaining Feudal Lords wouldn’t easily wage war against the Integrity Knights.
If only an armistice, even a temporary one, could be established with the Human World inhabitants who had also lost their ruler, so that they could talk to teach other and understand each other without drawing swords.
Hopefully from now on — the peaceful world that Lipia longed for can arrive.
Fused with his Incarnation, Shasta ran through Emperor Vector’s forehead and entered the soul core within.
If only that was destroyed, even if Vector was the God of Darkness, he would definitely and completely perish like Fer Za.
With a silent scream, Shasta’s will collided with the Emperor’s soul—
Then, he experienced the last shock of his life.
The soul core like a cloud of light, a place supposed to be filled with the essence of vitality, had only deep, deep darkness.
Why? Even the soul of the recluse Fer Za shined brightly, dedicated to life to the point of greed.
Shasta’s Incarnation was swallowed by the endlessly extending [Darkness] within the Emperor.
It disappeared, then evaporated.
— This person, this man…
— Does he not understand what life is?
A shining man who has no knowledge of life, a soul, or love. That’s why it’s hungry. That’s why it thirsts for the souls of others.
No matter with how strong of an Incarnation, «The Sword of Murderous Intent» cannot kill this man.
Because this man’s soul has ceased to live.
It must be communicated. To whom? The person who will definitely fight this monster in the near future.
Whom — To whom…
But at this time, Shasta’s consciousness was covered by a bottomless abyss.
After the two thoughts frayed apart, the soul of Dark General Biksul Ul Shasta was completely destroyed.
When he was pierced by the overly intense light of a soul, Gabriel Miller was more joyful than frightened.
The Dark Knight’s soul was filled with thicker emotion than the soul of the female assassin he consumed two days ago. Love for that woman — and an incomprehensible substance equivalent to kindness, more widely known. Also, the strong killing intent that was driven by this.
Love and hatred. Is there anything more delicious in the world?
At this time, Gabriel was completely unaware that he had exposed his own life to danger. Seeing three Units blown to pieces because Dark Knight’s attack, Gabriel thirsted more to swallow the Knight’s soul than to care about his own safety.
If Gabriel had fought for survival because of fear of the Knight’s attack, Shasta’s murderous intent would have traveled through the STL, destroyed Gabriel’s survival instinct, and blown everything away along with his Fluctlight.
But Gabriel Miller was a person who [did not understand life]. To him, including himself, all life was merely automatic machines the same as the many bugs he had killed when he was young. Gabriel’s actual wish was unlocking the [soul] that was the energy source of these machines — the secrets of the mysterious shining cloud.
Therefore, the destroy signal created by Shasta’s Fluctlight simply floated past the extended emptiness within Gabriel’s Fluctlight and disappeared without any collisions whatsoever.
Gabriel could not have known this theory, but as he chewed the Knight’s soul, he understood two matters:
Firstly, in this world, there existed an attack method without weapons or incantations like normal VRMMO games.
Secondly, this attack method seemed to have no effect on him.
Later, he should get Critter to investigate the theory behind the phenomenon just now. As he thought this, Gabriel slowly stood from his throne.
The surviving six Feudal Lords — Dark Sorceress Guild Leader D.I.L., Fist Fighter Leader Iskahn, Commerce Guild Leader Langel, Giant Tribal Chief Siglosig, Orc Tribal Chief Lilpin and Ogre Tribal Chief Filgul — stared stupidly up at Emperor Vector’s figure; some with their backs against the wall, some with their behinds on the ground, some tending to other’s wounds.
All that remained in everyone’s heart was fear.
Dark General Shasta’s terrifying super attack — a ghastly attack that instantly sliced three Generals to pieces and blew away the right foot of D, who was seen as the strongest among the ten Feudal Lords, harmed not a hair on the Emperor who took it head on.
Power dominates all.
Everyone deeply believed that Emperor Vector possessed power far insurmountable by the six Feudal Lords and the hundred officers awaiting orders behind them, combined.
Like a rippling wave, all knelt down and submitted themselves before the Emperor. Even the Dark Knights who had their beloved Knight Commander killed were no exception.
From above their heads, the Emperor’s voice reverberated.
“… Troops who have lost their generals are immediately commanded by the next highest ranking officer. An hour from now, we shall advance as planned.”
Words devoid of anger or denunciation towards the betrayal. This further provoked deeper terror within the general’s hearts.
D, who had painstakingly stopped the bleeding on her right foot, raised her right hand and fingers high in the air, and shouted:
“Long live His Majesty the Emperor!!”
Overlapping voices cheering for the Emperor shook the entire city.
Alice looked around the interior of a camp tent prepared for herself, and sighed softly.
A simple bedsheet was pulled straight, without a single wrinkle. The cashmere leather laid on the ground was also brand new, and the air had only a dry sunlit smell. There were no problems with these, but at the same time it signified that this tent was not hurriedly vacated for Alice. In other words, Knight Commander Bercouli had believed all along that Alice would join the battle, and specifically prepared an extra tent for a Knight.
Although this proved that she was trusted, it would be better to say that man had thought of her own plans.
No — that’s unlikely. Even if he was the Knight Commander, there was no way that he could expect Alice to bring Kirito along. There was only one simple bedsheet set up in the tent.
Alice softly hugged the black-haired youth’s waist, guided him to the bed, turned him around and sat him down. Suddenly, a thin noise came from the boy’s throat, and he attempted to extend his left hand.
“Okay, wait here for just a moment.”
Dashing to the luggage set in front of the tent entrance, Alice pulled out two black and white longswords. She returned beside the bed and placed them onto Kirito’s knees. Then, Kirito tightly hugged the swords with his only hand, and fell silent.
Slowly caressing the bowed black head, Alice softly bit her lip and became lost in thought.
Although she boasted to Eldrie that she was going to carry Kirito to battle, in reality, it would be a little difficult. There would be no problem if it was only a skinny Kirito, but if she were to bring along the super heavy «Night Sky Sword» and «Blue Rose Sword», her movements would definitely be restricted.
Although she considered directly sitting on Amayori’s saddle, if the enemy had Dark Knights who could fly, there would possibly be an aerial fight.
Although it would be very regrettable, entrusting Kirito to the supply squad after battle broke out would be the most realistic plan.
Her old friends, the Integrity Knights would definitely go for the front line, and she didn’t know a single one from the soldiers made up of normal citizens. But now she felt uncomfortable to request Eldrie to introduce to her someone suitable for the job.
Alice knelt down, scanning the boy’s face, and clasped his cheeks between her hands.
She had never thought of Kirito as a burden. Once he regained his heart, this youth will become a swordsman stronger than anyone in the garrison army. She brought him to the battlefield to find all possible ways of regaining his awareness.
Knight Commander Bercouli said before that Kirito had deflected his «Slash of Incarnation». That was because he wished to protect Alice.
Was it really believable?
When she first met him at the Sword Mastery Academy, he was an arrestee and a criminal. Then when they met again on the eightieth floor of the Cathedral, he was a sentenced man and a traitor. Then in the instant when they had their last conversation on the highest floor of the Cathedral, no matter how much their relationship improved, it was only in a truce.
—You’ve clearly lost your own heart ever since that battle, so why did you still protect me from Oji-sama’s aggression?
—In the end… Who am I to you?
This question bumped into Kirito’s sightless gaze and bounced back.
Then, how did she herself see this boy?
If she were to use one phrase to describe the Kirito in the Cathedral, “hateful” would probably be the most appropriate. He was just a boy endlessly ranting about how Alice Synthesis Thirty was an [idiot].
But, in the last battle, the shadow of the Kirito confronting the Highest Minister Administrator—
Seeing the tail of the fiercely blowing black coat and the figure with both hands gripping swords, Alice felt her heart quake. Such an intensity, but a pang as though she were stabbed.
The feeling from then had always been throbbing faintly deep within her heart.
—Because I am an artificial existence. A puppet existing only for battle, always occupying Alice Schuberg’s body. I am not allowed at all to revel in emotions other than belligerence.
However. What if.
Because I keep suppressing my own heart, I am unable to communicate my voice to you?
If, right now, I release all of my «Incarnation» to you, will you respond to me?
Alice inhaled a deep breath, and held it.
The cheeks clasped between her hands were very cold. No, it was her palms that were hot.
Slowly, slowly approaching his face. She tilted her head slightly, and her hair fell onto her face.
From the extremely close distance, staring into the stars within his pupils, she gradually brought her face closer—
Suddenly a bell sounded clearly with a [Riiing], and Alice recoiled in alarm.
She frantically looked around, but there was not a soul in the tent. Then she realized that the source of the noise was the bell set onto the knocker at the tent entrance.
A guest. Intentionally clearing her throat and pushing her hair behind her back, Alice quickly traversed the tent.
It must be Eldrie come to convince her yet again. This time, she must make herself clear that she will not yield, no matter what he says.
Alice peeled back one of the double layer inner curtains, slid inside, and opened the thick outer fur with her left hand.
Then, her half-open lips stopped instantly.
The visitor before her was not an Integrity Knight; not even a normal soldier. She couldn’t help but blink in surprise.
With a small, timid voice, the visitor held out a covered pot held with both hands.
“I’ve… I’ve come to deliver your dinner, Knight-sama.”
“…Is that so.”
Alice glanced up. Sure enough, the crimson light of the sunset was already gradually sinking below the mountains.
“Thank you… You’ve worked hard.”
Alice commended as she received the pot, and looked the small frame up and down again.
She was still quite young, seeming to be a young girl of about fifteen or sixteen.
Beautiful red hair hung below her shoulders. Her large eyes were of the same reddish leafy color. Her fair white skin and high nose signified that she was of Northern Empire lineage.
She wore the simple light armor of a lower guard, but underneath were a gray tunic dress and skirt; it should be a school uniform.
Taking a child like this to the battlefield… Alice knit her brows, and suddenly thought of something.
She seemed to have seen this girl’s appearance somewhere. But the Alice living in the Cathedral then shouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet common citizens.
At this time, another girl who seemed to hide behind the red-haired girl shyly stepped forward.
“Th-this… is bread, and stuff to drink…”
Alice couldn’t help but smile slightly at the barely audible voice of the girl whose tea-colored hair was close to black, and took the offered basket.
“There’s no need to be so scared, I’m not going to eat you.”
Just as she was saying that, Alice finally remembered.
She had once heard this extremely nervous voice. These two are from then…?
“May I ask… Could both of you be from… North Centoria Sword Mastery Academy…?”
At this, the girls’ stiff expressions instantly soothed in relief. But then they immediately straightened their figures, snapped their legs together and reported their names:
“Y-yes! I… I am of the Human Empire Garrison Army Supply Division, Novice Trainee Tiese Shtolienen!”
“I am of the s-same division, Novice Trainee Ronye Arabel!”
As expected, Alice thought, and reflexively saluted back.
These are the two who came forward to beg to bid farewell to Kirito and Eugeo when I took them away from the Academy.
No matter how lacking the Garrison Army was in terms of manpower, it would never expropriate students. Therefore, these two voluntarily left the familiarity of the Central Capital to come to the Eastern border. Why would these childlike girls do this to such a degree…?
Her right hand holding the pot, left hand holding the basket, Alice couldn’t help but stare at the duo. Seeing this, the black-brown-haired girl called Ronye hid behind the red-haired girl’s back again. The red-haired girl called Tiese curled up tightly, but finally opened her mouth with a desperate expression:
“I… I… K-Knight-sama… I also well know that t-this is a highly disrespectful act…”
Alice could not help but smile wryly at this extremely exaggerated wording; she squeezed out a soft smile and interrupted her:
“Didn’t I say that there’s no need for that kind of formality? In this camp, I’m just a swordswoman gathered here to protect the Human Empire. Just call me Alice, Tiese-san, and… Ronye-san.”
Right after her words, Tiese and Ronye who stuck her head out from behind both gaped.
“…W-what’s the matter?”
“Ah, no… It’s just…. Comparing from before, when we met at the Academy, our impressions of you are completely different…”
Alice tilted her head as she thought about that. She felt nothing about it herself, but possibly, in the half-year she had spent at Rulid, she changed a bit without knowing it. The Knight Commander had also said something completely unfounded about her face getting plumper.
But now that she thought about it, Selka’s cooking was simply too delicious, and she couldn’t deny that she did eat more than normal… But it shouldn’t be to the degree that it showed on the surface…
A smile floating onto her slightly tightened face, Alice continued:
“Then… Is there anything you want to talk to me about?”
“Ah… Y-yes, there is.”
Tiese relaxed her nervous demeanor slightly, sucked her lip and said:
“It’s… We’ve heard tell that when Knight-sa… Alice-sama came on a dragon, you brought a young black-haired male… So we guessed… That he… Could be… Someone we know…”
“Ah… So it’s like this, indeed.”
Finally understanding the girls’ reason for visiting, Alice nodded.
“You both were on good terms with Kirito in the Academy, weren’t you…?”
Right after Alice’s words, the two instantly shined like blooming flower buds. Ronye even leaked tears slightly from her tea-colored eyes.
“As expected… It’s Kirito-senpai…”
Tiese held Ronye’s hand as she murmured, and shouted, full of hope:
“Then… Eugeo-senpai also…!”
Hearing this name, Alice sharply inhaled a breath of cold air.
These two naturally don’t know. The night-and-day fight and ending that unfolded in the Cathedral. They had no way of knowing. Everything, including the death of the Highest Minister Administrator who died inside, was known only by the Integrity Knights.
Seeing Alice not utter a sound, the two revealed strange expressions. Alice looked from Tiese’s and Ronye’s eyes for a few seconds, and slowly looked down.
Everything has gone this far; she couldn’t hide anything now.
Besides, these two have the right to know. Perhaps they volunteered to become Garrison soldiers and come here to see Kirito and Eugeo again…
Alice lifted her head decidedly and slowly opened her mouth:
“To both of you, this may be too cruel of a reality… But I believe, as the underclassmen of Kirito and Eugeo, you will definitely accept this.”
Then she stepped back, lifted the fur drapery, and urged the two inside the tent.
Contradictory to Alice’s expectations deep down, Kirito saw Tiese and Ronye, but displayed not a flutter in reaction.
Enduring her disappointment, Alice stood on the side of the tent, gazing at the tragic scene in front of her.
Dropping to her knees in front of Kirito sitting on the bed, Ronye took Kirito’s left hand in both of her own small hands as tears slid down her cheeks.
But what was more painful was Tiese, who fell onto the fur carpet, staring at the Blue Rose Sword. Her paper-white face lost all expression as she received the news of Eugeo’s death. Wordlessly, she turned her eyes to the blade, which was snapped in the middle.
Alice had nearly no opportunity to directly speak with the young man called Eugeo.
When she took him into the Cathedral and locked him into the dungeon, and when she engaged them on the eightieth floor of the Tower, leaving only when she fought alongside with him in the final battle on the highest floor against Administrator.
Not only winning against Knight Commander Bercouli, he had transformed his own body into a sword, destroyed the Sword Golem and sliced off one of the Highest Minister’s arms; Alice felt deep respect for his willpower from the bottom of her heart, but his personal disposition was something she had heard mostly about from Selka.
According to Selka, Eugeo was a mature yet thoughtful young man. He was often forcefully dragged along by his childhood friend Alice Schuberg on all different kinds of adventures. That kind of personality must be a good partner to Kirito.
Kirito and Eugeo must have created a lot of disturbances in the Academy as well. Yet these two girls were drawn to them, and deeply affected. Just like how Alice was.
—Therefore, please, I beg you both to endure this pain. Kirito and Eugeo fought for many important things, and were injured and lost their souls and lives.
Alice prayed within her heart as she gazed towards the two.
When they are subjected to an overly great frightening or melancholy psychological impact, the people living in the Human Empire often develop mental diseases since they cannot bear it. Some time ago, Rulid, invaded by the Dark Army, also produced a few villagers who had no physical injury yet were confined to their beds.
Tiese must love Eugeo deeply.
At such a young age, having to endure the immense impact of the death of a loved one was absolutely no easy task.
In front of Alice’s sight, Tiese, sitting paralyzed on the ground, twitched her finger, inching towards the blade of the Blue Rose Sword.
Alice anxiously watched Tiese’s every move. Although the Blue Rose Sword was snapped in half, it was ultimately a Divine Instrument of the highest level. Although she did not think that girl would be able to wield it, overly deep despair and pain could possibly lead to unexpected strength. No one knows what will happen.
Tiese extended a trembling finger, finally touching the light blue blade. She gently traced not the blade itself, but the side, which was ground to a smooth surface.
Then, in that instant—
Red light that shot into the tent via the skylight spread around; Alice saw a weak, but surely flashing blue light emanating from the broken blade.
At the same time, Tiese’s entire body shook violently.
Feeling something, Ronye turned to look at her friend. In the nervous air, large droplets appeared in Tiese’s eyes and fell soundlessly.
“… Just now…”
A whisper came from her lightly colored lips.
“… I heard it… Eugeo-senpai’s… voice… He said, don’t cry… Because I’m… always… here… He said that…”
As the pooling tears became more and more, suddenly, Tiese laid her face onto the sword and began sobbing loudly like a child. Ronye laid onto Kirito’s knees, wailing.
Alice was so moved by the indescribably poignant scene that she too was about to cry—
But in a certain corner of her mind, she repeatedly thought about whether this kind of thing could really happen.
Although Alice did not hear Eugeo’s voice, there was an unmistakable instant when the sword released light. Then, the words that Tiese heard could not be completely dismissed as hallucinations.
On the Blue Rose Sword, there still remained something that was the same as Eugeo’s soul… Was it like that?
When Alice released the Armament Full Control Art, she also felt that the Fragrant Olive Sword seemingly fused with her own consciousness. Eugeo’s situation was not only the same as hers, he actually fused his own body with the Blue Rose Sword, and was fatally wounded in the process.
Therefore, the idea that the remaining sword fragments could still have the owner’s soul may actually be possible.
But, Tiese just said that Eugeo called upon her. If this was the truth, then what remained in that sword was not the reverberations of a soul, but the actual consciousness — or Incarnation.
A hallucination caused by the girl’s desire? Or…?
This was frustrating. If it was Kirito, he would immediately see through the secret of this phenomenon. After all, he was from outside this world, dropped from where the mysterious Gods live.
Among her chaotic thoughts, like a small bubble, a phrase floated into Alice’s mind.
World End Altar.
That unfamiliarly named place seemed as though it had a way to the outer world.
If they were able to get there, would all of the mysteries instantly come to light? They might even take back Kirito’s lost consciousness, wouldn’t they?
But, the Altar was outside the Human Empire, on the other side south of the Great Eastern Gate. In other words, the border of the Dark Territory, ruled by the Dark Races.
If they wanted to go there, first, they must not only defend against the army array beyond the Great Eastern Gate, they must penetrate it. No, even if they could penetrate the enemy army, they can’t just leave the Gate defenses behind and run to the south. As an Integrity Knight bestowed with overpowering strength, Alice carried the duty of protecting the Human Empire.
She should just use herself to lure away the entire enemy army and lead them far away from the Gate while heading for the Altar. But, to the people of the Dark Territory, invading the Human Empire has been their wish for hundreds of years. There cannot be something more tantalizing than that…
It seems that if they want to target the World End Altar, they must completely annihilate the Dark Army in front of them first.
At this conclusion, Alice could not help but close her eyes.
Although she came up with an exaggerated solution like annihilating the enemy, at the current situation, simply repelling the enemy vanguard first will be extremely difficult. However, she could only do that. Even if it is for Tiese and Ronye’s protection, and that of Kirito.
Sighing softly, Alice interrupted these seconds-long thoughts, and walked towards the two ceaselesly wailing girls.
Solus’s sunset had long disappeared into the east, but within the sky of the Dark Territory, which appeared narrow beyond the Great Eastern Gate, an ominous blood-red still shook steadily.
As though they wanted to obscure that sight; white tents were erected towards both north and south at the center of the the Human Empire Defense Army camp, in the grassy plains that served as Dragon landing sites during the day. Under an Axiom Church flag flying high within, there gathered a total of thirty Integrity Knights and Defense Army Commanders, their faces all plastered with solemn expressions.
Alice realized that the Knights and soldiers had not separated at all; she halted her footsteps in slight surprise.
The Integrity Knights were clad in shining silver armor and the soldier commanders in black iron armor that lacked splendor, but still had a high Priority; both sides were engaged in enthusiastic discussion, clutching cups filled with Siral water. As she listened in, she found that the soldiers’ words had already lost all traces of convoluted honorifics.
“Although it’s a makeshift regiment, it’s still pretty good, isn’t it, little girl?”
A low voice suddenly came from her side; Alice turned frantically.
Knight Commander Bercouli, with both arms crossed over his Oriental-styled clothing, stopped Alice who was about to salute, and continued:
“In this Defense Army, everything related to the stupid formalities and stuff has been revoked. Luckily, there’s no term in the Taboo Index that says that [Normal citizens must perfectly greet a Knight before talking to him].”
“Ha, haah… I also think that’s really unnecessary, but let’s put that aside right now…”
Alice turned her eyes back to the army meeting.
“— Where are the other Integrity Knights? As far as I can see, there are only ten over there.”
“Very unfortunately, this is everyone.”
Alice could not help but hold up a hand to cover her high voice, and looked up at the Knight Commander, who had a slightly bitter look on his face.
“How… Can this be? Including myself, there should be thirty-one of us Integrity Knights.”
This was the same as Thirty-One, Eldrie’s given name in the Sacred Tongue.
Bercouli’s reply was mixed with a low “Even though you say that” sigh:
“You know as well as I do, little girl. About the «Reprocessing» setting that Chief Elder Chudelkin administered that caused memory discordance in the Knights. Since that guy died, the seven Knights who were still in Reprocessing in the Senate have still not awoken.”
Alice could not help but widen her eyes. Bercouli continued in an even more dejected voice:
“The only ones who knew the incantation for Reprocessing were Chudelkin and the Highest Minister. They’re both dead now, it’s impossible to wake those seven up without spending time to decipher the incantation, and there’s no time for that now. There’s only one Knight who is not in Reprocessing but in stasis; if we can think of a way to wake that guy up…”
Alice felt that the Knight Commander’s words were mumbled, so she asked:
“May I ask who this is, that single individual?”
“… It’s the «Silent» Zayta.”
Although she had never directly seen this person and had heard only a few rumored names, Alice still held her breath. The reason was that those rumors were simply too chilling.
Bercouli coughed, hinting that they should discuss these matters another time. Then, he continued his explanation:
“…In summary, there are only twenty-four awakened Integrity Knights as of now. Four of them have stayed in the Cathedral and Central Capital for management, and four of them are acting guards at the Mountain Range at the Edge. The remaining sixteen… This is the extent of what we can put into this line of absolute defense. Of course, that’s counting myself and you, little girl.”
Alice wanted to add “only”, but bit her lip and resisted.
If they confirmed their situation again, half of the fourteen in the strategy meeting all lacked Divine Instrument — that is, they were lower Knights incapable of invoking the Armament Full Control Art. Even if they just considered close combat, they were warriors capable of slaying one or two hundred Goblins, but they couldn’t be expected to have the explosive power to stabilize the battlefield.
To Alice who fell silent, Bercouli changed his tone of voice:
“Say, what’re you going to do with the youngster…? How about I go to the rearguard…”
“Ah… No, don’t worry about it.”
At the Knight Commander’s awkward concern, Alice shook her head with a smile.
“By chance, there are people among the volunteers who stayed with him in the Sword Mastery Academy… I’ll leave him in their care once the battle begins.”
“Heh, that’s good…. Then, how did it go? Was there anything when the black-haired kid got into contact with people he’d conversed with before?”
Alice shook her head silently.
Bercouli exhaled shortly, mumbling “Like that, huh”.
“…I’ll only say this here. Honestly, I’ve always wondered whether the one who can really decide the tide of battle is actually that youngster…”
Alice looked up suddenly.
“Although he had the help of you, little girl, and his partner, being able to slash and kill Chudelkin and the Highest Minister is extremely impressive. If we just talk about the strength of his Incarnation, I’m afraid that not even I can compare.”
“…How… can that be…?”
Alice already had not the slightest doubt of Kirito’s strength, but Knight Commander Bercouli’s had honed his Incarnation for more than two hundred years. Conversely, Kirito was still an underage student. It would be better to say that, regardless of swordsmanship or physique, it is impossible to win against the Knight Commander in terms of Incarnation willpower.
But Bercouli just refuted Alice with full confidence.
“Before, when we clashed with Incarnation, I felt it clearly. This kid has built up real combat skills on the same level as I have. Just like that.”
“Real combat…? What does that mean…?”
“What it sounds like. Putting your life on the line.”
This was even more bizarre.
The people living in the Human Empire were protected, or restricted, by the Taboo Index or the numerous laws of various Empires; other than sparring with wooden swords, they usually would never have the chance to compete with real swords in their lifetimes.
The only exception was when the Integrity Knights carried out actual combat at the Mountain Range at the Edge with Goblins or Dark Knights attempting to invade. But since that was unlikely to happen even once or twice between very long spans of time, and since the Integrity Knights possessed crushing fighting power, they honestly hardly counted as life-threatening conflicts.
According to this, the one in the Human Empire with the most real combat experience would undoubtedly be Bercouli, who had fought the Dark Army when the Knighthood had been much smaller. In actuality, it is said that when he had just become an Integrity Knight — although hard to believe — he was pitifully defeated by a Dark Knight and barely escaped with his life.
Compared to the Bercouli then, Kirito has more real combat experience?
If that was true — it can’t be experience from this world.
It was from his real home, «The Outside World». But that should also be the kingdom where the Gods who created the Underworld lived. It’s clearly that, but there is combat there? And who exactly did he put his life on the line against?
Alice did not know what to think anymore; after hesitating briefly, she made up her mind.
By now, she could only come clean to Bercouli. The existence of the Outside World — and the World End Altar that can connect to that place.
“… Oji-sama… Actually, when I was battling the Highest Minister…”
Just as she was collecting her words, as they reached the tip of her tongue.
Suddenly, a sharp voice came from behind the Knight Commander.
“Your Excellency, it is time.”
Alice turned her eyes to the owner of a voice that replied “Yes”.
An Integrity Knight stood there, wrapped in light purple armor that was still dazzling at dusk, equipped with a silvery-white rapier on the left abdomen.
As soon as she saw the bird-of-prey-like winged helmet that completely obscured its owner’s face, Alice felt a lament floating into her heart — directly speaking, it was an “Ahh” feeling.
To Alice, this was probably the person whom she could get along the least with. The Second Integrity Knight and Vice Knight Commander, Fanatio Synthesis Two.
Alice tried not to show her inner thoughts, and pressed her right fist to her left chest in a Knight’s salute.
Across from her, Fanatio performed the same action, her armor clanking. But, different from Alice, who was standing straight with legs slightly apart, Fanatio shifted her center of gravity to her right leg and relaxed her left shoulder, putting on a delicate figure.
It’s this part about this person that I just don’t… Alice muttered silently as she dropped her hand.
She probably wanted to hide it with her armor, helmet and stern tone, but as soon as someone of the same gender saw her, Fanatio’s unconcealable femininity would emanate from her words and actions like the fragrance of a huge flower. This was also a «Technique» that Alice, who was taken to the Cathedral at the age of a child, had not had the opportunity to appreciate.
When Vice Knight Commander Fanatio was battling Kirito and Eugeo on the fiftieth floor of the Cathedral, she suffered near-fatal injuries from a direct hit by Kirito’s Armament Full Control Art. But according to lower Knights who happened to be at the scene, Kirito had casted Healing Arts onto Fanatio, whom he had painstakingly defeated, and used a strange Art to transport her to some place, saving her life.
Although it sounded very much like what Kirito would do, Alice’s heart was still not calm.
Besides, although this person has always said for a hundred years that she was loyal to Knight Commander Bercouli, she named four lower Knights who were smitten with her as her direct subordinates. Are they, who can only yearn but not touch, not pitiful? At least stop wearing a silver mask day and night and show your face to other people.
As Alice was muttering in her heart, Fanatio suddenly placed her hands on both sides of her helmet.
With a click, she unlocked the buckle and casually raised the equipment that shined with a light purple glow. Lustrous black hair billowed out, flowing in the night wind and emanating a silky gloss.
Alice had only seen Fanatio’s face once, and it was a chance encounter while she was heading towards the Cathedral’s baths. It seemed to be her first time seeing the Vice Knight Commander take off her helmet in plain sight of everyone.
As she stared at the beauty that seemed to be even gentler than before, she understood. Her soft lips shone with light lipstick. She, who always concealed her femininity until now, actually put on makeup—?
Fanatio smiled slightly at Alice, who stood blankly, and said:
“Long time no see, Alice ne. I’m relieved that you’re so spirited wa.”
Alice could not help but remain silent for a few seconds, then returned the greeting:
“Long… Long time no see, Vice Commander.”
“Just call me Fanatio. Anyway, Alice. I only heard tell… You brought back that black-haired boy?”
At this sudden question, Alice immediately purged her mind of all surprise, her alertness rising at the same time.
Although the ones who healed Fanatio were Kirito and the sage Cardinal, she might not know that. To Kirito, who struck her down, it wouldn’t be strange at all for her to harbor hatred and loathing.
Hearing Alice’s short reply, the Vice Commander nodded, maintaining her sweet smile.
“Oh really. Then, can I go and see him after the strategy meeting?”
“… What for, your Highness Fanatio?”
“Come on now, don’t make that face. I’ve never wanted to cut that child.”
Fanatio shrugged with a wry smile.
“I only want to thank him. After all, the one who healed my fatal injuries was that boy.”
“… It is as you say. However, I think there is no need for you to thank Kirito. As I hear, the one who healed you was the Former Highest Minister, Cardinal. And that person… Most unfortunately, left this world in the battle half a year ago.”
Alice said, slightly relaxing the tension in her shoulders. But Fanatio looked leisurely up at the sky, nodded softly and said:
“Yes… I vaguely remember. It was the first time I had experienced such a warm and powerful Healing Art. But the one who sent me to that Sage was Kirito, and… There’s something else I want to thank him for.”
“Yes. —When he battled me and struck me down.”
… As expected, she still wants to slash Kirito.
Seeing Alice take half a step back, Fanatio forcefully shook her head with a serious expression.
“I’m serious. That child is the only man who has seriously crossed swords with me even though he knew that I am female, in the two hundred years I have been an Integrity Knight.”
“Hah…? What… are you…”
“In the past, I didn’t wear this thick helmet and fought with my face shown, like you. But one day, I realized it. The male Knights who were my opponents in mock battles, even the Dark Knights whom I fought with my life, held back just a sliver in their swordsmanship. Showing mercy because I am a woman is a deeper humiliation to me than crawling on the ground after being defeated.”
But that’s just something that cannot be helped. Alice felt that that men who could ignore Fanatio’s facial beauty did not exist.
After settling down in the outskirts of Rulid, she learned for the first time that, in the majority of the Human Empire, there were almost no Sacred Tasks that made women hold swords. At best, the exception were nobles and the children of Lords; in other words, ordinary female citizens were, in principle, unable to choose any method of survival other than becoming a wife, doing housework and raising sons and daughters.
If this ancient custom bound the hearts of the men like the Taboo Index, it would really be ironic. It’s this existing prejudiced view that women should be protected by men that rendered many swords dull in front of Fanatio’s striking beauty. Even the Dark Knights who were inhabitants of the Dark Territory were no exception. Of course, Goblins or Orcs who had a completely different appearance were another discussion altogether.
But as a fellow female Knight, Alice had completely ignored the musings of male Knights until now. She was sure that, no matter if the enemy held back or pushed with full force, she would definitely be stronger than them.
— Your kind of rage is the proof that you are bound by your own identity as a female.
Just as Alice was silently talking to herself, Fanatio was muttering the same thing:
“— I used this helmet to hide my appearance and voice, and learned continuous sword techniques that kept enemies from nearing me. But this also means that I am too mired within my gender, right? That child saw through this immediately, but still fought me with all that he had. In my battle with him, I exhausted all of the sword and Art techniques that I knew, and eventually lost. I’m lucky for Cardinal’s help that saved my life, and when I regained consciousness, all of the pointless bindings in my heart had disappeared… In other words, as long as I can be strong enough to prevent my opponent from having concerns, it’ll be all right. It’s not unreasonable that I want to thank the boy who helped me understand this simple truth, and saved my life, now is it?”
After saying this seriously, Fanatio suddenly smiled mischievously:
“Also… I’m a little annoyed. That boy actually said that he absolutely did not feel any femininity from my face. So I wanted to try and do this and that to see if I can wake that boy up.”
What the hell are you joking about?
If Kirito really woke up, then won’t everything I’ve done up to today be completely worthless? Thinking from Kirito’s angle, I really can’t say that there’s absolutely no possibility.
Without concealing the dangerous look between her eyebrows, Alice replied in a shrill voice:
“Thank you very much for your kind words, but he is already resting now. I will pass on Your Highness Fanatio’s feelings to him tomorrow.”
Losing her smile, the Vice Commander’s long eyebrows twitched.
“I need your permission to see that child? In the Cathedral, when you requested to meet with His Excellency the Knight Commander while he was tending to public matters, I never declined because of my personal feelings.”
“I don’t need Your Highness Fanatio’s permission to see Oji-sama, do I? Besides, aren’t you supposed to see Oji-sama if you want to be pitifully defeated by a male Knight?”
“Ah, I’d rather not for His Excellency. He’s the strongest swordsman in the world, and naturally he will hold back against everyone. Even if his opponent is a Dark Knight, he’ll be merciful.”
“Heh, really? When he trains with me, Oji-sama drips with sweat and is really serious.”
“…Your Excellency! Is this true?!”
“Anyway, it’s Oji-sama who pampers this person too much…!”
Alice and Fanatio turned to the side at the same time.
The Knight Commander was not there.
Where Bercouli was standing a few minutes ago, there was only the night wind that softly blew on the dry grass.
Due to massive murderous intent released by acting chair Vice Knight Commander Fanatio Synthesis Two and Alice Synthesis Thirty who was newly joining the front, the strategy meeting held at six in the afternoon began with an unusually tense atmosphere.
After Alice briefly introduced herself, she fiercely sat down on the portable chair set in the very front row.
Sitting beside her, Eldrie quietly held out Siral Water. Alice grabbed the cup and downed the ice-cold, sour-sweet liquid. Exhaling deeply, she finally alleviated her mood.
—In any case.
There were really very few higher Integrity Knights with Divine Instruments. The only ones she knew the name and appearance of were the Knight Commander Bercouli of the «Time Piercing Sword», Fanatio of the «Heaven Piercing Sword», Eldrie of the «Frostscale Whip», and Deusolbert of the «Conflagrant Flame Bow».
Including Zayta Synthesis Twelve with the alias «Silent», and the extremely young Knight boy Lenry Synthesis Twenty-Seven who seemed to be a Divine Instrument possessor, since this was the first time Alice was seeing them, she didn’t even know what kind of sword techniques they would use. No matter what, including the seven of the above and Alice of the «Fragrant Olive Sword», they constituted the higher Integrity Knights.
The remaining nine were lower Integrity Knights without Divine Instruments, including Fanatio’s direct subordinates, the «Four Oscillation Blades». Within them were also the shadows of those two fearsome problem children, Trainee Knight girls who gave Bercouli endless headaches, Linel Synthesis Twenty-Eight and Fizel Synthesis Twenty-Nine. Although they were sitting quietly on chairs in a corner in front of them, will they really be useful?
No matter what, the mere sixteen people constituted the full force of what the Integrity Knighthood was able to put into this absolute line of defense.
Conversely, the thirty Defense Army Commanders composed of ordinary citizens were present. Although they were not without vigor, at a glance it was still possible to see the difference between their swordsmanship and that of the Integrity Knights. Alice and the other higher Integrity Knights didn’t need to be mentioned, but even the lower Integrity Knights could probably effortlessly win against all thirty of them at once…
“— In these four months, we have reviewed all tactics, but…”
Speaking again at some moment, Fanatio’s voice brought Alice’s attention back.
“What we can finally be sure of is that it would be very difficult to repel the enemy’s total attack power with our own battle strength right now, and when we are surrounded by the enemy, there would be no odds anymore.”
Using the thin scabbard of her Heaven Piercing Sword as a baton, Fanatio pointed at a giant map spread out in front of the troops.
“As you all can see, over here at the Mountain Range at the Edge, there are plains and rocky terrain spanning ten Kilol. If we are pushed back there, we would almost certainly be surrounded by the fifty-thousand-strong army and annihilated. Therefore, we must fight to the end in the hundreds-Mel wide, thousands-Mel long valley extending from the Great Eastern Gate. We shall set up a deep line formation here, focus on countering the enemy’s assault, and slice them away bit by bit. That is the basic operation. Are there any comments regarding this point?”
The one who suddenly raised his hand was Eldrie. The young man stood up, his wisteria-colored curls shaking, as his usually casual but now suppressed rang in the air:
“If the enemy were only made up of Goblins or Orc foot soldiers, we could cut down even fifty or a hundred thousand. But the enemy are also very aware of this. The Dark Territory has within it an Ogre army equipped with strong crossbows, and a dangerous Dark Sorcerer division. How are we to counter their torrential long-range attacks soaring over from behind the foot soldiers?”
“About that, it’s a dangerous bet…”
Fanatio paused, turning her eyes from Eldrie to Alice. She inadvertently straightened her back and continued:
“… At the bottom of the valley, there is no sunlight even during the day, and the ground is devoid of vegetation. In other words, the Sacred Power in that space is very weak. Before the battle begins, if I and the others completely deplete that area, the enemy will be unable to invoke powerful incantations.”
At Fanatio’s bold suggestion, the Knights and Defense Army Commanders all began to argue.
“Of course, we’re the same. However, we only have about a hundred Sacred Artists on our side anyway. If we battle with Arts, the enemy’s Sacred Power expenditure would far exceed our own.”
That is true. However —there were two problems with Fanatio’s operation.
In place of Eldrie, who was now speechless, the archer Deusolbert stood up. The veteran knight clad in reddish-copper armor inquired in a steady voice:
“So, perhaps the Her Highness the Vice Commander’s words are true. However, Sacred Arts are certainly not just for attack purposes. If the Sacred Power is exhausted, won’t we be unable to recover the Life of injured victims?”
“That’s why I said it’s a dangerous bet. We have emptied the Cathedral treasury of all advanced catalysts  and healing medicines stored there and transported them here. If we restrict all Arts to Healing Arts and supplement them with medicines, we should be able to hold the fort for two days just with catalysts… No, three days.”
This time there was even more surprised hustle and bustle. When the treasury of the Central Cathedral was mentioned, most people knew of a guarding force secure enough to become the subject of a fairy tale. They had only heard of treasures being moved inside; it was the first time in Human Empire history that they heard of bringing something out.
Even the serious faces of the heroic Knights displayed silently shocked expressions. Waiting until Deusolbert sat down with a moan, Alice stood up.
“There’s still… one problem, Your Highness Fanatio.”
Clearing her mind of their argument a while ago, Alice brought up the second problem.
“Although Solus and Terraria’s grace are thin, the valley is not completely dark, and moreover, it is not completely separated from the mainland. I believe that over the years, it has accumulated a massive amount of Sacred Power. Exactly who can completely deplete that power in the time before the battle begins?”
This time, even Fanatio was unable to give an immediate reply.
The valley that ran through the mountains was certainly narrower than the grassy plain that extended behind the camp, but even so, it was a hundred Mel wide and a thousand Mel long. To immediately drain that expansive space of the Sacred Power that covered it, hundreds of Artists must cast advanced Arts at the same time, but it was as Fanatio just said: there were not that many Artists in the Defense Army.
Or, even if they numbered few, as long as they could drive an extreme-scale Art enough to change the environment, they might be able to completely expend the Sacred Power, but Alice couldn’t think of any people with that kind of power except the deceased Highest Minister Administrator and the sage Cardinal.
However, the Vice Commander gazed at Alice with golden-brown eyes and shook her head forcefully.
“No, there is. Only one person can do it.”
“…… One person…?”
Mumbling softly, Alice looked around at the Defense Army soldiers.
But what came out of Fanatio’s mouth was a name she had never considered.
“That’s you, Alice Synthesis Thirty.”
“You may not have noticed, but your strength now has exceeded the scope of an Integrity Knight. If it’s the current you, you should be able to use it… that world-creating, veritable godlike power.”
“Are these ‘higher Integrity Knights’ really that strong?”
Gabriel Miller asked during a bumpy ride inside of a gigantic tank dragged by a dinosaur-like two-headed monstrosity. However, this “tank” was more similar to a box on four wheels without treads or a turret.
The silk-covered bench softened shaking somewhat but did not suppress it entirely. Still, in comparison to the nightmarish roller coaster Gabriel had to experience in the military vehicle known as a “Bradley”, this ride was nothing. Wine rippled regularly in a glass that stood on a folding table in front of him.
Three days have already passed since they left Obsidia, but even though Gabriel had never experienced continuous movement for this long in the real world, he was almost completely unfatigued. This was most likely unrelated to the pleasure of sitting in this so-called tank and actually because this was a virtual world.
Besides Gabriel’s feet, lying on a soft carpet, the beautiful woman in unkempt clothing massaged her bandaged right leg and nodded.
“They are very strong indeed… In nearly three hundred years of combat history, not a single one of our Dark Sorcerers or Dark Knights has managed to kill one… I don’t know if you can understand this kind of example? Of course, the opposite has happened countless times, as many times as there are stars in the sky.”
In place of Gabriel who fell silent, Vassago, who was sitting on the opposite side with his legs crossed holding a bottle of distilled wine, asked in a half-suspicious voice:
“But listen, D, baby. If those weirdly named bunch of Integrity… Knights are really that awesome, how come they never invaded us themselves?
The leader of the Dark Arts guild, DIL, smiled seductively and raised her index finger.
“Good question, Vassago-sama. Each of them does have the strength of a thousand, but in the end, each of them is just one person. If this warrior would be surrounded by ten thousand fighters in an open space, he’d start to incur wounds, those wounds would accumulate and eventually his entire Life would deplete. That’s why these cowards never go too far over the Mountain Range at the Edge. They are afraid of being surrounded.”
“Heh, I see. It’s like how you can take care of all of those tough mobs even if your DoT is very low but you stay in a safe place and shave away their HP bit by bit…”
Gabriel glared at Vassago, who had completely confused D’s artificial Fluctlight with his comparison, coughed lightly and said:
“Anyway, you’re saying that if we force these Integrity Knights to fight us in an open space, we’ll be able to surround and exterminate them, correct?”
“That’s how it is in theory. But we’ll probably have to sacrifice tens of thousands of Goblins and Orcs.”
Giggling, D picked a brightly colored berry out of the cup on the carpet and licked it with her lips that were just as crimson red.
Needless to say, Gabriel was completely indifferent to the loss of infantry units. He would not care if he had to sacrifice the entire army, including even D. In a sense, this battle was the same as the tactical simulations he went through countless times back at GlowGen.
He will become the new ruler of the Human Empire with his throne on a mountain of corpses, and issue a simple order across the entire country: find and bring him the girl known as Alice. After that, his mission in this strange world would be finished.
As he thought, the exotic high-class wine in the glass became increasingly precious.
Raising his glass, Gabriel sipped the dark purple liquid.
At this time, Gabriel Miller’s mind unconsciously molded together the figure of «Alice», with the flawless, beautiful figure of his first prey that had an extremely similar name, Alicia Clingerman. Living in some place that would be similar to his home, Pacific Palisades, she would be gentle, beautiful —and absolutely powerless. That was the image in his head.
That was why Gabriel failed to consider another possibility.
He did not even begin to imagine —that the «Alice» he sought would be one of the Integrity Knights leading the enemy army.
A long military convoy, with the command car with a waving Emperor flag bringing up the rear, was slowly but surely moving to the West. At the edge of the blood-colored sky, the saw-like pitch-black Mountain Range at the Edge slowly revealed its silhouette.
On the fourth day of the march, the seventh day of the eleventh month.
The main forces of the Dark Territory approached the base of the Mountain Range, where they could see the huge gate that was just about to collapse. A countless number of black tents set up by the vanguard covered the wide plain.
The earth trembled from the thunderous war drums played by the tribe of Giants.
At the end of the line, Gabriel looked silently from the roof of his command car — as though they were countless blood cells pumped by a giant heart, the attack unit slowly expanded into the final formation.
The first vanguard unit consisted of several light infantry regiments composed of Goblins and heavy Orc infantry, numbering fifteen thousand overall. They lined up in a column barely the same width as that of the valley piercing through the Mountain Range. Here and there among the formation, Giants resembling siege towers were stationed; they numbered less than five hundred, but as the main force tanks supporting the infantry unit, they were worth it.
Behind the Mixed Demihuman Unit, there was the second line, comprised of five thousand Fist Fighters and five thousand Dark Knights. The young new leader of the Dark Knights wanted to wash away the shame of his predecessor and asked to be part of the vanguard, but Gabriel refused. That could cause a drop in morale of the other Knight Units and he must eliminate such this unsure factor.
The third line was built up of seven thousand Ogre Archers and an entirely female Dark Sorceress division that numbered three thousand. Their task was to charge into the valley behind the infantry and annihilate the enemy army with long range attacks. According to the head of the Sorceresses, D, even if they used long-range attacks, if they could recognize the main force of the enemy army — the shadows of the Integrity Knights, they could kill them with by concentrating their fire onto one point.
Honestly, Gabriel really wanted to take on those invincible Knights by himself and consume their souls. However, any sort of accident could result in his high-level account being lost. Besides, he could create as many Underworldians — that is, artificial Fluctlights, as he wanted in the future. Right now, the primary goal was to control «Alice» and escape the «Ocean Turtle».
From logging to now, eight days of internal time had passed, which corresponded to about fifteen minutes in the real world. After Gabriel assumed complete control of the Human Empire, the amount of time it would take to spread the order to find Alice to each corner of this world would take about ten more days. Thinking like that, he must end this war as quickly as possible — the longest being an entire day.
“Ahh, we’re not gonna get any action after all?”
Vassago complained from behind, clutching his umpteenth bottle of whiskey. Gabriel threw a quick look at him and reprimanded him with a sharp tone:
“Don’t think I didn’t see you. When that Knight called Shasta caused trouble, you hung me out to dry and ran off.”
“Heh, our commander sees everything, doesn’t he?”
Vassago ostentatiously laughed it off.
“Look, I specialize in PvP. I didn’t sign up to deal with that disembodied monster.”
Gazing into his subordinate’s eyes, Gabriel still failed to understand whether his explanation was a joke or not, so he asked curtly:
“Vassago, why did you volunteer to participate in this operation?”
“Operation? You mean Diving into the Underworld? Isn’t that obvious? It’s fun…”
“Before that. The operation of attacking the «Ocean Turtle». Although you are part of GlowGen DS support, you’re probably still just an internet expert. What is your motive for participating in a real fight, risking being hit by real bullets? At your age, you’re not like Hans and Brigg, the war dogs who came back from the Middle East.
It was quite a long question for Gabriel, but it did not mean that he was interested in this person called Vassago Casals. It just suddenly seemed as if this young man was hiding something under his shallow behavior.
Vassago shrugged and replied with the same answer.
“Isn’t that obvious? It’s fun… That’s it, I swear.”
“Then according to your logic, sending college elites like you to the scene is weirder, whether or not you have any real military experience.”
“I am capable of adapting to my environment.”
Gabriel replied, but internally he muttered:
Vassago, what is “fun” to you? Shooting guns? Or… murdering people?
Just as Gabriel was hesitating over whether to continue to question Vassago or end the small talk, the sound of clicking high-heels, resembling that of a walking stick, came from behind the command car. A beautiful woman revealing light dark skin — Dark Sorcerer Commander D appeared.
After a respectful bow, she licked her lips and reported:
“Your Majesty, the forces have been successfully brought into their positions.”
Gabriel spread his crossed legs, stood up from his temporary throne and looked around.
There were thirty-five thousand warriors in the main force, a ten-thousand-strong backup force built up of Goblins and Orcs, and the command car, flanked on both sides by a five thousand-strong supply unit of the Commerce Guild.
This fifty-thousand person army was Gabriel’s entire force. If he suffered heavy losses and was still unable to break through the enemy’s defenses, he would be unable to correct his basic plan. The chances of securing Alice would almost completely disappear.
However, according to reports from Dragon Knight Scouts, the enemy had merely three thousand. If everything went according to plan and he could take out the Integrity Knights, it would be impossible to lose.
“… All right, good job. How much time is left until the gate collapses?”
“About eight hours.”
“Then, have the first division enter the valley an hour before the gate collapses. Fan them out as close to the gate as possible, and attack the very moment it falls. If they can push back the front, immediately send in the second and third division and annihilate the enemy in a single strike.”
“Yes. …We will take the head of the enemy before tomorrow. Of course, they will already have been charred beyond recognition.”
D giggled. After quickly giving orders to the Sorceresses awaiting them behind her, she bowed deeply and descended the steps.
Gabriel walked to the front of his huge four-wheeled vehicle, looking far off at the gigantic stone gate erected in front of him.
It was still two miles off, but its size gave off the tension of a huge mountain. Seeing an object of that quality collapse would be an astounding phenomenon.
However, the true feast will have only just begun. The thousands of souls that will crack and disappear will release an unparalleled gorgeous glow. The RATH technicians locked up on the top floor of the «Ocean Turtle» will regret missing this most grandiose scene that they established themselves.
The drums were beat increasingly faster, arousing a hunger and madness that flooded the wilderness.
“Then… Please take care of Kirito.”
Alice said, gazing at each of the two girls’ faces.
Novice trainees, no, already independent swordswomen Tiese Shtolienen and Ronye Arabel straightened their backs and nodded forcefully.
“Yes, please rest assured and leave it to us, Alice-sama.”
“We will definitely protect Kirito-senpai.”
Replying to Alice, Tiese and Ronye gripped the newly constructed wheelchair’s handle with their left and right hand respectively.
Alice had used an Art to transform an extra full set of armor from the supply tent into the thin, long chair that reflected a grayish-white glow. It was not only lighter than the wooden wheelchair they had used in Rulid, it was guaranteed to be durable.
Even so, she could not do anything about the weight of the two swords that Kirito clutched onto. Alice worried in her heart over whether the girls could push them or not, but the duo inhaled and exhaled in collaboration, pushing the wheelchair straight in front of Alice.
This way, they would not be delayed even if they received an emergency retreat order. Even so, when the time came that they could not help but escape from the valley, it would also be the time when the Defense Army would be surrounded and destroyed.
In honesty, as soon as the battle took a turn slightly for the worse, Alice would take Kirito and flee towards the east. But it would only be delaying their fate by a few months — no, just a few weeks.
If the Defense Army was defeated, the four Knights protecting the Mountain Range at the Edge would also retreat, ordering citizens from each village and city to evacuate, and set up the city wall of Central Capital Centoria as the last line of defense. But that would only be pointless resistance. Eventually to be ravaged by the invading army, that beautiful city and its white Cathedral would be burned down. Within the wall-like, now sealed Mountain Range at the Edge, they would have absolutely nowhere to run…
Alice bent her knees down to Kirito’s height and gazed into his eyes.
In the five days since they arrived at the camp, whenever she had time, Alice would speak to Kirito, caress his hands, and hug him tight and close. But, up to today, he still failed to produce any response that was worth mentioning.
“Kirito… Perhaps, this is our last farewell.”
Alice murmured to the black-haired youth, trying to keep her smile.
“Oji-sama said that he feels you can decide the outcome of this battle. I feel the same way, since this Defense Army was set up because of you.”
In actuality, if it were not for Kirito and Eugeo, the ones embattling the Great Eastern Gate would be the Highest Minister Administrator and the entire Integrity Knighthood, and that ominous Sword Golem army.
If they had two to three thousand Sword Golems, known for their chilling fighting strength, the fifty thousand-strong Dark Territory army would indeed be not worth mentioning. But that would also mean the destruction of the Human Empire. Kirito and the others sacrificed a life and a heart to prevent that tragedy.
But if this continues and the Defense Army is defeated, a different kind of heavy tragedy would bear down upon and attack the people.
“… I will also try my best. I will burn and exhaust this Life you bestowed upon me to its very last drop. So… If I fall and use my last bit of strength to call upon you, you must stand up and draw that sword. As long as you can wake up, it wouldn’t matter if the enemy numbered thousands or tens of thousands. Evoke a miracle again, and protect the Human Empire… everyone. Because, you are…”
—The one who defeated even the Highest Minister, the strongest swordsman.
Silently murmuring in her heart, Alice extended both hands and tightly hugged Kirito’s emaciated frame.
After some time, Alice released the embrace, stood up, and noticed Ronye’s blue eyes, shaking with a complicated radiance, turned firmly towards them. Why would this be? She blinked a few times, and suddenly understood.
“Ronye-san. You… like Kirito, don’t you?”
After Alice said that with a smile, the delicate girl covered her mouth with her hands, her face reddening ear to ear. She looked down and replied in a feeble voice:
“No, it’s not, how can… How could I be so disrespectful…? Someone like me, I’m only a novice trainee valet…”
“What do you mean, disrespectful? Ronye-san, you’re the successor of a noble family, aren’t you? I’m just a civilian born in a border town, and even Kirito is a moneyless, incapable, unemployed person with an unknown birthplace…”
Suddenly, Ronye shook her head vehemently and interrupted Alice.
“No! I… I…”
With her left hand, Tiese gently supported Ronye, whose eyes were filling with tears and had stopped her words abruptly. Her reddish-leafy colored eyes also dampened as she began in a trembling voice:
“Alice-sama… You know of the Taboo that Kirito-senpai and Eugeo-senpai broke, right?”
“Yeah… I know. I heard that there was a conflict within the Academy… They murdered other students.”
Half a year ago, when Alice, still oblivious as an Axiom Church elite soldier, received the Senate’s order for arrest, she still remembered today the slight shock she felt then. There were never any records of that kind of major Taboo violation involving Central Capital Academy students murdering other students in the Church’s historical records.
“Then… Do you know why the Senpais broke the Taboo…?”
“No… About that, I…”
Just as Alice was about to shake her head, a wave of shouts resounded in her head.
That was what Kirito shouted at Alice, who did not need the help of a convict, when they were both thrown to the outer wall of the Cathedral…
“—As long as it’s not prohibited by the Taboo Index, it’s tolerable for completely innocent girls like Tiese and Ronye to be freely played around with by the Upper Elite… Do you think this way!!?”
Right. I heard the names of these two then.
Elite students should be the students that Kirito cut down. Then, the ones who were played with, are—
To Alice, whose eyes opened wide, Tiese described in a quaking voice:
“… Elite Swordsman-in-Training Raios Antinous and Elite Swordsman-in-Training Humbert Zizek repeatedly issued humiliating orders to our friend and Novice Trainee Frenica Szeski. We raised objections to those two Swordsmen-in-Training and in our anger, carelessly used language equivalent to extremely disrespectful behavior. Because of that, according to Empire Fundamental Law, the noble class were able to exercise their right to punishment and reward…”
After that, just thinking about it would be extremely painful. Tiese’s voice had already became stuck, and Ronye began to sob softly, her head lowered.
Just as Alice was about to open her mouth and utter “You don’t have to say anymore”, the red-haired girl continued determinately:
“… To save us, who were dealt with unbearable punishment, Kirito-senpai and Eugeo-senpai swung their swords. If we had been a little more intelligent, that would not have happened. Our Senpais would not have fought against the Church to correct the law, and would not have perished because of that. We… have committed an unforgivable sin. Therefore… even if our mouths were ripped to shreds, we could not say that we like our Senpais…”
After sputtering out her heartfelt thoughts, hot tears finally streamed down Tiese’s face. Carrying hatred and humiliation too harsh for their age, the young girls hugged each other, whimpering softly.
Alice tightly clenched her teeth, looking up at the small skylight.
She also knew of the corruption of the Upper Noble Class of the Four Empires. Satiation, extortion, and adultery.
But the Integrity Knight Alice from before believed that dwelling on these acts would cause herself to be contaminated, so she turned a blind eye to the noble class’s misbehavior. No matter what they did, as long as they did not break the Taboo Index, they could be ignored — As to why, it was because she was a Protector of the Law summoned from the Spirit World. And she always deeply believed that.
But this kind of ignorance was the real sin. Not touching the Taboo Index that Kirito hated deeply was the actual major crime. Compared to her inactive self, the two girls in front of her were many times braver.
Alice inhaled and exhaled deeply, and said in a voice imbibed with strength:
“No, you’re wrong. You both have done nothing wrong.”
The one who raised her head, shocked, was Ronye. The girl who seemed to always hide behind Tiese stared with eyes tangled with intense light and shouted:
“Alice-sama… Honorable Integrity Knight Alice-sama cannot understand! Our bodies were played with those men, and our self-respect has been tarnished!”
“The body is but a container for the spirit.”
Replying like that, Alice forcefully thumped the center of her chest with her right fist.
“Only your heart… Only your spirit is the one true existence. And the one who decides the state of your spirit, is yourself.”
Alice closed her eyes and gathered her consciousness within herself.
When Rulid was attacked about two weeks ago, Alice once used the power of the heart —- that is, Incarnation, to recover her lost right eye. She personally felt that as long as she firmly, carefully prayed, she could induce changes in her physical body even without relying on Arts.
But now that was still not enough. Not just her physical body, even the clothes on her body must be changed by the power of Incarnation.
It is definitely possible. Didn’t Kirito do it before? He, who confronted Administrator holding two swords, flipped up an exotic, long black leather coat completely different from the clothes he wore up until now.
She can change back. She can change back to the Alice when she awoke in that huge, unfamiliar tower, before she blindly sealed her heart away with thick icy armor to eliminate the anxiety and loneliness from losing her memories.
—I’m the same as both of you, Ronye, Tiese. I was born as the child of a man, made many mistakes, bore deep sins, and now am here. If Eugeo killed someone because of you… Before now, if I had not broken that small Taboo when I was younger nine years ago, then Eugeo and the others would not have headed for the Central Capital at all.
Yes, that was my crime. Even if I have no memories of her, Alice Schuberg is not an unfamiliar stranger, but definitely me from before. The days I spent in Rulid taught me that much.
Even as her eyes were closed, Alice was still aware of the white, warm glow that wrapped around her body.
Alice slowly opened her eyes.
Because her head was lowered, the first thing she saw was the dress she was wearing. But that was not pure white, the color of the Axiom Church, but dyed azure blue, reminiscent of an autumn sky.
A plain white apron lay on top of her skirt. The golden armor and gauntlets had disappeared. As she felt the top of her head, her fingertips touched a large ribbon. Her hair also seemed to be slightly shorter.
Raising her head, she met eyes with the shocked Ronye and Tiese.
“…See, right? The body and appearance are merely dependencies of the heart.”
Of course, this transformation was temporary. The instant that concentration was broken, she should turn back into her original Knight form. But the meaning behind it should be able to be conveyed to the girls. Alice’s, Kirito’s and Eugeo’s longing.
“Your heart cannot be tarnished by anyone. Born in a border village, I was originally supposed to be raised this way. But when I was eleven years old, I was taken to the Central Capital as a sinner, had my memories erased using Arts and turned into an Integrity Knight, and I have cursed that fate before…”
Alice was recounting a great secret that only Knight Commander Bercouli knew apart from herself. But she believed that these two people would be able to accept it, and continued:
“However… Even in that state, there are things I am able to accomplish and things I am supposed to accomplish; that’s what Kirito taught me. Therefore, I am no longer confused. I have decided to accept myself and step forward.”
Alice raised both hands and firmly grasped Ronye and Tiese’s hands.
“You have them too. A wide, long, and straight path belonging only to you.”
Several droplets landed onto the tightly clasped hands, dripping and dripping.
The tears that slid down the girls’ faces took on a spectral glow completely unlike before, shining beautifully.
Tightly embracing Kirito in the wheelchair again, Alice entrusted him to Ronye and Tiese, and walked out of the tent.
Although he was intentionally waiting for her, Eldrie jogged over, full of praise:
“Ohh, how outstanding… A form resembling that of the Solus’s condensed light… This is my real mentor Alice-sama…”
“I will be covered with dust after an hour of battle anyway.”
Coldly interrupting his words, Alice looked towards the eastern sky.
Her transformation before had long disappeared; her golden breastplate and pure white skirt blindingly reflected the sunlight. As she gazed up towards the eastern sky, she thought that if she came back alive, she would add a piece of sky-blue cloth somewhere.
Solus was already leaning downwards. There were about three more hours before it would vanish into the horizon. And then, the Life of the Great Eastern Gate would also vanish. Finally, the three hundred-year-old seal was about to be released.
The personnel were already at their limit.
In these five days, Alice trained along with the Defense Army; their proficiency made it difficult to believe that they had only trained for half a year. What was more surprising was that everyone mastered combination sword skills completely absent from traditional schools of teaching.
Alice heard that it was Vice Knight Commander Fanatio who generously imparted her skills honed over many years. The longest one seemed to be only a three-hit attack, but it was an encouraging weapon against the Goblins or Orcs, who randomly brandished their rough blades according to their instinct.
Of course, if they ran into Dark Knights with their own continuous-hit skills, it would be a very heavy burden for the Defense Army soldiers. If high-speed continuous-hit Fist Fighters were added to the mix, they could only count on the Integrity Knights to counter them.
The important matter was whether they could defend against the great army of Demihumans that would immediately swarm in once the battle began. Also, whether they could survive the bows of the Orcs and long-range attack Arts while sustaining as little losses as possible.
Whether they succeeded or not, it now seemed that everything rested on Alice’s shoulders—
Turning her eyes back forward, she saw the rear supply team preparing their last supper, with a few columns of smoke curling upwards. Not far away, Ronye and Tiese should be taking Kirito towards there to meet everyone else.
Must protect it. No matter what.
“… Alice-sama, it is time…”
Nodding at Eldrie’s words, Alice turned around stepped forward.
But she stopped her feet at that moment, throwing her eyes towards her only disciple.
“… M-May I ask what is the matter?”
Staring at the young Knight who blinked confusedly, Alice slightly relaxed her taut lips.
“… All this time, you’ve done your best to serve me, Eldrie.”
“Hah… W-what’s wrong?!”
She softly laid her right hand onto the left hand of the dumbfounded standing Knight and continued:
“To be able to have you by my side is a kind of redemption for me. You did not seek the teachings of veteran Knights such as Deusolbert, but found me, who had not many achievements… You were actually thinking for the sake of my heart, were you not?”
“I… I do not dare, there are no such disrespectful delusions within me! I am merely reverent of Alice-sama’s outstanding swordsmanship from the bottom of my heart…”
Eldrie denied, shaking his head frantically. Alice instantly firmly grasped his hand, let go, and smiled again:
“Because you were there to support me, I am able to finish walking this dangerous path today. Thank you, Eldrie.
From the speechless young Knight’s eyes, fat tears suddenly gushed out.
“…… Alice-sama… Why… do you say that you are finished walking…”
His raspy voice asked:
“Why must you say it like your path is going to end here? I… I… haven’t learnt anything yet. No matter in swords, or in Arts, I am still nothing compared to you. From now on, I still need you to always, always train, and guide me…!”
In the instant before his trembling outstretched right hand touched her own—
Alice suddenly changed her attitude and scolded sharply:
“Integrity Knight Synthesis Thirty-One!”
His hand immediately halting, the Knight straightened into an upright, unmoving posture.
“In the name of your mentor, I hereby give you your last order. Please live on. Live to witness the coming of peace, and bring it back. Bring back your real life, and your loved one.”
On the uppermost floor of the Cathedral, there were still sealed the «Memory Fragments» of all the other Integrity Knights apart from Alice, as well as the «Loved One» who had transformed into a sword. There must be a way for them to return to their original place and the form they once were.
Eldrie stood upright, tears silently pouring out, and nodded forcefully; Alice fiercely turned around. Her golden hair and pure white skirt sliced the icy autumn air.
The visible valley and Great Eastern Gate in the darkness were straight in front of her sight.
From then on, Alice will begin chanting an extreme scale Sacred Art she had never experienced in her life. Without leaving a single drop, she will condense together all Sacred Space Power, provided without Solus, to deal a crippling blow to the enemy.
If she makes a single error in the words of her incantation — No, if there is a single sliver of disorder in her concentration, the condensed Sacred Power will erupt and completely obliterate Alice’s existence without leaving a trace.
But she had no more fear. In these five days, as an Integrity Knight, Alice spent an enriching time with Bercouli, Fanatio, Eldrie and the others, and as Alice of Rulid, she lived together with her little sister Selka for a half year.
And the most important thing was, she met Eugeo and Kirito, clashed swords with them, touched each other’s hearts, and understood the emotions of being human — sorrow, rage, and love.
Other from that, what more was there to desire?
Along with sharp sound of her armor, Alice walked step by step in a straight line through the center of the Defense Army that waited for the moment of battle.
(To be continued)
- The Ars Goetia (Latin from Greek, literally “Art of Sorcery”) is the first section of the Lesser Key of Solomon and contains descriptions of the 72 demons that King Solomon is said to have confined in a bronze vessel sealed with magic. The Lesser Key of Solomon is a “spell book” on demonology. More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesser_Key_of_Solomon Go back
- Frisco is a city in Texas, USA. It is regarded as one of the best places to live.Go back
- The specific language used here refers to women selected by emperors to sleep with.Go back
- Most likely the seiza position. More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SeizaGo back
- Here, Fanatio greets Alice and ends her sentences in “ne” and “wa”, Japanese modifiers that make the sentence feminine. Alice is surprised when Fanatio does this and repeats them in her head in disbelief. I couldn’t find a good way to translate it to English, so I left it in the original Japanese.Go back
- “Catalysts” in the Underworld refer to crafted substances that supplement Sacred Power. They are made from the dried ball-shaped fruits born from wilted flowers and produce Sacred Power in the form of green light once crushed by the caster’s fingers. For more info, please see Volume 10, Chapter 4.Go back
- Bradley Fighting Vehicle, an American armored vehicle manufactured by BAE Systems Land and Armaments. More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradley_Fighting_VehicleGo back
- DoT = Damage over Time, video game term referring to damage on a character that is distributed over a period of time, usually until the character obtains help or dies.Go back
- Alice is referring to her transformed figure. Here, “this way” means the way she could have been raised had she not been taken to Centoria.Go back
Hello everyone, I’m Kawahara. Now I am writing this chapter of content in a violently anxious mood. The reason is that I went under the condition of forgetting to write an afterword for several days!
Ah— Now, back to business. Thank you everyone for reading «Sword Art Online 15: Alicization Invading>>.
In the last book «Uniting», the big boss of the Church, the Highest Minister Administrator, was defeated, but “to be continued” was written at the end for some reason, so exactly what happened next— is what happened now… Our story left the cage of the Human Empire and moved to the boundless Dark Territory. The Ocean Turtle that Asuna and the others in the real world are in also suffered an attack, and Kikuoka changed from his bathrobe to a Hawaiian shirt and various developments like that…
Under these circumstances, the next book is finally planned to begin the war between the Human Empire Defense Army and the Dark Territory. The Alicization chapter that began with Volume 9 has gradually entered its climax; everyone, please continue to look after me in the future!
Regarding personal happenings, I, along with my illustrator abec-san, attended America’s largest anime convention «Anime Expo» as guests together. Although it was my first time in Los Angeles (only my second time traveling to America, so to speak), the city and convention center were huge! Also, the enthusiasm from anime fans from all over America that covered the entire convention center was really surprising!
Of course, thank you very much to the all of the SAO enthusiasts who were able to come. At the same time, I realized again everyone’s supportive kindness in the ten years since the work that was going to be named SAO was brought up to today, from the web era to Dengeki Bunko, and anime adaptations and game adaptations.
By the time this book is published, the airing of the second season of the television anime should have already begun. Paralleling with the first season, it has the «World of Guns» as its stage, but from Supervising to all of the workers and voice actors, everyone will fully show the style of gunfights, and the characteristics of SAO, which remain unchanged despite this circumstance. I again ask everyone to please support the anime version.
Time’s just about up so I’ll make my words of gratitude simple! abec-san, who displayed the charm of new characters constantly taking the stage in this volume, Miki-san, who came to LA with me as my editor, Tsuchiya-san, who took on the role of a guard and served as deputy editor in Japan while we were away, and everyone who has read to this point, thank you very much!
A certain day in July 2014, Reki Kawahara