Sword Art Online – Volume 16: Chapter 19

Translator’s Notes:

Sword Art Online Volume 16 is part of the Alicization arc. It consists of Chapter 18 and Chapter 19. Please note that Chapter 18 is already translated by Tap, and will not be included in this translation. A link will be provided to Tap’s translation of Chapter 18. This translation will start directly from Chapter 19, and then proceed to the Afterword.


Translation Credits:

Translation – CJ, luacs1998, defan752

Editing – CJ, luacs1998, defan752, ZeHaffen, DarthMewtwo

Scans – 仓崎枫子

Terminology – Tap

Chapter 19 – The Radiant Medium

7 July 2026 / Eighth Day of the Eleventh Month of the Human Empire Calendar, 380

20:00

1

The Dark Army had just begun to move, kicking up a huge dust cloud behind. The dust cloud began to color the sky of the Dark Territory, already dotted with blinking, blood-red stars, a deep shade of gray.

Peering into the simple telescope generated with Crystal Elements, Knight Commander Bercouli looked up and mumbled softly:

“This is astonishing… Seems like that so-called Dark God Vector has his heart set on you, lil’ miss. The entire army is coming after you.”

“We should be… happy, I suppose. At least this is much better than being ignored.”

Alice muttered as she swallowed her nervousness along with some lukewarm Siral Water.

In the unexplored — only to those of the Human Empire, of course — Dark Territory wilderness, on a small hill about five kilol south from the valley, the Defense Army decoy division was having their first short break.

The Guards were very excited.

Since an Integrity Knight had sacrificed himself to nullify a large-scale art that had plunged everyone into the abyss of despair, they were all determined once again, believing that they should treasure their given chance.

Meanwhile, however, Alice was still unable to accept the reality of Eldrie’s death.

Although it had not been long since they first met in the Central Cathedral, much had happened. Recommending that Alice try some wine or snacks when he discovered them; telling her bad jokes from time to time; there had not been a quiet day with Eldrie.

She had often puzzled over whether this young man was here to learn swordsmanship and arts, or just to be troublesome. But now, she understood. She understood how much Eldrie had been filling her heart with levity.

… These things just seemed so normal that I took his presence for granted. Why am I just realizing how precious he was when he’s not here anymore?

As she gazed towards the Mountain Range at the Edge that spanned the northwestern sky, she gently touched the coiled whip strapped to the back of her waist. She could now well understand why Kirito would not want to relinquish Eugeo’s sword.

As though he were waiting for Alice to open her eyes again, the Knight Commander said:

“About the current strategy… Basically, until all four Integrity Knights in this decoy division are fallen, we’ll keep drawing the enemy away and shaving them off. Are you okay with that?”

Alice vehemently nodded to the Knight Commander, who stood beside the tallest boulder on the topmost part of the hill.

“This is how I see the situation: we’ve eliminated half of the invading army of fifty-thousand and have almost wiped out the most troublesome Dark Sorceresses. We’re left with wearing out their main forces to some extent, which are the Dark Knights and the Fist Fighters… and also defeating Dark God Vector. Once we achieve these, the remainder of the enemy would be very likely to agree with a peace treaty. What do you think about that?”

“Hmm… the last problem is, who’s gonna be the one to head over there. If that Shasta kid’s still around…”

“So, the Dark General is really… Are you certain about that, Oji-sama?”

“He wasn’t there when I took a glance a while ago. Not only Shasta, but his apprentice, the female knight who fought you once wasn’t there either, lil’ miss.”

He sighed roughly. Alice knew that Bercouli secretly had great expectations of the Dark General and his apprentice.

Shaking his head slightly, the oldest Knight muttered in a low voice.

“Now we can only hope that the Dark Knight who took over Shasta’s place would be happy to pass on his will. Not very likely, though…”

“Not very likely?”

“Nope. Those who live in this Dark Territory don’t have any written laws like the Taboo Index. There’s only an unwritten rule ordering them to obey the strong. And… unfortunately, the Incarnation of Dark God Vector is overwhelming… A novice youngster obviously won’t be powerful enough to resist…”

Indeed, when she declared her own identity in front of the enemy a while ago,  a terrifyingly cold, bottomless dark energy had reached out from the core of their formation, and she clearly felt it sticking to her. It was the first time she had this sort of feeling since awakening as an Integrity Knight. If one were to say the Incarnation of Highest Minister Administrator resembled crackling bolts of lightning, what she had felt would be pitch-black emptiness.

She was getting goosebumps just thinking about it. Calming herself, Alice nodded.

“I see… I don’t expect many people to disobey a god, anyway.”

Right after she said so, the Knight Commander chuckled and slapped Alice’s back.

“Even though you say that, lil’ miss, you, Kirito and Eugeo, you three appeared over there in the Human Empire. Let’s hope there are fellows with guts over here as well.”

Just then, hearing vigorously flapping wings, the two looked up.

Renri’s dragon, Kazenui, was descending to the ground. The young knight dexterously leapt off before the dragon’s claws even touched the earth. He jogged over to Bercouli and urgent words began to tumble from his mouth.

“Commander Your Highness, report! There is an area of shrubbery about one kilol south that would be suitable for an ambush on the enemy.”

“Great. Good work on the scouting. Let me prepare to move the entire division… Your dragon should be pretty tired, so go give him as much food and water as he wants.”

“Roger!”

Bercouli watched as Renri quickly saluted in a Knightly fashion, and his short silhouette began pulling away. Alice suddenly noticed that there was a smile on the Knight Commander’s face.

“…Oji-sama?”

At her inquiry, Bercouli scratched his chin for a moment, as though he were a little shy, and shrugged.

“Well, uh…  The Synthesis Ritual creates Integrity Knights by snatching their memories away and suspending their Life, and that’s absolutely unforgivable. But at the same time, I just think it’s a lil’ bit sad that there won’t be any more fresh Knights like that young man.”

Alice thought for a moment, then a similar smile spread across her face:

“No one can become an Integrity Knight without altering their memories and freezing their Life? I don’t believe that’s true, Oji-sama.”

Her right hand gently stroked the Frostscale Whip once more.

“Even if everyone of us were defeated, I’m certain that our souls… our will shall be passed on to someone else.”

***

“All right, it’s finally our turn!!”

Bashing his right fist into his left palm with a pashii, the young chief of the Fist Fighter Guild, Iskahn, yelled with vigor.

I’ve been sitting and waiting here for too long since I felt the battle heating up nearby.

The terrifying pillar of light had burnt away the Demihuman troops, the Sorceresses had created a creepy swarm of worms, and Emperor Vector had demanded for the Radiant Medium so persistently that he even gave out a mysterious command. Yet these did not have the slightest effect on Iskahn’s fighting spirit.

His world was divided into two: his own body and everything else. Iskahn was completely uninterested in anything other than training to improve his body. In his mind, even if he became the target of large-scale arts like those he had just seen, he had absolute confidence in repelling every single one of them using only his fists and spirit.

The Fist Fighter tied belts onto his naked, muscular torso burnt to a reddish-copper color, wearing only shorts and sandals. He turned to the five-thousand powerfully built men and women as their leader, and to the Dark Knights following them. They had hardly begun moving for five minutes, but already, there was a nearly thousand-mel gap between the Fist Fighters and the Dark Knights.

“The Knights are riding on horses but they’re just too slow, as usual!”

A hulking man stayed by Iskahn’s side, taller than him by more than a head. Right after hearing his insult, the man’s rock-hard face smiled wryly.

“That’s inevitable, Champion.”

Addressing the currently strongest Fist Fighter in Dark Tongue, the hulking man continued.

“They and their horses are wearing armor as heavy as themselves.”

“Completely useless, though!”

Concluding thusly, Iskahn faced front again. Shaping his right hand into a tube, he quickly put it against his right eye.

At the center of the flame iris, his pupil enlarged.

“Oh, the Human Empire guys have started to move as well. Seems like they’re… not coming this way. They’re still trying to run away?”

He clicked his tongue.

Though they looked as dim as the stars above them, Iskahn could perfectly capture the enemy’s activity five thousand mel away. He thought for a moment, then said:

“Hey, Dampe. The Emperor’s command was to chase after her and capture her, right?”

“Seems like it.”

“Right…”

He rubbed his nose with his right index finger, then grinned with confidence.

“Let’s speed up for a little while. — Team Rabbit, to the front!!”

Fierce cries of ‘OH!’ both high in pitch and tension immediately answered the summon.

The team coming out from the army in neat formation were a hundred slender Fighters — that said, their muscles were as firm as a whip and perfectly balanced in volume. All of their heads were wrapped with white straps of decorative rope.

“Let’s go say hello to those so-called Integrity Knights! Get ready!!”

OH!

“Martial Dance, step seventeen, GO!!”

Iskahn’s right hand fiercely punched the air and his feet violently stomped the ground as he shouted.

His trusted aide Dampe and the hundred men of Team Rabbit were performing the exact same action in perfect synchronization.

Zun, zat, zun zat.

Ooh, rah, ooh rah.

As the rhythmic steps and united cry continued, beads of sweat began to glow on Iskahn’s curled copper hair, and his healthy dark skin took on a red tinge. The same happened to his subordinates.

After the steps ended in one very long minute, one hundred and two Fighters stopped their movements, steam billowing from their bodies.

No, not only that. Their skin seemed to be glowing slightly red in the darkness.

Fist Fighters.

A tribe that, for hundreds of years, had explored the true nature of one’s physical body.

Both the swordsmen and the sorceresses considered the summit of all arts to be ≪interrupting a target with Incarnation≫. In other words, overwriting external events with imagination.

However, Fist Fighters thought the opposite — strengthening their own bodies with Incarnation. Surpassing their original limits, they would strengthen their naked bodies with defensive force stronger than steel, and wield their fists with attacking power enough to crush boulders.

And, of course, they would train their legs to run faster than horses, while barefoot.

“OOOOOH, RAAAAAH!!”

With a powerful roar, Iskahn kicked the ground and began sprinting forth. Dampe followed along with the other hundred Fighters in hot pursuit.

The air behind them was split apart; the ground shook furiously.

***

“——!?”

In order to keep close with the Guards who had started moving to the shrubbery suitable for an ambush, Alice walked a few steps, then looked back as she soon felt something strange.

Something is coming.

And they’re fast.

When she looked closely, she could see a cluster of a hundred men bulging out of the slowly approaching enemy army, and closing the gap at a terrifying speed. They were even faster than the horseback riders running with all their might. For a second, Alice thought they were Dragon Knights, but soon realized that there were too many of them, and that they were actually moving on the ground.

“… Seems to be the Fist Fighters.”

Bercouli muttered beside her.

“They are…?”

She had heard that name before, but this was her first time witnessing them with her own eyes. This was because the ones who usually appeared at the Mountain Range at the Edge were mainly Goblins, Orcs, and rarely, Dark Knights. The Fist Fighters had never even attempted to invade the Human Empire.

Even so, having the advantage of a very long life, it seemed that the oldest Integrity Knight had experience battling the Fist Fighters. He continued somewhat nervously.

“They’re a pain to deal with. Usually a sword’s gonna hurt bare fists, but they’ll keep rejecting that.”

“Huh…? Reject…?”

There’s no way anyone can reject being cut, Alice thought. But Bercouli shrugged and said:

“You’ll know what I mean when you fight them. Better for us to handle them together, lil’ miss.”

“……”

Alice swallowed hard. Bercouli just claimed that he could not handle them by himself; they must be extremely powerful opponents.

However, what the Knight Commander said next destroyed her painstaking concentration and spirit.

“And, by the way, lil’ miss… You’re not okay with stripping down, are you?”

“Haah!?”

Instinctively, she crossed her arms in front of her chest and squeezed out a sharp voice.

“Wh-what are you talking about?! Of course I don’t like stripping down!!”

“No, I don’t mean that… Well, I do mean that… I just wanna tell you that armor and clothes are useless against their fists, and they may hold you back, so…”

After saying those pointless words as he scratched his chin, the Knight Commander shook his head as if to say, “Suit yourself”.

“Anyway, if you’re gonna fight in that, get your Armament Full Control Art ready.”

“O… Okay.”

Anxiety trickled down her spine again. As it seemed, the enemy team was composed of around a hundred men. If she needed to utilize the full power of the Fragrant Olive Sword against such a small team, they were definitely not easy opponents.

However, there was one problem.

When she had released the reflection-concealed beam art, and during her battle against the Dark Sorceresses, she had twice used the Armament Full Control Art, consuming a large portion of the Fragrant Olive Sword’s Life in the process. She could still use it for normal slashing without fail, but she worried over how much longer it could remain in its split-form attack.

The same applied to the Knight Commander’s Time Piercing Sword. From a rather close distance, Alice had watched him perform the stunning wide ranged attack that had instantly eliminated hundreds of Minions. It could be said that both of their beloved swords needed rest in their sheaths overnight.

But within their tens of seconds of conversation, the enemy team of Fist Fighters had already closed in to a distance from where Alice could begin to make out their masculine physiques. She could not let them get any closer to the Guards, who were still preparing the ambush.

Alice bit her lip, nodded to the Knight Commander, and was about to slide down the rocky slope to the north.

Right before that, however, a timid female voice called to them.

“I’ll go.”

Alice spun around in shock; beside her, Bercouli’s eyes widened as well.

The one who had been standing there without their knowledge, was one of the four Integrity Knights joining the decoy division — the one other than Bercouli, Alice and Renri.

She was tall and slender, clad in drab gray armor. Her hair, also gray, was parted so crisply that it looked artificially plastered to her head, ending in a tight ponytail. Her face was refreshingly clean, but showed not a shred of emotion. She was probably around twenty, like Alice.

Her name was Sheyta Synthesis Twelve.

The Divine Instrument strapped to her waist was the Black Lily Sword.

However, she was seldom referred to as such. Whenever they happened to mention her in conversation, the Knights addressed her by another nickname.

The Silent.

Alice was not shocked because she had volunteered to battle the Fist Fighters.

She was shocked because this was literally the first time she heard the voice of The Silent Sheyta.

***

Leaping over ditches and small rivers with ease, blasting boulders out of their way with single kicks, Iskahn, Dampe and the other hundred Fist Fighters continued their ferocious sprint.

In a few moments, I’ll finally be able to fight these so-called demons, Integrity Knights. Bursting with anticipation, the young Fighters revealed disturbing grins.

In fact, Iskahn had been completely dispassionate towards the Integrity Knights of the Human Empire until he received the call to arms. He had looked upon them with contempt, under the impression that they were merely ruffians who hid behind armor and swords. Among all Humans in the Dark Territory, there was only one Dark Knight whom he had respected as a true fighter: the deceased Dark General Shasta.

But while he was meditating as he stood by for the order to attack, he had sensed the Integrity Knights’ fighting spirit and aggressive energy, and that was something. At least they aren’t just relying on their high-class weapons, he thought.

There must be impressively trained bodies beneath the armor and swords.

With heightened expectations, Iskahn couldn’t be more excited about fighting them fist-to-fist.

So.

When he finally sighted a Knight in front of the hill where the enemy army had stopped minutes ago, the Fist Fighter chief’s mouth dropped open, dumbstruck by her standing figure.

How thin.

She seemed to be a woman, so maybe her lack of a muscular build was inevitable; even so, she was way too thin. Although she was clad in metallic armor, she still looked more fragile than any of Iskahn’s female Fighters. Her armorless body would only be about as muscular as a Sorceress’s. Even the long sword hanging from her waist looked like a roasting spit.

Signaling with his right hand for his subordinates to stop, Iskahn skidded to a halt, kicking up a dust cloud. Raising his eyebrows that were curled up at the end like a flame, he opened his mouth.

“Who’re you? What the hell are you doin’ here?”

Slightly shaking her long, straight gray hair, the female Knight tilted her head. She looked as though she were thinking of what to say — or rather, pondering whether she wanted to answer the questions.

Her brows, eyes, nose, and mouth looked as though they had been sculpted with a sharp knife. Without a shred of emotion on her clean face, the female Knight spoke quietly:

“I’m here to stop you.”

Iskahn exhaled a large amount of air from his nose and mouth; no one knew whether he was laughing or upset, but in the end he just shrugged.

You can’t even stop a little kid. Oh, I know… You’re a Knight good at arts, eh?”

There was another awkwardly long silence before she answered.

“Arts are not my strength.”

Irritated by his enemy’s belittling attitude, Iskahn said: “Well, whatever,” and called out one of his subordinates. “Yotte, fight her.”

“Here I come!!”

A rather diminutive female Fighter leapt out of the formation with a vigorous reply. Despite that, she was still several times sturdier than the female Knight. Flexing her stiff muscles and darting to and fro, she revealed a savage leer that was completely different from her opponent.

“HAAH!”

From five mel away, the female Fighter punched the air, generating wind that rustled the female Knight’s hair.

Even then, there was not an ounce of fighting spirit on the Knight’s slender face. Instead, she looked confused and whispered softly.

“… Just one…?”

“That’s my line, you skeleton!”

Curling her thick lips, Yotte shouted.

“After I teach you a lesson, I’m gonna stuff lots and lots of dried meat into your tiny little mouth before I finish you off! Just pull out your sword already!!”

With a face as though saying ‘So you have nothing more to say’, the female Knight gripped the handle on her left waist.

Shiyuran. Catching sight of the effortlessly drawn blade —

“…what the fuck!?”

Iskahn, who had backed off and crossed his arms, shouted instinctively.

“Thin” was an insufficient description. The scabbard already looked like a roasting spit, but the blade inside it was just a cen wide, like a child’s finger. The sword was matte black and thin as paper; just being able to see it was difficult under the starry night sky. How fragile.

Yotte’s face flushed red with anger.

“… Y’ gotta be kiddin’ me…”

Performing a short martial dance, or rather, battering the earth with her feet, the female Fighter charged straight and quickly closed the distance between her and the Knight.

Even to Iskahn, that was quite an impressive sprint. Team Rabbit of the Fist Fighters’ Guild were, unlike their name, elites that were not only agile, but skilled precision fighters.

Bibat!

Splitting the air, Yotte lashed out.

Unable to avoid the close-range attack, the female Knight defended with her paper-thin sword.

The resounding noise was piercingly high, as if created by a collision of two metal objects. Blinding golden sparks shot out.

Immediately after.

The needlelike sword was easily bent.

Iskahn smiled. A normal sword would never cut the skin of a Fist Fighter.

The children born as Fist Fighters were thrown into the training facility as soon as they became five years of age. Their very first training was snapping a cast iron knife with one punch.

As they matured, cast iron would be replaced with wrought iron, and knives would be replaced with long swords. Not only did they have to split them, they had to withstand slashes from the weapons without any protection. Through their training, the adolescents were confident that blades were nothing to be afraid of. I am invulnerable to blades. That belief — in other words, Incarnation, turned their bodies into steel.

As the guild chief, Iskahn could stop a needle 2 cen in diameter with his eyeball.

Although Yotte, a normal Fighter, had not trained her Incarnation to this extent, she was one of the ten group leaders in Team Rabbit. Her fist did not lose to any sword.

Especially not that pitifully thin one.

All of the Fist Fighters had one image in their heads: the horribly bent black needle would snap with an embarrassing crack, and a fist would sink into the female Knight’s face.

Thew.

A strange sound, like a whip slicing the air.

Yotte froze, her fist hovering in the air. The punch barely grazed the female Knight’s right cheek, and the Knight’s hand lifted up.

Iskahn could not see the black blade clearly from his position.

What the hell? That’s a pretty large target to miss.

The chief cursed. Even if Yotte wins this battle, she’ll have to start her training all over again in the arena’s third-class waiting room. No matter how tough one’s fist is, it’s useless if it doesn’t hit the oppone…

Yotte’s clenched fist silently split apart between her middle and ring finger.

“Wh………”

In front of the stunned Iskahn, the fissure continued from Yotte’s wrist to her elbow, through her upper limb, and passing through her shoulder.

Perfectly displaying a cross section precise to the bone, muscles and even the thinnest blood vessels, the outer part of Yotte’s right arm dropped onto the ground. Only after did blood erupt in multiple jets, forming a crimson mist.

“— GHAAAAAAAAAAAA!!”

Uttering an earsplitting shriek, Yotte collapsed to the ground, cradling her right arm.

The female Knight retracted her arm, and breathed a small sigh.

Back during her life in the Central Cathedral, The Silent Sheyta seldom spoke. This was not due to introversion, nor because she hated everyone else.

Just to avoid attention from other Integrity Knights — she suppressed her own existence, hoping that no one would challenge her to any sparring matches.

If she were to cross swords with anyone, even if it had been Knight Commander Bercouli, she possibly could have killed her opponent.

Fearing that this might happen, she had kept silent in the hundred years living in the Cathedral. Even if she spoke, her familiar caretaker and the elevating-disk operator girl were the only ones she would talk to.

Sheyta was entirely a swordsman, synthesized after winning the Four Empires Unity Tournament.

However, the records of that year’s tournament were completely erased. The reason was that, in a tournament that appraised the principle of mercy as one’s best quality, blood had been shed: Sheyta had brutally murdered every single one of her opponents.

The high-ranking Integrity Knight Sheyta Synthesis Twelve, in a certain sense, shared a similar mindset with the chief of the Fist Fighters’ guild, Iskahn.

Iskahn thought only about beating up something or someone, while Sheyta was interested in nothing but slicing things in half. Despite that, from the bottom of her heart, she had never, ever enjoyed it.

She would just cut. Whether it be human or object, when she was confronted with something, Sheyta could already see its cross section sliced clean. Whenever that happened, she was never able to stop herself from realizing it. If her opponent were a wooden practice dummy, she could even cleanly sever it with her hand.

Sheyta had always suppressed her cut-hungry nature as something sinister.

The first to perceive this deeply hidden impulse in her heart was the Highest Minister Administrator.

For two hundred years, Administrator had been attempting to deduce the Spacial Sacred Energy Theory, which was now common knowledge to every learner of arts.

While the Highest Minister was still researching, she became deeply obsessed with the last and largest war in the Dark Territory that put the Age of Blood and Iron to an end. Administrator was concerned that it would be such a waste for no one to collect the virtually infinite Sacred Energy that had been released from the fierce battle between the five Dark Territory races, which took place in the wilderness between the Human Empire and the Imperial Capital Obsidia.

Despite that, she had been careful to never visit the Dark Territory herself. Instead, she had summoned Knight Sheyta. The Highest Minister had whispered to Sheyta, who had already earned the moniker, The Silent:

— Journey there alone and look for something in the battlefield. A demonic beast, or something of the sort unharmed by the war would be best if you can find one. If not, any large animal will do. A bird or an insect at least. Just find me anything that’s engorged with Spacial Sacred Energy.

— Bring it to me, and from it, I will fashion a Divine Instrument for you.

— A sword with the highest Priority, a sword that can slice anything in half… How about that?

Sheyta could not resist the temptation. An Integrity Knight could not disobey an order from the Highest Minister anyway, but she, without taking a dragon to get over the Mountain Range at the Edge, trekking thousands of kilol deep into the land of ash, arrived at the battlefield that stank of blood.

There were no moving creatures where the five races had strained their limits to kill each other. Not even a mouse or a crow had survived, let alone a beast.

But Sheyta did not give in. A sword that can slice anything in half. The phrase had captured her heart, leaving her unable to think of anything else.

At the end of her three day search —

She finally found one lone black lily, wobbling flimsily in the wind.

That small flower was the only object that had survived the vast battlefield, charged with Spacial Sacred Energy.

The Highest Minister Administrator generated an extremely slim sword out of the flower that Sheyta brought back, and bestowed it upon her with the name Black Lily Sword.

A year later, after killing an Integrity Knight in a duel, she was put into hibernation at her own request.

Sheyta did not know whether she sighed out of sympathy or intoxication when she cut the female Fist Fighter’s fist.

Come to think of it, she also did not understand why she had volunteered ten minutes ago to defend this place, speaking to the Knight Commander and breaking her silence. Rather, she was unaware of any motivation to join the Defense Army half a year ago, volunteering herself while all of the Knights were invited.

Is it because I hope to protect the Human Empire, like the other Knights?

Or is it simply because I want to cut?

Or — it wants me to cut?

Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. The situation is what it is, and there’s no way to stop the sword anymore. Let’s just hope that there won’t be too many lives taken.

Sheyta calmly raised her head, and glanced at the terrified Fist Fighters who had frozen to the spot.

Without a trace of hesitation or fear, the gray Knight gripped her slender, pitch-black sword, and slashed head-on towards the hundred Fist Fighters.

***

“… What an incredible performance.”

At Alice’s hoarse comment, Bercouli muttered in a low voice.

“Right… Let me tell you something that you shouldn’t tell anyone else. Half a year ago, while I was waking her up from her deep freeze, I was actually kind of scared.”

“I never knew. I never knew that Sheyta-dono has been so adept…”

Beneath the hill, the battle between one hundred Fist Fighters and Integrity Knight Sheyta unfolded. To be precise, it was a one-sided massacre.

Whenever a thew came from the extremely thin and malleable sword, the limbs of the surrounding enemies would immediately separate from their bodies and hit the ground.

While impressed, Alice was slightly concerned about something that she should have felt from Sheyta’s slim frame.

She could not feel Sheyta’s murderous intent at all. Not only that, she could not even feel a shred of hostility.

If so, then how is she able fight so ferociously?

“Don’t think about it. Even though I’ve been watching her for more than a hundred years, I still understand nothing about her. Nothing.” The Knight Commander whispered and turned around.

“We can leave this to her. The main enemy army should be arriving very soon; we have to prepare for the counterattack over there.”

“… Okay.”

Nodding and looking away from the battle below her, Alice followed him.

***

About a thousand kilol south from Bercouli and Alice, who were walking down the hill, the gray, rough wilderness finally came to an end, where some irregularly shaped shrubbery grew in the area. The main formation of the decoy division was concealed among them.

They consisted of one thousand Guards, two hundred Ascetics, and a supply team of fifty people. They had to face the five thousand Fist Fighters with such a small force.

Integrity Knight Renri had ordered the Guards and the Ascetics to hide in the plants’ shadows, dividing them into twenty teams. The supply team wagon had carved fresh grooves into the only narrow path that stretched through the entire wooded area. The plan was to perform a pincer attack as the enemy followed the ruts into deep enough woods.

Renri had already heard from the Knight Commander that their swords would be ineffective on Fist Fighters, and he had heard about their weakness as well.

Fist Fighters were not good at defending themselves against Sacred Arts.

In the northern wilderness where not even moss could grow, there was simply not enough Sacred Energy to deploy any high-powered arts, but the air should be thicker in the shrubbery. The Ascetics hiding behind the leaves would ambush the enemy together, then retreat to the south while protected by the Guards. From the above, five Dragons would torch the enemy with their flame breath in the midst of the chaos.

Prepared for a quick retreat, Renri stationed the eight supply team wagons at the southernmost part of the shrubbery area. He determined that, the further away from the front line, the safer they would be.

However, just as Renri was devoting his mind to preparing the ambush, the five Guards, who were stations around the wagons just in case something happened, silently died, one after another, without uttering so much as a whimper.

 

Its entire body clad in glossless black metallic armor that was fitted with a demonic horned helmet, a shadow moved soundlessly.

Before him,  a Guard of the Human Empire Defense Army looked left and right, alert. He did not, however, look behind him at all, because the other Guards should have been watching that space.

The shadow entered his blind spot, approaching as if it were gliding. A long sword was equipped on its waist, but it did not draw. Instead, it casually raised the tiny dagger in its right hand.

It stretched its left arm like a black snake, blocking the Guard’s mouth and nose.

At the same time, its right hand flashed, slitting his exposed throat in a straight line.

In complete silence, his Life was drained. Right after the Guard’s body suddenly lost its strength, the black shadow pushed it under the nearest bush.

Behind the black veil that covered its face, a barely audible voice slipped out.

Five, dooown.

The shadow giggled.

This was not the Ancient Sacred Tongue.

This shadow was actually one of the three real-world people in the Underworld. He, Vassago Casals, was the adjutant under Gabriel Miller, who posed as Emperor Vector.

About an hour ago, Vassago was swigging his red wine straight from the bottle for the umpteenth time. Meanwhile, he caught sight of the large-scale art, which ended with a pathetic failure for his side, and finally said something that sounded like advice.

“Hey, bro. How ‘bout we stop depending on those guys and try moving a bit by ourselves?”

Gabriel rolled his eyes at Vassago, raised his blond eyebrows and replied.

“Okay, then you can make the move.”

The instructions that followed were not to invade the valley that the Human Empire Army was protecting, but to travel somewhere far away from the battlefield, far south, in the middle of nowhere.

When the enemy eradicated the Demihuman troops with a laser beam like those in sci-fi movies, Gabriel had already predicted that part of the enemy would be selected to enter the Dark Territory.

But when Vassago heard this, he questioned why he had to specifically move south instead of north. Hearing the reply “Look, there’s more space that way”, he couldn’t help but be even more doubtful. But since the enemy did actually come, he could only admit his mistake and get to work.

No matter how strong the Human Empire units were, they would definitely stop if they lost all of their food supply. In order to continue his ‘Killing Time’, which was his first since Diving into this world, he gazed into the dark woods.

Very quickly, he found wagons camouflaged with branches and leaves.

Licking his lips under the mask, the assassin began moving again.

Then, something moved behind a wagon. He stopped abruptly and pressed himself against a tree.

A fair-skinned young girl with tea-colored hair, which was not a face of the Dark Territory, stuck her head out of the roof. Perhaps she had sensed something, as she was looking around with a nervous expression.

As Vassago stayed still, it did not take long for the girl to step carefully out of the cart. She whispered something to someone in the wagon, and finally began to walk slowly.

Wearing minimal defensive equipment on top of gray clothes that looked like a high school uniform, the girl was heading straight to Vassago’s hiding place.

Resisting the temptation to whistle, the assassin gripped his blood-soaked dagger tightly in his right fist.

***

“— DOOOON’T…”

Forced to watch his Fighters, whom he had painstakingly trained, effortlessly defeated nearby, Iskahn screamed in anger as he recovered from shock.

“GET TOO COCKY, YOU BIIIIITCH!!”

Kicking onto ground hard enough to produce a giant crack, he fiercely charged.

Flames erupted on his taut right fist as though they were the scorching fury itself.

He punched straight at the neck of the gray Integrity Knight. Sparks flew from his fist, creating a blazing tail in the air along its path.

At that moment, the Knight had just finished a slash with the sword in her right hand; she tried to block Iskahn’s punch with her gauntleted left hand.

To my punch… all armor is no more than paper!!

The strike engorged with Incarnation collided into the female Knight’s palm; blinding sparks burst in all directions.

Immediately, the gray gauntlet shattered with a deafening crack, and the armor pieces from her arm to her shoulder were shredded and blown away.

Countless cuts crossed the smooth, white skin of the exposed left arm; droplets of blood flew into the air like grains of sand. However, surprisingly, he did not feel any bones breaking.

Even though it should be excruciatingly painful, the female Knight only frowned slightly, her right hand flashing her super-slim sword while her left hand grasped Iskahn’s right fist.

Kiiin! A high metallic noise resonated, and sparks burst again from the Fist Fighter’s elbow.

The source of Fist Fighters’ strength was the confidence of being invulnerable to all blades. In order to obtain that confidence, they wrapped their bodies only with belts, exposing their skin. The moment they fell back on any kind of defensive equipment, a Fist Fighter’s Incarnation would be weakened.

Therefore, Iskahn was trying to deflect the black blade that was about to cut through his right arm, just with his determination.

But.

The dense frigidity that almost sank into his skin was completely different from what he had felt from any other sword, even having taken slashes from them with bare skin.

This paper-thin sword was not just cold, hard steel; it represented will. Instead of a desire for victory, it was simply a thirst for division.

Sensing this, Iskahn reflexively punched with his left fist.

Po! Shattering the air, the punch pierced the space where the female Knight had been an instant ago.

That was impressively agile, but she did not completely evade the strike: the punch grazed her gray chestplate. As the Knight jumped out of the way, her chestplate shattered just like her gauntlet had.

But Iskahn was not uninjured either.

On his inner elbow, at the point that had met the blade for less than a second, there was a very shallow cut. A tiny droplet of blood slowly beaded out from its center. Only a drop — yet a drop nonetheless.

Licking the blood away, the young Fist Fighter savagely grinned.

“… Hey, bitch. You’re quite different inside from what you look like on the outside, huh.”

The gray female Knight and replied with something completely irrelevant.

“… I should be older than you…”

“Huh? You got that right. Integrity Knights like you are monsters that don’t get old for decades, right? What, you want me to call you granny?”

“……”

Below her eyes, the female Knight’s clean face jerked, but soon she returned to dispassion.

“… I forgive you. You are very hard. I can barely see where I can slice.”

“Tsk… What the hell are you talking about?”

Iskahn clucked his tongue, feeling his spirit weakened from her offbeat attitude. However, as he looked around at the Fist Fighters on the ground, he recovered his anger.

Twenty of them of them, men or women, were moaning, their arms or legs having been cut from their bodies by the slim sword. The most unforgivable thing was, not only did the female Knight harm his subordinates, she was apparently merciful to them by sparing their lives. None of the injured had lost their heads. With her skills and the sharpness of the sword, the Knight could easily have made that extra stroke if she wished.

“… So you treat us like wood dummies for your fucking sword practice. Unforgivable… I’m gonna beat you to a pulp!!”

Zun, zat, zun!!

The remaining active Fighters followed the quick steps of the Martial Dance. Fierce war cries overlapped with their stamping on the ground.

Ooh, rah, oorarah. Ooh, rah, oorarah.

As they stomped and vibrated the air, the Fist Fighters intensified their Incarnation. Drops of sweat flied off from their copper skin, transforming into flying, blazing sparks.

The Integrity Knight did not move, as if she were waiting for Iskahn to reach his maximum state.

That’s right.

The Fist Fighter champion stopped his steps; flames roared from his reddish golden curly hair, and blinding light effused from both of his hands.

The female Knight, as his opponent, was persistently calm. In her right hand, the pitch-black super-slim sword was giving off a freezing energy.

“Heeeere I come, you BIIIIIIIIITCH!!”

Setting the air ablaze with a pow, Iskahn instantly closed the distance between them in a straight line.

The female Knight effortlessly swung the sword in her right hand.

Thew.

Just before the fine black line touched Iskahn’s shoulder —

Faster than the sword that swung earlier than him, a blow from the Fist Fighter struck the female Knight’s left leg. Not a punch, but a kick. His right foot shot up, hitting the gray leg guard directly with his toes.

With astonishing reflexes, the Knight stopped her sword and leaned forward, avoiding a fall, but the left leg guard was instantly shattered. The skirt around her waist was torn; her toned yet slim legs were exposed.

“Don’t think Fist Fighters can only punch!!”

Grinning confidently, Iskahn began a high kick with his left leg.

The female Knight turned her wrist, trying to parry the kick with her sword.

The instant that the blade and the leg clashed, a deafening crack was accompanied by a shower of blazing sparks. The Fist Fighter Chief pulled his toned left leg back, feeling a sharp pain, and suddenly thrust his right fist forward.

Bathed in crimson flames, the strike hit the Knight’s chestplate squarely in the middle.

Kaboom! An almighty explosion propelled the two of them away from each other. Iskahn backflipped in midair and landed on the ground.

His left leg stabbed with pain again. He glanced at it.

On his rock-hard shin that could easily bend a steel bar, a fresh cut carved a straight line. Dark red blood flowed out at once, dripping onto the black ground.

Snickering at this small scratch, he observed the enemy.

The female Knight managed to withstand this as well, but she pressed her left hand onto her chest and coughed a few times. Her chestplate, already damaged, had shattered completely; her right hand gauntlet and the gray clothing covering her chests were the only things left on her upper body. There was not much left on her lower body either: only a torn skirt and her right shin guard.

Exclusive to those born in the Human Empire, her snow-white skin seemed to glow even in the darkness. Seeing this, Iskahn sneered:

“Now you look more like a fighter, but there just aren’t enough muscles. Go eat and train more, bitch.”

The Fist Fighters around jeered at her, but the Knight calmly tore off a hanging piece of cloth from her left shoulder and raised the sword in her right hand. Thew.

“… But you’ve become a bit softer just now.”

“… THE FUCK DID YOU SAY?”

His nostrils flared and he bared his canine teeth.

Even though he was bluffing with his expression, Iskahn felt that his breaths had become slightly quicker.

There’s no way my spirit would decrease just by seeing some uncovered limbs. The women over here show much more of their skin every day, only a fresh trainee kid would hesitate just by seeing that.

The whole world is made out of opponents that I must beat up with my tough body, even if it’s a foreign woman who’s slim enough that the wind could bend her bones, whose skin is shining white.

“There’s no turning back… I’m gonna show you all I’ve got!!”

Howling like a wolf, Iskahn jabbed his index finger at the female Knight:

“So show me yours as well, bitch!! Don’t give me that fucking sleepy face!!”

As he said so, the Knight looked confused again, and touched her own cheeks and the middle of her forehead with her left hand. Changing her eyebrows’ angle into a slightly fiercer look, she said:

“Bring it on… please.”

“…… Yeah, bring it on.”

I’ll be thinking nonsense again if I follow her pace.

Iskahn inhaled deeply, gathered power in his stomach, and violently bent over.

Putting his left fist to his waist, and pointing his right fist at his opponent, he noisily exhaled the air. As he repeated the rough breathing, his parted legs began to glow red, drawing power from the ground. The energy channeled through his body and gathered at his fist.

Crimson blazing flames gradually shone yellow, and eventually turned bluish white.

Now Iskahn’s right fist was at a temperature so high that it could almost burn the air, making high, sharp noises.

The female Knight faced him sideways, extended her left hand to the front with her thumb and fingers neatly lined up, and swung the fine sword in her right hand behind her. Her arms aligned in a straight line, giving a feel of strength like a catapult prepared to launch with full power.

The tension in Iskahn was so immense that he felt like he was already split into half, from the head all the way down to the stomach. And yet he grinned excitedly.

She’s the first one to burn me up this much.

Both of them moved at the exact same moment.

The Knight’s sword drew a pitch-black crescent curve in the air.

The Fist Fighter’s fist became a bluish white comet. At the instant that they collided, powerful shockwaves exploded outward, cracking the ground on their way. The remaining Fist Fighters surrounding the two were irresistibly blown backwards.

The sword and the fist were only meeting at the size of a needle’s tip, yet they were battling intensely. Surpassing its limit, the compressed power shot forth into a beam of light, bursting into the night sky.

 

With Sheyta’s combat skills, she could have defeated her opponent without this kind of stupid competition of brute strength.

Slightly surprising to her, the intensity of the young Fist Fighter’s Incarnation was at the level of a high-ranking Knight. Even so, he concentrated all of his Incarnation at his fist as he charged, and other parts of his body actually looked rather soft to Sheyta. It seemed that she could have evaded the straight punch and cut his head off right away.

Sheyta, however, did not choose to do that; instead, she countered the opponent’s white-blue glowing fist head-on. There was no rationale to this decision; she was simply following her body and her sword.

Sheyta was rather confused by herself. Since a hundred years ago, she had already realized that she had none of a Knight’s appraised mental qualities, such as pride or nobility. She would cut because she wanted to, and that was all she desired.

It should mean the same when “slice” is replaced with “kill”. Only when she had been assigned with the mission of securing the Mountain Range at the Edge, Sheyta could release her true self. She had ended countless lives of Dark Knights or Goblins by mercilessly cutting their necks.

She had been suppressing her nature as something sinister, so much, in fact, that she was called The Silent, but why did she not choose to kill in this particular battle? Sheyta was deeply puzzled.

But even that was just too much to think about.

Now, at this moment, there was only herself, the Black Lily Sword and the fist in front of her.

It’s so hard. Can I cut it in half?

This is fun.

Iskahn saw the thin and almost colorless lips of the enemy Knight slightly widening, a smile on her face.

And he had already understood that the smile was not a disgrace to him — nor the fight.

The reason was that he had the exact same kind of smile on his face.

— So you’re one of the elegant Human Empire residents born with such a delicate figure, but we’re the same kind of people, huh.

Click. A small vibration could be felt from within his fist.

Iskahn realized that the noise was not because of any cracks on the opponent’s black sword, but it came from the fracturing bones of his own fist.

— No good. Even this doesn’t get through, huh.

— But, well, that’s how it is.

If his fist had been completely cut, for sure the black, slim sword would cut his entire body in half as well. Even though he expected for such a result, Iskahn felt no fear. I’m not going to meet such a great opponent like her for a second time. If so, well, this isn’t such a dumb way to die.

Right at the moment when he thought so, and was about to close his eyes for a long nap.

The pressure added onto his fist slightly weakened.

Compressed at one point to its limit, the pressure released all at once, blowing Iskahn and the Knight away from each other as if they were mere leaves. He suddenly noticed why his opponent’s Incarnation had weakened. A large silhouette had tried to slip in between the two.

Sitting up on the ground, Iskahn yelled at the huge man who fell down as he did.

“Dampe, you bastard!! … Look at what the fuck you’ve done!!”

“Time’s up, Champion.”

The vice chief said, slightly opening his eyes that were usually almost closed. He stood up, raised his muscular right arm, and pointed it to the north.

As Iskahn turned his eyes to the same direction, he could see that the main army of the Fist Fighters and the Dark Knights behind had come so close to one another that they could recognize each other. Right, as the chief of the army, I shouldn’t be too obsessed with a private battle when an army-scale battle’s beginning anyway. But—

Clucking his tongue like mad, he spun around. Behind the floating dust, the enemy Knight that had lost almost all of her equipment and clothes slid her slim sword back into its scabbard, as though she did not care at all.

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Page 231

“Hey, bitch! Don’t think you’ve won like this!!”

The young Fist Fighter screamed, forgetting that he had just been preparing his mind for death.

Swaying her gray hair, the Knight flicked her head to look at Iskahn, and tilted her head as if she were searching for the right words to say.

“Umm, that, ‘bitch’ thing… Could you please stop that?”

“Look… In this situation, I don’t know how you’re gonna run awa…”

At that moment, a strong gust of wind suddenly blew from the south. The Fist Fighters surrounding her looked towards it as one.

Iskahn blinked unconsciously. In his sight, a Knight stretched her arm up high, and a gigantic monster quickly descended. Its gray scales twinkled like stars; this must be a Dragon.

As the Knight grabbed onto a leg, the Dragon rose into the sky at once.

“Hey you! … Tell me your fucking name before you run away!!”

Intertwined with the noise of the vigorously flapping wings, a mild voice came down.

“… I’m not running away. I’m… Sheyta Synthesis Twelve.”

He stood up with Dampe pulling his hand; Iskahn watched the Dragon’s silhouette vanishing into the nocturne darkness, and clucked his tongue again.

If he were allowed, he would love to fight that strong opponent again after a year of intense training, since his realized that he had a lot to improve on.

However, Iskahn was mature enough to know that his personal desire would be nothing in front of the war strategy.

Once his team rendezvoused with the Fist Fighter main army, they would have to crush the enemies together with the Dark Knights. There might not be a chance for them to fight again.

If only I could obtain the Radiant Medium

After a moment, Iskahn clucked his tongue for a third time, this time to himself for having such a thought.

What a retard I am. Begging the Emperor to save the life of that female Knight as a reward? My entire tribe will be furious at me.

Pulling himself out of the thoughts, Iskahn went to the subordinate that held a jar of medicine, in order to cure his left leg.

 

2

That’s right.

Just come ‘ere like that.

Vassago thought as he savored the pleasure of the ambush, like a piece of candy in his mouth.

My hiding is perfect. Though the metallic armor had some drawbacks, he was still able to melt into the shadow of the shrubbery.

The black-haired girl was cautiously surveilling her surroundings, but her eyes merely passed through the bush that Vassago was hiding behind. 7 meters left… 5 meters…

Good. Feels really good. I’ve missed this so much.

Approaching within 3 meters, the girl suddenly turned to her right and walked towards where Vassago had concealed the bodies.

He could have waited for her to come closer, but, well, that wouldn’t change much.

Vassago slid from the darkness in dead silence and lunged at the girl from behind, thrusting forth his left hand. Muffling her mouth and slicing cleanly across her nervously taut throat with his dagger —

His anticipation was so realistic that Vassago could not immediately react to the blade flashing right before his eyes.

“… Whoa!”

As he hurriedly backed off, the tip of the blade whistled under his cheek, where his bare skin was exposed.

The girl, who had seemed not to notice him at all, suddenly unsheathed her sword from her left waist and slashed towards him without even turning around. That was one awesome counter. Had he stepped forward just a little more, his throat would have been cleaved in two.

Spinning around, the girl held her sword properly. He could see no surprise in her sapphire eyes, though they revealed fear and hostility. Vassago couldn’t help but admit that his hiding was seen through very quickly.

Twirling the dagger in his right hand, he opened his mouth.

Hey, baby.

He suddenly remembered that English wouldn’t work, and switched to Japanese that sounded almost native.

“How’d you know, little girl?”

The girl replied coldly while gripping her sword, fully alert.

“… My senpai told me: don’t just rely on your eyes; feel with your entire body.”

“S-senpaaai…?”

As he blinked in confusion, Vassago felt the sting of some ancient memory. I must’ve heard that somewhere…

But before he could form any substantial thought, the girl took a deep breath and let out a deafening scream.

“Enemy!! There’s an enemy — !!”

He clucked his tongue, and retracted his short knife back to the right of his waist.

Well, guess that’s the end of the game.

Vassago threw up his left arm with an exaggerated motion and shouted as well.

“Guys… Get to work!!”

This time, the girl’s eyes widened in genuine shock.

From within the shrubbery tens of meters behind Vassago, there came the scuffling of rustling branches; it was created by the thirty lightly-armored scouts selected from the main Dark Knight army rising to their feet, one after another.

A second girl jumping off the wagon, along with the ten or so Guards dashing from the north in response to the girl’s warning, were equally dumbstruck.

***

“Wh… The enemy’s at the back!? And there’s about thirty people!?”

Integrity Knight Renri repeated loudly, hardly believing the distress call from the supply team.

This is bad — This is bad!

If the wagons were assaulted and the supplies were burnt or destroyed, the entire army would grind to a halt. Not only that, there were three people over there: two trainee girls who had sworn on their lives to defend it, and also a young man.

I have to send them a rescue team of a hundred, no, two hundred men. But if I split the main army even further, they might lose to the enemies approaching from the north. By then, they would immediately lose to the enemy’s overwhelming number.

Wait, maybe our ambush plan has already been exposed? If it has, then should I have the entire army retreat further south, and wait for another chance?

Unable to come up with a proper conclusion, Renri stood still. Then, a rough voice entered his ears.

“I never thought that they would’ve predicted us going south and laid an ambush here ahead of us…”

Knight Commander Bercouli and Alice had just returned from the northern hill a kilol away. Renri viewed them both as possessing strength that towered far into the clouds above, but no longer could he detect even a sliver of calm on their faces, and especially not for Alice. She looked as though she were ready to fly for the supply team at once.

Looking to the north over Bercouli’s shoulder, behind the hilly area, Renri could almost clearly see the giant dust cloud of the approaching army.

The Knight Commander closed his eyes for a moment, then quickly revealed his bluish-gray gaze, and boomed:

“Renri, tell the main army to back off. Lil’ miss, get to the supply team right now. I’ll hold off the enemies coming from the north.”

“But, how, exactly? … There are more than five thousand soldiers, Oji-sama! And didn’t you say that swords don’t work against them…”

“Don’t worry, I’ll find a way. Just go!! Lil’ miss… no, Alice, you were the one who decided a fight to the death until our very last warrior falls!!”

Leaving those words with her, Bercouli immediately turned to the north.

His right hand, rough as the gnarled trunk of a tree, slowly drew the Time Piercing Sword from his left waist.

By the aged blade’s fading gleam, one could clearly tell that the sword only possessed a miniscule amount of Life left.

***

Sparks were thrown three times into the darkness.

The girl with tea-colored hair, who was seeing Vassago for the first time, parried all of his strikes.

Vassago had even used a combo skill. Therefore, when the sword flew from the girl’s hand on the third strike and stabbed into a nearby tree, the assassin couldn’t help but whistle appraisingly.

Even so, the dark-haired girl readied her fists, but Vassago dropped her with a sweep of his leg. Landing hard on her back, the girl let out a pained gasp.

“Ronye ——— !!”

A red-haired girl appeared from the wagon; shrieking, she rushed over.

Gripping the dagger in his right hand, Vassago pressed its tip against the throat of the girl apparently named Ronye, in order to restrain the red-haired girl. As though struck by fear, her slim legs stopped cold.

“Kek… Kekek.”

A muffled cackle slipped out from his mask.

This is it. This is the feeling.

This is the joy of playing with someone’s life and relationships with a blade. This is why I just can’t stop player-killing.

“… I won’t kill her, as long as you stand and watch right there.”

Whispering to the red-haired girl, he crouched next to the girl called Ronye.

Behind him, about thirty bloodthirsty soldiers were inching closer, step by step.

Tears of fear and humiliation beaded within Ronye’s eyes. Her fierce determination sank into the depths of despair, and ——

………?

Suddenly, Ronye’s eyes shifted focus from Vassago’s face to the sky.

Something was reflected in her watery iris.

Light.

Milky white, radiant particles descended, slowly, gently, softly, like snow.

As a weird shiver ran down his spine, Vassago slowly lifted his head.

The night sky was pitch black. The stars were blood red.

In such a background, there floated a small silhouette — and yet its presence was ludicrously huge.

That’s a person. A woman.

She wore a breastplate gleaming with a shine akin to that of a pearl. Her gauntlets and boots were of the same sheen.

Her long skirt was sewed together with countless small pieces of cloth, fluttering like wings. Her hair flying in the wind was in fresh chestnut color—

“Stacia… sama.”

Ronye murmured from below.

These words did not reach Vassago’s ears. The instant he had caught a glimpse of the woman’s face descending from the sky, the assassin had leapt to his feet as though he were being yanked upwards.

Freed from Vassago’s grasp, Ronye immediately backed away to where the red-haired girl was, but he did not even bother to look.

The silhouette floating in the air stretched out her right arm.

She gently swept her delicate hand across.

Laa ———————–

Resembling a chorus of thousands of angels, an overpowering harmony shook the world.

Spectrums of polychromatic light swallowed Vassago.

The ground beneath his feet vanished.

As he fell into the infinite darkness, Vassago thrust both hands upwards, trying to grab onto the tiny silhouette.

“Fuckin’ really? … C’mon, fuckin’ really?”

A trembling voice slipped from his mouth.

That face.

That hair.

That atmosphere.

“Isn’t that… The Flash from KoB?”

***

The Knight Commander Bercouli stood still as he raised his beloved sword.

Before him, there yawned an enormous chasm in the earth, over a hundred mel wide. He gazed far towards the horizon to his left and right, but there was no end to be seen. The depth was unpredictable; bits of rock here and there dropped into the abyss, yet no sign of impact against the bottom reached his ears.

Tens of seconds ago, this rift in the earth did not exist.

From the sky, variegated rays of color had poured down with a grandiose harmony, and as they touched the ground, it began to fracture.

There is absolutely no way to trigger such a groundbreaking change, not with one thousand Ascetics, or even ten thousand Ascetics. Perhaps not even the Highest Minister Administrator herself.

This is the power of a God, a holy act.

Following Dark God Vector, another God is descending to the mortal world.

Bercouli thought with respect and fear, but he soon dismissed that notion.

On the other side of the chasm, the five thousand Fist Fighters were standing stock-still, thunderstruck.

If a God was determined to help the Human Empire, possessing the right to freely manipulate the lives and deaths of humans, they could have split the ground directly under the Fist Fighters, mercilessly plunging them to the depths below. This crack, however, was created with a safety margin in mind, enough for all of the Fist Fighters running at full tilt to stop.

From this, the Knight Commander detected a sense of hesitation towards wiping out a multitude of lives.

In other words, this was done according to human will.

 

3

— Faster.

— Faster, quickly get me to the ground, to where Kirito-kun is.

Yuuki Asuna had logged into the Underworld with Super Account 01, The Goddess of Creation Stacia. Protected by the fall-cushioning mechanic only available on the first log in, she repeated her lover’s name in her mind.

Almost an hour had passed since an unknown armed group had stormed the independent marine biology research mega-float, the Ocean Turtle.

“I’ll go,” Asuna had declared to Kikuoka Seijirou and company, and FullDived using Soul Translator No. 5. Higa Takeru located her insertion coordinates, which should have been right above where Kirito was now. When she landed, her lover would definitely be waiting there for her.

Accompanying her nearly insane yearning, a stabbing pain racked Asuna’s head. She grimaced on reflex, resisting the discomfort.

She had been warned about the side effects that would occur with usage of the unlimited landscape alteration ability, the administrative authority given to the Stacia account. The area’s Mnemonic Data was absurdly large; as the data instantly transferred repeatedly between Asuna’s STL and the Main Visualizer, which stored the data of the entire Underworld, her Fluctlight would overload.

As RATH’s chief engineer, Higa had strictly told her not to recklessly change the landscape too much — to stop whenever she felt a headache.

Below her were a thousand men from the Human Empire, and two enormous crowds from the Dark Territory that were approaching them from both the north and south. As soon as she realized that, despite the advice, she had immediately chanted the commands.

She put the cluster from the north to a halt by opening a long, wide valley in front of them. But for the thirty men drawing near the location where Kirito might be, she had no choice but to erase the ground they were standing on.

They are all human beings with real souls. They are the true bottom-up AIs that Kirito has strived for two years in this world to protect.

Perhaps this sharp pain is their intense fear and grudge flooding into the STL.

Even so, Asuna closed her eyes tightly, then opened them wide and freed herself of her hesitation.

Her priorities had been determined for years.

For Kirito — Kirigaya Kazuto, she would commit any sin. She would accept all deserved punishment.

At long last, the descent came to an end in tens of seconds that each felt like an eternity; the tips of her pearly boots touched the black earth.

She was in a wooded area filled with twisted bushes. Without a moon, there were only ominously shimmering red stars, faintly shining down from the night sky.

Asuna shook the remaining headache away and straightened her back. Right next to her feet, a dark, deep hole opened in the ground, into which she had plunged an armored knight-like Dark Territory man. It would be rather dangerous to leave it there, but she had difficulty handling the landscape again in a such a short time.

She heard the neigh of a horse nearby; looking in that direction, she realized that a few large wagons were standing behind the bushes, seemingly hiding.

— Where…? Where are you, Kirito?

Just as Asuna was desperate to the point of nearly crying out his name, a trembling voice called to her.

“… Stacia… sama?”

She turned her head around, and saw two girls leaning against each other as they stood. They were both wearing gray jumper skirts, just like school uniforms.

Their faces were a little strange. They did not look Japanese, nor they did they look Western. Their skin were smooth and cream-colored; the girl on the right had hair in maple leaf red, and the girl on the left had hair in a dark coffee brown.

Two timeworn long swords hung from their belts.

The red-haired girl opened her mouth slightly, and a small voice slipped out once more.

“Are you… God?”

Perfect Japanese, yet her intonation was very subtly foreign. Thus, Asuna felt she had glimpsed the Underworld’s three-hundred year independent history.

— Kikuoka-san, Higa-san, look at what you’ve created.

— To RATH, this might only be a simulation, but this entire world and the people living here, are genuinely alive.

“… No… Sorry, I’m not a god,” Asuna answered as she gently shook her head.

The girl with dark brown hair wrung her hands. “But, but,” she whispered. “You’ve benevolently saved my life with a miracle. You’ve saved all of us from those scary soldiers from the Dark Territory… You’ve saved the Guards, the Ascetics… and Kirito-senpai.”

When she heard that name, Asuna gasped, and a violent twinge shot through her heart.

She straightened her body that almost lost balance, and finally squeezed out a feeble voice, her lips trembling.

“I… I just came here to meet him, Kirito… Please tell me… Where is he? Let me meet him… Take me to Kirito, please.”

Fighting back her tears, Asuna begged. The dumbstruck girls’ eyes widened, finally exchanged looks, and nodded.

“… Yes. Please follow us.”

The surrounding swordsmen clad in uniform armor formed an open circle, staring at her from a distance; Asuna walked through its center as the girls showed her the way.

She was taken to the back of a wagon. A thick, canvas-like curtain was hanging from the roof, and she could not see inside.

“Kirito-senpai is insi…”

Without waiting for the red-haired girl to finish, Asuna pushed the curtains aside with both hands and jumped onto the deck. She stumbled as she advanced.

Hanging from the roof of the cabin, a small lantern threw dim light onto stacks of wooden boxes and barrels. She slipped through the tiny space between them, getting deeper and deeper into the wagon.

Suddenly, she was hit by a nostalgic smell, as warm as the sun, as refreshing as a slight breeze over grasslands and forests.

Silvery light reflected into Asuna’s eyes, which adjusted to the darkness.

It was coming from a wheelchair made of a metal frame and pieces of wood.

In the chair, there was a figure in black, sitting spiritlessly, its body sagging like a shadow.

“…………Gh.”

Overwhelmed by a storm of emotion, Asuna was struck dumb. Even though she had envisioned a multitude of scenarios, the words for their reunion became stuck in her throat.

Now lying in the STL No.4 on the Ocean Turtle in the real world, the one she loved most was there, in the form of his soul.

Hurt, damaged, but certainly alive.

Back when Kirito met me again in the hospital in Tokorozawa, when I didn’t wake up even though I was released from the death game SAO, Kirito must have suffered the same pain, and was as determined as I am now.

It’s my turn. I’ll definitely save you, no matter the cost.

Softly exhaling her stuck breath, Asuna whispered:

“…… Kirito-kun.”

The right arm was missing from his emaciated body. Hugging the black and white swords, his left arm jerked when Asuna’s voice resonated.

His face stared downwards, and his eyes were empty; both trembled in tiny spasms.

“Uh……”

A broken, hoarse voice slid from his parched lips.

“Uh… Aaaa… Aahh……”

Taka, taka. The wheelchair was shaking. His left arm stiffened, and tendons puffed up on his neck.

Two tracks of tears slid down his bowed face and dropped onto the scabbards in his arms.

“Kirito-kun… Enough, that’s enough!!” Asuna shouted.

She kneeled, and gently but tightly, hugged her lover. From her own eyes, she also felt warm liquid gushing out without end.

 

Vol_16_-_251
Page 251

Seeing each other once more, curing Kirito’s soul, his consciousness would return—

It would be a lie if she said she had not hoped so.

However, Asuna understood that the damage dealt to Kirito’s Fluctlight was deep. Kirito’s Fluctlight core, or self-image, had been destroyed. As long as they did not reconstruct it somehow, no matter how much input he was exposed to, he could not articulate a proper output.

Higa’s voice resounded in her mind.

— It seems that he has some accomplices… I mean comrades. They’re artificial Fluctlights, of course. And most of his comrades died when they fought the Church, so in the end he severely blamed himself when he succeeded in contacting us. In other words, he attacked his own Fluctlight.

Desolation, regret and despair had cut a bottomless hole into Kirito’s heart.

Even if that hole were infinite emptiness, I will fill it up. If I can’t manage that by myself, I’ll enlist the help of those who connected their hearts with you. There just isn’t any loss that can’t be replaced with love.

Asuna felt her determination replenish: she would not let Kirito feel any sorrow again, not a shred of it.

I will protect this world, which Kirito loved and lived in. I’ll protect it from the mysterious attackers… and even from RATH.

After hugging Kirito tightly for one last time, Asuna stood up straight.

She spun around; and as tears flowed down her cheeks, she smiled at the two observing girls.

“Thank you. You two have been protecting Kirito, haven’t you?”

The dark brown-haired girl nodded humbly, and replied with a question in a trembling voice:

“Excuse me, may I… have your name, please? If you’re not Stacia-sama, then… who are you?”

“My name is Asuna. I’m a human like you. And just like Kirito, I come from the outside world… for the same purpose.”

 

4

“All I can say is… I’m rather surprised.”

On the second floor of the imperial throne carriage, beside Gabriel who overlooked the sudden crack in the ground, came a voice that seemed quite relaxed.

He turned towards the voice and saw, popping up from one of the various hatches in the deck, the burly face of a middle-aged man. He recalled that this was Lengil, the head of the Merchants’ Guild. Lengil joined his long sleeves and performed a sincere salute.

While he seemed to be one of the few remaining General Units, this man did not seem like he possessed any notable fighting prowess. What was the matter? Gabriel raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement. Lengil glanced left and right, but his body remained facing Gabriel. He saw that Vassago was not around, but did not say anything else and saluted once more.

“Your Majesty. The moon will rise soon… If there are no further orders to be executed accordingly, I humbly request that the troops be allowed to rest and dine.”

“Okay.”

He peered into the black, gaping chasm again.

The scouts that had been sent to report on its size had not yet returned. In other words, it wouldn’t be just a few mel. And by the looks of it, it seemed that a hole of this depth was not one that could be easily filled in with raw civilian manpower.

Predicting that the enemy army had managed to infiltrate the southern parts, where Vassago and his subordinates were, there was now an extremely high chance that they would all be eliminated if they did nothing. But even if Vassago himself were to die here, he would still awaken in the real world.

Now he had to use the flying Units. But the Dark Knights only had ten dragons. He did not know the number of trips it would take to transport twenty thousand footsoldiers.

Or maybe it was possible with magic. But according to the Dark Sorceresses he had consulted, creating a sufficient bridge for the entire army to cross was not possible. If they were all as powerful as their leader D.I.L, maybe, with more Demihuman sacrifices… But reports told that D.I.L. had been vaporized in battle by an enemy Knight’s counterattack.

— For someone full of ambition, you left the battle so quickly.

Gabriel thought with a twinge of regret. But at the end of the day, an AI was merely a piece on a chessboard, and her existence disappeared from his mind.

In other words —

That yawning chasm was something that upsetted the “game balance” of this world. This world had nothing that neither the Human Empire AI nor Dark Territory AI were incapable of fixing.

If that were the case, this likely involved interference from the real world. Somebody from RATH, probably a higher-up, had logged in with a super account like him.

They might even have the same goal. Retrieve «Alice», then eject to the real world through a system console.

Although things were getting troublesome, at this point, he could only plan accordingly.

Or rather — things were getting more interesting.

The corners of Gabriel’s mouth lifted in the slightest of smirks. After it disappeared, he turned to Lengil.

“Very well. We will set up camp here tonight. Feed the troops well; tomorrow will be a busy day.”

“Yes, sire. Your Majesty’s benevolence is truly humbling.”

Paying his respects once more, the Merchants’ Guild chief left in high spirits.

***

“From the same world as… Kirito-senpai?”

The two girls asked in unison, their red and blue eyes round.

“Th-that means… the world of the gods? The three gods who created this world… the Kingdom in the sky that the gods who govern the Elements, and the angels reside in…?”

“No.”

Asuna shook her head.

“It is a world outside of this one, but definitely not one of the gods. Because… Look at Kirito-kun, do you guys think he looks like a god or an angel?”

The girls looked towards the wheelchair again, exchanged looks, then both stifled giggles. They hastily adjusted their expressions, and nodded.

“Yes… Yes… Right, there shouldn’t be any gods who escape from the academy in the middle of the night to buy snacks… right…?”

Hearing the red-haired girl’s words, it was Asuna’s turn to gape. Really, he was still like that even in this world. Speechless and elated, Asuna felt tears on her cheeks once more.

She blinked rapidly and nodded – Right. Then, the girl with tea-colored hair asked:

“Uh… Um, this outside world… What’s… it like?”

Asuna thought for a moment, then replied:

“It’s a long story. I’d like to tell it to the person in charge of everything here. Could you please take me to them?”

“O-Okay. Understood.”

The girls agreed nervously. Asuna prepared to follow them to the back of the large caravan, then stopped to look back at Kirito again.

On his bowed face, dried tear tracks were still visible.

— It’s all right now, it’s all right now, Kirito-kun. You can leave the rest to me…

Asuna said softly in her heart, tightly gripping his left hand. Then she turned, slipped past a crate, and jumped off the back of the wagon.

Just as her white shoes touched the ground —

Golden light appeared before her.

The glint of a sword blade.

Before she could react, her body moved on instinct. Her right hand lunged for the rapier at her left waist.

Kyariin!

The sound of metal against metal shattered the dark silence of the woods.

While she had managed to deflect the strike, the unexpectedly powerful impact had numbed her entire right arm. What a heavy sword.

Scattered sparks from the collision whitened across her vision. She could barely discern the path of a second instantaneous attack.

Unblockable with a single strike.

Immediately making that judgment, Asuna charged at her opponent and launched a succession of rapid stabs.

Her third jab finally managed to parry the incoming strike. Switching to the offense, Asuna finally caught a glimpse of the attacker’s features.

She gasped in shock.

An astonishingly beautiful knight with snow-white skin, roughly the same age as she was, was glaring at Asuna. Her sapphire eyes emanated an animosity that seemed to crackle like electricity.

Her golden hair, seemingly fashioned from the element itself, billowed in the air. Her hefty armor and smooth longsword both gleamed a flaxen yellow.

From a distance, the girls looked on, eyes wide. Finally, they managed weak cries.

“Knight-sama, please stop!!”

“She is not an enemy, Alice-sama…!!”

— «Alice»!

Hearing this name, Asuna was stunned again.

This elegant swordswoman before her, wielding a weapon the weight of a boulder — was the world’s first true Bottom-Up AI, the highly adaptive artificial intelligence, ALICE? She was the goal of Project Alicization, and what RATH and the invaders both thirsted for — the center of everything.

But why was Alice attacking her?

Trying her best to block the golden blade, just as Asuna was thinking of what to say, a voice akin to the music of a famous violinist flared from Alice’s cherry-colored lips.

“Who are you?! What do you want with Kirito?!”

As soon as she heard those words.

Asuna tossed everything aside, feeling a certain emotion well up inside her. Specifically, it was a sudden fury.

Her reflexive retort only added fuel to the fire.

“Why…? Because he’s mine!!”

Gritting her pearly-white teeth, Alice yelled:

“What did you say?! You barbarian!!”

The two swords separated with a shower of sparks in all directions.

The golden-haired swordswoman, deftly leapt away, then immediately lunged forward with a vicious upper slash. But this time, Asuna stood her ground, and her right hand launched a familiar combo attack.

Within the nighttime forest, a gigantic crescent moon collided with streaks of comets, emitting a blinding flash.

The impact blew through Asuna’s elbow straight to her shoulder, knocking the wind and tongue out of her mouth. She was only able to match her opponent because of her super account Stacia’s rapier «Radiant Light», a «GM item» that possessed a higher priority than that of Alice’s golden longsword.

Their weapons met again, but a miniscule gap formed between them.

A deep masculine voice broke the silence.

“Ah, the scenery here is excellent. Two blossoming flowers. Ah, what a sight. What a sight.”

A pair of strong arms appeared from where previously there was nothing, their fingers gently gripping the middle of Alice and Asuna’s swords.

“?!”

As if it were sandwiched between a vise, the sword was immovable. The arms effortlessly lifted both swords along with the speechless Asuna and Alice, gently separated the two fighting swordswomen, then placed them back on the ground.

Standing there was a huge man who looked more than forty years old.

On top of what looked like a kimono, he wore defensive gear of the lowest grade. Whether it was the iron-colored longsword hanging from his waist or the arms extending from his sleeves, both were carved with a myriad of scars. He perfectly fitted the description of a hero.

As soon as the man appeared, Alice puffed up her cheeks and began to protest as though she was suddenly younger:

“Why stop me, Oji-san! This person could very well be a spy for the enemy…”

“I don’t think so. This young lady helped me escape from the jaws of death. I believe the same happened for you all?”

The latter question was directed towards the wide-eyed girls in gray uniforms who stood to the side.

Both of them nodded furiously, and spoke in thin voices.

“Y… Yes, Honorable Knight Commander. That woman saved us.”

“She just, with a wave of her hand, sent the enemy soldiers into the abyss… It was, simply a miracle.”

The man who had been addressed as the Knight Commander glanced at the large crevice that Asuna had created, then put his hand on Alice’s shoulder and explained:

“I saw it too. Multicolored light came down from the sky, and the ground split into a hundred mel crack. Even the Fist Fighters’ Guild couldn’t get away, and they panicked. Fact is, this young lady saved us just as our army was on the verge of defeat. This isn’t the time to fight.”

“……”

Golden longsword in hand, Alice continued staring suspiciously at Asuna.

“Then… what Oji-san wants to say is, this person is neither a spy for the enemy, nor impersonating a divine figure, and she’s the real Goddess Stacia?”

Asuna bit her lip in silence. If this Knight Commander, the man seemingly at the top, were to regard her as a god, things would become very messy.

Fortunately for her, the man’s chiseled mouth slackened a bit, and he replied.

“Probably not. If she really were a Goddess, she would be an existence far colder and crueler than the even the Highest Minister. Like, mercilessly ending the lives of those murderous wild men and all?”

Alice had no retort to that. Her hostility unchanged, she flashed a flaming glare at Asuna and placed her sword back in its scabbard with a shakin!

Asuna also had many questions. What was that for? What are you to Kirito-kun? But with a deep breath she could finally take, she suppressed her anger.

Asuna’s mission was to bring Alice to the «World End Altar» at the southernmost part of the Underworld, and eject her Light Cube from the Light Cube Cluster.

In other words, she had to convince this girl, who did not mix well with her at all, to leave the Human Empire Army. This definitely was not the time to fight.

Sheathing her weapon, Asuna spoke to the Knight Commander:

“Yes… You’re right. I’m not a goddess; I’m a human like you all. However, I do have some knowledge of your situation. That’s because I am a human who has come from outside this world.

“Outside, huh…”

The Knight Commander stroked his chin stubble, then smiled crudely.

In contrast, Alice’s eyes went huge and she demanded shrilly:

“From outside…?! Then, are you from where Kirito came from?”

Asuna was astonished. It appeared that Kirito had already explained some things about the Underworld to Alice as well.

Taking the Fluctlight Acceleration Rate into consideration, Kirito had now remained in this world for three years. Asuna could not help but wonder that how much time he had spent together with Alice in this world.

It seemed as though Alice was thinking the same thing. Before she could ask more questions, the Knight Commander stopped her with a wave of his hand.

“What comes next is probably for the rest of the Knights and Guards to hear. We’ll talk about this over tea. Besides, the enemy aren’t going to make any more moves tonight.”

“… I see.”

Alice nodded, her face stern.

“All right, it’s settled… Could you young ladies over there help us prepare some tea, and get me some liquor as well? You ladies should hear this too.”

On receiving the Knight Commander’s instructions, the young uniformed trainees replied and saluted respectfully.

Asuna wanted to see Kirito once again before she left this place, but before she could move, Alice’s piercing voice entered her ears.

“Let me be clear: from now on, no one is to enter that wagon without my permission. Ensuring Kirito’s safety is my responsibility alone.”

This is the worst.

Asuna calmed her bubbling emotions.

“… Same to you, stop calling my Kirito-kun directly by his name…”

“What did you say?!”

“… No, nothing.”

Hmph, Alice and Asuna spun away from each other, and followed the Knight Commander’s retreating shadow.

The two girls left behind — Tiese and Ronye exhaled simultaneously.

“Looks like… things are going to be rough from now on.”

Tiese suddenly raised her hands and said to her friend:

“Come on, we’ve got water to boil! Right, which wagon was the liquor in? … Come on, Ronye!”

Before she chased after the red-haired girl, Ronye murmured something that no one else heard.

“… He should be, my senpai, too…”

 

5

Asuna held the teacup with one hand, while gazing at the crackling bonfire.

What realistic flames.

They were not even in the same dimension as the special effects flames depicted with the rendering engines in SAO and ALO. Every spark that danced up when dry wood cracked, the thick, charred smell floating in the air, and even the warmth she felt on her face and hands, all stimulated Asuna’s senses more realistically than reality itself.

Not just the fire. The rigidity of the folding chair’s seat, the smooth feel of the wooden cup, and the rich, soothing aroma of the tea; along with the trees around them, their leaves rustling crisply in the night wind.

Since entering the Underworld, having to deal with endless drama, Asuna had been unable to fully experience this world. As she revived her senses, she was truly impressed by the STL’s «Mnemonic Visual».

It seemed that Kirito, who had been logged in without knowing that this was a virtual world, must have become well-experienced before realizing the circumstances. After all — there was not a single NPC in this world.

Asuna turned away from the bonfire and gazed towards the people gathered in the round forest clearing. Quick introductions had already been exchanged.

Sitting to her left and hogging what looked like a bottle of vintage liquor was Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli. Beside him was Integrity Knight Alice, dressed fully in golden armor. Against the fire’s orange glow, her golden locks deepened in color; Asuna could not help but acknowledge her stunning beauty.

To Alice’s left sat a shiftless youth of about fifteen or sixteen years old, who seemed to be an Integrity Knight of the highest «Class». His name was Renri.

Further down, a slender female Knight sat as quietly as a shadow. Her shining new armor seemed not to fit her at all: from time to time, she either pulled on the straps, or loosened them, looking just like a beginner in a VRMMO. But when she was introduced as Sheyta, in the split second that Asuna met her long, narrow eyes, a certain indescribable boldness seemed to lay within.

To Sheyta’s left, across the bonfire from Asuna, around ten people, addressed as Guard Leaders, sat side by side in a row of chairs. Among the tough, hardened faces, there was one female.

To Asuna’s right, the young uniformed girls from before were curled up together, sitting as quietly and as far away as possible. The red-haired girl named Tiese and the tea-color haired girl, Ronye, appeared to be younger students from the academy that Kirito had enrolled in half a year ago.

After sizing up each of the ten-plus swordsmen, Asuna was touched.

Without doubt, they were real humans.

Their appearance, actions, and even their breaths was absolutely devoid of artificiality. Furthermore, the fact that only one artificial Fluctlight, Alice, had managed to break through their «inability to defy law and order», was quite unbelievable.

She now completely understood Kirito’s wish to protect each and everyone of them.

I will inherit that will.

Asuna steeled her determination, then took a deep breath, and spoke:

“Greetings, everyone. I believe this is the first time we’ve met. My name is Asuna. I’m from the outside world.”

 

While it had only been eight days since her departure, Alice was beginning to miss the short, idyllic time she had spent living reclusively with Kirito in the border village of Rulid, when she would often push Kirito in his wheelchair on their way to the nearby farm.

Surrounded by a white wood fence, woolly sheep would graze nonchalantly on the green grass, and among them, the pure-white lambs would race around, full of energy.

Alice could not help but marvel at their blessed lives. Not having to worry about the world outside that fence, peacefully living in captivity, protected by humans.

She never expected that —

The people of this world were leading lives exactly like those sheep.

That otherworldly girl Asuna’s words had dealt an earth-shattering shock to all of the Knights and Guard Leaders. Even Knight Commander Bercouli, while maintaining his usual relaxed expression, must have been thoroughly shaken inside.

Asuna had called the world where the Human Empire and Dark Territory existed together using a word in the Sacred Tongue: “Underworld”. And outside — not geographically, but conceptually — was a strange realm termed the “Real World”.

Of course, the Guard Leaders successively raised various questions about that world, which seemed no different from the land of the gods.

The visitor replied. The people living in the Real World, like them, were human beings with emotions, desires, and limited Life.

And right now, at a highly specific location in the Real World, two powers were jostling for control of the Underworld.

Asuna seemed to be a messenger for one of them. Her goal was to protect the Underworld.

The other side’s goal was — to retrieve one single human from the Underworld. After that, they would undertake the destruction of the entire world, rendering everything they knew into absolute nothingness.

Hearing those words, the Guard Leaders began making a reckless racket.

What quelled this disturbance was Bercouli’s thunderous bellow.

Isn’t it the same? The three-hundred year old hero pointed out. Beyond the Human Empire lies the endless Dark Territory, with an army of tens of thousands just waiting for a chance to invade. Until today, there has not been a single one who has sat down and carefully thought about this reality. It’s just an extra world outside of ours, what are you afraid of?

After this violent reasoning was conveyed through a steady and reliable voice, everyone accepted its view. Bercouli turned to Asuna and asked: Who is the person that your enemies are looking for?

The outsider’s light brown eyes swiveled from Bercouli to Alice.

“… M… me?”

Not just Renri; Tiese, Ronye and even Sheyta revealed expressions of shock. Only Bercouli nodded as though he was expecting such an answer.

“As I expected… the «Radiant Medium»…”

Asuna did not understand what that meant. She blinked at the Knight Commander, then turned back to answer.

“We don’t have much time. To prevent the Underworld from being destroyed, Alice has to come to the Real World with me. If Alice is no longer here, the enemy will stop interfering with this world…”

“W… What kind of joke is that?!”

Alice yelled, unable to restrain herself any further. She leapt from her chair, slapped her chestplate with her right hand, and proclaimed, with increasing intensity:

“Asking me to flee?! To abandon this world, and abandon everyone here, and my comrades in the Defense Army… to flee to the Real World?! Impossible! I am an Integrity Knight! My greatest and only mission is to protect the Human Empire!!”

Now Asuna leapt to her feet. Tossing her chestnut hair that was reminiscent of silver oak acorns, she retorted with a voice like a silver bell:

“All the more reason! If the enemy… is not from the Dark Territory, but a thief from the Real World, and if they were to get hold of you and drag you out of this world, everyone here… not just them, even the earth, the sky, everything will be destroyed! We don’t even know when the enemy will attack!”

“Hold on, about that, you’re a bit late about that, Asuna-san.”

The Knight Commander spoke calmly:

“The enemy you speak of are already here.”

“Uh…”

To Asuna, who was suddenly struck dumb, the Knight Commander took a slow sip of liquor and continued:

“Seems like everything’s been revealed. The «Radiant Medium». «Dark God Vector», who’s chasing her. The god Vector who’s directing his troops right now must be someone from the Real World like you.”

“Dark… God.”

Asuna whispered, her face pale. She continued with some incomprehensible words:

“I really didn’t think of that… the Dark Territory super account actually wasn’t locked with a password or anything…”

“Ex… Excuse me.”

Breaking the brief silence, young Knight Renri timidly raised his hand.

Seeing that everyone turned to look at him, the boy asked softly, his face reddening:

“About that, what exactly is a Radiant Medium? And, the thieves from the Real… World? Why do they want Alice-dono?”

The one who answered his question was someone whom everyone thought would remain as «The Silent» during this meeting, the gray Knight Sheyta.

“Because she broke the Seal of the Right Eye.”

Alice jumped at that, momentarily forgetting her indignation. Her hand unconsciously moved to her right eye, and she asked:

“You… You know about that, Sheyta-dono?! How?!”

“It still hurts… whenever I think about it. At that time, to cut down… the strongest thing in the world… the invincible Axiom Church… it must have felt good.”

“…”

The Knights and Guard Leaders fell into a thin silence. Bercouli coughed and pretended not to hear that.

“Ah, I believe there are others here with similar experiences. If the slightest sliver of dissatisfaction or resistance was held against the Highest Minister’s power or the Axiom Church’s authoritative body, one’s right eyeball would begin to flash with red light, coupled with a stabbing pain. Typically, whatever thoughts one had would be forgotten due to the excruciating discomfort. But if one continued these unstable thoughts, the pain would intensify without end, and their right vision would be dyed completely red — and eventually…”

“Their entire right eye would explode.”

Alice whispered, her memories of that detestable moment still fresh.

“Then… Alice-dono…”

To Renri’s horrified voice, Alice nodded slowly and continued, her voice soft.

“I battled Senate Elder Chudelkin, and the Highest Minister Administrator. To summon that determination, I temporarily lost my right eye.”

“Erm… May I ask…”

A voice even smaller than Renri’s requested an opportunity to pitch in, belonging to the girl Ronye of the Supply Team, who had been listening wide-eyed until now.

“Eugeo-senpai too, to protect me… when he swung his sword for Tiese and me, and committed the crimes, from his right eye… Blood…”

That should be it as well. Alice nodded. Fighting countless battles as a civilian, defeating even the Knight Commander, and displaying perfect Incarnation against Administrator. That young man was definitely able to surpass the mere Seal of the Right Eye.

That’s right, during the battle on the topmost floor of the Cathedral, Administrator seemed to say something about the Seal of the Right Eye to Alice. Was it, Code eight seven…?

Without waiting for Alice to recall Administrator’s words, Bercouli spoke while rubbing his chin.

“Hm… In other words, those ‘enemies’ are looking for those who broke the Seal on their own. Asuna-san, do you people of the Real World have the same Seal as well?”

“… No.”

After hesitating for a moment, the chestnut hair swung from side to side.

“I don’t have any such experience. Maybe the only difference between Real World people and Underworld people is whether they can break laws or commands.”

“That means, Lil’ Miss Alice is now an existence exactly the same as you guys? But don’t you think that’s weird? If you’re the same, why do they have such a request? Aren’t there plenty of people in the Real World?”

“That’s…”

Hesitating more than she had before, Asuna fell silent.

But just as she dislodged her frozen memories, Alice’s shout interrupted Asuna’s words.

“That’s it! Code 871!”

Wringing her hands, she said frantically:

“The Highest Minister called the Seal of the Right Eye as Code 871. She said it was added by «that person»! I don’t know exactly what that means, though…It’s not Sacred Tongue, so it’s the language of the Real World?!”

Code871…?”

Asuna repeated, dumbfounded. Her brows creased in surprise.

“… Did… someone from RATH add the Seal…? But wouldn’t that… just interfere with their purpose…?”

She sat back down, thought for a moment, then —

She suddenly looked petrified. Her pale pink lips trembling, she squeezed out a hoarse whisper.

But Alice did not understand what she said.

“… Damn it!… There’s a mole in RATH…! On the other side of this wall…!”

 

Asuna was deeply shaken.

Blind obedience of a higher power. In order to remove the only flaw in the jewel of the artificial Fluctlight, Higa Takeru and the RATH technicians had put in immense effort.

This was because the current artificial Fluctlights were unable to evaluate the morality or utility of commands they were given. If they were loaded as AI onto war machines, even if their command system was hacked and they were ordered to attack the troops they belonged to or engage in indiscriminate murder of civilians, they would not be able to evaluate their commands, instead choosing to execute them directly. They were different from the regulations within Western armies, who possessed the ability to defy orders.

Therefore, to engineer artificial intelligence that was able to break through this limitation, RATH undertook simulated experiments in the Underworld that spanned hundreds of years.

However, if the Seal of the Right Eye or «Code 871» was an apparatus to prevent the experiment from exceeding, if it had been inserted by someone unknown within RATH.

This attempt at disruption probably originated from a directive issued by the attackers on the Ocean Turtle.

And now this mole was still able to move freely in the upper shaft on the Ocean Turtle. If he wanted to, he could even slip past the other technicians and enter STL Room 2, where Kirito and Asuna lay completely defenseless.

Brushing away the chill than ran down her spine, Asuna continued to think:

Her only option was to run her current «Creation Goddess Stacia»’s HP to zero — to death, in other words. But if that happened, she would not be able to log back in with this super account. With the system administration authority commands currently locked, they were unable to reset account data.

Since the attackers were using Dark God Vector, an account of the same level, he was undefeatable with a civilian account. To protect Alice, and then log out safely, she needed this account no matter what.

— What to do? What should I do first?

After racking her brains for a split second, Asuna inhaled deeply, and decided.

She would prioritize the Underworld. This world ran at a speed one thousand times that of the Real World. Before the smallest movement happened in the Real World, they should still have some time.

In this time, she had to come up with a plan to protect Alice from the enemy-led Dark Territory army, and extract her to the Real World. If she failed at that, and Alice fell into enemy hands, those people would destroy all of the other Light Cubes without hesitation to solidify their status as the holders of the single true AI. They would destroy the Underworld, which Kirito had put his life on the line for.

***

From the reports they were receiving, it seemed that Yuuki Asuna’s judgment had been completely correct.

But neither her, nor Higa Takeru and Kikuoka Seijirou on the Ocean Turtle, had realized an important truth.

Ever since Gabriel Miller and Vassago Casals had logged in, the FLA rate had been slowly decreasing. This operation was being performed by Critter, the technician of the attacking team, but the one who gave the order was Gabriel.

In about twenty hours, armed JSDF personnel from the Aegis destroyer «Nagato» would storm the floating structure. In that sort of situation, it was understandably inconceivable to RATH that the attacking team would lower the Acceleration Rate and throttle their own necks.

Of course, the reason behind their lowering of the Acceleration Rate was beyond anyone’s imagination.

But —

In this instant, only one person had seen through Gabriel’s motive.

Concealed in Yuuki Asuna’s portable terminal, «she», the world’s most advanced «Top-Down» artificial intelligence, stealthily planned as she flew through the internet.

***

“What’s… wrong?”

Alice had stopped using honorifics some time ago. Hearing her words, Asuna suddenly raised her head and shook it.

“No… It’s nothing. Sorry to interrupt.”

“You didn’t interrupt, we’re still waiting for your reply.”

Alice said testily.

“So, do you have any clues about the name «Code 871»?

“Yes. I was just about to explain.”

Alice retorted coolly. Even Asuna herself was perplexed at this.

Asuna could not remember ever arguing with anyone. She was on good terms with her friends — Lisbeth, Silica, Leafa, Sinon, and even with her classmates in school.

Speaking of which, when was the last time she had contended with some like this? She thought for a moment and nearly burst out laughing. Without a doubt, that person would be Kirito.

Ever since they had met on the first floor of Aincrad and somehow struck up an interdependent relationship to begin clearing that death game, Asuna had stared at and shouted in Kirito’s face numerous times, occasionally even getting physical.

Maybe, there would come a time when she could get along with this girl named Alice.

— No, that’s not very likely.

As Asuna thought, she opened her mouth:

“… Then, the person who set up what Lil’ Miss Alice called «Code 871», or the Seal of the Right Eye, was someone from the Real World… in cahoots with the enemy.”

“Hmm… Well, besides destroying one’s right eye, is there another way to remove this so-called Code?”

At Bercouli’s inquiry, the otherworldly girl shook her head apologetically.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know either… I don’t think that it’s something that can be removed from within the Underworld, I’m afraid.”

Listening to Asuna’s clear voice, Alice felt uneasy.

Of course, her first impression of her was terrible. Asuna suddenly getting that close to Kirito without explanation left her deeply vexed. After all, she was the one who had protected and cared for Kirito and his injuries.

Then again, this girl named Asuna, like Kirito, was from the Real World. Judging by her words and actions, she must have had some relationship with him there. Then, since she chased him to another world, she at least had some say in the matter.

Was this the reason to her anxiety? She had thought that she was the only one in this world most obligated and responsible for Kirito, yet now there suddenly comes someone to challenge that?

Or was it her competitive spirit towards Asuna’s frightening swordsmanship?

That was Alice’s first time witnessing a strike with such ludicrous speed. It was a speed that not even Vice Knight Commander Fanatio could match. It wasn’t merely a continuous strike; it felt more like multiple stabs coming at exactly the same time. If their swords had been knocked slightly off course upon hitting each other, her opponent would likely have recovered faster.

Or was it —

Because Asuna was so extraordinarily beautiful that just looking at her made you sigh?

An exotic face without even the slightest tinge of austerity, as though it were the embodiment of the word “exquisite” itself. The bonfire brightly illuminated her white skin and her soft, billowing chestnut hair, which looked to be top-quality strands of silk braided together. The Guard Leaders’ eyes all revealed intoxicated gazes of admiration. If Asuna had called herself Goddess Stacia, they would have believed her without question.

She wanted to know.

Not about the Real World or about the enemy, but about this Asuna person. The relationship between her and Kirito.

Catching herself floating within her own thoughts, Alice regained her senses, struggling to concentrate and catch up with the conversation. Asuna continued to the Knight Commander:

“… The «enemy» are afraid of those who have broken the Seal in the Underworld… in other words, if their proverbial «Radiant Medium» shows up and is taken away by some external force. Because the Radiant Medium in the Real World is actually an extremely precious existence.”

“That’s what I don’t understand.”

Knight Commander Bercouli muttered, twirling his bottle of liquor.

“Your «Radiant Medium», or Lil’ Miss Alice, should be an existence equal to that of a Real World person, shouldn’t she? I just asked, why are they you all so stubborn about this? Whether it’s the enemy, or Asuna-san, what exactly do you want Lil’ Miss Alice to do once you take her away?”

“Um…”

Asuna bit her lip.

Her long eyelashes drooped as she showed a pained expression.

“… I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you yet. Because, I… hope that Alice-san can come to see and judge the Real World with her own eyes. It’s not the kingdom of the Gods, nor is it a fantastical utopia. In fact, it’s far uglier and dirtier than this world. I believe the same about the motives of the people after Alice-san. That is to say, I believe she would not forgive the Real World and the people living there. But… It’s not just that. There are many people who wish to protect this world. Just… Just like Kirito-kun.”

Alice silently listened to the other girl’s long, difficult speech.

Yet she found herself surprised, nodding slowly.

“… Okay. I won’t ask any more questions for now.”

She slowly parted her hands, and shrugged.

“No matter what, I’m not going to do what I don’t want to do. Besides, I haven’t decided to go yet. Although I do wish to see the outside world, that’s still a matter we can discuss after we… defeat Dark God Vector and his invading army, and establish peace.”

Alice thought that Asuna would rebuke fiercely again, but she only hesitated for a moment and spoke slowly:

“… Yeah. Since that Dark Territory army is being controlled by a Real World person, it would be quite dangerous for Alice-san and I to leave on our own. The enemy should have thought of that as well. I’ll… fight alongside everyone. Please leave the fight with Vector to me.”

Cheers were heard from the Guard Leaders. To them, no matter what she herself claimed, Asuna was no different from Goddess Stacia. At least, if she had that earth-shattering super attack, it wouldn’t matter if the enemy had twenty thousand or two hundred thousand troops.

The Knight Commander seemed to be considering the same thing. He crossed his arms and asked:

“All right, we’ll put aside the matter of the Real World for now. Back to the problem at hand… That skill you used just now, Asuna-san, can it be used infinitely?”

“… I’m sorry, but this will disappoint you.”

Asuna shrugged her shoulders and slowly shook her head.

“That sort of power places great mental strain on its user. I would be able to withstand it if it were merely discomfort, but if I use it without restraint, I may be forcibly ejected to the world to preserve my mental health. If that happens, I can never come back. Unfortunately, I can only perform large-scale geographical commands once or twice more.”

Let down by their excessive anticipation, the faces around the bonfire looked disappointed. Noticing this, Alice sprang to her feet again.

“How can we only rely on an outsider’s power to protect our world?! She has already given us enough aid. Now, it’s our turn to show the outsider what we, the Knights and Guards, are capable of!”

After this fierce call to action, Alice felt Asuna’s surprised gaze on her and avoided her eyes embarrassedly.

The first to agree was Renri, the youngest Knight present.

“Y… Yeah! Didn’t you hear that, she’s not a god, she’s a human like us! Then we can fight as well!”

With words that seemed to resonate from the two Divine Instruments at his waist, the young Knight looked towards the red-haired girl a distance away from Asuna. Alice chuckled inwardly.

“I wish to… battle that person again, too.”

«The Silent» Sheyta murmured, throwing her hat into the ring.

The Guard Leaders soon assented one by one, exchanging glances with one another.

That’s right, we’ll all work together and protect what we love – came the yells and shouts from the Guards who were gathered on the grass around them. As if it were swept up in the wills of the crowd, the fire also began to crackle more vividly, smoke flying towards the night sky.

***

Was this — really okay?

In her assigned tent, Asuna began to think as she removed her pearly-white armor.

According to Higa and Kikuoka’s intentions in the Real World, Asuna was supposed to quickly bring Alice to a system console and extract her to the safety of the sub control room.

But what then? According to Kikuoka, as long as they procured Alice’s Fluctlight and analyzed its structure, they could load it into an unmanned weapon as the basis for its AI. The remaining ten thousand artificial Fluctlights would then lose all purpose. It would also do them no good to waste an immense amount of power and space to keep them running.

Even they only rescued Alice and destroyed the rest of the Underworld, what would Kirito think after he wakes up? No, would he even be able to wake up in the first place…?

No, she could not falter like that again. She had come all this way to meet him, so she must try her utter best to connect with him, speak with him, and search for the key to his recovery. Higa had said that they could only hope for a miracle from within the Underworld to heal Kirito.

Right now, she wanted to be in the supply tent where he was, to hold him, and talk to him. During this period of diving in, she wanted to always be by his side. She never wanted to abandon him and travel to the system console in the faraway south.

— At least, just for tonight…

Making her decision, Asuna removed all of her armor, changed into a female habit and tunic, then moved to the entrance of the tent to listen.

Despite her protests, the Knight Commander had assigned a Guard to her as security. The young man, nervous with his task as Goddess Stacia’s bodyguard, was restlessly pacing around the tent’s surroundings.

When the footsteps passed over the grass directly across her and neared the middle of the back, Asuna hastily left the tent. In three silent and huge steps, she concealed herself within the shadow of a giant tree ten meters away.

Stealing a glance behind her, she saw that the guard seemed not to have noticed anything, continuing his rounds. After silently apologizing to him, Asuna walked into the depths of the forest.

The Human Empire Army, tired after their large-scale battle, had all retired early, with the exception of a few sentries. The sentries were focusing on the outskirts of the forest, so Asuna was able to sneak into the supply tent area undetected.

Close your eyes and focus.

She did not know whether it was the power of her super account or pure intuition, but she could immediately feel the location of her lover.

Taking a few steps in that direction, Asuna suddenly noticed in the corner of her eye a flash of golden light.

Damn — She timidly turned to look.

A silhouette stood with its back against the tent, arms crossed. Like Asuna, it wore a simple gown with a yarn scarf. Flowing golden hair that waved in the night wind. Deep blue eyes that projected a frightening glare.

“… I knew you would come.”

Alice snorted softly, shaking her golden ponytail.

Staring directly at her opponent of the same height, same body, and same age, Alice was just about to speak her prepared words.

Didn’t I say that you are not allowed near here? Just go quietly back to your own tent.

But the breath she had inhaled felt difficult to vocalize. Because within the eyes of the outsider Asuna, she saw an emotion that could not be clearer.

Yearning. Pain because of that yearning, and determination because of that yearning.

Fuu — sighing deeply, Alice asked herself.

— This is not me yielding. I am the one with the highest responsibility to make sure Kirito awakes. This reality will not change. Because Kirito has fought with me, hurt with me, and fallen out of exhaustion before me.

So this is — a part of what I have to do to make sure Kirito comes back.

“… Let’s make a deal.”

Hearing Alice’s short remark, Asuna blinked in confusion.

“I’ll let you see Kirito. I’ll also tell you what I know. In exchange, you tell me everything you know about Kirito.”

After less than a second of confusion, Asuna smiled confidently.

“All right. But it’s a long story. One night may not be enough to tell it.”

How uncomfortable. Pouting again, Alice demanded:

“How long have you been with him?”

So, Asuna’s light brown eyes stared up at the night sky, then she curled the fingers on her hands and replied:

“Well… we were battle partners for two years. Then we dated for a year and a half. We even spent two weeks living together.”

— “Dated” meant a romantic relationship, right? No, maybe… But I’ve lived with him for longer…

Alice wavered slightly, then threw out her chest and retaliated:

“I’ve spent an entire night fighting by his side. Then I took care of him in the same roof, staying by his side for half a year.”

It was Asuna’s turn to be shocked, but she quickly recovered. Is that so — she murmured.

The two glowered at each other, as though fully clad in armor, ready to draw swords and duel. The night air crackled, and dry leaves unlucky enough to land between them exploded: pishi, pishi.

The one who bravely entered the battle between an Integrity Knight and the Creation Goddess was — the thin voice of a young girl.

“Um…”

Shocked, Alice whirled in that direction. Asuna followed suit.

The voice had come from a young trainee from the supply team with a soft cap on her tea-colored hair and a gray nightgown — Ronye. She shyly clasped her hands together in front of her chest, and spoke again.

“Actually, I, I spent two months cleaning Kirito-senpai’s room, and he taught me sword skills as well, and even treated us to the Jumping Deer Inn’s honey pies several times! It does seem like very little compared to you two, but… I also want to share…”

Alice blinked a few times before exchanging glances with Asuna again. Both of their mouths smiled wryly at the same time, as though sighing together.

“Sure, Ronye-san. You were a companion, after all.”

Alice shrugged and nodded towards the petite girl. She could not help but praise the trainee exhaling and smiling in relief: what commendable bravery.

But — she was not the only challenger.

“May I partake in the information exchange?”

A seemingly masculine tone, yet a distinctively clear female voice. A rather tall woman had appeared under the moonlight without a sound. Gazing at her graceful features, Asuna let out a weak voice.

“… You’re the…”

Without a doubt. she was the female guard corps leader from the meeting a while ago.

The woman, whose brown hair was tied in a long ponytail, nodded.

“I am Sortiliena Serlut of the Norlangarth North Empire Knight Order. Although I wanted to wait until after the battle had ended… or so I thought, but due to my long association with Kirito, I couldn’t help but join in.”

Alice sighed again, raised her shoulders, and spoke to the tall Guard Leader:

“… And what sort of association is that, Guard Leader Serlut?”

“… If you don’t mind, please call me «Liena», Knight-dono.”

Sortiliena coughed softly before playing her trump card:

“When I was at the Norlangarth Empire Sword Mastery Academy,Kirito served as my valet for a year. I also passed some sword skills to him.”

“………”

The other three sank into silence at this revelation.

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Asuna and Alice met eyes, simultaneously displayed expressions of “Really, now”, and nodded.

“Then you must have quite a bit of information too, Liena-san. Please come in with us.”

With an odd atmosphere, the four of them began silently moving, and Alice led them into a small tent. Simple bedding lay on top of two leather pads next to each other. One of them was empty, while a black-haired youth with his eyes closed lay on the other. Poking out of woolen blanket, two longsword hilts were slightly visible.

Seeing this, Asuna’s lips trembled with a deep longing. Alice did not discern it.

“… What’s the matter?”

At Alice’s question, the otherworldly swordswoman momentarily forgot the animosity between them, and answered with a smile:

“Kirito of the «Dual Blades». That’s what they call Kirito-kun over there.”

“… Hoh…”

Now that she mentioned it, when Kirito fought that decisive battle against Administrator, he was indeed freely wielding his own black sword and Eugeo’s white sword. That definitely did not look easy.

Alice moved to sit down opposite the sleeping Kirito. She beckoned the other three to sit as well, saying:

“Then let’s start from there.”

 

The dark night over the black wilderness became colder and colder, with only the violet moon shining silently over the land.

Whether it was the Guards of the Human Empire Defense Army or the Dark Knights and Fist Fighters of the Dark Territory army in their camp that was now split by a large crevice, all had sunk into deep sleep.

In one corner of the silent night before the final battle between the two sides, only one candle inside a tent could not be extinguished. Sounds of quiet laughter came from behind the thick curtain, but the only one who could hear was a lone owl perched on a tree branch.

After the oil in the lantern was depleted, the four young women, exhausted from talking so much, sank into sleep beside Kirito.

A moment later, far away in Central Capital Centoria in the Human Empire, a bell steadily tolled midnight. Of course, this sound did not reach the camp in the Dark Territory.

At the same time —

A sensation so faint it could be described as the «vibration of time» reached every single person in the Underworld. That was the sensation of the FLA Rate dropping to 1:1, but even if someone were awake, they would find it extremely difficult to feel it.

Underworld Human Empire Calendar, the eighth day of the eleventh month, Year 380, 0:00.

Real World Japan Standard Time, 7 July 2026, 0:00.

The timelines of both worlds were completely synchronized.

 

6

— Have you ever had a premonition of death?

Suddenly, a distinctive sound penetrated the ears of Bercouli Synthesis One, and his eyes snapped open.

The rays of dawn, tinged an unknown color, began to slowly permeate the dark tent. The air was cold as ice, and his exhaled breath held traces of white.

He knew that it was currently 4:20 AM. Bercouli, whose consciousness was one with the Divine Instrument «Time Piercing Sword», which had once been the hour hand of a giant clock face, was exceptionally keen at determining the time. In ten minutes, he would need to relay an order to the messenger guards to blow the horns and wake everyone up.

Reaching behind his head with thick fingers, the aged Knight could hear the words that had broken into his dreams.

Have you ever had a premonition of death?

The one who had asked him was his only superior, the Highest Minister Administrator.

He had already forgotten the nature of this memory. One hundred years ago? Or was it one hundred and fifty years ago? In the past, to prevent his soul from breaking down, memories deemed unnecessary had been deleted from his mind. Bercouli could not properly chronologically organize memories long past.

Yet that scene still remains so clear.

Maybe she was growing tired of those infinitely repeating days — although they were of her own desire to begin with — Administrator would occasionally call the man whose age was second only to her, Bercouli, to her bedroom for drinks together.

The silver-haired ruler reclined on a deep red couch, wearing only a thin silk scarf. She had asked that particular question as she lazily played with her wineglass.

He sat straight on the floor and crossed his legs. After taking a bite of cheese that accompanied the wine, Bercouli moved his chin and twisted his neck.

He was accustomed to the ruler’s repetitive antics; Bercouli was not looking to please her, but only saying what he wanted to say.

— A premonition of death. When I was still a young brat and was defeated by a Dark Knight from the previous generation or the generation before that, it felt pretty bad.

So the Highest Minister giggled with her hand over her mouth, gently swirling her crystal chalice.

— But didn’t you take his head off anyway? I recall that you seemed to transform it into a gemstone and placed it over there. You shouldn’t have premonitions any longer.

— Yeah, I couldn’t remember. But why do you think that way? Your Excellency shouldn’t be associated with this type of feeling.

At this question, the ancient young girl shifted her body and crossed her long legs, smiling coyly.

— Oh dear, you don’t understand it at all, Bercouli. Every day… I have this feeling every day. Whenever I wake up… No, in my dreams as well. Because I have not ruled over everything yet. There are still enemies alive. And, maybe at a certain time in the future, new enemies will be created.

— Really, being the Highest Minister is a pretty stressful job.

One hundred years after that conversation, far away from the Human Empire in the corner of a Dark Territory forest, Bercouli grinned fearlessly.

— Now, I finally understand your words.

The so-called premonition of death was just another side of one’s lethal pursuits of danger.

A strong enemy that realizes the end of everything, searching for a proper death, unable to resist no matter how much it kicks or screams… You’ve been seeking it out, after all.

Just like me right now.

Just like me, who can clearly feel death knocking on my door right now…

After Administrator’s death, Knight Commander Bercouli, who had become the longest-living human in the world, threw back his covers and donned a white shirt on his muscular body. He tied on his belt, laced his shoes, and stowed his beloved sword on his waist.

Walking out into the cool morning air, Bercouli started towards the messenger guards’ tent to relay the wake-up call.

***

Almost exactly at the same moment.

Near the Dark Territory military camp two kilol to the north, against the slowly arriving dawn peeking up from the horizon, ten dragons took off into the air.

In the fists of the Dark Knights on their backs were grasped bundles of thick straw rope. One end of each was tied to wooden stakes driven into the ground on the edge of the great canyon.

As the stretched ropes whistled in the wind, the dragons flew across the nearly hundred-mel wide valley and arrived at the southern edge. The Knights that dismounted were not wielding swords, but hefting great hammers. They began to pound new stakes into the ground with some unfamiliarity.

Emperor Vector’s new orders were —

The Fist Fighters’ Guild and Dark Knight Order were to cross the the valley on those ten ropes.

The enemy would naturally interfere by attacking, but they must cross regardless.

Those who fall should not be saved.

Food and other supplies need not be transferred over.

In other words, they were to sacrifice a great many people in a ruthless fight to the death, with no provisions. Fist Fighter Guild Chief Iskahn and ex-Dark Knight Commander Shasta’s young successor both clenched their teeth in fury.

But they had not the option to disobey the Emperor, their ultimate ruler.

They had hoped at least to cross the valley before the enemy noticed them — yet the generals’ wishes were dashed when Human Empire cavalry scouts on night watch sighted the Dark Territory army from a faraway hill, then turned their horses towards the knoll one kilol south.

***

With her mouth closed, Asuna chewed the stiff roasted bread with cheese, smoked meat and dried fruit, thinking while still bleary-eyed from sleep.

… Since the time’s been accelerated by a thousand, I can eat a thousand meals in the time that the people in the real world take to eat their meal. That won’t make me fat, will it…

Stealing a glance ahead of her, she saw Integrity Knight Alice and Guard Chief Sortiliena nibbling on their sandwiches, their eyes also clouded with sleep. Although it was through the fabric of their gowns, she could make out their even bodies, without a trace of flabbiness.

Was there anything like lifestyle-related diseases in this world? Or were body types decided by parameters granted and set at birth? Or — were appearances merely reflections of one’s mentality?

Beside them, Ronye was tearing the sandwiches into bite-sized pieces and feeding them to a half-awake Kirito. According to Alice, his life had been preserved through feeding, but it always seemed to her that Kirito’s body was getting thinner every day.

Just as if he wanted to disappear from this world himself.

“… Kirito-senpai looks a little better this morning.”

Ronye suddenly murmured, as though she had read Asuna’s thoughts.

“And he’s eating, too.”

“Could it be the effect of four pretty girls sleeping beside him?”

Asuna could not help but smile complicatedly at Alice’s quip.

Last night had eventually become a situation in which all four of them had lay down beside Kirito and chatted deep into the night. The four of them each shared their memories together with Kirito, but they had far too little time, and eventually surrendered to the demon of sleep.

What felt like an instant later, the call of the horn awoke them. Then, they dug into breakfast that Ronye brought over like they were now, as Asuna thought about her lover.

— Kirito-kun doesn’t change wherever he is. He’s that kind to everyone, which causes him too much of a burden, hurting himself in the process.

— But this must be one step too far. Actually putting a whole world on his shoulders alone. You needed to rely more on me and other people. Because everyone likes you very much.

— Of course, I like you the most.

Asuna felt her heart fill with determination once more. When Kirito awoke, she would tell him with a smile: Don’t worry, everything’s been taken care of. What you wanted to protect, I and everyone else have protected.

Asuna’s will seemed to infect the other three around her. Alice, Ronye and Sortiliena looked towards her with gazes now fully awake, and nodded forcefully.

Then, the horn that announced an enemy attack rang throughout the camp with an urgent rhythm.

With bread dangling from her mouth, Alice raced to her tent, slipped into her armor, grabbed the Fragrant Olive Sword and sprinted back out.

After meeting up with Asuna, who was also prepared for battle, she said to Ronye and Tiese, “Please take care of Kirito”, and left for the north side of the camp.

At the boundary of the dark forest, she saw the silhouette of Bercouli with his sword. After receiving the cavalry scouts’ report, the Knight Commander watched as Alice, Asuna, and, after a few seconds, Renri and Sheyta arrived, then grunted with a serious expression:

“So it seems that the enemy — the Real World guys really have tricks up their sleeve. Seems like Emperor Vector is pretty merciless.”

What he said next even made Alice bite her lip.

A forceful cross of a hundred-mel valley merely by thick ropes. If you fall, you die. A task impossible without steely physical and mental fortitude. To be able to use such a strategy, Vector must not care for the details — or rather, he views the lives of his soldiers as mere wastepaper.

In that case, even if one third of the enemy perished at the bridge, their main forces were still nearly seven thousand strong. One thousand Human Empire troops taking them head-on had no hope of victory.

Their original strategy of attacking with arts while concealed in the forest was now impossible in the light of day. Should they retreat further south and wait for another opportunity to ambush?

Knight Commander Bercouli’s words interrupted Alice’s confusion.

“This is war.”

The ancient hero muttered softly. Bulges of muscle visible on his thick neck, he continued:

“Putting aside the outsider Asuna-san, this isn’t the time to sympathize with the Dark Territory. If we wanna live we have to take this opportunity.”

“Opportunity… you said?”

At Alice’s surprised, parroted question, Bercouli replied with a glint in his eye.

“Yes. … Knight Renri.”

His name suddenly being called, the young Integrity Knight immediately straightened his back.

“Y… Yes.”

“What’s the furthest range of your Divine Instruments the «Twin Winged Blades»?”

“Yes. Normally thirty mel, but under Recollection Release, about seventy, no, a hundred mel.”

“Very good. Then… now we four Knights will storm the main enemy force in the valley. Alice and I will lead, with Sheyta focusing on protecting Renri. Renri will use his Divine Instruments to sever the enemy’s ropes at one end.”

Alice quietly gasped.

So — the enemy would definitely protect their crossing ropes with their lives. Even if they blocked the opening with a human shield, the throwing knives would curve in their flight, sail above their heads and directly attack the ropes. As Bercouli said, this was a merciless strategy.

But the young Knight only fifteen years of age slammed his right hand to the left side of his chest, face filled with firm resolve.

“Yes, sir!”

Then, The Silent Sheyta said in a low voice:

“Leave it to me. I will… protect him.”

Afterwards, Asuna, who had been purposefully left out by Bercouli, stepped forward.

“I’m coming too. The more defenders, the better.”

Alice closed her eyes for a moment, then said to herself softly:

As the situation stands now — I, who burned ten thousand Demihuman troops to death with a gigantic art and murdered two thousand Dark Sorceresses with the Armament Full Control Art, am no longer qualified to seek an honorable fight.

Now, I can only draw my sword, and kill the enemy.

“— Let’s hurry.”

Nodding to all four, Alice looked towards the knoll to the north. The black ridgeline was already tinged with the deep red glow of dawn.

***

Hurry up!

Hurry, hurry!

Clenching both his fists, Fist Fighters’ Guild Chief Iskahn shouted silently for the umpteenth time.

On top of the ten thick ropes stretched across the yawning valley, the Fist Fighters and Dark Knights divided themselves up and began to cross, one by one.

They had attempted to curl their hands and feet around the ropes and inch across while hanging upside down, but the soldiers, having never experienced any kind of training in that area, moved extremely clumsily. If they had been allocated time to make and distribute safety harnesses for everyone, that would have been beneficial, but the Emperor had given no such quarter.

Furthermore, Iskahn’s request to be the first to cross had been instantly rejected. It appeared to be an explanation for last night’s expansion of orders, punishment for taking only a small number of his subordinates to engage the enemy. You all must follow my orders alone. The Emperor’s ice-cold voice resounded in his ears.

Before Iskahn, who was gritting his teeth and staring straight ahead, the frontmost subordinate finally reached the middle of the rope bridge.

He could see from this distance the copper red skin radiating heat in the cold morning air, droplets of sweat reflecting light. What an arduous task.

Just then.

A strong gust of wind blew through the valley.

Pyoooo! The ropes creaked in protest and began to shake left and right.

“AH…!”

Iskahn yelled, in spite of himself. A handful of tribal soldiers, their palms dripping with sweat, slipped off the rope and plunged downwards.

Beastlike roars shook the valley. The young Chief clenched his teeth. Those were not screams of terror. Those were bellows of remorseful deaths, unable to be afforded an honorable end on the battlefield, forced to play acrobatics.

After the wind passed by, a two-figure number of Fist Fighters and Dark Knights had fallen into the unending darkness of the valley.

But the soldiers behind bravely continued crossing. Every three mel a new soldier would grasp the rope.

More gusts of wind occasionally, unforgivingly taking lives with them every time. Without him noticing, Iskahn’s clenched fists began flaring red.

— Deaths in vain.

No, not even that. They didn’t even leave bodies to bury.

And the goal this time was not the wish of the five races of the Land of Darkness; it was merely the Emperor’s desire for a woman called the «Radiant Medium». He didn’t know how to apologize to the tribesmen like this.

— Faster, faster. Everyone get across, before someone gets in the way again.

Whether the young Chief’s wishes had reached him, or whether they had merely grown accustomed to his actions, the one in front increased his speed and finally arrived at the other side. After about five seconds, a second one stepped onto firm ground.

At this rate, it would optimistically take more than an hour for ten thousand soldiers to cross the valley on ten rope bridges. In this long period of time, the enemy had no way of not discovering them here.

But now he could only pray for their lucky one-in-ten-thousand chance.

The sun rose in the eastern sky at a frightening speed, throwing reddish light onto the black ground.

In contrast, the number of soldiers who had gotten across only increased at an infuriatingly slow pace. More and more fell into the valley, increasing from fifty to a hundred, two hundred, and just as that number hit three hundred.

At the black horizon line in the red sky, five silhouettes on horseback appeared.

At this distance, even Iskahn with his superhuman vision was unable to discern the features of the horseback enemies.

— Only five of them… Scouts? Then there’s still time before the enemy adjusts their movements.

That judgment, or rather, hope, was instantly shattered.

The five Knights suddenly charged straight towards the valley with alarming speed. Billowing white cloaks, multi-colored shining armor, and what stood out the most to Iskahn, who was unable to deny what he saw radiating from all five of them, thick, powerful fighting intent rising from them like steam.

— Integrity Knights! And five of them!!

“Enemy attack!! Defend!! Protect the ropes at all costs!!”

Iskahn yelled, not knowing whether his voice could even reach the other side at this distance.

Seemingly hearing the order, half of the three hundred or so soldiers who had successfully crossed the valley surrounded the wooden stakes bound with rope, forming a circular arrangement. The rest prepared to repel the attack.

The enemy Knights that flew across nearly a thousand mel of wilderness from the hills to the valley leapt off their horses simultaneously, grouped together, and lunged towards the ropes on the right side.

Leading them was a hulking man in loose white clothing. To his right was a female Knight with shining golden hair and armor. To his left was a female Knight with whom Iskahn had fought against last night, named Sheyta.

Surrounded by the three of them was a shortish Knight, and behind him seemed to be another, but he could not see exactly.

Sweat flying from their naked bodies, tens of Fist Fighters sprinted towards them.

“URAAAA — !!”

With powerful screams, fists and feet flew towards the Knights.

Flash, flash flash. Numerous, instantaneous flashes of light.

Showers of blood plunged into the sky like a reverse waterfall. The hands, feet and heads of the warriors were easily sliced from their bodies.

Then.

Silver light that shined in its path flew high into the air from behind the three Knights.

It drew a curved path above the Fist Fighters’ heads in the red sunrise — flying straight towards the rightmost thick rope with a great number of soldiers still fallen on top of it —

“NOOOOO — !!”

Iskahn’s keen ears, undisturbed by his own scream of despair, detected the bzzp of a soft cutting sound.

The rope snapped back, dancing in the air like a great snake.

Tens of warriors were instantly thrown off and plunged below.

As this scene burned into his wide eyes, Iskahn felt words tumble from his numb mouth:

“Is this… war? Can you call this war?”

Behind him, his aide Dampe was at a complete loss for words.

Forced to play acrobatics, his fellow tribesmen who were unable to even stand in front of the enemy, devoured by a crack in the ground, had definitely not endured their grueling training to meet such an end.

How were they to explain this to their aged parents and sons and daughters back in their homeland? They had not died honorably in battle — but disappeared into the ground without a wound on their bodies. How was he to say such a thing?

Frozen to the spot, Iskahn’s ears rang with the regretful shrieks of his fighters.

I will avenge you all. So please forgive me. Forgive me.

Even as he murmured in his heart, Iskahn was unable to immediately point the finger at who he should accuse.

Facing an enemy several times more than them, the enemy Integrity Knights were already giving it their all. Pleading with them to stop until the last person crossed the valley was impossible. On the contrary, their boldness to seize the opportunity and send only five people to attack was impressive.

Then who?

Who should pay for the senseless deaths of the warriors?

Their commander, who can only clench his fists and stand still like a fool?

Or —

Suddenly, excruciating pain that shot across his right eye made Iskahn grit his teeth. Blood-red light wobbled his vision. Yet before him, two more ropes split apart, dancing in the air.

***

In an instant, three of the ten rope bridges were severed. Gabriel Miller watched from behind his own troops, his cheek propped on his hand.

As expected, in terms of AI, the Human Empire Units excelled a bit more. No, just from situation control, he could see a great disparity between them. Including last night’s first battle, the Dark Territory army had the tables turned on them in an instant, and suffered painful counterattacks. No matter how he thought about it, it did not seem like a simulation game in which he fought against the CPU.

The results of this game involved Gabriel losing more than 70 percent of his own Units. But he did not feel a sliver of impatience.

Even as he watched hundreds of main force Units get eliminated, he was merely waiting. Waiting for «that moment».

At this time, Critter, in control of the Ocean Turtle main control room, had successfully decreased the FLA rate to 1:1, an action that synchronized their time with that of the real world. They had spent that much time doing so in order to minimize the impact of decreasing the rate and to prevent the RATH worker who had logged into the Underworld from noticing.

At the same time, via satellite network, he had released a URL onto a large-scale video game social media website in the United States. The link pointed to a certain publicity website that Critter had quickly set up.

On the website, a sensational font accompanied with blood splatter special effects declared the following:

An all new VRMMO is now open for a limited-time closed beta.

The world’s first killing-only PvP game is born.

Fully human avatars. No levels, no ethical limits.

Users who saw these fiery words marveled at the sheer audacity of the development company, yet rejoiced beyond belief.

As of now — July 2026, as part of a counterterrorism initiative, American VRMMOs had suffered legal limitations. Even for independent games developed through use of The Seed software package, if it had not been reviewed by industry rating boards and had a Code of Ethics applied to it, running its servers would be prohibitively difficult.

Therefore, activities of cruelty were strictly limited; if one insisted on adding «dismemberment» content, the characters must be set to insectoid figures, like «Insect Site»1. These restrictions, worse than that of Japan, the birthplace of VRMMOs, frustrated players all over the US. Yet now, a mysterious closed beta announcement has suddenly appeared.

The URL was distributed all over through SNS, and people downloaded, copied, and reuploaded the connection client with frightening speed. In a mere four hours, the number of AmuSpheres connected to the client that Critter had created broke thirty thousand connections.

Gabriel’s greatest plan that he was unwilling to sacrifice valuable real world time for.

That is, handing over the Dark Knight accounts in the Dark Territory to the entire American VRMMO player base, letting them connect to the Underworld to display their own fighting strength.

Not even Kikuoka Seijirou, leader of RATH, or the designer of Underworld Higa Takeru could even dream of such an absurd situation.

But the underlying architecture of Underworld merely utilized The Seed’s standard VRMMO software package. If it were a game world merely expressed through polygons, anyone could log in as long as they possessed an AmuSphere, and could touch Objects — or kill other characters.

And it made no difference whatsoever whether the killed characters were real world people or Underworld people.

 

7

Gabriel and Critter’s secret plan was completely out of the RATH technicians’ imaginations.

On the other hand, even if they discovered it, they had no way of cutting off the satellite connection when the main control room was occupied like this.

But at the moment Critter sent out the suspicious URL, someone discovered that packet.

From within the portable terminal that Yuuki Asuna had brought with her, the Top-Down artificial intelligence that had been observing the Ocean Turtle’s internal status — Yui, accessed the announcement website and correctly extrapolated Gabriel’s goal.

She searched for a way to transmit a warning to the physically locked sub control room, but Asuna’s terminal had been left in her cabin, and no matter how much she sounded her ringtone, no one could hear it.

As a last resort, Yui could only pull her consciousness back to Japan on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, and called several portable terminals at the same time.

***

Asada Shino, a high school girl in the real world and an elite sniper in the virtual world, was jerked awake, and jumped off her bed in her own apartment.

Her bedside clock read 3:00 AM. Although she had been awoken at a time like this, she was not the least bit drowsy. The reason for that was the melody she heard was Kirigaya Kazuto’s ringtone.

Was it Kirito, who had disappeared unconsciously, calling her?

Clumsily pressing on the terminal and putting it to her ear, she heard the frantic voice of a young girl.

“Sinon-san, it’s Yui!”

“Eh… Y-Yui?”

Of course, she knew Kirito and Asuna’s «daughter» — the artificial intelligence Yui. A week ago, when she had been discussing Kirito’s disappearance with Asuna and the others, she had personally witnessed Yui’s high-tech information processing abilities and emotional expressions.

But, to call her directly by telephone was completely out of her expectations; Shino was temporarily speechless. A slightly electronic, sweet yet urgent voice reached her ear:

“I’ll explain the details later. Get ready to leave your house and take a taxi. I’ll send the destination and the shortest route to your terminal. First, I’ll wire the taxi fare into Sinon-san’s electronic wallet.”

Then, with a charin sound effect, Shino’s terminal notified her of an online money transfer.

“Hah… T-Taxi? Where…?”

Shino stood as Yui instructed, slipping her foot out of her sleepwear and asked with a heavy head. But Yui’s next words jolted Shino’s consciousness awake like ice water.

“Please hurry. Papa and Mama are in danger!!”

***

“D… Danger?! Onii-chan and Asuna-san?!”

A high school student and swordswoman, also Kirigaya Kazuto’s younger sister, Kirigaya Suguha demanded as she buttoned her pants.

“Leafa-san, you’ll wake up Aunt Midori if you’re that loud.”

Listening to the calm voice from the terminal, Suguha hurriedly closed her mouth.

“Ye…Yeah. Hey… This is my first time sneaking out this late…”

“Very regrettable, but now there’s not much time to explain the reason for your excursion to obaa-sama. Just leave a message in your home server explaining that you needed to attend an early morning club activity.”

“O… Okay. Wow… Yui sure is a great strategist.”

Suguha exclaimed as she finished dressing. She descended the stairs with soft steps, and extended her hand towards the front door handle. Although they lived in an ancient Japanese-style house, their online security system still ran throughout the night, but the alarm line seemed to have been severed.

After Kazuto disappeared, her mother came home early every day. Feeling guilty for her own actions, Suguha put her hands together and apologized before leaving through the entrance.

— I’m sorry, Mom. I will definitely save onii-chan.

After reaching the main road, a taxi appeared before her. Probably one that Yui had reserved online. Although the driver was slightly surprised at Suguha’s age, after she explained that her relatives were ill, she glanced at her terminal and said:

“Um… Please head to Tokyo harbor.”

She probably shouldn’t be too specific and say “Roppongi”.2

***

Higa Takeru felt a half-eaten Energy Bar hit his leg after dropping from his desk, and suddenly opened his eyes.

After blinking forcefully a few times, he confirmed the time on the wall clock. There was still a while before 4:00 AM, Japan Standard Time. Glancing beside him, he saw that the RATH technicians watching the sub control room all had fatigued expressions.

Professor Koujiro Rinko sat horizontally on on a chair at the control console, her head drooping up and down as she drifted in and out of sleep. Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka was not asleep, but his thin slits for eyes staring at the main monitor from behind his black-framed glasses has lost their usual sharpness.

On the other hand, four technical crewmembers were sprawled like corpses on mattresses laid out beside the wall. Considering that any Defense Officer among the Self-Defense Force could be leaking information, Kikuoka had stationed them to guard the pressure-resistant wall partition beneath the sub control room.

Since they had been attacked by a mysterious paramilitary group, fourteen hours had elapsed — or rather, finally passed by.

Ten hours still remained before the Aegis destroyer «Nagato», which was protecting them from a distance — or so it was originally — would give the order to storm the Ocean Turtle. Under this situation, their wait was despairingly long. It was even more so in the time-accelerated Underworld.

Ten hours had passed since Yuuki Asuna had dived in with Super Account 01. Calculating according to the internal acceleration rate of one thousand times, that equated to ten thousand hours — over one year. But there had been no news on whether her mission to protect Alice had succeeded or failed.

“Is it really that far away… from the Human Empire to the World End Altar…”

Higa mumbled, his mind constructing a map of the Underworld that resembled the RATH logo —  Just then.

The telephone on the control console burst to life with a earsplitting pi pi pi, pi pi pi. Higa jumped without thinking.

“Ki… Kiku-san, the phone.”

Wondering whether something had happened downstairs, he notified the commander.

Also startled by the phone, a figure in a Hawaiian shirt clamored for the receiver, his clogs slipping from his feet.

“Sub control room, this is Kikuoka!”

Although his voice was slightly hoarse, he still managed a forceful reply. After a moment, from the receiver came — not the voice of Captain Nakanishi, in command of the Defense Officers, but the hesitant voice of a young man.

“Uh, um, this is the STL development headquarters of RATH… Right? I’m Hiraki of the RATH Roppongi branch…”

“Hah? R-Roppongi?”

In regards to Kikuoka, this was an extremely rare, slow voice reserved for situations completely outside of his expectations. But Higa was the same.

Why would the Roppongi branch be contacting them at this time? The technicians there were completely unaware that RATH was a disguised business venture operating on government defense budget, that its headquarters was based not on Japanese soil but in the Ocean Turtle floating far out in the south Pacific Ocean, and the name Project Alicization should be completely foreign to them.

Of course, they were even more unlikely to know that RATH was currently under attack by a mysterious enemy. The Roppongi branch was set up entirely for the development of STL-related technologies, merely an outside institution.

Right… STL…

Suddenly, a feeling of noticing something flew past in Higa’s mind, but Kikuoka coughed loudly before Higa could catch it.

“Ah, ahh, yes. I am Kikuoka of the STL development headquarters.”

“Ah, hello, hello! We’ve met before. Long time no see, I am Hiraki, honored to be the development director as you appointed me here!”

— No need for this corporate talk now, just get to the point!!

Higa screamed silently. Kikuoka put on the same expression, but the words coming out of his mouth effused a faux corporate-like tone.

“Ah, greetings and thank you for your hard work, director Hiraki. It’s pretty late; are you working overtime?”

“No, it’s just that I missed the last train as I was drinking. It’s all the fault of the office location. Oh, Roppongi.  Ah, don’t tell the higher-ups, heh heh.”

— You’re talking to a higher-up right now! The highest-up! Now just spit it out!!

Whether Higa’s willpower had achieved some effect or not, Hiraki stopped his nonsense, and quickly changed his tone.

“Ah — right, it’s like this… We’ve got a problem, it’s… something strange. Right now, someone’s suddenly come in from the outside without an appointment…”

“From the outside? Is it a client?”

“No, it’s got nothing to do with that… Also, they look kind of like high school girls, and there are two of them…”

“HAH?!”

Kikuoka and Higa, along with Professor Koujiro who had stood up at some time, yelped in unison.

“High… High school girls?”

“Yeah. I tried to turn them away, since this company’s secrecy policy is very stringent, you know. But… the things they’re saying, makes me think… “

At Hiraki’s meandering words, even Higa rose to his feet, both hands on the control console. Once more, Kikuoka exerted his admirable iron willpower, and asked steadily:

“So, what exactly did they say?”

“I remember it was like, immediately contact Kikuoka Seijirou at the RATH headquarters, and tell him: confirm the Underworld FLA rate now… That’s what they said.”

“Wh… Whaaaat?!”

The two men yelped in unison again.

Why would high school girls from outside know these words?! These are not words that those who aren’t familiar with all of Project Alicization would know.

Higa, his mouth hanging open, exchanged looks with Kikuoka and automatically turned towards the control console, his fingers sailing on the keyboard.

On the pitch-black monitor, the current time acceleration rate appeared.

x 1.00.

“Gh… One?! When did this happen?!”

Higa turned away, breathing hard, as Kikuoka frantically shouted into the mouthpiece.

“Na… Name. Did those two girls mention their names?”

“Ah, yes. That was funny… They didn’t sound like their real names at all. They told me to tell Kikuoka-san that they were ‘Sinon’ and ‘Leafa’. They looked Japanese, though.”

Clack.

That dry noise was the sound of the clog hanging on Kikuoka’s right foot falling to the floor.

***

Only after the automatic lock on the door to RATH’s Roppongi branch had clicked open, and Asada Shino and Kirigaya Suguha had trotted in, did the artificial intelligence Yui feel slightly calmer.

In particular, she breathed a small hoh of relief, and allocated a large portion of her calculating power on another task she was running at the same time.

Yui estimated that achieving her goals would come with a great deal of difficulty, because this was something that she definitely could not bring about on her own.

But at the same time, if she failed, the ones she held most dear, Kirito and Asuna, would be faced with grave danger.

Pulling her consciousness away from Shino’s portable terminal, Yui gazed with round eyes at each of the four fairies across from her.

Yui and the others were currently within the VRMMORPG — «ALfheim Online», in Kirito and Asuna’s virtual cabin on Floor 22 of New Aincrad.

Before Yui, who had transformed into a Navigation Pixie and was floating in the air, sitting on the couch was the Cait Sith player Silica, with triangular ears and small fangs.

Beside her, with a head of metallic pink hair, was Lisbeth, a Leprechaun.

Leaning his waist on a table a slight distance from them, his standing red hair tied in a drab bandanna, was Klein, a Salamander. And beside him was a huge gray-skinned man with his arms crossed, Agil, a Gnome.

They were battle-worn VRMMO players often known as SAO survivors, who had lived through the death game «Sword Art Online», and also best friends of Kirito and Asuna. Even though it was currently very early in the morning, as soon as they received Yui’s call, they had quickly logged into ALO, and had just finished listening to an update on the situation.

Scratching his bandanna-wrapped head, Klein snorted in a naturally carefree voice as seriously as he could:

“Dammit… That idiot got mixed up all by himself in something huge again… a virtual world made by the Self Defense Force, and a real artificial intelligence «Alice» that appeared there? That’s beyond the boundary of a game now.”

“That so-called artificial intelligence, isn’t just an NPC in the game… but an existence equal to humans like us?”

Lisbeth asked. Yui turned towards her and nodded forcefully.

“Yes, that is correct. Her structural principle is completely different from an existing AI like myself; she is a real soul. Known internally at RATH as «Artificial Fluctlights».”

“And they want to put them into war machines for use in war…”

Watching Yui and the little dragon Pina, who was curled up on her knee, Silica wrinkled her brow.

“Actually, RATH meant to display it as a technological base for a demonstration of power… But according to my estimations, the attackers currently occupying the Ocean Turtle have a more detailed plan.”

At Yui’s words, Klein mused with a troubled look:

“Who the hell are they, those attackers.”
“There is a 98 percent chance that they are either affiliated with the US military or the US intelligence department.”

“US… US military?! The American military?!”

Yui nodded towards Lisbeth, who had recoiled in shock.

“If Alice falls into the hands of the US military, the day when she is loaded as AI onto unmanned weapons and thrust into warfare will eventually arrive. Papa and Mama are probably trying to stop this from happening as much as they can. Because… Because…”

Suddenly, Yui became confused at the inconceivable effect that her own emotional output software was creating.

Large droplets of liquid rolled down her face.

Tears.

— I’m crying. But, why…?

As though her confusion was driven away just before gushing out, Yui tightly clasped her tiny hands in front of her chest and continued:

“Because, Alice is the proof that ever since SAO began, every single VRMMO world and the many people living within them have existed, and the result of the consumption of real resources. I am positive. The real goal of the creation of The Seed software package is the birth of Alice.”

The four players listened silently. Yui’s tears flowed unceasingly as she continued:

“… It is because, among the countless worlds connected together, the laughter, crying, sadness, and love of countless people… the light of their souls are reflected, so that true humanity can be born in the Underworld. Alice was born from Papa, Mama, Leafa-san, Klein-san, Lisbeth-san, Silica-san, Agil-san, Sinon-san… and the cradle woven from many other people’s souls!”

Yui also closed her mouth, and no one said anything for a while.

Vol_16_-_328
Page 328

Yui was unable to discern the thoughts and emotions created in the consciousnesses of the people around her. An existing AI that was merely an information aggregate possessed no real emotions at all, and was therefore unable to process real emotions. There was no one who understood that better than she did.

Yes, this strong feeling of wanting to protect Kirito and Asuna, and the people she loved only stemmed from the most basic code written into her mental health counseling program.

And what she said were merely words comprised of simple lists of information, leaving her uncertain of how much she could convey to human hearts. Before this meeting began — Yui had feared this very moment since the instant she had flown from the Ocean Turtle with a heavy mission.

So when she saw the transparent tracks of tears suddenly flow from Lisbeth’s eyes, Yui experienced rare shock.

“Y… Yeah. Everything, is connected. Time, people, like rivers.”

Silica, her eyes wet, also rose to her feet, knelt in front of Yui and gently hugged her with both hands.

“Don’t worry, Yui. We’ll help Kirito and Asuna. Please, don’t cry anymore.”

“Yup. Dun trea’ us like strangers, Yui-ppe. There’s no way we’ll abandon Kirito.”3

Klein tugged his bandanna downwards, and agreed in a cracked voice. Agil nodded beside him, and declared in a solemn baritone:

“We still owe him a lot. Now is the time to repay some of that.”

“… Everyone…”

Hugged by Silica, Yui could only squeeze out one word.

Because she could not stop the unknown tears that had started just a moment ago.

— There shouldn’t be any time left. I still have a lot to say. In terms of my action prioritization, I should be calmly relaying the information. Has my emotional imitation circuit broken?

But Yui was overruled by a certain code that was berating her own entire existence, and could only repeat the same words over and over as she sobbed.

“… Thank you, everyone… Thank you everyone…”

After a few minutes, Yui managed to fight back her tears and quickly explained the current situation to the four players and her estimations of what would happen next.

The situation was that the attackers and occupiers of the Ocean Turtle, where Kirito and Asuna had created an announcement website in hopes of recruiting players. It was estimated that players lured by this website would begin appearing in massive numbers in the Underworld.

Klein furrowed his brow and spoke in a serious tone:

“There’ll be at least thirty thousand players diving in from the US… maybe even a hundred thousand or more… To them, Kirito and Asuna, along with the Human Empire army with Alice among them, are merely PvP targets.”

“What if we went and followed the threads on American video game social media? Expose the experiments and the attack, and turn them away from this fake closed beta… How about that?”

At Lisbeth’s direct suggestion, Yui gently shook her head.

“The reality of the situation is that Japanese and American troops are engaged in a top secret battle. If we arbitrarily expose that, it may have the opposite effect.”

“‘Your opponents are real humans, please do not harm anyone’… If we write something like that, it’s probably going to cause more trouble, huh.”

Silica murmured gloomily.

The deep silence was immediately shattered by Klein’s energetic voice.

“Hey, let’s fight fire with fire, then! The number of internet shut-ins here will never lose to that of the US. Let’s make our own closed beta website, have, um… RATH or whatever, prepare some more accounts, and we’ll have thirty to forty thousand people in no time!”

“But, there’s one very troublesome problem.”

Agil said shortly, his log-like arms crossed.

“What problem is that?”

“Time difference. The time now in Japan is still 4:30 AM, which is when the smallest number of players are online. On the other hand in the US, it’s 12:30 PM in Los Angeles, and 3:30 PM in New York. In terms of online player numbers, the other side has way more of them.”

“Hnnn……”

Klein moaned, as if he had just realized this.

Yui nodded forcefully, having the exact same idea from the beginning.

“Agil-san is right. On top of the time difference problem, we have much fewer VRMMO players here in the first place, so recruitment will be slower, which means that we will probably be unable to gather up even ten thousand people. In other words, if we use accounts with the same level as the enemies’, the chances of us matching them is very slim.”

“But, the god-level account that Asuna is using is already gone, right? There’s no time to train our level from scratch like Kirito… Looks like we can only choose the strongest ones out of the accounts that RATH prepares and do our best…”

Yui looked towards Lisbeth, who was speaking with a stiff expression on her face.

“No… There are still more accounts. There are accounts that are stronger than the default accounts the enemy is using in terms of level and equipment.”

“Eh… Wh-Where?”

“Everyone has them. The accounts that everyone is logged in with right now.”

To the gasping four players, Yui began to explain the core details of her mission.

She knew that she was about to request of them a ludicrous sacrifice — in the fullest sense of the phrase, she needed them to hand over one half of themselves.

But at the same time, Yui deeply believed that these people would definitely agree.

“— Account conversion! All of you and many other VRMMO players will need to convert the characters raised in numerous worlds of The Seed, and transfer them into the Underworld!”

(To be continued)


References

1. VRMMO game mentioned in Volume 7 Chapter 7.

2. Roppongi, a district of Tokyo, is famous for its active night club scene.

3. Here, Klein speaks in a much less formal, relaxed tone. It is difficult to replicate in English, but here is an attempt.