Sword Art Online: Volume 17 – Chapter 20

Translator’s Notes:

Sword Art Online Volume 17 is part of the Alicization arc. It consists of Chapter 20 and Chapter 21.


Translation Credits:

Translation – defan752, luacs1998

Editing – CJ, David Ruegg, defan752, ZeHaffen, FatedWolf, Shiina, DarthMewtwo

Scans – ruranobe.ru

Illustration Editing – Mttblue2

Consultation – SAO Wiki


Chapter 20 – Each of Their Battles

7 July 2026 / Eighth Day1 of the Eleventh Month of the Human Empire Calendar, 380

1

5:00 a.m.

More than 3,000 players gathered in a great dome in the World Tree that stood in the heart of Alne City, at the center of the world of ALfheim Online.

The winged knight monsters defending the dome’s roof gate had been removed.2 Instead, the nine fairy races now used this space to meet and negotiate, or as a venue for events.

Only four players were facing the roughly 3,000 other players who had been gathered to this large, inconvenient meeting.

The hulking Gnome Agil, Salamander samurai Klein, Cait Sith beast tamer Silica, and Leprechaun blacksmith Lisbeth— partners of the «Black Swordsman» Kirito, who was still diving in the «Underworld», yet to awaken.

At 4:20 a.m., when Klein and Lisbeth had been sending out in-game messages to every single friend on their lists, there were only three Lord-class players online. But, while pleading with them and their subordinate officers, they resorted to the taboo method of begging them to contact other players in real life. As a result, all of the players currently in the square had managed to assemble in just 40 minutes.

In this sizable, hemispherical space, nearly 30% of the floating or standing players were using newly created accounts. They were certainly not new to VRMMOs, however. They were veterans of other  The Seed games, diving here by request of friends who had ALO accounts.

In other words, the 3,000 people gathered in this World Tree dome were the elites of the elites among Japanese VRMMO players. They were the final hope of Yui, the top-down AI: they were the only force that could save the Human Empire Defense Army in the Underworld.

In the hushed dome, the Leprechaun blacksmith Lisbeth’s magically amplified voice continued to broadcast emotionally.

“… What I’m telling you guys is not a lie, nor a joke! A Japanese research organization has used our national budget and The Seed to build a virtual world called «Underworld», and thousands of American players who know nothing about it are about to dive in and massacre the residents inside!”

Lisbeth felt embarrassed at her own nationalistic tone, but remained encouraged by reassuring herself that was only to her advantage; she continued shouting:

“The residents of the Underworld aren’t just NPCs! They are true artificial intelligence, born from the data of the countless VRMMO worlds that you’ve all been playing in! They have emotions like we do, they have souls like we do! Please, to protect them, please lend us your strength! Please convert the character data that you all are currently using into the Underworld!”

Ending her five minute speech, Lisbeth surveyed the players, and hoped.

The crowd of fairy faces only looked confused. Of course, there was no way they could immediately understand just by suddenly hearing all of this. Even Lisbeth herself still found it hazy after listening to Yui’s explanation of the Underworld’s structure, and the «Artificial Fluctlights» living within.

An elegant hand rose out of the shocked, clamoring players.

Sylph Lord Sakuya came walking out, her slender body wrapped in green robes.

“Lisbeth. I don’t think that you and your friends would do all of this just as a prank, and what’s more, there must be something big if even that Kirito boy hasn’t logged in for ten days. But…”

Sakuya’s fluent and calm voice wavered in perplexity.

“… To be honest, it’s difficult to believe this all of a sudden. There exists AI with human souls, and the American military is trying to seize them…? It’s all terribly far-fetched… Of course, to prove your words, we’d only have to log in and see for ourselves… But you just mentioned that diving into the «Underworld» involves a few problems, right? Could you explain them first?”

—This moment has finally come.

Lisbeth took a deep breath, and closed her eyes for a moment.

This is the moment of truth. If I fail here, no one will come help us at all.

Snapping her eyes open and giving a sweeping look to Sakuya, the other Lords in front of her, and the countless players, Lisbeth replied adamantly:

“Okay. —The Underworld doesn’t operate like a normal VRMMO game at all, so there’ll be a few problems when you dive into it. First of all, there’s no controllable UI in the Underworld. In other words, you can’t log out on your own.”

The hubbub suddenly became louder.

Can’t log out on your own; was this not a phrase that conjured images of that death game from the past, «Sword Art Online»? These days, all games built off The Seed, including ALO, provided two ways of logging out: either by controlling the UI or through a voice command.

“The only way to log out is to ‘die’ inside. But that brings me to the second problem. In the Underworld… there’s no Pain Absorber. If you take heavy damage that reduces your HP to zero, you should feel rather severe pain.”

The uproar grew even louder.

Pain isolation was a compulsory feature of any modern VR server. In virtual worlds without this function, getting slashed by a sword or burnt with fire would hurt as intensely as it would in the real world. Depending on the circumstances, bruises might even appear on one’s physical skin.

Yet there was a far more severe problem that came with this dive.

Waiting until the disturbance subsided slightly, Lisbeth then informed the players of the third and greatest sacrifice.

“—One more. The Underworld servers are currently in a state where even the developers can’t operate them. Which means… we can’t guarantee that everyone’s character data can be converted back to their original games… In some situations, the characters themselves might even be lost.”

After a short pause—

Terrifyingly loud roars of fury flooded the vast dome.

Lisbeth, Klein, Silica and Agil lined up in the middle of the floor, with Yui standing on Klein’s shoulder in her tiny pixie form; standing silently, their bodies endured the wave of voices that lashed at them from all directions.

This reaction was exactly what they had expected.

The 3,000 top players had spent inordinate amounts of time and effort raising their characters. For ALO, they had spent hours furiously slaying monsters that yielded only one experience point; it was repeating the mundane task of emptying a lake with a bucket, day after day.

How could they remain silent upon being told that there was a chance of losing the characters they had built by infusing their entire spirit into them?

“Y… You’re fucking kiddin’ me!!” A player who ran out of the crowd shouted, jabbing his index finger at Lisbeth.

He was a Salamander dressed in crimson full-body armor, carrying a battleaxe on his back. He appeared to be a Commander-level player just below Lord Mortimer and General Eugene.

Pushing up his helmet visor and exposing his eyes that scorched with rage, the Salamander bellowed in a voice loud enough to shut up the entire group behind him:

“You gather everyone here and tell us to dive into some fishy server; that’s already pretty ridiculous. Now you’re telling me about character loss?! How the fuck are you gonna pay us back if they’re gone forever?! Or is this just a trap to weaken our entire race?!”

“………Gh!”

Lisbeth stuck out an arm to stop a red-faced Klein from jumping forward, and tried her best to reply calmly:

“I’m sorry, we can’t. I know very well that the characters you’ve trained are priceless. That’s why we’re pleading you to help us… All I’m saying is, please help our friends in the Underworld, they’re putting their lives on the line to defend against the Americans’ attack.”

Even though she was not shouting anymore, Lisbeth’s voice still carried across the entire dome. The Salamander seemed to hold in his anger for a moment, but suddenly it came sputtering out furiously again.

“The ‘friends’ you talk about are just the SAO survivors, aren’t they?! Those guys who make that face that screams ‘I’m super special’! I know all of it, you original SAO lot have always looked down on us!!”

Now it was Lisbeth’s turn to be speechless.

Lisbeth had never once had thoughts like those the Salamander was accusing her of. But come to think of it, she could not be entirely sure that such a mentality had never come to her. Having situated her player home within floating New Aincrad instead of a town on the ground, she almost never went below and talked only to her old friends; that much was true.

The Salamander continued relentlessly, as though seeing through Lisbeth’s hesitation:

“Who cares about artificial intelligence, or national secrets?! Don’t get too cocky and bring real world shit into a VRMMO! You can go by yourself for that kind of stuff! Isn’t that better, you splendid, noble Great Survivor?!!”

Yeah, get lost; curses like those began to rouse the crowd.

—I can’t do it.

My words can’t get through to them at all.

Lisbeth couldn’t help but feel tears welling up as she looked imploringly towards the strong, native ALO players whom she knew well— Sylph Lord Sakuya, Salamander General Eugene, and Cait Sith Lord Alicia Rue.

Even though their eyes met hers, they remained silent.

Their blazing gazes merely stared at Lisbeth unswervingly. As though they were saying, show us your determination.

Lisbeth took a deep breath, and shut her eyes tightly. She thought of Asuna, who would be desperately fighting at this very moment; Kirito, who was injured; Leafa and Sinon, who had rushed ahead into the Underworld.

— At my level, even if I convert over, I won’t be able to fight like Asuna and everyone else. But there must be something I can do. Right now, this place is my battlefield.

Forcing her eyes open and wiping away her tears, Lisbeth began her speech:

“… Yes, I brought some real world stuff here. And, as you said, those who emerge from SAO may find it very easy to mix up reality and virtual reality. However, I’m very certain that we’ve never thought of ourselves as heroes.”
Gripping Silica’s hand, who stood teary-eyed to her right, she continued:

“She and I currently attend a special school for the survivors you mentioned. We have no choice, since our previous schools had already dismissed us in the middle of the year. —All of the students in the survivors’ school have to attend counseling sessions every month. They monitor our brain waves with AmuSpheres, and we’re asked lots of uncomfortable questions like, ‘Have you lost your sense of reality’, or, ‘Do you want to harm other people’. There are children who have been forced to drink medicines they hate. To the government, we’re a reserve army of criminals that needs constant supervision.”

Sometime during her speech, the waves of fury had calmed, and a tense silence took over the dome. Even the Salamander had widened his eyes in surprise.

Lisbeth had no idea where the flow of her speech should terminate. She was only desperately converting her unstoppable emotions and thoughts into words:

“But… to be honest, the old SAO players aren’t the only ones who are treated like this. All VRMMO players are viewed this way, more or less. Some say we’re just a heavy load on society who contribute nothing, some say we’re escapists who don’t pay taxes and pensions… There have even been calls for a return to conscription, just to force us to serve society!”

Lisbeth could feel the surging anxiety of the thousands of players. If only she poked it with a needle, rage twice as intense than before would erupt.

But Lisbeth placed her left hand on her chest, and continued to shout:

“But I know! And I believe! This is reality!!”

Her arms motioned towards her surroundings— towards the whole of Alfheim.

“This world, and the many other virtual worlds connected to it, are obviously not imaginary places that we escape to! To me, there are real lives here, real friends, real laughter, tears, encounters, and farewells… This is ‘reality’!! I’m not alone, am I?! It’s because we believe this world is another reality that we try as hard as we do, right?! Yet, if we see this as only a game, as only a virtual world, and abandon it, then where is our ‘reality’…?!!”

Unable to hold them back any longer, Lisbeth felt tears rolling down her face. But she did not wipe them away, and squeezed out her last words:

“… The numerous worlds that everyone raised; they came together like this World Tree, and the tree has grown. Now that the blossom called the Underworld has finally bloomed, I want to protect it! Please, I beg of you… lend your strength to us…!!”

Lisbeth reached out towards the roof of the dome.

In her vision trembling with tears, phosphorescence sparkled, falling from thousands of fairy wings.

***

A brilliant silver light drew a long, bright arc in the dawn.

A second later, with a dry snap, a thick rope was severed, and danced in the air like a black serpent. The tens of enemy soldiers hanging from the rope were plunged into the bottomless valley, howling. The «Twin Edged Wings», the Divine Instrument that had cut the rope, turned in a sharp curve and returned to the hands of Integrity Knight Renri Synthesis Twenty-Seven.

Although Renri had already quickly cut five of the ten ropes set up by the Dark Territory army to cross the valley, his face showed no sense of accomplishment or pride. Rather, he seemed like he was being tormented by the merciless order to sever the literal lifelines of the enemy soldiers, who were sacrificing themselves to cross the valley.

The same went for Asuna, who was beside Renri and clutched the reins atop a white horse.

When Asuna, Renri, Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty, Integrity Knight Sheyta Synthesis Twelve, and Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli Synthesis One arrived on horseback, hundreds of enemy soldiers had already crossed the valley, and began valiantly attacking them to protect the remaining ropes. A great number of enemies were killed by the three foremost Knights: Bercouli, Sheyta, and Alice. A few tried to flank Renri from the side, forcing Asuna to swing her own sword.

In the virtual world «Underworld», based on the The Seed program, Sword Skills and Horse Riding from the SAO era were still usable.

Not only that, Asuna was using the Super Account «Stacia, Goddess of Creation», whose every parameter was very close to the upper limit; in addition, the specs of her equipped rapier, «Radiant Light», were beyond that of the Integrity Knights’ Divine Instruments. Therefore, even «Linear», a basic Sword Skill, could easily pierce through a Dark Knight’s armor or a Fist Fighter’s hulking frame.

Nevertheless, the blood spraying from enemies’ wounds, their aggrieved screams, and their lost lives, were all real.

The people of the Underworld, whether they came from the Human Empire or the Dark Land, all possessed souls of exactly the same nature as Asuna’s— Fluctlights. Her opponents were unquestionably real people just like her, yet they could be killed in one strike just because of some game-like status values and weapon specifications; this truth gave rise to an unbearable pain and dreadful feeling to Asuna’s heart.

What was more, despite how they charged forward with tragic resolve, it was clear that the Dark Knights and Fist Fighters were not doing so of their own volition.

These Artificial Fluctlights possessed the trait of being utterly unable to resist their superior’s orders. Under the command of «Vector, God of Darkness», a real world human using a Super Account like Asuna, they continued their attack despite everything, even knowing that they were dying in vain. In another sense, they were but victims, dragged into a real world battle over technology.

But Asuna still strove with all her might to dispel this thought from her mind.

Right now, her utmost priority was to protect the «Radiant Medium» Alice, whom Vector was pursuing— and Kirito, who was in the encampment behind them.

She’d heard that the only human resources left in the Dark Territory army were these Fist Fighters and Dark Knights. If they could take advantage of this reckless valley crossing operation and erode their main force, Vector would be left helpless.

“—All right, the sixth one next!!”

Integrity Knight Bercouli’s firm, vigorous voice carried over and disrupted Asuna’s train of thought. Only after Alice, Sheyta, and Renri immediately replied to acknowledge, did Asuna follow suit.

Just as they turned their horses around and prepared to move west, the sharp blast of a horn came from behind.

At a backward glance, they could see the Guardians3 of the Human Empire decoy squad atop a hill a kilometer away, surging down in orderly formation. Having completed their preparations just fifteen minutes after the Integrity Knights did, they were coming from the encampment to assist.

“They’re such… a restless bunch.”

Bercouli’s words were bitter, but since nearly 500 Fist Fighters had successfully crossed the valley, it wasn’t a bad time for reinforcements to arrive. As long as the Guardians could hold off the enemy army, cutting the last five ropes would be much simpler.

—Seems like we’ve won this battle, Vector-san.

Asuna said softly in her heart—

Before she could finish, a peculiar phenomenon entered her vision.

Against the blood-red rising sun, mysterious objects began to fall from high in the sky.

Red lines. Not just one. Tens… Hundreds.

No, thousands.

The lines seemed to consist of tiny dots, linked together. Squinting her eyes, she saw that each dot was either a number, or a letter from the English alphabet.

These mysterious bunches of lines poured silently down onto their side of the valley, roughly one or two kilometers east of the battlefield.

Slowly, not just Asuna, but also the Integrity Knights, and even the Dark Knights and Fist Fighters of the Dark Territory, all ceased their actions to watch this bizarre event.

The first red line that jabbed into the cracked earth became a small pile and shook—

It took only a few seconds to turn into a human form.

***

What he saw made Fist Fighter Chief Iskahn forget the rage coursing through his body, even if it was just for a split second.

What are those?

On the other side of the great valley, the five hundred Dark Land soldiers who had successfully crossed the rope bridge were about to fearlessly engage the five Integrity Knights.

Yet their movements had suddenly stopped, and all had turned their astonished eyes outside of the battlefield.

Iskahn’s face, as though pulled along by this scene, unconsciously swiveled in the same direction. There, he saw a torrential crimson rain, falling two kilol to their east.

With a odd thundering, countless red lines tumbled from the heavens. They swelled up upon touching the ground, and rapidly molded into human shapes.

Warriors appeared before them, their bodies secured completely in crimson armor, equipped with long swords, battleaxes, and spears.

Although its color was different, the shape of their armor was very similar to that of the Dark Knight Order. At a glance, they seemed to be Emperor Vector’s divinely summoned reinforcements.

Then, Iskahn distinctly felt that something was ineffably queer.

These red infantrymen were standing without any sense of discipline or regulation. It was completely unlike the Knights trained under Dark General Shasta, who was now deceased. Some were chatting casually with swagger, some sat on the ground, and some even drew their weapons and waved them around without waiting for orders.

The most striking thing was— their number.

After the peculiar rain stopped, the legion appearing on the ground had swelled to an unbelievable size. He estimated that they numbered far beyond ten thousand, twenty thousand… It looked like thirty thousand people. If the Dark Knight Order had such a powerful backup team, they would have abandoned the Ten Lords’ combined regime long ago and brought the entire Dark Territory under Shasta’s rule.

What was more, shocked and disturbed murmurs were breaking out even among the Dark Knights in the troops on this side of the valley. Even they are clueless. What the heck is that?

In this case, these red soldiers were the true “Dark Legion”, which their Emperor, Dark God Vector, had summoned with secret arts from the depths below.

As he realized this, Iskahn’s shock changed to fury.

If he could summon an army as large as that —

Why didn’t he do it earlier?! Weren’t the Fist Fighters and Dark Knights who had perished in this pointless valley-crossing operation just lures that served only to attract the enemy now?!

Wait— what if that’s really the case??

Had the Emperor only given the order to forcibly begin that unprecedented, suicidal operation in order to buy time to summon his own subordinates?

…… No.

Not just this operation. During the entire battle at the Great Eastern Gate, the loss of the Dark Land army’s strength was beyond abnormal. Whether it was the Goblins, the Giants, the Ogres, or even the Dark Sorceress’ Guild, they were all annihilated. Yet the Emperor didn’t even bat an eye, let alone mourn their deaths.

In other words, to Emperor Vector, the fifty thousand people of the Dark Land army had been expendable pawns from the very beginning!

Before that moment, Iskahn, the young chief of the Fist Fighters’ Guild, had merely been a young man uninterested in anything other than training his own skills, and the rise of his tribe.

But in this very second, his thought process had, for the first time, risen to a point from which he was able to view the entire Dark Territory, the Human Empire, and the entire Underworld. This perspective created an unsolvable conflict in his mind.

The Emperor was the strongest one. He must obey the strongest one, unquestioningly.

But.

But—

“Guh…!”

Excruciating pain, like nothing he had ever felt before, pierced his right eye. Iskahn groaned as he covered the right side of his face. The Fist Fighter Chief stumbled, and dropped to his knees.

With difficulty, he could make out over thirty thousand crimson soldiers beginning to run, speaking an unintelligible language.

At the location they were running to, nearly one thousand Human Empire soldiers quickly combined with the Integrity Knights and arranged themselves into a counterattack formation.

Between the two sides, five hundred Fist Fighters and Dark Knights stood still, utterly lost.

It seemed that, despite the mercilessness of the Emperor’s strategy, he had at least saved the lives of these five hundred warriors.

Iskahn consoled himself as he massaged the intense pain in his right eye.

—Even after all of their suffering, he had still underestimated just how cruel Vector really was.

The instant that the five hundred Dark Territory soldiers, the Human Empire soldiers, and the summoned Dark Legion met—

Countless swords, countless battleaxes, and countless spears reflected the sunlight—

Then, with bloodthirsty howls, they were swung at the Fist Fighters, who were supposed to be their comrades.

***

“Those guys… Why?!”

It was Asuna’s first time hearing such a shocked yell from Knight Commander Bercouli, but words failed her.

The 30,000 soldiers who suddenly descended… no, dived to the east of the battlefield, had undoubtedly been summoned by Emperor Vector.

But where on earth did he get so many people?

Did he directly create system-controlled monster-type characters? But the central console was already locked, and this type of administrator-privileged operation was impossible; the only way to introduce new fighters was to create a character in the real world, then dive in like Asuna had, but the attackers only had two STLs.

Asuna sank into the chaos of the moment—

Her bewilderment was shattered by the roars of the red troops that had already approached within a few hundred meters.

Charge ahead!!

Give ‘em hell!!

English!

Those people are all humans from the real world— judging by their accent, they’re Americans!

But, why would they be here… This is a genuinely different world, completely cut off from the real world…

No.

No–

Maybe, to the people diving in with STLs, the Underworld was actually a different world created through the “Mnemonic Visual” with realism rivaling that of the real world. However, the generic VRMMO template «The Seed» had also been used to design this world. In other words, as long as one used an AmuSphere, they could dive into this world using a low-end server based on polygonal construction— furthermore, the Ocean Turtle had a large, military-grade bandwidth satellite connection.

Then, if someone were to write a client program that included the Underworld central server address and the accompanying account information, and disseminate it in the real world—

Not just several tens of thousands; summoning an army of hundreds of thousands was certainly not impossible.

But what shocked Asuna the most was how those crimson soldiers acted; they had started to directly attack their supposed allies, the Dark Land Knights and the Fist Fighter army, without any hesitation.

“Wh, what are they…?!”

“Aren’t they supposed to be our allies?!!”

The Knights screamed desperately while trying to defend against the attack, but their numbers were already far too disproportionate, and on top of that, the crimson soldiers’ weapons and armor were of much higher specs than the Dark Land army’s equipment.

One after another the swords and shields started breaking apart, and together with the agonizing screams from the collision of both armies, innumerable spurts of blood began gushing out.

Dude that’s awesome!!

Pretty gore!!

These Americans were probably completely unaware of the true nature of this battle. They were probably under the impression that their diving in was merely taking part in an open beta test for some new VRMMO. Therefore, she could not blame them for swinging their swords and killing everyone. After all, to them, these soldiers were not conscious beings equal to humans; they were NPCs, mere trifles. Of course, not everyone was atrociously evil; in the real world, they were still VRMMO players who could be friendly and work together with other players on the same server. If there was time to inform them of the true nature behind the Underworld and the Artificial Fluctlights, Asuna believed that most of them would immediately drop their weapons.

But they hadn’t such leisure right now. Even if Asuna tried to step into the battlefield and explain the situation in English, they would just think of her as an NPC speaking preset lines. If they were told “killing enemies right now will earn you points, which you can exchange for rare items after the official release”, even the Japanese players would do the exact same thing.

In short, verbally convincing them was impossible.

The people the Americans were trying to kill were not NPCs, but artificial Fluctlights carrying real souls. After finishing off the soldiers of the Dark Territory, those of the Human World would surely be next. Then, as the only one present inhabiting a transient body, she had to fight.

With that resolve, Asuna raised the rapier in her right hand and began to quickly chant a command.

System call! Create field object!

A polychromatic spectrum of rays gathered on her sword.

There was currently no way to create a bottomless canyon like she had last night; if she did so, she would also cut off the Human Empire army’s path of return. Thus Asuna instead imagined a gigantic rock as sharp as a spear, and slashed her sword down.

Laa—, with a solemn sound effect, the spectrum of rays shot from her sword tip directly into the ground, slightly beyond where the American and Dark Territory armies collided.

The ground before her suddenly shook violently and a steep peak surged out of the ground, rising nearly 30 meters high at once. The tens of crimson soldiers standing atop it were all sent flying.

Four more mountains burst from the ground, shooting into the air, and the ground swayed without pause. Shouting earsplitting curses in English, several hundred crimson-armored bodies were thrown high; some were pierced by the rocks, while others landed heavily on the ground in a storm of flesh and blood.

Asuna could not summon the willpower to imagine how those people felt before dying, because a harsh, searing pain suddenly shot through her mind and caused her to collapse on the back of the horse.

Silver sparks scattered in her vision as she struggled to breathe and began to hyperventilate. The pain now was much worse than when she had created the deep canyon last night. Asuna was now personally experiencing the torment of massive amounts of geographical data coursing through her soul… The raw feeling of her Fluctlight being worn away.

—But I must not fall here.

If this was how Kirito was injured, this was how she wanted it to be. Asuna thought this as she clenched her teeth, and pulled herself up onto the saddle.

The zeal with which the American players came from the east side of the battlefield seemed less ardent than before. But since the five rocky hills were only around 500 meters wide, the players would soon pass around them.  

I must create a rock wall in the south, so that the Human Empire army can retreat.

Asuna raised her trembling right hand, panting—

But it was seized tightly by another armored hand, which reflected the shining gleam of dawn.

“… Alice?!…” She called the golden knight’s name in a hoarse voice.

The golden knight’s beautiful white face showed steely resolve as she shook her head.

“Don’t push yourself anymore, Asuna. Leave it to us Integrity Knights now.”

“B… But, those people are enemies from the Real World… from my world…!”

“… Even so, if it’s just some tens of thousands of bloodthirsty guys waving their weapons around, it won’t be enough to scare us.”

“Yep, and that’s why it’s our time to shine.”

Bercouli added with an untroubled grin.

Although the Knights’ tones of voice eased the current situation, Asuna still detected tragic understanding in their faces, worse than before.

The crimson tsunami of enemies numbered more than 30 times that of the Human Empire army.

This was no longer something they could face merely with courage. But the Knight Commander raised his longsword high, high in the air, and shouted an order in an extraordinarily irrepressible voice.

“Listen up! All units, assume a dense formation! Do not let the enemy breakthrough anywhere!”

***

“Oh… Ohh…”

What came from Iskahn’s mouth was no longer human language.

“Oh… OHHHHHHHHHH—!”

Blood dribbled from the fists clenched at his sides. But the young Fist Fighter, roared like a wild beast, seeming not to feel pain.

Iskahn’s aide Dampe standing still by his side seemed to share Iskahn’s feelings, and was looking down, deeply… deeply.

All dead. All consumed.

His tribal warriors, in a storm of chaos, had perished, defenseless against the approaching dark cloud of swords, their souls lost in a mist of blood.

Moreover, the soldiers still crossing the valley on the five ropes were unable to stop, because the Emperor’s order of “reach the other side” still affected them. They could only obey their absolute master, precariously cross the rope bridge, then be surrounded by the crimson army and torn apart indiscriminately.

Why— Why hadn’t the Emperor given an order to stop crossing the valley, or for that army to stop attacking the friendly Dark Territory army?

Were his tribal warriors not even lures, but mere sacrifices offered to that summoned crimson legion now?

“Must… To the Emperor…”

He must report to the Emperor. He must request that he stop this operation.

Furious and desperate, Iskahn took a slow step towards the imperial throne carriage behind him. The entire right half of his vision turned deep red, and spates of excruciating pain assaulted his right eye.

Then, his aide Dampe looked at him, his now contorted face seemingly trying to say something.

Just then, a gargantuan black silhouette flew overhead.

Iskahn and Dampe instinctively looked up towards the shadow in the sky; it was a dragon.

Riding on top of the jet black armor was a figure with long, flowing golden hair dressed in a lustrous fur mantle— Emperor Vector himself.

“Ah… AH…!!”

As though he had heard Iskahn’s involuntary shout, the seated Emperor glanced quickly at the ground. No emotions could be read from his dark pupils. It was an icy glance that contained not a sliver of compassion— not even a speck of interest for his soldiers, who were dying in vain.

Then, Emperor Vector turned away from Iskahn, and directed his dragon south of the valley.

This is— the god. This is the ruler.

But, if this is the ruler, if this is the strongest being with unrivalled power—

He must take the according responsibility!!

Leading his subordinate army, ruling over his subjects, bringing the nation to prosperity; those are the duties of a ruler. Therefore, someone who sends several tens of thousands of lives to their end without even using them, without feeling anything at all— the Emperor— right eye— isn’t qualified— right eye hurts— to be a ruler…!!

“Uwo…. OH… OHHHHHHH!!”

Iskahn thrust his right fist high, and curled his finger into a hook.

Without hesitation, he stabbed it into the source of blazing heat blocking his thoughts — his own right eye.

“Ch… Chief!! What are you doing?!”

The young Fist Fighter stuck out his left hand to block Dampe from approaching him, and with a bellow, ripped his right eyeball from its socket. The white sphere gave off a strange gleam from within his fist, but as it shattered, that light disappeared as well.

 

As of now, Iskahn had not reached the point of completing removing «Code 871» through his own willpower, like Alice and Eugeo. Therefore, he was still unable to initiate any sort of traitorous intent directly towards the Emperor, or refuse the Emperor’s two orders: “continue the valley crossing operation” and “You yourself may not cross the rope bridge”.

However, he had discovered a rather barbaric method to evade the Emperor’s orders— and this method itself was asymptotically close to betrayal.

 

Iskahn spun around and spoke to Dampe staring at him speechlessly.

“The Emperor hasn’t told us anything regarding those crimson soldiers, has he?”

“Ah… No, he hasn’t. But…”

“Then, if we were to kill all of them, it would have nothing to do with the Emperor.”

“… Champion…”

Iskahn gazed at the dumbstruck Dampe with his remaining eye, and ordered.

“Listen up… After crossing the bridge, all tribe members will attack that crimson army. No matter what, we must save our partners.”

“Hah…?! The ‘bridge’ you refer to, how… would…”

“You know what I’m going to do. I leave it to you, then.”

With those calm words, Iskahn turned towards the valley.

Suddenly, roaring flames enfolded his feet.

Then the king of the Fist Fighters slowly began to run towards the valley, leaving a trail of blazing footprints behind him. He ran faster and faster, finally transforming into a flash of fire.

If I can’t cross the rope bridge… then all I gotta do is fly over!

Screaming that in his chest, he flung his left foot over the roughly hundred-mel-wide gorge.

“Jumping” was a very important skill in a Fist Fighter’s training.

This training slowly progressed from being able to jump over a safe sand pit, to sharpening one’s willpower by crossing knife mountains and oil-filled vats, and served as the basis of forming one’s own firm confidence to their own jump; «incarnation», in other words.

Eventually, the jumping distance of a top-notch warrior could surpass 20 mel. In this flightless world, this was the extent of a human body’s physical jumping distance.

Yet what Iskahn needed to cross now was a bottomless canyon whose width was five times this limit. The Fist Fighter stared straight ahead, his heart still as he leapt into the air, his body dragging a long trail of flames.

Ten mel. Twenty mel. His body rose still.

Thirty mel. Thirty-five mel. A strong wind blew from the valley below, pushing the Fist Fighter up as though he possessed invisible wings, propelling him even higher.

Forty mel.

Just a bit more— he only needed to rise a bit more… Then he could rely on momentum to reach the other side —

But.

Just before he reached the very center of the valley, the upwards wind mercilessly ceased. The Fist Fighter’s body instantly lost its upward momentum; the trajectory of his jump reached its maximum, and he began to fall in an arc.

He was… five mel from the other edge.

“UWOOOOOHHH!!”

Iskahn screamed, flinging his right hand forward, attempting to grab something out of thin air. But no place existed for his hand or foot to grab onto; only endless, cold air extended on and on from below the darkness under his feet, wrapping around his body that was about to fall.

Just then —

CHAMPIOOOOOOOOOON!!

A tremendously thick roar reached Iskahn’s ears.

He twisted his head around.

His own aide, Dampe, had wrapped his right hand around a boulder larger than his own head, and was preparing to throw it.

The Fist Fighter chief instantly realized what his loyal subordinate, who often followed him around, planned to do. But— throwing that gigantic boulder more than fifty mel was definitely impossible for a human…

Gowa.

Dampe’s right hand suddenly swelled, his muscles bulging and veins swelling, as though his entire body’s strength had concentrated in one spot.

“OHHHHH!!”

The giant man bellowed, ran a few steps, and flung the boulder from his right hand with all his might.

As the air trembled violently, the boulder shot out as though it had been launched by a catapult— then, the Fist Fighter’s right hand exploded, flesh and blood flying in all directions.

Iskahn imprinted the image of Dampe collapsing to the ground firmly in his left eye, clenched his teeth, and focused all his concentration on the boulder flying directly at him.

“… YAAAAAAAH!!”

With a shout, he stomped his left foot on the boulder.

Bagaaan!! The boulder shattered against the impact, but Iskahn’s small body was propelled upwards. The swordsmen battling on the other side of the valley were now closer to him.

***

Damn!!

Asuna tugged her rapier from the body of a cursing American player while breathing heavily atop her horse.

This was different when she was fighting the Dark Territory people earlier; she no longer had to deal with the mental strain of taking a person’s life. Asuna, previously known as “The Flash”, then the “Berserk Healer”, was finally able to initiate combo Sword Skills; the number of crimson soldiers who fell by her sword rapidly grew above ten.

But— despite that, there were just too many enemies!!

Not just Asuna, the Human Empire Defense Army soldiers and the four Integrity Knights also fought like fierce gods, and finally carved a bloody opening to the south. Bodies had piled up into mountains in front of the soldiers advancing in tight formation.

However, they were utterly unable to counter the waves of crimson soldiers streaming endlessly around the rocky mountains, and could only try their utmost to fight back and hold their current position. Most importantly, they very quickly realized that the bodies of the enemies they destroyed would evaporate within tens of seconds, leaving not a trace of blood on the ground— they realized that their opponents were not real live people, but an army of phantoms. Then…

“Uwah… No… AAAAHHH—!!”

A sudden explosive scream made Asuna spin her head around.

—Then, she saw that a hole had opened in the Guardians’ defensive line, and the Americans were pouring in like black mud, throwing themselves with dirty curses at the weak Guardians. The Guardians were surrounded by enemies numbering several times more than them, and executed; flesh and blood flew into the air, and shrieks of pain slowly turned into dying screams. This extremely realistic picture of death seemed to stimulate the crimson soldiers’ bloodthirst even further, and they launched themselves towards new prey with renewed savagery.

“Stop it…. STOP IT…!!” Asuna cried.

She clearly understood that she was supposed to ignore the sacrifices of some of the troops, and push south as hard as she could. But she couldn’t control herself anymore and jumped off from her horse.

“STOP IT—!!”

Charging into the deadly crimson current alone, her scream was as bitter as blood.

She knew the American players were only being used, but even so, she could not suppress her boiling anger any longer.

Zzkukukuk—!!

Her right hand flashed, and «Radiant Light» stabbed straight through the visors of the crimson helmets. Four fatally wounded people dropped their longswords and crumpled to the ground, screaming.

Judging by their reactions, Asuna could see that although they had dived in with AmuSpheres, they were not protected by its Pain Absorber. In truth, Asuna had realized that long ago, so she had tried to make her attacks fatal stabs to the heart, instantly killing the person and logging them out of the game, yet this logic had also evaporated.

She now relied on her sword’s Priority to stab through the enemies’ armor, dispatching them instantly, and sometimes even cleaving the enemies’ swords in two.

To the Americans, the enemies before them were mere polygons, and their blood was also computer-generated special effects. Yet to Asuna, who dived in through the STL, they were real, live human beings, and their spurting blood was chillingly warm, exuding a nauseating coppery odor.

Some time later, the pool of blood reached Asuna’s feet, and she accidentally slipped and fell. The hulking soldiers then instantly surrounded her as she was sprawled on the ground.

Take this!!

A battleaxe swung down, and Asuna frantically dodged right. But before she should pull back her left arm, the heavy axe had already roared past.

Gatsu.

With a crunching noise, her left arm was severed down the middle to her elbow, and it flopped uselessly in the air.

“… AAHH—!!”

Excruciating pain blinded Asuna as her breathing froze and she went numb. A moment later, she breathed heavily and managed to cradle her left arm, which was spurting blood. But through her streaming tears, she watched in despair as the four or five black shadows surrounding her had already raised their weapons.

Suddenly—

The head of the man with the giant axe seemed to explode in a storm of flesh and blood.

Asuna heard heavy impacts like that of a machinegun. Every time an impact resonated, the body of a soldier attempting to slash towards her shattered and disappeared from view.

“Hmph… Why are these guys so soft?”

Asuna endured the agony and pushed herself up; before her was a lean, short young man with hair standing straight up like flames.

Someone from the Dark Territory!

Asuna inhaled sharply and forgot her pain for a moment. From the color of his skin and the single leather strap tied around his entire body, he was unmistakably a member of the Fist Fighter tribe she had fought minutes ago.

But why would someone under Emperor Vector’s rule attack the crimson soldiers that Emperor Vector had summoned?

—It’s as if he had run over just to help Asuna.

Asuna looked down and noticed that the man only had one red eye left, an ugly wound was left in his right eye socket, and trails of blood were plastered on his face like tears; the blood looked fresh.

W ith his remaining eye, the young Fist Fighter looked askance at an American approaching him, and raised his right fist high.

That sharply defined fist was suddenly wrapped in roaring flames.

“Wa… RAAAAAAHHH!!”

With a scream that sounded like tearing cloth, the fist struck the ground.

Guwa!!

From where his fist hit the ground, a semicircular shockwave blew forward like a wall of fire, relentlessly expelling all of the crimson soldiers before them into the air.

—What strength!

Asuna gaped. If she fought this person now, she might lose…

The Fist Fighter wordlessly stretched out and grabbed Asuna’s armor with his left arm, forcefully pulled her up, and gazed at her with his remaining eye.

“… Let’s make a deal.”

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Asuna couldn’t immediately understand what this young but acrid voice wanted to convey.

“A… deal?”

“Yeah. You’re the one who made those rock spears and that valley, weren’t you? Listen, make a bridge across that valley, doesn’t matter how narrow it is. That way, we four thousand warriors of the Fist Fighters’ Guild can fight alongside you for now, until we finish off this crimson army.”

Fight alongside— the Dark Territory army?

Was such a thing possible? The people of the Dark Land, no, all the people of this world should be unable to disobey their superior’s orders, due to the existence of «Code 871».

But the young man before her had no right eye at all. Did this mean that he had broken the seal on his own? Had he, like Alice, evolved into a Fluctlight capable of breaking the boundaries of this world?

Alice had said last night: “To lose «Code 871», the eye must completely explode”, but his wound didn’t look like the product of an exploded right eye at all, it looked more like the entire eyeball had been torn out by force… What was she to do, then?

Asuna’s momentary hesitation was broken by howls and sword slashes coming from her right.

“This person, is likely to not be lying.”

The one who cleaved off the heads of a few approaching soldiers with a jet black longsword so thin it was nearly invisible, was the gray-haired female Integrity Knight, Sheyta Synthesis Twelve.

Catching sight of Sheyta, a boastful yet somehow embarrassed grin broke out on the young Fist Fighter’s face. “Hey,” he replied.

The instant she saw this smile, Asuna made her decision.

— I’ll believe him.

This was probably the last time she would be able to use the «geographical manipulation» ability. So wouldn’t it be better spent on creation rather than destruction?

“… I understand, leave the bridge to me.”

Asuna moved her right hand away from the wound on her left wrist, and raised her rapier into the air with her right hand.

Laa────────.

The solemn sound of angelic song was heard as multicolored aurorae shot into the heavens and extended due north, crossed the entire valley, and connected to the other side.

With a sonorous thundering, the ground underneath began to tremble.

Everyone watched as two stone columns suddenly protruded from both sides of the canyon and slowly extended further and further, then joined together in the middle, widened, and finally became a stone bridge sufficient for crossing.

“OOOOHHHH, AHHHHHHH!!”

The furious bellows of the four thousand members of the Fist Fighters’ Guild were several times louder than the tremors just then. Led by a giant, one-armed man, they converged at the stone bridge.

A headache several times more painful than the agony at her arm suddenly pummeled her; Asuna nearly lost consciousness, and had to lean on her rapier to avoid falling.

She could no longer see Alice, who was supposed to be guiding the entire Human Empire army and cutting a bloody path through the enemy lines.

Asuna could only hope that she would be safe… and that the Fist Fighter army would fight together with them like their chief promised.

 

— Kirito-kun, I’m going now, okay?

 

Silently murmuring the name of her loved one, her pain seemed to fly far, far away.

***

About a minute prior, at the southernmost edge of the battlefield —

Integrity Knight Alice had already cut down countless crimson soldiers who charged forward one after another.

These guys— were a bit strange.

They were neither aware that they were swordsmen, nor trained in sword skills; they merely swarmed forward, stepping over their comrades’ bodies and screaming in a strange tongue. It almost seemed as though they were completely unaware of the value of life— their enemies’ lives, and even their partners’ lives, all seemed worthless to them. It was as if they didn’t even care about their own lives.

If the people who lived in the Real World were like this, it seemed that Asuna was exactly right in that “the other side” was not a kingdom of gods after all.

With the endless massacre and endlessly appearing enemies, even Alice’s reaction speed began to slow.

She’d had enough. This wasn’t a battle at all.

Quickly— quickly break through their ranks, and get out of here.

“Get out of the way… GET OUT OF MY WAAAAAYYY!!”

She screamed shrilly as the Fragrant Olive Sword slashed sideways. The heads and hands of the enemies scattered to the ground.

System call!

Then, she began rapidly chanting an incantation, formed ten Thermal Elements, molded them into a fiery lance, and shot it.

Discharge!

Dogou!!

Although it wasn’t Deusolbert’s Conflagrant Flame Bow, a gigantic explosion pierced the entire enemy formation and tore open a hole.

And beyond it was—

She saw it. A hill, rising out of the black ground.

If she could break through the encirclement and get over there, she could use the Spatial Resources scattered around the battlefield to initiate the “Sealed Mirror Light Art”, and burn all of these crimson soldiers to a crisp.

“OUT OF MY WAAAAAY!!”

Alice screeched and kicked off the ground.

“… Lil’ Miss!!”

Knight Commander Bercouli’s shout came from behind. But Alice did not hear his next words: Don’t go forward anymore.

Almost there. We can almost break out.

Her feet unstopping, sword slashing at the last enemy blocking her, Alice finally broke out of the seemingly infinite circle of enemies and charged into the southern wilderness.

She slid her beloved sword into its sheath and continued her sprint, gulping down the fresh air that smelled of blood.

Suddenly, her surroundings darkened.

Has the sun been blocked out? Alice thought for a moment.

Then suddenly, she felt a heavy blow on her back, and was grabbed by a dragon’s leg suddenly passing over; by the time she noticed, she was already being lifted by its claws.

Alice tried to activate her Armament Full Control Art, but before she could finish chanting, her field of vision began to be enveloped in darkness, and a biting chill filled her body.

Was it a Dark Art from the rider of the dragon? —No, that wasn’t it. Her very consciousness was fading away, being sucked into an infinite darkness.

This was the enemy’s Incarnation, completely different from Knight Commander Bercouli’s polished steel-like Incarnation, and also different from the Highest Minister Administrator’s scorching, all-consuming Incarnation; it absorbed everything and seized everything: an Incarnation of nothingness.

That was the last thing Alice could think of before her consciousness vanished.

***

To Emperor Vector / Gabriel Miller, this situation was a gamble.

Nonetheless, he firmly believed that as long as the several tens of thousands of American players diving into the battlefield were able to surround and attack the Human Empire army, the «Radiant Medium» Alice would certainly break out of the encirclement alone — or with a small team — to initiate that huge light ray attack.

That was why he had stayed on the back of his requisitioned dragon, hovering far, far away from the battlefield and waited. He felt like this had been the longest stretch of time since he had first dived into the Underworld.

But then, he finally saw it. The flash of golden light sprinting out from the ant-like swarm of soldiers.

“Alice… Alicia.”

Gabriel smiled a rare, genuine smile as he whispered that name. He whirled the reins in his hands, taking the dragon into a fast dive.

His overwhelming imagination that formed an Incarnation of nothingness had already consumed the dragon’s AI, turning it into a controllable tool that slaved only for him. Under his command, the dragon plunged like a stone, its wings silent, opened its right claws towards the ground and tightly grasped the golden knight’s back.

Whoosh—!

Then, with the deafening noise of expanding wings, it flew back into the sky.

He’d never paid any attention to the bloody battlefield he had created.

To him, whatever happened next to the Dark Territory army, the Human Empire army, or the people he’d summoned from the real world, had lost all value; none of it mattered anymore.

Now, he only needed to advance straight to the system console nearest to his current location at the «World End Altar», and from there, eject Alice’s soul to the real world, and log himself out.

Gabriel’s vision shifted down, and stopped on the golden hair of the unconscious Knight, billowing in the wind, caught in the clutches of the dragon’s talons.

I want to feel her soon. This body, this soul, I want to taste it to my heart’s content.

There was still a very long journey to the system console, which would take several days even by dragon. He could even use this time to properly enjoy Alice, while she still had a physical body in the Underworld.

As this crossed his mind, a different type of sweet stimulation climbed up Gabriel’s spine, and the corners of his mouth lifted again.

***

How could it be like this?

He actually— turned the Dark Territory army of fifty thousand and the newly-summoned thirty thousand soldiers all into disposable pawns, and just to…

Just to capture a girl!

Ever since Knight Commander Bercouli detected the Incarnation of nothingness wielded by the existence called Emperor Vector, an intense uneasiness had come over him. But the instant that Alice was captured by the other side, he finally realized that his predictions of the enemy had only been the tip of the iceberg.

After seeing what happened tens of mel away from where he was standing, Bercouli did something he had not done for who knows how many tens of years— he let out a roar of rage.

“You bastard, what have you done with my apprentice!!”

His words pierced the air, agitating the surroundings more than a peal of thunder could.

Yet it was completely ignored by Alice’s captor, the dragon knight, who flew straight into the southern sky without so much as a backwards glance.

Bercouli raised his beloved sword, and began to chase after the flying dragon. But the hole that Alice had blown in the enemy formation with her Art had already been filled with crimson soldiers; they approached, spitting cryptic curses constantly.

“You’d better…”

Before Bercouli could shout get away, blinding silver lights flew overhead.

Kirikirikiri, with that high, clear sound Integrity Knight Renri’s Divine Instruments, the Twin Edged Wings, flew past above.

The young knight’s sharp voice came from behind.

Release recollection!

With a flash of light, the two throwing knives fused together. A cross-shaped blade flew low above the ground, whizzing forward and leaving a sharp trail, cutting down all enemies who tried to enter its path from either flank.

“Go ahead, Knight Commander!!”

Renri shouted, and Bercouli turned around to answer.

“Sorry! I’ll leave it to you!”

Then he bent over, and kicked his right foot briskly off the ground. In the next instant, his body transformed into a white hurricane, blowing a second time through the gap opened in the enemy group, at a speed several times faster than the sprints achieved by the Fist Fighters of the Dark Territory in their martial dance. But Emperor Vector’s dragon that carried Alice had already become a tiny black dot on the far-off horizon.

As Bercouli ran, he placed his left hand into his mouth and blew a high, piercing whistle.

Seconds later, a pair of gigantic, silvery wings appeared on the horizon; it was Bercouli’s dragon, Hoshigami.

But not just one dragon was flying towards him. Alice’s beloved dragon, Amayori, and the deceased Eldrie’s dragon, Takiguri, also followed close behind.

“You were all here…”

Bercouli was briefly overcome with emotion; no matter what, he couldn’t bring himself to order those other two dragons to stay here on standby.

Hoshigami turned low above the ground and glided as it approached Bercouli, extending both feet towards him. The Knight Commander seized a talon on its left foot and hoisted himself onto its back, straddling the saddle and pointing forward with the longsword in his right hand.

“GO!”

Hoshigami, Amayori, and Takiguri moved on command; three pairs of wings thundered simultaneously, and they flew into the violet dawn sky. Far ahead of this triangular formation of three dragons, within the claws of the black dragon, a flash of golden light shined for a split second.

***

After the four thousand Fist Fighters charged across the stone bridge in one go, they quickly joined their nearly two hundred surviving partners, assembled into a formation at the Human Empire army’s flank, and drove straight into the center of the enemy formation like a gigantic battering ram.

They formed tight lines of ten each, raised their right fists in perfect unison, and readied their stances.

“U… RA!”

With a synchronized bellow, ten fists struck out and perforated the crimson soldiers’ swords and armor. Screams and blood flew in all directions; with one strike, more than twenty enemy soldiers were knocked flying towards the back.

After this blow filled with the utmost fighting spirit, the ten people quickly parted and retreated to either side, leaving a gap, and the ten behind them advanced forward with the same stance.

“URARA!!”

This time, ten people raised their legs and delivered flying kicks in perfect unison, blowing a great number of enemies in all directions, as though a bomb had exploded in their midst.

“… Wow.”

Asuna could not help but marvel as she healed her wounded left arm with a Healing Art she had learned the night before. Even Sheyta, who was drinking water near her, seemed a bit surprised.

The Fist Fighters’ battle technique was somewhat similar to the SAO progressors’ switching tactic used during the boss fights, but their movements and cohesion were much more adept. Ten people in a row, ten rows in a cluster; there were more than forty groups with one hundred people each that ravaged the enemy like heavy construction machinery reducing buildings to rubble.

“Don’t just sit there and watch. Even if we charge towards the south, what would we do then? Since there are this many enemies, even if we could break through them, it would be very difficult to kill them all.”

The temporarily allied red-haired enemy general stood beside Asuna, his arms crossed and face stern.

Indeed, even for the Fist Fighters who were breaking through irrepressibly, defeat would be difficult to avoid if the soldiers that outnumbered them by several times launched a flanking attack. There were at least twenty thousand summoned Americans left, in any case.

“… Then… after we break through the enemy formation and charge south of the battlefield, we’ll immediately get as far away as possible. I will then create another canyon to separate us and them.”

Asuna replied in a low voice.

—But could she really do it? Just now, she had only created a small bridge and almost expired from the effort. If she were to perform another large-scale geographic manipulation that extended all the way to the horizon, she might actually be forcefully disconnected— worse, her brain could even be physically damaged…

Asuna bit her lip, and cast away her momentary confusion. Even then, she must do it. Summoning the Americans to this world was probably Emperor Vector’s last resort. Then, if she could get rid of them, even if she were to be disconnected, they would be unable to do anything to Alice.

Just then, from the south, a soldier came running to Asuna on the north side of the battlefield.

“New orders!! New orders—!!”

The heavily injured soldier with half of his face dyed red with blood, fell to his knees in front of Asuna, and mustered all of his strength to shout his next words.

“Information from Integrity Knight Renri-sama!! Integrity Knight Alice-sama, has been captured by the enemy commander! The dragon has already flown south…!!”

“Wh…”

Asuna was dumbfounded.

Of course— she’d never thought that the current situation was intentionally created to lure Alice herself away from the Human Empire Army…!!

“The Emperor… has flown away?!”

That gruff, faltering answer was neither from Asuna nor Sheyta, but from the Fist Fighter Chief, whose remaining eye began to take on a strange glow.

“Then… Just now, that dragon… Wasn’t here simply to watch us … Hey, woman!!”

The young man’s fiery eyes stared at Asuna, and he demanded urgently.

“That Alice is the «Radiant Medium»?! Why is the Emperor so dedicated to her?! If the Radiant Medium falls into the Emperor’s hands, what the hell is going to happen?!”

“This world… will be destroyed.”

Asuna replied simply. The Fist Fighter’s expression was one of frozen incredulity.

“When Dark God Vector brings the Radiant Medium Alice to the «World End Altar»… This world, whether it’s the Human Empire or the Dark Territory, all of its inhabitants will be obliterated.”

Asuna’s voice had not fallen silent before she noticed that her words sounded exactly like the most classic RPG lines imaginable, but this was one hundred percent truth. As soon as the assault team got their hands on Alice’s soul, it was very easy to imagine the fate of the then-useless Light Cube Cluster— they would destroy it without remorse.

Then, what on earth was she to do… even her Super Account «Stacia» did not bestow upon her a flying ability. How could she follow them?

The one answering Asuna’s worries was the gray knight standing at her side, Sheyta. Returning the now-empty bottle to her belt, the icy-looking female knight said:

“Even for a dragon… it cannot fly forever. At most, half a day.”

At this, the Fist Fighter Tribal Chief stole a glance at Sheyta, then hurriedly looked away; he slapped his fist into his hand and finished her sentence loudly.

“Then just push yourselves out there and catch up to them!!”

“Catch up to them… But, aren’t you…”

Asuna looked at the enemy general’s young features in surprise.

“Aren’t you from the Dark Territory army? Why, would you go this far…”

The enemy general responded like a spoiled, abandoned child.

“Emperor Vector… certainly told us before, we Ten Lords of the Dark Land4. He only wanted the Radiant Medium. If he gets her, he won’t care what happens to us. Now that he’s got the Medium, the Emperor’s achieved his goal… In other words, the mission of the Dark Territory army has been fully completed. After this, aren’t we free to do whatever the hell we want, even if that means cooperating with the Human Empire and taking the Medium back?!!”

How— absurd.

Asuna gazed speechlessly at the young enemy general. The expression on his face was completely out of place alongside his deterrent rhetoric a moment ago; it was filled with tragic resolve.

The Fist Fighter stared right at Asuna with his left eye, and spoke quietly.

“… I can’t… We can’t revolt directly against the Emperor. His strength is overwhelming… even Dark General Shasta, who was much stronger than I am, was instantly killed without him even lifting a finger. If he suddenly gives the order for us to fight you, we must obey… That’s why, we Fist Fighters will defend against that crimson army here. You and the Human Empire army, just chase the Emperor as hard as you can. And then… the Emperor… that bastard…”

The young man’s words were suddenly interrupted, and his expression distorted— as though tormented by a pain coming from his nonexistent right eye.

“Tell… that bastard, ‘we are not your puppets’!”

Just then, shouts came from the Fist Fighters on the south side of the battlefield. The vanguard had finally broken through the crimson army’s encirclement, and plunged into the wilderness.

“Very good…”

Zudan! The young tribal chief stomped his right foot on the ground and delivered an order in a tremendous voice.

“All of you, maintain that gap!”

Then, he turned to Asuna, and spoke simply.

“Run!! We can’t hold for too long.”

Asuna took a deep breath— and nodded.

This person, is also a human.

It didn’t matter if he’s an Artificial Fluctlight, his soul that’s filled with pride is as real as any other human’s. We clearly severed the rope that they had used to cross the ravine, and have murdered more than a hundred of his tribespeople; he should be swearing revenge against us.

“… Thank you very much.”

Asuna could only manage that, then turned around.

From behind her came Integrity Knight Sheyta’s voice.

“I’ll… stay here.”

Having anticipated this, Asuna looked back, and gave the gray-haired female knight a short smile.

“I understand. We’ll trust you to bring up the rear.”

***

Iskahn watched wordlessly as that unfathomable, chestnut-haired female knight lead the Human Empire army, reduced to about seven hundred people, and passed through the gap in the enemy formation created and maintained by his own tribal warriors in a bloody battle, then looked away from the commotion and fixated on the Integrity Knight.

“… You’re good with this, woman?”

“I told you my name.”

Stared at with a piercing look, the Fist Fighter could only laugh bitterly and change his method of address.

“Is this really okay, Sheyta? I dunno if we can make it out of this alive.”

The slender knight shrugged, and her brand new armor clattered crisply.

“I will be the one to kill you. No chance for others.”

“Hmph, so you say.”

This time, Iskahn laughed heartily.

Wanting to help his partners avoid dying tragic deaths— he had originally chosen to work together with the Human Empire army with this desire in mind. But now, he was putting his entire tribe’s lives on the line to protect the Human Empire people from that crimson army; how incredible. Yet his heart felt wide open, like a breeze was passing by.

Well, even if I die here, that’s not bad.

If he were to die protecting this world, his father, brother, and sisters back in his hometown would definitely understand.

“All right!! Go all out, boys!!”

A roar of “URAAA!!” resounded across the battlefield.

“Form a circle!! Defend in all directions!! Trash all the idiots who come near!!”

“You’re really in the zone, Champion.”

Dampe had already taken his position behind Iskahn once more, and his clenched left fist emitted a grinding noise.

***

While Asuna was leading the army over the southern hill and retreating to the forest garrisoned by the supply team, the young knight Renri informed her about how the Knight Commander had already taken three dragons and flown after Emperor Vector.

“… Do you think he can catch up?”

At Asuna’s sharp question, Renri’s childlike face was severe.

“To be honest, the chances are very slim. In short, the two of them are flying at the same speed, and they need the same amount of time to rest… But, Alice-sama is also riding on Emperor Vector’s dragon, so that expend a bit more of its Life. On the other hand, the Esteemed Knight Commander can switch between his three dragons to minimize their fatigue, so in theory, he can gradually close some of the distance between them…”

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In other words, they could only pray that the Knight Commander would reach the Emperor before he arrived at the World End Altar.

But, even if he caught up to the Emperor—

Could the Knight Commander really defeat Super Account Emperor Vector by himself?

Since Asuna had never expected that the attackers might also log in with a Super Account, she had never asked Higa Takeru what kind of powers Vector had. But if Vector had the same type of powers as Stacia’s “Geographic Manipulation”— even for the Integrity Knights leader, winning against him in a one-on-one fight would be pushing it too much…

Just as Asuna was thinking this, Renri spoke in a more cheerful tone.

“If he catches up, the Esteemed Knight Commander will definitely save Alice-sama. After all, that man… is the strongest knight in the world.”

“… Yeah, that’s right.”

Asuna nodded fervently.

The only thing she could do now, was to believe. After all, during her battle a while ago, she had seen countless times how strong-willed the people of the Underworld were.

“Then, let’s advance south together with the rest of the army. Luckily, there are only flat plains ahead of us. We might not be able to follow Bercouli-san, but we might be able to help him later somehow.”

“Understood, Asuna-sama. I will notify everyone to prepare for a quick march.”

Renri picked up his pace, and dashed into the forest.

Seeing him off, Asuna said to herself.

Kirito wanted to protect Alice, and the entire human world.

She definitely had to protect them as well, no matter how many injuries she sustained… no matter what kind of pain she had to endure.

***

At the same time—

In the main control room of the Ocean Turtle, intelligence warfare representative Critter was ready to let the second batch of 20,000 American players dive into the Underworld.

And their login location was Gabriel Miller’s current location— roughly ten kilometers away from the insertion point of the first batch.

 

2

“……Gh!!”

Inhaling sharply, Vassago Casals jerked up.

He shook his bundled, curly hair and hastily observed his surroundings.

Steel walls emitting a dim glow, a floor plastered with anti-slip polymer, and numerous monitors and indicators glowing hazily in darkness.

When he saw a thin man with a crew cut sitting in a huge leather chair in front of him, Vassago finally realized that he had returned to the main control room of the «Ocean Turtle», in the real world.

The crew cut man— Critter, snorted, his voice full of ridicule.

“Whoa, you actually woke up. I thought all your brain cells had decayed.”

“… Shut the fuck up.”

Vassago groaned, and examined his own body. He was currently lying on a thin mattress placed in the corner of the room, a jacket carelessly spread across his stomach.

What the fuck just happened? Vassago vigorously shook his head. This brought about a stinging pain deep in his head, making him curse again. He then turned toward the other side of the room, where a couple of team members were sitting in a circle and having fun with their cards, and asked:

“Hey, any of you got some aspirin?”

The bearded Brigg, a member of the breaching team, wordlessly retrieved a tiny plastic bottle from his pocket and tossed it to him. Vassago caught it with one hand, twisted the cap off, poured everything inside into his mouth, and crushed the contents with his teeth.

Along with the bitter, numbing sting on his tongue, his memories finally recovered a bit.

“So… I fell into that bottomless hole…”

“How the hell did you die? You were out for eight whole hours.”

“Ei…Eight hours?!”

Thunderstruck, Vassago jumped up, even forgetting his headache.

He glanced at the G-Shock on his left wrist, which indicated that it was 6:30 a.m., Japan Standard Time. Less than twelve hours before the time limit, when the armed teams of the Self Defence Force would leave the Aegis destroyer Nagato and break into the Ocean Turtle.

But more importantly—

Since he had been unconscious for eight hours, a couple of months should have passed in the Underworld. How was the war? The mission to capture Alice?

But as though Critter had seen through Vassago’s shock, tsk-tsk, he clicked his tongue.

“Don’t stare so hard, your eyes are gonna fall out. Relax, when you died inside, the time acceleration rate had already been decreased to one.”

“O… One?!”

Then that meant nothing big should’ve happened inside. But wait, this is a huge problem in itself!

“Hey, four-eyes, do you really understand the situation? We only have twelve hours before the JSDF’s navy troops storm this place!”

Vassago shook Critter’s crew cut head, and the latter batted his hands away annoyingly.

“Of course I know. These are all orders from Captain Miller.”

Then, the “plan of attack” that Critter told him rendered Vassago speechless, even though he was a very experienced VRMMO player.

Before he left the system console in Obsidia, the imperial city in the eastern Dark Territory, Lieutenant Gabriel Miller had secretly given an order to Critter in the real world.

Create an advertisement website about a beta test for a new hardcore VRMMO freed from the laws— the Underworld laws, of course— and write a connection client program. Then, set the acceleration rate to one by 12:00 a.m. on July 7, and at the same time, begin recruiting beta tester players from all across the US, he had said.

“With this restricted console, I can only see the coordinates of you and the captain, as well as the approximate distribution of the Units, so this operation was a backup plan in case the Human Empire’s resistance was fiercer than expected.”

Critter’s slim, long fingers danced across the keyboard, pulling up a map of the entire Underworld on the huge display.

On the world map that was shaped like a curved, inverted triangle, two red lines extended from the easternmost edge, all the way to the west.

“This is the movement log of you and the captain. Listen, you were just wandering around the eastern gate of the Human Empire, and then suddenly died.”

One of the red lines terminated with an ‘X’, south of the «Great Eastern Gate».

“But the commander went past you and is currently proceeding south. He even left the entire Dark Territory army at the north and moved alone. That means…”

“He’s either chasing after Alice or he’s already got her.”

Vassago muttered. Critter nodded and continued explaining.

“According to our original plan, when the remaining time goes down to less than eight hours, or when the Human Empire Army is completely destroyed, we’ll turn the acceleration rate all the way back up to 1,000 times. ‘Cause even so, we still have a full year of time in that world. Of course, when the acceleration rate resets, the US players diving in are all gonna get logged out because of a synchronization error, but as long as we win the war, who cares?”

“Then let’s turn the acceleration rate up now! There ain’t much left of the Human Empire Defense Army.”

“It’s not that simple. Come here, look, right here—”

Critter punched a key and magnified a section of the map.

A few kilometers south of the Great Eastern Gate that divided the Human Empire and the Dark Land, were plains, hills, and a forest, aligned vertically. The Human Empire had set up an ambush in the forest… In other words, that was where Vassago had died.

But somehow, between the forest and the plains, a gigantic valley had appeared almost 50 kilometers from the west to the east. Around that valley, clusters of extremely tiny dots were wobbling and squirming, displayed in different colors: red, black, and white.

“The red ones are those US players that I tossed into the Underworld. A lot of them are gone, but there are still 20,000 left. And this black circle surrounded by the red, is the Dark Territory army. About 4,000.”

“H… Hey, hey, no matter how you look at it, the reds are attacking the blacks, aren’t they?”

“That’s because the fake beta test information only told them that they could let loose and kill all the highly realistic NPCs. To the US players diving in, there’s absolutely no difference between the Human Empire army and the Dark Territory army. But, for some reason, the blacks are decreasing much slower than I expected. The Dark Territory army should be absolutely loyal to the Emperor, there’s no way they’re fighting against the US players, because they’re thought to be summoned by the Emperor.”

“They must’ve stuck to killing for so long that they can’t stop.”

“Well, let’s say these 4,000 black guys are about to be overrun anyway. Despite that, the real problem is over here, this little white group.”

Critter moved the cursor. Indeed, a group of very inconspicuous white dots was currently moving south— as if they were chasing behind Emperor Vector, or Captain Miller.

“Those guys are the Human Empire army. Though they look tiny from this map, there are still about 700 of them. However, it would be very troublesome if they catch up to the captain, so we have to stop them.”

“Stop them? …What’re you gonna do?”

Critter did not directly answer Vassago’s question, but smirked shortly and continued to type on the keyboard.

He opened a new window on the map. Inside, an enormous red cloud was crawling against the flat black background.

“These guys are the US players that didn’t make the first connection, and are waiting for the second one. Once they reach 8,000, I’ll throw them at the Human Empire army. They’ve got 28 times more people, so they’ll exterminate ‘em right away, right? Afterwards, we can raise the acceleration rate back to 1,000 times normal. That way, we can buy more than enough time for the captain to procure Alice and bring her to the system console at the southern end, right?”

“… If only it were that easy.”

Vassago retorted, stroking his rough beard.

“The Human Empire Army is much hardier than you’d imagine. Especially those guys called the Integrity Knights, they’re fucking insane; they totally destroyed the Dark Territory’s first wave, you know? If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have pitifully died… like that…”

Just then, Vassago finally remembered.

Exactly how, and by whom he had been killed.

His breathing ceased and his eyes widened. In his head, a memory gradually recovered, of that goddess-like figure floating high up in the night sky, looking down upon him. He instinctively yelled in Japanese instead of English.

“— «The Flash»…!! Yeah… There’s no doubt, it’s gotta be that bitch…!!”

“Hah? What are you on about?”

Vassago grabbed Critter’s confused, crew cut head.

“Listen, you geek bastard! The RATH guys playing ostrich in the second control room did the same thing as your so-called ‘operation’!! In the Human Empire Army, there’re already Japanese VRMMO players mixed in with them!!”

“What?!”

Ignoring Critter’s incredulous face, Vassago sneered.

“Since Asuna «The Flash» is there, could it be, that guy’s dived in too? … Oh my god, how can I just stay here… Hey, I’m going back to the other side! Put me in together with those 20,000 reinforcements, and insert me at the white group’s position!!”

“You want to dive in again… But the black knight account you wasted is gone forever. Of course, if you don’t mind using the red soldier accounts just like the reinforcements, I have as many as you want.”

“I have an account… One that I’ve saved for so long.”

Kekek. Vassago’s throat emitted a laugh as he swiped a paper energy bar wrapper from the console, pulled a pen from Critter’s chest pocket, and quickly scribbled something down.

“Listen, use this ID and password to log into the homepage of the «The Seed Nexus» in Japan, and convert the saved character into the Underworld. I’ll dive in using that account.”

Leaving those words behind, Vassago started running towards the door of the STL room.

But after a few steps, he abruptly stopped.

As he turned around, Vassago’s face was twisted into a truly savage leer, enough to strike fear into the notorious cyber criminal Critter. It was as if his vulgar, energetic, and rowdy soldier character was no more than one of his personae.

Then, Vassago walked towards Critter with catlike steps, and whispered another short instruction into his ear. Seconds later, the STL room had swallowed him, and the hacker watched the room door alone, that tiny scrap of paper grasped in his hand.

On that paper were three English letters and eight numerical digits. Critter had never known the meaning of the string of text ‘S’, ‘A’ and ‘O’.

***

As the Guardians were preparing to leave, Asuna ran through their crowd and came to the wagon behind the supply team. An overturned silver wheelchair appeared, along with a black-haired boy with his left hand slightly twitching, and two girls leaning towards him.

Ronye lifted her face when she heard the footsteps. Recognizing Asuna, her wet, teary face immediately looked ashamed, and she cried:

“A… Asuna-sama! Kirito-senpai kept… kept wanting to go outside… and then…”

Asuna bit her lip and nodded. She knelt in front of Kirito and gripped his left hand with her remaining right.

“I see… Alice… was taken away by the enemy’s Emperor. Kirito-kun must’ve felt it.”

“What?… Alice-sama was…?!”

Tiese cried in shock, her white face paling even further.

What broke this momentary silence was Kirito’s barely audible voice.

“Ah… uh…”

His left hand stirred, trying to caress what was left of Asuna’s left arm.

“Kirito-kun… Are you, worrying about me…?”
Asuna whispered gently. Just then, Ronye finally noticed Asuna’s injury and screamed.

“Ah, Asuna-sama! Your arm…!!”

“It’s okay. This is just a temporary injury for me…” she muttered. Asuna gently lifted her left arm, of which everything below the elbow had been cut off.

Higa Takeru had given her a very brief lecture about the «Mnemonic Visual» technology. Although all objects were created by The Seed program like in ALO, to Asuna and Kirito, who had dived in with STLs, and to Artificial Fluctlights like Tiese and the others, everything in this world was a «shared memory» loaded from the Main Visualizer, a different reality created through the power of imagination.

Super Account Stacia’s Life, or HP, was an astronomical number, almost reaching the system limit. Hence, if she were attacked with a normal weapon, even stabbed by hundreds and hundreds of swords, her Life would still not be reduced to zero.

But when the red soldier swung down the giant battleaxe and struck her left arm, Asuna was thoroughly and utterly terrified; she had thought, being hit with a battleaxe this big, my arm will be cut off, and her imagination was realized.

The same went for Kirito’s right hand. Although his Life value had already been restored, his arm had no way of returning to normal, because he continued to punish himself for everything.

Asuna placed her hand on her bandaged stump, concentrated her thoughts, closed her eyes and recited to herself with fervent tenacity.

I won’t be afraid of anything anymore. Until I’ve protected Kirito-kun and this world to the very end, I won’t lose to anyone… or anything.

White light concentrated onto the wound with a pop. As warm radiance silently spread, her left arm was restored.

Smiling at the two round-eyed girls who had just witnessed a miracle, Asuna reached out with her restored left hand and softly hugged Kirito’s head.

“See? I’m fine. I’ll definitely save Alice and bring her back. So… when that time comes, Kirito-kun, don’t blame yourself anymore…”

Asuna did not know whether or not her words could reach Kirito’s heart, but she felt that his emaciated body gradually became less tense. Asuna continued to hug him for several seconds, then stood up.

“We must immediately take the entire army and pursue the enemy Emperor. Knight Commander Bercouli has already taken the dragons after him, and we’ll be able to catch up to them up somewhere ahead for sure. During that time, I’ll leave Kirito-kun to you… Ronye-san, Tiese-san.”

“Y… Yes!”

“Leave him to us, Asuna-sama!”

Smiling at the two nodding girls and fighting back tears as she entrusted Kirito to Ronye, Asuna leapt off the carriage.

As soon as she stepped onto the ground, she caught sight of a tall swordswoman running over, who had also attended the “Memory Exposing Competition” last night with her and Ronye. Her silver armor was thoroughly stained with blood and dirt and her head was wrapped in a bandage, but she did not seem heavily injured.

“It’s great that you’re all right, Sortiliena-san.”

Hearing Asuna’s voice, the swordswoman performed an Underworld salute, and replied:

“I’m glad to see that Asuna-sama is fine as well… —It’s just that, I have just heard that Alice-sama has been captured by the enemy general…”

“Yes. I was just explaining to Ronye-san that Emperor Vector completely abandoned his own army and personally ambushed Alice-san. I didn’t expect him to do that, either…”

“… How can this be…”

With her newly restored left hand, Asuna tightly gripped a wide-eyed Sortiliena’s right shoulder.

“But all is not lost. Bercouli-san has already flown after Vector with the dragons. We will pursue them as well.”

“Understood.”

They nodded to each other, and hurried towards the center of the supply team decoy troops.

Under Integrity Knight Renri’s instruction, the Ascetic team had finished healing all of the wounded, and the 700 Guardians had almost completed preparations to move out. The Guardians were smoothly lining up around the Ascetic and supply teams.

After receiving Renri’s report that preparations were complete, Asuna issued him a new directive.

“You are the last remaining Integrity Knight, Renri. The order to move out should be given by you, the commander.”

“Y… Yes, I understand.”

The young knight’s expression was somewhat anxious, but he nodded resolutely, raised his right hand high into the air, and shouted orders in a carrying voice.

“Alice-sama has kindly protected us all in the battle at the Eastern Gate! It’s now our turn to fight for her! We shall take her back from the enemy, and return to the Human Empire together!”

“OH!!” Vigorous cries arose. Renri nodded, and sharply swung his right arm down.

“—All units, advance!”

Renri led the troops at the very front from his own dragon, Kazenui. He was followed by 400 Guardians, on horses or on foot, and the eight wagons loaded with supplies and a backup team of 300 began to move as well.

Only one dragon— Integrity Knight Sheyta’s dragon, stayed its ground obstinately and did not move. With scales as grayish-white as its owner’s hair, the dragon screeched kuurrr once it was freed from its reins, then flapped its wings and flew north— towards the battlefield south of the valley, where its owner had stayed behind.

In front of the wagons, Asuna thought as she shook back and forth on the horse with Sortiliena:

The final enemy is Emperor Vector.

His true identity was that of a person also from the real world, who existed here in the form of a virtual being. That was why, even if she had to go down with him, she must defeat him. For those who stayed behind to take on the red soldiers’ attack: Knight Sheyta, the one-eyed Fist Fighter Chief, and the 4,000 Fist Fighters.

 

A few minutes later, the troops emerged from the withered forest and entered the immense mortar-shaped basin. A thin road cut straight through the crater-like ground, leading southwards.

According to RPG convention, the end of such a road would be a special location, such as a city or ruins. Yet she had heard that the southern area of the Dark Territory was not occupied by any of the demihumans. In other words, this road ended at the «World End Altar», and Emperor Vector was somewhere on it with Integrity Knight Alice.

Emperor Vector’s dragon and Bercouli’s dragons in hot pursuit were all out of sight. However, 700 Human Empire soldiers still advanced along the road as quickly as they could; the ground rumbled with their footsteps.

Clearing the edge of the crater, charging downhill— just as the entire decoy unit reached the bottom.

Something was trembling.

Vvvvvv… m. A rumbling like the wings of an insect.

“…?”

Asuna looked up, left and right, and behind her.

Just as she looked straight ahead, she finally discovered the source of the noise.

Red, thin lines.

Hundreds of randomly flashing, tiny strings of text, falling out of the sky straight to the ground.

“……… No way………”

Asuna’s lips trembled, a broken voice leaking out.

—No way. Stop. No more…

But.

Zaaaa—!!

The roar of an explosion like torrential rainfall. Falling lines branched left and right, dropping in a downpour. They formed a high density screen along the edge of the crater, completely blocking the troops’ path.

Despite having just declared that she would not be afraid anymore, Asuna’s feet still instantly lost their strength.

What appeared where the lines landed were the brutal, ferocious soldiers clad in that blood-red armor— VRMMO players summoned from the real world.

“All… All units, do not stop!! Attack!! Attack—!!”

Integrity Knight Renri issued a clear order from the very front. The disturbed Human Empire army regained order with a warcry: Uooo! and picked up their pace. The troops sprinted up the crater’s incline.

But, as if they had been anticipating this maneuver, the newly-appeared soldiers seemed to all have been placed on the south side of the crater, with the ones blocking their way numbering a thousand… no, nearly two thousand.

Shall I risk being logged out and use Stacia’s Geographical Manipulation again? If she wasn’t careful, however, it could backfire and impede the advancement of the Human Empire army.

In the next instant, Asuna’s puzzlement was shattered by a dragon’s roar.

From the very front line, Knight Renri’s dragon Kazenui was spewing scorching flames, and had charged ahead without looking back.

“No… Renri-sama is sacrificing himself to open a path…”

As though he heard Sortiliena’s pained moan from beside Asuna, Renri slowly turned around from atop the dragon’s back.

—Please take care of the rest.

The boy’s lips mouthed.

Then, the charging knight drew the two boomerang-like weapons from his waist, and held them at the ready.

Just before he threw them forward.

The color of the sky above the crater suddenly changed.

A cross-shaped rift tore apart the Dark Territory’s blood-red sky, from which Asuna caught a glimpse of an infinite blue behind it, clear as azure.

Whether it was the numerous crimson soldiers who seemed ready to charge down, the suicidally advancing Human Empire soldiers, or even Knight Renri charging at the very front, all lifted their heads together, looking into the sky like Asuna.

The boundless heavens, seemingly reaching into the universe.

From beyond, a bright white star descended.

No, it was a person. Clad in armor of the same azure as the sky, and a skirt as white as the clouds, with violently flapping short hair the color of water. The source of the blinding white light was the giant longbow in their left hand. Their face was imperceptible against the reflection.

—Who…? Who, are you?

As though in response to Asuna’s silent demand, the one floating in the sky pointed the longbow into the heavens. Their right hand gripped the dazzling bowstring, and forcefully drew it all the way back.

With a stunning flash, an arrow of light shining pure white appeared between the bow and the string.

Both the Human Empire army and the red soldiers had stopped dead, all seeming to forget how to speak in this instant, completely silent. The only sound heard was Sortiliena’s low voice:

“……… Solus-sama…?”

As though answering this call, the dazzling arrow of light shot vertically into the sky.

It instantly split and spread in all directions.

As they turned at acute angles, they transformed into white-hot lasers and poured down towards the ground.

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The words of Guardian Leader Sortiliena Serlut were only half correct.

Above the crater, a real world person appeared, no, logged in with Super Account 02, «Solus, Goddess of the Sun».

This account had been given the default ability «wide-ranged annihilatory attack».

***

Sinon/Asada Shino looked down upon the immense destruction she had wreaked, and recalled the explanation that the technician called Higa had given her over the intercom.

“Um, Sinon-san, although the Super Accounts are really strong, they’re not miracle workers. Since they’re prepared for times when you only have to perform large scale changes in the Underworld, we tried our best to configure them to fit a range acceptable to the inhabitants within.”

“So… are you saying that they’re not GMs5, just very strong PCs6?”

Sinon spoke into the microphone as she lay on the giant STL machine resembling the First Generation Fulldive experimental apparatus, located in the Roppongi branch of the mysterious startup «RATH». What came as a reply was a click— apparently the sound of someone snapping his fingers.

“Yes. Exactly. That’s why the «Solus» account you’re going to use can’t get around the Underworld’s resource boundaries either. Any attacks with your bow must expend Spacial Resources, no matter what. Since it has an auto-recharging feature, it shouldn’t be exhausted during the day, but you can’t do rapid fire.”

Just as Higa said, the light of the pure white longbow that Sinon gripped in her left hand had weakened after that wide-ranged attack. Although the bow had already begun to replenish its light at both ends, another full-power attack would require a two to three minute wait.

No combo attacks? Hmph, perfect.

Compared to an automatic7, manuals suit me better anyway.

Sinon boasted silently, confirming that the explosive flames on the ground had dissipated.

Along the edge of the roughly one kilometer wide crater, charred bodies vanished one after another with a luminous effect. A single shot had probably obliterated more than 5,000 enemy soldiers. Luckily, they were not real Underworld people, but Americans who had logged in from the real world just like Sinon. The players who had believed in the existence of this closed beta and were torched immediately upon connection must be seething right now.

In the crater’s center, the small scale troops vastly outnumbered by the crimson army began to advance again. Although the enemy still numbered more than 10,000, most remained motionless out of fear of the next shot— or rather, explosion, allowing the Human Empire army to break through.

Sinon gazed into the distance, verifying the Human Empire troops’ formation.

She instantly noticed the chestnut-haired girl in their ranks atop a white horse, looking right up at her.

Sinon could not help but smile as she maneuvered the other ability that had been bestowed upon the Solus account, «unlimited flight». Although she was incredulous upon hearing Higa tell her “you fly with your imagination”, when she actually took control she felt that it wasn’t much different from the free flight in ALO. She looked towards the carriage behind the girl, and flew towards it in a straight line.

When the tips of her porcelain-painted boots touched the canvas surface, she gently raised her right hand.

“Sorry for the wait, Asuna.”

As she saw Sinon’s warm smile, tears beaded in the eyes of the girl in the pearly dress. She stood from her galloping horse, and jumped beneath the carriage canopy:

“——Sinonon… !!”

Asuna hugged her tightly with a strained shout.

Sinon lightly patted her best friend’s slender body, and said softly:

“You’ve worked hard. It’s okay… Leave everything else to me.”
As she was hugged by Asuna, who was slightly taller than her, she pointed the 20% recharged bow directly ahead, and slightly drew back the bowstring with her right hand.

The GM equipment given to the Solus account— the longbow «Annihilate Ray» adjusted its power according to bowstring force, and adjusted its attack range according to bow angle. An arrow of light, much thinner than the one before, appeared when the bowstring was drawn 10 centimeters back. Sinon aimed the arrow at the enemy troops blocking the dragons running at the front.

Vishu! The faint sound of a shot.

Tilted about 20 degrees to the right, the bow shot out a ray of light that split and landed within a 10 meter radius, creating an explosion not inferior to that of a TOW missile8. Crimson armor was thrown high into the air, and then disappeared. Taking advantage of the opening, the dragons immediately charged through. The ten or so soldiers who withstood the blast were slammed by the dragons’ heads, kicked by their huge talons, and instantly defeated.

At this point, the enemy soldiers seemed to have recovered from the shock of the laser attack, and realized that their prey was fleeing. Exploding with obscene curses, they dashed down the slope of the crater like a red tsunami.

Sinon swung her bow over her arm, placed both hands on Asuna’s shoulders, and gently separated themselves.

“Asuna. I can see the remains of something that looks like ruins about 5 kilometers south of here. The road runs straight through it, and several huge stone statues are lined up on both sides. We won’t have to worry about being surrounded by the enemy, and we can shrink the battlefield. Let’s find a way to repel the enemy there.”

Asuna was also a battleworn warrior, and upon hearing Sinon’s words, her eyes immediately recovered a sharp gleam. She forcefully wiped away her tears, and spoke:

“Got it, Sinonon… Sinon. No matter how many American VRMMO players there are, they have no way of immediately gathering more. If we can repel those ten or so thousand people, the enemy will be helpless… I think.”

“Yeah, leave it to me. … Well, that’s pretty much it…”

After confirming that the very last of the Human Empire army troops had escaped the enemy encirclement, Sinon looked back at her best friend.

“… Um, is Kirito…. among the troops?”

Asuna could not help but give her a bitter smile at this.

“You don’t have to be so polite about that now. Kirito-kun’s in there.”

Asuna gestured with her right index finger at the carriage beneath their feet.

“Oh, really. Well… I’ll go say hello to him.”

Clearing her throat, Sinon moved to the rear of the ceiling canvas on the large carriage, and glided inside with the help of her flying ability.

She waited for Asuna to follow suit, then turned towards the depths of the carriage, stacked with wooden crates.

The first things that entered her sight were two otherworldly girls in gray uniforms covered with armor. Their eyes grew wide at the same time, and one of them uttered softly:

“S… Solus-sama…?”

Sinon glanced at her own outfit, and replied with a shrug:

“Hello, nice to meet you. Although I look a lot like Solus, I’m not. I’m Sinon.”

She tried her best to smile at them, but the duo only blinked in confusion. But as they saw Asuna as well, they seemed to understand something.

“Right, I’m a Real World person like Asuna. I’m also Kirito’s… friend.”

“I… see.”

While the red-haired girl still looked startled, the deep brown-haired girl wore a complicated expression, and murmured quietly: Why are they all women?

There are more to come. Sinon chuckled bitterly in her heart as she took a few steps into the gap that the girls parted to create.

She saw a boy in black, sitting on a plain wheelchair, hugging two longswords in one arm.

Although she had already learned of Kirito’s state through Higa Takeru, upon seeing his injured state in the flesh, her heart tightened and she felt tears welling up.

“… Ah…”

Even though those empty eyes did not look at hers, his throat did emit a small sound. Sinon fell softly to her knees before her former enemy, comrade, and savior.

Leaning on the chair’s back and the armrests, the swordsman’s body had become so thin and frail that she hesitated to touch him. Sinon set her longbow on the carriage’s deck, then reached out and wrapped both arms tightly around his emaciated frame.  

She had heard that Kirito’s soul— his Fluctlight, the «main body» known as the core within, or his self-image, had suffered severe damage. Higa had told her in a somber voice that there was currently no known method of recovery.

But, Sinon closed her eyes tightly, tears streaming out as she screamed in her heart: Well, that’s easy.

Many people have countless memories of the times with Kirito, and strong emotions towards Kirito. They only needed to be gathered together, bit by bit, and placed back into Kirito’s heart.

— Hey, can’t you feel it?… The you that’s inside me. Sarcastic, a bit naughty, stubborn, naive… and stronger, kinder than anyone. This is you, yourself.

Sinon forgot that Asuna was still gazing from behind her; she turned her head and planted a firm kiss on Kirito’s face.

 

Just then—

Asada Shino was still unaware that her own emotional thoughts had barely scratched the surface of the only possible way to revive Kirigaya Kazuto’s soul.

Had she possessed ample knowledge of the Underworld and Fluctlights’ structure, it would be possible for her to solve that method. But the explanation given to Sinon before she dived in only consisted of the current situation and how to use the Solus account.

That was why Sinon did not bother to consider the reason behind Kazuto’s slight trembling and subtle rise in body temperature, which occurred when her lips touched him.

 

Sinon quickly released Kirito’s body, stood up, and turned to the three watching from behind.

“Don’t worry, Kirito will definitely make a speedy recovery. When we truly need him.”

Asuna and the two girls nodded tearfully.

“Well… I’ll fly to the ruins in the south to confirm the geography. I’ll leave Kirito to you guys.”

Having said that, Sinon turned towards the carriage rear–

Suddenly, Asuna tightly seized her shoulder.

Seeing the urgent gleam in her eyes, Sinon swallowed involuntarily.

“A… Asuna, what…”

Sinon thought that Asuna was going to interrogate her about stealing a kiss with Kirito, but naturally, this was not the case—

“H-Hey, Sinon, did you say you were going to fly?! You… can fly?!”

At this critical question, Sinon nodded confusedly.

“Y… Yes. They told me it was a default ability of the Solus account. I heard that it doesn’t have a time limit…”

“Then we aren’t the ones in need of help! Alice… Go after Alice, she’s been abducted by the Emperor!!”

The situation that Asuna explained afterwards was more urgent than Sinon had expected.

Integrity Knight Alice, the key to everything, had been captured by Emperor Vector, who was diving with a Super Account just like them, and was currently flying towards the faraway south on a dragon. The only one currently in pursuit was a swordsman called Bercouli, the Knight Commander.

“Going up against a Super Account, even for the Knight Commander, is too much for him. If we can’t save Alice before the Emperor reaches the «World End Altar», this entire world will be destroyed! Please, Sinon, go help Bercouli-san!”

 

After everything had been finally cleared up and she had carved Knight Commander Bercouli’s appearance into her mind, Sinon flew from the carriage and shot into the sky.

The 700-strong Human Empire army was advancing south with a dust cloud.

Chasing furiously after them from the north, the red army seemed to consist of 20 times more people.

—I’ll come back as soon as I grab Alice. Do your best until then, Asuna.

Calling to her best friend in her heart, Sinon spurred her imagination to accelerate southwards. She became a white-tailed meteor, tearing across the crimson sky.

Looking down upon the forever sprawling dark wilderness, Sinon suddenly remembered:

Come to think of it—

Where’s Leafa, who should have logged in at the same time as she had?

 

3

Close behind the Human Empire army led by Integrity Knight Renri was the second batch of inserted American players.

Far north, on the south side of the valley created by Asuna, Iskahn and the Fist Fighters’ Guild, along with Integrity Knight Sheyta, were still locked in a desperate battle with the rest of the crimson army that still numbered more than ten thousand.

And even further north of this battlefield—

In the wilderness on the other side of the Great Eastern Gate, now stained with the remains of the bloodshed, stood the silhouette of a lone demihuman.

A body wrapped in bulging steel armor. A leathery mantle fluttering in the wind. Two thin ears drooping from both sides of a rotund head, with a flat nose protruding outwards.

It was the Chief of the Orc Tribe, Rirupirin.

Having ordered his surviving three thousand tribal members to standby behind, he had come to the Great Eastern Gate alone. He had not brought even a single bodyguard, because he did not want them to see him wavering over the ground.

After fumbling in the sand for who knows how long, Rirupirin finally found what he was searching for: A plainly carved silver earring.

What he gently picked up and placed into his palm was the eye-catching object that the Orc princess knight Renju had worn in her ear, as she followed the Emperor’s orders and became a live sacrifice.

This was the only possession she had left behind. In the wilderness, not even a shard of armor remained, let alone the bodies of the three thousand Orcs who had died together with the princess. The Dark Sorceress’ abhorrent magic had completely devoured the Orcs’ bodies and equipment, transforming them into Dark Energy.  

And the Sorceress D.I.L., who had enacted this cruel torture, along with the Emperor who had given the order, were no longer here.

D, the Head of the Dark Sorceress’ Guild, had died after being engulfed by the «Radiant Medium»’s terrifying and magnificent counterattack, and the Emperor had flown south to pursue the Medium, without giving Rirupirin any new orders to move out.

The remaining three thousand Orc soldiers had no way of defeating the Human Empire soldiers and Integrity Knights protecting the Great Eastern Gate. The desire of the five races of the Dark Land, their dream of conquering the Human Empire, had collapsed.

—If that was the result.

Why?

Why had Rirupirin’s childhood friend Renju, the three thousand Orcs sacrificed alive, and the two thousand Orcs battling at the Gate, died? What did their deaths bring to the Dark Land?

No answer. Nothing at all.

Just because of their inferior appearance, five thousand tribesmen died in vain, just like that.

Rirupirin hugged the earring in his fist to his chest, and knelt wretchedly on the ground. A raging, melancholic, crushing sorrow flooded his heart— when they melted into tears and sobs—

At that moment.

A gaton came from behind.

The Orc chief stood up and spun his head around, startled, then saw, fallen on the ground and creasing her brows, a human woman. Bright golden hair and pure white skin, wearing a grassy-colored outfit and shining armor… not someone from the Dark Land, but surely a Human Empire girl.

Instead of shock at her sudden appearance, or fury at seeing a human, the first thing that Rirupirin felt was a shame that said, “don’t look at me”.

Because the girl before him was simply too beautiful.

She was definitely the first young female white Ium he had seen close-up, and was so different from the tall, rough-boned, ashy-skinned females of the Dark Land that he thought she looked almost to be from a different species. Her hands and feet looked so fragile that they might snap at the slightest touch, her hair still gleaming under the weak sun, her large eyes looking straight ahead dumbfoundedly, like crystal-clear emeralds.

Rirupirin cursed himself for having such awestruck thoughts about the beauty of this weak race.

At the same time, he was scared that the girl’s eyes might fill with revulsion.

“Dun’… Dun’ look!! Dun’ look a’ me!!”

He shouted as he blocked his face with his left fist, clutching the hilt of his sword with his right.

Before she could scream, he would cut her head off.

As he prepared to draw his sword, Rirupirin felt the earring gripped in his left hand pierce his palm. A feeling like he was being held back by Renju made him stop his movements, and then he heard a surprising sound— or voice.

“Err… Good afternoon. Good morning, perhaps?”

Standing up swiftly and patting down her shorts, the girl smiled gently.

Hiding behind the shadow of his fist, Rirupirin watched in surprise and blinked several times.

There was not a sliver of revulsion or scorn in the girl’s eyes, not even fear. To white Ium children, the Orcs of the Dark Territory were supposed to be man-eating spirits.

“W… Why?”

The words that leaked out of his mouth sounded desperate, completely uncharacteristic for one of the ten Lords of the Dark Land.

“Why aren’t ya runnin’ away? Why aren’t ya screamin’? Yer jus’ a hooman, why?”

The girl looked surprised and perplexed.

“Why… Because.”

Then, as if affirming that the world is flat and the sky is red, she continued matter-of-factly:

“You’re a human too, aren’t you?”

In that instant, Rirupirin could not understand why his spine trembled. Gripping the hilt of his sword, the demihuman chief spoke in a panting voice:

“H… Hooman? Me? What kinda stupid stuff is that? You can tell jus’ by lookin’ a’ me! I’m an Orc! An Orc called a pigman by ya Iums!!”

“But, you’re still a human, though.”

Placing her hands on her slender hips, the girl sounded like a parent teaching her child.

“See, we can talk to each other. Other than that, what more do you need?”

“Wha’… more…”

Rirupirin couldn’t retort anymore. The confident words spoken by the green-eyed girl were too abnormal to the Orc chief who had lived with burning inferiority and resentment towards humans.

… If you can talk, you’re a human?
Is that the only requisite of being a “human”? Goblins, Ogres, and Giants could all speak languages. But the four races that included the Orcs had been called “demihumans” ever since the beginning of the Dark Territory, strictly divided from the humans.

Rirupirin could only breathe roughly as he stood there dumbfounded. With a “Let’s not worry about that yet”, the girl swept his shock and chaos aside as she surveyed their surroundings.

“… Where… is this?”

***

Leafa/Kirigaya Suguha noticed that she had apparently appeared far away from her original login coordinates, and looked towards that ominous, red tinted sky.

Since hearing that the STL Unit 6 she was using was a new machine that hadn’t even been taken out of its PVC wrapping after being moved in, she had felt uneasy. Suguha never competed with newly purchased shinai, and likewise, she never trusted newly unpackaged electronic devices. Because somehow, she’d always had an abnormally high chance of getting defective electronic hardware.

When she had logged in, like Sinon, who entered with STL Prototype Unit 1, her location should have been set to where Asuna was dived in, but since she could see neither of the two, something had certainly happened before she arrived. But that didn’t mean that this desolate place was completely empty; before her stood a single rotund, pig-faced humanoid— in other words, an «Orc».

According to the color cursor that was only effective for an instant after diving in, this Orc should not belong to her current enemy— the American VRMMO players, but he was an “Artificial Fluctlight” living in the Underworld, the “bottom-up” artificial intelligence that Yui had described.

After hearing Yui’s explanation about the people of the Underworld, Leafa was determined not to draw her sword against them unless absolutely necessary.

That was obvious— how could she kill the “humans” that her brother Kirito wished to protect? If an Artificial Fluctlight died in this world, their soul would be completely destroyed, unable to be revived.

Furthermore—

Even for Leafa, who was already familiar with ALO’s top-notch graphics, the complexity of this Orc’s model, which also existed inside much of The Seed Nexus, was shocking. The twitches and breaths of his great pinkish nose, the texture of the metallic armor that wrapped around his giant frame and its leathery mantle, and most of all, his two beady black eyes and the richness of his expression were even more proof of the unquestionable, true presence of the soul living within him.

She had asked this Orc, who timidly turned his face away for some reason, about their surroundings, yet had not received an immediate answer. Deciding to start with a more present issue, Leafa raised another question.

***

“Well… What’s your name?”

Taken aback, the Orc chief uttered a reflexive, unconscious answer to the white Ium girl’s second inquiry. Maybe his name was the only thing he didn’t hate about himself.

“I… I’m, Rirupirin.”

He immediately regretted saying it. Because before, when he traveled to Imperial City Obsidia for the first time, the human knights and sorcerers had burst into laughter upon hearing the name Rirupirin.

But, the girl only smiled innocently, without any kind of hidden emotion, and repeated Rirupirin’s name in a clear voice:

“Rirupirin… What a great name. I’m Leafa. It’s nice to meet you, please take care of me.”

Then, she performed an bewildering action for the umpteenth time.

She extended her soft, white, right hand straight out.

Shaking hands— of course he knew about this habit. It was common among Orcs as well. But he had never heard of an Ium shaking hands with an Orc.

What the hell is with this person? Is this a trap, or some Sorceress’s magic? Have I fallen for a Bewitching Art without realizing it?

Staring at that small, outstretched hand, Rirupirin could only moan without moving. The girl watched Rirupirin for nearly ten seconds, then let her hand fall with slight disappointment. Seeing her like that, he felt a stabbing pain in his heart for some reason.

If he kept talking to the girl… No, just looking at her, he didn’t know what would happen to his brain. Rirupirin had decided he did not want to kill this puny human before him anymore, but to find another solution that did not require brainpower, he spoke:

“Yer… a Guardian of the Hooman Empire army, no, a knight. I wanna take ya prisoner. Take ya ta the Emperor!”

Even though she was young, the armor she wore and the long sword equipped at her left waist were unlike anything given to a soldier, no matter how he looked at them. Their intricate designs and gleaming material were likely of much higher grade than Rirupirin’s equipment.

The girl did not show a trace of fear at Rirupirin’s roar, as though she was thinking about something, then finally shrugged and asked:

“The Emperor you’re talking about is Dark God Vector, right?”

“Y… Yeah.”

“Got it. Okay then. Take me to the Emperor.”

She nodded, brought her hands together, and stuck them out. This was very clearly not a gesture to shake hands, but one encouraging him to tie her up.

What the hell is she thinking?

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Page 107

Rirupirin took a sash from his belt, and roughly— but a bit loosely, tied the girl’s wrists. After pulling on the end of the rope to tighten it, he remembered that the Emperor was no longer at the army encampment of the Dark Land.

But, if he continued to think about complicated things, his brain would be fried. Even if the Emperor wasn’t there, there was still that Dark Knight aide with the disgusting expression, or someone like the Commerce Guild leader Lengil who would know what to do.

A few seconds after he turned, he began to walk as he pulled on the sash with slight care.

Suddenly, a thick black haze appeared around him. A revolting smell pierced his nose. Everything instantly became invisible, and Rirupirin scanned his surroundings on alert.

“Ah…?!”

That short, surprised utterance was without doubt from that girl who called herself Leafa.

Flicking his head around, Rirupirin saw an arm sticking out from deep within the thick fog and pulling violently at Leafa’s tied hair.

Then, the owner of the hand appeared out of the haze.

The woman who should have died— Dark Sorceress’ Guild Leader D.I.L. stood there, her lips curved in a cruel smile.

***

Why can’t I catch up to him?

Bercouli, the leader of the Integrity Knights, felt as surprised as he was desperate.

His three dragons had been in pursuit for more than two hours.

They had flown over the forest, where the Human Empire Defense army was camping, and the wide circular depression, passed through the ruins lined with strange, giant statues, and burst into the uncharted southern region of the Dark Territory, but the distance between them showed no signs of decreasing. Having abducted his beloved apprentice Integrity Knight Alice, Emperor Vector’s dragon still remained a miniscule black dot on the distant horizon.

The Emperor and Alice were riding together on a single dragon.

Conversely, Bercouli continuously switched between Hoshigami, Amayori, and Takiguri, trying his best to minimize their fatigue. In theory, he should have caught up by now.

Why can’t he catch up then? Is the Emperor able to freely control his dragon’s Life?

Impossible. Not even the Highest Minister Administrator could control Life as she wanted, that should be the greatest taboo.

Of course, he couldn’t fly indefinitely. He had to let his dragon rest at least twice before reaching the «World End Altar» at the southernmost edge of the Dark Territory. But Bercouli’s dragons also needed to rest. Since their speed was equal, he would never be able to close their distance.

It— won’t end.

Bercouli was unable to use an Art that could reach all the way to the horizon. To break this current situation, the only possibility was to—

The Knight Commander gently caressed his beloved sword at his left waist with his right hand.

A reliable, gritty, ice-cold feel. But just from its touch, he could feel that its Life was far from completely replenished. The extensive Armament Full Control Art he had used at the Great Eastern Gate had expended more than he had expected.

The tactic that Bercouli was about to use, the ultimate pinnacle of the Divine Instrument «Time Piercing Sword», would expend an astronomical amount of Life.

He could use it only once. And the strike had to be more precise than threading a needle in order to hit its target.

Bercouli gently caressed Takiguri’s neck, and leapt lightly beside it onto Hoshigami’s back.

Even if he wasn’t holding its reins, he passed his consciousness to his partner who had fought alongside him over the years, and carefully adjusted his altitude.

He aimed at the black dot like a grain of sand on the far off horizon.

Although he very much wanted to aim at the Emperor himself, at this distance he could not even see his silhouette, so the risk of missing was too high. He must see through his movements, and concentrate all of his energy on one wing of his dragon.

Standing straight up on his stirrups, Bercouli slowly moved his right hand and drew his longsword, forged entirely from a single material, out from its worn leather sheath.

The blade he held to the right of his body emitted a weak glow. The Recollection Release Art directly activated without an incantation and the longsword swayed like steam, drawing innumerable afterimages behind it with the dragon’s advance.

The Knight Commander looked steely as the corner of his mouth twitched, gently apologizing to the innocent dragon.

Then, narrowing his pale blue eyes— Bercouli, the world’s eldest knight, uttered a sharp cry.

“Time Piercing Sword— Arcane Slash!!”

With a heavy zoom, he swung the blade down heavily but surprisingly quickly. Countless blue afterimages flashed along in the direction of the slash, then disappeared one by one.

Far off in the distance, the left wing of the black dragon ridden by Emperor Vector was silently severed off from its roots.

***

“It smells… I can smell it… So sweet is the fragrance of Life…”

Clasping the human girl’s hair and lifting her entire body up, D.I.L.’s lips emitted a fractured voice.

Rirupirin could only watch dumbly at the Dark Sorceress, whom no matter how much he hated, it still didn’t feel enough.

Her dark skin, once gleaming with the sheen of fragrant oil, and her once magnificent black curls, were now in a horrible state. Her entire body was utterly covered in wounds seeping blood nonstop, incurred from sharp blades. With D’s every move, a few wounds would split open, spurting more blood. But the black haze surrounding the Sorceress would quickly gather around the wound, secrete a nauseating smell, and stem the blood flow.

The source of the smoke was a small leather pouch hanging from D’s waist. Upon closer inspection, when the pouch was open, strange insect-like things would occasionally poke their heads out to spray the thick fog. It must be a Dark Art that inhibited Life decrease.

Glancing at Rirupirin, who had pinched his nose out of disgust, the corners of D’s mouth lifted.

“What excellent prey. I commend you, pig. As a reward, I’ll show you something nice.”

Right after she said that—

D slid her talon-like right finger into the girl’s collar, who made a pained expression as her hair was hoisted further up.

With a relentless noise, the silver armor and light grass-colored shirt were suddenly torn apart and fell to the ground.

As the pure white skin on her upper body was exposed, the girl’s face contorted even further. Watching her, D panted sadistically and revealed a wild grin.

“How is it? It’s your first time seeing a human woman’s body, is it? This might be too tempting for a pig! But the show’s just getting started…!!”

The five digits on D’s right hand suddenly began to wriggle and writhe like they had suddenly lost their bones.

Somehow, her fingers had already transformed into glistening, slippery worms. At their ends, concentric circles of thin, saw-like mouths opened wide, writhing disgustingly.

“Watch…!!”

As D shouted, her five fingers— no, five long worms stretched far beyond their original length and wrapped around the girl’s upper body. They not only stopped her from moving; the ends raised their sickle-shaped necks— and stabbed into her skin.

“AH…!!”

Blood spurted in all directions as the girl called Leafa screamed, her green eyes wide. She tried to peel off the worms with her hands, but her upper body was entangled and her wrists were tied up by Rirupirin’s sash.

The blood flow from her five wounds suddenly seemed to stop, but the reality was different. Rirupirin realized that the worms on D’s right hand were emitting swallowing sounds; they were drinking her blood.

The Dark Sorceress lifted her head and began to recite a shrill incantation.

System call!! Transfer human unit durability… Right to Self!!

Pop, blue light burst from the girl’s wounds. Then, as if synchronizing with the flow of blood, it was sucked into D’s hand through the worms. The girl’s torment intensified, and her thin body arched backward as though it were about to snap in half.

“Ah… Powerful… Powerful!! How rich… and sweet!!”

A piercing screech shattered Rirupirin’s eardrums.

This pain jolted the Orc chief back to his senses, and he shouted as if panting:

“Wha’… Wha’ are ya doing!! This girl is my prisoner!! I wanna take ‘er ta the Emperor!!”

“Shut up, you stupid pig!!”

D screamed arrogantly, her eyes bloodshot.

“Have you forgotten that the Emperor has given all operational command to me?! My will is the Emperor’s will!! My command is the Emperor’s command!!”

Gu. Rirupirin was at a loss for words.

Hadn’t this operation ended in failure a long time ago? He wanted to retort. But the Emperor had disappeared from the battlefield without giving any orders. Now, there was no one to overturn D’s perspective of her “power”.

As Rirupirin watched, dumbstruck, the girl emitted silent screams and her movements began to weaken. On the other hand, the countless wounds on D’s skin began to adhere together, bit by bit, and close.

“Uh… Guh…”

Crushing noises came from his clenched teeth.

To Rirupirin, the girl having her Life slowly absorbed, overlapped with the silhouette of the princess general who had died as a sacrifice.

The light slowly vanished from the girl’s eyes. Her skin had gone from white to pale, and her hands fell powerlessly to her side. But the tentacles on D’s right hand still writhed hungrily, intending to suck out every last drop of her blood.

Die… She will die.

This rare prisoner.

No, the first human who was neither afraid of nor disdainful towards him.

Just then—

An unthinkable phenomenon, or rather, a miracle occurred. Rirupirin’s eyes widened involuntarily.

The ground.

The jet black, charcoal-like desert ground of the Dark Territory, below the suspended girl, began radiating green.

What looked like very soft grass, which was unseen except in rare places, shot up from the ground, and innumerable flowers in all sorts of colors began blooming in every direction. The fragrance of flowers carried in the wind, and even the blood-red sunlight had changed to a warm cream color.

This scene, teeming with life, spun around and was instantly absorbed into the girl’s body.

Her pale skin immediately regained its color, and her eyes shone once more.

As the sudden illusion disappeared, Rirupirin realized that the girl’s Life had already completely recovered. An inexplicable relief flooded his heart.

But it was immediately shattered.

“Unbelievable… It’s coming out… It’s seeping out again!!”

D screeched, her wounds seemingly completely healed as well.

She released her right hand from clasping the girl’s hair, and the fingers on that hand also transformed into ugly worms.

With corpulent, sticky sounds, the five newly generated tentacles pierced the girl’s skin.

“… AHH…!!”

D’s guffaws completely drowned out the girl’s thin screams.

“AHAHAHAHA!! AH— HAHAHAHAHA!! Mine! It’s MINE—!!”

***

I have to endure this.

Suffering an excruciating pain she had never felt before either in the real world or ALO, Leafa could only repeat this to herself.

Before she dived, she heard the explanation of Super Account 03 «Terraria, Goddess of the Earth»’s powers.

Unlimited automatic recovery. Automatically absorbing energy from the wide space around her, to recover her own durability or that of any static or animated object. According to that technician named Higa, her already vast HP level, together with that power, made it virtually impossible for her to die from HP loss.

That was why Leafa had decided to risk being captured to challenge Dark God Vector, and simultaneously chose not to draw her sword against the people of the Underworld.

The woman tormenting her now was an Underworld resident like Rirupirin— an Artificial Fluctlight. If she was slashed with a sword, her soul would be completely destroyed. Without knowing how she had gotten wounded and why she wanted to recover, Leafa could not battle her.

Ahh— But.

Putting aside the shame of having her clothes torn off, the pain of her Life being drained was indescribable.

Was this truly a virtual feeling separate from her real, physical body?

***

“… Stop.”

Rirupirin was unable to immediately realize that the word had come from his own mouth.

But then, very clearly this time, his mouth moved, and his throat vibrated.

“Stop!”

Her pupils shrinking to the size of pinholes, D’s eyes cast a scornful glare. Enduring the chill welling from his stomach, the Orc chief continued:

“Isn’t yer Life not fully restored a’ready? Ya dun need ta get any more from that Ium’s body!”

“… Whaaat now? Giving orders to me…?”

D spoke softly, sounding like an off-key song.  

Suddenly, the ten tentacles began to wriggle more intensely, forcefully pinching the girl’s skin, rapaciously sucking blood. The Dark Sorceress’s skin had already completely regenerated to an oily shine, and her hair was even longer and richer than before.

Not only that, the superfluous Life molded into blue particles and spread into the air from her body. Yet D showed no sign of stopping the torture, remaining wrapped around the girl, who was much smaller than her, from behind.

“I’ve said it before, pig. This prisoner is mine now. No matter how much Life I absorb, how much I abuse her in front of you, pig, or even if I kill her right here and now, it’s got nothing to do with you, does it?”

Kuku, kukuku, a leaden cackle came from her throat.

“But, yes, sure. You discovered her, so I should defer to you, shouldn’t I? Then… take all of your clothing off now.”

“Wha’… Wha’re ya sayin’…”

“Ever since a long time ago, seeing your poser armor and mantle has made me want to vomit. You’re just a pig, yet you dress like a man. If you go completely nude here, crawl on all fours, and grunt a bit for me, perhaps I’ll return this girl to you.”

Gu.

Suddenly, a portion of the right half of his vision flashed red. Simultaneously, a pain, like being stabbed with an iron needle, came from his right eye.

—Just a pig.

—Like a man.

D’s words overlapped with this Leafa girl’s words.

—You’re a human, aren’t you?

—Other than that, what more do you need?

He could not let D kill this girl. No, he did not want her to die. For this… For this.

Rirupirin’s trembling hands found the button on his leather mantle. Buchi, he tore it off.

Stepping on his coiled coat, Rirupirin moved his hand towards the leather belt securing his armor together.

Suddenly, a weak voice was heard.

“… Don’t.”

His head jerked up, and his eyes met with Leafa’s, who was staring at him.

Her teary emerald eyes swivelled back and forth.

“I’m… fine. So, don’t… do it.”

Her voice could not hold until the end. D suddenly bit softly into the girl’s face.

“If you keep saying these useless things, I’ll bite off this cute face of yours. We’ve already entered the good part. Hey, what’s the matter, pig. Take it off. Or are you getting excited from human nudity?”

Kyahahahaha, her noisy cackling had no end.

His hand, gripping his armor’s belt, began to tremble.

He didn’t care at all about the pain in his right eye. After all, compared to the anger and humiliation filling his heart, this pain was nothing.

“I’m… I’m… I’m…”

Suddenly, something gushed from both of his eyes, running down both cheeks. The droplets falling on the left were clear, but those on the right side were dyed crimson.

His right hand slowly released the belt— and moved towards the hilt of the large blade on his left waist.

“I’m, a human!!”

As he shouted, an agony he had never felt before attacked his eye, and it ruptured in its socket.

Through his halved vision, Rirupirin accurately found D’s silhouette. Her sadistic cackle ceased, and her mouth dropped open.

With all his might, Rirupirin swung his blade towards D’s unprotected legs.

But— since he had just lost an eye, his perception was thrown off.

The tip of his sword just missed D’s right calf. Rirupirin’s body lost balance and his left shoulder collapsed onto the ground.

Lifting his head, he saw D.I.L. pouting, her expression now fierce.

“This stinking pig… dares to harm me…!”

She flung the girl’s body behind her, and raised her tentacle hands. With rough sounds, they suddenly transformed into ten sharp, gleaming black blades.

“I’ll slice you into mincemeat, and mix you into boar feed!!”

The Orc chief only waited for the moment that the blades on both sides swung down.

Thump.

Thump.

Two feeble sounds were heard at the same time. D’s movements stopped cold.

Stunned, Rirupirin saw that both of the Sorceress’s arms had fractured at their roots and fallen to the ground with dull thuds.

D’s expression was also one of shock. The tall woman slowly turned around, blood pouring from her shoulders like waterfalls.

Leafa’s radiant white features entered Rirupirin’s sight.

Compared to her slender frame that was rather lacking in muscle, her long blade that looked very difficult to control swung straight ahead. Although both her wrists were tied, this girl had, without a doubt, been the one who cut D’s arms off.

D croaked in a shriveled voice:

“A human… helping a pig, slashing another human…?”

Watching the Dark Sorceress shake her head back and forth in disbelief, Leafa replied:

“No. I’m only cutting evil to save another person.”

She briskly raised her long sword into a daijodan stance.

Hya-ka!

The girl slashed down from an incredible distance.

How— graceful.

Her movements had no unnecessary force, yet were surprisingly quick, and her technique was paramount.

Once more, Rirupirin felt tears— of emotion, this time. As he watched, D.I.L., the strongest Sorceress in the Dark Land and the strongest among the Ten Lords, was completely, and silently, severed in half.

 

 4

Gabriel Miller watched indifferently as the black dragon beat its single wing, landed softly, uttered a soft cry, and expired.

The moment his eyes left it, everything related to the dragon’s existence was completely purged from his thoughts and memories. He surveyed his surroundings without changing his expression.

The crash site was a region with numerous cylindrical stone pillars. The pillar he had landed on the center of the area was about 100 yards9 tall and 30 yards10 wide.

Jumping down would be too impulsive. He was still very unfamiliar with the magic in this world, which synthesized and controlled elements, and he could not leave the Radiant Medium Alice currently lying unconscious at his feet.

If he had some strong ropes, anchors, and carabiners, even in the real world, Gabriel could easily rappel down a wall of this height. But there was no need for that now, since the enemy who had somehow brought him down was now rapidly approaching from the north with three dragons. He would simply deal with the enemy, take over a new dragon’s AI, and continue south.

Gabriel lifted his head and gazed straight above. The virtual sun floating in the red sky had reached a suitable height.

There was not much time left before Critter accelerated the time again. Could the American closed beta testers, numbering at least 50,000, wipe out the Human Empire army before they were forcibly ejected due to the acceleration? With less than 1,000 left, the Human Empire army could not possibly resist.

As for uncertainties, there were only the Integrity Knights, who were ravaging the Dark Territory army one by one. But one of them, Alice, had already fallen into his hands, and her approaching pursuer was probably a Knight as well, so there were only one or two of them left in the northern battlefield.

As soon as Gabriel determined that the complications were almost resolved, he finally turned towards Integrity Knight Alice, who lay beside him.

Absolutely— beautiful.

So beautiful that the excitement squirming deep down is just unstoppable.

Gabriel was a bit perplexed: should he remove her armaments before she woke up, and carefully incarcerate her? That would be the logical decision, but an enemy was approaching and it was difficult to find the determination to hastily deal with this stunning girl.

He would wait for the acceleration and take his time. Even for so much as undoing a buckle on her armor, he would do it gracefully, seriously, and symbolically.

“… Sweet dreams for now, Alice… Alicia.”

Whispering gently to her, Gabriel walked to the center of the cylindrical rock to engage the enemy.

 

Whether it was Gabriel Miller, who was using Super Account 04 «Dark God Vector», or Critter, who had discovered it, neither of them knew one fact: Alice, the strongest knight, had fallen unconscious for several hours from just a dragon’s kick all because of Vector’s own ability.

The four Super Accounts in the Underworld were all created for direct operations— miracles— on the world and its inhabitants.

Stacia, who could change the geography.

Solus, who could destroy mobile units.

Terraria, who could recover durabilities.

And Vector, who could control the residents’ Artificial Fluctlights themselves.

Specifically, he could edit the inhabitants’ memories— the vector data within the Fluctlights, and relocate them to faraway places, or create new households.

Since this act was different from the other three gods and tantamount to pillaging the inhabitants, it was difficult for him to become a subject of worship. Hence, Vector not only possessed the highest Priority equipment and Life, he was also under the powerful protection of “the inability to be an Art’s target”. “Vector’s Lost Child”, passed along in fairy tales of the Underworld, was created based on previous operations on the residents.

The combination of Dark God Vector’s power and Gabriel Miller’s unique imagination, or Incarnation, achieved a multiplied effect that not even the «RATH» technicians could predict.

He could absorb others’ willpower without need for Arts.

Alice’s Fluctlight was temporarily robbed of its dynamism, and forcibly placed into a state of slumber.

Vector and Gabriel’s combined power had also engulfed Dark General Shasta’s one-hit-kill Incarnation from before.

And now, Shasta’s longtime rival— Integrity Knight Bercouli, had stepped onto the same road.

***

Bercouli saw that the enemy Emperor’s dragon had crash-landed on a tall rock that could not be immediately escaped.

He confidently shrugged off the intense fatigue caused by his ultimate technique.

“Great… Please fly a lil’ bit more, Hoshigami, Amayori, Takiguri!!”

As his voice rang out, the three dragons powerfully flapped their wings and accelerated. As long as the enemy stayed there, even a ten kilol gap would not take too long for a dragon.

In the remaining time before the battle, Bercouli began to silently contemplate. His mind clearly recalled a dream he’d had the previous morning.

Have you ever had a premonition of death?

Highest Minister Administrator had asked him in his dream, and to Bercouli, whom she had known for hundreds of years, she remained an inscrutable existence until the very end.

After he was released from Deep Freeze and informed by Alice of the Highest Minister’s death, he felt nothing as intense as shock and merely sighed: Thanks for your long, hard work. It was Senate Elder Chudelkin’s death that stunned him more.

Because of that, he had never specifically asked Alice about Administrator’s final battle, and her scattered situation. Of course, on one hand he was too busy with the important mission of the defense of the Human Empire suddenly resting on his shoulders, and on the other, he simply did not want to know— the perseverance and desires of that silver-haired, silver-eyed demigod, and just how deep her sins ran.

Administrator had always been listless, inconsistent, and capricious to Bercouli. Although he obeyed her, he certainly did not worship her like Chudelkin had.

But—

He did not hate serving her.

“That’s right… Believe me just on that one, please.”

The oldest knight muttered, and suddenly opened his sharp eyes.

He could already clearly see Alice lying on the ground in her golden armor, and Emperor Vector’s silhouette standing silently in front of her like a shadow.

“Okay… Standby in the air, guys! If I fail, head back north and join the troops!”

Signalling gently to the dragons, Bercouli leapt from Hoshigami’s back.

***

Trailing Sinon, whose flight left a meteor’s path of light, the 700 people of the Human Empire army desperately advanced south.

They had already slowly lost the earth-shaking crimson legion behind. But neither the Guardians nor the war horses could keep running indefinitely like this.

Asuna stood atop Kirito, Tiese, and Ronye’s carriage, praying as she fixated her gaze southward.

After about twenty minutes of progress, as Sinon had said, the outline of gigantic temple-like ruins emerged above the horizon.

There was no sign of humans, demihumans, or any large beings. Only decaying rock lying silently on the ground.

Spanning the straight road were two flat shrines. They were about 20 meters tall, and more than 300 meters wide. They would be more than enough as barriers to prevent the enemy from surrounding them.

Between the two shrines, the road continued south. It gave one the impression of a sando11, because while it served to connect the shrine walls, there stood some massive, uncanny statues on either side of it.

These were not Oriental-style Buddha statues, nor were they Western-style mythical sculptures. At best, they were square figures slightly similar to those in the ruins of South America. All of them were carved with round eyes and large mouths, and their stubby arms were crossed in front of their chests.

Were these designed by RATH engineers when the Underworld was created? Or were they automatically generated by The Seed program?

Or were they— hewn from the rocky mountains by the Dark Territory races who once lived here…?  Like, giant tomb markers dedicated to many of the dead…?

Asuna sighed briskly, banishing these ominous thoughts.

She yelled at Knight Renri, who was leading the troops from his dragon’s back:

“Let’s engage the enemy near the center of the road!”

A reply of “Understood!” came.

Minutes later, the troops charged swiftly along the road between the shrines. Mammoth rectangular statues on both sides silently looked down upon them. The horses’ hooves and soldiers’ boots crunched dryly upon the road, which changed from dirt to cobblestone.

Renri directed them spiritedly, his voice cutting through the icy air:

“All right. Vanguard, part your ranks and stop! Allow the carriage team and the support team to pass through!”

The vanguard instantly split in two, and eight carriages passed through their cavalry, followed by the support team mainly consisting of Ascetics. Upon reaching the very back, they halted. A strong gust of wind blew from the giant doorway far down the road, and Asuna’s hair billowed up.

This was the only moment of silence. The American players pursued them with a rumbling cacophony, rustling grains of sand from the statues.

Asuna leapt from the carriage, and spoke to the girls poking their heads out of the canopy and the woman standing beside them:

“This is the last battle. I’ll leave Kirito-kun to you guys.”

“Yes! Leave him to us, Asuna-sama!”

“We will definitely protect him!”

“—Even if we must put our lives on the line.”

As Tiese, Ronye and Sortiliena held their fists tightly in front of their chests, Asuna did the same and smiled faintly.

“Rest assured. I will absolutely not let the enemy reach this place.”

A part of that was a promise to herself. Asuna gently waved her right hand and spun around with resolve.

Renri was currently in front of the vanguard, deftly preparing the Guardians.

The road was about 20 meters wide. Although it was a little too broad to defend, completely blocking it by putting the troops into a rotation system was not impossible.

The important thing was to control the number of deaths as best they could while carving away at the 10,000 or so enemies, as the Ascetics continued their magic support from behind. Fortunately, there were no signs of any magic users among the crimson soldiers. Although the players likely had no way of picking up the Underworld’s complex command system in such a short time, this situation was, honestly, a godsend.

If this situation were to change—

I will kill the entire enemy army myself.

Asuna inhaled deeply and concentrated that thought inside her body, together with her commitment.

Considering Stacia’s vast quantity of Life and the Priority of her equipment, she shouldn’t fall purely because of numerical damage. The problem was whether or not she could withstand that harsh pain. When pain was dealt to her heart, her virtual body would be injured, and even if she tried as hard as she could, she would still fall into a state in which she couldn’t even hold her sword.

Asuna closed her eyes, thinking of the injured Kirito. She imagined the enormity of the pain and sorrow he carried.

By the time she came to the very front of the forces, not a trace of fear was left in her heart.

 

The titanic confrontation, meant to be the last of its kind in this war, unfolded under the sun at high noon.

About twenty heavily armored American players charged onto the sando of the ruins, seeking the realistic blood and screams as promised by the advertisement website.

Yet what awaited them were not pitiful NPCs designed to provide unrated entertainment, but true heroes filled with the determination to save the world and rescue their beloved golden Integrity Knight. Although heavily damaged, their swords still glinted with the glow of irrepressible will, firmly enduring their enemies’ weapons, shattering their enemies’ armor.

 

A lone silhouette was looking down from high above, upon the crimson-armored players being decisively destroyed.

Tight, leather clothing that minimized reliance on metallic armor, like a rider suit12. The gleaming leather was covered with matte silver rivets.

The only weapon was a large dagger resembling a meat cleaver, hanging from the left waist. The face was obscured. The body was wrapped in a black leather raincoat-like poncho, with the hood drooping all the way to the mouth.

The lips, warped into a sneer, were the only visible feature.

It was Vassago Casals.

After diving into the Underworld once more and barely avoiding Sinon’s sudden wide ranged laser attack, he had mixed in with the Americans to chase the Human Empire army. However, he did not join the early attack, instead smoothly climbing onto the wall of the west shrine, mounting a statue’s head from where he was able to watch the battlefront, and deciding to enjoy the show in a premium seat.

“Kekek, that bitch is just as relentless as before when she’s upset. She sure kills a lot.”

He murmured as his shoulders shook with indescribable excitement.

Exactly as she was in Vassago’s distant memory, the girl in pearly armor with chestnut hair flying in the wind— Asuna «The Flash» let the rapier in her right grip gleam brilliantly.

Back then, Vassago had been in the same position, watching Asuna’s battles while hiding from afar. He had adamantly vowed to himself: I will finish you before the world ends.

Together with the swordsman in black, who had fought even more fiercely by her side.

***

When he leapt from the dragon’s back, Bercouli was still nearly two hundred mel above the ground. If he had simply plummeted straight down like that, even he would not have been able to withstand the impact.

But as though he were stepping down an invisible staircase, the Knight Commander rushed down the sky in a helical motion.

With every step he took, he was actually generating a Wind Element underfoot and immediately detonating it, using this kickback to decrease his own momentum. Controlling Elements with both feet was a skill he had stolen decades ago from Senate Elder Chudelkin.

Gripping the hilt of his sword, the eldest knight of this world leapt, and leapt, into Emperor Vector’s blind spot. Vector stood at the summit of the pillar beneath him, which bore semblance to an artificial spire.

—Kill him in one strike.

It was Integrity Knight Bercouli’s first time reanimating such murderous intent as when he had killed the Dark General from the previous two generations – more than a hundred and fifty years ago. In these long years, never once had an enemy appeared who was sufficient at provoking his utterly raw killing intent.

Even in his battle with that Eugeo boy, who had barged into the Central Cathedral alone, Bercouli had fought sincerely, without even a single trace of true murderous intent. But, if he looked at it this way, even against the Dark Generals, his strongest enemies throughout the years, he had never harbored such negative emotions as rage and hatred.

In other words, this was Bercouli’s first time in his prolonged life channeling genuine fury into his blade.

Every fiber of his being was truly furious. Furthermore, it was not just because his opponent had captured Alice.

Coming from the outside world called the Real World, this outsider has forced the Dark Land people onto the battlefield when they could have achieved peace instead, and sent tens of thousands to their deaths in vain. To Bercouli, who had protected this world for over two hundred years, this was an absolutely unforgivable atrocity.

—Emperor Vector, I don’t know what reason you have.

But not everyone from the Real World is a devil like you. I understood that as soon as I saw that lil’ miss named Asuna.

That means, the only thing evil beyond help, is your nature.

If so, I shall bring forth your retribution.

I shall teach you the weight of Dark General Shasta, Integrity Knight Eldrie, and the lives of the countless humans who have perished on this battlefield.

Now learn… from this single strike!!

“Ze… AHH!”

Leaping ten mel into the air with his last step, the Knight Commander swung his sword down at Emperor Vector’s unprotected head in a slash charged with all of his willpower.

The air burned, glowing white. The blade radiated a light blinding beyond measure, causing even the world to lose its original color.

 

Without question, this was the strongest, most powerful strike among all sword techniques in the history of the Underworld. Its priority was placed even above system commands as it overwrote the Main Visualizer’s mnemonic data. In other words, for everything that was placed in the path of this ultimate strike, all status values meant nothing whatsoever.

Even for Super Account 04— Emperor Vector’s practically unlimited Life value, he would disintegrate if he were hit by this strike.

If he were hit, that is.

 

Even when faced with the fatal meteorite about to plummet onto his head, Vector’s face was devoid of emotion.

The speed of that strike was so fast that one could only stare motionlessly at it. The attack came in a mere instant; no matter how fast one’s reaction was, they ought to be unable to deal with it in time.

But in that instant, Vector’s body, wrapped in black crystalline armor, silently slid out of the way.

In the only direction to avoid the attack path, sliding just far enough to evade the strike.

Bercouli’s blade could only reach the red mantle flowing in the wind. The instant it came into contact with the sword, the thick fur pelt disintegrated into countless grains of dust.

Zugaaaaang!! With a thunderous noise, a deep, straight wound was carved into the solid rock. The entire mammoth peak trembled, and pieces of rock tumbled down the edges.

He evaded that?

Although dumbfounded, Bercouli did not hesitate to move for even an instant. Through long years of battle experience, he had long learned not to stop and think under unexpected circumstances.

He took a final step on air, slid to the Emperor’s flank, and landed. Immediately, he threw out a horizontal slash. Barely half a second had passed since the failure of his fully concentrated strike.

Yet Vector even evaded this second attack.

His body was like black smoke blown away in the wind, effortlessly sliding out of reach without any sort of preparation at all. The sword tip grazed his armor’s surface, and sparks flew into the air.

However.

This time, Bercouli was finally certain of his victory.

His full-power attack from before had missed, but its strength had not dissipated. His beloved sword’s Armament Full Control Art, «Time Piercing Sword · Empty Slash»— an ability to “slash the future”, had already been activated. It was an ultimate technique that would leave its power along the path of the slash, killing any who came into contact with the sharp blade; it had been a great torment to Eugeo during their fight back in the Cathedral.

The Emperor’s back was pulled towards the space where there remained an undetectable slash.

The first to go was his silky platinum hair, swirling in all directions.

The crown atop his head shattered with a piercing metallic crack.

Vector raised his hands high into the air, as though begging for mercy.

Bercouli strongly felt that, in the next instant, that body wrapped in black would be severed in two from top to bottom.

Slap.

A clear, dry crack.

The source was— the Emperor’s hands, clapped together above the back of his head.

He stopped the «Empty Slash» with his bare hands? With his back turned?

Impossible. Although the secret technique of catching a sharp blade with both hands had been passed down the generations of Fist Fighters in the Dark Land, it was an ultimate technique only made possible by their steel fists. More importantly, even the Fist Fighter chief would definitely be unable to stop the power remaining in that space with his bare hands.

These thoughts only persisted for an instant, but afterwards, Bercouli finally stood still.

Therefore, he could only stare blankly at what happened next.

The mirage-like amorphous slash left in the air was absorbed into the Emperor’s hands.

At the same time, the Emperor’s blue eyes were dyed with a seemingly bottomless darkness.

At the deepest point of that darkness, countless lights flashed— those were, stars…?

No.

They were souls. Souls that this man had absorbed and trapped there. Dark General Shasta and his female aide were probably in there as well…

“… You bastard, you can devour other people’s Incarnation?”

At Bercouli’s murmuring, Vector slowly lowered his hands, which had completely absorbed the slash, and spoke calmly.

Shin’i?13 … I see, mind and will.”

That voice was bone-chilling; it seemed devoid of any feeling of a living human. And the source of the voice, those thin lips, warped into a shape that resembled a smile.

“Your mind, is like old, vintage wine. Thick and rich… With a heavy, long-lasting aftertaste. Although it is not to my liking… it would do well as an appetizer before the main course.”

The Emperor’s pale hands gripped the hilt of the longsword on his waist.

The thin blade he slowly drew out of the sheath was covered in a violet phosphorescence. Tilting the tip downwards like a weak person, Emperor Vector smiled again.

“Now, let me drink some more of it.”

***

The giant’s rough sword eventually grazed Asuna’s left arm.

Pain assailed her, like white-hot iron wire digging into her flesh.

This is nothing!

She thought intensely, as the small pink wound on her wrist silently vanished in the next moment.

And then, with a wispy flash of her right arm, her blade stabbed the man in front of her four times in graceful succession, from his right shoulder to his left ribs. The man’s face distorted as he shouted obscenities, then he keeled over onto the ground.

She had already lost count of how many she had struck down.

At the same time, she was unaware of how much time had passed since the beginning of this battle in the ruins. She was only certain of the fact that the number of crimson footsoldiers, flooding like an avalanche through the entrance to this road, was still nearly endless.

Hmph, a drawn out battle like this isn’t much. In Old Aincrad, boss battles that took three to four hours were commonplace.

Asuna boasted in her heart, leapt over the disappearing corpses of her allies, and parried away a new enemy’s brandished axe with her rapier.

The enemy’s balance was shattered by this blow; Asuna struck accurately at his heart as she glanced left and right.

Asuna’s location of battle was dead center of the road; to her right, Integrity Knight Renri was alternatively projecting the two throwing blades in his hands with chilling strength and accuracy, as the bodies ahead of him piled high. He seemed fine for now.

The problem was to her left. Lead by Sortiliena, the captain-class Guardians were stationed there, and yet it was clear that the frontline was being gradually pushed back.

“Left flank, rotate between vanguards faster! Please prioritize Healing Arts on that side as well!”

“Asuna-sama, I can still fight!”

The one who responded was Sortiliena on the very front line, activating a wide-ranged two-handed Sword Skill, «Cyclone». Her long sword rotated rapidly with a light green glow and blew back three enemy soldiers, but Liena knelt down immediately after. Judging by the conversation during last night’s Memory Exposing Competition, swordsmen of the noble class were more accustomed to one-on-one, gentlemanly duels, and long skirmishes with no end in sight were completely unfamiliar.

Although Liena’s sword skills were actually quite fluent and fierce, even to Asuna, who just arrived in this world yesterday, they were simply too proper. She used virtually no feints or tripping techniques before her critical skills, and consequently the enemies’ flailing weapons would inflict scratches on her when she became rigid before or after her skills activated. Her armor was already riddled with scars, and trails of blood seeped through her purple Guardian uniform.

“Retreat and heal, Liena-san! Trust your partners!”

At Asuna’s directive, Liena bit her lip and nodded, then retreated, saying “I’ll be right back!” The gap she left in the front line was immediately replaced by the Guardian Commander, but his face was weary.

Other than the exhaustion of the left flank, there was something else that worried Asuna.

The crimson soldiers they were currently battling were not mere humanoid monsters driven by algorithms, but veteran players from America, the birthplace of MMORPGs. They, who had been familiar with player combat since long ago, would eventually realize that their current, simple assaults were ineffective, and begin carrying out more strategic maneuvers.

What would she do in their situation? Asuna whirled her rapier nonstop as she thought.

Typically, she would launch a long range attack from the rear. But there were no wizard-class players among the enemies, and even if there were, they would be unable to familiarize themselves with the Underworld’s complex Arts language in such a short time.

Other than magic, there was archery. Fortunately for the Human Empire army, the other side could not prepare archer accounts. Their last resort was to simply lob the weapons in their hands, but this would give them great pause, because if they threw their weapons away, they would be unable to participate in the battle afterwards.

It seemed that their opponents were out of options to attack them.

Then, just like she envisioned beforehand, they only needed to cut down all ten thousand or so of these enemies.

Almost exactly as Asuna renewed her determination—

The entrance to the road was suddenly obscured by darkness.

The morning sun was blocked out by gigantic shields raised into a neat row and lances standing like flag poles.

—Heavy lancers!

“Pre… Prepare to defend against the assault!! Be careful to avoid the enemy’s lance tips!! Just get close to the enemy and you can knock them down!”

Right as Asuna shouted, with a CLATTER of metal on metal, the giant lances were pointed forward in an orderly fashion.

““”Assaaaaaaaaaault!!”””

A full row of 20 heavy lancers let out a ferocious bellow, and began charging.

The Guardians were made restless by the pressure from the red tsunami. I’m begging you all, please calm down, Asuna prayed silently as she gazed at the lancers rushing towards them. The lances, gleaming a vicious black, were fast approaching in a straight line.

Wait until the last instant and — Cling!

Yellow sparks flew in all directions as her rapier slid across the side of the lance. The sharp tip grazed Asuna’s right cheek, and flew past.

“… Haaah!!”

With a shout, she jabbed her rapier into a slit in the enemy’s armor, and looking up, saw that it had pierced her hulking opponent’s throat. With a raw, vivid impact, blood spurted from the helmet’s visor.

The screams that rang out, however, were not just from the footsoldiers.

Several Guardians defending the left flank, unable to avoid the lances, were skewered.

“Gh……….!!”

Gritting her teeth, Asuna left her position and ran to the left. With a single stab, «Linear», she pierced through the chest armor of a footsoldier pulling his lance from a dead Guardian’s body. Holding up her blood-soaked sword again, she cut off both hands of the next enemy with a double stab, «Parallel Sting».

She evaded the lance thrust by the third, jeering footsoldier with a vertical leap. Landing on the lance, she ran up, planted her feet on the enemy’s shoulders, ripped off his helmet with her left hand, and buried her rapier in his exposed nape.

The enemy fell without so much as a scream. Stepping onto his back, Asuna shouted:

“Bring the wounded to the back! Heal them with maximum priority!!”

Surveying her surroundings once again, it seemed that, with Knight Renri and the Guardians’ hard struggle, they had somehow repelled the heavy lancers, but six Guardians had suffered direct hits from the lances. Three of them were likely beyond help.

If our opponents repeat this strategy, the vastly outnumbered Human Empire army will no longer be able to hold its current position.

Her fears were realized with a new wave of earthshaking tremors. The next 20 heavy lancers charged in from the entrance of the sando.

Asuna tore her gaze from the incoming swarm of lances and glanced at her designated position in the middle of the front line.

There stood a young, almost childish-looking Guardian trying to control his sword, his knees quivering.

“AH………!!”

Yelling sharply, Asuna ran to the right.

She leapt between the young Guardian standing stock-still and a spear coming from the left. Her rapier wouldn’t make it in time to parry. She could only grip the lancehead with her left hand.

If this was a normal VRMMO world, then Asuna, who had overwhelming reaction speed and physical strength, would be able to successfully block it. But in the Underworld, the countless parameters that were ignored in SAO and ALO, existed.

The smooth steel lance slid through her bloody fist—

A blunt impact shook her entire body. Unable to utter a sound, Asuna silently looked down at her side, where an enormous piece of metal had pierced through.

***

Minimal movement maximizing his sword’s efficiency.

To Knight Commander Bercouli, Emperor Vector’s swordsmanship was just that: completely different from any style he had ever seen before.

First, he almost never used his feet. When avoiding an attack, he would merely slide slightly along the ground. Also, even when he was attacking, it didn’t seem like any preparation was made beforehand. The sword he held loosely in his right hand would suddenly come flying from the nearest distance.

In short, predicting his movements was nigh impossible. The veteran Bercouli had not countered any of the Emperor’s five quick and powerful attacks.

But five times was enough.

Due to his vast combat experience, Bercouli, who had roughly grasped Vector’s techniques, began his first counter at the start of the other side’s sixth attack.

“Hsss!”

Releasing as little of his spirit as possible, he launched an overhead slash right before Vector did the same.

Along with a violent metallic clank, bluish-white sparks spurted in all directions.

The two swords crossed in midair. From here it was a contest of strength. The enemy’s sword sank down without even the slightest resistance. Seemingly unable to withstand the pressure, the tall-statured Vector bent his knees.

This is the critical moment!!

Bercouli infused his beloved sword with refined Incarnation. The battle-worn steel sword’s blade gleamed silver. The Time Piercing Sword, slowly pressing down on Vector’s black longsword, touched the enemy’s shoulder, piercing his armor—

Immediately, Vector’s sword emitted an ominous glow.

An indigo phosphorescence squirmed out like a living organism, coiling around the Time Piercing Sword. At the same time, the explosive silver gleam on the Time Piercing Sword vanished, as if it had withered.

What, is this?

No…

What, am I… trying to do… in the first place…?

With a sharp crackle, he felt a freezing chill in his left shoulder. Bercouli opened his eyes, jumped back, took a deep breath, and regained the consciousness that had slipped away from him for an instant.

What the hell was that?

Someone like me, right in the middle of battle… was spacing out?!

Just as he demanded of himself, Bercouli realized that it was not that simple.

It was as though that the forced blankness was corroding his consciousness, rendering him  unable to understand why he was here, or even, who he was.

“Bastard… You directly absorbed my Incarnation through my sword?”
Bercouli groaned in a low voice.

The response was a silent grin.

Clicking his tongue, he glanced at his left shoulder. It was a graze, yet the wound was deep.

“Hmph… this is all very interesting, isn’t it, Your Imperial Majesty? But being unable to cross swords is pretty troubling.”

Bercouli chuckled. In contrast, Vector erased his smile and murmured.

“… Indeed. Come to think of it, there’s something else I haven’t tried yet.”

After that, he casually extended the sword in his right hand straight ahead, but it was completely out of range. There was no way the blade would reach—

From the tip of the blade suspended in mid-air, a repulsive dark blue light reached out.

… Don’t tell me, from a distance too?!

Just as that thought flashed through Bercouli’s mind, the light touched his chest.

His consciousness faded away like an extinguished candle.

The longsword slowly approached the Knight Commander, sliding straight under his left arm— yet he merely stood there, blankly watching it all.

The sword was casually swung upward.

With a wet, sticky noise, Bercouli’s thick arm was severed from his body.

***

“Ku… u… ughh!!”

Asuna somehow managed to suppress her scream, which was about to leak out, into a low moan. Excruciating pain— or rather, it was more like being exposed to a white-hot blowtorch, continuously scorching her abdomen, crushing her senses beyond her limits.

—This bit of pain is nothing!

It’s just a scratch, it doesn’t matter if it hurts!!

The gleaming black lance that stabbed through her upper left abdomen must have protruded nearly a meter from her back.

Asuna twisted her head around to look behind her. The lance tip only ended up grazing the cheek of the young Guardian standing there. It took all of her willpower to squeeze out a smile to the young boy, who looked palely back at her.

—Compared to this child’s precious life… What do these virtual injuries matter?!

“Ungh… Ah!!”

With a shout, she infused strength into her left hand, gripping the lance that pierced her body.

With a deafening crack, the metal rod nearly five centimeters in diameter snapped in two in her fist. She then reached behind herself, grabbed the protruding lancehead, and wrenched it out.

Sparks danced before her eyes, and a shocking pain like lightning ran from her fingertips to her toes. Yet Asuna’s hand did not cease, pulling out the lance with an almost violent movement and flinging it to the ground.

A frightening amount of blood gushed from both her mouth and the gaping wound in her abdomen, but her body remained unswervingly upright. Asuna wiped away the blood at the corner of her mouth, and looked up at the enemy with fire in her eyes.

The hulking owner of the lance blinked rapidly inside his helmet, his eyes revealing confusion.

Oh, gosh.”

After this exclamation, uttered twice, came rapid English.

“… The hell, man… This type of game isn’t fun at all. I’m logging out.”

After hearing that, Asuna accurately pierced the man’s heart with the rapier in her right hand. His enormous frame keeled over, and was engulfed by a disappearing effect.

The agony from her wound had not caused Asuna to cry, yet in this moment her eyes filled with tears.

The pain and hatred enveloping this battlefield now should not have been necessary from the start.

The American players and the Guardians of the Human Empire army never had a reason to murder each other in cold blood. If the circumstances under which they met had been different, both sides should have become good friends— just like she had.

Virtual worlds… VRMMOs did not exist just for this.

“H… He… Help… Gh!”

A scream in Japanese interrupted Asuna’s thoughts. Turning her eyes, she saw a great lance stabbing toward a Guardian lying immobile on the ground.

“U… AAAAAAAHH!!”

Asuna’s emotions became a roar as she sprang forward.

The rapier in her right hand slashed ahead nonstop and the white glow flowing from its edge enveloped her entire body; her feet left the ground as she flew forward like a blinding comet. The highest level rushing attack for the rapier, «Flashing Penetrator».

The lancer just about to kill the Guardian was flung high into the air, and the enemy behind him suffered the same fate. A third one as well.

After securely pinning the body of a fourth man under the foot of a gigantic statue, her sword skill ended and she turned around, exhaling.

The second assault wave of the heavy lancers had caused more than five deaths in the Human Empire army. Simultaneously, at the entrance to the road, the third wave of twenty men had already readied their ferocious lances.

Asuna pulled her rapier from a corpse and cried loudly.

“All units, hold this position at all costs! Renri-san, please come to the middle!”

Asuna squeezed out a short smile, comforting the young Knight whose face became rigid upon seeing her bloodsoaked form, and uttered a last sentence.

“—I will rush into the enemy formation alone. I’ll leave any enemies that slip through me to you all.”

“A… Asuna-sama?!”

Asuna raised her left fist towards the panting Renri and the Guardians.

Then, she broke into a run.

***

Bercouli’s center of gravity suddenly wobbled, and it was then he realized that what he was stepping on was his own left arm, rolling on the ground.

What awakened his consciousness was not pain, but that chilling feeling.

“Guh…!”

He leapt backward again, widening the distance between himself and Vector.

The blood pouring from his left shoulder dyed a crimson arc onto the white stone.

—What the hell… is this?

He just pointed his sword at me, and my consciousness was forcibly halted…?

Bercouli lifted two fingers from his right hand’s grip on the Time Piercing Sword to heal his wound, racking his brains as fast as he could. The nonverbal Healing Art quickly stopped the flow of blood with a glimmer of blue light. However, there was not enough Sacred Spacial Energy on these desolate rocky mountains to regenerate his fallen arm.

—How should I fight this enemy?

His Armament Full Control Art «Time Piercing Sword · Empty Slash» was utterly ineffective. The Incarnation left in the air by the slash would be completely absorbed by his opponent.

His absolute last resort was his Release Recollection Art «Arcane Slash». But if he wanted to use that technique, he would have to fulfill two very harsh conditions. First, the opponent could not interrupt his lengthy attacking movements. The second was to be extremely accurate, with the difficulty of the latter surpassing that of the former…

Bercouli flicked away the sweat that came from his forehead in a flash.

Then, he realized.

—I’m being desperate.

Somehow, I have nothing more to spare.

In other words, now, this is where I die. The next moment will be my death.

“… Heh.”

After correctly realizing his impasse, instead of frowning, Integrity Knight Bercouli Synthesis One grinned.

His eyes slowly moved away from Emperor Vector, who was approaching him ceaselessly, and fell onto the golden knight lying horizontally in a corner slightly away from him— Alice Synthesis Thirty.

—Lil’ Miss.

I still couldn’t give you what you wanted, Lil’ Miss. I couldn’t give you fatherly love. Because, I can’t remember, anything about my own parents either.

But, there’s one thing that I do know.

These so-called parents die protecting their children.

“A bastard like you… would never understand, you monster!!”

Bercouli bellowed and sprang forward.

Without any plan whatsoever, merely injecting everything he had into his beloved sword, the eldest Knight sprinted forward.

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***

“Ga… Hah…”

A great mouthful of blood gushed out with her rough breath, and splashed at her feet.

Asuna remained upright, even if she was only propped up by the rapier in her right hand.

After repelling the third and fourth assault waves of heavy lancers, she had been wounded more than ten times all over her body. Her pearly white blouse and skirt were torn to shreds, stained red by the blood of herself and her enemies.

Having taken a direct hit from a lance, which opened a hole in her body, it was astonishing that she could still move. In fact, Asuna’s unfairly enormous HP didn’t allow her strength to drain.

—This body will fall only when my heart fall.

If so, I can stand forever.

Her entire body had lost nearly all sensation. Only burning heat ran through her nerves, distorting her vision.

The enemy’s fifth wave of troops appeared in Asuna’s dim vision, and she pulled her rapier out of the ground.

She was no longer able to perform perfect evasions. She could only stop the enemy’s lance with her body, and counterattack with sword skills.

Asuna’s feather-light rapier felt as heavy as a leaden rod in her grip, but she strained to raise it with both hands, hold it in front of her, and wait for the enemy’s arrival.

“—Go!!

The ground shook, and 20 lancers began charging ahead.

Boom, boom, boom boom boom boom

In the slowly accelerating footsteps, a sharp vibration mixed in out of nowhere.

Asuna’s eyes were attracted upward.

From the scarlet sky, a single line streaked down. It was a thin sequence of digital code.

Enemy… reinforcements…?

“…… Ahh……”

Although just a sliver, the sigh she emitted was mixed with despair.

But—

The color of that line was not the familiar crimson, but a deep blue akin to the night sky before dawn.

Asuna could no longer foresee what the color meant, and could only widen her eyes, awaiting the result.

The line halted around ten meters above the ground; the code began to consolidate and, after a flash of light, became a human silhouette.

Voom.

The air howled suddenly, and the silhouette began to spin so fast that it blurred. Uttering a  vigorous roar like a tornado, it began falling again.

Directly under that silhouette, those 20 heavy lancers had stopped unknowingly and looked dumbly up at the sky.

The azure tornado landed directly in their midst.

Then, suddenly, crimson exploded outwards.

Blood. The soldiers twisted within the tornado were immediately ripped apart, and blood was thrown by the wind in a wide radius.

Finally, in the middle of the radially spread fallen lancers, the tornado began to slow, and eventually regained the shape of a person.

The newcomer’s back was turned to her, with a somewhat slender, tall body. Vibrant, Japanese-style armor shined in the backlight. His left hand gripped a sheath hanging from his waist, and his right hand clenched a terrifyingly long sword, no, a katana, which slashed out horizontally.

Asuna had seen that attack before, in another world.

A Sword Skill.

A heavy, ranged katana attack— «Tsumujiguruma»14.

The silhouette slowly stood, rested the longsword on its shoulder, and gradually looked back towards her.

Under a striking bandanna, a stubbled face grinned at her.

“Hey, made you wait, Asuna.”

“K… lein…?”

Asuna could not hear her own hoarse voice until the end.

Suddenly, an ensemble of rumbling resounded throughout the world. Although the sound effects were indistinguishable from when the Americans had appeared, to Asuna, this must be angelic song.

Then, thousands of bright blue strings of code began raining unceasingly from the crimson sky.

***

Cut.

Consciousness blurred.

Pain from his wound jolted him wide awake.

Bercouli had lost count of how many times he had gone through this process.

As though he were intentionally dragging out the fight, Emperor Vector never once inflicted any sort of fatal injury. But Bercouli clearly knew that the blood flowing from his numerous wounds, that is, his total amount of Life, was fast approaching its limit.

But through his immovable willpower honed over two centuries and several decades, he cast away all delusions and expelled all fear, performing but one single action inside his head.

Counting.

Specifically, measuring time.

Bercouli possessed the special ability to confirm time through instinct alone, and now he was relying on this power to record it. Even as his thoughts were disturbed by the Emperor’s sword, he continued to count unconsciously.

—Four hundred and eighty seven.

—Four hundred and eighty eight.

Bercouli read the seconds precisely while repeating his foolish attacks, occasionally sputtering taunts from his mouth.

“… Your swordsmanship… doesn’t seem, up to scratch… Your Imperial Majesty.”

—Four hundred and ninety five.

“You can’t beat me, with these sword skills… with this second rate stuff, no, third rate at most.”

—Four hundred and ninety eight.

“Watch this, I’m not done yet!”

With a shout, he slashed down in front of him.

—Five hundred.

His sword blade touched the indigo halo radiating from the Emperor.

Sucked into Incarnation, his thoughts were interrupted.

When he regained consciousness, he was already down on one knee, blood dripping from a new wound on his left cheek.

—Five hundred and eight.

Almost there. Just endure it a little bit more.

Bercouli stood up with difficulty, and looked towards the Emperor behind him.

A hint of slight disgust appeared on Vector’s usually expressionless face. The reason was that, when he had cut Bercouli’s cheek, a drop of blood had flown out and splashed onto Vector’s pale cheek.

Vector wiped away the stain with his fingertip, and mused.

“… I’ve had enough.”

He took one step forward into the red puddle that Bercouli created.

“Your soul is too heavy. Too thick. It sticks to my tongue. And how boring, you merely think about killing me.”

The Emperor said in a flat voice, and took another step closer.

“Die.”

Raised silently, the black sword emanated a viscous gleam.

Bercouli’s expression did not change, but he secretly clenched his teeth.

—Just a bit more. Thirty seconds left.

“Heh… Don’t, say that. I can, still… enjoy, it.”

The Knight Commander hobbled a few steps towards thin air, and feebly raised the longsword in his right hand.

“Where’d you… go. Where the heck did you go. Oh, there…?”

With empty light in his eyes, the Knight Commander swung his sword.

Clog. He hit somewhere completely off with his sword tip, and stumbled exaggeratedly.

“Ah… Was it… here…?”

He swung another attack that lacked even a swishing noise. Then, dragging an already disabled foot, Bercouli shambled cluelessly at random.

Since his vision had failed due to enormous blood loss, his thoughts also became hopelessly jumbled— he certainly looked like that.

However, this was the Knight Commander’s once-in-a-lifetime performance.

Those half-closed blue-gray eyes were only tightly fixated on one single thing.

Footprints.

Through nearly ten minutes of pointless attacking, Bercouli had spilled his blood over the entirety of this rocky summit, which was not wide at all. Hence, the two different footprints tracked out over the whole surface by the Emperor’s boots and the Knight Commander’s leather sandals, were clearly carved and highly distinguishable.

In other words, this was the detailed record of the two men’s movements.

Acting demented, Bercouli was searching for the driest, darkest footprint of the Emperor, created when he cut off Bercouli’s left arm ten minutes ago.

After that, Bercouli had immediately, and unconsciously, begun to count the time.

Which means, that was the place where Emperor Vector had stood ten minutes ago. Then, his bloody footprints precisely recorded the direction he advanced in, and where he moved.

—Five hundred and eighty nine.

—Five hundred, and ninety.

“Oh… I’ve found… you…”

Bercouli mumbled feebly, rocking from side to side as he swung the Time Piercing Sword.

This truly was the last strike.

Whether it was sword, or its owner, both of their dwindling Lives had reached their ends.

And Bercouli expended them both to exhaustion, activating the Release Recollection Art of his Divine Instrument, the Time Piercing Sword.

 

«Time Piercing Sword · Arcane Slash».

The opposite of the «Empty Slash» that could sever the future, the «Arcane Slash» had the power to sever the past.

Within the Main Visualizer of the Underworld, the recent movements of all human Units were recorded for six hundred seconds, or ten minutes.

The Time Piercing Sword could interfere with this record, causing the system to mistake the Unit’s position ten minutes and one second ago for the Unit’s current position.

As for the result, the blade that could normally cut only nothing, could be transmitted to the body of a person who had existed in this area in the past. Unavoidable, unblockable, true to its name, it was a strike that could betray15 all other sword techniques and hard work.

It was for this very reason that Bercouli always shunned activating the «Arcane Slash». When battling Eugeo, even though he had lost to the Release Recollection Art of the Blue Rose Sword, he resolved never to use this technique that could easily earn him victory. He knew that Senate Elder Chudelkin would even recognize that as an act of treason against the Axiom Church.

But, with Emperor Vector as his opponent, who rode above inestimable power far exceeding his own, he had no such hesitations.

The instant that Emperor Vector had stepped down from his dragon, Bercouli had taken advantage of the fact that his enemy flew in a straight line at a constant speed to correctly calculate his location ten minutes before. Yet, in the mix of the close quarters melee that ensued, locking onto his location was insurmountably difficult.

Of course, if he could recall where his enemy was during that instant ten minutes ago, he could activate this technique. But while using this method, if his sword technique activation was disturbed by the enemy, it would be very difficult to accurately count to ten minutes after that.

Just like this instant right now.

 

“You look like you’re plotting something.”

Emperor Vector approached as though gliding, and Bercouli was forced to quickly avoid the blue-black Incarnation emanating from the longsword. Just like that, «ten minutes and one second ago» were forever lost to him.

So I’ve missed my chance.

Bercouli once more readied his Time Piercing Sword about to use Release Recollection, cursing in his chest.

He was truly at his wit’s end.

Since the Emperor already realized that he was concealing a plot, he would activate his own ultimate technique again without hesitation. In reality, the gleam of Incarnation on his longsword was already reaching towards Bercouli.

Opposite it, the Knight Commander began to evade with all his might.

Crawl away.

Crawl away, crawl away, and fall shamelessly to the ground. He had known since very long ago that he would welcome death in this haggard state.

Three times. Four times.

Right until after the fifth attack, Bercouli successfully evaded all of them.

But after that, the blue black light finally grazed his body.

His consciousness broke off with a snap.

When Bercouli opened his eyes again, what he saw was Vector’s longsword, penetrating deeply into his stomach.

With a whoosh, the blade was jerked out, and the last of the Knight Commander’s Life gushed out in the form of crimson liquid.

As he slowly fell backwards, he saw—

The silhouette of a dragon high above, tearing the air as it dove down at lightning speed.

—Hoshigami.

Hey, didn’t I tell you to standby? Why did you disobey me, you’ve never done that before, have you?

The dragon stretched its maw wide, and bluish-white flames shot straight out in jets.

Faced against that attack with the strength to wipe out a hundred soldiers, Emperor Vector merely stretched out his left hand and caught it.

The translucent black armor on his hand effortlessly deflected the flames in all directions. Flying sparks dazzled in the air.

The sword in the Emperor’s hand shot out that dark blue light once more, traveling up against the white flames and piercing directly into Hoshigami’s forehead. Bercouli’s dragon took the full force of the sword skill that could easily control the Dark Knight Order dragon from before— but he did not stop his movements.

On the contrary, Hoshigami converted his entire Life into white rays that shot from his wings, diving straight towards the Emperor.

A sliver of disgust crossed Vector’s pale face; he raised his sword high and thrust an extremely simple stab toward the gargantuan jaws of the dragon wanting to tear him into pieces. Dark light poured in all directions, absorbing the dragon’s life, tearing its body apart.

Hoshigami gave his Life for merely seven seconds of the Emperor’s hesitation—

Bercouli would definitely not let it be in vain.

The Knight Commander felt the last breath of the beloved dragon who had spent its long life with him from behind and swung his Release Recollection-activated Time Piercing Sword high into the air, which began to leave a blue afterimage.

This method of simply recalling “the enemy’s position ten minutes ago” could only allow one attack attempt every ten minutes.

Yet, the movement record etched into the ground in blood suggested that it was possible to continually pursue the enemy ten minutes before.

Seven seconds after Bercouli stared at the spot where he could not snipe from before, the blood-red footprint indicating the Emperor’s position, he launched his ultimate attack.

 

There was another characteristic of the «Time Piercing Sword · Arcane Slash».

By directly interfering with the system, the strength of this sword was to “completely erase the Life value of the slashed target”. Therefore, this strike could not be blocked even with Incarnation.

Indeed, Emperor Vector’s power to nullify and absorb all Incarnate attacks could not be activated in that instant.

Therefore, the astronomical Life set for Vector in the system, was first changed to zero.

As a result, the Emperor’s large frame was completely split from his left shoulder to his right waist.

 

Even as his body was split in two along a gigantic cutting surface, Emperor Vector’s face remained devoid of expression. Those light blue eyes merely looked blankly up at the empty sky, like glass beads.

The instant that his upper body was about to land and hit the ground, around his heart, jet black light burst, creating an immense, silent, explosion without heat.

By the time the explosion had settled, there remained nothing on the ground that could prove the Emperor’s existence.

Seconds later, the Time Piercing Sword that depleted its Life in Bercouli’s right hand crumbled into debris with a weak crackling noise.

***

… It’s so warm.

I really want to stay here for a bit longer.

Awakening from her slumber, Integrity Knight Alice smiled lightly, as though still floating in that comfortable state between dream and awakening.

Swaying sunlight.

Wide knees that allowed her body to lay atop of them.

A rough hand that kindly caressed her hair.

……… Father.

How long had it been since she had lay down like this, on his knees? She had long forgotten this peacefulness… This feeling of being completely protected, having nothing to worry about. The feeling that all was well.

Ahh… But, it’s time to get up.

Then, Integrity Knight Alice lifted her eyelashes.

Appearing before her face was the figure of a middle aged swordsman, his eyes squinting in a smile as he looked down upon her.

On his toned face and chest, many old scars crossed over. And covering those, countless new wounds were present, yet to heal.

“……… Oji-sama?”

Alice murmured in a low voice, her consciousness finally rousing in this instant.

—Right, I was grabbed by Emperor Vector’s dragon. Really, how careless do I have to be, I even charged ahead while completely letting my guard down behind me.

But, as expected of Oji-sama. Even as I fell into the hands of the enemy general, he rescued me. As long as this person is here, I can rest easy.

Smiling again, Alice sat up. As she noticed the wounds of Knight Commander were beyond his face and chest, she held her breath.

His left arm was completely severed from the top of his shoulder. His eastern-styled robe was completely dyed red with blood. And below that wide chest, that horribly deep wound was even more terrifying.

“O… Oji-sama… !! Esteemed Bercouli!!”

Alice screamed and reached out, her fingers touching Knight Commander Bercouli’s cheek.

Then she finally understood, that the oldest, greatest Knight in the world, had finally exhausted his Life.

***

… Aw, don’t cry like that, Lil’ Miss.

This moment would’ve come anyway, it just happened to be now, right?

Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli Synthesis One said warmly, as he looked down upon the golden haired girl bawling over his body. Yet his voice did not reach the ground.

… Lil’ Miss, if it’s you, it’ll definitely be okay. Even by yourself, you can definitely live on.

Because, you’re my only apprentice… my daughter.

The scene below gradually departed from Bercouli’s vision. Casting a last smile toward his beloved golden knight maiden, his eyes turned toward the sky to the far north.

He thoughts flew toward another female knight, who should be under that part of the sky..

He did not know whether they would reach or not, but in this moment, his heart was filled only with the deep emotion for the finally-arriving end of his life, which he had originally thought eternal.

… Well, it’s not a bad way to go down, is it?

“Yes, you should feel blessed that this many people are crying for you.”

As he turned towards the suddenly resonating voice, he saw a girl floating there, stark naked save for her flowing silver hair.

“… Hey, so you really were still alive.”

Bercouli shrugged, and the Highest Minister Administrator blinked her silvery eyes and smiled softly.

“But that can’t be true, can it? Appearing before you now, is only your memory of me. This ‘me’ is merely the memory of Administrator saved in your soul.”

“Hmm, I still don’t really get it… But, if it’s the you inside my memory, it’s good that you can smile like this now.”

Bercouli responded with a grin, and suddenly glanced beside him. Unknowingly, his beloved dragon Hoshigami had wrapped its long neck around his body.

The Knight Commander softly caressed the dragon’s transparent silver neck, leapt onto its back with a whoop, reached out, and pulled the Highest Minister up before him.

“Do you not hate me?” The Knight Commander’s only master in his long life asked, tilting her head. “Do you not hate me, the one who imprisoned you within the confines of eternal life , and stripped away your memories again and again?”

After some brief thought, Bercouli replied.

“Although it’s true that it was long enough to get bored at, well, it was still an amusing life. Yeah, that’s right.”

“… Really.”

Looking away after Administrator’s short reply, Bercouli took Hoshigami’s reins.

The dragon expanded its transparent wings, and slowly flew into the boundless yonder.

***

Under the distant northern sky—

On the dry ground, the rubble of the former «Great Eastern Gate» was piled up. To the east and west of these enormous ruins, ten thousand Dark Territory reserve soldiers and four thousand main troops of the Human Empire Defense army were in formation, preparing for confrontation, staring at each other.

Since Emperor Vector had vanished without a trace, the Dark Territory army could not begin the attack on their own. The completely clueless Human Empire army also made no movements, and that long stalemate continued.

Near the ruins of the great gate where only the dry wind was heard, there was the silhouette of a lone female knight. It was the Integrity Knight left in charge of the main troops of the Defense Army, Fanatio Synthesis Two. She had ordered the Guardians and Ascetics to rest in preparation for the upcoming battle, but she herself was not in the mood to sleep in her tent, so she had walked alone to the rubble that used to be the Great Eastern Gate.

The black night had long passed, and Solus’s light dyed the sky above the Dark Territory in red, and the side of the Human Empire in blue.

More than half a day had passed since the the decoy troops of the Defense Army, led by Knight Commander Bercouli, had departed to the southern Dark Territory from the Great Eastern Gate. Although she knew that their mission would not be achieved that easily, blindly waiting here for them was hard to endure.

Just as Fanatio was about to close her eyes, praying to the three goddesses for, at least, the safe return of the troops—

Her eyes snapped open.

She felt as if the man she loved was speaking into her ear.

—Sorry, Fanatio. Seems that we can’t meet anymore.

—I’ll leave the rest to you. Let that kid, live on happily…

Not long ago, Fanatio had heard the exact same words. It was the last sentence that Knight Commander Bercouli had left with her when they separated here.

Covered in silver gauntlets, her hands gently caressed her abdomen.

The new life bestowed upon her body was something that had happened three months ago. Bercouli, who had gone more than a hundred years without touching Fanatio, probably already predicted it when the taboos were released.

Predicted his own death.

Sensing that the long life of Knight Commander Bercouli had ended under the faraway sky, Fanatio slowly sank to her knees, and buried her face in her hands.

Unable to contain them, she let out sobs.

The reason that Bercouli always estranged himself from Fanatio, or any other female, she had once heard a very long time ago.

The men and women of the Human Empire could only marry under official recognition of an Axiom Church priest, and could only produce the next generation under a contract. Yet Integrity Knights took on the roles of the priests, and did not need all the fanfare that came with marriage. They needed only to vow their love, share a bed, and could have children.16

Yet this child would age and die sooner than its parents with frozen Lives. Even so, having the Highest Minister give this child the same treatment would be much crueler.

Although, after the Highest Minister passed away, Bercouli finally accepted Fanatio’s feelings. That is, he decided to protect his child, and let him live until the end of his time.

Then—

“… Please rest assured, Esteemed Bercouli. I will properly raise this child. I will make him into a man as strong and proud as you.”

Holding back her sobs, Fanatio uttered her own determination.

—But, now, just for now.

Just for now, allow me to grieve.

Throwing herself onto the ground, Fanatio tightly held a grain of sand that Knight Commander Bercouli had stepped on, sobbing without holding back.

 

5

“Although I don’t have anything personal against you guys…”

Pointing his long sword at the red army, Klein’s words reverberated throughout the ancient ruins.

“I’m gonna return your debt of severely hurting my friend. I’ll return it threefold… No, I’ll return it a thousandfold, you damned bastards!!”

Right after declaring that, he plunged directly into the enemy army. Asuna was so stunned by his recklessness that she forgot the pain of her deep wound for an instant. Yet immediately, another string of code poured down right next to Klein, creating a silhouette.

Appearing there was a hulking, chocolate-skinned man grasping a large battleaxe.

“… Agil-san!!”

She called his name hoarsely.

When the “battle merchant”, who had once continued to provide strong support in the forms of battle strength and supplies to the SAO Clearers, glanced at Asuna, a broad grin stretched over his gigantic features and he stuck his right thumb into the air.

Soon after, he turned around and began following after Klein, running fiercely.

The third and fourth persons appeared right in front of Asuna.

A girl with shortcut hair, in a reddish-brown costume draped over her breastplate and with a silver mace suspended from her waist.

Next, a petite girl wearing an ultramarine tunic and skirt, with hair tied in twin tails.

“— Liz!! Silica-chan!!”

It was here that, at last, both of Asuna’s eyes were overflowing with tears.

All strength left her body. While somehow staying in that place, Asuna extended both her hands toward her friends whom she had strong bonds with.
“You really… you really came…”

“Of course we’d come!”

“Isn’t that obvious?”

Beaming at the same time, Lisbeth and Silica seized Asuna’s left and right hands respectively and clasped them tightly. Both of their expressions became tearful smiles.

“— Being this rash… Bleeding everywhere… you’re trying too hard, Asuna.”

“Leave the rest to us. Because everyone else came as well.”

Just by being hugged from both sides by Lisbeth and Silica, Asuna felt the pain from the wounds riddling her body dissolving in the soft warmth.

“Thank you… Thank you all…”

Through her endless tears, she saw a rain of code strings suddenly pouring down at the entrance of the ruins.

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Appearing there were hundreds of swordsmen dressed in vibrant armor.

“Those red guys are the enemies!”
“Vanguard, attack! Drive them back!”

“Rear guard, retreat temporarily and check your incantations!”

Right after landing, they began to exchange shouts in the Underworld language, no, Japanese — held up their swords, axes, and spears, and began assaulting the red soldiers in front of them.

Judging by their magnificent individual combat skills and uniformly understood teamwork, it was apparent that they were undoubtedly seasoned VRMMO players.

So that’s what it is.

Asuna finally recovered her thought process and understood the situation before her.

Ever since the American players appeared on the battlefield, the time acceleration rate of the Underworld must have been fixed to 1:1 by the attackers’ manipulation. In other words, it was also possible to Dive here with AmuSpheres from Japan.

But the radiance emanating from their equipped swords and armors indicated that they were not using the default Guardian accounts.

Meaning— they had converted here.

They had undoubtedly converted their characters, which they had fostered — by investing great time and effort — to the Underworld.

Even though they don’t know whether or not they can return to their original VRMMO worlds. On the contrary— considering the Underworld’s structure, it’s possible that their own character information would be deleted the moment they died, and yet…!

“Everyone… Sorry… I’m sorry…”

With a tearful voice, Asuna apologized to her two bosom friends before her, and then to the countless swordsmen pushing the front line back.

“What are you saying, Asuna?”

Lisbeth’s reply was filled with solid determination.

“The reason we did our best in SAO and ALO is surely so that we could protect important things in this place right now.”

“Yeah… that’s right… thank you all…”

Whispering her gratitude, Asuna nodded deeply, fervently.

However, there was one more thing she had yet to learn. Exactly who had informed Liz and the others in the real world about the Underworld crisis and requested reinforcements by means of conversion? It would be very unlikely for Kikuoka and Higa, who were confined in the Ocean Turtle’s sub-control room, to have the spare time to formulate and execute this plan.

“Hey Liz, Silica-chan. The one who brought everyone here, who was it…?”

At Asuna’s question, the pair exchanged glances, and grinned.

“Wait, Asuna, isn’t that obvious?!”

“It was Yui-chan! She tried her hardest to explain things about the Underworld and the people living here!”

When Asuna heard those words, her heart tightened strongly and tears gushed out endlessly from her eyes.

Yui. Born as a Top-Down AI in old SAO, Asuna and Kirito’s daughter. Yes… it couldn’t be anyone but her. She sensed the attackers’ plans that Asuna, Kikuoka, and the others couldn’t even predict, and took action to counter them.

“……… Thank you, Yui-chan.”

Murmuring words filled with all of her feelings, her severed left arm had regenerated completely and the wounds covering her body had mostly vanished upon standing up.

At that moment, a timid voice came from behind.

“Um… Asuna-sama? Those people are… or rather, those knights are…”

Integrity Knight Renri stood there with a dumbfounded look. Behind him, the Guardians, who had just been saved from danger as well, similarly had their eyes become round.

Asuna, after fluttering her gaze between Renri, Lisbeth, and the others, smiled and replied.

“My very important friends. The came from the Real World to help us.”

Renri blinked a few times, then stared fixedly at Lisbeth and Silica—

A relieved expression floated onto his adolescent face.

“…So that’s the case… I’m really glad. I thought that, without a doubt, the people of the outside world besides Asuna-sama were all those kinds of scary soldiers…”

“Hey, that’s impossible!!”

Along with a slightly upset smile that was nonetheless filled with intimacy, Lisbeth patted Renri’s shoulders.

“I’m Lisbeth. Please take care of me, Knight-kun.”

“Ah… Y… Yes. My name is Renri. Pleased to meet you.”

Asuna, who was watching this scene with a smile, was suddenly hit by a strong premonition.

She, in her entire life, would never forget this scene.

This moment, when people who were born in two different worlds met, exchanged words, and fostered relationships. This story, which should continue for a long, long time, should not end in tragedy.

Asuna took a deep breath, changed her tone of voice, and asked Lisbeth.

“Liz, how many people converted?”

“Ah, well, a little bit over two thousand, I think. I already tried really hard, but… I still couldn’t make everyone who listened to my speech convert over…”

Asuna lightly patted her bosom friend, who was biting her lip, on the back.

“This is more than enough. But… to preserve the chance of them converting back, we must avoid a war of attrition if possible. Don’t spread the front lines too much, and step up the healing. Liz and Silica-chan, take about two hundred men, retreat to the rear, and set up a support team.”

Switching her awareness back to the battle, Asuna rapidly delivered directives to Renri and the Guardians.

“Everyone else, although it may be against your will, please merge with the Ascetics team and use Healing Arts. The swordsmen from the Real World are not familiar with the Sacred Arts, so it would help if you teach them the commands.”

“Un… Understood, Asuna-sama! You heard her, Guardians! We’re assisting the knights from the reinforcements!”

As Renri yelled, the Guardians, exhausted from continuous battling, responded emphatically.

“… What will you do then, Asuna-san?”

At Silica’s inquiry, Asuna winked.

“I’m going to attack at the very front, of course.”

 

I don’t feel like losing anymore.

Charging at the very front were all familiar faces from ALO — Asuna, noticing Sylph Lord Sakuya, Cait Sith Lord Alicia, Salamander General Eugene, and the others, hardened her determination and they nodded fervently at each other.

No, they were not just the players who had converted from ALO.

Those strongly backing the swordsmen by rapidly firing crossbows with extreme accuracy were probably players from Gun Gale Online, like Sinon.

Moreover, that team sticking tightly together, mowing down enemies like a storm, was formed by the members of the strongest guild that had swept across many VRMMOs, the «Sleeping Knights».

Spotting Asuna, the mage Siune smiled at her. As Asuna waved her right hand in response, she once again held back the tears that were slipping out.

They all came to help despite arriving at the resolution that they could lose their avatars, which were akin to their other selves.  Then, as the only one protected by a Super Account, she had to take the greatest risk to minimize their sacrifices.

Asuna sprinted across the battlefield, giving on-the-fly orders to the support army to narrow the over-widened front line and form a semicircle again with the entrance to the sando at its center.

But no matter how strong the equipment and statuses of the 2,000 converted players were, there still remained more than 10,000 American players. If it became a war of attrition, the casualties, in other words, players with probability of data loss, would increase as time went on.

Furthermore, there was another unignorable concern.

The realistic pain that could not be avoided during battles in the Underworld.

Unlike most of the Americans, who would have already died and logged out the instant they felt pain, the Japanese players, who repeated the routine of getting injured, retreating, and being healed, were constantly exposed to agony. And Asuna had just experienced, firsthand, the fact that it would gradually break their spirit.

—Please, everyone, do your best. Until these 10,000 enemies are all eliminated.

If we do that, then the war potential available to those who attacked the «Ocean Turtle» will truly be depleted this time. Afterward, we’d only need to catch up to Emperor Vector, who should have been tripped up by Knight Commander Bercouli and Sinon, and rescue Alice.

Asuna flashed her rapier on the foremost line, and shouted with all her might.

“No problem… we can win! If it’s everyone, we can definitely win!!”

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***

Hirono Takashi, a Japanese VRMMO player, had asked himself: Why the hell did I come to this place? Not that it did any good now.

The reason that he accepted the all-too-sudden conversion request from ALO, which he logged into after being woken up at 5:00 a.m. by a phone call from his friend, was definitely not because the girl desperately giving a speech was cute, nor was it because he sympathized with her claims.

To be honest, he had mostly trusted his gut.

Additionally, one part was a curiosity that asked, What kind of world would a VRMMO made using national budget be like? Another part was an irresponsible feeling that said, I scored the worst on my very first proficiency test in high school, so my AmuSphere will be confiscated soon anyway. And a small part of him had a hunch— Maybe there really is ‘something’ in that world I haven’t found in any other game that I’ve played.

After Takashi had converted the character he had raised for two years and logged into a server that he had never heard of before, what awaited him was a hulking man clad in red armor standing in his way, curses in native English slang, and a halberd swinging down mercilessly.

He jumped back while pressing down the scream about to leak from his throat, but the halberd’s tip still hit the armor on his left leg, tore through it, and cut into his shin for just a moment. He had never felt such pain since he had fallen from his bicycle and broken a bone in elementary school.

No one told me about this—!! Takashi shrieked in his head as he earnestly slipped through the halberd’s pursuit, somehow repelled the man with his extremely rare one-handed sword, and was taken to the rear by the support team around the time he felt a wave of nausea hitting him due to the large amount of blood flowing from the wound on his leg.

I’ve had enough, I’m logging out!

Letting such words slip out, Takashi was being healed by a priest-like girl about the same age as him, wearing a light blue habit.

Somehow, when looking at her, he had a really weird feeling.

“I will treat you immediately, please endure it for a moment, Knight-sama.”

The girl spoke in a delicate voice, then cupped her hands on the severe wound on his left leg — severe only by Takashi’s standards, though — and began her incantation. Watching her demeanor, Takashi thought for a moment that she was merely an NPC.

However, the serious expression exuding from her gray eyes speckled with brown, her cute features that looked like those of both an Easterner and a Westerner, and the warmth that came from the white light healing his wound, all clearly told Takashi that this girl was neither an NPC nor played by a Japanese person, but a true human being living in this world.

But could something like this really be true? She was clearly speaking Japanese, but was not Japanese nor an NPC. Who really was this girl, then?

Rather than realizing it the moment he felt the agony of a halberd slicing his left leg, Takashi clearly recognized something when his wound was healed by the girl’s magic: he was not in any game event, but in the middle of some extraordinary occurrence.

“All right, everything is fine now, Knight-sama.”

When the girl in the habit lifted her hands with a slightly proud expression, his wound that had been more than 5 centimeters long was completely sealed and the pain had disappeared, leaving only a shallow, light brown scar.

“Th… Thank you.”

Stumbling with his words, Takashi somehow vocalized his gratitude. Oh, why didn’t I come up with something more fitting for a «Knight-sama»? He thought, irritated. Yet his face grew scorching hot, and his tongue became stupidly immobile. When he finally realized it afterwards, he had already taken a daring action that even he himself could not expect. Reaching out with both arms, he gently hugged the girl’s slender body.

Had this been a normal VRMMO world, Takashi’s actions would be determined as «Inappropriate Contact with an NPC» and he would have been given a system warning.

Yet the girl in the habit jerked in Takashi’s arms, taking a shallow breath out of surprise. A few seconds later, Takashi felt the girl’s arms nervously circling around his own back, and applying slight but definite pressure.

“It’s okay, Knight-sama from abroad.”

Close to his ear, the sound of a soft yet steady voice came.

“Even a nun-in-training like myself, although insignificant, can complete my own duty like this. Knight-sama, you are fighting plenty times more proudly and bravely. Please remember… you are taking up your sword to protect many people, to protect this world.”

The girl then gently smoothed Takashi’s back with her right hand.

Whether it was in the real world or a virtual world, Takashi never had any experience with hugging a girl. Yet even if he was going to have a girlfriend in the real world, he had a feeling that he would never become more emotional than in this very instant.

After that dreamy moment, Takashi steeled his determination as soon as their two bodies separated.

“Um… W-would you mind telling me your name?”

Patches of scarlet appeared on the trainee nun’s fair face, and she nodded.

“Of course not… My name is Frenica. Frenica Szeski.”

“Frenica…”

The name sounded very strange, but the girl before him had spoken it with exceeding familiarity. Unusually, Takashi also clearly told her his own name. Not his character name Velios, but his own, original name that he was not particularly fond of.

“… My name is Takashi… Hirono Takashi… Um… Can we, meet again, when the war ends?”

Frenica raised her eyebrows slightly, narrowed her eyes in kindness, and nodded.

“Absolutely, Knight Takashi-sama. When the war ends and peace comes to this world, we will. I shall pray to the three gods for your safe return.”

Frenica softly wrapped her hands around Takashi’s left hand on his knee, and swiftly stood up.

Frenica flapped the hem of her habit, turned, and ran to heal another of the wounded. As Takashi stared towards her back, and he clearly realized something: if he was going to stand proudly— like a knight in front of her, he would have to fight bravely until the end. This world was no longer a game, but another reality completely equivalent to the real world in which Takashi was born and grew up in.

Even if he ran out of HP, no, lifetime, and was ejected from this world, he would face forward and hold up his sword until the very last moment. No matter how heavily he was injured, how much it hurt. He would certainly never see Frenica again if he failed.

Takashi stood up, shouted “All riiiight!”, and ran toward the front line to complete his goal that was not a quest, but his duty.


References

1. Kawahara made a typo and wrote “Seventh Day” instead. It has been corrected here.

2. Referenced in Volume 4, when Kirito fights the guardian monsters to attempt to ascend the World Tree and save Asuna.

3. Referred to in previous volumes as “Guards”. Retconned to make it sound better.

4. Referred to in previous volumes as “Land of Darkness”. Retconned to make it sound better.

5. Game Master.

6. Player Character.

7. Automatic gun. Sinon is used to playing first-person shooter games.

8. BGM-71 TOW, a widely used US anti-tank missile. More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BGM-71_TOW

9. Approximately 90 meters tall. (The book includes metric units because they are more familiar in Japan.)

10. Approximately 29 meters wide.

11. A sando (参道) is the road approaching a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandō

12. Kawahara means “racing suit”, which is tight-fitting full body wear for auto racers.

13. Incarnation (心意, shin’i) is a foreign concept to Vector, so he repeats it aloud in Japanese here.

14. 旋車, literally, “whirling wheel”.

15. There is wordplay here. The word “betray” (裏切る uragiru) conjugates into 裏切り uragiri when it transforms into a noun, which is pronounced the same as “Arcane Slash” (裏斬 uragiri).

16. See Volume 12, Chapter 7, Part 1. Cardinal explains that reproduction in the Human Empire must be officially approved to successfully conceive children.