Sword Art Online: Volume 17 – Chapter 21

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

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

Scans – ruranobe.ru

Illustration Editing – Mttblue2

Consultation – SAO Wiki

Chapter 21 – Awakening

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

1

“Can we… make it…?”

Higa Takeru murmured to himself as both his arms, stiffened from overwork, dangled heavily.

In just under an hour, he had managed to successfully convert approximately 2,000 pieces of account data, which had been suddenly transferred to the «Ocean Turtle», from Japan’s The Seed network into Underworld. The texture of the keyboard seemed still stuck to his fingertips.

“We’ll make it. Definitely.”

Professor Koujiro Rinko answered firmly while thrusting a sports drink towards him.

Accepting the bottle, Higa painstakingly twisted off the cap with his numb right hand and began to drink in large gulps. The liquid flowing into his mouth was lukewarm, but he felt it in every inch of his stomach.

After downing about half the bottle, Higa shook his head weakly.

Really… That’s the first time I’ve been that careless…”

Upon learning from two female high school students calling themselves Leafa and Sinon, who had suddenly appeared at the «RATH» Roppongi branch, that their assailants had been letting real world American VRMMO players dive into Underworld, Higa’s mind had blanked for a full five seconds.

Moreover, the one to discover this had been a top-down AI connected to Yuuki Asuna’s portable terminal. He couldn’t help but acknowledge his own oversights.

He had allowed these high school students, who claimed to be acquaintances of Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka, dive into Underworld with the leftover Super Accounts using the Roppongi STLs, then completed the mammoth conversion operation, and finally, landed 2,000 reinforcements at Yuuki Asuna’s current coordinates.

If they fail to eliminate more than 50,000 American players, Alice would almost certainly fall into enemy hands. In actuality, Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka and Captain Nakanishi both understood the situation and had already considered scaling the outer wall of the «Ocean Turtle» to physically destroy the satellite antenna.

However, to reach the outer wall, they would need to release the lock on the pressure-resistant partition dividing the main shaft for nearly ten minutes. If their assailants notice them, then the worst case scenario would very likely occur, involving them losing control of the sub-control room too…

Therefore, Kikuoka and Higa entrusted everything to the three female high school students descending into Underworld as the «Three Goddesses of Creation», and the Japanese VRMMO players volunteering to join the battle as reinforcements, despite knowing the risk of losing their accounts.

From the moment that they had established their connections, more than half the confidential information concerning «Project Alicization» had already become public.

But that was no longer a significant issue.

That is, compared with losing Alice to the assailants, who were possibly under the authority of America’s military-industrial complex, and then falling completely under their control in the oncoming era of autonomous weaponry.

“Indeed…”

Higa muttered in a voice inaudible to anyone else, his entire body slumping into the chair.

“Alice is no longer a simple AI to be used as a UAV controller.2 She is now a new human born into a truly different world… You’ve known that for a while, haven’t you… Kirigaya-kun?”

His eyes moved from the main monitor presenting the situation in southern Underworld to a corner display showing Kirigaya Kazuto’s Fluctlight.

The delicately quivering ray of light was still wrapped around an empty void in its center. The subject he had lost after injuring himself… His self-image.

Unable to bear keeping this window open, Higa moved his cursor with the intent to minimize it.

Just as he was about to click the left mouse button, his finger halted abruptly.

“Hm…?”

Pushing up his round glasses, he fixated on the Fluctlight activity log displayed at the bottom of the window.

Only 45 minutes ago, there was a single sharp peak engraved on the line graph that had remained flat. He frantically maneuvered the cursor again and slid the log to the left. Doing so, he saw another, even greater peak around 10 hours ago.

“Uh… Um, Rinko-senpai. Could you come and take a look at this?”

“Could you not call me that?”

Professor Koujiro snapped as she looked towards the main monitor.

“This is Kirigaya-kun’s Fluctlight monitor, isn’t it? …What’s up with this movement?”

“He should’ve lost consciousness, but for a second it was showing activity… or something like that, but that’s not supposed to happen.”

“Your Japanese is so weird. — Perhaps he somehow received a strong external stimulus?”

“But the circuit that processes those stimuli is completely dead. … Let me see, the time was…”

Higa clicked on the peak and the corresponding timestamp popped up. But even if he did confirm the time, they had no way of learning what had taken place in Underworld.

But at that moment —

“Wait a second.”

Professor Koujiro spoke with growing anxiety.

“Right during this time period. Aren’t these… when those girls dived in with the STLs? The first peak was Asuna-san, and the next would be Sinon-san and Leafa-san, who both showed up in Roppongi…”

“Huh, really? …Whoa, really.”

Higa held his breath. The timestamps listed under those two sharp peaks were indeed when the female high school students had descended into Underworld. 

“Um, what exactly happened…? Are these just intense reactions to familiar people appearing? No… Kirigaya-kun’s wounds aren’t something that can be recovered by such fantastical means… There must be some cause… Some physical or logical cause…”

Higa stood from his mesh chair and began to pace nervously back and forth in front of the console. Perhaps noticing his mood, the technicians sitting on the floor against the wall glanced at him confusedly, along with Kikuoka, who was collapsed dispiritedly in a chair some distance away. 

But Higa paid them no attention and continued to think intently.

“The self… The subject… A self-image regulated by oneself… A backup of that quantum pattern exists somewhere…? No, that’s impossible… Kirito-kun’s Fluctlight has never been duplicated before. Even if it had, there’s no way to separate his self-image from the backup and copy it over… A dynamic quantum pattern that can connect to his Fluctlight…? Where is it… Where the hell is it…”

“Hey… Hey, Higa-kun.”

Higa finally looked up after his name was called several times.

“What is it?”

“What exactly do you mean when you said that he ‘lost his subject’?”

“Umm… Well, that is…”

He took several seconds to switch trains of thought before answering rapidly:

“«The one who sees, the one who acknowledges»… the ‘you’ within your heart. In philosophical terms, it is the subject, the opposite of the object. The central processing unit that deals with all information received through your senses.”

“Okay… In other words, you’ve united materialism and dualism through the STL. Well, that’s fine. What I want to ask is, can you really separate the subject and the object so easily?”

“… Huh?”

Higa blinked several times at the unexpected question.

Kikuoka and the technicians said nothing. Professor Koujiro’s hoarse voice broke the silence of the room, filled only by the drone of the circulatory cooling system.

“The subject, the one who acknowledges. The object, the one who is acknowledged. Those are only philosophical concepts used to express relationships between objects. I don’t believe you can apply such theory to our consciousnesses, which are visualized as Fluctlights. Humans are social animals, not solitary existences that shun others. Others in you, and yourself in others… They’re all connected, like a network, to some extent. Don’t you feel that way?”

“Yourself… in… others…”

After expressing it in language, Higa realized that this concept was one of the things he had avoided the most.

How am I seen? How do I compare to others?

How does Koujiro Rinko see me?

How do I compare to Kayaba Akihiko?

— Yeah…

— I don’t even really remember my face. If I were to draw a portrait of myself, I’d end up with something that somehow looks like me and yet actually doesn’t. That’s because I’ve been avoiding myself — whether in terms of appearance or mentality, my sorry ass can never compare with Kayaba-senpai, no matter how hard I try. That’s how low a level the subject in me is.

Yeah, maybe you could even combine the everyone’s very impressions of «Higa Takeru» and you’d basically end up with me. That’s how low a level my subject is…

Okay, she’s got me. Higa thought as his mouth stretched into a wry, self-deprecating smile —

When he arrived at that conclusion, he finally understood what Koujiro Rinko was trying to say.

“… A backup of the self-image.”

He murmured, and the instant he looked up, the self-loathing embarrassment vanished from his face.

“I see… It does exist. The data capable of restoring Kirigaya-kun’s destroyed subject! It’s inside the Fluctlights of the people close to him…!!”

He shouted and began to rapidly hover back and forth.

“But we need an STL to extract that data… And the reproducability within one person is not enough… We need at least two, no… we need three… people…”

He took a deep breath and held it in his chest.

The person who understood Kirigaya Kazuto the most and preserved a detailed image of him in their soul. Without question, that person was Yuuki Asuna. And she was currently lying in the STL beside Kazuto’s.

Moreover, there were two more girls who should have close relationships with Kazuto inside the STLs at the Roppongi branch.

Higa turned towards Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka and asked him hoarsely:

“Kiku-san. Do the girls who dived in from Roppongi… have relationships with Kirigaya-kun?”

“… Ahh, of course.”

Kikuoka nodded, lenses glinting in his black frame glasses.

“Sinon-kun was Kirito’s partner when he took care of the «Death Gun» incident half a year ago, and Leafa-kun is Kirito’s younger sister.”

For a moment, the atmosphere was silent. Higa’s round glasses flashed.

“… That’s it. That’s it, that’s the one! We can do it… We might be able to restore Kirito-kun’s self-image! Let’s say we separate their stored impressions of Kirigaya-kun from their Fluctlights, and then connect it to the missing area… The  active data may fit into Kirigaya’s soul and activate it, and that should restore the lost subject…”

Driven by waves of warmth gushing through him, Higa clapped his hands together.

Then, a second later.

A wave of cold suddenly extinguished this warmth.

“Ah… Ahh… No way… Aaaahh…”

“Wh-What happened, what’s wrong, Higa-kun?!”

Watching Professor Koujiro stutter frantically, Higa murmured in a trancelike state.

“To execute this operation… we have to do it from the main control room…”

Leaden silence sank like dust once more, piling up on the floor of the sub-control room.

Commander Kikuoka sighed heavily.

“I see… That’s right, of course … No, don’t look so down, Higa-kun. We’re very fortunate to have a path towards treating Kirito-kun now, anyway. As for the actual operation, after this current situation is finished and we drive away the people on the «Ocean Turtle»…”

“It’ll be… too late by then…”

Higa interrupted Kikuoka’s words, hanging his head.

“When the Nagato begins the assault as ordered, if a huge battle breaks out in the main shaft, the sub-power will be cut. They might even destroy equipment in main control. Of course, Kirigaya-kun’s STL will shut down, and he will also log out from Underworld without waking up. But then… I’m afraid that Kirigaya-kun will never be able to connect to the STL again. In his current condition, he wouldn’t even be able to pass the preliminary stages… To continue treatment, we have no choice but to do it while the three girls are still diving in Underworld.”

Higa said lightly. He felt himself filling with a sort of determination.

What should he do in this situation?

A moment ago, Higa’s subject would have definitely replied like this: There’s nothing I can do. I’m not Kayaba-senpai anyway.

But this shouldn’t be his true self-image. He was only avoiding, trying to find excuses.

The Higa Takeru I know, the brilliant genius who designed the STL and Underworld, would absolutely say this:

“… I’ll go, Kiku-san.”

“Go… where?”

Turning his entire body towards his Hawaiian shirt-wearing commander, whose face was taut, Higa took a deep breath and replied:

“I’m not going to break into the occupied main control room. Listen… At the stern side of the main shaft running through the «Ocean Turtle», there’s a cable duct connecting STL Room Two, where Kirigaya-kun is now, and the main control room below the pressure partition. There should be a maintenance connector on the cable. If I enter the duct by ladder from STL Room Two and connect my laptop to that maintenance connector, I’ll be able to control Kirigaya-kun’s STL.”

After hearing Higa’s idea, Kikuoka’s eyes widened in surprise behind his black framed glasses for a moment, as though saying, how didn’t I think of that? But he immediately returned to his severe expression and refuted.

“But the maintenance connector is on the other side of the pressure connector dividing us and the attackers. To access the connector, we need to temporarily release the lock on the pressure partition sealing the cable duct. Moreover, the duct can also be accessed from STL Room One, which is right next to the main control room. If they notice the lock’s release and realize what we’re doing, they might attack us from below.”

“Then we’ll just combat that with a decoy.”

“A decoy…?”

Kikuoka’s eyes glinted sharply. Higa hurriedly shook his head and replied:

“We can’t use precious human resources here, of course. As soon as we release the lock on the partition, we’ll make him rush down the staircase on the opposite side of the duct.”

“I see… You mean «Ichiemom»? Luckily, he’s being kept in the upper shaft storage room. Could someone bring him here?”

Under Kikuoka’s directive, two staff members who had been sitting against the wall and listening to the conversation got up and jogged out of the room. On the other hand, Professor Koujiro spoke with a worried look:

“Wait a second… you’re using Ichiemom as a decoy, but he can only move slowly on stairs, you know. If he attracts the enemy’s attention, he can’t just run back immediately.”

Ichiemom, properly named «Electroactive Muscled Operative Machine 1», was an experimental humanoid machine body used for loading artificial Fluctlights. Using artificial polymer muscles to drive its metallic skeleton, it was what could be called a humanoid robot. Since it was experimental, it had exposed robotic parts and cables that did not make for an aesthetically pleasing exterior, and it was without any sort of bulletproofing technology.

Although Rinko, whom Higa requested tune Ichiemom’s self-walking balancer yesterday, had complained quite a bit, she seemed to have become rather engrossed in it, and that was why she had opinions of her own regarding this “Ichiemom decoy operation”. Of course, Higa deeply regretted this strategy himself, but now was not the time to hold back from using available equipment.

“… I feel really sorry for Ichiemom, but all we can do is make him do his best. However, he looks a bit that, you know, so our enemies might not immediately shoot him for fear that he might explode.”

“… Indeed…”

Just as they were talking like this, the door slid open and a huge trolley was pushed into the room. Carried in a seated position with its legs held in its arms was a tall mechanical figure with three lenses mounted in its roughly-shaped head.

Professor Koujiro glanced at Ichiemom with a somewhat complicated expression and immediately turned around:

“… Well, he does look pretty conspicuous, and will probably make them think that we have some grand plan here…”

“At least they definitely won’t ignore him. While the enemy is dealing with Ichiemom, I’ll slip into the lower part of the cable duct and operate Kirigaya-kun’s STL through the maintenance port. The problem is how much time this thing can buy me…”

At Higa’s words, Kikuoka asked as he jiggled the clogs on his feet:

“Then couldn’t we throw in «Niemom» as well?”

“We can’t, unfortunately.”

Higa shrugged and replied:

“Although Niemom’s physical performance is stronger, he was created under the pretense that it would be piloted by an Artificial Fluctlight, and, unlike Ichiemom, he’s not loaded with a self-balancer. In his current state, he’ll fall over as soon as it starts going down the stairs.”

“I see…”

Higa’s gaze turned to the right, away from the nodding commander’s face, then saw Rinko staring at the floor with an odd expression. She then asked as if she had just returned to earth.

“But, Higa-kun, even if we manage to camouflage ourselves unlocking the partition like that, there’s still a risk of you being seen when it opens. It’s still better to bring a bodyguard with you to the cable duct, isn’t it?”

“… No, right now the JSDF staff is much too precious as our fighting strength. Besides, I’m the only one small enough to move quickly through that small, overly cramped duct. In any case, I’ll just be in and out in a jiffy.”

Even though he answered in his usual tone, his heartbeat accelerated when he thought about the details.

If he were to be found by the enemy and shot at while inside the lower section, there would be no escape. When the «Ocean Turtle» had first been attacked, Higa had only heard gunshots, but never once saw even the appearance of the enemy combatants.

— However.

I… No, the entire organization of «RATH» has much too great a debt to Kirigaya-kun.

Higa Takeru engraved those thoughts into his mind once more.

If they temporarily put aside the act of sealing away Kazuto’s memories, they had still forced him dive for three real world days, equivalent to 10 years in Underworld. That could be called the most important spark for the Artificial Fluctlights. The birth of an Artificial Fluctlight who broke the boundaries of the world, «Alice», was undoubtedly deeply related to Kazuto from the very beginning.

Furthermore, although it had been under the pretense of treatment, having him connect to an unrestricted STL ended up dealing severe damage to his Fluctlight. This was because he had fiercely battled the ruling organization of Underworld to protect Alice, causing him to lose many of his partners in the process. Therefore, as long as the chance to treat him existed, Higa had to challenge whatever risks arose. If he didn’t, he would be much too ashamed to see Kazuto for the rest of his life.

Higa Takeru clenched his fists, and nodded at Kikuoka.

It was at that time.

A fourth voice resounded in the sub-control room.

“Umm… Me too, I’m going with Chief Higa…”

Everyone’s eyes gathered on one of RATH’s staff technicians, who until now had been seated on a mattress against the wall.

He was about as short as Higa, with long hair tied behind his head. Mustering as much courage as possible, he stood a bit clumsily and continued his speech.

“I’m also quite thin… But I could at least be the chief’s shield or something… And also, I’ve always done the maintenance around the cables…”

Higa gazed carefully at the face of the man, whose voice was barely audible.

He was much older, probably in his mid-thirties. Having been aboard the Ocean Turtle for several months, his skin was pale white. If memory served, he was a man who had quit his job at a large game development company to join «RATH».

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Although his fighting strength could not be compared to that of a JSDF soldier, having a companion was reassuring. Higa immediately stood from his chair and bowed deeply to this staff member.

“… To be honest, I actually don’t remember the exact location of the connector. Thanks very much for your company, Yanai-san.”

2

Having returned to the real world, Gabriel Miller slowly lifted his eyelids within STL #2.

To be precise, he didn’t return, but was unexpectedly exiled. Lying still in the gel bed, Gabriel chewed over the aftertaste of astonishment left in his mouth.

How did he lose a one-on-one battle in a virtual world? The opponent wasn’t even a human; it was an AI.

Why had he lost against that knight? Gabriel spent a few precious seconds pondering what the reason could have been.

The strength of will? The bonds between souls? The power of love that connects people…?

— Utterly preposterous.

The corners of Gabriel’s mouth lifted into a cold smile. Whether it was the real world or a virtual world, if invisible forces truly existed, then there could only be one — the force of destiny leading him forward.

In other words, his defeat had been inevitable. Because it was essential. Destiny wanted Gabriel to fight not in a borrowed avatar like Dark God Vector, but in his true form. It was asking him to descend into that world once more, the right way.

Then he shall accompany that notion to the end.

Completing his musing, Gabriel slipped quietly off the seat.

Looking towards the other STL, he was surprised that his aide Vassago Casals was still diving. He thought that he had long died and logged out, but it seemed that this man had also found something to pursue.

— Well, do as you please.

Shrugging, Gabriel opened the door leading to the neighboring main control room. The shaven-headed team member looked up from the console he was facing, then spoke in an unperturbed voice:

“You’ve worked hard, captain. Ahh, you were also done in.”

“Give me a sitrep.”

Gabriel inquired indifferently. Critter changed his expression slightly and reported:

“Well, as you ordered, I have sequentially deposited the 50,000 players gathered from different parts of the US. Half of them have been worn off, but yeah, the goal of annihilating the Human Empire Army should still be within reach. As for any uncertainties, Rath has taken the same course… We’ve confirmed a large-scale connection from Japan on the battlefield. They number only 2,000, so I don’t think they’ll pose much of a threat.”

“Oh…?”

Raising an eyebrow, Gabriel looked at the main screen.

A topographical map of southern Underworld was displayed there. A black line stretched south directly from the «Great Eastern Gate» and terminated with an “X” mark, which was most likely Dark God Vector’s, or Gabriel’s, movement log. There was more than half the journey left before it would reach the system console at the southernmost edge of the world, but Alice currently should still be at that X-marked point on the map.

After that, a thick white line was moving south as if in pursuit of the black line. That should be the Human Empire Army. They seemed densely packed together, and had stopped for now.

These white Human Empire troops seemed as though they were about to be crushed by that large, red-labeled army. Assuming that the red army was the American VRMMO players, then the blue glow that spread like a protective wall between the red and white would be the 2,000 connectors from Japan.

“Are these Japanese using the Human Empire Army’s default accounts?”

“I think so, what about it?”

“Nothing…”

Gabriel took a bottle of mineral water Critter handed to him and drank from it as he thought.

Could those Japanese VRMMO addicts have converted half of themselves — no, in a sense, a character they valued more than their real selves — into Underworld?
As if. Gabriel smiled coldly again.

Around half a month ago, Gabriel had participated in a PvP tournament on a Japanese server in the VRMMO «Gun Gale Online». Even if those youngsters, whom he had easily crushed, logged into Underworld out of interest, they’d never take the risk of losing their characters.

A mental image flashed through his mind of that blue-haired female sniper, who had been locked in his fatal chokehold but fought until the very end, but Gabriel quickly brought his thoughts back on track.

“Good work, I’ll dive in again. Convert this account into Underworld.”

He picked up a piece of paper and a pen that were conveniently laying on the console, wrote down his ID and password, and passed it to Critter. Critter looked surprised.

“Whoa, you too, Captain?”

“‘Too’, meaning…?”

“Well, didn’t this guy Vassago come back after dying as well? And somehow he looked all happy, converted his account, and went back in.”

“Oh…?”

Gabriel’s eyes fell upon the dropped scrap of paper beside Critter’s hand. Within what seemed to be Vassago’s ID, the first three letters grabbed his attention the most.

“I see… I see.”

Kek. Rare, genuine laughter spilled from Gabriel’s throat. When Critter looked even more shocked, Gabriel clapped him on his shoulder and said:

“Don’t worry about it. He may not look it, but he has… his own tangled mess. Well then, I’ll leave the rest to you.”

Gabriel turned and headed back towards the STL Room, a contorted smile hanging off the corners of his mouth.

***

Meanwhile, Vassago Casals was grinning under his black hood while looking over the battlefield.

Standing atop the head of a god’s statue erected at the entrance of the sando into the ruins, he was able to take in all of the bloody, gruesome combat between the American and Japanese players.

No, more precisely, it was a one-sided slaughter.

In the middle of the sando entrance, 2,000 Japanese formed a gigantic semicircle, continuously shaving down the charging crimson soldiers while losing almost none of their own. One reason for this was the immense difference in the two armies’ equipment performance and level of teamwork, but the robust support system at their rear was practically decisive. Wounded players were immediately transported to the newly erected encampment inside the sando and treated with healing incantations, and then they would rush vigorously back to the front line.

The fact that they possessed such high morale within Underworld, which dealt pain equal to that of the real world, was truly worthy of admiration. But in realistic terms, the fact that 2,000 players were willing to convert their own characters into this world to join the fight was already a great miracle in itself.

A situation like this, declared impossible even by Gabriel Miller —

Had been, however, almostly perfectly predicted by Vassago Casals.

If connecting from the US was possible, then it was likely that Japan would also send reinforcements for the Human Empire Army. Moreover, Vassago had even predicted the fact that they would achieve this by converting their accounts.

Amongst these valiantly battling Japanese players, other than «The Flash» Asuna, there were several other familiar faces. This brought him heartfelt elation.

After all, the death game that he’d given up on ever being able to enjoy again had reappeared before him in a different form.

No, even if they died in this world, the players’ real-world lives could not be stolen.

But in Underworld, there existed something absent from that floating castle, and within that floating castle existed something absent from Underworld.

In other words —

There was «pain».

But no «Crime Prevention Code».

Then, it would absolutely bring him great joy, possibly more thrilling than taking a life with his own hands.

Kek, kekek, kekkekkek.

Vassago couldn’t stifle the muffled cackling that leaked from under his hood.

***

— I didn’t make it.

Sinon silently gazed down at the aged knight’s wound-riddled body, and the golden-haired female knight sobbing as she hugged him tightly.

The two great dragons beside the knight were hanging their heads, as though sharing in the lament.

In order to catch up to «Radiant Medium» Alice, on whom rested the fate of the world, to Dark God Vector, who had abducted her, and to Knight Commander Bercouli, who was in pursuit of those two, Sinon had flown frantically. She had fully utilized her free-flight technique, trained intensely in ALO, and flown south at the greatest speed allowed by the system, but the battle had long ended by the time she finally caught up to them.

No — What deserved praise was Bercouli’s strength.

Because he had caught up to Vector, who had been thought unreachable, and had killed a Super Account, which had been thought invincible.

But there existed a massive injustice.

Knight Commander Bercouli’s death indicated the total demise of his soul. Yet for Dark God Vector, who had died in the same way, his soul was not bound by this rule.

Sinon knew that she must convey to Alice, who had finally ceased her weeping and now hung her head as though she had collapsed, that danger had not yet passed, but she could not find the words to do so.

After several valuable minutes passed in silence, the first to speak was the knight, Alice.

Even with tear-stained cheeks, Alice’s stunning beauty caused Sinon to hold her breath. Alice gazed into Sinon’s eyes with her own, which shone cobalt blue like the surface of water. Her cherry-colored lips moved, emitting a voice that reminded one of silvery bells:

“Are you also… from the Real World?”

“Yeah…”

Sinon nodded, and spoke with difficulty.

“I’m Sinon. Asuna and Kirito’s friend. I came to save you and Bercouli-san from Dark God Vector… I’m sorry, I didn’t make it.”

Sinon knelt down atop the summit that retained marks of an intense battle, and deeply bowed her head towards Alice. Alice, however, softly shook her head.

“No… This was my foolishness. I paid no attention to what was behind me and was seized like an infant; it is all my fault. How can my insignificant life ever compare to that of Oji-sama… to that of the great Integrity Knight Commander?”

The deep self-hatred and loathing mixed into her voice left Sinon speechless. Holding back tears with all her might, Alice asked another question:

“How is the war?”

“… Asuna and the Human Empire Army are just barely managing to block the red army from the Real World.”

“Then I will return north as well.”

Alice stumbled as she stood up, heading towards one of the dragons, but Sinon called out to stop her.

“You can’t do that, Alice-san. You must continue south, to the «World End Altar». If you are able to touch the console… no, the crystal tablet atop the altar, you should be able to hear a call from the Real World.”

“Why? Is Emperor Vector not dead already?”

“… That… is not the case.”

Then, Sinon explained the situation to Alice. Even if a Real World person died in Underworld, they would not truly lose their life. It was very likely that the enemy within Emperor Vector’s body would gain a new body and attack again.

Alice’s reacted with thunderous fury, as though all of the emotions she had been suppressing until now completely exploded all at once.

“Oji-sama… threw his own life away to slay that enemy, and the enemy didn’t die?! He merely disappeared for a while, and soon he’ll revive as though nothing happened… Is that what you mean?!”

Alice drew near Sinon, her golden armor clattering.

“How can… How can there be something as absurd as that?! Then… for what did Oji-sama… why did he have to sacrifice himself?! A faceoff that only puts the life of one on the line… that’s just… that’s just a… travesty…”

Tears sprang once more from Alice’s azure eyes, yet Sinon could only gaze silently at her.

— I don’t have the right to say anything.

I have died too many times to count in the battles of GGO and ALO. And, like Dark God Vector, I can keep on living if I die in this world. Someone like me has no —

But Sinon, staring hard into Alice’s eyes, drew in a deep breath and said:

“Then… Alice-san, do you mean to say that Kirito’s pain is fake too?”

The golden knight suddenly held her breath.

“Kirito is also from the Real World. Even if he dies in this world, his real life won’t be gone. However, the injuries he suffered are real. The pain he felt, his broken soul, they’re all real…”

Sinon paused for a bit, then continued as a slight smile appeared on her lips:

“I… love Kirito. Very much. So does Asuna. There are many more who love him as well. They’re worried about Kirito, all of them. They’re desperately praying ‘Get well soon’. Also, even if no one’s saying it, everyone’s thinking, ‘Why did Kirito have to push himself that far?’”

Sinon reached out, softly pressed down on Alice’s shoulders, and spoke firmly:

“Kirito got hurt in order to save you, Alice. That’s the sole reason he fought so hard. Do you even want to call his thoughts fake? No, not just Kirito, the Knight Commander too. In order to save you, he was beaten black and blue, even creating an opportunity at the cost of his life, just for you to escape the enemy’s clutches and to buy you valuable time.”

Sinon did not immediately hear a response.

Alice gazed silently at Bercouli’s body, lying on the ground.

Once again, great tears spilled her eyes — Then the golden knight shut them tightly and lifted her face as though she were desperately resisting something. She then asked in a hoarse voice:

“Sinon, if… if I go to the Real World through the «World End Altar», will I be able to come back? Will I be able to see my loved ones again…?”

Sinon did not possess the knowledge to clearly answer Alice’s pressing question. The only thing she could be sure of was that, if Alice fell into enemy hands, the entire Underworld would be obliterated and eventually completely disappear.

If they could protect both this world and Alice, they could definitely realize her wish. That was all Sinon could believe right now.

Therefore, she slowly nodded.

“Yeah. As long as you… and this Underworld, are safe.”

“I understand… I’ll head south then. I don’t know what awaits me at the «World End Altar»… But if this is the will of Oji-sama and Kirito…”
Alice gently spread her pure white skirt as she knelt to the ground. She reached out and warmly caressed Bercouli’s hair, then softly touched her lips to his forehead.

When she stood up again, an entirely different aura emanated from the knight’s entire body.

“Amayori, Takiguri. Please endure a bit more.”

After saying this to the two dragons, Alice turned to Sinon.

“What… will you do then, Sinon-san?”

“This time, it’s my turn to put my life on the line.”

Sinon smiled slightly and continued:

“Dark God Vector will probably revive here. I’ll try my best to defeat him… or at least buy you enough time.”

Alice bit her lip softly, then deeply bowed her head.

“I’ll leave it to you. I will absolutely not betray your intentions.”

After watching the two dragons fly into the southern sky, Sinon took into her hands the white longbow hanging from her shoulder.

The group that had attacked the «Ocean Turtle» was likely a private military contractor under the aid of an American government agency. One of the combatants had used Super Account 04, «Dark God Vector», to attack Alice.

In the real world, Sinon, a mere high school student, stood no chance against an opponent like that.

But in this place, as long as it was a one-on-one battle in a virtual world —

No matter who I face, I must win.

Swearing such a vow to herself like that, Sinon awaited the moment in which the enemy would dive in once more.

***

As he yanked back his right fist, its final bone let out a parched crack.

Fist Fighter Guild Chief Iskahn looked away from the spread-eagle body of a soldier whom he had struck dead center in the armor, glancing at his right hand in silence.

Gone were the iron knuckles capable of smashing all to smithereens. In their place was a deeply swollen sac of skin covering shattered bones and torn flesh, smeared with blood.

His left fist had transformed into the same state not long ago. His feet were covered in bloody bruises. He could no longer run, let alone kick.

“You fought like a true warrior, Champion.”

The hoarse voice of his aide, Dampe, caused Iskahn to look behind him.

After completely losing both arms, the hulking man sitting on the ground had kept up the fight solely by headbutting or body-slamming the enemy, as evidenced by the sword wounds on his face and body. His eyes, once shining with fighting spirit and wisdom, were now clouded over, making clear that Dampe’s Life was nearing exhaustion.

Iskahn raised his shattered fist in a gesture of respect towards the warrior’s soul, then replied:

“Yeah, if we die like this, we won’t be ashamed once we meet our ancestors in the afterlife.”

Dragging his feet, he shambled to his aide’s side, collapsing his hindquarters onto the ground.

After a lengthy, fierce battle, the crimson legion that once numbered over twenty thousand had now been reduced to around three thousand. But in exchange, there were only around three hundred surviving Fist Fighters. Moreover, every one of them had been maimed and mangled. They were even unable to assemble into a complete formation, merely curling up into a group and waiting to be slaughtered.

But the sole reason that the three thousand enemy soldiers tightly surrounding them hadn’t launched their final assault was —

A knight and a dragon, still battling like demons right before Iskahn and Dampe’s eyes.

***

Her physical body and mental spirit had already been expended far past their limitations.

Despite everything, as soon as the shadow of an enemy appeared within her murky vision, Integrity Knight Sheyta Synthesis Twelve still raised her right arm, which felt filled with lead, and swung the Black Lily Sword.

The heavy din of sliced air was heard.

The needle-thin blade sank into an enemy’s shoulder plate. Its recoil, like innumerable iron needles digging into her flesh, traveled from her wrist to her elbow.

“Ha… AAHHHH!!”

The gravelly bellow of rage exploding from her throat was as divorced as could be from her nickname of «Silent». Her sword pierced through the bulky armor and tore a straight line, cleaving the enemy’s body in half.

Once the soldier collapsed, cursing in an unintelligible tongue, Sheyta wrenched her weapon from his body, wheezing crudely.

The reason behind her exhaustion was due in part to the nearly unlimited number of enemies, and also due to the uncanny way the red soldiers felt to her on the other side of her sword.

Her Incarnation hardly had any effect. Though the enemy’s weapons and armor simply weren’t worth mentioning when compared against Sheyta’s Divine Instrument, whenever she sliced them apart she would always feel a troubling resistance. Their attacks were the same. They would clearly rely only on brute-force, crude slashing movements, but that caused Sheyta difficulty in predicting their next maneuvers.

She was practically fighting phantoms. This army was like a mass of men that weren’t here at all, but shadows being projected from afar instead.

Battling them wasn’t fun at all. Sheyta found as she executed these shadows that she, who was born only to slash, could experience nothing more than an intense repugnance.

— Why?

— No matter whether my opponents are shadows or bodies, or even stone statues, I ought to be satisfied as long as they’re solid enough. I’m merely a puppet who knows naught but to slash…

The Black Lily Sword was a Divine Instrument that contained the highest Priority within its ultra-thin blade. It was a tool created solely to sever, just as Sheyta herself was. If either of them failed to continue slashing, their very significance as an existence would be lost.

Highest Minister Administrator had transformed a black lily, which Sheyta had retrieved from an ancient battlefield in the Dark Realm, into a sword. When she then bestowed the sword unto Sheyta, she had spoken thusly:

— This sword is the manifestation of the curse engraved within your soul. A curse by the name of a murderous urge, created by fluctuations in the parameters of personality inheritance. Slash, slash, and keep slashing. Only when you walk this bloodsoaked road to the very end will you discover the key to releasing this curse… Possibly.

At the time, Sheyta did not understand what the Highest Minister meant.

She merely obeyed her directive and slashed her way along that road, for years and years that seemed like an eternity. Then, at last, she encountered her destined opponent. It was someone harder and tougher than anyone or anything else she had ever encountered by way of her sword: that Fist Fighter.

She wished to battle him once more. Only through battle might she eventually understand something.

Driven by this thought, Sheyta parted from the Human Empire Army and remained at this battlefield. Yet she seemed unable to battle that red-haired warrior again.

She swallowed her last mouthful of water and tossed away the empty waterskin while looking behind her.

She saw, sitting atop a boulder far away, the Fist Fighter Chief, with his entire body covered in wounds. Inexplicably, sorrow drifted into his left eye as he stared fixedly back at her.

Sheyta suddenly felt her chest sting.

— What is this pain?

— I should be longing to kill this man. I want to taste that all-consuming battle again, then slice off those fists that are harder than diamonds. That should be all I desire. Yet, why is my heart… What is this stirring feeling…?

Crack.

A feeble noise suddenly came from her right hand.

Sheyta raised the Black Lily Sword, inspecting it silently. At the very center of the jet black blade that looked capable of absorbing all light ran a fissure finer than spider silk.

Ahh…

I see.

Sheyta inhaled deeply and smiled.

All of her questions dissolved in that moment. Sheyta finally understood the meaning behind Administrator’s words, and what her curse had been.

A wave of rumbling came from the ground. She glanced behind her, only to see an enemy soldier charging at her, brandishing a crude warhammer.

Sheyta fluidly sidestepped the enemy’s first strike and her right hand thrust the sword directly into the red armor’s center.

Her final attack had been, true to her name, silent. As if merely gliding, the Black Lily Sword slid into the enemy’s heart and deftly took his life — then, beginning in the middle, it silently dissolved into countless flower petals and dispersed in all directions.

Sheyta mournfully brought her lips to the scattering sword hilt and whispered:

“… Thank you, for all this time.”

In that instant, she seemed to detect a faint whiff of a flower’s fragrance.

To her right, the dragon Yoiyobi, her longtime companion, crushed an enemy with a swing of its tail.

The dragon’s gray scales had been dyed red by the blood gushing from its innumerable wounds, and its talons and fangs were shattered and incomplete. It had long depleted its flames, and its movements had slowed to a pace uncharacteristic of its original agility.

Sheyta made sure that the enemy’s assault had paused, then walked to her beloved dragon’s side and brushed her right hand over its neck.

“Thank you too, Yoiyobi. Tired too, right?… Get some rest.”

Then, Sheyta and her dragon supported each other as they started towards the small hill where the remaining survivors of the Fist Fighters’ Guild had gathered.

Staying seated on the ground, the Fist Fighter Chief raised his right hand, which looked so swollen that it could burst at any second, and greeted Sheyta.

“My bad… I let your precious sword break…”

Sheyta shook her head at his apology:

“It’s fine. For I finally see, I see why I’ve been cutting everything apart…”

She dropped weakly to her knees, raised both hands, and took the young warrior’s face softly in her ten fingers.

“It was to find what I do not wish to cut. I’ve been fighting to find what I wish to protect. That’s… you. So I don’t need the sword anymore.”

In an instant, the Fist Fighter’s left eye widened, and a transparent droplet of liquid welled up from within. On the contrary, this made Sheyta slightly surprised.

The youngster clenched his teeth tightly together and muttered, his throat choking up:

“Ah… fuck. I wanna start a family with you too. We’ll definitely have a strong kid. A kid stronger than my ancestors, stronger than me, who can become the strongest Fist Fighter for sure…”

“No. That child will become a knight.”

The two stared at each other for a moment, then both smiled. With a hulking man gazing at them warmly, Sheyta and Iskahn embraced, then sat down next to each other.

Three hundred Fist Fighters, one Integrity Knight, and a dragon waited in silence as the crimson soldiers gradually closed their encirclement.

***

“Seems like… game, set, and match. Don’t it?”

Klein said as he and Asuna were returning to the rear encampment. “Yeah,” she replied.

Both of their wounds were being treated by a mage amongst the Japanese players using the Sacred Arts she had just learned. She was unable to amplify the efficacy of the Arts with her imagination like an Underworld Ascetic could, but since her character level was high, her converted character had received very high Arts-practicing authority that resulted in a plentiful healing ability.

“Thank you so much for coming to help us.”

Asuna thanked the female mage, and thanked Klein, who was standing beside her, as well.

“Thank you too, Klein. I really don’t know how best to thank you…”

Watching Asuna become momentarily tongue-tied, Klein embarrassedly rubbed his nose.

“Hey, don’t treat me like a stranger. I owe you and that bastard Kirito so damn much that this is far from enough… He’s here too, right?”

Klein couldn’t help but lower his voice. Asuna nodded slightly.

“Yeah. Go meet him after the battle. If he listens to some of your dirty jokes, Klein, he might just be unable to resist the urge to roast you and wake up.”

“Hey, that’s kinda cruel.”

A smile stretched over Klein’s perpetually bright face, but his eyes showed obvious concern. He, too, knew how severe the wounds in Kirito’s soul were.

— Ah, but, really…

After everything was over and done with, after they had repelled the enemies from Underworld and the «Ocean Turtle», if Sinon, Leafa, Klein, and the rest of the original SAO Progressors, along with Sakuya, Alicia, and the people from ALO… then Alice, Tiese, Ronye, Sortiliena, and the others all surround Kirito, then there’s no way he wouldn’t wake up, was there?

She had to keep fighting, so that when that moment came, she could greet him with a smile.

As soon as her wounds had closed themselves, Asuna thanked the mage player once again and stood up.

Like Klein had said, the fate of the battle was now certain and undoubtable. The number of red American players had already decreased to near that of the Japanese players, and they were acting as though they’d completely lost their earlier fighting spirit, repeatedly launching suicide attacks.

But this battle within these ancient ruins was merely a skirmish.

The crucial point was «Radiant Medium» Alice, who had been abducted by Emperor Vector. While Knight Commander Bercouli and Sinon were hindering his progress, they had to catch up to Vector and take Alice back. Therefore, they must pick out the elite among the elite from the converted players, borrow the Human Empire Army’s horses, and head south as fast they could.

If they were able to catch up, even if the enemy was using a Super Account, he couldn’t be a match for an elite, handpicked force comprised of the top players from Japan. The overwhelming strength that they possessed enabled Asuna to declare that. The valiant swordsmen had equipped blades, shields, and armor reflecting a polychromatic shine, resembling the Einherjar3 of Norse mythos…

Asuna wiped away her forming tears and looked away from the front line, towards the very rear.

The supply team’s horse-drawn carriages had already been pulled near the ruins’ sando entrance, and a temporary encampment had been erected there. Asuna felt that the sight of wounded Japanese being healed by the Underworld residents’ Arts also held indescribable worth.

“… It’s okay, everything will be fine… for sure.”

Asuna’s spoken thoughts earned a vigorous reply from Klein, beside her:

“Of course. All right, let’s get a move on.”

“Yeah.”

Asuna nodded, then turned towards the front line again —

But her attention was grabbed by something that brushed past the edge of her vision, causing her to jerk violently to a halt.

— What is that. Something black… pitch black, like a stain…

Asuna’s eyes wavered for a moment, then she finally saw it.

The gargantuan god statues lining the two sides of the sando in the ruins.

Atop the statue nearest them to the right side stood someone.

Because the statue was reflected against the light, they could only make out a swaying black silhouette, almost like it was about to melt into the crimson sky of the Dark Territory.

Was it an American who had deserted the battlefield? Or a scout from the Japanese?

Startled, Asuna looked closer, and it was only then that she noticed that the silhouette was swaying because the person was dressed in a half-length black cloak. The poncho’s hood had been pulled all the way down, so the person’s face was completely invisible.

But.

“Hey, Klein. That man…”

Klein was just about to take off for the front line, but Asuna tugged on his sleeve with her right hand and pointed with her left.

“That man standing there, do you feel like you’ve seen him before?”

“Huh…? Whoa, he’s watching the show from up there. Damn, who is that?… He’s wearing a cloak. I can’t even see his face, let alone… remember…”

Klein’s voice suddenly broke off.

Asuna turned to look, only to see that Klein’s stubbled, scuffled face had been drained of all color, white as a sheet of paper.

“Hey, what’s wrong? You know him? Who is that?”

“No… How. No way, that’s… Am I looking… at a ghost…?”

“A-A ghost…? What do you mean?”

“Be… Because, that black cloak, no, that leather poncho… is LaughCof’s…”

The instant she heard that name.

Asuna felt her brain freeze in the blink of an eye.

LaughCof. Officially known as «Laughing Coffin». From the middle to the end of the death game SAO, it had been the strongest red guild, spreading terror throughout the floating castle Aincrad.

A great number of infamous PKers, including «Red-Eyed XaXa» and «Johnny Black», were under its wing, and it had passed its venomous hand over innumerable normal players… Finally, after a fight to the death against a crusade team comprised of the Progressor players, they were successfully destroyed.

During that battle, nearly every single member of «Laughing Coffin» was either killed or sent to the Black Iron Palace, but one man escaped. It was the guild leader, the man who had mysteriously vanished when the guild’s lair was ambushed, and also the man who had, either by his own hand or through indirect methods, killed the most players in SAO. His name — «PoH». That murderous demon had frequently clad himself in a black leather poncho and wielded a large dagger that resembled a meat cleaver. Yet two years later he had come to Underworld, now standing and looking down upon Asuna and Klein.

“………. No way.”

Asuna could only muster a hoarse whisper at this moment.

It’s fake. I’m looking at a ghost.

Go. Go away.

But, as though it were mocking Asuna’s wish, the black silhouette wavering like a mirage slowly raised its right hand. It then lightly waved its hand back and forth, as though teasing her.

What followed —

Could only be described as her worst nightmare.

A new silhouette materialized beside the man in the black poncho. Then another, and another.

Atop the roof of the immense palace ruins connecting to the back of the statue, a crimson legion silently appeared. To the left of the palace roof, tens of silhouettes floated into being.

— Stop. Just stop.

Asuna prayed desperately. She feared that she could not withstand greater despair than this.

And yet.

The new crimson legion continued to appear without ceasing, as though it were literally endless. One thousand, five thousand, ten thousand.

By the time their number broke thirty thousand, Asuna gave up on an estimate.

Impossible.

More than fifty thousand Americans had just been painfully ejected. It was impossible that so many troops could be located in such a short time, and they could not be Japanese. If a fabricated announcement had been disseminated within Japan, Klein and the others would have been the first to know.

These were phantoms. They were all incorporeal shadows created with Arts.

At some point, the Japanese players, who were about to completely demolish the American players on the front line, had stopped fighting and turned to look towards them. The spacious battlefield was filled with an eerie silence.

Garble, garble.

The chatter coming from the red army that had filled the palace rooftop to maximum occupancy was blown into Asuna’s ears like a sinister wind.

Asuna was momentarily unable to decipher exactly what language the mixed, intertwined chattering noise was in. She desperately focused her hearing, and finally managed to detect some words that were uttered more loudly than others.

Bigeobhan ilbon-in.4

— Uli nalaleul jikyeola.5

— Ganchuu renmen.6

Not English. Not Japanese either.

At that moment, Klein let out a completely unrecognizable moan.

“Ah… This is bad… This is really bad… That huge army isn’t from Japan or America…”

Asuna felt cold sweat run down her back as she listened to his next words:

“……… It’s from China and Korea.”

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3

Probably due to a nearby university just beginning summer break, a VR bar in Cheongjin-dong, Jongno District in Seoul was somewhat crowded.

Jo Wol-saeng finished the entrance procedures, then picked up a paper cup and filled it with soda at the drinks bar. He entered a single room, leaned back into a reclining seat, and heaved a long sigh.

He felt like he’d been sighing like that more and more recently. He knew the reason for it, too. He was already 20 this year, a sophomore in university, and next year he’d have to take a leave of absence for two years’ military service.

He had until his 30th birthday to enlist, so he could push it back a few years if he wanted to, but students who didn’t complete their service before graduation would be at a heavy disadvantage when searching for a job. Nearly all of his fellow classmates would be taking leaves of absence for military service after their sophomore year, and since his parents were urging him to do so as well, he really had nowhere to run.

Wol-saeng took a sip of his flat soda, and sighed again.

Everything unsettled him, from whether he, who was out of shape, could withstand the harsh training to whether he would be bullied amongst the troops. But what depressed him more was the fact that his current life would be stolen away for two whole years. But he wasn’t thinking of his life in the real world; rather, the virtual world, which his friend had invited him to experience when he had first started university, and where he had been engrossed ever since two whole years of being unable to enter that world was, to him, more distressing than any sort of training.

“…… If only I could have this in the army…”

He muttered as he picked up the FullDive interface hanging from a stand on the table the «AmuSphere». Belonging to a popular VR bar, the device was tattered inside and out, but to Wol-saeng, this machine shined brighter than an angel’s halo.

Three years ago in 2023, this device was released in Japan; beginning to stock shelves all around the world the next year, it triggered a huge boom in South Korea, where the online game industry was already flourishing. Once named «PC Bars», Internet cafes began renaming themselves into «VR Bars», fully equipped with AmuSpheres. Young people all became absorbed by VRMMORPGs, developed in either Japan or the US.

«Silla Empire», which Wol-saeng had been playing for a year and a half, was a Korean localization of the Japanese-developed «Asuka Empire». It wasn’t merely translated; even the towns, the avatars, and the content of the quests were all modified to resemble Korea’s ancient Silla dynasty. It has had the highest popularity in Korea since beginning service.

On the other hand, players had been furiously clamoring for a purely Korean-made work, so numerous companies began developing all-new VRMMOs using the completely cost-free software package «The Seed». However, the package itself was still Japanese-made, so without connecting to the Japan-based «The Seed Nexus», one couldn’t fully utilize its features. But Japan’s VRMMOs fundamentally obfuscated connections from Korea and China, which resulted in an inability to produce new games with quality comparable to that of «Silla Empire», causing Korean players to feel increasingly dissatisfied.

I really want to play an all-Korean game before I leave for the army, but it looks like that ship has sailed…

Wol-saeng sighed yet again, casting the thought away from his mind. He lay heavily back onto the reclining chair and donned the AmuSphere.

“… Link Start!”

He recited the sole universally-recognized voice command and closed his eyes.

Passing through rays of variegated light, he input the VR bar’s User ID and password, and arrived in a simplistic launching area. Then, he prepared to press the icon for «Silla Empire».

But just then, he noticed that a social networking app window, floating on the right side of the dark space, was currently scrolling at an insane speed. It looked as though the several hundred users he followed were all reposting a single piece of news at once.

“……… What’s going on?”

Puzzled, Wol-saeng pushed the launching program to the left, pulling the social networking app window towards him. Then, he tapped onto the news, magnified it, and read the words aloud.

“Hmm… ‘Korean, American, and Chinese volunteers have jointly developed an all-new VRMMO, and its test server… has been invaded by Japanese players, who are attacking the test players’?! What the hell?!”

To be honest, Wol-saeng found something like this hard to believe. But attached at the very end of the news was a link that resembled that of a video; he clicked it somewhat dubiously.

A player window opened, and then

“Vanguard, attack!!”

A bold, ferocious roar played at deafening volume. Wol-saeng, who had watched quite a few Japanese anime, instantaneously recognized the pronunciation as Japanese.

The video displayed Japanese-looking players dressed in silver equipment launching an attack against players dressed in red equipment, killing them one by one. A great volume of blood would splash out every time that glistening sword swung, while curses in English and screaming echoed all around.

Judging by the utterly lawless cruelty taking place, this was indeed happening inside a test server. Just like the news had said, Japanese players were one-sidedly attacking American players.

When the 30-second video had finished, Wol-saeng felt somewhat absentminded.

A «server attack» typically referred to the act of increasing its workload in order to shut it down, or the act of vandalizing a website, but diving into a VR world and attacking test players… this was his first time hearing about such a thing. If the video’s content were to be trusted, then that meant something like that was currently taking place, but something felt off to him.

Yes… in the video, the Japanese players, who seemed to possess equipment far exceeding that of the American players in terms of properties and abilities, were one-sidedly exterminating them. However, he felt that the desperate side wasn’t the Americans, the ones being attacked, but the Japanese, the ones attacking them. Attacking a server almost always ended up being somewhat of a practical joke, but… these people seemed to be waging a life-and-death war…

Suddenly, a shrill ding-dong chime sounded, causing Wol-saeng flick his head up.

It was his fellow guild member from «Silla», who had seen that he was online and had sent him a voice-chat request. He pressed the “Accept” button, a new window opened up, and an urgent voice called Wol-saeng’s character name.

“Hey, Moonphase, did you see those tweets?!”

“Uh… yeah, I just did…”

“Then what’re you waiting for? Start downloading the client!”

“C… Client?”

He hurriedly looked back at the social networking app window and glanced at the next tweet.

Written there In order to save the test players from the Japanese’s despicable attack, we are recruiting volunteers from the entire Korean VRMMO player base. If you wish to help us out, please download this client software and install it onto your AmuSpheres.

“…This?… Hwan-ung, you think this is real?”

“Of course I do, didn’t you see the video?! As we speak our comrades are getting killed!!”

“I did see it… But, that video…”

Wol-saeng was about to convey his feeling of unease, but was immediately interrupted.

“Anyway, just hurry up and install it! Myung-hoon and Helix already dived, so we’ll be waiting for you over there!”

The voice-chat ended, and silence was restored to the launching room.

Although Wol-saeng still had many doubts, nearly all of his fellow guild members were participating, and he didn’t want to know how they would chastise him if he ignored them. He’d probably find more clues inside besides, come to think of it, a disturbance like this could very well be a guerilla event for a new game. If he didn’t participate, he wouldn’t be able to reap the benefits.

Making his decision, Wol-saeng pressed the “Download” button and installed the client onto the AmuSphere, causing a new icon to appear among the launch programs. After pressing the crimson icon, onto which the words “HELP US” were inscribed in black, Wol-saeng felt his consciousness being sucked into a different world.

***

Even after transferring a large number of connections from China and Korea into Underworld, Critter remained somewhat dubious.

Although he had followed Vassago Casals’ instructions, to disseminate an Underworld connection client within the two countries that neighbored Japan, he remained very suspicious throughout the process.

‘Cause aren’t the Japanese and Koreans pretty much the same?

There were a great number of Americans who didn’t know that Japan and Korea weren’t connected by land, and there were even those who thought that the two countries were both part of China. Although Critter wasn’t quite so ignorant, he was also under the impression that the three nations were completely friendly to each other. As for their relations, weren’t they a quarrelsome but loving bunch, just like the EU?

That was why Critter was completely unable to fathom Vassago’s instructions.

Since he hadn’t had the time to create a new, fake site, he had used social networking sites to spread the news. His first tweet had been: “The Japanese are attacking a server for a VRMMO jointly developed by American, Chinese, and Korean volunteers!”

The second tweet was an explanation of the first: “The Japanese players want to hog The Seed Nexus so bad that they hacked the server, and started creating powerful characters as they please. They are attacking the American, Chinese, and Korean test players. Since this server has not been equipped with pain absorption nor an ethics code, our comrades are being massacred while experiencing intense pain.” Then he attached a video he had captured of a battle in Underworld.

The video itself was actually footage of Human Empire knights and soldiers beating back American players, but the Underworld residents spoke Japanese anyway. It seemed that the video had made a gigantic impact; the number of retweets was exponentially increasing, and the number of downloads had far, far exceeded that of the US.

Taken aback, Critter thought:

Why do I feel that the Japanese online gamers don’t really get along well with Chinese or Korean players?

***

Oh, it’s far worse. They simply detest each other.

Vassago Casals, who had returned to Underworld with his «Laughing Coffin» character, «PoH», began to grin under his black hood.

He raised his right hand high, and shouted loudly in Korean to the red players behind him.

Go teach those invaders a lesson!! Slash and stab and kill, make it as painful as you can so that they won’t even think of harming our comrades again!!”

As soon as the great army of no less than 50,000 heard these two sentences, it let loose a ferocious bellow. To them, the American “testers” being killed by the Japanese players had already become their fellow countrymen.

Trying his best not to laugh, Vassago swung his right hand down.

With a thunderous rumbling like an avalanche, the crimson legion threw itself towards the Japanese below them.

Come on, kill each other. Dance that ugly, miserable, comical dance.

***

“… He’s here.”

Sinon murmured to herself.

She was looking at a jet-black dotted line falling from the crimson sky, like a thread of silk.

Right now, she wanted very much to charge «Annihilate Ray» to its maximum and blow the enemy away as soon as he materialized. That way he would be unable to defend or evade.

But right now she needed to buy time. If the enemy were capable of producing unlimited high-level accounts, then instantly destroying him would be pointless.

First, she needed to drag the enemy into a war of attrition, then observe his reaction. If her opponent showed signs of wanting to protect his own life, she could deduce that he was using a valuable account that could only be used once. Then, she would attack at full force, rendering him unable to login with the same account again.

But, in the event that the account could be mass-produced, she couldn’t kill him. She had to try her best to drag out the battle and buy enough time for Alice to head towards the «World End Altar».

So Sinon did not pull back her bowstring, and instead merely remained hovering in the air, waiting for the enemy to materialize.

The place where the black code landed was where, minutes ago, Knight Commander Bercouli’s body had lay.

The Knight Commander’s body had been placed onto the other dragon’s saddle by Integrity Knight Alice; she seemed to want to deliver him to a female Integrity Knight waiting in the Human Empire.

Shino had asked: “Your rival in love?” Alice had smiled slightly and replied: “You are my rival in love.”

Good grief.

At this, Sinon could no longer log out easily. She had to stay in this world, at least until the moment when Kirito awoke.

Sinon steeled her determination once again, and stared towards the mountain of rock.

The black line touched the middle of the level summit and transformed into a pile of viscous fluid.

Its color was as dark as a bottomless pit leading straight to hell.

When the final line was absorbed into the puddle as well

Bloop.

A tiny ripple poked out of the surface. Then a right hand extended outwards silently. As she watched the sight of those five long, thin fingers waving in the air, Sinon could not help but feel a cold shudder running down her back.

She did her best to resist the urge to immediately burn them to ash, waiting for the enemy to materialize.

Following the right hand, a left hand also appeared and seized the edge of the puddle.

Then a man’s head appeared as well, with the slippery, moist sound of liquid.

What slightly surprised Sinon was the fact that this character didn’t possess any distinguishing facial features; at least, he wasn’t handsome by any means. His short golden hair clung tightly to his head, his nose and lips were thin, and he looked somewhat Caucasian, but distinctly unremarkable.

Was this really the all-new body of the man who had controlled the Dark God Vector Super Account?… Sinon pondered, moderately surprised.

The man raised his upper body out of the puddle, swiveling his blue, marble-like eyeballs, finally sighting Sinon in the sky above him.

For an instant, Sinon felt strange.

She felt as though she had seen those eyes somewhere. They were a pair of eyes that seemed to reflect everything, yet seemed to consume everything at the same time; a pair of eyes without any emotion whatsoever.

Those eyes that sighted Sinon widened slightly. Then, a sliver of a contorted smile was visible on his lips.

Yes. I’ve seen them. I’ve seen those eyes… and that face. And it wasn’t too long ago, somewhere

As Sinon was staring blankly at him, splat, with a drawn-out, viscous splashing noise, the man leapt out of the puddle all at once.

His getup was a little peculiar as well. He seemed to have automatically converted his equipment over; he was not dressed in ornate metallic armor. His deep-gray uniform’s top and bottom complemented each other and were secured with a belt, while his feet were wrapped in bound long boots, almost exactly like a combat uniform worn by soldiers in the real world. His weapons were a longsword at his left waist, and a crossbow at his right.

When the man had completely exited it, the black puddle did not disappear. Shockingly, it separated from the ground, wriggling like an animal. No, it was an animal. The part where it peeled off extended outwards, transforming into a set of long, thin wings that beat steadily.

Its bizarre appearance was not that of a bird, nor was it of a dragon. At the front of its flat, basin-like body were four beady eyes. To its left and right were bat-like wings, and trailing behind it was a long, serpent-like tail.

When the combat uniformed man leapt onto it, the mysterious winged creature beat its wings and left the ground, ascending to a height equal to Sinon’s.

The creature hovered at 30 meters’ distance from Sinon, and the man on top revealed a hint of a smile again.

For some reason, he raised his unarmed hands and extended them directly in front of himself. Sinon became alert, thinking that he was about to chant some sort of incantation. But nothing happened. The man merely encircled his arms together, as though around Sinon’s neck, then made a sudden motion as though he were crushing his arms together.

In that instant, Sinon finally remembered. A parched voice escaped from her mouth.

“…… Subtilizer……”

That was it. This man was the American player who had strangled her to death from behind during the finals of the Gun Gale Online PvP tournament the «Fourth Bullet of Bullets», held two weeks ago.

But why would he be here?

Forgetting even the longbow she held in her hands, Sinon focused solely on her surprise, her eyes widening.

***

The middle of the pyramidal, self-sustaining artificial island Ocean Turtle was marked by an ultra-strong main shaft constructed from high-strength titanium alloy.

At the bottom of the hundred-meter tall cylindrical main shaft was the main machine, protected by a multilayered isolation wall the pressurized water reactor. Above it was the occupied main control room, and STL Room 1.

Underworld, or rather, the focus of Project Alicization the Light Cube Cluster, was directly above the main control room. The areas up to this point belonged to the lower shaft.

Above the Light Cube Cluster was a perfectly level, pressure-resistant partition that divided the main shaft into the upper and lower shafts. The area above the wall was deemed the upper shaft: first was a large number of cooling devices, and then came the sub control room where the Rath employees had retreated to, along with STL Room 2, which Kirigaya Kazuto and Yuuki Asuna were currently using.

On July 7, at 9:00 am, a humanoid robot began moving on its own along the cooling devices, down the stairs on the bow side of the ship’s upper shaft. It was the Rath-developed prototype machine «Ichiemom». As though they were watching it totter along, three armed JSDF members followed it.

I’m so glad that I’m not claustrophobic, acrophobic, or nyctophobic.

Higa Takeru encouraged himself silently, but at the same time, he felt that having a phobia shouldn’t matter after all.

Because this duct, lit only by orange emergency lights, extended straight down for a full 40 meters. If his sweat-soaked hands slipped once, or his trembling feet missed a single step, he would plunge straight down onto the pressure-resistant partition that plugged this duct, and end up experiencing quite an unpleasant sensation.

If he’d known this already, he would have let the researcher, Yanai, go first. At least that way he wouldn’t need to keep staring down into the vertical well.

By the way, he said he was gonna be my shield, but went “After you” when it was the real deal. What the heck?

Higa huffed somewhat indignantly and glanced a few meters above his head, where Yanai was grabbing onto the ladder.

However, upon seeing his already white face become even paler as he clung to the ladder for dear life, Higa didn’t have anything more to say. Yanai’s willingness to accept such a dangerous mission should already be praised, and the automatic handgun stuffed into the holster on his waist was more or less a relief.

When he turned back downwards, the earpiece in his left ear transmitted a steady voice.

“How is it, Higa-kun? Everything okay?”

The voice belonged to Koujiro Rinko, who was peeking into the access hole above their heads.

Higa replied hoarsely into the microphone beside his mouth.

“Ah… yeah, kind of. About five more minutes and we should be able to reach the pressure-resistant partition.”

“Got it. When you guys are ready, I’ll send the assault command to Ichiemom team. You guys should open the partition only after the enemy starts attacking Ichiemom when they spot it.”

Roger. Wow, this really feels like Mission Impossible.”

“Oh pleeease, make this mission Possible. I can’t help but feel that how the situation changes in Underworld is all on Kirito-kun’s recovery… Sorry, Yanai-san, please watch over this kid.”

The last bit was directed towards Yanai. Once Higa heard Yanai whimper “Roger” in reply, he couldn’t help but chuckle bitterly.

“This kid”, huh?

He shook his head and tightly gripped the iron ladder rung with his palms, which had somehow become sweaty.

Looking directly downwards, he found that the partition had, at some point, come into view.

***

Critter had been dully watching the gigantic, writhing cloud on his monitor, condensed from the Chinese and Korean players who had dived in, but a sudden alarm made him jump up.

“The heck…?!”

He scanned the console in a panic, and discovered that a red alarm was flashing on a side monitor to the right.

“Whoa… The pressure-resistant partition was unlocked! S-Someone go take a look at the duct!!”

Before he even finished shouting, the tall assault team member Hans grabbed his assault rifle and bolted outside.

“Fuck, there goes my good hand!”

Brigg muttered while tossing his full suit of playing cards onto the ground, then ran outside after Hans.

Had Rath, who were at a crushing disadvantage in terms of equipment and firepower, thrown the helve after the hatchet and begun a banzai charge? Or were they plotting something else…?

Critter left the console and walked towards the control room door. The power to the elevators had been cut, so he would have to use the stairs if anything were to happen. Hans and Brigg seemed to have come to the same conclusion; the loud stamping noises of their feet on metallic stairs traveled from above.

But the footsteps suddenly halted, replaced by coarse shouts.

Woah!!

Are you kidding?!

Then came a burst of rifle fire.

***

Higa could already feel a clear ratatatat coming from outside the duct; gunfire from an automatic rifle.

At that moment, on the other side of the main shaft, poor Ichiemom’s muscle membranes and titanium skeleton had probably been riddled with innumerable holes. However, his battery and control system were installed on his back, so even if he were hit, he should still be able to move for a bit.

“All right! Open the hatch on the pressure-resistant partition now!”

As Professor Koujiro’s voice traveled into his earpiece, Higa threw his entire weight into twisting the valve of the pressure-resistant hatch dividing the duct. With a psshh, the hydraulic damper began to move, and the heavy metal cover lifted upwards.

The other side of the partition, located in the duct of the lower shaft, was also illuminated by dark orange emergency lights. The commotion coming from the battle raging in the stairwell on the other side of the main shaft suddenly became much clearer.

Higa swallowed, readjusted his backpack that contained his mini portable laptop, and passed through the access panel that was narrower than the duct itself. Then, he stepped onto another ladder, and continued down.

In this sort of moment, people in action movies would be yelling dramatically.

Go go go!!

He muttered, and Rinko’s confused voice came through his earphone.

“Um, what did you say?”

“N-Nothing. …About ten meters to the cable maintenance port… Ah, I see it, there it is!”

The numerous thick fiber optic cables spread along the wall of the cable duct all terminated at a black fuse box. If he plugged in his laptop into the maintenance port inside, he could theoretically control Units #3 and #4 inside STL Room 2, and also Units #5 and #6 far away in the Roppongi branch, directly.

Just wait, Kirigaya-kun. I’ll have you awake in no time!

Higa forgot his fear, and as he frantically descended the ladder, a voice came through his earphone again.

“Then I’ll go back to the sub control room to monitor Kirito-kun’s Fluctlight. Good luck, Higa-kun!!”

Being praised by Professor Koujiro whom he once called Koujiro-senpai, in a way that seemed to transport him back their college days, made Higa look upwards in spite of himself.

But all he saw was Yanai, who was climbing down the ladder with a face full of desperation.

Higa sighed helplessly in his heart, then looked again towards the fuse box, which was drawing ever closer.

***

Having appeared atop the mountain still scarred by an intense battle, the man in combat uniform looked southwards and murmured in a monotonous voice:

“… Alice got away? No matter, I can catch up to her quickly…”

Then he looked to Sinon again, and smiled slightly.

“… As I remember, we should’ve fought before in a Gun Gale Online tournament. Your name is… «Sinon»? Who could have imagined that we’d meet again in such a place?”

Listening to the inhuman voice of that man, who was Dark God Vector and Subtilizer at the same time, Sinon desperately tried to stop her hands from shaking. But her fingers had stiffened, her palms were drenched in sweat, and she felt that if she made any sudden moves, even the Bow of Solus would drop to the ground.

Standing on the back of the disc-shaped, winged creature, Subtilizer smiled a temperature-less smile, and continued in fluent Japanese.

“What exactly is going on? I heard that there were no more STL units in Japan… Could you be an associate of Rath? Or rather, a mercenary who would even come to a place like this?”

With difficulty, Sinon urged her dry lips to move and demanded hoarsely:

“Subtilizer… I want to ask you, why are you here?”

“Because it is inevitable, of course.”

Subtilizer spread his arms wrapped in gray combat garb, seemingly unable to suppress the glee within him, and continued:

“This is fate. The power of the soul that has drawn you and me together.”

His tone was slowly changing. His very voice seemed to grow icier and icier.

“Yes… I want you. That is why we are meeting again. This will explain a great deal to me. Whether my target, whose soul I absorb through the STL, is limited to Artificial Fluctlights, or includes humans from the real world… I will also fully understand the sweetness of your soul, which I was unable to taste during that GGO tournament.”

As Sinon listened to these bizarre words, the words that this man had spoken to her during the fourth BoB finals echoed in her mind.

Your soul will be so sweet.

Your soul will be so sweet.7

Her body grew increasingly cold, she became taut, and even her breathing turned erratic.

“Come… to me, Sinon. Give your everything to me.”

An icy glow gleamed within Subtilizer’s blue eyes.

Zzt. The world distorted.

Air, sound, and even light were all being twisted and absorbed into Subtilizer’s eyes.

“Wha………”

What was this?

Even thoughts like that seemed to be dragged away by a powerful magnetism.

No. I have to resist. I have to fight it.

A corner of her spirit screamed, but for some reason it felt incomparably weak.

Finally, even Sinon’s blue-armored body was sucked towards Subtilizer’s open arms.

The powerless fingers of Sinon’s left hand desperately pulled back the bowstring, wavering silently in midair.

Seconds later, through her muffled, cloudy consciousness, Sinon felt her own body become wrapped in Subtilizer’s darkness.

The man’s left hand found her back, his right hand grazed across her face and brushed her hair away from her ear.

Subtilizer’s thin, thin lips approached her exposed left ear, and that voice like icy black water drilled directly into her brain.

“Sinon, have you ever thought of the meaning behind the name «Subtilizer»?”

“…………?”

Utterly powerless, Sinon shook her head from left to right.

“It very much resembles a name, «Satori», that an American would be fond of and change to their liking, doesn’t it?  However, this is genuine English. It is spelled «Subtilizer». It refers to «one who refines», «one who carves», «one who selects»… and «one who steals».”

Light even more intense than before suddenly exploded from Subtilizer’s eyes, now directly in front of Sinon’s face.

“I will steal you. I will steal your soul…”

***

The place where Jo Wol-saeng landed was atop a rock covered with cracks and moss.

This wasn’t a natural rock, but a man-made object. He appeared to be on the rooftop of a gigantic temple-like structure. His surroundings were choked with Korean players who had just logged in, and they seemed to number in the thousands… probably the tens of thousands.

Since there hadn’t been a character selection program, everyone’s equipment was different, be it in the details or the weapons, but they were all colored a uniform crimson. Wol-saeng glanced at his own hands for a bit, which were now wrapped in gauntlets of the same color, then looked forward.

Although he couldn’t really discern his location since he was in the midst of a crowd, he could still see that a battle was raging on the plains in front of the temple. But the Korean players around him didn’t move either, probably because the outcome of the battle was already decided. The group of people dressed in multicolored getups, who looked to be the Japanese players, seemed to have already completely annihilated the legion clad in the same red as Wol-saeng and the others. They had already reorganized their troops, but they didn’t seem to be celebrating in any way.

He knew it. Something was off. But he was unable to immediately articulate what.

At the very least, it didn’t look like a promotion event for a new game, like he had imagined before diving in. This area, with only a red sky and black ground, looked much too simplistic, and the complete absence of any user guidelines or warnings before he had dived in didn’t indicate the presence of an official event at all.

But even so, he was still unable to completely believe what he had read in the tweet. Besides, what meaning was there in invading a test server and killing test players? Even if they could wreak temporary suffering and humiliation upon them, they wouldn’t be able to stop, or even delay development of the game.

Nearly half the Koreans around Wol-saeng also looked bewildered about the situation. Voices saying “What do we do?” “Are those guys really Japanese?” were heard.

But, just then.

“Comrades!”

A shout in Korean came from ahead, to the right.

Wol-saeng strained his back to see, but because he was blocked by too many players, he couldn’t see what the speaker looked like. However, he did catch a glimpse of a red logo, [Leader], hovering above someone in the crowd. The same voice rang out from the direction of that logo.

“Thank you very much for answering our call! Regrettably, the closed beta testers who were testing inside this server have already all been killed by the Japanese aggressors, no, the Japanese invaders! But those guys are still preparing to head for other test points and repeat their crimes!”

In the next moment

Wol-saeng felt palpable anger emanating from this group of several thousands.

What incensed the Korean players had probably been the word “invaders”.8 The confusion and suspicion that had been plaguing quite a few players immediately evaporated, replaced with a boiling hostility that covered the entire area.

“… BIGEOBHAN ILLBONIN!

Someone bellowed, then bits and pieces of enraged yelling were heard. After the hubbub subsided, that «Leader» declared again in a carrying voice:

“Those Japanese hacked our server, and created high-level equipment for themselves to their hearts’ content! And we, who have had our administrator privileges stolen, can only give you default equipment, comrades! However, your righteous and patriotic fervor will not lose to any sword or armor!”

At this, an even louder roar of assent exploded from the crowd.

ULI NALALEUL JIKYEOLA!

Then, from very far away to the right, a wave of furious roars that were not in Korean came thundering over.

GANCHUU RANMEN!”

Wol-saeng couldn’t understand what it meant, but he recognized it as Chinese. It seemed that the number of Chinese players here as well was no less than that of the Korean players.

Even as the atmosphere intensified profoundly, Wol-saeng still felt very uneasy. But at the same time, he knew that no one could stop this fervor now.

Behind the human wall, the «Leader» raised his black gloved right hand high in the air.

——— Go!!

Receiving this command understood by both Koreans and Chinese, the red legion, burning with a blazing conflagration of rage, advanced forward like a gargantuan creature, trembling violently as it went.

***

“Hu… Human Empire Army! Supply team! Advance at full speed—!”

Asuna shouted herself hoarse before the red army choking the palace rooftops left and right made their move.

The Human Empire Defense Army’s supply team currently had an encampment set up near the sando entrance of the ancient ruins. The temple stretched out on both sides of the sando. In other words, several tens of thousands of enemies were currently entrenched directly above the supply team.

“Dump your goods and run now, carriages and Arts Users!!”

Even though she gave that order, it was already too late. The new connector stepping into the battle, likely Chinese and Korean, had already crossed over the giant god statues’ heads and leapt directly into the center of the supply team.

Asuna clenched her teeth and raised the rapier in her right hand high.

Concentrating her imagination onto the sword’s tip, she forcefully swung it downwards. Divine, variegated light shot straight out and struck squarely onto the giant god statues lining both sides of the sando.

Even as excruciating pain shot through her head, almost enough to blow her consciousness flying, she concentrated her imagination. The stone statues shook the ground as they stood up, opening their rectangular mouths, waving their short hands, and began attacking the players choking the temple rooftops.

The red soldiers at the very front hurriedly retreated and collided with their friendly forces squeezing in from behind. They fell down like dominoes. Seizing the opportunity, eight carriages, the two-hundred member Ascetic team, and the supply team all began to move.

Asuna could only control the statues for around 30 seconds before the pain became too much for her to endure, and she dropped to her knees. But the rear of the Human Empire Army had managed to escape disaster and successfully retreated to the wide wilderness north of the ancient ruins. Around 500 Guardians and 2,000 Japanese players advanced forward and adopted a formation that defensively flanked their rear troops from both sides, preparing to engage.

But since this area had hardly any suitable terrain, their only option was to mount a despair-inducing omnidirectional defense against several tens of thousands of enemies. They had been able to painstakingly drive back the American players, who far outnumbered them, solely because they had used the walls of the palace ruins to restrict the front line to one place, and complemented it with a generous healing rotation. But now that they were surrounded by nearly forty to fifty thousand Chinese and Korean players, it was only a matter of time before the front line collapsed.

“Urgh……”

Squeezing out the last of her little remaining strength, Asuna pushed herself up and raised her rapier again.

Please, last one… Let me build a strong wall that can protect everyone.

She prayed as she attempted to concentrate her imagination.

But.

Accompanied by an extraordinary impact surging through her body like an electric current, Asuna was thrown to the ground again. Something welled up in her throat and she spit it out, only to realize that it was a small amount of blood.

“Don’t push yourself too hard, Asuna! Let us have some of the spotlight as well!”

Klein shouted at her heartily.

“Yeah, leave it to us now.”

Agil responded in a deep voice.

As the two men standing in front of Asuna raised their katana and two-handed battleaxe

The crimson legion that had recovered from the chaos began leaping down from the palace rooftops again. Since they were 20 meters above ground, a great many of them did not land safely and suffered injured limbs, with some not even being able to move, but the soldiers coming after them used the injured as human trampolines and landed safely on the ground.

DOLGYEO —— G!!

TU —— JI!!

Asuna had never learned either Korean or Chinese, but instinct told her that those two screams meant assault.

The crimson legion fanned out left and right, approaching ever closer, but the first ones to engage them were Klein and Agil.

Zeiryaaaaaaaaahhhhh!!

U…. raaaaaaaaahhhhh!!

Accompanied by simultaneous bellows that shook the air, wide range Sword Skills launched by the katana and battleaxe erupted. White and blue rays of light shone and enveloped each other as the blood of several tens of enemies flew into the air.

On both sides of the two men, the ALO Lords, their aides, and the heroes of the Sleeping Knights began to fight with all their might.

The continuous striking of metal pierced the battlefield like machinegun fire. A single explosion roared clearly and deeply. Swords, axes, and spears howled as each polychromatic Sword Skill exploded from them, cutting down the red soldiers without end.

The compressed air around them screeched and the army’s assault halted for an instant.

But it was only

Effort as meaningless as attempting to stop with his bare hands a muddy surge of water that had broken its banks and was rushing towards him.

Lying on the ground, Asuna seemed to hear faint, shrill, mocking laughter coming from above the battlefield engulfed with screams of pain and roars of rage.

She swiveled her cloudy eyes, and caught sight of a man in a black poncho standing on the rooftop of the palace ruins, twisting his body as though he were dancing.

***

Higa listened to the sporadic gunfire coming from the other side of the main shaft while climbing down the ladder as quickly as he could.

Finally, he arrived in front the fuse box that dully reflected the orange lamps, and pried open the cover with stiff fingertips.

Inside was a wiring board stuffed full of a web of fiber optic wires, momentarily weakening him a bit, but Higa pulled back wire after wire, and finally located the maintenance port.

The moment had finally arrived.

He sucked in a deep breath to calm his thoughts, then retrieved a cable and the laptop from his backpack. He plugged one end of the cable into the maintenance port, the other end into the computer, and launched the STL control program with a mood that was almost like prayer.

A completely black window was opened, and a cursor at its top left began blinking tantalizingly. Finally, the cursor moved right and displayed a status message.

STL #3, Connecting…… OK.

STL #4, Connecting…… OK.

The first to return normal signals were the two units inside STL Room 2, bordering the sub control room.

Then, connections by way of satellite link from the Ocean Turtle to STL #5 and #6 at the Roppongi branch were also confirmed.

“… Yes!”

Higa murmured. Now he should be able to operate on the four STL units that Kirigaya Kazuto and the three girls were using.

Regrettably, it was only possible to block the line connecting STL Room Two and the satellite antenna from the main control room, so he couldn’t do anything to the two units inside STL Room 1. If that were possible, he would be able to eject the attackers diving in STL #1 and #2 from Underworld.

Suspending these turbulent thoughts, Higa placed his right hand onto the tiny keyboard and prepared to begin operating at once.

Let’s do this!

Just as he prepared himself, a shrill yell came from above his head.

“… F… Freeze!”

It was Yanai’s voice. What on earth was he saying in this sort of situation?

Higa looked up, annoyed, but found himself staring straight down the barrel of a gun, gleaming blue-black, three meters away from his face. Behind the barrel, Yanai, staring at him with bloodshot, beady eyes, shouted again:

“Take your hand away from the computer! Or I’ll shoot!”

“……… Huh?”

He only blanked for half a second.

Higa instantly grasped the situation and began to speculate why Yanai was doing this.

It’s him!

This Yanai man was the spy who had been leaking Project Alicization intelligence to the Americans.

But unfortunately, Higa was unable to come up with any countermeasures. The only thing he did manage to do was articulate a completely meaningless question from his parched mouth:

“… Yanai-san. Why?”

A layer of cold sweat appeared on the technician’s white forehead. His lips trembled for a bit, and then he mustered a weak voice.

“First… First of all, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Don’t think of me as a traitor.”

What do you mean, “think”? You are a traitor!

As if he had heard Higa’s silent scream, Yanai continued:

“I’m just carrying out my original plan. I inherited my boss’s final mission… and that’s why I infiltrated Rath.”

“Your… Your boss’s final mission? Who are you talking about?….”

Higa asked blankly. Yanai brushed away a lock of hair that landed on his forehead with his left hand, and replied with a grin that looked ever-so-slightly insane:

“Someone you’re familiar with… Sugou-san.”

“Wh…”

Whaaaat?!

The impact hitting Higa was greater than that when he had first seen the gun, and his eyes went wide.

Sugou Nobuyuki. A man who had worked in Touto Technical University’s Shigemura Laboratory during the same period as Higa, Koujiro Rinko, and Kayaba Akihiko. He had always been very blatantly competitive with Kayaba, the super-genius, but was ultimately unable to surpass him. Whether it was because of that or not, in the end, he went so far as to commit the crime of kidnapping hundreds of SAO players for illegal human experimentation.

Due to the actions of Kirigaya Kazuto, Sugou’s plot was brought to light. After being detained, he appealed the judgment by the first instance of law, and was still disputing it in the Tokyo Supreme Court.

“… He’s still not dead yet.”

Higa couldn’t help but mutter under his breath, and Yanai laughed shrilly.

“What’s the difference? He’ll be locked up for at least ten years, and for a researcher that’s equivalent to death. I was almost caught too, but I pushed all the blame to the other guy and eventually managed to slip through the long arm of the law.”

“Then you… were associated with Sugou’s human experiments?”

“Associated? I was the one actually collecting the data. That was a fun bit of research… Like the virtual tentacle play and stuff…”

Why didn’t Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka properly check the background of a criminal like this?!

Higa thought, his breathing rapid, but then he sighed because he couldn’t really blame Kikuoka in the first place.

The reason that the front company Rath was created was to clear a new made-in-Japan line on top of the foundation of defense technologies nearly dominated entirely by the US. In other words, it would have threatened the interests of zaibatsu9 manufacturers and defense contractors.

Therefore, it was extremely difficult to find and hire technicians. Almost no one was willing to job-hop from a large company to this place, and it was no wonder that they would be very welcoming to Yanai, who had once worked for a FullDive technology research company as large as RECT.

Yanai seemed to be temporarily lost in reminiscence in front of Higa, but he very quickly pulled himself together and raised the gun again. The safety switch on the left side of the firearm had already been released. In the beginning, Kikuoka had thoughtfully put all technical workers through firearms training, but now, ironically, he’d ended up shooting himself in the foot.

Luckily, Yanai seemed to still have a lot on his mind to pour out; he continued shrilly:

“… Anyway, my boss’s life is over, but his connections are still up and running. So If I don’t properly use them, then I’ll be wasting his hard work.”

“Connections… Where?”

Higa demanded automatically. Yanai seemed to hesitate for a moment, but he eventually grinned and answered:

“The US National Security Agency.”

“Wha… What did you say?!”

Higa put on a look of shock, but inside, this had been expected.

Their activities, including spying and telecommunications surveillance conducted in Japan by the US National Security Agency, were already open secrets, so they were naturally uninterested in Japan’s world leadership with regards to FullDive technology. Ever since they had gotten intel on Project Alicization from Yanai, Sugou’s subordinate, the NSA, even went to the lengths of borrowing a Navy submarine to come and steal «A.L.I.C.E.».

Yanai still continued flaunting his own achievements without a shred of guilt:

“… If those Americans under us can successfully retrieve Alice, I’ll be paid a handsome amount and a position in America can be secured for me. That’s the American success story that Sugou-san was dreaming of.”

The price being that the entire world will have to tremble under the shadow of the high-performance autonomous weapons that the US military will develop.

Higa desperately resisted the urge to retort like that. Right now he had to try his best to drag this out, to seize his only opportunity left.

Realize what’s happening, Rinko-san!

Just as Higa beseeched inwardly, the laptop in his left hand almost slipped off, and he hurriedly grabbed hold of it.

“F-Freeze!!”

In the next instant, Yanai’s distorted shout entered Higa’s ears as he pointed the gun barrel towards the wall of the duct and pulled the trigger. A yellow streak of light flashed by and the expanding air sharply numbed his ears.

Sparks exploded from the metal wall of the duct

A fierce impact struck Higa’s right shoulder.

“Huh?”

Higa uttered a surprised noise.

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***

Sinon stared dumbly into those blue eyes, which were almost close enough to touch, with pitch-black whirlpools swirling inside like black holes.

It was as if it were early morning and she was waking from a dream.

She had to do something. But it all felt like a dream, while in reality she was doing nothing. Merely a cycle of repeating illusions.

Fingers cold as ice caressed her neck. Intense revulsion and terror arose from within her heart, but even those were immediately sucked from her consciousness and replaced with a gray void.

No.

This was no longer an imaginary event taking place in a virtual space.

This realization flashed at the edge of her consciousness like a flashing red alarm. She tried to concentrate on it, but that black, sticky, viscous liquid had already risen past her waist, unnoticed. Nowhere to run. No way to resist.

The man’s face grew closer and closer. His thin, thin lips parted, sucking in air. With it went her emotions, thoughts, and even her soul.

Stop.

Don’t steal it.

Yet even these pleas were quickly seized, leaving only that dull numbness.

“Sto…… op………”

The man’s lips slowly, gradually drew closer to Sinon’s trembling mouth

Crack!!

An impact suddenly gave a violent jolt to Sinon’s consciousness.

She widened her eyes and saw dazzling silver sparks spraying from the collar of her top.

It burns!!

In an instant, a scalding sensation like an electric shock surpassed that man’s absorption. Sinon blasted her slightly-recovered consciousness to life like a bullet primer and threw her entire weight against the man’s arms, slipping away.

She used Solus’s flight ability to greatly widen the distance between them.

“……… Urgh…”

Gasping for breath, she reached her right hand into her top to pull out the object that was continuously spitting sparks.

It was a blanched metallic strip hanging from a thin chain. A disc about 1.5 centimeters in diameter, with a hole in its edge through which the chain looped.

“Wh… y, is this…”

Here?

Sinon murmured hoarsely, astounded.

It was a necklace that Asada Shino always kept around her neck in the real world. It was nothing valuable. The chain was surgical stainless steel, and the metallic strip was merely an ordinary piece of silver-plated aluminum.

However, to Sinon, it possessed a great deal of meaning.

At the end of last year, Sinon was involved in the «Death Gun Incident».

One of Sinon’s male classmates was a member of a criminal group, and just as he attacked her with a high-pressure injector full of the poison succinylcholine, Kirigaya Kazuto Kirito rushed over and protected her, but his own left chest was shot by the drug.

He was only able to prevent the deadly poison from entering his body because he had forgotten to peel an ECG electrode from his chest.

After the incident passed, Sinon found that the electrode had fallen on the floor in her room. She cut the tape from it and processed the silver metallic component into a pendant. She had been secretly wearing this homemade necklace all this time, not even telling Kirito or Asuna. She had dived fully clothed in Rath’s Roppongi branch, and not even that worker named Hiraki had the chance to see it.

That was why this necklace could not have materialized within Underworld.

But.

Kirito had once said so in the Dicey Cafe: the virtual world created by the STL was not simply comprised of polygonal objects.

He said that it was a different reality generated through memories and imagination.

That being the case, this necklace must have been realized through Sinon’s own imagination.

Sinon softly touched the pendant to her lips, and placed it back under her clothes.

Then, she directed her completely-regained consciousness towards the black, winged creature hovering in the sky far away.

Subtilizer stood atop the creature’s back, looking at his own right hand in silence. Sinon could see wisps of white smoke rising from his fingertips.

Seemingly detecting her eyes on him, Subtilizer looked up, and the corners of his mouth curled with a trace of dissatisfaction. Sinon stared right at that man’s face and spoke:

“You’re not a god, and you’re not a demon either. You’re just a human.”

Indeed, Subtilizer was overwhelmingly powerful. He likely possessed an insanely strong imagination that had interfered with Sinon’s consciousness… in other words, her Fluctlight.

But if we’re talking imagination and concentration, there’s no way I’d lose to you.

Because those were a sniper’s greatest strengths.

Sinon gripped the Solus account’s GM equipment with both hands, the longbow «Annihilate Ray», and directed her stare at it.

The center of the gleaming white longbow began to take on a black hue with a blue tint.

As the range of the color shift widened, the bow’s smoothly curved body began to transform into completely straight edges. That long, shining blue-black cylinder was the steel body of a firearm. The muzzle, handle, and stock appeared one by one, and finally, a gigantic scope seemed to surge from the gun body as it materialized.

At this moment, Sinon was no longer holding an elegant longbow.

But rather, a forthright, fierce, indescribably beautiful .50 caliber anti-material sniper rifle «Ultima Ratio Hecate II».

With a sharp sound, Sinon pulled back the bolt handle of her trusty partner, grinning.

The bridge of Subtilizer’s nose wrinkled very slightly, and his lips pulled back into a curve that suggested anger.

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***

What could be called a battle only persisted for the short span of seven minutes. Then came three minutes of defense, and the situation turned into a one-sided slaughter.

“Defend at all costs…! No matter what, we must at least protect the people of Underworld……!!”

Asuna shouted with all her might, brandishing her rapier on the very front line, ignoring the unceasing pain pulsing deep in her brain.

But she could no longer hear a unified, relieving reply.

All around her, one by one, the Japanese players in converted, multicolored equipment were being surrounded by the players clad in blood-red armor from neighboring countries and pierced full of holes with swords and spears. Bellows of fury, screams of grief, and shrieks before death resounded without end.

Compared to this, the Americans’ heavy lancing technique had been much simpler to deal with.

Whether it was because that huge, newly appearing army came from those two countries, or because of their abnormally scalding rage, they were completely ignoring all else and making annihilation their only goal. They launched themselves at their targets all at once, pulled them to the ground by their feet, and crushed them from above, peeling away their freedom. When faced with this type of battle strategy, tactics were ultimately unable to overcome vast numerical disadvantage.

The two thousand-man circular defensive formation was being eroded away before their very eyes, growing thinner and thinner by the second.

Using her rapier, Asuna desperately slashed and ran through the endless enemy soldiers lunging at her. This was her first time pleading so despairingly in her heart since she had logged into Underworld the night before.

Someone, save us.

***

In this battle of despair, one of the squads that had been bravely, persistently fighting was the Green Swordsmen team led by female player Sakuya, who held the role of being the Sylph Lord of Alfheim Online.

The Sylph race was inherently adept at flexibly carrying out high-speed cooperative attacks. This sort of battle strategy, honed to counter the Salamander race, which launched assaults with heavily armed players, was able to achieve some results in chaotic warfare like this. The lightly armed swordsmen maneuvered dizzyingly fast as they shielded each other, rendering the enemy unable to pick a target and preventing themselves from being pulled to the ground one by one.

Great, let’s open up another hole in their defenses! Rindou Team, Suzuran Team, push the front line to the right!!”

Sakuya personally stood at the very front, brandishing her slender katana in all directions, shouting orders.

At this moment, they should be rendezvousing with the Salamander team, currently fighting to their right, and borrowing their assault power to break through the enemy formation in one strike. As long as they could allow the reinforcement troops to escape to the sando in the ancient ruins again and limit the battle line to that narrow entrance, maybe they could whittle down the enemy’s astronomical number like they had the Americans.

“Advance! Prepare the «Synchro Sword Skill»!! Ready, 5, 4, 3…”

Just as Sakuya was about to give the order.

A clear scream of suffering came from the left side of the battleground they were defending.

“— Don’t give up, everyone. Just a bit more time!!”

Sakuya suddenly stopped breathing and looked to the left.

A troop of Japanese players equipped with yellow-based equipment was seemingly about to be swallowed by a tsunami of crimson. At their very front was a petite silhouette, thrown to the ground and pinned there by her metal claws.

“Alicia!!”

Sakuya yelled. In that instant, she changed from a calm and collected commander back into a female university student.

Stoooop —— !!

She screamed, bolting towards the left on her own. She swiped and knocked flying the enemies blocking her way, focusing only on charging to her best friend without stopping.

Longswords pierced through Cait Sith Lord Alicia Rue’s chest and abdomen, but when she noticed Sakuya approaching, she yelled back at her as though she were spitting blood:

“No, go back, Sakuya-chan!! Command your troops!!”

With those last words, those triangular ears poking out of her golden hair disappeared before Sakuya’s eyes.

Alicia —— !!

Sakuya let out a grieving scream and charged alone into the immense number of enemies about to decimate the Cait Sith team. She continuously activated Sword Skills, taking steps forward through spraying blood and pieces of flesh. She was only a bit further away from where her best friend had fallen…

Snikt.

With that impact, she looked down, only to see the head of a spear piercing straight through her right abdomen.

Her first taste of excruciating pain in this world surged through her nerves, robbing her of her strength.

Even so, she still took four more steps forward, but then her consciousness lost control of her character and she collapsed right to the ground.

In the next moment, Sakuya was utterly consumed by the gale of hatred. Her beloved sword was wrenched from her right hand, her left arm was sliced in two, and countless bits of sharp metal ran her body through.

***

Amongst the two thousand although that number was rapidly decreasing Japanese players currently diving here, the one with the clearest grasp of the situation was the third generation leader of the «Sleeping Knights» guild, An Si-Eun/Siune.

Her father was a Korean living in Japan and her mother was Japanese, so Siune was able to speak both nation’s languages. Therefore, when she heard bits and pieces of the furious roars coming from half of the red soldiers, she was able to guess what kind of information had incited these people.

Rifts and conflict had begun to occur between the netizens of Japan and Korea before Siune had been born, at the dawn of the 21st century. There were a myriad of reasons for that, but it seemed that the development of the Internet caused the rift to grow faster and faster.

With little distinction between right and wrong, these developments corroded into the world of online games that Siune and her friends so adored. Even in 2026, within the international server of a mainstream VRMMO, it was not uncommon for fierce disputes over monster farming areas to break out between players from different countries. Recent games like ALO would all reject connections from overseas, and one even felt that the chasm between the neighboring countries was growing deeper and deeper.

Siune, who had grown up touched by both Japanese and Korean culture, had always felt distressed about this sort of situation. The members of the Sleeping Knights in the VR Hospice Ward, who had invited Siune into a new world, remained very friendly to her like always even upon learning of her past, so she she had always thought… For everyone, she had to personally erect a bridge across this chasm inside the virtual world.

But now.

That man currently overlooking the battle from the rooftops of the palace ruins had incited VRMMO players from other countries with his dishonest rhetoric, played up their joint opposition against a common enemy, and brewed up the greatest hatred and tragedy since the inception of VRMMOs.

I have to… I have to do something. I’m perhaps the only one among the Japanese players who can speak Korean.

If I don’t push forward, they won’t understand. Right, Yuuki?

Calling the name of the previous guild leader, who had passed away three months ago, in her heart, Siune loudly instructed her four partners beside her.

“Please, everyone, just once, let’s open a hole in their defenses!!”

Jun, a dual-wielder who was battling valiantly like a fierce god in the front, immediately shouted:

“Got it! Tecchi, Talken, Nori, release your all-out attacks all at once! 3, 2, 1!”

The perfectly synchronized, high-powered, single-strike Sword Skills triggered an earthshaking explosion, blowing back tens of enemies.

In this instant of silence and stagnation, Siune ran towards a huge Korean player who looked like the leader and threw out her left hand to catch the blade of the longsword he swung down.

Her palm split and blood spurted out.

But virtual pain like this, compared to the suffering that Siune had experienced from bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy for her leukemia, was nothing at all. She merely grimaced a bit, kept her stare fixated on the man’s eyes, and shouted in Korean:

“— Listen to me, you’ve all been lied to!! This server belongs to a Japanese company, we’re not hackers, we’re the rightful users!!”

Her voice echoed widely, stretching the silence for a few more moments.

The Korean whose sword was gripped by Siune’s bare hand leaned backwards slightly, as though he were somewhat intimidated by her drive, but very quickly retorted sharply:

You’re lying! I saw it with my own eyes, you killed all of those players who were the same color as us!!”

“They were the same as you, Americans who had been tricked into coming here by false information! The ones hindering the Japanese company’s development are you all!! Think about it more carefully… Is this rage and hatred of yours right now really coming from your own hearts?!”

Siune’s words caused the Koreans at the scene to fall silent, dubious.

Just then, a sharp yet somewhat confused inquiry came from the rear of the crowd and broke the silence again.

“Are you telling the truth?!”

The one who shouted this in Korean, running out of the crowd, was a player who looked no different from the other soldiers. Siune subconsciously adopted a defensive stance, but the player arrived in front of her and lowered the sword in his right hand, declaring his absence of hostility, then pushed up his helmet visor.

“I’m «Moonphase», who are you?”

Siune was somewhat taken aback to have someone ask her name so suddenly, but the eyes of this man calling himself Moonphase shined with a sincere glow.

Siune took her left hand away from the sword blade she was blocking, then clenched it, still dripping virtual blood, into a fist at her chest, and spoke:

“… I am Siune.”

“Siune-san, is it? I’ve been also thinking that this whole thing is a little weird.”

Moonphase’s quickly uttered sentence prompted furious roars from Korean players around them. But he loudly slid his sword back into its sheath, suppressing the noise, and took a step forward.

“— Do you have a way to prove what you are saying?!”

“…………”

Siune couldn’t help but hold her breath.

This «Underworld» was a virtual reality world developed by a government-funded Japanese company to perform research and development, and the attackers were Americans trying to seize the fruit of that research, a new generation of AI Siune had never once doubted these words that her friend Lisbeth had tearfully accounted to them inside the World Tree dome in ALO. But when she was asked for a way to prove it, she found herself lost.

There was no physical evidence in a virtual world. There were only testimonies from certain people, but no matter what the Japanese told them, the other side wouldn’t believe it. Siune could feel enmity flaring up again among the Korean players around them in the time that she remained speechless like this. What could she do… Where would she find…

“Siune, the Underworld people!”

Nori suddenly shouted from the left, behind her.

“Have him meet the people who live in Underworld, and once he sees that they’re speaking Japanese, they’ll understand that this is a Japanese server!”

“Ah………!”

Yes, that was a possibility. Although Siune and the others had only spoken a few words with the people of Underworld in the middle of the circular formation, after feeling that they were neither real world people nor NPCs, she had experienced an impact enough to stun her soul. Even though no, because there was a language barrier between them and the Koreans, the Koreans would also feel the same. As long as they kept an open mind and met and talked with them, they would absolutely understand.

Siune was about to translate what Nori had just told her in Japanese into Korean to tell Moonphase.

But just then, a ray of vicious red light flashed behind him.

“Ah… Look ou……”

Siune desperately tried to warn him, but it was too late. A very short yet very thick cleaver buried itself deeply into Moonphase’s back and blew him nearly ten meters away.

“Guaagh……”

Replacing Moonphase, who was now writhing in pain on the ground, there stood the man in the black poncho who should have been on top of the palace roof.

He pointed his right hand, which was gripping a dagger that resembled a Chinese-style meat cleaver, at Moonphase and shouted loudly in Korean:

“This battlefield is no place for traitors!”

Then he pointed the cleaver at each of the Koreans surrounding them.

“Don’t fall victim to the tricks of those dirty Japanese!”

The voice was low, powerful, and icy, yet it carried a faint trace of ridicule.

The final one the cleaver pointed at was Siune, who stood stock-still, stunned.

“If this is really a Japanese server, and you really are the rightful users, then why are you the only ones with such powerful equipment? They’re shining like GM equipment! You crafted them with cheating methods!!”

Exactly, exactly! Sounds of assent followed the man’s declaration.

Siune desperately refuted the man’s words.

“… No! Our equipment is different because we converted our own high-level accounts into this world!’

As soon as she said that, the man in the black poncho let out a high, scornful laugh.

“Hah, what kind of idiot would convert their account into a test server?! Liar, you’re all liars!!”

“It’s true, believe me!! We came here determined, not willing to lose our characters…”

Whoosh. The sound of sliced wind was abruptly heard.

As the dagger flying towards her buried itself deeply into her right shoulder, Siune was aware not of pain, but of deepest, darkest despair. She was completely unable to comprehend the words shouted by the man who had thrown his weapon.

A small group of Chinese players shattered the temporary ceasefire and launched an assault from her right. The leader of the Koreans, seeing all of this, brought Siune crashing to the ground with one kick, cursing.

Lying there, Siune listened to the sound of her partners’ footsteps as they rushed towards her, but was not able to get up again.

***

Why?

Integrity Knight Renri Synthesis Twenty-Seven deeply felt the strong hatred enveloping the entire battlefield, only repeating that word in his mind.

Why are these people so hateful of each other as to slaughter one another, even though they are all from the Real World?

No, perhaps he lacked the authority to say that. Even the people of Underworld were divided into the Human Empire and the Dark Realm, and had engaged in bloody warfare for hundreds of years. Just a few days ago, the blood spilled at the Great Eastern Gate was enough to rival the blood that was slowly soaking into the soil of this battlefield here. Even the Divine Instruments hanging from Renri’s waist, the «Twin Edged Wings», had claimed the lives of countless Goblins.

But, that had been the reason.

That was the reason he had kept wanting to believe that the Real World outside of Underworld was a world without conflict or hatred, where wars would never, ever happen.

But that was clearly his own fantasy. Although the Real World people, Asuna and her partners, spoke the same language as the people of Underworld, the voices screamed by the army of tens of thousands appearing before him were incomprehensible to Renri. If there was already so great a difference just in language, then a ceasefire and peace negotiations were utterly impossible.

Could it be that war was the nature of man?

Whether it was in this world, or in the Real World outside, or in a world that might exist even further outside, were humans really repeating an endless cycle of slaughter?

How can be allowed to happen?!

Renri clenched his fists, holding back tears with all his might.

Integrity Knight Sheyta alone had stayed behind in dire straits just to protect the enemy, the Fist Fighters’ Guild of the Dark Realm. She must have established mutual understanding with the people of the Dark Realm by connecting sword and fists. Even at the end of a path splattered with blood, there must be hope.

Then, I must fight now. I cannot blindly allow myself to be protected and stand here dumbly.

Renri took a step towards the front line, preparing to rescue the Real World reinforcements who were putting their lives on the line in defense.

Just then, a feeble voice came from behind him.

“Esteemed Knight, I will go too.”

He looked around and saw the red-haired trainee swordswoman Tiese, who was attached to the supply team, standing behind him. She was tightly clutching a relatively small sword, a solemn expression on her face, her lips stiff.

“… You can’t, you have to protect that man…”

“I’ve left that duty to Ronye… Because Eugeo-senpai, whom I love the most, has…”

Tiese’s autumn-colored eyes glassed over, and she continued:

“That person lost his life to protect something important. I must carry on his mission.”

“……… I see.”

Renri bit his lips tightly.

Even he, an Integrity Knight, had little confidence that he could survive this desperate battlefield. He couldn’t be sure that Tiese, who was not even a proper Guardian, could come out unscathed.

But just then, a new voice came.

“I shall go as well, Sir Knight.”

The tall, female Guardian leader with tea-colored hair tied behind her head walked forward from behind Tiese. She seemed to have been fighting all this time; her clothes were utterly filthy, her armor was filled with cracks, and yet her stern face was not without the will to fight.

“I have not yet fulfilled my promise to Kirito. Right now, I cannot abandon the people that child threw away his life to protect… and this world.”

“Sortiliena-senpai…”

Tiese called her name with a trembling voice. The Guardian leader smiled slightly and nodded at her.

Fighting not for honor, not for fame, but to protect something.

Renri seemed to feel the two women’s determination affecting his own heart, resonating with him.

He gently caressed the Divine Instruments on his waist with his right hand, and nodded strongly.

“… I understand. Then, I shall protect you… do not leave my side no matter what.”

“Yes, sir!”

“We’ll leave it to you, Esteemed Knight!”

Tiese and Sortiliena responded firmly, and drew their swords from the left sides of their waists.

Renri gripped his pair of Divine Instruments in his own hands, murmuring deep down in his heart.

Eldrie-san. Sheyta-san. And Knight Commander Bercouli.

Like all of you, I have finally found a purpose for my life.

Then, Integrity Knight Renri and the two swordswomen took off together, towards the battlefield spiraling with anguished wailing and despair.

 

4

Koujiro Rinko raced back to the sub control room and sat into the mesh chair previously occupied by Higa Takeru.

A few windows were open on the large monitor directly in front of her, but the first one she looked towards was a small window on the bottom. Displayed there was a three-dimensional graph representing Kirigaya Kazuto’s Fluctlight status.

In the direct center of the reflected light, gradually shifting between spectral colors, there was a patch of darkness representing a «main body defect».

Currently, Higa Takeru was controlling four STL units, preparing to mend this defect using the memories in the minds of three girls in profound relationships with Kazuto. To do that, he had snuck into the lower shaft, which was swarming with enemies, by himself wait, there was another person.

At that moment, the attackers were currently focused on engaging «Ichiemom», who had charged in from the stairs as a decoy. But even a steel-bodied robot couldn’t withstand much of the wild spray from assault rifles. When Ichiemom was destroyed, there was no doubt the enemy would think: What on earth were the Japanese planning?

Faster, Higa-kun!

As she spoke that inwardly, the sliding door opened with a whoosh, and a man dressed in a Hawaiian T-shirt and clogs rushed inside.

“How… How is Kirito-kun’s status?!”

“Higa-kun’s starting the operation now. Did the decoy work?”

As she answered his question with a question, Kikuoka Seijirou, his breathing ragged and shoulders quaking, pushed up his glasses, which were slipping down.

“We tossed over all of our smoke grenades from behind Ichiemom. It should buy us some more time before the smoke gets cleared from the passageway, but if we don’t seal the partition after that, it’ll be dangerous. We don’t have much time left.”

“Higa-kun said that it would take five minutes at most to show results…”

Rinko closed her mouth, looking towards the monitor again.

Kirigaya Kazuto’s Fluctlight remained unchanged. She thought of that old wives’ tale from America, “a watched pot never boils”, so she clenched her fists tightly and moved her eyes to the center of the monitor.

She saw a map resembling that of a fictionalized fantasy world no, in a certain sense it was precisely a map of a fictionalized fantasy world, Underworld.

Compared to the full map of the Human Empire that she saw a few days ago when she had first arrived at the Ocean Turtle, this map showed a greater area. Due south of a circular mountain range surrounding the Human Empire, there was an artificial landmark that looked like it was comprised of four rectangles joined together, resembling ruins. The dot representing Yuuki Asuna’s current position, the blue pixels representing the Human Empire Army, and the white pixels representing the Japanese reinforcement players were all densely packed together at that location.

The gargantuan patch of crimson surrounding them was the American players who had dived in after being incited by the attackers or so it should be, but their scale was simply too immense. Their number was already 20, no, 30 times that of the Japanese.

Was that really okay? Rinko searched the image for the two others apart from Yuuki Asuna, and finally discovered a water-blue dot very far south of the ruins. That should be Asada Shino.

Then where had Kirigaya Suguha gone? Rinko scoured the map, and at last located a yellow-green dot far, far north of the main battlefield. There was also a group of red enemies present there, but Higa had definitely said that both of their login points were at Yuuki Asuna’s coordinates. Rinko couldn’t help but furrow her brow, contemplating a reason why

Just then, she seemed to notice another white dot blinking underneath Suguha’s gleaming dot, as if covered by it.

“………?”

There shouldn’t be anyone on Rath’s side diving in with an STL. What on earth was that dot, then?

She unconsciously moved her mouse, carefully lined up the cursor with the dot and clicked it once, opening new window. Rinko scrutinized the tiny English letters.

“Um… Restriction, Confrontational Index… Threshold Detection… Report? What is this?…”

Just as she was about to say, “I can’t make heads or tails of it”.

“Wha… Whaaat?!”

Kikuoka suddenly yelled loudly, cutting off his stare at the image of Kirigaya Kazuto’s Fluctlight. Rinko leapt out of her seat in shock.

“Wh-What’s wrong?

But Kikuoka didn’t immediately respond, instead snatching the mouse from Rinko and enlarging the window she had just opened. Then he brought himself right up to the monitor, muttering at an extreme pace.

“Unf… Yes, there’s no mistaking it, it’s another Fluctlight that broke its limits! But, why now?!”

Rinko’s eyes widened, and she looked up at Kikuoka, who was furiously scratching his head.

“Huh… you mean, a second «A.L.I.C.E.»?”

“Yes, exactly… Ah, no, wait… This is…”

Kikuoka rapidly scrolled through the window displaying a detailed log, and began muttering again.

“… Strictly speaking, it’s not of the same caliber as «Alice». It broke the limitations of an Artificial Fluctlight not through its logical circuitry, but its emotional circuitry… nonetheless, it’s an equally important specimen. If only it could stay there and not move… Oh, damn, it’s moving south, where the group of Americans aren’t far away!”

Rinko snatched back the mouse from a distressed Kikuoka and stared at the detailed log of the Artificial Fluctlight at the time it had broken its limits.

“Hmm… Yeah, a new node was generated by a chain reaction in its emotional zone… Huh—? Hey, Kikuoka-san?”

“Wha… What is it?”

Twisting his body and moaning in dismay, Kikuoka craned his neck towards the monitor.

“What’s this external command plugged in here? It feels really off to me… It’s much too deliberate… Almost as if it were created to impede the circuitry.”

Rinko squinted, scrutinizing the code printed in minuscule font.

“Implant simulated pain… in the right visual domain? But then, even if an Artificial Fluctlight spends all that effort breaking the limits, it would be stopped by the pain created by this process. You guys even placed such a restriction onto the Underworld residents?”

“No… No, we didn’t do that. There’s no way we would, that kind of action runs counter to our goal… That’s practically blatant obstruction.”

“Hmm… Good point. Also, the programming style of this piece of code isn’t the same as Higa’s… Ah, there’s a comment at the very front… «Code 871»? What’s 871?”

“871? I’ve never heard of that number… No, wait… Wait, wait, I think… Not long ago…”

Kikuoka suddenly began to move, the clogs on his feet slapping loudly on the ground. He darted over to a nearby chair, seized a dirty white coat hanging from its backrest, spread it open with a whap, and stared at the inner collar.

“Hey, what’s wrong, what happened?”

At Rinko’s inquiry, Kikuoka, his eyes wide behind his black-frame glasses, held the white coat out to Rinko, inviting her to look at its collar tag.

There, clearly inscribed in black permanent marker, was [871].

“This white coat… belongs to that technician named Yanai who just went down with Higa…”

Muttering that, Rinko suddenly halted her speech.

Yanai. YA NA I.

“… 8 7 1?”10

Rinko and Kikuoka screamed in unison, standing up at the same time.

***

Fist Fighters’ Guild Chief Iskahn was looking at the approaching crimson legion through his murky left eye.

After shrinking their surrounding circle to twenty mel, those soldiers speaking a strange tongue had seemingly confirmed that the Fist Fighters were depleted of their morale, and nodded at each other.

Then they emitted deafening, completely incomprehensible roars, and leapt from the ground all at once.

With his shattered left hand, Iskahn tightly gripped the hand of the female knight sitting beside him. She returned his grip very quickly, causing him a reassuring pain, momentarily restoring feeling to his numb left hand.

He lowered his head, and as he was about to shut his eyes and accept the end, just then

“……… What is…?”

Sheyta’s voice made him raise his head again.

He saw a vast group of troops storming in their direction from the other side of the valley, north of the battlefield, kicking up a sky full of dust.

They possessed great, rotund physiques, long, flat snouts that curved upwards, and drooping ears.

Orcs.

“… Why?”

Iskahn murmured blankly. Having been ordered by Emperor Vector, the Orc army should still be awaiting orders at the «Great Eastern Gate» in the north. Since the Emperor had vanished, that order should now be unshakable. In fact, the remaining Dark Knights were also dully awaiting orders to no end on the other side of the valley, not far away.

Confounded, Iskahn perused the battalion of Orcs and spotted a tiny, tiny human silhouette running at their very front.

It wasn’t an Orc. Its yellow hair, with a tinge of green, was billowing in the wind, and the limbs extending from its tender green attire were so white that they were shining. Undoubtedly a human, and a young female from the Human Empire at that.

But was this person, who looked like a tiny, tiny swordswoman, heading the entire Orcish army?

Seemingly detecting the troops charging in this direction, the red soldiers surrounding the Fist Fighters stopped moving.

A blinding light exploded into being. The girl drew a silver katana from her back.

In that instant, Sheyta’s right hand, which was gripping Iskahn’s left, violently shook once, appearing to feel something.

When the human girl charged to the center of the bridge, she raised her katana high into the air. At that moment she was still more than two hundred mel away from the red soldiers.

But

The girl’s sword and hands became blurred like smoke. Even Iskahn’s eyesight was unable to capture that slash. A flash of silver light was over in the blink of an eye, and then there was a terrifying sight.

A dazzling ray of light sped along the dark ground but not only that; the tens of red soldiers standing atop that extending ray were silently sliced apart, collapsing to the ground before they could even scream in anguish.

The katana that had slashed downwards changed direction in the girl’s hands, and sliced upwards with chilling speed. A second ray of light penetrated the red legion, and the soldiers clad in heavy armor were cleaved in half, carapace and all.

“…… So strong.”

Sheyta murmured in a barely audible voice.

***

Without a moment’s hesitation, Sinon raised her beloved gun, Hecate II, which had transformed from the Bow of Solus.

She was currently less than 20 meters from Subtilizer.  Much too close for an anti-material sniper rifle. Even the act of locking onto the enemy’s movements with her high-magnification scope was very difficult.

As such, Sinon decided to determine the outcome of the battle before Subtilizer made his move; she pulled the trigger the instant she spotted a black shadow through the lens of her scope.

A flash of light. An explosive roar.

Intense recoil acted on Sinon’s hovering body, and she urgently tried to control herself as she began to tilt and spin. Every round would cause her body to move, so it was completely impossible to shoot repeatedly, but as long as that shot just now had hit its target, everything would be over.

With difficulty, Sinon stabilized her body, and looked towards Subtilizer.

Then her eyes opened wide with shock.

The man standing on the back of the winged creature had raised his hand, and his five fingers were curled into a claw shape.

In his palm was a vortex of darkness and light, spinning violently, and in its center was a brightly shining particle; it was unmistakably the bullet that Sinon had fired.

In other words, he could absorb that bullet as he had absorbed Sinon’s consciousness?

A bullet capable of piercing a two-centimeter steel plate, fired from a .50 caliber anti-material sniper rifle…

Slight fear emerged within Sinon’s heart. Along with it, the darkness in Subtilizer’s left hand seemed to become fiercer.

“Don’t lose…”

Sinon breathed unconsciously, then yelled vehemently:

“Don’t lose, Hecate!!”

Bang.

With this sound, light penetrated darkness.

A great hole was blown through Subtilizer’s left hand; flesh and blood spun through the air.

I can do this!!

Sinon sucked in a deep breath and pulled back Hecate II’s bolt. The ejected bullet casing glinted in the air and fell towards the ground.

Subtilizer looked down at his wounded left hand in silence. Although a pitch-black, viscous liquid was currently patching up the huge hole in his palm, a wound that severe did not seem easy to heal.

He lifted his face, which was now devoid of laughter, and stared at Sinon.

His right hand moved and retrieved the crossbow from his waist.

“…Hmph.”

Sinon expelled a bit of air from her nose. How could something like that compete with an anti-material sniper rifle…

Flex.

The crossbow suddenly contorted.

The left and right limbs of the bow began to fold, and it elongated to at least twice its length. The once-wooden structure began to take on a black metallic gleam.

After one short second, Subtilizer’s right hand was gripping a sniper rifle just as big as the Hecate. Sinon immediately recognized this gun.

The Barrett XM500.

Like the Hecate II, it shot .50 caliber rounds, but it was an even more advanced anti-material sniper rifle.

A warped smile appeared once more at the corners of Subtilizer’s mouth.

“… Bring it on.”

Sinon muttered, and forcefully pressed the Hecate II’s stock to her right shoulder.

***

“Oh god… A-Are you okay?”

Yanai’s seemingly concerned words caused Higa to momentarily forget his pain and shout:

“He… Hey, you were the one who shot me, and you’re spouting stuff like that…?!”

“No, no, I actually didn’t mean to hit you, honest. I’ve no intention of committing murder; it took a lot of effort for me to buy that handsome condo on the west coast, but if I have to live my days in fear, what’s the use in that?”

Once Higa understood that Yanai appeared to be truly serious, a wave of weakness welled up within him and he lost feeling in both hands. He knew that he was in trouble; he frantically pulled himself together and examined the wound on his shoulder somewhat timidly.

It seemed that the bullet had hit the cable duct, ricocheted, and struck him somewhere underneath his collarbone. Higa didn’t feel much pain; rather, an icy numbness began spreading throughout his entire body from his right shoulder. The side abdomen of his shirt had already been dyed dark red. This didn’t look like a mere scratch.

Fear of the current situation, and of its future development, began slowly climbing upwards from Higa’s stomach, causing him to involuntarily begin to breath in gasps. A few meters above his head, Yanai was still chattering away with a complacent look on his face.

“To be honest, I only wanted to slightly hinder your work, Higa-san. After I destroyed the maintenance connector I would escape to the main control room below. That way I would be able to get away on the submarine. No one from Rath has died anyway, so if my side can successfully retrieve Alice, then everyone will be happy.”

“No one… died…?”

Higa demanded of Yanai, forgetting his pain once more.

“… If I don’t seize this opportunity to heal Kirigaya-kun, his consciousness will be gone forever! The one who killed his soul was you, Yanai-san! And you said that you aren’t ready to murder anyone!”

“Ahh. Ahh… Riiight…”

Yanai’s face suddenly went blank. Under the illumination of the orange emergency lights, his stubbled cheek twitched a few times.

“Hmm… Who cares if that brat dies.”

“Wha……”

“Because, he was the one who killed her. My most important Admii-chan.”

“Ad… mii…?”

Yanai looked down at Higa, who was confused by the unfamiliar name, and screamed like he was furious:

“Her Eminence, the Highest Minister Administrator of the Axiom Church! I promised her that I would do my best to help her establish total rule over Underworld. And I agreed with her that I would safely store her Light Cube away if the server were to be formatted.”

Higa’s eyes opened wide in shock.

The Axiom Church was the organization that ruled over the Human Empire in Underworld. It held total control over the entire populace by way of extremely strict laws and powerful military force.

The reason Higa had not obtained the limit-breaking Fluctlight «Alice» when she had first appeared was that, in the time-accelerated Underworld, the Axiom Church quickly whisked Alice away and applied memory modification upon her Fluctlight.

Yes, their speed was much too fast, and their methods were much too effective.

As though they were completely aware of what an Artificial Fluctlight was.

Yet the truth was just that. The Axiom Church or at least the Artificial Fluctlight by the name of «Administrator», who seemed to be in charge, understood the structure of this world.

“… Was it you who corrupted Underworld?…”

Higa moaned lowly, and Yanai smacked his lips exaggeratedly.

“No, no, that kid came and contacted me first. I was working a shift at the time, and then I suddenly heard a girl’s voice coming from the speaker, it damn near scared the shit out of me… She had discovered Underworld’s entire command list by herself, and then opened a contact line with the outside. If we’re being technical, you’re the main culprit for forgetting to delete the command that called up the entire list, Higa-san.”

Neheheheh. Yanai chuckled deeply a few times as though he were reminiscing about something, then continued with an absentminded gaze:

“I kept thinking that, at that rate, Underworld would immediately be totally formatted. It was all going to be deleted anyway, so it didn’t matter, and that’s why I secretly used an STL to go in and see Admii-chan. And then… God, I’d never seen such a beautiful girl. The kids that Sugou-san locked up in ALO were pretty cute, but Admii-chan’s personality, her voice, and her manner, it hit all of my buttons… — That kid promised me before. If I helped her, then in return she would become my number one servant. In the future she would rule the real world together with me, making me a king…”

No.

The corrupted one was this man.

Higa seemed to feel all of the hairs on his body stand upright in fear. Yanai might be a silly traitor, but he was no idiot. What kind of person was Administrator, to be able to beguile and control someone like him so exquisitely?

Just then, Yanai’s seemingly reminiscent face went blank again.

“But… that kid’s dead now. Murdered… That brat not only hindered Sugou-san’s experiment, he killed Admii-chan. If I don’t help her get revenge, that would just be too sad for Admii-chan…”

Yanai widened his bloodshot eyes and aimed the gun at Higa again. Automatic handguns would automatically cock the hammer after firing a round, so the second shot would require much less pressure on the trigger compared to the first. If his index finger pressed just a bit, another bullet would be fired.

“… Yeah, that’s right… Yeah, I gotta kill at least one, as a sacrifice for that kid…”

Yanai’s shrunken pupils trembled slightly in the middle of his widened eyes.

… Damn it. He’s serious this time.

Higa couldn’t help but close his eyes.

***

I won’t make it.

Sensing that Asuna, Klein, and Lisbeth far away had plunged into dire straits, Leafa couldn’t help but bite her lip.

But before her eyes, nearly 3,000 red-armored soldiers were blocking her way.

She had requested a favor of Rirupirin, who appeared to be the Orc tribal chief: to bring reinforcements towards the south in order to assist Asuna and Kirito, but the ones whom they had spent a great amount of effort to locate were not those Human Empire Defense Army troops.

According to Rirupirin, the few hundred people who were being surrounded by the army that dived in from the Real World were Fist Fighters, who were all attached to the Dark Army like the Orcs. Leafa was bewildered for a moment upon learning this, but very quickly decided to help them.

“I’ll charge into the enemy alone. Rirupirin, you guys group up with the Fist Fighters, and you only need to fight back against the enemies that attack you first.”

At this suggestion, Rirupirin protested fiercely: “I want to fight too!” But Leafa firmly shook her head, tightly gripping the Orc’s gnarled hands, saying:

“No, I don’t want any more of you to die. Don’t worry about me… even tens of thousands of those kinds of enemies are no match for me.”

After saying that with a smile, Leafa stood solitary before the red legion.

She already knew that Terraria possessed sufficient HP and near-unlimited regeneration. Moreover, the people from the real world in front, like her, had virtual lives. Even if it were too late to get to Kirito and help, Leafa couldn’t watch the Orcs die in vain here.

After executing tens of enemies with her ultra-long range combo attack, Leafa stormed straight into the direct center of the enemy without hesitation.

For some unknown reason, she was able to activate Sword Skills with ranges several times greater than those in ALO, without stopping. Every time crisp light burst from Terraria’s GM equipment the «Verduras Anima», a great splash of blood sprayed in a radial pattern.

But during the cooldown time between Sword Skill and Sword Skill, uncountable blades would seize this chink in her armor and come flying. She was unable to evade all of them, and the number of wounds on her body grew; excruciating, scalding pain threw dizziness into her head and stars into her eyes But.

HA AAH!!

She cried sharply and stamped her right foot on the ground. Green light erupted from underfoot and instantly healed all of the wounds on her body.

Leafa endured the lingering pain, unable to be completely purged, and concentrated on swinging the sword in her grip.

Even if every inch of her body were pulverized, she at least had to drive all of the enemies here back to the real world.

Although her dive coordinates had displaced her somewhere other than her intended location, if she had to name any of her responsibilities, it would undoubtedly be to save as many Underworld residents as she could. These were the people whom Kirito loved and vowed to rescue.

She’s such a boss!!

Leafa used her left hand to stop a sword stabbing towards her during that shout.

Haiyah!!

One mere counterattack vanquished the owner of the sword.

Leafa clamped her teeth onto the sword stabbed into her hand, wrenched it out, and spat it onto the ground along with a mouthful of blood.

***

Their second shots seemed to discharge at the same time.

Bullets fired from two anti-material sniper rifles grazed past each other, then deviated greatly in their trajectories and disappeared into the sky.

Sinon did not lose her balance this time; she stamped both feet hard onto air, suppressing the recoil. Before her eyes, Subtilizer was also standing steadily on the back of the winged creature, which was furiously beating its wings.

It was Sinon’s first time experiencing a space where all directions were extremely wide open, and a battle pitting two anti-material sniper rifles against each other. A game like GGO would naturally not support player flight; moreover, the Hecate was supposed to be fired with its bipod down and the shooter lying prone. The recoil from shooting it while in the air was far beyond her expectations.

This showdown

Whoever was able to control their recoil and fire the next round before the enemy did, even by just an instant, would win. Sinon thought this as she pulled back the bolt.

Subtilizer probably had the same idea. As Sinon flew right to try and outflank him, he began flying left to counter her.

At virtually the same time, both of them began hurtling around at breakneck speed.

Under the condition that she didn’t lose balance, she maneuvered around at sharp angles in arbitrary directions. While she tightly captured her enemy with the barrel of the gun, she had to be careful not to let the enemy’s barrel lock onto her.

But Subtilizer’s raised Barrett suddenly moved at a barely discernible speed, seemingly predicting Sinon’s movements before she could do the same.

It’s coming!!

Sinon grit her teeth and opened her eyes wide.

Flames spurted from the Barrett’s barrel.

Sinon flew as fast as she could while twisting her body to the left.

The deadly bullet roared past her chest, close enough to almost char the skin on her chest. Her blue armor split with a crack.

Dodged it!

This was her first and last chance. She must fire in the instant that Subtilizer had stopped to control his recoil!

However, by the time Sinon had raised the Hecate.

She saw another bullet flying directly at her.

Repeated fire why?!

Ah… damn it.

Differing from the Hecate, whose bolt needed to be pulled back with each shot, the Barrett was semi-automatic.

When this thought floated into her brain, Sinon’s left leg was torn to shreds above her knee.

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***

Making a stand against the despairing situation, fighting on the battlefield until the very end, were Asuna, protected by a Super Account, Integrity Knight Renri, a resident of Underworld, and his dragon, along with Trainee Swordswoman Tiese and Guardian Leader Sortiliena, who were being protected by the knight yet bravely swinging their own swords.

Though her exceedingly exhausted eyes throbbed with agony, Asuna watched as Knight Renri battled valiantly.

Around ten minutes ago, this diminutive knight had appeared here at the front line, and immediately began lobbing out his cross-shaped throwing knives. The throwing knives soared through the air as they pleased, killing every single enemy who charged towards them. This terrifying power was enough to beat back for several minutes even the fury-fueled assault from the neighboring countries’ players. The flames spurted out by the dragon struck extreme fear into the enemies, solidifying the Integrity Knights’ status as the true dragon knights born and raised in this otherworldly place, Underworld.

But it didn’t take long for the enemies to notice. While Knight Renri had cast out his throwing knives and was controlling them, his person was virtually defenseless.

On his umpteenth time casting out his throwing knives, the instant he was about to make a clean sweep of the very front line of red soldiers, innumerable long spears were flung from the enemy’s rear. The enemy was finally using the battle tactic that had appeared during their battle against the Americans, which Asuna feared in her heart.

The spears fell like a torrential black rain from the crimson sky.

Renri’s dragon spread its wings and body, protecting its master from the first wave of attacks.

But it then collapsed to the ground with shattered scales and spraying blood.

Immediately, another wave of spear rain was lobbed their way.

Knight Renri looked up to see countless spearheads roaring his way and spun around to wrap Tiese behind him in a hug, shielding her with his body.

In the next instant, two spears buried themselves into Renri’s back, forcing him to fall forward on top of Tiese’s body. Having lost control, the cross-shaped throwing knives glinted once in the air before splitting in two, then stabbing into the ground far away.

At that moment, in the other parts of the battlefield, the fighting had all concluded.

Trying to outdo each other, the red soldiers pounced all at once, lunging towards the Japanese players who had collapsed from exhaustion, plunging sharp blades into their bodies. Flesh and blood danced in the air, while feeble screams of agony ensued, but were very quickly snuffed out.

A great many people’s armor and shields were wrecked and destroyed, and they were pushed to the ground, utterly defenseless. The tears of repentance running down their faces were as unbearable to watch as the blood flowing from their injuries.

The two thousand converted players who made up the defensive array were completely incapacitated, until the Human Empire Army being protected in the middle was finally exposed.

In order to protect the unarmed supply team and Ascetic team, nearly 400 Human Empire Guardians had assembled themselves into a circular formation and raised the swords in their hands. Their faces were filled with an almost tragic determination as they waited silently for that moment, preparing for the approaching, unstopping red legion to launch their fatal assault.

“……… Stop………”

Asuna heard such a voice squeezed from her own lips.

It was not a voice emanating from the pain enveloping her body, but a voice of despair and sorrow, of her spirit finally surrendering.

“I’m begging you… Please stop…”

As she spoke, the rapier in her right hand fell to the ground. Tears slid over her cheeks, splashing onto the mutilated blade.

But the red shadow before her instead emitted an expletive filled with hostility, and raised its two-handed sword high into the air.

In that instant.

A thunderous roar rang out, stopping the blade hurtling towards Asuna and all of the battles taking place in various locations on the battlefield.

STOOOOOOP!!The one who had bellowed at an absolutely deafening volume was the man in the black poncho, who had been observing the battle from afar until now. He was the ghost of PoH, the leader of the murder guild — Laughing Coffin.

The neighboring countries’ players seemed to confirm that the man in the black poncho was indeed the commander through some sort of mark on him, and reluctantly lowered their weapons. The man about to execute Asuna smacked his lips loudly and sheathed his sword, but still delivered her a savage kick.

Asuna fell forward onto her face, but desperately pushed her body up with her powerless hands.

She raised her head and looked, only to see a tall man walking towards her, his black poncho billowing. He seemed to say something to the surrounding red players in a low yet carrying voice, but since it was in Korean, Asuna was unable to understand anything.

Then, the red soldiers around them nodded one by one, and began relaying some sort of message to their partners beside them.

Suddenly, the man standing beside Asuna seized her by her hair and yanked upwards. She couldn’t help but let out a scream of pain, but the man ignored her completely, instead violently dragging her forward.

The same situation was occurring all around her. They seemed to be rounding up the surviving Japanese players into one place.

The man in the black poncho walked nonchalantly to the Human Empire Guardians, who still had their swords raised. He turned and waved a hand, making some sort of sign towards the man with a fistful of Asuna’s hair in his grasp.

Then Asuna felt a foot kicking into her back and she flew several meters out, landing on the ground. One by one, the Japanese players were thrown around her.

There were fewer than 200 survivors left.

It seemed that health points directly correlated to survivability; the remaining people here were mostly high-level players. Asuna scanned them, but was unable to immediately spot the ALO Lords, or the members of the Sleeping Knights.

Their equipment had either been destroyed or snatched away; all they had left were the tattered clothes on their bodies. Many had exposed skin that was criss-crossed with scores of wounds, and even bits of sharp blades that had snapped off inside them. Yet everyone’s faces were trickling with the same deep, deep powerlessness and frustration.

Asuna couldn’t bring herself to watch them anymore. She very much wanted to lay down just like that and wait for the end to come.

But she still watched the converted players through her tearful eyes, intending to thoroughly burn their appearances into her mind.

Her eyes scanned the entire area once, and spotted a female player hugging her knees not far away, her shoulders trembling. Her short pink hair was matted with dirt, her maroon clothing torn to shreds.

With movements that were almost to the point of crawling, Asuna came beside her and wrapped her arms around her best friend.

Lisbeth’s body suddenly went taut, then she rested her head on Asuna’s chest. Her face trembled, splotched a complete mess of blood and tears, and she whispered hoarsely:

“Everyone… I did this… to… everyone…”

“No… No, Liz!”

Asuna said tearfully in a loud whisper.

“It’s not your fault, Liz. It was me… if only I could have thought this out more, if only I could have predicted this…”

“Asuna… I… didn’t know anything. How horrifying war is… how painful it is to lose… I didn’t know anything…”

Asuna couldn’t think of an answer, and could only hug Lisbeth tightly. Tears began to slide from her eyes. Then she heard low sobbing, causing her to turn around and see Agil motionless on the ground, and Silica kneeling beside him.

Agil’s injuries were so severe that it was astonishing to see him still alive. Perhaps they were from long, intense battling in order to protect Silica. His gigantic frame was stabbed with many snapped swords and spears, and his limbs were smashed beyond repair. It was a sight more wretched than any other. Asuna watched him as he tightly clenched his teeth; he must be enduring unimaginable agony.

Near Agil she could see Klein, sitting cross-legged and crestfallen on the ground. His left arm had been severed past his shoulder, and he had tied his wound with what could be called his signature headband.

All of the survivors were in essentially the same condition.

The man in the black poncho looked down upon the 200 people sitting defeated on the ground, robbed of their weapons, armor, and morale — and his exposed mouth split into a big, big grin under his hood.

Then he turned softly around and looked towards the Guardians of the Human Empire Army.

Asuna waited, terrified for the moment in which he would raise his right hand, delivering the order to massacre them all.

But the man in the black poncho instead spoke something unexpected in Japanese.

“Throw down your weapons and surrender. Then we will spare your lives and those of the prisoners behind us.”

Momentary shock showed on the Guardians’ faces, but it quickly changed into boiling rage. One of them took several steps forward, facing the man in the black poncho directly; it was the female Guardian leader, Sortiliena. Her sword had already been dulled and blood was trickling down her forehead, possibly from fighting on the very front line with Klein and the others.

Even so, this did not impede her beauty. Sortiliena yelled resiliently:

“… What sort of joke is that?! You really think we would give up at this point…”

Do as he says—!!

Asuna screamed desperately, interrupting Sortiliena.

Tightly hugging Lisbeth, she raised her tear-stained face and begged wretchedly:

“Please… you can’t die! No matter how much you are humiliated, you must live!! That is… our… only……”

Hope.

Asuna felt her chest seize before she was even able to finish her sentence.

But, even though Sortiliena and the Guardians still pinched their lips tightly together, furrowed their brows furiously, and trembled for a moment, in the end, their shoulders slowly drooped downwards.

Clang, clang. Watching them toss their weapons to the ground, the neighboring countries’ players who had tightly surrounded them let out high calls celebrating victory, which very quickly turned into a nonstop chant of their own countries’ names.

The man wearing the black hood quickly raised one hand, called forth a few players, and gestured something to them. They immediately nodded, went to part the surrendered Human Empire Army, and walked into the circular formation.

Before Asuna understood what they were going to do, the man in the black poncho walked towards her with crisp footsteps.

Even at such a close distance, she still couldn’t make out the darkness underneath his hood. She could only see the tough corners of his mouth and the black curly hair around his neck.

His mouth broke out in a contorted grin, and emitted a somewhat cheerful voice.

“Hey, long time no see, «Flash».”

It really is him!!

Asuna held her breath, and squeezed out the words hiding deep within her heart.

“… You’re… PoH…!”

“Aw, what a nostalgic name. I’m quite glad someone remembers it.”

At that moment, Klein, who had inched himself over with his right hand, looked up at the black hood with eyes that seemed ablaze.

“You… it’s actually you. You’re still alive… you fucking murderer!!”

Klein swiped at him with his hand, but the man’s boot easily kicked him aside.

Asuna grit her teeth tightly and whispered:

“Is this… revenge? Revenge against the members of the Progressors, who destroyed Laughing Coffin…?”

“………”

PoH looked down at Asuna in silence for a moment. Asuna could see his shoulders trembling slightly.

Seconds later, he seemed finally unable to hold it in, and exploded. His body twisted under his cloak as he roared with nonstop laughter: heheheh, hahahah.

After his epileptic, deriding laughter finally concluded, PoH stuck out his right index finger and spoke in a very sunny voice:

“Ah, hmm… how would you Japanese put it… I’ve been in the US for so long, I’ve even forgotten all the slang.”

His finger twirled over and over in the air, then he finally snapped his fingers.

“Ah yes, ‘Are you an idiot?‘ Simply hilarious, it really is…”

The man bent down, staring straight into Asuna’s face from an extremely close distance. Only his eyes were shining very, very brightly under his hood.

“… I’ll tell you then. The one who secretly let you lot of Progressors in on Laughing Coffin’s hidden base, was me.”

“Wha………”

Asuna, Klein, and even Agil, who was nearing death, all opened their eyes wide.

“Why… would you do that…”

“Naturally, because I wanted to see a bunch of monkeys killing each other… but of course the most important reason was probably this: I… wanted to make you lot «murderers». By you lot, I mean the heroes who spent all day thinking themselves extraordinary, the Progressors who did all that pretentious posturing on the very front lines. The preparation work took fucking forever… I had to send out a warning to the people at LaughCof at the very last moment, and time it right so that they couldn’t flee but could still engage.”

So that was why intel on their operation to assault that secret base was prematurely divulged? Asuna was shocked, but she continued to think.

For this very reason, the Progressors, who had the advantage in level and equipment, were instead at a disadvantage not long after the battle began, and a few of them even perished. They were only able to turn the tables due to the efforts of Kirito, who was a solo player yet still managed to gain recognition for his strength. They were only able to turn the situation around because he had taken care of a certain leading force of Laughing Coffin…

“… That was… your goal?”

Asuna whispered hoarsely.

“To make Kirito-kun… shoulder the burden of having to PK…?”

Yes. Absolutely yes.

PoH confirmed Asuna’s inquiry with a tinge of fervor in his voice.

“At the time, I was concealed nearby watching that show of a battle. When Blackie-sensei went berserk and killed two people, I almost burst out laughing and blew my cover. The plan was to drop you two later with Paralysis and then seriously live-interview you guys to ask how you felt… But I didn’t expect the game to end on Floor 75.”

For an instant, boiling rage made Asuna forget the pain of her wounds.

“Do… Do you have any idea how much distress and suffering Kirito-kun went through because of what happened back then?!”

“Oh, that’s wonderful.”

PoH’s voice was as cold as ice, creating a stark contrast with her.

“But, that’s weird. If he really is remorseful about that… typically, he would never be willing to look at another VR game again, now would he? Because of the guilt towards the people he killed and all that. I know he’s here, I can feel it. Although I don’t know why he’d be hiding in a carriage… Whatever, I’ll ask him in person.”

PoH smirked at the speechless Asuna, then stood up forcefully.

Amid the nonstop cheers coming from around them, a glacial, chilling voice rang out:

It’s show time!”

He spoke his catchphrase from the time he had been active within the darkness of SAO. Then he quickly he raised his right hand, and right in front of him

There appeared a wheelchair being coarsely shoved along by a red soldier, and a girl in gray uniform desperately tottering along behind it.

Ah…

Stop.

Anything but that.

Asuna prayed and pleaded miserably in her heart. Klein, however, tried to leap up from the ground, but was immediately pushed back down.

PoH bent down, looking at the wheelchair in front of him.

“……… Hmm?”

He made a surprised noise and nudged the thin legs dangling from the wheelchair with his foot.

“What’s this? Hey, Blackie, get up. You hear me, Esteemed Black Swordsman?”

Even as he was called by his past nickname — Kirito did not display any reaction whatsoever.

His body was clothed in a black shirt, but there was no concealing the fact that Kirito was already so thin that it made one feel bad for him. He leaned against the backrest, his head drooping deeply downwards. His empty right sleeve wavered in the wind, and the bones in his left hand, which were wrapped over two swords, were poking at his skin.

Ronye rushed beside Asuna, blinking her eyes red from crying, and whispered:

“Kirito-senpai… while you were all fighting, he k-kept trying to stand up… although he quickly quieted down like he had lost his strength… but… tears… tears kept streaming down his face…”

“Ronye-san…”

Asuna reached out her left hand and gently hugged Ronye’s slender, quaking body.

Then she looked up and shouted shrilly at PoH:

“You get it now. He fought, fought, and kept fighting, and ended up getting badly hurt. So stop messing with him! Let Kirito-kun rest!!”

But the man in the black poncho seemed not to hear Asuna at all, and kept staring at Kirito’s face from an extremely close distance.

“Hey, hey, hey, you gotta be kidding me! How do we drop the curtain like this!? Hey, get up! Hey, stand up! Good morn… ning!!

PoH suddenly stuck out his left foot and kicked the silver wheel, hard.

The wheelchair was knocked over with a loud metallic noise, and the frail body within it was thrown to the ground.

Asuna and Klein tried to stand up at the same time, but were pushed back by the soldiers’ swords. Agil let out a low bellow of rage, while Lisbeth, Silica, and Ronye softly screamed.

But PoH took no notice of them at all, instead walking beside Kirito, and coarsely flipping him over with the tip of his foot.

“What the hell… he’s really broken? The great hero is only a puppet now?”

He seized the white hilt of one of the two swords that Kirito’s left arm was still hugging tightly. Then, he powerfully wrenched it out of its scabbard, only to see half a blade, and the point where it had cruelly snapped.  

PoH smacked his lips loudly, and was about to toss the sword away. But

“Ah… Ah…”

Kirito emitted a hoarse shout, and his left hand reached helplessly towards the white sword.

“Huh?! He moved!! What, you want it?”

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PoH dangled the white sword like he was tempting him, then tossed it away at random. He then violently seized Kirito’s left hand, which was reaching towards him midair, and yanked him to his feet.

“Hey, say something!!

PoH slapped Kirito’s cheeks with his left hand.

Asuna’s vision had been dyed pink with palpable rage. But just as she was about to stand up again, Klein’s bloody howl had already exploded into being.

You bastard!! Don’t you fucking touch Kirito, you bastard !!

As Klein tried to swipe and grab PoH, a gigantic sword buried itself into his back and pinned him mercilessly to the ground.

He spat mouthful after mouthful of blood, but he ignored the growing laceration on his body, attempting to crawl forward.

“Only… YOU…!! Never… forgive…”

Crack!!

With a heavy noise, a second sword pierced straight through Klein’s back.

Unstoppable tears flowed from Asuna’s eyes once more, as though she were going to totally exhaust them before the day was out.

***

At that moment, the fear in Sinon’s heart was more for her inability to freely fly rather than from the pain of an entire leg being blown away.

Before now, Sinon had flown freely by stepping onto the air. But now she was only able to quickly evade with her right foot, which turned into a rapid descent as she spun around chaotically.

“Urgh………”

Sinon clenched her teeth, changing her movements into the only maneuver she could still manage flying backwards without stopping. The blood pouring from her left leg drew a bright red line in midair.

She increased the distance between her and Subtilizer at the fastest speed she could muster, while aiming at him and firing a third shot.

But, the enemy chased after her easily, and the sniper rifle in his hands also emitted a muzzle flash, firing a fourth shot.

The two bullets raced towards each other in the same straight line, emitted a sharp dissonant noise and bright sparks the moment they grazed each other, and then diverted from their paths and flew into the sky.

Sinon pulled back the bolt, ejected her endlessly expanding fear along with the empty bullet casing, and fired her fourth shot.

Two cracks of thunder overlapped each other. Two bullets exploded into immense amounts of energy upon making contact with each other, then each corkscrewed and disappeared.

The fifth shot. The sixth shot.

The results were the same. Subtilizer was obviously intentionally coordinating and firing at the moment Sinon fired, making the bullets collide with each other nonstop.

Such skill could not exist in GGO, let alone this world. But in this world, imagination preceded everything. Not only had Subtilizer, who was intentionally creating this result, realized this, even Sinon had too; that was why this bizarre phenomenon of supersonic bullets endlessly taking each other out kept happening.

Even so, other than the three actions of pulling back the bolt, aiming at the enemy, and pulling the trigger, Sinon was still unable to do anything else.

The seventh shot gave off a sorrowful wail, deviated on a huge curve left, and vanished.

Eject casing. Aim.

Click.

As Sinon’s finger pulled back, the firing pin emitted a hollow clicking noise.

The Hecate II’s magazine capacity was seven rounds. She had no backup magazines.

Conversely, the Barrett XM500’s magazine capacity was 10 rounds. Two more left.

Sinon could clearly see the icy smile floating into being on Subtilizer’s face more than 100 meters away from her.

Flames violently spurted from his raised sniper rifle.

Following her left leg, Sinon’s right leg exploded as well.

This prevented her from flying in a straight line, and she began to slowly descend.

Controlling the recoil, Subtilizer’s pressed his right eye up against his scope, preparing to fire the final shot. That eye that resembled blue glass took over the entire lens, directing his vision squarely onto Sinon’s heart.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry, Asuna. I’m sorry, Yui. I’m sorry… Kirito.

After Sinon murmured to herself, the XM500’s tenth round flew out of its barrel.

The bullet traced a corkscrewing tail of fire behind it, accurately flying along Subtilizer’s vision trail, shattering Sinon’s blue armor, torching her clothes, and penetrating towards her body

Bang!!

Sparks were ejected once more.

Sinon widened her almost closed eyes, watching the long, thin, rapidly rotating bullet be stopped by a tiny, tiny silver disc.

Directly in the center of the rotating white sparks, the radiance shining from that metal barely two millimeters thick signified her own resilient willpower. The instant she saw all of this, Sinon’s tears spilled over her eyelids.

I can’t give up.

I can never, ever give up. I have to believe. Believe in myself. Believe in Hecate. And believe in that boy connected to this piece of metal.

Sinon firmly raised the Hecate and placed her index finger on the trigger.

Even if this weapon had transformed into a gun with her imagination, its inherent system property would not change that is, the power of the Bow of Solus: the ability to automatically absorb resources from its surroundings and store it as attack power.

Then it was able to be fired. Even if the bullets within its magazine had been depleted, the Hecate would definitely respond.

Go… oooo——!!

Sinon pulled the trigger.

What fired out was not an armor-piercing round wrapped in metal.

A pure-white ray of light comprised of condensed, infinite energy erupted in a kaleidoscopic halo from the muzzle brake, slicing straight through the sky.

The smile vanished from Subtilizer’s face. The instant he tried to move right to dodge it, the white light struck the Barrett.

An orange fireball began to expand, completely devouring Subtilizer

A deafening boom. An explosion.

Sinon felt the scalding gale press onto her face as she dropped like a stone, and seconds later she struck the rock-filled ground.

She hadn’t the strength to crawl, let alone fly. The blinding pain from her dismembered legs made it hard for her to even maintain consciousness.

Even so, Sinon kept her eyes open, observing the results of her direct hit.

Wind blew away the black smoke dominating the faraway sky.

Appearing there was Subtilizer, still hovering in midair.

But he was not unscathed. His right hand had been completely blown away by the explosion of his sniper rifle, and slight black smoke was rising from his shoulders. The right side of his once smooth face had been charred, and a trickle of blood was flowing from his mouth.

Cruel, murderous intent finally revealed itself on Subtilizer’s face.

Bring it on. I’ll take you on, no matter how many times.

Sinon concentrated her remaining strength, trying to raise the Hecate.

Seconds later, Subtilizer looked away. The winged creature underneath him changed direction and, tracing a thin wisp of black smoke, flew directly south.

Sinon softly placed the anti-material sniper rifle on the ground; simply holding it exhausted her beyond belief. The instant it touched the ground, it changed back into the original white bow.

She used the last of her strength to raise her hands, caressing the part where the necklace had snapped from her chest.

“……… Kirito…”

As she murmured, tears slid softly down her cheeks.

***

Leafa was now unable to spare time to remove the sharp blades stabbing into her body.

All of the pain in her entire body mixed together, as though needles were directly piercing her exposed nerves.

A few of her wounds were clearly lethal. Every time she moved, the two swords piercing straight through her abdomen would harm her internal organs, and the sword digging into her back and out her chest had gone directly through her heart.

But Leafa did not stop moving.

Ura… AAHHHHH!!”

As a great amount of blood splashed out while she roared furiously, she activated a Sword Skill that she had activated who knows how many tens of times or how many hundreds of times.

The katana «Verduras Anima» sliced horizontally towards nothing with a green glow. After a moment of power concentration, the curve of light around her expanded silently, and the bodies of countless enemy soldiers were torn apart.

A few enemies seized the opportunity of her cooldown time after she activated that huge skill, charging at her. She leapt back at the last moment, but although she managed to dodge most of the attacks, a long halberd still managed to slice off her left arm.

She stamped both feet hard on the ground to stabilize her body, which had almost fallen from the impact…

HAAAHHH!!

Her sword slashed horizontally once, and three men expired then and there.

Leafa picked up her arm that had dropped to the ground, placed it onto her wound, and stamped her right foot hard on the ground.

Flowers and grass sprouted from the ground with a flash of green light, then disappeared. Her health was restored to normal, and although her gruesome wounds were still present, her left arm was reattached.

In this sort of situation, the infinite regeneration granted to Terraria’s account could no longer be called the grace of a god.

Rather, a curse would be a more appropriate moniker. No matter how many wounds she suffered, how intense the agony she tasted, she was never, ever allowed to fall. She was not able to die, yet she was not invincible; she was facing unthinkable torture.

The only thing that still kept Leafa going was faith.

If it were Onii-chan.

He would never fall from just these wounds.

So I can’t fall either. It’s just three thousand people, of course I’ll get rid of them all myself. Because… I’m… Onii-chan’s… the «Black Swordsman» Kirito’s…

Little sisteeeerrrrrrr!!

Crimson light shot from the tip of the katana in her grip.

Zoom! The katana stabbed forward with a low, metallic sound, shooting out a gigantic spear of light that pierced directly through the hundred meter-wide battlefield. The bodies of enemies were twisted, and finally disappeared.

“… HuffHuff…….”

Her rapid breaths quickly become mouthfuls of blood.

Leafa wiped her mouth, stood shakily, and a spear came roaring, striking her right in the left eye and exiting through the back of her head.

She staggered back a few steps — but Leafa did not fall.

She gripped the spear handle with her left hand and wrenched it out in one go. A sensation that was not pain surged through the inside of her skull.

Urgh… Uraaaaaaagh!

She screamed, stamping her foot violently to recover her HP. The temporarily missing left half of her vision regenerated with a blip.

At a glance, before she had noticed, there were only around one hundred enemies left.

Leafa grinned, reached her bloodied left hand forward, pointed her palm upwards, and moved her clasped fingers.

Against the legion that came storming towards her, emitting utterly desperate howls, she swung her katana with a heavy whoosh.

Eeyah… AAAAAHHH!

The sword flashed.

Blood sprayed into the air as Leafa plunged fearlessly into the obstructed center of the enemy legion.

Roughly three minutes later, after the final enemy had fallen, Leafa’s body had been stabbed with ten more pieces of metal.

Her limbs lost all feeling as she wobbled and fell backwards, then was suspended in midair by the swords and spears protruding from her back that had hit the ground.

Listening to Rirupirin and the others screaming her name, as well as the footsteps running towards her, Leafa closed her eyes and murmured softly:

“I… did my best, didn’t I… Onii-chan…”

***

As Yanai pulled the trigger, a muffled shout simultaneously came through Higa’s left earpiece.

“Higa-kun, dodge!!”

Huh?

Dodge… dodge the bullet?

While this dull thought floated into his mind, Higa heard the whistling sound of something falling from a very high place.

Clang!

That was not the sound of a firearm discharging. It was the sound of something falling from the opening of the cable duct high, high above and colliding with Yanai’s forehead.

Yanai’s eyes widened and swiveled upwards. His left hand gripping the ladder suddenly slipped.

“Whoa… Wait…”

Higa suddenly forgot the pain in his shoulder, clutched the ladder, and brought his body as close to the cable duct as possible.

A wrench so big that one questioned where it had come from fell past first, and then a small handgun still wafting the smell of gunpowder crossed his vision.

Finally, Yanai’s unconscious body wedged itself into the gap between Higa and the duct, then stopped.

“Hee… Heee!”

Higa’s shoulders unconsciously shrunk back, and he pressed his back hard onto the wall.

Yanai’s body slid down slowly, smothering the stink of sweat onto Higa’s shirt, inching past

“……… Ah.”

As Higa made that noise, Yanai plunged 50 meters straight down into the hole. Several clangs from colliding with the ladder sounded, and then came a final boom as he landed at the bottom.

“………. Um.”

Is he… dead? No, by the looks of it, he probably broke two or three bones… No, probably five or six…

Just as Higa’s cognition was about to halt, what sounded like a scream rang out in his ear, interrupting his thoughts.

“Higa-kun… Hey, Higa-kun!! Are you all right?! Answer me, hey!!

“………. Ah, no, I was just surprised… that even you can make that sort of sound, Rinko-senpai.”

“How… How are you able to say something like that now?! Are you hurt?! Did he shoot you?!”

“Ah, um…”

Higa looked towards the wound on his right shoulder.

The amount of blood he was losing was somewhat frightening. His right hand had lost all feeling, and he felt very cold. Even his thoughts were not as quick as usual.

But Higa sucked in a deep breath and, after collecting his strength in his stomach for a moment, said as cheerfully as possible:

“No, I’m completely fine! Just a scratch. I’ll continue the operation, please go back to monitor Kirito-kun’s situation, Senpai!!”

“Are you really okay?! I’m going to believe you, okay?! If you try and trick me I’ll never forgive you, okay?!”

“About that… Just trust me.”

Higa looked up and carefully waved his hand at Rinko, who was poking her head into view at the entrance tens of meters overhead. The great distance, combined with inadequate lighting, should have made it hard for her to see that he was bleeding.

“Then… I’ll head back to the main control first, and if the image changes I’ll come right back! Good luck, Higa-kun!!”

The instant her silhouette was about to leave, Higa couldn’t help but call out to her in a low voice:

“Ah… Rin-Rinko-senpai.”

“What, is something wrong?!”

“No… Um, uh…”

Did you know? In university, not only were Kayaba-senpai and that bastard Sugou obsessed with you, even I was too.

Higa wanted to say this, but he kept feeling that if he said something like that, his own survivability would drastically decrease, so he said something random to tide it over.

“Um, after this is all taken care of, would you like to grab something to eat together?”

“… I got it, I’ll treat you to burgers, or beef bowls, or whatever, good luck!!”

Then Professor Koujiro’s silhouette disappeared from Higa’s sight.

She’s really cheap.

Come to think of it, on the scale of «famous last words», that wouldn’t be too different.

Higa smiled bitterly, then turned back to the laptop in his left hand. He placed his numb right fingertips onto the keyboard and began carefully typing commands.

STL #3… Connected to #4. #5, #6… Connected.

Possibly due to loss of blood, the words before Higa’s eyes began to double themselves. He shook his head and murmured silently to himself.

All right, Kirito-kun, it’s almost time to get up.

***

Through a curtain of tears, Asuna gazed at the figure of her lover, praying.

Please, Kirito-kun. I’m willing to devote my heart, my life, my everything… So please, wake up.

Kirito-kun.

***

Kirito.

***

Onii-chan.

***

……… Now… Kirito…

 

5

Kirito.

Someone seemed to be calling my name —

I was brought back from my light slumber.

Lifting my eyelids, I saw innumerable miniscule particles floating through orange light.

My hazy vision gradually regained its focus.

Fluttering white cloth — Curtains.

A silver window frame. Old-fashioned glass.

A swaying tree branch. An airplane contrail slowly streaking across the sky, tinted red by the setting sun.

I took a deep breath of the dust-filled air, lifted my upper body, and saw a sailor uniform from behind, standing in front of the deep-green chalkboard. A brush swished around, scrubbing away the last words inscribed in white chalk.

“… Um, Kirigaya-kun.”

I heard someone calling my name again. I turned to look, and met eyes with another female student peering down at me with an expression that looked timid, yet somewhat cross at the same time.

“I’d like to move the table.”

By the looks of it, I’d fallen asleep during a class meeting again, all the way until it was time to clean up.

“Ah… Sorry.”

I muttered, then lifted my bookbag from its hook beside the table with my finger, and stood up.

My head felt leaden.

It felt like the fatigue I had after finishing a really long — an unfathomably long movie. I couldn’t remember any of the story, but the detritus from countless emotions seemed to linger in my mind. I shook my head hard.

I looked away from my female classmate who was giving me a funny look, and took a few steps towards the door at the back of the classroom, murmuring softly:

 

“What… Was it a dream…”

 

(To be continued)

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References

1. Kawahara made a typo and wrote “Seventh Day” instead. It has been corrected here.

2. Unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone. Aircraft without a human aboard that can be remotely controlled to attack targets. More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unmanned_aerial_vehicle

3. Fighters who fall in battle and are brought to Valhalla by Valkyries. More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einherjar

4. Korean. 비겁한 일본인, “Cowardly Japanese”.

5. Korean. 우리 나라를 지키라, “Defend our country”.

6. Chinese. Possibly 趕走他們, “Drive them away”, or 幹掉你們, “Kill you all”. Could also be incorrect Chinese.

7. Sinon mentally translates this to Japanese.

8. Invaders: 침략 (chimlyag). Spoken in Korean by the Leader. Likely a callback to 1910, when the Empire of Japan annexed the Korean peninsula under the Joseon Kingdom.

9. Japanese industrial and financial business conglomerate. More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaibatsu

10. “871” can be read as “ya na i” in Japanese.