Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 12, chapter 8.
Just a note, italics are for English words written in katakana. Full caps are English words written in English. (this only applies if there’s actually some significance in using those English words in the original)
5th Month of Human World Calendar 380
What a great distance I have traveled—
A lofty ceiling, uniform marble pillars, and the floor, an exquisite stone mosaic that used a variety of rock types.
Even as he had his breath taken away upon beholding the splendor of the Axiom Church Central Cathedral’s interior for the first time, Eugeo couldn’t help but to think so.
Until slightly more than two years ago, he believed that his life was to continue hacking away in vain at an unfellable tree with his axe. To pass his days immersed in memories of his blonde childhood friend, lost long ago, without getting married or having children, before turning his sacred task over to the next woodcutter after years had passed, living deep within the forest like that, and having his Life expire someday without anyone noticing.
However, the black-haired youth who had suddenly appeared one day forcibly broke through the small world that confined Eugeo. He even managed to hack down that absolute barrier sealing the path towards the capital, the Gigas Cedar, with a method that generations of woodcutter could never have imagined, causing Eugeo to approach a crucial juncture. To continue living in the small village while holding onto his memories of Alice. Or to set out on a journey to recover Alice—
It would be a lie to say that he hadn’t faltered. Eugeo’s first thought was of his family the moment Gasupht, the village chief, said that he could choose his next sacred task on that village festival night.
Until then, Eugeo had always turned over all of the wages he had earned from chopping the Gigas Cedar to his family. Their occupation for generations had been growing wheat, but their fields were confined, especially in recent years where revenue was scarce due to the succession of poor harvests. His parents and elder brothers might not mention it outright, but they were likely partially counting on the stable income Eugeo earned each month.
The earnings as a woodcutter would naturally be gone with the felling of the Gigas Cedar. However, he could probably receive preferential treatment in gaining an area well-exposed to the sun in the newly cleared, cultivated land in the south if he chose to grow wheat like his father and the rest of his family as his sacred task. Upon spotting the faces of his family from the stage, mixed with anticipation and anxiety, at a corner of the cheerful villagers making merry, Eugeo was at a loss.
He was, but only for a brief moment. Eugeo forcibly tipped the scale balancing a reunion with the girl from his childhood and a life with his family, and he made a declaration. That he would leave the village and become a swordsman.
Even if he were to choose being a swordsman as his sacred task, he could still receive a salary from the village if he had stayed in Rulid and become one of the guards. However, leaving the village was, ultimately, to stand on his own two feet, away from his family’s side. The money Eugeo brought to his family and the new fields they could have received were all nullified. The reason he had left in such a hurry, on the day after the festival, was because he could not bear to see his parents and elder brothers’ faces, suppressing their disappointment and dissatisfaction.
There were chances where he could have chosen to start a new life with his family even after setting off with Kirito. Having participated in the swordsmanship tournament held in the town of Zakkaria, Eugeo won in the end, alongside Kirito, which had earned him the right to enter the guard corps, and he did so. Enduring the harsh training for half a year, they received letters of recommendation to take the examination for the North Centoria Imperial Sword Mastery Academy from their commanding officer in the guard corps, but an invitation from the commanding officer came with that. Their ranks would rise next year if they remained with the guard corps, with the level of skill the two had, and even becoming the commanding officer in the future was no fantasy. How comfortable would his family’s lifestyle have gotten if he had gained a stable income in Zakkaria and sent a portion of it back to their home by entrusting it to an itinerant wagon?
However, Eugeo politely declined the commanding officer’s invitation and got him to write the letter of recommendation as planned.
While en-route to the capital, his goal, and after enrolling in the Sword Mastery Academy as well, Eugeo continued making excuses in a corner of his mind the entire time. For example, if he was chosen as the academy’s representative swordsman, gaining victory in the Four Empire Unity Tournament, and thus, inducted as an honorable integrity knight, he could enable his parents and family to live in unimaginable extravagance. Or if he made a triumphal return to the village, clad in silver armor and straddling a flying dragon alongside Alice, his parents would have more pride in him than anyone else.
However, by drawing his sword against the elite swordsmen-in-training, Raios Antinous and Humbert Zizek, two evenings past, Eugeo had betrayed his family for the third time. At the very least, he had discarded the considerably likely future of being invested as a first class aristocrat if the circumstances had allowed it… no, that was an understatement; he had discarded even his status as a commoner and chosen instead the path of being a major criminal who had violated a taboo.
Back then, Eugeo was conscious of those circumstances somewhere in his mind, even when he was induced into motion by a tremendous rage. If he were to cut Raios and Humbert at this very moment, he would lose anything and everything. Eugeo drew his sword while aware even of that. He did it to help Tiezé and Ronye who appeared to be getting raped before his eyes; he did it to continue in the justice he believed in; but that wasn’t all to it. He had desired to release that bloodthirst rampaging within his heart; he had desired to erase Raios and Humbert without leaving a single trace behind; he had certainly desired to take action on those murky thoughts.
Really now, what a great distance I have traveled—
He had made a complete turn from one of the exclusive twelve elite swordsmen-in-training in the academy, to stepping upon the floor of the most sacred place in the world as a rebel, an enemy of the Axiom Church.
Fleeing from the pursuit of the bow-using integrity knight, Eugeo was informed of the existence of a book that recorded down all history of the Human World from a young girl who was supposed to be the previous highest minister of the Axiom Church in the mysterious Great Library Room he had entered, and proceeded to read it as though he was devouring it. Because he needed to know, no matter what. Whether there were any humans who had pointed a blade towards the church, fought with integrity knights, and escaped far away somewhere after accomplishing their wishes, in the long history.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a single episode of such a person. The influence of the church spread far and wide, covering the world, and all of the masses would prostrate themselves before the authority of the integrity knights; no matter how serious the quarrel was—it would be easily overcome, even if it was a dispute over imperial borders between fellow empires. There wasn’t even a single record of anyone who had drawn a sword in an attack against the church and fought against the integrity knights in the massive history book, no matter how hard he had examined it.
…In other words, I am the worst sinner over the three hundred and eighty years since the Human World was created by the goddess of creation, Stacia.
The moment Eugeo thought so while closing the back cover of the book, an icy chill assailed him. If Kirito hadn’t come back with such perfect timing and called out to him, he would have probably have continued to quail as he cowered there.
Eugeo had to convince himself countless times, even as he listened to a tale from the mysterious previous highest minister with his partner. He could no longer return to his previous way of life after choosing to abandon his family, slash another man, and fight against the church. He had no path aside from moving forward, no matter how much blood may stain his hands, no matter how many sins may besmirch his soul. For the sake of that one purpose that he had left.
To recover the «heart fragment» stolen by the current highest minister, turn Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty back into Alice Schuberg, and send her to the dearly-missed Rulid Village.
However, his wish to live together with the girl could no longer be granted. The one and only place he thought he could go now, with the many crimes he had committed, was beyond the mountain range at the edge, into the dreadful land of darkness. But that was fine too. There was nothing more to hope for, if Alice could live happily where she was born.
As Eugeo reflected upon his mute determination, he stared at Kirito’s back, moving ahead of him.
…If I said I will go to the land of darkness, would he come with me…?
Upon asking that question silently, Eugeo forced himself to stop imagining his partner’s reply. Thinking about how his path forward might, in the near future, part from his black-haired staunch friend, the only other person in this world standing in the same position right now, was unbelievably terrifying.
As Cardinal mentioned, the corridor that extended straight from the door was unexpectedly short.
He walked quickly, while sunk in thought for a mere instant; it didn’t take him long before reaching the spacious, rectangular room.
The central portion of the right wall had staircases, surprisingly wide and respectively rising up and descending down. The ceiling’s height extended over eight mel, thus, it seemed there were over twenty steps until reaching the landing at the halfway point of the staircase.
And set in the left wall were grand double doors, surrounded by sculptures of winged beasts.
Kirito walking in front quickly turned his right palm this way and hugged against the wall, so Eugeo followed suit and pressed his back against a stone pillar within reach. Holding his breath, he scanned through the gloomy, spacious room.
If the previous highest minister’s words prove right, the grand doors on the left ought to be the equipment vault they were looking for. Despite being such an important place, the spacious room was silent as the grave, lacking the presence of any others. Even the light from Solus that shone in from the large staircase to the right appeared stained in an icy gray hue.
“…There’s no one around, huh…”
Upon softly whispering towards Kirito’s back, his partner nodded, slightly disappointedly as well.
“It’s an equipment store, so I figured there would be a guard or two, but… I guess maybe it’s because the Axiom Church wouldn’t have anyone entering to steal in the first place…”
“But they know about our intrusion already, right? They’re rather calm despite that.”
“They really do have reason to be. They have no need to spend their time searching around for people like us. In other words, the next time we meet integrity knights, there will either be a considerably large number of them or considerably strong ones. C’mon, let’s make use of this time extension as much as we can.”
Ending his words with a hmph, in a snort, Kirito agilely ran out from the cover of the wall. Eugeo followed after that, crossing the deserted, spacious hall.
The doors to the equipment vault had embossed carvings of the two goddesses, Solus and Terarria, and no keyholes, but they possessed such intensity that it made him think that unbelievers might not be able to open them, no matter how hard they pulled or pushed. However, after Kirito put his ear against the door for a bit, then placed his hands upon the handles, putting some force into them, the doors opened so easily that it was practically a let-down. The hinges didn’t even let out a single creak.
A dense, cold air, like several hundred years worth of stillness, swirled out from the black gap of around fifty cen that opened up and made Eugeo shiver, but his partner slipped himself through without hesitation, so he hurriedly followed behind. When the solemn doors closed behind, their surroundings were engulfed in complete darkness.
The art ritual that instinctively left his mouth overlapped perfectly with Kirito’s voice, so he ended up smiling despite the situation. While continuing with ‘generate luminous element‘, Eugeo recalled the time he went with Kirito to the north cave to search for Selka. It was hard enough using the basics of the basics among the sacred arts back then and he couldn’t do much more than making a stick held in his hand light up faintly at its tip—
The pure white luminous element brought forth atop his right palm pushed aside the dense darkness, incidentally brushing away Eugeo’s nostalgic mood.
As Kirito let out an astonished voice at his side, a gulp simultaneously came from Eugeo’s throat.
What space. It was labeled a vault, so he imagined a place like the Sword Mastery Academy’s tool storehouse, but this was ridiculous. It had practically as much area as the large practice arena where Kirito and Uolo Levanteinn had held their match.
Radiance of each and every hue filled the space, reflected illumination from the luminous element that shot from Eugeo’s palm, with the surrounding smooth stone walls on all four sides.
Systematically lined along the floor were suits of armor, placed upon supports modelled after humans. In addition to having pitch-black ones, pure-white ones, and those in dazzling hues of coppery reds, silvery blues, and golden yellows, they also included each and every sort of armor, from light armor constructed from thin chains and leather to heavy armor, large metal plates joined together without any gaps. They numbered no less than five hundred.
And on the tall walls hung, yet again, practically every kind of weapon in existence, closely packed together.
Even among the swords alone, there were long ones, short ones, with a wide range of thick, thin, straight, and curved ones also. In addition, there was a great variety of combat equipment, from single-edged and double-edged axes, to lances and long spears, warhammers, whips, and maces, to bows stretched from the floor to nearly the ceiling, their numbers practically uncountable, and Eugeo could do naught but leave his mouth agape.
“…Sortiliena-senpai might get overwhelmed and faint if she came here, huh.”
Kirito finally broke the silence with a whisper several seconds later.
“Yeah… The same goes for Gorgolosso-senpai, he’d throw himself at that large sword and never let go of it if he saw it.”
Sighing as he murmured a reply, Eugeo then forcefully expelled the breath choked in his throat. Scanning through the vast equipment vault once more, he shook his head two or three times.
“How do I say this… is the church thinking about eventually starting its own army or something? The integrity knights alone should already be enough, though…”
“Hmm… to fight with the army of darkness…? No, that’s not it…”
Kirito’s expression suddenly stiffened and continued with a glance at Eugeo.
“It’s the reverse. It’s not to make an army… but to make it impossible to create one; that’s why the church has been gathering equipment here. The equipment here is probably all powerful, at sacred instrument class or somewhere around there. The highest minister, Administrator, didn’t need some organization aside from the Axiom Church from getting their hands on strong equipment and obtaining excess battle potential…”
“Eh…? What’s that supposed to mean? There can’t possibly be an organization that’ll turn on the Axiom Church, no matter what kind of strong equipment they hold, can there?”
“In other words, the one with the least faith in the church’s authority might just be the venerable highest minister herself.”
Eugeo could not immediately grasp the meaning of Kirito’s sarcastic words. However, his partner patted him on his back before he could ponder on them.
“Come on, time’s running out. Let’s hurry up and get our swords back.”
“Ah… y-yeah. But it’ll be a daunting task to look for them from all these…”
The Blue Rose Sword and the black sword were sheathed in their respective sheaths of discreet white and black leather, but many similar swords could be spotted on the walls.
“…Even if we try to use the umbra element searching art again, the sacred power in the area should have been used up by the luminous elements earlier…”
It was in that moment, when Eugeo let out a sigh while thinking ‘if that was the case, we should have just used a single light’, that Kirito unhesitatingly spoke.
“Oh, found them.”
Lifting his right hand, he pointed to the immediate left of the doors they had entered.
“Woah… to think they’re in a place like this.”
The white and black swords at the spot Kirito pointed towards were certainly the pair’s beloved swords, beyond any room for doubt. Eugeo gazed at his partner’s profile in mute amazement.
“Kirito, how did you do that without even using any sacred arts…?”
“I just figured that the newest swords brought in might be placed closest to the door.”
Despite how Kirito, who revealing his reasoning, would normally childishly show a proud smile at such times, he was now for some reason staring solemnly at his own black sword. But he then immediately exhaled, approached the wall, and gripped the black leather sheath after reaching for it with his right hand.
He froze for a fleeting instant, as if hesitating, but lifted it off the metal supports before long. Following that, he took the Blue Rose Sword at its side with his left hand and tossed it. Eugeo caught it in a panic and the familiar weight made itself known to his wrist.
Despite spending less than a few days away from his beloved sword, a powerful sense of nostalgia and relief that surprised even Eugeo himself flooded through him and he tightly grasped the sheath with both hands.
The Blue Rose Sword was always close to him and had helped him out countless times ever since the Gigas Cedar was felled back home. It was there when he had entered the swordsmanship tournament in the town of Zakkaria; it was there when he had challenged the entrance examinations for the Sword Mastery Academy; it was even there when he had disobeyed the Taboo Index and amputated Humbert’s arm.
If the Axiom Church had always been gathering all kinds of powerful equipment over the many years, them overlooking this Blue Rose Sword, laying dormant in the north cave, was truly good fortune—or perhaps fate. Evidence that following the path of taking Alice back was definitely not a mistake…
“Stop getting all overwhelmed already, hurry up and wear it.”
Abruptly regaining his senses at Kirito’s voice, mingled with laughter, he saw that his partner had already attached his beloved sword’s sheath onto the clasp of his sword belt. Eugeo followed suit while showing an embarrassed smile, ending with a pat on its pommel and looked around as he pondered on their next step. The elite-looking armor lined up on the ground had engraved nameplates hung on them, with names such as [Senrai Armor] or [Shinzan Kacchu]*, inciting quite an interest from him.
“…What should we do, Kirito? We’ll probably be able to find one that suits us with this many around, do you want to borrow some armor too?”
“Naah, we haven’t worn armor before, right? It’s best not to do what you’re not used to. Let’s just take those clothes over there.”
Looking towards the place his partner pointed and true enough, he saw clothes in a variety of colors arranged at a section within the ranks of the armor. Looking down at his own body, he found spots torn and frayed on the academy uniform he had worn from two days ago due to the fight and subsequent retreat from Knight Eldrie.
“True, they’ll likely become indistinguishable from rags sooner or later at the rate we’re going.”
The two luminous elements drifting overhead were gradually losing their radiance too. Casting away his lingering regrets over the armor, he ran over to the clothes section and haphazardly dug through the fabric that seemed to be of high quality, looking for a coat and trousers that matched his frame. Turning their backs to each other, they quickly changed.
Putting his hand through the sleeve of ultramarine clothes extremely similar to his academy uniform, Eugeo was shocked by the texture’s smoothness. When he turned back after changing, he saw Kirito had the same thought, stroking the black fabric with both hands.
“…These clothes definitely have their own little bit of stories to tell. It would be nice if they could stop the integrity knights’ attacks somewhat, though.”
“Now that’s hoping for too much.”
After laughing a little at his frivolous partner’s words, Eugeo’s expression tautened.
“Now then… shall we get going?”
“Yeah… I guess so.”
Trading short remarks, they returned to the entrance.
Things had gone so smoothly thus far that it could be considered disappointing, but it would hardly remain that way. Let’s proceed with our guards up—their deep, mutual nods silently included the recognition of that fact; Eugeo grasped the right handle of the doors and Kirito, the left.
Gently pulling them open together, the gap gingerly widened—
Do-ka-ka-ka! That noise came almost concurrently from the countless steel arrows that pierced through the surface of the thick doors.
The doors were hurled open with the weight of the impact; Eugeo and Kirito fell onto the ground, their rear-ends first.
A familiar knight in red armor stood on the grand staircase’s landing, far away on the opposite side of the rectangular room stretching out from the opening, starting to nock fresh arrows onto a long bow of nearly the same height. Furthermore, that was with four at the same time. There was no mistake that this was the same integrity knight riding the flying dragon in the rose garden.
The distance between us is roughly thirty mel, huh? Swords definitely can’t reach, but it’s likely the perfect range for an expert archer. And we probably won’t have the time to draw the swords at our waists from this unsightly fallen posture, let alone getting up and taking cover at the walls.
That was why I said we should wear the armor! It would have been even better if we had a shield!
Eugeo screamed thusly in his heart as the knight began drawing the longbow’s string almost simultaneously.
With things as they are, I have no choice but to give up on evading without getting hurt and use all I have to avoid a fatal wound—no, a severe wound that’ll render me immobile at the very least.
Eugeo opened his eyes wide and stared at the four nocked arrows. The dull silver-colored arrows were aimed not at their hearts, but their legs. It was as Cardinal mentioned, the order passed down to the knights was likely not to take them out, but to capture them. But in the current circumstances, getting captured was essentially the same as getting murdered.
The integrity knight drew the strained bowstring to its limit.
A moment of stillness arrived, where all motion seemed to cease—
Kirito’s tense voice pierced through that opening.
Eugeo could not instantly catch what his partner said as it was too fast. He understood its significance only after the phenomenon occurred.
A brilliant whiteness suddenly radiated across his vision.
An intense light, as if Solus had descended. It was a simple art that merely set free a luminous element, one of the «elements» that served as the foundation of elemental sacred arts, but Kirito hadn’t recited the art ritual for generating elements. Just where did—…
No, there was an element. There were luminous elements, drifting in midair, called out by both of them to illuminate the equipment vault tens of minutes ago, weren’t there? The neglected elements were on standby for any sequential art rituals. Kirito gave the order for the element floating over his head to be set free and produced that immense light.
—There was him throwing that glass fragment he had picked up during the fight with Eldrie too; I’m totally no match for him at fighting by making use of items lying around as always…
While thinking about such things, Eugeo gathered strength into his legs within the pure white light and jumped to the right with all his might.
He immediately heard the screeching noise of steel arrows digging into the stone floor, coming from where he had been until half a second ago. It would be best to take cover by the walls first, having averted a direct hit—or so he thought, when Kirito’s low shout reached his ears.
Understanding his partner’s aim in an instant, Eugeo kicked off the ground once again. Not slanting off towards the right, but straight forward.
The luminous element’s explosion was from overhead, behind the pair, which meant Kirito and Eugeo did not face the light source directly, but the integrity knight’s eyes should have taken the light head-on. There was no doubt his eyesight would remain robbed for several more seconds.
The luminous element’s direct offensive ability was low when compared to thermal and cryogenic elements, and mostly used in healing arts instead, but if one were to make a weapon emanate light strongly, it possessed the promising abilities of blinding eyes and inspiring awe. Hence, it was wise to prepare an element of the opposing type, the umbra element, for the sake of neutralizing art rituals when the opponent generates a luminous element during battle; this was taught even in the academy’s lessons.
There was no way an integrity knight, standing at the apex of all swordsmen and art users, would not have heard of such common knowledge, which meant calling a new luminous element out and blinding him would not work for a second time. This was the first and last opportunity to narrow the distance from the enemy archer.
Speedy analysis of the situation and selection of actions were also an essential point of the Aincrad-style, or so Kirito told Eugeo countless times. It was a way of thinking utterly different from the High Norkia-style that emphasizes refinement and gallantry in movements. And the charm to calm one’s mind down for putting that point into practice, even in the midst of battle, was «stay cool».
A step behind his partner following the usage of the luminous element, Eugeo frantically chased after the footsteps in front. He drew the Blue Rose Sword from the left of his waist as he ran.
Having served its purpose, the luminous element vanished immediately after, and the world regained its color and form. The pair had already run into the spacious hall from the equipment vault. Affirming with both eyes wide open, that the integrity knight could be seen standing around twenty steps up the staircase ahead.
As predicted, it appeared that the knight’s vision was still impaired. His body tottered with his right hand on the face guard of that bronze-colored helmet.
It was a true stroke of luck that unlike Eldrie, the integrity knight in front of them did not wear a sword on his waist. He had an astonishing amount of self confidence, bringing nothing more than a single longbow when picking a fight indoors. He must have been convinced that he could shoot through the pair’s legs before they could approach.
Eugeo’s mind was calm, but still, he could not suppress that tiny flame of anger, languidly swaying in a corner of his consciousness.
—Integrity knight, you’re the same as Raios and Humbert. You are haughty, arrogant, and you believe yourself to always be in the right. You are convinced that you, justice incarnate, have absolutely no chance of losing.
—But that is your own vanity. Just wait, I will… prove that to you this instant!!
Pushed on by a rather foreign emotion, Eugeo charged onto the grand staircase. It was after traversing the first two steps, just as his right foot reached for the third.
The knight, standing on the landing slightly more than ten steps ahead, removed his right hand from the face guard, turned it around towards his back, and drew out steel arrows from a quiver. Every remaining one, all at the same time.
The packed bunch of arrows that his right hand nimbly brought back numbered at least thirty no matter how one looked at it. Without even granting enough time to question what he had in plan, the knight nocked the entire bunch of arrows onto the string of the longbow held horizontal with his left hand.
Stopping with his foot on the third step of the grand staircase, Eugeo gulped. There ought to be no way that single slender bowstring would be able to fire thirty arrows together at once.
A metallic, creaking noise reached his ears. Something cold ran down his spine upon noticing that it was the steel arrows screaming as they endured a tremendous grip.
It appeared Kirito, who had stopped on the right, had deduced the knight’s intentions as well. It could be a bluff made in desperation, or—
An increasingly violent squealing swept out; the longbow was drawn back heavily.
“—Jump back to the left!”
Binn! The air reverberated, followed immediately with a snapping sound as the bowstring broke under the pressure.
But every single one of the thirty steel arrows were fired out into a radial pattern, cascading down onto the pair as a lethal, silver storm.
Eugeo kicked off the stairs with such force that he thought his right foot broken, pitching his body towards the left. He laid the Blue Rose Sword across the center of his body, protecting it.
The pair surely would have been riddled with holes if the knight had not had an issue with his eyesight.
One arrow struck the Blue Rose Sword and was repelled with a shrill noise. One weaved through the right cuff of Eugeo’s trousers, one made a shallow cut at his left flank, and one grazed his left cheek, shearing off several strands of hair.
Loudly crashing onto the ground, shoulder first, fear made Eugeo grit his teeth as he looked down along his own body. After confirming the lack of severe wounds, he turned his face towards Kirito who had jumped towards the right.
“Kirito! You alright?!”
His black-haired partner lightly nodded with an expression that went rigid as expected upon his hoarse shout.
“So… somehow. Looks like it went through the gap in between my toes.”
He saw an arrow stuck in through the tip of Kirito’s left shoe, piercing through the sole, when he took a look. While giving thanks to his partner’s reaction speed and good luck, Eugeo took a deep breath of air.
“…That was dangerous…”
He murmured as he urged his numbed body to stand.
When he looked up at the landing, the integrity knight had truly ceased motion this time round. The quiver on his back was empty and the longbow’s string, too, was broken and dangling loosely. This was truly what running out of options meant, with his bow broken and arrows spent*. But the opponent was an integrity knight, so it would be unacceptable to let down one’s guard, not to mention this was no situation for pity.
His partner gave a subdued call and Eugeo set his right foot onto the stairs once again.
But Kirito instructed Eugeo, with his left hand still gripping onto the arrow extracted from his shoe.
“Wait… that knight’s reciting an…”
Eugeo pricked up his ears in a fluster. So long as they weren’t at a distance where they could slash the enemy with a single bound, it was imperative to generate the opposing element when he starts to recite a sacred art. He focused on the voice, warped in a metallic manner, uttered from under the integrity knight’s helmet. He chanted rather fast, but he caught it somehow, perhaps because he was made to study in that library room.
However, each and every phrase in that ritual was new to his ears. He couldn’t adopt a countermeasure without the phrase that included «generate», that determined the type of element.
In that moment, Kirito’s voice came out in a gasp.
“This isn’t an elemental attack. It’s the «armament full control art».”
Before those strained words could end, the integrity knight shouted the final phrase lucidly.
With a ‘po’ sound, orange flames were born at the bowstring’s two torn and dangling ends. The flames consumed the bowstring in the blink of an eye and then something occurred the moment they reached the two tips of the longbow.
A deep crimson blaze swirled up from the entire copper bow.
A fervor that seemed enough to scorch one’s skin extended to the bottom of the stairs and Eugeo instinctively shielded his face. The integrity knight standing at the landing draped the flames surging out from the bow around his whole body, looking as though he was set ablaze.
Eugeo was at a loss on what action to take, with the utterly unforeseen development. Should he conclude that the knight had no offensive ability even after using the full control art, since those arrows were already spent, and rush in? Or perhaps the knight spent all the arrows on the attack just a moment ago because they were no longer necessary in the full control state?
Wondering which his partner saw it as, he took a fleeting glance at the side and saw Kirito staring in wonder, with even a faint smile upon his lips just like a child, neither drawing back nor charging in.
“Now this is amazing… I wonder what the origin of that bow is.”
“This isn’t any time to admire it.”
He felt like knocking against Kirito’s shoulder out of habit, but he held it back and looked up at the knight once more. They could use the full control art they had recently learned as well, to deal with the opponent’s art ritual, but there was no doubt the other side would not permit that. It was certain they would be attacked before they could finish reciting the lengthy art ritual. If they were inclined to use it, they couldn’t possible complete it in time unless they had started chanting with the opponent.
With things this far developed, there was naught but to adapt to the opponent’s moves; Eugeo resolved himself for the worst, but it appeared the integrity knight intended for a respite for the time being as well, raising his helmet’s visor with his right hand while the blazing bow remained in his left.
His face wasn’t visible, sunk deep within the shadows cast by the flames, but Eugeo discerned an intense gleam in his eyes that actually reminded him of steel arrows. The voice that followed, too, carried a mechanical reverberation that made it seem unlike a human’s.
“—It has truly been two years since I basked in the flames of the «Conflagrant Flame Bow» in this manner. I see, it does appear that you possess enough ability to exchange blows with Knight Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one, criminals. However, that makes it more unforgivable. To not engage in a fair and proper battle between knights, but to deceive Thirty-one through those repulsive darkness arts!”
“Dar… darkness arts, you say?”
Kirito spoke from the side, as though he was taken aback. Eugeo lost his breath for a moment too, then vehemently shook his head as he shouted.
“Th… that’s not it, we haven’t used darkness arts or anything like that! We were merely talking about Eldrie-san before he became an integrity knight and…”
“What, before he became an integrity knight!? We integrity knights do not have a past of our own! We have always been glorious integrity knights from the moment we were summoned from the Celestial World!!”
The steel-like, enraged words made the grand staircase tremble and snatched Eugeo’s breath away.
According to the girl, Cardinal, all of the integrity knights have had their memories sealed away before becoming one. In other words, this red knight before his eyes, too, simply believed thoroughly that «he was summoned from the Celestial World».
It seemed possible to stir integrity knights into unrest if their original memories, blocked by that object called a «piety module», were stimulated, but that was impossible when he weren’t even aware of the opponent’s name. In short, he couldn’t be immobilized with the same method used in Eldrie’s case.
The knight let out a thunderous voice with heightened severity in the midst of the endless sparks scattered by the longbow.
“I will not reduce the two to you to cinders as I was ordered to capture you alive, but prepare yourself to have an arm burnt away with the Conflagrant Flame Bow now released as you can see! Try all you wish, to see if those shoddy swords are capable of slipping through these flames of conviction and reaching me!!”
The knight placed his right hand approximately where the bow, raised high, would originally have held its string. Before even allowing the time to ponder what the gesture his fingertip adopted, like gripping onto something, meant—
Intense flames surged out in front of the bow and transformed into a single arrow in an instant. Eugeo’s back went rigid upon vividly sensing an absurd amount of power contained within that flame arrow brilliantly gleaming.
“Guess neither breaking the bowstring nor running out of arrows mattered.”
Kirito voiced with a dull groan at his side, so he gathered strength into his jaw that seemed like it was about to tremble and quickly answered.
“He can’t shoot multiple times in a row, that’s my hunch. I’ll stop his first attack somehow, so you go in for the kill.”
—In other words, that meant everything was over if that flame arrow could be shot consecutively. However, even if it was a single shot, that was evidence enough to prove that it possessed enough might to kill in one attack. wasn’t it? Doubts over how Kirito would defend against an attack like that burgeoned, but Eugeo shrugged them off and nodded.
Kirito would probably stop it if he said he could. This was far more realistic when compared to the absurdity of him chopping down the Gigas Cedar when he said he would.
Perhaps interpreting the pair, returning to a stance with their respective sword at the ready, as resolving themselves for the worst, the integrity knight started to draw the invisible string with an air of composure.
The heat caressing Eugeo’s cheeks strengthened further. The flames emitted from the longbow, apparently named Conflagrant Flame Bow, had already reached the landing’s ceiling and were scorching the marble black.
Kirito moved without warning.
With neither a war cry, nor a strong kick off the ground, he charged forth like a leaf from a tree swept away by rapid currents. A split second late, Eugeo followed behind in agitation.
Only a faint, blue light shone through his partner’s loosely gripped fist as he ran up the steps, but Eugeo still noticed. He had probably generated them in secret while the knight delivered his speech, and he had no doubt that was the radiance emitted by cryogenic elements.
The knight finally drew the longbow to its limit when they approached the halfway point of the twenty-steps staircase.
An art ritual rapidly gushed out from Kirito’s mouth at the same time.
“Form element, shield shape! Discharge!”
The number of elements that lined up and shot forward from his left fist, sharply thrust out, was the maximum simultaneous limit for a single hand, five. The blue points of light successively transformed into large, round shields, starting with the foremost, and creating a thick obstruction between Kirito and the integrity knight.
A ferocious voice roared out from the knight’s mouth for the third time when he saw that.
“Don’t make me laugh!—Pierce through them!!”
The accumulated conflagration, that flame arrow—no, it would be more accurate to call it a spear by now, fired with a jolt, its howl bringing to mind a fire dragon’s breath.
The flame spear came into contact with the ice shield Kirito had created after an instant of flight.
The first shield dispersed in a transient moment, its fragments immediately turning into vapor as well.
The second and third, too, were penetrated before the noise of shattering reached his ears.
The fourth shield had its core, where the arrow struck, deeply bent inwards, but as expected, it wasn’t enough and dispersed. Looking through the final shield remaining, the flame spear that drew close to his eyes and nose colored his vision bright red.
But still, Eugeo did not slacken his pace and continued dashing up the stairs. He couldn’t leave his partner, right before his eyes, charging forward savagely alone.
Eugeo gritted his teeth and caught sight of the flame spear that collided with the fifth shield in front, finally losing some of its impetus, regardless of how little that reduction was. Sparks were violently thrown into the air when it was unable to break through the barrier originating from its counter elemental attribute.
Eugeo’s eyes flashed wide open in that moment. It appeared like the blazing spear beyond the semi-transparent ice wall changed its form for an instant. The form, with a beak wide open and wings spread out, was practically the same as a bird of prey…
But without giving Eugeo even the chance to blink, countless cracks surfaced on the final shield and it smashed into pieces.
A heatwave that denied him from even breathing then descended. The flame spear, no, flaming bird that had penetrated through every barrier made a savage assault as though to consume Kirito within its flames as well.
That was when a spirited yell finally surged out from Kirito’s mouth. He sharply thrust the black sword held in his right hand forward.
He’s not going to try slashing that giant bird, is he, Eugeo wondered. However.
The sword Kirito extended straight forward traced an inconceivable arc. It spun like a windmill, moving lightning-fast with those five shining fingers acting as the fulcrum.
But that speed was extraordinary. It was unknown how exactly those fingers moved, the blade rotated with more momentum than the eyes could follow, as if a semi-transparent black shield had made its appearance there.
The flaming bird’s head made contact with the sixth shield.
Dowaa!! That thunderous noise might have been the giant bird’s enraged howl—
The lethal blaze that had smashed through five ice walls was shredded into over a thousand scraps by the rotating blade, scattering it away in a radial manner. But a few among those enveloped Kirito’s body, causing small explosions one after another.
Watching his partner’s body whisked into the air as though it was repelled, Eugeo screamed.
Even while he was swallowed by the endless sparks, Kirito shouted back from the air.
“Don’t stop, Eugeo!!”
Shaking off his momentary indecision, Eugeo glared forward. Kirito would never stop and let a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity escape in this situation. He had accomplished what he said he would. So he would surely have to fulfil his side of the deal.
Passing his partner, as he fell down on the right, Eugeo leapt up the remaining steps.
Cutting through the remains of the blaze that drifted in the air in a single surge, the landing where the knight stood in the way was practically right before him.
It must have been beyond the integrity knight’s expectations as well, for that attack, that took all of his might from the armament full control art, to be repelled without inflicting any injury. His actual face still couldn’t be seen from this distance, but he sensed a hint of surprise from within the helmet. There was no longer enough time to draw the bow and fire another shot. As long as he wasn’t armed with a sword, by allowing him to close the distance—
-It’s your loss!
Eugeo brandished the Blue Rose Sword aloft while projecting that silent cry.
“Don’t underestimate me, rascal!!”
The knight bellowed as if he heard Eugeo’s thoughts.
The shade of surprise vanished in an instant and an overwhelming fighting spirit enveloped the copper-hued heavy armor. The left arm that held the burning longbow was raised high, overhead, and the terrible flames gathered in his fist once more.
Alongside a scream that rippled the burnt air, the knight’s left fist thrust out in a straight line.
He had already launched into a lunge, but that thought flashed through the depths of his mind for an instant.
Normally thinking about it, both the range and power would be higher on this side, when comparing the sword and the fist. But the other side was standing in a favorable position. Would the comparatively slender Blue Rose Sword be able to push back the fist thrown from the integrity knight who was not only tall, but had the advantage of being three steps above as well? Should he avoid here and attack again after climbing up to the landing?
Kirito, a knight of the Aincrad-style who was Eugeo’s teacher while being his close friend, had once mentioned this.
—In this world, what’s important is to put something into your sword.
—You have to be the one to find what to put into your sword.
It was the same for the one who mentored Eugeo, Gorgolosso-senpai, the one who mentored Kirito, Sortiliena-senpai, and even the haughty yet dishonorable nobles, Raios and Humbert; they possessed something that endowed their swords with power. But Eugeo personally felt he was still searching for one. His daily training piled up more than anyone else and he understood various secret moves, but he had yet to find something to imbue into his own sword. It might even be something he might never find for all of eternity, as one not born as a swordsman.
Still. At the very least, he could not succumb to this integrity knight’s vigor and draw his sword back this particular time. After all, the time for him to devote single-mindedly to sword practice was over. Eugeo had an unwavering objective now. To regain Alice, turned into an integrity knight with her memories stolen.
Yes, that was all that mattered. He could do nothing but watch as his childhood friend was taken away by a knight on that summer day eight years ago; this time, he would save her for sure. His proficiency in swordsmanship, his knowledge in sacred arts, polishing all of that was for that purpose.
—Please, lend me your strength. I am still inexperienced and might not be cut out to be the master of a renowned sword like yourself… But I can’t help but to go forward now!
While calling out within his heart, Eugeo firmly bent his entire body after taking a stance with the Blue Rose Sword held overhead.
A vivid blue light enveloped the faintly translucent blade. Aincrad-style secret move, «Vertical».
Guided by a keen intent, the sword lunged forth. A tempestuous thrum, unique to secret moves, reverberated from the blade as it flashed through the air and clashed against the integrity knight’s conflagrant left fist.
The shock wave of the blue and red lights coalescing into one and dispersing outwards in a circle, tore up the red carpet laid over the stairs and the fabric hanging on the walls. The fist and sword remained unmoving in midair, still joined together.
Creak, creak; the armored gauntlet and sword blade grated against each other. Eugeo exerted all of his might in an attempt to complete the secret move, but the knight’s arm didn’t make the slightest movement, as though it were a rock. However, the opponent didn’t seem to have much surplus composure either. A low groan escaped from inside the helmet as he shifted his entire body weight into his fist.
It was a stalemate, but one that lasted for utter seconds. The flames released from the Conflagrant Flame Bow still held in the knight’s fist started licking at the Blue Rose Sword as well. The light of the secret move that covered the blade flickered as though it could not endure the heat. If «Vertical» was interrupted here, it was certain that the sword would be swept away in an instant and he would suffer from the scorching-hot attack head-on.
“Gu… uh, oo….!”
Eugeo mustered all of his physical and mental strength in a bid to swing the sword down. However, the flames continued to intensify and the blade began to turn red-hot.
He hadn’t paid attention to it until now, but the Blue Rose Sword possessed an elemental attribute of ice according to the «sword’s memories» he saw in the Great Library Room. As such, it would be weak against searing flames, its opposing element, and keeping this situation up for too long was quite capable of exhausting its Life to a dangerous degree.
But at the same time, it ought to be possible to negate the enemy’s flames with the sword’s element.
—You were tempered by the coldest blizzard in the mountain range at the edge since the creation of this world.
—Don’t you dare lose to a sheer flame like this!
Perhaps responding to Eugeo’s cry—
An abrupt chill came forth, stinging not only his right hand, holding the grip, but the left hand that supported the pommel as well. It surely was no hallucination. As proof, the miniature roses carved upon its guard were being covered in a pure white frost. The frost turned into thin tendrils, rapidly creeping up the blade, and dispersing the licking flames.
The phenomenon did not end there. The pure white ice tendrils stretched out onto even the knight’s adjacent fist, showering frost to dispel the flames wrapped around the copper-colored armor…
Perhaps due to the impossible chilly sensation, a groan escaped from the knight. Not missing the instant his opponent’s posture faltered, regardless of how minor it was, Eugeo released the power he had stored up.
Gyaan! A ear-splitting noise swelled out, the sword swung down and repulsed the knight’s left fist.
However, the sword tip did not touch the enemy’s body, unfortunately. The knight aimed at Eugeo, fruitlessly slashing the sword straight down, and sent out his right fist without a moment’s delay. It wasn’t blazing, but suffering the rock-like impact of that strong fist would propel Eugeo away to the bottom of the staircase without any difficulty.
Alongside that tempestuous yell, Eugeo’s sword swung up from a sharp angle.
Slashing back with the Blue Rose Sword, heavier than a lump of steel of equivalent size, through physical strength alone, was impossible regardless of how strong one was. There was only one reason why it was made possible: it was a secret move from a swordsmanship style. Aincrad-style two-hits skill, «Vertical Arc».
The blade that swiftly carved out a trail that resembled the sacred letter, ‘V’, sliced through the integrity knight’s breastplate diagonally. A few deep crimson drops spattered from the gash sliced into the copper-colored armor. The sword tip caught the knight’s flesh—but it was only shallow.
As the knight freed his upper body, he braced his legs and leapt backwards. He would be granted the room to fire those flaming attacks once again if the distance were widened here. However, there was a brief, compulsory period of rigidness after the usage of any secret move.
Kirito had told him to constantly think about how to eliminate that gigantic pause caused from using a secret move. Of course, it wasn’t a problem if the slash hit, but there was the danger of suffering from a fatal counterattack in the case where it was warded off, dodged, or failed to stop the opponent’s movements like this time.
The rigidness caused by secret moves was unpreventable and nothing could be done about it even if one was expecting it. He could come up with methods to eliminate that delay, like switching with an ally or releasing a pre-generated wind element to create distance through wind pressure. But Kirito was blown away to the hall and there wasn’t enough time to recite an art ritual either. That brought the remaining methods to one.
Eugeo mustered all of his physical and mental strength to control the movement of the Blue Rose Sword while it was on the trajectory of Vertical Arc’s second stroke. He held the blade, that originally should have slashed up leftwards, as though it was supported by his left shoulder. The blue light covering the blade suddenly vanished due to the excessive strength injected, but that didn’t matter as the attack itself had already ended.
The Blue Rose Sword halted atop his shoulder just as the knight harshly kicked off the ground. The landing of the grand staircase was wide, and he probably had the plan of firing yet another blazing spear while Eugeo was petrified if he succeeded in retreating to the wall’s edge. There would be no way for Eugeo to defend if he permitted that.
The final method to break through the enforced rigidness.
That was to link a new secret move to a secret move. By performing the activation stance of the next skill atop the ending stance of the previous skill, the period of rigidness could be erased. It was the secret move among secret moves that even his teacher, Kirito, could accomplish only half of the time, «connecting skills»—
Letting out a sharp breath of air, Eugeo hoped for the skill’s activation with all his heart. Immediately after, the sword vividly shone once again. His body leapt forth as if he flicked there. The blade slashing down from the upper-left growled as it drew close to the integrity knight. One-hit secret move, «Slant».
At last, the knight’s two eyes opened wide within that helmet.
Neither the pain that assailed his right eye, nor those spinning bright-red sacred letters made an appearance as they had when he tried to slash Raios and Humbert. There wasn’t even any indecision or hesitation. The single notion of cutting an enemy deserving of it set Eugeo’s entire body into motion.
The Blue Rose Sword fiercely swung down straight at the knight’s right shoulder. Following the metallic noise from the spaulder splitting apart, the dull and heavy impact transmitted itself to Eugeo’s right hand. The resistance he felt from the tightly grasped sword was unmistakably from slicing human muscle and crushing human bones.
Inflicted with a deep gash reaching from his shoulder through to his chest, the integrity knight was thrown onto his back, onto the ground.
The confined voice whispered out from beneath the helmet and immediately after, a massive amount of blood spurted out from the helmet’s base, visibly redder than than the copper color of the armor.
This made it the second time he had cut a human, but Eugeo still felt his breath stop for a moment. A sort of squeezing sensation beset the pit of his stomach upon noticing the feedback that remained on his right hand, but he desperately forced it down.
As though in agreement with Eugeo’s feelings, the Blue Rose Sword emitted yet another intense wave of cold air, turning all of the blood that clung to the blade to frost and after shaking that off, it returned to its usual state. The knight’s right shoulder was frozen pure white when he looked, the dripping blood formed into a small icicle.
The integrity knight let out a low groan as he raised his left hand that still held onto the bow, trying to move it towards the wound. Eugeo gathered power back into his right hand that held onto his sword upon seeing that. He would have to slash the fallen knight once more if the opponent began to recite sacred arts. As a high ranking user would be able to use all of the sacred energy in the surrounding air to restore Life, he would have to inflict a severe injury on his mouth, slice his arm off, or perhaps, there was no method to render him powerless aside from taking his life.
However, it seemed the knight gave up on healing upon noticing his left fist was utterly frozen and unable to let go of the bow that had already lost its flames. Subtle movements with the fingertips were necessary for elemental art rituals. Letting out a long sigh with what appeared to be a crooked smile, his arm fell onto the ground with a crack.
Eugeo was at a loss on what to do now. The chill produced by the Blue Rose Sword had driven away the enemy’s flames, but it brought forth the effect of stopping his blood flow as well, by freezing the wounds. The knight wouldn’t be able to fight any longer, but neither would he die. The frozen left hand would defrost eventually if left alone, and he might give chase after fully recovering through sacred arts.
The one who spoke first was the integrity knight, as Eugeo stood still while chewing on his teeth.
Eugeo straightened his posture at that voice, hoarse yet maintaining its dignity, but the narrative that followed was a little unexpected.
“What is the name of that secret move you first used…?”
He was puzzled for just a little, but Eugeo moved his dry lips and answered.
“…It’s from the Aincrad style of swordsmanship, a two-hits skill, «Vertical Arc».”
“Two… hits skill.”
Repeating his words, the knight stayed silent for a moment, but soon resumed his questions.
“You there… what was the skill you used…?”
The knight’s helmet made a slight motion, so Eugeo shifted his view towards the back for a sheer instant. When he did so, he saw Kirito, burnt in various spots, slowly climbing the stairs while pressing down on his left arm and dragging his right leg along.
“Kirito… how are your injuries!?”
When he answered in a panic, his partner gave a weak laugh.
“It’s fine, I prevented most of the severe burns. …Mister Knight, what I used was the Aincrad-style defensive skill, «Spinning Shield».”
Upon hearing that, the knight peered up at the ceiling as his helmet creaked, then sunk back into silence.
The voice that flowed out several seconds later was hushed, as if he was addressing himself, rather than Eugeo and Kirito.
“…I have always planned to search through the Human World from end to end… and whatever lies beyond that… but it appears swords and skills unknown to me do still exist within this world… —Your skills are suffused with the might from the accumulation of earnest training. It was my mistake… to accuse both of you of leading Knight Eldrie into depravity through deplorable arts…”
The integrity knight moved his head once more, shifting his vision towards Eugeo from within the face guard.
“…Won’t you… tell me your names?”
After exchanging a glance with Kirito, Eugeo curtly stated his name.
“…Swordsman Eugeo. No family name.”
“I’m Swordsman Kirito.”
After nodding as though he was deliberating over their names, the integrity knight let words emerge that were even more unexpected.
“…Several integrity knights are awaiting the both of you on the fiftieth floor of the cathedral, in the «Grand Cloister of Spiritual Light». Not to capture you alive, but to eliminate the Life of you both and to take your mortal lives… The next breath you take will likely be your last, the instant you choose to sortie with a frontal charge as you did earlier.”
“Hey… hey, mister, you sure it’s okay for you to say something like that?”
Kirito interjected in slight bewilderment. But the knight faintly revealed what resembled a smile again and muttered.
“As have I failed to accomplish Administrator-sama’s command… My emblems of being a knight, this armor and sacred instrument, shall be confiscated and I will be penalized by being frozen for an indefinite period of time… —Please cleave my Life before I suffer such disgrace… with your own hands.”
The knight added on, looking to the speechless Eugeo and Kirito.
“There is no need for hesitation… after all… your magnificent sword skills have already brought forth defeat…”
They heard his name next—one enough of a shock to stop Eugeo from breathing.
“Mine… Of this integrity knight, Deusolbert Synthesis Seven.”
This wasn’t to the degree of only mildly recalling it from somewhere.
That name was one deeply engraved upon Eugeo’s soul, not fading away for even an instant, over these eight tangible years. It encompassed a profound regret and despair, along with anger accompanying them.
“Deusol… bert? That time… you were…?”
Eugeo heard the voice choked out from his own throat, a hoarse one that seemed to belong to someone else.
The color of his armor was different and all the voices of the integrity knights took on a similar metallic echo with their helmet on, so he hadn’t actually noticed up until now, but still, in that case, the knight who lay collapsed before his eyes right now was the one who had once stood before Eugeo’s eyes and—
Some sort of impact pushed Eugeo from behind and he took several unsteady steps forward.
Kirito’s questioning voice barely made it to his ears. His upper body stooped over, he peered at the face within the helmet close up.
Perhaps some sort of art ritual had been applied to the helmet, as the knight’s face was actually shrouded in darkness even after the gap was shortened to several tens of cen. However, he could clearly perceive those two eyes that retained their strength even after that huge quantity of Life was sheared off. They seemed both young and weathered, with sharp corners.
Moving his parched lips, Eugeo whispered in a grating tone.
“You said to cleave… your Life…? It was a magnificent duel, you said…?”
His right hand convulsed uncontrollably while the Blue Rose Sword still in his hand began to radiate an intense chill once again. A white frost immediately wrapped around the integrity knight’s armor, right before the sword’s point.
Eugeo set loose the feverish mass that suddenly swelled out from the depths of his stomach, threatening to even tear his throat apart, in a single breath.
“Binding! Binding up a girl of merely eleven in chains… and hanging her off a flying dragon as you took her away… someone like you has absolutely no right to use such wordssss——!!”
Eugeo raised the Blue Rose Sword up high in a reverse grip.
He wanted to thrust through the mouth belonging to the knight that spewed those utterly unforgivable words all the way into the ground, dissipating what was left of his Life at the same time.
However, a severe and throbbing pain hindered his right hand from moving. It was not his right eye that hurt, but somewhere deep within his chest. It was a sort of pain that felt as though someone was frantically trying to pull Eugeo back.
With the sword still held aloft, Eugeo, his body trembling strongly, had his right arm—
Gently held back by Kirito’s left hand, reaching out from beside him.
“……Why, did you stop me, Kirito…”
Swaying in the maelstrom of his emotions, on the verge of losing all sense of reason, Eugeo questioned his partner, the person he trusted over any and everyone else in the world.
Kirito stared hard at Eugeo with eyes tinged with a pain he had personally endured, slowly shaking his head left and right.
“That mister has already lost his spirit to fight. You mustn’t turn your sword onto an opponent like that…”
“But… but this person… this person was the one who took Alice away… this person…”
Offering rebuttals like a spoiled child, a part of Eugeo’s mind had already understood what Kirito was trying to say.
The integrity knights, too, were primarily nothing more than existences mobilized by orders from the Axiom Church—orders from the highest minister. The one who abducted Alice was the church itself, a result of this world’s distorted law and order.
But on the other hand, the urge to abandon the righteous standpoint and mince the collapsed knight into remnants did not disappear. The feelings of rage, powerlessness, and guilt that had piled up since that summer day were not of a degree capable of vanishing simply by finding out about the contrivances behind the world after all this time.
Toppled wicker basket at his feet. Bread and cheese defiled by sand. Ice melted by sunlight.
Chains with a dull gleam constricting Alice’s blue one-piece dress. And his two feet, immobile as though roots grew from them.
You would probably have tried to hack away at the integrity knight and help Alice back then. You would have done it even knowing that you would be arrested and sent for a trial.
But I couldn’t. Despite how Alice was my only friend, a girl more important than anyone else, I couldn’t do anything but watch. Watch as this knight, now collapsed here before my eyes, bound Alice and took her away.
A storm of emotions, filled with such fragmentary thoughts, swept through the entirety of his mind. The right arm restrained by Kirito trembled, the sword was brandished ever higher.
However, the words Kirito spoke while focusing strength into his left hand surprised Eugeo enough to make him freeze for a moment
“…I’m sure this mister doesn’t remember it. The time he took your Alice away from Rulid Village… Not that he forgot it, but that his memory was erased.”
Eugeo looked downwards at the helmet of the collapsed knight in astonishment.
The integrity knight hadn’t stirred the slightest bit, even with the Blue Rose Sword pointed at him, now moved for the first time upon receiving stares from the pair. Forcibly opening his left fist, where the frost had finally thawed, he let go off the long bow while scattering ice fragments, and released the latch at the side of the helmet with his fingertips.
The helmet, constructed to appear menacing, opened as though to split apart, front and back, and now peeled off the knight’s head, falling with a thud. What appeared was the face of a male who was the very image of perseverance, around the age of forty.
His hair, cut short, and thick eyebrows were an ashen-red similar to rusted iron. His high nose bridge and pursed lips were straight like a cut from a knife while the sharpness of his eyes brought to mind the steel of arrowheads.
However, his deep gray eyes alone revealed the unrest within his heart, slightly wavering. The thin lips moved and the voice that streamed out was completely different from how it had been until now, a low tone with depth.
“…It is… as that black-haired youngster has mentioned. You say I captured a young girl and took her away on a flying dragon? I have no recollection of carrying out such a deed.”
“No… no recollection…? It was only eight years ago…”
Muttering in a daze, strength leeched from Eugeo’s right arm without his notice. Touching his chin as though sunk in thought with the left hand that he now detached from Eugeo, Kirito spoke once more.
“Like I said, they were erased… your memories of the whole deed, from beginning to end. Mister… no, Knight Deusolbert, you were the integrity knight who protected the remote northern region, north of Norlangarth, am I correct?”
“…Indeed. The Northern Norlangarth Seventh Remote Region was… the region I oversaw. Yes… that was, until eight years ago…”
The knight’s eyebrows strongly rose together, as if they were trying to dredge something up from the deepest depths of his memories.
“And I… was bestowed with this armor along with the duty of guarding the Central Cathedral… due to a great achievement…”
“Do you recall what that achievement was?”
The knight could not give an immediate answer to Kirito’s question. His lips pressed tightly together, his sight wandering about. What broke the short silence were words from Kirito once again.
“I’ll answer that for you. Your achievement was searching out Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty. At a small village at the end of the northern region, somewhere no one knew about from the central capital. Even though the highest minister, Administrator, credited the achievement of bringing Alice to this tower to you, she also had to erase all memories regarding this incident from you… The reason for that was mentioned by you yourself earlier.”
Without anyone noticing, Kirito continued talking, in a quick tone that was quicker than both Eugeo and the integrity knight, as though he was speaking to himself.
“Integrity knights have no history, they were summoned from the Celestial World, after all; that’s what you said. That must have definitely been what the highest minister taught you immediately after you woke up as a knight. That’s why you have no memories from before you became an integrity knight; that’s how she persuaded you. But to persist with that story, it would be a problem not only if integrity knights had memories from their human lives remaining, but also if they had memories concerning the birth of a new knight aside from themselves. It would be chaos if a major criminal that you brought in yourself suddenly appeared as a fellow knight the next day, after all… there lies the highest minister’s weakness…”
Thinking through various facets at a monstrous speed, Kirito began pacing left and right while looking downwards.
With all of his will draining from him while he looked at his partner’s state, Eugeo took a long breath while taking another look at the male lying at his feet. When he did, Integrity Knight Deusolbert, too, appeared to be sunk in his thoughts with a blank expression.
It wasn’t like his rage and hatred had vanished, but if his memories regarding Alice had truly been erased without a trace, then he had no choice but to accept it—perhaps.
That all the knights were nothing more than pawns manipulated by that one who served as the highest minister of the Axiom Church, Administrator. That the hateful enemy who stole Alice from him, stole her memories from her, and nurtured her into an integrity knight was all a single person, Administrator.
Perhaps noticing Eugeo’s gaze looking down upon himself, Deusolbert’s eyes ceased wandering. The emotions likely swirling within his chest were unreadable, but the voice that flowed from his lips was in a complete stammer, a voice that made one want to question whether he truly was the same person as that formidable opponent who had stood before the pair, sheer minutes ago.
“That shouldn’t… be possible… How could we integrity knights be denizens of the Human World like the rest of you before we were appointed as knights……?”
Substituting Eugeo who was at a loss for words, Kirito answered again.
“The blood that flows from that wound of yours is red, just like ours, isn’t it? And Knight Eldrie becoming strange that time wasn’t because of some dodgy art cast on him either. It was because we tried to call back the memories stolen from him. …You ought to be the same as Eldrie also. I don’t know whether you achieved victory at the Four Empire Unity Tournament or held disdain for the Taboo Index, but you had your important memories stolen by Administrator with the loyalty towards the church planted in their place and was turned into an integrity knight. You mentioned that you would be penalized by getting frozen, but Administrator-sama would probably be altering your memories during that time and erasing your memories of this conversation too. I’d even bet on it.”
The way Kirito expressed it was blunt, but his voice was mingled with melancholy.
Perhaps the knight felt that as well, as he shut his eyelids and kept silent for a while, but he slowly then shook his head once more.
“I am unable to believe it. How could Her Eminence, the highest minister… cast such an art upon……”
“But that’s reality. There ought to be something left within you as well. An important memory from before you became a knight, one that cannot be expunged by any art ritual…”
When Kirito approached it from that angle, Deusolbert suddenly raised his left hand up and stared at his burly fingers as he softly murmured in a sigh.
“Ever since I have descended into the Human World… I have always seen this same dream, time after time… A petite hand shaking me awake… and a silver ring worn on one of those fingers… Yet when I awake… there is never anyone…”
Deusolbert’s eyebrows squeezed together and he firmly pressed his left hand down upon his forehead. Kirito stared fixedly at that scene, but soon muttered softly.
“You probably can’t remember any more than that. Your memories of the one whose hand and ring that belonged to was stolen by Administrator…”
Keeping silent for a moment, he returned the lowered black sword in his right hand back into its sheath attached to the left of his waist with a clink.
“…You decide what to do from now on. Whether to return to Administrator’s side to receive your punishment, or to heal your injuries and chase after us… or maybe…”
Cutting short there, Kirito took several steps towards the staircase that stretched upwards from the right side of the landing. Coming to a halt there, he twisted over his shoulder and looked Eugeo in the eye.
—Wasn’t that enough?
His black eyes spoke thusly. Eugeo turned his gaze towards the integrity knight, collapsed on the ground with his eyes shut, once again. He slowly raised the Blue Rose Sword in his right hand—and aligned its tip with the sheath on the left of his waist, gently dropping it in.
Taking his place beside Kirito, he curtly spoke and they began walking towards the ascending stairs together.
It was unknown which decision Integrity Knight Deusolbert Synthesis Seven would pick, but at the very least, it seemed it wouldn’t be the one to chase after the pair.
The sound of the pair’s soles striding up the marble stairs reverberated alone for a brief period of time.
Without that, their surroundings would be engulfed in a silence, piercing enough to hurt one’s ears. There should be a great number of ascetics and their apprentices living in the giant tower of the Axiom Church, according to the extent of Eugeo’s knowledge, but he could sense nothing close to any human presence, no matter how hard he strained his ears or focused his eyes.
Additionally, the sight that greeted him at each new floor he climbed up—a rectangular hall with corridors stretching left and right, doors lined up in identical intervals along them—was practically indistinguishable, giving him the impression that an illusory art had been placed on them unseen, making them ascend and descend the same staircase over and over again.
He wanted to try entering one of the corridors and opening a nearby door to ascertain that was not the case, but Kirito silently kept up his constant pace in front, so he told himself not to get distracted. If Deusolbert’s words proved true, even stronger enemies would be awaiting them on the fiftieth floor of the cathedral, somewhere a little higher on this staircase.
Gently touching the grip of his beloved sword swaying at the left of his waist, at the moment Eugeo tried to shake away his idle thoughts, Kirito’s feet came to an abrupt stop immediately before reaching the landing.
Turning around with a serious expression, he spoke with a tense tone, going,
“Hey, Eugeo. ……Which floor are we on now…?”
“Hey… hey now.”
After an instinctive, slight stumble, Eugeo breathed a sigh, shook his head, and dropped his shoulders, all at the same time.
“It’s the twenty-ninth floor next. I thought it might be the case, but to think you really weren’t counting.”
“Don’t you think it would only be proper to have floor indicators on the staircase, normally?”
“That might be true, but you still should have noticed it after all this time!”
Tuning out Eugeo’s gesture as though it didn’t concern him, Kirito leaned his back onto the landing’s wall with a thump.
“Nonetheless, we’re still that far, huh… I thought we had gone pretty high up too… I’m getting hungry…”
“…Well, you aren’t alone on that one.”
Close to five hours had already passed since they were treated to that luxurious breakfast in Cardinal’s Great Library Room. Solus was approaching the center of the sky from what could be seen through the long and thin window, and with how they had climbed twenty-five floors, which would be a thousand steps, in addition to going through a single, intense battle, it was certainly unavoidable that their bodies were demanding replenishments.
Nodding at Kirito’s words, Eugeo followed up by holding his right hand out without reserve.
“So, hand over one of those in your trouser pockets.”
“Eh… no, these are, well, for emergency use, so… —Your eyes are unexpectedly sharp, huh.”
“There’s no way I wouldn’t have noticed with how stuffed those are, right?”
Kirito thrust his hand into his right pocket with what seemed like resignation on his face, before taking two steaming manjuu out and tossing one of them over. Upon catching it, there was a savory aroma that provoked his stomach despite the sizable time that had passed since they had left the library room.
“It got burnt a little with that old man’s blazing attack.”
“Ha-Hah… so that’s why. Thanks for the food.”
The manjuu was created by Cardinal via a high ranking sacred art, so that meant it had originally been pages from a precious, old book, but Eugeo closed his eyes to that fact and bit into it. He momentarily savored the crunchy grill marks on its skin and the juicy minced meat filling in a trance.
The modest lunch was finished in a few tens of seconds; Eugeo licked his fingers and breathed a short sigh. There was still a suspicious lump in Kirito’s left pocket, but he decided to leave that alone while calling out to his partner who had also finished eating.
“That was good. —So, what’s the plan from now on? We’ll reach the fiftieth floor in question if we climb for another thirty minutes, but… are we going to charge in from the front?”
Kirito mussed up his hair as he groaned.
“That’s right… —We found out just how scary an integrity knight can be earlier, but judging from what I saw in the battle between you and that old man, rather than those guys not being used to consecutive skills, they really don’t have any experience with them, I guess. I want to believe that we have a chance of winning if we bring it into a one-on-one melee. But with several of them there, not to mention how they’re fully prepared and awaiting us, that would be hard to set up.”
“Then… let’s give up on going in from the front and search for another route?”
“I wonder about that. Even Cardinal declared that this grand staircase was the only route and even if we found a secret passage, there’s still the danger of getting caught in a pincer attack before long… I hope to defeat the knights on the fiftieth floor without running away elsewhere, somehow. So that would bring us to having to use our trump card, but we have the time to prepare that draggy, long art ritual, thanks to the warning that old man gave us.”
“I see… The «armament full control art»…”
When Eugeo muttered it, Kirito nodded with a complex expression.
“I’m worried about using it in an actual fight without practice, but wasting our swords’ Life on a trial shot at a place like this would just be… We’ll use the full control art together, before we dash onto the fiftieth floor and try to render as many knights powerless as possible…”
“Aah, there’s something I have to say about that, Kirito.”
With just a little awkwardness, Eugeo cut into Kirito’s words.
“That is… It doesn’t feel like my full control art will be a high impact direct attack like the integrity knight’s skill earlier.”
“You see, the one who wrote the art ritual for me was Cardinal… I was the one who thought up the type of skill, but still…”
Kirito tilted his head as he spoke to Eugeo, his murmurs full of excuses.
“Well, try reciting the art ritual for now. Without the opening line.”
He rapidly chanted the art ritual as he was told to, with the «system call» omitted. Kirito, who listened with his eyes shut, went against expectations and smirked after Eugeo reached the final line, “Enhance armament“.
“So that’s it. True, it can’t quite be called offensive, but it’s useful enough, depending on how it’s used. And it doesn’t seem to go too badly with my full control art.”
“Oh? What’s your skill, Kirito?”
“That’s something for you to look forward to.”
Eugeo lightly scowled at Kirito, tossing out that glib line. However, his partner combed his forelocks upwards with a composed face, leaning his back against the wall once more.
“Well, I can’t call it a real strategy, but let’s go with it. First, we chant the armament full control art just before we charge onto the fiftieth floor, leaving it in standby before activation. Then upon dashing in and confirming their positions, you first hit them with your skill, then I will with mine. If everything goes well and the enemies are gathered in the same place, we might even render all of them helpless.”
He agreed doubtfully, but to be honest, Eugeo didn’t have a plan of his own. He couldn’t help but admit his partner had a better aptitude for creating a plan with all factors accounted for and he was frankly thankful for being able to chant the art ritual before the battle, with his lackluster confidence in reciting it quickly.
“…Then, let’s go with that. First, I will…”
As he spoke, Eugeo casually turned his vision towards the left, at the stairs continuing to the cathedral’s twenty-ninth floor.
And he opened his eyes wide in amazement.
Two petite heads were peeping out from the shadows surrounding the railings, their four eyes staring intensely in their direction.
The instant their eyes met with Eugeo’s, the two heads tucked in with a flash. But as he continued to gaze on, speechlessly, the heads appeared once again, their still-innocent pair of eyes blinking steadily.
Realizing something had happened, Kirito followed Eugeo’s sight and after also leaving his mouth agape, he hesitantly asked.
“Who are… you two?”
With that, the two heads met each other, nodded in sync, and nervously revealed themselves entirely.
Eugeo muttered, unthinkingly.
The ones who stood on the floor above were two girls clad in exactly the same ink-black clothes.
Their ages appeared around ten. He felt a tinge of nostalgia, for the plain black clothes were greatly similar to the religious habit belonging to Selka, Alice’s little sister, who studied at the church in Rulid.
However, unlike Selka, the girls wore short-swords with an overall length of around thirty cen on their green belts. A moment of wariness welled up, but he immediately noticed not only their blade, but their grips as well, were made from a reddish wood. The hue was unusual, but it was likely similar to the wooden swords granted to children aiming to become swordsmen.
The girl on the right had her pale light brown hair in two braids. Her droopy-looking eyebrows along with the corners of her eye gave an impression of meekness. Contrasting with that, the girl on the left had her straw colored hair cropped short, her two eyes accented upwards in resolve.
As Eugeo and Kirito stared on in silence, the one who took a step forward was the spirited, strong-minded girl on the left as expected. Taking in a deep breath of air, she suddenly began her self-introduction.
“Erm… I’m-I’m Fizel*, a sister apprentice of the Axiom Church. And this girl here is also a sister apprentice…”
The pair’s childish voices ended on a quavering note, perhaps due to their uneasiness. Eugeo showed a smile meant to reassure them and immediately realized he might be seen as hostile, considering they were sisters of the church, even if they were still apprentices.
However, the words spoken by the girl who called herself Fizel were more straight to the point than Eugeo would have expected.
“So… are the intruders from the Dark Territory supposed to be the two of you?”
Kirito’s and his face instinctively met. His partner, too, was unable to come to a decision on how to handle this situation. His lips flapped endlessly with his eyebrows knitted, and then he swiftly moved and slunk behind Eugeo’s back.
“I’m bad with kids. I’ll leave this to you.”
Told that from behind, he wished to whisper “That’s unfair!” back, but hiding behind Kirito wasn’t quite possible now. Looking at the two girls on the floor above, he gave a stifled reply.
“Er… erm, well… we ought to be humans from the Human World, but… the part about us being intruders is, well, not exactly wrong, I guess…”
This time, the children huddled their foreheads together upon hearing that and began to exchange words in hushed voices. They were soft, but still audible due to how the surroundings were far too silent.
“What’s with that, they just look completely like humans on the outside, Nel. They don’t have any horns or tails.”
The one who said that, unsatisfied, was Fizel, the girl who seemed strong-minded. The girl named Linel argued back falteringly.
“I-I only said what was written in the books. You’re the one at fault for thinking they would really have them, Zel.”
“Hmm, still, they might just be hiding them. Maybe we can tell if we get closer?”
“Eeh, but they just look like normal humans. But… maybe it’s possible that they have fangs…”
The charming conversation reminded Eugeo of the twin daughters of the Wolde farm where he had once freeloaded, and his lips truly went slack this time round.
If Kirito and himself were kids of that age and found out there were intruders from the land of darkness nearby, there was a high possibility they would have gone and sneaked a peep like this. As a result, they would probably have received a harsh scolding from their fathers and the village chief.
Eugeo instantly became worried, having thought of that. Wouldn’t the two girls be punished later for coming into contact with rebels against the church? He figured he wasn’t in any situation to hold that concern, but still felt that he had to speak.
“Hey… won’t they get mad at the two of you for talking to us?”
Upon hearing that, Fizel and Linel promptly closed their mouths and then after, put on smug smiles. Fizel answered, looking just a little jubilant. The politeness in her speech went missing unnoticed.
“All of the brothers and sisters and their apprentices were ordered to lock the door to their own rooms and not leave since this morning. So that means that even if we went to take a look at the intruders, there’s no worry of anyone finding out.”
Somehow, it seemed exactly like a reasoning Kirito would come up with. He could even practically picture that in his mind, how they would get found out in the end and be scolded.
The two girls went into some discussion once again, but Linel was the one who spoke out this time.
“Ermm… are you two of you really not monsters from the Dark Territory?”
“Then, I’m sorry, but could you allow us to take a closer look at the two of you…? At, erm, your foreheads and teeth.”
Losing his calm at the unforeseen request, Eugeo glanced behind, but not only did Kirito not send any aid his way, he even feigned ignorance with his head looking elsewhere. Eugeo reluctantly nodded to the girls.
“…Well, if that’s all, I don’t have a problem with it…”
Being unable to refuse in this situation was partly due to his nature, but there was also his desire to prove that he was a regular human despite being a rebel going against the church and depending on the circumstances, it might even be possible to gain information on the cathedral’s interior from the pair.
Fizel’s and Linel’s faces sparkled and they trotted down the stairs, their gait entwined with curiosity and caution. Their feet stopped upon reaching the landing, their blue and grey eyes pointedly fixed on him.
Eugeo leaned over, combing up the hair on his forehead with his left hand as he bared his teeth for them to see. The children stared at Eugeo for close to ten seconds without blinking a single time, before they finally nodded, apparently satisfied.
“He is, isn’t he?”
Such a pronounced disappointment appeared on the pair’s faces that he couldn’t help but to break into a wry smile. Looking at Eugeo doing that, Linel inclined her head to the side.
“But if the two of you aren’t monsters from the Dark Territory, why would the Central Cathedral believe that the two of you are intruders?”
Even while thinking it would be a turn for the worst one way or another, he figured there wasn’t any need to hide after all that had already come to pass and answered honestly.
“…A long time ago, a female friend of mine was taken away by an integrity knight. So, I came here to take her back.”
This, in particular, must have been hard for an ascetic apprentice, who would normally believe firmly in the Axiom Church’s sense of justice, to accept. He expected expressions of disgust and dismay to show up on those young faces, but contrary to that, the girls simply nodded curtly. The girl with straw-colored hair, Fizel, spoke with a slightly disgruntled face.
“So that’s it. That was a pretty normal reason.”
“There were a few cases of people arranging protests against the church when their family or lovers were taken away, recorded in the past. The two of you are probably the first to actually get in here like this, though.”
Following on, Linel picked up the flow from the side.
“Not to mention how they said you cut the spirit-iron chains and escaped once you were imprisoned, and that part about managing to defeat two integrity knights too, which made us wait here, thinking there were definitely monsters of darkness… maybe even a genuine darkness knight launching an attack. But to think you were just normal humans…”
The kids exchanged looks and went, “Is this enough?” and “It is, right?”, as they lightly nodded to each other.
Linel, who looked at Eugeo once more, tilted her small head as her pigtails swayed.
“Then, last of all, could you tell us your names?”
There’s more that I wanted to ask, though, thought Eugeo as he replied.
“I’m Eugeo. The one behind me is Kirito.”
“Hmph… you don’t have a family name?”
“Ah, yeah. I’m a child of the pioneers, you see. …Could it be the same for the two of you too?”
“No, we have one.”
Cutting off there, Linel grinned widely. A bright, cherubic one—a smile like her cheeks were stuffed with delicious sweets.
“My name is Linel Synthesis Twenty-eight.”
Eugeo couldn’t immediately deduce the meaning that name possessed.
At once, a cool chill could be felt at his abdomen and Eugeo turned his vision downwards.
Eugeo wasn’t sure when it had been drawn from the belt, but the short-sword gripped in Linel’s right hand had its tip sunk about five cen into his body.
It appeared to be only a wooden sword when worn in her belt, but it seemed what he truly thought was the blade, was actually a wooden scabbard. The real blade drawn out from there was not wooden. It was a murky-green, unfamiliar metal. Its surface caught the sunlight shining in from the window and gleamed as though it was wet.
Was that short utterance Kirito’s voice? Turning his rigid neck behind him, he saw his partner frozen, with his right foot a step forward. Fizel, who was beside Linel only a moment before, was now standing diagonally behind Kirito, with that same green sword thrust into that black coat. The shape of her mouth that made up that smile was the same spirited one as earlier, just as jubilant.
“—And, I’m Fizel Synthesis Twenty-nine.”
The short-swords were drawn out from Eugeo’s and Kirito’s bodies at the same time. Fizel and Linel gave the swords a flick faster than the eye could perceive and shook off the red blood cleanly, then neatly stored them in their respective scabbards.
The chill creeping in from the injury in his abdomen spread throughout his body in an instant. The places that freezing coldness assailed went numb one after another.
“You… two… integri… ty…”
Right after he had somehow forced out those words, his tongue went numb and he was completely petrified.
His knees gave way without warning and Eugeo dropped to the floor like a sack. His chest and left cheek crashed heavily onto the marble, but pain, as well as his entire sense of touch, was absent.
Immediately after, Kirito tumbled over with a thud.
Eugeo realized, though it was already too late, and tried to think of a countermeasure.
He had generally studied about forms of poison in nature and and their antidotes from the Sword Mastery Academy lectures. However, all of those were only measures for cases when one was affected by poison from plants, snakes, or insects, not in preparation for getting attacked by venom in the midst of battle like this.
That was only natural. Battles were competitions of valor and grace where the academy, no, the Human World was concerned, so an act like adding venom to weapons would have been strictly prohibited. He heard that even the young noble, who had released a venomous insect and tried to hinder Eugeo and Kirito from taking part in the Zakkaria Swordsmanship Tournament, didn’t go so far as to coat his sword with poison in the match with Kirito.
As such, the knowledge Eugeo possessed was on the level of knowing what type of herb to apply when stung by some specific venomous insect. Even if he were to discover what variant of venom the girls used, there was no vegetation around, let alone medicinal plants. The final method was to try curing himself via sacred arts, but the usage of art rituals was impossible with his hands and mouth paralyzed.
In other words, if this venom did not merely rob his body of its freedom, but was one that constantly reduced his Life as well, both of their lives would be extinguished before they got halfway up the Central Cathedral.
“You don’t have to be so scared, Eugeo-san.”
Integrity Knight Linel Synthesis Twenty-eight’s voice suddenly trickled down from overhead. Perhaps due to the venom’s influence, he heard the sweet voice somewhat distorted, as though he was underwater.
“It’s just a paralyzing venom. In the first place, the only difference is whether you die here or on the fiftieth floor.”
The click-clacking of her footsteps sounded and a small, light-brown shoe jumped into Eugeo’s vision as he remained immobile with his left cheek stuck to the ground. Linel lifted her right foot, and then unreservedly placed its end atop Eugeo’s head, moving it here and there as though she was searching for something.
“…Hmm, so there really weren’t any horns.”
Moving her foot onto his back, she endlessly trampled over both of its sides.
“No wings either, huh. Zel, what about your side?”
“This one’s just a human too!”
Likely having examined Kirito the same way outside of his sight, Fizel responded unhappily.
“Ah-ah, and I was hoping to finally see a monster from the Dark Territory too.”
“Well, it’s alright. If we drag these two to the fiftieth floor and cut their heads off in front of those lame people waiting there, we should be able to get sacred instruments and flying dragons too. Then we can fly over to the Dark Territory and look at the real ones all we want.”
“Yep. Right, Nel, let’s see who’s the first one to get a darkness knight’s head!”
Even after all of that, Fizel’s and Linel’s voices were the very likeness of innocence and Eugeo thought that to be the most unnerving part of it all. How could children like these little girls become integrity knights—no, before that, why were these children in the cathedral?
Eugeo could not see when Linel, who was in front of him, drew her sword. Fizel’s agility, having easily defeated Kirito who was a distance away, was even more horrifying.
However, combat skill was not something that would improve without long years of practice and the experience of actual life-and-death battles. The reason why Eugeo could freely handle the Blue Rose Sword, a sacred instrument, would have been due to his experience in patiently swinging an axe at the Gigas Cedar, but Kirito said driving away the goblin group at the northern cave also played a major part.
But no matter how he looked at them, Fizel and Linel were around ten years old and they seemed to have never actually experienced a fight against the Dark Territory monsters too, according to their words.
In that case, through what means did they master their physical movements and sword handling, which were faster than the eye could follow?
However, Eugeo did not let out a single sound about the swirling doubts within his heart.
It seemed the venom had circulated through his entire body, with the sensation of the floor’s coldness or the presence of his own body disappearing before he knew it. Linel’s small hand grabbed Eugeo’s right ankle and he noticed he was being dragged along as his vision reeled around.
Desperately shifting his eyeballs that could hardly move that much towards the left, he spotted Kirito being dragged along like baggage as well. The paralysis likely reached his face the same as Eugeo, as his partner’s expression was blank.
The two young integrity knights dragged Eugeo and Kirito along, the Blue Rose Sword and black sword still within their belts, and began going up the stairs without a care. Their heads were violently lifted and dropped each and every step climbed, but as expected, there was no sense of pain.
He had to find a plan to escape this crisis, but perhaps because the paralyzing venom had assailed even his spirit, Eugeo could sense nothing but a parched emptiness enveloping himself.
He had resolved himself to fight the Axiom Church, but even he didn’t think they would have carried out such dreadful manipulation on such children of tender years, molding them into integrity knights. And the humans living in this Human World believed that it was the symbol of absolute goodness and harmony. And had for hundreds of years.
“You think it’s weird, don’t you?”
Linel’s voice suddenly reached his ears, faint laughter accompanying it.
“‘Why did children like these became integrity knights?’, right? You’re going to get killed soon enough, so I’ll tell you.”
“Nel, isn’t there no point in saying that if we’re killing them? You’re eccentric as always.”
“Don’t you think going all the way up to the fiftieth floor is boring?—Eugeo-san, we were born and raised here, in this cathedral. We were made by the brothers and sisters in the tower under orders from Administrator-sama, you know. For her «resurrection» sacred art experiments that can recover Life that had been completely lost.”
The words coming out from her mouth were unbelievably horrifying, but Linel’s voice remained cheerful until the very end.
“It seems children outside receive their sacred task when they’re ten, but we were given them at five. Our job was to murder each other. We were given a sword like a toy, far smaller than even this venomous sword, and made to pair up and stab each other.”
“You sucked at stabbing, didn’t you, Nel. I couldn’t stand how much it hurt each time.”
Linel responded, unsatisfied, at Fizel’s voice that seemed to have joined in.
“That was because of your weird movements, Zel. —I think you two would know after defeating two integrity knights, but humans don’t die so easily, do they, Eugeo-san, Kirito-san? It’s the same even for kids at merely five years old. Even as we panicked with the need to kill each other quickly, we blindly slashed and stabbed until finally reducing each other’s Lives to zero, but Administrator-sama would just resurrect us with sacred arts…”
“And resurrection totally didn’t work out at the start too, right? The kids who died normally were still lucky; there were some that exploded into pieces or some that turned into weird lumps of meat or some that became different people when revived, weren’t there?”
“Even if it was supposed to be our sacred task, we didn’t want to be pointlessly hurt and revived either. We tried out various ways and noticed that getting killed in one hit as cleanly as possible hurt the least and had high chances of resurrection. But that single hit’s the hard part, you know. It had to be really fast and smooth, either a stab to the heart or slashing off the head.”
“And we succeeded in that at around seven, I think? We practiced all the time while the other kids were sleeping, after all.”
There was utterly no sign of his senses returning, but shivers still assailed Eugeo, like goose bumps rising over his entire body.
The reason why Fizel and Linel acquired their frightening physical techniques.
It was from killing each other without cease over many years, or so the girls were saying. Day after day, they swung their swords thinking about how best to sever their friends’ lives.
Certainly, with the accumulation of such experience, it might be possible to master the skills required to be conferred the position of an integrity knight even as a child. But on the other hand, these two have definitely lost something essential.
Linel continued in the same cheerful voice even as she incessantly ascended the grand staircase.
“It was around the time we became eight years old that Administrator-sama gave up on the resurrection art experiments. It looked like perfect resurrection was impossible in the end. Did you know? When your Life becomes zero, loads of white arrows of light rain down and, how do I say this, the insides of your head get sliced away bit by bit. The kids who had their important parts shaved away don’t come back the same even if their Life was restored. There were countless times when I lost the last few days of memories after getting revived. —As a result, the thirty of us at the start became just Zel and me at the end of the experiments.”
“That big-headed elder told us who had survived to choose our next sacred task, so we said that we wanted to become integrity knights. He got mad when we said that, saying that the integrity knights were guardians of order summoned from the Celestial World by Administrator-sama; that they weren’t something children like us could become. And then it ended up as a match against the novice integrity knights at that time. …What were those guys’ names?”
“Erm… Something-something Synthesis Twenty-eight and Twenty-nine.”
“Look here, Nel, I’m asking for that something-something part. Oh well, that face the elder had when we cut those arrogant brothers’ heads off in one slash was strange, huh?”
Stopping her words there, the girls merrily laughed for a while.
“…And, upon finding out the result, Administrator-sama made us integrity knights as a special case. Replacing the two who died. But she said we lacked the knowledge to take up defense duty like the other knights, so we had to be taught about the law and sacred arts for another two years as sister apprentices… honestly, it’s just annoying.”
“When we were discussing how we could get flying dragons and sacred instruments quicker, the warning that underlings of the Dark Territory had invaded the cathedral came in, you see. Both Nel and I went, ‘This is it!’. We thought that if we caught the intruders and executed them faster than the other knights, Administrator-sama might make us into official knights, so we waited at the stairs.”
“I’m sorry about using poison. But we really wanted to bring Eugeo-san and Kirito-san to the fiftieth floor if possible… Ah, please don’t worry. We’re super good at killing, so it won’t hurt.”
It seemed the two girls couldn’t wait for the moment they cut Eugeo’s and Kirito’s necks in front of the defense line of integrity knights on the fiftieth floor much longer. Their lively strides became increasingly light, climbing the stairs astonishingly fast despite dragging their prey along.
Although he had to think up of an escape plan somehow, Eugeo could do naught but listen to what the pair talked about in a daze. Even if his mouth wasn’t paralyzed, he believed it was utterly impossible to make these children change their minds through words. The two of them probably don’t even possess the concept of good and evil. All the girls obeyed was the orders from the one who «manufactured» them, the highest minister, Administrator—
After they turned for the umpteenth time, the ceiling reflected in Eugeo’s opened eyes changed from the underside of the next floor’s staircase to a level surface. The staircase likely didn’t continue because they had finally reached the fiftieth floor that divided the cathedral into two.
Fizel and Linel’s steps came to a halt and they exchanged brief words, “Let’s go” and “Yeah”, with each other.
There were several minutes until that green sword severed his neck—no, there were probably only seconds. His body showed no sign of his senses returning at all and his fingertips wouldn’t move the slightest despite how much he wished it.
The ceiling here was much higher than it had been so far. It was probably twenty mel high at least. The marble canopy far above, colorfully depicted a likeness of the three goddesses of the world’s creation and their devotees, arched overhead. The columns that supported the canopy, too, were adorned with countless sculptures, Solus’s light lavishly cascaded down onto them through the windows installed to the left and right. It was a somber scene, one fitting of its name, «Grand Cloister of Spiritual Light».
The two girls dragged Eugeo and Kirito along another five mel and their feet stopped there. His body spun half a circle with the force of his right foot thrown out and Eugeo could finally see through the entire grand cloister.
It was dreadfully wide. Likely using up all of this entire cathedral floor, the flooring made from stones of different hues appeared hazy at the corners in the white light. A deep-crimson carpet spread straight towards the wall furthest from the entrance, a grand door that practically seemed built for giants towered at the end. There was no mistake that the stairs continuing to the next floor were beyond that door.
And— Far in front of the door, in the center of the hall, several motionless knights clad in full body armor, exuding an air of intimidation that would let no-one pass as they stood tall, could be seen. Four were lined up at regular distances. One was a little in front.
Every one of the four standing behind were uniformly equipped in armor, gleaming silver, wearing helmets engraved with a cross. The same shape as Eldrie’s. Their weapons, too, were the same large straight swords thrust onto the floor, with both hands placed firmly on the pommels.
The one in front had armor with a significantly different design from the four behind. It was completely suffused with a refined orchid radiance and was noticeably more sophisticated as well, while a slender sword that seemed specialized for thrusting skills hung at the waist. What that knight wore could be considered light armor, but the other four were no comparison for the density of resolve that emanated from there. Eugeo couldn’t see what lay inside that helmet modeled after the wings of birds of prey, but he believed there was no possibility that the knight was inferior to Deusolbert.
These were the five integrity knights that formed an insurmountable barrier to their aim of the highest floor.
But the ones who were a bigger threat to the lives of Eugeo and Kirito at the present moment were the two children standing right before their eyes.
Triumphantly bending their backs, covered in their plain ascetic clothes, Linel and Fizel confronted the five knights.
“—My, if it isn’t Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio Synthesis Two-dono here.”
Linel first announced in a cheerful voice.
“It appears the elder must have been rather alarmed as well, to go to the bother of sending «Heaven Piercing Sword» Fanatio-dono here. Or perhaps you are the one panicking here, Fanatio-sama? I suppose you couldn’t bear to have «Fragrant Olive»-dono walk off with the position of Deputy Knight Commander with her performance, could you?”
The few tense seconds of silence were broken by the purple knight’s rather sharp voice accompanied by a metallic reverberation.
Eugeo felt confident that he sensed hidden irritation behind that muffled echo, unique to integrity knights, that didn’t seem to originate from a human.
“…Why are you young apprentices in this battlefield of honorable knights?””
“Aha, that’s soo lame!”
Fizel quickly shouted back in an unreserved tone.
“It’s because you bring stuff like honor and dignity into fights, that two of your all-powerful, able-to-match-a-thousand integrity knights have lost, heh. But rest assured, so that you esteemed knights don’t suffer any further disgrace, we have caught the intruders for you!”
“We’ll be cutting the intruders’ heads off now, so please look closely and report it to the highest minister. I suppose the honorable integrity knights wouldn’t even imagine about stealing our achievement, am I right?”
Eugeo couldn’t help but be dumbfounded at the girls’ guts despite the perilous situation he was in, as Linel and Fizel spoke with even less restraint while the five integrity knights, possessing superhuman strength, faced them.
No—that might be a little off.
Could that prominent emotion hovering behind the children’s small backs be hatred…?
Lying on the floor, Eugeo issued his strength to the only part that could move, his two eyes, and stared at Linel and Fizel. But still, what was their hatred directed towards? Despite appearing before the major criminals who had rebelled against the Axiom Church and highest minister, Administrator, the girls had showed nothing but pure curiosity.
Linel and Fizel, openly expressing both hatred and contempt, glared at the integrity knights, and the knights looked back at the two children with irritation, as Eugeo looked up at the children, harboring doubts in his mind, so—
Until the instant that black-clothed shadow appeared behind the children without a sound, there was likely not a single being who had detected its movement.
Kirito, who should have been affected by the paralyzing venom like Eugeo, approached from behind the two girls with the smoothness of a shadow panther on the prowl, and took the venomous swords hanging on their waists by their hilts: Fizel’s in his right hand, Linel’s in his left. With that, he drew the swords upwards and linked it to a shallow slash on each of the children’s exposed left arms.
The children only managed to turn to look back with blank faces after Kirito landed from a long jump backwards, with the short-swords still in his hands.
Vacant expressions of surprise appeared on Linel’s and Fizel’s innocent faces.
The venom’s effects manifested immediately and the children tumbled onto the floor softly after voicing that much.
Kirito got up as though he was their substitute. He held both of the venomous swords together in his left hand and searched through Linel’s ascetic clothes with his right after walking up to her. The object he instantly picked out was a tiny bottle the size of his fingertips, stoppering an orange-colored fluid.
Flicking off the cork and putting it to his nose, he nodded as though convinced, then walked on. Eugeo couldn’t do anything but to believe the fluid, gently flowing from the bottle that drew close to his lips, was an antidote and drank it down. It was likely for the best that he had no sense of taste.
Kirito, displaying a rare sort of grimness on his face, whispered in an extremely soft voice while still on his knees.
“The paralysis will be cured in a few minutes. When your mouth can move, be sure to start chanting the armament full control art without the knights’ notice. Keep on standby when you’re done preparing and wait for my signal.”
Getting up after saying only what he needed to, Kirito moved to the girls’ side once again. He shouted out towards the five integrity knights still standing a distance away in a strained, loud voice.
“Knight Kirito, as well as Knight Eugeo, would like to extend our deepest apologies for the disrespect of looking on while lying down at the side! In addition to that disrespect, I beg for you to grant a deferment for us to redress our disgrace! I propose we cross swords after that hiatus!”
The purple knight, who was probably of a rather high rank, immediately replied in a dignified tone.
“I am the second of the integrity knights, Fanatio Synthesis Two! Criminals, my sacred instrument, «Heaven Piercing Sword», doesn’t possess a single drop of mercy, so declare your last words if you have any, while this sword remains sheathed!”
Upon hearing that, Kirito instantly looked down at the two girls collapsed beside him and hit out with his words, loud enough for even the knights to hear.
“—I believe you think it’s weird, don’t you? About why I could move.”
Chagrin dyed Linel’s eyes as the words she had personally spoken earlier were stolen.
“The two of you fumbled your words earlier. You said all of the brothers and sisters were ordered not to leave their rooms. There shouldn’t be anyone who can disobey an order within the cathedral. Hence, that proved you were not actual sister apprentices since you hadn’t abided by the order.”
A prickling pain crawled around his limbs, perhaps because his senses had started to return thanks to the medicine, but Eugeo took nearly no notice of it. He finally understood what emotion was hidden behind his partner’s expression.
Despite his usual character, that Kirito—was enraged.
But it didn’t seem that rage was directed towards the children. After all, a considerable level of sympathy could be seen in his eyes as they were cast down at Linel and Fizel.
“Besides, there’re those scabbards on your waists. Those were made from the «ruby evergreen oak» in the south, right? That is the only material that would not rot when in contact with these swords made from the «poison steel from Ruberyl». There was no way mere sister apprentices could have something like these. Thus, I chanted an art to counteract the poison before the two of you got closer. It did take quite some time for it to finish, though. …Strength isn’t purely based on how fast you can swing your swords. To sum it up, the both of you were foolish; foolish enough to deserve dying here right this instant.”
Kirito coldly told the two girls and raised the poison swords held in his left hand up high.
The two swords traced a green flash as they flew from his hand, thrown down without any hesitation. They buried themselves with a dull noise, into the stone floor at the tip of Linel’s and Fizel’s noses.
“But I won’t kill you. In exchange, watch closely at just how strong the integrity knights you ridiculed are.”
He turned aside after those few words and proceeded several steps forward.
Kirito slowly turned the black sword that glided from its scabbard with a sharp sound and brandished it in front of himself.
“—I apologize for the wait, Knight Fanatio! Knight Kirito stands before you!!”
He’s overdoing it… regardless of what the circumstances may be.
He thought to cry those words out at his partner’s back, but Eugeo’s lips merely trembled slightly. His senses were returning, but his voice was still locked away.
Kirito had always borrowed those weapon listings from the academy’s library he held an interest in, so that was likely where he had gained the knowledge of the «ruby evergreen oak» and «poison steel». With his inherent insight added in, Kirito might have escaped from the trap laid by Linel and Fizel, but it was clear that they had been plunged into an even more perilous plight due to the children. After all, they had to engage strong opponents in direct combat: five integrity knights, with one among them at the position of Deputy Knight Commander. The plan of discussing their actions and chanting the full control art in advance, before charging into the grand cloister, was naturally voided.
The usual Kirito would have dragged Eugeo along as he fled without a tinge of hesitation, rearranging the circumstances to make it the slightest bit more advantageous. As expected, the reason why he didn’t was because he wasn’t in his normal state. If he stared hard, he could practically see a profound anger stirring Kirito up, bluish-white flames upon the black shirt on his back.
Even the instructors at the Sword Mastery Academy would have been overpowered if they had confronted Kirito, as he currently was, head-on. However, as expected of one who was the integrity knight’s second in command, the purple knight named Fanatio grasped the hilt of that slender sword on the left waist in a dignified motion. When it was unsheathed with a clear sound, a dazzling radiance, as though the blade itself was emitting light, struck Eugeo’s eyes.
Following Fanatio, the four integrity knights behind reversed their great swords thrust into the floor and brandished them in a neatly coordinated motion. The resolve felt welling from their swords rippled the air in the hall as it pushed against Kirito’s.
Fanatio, who didn’t show the slightest bit of liveliness despite the strained situation, let loose a voice with a somber ring to it from under the helmet.
“Criminal Kirito, it appears you desire an individual match with me… but unfortunately, we have been strictly ordered to use all means to erase the both of you if you were to reach this cloister. Hence, I shall have them serve as your opponent first. —The «Four Oscillation Blades» personally tempered under my instruction, that is!”
Fanatio loudly declared, then started with rapid chanting of a complex sacred art that began with ‘system call‘. It was likely, no, unmistakably the armament full control art. The only means to counter were to use the same art as well, or to cut the knight down before it was finished.
Kirito chose the latter. As he rushed at Fanatio with enough force to make sparks scatter from his soles’ hobnails, he swung his black sword overhead.
However, the knight who stood at the left, among the four in wait behind Fanatio, began an assault at the same time. The great sword held with both hands cleaved horizontally from the left with a heavy groan, advancing on Kirito.
Kirito changed his sword’s orientation, receiving the knight’s attack with a downwards swing from overhead. An ear-piercing crash resounded. Both were repelled backwards, widening the gap.
Kirito’s recovery was quicker in comparison to the knight, hurriedly trying to pull the huge sword back. He had already entered the stance to pursue upon landing, and with just a single lunge more at his opponent’s chest—
—Eugeo’s breath immediately escaped after he believed that. He didn’t know when it had happened, but a second knight had rushed in and released an all-out horizontal slash from the left.
Kirito stopped his feet and this time, his sword slashed up towards the left and repelled the enemy’s sword. There was the same metallic noise and abundant spray of sparks as earlier, and the two opened up a distance of approximately four mel.
The second knight’s stance, too, was severely demolished. It was only natural, holding one’s ground after being repelled from dealing an all-out attack with a sword that huge would be difficult regardless of how much physical strength one had. What should be praised, however, was Kirito’s expertise, for repulsing the opponent’s sword with a complete minimum of motion and gracefully absorbing its recoil, shifting into the next offensive stance immediately after.
Without being giving even the time to consider the potentiality, Eugeo saw a third knight lunging at Kirito once again, directly after he landed. Before his sight was taken by the collision between sword and sword for the third time, Eugeo forced his eyes to the rear.
And he ground his teeth. In that moment Kirito crossed swords with the third knight, the fourth was already beginning to rush forth.
How could they predict Kirito’s movement so accurately? Kirito’s reaction finally became erratic from the consequent horizontal cleave. Although he did succeed in intercepting it somehow, his black-clothed frame swayed in the air, perhaps due to the force he was pushed back by.
It took too long, but Eugeo noticed the four knights’ intent.
All of the knights’ attacks were horizontal slashes from left to right. Parrying that with his sword would restrict the direction to which he would be repelled, to a certain degree. With that as their aim, the next knight would repeat the horizontal slash. The wider range when compared to thrusts and vertical swings, along with the blade’s length, could provide a rough estimate that was sufficient for them to catch Kirito within the reach of their slashes, even if it was done in advance.
It was a supposed «consecutive hits skill via a group» from the integrity knights who shouldn’t have secret moves with consecutive hits. They really were different from the swordsmen in the capital who purely pursued the beauty of styles, they were true warriors hardened through actual battles in the Dark Territory.
However, the knights’ coordinated tactic was not perfect either.
—Notice it, Kirito, there’s a way to get through it if you do!
A hoarse groan seeped out from Eugeo’s throat as he tried to shout. His tongue and lips were finally starting to move. As he moved his mouth in a desperate bid to loosen those stiff muscles, to start on the art ritual even a moment quicker, Eugeo frantically prayed as he looked on at his partner. For him to notice it.
Having parried the fourth knight’s sword, Kirito slipped up in his landing at last, thrusting a single hand onto the floor.
The first knight’s sword roared as it launched an assault, thrusting in after recovering from the impact.
Kirito immediately slumped his upper body backwards, slipping under the sword. A section of his black hair made contact with the blade and was scattered away.
Yes—If the incoming attack was certain to be a horizontal slash, he would simply have to dodge above or below it instead of deflecting it with his sword.
But that evasion has to be combined with a counterattack. If he were to fall down, there would be a short pause, no, something longer than that before he could take action again.
It appeared the second knight approaching from Kirito’s left had absolutely no intention of missing that pause. Nimbly shifting the sword that was pointed sideways up, the knight executed a vertical slash at full power.
Danger, Eugeo tried to shout, ignoring the sharp pain running through his throat. However, it wasn’t in time. It was when he instinctively averted his eyes, not expecting him to be able to dodge—
The initial knight who just completed the sword swing on Kirito’s right shook violently.
Kirito wasn’t merely sprawled over. His two legs had clutched around the knight’s unnoticed, pulling the knight down atop himself.
The second knight could not stop the slash in motion and the great sword’s blade buried itself deeply into his ally’s back. The knight who recovered his sword while showing signs of shock was then assaulted by a black flash reaching from below.
Kirito, his lunge accurately stabbing through the knight’s two arms as he got up, turned towards the third knight who appeared to be charging forward in disorder and shoved the second away with all the force he had. As expected, the third couldn’t hack at him along with an ally and halted the slash.
At last, the consecutive attacks from the group Fanatio called the «Four Oscillation Blades» came to an end.
Kirito ran savagely through that gap. Without sparing the four knights even a glance, he launched an attack on Fanatio, chanting the full control art.
Let it reach—!
Eugeo frantically prayed.
Kirito howled, his sword raised up high from afar. It wouldn’t reach from that distance normally, but the blade released a yellow-green flash immediately after. Aincrad-style secret move, «Sonic Leap». It was a one-hit vertical slash like «Vertical», but possessed the ability to charge forward from over twice that distance in an instant.
Fanatio turned the slender sword’s point at Kirito whose bestial pounce trailed out a path of light. However, it was impossible for such a delicate weapon to ward off the impact from a secret move no matter what was tried. The long sword carved from the Gigas Cedar held a weight higher than the Blue Rose Sword, a sacred instrument. Adding a slashing attack at Kirito’s practically godlike speed into the mix, it would be enough to smash something like a slender sword into smithereens, even if there were three of them bundled up together.
It was at the instant when the black-clothed knight reached the peak of his jump and began to swing his sword forward—
A flash came from the slender sword at the knight’s hand.
No, to be accurate, the entire blade turned into a bluish-white radiance as it stretched out forward with terrifying agility.
The slender ray of light penetrated Kirito’s left flank without a sound, continued onwards towards the sky, and ignited a small explosion as it plunged into the grand cloister’s ceiling. That all ended in an instant.
Kirito’s secret move had its trajectory upset with his abdomen pierced through, and merely grazed a decorative wing on Fanatio’s helmet, forcibly snapping it off into the air.
Barely any blood could be seen flowing from the wound and Eugeo didn’t think there was much of a drop in his Life, but Kirito fell onto a single knee upon landing. When he focused his eyes hard enough, he saw pale smoke rising around the small hole opened up in his shirt.
It was probably a flame-type attack? However, the light released from Fanatio’s sword was a blinding white that was almost blue. Eugeo had never seen a flame of such color before.
Turning with a motion so refined it was detestable, Fanatio pointed the slender sword’s end precisely at Kirito who was crouching on the floor.
With a faint ‘sha’, the ray of light surged out again. If it wasn’t for Kirito springing to the left immediately before that, the light would have likely gone through his right leg. The light ray that precariously missed stabbed into the marble floor and once again caused a small explosion. When the light faded, a bright-red hole remained melted into the surface there.
Eugeo did not notice the jarring, hoarse voice that escaped from his own mouth for a while.
The material used in building the cathedral was marble of the highest grade, like the «immortal walls» that divided Central Centoria as a cross, judging from its pure white hue and glassy glaze. It wasn’t something that could be melted despite how hot a flame you used. Hadn’t how only the carpet had been burnt when those infernal flames brought forth by Deusolbert’s «Conflagrant Flame Bow» had engulfed the surface been enough to serve as evidence for that?
In other words, that would make Fanatio’s full control art far mightier than Deusolbert’s skill, if it was a flame-type attack. So wouldn’t Kirito’s Life that suffered a direct hit from such a skill be on the verge of dissipating?
Kirito didn’t stay in a single place, continuously jumping in erratic directions as Eugeo looked on tightly gripped in the fist of an ice-cold fear. Light rays flashed out one after another, digging into the ground, as Fanatio’s sword chased his figure.
A more horrifying detail of that skill was how it contained absolutely no prior movements before the discharge of light, such as accumulating the light or thrusting the sword. At the very least, Eugeo couldn’t guess at when the nonchalantly shifting slender sword would emit the ray of light from his position. Describing it as having an extremely long range would define it at the same level as Eldrie’s «Frost Scale Whip», but that was mere child’s play when compared to this.
Showing no sign of getting fired up at all, Fanatio continued pursuing Kirito with slick movements like a dance. Kirito could dodge even four, five, six shots of those solely because of his painstakingly tempered physical capability and feral intuition.
However, at last, the light that shot out for the seventh time declared an end to the fatal game of tag.
Shaa! The top of his foot was pierced in midair by the light ray that scorched the air as it shot out, Kirito crashed onto the floor, shoulder first, his posture crumpling. But still, Fanatio’s sword point unwaveringly aimed slightly below the tuft of black hair that was brought up straight away.
-rito, Eugeo tried to shout before he noticed the numbness of his throat and mouth were finally gone. He might be able to articulate clearly enough to complete the art ritual like this.
Instead of screaming out, Eugeo steadily sent strength to his abdomen and began chanting the art ritual at a volume too soft for the knights to hear, but loud enough to reach the creation goddesses.
Kirito would be able to get through this level of danger on his own. Hence, there was only one thing Eugeo ought to do, to chant the full control art as he was told to, getting it ready to be activated whenever it was needed.
With the sword of certain death pointed straight at Kirito, Fanatio kept quiet for a while, as though to provoke him, before speaking out in a dull voice.
“…I have been given advice, that prattling on at times like this is a bad habit of mine, from the Knight Commander for over a hundred years, but… Still, it feels like such a misery. Every single one of those who have prostrated themselves beneath the authority of my «Heaven Piercing Sword» could show naught but that asinine expression, you see. I suppose you, too, are wondering what exactly is the true form of this technique capable of cornering yourself so easily.”
It seemed the four knights under Fanatio had finished treating their casualties in the meantime too, as they were now surrounding Kirito from the back, holding their great swords in one hand. This made it even harder to escape, but it increased the possibility of prolonging Fanatio’s small talk accordingly. Concentrating fully on not making a single mistake in his chant in order to avert failure, Eugeo continued stringing the art ritual together with all he had.
“You may be a criminal, but I suppose you know of mirrors if you have lived in the capital?”
Fanatio suddenly asked a question that came out of nowhere and a perplexed expression appeared on Kirito even as he withstood the pain.
Of course, Eugeo had seen them before as well. There weren’t any back home in Rulid, but his personal room in the academy’s elite swordsman-in-training dormitory was furnished with a small one. It was a mysterious tool that reflected far more vividly than water surfaces and metal sheets, but Eugeo couldn’t quite come to like his own feeble appearance, so he hadn’t had much of a craving to peek into it.
With the sword prepared to immediately shoot light at Kirito if he made any movement, Fanatio resumed in a voice that revealed no emotion.
“As it’s a highly valued commodity made by pouring melted silver onto glass, I doubt there would be many opportunities for inhabitants outside the capital to lay their eyes on it, but… that tool is able to reflect Solus’s light almost perfectly. I wonder if you understand… that is, the reason behind why the area shone on by the reflected light becomes twice as hot. —A hundred and thirty years from now in the past, her eminence, the highest minister, confiscated silver coins and other items made from silver, and commanded glassmakers to create a thousand large panes of glass. They were for an offensive art that required no chanting… an experiment labeled «weaponry» though, you see. The thousand mirrors, lined up to form a half circle in the cathedral’s front yard, reflected the midsummer Solus’s light and focused it onto a single spot, bringing forth a pure white inferno. That melted a large rock the size of a man in mere minutes.”
Weaponry… white inferno…?
Eugeo understood nothing from Fanatio’s words. However, he knew by intuition, that the scheme from the highest minister was as horrifying as having children murder each other in order to stabilize the resurrection art.
“—In the end, the eminent highest minister judged that it required too much preparation to get it into a battle-worthy state. However, she mentioned it would be too much of a pity for all of it to go to waste, and with her divine miracles, she gathered every one of the thousand large mirrors, tempered them, and created a single sword. That was this sacred instrument, the «Heaven Piercing Sword». Do you understand, criminal? What pierced through your abdomen and leg was the might of Sun Goddess Solus herself!”
The words from the integrity knight, tinged with a faint haughtiness, were such a surprise that Eugeo narrowly avoided making a blunder on the nearly completed art ritual.
Solus’s light gathered by a thousand mirrors—was that supposed to be the true form of that white ray of light?
It was possible to counteract an attack through thermal elements with cryogenic elements. But how could an attack through light be guarded against? In the first place, arts with luminous elements as their source of power should have nearly no direct offensive ability, to the extent of Eugeo’s knowledge. A blinding light could be negated with umbra elemental arts, but a light ray on that level would probably pierce through ten or twenty umbra elements thrown at it easily.
Unconcerned with the intolerable unease in his heart, Eugeo’s mouth continued constructing the art ritual, half automatically, and finally reached the final line. The power hidden within the Blue Rose Sword would be invoked after chanting the ending phrase, «enhance armament». But that would have to wait for Kirito’s signal.
Fanatio appeared to have ran out of things to talk about and slightly thrust the sword pointed at Kirito’s head forward.
“Kirito, have you understood the might of my sword that will erase your Life? Then I shall allow you to repent for your sins, entrust your heartfelt faith to the three goddesses, and beg them for their mercy before you die. If you do so, the spiritual light of purification will cleanse the sins of your soul and guide it to the Celestial World. Now—farewell, immature and foolish criminal.”
The Heaven Piercing Sword shone dazzlingly, projecting the ray of light that would ring his death knell through his heart.
It was in that instant when that scream reached Eugeo’s ears.
Directly before Fanatio’s sword shone, Kirito slapped his two hands together with a ‘pan!’ and then held them out in front. What appeared before his palms was a single sheet colored silver.
No, that’s not it. It wasn’t merely a sheet of metal. The perfectly level, square sheet clearly reflected Fanatio’s helmet while the knight stood in front of Eugeo.
Eugeo’s eyes had perceived elements of two different hues grasped in those hands before they were slapped together.
The light on the right hand was that of metal elements. It was used to fire needles or create trifling tools, the metallic-type element. And what the left hand held were crystal elements. It was the glass-type element used to create imperceptible barriers and glass cups. With those two formed into the shape of a sheet and layered, the object created was—
The light spear that concealed an extreme heat hit the mirror created by Kirito’s art ritual and changed it from silver to orange in the blink of an eye.
The Lives for tools created from elements were after all low. Even if a knife looked the same on the outside, compared to one forged from ore that could last for tens of years, one formed from metal elements would exhaust its Life in only hours and dissipate. That mirror should be no exception, it was highly doubtful it would have the endurance to deflect the Heaven Piercing Sword’s light.
As Eugeo’s fleeting thought predicted, the mirror survived in the air for only a mere tenth of a second. The glass and metal melted into a fluid that scattered about and the light ray went straight at Kirito, retaining eighty percent of its radiance.
However, the instant’s worth of reprieve forcibly brought about wasn’t wasted on Kirito either. It was hardly anything, but he succeeded in tilting his frame towards the left and the light singed only a part of his black hair and cheek before it streamed behind him.
And the remaining twenty percent of the light caught by the mirror—
Was deflected at an acute angle and sprung upon Fanatio’s helmet.
It shouldn’t have been a predictable move, but as expected of the second integrity knight, the light ray was dodged with a head tilt to the right with reflexes on par with Kirito or higher. However, the knight couldn’t protect the decorative wings that sprung from either side of the helmet. The decoration on the left was hit by the light and the clasp disintegrated with it—the helmet broke into two, front and back, immediately after.
Eugeo’s sight was seized by the abundance of hair that swept into the air in that moment.
It was a deep black like Kirito’s hair. But its silkiness was overwhelmingly superior. The flowing wavy long hair, which must have surely been groomed with tender care, glistened bewitchingly in the midday light from the grand windows.
Why would someone like a knight—
As Eugeo unconsciously wondered that, he could see Fanatio’s face quickly being covered with a raised left hand.
And Fanatio shouted.
“You saw, didn’t you… cretin!!”
It was utterly different from that metallically warped voice that had come from the helmet previously; it was in a high-pitched tone, both refined and supple.
The overwhelming surprise drove Eugeo to the brink of releasing his voice, which would break the art ritual’s standby status.
He tightly pursed his lips to prevent any unnecessary words from spilling out. However, part of his consciousness was steadfastly drawn towards Knight Fanatio’s retreating figure.
Her stature was similar to Kirito or taller, but when he assessed her with that thought in mind, the line tracing from her back to her waist was certainly slender. However, he had been completely convinced she was a man up until now.
They had already encountered knights like Alice Synthesis Thirty, or Linel and Fizel, though they were children, so there was no reason to deny that there were quite a number of females within the integrity knights. In the first place, close to half of the trainees studying in the academy were girls like Tiezé and Ronye. Many integrity knights were produced from their ranks, so there was nothing strange about the second knight being female.
When he pondered on why he was so astonished despite that, Eugeo noticed that it was because Fanatio’s speech and behavior up until now had been excessively masculine.
If that was the case, the reason for the anger exuding from Fanatio’s entire frame right now was not because her bare face was seen—it might be due to them finding out she was female.
It appeared Kirito, down on the floor with a single knee, had the pain from the burn on his cheek vanish too, as an astonished look showed up on his face.
Glaring at Kirito crouching through the gaps between the fingers on her left hand, Fanatio spoke again.
“So you’re… making that sort of face too, huh, criminal. So even you bunch, guilty of high treason against the church, will not fight seriously the moment you know I’m a girl?”
Despite being a lament, practically wrung from herself, her voice was exquisite, bringing to mind stringed instruments played by a virtuoso.
“I am not human… I am an integrity knight summoned to this land from the Celestial World… And yet I have to suffer such scorn from you men, the instant you know me to be female! Not just among my peers… but even from the commander of those incarnations of evil, the darkness knights!!”
—That’s not it; neither of us are looking down on you.
After replying thusly in his mind, a thought struck Eugeo.
He had fought many swordswomen during his service as a guard in Zakkaria and while he began studying in the academy. There were several among them who possessed more skill than Eugeo and of course, there were times when he lost against them. Through experiencing all of those battles, Eugeo did not go easy on his opponents just because they were female and he held respect for experts in the field regardless of their gender.
However—what if it wasn’t a match where the competitors won by stopping before making contact or after the first hit, but an actual life-and-death battle? Could he really annihilate his opponent’s Life without hesitation…?
It happened when Eugeo was seized by the thoughts he now considered for the first time and lost his breath.
Kirito who was crouching on the floor suddenly became a gust of wind and leapt out.
It was a downwards slash from the right without any trickery or even secret moves. However, the blade moved at an appalling speed that appeared hazy even in Eugeo’s eyes. It was like a miracle instead, that Fanatio managed to parry it in time with her heart thrown in disarray. Gaan! An ear-piercing impact echoed through the hall, scattering sparks that vividly illuminated the pair’s faces for a moment.
Fanatio skillfully stopped the slash near her slender sword’s guard, but she could not soak up the brunt of the charge and was forced back several steps. Kirito locked their swords together and jostled into the female knight’s slender body without slackening the pressure. Fanatio’s knee, clad in purple armor, began to bend slightly.
Kirito suddenly spoke in a low tone.
“I see, that explains that sword and skill. It’s to hide that you’re a woman when fighting… that’s right, isn’t it, Fanatio ojou-sama?”
Her shout sounded like a scream; Fanatio forced her sword back as they scraped against each other.
When Eugeo turned his sight that was fastened on those two elsewhere, he could feel signs of distress from the four surrounding knights as well. It might be likely, but there could be some among them who did not know Fanatio’s bare face. The two girls who were laid paralyzed on Eugeo’s right couldn’t show any signs of either, however.
Exposing themselves to the knights’ eyes, Kirito and Fanatio continued their all-out competition. Kirito was clearly the winner in terms of body weight and sword weight, he guessed. But after getting pushed back once, Fanatio showed no sign of drawing back with that physical strength unimaginable from her slender arms.
Kirito hurled words at her once again from the gaps in his gritted teeth.
“…I’ll say this first, but what I was surprised at just now, was how the resolve in your sword decreased by such a far-fetched amount the instant your helmet broke. Hiding your face, hiding your sword swings… aren’t you the one most conscious that you’re a woman?”
“Sh… shut up! I’ll kill you… I’ll definitely kill you at least…!”
“That’s what I’m planning on doing too. I have absolutely no plan to go easy on you because you’re a woman at all; after all, I’ve been losing to swordswomen the entire time!”
It was true that Kirito had countlessly been beaten by Sortiliena-senpai, whom he served as a valet, as far as Eugeo knew. But Eugeo believed he wasn’t exactly referring to training or practice matches. As if he was saying that he had actually lost to swordswomen elsewhere, in real bouts in the past…
At that moment, Kirito’s right leg suddenly sprung forth and tripped Fanatio’s legs. Her upper body floundered and the two swords scattered sparks as they parted. Without a moment’s delay, he thrust his black sword in with a single hand.
However, the integrity knight’s right hand flashed at godlike speed and her slender sword deflected the black sword from the side like a living creature. Straightening her posture while avoiding the thrust’s passage, she took a step back to regain some distance.
Kirito’s recovery was quick as well. Using the momentum from the thrust, he dove into the opponent’s chest in what seemed like a body slam and maintained the close range. After all, long range battles were not feasible against Fanatio who possessed that skill to fire light rays without prior preparation.
An ultra-high speed clash of swords began at near-zero distance.
What frightened Eugeo was how Fanatio dealt with Kirito’s disorientating consecutive attacks without retreating by even a step back. The black blade that launched assaults from up, down, left, and right in succession was handled by the slender sword, freely flashing around, retaliating with thrusts of two or three consecutive hits whenever there was the smallest opening. Neither of the two used secret moves, but that was because they couldn’t even find the opening to perform the initial stance.
Every single one of the traditional swordsmanship styles in the Human World possessed only one-hit sword skills and it seemed not even the elderly Integrity Knight Deusolbert knew of consecutive hit skills. That would mean Fanatio worked out consecutive sword skills through her own effort. The reason behind that was definitely not unrelated to Kirito’s speech from a while ago.
The light from the Heaven Piercing Sword, to defeat enemies without getting close. Or the consecutive hit skills, to drive enemies away with successive attacks even if she was unable to use the full control art and lost the initiative.
In other words, the female knight, Fanatio, was afraid of enemies getting close to her and noticing what was hidden under her armor.
But why…? Why would she try so hard to hide her own gender?
While reflecting on the new doubt that welled up, Eugeo’s eyes were glued to the battle between the pair. It appeared the four knights under Fanatio were the same, they looked over the ferocious fight without moving one bit and with their great swords lowered.
Really now, this is such—
Such a magnificent battle.
At that close distance, both parties hardly moved their feet and continued defending against the barrage of slashes and thrusts darting back and forth just by dodging their bodies or by parrying. The spectacle around the pair was as though a multitude of stars were surging in, rebounding, and vanishing, one after another. Even the clangs of steel clashing against steel had a certain magnificence to it, reminding one of a percussion instrument duet.
A chilling smile crept onto Kirito’s face that grew pallid as he executed techniques with such vigor, it was like he completely fused with the black sword. The close range battle should have been able to blockade the opponent’s usage of Solus’s light, but he currently seemed to be simply immersed in the joy of thrashing out with his tempered sword skills to his heart’s content.
On the other hand, Fanatio should have no reason to go along with her opponent. If she were to get one of her subordinates to attack Kirito from behind, take that opening to gain some distance, and fire those light rays again, there would be no possibility of Kirito defending this time.
Despite that, the integrity knight with fluttering black, long hair appeared to be trying to conclude the showdown through direct attacks with her slender sword. Eugeo could not infer the reason for that. Because of anger caused by Kirito’s provocation? Her pride as a knight could not forgive retreat? Or perhaps, she, too, had found something of note in this exchange of consecutive hit skills, this transcendental battle?
Eugeo could not see anything but Fanatio’s back from his position; he did not know what sort of expression showed upon her face.
Making a guess from her several remarks, he figured Fanatio had served the church as an integrity knight for a hundred and thirty years at minimum, with the possibility of it being more. It was an absurd length of time that Eugeo could not even imagine, with himself unsure if he could even reach nineteen years old.
He had no idea how many years it had been since she had concealed her face and gender, but if she had worked out all of those consecutive sword skills through her own effort, that was not merely ten or twenty years of practice. Kirito could only continue crossing swords with Fanatio right now because he, too, was a user of the rare consecutive hit skills, the Aincrad style. If this was any other swordsman, they would probably have been prostrated on the ground, unable to take even one step within the blade’s range.
Hence, Kirito might be the first opponent Fanatio faced who could go up against all of her thoroughly polished sword skills as well.
They might be integrity knights, but the adoration of the beauty and gallantry in using a single hit was evident in Eldrie’s and Deusolbert’s fighting styles. As such, it was doubtful that Fanatio had displayed her consecutive hit skills in practice with a knight as her partner. She had trained by herself for a long, long time, with no-one but an imaginary shadow; a fellow consecutive hit skill user then appeared, taking the form of an entity named Kirito.
As Eugeo looked on at the pair’s superhuman confrontation, his entire body was covered in goose bumps without him noticing it as tears spread from his eyes.
Ever since Kirito began teaching him the Aincrad style, the ultimate battle he visualized in his mind was now being carried out in reality here. It carried not the beauty of a style that continued seeking for vanity, but a raucous beauty acquired purely as the result of seeking to cut one’s enemy down.
Fanatio’s five consecutive thrusts took on Kirito’s five consecutive slashes in succession and the respective swords, strongly deflected away, swung down as the pair screamed out their resolve.
Even Eugeo, lying on the ground far away, could feel the heat from the shockwave caused by the clashing swords on his skin. Kirito’s and Fanatio’s black hair violently fluttered, their swords rasped, and the pair switched positions.
Eugeo lost his breath for a moment when Fanatio’s bare face finally entered his vision.
It was a pure, beautiful face; one that made him think how a holy woman from the world of fairy-tales would look like if they truly existed. She could be in her mid-twenties at most erring towards the higher side, with her silky skin the shade of black tea with plenty of milk added in. Both her arc-shaped eyebrows and long eyelashes were black, but her eyes were mostly a gold tinged copper-red. Her appearance showed that she was probably born in the eastern region and her nose bridge was moderately high. Her jawline had a tinge of roundedness as well, bringing forth a remarkably gentle elegance. And her petite lips were a very mild red.
The murderous anger from just a little earlier was no longer on the female knight’s face. Something like resignation, bottling up a certain sort of sorrow, could be felt in its place.
“—I see now.”
Fanatio murmured in her bewitching voice with the swords crossed.
“Criminal, it appears you are a little different from those who picked a fight with me. There haven’t been any men able to try and kill me this seriously once they saw this abominable countenance until now.”
“Abominable—huh. Then for whose sake are you combing that hair and tingeing those lips red?”
Kirito’s question was as provocative as usual, but Fanatio only showed slight signs of a cynical smile, answering quietly.
“I have already waited more than a hundred years for the man I love to request more from me, than sword techniques and severed heads… it is only natural to be in the mood for some cosmetics after aching for him so long under that steel mask and then ending up playing second fiddle to a new female knight, with a face more beautiful than myself and freely flaunting it.”
A strong knight more beautiful than even Fanatio. And female too.
It was only after Eugeo shivered upon thinking how such an opponent still remained above in this tower, that he realized he had an idea who the integrity knight fitting those conditions was. Not wearing a helmet, becoming a knight only in recent years, someone who knocked Eugeo down in a single hit at godlike speed—Alice Synthesis Thirty.
Kirito should be pondering over one thing or another at Fanatio’s words as well, but he revealed not a single atom of it as he questioned further.
“—What’s the most important thing to you? If integrity knights exist purely to serve the highest minister’s commands, you wouldn’t even require a heart capable of worrying over love or jealousy. I do not know who that man is, but if you’ve had an unrequited love on him for over a hundred years… that would mean you’re human. It’s because you’re human, just like me. I’m fighting to overthrow the church and highest minister, to enable humans like you to love and live normally!”
Even Eugeo was deeply surprised by those words. He never knew Kirito, who always seemed aloof, thought about such things in his mind. But at the same time, Eugeo also noticed somewhere in his partner’s voice there was an echo, as if troubled over some sort of contradiction.
Fanatio’s face distorted once again, though only for a fleeting instant.
Looking at a deep valley carved into her smooth forehead, he thought the «piety module» would emerge like in Eldrie’s case, but the visible changes to the second among the knights ended there.
“…Child, you do not understand. If the church’s authority was lost, who knows what sort of hell this world would be thrust into… The army of the Dark Territory strengthen their forces day after day, clamoring beyond the mountain range at the end that seals them away. Aah… I will admit it, you are strong. And neither underlings of darkness nor malicious intruders, as the Chief Elder mentioned, it seems. However, that does not change the fact that you are of extreme danger. To be able to sway the church and integrity knights with not just that sword, but your words as well… Before the greatest duty granted upon us integrity knights, to protect the Human World and its inhabitants, my love is merely… it’s not even worth harvesting, equivalent to the chaff of wheat.”
The Heaven Piercing Sword and the black sword crossed between the pair continued emitting a grinding sound that seemed to reach its limit, even while Fanatio talked with a grave expression, as if stating her resolution. It was clear that either of them could be sent flying if they lessened their strength by the slightest amount.
No, the two swords should still be losing their Life in the meantime. If the swords remained locked, the first one to run out of Life would be the Heaven Piercing Sword. After all, if their status as sacred instruments were on the same level, the one with more Life would simply be the thicker and heavier one.
There was no chance Fanatio had not noticed that. And how she would be mercilessly slashed dead by Kirito the moment her sword gets propelled backwards and creates an opening.
“Hence—I need to defeat you. Even if I have to trample upon my pride as a knight. Sneer at me for winning with such an unsightly skill. You possess the right to do so.”
After softly declaring all of that, Fanatio continued and shouted.
“Light hidden within the Heaven Piercing Sword, it is now the time to release yourself from your shackles!! —Release recollection!!”
This art ritual—is the art to release its memories!!
The silver blade shone brighter than it ever had.
Shupaa! Several rays of light were released in a radial pattern from the sword tip with that noise.
Eugeo instinctively thought it was meant to blind. To momentarily rob Kirito’s sight and break his posture before cutting him down.
However, that verdict was utterly extinguished when one of the light rays shot by the Heaven Piercing Sword in all directions hit the floor right beside Eugeo, burying deeply into the marble.
It wasn’t meant to blind—none of that light was!
Kirito!! Eugeo couldn’t bear but to lift his upper body as he screamed in his heart. When he focused his eyes, he saw the light rays fired at point-blank range just about to pierce through Kirito’s right arm. That wasn’t all, he could already spot evidence of deep black penetration marks in his left shoulder and right thigh.
And Kirito wasn’t the only one struck by the ultra-hot light on his body.
The master of the Heaven Piercing Sword, too, had unsightly holes bored through the armor on her abdomen, shoulder, and both legs. The depth of her injuries were worse than Kirito’s. Still, that expression filled with resolve that showed on her lovely face didn’t stir a single bit.
Integrity Knight Fanatio Synthesis Two planned to blow away her own Life as well, with Kirito as her companion.
The words from the previous highest minister, Cardinal, replayed in his mind. The ritual phrase, «release recollection», awakens all of the weapon’s memories, releasing its rampaging power. A power capable of annihilating one’s life that swallowed up not only the enemy, but yourself as well.
The released Heaven Piercing Sword gave almost fatal wounds to the pair from point-blank range, with considerable damage to the surrounding four as well, in its initial barrage. The divine ornaments in the grand cloister were not outside its reach either and were brutally torched, while the expensive glass windows shattered in succession. There were hardly any rays of light that flew all the way to Eugeo and the two paralyzed girls, collapsed nearby, but still, they would suffer a direct hit sooner or later.
No matter how much light it emitted, the sacred instrument tempered from a thousand panes of mirrors showed absolutely no sign of falling into silence. The sword point gleamed at intervals of roughly one second, firing short rays of light without taking any care to aim. Half were fired towards the empty skies, scorching only the walls, pillars, and ceiling, but quite a number among the other half reached out at a lower angle and were amassed by the pair’s bodies within point-blank range, naturally enough.
Unable to remove his sword, Kirito could only shift his head as much as he could to narrowly avoid the light bent on piercing his forehead. The light went for Fanatio’s face next, but the integrity knight didn’t make the slightest movement. The light rays grazed her cheeks, burning dark-red grooves into her unblemished, smooth skin and burning away a considerable amount of her abundant black hair in an instant.
“You… damned idiot!!”
Kirito cried out with a desperate expression. Drops of fresh blood scattered from his mouth along with it. Eugeo could easily imagine how taking that many light rays to his body would leave Kirito on the verge of exhausting his Life, regardless of how much he might have. But the black-clothed swordsman stubbornly refused to fall, even sliding his sword over the origin of the light rays, the tip of the Heaven Piercing Sword, covering it with the black sword’s flat.
As a result, it might just be a temporary deferment, but all of the light fired towards Kirito and Fanatio ended up being obstructed by the black sword.
Now—now or never!
Kirito didn’t signal for it, but Eugeo knew the time had definitely come through both his rationality and intuition.
Fanatio was naturally engaged, while the four knights under her were desperately guarding from the light as well, using their great swords as shields, with hardly any composure to care about the remaining criminal. There was no one capable of stopping Eugeo’s full control art that would leave him wide open during its activation if he used it at this moment.
Springing up with an intense force, Eugeo drew out the Blue Rose Sword that he had been gripping onto the entire time in a single stroke.
Spinning it in midair, switching it to an underhand grip, he supported the grip with his left hand as well and thrust it into the marble floor with all the strength he could muster.
Close to half of the pale-blue blade sunk deep into the floor.
Bashiiii!! Accompanied by a sharp, explosive noise, the marble floor was instantaneously covered in a pure-white frost.
As crystalline icicles pointedly stabbed upwards, a frigid wave burst forth at a breakneck speed.
Approximately five seconds after activation, the frigid wave with a breadth close to ten mel engulfed Kirito and Fanatio, along with the four knights, at their feet.
It appeared the four knights finally noticed the strange phenomenon with that. The faces covered by their helmets jerked and turned to look at him.
But it was too late.
While Eugeo put all the strength he had into his two hands, he shouted out loud.
Countless pale blue icy tendrils grew upwards in an instant, towards the four knights, Fanatio, and Kirito from their feet.
Each tendril was only as thick as a pinky finger. But all of them grew prickly thorns, densely packed together, firmly digging into their prey’s legs.
The knights collectively cried out. Innumerous icy tendrils had already crept up to their waists and abdomens along their legs. There were some who belatedly attempted to prune away the tendrils with their great swords, but the tendrils wrapped around the blades repeatedly upon contact, shackling them onto the floor.
The knights assailed by the tendrils, from their chests to their heads, even down to their fingertips, were frozen into ice sculptures incapable of the slightest movement. Eventually, from the tendrils that obstinately entwined around their quarry while letting out sharp ‘kin’ noises blossomed a limitless number of large roses, colored in a profound blue and preceded by the reverberation of an exceptionally lucid chime.
Naturally, all of that was cold ice. No honey or fragrance was produced by their solid and transparent petals, but in their place, the roses began emanating a white chill. The air within the entire cloister was shrouded in a thick mist at once, glittering and sparkling. The source of the chill—was the captured knights’ Lives.
The speed of reduction was exceedingly gradual, but they could not muster the strength necessary to break their bonds while the ice roses leeched Life from the entirety of their bodies. In the first place, this art ritual wasn’t meant for killing enemies. Eugeo decided on the art’s nature solely for the goal of retarding Integrity Knight Alice’s movement.
The four knights were rendered completely powerless, but as expected of the one who managed them, it appeared Knight Fanatio saw through the skill’s nature in the moment the tendrils broke through the frost and jumped into the air in a bid to escape.
However, Kirito, who knew of Eugeo’s art, reacted slightly quicker. Having jumped up high in anticipation of Fanatio, Kirito used the swordswoman’s spaulder as a stepping stone of all things and escaped further into the air. Somersaulting towards the back while scattering fresh blood, he escaped the ice tendrils.
His sacrifice was driven onto the ground; tendrils wrapping themselves around Fanatio’s entire body as she fell onto a knee.
Perhaps due to the break in her concentration, the rays of light indiscriminately fired from the Heaven Piercing Sword ended after shredding several tendrils, sinking into silence. Thin tendrils rapidly twined around the desolated damaged armor, encasing it within thick ice.
The last of the blue roses that opened up from Fanatio’s feet bloomed in all its glory atop the scar carved on her cheek. The second integrity knight completely ceased motion along with the sacred instrument.
In spite of the harsh injuries over his whole body, Kirito somersaulted backwards multiple times in succession and broke away from the ice tendrils, then failed on his final landing and fell with a thud beside Eugeo.
A choked voice escaped from the depths of his throat and a large quantity of fresh blood immediately sprayed out. Watching as that froze at once into a deep-crimson frost, Eugeo unconsciously cried out.
“Kirito… wait a moment, I’ll chant a healing…!”
“No, don’t stop the skill!”
Even while he was on the verge of losing consciousness from blood loss, Kirito still scowled with a gleam in his eyes and shook his head.
“That person won’t fall from just this much…”
While a thread of blood flowed near his lips, he propped his body full of wounds up with the black sword.
Kirito wiped at his mouth with his left hand and shut his eyelids for a while to regulate his breathing, before his two eyes flared open and he raised the black sword up high.
The art ritual following the opening line that strained his willpower was chanted at an astounding speed, considering his physical status.
Wheezes interweaved with blood pervaded the gaps between each verse and florid sprays scattered from his lips at times, but still, Kirito continued to recite the art ritual that exceeded ten lines without getting stuck a single time.
Looking from up close, countless scars were carved into Kirito’s body, an image so gory it caused him to shiver. The Heaven Piercing Sword’s light had pierced his well-trained body several times, charring his wounds black. There wasn’t much bleeding, a small consolation, but the various injuries evidently reached his internal organs. Kirito’s Life should be decreasing quicker than the knights still captured by the ice roses, his life in danger without immediate medical care.
However, Eugeo could not let his hands go from the Blue Rose Sword’s grip in order to maintain its full control art. It would provide some relief if Kirito would use a healing art on himself, but it appeared his partner who continued chanting while looking ghastly had absolutely no intention of doing that.
There was no need to be in such a rush, the knights ensnared in the ice cage wouldn’t break out so easily—
It was when Eugeo thought this that his sight returned to the knights in front once more.
A streak of white light emerged from the center of the fully bloomed ice roses and stabbed into the wall. Eugeo could only let out a short gasp from the overwhelming shock.
The source of the light was Knight Fanatio, who should have been fully enveloped by the layers of ice tendrils and with her movement completely sealed.
The armament full control art didn’t exactly allow completely free usage after finishing its chant. Handling the weapon with its offensive ability amplified required a high degree of mental focus from the user. Eugeo, too, had to keep a tight grip on the hilt of the sword pierced into the floor and maintain the image of abundantly blossoming ice roses if he didn’t want the knights to escape their shackles.
After fully controlling the Heaven Piercing Sword, Knight Fanatio had shot countless rays of light, gone through an ultra-high speed sword fight with Kirito, and in the end executed its grand technique of an unrestrained and indiscriminate light ray barrage, dealing almost fatal wounds even to herself. Her mental concentration should have been sapped and been released from the state of controlling the Heaven Piercing Sword—or so Eugeo thought.
Completely encased in ice, Fanatio had raised the slender sword up high with her right arm, and was slowly moving it with crackling noises coming from the ice. The visage of the knight’s spirit rising from her slim body, like a swaying heat haze, was clearly reflected in Eugeo’s wide opened eyes.
Biting his lips, Eugeo forced more strength into the two hands gripping the handle. Guided by his mental image, close to ten budding ice tendrils reached out towards Fanatio from around her. The tendrils whipped at Fanatio’s right arm and twined about it in the same motion, without leaving any gaps, and stopped her movement.
But that only lasted for a brief second.
With virtually no care for the thorns stinging her, the integrity knight forced her right hand down. Nearly half of the blue tendrils snapped, sparkling as their pieces scattered.
A chill colder than ice covered Eugeo from the back.
—Is she truly human?
Kirito’s willpower, as he continued his high speed chant while coughing up blood, was absurd as well, but the swordswoman took the cake. She would not fall despite the many perforations over her entire body from the light rays’ indiscriminate attacks and the merciless Life absorption by the ice roses—on the contrary, she was continuously pulling apart those ice shackles that rendered her four subordinate knights utterly motionless with the strength of her right arm alone.
Eugeo stared in terror at the Heaven Piercing Sword gripped in the knight’s right hand as it seemed to gradually adjust its angle towards the two of them.
Exactly what endowed Fanatio with this much power?
Her obligation to protect the law as an integrity knight? Her love towards some man that she carried for over a hundred years? Or perhaps, those words that came from the woman’s mouth earlier…?
Fanatio said that the Human World would likely be overrun by the Dark Territory’s armies if it lost the might of the Axiom Church.
Thus, that meant that even if she was hurt in the process, that woman was willing to fight to protect the masses of the Human World—those who should have been looked down upon, held in contempt, and taken advantage of by existences like her, whether they were higher class nobles or livestock.
However, that was impossible. Integrity knights were minions under that highest minister, Administrator, who arrested the young Alice and transformed her into a different individual by robbing her memories. A detestable enemy. Eugeo’s mind had established them thusly, and he climbed the cathedral, determined to take their lives should the need arise.
Despite that, how could he even consider this true—how could he seriously consider this integrity knight as an agent of justice?
“You… the whole lot of you don’t deserve to uphold justice!!”
Eugeo gave a stifled scream and poured all of the hostility he could scrape together from the depths of his heart into the Blue Rose Sword.
Once again, numerous ice tendrils leapt out around Fanatio, their tips turning into sharp thorns and piercing into the knight’s right arm one after another.
“Stop… stop moving!!”
Despite how overwhelming hatred should be whirling within his heart, for some reason, something spilled out from Eugeo’s eyes. However, he could never concede those were tears. Eugeo couldn’t let his heart be moved by Fanatio’s figure as her right arm stupidly refused to stop even while pierced by the ice thorns, embodiments of Eugeo’s outrage and resentment.
The integrity knight’s arm was battered. Snapped thorns were stuck in it like a pincushion, her blood quickly trickling down and turning into dangling red icicles.
But in the end, the arm’s movement did not stop, and it adjusted the Heaven Piercing Sword held aloft from vertical to horizontal, training its sharp point onto Eugeo and Kirito.
Eugeo saw the silver blade bathed in a radiance, more dazzling than ever before, through the tears that blurred his sight.
It shone so brightly that he could only believe Fanatio was spending the rest of her remaining Life on it. Eugeo’s moist, squinted eyes gazed upon the pure-white radiance that felt like the Sun Goddess Solus had descended into this grand cloister.
—I can’t win. I can’t win against her as I currently am.
Gazing at the ice roses that crudely crumbled simply by being exposed to the white light, Eugeo gently took a breath.
He, however, had no plans to gallantly close his eyes and wait for the light to take his life. He absolutely couldn’t accept yielding to Fanatio’s «justice» in such a manner.
At the very least, he wished to display his obstinacy by having one last rose blossom. It was when he tried to scrape together the dregs of hatred still remaining in the depths of his heart, determinedly, that it happened.
Kirito softly muttered by his side, apparently having finished chanting the art ritual.
“You can’t beat her with hatred, Eugeo.”
Upon turning his head, his partner continued with a slight smile visible on his bloodstained lips.
“You didn’t get this far because you hated integrity knights, right? You wanted to take Alice back, you wanted to meet her again… you’re here because you love Alice, right? That feeling definitely won’t lose to her justice. I’m the same… I want to protect the people in this world; I want to protect you and Alice and even her over there. So there’s no way we can lose to her now… isn’t that right, Eugeo?”
Kirito’s voice was calm despite the desperate situation. The black-clothed swordsman with many mysteries surrounding him nodded once more with a smile and looked forward.
That was the exact moment the Heaven Piercing Sword fired what was likely its final and greatest beam of light.
It was a gigantic spear of light, large enough to fit all of the light rays it had fired so far within it and more. It was like the Holy Spiritual Light, personally thrown by the goddess, Solus, to drive away the Darkness God Vector during the world’s creation, had descended to incinerate all that exists.
Kirito’s black eyes flared wide open and were gleaming with overwhelming resolve. His voice that recited the final verse was filled with an unwavering determination befitting the dire circumstances.
Facing straight ahead, the blade of the black sword pulsed.
Immediately after, strands of darkness flowed out from all over the blade.
The pitch-black torrent that seemed to suck in all light rippled, twisted, and entangled around itself. They became a spear, thick enough to wrap one’s arms around, in an instant and increasingly pushed forward.
Upon straining his eyes, it seemed only the sharpened tip was solidly materialized, taking on an obsidian-like gleam. He could recall that texture. The gigantic tree Eugeo swung an axe at, day after day. The «demonic tree» from which that black sword originated—the Gigas Cedar.
The moment he recognized it, Eugeo understood the true form behind the full control art Kirito activated.
He had awoken the memories sleeping within the black sword through the art ritual and projected into this location the appearance it could once boast of, that of the gigantic tree that refused to be hacked down over hundreds of years. Of course, its shape and size had not remained the same as it was then, but its essence was exactly the same.
Tough, sharp, and an overwhelming mass.
Its very existence was worthy of becoming an ultimate weapon.
Eugeo’s heart pounded hard. Immediately—
The huge, pitch-black spear’s tip made contact with the huge spear that was the gathered light of Solus. The explosive shockwave intensely shook the entire grand cloister… possibly the entire Central Cathedral itself.
Perhaps even the giant tree was oppressed by the heat and intensity of the light that went beyond imagination, for it lost its momentum in charging forward. But endless darkness continued to stream from the black sword in Kirito’s hands, trying to spur the spear forward, even to the bitter end.
It appeared the Heaven Piercing Sword, held in Fanatio’s hand, had no intention of resigning either. The rampaging torrent of light strengthened with each second, the ice roses covering the knight had already completely melted away due to its heat. That might have been an understatement; the gauntlet covering the knight’s right arm appeared to be glowing bright red with white smoke rising from it.
The clash between light and darkness continued for a while in the center of the grand cloister.
However, it was doubtful a competition between powers of such extreme levels would end with them perfectly offsetting each other and vanishing. It was certain that one side would drive back the other and thoroughly annihilate its enemy.
The one at a disadvantage in this match—was Kirito?
Sure, the Gigas Cedar was tough, but in the end, it was still a tree, a tangible existence. As the original had eventually been chopped down after hacking at it time after time, this, too, would be extinguished after getting damaged beyond its limits.
However, the Heaven Piercing Sword’s light was a mass of pure heat. How exactly could an intangible assault be snuffed out?
Supposing countermeasures exist, it would be either to use a mirror to deflect it like Kirito had once succeeded with, or neutralizing it with an absolute frost, stronger than what the Blue Rose Sword had brought forth; a power with a special trait capable of opposing it should be necessary. However, listing through the Gigas Cedar’s properties would result in two: its absurd toughness and its weight—
No, there was one more.
Greedily absorbing Solus’s light and turning it into its own energy.
Fanatio’s spear of light was abruptly ripped into over a thousand streams.
The balance broken, the one to charge forth once again was the essence of Kirito’s giant tree in the color of darkness.
The tip was red-hot to the point of being blinding, but still, it gouged and shredded through the light without yielding to its pressure, proceeding towards the source.
The light, split out in a radial pattern, pierced everywhere in the grand cloister, causing countless small explosions as they melted the ice tendrils. The four knights stuck onto the floor were blasted into the air one after another.
Even as Integrity Knight Fanatio looked upon the huge, pitch-black spear drawing close like a tempest, she didn’t take a single step. It appeared that all the anger and hatred had already become absent from her beautiful face. Her eyelids gently closed and her mouth moved slightly. Some sort of emotion must have been the root of that, but Eugeo had no guess for what it was.
The giant tree’s thorny tip finally ground its way to the light’s origin and collided with the Heaven Piercing Sword’s sharp point.
First, the slender sword of white silver contorted as it was flicked away, glittering as it spun in the air.
Immediately following that, the knight herself was thrown into the air by a tremendous impact.
Fragments of the purple armor scattered as she was swept straight into the ceiling, smashing the wall mural that took the world’s creation as its theme into small pieces.
Her descent was slow. Along with countless marble fragments, Fanatio’s body fell as though there were strings attached to it, falling directly in front of the large doors at the rear of the grand cloister with a dull crash. And the second integrity knight stood no more.
The pitch-black spear gently lost its corporeality and began to be absorbed back into the black sword Kirito held, like a stream of shadows. When Eugeo took a look, it appeared the sword itself had become somewhat enlarged like during that one battle with Raios, but it returned to its original size once all of the darkness was once again within the sword.
Eugeo turned back forward and gazed mutely over the debris left from the fierce battle.
The spotless marble floor and walls were melted and broken here and there, mere shadows of their former selves. The floor at the heart of the brawl between the huge spears of darkness and light in particular, had a broad and deep trench channeled through it; it was weird how it hadn’t broken through to the floor below.
The fact that two people alone brought about this much destruction to the Central Cathedral’s fiftieth floor, the «Grand Cloister of Spiritual Light», not to mention that they were just swordsmen studying at the Sword Mastery Academy only two mere days ago, would not be believed by anyone aside from those present.
—But we really did it.
Eugeo muttered in his inner thought. We’ve fought five of the integrity knights, those who maintained an unconditional rule over this world of humans since its creation, and we have won.
Counting from Eldrie onwards, this would make it nine integrity knights we’ve driven off. According to Cardinal’s words, there are twelve knights stationed within the cathedral, so there’re three left. In other words, if we defeat just a few more knights…
It was roughly at the same time as Eugeo clenched his teeth.
Kirito collapsed onto his knees beside him. The black sword fell from his right hand with a flat clang.
Tearing his hands from the Blue Rose Sword stabbed into the floor in a panic, Eugeo’s torso lurched forward and he propped his partner up.
The body he held back was astonishingly light and the extent of the blood and Life flowing out was undeniable. The skin was whiter than marble and there was no sign of those shut eyelids lifting. Scanning his eyes over the entire body, he held his hand over the wound that seemed the deepest, the one at the flank.
“System Call! Generate luminous element!”
Gathering the three generated luminous elements on the wound, he next converted them into healing power through an art ritual. He released his hand just as the charred wound began to close, bit by bit, and carried out the same treatment on the wound at the left shoulder. Normally, catalysts such as «sacred flower orbs» were necessary for generating luminous elements which consumed much sacred power from the surrounding area, but they weren’t now. Sufficient Life extracted from the five knights by the Blue Rose Sword had transformed into sacred power and had accumulated in the air.
The continuous reduction of Life should halted with the worst wound healed, but Eugeo couldn’t use any luminous-type sacred arts capable of recovering Life of someone who lost much of theirs. He grasped Kirito’s right hand with his left without any hesitation and chanted a new art ritual.
“System call! Transfer human unit durability, self to left!!”
Beads of indistinct blue light covered Eugeo’s entire body this time around and they immediately gathered at his left hand, then streamed into Kirito’s body. This art which allowed for Life transfer between humans had a huge effect despite the art ritual’s simplicity.
Thinking back upon it, Kirito was the one who had suffered heavy injuries while Eugeo had barely lost any Life, both during the battle against Deusolbert and this time as well. He couldn’t possibly pay it all back unless he handed over his Life to the brink of collapsing.
Or so Eugeo thought, but when he felt roughly half of his Life had finally flowed out, Kirito fuzzily opened his eyes and gripped Eugeo’s hand with his left, pulling it away from himself.
“…Thanks, Eugeo, I’m alright now.”
“Don’t force yourself, there should be some injuries hidden from plain sight left over after you went through all that.”
“It’s way better than that time those goblins came at us; I’m more worried about that person…”
Finding the Knight Fanatio, fallen on the opposite side of the cloister, at the end of where those black eyes stared, Eugeo unconsciously bit his lips.
“…Kirito… That woman… tried to kill you…”
The moment he said that, what Kirito had said immediately before he activated his full control art resounded deep within his ears. Looking downwards, he continued in a whisper.
“Can’t beat her with hatred… that was what you said earlier, wasn’t it? Yes, that might have been true. I wasn’t fighting that integrity knight due to some personal grudge or hatred directed at her, that certainly wasn’t my reasoning for fighting… But… But I really can’t find it within myself to forgive the integrity knights. It’s not just their ridiculous strength, if they had that resolve… if they possessed the heart to protect everyone living in the Human World, then why can’t they use that power and…”
Eugeo faltered, unable to speak any further. However, Kirito, who staggered up and picked his black sword from the floor, nodded as though he understood.
“I’m pretty sure those guys are stuck with their own doubts. If we meet with that Knight Commander person, we might find out more about that… Eugeo, your full control art was amazing. You’re the one who beat those knights. So there’s no need for you to aim your hatred at those humans, Fanatio and those knights in the «Four Oscillation Blades», any longer…”
“Humans… Yeah… you’re right. I understood that much when I fought them. She’s human; that’s why she was so strong.”
When Eugeo muttered that, Kirito let out a slight laugh and agreed.
“Those guys might say that they’re truly the good guys, and they might truly be the bad guys in your eyes, but they’re living humans just like us. Deciding who’s truly good or bad like that is impossible for humans, I’m sure.”
Those words sounded like he was voicing them so that he could also believe in them; a thought suddenly came to Eugeo.
—Kirito. Don’t you think that would apply to the one whom you got so angry over earlier as well, the highest minister, Administrator… the one with an ironclad rule over the Axiom Church and consequently, the world?
But before he could ask, Kirito had already started to walk towards Fanatio who lay fallen before the grand doors.
He took five, six steps before pivoting back and retrieving a small bottle after searching in his pocket.
“Oops, forgot about this. Get rid of the kids’ poison with this, please. Be sure to break those venomous swords and check if they’re holding onto anything else strange before you make them drink it.”
Thinking about how he had forgotten about them as well, Eugeo caught the small bottle Kirito tossed and nodded.
After standing up, pulling the Blue Rose Sword from the floor, and turning around, the young female knights, Fizel and Linel, were in the same condition, lying on the floor, paralyzed. The frost covering the surroundings had already vanished and it didn’t seem they had suffered any injuries from the ice tendrils or light rays.
The moment their eyes met with Eugeo approaching them, the girls sulked by averting their eyeballs which were all that were mobile.
Looks like we won’t be seeing eye-to-eye in a different sense from Fanatio’s case here; he held back a sigh as he crouched down and pulled out the two venomous swords, thrust into the floor by the tip of their noses, with both hands. Tossing them both into the air, he swung the Blue Rose Sword a single time as they came spinning down.
The short swords were demolished without difficulty, turning into specks of light and vanishing as they lost all Life before they fell onto the floor. Sheathing his beloved sword, he squatted down beside the pair and checked over their ascetic clothes to see if they possessed any other weapons while apologizing with a “sorry”.
Lastly, he uncorked the small bottle and poured the seventy percent left of its content into both of their mouths, sparing half to each of them. With this, the pair should be able to recover from their paralysis in a little less than ten minutes like Eugeo.
It would be fine leaving them alone like this, but Eugeo then thought, “What would Kirito say in a situation like this?”, and thus, opened his mouth after thinking for a short bit.
“…Fanatio and Kirito are that strong because they have their sacred instruments and armament full control arts… that might be what the two of you think, being who you are, but that’s wrong. Those two are much, much stronger… they could fight on even when hurt that badly not through their skills or weapons, but through their heart and mind; that’s also why they can use such amazing art rituals. True, the two of you may be experienced with techniques for murdering humans. But killing and winning are completely different matters. I didn’t notice that until today as well, though…”
Eugeo had absolutely no idea how much of his own words reached them as they kept their eyes averted as usual. In the first place, he wasn’t very good at dealing with children.
But still, at the very least, the pair should have felt something after watching that battle as well, he was sure of that. When he recalled that innocent idle chatter from Fizel and Linel, he felt that he could believe them to not be truly bad as well. Turning around after a simple “see you”, Eugeo ran after Kirito.
He quickly ran his eyes left and right as he moved through the extraordinarily devastated cloister, checking on the status of the four knights serving under Fanatio.
It appeared all of them had suffered rather deep wounds from the spear of light that went berserk as they had all collapsed. But as expected of integrity knights, he couldn’t spot any completely devoid of Life. Their bleeding was minor as well, so they would likely be able to move soon enough.
However, unlike them who were only dragged into the small explosions, Fanatio had received the entirety of the huge, rushing spear of darkness and was clearly on the verge of losing her life, even without looking at all that blood spilled in a large area around the fallen woman.
Coming to a standstill near Kirito who knelt on a knee by the knight’s side, Eugeo silenced his breath as he peeked in over his partner’s shoulders.
Looking at them up close, the wounds all over Fanatio’s body were so horrifying, he wanted to turn his eyes away. Her torso and legs had holes pierced by heat rays in four spots, while her right arm was torn by the ice roses’ thorns and on top of that, scorched by the aftermath of the Heaven Piercing Sword’s final attack, leaving practically no place unhurt.
However, as expected, what appeared to be the most terrible was the wound on her upper abdomen that had suffered a direct hit from the Gigas Cedar. There was a gaping cavity, as deep and large as an adult-sized fist, with fresh blood flowing incessantly. The face with her eyelids shut had changed into a faint bluish-purple, like her armor’s color had made its way there, and not even a trace of vitality could be spotted.
Kirito was in the process of trying out sacred arts to mend the wound as he held his hands over Fanatio’s abdomen. The Stacia Window likely wasn’t open because looking at her Life served no purpose at the moment. Noticing Eugeo approaching, he kept his face down and spoke with urgency in his tone.
“Help me out here, the blood won’t stop.”
Nodding and getting down on his knees opposite, he put his hands to the same wound. After he chanted the same luminous-type healing art as the one he had used on Kirito earlier, the blood flowing from the wound seemed to have reduced somewhat, but the goal of sealing it was still far off.
It was evident the surrounding sacred power would soon be exhausted and the both of them would be unable to generate luminous elements even if they persisted in the healing. Fanatio would probably recover some Life temporarily if they transferred theirs, but that was useless in the end if the blood loss wasn’t stemmed. As it was, saving the woman’s life would require assistance from a sacred art user capable of stronger healing arts than the pair, or a legendary elixir.
Firmly biting his lips as he quietly stared at Kirito’s face, Eugeo spoke after a moment of hesitation.
“It’s impossible, Kirito. She’s losing too much blood.”
Kirito kept his eyes cast down for a while, but soon answered in a hoarse voice.
“I know… but if I don’t give up on thinking, there… there should be some kind of way to get through this. Eugeo, I’m begging you, please think about it too.”
That expression was filled with a sense of powerlessness, much like when he was unable to prevent that malicious act on their valet trainees, Ronye and Tiezé, two days ago; Eugeo felt a prickling sensation in his chest.
However, no matter how much he thought, it was still obvious that there was no method to call back the life now fading away before his very eyes. The thought of healing the four knights fallen behind and having them help with the treatment flashed through his mind, but they definitely didn’t have the time to afford carrying out such an oblique method. Fanatio’s Life would likely be lost for all eternity in the seconds after either Kirito or Eugeo stopped their healing arts. And even if they continued with them—the same conclusion would arrive several minutes later.
Eugeo made up his mind and informed his partner in the most solemn voice he could muster.
“Kirito. —You told me this when we escaped from the underground jail, didn’t you? That I would need to be prepared to cut down any enemy if I were to go any further. Weren’t you fighting this person on the basis of that resolve earlier? Didn’t you use that skill determined to have one of you die with the other living on? At the very least, this person… Fanatio-san did not hesitate. Her expression showed that she put her entire life on the line… that’s what I believe. You should understand that too, Kirito… it wasn’t at a stage where you could win while worrying about your enemies or going easy on them.”
That was what turning not a wooden sword, but a real sword towards an opponent meant in the end. Eugeo had learnt that through his trembling hands, the sharp pain in his right eye, and the icy terror deep in his chest when he sliced off Humbert’s arm.
That said, he had always believed this black-haired partner of his had understood that long ago—from before they met in the forest south of Rulid.
Upon hearing Eugeo’s voice, Kirito gnashed his teeth together and endlessly shook his head left and right.
“I understand… I have to understand. Both this person and I fought seriously… a close, earnest fight where either of us could have won. But… this person will disappear if she dies! She has lived over a hundred years… in hesitation, in love, in pain; I can’t just let a soul like that vanish… I mean… even if I die…”
Even if he dies—what was he trying to imply? All humans will have their souls brought before the goddess of life, Stacia, when they exhaust their Life, and vanish from the Human World. As long as Kirito, despite his many mysteries, was a human, that should apply to him as well.
Eugeo momentarily became bewildered, but that was erased as Kirito looked straight up and yelled without warning.
“Can you hear me?! Knight Commander! Your deputy’s going to die here! Or that elder person’s fine too! If you can hear me, come down here and help!!”
His scream echoed softly from the high ceiling far above and vanished in vain. However, Kirito did not give up and continued shouting.
“Anyone’s fine… there’re still some of you integrity knights around, aren’t there?! Come and help your ally! I don’t care whether you’re a minister or an ascetic… just get your butt over here!!”
There was no response from above, but silence from the likenesses of the three goddesses, broken beyond recognition. Not even a gentle breeze descended upon them, let alone the presence of another being.
When they looked back down, the hue of Fanatio’s hair and skin were becoming unmistakably more pallid. Her remaining Life was a hundred, or perhaps fifty—Eugeo, who wanted to send off the deputy leader of the integrity knights, Fanatio Synthesis Two, departing for the Celestial World with at least a silent prayer, tried to persuade Kirito otherwise, but he did not cease his screams.
“I’m begging you… someone! Help us out if you’re watching! …That’s right, come here, Cardinal! Cardinal…”
Kirito sank into silence as though something had blocked his throat all of a sudden.
Eugeo looked up and watched his partner’s face in shock, as it first showed a surprised expression, then a moment of hesitation before it turned into determination.
“H-Hey… what is it all of a sudden?”
However, Kirito thrust his right hand into his coat breast without replying.
What he took out—swaying on the end of a slender chain, was a small steel dagger.
Eugeo instinctively shouted.
The same dagger dangled around Eugeo’s neck. He couldn’t possibly have forgotten about it; it was the dagger that Cardinal, the previous highest minister before she was banished, had given them before they left the Great Library Room. It possessed absolutely no offensive ability, but it connected the one stabbed by it temporarily to Cardinal’s domain. She had handed them over, with Eugeo’s meant for Alice and Kirito’s meant for Administrator, to function as a trump card for the duo.
“You can’t, Kirito! Cardinal said she didn’t have any more prepared… that’s supposed to be for the battle against Administrator…”
Kirito groaned in a pained voice.
“But I can help her if I use this… not helping someone out even when I have the means to do so… I just can’t prioritize anything to be higher than a human’s life.”
He gazed intently at the dagger with a expression, pained, yet filled with a resolute determination—
Kirito stabbed what he was holding in his right hand into Fanatio’s left hand, the only part of her body that wasn’t injured, without any trace of hesitation.
In that instant, the entire dagger radiated a dazzling light along with its chain.
Without even the time to swallow his breath, the dagger disassembled into several bands of purple light. Upon study, all of the light bands were lines of sacred letters just like those that appeared in the Stacia Window. The intricate letters separated from each other as they glided into the air and sank in everywhere over Fanatio’s body.
The entire integrity knight was enveloped in a purple aura along with the complete disintegration of the dagger. Eugeo gawked at the amazing spectacle, then noticed the bleeding from the wound on her upper abdomen had completely ceased, somewhat belatedly.
Eugeo tried to tell him that the bleeding had stopped, but was interrupted by a resounding voice that immediately came out of nowhere.
[Goodness me, what a helpless fellow you are.]
Kirito snapped his face up as though it were repelled.
“Cardinal… is that you?!”
[There’s no time, don’t ask the obvious.]
There was no doubt that the lovely voice and impudent obtuse manner belonged to the previous highest minister they had encountered in the Great Library Room.
“Cardinal… sorry, I…”
Cardinal bluntly cut off Kirito’s anguished voice as he tried to talk.
[There’s no point apologizing now. …I figured it might end up this way since I saw how you fought. I understand your circumstances; I will handle the treatment for Fanatio Synthesis Two. However, I will be taking her body over here as it will take time for her to recover completely.]
The purple light wrapping around Fanatio’s figure shone brightly as the voice mentioned so. Eugeo involuntarily closed his eyes and by the time he opened them again, the integrity knight was already—surprisingly enough, this included the pool of blood spread over the floor—nowhere to be seen.
Several of the fragmented sacred letters could still be seen drifting through the air. Cardinal’s voice was channelled through them as their flickering overlapped, the volume gradually falling.
[Those bugs have already noticed, so I’ll make this brief. Judging from the situation, the possibility of Administrator still being in her unawakened state is high at the present moment. If you reach the highest floor before that woman awakens, you could deal with her without using the dagger. Hurry… there aren’t many integrity knights left…]
Eugeo felt the invisible conduit that linked to the Great Library Room’s domain was rapidly closing. Cardinal’s voice proceeded into the distance and just before her presence disappeared, the specks of light in the air flickered and fell onto the floor as they took corporeal form.
What tumbled atop the marble with a refreshing note were two small glass bottles.
Kirito stared at the bottles the shade of lapis lazuli as though his energy had been sapped, but soon reached his arm out to pick both up at the same time. Looking up, he held one between his fingertips and offered it.
While dropping the bottle into Eugeo’s outstretched palm, Kirito murmured in a low tone.
“…Sorry for that mess, Eugeo.”
“Nah… you haven’t done anything worth apologizing for. It just surprised me a little.”
When he said so with a wan smile, Kirito finally showed a small one as well. Standing up while wobbling slightly, he flicked off the small bottle’s cork.
“Seeing as she’s going to the bother of sending us refreshments, let’s accept it with thanks.”
Standing after his partner, Eugeo pulled the cork off the small bottle and drank down the fluid it contained in a single gulp. He couldn’t quite call it delicious even if he were to try being polite; he grimaced at its sourness that resembled siral water devoid of sugar, but it felt refreshing like cold water pouring upon his consciousness, exhausted from the lengthy battle. It seemed that their half-depleted Lives were recovering rapidly as well, with the remaining wounds on Kirito’s limbs mending in the blink of an eye.
“Amazing… it would have been great if she had sent a whole bunch of these, rather than just these two while she was at it.”
When Eugeo said so without thinking, Kirito shrugged his shoulders with a cynical smile.
“If they have a priority as high as this, it would probably take a long time to convert them into da… art rituals and transfer them. Instead, you should be looking at how fast she… uwah!?”
All of a sudden, Kirito let out an agitated voice and sprung aside, so Eugeo stared at his partner in puzzlement.
“Wh-What is it, all of a sudden?”
“Eu-Eugeo… don’t move, no, don’t look down.”
It would be harder to not look down when told such a thing. Instinctively looking down at his own feet, Eugeo found that something had got there without his notice and screamed.
Its length was roughly fifteen cen. Countless slender legs stuck out from its long and flat torso, split into minuscule segments, and its front half was atop Eugeo’s shoe. The ball-shaped tip that was apparently its head possessed a row of over ten small, red eyes and two terrifyingly long, needlelike horns protruded from its two sides, slowly swaying independently of each other. It was a sort of insect—that might have been it, but its weird appearance could only have been described as repulsive. Insects are abundant in the forest south of Rulid, but he had never seen one with such an appearance before.
Eugeo froze as his mind overloaded, but the weird insect searched its surroundings with its horns for another three seconds before it decided to try and gently creep up his trousers from his shoe, so he sprung up with yet another scream.
When he violently stamped down, the insect fell off onto its back, but it immediately spun about and rapidly crept between his legs. Unable to stand it climbing up again, Eugeo jumped up and down over and over again, but a particular disaster occurred upon landing after jumping numerous times.
Following a harsh ‘kusha’ noise, the sensation of a lumpy and sticky object splattering open made itself known to Eugeo’s sole while the bug was magnificently pulverized under his right shoe.
Brilliant orange bodily fluid squirted in all directions and a pungent, offensive stench hung in the air. Eugeo got close to losing consciousness as he saw the torn-off leg still hopping about, but he desperately held down his fear, aware that this was no situation to faint, and looked up at Kirito in a bid for assistance.
When he did so, the partner with whom he was connected heart-to-heart was apparently now three mel away and slowly backing off even further.
“Hey… heey! Don’t you dare run away!”
Against that shrill accusation, Kirito shook his head that had turned blue left and right in small movements.
“Sorry, I can’t really handle stuff like that.”
“I can’t handle them either! At all!”
“Hey, don’t bugs like that usually draw in another ten or so when one dies?”
“Don’t even speak of such things!!”
Determined to share his fate with his partner even if he had to embrace him, Eugeo crouched in preparation to hurl himself at him, but he froze again upon a purple light abruptly shining from under his feet.
The disgusting remains were just dispersing into beads of light when he timidly looked down. The viscous fluid, husk, and such vanished without a trace before seconds had even passed and Eugeo let out a long sigh of relief from deep inside.
Apparently assured from far away that it had vanished, Kirito finally came back after the whole affair had already been settled and spoke out in a solemn tone.
“…So that’s it. That just now was a familiar released by Administrator to search for Cardinal. So it sniffed out the passage to the library room…”
Eugeo scowled at Kirito with upturned eyes, showing a slight resentment, then reluctantly replied that he understood.
“Then… that means there’re a whole bunch of these creatures prowling around this tower? But we haven’t seen a single one until now.”
“Look, when we escaped into the library room from the rose garden, there was that rustling noise from behind the door, right? They’re normally hidden away well, but that said, there’s no meaning in going around to look for them. Besides… Cardinal mentioned something strange, didn’t she… that Administrator was unawakened, or something like that…”
“Aah, now that you bring it up… That essentially meant that she’s sleeping? She has already gone to bed despite the sun still out?”
Kirito rubbed his chin for a while at Eugeo’s question and then answered as though he didn’t understand either.
“Cardinal also said that Administrator and the integrity knights are overexerting themselves in various ways in exchange for living for hundreds of years. Especially Administrator who seems to spend most of each day sleeping, but… in that case, what exactly happens to her control over the integrity knights and the bugs like the one just now…?”
Sunk into thought for several more seconds with his head looking down, he soon responded to himself while mussing his forelocks about.
“Well, we’ll naturally find out if we continue to climbing. —Putting that aside, Eugeo, could you please take a look at my back?”
Kirito spun to show his back to Eugeo who looked on in mute confusion. He ran his eyes over it while at a loss, but there wasn’t really anything strange about the black fabric of his coat aside from the damage to it, proportionate to the recurring battles.
“There’s… nothing special about it, though…”
“How do I describe this… are there any small bugs clinging on? Like a spider or something like that.”
“Nope, there’s nothing like that, though.”
“I see, that’s fine, then. —Well then, once again, let’s continue on, to the second half of our journey!”
Eugeo chased after Kirito, who began to walk briskly towards the cloister’s northern end after that, in a fluster.
“Hey, what was that just now?!”
“It’s nothing, really.”
“You’re making me curious, take a look at my back too!”
“Like I said, it’s really nothing.”
During their light conversation, an occurrence which had repeated countless times since they had left Rulid Village, Eugeo softly murmured within his heart what he truly wished to ask.
Why were you, capable of keeping your cool in any situation, so distraught before the death of Fanatio, an enemy—and what was to follow those words, [even if I die]—
Kirito, just who… are you…?
The black-clothed swordsman who stood still before the humongous doors, possibly several times his height, reached out with both his hands and pushed them open to the sides with vigour. In that instant, a chilly gale blew through and Eugeo turned his face away slightly.
What lay beyond the grand doors was a chamber roughly as spacious as the stairwell on the southern side of the large corriders through which Eugeo and Kirito had ascended. It was rectangular in shape as well, with the deep blue northern sky visible through the long and narrow windows lined up along the opposing wall.
However, an essential element couldn’t be seen on the floor set with chequered black and white tiles—the grand staircase that should lead towards the fifty-first floor.
No matter how many times they scanned the spacious chamber, no ladders, or even a single strand of rope could be found. There was only a single strange, circular cavity in the middle of the sleek and smooth floor, and not a single path meant to proceed upwards entered Eugeo’s vision.
“Th… There are no stairs.”
Muttering in surprise as he stepped into the dim hall behind Kirito, Eugeo felt a stream of cold air on his neck and hunched his shoulders. It seemed his partner noticed it as well, as the pair concurrently looked straight up.
“What the heck…”
And the pair jointly became speechless.
There was no ceiling. A space, no, shaft the same shape as the chamber extended beyond what their sight could perceive. They couldn’t even estimate how much higher it continued, sunk in a cerulean darkness.
After they returned their eyes from the distant height, they realized this chasm might not be an entirely vacant space. Doors, smaller than the one behind the pair, were embedded in the surface of the wall at the corresponding heights for each level from the fifty-first floor onwards, each with an elongated terrace extending close to the middle of the chasm.
In other words, they could break into the floors above if they could reach those terraces—that certainly was the case.
Eugeo extended his right hand and casually tried to jump up without thinking.
“…No way that would have reached…”
He murmured with a sigh. Even the closest terrace was, naturally enough, set higher than the ceiling in the «Grand Cloister of Spiritual Light» behind them and thus, over twenty mel even through liberal estimations.
Kirito, who looked up in the same manner at the side, asked in a feeble voice.
“Look… I’m just confirming here, but there aren’t any sacred arts to fly, right?”
A merciless, instantaneous reply.
“I mean, flying in the air’s a privilege reserved solely for integrity knights, isn’t it? And those guys don’t even fly through arts; they ride their flying dragons…”
“So… how exactly do the humans here go back and forth between the fifty-first floor and onwards?”
The pair tilted their heads in sync. It would be preferable to avoid it, but there might be no other way but to return to the grand cloister and ask for the method to head up from the collapsed underlings of Fanatio—it happened the moment they were thinking that.
“Hey, something’s coming.”
Kirito whispered in a nervous voice.
He looked up at the chasm again as instructed.
He certainly saw something approaching. As though brushing past the ends of the protruding terraces that appeared as lines, a black shadow was gently descending towards them.
As he leapt away to the back with Kirito and positioned his hand on his sword grip, Eugeo firmly stared at the approaching shadow.
It was in the shape of a perfect circle. Perhaps with a diameter of two mel or so? It seemed like a metallic disk with how its edge could be seen glinting eerily each time it caught the blue light shining in from the slender windows. However, why could such a thing gracefully descend in a space without supports or anything of that sort?
Eugeo’s ears discerned a queer noise going, “whoosh”, when the disk passed by the terrace two floors above at a constant speed. His neck noticed a cold breeze each time.
Eugeo neither ran, nor drew his sword; he simply stood still, dumbfounded, and gazed at how the disk grazed the terrace overhead and descended before the pair. When the hovering disk closed in until only a mel away, a small hole opened at the center of its underside and he noticed the air blasting out from there was the cause of the mysterious noise and wind.
However, how could a metal disk float with merely wind power—he questioned as the whooshing noise steadily grew and the metallic disk’s rate of descent rapidly fell, finally coming to a stop as it neatly wedged into the circular cavity, bored into the stone floor, with only a bump and a slight quiver.
The top surface of the disk was polished smooth like a mirror. Detailed craftsmanship went into the silver handrails installed on the circular edge. A glass pipe measuring roughly one mel in length and fifty cen in thickness stood straight up in the center—a single young girl silently stood there with both her two hands on the top of the pipe, rounded in a dome shape.
Eugeo retreated another step as he put strength into his right hand supported by his sword’s grip. He heightened his guard, thinking this might be a new integrity knight.
But he immediately noticed the girl wasn’t equipped with even a single dagger on her waist or back. Her garment, a plain, black long skirt, appeared ill-fitting for combat as well. The only embellishment to speak of was the modest, see-through hem knitted onto the white apron that hung from her chest to below her knees, which meant she worn no other accessories on herself.
Her light brown hair, slightly grayed, was cut straight at her eyebrows and shoulders, with hardly any distinguishing features on her pale facial complexion. It was well-ordered but without even a shred of emotion. Eugeo felt her approximate age was a little younger, but he didn’t have any confidence that it truly was.
Who exactly is this girl; Eugeo tried to look at the girl’s eyes, but he couldn’t even discern their color as they were hidden by her lowered eyelashes. The girl, who made no attempt at all to look at the pair’s faces even after the disk stopped, took her hands off the strange glass pipe and placed them together at the front of her apron, then bowed her head further and let out her voice for the first time.
“Thank you for your patience. Which floor are you heading for, dear sirs?”
A voice that possessed the minimum level of vocal intonation and revealed no sort of emotion at all. Eugeo didn’t hear even a fragment of anything resembling animosity, so he gently took his hand off his sword. The girl’s words repeated once more in his mind.
“Which floor… wait… Then, you’re willing to bring us to the floors above?”
When he asked half in belief, half in doubt, the girl brought down her head that had returned to its original position once again.
“Certainly. May I know your desired floor?”
“Well… even if you say that…”
Having thought that everyone who would appear before them in the cathedral would be an enemy, Eugeo faltered, not knowing what to say immediately. Kirito, standing at his side, then spoke in a carefree tone; Eugeo didn’t know what exactly was going on in that head either.
“Erm, we’re the wanted ones who invaded the cathedral… wouldn’t there be a problem with us riding on that ele, no, disk?”
The girl then slightly tilted her head, but instantly returned it to its original position and answered.
“My sole task is the operation of this elevating disk. I have not received orders on anything else that doesn’t pertain to that.”
“I see. Then allow me to take you up on your offer.”
Kirito began briskly walking in the direction of the disk while speaking those easygoing words, so Eugeo called out in a panicked voice.
“H-Hey, you sure it’s fine?”
“Well, it doesn’t look like there’s anything other way to get up.”
“That’s… true, but still…”
Eugeo was amazed how he could ride such a strange object with barely any caution immediately after going through all of that with the two adolescent integrity knights, but it was true that neither of them had the slightest idea about how to move the disk. Reassuring himself by thinking how they could jump onto some terrace even if it was a trap, he followed behind his partner.
After the pair boarded the disk through the break in the luxurious railings, Kirito peered at the glass pipe with a curious look as he informed the girl.
“Erm, then please bring us to the highest floor we can go.”
“Very well. Then we shall now proceed to the eightieth floor, «Cloudtop Garden». Kindly stay within the boundaries of the handrails.”
A response came back in no time at all and with yet another bow, the girl placed her two hands atop the pipe. She took in a breath of air—
“System call. Generate aerial element.”
The sudden art ritual chant flustered Eugeo, interpreting it as an attack, but that didn’t appear to be the case. After all, the aerial elements that appeared, gleaming green, were inside the transparent pipe. But he got another shock upon seeing their numbers. There were a whole ten of them—she must be a rather high ranking art user to generate this many elements in one go.
The girl pointed out her right thumb, index, and middle fingers among the ten slender fingers she had on the glass pipe and softly muttered.
Three of the aerial elements shot out with a green flash in that moment, causing a growl to well up from below. The metallic disk ridden by three humans instantly began to ascend as though pulled along by an invisible hand.
“So that’s it! So that’s how it works, huh.”
Eugeo finally understood the basis behind how the disk rose and fell with Kirito’s apparently delighted voice. Aerial elements were released within the glass pipe running through the disk, which allowed the weight of three humans and the disk itself to be lifted up by discharging the resultant explosive gust downwards.
It was a simple mechanism now that he understood it, but the disk’s movement was smooth to the point of nearly not feeling anything. Aside from the pressure he somewhat felt at the start of the ascent, it slid through the air with hardly any jolting.
The fiftieth floor promptly disappeared into the distance below and Eugeo was once again made aware that this small disk could rise to the cathedral’s eightieth floor, that is, a height high enough to touch the clouds. Wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers, he tightly gripped onto the railings.
Kirito by his side, however, had a calm expression on as though he had ridden something similar in the past, admiring the setup as he oohed and aahed, though his interest soon shifted from the disk to the human operating it and asked upon looking at the girl.
“How long have you been doing this job?”
The girl responded with a very slightly puzzled voice, her face still hidden.
“This will be the hundred and seventh year since this sacred task has been bestowed upon me.”
Forgetting even about the void below his feet, Eugeo widened his eyes. He haltingly questioned in Kirito’s place.
“A-A hundred and seven years… you’ve been operating this disk that whole time!?”
“I haven’t been operating it… the whole time. I do receive a meal break in the afternoon and of course, I am allowed to rest at night.”
“E-Erm… that’s not really what I…”
That was how it was. This girl must also have had her Life frozen like the integrity knights, and live atop this single metal disk for what could be said to be an eternity.
Eugeo believed that fate was far more cruel, more forsaken, and more bleak than even that of the integrity knights, who devoted their unlimited time to battle.
The metallic disk slowly but steadily ascended. The girl concealed all emotion below her lowered eyelashes, creating aerial elements anew whenever they were spent, and releasing them yet again. Eugeo wondered how many times had she repeated that verse, “burst“, muttered with each cycle, but of course, it was easily beyond his imagination.
“You… what’s your name?”
Kirito suddenly asked.
The girl inclined her head for the longest time so far, before replying in a murmur.
“My name… I cannot remember it. All of the dear sirs and madams have referred to me as «Elevating Operator». Elevating Operator… that is my name.”
It seemed even Kirito had no response for this. Eugeo, who had inadvertently counted the passing terraces and was now over twenty, felt an urge to fill the silence pressing behind him and opened his mouth.
“…Hey… hey, we’re here to defeat the important people of the Axiom Church. Those who charged you with this sacred task.”
That was all the girl replied with. But Eugeo continued with his words, probably without any particular goal in mind.
“If… the church cease to exist and you get freed from this sacred task, what will you do…?”
After repeating that in an unsteady tone, the girl named Elevating Operator kept up her silence as they passed by another five terraces.
Having taken a look up, Eugeo realized a gray ceiling had appeared in their way unawares. That must be the base of the cathedral’s eightieth floor. They were finally about to step foot into the true core of the Axiom Church.
“I… know nothing of the world aside from this elevating disk.”
The girl suddenly spoke in faltering words.
“As such… I am unable to decide upon a new sacred task even at your insistence… however, if you meant it in the sense of something I wish to do…”
Her face that had been lowered this entire time raised and the girl gazed at the long and narrow windows on the wall at the right—at the clear northern skies that lay beyond them.
“…I would like to fly freely on this elevating disk… in those skies…”
The girl’s eyes he finally saw now were a deep, deep indigo blue, much like the blue skies at the height of summer.
The instant the final aerial element twinkled out of existence, the disk reached the thirtieth terrace and gently came to a stop.
The elevating operator girl took her hands off the glass pipe, placed them together before her apron, and took a deep bow.
“Thank you for your patience, we have arrived at the eightieth floor, «Cloudtop Garden».”
Both Eugeo and Kirito lowered their heads and walked onto the terrace from the disk.
The girl lifted her head no more, and after another mild bow, she entrusted the disk’s descent to the weakening aerial element. The gushing sound, like a cold wintry wind, immediately faded off into the distance and its form vanished into the depths of the blue darkness; that small steel world, confined for all of eternity.
Eugeo took a deep breath without realizing it.
“…I thought my last sacred task was the worst in the world when it came to being endless, but…”
After he murmured that, Kirito raised his eyebrows and glanced at him.
“So it had been enough of a blessing that I could retire after growing old and becoming unable to swing that axe; when I compare it to that girl’s sacred task, it’s just…”
“Cardinal said that freezing a person’s Life from reducing naturally through art rituals is no protection against the soul’s aging. That it would slowly encroach on one’s memories and that person would eventually break.”
Kirito, who replied in a depressed tone, swung his body with force, as though trying to sever that line of thought, and turned his back on the deep shaft.
“What the Axiom Church is doing is wrong. That’s why we’re here to defeat Administrator. But that’s not the end to everything, Eugeo. The real challenges lie beyond that…”
“Eh…? Don’t we just have to leave the rest to Cardinal-san from earlier if we defeat Administrator?”
Kirito moved his lips when Eugeo asked, as though he was about to say something, but an uncertainty unlike his usual decisive self appeared in his black eyes and he ended up averting his face.
“…No, let’s talk more about that after we recover Alice. This isn’t any time to be thinking about unnecessary stuff.”
“That’s… true, but still.”
Kirito began to walk across the terrace at a brisk pace, as though escaping from the look emanating from Eugeo as he tilted his head. Eugeo chased after him with an inexplicable emotion, but a feeling of tension welling from the depths of his body swept away his flimsy doubts in the blink of an eye after the huge doors towering at the end of the short terrace entered their view.
Seeing how five integrity knights had gathered on the fiftieth floor, the person coordinating the countermeasures against intruders—likely the Chief Elder person Fanatio had mentioned had intended to stop the two of them there by all means. The fact that they had actually repelled the knights’ fierce assault and achieved victory somehow must have been close to a miracle.
Them breaking through that defensive line and climbing up this close to the highest floor was sure to have that Chief Elder finally sending out those with high battle potential without reserve. The «Knight Commander» along with all of the remaining integrity knights, as well as the high ranking sacred art users, those priests and ascetics, might be lying in wait beyond this door, for example—such a thing was relatively possible.
But as long as there is no other path, we can do nothing but break through any barrier standing before us from the front.
We can do it. With both Kirito and me here.
Eugeo firmly exchanged looks with his partner, standing at his side, and they nodded together. Reaching out with their hands simultaneously, they placed their palms on the left and right doors respectively and energetically pushed them.
The stone doors began slowly opening to the left and right with a leaden noise.
His five senses absorbed the colors spreading out before his eyes, the babble of water, and a fragrant scent at that moment, causing a brief dizziness.
There was no mistake that they were inside the tower. The same white marble as the floors below could be seen at the far end.
However, the spacious floor wasn’t covered in stone like how it had been thus far. Instead, a thick, cushy lawn was thriving there. Sacred flowers of various colors, apparently the source of the scent, were in full bloom here and there on the lawn.
What astonished him further was a small, pure stream flowing a short distance away, its water surface glittering with light. A slender brick path stretched out from the door the pair stood at, cutting through the lawn, and continued on after a wooden bridge spanning over the small stream.
A small hill appeared to be beyond the stream. The path snaked up over the inclining ground with an abundance of blooming flowers. Having followed the path with his sight, Eugeo noticed a single tree growing at the crown of the hill.
It wasn’t that large as a tree. He could spot dark-green leaves and small, orange flowers in the shape of a cross on the thin branches. Solus’s light, streaming in from the window on the wall near the ceiling far above, precisely cast onto the tree and its countless flowers sparkled as if they were made of gold.
Its glassy, thin trunk also bathed in the sunlight and shone—and at its base, too, was a remarkably dazzling golden splendor—
Eugeo was unaware of the quiet sound that escaped from his own mouth.
Each and every thought he had came to a standstill the instant he saw that girl sitting against the tree trunk with her eyelids closed.
As if she was a phantasm brought about by the sunlight beautifully streaming through the tree, all of the girl’s form was bathed in golden light. The magnificent armor covering her upper body and arms was white with golden embellishments, her long skirt was pure white as well, with golden thread embroidered onto the fabric, and even her polished, white leather boots reflected an unblemished brilliance received from the sunlight streaming in.
However, what sparkled brightest was her plentiful, sinuous, long hair. The straight hair, that was like molten gold, drew a perfect arc as it flowed to her waist from her petite head, producing a cascade of sublime light.
A radiance he saw practically everyday, a long time ago in the past. He knew neither its value nor its transience, pulling on that hair in jest and tying twigs into it.
That golden brilliance, a representation of friendship, aspiration, and a nebulous affection, had transformed within just a single day, gaining no connotations but that of Eugeo’s weakness, ugliness, and cowardice. And that glimmer he should have never been able to see again was now within his reach once more.
“Ah… Ali… ce…”
Without even noticing the hoarse voice spilling out from his own mouth, Eugeo tottered forward.
He raggedly followed the brick path. Neither the refreshing scent of the sacred flowers nor the soothing sound of the water registered in Eugeo’s awareness any longer. Only the heat from his sweaty hand tightly clenched onto his coat breast and the dagger that seemed to pulse within the fabric secured Eugeo to this world.
Crossing the bridge spanning over the small stream, drawing near the slope. Already less than twenty mel to go until the crown of the hill.
When he looked up, he could clearly see the girl’s face slightly turned downwards. No emotion at all showed on her white, practically translucent skin. She merely remained silent with her eyes shut, her mind seemingly drifting among the sunlight’s warmth and the flowers’ scent.
—Is she asleep?
If I get closer like this and just stab the dagger a little into those fingers interlocked above her lap… would that be the end to everything?
It was when that thought flashed into Eugeo’s mind.
Alice’s right hand rose without a sound and Eugeo’s heart pounded as his feet stopped.
Her charming lips moved and a nostalgic voice reached his ears.
“Allow me a little more time. It has been a while since we had such good weather, so I would like to let this child bask in the sunlight further.”
Her eyelids, framed by her golden eyelashes, gently lifted up.
The pair of eyes colored blue, matchless in the world, gazed straight into Eugeo’s.
Eugeo saw a vision of Alice’s gaze softening, a smile forming on her lips.
However, the blue in her lucid eyes was not the gentle color of the sky it once was. It was the color of ice that had remained frozen for ten thousand years, unmelting regardless of how much sunlight it bathed in. Impaled by a gaze that regarded the intruders coldly, Eugeo could not move his legs.
As expected, a fight was unavoidable.
Even if she had lost her memories, he would have to draw his sword towards that girl, who was no doubt Alice Schuberg from Rulid. To return her to how she was. No matter how difficult he might find the battle to accept.
His body had felt Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty’s true strength two days ago, when his cheek had been struck by her scabbard. Eugeo might have been taken unaware by that single hit, but he hadn’t even been able to follow it with his eyes. It would prove to be next to impossible to suppress a swordsman of such skill without suffering heavy injuries, wouldn’t it?
She was no opponent to go easy on.
—Still, could I actually sever even a single strand of that golden hair?
Seeing as I can’t even take another step forward, let alone draw my sword.
Kirito spoke from behind Eugeo, standing still from the sudden conflict, his words clear despite being somewhat hoarse.
“You aren’t fighting here, Eugeo. Think only about properly stabbing Cardinal’s dagger into Alice. I’ll stop her attacks for you even at the cost of my own life.”
“There’s no other way, the situation will get worse the more we drag out the battle. I’ll take Alice’s first attack on instead of dodging and restrain her like that, so use that dagger right away. Got it?”
He firmly bit his lips. Ultimately, he had made Kirito the one who bled in both the battle against Deusolbert and the battle against Fanatio. Despite how this reckless plan of challenging the Axiom Church had originally stemmed from nothing more than Eugeo’s personal agenda.
When he muttered with shame, Kirito replied in a tone a little closer to his usual.
“You don’t have to apologize; I’ll have you pay it all back several times over soon enough. …Still, putting that aside…”
“…? What’s the matter?”
“No… from what I can see, she doesn’t look like she’s armed. Besides… who was she talking about when she said, ‘this child’…?”
Guided, he focused his eyes on Alice, still sitting atop the hill. Her eyelids were once again closed and slightly downcast; he looked at her waist, the golden scabbard that had been suspended there when they had first encountered her at the Sword Mastery Academy certainly wasn’t there now.
“Maybe she leaves her sword behind when she’s resting or something like that… That would be a great help, though.”
Muttering in a tone that showed his lack of belief in such a thing, Kirito brushed against his black sword’s grip with his left hand.
“It’s not nice towards Alice, but it’s not like we can go along with her until she’s done basking in the sun. Whether she has a sword or not, challenging her now should prevent her from chanting the full control art at least. Honestly, it’s the best we could hope for if we can settle this without her using that.”
“I guess you’re right… my full control art doesn’t use up that much of my sword’s Life, so I believe I can still use it another two times today, though…”
“That’ll be helpful. That said, one more time’s the limit on my side. And there should still be that Knight Commander guy after Alice. Well… let’s go.”
Kirito took a step forward with a small nod.
His mind made up, Eugeo followed behind.
Leaving the brick path snaking around the hill, they headed straight for the peak. Their footsteps on the lawn resonated.
Alice softly stood when the pair had climbed halfway up the hill. Her glacial eyes that revealed not even a single shred of emotion stared down at the pair beyond her languorous eyelids.
As though her glance had cast some sort of art ritual, his two feet grew heavy in that instant. Despite how it was obvious that no sword belt could be seen on Alice, Eugeo felt his feet refuse to approach the girl any further. Was fear carved into his body after just a single blow to his cheek? But even if that was so, Kirito’s gait also seemed to have lost its strength as well, as he walked in front, didn’t it?
“…At long last, you’ve made your way this far, haven’t you.”
Alice’s clear voice shook the air once again.
“I judged that having Eldrie alone on alert in the rose garden would be sufficient to cope with the both of you even on the off chance that you could escape from the underground jail. However, you have eliminated him and moreover, cut down Deusolbert-dono and even Fanatio-dono who possessed sacred instruments, stepping onto the grounds of this «Cloudtop Garden».”
Her arched eyebrows formed into a faint scowl. The voice from her cherry blossom lips had a hushed sorrowful ring to it.
“What exactly is it that bestowed such power onto the two of you? Why exactly would you come to impact the tranquility of the Human World so? Why do you not understand that each integrity knight injured would be a considerable setback towards the preparations against the forces of darkness?”
—It’s for you, that’s all there is to it.
Eugeo cried out in his heart. But he knew it would mean nothing to Integrity Knight Alice standing before his eyes even if he voiced it out. Firmly clenching his teeth, Eugeo merely put his all into moving his feet forward.
“As I thought—it appears I shall have to ask with my sword. Very well… if that is what the two of you wish.”
Her words like a sigh, Alice placed her right hand on the tree trunk by her side as a support.
But she not holding onto a sword—
Eugeo thought that at nearly the same time Kirito blurted out a “no way”.
Light flashed out in the next instant and the smallish tree growing on the hill’s peak disintegrated.
Somewhat belatedly, a fragrance, rich in sweetness and vitality, lavishly drifted by, then vanished without a trace.
Before they knew it, Alice’s right hand held onto a familiar long sword with its slender form. Not only the scabbard, but everything from the guard to the pommel were made from a dazzling gold. A cross-shaped flower design decorated the guard.
Eugeo couldn’t immediately understand what had occurred.
The tree had vanished, and the sword had appeared. In other words, that tree had transformed into the sword? But Alice hadn’t articulated any art rituals. Even if this was simply an illusionary art or some super high ranking sacred art for transmutation, it was impossible to carry it out without reciting the ritual’s verses.
No. If that tree had changed its appearance based purely on Alice’s mental image—that would, essentially mean—
Having arrived at a conclusion a moment quicker, Kirito let out a deep moan.
“Crap, this isn’t good… could that sword already be in its full control state?”
Scowling down at the pair who stood upright, Alice raised the sword horizontally with both hands.
Jyaa! The blade, unsheathed with a screech, was had a bright golden yellow aura distinctly more intense than even the scabbard, radiantly glistening as it reflected Solus’s light.
Kirito launched a savage assault a moment after. It was unclear what kind of power Alice’s sword wielded, but he judged it likely that it would be best to bring it into a close-range fight before the control art was activated. Fiercely tearing up the green grass, he climbed eighty percent of the hill in a mere ten steps.
While gripping onto the chain at his chest, Eugeo frantically chased after his partner as well. Kirito seemed to have no intention of drawing his sword. It appeared he intended to stop Alice’s first attack with his body as he had said. Even if that sealed her movement, it would hardly last for long. Thus, Eugeo definitely had to fulfill his role of stabbing her with the dagger without letting the chance escape.
Alice’s expression didn’t change one bit even while looking at the approaching black-clothed swordsman. With a motion that appeared carefree, she lightly brandished the sword in her right hand.
Kirito had yet to enter slashing range. It was therefore likely to be a far-range offensive art like Deusolbert’s or Fanatio’s. If that was the case, even if the initial attack stops Kirito’s advance, Eugeo should still be able to get within range to stab her with the dagger by using that interval.
Settling his thoughts in an instant, Eugeo changed his approach to a different angle from Kirito’s and kept running.
Alice’s right hand softly swung forward.
The golden blade—vanished.
To be accurate, it didn’t vanish. It would be more accurate to say that it dispersed. The sword split into hundreds or thousands of flakes and assailed Kirito as a golden tempest.
Engulfed in an immeasurable shimmer, Kirito was knocked down, rendered immobile, with a groan.
Making full use of the opportunity contrived by his partner, Eugeo clenched his teeth and ran forward.
However, the golden wind that attacked Kirito didn’t just stop there. It caused a noise like a chilly gale and turned to the left in midair, sweeping at Eugeo from the side.
He could hardly stay on his feet after such an impact. As though he was sent flying by a giant’s palm, Eugeo collapsed onto the right as well.
Each flake, measuring less than a cen long, was of an absurd weight. Thrown onto the lawn, Eugeo experienced a burning pain over his entire left arm that had shielded his face the instant the golden zephyr assailed him and desperately held down his desire to scream and writhe.
The countless golden flakes, that had stopped the pair’s assault so easily, drew an arc as they whirled and returned to Alice’s side. However, they didn’t turn back into the form of a sword but stayed drifting around the knight.
On closer examination, all of the small flakes were crosses formed by even smaller diamond shapes joined together. They were the same as the design on the guard—which meant they were the same shape as the flowers of that tree growing on the hill.
“—Are you mocking me? How could you even run towards me without drawing your sword?”
Alice rebuked them quietly without expressing even a speck of emotion as always.
“The attack earlier was meant to serve as a warning. However, the next will wipe out all of your Life. Show me all you have got; for the sake of all the knights the two of you have defeated thus far as well.”
Despite that absurd power…?
Within Eugeo’s sight as he shivered from the depths of his heart, the innumerous golden flowers made a loud “jyakii” noise in tandem. When he looked harder, he saw the tips of the four petals, which have been smooth and rounded thus far, now tapered into a point sharper than a slender sword’s tip. He wouldn’t get away with just collapsing like earlier if he was struck by such a thing. His skin would be torn apart and it would probably even slice through his bones.
A profound dread transmuted itself into cold water and forced its way into Eugeo, numbing his limbs.
Even if there was only one of those golden flowers by itself, his Life would swiftly decrease if it cut through his vitals. And yet the flakes glistening around Alice now, like a magnificent shower of blossoms, numbered over two or three hundred. It would be impossible to deflect them all with a sword and even with that said, it was also next to impossible to dodge that storm of flowers capable of high-speed and unrestrained movement in the air. In other words, Alice’s full control art was unbelievably complete and also almighty—
Yes, it was unbelievable.
The armament full control art with sacred instruments was certainly a powerful skill, but still, there were limits. This art’s true nature is converting the «memories» possessed by the origins of the weapons, that is, whether it was hot, cold, hard, fast, and such, into an offensive ability and it couldn’t help but deteriorate in other aspects, the more it specialized in one particular area.
Like Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio’s full control art was repelled by a small mirror that Kirito created, as a result of specializing too much in piercing a single point with a concentrated light ray.
It was unknown what sort of existence that small tree once was that seemed to be the origin of Alice’s sacred instrument, but if the power within it was divided so small, into such great numbers—that is, if it pursued only accuracy, each petal ought to have lost much more of their might. No matter how Eugeo thought about it, having one flake that wasn’t even a cen long possess the clout of a giant’s fist, as he had experienced with his own body, defied that theory.
If it could accomplish such a phenomenon, that slender tree that bloomed with orange flowers must have been given an ultra-high priority, surpassing even the origin of Kirito’s sword, the «demonic tree», Gigas Cedar…
Kirito who had collapsed in front, to the left, seemed to have also thought of the same matter as Eugeo in an instant, as his raised side profile was pale with shock and fear.
However, he, who knew not the meaning of giving up, glanced at Eugeo with those eyes that retained their glint and moved his lips silently.
«Chant». —Get started on it.
Indeed, it was no longer possible to break through that storm of petals from the front. Hence, there was no choice but to shackle its master with the Blue Rose Sword’s full control art. Alice had flourished the sword which had only the grip remaining in tune with the petals’ movements earlier. In other words, that would mean the flower cloud wasn’t manipulated entirely by its master’s will.
Still unseemly knocked down, Eugeo gently brushed his left hand against the Blue Rose Sword’s grip and began chanting the full control art at a volume that was practically inaudible. There was nothing more that could be done if Alice noticed and attacked, but Kirito should do something about that.
As he predicted, Kirito got up in an exaggerated motion, as Eugeo started the chant, and shouted in a tense voice.
“I wish to apologize for my disrespectful conduct towards the honorable integrity knight! I, Swordsman-in-training Kirito, would like to formally request anew, for a duel using ordinary swords with Integrity Knight Alice!”
After hitting his chest with his right fist and taking a bow, he held onto the sword at the left of his waist by its grip. The jet-black blade drew out with a loud and shrill “jyari” and was raised up high as though it was trying to split the golden light covering the knight into two.
Alice gazed hard at the black-clothed swordsman with those blue eyes that felt as though they could see through everything and replied after a single blink.
“—Very well, I shall test how deeply embedded your wicked hearts lie through swordsmanship.”
She gently swung the grip in her right hand. And with that, the countless golden flowers swirling around whirled towards Alice’s hand with the sound of flowing waves, leaving few gaps as they aligned themselves in front of the grasped handle. A metallic “jyakin” rang out and the flakes combined, returning to its form as a golden long sword.
Facing Alice, who positioned the sword in a middle stance with graceful motions and began to advance like that, was Kirito, who prepared his sword in a lower stance; he then called out to her once again.
“One of us will inevitably fall after an exchange of swords, so I implore you to tell me one thing beforehand. I believe that tree atop the hill earlier was your sacred instrument’s form in bygone times, but why does such a small tree possess such power?”
It was obviously a question for buying time, but Kirito truly wanted to know the mystery behind the golden sword’s full control art, probably. Of course, Eugeo was highly intrigued as well. He strained his ears while continuing the chant.
Alice came to a standstill after taking three steps forward. She kept her silence for a while, and then moved her lips in slight motions.
“There is no purpose in telling the two of you with your imminent deaths, but… I suppose it could serve as a diversion on your way to the Celestial World. My sacred instrument is named, «Fragrant Olive Sword». As its name implies, it was once a fragrant olive tree with no irregular aspects to it at all.”
The fragrant olive was a small-sized tree that produces small orange-colored flowers in the autumn. It rarely grew naturally in the vicinity near Rulid, but now that she mentioned it, he had seen it countless times in the capital. It couldn’t be said to be of a rare variety, like the Gigas Cedar of which only one existed in the world.
“Yes, it was merely a small tree as you’ve said. Except it was the only one to have lasted that long. —This place the Central Cathedral is built on now was the «Starting Land» bestowed upon the humans by the Goddess of Creation Stacia in the long-passed ancient times. A beautiful spring surged forth from the heart of that small village and a single fragrant olive grew on its bank… or so the first chapter says in the records of creation. That very tree was the original form of my sword. I hope you understand; this Fragrant Olive Sword is the oldest existence among all things of nature in the Human World.”
“Wh… what did you…”
In comparison to the astonished Kirito, Alice continued constructing her words together without emotion.
“This sword is the reincarnated form of a tree given life by the goddess. Its attribute is «eternal immortality». Even one of those fluttering petals could split a rock it touched or break the ground… as you have tasted with your own body earlier. Do you understand what exactly you’ve been pointing your blade at?”
“…Yeah, I definitely get it now.”
Kirito spoke with his persistently formal speech cast off.
“I see, it’s the first immortal object set down by the goddess… so that’s it, huh. Geez, the things coming at us are getting more and more ridiculous… even so, it’s not like I can continue being all awestruck.”
Kirito slowly swung the black sword, probably much inferior to the Fragrant Olive Sword even if they possess the same type of origin, into an upper stance and cried out.
“Now then, Integrity Knight Alice… let’s start our match again!”
The air shook as the black-clothed swordsman kicked off the ground. He charged forward at Alice, standing on top of the hill, at a velocity that made it hard to believe he was moving uphill.
Regardless of how ridiculous Alice’s sword was, Kirito must be thinking that he could gain the advantage if he brings out a consecutive hit skill in close-range combat. Fanatio could deal with the high-speed consecutive attacks in the earlier battle because she had learnt them through her personal circumstances; she should be an exception among the integrity knights.
As Kirito and Eugeo predicted, Alice obediently raised her sword overhead against Kirito’s downwards slash. She wouldn’t be able to guard her middle when the downwards slash connects to a middle one with her speed.
The sword Kirito swung down turned into a bolt of black lightning and collided with the Fragrant Olive Sword, throwing off bluish-white sparks.
However, it did not immediately continue into that theoretical second hit.
After all, compared to how Alice’s sword had barely moved, Kirito, the one on the offensive, was heavily repelled backwards like he had hit a large rock with a twig, destroying his stance.
Turning towards Kirito who had lost his balance on the slanted surface and staggered for two, three steps, Alice approached with footwork as smooth as a flowing stream.
Even the fingers on her outstretched left hand were pointing out. Her body was extended wide, her golden sword raised straight behind. It was a traditional style that couldn’t be said to be fit for actual combat unlike the Aincrad style, but her appearance when coupled with her flowing golden hair and fluttering skirt was sublime like a framed painting.
The sword drew a semi-circle as it launched an attack alongside that shrill and clear scream. The speed was frightening. But those movements were far too exaggerated.
Having recovered his stance, Kirito had enough time spare to place his sword at his left.
Gakaan! The two swords collided with a loud noise.
The one to spin like a top while getting blown away this time was once again Kirito. Thrusting his hand onto the grass, he narrowly avoided falling down while sliding down to the base of the hill.
At this stage, Eugeo, too, understood what was occurring before his eyes at last.
The weight behind their individual hits were on completely different levels.
Kirito had the black sword, possessing a priority that could be considered high among most sacred instrument, and the consecutive hit skills of the Aincrad style, that drove away numerous integrity knights, but the Fragrant Olive Sword that Alice carried was probably hiding a weight several times that of the black sword within itself. It was a difficult enough task to stop its attack, let alone repel it, when it was swung at such a speed.
No, that wouldn’t be the end of it. As had been made clear by the initial conflict, Kirito was the one to get repulsed even when on the offensive. This wouldn’t be much of a fight.
Kirito seemed to have realized that fact and quickly stood up, though he did take several more steps down with terrified expression. Alice chased behind as though she was gliding.
The ensuing battle could be said to be Kirito’s first battle in these two years that had developed so one-sidedly.
Alice delivered slash after slash with the grace of a dancer. Kirito tried his best to take them on but got unsightly blown away each time. He would have chances at a counterattack if he could dodge purely by shifting his body, but Alice’s sword was dreadfully quick with superb aim despite its hefty size, making it extremely hard to evade them cleanly.
Finished with the art ritual chant even while trembling with fear, Eugeo chased after the pair who continued to move about. With things having proceeded this far, he had no choice but to activate the armament full control art while Kirito somehow took on the attacks.
After merely five exchanges of offense and defense which took next to no time, Kirito had already been driven to the western wall. Behind him was solid marble with all routes of escape cut off.
Pointing her sword at the enemy, now stuck in a predicament, Alice spoke with a refreshing expression.
“I see. —You are the second to have endured my attacks this long. It seems you have climbed this tower with a fair level of resolve and faith. However… it is not at all enough to sway the church. As I thought, I cannot allow the two of you to upset the order of the Human World.”
The golden knight’s refined standing posture showed no opening. She could probably instantly deal with Eugeo activating the art ritual, even if it was behind her.
Kirito—say something. A short moment’s fine, make her let her guard down.
Eugeo prayed with all he had as he ran, but his partner merely leaned his back against the marble wall, his two eyes glittering, and made no further attempt to speak even a single word.
“Well then—prepare yourself.”
The Fragrant Olive Sword readily traced an arc as it pointed at the sky, wielded vertically.
A fleeting silence.
Tearing through the air, the golden light rushed on.
His two eyes opened to their limits, Kirito moved his right hand so fast it became a blur.
A shrill, metallic noise. A streak of sparks.
He didn’t take it on, but let it flow past. The swords made contact at the lowest possible angle and Alice’s absurdly heavy attack was averted by the slightest margin.
What the Fragrant Olive Sword pierced through with a dull impact was—a cen left of Kirito’s head, the smooth marble wall. The black hair severed scattered into the air and vanished.
Kirito immediately leapt at Alice. He pinned down the knight’s right hand with his left and entwined her left arm with his right. She hadn’t quivered even once until now, but Alice’s cheeks still twitched at that all the same.
Eugeo thrust the Blue Rose Sword into the lawn at his feet with that scream.
His surroundings froze white in just an instant. A wave of frost spread forth with impetuous strength, swallowing Kirito and Alice roughly ten mel away.
Countless ice tendrils immediately reached out from the pair’s feet all at once. All of them became clear, blue shackles as they coiled and twined about the connected pair’s figures. Kirito’s black clothes and Alice’s white armor were discernibly being hidden away by a thick layer of ice.
Kirito—Alice, forgive me!
Crying out in his heart, Eugeo continued creating the ice tendrils. It was doubtful any amount of shackles would suffice with Integrity Knight Alice as the target.
The tendrils that twined over them one after another with stiff noises soon changed into a single thick icicle.
The transparent pillar with its multiple layers, resembling crystal ore, quietly glittered with both swordsmen trapped within it. All that stuck outside was Alice’s right hand and the Fragrant Olive Sword held in it, pierced into the wall. Alice’s expression, showing slight surprise, and Kirito’s expression, resolved for death, remained still within the blue ice.
Everything would end by stabbing the dagger into that arm.
Eugeo separated his hand from the Blue Rose Sword and stood up. Letting go of the sword would release the full control art, but the thick icicle should take tens of minutes to melt naturally. Firmly gripping the dagger in his pocket with his right hand, he took one, two steps forward—
He took the third step as golden light exploded.
Alice’s sword, stabbed into the wall, split into countless flower petals in the frightened Eugeo’s vision.
Zaa… That grim chord resonated as the golden storm of flowers engulfed the icicle.
Eugeo could do nothing but watch in a daze as the small, cross blades swirled like a tornado, quickly shaving the ice away. Eugeo’s Life would likely be extinguished if he dove straight into that vortex, before taking even a single step forward.
Shaving the ice away, the storm of flowers soared up in the air after only a thin layer remained.
The icicle crumbled with a short-lived noise immediately after.
Hurling Kirito, still holding on, towards Eugeo with her left hand, Alice spoke with a tone that remained indifferent while shaking off the ice flakes clinging onto her hair.
“—Did the two of you not request for a contest of skill with the sword? It served as fair bit of amusement, but… it was apparent that mere ice had no chance of restraining my flowers. Your turn will come next, so do behave yourself and wait.”
When she lightly stretched her right hand out, the flower petals drifting above instantly gathered and returned to its original sword—
Kirito was the one who screamed.
No one knew when he had finished chanting the full control art, but strands of darkness streaked out from the black sword held in his two hands.
His aim was not Alice herself—
It was the Fragrant Olive Sword right before it could combine together.
Alice let out a shocked voice for the first time.
The torrent of darkness scattered the countless flower petals and threw them out of control.
Guaaah! A thundering roar split his ears as the tempest, a blend of pitch-black and gold, violently blew. They interweaved, swirled together, and slammed into the marble wall behind Alice.
Right. This was, definitely, the last chance.
Eugeo pulled the dagger from his bosom and kicked off the ground.
Just eight mel to Alice.
Then. Something beyond everyone’s expectations occurred.
The abnormally powerful torrent brought forth by fusing the full control arts from both sacred instruments struck the Central Cathedral’s wall and a myriad of cracks spread out over its entire length.
Along with a roar that seemed to shake even the Celestial World, the massive marble—those white walls, that were thought to be unbreakable like the «immortal walls», collapsed.
Blocks of stone were thrown outside and the hole created rapidly widened before his eyes.
Eugeo stared at the blue skies and the white sea of clouds peeking in from beyond, flabbergasted.
A sudden, violent gust knocked into Eugeo from the back and he was forced onto the grass. The air within the tower was being sucked out through the hole in the wall. The pair right next to the hole could do naught to resist that deluge of air.
The sight of the black-clothed swordsman and the golden knight entangled with each other being hurled out of the tower burnt itself into Eugeo’s eyes.
While screaming, Eugeo crept towards the hole in the wall.
What can I do—make a rope with sacred arts—no, I’ll use ice from the Blue Rose Sword to save those—
He wasn’t given the time to put those thoughts into action.
The stones making up the marble wall that should have fallen outside gathered together as though time had been rewound and started to rejoin together across the entire length of the wall.
Clung, clung, those dull noises rang out each time the hole contracted—
And snugly closed up before Eugeo’s eyes, a scream escaping from him while he rushed over as quickly as he could, as though nothing had actually happened.
He feverishly hammered with his fists. Twice; thrice.
Even after his skin broke and his blood sprayed out, the renewed wall remained unblemished, not showing a single sign of damage.
The white and glassy marble cruelly dismissed Eugeo’s screams.
(to be continued)
Armor Names – Literally “Thousand Thunder Armor” or “Rumbling Mountain Kacchu”. Kacchu is a set of traditional Japanese armor. Like those the samurai wear, with the silly helmets.
“bow broken, arrows spent” – This is a saying in Japan that means, “It’s all over”. The original sentence was “This is truly what it meant to have one’s bow broken and arrows spent”, a literal allusion to the saying.
“I’m” – She first uses “atashi”, then changes it to “watashi”. “atashi” is considered a more childish way to refer to oneself. This will remain here until I manage to think up of a way to represent this.
- Translation – Tap
- Translation – Drake