Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 15, chapter 17.
11th Month of Human Empire Calendar 380
Dark Knight Lipia Zankale leapt off her flying dragon’s back before it came to a stop and began running through the elevated walkway connecting the landing platform and imperial palace at full speed.
Soon finding it stifling, she tore off the helmet covering even face with her right hand.
Settling her long ashen-blue hair that waved out behind her with her left hand, Lipia sped up further. Though she would strip off her heavy armor and mantle if she could, she had no desire to give the magistrates who filled the imperial palace even a glimpse of her skin.
A gigantic, towering black palace tore into the red skies in the gaps between round columns lined up on her right after she dashed through the winding corridor.
Imperial Obsidia Palace was built by excavating the tallest—ignoring the vexing «mountain range at the edge»—rocky mountains found in the boundless land of darkness over a hundred years.
It was said the mountain range at the edge and the humongous gate carved into its solid rock could be seen just beyond the western horizon from the throne room at the top floor, though just barely.
However, no one could verify the truth behind that legend.
The throne of the land of darkness was left vacant ever since the first emperor, Vector the god of darkness, departed for the darkness beneath the earth in ancient times. The grand door to the top floor was sealed with chains of infinite Life and will never open.
Lipia tore her sight off the top of the pitch-black palace and called out the ogre guards protecting the looming palace gate.
“I am the eleventh among the dark knights, Zankale! Open the gate!!”
The guards with the head of wolves and the body of men were rather dull in their heads compared to their brawns and it was only immediately before Lipia reached the cast iron gate when they began rotating the handle to open it.
A leaden noise tolled as the gate opened and she slipped sideways through before it got far.
The palace greeted Lipia for the first time in three months with its usual chilly air.
The corridors polished by the simple and honest subordinate kobolds daily were speckless. She ran, her shoes clanging against the obsidian flooring, and saw a pair of women, voluptuous and clad in revealing clothing, noiselessly gliding across the floor before her.
The large pointy hats sitting on their glossy, wavy hair indicated them to be dark arts users. When she attempted to pass them without making eye contact, one of the women deliberately spoke out in her shrill voice.
“My, how the earth trembles! I wonder if there are orcs running somewhere?!”
A reply immediately came from the other accompanied with high-pitched laughter.
“That wouldn’t be enough, this tremor must be from the giants!”
—I would have slit their tongues off if it wasn’t for the restriction on drawing swords in the palace.
Lipia thought as she ran past with no more than a snort.
Most female humans born in the land of darkness enter the Dark Arts Users’ Guild after graduating from the preparatory school. The notoriously hedonic organization was said to teach indulgence in place of order and those who finished were mostly like that bunch, holding interest in nothing but dressing up.
Despite all that, they become uncharacteristically fired up when it came to opposing girls who choose the path of the knight. Lipia, too, was driven to her wits’ end when she was young and an art user she was on bad terms with in her class in cadet school shot a poison curse at her. Though that girl became rather docile after having the braided hair she was so proud of snipped off.
In the end, those of this land were no more than fools without concern for the future.
The land of darkness had no future with its organizations and people at each other’s throat, not knowing any means of settling conflicts except through strength.
Though the «Ten Lords Assembly» was key to maintaining the perilous equilibrium now, that will not last long. If any of the ten lords lose their life in the looming war with the Human Empire—which the orcs and goblins call the «land of iums»—the balance will collapse and a warring age where blood is washed away by blood will return.
The one who painted that image of the future to Lipia was one of the ten lords, her direct supervisor as the head of the Order of the Dark Knights as well as the man who was her lover.
And Lipia now held confidential information in her chest that he eagerly awaited.
In which case, she did not have even a second to spare on the female art users’ nonsense.
Crossing straight through the empty hall, she ran up the grand staircase, two steps at a time. Though trained, she was still out of breath when she finally reached the floor she wanted.
The «Ten Lords Assembly» ruled over the entire land of darkness through conferences, with five seats going to the human race, two seats to the goblin race, and the remaining three seats to the heads of the orc, ogre, and giant races. With something like a treaty tended after over a hundred long years of civil wars, the result was an agreement that stipulated none among the five races was superior to another.
As such, the eighteenth floor near the top floor of Obsidia Palace had private rooms established for each of the ten lords. Silencing her footsteps somewhat as she ran through the hallway, Lipia knocked on the door to one of the rooms further in three times with her armored right hand.
A husky voice immediately responded.
After looking to the sides and confirming no one was in the hallway, Lipia quickly slipped through the door.
While feeling nostalgia from the masculine smell in the room that maximized utilitarianism in terms of decoration, she placed a knee onto the floor and lowered her head.
“Knight Lipia Zankale has now returned under your service.”
“Good work. Go on, sit.”
She raised her face, aware of the throbbing in her chest in response to that deep voice.
The man who flumped himself onto one of the sofas surrounding a round table with his legs crossed up high was the dark knight commander—with the alias, «Dark General», Viksul Ur Shasta.
A towering stature despite being of the human race. Though naturally the same could not be said of his girth, he would not lose in height even against ogres. His deep black hair was trimmed short and the moustache at his mouth was in order as well.
His plain hemp shirt covered rising burly muscles that threatened to burst its buttons, but there was absolutely no excess meat around his waist. Few knew his perfect body hardly thinkable of one who crossed forty was maintained through his tremendous daily training that he continued without fail even after ascending to the top among the knights.
Holding down her desire to jump into the chest of her sweetheart upon seeing him for the first time in three months, Lipia sat on the sofa facing Shasta.
With his upper body up, Shasta lifted one of the two crystal cups prepared on the table to Lipia and broke the seal on what appeared to be well aged wine.
“I swiped this from the treasury yesterday in thoughts of having it with you.”
He poured the fragrant scarlet liquid into the glass with an eye closed. The way that expression brought out his impish side was the same as it was in the past.
“Th… thank you very much, Your Excellency.”
“How many times must I tell you to refrain from that when we’re alone?”
“However, I am still in the midst of my duty.”
Lightly clicking her glass against Shasta’s as he shrugged in exasperation, she gulped down the mellow wine all at once and felt the Life exhausted over the long journey slowly recovering.
Emptying his own cup and straightening his expression, the knight commander asked at a slightly softer volume.
“What exactly was that grave affair you sent word of through your familiar?”
Lipia ran her sight left and right before leaning forward. Shasta was an openhearted man, yet prudent at the same time. Multiple layers of defensive arts have been laid down this room and not even the chief of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild, that «witch», could eavesdrop. But despite that knowledge, she could not help but whisper upon considering the importance of the information she held.
Staring into Shasta’s black eyes, Lipia voiced her brief report.
“The highest minister of the Human Empire’s Axiom Church… has passed away.”
He was that Dark General, but his eyes still flashed wide open nonetheless.
A lengthy, deep breath broke the silence.
“Questioning if that is credible… would be an insult to you, wouldn’t it. I do not doubt the information, but… still… to think that immortal being would……”
“Yes… I understand what you mean. I, too, could not believe the abruptness and spent a week confirming it, but it truly appeared to be no mistake. I hid «ear bugs» in the Central Cathedral and collected the evidence.”
“My word, what a reckless act. If they had followed your art, you would have been torn from limb to limb before you could escape from the capital.”
“Indeed. But by the fact they could not detect an art on my level, too, proves the report was true.”
Wetting his tongue on his second cup of wine, Shasta lowered his hardy face.
“When had that happened? And the cause?”
“Approximately half a year ago and…”
“Half a year. I believe that was about when the guard at the mountain range slackened for some time.”
“Yes. As for the highest minister’s cause of death… though it is somewhat hard to believe, it was said she was done in by a sword…”
“A sword. —Someone capable of cutting down that immortal being existed, you say?”
“There couldn’t be.”
Lipia shook her head towards the speechless Shasta.
“Despite what we call her, that immortal being must have had her Life exhausted. However, in order to immortalize the divinity of the highest minister, they must have resorted to such deception to…”
“Hmm… well, let’s leave it at that. But still… she truly is dead, isn’t she, Highest Minister Administrator…”
Shasta shut his eyes and crossed his arms before leaning his upper back into the sofa.
A fair bit of silence started then, but eventually, his eyelids flashed open with short words.
“It’s our chance.”
Lipia lost her breath for an instant before asking in a squeaky voice.
“For what, exactly?”
The reply was immediate.
“There is no other… but for peace, of course.”
That vocabulary too dangerous to let out from one’s mouth within this palace permeated into the room’s atmosphere and dissipated.
“Do you believe… that to be possible, Your Excellency?”
Shasta set his eyes on the crimson liquid in his glass and nodded, slowly but deeply, at Lipia who asked so in a whisper.
“Be it possible or not, we will have to make it succeed no matter what.”
Gulping down the wine, he continued.
“The Life of the «Great Gate» that had been separating the Human Empire and land of darkness since the age of creation is finally near its end. The armies of the five dark races are like a huge kettle close to boil with the invasion of the Human Empire abundant in the grace of the sunlight and earth before them. The previous Ten Lords Assembly was a huge mess, deciding how to split the land, treasures, and slaves of the Human Empire. Good grief… what incorrigible greed they have.”
Lipia lowered her face at Shasta’s frank, curt speech.
Unlike the Human Empire controlled by that lengthy code of law called the «Taboo Index», only one law existed in the land of darkness. In short—to plunder with strength.
In that sense, Shasta would be the odd one out, considering peace like the Human Empire, when compared to the nine lords whose lust for conquest burned on even after ascending to the top positions of power.
However, that peculiarity contributed to Lipia’s boundless attraction towards this man. Whatever others might say or think, Lipia was not taken against her will unlike the women waiting on the other lords. Shasta had knelt down and offered her a bouquet of flowers, persuading her with sincere words.
Showing no sign he was aware of his lover’s contemplation, Shasta continued his words in a solemn tone.
“…However, the lords think too lowly of the humans. Especially of the Order of the Integrity Knights who protected the Human Empire over three hundred years.”
Lipia nodded while feeling her head cool off gradually upon hearing that name.
“Certainly… Their mastery is to be feared.”
“Each of them is literally a match for a thousand. Despite the countless fatalities suffered by the Order of the Dark Knights throughout its long history caused by integrity knights, the opposite had never come about. Their swordsmanship is exquisite and the sacred tools they wear are without peer… Not even I had finished a single one of them off even if I have cornered them before on numerous occasions. Naturally, the times I had fled overwhelms those, however.”
“That is… due to that strange art they use to release flames and light from their swords…”
“The «armament full control art», huh. Our knight order’s art research division hadn’t arrived at the details to that even after lengthy research. Not even a hundred goblin soldiers could stand against a single use of that art.”
“That said… our forces number fifty thousand. Conversely, there are but thirty or so integrity knights. Could we not drive them down with numbers…?”
Shasta cynically raised an end of his fine moustache at Lipia’s words.
“Had I not said each of them is comparable to a thousand? By those calculations, that will be the end of thirty thousand of our troops.”
“Well, I never… to think they could take on that many.”
“It’s natural to think so. Though it does not stick well with me, a strategy with us, the knight order, as the vanguards supported by the ogres and giants, with ranged arts pouring down from the dark arts users in the back should exhaust even the integrity knights eventually. But I cannot imagine how many casualties we would suffer before the final knight falls. I will not claim that it will be thirty thousand, but half of that is a feasible figure.”
The crystal cup was placed onto the table with a firm clink.
Holding back Lipia with a hand when she tried to pour more liquor, Shasta leaned his broad back against the sofa.
“…And when all is said and done, an imbalance will naturally develop among the strength of the five dark races. The Ten Lords Assembly will lose its purpose and the agreement of equality among the five races will be naught but in name. When it comes to that, the «age of blood and iron» from a hundred years before will return. No, it will be worse. After all, the gate to the vast ocean of bottomless nectar, the Human Empire, will be open this time. The wars to sort out the authorities of rule to each land will not end even in a hundred years…”
That was what Shasta truly feared, more so than the prior issues, that worst picture of the future he lectured Lipia about time after time. And aside from Shasta, the other lords would not think of that future as the worst—instead, they might even anticipate it.
Lipia lowered her face and stared hard at the jet-black gleam from the full-body armor she was granted when she was knighted which was scratched all over yet polished thoroughly.
Lipia would have probably never made it as a knight if it was during the «age of blood and iron» due to how small she was as a child. She would have been sold as a slave or abandoned in the wilderness outside the city, ending that short life.
However, though hardly perfect, it was thanks to that peace treaty that she could enter a cadet school instead of the slave market and discover her late blooming aptitude for the sword, reaching practically the highest position a human female could hope for.
After she became a knight, she managed an institution similar to a nursery that cared for infants gathered from remote regions where slave trafficking was still rampant who were abandoned by their parents at the expense of most of her monthly wages.
She did not inform Shasta of that fact, let alone her colleagues. After all, not even she could explain why she undertook such an act either.
The instinct that this land was strange somehow for letting the strength plunder everything was always somewhere in Lipia’s mind. She lacked the wisdom to put her own uncertainties into clear words unlike Shasta, but still, she felt there was a more «ideal, correct form» that would better fit this land—no, the whole of the Underworld including the Human Empire.
Even Lipia could now recognize that that so-called new world would only arrive long after that peace Shasta advocated. Along with that, she desired to become a pillar of strength for the man she loved as a woman.
“…But Your Excellency, how do you plan on persuading the other lords? Besides… will the Order of the Integrity Knights accept peace negotiations in the first place?”
Lipia asked in a subdued manner.
Shasta shut both of his eyes and stroke his glossy moustache with his right hand. Before long, a somewhat bitter voice softly sounded out from him.
“I see potential in the integrity knights. With the highest minister’s demise, the one who picked up overall command must be old man Bercouli. Though cunning, words do get through to him. The problem would be… the Ten Lords Assembly as expected. For that… though it may be contradictory…”
Raising his eyelids, his two eyes concealing a dangerous light gazed at the air.
“—I may have to cut them down. Four of them at the very least.”
Drawing in a sharp breath, Lipia asked in trepidation.
“Four, you say… I suppose those would be the two goblin chiefs, the orc chief, and…”
“The head of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild. That woman harbors ambition to obtain the secret of Administrator’s immortality and to eventually ascend to the emperor’s throne. She would never accept any plans for peace.”
Lipia wrung her rebuttal out.
“That is far too dangerous, Your Excellency! The goblin and orc chiefs are no match for you… but I cannot even begin to imagine what tricks that dark arts user would resort to!”
Shasta kept his silence for a short while even after Lipia’s mouth shut.
The words he suddenly let out, too, were utterly unexpected.
“Hey, Lipia. How long have you been by my side for?”
“Huh? Yes… e-erm… I was twenty-one… so four years?”
“So that much time had already passed. …I apologize for keeping you away for so long. How about it… it should be about time, we, well.”
He scratched his head, his sight wandering, and the dark knight commander spoke slightly brusquely.
“…Wouldn’t you officially become my bride? Though I must say sorry for being such an old man.”
“Your… Your Excellency…”
Lipia was rendered speechless with her two eyes wide open—
Some sort of heat slowly spread out from around her heart and she was about to jump across the table into the chest of the man she loved.
When a strained, shrill voice rang out from beyond the thick door.
“It’s an emergency!! A real emergency!! Aah, how could this have happened?!! Come, lords, hurry, hurry!!”
The faintly familiar voice belonged to one of the ten lords, the Economic Guild’s head.
The croaky screams which did not suit that magnanimous, well-built man in Lipia’s memories continued still.
“It’s a true emergency!! —T-The throne room! The sealing chains! They are quiveriiiiing!!”
Having descended into the throne room as Emperor Vector, Gabriel Miller gazed upon the artificial fluct lights kneeling at his feet, their heads lowered, feeling deeply moved with a sort of emotion.
They were quantum information from light confined within light cubes measuring two inches per side. And yet they were real humans endowed with intelligence and souls in this world. But then again, half of the ten lined up in front were monsters with bizarre appearances.
The ten generals who named themselves as «feudal lords», the knights and dark arts users, along with the fifty thousand troops stationed outside the palace were thus the units granted to Gabriel. He had to move them appropriately, exterminate the Human Empire’s defense forces, and secure «Alice».
However, unlike a real-time strategy game in the real world, these units could not be mobilized as he liked with a mouse and keyboard. He had to lead and command them with his words and behavior.
Gabriel silently stood up from the throne and gazed into a mirror affixed onto the wall behind after several steps.
Reflected was a view of himself sporting an utterly tasteless look.
His facial features and that blonde hair nearing white were all that remained of the real world’s Gabriel. However, a crown of black metal inlaid with a crimson jewel adorned his brow and he wore a luxurious fur gown, pitch-black like the suede-like shirt and trousers made from leather below it. A narrow long sword let out a hazy glow as it hung off his waist and meticulous patterns were embroidered in silver thread on his boots and gloves. In addition, on his back was a long cape dyed blood-red.
Shifting his view towards the right, he saw a knight one step down from the throne, glancing around with his hands joined together behind his head.
Inside that full-body armor, gleaming like a deep purple gem, was Vassago Casals who logged in with Gabriel. Though he warned him to refrain from getting carried over and mentioning anything unnecessary until they understood the situation, it appeared his emotions were practically bursting from his chest to be expressed in his slang as his toes clattered away.
Lightly shaking his head, Gabriel returned his eyes to himself in the mirror.
Accustomed to tailor-made suits, his body felt only unease at his get-up. However, in this «Underworld», Gabriel was no CTO of some private military company.
He was the emperor who governed the boundless Dark Territory.
Gabriel shut both of his eyes, and then slowly took in a breath of air and let it out.
The switch in his mind to swap the role he played from a tough and cool commander to a ruthless emperor made a click.
Opening his eyes, Gabriel—the god of darkness, Vector—turned with his crimson mantle billowing and glared haughtily at the ten generals as his voice, lacking all sense of humanity, resounded through the throne room.
“Raise your heads and name yourself. —You, over there, you start.”
The well-built middle-aged man whose brow was practically scraping against the floor as he prostrated himself raised his upper body with unexpected nimbleness before stating his name in fluent Japanese.
“Y-Yess! My name is Lengyel Gira Sukovo, I serve as the leader of the Economic Guild!”
The middle-aged man bowed once more and a something giant, like a small hill, began moving beside him.
The demi-human, likely over twelve feet if it stood, who had its massive frame wreathed in crisscrossing chains shining with black luster and an animal pelt covering its waist jerked up its abnormally long nose bridge and named itself in a low tone that resembled a tremor.
“Chief of the giant race, Sigrosig.”
By the time Gabriel internalized the fact that intelligence and a soul resided within this monster as well, the third let out a hoarse voice that grated on his ears.
“…Assassins’ Guild head… Fu Za…
The one dressed in a hooded robe had a presence far too frail when compared to the one from the giant race beside, with no clear indication of even age or gender.
Though Gabriel mused over giving an order for revealing that face for an instant, he decided to leave it aside, figuring an assassin like that would have one principle or another prohibiting it, and shifted his sight to the next general.
He narrowly held back an immediate urge to frown.
The meticulous embodiment of ugliness sat down with a thud. Its legs were too short to kneel. Its swollen, round belly shone with a sheen as though greasy and what appeared like skulls of small animals dangled from its neck half-sunken into its shoulders.
The head on top was seven part pig, three part human. A flat nose protruded forward and fangs peeked from its huge mouth, but intelligence blazed in its beady eyes like a human which made it all the more repulsive.
“Chieef of the orc racee, Rirupirin.”
Upon hearing that shrill voice, Gabriel wondered whether this was actually a male or female, but immediately casted aside that curiosity this time as well. An orc would be an inferior unit. There would be no purpose keeping them around after running them ragged.
The next to bring his head up with a quick bow was young enough to be still termed a young man. His curly red hair hung down and all that was wrapped on the top half of his tanned body was a single leather belt. On the bottom were skin-tight leather trousers and sandals while rectangular, metal-studded gloves were worn on his two hands.
“Tenth champion of the Pugilists’ Guild, Iskahn!!”
Looking back at the youth who assertively shouted out, Gabriel tilted his side in confusion inside. Pugilists were effectively boxers? Would they be suitable as soldiers despite being barehanded?
He pondered and a loud growl roared out all of a sudden.
The source was a type of demi-human with a physique unlike humans, though not to the extent of the giants. Long fur engulfed nearly all of its upper body. He understood it to be real hair rather than clothing only because its head was completely that of a beast.
It closely resembled a wolf. The protruding nose bridge; those teeth lined up like a saw; and those triangular ears. A barely comprehensible voice seeped out from its mouth where its long tongue hung out.
“Grr… chief of… ogres… Fulgrr… rrr…”
Though he had no confidence whether that was its name or simply a growl, Gabriel lightly nodded and looked at the next.
An ear-splitting squeak resounded right after.
“Hagashi, chief of the mountain goblins, at your service! Your Majesty, do grant the brave warriors of our race the honor of being your shock troops!!”
It was a type of demi-human, small, with long and narrow ears stretching out from its bald head, like that of a monkey. Its height was below that of a human, let alone the giant, orc, or ogre who named themselves earlier.
According to the lecture he received from Critter’ before diving, there was only one law in this Dark Territory. In short, the strong reign. In that case, what strength allowed the goblins who appeared powerless in every sense to stand on an equal footing with the other races?
Despite how they were the weakest infantry units beneath the orcs at any rate, Gabriel peered into the mountain goblin’s face with slight interest and realized the answer to his question with a hmm. There was a vehement hunger swirling within the unsightly demi-human’s beady eyes.
Right after the chief of the mountain goblins finished its salutations, similar squeaks came from the demi-human sitting beside who differed only in skin tone.
“Outrageous! We will be ten times as useful compared to them, Your Majesty! Kubiri, chief of the plains goblins, humbly at your service!”
“What was you, you bunch of slug-eaters! Have your heads turned to mush from how sodden your lands are?!!”
“The same goes to you, have your brains dried up with the sun shining down on them?!!”
Before the noses of the two who began squabbling—
Shot out blue sparks with a crack and the goblin chiefs jumped back with shrieks.
“—If I may remind the both of you, you are before His Majesty the Emperor.”
The one who lowered her raised hand with that bewitching voice was a young woman clad in revealing clothing. The sparks flew from her fingertips as they rubbed together like the flint on a lighter.
Swaying up, she bent her hips as though to put her voluptuous body and captivating looks on display before giving a mannered bow. Even Gabriel could understand how Vassago felt, whistling softly on his right.
Her skin, the shade of café au lait and glistening as though oiled, was covered minimally with black enamel leather. She wore stiletto boots narrow as needles. A fur mantle shining black and silver was on her back and her platinum blonde hair flowed down to her waist above it.
Her eyeshadow and lipstick were light blue, and those blue eyes that were just as vivid narrowed coquettishly as she named herself.
“I am the head of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild, D.I.L. The three thousand art users under me and I devote all of our minds and bodies to you, Your Majesty.”
Though her actions and voice were charming indeed, Gabriel simply nodded coolly, unaffected by sexual urges as he was.
The witch who called herself D. blinked her eyes and apparently considered supplementing her words, but gave a silent bow before returning to kneeling.
Gabriel thought that wise as he shifted his sight to look down upon the final general unit.
The man who quietly bowed was in the prime of his life, boasting an outstanding physique for a human.
The pitch-black armor covering his entire body shone dully with countless scratches carved into it. A shallow scar could be seen running from his brow to the bridge of his nose on his lowered face.
The man let out his voice without raising his head in a grating baritone.
“Dark Knight Commander, Viksul Ur Shasta. Before I dedicate my sword to you, Your Majesty… I have a question.”
The man finally lifted his face and on it, Gabriel saw a grimness resembling those rare «true soldiers» he met before.
The knight, Shasta, stared at Gabriel with a sort of conviction in his eyes absent from the previous nine generals who named themselves while continuing in an even lower voice.
“Where do Your Majesty’s ambitions lie to return to the throne in these times?”
I see—this is certainly no mere program.
Internally considering how he ought to always keep that in mind, Gabriel replied indifferently as the ruthless emperor.
“Bloodshed and terror. Arson and destruction. Death and screams.”
The generals’ expressions drew tight the moment Gabriel’s voice streamed out, stiff like machined steel.
Looking at the ten faces in turn, Gabriel then waved his fur mantle and pointed his right arm, high, towards the western skies.
Words filled with a false desire for conquest shot from his mouth nearly autonomously.
“…The «Great Gate» that protects the western lands brimming with strength of the gods who oust’d me from the Celestial World crumbles on even now. I have return’d… to make mine authority known to all who inhabit the lands!”
He received as detailed a lecture as possible from Critter regarding the «final load test» approaching in a week’s time inside. Following those details, he continued his speech in that theatrical tone.
“The Human Empire will truly belong to us, the ones of the darkness, when the Great Gate shatters! I seek only one, she who appears in those lands then, the «goddesses medium»! I shall permit slaughter and pillage for all other humans as thine wills take you! ‘Tis the time the ones of the darkness have awaited—’tis the promis’d time!!”
The air turned still with silence—
Broken by shrill, savage roars.
“Giiiii!! Killl! White iums, kill them allllll!!”
It was the orc chief who shrieked while its feet wriggled, its beady eyes seething with lust and resentment. The goblin chiefs followed with their arms raised in unison immediately after.
“Hooooouu!! War!! War!!”
“Ura——!! War, war——!!”
The war cries spread to the other generals and the officers behind them before long. The black robes in the Assassins’ Guild swayed with their bodies as thin as sticks while the women in the Dark Arts Users’ Guild let out merry cries along with sparks of all colors.
Within the gigantic hall filled full with primitive, unrefined voices—
That knight named Shasta alone stayed kneeling without a single movement as Gabriel noticed.
He could not tell from that armored figure, still as a sculpture, whether it stemmed from militaristic restraint or some sort of emotion.
“To think you had such a talent, bro! Shouldn’t you have become an actor instead?”
Gabriel snorted in reply to Vassago who threw a bottle of wine while smirking.
“I merely did as necessary. It would be best if you learn how to give a similar speech too. You are a step above them in the hierarchy, after all.”
Popping the caught bottle’s cork off with his fingertip, he held some of the ruby-colored fluid in his mouth before considering whether that counted as drinking on duty.
As for Vassago, he downed what appeared like a top-quality antique in a manner akin to chugging down beer as though stating that it would be a waste not to drink it, and then brusquely wiped his mouth before replying.
“Rather than giving orders or speeches, I would rather lead the attack. We got this rare chance to dive into this amazing VR world and all, ya know… I can’t think of this wine or its bottle as anything but real.”
“In exchange, you’ll hurt when cut and bleed too. There is no pain absorber at work here, after all.”
“Ain’t that the good part?”
Shrugging his shoulders at the grinning Vassago, Gabriel returned the bottle to the table and stood from the sofa.
The emperor’s living quarters on the top floor of Obsidia Palace was far wider than that executive room in the headquarters of Glowgen DS and massive windows allowed an unobstructed night view of the town around the palace. Though the lights and colors paled in comparison to San Diego, it made up for that with how it was pulled out from fantasy.
The ten generals who called themselves lords have left the palace to prepare for war and the flames of the transport troops carrying out supplies from the warehouses moved through the main street without pause. The head of the Economic Guild in charge of supplies was ordered to use up all of the rations and equipment stored in the palace, so the solders should not suffer from starvation or cold.
Taking his eyes off the countless lights, Gabriel walked towards a corner of the room and touched the purple crystal pane—the system console—installed there with his hand.
Deftly running through the menu, he pressed the button to call out to external observers. The temporal acceleration rate decreased and following the odd sensation as the rates were matched, Critter’s fast speech streamed out from the screen.
“Commander!? We’ve only just sent Vassago and you off and returned to the main control room, Commander!!”
“It’s already the first night here. Though I understand, temporal acceleration is a strange thing, isn’t it? We will be proceeding as planned for the time being. The units’ preparation will be completed within a day or two and the march towards the Human Empire is scheduled to begin in two days.”
“Brilliant. Remember, once you secure «Alice» herself, bring her there and go through the ejection process for the main control room. «Alice»’s light cube will be ours then. Also, please drill this into that idiot Vassago.”
It seemed Critter’s voice reached his ears as a short curse could be heard from behind.
“As we currently have no administrator rights, we cannot reset accounts. In other words, neither you, Commander, nor Vassago can use those super accounts again once you die on that side. You’ll really have to start over as a recruit at that point, you hear!”
“Aah… understood. I will refrain from heading out to the front lines at present. Have the JSDF acted?”
“Nothing at the moment. It seems they haven’t noticed your diving in yet.”
“Good. I will cut communications, then. I will like to set our next comms to be after securing Alice.”
“Understood, I’ll look forward to that.”
With the communication window closed, the acceleration rate reverted with that sense of slight disconcertion.
Vassago was still muttering curses while fighting against the armor’s fasteners, but eventually threw all of the metallic equipment onto the floor and stood up dressed in a leather shirt and trousers.
“Ermm, bro, if I said I wanted to go play around downtown… guess it’ll be a no, wouldn’t it.”
“Hold yourself back for the time being. I’ll get you a night after the operation’s over.”
“Got it. No killing or women, huh… Then I’ll be a good boy and get some sleep. I’ll use that room.”
Vassago disappeared into the connecting bedroom with his joints creaking and Gabriel let out a breath as well and removed the jeweled crown from his forehead.
Leaving the exaggerated mantle and gown on the sofa too, he hurled the sword atop them.
In the VR games he played thus far, removing equipment would return them to the inventory, but it appeared there was no such convenient feature in this world. Living for even a month in room would render it to a dismal state at this rate, but they would set out from this palace in a couple of days and return next only to log out, after all.
Upon opening the door facing that which Vassago vanished into while unbuttoning his shirt, Gabriel—narrowed his eyes in surprise.
At the side of the grandiose bed in this bedroom which was just as enormous was a small prostrating silhouette.
He recalled ordering for no one, not even servants, to go above the palace’s throne room. How could there be any capable of disobeying a god’s orders?
Though he considered for a moment to return and take his sword, Gabriel went ahead and stepped into the bedroom and closed the door behind him.
“…Who are you.”
He curtly asked for the person’s identity.
The reply was in a slightly husky, feminine voice.
“…I was entrusted as your attendant for tonight.”
Raising an eyebrow, he crossed straight through the dim bedroom towards the bed.
The two hands against the floor belonged to a young woman clad in flimsy clothing. Her ash-blue hair was bound up high and secured by an ornate ribbon. The faintly visible lines of her body revealed no presence of any sort of weapon.
“On whose orders?”
He questioned while sitting onto the glossy silk sheets and the woman replied in a hushed voice after a momentary pause.
“No… I am merely here bound by such a duty.”
Gabriel turned his eyes away and laid himself down onto the center of the bed with a thud.
The woman stood seconds later and silently slithered to his right.
“I beg your pardon…”
The whispering woman’s face possessed an exotic beauty that amazed even Gabriel. Though her skin was dark, there was a nobility present around her cheekbones typical of Northern Europe.
A sort of emotion came over Gabriel as he looked up at the woman who was about to gently pull away her sheer clothes and remove the ribbon binding her hair.
Could an artificial fluct light go this far?
Was even this woman incomplete as a true AI? If that was so, what heights had Alice reached in her state of completeness?
What moved Gabriel’s heart was not the woman’s act of giving up her body.
It was that sharp knife raised up high, drawn from within the woman’s undulating hair, as his foresight told him.
Catching her right arm with ample composure, Gabriel’s other hand flashed as it nimbly gripped her slender neck and pulled it down onto the bed.
The woman ground her teeth while continuing her struggle to force the knife forward. Her strength was more than expected, but still too little to trouble Gabriel. He sealed her movement, locking her dominant arm with his right hand and gently digging his right thumb into her windpipe.
Even as her face warped with intense pain, the determination in the woman’s ashen eyes remained unfaded. The awkwardness of the cosmetics on her ferocious expression and the state of her muscles led to doubts that she was a professional assassin. In that case, the turncoat was not the one named Fu Za who managed the assassins, but one of the other nine generals—likely one among the human generals.
Closing in to the woman’s face, Gabriel asked the same question as earlier.
“On whose orders?”
The deep, hoarse answer was the same as before.
“By my own… will.”
“Then, who is your superior?”
“……I have none.”
Gabriel pondered like a machine, without any trace of emotion.
The breakthrough «Rath» aimed for, to exceed that boundary of artificial fluct lights. That referred to the incapability to oppose law, regulations, and orders from some superior being.
Compared to the inhabitants of the Human Empire, bound by countless laws, the residents of the Dark Territory appeared to always exercise their freedom, but in reality, they differed in no way. It looked like freedom merely because the law passed down onto the fluct lights on this side numbered only one.
That law was to «plunder with strength». A world of survival of the fittest where those strong in combat rule over the weak. It seemed that even without Gabriel’s intervention, Rath planned to have the Human Empire that believed in order and the land of darkness filled with chaos clash and use the resulting war as a catalyst for their next breakthrough had their experiments proceeded.
However, by whatever reason, a fluct light that broke through that limit was born in the Human Empire before their plans proceeded to that point. There was no information regarding a similar fluct light originating from the land of darkness from the insider in Rath.
That was to say, the soul of this woman who planned to assassinate the emperor with a single knife, too, must be bound by that absolute law. Despite that, she would not reveal her master’s name even after Gabriel asked, no, ordered. If that was the case, this woman was effectively prioritizing her loyalty to her master over the orders of Gabriel, both emperor and god. In other words, she believed her master to be stronger than the emperor.
It appeared there was a need for an opportunity to properly display his might to the generals and executive units and have them acknowledge Gabriel—Emperor Vector—as the world’s strongest existence. However, he could not very well slaughter all of the generals. How could he go about it?
Either way, he had to get rid of one among the generals. The one who inspired the will for assassination in this woman.
How could he smoke that traitor out? Should he contact Critter again and have him monitor the general units from the outside? No, that would require the temporal acceleration to be set to the same as the real world and waste that precious time there.
Processing that far in an instant, Gabriel once again stared into those eyes in the color of steel.
“Why do you seek my life? To amass wealth? A promise of territory?”
He asked without much concern. However, the immediate reply was entirely beyond his expectations.
“If a war starts now, we will be set back a hundred, no, two hundred years! The time where the powerless are oppressed must not return!!”
Slight surprise came over Gabriel yet again.
Was this woman truly at the stage before that breakthrough? If that was the case, was it her master who spoke those words?
Gabriel leaned his face in and stared into her ashen eyes up close.
Determination. Loyalty. And the emotion hidden deep within……
Ah, that makes sense.
He had no further need for this woman, then. To be specific, he had no further need for this woman’s fluct light.
Gabriel abided by the judgement he passed and nonchalantly added strength to his left hand, gripping the woman’s neck, so that she would not let out any more of those meaningless words.
He could hear and feel her neck bones creaking. Silent screams left her mouth with her two eyes wide open.
Gabriel tasted a different variant of surprise even as he held her struggling limbs down tight and strangled her neck without mercy.
Was this really a virtual world? The sensation of sinews and cartilage breaking apart transmitted to his left hand stimulated his five senses more vividly than in the real world alongside the dread and pain radiating from her exposed skin.
Trembling unconsciously, he drew his left hand close on reflex.
Crack. The unknown woman’s neck bones crumbled with that dull noise.
And Gabriel saw it.
From the brow of the woman who closed her eyes tight as she endured the pain—gushed out a light shining in rainbow colors.
This was unmistakably what he saw then—the moment the young Alicia’s life ended—that soul cloud.
Gabriel opened his mouth widely in that instant and sucked in the woman’s soul without missing any of it.
Bitterness, from fear and pain.
Sourness, of chagrin and sorrow.
Succeeding those two, an indescribable divine nectar engulfed Gabriel’s tongue.
Hazy scenes flickered behind his shut eyelids.
Young children playing in the front yard of a decrepit two-story building. There were humans, goblins, and orcs. The children looked this way and charged in with their hands extended, their faces gleaming.
As that image disappeared, he then saw a man’s upper body. An embrace in his broad chest, trained to its limit, warm and firm.
[I love… you… Your Excellency……]
A voice sounded out faintly, echoed, and departed.
Even after everything faded away, Gabriel’s strong grip on the woman’s husk remained.
Marvelous. What a marvelous experiment.
Though much of his consciousness quivered in ecstasy, Gabriel inferred the logic behind the phenomenon with some of what sense he had left over.
The light cube storing the woman’s fluct light and Gabriel’s own fluct light were connected through the STL. As such, their Life, when her Life, her hit points, turned to zero, the fragments of her deallocated quantum data might have went upstream through the circuit.
However, that theory no longer mattered. He had replicated that phenomenon he spent his life seeking at last. He had tasted all of that final emotion the woman held on the verge of death—love. That was just like a heavenly nectar sprinkling onto a desolated desert.
He needed more.
He needed to kill more.
Gabriel threw his body back and let loose silent, raucous laughter.
Gabriel gazed over the ten generals and their respective executives, lined up orderly and bowing low with respect once again, with satisfaction.
As ordered, they had completed the preparation for marching within two days. In a sense, these general units might be superior to those people residing on the directors’ floor in Glowgen DS’s headquarters.
He thought them fit enough to be considered complete. That ability to handle work without complaint and that loyalty. What more could one want for an AI installed on a robot for war?
That said, he had to keep in mind that the generals’ loyalty was the reason for that issue regarding artificial fluct lights that Rath was so fixated with. The great law imprinted into their souls, the strongest shall rule, was what made these ten obey the emperor, Gabriel, no, Vector. That also meant it would not be unnatural for any of them to betray the emperor the moment they develop doubt in his might.
That concern had already been realized.
The female assassin who sneaked into his bedroom two nights ago.
That woman tried to kill the most powerful, the emperor. There must have been a master she thought superior to Gabriel in her heart. That person she called «Your Excellency» in her final words. And that person was almost certainly among the ten generals lined up before his eyes.
In her eyes, her own master overpowered Emperor Vector. If that was the case, there was a high possibility this Your Excellency had not truly swore fealty to Gabriel. If he went to the battlefield with such a unit under his command, he might even be assassinated in his sleep, however slight the chance might be.
Hence, the final mission before setting out for the front lines would be to smoke out and execute this Your Excellency from among the ten.
And at the same time, the remaining nine would recognize the might of the emperor. The balance of power would be forever carved into their fluct lights.
At this point, Gabriel Miller had not considered in the slightest being beaten—losing in a one-versus-one fight—by any of the ten units under his eyes. The beliefs that the Underworld was no more than a VR world, a direct successor to games, and that the units in it were all mere NPCs were still entrenched in him.
The words of his master surfaced in Dark Knight Viksul Ur Shasta’s mind as he knelt with his head lowered. The memory was from over twenty years in the past, in the Order of the Dark Knights’s training area.
[—The master of my own died instantly with his head lopped off. My master had his chest gouged into and fell on the way back to the palace. I lost an arm, but returned alive as you can see. Not that it is anything to brag about.]
Sitting upright on the floor shining with black luster, his master showed Shasta his right arm, cleanly severed from the elbow, as he spoke. It hurt simply looking at the wound, wrapped in bandages with the blood stopped with medicine.
The one who made that wound a mere three days ago was the longtime enemy of the dark knights and the world’s strongest swordsman, or perhaps its worst monster—the Integrity Knight Commander himself, Bercouli Synthesis One.
[Do you understand what this implies, Viksul?]
At roughly twenty back then, Shasta could do nothing but to tilt his head in confusion. His master returned his severed arm into the bosom of his clothes, shut his eyes, and murmured.
[I’ve caught up, at long last.]
[Caught up—with him, you mean?]
A tinge of disbelief found itself into the young Shasta’s words. That was how overwhelming Bercouli’s swordsmanship was. The chill that struck him in the back like an ice pillar the moment he saw his master’s right arm trace a line of fresh blood as it flew up high had not disappeared even after three days.
[I will turn fifty this year. But still, I do not believe I have yet mastered how to hold the sword, let alone swing it. In all likelihood, that will remain so in the next five or ten years before I drop dead.]
His master spoke softly.
[…Our brief lives cannot possibly reach where he got after living for over two hundred years. I hate to admit it, but I had given up inside up until the moment I crossed swords with him. However, now that I had fled back with this unsightly loss, I know those were not mistakes. They weren’t for nothing… My master and the rest of the masters thus far have not continued challenging that man for nothing. —Viksul, what is the apex of swordsmanship?]
Shasta instinctively gave an answer to the sudden question.
[The «unconscious blade».]
[Yes. To unite with one’s sword through many years of training, and cut, draw, and even move without conscious thought for the sake of one slash; that is the apex of swordsmanship. I was taught so by my master and I had taught you so, too. But you see… Viksul, it was wrong. There is more. I understood that, being cut by that monster.]
A faint hue of excitement ran through his master’s aged features. Shasta, too, leaned forward without noticing while still sitting upright.
[More… you say?]
[The opposite of unconscious. A resolute conviction. The power of one’s will, Viksul.]
His master strongly waved his right arm, severed above the elbow, without warning.
[Look at it. I had cut down from the right at that point. It was a truly unconscious slash, the fastest my sword had been in my life. I must have taken the initiative over Bercouli at the start.]
[Yes… I thought so as well.]
[But, but you see. Originally, he would be on the defensive with his sword deflected by mine, but instead, he pushed mine back and cut away this arm. …Can you believe it, Viksul? His sword did not even touch mine in that moment!]
Shasta turned speechless and shook his head awkwardly.
[How… how could that…]
[It is the truth. It was almost as if the trajectory of his slash was averted by some unseen power. That was no art. Neither was it the armament full control art. I can offer no other explanation for that phenomenon. My unconscious blade was defeated by his willpower, trained up over two hundred years. He pictured the path of his sword so strongly that it became unchangeable reality!]
Shasta could not immediately trust his master’s words.
It was beyond belief that something intangible like the might of one’s willpower could repel a heavy, hard sword with its irrefutable presence.
It appeared Shasta’s master predicted his response. Abruptly straightening his sitting posture, he quietly ordered atop the floorboards shining black.
[Viksul, I shall impart upon you the final secret of the sword. —Cut me.]
[Wha… what are you saying?! You even got through that…]
With your life intact; Shasta could not help but to keep those words unsaid. There was a sudden, intense glint in his master’s eyes.
[I have to be cut down by you with our lives interconnected. Now that I have lost to him in a single strike, you do not consider me to be the strongest any longer. If I live, you cannot fight against him on equal grounds. You, too, must cut, no, kill me and stand where he… Bercouli does!!]
Finishing those words, his master stood and adopting a stance akin to wielding a sword with that missing right arm.
[Now, stand! Draw your sword, Viksul!!]
Shasta slashed his master and ended that life.
With that, he learned the meaning behind his master’s words with his body.
Sparks scattered wildly when Shasta’s sword crossed the unseen blade held in his master’s right arm—that sword named willpower—and it really did tear into his cheek, leaving behind a gash that would never disappear.
Though wet with tears and fresh blood, The young Shasta stood at the first step of the secret surpassing the «unconscious blade», the «incarnate blade».
And the years flowed on—to five years ago.
Shasta was finally challenged by the bitter enemy of the dark knights, Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli. At the age of thirty-seven, he felt his sword reach its limit.
His master returned alive at the cost of an arm, but Shasta had no intention of returning alive if he lost. After all, Shasta had made no disciples for the sake of succeeding himself. He had no desire to have some youth shoulder the fate of cutting down his or her master and being cut down by his or her disciple. He decided to sever that link stained with blood at the cost of his life.
The sword laced with all of his determination and resolution, the «power of incarnation», clashed against Bercouli’s initial strike head-on without being deflected. But Shasta had already predicted his defeat by that point. He doubted his capability to execute another slash of similar weight.
However, Bercouli laughed openly and whispered with their swords crossed.
[Your swordsmanship’s great. A sword clotted with the intent to kill could never take on my sword. Chew on that thought and come back in another five years, boy.]
And the integrity knight commander widened the distance between them before calmly taking his leave. For some reason, he could not bring himself to cut him down from behind despite how his back appeared so full of openings.
It took a long time before he understand what Bercouli implied. But now, five years later, he felt like he understood. Shasta would have likely lost in that clash if his blade was ladened with nothing but blood thirst and hatred. Though it was merely once, his strike was an equal match only because of that resolution hidden in his chest, surpassing even his murderous urges.
In other words—his gratitude towards his predecessors who passed down techniques at the cost of their lives and his prayers for the youth succeeding himself.
That was why Shasta decided to begin negotiations for peace immediately after receiving news of the highest minister’s death. He had the confidence that Bercouli would definitely accept such a proposal.
For the same reason—
He had to personally take the head of Emperor Vector who descended onto Obsidia Palace all of a sudden with that tyrannical decision to initiate war.
Even as he knelt with his head lowered, Shasta refined the willpower to be set on the blade certain to take his life.
The emperor, revived after going missing for hundreds of years, was a young man with pale skin and blonde hair just like a human of the Human Empire. Neither his physique nor his features demonstrated much power either.
However, only those two eyes of the emperor, too vividly blue, showed him to be no commoner. There was nothing in them. They were bottomless voids, sucking in all light. This man was hiding some vile craving.
If the emperor’s void were to absorb his refined power of incarnation entirely, his sword would not reach.
Dark General Shasta will probably die then. However, his intentions should be inherited by those succeeding him.
His only lingering regret was that he could not convey his decision to Lipia as she did not show up at his room last night. Was she worked to the bone with her duties for the departure, or perhaps making an appearance at her precious «home»?
If he had revealed his plan to cut the emperor to her, she might have had insisted on accompanying him. Hence, this might have been for the best.
Shasta slowly drew in a breath and held it.
Lowering his waist, he softly touched his cherished sword left on the floor with the fingertips on his left hand.
There were fifteen mel to the throne. Two steps to reach.
None must know of his initial movement. He must draw unconsciously.
He poured the power of incarnation, sharpened to its limit, into his sword from his fingers. And he became air.
His left hand grabbed at the sword’s sheath——
But before he could.
The emperor casually spoke in his hard and smooth voice that resembled glass.
“Incidentally, a person sneak’d into my bedroom the night before last. With hair hiding a knife.”
Hushed astonishment rocked the air in the great hall.
Among the nine lords lined up to Shasta’s left, one gulped softly, another groaned deeply from the throat, and yet another shrank into that thick robe. Several cries of surprise were raised from the line of executives held at the back as well.
Shasta, too, was struck by shock. He went through his thoughts in an instant, his posture still ready to go forth and cut.
Another came to the conclusion that the emperor should be eliminated. It must have, unfortunately, been a failure judging from how the emperor was unharmed—but just who among the nine called for the assassination?
It would not be the five demi-human lords. Even the smaller goblin races could not possibly sneak past the guards’ eyes into the top floor, let alone the giants, ogres, and orcs.
If he were to look towards the four human lords, he could first eliminate the head of the pugilists, the young Iskahn and the Economic Guild’s head, Lengyel. Iskahn was an impulsive and straightforward youngster with the sole aim of mastering bare fist combat techniques and Lengyel would only start a war if it made him a tidy sum.
Seeing if the culprit had sneaked into that bedroom, the head of the Assassins’ Guild, Fu Za, would be most fishy and in truth, he could not understand what went through that man’s mind, but that man would never use a knife.
What the Assassins’ Guild researched in earnest at the bottom of their dark pit was neither arts nor swordsmanship, but a third power: poison. Those blessed in neither arts usage authority nor weapon wielding authority banded together to live on, forming Fu Za’s tribe. They follow a standard methodology with their weapons limited to needles coated in poison, concealed or shot from blowpipes. Knives were not included.
By the same reasoning, he also had to exclude the head of the dark arts users kneeling directly on his left, D.I.L. As ambition embodied, the woman seemed likely to consider taking the emperor’s head and climbing straight up to rule over the Dark Empire, but assassins from D. should use arts instead of knives.
However, that would mean none among the nine lords called for the assassination.
The one and only remaining was Dark Knight Commander Shasta himself.
But of course, he had no recollection of doing so. He had decided to eliminate the emperor only by his own sword, staking his life on it. Forget ordering his subordinates for an assassination, he had not talked about his hidden determination even once—
She could not have.
Reaching that point in his thought in the span of a blink after the emperor spoke of the assassin, Shasta felt his left hand in contact with his sword’s scabbard turn increasingly chilly.
His refined power of incarnation transformed in no time at all. To suspicion. To unease. To dread. And, to an ominous certainty.
At almost the same time, Emperor Vector continued to the latter half of his words.
“I intend not to flush out the one who sent that assassin. I applaud that spirit of exercising power to gain more. Thou art welcome to come at me whenever if thou desire mine head.”
Glaring haughtily over the great hall immersed in a low clamor once more, the emperor expressed what could be considered emotion for the first time with that pale face—
“Naturally, I request thou prepare ample compensation for such a wager. For example… this.”
Pulling his hand from his pitch-black long clothes, he nonchalantly made a signal.
And with that, the door made in the wall to the east of Shasta, beside the throne, silently opened and a servant girl slowly walked in. A large silver tray, carefully held up by her two hands, had something rectangular placed on it, but the black cloth covering it obscured its identity.
The servant placed the silver tray before the throne, reverentially lowered her head to the emperor, and left the room through the door once more.
In the silence strained thin, Emperor Vector reached out with the toes of his boots, his lips in a somehow warped smile, and swept off the cloth covering the silver tray as through trampling on it.
What Shasta, his entire being frozen, saw with his two eyes—
Was a clear ice cube, faintly blue.
And sealed within it, never to wake again, was the face of the woman he loved.
-a. Shasta silently mouthed her name.
An endless, dark sensation of nihility filled his chest, erasing even the chill that engulfed his body.
Shasta knew of the orphanage Dark Knight Lipia Zankale secretly managed. He thought he saw hope for the future in Lipia’s act of protecting and raising the children who awaited only a death in the wilderness, their relatives lost, regardless of their race.
That was why Shasta spoke of his ideals only to Lipia. That boundless dream where the constant war with the Human Empire ended and they joined hands for a world shared rather than fought over.
However, that ended up leading to Lipia’s assassination of the emperor and the consequential reveal of that tragic form. Though the emperor was the one who murdered her—Shasta, too, did so. He was sure of that.
An immense tempest of regret and self-condemnation blew through Shasta’s hollow chest, concentrated into a brief moment.
It took no time at all for that to transform into a single dark emotion.
Kill. He would kill that man sitting on the throne with his legs crossed, that faint smile on his face, whatever it took.
Even if he had to give up on his life and the future of the Dark Territory hereafter.
Now then, which would turn out to be the problem?
With slight interest, Gabriel gazed over the ten leader units kneeling under his eyes.
The female assassin loved her master from the bottom of her heart. Having drank in that emotion that resembled some nectar of the gods, released on her death, Gabriel understood not just her yearning, but even the nature of the love her master showed her—though merely as organized data.
Hence, he knew that person she called Your Excellency would definitely make a move if he displayed her head. He would execute that traitor unit pointing a blade towards him without mercy and heighten the remaining units’ loyalties with fear. Like in those simulation games he played in his spare time in the real world.
What a deplorable and delightful bunch.
Limited in intelligence despite possessing proper souls and on top of that, infinitely replenishable no matter how many he slaughtered. The day the Underworld fell into his hands, both its mainframe and its light cubes, would certainly be when he satiates that hunger tormenting him since his childhood.
Placing a cheek against the arm he rested on the throne’s armrest, Gabriel waited, relaxed.
There was a whole fifteen meters from the units. He could face off an attack from any weapon with the sword equipped on the left of his waist without issue.
Of course, that was not enough against attacks ranging from system calls to commands. However, Gabriel’s insecurities were wiped away before he logged in.
The super account, «Dark God Vector», was set up for Rath’s staff to forcibly intervene with the Dark Territory. As such, the HP known as Life was enormous, the equipped sword was the strongest, and above all, Vector held the rule-breaking trait of being unselectable for all sorts of commands from others.
Protected by all of those conditions,
Gabriel understood not, protected by all of those conditions, even as the knight in pitch-black armor sitting at the left end of the ten units curled up his back.
He understood not, even as a faint shadow-like aura enveloped that entire body.
Not even when the knight grabbed the sheathed sword on the floor with his left hand at the speed of lightning, head leaping up with that, and showed the two eyes centered among those masculine features releasing crimson light that would not belong on any human—
Did Gabriel understand at all what was happening.
He did not understand this world, while being a program running on a physical server, was «grounded in reality» constructed by quantum bits the same as humans’ fluct lights.
He did not understand that as such, the pure yet intense blood thirst originating from the dark knight could reach the STL Gabriel was hooked up to from his light cube, through the main visualizer and the quantum transmission lines.
Shasta recognized only the emperor in the middle of his sight soaked in the shade of blood.
His right arm moved faster than it ever had, and drew.
What was released from the scabbard, was not the familiar grey blade of the sacred tool inherited from his master, the tachi, «Oborogasumi». As its name suggested, thick mist resembling night fog surrounded its extremely long blade and twisted into a swirl.
Though Shasta did not notice that the logic behind the phenomenon was identical to the integrity knight’s ultimate technique, the armament full control art, inexplicable even after long years of research, that no longer mattered to him.
Shasta swung his beloved sword, carrying all of his anger, hatred, and sorrow, with a fleeting scream.
From the northern tip of the Human Empire to the ends of its eastern region.
This would be the first time Integrity Knight Alice and Amayori, born in the western empire, visited the eastern empire, Eastabarieth, a land most mysterious even among the four empires.
Rivers, blue as lapis lazuli, flowed swiftly through the gaps between jutting, strangely-shaped rocks under her eyes. The towns and villages near the bank sometimes appeared to be mainly built from lumber rather than stone like the familiar northern side.
Most of those who looked up into the sky and pointed had black hair. The recollection that Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio, whom she simply could not get along with, was born here suddenly sprang into her mind.
Returning her gaze forward, Alice saw Kirito, blankly gazing at the sky while leaning against her as she grasped the reins, had pitch-black hair as well, and considered the possibility that he could have been born here and might regain his mind if she descended into town and let him come into contact with the people; however, she currently had the need to reach her destination even a second faster.
It was the third day of their rushed journey, camping in remote places away from the population at night, and having the fish Amayori caught along with the dried fruits they carried for meals—
In the noon of the eleventh month’s second day, the mountain range at the edge, whose appearance alone remained unchanged from its view at the northern side, appeared before them with a gorge made with vertical cuts so straight it could only be the work of the gods.
“…You can see it now, Kirito.”
Alice murmured and gently caressed the nape of her cherished dragon whom she had forced on this long journey while carrying a heavy load. Though the flying dragons boasted of the highest Life among all living beings now that most of the magical beasts have disappeared, it must have still been a major undertaking to fly while burdened with two humans and three sacred tools. It seemed she had almost exhausted the energy she stored up by living on a lavish diet of fish for half a year.
Upon snapping the reins while thinking to, at the very least, feed her plenty of her favorite boiled mutton once they reached the camp site, Amayori responded with a voice that revealed no sense of fatigue and strongly flapped her wings.
Though the gorge appeared like a narrow gap from afar, she noticed it was nothing that simple as they approached.
The valley likely reached about a hundred mel in width. Wide enough for a large army of orcs and ogres to march in rank.
At the grasslands that spread out, as though to envelop the whole entrance to the valley that pierced right through the mountain, countless white tents were lined up systematically, forming a large camp site. Smoke from cooking rose from one place or another while the soldiers were training on the outskirts. The gleam from the swords they swung and the spirit they exuded reached even the skies.
Though morale was not as low as she had worried, the number of troops was still despairingly low. A brief scan showed the total to be less than even three thousand. On the other hand, the invading army from the Dark Territory was no less than fifty thousand. Despite how only a miniscule percentage became soldiers or guards when bestowed such sacred tasks in the Human Empire, everyone who could fight, regardless of age or gender, was made a soldier beyond the mountain range.
Alice doubted anything about this situation would change with just the addition of herself. What kinds of strategies for defense did Knight Commander Bercouli have in mind…?
Alice first flew over the camp site in her contemplation and led her flying dragon towards the gorge sunken in dim darkness.
“I am sorry, Amayori, please fly on for a little more.”
She called out so and the dragon responded with a kururuu immediately before the light of Solus was obstructed by the mountain mass.
A chill that made her shiver enveloped her the moment they entered the gorge. The walls of rock on the left and right rose so smoothly, she truly believed the gods must have done it. She saw absolutely no vegetation, let alone wildlife.
After continuing to fly while decelerating for several minutes—
A ridiculously large structure finally showed itself before the lingering mist.
“This is… the «Great East Gate»……?”
The grey gate that rose up vertically likely measured at least three hundred mel tall. Though lower than the Axiom Church’s Central Cathedral that reached five hundred mel, it was no less intimidating.
Most shocking was how it was carved from a single slab of stone, leaving no seam at all between the left and right gates. She thought such a feat was impossible to produce even by sacred arts, let alone by human hands. Though the greatest structures the highest minister, Administrator, brought forth were the «immortal walls» splitting Central Capital Centoria into four, each of those connecting walls was far smaller than these doors.
This great gate was placed here by the gods when the world began. In order to divide the Human Empire and the land of darkness—and to bring about tragedy three hundred and several tens of years later.
The flying dragon halted in the air and Alice looked up at the gate again from up close.
Something was written in sacred script around two hundred mel above ground where stone slabs forming the left and right gates joined.
“Destruct… at… the last stage…”
Though she managed to sound out one line among many, she did not understand its meaning.
It was when she tilted her head. A tremendous shattering noise suddenly shook the air and shocked both Alice and Amayori. Stroking the dragon’s nape, she stared hard and saw a thin crack carved into the gate, like a flashing of jet-black lightning, which was smooth just a moment earlier.
The crack which extended for tens of mel stopped at last and several rocks peeled off from around it, vanishing into the bottom of the valley far below.
Raising her head, she once again focused on the giant gate. She then noticed that cracks had run across almost the entire flat stone slab like stitches.
Lightly swinging the reins, Alice went as close to the gate astride her dragon as she could.
Delicately stretching out her left hand and quickly drawing Stacia’s seal in midair, she softly knocked against the gate’s surface.
The Great Eastern Gate’s maximum and current Life were recorded on the purple «window» that floated out.
The number on the left was the largest even among the many Life values she had witnessed—an enormous value above three million. However, the number shown on the right was not even a thousandth of that at 2985. While staring at that dumbfounded, she saw the current value decrease by one before her eyes.
Alice counted the time until the number dropped again while sweat formed on her palm. And she estimated how long it would take for its Life to fully run out.
Unable to believe the answer her own head derived, Alice muttered.
“…Five days… there are only five days left……?”
The Great Gate that solemnly divided the two worlds for over three hundred years would crumble in merely five days—could that actually happen?
Selka’s brilliant smile, the elderly Garitta’s wrinkled face, and the sullen face belonging to her father, Gasupht, passed through her mind one after another. Mere days had passed since she drove away the goblins assaulting them and sealed the cave with ice. She had believed Rulid would stay peaceful for the time being with that.
If the Great Gate were to collapse in five days and the defense army was unable to hold up to the advancing forces of darkness, the Human Empire will be flooded with monsters thirsting for blood. The waves would reach the northern region before long and swallow up Rulid Village.
“I have… I have to do something…”
Alice unconsciously drew the reins closer while muttering incoherently. Separating from the Great Gate on the verge of collapsing, Amayori ascended with a slow flap of her wings.
Upon reaching the top of the gate, towering three hundred mel tall, she hovered once more.
The gorge splitting the mountain range extended straight beyond the gate just like on the side of the Human Empire. However, it was not blue skies and verdant grasslands that stretched out there, but skies dyed in the shade of blood and the Dark Territory’s wastelands that appeared sprinkled with cinders.
Tearing her eyes from the ominous scene, Alice abruptly squinted.
She saw light flickering on the barely visible blackened earth.
Making Amayori ascend further, she focused her eyes. There were more than a single light. Though irregularly arranged, they extended on as far as she could see.
Those were campfires.
It was a camp site. The vanguards for the forces of darkness were lying in wait in great numbers right before her eyes. Awaiting that moment the gate crumbles and opens the path to the Human Empire.
“Another… five days…”
Alice hoarsely muttered once more.
Her flying dragon turned about immediately after. She thought she would be swallowed by uneasiness and cut down by a single enemy line if she continued staring into the legion of camp fires.
Even so, she held confidence she could slaughter one or two hundred of their infantry if they consisted of goblins or orcs. However, it would not be as simple if there was a battalion of ogre archers or dark arts users in the enemy line.
Even if the integrity knights could match a thousand, that power came solely from each of them. They would not get out unscathed if ranged attacks were concentrated on them beyond where their swords and arts could reach and even minor wounds could rob them of all their Life when accumulated. That was the exact, greatest weakness of the Order of the Integrity Knights—and consequently, the defense of the Human Empire—that Knight Commander Bercouli feared throughout his many years.
The highest minister, Administrator, where all of their war potential went, was already deceased and the mountain of equipment hoarded in the cathedral had already been distributed to the defense army. However, there was far too little time left. If they had at least ten thousand troops, or a year of preparation—
Shaking away her futile thoughts with a sigh, Alice issued Amayori instructions to descend.
The meadow in the middle of the defense army’s camp site was vastly vacated. Seeing as there was a gigantic tent beside it, that was unmistakably the landing field for flying dragons.
Descending in an arc, Amayori turned her long neck towards the tent with her four talons barely touching the green undergrowth and sounded out a fawning kururuu from her throat.
A slightly deeper voice immediately replied. It must be her brother, Takiguri. Alice leapt down onto the meadow while carrying Kirito the moment the dragon came to a stop and detached the heavy luggage from her two feet. Amayori stampeded towards the tent the moment she was done and rubbed her head against her brother’s which peeked out from under the thick cloth.
Though it made Alice smile unwittingly, she noticed footsteps approaching from behind and straightened her expression in a fluster. Putting the hem of her plain skirt in order, she swept her hair, disheveled by the wind, behind her back.
A familiar man’s voice rang through the landing field before she could turn back.
“Master! My master, Alice-sama!! I believed in you!!”
Slipping around in front of her while sliding over the grass was the integrity knight she shared a parting drink with just ten days ago, Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one. Despite being in a camp, there was not even a speck on his undulating light purple hair or his silver armor.
“…Looks like you have been well.”
Eldrie was overcome with emotion and about to reply, undaunted by Alice’s blunt reply, but his lips came to a sudden stop.
He noticed the black-haired young man supported in Alice’s left arm.
With a side of his cheek stiffening, the young knight threw his head back greatly and groaned as though in disbelief.
“You brought him… haven’t you? Why?”
Alice, too, held her head as high as she could and replied.
“Naturally. I swore to protect him.”
“S-Still… we integrity knights must stand as the vanguards when battle begins. What are your intentions when crossing swords with the enemies? You could not possibly be thinking of carrying him while doing so?”
“I shall, should the need arise.”
Alice pulled back her right foot slightly as though hiding Kirito’s gaunt body, unable to stand on his own, from Eldrie’s eyes. However, small groups of the resting soldiers and lower ranking integrity knights around the landing field had gathered before long and turned gazes of suspicion on Alice and Kirito who stood close together.
Eldrie released a sharp rebuttal, eclipsing the waves of chatter.
“You must not, master! With all due respect, allow me to state that fighting while ladened with that useless burden might not only halve your capability with the sword, but also expose yourself to danger! With regards to the looming battle, Alice-sama…”
Cutting off his words for a moment, he pointed at the surrounding soldiers with his dazzling silver gauntlet.
“…Has the responsibility of leading them into battle! You must be able to display your full might!”
It was sound. However, she could not simply accept it. Alice firmly grinded her molars and searched for the words to explain how she felt them both to be just as important—both fighting for the Human Empire and protecting Kirito.
At the same time, she felt some surprise at her disciple’s fervent speech.
He showed clear change since the time before when Alice taught him the sword in the Central Cathedral. Eldrie then practically worshipped Alice and would never talk back no matter what she said. The mysterious «gods of the outside world» had applied a seal in the right eye of every human in this world and made them utterly unable to oppose the law or those superior. As far as Alice knew, the only ones who broke that seal were the now-deceased Blue Rose swordsman, Eugeo, and she herself. Not even the two who boasted of authority equal to the gods, the highest minister, Administrator, and the sage, Cardinal, were able to oppose that seal in the end.
Eldrie must be still under the influence of that seal. Despite that, he had escaped from his previous blind obedience—though it might not be too clear if he was truly opposing Alice’s words. He had his own thoughts and expressed his own opinions.
The one who brought about that change was likely Kirito. And Eugeo.
Eldrie’s soul must have greatly agitated by those two, the world’s greatest rebels and proud swordsmen, despite their brief encounter.
Now that she thought about it, her little sister, Selka, who lived in Rulid showed displeasure for the village’s unchanging laws and the stubbornness of those who held power. There were also the two female students who ran out when Alice arrested Kirito and Eugeo from the North Centoria Sword Mastery Academy. It would have been usually impossible for such young girls to call for an integrity knight to halt.
And of course—there was Alice herself.
Until the time she crossed swords with Kirito and fell to the walls outside the cathedral with him, she held no doubts at all about the structure of the world, the rule of the church, and the divinity of the highest minister.
However, throughout their reluctant cooperation to escape the crisis, their truce, and their climb up the outer walls, Kirito had continuously aggravated Alice with his words, his sword, and those jet-black eyes—finally resulting in her breaking the seal on her right eye…
Yes, Kirito was like a hammer that swung down onto this world filled with false harmony. Shaking and jolting the world with the power concealed in his soul, he finally broke away that ancient nail embedded in the Human Empire’s heart known as the Axiom Church. However, his best friend, Eugeo, and the guru, Cardinal, had lost their lives in return while he lost his mind…
Alice hugged the fragile body supported on her left arm closer. And she looked straight back towards Eldrie’s two eyes.
She wanted to tell him. You are only as you are now because you fought with this man. However, he would never understand. To the Order of the Integrity Knights, Kirito was still no more than an unforgivable traitor.
With an expression like enduring some dull pain, Eldrie was about to hurl more words at Alice who stood stock still in silence.
That was when it happened. A part of the surrounding crowd split apart as though pushed aside by some giant’s hand.
The voice that reached Alice from beyond the crowd was nostalgic enough to render her to tears yet created a sense of tension that was almost painful.
“Now, no need for your temper, Eldrie.”
Taking her sight off the young knight who straightened up in a hurry, Alice slowly turned about and saw who the voice belonged to.
Those loose clothes in the style of the eastern region which were folded in front. That wide band tied at a low position. That rustic long sword crudely stuck in at the left of his waist. That strange footwear slipped on his feet.
The equipment was far lighter than that of the knights and soldiers around him. However, the pressure exuding from his body, forged to the limit, was denser and heavier than any armor.
Roughly stroking the pale blue hair cut short that went well with his clothes, the owner of the voice formed a grin with his mouth.
“Yo, lil’ miss. Glad you look better than I thought you would be. Put some on weight around your face?”
“…Esteemed uncle. It has been a while.”
Desperately holding back her tears, Alice bowed to the world’s oldest and strongest swordsman—Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli Synthesis One.
In the six years she lived as an integrity knight, he was the one person Alice had allowed in her heart, respected as a master, and adored as a father. At the same time, he was the only swordsman—aside from Kirito—she could never defeat in this world.
Thus, she must not show a face covered in tears now.
If Bercouli denied her from having Kirito here, she had to obey. Of course, Alice now had the ability to go against his orders. However, opposing him in front of everyone would shake the order between the Order and the Defense Army. With the decisive battle looming in merely five days, she must not put even a hairline crack into Bercouli’s authority of command.
As though seeing through Alice’s conflicts, Bercouli slowly approached while revealing a smile filled with rustic gentleness.
He first stared into Alice’s eyes and nodded strongly.
And after holding back Eldrie, who seemed like he wanted to put in a word, with a glance, the knight commander turned his look towards Kirito, held in Alice’s arm.
His lips tensed up. A light resembling bluish-white flames dwelled in his keen eyes.
Bercouli drew in a long breath. Alice felt the air around freeze up, bit by bit.
Alice forced out her inaudible voice.
Bercouli was sharpening his spirit as a swordsman. He was about to release that «incarnation technique» imparted only the integrity knights… the secret technique that surpassed the «incarnation arm», capable of moving objects with the strength of one’s mind, the «incarnation blade».
The focused power of incarnation was set onto a sword and released. That unseen blade could sometimes even repel a tangible enemy’s blade. The armament full control art of the sacred tool the knight commander held, the «Time Piercing Sword», only first came into existence due to his overwhelming power of incarnation.
In other words—Bercouli was trying to cut Kirito.
She could never accept it if he was trying to settle this problem by literally cutting it into two. If things came to that, she would protect Kirito even if she had to draw her sword.
Overwhelmed by the knight commander’s intense spirit, the surrounding soldiers, Eldrie, and even the flying dragons in the tent sank into silence. With her breath unsteady in the heavy, condensed air, Alice desperately tried to move the fingers on her right hand.
However, just before Alice touched her precious sword, Bercouli’s mouth moved slightly and she heard words that seemed like they came from his thoughts.
—Relax, lil’ miss.
It happened the instant when Alice caught her breath.
Without moving in the slightest, Bercouli’s two eyes let out a dreadful light.
At the same time, Kirito’s body shook violently within Alice’s arm.
Kin! A loud noise rang out and a silver flash burst out in the air between Bercouli and Kirito.
—What was that!?
Though Alice gasped softly from shock, Bercouli had already broken into a wide smile by then as though that spirit earlier was an illusion.
The knight commander rubbed his chin and spoke to Alice who murmured in a daze as though some practice had just ended.
“Lil’ miss, did you see that?”
“Ye… yes. Though it was only for a brief instant… there was the glint from swords…?”
“Indeed. I fired an incarnation blade, no, dagger at that young man. If it hit, it would have cut into his skin on a cheek.”
“If… it hit? You mean…”
“That’s right. He took it on. That young man, with his own will.”
Alice could not help but peek into Kirito’s face as she supported him on her left arm.
However, her hopes were immediately dashed. She saw nothing more than a hollow darkness in his faintly open black eyes. His expression was completely lacking as usual.
—Still, his body certainly shook earlier.
Alice caressed Kirito’s hair with her right hand while turning to look at Bercouli. Though he shook his head, the knight commander still gave his judgment in clear words.
“Looks like his heart isn’t here… But he’s not dead. Listen, that boy tried to protect you instead of himself just now, lil’ miss. So he’ll be back. I believe so. Probably when you need him the most.”
Alice struggled even harder than before to hold back her tears that threatened to flow.
—Yes, he will return for sure.
—After all, Kirito, Kirito truly is the world’s strongest swordsman. He even defeated her, close to the realm of gods, by swinging those two swords.
—I won’t… say it is my sake. But please return, for the many people living in this world…
Unable to hold herself back any longer, Alice hugged Kirito tight with both arms. The knight commander’s admonishing voice brushed softly against her back.
“It’s as you see, Eldrie. Don’t mind something so trivial, we can look after one young man at least.”
“…But… but still…”
Showing remarkable mettle, Eldrie the newest integrity knight expressed his thoughts to Bercouli the oldest knight.
“I can understand if he adds to our war potential even in the slightest, but as he is… besides, even if he regains his senses, how much can a student’s sword…”
Bercouli’s voice carried a keen edge equivalent to that of some renowned sword with that gentle smile.
“Have you forgotten? The partner of this boy won against me. Against Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli Synthesis One.”
The surroundings instantly fall silent.
“That boy called Eugeo… he was strong, absurdly so. I even used the Time Piercing Sword’s full control art. And I still lost. Like you, Deusolbert, and Fanatio did.”
It appeared Eldrie found no words to respond to that. That was only natural; there could be none among the Order of the Integrity Knights or those beyond the Great Gate in the Dark Territory capable of defeating Bercouli in a one-versus-one—or so everyone in the Axiom Church believed.
However, was that proclamation not too hazardous?
Knight Commander Bercouli had hurriedly constructed the Defense Army through the dignity of him being the strongest. If everyone knew of Eugeo’s existence as a swordsman who defeated him—and that Kirito held just as much power…
It was when Alice thought that far and looked up.
Bercouli had glanced up towards the skies as though impelled to do so.
The knight commander replied to Alice’s question with words she never could have expected.
“In a place far, far away, a swordsman’s immense spirit intensified, and then vanished… Someone I knew is dead…”
The ten lords of the land of darkness’s Ten Lords Assembly bore no resemblance to each other, be it in nature, personality, or the ambitions they tucked away inside, but still, they happened to be perfectly synchronized in one point.
That would be how they understood that one law, «strength rules over all else», more so than any other.
Rather, it could be said that the law was carved onto their souls since childhood and it was only due to their constant hard work—be it training themselves or eliminating any who interfered—that they stood at nearly the top of this world where blood was washed away with more blood.
None among the nine lords lined up with Shasta were genuinely shocked when the dark knight commander turned to the emperor and drew his sword with the fervor behind that scream.
Instead, many sympathized with “You’re doing it now?” or “How daring”. Even the chiefs of the orcs and ogres whose linguistic ability, or intelligence, had been degenerating for three hundred years showed sharp glints in their beastlike eyes in anticipation of finding out how strong the emperor could be. The young chief of the pugilists, too, internally cheered Shasta on, to cut him down now that he had drawn his sword, out of respect for a peer seeking enlightenment.
Two among them predicted this state of affairs seconds earlier.
One was the head of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild, D.I.L. A fierce detractor to Shasta, the woman had planned to kidnap the dark general’s lover and had prior knowledge of Lipia’s face.
Hence, her shock was instead more pronounced when she saw Lipia’s hewn head frozen in ice. Predicting Shasta might draw his sword out of rage, she swiftly pondered over how to act if that occurred.
Though she considered having the emperor owe her a favor by firing an art into Shasta’s back, she chose the role of a spectator in the end. All would be well if Shasta lost to the emperor and even in the strange case he won, that would be when she would roast her bitter enemy, likely covered in severe wounds, black and hold supremacy over the land of darkness. Inside, D. chuckled while licking her lips to conceal her excitement.
And the last who surmised the dark general’s insurgency was yet another—
This one made a move at once.
With only that one word, “kill”, in his heart, Shasta swung his cherished sword down, hard.
The degree of incarnation augmenting his tachi alone certainly surpassed that time he crossed swords with Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli. The intensity of his wrath and grief weighed enough to instantaneously induce the full control phenomenon that originally required a lengthy incantation.
The tachi Shasta wielded in his hand, «Oborogasumi» was an object on the class of sacred tools procedurally generated by the Underworld, a VRMMO package, roughly two hundred years ago. Its element was «water» and its blade, responding to Shasta’s overwhelming blood thirst, had lost its substance and transformed into a mist while keeping its deadly might.
The special quality of Oborogasumi in full control mode was to bypass the attacking process for all types of swords, «to deal damage by cutting or piercing the target with the sword». All who came in contact with the long, extending mist would suffer slashing-type damage to their Life. In other words, there was no method to defend against it but to evade.
The emperor, Gabriel Miller, drew the sword on his waist as well when Shasta did in order to repel the enemy’s strike.
If the situation had proceeded, Shasta’s blade of mist would slip past Gabriel’s sword and reach him, pouring his concentrated bloodlust into him.
However, that happened when he stepped forth at the speed of gods to deliver the critical slash.
Shasta’s movement ceased as though frozen.
A single throwing needle had buried itself deep into a trifling seam on the left side of the dark general’s armor without notice.
Swaying onto his feet behind was a man as gaunt as a ghost clad entirely in a deep grey robe.
Head of the Assassins’ Guild, Fu Za. Bearing hardly any presence even as one of the ten lords, the inconspicuous man who barely spoke even in the meetings smoothly moved forward while attracting more attention than ever before.
Fu Za inferred Shasta’s rebellion in advance only because he was more of a coward and bundle of nerves than any of the other lords.
The Assassins’ Guild was a mixed gathering of the powerless. It was a group, made by those born without blessings of strength, aptitude, assets, or any sort of power yet refused to live exploited as slaves, to refine their «poison techniques» loathed even in the Dark Territory.
Venomous objects such as some of the insects, snakes, and plants in the Underworld were originally placed as part of the load test. As such, their effectiveness was limited to a level that could be recovered from if the inhabitants utilized the necessary knowledge. Conversely, it could never reach the power of arts and swordsmanship.
However, those who formed the Assassins’ Guild went beyond Rath’s expectation and worked out the techniques to «concentrate», spending many years to produce and strengthen venom. The guild’s headquarters located underground in the town’s slums had large kettles concentrating the sap of poisonous fruits, pots of venomous snakes gathered from various areas cannibalizing each other, and such prepared over more than a hundred years.
However, the long-awaited completion of the «fatal poison» brought forth tragedy within the guild with widespread assassinations. Unlike with swords and arts, identifying the perpetrator of slow-acting poisons was difficult.
Naturally, the one leading the guild would never survive without utmost cowardice. To the extent of lurking into the glances of those around, no, beyond that, into the meaning for those glances to sense even the most insignificant budding desire to murder.
To Fu Za, the blood thirst Shasta emitted the moment he saw Lipia’s head smelled more distinctively than the stench of fresh blood.
And also to Fu Za, the dark general, Shasta, was a being more detestable than any other.
He had constructed and abandoned countless assassination plans. He had the confidence he could kill him. But if the cause of death was revealed to be poison, all would realize it was the work of the Assassins’ Guild. The peerless Order of the Dark Knights would probably charge into the guild’s headquarters and slaughter everyone an hour after Shasta breathed his last. They had no chance at a frontal assault.
However, if it was done now, in this instant.
There was a just cause for stabbing a needle covered in concentrated poison into the body of his sworn enemy. The moment he drew his sword before the emperor, Shasta was no longer the dark general or among the ten lords, but a mere traitor.
What Fu Za pulled out and threw from his robe’s pocket was an assassination tool passed down through the Assassins’ Guild heads. Known as «Lubellr Venomsteel», it was carved into an extremely thin needle from a dangerous mineral that secreted paralyzing venom and could store any sort of venom in its hollowed interior.
Injected into him was the quintessence of the guild as well, a lethal poison. It was only after mashing fifty thousand leeches, from a rare breed called «Jigsarvil», then filtering and concentrating the result, time after time, that just a single drop of venom could be produced. As all attempts to cultivate the leeches through breeding had failed, an absurd amount of effort was necessary to produce a single drop of this venom.
Fu Za could not have known, but the animals inhabiting the Underworld’s fields were generated by the system based on specific values for each area, so aside from exceptions designated as livestock like sheep and cows, none of them could be artificially bred.
In other words, it would be no exaggeration to say the poison needle Fu Za let fly was the culmination of the Assassins’ Guild concentrated onto a single point, be it the needle itself or the venom within. Simultaneously, it was the crystallization of the oppressed and weak’s hatred over the hundreds of years.
Shasta had focused his will solely on the sword he held and as a result, he felt nearly none of the pain from the poison needle stabbing deep into his body.
However, it was in the instant he tried to leap up high towards the throne when he felt a tremendous weight, as though his entire body had turned to lead, and widely opened his eyes.
Strength left his legs and only after slipping down onto a single knee did he notice the foreign object in the left side of his chest.
Instantly realizing that, he quickly pulled the needle out before an icy chill paralyzed his left hand. Noticing that the needle, so thin it hardly seemed a weapon, possessed a vivid green luster, Shasta understood it was that abominable Lubellr Venomsteel and tried to chant the art to neutralize it at once.
However, his whole body plunged into the chill, starting from his left, at a horrifying speed and including even his mouth. Losing the sensation of his tongue before he got even the starting system call completely out, he could do nothing but to endure.
With his left hand numbed as well, the poison needle slipped from his fist and made a quiet noise on the black marble.
At last, his right arm, still in the midst of swinging his sword, began to fall sluggishly and with that, the full control mode expired with the tip of his beloved sword making contact with the floor, having returned to itself from that grey mist.
A robe of pitch darkness entered Shasta’s vision while he was suspended in the same posture as before he slashed at the emperor, thrust onto his left knee with his head lowered.
—To think I would be done in by this man.
“…By such a worthless, minor being. …You must be thinking that, Viksul?”
His chafed voice rustled as it descended from above; Shasta scowled with the area near his eyes which was all he could still barely move.
—No one gave you the right to call me with such familiarity…
“You never gave me the right to call you with such familiarity. You seem to be wanting to say that? But you see, this isn’t the first time I’m calling you Viksul, you know?”
The face of the assassin who slowly bent his knee and body down to the same height entered Shasta’s sight. However, his hood was lowered so far, it obstructed the light and all but his pointed chin were immersed in the darkness.
That chin moved as if trembling and a voice hoarser than before streamed out.
“You… don’t remember, do you. The faces of the children you knocked down time after time in cadet school. And how one of them threw himself into the canal out of humiliation and vanished from school for all eternity.”
—What. What is this man saying? The cadet school?
Born as the son of a novice knight, Shasta was shipped to a cadet school affiliated with the Order once he grew old enough to hold a wooden sword. He had no memories of anything but devoting his all to training in order to survive since then. Attaining victory in one selection test after another, he was commissioned an officer in the Order and scouted by his master, the last Knight Commander—that half of his life sped on by like a swift current, leaving him no time to reflect on his past.
He could not have remembered. The children who swung wooden swords beside him over thirty years ago?
“…But you see, I have never forgotten, not even for a single day. Not one day in the many months and years I labored as a slave for the assassination guild who picked me up in the underground culverts where I drifted to. I amassed knowledge, cultivated many new types of venom, and finally climbed to head the guild. I lost various things in exchange… but it was all for vengeance on you, Viksul.”
The hood tipped over just a little when his warped voice came to a stop, revealing Fu Za’s bare face to Shasta’s eyes.
But still, no memories came to him. No, even if Shasta remembered his classmates from way back perfectly, his name would still elude him. After all, Fu Za’s face was left in an abnormal state that would scare even a horribly disfigured orc, perhaps due to the influence of poison.
Two eyes alone shone glaringly from within the hood pulled back low.
“I developed that poison injected into you for the sake of killing you, saving it up drop by drop over an overwhelming length of time. It killed even a large earth dragon with over three hundred thousand Life after an hour in an experiment. Your strength and total Life will likely last for another two or three minutes. Now… I shall pay it all back. All of that hatred and humiliation you have left in my care.”
Shasta shifted his sight off Fu Za’s eyes and stared at the poison needle that tumbled onto the black marble floor.
—Succumbing to anger and hatred, I tried to cut the emperor down. Fu Za tried to kill me using this needle with that exact same power. That was why my tachi was stopped. The «will to kill» cannot defeat the «will for justice». I had forgotten about what I grasped by crossing swords just once with that man long ago… with Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli; I had forgotten that secret of the sword at the very, very end…
Unable to even maintain his kneeling posture, Shasta slumped down onto the floor, starting with his left shoulder.
In the midst of his hazy, faded vision, beyond the poison needle—
There was a cube of ice placed on a silver platter.
The one out for revenge, Fu Za also once known as Ferius Zargatis, opened his two eyes widely as if to fully taste the moment of bliss that had finally come.
The once glorious dark general, Shasta, now rolled at his own feet. He was in a fine state; his skin, taut despite his age, turned deathly pale, the keen light in his eyes had vanished, and his breathing was feeble too.
What an ugly and miserable way to die.
And Shasta’s death was effectively demonstrated that techniques to murder by poison were superior to swordsmanship or the dark arts. Not only would a single prick of the new composite poison utilizing Lubellr Venomsteel and Jigsarvil drive the enemy into a state unable to draw a sword or chant an art, it would also bring them a swift demise.
Emperor Vector, on the throne, must have noticed the value of the Assassins’ Guild through this act as well. The day the new poison could be mass produced would be when he had no further need to read the knights and art users’ expressions. He would reclaim his original name and perhaps even take over the the Zargatis family that had abandoned him as its new patriarch…
Shivering with pleasure, Fu Za was utterly unaware that the blade of Shasta’s sword that had rolled out of his sight was turning into mist once more.
Before his Life ran out, Shasta shouted out the name of that one woman he loved in his heart.
Lipia must have decided to assassinate the emperor due to her wish to realize the arrival of that new age Shasta spoke of. With the end of the three hundred years war, the orphans would gain the right to live in happiness, without falling to starvation or slavery, with the introduction of a new law and order; she must have believed in that.
—Hey, Fu Za.
—You say I’d beat you up in cadet school? That you were unable to bear with the humiliation and threw yourself away?
—But you must have had the opportunity at least. You had parents who sent you to school, three meals a day, a warm bed, and a roof to shield you from the rain. How many young lives do you think there are in this world who were not given even those basic privileges and faded out, treated like torn rags?
—Lipia had given her life to reform that world. That will cannot be brought to naught. Your petty, personal grievances——
“…Shall not stand in her way!!”
The moment that terrific bellow roared from Shasta who should have been completely paralyzed, something that resembled a grey tornado whirled up high from the dark knight’s right hand.
That was what even bare few among the integrity knights were capable of, the recollection release phenomenon of sacred tools. Shasta’s peerless power of incarnation collected all of the Underworld’s data and began to overwrite the running main visualizer.
The grey tornado disintegrated all in contact with it, a manifestation of neutral, pure destructive might. Swallowed by the tornado without even the time to flee, Fu Za’s thick black robe scattered like smoke with a dry noise.
The emaciated middle-age man appearing from there brought his arms up to hide his disfigured face. Immediately after, those arms were sent flying as countless pieces of meat—followed by his whole body, soaring into the air as a dense spray of blood.
The dark arts user, D.I.L., leapt far back, assailed by an ominous premonition the moment that mysterious tornado swirled up from the dark general close to death. Generating aerial elements in both hands, she flew back at maximum speed.
That premonition turned into utmost fright upon seeing everything under her right knee disappear without trace upon touching the rapidly growing tornado.
D.’s whole body was protected with tens of defensive arts even when in the bath or asleep. An impregnable barrier that would repel all sorts of attacks, be it projectiles, swords, poisons, and naturally, arts.
Of course, an attack with the full might of any of the ten lords who held the same level of priority might penetrate the wall and wound her skin. However, they would never slice her flesh off with a mere touch as though those protections were not even there. That was a certainty.
No matter how she denied it in her mind, the tornado of death whittled away at her right leg as it approached at a velocity surpassing her retreating at full speed. Though an arts user of D.’s caliber could restore a severed limb, she still needed her life to do so.
A shrill shriek came from D.’s mouth at last.
However, her voice was coincidentally lost within screams from the two goblin chiefs.
The mountain goblin chief, Hagashi, and plains goblin chief, Kubiri, who were lined up on D.’s left desperately dashed with their stunted legs to flee from the tornado. It was impossible, however, for them to avoid the tornado’s expansion that caught up to even D. flying at her quickest.
Hagashi’s legs slipped with an unseemly cry and he tumbled onto the floor. His desperately outstretched left hand caught hold of Kubiri’s ankle like a vise.
“Higyaaaa!! Let goo—!! Let……”
The two who ruled over the goblin races turned into sprays of blood all too quickly.
D.’s right leg blew off without a trace from its root.
Right before the eyes of the head of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild, her beautiful face warped in fear and despair—the tornado’s expansion came to a miraculous stop.
Shasta’s fallen body was no longer there. The towering funnel-shaped storm centered there had already grown to a height and diameter of twenty mel. The six lords with more time to spare had swiftly retreated to the west wall and the various groups of executives lined up on the south side of the hall, too, escaped unharmed from the precarious situation.
Though her mind had descended into utter chaos, D. still realized why the tornado’s expansion ceased.
It kept them safe. The ten-odd advanced dark knights. In other words, Shasta had willed that tornado into existence.
As though endorsing her guess, the top half of the tornado gradually morphed.
What appeared was the upper body of a man, formed by translucent mist.
Though absurdly huge, it was clearly a copy of Dark General Shasta’s body.
Emperor Vector, Gabriel Miller, naturally felt an emotion similar to surprise as he looked up at the giant form from the tornado, towering as though flaunting his presence.
The knight on the left drawing his sword upon seeing the female assassin’s head when he revealed it to them all was still within his expectation. It was not too shocking that the head of the Assassins’ Guild would paralyze that man slashing at Gabriel with poison or whatnot either.
Though it skewed his scheme to plant an absolute loyalty within the remaining nine units by downing the traitor in a single strike, he thought it fine that they would chose to protect the emperor by their own will. He watched over the course of events with that in mind, but—
A grey tornado surged from the fallen rebelling unit without warning and engulfed by that, the Assassins’ Guild’s head along with the two goblin generals disintegrated in an instant, leaving even Gabriel speechless.
The general units should all have roughly the same status. Hence, a fight between them should not have an immediate end, but result in a prolonged battle, a cycle of whittling away and recovering HP.
Despite that, three whole units disappeared in mere seconds. Did some logic still unknown to both Critter and him exist in this Underworld—?
It happened after he thought that far. The giant in the tornado opened his mouth and let out a bellow that shook the world.
Unable to endure the intense pressure, most of the windowpanes adorning the throne room were blown outside.
The giant gripped its right fist that was as large as an engine block—
And swung it down at Gabriel with a roar.
Gabriel made his decision, realizing that taking it on with his sword was useless and that he lacked the time to stand up and dodge. Spotting his aide, Vassago, nimbly jump forward at the right side of his eyes, Gabriel quietly awaited the ashen fist atop his throne.
The tornado of death Shasta’s will brought forth on the verge of his death was a phenomenon that exceeded even the Underworld’s system.
Rather than robbing Fu Za and the goblins of their Lives with a numerical attack power, it first destroyed their fluct lights by hammering the «image of death» directly into their light cubes which then annihilated their flesh and blood in turn.
As such, his attack on Gabriel was unaffected by Emperor Vector’s immense Life as well.
However, the blood thirst generated by Shasta’s fluct light transversed the quantum transmission lines and reached the STL where Gabriel’s real body lay—
The concentrated will to kill from Dark General Shasta, a distinguished knight of the Underworld, made a direct hit on the core of Gabriel Miller’s fluct light, or in other words, on his «ego».
At that time, Shasta’s conscious mind assimilated with that single strike that took his all and he felt it intruding into Emperor Vector.
It was clear his original body had exhausted its Life. Shasta understood this would be the last attack of his lifetime.
It was regrettable he could not fulfill his promise to cross swords with Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli again. However, that man would understand. The dark general’s hopes and the reasons for turning on the emperor.
Aside from Fu Za, the head of the Assassins’ Guild, he had also defeated the two goblin chiefs who loved war the most among the lords. It was a pity he let D., the head of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild, escape, but she would likely not regenerate a wound that deep anytime soon. If the head of the Order of the Dark Knights were to die along with Emperor Vector, the remaining lords would definitely hesitate in fighting against the Human Empire.
If only they could seal a temporary cease-fire agreement with the citizens of the Human Empire who lost their ruler as well. If only they could converse with words rather than swords and share in some sort of agreement.
He prayed—for Lipia’s wish of a peaceful world to be granted someday.
Assimilated with his will, Shasta pierced through Emperor Vector’s brow and plunged into the core of his soul within it.
If he broke that, not even the god of darkness could prevent his own existence from lapsing like Fu Za and the rest.
Shasta’s will crashed into the emperor’s soul with a voiceless scream—
And experienced the last shock of his lifetime.
Only a murky darkness spread out in the middle of his soul that resembled a cloud of light where the essence of his consciousness should have been.
Why? Even Fu Za who had forsaken the world held a dazzling, greedy attachment to his life.
Shasta’s will was absorbed into the darkness that went on forever within the emperor.
—This person, this man…
—Is he unaware of life?
One who knew not the radiance of life, of one’s soul, of love. That was why he hungered. That was why he sought others’ souls.
A sword formed from the desire to kill would not defeat this man regardless of how strong one’s will was.
After all, this man’s soul was alive yet dead.
He had to report this. To someone. To whoever would fight against this monster in the future.
However, there, Shasta’s consciousness was enshrouded by a bottomless abyss.
Dark General Viksul Ur Shasta’s soul fully disintegrated with those thoughts at his end.
The moment that soul with its all-too-dazzling radiance pierced into him, Gabriel Miller felt delight rather than fear.
The dark knight’s soul was filled with distinctively richer emotions than that of the female assassin he devoured two days ago. The love for her. Along with an inexplicable something that resembled affection that reached further than that. And the source of them all, the intense intent to murder.
Love and hate. What in this world could taste more exquisite than them?
Gabriel was almost fully unconscious of the danger his life was exposed to at that time. Even after witnessing the dark knight’s attack render the three units into scattered lumps of meat, Gabriel wished more to devour the knight’s soul than his own safety.
If Gabriel felt fear from the knight’s attack and wished for his own survival, Shasta’s intent to kill would have broken his survival instants through the STL which would blast away his fluct light.
However, Gabriel Miller cared not for life. To him, all lives were simply automated mechanisms like those insects he slaughtered in his childhood. Deciphering the secrets behind the soul that powered that mechanism, that mysterious gleaming cloud, was all Gabriel wished for.
As such, the destruction signal originating from Shasta’s fluct light passed through the vast blank in Gabriel’s fluct light in vain and was lost without colliding with anything.
Whether Gabriel understood the logic behind it or not, he still fed on the knight’s soul while recording down two things into his memory.
Firstly, there was a way to attack in this world aside from weapons and spells like in a normal VRMMO game.
And that way to attack had no effect on himself.
He had to get Critter to investigate the basis behind the earlier phenomenon. Gabriel slowly stood from the throne with that in mind.
The six lords still alive—head of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild, D.I.L., head of the pugilists, Iskahn, leader of the Economic Guild, Lengyel, the giant chief, Sigrosig, the orc chief, Rirupirin, and the ogre chief, Fulgrr—who had their backs against the walls, fell on their rears, or was in the process of stopping a severe wound from bleeding simply stared at Emperor Vector.
Fear was all that remained in their chests.
Dark General Shasta’s horrifying assault—turning three generals into spurts of blood in an instant and blowing off D.’s right leg despite her being recognized as powerful even among the lords—was taken on by the emperor without him suffering a single gash.
The strong rule.
It was clear to all that Emperor Vector held power far surpassing the six lords and the hundred-odd officers behind them combined.
Like ripples, every last one of them bowed deep and expressed their allegiance to the emperor. Even the Order of the Dark Knights with their respected knight commander murdered was no exception.
The emperor’s voice eloquently resounded over them.
“…Those who have lost their general are to have their second-in-command take up the reins of command at once. In an hour, we shall march on as planned.”
There were no words of anger or blame regarding the insurgence. That fact summoned further dread into the troops.
Having stopped the blood flowing from her right leg at last, D. extended her right hand up high with even her fingertips straightened and shouted.
“Long live the His Majesty the Emperor!!”
After a momentary pause—
Such calls mingled into a clamor that seemed to shake the entirety of Obsidia Palace and continued on for many more rounds.
Alice looked around inside the camping tent she was assigned and let out a light sigh.
The cot was arranged nicely, the sheepskin spread over the floor was practically new, and the air smelled only of the sun. Though she was perfectly satisfied with those, it was clear the tent was not laid out in a hurry for Alice. In other words, Knight Commander Bercouli had prepared for Alice’s participation in the fight and constructed an additional tent for knights.
It might be best to take it as a symbol of his faith, but knowing the knight commander’s nature, she figured he might have seen through her thoughts and actions entirely.
No—that would be going too far. After all, not even the knight commander seemed to have predicted Alice bringing Kirito along. The cot prepared was for one.
After touching Kirito’s back and leading him to the bed, Alice sat him down. The young man immediately let out a frail voice as he reached out with his left hand.
“Yes, I know, I will have them in a moment.”
Running over to the pack left at the entrance, Alice took out the two long swords of black and white. Returning to the bed, she placed them on his lap. Kirito embraced the swords in his left arm then, and went quiet.
She went through her thoughts while sitting beside him and taking off her boots.
Though she declared that she would shoulder Kirito and fight should the need arise to Eldrie, that would be rather difficult in reality. Kirito alone would not be too hard with how thin he was, but her movement would be constrained if she had to carry the Night Sky Sword and Blue Rose Sword.
She considered staying astride in Amayori’s saddle, but there would be times she had to engage in aerial battle with the enemy dark knights riding flying dragons too. It would be best lowering her load as much as possible.
Regrettably, having someone, perhaps from the transport unit, take care of Kirito during the battle would be the most practical course of action. However, the problem lies in whether she could find anyone worthy of trust so easily.
Her old friends, the integrity knights, would naturally head out as the vanguards and she knew none of the common soldiers. That said, she would rather not rely on Eldrie to introduce her to someone suitable now.
Alice peeked straight into the youth’s face and gently held onto his cheeks with both hands.
She had no intention of treating Kirito as a burden. If his mind recovered, she could definitely rely on him to protect the Human Empire, more so than with anyone else. She had him accompany her here to the front lines because she thought he was most likely to regain his consciousness.
Knight Commander Bercouli mentioned Kirito had deflected his «incarnation blade». And that he did it to protect Alice.
Could she believe in that?
The law and a criminal when they first met at the Sword Mastery Academy. The executioner and a rebel when they met again on the cathedral’s eightieth floor. And even when they exchanged words in the end on the top floor, they were merely in a truce at best.
—Despite having lost your mind ever since that battle ended, you still tried to protect me from esteemed uncle’s spirit as a swordsman?
—What am I… to you?
Those questions rebounded off Kirito’s lightless eyes and onto Alice herself.
What exactly was this youth to her?
If she expressed what she thought of Kirito in the cathedral in a word, obnoxious would be most suitable. He would be the one and only who would call Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty an “idiot” all that many times, both now and in the future.
However, in that final battle, what she saw of Kirito from behind as he stood up against the highest minister, Administrator—
Alice’s heart trembled upon seeing the back of that swordsman holding a sword in each hand while the hem of his black overcoat blew out violently. His figure displayed power; along with a sadness that tore into her chest.
Those emotions throbbed faintly deep in her chest even now.
However, Alice continued to keep a lid on her own heart, afraid of recognizing the reasons behind that ache.
—I am a mere artificial being. Nothing more than a puppet for war that continues to occupy Alice Schuberg’s body. I have no right to hold any feelings aside from the will to fight.
Still. Perhaps that is why.
Does my voice not reach you because I hold my own heart back?
Will you respond if I were to let loose all of my «will» this instant?
Alice drew a deep breath of air into her chest and held it.
Kirito’s cheeks were cold in her hands. No, it was the heat from her palms.
His cheeks slowly drew closer. She stared into those black eyes from up close. Dark, just like the night skies. But she seemed to see small stars, quietly twinkling far away.
Absorbed in those stars, her face was gradually, gradually drawn in—
A rhythmical chime abruptly rang out and Alice got up, practically jumping.
Though she looked around the tent in a fluster, there was naturally no one. At last, she realized the bell with a pull-string fixed onto the tent’s entrance had rung.
A guest. Clearing her throat without reason, Alice put her hair in order before quickly crossing through the tent.
In all likelihood, it would be Eldrie, here to offer more criticism. She would tell him that she had no plans of driving away Kirito in no uncertain terms this time.
Going through the thin cloth that made up the inside of the two layers of curtains at the entryway, starting with her head first, Alice swept away the thick pelt on the outside all at once with her left hand.
And her lips that were about to open came to a sharp stop.
The one standing before her eyes was no integrity knight or even some normal soldier. Unthinkingly, she stared on.
Accompanied by that feeble voice tinged with fright, the short visitor held out a covered pot with both hands.
“I… I have brought your dinner, Knight-sama.”
Alice glanced towards the sky. Though she had not noticed, the vermillion sunset was certainly departing for the western skies.
“Thank you… your efforts are appreciated.”
Receiving the pot with gratitude, Alice gazed over the other party once again.
A young girl who was still young at around fifteen or sixteen.
The hair that extended slightly below her shoulders was a magnificent red. Her large eyes went well with their color, that of autumn, unique to blood from the northern empire along with that pale skin and distinctive nose bridge.
Though she wore light armor like the Defense Army, the grey tunic and skirt appeared like a uniform from some school.
To think such a child would be on the battlefield… Alice bit on her lips before blinking in realization.
She had seen the girl’s features somewhere. However, as Alice had spent each day in the Central Cathedral back then, she had nearly no chance of coming into contact with the common folk.
That was when a second girl timidly showed herself from behind the red-haired girl where she have been hiding.
“E… erm… there are bread and beverages here.”
Breaking into a smile towards that almost inaudible voice from the girl with dark brown hair close to black and dark blue eyes, Alice accepted the basket she offered as well.
“There is no need to be so afraid, no one will be stealing you away for a snack.”
A memory finally surfaced in Alice’s mind the moment she said that.
She recalled hearing this exceedingly skittish voice. These two were from—
“The two of you were… from the North Centoria Sword Mastery Academy… weren’t you?”
She asked, and for an instant, their cheeks loosened in relief despite previously being stiff with tension. However, they straightened up their posture straight after and named themselves with a tap from the heels of their boots.
“Y-Yes! I-I… I am from the Human Empire Defense Army, supply unit, novice trainee, Tiezé Shtolienen!”
“L-Likewise, novice trainee, Ronye Arabel!”
So they were; Alice murmured in her heart while unconsciously responding in kind.
These were the two who pled for permission to bid Kirito and Eugeo farewell when she took them away from the academy.
Even if the Defense Army was short-handed, they would not possibly draft in students. That meant the pair had personally volunteered and came to these perilous front lines from the familiar central capital. Why had these girls yet to enter adulthood gone so far as to…
As Alice’s gaze remained fixed on the pair while holding onto the pot with her right hand and the basket with her left, the girl with dark brown hair who named herself Ronye returned to hiding behind the red-haired girl who called herself Tiezé. Though Tiezé cowered slightly as well, she opened her mouth before long with an expression that spoke of her resolution to fight on.
“Er… erm… K-Knight-sama… I am fully aware that this may be, that is, m-most discourteous on our part…”
While Alice broke into a bitter smile once again at that exaggerated manner of speech, she tried her best to change that into a gentle one as she interrupted.
“Excuse me, there is really no need to stand on ceremony so much. In this camp, I am no more than a single swordsman here to protect the Human Empire like the rest of them. Do call me Alice, Tiezé-san and… you too, Ronye-san.”
Both Tiezé and Ronye whose head popped out from behind made dumbfounded looks at that.
“…W-What is the matter?”
“N-No… well. We had a different impression when we had that opportunity to meet at the Sword Mastery Academy, so…”
“Is that… so?”
She tilted her head in uncertainty. She was not too confident of it herself, but she might have changed in the half year she lived in Rulid. Though the knight commander had voiced out his baseless impressions about her putting on meat around her face.
Now that she thought about it, she could not claim to have never overeaten in light of how delicious the meals Selka made for her were… but to think it would show…
Showing another smile with her cheeks that narrowly avoided tensing up, Alice added to her words.
“And so… did you have business with me?”
With her sense of nervousness faded by just a little, Tiezé chewed on her lips for a moment before she spoke.
“Erm… we have heard word that a young man with black hair accompanied Knight-sa… Alice-sama when you arrived on your flying dragon… and so, we thought that gentleman might just possibly be somebody we are acquainted with…”
“Ah, aah… I see, that is only natural.”
Alice finally understood the girls’ purpose of visiting and nodded.
“The both of you were on good terms with Kirito in the academy, weren’t you…?”
The pair’s faces shone like budding flowers the instant Alice spoke so. In Ronye’s case, there were even faint tears running from her blue eyes.
“So it was… Kirito-senpai after all…”
Ronye who spoke in a frail voice had her hand grasped by Tiezé who shouted in a voice filled with hope as well.
“Then… Eugeo-senpai’s also…!”
Alice drew in a sharp breath right when she heard that name.
These two did not know. Of the fierce fight that unfolded in the cathedral half a year ago and its conclusion. They could not have. None knew anything concerning the Highest Minister’s death aside from the integrity knights.
The pair formed puzzled faces upon looking up at the speechless Alice. Alice stared at Tiezé’s and Ronye’s eyes in turn, and then slowly shut her eyes.
She could not deceive them now.
Besides, the pair had the right to know everything. The girls likely volunteered for the Defense Army and came all this way solely to meet Kirito as well as Eugeo again…
Hardening her resolve, Alice opened her mouth.
“This may be… too painful for the two of you. Still, I believe. If you are Kirito and Eugeo’s juniors, I believe you can accept it.”
And after taking a step back, she lifted the pelt curtain and prompted them to enter the tent.
Defying Alice’s covert hopes, Kirito showed absolutely no response even with Tiezé and Ronye in his sight.
Stifling her disappointment, Alice stood by the tent’s wall and watched over the tragic scene.
Kneeling before Kirito who sat on the bed, Ronye wrapped the youth’s left hand in her small ones as tears went down her cheeks.
However, the one to be pitied more was Tiezé who had flopped down on the fur rug and continued staring at the Blue Rose Sword placed in front of her eyes. White as paper, her face had expressed nothing ever since she taught her of Eugeo’s death. Her sight was pointed down towards the half-broken blade in silence.
As for Alice, she herself had barely any opportunity to exchange words with that youth named Eugeo personally.
When she took him to the cathedral and threw him into the underground jail; the time she intercepted them on the eightieth floor of the tower; and lastly, their alliance during that final clash with Administrator.
Though she respected Eugeo’s will, his power of incarnation, from the bottom of her heart for not just gaining victory over that Knight Commander Bercouli but also transforming himself into a sword to destroy the sword golem and slice a hand off the Highest Minister, Selka reminiscing about him made up the bulk of her memories involving him.
According to Selka, Eugeo was a docile yet prudent boy and was made to accompany his childhood friend, Alice Schuberg, on their various adventures. She figured that personality must have had let him hit it off well with Kirito as well.
Kirito and Eugeo must have caused all sorts of disturbances in the Sword Mastery Academy. Tiezé and Ronye were attracted and influenced greatly by those two. Like Alice herself.
—So, please, hold up to the sorrow. Kirito and Eugeo had fought, gotten hurt, and lost their heart and life to protect what they truly treasured.
Alice talked on in her mind while continuing to gaze upon the pair.
When those living in the Human Empire suffer a mental shock, overwhelming them with terror or grief, there are times when their hearts fall ill from their incapability to endure it. Even in that attack on Rulid by the forces of darkness the other day, several villagers had lain down despite being unharmed.
Tiezé must have loved Eugeo.
It was no easy task to accept the immense shock of a loved one dying at such a young age.
Sitting, Tiezé gradually reached out towards the Blue Rose Sword with her right hand in jolting motions before Alice’s eyes.
She watched on under some tension. Though it was half broken, the Blue Rose Sword was a sacred tool of the highest grade. She doubted Tiezé could handle it, but overpowering, deep despair and sorrow could lead to power beyond expectations at times. She could not predict what would happen.
Stiffly extended, Tiezé’s fingers finally came into contact with the pale blue blade. She gently traced the smoothly polished flat rather than its edge.
Then, in that moment—
Driving away the red of the sunset shining in through the hole that served as a skylight, the broken blade glittered with a faint yet clear blue.
Tiezé’s whole body trembled with that.
Ronye turned about as though she felt something and looked at her friend. In the strained air, transparent drops dwelled in Tiezé’s eyelashes and quietly fell.
A soft voice streamed from her pale lips.
“…I heard… Eugeo-senpai’s voice… Don’t cry, he said… because he’ll, always be, here… he…”
Her tears continued falling without end and Tiezé finally laid her face atop the sword before bursting into violent sobs like a young child. Ronye, too, wept as she pressed her face into Kirito’s knees.
While her eyes grew hot, watching the heartrending and genuine scene—
Alice still pondered somewhere in her head if that was possible.
Though Alice had not heard Eugeo’s voice, she had certainly witnessed the sword shining for an instant. Hence, she could not say for sure that the words Tiezé heard were from her imagination.
Something similar to Eugeo’s soul remained in the Blue Rose Sword… could that be true?
Alice recalled the feeling of her own thoughts uniting with her Golden Olive Sword whenever she activated the armament full control art. Furthermore, Eugeo had actually fused his own body with the Blue Rose Sword and suffered that fatal wound during then.
Thus, it was well possible the beliefs of the sword’s owner were left behind in that remaining fragment.
However, Tiezé mentioned Eugeo had addressed her earlier. If so, it was not some soulless echo left in the sword but his true thoughts—or perhaps his will?
Was it a fantasy brought about by the girl’s longing? Or was it…?
How vexing. Kirito would have gotten to the secrets behind this phenomenon if he was around. He had fallen here from where the mysterious gods outside this world reside, after all.
A phrase floated up like a small bubble onto the surface on her swirling thoughts and burst with a pop.
World End Altar.
Apparently, that place she had not heard of before had a door to the outside of this world.
If she reached there, would all of these mysteries instantly melt away? Would she be able to take back Kirito’s mind?
However, the Altar was allegedly far off in the south after passing through the Great East Gate. In other words, some distant remote region in the Dark Territory where the dark races reigned.
For her to go all the way there, she would first have to defend against or break through the large enemy army encamped beyond the Great Gate. No, even if she broke through the enemy lines, she could not abandon the Great Gate’s defense and head south. As one of the integrity knights who were bestowed such tremendous power, Alice had the responsibility to guard the Human Empire.
Rather, if only she could draw the entire enemy army to herself and set out for the Altar, dragging them away from the Great Gate. However, to those from the Dark Territory, the invasion of the Human Empire was their long-cherished wish for these hundreds of years. There could be nothing more attractive than that…
As expected, even if she were to aim for the altar at the world’s end, the forces of darkness must be utterly annihilated beforehand.
Alice involuntarily shut her eyes at the conclusion she reached.
Despite those grand ideas of wiping them out, it would be difficult enough to even repel the enemy’s advance guard as things currently stood. Still, she had to do it. In order to protect Tiezé, Ronye, and Kirito.
Letting out a soft sigh, Alice then put an end to her several seconds of contemplation and walked towards the two weeping girls.
Despite Solus’s afterglow having vanished off to the far west a while ago, the Dark Territory’s skies somewhat visible beyond the Great Gate were still tenaciously dyed in that ominous shade of blood.
As though denying that sight, a pure white camp curtain was stretched out in the middle of the Human Empire Defense Army’s camp site—the meadow used as a landing field for flying dragons in the day. Below the Axiom Church’s flag that fluttered up high before it were roughly thirty people with grim looks from the integrity knights and Defense Army’s commanding officers.
Alice stopped her feet in slight surprise upon noticing the knights were not separated from the soldiers.
The integrity knights, clad in shining silver armor, and the commanding officers, wearing steel armor that lost in beauty but possessed a sufficiently high priority level nonetheless, were engaged in a heated discussion with each holding a glass of siral water in hand. Roundabout etiquette seemed completely eliminated from their exchange when she pricked up her ears.
“Not bad for a rushed, jumbled gathering, right, lil’ miss?”
A low voice suddenly sounded out from her side and Alice turned to look in a fluster.
With both hands stuck into the bosom of his eastern styled clothes, Knight Commander Bercouli interrupted Alice’s bow with a gesture and continued.
“We aren’t having any of those troublesome niceties in this Defense Army. Luckily, there’s no line like ‘The masses must pay plenty of respect to the knights before speaking’ in the Taboo Index, you see.”
“I-I see… Though I do believe that to be truly splendid, let us put that aside and…”
Alice turned her sight back towards the war council.
“—Where are the other integrity knights? As far as I can see, there are only ten or so there.”
“Unfortunately, that’s all of them.”
Holding down her voice that became shrill against her wishes with her palm, Alice looked up at the knight commander who had put a slight grimace on.
“That… could not be. Including myself, are there not thirty-one in the Order?”
That would be what the name given to Eldrie the newest integrity knight in Sacred Tongue, thirty-one, indicated.
Well, that’s right; Bercouli replied with a sigh mingled in and brought his voice down even further.
“You know too, don’t you, lil’ miss? Chief Elder Chudelkin performed that treatment called «readjustment» on those knights with potential problems in their memories. When he died, the seven knights who were undergoing readjustment in the Chamber of Elders have yet to wake.”
She could not help but to widen her eyes. Taking his sight off Alice then, Bercouli continued in a voice that sound all the more unpleased.
“The only ones who knew the incantation for readjustment were Chudelkin and the Highest Minister. Now that both of them have died, we can only take the time to analyze the art to awaken those seven, and we don’t have that time now. There was a knight who was just frozen asleep rather than in readjustment, and we did succeed there, but…”
Sensing the knight commander’s answer becoming evasive, she asked.
“Who might that person be?”
“…Scheta the «Silent».”
Though they had never met in person and she knew nothing more than several anecdotes, Alice swallowed her breath at that name. Those tales were truly horrifying.
Still, Bercouli coughed as though saying to leave that topic for later and continued his explanation on their war potential.
“…In other words, that means we have twenty-four integrity knights awake now. Four are staying back to manage the cathedral and capital and four are serving as guards at the mountain range at the edge. Subtracting them, we have sixteen… that’s the most we can sink into his absolute line of defense. Of course, that’s with both you and I, lil’ miss.”
“Sixteen… you say?”
She bit her lips and held back the “just” that she almost added.
Not to mention, after confirming the lineup one by one, over half of the fourteen present were low ranking knights without sacred tools—that was, without the armament full control art. They were stalwart knights capable of slaughtering a hundred or two goblins in a sword fight, but she could not hope for the explosive power needed to turn the tides of a battle from them.
Bercouli altered his tone and spoke to Alice who kept silent.
“By the way, about caring for that youngling… if you need me to, I can ask the rear guard unit to…”
“Ah… no, I will be fine.”
Alice answered, breaking into a smile at the knight commander’s awkward consideration.
“There are volunteer soldiers who were his valets at the Sword Mastery Academy, so… I had arranged for him to be placed under their care after the fighting begins.”
“Oh, that’s good to hear. …So, how was it? Did that black-haired boy show any response after coming into contact with those he knew?”
She wiped off her smile and quietly shook her head.
Bercouli let out a short breath before groaning with an “I see”.
“…Let’s keep this between us. Honestly, I can’t say I hadn’t been thinking that youngling may be the one to decide how the coming battle’s going to go…”
Shocked, Alice looked up at the knight commander’s face.
“Sure, he had help from his partner and you, lil’ miss, but bringing down the Chief Elder and the Highest Minister with a sword’s plain ridiculous. If we were to compare the strength of our incarnation alone, I may not even match up to him.”
“…That could not possibly…”
Though she had absolutely no intention of doubting Kirito’s strength now after all that, Knight Commander Bercouli’s power of incarnation was polished over more than two hundred years. On the other hand, Kirito was still a student yet to come of age. Rather, putting his swordsmanship and movements aside, would it not be only natural to judge his power of incarnation as weaker than the knight commander’s at least?
However, Bercouli denied Alice’s words with conviction.
“I know what I felt when we went against each other with incarnation earlier. That boy had accumulated actual combat experience equal to or surpassing mine.”
“Actual combat…? What do you mean by that…?”
“Literally that. Struggles with his life at stake.”
She could only reject that possibility.
The humans living in the Human Empire were protected, or rather, restrained by the Taboo Index and the Empire Fundamental Law. Even if they did have matches with wooden swords, it was common for them to live through their entire lives without actual combat involving one party cutting down the other’s Life with real swords.
The one exception, integrity knights, did experience actual combat against goblins and dark knights attempting to invade the mountain range at the edge. Still that was only once or twice throughout their long periods of duty, with some not even encountering any; and to not mention the relatively overwhelming might of the integrity knights made it hard for those to be truly called struggles for their lives.
On that line of thought, Bercouli would certainly be the one with the most battle experience in the Human Empire since he had been fighting against the forces of darkness long before the Order got to its current size. As a matter of fact, when he had just became an integrity knight—however hard it might have been to believe—he had suffered harshly at the hands of the dark knights in those times and fled by the skin of his teeth.
Kirito won that Bercouli in terms of pure duration of actual combat?
Even if that was feasible, that experience would not have been from this world.
The «outside world» from whence he came. Still, that should be the land where the gods who truly created the Underworld reside. Actual combat despite that? Exactly who did he struggle for his life against…?
Unable to reach a satisfactory conclusion, Alice steeled her heart after brief hesitation.
If need be, she would tell Bercouli everything. About the existence of the outside world—and the World End Altar where the door towards there lay.
“…Esteemed uncle… in fact, during the battle against the Highest Minister, I…”
It was when she spoke that far, choosing her words with care.
A sharp voice suddenly echoed from behind the knight commander.
“It is time, Your Excellency.”
She turned to look at who spoke in surprise.
A single integrity knight stood there, entirely covered in light purple armor that glimmered brilliantly even in the dusk with a silver rapier at the left of its waist.
The moment Alice saw that full-face helmet with its wings resembling those of birds of prey, strong emotions surfaced within her chest—those were, frankly expressed, of distaste.
To Alice, that was likely who she had the worst affinity with in this world. The deputy knight commander and second among the integrity knights, Fanatio Synthesis Two.
Making considerable effort to not wear her heart on her sleeve, Alice involuntarily placed her right fist against the left of her chest, her left hand on her sword’s grip, and saluted as a knight should.
Facing her, Fanatio performed the same as well as her armor rang out. However, unlike Alice who stood upright with her legs slightly apart, Fanatio balanced her weight on her right foot and lowered her left shoulder into a lithe posture.
This person is simply helpless… or so Alice muttered to herself inside as she lowered her hand.
Though Fanatio likely thought she was hiding it with her armor and rigid tone, to one from the same gender, those were not enough to erase the scent of Fanatio’s feminine demeanor, distinct as that of large flowers. And that was a «technique» Alice could never comprehend since she was brought to the cathedral as a child.
Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio fought Kirito and Eugeo on the fiftieth floor of the cathedral, and suffered wounds that placed her on the verge of death after a direct hit from Kirito’s armament full control art. However, Kirito had performed healing arts on her who he defeated with much trouble and even teleported her through some mysterious art, or so Alice had heard from the low ranking knights who were present there.
Though she thought it was very much like Kirito to do so, she could still not come to terms with it.
In the first place, despite thinking of the world of Knight Commander Bercouli, Fanatio had four low ranking knights, who adored her, placed as her own subordinates. Did she feel no pity for their futile yearning? She could, at least, show her face instead of covering it with that helmet all day long.
And right as Alice wandered through those thoughts tinged with just a little jealousy, Fanatio grasped the sides of her helmet with both hands, astonishing her.
She unclasped it with clicks and carelessly pulled the light purple armor off. Her glossy black hair that sprang out gleamed like silk in the lanterns’ light.
She saw Fanatio’s bare skin in the cathedral only if they met by coincidence in the large bath. As far as she could recall, this would be the first time the deputy knight commander had stripped off her helmet in public.
She stared at her beautiful features that had seemed somewhat softer compared to previously and understood why. Though pale, her full lips were tinted with rouge. Cosmetics, on her who tried so hard to conceal her femininity—?
Fanatio showed a gentle smile towards Alice who stood speechless.
“It has really been a while, hasn’t it, Alice? I’m so glad to see you have been in good health.”
It took another three seconds before Alice found it in herself to return the greeting.
“It… it has been a while, deputy commander.”
“I wouldn’t mind you calling me Fanatio. More importantly, Alice, I happened to overhear a little earlier, but… it appears you have brought that boy with black hair with you?”
Alice put her astonishment aside at those offhand words and replaced it with a growing wariness.
Though Kirito and Cardinal, the sage, were the one who healed Fanatio’s injuries, she might not have known. It would not be odd if her resentment and hatred towards Kirito who had defeated her had grown.
The deputy knight commander showed a sweet smile and nodded at Alice’s curt answer.
“I see. Then, could I please meet with him for a little while after the war council?”
“There’s no need to frown so. I don’t have any intention of cutting down that boy after all this time.”
Stifling the bit of bitterness that had snuck into her smile, Fanatio shrugged her shoulders.
“I simply wanted to say a word of thanks. For tending to me after I suffered those fatal wounds.”
“…So you knew? Still, I believe there is no need for you to express your gratitude to Kirito. I had heard the one who had actually healed you, deputy commander, was the previous highest minister, a person named Cardinal. And she had… unfortunately passed away in the battle half a year ago.”
After Alice spoke with a little of her strength slipping from her shoulders, Fanatio’s eyes slowly turned towards the sky and she nodded.
“Yes… I do remember faintly. It was the first time I had felt such warm and powerful healing arts. But it was Kirito who had sent me to her and besides… I wish to thank him regarding a different matter.”
“A different matter…?”
“Yes. —For fighting and defeating me, you see.”
…So she did have the intention of cutting Kirito?
Fanatio shook her head with an earnest expression towards Alice who took half a step back.
“This is how I truly feel. After all, that boy was the only man to fight me seriously even after realizing I am female in the many years I had lived as an integrity knight.”
“Huh…? What do you… mean by…”
“I had fought without this helmet hiding my face in the past like you do. But I noticed then. That they would turn a little more timid with their swords against me; not only male knights who I faced in mock battles, but even dark knights in fights with our lives at stake. Going easy on me because of my gender is worse humiliation than being defeated and made to grovel on the ground.”
Was that not unavoidable, though? There should be barely any men capable of ignoring Fanatio’s fragrant allure with her face exposed.
Though she only understood after staying at the outskirts of Rulid, females hardly ever assumed sacred tasks that required them to hold a sword in most of the Human Empire. The exceptions were limited to the children of nobles and feudal lords which meant the common woman basically had no choice but to marry, take care of the housework, and give birth to children.
It would be an ironic affair if that aged tradition bound the hearts of men in a manner similar to the Taboo Index. The prejudice that women ought to be protected by men must have dulled their swords before Fanatio’s beautiful looks. The dark knights living in the Dark Territory must have been no exception either as long as they sought to marry and raise children. Though the demi-humans such as goblins or orcs might judge her differently with their completely different appearances.
However, despite being a female knight as well, Alice had never paid attention to male knights growing timid or anything of that sort. She was convinced her strength surpassed her opponents’ whether they went easy or exerted themselves against her.
—Was that anger not evidence that you were bothered by your femininity yourself?
Just as Alice thought so, Fanatio muttered the exact same thing.
“—I had hid my face and voice with this helmet, and learnt consecutive sword techniques in order to distance myself from my enemies. But that was because I was bound by my own gender, wasn’t it? Not only did that boy see through that immediately, he came slashing at me with all his might. I had exhausted all of my sword techniques and arts against him, and lost. When Cardinal-sama salvaged my life and I regained my consciousness, that meaningless obsession had vanished from my being… That is, I only had to become strong enough; strong enough to force my opponents to not go easy on me. It isn’t all so strange for me to want to say a word of thanks to that boy who made me notice that simple truth and let me live, is it?”
After saying so with a serious expression, Fanatio suddenly broke into a teasing smile.
“Besides… I am a little offended. Over how that boy felt nothing for me as a female with my helmet off. So, I am thinking of trying out various means to see if I can wake that boy up.”
What nonsense are you suggesting?
If Kirito woke from that, exactly what would that make of all her effort thus far? And she could not even say with certainty that the possibility was zero in regards to Kirito.
Without any attempt to conceal how grim the space between her eyebrows was becoming, Alice replied in a sharp tone.
“I appreciate your words, but he is currently resting in the tent. I will personally see that your thoughts are conveyed to him, Fanatio-dono.”
The area around deputy knight commander’s eyes twitched.
“I will require your permission to meet with the boy? Back at the cathedral, I believe I hadn’t ever refused your requests to meet with His Excellency, the knight commander, when he was at work due to my personal feelings?”
“With regards to that, I believe your permission is not required either for me to meet with esteemed uncle, Fanatio-dono. To begin with, now that I think about it, would he not serve just fine if you desired to be beaten black and blue by a male knight?”
“Oh my, let’s leave His Excellency out of this. He is the world’s strongest knight, so it is only natural he goes easy whoever he faces. After all, he even spared the dark general.”
“Oh, really now? He was always serious to the point of becoming drenched in sweat during practice with me, however?”
“…Your Excellency! Is what she said true!?”
“In the first place, it’s because you always pamper this person that…!”
Alice and Fanatio turned towards their sides as one.
However, the knight commander was no longer present there.
Only a lump of dried grass tumbled by along where Bercouli had certainly stood minutes ago.
The war council began at six in the evening with a rather strained atmosphere due to the spirit exuded from Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio Synthesis Two who served as the facilitator and Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty who recently joined the battle.
After briefly introducing herself, Alice threw herself onto a chair prepared on the front row.
Snatching the cup of siral water Eldrie who sat beside offered, she drained the cold, sweet and sour liquid in a single gulp. Taking in a deep breath, she somehow managed to move on.
There truly were few high ranking integrity knights possessing sacred tools. The only ones she knew the name and face of well were the knight commander, «Time Piercing Sword» Bercouli, «Heaven Piercing Sword» Fanatio, «Frost Scale Whip» Eldrie, and «Conflagrant Flame Bow» Deusolbert.
Them aside, Scheta Synthesis Twelve, with the alias of «Silent», and Renri Synthesis Twenty-seven, an extremely young male knight, both held sacred tools, but it was effectively her first time meeting them, so she did not even know what their techniques were. At any rate, those members made up the seven high ranking knights when included with «Fragrant Olive» Alice.
The remaining nine were the low ranking knights with no sacred tool, including the «Four Oscillation Blades» under Fanatio. Moreover, the young female apprentice knights who committed such dreadful mischief that even Bercouli had trouble dealing with them, Linel Synthesis Twenty-eight and Fizel Synthesis Twenty-nine, were around too. They were currently sitting obediently in the corner, but could they truly be let out on the battlefield?
At any rate, those mere sixteen were all that the Order of the Integrity Knights could put into this absolute line of defense.
On the other hand, roughly thirty commanding officers from the Human Empire Defense Army attended. Though their morale was not low, the difference between the integrity knights’ prowess with the sword and theirs was obvious even in a single glance. It went without saying for the high ranking knights like Alice, but even the low ranking knights had more than enough strength to defeat the thirty of them in continuous matches…
“—We have considered numerous plans over these four months…”
Fanatio’s voice started without Alice knowing and it pulled her focus back.
“To sum things up, it will be difficult to drive back the enemy army’s combined offensive with our current fighting strength and we will lose all chance at victory the moment they lay siege to us.”
Fanatio knocked against a point on the map set up farther in the war council with the Heaven Piercing Sword’s narrow and long scabbard as a replacement for a pointer.
“As you can see, there is nothing but grass and rock for ten kilol from this side of the mountain range at the edge. If they push us this far, we will only be surrounded and annihilated by the enemy army of fifty thousand. As such, we must settle the battle in this gorge that leads to the Great East Gate, measuring a hundred mel in width and a thousand mel in length. We will spread troops in layers, and focus entirely on engaging them and shaving down their numbers. This will be the basic principle of our strategy. Does anyone have any opinions to voice out so far?”
Eldrie was the one whose hand quickly went up. Standing up as his light purple hair wavered, the young man questioned with his usual vanity restrained.
“If the enemy army comprises only the goblins and orcs, we will cut them down even if there are fifty or a hundred thousand of them. However, even they are aware of that. There are powerful groups of ogres equipped with longbows as well as the Dark Arts Users’ Guild which exceeds them in danger. What countermeasures do we have against long range attacks fired from behind their infantry?”
“This may be a risky gamble…”
Fanatio’s lips paused for a moment and she glanced towards Alice. She listened to the words that continued while unthinkingly straightening her back.
“…No sunlight reaches the bottom of the gorge even in midday and no grass grows on its ground. In other words, there is sparse sacred power in the air. If we thoroughly exhaust that before the battle begins, it stands to reason that the enemy army will not be able to launch any powerful arts.”
The knights and commanding officers stirred at Fanatio’s daring idea.
“Naturally, the same applies to us. However, we have no more than a hundred or so sacred arts users in the first place. In a fight between arts, the enemy’s consumption of sacred power should be far above us.”
That might certainly be true. Still—there were two problems in Fanatio’s strategy.
It was the bow user, Deusolbert, who sought permission to speak in place of the stunned Eldrie. The senior knight calmly asked with his body clad in reddish-copper armor.
“I understand, your words are quite right, Deputy Commander-dono. However, sacred arts are not used solely for offense. If sacred power dries up, wouldn’t we be unable to even heal the Life of anyone hurt?”
“That is why I called it a gamble. We have brought as many of the high grade catalysts and medication as we could from the cathedral’s treasury to this camp site. If we restrict to using only healing arts and supplement that with medicine, the catalysts alone should last two… no, three days.”
The surprised cries this time were louder than before. The Central Cathedral’s treasury was known for such strict security that that itself served as the subject for fairy tales. Treasures may be brought in, but this could well be the first time in history for things to be brought out.
It rendered even the great knight into silence, a grim expression tinged with surprise on his face. Waiting as Deusolbert took his seat with a low groan, Alice then stood up.
“There is still another problem, Fanatio-dono.”
Forgetting the earlier quarrel for the time being, she threw out the second problem at hand.
“Though you say the blessings of Solus and Terraria are faint, the gorge is neither devoid of light nor separated from the earth. I believe a massive amount of sacred power has accumulated there over the many years. What, exactly, could fully use up that power in the short period before the battle?”
Though the chasm through the mountain range was more narrow than the grasslands spreading out behind the camp site, it still had a width of a hundred mel and a length of a thousand mel. Exhausting the sacred power filling that expansive space in an instant would require hundreds of arts users simultaneously casting high ranking arts, but Fanatio herself had mentioned earlier that the Defense Army lacked that many arts users.
Another possibility would be to exhaust the sacred power by using a grand large-scale art comparable to natural disasters, but it seemed the only two possessing such power would be the deceased Highest Minister Administrator and Sage Cardinal.
However, the deputy knight commander shook her head strongly while staring at Alice with her golden brown eyes.
“No, we do. We do have one person capable of making that a reality.
Alice scanned through the faces of the Defense Army as she muttered.
However, the name that came from Fanatio immediately after was beyond her expectations.
“You, Alice Synthesis Thirty.”
“You may not have noticed, but your current strength exceeds that of integrity knights. You should be capable of it as you are now… the true power of the gods, to split the skies and tear the earth asunder.”
“Are the high ranking integrity knights all that powerful?”
Gabriel Miller asked while shaking atop a large tank—which was simply a four-wheeled, rectangular vehicle without any cannons or treads—pulled by a two-headed monster similar to a dinosaur.
Though not even the couch’s cushioning could erase the tremors entirely, it was nothing compared to the lethal lack of comfort he suffered so much from when riding those Bradley infantry fighting vehicles as a soldier. The tremors only made sloshing noises from the wine glass on the side table at worst.
Despite it being three days since leaving Obsidia Palace and a travelling time longer than he had ever experienced in the real world, he barely felt fatigue. Not that it was thanks to the comfort of the tank’s seat; though it might be due to it being a virtual world.
The young, beautiful lady slovenly sprawled at Gabriel’s feet on the thick carpet caressed her bandaged right leg as she nodded.
“They certainly are. Let’s see… in this war that continued on for three hundred years, our dark arts users and knights have never killed even a single integrity knight—does that explain the circumstances? Of course, the reverse has happened as many times as there are stars in the sky.”
Replacing Gabriel who closed his mouth, Vassago, who held onto a liquor bottle as he sat cross-legged beside the wide cabin’s wall, let out a doubtful voice.
“But hey, D. sis. If those integrity knights guys are so strong, why aren’t they invading us?”
The head of the dark arts users, D.I.L., turned towards Vassago with a smile more coy than before and raised her index finger.
“I’m glad you asked, Vassago-sama. Though each of them is a mighty warrior that can match a thousand, they still number only one each in the end. If ten thousand of our troops surround them in a wide space, we could accumulate scratches on them, little by little, and drain them of their Life, couldn’t we? As such, they would never leave the mountain range at the edge where there is no risk of being surrounded regardless of how cowardly that is.”
“Ooh, I get it. So that’s that, huh, no matter how damn hard a mob is, just poke at it with DoT damage from a safe spot and it’ll go down sooner or later…”
Glaring at Vassago who got out an example that D., an artificial fluct light, never could have understood, Gabriel gave a soft cough and spoke.
“Let’s set that aside. In short, we only need to lure those integrity knights into a sufficiently wide battlefield, and we will be able to surround and eliminate them?”
“We will, in theory. Though the number of goblin and orc sacrifices will easily exceed ten thousand.”
D. giggled, and then picked a fruit that appeared venomous judging from its color from a silver cup placed on the floor and wrapped her lips in the same shade of crimson around it as though savoring it.
It went without saying that Gabriel had no concern for any loss of infantry units. Rather, he had no qualms about trading the entire army of the Dark Territory, including D. before his eyes, if it could crush the enemy army. In a certain sense, this battle was no different from the tactical simulations held by the operations research department in Glowgen Defense Systems on a daily basis.
He would walk across mountains of corpses, reign over the Human Empire as its new ruler, and give his first and last order to its lands. Find a girl named Alice and bring her to me. The mission in this strange world would finish then.
Arriving that thought, he felt like he would miss even this wine with its somehow eccentric flavor.
Gabriel lifted the glass and gulped down the deep violet fluid in a single go.
At this time, the hunter of souls, Gabriel Miller, had unwittingly assimilated «Alice»’s appearance in the mind with that of his first victim who had a similar name, Alicia Klingerman: chaste, young, and slender. He was convinced she lived in a city resembling his old home of Pacific Palisades; a gentle and beautiful young girl—who was powerless.
Hence, Gabriel had not noticed that one possibility.
It completely escaped his expectations: that the «Alice» he pursued could actually be an integrity knight and led the enemy army.
The long files of troops behind the command vehicle flying the emperor’s flag slowly yet surely continued marching towards the western boundary.
The mountain ranges, protruding like a saw’s teeth, gradually came into view beyond the bloodstained skies.
Seventh day of the eleventh month, the fourth day since they began moving.
The main force of the Dark Territory army had arrived at the base of a mountain that commanded a view of the Great Gate close to collapsing. Countless black tents prepared by the advance party lined up around the vast plateau.
The low bass that shook the ground came from the war drums the giants beat.
From the roof of the command vehicle at the end, Gabriel quietly watched over the single file of the main force spread out like countless blood cells urged on by the deafening heartbeats.
The first regiment of the advance guard, a battalion of goblin light infantry and orc heavy infantry, summed up to a fifteen thousand. They formed a column that snugly fitted into the gorge piercing through the mountain range at the edge. The giants’ massive bodies were set up in various places among the ranks like siege towers and though they numbered fewer than five hundred, they would likely serve well as the main tanks supporting the infantry units.
The demi-humans were followed behind by the second regiment: the five thousand from the Pugilists’ Guild and another, likewise, five thousand from the Order of the Dark Knights. The young knight who succeeded as the new dark general pled for the vanguard position to wipe the disgrace of his predecessor, but Gabriel drove him away. Expecting the entire knight unit to suffer from low morale, he decided to eliminate that uncertain element.
The third regiment comprises seven thousand ogre archers and three thousand women from the Dark Arts Users’ Guild. Their duty was to charge into the gorge behind the infantry and annihilate the enemy troops with ranged attacks. According to the head of the arts users, D., they would be able to defeat the main force of the enemy, the integrity knights, by concentrating fire on them as long as they were within sight.
To be perfectly honest, Gabriel had to admit he had the desire to personally attempt a fight against those knights treated as invincible and devouring their souls. However, he would lose everything with this high ranking account if there was some unexpected incident and he could produce as many of those from the Underworld, the artificial fluct lights, as he liked later on. His first priority now would be to secure «Alice» and escape from the Ocean Turtle.
Eight days inside and nearly fifteen minutes outside had passed since he logged in. To take over the entire Human Empire and pass down the order to search out Alice would take roughly ten days. In that case, it would be best to settle this war as quickly as possible—to end it in one whole day at most.
“Aah, so I won’t be getting a go?”
Vassago grumbled from his side, holding yet another bottle of whisky. Glancing over, he remonstrated in a sharp tone.
“I saw that. When that general named Shasta turned into a tornado, you left me behind and ran straight away, didn’t you?”
“Hehe, so you did see it after all, commander.”
Vassago broadly grinned without reserve.
“Look, I’ve always been specializing in PvP. I’m no good up against some monster without a body like that.”
Gabriel did not know how serious his subordinate was with that excuse and he stared at him briefly before curtly asking.
“Vassago, why did you volunteer for this operation?”
“By operation, you mean diving into the Underworld? Well, that’s because it looked fun, of course…”
“No, prior to that. The raid on the Ocean Turtle. You do work for Glowgen DS, but you specialize only in cyber operations, don’t you? What was your motivation for participating in an operation that might fill you with bullet holes? From your age, you are no war dog back from the Middle East like Hans or Brig either.”
While that was quite a speech for Gabriel, he naturally did not hold much interest in the human called Vassago Casals. The question of what laid under this young man’s frivolous attitude simply popped into his mind.
Vassago shrugged his shoulders and replied with, “It’s the same”.
“The answer to that is because it looked fun too, I guess.”
“If you’re going on about that, you’re the ridiculous one, stepping out onto the field despite being some great elite who graduated from university. Even with your experience in the army.”
“I prefer to get my hands dirty.”
Answering so, Gabriel muttered in his mind.
Vassago, what do you find fun? Firing guns? Or… murdering and such?
Just as he pondered on whether to question further or to cut off the conversation, the tapping of high heels sounded out from the stairs set up behind the command vehicle and the head of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild, D.I.L., showed herself.
She gave a respectful bow and licked her lips before reporting.
“Your Majesty, the entire army is in position.”
Aside from the main force of thirty-five thousand deployed in front, there were ten thousand reserve troops mainly consisting of goblins and orcs, and the transport unit of five thousand from the Economic Guild waiting on the left and right of the command vehicle.
This army of fifty thousand was all the military force granted to Gabriel. Hence, if he failed to break through the enemy army’s guard even after exhausting all of the units, he would be forced to revise the basis of his plans. The possibility of securing Alice would fall dramatically as well.
That said, the enemy army numbered three thousand at most according to the dragon knights’ scouting. In other words, they would not lose as long as they eliminated the integrity knights as planned.
“Good. How long will it be until the Great Gate crumbles?”
D. answered Gabriel’s question with her face lowered.
“We believe it to be approximately eight hours.”
“Then the first division shall enter the gorge an hour before it collapses. Set up as close to the Great Gate as possible and attack as one when it breaks down. If we can break through their front, send in the second and third division and decimate the enemy in a single assault.”
“Yes. We shall deliver the enemy generals’ heads before the day breaks. Though it may been burnt to a crisp by then.”
Giggling, D. quickly conveyed orders to the messenger arts user waiting behind and bowed deeply before descending the stairs.
Gabriel looked towards the gigantic rock gate towering in the distance from the command vehicle’s roof.
Though it must be over two miles away, its weight was palpable as though crushing him from above. That gate collapsing as a whole would surely be quite a sight.
However, that would be when the true banquet begins. The releasing and disappearing of thousands of souls would certainly be an extraordinarily beautiful lightshow. The Rath researchers cooped up in the upper shaft of the Ocean Turtle must regret being unable to watch this spectacle on the grandest scale that they had scheduled from inside.
Thump, thum. Thump, thum.
The war drums seemed to stir up the hunger and rage emanating from the forces numbering in the tens of thousands as their tempo accelerated.
“So… please take care of Kirito in my place.”
Alice stared at the young girls’ faces in turn as she spoke.
They were the novice trainees, no, they were already swordswomen in their own right; Tiezé Shtolienen and Ronye Arabel nodded with their backs straight.
“Yes, please leave him to us, Alice-sama.”
“We will be sure to keep Kirito-senpai safe.”
Answering so, Tiezé and Ronye firmly gripped the newly constructed wheelchair’s handles with their left and right hands respectively.
The slim chair that gleamed silver grey was transformed from an extra set of full body armor in the stores tent via Alice’s arts. It was lighter than the wooden wheelchair used in Rulid and had more strength too.
That said, nothing could be done about the weight of the two swords Kirito firmly hugged onto while seated. Though she was doubtful inside if the girls could even move it, the pair magnificently matched their breathing and pushed the wheelchair straight in front of Alice.
This meant they would not be slowed down even if ordered to retreat at once. At any rate, they would be driven to retreat from the gorge only when the whole Defense Army was certain to be surrounded and decimated.
If she were to state her true feelings, she would rather they flee west with Kirito the very moment they saw the slightest danger in the war’s situation. However, that would only stall their fate for several months—no, several weeks.
If the Defense Army lost, the four knights protecting the mountain range at the edge should retreat as well and evacuate the inhabitants of each town and village as they made the walls of Centoria, the central capital, the final line of defense. However, that would be futile resistance all the same. The invading army would trample them down soon enough, and both that beautiful capital and the white marble Central Cathedral would be burnt down. There was no escape within the sealed walls of the mountain range at the edge…
Alice bent her knees and matched her eyes to Kirito’s before peeking into them.
She had spoken to Kirito, held his hands, and hugged him whenever she found the time in these five days since she arrived at the camp site. However, he had not shown any proper response up to this day.
“Kirito. …This may be our final farewell.”
Forcing her smile to remain, Alice whispered to the black-haired youth.
“Esteemed uncle said you would decide how this battle goes. I believe so, too. You were the one who formed this Defense Army, after all.”
In fact, if it was not for Kirito and Eugeo, it would be Highest Minister Administrator and the Order of the Integrity Knights lined up at the Great East Gate about now along with an army of that abominable sword golem.
With two or three thousands of those sword golems and their tremendous fighting strength, the Dark Territory army of fifty thousand would be nowhere near enough. However, that was equivalent to the Human Empire’s downfall. Tens of thousands of the Human Empire’s citizen would have served as materials for the golems. Kirito and the rest had prevented that tragedy with the sacrifice of a single life and mind.
Still, if the Human Empire Defense Army led by Bercouli were to lose as things went, a horrible tragedy would befall the masses nonetheless even if in a different form.
“…I will be trying my hardest too. I will burn through this life I received from you without a single drop remaining. So… if I were to fall and call for you with the strength I have left, be sure to stand and draw that sword. As long as you wake up, the number of enemies would not matter, be it thousands or tens of thousands. A miracle will happen again and save the Human Empire… everyone. After all, you…”
—Are the strongest swordsman who defeated that Highest Minister.
Murmuring so in her chest, Alice reached out with both hands and firmly embraced Kirito’s withered body.
Releasing him after the embrace that could have lasted anything from an instant to several minutes long, Alice stood up and noticed Ronye’s sight, staring hard at her while a complicated light flickered in her blue eyes. She blinked in uncertainty and immediately realized.
“Ronye-san. You… love Kirito, don’t you?”
Upon saying so with a smile, the petite girl covered her mouth with both hands as she turned crimson from her cheeks to around her ears. Her eyelashes lowered and she answered in a muffled voice.
“N-No, that’s… I couldn’t possibly… I am simply his valet novice trainee, so…”
You could, certainly. You are the heiress of a family holding peerage, aren’t you, Ronye-san? I was born in a remote, small village and I do not even know where Kirito came from…”
Ronye suddenly shook her head violently as she interrupted Alice’s words.
“That’s not it! I… I…”
Large drops gathered in Ronye’s eyes as her voice broke off and Tiezé gently supported her with her right hand. Her eyes in the colors of autumn were wet as well and she began speaking in a quavering voice.
“Alice-sama… do you know of the taboo Kirito-senpai and Eugeo-senpai committed?”
“Ye… yes. I heard there was a dispute in the academy… and that they murdered another student.”
Alice still recalled the significant shock from the arrest order she received from the Chamber of the Elders half a year ago as an ignorant vanguard of the Axiom Church. An unthinkable taboo like murdering another student in the academy in the capital was unheard of even in the history books of the church.
Alice nodded and Tiezé continued her questions.
“Then… have you heard about why they had committed that taboo…?”
“No… I haven’t…”
A single abrupt shout re-emerged from the depths of her ears the moment she shook her head.
It was immediately after she was thrown out the cathedral’s walls with Kirito, those words he shouted at Alice when she screamed that she did not require help from a criminal…
[—The Taboo Index doesn’t forbid it, so the upper class nobles can do as they please with girls that didn’t even commit a single crime, like Ronye and Tiezé… do you honestly believe that’s forgivable?!]
That was it. I heard the names of this pair back then.
The “upper classman” must have referred to the student Kirito cut down. And as for “do as they please”—
Before Alice who opened her eyes widely, Tiezé’s voice shook as it began to speak.
“…Elite swordsmen-in-training Raios Antinous and Humbert Zizek had repeatedly given humiliating orders to our friend, Novice Trainee Frenica Szeski. We protested against them, but used words considered insolent in our indignation at that time. As such, through the nobles’ punishment authority based on the Empire Fundamental Law…”
It must be difficult just remembering what occurred after that. Tiezé’s voice at stuck in her throat and Ronye let out faint sobs with her head down.
There is no need to speak any further; Alice thought so and was about to voice it out, but the red-haired girl resumed her story with resolve.
“…Kirito-senpai and Eugeo-senpai raised their swords to save us from that difficult punishment. If only I had been a little wiser, that incident would not have happened. They would not have fought against the church to reform the law and no one would have died. We… have committed an unredeemable crime. So… we have no right to say we love them even if we had to forfeit our mouths…”
Upon speaking out all that she harbored, tears finally flowed from Tiezé’s eyes as well. The young girls embraced each other tight and let out forlorn weeps filled with regrets far too heavy for their age.
Alice grinded her teeth hard as she looked up towards the small window that supplied light.
She thought she knew the rampant depravity of the four empires’ nobles. Gluttony, hoarding, and debauchery.
Still, Integrity Knight Alice had once thought she would be contaminated if she knew too much and averted her eyes from the nobles’ actions. Whatever they did, it was of no concern while it was no taboo—after all, she was summoned from the Celestial World to guard the law. She had continued believing in that.
However, turning a deaf ear was sin in itself. What Kirito detested, what the Taboo Index was unconcerned with, a truly abhorrent sin. Compared to herself who had done nothing, the two girls before her eyes had several times as much mettle.
Alice took in a deep breath and spoke in a forceful tone.
“No, you are wrong. The two of you are not at fault.”
The one who immediately raised her face was Ronye. Despite her impression of her always hiding in Tiezé’s shadow, the girl cried out this one time with a strong light in her eyes.
“You would not understand, Alice-sama… you would not understand as an honorable integrity knight, Alice-sama! Those men had done as they liked with our bodies and stained our pride with sin!”
“Your body is no more than where your heart resides.”
She firmly knocked her right fist against the center of her chest as she replied so.
“The heart… the soul is what truly matters. And you are the only one to decide how your soul is.”
Alice lowered her eyelids and focused her awareness within herself.
Roughly two weeks ago, Alice had regained her lost right eye through the power of her heart—of incarnation, in other words—during that assault on Rulid Village. She had personally experienced how a strong, earnest wish could change the flesh without reliance on arts.
Still, that alone would not suffice now. She had to change not just her flesh, but the clothing on her body with the power of incarnation.
It should be possible. Had she not seen Kirito do it once before? When he went up against Highest Minister Administrator with two swords, he had changed into a long overcoat made from black leather from some other land utterly unlike his clothes until then.
Return. To the Alice before she woke up in that unfamiliar pure white tower and shut away her heart within thick ice to drown out the unease and desolation of her lost memories.
—I am the same as you, Ronye, Tiezé. I was born as a human, made many mistakes, shouldered heavy sins, and now stand here. You can claim Kirito and Eugeo’s murder to be your fault… but if I had not forgotten about the taboos and not touched the Dark Territory’s earth, they would not have even aimed for the capital in the first place.
Yes, that is my sin. Even without those memories, Alice Schuberg is no stranger, but who I once was. Those days in Rulid had taught me that.
Even with her eyes shut, she knew the white, warm light had enveloped her body.
Alice slowly lifted her eyelids.
As her face looked down, what she first saw was the skirt she was wearing. However, it was not dyed in the pure white of the Axiom Church, but a clear blue like the autumn skies.
Atop the skirt was a plain apron. The golden armor and gauntlets were gone. When she touched her head with her hand, her fingertips brushed against a large ribbon. Her hair seemed a little shorter.
Raising her face, her eyes met with Ronye and Tiezé’s while they were shocked into silence.
“…See? Your body and appearance depends merely on your heart.”
Of course, this transformation did not last forever. She would likely return to her original knight look the moment her mental concentration faltered. Still, the girls should understand now. How Alice, Kirito, and Eugeo thought.
“No one can sully your heart. This is how I should have grown up, born in that remote village. But when I was eleven, I was taken to the capital as a criminal and became an integrity knight with my memories erased by an art. I once cursed that fate of mine…”
What Alice spoke of was a huge secret known by only Knight Commander Bercouli aside from herself. However, she believed these two could handle it and continued her words.
“But… I had things I could do, things that I should do; Kirito taught me that. That is why I will not waver any longer. I decided that I will accept myself and move on.”
Raising both hands, Alice gripped Ronye’s and Tiezé’s hands with strength.
“You are the same. You have a wide, long, straight road that belongs to you alone.”
Drops of water splashed onto their held hands.
The tears along the girls’ cheeks seemed completely different from before, gleaming beautifully with iridescent light.
Pulling Kirito who sat on the wheelchair into one last strong embrace, Alice entrusted him to Ronye and Tiezé, and left the tent.
Eldrie immediately ran towards her as though he had been lying in wait and sang her praises.
“Oh, what beauty… it is as if Solus’s radiance had focused onto your being… you are simply at your finest, my master, Alice-sama…”
“It will be smeared with dirt within an hour of the battle, anyway.”
She glanced down at herself while bluntly responding.
The transformation phenomenon earlier was already gone, and her golden breastplate and pure white skirt dazzled in the sunlight. She looked up towards the western skies while thinking about adding sky-blue cloth to it somewhere if she came back alive.
Solus had already begun its descent. It would be roughly three hours before it vanished over the horizon? The Great East Gate would have its Life extinguish then. The seal of three hundred years would unravel at last.
She did what she could.
Alice was added to the Defense Army’s training through these five days and she thought the soldiers’ skills were polished well in just this half year. What surprised her was how all of them had learnt the consecutive sword techniques absent from the traditional styles.
When she asked, it seemed Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio had generously taught the techniques she had polished over the many years. Though three hits was apparently their maximum, it should serve as a reassuring weapon against the goblins and orcs who wave around machetes according to their instincts.
Of course, the presence of the dark knights with their own consecutive techniques would be too much for the soldiers. The integrity knights would have to take over then, including against the pugilists who possessed even quicker consecutive attacks.
Most crucial would be to hold back the battalions of demi-humans who would march in after the battle began. Next would be to endure the ogres’ longbows and the dark arts users’ ranged offensive arts with as little casualties as possible.
The outcome of the operation lay entirely on Alice’s shoulders—
Pulling her sight back down from the skies, she saw the numerous columns of smoke from the supply unit behind cooking the final meal. She should soon meet up with Ronye, Tiezé, and Kirito, who they would bring along, there.
She would protect them. No matter what.
“Alice-sama, it is about time for…”
Nodding at Eldrie’s voice, Alice drew back a foot to turn about.
However, she stopped that foot there and stared at her one and only disciple.
“…W-What is it?”
Gazing at the young knight blinking with hesitation, Alice relaxed her pursed lips just a little.
“…You have served me well all this while, Eldrie.”
She gently placed her right hand at his left hand, while he stood dumbfounded, and continued.
“It has been a relief having you by my side. You requested guidance from me, without any real achievement to my name, instead of a senior male knight like Deusolbert… in consideration for my heart, didn’t you?”
“Not… nothing of that sort, I am above such insolence! I merely held great admiration for the magnificence of Alice-sama’s swordsmanship in the innermost depths of my heart…”
Alice gripped Eldrie’s hand while he vehemently shook his head as he denied, released it, and smiled again.
“I had continued down that bleak journey to reach today only with your support. Thank you, Eldrie.”
Large tear drops welled up all of a sudden in the speechless young knight’s eyes.
“…..Alice-sama… why… do you speak only of the past?”
His hoarse voice asked.
“Why do you speak as though your journey will end in this land, Alice-sama? I… I have barely learnt enough from you yet. I am still nowhere close to your level in both the sword and arts. You must continue to train and guide me from now on as well…!”
Right before her quivering, extended right hand reached herself—
Alice switched suddenly into a stern shout.
“Integrity knight, Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one!”
The knight stood at attention with his hand frozen in position.
“I shall give you my final command as your master. Survive. Survive and see peace arrive with your own eyes, and take them back. Your true life and those you truly love.”
The «memory fragments» belonging to all of the integrity knights aside from Alice and their «loved ones» were still sealed on the top floor of the cathedral even now. There must be a method to return them to how they should be.
Nodding towards Eldrie who still stood straight while silently shedding tears, Alice rapidly turned about. Her golden hair and pure white skirt cut through the cold autumn air.
She saw the vast gorge sunken in dim darkness and the Great East Gate straight before her eyes.
Alice would now begin chanting an extremely large-scale sacred art for the first time. She would condense the sacred power filling the gorge’s air to inflict a hard blow on the enemy army.
If she made a single mistake in the art—no, if her focus strayed for the slightest bit, the converged sacred art would explode and probably erase Alice’s existence without a trace.
However, she no longer felt fear. She had spent a fulfilling five days with Bercouli, Fanatio, and Eldrie as an integrity knight, and lived with her little sister, Selka, for half a year as Alice of Rulid.
And above all, she had discovered her human emotions—sorrow, anger, and even love—by meeting Eugeo and Kirito, and crossing swords sincerely interacting with them.
She hoped for nothing more.
Sharp noises rang out from Alice’s armor as she advanced straight towards the center of the Defense Army, one step after another, awaiting the start of the war.
- Translation – Tap