Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli
Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 13, chapter 10.
Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli
5th Month of Human World Calendar 380
I hadn’t felt this isolated for a long time.
Eugeo murmured in his heart as he climbed the long staircases on his own.
Eugeo had passed his days immersed in swinging that axe in the forest, his eyes, ears, and heart shut away, ever since that summer eight years ago when he could do nothing more than look on as Alice was bound onto a flying dragon’s foot and taken away. Not a single person in the village, including his family, brought up this major incident of the village chief’s daughter getting taken away by an integrity knight with him, practically treating that very act as a taboo in itself—or rather, it could have been as they avoided Eugeo who was a close friend of Alice.
However, much like the villagers, Eugeo also kept them, as well as his memories of the incident, at a distance. Not acknowledging his own weakness and cowardice, he tried to turn his eyes away from the past and future by sinking deep into a muddy bog by the name of resignation. —But.
That one boy, who wandered in without a single belonging to his name in the spring two years ago, tugged Eugeo out from that bottomless swamp with all his might. They repelled a group of goblins and felled the Gigas Cedar together; he bestowed confidence and a goal to Eugeo once more.
He was always by his side when they rushed out from Rulid Village, when they advanced onto the capital through Zakkaria City, and when they trained day after day at the Sword Mastery Academy—Kirito was there. Though it was awry from their initial plans, their success in infiltrating their final goal, the Axiom Church’s Central Cathedral, and surpassing numerous obstacles to arrive at this high position was unmistakably thanks to his black-haired partner guiding him and cheering him on.
And yet, despite how the highest floor was a mere distance away, Kirito had vanished from Eugeo’s sight. Amidst the fierce battle against Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty, created from his childhood friend, Alice Schuberg, with false, implanted memories, Kirito’s full armament control art mingled with the knight’s and brought forth an abnormal power and bored a huge hole through the cathedral’s wall.
The pair were sucked out from the tower in the blink of an eye and the huge hole returned to the wall it originally was immediately thereafter. The marble wall showed not the slightest sign of budging even when slashed at with the Blue Rose Sword or hit with the greatest thermal elemental offensive arts he possessed.
In all likelihood, the cathedral’s outer walls had a permanent self-repair art performed upon them. A sacred art so ridiculously advanced that Eugeo couldn’t even imagine the first line for it to the extent of his knowledge. Hence, even if he moved the stone wall by a mere cen after all his desperate effort, it would probably be restored to how it was. Opening up a hole in the wall, even for a moment, must have been because Kirito and Knight Alice’s full control arts concealed a power that exceeded what the art user who casted that self-repair art on the tower’s outer walls had expected.
To put that another way, they couldn’t have died from simply getting thrown out if they possessed such power. Especially Kirito, who definitely had more capability in reacting to unexpected situations even when compared to the higher ranked integrity knights. He must have resisted the fall somehow and had already started on an ascent from outside the tower. And that likely applied to Knight Alice too.
The current Alice was a guardian of the absolute Axiom Church, so he couldn’t imagine her cooperating with Kirito, but at the very least, she should chase after him if he were to climb the wall. An opportunity to use the short sword granted by Cardinal should present itself again if he could reunite with them somewhere on the higher floors.
Believing thusly, Eugeo opened the door on the southern end of the eightieth floor, «Cloudtop Garden», and started on the grand staircase up on his own. All while shaking off the sense of forlornness and helplessness that seemed to have crept up his back ever since he became alone.
It wouldn’t be strange to be dragged into a new assault at any time, so he ceased running and advanced with caution, but he didn’t feel any human presence even after passing the eighty-first and eighty-second floors.
They had driven away «Frost Scale Whip» Eldrie, «Conflagrant Flame Bow» Deusolbert, the apprentice knights, Fizel and Linel, «Heaven Piercing Sword» Fanatio and her subordinates, «Four Oscillation Blades»; that brought the count to nine integrity knights in total, but those called «Knight Commander» and «Chief Elder» were still in the tower, and of course, the highest minister, Administrator, lay in wait as well.
He could hardly imagine the most eminent being in the Axiom Church, and thus, the world, would suddenly appear, but the Knight Commander and Chief Elder couldn’t possibly let him pass through to the highest floor without resistance. As such, he strained his senses to their limits and cautiously ascended the staircase with his hand on his Blue Rose Sword, but his mind couldn’t help but to get invaded by superfluous thoughts.
How are Kirito and Knight Alice doing at the moment?
Is Alice chasing Kirito as he climbs the tower’s outer walls? Or maybe their battle is continues even now while dangling off the tower’s walls? Or perhaps… the mysterious charm from that human known as Kirito had made even Alice, as aloof as she was, draw back her sword…?
Eugeo sensed an unfamiliar feeling well up in his chest the moment he thought that. That acted as a stimulant, the discord he felt when he swung his sword towards the fallen Integrity Knight Deusolbert several hours ago prickling yet again.
Aware that Deusolbert was the one who took away Alice from Rulid Village eight years ago, anger and hatred urged Eugeo into action as he tried to thrust an end to the knight. However, in that moment Kirito held him back, Eugeo felt a strong sense of inferiority towards his close friend.
You wouldn’t have just watched on like me back then. You would have thrown care to the wind and attacked the integrity knight in an attempt to save Alice; he thought.
That strength and kindness of Kirito might reach even the heart of the integrity knight, Alice. Of course, Alice as she was now, was a so-called fake with her memories stolen by the highest minister. But… if it was that Kirito, who tried to help Deusolbert and even Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio, who brought him to the verge of death… perhaps……
“——That’s not possible.”
Muttering so, Eugeo forced his stream of thoughts to a stop.
There was no purpose in thinking any further. Upon regaining the «memory fragment» safe kept on the highest floor of the cathedral and returning it to Integrity Knight Alice’s soul, the current Alice would vanish along with all of her memories. And the real Alice, the person most important to Eugeo, would return.
I will embrace the awakened girl tightly and definitely say it this time. That I will protect you… I will protect you forever. That moment will arrive tomorrow, or this night if circumstances allow it.
Hence, there was no need for idle thoughts now, it was the time to do nothing but to advance forth.
Just as the seven o’clock bell rang out in the evening from somewhere in the cathedral, the staircase came to a stop.
That made the count he kept, of the floors passing by, reach a round ten. In other words, this was the ninetieth floor. He had set foot onto the crucial section of the Axiom Church at long last.
No stairs further up could be seen anywhere in the broad hall. There was only a single grand door at the northern wall. There was no mistake that a vast area utilizing the entire floor, like the fiftieth and eightieth floors, lay ahead.
And with that, an enemy stronger than any before must be lying in wait.
—Can I win? All by myself?
Standing still at the end of the hall, Eugeo asked himself. Just how could he fight against someone stronger than Fanatio, who drove Kirito half the way to his death, and Alice, who they were no match for, even as a pair.
However, now that he thought about it, Kirito had took on all of the enemies’ attacks by himself in the battles thus far. Eugeo had hidden behind his partner’s back and merely activated his full control art. Kirito had said that it was the natural strategy considering the natures of their skills, but with him away, Eugeo had no choice but to fight from the start to the end.
Gently caressing the Blue Rose Sword at the left of his waist, he ascertained the sensations of its grip and guard. He could probably use the full control art just one more time, but he couldn’t capture the enemy with the ice tendrils by activating it blindly. He had to first drive the enemy into a corner with pure swordsmanship and create an opening.
With that whisper to his beloved sword, Eugeo brought up his right hand and strongly pushed open the white door.
What immediately closed in were bright lighting, a dense, white smoke, and a dull, unceasing sound.
—Offensive sacred arts!?
Thinking so instinctively, Eugeo tried to jump aside, but noticed the white mist streaming out was not smoke, but steam. His hands and sleeves merely got wet upon contact, there was no pain. He assessed the state of the interior across the swirling heat.
As expected, it was a vast space that expended the entire area of a single cathedral floor. The ceiling countless lamps were fitted onto was high as well, so it likely had a name resembling the «Cloister of Spiritual Light» or «Sky Garden»*, but he didn’t have the means to find it out right now. The floor surface couldn’t be seen through the obstructing steam, but there seemed to be no human presence.
Eugeo took only a few steps into the space and tried to find the source of the steam. When he did, he noticed with his ears, rather than his eyes, the splish-splashing sound of water. There was no mistake that the roaring was of a large quantity of water falling onto water, coming from somewhere far.
That was when cold air flowed in from the still-opened door and swept aside the surrounding steam.
A marble path with a breadth of roughly five mel extended deeper into the space from Eugeo’s position. The sides of the path dipped down with steps and filled there, to the brim, was clear water—no, hot water. It seemed to have a depth of over one mel, and Eugeo couldn’t even begin to imagine how many lil of hot water would it total up to if that filled the entire room.
“…Just, what is this room…”
Eugeo’s hoarse voice leaked out upon the far too unexpected scene.
The temperature of the water was too hot as a pond for rearing fish or other animals and the humidity wasn’t pleasant enough for it be a garden for admiration. It would even be more comfortable to strip down and jump into the hot—
“Ah…… do-don’t tell me…”
After murmuring once again, he knelt down by the side of the pathway and thrust his right hand into the hot water. It was neither hot nor warm, it was at a temperature that Kirito would comment as “a nice water temperature” if he was here.
In other words, this was a gigantic bath.
Without any further words coming from him, Eugeo deeply sighed while kneeling.
His home until two years ago used a rather large tub as a bathtub and by the time Eugeo got into it as the last person, only half of the hot water would have been left. Hence, he got struck dumbfounded the first time he saw the large bath in the academy’s dormitories and wondered how could such a large quantity of hot water be boiled.
However, this bath was on an entirely different level. There would still be space even if all of the apprentices in the Sword Mastery Academy were to get into together. No, of course, the male students couldn’t possibly enter a bath together with the female students, though.
After taking another sigh, Eugeo took the opportunity to wash his two hands in the hot water and stood up, holding back the urge to wash his face too. He started on the marble path likely heading deeper into the space, towards the staircase to the upper floors. No matter how things were, getting assaulted in a bath would simply be too—
Or so he thought before he noticed belatedly.
The path expanded into a circle in the middle of the large space, the large bath. When he approached, Eugeo finally sensed someone’s silhouette beyond the steam hanging over the water surface in front, on the right.
Instinctively jumping back, he placed his hand onto his sword’s grip.
He couldn’t see too well with the steam obstructing, but the other party had a pretty large build. Short hair and unfeminine. Submerged up to his shoulders in the hot water, he was stretching out all four limbs.
The man appeared to be simply bathing rather than lying in wait, but he couldn’t let down his guard. Regardless of the circumstances, that was unmistakably an enemy, so perhaps he should be attempt a preemptive attack while the opponent was still in the water.
It happened when Eugeo quietly slid his beloved sword out from its sheath.
“Sorry, but could ya wait for a bit? I mean, I just got to the capital a moment ago, so my whole body’s stiff from all the flying dragon riding.”
The voice was low and worn-out, but had substance. The speech that was more crude than anyone he encountered in the cathedral unwittingly left him silent. The lack of grandstanding reminded him of the peasants of his home town rather than of a knight.
While Eugeo stayed undecided over his reaction, splashing noises rang out and the steam concealing the gigantic bathtub parted to the left and right.
The owner of the voice had drops of water pouring off his entire body like a waterfall while he got up. With his back to Eugeo, he placed his two hands on his waist and rotated his neck, letting out a sluggish groan. He appeared full of openings, but Eugeo didn’t take a single step with his hand still on his sword.
What a tremendous body. The part below his knees was still under the hot water, but still, it was clear the man measured close to two mel. His iron-gray hair, tinged blue, was trimmed short and exposed his shockingly thick neck. Furthermore, the shoulders it connected to were abnormally broad yet again. His forearm, on the level of a log, must be able to wave swords around with ease, regardless of how heavy they might be.
What drew his eyes the most was his back, covered in layers of muscles. Gorgolosso Baltoh, whom Eugeo served as a valet, could boast of a tempered body as well, but the man in the bath reached new heights of bulkiness. Despite the unlikeness of him being young, there was no slackening around his hips whatsoever.
As his sight was stolen by the man’s standing posture, like the very image of an ancient god of war, Eugeo failed to immediately notice the countless old wounds running across his entire body. Observing properly, he saw that they were all wounds from arrows and blades. Scars, even from severe wounds, shouldn’t remain if treated quickly with high ranking sacred arts, so that meant he must have always been fighting on battlefields which rendered even that act impossible, for long stretches of time.
The man in the bath was, in all likelihood, the one called the Knight Commander.
In other words, the mightiest expert among all of the integrity knights. The greatest hurdle thwarting Eugeo’s path to the top of the Cathedral—
In that case, it would be best to slash and defeat the man while he held no weapon and armor. Kirito would definitely have done that. Even while his mind thought so, Eugeo stayed still.
He couldn’t judge whether the man’s back was full of openings or flawlessly brimming with preparation. He could even imagine the man was luring him into an attack.
Paying no heed to Eugeo’s hesitation, the man finished loosening his body, then began walking north as he parted the hot water. A basket had been placed a little way ahead on the path that seemed to have his clothes in it.
Having taken the steps up and straddled over the edge, the man took undershorts out from the basket and passed them through his legs. Next, he spread open clothes of thin make and wore them. It seemed to be clothes made in the north empire and while wrapping a wide cloth that came with the previous, the man finally turned his face to Eugeo.
“Yo, sorry for the wait.”
He had a firm look that matched the deep, worn-out voice well.
The wrinkle engraved near his mouth likely showed the man was over forty years old when he became an integrity knight, but his cheeks split by his high nose bridge were not slackened in any way. However, what left a deeper impression was the light in his eyes released from beneath his prominent eyebrows.
Despite the lack of what could be constituted as blood-thirst in those pale, light blue eyes, he felt an intense pressure just from facing him from over fifteen mel away. His gaze likely contained only pure interest in the opponent he would now cross swords against, and the rapture of battle itself? The only ones who could look upon an enemy with such eyes have had to possess an absolute confidence in their own swordsmanship. In other words, this man resembled Kirito somehow.
Having finished tying the sash in front of his body, the man turned his right hand to the clothes basket. With that, a longsword gently came out from the bottom of the basket, settling into his burly hand. Carrying it on his shoulder, he began walking on the marble with his wet, bare feet.
Standing still after closing until a mere eight mel or so away from Eugeo, the man rubbed his sturdy chin that had a short beard growing from it and spoke.
“There. Could ya tell me something before we fight?”
“…What is it?”
“Well, that’d be… did the deputy knight commander… did Fanatio die?”
That curt tone, as if asking about the menu for dinner, made Eugeo feel like retorting with a “Aren’t you talking about your deputy?” However, he immediately noticed an awkwardly constructed guise on the man’s expression as he averted his gaze to the side. Despite being truly anxious about it, he seemed averse to revealing that. That, too, brought to mind the partner who wasn’t present.
“…She’s alive. She’s receiving treatment right now… I believe.”
Having heard Eugeo’s reply, the man brazenly let out a sharp breath and nodded.
“I see. I won’t be taking your life then.”
Once again, he was at a loss of words. It was a conceit so immense that it had no room for suspicion over it being a bluff. Self-confidence was a great weapon in its own right, or so Kirito had said, but even he wouldn’t show this much composure in front of a strong enemy. The source of the rock-hard pride belonging to the giant of a man before his eyes was probably impossible for both Kirito and Eugeo to obtain—the experiences of winning through countless fierce battles, enough for every single one of those wounds all over his body.
However, even the count is significantly lower than his, Eugeo had also driven away integrity knights, just like this man, on more than one occasion on the way up here. Showing weakness before they cross swords would be inexcusable to the defeated integrity knights, to Gorgolosso and the academy’s instructors who trained Eugeo, and of course, to his black-haired partner.
Mustering all the fighting spirit he had, Eugeo stared at the man head-on. He spoke with strength to his stomach, for his voice to not quiver.
“I don’t like it.”
With his hand still in the bosom of his oriental clothes, the man let out an amused voice.
“What don’t you, boy?”
“Fanatio-san isn’t the only one of your subordinates, is she? There are Eldrie-san and the «Four Oscillation Blades»… and do you not care whether Alice is dead or alive either?”
“Aah… that’s what you were getting at”
The man looked up and scraped the side of his head with the longsword’s grip held in his left hand.
“I guess it’s like this… Eldrie’s lil’ Alice’s disciple and the Four Oscillation Blades, Dakira, Jeis, Hobren, and Giro, are Fanatio’s disciples. So, that makes Fanatio mine, you see? I’m not one for holding grudges, but at the very least, I’ll take revenge if my disciple gets killed; that’s all to it.”
He broadly grinned, then added on as if it just occurred to him.
“…Well, lil’ Alice might think of me as a mentor, though… honestly now, I don’t know who’d be stronger now in a real fight. It wasn’t that hard six years ago when the lil’ miss just became a knight apprentice, though.”
“Six years ago… a knight apprentice…?”
Forgetting about his retort towards the man for the moment, Eugeo murmured.
Six years ago would mean two years after she was taken away from Rulid. Kirito had taught him that the integrity knights’ names included a «number» in Sacred Tongue as they climbed the stairs and it seemed Alice was thirty, Eldrie was thirty-one, and Deusolbert was seven. It shouldn’t have been that long ago when Alice became a knight, judging from the newness of her number, but—
“…But Alice is thirty… the thirtieth integrity knight, right?”
The man lightly tilted his head at Eugeo’s question, but immediately let out an “aah”.
“Generally, we aren’t in the habit of giving numbers to apprentices. The lil’ miss became thirty last year when she was formally commissioned as a knight. She was more than qualified as one with her capabilities even six years ago, but she was too young and all…”
“But… Fizel and Linel possessed numbers despite being apprentices.”
The instant he heard those names, the man’s mouth distorted as though he just bit down on a bitterbug.
“…It just turned out that way with those pipsqueaks becoming knights. They’re exceptions, getting numbers while still apprentices. —Did you fight those two? Living through that’s surprising in a whole different way from defeating Fanatio.”
“We did get paralyzed by «Ruberyl’s poison steel» and almost got beheaded, though.”
Eugeo considered further while replying.
The man knew Alice when she was a knight apprentice. Hence, Alice had her memories sealed through the «Synthesis Ritual» a whole six years ago… when she was thirteen, it seems. Thereafter, Alice believed herself to be an existence summoned from the Celestial World in order to become an integrity knight and continued living in the cathedral…?
Gazing at Eugeo who sank into silence, the giant man shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, I don’t plan on losing to ya, so I doubt the lil’ miss who’s as strong as me got cut by you. From what I heard from that Chief Elder bastard, you had a partner, huh? If that guy isn’t that, he’s probably going at it with the lil’ miss somewhere, eh?”
“…That’s essentially it.”
After finding himself nodding, Eugeo restored the tight grip on his sword. He couldn’t help but to have his animosity chipped away by the man’s speech, but this was no situation to lose his focus. Concentrating his two eyes further, he cried out a taunt.
“By the way, who will be the next to exact vengeance on me after I cut you?”
“Hehe, don’t worry. There’s no master of mine around.”
He grinned and gently drew the longsword from his shoulder with his right hand. He carelessly stuck the scabbard left over into his sash with his left hand.
The slightly blackened, bulky blade was meticulously polished, but the infinite amount of old blemishes faintly remaining over its entire length glittered in the illumination shining in from the ceiling. The guard and grip appeared to be made from the same quality of metal as the blade, but unlike the sacred tools wield by the integrity knights he had fought thus far, not even a single splendid decoration adorned them.
That said, it was clear that was no weapon to look down upon, even from afar. It must have taken a considerable amount of blood over an endless period of time, with a sort of presence coiling about the dark-gray blade.
Eugeo, too, drew his beloved sword out from the sheath at the left of his waist while taking in a sharp, thin breath. It wasn’t in its full control state, but its pale-blue blade let out a faint chill, perhaps responding to its owner’s tension, forming flickering crystals of ice in the surrounding steam.
In a gallant motion that suited that fine body, the man pulled back his right leg while holding the sword in his right hand near vertical and visibly lowered his waist. It resembled the stance for the Norkia-style’s secret move, «Lightning Flash Slash», but differed slightly. Setting the sword that straight would result in a need for excessive movement in order to activate that skill.
Eugeo took the stance for the Aincrad-style’s secret move, «Sonic Leap», with that consideration.
As far as Eugeo knew, the mysterious Aincrad style, with its own practitioner, his partner, Kirito, had skill names in Sacred Tongue for all of its secret moves. The Sacred Tongue was a holy language passed down onto the Axiom Church’s originator by the three goddesses during the creation of the world, with no dictionary for it in the Sword Mastery Academy’s library—or even the castles the four emperors resided within, according to what he had heard from the instructors.
Knowledge on the meaning behind its vocabulary was restricted to those used in sacred art rituals. Hence, even Eugeo, who studied diligently in the academy, knew only the meaning for words like «element» or «generate» from the limited vocabulary.
However, despite how he lost all of his previous memories before appearing in Rulid Forest two years ago, Kirito seemed to have known of bits of Sacred Tongue that Eugeo didn’t. The vocabulary used in the secret moves’ names were no exception; he said Sonic Leap had the meaning of «jumping at the speed of sound». He didn’t know exactly how fast sound travelled, but it was a mighty skill that lived up to its name, shooting forth or back a long distance of ten mel with ridiculous vigor. A preemptive attack was effectively secured if it was activated when the enemy took the first step to shorten the gap.
A fresh vertical wrinkle engraved itself upon the man’s brows when he saw Eugeo, tension released from his body and his sword placed on his right shoulder.
“Now that’s one uncommon stance, boy. …You don’t happen to practice the Continual Sword, do you?”
The moment he heard that subdued question, Eugeo drew a sharp breath.
To be specific, the Sonic Leap Eugeo was going to execute was a single-hit secret move. However, it was the same as the consecutive hit skills at the core of the Aincrad style, in terms of how they did not exist in the styles passed down in the Human World. As expected, this man was no average person, to see through that from a single stance.
However, even if he had guessed that Eugeo used consecutive hit skills, he shouldn’t be able to perceive the boundaries of the Aincrad style. As long as the man hadn’t fought Kirito before he had lost his memory.
“…How does it matter even if I use the consecutive hit skills?”
Upon replying in a low voice, the man snorted.
“Nah, there were just some among those darkness knights in the Dark Territory who use the Continual Sword too, and I fought them loads of times. Those aren’t really good memories… after all, those of us on this side can’t use any of those fancy fluid skills at all, ya know?”
“…Are you asking me to fight with a traditional style?”
“No, no, whether it’s the Continual Sword or whatever else, I don’t care what it is, go ahead. I’m not saying this is to compensate for that or anything, but I’ll be starting with my trump card too.”
After twisting one side of his lips into a grin, the man thrust up the longsword, wielded straight in his right hand, even higher.
Eugeo’s breath was taken away once more immediately after. The weathered grey blade vibrated like a heat haze. He thought it was due to the steam flowing through the large bath, but no matter how hard he squinted, he could only perceive it as the longsword itself losing its solidity.
—Could it be that that sword is already in its full control state?
He frantically pondered while in the stance for the secret move.
He might had only been taught the «armament full control art» by the mysterious sage, Cardinal, recently, but he had already gained a relatively good understanding over this secret art through the multiple cases of actual combat.
It resemble secret moves in how it granted the sword a stronger strength, but in the end, the full control art was a sacred art, so that made an incantation necessary. As such, that permitted momentarily maintaining a standby state in between chanting the main body of the art and activating it with the ending line, “enhance armament“, like normal sacred arts.
The amount of time the activation standby state for sacred arts can be maintained was influenced by the user’s character and experience. Eugeo could maintain it for several minutes if he closed his mouth and focused his mind, but Kirito had shown he could hold the art while conversing with that astounding concentration he had at times like this.
He still had no idea what sort of skill the full control art of the giant man before him was, but it was evident he was quite an expert, simply judging from how he could hold a long conversation during the activation standby state. In comparison, Eugeo had no time to start chanting the art now and one way or another, the ice roses art could not exhibit its true abilities in this space filled with hot water.
In that case, he had only one path. He could only hit the man with Sonic Leap in the gap created by him executing a secret move—or activating his full control art, and conclude the battle. The opponent should be expecting Eugeo’s attack to be a consecutive hit skill, so it was unlikely he could react to a leaping attack at extremely high speed.
Determined, Eugeo put all of his focus into his two eyes and observed the entirely of the man.
The distance was approximately eight mel.
The Norkia style, as well as the school above it, the High Norkia style, had no skill that could reach from this range. So, if the man intended to swing his sword from the position he stood at without moving, the «trump card» he mentioned must be a armament full control art along the lines of extending his slash’s reach. He would have to evade that somehow and end this with a single counterattack.
As Eugeo envisioned, the man continued standing in that spot and slowly held the sword, kept vertical with his right arm, aloft. His mouth lost its smile and released a roar that shook the entire large bath.
“I am the commander of the integrity knights—Bercouli Synthesis One!!”
Where have I heard of that name—that thought flashed through his mind for an instant, but Eugeo discarded his idle thoughts and focused entirely on discerning the enemy’s skill.
A heavy thud roared out, the man who named himself as the knight commander stamped his left foot onto the marble pavement. The surrounding steam scattered away at once.
Those burly waist, chest, shoulders, and arms turned in a dreadful and rapid, yet composed movement. The sword raised straight first fell to the right, then swung horizontally. Eugeo felt it to be the ultimate form of the sword skills passed down among the traditional styles. A motion that could only be realized through training over an extensive stretch of time, both formless and perfected.
However, all traditional sword skills possessed a common weakness. As a consequence of the «form» being far too grand, the attack’s trajectory becomes predictable. By the time the knight commander’s sword began to slice apart the white vapor horizontally, Eugeo had already jumped forth, towards the left. That should be enough to narrowly evade any offense the sword had launched in its full control state, whatever it could have been.
The air quivered near his right ear. But he felt neither pain nor impact.
—I dodged it!
Assured of that, Eugeo activated the secret move, Sonic Leap, on his next step.
His sword wore a green radiance tinged with yellow at his shout. His entire self accelerated, pushed by an unseen force, and Eugeo became a gust of wind, charging towards the knight commander who had swung his sword.
Behind him, the air pressure from the sword that he previously dodged hit the door to the large bath and let out a loud—
Nothing rang out. He couldn’t sense the slightest vibration.
Was the slash that the knight commander should have launched really that fast? Or perhaps it vanished before reaching the door behind?
Impossible. If that was true, the armament full control art of the knight commander, the man who should be stronger than Deusolbert and Fanatio, would be inferior to even Eldrie’s full control art, despite how he had only became a knight a mere one month ago. Eldrie’s «Frost Scale Whip» attack was as quick as lightning, reaching as far as several ten mel.
That couldn’t be possible. In that case, was the knight commander’s skill not a far-range type of attack? But in actual fact, Eugeo hadn’t received a single bit of damage.
If that was the case, the man had only executed a practice swing? A display of form, no different from what the students performed during the Sword Mastery Academy’s examinations.
—Is he making a fool out of me?
—Or perhaps he thought he could scare off some kid who’s still attending school with just a single practice swing?
The core of his head burned up the instant he felt that.
He was slow to notice, as a result.
There was something directly in front of the man who just swung his sword, in Eugeo’s path as he rushed forward while leaving behind a line of light from the secret move. A transparent fluctuation horizontally cut through the air. Much like the heat haze that enveloped the man’s sword right before he began that slash.
—That spot’s… where his practice swing cut through earlier…
A profound chill ran down his back. Although he instinctively attempted to interrupt his charge, a secret move couldn’t be stopped that easily once activated. He drew back his sword and scrapped his right foot against the floor, but his speed merely fell slightly and—
Eugeo’s body immediately came into contact with the heat haze that remained in midair.
A scorching hot impact surged through his left breast to his right armpit. Eugeo was blown away like an old rag flapping in a squall, swung around several times as he fluttered in the air. A large quantity of blood drew a spiral as they flowed out from the deep injury carved in his chest.
He fell back-first into the bath on the left of the pathway. A water sprout rose high and the surroundings were dyed in crimson the moment that settled down.
He spewed out the hot water that made their way into his throat and that spray, too, was tinged red. It appeared part of his injuries had reached his lungs. If he hadn’t killed some of that momentum, despite the slight amount it had been, immediately before crashing into that heat haze, it wouldn’t be strange even for his body to be slashed into two now.
“System… call. Generate… luminous element…”
His body floating in the bath, he chanted a healing art in disconnected streams. Fortunately, he was surrounded by a large quantity of warm water. They should possess an amount of sacred power significantly more than what cold water had. That said, Eugeo couldn’t completely treat a wound that severe in a such short period of time with his capabilities, though.
The knight commander standing on the pathway calmly looked down upon Eugeo as he somehow succeeded in stopping the flow of blood and roused his body in his lightheadedness. He had already slipped his sword into the scabbard on the left of his waist and thrust his right arm into the breast of his clothes.
“That was pretty dangerous, I mean, I didn’t think you were going to rush in at a speed like that. Sorry ’bout that, almost killed you there.”
Those words lacked urgency even now, but Eugeo couldn’t find the strength to rebut any longer and forced out a hoarse voice from his hurting lungs.
“Wh… what was that… skill…”
“I did say I’d be using my trump card. I didn’t just slash the air with some practice swing, yeah? In a sense… I slashed the future of a little later.”
It took a little while for him to realize any tangible meaning from the knight commander’s words. The wound that throbbed, as though ice was pushed purely against the spot despite the surrounding hot water, robbed him of his thoughts.
—The future… was slashed?
That certainly was a valid description for that phenomenon.
There was no mistake that Eugeo activated Sonic Leap after the knight commander had swung his sword. However, as if the sword had assaulted him from the past, Eugeo suffered from a deep gash the moment he touched the trajectory of that slash.
No— To put it more accurately, it should said that the force behind that sword slash remained in midair. Eugeo did see something like a heat haze wavering in the air before he was blown away.
The «right place» and the «right time» were necessary for a sword slash to hit. The sword would miss the enemy if either the place or time were off.
In all likelihood, the knight commander’s full control art extended the latter of those conditions, time. Power remained within the trajectory even after the sword had been swung. To say it in another way—it slashed the enemy in that position of the future.
It was the most plain, appearance-wise, among the armament full control arts the knights he had faced thus far commanded, but still, this was a horrifying ability. Anywhere that sword passed through would be converted into a lethal domain. The «extent» of which would far exceed the duration of continuous slashes that consecutive hit skills boasted of. Close combat of sword versus sword would be practically impossible.
—Then I’ll have to bring this into a far range battle?
Even if the knight commander’s full control art could extend time, it couldn’t lengthen the slashes’ range. In comparison, the range of the «ice tendrils» brought forth by Eugeo’s full control art exceeded thirty mel.
The question was whether the Blue Rose Sword could exhibit its original potential in this place with much hot water. At the very least, he would have to be prepared for a little delay on its effect after activation. In other words, he would need to draw the enemy in to a range such that it wouldn’t be possible to escape beyond the range of the ice tendrils art even if its nature was seen through.
It would be tough, but there was no choice.
Steeling himself for the sink-or-swim bout, Eugeo touched his breast with his left hand. A shocking, sharp pain ran through, but it seemed the wound wouldn’t open even if he moved for a bit. Of course, it was far from fully healed and his Life likely reduced by over thirty percent, but he could still stand and even swing his sword.
Merging his voice into the roaring noises of water coming from the spouts installed in the four corners of the bath, Eugeo began chanting the art. An expert like the knight commander couldn’t possibly miss that, but rather than obstructing the chant, he even dared to continue chatting leisurely on the pathway with his arms folded, as though granting Eugeo the time.
“The first time I saw the darkness knights’ Continual Sword was practically right after I got my duties as an integrity knight, ya know? I got hit so hard at first I couldn’t even make a sound. I ran back in panic, then thought about why I lost with this crappy brain of mine for quite some time.”
The scar on his chin the knight commander rubbed with his fingertips was from that time, perhaps.
“Well, it’s not too hard when you think about it. Main point is, compared to the swordsmanship my body had been immersed in, going one-mindedly after the might of a single strike, the Continual Sword goes for the obvious path of blocking the enemy’s hits and succeeding in one’s own, that was all to it. I don’t have to point out which is more practical. No matter how powerful a strike it is, it’s just like a little breeze blew back if it doesn’t hit, yeah…”
The ends of his lips twisted and he took a short, audible breath.
“—But even if I figured out that much, I’m not so good that I could just start learning the Continual Sword right away, you see. Man, if the highest minister was summoning an integrity knight, she should have picked some guy with a little more flexibility.”
Eugeo frowned at those words as he continued chanting.
As expected, the man who named himself the knight commander had the memories before he became an integrity knight erased as well. However, even if he himself were to lose those memories, would it be possible for every single person in the world, without exception, to forget about someone with such proficiency with the greatsword? Ever since the man stated his name so grandly earlier, Eugeo himself had felt an itch in a corner of his mind, as though it reminded him of someone.
Bercouli Synthesis One. That should have been what the man called himself.
He had definitely heard of that name somewhere. A champion of the Four Empire Unity Tournament, or perhaps some general of the imperial knight orders.
Behaving as though Eugeo’s fixed gaze on his face and the art he composed in a whisper didn’t bother him in the slightest, the knight commander continued talking, detached from the situation.
“And so, I racked my poor brain and thought about how I could hit the enemy with my sword. And this guy’s the answer.”
He made a metallic sound with the crude sword that was entirely steel blue, still in its scabbard.
“This sword was originally part of a sacred tool called a «clock» that was mounted on the Central Cathedral’s wall, see. The «Time-telling Bell» in the same place now tells the time through sound, but that clock-thing had a huge needle pointing at numbers arranged in a round long ago, ya know. I mean, it was something that existed since the world was created… the highest minister called it the «System Clock»… or something strange like that, I think.”
It might have been Sacred Tongue, but those words rang no bell to Eugeo. The same went for that «clock» that seemed to have been in Common Tongue. Knight Commander Bercouli’s eyes narrowed as though he was peeking into the past long ago and moved his mouth once again.
“Quoting the minister, ‘The clock does not merely display the time, it creates it.’… she said. I had practically no idea what that meant, though. Anyway, this guy’s from forging that clock’s needle into a sword. In contrast with lil’ Alice’s «Fragrant Olive Sword» cutting through space horizontally, this guy pierces through time vertically. Its name is «Time Piercing Sword»… the sword that pierces through time.”
He found it difficult to form a tangible image of the tool called the clock, but Eugeo somehow understood what the knight commander tried to convey. The force brought forth the instant the sword was swung apparently did possess the ability to bypass time and maintain itself, in actual fact. If that was possible, there was absolutely no need to link multiple slashes together like in the Aincrad style. When asking for the reason why consecutive hit skills use consecutive hits, that would be no other than to stretch out the duration of the slashes. If Bercouli’s Time Piercing Sword combined the offensive ability of single-hit skills and the accuracy of consecutive hit skills, that sword style would be peerless. As long as it was within range, that is.
As aptly put by Bercouli himself, there was only one method to counter it. He could only fight, utilizing the extent of space, rather than time.
And the same moment Eugeo thought so, the knight commander grinned.
“So you’ll have to attack from a distance, that’s what you thought, right? The same went for those who saw my skill, every single one of them.”
He was startled by his thoughts being read, but he couldn’t very well cease his chanting now. He might have predicted that Eugeo would commence a far-range attack, but he should have had no means to ascertain the skill’s nature. Whether he understood what Eugeo thought in his mind or not, the knight commander lightly shrugged his shoulders.
“Including Fanatio and Alice, those integrity knights summoned after myself tended to choose full control arts with long range because they saw my skill… there were definitely some who did it because of that. But I’ll say this first; I’ve never lost a single match against those guys. Anyone who defeats me would be as good as the new knight commander from then now, after all. Well, lil’ Alice might do me in sooner or later, though. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it too. I wonder just what is that skill of yours that drove off those guys one after another.”
“…Relaxed, aren’t you.”
Having finished chanting the art several seconds ago, Eugeo muttered so without thinking. However, perhaps because of his tension, the full control art remained on standby within Eugeo without getting annulled.
It seemed Bercouli really did give that long-winded speech in order to grant Eugeo the time to chant his full control art. He likely had the confidence to crush it on his first encounter, whatever skill it was.
And although he hated to admit it, even if the ice roses art were to capture Bercouli, he had absolutely no confidence he could shave his Life away like this. In the first place, it was an art specialized in stopping the opponent’s movement. No, even that would not succeed for sure with that man as the target. He could probably rob him of his freedom for several seconds at most. The way he used that time would decide the flow of the battle.
With drops of water trickling down his whole body, Eugeo got up from the bath. Climbing the mere three marble steps at the side was enough to make the chest wound throb. Suffering another attack of the same level would likely leave him without even the strength to heal.
“Heh-heh, you coming, boy? Let me say this first, I won’t be holding back anymore.”
Firmly gripping the metal handle of the Time Piercing Sword worn in his clothes’ sash, the knight commander smiled broadly.
Atop the pathway, twenty mel apart, Eugeo also held his Blue Rose Sword forward. The blade in its standby state was already mildly clad in ice, forming ice crystals in the drifting steam around it.
Kirito would likely retort with some comment in such a situation, but his mouth was parched and seemed hardly capable of moving fluidly. Taking in a deep breadth, Eugeo cautiously muttered the concluding phrase of the armament full control art.
Byuu! A cold wave swirled around his feet and swept out in all directions. Eugeo thrust his beloved sword he held with a reverse grip into the stone floor with all he had.
The moisture that made the marble’s smooth surface wet froze over like a mirror in an instant. Making noises like cracking wood, the icy wave plunged forward towards Bercouli at the front.
Despite the pathway having a breath of approximately five mel, the freezing wave brought forth by the Blue Rose Sword stretched close to ten mel. Layers of ice extended out over the pools filled with hot water at the sides as well, but as expected, their advance was sluggish due to the heat. However, this was no longer any time for excuses.
Shifting all of his mental focus on his right hand, Eugeo gripped the sword tighter than ever. With a solid roar, countless rose thorns, rather than tendrils, reached out from the frosty floor.
Those changed to thick icicles in the blink of an eye and their sharp ends gleamed all over the pathway while rushing towards Bercouli, gliding across the ground. However, the knight commander’s mouth merely stiffened up slightly, moving no more after lowering his waist in that same position. It appeared he hadn’t the slightest intention of escaping into the baths at the sides.
Eugeo steeled his resolve upon seeing that standing figure, like a guarded fortress. He wasn’t an opponent that one could defeat without putting one’s life on the line.
Pulling the Blue Rose Sword from the ground, he began chasing after the ranks of ice spears. His aim was the instant of vulnerability that the tens of spears might create as Bercouli intercept them.
He likely spotted the dashing Eugeo as well, but the knight commander didn’t show the slightest speck of distress. He opened his legs wide apart and sent strength into the sword held at the left of his waist.
Accompanying the deep yell was a single, brutal slice. The ranks of spears had yet to reach and the blade slashed horizontally through the empty air, but the Time Piercing Sword severs the future.
Half a second later, the numerous icicles all shattered simultaneously with loud, shrill screams of “gashaan”. Not a single one made its way through the slash Bercouli left behind a moment ago. The knight commander returned his sword into an upper stance with a hateful nonchalance and prepared for Eugeo’s follow-up.
However, Eugeo had finally gotten within reach of the enemy and brandished the weapon in his right hand up high. The many floating, miniscule shards of ice reflected the light from the ceiling, but the same went for his opponent.
The two screams rang out together.
The light-blue trajectory Eugeo’s sword drew confronted the dark-gray one drawn by Bercouli’s sword.
In the next moment.
The sword Eugeo held shattered with a fleeting shriek.
Bercouli’s two eyes widened slightly. He must have been shocked at the lack of resistance. Eugeo’s right hand, too, felt nearly none of the impact when the sword smashed into pieces.
That was only natural. Eugeo had thrown away the Blue Rose Sword he held towards the right immediately before he began rushing in, breaking of an icicle to serve as a replacement sword.
Bercouli’s downwards slash had been one for repelling Eugeo’s sword. He would have been overpowered and pushed backwards if the sword hadn’t been made from ice. However, the icicle held in his right hand shattered with no resistance at all and Eugeo kept the momentum from his charge and slipped past the enemy’s sword, plunging towards his chest.
Rotating his body with that second yell, he rammed hard into the knight commander’s abdomen with his left shoulder. It was a secret move named Meteor Break, from the Aincrad style’s «martial arts». The skill’s meaning was a «crushing meteor». It didn’t fully activate due to the lack of a sword, but with center of gravity unsettled by the unexpected strike and his massive frame fluttered into the air.
This would have normally continued with a horizontal slash towards the right, but Eugeo spread out his two arms and joined them around the knight commander’s waist instead.
Even the huge man couldn’t help but to have his stance broken by the twofold plan that threw his upper torso greatly off balance. This was the first and final chance.
Erasing the pain from his wound with that roar, Eugeo wrung every bit of strength from his entire body and threw himself into the bath on the right with the knight commander. Bercouli tried to brace himself with his left foot, but his bare foot slid atop the frosted floor. Following the floating sensation his body felt, the impact from landing on water shook through to the injury on his chest.
However, that was a trifling affair compared to the blinding chill that enveloped his whole body.
While Eugeo maintained his hold, a third cry of surprise escaped from Bercouli. The boiling hot water in the bath just several minutes ago had turned into cold water on the verge of freezing without his notice. His amazement was only natural.
While holding down the giant, who tried to stand, with his left hand, Eugeo searched the bottom of the bath with his right. I should have thrown it around—
Aided by half by his accurate calculations and half by good fortune, his fingertips touched the grip of his familiar, beloved sword.
Immediate after, Bercouli tried to stand, shaking Eugeo off with all his might.
And a sheer moment before that, Eugeo stabbed the Blue Rose Sword into the bottom of the bath and shouted.
This was what would decide the battle.
All that the Blue Rose Sword cooled down was a mere portion of the hot water filling the gigantic bath. There were still much hot water around them. It would likely take tens of minutes for ten sacred arts users to freeze it all, even if they generate cryogenic elements continuously. But he had no choice.
The armament full control art was an art that awakened a mighty power that was originally impossible by releasing the sword’s memories.
The mysterious sage, Cardinal, was the one who said so. In order to compose the full control art for the Blue Rose Sword and the black sword, she had Eugeo and Kirito pursue the memories of their respective swords.
The sacred tool Eugeo possessed, the Blue Rose Sword, was originally a mass of ice enshrined at the top of the tallest mountain in the northern mountain range. It was cold there even during the peak of summer and the ice had never thawed throughout the year, but at the same time, not a single living being approached. The eternal mass of ice spent tens of years in isolation.
However, in a certain spring, the wind blowing through the mountain range dropped off a little seed right next to the eternal mass of ice. The ice melted itself day after day, trickling the meager water it created onto the seed. The seed eventually budded and a flower bud swelled out, enduring the intense cold, with that modest, yet beautiful flower blooming with the onset of summer. It was bluer than the skies of the north, a single rose.
Delighted that it finally had a friend, the eternal mass of ice spent each and every day conversing with the rose. But on a day after even autumn passed by, the blue rose spoke thusly. I cannot endure the cold of winter. So, it will soon be our time to part, it said.
The ice lamented. Its tears ran at the sorrow of losing its first friend and its body diminished. Looking upon the ice in that state, the blue rose spoke again. Wouldn’t you shut me away within you before I wither away unseemly? Even if I were to lose my life then, my form will forever remain.
The eternal mass of ice granted the blue rose’s wish. Spending its all to move into the puddle of water its tears made, it nestled close to the blue rose, then prayed. Freeze, freeze, freeze for all of eternity, it prayed. That prayer was strong, so strong that even the ice had its heart frozen solid.
By the time the blue rose laid down its life within the ice, the ice, too, spoke or thought no more. All that remained on the intensely cold summit was the ice, whittled narrow like a sword as all of its tears flowed, and a single blue rose shut away within it.
That might have been the dream Eugeo saw in the Great Library Room. He had absolutely no idea how crudely shaped ice could turn into an actual sword or how it moved to the underground cave from the summit and got protected by the white dragon, and in the first place, he doubted some mere mass of ice or rose could possess hearts.
However, even if it was a dream, the ice’s plea remained vividly within Eugeo. To freeze everything; the sorrow; the pain; even their lives and time—it prayed.
…Grant me power, Blue Rose Sword!
A new cry came from Eugeo’s mouth the moment he strongly wished for that.
The second stage of the armament full control art. The ceremonial phrase to release all of the strength slumbering within the sword, the command to «release its memories». Cardinal had said it was too early for Eugeo to use it, but now—it would work now and only now.
The sword in his right hand shook violently.
Immediately after, numerous rigid cracking noises reverberated throughout the whole of the huge bath like countless panes of glass shattering. With Eugeo’s right hand as the nexus, a bluish-white circle of light expanded at high speed. Any hot water that came in contact with that instantaneously froze, remaining in the form of a ripple.
Despite how the whole of the vast bath had been frozen pure white, it had merely been several seconds. Eugeo gasped at the absurd chill engulfing his entire body that was now rendered utterly immobile. It wouldn’t be this cold even if he stood stark naked in Rulid Forest in the dead of winter. He wouldn’t even be able to tell if it was ice on his skin, or scorching iron, if he were to close his eyes.
He wanted to wipe away the white frost clinging to his eyebrows, but he held down Bercouli with his left hand deep in the bath and kept his reverse grip on the Blue Rose Sword with his right, both firmly stuck where they were. Reluctantly blinking with all he had and shaking off the ice crystals, Eugeo confirmed the enemy’s state through the dense mist.
Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli had half of his neck sunk within the ice. Due to his attempt to get up a moment ago, both his left hand and his right hand, that should had been holding onto the Time Piercing Sword, were deep in the bath, near the bottom. With that, he could move no longer, just like Eugeo.
Brittle chimes ringing out from the small icicles hanging off his eyebrows and hair, the knight commander groaned.
“I didn’t think there would actually be a swordsman who would throw his sword away in front of an enemy… You’re the one who came up with this fighting style?”
“…No. My partner taught it to me. That everything in a battlefield can be used as a weapon or a trap.”
Eugeo somehow replied with his mouth stiffened from the excess cold. Bercouli momentarily closed his eyes and mouth as though he was thinking about something, but soon showed a brazen grin. Loose fragments of ice fell from his mouth.
“Hmm, I get it. Using what’s there, huh… Well, I’ll admit you got one up on me, but I can’t just lose like this.”
He took in a breath and held it.
What could he be planning at a time like this; that weighed down on Eugeo’s mind. He would have to immediately prepare a counter in the off-chance of him starting a chant for a sacred art.
Bercouli’s light blue eyes flashed open. From the space between his teeth, bared like a beast, a ear-piercing shout rang out.
Numerous thick blood vessels surfaced upon the knight commander’s brow at once. Several bunches of muscles stood out on his slightly exposed neck, dying his skin bright red.
Eugeo couldn’t help but to let out that surprised cry. Bercouli was recklessly attempting to break through the thick ice with the strength of his muscles alone.
That couldn’t be possible. Even with unrestricted movement and sufficient space, a mass of ice of such thickness should be difficult to shatter with bare hands. Let alone with the knight commander’s current condition, stuck in place without even a hair’s breadth to move.
Those clenched white teeth grinded together, producing a noise like creaking steel. Those blue eyes wore an intense brilliance, as though they radiated light themselves.
Despite engulfed in a chill below freezing point, a shiver beyond that stroked along Eugeo’s spine.
Right after which a faint, yet decisive noise rang out.
A crack was produced in the ice separating the pair. Another diverged from that. And continuing on, yet another.
Eugeo was once again forced to understand that the giant man before his eyes was no mere human. He was one who stood on the summit beyond the valiant group of integrity knights picked from the best swordsmen among the four empires—the strongest man of the Human World. He had probably spent a hundred or two years’ worth of time in the midst of battle; a living legend.
A battle against such a foe did not allow for even an instant of negligence. Eugeo had never really believed the battle could end just by freezing the enemy and himself in ice, from the very beginning. His true aim lay beyond—to force it into a mutual struggle for Life.
Firmly holding his beloved sword by its grip below the ice, with it still in its recollection released state now, Eugeo sharpened his senses.
If the memory Eugeo had seen proved true, the Blue Rose Sword possessed a slightly different origin when compared to Kirito’s black sword, the knight commander’s Time Piercing Sword, or Fanatio’s Heaven Piercing Sword. That would be how there were two existences who served as the roots for the sword. The eternal mass of ice and the single rose shut away within it.
The mass of ice’s ability froze everything and anything. And the rose’s ability—made life blossom.
Responding to Eugeo’s scream, countless flower buds came to life on the ice surface. They opened apart while rotating, spreading out blue, razorlike petals that were faintly translucent.
Led by a single rose, blooming with a chime resembling that of a bell, countless—beyond several hundreds—roses bloomed one after another. It was an extraordinarily beautiful, yet ruthless sight. After all, these enormous roses were only fully bloomed by absorbing Eugeo’s and Bercouli’s Lives.
Energy left his limbs and even his vision began to darken. He no longer had any tactile sensation from the ice on his skin, let alone the chill. He could only allow the paralyzing numbness engulf his entire body.
Powerful as he was, even Bercouli would now have had the strength needed to smash the ice prison sapped away from the root; his red-hot skin visibly turning white, its color draining away. The composure vanished from his manly facial features for the first time since the battle began.
“You rascal… don’t tell me you’ve been aiming for a draw… since the start, boy?”
“Don’t… get me wrong.”
Giving his all to lift his increasingly heavy eyelids, Eugeo forced out a hoarse voice.
“There is only one thing I have a hope of winning you in… That is… our amounts of Life. Fanatio-san sustained nearly the same amount of injuries as my partner and they collapsed at the same time… in other words, even if you integrity knights don’t die from old age, your amount of Life is no different from ours… am I right…?
Even as his mouth moved, sparkling beads of light flowed out from the ice roses that continued blooming. The fact that he hadn’t been hearing the thunderous roar of hot water pouring down for a while now must have been proof that even those spouts were frozen.
Thick ice had already encased both Bercouli and Eugeo without anyone’s notice, leaving alone only the center of their faces. If their Stacia Windows were to be opened, one should be able to witness their Lives reducing at a terrifying rate. Enduring the growing impulse to sleep, Eugeo desperately continued speaking.
“…Based on your appearances, you must have been over forty when you became an integrity knight… naturally, your maximum Life must have went down. In comparison, my Life have been approaching its maximum… even if I suffered a single sword blow, I should still have more. That was what I bet on.”
Bercouli’s two eyes flashed open hardly any time after Eugeo finished speaking. His whole face distorted severely, breaking the icicles hanging from his brow and nose all at once.
“Boy… what was that just now?”
Despite how difficult it must be to continue maintaining his consciousness in such a situation, an intense light surfaced in the knight commander’s eyes.
“Became an integrity knight… you said…? Why are ya mouthing off like ya know what we were like in our last lives?”
Eugeo blinked once before scraping together what strength he had left and replied.
“That’s… what I can’t forgive about the lot of you.”
The strong emotions swelling from the depths of his mind made him forget about the despair his whole body was in, even if it was for a mere instant.
“Forgetting all about who you were… dedicating your sword to the Axiom Church without even knowing its true form… putting on that facade that insists that you’re justice, that you’re the one who enforces the law. …You aren’t some holy knight summoned from the Celestial World by the highest minister. Your mother gave birth to you and gave you the name, Bercouli, you’re a human just like me!”
It happened then, in the particular moment when he shouted that out—
Eugeo finally recalled «who» was the giant man in front of his eyes.
The overwhelming surprise squeezed a short gasp from him. Bercouli… that was the name of that individual who appeared in that old story he heard from his grandfather when he was young. The renowned swordsman who founded Rulid Village three hundred years ago and became the first guard leader. The hero who went exploring the cave at the mountain range at the edge and tried to steal a precious sword from the sleeping white dragon’s side… the Blue Rose Sword Eugeo was holding onto right now.
He pondered if this was a descendant of the original Bercouli, bearing the same name, but refuted that instantly. The integrity knights, who have had their natural reduction of Life frozen, would not age. In other words, this was the man himself. The main character of that fairy tale, “Bercouli and the White Dragon of the North”, he loved as a child… and one that he could recall no longer than that summer Alice was taken away, was now before Eugeo’s eyes. With his memories of his time in Rulid lost, and as an integrity knight.
Recovering, somehow, from the ephemeral yet immense shock, Eugeo spoke in faltering words.
“…Bercouli. You… should remember seeing my sword somewhere.”
The Blue Rose Sword, now with all the strength it held awakened, continued shining a cold light roughly ten cen beneath the ice surface.
The commander of the integrity knights, also the main character of that fairy tale from three hundred years ago, lowered his gaze to glance into the ice. His burly chin went rigid and he forced out a hoarse voice from between his clench teeth. However, Bercouli’s words betrayed Eugeo’s expectations.
“…That’s right… somewhere… —Back then… that time…”
His once-closed eyelids gently raised and the integrity knight commander spoke.
“—A sword like that was in the nest when I killed the guardian dragon of the north…”
Assault by another wave of shock, he blurted out his words, the thought of the chill freezing over his entire body momentarily leaving him.
“You killed… it…?”
The scene Alice and him witnessed when they explored the northern cave together eight years ago resurfaced in his mind.
Those countless, giant bones stacked up in that spacious area at the heart of the cave. Sharp wounds were carved into them from all angles. Injuries caused by neither the tusk nor nails of beasts, but by a sword swung by human hands.
“Those dragon bones… You’re the one who did that…? You… even killed the… dragon who appeared in your own story…?”
Not restraining the feverish emotions welling up in his chest despite the cold cutting through his whole body, Eugeo viciously shook his head. Something ran from his two eyes as well, blurring his vision.
“So you’ve truly forgotten… anything and everything… Bercouli, you’re a hero who everybody knew about in the village I grew up in, Rulid, whether they’re old or young. You made the long and harsh journey to the north from the central and founded a village in the wild lands, you’re our ancestor. The highest minister captured you, sealed away your memories, and made you the first integrity knight. You aren’t the only one, Fanatio-san’s the same, Eldrie-san too, and even Alice… it happened to everyone. Before they were made into integrity knights, everyone were the same as us… every one of them was human…”
“Sealed away… my memories, you say…?”
Bercouli’s eyes, that had proved utterly unwavering throughout the battle, lost their focus as though they were looking towards somewhere far away. A soft voice, barely audible, streamed out from his mouth that lost its strength.
“……I can’t quite believe in your story so easily… But… I also thought… the story about me being summoned from the Celestial World as a knight of the gods… didn’t cut it for a long time…”
All of Bercouli’s strength had already left him since some time ago. Frost settled in layers over his manly features once again. The tears flowing down Eugeo’s cheeks, too, froze before long and they were absorbed into the layer of ice encroaching over his face, vanishing.
The fairy tale he had heard countless times since he was young, of Bercouli and the white dragon. The reality that the hero who served as its lead had killed the dragon who served as the other main character brought an indescribable sense of loss and futility to Eugeo.
The highest minister, Administrator, had strength far beyond what he could imagine. After all, she could manipulate even some great swordsmen with ease, turning them into her loyal knights. She might not have been an existence two mere swordsmen-in-training could have hoped to deal with in the first place. The highest minister… and the Axiom Church too.
Eugeo sensed, somewhere in his head, that barely any of his Life that the ice roses continued absorbing remained within himself. Bercouli was the same. Those half-open, bluish-gray eyes beyond the frost had nearly all of its light vanquished.
—It’s a tie?
The moment he thought so, a minor spark flickered to life in the depths of his chest, the desire to not fall here and now. But he couldn’t even move a finger. The strength began to gently leave his right hand, gripping onto the Blue Rose Sword under the ice…
It was then.
“Ho-hooo, sublime, simply sublime.”
A grating voice, like scratching a fork across a metal plate with strength, rang widely throughout the large bath.
Eugeo moved his hazy eyes and saw a queerly formed silhouette swaying along the pathway as it approached.
It should be a human, but excessively round for one. Its torso, that swelled out in a perfect circle, had comically short limbs attached to it. Its neck was absolutely out of sight and a head, round as well, sat directly atop it. It appeared just like those snow figures kids built in winter.
However, the clothes it wore were so richly colored, it hurt to look at them. Clad in a lustrous costume that was deep red on the right and deep blue on the left, its lavish stomach had golden buttons that could hardly hold on. Likewise, its trousers were differently colored on the left and right and that attention to detail stayed the same for even its shoes.
There wasn’t a single strand of hair on its round head and a golden angular hat sat on the smooth top. Its shape resembled the hat that Cardinal, the sage from the Great Library Room, wore, but was far worse taste. And to add on, its height was no more than a little over a mel.
A similarly dressed jester balancing on a ball was among the troupes of performers that showed off various acrobatics in Centoria’s sixth district’s plaza during the midsummer festival. However, it was evident enough from his facial features that the small man had no such smoothing qualities at all.
He couldn’t put a figure on the man’s age. His skin was bizarrely white, his nose was round, his cheeks were loose, and his unreasonably red lips split into a split in a wide smirk. His eyes were long and narrow in a crescent shape, arching upwards as though they were laughing, but the glint in those eyes peeking from those slits were abnormally cold.
The jester clad in red and blue skipped as he crossed the marble path, then jumped down onto the frozen bath with vigor. His shoes, pointed at their ends, crushed two ice roses with a splintering noise.
“Ho, hoo! Hoo, hoo, hoo!”
Apparently having found something hilarious, the small man clapped his hands and laughed a squeaky laugh for a while, then began kicking about the roses around, turning them into specks of glass one after another. Making a ruckus as he continued scattering those specks, he approached Eugeo and Bercouli who were captured within the ice.
Standing still several mel away, the small man kicked one last rose to pieces before finally turning his face towards them. Those red lips opened widely and that unsettling voice reverberated yet again.
“Oho… unacceptable, this is simply unacceptable, Sir Knight Commander. I don’t suppose you thought you could just kick the bucket like that? That would be clear treachery, you know, towards Her Eminence, the resplendent highest minister. I’m sure she’ll be outraged when she awakes, you know?”
To that, with his consciousness seemingly on the verge of fading, Bercouli’s lips quivered and a low and hoarse voice flowed out.
“Chief Elder… Chudelkin… Don’t get involved in a battle between swordsmen… you snob…”
Upon hearing Bercouli’s words, the small jester skipped three steps while loudly clapping his hands.
“Swordsmen! Battle! You make me laugh, hoohoohooo!”
That shrill laughter that didn’t seem like that of a human spread out.
“You sure can speak, after even so generously going easy against a filthy traitor! Sir Knight Commander, you haven’t used the «other side» of your Time Piercing Sword yet, have you? You could have killed that brat before he could get a word out if you felt like it! That’s what I meant by treachery towards the highest minister in the first place!!”
“Shaddup… I had… fought with all I got… Besides, you lied to me, didn’t you… This rascal… isn’t some assassin from the Dark Territory… He’s way better than some ugly lump of meat like you…”
“Shuuuut your moouth! Or I’ll pull out your haaaair!!”
His two eyes peeled open widely all of a sudden and the small man hopped up and down like some ball, then stomped hard on Bercouli’s head with his short legs. Swaying left and right atop the knight commander’s head, he continued screaming in his shrill voice.
“In the first place, it’s because you shitty knights do such a shitty job that it ended up this troublesome. You made me laugh so hard when you guys got beaten up by just two kids that my stomach’s splitting. Once Her Eminence awakes, I’m sure every single one of the knights… or at least, both you and the deputy knight commander will be reprocessed!”
“What… you, just… what did you…”
“Ah, geez, shut up, shut up. That’s already out of you, go to sleep.”
The small man stuck out his little finger on his right hand out in an exaggerated gesture while riding on Bercouli’s head. Licking his lips with his deep red tongue, he began a sacred art chant at a piercing pitch.
“System caaaaall! Deep freeee—eeze! Integrator unit, ID zero zero oneeeee!”
It was a sacred art he had never heard before. The art itself was unusually short and even if it was an offensive art, it wouldn’t have any great effect—or so he thought.
Bercouli moaned weakly. Immediate after, his body—his hair, his skin, even the clothes he wore, began increasingly dyed in a dim, gray color. Rather than being frozen, it appeared like he was turning to stone.
Light completely vanished from his two eyes and his body, bound by ice, changed to a mud-like color from its edges, before the small man—the jester called Chief Elder Chudelkin—finally jumped off Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli’s head with vigor.
“Hoh, hohi, hohihi… actually I have no need of some geezer like you anymore, you know, number one. I mean, I’ve found a pawn who seems like he’d be pretty useful… haven’t I?”
The jester muttered so as his pinhole, small eyes glared fixedly at Eugeo. Fear, colder than the ice surrounding him, ran down his spine.
However, Eugeo reached his limit then. He desperately stared at those red and blue shoes approaching as they trampled on the ice roses, but that scene immediately faded out into a dim darkness.
Eugeo’s consciousness was severed as he called out their two names in the depths of his chest.
“Sky Garden” – It’s written as “Sky Garden”, rather than “Cloudtop Garden” here. Might be a typo?
- Translation – Tap