The Prisoners and the Knight
Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 11, chapter 6.
Just a note, italics are for English words written in katakana (at times when it should be represented differently) or Japanese words that was supposed to be written in Japanese. Full caps are English words written in English.
The Prisoners and the Knight
5th Month of Human World Calendar 380
There are still times when the memories of the days I was imprisoned within the Floating Castle Aincrad come to me even now.
In those times… each day felt truly long, especially during the first year of that death game. That was as I always had to put my guard up against assaults from monsters (at times, players) whenever I was out of town and packed my schedule close to its brim to ensure that my actions maintained my rate of levelling up at its maximum potential.
I shaved away my sleeping hours to the bare minimum necessary to keep my concentration and even as I ate my meals, I devoted myself to storing all kinds of data from the information brokers. I certainly was named a delinquent by the clearing group in the late-game period and even used up an entire day on napping, but I have no recollection of wasting time on nothing. Such that my senses could tell me that the fourteen years before SAO and the two years spent in that floating castle held an equal level of significance.
The days passed by so quickly ever since I was thrown into this strange world, «Underworld».
It definitely wasn’t as if I spent the time loafing around. The days over these two years that included me leaving on a journey from Rulid Village, entering the guard corps at Zakkaria City and learning at the Master Swords Academy in Central Centoria were bustling, rather; perhaps more so than my time in SAO, if you looked at merely how hectic it was. But still, looking back on it now, the only emotion that welled up from me was the strong notion that it passed by in the blink of an eye.
The reason was—the lack of peril in my HP, known as Life, dropping to zero in this world, perhaps.
Or perhaps, it was due to the heightened acceleration of time flowing in this world in comparison to the real world.
When I took up a part-time job at the venture company with many mysteries surrounding it, «Rath», the Fluct Light Acceleration of the STL was explained as a maximum of three times of the usual pace to me. But that was likely, no, unmistakably a lie. Judging from various data, I have currently estimated the degree of my current FLA to have reached at least a thousand times. If that number was accurate, the approximately two years I have spent in this world would end up as a mere eighteen hours in the real world. That ridiculous amplification must have made me feel the days here to be short, coupled with the lack of danger to my life as well.
There might also be one other reason, perhaps.
That would be how I felt my life here… especially the days I spent in the Master Swords Academy with Eugeo, Sortiliena-senpai, Ronye and Tiezé, to be enjoyable. Despite how entering the academy and polishing my swordsmanship should have been for the sake of escaping this world even a single day earlier. The wish to continue these enjoyable days from the depths of my heart was truly what made the time stream by so quickly.
In that case, that would be a betrayal. Of those who should be anxious over my body in the real world, Asuna, Sugu, Sinon, and the rest.
I wonder if this was retribution for that betrayal. To meet a bloodstained end in my Master Swords Academy life, and to be bound to the ground in a place without the slightest hint of sunlight—
Ceasing my thoughts and rousing my upper body, the steel chain firmly binding my right wrist jangled with a dull noise.
Shortly after, I heard a low murmur from the darkness nearby.
“…So you’re up, Kirito.”
“Aah… I’ve been for a while. Sorry, did I wake you up?”
After whispering my question in the same manner to not alert the jailer, it was a small bitter laugh that reached me this time.
“How could I sleep. …You’re the odd one, Kirito, being able to sleep and snore away ever since the night we got thrown in jail.”
“It’s the second among the essential points of the Aincrad-style. Sleep when you can.”
While voicing out whatever came to mind, I looked around once again.
That said, the surroundings were wrapped in a murky darkness, with the meager light that escaped from the jailer’s guardroom at the end of the passage beyond the prison bars being the only source of illumination. It was at a level where I could somehow make out Eugeo’s outlines on the adjacent bed when I concentrated my eyes there.
Of course, I had mastered elementary sacred arts like lighting up a stick that would work ever since long ago, but it seems all kinds of ceremonies were cancelled in this jail as a precaution.
I couldn’t get a proper look at Eugeo’s countenance, but I faced roughly where his face was and asked after a slight hesitation.
“How’s it going… calmed down a little?”
It ought to be around 3 AM right now, going by my body clock. We were thrown into this underground jail yesterday afternoon, so that meant the highest estimate for the time that crawled on by, since that incident from the previous evening, was around thirty-five hours. Eugeo must have received a severe, indescribable shock, going against the Taboo Index by cutting Humbert Zizek with the Blue Rose Sword and witnessing Raios Antinous having his mind broken and dying immediately after that.
A short silence descended before a voice replied, weaker than before.
“Somehow… it’s like all a dream… Me drawing a sword on Humbert… and then, Raios just went……”
“…Don’t brood over it too much. Think only about the things yet to come for the time being.”
I managed to tell those words to Eugeo, sunk in silence. I really wanted to pat his back at least, but the chain obstructed me from reaching the next bed. I focused my eyes upon the outlines of my dear friend; even though it was frail, a “Got it, don’t worry about me.” came back, and I took a soft breath.
The one who sliced off Raios Antinous’s two wrists was not Eugeo, but me. It shouldn’t have been a fatal wound if it received immediate treatment, but his thoughts probably descended into a state similar to an infinite loop as a result of processing the priorities between «his own Life» and «the Taboo Index», thus making his fluct light break down.
Of course, I am conscious of the fact that it ended with a life stolen from the Underworld people. However, I had killed goblins in the cave north of Rulid to help Apprentice Sister Selka two years ago; I killed two beasts, no, two people among their ranks. Both Raios and those goblins were fellow artificial fluct lights, so if I were to be tormented by the crime and unable to recover from it, it would be a dishonor in a sense, to that goblin leader who was much stronger than Raios.
However—it still didn’t explain things.
I surmised that the objective of the company that operates the Underworld, Rath, and consequently, Kikuoka Seijrou, was the creation of a perfect artificial intelligence.
The artificial fluct lights living in this world already possessed a level of emotional awareness and thought equivalent to people of the real world. If their one and only flaw was their «absolute blind obedience to the law», that would mean Eugeo, who drew his Blue Rose Sword and cut Humbert to help Tiezé and Ronye, had now overcome that barrier. To put it another way, a breakthrough was finally achieved and he should be progressing towards a true artificial intelligence now.
Despite that, even after thirty-five hours had passed internally since then, the world still showed no sign of stopping. Either the acceleration rate was too high and the staff at Rath had yet to detect the situation, or a major incident beyond my imagination had happened…
“The things… yet to come, huh.”
Eugeo suddenly muttered that from the adjacent bed, so I put my doubts aside and shifted my vision back from the ceiling where it went without me noticing. The silhouette I had gotten used to seeing within the darkness gave a nod and continued speaking.
“It’s like you said, Kirito. If we don’t escape from this jail and confirm what happened to Alice somehow…”
I scrutinized the significance within my dear friend’s earlier words while being relieved that he was somehow recovering from the shock. Eugeo said ‘escape from this jail’ without any hesitation. In other words, Alice was more important to him now, when compared to this jail which could be said to be a symbol of the Axiom Church’s authority—that is to say, a place where one should remain without god’s pardon. Eugeo’s mental make-up certainly did undergo a major transformation after the experiences from the day before yesterday.
But this was no time to delve in depth. It wouldn’t be strange for the department in charge of the trial or the executioners to come drag us out anytime after sunrise. As Eugeo said, we should only think about one thing or another after we escape this place.
“Aah. …There should definitely be a way out of here.”
—If this was an «imprisonment event» in a RPG, at least.
Appending some pointless words to it within my mind, I tried touching the chain that bound me once again. The ring placed around my right wrist was welded to the despairingly tough steel, cold to the touch, that had its other end connected to a ring embedded in the wall. I had already affirmed that nothing could be done about the handcuffs, ring on the wall and the chain itself, by merely pulling on them.
The previous morning, Eugeo and I had crossed the walls of the Axiom Church Central Cathedral at last, our final objective ever since we left on our journey from the northern edge. Our entire bodies were rigidly bound and suspended from a flying dragon’s feet, though.
Without any time to appreciate the gigantic white tower rising through the clouds, we were walked down an endless spiral staircase leading underground on the opposite site of the tower, and then handed over to a terrifying jailer when we finally reached the underground jail.
The integrity knight who called herself Alice Synthesis Thirty left without even a parting glance upon accomplishing her role, and the giant jailer who wore a metal mask resembling a kettle moved sluggishly… but connected Eugeo and I to the chains in this jail with sure motions.
We had only had one meal since then, of rock-hard, dry bread and a leather sac filled with lukewarm water flung through the bars that evening. In comparison, treatment and such received by the orange players imprisoned within the Black Iron Castle’s jails in Aincrad could be said to be equal to that of a suite room in some high-class hotel.
The attempts to cut the chain, including methods such as pulling, biting, and using sacred arts, all ended in failure yesterday. A chain like these would be sliced apart in a single stroke if we had Eugeo’s Blue Rose Sword or my black one; even though Ronye and Tiezé went through great pains to carry them along, wounding their hands, the two swords went with Alice to some unknown location. The bento brought by Ronye avoided seizure, but it had already disappeared into our stomachs long ago.
In other words, though I did say ‘there should be a way to get out of here’, we were presently in a state unbearably close to being completely and utterly cornered.
“…I wonder if Alice… was bound here eight years ago too…”
As he sat on the bed, a sheer old rag set upon an iron frame, Eugeo spoke, debilitated.
“Well… who knows?”
It wasn’t a proper answer, but there was no other. If Eugeo’s childhood friend and Selka’s elder sister, Alice Schuberg, received the same treatment as us, that would mean she was taken away by that iron-masked jailer and chained in this jail at a mere age of eleven, all by herself. She certainly must have felt a dreadful amount of terror.
Soon after, that girl would be stationed in a stand during a trial, handed down some sort of sentence—and after that…?
“Hey, Eugeo. I’m just confirming again here, but… that integrity knight named Alice Synthesis Thirty was definitely that Alice you’re looking for, yes?”
I asked hesitatingly and several seconds later, the voice that flowed felt as though it was holding back some sort of grief.
“That voice… that golden hair and those deep blue eyes. There’s no way I could forget those; that’s Alice. It’s just… the air around her was practically like that of someone else…”
“Well, she did beat up her childhood friend without any mercy, after all. In other words… her memories and thoughts are being controlled through some sort of means, perhaps that’s how it is…”
“But there weren’t any sacred arts like that in the textbooks, you know?”
“Some great minister in the church could manipulate even Life, right? It wouldn’t be strange if the same could be done with memories.”
That’s right—the machine I was using to dive into the Underworld, the «Soul TransLator», was certainly capable of that. If it was capable of memory manipulation on the brain of a living being, a deeper level of manipulation should be possible and easier on artificial fluct lights probably stored on some kind of media. I continued with that in mind.
“But… if that knight really was Alice, just what was «that»? The one from two years ago, in the northern cave at Rulid…”
“Aah… you did say that, didn’t you. That you heard a voice like Alice’s when you tried to treat my wound with Selka…”
I didn’t tell Eugeo in detail, but I had to borrow power from Selka and share my own Life directly to help him after he suffered a severe injury in the fight with the goblins. It was a rather dangerous act and my Life fell at a rate beyond my expectations, and when I then resigned myself to not lasting any further—I heard it.
‘Kirito, Eugeo… I’ll wait, no matter how long… I’ll always be waiting for the both of you at the top of the Central Cathedral…’
A mysterious, warm light which healed Eugeo’s and my Lives filled me as that voice spoke. So that wasn’t a mere befuddlement in my memories. We were definitely helped out by Alice, taken away to the Axiom Church long, long ago, through some unknown power.
After we judged it as such, Eugeo and I aimed for the Central Cathedral and came all the way to the central, putting our faith in that voice.
However, the «Alice» that appeared before us, unforeseen, named herself not as the daughter of Rulid Village’s chief, Alice Schuberg, but as Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty. The demeanor she kept to the very end, considering us criminals who deserved to be judged, gave absolutely no impression of her being Eugeo’s childhood friend.
She was another person who simply had a face and name that resembled her, or possibly she was the true Alice with her memories controlled. To confirm that, we would probably have no choice but to escape the jail somehow and personally head up towards the peak of the Central Cathedral—a place where we could learn everything about the Axiom Church.
That was our intention in the end, but it didn’t seem like we would be able to make even a minor scratch on the chains or bars.
“Aah, how annoying… I would tie God up right here if I could, and get the truth out, not missing a single detail!”
I spat that out in a small voice with Kikuoka Seijirou’s spectacled face feigning ignorance showing up in my head, before Eugeo replied in a whisper mingled with bitter laughter.
“Hey, hey, slandering Stacia-sama in the church isn’t a good idea, no matter how you think about it. You might even incur divine punishment.”
Apparently, it doesn’t seem like he lost his religious faith or anything even if his priorities concerning the Taboo Index changed. —Although I had that in mind, I ended up carelessly adding on another flippant line.
“Well, if she’s going to, couldn’t she inflict divine punishment onto this chain too?”
I said, and it suddenly came to me; I changed my tone and continued.
“Wait. Speaking of Stacia-sama, do «windows» not appear here either?”
“Now that you mention it, we haven’t tried. Go for it.”
After taking a peek at the state of the jailer’s guardroom, left of the passage beyond the bars, I stretched out both the index and middle fingers on my right hand. Upon performing the gesture to call out the Stacia Window that my arm had completely gotten used to, I lightly knocked on the chain gripped in my left hand.
After an instant, the familiar pale-purple window floated out. I doubted the situation would change for the better even if I confirmed the chain’s properties, but nevertheless, being able to gather information was delightful.
“Oh, it came out.”
I grinned at Eugeo before looking into the window. The data shown was a stark three lines, its unique object ID, the durability that I was sick of below it, 【23500/23500】, and a string of characters, 【Class 38 Object】.
Class 38; the figure was a priority far higher than a great number of renowned swords, but it was not a match for the 45 of the sacred instrument, the Blue Rose Sword, or the 46 of the black sword polished up from a branch of the «Divine Giant Cedar», the Gigas Cedar, over the course of a year. In other words, it really would be possible to cut this chain apart if we had either of those swords, but there was no point in saying that now.
Having copied me by making the window for his own chain show, Eugeo whispered in an expected dismal voice.
“Wah, so that’s why it wouldn’t even budge no matter how much we pulled. Without a weapon or tool of Class 38 as well at least, cutting these chains would be…”
“That’s how it is.”
I took yet another look around the dim and narrow jail, but only the crude iron beds and empty water sacs were around. I figured the bed leg could serve as a replacement for a crowbar and brought out its window with a sliver of hope, but it was a worthless Class 3 item, as it appeared to be. The bars looked far sturdier, but my hand couldn’t reach far enough due to the chain’s length.
When I spun my neck restlessly looking around, still unwilling to give up, Eugeo spoke limply.
“No matter how hard you search, some renowned sword won’t just conveniently drop in a jail like this. In the first place, there aren’t enough things around to even call it a search. There are only the beds, water sacs and this chain here.”
“Only… this chain…”
Muttering, I gazed at the chain binding my own arms and next, at the chain stretching out from Eugeo’s wrist. A certain idea came to mind in that moment, and I whispered while holding back my excitement.
“No, it’s not «only». We have two of them, don’t we; of these bastard chains.”
What are you talking about; I gestured at Eugeo to get off the bed with my hand as he inclined his head to express that thought. Following that, I went down onto the stone floor as well and checked my partner’s standing posture that could be faintly seen through the dim lighting.
A crude metal ring was fixed upon his right wrist just like mine, peeking out from the academy uniform he had on since yesterday, and the long chain melded to it was connected to the hook embedded in the wall behind the bed.
I first passed under the chain that extended under Eugeo’s right hand, and then straddled it as I returned to my original position. This made our chains into a crossed X shape. Gesturing Eugeo to move back a little, while I got some distance away myself, a strained, ear-piercing scrapping noise rang out from where the two chains crossed.
Looking at that sight, it seems Eugeo finally guessed at my intentions.
“Erm, Kirito, don’t tell me we’re going to just pull like this?”
“Sure we are. These two chains have the exact same priority, so logically, this should shave away both of their Lives at the same time. We’ll find out if we try, hurry up and grip onto the chain with both hands.”
Suspicion still remained on Eugeo, but he gripped onto the chain that extended from his right wrist as I had instructed and lowered his waist. I did the same, then-
“Hold on, before that…”
-cutting the seal with my left hand, I called out the chain’s «window» once again.
Even if I were to try this exact same method to cut thick iron chains like these apart in the real world, it would probably take all my might to make a shallow nick on their surfaces.
However, everything might seem real here in the Underworld, but it wasn’t like they obeyed the laws of physics the exact same way as the real world. Like how a giant tree with a diameter of four meters could be chopped down in a mere few days using the sacred instrument, the Blue Rose Sword, if two objects were to collide with more than a certain amount of speed and strength, the one with the higher priority would definitely destroy the other eventually.
We synchronized our timing through our eyes, going “one-two”, then pulled the thick chains with all the physical strength we could muster.
Cling! The moment that dull, violent, metallic noise rang out, I was about to pitch forward due to Eugeo’s strength being more ridiculous than expected, before I braced my feet with my guts. The other side’s aversion to losing was revealed on his face after a while, and we continued our power struggle, partially forgetting about our initial objective.
Ear-piercing, creaking noises and small, orange sparks sprang out from where the chains intersected intermittently. Even while maintaining the tug of war, I reached my head out and peeked into the «window» still open.
I wanted to assume a victory pose, but both of my hands were sealed away, so I settled with a grin. The over-twenty-thousand points of the chain’s Life had its ones column streaming away at a speed that even I couldn’t follow with my eyes, while the tens column was reducing at a bewildering rate. It would probably reach zero in several minutes with this spurt. Clenching my teeth once again, I continued gathering all my might for the tug of war against Eugeo.
Of course, this method wouldn’t be possible without meeting the conditions of having two sets of chains and prisoners, with the prisoners’ «Object Control Authorities»—a parameter equivalent to Strength in SAO—at a sufficiently high value. Hence, I believe Alice who was imprisoned by her lone self at the age of eleven, eight years ago, wasn’t able to cut her chain.
That girl was definitely withdrawn from the planned trial, with something happening to her after that. If that Integrity Knight Alice was the Alice from Rulid, «something» that was able to even control her memories and thoughts, turning her into a loyal guard of the Axiom Church, did…
Due to my inadvertent contemplation, I ended up forgetting a crucial fact. The reason why I had the window out was to stop the tug of war immediately before the chain’s Life became zero. As for the reason, if it wasn’t done—
Ping! A shrill, metallic sound reverberated, different from those before.
Without even the time to consider that, Eugeo and I were blown backwards by a vehement force and knocked the back of our heads against the hefty stone walls.
Squatting on the floor for a bit and holding my head with both hands, I endured the authentic pain and dizziness brought about by the STL. After those settled down, I peeked through the bars, expecting the jailer to have noticed what happened this time for sure, but there was no response, fortunately. Letting out a relieved sigh, I got up gingerly.
Eugeo, slower to rise, was dazed as he rubbed his head with his left hand.
“Uugh… my Life dropped by a hundred from that just now.”
“That’s barely anything for what we got out of it. Come on, look.”
I put out my right arm and shook the chain dangling powerlessly from the metal ring. There was still a length of at least one mel, twenty cen, no, one meter, twenty centimeters, and it was magnificently severed. The four U-shaped pieces of metal that rolled onto the floor were the two rings at the intersection that continued to withstand the pressure from the tug of war before breaking apart in the middle. They crumbled with a fleeting noise and vanished as I looked at them.
I brought out the «window» for the broken link of the chain that hung off my right wrist in a sudden bout of curiosity and upon looking at it, its Life was at 18000 and still recovering, a value amazingly close to what it originally was.
I believed in my prediction, or rather, hope, that the three meter long chain would dissipate entirely the instant it reached zero from the strain, but it seems to have been reclassified as a new chain object, perhaps due to it consisting of many linked rings.
As I thought over such matters, Eugeo, inspecting his own chain as well, made an exaggerated motion with his shoulders and spoke.
“Geez… there’s no way I’ll ever catch up with your talent at doing illogical things like this, Kirito.”
“Hmph, my slogan is irrational, illogical, indiscreet, after all. …That said, it doesn’t seem like anything could’ve been done about this…”
We were freed from the condition of being not more than three mel, no, meters from the inner wall, but I couldn’t think of any method to remove the chain’s tail that remained on our right hands. Even if we were to carry out a tug of war yet again, the length might shorten, but it wouldn’t be possible to take it off entirely.
“Looks like there’s no choice but to bring it along. It’s a little heavy, but I don’t think it’ll be a hindrance to walking if it’s wrapped around the arm.”
Eugeo said so and started wrapping the tail round and round his forearm, so I reluctantly followed his example. Upon completing the impromptu chain gauntlet, our faces met each other with cynical smiles.
I believed that this, at least, had to be confirmed before taking the next action and looked at Eugeo solemnly. Taking in a deep breath, I spoke.
“I’ll ask this first… but you get it, don’t you, Eugeo? Escaping from here and searching for the truth regarding Alice would be the same as opposing the Axiom Church head on. We won’t have the time for conflict over each and every action we take. If you can’t prepare yourself now, it’s better if you stay behind.”
Those words were probably some of the most severe among those I had used over our over-two-years relationship, but there was no avoiding them.
He might look calm on the surface, but Eugeo’s fluct light… in other words, his soul that was a collection of photons had just undergone an intense structural change. After all, he had rejected his long, long belief in the absolute authority of the Axiom Church, one he had had ever since he gained awareness, and reorganized the issues that should take priority over it.
In other words, Eugeo should be thought of as more unstable than he looked at the moment, and if too much load were to be placed onto his currently-resetting thought pattern, it might truly induce abnormalities into his soul like Raios. That was why I had tried to avoid broaching subjects related to the Axiom Church or Taboo Index for these thirty-five hours.
However, if we were to take the radical action of escaping from this jail and trespassing into the Central Cathedral, I hoped he would fortify his will as much as he could now, rather than risk a sudden conflict midway. I must do whatever I can to have Eugeo safely arrive at the highest floor of the cathedral—the place where the console to exit to the real world should be.
Yes, I intended to make my unrivalled partner and closest friend meet with people from the real world.
The Underworld right now was one result from an experiment carried out by the company Rath, and it wouldn’t be strange for it to be completely reset anytime. In that situation, the fluct lights of nearly a hundred thousand people living in this world would probably be indiscriminately erased. There was no way I could forgive that. I must have the staff from Rath and the wire-puller, Kikuoka Seijirou, communicate directly with Eugeo and make them aware of what they’ve created at all costs.
The people of the Underworld were definitely not NPCs of some virtual world.
They, with thoughts and emotions equivalent to people from the real world, deserved the right to live on here.
Prepare yourself now; Eugeo heard those words of mine and opened his eyes wide for an instant, before he cast them downwards eventually. Bringing up his right hand, he held his fist firmly before his chest.
“…Aah… I know.”
The voice that came out was a quiet whisper but carried an unshakeable resolve in its reverberations.
“I have already decided. To return back to Rulid Village with Alice, I’ll even go against the Axiom Church. If the need arises, I’ll unsheathe my sword and fight, no matter how many times. …If that integrity knight is the real Alice, I’ll find out the reason behind her loss of memory and return her to how she was. That’s more important than anything else to me.”
Having finished his speech and raised his face, Eugeo looked straight at me with eyes shining brightly while he made a small smile.
“You said this when we were playing around in the woods, didn’t you, Kirito. That ‘there are things that must be done even if it’s prohibited by the law’. I feel like I’ve understood its meaning at last.”
I deeply swallowed the odd, strong emotion that filled my chest along with the chilly air. Nodding, I lightly pat my partner’s left shoulder after a step forward.
“I definitely understand your resolve now. …But after we leave this place, let’s avoid fights as much as we can. I don’t think we have much of a chance in an actual brawl with Alice or the other integrity knights.”
“Those sure are timid words coming from you, Kirito.”
Replying that those guys are the strongest in the world to the grinning Eugeo, I walked closer towards the bars that separated the jail from the passage. Let’s pull the «window» out from this thick and heavy iron rod with a diameter that looked to be around three cen first. The object’s class was—20. It had a Life close to ten thousand.
Eugeo who stood beside me peeked into the window as well and gave a short sigh.
“Hmm… it’s not as bad as the chains, but it would take some time to bend them barehanded. What should we do, want to try ramming it together?”
“If we do something like that, our Lives will end up falling along with the grids’. I have an idea, just sit back and watch.”
I gestured Eugeo to fall back and untangled the chain wrapped around my right arm. I said it like I really thought up of a plan beforehand, but it only came to mind when I was wrapping this chain. Sortiliena-senpai, who I was under the tutelage of for an entire year in the Master Sword Academy, winded that up in circles the same way when she was done with it. The weapon that symbolized the Serlut-style, that white leather whip.
Looking at me as I slowly shook the chain with a length of 1.2 meters held in my right hand, Eugeo gave a worried whisper.
“Ki-Kirito, are you planning to break the grids with that? If your aim goes bad and it hits you, won’t you get a heavy inju…”
“It’s fine, I got plenty of coaching on how to use a whip from Liena-senpai. She was called the «Walking Tactics Manual», after all… Listen, as you might expect, blowing off the bars will probably make a seriously massive noise, so sprint for the stairs. Make sure you flee instead of fight if the jailer comes out.”
“…Oh now. Plenty, you say, huh.”
Putting Eugeo’s strange response aside, I slowly increased the swinging range of the chain. Its length didn’t quite make the cut for a whip, but it should have the force of a Class 38 priority to compensate for that.
—Strike, focusing not on the hand that held the whip but on the weight of its tip.
Recalling Liena-senpai’s words, I pulled back the chain with force and right before it extended completely, I made a full swing with a yell.
The end of the chain that rushed through the air like a dark grey snake attacked where the three centimeters thick iron rods intersected without miss, scattering dazzling sparks in the darkness.
Blang! Along with the loud noise that rang out, the bars were blown off from their frames above and below them, vehemently striking the grid of the opposite cell before they fell onto the floor. If there were any prisoners there, they must have thought it was a divine punishment from Solus or something.
With the dense cloud of dust that swelled up choking my breath, I tumbled out into the passage. That kettle-head jailer must have definitely leapt to his feet if he heard that noise earlier. I doubted he was as strong as an integrity knight, but I preferred to avoid battles while I had nothing but a single chain as a substitute for a whip.
I examined the end of the passage with my body tensed, but even after several seconds passed, there was no sign of anyone. Taking fleeting glances at Eugeo who got out of the jail after me, I quickly whispered.
“It might be an ambush. Be prepared.”
Exchanging nods and albeit it being far too late, we silenced our footsteps as we began running.
According to the information I hammered into my mind when we were arrested, this Axiom Church underground jail was constructed with eight passages extending out like the spokes of a wheel, and each passage housed four holding cells on both of its sides. If all of the cells held two each, it could be calculated as 8 x 8 x 2 for a capacity of a hundred and twenty-eight people, but I believed it impossible for this jail to have ever been fully occupied since it was built.
The eight passages convened at the small jailer’s guardroom in the space near where the wheel hub would be, with a spiral staircase extending aboveground surrounding it. It would be the best case scenario if we could slip through the jailer’s attack and leap onto the staircase. With that in mind as I ran through the passage, I stood still before the guardroom and spied on the state inside.
Small lamps were suspended off the cylindrical guardroom’s wall, faintly illuminating their surroundings. There was no sign of movement, but I couldn’t help but feel that the jailer was lurking in a blind spot from the exit, equipped with some horrifying weapon.
“Oh c’mon, Kirito.”
As I looked for a presence beyond the corner, my shoulder was poked by Eugeo from behind, so I reluctantly turned back.
“What is it?”
“Hey, this sound… isn’t this snoring?”
When I listened carefully like I was told to, I certainly noticed it was present, though extremely faint; a constant, familiar low sound repeating itself.
I took another look at Eugeo in the face, then lightly shook my head and started walking out.
Beyond the end of the passage (of course, there wasn’t a single rat in the corner’s blind spot) was a reasonably wide circular space and a stone pillar with a diameter of around five meters standing in the middle. The interior of the pillar was hollow, being the jailer’s guardroom and as such, the origin of the snores.
A black, iron door was fitted on the side of the pillar with a small peeping window on its upper portion. Eugeo and I concealed our footsteps as we approached the door, peeping in through the window, our faces practically stuck on it.
There was no great difference in the crude bed installed in the exact middle of the round room when compared to the one in the jail, and the jailer slept on it as though his massive barrel-like frame was crushing it. The metal mask that reminded one of a kettle was still worn on and its tin surface vibrated, matching the heavy and low snores.
It was a scene where we should hurry and escape, but I found myself carelessly speculating on his circumstances. Being the lookout all by himself in this jail where prisoners and such rarely came; there was no mistake he had continued that for years… or to be negative, tens of years. After all, in this world, even a child born as a noble would be bestowed a «sacred task» from the one in charge of the area upon turning ten of age, with neither the option to personally choose it, nor to change it halfway through.
Waking according to the faint sound of the time bell in this underground space that sunlight couldn’t reach and patrolling an empty jail, then sleeping according to the bell once again. Day after day, he must have repeated nothing but that as his own job. So many times that he did not even stir from his sleep when we made that much noise.
A countless number of keys of various sizes hung from the guardroom’s wall. I believed that the keys to remove the metal rings fitted on our right wrists were among them, but without any mood to disrupt the jailer’s sleep and fight for that reason, I took a step back and muttered.
It seems that something was on Eugeo’s mind too. We softly parted from the window and set our feet upon the spiral staircase that encircled the guardroom, and then earnestly continued the ascent without a single glance back.
The spiral staircase felt rather long when we descended, but it took mere minutes before we could sense the exit’s presence when we keenly raced our way up. The putrid stench gradually disappeared from the air, while the damp, moist walls and the stone under our feet were replaced by glossy marble without our notice.
We could soon see a faint light in our path, and when it turned into the rectangular exit, Eugeo and I found no further need for caution and rushed forth, skipping over the steps, two at a time. Both of us sucked in the fresh air as though satisfying our cravings, the moment we reached aboveground at last.
When our breaths finally settled down, we took another look at our surroundings. The skies which were still pitch-black granted us vision even without artificial lighting, through their indistinct starlight.
The Axiom Church that ruled over the Human World existed within a vast square plot of ground in the center of Central Centoria. From what I had seen around the place through the opportunity of dangling off the flying dragon yesterday morning, the main gate was in the east (I suppose that was probably due to Solus rising from that direction), with a wide road that extended to the actual church.
And that church was veritably the lofty white tower, the «Central Cathedral». Its cross-sectional view would reveal that it, too, was a square, while its upright walls were smoothly polished to a mirror-like finish, with the upper portion always within the clouds, making it impossible to see its peak unobstructed.
I believed that there would be someone managing this world at the highest part of the cathedral, as well as a system console for communication with the outside—or in other words, with Rath. If I could reach that far, I could return to the real world after these two years and two months I personally experienced…
Reflecting on those strong emotions, I slowly turned around and faced the opening to the underground jail I had just escaped from.
The doorless rectangular hole was opening its mouth in slight surprise, towards the pure white surface of the wall. Shifting my sight to the smoothly polished marble wall, I first gazed right, then left, and lastly, up, but factoring the dense shroud of night fog in as well, I wasn’t able to see to the end of any direction.
No, even if it wasn’t for the fog, I shouldn’t have been able to see the top of the wall. After all, the glossy marble a mere meter away was undeniably the outer wall of our final destination, the Central Cathedral.
Probably having thought of the same thing, Eugeo took several steps forward with me, and then raising our left hands, we gently touched the white wall. Rubbing left and right, affirming its sheer hard and cold sensation.
“…It’s too late saying this after having came this far, but… I can’t quite believe it. We’re touching that cathedral. The tower with walls that people are denied from, no matter how distinguished they may be, as nobles… no, even if they were the emperors of the four empires, they wouldn’t be able to do anything but look at it.”
“Well, we’re not integrity knights as planned, but escaped prisoners, though.”
Eugeo gave a light, strained laugh at my spiritless response, but immediately spoke with a stern face.
“But looking back at it, this might have been the right choice instead. After all, if we became integrity knights, we might, just like Alice…”
“The possibility of our memories being controlled, huh. That’s certainly true… however, if all of the integrity knights were that way, who exactly would they believe themselves to be…?”
When I muttered so, Eugeo removed his hand from the marble and tilted his head. I smacked the left hand, that I lowered as well, onto my waist, attempting to explain my vague question.
“That is to say, well, even if the memories of the knights were sealed away… who are my parents; where was I born; they should have knowledge of such things, right? After all, that’s the fundamental basics of being a human and all. That’s exactly why I think it’d be difficult to fabricate that knowledge.”
“I see… knights are just a flight away from anywhere in the Human World with their flying dragons. Even if the true memories about their birth were sealed, with false memories planted in, it would be easily revealed as a lie if they actually pay a visit to their birthplace…”
Suddenly, Eugeo sharply took in a breath of air and stared in my direction with his eyes open wide, which made me blink my eyes multiple times in confusion. After exchanging stares with my frozen partner for several seconds, I finally thought of the reason for his strange response.
“I see… you thought that we might find out a method to restore my memories at this tower, huh.”
“Ah… n-no, I…”
Eugeo’s face distorted into wrinkles and he soon turned it steeply downwards, so I took a step forward and forcefully tussled my partner’s flaxen hair with my left hand.
“You’re a worrywart as always. I said it, didn’t I; whether my memories return or not, I’ll accompany you until the end of your journey.”
Eugeo brought his face up with that, slightly red now, and said “Don’t treat me like a child” in a child-like manner. But without even attempting to escape from my hand, he continued in a soft voice.
“……It’s not like I doubt that. You did say it countless times after all, Kirito. But… when I think about how our journey’s coming to a close, I just…”
Upon hearing that stifled whisper, strong feelings thoroughly filled up even my chest, and I raised up Eugeo’s face with my hand still placed on his head.
The majesty of the Central Cathedral, towering up high right beside us, truly deserved to be called the core of the world. It would not be easy to climb up to the highest floor of this tower even if there aren’t any obstacles in the way, but on the flip side, that was all that’s left. No matter how many thousand flights of stairs there might be, our journey would come to an end once we climb our way through all of them, over a year ahead of schedule.
However, that was definitely not a farewell for all of eternity. I would log out to the real world for the time being, but I will return without fail. To meet with Eugeo, Liena-senpai, Ronye, Tiezé and the many other people.
“If it’s going to end, we might as well end it on a happ… no, good note. You will get Alice’s memories back and return to Rulid together. …But will you have no choice but to choose a sacred task once again? It would be better to think about it starting from now, the next will likely be the last for the rest of your life, after all.”
Eugeo finally raised his face at my nonchalant words and showed his usual smile, as though to express the thought “my, my”.
“It’s too early for that no matter how you look at it. But, well, I’m already sick of woodcutting one way or another.”
“Haha, that’s right.”
It was when I took my hand off Eugeo’s head and strongly pat his right shoulder that the bell of time telling, far above us at the cathedral, rang out in an exceptionally beautiful and dignified timbre. It was the 4 A.M. melody. Another hour until dawn—
“…Looks like we should get going soon.”
As if to confirm our mutual decision, we lightly knocked our left fists against each other. The force used, the timing, and even the firmness of our fists were exactly the same. To insist that there was no need for any further words, both of us checked out the surroundings once again.
I knew nothing but that our current location was the back (in other words, the west) of the Central Cathedral. Naturally, we were obstructed by the marble outer wall in the east.
Our present goal was to infiltrate the cathedral, so things would be easy if there was an entrance to the first floor nearby, but there wasn’t a single window even at rather great heights on this western side, with its slippery finish making it look impossible to climb.
In that case, the next plan would, of course, be to move towards the north or south along the outer wall. However, after a mere five meters or so down either direction, a metal fence was connected perpendicularly to the wall. It seemed of a height that could be climbed over if we tried hard enough, but there was one problem. I had already confirmed the fact that there were similar fences stretching out over and over again beyond that fence, yesterday.
The bronze fence, vines densely twining around it, appeared sturdier than the bars of the underground jail, judging from its shine. There was no end to these fences stretching around this area on the west of this cathedral. In other words, this place was both a garden and a maze at the same time. Probably for the sake of troubling prisoners from fleeing, in the one-in-a-million chance they escape aboveground from the underground jail.
The east, south, and north were obstructed by the wall and fences, but there was a single gate in the west. A single, short, straight passage stretched out from there, a small plaza still within the maze at its end. It was where the flying dragon we dangled off landed yesterday morning.
I tried to commit a route for escape to memory right before we touched down, but memorization in that short period of time was totally impossible due to the complexity of the maze’s structure. However, it appeared that there was no other alternative.
“…Let’s break through that maze and get out towards the north or south of the cathedral.”
When I said so, Eugeo nodded as well.
“I’m expecting great things from your intuition, Kirito.”
“Leave it to me, I’ve always been good with labyrinths since long ago.”
My partner made a contemplative expression when I replied with those words without thinking, so I started walking before he had a chance to ask.
Reaching the west gate after a mere few steps, we first checked the priority of the bronze gate. The priority stated on the window was 35; as expected, it wasn’t made from some normal kind of bronze. It might be possible to destroy it after countless strikes with the chain wrapped around my right hand, but it seemed like that would take more time than climbing it, not to mention how it felt like that would cause the imperial guards (or perhaps integrity knights) to gather here in a flurry.
It happened when I was about to resume walking, resigning myself to challenge the maze as per my initial plan. Eugeo spoke as though he squeezed the words through his throat.
“Wh-What is it!? Did something happen to the fence!?”
“I-It’s not the fence… th-these leaves…”
With his eyes wide open, Eugeo whispered while pointing at the completely ordinary leaves of the vines densely coiled around the bronze fence.
“It’s my first time seeing them, but there’s no mistaking it. These are… «roses», Kirito.”
“Roses… Oh… wait, eh, seriously!? All of those growing in this maze, the whole lot of them!?”
I gave a half-hearted response at first, but the roses of this Underworld were not merely pretty flowers. They ranked higher than the «four great sacred flowers» bearing fruits that stored sacred power of high purity: anemones, marigolds, dahlias, and cattleyas. Cultivation of these was prohibited for even nobles and those from the imperial family, let alone commoners, and the few wild ones that grew sparsely in the hills and fields were said to fetch an outrageous price in Centoria’s marketplace when found.
There were thousands, no, even tens of thousands of that ludicrously rare plant in this maze alone… The instant that came to mind, I was driven by the urge to pull out and bring along every single one of them, but unfortunately, this world did not have a convenient function known as the item storage.
In contrast to me giving life to my exceedingly realistic conflicts, Eugeo’s reaction was calm indeed. Pushing apart the leaves with thorny edges with his fingertips, speaking while peeking inside.
“It doesn’t look like the flowers bloomed yet, but the buds are swelling out. With this many around, there should be quite an amount of sacred power released into the air.”
Now that he mentioned it, the air within the maze certainly was sweet and pure, with my body feeling as though it was purified with each breath taken. When I took in a greedy, deep breath, Eugeo continued, seemingly annoyed.
“That’s not what I’m talking about; we might be able to use fairly high ranking sacred arts right now.”
“…Even if you say that, we aren’t hurt right now…”
“But we’re still lacking something important, aren’t we? Our…”
“Ah, aah, that’s right… our swords!”
I finally understood what Eugeo was getting at and quietly snapped my fingers.
The class 38 iron chain wrapped around my right arm might be a heartening weapon too, but Eugeo was not versed in the usage of the whip, and quicker repossession of the «Blue Rose Sword» and the «black one» would be far more reassuring. Or rather, recovery of the swords was at the highest order of importance.
The two swords were still somewhere else, carried away by Integrity Knight Alice, but we could get an estimate on their whereabouts through the use of sacred arts at least. I put up my right hand, and then took in a deep breath of air.
I shouted out the words, considered as the opening line for sacred arts by Eugeo and as an activation command for the system manipulation authority by me, in a subdued voice. The five digits on my right hand were covered in a faint violet light, signaling the booted up manipulation authority entering its standby state. Stretching my index finger straight, loosely grasping the remaining four, I started the next command.
“Generate umbra element.”
Upon chanting so while imaging a black matte gem, a miniscule sphere of jet-black encircling a bluish-purple phosphorescence appeared at the end of my rigid finger. It was one of the eight «elements» existing in this world, the «umbra element». The degree of difficulty for this art was a little higher, but those boring sacred arts lectures and tests finally served their purpose after coming this far.
The umbra element was the opposite of the «luminous element» Dormitory Supervisor Azurika created to treat Eugeo’s right eye yesterday morning, tinged with a negative attribute. It was a dangerous item that would scrape off the entire surrounding space in one go if discharged as it was, but by utilizing its suction property, it could be used in this manner as well.
“Adhere possession. Object ID, WLSS102382. Discharge.”
Finishing the chant for the art, the umbra element that floated at my fingertip started to move as though it was sucked in by something. It soared up towards the east as it swayed about, using up all of its energy and vanishing right before it made contact with the cathedral’s wall. However, a faint bluish-purple trace remained in the air for a duration of several seconds.
I quickly shifted my sight and stared intensely at where the line drawn by the umbra element led to. Having done the same, Eugeo spoke with slight disappointment.
“Looks like the swords really are inside the cathedral. I was hoping they were stored away somewhere like an outdoor storage shed, though…”
“Still, they don’t seem too high up, even if they’re inside. The second floor… no, it might be around the third floor? I’m glad they weren’t carried to a higher floor than that.”
“You’re right… I guess. Then, let’s make our first objective to sneak into the cathedral from somewhere aside from the main entrance and take back our swords from the third floor.”
Although I was secretly worried if it was fine to think of Eugeo, calmly voicing out phrases like ‘sneak in’ or ‘take back’ that were used solely by me back at the academy, as dependable, I nodded.
Even if we knew the whereabouts of the swords, our need to clear the maze of roses did not change. I wondered whether there was a sacred art that could show us the route towards the exit, but unfortunately, a command that convenient did not exist—probably.
Upon passing through the bronze gate once again, Eugeo and I first set off towards the plaza in front. It would have been a beautiful sight if the roses coiling about the fences to the left and right were in bloom and the day broke, but the current darkness was our only ally. We killed our footsteps and advanced in a half run under the starlight.
The next gate immediately showed itself. The plaza that served as the flying dragon’s landing zone was ahead. I do recall having seen that bench and small fountain, but I couldn’t be sure if there was a map of the entire rose garden. No, it’s a plaza, so it’s definitely there; let it be there.
The moment I was about to pass through another gate slightly smaller than the first while praying thus, a familiar, weak, prickling pain ran through the roots of my bangs. At roughly the same time, Eugeo pulled on my coat from behind.
“Wh-What is it?”
I immediately prepared myself and focused my eyes in front.
The plaza was in the shape of a rectangle, longer towards the east and west, with the gate we were in at its eastern end. A bronze statue of the god, Terraria, stood on the fountain constructed in the middle, and around it were four benches made from the same bronze as the fences, separated at uniform distances.
And as Eugeo said, there was a person’s form on the bench to our right—the northern side.
Although the face couldn’t be seen with that long hair in loose waves hiding it, the somewhat thin stature was covered in polished silver armor, with a partially curved long sword on the left of the waist. And from the ends of those two shoulders hung a mantle of a deep shade. I could clearly see that crest with a cross going through a circle embroidered upon the mantle, even from this angle.
Eugeo and I distinctly swallowed our breaths, and then whispered as though we were squeezing the words out.
“In… integrity knight…!”
There was no mistake. Judging from that physique, that hairstyle, and the color of that equipment as well, it wasn’t Alice, but I could easily believe that integrity knight was roughly as strong as her. I didn’t have a sword either… no, even if I had one, I doubted I could achieve victory unhurt.
Should I escape into the maze from the gates to the north or south right this instant? Or perhaps I should retreat straight behind; I was momentarily at a loss. However, before I could decide on a course of action, a male voice with a refreshing ring to it flowed through the plaza.
“There is no need to stand at such a place; enter, and come forth, prisoners.”
The glimmer held aloft in his right hand was, surprisingly enough, a wine glass. Upon looking at it, there was a bottle left on the bench as well.
Having felt the awfully provocative vibes in the knight’s tone and gestures, my bad habit kicked in, and I ended up responding rather than escaping.
“Oh now, how about treating us to some of that wine too?”
Without an immediate reply, the integrity knight slowly turned this way, then presented the wine glass for a short moment for us to see.
“Regrettably, I would have to say that this would not suit the mouths of children… and not to mention, criminals, like the two of you. Made in the west empire, it is a hundred and fifty years old. I suppose I could spare you a whiff of its fragrance, however.”
That face that smiled pleasantly while the glass swirled was stunningly beautiful, even under the starlight.
An exquisite balance produced by that high nose bridge and those eyebrows with a rugged charm to them, along with a crisp gleam from that pair of long-slitted eyes.
When Eugeo and I were unconsciously awed into silence, the knight uncrossed his legs and nimbly stood up, causing some noise with his armor. He was rather tall—probably a head taller than us both. His deep purple mantle and pale purple hair both swayed in the night wind.
Having emptied the wine in one gulp, the knight then spoke several unexpected words.
“As expected of Alice-sama, my master; such keen insight. Able to foresee even this one-in-a-million situation of the prisoners escaping.”
“A… Alice-sama? M-My master…?”
I repeated in a daze.
The integrity knight gave a serene nod and continued his pompous words.
“To be honest, I never thought it conceivable myself, despite her orders to spend a night here in anticipation of your escape. I planned to admire the rosebuds with a bottle of wine as an accompaniment for this all-night vigil, but to think you would actually appear. —Those, wrapped around your arms, are chains made from spirit-iron forged from the volcanos of the south empire. I do not know how you’ve cut them, but I believe there is no further room for doubt that you were imprisoned for high treason.”
The knight set the wine glass onto the bench while keeping his smile on. Combing up his long hair with his now-emptied right hand, he heightened the emphasis on his words by a mere bit.
“Certainly, I will have you return to the underground jail straight away, but I do believe a slightly severe punishment is in order before that. Of course, the both of you are prepared?”
That thin smile remained there, but an overwhelming hostility flowed out from the lean silhouette of his tall frame, and I restrained myself from backing off a step with all my might. Returning the strength into my stomach, I somehow managed to reply in an ordinary tone.
“If you’re saying that, there’s no way you believe that we would take that punishment without a fight, right?”
“Hahaha, what liveliness. I heard you were merely chicks, yet to graduate from the academy, but what a sight you’ve shown me. In light of that bravado, allow me to state my name before I reduce your Lives to a drop. —I am Integrity Knight Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one. I may be inexperienced, «summoned» a mere one month ago with no territories under my supervision, but I beg your forgiveness on that matter.”
A light breath escaped Eugeo the moment he heard the knight’s long-winded speech, but I didn’t shift my focus towards my partner’s reaction. After all, that speech articulated in that seemingly provocative, beautiful voice contained several crucial points of information.
Firstly, the fact that there was a convention in the names of integrity knights was made clear. Considering how the full name of Integrity Knight Alice was Alice Synthesis Thirty as well, the initial «Alice» or «Eldrie» would be their personal names. The following «Synthesis» would be a name they have in common. Next, the last name was not a name, but a number. It was in English, so Eugeo wouldn’t understand, but Alice was likely the thirtieth integrity knight. And Eldrie here was the thirty-first—
Furthermore, he said ‘summoned a mere one month ago’. The implications of the word, summon, were unclear, but if Eldrie was the latest human to be appointed as a knight, that would mean there was a total of merely thirty-one integrity knights. Not to mention how those numerous knights were away from the cathedral to guard the various areas of the Human World, so there might only be ten knights or so left in the tower, even on the more side.
But those calculations would turn out to be counting your chickens before whatever it was happened, if we weren’t able to break through this novice knight in front of our eyes.
I turned towards Eugeo, standing diagonally left behind me, and whispered.
“Let’s fight. I’ll face off against him first, so wait for my signal, Eugeo.”
“Y-Yeah. But… Kirito, I…”
“I said it, didn’t I, that we can’t hesitate any more. Without defeating that guy, there’s no way we could get up the cathedral.”
“No, I’m not hesitating, I just, his name… —No, let’s leave this for later. Understood, but don’t overdo it, Kirito.”
Eugeo’s reaction made me wonder if the plan got through to him, but we couldn’t take our own sweet time to discuss. It felt like the unidentified guardian spirit atop my hair breathed a sigh as always, but there would be enough time to escape even after ascertaining the enemy’s true ability, probably.
Taking two steps forward and passing through the gate to the plaza, I unwrapped the iron chain from my right hand and gently gripped it. Having seen that, the knight lightly moved his eyebrows.
“I see, although I was wondering what you would do without even a sword, I suppose you intend to make that chain a weapon. In that case, it appears that I would be able to look forward to a battle slightly more befitting of the word, perhaps?”
That voice and that expression were still full of composure even now. Cursing for it to be covered in cold sweat soon enough, I slowly shortened our distance.
This chain had the handicap of not being able to activate secret moves—swords skills, but it could strike from a distance much farther than a sword. If I were to accumulate low damage attacks through hit and run without stopping my feet, there should be a chance of victory.
That was my scheme, but it was smashed into small fragments in the next moment. Knight Eldrie moved his right hand not towards the sword on the left of his waist, but towards his back hidden by that mantle as he continued speaking.
“Well then, I will use not a sword, but this instead.”
Quickly drawing out his right hand, the object grasped tightly within it seemed to have been stored at the back of his sword belt; a second weapon—tinged in a pure silver radiance, a slender whip.
I was astonished as the whip loosened itself from Eldrie’s right hand before my sight and coiled up above the stone pavement like a snake. Contrasting my unrefined chain, it was gorgeously made from interwoven silver threads. But upon closer examination, sharp thorns sprouted along it in spirals as though it was the stem of a rose, giving off a dangerous gleam as it bore the light of the stars. Getting struck with such a thing wouldn’t result in a mere tear in skin.
In addition, the total length of the whip appeared to be four meters at the very least. My chain was a meter or two, a difference in reach of over three times. Something like hit and run tactics would not be possible with this.
When I stood still while perspiring cold sweat, Eldrie appeared to have seen through my thoughts as he sharply swung his right hand. The whip winded as though it was alive, striking the stone pavement with a snap.
“Now then… in respect for your resolution in disregarding the Axiom Church and Taboo Index, and even breaking out from the jail, allow me to serve as your opponent with all of my might from the very beginning.”
Without even giving me the time to react, Eldrie held his left hand over the whip in his right, and then loudly cried out in a frigid, tense voice.
I could not discern most of the extremely complex ceremony for that art after that.
Like magic in the nostalgic «Alfheim Online», high speed chants—in other words, rapidly speaking out commands continuously—were possible for sacred arts of the Underworld. However, as the speed of the chanting increased, so did the probability of making a mistake in the ceremony.
Within the extents of my knowledge, the person second-most capable in high speed chants was Sortiliena-senpai, while the best was Azurika-sensei. However, Eldrie’s chanting was faster than even sensei’s. Speaking out a long command not less than thirty words in merely seven or eight seconds, he finished off with a phrase unfamiliar to my ears.
Enhance was… to strengthen? Armament was, erm…
However, I wasn’t given the time to flip through the English-Japanese dictionary within my brain. That was as Eldrie casually held aloft his right hand, then swung it down in my direction without a pause.
The distance between us was approximately fifteen meters. Even if that guy’s whip was long, it should not reach. However.
Eldrie’s whip streaked a silver trace in the air and stretched its length to several times of what it was, as though it was made from an elastic material. Even through my shock, I instinctively lifted the chain above my head with both hands. Immediately following that, a violent impact assailed me, raining down large amounts of bluish-white sparks.
If I were to take this while standing still like this, the chain would be sliced apart. Intuitively knowing that, I bent my knees and warded off the whip by twisting my body towards the right. Jangle! When that intense scraping noise rang out and the whip left the chain, striking the stone pavement, it carved a deep groove there before returning back to the knight’s hand.
While feeling cold sweat gush out from my entire body, I let out a deep groan upon seeing the chain.
It just shaved away an entire portion of this class 38 object, a chain made from that spirit-iron thingy, and nearly sliced through one of its links, didn’t it?
Facing the frozen me, the integrity knight offered a faint smile as he spoke.
“My… I thought to slice off one of your ears, but it appears you staved off the attack from my sacred tool, «Frost Scale Whip», despite seeing it for the first time. Perhaps this calls for an apology on making light of you for being a mere student.”
Even if I wanted to say something in reply to those words overflowing with tranquility, my mouth stiffened up and couldn’t move.
A formidable opponent. And exceedingly so. The one that unconsciously made light of the other was me.
Integrity Knight Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one was a type of enemy I’d never ever had as an opponent before; I understood that now, though belatedly.
The virtual world, Underworld, was an experimental field for Rath at most and strictly speaking, in this battle, my life—not that of Kirito as a swordsman, but of Kirigaya Kazuto as a high school student, was not on the line. Even if my neck was blown away by Eldrie’s whip and my Life turned to zero, my actual flesh and blood should not suffer a single injury.
As such, it could not be considered to compare to the death game, SAO, on the fear of battle. The fear when facing off gigantic floor bosses, monsters, or perhaps red players descended into madness; a sensation like a bottomless hole opened up under your feet, walking on a tight rope, was one that I will probably never get the chance to experience again, neither do I have the desire to do so.
However, even if that were to be called a death game, the majority of the players of that world were net gamers without any connection to actual swordsmanship, me included. Those people used the numerical stats and motion assist granted by the system, as well as the meager reaction speed trained over merely one, two years of time as the set of cards in their playing hand for mortal combat.
But Eldrie was different. He accumulated sword practice and arts study over tens of years in this world, training himself to the utmost limits. He was a true swordsman, physically and mentally. Different from both the players of SAO and the monsters operated by the system; if I had to put it into words, he was like the true embodiment of a «rune knight» that appeared in fantasy fiction books.
Possessing skill and sacred arts far more refined than the goblin soldiers at the mountain range at the edge and exuding more willpower than even the head elite swordsmen-in-training, Raios Antinous and Uolo Levanteinn, Eldrie likely surpassed me in each and every aspect of the current me. If I were to continue fighting with a single chain as my weapon, I would unfortunately have a hundred percent chance of losing.
If I were to state a feasible method to struggle out of this situation, it would be…
——That you are not alone.
It felt like someone spoke on my behalf, but I turned to my partner behind as though I was guided there and softly whispered.
“Eugeo. The only point for a chance of victory is the fact that we have two people. I’ll stop his whip somehow, so you’ll be the one to deal the blow.”
However, I couldn’t quite hear a reply. When I shifted my sight over my shoulders in doubt, Eugeo’s face showed a shade of admiration rather than fear. His mouth finally began moving, but the words he uttered were dyed in nothing but praise.
“…Did you see that art just now, Kirito? Amazing… I’ve only read it in the ancient books in the library, but there’s no mistaking it. That’s the «armament full control art»… a super high ranking sacred art to link with the true essence of the weapon through an art ceremony, making its offensive power representative of a miracle from God. That’s only to be expected of an integrity knight, huh!”
“Like we’re in any situation to appreciate that. …If that can extend the reach, couldn’t that full control thing be used on our chains as well?”
“Impossible, impossible! It is designated as a secret art of the highest grade in the church, after all. Besides, it seems only weapons of sacred tool grade can be targeted by that art.”
“Then let’s forget about that. We have to do something with the weapons we have on hand. Look, when I manage to hold back that whip somehow, you’ll end it. Even if you’re not used to using the chain, you can probably swing it straight down at least.”
I double-confirmed with Eugeo who finally showed a tense expression.
“Prepare yourself. We’ll defeat the strongest force of the church, the integrity knight.”
“…I know. I said it, didn’t I, that I won’t hesitate anymore.”
Nodding, Eugeo held the tip of the chain wrapped around his right hand as well and slowly loosened it.
The moment we exchanged glances, the integrity knight showed his usual refreshing smile as he gently rattled the silver whip.
“Are you done with your discussion, prisoners? Now then, how about sparing me a little enjoyment?”
“…Should you really be that laidback as an integrity knight?”
“Naturally, all who oppose the Axiom Church deserve a stern and potent divine punishment… that is the will of the Holiness that is the highest minister. However, I, too, am a knight with pride and it pains me to lash at the unresisting weak. Therefore, I shall hope that the both of you could display some dignity by landing even a single graze upon my armor at the very least.”
“…Rather than a graze on your armor, we’ll blast off half of your Life and wipe that broad grin off your face.”
Concealing the unease spreading through my heart, I boasted. The name, «highest minister», mentioned by Eldrie bothered me, but this was no situation to be pondering over other affairs. Swinging the chain in my right hand once, I quickly thrust my left hand towards Eldrie.
“System call! Generate thermal element!”
Imaging a deep crimson ruby as I shouted the command, flaming points of light sprang to life on my thumb, index finger and middle finger, one on each of them. It was the «thermal element» that served as the source for flame-type offensive arts. I was about to continue and deploy the art ceremony, but Eldrie calmly raised his left hand as well, fifteen meters ahead.
“System call. Generate cryogenic element.”
A total of five blue «cryogenic elements» to counter my art were created on all of his fingertips. It was a sudden loss in terms of numbers, but I ignored that and bridged the ceremony.
“Form element, arrow shape!”
Three flame arrows were completed as I pulled my left hand back while chanting, stretching the points of light long and narrow. A shape focused on flight speed and piercing ability. I chanted the final line as fast as I could to deny the enemy time to react.
“Fly straight! Discharge!”
Creating a swirl of flames, the three arrows were aimed at Eldrie and released.
In this world where sword battles were the norm, the reason for the existence of offensive sacred arts was battling military forces from the land of darkness—or so, that old teacher at the academy said. He would probably faint if he knew the magic he taught was used on an integrity knight of all people; with such thoughts in a corner of my mind, I rushed out as well, chasing the flame arrows.
In my path, Eldrie chanted the opposing art ceremony in a single breath.
“Form element, bird shape. Counter thermal object, discharge!”
The five blue points of light became small birds—a shape suitable for homing in on targets—and took off simultaneously. In terms of projectile speed, my arrows were higher, but the ice birds won in numbers. Although they slipped past two of them, the remaining three intercepted the flame arrows one after another, scattering both explosive flames and ice crystals, offsetting and extinguishing each other. The wine glass on the bench was blown away by the explosion’s impact, smashing into fragments onto the stone pavement.
Under the cover of the flashy light effects, I closed in towards Eldrie in a single spurt. With another two steps… another one step, he’ll be within the chain’s reach—
The knight’s right hand suddenly moved and the snake-like silver whip sprang up from the ground. The range advantage from that armament full control thing wouldn’t matter at this distance. I tried my best to predict the trajectory of the whip as it attacked from my right in an arc, bending my body to dodge while taking that final step. —But.
I swallowed my breath the moment I saw it. Didn’t Eldrie’s whip just split into two, with the newly born silver snake tracing out an even sharper angle as it hunted me down?
I was unable to cope with that attack, having seen it at a distance of several centimeters, and the whip dealt a heavy blow to my chest. Tossed onto the stone pavement, a raspy scream escaped from me.
I thought I was prepared, but a blow from the metal whip with countless thorns growing over it hurt enough to make my eyes spin. Looking with my teeth clenched, the chest portion of my black uniform was completely torn off along with my undershirt and a straight, deep red scar ran over the exposed skin. A great number of blood drops welled up all at once, drawing parallel lines as they flowed down.
Eldrie laughed gaily, looking down at me miserably fallen onto my rear.
“Hahaha, a little trick like that has no effect on this Frost Scale Whip. In its full control state, its reach can extend up to fifty mel while splitting into a maximum of seven. You might achieve something if you had eight throwing themselves upon me, however.”
I had absolutely no composure left to get irritated at his calm and composed mannerisms. It was my first time tasting this much pain ever since my shoulder was cut by that goblin leader two years ago.
I always knew that this low pain resistance of mine was one of my major weaknesses, but in the Master Swords Academy, where the usage of the stopping-before-contact rule was the norm, I rarely ever had the opportunity to get used to pain. There’s a limit to how worthless I could get, having said that I would do something grand like stopping the whip at the risk of my life.
“Fm, could it have been an overestimation on my part after all? Then I shall grant you some pity at least, and sever your consciousness in one smooth stroke.”
Proclaiming so, Eldrie lightly rustled the silver whip and took a step forward.
In that instant, Eugeo, who advanced close by unnoticed, leapt out from the shadow of the fountain with a frantic expression.
Letting out a rare loud yell, he swung down the chain in his right hand. It was a blow that I had no qualms with, considering it was the first time he was using that weapon, and a surprise attack as well—but still, it was not enough to penetrate the knight’s guard. Eldrie’s right hand flashed so fast it became a blur, splitting the pure silver whip into two once again while airborne. One repelled the chain while the other assailed Eugeo. He was struck away soundly on the chest and before Eugeo could even scream out, he fell into the fountain, spouting out a large spray.
The sharp pain tormenting me showed no sign of subsiding, but I couldn’t waste the chance created by the attack Eugeo risked his life for. The instant I felt more than half of Eldrie’s attention leave me, I roused my upper body and let loose the object I gripped within my right hand several seconds ago towards the knight’s face.
Unlike Aincrad and Alfheim, most of the objects in this world would not vanish immediately after being broken. They started up a new count of Life as shards, fragments, or perhaps carcasses.
The broken part had its Life, or in another word, durability, reduced at a speed far quicker than before, and it disappeared for good without a trace upon that reaching zero. But still, there was a delay of several minutes at the very least, before utter annihilation.
Even if that was something insignificant, like a shard from a broken wine glass.
The glass fragment I threw pierced through the pre-daybreak darkness and flew towards Eldrie’s left eye. In addition, it should barely reflect any of the starlight as I rubbed it against the blood that flowed from my chest injury right before throwing it.
It probably wouldn’t even take a tenth of a second for the fragment to hit him after entering his sight. And yet, the knight turned his face to the right with his monstrous reaction speed, avoiding a direct hit at his eyeball. After making a scratch near his left cheekbone, the glass shard left behind only a shallow injury as it flew off into the darkness.
Before Eldrie turned back to me, I jumped up with all my strength from a crouch.
Kicking off the ground twice, I entered the range required by the chain in my right hand. With the chain raised high as though it was carried upon my left shoulder. Having recovered from his moment of agitation, Eldrie pulled back his right hand and the whip that twisted in midair after hitting Eugeo moved out to intercept me.
Even if I were to continue swinging down the chain simplemindedly, it would probably clash against the whip at best or fail to break through the splitting whip’s guard, making me the only one to receive a hard blow again at worst. However, I shook off my fear and shifted the focus of my widely opened eyes from the glittering end of the whip to Eldrie’s background—the fountain Eugeo fell into.
Shifting your sight away from an opponent during combat was a major prohibition in each and every style taught by the Master Swords Academy. Yes, it could be said to be a sort of «taboo». Hence, the swordsmen of this world will never ever do it. Even integrity knights shouldn’t be an exception to this rule.
And so, Eldrie let out a low growl as he averted his focus from me, even if it was for a mere instant. He felt that Eugeo who was just knocked down into the fountain had immediately gotten up and started a counterattack. However, that was, of course, an act of deceit through the movement of my eyes with the current circumstances. No matter how sturdy Eugeo was, even he couldn’t get up that easily after a blow from a sacred tool.
The pure silver whip jolted slightly from its trajectory in midair, reflecting Eldrie’s bewilderment. It passed by several millimeters above my chain without colliding. The reason why I attacked from this somewhat difficult posture of swinging the chain overhead while slanting to the left was for it to go parallel to the whip’s trajectory, in a bid to reduce the odds of interception. A method I grasped after having my wooden sword utterly entangled by Liena-senpai’s whip.
However, this will not work again. This was the unequivocal final chance.
I used my entire body to swing down the spirit-iron chain with all the fervor in my mind and body.
My aim was a single place out of the knight’s whole body: his head, unprotected by the solid silver armor. I do not know whether it was for the sake of drinking wine or if he looked down on us students, but I wasn’t nice enough to ignore this opening of not having a helmet equipped. If the heavy and solid chain were to make a direct hit on his unarmored head, he should lose his consciousness, even if he was an integrity knight—
But. Yet again, Eldrie displayed ability and resolution exceeding that of my expectations.
Stretching his left hand out like lightning, he received the chain at a part near its tip, not with the back of his hand that was protected by a gauntlet, but with what peeked out from it: his palm covered by a thin leather glove.
If he used the back of his hand, the chain would rotate with that as a fulcrum and its tip should seize the knight’s head, even if it lost a little power. Hence, Eldrie’s choice was the right one—but the offensive power of a class 38 iron chain wasn’t something a single piece of thin leather could soak up.
A restrained moan escaped from the knight the moment he caught the chain. My ears could clearly perceive the sound of several of the bones in his left hand breaking all at once. He would not be able to use that left hand for a while and neither would he throw the sacred tool called «Frost Scale Whip» or something in his right hand onto the ground.
Jumping at him and bringing this into a scuffle. I was initiated in the Serlut-style of «martial arts» by Liena-senpai. Although those gentle techniques focused on locking and choking instead of attacking, that could be considered more effective on my heavily armored enemy.
Crying out, I grabbed Eldrie’s injured left arm with my empty left hand and stepped in.
However. Even if he was the newest integrity knight at number thirty-one, his actions exceeded my predictions yet again.
The left hand that ought to have been broken gripped the chain with intensity and he pulled with all the might he could muster. The start of the chain was connected to the iron ring on my right hand, so my sense of balance was destroyed as I staggered, being forced to spin towards the other direction. I desperately tried to regain my footing, but a vehement yell surged out from Eldrie once again—
My entire body seemed like it was about to spin about. If I left the situation as it was, I would be placed out of the chain’s range while within the whip’s. And that guy would never permit me to approach ever again.
I instinctively changed the target of my left hand and grasped the whip held in Eldrie’s right hand, instead of his left arm. The «Frost Scale Whip» possessed a countless number of sharp thorns, but there weren’t any until about one and a half meter from the grip. I wrapped that part around my arm, making it hard to remove.
With this, as long as Eldrie didn’t let go of both the whip in his right hand and the chain in his left, he wouldn’t gain any distance from me. Rather, if he were to release only the chain in his left hand, that would only serve to allow me to attack as much as I wanted. The other party probably realized that as well, holding the chain tight once again with his broken left hand.
Eldrie and I were fixed at a short distance of one meter due to those two: the silver whip and the iron chain.
It must be outrageously painful to hold on to the chain with his left hand, but the knight showed practically none of it on his face, whispering in a composed tone even now.
“…It appears that I would have to retract that opinion about overestimating you. I certainly did not think you could inflict this amount of damage upon myself.”
I was actually about to say more in rebuttal, but I didn’t want to turn the topic towards the state of our wounds. After all, when comparing Eldrie’s fractured left hand and the gash on my chest, the one with a higher rate of Life reduction was mine, with my blood still flowing out. If that guy were to notice, he would probably come up with the strategy of continuing with this deadlock and waiting for my strength to fade.
…No, perhaps he had already noticed. The knight moved his mouth once again with a faint smile.
But the subject spoken of in his words was somewhat unusual for the sake of stalling for time.
“But still, I certainly do draw a curious feeling of déjà vu from that technique… that style of combat.”
“Oh now… But that wouldn’t be strange or anything. Couldn’t you have fought with a swordsman using the Serlut-style like me before?”
“Fm, that would be inconceivable, prisoner. As I have mentioned, I was summoned into this Human World as an integrity knight a mere one month ago.”
“……By summon, you mean…”
Just as the conversation was about to proceed, I finally noticed that sound. Or to be accurate, the change in rhythm of a sound I had always been listening to, even now.
A stone statue of Terraria, the god of the land, stood in the middle of the fountain behind Eldrie. The small stream that flowed from the bottle held by the statue had always made a graceful sound as it cascaded into the pond below, but that now sounded like a murmur. This—was a signal. One from my partner, for me.
Eldrie would definitely notice straight away. I would have to take immediate action even while continuing this conversation.
“…You make it sound as though someone called you out into this Human World.”
Don’t hear it; I took action, rather than speaking it out. That said, I couldn’t exactly release the «Frost Scale Whip» entwined around my left hand. There was but one thing I could do; to grip the chain in my right hand—
And pull it back with all my strength!
In response to my sudden movement, Eldrie pulled the chain back in turn. Cling! The chain strained and immediately following that, was torn into two near its middle. The portion deeply whittled away by the whip earlier finally broke under the strain.
A surprised voice escaped from Eldrie as expected and it occurred next, the instant his posture was crippled.
The one who leapt out from the fountain behind him with a splash was, of course, Eugeo. Getting back on his feet after the pain from the heavy blow to his chest, he was waiting for the chance for an ambush below the small stream that fell into the fountain. The change in the sound of the stream was due to him receiving the water current onto his back.
Eugeo swung the chain in his right hand down towards Eldrie’s unarmored head while sprinkling drops of water from his entire body.
It was half a second before, when that short verse… no, command, escaped from the knight’s mouth.
I truly couldn’t understand it at all, this time round. But what happened seemed highly impossible considering the shortness of the command, a phenomenon that greatly exceeded the boundaries of sacred arts.
The pure silver whip held tightly in my left hand that Eldrie should neither be able to push nor pull suddenly glowed with a dazzling sheen. Its body was trembling violently in that state as though it turned alive—it stretched out with impetuous vigor.
The «Frost Scale Whip» that became a glittering snake drew a beautiful arc as it flew above Eldrie’s and my heads and swooped down at the chain held by Eugeo. No, calling it a snake wasn’t done metaphorically any longer. I clearly saw those eyes, red like rubies, and that jaw opened wide at the end of the whip.
Biting the end of the chain, the snake pulled Eugeo into the air with it, throwing him onto the stone pavement right beside me. Falling onto his back, Eugeo gave a short groan. Although the damage done on him was probably higher than what was dealt on me, along with that chest injury he received earlier, my partner still tried to get up, determined.
However, the sharp point of a sword grazed his wet, flaxen forelocks a moment before he could.
Recovered from his staggering, Eldrie threw the torn chain aside and drew the sword on the left of his waist with his freed left hand, thrusting it at Eugeo. The sword was slender yet glazed in a dignified radiance characteristic of sharp swords and despite how it should have been maddeningly painful just holding onto the sword with that broken hand, the knight merely showed a bit of severity near his brow.
The silver snake that protected its master of its own will—I couldn’t see any other possibilities—contracted as it slithered and returned to being a mute whip once again at the end of my left hand. Apparently, the miracle brought about by that mysterious «release recollection» command had a rather short effect duration.
And so, it was a stalemate once again.
Eldrie sealed my left hand away with the whip. I had half of the chain broken off. And Eugeo had his movement sealed with a sword thrust before him. The initiative seemed to lie with Eldrie who succeeded in drawing his sword, but I dare say that he wouldn’t be able to do a strong slash with that hand.
A brief period of silence descended upon a section of the piercing cold rose garden right before the break of dawn.
The first to speak this time was Eldrie yet again.
“…Alice-sama was justified in her request for vigilance. Those attacks had no style or anything of that sort… and that was how you surpassed my predictions. I certainly did not think that I would even have to resort to the secret move of «unlocking those memories».”
After repeating that in a soft voice, I finally realized those words were the meaning of the mysterious command earlier.
Release was to unlock and recollection was the word for memories. In other words, a ceremony to unlock the memories of a weapon… I suppose?
A weapon’s memories. I felt like I had heard that phrase somewhere recently and thought to search through my own memories. However, Eugeo verbalized several unexpected words with a voice and face filled with admiration for some reason before I could.
“You, too… You’re just as I expected, integrity knight-dono.”
“Th-This isn’t any time or place to get all choked up. …What did you mean by expected?”
I unintentionally replied with a question even though I meant to retort at those words that made it seem as though he knew this knight from the past.
“I thought I heard that name somewhere ever since the start. I finally recalled a moment ago. You see, Kirito, this person is—the number one representative swordsman of the Norlangarth North Empire this year. And the champion of the Four Empires Unity Tournament, Eldrie Woolsburg!”
What did you say; I stared at the face of the integrity knight a meter and a half in front of me once again.
Number one representative of the North Empire. So, in other words, he was the champion of the Empire Swordsmanship Tournament held in the last third of the third month this year. The representative from the Imperial Knight Order who defeated Sortiliena-senpai, a representative from the Master Swords Academy, in the first match and Uolo Levanteinn in the second. He was the one who won through the Four Empires Unity Tournament held in the first third of the fourth month with overwhelming sword strength, obtaining the honor of being the strongest swordsman in the Human World this year and invited to the Central Cathedral—or so I heard.
Come to think of it, I didn’t even know the name of that hero. Neither television nor radio existed in this world and the internet was completely out of the question, with the only thing that could be labeled as news media being the primeval weekly wall newspaper, so I inadvertently found going to the bulletin board at the main academy building to be troublesome, but it seems Eugeo made it a point to check it out each week.
“Diligent, aren’t you…”
I stopped my thoughts, flustered, after whispering that sort of thought out loud unintentionally. If it was as Eugeo said, that the integrity knight before my eyes, Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one, was the Unity Tournament champion, Eldrie Woolsburg, wouldn’t that highlight some peculiarities in his behavior?
I’m sure Eldrie said this a mere few minutes ago. That he was ‘summoned into this Human World as an integrity knight a mere one month ago’. I would understand if he said that he was appointed as an integrity knight, but… the way he said it was as though……
“……What, did you say?”
Hearing that sudden, hoarse voice, I returned my vision from my partner on my right, towards the knight in front.
Eldrie—had even more color fade away from his already-pale skin, his purple eyes now ashen and opened extremely wide, as though he received some sort of incredible shock without our notice. The shade of blood in his quivering lips drained out and words were forced out from them.
“I am… the North Empire, representative swordsman…? Eldrie… Woolsburg…?”
Eugeo was surprised with his mouth agape at that unexpected reaction as well, but immediately nodded and continued.
“Ye… yes, that’s right. I’m sure that was written in the newspaper last month. A handsome man with purple hair… winning every match in a single round with an extraordinarily elegant swordsmanship style…”
“No… I am… I am, the integrity knight, Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one! I… don’t know anyone of the name, Woolsburg…!”
Forgetting that we were still in the midst of battle as well, I went for it.
“Still, it’s not like you’ve been an integrity knight ever since you were born. Wasn’t that your name before you were appointed as a knight…?”
“I don’t know! I… I don’t know!!”
Messing up his hair as he shouted, Eldrie’s face became increasingly pale, a bizarre light visible in his eyes.
“I… I’d… taken up the invitation from the highest minister, Administrator-sama… summoned to this land from the Celestial World as an integrity knight and…”
His speech stopped thus—
A phenomenon that bewildered Eugeo and me even further had occurred.
A beam of purple light suddenly welled out from the exact center of Eldrie’s smooth forehead.
Strength left Eldrie’s right hand as he moaned and I stared at the knight’s forehead, even forgetting about snatching away the whip. The shiny object was a small, inverted triangular mark. No, it wasn’t simply a symbol. It was gradually rising out from the knight’s forehead. The crystal-like, transparent, triangular prism scattered dazzling light as it protruded out centimeter by centimeter.
Fine lines of light ran freely within the triangular prism. When the wedge outside reached as far as five centimeters, the whip and sword finally slipped off Eldrie’s two hands onto the stone pavement.
The knight took a step or two back with blank eyes, without even an attempt to look at us, and then kneeled down onto the stone pavement like a puppet with its strings cut. The brilliance of the crystal prism from his forehead heightened further and I could even hear a mysterious chiming sound.
It was time to take action. —That’s what I thought, but I couldn’t make an immediate decision on what exactly it was that I should be doing.
It would be easy to attack. If I were to pick the knight’s sword from the ground and slash at his unarmored neck, not only could I render him powerless, I could take his life away.
It was also possible to flee as fast as we could. In the worst case scenario, if it were to serve as an impetus for the knight’s consciousness to return, I expect he would go on the offensive for real this time round. Surprise attacks wouldn’t work anymore in that situation and we might be the ones to lose all of our Lives.
Lastly, there was also the choice to watch over the outcome as we were doing now, though that would be the most risky.
This phenomenon happening before our very eyes was unmistakably related to the core of the secrets to integrity knights… and thus, the Axiom Church. Why did Alice lose her memories and obtain a different personality? The meaning behind the word, summon, that Eldrie used? If we were to watch this phenomenon to the end with our own eyes, we might find out the explanations behind those riddles.
At any rate, Eugeo wouldn’t agree with slashing at Eldrie while he couldn’t resist. And even if we were to run, it was no simple matter to escape this rose garden maze.
In that case, let’s continue watching while maintaining our vigilance. Concluding so, I crept up to the kneeling knight, before that happened.
Just when I thought the light from the shining triangular prism that protruded a whole five centimeters from his forehead would fade away as it flickered, it reversed and started to sink back into his forehead.
I instinctively bit my lips. After all, I was anticipating that something would definitely happen when the triangular prism was entirely drawn out.
“Eldrie! Eldrie Woolsburg!”
When I shouted out, the crystal paused for a single moment, but immediately began moving once more. His previous name was not enough to bring this phenomenon to its conclusion. A more decisive «memory» was necessary.
I turned towards my partner with his eyes open wide at my side and shouted in a subdued voice with that hunch in mind.
“Eugeo, don’t you have anything else on Eldrie!? Anything’s fine, make this guy recall more of his memories!”
He made a rigid frown for a moment, but Eugeo immediately nodded.
“Eldrie! You’re the son of the Imperial Knight Order’s general, Eschdol Woolsburg! Your mother’s name was… let’s see… Almera, yes, her name was Almera!”
The blank-faced integrity knight’s lips slightly quivered in that instant.
“Al… me… ra……”
A frail voice escaped from him while the light from the triangular prism grew in intensity. However, what shocked me further were the large drops of tears, silently overflowing from the knight’s widely opened eyes. And that exceedingly weak voice came once again.
“……Mo… the…… er……”
“That’s right… remember, all of it!”
I tried to take another step closer as I shouted.
However, I could not. Don! That heavy impact made the ground tremble and I pitched forward.
I was only conscious of the pain, intense enough to blind my eyes, after I looked down and noticed a single arrow pierced deeply into my right foot.
Unable to withstand it, I blurted out a short scream. Grabbing hold of the bronze-colored arrow with both hands while gasping and pulling with all my might, I almost lost consciousness while assailed by a pain several times that of earlier, but held it down with my teeth clenched.
“Kirito! A-Are you…”
I grasped the chain that hung from Eugeo’s right arm without hearing those words to the end and then pulled it with all my strength.
Whoosh, don! Those noises rang out and two arrows pierced through the place Eugeo was a moment ago. I looked up at the sky while jumping aside even further with the chain still in my hand.
I saw a single flying dragon slowly circling about against the backdrop of the starry sky, with signs of the dawn approaching without us having noticed. I could somehow discern a human figure sitting atop the saddle on its back if I were to concentrate. There was no mistake that it was an integrity knight—but that was astoundingly precise shooting, seeing as the other party was targeting us with a bow while riding a flying dragon, not to mention the distance.
Without even allowing me the time to consider that, the saddled knight drew a gigantic bow. I frantically kicked off the ground with my injured right foot. Two arrows pierced into the stone pavement in front of my eyes without a moment’s delay.
“Th-This is bad.”
I spluttered while grasping Eugeo’s chain. It was the first time I was under attack by bow and arrow in this world. Even the Walking Tactics Manual, Sortiliena-senpai, only went to the extent of using throwing knives as a projectile weapon, so I figured that long range attacks didn’t suit the nature of swordsmen in the Underworld, but it appeared that anything goes for integrity knights.
I couldn’t quite take my eyes off the flying dragon, so I sketched out the surroundings in my mind, but there wasn’t a single place that could shelter both of our bodies. Even if we were to dive into the rose thicket twining about the bronze fences, we probably wouldn’t be able to hide ourselves entirely. Aside from that, there was only—
“No choice but to run! Run if you can dodge the next arrow!”
Whispering so after turning to Eugeo, my entire body tensed up in preparation for the arrow.
However, the new integrity knight ceased fire for the time being and the flying dragon began to circle as it descended. A booming voice ran through the fountain plaza several seconds later.
“Criminals, keep your distance from Integrity Knight Thirty-one!”
Upon taking a glimpse at Eldrie instinctively, the triangular prism that almost fell out from him after all our trouble was returning into his forehead.
“I can spare you forgiveness no longer, for your deplorable attempts at soliciting a venerable integrity knight into depravity! I will shoot through your four limbs and send you back into jail!”
A faint beam of dawn light shone in from the east at that time, illuminating the flying dragon in the sky. The straddling integrity knight was entirely covered in silver, heavy armor, much like Eldrie’s, and carrying a gigantic longbow of red steel in the left hand. That was likely a sacred tool just like the «Frost Scale Whip». We would only know whether that formidable precise shooting was due to the «full control art» or a display of the knight’s true ability from now on.
The hulking knight spoke no more and nocked four arrows onto the red bow at the same time.
It was no longer possible to dodge the shots after confirming them via sight with only this much distance. I dashed with all my might while holding onto Eugeo’s chain. I could feel an intense pain from the injuries on my chest and right foot with each step, but I couldn’t simply stop there. Eugeo followed behind with his audible, frantic breathing.
I did think about fleeing back to the underground jail we were first in, but even if we could avoid the shots that way, it was no solution to the problem at hand. I ran towards the gate south of the plaza, knowing it would be the end if we collided into a dead-end within the maze.
Before we could take much more than a few steps, multiple loud thuds repeatedly rang out from behind.
Without being sure whether my howl was a scream or a war cry, I placed my entire focus into running. Although the fences that stood at both sides of the passage hid us depending on the angle, we couldn’t help but show ourselves at crossroads and such and several arrows would immediately flood into our surroundings.
“How many arrows does that knight have!”
Shouting out in irritation and confusion, Eugeo who ran behind dependably answered.
“It went over thirty after the one earlier, that’s amazing!”
“This isn’t some half-baked MMO… sorry, ignore that!”
It seemed I had lost my sense of direction. But I could feel a pull near my forelocks whenever we approached a junction for some reason, so I turned right or left according to that while continuing sprinting with all I got. It looked like we had somehow maintained a constant distance from the flying dragon for now, but there was nothing more we could do if we ran into a dead-end even once—
It had nothing to do with the negative thoughts and such that ran through my mind, but as I turned to the left at the nth fork, the effect of the mysterious divine protection finally wore out. The road ended as a heartless dead-end ten meters ahead.
Now that it came to this, there was no other way than to break through the metal fence with the chain on my right hand, reduced to half of its length after it broke, but its priority was close to that of the chain as I had checked earlier. The chance of it breaking with a single hit was exceedingly low.
However, there was already no other choice. Gathering my resolve, I was about to leave it all to fate and swing my right hand when it happened.
“Oi, scoot hither!”
Hearing that voice that came from nowhere, I collapsed as my stream of thoughts ceased in that instant. After all, in contrast to the manner of speech characteristic of the elderly in using ‘scoot hither’, the voice was clearly that of a young girl.
When I ran my sight through my surroundings while decelerating, I saw an unnoticed door in the right side of the fence in front. The one who beckoned with her hand from there while her face peeked through was someone who could be described as nothing but a girl of around ten years old as expected, wearing a large black hat.
The small, round spectacles on her nose glittered in the light and the girl vanished through other side of the door. I was momentarily at a loss whether it was a trap or not. But a whole bunch of my forelocks were pulled forward with much strength at that time. As if it was scolding me, ‘What are you doing, hurry up and get in!’.
Eugeo and I plunged into the darkness beyond the door in a feverish daze.
Beyond the door was a space with breadth and depth defying my expectations
I somersaulted forward through the air thrice while that shameful scream escaped from me. Right after that, I fell on my back on a slightly elastic ground. A huge bounce later, I thumped onto the ground with my rear-end this time round.
Eugeo immediately fell beside me in a similar manner. We both shook our heads countless times and then glanced around the area upon regaining our sense of balance.
Eugeo’s unusual utterance was perfectly understandable. We should have just passed through an open door in that rose garden fence. As such, nothing but that maze earlier could have been on its other side.
However, the walls and ceiling surrounding the hallway we now sat at were covered in antiquated wooden boarding with the floor wooden as well. The elasticity I felt when I fell was due to the planks below. Our Lives would have much reduced if it was paved in stone like in the rose garden.
The hallway continued on for another ten meters or so with a warm orange light flickering at its end. Even the surrounding air changed from the chilly and damp night air we felt just a moment ago to one filled with a dry smell reminiscent of timeworn paper.
Just where was this… or so I thought, before I heard a metallic crunch from above, behind me. A tremendously steep staircase came into my sight upon turning around, with a small door and a short human form visible at its top.
I forgot about even my whip-struck chest and arrow-pierced right foot, got up unsteadily and carefully ascended the wooden staircase. The door within my vision should have been formed by a bronze grate before we passed through it, but it was now wooden like the walls and floor. However, in contrast with the antiquated hallway, the door alone was made from brand new plain wood for some reason.
Three steps away from the top, the shadow with its back to us swiftly raised its right hand as a command to me. That hand held an excessively huge bunch of keys made from brass, giving the impression that it had just pulled them from the door’s keyhole that was just as large. I believe that metallic noise several seconds ago was this person locking up the door.
‘Where is this place and who are you?’, I noticed the noise the moment I was about to ask that question. The noise of some small and rigid being creeping about, rustling and creaking, on the immediate other side of the locked door. Goosebumps stood up on the skin of my arms.
“…Done found out, huh. This backdoor‘s buggered out.”
The mysterious person murmured, hushed, and waved its right hand once again as if to urge me forward. I reluctantly postponed my question and descended all the way to the hallway yet again. Eugeo was already on his feet when I returned to his side, and upon turning about, that mysterious person was just about to complete the descent.
As there wasn’t any sort of illumination aside from the light from the end of the hallway faintly shining this way around us, I couldn’t make out much more than a silhouette. A greatly inflated hat upon the head and a magician-like robe covering that small frame. The bunch of keys in its right hand and a staff longer than its own height in the left.
That staff—that magic staff of sorts turned towards us and swung once, as if to urge us on. And simultaneously, a voice.
“Goodness, quit your dilly-dallying and get in! The place’s going down with the passage!”
This couldn’t be anything but a young girl as I thought, but she somehow exuded more of an aura of solemnity than Azurika-sensei from the Master Swords Academy, and Eugeo and I walked towards the light in a panic. Getting out of the short passage in short order, we exited into a queer location.
It was a considerably wide, square-shaped room. Many lamps were mounted onto the wall, with the warmly-tinted flames flickering away. There was nothing else that could be termed furniture, with only a single thick, wooden door visible on the opposing wall.
More than ten hallways like the one we came through were lined up on the other three walls. Judging from a peek at the one right next to us, I saw a staircase and small door at its end as expected.
As Eugeo and I glanced through our surroundings, the robed girl who followed behind swiveled and raised the staff towards the hallway.
That cute—or perhaps, elderly yell accompanied a quick wave.
I figured there wouldn’t be any more surprises in store, but the next phenomenon dumbfounded us yet again. The wallboards on the left and right were just pushed out one after another from the side furthest from us as they made banging noises, and caused tremors as they joined together, didn’t they?
The ten-meter-long hallway was shut away in mere seconds and at the end, only a plain wall remained after the boards that protruded from the top, bottom, left and right met. There was no trace of the hallway there a moment ago, not even a single dent.
Even if it was a sacred art, it had to be a considerably large-scale, high ranking one. A long ceremony recital and a high system access authority should be necessary to move the combined mass of all those objects. The surprising part was that the mysterious girl executed all of that with a single yell going, “There”. In the first place, she didn’t even utter a single syllable of ‘system call’. Not to mention how that phrase had to precede each and every sacred art without exception, according to the academy’s teachings.
The girl made a soft sigh through her nose and upon thrusting the staff into the ground as though she was utterly used to this sort of situation, she finally turned to us.
Taking another look at her in the ample lighting, she appeared to be a young, doll-like, cute girl. The black robe with a velvet-like luster and the large hat made from the same material made her look more like an elderly scholar than a magician, but the chestnut, curly hair peeking from the edges of her hat and that milky skin gave off a youthful radiance.
The girl’s most striking feature was her eyes. Those eyes, fringed by long eyelashes, beyond those round glasses daintily worn on her nose were brown like her hair, but they somehow gave an overwhelming presence of knowledge and wisdom. Simply looking at those eyes made one feel as though they were sucked into a depth with no definite end. It was utterly impossible to predict what she was thinking through them.
Anyway— This girl certainly did save us from the integrity knight’s assault, so let’s express some gratitude, I thought as I lowered my head.
“Err… thanks for saving us.”
“I’ve yet to see if you lot are worth the whole kerfuffle, though.”
This must be what it meant to be curt. I had learnt that it was better to leave negotiations with unfamiliar faces to Eugeo from the experiences we had while travelling, so I jabbed him into bearing the brunt of the conversation with my elbow.
Urged forward, Eugeo gave a bow with his hair still wet and then started off with a self-introduction.
“Well… Nice to meet you, my name is Eugeo and this is Kirito. Thank you very much for your assistance. Err… do you live in this room?”
It seems my partner was rather muddled up as well. The girl made a stunned expression, and then raised her pince-nez glasses before she replied.
“How could that even possibly be the case now. …Come.”
Making a noise with the bottom end of the staff, she turned towards the large door on the wall in front and began walking. We followed behind in a fluster, saw the door open up by itself with a single swing from the staff, and fulfilled our duty of being surprised yet again.
Having passed through the door after the girl, Eugeo and I chalked up another stroke to the number of times we were shocked ever since we entered this enigmatic place and stood in amazement.
It was an absurd spectacle. If I were to express it in a single term—super-humongous-library-room.
The world that comprised entirely of «bookshelves and books» spread out infinitely. The overall space was shaped as a cylinder, but many layers of staircases and passages were built on the walls’ surfaces, with myriads upon myriads of bookshelves lined up on one side or both. The distance between the floor we stood at now and the canopy on the other side of the long gallery that stretched out like a multi-story maze was easily forty meters at least. It would probably correspond to a ten-story building in the real world. I couldn’t even begin to estimate the total number of books stowed away in the shelves.
No matter how I thought about it, there wasn’t a building capable of containing this library room in that rose garden. While looking up at the canopy sunk in a faint darkness, I asked in a hoarse voice.
“Is… is this already inside the Central Cathedral?”
“You could say that, but that’s not entirely true.”
I realized the girl’s voice had a faintly satisfied tone in it.
“As I’ve purged that original door, this Great Library Room does exist within the cathedral, yet it’s not like every other person is able to enter. Not without an invitation from me, that is.”
“Great… Library Room…?”
Eugeo murmured, still dumbfounded as he looked around.
“Yes. This place stores the records of all history since the creation of this world, the structural formulae of all that exist, and all of those system commands you lot name sacred arts.”
……System commands, she says!?
I couldn’t immediately believe what my own ears had heard and stared fixedly on the girl’s face. Words escaped from my half-open lips, partly by themselves.
“Wh… who exactly… are you?”
The girl then, with a smile that practically said that she understood the shock I felt and the reason behind it, stated her name.
“My name is «Cardinal». I was the one who once regulated the world and now serve as the one and only librarian of this Great Library Room.”
As far as I knew, that name held three different meanings.
The first, a high ranking position of the Catholic Church in the real world. They were called suukikyou in Japanese.
Second, the name of a bird in the Fringillidae family *. Shoujyoukoukanchou in Japanese, feathers grew over its entire body, scarlet like a Catholic cardinal’s miter, the source of its name.
And the third—the highly functional autonomous program developed by Kayaba Akihiko for administrating VRMMO games, the «Cardinal System». Its first version was used in SAO, superbly regulating the balance behind the generation of currency, items and monsters within Aincrad, wrapping us players around its little finger.
Kayaba scanned his own brain with a STL prototype and died after SAO was cleared, but he shrunk the Cardinal System and compiled «The Seed», a development support package for the generic VRMMO before that.
The Seed was sent to bud far and wide on the internet by the will of the replicated thoughts program left behind by Kayaba in digital space and ended up managing Gun Gale Online and many other games. I had a hand in the free redistribution for The Seed as well and pondered on the digital Kayaba’s true motive for the longest time, but couldn’t reach a satisfying conclusion in the end. I doubt that man of all people would make a development environment completely free for merely a reason like atoning for the SAO incident, but…
At any rate, was the girl in front of my eyes right now the Cardinal System in a human form?
It was perfectly possible that she was an artificial fluct light with a high position in the Axiom Church with the name, «Cardinal». But the girl certainly said that she was once «the one who regulated» the world. Not one who led or ruled, but one who regulated, Cardinal.
But why was the Cardinal System in this world? Was the Underworld put together by utilizing The Seed? Even if that was so, why would the regulation system that should work entirely in the background, the «unseen hand of God», assume a human form? Unlike «Yui», the counseling program, Cardinal should not have any ability to converse with players itself.
As I stood still, toying with the endless questions I had, Eugeo spoke in a quivering voice by my side, perhaps struck with surprise in his own way too.
“All… history…? The chronicles of the founding of the four empires are all here…?”
“That’s not all to it. Even the history of the world’s creation from when the gods, Stacia and Vector, divided it into the Human World and the Dark Territory are recorded here.”
Eugeo the history lover made a face as though he was about to swoon while swaying left and right at the girl’s words. The mysterious girl possessing the name, Cardinal, pushed the glasses on her nose up with a somewhat mischievous smile.
“My story will take some time, so how about some food and rest before that? If you wish, you may even read the books on those shelves. Whichever you like, as many as you like.”
There; and with a wave of her staff, a small, round table appeared from the floor at the side as though it protruded out. The plates atop the table had sandwiches, manjuu, sausages, fried pastries and the like, with plenty of steam rising up.
It was a compelling stimulation to our stomachs, having only sipped at the watery soup and gnawed at the rock hard bread from yesterday night, but it appears Eugeo felt guilty for enjoying feasts or reading books while on a rescue mission for Alice. He looked at me with conflicting emotions, so I shrugged my shoulders and voiced out words that sounded a little like excuses.
“Despite how tough the battle against Eldrie was when he was alone, it becomes impossible to break through if you add in that bow-wielding integrity knight riding on that flying dragon. Let’s rest a little and revise our tactics. This place does seem safe and our Lives fell by quite a bit, after all.”
“Yes. As there are charms cast over it, those wounds will immediately heal as well if you eat. Before that, both of you, hold out your right hands.”
Eugeo and I obediently presented our shackled right hands at the girl’s words that gave no leeway for refusal. With two waves of the staff onto them, the grim iron rings broke much too easily, falling onto the ground with the chains.
Eugeo appeared even more conflicted while stroking his wrist that attained freedom after roughly two whole days, but suddenly let out a big sneeze. Thinking back about it, he fell into the fountain headfirst during the battle with Eldrie and had his entire body drenched. At this rate, the possibility of the flu bad status being imposed upon him was high.
“…It appears you would do best to warm up that body before having a meal. It may be narrow, but there is a proper bathroom at the end of the passage there, so go. The food and books won’t be running away.”
Perhaps he thought that he really shouldn’t be sleeping here, so Eugeo finally nodded apologetically.
“…Thank you, kindly allow me to take up your offer then, Ca… Cardinal-san. Erm… roughly where are those records of the world’s creation?”
Cardinal lifted up the stick, and then pointed out a corner with a noticeably more crowded set of large bookshelves, rather high up.
“The history gallery is beyond that staircase.”
“Thank you very much! …Then, please excuse me.”
Giving a curt bow, Eugeo sneezed once more before he quickly vanished into the passage between the bookshelves.
Cardinal watched him go off from behind and muttered in a whisper.
“…Regrettably, the records of the world’s creation here are written by scribes, as dictated by the highest minister of the Axiom Church.”
I turned towards the girl’s large hat and lowered my voice as I asked.
“…Then there really aren’t any gods in this world? No Stacia, no Solus, no Terraria… and no Vector either?”
“They don’t exist.”
Cardinal’s reply was extremely succinct.
“The legends believed by the masses of the Underworld were fabricated and propagated for no more than the sake of establishing the church’s rule. The gods’ names are registered as super-accounts for emergencies, but not a single human from outside has ever logged in for that purpose.”
Trifling as it was, a part of my doubts did disappear with those words. Looking intently into those burnt-brown eyes, I spoke.
“You aren’t an inhabitant of the Underworld, huh. You’re similar to those from outside of this world… someone like a system supervisor.”
“Yes. And that applies to you as well, unregistered one, Kirito.”
“……Aah, that’s true.”
It had been two years and two months since I woke up in this world. I had always maintained the unshakable conviction that this was not a true parallel world, but a virtual world generated by humans of the real world.
An intense, strong emotion that even I didn’t expect welled up from within myself and I took a deep breath, and then exhaled it. There were too many questions that I should ask, making it difficult to choose one to start with. However, there was one that I must confirm before all other.
“The ones who created the Underworld are called Rath… R, a, t, h. Is that right?”
“And you are the Cardinal System. An autonomous program with the purpose of regulating the virtual world.”
The girl’s eyes slightly twitched open the moment I said so.
“My, so you know about that. So you’ve come into contact with those of my kind on that side?”
That’s putting it lightly. In a certain sense, it could have been said to be my ultimate enemy in those two years I fought in Aincrad. But she probably wouldn’t be able to relate to that even if I talked about it.
“Still… as far as I know, the Cardinal System shouldn’t have a personified interface packaged with it. Just… what are you? What are you doing in a place like this?”
Cardinal gave a faint wry smile at my consecutive questions. While pushing the curly, chestnut hair that drooped onto her forehead into her hat with her fingertips, she spoke in a voice that was sweet yet seasoned.
“Telling that story would take a long… a very long time. The reason behind why am I isolating myself in this library room… the reason behind why am I waiting for contact with you… the story behind it would take longer than you could imagine…”
She kept silent, as though she was seized by anxiety, for an instant, but immediately raised her face and continued.
“I shall summarize it as much as I can. …Firstly, eat; those wounds hurt, do they not?”
I had completely forgotten about the pain after all these developments beyond my wildest expectations, but my chest struck by Eldrie’s whip and my right foot pierced by the archer throbbed the instant it was pointed out.
Doing as I was told, I took one of the piping hot meat manjuu from the table, opened my mouth wide, and bit into it. Its taste surpassed or at least wasn’t inferior to those meat buns from Gottlo’s store that I tended to buy and eat on the go when I sneaked out of the Master Swords Academy, and I ended up greedily stuffing my cheeks in a trance. Perhaps due to some sort of command inserted into it, each bite made the pain fade away and even sealed up the wounds.
“…As expected of the supervisor… Able to manipulate even the parameters of food, huh?”
Upon murmuring in wonder, Cardinal made a hmph sound through her nose.
“You’re mistaken on two counts. I am currently not the supervisor. And all I can manipulate are the objects within this library room.”
Swiveling behind just like that, she walked towards a passage that bent with the wall. I rushed to carry as many manjuu and sandwiches as I could before checking the passage that linked to the bathroom on the other side. Much time needed to be spent warming up to prevent the flu status, so Eugeo shouldn’t be getting out for a while…
“……Nn? Wait… if you can heal wounds through food, shouldn’t it be possible to prevent flu that way too?”
When I pointed that out, Cardinal turned to me for an instant and grinned. She apparently wanted to take Eugeo out of the picture for a bit, using the bath as an excuse.
Proceeding on at the back of the unexpectedly scheming sage, we encountered frequent forks and slopes, one after another, making me rapidly lose track of our location within the Great Library Room. When the magical food that I sloppily ate on the way nearly ran out, a circular space surrounded by bookshelves appeared in our path. In its middle was a single table with two antiquated chairs encircling it.
Airily sitting down upon one of the chairs, Cardinal pointed her staff at the opposite one without any further words. I, too, sat down as instructed.
In that moment, two cups of tea appeared atop the table. Cardinal held up the cup in front of herself and drank a mouth of it before she calmly began the conversation.
“Have you ever thought about this? About the reason for the existence of feudalism in this peaceful artificial world.”
I recalled the meaning of the unfamiliar word from Cardinal’s lips was «feudalism», but it still took about two seconds.
Feudalism. It was a governance structure where land was held by nobles as lords and a ruler who reigned over them. In short, the type of setting common in fantasy novels and games—that said, it’s more uncommon to find those that don’t use it—involving emperors, kings, earls, barons, etc; a class system like that of the Middle Ages.
There was no doubt that the Underworld used a world setup imaged on Europe in the Middle Ages, so I had never felt the existence of nobles and emperors to be out of place. Hence, I was at a complete loss for words at Cardinal’s question.
“Why… well… that’s because the creators designed it that way, isn’t it?”
The ends of Cardinal’s small lips faintly showed signs of twisting into a smile with her immediate rebuttal, as though she predicted my answer.
“The humans from outside that gave life to this world prepared nothing more than a mere vessel. The ones who produced the current societal structure were no other than its inhabitants, the masses of the Underworld.”
True, this wasn’t a story for Eugeo’s ears.
After slowly nodding, I finally remembered something I had to make sure of, first of all. The girl recognized the existence of Rath in the real world. If that’s the case, she…
“Wa-Wait a minute. Are you able to contact the real world? Do you have the means to communicate with the other side?”
I eagerly asked, but Cardinal denied it, disconcerted.
“Fool, if I was capable of that, I wouldn’t have been shut in a dusty place like this for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, that person is the only one who holds the means… no one other than the highest minister.”
“I… I see…”
I was curious in who exactly that highest minister was supposed to be as well, but I figured to leave it aside for now and placed my bets on the last sliver of hope.
“Then, at least tell me what month and day it is in the real world right now… or maybe where is my body in the real world right now…”
“I apologize; I am unable to access the system domain as I am now. Even the scope of the data domain I am able to browse is of nothing more than an insignificant amount. I am an existence far more powerless in comparison to the Cardinal you knew of on the other side.”
I, too, felt bad looking at Cardinal, who had a depressed expression that suited her age, perhaps due to the shame from that fact, and exaggeratedly shook my head.
“No, just knowing the real world exists was more than I could ask for. I apologize for butting in the conversation… erm, you were talking about the reason behind the feudalism?”
Returning to the topic, I pondered for a short while before continuing.
“That would be… because someone had to supervise over the preservation of public order, allocation of products, and things like that, wouldn’t it?”
“Fm. However, you ought to know this as well. The inhabitants of this world generally do not oppose the law. There are no acts of causing hurt, robbery or monopolization of crops. Diligence and impartiality are deeply ingrained, so wouldn’t developing into a communist society serve it better? Do you believe that this world with a population of merely a hundred thousand or so require a class system as excessive as to involve the presence of four emperors and over a thousand nobles who label themselves aristocrats?”
“A hundred thousand…”
The total population of the Underworld that I found out for the first time. Cardinal said “merely”, but I, on the other hand, was surprised by its enormity. Rather than a research into artificial intelligence, this was already a true simulation of a civilization.
But certainly, twenty five thousand subjects ruled over by a single emperor utterly paled in comparison with the Roman Empire or the Franks of ancient times. So I suppose it would have been more believable for this feudalism to be created based on an example from reality, rather than arising from some sort of need.
And once again, Cardinal threw more unanticipated words at me, when I cocked my head in puzzlement.
“I mentioned that gods do not exist in this world earlier. However, during the creation of the world—four hundred and fifty years in the past, there were some who resembled them. Back when Central Centoria was merely a small village… there were four of those «gods».”
“Eh, four hundred and fifty years? Wasn’t it three hundred and eighty? I mean, right now, it’s Human World Calendar…”
The sage shrugged her shoulders in exasperation at my slightly off-topic question.
“I do believe I said this earlier; that creation myth was a literary work of the Church. The origin of the current calendar is nothing more than one fabricated after that era.”
“I-Is that so? So… you were talking about those four «gods»? They were definitely human… the staff from Rath that created this world?”
It seems I gave the proper response this time round, as Cardinal nodded with a faint smile.
“Oh, so you’ve figured that much out, haven’t you.”
“…The chicken should have come before the egg in this world, after all. There were some who raised up the artificial fluct light babies at the start… otherwise, there would be no explanation for why they are able to speak and write in Japanese here.”
“That is a logical deduction. It is exactly as you have said. In the beginning… when I was still the supervisor without a consciousness of my own, four from the outside world made their way to this land and brought up two houses of farming families with eight «children» in each. From reading and writing, cultivation of crops, rearing of livestock… to what would become the basis of the Taboo Index later, the morality of good and evil.”
“They were truly gods… the responsibilities must have been huge. A single careless word would have influenced the fate of human society later on.”
Cardinal nodded with an exceedingly stern face when I said «’a single careless word’».
“Indeed. I have deliberated over these and arrived at a single conclusion only after being confined within this library room, but… getting to the point, why would feudalism exist in this world that originally had no need for it? Should an aberrant law system like the Taboo Index and moreover, the nobles who make use of its loopholes for their own profits and pleasure exist? There is no longer a single answer to those questions.”
While pushing up those small round glasses, the girl continued in her dignified voice.
“It was also clear that the «original four» had intellect of the highest grade as humans, seeing as they brilliantly accomplished the difficult mission they were charged with. Concurrently, they gave the Underworld inhabitants an innate sense of virtue, so they must have been ethically respectable as well. However, that did not apply to all four of them.”
“…What did you say…?”
“There was a single one who had excellent intellect, but lacked ethics. That person «corrupted» them, so to speak. One or two among those children brought up. It was likely unintentional, but… still, one’s true nature cannot be hidden. Greed that served their own self-interest, such as the desire for wealth and dominance, got handed down as well. Those children became the ancestors. Of the nobles and emperors ruling the current Human World and the higher ministers of the Axiom Church…”
Lacked ethics… she said?
In short, the source of the malice held by some of the nobles was someone within Rath’s core staff? And that evil was mentally inherited down the generations and in the end, gave birth to humans like Raios Antinous and Humbert Zizek, huh.
I could feel a sudden chill sweeping through my whole body. In the real world, I was linked up to the STL at Rath’s headquarters somewhere, unconscious. I couldn’t help but shiver at the thought that a person with the same nature as Raios might be prowling about right beside me.
Did I know that person? I tried to call to mind the faces of the staff in Rath in my memory, but the only ones who immediately appeared were the researcher-in-charge, Higa Takeru, and the mysterious government worker who introduced me to Rath, Kikuoka Seijirou. Of course, there were several other staff members at the Rath branch in Roppongi, but I had nothing but indistinct memories of them. At any rate, my part-time job at Rath was over two years ago in the past from my point of view.
The question was whether that person merely had strong egoism and greed, or if that person sneaked into Rath while hiding some sort of motive. Making off with the research and selling it off, or perhaps… something like sabotage?
“Cardinal… do you know the names of those «original four»?”
Unfortunately, the girl slowly shook her head at my question.
“The authority to access the entire system domain is required to find that out.”
“No… I’m sorry for asking things like that over and over again.”
Anyway, nothing could be done even if I knew their names right now. The need to gain the means of contacting the other side certainly did strengthen, though.
Shifting my weight onto the back of the chair, I took a sip of the sweet-smelling tea before returning to the topic.
“I see… If only a small portion among the Underworld people possess a desire for dominance, it’s only natural for them to be the elites. It’ll be like mixing lions into a herd of gazelles.”
“And they are similar to an irremovable virus program too. When a child is born from its parents in this world, it inherits not only their outer appearances, but their natures as well, you see. The lower class nobles who often married with commoners did dilute their egoism, however…”
I recalled the sense of justice and benevolence of the sixth class aristocrats, Ronye and Tiezé, which was truly worthy of respect with those words from Cardinal.
“So that means… if marriages between fellow nobles were to continue on the other hand, they would keep their egoism, that’s how it is?”
“Indeed. That essence is within the four imperial families and the higher ministers of the church. And standing at the summit of that whole lot is the absolute ruler of this Human World… the highest minister of the Axiom Church and even the system supervisor at this current point, a single woman. She calls herself by a name, arrogant beyond all others, «Administrator».”
Its meaning in English was «administrator» and it was also the term used to denote a «supervisor» in certain operating systems; I softly repeated the name. Come to think of it, I seem to recall Integrity Knight Eldrie speaking out that name when he caused that mysterious phenomenon that released light. In other words, the entity whom the integrity knights swore fealty to was the highest minister, Administrator… that’s how it was?
Upon reaching that point in my thoughts, I finally noticed the presence of another important bit of information within Cardinal’s words.
“Eh… y-you said she was female? That highest minister?”
I held the preconception that the one at the top of the Axiom Church was an elderly male since a pretty long time ago, but it appears that was wrong. Cardinal nodded and added a scowl that would lose to no other.
“Indeed, that is so. And… although I find it repulsive, that person could be said to be my elder twin sister as well.”
“What… what do you mean?”
Unable to grasp the notion, I asked back, but the sage who assumed the form of a girl did not seem like she would be answering anytime soon.
As though she was disgusted at herself, she gazed at her own white, slender right hand for a while before languidly opening her mouth.
“…I shall speak of it in turn… It was roughly three and a half hundred years ago when the absolute governing organization, the Axiom Church, was formed. In other words, that would be a hundred years after the start of the simulation, you see. Humans of the Human World married at around twenty years old at that time and bore an average of five children, so those of the fifth generation had already exceeded six hundred. Adding their parents and their generation would bring it close to a thousand, though…”
“Wa-Wait a minute. In the first place, what are the systems for marriage and childbirth in this world?”
I panicked upon realizing it wasn’t a good question for a girl around ten years old, regardless of her actual age, after I instinctively asked, grasping at the opportunity to resolve a question I had had for two years. Still, Cardinal replied breezily, without raising a single eyebrow.
“I am unable to affirm without the proper knowledge on acts of reproduction between humans in the real world, but the deed itself should be much the same as in reality, judging from the structural principles of fluct lights. Only after a male-female couple who registered a marriage in the system accomplishes the deed, will there be a certain probability for the mother to become pregnant. To be specific, a new fluct light model will be loaded into an empty cube within the Light Cube Cluster, with a part of the parents’ external elements and their patterns of thoughts and character inserted, which is then created as a newborn baby.”
“H-Hah, I see… What did you mean by marriage registration?”
“It’s a simple system command. It takes the form of pledging a marriage to the god, Stacia. The village chief would be the one to conduct it in the original era, but after churches were established in the various areas, the ceremonies were held only by the monks or nuns there.”
“Hmm…… —Ah, sorry for going off topic. Please continue your story.”
Cardinal gently nodded and resumed the explanation at my insistence.
“Tens of years after the «original four» logged out, the inhabitants that reached a thousand in numbers were already ruled by several lords. As those that inherited the weapon named egoism from their ancestors earnestly continued to expand the land they owned, they ended up making the youth deprived of land for cultivation nearby work for them as tenant farmers. There were some among them not content with their social positions that set off from the central, cultivating new lands in remote regions as well, though.”
“I see, so those youth built up towns and villages like Zakkaria or Rulid.”
“That’s right. …The lords that ruled over the central naturally held enmity for each other, so there was a long period of time without marriages in between them. However, something similar to a political marriage between two families of lords once happened for the first time… as a result, a single female baby was born. That baby had a lovely appearance, like that of angels, and possessed a level of egoism higher than any seen before among all of the fluct lights in the Underworld… She was named Quinella.”
A light drifted about Cardinal’s eyes that stared into space as though they were wandering through the far-off past.
The flames of the various lamps mounted in between the bookshelves surrounding the small room cast intricate shadows over the girl’s pale cheeks. Within the tranquility where one could even hear a pin drop, a gentle voice, yet tinged with sorrow, flowed on.
“At that time, the one who assigned the sacred tasks for the children in Centoria—it was already at a scale closer to a town than a village by then—was the one and only lord, Quinella’s father. Upon reaching ten years of age, Quinella showed talent in various fields, swordsmanship and sacred arts, song and weaving; everyone thought she would serve her time finely, whichever task it was. However, because of that—her father thought the beautiful Quinella was too dear to work outside in the town…”
Cardinal showed a faint, wretched smile.
“Foolish possessiveness. So that Quinella may be within his grasp at any time, he bestowed a sacred task that did not exist until then, «sacred arts research», upon his daughter. Quinella demonstrated her intelligence freely, deep within her residence and started on the analysis of sacred arts… or in other words, system commands. Until then, the Underworld inhabitants knew only the mere fundamental commands, without a single person considering the meaning behind the terms making up each command. That was sufficient, for day-to-day purposes, at least.”
True, Eugeo and the other villagers back when I was at Rulid Village did nothing more than pulling out the «Stacia Window» for checking Life.
“However… Quinella, possessing an alarming amount of tenacity and insight as a child, continued her analysis on the meaning of the terms used in commands. On the words, «generate», «element», and «object», for example, from a wondrous parallel world. And with several extremely fundamental commands as the base, Quinella finally worked out the «Thermal Arrow» art through her own efforts. The system commands that were originally a tool for nothing more than making life convenient became an offensive art to injure live targets. —Now, Kirito.”
Suddenly called out, I blinked as I looked into Cardinal’s face.
“Do you understand the reason why your sacred arts usage authority level… in other words, the value of your «system access authority» steeply increased?”
“Aah… well, more or less. It’s probably because I fought monsters… a group of goblins in a cave and drove them away.”
“Indeed, that was it. This world was originally designed for its inhabitants to battle with invading enemies from outside to strengthen oneself. That would be needed only after it enters the «load experimental phase», however… At any rate, to raise one’s authority level, there is no choice but to defeat enemies from outside or through steady usage of the commands. Quinella found out that arrangement on her own at the mere age of eleven. When she tested shooting the flame arrows with the harmless kintobi foxes within the forest near her home as targets, that is…”
“…So, that means the targets to defeat for raising one’s authority are not limited to enemies from outside… the monsters in the land of darkness…?”
“Indeed. the so-called «experience points increase» occurs whenever any sort of mobile unit, including humans, is annihilated. Of course, the humans in this world do not murder other humans and most humans wouldn’t try to kill harmless animals either. However, it is difficult for those who strongly possess the genes of nobility. They hunt for sport and as a result, strengthen that authority without the intention to… And the one who carried it out with a clear intent was the eleven years old Quinella.”
Cutting off her words for the time being there, Cardinal gently held the tea cup to her lips. With it still engulfed in her two hands, she quietly resumed talking.
“…Having noticed the sacred art usage authority rises with the murder of beasts, the girl sneaked out from home each night and continued the slaughter without alarming her family or the villagers. I would have trembled at Quinella’s actions if I had a consciousness back when I controlled the Underworld. The girl emotionlessly… no, she might have felt a sort of euphoria as she cleared off all of the wild beast units near Centoria in a single night. The deceased units were replenished as long as the system commanded it… and utterly annihilated once again the next night…”
—To a VRMMO gamer like myself, that should have been an extremely typical course of action. During the SAO era, I repeated that sort of «hunt» every single day and strengthened my own status. That was the basic nature of MMOs.
However, cold sweat now ran down my back after hearing Cardinal’s words.
A young girl wandering about in a dark forest late at night, wearing pajamas and indifferently incinerating any animals she found to death. No single word but «nightmare», was fit to describe that image.
As though infected by my dread, Cardinal exerted even more force in holding the cup between her two hands.
“Quinella’s authority level continued to rise infinitely. Making steady progress on the analysis of commands as well, the girl eventually became able to handle numerous kinds of arts that the masses back then felt similar to miracles, such as Life recovery and weather prediction. The inhabitants of Centoria believed Quinella was a child sent by the gods and revered her, her father the first to do so. …Reaching thirteen of age, Quinella possessed a truly divine beauty. Showing her gentle smile, Quinella realized it was time to fully satisfy her endless desire for domination. Rather than ownership over land like lords; rather than practicing the sword like warriors; she went with a definite, powerful method… by deceiving with the name of god…”
Having cut off her speech, Cardinal shifted her vision upwards—towards the faraway canopy high up in the Great Library Room, or perhaps the real world that laid beyond it.
“It was the greatest blunder made by the humans who constructed this world. To explain away the inexplicable effects of the system commands with a concept like «god». In my opinion… an existence like god is a drug too benign for those living beings known as humans. Soothing all pain, pardoning all acts of cruelty. Fortunately, I cannot hear the voice of god with my lack of emotions…”
Returning her burnt-brown pupils to the cup, the girl gently knocked against the porcelain edge with a finger on her left hand. Hot liquid instantly gushed up from the bottom, filling the nearly empty cup with piping hot tea.
“Blind belief played a part as well, with miracles like those happening before their eyes and explained as the work of god. …There were already none who doubted Quinella’s words after she instantaneously healed a man who suffered an injury during farm work and predicted a storm’s arrival a whole three days in advance. She told lords of her father’s status and below that a place to pray to god was necessary. To bring about even more wondrous abilities, that is. A white marble tower was immediately erected in the middle of the village. The site was small at that time as well, with a height of merely three stories… but indeed, that was truly the foundation of this Central Cathedral. And at the same time, the start of the three and a half hundred years history of the Axiom Church.”
The tale of the holy woman, Quinella, of ancient times told by Cardinal forced a certain person to mind. I heard it from Eugeo and Selka without actually meeting the person myself, but—she was the girl who showed talent in the sacred arts from childhood and was bestowed the sacred task of being a sister apprentice to the church, Alice Schuberg.
But Eugeo recalled Alice being more gentle than anyone else when she was in Rulid. Not to mention she was Selka’s elder sister. It was awfully hard to imagine her sneaking out from home night after night, annihilating beasts in a forest.
How did Alice increase her system access authority, then?
My focus, submerged within the depths of that doubt, was pulled back by Cardinal’s voice.
“The inhabitants of those days believed that Quinella was a female shaman blessed by the god, Stacia, without exception. They prayed to the white tower in the morning and evening and donated a part of their harvest without hesitation. The lords unrelated to Quinella by blood were unsettled by the girl’s existence at the start, but… still, Quinella was stubborn. She made all of the lords into nobles in the name of god, or in other words, she appointed them to the aristocracy. There were still some among the ordinary farmers that held a certain extent of resentment over the lords’ exploitations at that time, but they couldn’t disobey when it was an authority recognized by god. And those lords that became nobles, too, judged it more beneficial to obey, rather than oppose Quinella.”
Returning the tea cup to its dish with a dull clink, Cardinal looked straight at me as she spoke.
“It took a while to get to this point, but this is the reason behind the existence of feudalism in the Underworld.”
“I see… So it wasn’t a class system that developed from the need for societal improvement, but one for control… huh. I suppose it would be only natural that the higher class nobles don’t feel a sense of duty.”
I murmured and Cardinal nodded with a frown.
“I doubt you’ve seen it with your own eyes, but the behavior of greater nobles and the imperial families within their own private land is truly atrocious. It would be impossible to predict how much of a hell it would have been if it wasn’t for the Taboo Index prohibiting acts of murder and causing hurt.”
“…The one who created that Taboo Index is that Quinella-san in question too, right? Does that mean that… even she had some moral sense?”
“Fm, I wonder.”
Cardinal made a cute noise with her nose.
“—Even after my many years of deliberation, I still do not understand the reason why the inhabitants of this world do not violate the rules established through their superiors’ authorities. I am no exception to this rule. As I do not regard the Axiom Church as a superior existence, I am not bound by the Taboo Index… but still, I am unable to infringe the various rules placed upon myself as the program, Cardinal. You could say that the act of being confined within this place for hundreds of years is the result of my inability to oppose those commands.”
“The inability to oppose superior rules… does that apply to Quinella too?”
“Indeed. As she was the one who created the Taboo Index, Quinella is not bound by that foolish law… but still, she did not disobey the various rules set down by her parents when she was young and is now driven on by a new command. Think about it, do you believe that person would be satisfied with killing only animals if it wasn’t for her parents teaching her to «not injure people»? She would have obviously murdered humans who are more efficient in increasing her authority level instead.”
Goose bumps rose on my back with a chill yet again. Holding that back, I moved my mouth.
“Fm… in other words, injuring others was a taboo from the start, ingrained into the children by the «original four», you mean? Quinella simply put that into writing and added other minor details… that’s it?”
“That’s the rough idea. However, it was surely not out of some desire for world peace. —Reaching her mid-twenties, Quinella became increasingly beautiful, the tower became ever taller and held countless people as disciples. Similar white towers were erected in the villages of each area and upon formally naming it the Axiom Church, Quinella’s system of rule became all the more concrete even during then. However… as the population steadily increased and the land occupied by people expanded, Quinella became uneasy of the potential places beyond the reach of her own eyes. Wouldn’t someone who noticed the secret behind the sacred arts usage authority like herself appear in the remote regions, she questioned. And there, for the sake of ensuring her all-encompassing rule, she decided to create a law on a corporeal medium. Loyalty to the Axiom Church was written in the first clause and the prohibition of murder was recorded in the second. Why, you ask?”
Keeping her silence for a moment, Cardinal stared fixedly at me before she continued.
“—Naturally, because one would notice that one’s authority level increases after killing a human. That was the only reason; that is why the church prohibits murder. There isn’t any sort of moral, ethical or benevolent reason in that single sentence.”
I instinctively tried to protest while slightly shocked.
“Bu…but acts of murder and causing hurt were ethically taboo as established by the «original four», right? Wouldn’t people possess that sense of morals even without the church saying so?”
“However, what would happen if the parents failed to teach that? The probabilities are low, but what if there were children separated from their parents, or in other words, their initial superior existence, immediately after birth, without receiving any guidance on ethics? If that child possessed the genes of nobles, there was the possibility of the child following its own desires and killing the humans around, attaining an authority level beyond that of Quinella. To reduce that possibility to the minimum, Quinella compiled the book that would become the Taboo Index, published it and placed it into the possessions of each and every town or village. Parents were assigned the duty to teach children the Taboo Index from its first page after they learn language. Look here, if the humans of this world appear to be good, diligent and overflowing with benevolence, that was merely because it makes things more convenient for them, the absolute governing organization, the Axiom Church, that is.”
I was unable to take in Cardinal’s words without resistance and endlessly shook my head left and right.
I did not want to believe that the respectable personalities of the people I interacted with at Rulid Village, on my travels and at the Master Swords Academy—Selka, Ronye, Tiezé, Sortiliena-senpai… and beyond all others, Eugeo, were all things forced onto them by programming.
“…That’s not all to it, right? Wasn’t there still that little… original form of the fluct light thing? Something conferred onto the souls of us humans from the very start…”
“You should have already laid your eyes on proof contrary to that, haven’t you?”
Taken aback at Cardinal’s words, I blinked two, three times.
“Those goblins that mercilessly tried to kill Eugeo and you. Did you not think that they were not merely codes from a program? That was truly the form assumed when the fluct light model is exposed to orders completely opposite to the Taboo Index… to kill, to rob, and to obey their desires. Look here, those are no longer «people»; in a certain sense, they are exactly the same as you.”
I sank into silence for a period of time.
I did guess that was the case. Those monsters I crossed swords with under the mountain range at the edge, slightly more than two years ago—the goblins’ conversations and gestures were truly natural, without even a shred of resemblance to the programming for monsters and NPCs appearing in ordinary VRMMO games. Above all, the glitter of desire that dwelled within their yellow eyes was not something that could be represented with a mere texture map. Definitely.
But then again, if I were to judge them as «humans» in possession of fluct lights as well, I couldn’t ignore the issue any longer. To help Selka, Eugeo and I killed two of those beasts… no, people, but they were merely obeying the desire written into their souls. Eugeo was able to break the restraints of the Taboo Index, so there ought to be a possibility that those goblins, too, were able to resist the commands to kill and steal. Despite that, I firmly believed them to be evil merely because they were goblins with frightening outward appearances and swung my sword down without any hesitation…
“Bother not, fool.”
Cardinal’s words snapped at me, as I deeply hung my head down without noticing.
“Do you plan on declaring that you will become god as well? No answer will reveal itself even if you spend a hundred years or two worrying over it. Even now—I am still at a loss even after waiting all this time for a chance to finally meet you…”
Upon lifting my face, Cardinal’s thin brows came together into a frown as she stared into the depths of her cup. She continued her words as though reciting a poem in that posture.
“I, too, was once a supervisor without a shred of hesitation. I had not a single thought for the tiny beings squirming within my palm, running the world with an unchanging law. However, when I gained a human body like so… developing an attachment towards life, there were some things I began to understand… It is likely that the ones who constructed this world did not understand the true meaning behind what they have created either. They, too, were not gods, after all… even if they knew of Quinella’s deplorable deeds, they might display interest, but not distress. Despite the certainty of the hell, that words would fail to describe, this world would become if it enters the load experimental phase at this rate…”
“About… about that, what exactly is that load experiment? You mentioned it earlier, but…”
Interrupting the conversation, Cardinal raised her lowered eyes and gave a light nod.
“Let’s return to the story, I must explain it in sequence. —The part where Quinella created the Taboo Index and distributed it over the entire world, was it? Due to that book, the Axiom Church’s rule became ever sturdier. After all, Quinella revised the index time after time, tightly binding the masses with a sense of moral that changed to suit the church’s convenience while eliminating the sources of all troubles that occur in daily life. Writing down even the prohibition of access to a swamp that was stated as the source of an endemic disease and the name of the grass that causes sheep unable to be milked when eaten… If one were to not think and simply follow whatever was in that book, not a single problem will occur. The masses prayed to and believed in the church as the years passed, without a single person suspicious of the loyalty to the church mentioned in the first clause.”
It was a truly absolute reign. An ideal society completely without starvation, rebellion, or revolution—
“There was a boom in Centoria’s population, with progress on architecture techniques through the application of large-scale commands, transforming the once-village into a splendid city in the twinkling of an eye. The grounds of the Axiom Church expanded in the same way, with the tower steadily increasing in height… Come to think of it, this Central Cathedral is likely a representation of Quinella’s insatiable desires. She did not know what was enough. Reaching thirty, forty of age, her features declined even further. That said, it wasn’t like she indulged in gourmet food and lust like the greater nobles. From a certain point in time, Quinella showed herself no more to those of the world, confining herself within the highest floor of the ever-rising tower and earnestly immersed herself purely in the analysis of the sacred arts. She sought more authority, more sacraments… enough to transcend the absolute limit set upon herself: her end, «Life».”
In this world, the status, Life, was a cruelly vivid property.
Steadily increasing through growth, reaching its peak in the twenties or thirties, or when reversing, a gentle reduction until zero at sixty to eighty of age. My Life increased by quite a bit in these two years as well. It certainly was scary having this value decrease day after day. All the more so, if you were the absolute ruler with the world in your palm.
“However… no matter how many commands she analyzed, even if she got a hold of arts that could manipulate even the weather, the limit of Life was… in other words, the one thing she could do nothing about was her life span. Manipulating that was limited to those who possessed supervisor rights… the supervisors from the outside world or perhaps the autonomous control system, Cardinal. Quinella’s Life steadily reduced day after day. Reaching fifty years old, reaching sixty years old… all traces of her divine beauty that once bewitched people’s hearts faded unnoticed, faltering even while she walked, before she finally became unable to leave her magnificent bed in the bedroom at the highest point of the world. Taking out the Stacia Window once every hour, staring at the value of her Life being steadily shaved away…”
Suddenly cutting off, Cardinal hugged her small frame with both hands as though she felt a shiver.
“…But still, Quinella never gave up. It was a dreadful tenacity… Testing out each and every combination of sounds in her hoarse voice, day and night, struggling to call upon some forbidden command. —That endeavor should not have borne any fruit. To put it into probability, it would be like flipping a thousand coins and having them all land on heads… no, the chance was smaller than that… However… still…”
I was assailed by a sudden, indescribable chill, shaking as my body shivered. I could clearly see Cardinal—the girl, who declared herself to be an emotionless system, evidently feeling some sort of fear.
“…On a night when she was finally on the brink of death… everything would end with a single minor injury, with a nudge from illness… Quinella finally opened it: the forbidden door. Through some impossible coincidence… or perhaps with a helping hand from some entity from the outside world, or so I think. —Allow me to show you, even if you can’t use it.”
Cardinal held the staff with her left hand and lifted it, enunciating as though she was whispering.
“System call! Inspect entire command list!”
In that instant, a heavy sound effect I had never heard before rang out and a relatively large purple window opened before Cardinal.
That was all. No divine light raining down, no angels trumpeting, nothing of that sort at all. However, I understood the terrifying effect of that command.
This certainly was the ultimate sacred art. So much that it must not exist by nature.
“It appears you figured it out. Indeed… a catalogue of all existing system commands is recorded on this window. This, too, is a major mistake by the world’s creators. They definitely should have deleted this particular command… the instant when the «original four» that needed it left this world.”
Cardinal waved the staff and the forbidden list vanished.
“Quinella opened her hazy eyes and stared at the window. And she understood everything, became ecstatic and literally leapt to her feet. The command she sought was noted down at the end of the list. A command in the event that a pressing need to adjust the world balance from inside arises… one that steals all authority from the Cardinal System, to become a true god…”
Suddenly, that scene vividly showed up within my mind.
The highest floor of a tower tall enough to reach the clouds. Nothing but the undulating black clouds in the starless night sky and violet lightning could be seen in all directions through the surrounding windows.
There was only a single canopy in the middle of the empty, wide room. But its owner was not lying on it. Long hair that lost its color was disheveled upon the soft mattress, a boney figure dancing a strange dance with distorted motions. Two arms thrust out of the white silk pajamas like withered branches, howls of delight flowing from that throat bent backwards. With the thunder that started rumbling, raging ever harder, as its accompaniment, the forbidden spell to usurp the authority of god was woven together in a shrill voice, like that of an eerie bird…
This Underworld wasn’t an AI experiment any longer, perhaps not even a simulation of a virtual civilization.
Even the staff from Rath who created this world… even Kikuoka Seijirou, Higa Takeru and the rest had lived only thirty-plus years at most. However, the incarnation of pure desire for domination, Quinella, was already eighty when she achieved administrative rights. And if Cardinal’s words proved right, she had piled up closer to another three hundred years since then. No one would be able to imagine just what sort of existence did a being of such intelligence end up as.
Could Kikuoka and the rest really control everything? How much of what was happening here did they understand…?
The black-robed young sage and I stared at each other while grasping onto each of our own anxiety.
Doors do not exist within the Great Library Room… in other words, it ought to be completely isolated from the world outside, but it felt like I heard the low rumbling of thunder from far away.
That ominous noise seemed like a warning for the arrival of a new, and mightiest storm at the path that should have been approaching its end.
(To Be Continued)
“…Fringillidae…” – This appears to be factually inaccurate. The translation… should be accurate, though. I’m no wildlife specialist.
- Translation – Tap
- Editing – Baka-Tsuki