The Two Supervisors
Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 12, chapter 7.
Just a note, italics are for English words written in katakana. Full caps are English words written in English.
(this only applies if there’s actually some significance in using those English words in the original)
The Two Supervisors
5th Month of Human World Calendar 380
I, Kirigaya Kazuto, had logged out from the VRMMO-RPG, «Sword Art Online», on the 7th of November, 2024.
It was mid-December when I returned home in Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture, after my rehabilitation period. I had turned sixteen a couple of months ago, but since I was challenging the fiftieth floor of Aincrad while my previous peers in the same grade were challenging the high school entrance examinations, there was obviously no school that I could attend.
Fortunately—though I hesitate to call it such, I received a certificate of graduation from the middle school I’ve only half finished, so the normal route would be to spend my time at a preparation school until I take the examinations next year, belated by a year. However, there, the country proposed an unimaginable relief measure.
The middle-and-high schoolers which numbered over five hundred, among the roughly six thousand players who returned alive from imprisonment in SAO. It was decided that a school for them all would be established in Nishitokyo, Tokyo, from the April of 2025 with no need for entrance examinations or school fees, and the graduates would be granted qualifications to take entrance examinations for universities.
The building used that of a metropolitan high school, abandoned the previous year and awaiting its demolition. Re-employed teachers who retired from old age, serving part-time, largely made up the teaching staff. It was classified as a National Vocational School under the School Education Law.
That unexpected level of sympathy, even as a safety net, certainly did cause a tinge of unease, but I decided to enter after consulting Asuna and of course, my family. I had never regretted it even once. Designing and creating various devices with friends in my Mechatronics course was extremely fun and I could meet Asuna, Lisbeth, Silica, and the rest everyday. I could still claim it was a fulfilling schooling life even after taking away points for the compulsory weekly counseling session.
However, I was unable to attend that school to the end as well.
It was a year and two months after I entered, the 6th of June, 2026. I gained consciousness in another world, «Underworld», for some unknown reason. Woken in the forest near Rulid Village, on the northern edge of the Human World, I cried out with all I could muster to the staff from the venture company that should have been developing and managing this world, Rath, but no reply came back.
Reluctantly, I aimed for the place likely to have a console capable of contacting the outside world from here—the center of the Human World, Central Centoria, or what was at its core, the Axiom Church’s towering Central Cathedral, and set out on a journey from Rulid with the partner I met in this world, Eugeo.
I had somehow reached Centoria after spending an Underworld calendar year’s worth of time, but I didn’t simply continue on and enter the Cathedral. The gate of the Axiom Church was always firmly shut up, with access restricted to the champion swordsman of the «Four Empires Unity Tournament» held in spring each year.
Hence, Eugeo and I, both aiming for the Cathedral, first enrolled in the «Imperial Sword Mastery Academy» to earn the qualification to appear in the tournament, though we had differing goals. Its curriculum was impossible in the real world, comprising mainly of swordsmanship and magic (or to be accurate, sacred arts) and it was my first time living in a dormitory; those were my circumstances, but I still got used to my life at the Sword Mastery Academy… no, I could even say that I enjoyed my time there.
However, a year and a month after my enrollment, in the fifth month of year 380 on the Human World Calendar.
Once again, an incident that caused an inevitable cessation to my schooling life occurred. A couple of upper class male nobles tried to toy with my «valet trainee», a novice trainee by the name of Ronye, and Eugeo’s valet, Tiezé, through a cunning trap.
Eugeo, who happened to be at the scene, broke through the absolute restriction of «disobeying the law» and drew his sword. Just as he slashed away the left arm of the upper class noble, Humbert, with an all-out attack, I finally finished running there, exchanged swords with the upper class noble, Raios, and severed both of his hands.
Although those were major wounds, his life was in no danger if the blood flow was immediately sealed and the wounds were treated with sacred arts, but then, a strange phenomenon occurred. Pressed to choose between the highest law in the Human World, the «Taboo Index», and his own will, he let out a voice that seemed not like that of a human’s as he died… no, as he halted all action.
The academy expulsed Eugeo and me and an «integrity knight», dispatched by the Axiom Church, bound us to the jail under the cathedral. Undiscouraged by my third time «leaving a school midway», I immediately broke out and wandered through the rose garden in the grounds, searching for an entrance to the cathedral building itself, which became a battle against a new integrity knight, and the one who saved Eugeo and me as we desperately ran everywhere was—
«Cardinal»; a mysterious, young girl who named herself thus.
Cardinal, who lived in a humongous library room existing in a sealed off space, made Eugeo, drenched as he fell into a fountain during the battle, go to the bathroom and in that time, revealed a truth I found astonishing.
That this world, Underworld, was a simulation of civilization that went through at least four hundred and fifty years internally.
That the highest minister of the Axiom Church, ruling over the world, was once a young girl named Quinella; beautiful but no different from a normal inhabitant.
The girl who devoted herself to the usage of sacred arts, or system commands in other words, pursued power so far that she reached the forbidden incantation—a command to read the «entire command list». There was no other means for a single sample within the simulation to be promoted to a supervisor.
With her absolute authority to rule, Quinella was likely looking down on this world from the top floor of the Central Cathedral now. Was that look directed towards Eugeo and I, lost in the sacred garden, as well…?
Cardinal, sitting on the opposite side of the round table, turned a derisive smile onto me as she looked at me shivering from a sudden chill. Taking a sip of tea from the cup atop the table, she lifted her small spectacles.
“It is far too early to shudder in fear.”
I suppressed the chills and somehow replied to her calm words.
“Aah… sorry, please go on.”
Lifting my cup, I sipped at the tea that tasted similiar to the real world’s coffee.
Cardinal leaned her small frame against the chair’s back support and began talking once more, in a tranquil tone.
“Going two hundred and seventy years into the past… successfully calling out the entire command list, Quinella first raised her own authority level to the maximum, one capable of directly interfering with the Cardinal System controlling the world. Next, she endowed all of the authorities that only the Cardinal System possessed onto herself. Terrain and buildings manipulation, item generation, even the manipulation of the durability belonging to dynamic units, including humans… or in other words, even the manipulation of Life…”
“Manipulation of… Life. That means, in other words, her life span was…”
The youthful sage gave a composed nod at my timid query.
“It meant she could break through it. Turned into a complete supervisor, Quinella’s first course of action was to completely restore her own Life, aged eighty years and on the verge of vanishing. Continuing on, she halted its natural degeneration. Furthmore, she recovered her outward appearance. Quinella’s rapture at regaining the beauty from her late teens that practically sparkled was… likely something beyond the imagination of someone like you, young, and not to mention, male, however…”
“Well… I do understand that would be one of the ultimate dreams for women.”
Cardinal gave a callous snort when I meekly replied.
“Even I, who possess no human emotion, could claim to be thankful for this static external form. I do have a tremendous desire to grow another five or six years worth, but… —Nonetheless, finally completely satisfying all of the desires that spurred her on made Quinella exceptionally exhilarated. After all, she now obtained the power to freely manipulate the vast Human World and eternal beauty as well. She was in ecstasy… the zenith of ecstasy. Enough to shake off a sheer, tiny bit of her sanity…”
Cardinal’s large eyes suddenly narrowed deep beyond her spectacles. As though she was mocking mankind’s foolishness—or perhaps, pitying them.
“—It would have been for the best if she was satisfied there and then. However, it turned out there truly was no bottom to that gapping hole within Quinella’s heart. That one knew not what was enough… she could not even permit the existence of one who held authority equal to hers.”
“Was that… referring to the Cardinal System itself?”
“Indeed. She tried to remove even a bundle of programs that held no awareness. However… even with her proficiency at the sacred arts, Quinella was nothing more than an Underworld inhabitant in the end, unconnected to the scientific civilization. There was no possibility of her understanding the complex syntax of the commands from the supervisor-level authority in a single night. Quinella recklessly tried to decipher the reference written for the sake of Rath’s engineers… and she erred. A mere, single, and enormous mistake. She thought of taking the whole of Cardinal within herself, devised an extensive command, and then recited it. As a result…”
The girl spoke with a murmur much like a sigh.
“…Quinella ended up burning the primary instruction assigned to the Cardinal System into her own fluct light as a read-only principle of behavior. She intended to steal its authority level alone but ended up fusing Cardinal with her own soul!”
“…What… what was that…?”
My comprehension unable to catch up, I blankly muttered.
“Cardinal’s primary instructions… to be specific, what would those be…?”
“—«Preservation of regularity». That is the purpose behind Cardinal’s existence. You, too, ought to understand if you had came into contact with a world of the same system. Cardinal is always observing the actions of «players» like the lot of you. And the very moment it detects any phenomenon that threatens to throw the world’s balance into disarray, it deals with that without a shred of mercy.”
“Aah… that’s true. I spent day and night scheming to outwit Cardinal, but it filled in any holes straight after I found them…”
When I muttered while recalling how safe yet effective farming spots were entirely dealt with during my SAO days, Cardinal made a conceited-seeming smile once again. It was only when she had that face on that the atmosphere of a sage around her turned into that of an innocent, young girl of her apparent age.
“That goes without saying, no matter how many greenhorns get together, they won’t be able to outwit Cardinal. …However, Quinella went far beyond even that for her preservation of regularity. Writing the instructions onto her fluct light, or in other words, her soul, caused Quinella to faint and she woke only after an entire day of sleep. By then, she could have been considered to be no longer human in various ways. She would not age, she would neither drink water nor eat bread… her only desire was for the Human World she ruled over to eternally remain the same…”
“Eternally… remain the same…”
While repeating her words in a murmur, I pondered.
Aside from the general purpose AI, the Cardinal System, all of the supervisors for the various existing VRMMOs would probably wish for their game worlds to continue on. They would regulate the balance between the currency, as well as the item and monster spawns, in a bid to preserve regularity. However, there was a single factor even supervisors possessing godlike power could not control. Players.
Could that not be said to apply to this Underworld as well…?
And, as if she saw through my thoughts, Cardinal gave a slight nod and resumed her explanation.
“Formerly, what the Cardinal System controlled were animals, vegetation, terrain, and weather; those objects and effects… in other words, it acted as a receptacle for the world, with no interference in the actions of its inhabitants, the artificial fluct lights. …However, Quinella was different. She even thought about restraining the humans’ lives for all of eternity.”
“Restraining… in other words, making everybody repeat the same routine day after day without anything new… was that what you meant…?”
“Nn… well, that is essentially it. Allow me to continue… fused with the Cardinal System, Quinella first amended her own name. To the… highest minister of the Axiom Church, Administrator.”
I cut in once again the instant I heard that.
“H-He said that name too. That Integrity Knight Eldrie Synthesis… erm…”
“Thirty-one, I’m sure.”
“Right, that’s it. I believe he said he received an invitation from the highest minister, Administrator-sama, and then coming down to the land from the Celestial World or something like that. …I see, so he was referring to Quinella… How should I say this, she sure took up an amazing name, huh.”
To me, the English word, «Administrator», was one that I associated with a supervisor-level account rather than its definition of an actual supervisor. It was unconfirmed which meaning Quinella had in mind when she named herself so, though.
Cardinal made a faint, wry smile at my remark and nodded.
“It wasn’t at the level of naming herself as the god of this world, but it could be said to be much like how she would handle things… —Regardlessly, now the supervisor in both name and reality, Quinella first proclaimed a single edict. For the four great nobles of that age to ascend to the position of emperors, splitting the Human World into four empires: north, east, south, and west. Kirito, you have seen the walls that divided Central Centoria into four, haven’t you?”
It was my turn to nod this time as the one being asked.
The Sword Mastery Academy I lived at was in the 5th District of Norlangarth North Empire’s capital, Northern Centoria. The white stone barrier could always be seen from the dormitory’s windows, far taller than any other structure within the city. Beyond those walls called the «immortal walls» were the capitals of the other empires; a great cause for surprise when I first found out.
“The masses did not quarry marble and pile them up over years for those walls. Quinella… no, Administrator made them appear in an instant with her godlike might.”
“…In-Instantly!? Those walls!? That’s way beyond the limits of sacred arts… the people of Centoria back then must have been shaking in their boots…?”
“Naturally, that was her aim. To show the masses the power of the Cardinal System and to carve a tremendous awe into them. With that psychological barrier and the «immortal walls», a physical barrier, she attempted to restrict the masses’ movements and interactions. For the sake of letting the Axiom Church seize the transmission channels for news, so as to control the masses’ hearts. She wished for the people to remain devoted believers of the church for eternity, staying ignorant and naive… —Those absurd immortal walls were not the end to the physical barriers she created. In order to restraint the various regions pioneers resided in, spread out everywhere, Administrator set down many humongous objects. A huge, unbreakable rock; a swamp that could never be filled; a rapid, uncrossable stream; a gigantic, unfellable tree…”
“H-Hold on. An unfellable tree… you say?”
“Indeed. She granted a ridiculously-sized cedar tree near-infinite priority and durability.”
I instinctively recalled that demonic tree—the Gigas Cedar that possessed a hardness that would made one want to cry, and gently rubbed my two palms together under the table.
In other words, that meant the Gigas Cedar did not spring forth naturally in the forest south of Rulid Village but was deployed by Administrator to restrict the villagers from expanding their livable area with its horrifying durability and ability to drain resources, an artificial obstacle.
So there were still many such things around this world? And many humans have been keeping up hundreds of years of futile effort in order to remove them…?
Raising my head, the girl who called herself Cardinal looked at me with that usual gaze saying that she saw through my inner thoughts. Her tiny lips moved and her placid words streamed on.
“…And thus, a peaceful yet idle age continued on and on under the absolute Administrator’s reign. Twenty years… thirty years later… the masses lost their disposition for progress; the nobles indulged in their idle lives; swordsmanship, polished by the swordsmen of ancient times, degenerated into a mere performance. As you ought to know. Forty years, fifty years later, Administrator felt a deep satisfaction looking down upon the daily life of the Human World, inert, as though it was soaked in a tepid, warm bath…”
In short, it was like gazing at and relishing an aquarium after putting the finishing touches to its perfect ecosystem. Complicated emotions assailed me upon recalling how I stared at an ant observation kit without getting bored when I was young and Cardinal, sunk in rumination with her eyes cast down like myself, spoke in a clear voice.
“However, it is impossible for any sort of system to remain in stasis for all eternity. Something was bound to occur sooner or later. …Seventy years after Quinella became Administrator, she realized a sort of anomaly within herself. Incidents, that she certainly couldn’t turn a blind eye to, happened, such as her consciousness leaving for short periods even outside of sleep, being unable to recall memories from a few days ago, and beyond all else, the inability to instantly remember those system commands that she should have perfectly committed to memory. Making free use of the supervisor commands, Administrator examined her own fluct light to the last detail… and shuddered at the results. After all, the capacity of the sector for preserving her memories reached its limit without her knowledge.”
I yelled her words back at the story’s unexpected development. It was the first time I had heard of a maximum limit to the capacity of the memory space… or to use another word, the data capacity of the soul.
“What’s there to be surprised about, is it not only logical if you give it a little thought? The sizes of light cubes that store fluct lights, and actual brains are limited and as such, so is the number of quantum bits that could be stored.”
Turning to Cardinal, calmly speaking on, I raised my right hand and requested for clarification.
“Ho-Hold on a moment. Erm… the «light cube» thing that’s been popping up in our conversation since earlier is the medium that the fluct lights of the people in the Underworld are saved in, right?”
“What, were you unaware of even that? Indeed, a light cube is shaped as a cube with a length of five centimeters, each is able to perfectly contain the fluct light of a single Underworld inhabitant, not to mention no resources are necessary to save. A «Light Cube Cluster», with each side measuring three meters, was made by gathering them together.”
“Er, erm… gathered together, five centimeters each, three meters…”
I tried to mentally calculate the total number of light cubes, but as I was dividing three hundred by five, Cardinal effortlessly spoke out the answer.
“The logical value for the total would be two hundred and sixteen thousands. However, due to the existence of the «Main Visualizer», the main storage, there ought to be less than that.”
“Two hundred and sixteen thousands… So that’s the maximum population of the Underworld, huh…”
“Indeed. By the way, there is still a considerable amount of surplus space, so there is no need to worry about the number of empty cubes if you’re in the mood to make a baby with some dame.”
“Yeah… wait, I won’t be making anything like that!”
The young sage returned to the main topic after looking at me shaking my head to and fro in a panic.
“…However, as I’ve mentioned earlier, each light cube will eventually reach the limit of its memory capacity. Administrator had already lived for a ridiculous hundred and fifty years, including the time between the birth and downfall of Quinella. The jug containing her memories had finally started overflowing with all that was stored within it throughout the time, inducing difficulties in the writing, preservation, and retrieval of her memories.”
It was quite a chilly issue. It wasn’t something irrelevant to me; I had already accumulated over two years of memories in this world with an accelerated rate of time. Even if only mere months, or perhaps days, have passed in the real world, the «life span of my soul» was definitely being consumed.
“Rest easy, there are still more than enough blank sheets within your fluct light.”
As though she read my thoughts once again, Cardinal pointed it out with a wry smile.
“Wh… when you say it like that, it feels like you’re implying that my mind’s empty…”
“It would be like a picture book against an encyclopedia, if you compare the two of us.”
Taking a sip of the tea with a composed expression, Cardinal cleared her throat.
“—Let me continue. As expected, even Administrator panicked at the unforeseen situation of a limit to her memory capacity. After all, there existed a life span that she had absolutely no control over, unlike one with a numerical value like Life. However, she was not one to willingly accept her fate. Like how she once usurped the seat of god, that being came up with yet another demonic solution…”
Showing an unpleasant scowl, Cardinal placed the cup back and tightly linked together her two hands, similar to flower petals, above the table.
“…In those days… that is, two hundred years ago, there was a young missy, at the sheer age of ten or so, studying sacred arts on the lower floors of the Central Cathedral as a nun apprentice of the church. Her name was… no, I’ve forgotten her name… She was born in a family of furniture craftsmen in Centoria and through the fluctuations of randomized parameters, she possessed a slightly higher system access authority than others. As such, she was bestowed the sacred task of being a nun. She was a scrawny little lass with brown eyes and curly hair of the same color…”
I involuntarily blinked my eyes and checked Cardinal’s appearance, on the other side of the table. I could only imagine that the description earlier was one of herself, no matter how it was rephrased.
“Administrator had that little lass brought up to the living room of the top floor of the Cathedral and welcomed her with a smile filled with kindness like a holy mother’s. That being spoke thus—’You will be my child from now on. A child of god that will guide the world.’… It was the truth to an extent. In the sense as one inheriting information from her soul. Though naturally, there wasn’t a single trace of motherly love. …Administrator intended to overwrite the little lass’s fluct light with the thought domain and important memories of her own.”
A chill crept up my back yet again. Overwriting the soul—the act of speaking those words out alone was repulsive enough. While rubbing together my palms that had gotten damp with cold and sweat without my notice, I forced my numbed mouth to move.
“St… still, if she could manipulate fluct lights to such detail, couldn’t she just delete the memories she didn’t need?”
“Would you edit an important file without prior preparation?”
Her immediate retort had me at a momentary loss for words and I shook my head.
“N… no, I would make a backup.”
“Of course you would. Administrator had not forgotten about the full day she lost consciousness when she once took in the Cardinal System’s behavioral principles. That’s how dangerous direct fluct light manipulation is. What if I ended up damaging important data while putting my own memories in order… fearing so, she planned to first take over the girl’s soul that had plenty of remaining memory capacity, affirm the copy turned out well, then dispose of the soul she had used thus far, worn out to its limit. She was truly meticulous, truly prudent… however, that turned out to be Administrator’s… no, Quinella’s second blunder.”
“Indeed. After all, it was only in that single moment when she possessed that little lass and dealt with the self she used until then… that the gods carrying that same level of authority numbered two. A fiendish ceremony, thoroughly planned and prepared by Administrator… she finally succeeded in hijacking a fluct light through the «Synthesis Ritual», its name signifying the unification between soul and memory. I… I was waiting for that moment… over that long seventy years!!”
I merely stared at Cardinal’s face, confused, while she cried out with slight emotion.
“Hold… Hold on a minute. Who exactly are you… the Cardinal that’s speaking to me right now?”
“—Do you still not understand?”
At my question, Cardinal pushed her glasses up as she whispered.
“Kirito, you know of my original version, do you not? Try stating out the characteristics of the Cardinal System.”
Knitting my brows, I brought back memories from my Aincrad days. That automatic management program was first developed by Kayaba Akihiko to manage the death game, SAO. In other words—
“…Making manual adjustments and maintenance unnecessary, and the ability to operate for long stretches of time…?”
“Indeed. And in order to do that…”
“In order to do that, it has two core programs… while the main process carries out balancing adjustments, the sub-process performs an error check on the main…”
Getting to that point in my words, I left my mouth agape and stared at the young girl with swirly, curly hair.
I should have been well aware that the Cardinal System had a powerful error correction function installed. After all, the AI, «Yui», who became Asuna and my daughter while we were clearing SAO was originally a subordinate program of Cardinal, and I desperately struggled to save her from Cardinal who recognized her as a foreign body and mercilessly tried to eliminate her.
To be specific, I simply accessed the SAO’s program space from a system console, searched for the files that made up Yui, compressed them, and set that as an object; carrying it out in the few tens of seconds before Cardinal detected my system intervention and quarantined it, however, was probably a true miracle in itself. That enormous presence I confronted, with a single holo-keyboard between us, was truly Cardinal’s error correction process… which would be this lovely girl sitting before my own eyes right now, perhaps.
Aware or not of my complex, deep emotions, Cardinal spoke with a light sigh as though she was dealing with an unperceptive child.
“So it seems you have finally noticed. —The principles of behavior Quinella carved into her own fluct light did not merely include one. The instruction given to the main process, «to preserve the world». And the instruction given to the sub-process, «to correct the errors made by the main process».”
“Correct… the errors?”
“When I was still a program yet to gain awareness, I existed purely to continuously examine the data spat out by the main process. However… when I gained individuality as a «shadow consciousness» of Quinella, so to speak, I had to judge my own conduct without assistance from redundant code or anything of that sort. You see… it would be somewhat like what you lot call a «split personality».”
“I believe there are some with the opinion that split personalities exist only in fiction, though.”
“Oh, really now. However, it is truly a tale I could consent to, you see. Only in that instant Quinella’s consciousness slightly slackened, could I float up to the surface of her thought process. And I thought. About what an atrocious error this woman, Quinella… no, Administrator was committing, that is.”
“Was it… an error…?”
I instinctively asked in return. After all, if the preservation of the world formed the basis of Cardinal’s main process, what Quinella had done would be in tune with that principle regardless of how radical the measures adopted were.
However, Cardinal answered in a dignified tone, taking my glance head-on.
“Then allow me to ask you. Has the Cardinal System of that other world you knew of ever harmed players with its own hands, even once?”
“N…. no, it didn’t. True, it was the players’ ultimate enemy, but… there weren’t any unreasonable direct attacks, sorry about that.”
When I spontaneously apologized, Cardinal gave a short snort through her nose and continued.
“However, she did. She imposed a penalty more cruel than even death upon those who showed signs of harboring suspicion or opposing the Taboo Index she established… The details of which I shall leave for later, however. In that extremely rare respite from sleep, I, the Cardinal System’s sub-process, judged that Administrator was a major error in herself and attempted to purge that. To be specific, I tried to jump down from the top floor thrice, tried to stab my heart with a knife twice, and tried to incinerate my own self with sacred arts twice. After all, if I could reduce my Life to zero in one action, even the highest minister would not be exempted from erasure.”
The heroic words coming out from the mouth of the young, sweet girl rendered me speechless. But Cardinal continued ahead in a composed tone without the slightest twitch from her eyebrows.
“The final attempt was a true pity. By releasing a sacred art with top-class offensive ability even among the whole lot, an incessant downpour of lightning bolts, onto myself, even Administrator’s enormous Life was reduced to a mere single digit. However, the main process seized control over the body then… With things at that state, any sort of injury or fatal wound was rendered null. She returned to as she always was in the blink of an eye with a full recovery sacred art ritual. Moreover, due to that incident, even with all she had, Administrator genuinely regarded me… in other words, the sub-process under her subconscious, as a danger. Upon noticing that the only times I could wedge myself into the right of control was when some conflict occurs within her fluct light… or simply put, during times of emotional distress, she tried an unthinkable method to hold me in.”
“Yes. Even if she was chosen as a female shaman of Stacia from birth, Administrator was a child of man. She possessed the emotions to look at flowers and think them beautiful or to listen to music and find it fun, at the very least. The emotional circuit she developed back then still remained in the depths of her soul even after turning in an absolute being, half-human and half-god. She judged that emotion was the source of her unrest whenever she encountered an unexpected event, however slight it might had been. There, she made free use of the supervisor-only commands to manipulate her fluct light within her light cube and froze her own emotional circuit.”
“Wha… freezing her circuit, does that basically mean that she was destroying a part of her soul?”
I asked back while shuddering and Cardinal returned a muted nod with a grimace.
“B-But well, something as outrageous as that… sounds like an even more dangerous action than the copying of her fluct light earlier, though…”
“Of course, she did not handle her own soul without prior preparation or anything of that sort. The woman, Administrator, was one cautious enough to hate the very idea of that, see. —Have you already noticed the presence of various hidden parameters not displayed upon the Stacia Window… or in other words, the status window?”
“Aah, well, faintly… I saw countless humans with strength and agility not matching their outward appearances, after all…”
The one that came to mind when I answered was who I served for a year as a valet trainee, Sortiliena-senpai. Her body was slender, narrow, and perhaps even thought as delicate, but it blew me away many times when we locked swords.
The young girl from whom I felt a limitless dignity, despite an outward appearance far weaker than senpai, lightly lifted and dropped her hat at my words.
“Yes. And within those hidden parameters, there exists one called «Transgression Quotient»*. A value evaluated by analyzing the compliance to the law and rules of each inhabitant through their speech and conduct, converted in numerals. It was probably created for easy monitoring for observers from the outer world, but… Administrator quickly noticed this transgression quotient parameter could be used to reveal the humans skeptical of the Taboo Index she established. To that being, such humans were like bacteria that snuck into a sterilized room. She felt an urgent need to exterminate them, but she could not break that single order to not murder passed down, to her as well, by her parents when she was young. There, in order to render those inhabitants with a high transgression quotient harmless without murder, Administrator carried out a dreadful treatment upon them…”
“That’s… the thing that you spoke of earlier, that penalty more cruel than death?”
“Absolutely. She had those humans with a high transgression quotient serve as experimental subjects for art rituals to manipulate the fluct light directly. Which part of the light cube stored which information, which part should be tampered with to make them lose their memories, lose their emotions, lose their thought processes, and so on… even the observers from the outer world hesitated to carry out such atrocious human experiments.”
I felt goosebumps creep up my arms the moment I heard that last phrase, spoken like a whisper.
Cardinal, too, made a dismal expression and continued on in a deathly-stifled voice.
“…The humans offered up for the initial experiments mostly forfeited their individualities, reduced to beings that exist purely to breathe. Administrator froze their flesh and Life, and preserved them in the cathedral. Her fluct light manipulation art advanced through the repetition of such injustice. She performed the freezing of her emotions in a bid to hold me in, too, only after attempting time after time on the humans brought to the tower. She was around a hundred years old then.”
“…Did she, succeed?”
“You could say she did. She failed in abandoning all emotions but succeeded in freezing those that acted as the source of that abrupt unrest: fear, fright, and anger. From then, Administrator’s heart did not waver no matter what kind of event she encountered. She was truly a god… no, she was truly a machine. A consciousness that existed only to preserve, stabilize, and stagnate the world… I was held within a nook of that being’s soul, losing all chance to appear on the surface. Until that being was at the age of a hundred and fifty, reached the capacity limit of a fluct light, and tried to take over the soul of a pitiful lass, that is.”
“But… according to how the story went, the soul from Administrator that took over the daughter of the furniture shop owner was a perfect copy of the original, right? In other words, that soul would have its emotions frozen too… so, why were you able to appear at that particular time?”
Cardinal’s gaze wandered elsewhere for a while at my question. She must be peering into the other end of these extraordinarily long two hundred years.
Before long, an extremely, extremely soft voice streamed out from those petite lips.
“My vocabulary does not contain the words needed to accurately express what happened in that instant… in that experience, wonderful, despite how it should have made one tremble… Calling the daughter of the furniture shop owner to the top floor of the cathedral, Administrator attempted to copy and overwrite via the Synthesis Ritual. And that succeeded without a hitch. What resided within the lass had its useless memories erased, what could be said to be a compressed version of Administrator’s, no, Quinella’s individuality. The initial arrangement should have been for the original Quinella, who expended her life span, to erase her own soul after confirming the success… however…”
Cardinal’s cheeks, adorned by a healthy blush as befitting a young girl, had already lost its color like a sheet of paper when I finally noticed. She asserted that she possessed no emotions, but I couldn’t imagine what she felt at this moment to be anything but a deep fear.
“…However, the duplication of her soul finished… the instant we simultaneously opened our eyes at point-blank range… some sort of tremendous impact assailed us. That was essentially… the thought of avoiding a situation where two of the exact same human exist, a situation that would have originally been impossible… I believe it would be something close to that? I… no, we stared at each other and immediately after, sensed an overwhelming hostility. Regardless of the circumstances, we couldn’t permit the existence of the soul before our eyes, that was how it seemed… It exceeded sheer emotion, into instinct… no, it might have been somewhat like the number one rule engraved upon the beliefs of intelligent beings. If that situation were to remain, both souls probably would not have been able to bear the shock and get annihilated. However… I am unsure if I should call it a pity, but that did not happen. After all, the fluct light copied into the daughter of the furniture shop owner broke a moment faster and in that instant, I, the sub-individuality, established the right of control. We recognized each other as Administrator, residing within the body originally belonging to Quinella, and Cardinal’s sub-process, residing within the body belonging to the daughter of the furniture shop owner. With that, the souls ceased breaking down and stabilized.”
A soul breaking down.
Cardinal’s words brought to mind the gloomy and wonderous phenomenon seen two evenings ago, one that I wasn’t sure to be sad or glad for.
I crossed swords with the head elite swordsman-in-training of the Sword Mastery Academy, Raios Antinous, and slashed off his two arms with the Serlut-style secret move, «Whirl Current». That major injury could have been considered a fatal wound in the real world, but his life would not have ended in the Underworld with proper treatment. I tried to maintain the numerical value of his Life—what served as hit points in this world, binding the open wounds on his two arms to stop the blood flow.
However, it happened before than that. A bizarre scream gushed out from Raios as he collapsed onto the floor and met his end.
Blood continued flowing out from his wounds at that time. That is to say, his Life value had not yet gotten to zero, which in other words, meant that Raios died from a reason other than the total loss of Life.
Right before collapsing, Raios found himself in a situation where he had to choose between his life and the Taboo Index; one to protect and one to break. He could not choose and his soul finally ended up breaking itself apart, trapped in an infinite loop state, didn’t it?
Could the phenomenon that assaulted Quinella upon meeting a duplicate of her very own self be fundamentally the same thing? I couldn’t even begin to imagine the horror that came with the situation of having another existence with the exact memories and thoughts as oneself.
I couldn’t form a conclusion on the possibility that I was an artificial fluct light copied from the real Kirigaya Kazuto in those few days after I woke up in the forest south of Rulid. That fear remained somewhere in my mind until I affirmed that I could go against the Taboo Index, while recognizing it as the absolute law, with cooperation from Selka from Rulid Church.
If nothing but my consciousness was thrown out into an endless darkness, and my own, familiar voice spoke. ‘You are my duplicate. You are merely a copy for experimenting with, one that can be deleted with a single keypress.’ How severe would the shock, confusion, and fright taste like in that moment?
“—How is it going, have you understood everything so far?”
Those aged-teacher-like words were thrown at me, pondering over everything with my head overheating, from the opposite side of the table. Raising my head, I blinked countless times before nodding in a vague manner.
“Ah… well, somewhat…”
“I’m finally about to reach the main point of my tale, so it would be troubling if you’re already going to whine at this much.”
“The main point… I see, that’s right. I still haven’t heard what exactly you wanted out of me.”
“Yes. I did continue waiting through those two hundred years ever since that day to tell you this, after all… Now then, I believe I was at the part where I split up from Administrator?”
Cardinal spoke as she fiddled with the now-empty tea cup, spinning it with both hands.
“—On that day, I finally acquired a physical body of my own. To be accurate though, it belonged to that pitiful nun apprentice, but… her individuality was utterly annihilated the moment her light cube was overwritten with data. Born from that ruthless ceremony and the result of that unforeseen incident, I stared at Administrator before my eyes for 0.3 seconds before finally taking the logical course of action. In other words, I tried to eliminate her with sacred arts of the highest level. I was a perfect copy of Administrator, which meant I had a system access authority at an equal level, you see. I predicted that I could shave away her Life before the resources in the surrounding space were exhausted if I could gain the initiative, even if it became an exchange of arts of the same class. My first attack magnificently landed and what ensued after went according to my expectations. A death match of clashing immense lightning and whirlwinds, infernos and ice daggers unfolded with the top floor of the Central Cathedral as our stage, and our Lives rapidly plummeted. Our pace was exactly the same… in other words, I, the one who let loose the first attack, should have been the one to win.”
My body abruptly shuddered upon imagining that skirmish between gods. My knowlege of offensive sacred arts was limited to the extremely rudimentary ones that changes the shapes of elements, like those used in the battle against Knight Eldrie. Their offensive abilities were far from reaching a single sword strike, struggling to even act as restraints or distractions, hardly able to take away the Life of anyone around……
“—Huh, wait a moment. You said that even Administrator wasn’t capable of killing somebody, didn’t you? Then shouldn’t that restriction apply to you as well, as a copy? Why were both of you able to attack each other?”
Cardinal slightly pouted at her story getting interrupted at the good part even as she nodded and replied.
“Mgh… that was a good question. True, it is as you’ve said, even Administrator, unbound by the Taboo Index as she was, could not break the prohibition on murder given to her when she was young, as Quinella, by her parents. I have still yet to elucidate the origin behind the phenomenon why us artificial fluct lights are unable to disobey all orders without exception even after my long years of deliberation… however, this phenomenon is not as absolute as you might think.”
“To show an example…”
Cardinal moved her right hand that held the tea cup above the table. For some reason though, she was not lowering the cup onto the saucer but onto the right, an empty space—her arm came to a precise stop immediately before its bottom touched the table cloth.
“I am unable to lower this cup any further.”
Cardinal explained as she scowled at my dumbfounded response.
“The reason is because when I was young, my mother—of course, that would be Quinella’s—brought me up with the trivial rule that «tea cups should be placed atop a saucer» and its effect is still valid, even now. The only significant taboo was murder, but there exist seventeen other foolish prohibitions such as this. I am unable to lower my arm any further no matter what I do and if I forcibly put strength into it, an annoying, intense pain emerges in my right eye.”
“…A pain in… your right eye…”
“Even so, this is a huge difference compared to the average inhabitant. They would be unable to even imagine the thought of placing the cup upon the table in the first place. In other words, they could not even gain the awareness that they are bound by many unbreakable rules. That may be the best for them, however…”
Probably aware that she was a completely artificial being, an unfitting self-derisive smile ran over Cardinal’s young face, and she quickly straightened her arm back.
“Now then… Kirito. Do you see this as a tea cup?”
Letting out a stupid voice, I intensely stared at the empty cup gripped in Cardinal’s right hand.
It was made of white ceramic, simple curves for its sides, with a plain handle attached. No designs or logos could be seen aside from a dark-blue line along its edge.
“Well… I do see it as a tea cup, there was tea in it, after all…”
“Fm. Then, how about now?”
Cardinal reached out with the index finger on her left hand, then lightly tapped the cup’s edge.
Liquid immediately gushed out from the cup’s bottom like earlier and a stream of white vapor rose. However, the aroma differed this time. My nose instinctively twitched. This smell, fragrant with its richness, was definitely not any sort of black tea—it couldn’t be anything but cream of corn soup.
Cardinal tilted the cup slightly as though showing it to me as I stretched out my neck. It was a pale-yellow, gooey fluid as I expected, filling the cup to its brim. There were even croutons, carefully baked brown, floating in there.
“Co-Corn soup! Thank you, I just started feeling peckish and…”
“You dolt, I’m not asking about its contents. What is this vessel?”
“Eeh…? Well… that’s-”
Not a single change had occurred to the cup itself since earlier. But now that she mentioned it, it might have been a little too simple, too large, and too thick for a typical tea cup.
“Aah… A soup cup?”
When I timidly answered, Cardinal broadly grinned as she nodded.
“Yes. This is now a soup cup. After all, there certainly is soup within it now.”
And, as if she was showing off, she placed the cup, as it was, onto the table cloth without any hesitation, ringing out a thud.
“Look. This is how ambiguous the taboos given to us artificial fluct light are. They can be overruled this easily simply by changing our subjective perception.”
Even while I was shocked into silence, that particular scene two days ago replayed in my mind once again.
Back then, Raios was about to mercilessly swing his sword down at Eugeo, cowering away, at the exact moment I barged into the bedroom. Raios’s sword would have probably severed Eugeo’s neck in a single slash if I hadn’t taken it on with my own sword.
Murder was obviously the greatest taboo. But in that instant, Eugeo was not a fellow human but a major criminal that violated the Taboo Index from Raios’s viewpoint. By recognizing that, he easily leapt past the taboo engraved upon his soul.
As I continued to brood in silence, a light sound rang out from the one leaning against the back support of the opposing chair. Upon taking a look, Cardinal was lifting up the tea cup-correction, soup cup once again and moved it to her lips. The meat buns and sandwiches I ate tens of minutes ago had already converted to numerals in my Life, and my stomach could feel a tight, squeezing sensation.
“…Could I have some of that too?”
“You certainly are a gluttonous fellow. Hand over your cup.”
While shaking her head as though she was astounded, Cardinal still reached out with her left hand and flicked the edge of the cup I pushed forward with a ping. The empty cup immediately filled with the fragrant cream-yellow liquid.
Pulling the cup back in excitement and sipping it after blowing at the steam, my eyes involuntarily closed at the nostalgic, rich flavor spreading within my mouth. There were soups somewhat similar in the Underworld too, but it had truly been two years since I drank such perfect cream of corn soup.
I let out a satisfied sigh after drinking two, three mouths, then Cardinal’s story resumed as though she was waiting for that.
“Understand this; the taboos binding us are things that can be overruled with merely our perception, as I demonstrated with the cup earlier. We… Administrator and I did not think of each other as human the moment we broke into battle. In my eyes, she was a broken system that would harm the world, and in hers, I was a bothersome virus she could not eliminate… There wasn’t a single shred of hesitation as we blew each other’s Lives away. We exchanged arts of the highest class and I was finally two or three attacks away from eliminating Administrator or at the very least, bringing it to a draw.”
Perhaps recalling the vexation from that time, Cardinal firmly chewed on her small lips.
“However… however, you see. At the end of ends, that depraved woman realized that decisive difference between herself and me.”
“Decisive difference…? But the only difference between Administrator and you would be the outward appearances… the two had the exact same system access authority and sacred arts you were versed in as well, right?”
“Naturally. The one who succeeded with the preemptive strike, me, would obviously be the one to gain victory in the end. Therefore… she threw sacred arts aside. Converting one among the heaps of high priority objects in the room into a weapon, she also designated the entire space we were battling in into an address where system commands were prohibited at the same time.”
“If… if she did something like that, wouldn’t she be unable to lift the prohibition too?”
“Yes, as long as she remained in the space, that is. I realized her aim the moment she chanted the command for weapon creation. However, there was nothing I could do by then. I couldn’t lift it either once commands were sealed away, after all… I reluctantly made a weapon as well and attempted to put an end to her via physical damage.”
Cardinal stopped talking and lifted the staff set against the table. She presented it to me in silence, so I reached out with my right hand despite my bewilderment. A weight unimaginable from its slim appearance assailed my right arm the moment I took a hold of it and I panicked, using my left hand as well, to barely hold onto it until it touched down onto the table. The staff, that laid down onto its side with a thick thump, evidently possessed a priority higher than both my black sword and Eugeo’s Blue Rose Sword.
“I see… it’s not just your sacred arts usage authority that’s god class, but your weapon equipping authority too, huh?”
When I said so while rubbing my right wrist, Cardinal shrugged her shoulders as though it was only natural.
“Administrator copied not only her memories and thought processes but all of her authorities and Life levels as well, you see. The sword that person generated and that staff I generated had the exact same level of ability. Even when stuck with physical combat after discarding sacred arts, I thought I would be the one to gain victory in the end. However, upon assuming a stance with the staff, I finally realized Administrator’s true aim, that is, that decisive difference between her and me…”
“That’s why I’m asking, what exactly is that difference?”
“It’s simple. Look at this body.”
Cardinal opened the front of her thick robe with her right hand and exposed her body clad in a white blouse, black breeches, and white knee-high socks. It was the figure of a young girl, slim and petite; one that contrasted her manner of speech, like that of an elderly sage, far too much.
Feeling as though I saw something I shouldn’t, I asked with my eyes instinctively cast down.
“Exactly what… about that body…?”
Her robe fluttering as she restored it to how it was, Cardinal groaned as though she was irritated.
“Goodness, you’re certainly slow, aren’t you? Try imagining yourself getting thrown into this body. Your perspective and arm lengths would be utterly different. Would you be able to wield and fight with a sword as you’ve always done like that?”
“Until that moment, I had always been in Administrator’s… that is, Quinella’s body which was rather tall for a woman. I didn’t take much notice of it during our exchange of sacred arts, but… at the point when I wielded this staff and braced for the enemy’s attack, I finally understood that I had been chased into a critical plight.”
I certainly could agree now that she pointed it out. Even in the numerous VRMMOs in the real world, getting used to judging distances in close-range physical combat if one were to choose an avatar with a size much too far away from one’s real body required quite an amount of time.
“…By the way, what’s the difference in height between Administrator and the current you…?”
“It ought to be easily over fifty centimeters. That broad grin she had on her face as she looked down on me from her height is still vivid in my memories. The battle started anew immediately after, but upon crossing weapons a sheer two or three times, I had no choice but to admit my defeat was certain…”
“Th-Then… what happened?”
She obviously struggled out of it somehow, seeing as she was talking to me, but I still ended up holding my breath without my intention.
“Administrator’s advantage was decisive, but she committed a single mistake as well. You see, if she had only locked the room’s exit before prohibiting the usage of system commands, I would have been killed with no path of escape. Possessing no human emotions, I—”
Cardinal’s expression appeared truly vexed, but I won’t be cutting in the conversation with that.
“—judged that I had to withdraw not a moment sooner and ran towards the door like lightning. All while Administrator’s sword, swinging down from behind, reduced my Life as it grazed my back…”
“Th-That was… scary, huh…”
“I do expect you would someday end up in a situation like mine too, though. With how you’ve been ogling and flirting with females everywhere in this two years and two months.”
“I… I haven’t been ogling, flirting, or doing anything of that sort.”
I strongly rubbed my mouth upon receiving that unforeseen assault, then abruptly frowned.
“N-No, wait a minute. Two years and two months… don’t tell me you’ve always been watching me…?”
“Of course I have. It may have been two years and two months among the two hundred years I went through, but it was still long, unexpectedly.”
I could feel nothing but astonishment. So that meant this young sage observed my every action here and there down to the last detail? It wasn’t like I was purposefully taking any action of questionable conduct that I couldn’t let others see, but neither did I have the confidence to say that I didn’t take any. However, there wasn’t any time to individually inspect the memories of my past bit-more-than-two years right now… or so I told myself, forcibly pulling back my thoughts.
“W-Well, I won’t chase the issue for now. …So, how did you escape from Administrator?”
“Fn. —Getting out of the living room on the top floor of the cathedral somehow, I regained the authority to use sacred arts, but the situation did not change. After all, if I tried to counterattack with sacred arts, she would simply have to designate the hallway as a prohibited space this time. It would be like doing nothing but changing my means of escape from running to flight. I figured I needed to run into places her attacks could not reach to remake my preparations.”
“Even if you say that… Administrator’s the supervisor of the world like her name suggests, right? Is there anywhere she can’t get in?”
“Certainly, she was a god that assumed the name of a supervisor, but she doesn’t quite possess the absolute omnipotence of one. There are only two places in this world where she can’t do as she likes.”
“One would be beyond the mountain range at the edge… the Dark Territory that the masses of the Human World labeled the land of darkness. The other would be the Great Library Room we are in right now. In the first place, this library room was a space created by Administrator upon finding out about the limit to her own memory, as an external memory storage device, so to speak. It stores the extensive amount of data related to all system commands as well as the Underworld. —Thus, she thought that she had to do all she could to prevent any human aside from herself from coming in here. Hence, she set it within the cathedral despite not linking it there spatially. There exists only a single door to enter and additionally, the command to call it out was known only to her… no, only to her and me.”
I looked around the Great Library Room with its passages, stairs, and bookshelves arranged over several floors once again. The cylindrical wall appeared to be made from plain bricks, but—
“Then, beyond that wall is…”
“Nothing. The wall itself is invincible, but it is likely only a stretch of nothingness awaits you on its other side even if it broke.”
I started wondering exactly what would happen if one plunged in there, but I lightly shook my head and shifted my thoughts.
“—Erm, that single door you mentioned was the one we passed through when we came in here from the rose garden earlier?”
“Nay, that door was one I created much later. Humongous double doors existed in the center of the lowest floor until two hundred years ago. As I ran from Administrator’s pursuit with my life at stake, I recited the art to call out those doors. I was still obstructed around two times despite my speed. Somehow completing the command, I leapt through the doors that appeared beyond the hallway, and immediately shut and locked them.”
“Locked… that said, the highest minister’s authority level was the same as yours, so wouldn’t it get opened from the other side?”
“I suppose. However, luckily, while locking it from inside the library room is done by turning the key ninety degrees to the right, unlocking it from outside required a tedious art ritual. Separated by a single set of doors, I chanted a new art ritual while listening to Administrator’s voice, filled with a cold intent to murder, chant the unlock command. The moment the key turned to the left before my eyes was roughly the same time as I finished my ritual…”
Perhaps recalling her memories of that time, Cardinal gently squeezed her own body with her arms. It was a story from two hundred years ago, but a chill ran down my spine from just imagining the scene. Finishing up the corn soup, of which a little remained, I took in a breath of air and asked.
“The ritual you chanted then was one to break the door… is that it?”
“Yes. I blew the one and only path that linked the cathedral to this Great Library Room, those huge doors, into tiny pieces. In that instant, this place was completely isolated from the outside world and I managed to escape from Administrator’s pursuit… and that’s how it happened.”
“…And the reason why the highest minister didn’t make a door again…?”
“I mentioned earlier, did I not, that Administrator first created the Great Library Room with the doors, after which she separated it from the cathedral. The coordinate values of this space in the system are constantly changing random numbers in unused regions. Unless one could accurately predict those integers, external interference was no longer possible.”
“I see… But the Central Cathedral’s coordinates are fixed, so it’s possible to connect passages from here to the outside, huh?”
“That’s exactly it. That said, doors created are immediately detected by Administrator’s familiars after they are opened even once, so they can’t be used a second time. Like that rose garden door that picked Eugeo and you up earlier.”
“I-I’m really sorry about that…”
I lowered my head meekly and the young sage let out a small laugh before shifting her sight towards the library room’s ceiling dome. The two eyes beyond her glasses narrowed and she murmured as though mulling over something.
“…I fought the error I should have been correcting, Administrator, and irrefutably lost. Fleeing in an unsightly manner, I took refuge in this place… devoting myself to absolutely nothing but observation and deliberation for the two hundred years since…”
“…Two hundred years…”
—Or so I muttered, but there was no way I, who experienced seventeen and a half years in the real world and an accelerated two years in the Underworld for a total of less than twenty years, could grasp a real feel for that length of time. I could only image it as a vast stream of time at most.
The girl before my eyes lived through a period of time that could be practically said to be equivalent to infinity. On her own in this Great Library Room without even a single rat, surrounded only by mountains of silent books. Even words like solitude failed to express it any longer, that was the utter isolation from the world. I could never stand two hundred years even if I was left in this same situation. I would definitely open the door on my own volition even if I knew it led to my own ruin.
No, wait. Before that—
“Cardinal… you did say the lifespan of a fluct light was around a hundred and fifty years, didn’t you? Nearing that limit was what made Administrator try and copy her own fluct light and all… How exactly did you get through those two hundred years worth of time after splitting up?”
“I suppose it was only natural for you to ask that.”
Cardinal took some time to return the now-empty cup onto the table, then nodded.
“Even if my fluct light was a copy selectively sorted out by Administrator, there isn’t anywhere near the amount of allowance needed for an even longer stretch of memories to be placed in. Therefore, rearranging my own memories had to be my first course of action upon securing the momentary safety after escaping into the Great Library Room.”
“Indeed. The topic that came out earlier in that example, directly editing a file without a backup. My consciousness would have probably dissolved into light within the light cube if even a single accident occurred during the operation.”
“Er-Erm… So, that means you still held the authority to manipulate that Light Cube Cluster somewhere in the real world even after getting confined in this library room, right? In that case, rather than accessing your own, wouldn’t it be possible to go for Administrator’s fluct light and do some sort of attack like blowing away her soul…?”
“That would work just as well the other way round, however. But unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, the type of sacred arts that change a target’s state would generally require one to be in direct contact with the target unit or object, or at the very least, have the target within one’s line of sight. Even with the concept of «range» around, that is. As such, that was why Administrator had to bother taking the daughter of the furniture shop owner all the way up to the top floor of the cathedral, like how she needed to take you and Eugeo to the church.”
I involuntarily shivered upon hearing that. If we hadn’t succeeded in our reckless breakout, who knew what would have happened at the place where interrogation and whatever else would be conducted.
“—In other words, having isolated myself in this library room, I was unable to attack Administrator’s fluct light regardless of how much power I had and able to avert attacks from her at the same time.”
Regardless of whether she knew of my anxiety or not, Cardinal lowered her long eyelashes behind those glasses and continued her words.
“Rearranging my own soul… was truly an intimidating operation. After all, those memories that could currently be vividly recalled would disappear without leaving a trace behind with a single command. However, I had no choice but to do it. I could easily imagine that it would take a terrifyingly long time to delete Administrator with the state of affairs then, you see. —In the end, I deleted all the memories from when I was Quinella, as well as those after becoming Administrator, ninety-seven percent of it all…”
“Wha… th-that’s practically everything, isn’t it!?”
“Indeed. That long, long story of Quinella I spoke to you about was actually not experienced by myself personally but merely knowledge I wrote down before the deletion. I cannot even remember the faces of the parents who brought me up. Neither the warmth of the bed I fell into slumber each night, nor the taste of the sweet fried bread I used to love… I mentioned, didn’t I, that I do not even possess a single shred of human emotions. I am a program with nearly all memories and emotions lost, taking action purely under the order burnt into my soul, «to stop the main process that went insane». That’s the sort of existence I am.”
Cardinal’s face was cast downwards as a smile rose to its surface, but it appeared to be filled with a loneliness so deep that it couldn’t be expressed in words from my point of view. You aren’t a program; you should have emotions just like me and the rest of the humans; I wanted to say so, but the words wouldn’t come out.
Raising her face, Cardinal glanced at me sunk in silence and smiled again before she began moving her mouth once more.
“…As the result of selectively deleting my memories, I secured sufficient free capacity in my fluct light for the time being. Having gained much time, I recovered from my miserable escape and worked on a plan in order to deal a blow against Administrator in return. —I considered catching her unaware and bringing a face-to-face fight to her once again. It’s not possible to open a passage to this library room from outside, but like what you’ve said earlier, the reverse is, after all. The command to install a door has a «range» as well, but anywhere from the Central Cathedral’s garden to its middle floors is within it. She does descend to the lower floors of the tower, though seldom, so opening a door at those times opens up the possibility for a surprise attack. And I got used to controlling this body unexpectedly easily too.”
“…So that’s it. It does sound worth it if you can guarantee a preemptive attack, but… still, it’s quite a gamble, right? It wouldn’t have been odd if Administrator had something up her sleeves…”
A surprise attack rarely succeeds with the other party conscious of the possbility. There were several times I set up and was set up for an ambush in my SAO times too, but it didn’t work out most of the time with the target on his or her guard, thinking ‘a surprise attack looks likely to happen over there’. Cardinal nodded, seemingly annoyed, when I pointed it out.
“Before Quinella even became the highest minister, she had the gift of finding out others’ weaknesses. Like how she noticed my weakness, my stature, in the midst of that battle after we split up, she deduced the advantage she had that I didn’t in the new state of affairs and made haste to utilize it.”
“Advantage… But you and Administrator basically possess the exact same level of capability in offense and defense, right? And well, how do I say this, your intellects too.”
“I do have qualms with how you put it, but certainly.”
She snorted, then continued.
“There is almost no difference in combat potential between me and her by ourselves. Of course, that applies only when it stays as a one-on-one match, that is.”
“One-on-one… —Aah, so that’s it.”
“That’s how it is. I am a recluse with no one to turn to, in comparison to her, the ruler of an enormous organization, the Axiom Church… Administrator became strongly aware of the perils of copying her own fluct light through giving birth to a hindrance, me, and being driven to the brink of death. That said, the circumstances of her logic circuits collapsing due to her overflowing memories had not changed. She had to resort to something, but unlike me, she did not venture into the high-risk measure of directly editing her memories. There, she reluctantly settled with a compromise. She maintained the minimum free capacity required by deleting extremely recent memories from the surface, an operation with low risk, and reduced the amount of newly recorded information to the best of her ability.”
“Reduce… even you say that, don’t memories just pile up by going through each day whether you want them or not?”
“It depends on the way you spend it, does it not? More information gets inputted the more you see, the more places you go, the more thoughts you think, but how would it be if you don’t take even a single step from the canopy bed in your room and spend the entire time with your eyes shut for example?”
“Uh… there’s no way I could do that. I would even prefer swinging a sword for the entire day.”
“I am aware of your lack of composure well enough without needing you to point it out now.”
I couldn’t say a thing about that. I don’t know her objectives for doing so, but if Cardinal had always been observing my actions, she would have already been well aware of those casual strolls I took without informing Eugeo whenever I had free time.
Immediately tightening her mouth that was slowly forming into a smile, the sage continued talking.
“…However, Administrator does not have those ‘I’m bored’ or ‘I have nothing to do’ sort of feelings, unlike you. That person would lie on her bed for days and weeks if necessary. While immersed in her sweet memories, from before she became the ruler of the world, within her half-asleep-half-awake slumber, that is…”
“But she’s the one at the top of the Axiom Church, right? Wouldn’t she have duties to perform, speeches to give, or anything else that she has no choice but to do on account of her position?”
“Certainly, there are such responsibilities. She has to have an audience with the four emperors during the religious festival at the start of the year and she needs to descend to the middle and lower floors of the cathedral to check on the management system for the world at scheduled times. And each time with her guard up against any possible surprise attacks from me too. There, Administrator took up new measures. She delegated most of her duties and at the same time, gathered loyal yet powerful followers to serve as her escorts…”
“And so there’s the advantage that you, alone by yourself, don’t have and she, as the ruler of an enormous organization, does, huh? …But on the contrary, doesn’t that increase the level of uncertainty? If she gathers several escorts capable of facing you, with the same level of combat potential as her, and those people decide to rebel against her, Administrator won’t be able to hold her own either, right?”
Cardinal lightly shrugged her shoulders and repeated that same word as a reply to my question.
“Didn’t I say they were absolutely loyal?”*
“Sure, the inhabitants of this world don’t disobey orders from their superiors, but you did say that that wasn’t absolute either. If those escorts were to think that the highest minister was a pawn of the land of darkness on some sort of impulse…”
“Naturally, that woman understood that the possibility was not zero too. After all, she did turn heaps of humans with high transgression quotients into research subjects. Blind obedience is not always loyalty… no, that woman would not trust an escort even if the escort swore an oath of allegiance from the heart. After all, that woman was betrayed by even her own copy.”
Saying so, Cardinal broadly grinned.
“She required a guarantee that the escorts would definitely not betray her under all circumstances to bestow upon them authorities and equipment worthy of opposing me. So what could she do? The answer was simple: she would merely have to change them to become so, through their very fluct lights.”
“…Wh-What did you say?”
“The complex command for that had already been completed. Namely, the «Synthesis Ritual».”
“Erm… the unification between soul and memory, was it?”
“Yes. In addition, she had a plentiful supply of high-quality raw materials that possessed powerful souls. The humans with high transgression quotients she captured, used in her experiments and frozen for preservation afterward, were all endowed with high capabilities, without a single exception. …Or rather, perhaps I should say that they would harbored suspicion towards the Taboo Index and Axiom Church due to their excellent wisdom and physique… There was a hero known as an unparallelled swordsman, who ran to the remote regions with his comrades and pioneered his own village due to his hatred for the church’s rule, among those first captured. That swordsman tried to cross the «mountain range at the edge» that separated the Human World and the Dark Territory, which was what caused him to get abducted by the church, but Administrator chose him to be her first loyal escort.”
It sounded like a story I heard somewhere; Cardinal continued ahead while I struggled in chasing after that thought.
“Most of that swordsman’s memories were damaged by the experiments, but that, on the contrary, tilted more to Administrator’s advantage. Any memories before his capture were merely a nuisance, after all. That person used an object that enforces unconditional loyalty towards her, the «Piety Module», and… well, it looks like a purple prism around this size…”
Cardinal showed a gap of about ten centimeters with her small hands as she spoke.
Hair over my entire body jolted up the instant I pictured that object in my mind. I saw that thing before. And it was just a few hours ago too.
“…In the Synthesis Ritual, that prism embeds itself into the target’s head through the middle of the forehead. Through that, the soul that had its memories plundered unifies with the manufactured memories that also serve as principles of behavior, resulting in a new individuality. A supreme warrior who oaths absolute allegiance to the church and Administrator, and acts purely for the sake of preserving the Human World as it is… The ritual succeeded and Administrator termed the person who awoke as an Integrator, as he was one who reforms disorder, preserves integrity, and unifies all under the church’s rule, over the entire world. If you’re climbing the cathedral, the possibility of that person, the oldest integrity knight, standing before you and Eugeo is not zero. It would be best to remember his name.”
Cardinal stared into my face and solemnly continued.
“Bercouli Synthesis One… that is the name of that knight.”
“…N-No, that’s impossible, there’s no way that’s it.”
I shook my head with all my might before Cardinal could close her lips.
Wasn’t that the name of that legendary great hero Eugeo once told me about, with an expression filled with admiration? He was the brave warrior from the first generation of settlers at Rulid Village; he explored the mountain range at the edge and tried to steal the «Blue Rose Sword» from the white dragon that protected the Human World.
I believe not even Eugeo knew about Bercouli’s final years. Eugeo probably imagined he continued living in Rulid and grew old—the thought that Bercouli got abducted by Administrator and remodeled into her first integrity knight would have never occurred to him.
“Hey… hey, Cardinal, you also know how Eugeo and I teamed up, and still had an extremely difficult fight against Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one… who would be the thirty-first integrity knight, right? How could you expect us to fight against number one all of a sudden and win?”
The sage, however, simply shrugged her shoulders and swept my objection aside.
“You can’t spare any time to shiver over Bercouli alone. Like you’ve said, the grand total of integrity knights has reached thirty-one now.”
There are another thirty masters stronger than Eldrie. Wanting to avert my eyes from the harsh reality, I spoke.
“Despite there being so many, I haven’t seen a lot of them. I saw an integrity knight flying on a flying dragon in the night sky only once ever since I came to the central capital.”
“Naturally; the main duty of the integrity knights is the defense of the mountain range at the edge, after all. They would only be in the city when a major criminal who defied the Taboo Index appears and that hasn’t happened even once in these ten years. Normally, even the nobles and imperial families have no chance to see the integrity knights, let alone the rest of the populace. …One could say that a distance was formed between them, however…”
“Hmm… Ah, but does that mean that the majority of the thirty knights are at the mountain range at the edge?”
I asked with a hint of anticipation, but Cardinal readily shook her head.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the majority. The number of knights awake within the cathedral right now should be, at the very least, twelve or thirteen. If you and Eugeo intend to complete your respective goals, you would generally have no choice but to break through them to reach the cathedral’s top floor.”
“Even if you say that… we have no choice…”
Sliding on the chair as I sank into depression, I let out a deep sigh.
To put it into RPG-ish terms, I’m feeling like I had just plunged into the last dungeon with absolutely none of the necessary equipment and levels. True, I made the far, far journey to the central capital so that I could struggle to the cathedral’s top floor and contact someone in the real world, but I feel like I could honestly even say that the disparity in combat ability between the integrity knights and us was beyond hope.
I dropped my gaze to my chest in silence. Thanks to the magical meat bun I had gotten from Cardinal, the wound I received from Integrity Knight Eldrie’s «armament full control art» had completely healed, but traces still remained in that spot, a stinging pain.
There would hardly be any chance of clearing it through frontal attacks alone if the knights appearing from now onwards were to be stronger than Eldrie… thinking about that, I recalled the curious incident after the end of the battle in the rose garden once more.
The integrity knight suddenly suffered pain upon being told his own history and the name of his mother by Eugeo, falling on his knees onto the ground. The transparent prism that rose out with purple light from his forehead while he was half-conscious— That was definitely the actual «Piety Module» Cardinal spoke of earlier. It was the key item used to alter the integrity knights’ ego and memories, turning them into slaves absolutely loyal to the highest minister.
But was that effect really as absolute as Cardinal had said? Eldrie seemed like he would have been freed from the module’s coercive force just by hearing his mother’s name… from my point of view, at least. If the same phenomenon can develop on the other knights as well, that would mean there is another method aside from crossing swords with them head-on and open up the possibility of Eugeo’s dear wish, «restoring Integrity Knight Alice to the original Alice», coming true.
Cardinal’s calm voice reached my ears while I was sunk in my thoughts.
“There is a little more until the end of my story, may I continue?”
“…Ah, aah, please go ahead.”
“Very well. —Now then, as Administrator had completed several integrity knights, starting from Bercouli, the chance of a surprise attack from me endlessly fell. Although they weren’t at Administrator’s level, the knights definitely had high offensive and defensive abilities, seeing as it was impossible for even me to instantaneously delete them. I had no choice but to resign myself to having our battle extended for all perpetuity…”
It seems Cardinal’s long, long story was finally reaching its end. I straightened my posture atop the chair and focused on the sage’s dignified tone.
“With the new change in the situation, it became clear that I, too, needed a collaborator. —However, finding one willing to fight the ruler of the world with me would be no easy task. You see, that person would first have to possess a transgression quotient high enough to break the Taboo Index, as well as combat strength and sacred arts usage authority on par with the integrity knights on top of that. I risked the perils and opened a door as far as I could to use a different art, «consciousness sharing», on the living birds and insects nearby and released them all over the whole world…”
“Ha-haa… So those were your eyes and ears, huh. Could that be how you observed me too…?”
Cardinal gave a broad grin and reached out with her right hand. Facing the palm upwards, she curled her fingertips as though calling for someone. Upon which—
Some kind of small object suddenly jumped out from the area around my fringe, landing onto Cardinal’s palm without a sound. When I took a look, it was a pitch-black spider smaller than even the fingertip of my little finger. Nimbly turning about, it looked up at me with the four deep-crimson eyes it had in front of its head and lifted its right foreleg, greeting me… or so it appeared.
“Her name is Charlotte. She had always been observing the speech and behavior of both of you from your forelocks, the insides of your pocket, or even a corner of the room at times, ever since you left Rulid Village with Eugeo. …It seems she did more than purely observing every now and then, however.”
The spider retracted its eight legs and shrugged its tiny shoulders at Cardinal’s chiding; or so it appeared.
I finally realized after those cute gestures. The one who tugged a strand of my forelocks and taught me the correct path to go while fleeing from the integrity knight riding on the flying dragon might possibly be this thing. No, it wasn’t just that one time. I do recall that same sensation I felt countless times at the important times ever since I set out on a journey from Rulid, entered the swordsmanship tournament at Zakkaria and became a guard, even after I enrolled in the Sword Mastery Academy in the central.
“…So, that tugging thing wasn’t some divine inspiration of mine, but because my hair was really being pulled on, huh…”
I recalled all of those scenes from one place or another as I murmured in a daze, before that final, and especially important memory came back to me. Unable to hold it back, I leaned forward and whispered to the black spider that wasn’t even five millimeters in size, staying motionlessly on Cardinal’s palm.
“Th-That’s right, could it have been you that time too… were you the one who encouraged me when all those budding zephyrias I grew were cut…? The one who said to believe in the wishes of the surrounding flowers…”
The voice remaining in my memories was that of a somewhat adult woman. In that case, the black spider before my eyes might have the individuality of a female as the name, Charlotte, suggests, but could a bug that wasn’t even human have a soul—a fluct light in the first place?
As I toyed around with my various doubts, Charlotte answered none of them and continued looking at me with her deep red eyes, but then abruptly got off Cardinal’s palm, nimbly ran onto the table, and disappeared after jumping into a bookshelf nearby.
Having sent off the small familiar, Cardinal murmured in a gentle tone.
“Charlotte was the oldest observation unit I sent into the various lands of the Human World through art rituals. Her long, long duty had finally reached its end with this. The natural degeneration of her Life was frozen, so I suppose she had already worked for over two hundred years…”
Muttering so, I looked at the bookshelf Charlotte slipped into once again. There should have been nothing more to her duty than just observing Eugeo and me. However, in these two years since I left Rulid, Charlotte had pulled on my forelocks and whispered me occasional advice, coming to my aid countless times. Thinking from a different perspective, she was a fellow traveler closer to me than even Eugeo was, even if I didn’t notice her existence.
Expressing my gratitude within my heart, I faced the bookshelf and lowered my head.
Turning my gaze back to Cardinal, I asked after a short moment of thought.
“So, in other words, you’ve… shut yourself up in this Great Library Room for over a whole two hundred years while searching for a human worthy of being a collaborator through the eyes and ears of familiars…?”
“Yes. I am unable to check out humans’ transgression quotients directly from here, you see. Whenever gossip of peculiar incidents reach my ears, I have the observation units move there and observe the humans that caused it… I devoted myself to searching in that steadfast manner. Many times have I seen a human that caught my attention taken away by the integrity knights before my eyes. I may not possess emotions, but the knowledge of the meanings of the words, ‘disappointment’ and ‘perseverance’, forced into me. …Honestly speaking, the idea of soon getting acquainted with the meaning of the phrase, ‘giving up’, had occurred to me in these ten years or so.”
A smile, with the weight of two hundred years behind it, drifted onto Cardinal’s small lips.
“You see, while I sat and viewed upon the world, Administrator built up a more proactive system to ensure mighty warriors would become integrity knights. And that is the truth behind what you and Eugeo were aiming for, the «Four Empires Unity Tournament».”
“…So that means to say that the swordsmen that gained victory in the tournament did not take up the honor of being appointed as an integrity knight, but…”
“They were made into integrity knights, regardless of their will. As the strongest puppets, with their prior memories sealed away and possessing blind obedience towards the highest minister. Families that contributed greatly to the numbers of the integrity knights were given monetary rewards, lavish enough to dazzle their eyes, and granted the status of upper class aristocrats, causing the unanimous opinion among parents of the nobles and wealthy merchants to have their children study the sword. And those knights themselves were posted to lands where contact with their original families was impossible, severing their connections with the past.”
“…So what you meant by ‘a distance forming between them’ was…”
“Yes, that contrivance. —Among the thirty integrity knights, half were those arrested for committing a taboo, while the other half are all tournament champions. That Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one who bruised you was one among them as well.”
“I see… so that’s how it works, huh…”
Letting out a gloomy sigh, I murmured.
So it was a stroke of luck instead, that Sortiliena-senpai, who I served as a valet, and Gorgolosso-senpai, who Eugeo served, failed to achieve victory in the tournament this year. If Sortiliena-senpai won against Eldrie and proceeded on to become the tournament champion, she would have been the one lying in wait at the rose garden plaza, as an integrity knight with her memories lost.
That wasn’t all to it. If the case with Raios and Humbert didn’t happen and everything went like what Eugeo and I first aimed for, being elected as the academy representatives and successfully winning through the tournament next year… Or perhaps, if we failed to escape from the underground jail and got dragged out to that interrogation place. It didn’t matter to a natural fluct light like myself, but Eugeo had a high chance of ending up as the thirty-second integrity knight. This was what the saying, “go for wool and come back shorn”, was meant for.
Cardinal spoke in a soft voice as my body shuddered.
“—Thus, in these more than two hundred years, Administrator steadily solidified her defenses and my hopes dwindled endlessly. Even I’ve considered it. About why I even had to bother with something like this…”
Those burnt-brown eyes gazed at the Great Library Room’s high ceiling. Her two eyes flickered countlessly as though she saw a mirage of warm sunlight through that chilly stone dome.
“…The world I saw through the observers’ eyes was beautiful and flooded with light. There were children having fun running around the grassy plains, girls blushing red with love, and mothers affectionately smiling upon the babies carried in their arms. If nothing had happened to the owner of this body, that daughter of the furniture shop owner, as she grew up, she would have gotten all of that. She should have been able to live an ordinary life, ignorant of the world’s contrivances, and reminiscence about her blessed lifetime while on the brink of death as her family takes care of her sixty, seventy years down the road…”
Was it a figment of my imagination that Cardinal, lowering her eyelashes as she stitched her words together in a whisper, gently shivered?
“…I resented the behavioral principle of correcting the main process’s mistakes burnt into the core of my soul. And I decided that I was an old woman soon to die. A withered, old tree that had already lost all radiance of the living and purely awaits the moment its Life runs out. Strangely enough, my manner of speech had also turned out in this manner without my intent. In those ceaseless days of losing myself in the work of the humans through the borrowed ears of the familiars I released into the world, I continued thinking. Why did the gods from the outside world who created this one leave Administrator’s tyranny alone…? Creation Goddess Stacia, Sun Goddess Solus, and Land Goddess Terraria are fabricated gods made by the Axiom Church for their rule, but the name of the true god, «Rath», can be spotted everywhere on the catalog that lists down every system command, after all. Rath is the collective name of the gods… and Cardinal is the false god created by them, without a soul, its existence made up by the two behavioral principles burnt into Administrator and myself. Questions about that world stacked up ever higher the more I knew of its secrets, without ever being resolved.”
“Wait… wait a moment.”
Unable to follow the rapid development of the story, I cut into the conversation.
“Then… that thing about this world being a simulation created by Rath and that thing about the original Cardinal being a program with two processes, one main and one sub, were what you figured out through just conjecture too?”
“It’s nothing to be surprised over. Anyone can reach that conclusion with two hundred years worth of time and the built-in database of the Cardinal System.”
“Database… I see, so that’s where you got that vocabulary of yours different from those of the Underworld inhabitants, huh?”
“Along with the flavor of that corn soup you drank earlier. That said, there is probably much deviation between my understanding of many terms and yours… However, this guess, at the very least, is definitely accurate. The reason behind why Underworld is much too imperfect despite its roots in creationism and why Administrator’s unsightly ruling system remains disregarded… there is only one possible reason left. The true god, Rath, does not wish for the humans in this world to lead happy lives. Instead, it is the opposite… this world exists purely for them to observe what sort of resistance would the inhabitants put up as a humongous vise slowly, slowly clamps down upon them. —You might not know, but there has been an increase in deaths among humans unable to maintain their Lives due to causes such as endemic diseases, rampancy of dangerous beasts, and poor harvest of crops in the remote areas in recent years. This is a phenomenon brought about by the increase in the «load parameter» even Administrator is unable to change.”
“Load… parameter? Now that you mention it, you said something like that earlier, didn’t you. Some kind of load experiment or something.”
“Yes. Strictly speaking, the load is still increasing day after day at the current moment, but… as recorded in the database, the trial that will appear in the final phase of the load experiment is incomparable to something minor like a disease.”
“What exactly… will be happening…?”
“This egg, known as the Human World, held within the vise will finally have its shell broken. You know of it too, do you not, of what lays outside the Human World?”
“The Dark Territory…?”
“Exactly. That world of darkness is the device built in order to confer ultimate anguish upon the populace. I said so earlier, but those labeled as monsters of the darkness, the goblins, orcs, and other races are existences with the same fluct lights as humans, endowed principles of behavior to slaughter and pillage. They are organized in a straightforward manner; a hierarchy where strength determines superiority, building up a primitive but powerful army. Their population may be half of the Human World, but their individual combat ability is likely far beyond that of humans. That horrifying group is eagerly awaiting the day, that even the word, atrocious, will fail to describe, when they invade the territory of the Human World people who they call «ium» in their language. It’s likely a tale not too far off in the future.”
The topic provoked more than mere shivers. It would be no exaggeration to say that the goblin leader that participated in a struggle to the death with me in the cave in the mountain range at the edge, two years ago, was a ferocious fighter. Simply thinking about how a military with several thousands or several tens of thousands of those like him would come attacking caused my blood to freeze. As I shook my head falteringly while speaking in a croaky voice.
“…The Human World has many guards and knights as well… but I won’t mince my words, they have no chance of winning. They have absolutely no possibility of winning with that sort of swordsmanship in this world that focuses on its artistic value…”
With that, Cardinal immediately replied with a nod.
“Obviously. …Rath’s plans likely had the Human World forming up a mighty army capable of opposing the Dark Territory right about now. Their usage authorities for equipment and sacred arts would increase through continuous battles against the minor but incessant raids of goblins, while working out swordsmanship styles and group tactics applicable for actual combat. However, as you know as well, that is far from the present situation. Swordsmen never experience actual combat, pursuing nothing but the visual appeal of their styles, and the army commanders, those upper class nobles, wallow in extravagance. The entire state of affairs was brought about by Administrator and the integrity knights she created.”
“…What do you mean?”
“There is no doubt that integrity knights, with authorities of the highest level and sacred instrument-class equipment bestowed upon them, are powerful. Powerful enough to sweep away something on the level of those invading groups of goblins from the mountain range at the edge without any trouble, with merely eight of them guarding it. —However, due to that, the commoners who were originally supposed to fight those goblins ended up going through several hundreds of years without experiencing a single battle. The masses know nothing about the oncoming menace and live on immersed in the unending stagnation known as peace…”
“…Does Administrator know that the final phase of the load experiment will be beginning soon?”
“She ought to know. However, she underestimates the army of darkness, believing the thirty integrity knights and herself alone are capable of driving them away without a hitch. Her belief is so deep that she even had those guardian dragons in the north, south, east, and west, who were supposed to provide a valuable boost in war potential, massacred on the reasoning that she could not dominate their actions. It would likely sadden your partner if he heard this; the one who slaughtered the white dragon, a charming conversationalist in the legends, was Bercouli himself after being remodeled into an integrity knight.”
“…It’s best if he doesn’t hear of that story.”
I muttered so with a sigh. Recalling that mountain of bones I saw underground in the mountain range at the edge, I shut my eyes for a moment before lifting my face and asking.
“Realistically speaking, how would it turn out? When the army of darkness comes attacking, would Administrator and the integrity knights be able to go up against them alone?”
Cardinal prompted refuted.
“True, the integrity knights are experts who experienced many years of actual combat, but their numbers are definitely too few and overwhelming so. Also, the sacred arts Administrator command have the strength of natural disasters, but as I have mentioned, she has to expose herself within range of the enemies as well, to use those arts. Even if each individual of the army of darkness poses absolutely no match for Administrator, their sacred arts… no, perhaps I should call them dark arts instead, anyway, they have as many system command users as there are stars in the skies. Even if she incinerates a hundred art users once with a downpour of lightning bolts, she would probably be pierced through in the next instant with a thousand flames. I wouldn’t know if she would die with that enormous Life of hers, but at the very least, it is certain she would flee back to this tower.”
“Hold… hold on for a bit, please. That means… the fate this world has won’t change regardless of whether we defeat Administrator or not, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t be able to drive away the army of darkness even upon regaining all the authorities of the Cardinal System, would you?”
Cardinal affirmed the words, muttered by me in a daze, with a deep nod.
“It is exactly as you’ve said. I already have no methods left to stop the invasion from the Dark Territory with how far things have come.”
“…In other words… as long as you complete your goal of eliminating Administrator, the malfunctioning main process… you wouldn’t care one bit about what happens to this world… is that what you’re saying…?”
“…That might be true.”
The voice that finally let that out was faint enough to blend into the crackling of flames from the surrounding lamps.
“Yes… what I’m aiming for might be the same as letting things play out on their own if you look upon it as an end where many souls are extinguished… However… if either you or I sit here and do nothing, they will soon… I do not know if it’s a year ahead, or two, but it is certainly likely that the troops of darkness will march onwards into the Human World; the villages will burn, the fields will be trampled, and many people will be murdered. The words known to me fail to express… just how extreme a disaster, just how overwhelmingly cruel the hell I fear shall make its appearance will be. —However, you see… even if I recover all of my authorities and work out a command that would burn the monsters of darkness to nothing in a single blow, I will not use it. If you are to ask for a reason, it will be because they didn’t exactly desire to be monsters. I believe I mentioned this; that I couldn’t reach an answer even after a hundred years of thinking. Listen here… even if a ruler like Administrator did not appear and the world continued down its originally planned track, the opposite would happen instead; the humans would have built up a mighty army, invaded the Dark Territory, and subjected the inhabitants of that country to the limits of atrocity as they massacred them to the very end!”
Cardinal’s soft voice gradually carried a sharpness like that of a whip and assaulted my ears with a snap.
“Regardless of which one falls, the end of the world will be soaked in an abominable amount of blood. After all, that end itself is what the god, Rath, desired. I… I cannot accept a god like that. I definitely cannot accept such an ending. As such… upon realizing that I was unable to avert the load experimental phase’s approach, I arrived at a single conclusion. No matter what it takes, I will remove Administrator before that time comes, recover my authorities as the Cardinal System… and render everything in the Underworld null, both the Human World and the Dark Territory.”
Mechanically repeating the words, my eyes opened, feeling as though it was their first time doing so.
“What exactly do you mean…?”
“It is just as I said. I will delete every fluct light stored within the cradle of souls, the Light Cube Cluster. The inhabitants of the Human World, and the inhabitants of darkness as well, without leaving behind a single one.”
A firm determination and resolution filled Cardinal’s youthful face with her declaration, sealing my mouth away for a while. After spending some time, I could somehow conceptualize a definite image for that final solution the girl’s words pointed towards.
“That’s… essentially, if an end where many people die in a cruel and painful way can’t be avoided, it would be better to just perform euthanasia on everyone…?”
“Euthanasia…? —No, that would be the wrong term to use.”
Perhaps searching through the database built into the system, Cardinal blinked once before she shook her head.
“It is probably unimaginable for a human of the host world like yourself, possessing a kind of memory media different from the light cube, but the souls of the inhabitants living in this world can be deleted with a moment of manipulation. They can disappear without even enough resistance to make a flame on a candle waver, without them noticing a thing… That is no different from the deed of murdering a person in the first place, but…”
It was probably a conclusion she considered thoroughly over a long period of time; I could feel nothing but reverberations filled with profound resignation and futility in Cardinal’s voice as she spoke.
“Of course, ideally speaking, the best way would be for this world itself to escape from Rath’s grasp forever, writing its own, original history. It’s not impossible to have a bloodless reconciliation between the Human World and the Dark Territory by spending a few hundred years of time on it. However… you should be the one most aware of how much of a pipe dream it is, to become independent of the god, Rath, shouldn’t you?”
I bit my lips and pondered the sudden inquiry.
I do not know where in Japan was the true form of the Underworld in the real world, the huge Light Cube Cluster, set up. However, naturally, the cluster and its paired machines consume a whole lot of electricity, so implementing complete independence is clearly impossible in that sense.
Adding on to that, Rath was not managing the Underworld as a charity enterprise. Kikuoka Seijirou was actually a member of the Self Defense Force and if my suspicion of his deep connections to the founding of Rath proves right, this experiment should have some tangible aim involving national security. Even if Cardinal recovers all authorities and opens a communication channel to the outside, requesting for the Underworld’s independence, there shouldn’t be any possibility for those in Rath to accept that.
Yes—thinking back about it, even if I managed to reach the top floor of the Central Cathedral and contact Kikuoka, there was utterly no guarantee that he would listen to my plea of preserving the Underworld as it is by interacting with Eugeo. All of the artificial fluct lights are plain experiment subjects to Rath and in the first place, the current Underworld itself was nothing more than a single instance of multiple trial runs.
To put it in other words, there is probably only one method if the artificial fluct lights wish to attain true freedom and independence—to challenge the humans of the real world.
Apprehensive about thinking what laid beyond that, I forced my thoughts to a stop. Raising my face, I looked at Cardinal, then forced my stiff neck into a nod.
“…Yeah, it’s impossible. This world’s much too reliant on humans and energy from the outside world for independence.”
“Yes.. to give an example, it would be like a shoal of fish, thrown into a bucket and capable of doing nothing but wait to be deep-fried in a pot… The most they could do is to hurl themselves out and die.”
I couldn’t simply nod back at Cardinal, murmuring so in a voice filled with resignation, however.
“But… I can’t agree with that so thoroughly, though it’s not like I’m completely against it… The solution you proposed, to disappear in an instant without feeling a thing rather than suffering and dying, might be the right one to take. But I’ve already gotten in too deep with the humans in this world to admit that.”
The smiling faces of the people I closely mingled with in Rulid and Centoria floated past one after another in my mind. Of course, I have no desire to see them slaughtered by the forces of the Dark Territory, but even then, was cooperating with Cardinal like this and making everyone’s souls vanish the only and best method?
Unable to deal with the reality abruptly thrust at me, I bit my lips and listened to Cardinal’s soothing voice.
“Kirito, if all of my authorities are restored with your assistance, I will grant your wishes, though for a limited time, before terminating the Underworld. If you specify the names of those you wish to help, I will not erase their fluct lights, leaving them in an archived state. Afterward, you merely have to secure the light cubes containing their souls when you escape to the outer world. I can still work something out if it is only ten. Even if this is not the best choice for you, it should still qualify for second best.”
I drew in a sharp breath of air at the sudden, unexpected words.
Would something like that really be possible?
True, if the light cube doesn’t require electricity to retain information and I manage to take them out from the cluster, safely preserving them, the fluct lights within should never deteriorate. It would take time, but it shouldn’t be impossible to «extract» and meet them again when the STL technology goes mainstream someday.
However, the problem lies with the stage before that, the way to steal several cubes from the Light Cube Cluster, likely set up at the heart of the Rath research facility. I can’t hide many in my pockets if the light cube is a cube with sides of five centimeters, as Cardinal described. Even if I use a handy case, it would certainly take all I had to carry ten out.
In other words, if I went with this proposal, I would have to select the souls to be saved.
It was different from sorting out save data on a household game console. Artificial fluct lights were basically humans, exactly like myself. I can choose to rescue a sheer ten people from an unavoidable death. And that was only due to their intimacy with me. Do I truly hold the qualification and right for such an deed?
Impossible for me; that would have been what my words led to, but they stayed within my mouth and I simply stared at Cardinal’s eyes that felt as though they could see through anything and everything. What came out instead, was an extremely pathetic lament.
“—In the first place, why did you choose me as your collaborator in fighting Administrator? I’ll tell you first, but I really don’t hold any actual advantage in this world. Sacred arts, sword skill, there’s plenty who are better, scattered all around. That’s right… for example, even Eugeo would do fine. I probably won’t win if he were to fight me seriously now.”
Having patiently heard my pessimistic protest to its end, Cardinal shook her head solely in exasperation.
She filled the cup atop the table, this time with kohiru tea—or so it appeared, but it might be real coffee—then took a sip.
“…I realized the load experimental phase, or the invasion of the Dark Territory in other words, was no longer avoidable a mere twenty years or so ago. Since then, I’ve been seeking for one who would become my sword much more desperately than before…”
Likely reaching the final chapter at last, the long, long story resumed, and I swallowed my lament and listened attentively.
“…However, no matter how much of an expert in the sword or sacred arts I gain as an ally, that person would need to clear another huge obstacle to approach Administrator herself, putting her escorts, the integrity knights, aside.”
“…I-Is there still something else…?”
“Yes. While I was conducting my search, I figured out over tens of ways to solve that other problem, but each one of them lacked a certain reliability… Time continued flowing as I hurried and incessant groups of vanguards were already endangering the mountain range at the edge from the Dark Territory as the first phase of the load experiment when I noticed. Their numbers were enough for the eight integrity knights deployed to fail in eliminating them all. —It was when I began thinking that I had to give up on restoring my authorities through battle and consider persuading Administrator, even if it meant offering my neck, with things the way they were then… a familiar I released got wind of a story circulating around, of what could be thought as an impossible tale, in the remote northern region.”
“A rumor concerning a phenomenon that never occurred even once ever since Quinella became Administrator, at least. It was one about the hindering objects that woman set in every land of the world to obstruct the expansion of residential boundaries for the humans… how one of them, a gigantic tree that absorbed resources from the air with a vast range, possessing a ridiculous priority and durability, got chopped down by merely two youngsters.”
“……I feel like I’ve heard that somewhere…”
“I made haste to move the familiar stationed at the northern region of Norlangarth, that is, Charlotte, and searched for those youngsters. It was immediately before they set out from the village when I finally found them. I slipped Charlotte onto the head of one of them for the moment, a rather careless fellow, and investigated why they were able to eliminate an object that was near impossible to destroy…”
I thought of saying something in return to being treated as a rather careless fellow, but I really didn’t notice Charlotte riding on my head for over two years, so I couldn’t even muster a noise in argument. I urged Cardinal to proceed with a scowl.
“I found out exactly why straight away. The sword held by the flaxen-haired youngster was of a class that the world had few of, one of the sacred instruments… However, a new doubt surfaced even upon understanding that. Why did these youngsters possess such a high object control authority? Experiencing an excitement that I haven’t felt for a long time, I pricked my ears to the pair’s conversations, day and night. Most was foolish talk of absolutely no use, however…”
“So-Sorry about that.”
“Ugh, keep quiet and listen. —Before very long, I finally understood the reason in a town while on the way to the central capital. Astonishingly enough, that would imply that the pair drove away a larger-sized scout unit from the Dark Territory by themselves, doesn’t it? If that proves to be true, the enormous amount of authority increase points, normally divided between ten people, would have been monopolized between those two. I understood that was the reason behind them gaining a high enough authority to equip sacred instruments, but… at the same time, a yet another new question tormented me. That is—how could youngsters, born in some remote village who weren’t even part of the guard corps, repel goblin warriors of the Dark Territory who possessed overwhelming fighting ability? That sums it up.”
“Just saying, but ninety percent of that was through theatrics.”
Cardinal seemed to want to scold me for interfering again, then changed her mind, closed her mouth, and slowly nodded.
“Yes… indeed, that was likely part of what caused that result. That doubt was cleared up in the end, but it was the only one to take such a long time. You see, the black-haired one… that is, Kirito, you were careful and paid attention to your speech and behavior towards your partner, Eugeo. However, understanding hit me like a flash of lightning in the end, in the moment I saw you giving leftovers to a beast not raised by anyone, in other words, a stray dog. You were not bound by the Taboo Index at all…”
“…Did I really do something like that…?”
“Countless times. It would had been chaos if someone else saw. —Since then, I analyzed the significance behind your speech and actions through Charlotte’s eyes. Constantly, even after the two of you reached the central capital and passed through the entrance of the North Centoria Sword Mastery Academy. It was over a year after I started observing… when I finally arrived at a single answer. In short, you are not a soul born in this world and confined within a light cube but a human from the outside… a human from the world where the true creation god, Rath, resides…”
“—Then I must have disappointed you. After all, I didn’t have the supervisor rights I would typically have, not to mention how I didn’t even have a method to communicate with Rath… why, I don’t even know what’s happening outside right now…”
I spoke, feeling sorry for being so little help, and Cardinal shook her right index finger with mild laughter.
“I knew that from the very beginning. After all, if you had a system authority above Administrator’s, there would be no need for you to defeat the goblins with a sword, suffering such a deep injury in the process. I, too, am unable to infer the reason why you have appeared in the Underworld in a state like this. I guess it was perhaps due to some sort of accident… or maybe collecting data with your memories, knowledge, and authorities restricted; I would be amazed if you weren’t paid a rather enormous compensation for it if it was the latter, however.”
“…Yeah, no kidding. I wouldn’t know what to think about myself if that was it.”
Recalling the pain from the goblin leader gouging my left shoulder, I muttered.
“Regardlessly, you are still the greatest hope I could wish for. After all, your very existence cleared the other significant barrier in the battle against Administrator I spoke of earlier.”
“What exactly is that barrier supposed to be?”
“—Executing the Synthesis Ritual requires a long command and extensive adjusting of parameters. Inclusive of the preparation stage, it needs approximately three days.”
The story abruptly skipped ahead once again and I was bewildered. But Cardinal’s lips continued to move, showing no acknowledgment of that on her face.
“In short, there is nearly no need to take sacred arts that can access a light cube directly into account for a normal battle. To put it another way, there is no danger of your soul being overtaken and brainwashed into an integrity knight in the midst of battle. However—what if Administrator gave up on capturing the warrior I chose and simply tries to blow the soul away…? The necessary command should rapidly shorten along with the lack for meticulous adjustments of the parameters. It might even shorten to the extent of letting her finish reciting it while her escort battles. I can compensate for attacks based on Life with equipment and sacred arts as well. However, there is no defense against an attack towards the fluct light itself. I racked my mind for a long time when I realized that possibility.”
“…An attack on the soul… that’s pretty nasty…”
“Yes. Any sort of master would be rendered powerless with his or her memories torn away… As such, Kirito, you are the only one capable of confronting that attack. As expected, even Administrator cannot lay her hands on the sacred instrument of the outside world, the «STL», that you use to move your soul to the Underworld. Because there is no such command in existence. Do you understand the reason behind me being so set on waiting for you now? The reason why I have set down the maximum amount of backdoors and continued waiting so intently, in order to bring you into the Great Library Room when you win the Unity Tournament… or perhaps, before you got dragged into the interrogation area after stepping onto the Axiom Church’s grounds as a criminal who violated the Taboo Index…?”
At last, the long, excessively long self-biographical story had come to its end at the present point in time, and Cardinal took a deep breath as a faint blush spread over her cheeks.
“…I see, so that’s the state of affairs…”
I still didn’t know the reason behind my diving into the Underworld with things as they were. Rather, I instead say that it was to find that out that I set the core of the world, the Axiom Church where I thought the only communication method with Rath would exist at, as my goal.
However, I couldn’t help but think that struggling all the way here to this place really was a sort of fate when this girl, who lived through an absurd length of time, clearly declared so. Was it an oracle for me to try putting in all my effort with Cardinal and letting some people escape to the real world, be it only ten, despite the unguaranteed outcome of the battle against Administrator—?
No, before bringing up fate or whatever else, I couldn’t find it in me to refuse the girl before my eyes, who earnestly waited for this very moment for two hundred years. She reiterated that she was an emotionless program countless times, but I do not believe that to be the truth from what I’ve heard in her long, long story. Cardinal, too, ought to be a human possessing human emotions just like me. All the more so, even if she was bound by an order, her one and only wish—of correcting the world.
“How about it, Kirito. I cannot force you… if you cannot approve of my plan to return the world to null, I’ll send Eugeo and you out from a backdoor in any position of your liking. In that situation, you both would have to overcome all the difficulties to defeat Administrator, which would likely lead to a battle with me after you’ve accomplished your respective goals, but… all I can say is that that, too, is fate…”
Murmuring so, Cardinal then showed a distinct smile, one that appeared the most appropriate for her age among her various expressions ever since she invited us into this library room.
After a long period of silence, I replied the girl’s question with one of my own.
“Cardinal… Your soul’s a copy of Quinella, that was what you said, right…?”
“Yes, that is the case indeed.”
“Then… you should have the blood of pure nobles running through you too. The genes to pursue one’s own interests and desires are… Why did you not throw everything away and try to flee? It should be possible for you to run away to some small village, so far away that not even Administrator can track you, and fall in love, get married, and bring up children like an ordinary girl… maybe even die from old age in bliss. Wasn’t that your wish? Your blood should be commanding you to follow your desires… constantly, for these two hundred years. Why did you resist that command and continue waiting for over two hundred years in a place like this by yourself…?”
“You are a foolish one, through and through.”
“I said it, that all my interests and desires are just one due to the purpose of the Cardinal sub-process’s existence burnt into my soul, to eliminate Administrator and normalize the world. In my mind, a normalized world can no longer be achieved without sending it back to utter nothingness. As such— As such, I—”
There was an abrupt pause in her words, so I stared into Cardinal’s spectacles. The widely opened burnt-brown eyes appeared to be intensely shivering, perhaps due to restraining some sort of emotion. Soon, those lips moved and a voice so soft I almost couldn’t hear it escaped.
“…No… I suppose that’s wrong… I, too… I, too, have a wish; a single one… Something I wanted to understand at any cost… in these two hundred years…”
Her eyelids closing and lifting up once again, Cardinal stared at me intently. She bit her lips in a rare show of hesitation and held her hands together for a bit, but then suddenly got off the chair and stood onto the floor with a thump.
“Hey, Kirito, you get up too.”
I got up as I was told to. Cardinal leaned quite a bit to look up at me, standing upright with my head inclined in doubt. I didn’t have that much in terms of height, but still, it differed quite a lot with the girl who held an outer appearance of one around ten years old.
Cardinal frowned as she scanned through our surroundings, placed her right leg onto the chair she was sat on until now, and got up with some effort. Turning about, she nodded as though checking if the levels of our eyes were roughly aligned.
“There we go. Hey, Kirito, come over here.”
Still confused about the situation, I took several steps and stood in front of Cardinal.
“More to the front.”
What’s the matter, I wondered as I advanced bit by bit. That’s enough; by the time I got told that, our forelocks were practically touching each other already. Cardinal gazed at my eyes with a glance, as I sweated cold sweat, and immediately looked away, stringing up another order.
“Spread out your arms.”
“Turn them in front and make a ring.”
Surely, she wouldn’t bash me up with the staff, or anything like that, the moment I followed her instructions—and in trepidation, I slowly moved my arms, avoided Cardinal’s body, and linked my left and right fingertips together at a spot quite far away from her back.
After spending several seconds filled with such an awkward silence, Cardinal made a slightly cute click with her tongue.
“Ugh, ambiguous, aren’t you?”
Are you referring to me; I barely got anywhere before I stopped that line midway.
Her robe split open, Cardinal’s two arms timidly went around my back as well and I could feel her exerting an extremely mild strength through the fabric of my coat. The huge hat that collided with my forehead made a noise as it dropped onto the table and her chestnut-colored, curly hair brushed against my left cheek. A subtle weight and a faint heat could be felt on my shoulders and chest.
Having endured all I could of this silence that was becoming thicker, I tried to ask for the reason behind this situation. However, before I could, Cardinal’s almost inaudible voice meekly swayed the Great Library Room’s atmosphere.
“I see… so this is…”
Following a long, deep sigh—
“…So this is what it means to be human?”
My breath was taken away in that instant.
If there was something that Cardinal wanted to know in the end, after spending two hundred years in isolation pondering about everything, there would obviously be no other answer except contact with another human, wouldn’t it?
The word, human, takes its roots from connections between people*. Being human means to exchange words with another; to take each others’ hands in their own; to feel the contact between souls.
Despite that, this girl had went through two hundred years of time by herself, surrounded by books incapable of a single line of conversation.
I could finally grasp a palpability of the time Cardinal lived through, with a certain degree of reality. At the same time, I moved my left and right arms, firmly pulling the girl’s back towards me.
There was something decisively different somewhere in that particular voice from all of Cardinal’s voices thus far, sighing as it murmured.
I also could feel small yet distinct drops of water in that moment, carrying heat as they gently traveled across my cheeks.
“…Rewarded… at last… these two hundred years of mine… were not in vain…”
The teardrops flowed, drop followed by another, before disappearing somewhere.
“I’m satisfied… just knowing this warmth… this is plenty, for a reward…”
I did not know how long we stayed that way for sure, but my stomach already felt empty when that gentle shift in the atmosphere occurred.
Gotten down from the chair, Cardinal picked up the knocked-over hat and pat it before placing it on her head. Pushing her round glasses up as she looked this way, that face of hers had already regained the presence of an aloof sage.
“How much longer do you plan on standing in a daze?”
“…That’s just too much…”
Mumbling a protest against those words that made me think the tears earlier were a delusion, I took a seat at the table’s edge. Cardinal silently waited as I crossed my arms and took a long breath but plainly asked the final question before long.
“—So, have you reached a conclusion? Will you take up my proposal, or refuse it?”
I, unfortunately, did not happen to possess enough decisiveness for an immediate answer.
Going by logic alone, selecting ten who should be saved and borrowing Cardinal’s assistance to escape to the real world would be the greatest outcome I could hope for—that was how it was, I guess. After all, I couldn’t formulate any better alternatives in my current state.
But it wasn’t like none exist just because I couldn’t think of any. I want to believe that. Hence, upon lifting my face, I stared straight at Cardinal and spoke.
“…Got it. I’ll participate in your strategy. But…”
As if squeezing out each word, one at a time, I continued on.
“But I won’t stop thinking. Even when we start fighting against the integrity knights and Administrator from now on, I’ll continue searching for some other method. A solution that will somehow avert the load experimental phase tragedy and allow the world’s peace to last.”
“Dear me, you’re ridiculously optimistic, aren’t you. I already knew that, though.”
“Well, you see… I don’t want you to disappear either. If you told me to choose ten people, you’ll be included in there, make no mistake about that.”
Cardinal immediately shrouded those eyes, opened wide for a sheer instant, in the shade of derision and shook her head in exaggerated motions.
“…And on top of that, you’re foolish. If I were to escape, who would be the one to erase this world?”
“Like I said… I understand the circumstances, but I won’t abandon the futile struggle, that’s all I’m saying.”
Shaking her head in pure exasperation at my excuse-like words, the sage spun and turned back. The voice delivered on the gentle wind caused by the fluttering robe was thoroughly quiet, hiding a two hundred years isolation that was utterly impossible for a brief moment of contact to bury.
“A day shall come when you, too… taste the bitterness of resignation… Not a time when you give it your all and fail… one where you need to accept the surmise of failure… —Now, let’s return. It is likely that your partner will finish reading the history books soon. Let us discuss concrete details for our plans from now on together with Eugeo.”
Ringing her staff onto the stone floor, Cardinal turned to where we came from and started to walk, without a single look at me.
As Cardinal judged, Eugeo had just closed a massive book placed on his lap as he sat in the middle of the stairs when we returned to the history books corridor.
I called out to him while walking closer, his eyes wandering about in a daze as if he hadn’t yet woken up from the historical reports spanning hundreds of years.
“That took a while. Sorry about making you wait all alone.”
Eugeo’s back suddenly trembled at that and he distinctively blinked multiple times for some reason, then finally looked at me.
“Ah… aah, Kirito. How long has it been…?”
I looked around in a fluster, but there wasn’t a single window around, let alone a clock. Cardinal softly cleared her throat and answered in my place.
“It has been roughly two hours, the sun is completely up in the sky now. —How was it, the long history of the Human World?”
“Hmm… how should I say this…?”
When asked, Eugeo endlessly chewed on his lips as though searching for the words, then muttered in an indecisive tone.
“…Did everything written in this book actually happen? It’s like… reading a series of well-written fairy tales… You see, most of the episodes go like, some kind of problem occurs at so-and-so place, the integrity knights arrive and solve the problem, and ever since then, a new such-and-such clause was added to the Taboo Index… it was filled with such stories.”
“There’s no helping it, those are historical facts, after all. A net with water poured and spilling through, and its gaps stitched up one after another; that’s the sort of organization the Axiom Church is.”
Cardinal practically spat those words out, making Eugeo widen his eyes. That was only natural, it was probably the first time he met a person who gave such straight criticism of the church, not to mention she was a girl in her tender years—though of course, that was only what she appeared on the outside.
“Er… erm, may I ask who are…?”
“Aah, she’s called Cardinal. Err… she was banished by the existing highest minister, Administrator, and was once a highest minister herself as well.”
After I gave that summarized introduction, Eugeo gulped, making an odd noise from the back of his throat as he drew away.
“No, there’s no need to be scared. It seems like she’s willing to help us out even though we’re going to fight those integrity knights.”
“Hel… help us out…?”
“Yeah. This person’s goal is to defeat Administrator and get reinstated as the highest minister, you see. So… well, we decided to form an alliance.”
There was definitely no lies in that tremendously simplified explanation, but I really couldn’t bring myself to approach that conclusion where erasure awaits all of the Underworld inhabitants upon Cardinal regaining her authorities. I would probably have to discuss it with Eugeo someday, but still, I haven’t had the foggiest idea how I could broach the subject.
As though clad in obedience, my partner stared at Cardinal without a single tinge of distrust in his eyes and gave a nervous smile.
“Is that so… that would be a great help, really. If she was once the highest minister, then would she know if Alice… the integrity knight, Alice Synthesis Thirty, was the same person as Alice Schuberg of Rulid? …If she does… how about a method to return Alice to how she was too…?”
Cardinal lowered her eyelashes just a little at the question Eugeo asked in a faltering speech.
“I apologize, but… the information I can get a hold of from this place is extremely limited. Basically, I would not know no more than the affairs my not-too-abundant numbers of familiars observe. I might still know if it was an incident within the cathedral or the central part of Centoria but one from as far as the remote regions would simply be… I am aware of the birth of an integrity knight named Alice, but I am utterly ignorant of her origins at this current point in time…”
Eugeo’s shoulders slightly slumped upon hearing thus far but sharply took in a breath of air with the words that followed.
“—However, I can teach you the method to revoke the sacred art to give birth to, no, produce an integrity knight, the «Synthesis Ritual».”
Cardinal looked at Eugeo and me in turn, then spoke in a stately tone.
“You simply have to remove the «Piety Module» inserted into their souls.”
I added some information from the side for Eugeo, repeating the unfamiliar words from English, no, the Sacred Tongue with difficulty.
“Module, er, carries the meaning of ‘part’ in the Sacred Tongue. Look, you saw it when we fought with Integrity Knight Eldrie in the rose garden, right? When that guy turned strange halfway through and all…”
“Aah… the thing that looked like a purple crystal rod coming out from his forehead…”
“Indeed, that’s exactly it.”
Carrying the staff in her right hand, Cardinal drew a horizontal line in midair with its end, then moved it as though to cut the line near its middle.
“The Piety Module is inserted in a way that would obstruct the links between memories. Through that, it seals away the history of the one who would become an integrity knight, simultaneously forcing in an absolute loyalty towards the Axiom Church and highest minister. —However, the stability of a coercive and complex art like this is not high. If the important memories around the module are roused through external stimulation, the art will start to unravel as the both of you witnessed.”
“In other words… to dispel the art, we’ll just have to jolt the integrity knight’s past memories, that’s how it works?”
I asked with high hopes, but Cardinal didn’t nod.
“No… that is not enough by itself. There is one more thing, another something you will require.”
“Wh-What is that?”
Eugeo was the one to lean forward this time.
“What originally existed where the module was inserted. In other words, the memory fragment most valued by the integrity knight. Ordinarily, recollections of the one they most loved would be there. Do you remember what words that integrity knight you fought reacted to the most?”
Eugeo answered before I could dig through my memories.
“Yes. It was the name of his mother. The crystal looked like it would fall out with just a little more when he heard that.”
“Then that was likely it. The memories extracted from Eldrie were related to his mother, that is where the module was embedded. You see, although none of the integrity knights’ past memories serve any importance to Administrator in the first place, memory and ability are deeply connected. If all of their memories were to be erased, their strength as a knight… they would lose even their secret swordsmanship moves and sacred arts techniques. Hence, she refrained from obstructing the flow of their memories. I deleted the majority of my memories to prolong my life, but I lost much of the knowledge and ability attained in that period of time as well…”
Taking a short breath, Cardinal added on.
“…I’ll say this again, but all of the integrity knights have had their most important memory fragments stolen by Administrator. Unless you retrieve those, the flow of their memories will not return to how they were, even if you remove the piety module. In the worst case scenario, their very memories might get severely damaged.”
“Memory fragments… Th-Then… what if Administrator breaks what she drew out from the knights…?”
I nervously asked and Cardinal slowly shook her head with a complicated expression.
“No… I doubt that. Administrator is a meticulous woman, it’s unlikely for her to break anything even the least bit useful. There ought to be no mistake that she would first keep it safe in her own room… the top floor of the Central Cathedral…”
The top floor of the cathedral—a part of my memories pricked awake the moment I heard those words, but it vanished before I could grab hold of it. Feeling a queer irritation, I mumbled.
“So that means… we’ll need the stolen memory fragments to return the integrity knights to how they were, but we’ll have to break through the knights’ guard and reach the top floor, where Administrator is, to get our hands on those, huh…”
“Don’t get any naive ideas of gaining victory over the integrity knights without killing.”
Cardinal spoke while giving me a fleeting glare.
“All I may do for you both is to provide equipment equivalent to those of the integrity knights. The rest depends on the both of you putting in all you have into fighting.”
“Eh… you aren’t coming along with us?”
Having expected that we would definitely have a reassuring support at our backs with an infinite stock of healing magic, I asked back without thinking. But Cardinal curtly shook her head.
“If I were to leave the Great Library Room, Administrator would immediately sense that and the situation would likely develop into an all-out war against all of the integrity knights within the cathedral and that woman herself. If the two of you have the confidence to fight and defeat ten integrity knights concurrently however, I wouldn’t mind; so?”
There was nothing more Eugeo and I could do but shake our heads left and right at her cruel way of asking.
“—However, Administrator has not discarded her plan of capturing both of you and making you two into integrity knights just yet. If you two were to go by your own selves, she should send only a small number of knights and try to capture the both of you alive. There is no other method aside from breaking through those knights one after another and running up the cathedral.”
True, we should split the enemies up even if it meant using ourselves as decoy if we’re up against opponents with superior numbers. But even if that worked out, the other side were the integrity knights, the strongest in the world. We had a hard fight against Eldrie alone, so I couldn’t help but think about giving up if two were to come at us.
While I sank into silence, Eugeo spoke on my behalf with a somewhat dismal light in his eyes.
“—Understood. I’ll fight if we need to, and if there’s no choice but to kill… I won’t avoid that either. I did break out from prison with that resolution from the start… However, if Alice were to appear…? I will not fight with Alice, I did come all the way here to take her back, after all.”
“Fm… that’s true. Eugeo, I sympathize with your goal as well. —Very well, if Integrity Knight Alice stands in your way, you would do well to use this.”
Cardinal said, and took out what appeared to be two extremely small daggers from her black robe.
They had a simple form, as though someone simply sharpened the longer line of a cross to a point. Their only embellishment was a thin chain that passed through a hole in the pommel. Cardinal handed both Eugeo and I one of the daggers that gleamed a deep brown. I accepted it, pinching the exceedingly thin handle between my fingertips, and almost dropped it due to its unexpected weight. Its entire length didn’t even reach twenty centimeters, but the resistance I felt was not much different from that of the practice swords in the Sword Mastery Academy.
“What is this…? Some secret weapon that kills in a single hit or something?”
Putting my finger through the chain, I gazed at the dagger dangling before my face as I asked, and Cardinal curtly shook her head.
“The dagger itself has practically no offensive ability, as its appearance suggests. However, an inseverable path will be connected between me, in the Great Library Room, and the one stabbed by it. In other words, the various sacred arts I can use will affect the target. After all, that originally was a part of myself. —Eugeo, dodge Integrity Knight Alice’s attacks and stab that into her body somewhere, the position is of no concern. It would barely reduce any Life. In that instant, I will lead Alice into a deep sleep with my arts… until the two of you retrieve the girl’s memories and get ready the preparations for the removal of Synthesis.”
It appeared Eugeo was divided between whether or not to believe in it as he stared hard at the brown dagger on his palm. He definitely still felt reluctance at hurting Alice, even with a weapon even more flimsy than a paper knife.
I gently pat my partner’s back and spoke.
“Eugeo, let’s trust this person. If you think about it, we would have to make Alice faint or something like that if we were to cross swords with her and we definitely won’t be able to avoid getting hurt pretty bad, with the same going for her. In comparison, getting pricked with a dagger like this would just be like getting stung by a large marsh horsefly.”
“…That bug doesn’t sting humans, though.”
Perhaps his mood recovered, but Eugeo corrected my thoughtless words like we were in the academy, then turned back to Cardinal.
“Understood. Allow me to make use of this if I am unable to persuade Alice, then.”
Grasping the dagger tightly within his palm, he deeply bowed as though to convince himself. I breathed a sigh of relief as well, looking at the cross-shaped dagger dangling off my right hand.
“…Cardinal, you said that this dagger was a part of you earlier, didn’t you? What did you mean by that?”
Cardinal shrugged her shoulders lightly at my inquiry.
“Even if Administrator and I are able to generate each and every object, it’s not like we’re producing them from nothing.”
“The world has limited resources. You should understand that from how farmland could not be cultivated around the Gigas Cedar the two of you chopped down, shouldn’t you? In the same manner, if I were to create an object possessing a certain priority, I would have to sacrifice an existence equal to that. When I previously had the chance to battle Administrator, she created a sword, and me, a staff—but in that instant, every single one of the valuable treasure within that room vanished, hehe.”
Cardinal tapped the staff in her right hand onto the stone floor and failed to suppress a somewhat happy chuckle escaping from her.
“—However, as you can see, the Great Library Room is a sealed space. Even if I try to create a high priority weapon, there are no objects for an equivalent exchange. The immeasurable amount of books could, well, be said to be valuable, but that applies solely to their content, so… I thought of using this staff as well, but it is necessary in the battle against Administrator, which clearly narrows what could be used as compensation to one, nothing but my own body. This body of mine is certainly valuable; it belongs to the one with the highest authority in the world, after all.”
Eugeo and I instinctively examined Cardinal’s slender body from head to toe. I immediately noticed how rude it was and averted my eyes, but I did confirm that the girl had all four limbs at the current moment. After swallowing my words countless times, I timidly opened my mouth.
“…Th-That is… to say that you cut off part of that body, converted it to an object, then regenerated that part…?”
“Dolt, nothing would have been sacrificed in that case. This is it.”
After turning her head to face the side, Cardinal twirled and flicked the extremely short bundles of chestnut-colored, curly hair tied at both sides of her slender nape.
“Ah, aah… I see, so it was your hair…”
“The compensation for one dagger was one of these, grown for two hundred years. I could have shown it off before it was cut if the two of you had came earlier.”
She said so jokingly, but the fleeting shade of sadness that surfaced in her eyes proved that Cardinal still remained a girl, even with a part of her used as a base material.
But that fragment of sentimentality instantly disappeared into the depths of her sage-like attitude.
“—With those reasons stated, each of those daggers may appear small on the outside but possess a sharpness and endurance capable of piercing an integrity knight’s armor. Furthermore, they are able to connect a path through the space of nothingness surrounding the Great Library Room as they are still a part of my body in a certain sense. …I originally created them to deal with Administrator. Kirito, I’ll have you stab yours into her body after dodging those mighty attacks of hers. One was meant as a spare, but oh well, you simply have to succeed on the first try.”
“Ugh… a heavy responsibility, huh…”
I finally noticed after taking another look at the dagger swaying under my right hand. That the deep-brown gleam matched the color of the curly hair peeking from the edge of Cardinal’s hat.
Eugeo seemed to have understood the value of the dagger given to him, despite being stumped at the explanation jumbled with Sacred Tongue words, and nervously opened his mouth.
“Er-Erm… is it really alright? Letting me use one of these daggers for Alice, even though there are only two…?”
“I do not mind. And at any rate…”
Cardinal held in the words that followed and looked at me, her eyes seeming as though they could see through my inner thoughts perfectly.
Yes, at any rate, Cardinal’s assistance in removing Alice’s brainwashing was required for the fluct lights of ten people, including Eugeo and Alice, to escape to the real world. It was probably better to recover Alice before explaining that situation to Eugeo. Even Eugeo might agree to escape this world, accompanied by a person precious to him. No, I would have to make him accept it, no matter what means I have to resort to.
Feeling ashamed for already unwittingly taking Cardinal’s world annihilation plan as a given, I tightly squeezed the thin chain. Yes… there might be no other path aside from the Underworld vanishing. But even so, I wish to include Cardinal herself within that ten. Even if I do end up deceiving her in the process.
In a bid to escape from those omniscient eyes of Cardinal, I turned away, loosened my shirt opening, and dangled the dagger there after putting my head through the chain. After making Eugeo do the same, I asked something that caught my attention a little during Cardinal’s earlier explanation.
“Now that I think about it… if something’s needed as compensation to create an object, what about those? That heap of food and drinks you brought forth when we came here.”
Cardinal lightly shrugged her shoulders up and down, and replied with a smile.
“Now, there’s no need to fret over that. I merely made two or three trifling books on law disappear.”
Still gripping onto the chain on his neck with both hands, a weird ‘mgh’ noise came from the depths of Eugeo’s throat, being the history lover he was.
“Nn? What is it, you want more? You’re a growing child, I see.”
Eugeo shook both his head and hands at the same time to stop Cardinal, about to raise and swing her staff.
“N-No, I’m full already! Ra-Rather than that, please continue the story!!”
“There’s really no need to restrain yourself.”
When Cardinal said so, smiling so much that it made me think that she was fully aware all along, she lowered the staff, coughed once, and changed her tone.
“—The sequence changed, but those two daggers are our true trump cards as I have explained earlier. Eugeo’s would be for Alice and Kirito’s for Administrator; prioritize stabbing your dagger into your respective targets over all else. Resort to anything if you believe it will raise the possibility of success, be it surprise attacks or playing dead. After all, my belief is that the one and only thing you two excel above the integrity knights in, is how you are more accustomed to being slightly sneaky… no, to the maneuvers of actual battles.”
Before a somewhat upset-looking Eugeo could get a word in, I chimed with a “I totally agree”.
“I wish we could just struggle all the way to the end with sheer trickery, but… unfortunately, the other side has the home advantage. We’ll have to be prepared for a frontal assault. That brings me to my point, Cardinal. I take it that what you said earlier, that ‘provide equipment equivalent to those of the integrity knights’ bit, essentially meant that you’ll be pulling out heaps of weapons or armor of the sacred instrument class?”
This might be a tense situation, but the soul carved into me as a member of the clearing group was acutely receptive to the smell of a «strongest weapon obtaining event». As I anticipated Cardinal’s words, my hearting beating fast, the sage made an exasperated face for the umpteemth time today and voiced out a blunt remark for the umpteemth time today.
“Imbecile, what has been entering those ears of yours? Look here, the creation of a high ranking object requires…”
“—I see… the compensation of an object with equivalent class was needed… wasn’t it…”
“Don’t give me that face, like a child whose snack fell to the ground! You’re making me start doubting my decision of choosing you both. In the first place, you ought to be well aware that a weapon is not something that can be freely controlled the instant you are granted it. No matter how powerful a weapon I give you, you can’t hope to prevail against those of the integrity knights, those beloved pieces of equipment they treated as their flesh and blood, and passionately used for tens of years.”
I recalled Eldrie’s whip that could freely slither through the air, practically like a silver snake, and couldn’t help but to nod. It was true, even in my SAO days, it was taboo to immediately toss a rare weapon into actual combat just because you found one.
When I became depressed, feeling not like a kid who dropped a snack but one who knocked over an entire christmas cake, Cardinal continued ahead with a blend between disgust and pity on her face.
“In the first place, you and Eugeo already have swords the two of you cared for and powerful enough without me needing to pull one out, don’t you?”
Eugeo reacted this time by springing up.
“Will you recover them for us!? My Blue Rose Sword and… Kirito’s black one!?”
“There’s no helping it. Those two swords are irrefutably true sacred instruments. The first, a weapon of which only four exist in the world, solely for the dragon knights’ use; the second, the essence of a demonic tree that continued to absorb resources from a vast area over several hundred years… immediately creating weapons on the same class as those would prove a difficult task for even Administrator and me. Furthermore, the both of you have already gotten used enough to those two blades.”
“Oh come on… if you could do that, say so earlier.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, leaning back onto a bookshelf at my side. I half-abandoned the wish of regaining those cherished swords seized from us before we were thrown into the underground jail, but I absolutely can’t complain if we regained those.
“But… even if you talk about recovering them, it would be impossible to teleport them straight here, wouldn’t it?”
“Indeed, it seems you finally understand.”
Agreeing with my words, Cardinal crossed her arms with a complex expression.
“I dare say those swords are stored in the equipment vault on the third floor of the cathedral. It is a mere thirty mel… thirty meters or so away from the nearest backdoor, but as you’ve seen earlier, doors connected into the tower cannot be opened a second time. The bugs released by Administrator to search for me would immediately swarm there, you see… Hence, I have no choice but to have the two of you exit from that door and recover those from the equipment vault, then ascend the tower on each of your own two legs. Fortunately, there is a large staircase in front of the equipment vault.”
“Hmm… starting from the third floor, huh… By the way, which floor is Administrator’s room on?”
“Central Cathedral grows taller year after year, you see… it should be close to a hundred floors at the present moment…”
I unintentionally choked off my throat. The gigantic white stone tower built at the heart of Centoria certainly was so high that its peak couldn’t be seen regardless of which part of the city you were—but I didn’t think it actually had more stories than the real world’s skyscrapers. We wouldn’t be brought into a battle on each and every floor, would we; I unconsciously voiced out a complaint while feeling somewhat dejected.
“Ermm, can’t we start on the fiftieth floor or something instead…?”
“It depends on your point of view, Kirito.”
The one who interjected with a bitter smile was Eugeo, ten times more optimistic than me.
“The enemies coming at us would probably be split up accordingly with the length of the distance.”
“Ah, uh, well, that might be true, but…”
Shifting my back hesitantly, I sat down in the passage before dryly clearing my throat.
“…Well, I did go up the open-air stairs at the old Tokyo Tower…”
“No, it’s nothing. —I guess our operational plans are decided for now, then. First, we’ll recover our swords from the equipment vault. And with them, we defeat the integrity knights that appear as we climb the tower. If we encounter Alice during that, we make her fall asleep with the dagger and send her to the Great Library Room. If we reach the hundredth floor, we stab Administrator with the dagger as well and get our hands on Alice’s memory fragment.”
I finally prepared for the worst and Cardinal’s calm words rained down on me.
“Regrettably, there is one more thing we will need to do.”
“Your swords are certainly powerful, but you will not defeat the integrity knights through them alone. That is because they possess a dreadful technique to amplify the ability of their weapons by several times.”
“Ah… could that be the «armament full control art»…?”
Cardinal curtly nodded at Eugeo’s hoarse voice.
“Weapons of the sacred instrument class strongly inherit properties from the object that served as compensation. Eldrie’s «Frost Scale Whip» the two of you fought against was the lord of the largest lake in the eastern empire, a two-headed white snake, which Administrator captured alive and converted into a weapon. However, it retained parameters, the agility of a snake, the sharpness of its scales, and the accuracy of its aim, even after it became a mute whip. The full control art releases all of those so-called «memories of the weapon», realizing a more potent offensive power that was originally impossible.”
“Uhn, so that means his whip becoming a snake wasn’t an illusory art or anything like that, huh…”
I groaned as I stroked where I got hit by Eldrie’s whip on my chest with my fingertips. While praying that white snake thing didn’t have a delayed poison, I lent my ears to Cardinal’s explanation that continued still.
“Every single one of the integrity knights mastered the full control art for the weapon granted to them by Administrator. That includes training in high speed chanting to ensure they do not get caught during the long art ritual. I suppose there really would be no time for chanting practice, but gaining victory would be most uncertain if the two of you don’t learn the full control art for your respective sword at the very least.”
“No… but my black sword was just a huge tree, not an animal, you know…? Would it even have any memories to release?”
“It would. Those daggers I passed over earlier are the same, they are capable of opening a channel towards me the moment an attack hits, through a process identical to the full control art, only because they retain the memory, or property in other words, of being my hair. It goes without saying that the previous existence of your sword, the Gigas Cedar, qualifies and the origin of Eugeo’s Blue Rose Sword, an eternal block of ice, is no exception.”
“It… it was ice and nothing more?”
Eugeo, too, opened his mouth in a daze at this. That was only natural, even if I had to list the properties of ice, I can’t think up of much more than «very cold». I cocked my head in confusion, but still, it was the word of one of the two gods in the world, so I could only accept it.
“Well… if you’re teaching us the art ritual, it’ll probably work as the full control art for our swords too. I’ll be real grateful getting a special move, what kind is it?”
But the reply was beyond my expectations once again.
“Don’t behave like a spoiled brat! I will describe the art ritual, but you will be the one to decide what sort of technique it becomes yourself!”
“Eh… eeh!? Why!?”
“It is insufficient to simply chant the art ritual to «release the memories», the essence of the armament full control art. The owner must strongly image the released form of that beloved weapon… you must recall. Rather than the perfect control art itself, the process of recollection could be said to be a more influential power. After all, the power of imaging… that is, «incarnation», is the foundation principle behind the world…”
Even I couldn’t understand over half of the words Cardinal rapidly spoke. Especially the word, ‘incarnation’, which I couldn’t decide was from the Sacred Tongue or Common Tongue and tried to ask for its meaning but felt a prickling sensation from a corner of my memories before I could.
That was… yes, a little more than two months ago. When I sank into depression while holding on to those torn and scattered zephyria flower buds at the novice trainee dormitory’s flower beds in the Sword Mastery Academy, someone… no, it wasn’t just someone. Cardinal’s familiar, Charlotte the small black spider, called out to me. ‘Each and every art ritual are nothing more than an incarnation, that is, a tool to guide and arrange your mental images’, she said.
I visualized an image based on her words. For the life energy released from the blooming four great sacred flowers in the surrounding flowerbeds to flow into the severed seedlings left in the planters. Despite not chanting a single word of any art ritual, a green light filled the air and engulfed the seedlings… and with that, the zephyrias revived.
Yes, that must truly be the «process of recollection» Cardinal spoke of. I would agree if that was the case, I doubt it would be possible to express the entirety of such a phenomenon within an art ritual.
Perhaps having read my inner thoughts, Cardinal nodded once with a serious expression, then turned her eyes to Eugeo, still perplexed, and spoke.
“Follow me. Rest for a bit, and we will put the art ritual together later.”
After leaving the history book corridor and descending several levels, we returned to the round room on the first floor of the Great Library Room I was first brought to.
The many manjuu and sandwiches still remained on the plate on the center table and with steam rising from them despite it being over two hours since then. It appeared that not only was an art used on them to recover the Lives of the ones who ate it, but also one to forever prevent them from becoming cold.
It was only natural for my appetite to reignite upon seeing that, but I found it hard to reach out for them now that I knew the food were previously books from the bookshelves. Staring up at Eugeo and I, standing still with conflicting thoughts within ourselves, Cardinal coldly spoke.
“They would pose a hindrance to recollection, so I’ll have them disappear if you aren’t eating.”
“Wa-Wait, please put them somewhere we can’t see for now. We’ll keep them for later when we go off.”
The sage lightly shook her head and brought the staff in her right hand up at my stubborn words. A single knock on the table’s edge and the large plate sank into the tabletop along with the variety of manjuu.
In their place, three chairs with backs rose from the floor and Cardinal waved her hand, signaling for us to sit. Sitting down as requested to, I stared at the now-clean-and-tidy table with nothing on it.
It wasn’t like I was trying to summon back the manjuu with that; I was trying to visualize the form of that beloved sword currently not in my possession—temporarily named the «black one». However, I was unable to replicate it perfectly, down to its fine details, partially due to the fact I hardly had many chances to actually become acquainted with it.
Trying the same thing as myself and apparently feeling the same distress, Eugeo spoke with a troubled expression as he sat by my side.
“…Cardinal-san, is it really possible? Visualizing the sword’s released form without actually having it around is simply…”
However, Cardinal gave an unexpected answer as she sat on the opposite side.
“It’s actually easier without it around. If it actually laid before your eyes, your mental image would freeze right there. You need neither your hands nor eyeballs to feel, approach, and release the swords’ hidden memories. It’ll suffice, seeing it in your mind’s eye.”
“Mind’s… eye, huh…”
Muttering, I recalled when the zephyria seedlings revived once more. If my recollections proved right, I neither touched nor stared at the four great sacred flowers that shared their lives and the zephyrias on the verge of death back then. I just believed and gave my thoughts an image. For the life force to overflow, gather, and stream in.
It seemed Eugeo reached his own understanding too, as he was giving several small nods. The black robed sage gazed at us, faintly smiled, then solemnly announced.
“Excellent. Now, firmly visualize your beloved sword lying atop the table first. Don’t stop until I give the cue.”
“I will do what I can.”
Eugeo and I answered softly, then straightened ourselves atop the chairs and lowered our sight to the tabletop.
I gave up in roughly five seconds earlier but continued staring at it this time, determined. There was no need to hurry. I’ll start by clearing my mind.
«Black one». Now that I think about it, it was rather pitiful, being called by such a half-baked nickname, no, temporary name even now.
It was on the seventh day of the third month when its base material, a branch cut off from the top of the huge tree, Gigas Cedar, got polished into the shape of a sword after a whole year through the handiwork of the craftsman in the capital, Sadore. Today was the twenty-fourth day of the fifth month, so it hadn’t been even three months since it accompanied me. Excluding maintenance and practice, I drew it from its scabbard once against the head swordsman-in-training of the previous year, Uolo Levanteinn, in a match and once against the head swordsman-in-training this year, Raios Antinous, in—a real battle. That was all.
However, in both of those times, the black sword helped me out by exhibiting a power that could have only been the will of the sword. Regardless of the fact that I was the one who chopped down its previous form, the Gigas Cedar. Our acquaintance may truly be shallow, but the sense of unity and resolve whenever I grip its handle and unleash a sword skill were definitely not inferior in any way to the swords I cherished in the past.
Despite that, the reason why I hesitated to name the black sword was because I felt its contrast with the weapon Eugeo held, the «Blue Rose Sword», might have been far too vivid when lined up side-by-side… perhaps.
White and black. Flower and tree. Two swords with both similar and opposite parts.
There was no basis to it, but I have always been bound by a single premonition ever since I set off on the journey from Rulid Village two years ago. That the Blue Rose Sword and the black sword might possibly be fated to exchange blows someday.
My mind tells that shouldn’t happen. Because the owners of the swords, Eugeo and I, didn’t have a single reason to fight among ourselves. But on the other hand, my heart tells me that didn’t apply to the swords themselves. After all, the Blue Rose Sword personally sliced the Gigas Cedar’s trunk, throwing it onto the ground…
I continued visualizing the black sword’s form onto the tabletop even as reminiscence and anxiety, rather than emptiness, filled my mind. A simple pommel in the form of a truncated cone. A grip wrapped in black leather. A guard in the shape of a forceful curve. It was hard to believe the somewhat thick blade tinged with a deep translucency, like a black crystal, originated from a tree. Light shone onto it accumulated within, making the edge and point that were sharp as a razor, gleam beautifully…
Each part of the illusional sword had their shapes trembling fuzzily at first, but stabilized accordingly as my thoughts faded away. Soon, it possessed toughness, weight, even warmth, and began releasing a dense aura atop the table.
With my eyes dedicated solely to the glossy blade, I heard a voice from somewhere.
“Deeper. Dive deeper. Until you touch the memories hidden within the sword, the essence of its existence.”
The blackness of the sword stretched out without a sound. Masking the table and floor, the surrounding bookshelves and lamps, it engulfed the world in darkness. Before I knew it, only the sword and I remained in this lightless, infinite space. The black sword silently rose, turning its pommel down and its point up, and ceased motion. My form flickered and dissolved, my consciousness sucked into the sword.
When I regained awareness, I was turned into a single cedar tree, rooted in the chilly earth.
A thick forest surrounds me. But for some reason, there isn’t a single tree growing around me. I stand still forlornly in the exact middle of this wide, empty circle. I try calling out to the moss and ferns covering the soil at my feet, but there is no reply.
Desolation, the feeling of loneliness, fills me. Wanting to carress the branches of other trees with my own, I eagerly move them each time the wind blows, but unfortunately, they do not reach.
They may reach if I stretch them further. With that thought, I absorb the earth’s energy from my roots and the sun’s energy from my leaves with all I have. Instantly, my trunk expands in thickness and my branches grow in length. My leaves, like pointed needles, approach the glossy, light-green leaves of the konara oak growing closest.
However, aah, what misfortune. The leaves of the konara oak withers light-brown immediately before I touch them, all falling to the ground in a whirl. Even its branches and trunk lose their moisture and rot, drained, and it collapses from its roots before long. It isn’t just the konara. The other trees that were standing around the empty land wither and perish one after another, crumbling away. The moss immediately masks away their remains.
I grieve for a while in the middle of the empty land that expanded again, then absorb energy from the ground and sun once more. My trunk creaks as it swells out, my branches creak as they stretch out in all directions. I turn to the top of a nearby machilus next, desperately reaching out with my leaves.
But yet again, the other party’s leaves wither and its trunk rots, having lost its life, and falls before I make contact. Along with the tree beside it. And the one beside that. The trees crumble away one after another and the empty land expands again.
The neighboring trees ended up withering due to me absorbing energy from the earth and the sun in my bid to extend my branches. Even while understanding that, I do not give up making contact with the other trees. How many times had this repeated? Before I knew it, I became several tens of times bigger than the trees of the forest and the cleared land expanded to several tens of times of its original area. And the same goes for the depth of my solitude.
No matter how far my branches stretch out, the day my pointed leaves touch the other trees’ leaves will never come. I could not turn back any longer by the time I realized that. My leaves and branches, protruded high up above the forest, continue to monopolize a huge amount of sunlight regardless of my will and my roots, laid out across the ground, continue to absorb a massive amount of energy from the earth. The cold, vacant land expands day by day and the trees continue to fall, one after another…
“Good, that’s enough.”
All of a sudden, I heard that voice and was released from the cedar tree.
With just a single blink, the surrounding scenery returned to the Great Library Room where I previously was. Endless bookshelves shone on by lamps of orange light. Polished stone flooring. A round table—and atop it, two swords. They were my «black one» and Eugeo’s «Blue Rose Sword». They seemed exactly like the real ones, but that was impossible. Both of our beloved swords should have been confiscated from us when we were taken to the cathedral.
When I gazed at the white and black swords in a daze, a small hand reached out from the opposite side of the table and first held the black sword by its grip. The sword abruptly quivered in that instant and vanished without a sound.
Next, the hand touched the Blue Rose Sword by the side. That one disappeared in an instant as well, as though it was sucked into that palm.
“……Yes. I have certainly received the «memories of the weapon» both of you guided.”
Raising my head at the voice that seemed satisfied, my eyes met those of the black robed girl sitting on the opposite side—the sage, Cardinal. Then, I finally realized that I seemed to have fallen into some kind of trance. When I looked to the side, Eugeo’s green eyes were aimlessly wandering about again, but his body suddenly trembled and he blinked several times.
“…Huh… I was on the summit of the highest mountain of the mountain range at the edge…”
I instinctively called out to my partner, still murmuring some vague words, with a wry smile.
“So you went somewhere like that?”
“Yeah. It was an extremely cold and really lonely place…”
“Come now, it is not the time to relax yet.”
Scolded as on the verge of entering chit-chat mode, I straightened up my posture in a fluster. When I secretly took a peek at the other side of the table, the young sage’s eyelids were closed beyond those lens. Her eyebrows were slightly lowered, indicating that she was thinking about something, but eventually, she lightly nodded and spoke.
“Fm… Rather than coming up with a technique, it seems better to prioritize on the simplicity of the art ritual. Now, Kirito, let’s first start with your sword.”
She lightly knocked on the table with the fingertips on her left hand and a parchment sheet silently appeared on the surface. She touched the blank parchment with her right palm this time, gently brushing against it from top to bottom.
With just that, an art ritual that extended over ten lines distinctively surfaced upon it. Spinning the parchment around, she slid it in front of me. Repeating those actions once again, she moved the second sheet in front of Eugeo.
My partner and I exchanged glances, then simultaneously fixed our eyes upon the parchment sheets before us.
The characters, written down in blue-black ink and a neat script, were entirely in the Sacred Tongue, which would mean alphabets, without a single character from the Common Tongue, which would mean Japanese. It followed the orthodox format for sacred art rituals, with the line number on the left and the text on the right. I skimmed through the text, that started with [system call] on the first line and ended with [enhance armament] on the tenth, as I counted the number of words and it really did go over twenty-five words.
True, it was more or less shorter than the full control art for the «Frost Scale Whip» Integrity Knight Eldrie used, but memorizing all of this was considerably difficult.
“Er-ermm… is taking this with me…”
“It goes without saying you can’t. You should know that even those chicks in the academy, the trainees, aren’t allowed to look at their textbooks during actual practice.”
After rejecting me with an exasperated face, Cardinal continued.
“Firstly, if you take an object related to this library room out and it falls into the enemy’s hands, there is the possibility of cracking through the space isolation.”
“Th-Then those daggers we got earlier…”
“Those are linked to my own self, so it will not pose a problem. Come now, stop complaining and get to memorizing it. Eugeo has already gotten started.”
I looked to the side in shock and as expected of him, Eugeo was exhibiting his honor student power, staring hard at the parchment as though he was consuming it and moving his lips in small motions. After I turned my eyes back to my own text, resigned, Cardinal mercilessly added more instructions.
“The time limit is thirty minutes, be sure to memorize it before then.”
“N-No way, it’s not like this is an academy examination… how about just a little more…”
That lightning struck yet again the moment I started to criticize, on the verge of giving up.
“Imbecile! Look here, the two of you were thrown into the underground jail and got your swords confiscated yesterday at about eleven in the morning. And ownership rights get reset if twenty-four hours passes since then, so you’ll end up losing your opportunity to use this full control art.”
“Ah… th-that’s right. By the way, what time is it right now…?”
“Seven o’clock had already passed by long ago. There would be nearly no time left if we take the time you take to recover your sword as two hours.”
This time, I steeled my resolve and started glaring at the lines of commands seriously.
Luckily, the sacred arts of the Underworld were written in the familiar language of English unlike the magic of Alfheim Online. The syntax was close to that of programming languages as well, so it was possible for me to remember it while understanding its meaning.
The art ritual written down by Cardinal ①declares a reference to the embedded data within the object (i.e. the memory of the weapon) saved within the main memory; ②selects only the required parts and modifies them; ③assigns them to the sword, as it currently was, to amplify its offensive ability; it seemed to have been composed from those three processes. As a technique, it was close to the «image buffer overwriting experiment» I carried out on the zephyria flowers during my novice trainee days, but the art ritual was full of vocabulary not in the academy textbooks, so it would probably be impossible to write it down without knowing all of the commands like Cardinal.
I kept a part of my head thinking about a related topic even as I carved the ten lines art ritual into my mind.
The Rath researchers who created the Underworld called the data system that documented all of the objects in this world, «mnemonic visual». It was already an event from over two years ago for me, but I roughly explained its structure to Asuna and Sinon at Agil’s store in Okachimachi, Taitoku-ku. My understanding had grown though observation and experiments ever since I got thrown into this world.
The many existences in the Underworld were not polygon models like currently existing VRMMOs. The memories of stones and trees, dogs and cats, tools and buildings, and such were read in, equalized, and stored into the main storage, the «Main Visualizer», from the consciousness of the people who connect to—no, live in the world. And when the need arises, those memories are drawn out and passed on to the one who dived in. After all, making the zephyrias bloom in north empire, where they weren’t supposed to, was through temporarily overwriting the equalized buffer data of «unable to bloom» to an image of «can be made to bloom».
Each and every object in this world is saved as memories.
If that was the case, it would be possible to do the opposite and modify a memory into an object as well, wouldn’t it? That would make that scene I once saw, inexplicable, otherwise.
Two years and two months ago, after gaining consciousness in the forest south of Rulid, I arrived at the bank of the Ruhr river that flowed through the forest. There, I caught sight of a scene that felt far too vivid. The back view of a boy with flaxen hair, a girl with long, blonde hair, and a boy with short, black hair walking in the setting sun.
That image vanished in mere seconds, but that was definitely not an illusion. I can still vividly replay it, even now, when I close my eyes: the sunset dyed red, the swaying light on the girl’s hair, the sound of footsteps upon the short grass. Back then, I must have summoned those three children from my own memories. The flaxen-haired boy was definitely Eugeo. The blonde-haired girl was Alice. And the black-haired boy was—…
“It has been thirty minutes. How is it going?”
I interrupted the thought unfolding at a corner of my consciousness at Cardinal’s voice.
Turning the parchment on the tabletop over, I tried to call to mind the art ritual from its very beginning. I smoothly recalled all the way to the final word despite not concentrating very hard and answered, relieved.
“It’s probably flawless.”
“That’s a pretty self-contradictory answer. What about you, Eugeo?”
“Er… erm, it’s probably flaw…. fine.”
After nodding with a face like she was suppressing a cynical smile, Cardinal added on.
“I’ll say this first, but you must not use the full control art recklessly, regardless of how powerful it may be. The swords will lose quite a bit of their Lives with even a single use. Naturally, losing because you were too stingy in using it is an even bigger no-no. Use it when you judge that the time truly requires it. Be sure to properly put it back into its scabbard to allow it to recover its Life afterward.”
“That… that sounds difficult…”
I murmured with a sigh, then flipped the parchment on the tabletop back face-up. I scanned through the art ritual again to double-check and noticed something.
“…Huh? This art ritual ends with the sentence, «enhance armament», right?”
“What about it, you have something to say?”
“N-No, that’s not what I’m getting at. If I’m not wrong, the full control art Integrity Knight Eldrie used when we fought him had another art ritual following it… Erm, re, re-re…”
Eugeo sent a lifeboat out from the side as I hemmed and hawed.
“Release recollection… was that it? When he chanted that, the whip became a real snake. That was really surprising, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Cardinal, our full control arts don’t need that?”
The sage dressed in black answered my doubts even while making a face that seemed like she was going to say something bothersome again.
“Look here, the armament full control art has two stages. Those are «strengthening» and «releasing». Strengthening refers to partially awakening the weapon’s memories and manifesting a new offensive ability. And releasing refers to… as the term suggests, it awakens all of the weapon’s memories, releasing its rampaging power.”
“Rampaging power, huh… I see. So Eldrie’s «Frost Scale Whip» can extend its range and split up when strengthened, and it transforms into a snake when released, attacking enemies automatically, huh…”
Confirming my words with a single blink, Cardinal bluntly spoke.
“That is indeed the case. However, I’ll say this first, but the two of you are still far from being able to use the release art.”
“Why… why is that?”
The sage turned to Eugeo, blinking his eyes in surprise, then continued in a stern tone.
“I said it was a rampaging power, did I not? The offensive ability brought about by releasing its memories are certainly not within the realm of control for a swordsman who just recently learnt the art ritual. All the more so if it is a sacred instrument of a high priority… it would drag not just the enemies but yourself in as well, and if you use it shoddily, it may even cost you your life.”
Eugeo ended up obediently nodding, demonstrating his honor student aptitude from our academy times, so I couldn’t help but to incline my own head up and down. It appeared Cardinal sensed my discontentment, however, as she added on with a sigh.
“A time when the two of you are able to use the release art will eventually come… perhaps, or maybe it won’t. The swords will teach you everything. Well, only if you succeed in taking them back, that is.”
Cardinal appeared annoyed at my reply and sharply stabbed the staff in her right hand onto the floor.
The two sheets of parchment in front of Eugeo and I rolled up from their ends and shrank tight—by the time that thought came to me, they had already turned into long and narrow baked pastries.
“You must be hungry after using your head, eat.”
“Eh…? We won’t forget the art ritual we memorized if we eat it or something like that…?”
“How could something so palatable possibly happen?”
After exchanging looks with Eugeo, we picked up the baked pastries. I figured it was one of those simple pastries I bought and ate at Centoria’s central marketplace, baked from wheat flour with sugar sprinkled on, but it was baked from pie dough and coated with white chocolate, a pastry that truly felt real-world-ish. When I took a bite out of it, its crispy texture and rich sweetness flooded my mouth, my tears almost flowing from the excessive nostalgia.
Eugeo and I finished it in a trance, as though we were competing with each other, and took a deep breath before lifting our heads and meeting Cardinal’s eyes which were watching over us with a gentle gaze.
The young sage slowly nodded and spoke.
“Now… it’s about time for us to say our farewells.”
There was a heavy weight within those short words; I instantly shook my head.
“When we achieve our goals, you’ll be able to get out of here, right? Calling it a farewell is just exaggerating…”
“Fm, I suppose that’s true. If everything goes as planned, that is…”
True, if we were defeated by the integrity knights in the midst of battle on the way to the top floor of the cathedral, Cardinal would be once again subjected to a test of her patience in this Great Library Room. The load experimental phase would probably arrive before she finds another collaborator and the Human World will sink into seas of blood and flames.
But for one who implied such a tragic end, Cardinal’s smile was soothingly clear and a sensation that gripped my chest tight assailed me. The sage gave me, firmly chewing on my lips, a near imperceptible nod and softly turned away.
“Come, there is no time. Follow me… I will dispatch you from the door closest to the equipment vault on the third floor of the cathedral.”
The passage from the central hall of the Great Library Room’s first floor to the entrance room, connected to countless backdoors, was sorely far too short.
I did nothing but stare at Cardinal’s small back as she walked right in front, with Eugeo mouthing the art ritual for the full control art at my side.
I wanted to talk to her more. And I wanted to know more about what she felt and thought in that period of time that exceeded two hundred years. I couldn’t not desire to do so; that emotion filled even my throat, but Cardinal’s pace was resolute, not forgiving even the slightest hesitation, and I could do nothing other than to walk in silence.
Having guided us to the familiar, large room with many passages lined up on its three walls, Cardinal proceeded towards a single passage, stretching out from the right wall, in the same manner. She walked for another ten meters or so and right before reaching a single door at the end, simple and built into the wall, she finally stood still and turned around towards us.
The smile on those lips, colored like cherry blossoms, was as gentle as it always was. Her mouth, that seemed to even display a sort of satisfaction, moved and a clear voice streamed out.
“Eugeo… and you, Kirito. The fate of the world is entrusted to the two of you as of now. Whether it gets covered in hell fire… or sinks into absolute nothingness, or perhaps…”
Looking straight into my eyes, she voiced out the continuation.
“—You discover a third path. I have already imparted all I could, given all I could. You simply have to head down the path you believe in.”
“…Thank you very much, Cardinal-san. We will definitely reach the top of the cathedral… and return Alice to what she was.”
Eugeo unequivocally spoke in a voice infused with determination.
I figured I ought to say something as well, but couldn’t find the words. Instead, I took a single deep bow.
After a nod, Cardinal wiped her smile off and held onto the doorknob with her extended left hand.
“Now then… go!”
The doorknob turned and the door was thrown wide open in the next instant. Resisting the dry, cold wind that immediately blew in with vigor, Eugeo and I leapt out at once.
After walking for five, six steps like that, another small noise came from behind. When I looked over my shoulder, there was only a glossy marble wall coldly obstructing the way; the door connected to the Great Library Room had vanished without leaving behind the slightest trace.
Transgression Quotient – Previously translated as “Taboo Breaking Index”.
“absolutely loyal” – She didn’t actually say that phrase anywhere here, but she did in the web novel, so this is probably an editing error on the LN version.
“connections between people” – Human is “人間” in Japanese, with “人” being “person” and “間” being “relationship”.
- Translation – Tap