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.
The Two Supervisors
5th Month of Human World Calendar 380
I, Kirigaya Kazuto, had logged out of the VRMMO-RPG, «Sword Art Online», on the 7th of November, 2024.
It was the middle of December when I returned to my home in Kawagoe City in the Saitama prefecture after my rehabilitation period ended. I turned sixteen a couple of months before, but as I was challenging the fiftieth floor of Aincrad while my previous peers of the same grade were challenging the high school entrance examinations, there was obviously no school I could attend.
Fortunately—though I hesitate to refer to it as such, I received a certificate of graduation from the middle school I’ve only went halfway through, so normally, I would be spending my time at a preparation school until I take the examinations a year late, next year. However, there, the country brought forth an unimaginable relief measure.
The middle-and-high schoolers which numbered over five hundred, out of the roughly six thousand players who returned alive from their imprisonment in SAO. It was decided that a school for all of them would be established in Nishitokyo, Tokyo from the April of 2025, with no entrance examinations or school fees, and the qualification to take the entrance examinations for university upon graduating.
The building used that of a metropolitan high school, abandoned the previous year, that was awaiting its demolition. The teaching staff was largely made up of re-employed teachers who retired from old age, serving part-time. It was a National Specialization School when classified under the School Education Law.
It wasn’t as if I couldn’t feel a tinge of unease, conversely, at that unexpected level of kindness, even as a safety net, but I decided to enter after consulting Asuna and of course, my family. I never regretted it even once. It was extremely fun designing and creating various devices with friends in my Mechatronics course and I could meet Asuna, Lisbeth, Silica and the rest everyday. Even after taking away points for the compulsory counseling session once a week, I could still claim it was a fulfilling schooling life.
However, I was unable to attend that school to the end as well.
A year and two months after I entered, it was the 6th of June, 2026. I gained consciousness in another world, the «Underworld», for some unknown reason. Woken up in the forest near Rulid Village on the northern edge of the Human World, I cried out with all I could muster to the venture company, Rath, that should have been developing and managing this world, but there wasn’t a single reply.
Reluctantly, I set the place with a console that would enable contact with the other side—the center of the Human World, Central Centoria, or what was at its core, the towering Central Cathedral of the Axiom Church, as my goal and set out on a journey From Rulid with the partner I met in this world, Eugeo.
I somehow reached Centoria after spending a year’s worth of time of the Underworld’s calendar, but I did not 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 the spring of each year.
Hence, Eugeo and I, with differing goals, though both aiming for the Cathedral, first enrolled in the «Imperial Master Sword Academy» to earn the qualification to appear in the tournament. It had a curriculum impossible in the real world, comprising mainly of swordsmanship and magic (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 Master Sword Academy… no, I could even say that I enjoyed my time there.
However, a year and a month after my enrollment, the fifth month of year 380 on the Human World Calendar.
Once again, an incident occurred that caused an inevitable cessation to my schooling life. 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, Tieze, 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 Eugeo slashed away the left arm of the upper class noble, Humbert, with an attack that he put all his might into, I reached the place in a hurry, exchanged swords with the upper class noble, Raios, and severed both of his hands.
Those were major wounds, but there was no danger to his life if the blood flow was immediately stopped and sacred arts were performed to treat them, but a strange phenomenon then occurred. Pressed to choose between the highest law of the Human World, the «Taboo Index», and his own will, he died while letting out a voice that couldn’t be recognized as that of a human… no, he halted all action.
Eugeo and I were expulsed from the academy and bound to the jail under the cathedral by the «integrity knight» dispatched by the Axiom Church. Without being discouraged by the third time I «left a school midway», I immediately broke out and wandered through the rose garden within the grounds, searching for the entrance to the cathedral building itself, which became a battle against a new integrity knight, and the one who saved Eugeo and I as we desperately ran here and there was—
«Cardinal»; a mysterious, young girl who named herself thus.
Cardinal, who lived in a humongous library existing in a sealed off space, made Eugeo, who got drenched as he fell into a fountain in the midst of battle, go to the bathroom, and revealed an astonishing truth to me in that time.
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 that ruled 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 to evolve from a single sample within the simulation to a supervisor.
Having gained an 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…?
As my body shivered from a sudden chill, Cardinal, sitting on the opposite side of the round table, turned a glance with a derisive smile towards me. Taking in a sip of tea from the cup atop the table, she lifted her small spectacles.
“It’s far too early to shudder in fear.”
I suppressed the chills and replied to her calm words somehow.
“Aah… sorry, please go on.”
Lifting my cup, I sipped at the tea with a flavor similiar to coffee of the real world.
Cardinal leaned her small frame against the chair’s support and began talking in her tranquil tone once more.
“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 manipulation of the durability belonging to dynamic units, including humans… or in other words, the manipulation of Life…”
“Manipulation of… Life. That means, in other words, her life span got…”
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, at the year of eighty and on the verge of vanishing. Continuing on, she halted its natural degeneration. Moreover, the recovery of 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 her desires that spurred her on made Quinella exceptionally exhilarated. After all, she now had the power to freely manipulate the vast Human World and obtained eternal beauty as well. She was in ecstasy… the zenith of ecstasy. Enough to shake off a sheer, little bit of her sanity…”
Cardinal’s large eyes suddenly narrowed deep within 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 that 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.”
“Is 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 inhabitant of the Underworld 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. Merely a single, and enormous mistake. She thought of taking the whole of Cardinal within herself and 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…?”
With my comprehension unable to catch up, I blankly muttered.
“Cardinal’s primary instructions… what would those be, to be specific…?”
“—Preservation of regularity. That is the purpose behind Cardinal’s existence. You, too, should understand if you came into contact with a game with the same system in the real world. 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 will deal with that without a shred of mercy.”
“Aah… that’s true. I spent day and night scheming to outwit Cardinal, but any holes I found were filled in straight after…”
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 up only after an entire day of sleep. By then, she could have been considered to have ceased to be 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 remain the same, eternally.”
“Remain the same… eternally…”
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, even a supervisor possessing godlike power would be unable to control a single factor. 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, artificial fluct lights. …However, Quinella was different. She even thought about restraining 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’s 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, then coming down to the land from the skies or something like that. …I see, so he was referring to Quinella… How should I say this, she sure took up an amazing name.”
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 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 target of a question.
The Master Sword Academy I lived at was in the 5th District of the capital of Norlangarth North Empire, Northern Centoria. The barrier wall of white stone could always be seen from the dormitory’s windows, far taller than any other building within the city. Beyond those walls called the «immortal walls» were the capitals of the other empires; a great source of surprise when I first knew of it.
“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… weren’t the masses of Centoria back then completely trembling…?”
“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’ movement and interaction. 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 of the physical barriers she created. In order to restraint the various regions spread out everywhere that the pioneers resided in, 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 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 that…?
Raising my head, the girl who called herself Cardinal looked at me with that usual gaze that said 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 tired 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 some 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 unexpected development in the story. 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, isn’t it only logical if you give it a little thought? The sizes of light cubes that store fluct lights, and actual brains are limited and such as, 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 saves the fluct lights of the people in the Underworld, right?”
“What, were you unaware of even that? Indeed, a light cube is shaped as a cube with a length of five centimeter, 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 through 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 her writing, preservation and retrieval of 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.
“—I will be continuing. As expected, even Administrator was in panic 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 her two hands, similar to flower petals, together 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… no, I’ve forgotten her name… She was born in a family of furniture craftsmen in Centoria and through the fluctuations of the randomizing 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 miss with brown eyes and curly hair of the same color…”
I involuntarily blinked my eyes and checked the appearance of Cardinal on the other side of the table. I could only imagine that she was describing herself with that description earlier no matter how it was rephrased.
“Administrator had that little miss 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 of the girl inheriting information from her soul. However, naturally, there wasn’t a single trace of motherly love there. …Administrator intended to overwrite the little miss’s fluct light with the thought domain and important memories from her own fluct light.”
A chill crept up my back yet again. Overwriting the soul—the spoken words alone were repulsive enough. The thought of the deed alone certainly could make one tremble with fright. While rubbing my palms that had gotten damp with cold and sweat without me noticing together, I forced my numb mouth to move.
“St… still, if she was capable of such complicated manipulation of fluct lights, couldn’t she just delete the memories she didn’t need?”
“Would you edit an important file without any prior preparation?”
I became at a momentarily loss for words and shook my head when she immediately retorted.
“N… no, I would make a back-up.”
“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 that was 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 miss and dealt with the self she used until then… that the number of gods carrying that same level of authority became 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 saying out the characteristics of the Cardinal System.”
Knitting my eyebrows, I brought back the 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 youth 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 during the clearing of SAO was originally a subordinate program of Cardinal, and I had to make a desperately effort to save her from Cardinal who recognized her as a foreign body and mercilessly tried to eliminate her.
To be specific, I merely accessed the SAO’s program space from a system console, searched for the files that made up Yui, compressed them and set it as an object, but carrying it out in the few tens of seconds, before Cardinal detected my system intervention and quarantined it, probably was a true miracle in itself. That enormous presence that I confronted, with a single holo-keyboard between us, was truly Cardinal’s error correction process… which would be the 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 was not merely 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».”
“When I was still a program yet to gain awareness, I was purely an existence that continued to 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 the thought process. And I thought. 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 was the basis of Cardinal’s main process, regardless of whatever radical measures were adopted, what Quinella had done would be in tune with that principle.
However, taking my glance head on, Cardinal answered in a dignified tone.
“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.”
I was rendered speechless at the heroic words coming out from the mouth of the young, sweet girl. 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 all of them, 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 ended up like that, 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, Administrator, even with all she had, 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, to listen to music and find it fun, at the very least. The emotional circuit she developed back then was still left in the depths of her soul even after turning in an absolute being, half-human and half-god. She judged that that emotion was the source of her unrest, however slight it was, whenever she encountered an unexpected event. 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 she was destroying a part of her soul?”
When I asked back while shuddering, Cardinal returned a muted nod with a grimace.
“B-But well, something as outrageous as that… it sounds like an even more dangerous action than the copying of her fluct light earlier, though…”
“Of course, it wasn’t like she handled her own soul without prior preparation. 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…”
When I answered, the one that came to mind was who I served for a year as a valet trainee, Sortiliena-senpai. Her body was slender and narrow, and could be even thought as delicate, but blew me away, when we locked swords, many times.
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»*. This is 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. Such humans were like bacteria that snuck into a sterilized room to that being. 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 ceremonies 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 such… 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. The time she thought of holding me in by freezing her emotions, too, was attempted time after time on the humans brought to the tower before she performed it on herself. It was when she was around a hundred years old.”
“…Did she, succeed?”
“You could say she did. She was unsuccessful in abandoning all emotions, but she succeeded in freezing the emotions that were the source of that abrupt unrest: fear, fright and anger. From then, Administrator’s heart did not waver no matter what event it was that 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 miss, that is.”
“But… according to how the story went, the soul from Administrator that took over the daughter of the furniture shop’s 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 one 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 that was wonderful, despite how it should have made one tremble… Calling the daughter of the furniture shop’s owner to the top floor of the cathedral, Administrator attempted to overwrite by copying through the Synthesis Ritual. And that succeeded without a hitch. What resided within the miss 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…”
When I noticed, Cardinal’s cheeks, adorned by a healthy blush as befitting a young girl, had already lost its color like a sheet of paper. She asserted that she didn’t possess 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 was completed… the instant we simultaneously opened our eyes at point-blank range… we were assailed by some sort of tremendous impact. That was essentially… the thought of avoiding a situation where there are two of the exact same human, 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. No matter the circumstances, we couldn’t permit the soul of the existence before our eyes, that was how it was… That exceed sheer emotion, into instinct… no, it might have been something like the number one rule engraved upon the beliefs of beings capable of intelligence. If that situation were to remain as it was, both souls were have probably been unable to bear the shock and be annihilated. However… I’m not sure 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’s 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 original Quinella’s flesh, and Cardinal’s sub-process, residing within the flesh of the daughter of the furniture shop’s owner. At the same time, the souls ceased breaking down and stabilized.”
A soul breaking down.
Cardinal’s words brought to mind the gloomy and wonderous phenomenon I saw 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 Master Sword Academy, Raios Antinous, and slashed off his two arms with the Serlut-style secret move, «Whirl Current». It was a major injury that could have been a fatal wound in the real world, but his life would not have ended in the Underworld if he gotten 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 quicker 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 gotten to zero yet, 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 was unable to choose, trapped in an infinite loop state, and his soul finally ended up breaking itself apart, didn’t it?
I wondered if the phenomenon that assaulted Quinella upon meeting a duplicate of her very own self was 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.
During the few days after I woke up in the forest south of Rulid, I couldn’t form a conclusion on the possibility that I was an artificial fluct light copied from the real Kirigaya Kazuto. There was always a fear somewhere in my mind until I got cooperation from Selka of Rulid Church and affirmed that I could go against the Taboo Index while recognizing it as the absolute law.
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 I would taste in that moment?
“—How is it going, have you understood everything so far?”
Those aged-teacher-like words were thrown at me on the opposite side of the table, pondering over everything with my head overheating. 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 a problem if you’re already going to whine with merely 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 was of that pitiful apprentice nun, but… her individuality was utterly annihilated the moment her light cube was overwritten with data. Born out of 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 if I could gain the initiative, I could shave away her Life before the resources in the surrounding space were exhausted, 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. The offensive sacred arts I knew of were 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 hit from a sword, 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. Even through my long years of deliberation, I have still yet to elucidate the origin behind the phenomenon why us artificial fluct lights are unable to disobey all orders without exception… 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. But for some reason, she was not lowering the cup onto the saucer, but onto the right side, an empty space—immediately before its bottom touched the table cloth, her arm came to a precise stop.
“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 my 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 would not even be able to gain the awareness that they are bound by many unbreakable rules. That might have been 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 back her arm.
“Now then… Kirito. Do you see this as a tea cup?”
After 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 images or logos could be seen aside from a dark blue line against 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 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 was different 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.
As though showing it to me, stretching out my neck, Cardinal tilted the cup slightly. 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 is soup within it now, at any rate.”
And, as if to amaze me, 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 that exact moment I barged into the bedroom. If I hadn’t received it with my own sword, Raios’s sword would have probably severed Eugeo’s neck in a single slash.
Murder was obviously the greatest taboo. But in that instant, from Raios’s viewpoint, Eugeo was not a fellow human, but a major criminal that violated the Taboo Index. 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 back of the chair opposite. Upon looking, 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 have already converted to numbers in my Life, with a tight, squeezing sensation in my empty stomach.
“…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 was immediately filled with the fragrant cream-yellow liquid.
After pulling the cup back in excitement and sipping it after blowing at the steam, my eyes unintentionally 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 that bind 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 Cardinal had recalled the vexation from that time, as she firmly chewed on her small lips.
“However… however, you see. At the end of ends, that depraved woman realized the existence of that decisive difference between herself and me.”
“Decisive difference…? But the only difference between Administrator and you would be the outward appearances… the system access authority as well as the sacred arts the two of you were versed in were exactly the same, right?”
“Naturally. It was obvious that the one who succeeded with the preemptive strike, me, would be the one to gain victory in the end. Therefore… she threw sacred arts aside. Converting one of the heaps of high priority objects in the room into a weapon, she also designated the entire space we were battling in into a system command prohibited address 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 my right hand out despite my bewilderment. A weight unimaginable from its slim appearance assailed my right arm the moment I held it and I panicked, using my left hand as well, to barely hold onto it until it reached 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 instinctively cast my eyes down as I asked.
“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 that point when I wielded this staff and braced for the enemy’s attack, I finally understood that I was chased into a critical plight.”
I certainly could agree now that she pointed it out. Even in the numerous VRMMOs in the real world, quite an amount of time was required until one got 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.
“…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 merely 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 involuntarily holding my breath.
“Administrator’s advantage was decisive, but she committed a mere, 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’s… scary, huh…
“I do expect you would end up in a situation like mine too, someday, 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 been. 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 my every action here and there were observed by this young sage 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 assumed the name of god with the name of a supervisor, but she doesn’t quite possess the absolute omnipotence of one. There are a mere 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 there was a 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 made it within the cathedral despite it not linked there spatially. There was only a single door to enter and not to mention the command to call it out was known only to her… no, only to her and me.”
I looked around the Great Library Room once again, with passages, stairs and bookshelves arranged over several floors. The cylindrical wall appeared to be made from plain bricks, but—
“Then, beyond the wall is…”
“Nothing. The wall itself is invincible, but even if it was broken, probably only a stretch of nothingness would await you on its other side.”
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 closed 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 just from imagining the scene. Finishing up the corn soup, of which there was a little left, 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 small 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, thereafter 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 numerals, interference from the outside 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 opening it even once, so they can’t be used twice. Like that rose garden door that picked Eugeo and you up earlier.”
“I-I am 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 she was 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 said to be equal to even 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: this utter isolation from the world. There was no chance I could 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 was the path to my own ruin.
No, wait. Before getting to 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 selectively copied 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 some safety for the moment after escaping into the Great Library Room.”
“Indeed. The topic that came out earlier in that example, directly editing a file without a back-up. If even a single accident occurred during the operation, my consciousness would have probably dissolved into light within the light cube.”
“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, to use the type of sacred arts that change a target’s state, one would generally have 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’s 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.”
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 a truly 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 terrifying long time to delete Administrator as long as things stayed as they were, 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 it, 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 me to be filled with a loneliness so deep that it couldn’t be expressed in words. 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.
Lifting 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 put something up her sleeves…”
A surprise attack rarely succeeds when the other party is conscious of a chance of being attacked. 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 a gift to find out the weaknesses of others. 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 that 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’s 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, due to her overflowing memories, the circumstances of her logic circuits collapsing 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 in 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 your 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 objective 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 in the highest position 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 too. 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 absolutely 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 was that?”
“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 to preserve them afterward, were all endowed with high capabilities, without a single exception. …Or rather, perhaps I should say that it was due to their excellent wisdom and physique, that they would harbor suspicion towards the Taboo Index and Axiom Church… Within the ones first captured, there was one who was called both an unparallelled swordsman and a hero who loathed the rule of the church, ran to the remote legions with his comrades, and pioneered his own village. 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 failed in chasing after that thought.
“Most of that swordsman’s memories were damaged by the experiments, but that, on the other hand, was 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.
The instant I pictured that object in my mind, hair over my entire body rose with a jolt. I saw that thing before. And it was just a few hours ago too.
“…In the Synthesis Ritual, that prism embeds itself in the target’s head through the middle of the forehead. Through that, the soul that had its memories plundered unifies with manufactured memories, which 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, everywhere in the world. If you’re ascending the cathedral, the possibility of that one, 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 that Eugeo once told me about, with his expression filled with admiration? He was the brave warrior from the first generation of settlers at Rulid Village, 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. He probably imagined he continued living in Rulid and grew old—he couldn’t have thought he was abducted by Administrator and remodeled into her first integrity knight.
“Hey… hey, Cardinal, you also knew about that extremely difficult fight where Eugeo and I teamed up 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.
“It’s no time to shiver over Bercouli alone. Like you’ve said, the grand total of integrity knights has reached thirty-one now.”
There’s 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 lots of them. Ever since I came to the central, there was only once when I saw an integrity knight flying on a flying dragon in the night sky.”
“Naturally, the main duty of the integrity knights is the defense of the mountain range at the edge, after all. The only time they would be in the city is 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 masses. …One could say they were separated away from 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 have no choice but generally 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-like terms, I’m feeling like I just plunged into the last dungeon while completely lacking the equipment and levels. True, I made the far, far journey to the central in order to struggle to the cathedral’s top floor and contact someone in the real world, but I feel like I could even honestly say that the disparity in combat ability between the integrity knights and us was hopeless.
I dropped my gaze to my chest in silence. Thanks to the magical meat bun I gotten from Cardinal, the wound I received from Integrity Knight Eldrie’s «armament full control art» was completely healed, but traces still remained in that spot, a stinging pain.
If the knights appearing from now onwards were to be stronger than Eldrie, the chances of clearing it through frontal attacks alone are low… as I thought about that, I recalled the curious incident that happened at 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. That transparent prism that rose out with purple light from his forehead while he was half-conscious— That was definitely the real «Piety Module» Cardinal spoke of earlier. It was the key item used to alter the integrity knights’ ego and memories, turning them into absolutely loyal slaves of the highest minister.
But was that effect really as absolute as Cardinal 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’s another method aside from crossing swords with them head-on, and open up the possibility for Eugeo’s dear wish of «returning Integrity Knight Alice to the original Alice» to come true.
Cardinal’s calm voice reached my ears while I was sunk in my thoughts.
“There is a little more to the end of my story, may I continue?”
“…Ah, aah, please go ahead.”
“Understood. —Now then, as Administrator had completed several integrity knights, starting from Bercouli, the chance of a surprise attack from me had fallen without end. Even if they weren’t at Administrator’s level, the knights had definitely high offensive and defensive abilities as it was impossible for even me to delete them in an instant. I had no choice but to be resigned to having our battle extended for an endlessly long period of time…”
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.
“As long as the situation remained changed, it became clear that I, too, needed a collaborator. —However, it would be no easy task to find one willing to fight the ruler of the world with me. You see, that person would first have to possess a transgression quotient high enough to break the Taboo Index, and on top of that, need to have a level of fighting strength and sacred arts usage authority on par with integrity knights. 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, and released them into the whole world…”
“Ha-haa… So those were your eyes and ears, huh. Could it be that that’s 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 sort of small thing 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 and greeted me… or so it seemed.
“Her name is Charlotte. She has always been observing the speech and behavior of both of you from your forelocks or within your pocket, or 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 being talked about by Cardinal; or so it seemed.
I finally realized after those cute gestures. The one who tugged a strand of hair at my forelocks and taught me the correct path to go while fleeing from the integrity knight, who rode that flying dragon, might possibly be this thing. No, it wasn’t just that one time. I should have been conscious of that same sensation that 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 Master Sword Academy in the central.
“…So, that tugging thing wasn’t just some divine inspiration of mine, but my hair was really being pulled on, huh…”
As I murmured in a daze, I recalled all of those scenes from one place or another, then the last, especially important memory came back to me. Unable to hold it in, I leaned forward and whispered to the black spider, not even reaching five millimeters in size, staying motionlessly on Cardinal’s palm.
“Th-That’s right, could it be 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 that remained 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 was it even possible for a bug that wasn’t a human to have a soul—a fluct light in the first place?
As I tossed about various questions, 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, disappeared after jumping into a nearby bookshelf.
Having sent off the small familiar, Cardinal murmured in a gentle tone.
“Charlotte was the oldest observation unit I sent into the each land of the Human World through art rituals. Her long, long duty had finally ended 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. Her duty should have been nothing but observing Eugeo and me. However, in these two years since I left Rulid, Charlotte had pulled on my forelocks and given me advice in whispers at times, helping me out countless times. When I think about it, I merely didn’t notice her existence, she was a fellow traveler closer to me than even Eugeo was.
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.
“In other words, you’ve… shut yourself up in this Great Library Room while you continued searching for a human worthy of being a collaborator for over two hundred years through the eyes and ears of familiars…?”
“Yes. I am unable to check out humans’ transgression quotients directly from here, after all. Whenever gossip of peculiar incidents reach my ears, I get the observation units to move there and observe the humans that caused it… I devoted myself purely to steady searching in that manner. It was not merely once or twice that I saw a human that caught my attention being 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’, were forced into me. …Honestly speaking, it wasn’t like I haven’t thought of soon getting acquainted with the meaning of the phrase, ‘giving up’, in these ten years or so.
A smile, with the weight of two hundred years behind me, 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, their prior memories were sealed away while they blindly obeyed the highest minister. Families that contributed greatly to the numbers of the integrity knights were given monetary rewards, large enough to dazzle their eyes, and bestowed the status of higher class aristocrats upon them, causing an unanimous opinion among parents of the nobles and the 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 ‘separated away’ was…”
“Yes, that contrivance. —Among the thirty integrity knights, half are those arrested for committing a taboo, while the other half are all tournament champions. And that Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one who bruised you was one among those as well.
“I see… so that was how it works, huh…”
Letting out a gloomy sigh, I coughed.
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 became the tournament champion after proceeding on, the one lying in wait at the rose garden plaza would have been her made into an integrity knight with her memories lost.
That’s not all. If it went as 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 the interrogation place. It doesn’t matter to a natural fluct light like myself, but the chances of Eugeo ending up as the thirty-second integrity knight were high. This was what the saying, “go for wool and come back shorn”, was meant for.
Cardinal spoke in a soft voice to me, my body shuddering.
“—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 do something like this…”
Those burnt-brown eyes gazed at the high ceiling of the Great Library Room. Her two eyes flickered countless times as though she saw a mirage of warm sunlight through the 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 should 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 where all radiance of the living had already left and purely awaits the moment its Life runs out. Strangely enough, my manner of speech had also turned out like this without my intent. In the 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…? The God of Creation Stacia, the God of the Sun Solus, and the God of the Land 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 every system command, after all. Rath is the collective name of the gods… Administrator and I make up the existence of that false god created by them that lacks a soul, Cardinal, and the two behavioral principles burnt into it. 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, too, were what you figured out through conjecture alone?”
“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 that was unlike 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 is definitely accurate, at the very least. The reason behind why Underworld is much too imperfect as a creation of god 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 happy lives of the humans in this world. Instead, it is the opposite of that… the 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 like endemic diseases, rampancy of dangerous beasts, and poor harvest of crops in the remote areas in the recent years. This is a phenomenon brought about by the increase of the «load parameter» that 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 by day at the current moment, but… the trial that will appear in the final phase of the load experiment as recorded in the database is incomparable to something like a disease.”
“What exactly… will be happening…?”
“The 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 inhabitants. 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 with the principles of behavior to slaughter and pillage. They simply organize themselves into a hierarchy where strength determines their superiority, building up a primitive, but powerful army. Their population may be half of what the Human World has, but their individual combat ability is like 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 bit by bit, I spoke 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. With that sort of swordsmanship in this world that focuses on being a performance art, there is absolutely no possibility of them winning…”
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 by continuously battling 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 don’t experience actual combat even once, pursuing nothing but the appearance of their styles, and the army commanders, the higher class nobles, are wallowing in extravagance. The entire state of affairs is one brought about by Administrator and the integrity knights she created.”
“…What do you mean?”
“Integrity knights, with authorities of the highest level and sacred instrument-class equip bestowed upon them, certainly are powerful. Powerful enough to sweep away the something like 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 passing several hundreds of years without experiencing a single battle. The masses know nothing about the oncoming menace and purely living immersed in the 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. So much 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 for the reason of her being unable to gain control over them. It would likely sadden your partner if he heard this, that 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 as I sighed. Recalling that mountain of bones I saw in the underground of the mountain range at the edge, I shut my eyes for a moment before raising my face and asking.
“Realistically speaking, how would it be? When the army of darkness comes attacking, would Administrator and the integrity knights be able to go 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 might equal to natural disasters, but as I have mentioned, she has to expose herself within the range of the enemies as well, to use those arts. Even if each individual of the army of darkness is 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 with a downpour of lightning bolts once, she would probably be pierced through with a thousand flames in the next instant. I wouldn’t know if she would die with that enormous Life of hers, but at the very least, it is certain that 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 I muttered 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 the flames in 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 of the masses will be murdered. The words known to me fail to express… just how extreme of 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. As for the reason, it is because they didn’t exactly desire to be monsters. I believe I mentioned, 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. That is as that end itself is what the god, Rath, desired. I… I cannot accept a god like that. An end like that one is utterly unacceptable. As such… upon realizing that I was unable to avert the approach of the load experimental phase, I arrived at a single conclusion. No matter what it takes, I will remove Administrator before that time comes and recover my authorities as the Cardinal System… and render null everything in the Underworld, both the Human World and the Dark Territory.”
Mechanically repeating the words, my eyes opened as though it was a fresh, new sensation to me.
“What exactly does that mean…?”
“It’s as I said. I will delete all of the fluct lights 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 as she declared that, sealing my mouth away for a while. After spending some time, somehow, I could give a definite image to that final solution that 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’s 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… In the first place, that is no different from the deed of murdering someone, but…”
It was probably a conclusion she considered thoroughly over a long period of time; I could feel nothing but reverberations filled a profound resignation and futility within 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 on 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 accompanying 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 guess that he was deeply connected 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 way that the Rath side would 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 made my stiff neck give a nod.
“…Yeah, it’s impossible. This world is 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 being able to do 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 completely can’t agree with it… The solution you proposed, that disappearing in an instant without feeling a thing is better than suffering and dying, might be right. 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 do not wish 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 light, leaving them in an archived state. Afterward, you merely have to secure the light cubes containing their souls when you escape to the outside world. It is not impossible to do so for only ten. Even if this is not the best choice for you, it should still be your second best.”
I drew in a sharp breath of air at the sudden, unexpected words.
Something like that, was it really 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 when the STL technology goes mainstream someday, it would not be impossible to «extract» them and meet them again.
However, the problem lies with the stage before that, the way to steal several cubes from the Light Cube Cluster, likely set up in the middle 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 each, as according to Cardinal’s story. 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 that should be saved.
It was different from sorting out save data on a household game console. Artificial fluct lights were, by their base meaning, 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 have the qualification and right for such an deed?
Impossible for me; that would be 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 I was 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 aside from her escorts, the integrity knights.”
“…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 when I noticed, incessant groups of vanguards were endangering the mountain range at the edge from the Dark Territory as the first phase of the load experiment. They were numerous 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 humans’ residential boundaries… how one of them, a gigantic tree that absorbed resources from the air with a vast range, possessing a ridiculous priority and durability, was chopped down by merely two youngsters.”
“……I feel like I 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. It was because 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 conversation, day and night. Most of that 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 mean that the two of them 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 having gained a high enough authority to equip sacred instruments, but… at the same time, a new question tormented me yet again. That is—how were youngsters, born in some remote village who weren’t even part of the guard corps, able to repel goblin warriors of the Dark Territory who possessed overwhelming fighting ability? That was it.”
“Just saying, but ninety percent of that was through theatrics.”
After scolding me, having interfered again, 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, in the end, the moment I saw you giving leftovers to a beast not raised by anyone, in other words, a stray dog, understanding hit me like a flash of lightning. That you were completely not bound by the Taboo Index…”
“…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 to the North Centoria Master Sword Academy. It was over a year since 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 god of creation, Rath, exists…”
“—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 while mildly laughing.
“I knew that from the very beginning. After all, if you had a system authority above that of Administrator, 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, but if it was the latter, I would be amazed if you weren’t paid a rather enormous compensation for it.”
“…Yeah, no kidding. I can’t believe myself if that was it.”
While 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 existence itself 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. It needs approximately three days with the preparation stage included.”
The story abruptly skipped ahead once again and I was bewildered. But Cardinal’s lips continued to move, showing no acknowledgment of it.
“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 command should rapidly shorten along with the lack of a need for meticulous adjustments of the parameters. It might even be to the extent that she could finish reciting it while her escort battles. I am able to go up against attacks on the Life with equipment and sacred arts as well. However, there is no defense against an attack done on the fluct light itself. I racked my mind for a long time when I realized that potential.”
“…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 in particular. As expected, even Administrator is unable to lay a hand 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 get dragged into the interrogation area when you violate the Taboo Index and step onto the Axiom Church’s grounds as a criminal…?”
At last, the long, excessively long self-biographical story had come to an end to the present point in time, and Cardinal took a deep breath as a faint blush spread over her cheeks.
“…I see, so that’s how things were…”
With things as they were, I still did not know the reason behind my diving into the Underworld. Rather, I could 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 escape to the real world, even if it was only ten of them and the outcome of the battle against Administrator couldn’t be guaranteed—?
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 through what I’ve heard in her long, long story. Cardinal, too, should be a human, possessing human emotions, just like me. Even if she was bound by an order, her single wish—to correct the world, all the more so.
“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, the lot of you would defeat Administrator at any cost, then likely do battle with me after accomplishing your respective goals, but… all I can say is that that, too, is fate…”
Murmuring so, Cardinal then showed a distinct smile, the one that I that thought was most appropriate for her age 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 was a copy of Quinella, that’s what you said, right…?”
“Yes, indeed, that is the case.”
“Then… you, too, should have the blood of pure nobles running through you. The genes to pursue one’s own interests and desires are… Why did you not throw away everything 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 like an ordinary girl, fall in love, get married, bring up children… 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 reason behind the existence of the Cardinal sub-process 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 know 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 on the floor with a thump.
“Hey, Kirito, you stand 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 too much in terms of height, but still, there was quite a difference 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 already touching each other. Cardinal gazed at my eyes, as I sweated cold sweat, with a glance and immediately looked away, adding 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 did as she told—and in that fright, I slowly moved my arms, avoided Cardinal’s body, and linked up my left and right fingertips at a spot quite far away from her back.
After spending several seconds filled with an awkward silence like that, Cardinal made a slightly cute click with her tongue.
“Ugh, you are such an ambiguous person.”
Who are you talking about; 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 air of the Great Library Room.
“I see… so this is…”
Following a long, deep sigh—
“…So this is a human.”
My breath was taken away in that instant.
If there was something that Cardinal, having spent two hundred years in isolation pondering about everything, wanted to know in the end, that 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, without a single line of conversation.
I could finally grasp a true feeling 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 voice that sighed as it murmured, from Cardinal’s voices until then.
In that moment, I also could feel small yet distinct drops of water, carrying heat, gently traveling 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 couldn’t be sure how long we stayed that way, but my stomach was already empty by the time the atmosphere shifted gently.
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 want to think the tears earlier were a delusion, I took a seat at the edge of the table. 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 join my proposal, or refuse it?”
I, unfortunately, did not happen to possess enough decisiveness for an immediate answer.
If I go 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’s how it was, I guess. After all, I couldn’t formulate any better alternatives as I was right now.
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 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 to see if there’s 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 situation, but I won’t abandon the futile struggle, that’s all I’m saying.”
Shaking her head in pure exasperation at my words that looked like an excuse, the sage spun and turned to her 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.
“You, too… shall meet a time when you taste the bitterness of resignation one day… Not a time when you give it your all and fail… one when you need to accept the surmise that you will fail… —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 estimated, Eugeo had just closed a massive book placed on his lap while sitting in the middle of the stairs when we returned to the history books gallery.
His eyes were wandering about in a daze as if he hadn’t yet woken up from the hundreds of years of historical reports as I called out to him while walking closer.
“That took a while. Sorry about making you wait all alone.”
“Kept you waiting. Sorry about leaving you alone.”
Upon that, Eugeo’s back suddenly trembled and he strongly 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’s been roughly two hours, the sun’s 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 chewed on his lips countless time as though searching for the words, then muttered in an indecisive tone.
“…Did everything written in this book actually happen? It’s like… I was reading a series of well-written fairy tales… You see, most of the episodes go like, some kind of problem happens 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 full of stories like that.”
“There’s no helping it, those are historical facts, after all. They are like a net, with water poured and spilling through, closing in the gaps, stitch after stitch; 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 to be.
“Er… erm, who are you…?”
“Aah, she’s called Cardinal. Err… she was banished by the existing highest minister, Administrator, and was once a highest minister as well.”
After I gave that summarized introduction, Eugeo drew away while making an odd noise from the back of his throat as he gulped.
“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 with those integrity knights.”
“Hel… help us out…?”
“Yeah. This person has the goal of defeating Administrator and getting 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 the conclusion with all the inhabitants of the Underworld waiting for their erasure after Cardinal regains her authorities was something I simply couldn’t bring myself to approach. 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 bit at Eugeo’s question, 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 anything either, aside from 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 all the way in 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 that far, but he 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 halfway through and all…”
“Aah… that 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 around its middle.
“The Piety Module is inserted in a way that would obstruct the links between memories. Through that, it seals the history of the one who would become an integrity knight, while 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 receive external stimulation and become active, the art will start to unravel as the both of you saw.”
“In other words… to dispel the art, we’ll just have to jolt the integrity knight’s past memories, that’s how it is?”
I asked with vigor, but Cardinal did not nod to it.
“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 it is likely that was it. The memories extracted from Eldrie were related to his mother, that’s where the module was embedded. You see, although none of the integrity knights’ past memories are of 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 would be… even their secret swordsmanship moves and sacred arts techniques would be lost. 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 my knowledge and ability attained in that period of time as well…”
Taking in 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 memories themselves might be severely damaged.”
“Memory fragments… The-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 if it’s 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 was pricked awake the moment I heard those words, but it vanished before I could grab hold of it. While 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 them, huh…”
“Don’t get any naive ideas of gaining victory over the integrity knights without killing.”
Cardinal spoke while giving me a fleeting glare.
“What I am able to do for you both is merely to provide equipment equivalent to those of the integrity knights. The rest depends on whether the both of you put in all you have into fighting.”
“Eh… you aren’t coming along with us?”
Having expected that we would have a reassuring support at our backs able to use healing magic infinitely for sure, I asked back without thinking. But Cardinal curtly shook her head.
“If I were to leave the Great Library Room, Administrator would sense that immediately and it would likely develop into a all-out war against all of the integrity knights within the cathedral and that woman herself. If the two of you have the confidence of fighting and defeating ten integrity knights concurrently however, I wouldn’t mind, so?”
If she were to ask in such a cruel way, Eugeo and I could do nothing but shake our heads left and right.
“—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 way 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 world’s strongest. We had a hard fight against Eldrie alone, so I couldn’t help but think about giving up if two were to come.
Eugeo spoke in my place, while I sank into silence, 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 what she took out from her black robe were two extremely small daggers.
They had a simple form, as though someone simply sharpened the longer line of a cross to a point. Their only ornamental detail was a thin chain that passed through the hole in the pommel. Cardinal handed both Eugeo and I one of the daggers that gleamed 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 did not even reach twenty centimeters, but the resistance I felt was not much different from that of the practice swords in the Master Sword 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 in a state of half-belief and half-disbelief, as he stared hard at the brown dagger on his palm. He was definitely reluctant to hurt Alice, even if it was 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 when we were in the academy, then turned back to Cardinal.
“Understood. If I am unable to persuade Alice, allow me to make use of this then.”
Grasping the dagger within his palm tightly, 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 resources in existence in the world are limited. 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, all of the valuable treasure within that room entirely 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 weapon with a high priority, 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 is that of the one who owns the highest authority in the world, after all.”
Eugeo and I instinctively examined Cardinal’s slender body from head to top. 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 came earlier.”
She said so jokingly, but the fleeting shade of sadness that surfaced in her eyes proved that Cardinal still stayed a girl with a part of her used as a base material.
But the fragment of sentimentality instantly disappeared into the depths of her sage-like attitude.
“—With those reasons stated, each of those daggers may look 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… it’s a huge burden, huh…”
I finally noticed after looking at the dagger swaying below my right hand once more. That the deep brown gleam was identical to the color of the curly hair peeking from the edge of Cardinal’s hat.
Eugeo seemed to have understood the value of the dagger he was given, despite being stumped at the explanation jumbled with words in the Sacred Tongue, 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 seemed 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. If he’s with a person precious to him, even Eugeo might agree to escape this world. 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 in that case, I wish to include Cardinal herself within that ten. Even if I do end up deceiving her in the process of that.
In a bid to escape from those eyes of Cardinal that felt like they could see through everything, 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 about something that caught my attention a little during Cardinal’s explanation earlier.
“Now that I think about it… if something is 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.
“Well 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 was 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 slightly sneaky… no, how you are more accustomed 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 until the end with just trickery, but… unfortunately, they’re the side with 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, as a member of the clearing group, carved into me was acutely receptive to the smell of a ‘strongest weapon obtaining event’. When my heart beat fast as I anticipated Cardinal’s words, 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 that of a child who dropped a snack! 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 were 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, 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 my 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 have absolutely no complaint if those were returned to us.
“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 complicated 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 to within 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 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 in the middle of Centoria certainly was tall enough for its peak to be obstructed regardless of which part of the city you saw it from—but I didn’t think it actually had more stories than the skyscrapers in the real world. 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 over that.
“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 operation 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.”
Cardinal’s calm words rained down on me, finally prepared for the worst.
“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 that 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 the 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 release 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 my chest that got hit by Eldrie’s whip 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 in the long art ritual. I suppose there really would be no time for chanting practice, but gaining victory would truly be 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 wasn’t an animal, but just a huge tree, 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 just ice?”
Eugeo, too, opened his mouth in a daze at this. That was only natural, even if I were 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, one of the two gods of the world said it, so I could only accept it.
“Well… if you’re teaching us the art ritual, it’ll probably be usable, even if it’s the full control art for our swords. I’ll be real grateful if I get 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 yourself will be the one to decide what sort of technique it becomes!”
“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 I 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 was sank into depression while holding on to those torn and scattered zephyria flower buds at the novice trainee dormitory’s flower beds in the Master Sword Academy, someone… no, it wasn’t just someone. Cardinal’s familiar, the small black spider, Charlotte, called out to me. ‘Each and every art ritual are nothing more than 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 all of a phenomenon like that in 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.
On the center table were
The many manjuu and sandwiches were still left on the plate on the center table and steam still rose from them despite it being over two hours since then. It appeared 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 to have a fire reignite under my apetite 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.
“As it would be a hindrance to recollection, I’ll be making 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 get out of here.”
The sage lightly shook her head and brought the staff in her right hand up at my stubborn words. With a single knock on the table’s edge, the large plate sank into the tabletop along with the variety of manjuu.
In their place, three chairs with back support rose from the floor and Cardinal waved her hand in a signal for us to sit. Sitting down as I was requested to, I stared at the now-neat-and-clean table with nothing on it.
It wasn’t like I was trying to summon back the manjuu; I was trying to visualize the form of my beloved sword currently not in my possession—its temporary name, the «black one». However, due to the fact I hardly had many chances to actually pick it up as well, I was unable to replicate it perfectly, down to its details.
Trying the same thing as myself and apparently feeling the same distress, Eugeo who sat at my side spoke with a troubled expression.
“…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 better without it around. If it was actually before your eyes, your mental image would freeze up right there. You need neither your hands nor eyeballs to feel, approach, and release the swords’ hidden memories. If you can see it in your mind’s eye, that will suffice.”
“Mind’s… eye, huh…”
Muttering, I recalled the time the zephyria seedlings revived once more. If I recall right, I touched and stared at neither the four great sacred flowers that shared their lives, nor the zephyrias on the verge of death back then. I just believed and visualized. For the life force to overflow, gather, and stream in.
It seems Eugeo reached his own understanding too, as he was giving several small nods. The black robed sage gazed at us, faintly smiled, and then solemnly announced.
“Excellent. Now, first strongly visualize your beloved sword lying atop the table. Don’t stop until I give the cue.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
Eugeo and I answered softly, then straightened ourselves atop the chairs and dropped our sight to the tabletop.
I gave up in roughly five seconds earlier, but I 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 for being called by such a half-baked nickname, no, temporary name until even now.
It was on the seventh day of the third month when its base material, a branch cut off from the top of huge tree, Gigas Cedar, was 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, 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 when 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 give the black sword a name 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. The two swords with both similar and opposite parts.
There was no basis for it, but I have always been bound by a single premonition ever since that time I set off on a 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 should not 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 that didn’t apply to the swords themselves. After all, the Gigas Cedar’s trunk was personally sliced by the Blue Rose Sword and fell to the ground due to that…
I continued visualizing the form of the black sword onto the tabletop even as reminiscence and anxiety, rather than emptiness, filled up 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, was originally a tree. Light shone onto it accumulated within, making the edge and point, sharp as a razor, gleam beautifully…
The shape of each part of the illusional sword trembled 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.
When I devoted myself to solely staring into the glossy blade, I heard a voice from somewhere.
“Deeper. Dive in deeper. Until you feel the memories hidden by 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, ceasing motion with its pommel below and its point above. My form flickered and dissolved away, my consciousness was sucked into the sword.
When I regained awareness, I was changed into a single cedar tree, rooted into the chilly earth.
A thick forest surrounds me. But for some reason, there isn’t a single tree growing around. I am standing 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 brush my branches against those of the other trees, I eagerly move them each time the wind blows, but unfortunately, they cannot reach.
They may reach if I stretch them out further. With that in mind, I absorb the energy of the earth from my roots and the energy of the sun 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 right before I touch it, 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, and absorbed 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 near 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 it falls before I make contact. With the tree beside it. And the one beside that. The trees crumble away one after another and the empty land expands again.
The trees nearby 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 reach the leaves of other trees will never come. By the time I realized that, I could not turn back any longer. 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 got released from the cedar tree.
In just a single blink, the surrounding scenery returned to the Great Library Room where I 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 beside it. That one disappeared in an instant as well, as though it was sucked into that palm.
“……Yes. I can confirm that I have received the «memories of the weapon» both of you guided.”
Raising my head at that 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 at 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’s not time to relax yet.”
Scolded as I was about to enter 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, 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 fixed our eyes upon the parchment sheets in front of us at the same time.
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. Having resigned myself and returned my eyes back to my own text, 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…”
The moment I started to criticize while on the verge of giving up, the lightning striked yet again.
“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 it that you take two hours to recover your sword.”
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 with understanding.
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 those 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 since I got thrown into this world though observation and experiments.
Every existence 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 are 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, which weren’t supposed to bloom in the north empire, bloom 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 are 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 girls’ 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 the 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 bitter smile, Cardinal added on.
“I’ll say this first, but you must not use the full control art recklessly, regardless of how powerful it is. 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 it is truly the time to do so. Be sure to properly put it back into its scabbard to allow it to recover its Life afterward.”
“It… it sounds difficult…”
I murmured with a sigh, then flipped the parchment on the tabletop back to 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 memory, 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 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, and 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 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. But it appeared Cardinal sensed my discontentment 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 sword will teach you everything. Well, only if you succeed in taking it 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.
As though we were competing with each other, Eugeo and I finished it in a trance and took a deep breath before lifting our heads and meeting Cardinal’s eyes, 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 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 while going towards 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 I was assailed by a sensation that gripped my chest tight. The sage gave me, firmly chewing 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 about in that period of time that went over 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 the 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 just as she were about to reach a single door at the end, simple and built into the wall, she stood still at last and turned around towards us.
The smile on those lips, the color of cherry blossoms, was as gentle as it always was. Her mouth, that seemed to even contain 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 it 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 I couldn’t find the words. Instead, I deeply bowed once.
After Cardinal nodded, she wiped off her smile and held on the doorknob with her extended left hand.
“Now then… go!”
The doorknob turned and the door was thrown widely 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