Sword Art Online Light Novel 15 : Alicization Invading – Chapter 16 : Attack on the Ocean Turtle[Defan]

Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 15, chapter 16.(Defan,2015).

Chapter 16

Attack on the Ocean Turtle

Even the self-proclaimed super genius Higa Takeru was unable to predict all that had happened in the past two hours.

But, the current situation could be called extremely startling, and could only be described as dumbfounding.

Unexpectedly, a delicate young woman of roughly eighteen or nineteen used her thin right hand to seize and hoist up the collar of a man fifteen centimeters taller than herself. The tasteless Hawaiian shirt was gripped so tightly it was nearly torn apart; heels of sandals floated in the air.

With both eyes, brightly flashing as though they were ablaze, staring straight at Lieutenant-Colonel Kikuoka Seijirou, Yuuki Asuna let words sharp as swords out of her cute cherry red lips:

“If Kirito-kun can’t wake up like this, I will absolutely never forgive you.”

From Higa’s position, it was impossible to see Kikuoka’s expression under his black-rimmed glasses reflecting the ceiling light. But the Self-Defense Cadre who was supposed to be a black belt in both judo and kendo was seemingly crushed by Asuna’s words; he swallowed, and slowly raised both hands to his left and right, as though in a gesture of surrender.

“I understand. I will take responsibility: I will make sure Kirito-kun recovers.”

Solemn silence flooded the dark Auxiliary Control Room.

No matter if it was Higa, who was sitting in the chair in front of the console, or Koujiro Rinko, who was standing besides him, or the numerous «RATH» staff inside the room, no one dared to speak. It was clear how surprising the the youngest woman’s verve was. As it was, that young woman deserved the title of a «Survivor» of a true battlefield. Higa couldn’t help but think this aside.

Finally, Asuna wordlessly released her right hand. Kikuoka, having been freed, let out a long sigh with an almost dispirited expression. Asuna stepped back, swaying on the spot. Rinko immediately moved forward and supported Asuna’s back, her white coat flying.

The female physicist who was a senior to Higa in the research facility tightly hugged Asuna to her chest, whispered with determination:

“It’s all right, everything will be fine. He’ll definitely come back, back to your side.”

Her gentle voice instantly soothed Asuna’s extremely taut face:

“… Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry… for being so panicky.”

Asuna’s eyes leaked tears that had been absent even when enduring the attack. Rinko gently wiped them away with the tip of her finger.

The sound of the sliding door being opened tightened the slightly relaxed atmosphere again. Running into the room was Lieutenant Nakanishi.

Nakanishi, whose dusty white shirt was soaked with sweat and whose shoulder holster revealed a large pistol grip, glanced at Rinko and Asuna and said loudly to Kikuoka behind:

“Report! Complete sealing of blast doors one and two, plus completion of evacuating noncombatants are confirmed!”

Kikuoka adjusted the collar of his Hawaiian shirt as he stepped forward and nodded.

“Good work. How long can the blast doors hold?”

“Yes… That would depend on the attackers’ equipment, although small firearms are unable to penetrate it. Even using tip saws or similar tools to cut through it would take at least eight hours. If explosives are used, it might not hold… I assume, though, they would not, since near the central blast door…”

“There is the light cube cluster.”

Kikuoka finished his sentence, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and sank into deep thought.

But he immediately raised his head and surveyed the slightly small Auxiliary Control Room.

“Good, let’s straighten out the situation. Nakanishi, report of casualties.”

“Yes sir. Civilian research team, three lightly injured, in treatment at the bow infirmary. Our combatants, two heavily injured, two lightly injured, all in treatment with no risk of death. Ready for combat, six, including two lightly injured.”

“Under that kind of fierce attack, it’s a miracle that there have been no deaths… Then, report any hull damage.”

“There are rupture points all over the bottom dock control room. It’s impossible to shut them remotely now. The passageway from the dock to the Main Control Room is the same, but these are just negligible damages. The most severe is, because the main power line has been cut… although the auxiliary line can supply stable power, if we don’t restart the control system we can’t turn the propellers.”

“A sea turtle without fins. And its belly has been bitten by a shark.”

“Yes, sir. Zones One through Twelve of the Lower Shaft and the bottom dock have been completely taken.”

The extremely short-haired Nakanishi, whose face represented strong will itself, unwillingly knitted his brow. Comparatively, Kikuoka’s teacher-like long hairline twisted up, as he leaned onto the console while shuffling his clogs with his toes.

“The Main Control Room, STL Room One, and even the nuclear pile have also fallen into their hands… Most fortunately, their goal is not to destroy.”

“Is… is that so?”

“If they just wanted to destroy, they wouldn’t use submarines to carry out such an exaggerated surprise attack. Striking us with a cruise missile or torpedo would do. That begs the question: who are they… Higa-kun, what do you think?”

At the sudden question, Higa blinked several times, turning his brain that had not yet fully recovered from the impact.

“Uhh, yes, yeah.”

Mumbling meaninglessly as he turned towards the console, he manipulated the mouse with his right hand and brought up an in-ship camera recording on the big monitor.

Although the video window he opened was dark and indistinct, he paused at a random place and adjusted the brightness and contrast. What appeared were a number of figures in combat suits, sprinting forward in a passageway inside the ship. Their faces were half covered by helmets with multi-function visors, and they wielded serious-looking assault rifles.

“…So, as you can see, from head to toe, there are no markings whatsoever, such as flags, that can identify them. From the color and specifications of their equipment, they don’t seem to belong to any regular army. Their rifles appear to be Steyrs, but those are quite common… The only thing we can say is that, from their average physiques, they’re most likely not Asian.”

“Which means, at least they aren’t Japanese Special Forces. How pleasing.”

Kikuoka talked offhandedly about the frightening situation while scratching his chin. Emitting a sharp aura from his calm eyes usually squinted, he looked up to the monitor.

“We can confirm one more thing… These people know the existence of Project Alicization.”

Higa nodded.

“Yeah, that’s right. after their assault from the bottom dock, they immediately ran to the Main Control Room. Their goal is crystal clear: to seize the STL technology… No, the true bottom-up AI «A.L.I.C.E.».”

In other words, information had severely leaked in long-term work. But Higa did not directly say it; he resisted the urge to scan the face of every «RATH» worker in the room for any sudden motions, and said in an optimistic tone:

“What’s fortunate is, the Main Control Room lock caught up. It’s securer than physically damaging the console; I’ve made sure direct commands to the Underworld are no longer possible. Any intervention towards the simulated experiment, and the ejection of the Fluctlight of «A.L.I.C.E.» from the Light Cube Cluster is impossible.”

“But, it’s the same for us, isn’t it?”

“Indeed. Using this auxiliary console, it is also impossible to execute administrator privilege commands. No matter if it’s from the opposite side – the Main Control Room – or this side – the Auxiliary Control Room – it is impossible to eject «A.L.I.C.E.»’s Fluctlight by way of external commands… But Kiku-san, doesn’t this equal our victory? Since they can’t access the Cluster by physical means or informational means, as long as we can call our escort Aegis destroyer to dispatch reinforcements for a counterattack, those guys are a piece of cake, a piece of cake.”

“I don’t know what kind of cake… but therein lies the problem.”

Kikuoka’s expression remained solemn as he inquired Nakanishi.

“How about it, has the Nagato moved?”

“Uh… about that…”

Nakanishi channeled power into his chin in an effort to steady his voice, and bowed his head slightly.

“The Nagato received orders from the Yokosuka Fleet Command to maintain its current distance and standby. It seems that Command has classified us as hostages.”

“Wh…”

Higa’s mouth dropped open.

“Hostages? But, all hands have retreated back here in an evacuation!”

The one who replied calmly was Kikuoka:

“That is to say, those people clad in black have connections with the higher-ups of the Self Defense Force. The Nagato pulled away from the Ocean Turtle at eight in the morning, about six hours before that bunch broke in. By the time Nagato receives an order to come to rescue, they would have seized «A.L.I.C.E.»’s Light Cube. Of course, there must be a time limit…”

“That means… those people aren’t just normal terrorists. This is bad… If there are experts on the other side as well, they might find out. The hidden way of collecting «A.L.I.C.E»…”

“Operating fromfrom within the Underworld, right?… Now that they have control over STL Room One, it’s possible to set the virtual console installed within the Underworld to complete the ejection command…”

“What will happen if that command is executed?”

Higa turned around and answered Koujiro Rinko’s question:

“The target Light Cube will be retrieved from the Light Cube Cluster within the Main Shaft and transported by vacuum tube to any control room. It’ll exit there.”

He pointed at a square hatch on the side of the console, and turned his eyes towards the door on the wall inside.

There was a small metal plaque set on the aluminum door, with the words [STL Room Two].

On the other side of that door there were two STLs – that is, «Soul Translators». In one of the machines laid a youth currently under the care of Nurse and Sergeant First Class Aki Natsuki. He, Kirigaya Kazuto, had been playing an important role since the beginning of Project Alicization, and drove the direction of the project even more so today.

Kikuoka turned away and crossed his arms, speaking in a sincere and solemn tone:

“Our last hope will have to rest on his shoulders again. Higa-kun… How is Kirito’s condition?”

Hearing the weak breathing, Higa raised his head and directly met eyes with the intense glare of Asuna, who was being hugged by Rinko.

He sank into a hesitation over how to convey the current situation to her, who was Kirito’s, that is, Kirigaya Kazuto’s lover. Immediately, however, a hoarse but determined voice reached Higa’s ears.

“Don’t worry, I will be fine. Please say it, the true situation.”

Taking a deep breath, Higa nodded.

“To summarize in one sentence… It’s gonna be… It would be a condition just shy of the worst possible.”

Higa said in a newly serious tone, manipulating the mouse again.

The image of the attackers disappeared and another window was opened. What appeared was an irregularly flashing colorful stereoscopic image.

“This, is an imaging of Kirito-kun’s Fluctlight.”

Everyone in the room silently stared at the screen.

“A week ago, since he was injected with succinylcholine in Tokyo, his heart and lungs ceased normal function. Fortunately, he’s managed to stay alive, but a portion of his brain… Specifically, his Fluctlight network, has been damaged. Although treatment would be difficult with current medical methods, there might be a chance of recovery if STL technology is used . Therefore, to foster the synthesis of new networks, we attempt to grant new dynamism to Kirito-kun’s Fluctlight through unrestricted STL.”

Higa sighed, picked up the bottle of water on the console and took a sip. He was not used at all to this kind of long explanation.

“To proceed with this treatment, it would be necessary for him to dive into the Underworld. If we don’t allow his Fluctlight to move around as though it were in the real world, the treatment would have no results. Therefore, same as his Dive at the Roppongi branch: we concealed Kirito-kun’s memories and let him land at the border of the Underworld… This is what we originally planned. But, even today we don’t know why… I’m afraid that the reason is the Fluctlight damage; his memories hadn’t been concealed at all. Kirito-kun has been placed into the Underworld under his current real-world condition of Kirigaya Kazuto. We just found out from his contact with his from inside…”

“Wait… wait a minute.”

Koujiro Rinko interjected.

“Then, has he, in the time-accelerated Underworld, spent those days as Kirigaya-kun? How many months… inside….”

“…About two years.”

Hearing Higa’s reply, Asuna’s body that was being hugged by Rinko trembled slightly. Even though his words were likely to be extremely shocking to her, Higa continued, trusting in her earlier promise:

“In that time, Kirito-kun has contacted the artificial Fluctlights in that world. I’m afraid, he also knows that the Fluctlights will eventually, due to the end of this current virtual experiment, all be destroyed… So, his target is installed in the center of the Underworld, and was once the contact console connecting the starting village with the real world. Kiku-san, he’s planning to request you to protect all of the Fluctlights.”

Higa glanced to the side; Kikuoka, whose glasses reflected the light of the monitor, was still gazing at the stereoscoping image. He turned back to Rinko and Asuna:

“…This is not something simple, since the contact device is buried in the stronghold of the ruling power, now called the «Axiom Church». Because the Fluctlights belonging to the Church possess absolute status value, Kirito-kun, who was set as a common person, had no way to fight them. Originally, shortly after he breaks into the Church, he would [Die], and log out of the Underworld… But he did it. Being attacked, we could not confirm detailed information in the logs, but we assume that he recruited some people, who of course are artificial Fluctlights… that is, the help of partners. In the fight against the Church, those partners nearly all died, and as a result, when he successfully opened a connection to here, he felt deep guilt. It can be said that he attacked his own Fluctlight. In that instant, those black-clothed people cut the power line, creating a short-circuit that instantly spiked the STL output. As a result, Kirito-kun’s impulse of self-destruction has become reality… His [inner self] has lost activity…”

“Inner self… Lost activity? What do you mean?”

Hearing Rinko’s question, Higa turned back to the console:

“…Please take a look at this.”

He quickly typed on the keyboard and magnified the live feed of the activity of the Fluctlight labeled as Kirigaya Kazuto.

Near the center of the irregularly flashing spectrum-colored cloud, a small puff of darkness like a dark nebula was cradled.

“It’s different from the artificial Fluctlights in the Light Cubes; we’re still quite far from a full analysis of human organic Fluctlight structure. But the general mapping has been completed. This black hole, what was originally in here, simply put, is the [Subject] …Self-Image.”

“Subject …An image of the self determined by the self?”

“Yes. All human choice is determined by a Fluctlight Y/N path: [Whether or not I will proceed under these conditions.] By way of example, Rinko-senpai, have you ever ordered a second bowl in a gyudon restaurant?”

“… Of course not.”

“Not even have the slightest thought of ‘I still want to eat’ or ‘I can have one more’?”

“No.”

“That is to say, that was the result of Rinko-senpai’s Self-Image circuit processing. Similarly, virtually no decisions can be made and no movements can be undertaken if they do not pass through this circuit. In Kirito’s situation, the majority of his Fluctlight is unharmed. But, because the vital circuit has lost its function, no matter if it’s processing external input, or outputting voluntary actions, it cannot be done. What he’s capable of now… I’m afraid, are reflexive actions ingrained within his memory. For example, eating, sleeping, and related tasks.”

Rinko bit her lip, as though she were thinking about something. She eventually whispered:

“Then… then now, how is his state of mind?”

“… I’m afraid…”

Higa hesitated, lowered his head, and continued:

“He does not know who he is, or what he wants to do; he cannot say or do anything… That’s likely to be his condition…”

Silence permeated the dark room for the third time.

 

“… Fu…”

The following part of the syllable was completely drowned out by the deafening noise of hardened boots kicking away a sheet of metal.

A member of the assault team, Vassago Casals, seemed unsatisfied with denting the wall two or three times, and forcefully crushed with his foot an empty candy box that a RATH technician had probably left tens of minutes ago, before finally stopping his stream of profanity.

As proof of the Latino blood coursing through his veins, he ran a hand through his long, slightly wavy black hair, moved briskly to the console and seized the collar of the bulletproof jacket of his teammate with one hand.

“Try saying that again, fucker.”

Vassago gripped an exaggeratedly skinny youth, who was as weakly thin as a whip. His golden hair was trimmed very short, and his skin was snowy white as though ill.

This man who wore a pair of rough metal-framed glasses was the only non-combatant in the team. A hacker by the name of Critter, informally employed by the Glowgen Defense Systems Cyber Operation Department [CYOP].

A self-proclaimed internet criminal with an arrest record, with an internet name instead of a real name. But Vassago was the same. Vassago was one of the 72 demons recorded in the «Ars Goetia» , also known as the Prince of Hell. There were no parents on Earth who would name their son that. He was also an employee of the CYOP and was not an expert on computers but in combat – of course under Full Dive. Although he was a man with a suspicious record lesser than that of Critter, his VR combat skills were quite outstanding.

In reality —

The twelve members of the «Ocean Turtle» Assault Team, apart from their leader, Gabriel Miller, all had dark pasts, and adopted new identities in exchange for being fed as [Dogs].

As a dog in their midst, Critter expressed no fear whatsoever at being hoisted up by Vassago, replying as he loudly chewed his gum:

“I’ll say it as many times as I want. Listen, this console’s locked as hard as dried shit, and the laptops we brought in aren’t gonna be able to calculate the unlock code until you bastards die of old age. Got it?”

“I ain’t talking ‘bout that, four-eyes! Weren’t you saying that it locked because we moved too goddamn slowly!?”

Vassago shot back loudly. If he tried hard enough, with his wild flair, he was handsome enough to be a successful fashion model, but he was quite frightening when enraged.

“Hey, hey, just telling the truth, man?”

“You were trembling like a leaf during combat, but you sure are one cocky bastard now!”

The other teammates snickered at the two men firing expletives at each other, instead of stopping them. Capturing the right timing, Gabriel snapped his fingers at the two men to attract their attention.

“OK, cut it out, you two. There’s no time to determine who’s responsible. Now we need to think about our next step.”

Then, Vassago suddenly changed to a child-like tone:

“But bro, if I don’t teach him a lesson…”

He wanted to tell him not to say “bro”, but swallowed his words. Vassago called Gabriel this probably because they had both acknowledged each other’s prowess during one-on-one VR training, but no matter how many time he heard this, it felt ill-conceived. To Gabriel, these kinds of ambiguous human relationships only based on emotions, such as friends or partners, were only convoluted synonyms.

Sooner or later, when the technology of extracting and saving souls was his, all human emotion would be able to be categorized under hue or shape through the «cloud of light». As he thought, Gabriel said to the two in an authoritarian tone:

“Listen to me, Vassago, Critter. I’ve been very satisfied with the actions of the team until today, as we have successfully achieved our first goal of taking over the control room.”

Hearing this, Vassago very reluctantly released Critter’s collar and put his hands on his hips.

“But, bro, there’s no meaning in that ‘cause this important console is locked. Our final objective, the Light Cube Cluster or whatever, is on the other side of this metal wall, right?”

“Look, we’re just about to discuss a way to bring this wall down.”

“But, the JSDF men ain’t shrinking away forever, right? If we keep going after them, this big stupid turtle’s escort, the Aegis destroyer will send the pros to attack us, and we’ll be in real trouble ‘cause we have only eleven men and one attachment.”

As expected of a Vice Captain hand-picked by Gabriel, Vassago possessed control of the situation at hand that was not a trait of a simple wild dog. Thinking for a moment, Gabriel shrugged and said:

“… As it seems, our client has some kind of secret deal with the higher-ups of the JSDF. The Aegis destroyer won’t do anything within 24 hours of the attack.”

“…Hoo…”

Critter whistled softly. Behind wind goggle-like glasses, his light gray eyes narrowed.

“So, this operation is more than just a burgl… —No, no. it’s better left unsaid.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

Gabriel lightly smiled and nodded, surveying everyone again.

“Right, let’s confirm the situation. It’s 1447 hours, Japan Standard Time. From infiltration to now, 40 minutes have passed. We are currently in the Main Control Room of the «Ocean Turtle». Although we successfully secured the target facility, we have been unable to detain a «RATH» technician, and the control system here has been locked. The next objective should be securing the Auxiliary Control Room… Brigg, can you cut through the blast door?”

The hulking teammate who was called slowly stepped forward and replied:

“Doesn’t look good. Seems to be the newest synthetic material. Using the portable cutting saw I have, it is completely impossible within 24 hours.”

“The Japanese economy is alive and well. Hans, can you breach the wall with C4?”

This time, a slim teammate with a very handsome mustache waved his arms freely.

“I say we forget it. On the other side of that wall is the Light Cube Cluster storage, so I cannot guarantee no harm to the goods before blasting this door.”

“Mm.”

Gabriel crossed his arms and thought for a split-second, then continued:

“… Our mission, is to find a particular one from an immense number of Light Cubes and take it along with its connector. We already have the ID information of the Cube. In other words, if we can operate this console, we can effortlessly retrieve the Cube and extract it from the Cluster. According to the plan, we’ve nearly got this in the bag.”

“Goddamn it, it’s all because of that turtle four-eyes, always boasting that ‘my crime is infiltrating the central server of the Pentagon’ or whatever, but can’t open a tiny lock.”

“Ooh, I’m so scared. I’m actually being reprimanded by a gamer who’s only fired a gun made of polygons.”

Staring at Vassago and Critter who were itching to fight, Gabriel intensified his tone.

“Do you all want to go back empty-handed and be ridiculed instead of rewarded?”

“NO!!”

Everyone shouted together.

“Are you all merely laymen who can’t even best an amateur technician?”

“NO!!”

“Then THINK!! Prove that the round objects on top of your necks aren’t filled with oatmeal!”

Semi-automatically putting on the [Unyielding Commander] persona, Gabriel thought by himself in silence.

As the The One who Seeks Souls, Gabriel’s biggest goal was to obtain the first manmade true artificial intelligence «Alice» and take Soul Translation technology for himself. After he obtained those, he planned to use the nerve agent he had secretly brought in to take care of everyone else, and then escape to Australia.

But, having only reached the current stage, the attack that the NSA had consigned him somewhat counted towards Gabriel’s goal. Now, since system commands were blocked through administrator privileges, they must think of another way to take «Alice»’s Light Cube.

«Alice»… «A.L.I.C.E.».

The one who told Gabriel’s client, the NSA, this codename, was a «RATH» insider informant, [Rabbit].

Gabriel did not yet know [Rabbit]’s personal profile. But, with the impulse to betray an organization and disclose information but receive a handsome reward, he likely would not reveal himself in this dangerous situation and take action.

In other words, they could not expect assistance from Rabbit, on the other side of the blast door. They must utilize the information and equipment they have now, and achieve their goal within a short time.

Time — All was time.

Gabriel, who had not known what nervousness and anxiety were since birth, could not help but feel a certain pressure when faced with a slowly approaching time limit of 23 hours.

When the NSA agents had entrusted him with this top secret seizure mission, they had said to Gabriel:

The activities of «RATH» are severely wavering our vested interest in the Japanese military industry. Therefore, the higher-ups of the Japan Self Defense Force will be displeased with the existence of «RATH» — Conversely, there are many powers that we are eager to protect.

«RATH» was mainly comprised of young Self-Defense cadres who did not hold much power in politics. The NSA was very sure of this, and signed a secret treaty with the CIA and some high official (please review) at the embassy. The Aegis destroyer Nagato that protected the «RATH» headquarters, «Ocean Turtle» will take no course of action within 24 hours of the attack, under grounds that [the safety of the hostages is most important].

But, after the period of standby, when considering the upcoming media coverage, the Aegis destroyer would eventually have to act. As soon as heavily armed forces came, outnumbered, outgunned, Gabriel’s strike force team would likely be annihilated.

If the situation really developed into the worst-case scenario, he could still escape back to the submarine, alone. But at the same time, without retrieving the important Light Cube, his great journey to seek the soul would retreat to an irreparable state.

Gabriel had already meticulously planned out his long life after this attack.

First he would take Alice and escape to Australia, concealing the Light Cube and STL technology in a villa in the Sovereign Islands in the Gold Coast. Then he would take a plane back to San Diego and report the failure of the attack to the NSA. After it had all blown over, he would return to Australia, construct an STL machine in the vast basement of his villa, and architect his dream virtual world.

The inhabitants of this world would only include «Alice» and Gabriel at first. But that would be much too lonely. As the goal was to study the soul, he must increase resources.

He would search for a young and energetic soul carrier in Sydney or Cairns, kidnap them, use the STL to extract their soul and dispose of the unwanted shell. There would be a day when he would cross the seas and trek back to his home country — and the country from where Full Dive originated, Japan.

The unique mental stamina of Japanese VR gamers once deeply puzzled Gabriel. Of course, not everyone was like this, but one group of gamers seemed to live there, in the VR game, as though it were real life, carelessly casting around their real-life emotions. Whenever he thought of the sniper girl he had met in Gun Gale Online, he would feel pain that arose from a strong desire.

The reason was likely connected to the [Real Virtual World] that had existed for only two years in that country. According to the developer, these young people experienced a death game with real aspects of life and death. The souls of these [Survivors] possessed a suitability to virtual worlds unlike anyone else.

If it was doable, even if it were just one, he hoped to obtain them — especially the souls of the elite gamers who were termed [Progressors]. Although he didn’t know if that sniper girl was one of them or not, he of course also wished to obtain her soul. The Light Cubes sealed with those souls would exude a shine far more precious than any gem.

An ultimate light that the tycoons of the world would be unable to buy with tens of millions of dollars. He would line them into his secret room, selecting whoever he wanted everyday and loading them into his favorite world, playing with them however he wanted.

What was more beautiful was that the souls extracted from humans and sealed into Light Cubes could be freely copied and stored. Broken ones, twisted ones, all could be easily rewound and ultimately sculpted into Gabriel’s favorite posture. It was like grinding and polishing a rough stone until it shined with a supreme glow.

When he reached that stage, Gabriel’s long journey would recover, for the first time, the boundless joy and happiness from the beginning.

When he was young, under the huge trees of the forest, he saw the beautiful glow of Alicia Clingerman’s soul.

These thoughts flashing in his mind, Gabriel closed his eyes, a slight shiver running down his back.

When he opened his eyes again, he recovered his ice cold mentality.

If he analogized the souls of youths from different countries as red, green, and blue jewels bursting with color, encircling a king’s crown, then the great diamond encased in the center could only be «Alice». Only Alice, with the untouched, unblemished, ultimate soul, would qualify as his own eternal partner. Therefore, he had to think of a way to get her Light Cube, no matter what.

But without destroying the blast door to the Light Cube Cluster storage, he could not seize it through physical means.

Then, he could only control it from the system. That said, even the first-rate digital criminal Critter was helpless against the lock on the console.

Gabriel dragged his feet and moved behind Critter, who was leaning over the controls, his two hands moving at top speed.

“How is it?”

Two hands punched the air in response.

“The administrator login is really despairing. What we can do is jealously peek at the fairy-tale kingdom that the group of souls are happily living in.”

Critter moved his finger; a window opened on the big screen on the wall directly in front of them and displayed a wondrous scene.

It was quite unlike a [fairy-tale kingdom]. The sky was soaked in a frightening crimson and the ground was as pitch-black as asphalt.

In the middle of the picture stood several primitive tents made of what appeared to be animal skin. On the side gathered ten or so chubby, bald, strange creatures, causing some unknown commotion.

There were generally humanoid but no matter how you looked at them, were not human. Their backs were bent, their hands were nearly long enough to scrape the ground, while their crooked feet were very short.

“Goblins…?”

Gabriel muttered. Critter whistled softly, saying with apparent happiness:

“Oh, you’re pretty knowledgeable, Captain. That’s right, they don’t look like orcs or cannibals, so they should be goblins.”

“But, they’re way too large. These are probably heavy infantry; heavy infantry goblins.”

Vassago stepped besides them with his hands on his hips and added his own comment. Although he was just an expert in VR combat, he seemed to know much about fantasy RPGs.

At the place where Gabriel was looking, the movements of the ten [Heavy Infantry Goblins] finally heated up. Eventually, two of them seized each other’s chests, twisting together in a scrambling fight, with the surrounding goblins cheering with hands raised.

SAO V15 Strike Force Team

“…Critter–”

Gabriel felt a certain faint intuition, and spoke to the monk-headed man in the seat.

“Huh?”

“These… these monsters, are they a part of the system?”

“Hmm, doesn’t look like it. From a certain viewpoint, these guys are real [humans]. They’re artificial souls read from the Light Cubes… Fluctlights.”

“For real?! What’s going on?!”

Vassago jumped and yelled furiously.

“These heavy infantry are humans!? They have the same souls as us!? The old women in Frisco would die if they heard that!!”

Drumming with a pitter-patter on the monk-head, he shouted:

“I can’t believe that these people would do this kind of God-forsaken research. Right, are those shiny things full of these goblins, orcs or whatever? Is our Alice-chan one of them as well?”

“No way~”

Annoyed, Critter pushed Vassago’s hands away and corrected:

“Listen, the world called Underworld that the «RATH» guys created is divided into two areas. Located in the center, slightly west, is the «Human Empire» where normal humans live. Then, outside is the «Dark Territory», where monsters like these are all over the place. Alice will of course be somewhere in the Human Empire. It’s impossible to find her now.”

“Well that’s easy. If there are humans, then won’t they understand us? Can’t we just dive into the Human Empire and ask the people there if they know an Alice?”

“Wow, a pig. There’s a pig here.”

“What the FUCK are you blabbering about!!”

“I’m telling you- the people who made the Underworld are Japanese. Of course, the [guys who live in there] would also speak Japanese. Can you speak Japanese?”

Hearing Critter’s words mixed with derisive laughter, Vassago revealed a twisted grin.

Don’t take me lightly.

Now, not just Critter, the entire team widened their eyes. Vassago had spoken Japanese so fluently that even Gabriel was shocked.

The young Latino man changed back to English and continued:

“No problems with communications, right? Got anything else to say, four-eyes?”

“Yeah… Yeah. Of course.”

Critter recovered from surprise and snorted.

“There are tens of thousands of people living in the Human Empire. Are you going to ask each and… every one of them…”

Critter paused his retort as though he had inspired himself through his own speech and suddenly stood up. Although his monk-head bumped into Vassago’s chin, who wanted to spit out expletives, Critter shouted unhesitantly:

“Wait. WaitwaitWAITWAIT~. There might be no need for any of us to go…”

Hearing this, the faint inspiration in Gabriel’s heart finally burst completely into being.

“… Yeah. Accounts set up to log into the Underworld… Can hardly all be LV1 normal citizens. Right, Critter?”

“Yes. Yes boss!!”

Critter slammed the keyboard like it was a percussion instrument; the big screen instantly rolled up lists of names.

“If «RATH» operators wanted to log in to observe or perform internal actions, their accounts should be identities that possess all capabilities. Military officers… No, generals… No, no, noblemen, royalty… Could even be the King himself…”

“Oh. OH!! That’s GREAT!!”

Vassago shouted, massaging his chin that was about to split in half.

“In other words, we can use a general’s, president’s, or whatever profile to log into the Underworld, and can make whatever commands we want! ‘Army parade! Right, face! Find Alice!!’”

“… Why is it that when you talk about it, something so brilliant would instantly lose meaning.”

Continuing his muttering, Critter manipulated the console with frightening speed.

But. Seconds later, along with a rare instance of profanity from him, the list was halted.

“Fuck, no. Not just direct commands from here, even using high-level accounts to log in are protected with heavy passwords. Unfortunately, it looks like we can only dive into the Human Empire as normal citizens.

“…Hmph…”

Clear disappointment floated onto Critter and Vassago’s faces, but Gabriel remained expressionless and tilted his head slightly.

There was not much time to hesitate.

But, that was but a limit of the time in reality. Beyond the screen, in the abnormal Underworld, time was compressed hundreds of times in an astonishing ratio.

In other words, the remaining 23 hours equated to over a year in the Underworld. With this much time, even if they logged in as normal citizens, after finding and capturing [Alice], it wasn’t impossible to use the internal information console to extract her into the real world.

But that was definitely a long task. Compared to such a time-wasting task, it would be better to fight along the border of the Human Empire.

“Critter. Are there any advanced accounts outside the Empire… prepared for the «Dark Territory»?”

“…Outside? But aren’t the chances of Alice being there infinitely close to zero?”

Although he questioned, Critter’s fingers flashed quickly.

Gabriel looked at the newly opened cluster of windows, replying:

“Mm, yes. But, the border is not absolutely impenetrable, is it? With the parameters given by the account, we might be able to cross the border.”

“Oh, as expected from my bro! Your thoughts are unique as always! It’s that… using a non-human general, or a monster general to fight your way through, right?! That’s burning hot!!”

To the whistling and shouting Vassago, Critter shot at him with utmost hatred:

“If you want to burn, then burn, if you’re the one who logs in: you’ll be a goblin or orc in that world. Eh, you fit the bill anyway… Ah, I got it, I got it.”

With the click of the keyboard, two windows opened.

“Hm~ It’s different from the Empire, there are only two super-accounts…Okay, there are no passwords! Let’s see… One of them is the «Dark Knight» profile. Privilege level is… 70! We can use this one!”

“Ooh, that’s great! I’ll have that one!!”

Ignoring the noisy Vassago, Critter activated the other window.

“Then, the other one is… What’s this? The profile’s blank… there’s no level, either. There’s only a name. This… How do you say this? … [Emperor… Vector]?”

“Oh, an Emperor. Then I’ll take this one…”

Gabriel patted Critter’s shoulder from behind, as Critter was just about to continue.

“No, I’ll use this account.”

“Eh? But bro, can you speak Japanese?”

Not as fluently as you can.

Gabriel replied with three years of Japanese study. Although he had given up on reading and writing from the beginning, he was effortlessly confident about conversational usage.

“Ho, you’re pretty good. Then my bro shall be the Emperor, and I’ll be the Dark Knight. Now we’re talking! Four-eyes, can we log in!?”

Completely ignoring the noisy Vassago, Critter continued punching the keyboard. Seeing his focused scanning of information on the screen, Gabriel walked besides him and asked calmly:

“What is it, Critter, is there another problem?”

“… Should I call it a problem, or a slight concern… There’s a strange phrase all over the data, I can’t really understand it…”

“Oh? What phrase?”

Critter took a deep breath and answered Gabriel’s question:

“«[Final Load Test]».”

Higa considered breaking the heavy silence that engulfed the Auxiliary Control Room.

“How do I say it. His physical body… in other words, the condition of the Kirigaya Kazuto in the real world, is similar to what I just described… not optimistic.”

Seeing Asuna, whose shoulders were gripped by Rinko, tremble her thin body in surprise, Higa added in a panic:

“B-but, there’s still some hope!”

“…How do you mean?”

Rinko asked with a sharp, yet seemingly praying voice.

“The Kirito-kun in the Underworld is still logged in.”

Higa looked at the screen that was much smaller than the one in the Main Control Room. He moved the cursor, clicked a few times, and the picture changed: a bird’s eye view of the Underworld, with the round Human Empire surrounded by the Dark Territory, appeared.

“That is to say, although his Self-Image has been damaged, his Fluctlight is dynamic, and undergoing stimulation. Therefore, even if we are completely out of options in the real world, we can probably heal his soul within the Underworld. Because he overly blames himself, he damaged his soul. If there was someone who could grant him [forgiveness]… it’s hard to say…”

Higa knew that his words were unrealistic.

But those were his unadulterated true thoughts.

Succeeding the NerveGear was the evolution of the Medicuboid Brain-Computer Interface, the Soul Translator. But Higa had found the human quantum consciousness «Fluctlight» through his development of that machine, yet there were still a great many things he did not understand.

Was a Fluctlight a physical phenomenon?

Or, was it a conceptual existence unexplainable by science?

If it was the latter, Kirigaya’s Kazuto’s injured, exhausted soul would probably only be able to be healed by some supernatural power.

For example — someone’s love.

“…I will go.”

As if Higa’s mind had been read.

A frail yet determined voice resounded in the Auxiliary Control Room.

The people in the room stared, shocked, at the owner of the voice. Yuuki Asuna nodded at Koujiro Rinko, who was supporting her shoulders, and took a step forward, continuing:

“I want to enter the Underworld. I will find Kirito-kun there and say to him: You’ve tried your best; many sad and terrible things may have happened… but you’ve tried your best.”

Higa, who had dedicated his entire life to researching this type of psychological awakening, was dumbstruck by Asuna, her great chestnut eyes flashing with tears.

Kikuoka, with an expression as though he had been struck by something, immediately concealed his expression with the lens of his glasses and looked to the STL Room on the side.

“… Indeed, there is still one empty STL.”

After saying this, the commander made a complicated expression, continuing:

“But, the current state of the Underworld is in no way stable. According to the predetermined plan, by our time, there are only a few hours left until it enters the Final Load Test Stage.”

“Final… Load Test? What will happen?”

Higa explained, gesturing with his hands, to Rinko, who wrinkled her brow:

“This… Put simply, the outer shell will be broken. The endurance value of «Gate of the East» that has divided the Human Empire and the Dark Territory for hundreds of years will decrease to zero… An army of monsters will pour into the Human World. If the humans have a complete military body, they will be able to repel them. But, the experiment this time… Kirito-kun has destroyed a large portion of the ruling power, the «Axiom Church», so… We really don’t know what’s going to happen…”

“If you think carefully about it, for the situation now, one of us needs to dive in no matter what.”

Kikuoka muttered with his arms crossed.

“As soon as the invasion begins, in the chaos, the «Alice» in the human world is very likely to be killed. If it comes to that, the time we gained when we painstakingly locked down the console will all be for naught… If we can let someone enter with an advanced account, protect Alice, and bring her to the «World End Altar», we can extract her from there to this auxiliary console.”

“Right… before this happened, you told Kirito-kun that already, didn’t you?”

Hearing Rinko’s words, Kikuoka helplessly nodded.

“Mm. If he’s fine, he can definitely do it. At that time, he happened to be with Alice… You could say that was a stroke of luck in the midst of misfortune.”

“In other words, in the months that have passed according to internal time, the chance of the two of them being together is very high?”

This time it was Higa who replied:

“…You, could say that. Perhaps it would be better if we had Asuna-san dive in… Aside from her communication with Kirito-kun; we need the combat ability to protect Alice. Among us, the one most familiar with activity in virtual worlds would definitely be Asuna-san.”

“Then, it would be best to use the highest level possible for the advanced account.”

Nodding to Kikuoka’s words, Higa moved his fingers across the keyboard at breakneck speed.

“Then, pick whatever you like. Knight, general, nobility… there are all kinds of advanced accounts.”

“Hey, wait.”

Rinko interjected, slightly nervously.

“What?”

“…The attackers, could they be thinking the same thing? Didn’t you just say it? The shortcut to securing Alice is to operate from the inside.”

“Ah… Indeed. This could very well become their method. In the Main Control Room below, there are two STLs. But they must not have the time to crack the login passwords for the advanced accounts. They can only login as LV1 normal citizens. It’s hard to comprehend taking action with that kind of situation during the Final Load Test Stage.”

While he was quickly explaining—

Higa suddenly felt a sliver of anxiety, as though he had forgotten something important.

But this concern was dispersed by the list of accounts quickly rolling in.

Credits

  • Translation – Defan (Defan,2015).

Sword Art Online Light Novel 15 : Alicization Invading – Chapter 15 : In Northern Lands[TAP]

Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 15, chapter 15.(Tap,2014).

Chapter 15

In Northern Lands
10th Month of Human World Calendar 380

1

Placing the dishes she finished washing on the dish drainer, Alice Synthesis Thirty wiped her hands on the hem of her apron as she flicked her face up.

The treetops visible beyond the small glass window had lost quite a number of leaves, dyed in red and yellow, to the chill of recent days. The arrival of winter was indeed earlier when compared to Central Capital Centoria.

Still, the rays of Solus pouring down from the skies, blue for the first time in a while, seemed warm. A pair of Treeclimbing Rabbits huddled together on a thick branch of the tree straight ahead, apparently enjoying their sunbath.

Alice smiled as she gazed at them for a while before she turned about and spoke.

“Hey, we seem to be having fine weather today, so how about we have lunch all the way at the eastern hills?”

No one replied.

The log cabin had only two rooms, and this one served as the living room, dining room, and kitchen with a plain wood table placed right in its middle.

Seated on one of the chairs, similarly plain, was a black-haired youth. Not even raising his head at Alice’s call, his vacant stare stayed upon a single spot atop the table.

He never did have much meat on him, but still, he was obviously more slender than even Alice now. His bony frame was visible even with the loose robe he had on. The empty right sleeve hanging down languidly from the tip of his shoulders only made him look all the more tragic.

Light was absent from his eyes, jet-black like his hair. Those two eyes reflected no more than his locked heart.

Suppressing the pain in her chest that she could never ever get used to, Alice continued in a cheerful voice.

“It might be a little windy, so it might be best to dress up thick. One moment, I shall prepare them at once.”

After removing her apron and hanging it off the hook beside the sink, she turned towards the bedroom next door.

Bundling her long, blonde hair behind, she wrapped a cotton scarf around herself. Along with a faded black patch around her right eye that still lacked light. She first put on one of the woollen overcoats arranged on the wall, then returned to the living room with the other under her arm.

The black-haired youth made no movement at all. After prompting him on by placing her hands on his skinny back, he eventually stood from the chair in an awkward motion.

However, that was all the youth was capable of; he could not walk even a single mel. Putting the overcoat on from behind him, she went around to his front and tied the leather strap near his neck tight.

“You can do it, keep them up for a little longer.”

Saying so, she ran over to the corner of the room.

A tough chair made from bright light brown wood was left there. Instead of four legs, it had two pairs of iron wheels attached, one large and one small. It was crafted by an elderly man by the name of Garitta who lived deep in the forest in solitude.

Holding onto the grips attached to the back of that wheelchair, she rolled it over to behind the youth. Sitting him down on the leather seat as his body swayed perilously, she then tightly covered his two legs with a thick lap blanket.

“There! Shall we make a move, then?”

She patted the youth’s shoulders, grasped the grips, and was about to wheel the wheelchair towards the door located south of the room.

The youth abruptly turned his face and reached his quivering left hand towards the eastern wall.

“Aah… aah.”

That deep, coarse voice was unintelligible. However, Alice immediately guessed what the youth desired.

“Ah, I’m sorry. I will fetch them right away.”

Three swords sat on sturdy metal fittings on the wall the youth stretched his hand towards.

On the right was Alice’s «Fragrant Olive Sword».

On the left was the jet-black long sword the youth once carried on his waist, the «Night Sky Sword».

And in the middle was a pure-white long sword that lacked a master to call its own, the «Blue Rose Sword».

Alice first removed the Night Sky Sword, almost as heavy as the Fragrant Olive Sword, from the wall and held it under her left arm.

Next, she lifted the Blue Rose Sword as well. Its weight reached only half or so of the black sword’s. After all, it had lost more than half of the blade in its sheath.

And the owner of this sword, that flaxen-haired youth who was this youth’s best friend, too, was no longer around…

She shut her eye for a moment and held onto both swords as she returned to the wheelchair. Upon gently laying them onto his lap, the youth placed his left hand on them before his face fell once more. He could express his own intentions through voice and motion only when seeking out those black and white swords.

“Be sure to keep a firm hold on them or they will drop.”

Alice told him while holding back the ache in her breast that had not lessened despite the months that passed. Pushing the now heavier wheelchair, they went out through the door.

A thick plank lay across the distance from the porch to the ground in the place of steps. Upon descending into the garden from there, a soft, cool breeze and the gentle sunlight enveloped the pair.

The log cabin was built deep within the thick forest, in a wide meadow. Alice personally cut, stripped, and assembled the wood it used. It was not much to look at, but its structure was sturdy as only trees with high priorities were used. She had to put up with the countless comments from the elderly Garitta, who taught her the method from scratch, about how he had never seen a girl with such strength, however.

This meadow was apparently where Alice and Eugeo had their secret playground when they were still children. Unfortunately, she had no memories of that time whatsoever. All memories from before she became an integrity knight were plundered through the «Synthesis Ritual».

She told the elderly Garitta and the villagers that she lost all of her past memories, but offered no reason. But in truth, her current self—Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty—was no more than a temporary personality dwelling in the body of the one born and raised on this land, Alice Schuberg. She felt obligated to return it if she could, but the memories of the original Alice had departed from this world alongside Eugeo.

“…Now, let us go.”

Alice let out her voice to shake off that moment of contemplation and moved the wheelchair on, out from the front of the residence.

Nearly all of the meadow, circular with a diameter of thirty mel, was covered in cushy undergrowth, but an abundance of withered grass lay stacked up in a section in its east. It appeared like the nest of a gigantic creature—or rather, it truly was—but the master of that nest was absent. She gave it a glance and pondered where it could have went to play today while exiting from the small path heading northwest from the meadow into the forest.

The road split into the east and west five mel ahead. A village named Rulid was in the west, but she had no desire to visit without purpose. Entering the eastern path, she set out while stepping through the filtered sunlight sparkling on the ground.

She slowly continued through the forest progressing from the season of autumn leaves to that of fallen leaves with the tenth month soon meeting its end.

“Are you cold?”

She called out to the youth but received no reply. He would say nothing even if plunged into a blizzard of intense cold. She looked over his shoulder and confirmed the overcoat’s collar was closed tightly.

Of course, warming themselves would be easy if she generated a thermal element or two. However, there were villagers who viewed them with suspicion, so she preferred to refrain from having rumors about her abuse of sacred arts spread.

After walking for about fifteen minutes while carving furrows into the beaten path anew, the path ahead brightened up. A slightly elevated hill showed up in front after leaving the grove of trees. The road gradually became uphill, but still, Alice pushed the wheelchair on without difficulty.

The view instantly opened up after reaching the top of the hill.

Straight to the east was the blue surface of Lake Ruhr. And the extensive marshes deep within it. The forest continued indefinitely to the south.

A look to the north revealed the «mountain range at the edge», covered in pure white snow, towering as though to pierce through the sky. The days she easily flew over those peaks astride her flying dragon seemed like a distant dream now.

She did long to look upon the beautiful landscape with both eyes. The abundant energy in the earth and sun here should be capable of healing the right eye she lost on the outer wall of the Central Cathedral. However, she had no desire yet to eliminate only her own injury through sacred arts.

After all, the youth’s hollow eyes could only continue their vacant stare towards mid-air even with the late-autumn scenery endlessly spreading out before him.

Sitting down by the wheelchair, Alice leaned against the large wheel.

“How beautiful. More so than any of those art pieces hung on the cathedral’s walls.”

She called out the youth’s name with a smile.

“…This is the world you protected, Kirito.”

A single white water bird made ripples on the lake’s surface as it glided and soared away.

 
How long had it been since she sat down?

Solus’s ascent had progressed quite a bit when she finally noticed. It was about time to return to the cabin and prepare for lunch. In his current state, Kirito barely ate anything each time, so even a single missed meal would lead to a decline in his maximum Life.

“It is getting late, let us make our way back.”

It was when she stood up and grasped the wheelchair’s grips while saying so.

Noticing light footsteps treading over grass and climbing the hill, Alice turned about.

The one who approached was a young girl dressed in a black habit. Her lovely face that still retained vestiges of childishness showed a gleaming smile while she energetically waved her right hand.

“Nee-samaa!”

The gentle breeze brought her lively voice over and Alice smiled as well while she gave a slight wave back.

Practically skipping over the last ten mel up, the girl took several seconds to catch her breath after her feet came to a stop, and spoke once more in a bright voice.

“Good morning, Alice-neesama!”

Springing to the side, she gave a vigorous greeting to Kirito sitting on the wheelchair as well.

“Good morning to you too, Kirito!”

Her broad grin that showed no worry over his lack of response was infused with faint sorrow the moment she turned towards the two swords on Kirito’s lap.

“…Good morning, Eugeo.”

Reaching out with her right hand as she whispered, she softly brushed against the Blue Rose Sword’s sheath with her fingertips. If someone unknown were to do that, Kirito would show a somewhat defensive response, but he now let her do as she pleased.

Having greeted her two friends, the girl straightened up and turned back to Alice again.

Alice replied while conscious of a mysterious tenderness deep in her chest.

“Good morning, Selka. How did you ever know we were here?”

It took over a month for her to able to stop calling her Selka-san.

She had earnestly longed to meet her little sister ever since she found out about her existence from Kirito’s words at the Central Cathedral half a year ago. However, now that that wish was granted, the more precious she found Selka, the stronger this question grew within her: if she—an ex-integrity knight by the name of Alice Synthesis Thirty, rather than Alice Schuberg—had the right to be her elder sister.

Selka might, or might not have noticed Alice’s unending conflict, but nonetheless, she spoke on with a smile free from concern over that issue.

“I didn’t search with sacred arts or anything of that sort. You were out when I visited, so I thought you could have come here since today’s weather is so fine. I left fresh milk as well as an apple and cheese pie baked just this morning on the table, so be sure to have them for lunch.”

“Thank you, that’s of great help. I was at a loss thinking of what to make.”

“Well, Kirito might end up running away someday due to the food you make, after all, nee-sama!”

Selka laughed and Alice replied while smiling as well.

“Now you’ve said it! You know, I am capable of cooking pancakes without burning any now, at least!”

“I wonder if that’s really true, you did turn them into cinders when you tried cooking them with thermal elements at first and all.”

Alice tried to berate her with a poke to her forehead with her finger, but Selka nimbly dodged it and jumped into Alice’s bosom. She gently hugged her little sister’s back closer as she nudged her face into her breast.

It was only at such times when she strongly wished she could flee from the intense pressure weighing on her heart.

What a relief it would be if she could forget the guilt from turning her back to the duties of an integrity knight and spending her days, quietly, deep in this remote forest. Still, Alice knew at the same time that she should never forget that. The end was approaching from beyond the mountain range at the edge, moment by moment, even while she embraced her little sister.

 
At the very end of the fierce battle at the Axiom Church Central Cathedral—

Having suffered enough injuries to drain her Life away, Alice lay on the marble floor, immobile, vaguely aware of the flow of the battle.

The struggle to death between Administrator the highest minister and Kirito who wielded two swords.

The highest minister’s annihilation, incinerated in the flames of Chief Elder Chudelkin’s captivated delusions.

The death of Kirito’s best friend, Eugeo, whose flesh was split apart alongside his cherished sword.

Kirito who was caring for Eugeo had vehemently cried out to a mysterious crystal plate that appeared on the north edge of the hall. At the end of the exchange that Alice hardly understood, Kirito’s entire body suddenly stiffened up and just as she thought so, he fell onto the floor—with that, the world sank into silence.

Right as Alice recovered a mere, slight amount of her Life and became capable of moving, Solus’s dawn shone in from the east window. With that light as a source of sacred energy, Alice first healed the fallen Kirito’s wounds. However, his consciousness remained lost and she reluctantly laid him down, and then attended to herself with healing arts before inspecting the crystal plate he spoke to.

However, the surface that had shone pale purple already lost almost all of its light and there was no reply no matter how many times she touch or spoke to it.

At a loss, Alice sat down.

She did trust in Kirito’s words and fought against the absolute ruler, Administrator, in order to protect the people of the Human World and her little sister living in some remote region, but she honestly doubted she could survive.

When the strange sword soldier the highest minister called «Sword Golem» pierced deep into her body.

When she used her own body as a shield against that onslaught of lightning bolts.

And when she threw all caution to the wind and leapt in just as Kirito’s life was about to be severed by that blade swung down—

Alice braced herself for death countless times. However, the sacrifices of Cardinal the sage, Charlotte that mysterious spider, and Eugeo, along with Kirito’s gallant fighting had held on to her life.

—You saved me, so take responsibility for it!

She endlessly shouted that at Kirito who lay down at the side. But the black-haired youth’s eyelids remained shut. Think about the path you should take from now on and choose it yourself… it seemed to Alice as though he was saying that.

After hugging her knees for tens of minutes, Alice finally stood up.

Perhaps due to the annihilation of the master of that space, the elevating disk had ceased motion like the crystal plate, so she broke it with her sword and leapt down to the ninety-ninth floor with Kirito on her back.

Going down the long staircase from there, she went past the elders who continued chanting arts, and reached the grand staircase from where she headed straight towards her master in swordsmanship who she had left in the large bath—towards where Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli Synthesis One was.

The large quantity of hot water frozen by Eugeo’s armament full control art had mostly thawed and Bercouli’s sprawled body, floating in the bath, was fortunately freed from Chudelkin’s petrification art.

Upon dragging his large frame onto the aisle and slapping his cheeks while loudly crying out “oji-sama”, the giant man let out a grand sneeze before he opened his eyes.

Alice somehow had it in herself to explain the situation to her master who went and uttered without showing any tension on his face, “Oh, it’s already morning?” Predictably enough, her words turned Bercouli’s expression grave and he spoke a single line in an overpowering voice after hearing it all.

Good work there, lil’ miss.

The knight commander’s consequent actions were prompt. They gathered the integrity knights to the «Grand Cloister of Spiritual Light» on the fiftieth floor, beginning with Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio who was somehow fully healed and asleep in the middle of the rose garden despite losing to Kirito and Eugeo, and continuing with the others who were apparently similarly bound by petrification, such as Deusolbert and Eldrie, then disseminated the facts they could.

That after a battle with two swordsmen-in-training from North Centoria Sword Mastery Academy, the highest minister, Administrator, was defeated and erased.

That the highest minister was working on a horrifying plan to transform half of the people into monstrous weaponry with bones made from swords.

That the Chamber of Elders, superior to the Order, was effectively Chief Elder Chudelkin alone and he, too, had died alongside the highest minister.

All they kept hidden was the origin of the integrity knights—no, their «conception». Bercouli withstood the impact of the truth, bearing doubts over the words the highest minister used about them summoned from the Celestial World from the start, but decided it should only be communicated to the other knight in progressive steps.

Nonetheless, Eldrie, Fanatio, and the others were visibly shaken. That was only natural. The highest minister with power comparable to the gods, the absolute ruler who reigned for hundreds of years, had died; it should be no easy task to accept that reality.

At the end of that discussion filled with utmost disorder, the knights chose to follow their commander’s orders for the time being, thanks to Bercouli’s popularity and ability, as well as perhaps the unbroken operation of the «piety module». Regardless of any changes, they were still knights serving the Axiom Church and now that Administrator and Chudelkin had left the Human World, it was undeniable that Knight Commander Bercouli was at the top of the church’s chain of command.

And the instant he was entrusted with that right to command, Bercouli focused all of their effort on carrying out their original duty, to «protect the Human World». He must have felt lost and conflicted himself. He did find out that there were memories of those whom he loved, stolen from him, within arm’s reach, after all.

Still, he decided to securely seal the thirty swords that formed the sword golem and all of the over three hundred crystal prisms on the hundredth floor of the cathedral, and to temporarily hide the death of the highest minister from all but the Order. In order to prioritize the impending, extensive invasion from the Dark Territory over the recovery of the integrity knights’ memories, including his own.

Bercouli somehow rallied the partially destroyed Order of the Integrity Knights, and then set out on the major task of reorganizing and retraining the Four Empires Imperial Guards of the Human World who were previously no more than an army in name; naturally, Alice assisted as well. With the impromptu eyepatch made by Kirito wrapped around her right eye, she flew about to the north and south of Centoria.

However, her time at the cathedral was limited. The traitor who turned a sword towards the Axiom Church—the unconscious Kirito, in other words—should be executed; that view was expressed by quite a number of integrity knights and even some of the ascetics who were unaware of the highest minister’s death.

One dawn, when the work necessary had settled down enough for them to catch a breather, Alice left with Kirito astride a flying dragon. It was two weeks after those intense, bloody battles.

But predicaments followed them even then. Kirito’s eyes remained shut throughout even the nights camping out that she was unaccustomed to and she felt that he needed a proper roof with a warm bed, but lacked the funds to even stay in the city’s inn, yet outright refused to exert her authority as an integrity knight for such.

What came to mind then was Rulid, the name of the village Kirito told her of on the outer wall of the cathedral.

Holding on the ray of hope that its inhabitants might welcome them despite her lost memories since Eugeo and she were born there, Alice turned the flying dragon’s reins towards north. She flew while tending to Kirito’s body, so the trip from the Norlangarth Empire to the small village at the very foot of the mountain range at the edge required three whole days.

She descended into the forest a short distance from the village in order to avoid startling the villagers and ordered the flying dragon to guard their belongings there, before heading towards the village on foot with Kirito on her back.

Upon reaching a path after passing through the forest and a wheat field, she chanced upon several villagers. However, they all looked upon them with surprise and suspicion, with not a single one calling out to them.

It was when they arrived at Rulid Village, built on high ground, and tried to pass through its wooden gate that a youth of large build leapt out from the guardhouse constructed at its side. Blood rushed to his face that still showed vestiges of freckles and he blocked Alice’s path, going—

—Hold it, outsiders may not enter the village without permission!

The young guard who shouted so with his hand on the sword on his waist as though flaunting it, before doubt sank into his expression upon spotting Kirito’s face while he was carried on Alice’s back. He muttered, “Huh, isn’t this guy,” before staring at Alice again, his eyes and mouth gradually widening.

—You… could you be.

Alice felt slight relief at those words. She talked to the guard who seemed to remember her despite the eight years that passed, paying caution to the words she used.

—I am Alice. Please call for the village chief, Gasupht Schuberg.

It might have been best to name herself as Alice Schuberg, but she could not find it in herself to do so. Fortunately, it appeared that name was sufficient as the guard’s face instantly turned blue from red while his mouth opened and closed repeatedly before rushing into the village. He did not mention anything about waiting, so Alice passed through the gate and walked on in the guard’s trail.

The village soon turned riotous, like a disturbed beehive, in that early afternoon. Tens of villagers filled up the sides of the not-so-wide road, shouting out in shock upon spotting Alice as she passed by.

Almost no face expressed gladness at her homecoming, however. Rather, they could be said to seem even doubtful, wary, and afraid at Alice, clad in unfeminine metal armor, and Kirito, still asleep on her back.

The gently sloping road eventually merged into a round plaza.

A fountain and well lay in its middle with a small church, a ringed cross on its roof, in the north. When Alice came to a stop at the entrance to the plaza and the villagers began exchanging whispers with uneasy looks from a distance.

Minutes later, a single man approached with firm steps, breaking through the crowd on the east side. Alice immediately recognized the man in the prime of his life with a neat, grayed moustache as Gasupht Schuberg, the chief of Rulid Village and once a father to Alice.

Gasupht halted a distance away, then gazed at Alice and Kirito in turn without any change in expression at all.

Roughly ten seconds passed before he let out a deep yet resonant voice.

—Are you Alice?

Alice answered the question with no more than a “yes”. Yet the village chief neither walked closer nor reached out with his hands, questioning further in a voice more stern than before.

—Why are you here? Has your crime been pardoned?

She had no immediate reply this time. She herself knew neither what crime she committed nor whether it was pardoned.

Kirito mentioned the explicit reason why Integrity Knight Deusolbert took the young Alice Schuberg to the capital was «Trespassing into the Dark Territory». That was certainly a transgression of the Taboo Index. However, as an integrity knight, Alice was no longer bound by taboos. The highest minister’s orders were the one and only law to a knight. But that highest minister was no more. She had no choice but to determine what were crimes and how to be pardoned from them, what was evil and what was good on her own…

Alice stared straight back into the village chief’s eyes as she replied with those thoughts in her mind.

—I have lost all of the memories from when I lived in this village as punishment for my crime. I do not know if I was pardoned through that. However, I can now go nowhere but this village.

Those were Alice’s unfeigned, true feelings.

Gasupht’s eyelids shut as deep wrinkles formed themselves at his mouth and brow. However, the village chief raised his face before long and what he announced with a keen light in his eyes were grim words indeed.

—Leave. This village has no place for one who committed a taboo.

 
Selka’s face rose, perhaps sensing that instant Alice’s body stiffened up, and inclined her neck slightly.

“Nee-sama…?”

Alice showed a smile as she responded to her little sister’s anxious whisper.

“It’s nothing, really. Now, it is about time we return.”

“…Okay.”

After nodding and freeing herself from the embrace, Selka spent a moment looking up towards Alice, but her bright smile returned straight away.

“I’ll push until we get to the fork!”

She proclaimed and immediately stood behind the wheelchair Kirito sat upon and grasped its handles with her small hands. The wheelchair itself was rather heavy, not to mention how a single person, though skinny, along with one and a half swords at the rank of sacred tools weighed it down. That load was too much for one who was merely fourteen years old and served as a sister apprentice that did not involve physical labor—or so Alice thought the first time Selka tried—but she leaned forward with her legs standing firm, the wheelchair began moving, though slowly.

“Be careful, we are going downhill.”

Selka had never let the wheelchair fall yet, but she still could not help but to call out in a slightly nervous tone which made Selka reply with a, “It’s fine, you’re such a worrywart, nee-sama”. It seemed that when Alice was still living in Rulid, she showed a little too much concern for her little sister despite going through all those adventures and experiments with Eugeo.

Was her basic personality preserved even with her memories lost, or was it a simple coincidence? She pondered while walking beside Selka who pushed the wheelchair on with a serious expression.

Upon reaching the foot of the hill, the gentle slope turned into a flat path. Selka earnestly continued despite the wheelchair’s increase in weight. While staring at her little sister’s profile, Alice’s thoughts switched back to the past once more.

It was Selka who called, from under a grove of trees’ shade, for Alice to stop after she left Rulid Village, dejected and crestfallen, on that day she was denied from returning to the village. If it was not for Selka’s courage, acting how she did despite aware that her actions disagreed with the thoughts of her father, the village chief, and the good will of the elderly Garitta she introduced Alice to, Alice would have been still wandering about without a destination even now.

It could not have been an easy story to swallow for Selka either.

Her elder sister who finally returned to her hometown had lost all of her past memories.

Kirito who left a deep impression on her through their conversations in mere days two years ago had fallen into a coma.

And Eugeo who was like a brother to her had died—

However, Selka showed her tears only when she found out Eugeo would never return, with her smile not fading even once in front of Alice after that. She could not help but feel gratitude and wonder at the depth of her mental toughness and thoughtfulness anew with each passing day. She felt that strength was more precious and mighty than an ascetic’s sacred arts, or even a knight’s sword.

And at the same time, she was reminded daily of how powerless she was, without the Axiom Church.

Having built the small yet firm cabin just two kilolu away from the village, deep in the forest, with the help of the elderly Garitta, what Alice set out doing straight away was an extensive healing art on the still-unconscious Kirito.

Within the vast forest where Terraria’s grace was most bountiful, she chose a day without even a single cloud in the skies to obstruct Solus’s light and coalesced ten luminous elements with the plentiful sacred energy granted by the earth and sun gods to that space, converting them into healing energy and pouring it into Kirito’s body.

The healing art Alice devoted all of herself to apply had the potential to fully heal even the massive amount of Life a flying dragon had, let alone that of a human. She was confident that regardless of how grim Kirito’s injuries were, he would immediately recover along with his severed right arm and open his eyes as though nothing had happened.

Yet—

Right after the blinding spiritual light left, Kirito’s eyes did open but those jet-black eyes lacked any light of reason. Though Alice repeatedly called his name, shook his shoulders, and even shouted at him while embracing him, he merely looked up at the sky blankly. Alice failed to even revive his right arm.

Four months have passed since that day, but there was no sign of Kirito’s mind returning.

Selka kept supporting her by insisting that Kirito would definitely recover to his old self some day since she’s putting her all in nursing him. Still, Alice secretly feared it was impossible for herself.

After all, she was no more than an existence created by the highest minister, Administrator.

Selka who had been silently pushing the wheelchair so far came to a stop while saying, “Let’s take… a break”, waking up Alice from her musing once again.

Her left hand gently touched her little sister’s back while she panted with sweat glistening on her brow.

“Thank you, Selka, I will push from here on.”

“I wanted to push, all the way, until the fork…”

“You already pushed a hundred mel more than the previous time, didn’t you? That helped out a lot.”

She found out from the village that situations like this would be where an elder sister, older by many years, should give her little sister some spending money, but unfortunately, she did not have even a single copper coin in her pockets. Losing even a mere shear would be horrible in her current financial situation, so she carries around money only when out to shop.

To make up for that, she brushed Selka’s bright brown hair. Her little sister smiled with her breathing calmed down, but Alice noticed faint gloom on her expression and tilted her head.

“What is it, Selka? Is something bothering you?”

She asked while holding the wheelchair’s grips and Selka opened her mouth after brief hesitation.

“…Erm… there’s another request to deal with the trees at the cleared land from uncle Barbossa for you, big sister…”

“What, is that all? There is nothing for you to worry about, thank you for delivering the message.”

Alice replied with a smile, but her sister’s crestfallen expression lifted with a discontented pout.

“But… those people care only for themselves. Don’t you think so too, Kirito?”

She questioned Kirito, sitting on the wheelchair, but the youth looking downwards gave no response, naturally. Still, Selka’s tone turned increasingly intense as though he was in agreement.

“Neither Barbossa-san nor Redack-san bother trying to let you stay in the village, so how could they still get you to help out when they’re in trouble? I know I am the one delivering the message, but you don’t have to accept it if you don’t want to, big sister. I will be sure to bring food from home for you.”

After letting a giggle escape from those words, Alice pacified her sulking little sister.

“Though your feelings make me happy, there is really no need to be bothered over it, Selka. I like the cabin and I feel blessed enough, staying close to the village. …I will go immediately after Kirito is done with his lunch. Where is it?”

“…The cleared land in the south, he said.”

Selka softly replied and spent a short while silently walking beside the wheelchair.

With just a little more to the fork heading towards the log cabin, she suddenly spoke in a firm tone.

“Sister, my time as a sister apprentice will end next year and I will receive some wages, even if it’s not that much. When that time comes, you can stop helping those people, okay? If it’s for you, big sister, and Kirito, I… I will always…”

Alice gently hugged Selka whose voice came to a stop there.

She felt her tawny hair on her cheeks, a sensation much the same despite the clearly different color, and whispered.

“Thank you… But I feel blessed enough simply with you close to me, Selka…”

 
Seeing off Selka, who waved her hand endlessly in reluctance to part, Alice returned to the log cabin with Kirito and quickly prepared lunch.

Though she had become somewhat capable of housework recently, her skill at cooking alone remained stubbornly lacking. Compared to the Fragrant Olive Sword, the kitchen knife bought from the village’s general store seemed as unreliable as a toy and twenty or thirty minutes would pass in the blink of an eye as she nervously sliced the ingredients.

Fortunately, Selka had delivered that freshly baked pie today, so she cut it into smaller portions and fed Kirito. By bringing the pie to his mouth with a fork and waiting patiently, his lips would eventually open slightly, accepting it into his mouth. With that, Kirito would slowly, slowly chew as though replaying his memories of how he used to eat.

While Kirito’s mouth moved, she would eat the pie filled with apples and cheese herself, savoring its taste. It was likely Sadina Schuberg, the village chief’s wife, who made it. Mother to Selka, and Alice.

When she still lived at the Central Cathedral, she could freely dine on the rare delicacies from around the Human World squeezed on the table in the large dining hall. Sadina’s homemade pie both looked and tasted humble in comparison, but it seemed several times more delicious. Alice did feel a little peeved that it seemed to get more reaction out of Kirito than her own cooking, however.

Upon finishing the meal and the cleaning up, she sat Kirito on the wheelchair once again and placed the two swords on his lap.

The front garden shone golden in the afternoon sunlight as they left the cabin. The days were growing shorter lately and it would swiftly turn to dusk should her mind wander. Reaching the southern fork with a quick pace, she pointed her feet towards the west this time round.

The forest came to a stop shortly after she walked straight, with the wheat fields ready to be harvested stretching out. The densely packed village of Rulid could be seen beyond the heads of grain, swaying excessively under their weight. The spire shooting noticeably high up in the middle of the red bricked roofs, erected in rows, was that of the church where Selka lived.

Neither Selka nor Azariya, the sister entrusted with the church, knew the Central Cathedral managing the Axiom Church organization in the Human World’s four empires was now no more than a fanciful illusion with no master. Still, the small church that served also as an orphanage stayed in operation without issue.

Even with the cathedral descending into chaos with the death of the highest minister, there was no apparent impact on the lives of the masses. The Taboo Index functioned as always, still constraining the masses’ awareness. Could they truly take up arms and fight to protect the Human World?

They would likely obey if ordered by the Axiom Church or the emperors. However, that alone could not bring them victory against the forces of darkness. Knight Commander Bercouli must be aware of that grave reality at the very least.

What would decide the course of battle in the end was neither the priority level of weapons nor the usage authority of arts, but the strength of one’s will. Kirito’s struggles as he upset that hopeless difference in battle potential, defeating numerous integrity knights, Chief Elder Chudelkin, and even Highest Minister Administrator, served as proof for that.

Taking on the looks given by the villagers laboring in the wheat fields, entwined with vigilance and anxiety, with her chest puffed out, Alice whispered to her master in swordsmanship in her heart.

—Oji-sama, for the masses living in the Human World, peace might not be something to protect but something granted for all of eternity.

—And the ones who nurtured that idea must be… the Axiom Church, the Taboo Index, and us, the Order of the Integrity Knights.

Even at this very moment, Knight Commander Bercouli should be toiling away, training the forces of the four empires in Central Capital Centoria and producing their equipment. Or perhaps he was already mobilizing troops to the «Great East Gate» the frontier of the Eastabarieth Empire where the fighting will be fiercest. He must be wanting for even an additional knight around, both as an assistant with practical experience and as military capability after war breaks out.

—That said, I am now…

Going through the wheat fields while sunken in her contemplation, she exited at the cleared land spreading out towards the south of the village. Stopping the wheelchair right before the dug black soil, she scanned through the vast plot of land.

It was said that a massive forest larger than the one in the east, where Alice and Kirito lived in, stood here until a mere two years ago.

However, thanks to Kirito and Eugeo felling the Gigas Cedar, the «demonic tree» towering above all else as it ruled over the forest and endlessly absorbed sacred power, the village’s men could now engross themselves in expanding the fields, or so Selka had said with an exasperated look.

A gigantic pitch-black stump remained right in the middle of the cleared land and to its south, vigorous chopping noises rang out from the axes of tens of villagers. The potbellied man standing in a corner, issuing booming instructions all about without an axe in his hands, was the master of the largest farm in the village, Nygr Barbossa.

Though somewhat reluctant, Alice still pushed the wheelchair over the narrow, beaten path. Kirito made absolutely no reaction even as he passed along the stump, the vestiges of the enormous tree he once fell; his head remained hung down as he held the two swords.

The first to notice the approaching pair were young men from the Barbossa family, resting atop the trunk of a freshly fallen tree. The trio, seemingly fifteen or sixteen years old, watched Alice, who had a scarf wrapped over her blonde hair, without reserve before shifting their gaze towards Kirito in his wheelchair. Deep jeering could be heard as they exchanged words in an undertone.

Upon ignoring them and passing through them, one of the youths shouted out in a drawl.

“Uncleee, she’s hereee.”

Nygr Barbossa, who was screaming everywhere with his hands on his waist, vigorously spun around at that and showed a smirk on his greasy, round face. His large mouth and narrow eyes reminded her of Chief Elder Chudelkin somewhat.

Still, Alice returned the best smile she could muster and gave a slight nod.

“Good afternoon, Barbossa-san. I heard you had work for me, so…”

“Oooh, ooh, if it isn’t Alice, I’m glad you’re here.”

His two hands spread out, approaching haltingly, as his round tummy quivered; Alice was convinced he desired an embrace, but after a look at the wheelchair before her, he fortunately gave up on that.

In exchange, Nygr stood a mere fifty cen on her right before spinning his huge frame and pointing at a towering, large tree between the forest and cleared land.

“Look, you can see it, can’t you? We’ve spent all our time on that frustrating platinum oak since yesterday morning, but this pathetic amount is how much progress was made even with ten adult men swinging their axes at it.”

The index finger and thumb on his right hand formed a smallish semicircle.

The large white and brown tree with a trunk of a mel and a half across had spread its roots deep into the earth, stubbornly rejecting the laborers. Two men swung their large axes in turn even now, but the notch carved in its trunk was shallow indeed, at less than even ten cen.

Sweat poured down the men’s bare upper bodies like waterfalls. Their chests and arm muscles were developed well enough, but their handling were rather stiff, perhaps due to the lack of need to wield an axe in their daily activities.

One of the men had his right leg slip as she watched and struck a wrong spot at an angle. The axe snapped at the middle of its handle and unrestrained laughter from the man’s co-workers immersed him as he fell hard on his buttocks.

“Good grief, what are those blockheads doing…”

Nygr moaned and looked at Alice once again.

“At that rate, I have no idea how many more days will it take for that one tree. And while we were stuck here with that, Redack’s men have already expanded the land by twenty mel in every direction!”

After uttering the name of the next most influential farming household after the Barbossas, Nygr kicked away a pebble at his feet. His breathing had grown distraught, but all of a sudden, a full smile appeared on his face as he let out a wheedling voice.

“And that’s how it is, I know our agreement was for once a month, but could you treat it as an exception just this once and lend me your strength, Alice? You probably don’t remember, but I spared… no, treated you to sweets time after time when you were young. You were such a cute little miss back then, you see, no, no, of course, that’s not to say that’s any different now…”

Alice interrupted Nygr’s words while holding back her sigh.

“I understand, Barbossa-san. I will treat this one particular time as an exception.”

Getting rid of trees and rocks, like the platinum oak before her eye, obstructing the land clearing was Alice’s current sacred task—no, her temporary source of income.

Naturally, it was not work officially assigned to her. There was an incident about a month into her peaceful life on the outskirts of the village where a gigantic fallen rock sealed the road towards the cleared land to the west. The episode of Alice rolling that rock away on her own as she came across it spread through the village as a rumor and before she knew it, they depended on her for assistance on tasks like this.

It was a fact that money was necessary if she were to continue living with Kirito, so she was thankful for the offers. Still, as Selka was worried that the men would bother her with an endless stream of requests if she took on the physical labor without complaint, she decided to limit her help to once a month for each farming household.

Nygr should be bound by every single rule laid in the Taboo Index, the fundamental laws of the Norlangarth Empire, and those of the village, but it came as no surprise to her that he would send two requests within the month despite that being a violation of the agreement. Though he had not broken through the «seal of the right eye»—what was «Code 871» according to the highest minister’s words—like Alice or Eugeo, it was likely he simply felt Alice to be beneath himself. He must felt no need to naively abide by some agreement made with an ex-convict living in some hut on the outskirts of the village.

Even with those thoughts in her mind, Alice nodded at Nygr once again before parting from the wheelchair. She took note of Kirito’s status, but he seemed unconcerned by the clamor in the surroundings. After telling him that she would be right back in her heart, she walked towards the large platinum oak.

The men who noticed Alice showed smirks or blatantly cluck their tongues. However, there were now few unaware of Alice’s strength, so they distanced themselves from the tree without a word en masse.

Taking their place before the great tree, Alice quickly drew a seal of sacred letters with a finger on her right hand and brought out its «Stacia Window». Its quantity of Life was quite a figure, as expected of one that ten adult men would have trouble against. Using a borrowed axe as usual would prove ineffective against that priority level.

Returning to the wheelchair in a jog for the moment, she bent down and whispered softly.

“I apologize, Kirito. I would like you to lend me your sword for a little while.”

She gently touched the black leather sheath with her right hand and felt his left arm tense up slightly as it held the sword.

However, after patiently looking into his blank eyes, the strength eventually left his arm and a hoarse voice escaped his throat.

“…Aah…”

This was likely a fragment of his memories rather than her feelings actually getting through to him. What controlled Kirito now were not his thoughts but the memories resident in his breast.

“Thank you.”

Whispering so, she slowly brought up the black sword from his arms. After affirming that Kirito remained docile, she returned back to the platinum oak.

But still, this was a splendid tree. Though it could not compare to the great ancient trees rising around Central Capital Centoria, it must be over a hundred years old.

Alice gave an apology in her heart before stabilizing her footing.

Her right leg forward and her left leg back. She gently placed her right hand on the grip wound with black leather of the «Night Sky Sword» unevenly set on her left hand. She measured the distance to the tree with her left eye.

“Hey, hey, you think you can break platinum oak with that thin sword?”

One of the men shouted and the crowd went into an impromptu frenzy. That sword’s gonna break; the sun’ll set before that; while the jeers flew in one after another, Nygr Barbossa’s concerned voice mixed in.

“Aah, Alice, if possible, I would rather you do something about it within an hour, you know?”

She had fallen over ten trees since she started this job, but required around thirty minutes almost every time. The reason behind that slowness was due to her having to keep her strength in check to avoid breaking the axes she borrowed. But she had no need for that worry today. The Night Sky Sword was a sacred tool boasting a priority level equal to Alice’s Fragrant Olive Sword.

“No, I will not require that long.”

Replying with a near-murmur, Alice gripped the sword’s handle.

“…Haah!!”

A short yell. A cloud of dust whirled up from beneath her right foot, dug firmly onto the ground, like some sort of explosion.

It had been a while since she swung an actual sword, but fortunately, she had yet to forget her techniques. The horizontal slash from the left in the same motion as drawing it from its sheath ran through the air like black lightning.

The surrounding men appeared to have been unable to follow the slash itself. Even as Alice rose up from her final posture, with the sword swung completely to the right in front of her, they continued scowling questioningly.

There was no more than the meager notch made by the men on the platinum oak’s smooth bark; it had suffered no other damage—or so it appeared.

A “Whaat, she missed?” eventually came from somebody and a number of them laughed. Alice glanced at the person to whom that voice belonged to and spoke as she sheathed the sword.

“It will be falling that way.”

“Hah? The heck are you…”

The man’s two eyes opened wide with shock upon getting to that point in his words. He saw the platinum oak’s trunk slowly begin to tilt. A scream grew from him and those around him as they ran behind.

The huge tree fell with a terrific tremor where the men were until three seconds ago.

Alice moved to the front of the stump as she warded off the rising thick cloud of dust with her right hand. Fine tree rings were clearly visible on the newly-made cross-section and shone as though it was polished, but a single section on the edge was slightly frayed.

Perhaps her skills have dulled, or perhaps her unavailable right eye was to blame—Alice pondered as she turned herself about.

Her upper body unconsciously straightened up in the next instant. Nygr Barbossa had a full smile on his face and was rushing towards her with heavy steps, his arms spread out.

She instinctively lifted the sword in her left hand and Nygr came to an abrupt stop at the clink made by the guard. Still, his smile remained and he put his spread out hands together in front of his body as he shouted.

“B-Bri… brilliant! What skill! Jink, the guard chief, couldn’t even hope to match that! It’s practically divine!”

He went another mel closer and continued his words with an expression filled equally with admiration and greed.

“H-H-How about it, Alice, I will double your fee, so let’s not make it once a month, help us out once a week… no, once a day!!”

Alice lightly shook her head at Nygr who was rubbing his hands together fast.

“No, the fee I am currently receiving is plenty.”

If she were to wield the Fragrant Olive Sword and make use of the armament full control art, it would not be on the scale of one large tree a day; it would be possible to change this forest to nothing more than barren land as far the eye could see in mere minutes. But if she were to do that, their requests would stretch on to tilting the plains, smashing rocks, and even making it rain.

Nuhnhnhnhnh; Nygr moaned in agony before finally snapping out of it, blinking, after a “my pay, please” from Alice.

“O-Oh, that’s right, that’s right.”

Sticking his hand in his pocket, he pinched out the agreed hundred Shear, a single silver coin, from a leather bag that sounded heavy.

Dropping that onto Alice’s palm, Nygr still stubbornly added some words.

“How about this, Alice? I will pay another silver coin, so how about you decline those under Redack this month if they ask for help…”

It was then, when she held back her sigh and was about to reject his offer once more.

A heavy clunk reached her ears. Her face sprung up and saw the wheelchair sprawled on its side with Kirito thrown onto the ground a distance away.

“…Kirito!”

She gave a hoarse shout and rapidly slipped past Nygr.

She could sense desperation from Kirito as he reached out with his left arm with his stomach lying on the ground. Ahead of him were the previously resting young men, two who now supported the long sword sheathed in white leather on the ground as they cried out in excitement.

“Uohh, woah, this is heavy as heck!!”

“That’s why even that girl can bring down that platinum oak in one blow, huh?”

“Shut up and hold onto it properly!”

The third youth shouted and held the Blue Rose Sword’s handle with both hands so as to draw it.

Alice heard her own teeth gnashing as they grinded together. Released next from her throat was a sharp yell.

“You bastards…!!”

The youths’ mouths opened wide upon hearing that as they looked at Alice.

She ran through the remaining twenty mel in an instant and came to a stop with the dust whirling up. The three looking at Alice’s face backed off haltingly.

Somehow restraining the emotions threatening to burst out with a deep breath, Alice first helped up the fallen Kirito. While sitting him on the wheelchair once again, she ordered with a stifled voice.

“That sword belongs to this man. Return it now.”

Defiant expressions instantly showed up on the trio’s faces. The lips of the one with a large build and about to draw the Blue Rose Sword grew crooked and he pointed at Kirito.

“We did ask that guy if we could borrow the sword, you know?”

Back on the wheelchair, Kirito’s left arm was still reaching out towards the pure white sword while his feeble voice leaked out.

One of the youths holding back the sheath warped his lips in ridicule as he continued.

“And then, he generously lent it to us. With those cries of aah, aah, you know?”

The last went with the flow and laughed with a “yep, yep”.

Alice could not help but to tighten her right hand’s grip on the wheelchair’s handle. That hand was unmistakably seeking to draw the Night Sky Sword hanging off her left hand.

She would have sliced off those six hands touching the Blue Rose Sword without even a hint of hesitation half a year ago. Integrity knights were above the Taboo Index and its prohibition on hurting others. And in the first place, with the seal on her right eye currently broken, there were no longer any laws capable of keeping Alice’s actions in check.

Still—

Alice grinded her teeth so hard it hurt as she fought against the impulse surging through herself.

These youths were part of the people of the Human World that Kirito and Eugeo sacrificed their lives to protect. She could not hurt them. Neither of them would wish for that.

Alice remained silent without moving a cen for several seconds. But she likely failed to conceal the bloodlust emanating from her left hand. The trio wiped off their smiles and averted their eyes, afraid.

“…Fine, no need for that scary look.”

The larger one eventually spat out with a sulk and took his hands off the sword’s grip. The remaining pair let go of the sheath with faces that appeared relieved, probably already at their limits in supporting it. The Blue Rose Sword laid down heavily where it was.

Alice approached without any additional words, stooped over, and deliberately used just three fingers on her right hand to lift the white leather sheath. After a glare at the brats right after turning about, she returned to the wheelchair.

She wiped the soil that got on the sheath with the cuff of her overcoat, then placed on Kirito’s lap both the white and black swords which he firmly hugged before coming to a stop.

She gave Nygr Barbossa a glance, seeing him apparently paying that commotion no attention and engrossed in directing the men. Alice lightly bowed towards his back as he continued his shouting, and then pushed the wheelchair back north on the narrow path.

The anger raging in her breast for the first time in a while had turned to a cold sense of futility.

It was not her first time thinking so since she began living in the forest near Rulid. Most of the villagers avoided even talking to Alice and as for Kirito who lost his sense of self, they would not even treat him as a human.

She had no plans to condemn them. Alice was likely still a criminal who violated the Taboo Index to them, after all. She felt thankful enough for them giving their silent consent for her to stay close to the village, and selling her food and daily necessities.

Still, she still pondered in a corner of her mind. —What for?

Exactly what did she suffer so much and fight against the highest minister, Administrator, for? The other highest minister, Cardinal, the intelligent black spider, Charlotte, and Eugeo lost their lives; Kirito lost his speech and emotions; exactly what was protected after all that?

That line of thought ended up on a question that she could never utter.

Was there truly a need to protect people like those from the Barbossas?

That doubt was partly what made Alice abandon her sword and live in this remote land.

The tremendous military forces of darkness were drawing closer, moment by moment, beyond the «Great East Gate» at the end of the Eastabarieth Empire even now. It was dubious if the reborn «Human World Defense Army» fostered by Knight Commander Bercouli could even be deployed in time. As Alice was not relieved of her integrity knight duties—the only one capable of doing so was the deceased highest minister—perhaps she ought to be rushing towards the Great Gate to join them as soon as she could.

However, the weight of the Fragrant Olive Sword was now beyond what Alice could handle.

The Celestial World she believed to be her origin was actually a deception. The Axiom Church she swore her fealty to was smeared in lies. Not to mention she now knew the ugliness and vulgarity of the Human World’s inhabitants far too vividly. The time she could swing her sword without doubts over her own justice and pray to the gods was of the distant past.

Those Alice now truly wished to protect numbered a mere few. Her father; her mother; Selka; the elderly Garitta; and Kirito. If nothing would befall them, what issue would there be turning her back to her knight duties and continuing her peaceful life in this land—?

Leaving the cleared land, Alice’s feet stopped just as they reached the path beyond the wheat fields, and she whispered to Kirito.

“Could we go shopping in the village seeing as we are here? I will not allow some insolent child to harass you this time.”

There was no reply, but judging the lack of response as consent, Alice pushed the wheelchair on towards the north.

 
The skies were dyed in the shades of sunset by the time they bought a week’s worth of food and essentials with the hundred Shear silver coin earned and returned to the forest cabin.

She was on the way up the cabin’s porch when she noticed a low whoosh approaching. Descending slightly with the wheelchair, she awaited the origin of that sound near the meadow’s middle.

What made its appearance before long, skimming the treetops, was a gigantic silver beast with two wings, a long neck, and a tail—a flying dragon. Alice’s flying dragon who brought the two of here from the central capital. With the name, Amayori.

The flying dragon circled through the skies above the meadow twice before gently descending. Tucking in her wings and stretching out her neck, she first touched Kirito’s chest with the tip of her nose before rubbing her large head against Alice.

Upon scratching the faintly bluish fuzz under the dragon’s neck, a low kururu rang out from her throat.

“Amayori, you have gotten a little plump. You have been eating too many of the lake’s fishes.”

After being scolded with a vague smile, she breathed out from its nose as though embarrassed, turned her long body about, and walked towards her bed east of the cabin. She curled up atop her bed made from thickly laid dry grass, entwining her tail with her head.

Half a year back, Alice undid the leather bridle fixed on Amayori’s head and released the binding art on the day she decided to build this cabin in this meadow. And she even went to the extent of telling her that she was now free and to return to the flying dragon nest in the west empire, but the flying dragon made no attempt to leave Alice.

Making a bed with grass she gathered on its own, she plays in the forest and catches fish in the lake during daytime, but comes back in the evening without exception. Despite the lack of the sacred art that restrains the proud, brutal disposition of a dragon and brought her under a knight’s command, it was a mystery why she did not return whence she came.

That said, she was simply glad that Amayori, always together with her since she became an integrity knight, would remain by her side through her free will, so she made no actual effort to chase her away. The villagers spotting her flying over the forest at times seemed to be one of the causes for Alice’s unsavory reputation among them, but she felt no point in being bothered over that now.

After telling Amayori good night as she began her low snoring atop the dry grass, Alice pushed the wheelchair into the cabin.

For dinner, she made a stew from half-moon beans and meatballs. The beans were just a little hard and the balls were not all that consistent, but it seemed to have tasted rather decent. Naturally, it was not like Kirito gave any opinion through his words. He merely chewed and swallowed, as though from memory, whenever the small spoon entered his mouth.

She considered how it would be nice if she knew his likes and dislikes at least, but realized she actually held a proper conversation with this youth for less than even a full day after thinking about it. It seemed Selka lived with him in the church for a while two years ago, but she only remembered him indiscriminately enjoying everything served. She thought that, too, was just like him.

It happened after she moved Kirito, who managed to finish the stew after some time, to the small stove’s side along with the chair and was washing the cutlery in the sink, lining them up in the drainer.

Amayori who usually slept until dawn suddenly cried out with a low rururuu outside the window.

Her hands jerked to a stop and she perked up her ears. A noise unsuited to the season was mixed in the night wind passing through the forest, like a cold winter wind. A noise like thin, large wings flying against the wind.

“……!”

Leaping out of the kitchen, she confirmed Kirito was staying quiet on the chair before opening the entrance. Straining her ears again, she judged the wind noise to be approaching, immediately went down to the front yard, and looked upwards into the night sky.

The black silhouette descending in a spiral against the backdrop of a sky filled with stars unmistakably belonged to a flying dragon. She looked towards the east of the meadow just to be sure, but naturally, Amayori was crouching on her bed as she looked up at the sky.

“Could that…”

The moment she was about to return for her sword, having thought it could be a darkness knight from the Dark Territory who crossed the mountain range at the edge, she saw the dragon’s scales gleam silver in the moonlight. She lessened the tension in her shoulders slightly. The integrity knights of the Axiom Church were the only ones to ride flying dragons with silver scales even if one were to search the world over.

That said, it was still too early to be relieved. Exactly who would fly to a region this remote, and for what reason? Could it be that the debate regarding the execution of the traitor, Kirito, continued even throughout this half year and that the cathedral had finally dispatched someone to do the deed?

Perhaps sensing Alice’s tension, Amayori crept out from her bed before lifting her head up high and crying out once more. However, her menacing, deep tone soon faded away, replaced by a coy, high-pitched kyuun.

Alice, too, knew why straight away.

The flying dragon that landed on the southern part of the meadow after circling another three times had fuzz in a shade much like Amayori’s growing around its neck. That could only be Amayori’s elder brother, a dragon named Takiguri. In other words, the one riding on him was—

Alice called out in a stiff tone towards the knight clad in full silver armor who landed on the ground in an elegant motion.

“…To think you would find out about this place. What business do you have here, Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one?”

The one and only integrity knight possessing a number younger than Alice, who was thirty, did not speak immediately and instead, first gave a deep bow with his right hand on his chest.

Straightening his body, he slowly removed his helmet. His lustrous light purple hair fluttered in the night wind and his good looks with a sense of urban flamboyance were revealed. With his high, smooth voice, rare for a man—

“It has been a while, my master, Alice-sama. Your beauty has not faded despite this change in dressing. I could not help but to make haste to meet with you, master, with a bottle of alcohol from my cherished collection upon imagining the bewitching splendor your golden locks would have under this evening’s glorious moon.”

The left hand held behind his back darted forward and in it was a bottle of wine.

Alice held back a sigh as she answered the man who apparently regarded her as his master.

“…I am truly glad your wounds have healed, but I see your personality is as it had always been. I have only just noticed, but your manner of speech is slightly similar to Chief Elder Chudelkin’s.”

Turning her back to Eldrie who let out a mild ugh, she proceeded towards the cabin.

“E-Erm, Alice-sama…”

“I will hear you out inside if it is important. If it is not, down the wine on your own and return to the central capital.”

Alice gave a glance at the siblings reunited after half a year, Takiguri and Amayori, who were happily nuzzling each other’s heads, then returned to the cabin fast.

Eldrie, who docilely followed along, scanned through the narrow cabin with curious eyes before his gaze fixated on Kirito looking downwards beside the stove. However, he mentioned nothing about the rebel with whom he had once crossed swords with and swiftly slipped to the table and pulled a chair for Alice.

“……”

It seemed ludicrous to thank him, so she sighed instead and sat straight down. Eldrie sat opposite Alice without asking and placed the wine bottle on the table. His face clouded over the moment their gazes met straight on, likely spotting the black bandage still covering Alice’s right eye. That expression soon vanished, however, with Eldrie’s nose twitching as he raised his face.

“…There seems to be some aroma here, Alice-sama. On another note, I have yet to take dinner due to this trip I undertook in haste.”

“On another note? In the first place, what would spur you to bring wine instead of rations when flying to this remote region from the central capital?”

“I swore to the three goddesses that I will never have that dried, squirmy thing in this life. If I have to satisfy my stomach with that, I would rather starve and give my Life up…”

Alice stood from the chair without listening to Eldrie’s absurd excuses to the end. Moving to the kitchen, she served the leftover stew from the metal pot on the stove into a wooden plate and returned to the table.

Eldrie stared at the bowl placed before his eyes with a mixture of delight and suspicion.

“……Excuse my abrupt question, but could this possibly made by your hand, Alice-sama…?”

“Why, yes, it is. What about it?”

“……No. I am merely overjoyed by this day, in which I could partake in cooking made by my master; more so than being endowed with some hidden sword stance.”

Holding the spoon with a nervous expression, he brought beans to his mouth.

Alice asked once again towards Eldrie whose mouth moved as he chewed.

“And so, how did you find this place? No art could reach this far from the central capital… and I hardly believe the Order could dispatch flying dragons to every area in search of me alone in its current situation.”

Eldrie gave no reply for a moment, murmuring comments such as “so it’s not that bad, after all” as he energetically moved the spoon, but eventually raised his face from the now-emptied plate, then wiped his mouth with a handkerchief he took out from one place or another before looking straight towards Alice.

“I came, following the bonds of fate linking us, Alice-sama… or so I would like to say, but unfortunately, this was an utter coincidence.”

His right hand flashed open in a pompous gesture.

“Reports that the goblins and orcs were sneaking about of late came from the knights going about the mountain range at the edge. The caves in the north, south, and west were all destroyed under the knight commander’s command, but as there was still the possibility of them stubbornly digging through, I came to confirm the issue.”

“…The caves…?”

Alice’s knitted her eyebrows.

Among the four passages passing through the mountain range at the edge, the caves in the south, the west, and the one exceeding close to Rulid Village, the north, were rather narrow, denying access to the orcs and giants who formed the bulk of the darkness forces. As such, she anticipated the enemy army would gather at the «Great east Gate», but Knight Commander Bercouli had collapsed those three caves immediately upon assuming command as insurance.

That was precisely why Alice built this secret home on this land, but the situation would change if the enemy were to dig through the cave. Rulid Village would flip from a peaceful remote region to the front lines where battle would first break out.

“And so… did you confirm the movements of the darkness forces?”

“Though I flew around the cave for an entire day, I saw not even a single goblin, let alone an orc.”

Eldrie lightly shrugged and continued.

“Perhaps they mistook a pack of beasts for military forces.”

“…Did you check inside the cave?”

“Naturally. I peeked in from the Dark Territory’s side, but it was buried in rocks up to the ceiling. They would probably need a large force to dig through that. …Then Takiguri strangely kicked up a fuss when I pulled on the reins to return to the central capital. I left the flying to him and he descended straight towards here. Honestly, I am just as shocked. It’s a huge coincidence… no, maybe it was the guiding hand of fate after all.”

Having left his flowery language behind some time ago, Eldrie showed the resolute face of a knight and continued.

“I am obligated to report that I had come across this opportunity for an audience with you on this particular occasion. Alice-sama… please return to the Order! Rather than the assistance of a thousand men, what we need now is your sword!!”

Alice slowly turned down her eye as though avoiding the knight’s forceful gaze.

She knew.

She knew the crackling of the brittle wall shielding the Human World crumbling away. And of the hardships Knight Commander Bercouli and the newly-formed Defense Army suffer as they propped it up.

Alice could never repay her debt to the knight commander for his protection and guidance, and she had yet to lose her sense of unity with those in the Order of the Integrity Knights, including Eldrie. That said, that was insufficient to spur her to battle.

Strength is the might of one’s will. Alice realized that truth through the battle at the cathedral. If willpower could allow one to overturn a devastating difference in battle potential, like Kirito back then, then it could dull the strongest sacred tool too—

“…I cannot.”

Alice softly replied.

Eldrie’s sharp voice rang out at once.

“Why.”

Without waiting for a reply, his sight, keen like a whip, turned to the young man sitting on the chair next to the stove.

“Is it for that man? Is your heart still led astray, Alice-sama, by that man who broke out of the cathedral’s jail and turned his treacherous blade on many knights, the chief elder, and even the Esteemed Highest Minister? If that is so, I shall cut off the source of your hesitation for you this very moment.”

Alice’s one eye glared at Eldrie as he put strength into his right hand holding onto the table’s end.

“Stop it!”

Though that single line was at a suppressed volume, the knight still straightened up his upper body with a start upon hearing it.

“He, too, only fought for the justice he believes in. Otherwise, how could he defeat all of us integrity knights, who are supposed to be the strongest, and even the knight deputy commander? You should know the weight behind his sword as well, having crossed swords firsthand.”

Even as wrinkles came together near his high nose bridge, Eldrie slowly released the strength in his shoulders. He lowered his gaze to the table while murmuring to himself.

“…Certainly, I, too, find it hard to accept Administrator-sama’s plan of changing half of the people into soulless soldiers with bones of swords. And without that youth… Kirito and his friend, Eugeo, it is unlikely anyone would stop that plan from being realized. Not to mention that if it is as Bercouli-dono said, that the one who guided that pair truly stood on a par with Administrator-sama once, as another highest minister, Cardinal-sama, I would hardly wish to point out Kirito’s crimes. However… if that is so, I find it even harder to swallow!!”

As though pouring out what he had always kept suppressed in his breast, Eldrie shouted.

“If the skills of the rebel, Kirito, overwhelm even those of us integrity knights as you have mentioned, Alice-sama, why does he not take up his sword and fight?! Why was he reduced to such a miserable state and continues to anchor you down to this remote region?! If he murdered Administrator-sama in order to protect the masses, then should he not be rushing to the Great East Gate this very moment?!!”

Eldrie’s words, as though spewing out fire, showed no sign of reaching Kirito’s heart either. His half-closed eyes reflected no more than the light from the wavering embers in the stove.

The heavy, lasting silence that descended was punctured by Alice’s calm voice.

“…I am sorry, Eldrie. I am incapable of going with you, after all. It has nothing to do with Kirito’s status… I have merely lost the strength to wield my sword. I doubt I could even get a point if I were to cross swords with you now.”

Eldrie’s two eyes flashed open as though he was taken aback. The prideful knight’s face contorted like that of a young boy.

That face showed a smile bearing resignation in time.

“…I see. Then I have nothing more to say…”

Slowly stretching out his right hand, he started muttering a sacred art. The following quick incantation created two crystal elements and changed their forms into that of extremely thin wine glasses.

Picking the wine bottle up from the table, he flicked the tough cork off with just his fingertip. He poured a little of the crimson red fluid into both glasses from the bottle before putting it down.

“…If I had known we would be bidding each other farewell with this wine, I would have brought along one that was aged for two hundred years old from the East Empire in my collection.”

Eldrie lifted one of the glasses, downed it in one go, and then gently returned it to the table. He took a bow and stood up, his pure white mantle billowing.

“I bid you farewell here, master. Your guidance on my sword and arts shall remain unforgotten as long as this Eldrie lives.”

“…All the best. I pray you stay safe.”

Lightly nodding back towards Alice who managed to get those words through her mouth somehow, the integrity knight scraped his boots against the floor as he walked away. Alice could not help but to avert her eyes from his back filled with unshakable pride.

The door opened and closed. A single shrill cry came from Takiguri on the front yard, followed by the sound of flapping wings. Amayori’s voice, nasal from her reluctance to part with her brother, pricked Alice’s breast.

Though the strong flapping vanished into the distance before long, Alice continued sitting without stirring.

Right before the Life of the glasses made from crystal elements expired, she gently lifted one to her lips with her fingertips. The first wine she tasted in this half year left an aftertaste more bitter and sour than sweet on her tongue. The two empty glasses scattered into pale light as they disintegrated seconds later.

She pushed the cork back into the bottle, yet to be emptied, and stood up. Moving to the stove, she called out towards Kirito who still sat in silence.

“…I am sorry, you must be tired. It is long past the usual bedtime, after all. Now, let us go to bed.”

Gently tapping his shoulders with her hands to make him stand, she then guided him to the connecting bedroom. She changed his black robe to his undyed sleepwear before laying him on the bed at the window.

Even upon bringing up the folded blanket at her feet and covering him up to his neck with it, Kirito’s eyes remained half-open, still staring at the ceiling unblinkingly.

The room was filled with a pale blue darkness after she blew out the lamp on the wall. She sat down beside Kirito and softly caressed his emaciated chest and bony shoulders for several minutes; his eyelids fell only then, as though some source of power he had was cut off.

She waited until the sleeping Kirito’s breathing stabilized before leaving the bed and changing into white sleepwear herself. Returning to the living room, she checked on Amayori from the window, then extinguished the two lamps and went back to the bedroom.

She lifted the blanket on the bed and slipped in beside Kirito as his faint warmth enveloped her body.

Though closing her eye would have usually allowed her to flee into her sleep without delay, her drowsiness seemed mostly absent today.

The blinding white of the mantle whipping on Eldrie’s back as he left remained imprinted on the insides of her eyelids, stinging her eyes.

That same pride should have filled her own back in those days. That unshakable resolve surging through her body as energy for protecting the Human World, its inhabitants, and the Axiom Church’s authority with her sword.

However, every last drop of that strength had left her.

She had a question for Eldrie—for her former disciple. Exactly what do you fight for, now that both the church and the highest minister have been exposed as falsehoods?

But she could not ask. None of the integrity knights were informed of the entirety of the highest minister’s horrifying scheme aside from Bercouli and herself. Not even Eldrie knew the fact that his «memory fragment» and his «most beloved person», reduced to a part of the sword golem, remained on the sealed highest floor.

As such, he still believed in the concept of the Axiom Church. He still waits, expectantly, for the day the three goddesses would send a new highest minister to the cathedral to bestow their infallible guidance.

But what should she do, as one aware that the goddesses and the Celestial World were both great lies?

It was perfectly understandable, but Knight Commander Bercouli had to hide half of the truths from the knights to have them prepare for the incoming war. The hesitation currently in her breast would certainly infect the other knights if she was in their presence.

Nobody knew if the Defense Army established in haste could repel the coordinated assault from the darkness forces. If they broke through the Great East Gate, the monsters thirsting for blood would march on to this remote village sooner or later. Was there no method to avoid that disaster—a certain voice replayed within Alice’s mind every time she pondered that.

The two lines that came from that mysterious crystal plate after the battle with the highest minister, before Kirito collapsed.

—Head for the World End Altar.

—Straight south after you exit the eastern large gate.

She had no recollection of this name, «World End Altar» in the Sacred Tongue. However, she knew what could be found upon exiting the Great East Gate. The wilderness of the Dark Territory: soil blackened like cinders and skies in the shade of blood reaching out. Neither advance nor escape was easy once one took a step in.

Even if she surmounted the outrageous difficulties to reach the altar, what awaited her there? Was there truly someone—or something—capable of protecting the inhabitants of the Human World from the darkness forces…?

Alice tilted her head atop the pillow and stared at the youth stretched out on the other side of the bed.

Creeping through the blanket, she moved to Kirito’s side. Reaching out her hands after slight hesitation, she clung onto him like a child spooked by a nightmare.

No matter how hard Alice drew his dismally thin body closer, the youth who made her heart waver with intensity on a par with flames showed absolutely no reaction. His pulse continued its sluggish pace; his lowered eyelashes remained utterly motionless. He… no, that might no longer be anything more than an empty shell with its soul utterly burnt out.

If her sword was now in her right hand—

She could bring an end to it all, stabbing their two touching hearts as one.

That momentary thought overflowed from Alice’s eyes as tears and fell onto Kirito’s nape.

“Tell me, Kirito… What should I do…”

No answer for her question came.

“What… should I……”

The moonlight pouring in from a gap in the curtains coalesced and faded within the teardrops ever-increasing.

 

The twenty-second day of the tenth month that came next was the coldest it got throughout that autumn.

Calling off the walk, she spent it together with Kirito by the stove. She intended to make plenty of firewood as the elderly Garitta had taught her to before winter truly arrived, but it appeared there would be no need for that.

After taking the entire day to write a mere two letters on parchment, Alice hesitated for a moment before signing off with Synthesis Thirty in Sacred Tongue as well below the Schuberg family name in Common Tongue.

She neatly folded one, put a wrapper on it, and addressed it to Selka. She set it on the table beside the other for the elderly Garitta.

The letters expressed farewells and apologies. She could no longer stay in this house now that Integrity Knight Eldrie knew of it. The next to come would likely be Knight Commander Bercouli himself, rather than Eldrie. Alice had no words she could use against her master in swordsmanship, her benefactor.

Hence, she would leave once more.

A thin, long sigh leaked from Alice before she raised her face and looked at the black-haired youth sitting on the opposite side of the table.

“Hey, Kirito. Where do you wish to go? I heard the highlands in the west are a truly beautiful sight. Or perhaps the jungles in the south? It would be warm year-long and the fruits there seem plentiful.”

Despite the bright voice she deliberately used, Kirito showed no response as always.

His empty eyes stayed glued to the tabletop. Her heart hurt upon thinking how she had to drag this injured youth from stability again. Still, even so, she could not possibly leave him in Rulid. Alice could not force such a task on Selka who was a sister apprentice, neither did she desire to. Caring for Kirito was the one and only reason Alice found to continue living.

“…I know, let us leave our destination to Amayori. You should go to bed soon, we will have to wake early tomorrow.”

Alice changed Kirito, put him to bed, then changed into her own sleepwear, and extinguished the light before slipping under the blanket.

Her ears focused on Kirito’s breathing by her side in the darkness. She gently shifted herself after he completely fell asleep.

Steady beating made itself known to her ear, pressed against Kirito, as she laid her head on his chest that had grown bony.

Kirito’s heart was no longer here. These heart beats, too, were no more than echoes from the past. Alice came to think so through the months she spent sleeping aside him each night. However, she still believed there was something remaining deep within each beat that echoed out.

If Kirito currently lost only his means of expressing himself yet retained his ability to think, what could she say to excuse this behavior of hers? Alice sank into the shallow abyss of sleep as a mild smile formed as she pondered.

 
Startling, weak shaking came from the body against hers.

She somehow managed to lift her heavy eyelids. She turned her left eye towards the window in the east, but the sky visible in the gap between the curtains was still pitch dark. Her sleep lasted two, three hours at most by her intuition.

Alice whispered to Kirito whose body stiffly trembled once again.

“It is still night… go to sleep for a little longer…”

She moved her eyelids back down and thought to rub Kirito’s chest until he went back to sleep. However, Alice finally noticed the youth’s abnormal behavior as his soft voice reached her ears.

“Ah… aah…”

“Kirito…?”

Kirito, in his current state, possessed no extraneous needs. He should not awake due to the cold, his thirst, or any such thing. And yet, the youth’s trembling grew stronger while his legs moved as though to leave the bed.

“Is something the matter…?”

Alice quickly brought herself up, wondering if he had, by some chance, regained his consciousness, and generated a single luminous element as even the time required to light the lamp seemed too precious.

She breathed out a disappointed sigh as she saw only that usual hollow darkness within Kirito’s eyes that showed up in the faint white light. But, then, what had—

The sound that reached Alice’s ears this time came from outside the window.

“Kururu, kurururuu!”

Cries came from Amayori who should have been sleeping in a corner of the vacant land. Sharp, shrill reverberations as though advising her master to stay vigilant.

Leaping to the floor, Alice ran to the living room from the bedroom and forced open the entrance door. The cold night air immediately blew in. A strange smell was mixed into the wind that normally smelled only of the forest. It seemed to prick into the depths of her nose; the stench of something burnt—

Alice jumped down onto the front yard still barefooted. She drew a sharp breath the moment she turned about, scanning through the night sky.

The skies to the west were aflame.

The ominous vermillion glow was unmistakably reflected from some humongous inferno. She focused her eye and spotted numerous trails of black smoke across the starry sky.

—A bushfire!?

She retracted that thought an instant after it came to her. Aboard the burnt, pungent wind faintly reaching her was the noise of metallic clangs—and a clamor of screams.

An enemy assault.

The Dark Territory forces were attacking Rulid Village.

“…Selka!!”

A hoarse cry escaped from Alice and she dashed back to the house. However, she stood petrified just as she got on the porch.

She had to save her little sister and parents.

But what about the other villagers?

If she tried her best to save everyone, she would need to fight the forces of darkness head-on. But did the strength to do so still remain in her current self?

The source of Alice the integrity knight was her almost blind loyalty for the Axiom Church and the Highest Minister. Now that she lost that faith along with her right eye, could she truly swing the Fragrant Olive Sword and use her sacred arts?

Standing frozen, Alice’s ears—

Picked up a gatan, from within the cabin.

Her left eye flashed wide open. A chair fell over in the middle of the dim living room and beside it was a black-haired youth crawling on the floor.

“…Kirito…”

Alice moved her paralyzed legs and entered the cabin.

The light of determination was absent as usual from Kirito’s eyes. That said, the motive for his sluggish movement was evident. His one, extended arm reached out straight towards the three swords hung on the wall.

“Kirito… you…”

Something hot was caught between her chest and throat. It took some time before she noticed what faintly warped her sight were tears.

“…Ah… aah…”

Kirito’s frame moved without pause as his hoarse voice escaped, desperately approaching the swords. Alice swiped at her eyes, then ran straight to the youth and raised his frail body up from the floor.

“Everything will be fine, I will go. I will save the villagers. So please settle down and wait for me here.”

Quickly whispering so, Alice drew Kirito into a tight hug.

Thump. Thump. The reverberations of his heart beats reached her from their touching chests.

A persistent willpower definitely lurked in those beats even with his heart closed off. Even as indistinct embers, they still transmitted distinct warmth to Alice’s body.

Alice pressed their cheeks together tightly before gently bringing him up and sitting him on a chair.

“I will be back immediately after saving them.”

She spoke again, and then first took her armor and sword belt out from the closet where they were this whole time before equipping them atop her sleepwear. Rushing over the eastern wall next, she grasped her beloved sword without hesitation.

The Fragrant Olive Sword weighed down her two hands as they held it for the first time in half a year. Attaching its scabbard’s metal clasp onto her sword belt, she threw an overcoat on while sticking her feet into boots, then ran down onto the front yard again.

“Amayori!!”

A gigantic silhouette flew out at once, lowering her head, after she called out towards the bed in the east.

Alice commanded in a keen voice after leaping onto the base of her long neck.

“Go!!”

Her pair of silver wings beat loudly and the flying dragon lifted straight off into the night sky after a short ground run.

She could clearly see the catastrophe in Rulid after gaining a little altitude. The grandly rising flames were mainly from the village’s north end. The aggressors likely did come from the Dark Territory through the mountain range at the edge after all.

Eldrie had said that there were no abnormalities at the «North Cave», blocked on Bercouli’s orders, last night. The numbers required to be mobilized for removing all that rubble in a single day definitely exceeded a mere ten or twenty.

It seemed small units had been sneaking in via the three caves through the mountain range at the edge under the cover of night to commit evil deeds since times long past. Kirito and Eugeo had claimed that they fought a group of goblins in the northern cave before they arrived at the central capital too. However, she had never heard of an attack this extensive yet bold. The whole of the land of darkness might truly be thinking that the time is ripe for an all-out assault on the Human World.

Amayori flew over the dense forest in a single go and arrived at the skies over the wheat fields at Rulid’s outskirts even as such thoughts went through Alice’s mind.

She had no reins, but she still conveyed her instructions to hover by lightly tapping the dragon’s nape.

Alice leaned forward and focused her eye on the village’s state. The main street crossing from south to north shone red with flames on its northern end and she could spot the distinct shadows of the advancing attackers. The nimble goblins dashed as though they were leaping forward. The large orcs, too, advanced with a short distance from them.

An impromptu blockade was built from furniture and lumber piled up immediately north of the central plaza, but the goblin vanguards had already reached there and their drawn swords flickering in the light struck as one to pass the obstacle.

The ones fighting back were of the village’s guard corps. However, they were likely surpassed by even the goblins: be it in numbers, in equipment, or in experience. At this rate, it would take but a brief moment before the orc unit, causing tremors as they approached from behind, pulverized them.

Holding back her desire to dive into the midst of that battle this very moment, she continued checking the situation.

Flames rose all about the eastern and western sides of the village as well. It seemed to have yet suffer damage from the plaza to the south, however. Aside from the guards, the other villagers—including Selka, of course—must have fled from the south gate and evacuated to the forest.

Alice focused her eye on the plaza once more with that thought in mind and could not help but to let out her voice.

“Why…!?”

There were countless silhouettes sticking close to the central fountain, surrounding it in the circular plaza before the church. It escaped her immediate notice as there were far too many of them. Nearly the whole of Rulid’s inhabitants must have been gathered there.

Why did they not escape from the village?

The guards would certainly be crushed in no time when the attackers’ main force reaches the blockade. Unless they begin moving straight away, it would be too late to evacuate.

Alice tapped the flying dragon’s neck again and shouted out a line after moving right above the plaza.

“Amayori, standby here until I call!”

And she jumped from the height of several tens of mel without the slightest hesitation. The hem of her overcoat blew violently as she fell, slicing through the cold night air.

The villagers, numbering an overwhelming three hundred, who huddled in a circle might have been prepared to put up a fight as there were men positioned on the edge carrying farm implements such as spades and scythes. Alice landed right beside two men who shot off orders from the side.

The stone paving cracked in a radial pattern with a thunderous roar. An intense shock ran from the sole of her feet to her head and her Life probably fell somewhat, but that was as far as it went.

The two men—the wealthy farmer, Nygr Barbossa, and Rulid Village’s chief, Gasupht—had their words scared out of them by the silhouette suddenly falling from above.

Though Alice felt her breath momentarily stop upon seeing her father’s face, she recovered quick enough to take advantage of the silence she caused and shouted out.

“You will not be able to hold them back here! Evacuate all of the villagers through the southern road at once!!”

The shock grew on the men’s faces as they heard Alice’s instructions.

But what came out from Nygr’s mouth after he came to his senses was a throaty, harsh voice.

“Don’t be stupid! How can we run away and abandon my mansion… this village?!!”

Alice refuted the wealthy farmer, veins popping from his brow, in a sharp tone.

“You can still escape from the goblins’ reach now! What is more important, your assets or your life?!”

Replacing Nygr who could grunt in reply, Gasupht the village chief let out his voice, deep and tense.

“Fortifying our defenses in a circular formation was the instruction from the guards’ chief, Jink. Even I, the village chief, have to abide by his orders in such a situation. That is the empire’s law.”

Alice was the one who went speechless this time.

During emergencies, the one who acceded to the sacred task of the guard chief gains a temporary authority to command all residents of a village or town in place of its leader. That provision certainly existed on the empire law of Norlangarth North Empire.

However, the guard chief named Jink was a youngling who only recently inherited his sacred task from his father. It was doubtful he could maintain his composure and assume command under such abnormal circumstances. The pronounced anxiety on Gasupht’s face showed that he, too, thought so inside.

That said, the empire’s laws were absolute to the villagers. She could only have Jink, commanding the defensive line fighting at the north side of the plaza, pull back and change his orders to start the evacuation at once, but there was clearly insufficient time.

What? What could she—

The cry of a young yet resolute voice reached Alice’s ears then, as she stood frozen.

“Let’s do as big sister says, father!!”

Looking back forward with a gasp, she saw a short sister healing the burnt villagers with sacred arts.

“…Selka!”

Thank goddess, she was fine; Alice took a step forward towards her beloved little sister, but Selka stood up and weaved through the crowd to the trio.

After showing a brief smile towards Alice, Selka’s facial expressions immediately tensed up as she spoke to Gasupht.

“Father, have big sister ever been wrong even once? No, even I can tell. At this rate, everyone will die!”

“But… but still…”

Gasupht stammered with a bitter expression. His moustache, stained with white, quivered slightly and his sight wandered futilely through empty space.

Taking the place of the village chief who went speechless, Nygr Barbossa erupted once more in anger.

“This is no place for a child to meddle!! We will protect this village!!”

His two bloodshot eyes stared at the Barbossas’ mansion built near the plaza. What was on Nygr’s mind was unmistakably the mass of wheat just harvested in autumn and the gold coins hoarded over many years.

Returning his sight towards Alice and Selka, the farmer, naturally enough, yelled out shrilly.

“Yes… yes, I’ve got it! You are the one who invited those beasts from the land of darkness to this village, aren’t you, Alice?!! You were defiled by the darkness’s power when you crossed the mountain range at the edge in the past!! You witch… this girl must be a terrible witch!!”

Alice lost her words, jabbed by that fat finger. The clamor from the villagers, the clashes between weapons resounding from the defense line, and the war cries from the monsters closing in from the north all felt far away.

Since she began living in the village’s outskirts, Alice had countlessly fell the forest’s gigantic trees on Nygr’s request. This man had practically writhed to thank her each time. And yet, he could still spew those words as his family’s fortunes occupied his entire time; how could—

Alice averted her eye from the middle-aged man with an expression much like the evil countenance of the orcs and murmured inside.

—How about you deal with it on your own?

—I will simply do as I like. I will take Selka, the elderly Garitta, my parents, and Kirito away from this village and search for a new home somewhere far away.

She grinded her teeth audibly; she lowered her eyelids.

Her stream of thoughts put forth an opposing view.

—But the foolishness Nygr Barbossa and the other villagers displays was created by the rule by the Axiom Church over hundreds of years.

The masses were bound by countless principles and laws under the Taboo Index and while they were granted a tepid peace, something important was steadily stolen from them.

That would be their ability to think, and to fight.

Where had that imperceptible power, plundered from the masses over endless years and months, accumulated?

Within the integrity knights who numbered merely thirty-one.

After she took in a deep breath and let it out, the force Alice’s left eye flashed open with practically made a noise.

Nygr’s face abruptly turned pale, as if from fright, in her sight.

In contrast, Alice felt a mysterious energy overflowing from within. A power like a flame burning blue-white, quiet yet hotter than all other. The power that she thought lost at the end of that battle on the cathedral’s highest floor—one that led Kirito, Eugeo, and Alice to face off the Human World’s mightiest ruler.

Alice took in a deep breath and announced.

“…I will revoke Guard Chief Jink’s order. I shall have every villager gathered in this plaza retreat to the southern forest with those bearing arms at in front.”

Her tone was gentle, but Nygr’s upper body bent back as though hit by some unseen hand. Nonetheless, one could still say his courage was admirable with how he still replied in a quivering tone.

“By… by what right can a girl who was drove away-”

“The authority of a knight.”

“Wha… what knight!? This village has no such sacred task! Even if you can swinging a sword around a little, do you know what will happen should the esteemed knights in the capital hear about you just claiming to be one…?”

Alice gave Nygr, frothing as he continued screaming, a firm look as she gripped her overcoat at her right shoulder with her left hand.

“I am… My name is Alice. Third among the Axiom Church’s integrity knights, overseeing the Centoria City Region, Alice Synthesis Thirty!!”

She tore the overcoat from herself as she loudly announced her name.

The moment the thick cloth her entire frame was clad in was taken off, her golden armor and Fragrant Olive Sword gleamed brightly as they reflected the blazing flames.

“Wha… an, an i-integrity knight…!?”

Nygr fell on his rear while looking upwards as a voice, now completely shrill, leaked from him. Gasupht’s eyes opened wide as well.

Alice’s proclamation of her name could not have been a lie. After all, there could not be any in this world who could pass themselves off as an integrity knight—none who could disobey the authority of the Axiom Church. Kirito and Alice were probably the only two capable of doing so, but it was not as if Alice abandoned her sword, the proof of her knighthood, even after escaping here from the central capital.

The villagers making a din around, too, fell silent. The swords clashing at the defense line in the north as well as the war cries of the guards and goblins, too, felt far away.

What broke that silence first was a whisper from Selka.

“Big… sister…?”

Turning her left eye towards her little sister who had her two hands grasped together before her chest, Alice smiled gently.

“I am sorry for keeping it from you all this time, Selka. This is the real punishment given to me. And—my real duty.”

Tear droplets appeared from Selka’s eyes upon hearing those words.

“Big sister… I…. I always believed in you. That you were never a criminal. You are beautiful… so, very…”

The next to act was Gasupht.

Kneeling down on the stone paving with a firm noise, the village chief shouted with a strained voice while looking downwards.

“Your will shall be done, esteemed integrity knight!!”

Quickly getting up, he turned back to the villagers behind and issued clear instructions.

“Everyone, stand!! Those bearing arms shall lead the way, run to the south gate!! Once you are out of the village, escape to the forest south of the cleared land!!”

An uneasy stir ran through the villagers standing stiffly. But that, too, lasted but a brief moment. The villagers had no option to resist orders from the village chief in the first place; all the more so when it was the will of an integrity knight.

The muscular peasants fortifying the surrounding stood up and urged the women, children, and elderly to stand as well. Alice called to Gasupht who joined in at the head of the pack to stop and spoke in a hushed voice.

“Father, please take care of everyone… of Selka and mother.”

Gasupht’s stern expression quavered for a mere instant and he gave a terse reply.

“……Do take care of yourself too, esteemed knight.”

This father would likely never ever call Alice his daughter again. That, too, was part of her payment for the power she was granted. Carving that into her heart, Alice pushed Selka’s back and made her go along with Gasupht.

“Big sister… don’t work yourself too hard, please.”

Alice smiled as she nodded to her little sister whose eyes were still watery, and then turned towards the north. The villagers moved off as one behind her.

“Ah… aah… m-my mansion…”

That pathetic moan came from Nygr Barbossa whose rear was still on the ground. His gaze flickered between the villagers running off and his mansion where the flames were closing in towards. Deciding to leave him alone, she focused on the overall state of the village.

She did succeed in setting the villagers into action, but they still numbered three hundred. It would take time for them all to escape from the village. But the defense line was reaching the end of its rope and besides, the enemy’s footsteps approached from the east and west too.

A young man’s shout, much like a scream, rang out from the north side of the plaza then.

“We can’t hold on any longer! Retreat! Retrea—at!!”

The voice belonged to Guard Chief Jink. Nygr stood up upon hearing that, as though revitalized, and flared up Alice.

“Look… just look at that! We should have stayed in the plaza and defended! We will get killed! They will murder all of uss!!”

Alice shrugged her shoulder and refuted calmly.

“No need to worry; there is all this space. I will hold them back here.”

“As if you can! You can’t possibly do it, not a chance! Even if… even if you are really an integrity knight, what can you do alone against so many of those demons?!!”

Nygr still continued crying out despite the goblins’ horrifying silhouettes already pressing in from the east and west. Ignoring him yet again, Alice glanced behind. The last of the villagers were still in the plaza, though enough of a distance from Alice and the rest in the center.

Alice gripped Nygr firmly from his nape and pushed him towards the south. That hand thrust straight into the night sky and she called her beloved dragon’s name out loud.

“Amayori!”

A mighty roar immediately returned from the skies. Swinging her raised right hand down from the west to the east, she then shouted.

“—Burn them to ashes!!”

The noise of flapping wings poured down like a storm and Nygr, standing still, along with the grotesque demi-humans charging into the plaza—the goblins—looked straight up at the same time.

The gigantic flying dragon diving through the skies, dyed red by flames, opened its jaw wide. A bluish-white gleam flickered from deep in its throat—

Shubaa!!

That resounded as a glaring light came forth. The heat ray that made contact with the west streets mowed down the east streets as well, cutting through before Alice and Barbossa’s eyes as they stood on the southern side of the plaza.

Time stopped briefly.

Terrible flames swelled up along a line and freed themselves into the night skies. The goblins swallowed up were blasted up high with shrill screams.

The heat ray that instantaneously slaughtered over twenty of the aggressors while vaporizing the fountain in the middle of the plaza and thick white smoke rolled out into the surroundings. Amayori flew off, skimming atop it, and Alice called out instructions to standby before glancing her eye behind.

Nygr collapsed back onto the stove paving, perhaps due to the strength in his waist leaving him, with his two eyes peeled.

“Wha… whaa… a…. a, a d-dragon…!?”

Alice was wondering what happened to the middle-aged man whose slackened cheeks went into spasm before desperate footsteps approached from beyond the hanging steam. The ones who appeared, all clad in leather armor, were the men from Rulid’s guard corps. The decision to beat a hasty retreat was a good call as their condition showed; despite suffering slight wounds, none were hurt badly among the several tens of guards.

A young man with a large frame who admirably ran at their end—Guard Chief Jink—noticed the plaza was mostly empty and shouted with a shocked face.

“W-Where have everyone from the village went!? Didn’t I tell them to fortify their defenses here!?”

“I had them retreat to the southern forest.”

Alice answered and he blinked as though just noticing her existence. His sight shifted between her head and feet countless time as he spoke, dumbfounded.

“You… Alice…? Why are you…?”

“There is no time to explain. Is this all of the guards? Are there any left behind?”

“Ah… yes, I believe so…”

“Then please escape along with everyone. Aah, and take Barbossa there with you.”

“B-But… they are right behind……”

Before his words finished—

“Gihii——!!”

A vulgar roar rang through the entire plaza.

“Wheree!! Where did you go, white iumss!!”

The ones who broke through the thick fog as they rushed into the plaza were goblins clad in coarse plate armor with long feathers on their heads, holding machetes similar to lumps of metal in their right hands. These seemed of a different tribe, having a slightly better physique when compared to those who appeared from the side streets earlier and were incinerated by Amayori’s flames.

Alice stared at the demi-humans as she placed her right hand on her cherished sword’s grip. Flying dragons could not fire their heat rays in succession. Alice had to face the enemy on her own until Amayori stockpiled the thermal elements within herself again.

One of the goblins noticed Alice who was clad in golden armor, and the colors of bloodthirstiness and lust welled up in his eyes shining golden as he cried out.

“Gihii!! A ium giirl! Kill heer! Kill her and eat heer!!”

Quietly taking on the demi-human who charged straight towards her while brandishing a machete with his abnormally long arm, Alice murmured deep in her chest.

—What a terrible power I was given. My very existence is practically a sin.

This body of an integrity knight.

“Gyaa——!!”

The heavy machete swung down as he leapt and was caught by Alice who carelessly extended her left hand. Though she felt an immense impact through her naked palm, it neither broke her bones nor tore her skin. Gripping the blunt blade with her five fingers, she crushed it as though it was nothing more than thin ice.

Even before the metallic fragments, broken and scattered far too easily, fell to the ground, the Fragrant Olive Sword was already drawn by her right hand and tore a horizontal line through the goblin’s torso.

The bright golden air from the sword swept in three goblins approaching from behind and blew away the cluster of dense vapor as well in no time at all. The four enemy soldiers’ golden eyeballs were peeled open, as though unaware of what had occurred, while their upper body left their lower body before they could let out a single word, collapsing haphazardly onto the ground.

Avoiding the blood that shot up a moment later, she muttered to herself within once more.

—Highest Minister Administrator. You were wrong, after all.

—You collected all this power into merely thirty integrity knights and made them puppets without a will of their own. You thought to grasp all of the power that should had been split between the masses of the Human World through that. However, this far too ill-distributed strength served only to delude and mislead both its owners and those around them. Like how you were swallowed by that overwhelming might and lost your humanity…

That mistake was now beyond redemption with the loss of the highest minister.

Thus, at the very least, she had to expend every last drop of this strength for the masses.

Not as an integrity knight of the Axiom Church, but as a single swordswoman; she had to think on her own and fight on her own will. Like how those two brave swordsmen did.

Her left eye was shut throughout that swing; Alice opened it with resolve.

At the same time, the defense line hastily built at the plaza’s north was smashed into small pieces from the other side.

The invaders’ main unit charged in as though to bury the wide main streets. The goblins numbered over fifty and were accompanied, though in lesser numbers, by orcs whose giant, plump frames were covered in thick iron armor, each with a trident in a hand.

Upon seeing them whose golden eyes gleamed, aflame, and roars filled with hate and desire, moans of despair leaked from Jink, the other guards, and Nygr Barbossa.

But Alice’s heart was at ease.

She relied not on the talent for battle she obtained as an integrity knight. Not even a knight could escape with light wounds if they were to surround by such numbers and stabbed by their spears.

What gave Alice strength was a new realization.

—I will fight for what I, myself, seek for from now on. I will fight to protect my little sister and my parents, along with the people of the Human World who Kirito and Eugeo hoped to protect.

Alice vividly felt the remaining doubts about herself and her sense of futility disappear into a white light deep in her heart. That light surged through her, finally accumulating at her right eye, covered by that black patch, and generating an intense heat.

“………!”

She clenched her teeth as she withstood a fierce pain that shot to her eye socket from the back of her head. But that pain somehow nostalgic, or heartrending. Alice gripped the bandage across her head with her left hand and took it off all at once.

Her right eyelid that had been closed since that day nearly half a year ago opened slowly. A red light expanded from the center of her dark vision and eventually turned into flicking flames. Visions of houses lit aflame overlapped and gradually closed in on each other—finally finishing as one.

Alice looked at the black cloth held in her left hand with both eyes.

Kirito made the eye patch, discolored from being washed many times, by tearing it from his clothes. The cloth that protected her for months ever since her right eye shot away along with that seal might have finally reached the end of its Life here as it began to disappear from its edges as melting into the air. Alice came to a realization while staring at that fleeting, beautiful sight.

She thought she was looking after Kirito who had lost his right arm and heart through this half-year. However, she was actually the one protected instead.

“…Thank you, Kirito.”

Pressing the black cloth to her lips immediately before it utterly vanished, she whispered softly.

“…I am fine now. I will likely still be at a loss, worry, and lose heart in the future… but I will go on. For us both to achieve our goal.”

Her head flipped up just as the cloth disintegrated.

Her two eyes gazed at the distinct sight of nearly a hundred goblins and orcs letting out a multitude of roars as they flooded forward. The fleeing footsteps from the guards and Nygr Barbossa echoed from behind.

There was no fear in Alice’s heart as she faced the enemy army on her own.

Breathing the burnt stench deeply, she yelled.

“—I am a knight of the Human World, Alice!! None of the blood or slaughter you seek shall happen while I stand here!! Return to your land through the caves you came from this instant!!”

As though awed by her refined, distinct shout, the goblins running at the head slackened slightly. However, a large orc in the middle of the group, possibly the general, immediately brandished his two-handed axe with a brutal roar.

“Graaahh!! «Cut-Feet Moricca» here will have that one little white ium girl on her knees before long!!”

The voice gave strength to the goblins. Alice put a decent amount of distance between her and the enemy army charging in as a massive black wave—

“Amayori!”

A huge shadow rapidly dived from the skies the moment she called out that name. Though the thermal elements accumulated were not enough for firing the heat ray yet, the flying dragon intimidated the demi-humans with her body and thunderous call while savagely skimming past their heads. The anxiety of the astonished enemy army rose beyond earlier.

Not letting that chance escape, Alice raised the Fragrant Olive Sword held in her right up high and shouted.

—Enhance armament!!

It was half a year since she last chanted those words of the «armament full control art», not to mention how she shortened the main body of the art, but Alice’s beloved sword responded to her will. The golden blade divided into countless small edges with a clear metallic noise and soared into the night sky while reflecting the fires’ glow.

“Rage—flowers!”

The golden storm of flowers fell upon the enemy army with numerous zaas.

The first to be wrapped in a spray of blood was the orc general who called himself Moricca. His entire body was stabbed through by many petals, instantly robbing him of his Life, and he fell onto the ground with a tremor. The orcs around him, too, bent down onto the ground with screams one after another.

The Fragrant Olive Sword was a sacred tool among sacred tools with the world’s oldest tree rooted to the core of the Human World before the world began as its source. As its alternate name, «Eternal Immortality», implied, even when divided into hundreds of flower petals through its armament full control art, each held a priority on par with famous swords forged by artisans. Coarse cast iron armor could not possibly defend against them.

The invaders became restless at losing their main force, including their general, in an instant. The charge’s momentum weakened before long and came to a stop around ten mel from the plaza.

Alice sharply swung her right hand that held her sword’s grip at the goblins lined up at the front, lost at whether to obey their greed or fear. The hundreds of petals danced through the air with light zaas, forming dense vertical stripes between Alice and the enemy army.

Alice gave a subdued proclamation while gazing at the demi-humans through the fence gleaming golden.

“This is the wall separating the Human World and the Land of Darkness. Even if you dig through the caves, you will not defile this earth as long as we knights live. Choose—to advance and fall into a sea of blood, or to retreat and flee back to the Land of Darkness!!”

Not even five seconds passed before the goblin vanguards turned back with great force.

 
3

A vibrant ensemble of hammers whirled up into the clear, blue winter sky.

Alice lifted her hand to her brow and looked at circular Rulid Village towering beyond the wheat fields.

Today marked a quick one week since the army of darkness’s assault.

Many of the houses built in the north of the village were burnt down, but with the village chief’s decision to put nearly every villager’s sacred task on hold to work on that, the progress of their reconstruction was rapid. Twenty-one of them had unfortunately escaped too late and lost their lives, and a joint funeral service was held for them at the church three days earlier.

After attending the service as she was requested to, Alice rode her flying dragon to the northern cave to confirm its status.

The long cave that should had been collapsed on Bercouli’s orders was dug out to such an extent that even the orcs’ giant frames could easily pass through and the area closest to the Dark Territory showed signs they camped over many nights.

The attackers did not hollow out the cave in a single night. They must have repeatedly collapsed the entrance after sending into a party of combat engineers from the Dark Territory. Thus, there would have already been a concealed group of goblins within, steadily working at it, when Integrity Knight Eldrie checked the entrance.

Care and wariness unbelievable from the goblins and orcs of old. This invasion could be surmised to be no mere reconnaissance, like those done many times before, by that alone.

Instead of collapsing the cave once again, Alice dammed the small river flowing from middle which previously served as a white dragon’s nest for a time and completely flooded the interior of the cave. Next unleashing the countless cryogenic elements she generated beforehand, she sealed the cave with ice rather than stone.

Now, no one could pass the cave without an art user on par with Alice generating thermal elements to melt the ice.

Taking her sight off Rulid Village and the white mountain range at the edge rising beyond it, Alice fastened the last bag of her belongings to Amayori’s left leg.

“Erm… big sister.”

Selka, who had been helping out with her preparations for departure with an adamant smile so far, opened her mouth while looking downwards.

“…Father actually wanted to see you off too. He was all absent-minded since today morning, you know? …I believe he must have been glad inside that you came back, big sister. I want you to believe in that at least.”

“I know, Selka.”

Alice hugged her little sister’s petite body and whispered in return.

“I left this village as a heinous criminal and returned as an integrity knight. But next time… when I am done with all my duties, I will be back as simply Alice Schuberg. That would be when I truly can say this. I am back, father.

“…Okay. That day will come for sure, right?”

Selka murmured with a watery voice, raised her face, and then wiped it with the cuff of her apprentice clothes.

Turning about, she called out to the black-haired young man sitting on a wheelchair by the side with as cheery a voice as she could muster.

“You stay well too, Kirito. Hurry up and recover and help big sister out, you hear me?”

Holding his lowered head with both hands, the sister, young in terms of age, drew a charm of blessing before she took several steps back.

Alice approached Kirito, then gently took the two swords from under his arm and stored them in the bag placed on the saddle on Amayori. Following that, she lifted Kirito, who had grown thin, easily and sat him down on the front part of the saddle.

She did ponder leaving Kirito in the village under Selka’s care. After all, if they were to proceed to the Great East Gate which would likely become the decisive battlegrounds against the forces of darkness, Alice would be occupied as a member of the Human World Defense Army and unable to attend to Kirito throughout the day like what she had been doing.

But still, she decided to bring him along.

Kirito definitely tried to take up his sword and head for the village on the night of the attack a week ago. The will to fight for another still remained within Kirito. Thus, the battlegrounds to protect the Human World could be where best to find the means to regain his former spirit.

Should the need arise, she would protect him even if it required her to strap him to her back with leather.

Alice gave her little sister whom she held dear one last firm embrace.

“…I will be going, then, Selka.”

“Yes. Take care… and be sure to come back, big sister.”

“I promise. …Please give my regards to Garitta-san too. …Stay well and focus on your studies.”

“I know. I’ll become a fine sister for sure… and one day, I’ll also…”

Selka trailed off there and showed a disheveled, tearful smile.

Gently stroking her little sister’s head before releasing her, Alice endured her reluctance to leave as she walked to her beloved dragon and rode immediately behind where Kirito sat on the saddle.

She nodded to her little sister on the ground and faced the blue skies.

The reins lightly rang out and the dragon began her ground run between the wheat fields with strength that showed no sign of the two humans and three swords weighing her down.

She would definitely return to this village one day.

Even if she were to fall on the battlefield, her spirit would still return; it surely would.

Alice shook off a drop of tear in her eyelashes and yelled out in a crisp voice.

“…Hah!”

Softly.

The sensation of floating came as they left the ground.

Having grasped an updraft, Amayori circled as she dashed into the sky.

The vast fields and forests; Rulid Village in their middle with a brand new roof gleaming at its core; Selka waving both hands as she earnestly ran; she burnt the sight of them all into her eyelids—

Alice had the flying dragon turn its head towards the eastern skies.