Sword Art Online:Volume 4 Chapter 7
Out in the garden, a thin layer of snow still covered the ground, and the cold air wrapped around my body. Even so, the residual drowsiness would not leave my mind.
I shook my head a few times and then headed to the washstand in the corner of the garden. I twisted the antique silver faucet and placed my hands in the cascading water.
I threw some ice-cold water onto my face, and my facial nerves immediately winced with a numbing pain, and I marveled that the water hadn't frozen. Ignoring the pain, I splashed water on my face two or three more times, then took a sip of water directly from the tap.
As I wiped my face with the towel hanging around my neck, the sliding glass door into the porch opened and Suguha came down the stairs wearing her jersey. Usually, she was very energetic in the morning, but today was a rare day, she was only half-awake with her head wobbling.
"Good morning, Sugu."
Hearing the sound of my voice, Suguha unsteadily walked in front of me, blinked, and said:
"Good morning, onii-chan."
"You seem awfully sleepy. When did you go to bed yesterday?"
"Well, about four o'clock."
More than a little surprised, I shook my head.
"This is not good at all, a child shouldn't stay up so late. What were you doing?"
"Well... I was on the net..."
The answer surprised me a little. If it was the old Suguha, I could not imagine her staying up on the net so late. This girl... she has grown up quite well in the past two years that I wasn't here, I thought with a pang of emotion.
"As long as it is in moderation— Not that I'm someone with the right to say that..."
My voice sounded vague as I said the last part, and suddenly I remembered something that happened last night, and so I said:
"Hey Sugu, turn around."
Still only half-awake and tilting her head at my request, Suguha turned half way around. I put my right hand under the faucet and thoroughly wet my hand, then I pulled down the neck of her jersey and let at least half a dozen drops of cryogenic temperature water drip down her back.
Suguha jumped and let loose a scream that echoed grandly.
Suguha kept pouting during stretching and exercising, but I promised to take her to a nearby family restaurant to eat an expensive raspberry cream parfait, and she easily recovered her good humor.
Today, since we had both overslept, by the time we had finished training and took turns showering, it was already nine o'clock. Our mother was, as usual, still sleeping deeply in her bedroom, so Suguha and I made breakfast together.
As I washed some tomatoes and cut them into six equal parts, she chopped up a head of lettuce, Suguha then looked at me and asked:
"Onii-chan, what are you planning to do today?"
"Well, I have a promise to keep a little after noon, but I think I'll go visit the hospital this morning."
Since I became aware of Asuna's situation, visiting the hospital every other day had become my most important habit.
In the real world, I'm only 16 years old, and there was little I could do for Asuna. No, one could say I couldn't do anything at all. All I could do was hold her hand and continue to pray.
The photos I received from Agil surfaced in my mind.
After finding a clue, I stepped into the imaginary world of ALfheim and after two days, finally arrived near the location in the photo, even if there was no evidence that it was Asuna. I might just be looking in the totally wrong direction.
But in that world I will find something— that I'm positive.
Sugou wished for Asuna to sleep forever, and ALfheim Online is administered by the company under that guy's control. The character data of «Kirito» existing in that world, and the presence of the SAO mental care AI, «Yui»... I did not yet understand what kind of puzzle those pieces would build.
I intended to breakthrough the final challenge of that fairy land and climb the «World Tree» today, as soon as the ALO server maintenance was complete. Every time I thought about it, my back trembled in anticipation. It didn't seem like I would be able to quietly endure waiting for the maintenance to end just sitting in my room, asking myself if I was following the correct path or not.
That's why, before that I would like to see the real Asuna again and feel her warmth. Sugou may have told me to not go back and see her, but he basically can't do anything about me visiting anyway.
With the cut tomatoes, lettuce and watercress mixed in a bowl, I sprinkled it with dressing and stirred. Beside me, Suguha, who had been silent for a while, looked up and opened her mouth to ask:
"Say, onii-chan. Can I go with you to the hospital...?"
I was a little bewildered. Thus far Suguha had never bothered to learn about anything regarding SAO. I had told her about who Asuna is before, but other than that I hadn't told her my character name or anything else.
Last night, overwhelmed after learning of Asuna's marriage to Sugou, I had burst into tears in front of Suguha. Although I still felt a little awkward, I nodded with a calm expression.
"Oh.. sure. Asuna would be very happy about that."
After hearing this, Suguha smiled and nodded. I don't know why, but it seemed that her smiling face also contained a hint of sadness as I looked into her eyes. But Suguha turned around, took the bowl and walked to the kitchen table.
After that she did not show any strange looks, and I soon forgot about that awkward smile.
"Onii-chan, what are you going to do about school?"
Suguha inquired while sitting on the opposite side of the table from me, noisily chewing the crisp, raw vegetables.
That was a reasonable question. I was fourteen and in the autumn of my second-year of junior high school when I was trapped inside SAO. Escaping after two years, I was now sixteen years old. I should have been a second-year high school student as of April this year, but I didn't take the entrance exams. Even if I took the exams now, the majority of my memory had been devoted to the enormous amount of SAO-related data. To forget the price of items and the attack patterns of monsters, then memorize History and English would take a long time.
On this point, a man in a suit and tie with glasses from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications came and spoke to me. My mind had been preoccupied with thoughts of Asuna, and did not pay much attention, but despite that I somehow recalled what he said.
"There seems to be... plans to take a school building that had been abandoned due to unification and reorganization, then transform it into a temporary school, specializing in teaching the middle and high school students that returned from SAO. Everyone is accepted without an entrance examination and will be eligible to take the entrance examinations for university when we graduate."
"Oh, I see. That is good to hear... I guess ..."
Suguha smiled, but then she frowned, and in a low voice said:
"...It feels like that is, too much wholesale support..."
"Oh, your intuition is good."
I grinned at the words of my younger sister.
"I think the government's goal is just that. After all we have spent the past two years in a brutal game of death. The bureaucrats are probably worried about how our mental health has been affected. So they are throwing us all together, that way they can manage us all in one place, giving them some peace of mind."
Suguha's face distorted in irritation, so I hastily added:
"However, despite the management, I have to thank them for the safety net. Even if I want to take the entrance examination for a normal high school, I'd have to cram for a year. Of course, it is not compulsory for us to go to this temporary school, we can select to study for exams ourselves if we want to."
"You could do just that, Onii-chan's marks are good."
"That should be past tense, I haven't studied for two years."
"Then I'll tutor you!"
"Oh, then can I ask you for help with mathematics and information processing?"
Grinning at Suguha, who seemed to be at a loss for words, I stuffed a piece of buttered toast into my mouth.
Actually, I was in no state of mind to be thinking about school at the moment. There was still Asuna's situation to consider, at the same time I had no real feeling about being a student.
In the two months since I returned to the real world, I've felt uneasy without the two beloved swords on my back. I understood that this was the real world, there are no monsters which want to attack me and take my life, but I still felt uneasy. The essence of me, the «Swordsman Kirito», going to school and attending classes as «Kirigaya Kazuto», which still feels like something of a illusory existence.
That was, in my heart Sword Art Online hadn't really ended yet. Until Asuna had returned to this world, I couldn't put down my sword. After I returned her to this world— then everything could start.
Paying for the tickets using my cell phone, Suguha and I took the bus today. In the past I had always ridden my bike to the hospital, but I decided to take a little break from stamina training today.
Looking up at the hospital, Suguha's eyes widened and she blinked in surprise.
"Uwaa, it's a big hospital."
"The inside is amazing too, it's equivalent to a hotel."
Waving to the guard, Suguha and I went through the front gate. After walking a few minutes on the path that was surprisingly long by foot, we stepped into the huge, dark brown building. As Suguha seemed to have heaven-sent good health, visiting a hospital at all was rare for her, so she looked around everywhere. I had to pull her by the collar to get to the reception desk so I could ask for some passes. Riding the elevator to the top, we came out into a corridor with very few visitors.
I nodded my head, inserting the pass card into the slot on the door. Looking at the metal plate next to the door, Suguha muttered:
"Yuuki... Asuna-san... her character name is her real name. You rarely see that kind of person."
"Oh, you know a lot. As far as I know, Asuna is the only person who used her real name..."
While we spoke, I slid the card into the slot. The orange LED light turned blue, and with a discrete sound the door opened.
A strong scented aroma drifted out from the flowers inside. Holding even the sound of my breathing, I stepped into the sleeping princess' peaceful bedroom. Suguha stuck to me as we walked in, and I could feel her tension.
Reaching for the white curtain, I, as usual, uttered a short prayer.
Then gently pulled it open.
Forgetting to breathe, Suguha looked at the girl asleep on the large bed.
At first, she thought the girl was not a human, but a fairy— the legendary ALF living at the top of the World Tree. The girl had such an otherworldly atmosphere.
Kazuto stood quietly for a time, then finally breathed out a low sigh and said:
"I shall introduce you. She is Asuna... the sub-leader of the «Knights of Blood», Asuna the «Flash», whose sword speed and accuracy were even greater than mine..."
After a little break in his speech, Kazuto lowered his eye to the girl and said:
"Asuna, this is my sister, Suguha."
Suguha walked forward a bit, then nervously said:
"...It is nice to meet you, Asuna-san."
Of course, the sleeping girl did not answer.
Suguha moved her eyes to the dark blue headgear on her head. After seeing it nearly everyday, she had come to hate the «Nerve Gear». Only the three green lights indicated the continued existence of the girl, Asuna's consciousness.
While Onii-chan was trapped in that game for two years, she had felt immense pain, and Kazuto was feeling the same right then. Suguha's heart trembled like a tree leaf on the surface of the water as she thought that.
This beautiful, fairy-like girl's soul, was locked up in an unknown world somewhere. It was too cruel. We should return her as fast as possible to the real world, back to Kazuto's side, and he would finally be able to regain his sincere smile, she thought.
But at the same time, standing next to Kazuto; his face, silently staring at the girl, was something she didn't want to see, so she silently looked down. Just a little bit, she regretted coming to this place.
When she had offered to accompany Kazuto, she thought she would be able to properly confirm her feelings today.
Since the time her mother, Midori, told her the truth, she wanted to put straight those two years of regret and longing-filled days. Was it the affection for Kazuto as an older brother or would it be falling in love with him as a cousin? She had been asking herself what she could expect from Kazuto.
Always wanting to be together— like the good relationship between siblings. Was it really only that? Training and eating together, was there anything else she wanted beyond that, or should she say there was nothing in her heart and stop there?
Since he came back two months ago, that is a question she has asked herself time and again.
She thought the answer would appear if she encountered the «girlfriend» occupying his heart.
Now, standing in silence in the golden room, she noticed her heart was afraid. It was scary to find out the answer.
Not looking at Kazuto's face, she opened her mouth wanting to say : 'I will go out to the hall so I won't disturb you' but Kazuto suddenly started walking and her timing was lost. He went around the bed and sat down in a chair at the other side. Naturally, he came into her field of view.
Kazuto took Asuna's small hand which peeked out from under white sheets in both of his hands, and silently gazed at the face of the sleeping girl. And as soon as Suguha saw his face—
A scathing pain pierced deep into her chest.
What kind of eyes were those, she thought. They were the eyes of a traveler that sought his eternally fated partner... No matter how long it took, in this life or the next, no matter how many times he was reincarnated. Eyes filled with such a gentle, calm light, containing within them a crazed feeling of love. Even their color seemed different than usual.
At that moment, Suguha knew what her heart truly wanted, and at the same time, she understood that she would never be able to reach it.
She didn't remember what she talked to Kazuto about on the way home.
When she came back to awareness, she was lying down on her bed, looking at the sky-blue poster on the ceiling.
The cell phone on her headboard made a sound. Instead of a ringtone, it was the alarm she had set before going to sleep last night. The time after the regular server maintenance was complete, 3:00 pm, and the gate to that other world opened once again.
She did not want to shed any tears in the real world. If she cried, conversely it would mean she couldn't give up, she thought.
She would let herself cry a little bit in fairyland. Then, as the cheerful Lyfa, she would quickly regain her laugh.
Suguha shut off her alarm and picked up the Amusphere next to it. She placed it on her head, laid down on her bed, closed her eyes, and let her soul fly.
The Sylph girl awoke in an inn at the outer edge of Alfheim's capital city «Aarun».
Last night— the early hours of today, to be exact, Lyfa had barely succeeded in escaping from the underground world, Jötunheimr. Carved into the roots of the World tree was a very long set of stairs. Climbing up those stairs, they had finally reached the long-awaited streets of Aarun. A few seconds after emerging from those stairs, the big hole behind them had closed and you couldn't even tell that it existed, and it wouldn't be opened again from this side.
After that, they checked into the first inn they found, and, rubbing her eyes, Lyfa fell asleep the second she rolled into bed. Though they could only afford one room.
Lyfa got up and sat on the edge of the bed. The noise of the city, the smell of the air, even the color of her skin had changed, the only thing that didn't change was the pain piercing her heart. As if changing form, the pain gathered at the corner of her eyes and dripped out as tears.
A few dozen seconds later, the shadow of a new person appeared along with cool sound effects. Lyfa slowly raised her head.
The boy wearing only black watched Lyfa with wide eyes, but immediately spoke in a soft voice.
"What's wrong... Lyfa?"
He seemed so much like Kazuto, with a gentle smile like a night breeze. Seeing his face, a trickle of tears fell down Lyfa's face and became grains of light, dancing through the air. Lyfa managed to squeeze out a smile and said:
"You know, Kirito-kun... I... I was rejected in love."
Kirito's dark eyes were looking straight at Lyfa. Fairly mature in appearance, for an instant she was tempted to tell this mysterious boy the entire story, but clenched her teeth and throttled down the impulse.
"S... sorry, saying strange things to a person I just met. It's against the rules right, bringing problems here from the real world..."
Lyfa said quickly, trying to keep the shape of her smile. However, the tears which streamed down her face wouldn't stop at all.
Kirito gently extended his left arm, and placed his thin gloved hand on her head. Twice, three times he moved his caring hand.
"—On the other side, or here, in the hard times, it is good to cry. Just because this is a game, there is no rule forbidding you to express your emotions."
In this illusion world, there is always some clumsiness in moving or speaking. However, Kirito's soft, rhythmic voice and the movements of the hand that patted her head were very smooth. That information slowly wrapped around Lyfa's sensory nerves without anything hindering the flow.
Whispering that, Lyfa lay her head on the chest of the youth sitting beside her. As her steady tears fall onto Kirito's clothes, they dissipated in a watery light.
'- I love onii-chan.'
As if to confirm it, deep in her chest came a whisper. However, it continued at once.
'- This feeling must never pass my lips. It must be locked very deep in my chest. So that someday it would be forgotten.'
Even if they were cousins, Kazuto and Suguha were raised as big brother and sister. If she showed her emotions, Kazuto, father, and mother would all be confused and troubled. More importantly, the only one in Kazuto's heart is that beautiful person...
I must forget it all.
Changing herself to Lyfa, laying her head on the chest of that mysterious youth, someday she might be able to do it, she thought.
Staying like that for a very long time, Kirito continued to pat Lyfa's head without saying anything.
Hearing a bell sound coming from far outside the window, Lyfa lifted her head and looked at Kirito's face. This time she could make the same everyday smile. Before she realized it, her tears had stopped.
"...I'm all right now. Thank you, Kirito-kun, you are very kind."
Hearing this, Kirito scratched his head, looking really embarrassed.
"A lot of people said the opposite. —Do you want to log out for today? I was thinking of doing something even by myself."
"No, I have already come this far, so I'll accompany you to the end."
Lyfa jumped off the bed and stood up. Turned a half circle, she faced Kirito and stretched out her right hand.
With a smile beginning at the edge of his lips, Kirito nodded and grasped Lyfa`s hand. Standing up, he suddenly started scanning the sky, as though he had forgotten something.
"Yui, are you there?"
Before that sentence was finished, light started to converge, and a familiar small pixie's figure appeared in the space between them. Rubbing her eyes with her right hand, she stretched in a big yawn.
"Fuwaa~~ Good morning Papa, Lyfa-san."
The pixie landed on Kirito`s shoulder. While looking at her face, Lyfa returned the greeting and asked a question.
"Good morning, Yui-chan. —You know, I have been wondering since yesterday... do navigation pixies actually need to sleep at night too?"
"No way, I don't do that. When papa is not here, the input signal is cut off. So I take that opportunity to verify and organize the accumulated data. You might say that it's an act similar to human sleep."
"But just now, you yawned..."
"Isn't that what people do during their start-up sequence? As for papa, the average is around eight seconds..."
"You don't need to say such strange things."
Kirito poked Yui on the forehead with his index finger, then bringing up the navigation window, equipped the greatsword on his back.
"Now, let's go!"
Lyfa nodded, and hung her own katana at her waist.
The two headed out of the inn with the morning sun fully in the sky. The NPC run shops, like the armor and item shops, were mostly open, while night places like taverns, strange item shops and other questionable industries had a 'CLOSED' sign in front.
In real world time, it was a bit after 3pm on a weekday afternoon. After the regular weekly maintenance, the monsters and items reset and respawn, so there were far more players than expected.
Although this morning she was sleepy so she didn't look around too much, but now, looking at the large number of people out on the street was a fresh surprise.
There was a Gnome with a squat, beefy body wrapped in metal armor, carrying a huge battle axe on his back. A Puca with a little body, only standing as tall as her waist, holding a silver harp. An Imp with dark lilac skin, wearing leather armor, while walking and happily chatting with characters of various races. On a stone bench nearby, a blue-haired young man of the Undine race and a red-headed young woman of the Salamander race were looking at each other intimately, while a Cait Sith passed by with a huge wolf by his side.
Instead of the totally green cityscape of Sylvain, this was extremely bright and colorful scenery, full of vitality which set the heart ablaze. Lyfa somehow forgot the constant pain deep in her heart and had a smile floating on her face.
Even a Spriggan-Sylph couple would fit in here— thinking of that Lyfa hurried to dispel the idea. Turning her attention toward the street again—
But, suddenly there was an incredible view.
Aarun was the central city of ALfheim, and from its center rose a super huge conical structure. Looking at Aarun like a panorama, it had the shape of many concentric rings, and they were still considerably far from the center.
Standing tall on the surface of Aarun's streets were some structures that were not made with light gray stone. Instead, many huge moss-green cylinders wound upward. The diameter of one of those was equivalent to a two-story building.
The cylindrical objects Aarun was built around are actually tree roots. From Jötunheimr deep below, they run through the thick ground, winding and twisting up, becoming bigger and gathering at the top of Aarun. In other words, it could be said that Aarun mirrored the gigantic icicle below in Jötunheimr.
Lyfa looked farther up. At that moment she felt excitement running down her back.
Starting from the roots, words could not describe how massive the trunk was, it rose straight into the sky. Covered by moss and other plants, a glossy golden green trunk, which as it rose into the sky blended and faded into light blue. Around the trunk, laid a white haze which surrounded it before long. It was not fog, but clouds. They were marking the flight boundary, but the trunk continued higher and higher.
Just below the point where the trunk faded into the sky, you could somehow grasp that branches radiate outward. Thin and broad leaves covered the outer layer to where Lyfa was at as they blocked the sky. From its excessive size, the top of the world tree might have actually extended past the atmosphere of ALfheim to space —if that existed— and beyond.
"That is... the World Tree..."
Kirito whispered in an awestruck voice.
"Isn't there a city in the tree, there..."
"The fairy king Oberon and light fairy ALF lives there, and the first player race to have an audience with the king will become an ALF... That has been said."
Kirito looked at the giant tree in silence, then with a serious expression asked:
"That tree, can you climb up from the outside?"
"The area around the trunk is a restricted area, so climbing it is not possible. Even flight is impossible, you would hit the flight limit before you reached the top."
"I heard that people who piggybacked were able to exceed that limit..."
"Oh, that story."
Lyfa laughed and continued:
"They got close to the lowest branch. The GMs were in a panic, and it was soon fixed. Now, a little bit above those clouds, there is a wall."
"...I see... Anyway, let's go to the base of the tree."
With a light nod the two began to walk down the main street.
After a few minutes of weaving back and forth through the mixed groups of players, they came to a grand stone stairway leading up to a large gate. Through the gate lies the central city of Aarun, which lies in the center of the world. Soaring into the sky, the World Tree could only be seen as a wall in all directions.
While faced with that atmosphere, they began to climb the stairs. They were going to pass the gate when—
Yui suddenly pushed her face out of Kirito's breast pocket, and with an unusually serious face looked at the sky.
"Oh, hey... what's wrong?"
Kirito whispered to avoid notice by the people surrounding them. Lyfa also looked at the pixie's face. However, Yui remained silent with her eyes wide open looking at the top of the world tree. After a few seconds, her voice finally leaked through tight lips.
"Mama... Mama is there."
Kirito's expression instantly stiffened.
"There is no doubt! This Player ID is Mama's... the coordinates are straight above!"
Kirito, who heard those words, looked into the sky with burning eyes. His face became white and he clenched his teeth so hard you could even hear them grinding—
Suddenly, he expanded his wings. Flexing his dark gray wings, which suddenly glowed incandescent, Bang!! With that explosive wind sound, he disappeared from the ground.
"Wa... Wait, Kirito-kun!!"
Lyfa hurriedly cried, but the boy in black continued to soar at tremendous speed. Unsure what was going on, Lyfa spread her wings and kicked off the ground.
Straight up zoom, the same as straight down dive, are skills Lyfa excelled at, but she could not catch up to Kirito as he flew like a booster rocket, the black figure shrinking to a point as she watched.
Passing between the countless spires rising from Aarun, it took a few seconds to escape the city. From tower terraces, some players looked to see what was happening, Kirito just flew past their noses and kept heading straight up.
The buildings were finally lost to sight, replaced by the golden-green precipice of the World Tree's trunk. Flying parallel to the trunk, Kirito was like a black bullet zooming through the sky. As Kirito steadily approached the clouds, Lyfa followed and desperately cried out while enduring the wind pressure.
"Be careful, Kirito-kun!! The barrier is right in front of you!!"
But Lyfa's voice did not reach his ears. He was like an arrow connecting the heavens and earth, moving with enough speed to punch a hole in the virtual world.
What made him go so far? Who is this person at the top of the World Tree that is so important to him?
Yui called that person «Mama». A woman—? A person that can make Kirito search like this—?
As she thought that, a familiar ache started in Lyfa's heart. It felt like the pain Kazuto had caused her, but it was a false pain.
Concentration disrupted by confusion, her zoom speed dropped. Shaking off the idle thoughts, Lyfa focused her concentration on her wings.
A few seconds after Kirito, Lyfa also broke into the sea of clouds. Her vision was stained with an intense white. She had heard of it before, just beyond the clouds was a restricted area where entry is forbidden. Lyfa slowed down a bit as she passed through the clouds.
Without any warning, a dark blue world spread out before her. Different from the view from the ground, the totally clear azure blue sky spread endlessly in all directions. Overhead, the World Tree and its branches gave the impression of a pillar supporting the heavens. Kirito was accelerating further as he aimed for one of the branches—
Suddenly, iridescent rainbow light surrounded his body.
After a few seconds, the air shook with an impact similar to the sound of a lightning bolt. Kirito had crashed into the invisible barrier, and like a black swan hit by a sniper rifle he bounced away and feebly drifted through the air.
Lyfa screamed, hurrying to get over to him. If you fell from this height, your HP would disappear, and the effects could even be dragged into the real world after logout.
But before she could catch Kirito, he seemed to regain consciousness. He shook his head two or three times, once again rising. Immediately, he was blocked by the barrier, scattering light in his attempt.
Finally, Lyfa flew to the same height as Kirito and grabbed his arm, crying desperately:
"Stop, Kirito-kun!! It's impossible to go beyond there!!"
But, Kirito's eyes shining with bewitched light, kept trying to go forward.
"I've got to go.... I've got to go no matter what!!"
He focused only on the point where the branch of the World Tree split the sky. Despite being much clearer than it was from the ground, the branch still seemed to be a good distance away, judging by its low detail.
At that time, Yui flew out of his breast pocket. Emitting brilliant particles of light, she flew toward the branch.
That's right, a system navigation pixie might... Lyfa suddenly thought, but the invisible barrier didn't allow Yui's small body to pass. Like waves on the surface of water, seven-colored lights pushed Yui back.
But, Yui looking unlike a program, desperately shoved her hands into the barrier, then opened her mouth.
"The warning mode voice might be able to get through...! Mama! It's me!! Mama!!"
Suddenly, hearing a faint cry, Asuna lifted her face which she was resting on the table.
Hurriedly looking around the room, there was no one else in the golden cage. Not even the small azure bird that sometimes came to play. Only shadows cast by the sun on the cage lattice.
Dismissing it as imagination, as she put her hands back on the table.
This time she definitely heard it. Asuna kicked the chair away and stood up.
It was a little girl's voice. That thin voice like a silver bell resonated strongly with a far-off memory.
"Yu... Yui-chan, is it you...!?"
Asuna said in a faint voice, rushing to the walls of her cage. Gripping the metal bars with both hands, she looked around frantically.
"Mama... I'm here...!!"
The voice seemed to sound directly in Asuna's mind, giving no indication of direction. But she still felt it. It was from below, no matter how much she looked, the white sea of clouds surrounding the huge tree blocked her vision, the sound was no doubt coming from below.
"I'm... I'm here...!!"
Asuna cried as loud as she could.
"I`m here...!! Yui-chan...!!"
If Yui, the «daughter» she had met in the other world was here, then surely «he» was also here.
She didn't know if her voice could reach him. Asuna looked around the bird cage. There must be something she could use to make him aware of her existence other than her voice -.
An object, but everything in this room was locked in place by its positional information, none of them could be moved out of the cage, she'd found out. Long ago, she had tried to use a teacup and a cushion to send a message to players below, but it didn't work. Asuna anxiously held the golden cage grid.
There was. Only one thing. An object that did not previously exist in this location. An irregular object.
Asuna ran to the bed, and pulled it from underneath the pillow. It was a small silver key card. She returned to the lattice. She held out her right hand with the card fearfully. If it was like before, she would be thwarted by a barrier.
Her right hand reached outside of the cage with no resistance. The clear silver card shining brightly with reflected sunlight.
'... Kirito-kun... please notice this!!'
While praying, Asuna did not hesitate to open her hand. The card quietly danced through the air, falling straight down toward the sea of clouds below and flashing in the light.
Torn with impatience, I felt as though my body would be torn into a thousand pieces, and struck the barrier with my right hand. My fist was flipped by a repulsive force that resembled strong magnets with the same poles touching, and iridescent ripples spread through the air.
"What is it... this thing...!"
I managed to stammer through clenched teeth.
Finally— I came so far. The prison that held Asuna's soul was just right there. Nevertheless, the program code within the «game system» was blocking my path.
A tremendous self-destructive impulse flowed through my whole body, scattering white-hot sparks.
Logging into ALfheim Online for two days, I had come here in accordance with the rules of the game, pushing back my impatience, but the irritation that continually accumulated in the depths of my heart exploded out all at once. Baring my dog-like fangs, I grasped the hilt of my sword in my right hand.
—At the moment.
Beyond the white flame in my vision, a small white light shone.
I forgot my rage in an instant and stared at that light. Something that shone brightly was slowly falling toward me. Like snow in the midsummer sky, like dandelion fluff on long journey, it fell toward me.
While hovering, I released the hilt of my sword, and held out my hands toward the light. After a few very long seconds, the white light slowly settled into my hands. With the feeling of nostalgic warmth, I slowly opened my hands in front of my chest.
Yui looked from my left and Lyfa from my right. I silently stared at what was in my hands.
Lyfa muttered. It certainly was a small rectangular card-type object. It had a transparent silver surface with no text or decoration. Turning to look at Lyfa, I said:
"Lyfa, do you know what this is...?"
"No... I've never seen an item like this. Why not try clicking on it?"
Following Lyfa's suggestion, I did a single-click on the surface of the card with my finger-tip. A simple click on the game item should have caused a pop-up window to appear, but nothing was displayed.
Yui leaned forward and touched the edge of the card, before exclaiming:
"This... this is the access code for system management!!"
I held my breath, staring at the card in my hand.
"...So, if I have this, I can exercise GM authority?"
"No... You can access the system, but you must do it from the corresponding console... Even I can't call out the system menu..."
"I see... but such a thing wouldn't fall down without reason. This is probably...."
"Yes. I think mama noticed us and dropped it to us."
I clasped the card gently. Not long ago, Asuna was holding it. I thought I could vaguely understand her intentions.
Asuna was also fighting. To escape this world, she was resisting strongly. I too have something I must do.
I stared at Lyfa and said:
"Lyfa, tell me. Where is the gate that leads into the World Tree?"
"Eh... It is in the dome at the foot of the tree..."
Lyfa said with a worried frown.
"But, it is impossible. It is protected by an army of guardians, thus far no matter how big the group, they couldn't get past it."
"Even so, I have to go."
I put the card in my breast pocket and took Lyfa's hand.
Thinking about it, this Sylph girl had helped me a lot. When I didn't know left from right in this world, with a rush of feeling, I came all the way here. It was thanks to her knowledge and her cheerful smile that encouraged me all the way. Someday, I'll properly explain the situation and thank her in the real world... While thinking that I opened my mouth.
"Thank you very much thus far, Lyfa. From here, I'll go by myself."
With Lyfa's face that seemed about to cry, I grasped her hands tightly before letting go. Yui went to sit on my shoulder as I retreated a bit further.
Finally, looking at the girl one last time, her ponytail swaying with her flight, I bowed deeply. Then turned my back on her.
Closing my wings, I rode the momentum gained with the acceleration of a fall as I sped right toward the base of the World Tree.
After diving dizzily for tens of seconds, the bottom of the World Tree and the intricate city surrounding it, Aarun, appeared. Between the roots and the city laid a shockingly large veranda, and I started breaking in preparation for landing.
I opened my wings fully for breaking while aiming for the landing point. I stuck my legs out below me, and tried to stop as my feet hit the pavement. Even with the breaking, a loud boom echoed from the sonic boom accompanying me. Several players on the terrace for viewing the surroundings turned their faces toward me with a surprised look on their faces.
Waiting until they turned away, I spoke to Yui, still sitting on my shoulder, in an undertone.
"Yui, do you know the way to the Dome?"
"Yes, it is straight up those steps. But— Is it ok, papa? According to the available information, breaking through the gate is very difficult."
"We'll just have to try forcing it. Even if I fail, it doesn't mean I will die."
"That is, true, but..."
I reached out and gently stroked Yui's head.
"Anyway, it feels as though I might go mad if I waste even one more second. Even Yui wants to see mama as soon as possible right?"
Yui nodded, and nuzzled my cheek as I started walking up the steps.
Nearing the top of the steps, we already seemed to be at the top of Aarun city. The huge cone shaped roots gathered in front of us at that one place on the trunk. The diameter was too big, all that could be seen from there was a simple curved wall.
Near that wall, two fairy knight statues rose standing nearly ten times the height of a player. Between the statues was a splendidly decorated stone gate. That was the starting point of the grand quest, and no other players could be seen anywhere. Perhaps, the story about it being «impossible to breakthrough» had already became common knowledge.
But I had to go through the door, breaking through the guardians and reaching the gate.
'- Wait for me, Asuna. I'm coming right now...'
It was a promise I engraved on my heart.
Continuing a few dozen meters further, I stood in front of the gate when the right statue moved and a low tone resounded. It looked around unexpectedly for a bit, then with a pale light shining from its eyes, it looked down at me and opened its mouth. A ponderous voice resounded, it was like a rolling boulder.
"You who don't know the heights of heaven, wish to reach the king's castle?" At the same time, in front of me, a window appeared, asking me if I want to accept the final challenge. To ascertain my will two buttons appeared: [YES] and [NO]. With no hesitation, I pressed the [YES] button.
This time, the huge stone statue on the left issued a loud voice.
"You shall receive unlimited use of your wings from here onward."
Before the thunderous reverb disappeared, the door split apart from the center. As the earth trembled, the doors opened inward to the left and right.
That roar, inevitably reminded me of fighting the floor boss monsters in Aincrad. Forgetting to breathe at the resurrected tension, a cold shiver ran down my spine.
Here, dying doesn't mean real death, I said to myself, then had to shake off the thought. This is a struggle for Asuna`s freedom, in some ways, it is more important than any battle I had ever been in.
"We're going, Yui. Make sure to hide well."
"Papa... Do your best."
I patted Yui on the head as she pulled back into my breast pocket, then I drew my sword.
When the thick stone door was fully open, the roaring sound stopped. It was completely dark inside. Just as I stepped in, I considered using night vision magic. Before I even lifted my right hand, a sudden burst of blinding light poured down from above. I subconsciously narrowed my eyes.
Inside was a huge dome space. It reminded me of the Boss room on the 75th floor of Aincrad where I had fought with Heathcliff, only the diameter was several times bigger.
It seemed like the inside of a tree, large roots wove together to form the floor. Ivy rose from the floor to cover the walls, going up and connecting to the top.
The canopy was a clear hemispherical dome, the ivy entwining to form stained glass-like patterns, through which white light poured.
Near the top of the canopy, I saw a door. It was an exquisitely decorated ring-shaped gate with a cross-shape splitting the door into four pieces. The road to the top of the tree must be on the other side.
Holding my greatsword in both hands, I took a deep breath. Putting power into my legs, I spread my wings.
I fiercely cried to myself, and kicked hard off of the ground.
Before I had flown for even one second, an anomaly appeared in the light filtering through the canopy. One portion of the window turned white as it boiled and bubbled, it looked like something was about to happen. In an instant, that part of the dome dripped, and as it fell, it took on a humanoid form, spreading four shining wings as it roared.
The knight's massive body was entirely clad in silver armor, and was wearing a mirror mask, so its face could not be seen. The right hand held a sword even larger than mine. No doubt, this was the guardian that Lyfa was talking about.
The guardian knight turned its mirror face toward the rapidly rising me and dove with what would have been a shout save for the lack of human speech.
"Get out of the waaaaay!!"
I shouted and swung my greatsword. The distance between us neared zero, the feeling of a cold spark played over my brain, it's the accelerated feeling I always got when I was fighting at my limits in that world. Facing the guardian knight, with my figure reflecting off its mask, I brought my sword down without hesitation.
The guardian knight's sword intersected with mine in mid-air, and the space was torn asunder by light effects similar to lightning. The knight brought its hugely rebounded sword over its head for another strike, I just let my sword move as it wanted and rushed at the knight's chest. I caught the neck of the knight that was double my size with my left hand, staying close to it.
When fighting monsters controlled by the CPU, I would find out its attack range and try to stay in a position outside of it, but in the case of such a huge enemy, blind spots often appear at the least suitable moments. Of course, it is very dangerous to stop there for long, but there was time while it tried to recover from a stance that had collapsed.
Bringing back my right hand with the sword, I stabbed into the knight's unprotected neck.
I beat my wings hard, and used my full weight to push the sword in. Gatsu!! With the sound of a hard object breaking, my sword went through its neck.
Unlike its awe-inspiring divine appearance, it let out a bestial roar and then stiffened. Shortly after, the huge body was wrapped in a white End Frame, which quickly dispersed.
'- I can do it!!'
My heart cried out with joy. The guardian knight's stats fell short of the floor bosses of SAO. For one-on-one, I have the advantage.
I shook off the white flame that still clung to me and looked at gate. I saw a scene that made the smile on my face freeze.
All of the stained glass windows in the still far off, huge canopy were in a chaotic state, the silver clad knights appearing from all of them. There were dozens— no, hundreds.
I whipped myself, who had been daunted for an instant, and shouted. No matter how many come, I just have to kill them all. I beat my wings and dashed fiercely.
Several of the newly born knights descended from the canopy to block my path. I aimed at the front one and moved my sword.
This time I avoided the loss of balance caused by crossing swords, and concentrated on the tip of the enemy's sword, I twisted my body, evading it. Not completely avoiding it, the enemy's sword scratched my shoulder, causing slight damage, but I ignored it, focusing all of my senses on attacking my enemy.
My big sword moved along a straight line, impacting the mask, killing my second opponent. White flame spewed from the knight, before it disappeared another knight moved in to take its place.
The next knight had already begun its attack, I ground my teeth. Deciding that I wouldn't have enough time completely evade it, I lifted my left hand and blocked it with my armor.
With a strike that impacted on bone, out of the left corner of my eyes, I saw my HP bar decrease by about 10%. But the enemy's sword swing was diverted by my arm, so the knight's stance collapsed. Aiming for its neck, the sword in my right hand came down.
But this time my speed was reduced and I could not kill it in one hit. Furthermore, another knight was rushing over from the right. I twisted my body to the right and kicked my left foot at the damaged knight's mask.
Having the swordsman Kirito's status data carried over to this world was lucky, including the unarmed combat skill level that I thought was useless here. My kick removed the rest of this knight's HP. The big body leaning back was wrapped in flames and let loose a scream distorted by the effect.
I blocked the third knight's sword at the last moment with my sword.
Together with the cries, I clenched my left fist and thrust at its mirror mask. Crack!! With that sound, cracks radiated out from the point of impact and it let out an anguished cry.
I shouted. This feeling was unlike the time in Jötunheimr fighting the Undine soldiers, a searing impulse for destruction drove me. The sword in my right hand sawed at the knight's neck, I punched the knight with my left hand over and over.
That's right— I once lived in this world. Wandering alone in one of the deepest dungeons, fighting at the line of death to forge my soul, I used monsters' corpses to build my tombstone as I continued to swing my sword.
My fist finally went through the knight's mask, and luminous lights scattered. I was still lost in that inner voice of destruction, and I thrust my left fist into the depths of the light. As my hand went through its head, the knight's whole body melted and broke apart, and the white flame surrounded my body.
At that time, my heart was as hard and dry as a stone. Game clear or player liberation, none of it mattered anymore. I rejected others and thrust myself into the next battle.
Four or five more guardian knights raised their shining swords, and they fell with a sound like the voice of an onimous bird. A grim smile emerged from the side of my face, and I burst into the knights, my wings splitting the air. Every nerve in my body shook with a feeling of fierce acceleration, the electric pulses connecting my body here with my brain became white sparks crossing my vision.
With a courageous shout, I slashed horizontally with the sword I now held with both hands. I repelled the enemies' swords. Rotating like a windmill, I accelerated to the limit aiming my sword at the guardian knights' neck.
Chop, Chopp!! With a continuous dull sound, two necks that held the mirror masks danced through the air. The flame that appeared with their last moments formed a white rose that washed over my nerves, sending more heat over my body.
Only in the jaws of death could I see my own life. Throwing oneself into the last-minute battle, burning one's spirit til the end, and then falling, I thought that was the only way I could repay those who had fallen before my eyes.
I turned around, and without losing any of the force of my spin, the toes of my right foot struck out, now more like a drill. My foot struck the chest of the guardian knight, and I felt within the hardness a soft moistness that came with unpleasant sounds as my foot penetrated the knight's body. As my body stopped at the center of the End Frame, two swords approached me from the left and right, like a pair of scissors. I blocked the sword on my right with my sword and the one on my left with my arm, and taking no notice of my HP bar, I countered.
I quickly grabbed the wrist of the knight on my right side,
With a roar, I swung the right knight over my head and threw it into the one on the left. I followed through and stabbed them both when they were locked together, giving them a fatal blow.
I thought I could keep fighting and massacring enemies no matter how many appeared. In those days, I was burning myself in the flame of the homicide, I polished my heart until it was as stone -.
No— that wasn't it...
—Onto that heart which was increasingly dry, there were people who desperately poured water. Klein, Agil, Silica, Lisbeth, and Asuna.
I... I will help Asuna, to make that world truly end, I came here—
I lifted my head and turned toward the canopy, I found the stone gate was surprisingly close.
As I struggled to fly to it, something pierced my right leg.
It was a cold, shining light arrow. As if they had been waiting for me to stop moving, arrows poured down like rain. I was hit with two, three consecutive arrows, my HP greatly reduced.
Looking around, I didn't know since when, but the guardian knights were surrounding me from a far distance, all pointed at me with their left hands, chanting spells in harshly distorted sound. The second wave of light arrows flew at me with a high-pitched sound.
I swung my greatsword around me, blocking many of the arrows, but several still hit me, dropping my HP into the yellow area. I lifted my face, staring at the gate.
It was difficult to overthrow long-ranged enemies by myself. I moved forward, trying to break through the gate. The arrows of light were penetrating my entire body, but my goal was right there. Enduring the attacks, I stretched my left hand to touch the stone door -.
Only a few seconds to go, my back suffered a tremendous impact. When I turned around, a guardian knight had approached me, with a distorted version of my smile looking at me, it had thrust its sword into my back. My posture collapsed and my acceleration stopped.
Then, Like a flock of white birds swooping on prey, dozens of guardian knights rushed from all directions. With a Dotsu dotsu sound, my body was pierced by sword after sword. I didn't even have time to check my HP.
My vision was suddenly filled with a phosphorescent black flame. It took a while to notice that it was my own End Frame. Beyond the black flames, small purple letters emerged. [You are dead].
The next moment, there was a dry sound and my body dissolved.
Like one switch after another being turned off, the sense of my body disappeared.
When I was killed on the 75th floor of Aincrad in the final fight with Heathcliff, I clearly remembered when I fell. As that memory flashed through my mind, I was enveloped by a violent terror.
But of course, there was no interruption of my consciousness. Is this half conscious? I had experienced «death in the game», but not since the beta testing of SAO.
It was a strange feeling. My sight lost color as it faded to a monotone purple. In the center of my vision were letters in the color of a system notice saying [Remaining Revival Time], with a decreasing number to the right. In the far side of my view, the silver guardian knights that killed me seemed satisfied and returned to the stain-glass in the canopy.
There was no sense of my extremities. I couldn't move, all that was left of me in this world was the small embers of my Remain Light like all of the people I killed in this world. I was lost in helpless, miserable, trivial feelings.
Yes— I was so miserable. Maybe somewhere inside I still felt that this was just a game, and this was the retribution for feeling that way. After all, my strength was just a few numbers in my status data. Yet, beyond the boundaries of the game, beyond the limits, I thought I could do anything I wanted to.
I wanted to meet Asuna. I wanted to wrap her in my arms, to lose those feelings and thoughts and finally heal. But now my hands could no longer reach her.
The second display was decreasing. I wondered what would happen when it reached zero, I could not remember.
No matter what happens, there is only one thing I can do. I would crawl back to this place and challenge the guardian knights again. No matter how many time I fell, even if I understood that I couldn't win— Even if my spirit was worn down, until the moment I completely disappear from this world—...
At that moment, a shadow sailed across my vision looking below.
Someone invaded the open dome and raced up toward me with terrible acceleration.
'Don't come', I tried to yell, but my voice didn't come out. Looking up at the windows, I saw that it was once again lined with white and guardian knights that were being produced.
White giants shouted as they passed by my side in their headlong rush for the intruder. From my experience just before, I already knew that one person would not be able to fight them. 'Hurry and run away', I desperately prayed, but the shadow shot up toward me in a straight line.
The guardian knights in the front row grasped their swords and brought them down in sequence. The intruder evaded the attacks with agile and alert movements, but the time lagged attack made the sword graze the intruder. The delicate body went into a big tumble.
But the intruder used that tumble to accelerate further, slipped past the rows of knights and kept rising. As the intruder drew closer to me, more knights appeared to stop that, with a strange chorus, they flew around a narrow space.
The shadow's right hand held a katana, but that was only used for defense. Avoiding the enemy groups and parrying with dazzling movements, it came closer and closer. It was a painfully desperate flight.
When she finally arrived in front of me, the player's tears scattered as she cried:
It was Lyfa. The Sylph girl stretched out her hands and wrapped me tightly in her arms.
We are already very close to the gate, but the knights would never allow us to rise, they closely crowded in the sky, creating a wall of flesh several layers thick. But having secured me, Lyfa quickly turned and flew, this time aimed straight for the exit.
From the rear, curse like spell chanting rose. Immediately, arrows of light came flying. Lyfa wove from side to side, avoiding the aim of the enemy, but the arrows rained down so densely that it wasn't possible to evade them all. One of them hit her and the shock reached even me.
Lyfa choked out, but her dive speed didn't decrease. Lyfa's body was pierced by arrows in quick succession. In my vision, her HP was swiftly cut in half.
Arrows of light were not the only thing chasing us. There were two guardian knights chasing, fast and furious. I could see swords swinging down from the left and right in a cross.
Lyfa did a quick right spin, avoiding one sword, but the other caught her squarely in the back.
With her cry, Lyfa was thrown like a ball, crashing into the ground. After bouncing several times, we slid on the ground, eventually coming to a stop. There, several knights descended to make a fatal blow.
Lyfa pushed her body up with a trembling hand, and flapped her wings once. That made her roll— bright light suddenly surrounded my vision. We were already outside the dome.
Surviving that hopeless situation, Lyfa stretched out her body, chilled with fear, on the cobblestones. Turning back to the door, having passed the time allotted for the event, the door was closing and the white giants were soaring up behind it.
In her hands, the small black flame flickered. Kirito-kun -, Lyfa cried in her heart, but there was no time to be immersed in those sad sentiments. She sat up, and leaning against the leg of the huge stone statue, waved her right hand and opened the item window.
Since Lyfa hadn't mastered water and holy attribute magic, she couldn't cast the high-leveled revival magic. So she turned «Sap of the World Tree» into an item, and she picked up the small blue bottle that materialized.
Dismissing the window, she uncorked the bottle and sprinkled the shining liquid over Kirito's Remain Light. A three-dimensional magic circle similar to that of revival magic unfolded in an instant. A few seconds later, the figure of a boy in black materialized.
Still sitting down, Lyfa called his name, smiling through her tears. Kirito also knelt on the stone pavement with a harrowed smile, placed his right hand on her hand.
"Thank you, Lyfa... But, don't be that reckless again. I'll be fine... I don't want to cause you any more trouble."
'Am not troubled at all', She was going to say, but Kirito stood up first. He turned away and started walking— again toward the door leading into the World Tree.
She was stunned in amazement. Lyfa put strength to her trembling legs, and somehow stood up.
"Wa, wait... It is impossible for a single person!"
"Maybe so... But I must go..."
Kirito whispered with his back turned. Lyfa felt like a glass image pushed to the limits, desperately trying to find the words. But she wasn't able to speak the words burning in her throat. Her arms stretched out in a daze, she held Kirito's body tightly.
She's being attracted, she strongly felt. In order to give up on Kazuto, she forced herself to love this person in her heart, at the same time, she thought this might be fine. She felt that this feeling seemed to be true.
"Enough... Stop already... Return to the usual Kirito-kun... I... I, Kirito-kun..."
Kirito gently held her right hand in his hands. A quiet, intense voice flowed into her ear.
"Lyfa... I'm sorry... If I don't go there, nothing will end, and nothing will start. I must see her, again..."
Lyfa did not understand what she had heard for a moment. Her mind had gone blank, and Kirito's reverberation slowly faded away.
"...Now... now, what... did you say...?"
Kirito tilted his head, looking slightly puzzled and replied:
"Ah... Asuna, that is the name of the person I'm looking for."
"But... I mean, that person is..."
As her hands covered her mouth, Lyfa took a half step back.
While her mind was frozen, afterimages of memories revived.
A few days ago, when she had sparred with Kazuto in the dojo.
When they first met, Kirito had beaten the Salamanders in the Ancient Forest.
The two people in her memory, when the battle was over, slashed with the sword in their right hand and quickly put it away on their back. The exact same movement.
With a burst of insight, the two silhouettes melted together. Lyfa's eyes went wide open, and from trembling lips barely forced out a voice.
"... Are you... onii-chan...?"
Kirito heard these words and his eyebrows went up in surprise. His dark eyes looked directly into Lyfa's eyes. The light floated in the pupils like the moon swaying on the surface of the water, then—
The Spriggan in black whispered in a sound that's barely a voice, calling that name.
The stone pavement, the surroundings of Aarun, and the whole world with the huge World Tree seemed to be collapsing. Lyfa / Suguha staggered back a few steps.
While travelling with that person for the past few days, Lyfa had felt that the virtual world was more vivid. Her heart was excited just to fly side by side.
Suguha adored Kazuto, Lyfa liked Kirito, if she said she wasn't feeling guilt, that would be a lie. However, it was Kirito that taught her that ALfheim wasn't just an extension of a virtual flight simulator like she had thought for a long time, but a whole new reality. That is why Lyfa was able to realize that the feelings that she had in this world were not just digital data, but her true feelings.
She forcefully froze her feelings for wanting Kazuto, even her deeply buried pain, will eventually be forgotten if she stayed by Kirito's side, she felt like that. —Yet it is true that this «reality» was given form by the spirits of the «real» humans that come here, but still it was an unexpected result.
"...How cruel... This is just too much, this..."
Lyfa shook her head left and right, talking like someone delirious. More than that, she didn't want to stay in that place for even one more second. She turned away from Kirito, and waved her left hand.
Touching the lower left corner of the window, she almost ignored the confirmation message, and pressed. Under firmly closed eyelids, the rainbow faded, leaving only darkness.
Waking up in her bed, the first thing she saw was the deep blue ALfheim sky. Where that color had always invoked feelings of nostalgia and longing before, now there was only pain.
Suguha slowly took the Amusphere off her head, and held it in front of her eyes.
Sobs which she couldn't hold back leaked from the depths of her throat. She applied a little more strength to her two hands holding the delicate machine with its two ornate circles. The ring bent with a faint scream.
She would destroy the AmuSphere and shut the passage to that world forever, she thought. However, she couldn't do it. The girl by the name of Lyfa on the other side of the rings was just too pitiful.
Throwing the machine onto the bed, Suguha sat up. She put her feet on the ground, closed her eyes, and bowed her head. She didn't want to think about anything anymore.
The silence was broken by a modest knock. Then, from beyond the door, came a voice that was different from Kirito's, but it had the same cadence.
"—Sugu, can I?"
"Stop!! Don't open the door!"
She cried out of reflex.
"Let me be alone... for a while..."
"—What happened, Sugu? I was surprised too, but..."
Filled with confusion, Kazuto's words continued.
"...If you are angry that I used the Nerve Gear again, I apologize. But it was absolutely necessary."
"No, it's not that."
In a moment, conflicting feelings spread throughout her body. She jumped out of the bed and went to the door.
She turned the handle and opened the door, there was the figure of Kazuto. His eyes were full of worry as he looked at her.
Her feelings, with her tears overflow out.
"I— betrayed my heart. Betrayed my feelings of loving onii-chan."
Finally saying 'love' face to face with her target person, but that was like a blade piercing her chest, throat, and lips. Feeling the searing pain, continued in a hoarse voice.
"I forgot everything, gave up, and was just going to love Kirito, I thought. No, I had already. —And yet... Even though..."
For a few seconds, Kazuto was at a loss for words, then he said in a whisper.
"Love... me... But, we are..."
"I already know."
'I can't', she thought. But she couldn't stop. With her glance embedded with all of that passion looking at Kazuto, she spoke through trembling lips the following declaration.
"Onii-chan and I are not true siblings. I've known since two years ago!!"
Oh no. Her mother had wanted her to wait before telling Kazuto that she knew about this, it's not for her to use this as a weapon for her remaining feelings. The reason she was told was so she could use the time to think about it, she thought.
"The reason onii-chan gave up on kendo and started avoiding me, you knew this long ago right? I am not your real sister so you put me at a distance right? Then, why are you so kind to me now!!"
No matter how bad it is, she couldn't hold in the words anymore. As Suguha's voice reverberated in the cold air in the corridor, Kazuto's black eyes gradually lost their expression.
"I... was very happy when onii-chan came back from SAO. I was glad we had finally been able to regain the relationship we had as children. You finally looked at me, I thought."
Finally, she could not bear anymore, and the tears came streaming down her face. Suguha harshly rubbed her eyes, and to her limits forced her voice out of her chest.
"... But... if I knew this would be the case, maybe it would have been better if onii-chan had remained cold to me. In that case, I wouldn't know that I love onii-chan... Or find out about Asuna-san and feel sad... Then I wouldn't have to love Kirito to replace you!!"
When he heard these words Kazuto's eyes got a little wide, and he looked stiff. After a few seconds, while time seemed stopped, Kazuto shook his head and said sadly,
Since he woke up two months ago, Kazuto's eyes that looked at Suguha usually had a caring and gentle light shining in them. But now, that light was faded, in exchange a deep darkness was exposed there. Suguha was filled with severe pain, as though her heart was cut with the blade of regret.
"...Just, leave me alone."
She didn't want to see Kazuto's face any longer. While being crushed with guilt and self-loathing, Suguha closed the door to run away and took a few steps back. Her heel touching her bed, she fell back as she collapsed.
Curled up with a sheet wrapped around her body, her shoulders trembled as sobs racked her body. Then the tears began to fall, leaving marks on the white linen sheets while being absorbed by it.
With the door closed in front of me, I stood there for a while.
Soon, I turned and slid to the floor with my back against her door.
Suguha's accusation that I had distanced myself from her because she wasn't my true younger sister was almost correct. I had searched the net for my family registry, but I had found the deletion notice, so I asked my parents about it. I was ten years-old. I began to put some distance between Suguha and myself, but there was no specific reason.
At that time, I did not understand the meaning of the distance between other people.
I did not have any memory of my real parents, Kirigaya Minetaka and Midori had told me the truth, but their love for me did not change so I was not really hurt. However, a seed of a strange feeling was planted in me, by the time it started to bud, it was already deeply rooted.
That is, for someone who didn't even know their relatives, who is that person really? That was my question. I came to think of a family as a set of acquaintances with a long relationship, someone who knows everything. I wondered who that person would actually be. Did I really know someone like that?
That sense of incongruity may be one of the reasons that led me to dive into the world of online games. There, the avatars that came in contact over the network were naturally different within the game. No one really knew who each other was. On this premise we interacted, that was to say it was a false world, that was something I found pleasant. By the time I was a 5th or 6th grader, I was already addicted to net games, without a side glance I moved straight forward. Finally I was imprisoned for two years, in that virtual world.
The world of Sword Art Online would have been something of a utopia for me, if not for the game's rule of death. A false dream that I wouldn't wake up from. The virtual world that could never end.
In that world, I played Kirito, who no one knew.
However, in the abnormal situation of a FullDive net game where I couldn't log out, I was led without force to one inevitable truth.
Whether it was the real world or a virtual world, it was essentially identical.
Because humans understand their world by receiving the information from the five senses that had been processed by the brain. The only reason a net game is a false world is that you can leave by switching off the machine.
A world that your brain recognized through electronic pulses, a world that you can't log out of.
Those are words that describe the real world itself.
When I realized that, I finally realized the emptiness of the question that had been confusing me since the age of ten. Worrying about who people really were was something with no meaning. The only thing you were able to do is believe what you see, and accept it. The person that I recognize is the true person.
From the door I had my back to came Suguha's sobbing.
When I returned to the real world, the moment I first saw her face, I was honestly glad to see her. I wanted to shorten the distance that I had built over a few years because of my meaningless question, we would rebuild our bonds, I would approach her because I wanted to.
However, perhaps Suguha had also gained a new awareness of me over these past two years. She knew that her onii-chan was actually her cousin, and was likely trying to come to terms with the distance I had put between us. I who thought that she didn't know the truth wasn't able to notice her feelings.
To this Suguha, I had shown my feelings for Asuna many times. I had cried in front of her thinking of Asuna. It wasn't hard to imagine how deeply I had hurt Suguha.
No, it was not just that.
Perhaps the reason the PC tone-deaf Suguha had started playing VRMMO games was also me. To know my world, Suguha dove into the virtual world, and after a long time nurtured another her. The person who helped me many times in ALfheim, Lyfa— who was the real Suguha.
Yui had hypothesized that the reason I met her after I first logged in was because someone in my neighborhood had connected to ALO at the same time as me. Because we made our dives not from the same neighborhood, but the same house, our global IP address was identical. So, after I naturally encountered Lyfa, the only thing in my head was Asuna, and I hurt Lyfa like I had hurt Suguha.
I closed my eyes so tightly that when I opened them they seemed to make noise, and stood up with all of the power in my legs.
Now, I will do what I could for Suguha. When words were not enough, stretching out your hands, in the world of SAO, many people had taught me that with their whole self.
A strong knock sounded on the door, pulling Suguha out of her stupor. Out of reflex, she cowered.
'Don't open the door', she was going to shout, but the only thing that leaked from her throat was a blurred voice. However, Kazuto started speaking without turning the door knob.
"Sugu... I'll be waiting for you on the terrace in the north side of Aarun."
It was a calm voice, a gentle voice. She felt that he then moved from the front of her door. After the sound of a door opening and closing across the hall, silence fell.
Suguha closed her eyes tightly and curled up again. The tears began falling again, making a dripping sound.
Kazuto's voice was not the least bit shaken. Could he have just swallowed the terrible words she had showered upon him?
'- You're so strong, onii-chan. I can't be that strong...'
While whispering in her heart, she remembered the night a few days ago.
That night, Kazuto was like her now, curled up on his bed. Exactly the same thing, thinking about the beloved one he was unable to reach. It was the shape of a lost child.
It was the next day that she met Kirito. That is, Kazuto had found out that while Asuna's body slept, her consciousness was in ALfheim— on the World Tree towering above. He threw himself into the virtual world again. Wiped his tears, with sword in hand.
—At that time, she said good luck to him. She had told him not to give up. However, she herself was continuing to cry like this...
Suguha slowly opened her eyes. A glorious, round crown was placed in front of her.
Reaching out and taking it she placed it over her head.
Sunlight poured down from the partially cloudy sky and shone gently on the ancient styled streets of Aarun.
Looking around the log in point, Kirito's figure could not be seen. Checking the map, she could see that she was in the south plaza outside the dome of the world tree, and the north side seemed to have a large terrace for events. He was probably waiting there for Lyfa.
Although she had come here, she was still scared about the meeting. She didn't know what she should say or what to expect she would hear. Taking several despondent steps, Lyfa sat down on a bench in the corner of the plaza.
She couldn't be sure how long she sat with her head down. Suddenly, someone landed in front of her. She reflexively hardened her body and closed her eyes.
However, the person who called her name was a surprise.
"Finally... I was looking for you, Lyfa-chan!"
A familiar, cheerful, but unreliable voice echoed. She lifted her head while dumbfounded, there stood the figure of the yellow-green haired Sylph boy.
Seeing this unexpected face, Lyfa instantly forgot the pain she was in, and asked him why he would be there. Recon placed his hands on his hips, puffed out his chest and said in a proud voice:
"Well, after Sigurd left, my paralysis wore off so I killed the two Salamanders with poison and escaped from the underground waterway. I was going to kill Sigurd with poison too but he wasn't in the Sylph capital, so I decided to go to Aarun too. I passed through the mountain range, training active monsters on people on the way, and I finally arrived in Aarun this morning. It really took a full night."
"...You, that is pure MPK..."
"Don't worry about the small details at this time!"
Recon did not care about Lyfa's accusatory words, he seemed cheerful, and sat down close to her. Seeing Lyfa alone, he was puzzled, as he looked around the surrounding area, asked.
"What happened to that Spriggan? Is your party disbanding?"
Looking for the right words, Lyfa fidgeted, shifting her hips uncertainly. However, it was like there was a lump of constant ache in her chest, no skillful excuses seem to float up. When she realized, she was already saying what was buried in her heart.
"...I, said terrible things to that person... Even though I loved him, I said things that I shouldn't to hurt him... I am, a fool..."
Tears almost overflowed again, but Lyfa desperately held them back. Recon / Nagata was just her classmate, above that this is the virtual world, she didn't want to bare emotions that would confuse him. So she quickly turned away and continued in rapid speech.
"I'm sorry to have said such strange things. Forget it. I won't meet that person anymore... Let's go home, to Sylvain."
Even if she tried to escape here, the two of them in reality were laying not even a few meters apart. But she was still scared of meeting Kirito. Without going to the meeting place, she would go back to Sylvain, and after saying goodbye to several close friends, she would put «Lyfa» in eternal sleep, she thought. Someday the pain would fade, until that time.
Determined, Lyfa looked up and saw Recon's face. She was startled and unintentionally leaned back.
Recon's face flushed as red as a tomato, his eyes wide open, his mouth opened and shut with nothing coming out. For a moment, she forgot they were in a town, she wondered whether water-attribute suffocation magic was used. At that time, Recon suddenly moved at terrific speed, grabbing her hands then placing them on his chest.
The nearby players turn toward them after hearing his loud voice. He craned his neck, and continued while moving as close as possible to Lyfa who was leaning back to her limit.
"Ly, Lyfa-chan you should not cry! If you are not always smiling, you are not Lyfa-chan! I, I will always be by your side... Either here or in the real word, I will never leave you alone... I, I, I love you Lyfa-chan...Suguha-chan!"
After rattling on like a broken faucet, he didn't wait for Lyfa to answer, but moved his face forward. There was a strange shine from those usually timid eyes, his lips expanding under a swollen nose as he chased Lyfa.
"Ah, that, wai..."
From ambush to surprise attack was Recon's speciality, Lyfa was surprised by the unexpected words and actions, and her body went stiff. As if regarding her silence as consent, Recon was leaning as if to cover Lyfa, and continued approaching.
Feeling Recon breathe on her face, Lyfa finally recovered from her stunned state, and clenched her left fist.
"Wait... I said!!"
While shouting, she twisted her body and struck Recon's solar plexus with a full strength short blow.
Since this was inside a city, there's no direct damage but the knock-back effect still worked, Recon was lifted up about one meter before being dropped back down onto the bench. He raised his voice in agony while holding his abdomen with both hands.
"Uguguguuuu.. H, how cruel, Lyfa-chan!!"
"What!! Suddenly saying something so stupid!"
Lyfa felt her face became hot and stood up. Her face blazing like dragon breath with a combination of anger and embarrassment as she realized her lips had nearly been stolen. For now, she lifted Recon up by his collar and punched him several more times with her right fist.
"Uge! Ugee! S, sorry, I'm sorry!!"
Recon rolled off the bench, and sat on the ground holding himself up with his right hand while shaking his head. Lyfa released her offensive stance,sat down cross-legged on the bench and bowed her head.
"Oh.... How strange... After that, I thought all that was left was if I had the courage to confess or not..."
Lyfa was amazed, and honestly said in a becoming tone.
"...Are really stupid. "
Looking at Recon's wounded face, which looked like a puppy that had been scolded, Lyfa broke into amazed laughter. With a mixture of sigh and laughter, Lyfa felt like something else came out with them. At the same time, she felt the depths of her chest become lighter.
I guess I was just swallowing everything up till now, she thought. Afraid that she would be hurt, she had clenched her teeth and borne it. Because of that, she was overwhelmed by a flood of emotions, and ended up hurting her loved one.
She might have been too late— But at least at the end she wanted to be honest. Thinking that, Lyfa's shoulders relaxed, looking at the sky, and said:
"—But I don't hate this side of you."
"What!? Really, is that the truth!?"
Recon jumped back onto the bench, and tried to grab her hand, not learning his lesson.
"Don't get carried away!"
Pulling back her hand, Lyfa rose into the sky.
"—Once in a while, I'll try to learn from you. Wait here a while. —If you follow me, this time it will be more than that!"
Lyfa thrust her right fist with a pow toward Recon's face, then opened it and waved, and reversed her direction. She beat her wings strongly, flying with abandon toward the World Tree.
Flying around the huge World Tree for a few minutes, a vast terrace came into view below. It seemed that space was often used for a flea market and occasionally guild events, but today it was deserted. The north side of Aarun doesn't hold any buildings with great architecture, so there weren't any tourists in sight.
The black shadow of a person stood out on the bare pavement in the center of the terrace. With sharp gray wings, and a huge sword strapped to his back.
Lyfa took a deep breath and landed in front of him with grim determination.
Kirito saw her then with a slightly tense but the usual casual smile, greeted her briefly.
"Sorry to keep you waiting."
Lyfa also replied with a smile. Silence lasted for a while. Only the sound of the wind passed between the two.
Kirito finally opened his mouth. A serious look in his eyes. But Lyfa gently raised her hand and interrupted him. She beat her wings once, moving back a step.
"Onii-chan, let's have a match. A continuation of that day."
Lyfa reached for her katana while she spoke, Kirito stared, eyes slightly wide. His mouth moved, as if to say something, but then stopped.
Kirito just looked at her with the black eyes which were the same as in reality, then several seconds later, nodded. He also started beating his wings, putting some distance between them.
"—All right. Now there is no handicap this time."
Kirito replied with a smile, moving his hand to the sword on his back.
They drew their swords at the same time. The cool metallic sound of the two swords being drawn overlapping. Lyfa held her katana in her favorite middle stance, staring straight at Kirito. Kirito crouched down, in a low stance with his sword skimming the ground. In the same way as that day.
"You don't need to stop just before hitting. —Let's go!!"
Saying so, she kicked off the ground at the same time.
While in the instance that their distance shortened, Lyfa thought— is that so. That day, when they sparred, she had thought Kazuto's stance was unreasonable, but it was something polished in the virtual world. Kazuto had gained all his experience in the two years of fighting with real swords at the risk of his life.
She seriously felt she wanted to understand that time for the first time. In that hated world, with the game of death, what he saw, what he thought, and how he lived, she wanted to know.
Lyfa held her sword high, cutting straight down. In Sylvian, it was said Lyfa's attack was unavoidable, but Kirito seemed to move like the the flow of air and just shifted slightly, dodging it. Right after, the large sword immediately jumped in with a twist. She pulled back her katana and blocked it, but both arms were stunned by the heavy impact.
They both used the weapon rebound to kick off the ground, beating their wings. They both rose quickly in a double helix, their swords clashed when they met. Explosion-like light and sound effects roared through the air, shaking the world.
Lyfa could not help but watch Kirito's movements with admiration, both as a kendo champion and a fairy swordswoman. There was not a trace of excess movement, like a beautiful dance of continuous attack and defense.
While in sync with his rhythm, and continuing to swing her sword, Lyfa felt that she was above her experienced limits. Thinking back, in all of the duels she had participated in this world, not once had she felt this kind of satisfaction. Lyfa had lost fights before, all of which were from weapon extra attacks and spells, but she had not lost to pure sword play even once.
The bored fencer was now finally rejoicing at facing the person she loved more than anyone else. She thought that even if their hearts didn't intersect again, that moment would be enough. Lyfa was unaware that tears were forming in the corners of her eyes.
Like many times during the intense fight when their swords crossed, Lyfa was pushed back, this time she added her wings to it and put a great distance between them through the air. Wings spread, hovering in one place, sword held as high as she could.
This shall be the final blow, Lyfa expressed this feeling to Kirito. He went into motion, his sword held far back behind his body.
For a moment, the silence was like the calm surface of the water.
Tears streamed down Lyfa's face, falling as droplets, spreading ripples in silence. The two people moved at the same time.
Her flight burned, scorching the air as Lyfa moved. Her katana drew an arc of dazzling light. In front of her, she saw Kirito using the same dash. White light sparkled from his sword as it tore through the sky.
With her katana held above her head— she opened her hands.
The sword which lost its master became an arrow of light and flew high in the sky. Lyfa ignored it and spread her arms, ready to receive Kirito's sword.
Doing just this would not satisfy Kirito / Kazuto. However, because her stupid words hurt him, Lyfa / Suguha could think of no other way to apologize.
At least, I would offer this body which was another me to his sword, Lyfa thought.
Arms wide open, eyes half closed, Lyfa waited for that moment.
However— the white light gradually melted into view, Kirito came flying, but his hands too had no sword.
Lyfa opened her eyes in surprise. At the edge of her vision, she saw Kirito's large sword spinning away, just like her sword. At the same time Lyfa released her sword, Kirito had also thrown away his sword.
Why—? She didn't even have time to think as they met in mid-air. Similarly he was stretching out his arms, they collided face-to-face, and the shock stopped her breath as she clung to him unconsciously.
That did not use up their inertia energy, as the two became one, they spun in the air. Blue sky and the huge tree crossing their vision as they went round and round.
Lyfa managed to say just that. From ultra close-range Kirito stared at her as he spoke at the same time.
Silent, eyes still meeting, the two continued on due to the inertia in the air of ALfheim. After a while, Kirito spread his wings, stopping their spin and controlling their position before opening his mouth.
"I— wanted to apologize to Sugu— But... I couldn't find the words... I thought at least I would accept your sword..."
Suddenly, Lyfa felt Kirito's arms holding her got tighter.
"I am sorry... Sugu. After I had finally returned.. I, didn't truly look at you. I was obsessed with my problems... I couldn't hear what you said. Sorry..."
Lyfa's tears overflowed as those words entered her ears.
"I... I am more..."
'More than that' didn't become words. Burying her face in Kirito's chest, she loudly cried.
It seemed to take an eternity for the two to slowly land on the grass. Lyfa sobbed the whole time, Kirito gently patting her head, and a few minutes later, began speaking in a gentle voice.
"I... in truth, still have not come back from that world. I'm not finished yet. My reality can't start until she opens her eyes... So, for now, I'm still not sure how to work things out with Sugu..."
Lyfa gently nodded her head, and whispered.
"I, will be waiting. For the time that onii-chan truly comes back home. ...So, I will help. Explain to me, about that person... Why, you came to this world..."
- For MMO game term — running around with agressive/active monsters chasing you. Train here is the vehicle meaning.
- Monster Player Killing — gathering aggressive/active monsters and using them to kill other players.
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