Sword Art Online:Volume 4 Chapter 8
After struggling to collect the two swords that went flying, Kirito and Lyfa landed in front of the two statues that guarded the gate. Recon, who unexpectedly seemed to have been waiting quietly, rushed up. Seeing the black-clad Spriggan beside her, his expression changed and he turned toward her while rubbing his neck.
"Well... H-How did it turn out?"
Lyfa replied while smiling sweetly:
"We're going to attack the World Tree. Him, you, and me; the three of us."
"I-I see... Hey... What!?"
Lyfa clapped a hand to Recon's shoulder as his face turned pale and he backed away, saying 'Let's work hard', then turned to look up at the huge stone door. Standing between the two statues Lyfa realized it seemed to radiate chill air, as if forbidding entrance to those who wished it.
They talked about attacking it, but to tell the truth after seeing someone with Kirito's power getting so terribly beaten by the guardian knights, an increase of only two people would not change the outcome much. She took a quick glance at Kirito beside her— With a severe expression, his lips closed.
Kirito looked up, seeming to have thought of something.
"Yui, are you there?"
Before his words had finished, light particles in the air began to build-up and the familiar cute little pixie appeared. Hands on her hips, she was pouting in indignation. "Oh, too slow! If papa doesn't call for me, I can't come out!"
"My bad, my bad. I was a bit busy."
With a bitter smile Kirito held out his left hand and the pixie sat on it demurely. Recon craned his neck at a terrible speed to look at the pixie, as if he wanted to devour her.
"Wow, th-this is a private pixie!? This is the first time I've seen one!! Oh, incredible, so cute!!"
Hearing this, Yui's eyes went wide and she backed away.
"Wh, what is this person?!"
"Hey, you're scaring her."
Lyfa grabbed Recon's ear and pulled him away from Yui.
"Don't mind this fellow."
Kirito stood confused by the scene in front of him. He blinked his eyes two or three times, then looked at Yui again.
"—Well, did you learn anything from that battle?"
Yui wore an earnest expression on her pretty face as she nodded.
"Those guardian monsters, while their health and strength wasn't that high, their spawning pattern was abnormal. The spawning speed increases proportional to the proximity to the inner gate and when you actually get to the gate they would spawn at a rate of twelve per second. That is... It is set at a degree of difficulty that is impossible to capture..."
Kirito frowned, and nodded in agreement.
"I didn't notice because the individual guardians were not all that strong, but if you view them all as one entity they're an absolutely invincible boss. It's designed to fan the challenger's flame, to keep their interest till the last moment then pull the flag completely away. It's very tricky..."
"But if you think about it, papa's extraordinary skill proficiency is the same. With that fierce power a momentary breakthrough might be possible."
Kirito was silent in thought for a while, then he lifted his head and stared at Lyfa.
"...I'm sorry. For one more time, can you help me with my selfish request? Though I understand this might be impossible, I would like to find more people or look for another way. But... my gut tells me something unpleasant will happen soon. I'm running out of time..."
Lyfa heard that and for a moment thought of sending a message to the Sylph lord's mansion in the capital, Sylvain, asking Sakuya if she could send high level players to come to their aid.
But right after, Lyfa bit her lip as she gave up on that idea. Her mind went back to that morning, in Jötunheimr. Remembering the incident with the Undine team brought her back to her senses. They gave priority to efficiency and safety, and they hunted the non-resisting evil-god with no consideration for Lyfa's appeal.
Of course, Sakuya was a friend and wouldn't think the same way as the Undines. But Sakuya was a leader who assumed serious responsibility. In certain situations she would have to let common-sense decisions concerning the whole race override her personal feelings. Even though she would challenge the World Tree one day, it would only be after taking the time necessary to make full preparations. If Sakuya heard Lyfa's personal request for aid, she probably wouldn't come knowing it would mean the total annihilation of her troops.
After a short period of silence Lyfa raised her face with a bright tone and said:
"OK. Let's do our best. I'll do anything within my power... also, this guy too."
Making that sound, Lyfa elbowed Recon, his usual troubled brows were furrowed to their limit. Then saying "Lyfa-chan and I are the same, body and mind", and other things, then finally nodded in agreement.
The stone gate opened with a low rumbling that sounded like it came from the bottom of the abyss and a deep, eerie atmosphere flowed out from the other side of it, which made Lyfa lightly flap her wings. Earlier when she flew in to help Kirito, she didn't notice the overwhelming atmosphere, but now facing the stone gates, she felt the strong psychological pressure.
However, her heart was unusually calm.
Now it felt like she was in a storm. Whether the real world or the virtual world, everything was changing with a flowing and crackling sound. She didn't know where she was going in this torrent; all she could do was aim for the light in the distance.
Following Kirito, Lyfa and Recon pulled out their swords. Including Yui, all four pairs of eyes met and they all raised their wings together.
"...Here we go!"
At Kirito's shout they all kicked off the ground, plunging into the dome.
As decided earlier, Kirito began aiming for the gate and was at the center of the dome severely accelerating. Lyfa and Recon kept near the ground and began to chant healing spells.
From the emission of the light in the canopy white giants formed from the viscous liquid dripping down. They rushed at Kirito with a strange, courageous shout. As the guardian knight vanguard and the comparatively small Kirito met, a flash of light and an explosion roared through the dome.
Several giants got cut apart in one slash and scattered in all directions. Seeing such a scenario, Recon whispered beside her.
It was certainly a terrifying level of sword strength. However, witnessing the scene of Kirito fighting such massive numbers of monsters sent chills running down her spine.
There were just too many enemies. The huge number of guardian knights descending from the mesh-like canopy was a situation beyond game balance. Even in the worst underworld dungeon, Jötunheimr, the monsters spawning rate was much more moderate than this.
The guardian knights grouped together tightly, sending out undulating bands to attack Kirito. A series of flashes occurred above and every time, the body of a knight scattered light dancing like snow. However, every time one was destroyed three more would take its place.
By the time Kirito was half way to the door, his HP had decreased by only ten percent . Lyfa and Recon released the healing magic they had prepared and placed in a standby state. Kirito's body was wrapped in a blue light and his health was restored.
A terrible thing happened at the same time.
A group of low-flying guardian knights turned toward Lyfa and Recon with a queer cry.
Recon made an anxious sound.
Lyfa felt that behind those mirror masks the guardian knights were focused on them. She subconsciously clamped her teeth together tightly.
In order to avoid being targeted Lyfa and Recon were to use magic only to heal Kirito. Generally, monsters only attack players who enter their detection range. That is, they don't attack the long-range players if they don't use bows or attack magic.
However, it seems that the guardian knights are different than the monsters in the outside world, they use algorithms with ill intent as well. If they react to support magic from far away then using an orthodox kind of formation like attackers at the vanguard and healers at the rear is useless.
'That group of five or six knights, turn away!' Lyfa's wish was empty, they started beating their four wings and the knights dove. Each of them held a sword easily taller than Lyfa in their right hand. Their swords seemed to gleam with a hungry light.
Lyfa cried out to Recon:
"I'll distract them, you continue to heal like this!" Lyfa rose without waiting for an answer. However, although during battles until now Recon had just listened to Lyfa's orders, this time he said 'Wait,' then held onto her right hand. Surprised, Lyfa turned around to look at him and was struck by his unusually serious expression, even though his voice was tense.
"Lyfa-chan... though I don't completely understand, this is an important battle, right?"
"—Yes. Right now it's probably not just a game."
"...Although there's no way I can match that Spriggan... I'll do something about the guardians..."
As soon he finished Recon kicked off the ground with the flight controller in his hand. While Lyfa was standing there surprised he flew farther ahead, directly into the group of guardian knights.
—He wasn't a capable opponent, Lyfa thought, but she knew she couldn't catch up with him anymore. Looking to the side, Kirito's full HP had once again started to decrease. Lyfa was forced to start casting a recovery spell. Even as she quickly cast her spell, Lyfa uneasily continued to watch Recon from behind.
Recon unleashed the wide area wind attribute magic that he had prepared during his flight to attack the guardian knights. Many green blades spread out in a fan shape and attacked the knights, ripping into them. The knights HP wasn't reduced much, but instead all of them targeted Recon.
The white giants issued a distorted howl as they confronted the little green boy. Recon flew around the dangerous giants' swords, as he moved like a leaf at the mercy of the wind, and came out behind them. The knights quickly turned, following him.
Lyfa completed her spell and the light of a healing spell wrapped around Kirito. Several guardian knights reacted and began to descend. Those knights joined the group chasing Recon, causing it to double in size.
Despite not being good at aerial combat, Recon was dodging the swords rushing at him with amazing concentration. He occasionally received an attack and his HP gradually began to decrease, but there were no fatal injuries.
Recon's flight looked desperate and Lyfa could not help but feel kind of touched, but she knew Recon couldn't last forever. Every time she cast a healing spell on Kirito, a new group of knights descended, increasing the number gathered around Recon.
Finally, the guardian knights chasing Recon divided into two teams. They appeared to be trying to sandwich him. One of the many sword tips that fell like rain caught Recon on the back knocking him away.
"Recon, that's enough! Escape outside!!"
Lyfa couldn't watch any longer and cried out. Once a player had evacuated the area, he could no longer pass through the door again while there was still a battle going on inside. She decided that she would endure to her limit, then fly up while chanting a healing spell.
But before that, Recon turned and looked at her. Recon's face had a determined smile. Seeing that, Lyfa stopped opening her wings.
Recon began to chant a new spell while receiving multiple sword attacks. His body was quickly surrounded by a dark purple light effect.
Noticing that it was a darkness attribute magic spell, Lyfa gasped. A complicated magic circle unfolded instantly. Judging from its size, it was a considerably high-ranked incantation. Since it's rare to see darkness magic in Sylph territory, Lyfa didn't know what kind of effect it had.
The magic circle became gigantic in a moment, turning on its axis while wrapping around the knights that flocked toward it. The complex pattern of light condensed in an instant— then everything was hit with a terrible flash.
Lyfa was blinded by the flash and instinctively turned her face away. An explosion that sounded as though it was going to crush heaven and earth occurred, violently shaking the entire dome. It took a full second to recover from that blinding white scene. Lyfa stared desperately toward the blast center while squeezing her hands. She was so surprised that she was lost for words. The guardian knights that had clustered around Recon were annihilated. The only trace of them was the faint purple afterglow hanging in the air.
The power was terrifying. There aren't any such powerful area attack incantations in either the Wind or Fire attributes. 'That guy Recon, when did he learn such a useful hidden skill?' Lyfa was crying both from joy and surprise. If such an attack was used several more times then it would be possible to break through the gate. Lyfa was going to heal Recon for now and moved her hand— but she again froze in place.
In the aftermath of the explosion Recon's small figure wasn't there. Instead, a lone Remain Light floated in the air.
Lyfa whispered in dismay. That's right— She remembered hearing about this kind of dark magic long ago. However, it had a death-penalty several times worse than that of a normal death, so it can be said to be a taboo incantation.
Lyfa shut her eyes tightly, at a loss for words for a few seconds. Despite being a mere game; the experience, time, and effort Recon put into it made that a genuine sacrifice. From here on out giving up was not an option. She opened her eyes with determination while looking up. Then—
As she saw the scene in front of her, she felt the strength leave her legs.
The top of the dome was so full of white that she couldn't see it at all.
Kirito was the small black speck in the center. After each swing of his sword, bodies fell. It was like poking a vast sand dune with a needle. The holes in the wall of white guardian knights' flesh that Kirito made were instantly refilled, completely blocking him.
Kirito fought like a demon and roared like he was coughing up blood, his cries of defiance faintly reaching Lyfa's ears.
"...It's impossible onii-chan... something like this..."
To be honest, the idea that someone's soul was trapped in this world, even if Kirito told her, was something she still couldn't quite believe. This was a game, a virtual world meant to be enjoyed. She couldn't help feeling some resistance to the story that linked this world to the nightmarish «SAO World».
However, Lyfa felt for the first time that she had seen a «Malicious System». The virtual game world had a fair balance, but this place was full of killing intent against players. Like a huge death scythe being swung around— that kind of feeling. It was God's intention to kill. No one may resist.
Suddenly a low, distorted, curse like sound reverberated in the dome.
A section of the guardian knights stopped moving, their left hands reaching forward as they chanted spells. That was the spell that sealed Kirito's movement the first time he came here. When it hit, it temporarily stunned, leaving the victim open to sword attacks.
Expecting to see the scene where Kirito was skewered by countless blades, Lyfa froze.
It was at that moment...
Suddenly, from behind came a surge, no, a tsunami of sound that hit Lyfa's withered wings.
Lyfa hurriedly turned around to see— In close formation they came through the open door dressed in shiny green new armor. It was the soldiers of Sylph.
One look showed her that their equipment was ancient weapon class. The large player group, fully dressed in similar shiny new outfits, rushed past Lyfa like the spring wind and flew toward the canopy. There were at least 50 of them.
While awestruck Lyfa focused her attention on them, and one by one name cursors appeared. She could not see their faces because of the visors, but the names displayed were all those of elite players from the Sylph territory. The guardian knights heard the heroic roar of the crowd, suspended their spells aimed for Kirito, and began to move. A shudder of fear and exhilaration ran up Lyfa's back. However, they were not the only group joining to capture the dome.
Several seconds after the last of the elite Sylvain force passed through the great door, another battle cry resounded. They overlapped, mixing into behemoth-like roars, like that of distant thunder.
The new force that rushed in was considerably smaller than the Sylvain Force. Lyfa estimated there were around ten. However, each member of that cavalry was extraordinarily large.
Lyfa shouted in surprise. From head to tail, they were several times larger than a player and covered with iron-gray scales. As proof that they were not wild monsters, the dragons' forehead, chest, and the protruding edges of their very long wings were equipped with shiny metal armor.
From both sides of the dragon forehead armor reins made of silver chains extended, held firmly by the players straddling the saddles on their backs. The riders were also fortified with brand new armor, triangular ears protruding from both sides of their heads, from the bottom of their back armor a tail that couldn't be overlooked.
They were without a doubt the Cait Sith's final weapon, the Dragon Knights. They were used as a last resort. The legendary warriors kept in absolute secrecy, never even seen in screenshots, and now, they were flying in front of Lyfa's eyes.
Caught in the euphoria, with her blood boiling, Lyfa stood there with her wings spread taut. Suddenly, she heard someone call out from behind her:
"Sorry we're late."
She quickly turned around and standing there was the figure of the Sylph Lord, Sakuya, wearing high heeled clogs and dressed casually. Sidling up next to her was Alicia Rue, Lord of the Cait Siths, who said while twitching her ears:
"Sorry, the Leprechaun smiths had to forge the number of required dragon armor, so it was finished just a bit ago. Even with the money the Spriggan gave us, our treasury, as well as the Sylphs', is now empty!"
"In other words, both races will go bankrupt if we are annihilated here."
Sakuya laughed cooly with crossed arms.
—They came. The two of them, despite the risk of losing their status as lords, they quickly came. The combined forces of these two races, overcoming the scramble for resources which was the essence of MMORPG games, throwing all calculations of risk to the winds, would surely work effectively to exceed the expectations of the GMs.
"...Thank you ...Thank you, both of you."
Lyfa could only say those words with her trembling voice. Sure enough, in this world there were things more important than rules, and manners, and common sense— that thought filled her heart, and she was not able to say anything else.
Although the two lords replied in different voices they had the same tone as they said, 'We're now even', then glared at the canopy with a stern expression. Sakuya snapped the fan in her right hand. "Well— We'll go too!"
Seeing the wall of white guardian knights send out groups to attack the front Sylph players, Lyfa firmly nodded her head, and the three kicked off the ground. Kirito was in the center of the dome engaged in fierce battle, but he seemed to have noticed the arrival of reinforcements and stopped trying to break through by himself, leaving some room between him and the knight wall.
Gracefully soaring toward the central part of the Dome, Alicia Rue held up her right hand and cried out in a lovely, carrying voice.
"Dragon Corps! Prepare the Breath attack!"
The ten members of the Dragon Knight cavalry hovered in a large circle around the three, including Lyfa. With their wings spread and their necks bent in an S-shape, she could see an orange light behind their teeth.
Next, Sakuya quickly raised the folded red fan.
"Sylph team, prepare for the special attack!"
Arranged in a dense square, the Sylph forces held out their swords with their right hands above their heads. Emerald green lightning wrapped around their swords like a filigree.
The guardian knights looked like a swarm of white worms with so many assembled and issuing queer jarring cries as they approached. Alicia Rue bit her lips with her long fang, then waiting until the guardian knights approached the limit, waved her right hand, raised her voice, and shouted.
"Fire Breath, attack!"
Then all of the breath the ten dragons accumulated was released in a conflagration of fire. Crimson red lines of fire flew from their mouths, leaving a trail in the air. Ten pillars of fire struck the guardian knights surrounding Kirito and the Sylph soldiers.
Dazzling light lit up the whole dome. Moments afterward, continuous fireballs exploded creating a huge wall of flame. A terrible explosive sound shook the world. The remains of the guardian knights were blown in all directions, leaving white flames burning out.
But there seemed to be an infinite number of guardians, new groups stretching from the wall of flesh, forcibly breaking through the blazing hellfire. First, as if wanting to swallow Kirito, who was at the front, it greatly opened its mouth, looking like a liquid spreading out.
When the white mass was on the verge of flooding, Sakuya sharply swung her fan downward, shouting:
"Fenrir Storm, release!!"
The Sylph force sharply thrust their long swords in perfect order. From each of the fifty swords a dazzling green bolt of lightning gushed out and cut through the air in a zigzag fashion, penetrating deeply into the group of guardian knights.
Again the world was dyed white by the brilliant flash of light. This time no explosion occurred, instead thick lightning ran freely, guardian knights caught in that jaw were blown apart into tiny pieces.
After the second large group was crushed, the central portion of the wall of guardian knights sank down. However, like the surface of a liquid, the hole made in that wall was quickly filled in from the sides.
It was 'now or never', Lyfa was convinced. She instantly unsheathed her katana and kicked into the air to rush forward. The lords seemed to have made the same decision. Sakuya's voice rang through the air like a whip.
"All troops, charge!"
It was certainly the biggest battle that had ever occurred in that world. From behind came the intermittent release of Flame Breath, guardian knights were burned to death and continued to fall one by one. The warhead formation used by the Sylphs cut down the flocking giants with their powerful swords, drilling a vast hole into the wall of meat.
At the tip of the warhead was the little black Spriggan. His equipment grade was way weaker than the Sylph warriors, but with his sword moving beyond god-like speed, anything that his sword touched was instantly cut and blown apart.
Lyfa flew through a gap that the Sylph warriors opened, immediately reaching behind Kirito. After blocking the sword of a guardian knight that was going to attack Kirito's back Lyfa buried her katana in its mirror mask. Holding her katana while turning, the neck of the knight flew away from its body, and the body burned with a white flame. Kirito turned to Lyfa, and said while moving only his lips.
"Sugu, I leave my back to you."
"Count on me!!"
She met his eyes and responded wordlessly, then put her back against his back. The two of them turned round and round, cutting down the guardian knights that continuously appeared in front of them.
One-on-one, the giant knights shouldn't be that easy for her to kill. However, as she stuck to his back and matched his speed, Lyfa felt as though the knights became slower and slower. No— Maybe her nervous system accelerated? It had happened in kendo matches before, Lyfa was enveloped by the sense that she could grasp everything going on around her.
It felt as though she and Kirito had become one being. With their nervous system directly connected, the pale electronic pulses flowing from one to the other. Without looking, she knew how Kirito was moving behind her. While his sword cut into a guardian knight's neck, while turning, Lyfa struck high into the same knight's neck and finished it off. On another knight's mask that Lyfa damaged, Kirito struck the same place Lyfa had just hit, cutting deeply.
Kirito, Lyfa, the Sylph warriors, and the dragoon brigade moved like a single white-hot entity, continuing to touch and melt the wall of guardian knights with no limit, going deeper and deeper. The number of knights was unlimited, but the amount of space in the dome was fixed. As long as they continued to progress, the moment would come sometime.
With her spirited shout Lyfa cut a guardian knight in half, it collapsed and disappeared.
Beyond the last few knights, even if only for an instant, she saw the zenith of the dome.
With a shout, Kirito moved from behind Lyfa as a black flash of light rushed toward the gap in the wall of flesh. The last group of guardian knights approached him from all directions while raising a cry of resentment to prevent intrusion. They numbered nearly thirty.
Lyfa instinctively swung her katana and threw it at Kirito's left hand with all her might.
The green blade spun through the air and settled into his hand as though it was sucked there.
With a shout that shook the entire dome, Kirito held the greatsword in his right hand and the katana in his left. They shot out with fearsome speed in a dual attack.
Cutting down from the upper right. Cutting up from the lower left. Two shining swords changed angles slightly and drew a snow-white circle that looked just like the corona of a solar eclipse. The bodies of knights that got caught in his ultra-speed slashing were cut to pieces like paper, spreading out into the surroundings.
This time it was clearly visible beyond the End Frame of the ring of white flame. Entangled like a mesh of tree branches at the center of the canopy of the dome, was a circular gate divided into pieces by a cross. Spanning the trunks of the World Tree, the final gate leading to ALfheim, the castle up at the top of the tree.
The small figure in black continued to fly toward the gate, pulling a tail of light behind him. He arrived. At last.
In front of Lyfa's eyes, the bodies of the guardian knights were quickly and repeatedly piled up and filled any open space in an instant. Sakuya, who noticed that Kirito broke through the defensive line, shouted from the rear:
"Everyone fall back, retreat!"
Evading together with the Sylph team while diving with the support of Fire Breath attacks, Lyfa, for a moment, looked back in the direction of the canopy. She was unable to see Kirito's figure due to the wall of guardians, but reflected in the eye of Lyfa's heart, rose the figure aiming for the place that no one had ever reached, rising higher and higher.
Fly— Go— Go anywhere! Through the giant tree, soar through the sky, to the heart of the world—!
I thought my mental nerves would burn out, considering the speed I rushed through that final distance.
In front of me was a large circular gate made of four tightly shut parts portrayed by a cross-shaped lithograph. Behind it, she— Asuna, waited. Left behind in that world, along with the other half of my soul.
From behind, the guardian knights' screams resounded, full of anger. They turned around and it seemed as though they were about to pursue me. Then the knights reappeared from the canopy around the gate without even a flash of light and rushed toward me as they caught me in their sights.
However, I was quicker. The gate was already just an arm's length away.
"...It won't open...!?"
I unintentionally cried out at the unexpected situation.
The gate wouldn't open. Before, I thought if I just got closer that annoying, large door would open, but it was tightly closed, blocking my path and its cross shaped parts wouldn't budge a bit.
From there on, there was no time to slow down. I was poised with my sword in my right hand at waist level, and hoping to shatter the gate in one blow, rushed toward it, becoming one with my sword.
Just after that I hit the gate with a terrible shock. The tip of my sword struck the stone block, violently spraying intense sparks. But— the surface didn't have a scratch.
"Yui— What is going on!?"
I cried out in confusion. No way, was that not enough? Do we not only have to break through the guardian knights, but need some type of item or flag as well?
About to follow the impulse to swing my sword again, Yui flew out of my pocket with a bell-like ting-a-ling. She gently placed her hands on the stone of the gate.
She turned her head, and quickly said:
"The door isn't locked by a quest flag or otherwise! It is simply this way because of the system administrator."
"Wh—? What do you mean!?"
"In other words... the door is something a player would never be able to open!"
I was speechless.
This means the grand quest— that the race which climbs the World Tree and reaches the City in the Sky would be reborn as true fairies, was like hanging a carrot in front of a rabbit's nose knowing it would never be able to reach it? Beyond the fact that it exceeds the limits in terms of difficulty, then there's a lock that could never be opened without the key called system authority...?
I felt my body lose all strength. Behind me, the cries of the guardian knights rushed over me like a tsunami. However, the will power that allowed me to grasp my sword again wouldn't spring out anymore.
'- Asuna, I've come so far... just a little further, until I can reach you... That piece of your warmth, was that our last contact...?'
'- No. Wait. That is, that's certainly...'
My eyes went wide. With my left hand, I fumbled in my back pocket. There. A small card. What Yui had said, that it was the system access code...
"Yui— Use this!"
I held the silver card out in front of Yui's eyes. Yui's eyes widened for an instant, then she nodded deeply.
Her small hand brushed against the surface of the card. Several streaks of light flowed from the card into Yui.
She cried out, then slammed both palms onto the surface of the gate.
I was dazzled by the bright light and squinted my eyes. Where her hands touched, bright blue lines radiated out, and right after, the gate itself started shining.
"—We will be transferred!! Papa, hold onto my hand!!"
Yui stretched out her right hand and firmly grasped the fingertip of my left hand. The line of light channeled through her body flowed into mine.
Suddenly, the queer voice of the guardian knights echoed from right behind us. Although I braced myself, dozens of large swords hurtled toward me. However, those swords passed through me as though they had totally lost substance. No, I was beginning to become transparent. My body faded and melted into light.
Suddenly, I was pulled forward. Yui and I turned into a torrent of data and were then sucked into the gate, which had changed into a glowing white screen.
My lapse of awareness was over in an instant.
I shook my head a few times trying to throw off the lingering sensation of the transfer while blinking my eyes. This was similar to the use of teleportation crystals in Aincrad, but instead of the familiar bustle of a gate square I was surrounded by complete silence.
I slowly stood up from the posture which I found myself in with one knee on the ground. In front of me was a concerned looking Yui. She was not in the little pixie form anymore, but the original, with the appearance of a girl about ten years old.
"Are you all right, Papa?"
"Yeah... This is...?"
I looked at my surroundings while nodding.
However you put it— It was a very strange place. Totally unlike the new 'game' feel of the excessively elaborate, decorated streets of Sylvain and Aarun. Everything I could see gave a blank impression, there were only white walls with no texture or detail.
I was somewhere in the middle of a passage of some sort. Rather than straight, it gently curved to the right. Looking back, it was similarly curved. It seemed to be a very long curve, or perhaps circular passage.
"...I don't understand, there seems to be no map data for navigating this place..."
Yui said with a puzzled look.
"Do you know where Asuna is?"
When asked, Yui closed her eyes for an instant, then nodded deeply.
"Yes, she's very— very close. Upwards... this way."
Kicking off the floor with her bare feet extending from her white dress, she turned and started running without making a sound. I returned the sword that I still held in my right hand to my back then hurriedly followed. The katana that should have been in my left hand had disappeared. Perhaps, when I was transferred, it had returned to Lyfa, who was the owner of the original system data. If she had not thrown me that sword, I definitely would not have been able to break through the last wall. I closed my eyes for a moment and silently prayed words of gratitude toward the sensation that remained in my left hand.
After following Yui for a few dozen seconds, a square door came into view on the left, the outer wall of the curve. It didn't have a single decoration either.
"It seems to be possible to reach the top from here."
I nodded at her words as she came to a stop and looked around the door— My posture went rigid instantly.
There were two triangular buttons lined up, one pointing up, the other pointing down. It was something I had never seen in this world, but nonetheless, it was very familiar in the real world. I could only think they were the buttons of an elevator.
Suddenly and strangely, with my body wrapped in battle garb and a sword strapped to my back, I frowned feeling out of place. No— It's this place that is strange. If these buttons were as I suspected, then this could no longer be thought of as the game world. Then... What is this place?
But that doubt only crossed my mind for a moment. I am good anywhere. As long as Asuna is there.
I touched the arrow pointing up with no hesitation. Soon, the doors slid open with a pong sound effect, exposing a small box-shaped room beyond. Entering the room with Yui I turned around and sure enough, there was a panel of buttons lined up next to the door. The button representing the current floor was lit and there seemed to be two more floors above that one. After hesitating slightly I pressed the top button.
The sound effect rang out again. The door closed and I was wrapped in an unmistakable rising sensation.
The elevator soon stopped. Beyond the open door was a curved passage similar to the one we just left. Facing Yui, who was tightly grasping my right hand, I said:
"Is this the right floor?"
"Yes. —Already, just... just around the corner."
While saying so, Yui pulled my hand and began running.
For additional tens of seconds I tried to suppress my frantic heartbeat while running through the passage. We came near a few doors on the inner circumference, but Yui went by without sparing a glance toward them.
Eventually, Yui came to a halt in an empty place.
"...What happened? "
"On the other side of this... a passage..."
Yui stroked the smooth wall on the outer circumference while muttering. Abruptly her hand stopped, and like the time with the gate, blue lines of light zigzagged at right angles while running along the surface of the wall.
Suddenly the thick lines separated a square from the wall, then the interior was annihilated with a banging sound. Inside, the dull and uninteresting passage extended straight ahead after all.
When Yui silently set foot into the passage, she began to run at increasingly higher speed. Seeing the tender look on her face, unable to bear the thought of waiting even one more second, I was convinced that Asuna was close.
Hurry, hurry. I wholeheartedly prayed from the bottom of my heart while advancing earnestly. Before long the passage ended ahead and a door with four corners blocked the way. Yui, without even bothering to stop, extended her left hand and forcefully pushed the door open.
In front of us we could see the huge setting sun.
The infinite sunset sky wrapped around the world. I noticed there was a slightly uncomfortable feeling about the view of this place. This place was set at an extremely high altitude, you can see the gently drawn curve of the horizon. The wind was ringing strongly.
Inevitably, I recalled that moment.
Asuna and I sat side by side watching as the floating castle disappeared, dissolving into the eternal sunset. She raised her voice, her words floating to my ear.
"We will be together forever."
"Ah— Yes. I have returned."
After muttering that, I turned my glance to my feet.
Where once there was a crystal floor, now there was a terribly thick tree branch.
My vision, which had been constricted by the crimson sunset, again widened. Overhead, the tree branched out in all directions, extending dense foliage on all sides, like a pillar that supported the heavens. Below, uncountable branches extended in my vision. Even farther down on the ground, beyond the vast ocean of clouds, I could see a flowing river faintly meandering in green meadows.
That was the top of the World Tree. The place Lyfa... Suguha constantly dreamed of seeing, the top of the world.
I slowly looked around. There, the trunk of the World Tree stood like a wall stretching on forever as it branched off.
"There is no... City in the Sky..."
I whispered while dumbfounded. It only had some tasteless white passages. Such a thing couldn't be the legendary City in the Sky. To begin with, it was necessary to generate some sort of event to mark the end of a grand quest. After breaking through the gate of the dome was complete I could hear no fanfare.
In other words, it was all an empty gift box. Decorated in wrapping paper and adorned with ribbons that are meant to hide the hollow lie. Speaking of that, what should I say to Lyfa, who dreamed of being reborn as a high-ranking fairy?
"...This is unforgivable..."
I spoke without thinking. Against the person or group who was running this world.
Suddenly, I felt a gentle tug on my right hand. Yui looked up at me with a worried look.
"Ah, that's right. Let's go."
Everything was to rescue Asuna. I came here just for that.
In front of my eyes a big branch of the tree stretched toward the setting sun. In the center of the branch was an artificial path. The road ahead, beyond the treetops standing in the sun— was reflecting golden light. Aiming for that light Yui and I began running. I desperately suppressed my irritation and a desire that seemed like it would catch fire at any second, and advanced forward on the tree path. My perception accelerated, making an instant seem to stretch on infinitely, such that the instant spanning a few seconds seemed to me to be many minutes.
Passing through an area of dense strangly-shaped leaves, the path continued. Whenever the branch intersected with another one, there would be up and down stairs to go past it. I would just beat my wings once and jump over.
The nature of the shining golden light in question became apparent over time. It was a combination of vertical and horizontal metal bars forming a metal lattice— No, it was a birdcage.
Above the big branch we were running on, another branch ran parallel to it, and from that branch hung the orthodox birdcage. However, it was extraordinarily large. It wouldn't be able to shut in a bird of prey, much less the smaller birds. That's right— It seemed to have another purpose -.
I was reminded of the conversation in Agil's shop, from a memory that seemed so far away it might as well be from ancient times. The five players that had piggybacked to bypass the altitude limit and taken screenshots. The photos they took portrayed a mysterious girl trapped in a birdcage. Yes, definitely. It was Asuna— Asuna would be in there.
There was a strong conviction in that little hand tightly holding my right hand, pulling me forward. We hurtled so fast we practically glided though the air, then we jumped over the final staircase.
The path carved into the branch suddenly narrowed as it ran below the cage, and then it ended.
I could already see clearly inside the golden birdcage. One big plant and various potted flowers littered the white tile floor. In the center was a big bed with a luxurious canopy. Next to it was a round white table with a tall chair. A girl was sitting in the chair with her hands together on the table and her head bowed with the aura of someone praying.
Long, flowing, straight hair was hanging down her back. She was wearing the same type of dress as Yui but more diaphanous. Thin wings extended elegantly from her back. Everything was illuminated in the brilliant red light of the setting sun.
I couldn't see her face. However, I understood. There was no way I wouldn't know. Like a magnetic force, my soul was drawn to her with a nearly visible flash that sparked between the two of us.
At that moment, the girl— Asuna, quickly lifted her face.
Maybe it's because of my deep yearning, but that beautiful shape already seemed to have been sublimated into a more light-filled concept of familiarity. Sometimes it was a smart beauty, like a sharpened sword. Other times, a mischievous friendly warmth. Her face, that was always beside me during those short but nostalgic days together, was at first filled with pure surprise. Then both of her hands rose to cover her mouth while moisture collected in those big hazel eyes, overflowing to form tears.
Taking the last few steps with a winged jump, I whispered in a voice that did not become sound.
Yui cried out at the same time, too.
At the end of the path where it ran into the cage there was a square door made of a dense metal lattice inset with a small metal plate that seemed to be a locking mechanism. Although the door was closed Yui didn't slow down while pulling me. Instead, she stretched out her right hand and held it above her left side. Her hand was enveloped in a blue glow.
Then she waved her hand to the right. At the same time the door quickly blew off as if it was just a metal plate. The door soon became light particles and dispersed, quickly disappearing.
Yui released my hand and with both arms outstretched, cried out again.
She rushed straight through the entrance into the birdcage.
Kicking away her chair, Asuna stood up. She removed her hands from her mouth, and from her lips, a trembling but clear voice issued.
Then Yui kicked off the floor, jumping straight into Asuna's chest. Black hair mixed with chestnut hair and danced in the sky, appearing maroon in the sunset.
Yui and Asuna hugged each other tightly, nuzzling each other's cheeks and calling out once again to make sure.
The tears of the two ran down their faces and disappeared in the light of the setting sun, shining like flames.
I relaxed the force that was propelling me forward and quietly walked to Asuna, stopping a few steps in front of her. Asuna lifted her face, and blinking away her tears, looked at me face to face.
The same as that time, I couldn't move. If I moved any closer and touched her, everything might disappear... Anyway, my current shape is very different from that time. The Spriggan's dark skin and my spiked hairstyle, I had nothing in common with the Kirito of that time. Holding back my tears, I could do nothing but stare at her.
But just like that time, Asuna's lips moved, and called my name.
After a moment of silence, my mouth moved and called her name.
I took the last two steps forward, arms open. I wrapped her delicate body with mine, holding her tightly to my chest with Yui nestled between us. The nostalgic fragrance drifted around me and her nostalgic warmth soaked into my body.
"...I'm sorry it took me so long." I muttered in a trembling voice. Asuna looked into my eyes from point-blank range and replied.
"No, I believed in you. I was certain— that you would come to help..."
More words were already unnecessary. Asuna and I closed our eyes and buried our faces in each other's necks. Both of Asuna's hands were behind my back, holding me firmly. A contented sigh from Yui seemed to leak between us.
—This is good enough. I thought.
If this became my last moment I would have no regrets, even as my life burned out. The life that was supposed to have been over with that world, finally concludes here, just for this...
No, that wasn't it. Finally, it starts here. Here, that world of swords and battle would end at last and we would finally set out for the new world named reality, together.
I looked up and said:
"Let's go home. To the real world."
After the embrace I firmly grasped Asuna's hand, and Yui held onto Asuna's other hand. I looked at Yui's face and inquired:
"Yui, is it possible to log Asuna out from here?"
Yui wrinkled her eyebrows for a moment, then shook her head.
"Mama's status is bound by a complex code. A system console is required to unlock it."
Asuna said in a nervous voice, tilting her head.
"I think I saw one on the lowest level of the laboratory... Ah, the laboratory is..."
"You mean in that empty white hallway?"
"Yeah. ...You came through there?"
I nodded my head, Asuna frowned while looking at me, seeming disturbed.
"Did you see anything... strange?"
"No, I never met anyone..."
"...It's possible a subordinate of Sugou was hanging around... Just cut them with your sword!"
At Asuna's mention of that name, I was surprised but at the same time convinced.
"This is that guy... Sugou's work? To imprison Asuna here."
"Yes. —Not only that, Sugou is doing horrible things here..."
Asuna started to say, practically radiating resentment, but shook her head immediately.
"We'll continue this conversation after we return to the real world. Sugou is not at the company now. We can take this chance to get access to the server and free everybody... Let's go!"
Although there were many things I wanted to ask, my top priority was getting Asuna back to the real world. I nodded and turned around.
Pulling Asuna who was holding Yui's hand, I began to run toward the blown off door at the entrance. Taking two steps, three steps, just as we were about to reach the edge of the cage, at that time.
—Someone was watching us.
Suddenly, I felt an unpleasant sensation sizzling on the back of my neck. It was the exact same feeling I got in SAO when I was being targeted by an orange PKer instead of a monster hidden in the shadows.
I quickly let go of Asuna's hand and grabbed the hilt of my sword. Ready to pull out my sword, I moved my hand slightly. At that moment...
Suddenly, the birdcage was filled with water. It felt like we were wrapped in a dark, highly viscous liquid.
No, that wasn't it. It was possible to breathe, but the air seemed to become abnormally heavy. Although I could move my body, as if we were in a sticky mucus I felt tremendous resistance. My body was heavy. It was painful to stand. At the same time the light faded from the world. The sunset in the birdcage was blotted out by darkness.
"—What is this!?"
Asuna cried out. Her voice was distorted, as though it was coming from deep underwater.
I tried to keep hold of Asuna and Yui and drew them closer despite the extraordinarily unpleasant feeling, but— I couldn't move my body at all. The air was sticky, moving with a consciousness like vines tying me up.
Finally, the world was shrouded in complete darkness. No, it was a little different. I could see Asuna and Yui in their one piece dresses clearly. But the view of the background seemed to be painted over with a deep black.
I gritted my teeth and moved my right hand. I should have been close to the lattice of the bird cage. I extended my hand, thinking to pull my body from that space— but my hand touched nothing.
It wasn't only an appearance. We had been thrown into a world of darkness, there was no telling where it was.
'What is the situation', I was about to say. But from Asuna's arms, Yui suddenly arched her back and screamed.
"Eek! Papa... Mama... Watch out! There is something really bad here..."
Before she even finished those words, purple lightning started shining from Yui's body, and with a dazzling flash— Asuna arms were empty.
Asuna and I shouted at the same time. But there was no answer.
In the thick and sticky true black darkness, only Asuna and I were left. I reached out desperately, wanting to be nearer to Asuna. Wide-eyed, Asuna reached out anxiously.
However, right before our fingertips were about to touch, we were hit with tremendous gravity.
It was like we were thrown into the bottom of a deep, deep swamp of mucus. I couldn't endure it, the pressure overwhelmed my whole body and I fell to one knee. Asuna fell down at the same time, thrusting both hands at the invisible floor.
Asuna looked at me, mouth moving slightly.
'It's all right, I will protect you no matter what', I was going to reply. At that moment a high-pitched laugh echoed throughout the darkness.
"Hey, what do you think about this magic? It's scheduled to be introduced in the next update, but perhaps the effects are too strong?"
That voice loaded with so much mockery that it couldn't be kept in check, was familiar. The man who, in front of the sleeping Asuna, ridiculed me, calling me hero.
I shouted as I struggled to stand up.
"No no, in this world, please refrain from calling me by that name. Not even using an honorific when calling your king's name. You may call me the Fairy King, His Majesty, Oberon!!"
His last words jumped up a few octaves, turning into an exclamation. At the same time something struck my head.
Turning my head a little bit, a man was standing next to me. All I could see were the feet, wrapped in boots covering gaudily embroidered tights, which he moved to the left and right on top of my head.
When I lifted my eyes I could see he was wearing long clothes in a poisonous green color, and above that is a face that looked perfectly made. No— It really was an artificial face. Starting at zero with polygon modeling, it was a handsome face distorted by its twisted expression, making it truly ugly. His red lips were hugely distorted, making it look like he was grinning.
Even if his appearance was different, I know this guy was Sugou. The man who confined Asuna's soul in such a place, a man for whom hate just wasn't enough.
"Oberon – no, Sugou!"
Asuna was almost lying on the ground, but she raised her face, shouting courageously.
"The things you have done, I've seen them with my own eyes!! Those terrible deeds— You won't get away with it, never!!"
"Oh? Who is going to stop me? You, or maybe him? Or maybe God? Unfortunately, there is no God in this world. Apart from me, hehe!"
Sugou said with his voice mixing together with that annoying laugh as he stepped down on my head, hard. Unable to endure the pressure from the gravity, I was pushed to the floor.
"Stop this, you coward!!"
Asuna yelled, but Sugou did not lend an ear to her cries. Instead, bending over me, he extracted my sword from the sheathe on my back. Standing up, he held it up with his forefinger then spun it around.
"—Well, Kirigaya-kun, no... I should call you Kirito. I did not think you would actually come here. Is it bravery or stupidity? Since you are in this situation it must be the latter, hehe. I heard that my little bird had escaped from her cage. Thinking that this time she must be punished I hurriedly returned, but what a surprise! It seems a cockroach had gotten lost in the cage! —Come to think of it, there was also that one strange program..." Sugou paused, and waving his left hand, quickly brought out his menu window. His lips curved while he looked at the luminescent blue screen for a moment, and humming in a nasal tone, he closed the window.
"...It escaped? What was that anyway? In the first place, how did you climb up to this place?"
Knowing that at least Yui hadn't been deleted, I felt slightly relieved and said:
"I flew here, with this pair of wings."
"—Well, alright. I'll understand if I ask the contents of your head directly."
"You didn't think that I would make this kind of place while raving drunk right?"
While bouncing my sword with his finger, Sugou wore a smile that dripped venom.
"With the devoted cooperation of former SAO players, my research into the fundamental operations of thought and memory is already 80% complete. A little more and I will be able to control the soul which no one has ever accomplished. That has always been called the work of god! Besides, I have happily obtained a new experimental body today. It makes me so happy. Looking through your memories, rewriting your emotions!! Just the thought of it makes me tremble!!"
"No way... that, you can do that..."
I whispered while I was still trying to master my disbelief after that far too insane speech. Sugou put his foot on my head again, tapping his toes.
"You learned nothing and connected using Nerve Gear right? Then it puts you in the exact same position as my other experimental bodies. After all, children are stupid. Even a dog remembers what not to do once it gets kicked. "
"That... That kind of thing will not be forgiven, Sugou!!"
Asuna shouted with a bloodless face.
"If you put a hand on Kirito, I'll never forgive you!!"
"Little bird, it is near the day when I'll be able to turn your hatred into absolute obedience with the flip of a switch."
After Sugou said that with an intoxicated expression, he held my sword and caressed the blade with the fingertips of his left hand.
"Well, let's have a fun party before I change your soul! Yeah... finally, I've long been waiting for this moment. Since the best guest has shown up, it's worth waiting till the limit of my patience!!"
Sugou turned around, opening his arms wide.
"Now, I am recording all logs of this space! Show me a good look!!"
Asuna bit her lip, and staring into my eyes, whispered quickly.
"...Kirito-kun, log out right now. In the real world you can expose Sugou's plot. I will be fine." "Asuna...!"
I felt torn in two directions for a moment. But immediately nodded and waved my left hand. If there was this much information, it was likely I could get a rescue team without physical evidence. As long as we could control RECTO Progress' ALO server, everything would head toward being solved.
—But. The window did not appear.
Sugou bent over, holding his stomach as he convulsed in laughter.
"I told you, this is my world! Nobody can escape from here!!"
Sugou danced around happily, suddenly lifting his left hand. After his fingers manipulated the menu two chains seemed to fall from the sky in the endless darkness with a jangling sound.
There was a jarring metallic sound as they hit the floor. Wide metal rings hung from the end of the chains, Sugou took one of the rings and placed it around Asuna's right wrist with a noisy 'kaching' sound. Then, the chain extending into the darkness was tugged lightly.
The chain was drawn up suddenly and Asuna's right hand was lifted up high. Her toes were barely touching the floor when the chains stopped.
"You bastard... what are you...!"
I cried out, but Sugou did not even spare me a look while humming a song and taking hold of the other handcuff ring.
"I did have a variety of toys prepared. Well, I will start over here first."
While saying that, the ring was shackled to Asuna's left wrist and the chain was retracted. With the other side drawn up, Asuna was suspended in mid-air with the appearance like she was being hauled up by both hands. Seemingly still under the influence of intense gravity, the curvature of her elegant eyebrows was distorted.
As Sugou stood before Asuna with his arms crossed, he gave her a vulgar whistle.
"How nice, this face can't be made by an NPC woman after all."
Asuna glared at Sugou and shut her eyelids tightly with her head bowed. Sugou chuckled, a 'kuku' sound emerging from the back of his throat, as he turned and slowly walked behind Asuna. He took a bunch of her long hair in hand and inhaled, taking a deep breath of its scent.
"Mmm, a good fragrance. It was a struggle to reproduce the scent of the real world's Asuna-kun. I wanted you to appreciate the effort of bringing the analyzer to the hospital room."
An unbearable anger pierced through my whole body. Red flames ran throughout my nerves, in an instant the pressure holding my body blew away.
I propped myself up with my right hand and tore my body off the floor. Standing on one knee, I gradually lifted myself using all of the power in my body.
Sugou made a dramatic gesture at his waist with his left hand while shaking his head from side to side. He walked in front of me twisting his mouth.
"My, my, the audience should behave... and stay there grovelling!!"
Standing right beside me, he suddenly kicked both my legs. I lost my support and slammed to the floor.
My lungs were emptied from the impact, involuntarily making that sound. With my hands once again propped on the floor my head looked upwards. Sugou hung a venomous smile across his lips— while holding my sword in his right hand he stabbed me in the back without remorse.
The flames coursing through my nerves were extinguished by the sensation of thick metal piercing through my body. The center of my chest was pierced through by the sword, which seemed to be deeply rooted in the floor. Though there was no pain, I was being assaulted by intense discomfort.
Hearing Asuna's cry, I met her gaze while trying to tell her 'I'm fine'.
However, faster than my voice could come out, Sugou suddenly spoke out to the darkness in the sky above with a booming voice.
"System command! Pain Absorption, change to level 8."
That moment, a sharp cone of pure pain spread through my back, as if I was stabbed.
When a groan leaked out of my mouth, Sugou howled in laughter.
"Kukuku, there's still two more treats for you. The pain will get stronger gradually so look forward to enjoying it. When it gets lower than level 3, I'm afraid it seems you'll still feel the symptoms of shock even after logging out."
With a clap of his hands as if he were saying 'Now then...', he returned to behind Asuna.
"F-... Free Kirito-kun right now, Sugou!"
Asuna cried, but of course, Sugou showed no sign of having heard her.
"You know, I hate brats like that the most. Although he has neither the ability or the background, a noisy insect. Kuku, like insects in the specimen box, they must be pinned and stopped. Besides, you're hardly in the condition to worry about him, are you little bird?"
From behind Asuna, Sugou stretched out his right hand and stroked her cheek with his index finger. Asuna twisted her neck trying to avoid it, but it didn't happen as she wanted due to the severe gravity. His finger crept about her face and before long moved down to her neck. Asuna's face was distorted in disgust.
I cried out, while desperately trying to push up my body. Asuna gave a resolute smile and with a trembling voice, said:
"—Do not worry, Kirito-kun. I won't be hurt by such a thing."
That moment, a squeaky laughter with a 'kiki' sound came from Sugou.
"It has to be like this, after all. How long do you think your pride will sustain you— 30 minutes? An hour? Perhaps a whole day? Prolong it as long as possible, this pleasure!!"
While shouting, he grabbed the red ribbon at the collar of Asuna's dress with his right hand. As he pulled, the cloth stretched and tore. The thin blood-red ribbon fluttered through the air without a sound and landed on the ground before my eyes.
From the torn dress the pure white skin of her chest was greatly exposed. Asuna's face was distorted in humiliation and her eyes shut so tightly she shook.
Sugou bent back, laughing with a smirk while stretching his right hand out to Asuna's bare skin. His lips opened in the shape of a crescent moon and he stuck out his vivid red tongue. While making a sound of dripping mucus, he licked from below Asuna's cheek up.
"Ku, ku, shall I tell you what I am thinking about?"
Sugou said in a voice tinged with a fevered madness while his tongue was still sticking out near Asuna's ear.
"Once I fully enjoy this place I'll go to your hospital room. If I lock the door and turn off the camera, that room becomes a secret room. You and I, just the two of us. I'll set up a large monitor and run today's recording and enjoy myself with the other you! I'll take my time and go carefully. After all, it is your real body. After taking the purity of your heart here, I'll take the purity of your body there!! So fun, a truly unique experience!!"
Sugou's shrill laugh turned my guts inside out as it echoed in the darkness.
Asuna opened her eyes wide for a moment, her lips courageously pulled tight.
However, the fear she couldn't control collected in the corners of her eyes. As the two tears dripped down her long eyelashes Sugou's tongue licked them up.
"Ah... sweet, so sweet! Come on, cry for me some more!!"
A white-hot rage that could incinerate everything pierced straight through my head, scattering violent sparks through my vision.
"Sugou... you bastard... YOU BASTAAAARD!!"
I screamed, recklessly moving my limbs as I tried to stand up. But the sword through me did not even budge.
I felt tears overflowing from both of my eyes. Crawling like an unsightly insect and struggling, I roared.
"You bastard... I'll kill you!! KILL!! I WILL DEFINITELY KILL YOU!!"
I cried, but all that was drowned out by Sugou's mad-sounding laughter.
Right now, if I could borrow power...
My fingertips scratched at the floor, praying to move even a single millimeter forward.
Right now, if I were granted the power to stand up, any price would be fine. Take away my life, my soul, everything, I would not care. Whether it be a demon or a devil, it did not matter as long as that man was cut down and defeated. As long as Asuna was returned to the place she belonged.
Sugou stroked Asuna's arm and leg with both hands, caressing them. Every move of his hand was probably causing a strong pulse of sensory stimulation in her. Asuna bit her lips so hard she started bleeding, enduring the humiliation.
With that figure in my vision, I felt my thoughts turning white, cut off by a searing white sensation. The flames of anger and despair consumed me. My remaining thought processes were turned to ash. If my soul became like the color of a lump of dry bones, I would not have to think. There would be no need to think.
If I had a sword, I thought I could do anything. Because I was the hero who stood at the top of 10,000 swordsmen. I defeated the demon king, the hero who saved the world.
The virtual world was merely assembled based on the marketing theory of companies, simply a game. Being caught up in thinking it was another reality, I was deluded into thinking that the strength gained in that world was real strength. Freed from the world of SAO— or expelled, after returning to the real world, was I not disappointed with my meager body of flesh? Somewhere in my heart, did I not yearn to return to that world, the world where I was the strongest hero?
Which is why you, after learning of Asuna's mind being in a new game world, thought you could do something about it with your own power and came blindly. When the thing you truly should have done was to leave it to the adults with power in the real world. After regaining the illusory power once again, overwhelming the other players, was it not to please myself by satisfying my ugly pride?
Then this result— was what I deserved. That's right, you were only using the power granted by someone else, getting excited like an innocent kid. Merely having one ID could not overwhelm something called system administration privileges. Only one thing was certain, regret. If I didn't like it, I had to abandon the thought.
—Not so, I acknowledged the reality.
『Do you surrender? To the power of the system you have defeated before?』
—It can't be helped. I am a player, that guy is a game master.
『Those are words that defile that battle. Where I was made to recognize that the power of the human will can surpass the system, made to comprehend the possibilities of the future, our battle.』
—Battle? Such a thing is nonsense. Isn't it simply a thing that would increase or decrease numbers?
『You should know that isn't so. Now stand. Stand and take hold of the sword.』
That voice was like a thundering roar, it tore through my consciousness like lightning.
The senses that had been fading seemed to reconnect in an instant. My eyes opened widely.
Leaked from my throat in a hoarse voice.
I clenched my teeth and put my right hand to the floor, pushing myself to my elbows with a voice that sounded like the cry from a beast near death.
When I tried to lift my body, the sword which had pierced through the middle of my spine hung with an overwhelming pressure.
—I can't stay grovelling miserably under such a thing. This attack with no soul, surrendering to it was unforgivable. The barrage of every blade in that world was more heavy. More painful.
"Wu... Gu, ooh!!"
Together with the short roar, I used all the power of my body and soul to lift myself up. With a dull 'shuit' sound the sword left the floor, slipped out of my back, and rolled to the ground.
Sugou stared with a dumbfounded expression as I staggered to my feet. Soon, he made a displeased face and took his hands away from Asuna's body, shrugging theatrically.
"My my, I thought I had fixed the coordinates of the object, I wonder if it still has a strange bug. When it comes to our management team's incompetence......"
He muttered as he walked toward me. Raising his right fist, he sent it flying to punch my cheek.
I stretched out my left hand, grabbing his fist in midair.
I looked into Sugou's surprised eyes, opening my mouth. A set of words echoed in the depths of my mind, I repeated them.
"System Login. ID «Heathcliff». Password....."
The gravity which was wrapped around my body disappeared as soon as I finished reciting the complex series of alphanumeric characters.
"Wha... What!? What is that ID!?"
When Sugou bared his teeth and cried out in surprise, he shook off my hand and flew back a step. He waved his left hand downward and a blue system menu appeared.
Before that guy could even move a finger, a Voice Command emitted from my mouth.
"System command. Supervisor Authority Change. ID «Oberon» to level 1."
In a split second, the window disappeared from under Sugou's hand. He stared with his eyes looking back and forth several times between my face and the empty space where the window was, waving his left hand again in frustration.
However, nothing would happen. The scroll of magic which gave Sugou the power of the Fairy King wouldn't emerge.
"A... An ID of a higher rank than mine...? Unbelievable... This shouldn't be possible... I am the ruler... The creator... The Emperor of this world... God..."
Sugou kept talking in a high-pitched voice that sounded like an audio sample played back at high speed. I spoke while looking at the pretty face collapsed into ugliness.
"That isn't so, right? You stole it. The world. The residents there. A thieving king that dances all alone on his stolen throne."
"Thi... this punk of a kid... me... actually dares to say that to me... I'll make you regret it... I'll take your head off and make it an ornament..."
Sugou thrust a forefinger bent like a hook at me and screamed in a shrill voice.
"System Command!! Object ID «Excaliber» Generate!!"
However, the system was no longer responding to Sugou's voice.
"System Command!! Listen to me you piece of junk!! God... God is commanding you!!" At his screams, I averted my eyes from Sugou. I looked at Asuna who was still hanging off of the ground.
Her radiant dress was ripped and only shreds covered her body, her hair disheveled, and there were streaks of light that were tears on her cheeks. But her eyes had not lost their shine. That strong whip did not break her tenacious spirit.
—It'll be over soon. Wait just a little more.
I whispered in my mind, looking into Asuna's hazel-colored eyes. It was a small motion, but Asuna nodded.
A new flame of anger rose in me when I looked at Asuna's oppressed figure. I looked up slightly and said:
"System Command. Object ID «Excaliber» Generate."
The space before me began to distort when I said that. Minuscule numbers flowed out in a rush to form a single sword. The color and texture were given gradually from the tip down. With a blade giving off a golden gleam, it was a longsword engraved with beautiful decorations. There was no doubt it was the same weapon that had been sealed at the end of the dungeon in Jötunheimr. The strongest sword which was the dream of many players, and it appeared on one command, not a particularly pleasant feeling.
I grabbed the hilt of the sword and threw it to a wide-eyed Sugou. After seeing him catch it in a dangerous manner I gently lifted my left foot.
My sword flew up into the darkness from where it had rolled before when I stepped hard on its pommel. Rotating through the air, it dropped toward my right hand with a flash of its blued steel. With a heavy sound, the sword fell into my hand.
When I had pointed my unwieldy black iron greatsword at Sugou, I said:
"It's time to settle this. The thieving king against the pretend hero... System Command. Pain Absorption to level 0."
Hearing the command to raise the virtual pain without restriction, the color drained from the cheeks of the Fairy King wielding the golden sword. He edged back one step, two steps.
"Don't try to escape. That man had no hesitation whatsoever in any situation. That— Kayaba Akihiko."
Hearing that name, Sugou's face became extremely warped.
"Kayaba... Heathcliff... so it's you... You're getting in my way again!!"
Waving the sword in his right hand high above his head, he screamed in a voice that would tear metal.
"You died! You bit the dust!! Why should you hinder me even in death!! You were always like this... Always always!! Always making that face like you understood everything... snatching away all the things I wanted by the edge!!"
Sugou shouted, suddenly thrusting his sword towards me before continuing.
"A brat like you... What could you possibly understand!! What it's like to be below him... What it means to compete with him, how could you possibly understand what it's like!?"
"I understand. I became a servant after being defeated by that man too. —But I never thought of becoming like him. Unlike you."
"Brat... This brat... THIS BRAAAAAT!!"
Sugou kicked off the ground with a scream that turned inside out and brandished his sword. As soon as I observed an opening, I cleave down the sword in my right hand and the tip of my sword sliced through the smooth cheek of the Fairy King.
Sugou cried as he held his cheek with his left hand and jumped back.
The scream from the wide-eyed figure only served to further ignite my rage. The thought that Asuna was under this man's oppression for two months was unbearable. Taking a large step forward, I brought down my sword. Sugou instinctively raised his right hand to block and my sword severed his wrist. The hand and the golden sword being wielded disappeared into the darkness. The sound of it falling somewhere far away echoed clearly.
"AAAAAAaaah!! Hand... My haaaaand!!"
It was a pseudo-electrical signal, but that was why Sugou would be feeling pure pain. Of course, it wasn't enough. There was no way it could be enough.
I swung my sword with brute force at the green robes wrapping Sugou's torso while he was holding onto the stump on his forearm and moaning.
The stomach of the tall, handsome body was dissected apart in two equal halves, rolling to the floor with a severe noise. The lower half was immediately engulfed in rising white flames and collapsed after being burned.
Grabbing Sugou's long wavy blond hair in my left hand, I lifted him up. He continued to scream in a metallic voice out of a quivering mouth that was opening and closing, while tears drained from eyes which were stretched open to the limit.
His figure could only evoke disgust in me. I swung my left hand, throwing his upper torso straight down.
Holding my greatsword with both hands, I took a stance above him. Watching the sword drop, he released a harsh scream -.
I brought the sword down with all of my strength. With a noisy 'Gatsutsu' sound, the blade went through Sugou's right eye and exited from the back of his head.
The unpleasant scream echoing in the darkness was like several thousand broken gears scraping against each other as they turned. The right eye was divided in two on the left and right sides of my sword. Sticky white flame erupted, quickly spreading from the head to the upper body.
He turned ghost-like and kept dissolving, and for the several seconds before completely disappearing Sugou continued crying without stop. The scream slowly faded, and before long, the figure disappeared. Silence returned to the world, and I waved my sword, scattering the white embers.
With a gentle swing of my sword, the two chains binding Asuna shattered and disappeared. I let go of my sword, its job complete. I held Asuna as she slipped to the ground, her body gone limp.
The energy supporting my body also ran out and I slid to one knee on the ground. I looked at Asuna in my hands.
The torrent of helpless feelings changed form and began flowing from my eyes as tears. Tightly holding Asuna's slender body, my face buried in her hair, I cried. I couldn't say anything, I just kept crying.
Asuna's clear voice shook my ears.
"...Yes, I believed. ...Up until now, from here on. You are my hero... You will always come to help me..."
Gentle hands stroked my hair.
—That's not it. I... I actually had no power...
However, I took a big breath, and said in a trembling voice.
"...I will do my best to be like that. Now, let's go back..."
Waving my left hand, a complex system window emerged, it was really different from normal ones. I intuitively dove into the hierarchy window, stopping when my finger landed on the transfer-related menu.
Staring into Asuna's eyes, I said:
"In the real world it is probably already night. But I will go to your hospital room immediately."
"Yeah, I'll wait. It will be nice to see Kirito-kun first."
Asuna smiled brilliantly. She looked at some far-off place, with crystal clear eyes, and whispered:
"Ah... finally, it ended. I will return... to that world."
"That's right. ...It changed in various ways, you will be surprised."
"Fufu. Let's go to a lot of places and do many things."
"Yeah. —For sure."
I nodded holding tightly to Asuna and moved my right hand. I touched the log out button, with my finger-tip glowing blue waiting for a target, I gently wiped away the tears flowing down Asuna's cheeks.
Then, blue light wrapped around Asuna's white body. Little by little, Asuna became more transparent like crystal. Particles of light came from her fingers and toes, dancing through the air before disappearing.
Until Asuna completely disappeared, I was holding on to her body tightly. Finally, the weight in my arms vanished and I was left alone in the darkness.
For the moment, I remained crouching.
In addition to feeling that everything was over, there was also the feeling of a large amount of progress. Yet this incident caused by Kayaba's fantasy and Sugou's ambition— Is this the so-called ending? Or is it just another big turning point?
I forced myself to stand up somehow with a body that was running out of energy. I looked above in the dazzling darkness extending to the depths of the world, and whispered alone.
"—You're there aren't you, Heathcliff?"
After a moment of silence a rusty voice sounded in my consciousness, the same one as earlier.
『It has been a long time, Kirito-kun. Though for me— the events of that day seem like just yesterday.』
It was different this time, as the voice seemed to reach me from some far-off place.
"—Are you alive?"
With that short question, I heard an answer after the briefest instant of silence.
『You could say that I am, and you could say that I'm not. In a sense, I am— an echo of Kayaba Akihiko's consciousness, an afterimage.』
"As usual, you're a person that says things in a confusing way. I'll express my gratitude for the time being— At any rate, it would have been nicer of you to have come out and helped us earlier."
The presence of a wry smile being revealed.
『That was unfortunate, my apologies. The time when the decentralized preservation system connected and awakened my program was just a bit ago— when I had heard your voice. There is no need for thanks.』
『You and I aren't on friendly enough terms to accept free favors. I need to have compensation of course, naturally.』
This time it was my turn to smile wryly.
"Then tell me what needs to be done."
Then, from the distant darkness, some kind of— silver shining object fell. I reached out and it settled into my hands with a faint sound. It was a small, egg-shaped crystal. Within the crystal a dim light was blinking.
『It is a world seed.』
『When it sprouts, you will understand. I entrust you with the decision of what to do with it afterwards. Deleting it is fine, forgetting it is fine... However, if you have any feelings other than hatred left for that world...』
The voice broke off there. Following a short silence, only a curt farewell descended.
『- Well then, I'll be going. May we meet again some day, Kirito-kun.』
Then suddenly, the presence vanished.
I twisted my head around, dropping the shiny egg into my breast pocket for the meantime. Lost in thought for a while, I lifted my face.
"—Yui, are you here? Are you okay!?"
As soon as I cried out, the world of darkness split open along a straight line.
Orange light quickly shone through, cutting up the dark curtain. The wind blew in at the same time carrying away the darkness. It was so beautiful and dazzling that I had to momentarily close my eyes. I opened them cautiously and found myself back in the birdcage.
In front of me, the huge setting sun was giving off its last light before falling below the horizon. There were no human figures, just the sound of the wind.
Calling out once again, light condensed in front of my eyes, and a dark-haired little girl appeared with a crackling pop.
With a resonant cry Yui jumped into my chest, hugging my neck tightly.
"You were safe. —Thank goodness..."
"Yes... When it looked like my address was going to be locked all of a sudden, I retreated to the Nerve Gear's local memory. I managed to connect again, but both Mama and Papa were gone... I was worried. —Mama is...?"
"Ah, she returned... to the real world."
"I see... that's great... truly..."
Yui closed her eyes and put her cheek to my chest. I sensed a faint shadow of loneliness from her and gently stroked her long hair.
"—Soon, we'll come see you again. But... I wonder what will become of it, this world..."
After my muttering, Yui grinned and spoke.
"My core program is not part of this place but stored in Papa's Nerve Gear. We'll always be together. —Oh, but it is strange..."
"What's the matter?"
"A rather large file has been transferred to your Nerve Gear's storage.... though it does not seem to be active..."
I tilted my head, but put aside the question for now. Rather, there was something else I needed to do no matter what.
"—Well, I'm going. To meet your Mama."
"Yes. Papa— I love you."
Exuding wispy tears, I hugged Yui strongly while stroking her head and waved my right hand.
Just before I pressed the button, I stopped and watched the world dyed in the colors of sunset. This world that was ruled by a false king, what would happen to this world now that he was gone? My heart ached when I thought of Lyfa and the other players who loved this world so deeply.
I gently kissed Yui's cheeks and moved my finger deeply. Radial light spread through my vision, it wrapped my awareness and carried me higher and higher.
I felt a deep sense of exhaustion when I opened my eyes. In front of my eyes was Suguha's face and she was looking at my face with a worried expression. When our eyes met she hurriedly stood up.
"S-, sorry, I entered your room without permission. When you didn't come back for a long while, I became worried..."
Suguha said, with her cheeks slightly flushed as she sat on the edge of my bed. After a little time lag my limbs regained a sense of connection and I forcefully push my upper body up.
"Sorry I was late."
"...is it all over?"
"—Yeah... finished... everything..."
For a moment I stared into space while answering. Being in a dangerous situation in the virtual world and getting captured, but this time imprisoned without being able to be cleared, wasn't something I could tell Suguha. Eventually I would tell her everything, but right now I don't want her to be more worried. This one and only younger sister who had already saved me more times than words could tell.
That one late night in the forest, I met a green-haired girl and my new adventure started— during the whole long journey, she was always with me. She showed me the way, taught me about the scenery and protected me with her sword. If she hadn't introduced me to the two lords and made friends with them, I definitely would not have been able to break through the wall of the guardian knights.
Looking back, I also received the help from a huge number of people. But of course, the most help came from the girl in front of my eyes. When I was Kirito and she was Lyfa, and when I was Kazuto and she was Suguha, she helped and supported me, but at the same time her small shoulders carried a deep anguish.
Once again I stared at Suguha's face, it had both the dazzling activeness of a boy, and a newly sprouted green leaf's evanescence. I reached out a hand and gently patted her head, Suguha gave a small smile of embarrassment.
"Really— Really thank you very much, Sugu. If you weren't here, I wouldn't have been able to do anything."
Suguha's face became even redder and she lowered her head. She fidgeted for a bit, then she made up her mind and rested her cheek against my chest.
"Yeah... I was happy. In onii-chan's world, I was able to help onii-chan."
Suguha whispered with her eyes closed. With my right hand, I gently held her back and gave her a quick squeeze.
After I let go, Suguha looked up at me and said.
"Then... you got her back, right? That person— Asuna-san..."
"Yeah. Finally— She is back at last... Sugu, I......"
"Yes. Go, surely she is waiting for onii-chan."
"Sorry. I'll tell you the details when I get back."
I put a hand on Suguha's head and stood up.
I got dressed in record time, but paused on the porch in my down-jacket. It was completely dark outside. The hands of the antique wall clock which hung in the living room pointed to a time shortly before 9:00 PM. Visiting hours were over long ago, but the situation was the situation. If I told the circumstances at the nurses station, I might be able to get in.
Suguha immediately ran up to me, 'I made this', and handed me a thick sandwich. I accepted it gratefully and bit on it, then opened the patio door and walked down to the yard.
I ducked my head when I realized the cold was penetrating my jacket. Suguha looked up at the dark night sky and said.
Indeed, there were two or three large white snowflakes that came floating down. I hesitated a moment about whether to call a taxi. If I did that though, I would have to wait then walk to the main road to be picked up, so it would be faster to just use my bicycle.
"Be careful. ... Say hello to Asuna for me."
"Yeah. Next time, I'll introduce you properly."
I waved goodbye to Suguha and sitting astride my mountain bike, I started pedaling.
I let my bike run at full speed, and the crazy speed blew the thoughts out of my head as I flew through south Saitama. The snow gradually started falling down harder but it didn't accumulate, and the reduced traffic density was helpful.
I wanted to reach Asuna in the hospital as quickly as possible— But at the same time, I was partly afraid of what I might find. For the past two months, I had visited that room every other day, always tasting bitter disappointment. Wondering if she would become a cold statue like that, I took her hand while she was silently imprisoned in sleep. I kept calling her name even though it never reached her.
Like this, while moving down this road, I even remember the gaps, finding her in the fairy kingdom, defeating the fake king, and freeing her from chains might just be my fantasy.
If I visited her hospital room a few minutes later and Asuna did not wake up.
Her soul was no longer in ALfheim, but she still did not return to reality— Once again, she might have vanished to some unknown place.
It wasn't only the snow hitting my face in the dark night that was causing the terrible chill to run up my back. No, there couldn't be such a thing. The system that governs the world by the name of reality couldn't be that ruthless.
While my tangled thoughts intertwined I continued pedaling. I turned right on the highway into the hills. My deep tread block-tires acted as a shovel to bite and kick into the thin snow on the asphalt, accelerating my bike.
Before long, the shadow of a huge building appeared in front of me. Most of the lights were out, but a blue light flashed from the helipad on the roof like a will-o-the-wisp trying to attract victims to the castle of darkness.
A high iron fence appeared when I finished climbing the hill. I rode along it for tens of seconds longer. I finally reached the front gate, protected by especially tall gateposts.
Because it was a highly specialized medical facility, it didn't accept emergency cases. The gates were already tightly closed and the guard box was unmanned. I rode past the entrance to the main parking lot and entered through the small staff entrance.
I parked my bike at the end of the parking lot. It was too irritating to lock it up so I ran on. In the orange light cast by sodium floodlights I could see the parking lot was completely deserted. The silence was broken only by the snow falling from the sky, painting the world white. I continued running while exhaling clouds of steam with my rough breathing.
Half way across the vast parking lot, as I was about to pass between a tall dark-colored van and a white sedan, at that moment.
I almost collided with the shadow of a person rushing out from behind the van.
'Excuse me', I was about to say while trying to dodge, something crossed my vision—
Flash, a vivid shine of metal slashed at me.
Right after, heat blossomed on my right arm, just below the elbow. At the same time a lot of white scattered. It wasn't snow flakes. It was fine white feathers. The insulation from my down-jacket.
I staggered back, somehow colliding with the rear of the white sedan and managed to stop.
I could not understand the current situation. While stunned, I looked at the black shadow about two meters away from me. It was a man. He was wearing a suit that was nearly black. He was holding something long, slender, and white in his right hand. It shone dully in the orange light.
A knife. A large survival knife. But, why.
My face froze as I felt the stare of the man in the shadow of the van. He was moving his lips, but what came out was a hoarse whisper.
"You're late, Kirito-kun. What if you make me catch a cold?"
That voice. It was a high-pitched, sticky voice.
I was stunned, at the same time I called out his name, the man took a step forward. The sodium lamps illuminated his face.
Compared to a few days ago, his smooth combed hair had become severely disturbed and there were several days worth of beard covering his sharp jaw. His neck-tie was almost completely untied and hung loosely around his neck.
And also— Strange eyes peered out at me from behind metal framed glasses. The reason was apparent at once. Even though his eyes were open as wide as possible, his left eye had dilated adapting to the darkness of night while his right eye was small and contracting. In the World Tree, that was where he was pierced with my sword.
"You did a cruel thing, Kirito-kun."
Sugou said in a rasping voice.
"The sense of pain has not disappeared yet. Well, there are various good medicines, so it does not matter."
His right hand thrust into his suit pocket, grabbed a few capsules and threw them in his mouth. With a Kacha Kacha sound he started chewing, and Sugou took another step toward me. Finally recovering from my shock, I managed to move my dry lips.
"—Sugou, you are already finished. You have gone too far to cover things up. Receive judgement obediently."
"Finished? What? Nothing is over yet. Well, Recto is unusable now. I'll go to America. There are a lot of companies which want my expertise. I have now accumulated a large amount of experimental data. If I use that to complete my study, I will become the true king— true god— this real world's god."
—He's crazy. No, perhaps he had been broken for a long time.
"Before that, there are some issues I have to take care of. First, I will kill you, Kirito-kun."
After he finished talking in a subdued voice without a change in expression, Sugou briskly approached me. The knife in his right hand casually moved toward my eyes.
I kicked off the asphalt with my right foot, trying to avoid it. However, because of the snow under my shoe, I slipped and lost my balance, collapsing on the parking lot. I landed hard on my left side, the breath leaving my body.
Sugou looked down at me with pupils which couldn't seem to focus.
"Hey, stand up."
After that, he kicked me in my thigh with the tip of his expensive shoe. Twice. Thrice. Hot pain ran up my spinal chord, echoing in the back of my head. It also reverberated through my right arm creating a sharp pain. I finally noticed that there was a cut not only in my jacket but also on my arm.
I could not move. I could not make a sound. The survival knife that Sugou was holding— the longer than 20 centimeter blade, the heavy pressure of that murderous tool, made me freeze.
Kill—? Me—? With that knife—?
My fragmented thoughts flowed and disappeared. That thick blade, penetrating my body silently, deadly— As the words showed, taking my life with a fatal wound, I imagined that instant again and again. Besides that, there was nothing I could do.
The pain in my right arm became a dull heat. Several drops of dark liquid dripped from the gap between the cuff of my winter jacket and glove. I began to imagine the blood flowing from my body endlessly. A clear and real image of «death» which wasn't a numerical value in a HP bar.
"Hey, stand up. Just stand up."
Sugou mechanically kicked and stepped on my feet again and again.
"You, what you said to me over there. Don't run away? Don't hesitate? Let's settle this? You said them arrogantly."
I heard him whisper, Sugou's voice filled with the same colors of insanity as I heard in the darkness over there.
"You understand now? A little shit like you with no ability but games, and no true power at all. That's what you call inferior trash. Nevertheless, you thwarted me, this me... Naturally, the punishment for your sins is death. It is impossible for it to be anything other than death."
After speaking in a tone without inflection, Sugou put his left foot on my belly, and changed his center of gravity. From the physical pressure and the mental pressure as he released his madness, I lost my breath.
I watched Sugou's face as he approached, taking shallow, irregular, rapid breaths. While bending, Sugou held the weapon in his right hand high above his head.
Without blinking, he swung it down.
A stiff sound leaked from the back of my throat—
Along with a dull metallic sound, the tip of the knife grazed my cheek and dug into the asphalt at the same time.
"Ah... my right eye is blurry, my aim was off."
Sugou muttered as he raised the knife high again.
The edge of the knife was dazzling in the light of the sodium lamps, and drew an orange line in the darkness.
Maybe it was because he hit the hard road with it, but the knife tip was slightly fragmented. That flaw gave the knife a more realistic physical presence as a weapon. Rather than a polygon weapon, it was made of condensed metal molecules, heavy and cold, and genuine lethal blade.
Everything seemed to slow down. Snow which fell from the dark sky. The mass of air expelled from Sugou's mouth. The knife which was descending toward me. The blinking of the orange light reflected from the serrations carved in the blade.
That reminds me, there was a jagged weapon like that...
A piece of meaningless memory flowed to the surface of my stopped thought.
What was that? It was a dagger type item sold in the middle layers of Aincrad. I think it was called «Sword Breaker». If you parry the enemy's weapon on the saw shaped back portion, there was a slight bonus increasing the chance of destroying their weapon. Because it seemed interesting, I placed the dagger skill in the skill slot and used it for a while, but wasn't satisfied with it due to its low base offensive ability.
The weapon Sugou was holding now was even smaller than that. It couldn't even be called a dagger. No— Such a thing couldn't even be categorized as a weapon. It was a tool for daily work. It wasn't a thing a swordsman would use to fight.
In the depth of my ears, I heard Sugou's words from a few seconds ago.
True power, possessing nothing of that—
Yes... that's right. It didn't even need to be said. But who are you to be saying you would kill me, Sugou? A master of the knife skills? Martial arts expert?
I looked behind Sugou's glasses, his small eyes seemed to be dyed the color of blood. Excitement. Madness. But they also held something else. Those were the eyes of someone trying to escape. Those were the same eyes that someone who was surrounded by hordes of monsters in a dungeon, falling into a desperate deadly situation, the eyes of someone who swung their sword in a frenzy, trying to intercept reality.
This guy was the same as me. Continuing to chase power, but unable to obtain it, just moving in ugly steps.
"...Die, you bratttt!!"
Sugou's scream pulled my consciousness back from the world moving at slow speed.
I raised my left hand like a magnet and caught Sugou's right wrist as he swung it down. At the same time, I stretched out my right arm and shoved my thumb into the hollow of his throat beside his loose tie.
With a grunt, Sugou leaned back. I twisted my body, grabbing Sugou's right hand with both of my hands, and slammed his hand on the frozen asphalt with all my might. His hand came loose with a scream, and the knife rolled away on the road.
Screaming shrilly like a whistle, Sugou jumped toward the knife. I bent my right leg, letting it fly, my shoe's sole impacting on his jaw. I scoop up the knife and used the recoil to stand up.
From my throat came a voice that cracked so badly that I could hardly believe it was my own.
Through the glove on my right hand, I felt the presence of the cold, hard knife. It was a poor weapon. Too light, with no reach.
"But it is enough to kill you."
After whispering, I turned to Sugou who was looking up at me with a blank face while sitting on the asphalt, then sprang at him fiercely.
I grabbed his hair and head in my left hand and slammed it into the door of the van. With a dull sound the car's aluminium body was dented, and his glasses flew away. Sugou's mouth opened hugely. Aiming for his throat, I moved my right hand with the knife without hesitation—
I stopped my arm there, gritting my teeth.
"Iii! Hiii! Iiiii!!"
Sugou was making the same sound as he had in that world just ten minutes or so ago, with that high-pitched scream.
It was natural for this man to die. It was natural that he be judged. It would all be over if I brought down my right hand. It was the settlement. The full victor and the defeated were decided.
I'm no longer a swordsman. That world where everything was determined by the skill of one's sword has already been left far in the past.
Suddenly, Sugou's eyes rolled up into his head, exposing the whites. His scream broke off, and his whole body lost strength like a machine cut off from electricity.
Strength also left my hand. Slipping from my hand, the knife rolled onto Sugou's stomach.
I also removed my left hand, and stood up.
I thought that if I had to see that man for even one more second, the impulse to kill would boil out, and I wouldn't be able to resist it again.
I ripped off his tie and rolled him over, and tied both his hands behind his back. I placed the knife on the roof of the van. I whipped my body around, back onto my original path. Then I staggered, step by step, dragging my legs while starting to run across the parking lot.
It took about five minutes to get up the wide steps to the front entrance. I stopped and took a deep breath. I looked down at my body, which I had managed to get control of.
I was in a terrible state, dirtied with snow and sand. The cuts on my left cheek and right arm had apparently stopped bleeding, while still painful.
I stood in front of the automatic doors. However, there was no sign of them opening. I peered through the glass, the main lobby was dimly lit, but a normal light was on behind the receptionist's desk. I looked from side to side. I found a small swinging glass door to the far left, and fortunately, it opened when I pushed it.
Silence filled the building. I crossed the orderly rows of benches that lined the vast lobby.
No one was at the counter, but from deep inside the adjacent nursing station, I heard pleasant chatter. Praying for a decent voice, I opened my mouth.
"Um... Excuse me!"
A few seconds after my voice echoed, a door opened and two nurses in light green uniforms appeared. They both had suspicous expressions on their faces which changed to shock when they got a good look at me.
"—What happened to you!?"
The tall, young nurse with her hair piled on her head exclaimed. Apparently, there seemed to be more bleeding on my face than I thought. I pointed in the direction of the entrance and said:
"I was attacked by a man with a knife in the parking lot. I left him unconscious on the other side of a white sedan."
Tension ran through the two women's faces. The older nurse operated a machine behind the counter, holding a small microphone near her face.
"Guards, please come to the first floor nurse station immediately."
There seems to have been a guard in the middle of patrol nearby, and a man in a deep blue uniform soon appeared with his running footsteps. The man's expression became severe after hearing the nurses' explanation. Speaking into a walkie-talkie, the guard went to the entrance. The younger nurse followed him.
After having looked at the wound on my cheek for a minute, the nurse who remained said:
"You, are the twelfth floor Yuuki-san's family right? Is that your only wound?"
There seemed to be a small misunderstanding, but I nodded without the willpower to correct it.
"I see. I'll call a doctor right away, please wait for me here."
She ran off with a 'pitter-patter' as soon as she said that.
I took a deep breath and looked around. Confirming that no one was nearby, I leaned over the counter and grabbed one of the guest pass cards from inside. I turned to the opposite direction than where the nurse went, to the hospitalization ward which I had passed many times before, and whipped my trembling feet into a run.
The elevator had stopped at the first floor. When I pressed the button, the door opened with a low chime. I leaned against the inside wall and pushed the button for the top floor. Even though the acceleration was slow for a hospital, my knee felt nearly broken from the small extra weight. I desperately held my body up.
After what I felt to be several long seconds, the elevator stopped and the door opened. I fell out of the elevator into the passage.
Asuna's room was only a few tens of meters away, but the distance seemed endless. I supported my body, which was just about to collapse, on the wall and moved forward. After turning left at the L shaped passage— In front of me, I saw a white door.
Step by step, I walked.
Same as that time -.
When I returned to the real world from the end of the virtual world surrounded by sunset, I woke up in another hospital, struggling to walk on withered legs. In my search for Asuna, there was nothing but to walk. That passage, was connected to this place.
I could finally meet her. The time had come.
As the remaining distance shrank, the various feelings in my heart grew at an alarming rate. My breathing sped up. The edges of my vision were dyed white. However, I did not succumb to collapsing there. I walked. Intently, putting my legs in front of me.
Unaware of where I was until just before reaching the door, I stopped moving my feet before colliding with it.
Beyond that, was Asuna -. It was the only thing I could think of at that point.
Lifting my trembling right hand, the card slipped out of my hand due to sweat. I picked the card back up and inserted it into the slit in the metal plate this time. Holding my breath, I quickly slid it all the way down.
The indicator light color changed, and the door opened with the sound of a motor.
Softly, the scent of flowers poured out.
The indoor lighting had been dimmed. A faint white light was coming through the window, reflected off of the snow outside.
The center of the hospital room was covered by a big curtain. There was a gel bed on the other side.
I could not move. Could not continue. I could not make a sound.
Suddenly, an unexpected voice whispered in my ear.
'Hey— she is waiting for you.'
I felt a hand gently push my shoulder.
Yui? Suguha? In the three worlds, it was the voice of someone who helped me. I took a step with my right foot. Then another step, and another step.
I stood in front of the curtains. I reached out, grasped the ends.
With a faint sound, like the wind across the prairie, the white veil shook and drifted.
A small sound leaked from my throat.
A girl in thin medical examination clothes which resembled a light snow-white dress, sat up in the bed with her back to me, looking out the dark window on the other side. Her long lustrous hair was fluttering in the light from the dancing snow. Both of her hands lay in front of her body, holding a shining, deep-blue egg-shaped thing.
Nerve Gear. The crown of thorns that bound the girl had finished its duty and fallen silent.
I whispered in a voice that was barely a sound. The girl's body greatly shook— Moving the flower scent filled air, and turned around.
Still waking up from a long slumber, her hazel eyes were filled with a dreamy light as she looked straight at me.
How many times had I dreamed of this? How many times had I prayed for this?
Out of her light-colored, wet lips, emerged a gentle smile.
This was the first time I heard it, that voice. It was very different from the voice I heard everyday in that world. However, shaking the air, shaking my sense of hearing, that voice that reached my consciousness, was many times, a great many times more wonderful.
Asuna removed her left hand from the Nerve Gear and held it out. That alone took considerable strength and she trembled.
Like touching a statue of snow, I gently, gently took that hand. It was painfully small and thin. However, it was warm. Like trying to heal every wound, the warmth seeped through that contact. The strength left my legs unexpectedly, and I entrusted my body to the edge of the bed.
Asuna reached out her right hand, gently touching my injured cheek, she tilted her head in question.
"Ah... the last battle, really last battle ended just a little while ago. Finished..."
While saying that, from both of my eyes, tears overflowed at last. Drops fell on my cheek, flowing to Asuna's finger, and shining in the light from the window.
"...I'm sorry, I can't hear properly yet. But... I understand, Kirito-kun's words."
Asuna stroked my cheek with care and whispered. My soul trembled as I heard that voice.
"It's finished... finally... finally... I meet you."
Tears which shone silver streamed down Asuna's cheeks. Eyes wet, staring into mine as if she was conveying her feelings, she said:
"Nice to meet you, I am Yuuki Asuna. —I'm back, Kirito-kun."
I answered, stopping the crying in my throat.
"I am Kirigaya Kazuto... Welcome back, Asuna."
Our faces came together and our lips came in contact. Lightly. Then again. Strongly.
I placed my arms around her delicate body and embraced her.
The soul went on a journey. From one world to another world. From this life into the next life.
And, longing for someone. Strongly calling to each other.
In the past, in the big castle floating in the sky, a young man dreaming of being a swordsman, met a girl who cooked wonderful food, and fell in love. Although they no longer existed, their hearts after an endless journey, finally met again.
While I stroked Asuna's back as she cried, I looked with tear covered eyes through the window. In the increasing fluttering snow, I thought I saw two shadows side by side.
One, with two swords on his back and dressed in a black coat.
The other a girl dressed in the red and white of a knight, with a rapier hanging at her waist.
They smiled, holding hands as they turned around and slowly moved far away.
- Flag — meaning a trigger/state of a start/completion for quests or events in games.
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