Categories
Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online Chap 12

Translator’s Notes:

Sword Art Online Volume 18 is the final main volume of the Alicization arc. It consists of Chapter 21, Chapter 22, Chapter 23, an Epilogue, and a Prologue.

Translation Credits:

Translation – defan752

Proofreading – def_nomad, ZeHaffen

Scans – 

Illustration Editing – Mttblue2

Consultation – SAO Wiki

Chapter 22 – The Decisive Battle 7 July 2026 / Eighth Day of the Eleventh Month of the Human Empire Calendar, 380 1 "Damn!” came an abrupt expletive from Critter, the information warfare operative of the Ocean Turtle raid team, as he scrutinized the large monitor directly above the console.

The red dot, which had numbered 30,000 at its peak, was rapidly vanishing from the inside out.

This meant that, by one way or another, the Chinese and Korean VRMMO players thrown into Underworld through Vassago's secret plan were being annihilated and automatically logged out.

A thousand survivors still remained among the blue-colored Human Empire army and white Japanese troops in the middle of the red circle. It was a conspicuously large number, and if this thousand people had the power to vanquish a combined Chinese-Korean force of 30,000, that made them all the more dangerous.

"…What the hell is that dolt Vassago doing?…"

Critter clucked his tongue, fixating on one point in the screen.

There was one final red dot positioned exceedingly close to the Japanese troops, glowing intensely. That was Vassago, who had converted his own account earlier and dived in through the STL in the adjacent room. He was right next to the enemy, but instead of engaging them, he did not appear to be moving at all.

Had he been taken prisoner somehow and immobilized? Or did he have his own secret plan of defeating an enemy army of thousands─?

Critter repressed the urge to storm into the STL Room, slap Vassago awake, seize his shirt collar, and shake him.

He could not reset the account while Underworld administrator privileges were locked; if he logged Vassago out by force, he would never be able to use that account again. All Critter could do at the moment was change the time acceleration rate, which was separate from The Seed program, but anything involving that had to be timed with extreme care.

Critter inhaled sharply and zoomed out the onscreen map.

Deep into the Underworld south, he saw another red dot still moving at full speed. That would be the raid team captain, Gabriel Miller.

What he had to consider now was the likelihood of the Human Empire army catching up to Captain Miller, who had either already captured Alice or was currently in pursuit of her.

Sending in large quantities of American, Chinese, and Korean players had proved a significant impediment to the Human Empire army's southward advance. By now Captain Miller had a several-hundred-mile head start in Underworld. A fighter jet would clear that in the blink of an eye, but it was difficult to imagine something like that within Underworld. They would have winged creature units at the very most. 

─No way they're gonna catch up.

Critter decided after a long three seconds of consideration.

He glanced at a watch on his left wrist. It was July 7, 9:40am.

Eight hours and twenty minutes remained until the JSDF's commando unit was scheduled to come storming in from the destroyer. Captain Miller had ordered them to restart the acceleration at the eight hour mark ─ 10:00AM. But with all of their external troops completely eliminated, there was no meaning in waiting any longer.

In that case, it would be wise to bring Underworld's time acceleration back to 1,000 times right now and buy Captain Miller some time to secure Alice.

"No way around it… Just hold on a bit longer, Vassago."

Speaking to the still utterly immobile dot on the main battlefield, Critter reached his right hand towards the lever that controlled the Fluctlight Acceleration rate.

He peered up at the rate meter on the main monitor, but his eyes suddenly came to a halt on the scale at its side.

The sliding needle was currently positioned on ×1, at the very bottom. From there, each ×100 marked a gradation, and at ×1000 a red line was painted across as a border.

Then the scale continued to rise, with another border at ×1200. This would appear to be the safety limit for real live humans when they dived in through STLs.

But the rate meter continued to rise even further, finally stopping at ×5000. If no humans were diving ─ if the world were only populated by Artificial Fluctlights, then the internal time could be accelerated up to this point.

One adjusted the time acceleration rate by operating a physical lever on the console and then pressing the covered button beside it. Taking care not to touch the button, Critter slowly pushed the control lever upwards, treating it like a ship or airplane’s horizontally-moving throttle.

The slider on the monitor rose smoothly, and the digital numbers beside it began jumping staccato-like.

At ×1000 he suddenly encountered resistance.

He shoved hard and the lever gave, but stopped again at ×1200. This time it did not show any signs of wanting to move no matter how much force he applied.

"Unf……"

Critter's curiosity got the better of him. He began inspecting the sizable metallic lever.

And then he immediately noticed a shining silver keyhole beside the confirmation button.

"I see."

His face split into a grin as he scratched his close-cropped hair.

If the safety limit was 1,200 times, then the actual danger zone had to be somewhere above that. It didn't seem like a bad idea to try unlocking the safety mechanism first, just in case they became extremely pressed for time inside.

Spinning his chair around, Critter snapped his fingers at the other team members who had returned to the main control room.

"Hey, anyone here a lockpicking specialist?"

***

─So soft… smells good…

This had to the best sleep he’d had in months. That was why Higa Takeru resisted until the very end the unknown voice in his ear trying desperately to wake him up.

"…ey, Higkun! Listen to me! Hey, open your eyes!!"

─This sounds overly desperate, though. Almost like I'm about to die or something.

─Whatever’s going on, this has got to be blowing it outta proportion. It's not like I was stabbed, or I was… shot…

"───AHH!!"

His memory reviving with his consciousness, Higa cried out as his eyes snapped open.

Whereupon he saw before him the face of a thirty-something man, black-rimmed glasses flashing.

"Whoaaa?!"

Higa screamed again.

Instinct told him to scramble backwards, but his body didn’t respond to his commands. Instead, excruciating pain assailed his right shoulder and Higa let loose a third bizarre noise.

─Right.

I got shot by that guy in the cable duct.

I lost a lot of blood but ignored it, prioritizing the STL operation instead. I fed the three girls' Fluctlight outputs directly into Kirigaykun's STL, but still couldn’t wake him up… and I think something happened after that…

"… Ki-Kirito-kun, is he─”

Higa demanded, keeping his distance from the bespectacled man watching him at close range.

A cool female voice answered him.

"Kirigaykun's Fluctlight activity has been completely restored. In fact, it’s almost too active."

"I.. I see…"

Higa’s murmur mixed with a sigh.

A self-image recovery from that state was nothing short of a miracle. But surviving blood loss of that volume was a genuine, bonfide, inexplicable─

As he thought, he examined his own situation once more.

He was lying on the floor of the sub control room. His upper body was naked and his right shoulder was bandaged. A blood transfusion catheter ran into his left arm.

To his left was the bespectacled man, Kikuoka Seijirou. Sitting directly on the floor to his right was Dr. Koujiro Rinko; she had taken off her white gown. Opposite the catheter was Sergeant First Class Aki Natsuki, registered nurse, changing his blood bag. She must have been the one tending to his wounds.

Higa looked back at Kikuoka, who after remaining silent all this time, finally sighed heavily and spoke:

"Goodness gracious… I told you not to be reckless… ─No, it's my fault for not realizing there was a spy among the technicians…"

Kikuoka's bangs were a mess and beads of perspiration were visible on his glasses. Closer inspection revealed that Rinko was also drenched in sweat. it seemed that both of them had been trying to revive him. So that comfortable sensation he had felt between wakefulness and sleep was from…

───Huh?

Which person had given him chest compressions, and which had given him mouth-to-mouth?

Higa almost asked, but shut his mouth at the last moment. There were truths in this world that should remain undiscovered.

Instead, he raised a question many times more important.

"How's Underworld… How's Alice?"

Kikuoka nudged Higa's left shoulder as he replied:

"The players connecting from America, China, and Korea have all logged out. ─Also, there were nearly 30,000 players from China and Korea, but they're all gone…"

"Huh?… China and Korea came too?! Not reinforcements… but enemies?!"

He leapt up on reflex but moaned from excruciating pain that shot from his right shoulder right to the top of his head. SFC Aki's scolding without delay.

"Take it easy! The bullet passed right through you, but it took a lot to stop the bleeding."

"G-Got it…"

Higa relaxed his body, and Rinko updated him on the situation.

"─About China and Korea, it looks like social media was cleverly used to incite resentment and conflict among the online gamers, then lure them here."

"Is… that right…"

Higa sighed softly. He joined Project Alicization because… he was inspired after a Korean friend was killed by a terrorist bomb attack during his military service in Iraq. But even if this whole ordeal was the attackers’ fault, things still ended up spinning out of control and worsening the hostility between Japanese and Korean players.

He shook his head without thinking, and after grimacing from pain again, Higa asked something else:

"How many people came from China and Korea?"

"Seemed to be 30,000 at its peak. Almost all of the 2,000 players coming to help from Japan were wiped out."

Kikuoka shut his eyes for a second, then continued:

"At that point, there were still more than 20,000 Chinese and Korean players, so it was fortunate that Kirito-kun awoke then and, in the blink of an eye…"

"Wait, what?"

Higa could not help but interrupt the commander.

"Kirito-kun, by himself… in the blink of an eye, incapacitated a great army of 20,000 people? That's impossible. There aren’t any weapons or commands in Underworld able to inflict an attack of that much power or scale. Or… so I think…"

Just then, he finally recalled in clear detail the conversation that had went down before Yanai shot him in the cable duct.

Sugou Nobuyuki's original henchman Yanai hadn’t just been the attackers’ spy. He was also deeply obsessed with the Artificial Fluctlight «Administrator». What kind of experience had driven things that far for him?

Moreover, the «fourth person» that had connected to Kirigaya Kazuto's STL ─ the anomalous Fluctlight in the Main Visualizer. Even if it, no, he or she had become the key to Kazuto's revival, Higa had never expected a subjectless, normal object to express or even simply mimic human consciousness.

"… Hey… Kiku-san…"

Higa muttered to the commander, feeling a chill that was not part of the blood loss.

"We… may have… created something unthinkable…"

At that moment.

A shrill alarm came blaring from an embedded speaker in the sub control room.

It was something Higa had installed: the sound of the time acceleration rate being changed.

***

Gray clouds raced past me and Asuna at incredible speed. The blood-red sky overhead and jet-black wilderness underfoot expanded as far as the eye could see.

There's only one person capable of the Art of airborne flight in all of the vast Human Empire, and that's the Highest Minister ─ that was what Integrity Knight Alice once told me. Since Highest Minister Administrator and her «counterpart», the sage Cardinal, had both left Underworld, there was no way to find out exactly how they had learned the Flight Art. That's why it struck me that my ability to fly in midair above the Dark Territory like this had nothing to do with an Art; it was the result of me directly manipulating things with my imagination… the power that the Integrity Knights called «Incarnation».

Cardinal's familiar Charlotte had protected me ever since I left Rulid Village, and now I heard the giant spider's words once more, deep within my ear.

—Every Art is naught but a tool to channel and adjust your Incarnation… your imagination, as you call it. You don't need incantations or mediums anymore.

—Now dry your tears, and stand up. Then, feel them. The flowers’ prayer.

—The truth of the world.

In the time that I shut myself out of the world around me following the battle against Administrator on the topmost floor of the Central Cathedral of the Axiom Church, all the way until I recovered some tens of minutes ago, somehow or other I think I established an incredibly deep connection with the «truth» of this world.

I could feel, quite clearly, the Sacred Power swirling in the space around me, and I could convert it, quite easily, into elements without the need of an Art. Although I had used an incantation when I healed Klein and Lisbeth's Lives back there, I should have been able to achieve the same just with my imagination.

I was now flying by coating Asuna’s and my body with Aerial Elements to counteract air resistance while continuously discharging Aerial Elements behind us, much like a jet engine. We were several times faster than a dragon but it would still take us at least five minutes or so before we could catch up to Alice and Amayori, the dragon she was riding into the far south.

There were a mountain of words, apologies, and thanks I wanted to give Asuna during this respite. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t look to my right, look her in the eye as we flew side by side, hand in hand.

The reason was—

After I awoke, after all of the blood in my body seemed to transform to light as my sensation of invincibility ebbed away, every recent memory in my head reorganized itself and became distinct.

There was one problem: a scene from late last night.

Having positioned my supine body at the center of a tent, Asuna, Alice, Ronye, and Sortiliensenpai were sitting in a circle around me. Each one of them was chatting about their memories of me… Actually, they were taking turns staging a one-act play of each and every single one of my misdeeds. How else could you describe it than a "living hell"?

—Kirito-senpai regularly snuck out of the Academy to buy bags of honey pies from the Deer Leap or fruit cookies from the Sunflower, and shared them with me and Tiese.

—Which reminds me, when I graduated he actually brought me some Zephyria flowers, which you normally only find in the western Empire. He told me that they took an entire year to bloom.

When Ronye and Sortiliensenpai shared these anecdotes—

—When we were climbing the outer wall of the Cathedral, Kirito took a meat bun from his pocket and shared half of it with me. He heated it too quickly with a Thermal Element and nearly charred it.

—When I first met him, he gave me a piece of black bread with cream on it. And then we had blueberry tart, these huge roll cakes, and ate lots of different things together…

For some reason Alice and Asuna began responding with food-themed stories. Then ensued an endless conference about things I've done and said…

"Ugh…"

I involuntarily clutched my head and moaned as we flew at high speed.

"Aarrrrgh!"

At that moment my mind’s focus was muddled, and the generation and discharge of Aerial Elements ceased. Harsh wind resistance immediately besieged my entire body and we plunged into a nosedive.

Crap, I muttered, opening my coat into a pair of giant wings to rebalance myself. But before I had a moment’s breather—

"…Yaaaaaah!!"

Asuna was shrieking and dropping like a stone from above; I threw my arms as far apart as I could and caught her.

Having avoided imminent peril, I stared point-blank into her widened hazel eyes. Any apologies had to be said now.

"Asuna, it wasn't like that!!"

—It was more of an excuse than an apology, but there was no turning back now.

"Absolutely nothing happened between me, Liensenpai, Alice, and Ronye, really! I swear to Goddess Stacia, absolutely N-O-T-H-I-N-G!!"

Hearing my desperate explanation, Asuna's face—

Broke into a warm smile. She took my cheeks in her slender hands, replying in a half-amazed, half-wistful voice:

"…You haven't changed at all, Kirito-kun. They say you've been here for two years, and I thought you would have become… a bit more… mature……"

Suddenly, Asuna’s eyes were brimming with tears. Her lips trembled a bit, then let out something hoarse.

"Thank goodness… You're Kirito-kun… You haven't… changed at all… My… Kirito-kun…"

Her words dug their way deep into my chest, where something hot threatened to gush upwards, but I just managed to hold it back in my throat:

"… I'm… me. I can’t have changed."

"Because… you're almost like a god. Back there you instantly froze a whole entire army just like that… You fully healed 200 people all at once… and also, you can fly…"

All I could manage was a strained grin.

"I'm just a little more familiar with the workings of this world. As for flying, well, with a little practice you can do it too, Asuna."

"…I don’t have to."

"What?"

"I just want you to hold me like this while you fly."

Asuna replied with a watery smile, then wrapped her arms around my back in a tight hug. I hugged her back, hard, and spoke again:

"Thank you, Asuna… I mean it. Even when you were so badly hurt, you still tried to protect the people of Underworld… It must have hurt so bad…"

Two years ago, when I was cut by a mountain goblin at the Mountain Range at the Edge, I truly understood for the first time how realistic the pain in this world was. It had only been a flesh wound on my left shoulder, but it was so painful that I almost couldn't stand back up.

But Asuna had faced PoH's army head-on, pulling through to the very last minute even with terrible wounds blanketing her body. Without Asuna's struggle, Tiese, Ronye, and the rest of the Human Empire army would have been obliterated long ago.

"No… It wasn't just me."

Asuna said after listening to me, gently shaking her cheek sideways against mine.  

"Sinonon, Leafchan, Liz, Silicchan, Klein-san, Agil-san… and the Sleeping Knights and everyone in ALO, all did their very best. Renri-san the Integrity Knight, the Guardians of the Human Empire army, Sortiniensan, Ronye-san, Tiese-san, too…"

At this point, Asuna's body tensed as if she had suddenly realized something.

I realized why before she even continued.

"…Oh right, Kirito-kun! The Knight Commander… Bercouli-san went after the enemy Emperor alone…"

I nodded silently, then slowly shook my head.

For a while now, I’d been aware that the imposing swordsmanship of the eldest Integrity Knight I'd never gotten the chance to talk directly with, Bercouli Synthesis One, was no longer present in this world.

Before the war began, we met for the first time through the clashing of imagination blades — «Incarnation blades». As much as my gradually awakening memory would allow, I believe that Bercouli could already feel his impending death back then.

As the final destination of his 300 year life, he chose to fight for Alice's safety.

Comprehending the meaning behind my actions, Asuna tightened her arms around me, racking with tiny sobs. But she swallowed her weeping fast and asked:

"… Is Alice-san… safe…?"

"Yeah, she hasn't been captured yet. She's just about to reach the southern edge of the Dark Territory… the third system console. But something huge is chasing after her…"

"I see… Then we must protect her, for Bercouli-san."

Asuna's face slowly parted from mine, dampened with tears but filled with ironclad determination. I gave her a slow nod. Then there was a spark of doubt in her eyes.

"But, for now… Just for a little bit, just for a little bit longer, you're mine and mine only, Kirito-kun."

Her lips murmured as they grew closer and closer, and pressed against mine.

Beneath the otherworld’s crimson sky, my black wings fluttered gently as I shared a long, long kiss with Asuna.

At that moment, at long last, I understood why I had awoken in this world two years ago.

The last Monday of June in the real world.

When I was walking Asuna home, I was attacked by the third accomplice in the «Death Gun incident», Johnny Black, a leader of the red guild «Laughing Coffin». My memories broke off after he injected me with succinylcholine from a gun-shaped, high pressure syringe. I’d probably stopped breathing or suffered some sort of brain damage, so I was placed into an STL and Underworld for treatment.

By one way or another, PoH, the leader of Laughing Coffin, was among the band of people attacking the Ocean Turtle and now he was frozen into a tree on Dark Territory soil like a miniature Gigas Cedar. If the time was accelerated again before he got disconnected by force from outside, I don’t know how many weeks he would have to ensure in that blind deaf state, but no doubt it would deal quite a bit of damage to his sanity. He might even become like how I’ve been for this past half year. It felt very cruel, but didn’t seem like overkill to me.

That man had tried to kill Asuna… and the people who mean so much to me.

After many spellbinding minutes during which our existences seemed to fuse together, Asuna's and my lips finally parted.

"It reminds me of back then…"

Asuna said, then quickly shut her mouth. I understood in an instant.

She was remembering the kiss we had shared under the setting sun, against a background of the crumbling floating castle, after the death game SAO had been completely cleared. That had been, indeed, a farewell kiss.

I smiled, and firmly tried to clear away her anxiety:

"Let's go, then. Let’s beat Emperor Vector, rescue Alice, and return with everyone to the real world…"

But before I could finish that sentence.

I heard an urgent voice directly in my mind.

"Kirito-kun!! Kirigaykun!! Can you hear me?! Kirito-kun!!"

That rusty tone—

"Hey… is that you, Kikuoksan? How did you contact me without a system console…"

"No time to explain! Something bad has happened!! The time acceleration rate… the FLA, those bastards…!!"

***

Brigg's face was ruddy and unshaven as he inserted two metal wires into the keyhole and turned, while Critter looked on with some unease.

Leave the picking to me, he had volunteered gutsily, but what could only be the design of a time acceleration safety mechanism had resulted in a complete difference from any old cylinder lock. Brigg's finger movements grew more violent as he cursed nonstop, his voice rising too.

Hans was standing behind him, gleefully staring at a watch on his left wrist:

"Riiight, that's three miiinutes! Two more and you owe me fifty bucks!"

"Shut the fuck up! Two minutes is enough for me… to open this thing… and swim to Hawaii… and back…"

When the noise of the wire rotating inside the keyhole began to sound more like vandalism than lockpicking, Critter was ready to say "Let's give it a rest.” But once those two starter betting against one another, there was no stopping them before one emerged triumphant.

"One minute leeeft. About time to get out your walleeet."

"Holy shit!"

Brigg yelled suddenly, standing and throwing the snapped wire to the floor.

Finally giving up? Critter thought with a moment's relief.

Without another word, the stubbled, red-faced soldier drew a giant sidearm from his holster and aimed it at the keyhole.

"Hey, wait…"

A roar. And another.

Everyone stared blankly as Brigg stuffed his pistol back into its holster, looked at Hans, then towards Critter, and shrugged.

"It's open."

Critter gaped at the new two inch hole in the control panel.

The blackness inside sparked two or three times, and then the frozen, angled control lever began to slowly tilt. It moved about five inches, then stopped again with a quiet clunk. Critter checked the monitor, but instead of seeing a number slightly above 1,200 like he had originally wanted — the upper limit was displayed in crisp numbers: ×5000.

"… F-Five thou……"

Just as Critter was instinctually calculating how much time one second in the real world converted to in Underworld — another dull clunk of metal.

The control lever, supposedly stopped at its upper limit, continued to fall downwards.

"What… the hell……"

Critter muttered, when before his eyes, the digits on the monitor exceeded 5000 — 10000…

—No, we're still okay. The rate won't actually change unless I press the confirmation button. We can still move the lever back where it was, nice and quiet, like nothing happened.

"Hey… Don't touch it!! Nobody touch anything!!"

Critter gasped, motioning Hans and Brigg away from the console.

He inched towards the lever, cautiously reaching out his right hand.

Bang.

There was a small explosion before his hand could touch the lever.

The translucent protection cover over the red confirmation button in front of him was completely blown off.

A speaker cried an earsplitting alarm as the giant monitor installed into an entire wall of the main control room went bright red. A 15 minute countdown immediately appeared on the monitor and began decreasing with dizzying speed.

***

When he heard the alarm again, a sign that someone was tampering with the time acceleration for a second time, for a split-second Higa couldn't help but try to sit up, only to wince from scorching pain.

"Higkun! I told you to take it…"

Dr. Koujiro rushed over and pressed her hands to Higa's back, but just then—

The sub control room monitor went completely red.

"What… What's going on?!"

Kikuoka screamed. Higa pushed up his upper body with help from Rinko's hands, squinting as hard as he could from behind as the commander flew to the console.

A message in thick gothic font informed them that all three layers of security on the time acceleration mechanism had been fully disabled, and the entire Underworld was about to enter maximum acceleration phase.

"What’s……"

Lost for words, Higa could only pant, so Dr. Koujiro asked sharply in his stead:

"What’s the 'maximum acceleration phase'?! Isn't the FLA’s upper limit 1,200 times?!"

"…That's the limit on people from the real world diving inside… the actual limit is 5,000 times if only Artificial Fluctlights are present…"

Higa replied almost automatically. The professor's eyes widened even further.

"5,000?! You mean… one second here would be about 80 minutes inside… 18 seconds would be an entire day!!"

It was an impressive amount of mental calculation, but Higa and Kikuoka shook their heads in stiff unison.

"What? …Where am I wrong?"

"1,200 times is the safety limit we decided on when taking into account the «soul lifespan» of a real world human… 5,000 times is the limit of what can be observed in Underworld from outside… Neither is a hard limit…"

Higa desperately squeezed the words from his throat, which was so dry it seemed ready to catch fire. Dr. Koujiro's hand jerked on his back.

"Th-Then… What in the world… is the hard limit…?"

"Well, as you know, Underworld is constructed and calculated with photons. The transmission speed of photons is theoretically limitless inside the Main Visualizer… meaning, the limit is determined by the equipped subordinate server architecture…"

"All right, just spit it out! How many times is the limit?!"

Higa turned his eyes from the monitor to Rinko’s face:

"In the maximum acceleration phase… the FLA rate is a hair above 5,000,000 times. The STLs connected by satellite from the Roppongi branch can't support that kind of speed, so they should disconnect automatically… but as for Kirigaykun and Asunsan, who are using the STLs in the Ocean Turtle…"

One minute in the real world — would be ten years in Underworld.

Probably completing the mental calculation in an instant, Rinko's eyes stretched open as far as they would go, appearing to spasm slightly.

"Oh… my god… Quickly… Quickly, we need to get Asunsan and Kirigaykun out of those STLs!"

The professor was just about to stand up before it was Higa's turn to grab her arm.

"No, Rinko-san! Preliminary acceleration has already begun, if we drag them out of the machines now their Fluctlights will be damaged!"

"Then hurry up and start the disconnection procedure!"

"Why do you think I wanted to crawl down the cable duct?! The STLs can only be operated on from the main control room!"

Higa shouted, his voice raising too. Then he looked at the commander in front of the console.

Kikuoka seemed to already know what Higa was about to say.

"… Kiku-san. I'll go down there again."

At this, SFC Aki opened her mouth with a concerned expression, but quickly closed it. Then she walked over, murmuring "I’ll take out the catheter."

The commander nodded bitterly:

"Understood. I’m coming too. I believe I'm still strong enough to carry you down the ladder."

"No… No, lieutenant colonel!" came the shout of Captain Nakanishi, the leader of the escort team. His face greatly perturbed, he walked over with heavy bootfalls.

"It's too dangerous, please allow me…"

"No, we still need you all to defend the stairs. We'll be opening the partition again… We can't use Ichiemom and Niemom can't move."

Those words caused everyone's eyes to fall upon the left corner of the sub control room.

The humanoid silhouette supported by a structural frame akin to a coat hanger was not a real person, but a humanoid mechanical body researched on and developed by Higa as a part of Project Alicization: Electroactive Muscle Operative Machine Mark II, or «Niemom» for short. Mark I was damaged as bait during their partition-opening operation from before, and compared to that, this was much more slender; Niemom was designed from the start to carry a Light Cube.

Nothing was plugged into the port on its head at the moment, so it could not move in this state even if its power was turned on. In other words, it could not serve as a walking shield like Ichiemom had.

Looking away from the soulless robot, Kikuoka delivered a command, or rather an order to Nakanishi with a stern expression never seen before.

"In terms of danger, you all would be in more danger when you’re in a firefight with the enemy. But we need you to do it."

Nakanishi tucked in his chin and saluted at his commander's order.

"Sir, yes, sir!"

Higa listened to the JSDF officials' conversation and raised a meek right hand. It was still painful, but his fingers could definitely move.

The countdown on the monitor still showed around 10 minutes before the maximum acceleration phase.

But no matter how he estimated it, opening the partition again, climbing down that long ladder, and initiating the STL disconnection procedure from the connector would take a total of 30 minutes.

That 20 minute difference equated to — 200 years in Underworld.

Exceeding the 150 year age of a human soul.

Worse still, people from the real world… were most likely unable to withstand a duration of — practically infinite — magnitude within Underworld…

Within Underworld…

"Ri… Right!!"

Higa yelped, waving his left hand complete with catheter at Kikuoka.

"Ki-Kiku-san!! When I was working on the STL just now, I secured a transmission channel with Kirito-kun! Please call him on Line C12!"

"B-But… what should I say…?"

"Tell him to get out!! Get to the system console within 10 minutes, or zero out his own HP and his STL will automatically begin the disconnection process!! But as soon as he enters the maximum phase the console will be useless, and dying then will be the worst-case scenario!! He'll have to spend 200 years in sensory deprivation… Please just warn him especially of that!!"

***

"Two……"

Two hundred years?!

I barely swallowed the words before they left my mouth.

By now, Asuna was looking puzzled. She couldn't hear Kikuoka's voice.

"Listen to me, Kirito-kun: You have 10 minutes! In that time, you must reach the console from where you are and manually log out!! If you are unable to do so no matter what, you can exhaust all of your HP… but that way is full of uncertainties and extremely dangerous, because…"

Because there's the risk of me spending 200 years in a death-like state.

I understood. Interrupting Kikuoka, I demanded:

"I got it, I'll try to get out through the console! I'll be bringing Alice of course, so prepare for that!"

"…If it's not too much trouble. But right now, both of your escapes take priority over Alice's safety. Listen to me: even though we can delete your memories after you log out, 200 years of this kind of time far exceeds the age of a human soul! The likelihood of a normal consciousness recovery is… equivalent to zero…"

Hearing Kikuoka's pained voice—

I replied quietly.

"Don't worry, we will return. Also, Kikuoksan. Half a year ago… no, last night, I'm sorry I said such awful things to you."

"It's fine… We deserve the criticism. We've prepared bandages here for the beating you'll give us when you get back. …I think Higkun's ready, I need to go too."

"Okay. See you in 10 minutes then, Kikuoksan."

And then the line cut off.

I kept flapping the hem of my coat to hover in midair as I gazed down at Asuna in my arms.

"… Kirito-kun, did Kikuoksan contact you? Is… something wrong?"

I shook my head slowly, and replied.

"No… the time acceleration will start again in 10 minutes, so he wants us to get back as soon as possible."

Asuna blinked a few times, smiled a little and nodded.

"Agreed, we really shouldn't be staying here all day, for Alice-san's sake. Come on, let's go save her!"

"Yeah. I'm taking off again."

Hugging Asuna tightly, I generated another heap of Aerial Elements. Green light immediately surged and encased us both.

To capture Alice, who had been advancing perpetually into the southern sky, and the enormous, aberrant presence pursuing her — I flew.

2 He was catching up.

Alice bit her lip slightly as she looked behind from atop Amayori's saddle.

Without question, that sinister black dot floating in the crimson sky was larger than it had been five minutes ago. It was not the enemy speeding up; Amayori and Takiguri's strength was in fact, finally giving out bit by bit.

This was as a matter of course since they had been flying continuously without any rest — it was rather a near miracle that they were able to make it this far. In less than half a day they had crossed from Central Capital Centria to the Mountain Range at the Edge, a distance several times the radius of the Human Empire. It was clear that the two dragons were wearing through their own Life at a relentless rate to keep airborne.

But in that case, how was her pursuer avoiding exhaustion?

Through the use of Crystal Element Far-Sight Art, Alice had already verified that he was riding atop the back of a bizarre creature that was most definitely not a dragon. It resembled a winged disc and was unlike anything she had ever seen in the Human Empire or the Dark Territory.

The archer named Sinon who came from the «Real World» like Kirito had told her that she was not just being chased by Vector, God of Darkness, Emperor of the Dark Territory; he was really a man from the Real World and an enemy of Sinon and Kirito.

Emperor Vector had fallen by Knight Commander Bercouli's sword, at a grave cost — perhaps by the Time Release Art of his Divine Instrument, the Time Piercing Sword. But Vector had descended upon this world once again with a new life and was now chasing Alice.

His «revival» seemed to mock Bercouli's death, and it burned Alice's heart with insatiable flames of rage.

But as she flew alone, she finally realized what she had to do.

If the enemy could not die in this world—

Then she would kill him in the Real World.

To accomplish this, she must reach the «World End Altar» by any means necessary.

Looking back forward, she just managed to glimpse the extraordinary scale of a monumental precipice towering beyond the distant red sky. Talk of it had been passed down by creation legend: the «Wall at the End of the World». This cliff surrounding the Dark Territory was unlike the traversable Mountain Range at the Edge; supposedly, it was of indefinite height.

Before the precipice, at almost the same altitude as Alice's flight—

There hovered a single, tiny floating island.

It was impossible to guess at exactly what kind of force was permitting that island — shaped like a sharp-bottomed wine cup — to float in midair.

Upon closer inspection, she spotted what appeared to be some manner of man-made structure at the center of the flat surface. That had to be the «World End Altar» she was looking for. It was not just an exit from this world, but also an entrance to the Real World.

She was less than ten kilol from it, but unfortunately, by the time Alice arrived at the floating island Emperor Vector would already have caught up to her from behind.

Alice slowly drew in a breath, and exhaled.

She gently caressed the neck of her cherished dragon with her right hand, and ordered:

"Thank you, Amayori, and Takiguri. This is far enough; you can land."

The two dragons cried weakly and began corkscrewing downwards at the same time.

The terrain below had transformed into dark gray desert only moments ago. The two dragons drew long furrows into the eternally expanding sea of sand — apparently the result of the gods tiring of creation — before touching down and almost toppling over.

Hururururu. A creaking call slipped out from deep within Amayori's throat as her great body lay on the ground. Alice immediately leapt off, searched the leather pouch at her waist, and pulled out her final bottle of elixir.

She tipped half of the blue liquid into Amayori's parted mouth, and poured every drop of the other half into her elder brother's mouth beside her. Not even the Axiom Church's homemade elixir could recover the vast Life of a dragon, but it should be enough to restore the stamina needed for one last flight.

With both hands, Alice warmly scratched the woolly underside of the dragons' chins.

"Amayori, Takiguri."

As soon as she said their names, her eyes began to well up on their own. She endured it in earnest and continued:

"This is goodbye. My final order to you both is… to fly to the Human Empire and return to the dragons' nest in the western territory; Amayori, find a husband, and Takiguri, find a wife. Have many baby dragons, and raise them into strong children. Very, very strong children that knights can ride and fly one day."

Amayori abruptly raised her head and licked Alice's cheek.

Takiguri's snout nuzzled the right side of her waist and sniffed at Eldrie's Divine Instrument hanging there: the Frostscale Whip.

As both dragons moved their heads away, Alice delivered a forceful order:

"Now go!! Do not look back, fly straight ahead!!"

Kurururu!!

The two dragons lifted their heads simultaneously and gave high calls.

Together, they hoisted their massive bodies up and without looking back, began running directly westward.

Gigantic wings expanded and caught the desert wind, gently lifting them into the air.

With pinions close enough to touch, the sibling dragons beat their wings powerfully and gained altitude.

And, just then—

Amayori's long neck craned around.

Alice's precious dragon gazed back at her with beautiful, crystalline eyes. A great mass of droplets pooled at their edges, catching the light as they sprinkled into the air.  

"Ama… yori…?"

Alice's murmur had barely finished before—

The dragon's head turned back forward as she and her brother tilted their bodies to the right in unison, changing direction at a steep angle.

Bellowing at ferocious volume, they ascended in a straight line towards not the east, but the northern sky. They were heading directly for the black pursuer, who was now close enough to see clearly.

"No… NO! AMAYORI, NOOOOOOO!!"

Alice shrieked and began to run.

But the sleek desert sand caught her boots.

Tripping face-first onto her hands, Alice watched as Amayori and Takiguri charged to high altitude, where their immortal enemy awaited.

Silver scales gleamed like flames under the crimson sunlight.

Jaws lined with sharp teeth opened to their fullest.

Immediately as the pursuer entered firing range, the sibling dragons shot their deadliest weapon — fire. Pure white light bisected the sky, just as if the dragons were burning up their very lives.

The enemy on the back of the bizarre creature did not change his flight path at all, even as he watched the scorching flames barrel towards him.

He casually reached out his left hand and opened five fingers.

There was no way he could possibly block it. Dragon fire had the single highest attack priority in this world, other than an Integrity Knight's Armament Full Control Art or multiple Arts from a high-ranking group of Arts users. And there were two streams of it. It was impossible to chant any sort of defense Art capable of blocking that in such a short window of time.

That was how Alice reckoned, or hoped.

However.

Right before the twin streams of screaming fire engulfed and scorched the enemy, something far exceeding Alice's comprehension occurred.

Clotted darkness began swirling and expanding at the center of the pursuer's left hand.

The entire surrounding space began to distort as if it were falling into that darkness. Even the dragons' supposedly terribly powerful flames were of no exception. Their straight trajectories began to curve, and they were absorbed directly into the man's left hand—

The twin streams of fire were consumed without flash or explosion, leaving nothing but a few rays of light.

As the enemy who was only a black dot flew at an altitude unattainable by any Art or Sword Skill, Alice was certain she saw the corners of his mouth lift in a thin smile.

Just then.

With a harsh noise like that of sand being crushed, bolts of lightning came exploding from the darkness encroaching upon the man's left hand.

This attack, appearing to consume the dragons' flame and launch it back out as its own energy, pierced through the wings and limbs of the airborne Amayori and Takiguri without mercy. The dragons' gigantic bodies gave a sudden jerk, then blood redder than the crimson sky showered into the air.

"Ah… Ah……"

Alice panted; she waved her arms towards the sky, screaming:

"AMAYORIIIII! RUN AWAY! THAT'S ENOUGH, RUN AWAAAAY!"

Surely her scream should have reached the dragons' ears, but they beat their wings as though Alice's voice merely roused their strength, and charged forward again.

Jaws wide open. Shimmering heat billowed from the gaps between their teeth, and white light flashed irregularly.

WHOOSH!!

Once more, flames set the sky ablaze.

Once more, the man unfolded his shield of darkness to absorb the fire.

Knowing full well that there would be yet another counterattack, the dragons continued to charge with firm resolve. Their wings produced a gale, with light firing nonstop from their jaws, barreling towards the enemy.

The blood flying from the wounds on the dragons' bodies became as flames. Their silvery scales were peeling away without end, becoming particles of light and dancing away.

The two dragons themselves were gradually transforming into Luminous Elements.

Firing and burning away their lives to no end, the flames filled the black vortex, saturating it. Perhaps from the unbearable, ferocious heat, the man's left hand began to emit white smoke.

But — at that moment.

The enemy's entire body became wrapped in a thin bluish-black veil. The void vortex erupting from his left hand intensified in power, and just then, black lightning ejected from its center and pushed back the white flames.

The colliding forces of black and white contended with one another in the middle for but one short second before the course was easily reversed.

Innumerable bolts of black lightning raced towards Amayori and Takiguri, who fluttered their wings with decreasing speed as though exhausted—

"AMAYORI! AMAYORIIIIIIII!"

Just as Alice's terrible scream and tears tore through the desert air.

The stars descended.

Two beams of radiant light descended from the crimson sky at formidable speed.

One of the beams heard straight for the ground towards her.

The other beam stopped dead between the two dragons and the pursuer. The light dissipated in an instant, revealing the form of the entity hidden within.

A human.

A swordsman.

Slightly lengthy black hair and an equally black coat billowed in the wind. Two longswords of black and white equipped in a cross on his back. Arms folded in front of his chest, while staring calmly at the roaring black lightning hurtling towards him.

Bang!! Vshiiing!!

Came such a noise as the lightning struck the swordsman. No, to be precise, it had not touched him; it had been deflected away. The lightning had been blocked by a transparent barrier in front of the swordsman as he stood upright in the air, arms crossed, its power diffusing outwards harmlessly.

Alice held her breath and her eyes went as wide as they would go.

The swordsman in black turned his head, looking at her on the ground.

His face, a hint of boyish immaturity still left in it, broke into a smile, and his dark eyes shone with resolve. Alice felt sparks flare up deep within her chest. This heat instantly expanded within her, setting her heart into a raging blaze.

Alice noticed that a fresh track of tears was rolling down her face as she murmured:

"Kiri… to……"

Awakened from his half-year slumber, the swordsman nodded with a strong but slightly embarrassed smile, then swung his body around and raised his right hand straight up.

Opposite that hand, the dying dragons were beating their wings with their final traces of strength. The edges of their wings and the ends of their tails were slowly vanishing, as though they were melting into the light.

Amayori saw the Kirito that she had spent half a year living together with at the cabin on the outskirts of Rulid Village, and called weakly: kururu.

Kirito nodded once to her, and closed his eyes.

All of a sudden, the two dragons were inundated by a prismatic film. It looked as though a large soap bubble had wrapped them up. But the dragons were without fear: they merely folded their wings, bent their necks, and curled up their bodies.

The rainbow sphere descended slowly from above Alice's head.

So focused above her she forgot to breathe, Alice watched something miraculous occur.

Wrapped in multicolored light, Amayori and Takiguri's gigantic frames began shrinking at breakneck speed. No, rather, they were becoming younger, less mature.

Their sharp talons grew round and mellow. Their thick, silvery scales softened into feathers. Their tails and necks shortened, and their miniaturized wings became covered in fur.

By the time the two dragons landed softly in Alice's open arms, their bodies were no longer than fifty cen. Covered from head to toe in bluish-white skin and fur, Takiguri's eyes were closed in apparent snooze.

But Amayori had returned to her original appearance when Alice had first met her in the Central Cathedral: the greenish ball of fur raised its head straight up at her, opened its mouth lined with teeth resembling rows of pearls, and gave a short call:

"Kyuru."

"Ama… yori…"

Tears slid off Alice's cheeks and bounced off the dragons' fur, sparkling brightly.

Just then, the multicolored light engulfing the two baby dragons intensified all at once. The sensation on Alice's arms changed from soft feathers to smooth shell. She blinked a few times, and realized that the baby dragons in her arms had transformed into two large eggs.

The silvery-white eggs gradually shrank in size, finally decreasing to the degree where they could fit next to each other in her palm, and the multicolored light finally disappeared.

Alice silently brought the two tiny eggs close to her cheek, and attempted to make a general guess at the meaning behind this phenomenon. Having decided that the sheer scale of Amayori and Takiguri's Lives were beyond the help of Arts, Kirito had simply shrank the upper limits of their Lives as small as they would go — reverting them to dragon eggs and saving them from destruction.

Even Alice, the highest-level Sacred Arts user in the world, found it impossible to imagine what combination of Arts could achieve such an effect. But she felt no unease. Only the certain prospect of seeing these two dragons again in the future expanded warmly in her chest.

Tenderly covering the two eggs with both hands, Alice looked up again towards the sky.

"Thank you… Welcome back, Kirito."

She murmured in a watery voice.

Her voice would not reach the distant sky, but the silhouette in black indeed nodded, and smiled again.

Alice heard a familiar voice in her ears.

—I'm the one who should be apologizing for making you worry for so long. Thank you, Alice.

—Let's meet again in the Real World.

And then Kirito slowly changed the direction he was facing, turning directly towards the pursuer wrapped in darkness.

Perhaps unable to endure both Incarnations pitted against each other, the void began ejecting sparks sporadically.

"Kirito…"

—Not even you can defeat this enemy with a normal attack.

Alice bit her lip with that apprehension.

An abrupt voice came from not far behind.

"Don't worry, Alice-san."

Looking behind her, she saw a girl from the Real World standing there with her body encased in pearly armament.

"Asuna…"

Her long tawny hair rippling in the wind, Asuna smiled and stroked Alice's back.

"Let's put our trust in Kirito-kun. We need to get to the World End Altar as quickly as possible."

"Y-Yeah…"

She nodded, but doing that at this moment was not something simple.

Page 146 Alice turned due south, looking up towards the «Wall at the End of the World» standing tall above the distant horizon, and the floating white island hovering before it.

"… The World End Altar should be on that floating island. But we cannot ride the dragons anymore; how are we to get somewhere so high up…?"

"Don't worry, leave it to me."

Asuna nodded, and drew the magnificent rapier from her waist.

All at once, laaaaaaaa; the high angelic ensemble she had heard during the Dark Army's surprise attack last night echoed the space around them.

Prismatic colors descended from the sky in a straight line onto the gray desert.

A dull thump marked the appearance of a white stone slab rising out of the sand before her eyes.

BR-BRRRRRMMM!

More thumps in quick succession were heard as the slab grew slightly in height before another and yet another appeared nonstop.

In ten short seconds, Alice saw with bated breath a marble flight of stairs appear before her, stretching up towards the floating island in the distant sky.

Asuna finished the geographical manipulation, lowered her sword, and immediately knelt onto the sand.

"Asuna…!!"

"I'm… I'm fine. Quickly… we only have eight minutes until the Altar closes…"

Closes—?

Alice couldn't immediately understand what she meant, but before she could ask, her right hand was seized with great force.

With Asuna having stood up and begun dragging her by the hand up the white stone steps, Alice began to run too. As she ran she turned and looked behind her once more, up towards the swordsman in black facing off against her pursuer in the sky behind.

—Kirito. I still have a great deal to say to and ask of you.

—You must win. Win, and return to me again.

***

The symbolic, poetic spectacle of the floating marble staircase connected to the gray desert, along with the two swordswomen racing up it at a practically flying speed, was beautiful enough to evoke a sigh.

I branded that sight into my mind, and murmured deep within my chest.

—Alice. Asuna.

—I… have to part with you here.

There was, of course, a reason I neither told Asuna that the next time acceleration would reach 5,000,000 times real time, nor did I tell her that we would have to spend 200 years in this world if we did not log out before then.

Because once they learned those things, there was no doubt both Asuna and Alice would choose to stay and fight alongside me. Even if that would result in them being unable to escape before the time limit.

The instant I noticed what sort of air the enemy chasing Alice was projecting, I shuddered from how alien it felt.

No, it wasn't right to describe him as having an air. All that existed before me was a patch of nothing. A black hole devouring all information, from which not even a sliver of light could escape.

If we were going to defeat an opponent like this before the time limit, the probability of all three of us logging out safely was extremely slim. In that case, the priority of my actions fell into place by itself.

Make absolutely sure that Asuna and Alice log out of Underworld.

Other than that, there wasn't anything I had to prioritize. Nothing.

I carefully carved the beautiful, picturesque scene into my memory, then turned my face to look towards the enemy hovering transverse opposite me.

The «thing» I was finally encountering was an existence utterly beyond my comprehension.

He was a man. That much should be true.

But that was all I knew.

If his facial appearance were that of a custom avatar, then his intent had probably been to «look like an average white guy». He looked orderly, but there was nothing special about him. He could only be described with white skin, blue eyes, and blond hair.

For a white guy, his physique was also quite normal. His body was neither fat nor skinny and wrapped under what looked to be a military jacket. Then did that mean this man was military? I couldn't be sure. The black and gray camouflage pattern covering his jacket up and down was moving constantly like some sort of slime. Moreover, there was a longsword at his left waist that looked to be Divine Instrument-grade.

When we were on our way here I heard from Asuna that this man was a member of the special forces that had attacked the Ocean Turtle. That meant he was probably a mercenary hired with money by an organization or enterprise bent on stealing Artificial Fluctlight technology. But the man watching me with glasslike eyes from a slight distance away didn't seem to be in pursuit of such a practical profit. No, come to think of it, he didn't seem human at all.

After about a second of observation and thought, I opened my mouth:

"…Who are you?"

I immediately got an answer. The man spoke in a sleek voice that nonetheless sounded somewhat metallic:

"A seeker, a stealer, and a plunderer."

As soon as he said that, the dark bluish-black aura draped over the man's entire body intensified its wriggling. I felt a breeze blowing from behind me. The air… no, the information comprising this world was being sucked into the darkness.

"What are you looking for?"

"The soul."

As the conversation went on, the attraction gradually built up. It wasn't just this world's information, even my own consciousness was being sucked over by the gravity of the void.

At this point some expression suddenly flitted across the corners of the man's mouth. It was a smile of the thinnest type that had nothing to do with emotion.

"It is I who must ask who you are. Why are you here? What right have you to stand before me?"

Who am I — He asks?

A hero who descended into Underworld? — Surely not.

A knight protecting the Human Empire? — Wrong.

It felt as though for every word that my mind denied, something was sucked away, plundered from my heart. But I didn't know why; I simply could not stop thinking.

The hero who cleared the death game SAO? — No.

The strongest VRMMO player? — No.

«The Black Swordsman»? «Dual Blades»? — No, no.

None of those was what I wanted to be.

Then, who on earth was I…?

The instant my mind blurred with a fsshh.

I felt a certain familiar voice calling my name.

My head had lowered at some point; I swiftly raised it and gave the name the voice had called me.

"I'm Kirito. Kirito the swordsman."

CRACK!!

A burst of white sparks severed the dark feelers about to wrap around my body. My thoughts immediately became clear again.

—What the hell just happened?

Was this man capable of interfering with my consciousness with the help of two STLs?

I stared into the man's eyes while reinforcing my barrier of imagination. But all that was in there was a void, and a bottomless darkness that could absorb the spirits of others.

"…What's your name?"

I asked without thinking.

The man considered for a moment, then gave his name.

"Gabriel. My name is Gabriel Miller."

Instinct told me that it was neither his character's name nor his nickname; it was the man's real name.

I could tell because his visage had changed for a few seconds. His eyes had sharpened, cold as ice. His lips had thinned slightly, and his cheeks had sunken.

Once he returned to his original custom face, the aura of darkness emanating from the man's entire body thickened all at once.

At this point, I finally noticed that the man's whole right arm below his shoulder was missing. Amorphous darkness had been squirming there like an arm; now it slowly extended to wrap itself around the sword at his left waist.

The sword unsheathed with a wet sound, but it had no corporeal body at all.

It was just empty darkness, a patch of black fire about one meter long. An utterly impossible existence.

WIth an bizarre vibrating noise, the man brandished the sword of darkness gripped in his shadow hand.

I pulled back some distance and drew both swords from my back simultaneously. My left hand gripped the Blue Rose Sword, and my right hand gripped the Night Sky Sword.

If we were comparing black colors, the Night Sky Sword cut from the treetop of the Gigas Cedar was not inferior to his, but its body reflected light like black crystal while the man's sword simply resembled darkness as though the space where it occupied had been isolated from all else. It probably was not on the same level as PoH's Mate Chopper in terms of merely absorbing resources.

But even against this bottomless foe, I couldn't retreat. I had to hold off this enemy before Asuna and Alice reached the top of the staircase hundreds of meters tall.

"—Here I come, Gabriel!!"

Shouting the enemy's name on purpose, I flapped the wings reshaped from the hem of my coat.

In an instant I gained altitude and stacked both swords in a cross in front of me.

"Generate all element!"

Imagining the surrounding space itself as a terminal and creating dozens of elements of all types, I dived and launched them all at the same time.

"Discharge!!"

Fiery arrows, icy spears, blades of wind, and various other colors tore across the heavens.

I chased after the Arts and raised both swords in my left and right hands.

Gabriel Miller showed absolutely no sign of evading.

Still smiling thinly, he simply opened his arms wide.

Eight colors of light pierced into his bluish darkness-wrapped body.

Not missing the opportunity as his upper body trembled, I swept the sword in my right hand towards the man's torso and thrust the sword in my left hand through his chest. Slimy darkness splashed and left a chill where it brushed across my skin.

Right afterwards I flew to pull back the distance and whirled around again.

What my eyes ended up capturing was—

Gabriel slowly drawing the spilled, amorphous darkness back towards him, and turning around as if nothing had happened. The jacket covering his body was unscathed.

I knew it.

This man's attribute was the ability to absorb slashes, thrusts, flames, freezing, whirlwinds, steel arrows, water streams, crystal blades, rays of light, and dark curses.

The fabric of my coat and the flesh of my right shoulder, caressed by the void blade during the instant we had clashed, had been destroyed and looked as though it was peeling away as blood spurted.

***

Gabriel Miller directed a fleeting glimpse towards the figures of «Radiant Medium» Alice and another girl climbing the pure white sky staircase, approximating that there were five minutes left before both of them reached the system console.

In that case, there was no time to engage this unanticipated hindrance. Immediately disabling him and making haste towards the floating island seemed a logical decision. But Gabriel felt slightly interested in this new enemy, so he stayed hovering where he was.

At first glance, he looked to be just a typical child.

He now felt no sense of intimidation at all, compared to the earlier battle against that veteran swordsman that had ended in mutual destruction. In all likelihood, he was like «Sinon»: a VRMMO player allied with RATH, but judging from the pressure he was giving off, he probably fared even worse than her.

That much was owed to the fact that this black-haired teen seemed not to exude anything resembling fighting spirit.

He had absorbed only a meager amount of purpose the moment he asked him what kind of person he was, but that circuit was also promptly shut off. Then he had continually deflected Gabriel's mental feelers as though he were covered by a transparent shell. Fighting an opponent whose spirit he could not taste did not interest him at all, as it were.

If so, then he would immediately eliminate him and catch up to Alice, or so Gabriel had thought.

But the sight of this teen transforming the hem of his coat into wings and his ability to manipulate multiple types of magic at the same time changed his mind somewhat. He felt that his opponent was highly familiar with this world.

After securing Alice and taking the STL technology with him to an uninvolved country, there was still his mission of constructing a virtual world for him and him only, where every nook and cranny was to his liking. Plundering that youth's manipulation techniques in advance did not seem a bad idea to complete that mission efficiently.

To do that, first he must destroy that imagination shell.

Gabriel smiled thinly, and addressed the boy in black with Japanese:

"You have three minutes. Do your best to entertain me."

***

“… How generous."

I muttered, stroking the wound on my right shoulder to heal it.

But Gabriel Miller's confidence came from the fact that his strength was very real. After all, he was unstoppable against attacks of all types.

—No, there should be only one type of attack effective against him. Sinon had arrived on scene first and blown off his right arm. She had probably used her imagination to create her precious gun, the Hecate II, and shot him. That meant even Gabriel was unable to absorb «gunshot»-type attacks.

The reason probably had something to do with his military jacket outfit. He had real-world experience and was intimately familiar with the power of anti-material rifles, and that was probably why he couldn't counteract the damage with his willpower upon getting shot.

However, only Sinon, who could handle her precious gun like her own hands and feet, could manage the feat of manifesting the firearm in Underworld. There was just no way I was doing that. Even if I could create a handgun, it wouldn't have any power to speak of.

In other words, I had to find a way other than gunshots to make that weird man recognize the damage dealt to him.

Meaning that I needed to understand Gabriel as a person. I had to unravel how he lived, what he wanted, and why he was staying here.

Determined, I readied both swords in each hand and the corners of my mouth broke into a grin.

"All right, I'll make sure you enjoy this."

***

Where on earth was this bout of confidence coming from?

Surely he had been logged into Underworld for a long period of time and was highly familiar with this world's system, but he was just a kid gamer. He had just been informed that his exaggeratedly stacked twin swords and flamboyant magical attacks were completely useless, so why was he still able to smile boldly like that?

Gabriel thought, feeling annoyed by the complete lack of fear in the boy's attitude. He concluded that it was false bravado merely to stall for time.

He knew that even if he died in this world, his physical body in the real world would escape without a scratch. On top of that, he was only thinking of dragging the fight long enough until that girl he was friends with could take Alice away.

Nothing but a foolish child. Three minutes with him was too long.

Clenching his right hand created from willpower, slowly waving the void blade — Gabriel thrust the sword in an offhand manner as he stood atop the back of the winged creature.

Like the sword and the crossbow, this creature was the result of «Subtilizer’s» jetpack being changed into a form that most suited this world during its conversion here. Although he could control it to his whims, merely standing on it with two feet did not confer an adequate feeling of stability. It was more reasonable to change it to a pair of wings like that boy.

As the blade impaled its back, the creature emitted a short screech and was immediately sucked in by the void. Data traveled through the sword to Gabriel's right arm, which he moved behind his back, then he focused his thoughts.

Black wings like that of the boy unfurled with a flap from the vicinity of his shoulder blades. They were not membranous, bat-like appendages, though; instead they were covered with sharpened feathers like a bird of prey. Fitting for someone with an angel's name like himself.

"… Plundered one."

Gabriel murmured as he aimed the void blade towards the teen.

***

I was planning for my next attack to also take out the saucer-shaped flying creature the enemy was riding on, but he acted first and my judgment instantly took a plunge.

Not missing his chance, Gabriel flapped his black eagle-like wings once and slid close enough for his sword to reach me.

The speed of his thrust shocked me and he had not pulled back his sword at all. I took him to be an amateur at Sword Skills but the reality was completely different. I crossed my swords and brought them swinging upwards from below to block the attack.

Kissh!

A bizarre noise and the bluish-black blade of darkness halted right before my nose.

The Blue Rose Sword and Night Sky Sword scraped fiercely against one another. It was all I could do to avoid getting consumed, but I felt like I was contending with the void itself. I could easily imagine my swords were enduring enormous strain.

But it was my deliberate strategy to use a cross-block instead of dodging backwards. Without resisting the aggressive power of Gabriel's dark sword, I put my full strength into a high kick while drifting my body to the right.

"Raah!"

I shouted. The tip of my foot sprang upwards with a trail of orange light, connecting with his sharp chin. The darkness scattered with a whap and Gabriel's upper body arched backwards.

—How?!

My wings thrashed the air hard as I dashed backwards and checked the enemy. If I couldn't produce a gunshot, I meant to try a «blow» instead — and if this guy was really a special forces soldier, no doubt he would have training in close-quarters-combat, which meant that it might create, for him, the impression of being harmed.

Gabriel's head snapped back to its original position, but it was visibly unscathed.

Without missing a beat, the darkness that splashed out from his chin collected back together and generated fresh, shining skin. The enemy stroked it with his left hand, smirking:

“I see. But how unfortunate; the only thing served well by a bold attack like that is TV theatricality. Real martial arts…”

Byuu!

The air whistled as Gabriel lunged towards me mid-sentence, his whole body moving so fast it looked like a black mist. By reflex I parried a blade swinging down from the left with Blue Rose Sword and simultaneously countered with the Night Sky Sword. It sank into the enemy’s shoulder and seemed to become ensnared within thick, glutinous fluid. I couldn’t move it at all.

Just then, something slippery swiftly entwined itself around my entire outstretched right arm. Gabriel’s left arm coiled its way towards me like a huge snake, instantly immobilizing my joints—

Accompanied by a piercing crunch, excruciating pain rocketed to the roof of my skull like an electric shock.

“Gwah…”

Peering into my grimacing face from a close distance, Gabriel murmured:

“—looks like this.”

And immediately after, a ferocious assault began.

The void blade launched a continuous barrage of attacks at blinding speed that seemed to have no end. I attempted to parry them only with the sword in my left hand, but they kept slipping through the gaps, nicking at every part of my body bit by bit. There was no time to focus on recovering my broken right arm.

“Ah… Rrrgh…”

I couldn't help moaning, and flapped my wings hard to pull away from him.

Dashing backwards as fast as I could, I crept my left hand over my right arm, which, with all of my willpower, was just barely holding on to its sword.

Precisely as the white light was about to gather.

Gabriel whipped up his left hand: all five fingers lengthened into talons, then flexed open.

Ten or more bolts of jet-black lightning fired radially outwards, turning at sharp angles mid-trajectory and heading straight for me.

I clenched my teeth and hurled up an imagination barrier. This was what I used when he had attacked Alice’s two dragons, but back then I was supremely confident about blocking the lightning, and now, half of my concentration was focused on healing my arm — the very realization of this weakened the barrier—

I felt weighty impacts on various parts of my body.

Three streaks of dark light had jabbed right through the barrier, my torso, and both of my feet. A horrible chill surged through me before I felt any pain. Before my eyes, my puncture wounds were already crawling with bluish-black void, threatening to consume my existence.

“Ugh…!”

I groaned again, then took a deep breath, and yelled. I barely managed to blow away the void, but a great deal of blood spurted from my fresh wounds.

“Ha ha ha…”

I looked up towards that dry voice and found that Gabriel Miller’s empty features had twisted into a laugh.

“Ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha…”

No, that wasn’t laughing. His lips were curled upwards, but the corners of his eyes hadn't moved at all, and his glassy eyeballs only swirled with even greater hunger.

Gabriel slowly crossed his arms in front of his body, a gesture that suggested he was storing power.

His dark aura began to violently shiver. It undulated with the ferocity of flames, growing denser and denser.

“HAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

His arms spread wide with a thunderous shout.

Whoosh. A new pair of black wings burst from his already expanded wings and unfurled to full length. And then another pair on the bottom.

Gabriel slowly gained altitude as a total of six massive wings flapped, in order, from top to bottom. A jet-black halo materialized above his head and his camouflage uniform dissolved, replaced by a thin, dark, wriggling cloth.

His eyes had turned inhuman before I even noticed. The sockets were filled with nothing but bluish-black light.

Truly — an angel of death.

A transcendent being that hunts and plunders the souls of humans. What the hell kind of attack would work against someone who sees themselves as that?

I looked away from the embodiment of fear itself and checked on the figures of Asuna and Alice, who were running up the skyward staircase hand-in-hand. They still needed two, no, three minutes before they could reach the floating island.

It’s just that I was no longer confident I could buy them that much time.

***

Such omnipotence.

Page 165 The overwhelming sensation of power coursing through his whole body caused Gabriel to break into a third peal of loud laughter.

Was this the power of imagination — or in the veteran swordsman’s words, «Incarnation» in this world?

At last he had gained power equal to… no, exceeding that of the swordsman who had killed him with a slash that went back in time, and the Dark General who had transformed into a tornadic giant. Until now Gabriel had been under the impression that their techniques were the effect of from some unknown system commands, but the reality was different. The real importance lay with his ability to believe that he possessed power. And he only realized this all thanks to this black-haired child performing it right in front of him.

I’ll give him another minute as my thanks.

Gabriel spread his six wings wide and raised his blade of darkness high.

In one minute he would slice the brat’s body into mincemeat, extract his soul, and ravage it until nothing was left. For the purpose of taking more power for himself.

Bluish-violet electricity crawled about Gabriel’s body as he entered an assault stance.

***

I looked up towards the enemy's once human form.

I could no longer come up with anything that might frighten or threaten this man. His right arm, supposedly blown off by Sinon, had fully regenerated before I could even notice, as though in defiance of even a gunshot wound.

To put it simply, I was not mentally prepared enough.

I hadn't underestimated Gabriel Miller. His eerie air demanded caution to the greatest extent. But that was the very reason I had given up any hope of winning, perhaps before this battle had even begun. As long as I bought enough time — as long as I stalled the fight until Alice and Asuna were able to log out, both the enemy and I would be trapped in a time prison for more than 200 years, unable to return to the real world ever again.

Ahh… Is that so?

Perhaps I'm actually hoping for such an outcome?

A true alternate world surpassing the likes of Aincrad. The ideal land Kayaba Akihiko had always dreamed of creating. Truly befitting of the name "Underworld".

I had often asked myself during the two years I was trapped in SAO whether I really wanted to escape. I was hesitant, because as a member of the Progressors constantly fighting on the front lines, I'd always held the vague expectation that life in that world would inevitably come to an end. The same end that would be met by my flesh-and-blood body lying in a hospital bed clinging to life via an IV, as it eventually wasted away.

But the time-accelerated Underworld presented no such concern. A rate of 5,000,000 times real time meant that I didn't need to consider the state of my real world body at all. Until my soul's lifespan ran out, I could stay in this alternate world forever. Can I really say that I never subconsciously considered that?

The answer was—

It never even crossed my mind…

Not Suguha, Mom, Dad.

Yui, Klein, Agil, Liz, Silica… or the other people who've saved me many times.

Or Alice.

Asuna.

I never considered the extent of their grief, their sorrow, just how many tears would be shed.

I ultimately still can't truly understand the feelings of other people.

I never changed, ever since that moment in middle school, when I pushed away my friend who was reaching out to me for help…

—That's wrong, Kirito.

Such a familiar voice.

I felt a delicate warmth emerging from within my icy left hand.  

—It's not for your own sake if you don't want to leave this world. It's because you love the people you met here.

—You love Selka, Tiese, Ronye, Liensenpai, the people of Rulid, and the people you met at the capital and the academy, the Integrity Knights and the Guardians… Cardinal-san, and maybe even Administrator… and perhaps me as well.

—That's how great, how wide, how deep your love is. Enough to carry the weight of the whole world.

—But that enemy of yours isn't the same.

—That man is the one who doesn't understand the feelings of other people. That's why he seeks them, because he can't figure them out. That's why he plunders them. That's why he destroys them. Because…

He's afraid.

***

Gabriel Miller watched as wispy tear tracks slid down the boy's cheeks. The hands clutching his swords shrank to his chest, as if in fear.

Does he finally feel afraid?

Only the fear and despair of a man about to die was the feeling Gabriel could share with others.

Gabriel had taken many lives in his search for a soul's radiance, ever since he had murdered Alicia Klingerman in the woods behind his childhood home. But he had never again witnessed another object resembling a puff of light, like the one that had escaped Alicia's forehead. So he had been nursing his hunger by sampling his own fear instead.

What does it taste like? The fear gushing from a boy once so filled with powerful confidence, now knocking on death's door?

The craving welling up from the depths of his body caused Gabriel to lick his lips while raising the tip of his left finger.

Several tiny black orbs immediately materialized and began to drone, like flies.

He brought the finger swishing down and from the black orbs burst ultrthin laser beams, perforating every inch of the boy's body. A second later, blood spurted, hanging in midair like mist.

"HA HA HA HA!!"

Gabriel roared with laughter as he closed the distance in an instant, drawing back his void blade.

It penetrated the boy's abdomen with ease.

The body under his black shirt and overcoat was ripped apart by the raging void, and abruptly severed in half.

Blood, flesh, and organs sprayed in all directions.

Gabriel's left hand reached out towards the alluring ruby-red glow.

He seized the still beating, largest jewel of them all, hanging from the upper half of the boy — and tore off his heart.

The piece of meat in his palm continued to hammer badump, badump, as though in protest, as Gabriel brought it close to the edge of his expressionless mouth and whispered to the levitating, dying boy.

***

"Your feelings, your memories, everything of your heart and your soul… I will now devour it all."

The angel of death proclaimed. I gazed down at him through half-closed eyes.

Gabriel Miller's colorless lips parted wide, as if about to bite down on a ripe apple, and sank his sharp teeth into my plundered heart.

…Squish.

There was a dreadful noise.

His white face contorted intensely; great volumes of blood that was not mine gushed from his mouth.

Of course.

He had bitten into the great number of tiny blades I generated inside my own heart from Metallic Elements.

"Unf…"

Gabriel covered his mouth and pulled back.

I moaned scratchily:

"How are you gonna find… my spirit and memories in there? My body's just… a container. My memories… will always be…"

Right here.

Merged with my consciousness itself, never to be separated.

The pain of my heart getting torn to shreds was brutalized beyond description. But this moment was my biggest and final opportunity. There wouldn't be a second chance if I missed it.

Eugeo was still fighting when his body got cut in half.

I spread the two swords in my hands to my left and right, crying as blood rippled away from me:

"RELEASE RECOLLECTION!!"

Pure white and pitch black discharged at the same time.

Massive numbers of ice tendrils exploded from the front-facing Blue Rose Sword, tightly binding Gabriel's body.

Then from the Night Sky Sword raised high above—

A monumental, dark pillar towered into the sky.

Dark light roared upwards, boring through the crimson and gaining soaring altitude — then spreading in all directions almost as if it had collided violently with the sun.

Bit by bit, it was covering the sky.

The crimson was being painted over at terrific speed and the daytime light vanished.

Darkness reached the horizon at once, and continued to expand beyond.

No, it wasn't the darkness of a void. It was velvety, had a slight temperature…

An infinite night sky.

***

Sinon lay alone in the uninhabited wilderness at the bottom of a crowded cluster of oddly shaped boulders, waiting in silence for her HP to fall to zero.

Pain would not stop radiating from where her blown-off legs used to be, making her slide and out of consciousness. She tightly grasped the remains of her necklace at her chest like a lifeline, but her right hand was gradually losing strength.

Just as she was trying to decide whether her slowly blurring thoughts were a sign of impending logout or indicating that she really was about to pass out…

The sky's color changed.

The disgusting blood-colored blight over what was clearly supposed to be daytime sky was being blanketed by total darkness from the south at fierce speed. The sunlight was blocked off and the gray clouds vanished too — then, Sinon was shrouded in total blackness.

No. It wasn't total blackness.

Before she realized it, traces of phosphorescence were cascading, illuminating the rocks above her, the many dead trees, and the chain around her neck a soft blue hue. A cooling breeze blew, swaying her bangs.

It was nightfall. An all-healing nightfall that kindly, reliably coated this whole world.

Sinon was suddenly reminded of a scene from the distant past.

She had spent a night in a desert in an alternate world different from this one. With all her strength, she was bawling, barking, venting the whole story about the incident befalling her as a child, and just how much that memory had tormented her since. The night sky above her now was filled with the strong, but gentle feeling of his arms, silently wrapped around her from behind back then, enduring the weight of her body.

—I get it. This nightfall is Kirito's spirit.

He was no dazzling sun. He would not stand in front of others and radiate light of brightest brilliance.

But when you were sad, when you were suffering, he would always be supporting you from behind. He would help heal your wounds and blow your tears dry. Like a tiny, but positively shining star. Like the night.

To protect this world and everyone living in it, it would seem that Kirito was now locked in a showdown against Emperor Vector, or Subtilizer. After fighting and fighting against scores of impossibly strong enemies, it would seem that now he was summoning the final bit of strength inside him.

If that's true, then please — carry my spirit over to him as well.

Sinon prayed, looking earnestly towards the sky through eyes wet with tears.

A tiny blue star directly above her head twinkled for a moment.

***

Leafa lay on the ground, surrounded by innumerable Orcs and Fist Fighters, waiting for her final moment in the same way.

Her right foot no longer had the strength to stomp and cast Terraria's recovery ability. Her mangled, perforated body was as cold as ice; unable to move even a finger.

"Leafa… don't die! You can't die!!"

Orc chief Rirupirin knelt beside her, his scream like a howl. The lucid droplets of tears building in his tiny eyes were reaching their limit. Leafa looked up at his tears with a shallow smile, whispering:

"Don't cry… I'm coming back… for sure."

At this, Rirupirin balled up his body, his shoulders quaking uncontrollably. Watching him, Leafa thought.

—I can't help Onii-chan directly, but this should be enough. I've done my duty. Haven't I…?

In that moment, as though in reply to Leafa's inner voice.

The sky's color vanished.

The crimson daytime sky of the Dark Territory abruptly changed to night; expressions of shock filled the spaces among the Orcs and Fist Fighters. Rirupirin's tear-soaked face whipped upwards, and his eyes widened.

But Leafa felt neither surprise nor fear. She could feel her brother's scent on the night wind, gently caressing her cheek, blowing from the south as if in pursuit of the darkness.

"Onii-chan…"

She murmured, taking in a deep breath of the air.

To Leafa — Suguha, Kirito had always been the closest, yet furthest existence from her.

It was likely that her brother had stopped viewing his current parents as his birth parents without even realizing it, even before he discovered the truth therein. Kirito had been cloaked in a veil of loneliness and isolation for as long as Suguha could remember; he had never been one to connect deeply with anybody. Every time friendship was born, he would destroy it with his own hands.

This disposition had caused her brother to indulge in online games, and that indulgence had conferred him the character of «the hero who liberated SAO», but Suguha took that to be neither accidental irony nor fated redemption.

It was a path that her brother chose for himself. He would never run away from it, always doing his utmost to push through to the end. That was Kirito's greatest strength.

This night sky was the best evidence that Kirito had decided to shoulder the burden of this world and everyone living in it. Because—

…Onii-chan is more of a swordsman than I am.

Her arms had lost all feeling in them, but Leafa wrang the out the last of her strength and cupped her hands in front of her chest, as if she were grasping a bamboo sword.

Then she prayed. Carry the strength of my spirit to my brother's sword.

Far above her head, she could see a green star gleaming brightly.

***

Lisbeth held Silica's hand in a tight grip as she looked mutely towards the sky where the sun had vanished.

Whether she liked it or not, the extraordinary sight of the crimson sky being coated over by darkness evoked memories of that day.

It was afternoon on an early winter day a little over two years after SAO began.

Bursting out of her own shop, Lisbeth learned from the great list of system messages covering the upper floor that the death game had finally been cleared. She knew in an instant that it had been Kirito. Kirito beat the final boss swinging a sword I made.

Back in the real world, Kirito told her this:

—I had actually already lost back then. Healthcliff's sword pierced my chest and my HP definitely dropped to zero. But for some reason, my avatar didn't disappear immediately. It was only a few seconds, but I was able to move my right hand and take him along with me. I think the people who bought me that time have to be you, Liz, and Asuna, Silica, Klein, and Agil. So I'm not really the one who cleared SAO. You guys are all the heroes.

She had slapped his back with a laugh and said "Why so modest?" at the time, but that had probably been how Kirito genuinely felt. He really wanted to say that the true greatest power lay in the bonds between you and me.

"…Hey, Silica."

Lisbeth looked away from the night sky, glancing at her friend beside her.

"Apparently… I still like Kirito."

Silica smiled, and replied:

"Me too."

Then, they both turned back towards the faintly phosphorescent nighttime.

Before closing her eyes, she saw two silhouettes: Klein, raising his fist a distance away, and Agil, hands on his hips, appearing to be muttering something.

Lisbeth heard the voices of fellow Japanese players praying, wishing, like her.

—We dived into this world with AmuSpheres… but you can still hear us, can't you Kirito? Because our spirits are all connected.

Hundreds of specks of stardust scattered above them as one.

***

Integrity Knight Renri placed his left hand on the neck of his precious dragon Kazenui, but his right hand remained grasping the left hand of Tiese, as he looked up at the suddenly arriving night sky while forgetting to breathe.

The remaining history books in the church had never mentioned a frightening phenomenon like this, where daytime sky suddenly transformed to night. But Renri was not afraid.

When he had taken two spears in his body and had accepted the truth that he was about to die, a rain of light had descended from the sky and healed his fatal injuries without leaving a trace. Now, this night contained within it the exact same warmth of that rain.

It perplexed Renri that he had survived to the last as the weakest High Integrity Knight, but at the same time he could not forgive his own feelings. He had always believed that dying heroically in battle like Knight Dakira or Knight Eldrie was the one and only way of repaying his deceased friend, whose name he could not even remember.

Yet Renri discovered a new feeling when the rain of light healed him.

The black-haired swordsman confined to the chair with wheels attached to it. He also had lost his one and only friend. And then he had decided that he needed to suffer with the responsibility for his death, sealing away his spirit.

But that swordsman had stood up. Then he had controlled his twin swords that were a part of his own friend just like Renri's Divine Instruments, the Twin Edged Wings, performed a shocking display of power and sent tens of thousands of enemy soldiers back to the other world. He had educated Renri with his own shadow.

To live. To connect living, fighting, life and spirit. This — only this…

"Only this, is proof of your strength."

Renri murmured, gripping Tiese's left hand a little tighter.

This redheaded girl, whose other hand was linked with that of Trainee Ronye, who herself stood beside Guardian Leader Sortiliena, looked fleetingly up at Renri, then nodded to him as her eyes shimmered the color of maple, glistening softly even within the darkness.

The four of them looked up into the pitch black sky once more, each offering his or her own prayer.

Out of hundreds of stars, four particularly brilliant ones formed a constellation and began to twinkle.

***

Standing far away, Fist Fighter guild chief Iskahn stared fixedly, with a sort of ineffable poignance, at the dying girl in green armor surrounded by kneeling Orcs and Fist Fighters.

The way that girl had fought had been so fierce that "angry god" was too inadequate of a description. After seeing her, Iskahn thought he finally understood why the Orcs had disobeyed direct orders from the Emperor and came rushing to rescue the Fist Fighter guild. Chief Rirupirin and his 3,000 Orcs had determined that this girl was stronger than even the Emperor.

But he was wrong.

There was only one reason every single Orc had obeyed, no, had allied themselves with that girl, and it was that she had treated them like humans; that was what Rirupirin had told Iskahn. In the past Rirupirin's had always been swirling with hatred towards the humans, but when he proudly announced the situation to Iskahn the rage had vanished like a dream from his single eye.

"Hey, woman… No, Sheyta…"

Iskahn called the name of the gray female knight standing beside him.

"What we call power… what we call strength, what is it really?…"

Now a wordless knight, Sheyta tilted her head, her long tied hair swinging. Her cool eyes traveled from the dragon standing behind them, to the giant Dampe with bandages coiled around both shoulders, and back to Iskahn, then a small smile spread over her lips.

"You already know. There is stronger power than rage and hatred."

Immediately—

The Dark Territory's familiar blood-red sky was plunged into darkness.

Swallowing his breath and looking up, Iskahn saw but a single green star opposite him, twinkling without a sound.

Sheyta's hand reached out and pointed towards the star.

"…There. Real power. Real light."

"…Yeah. …Yeah, you're right."

Iskahn muttered. The liquid welling up in his left eye made the star's green light seem blurry.

For the first time in his life he balled up his fist not in preparation for a fight, and Fist Fighter guild chief Iskahn began to pray for a reason other than victory.

A short distance away from the green star, another star burned bright red as though it were set ablaze. A gray star floated to its side, as if it were nestling close to it.

Just then, the surviving Fist Fighters began singing a low martial dance, and hundreds of stars scattered in a split second.

Thousands, tens of thousands of stars.

***

The remaining main forces of Human Empire Defense army at the Great Eastern Gate, Integrity Knight Fanatio, Deusolbert, Knights-in-Training Linel and Fizel, and hundreds of lower knights were at a loss for words, their faces raised towards the unscheduled night sky.

The thoughts coursing through each of their chests was different, but the strength of their prayers and wishes was the same.

Fanatio prayed for the world loved by the departed Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli, and the world in which the new life in her belly would later live in.

Deusolbert placed a silent right hand over the tiny ring gleaming on his left finger, praying for the world in which he had once lived in with a certain someone who once bore the same ring on their finger.

Linel and Fizel prayed that they could once more encounter the swordsman who had taught them the meaning of true strength.

The other knights and Guardians prayed for peace to return to their precious world, and for it to endure forever.

The mountain Goblins in the hilly north of the Dark Territory began praying, and the plains Goblins in the western wilderness began praying too.

The Orcs in the central wetlands waiting the return of their husbands and fathers prayed, and the Giants of the southwestern plateau were praying as well.

The lilac-skinned humans in the castle towns adjacent to Obsidia Citadel, and the Ogres in the southeastern grasslands closed their eyes and prayed.

The night passed over the mountains, arriving in the Human Empire without delay.

Sister-in-Training Selka of the Rulid Village church at the northern end of Norlangarth North Empire had been retrieving well water to wash her laundry, when her eyes were drawn to the sight of the blue sky being slowly smeared over with darkness, and she was frozen to the spot. The rope slid from her palm and the wooden bucket splashed faintly into the well, but she did not hear.

The whisper slipping from her lips had a slight tremble to it.

"……Onee-sama. ……Kirito."

Now, in this moment—

Selka could feel, on the night wind, the two people she loved the most currently locked in fiercest battle.

It meant that Kirito had awoken again. He had stood up again from the abyss of sorrow from losing Eugeo.

Selka knelt onto the close-cut grass, crossing her fingers at her chest, closed her eyes, and murmured:

"Eugeo. Please… protect Onee-sama and Kirito."

As she prayed and watched up into the night sky, a blue star twinkled.

Stars of various colors then floated into being around it. She saw that the children who had been playing everywhere around the courtyard were now all kneeling silently on the ground, tightly clasping their small hands together.

The merchants and housewives in front of the church.

The peasants in the pastures and wheat fields.

Alice's father Gasuft inside the village town hall, and old man Garitta on the edge of the forest were both praying. None felt a trace of fear.

Countless stars populated the sky above Rulid.

Likewise, the sky above Zakkaria a short distance to the north was also scattered with a great volume of stardust. At nearby Walde farm, husband and wife and their twin daughters Teline and Telure were side by side at their window, praying.

The villagers and city-dwellers strewn across the four empires all offered up their wordless prayers.

Then the residents of the megacity Centria located at the center of the Human Empire. The students and instructors of the Swordcraft Academy.

Even the monks and priests of the Axiom Church were of no exception.

For the girl responsible for controlling the elevating disc between the 50th and 80th floors, it was the first time in her protracted life she had done something in particular. While on duty, she took her hand away from the glass Aerial Element-generating pipe, looked up towards the infinitely expanding starry sky, and brought her hands together.

She knew nothing of the world outside the Cathedral. The Administrator's death and the Dark Territory's invasion had brought no change to the girl's life.

So she was praying only for one thing.

The opportunity to encounter those two young swordsmen once more.

There were already more than ten thousand stars gleaming in myriad colors filling the night sky that shrouded over the entire nation of Underworld at midday.

Starting from the ones on the outer boundary, the stars began emitting bell-like sounds one by one, all beginning to descend towards one spot.

The southernmost edge of the world.

Towards one single jet-black longsword raised towards the sky, a stone's throw from the floating island called the World End Altar.

***

Alice was sprinting in earnest up the steps and finally able to see the top, when she abruptly realized that her own shadow, splayed upon the marble under her feet, was melting into a much greater one.

Looking back over her shoulder as she ran, Alice witnessed a scene beyond imagination.

The enemy, incorporeal void blade raised, six-part black wings expanded.

Vines of ice, wrapped in layers and layers over his body, hindering his movement.

The ice was coming from a glowing bluish-white sword, gripped in the hand of a swordsman in black with dragon wings sprouting from his back.

Everything under the swordsman's chest had already vanished. His willpower to still continue fighting, in a situation where normally one would immediately lose all of his Life, was nothing short of miraculous.

But the true miracle was taking place above both of their heads.

A torrent of darkness was ascending from the pitch-dark longsword raised high in the swordsman's right hand, covering the entire world.

But it was not a darkness without light.

The northern sky began to shimmer with countless dots of light. Clusters of stars shining many different colors gradually adorned the sky… the night.

All of a sudden—

The stars began to move.

Issuing a clear, somewhat bell-like, somewhat harp-like sound, the stars congregated towards the southern end of the world. White, blue, red, green, and yellow light left long, thin trails as they traced out an enormous rainbow in the night sky.

Instinct told Alice that these stars were the power of the spirits of everyone living in this world.

The people of the Human Empire.

And the people of the Dark Territory.

The humans.

And the demihumans.

Now, the world was united as one in prayer.

"Kirito……!"

Alice called the swordsman's name, raising her left hand high.

My spirit too. I may only be a manmade knight, possessing only the trivial spirit of a scant life, but this feeling — this emotion flooding from my chest is unmistakably genuine.

A brilliant golden star was released from her left hand, and then it flew directly towards Kirito's sword.

***

Asuna did not look back.

She understood that the only way to meet Kirito's demands as he was locked in mortal combat was not to waste a fraction of the time he was buying them, and proceed towards the system console.

So Asuna tugged Alice's hand, continuing to bolt up the stone steps with as much willpower as she could muster.

But she found it impossible to stem the fiery sentiment bursting from deep within her chest.

The sentiment became two droplets of tears that slid from her eyelashes, streaked across her cheeks, and spilled into the air.

Carried by the night wind, the dancing droplets melted together, becoming a glittering multicolored star.

Asuna only raised her head for an instant to see the star flying forward and tracing an aurora behind it, then continued to run without looking back. As she ran, there was only trust in her heart.

***

Gabriel Miller felt wonderment at how he could possibly be restrained by mere tendrils of ice.

Hadn't all types of magical attacks, even slashes from the longswords, been utterly ineffective against him until a moment ago?

Certainly, his mouth had been injured by the countless number of blades the boy had concealed within his heart. But that had only been his mouth imitating the sensation of chewing. Now his entire body was newly shielded by a thick layer of dark barrier.

—I am the one who plunders. All light, heat, and objects of existence.

—I am the abyss.

"NU…LLLLL!"

An unearthly, inhuman roar surged out from deep within his throat.

The six-part, three-pair black wings protruding from his back all transformed into void blades identical to the sword in his right hand.

He beat these blades ferociously, rending the space around him. The bluish-white tendrils of ice were severed and his body regained freedom.

"LLLLLLLLL!!"

Continuing to eject the discordant noise from his gaping mouth, Gabriel lengthened the seven void blades on his wings and his sword in all directions.

When his empty left hand reached forward, about to fire dark wires in order to return the favor of restraint to the boy.

Gabriel noticed at last that the crimson color of the sky had disappeared.

And also, the untold numbers of meteors descending from overhead.

***

When I released the Night Sky Sword's memories, I found it impossible to summon any specific image to my mind.

The only thing in my heart were the words Eugeo had said to me when he was helping me name this sword that I had taken to calling the «black one».

—Oh yeah. I think «Night Sky Sword» is a decent name for your black sword, Kirito. What say you?

—Gently… covering… this small world… like the night sky…

The darkness bursting from the sword was transforming day to night, creating a night sky true to its name.

I understood was what happening the moment the cluster of stars drifting here from the north became a rainbow-colored waterfall and poured into the blade.

The Night Sky Sword's power was its ability to absorb Resources within a far-reaching range.

And the strongest Resource in this world was most definitely not the Spatial Resources allocated by the system, like the sun or the land. It was the power of the human spirit. The power of prayers, wishes, and hope.

The final member of the almost infinitely descending star cluster was absorbed into the sword.

Then, the very second when the last two golden and multicolored stars dissolved into the body of the blade—

The Night Sky Sword beamed with the rainbow of emotions from a host of people.

The light traveled from the hilt into my arm, permeating my entire body. My lower body, wrecked by Gabriel, regenerated in an instant in the warm radiance.

The starlight congregated at my left arm too, giving the Blue Rose Sword in my hand a blinding luminance—

"OH…HHHHHHH!"

I fanned my two swords far apart, shouting.

"LLLLLLLLL!!"

Opposite me, Gabriel had broken free of his ice bindings and was letting loose a bizarre howl.

He no longer resembled anything like a human. Wrapped in bluish-black flames, his naked, liquid metal-like body was giving off a menacing glow, and the violet-blue light ejecting from his eye sockets reminded me of escaping hellfire.

The giant void blade in his right hand went high up in the air, and his wings that were now also blades lengthened in all directions.

Just then, his left hand aimed at me and a uncountable number of tightly packed black wires burst forth.

"…OHH!!"

I set up a barrier of light with a yell and deflected them.

Then I fully opened my wings, transformed from the hem of my long coat.

With my left sword in front and my right sword behind, I kicked the air with all of my might.

Since there was only a minuscule distance between me and the enemy, it should have taken under a second for me to charge towards him at full speed. But in this segment of time, I became enshrouded in an infinitely long sensation of acceleration.

The figure of a person appeared to my right.

It was a knight in black armor with a black mustache, wearing a long, large blade. The man was hugging the shoulder of a gray-skinned female knight sticking close to him; he studied me and said:

"You must shed your bloodlust, youngster. His empty soul cannot be cut by the Incarnation of murder."

Next, a short-haired, well-built man appeared to his left. Dressed in casual blue robes, he was equipped with a steel-colored longsword. This was Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli, a strident grin over his gutsy features.

"No fear, boy. Your sword bears with it the weight of the world itself."

By now a girl with snowy white skin and long silver hair had emerged beside Beroculi.

Highest Minister Administrator smiled enigmatically at me with silvery eyes and murmured:

"Come now, show me. All of what you inherited from me, your godlike1 power."

And the final one, coming into being directly in front of my chest, was a robed young girl wearing a mortarboard. This was the other Highest Minister, Cardinal, complete with tawny curls draped over her shoulder and a tiny spider sitting atop it.

"You've got to trust in them, Kirito. Trust in the spirits of the many whom you love, and who love you."

Behind her glasses, her dark brown eyes were shining warmly.

Then their figures faded away—

The greatest, most final enemy, Gabriel Miller, entered the attack range of my sword.

With my arms charged full of power I had never felt before, I unleashed my most practiced, most reliable dual wielding Sword Skill.

Starburst Stream. A 16-hit combo attack.

"WHO…OAAAAAAAAA!!"

My sword, permeated with starlight, shot forward with a blinding trail.

At the same time, Gabriel's six wings and one blade came swooping down from all sides.

Each mighty clash between light and void created vast flashes of light, causing the world to tremble.

Faster.

Gotta go faster.

"OHHHHHHHHHHH!!"

I roared as I assimilated mind and body, accelerating to the extreme and swinging my swords.

"NULLLLLLLL!!"

Gabriel was howling too, counterattacking with all seven blades.

10 hits.

11 hits.

There was no more rage, no more hatred, no more bloodlust in my chest. All that was left pervading my body was the colossal power of the prayers, driving me.

12 hits.

13 hits.

—Take in…

14 hits.

—the light of…

15 hits.

—the spirits of everyone of this world!! Gabriel!!

The final 16th hit was a full-motion overhead slash from the left, a beat slower than him.

Certain of his victory, Gabriel's inhuman eyes narrowed slightly.

Moving a hair faster than the slash I had put all of my might into, a black wing protruding from the enemy's right shoulder sheared off my entire left arm.

The light-filled limb burst into pieces and scattered, leaving only the Blue Rose Sword floating in the air.

"LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!"

Accompanied by high, loud laughter, the void blade in Gabriel's right hand hurtled downwards, crackling with black lightning.

Psht.

With the echo of that dependable sound, two hands that were not my own gripped onto the hilt of the Blue Rose Sword hovering in midair.

The Blue Rose Sword blocked the void blade firm and true.

Clutching the sword, Eugeo looked to me, flaxen hair swaying.

"Come on — now's the time, Kirito!!"

"Thanks, Eugeo!!"

I shouted back in clear tones.

Page 197 "WHO…OAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!"

I injected all of my power into what became the 17th hit, a overhead slash from the right, crashing it down into Gabriel's right shoulder.

The sword plunged deep, sending the pitch-black liquid metal scattering, coming to a stop precisely where the heart lay.

Immediately—

Eugeo and I transformed every bit of the starlight permeating the Night Sky Sword and Blue Rose Sword into prismatic waves, surging right into Gabriel's heart.

***

Gabriel Miller could feel an energy of countless colors forming a great waterfall, gushing into the bottomless abyss that occupied every inch inside his body.

His sight was masked by variegated light, and his ears felt the nonstop passage of many layers of voices.

—O God, save him…

—Keep that child safe…

—Bring an end to this war…

—I love you…

—Let this world…

—This world…

—Protect this world…

"…Ha, ha, ha."

Even as the boy's sword speared his heart, Gabriel threw his arms and six wings wide apart, guffawing loudly.

"HA HA HA, HA HA HA HA HA HA!!"

An exercise in futility.

That light seeks to fill my hunger, my insatiable void?

Simply an enterprise of arrogance, like attempting to warm the vast universe with human hands.

"I will devour it all, sucking every last drop dry!!"

Gabriel bellowed, shooting bluish-black light from eyes and mouth.

"You?! Someone who only knows to fear, to dread the power of the human spirit?! Don't make me laugh!!"

The boy roared back, causing golden waves to swell from his entire body.

The sword shone even more brightly, feeding light and warmth into his frozen heart.

His field of vision fired up, and his sense of hearing was satiated.

But Gabriel continued to laugh out loud.

"HA HA HA HA HA, HAAAAAAAAA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!"

***

I was not afraid at all.

The void filling the inside of the enemy was like a black hole, but my own body was also swirling with a gargantuan, gleaming galaxy created with the prayers of each and every human being.

Within the long beams of blue-violet light bulging out of Gabriel's eye sockets and mouth, the spectrum began to slowly shift.

From violet to red. Then orange. Past yellow — and then pure white.

Pshk.

That slight noise signified the appearance of a tiny crack in the liquid metal body enveloping the Night Sky Sword.

And then another. And another.

White light was peeking out from the fractures. The bottoms of the six wings on his back were set ablaze.

The edges of his cackling mouth were greatly damaged, as holes opened up in his shoulders and chest.

Even as pillars of light poked out in all directions from the fissures covering his entire body, Gabriel never abandoned his laughter.

"HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!"

His voice grew shriller and shriller, eventually becoming a high-pitched metallic frequency.

The black archangel's whole body, completely wrapped in white cracks—

Crumbled inwards and collapsed in an instant.

Then released outwards.

An explosion of intimidating scale shot up into the distant heavens, corkscrewing as it went.

***

"——————Hahahahahahaha!!"

Gabriel Miller sprang upwards, laughing uproariously.

The first thing he saw was a wall plated with gray metal panel. Warning stickers in Japanese adorned the ducts and wiring that crept along the wall.

"Hahaha, ha, ha……"

Gabriel quieted his final waves of laughter by taking rapid breaths, blinking continuously. When his breathing had steadied, he took a fresh look at his surroundings.

He was certain that this was STL Room 1 in the Ocean Turtle. It seemed that he had been automatically logged out by some unanticipated, yet important factor.

What a killjoy of a conclusion. He had planned on sucking dry those vast surges of light and then finishing off the boy's heart.

If he dived back in right now, would there still be time to do so?

Face taut, Gabriel turned his head to look, and saw…

A tall white man lying down on the STL seat, his eyes closed.

…Who is that?

The question flashed through his mind.

Is he part of the raid team? More importantly, why is this guy lying in the machine I dived in with?

And then, he finally realized.

—That's… This is… my… face.

Gabriel Miller, the CTO of Glowgen Defense Systems.

Then, who will I see if I look at my own body?

Gabriel raised his own hands and stared. The only things there were two vaguely translucent masses of hazy light.

What the hell is this? What happened?

Just then—

He heard a soft voice behind him.

"…You've finally come over to this side, Gabe."

He whirled his head around.

Standing there was a little girl in a white blouse and navy pleated skirt.

He could not see her face, because her head was bowed so deep that her features were hidden behind a mask of floaty blonde hair. But Gabriel recognized her in an instant.

"…Alicia."

Saying the name for the first time in almost 20 years, he broke into a smile.

"What's this? You're in that kinda place, Ali?"

Alicia Klingerman. Gabriel Miller's childhood friend and the first murder victim in his noble pursuit of the soul.

For the longest time Gabriel had found it a matter of deepest regret that he had assuredly witnessed Alicia's soul back then, yet failed to successfully capture it. But it turned out that he had not lost it at all. She had always been by his side.

Forgetting his own curious situation, Gabriel reached out his right hand.

Zip. Alicia's left hand shot forward with startling speed and tightly seized Gabriel's with her small, slender fingers.

It was cold. Cold as ice. A needlelike chill speared right through his skin and flesh.

Gabriel tried to shake her off on reflex. But Alicia's tiny hand held him fast in a viselike grip, and then the smile disappeared from Gabriel's face.

"…It's cold. Let go of my hand, Ali."

He muttered, but the blonde hair shook from side to side.

"No, Gabe. From now on we'll always be together. Come on, let's go."

"Go… where? No, I still have things I gotta do."

Gabriel responded, tugging on his right hand as hard as he could. But it did not move. On the contrary, it seemed he was being slowly dragged downward.

"Let go. Let go of me, Alicia."

Almost on the second he spoke in a slightly firmer tone.

Alicia's head snapped up.

When he laid eyes upon the face beneath her evenly cut, adorable bangs—

Gabriel was pummeled by an emotion that made him feel as though his entire heart had recoiled.

His internal organs welled upwards. His breathing grew rapid. His skin broke out into gooseflesh.

What the hell is this? What on earth is this feeling, this emotion?

"Ah… Ah, ah, ah…"

Producing a queer moan, Gabriel shook his head slowly from side to side.

"Leggo. Stop it. Leggo."

He raised his left hand without thinking, trying to shove Alicia away, but that hand was also seized in a flash. Fingers that felt like frigid metal ate deeply into his skin.

Heeheehee.

"This is fear, Gabe. The real feeling that you've been looking for. Isn't it awesome?"

Fear.

The source of the expressions that had appeared, when they were about to die, on the numerous faces of people he had murdered in his search.

But he found it exceedingly difficult to describe his first taste of this feeling as enjoyable. He would go so far as to call it unpleasant. I don't want to know this kind of feeling. End it now.

But—

"No, Gabe. From now on, this will continue foreeeever. For the rest of eternity, you will only know fear."

Alicia's tiny boots sank smoothly into the metal floor.

Then Gabriel's feet sank in too.

"Ah… St… Stop it. Leggo… Stop it."

He was inadvertently babbling in an almost delirious state, but the sinking would not stop.

Without warning, a white arm shot up out of the floor and coiled itself around Gabriel's foot. And then another. And yet another.

Gabriel knew by instinct that these arms belonged to all of his own dead prey.

Fear rose uncontrollably. His heart was hammering at a terrible rate and cold sweat was pouring down his forehead.

"Stop… STOP, STOPSTOPSTOOOOOOOOOP!!"

Gabriel began to scream at last.

"Critter, come here! Get up Vassago!! HANS!! BRIGG!!"

He yelled for his subordinates, but the door to the main control room opposite him stayed coldly shut. Vassago, supposedly diving with the STL in the adjacent room, showed no signs of rousing either.

Before he knew it, the floor had swallowed his translucent body up to his waist. Alicia, dragging his hands, was only visible from the shoulders up.

Seconds before getting completely submerged, the girl's face beamed happily.

"AH… AHHH… WAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!"

Gabriel let out a shriek.

He shrieked on and on.

His shoulders, neck, and face were muffled by white hands.

"AHHHH… Ahhh…… Ah………"

With a plop, his world was thrown into darkness.

Gabriel Miller's scream, as he became aware of the fate awaiting him that would last forever into the future, jerked higher in pitch.

***

And then—

Underworld's time began to reaccelerate.

***

The second that synchronization was broken, the hundreds of Japanese players logged in with AmuSpheres disconnected automatically, awoke in their own rooms or booths of net cafes, their chests filled with deep emotion.

For a while, all of them digested it, turned it over in their heads, carved their experiences in the alternate world into their hearts, and finally, wiped away the tears beading at the corners of their eyes and picked up their cell phones and AmuSpheres afresh. For the purpose of conveying to their friends who had fallen in battle in the alternate world and logged out first, what had happened next.

Sinon and Leafa left Underworld due to complete loss of Life just before reacceleration.

Awakening in the RATH Roppongi branch, the two of them waited for what felt like the last lingering echoes of pain to subside as they looked to each other and nodded fervently.

Shino and Suguha were both confident that after Kirito had revived, he defeated the final enemy, saved the world, and would return immediately.

The next time they saw him, they would—

Even if they could not make him feel it, they would properly vocalize their feelings to him.

With renewed resolve, both of them realized what the other was thinking, and broke into soft smiles.

However.

Its limiters fully disabled, the FLA function was accelerating the time ticking within Underworld to previously uncharted domain.

Over 1,000 times. Over 5,000 times.

Ever closer to the wall of time in the far off distance, the so-called maximum acceleration phase:  5,000,000 times faster than reality.

***

As soon as the starlight vanished, the energy permeating my body disappeared along with it. Exhausted, I allowed my body to lean back while hovering in midair.

My severed arm should have disappeared by now, but it had already regenerated without me noticing. In that hand I kept a tight hold on the Blue Rose Sword with my remaining strength, trying to keep my tears from slipping out.

I understood that Eugeo's soul, having saved my neck numerous times after becoming embedded within the Blue Rose Sword, had taken the blow from Gabriel's blade and was consumed by the fire.

The dead would not return, whether in the real world, or here in Underworld.

That was why memories were so precious and beautiful.

"…Right, Eugeo…?"

I whispered, but there was no reply.

I raised both swords at an unhurried pace and slid them into their sheaths on my back.

At that moment, the night sky overhead began to dissipate.

The darkness thawed and scattered, and the sky gradually returned to its original color.

……Blue.

The reappearing sky over the Dark Territory was no longer blood-red; only a sea of endless blue, as far as the eye could reach.

I wasn't sure whether it was an effect of the imminent «maximum acceleration phase», or a miracle brought about by the prayers of more than ten thousand people.

Whatever the reason, the sight of the transparent, azure heavens was so magnificent that it would move you to tears. Feeling inundated by intense nostalgia and yearning, I filled my lungs with that blueness.

I closed my eyes, exhaled a long breath, then quietly changed direction.

When I opened my eyes, I laid them upon the marble staircase, which was disintegrating in silence.

By gently flapping my wings I slowly descended, making a beeline for the fractured steps. I was aiming for the tiny island suspended in midair.

The circular floating island was just about overflowing with flowers of an assortment of colors. A single road paved with flat stones cut straight through them, leading towards a structure resembling a temple.

I landed in the center of the stone road, then restored my wings back into my coat hem and surveyed my surroundings.

The saccharine, refreshing fragrance of nectar tickled my nose. A number of lapis blue butterflies fluttered weightlessly in space, and birds chirped in trees flourishing all around me. The sight of a clear blue sky and steadily shining sun bore resemblance to a famous painting.

And — there was not a soul on the island.

Not a shadow in sight on the path, or in the columned temple in front of me.

"…Thank God. They made it."

I breathed, alone.  

After Gabriel Miller was consumed by the spiral of light and vanished, I could feel the FLA beginning acceleration once again, timed perfectly with the moment of uncertainty when I was unsure whether or not Asuna and Alice had successfully escaped from the console to the real world. But both had managed to hurry all the way up that enormous staircase and finally reach their goal in time.   

Alice — the reason this world had been born, a female knight and the one and only soul to break the limits of an Artificial Fluctlight, had departed for the real world at last.

I guess many hardships will be waiting for her from now on. She must contend with a world governed by totally different laws and social practices, a cumbersome mechanized body, and a power bent on exploiting a true artificial intelligence for militaristic purposes.

But since it's Alice, I think she'll pull through. She is the strongest Integrity Knight, after all.

"……Do your best……"

I looked up towards the blue sky, praying for the golden knight whom I would never see again.

Yes—

Now that the maximum acceleration phase had started, there was no longer any way for me to manually log out from inside. All three system consoles in the world have stopped functioning, and even if my Life falls to zero, I must wait in complete darkness, in a state of utter sensory deprivation, for the phase to end.

Kikuoka and the other RATH workers were supposedly fighting to stop my STL now, but that could not be done before 20 minutes, at the very least, had elapsed.

In that period of time, more than 200 years would pass in this world.

I didn't know whether my consciousness would disappear after wearing out the lifespan of my soul, or even before that, crack under the strain of being accelerated 5,000,000 times faster than real time.

The only thing I could be certain of was that I could no longer return to the real world.

Mom, Dad, Suguha. Sinon. Klein, Agil, Liz, Silica.

My friends at school. The players I knew in ALO.

Alice.

And, Asuna.

I was never going to see those people, whom I loved so much, ever again.

I dropped to my knees upon the white stone slab.

I propped myself up with both hands, but my upper body felt like it was on the verge of shattering.

My vision went cloudy. Shimmering light trembled, then began falling and splashing without end onto the smooth marble.  

For now, at least, I think I have the right to cry a bit.

For what was important to me that I could never have back again, I wept. Sobs issued from the gaps between my clenched teeth, and tears fell away from my face, over and over.

Drip. Drip drip.

All I could hear was the sound of droplets hitting stone.

Drip.

Drip.

—Clack.

Clack, clack.

All of a sudden, I could hear the echoes of several, assuredly solid noises.

Clack, clack. It was getting closer. Faint vibrations traveled to my fingertips.

The air swayed. A vague, but wistfully sweet smell floated through the rich floral fragrance.

Clack.

…Clack.

The noises stopped directly in front of me.

And then, someone called my name.

References 1. "Godlike" (神威) and "Incarnation" (心意) are both pronounced shin'i here.↩

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