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Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online Chap 9

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 21 – Awakening (continued) 7 July 2026 / Eighth Day1 of the Eleventh Month of the Human Empire Calendar, 380 6 “Only… YOU…! Never… forgive…"

Crack!!

A second sword pierced straight through Klein's body with a dull sound.

Tears, never running dry all this time, flowed uncontrollably from Asuna's eyes.

Even while pinned heavily to the ground, Klein clawed at the earth with his right hand as the inciter in the black poncho — PoH, the former leader of the murder guild «Laughing Coffin», viewed him from above with a look of deep disgust.

"Ahh, I can't watch this anymore. Nobodies like you should just get out of the way like the nobodies you are. This is what happens when you butt in and play the hero."

PoH shook his head while spreading his arms, and then, in a language Asuna couldn't understand, indicated something to the crimson knight players standing behind Klein. One of them nodded and raised another sword.

Just as the third gleaming blade was about to blast away what had to be the last of Klein's HP—

"Hajimaaaaaaaaaa!!2"

One of the crimson knights exploded from the rear of the human wall and with a scream that sounded Korean, used his own sword to block the blade about to fall upon Klein.

***

—You've gotta be kidding me… How does it hurt this much?

Jo Wol-saeng/Moonphase remained prone on the ground, enduring the pain on his back where the man in the black poncho had slashed him.

The AmuSphere he was using should only be able to generate a very weak sensation of pain. As a matter of fact, even if his avatar's head were crushed in the jaws of a colossal dragon in the game he played so much, «Silla Online», he would only feel a jolt akin to numbness.

And yet, Wol-saeng was experiencing an excruciating agony as if he had been scalded with a torch.

No, if he were injured the same way in the real world, he wouldn't be feeling just this. That man in the black poncho had swung his fiendish, thickset Chinese cleaver-like weapon so fast that not even Wol-saeng, who thought himself a veteran player, had time to react. He would probably die instantly if he were attacked like that in the real world, and if not, he would experience pain so intense that it would be difficult to remain conscious. That was why this pain could only be a virtual sensation.

But despite his awareness of this, an unbearable sensation was still unbearable. Wol-saeng almost wanted to abandon the scene before him and log out of the game as fast as he could.

But even as he curled up pitifully atop the black dirt, he kept enduring the pain, because he could not accept the situation playing out right before his eyes no matter what.

Japanese hackers have «attacked» the closed beta testing server of a new VRMMORPG jointly developed by American, Chinese, and Korean volunteers, and are killing the developers in the game world. We hope that everyone can fight to stop the barbarity of these Japanese.

This social media appeal was what the Korean players, Wol-saeng included, and the Chinese players were responding to before diving into this VRMMO. They then bore witness to a group of Japanese players annihilating another group of players, supposedly Americans.

But — did that scene really fit the explanation by whomever had sent out the appeal?

As Wol-saeng saw it, it seemed instead that the Japanese were the more desperate ones, while the Americans looked more like they were playing a game. This impression had not changed, not even when the tide of battle had been turned by the «rescue» from tens of thousands of Korean and Chinese players, and even now, with most of the Japanese incapacitated. Even with their equipment shattered and their HP bordering on running out, they were putting their lives on the line to… Yes, they were trying to protect something, not destroy it.

Before Wol-saeng was slashed by that man in the black poncho, a female player from the group of Japanese had made a plea in native Korean that went like this:

—You've all been lied to. This server belongs to a Japanese company, we're not hackers, we're the rightful users. You were all tricked by false information into coming here to interrupt its development.

Something about the voice and expression of that female player calling herself Siune had greatly moved Wol-saeng. So he had endured hell and high water to get close to her in that free-for-all, to ask her "Do you have a way to prove what you are saying?", and just as Siune's partner was about to respond in Japanese, Wol-saeng was attacked by a slash from the man in the black poncho and was unable to get back up.

The developments that followed went blindingly quickly and were completely one-sided. The Japanese players were crushed by the crimson legion. A large portion of them lost all of their HP and were forcibly ejected from the game while the surviving half, numbering less than 200, were stripped of their weapons and rounded up in one place.

At that point Wol-saeng thought that the man in the black poncho, appearing again at the very front lines, was going to declare their victory, but instead he did something odd.

A single player wearing black clothes, sitting in a wheelchair and hugging two swords in his lap, was removed from a group of what appeared to be Japanese reinforcement players, and then the man in the black poncho began accosting him nonstop in Japanese.

This is getting weirder and weirder, thought Wol-saeng.

What on earth was a wheelchair doing in a virtual world — a VRMMO?

In the game he played frequently, «Silla Online», if one's feet were injured or suffered otherwise abnormal status effects, free movement on foot would be restricted. But you would be able to fully recover with the use of magic, medicine, or simply waiting until time was up. If your ability to walk was so impeded that you needed a wheelchair to get around, then at that point it couldn't just be an in-game punishment.

What was more, that young man in black seemed to have some sort of impediment to his consciousness; he did not react to anything the man in the black poncho said, and even when the man shook him he offered no resistance. One might think that if he wasn't an NPC, then he was probably an empty character uninhabited by an online player.

Finally, as though he could not bear it anymore, the man in the black poncho delivered a merciless kick at the wheelchair's silver wheel and knocked it over. In a flash, Wol-saeng forgot the pain on his back and held his breath. The Koreans around him let out noises of confusion, unable to grasp the situation.

At last, the young man sprawled on the ground displayed a reaction of his own accord: he reached his left arm towards the white blade out of the two swords he had been hugging so preciously until a moment ago. When Wol-saeng saw this he finally realized that there was nothing past the boy's right shoulder.

But his hand was still unable to touch the sword, because the man in the black poncho had picked it up first, and was holding it somewhat high out of reach as if he were taunting a child. The young man scrambled on the ground, desperately reaching for the sword, trying to get it back. The man in the black poncho seized the boy's left arm and violently yanked him to his feet. Loud words came from his mouth while his right palm struck the boy's cheek twice, three times.

All of a sudden, a new scream shattered the scene.

One of the captured Japanese players, wearing samurai-styled armor and a bandanna on his head, tried to grab the man in the black poncho.

But in the next instant a Korean player's sword thundered from behind and buried itself deeply into the samurai's body. Clearly enduring agony much greater than Wol-saeng's, he attempted to keep advancing forward but then a second sword stopped him.

The man in the black poncho sneered at the male samurai pinned to the ground. Then he delivered an order in Korean to the crimson knights.

"He's a nuisance. Kill him."

One of the crimson knights nodded and raised a third sword.

He just could not silently watch this happen anymore. He had not seen proof of what Siune claimed, but at the very least he despised the black poncho man's act of kicking over the wheelchair. On the other hand the samurai's desperate act gave Wol-saeng a strong impression that he was trying to protect his comrade.

Wol-saeng didn't hold much goodwill towards the country of Japan. Putting aside historical and territorial problems, their insular, scornful attitude made it seem like they thought they were the most superior nation in all of East Asia. The best proof of that was the fact that they had released The Seed Nexus to western nations, but specifically excluded connections from Korea and China.

—However.

The whole country of Japan did not equate to every single Japanese person living within it. There weren't many of them, but in the few international servers that did exist in the computer games before VRMMOs, he did have some unpleasant memories of certain Japanese players there, but of course he also had warm, amiable experiences of playing together with them.

Wol-saeng now loathed that man in the black poncho. He wanted to believe Siune and that samurai. It had nothing to do with them being Japanese or Korean. The simple reason was that a voice was screaming to him in his heart to do so.

The instant he acted, another wave of blinding, dizzying agony pierced through his back, racing up to his head, but he clenched his teeth and got up. He drew out his longsword and inhaled a chest full of air—

"……… Hajimaaaaaaaaaa!"

Roaring furiously as loudly as he could, Wol-saeng kicked off the ground.

The system granted very average stats to the crimson knight avatars; Wol-saeng's movements were a good deal heavier than that of his usual speed-type character «Moonphase» in Silla Online. But because of the effect of some unknown force, only in this moment did Wol-saeng fly across the wilderness like a gale and just barely manage to block with his own blade the sword about to steal the samurai's life.

"You… What're you doing?!"

The crimson knight right in front of him bellowed in Korean, with shock — and much more, rage — in his voice. Had it been a Chinese, he would have been done for, so Wol-saeng did not waste this tiny stroke of luck and desperately tried to persuade the player.

"I wanted to ask you whether you think this is weird?! The battle is over! Why are we doing still doing things that basically amount to lynching?!"

Hearing him say this, his fellow countryman was forced to fall silent, and turned his gaze to the samurai collapsed at his feet and the wheelchair boy sprawled on the ground behind Wol-saeng. The eyes behind the visor blinked, seeming to hesitate. He had to have been growing confused too as the frenzy of battle cooled down. The grip on the sword he was pressing against Wol-saeng's slowly relaxed.

But before Wol-saeng could speak again, a sharp voice flew out of the human wall surrounding the scene.

"Baesinja!3"

"Kill him too!"

As though he were being spurred on by the fury of his comrades, the crimson knight before him renewed his grip on the longsword.

But what Wol-saeng heard next completely exceeded his expectations.

"Wait! Hear what this guy has to say!"

"That poncho guy's taking it too far!"

At a glance, Koreans all over the wall of players had also begun to argue. The embers of discussion spread instantly, dividing the players into the radicals — who wanted to kill every last one of the surviving Japanese — and the moderates — who wanted to wait until the situation was properly explained before taking any action. Fierce arguments erupted between the two factions, and this dichotomy even spread to the Chinese: one could hear unintelligible roars rising and falling on the wilderness.

How was their only leader going to handle this situation?

Just as Wol-saeng was pondering this, he turned to look—

Standing beside the one-armed boy lying on the ground, the man in the black poncho was twirling his thick cleaver-like dagger, a great, great sneer curving the mouth hidden deep under his hood.

It took Wol-saeng only a moment to understand that he was not looking at anger, but suppressed laughter. A shudder, cold enough to offset his pain, ran down Wol-saeng's spine.

This man had absolutely nothing to do with a game jointly developed by Chinese, Korean, and Americans or whatever. Whether such a game even existed was highly doubtful. He wasn't clear on the details, but it was just for the sake of pitting players from every country against each other in a fight on this battlefield with real blood and real suffering… No, pitting them in a massacre against each other. That was his only goal.

"……Agma4……"

Wol-saeng heard the hoarse word slip from his own mouth.

***

Vassago Casals was born in San Francisco, in the slum district of the Tenderloin. His mother was of Spanish heritage and his father was Japanese.

The US birth certificate agency refused names that clearly caused harm to a child. So his mother named him Vassago, instead of Devil, or Satan. The functionary was not aware that Vassago was a minor demon named the «Prince of Hell», and approved the application.

There was only one reason a mother would give a demon's name to her own child. She had not wanted him to be born — putting it more extremely, she hated this child with every fiber of her being.

Vassago did not know the details on how his parents met, nor did he want to know. Put simply, it had probably been a «monetary transaction». The pregnancy had been an unexpected development. His mother wanted to abort him, but gave birth to Vassago under his father's orders. In that sense, did it mean that his father had wanted him? That was not the case. His father only occasionally checked on the child's health without so much as bringing him a toy for a gift. The only thing he left with Vassago was his knowledge of Japanese.

It was not until he reached the age of fifteen that Vassago finally knew why his father had refused to allow his mother to abort him, and even put in the least amount of child-rearing expenses possible.

A child with a congenital kidney defect had been born into his father's side of the family, and Vassago had been ordered to become his donor. He was completely unable to refuse, but he raised one condition: he expressed his desire to live in his father's home country, Japan. After completing his donation duty, Vassago lost all value as an existence to his father, so he did not know how much longer he could stretch his allowance. The only future awaiting him if he stayed in the slums was as a drug dealer, so he decided to simply leave the country and begin anew in a new world.

His father accepted his condition and exchanged a passport and plane ticket for Vassago's left kidney. Without saying goodbye to his mother, Vassago left for Japan, but what awaited him there was an even crueler fate.

Japanese law required a complicated procedure and strict review for international adoptions, and even if Vassago were successfully adopted, the authorities did not grant residency permits to children above the age of six. So from the very beginning, the only thing he had was a life in the criminal underworld.

Vassago was taken in by a Korean criminal syndicate, who granted the English, Spanish, and Japanese-speaking teenager a counterfeit ID and trained him into an assassin.

Having completed nine «jobs» in his past five years upon turning twenty, Vassago received his tenth job, with rules of engagement entirely different from any job he had received before.

It involved killing a target in a virtual world, one who would normally be completely unapproachable in the real world.

The meaning of that directive downright escaped him at first, but he finally understood after hearing the gist about the «SAO incident» taking place a few days before. Vassago's target, having been enfolded into the incident, was currently holed up in his heavily guarded residence and would never set foot outside. Leaving it to the death game was unreliable, since he couldn't be sure on which day he would die, and there was even the possibility of him escaping without dying at all. But if Vassago dived into the same game as him and removed all of his HP, the NerveGear in the real world would help take him out.

But there were three big problems with this method.

First, as an assassin, Vassago himself would also be unable to logout of the game before it was completely cleared. Second, if he died in the game, he would lose his life in the real world as well. And third, Vassago could not directly attack the target on his own, because if player-on-player violence was logged, that would become evidence of an assassination.

Faced with such an impossibly difficult mission, the syndicate offered him an astronomical sum in reward money. Vassago was not too sure whether the group could even pay out such a sum in the event that he successfully completed the mission, but he didn't have the right at all to refuse anyway.

Almost all unused NerveGears had been confiscated by the police, but the syndicate managed to obtain one through unknown means. All they needed now was a copy of the SAO game software and the willpower to enter the death game of one's own accord; neither the police nor the game's development company possessed a way to stop him from doing the latter. Finally, he encountered unexpected difficulty in choosing his character name, but eventually decided on adopting a moniker akin to the original name his mother gave him: «PoH».

Vassago's first experience in a true virtual world changed, or rather, liberated his personality. The Japanese players surrounding him reminded him of his father and relatives, whom he had forgotten for many years, and it was then that he finally realized how much he loathed them — all East Asians.

He had to take out his target because it was his job. But he also wanted to kill as many other players as he could.

Steeling his determination, Vassago founded the largest murder guild in SAO, «Laughing Coffin», and stole the lives of a great many players other than his original target. Eventually, after getting fed up with leading an overly large organization, he orchestrated a clash between his guild and the Progressors, letting them kill each other off. Just as he was preparing to personally take out the ones he viewed as his greatest, most prized prey, the «Flash» and the «Black Swordsman», the game was cleared.

The first thing Vassago felt upon returning from the death game to the real world was not joy, but despondency and disappointment. Although he knew that there was no way he was going back to that dreamlike world, he decided to return to America to pursue the same experience. The syndicate boss was unwilling to fork over the reward money, so Vassago killed him and took the cash. Upon returning to the US he entered the cyberoperations department of a private military contractor headquartered in San Diego.

In VR combat training he sparred against servicemen of the National Guard and Navy, and after flexing the skill he had honed within SAO, Vassago was immediately singled out and promoted to an instructor. But even with a stable life utterly incomparable to what he had before, there was no satisfaction in his heart.

Again. He wanted to go back to that world again. That true virtual world where all was digital and humans displayed their true nature, that true world tainted with lies.

Having maintained this wish for so long, it had to have been not a miracle, but fate that he would encounter the «Flash» and the «Black Swordsman» once more in a frighteningly realistic virtual world named Underworld.

The Black Swordsman's mental state seemed currently altered for some reason, but if Vassago killed all of the players around him, he would awaken for sure. It was because the Black Swordsman reacted in such a manner that Vassago — PoH was more drawn to him than anyone he had ever met. He even felt that as long as he got to kill this boy with his own hands, he would be indifferent to committing suicide afterwards.

First, he instigated a mutual massacre between the Chinese and Koreans he had tricked with false information into entering Underworld, and plunged them into a bloodbath. He had never expected an off-the-cuff fib to hold for too long. Quite a number of people felt off about it and began arguing with the firmly hot-blooded patriots. When things grew just tense enough, all they needed was one spark.

The man who had just delivered a blow towards him was a slight distance, currently attempting to persuade his fellow countryman and showing no intention of losing hope. Vassago only needed to cleave the man's head from his shoulders and yell at everyone to kill all cowards, and the overzealous patriots would draw their swords just as easily.

"Just wait… I'll wake you up in no time…"

Vassago murmured towards the blank-faced black swordsman sprawled on the ground. It was then that he noticed that the young man's profile looked a bit like his brother from a different mother, whom he had caught a brief glimpse of before their kidney transplant surgery. Stinging pain stabbed him in the chest.

He'd kill the «Black Swordsman» and the «Flash» in this world first and force them to logout, and then he would follow suit. Then he would find them, hidden somewhere on the Ocean Turtle, and kill them again, with extreme prejudice.

The thought of that moment alone seemed enough to slightly alleviate the pain in his left abdomen, which had never once vanished since his kidney had been stolen from him at age fifteen.

Deep underneath his hood, Vassago grinned and murmured again towards the young man lying at his feet:

"If you keep sleeping like this, everyone's gonna die. Come on, wake up. Please."

Vassago began to walk again, his right hand playing with his favorite weapon, the «Mate Chopper».

***

Crunch.

Her soul deprived of strength, Asuna listened to the sound of someone's shoe stepping against the arid ground.

Crunch, crunch. A cold, robotic sound, yet rhythmic at the same time, like there was a jig in their step.

It was the sound of the footsteps of the reaper, a sound she had heard many times before, within the now-gone floating castle.

Looking up, she watched as the black poncho silhouette walked towards her from beside Kirito, lying about twenty meters away.

No, he was not walking towards her. He was walking towards her right, towards Klein, who had been pierced by two swords in his right side. Probably to personally deal with that samurai, who seemed to be struggling against death with willpower alone.

But after a moment, she quickly noticed that she had been wrong again.

Close to Klein, who was lying on the ground, two knights in crimson armor were arguing fiercely in unintelligible Korean. It was then that Asuna realized that the gigantic legion numbering tens of thousands of knights surrounding the surviving Japanese players and Underworld troops, was also locked in turbulent opposition left, right, and center.

This had to be the confrontation between the players who had realized PoH's lies and the players who still believed him. At this rate, the slightest sign of trouble would cause the latter to turn their swords against the former, which would expand the chain reaction of hate onto the Chinese-Korean allied players. And PoH was trying to prevent that…

———No.

No. No.

That man intended to personally ignite this all-new conflict spreading gradually across the battlefield.

Just as he had intentionally leaked the location of the headquarters of his own murder guild, «Laughing Coffin», so as to allow the Progressors to engage them in a bloody crusade.

Asuna could not understand the benefit behind allowing one's own troops to be halved. But she was certain that something extremely vile was about to happen.

PoH advanced at a leisurely pace, indicating something in Korean.

As though they were casting away their momentary doubt, the two men who had stopped Klein seized a different person, then each of them grabbed one of his arms and robbed him of his freedom.

With a whip, the reaper in the black poncho renewed his grip upon his thick cleaver.

He meant to personally execute this «traitor», then raise his head high, using that to incite the Chinese and Korean players who still believed him now and spur them to attack their own comrades.

She must not allow that to happen. Although her ultimate goal was to protect the Underworld residents, she really ought not to stop the crimson knights from killing each other. Even if their number was halved there would still be more than ten thousand of them. Moreover, at that time their hearts would be boiling with deeper rage and hostility than before, and those negative emotions would be directed at the Japanese and Underworld residents.

On top of that, the halved number of Chinese and Korean players incited by PoH and about to be murdered, were slowly realizing the truth behind this world… They were beginning to believe the Japanese players who had spoken out to them. She simply could not watch them be murdered.

She had to act. She had to stand up and swing her sword to stop PoH's execution.

But neither her hands nor her feet had any strength left in them. Every time she took a breath, the countless wounds that laced her body would throb, weakening her fading consciousness.

………No……… I can't get up.

Asuna exhaled feebly, remaining knelt on the dry ground.

She slowly curled her back. Her filthy, disheveled hair fell from her shoulders, obscuring her vision.

Just then.

It's all right.

You can do it, Asuna. Stand up.

Someone's faint, yet firm voice entered her ears.

Someone's arm gently, yet powerfully encircled Asuna's shoulders.

Warm light flowed into her body — into her soul. A refreshing breeze blew away all of pain in her body.

Come on, Asuna. Stand up.

To protect what's important to you.

Asuna's right hand twitched, crawled across the ground, and grabbed what had fallen on the ground.

The hilt of «Radiant Light», the rapier of Stacia, the Goddess of Creation.

Raising her face, she saw the reaper in the black poncho raising his cleaver high, high in the air, as it emitted a blood-red gleam. The captured crimson knight had frozen to the spot, as if out of fear. The commotion all around had ceased and all eyes were concentrated on the blade, devoid of mercy.

Holding her breath, clenching her teeth, concentrating the very last bit of strength she had…

Asuna kicked hard off the ground.

"Ooh… AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!"

She pulled back the rapier in her right hand with a scream that felt like she was spitting out a mouthful of blood. The sharp tip ejected a white flash. A basic Sword Skill she had used many thousands, even tens of thousands of times in the past: «Linear».

PoH noticed Asuna's surprise attack with astonishing reaction speed.

"Ohh…"

Emitting a grunt she threw her upper body backwards. Asuna frantically thrust her right hand towards the darkness deep within the hood far away.

She felt some resistance. A lock of black curly hair flew towards the sky and droplets of blood slipped from gray skin.

—He dodged it!

Whether it was in Underworld or in Aincrad, activating a Sword Skill would create a large opening with it. Instantly Asuna was plunged into a fatally rigid state and PoH's cleaver was already thundering towards her, slicing the air as it came.

But at the same time Asuna concentrated her imagination under PoH's feet.

Variegated light blossomed slightly from the ground and vanished. Asuna used the power of Stacia the Goddess of Creation to raise the ground under PoH, with his feet as the center, a few centimeters into the air.

It was only a slight bit of geographical manipulation but her head was stabbed by a thunderous pain like a bolt of lightning. After she had paid such a price, the black reaper's body lost balance and the cleaver only slashed a hole into Asuna's clothes.

"Gur… rgh!"

Released from the rigid state, Asuna pulled back the rapier again.

"Rrgh!"

PoH raised his cleaver straight ahead of him, poncho whirling.

A jab with godlike speed clashed ferociously with an unyielding slash, spitting pure white and crimson red sparks.

Asuna summoned all of her strength to force back the sword clash while demanding hoarsely:

"What the hell… do you want?"

The corner of PoH's exposed mouth under his hood lifted silently, and he responded in an coarse voice:

"Do I have to spell it out for you? I want that «black» guy… Ever since I first tried to kill him on the fifth floor of Aincrad he's all I've ever wanted."

"…Why do you hate Kirito-kun so much? What's he ever done to you?"

"Hate…?"

PoH repeated, sounding very disappointed. He brought his face slightly closer and murmured:

"I thought you, of all people, would understand how much I love him. He's the only guy I can trust unconditionally in this whole shit-ridden world. No matter how much pain I put him through he doesn't break, and no matter how much I tempt him he doesn't sink. He brings me hope and joy no matter what time of day it is. So… I can't allow him to become like this when I'm not there. You bet I'll make him wake up. For that, I don't care who or how many thousands… tens of thousands I have to kill."

Those petrifying words exited the reaper's mouth, transforming into a black miasma that encircled Asuna's body, trying to rob her of her will to fight.

"Hope…? Joy…? What you did, do you know how much Kirito-kun has… has………!"

She wanted so much to refute him, but the point of intersection where the cleaver and rapier clashed suddenly and explosively ejected sparks, pressing closer and closer to Asuna.

No — Asuna's will to fight didn't move an inch. The demonic blade Mate Chopper clenched in PoH's right hand was vibrating and increasing in thickness like a living organism.

PoH seemed to notice Asuna's shock: he sneered deep within his hood.

"I finally understand how this world works. Here, spilled blood and lost lives are directly converted into energy. Like when the «Radiant Medium» shot that laser and torched the Dark Territory army."

Before Asuna had dived in, she too had listened to an explanation of the system that comprised the foundation of Underworld. They were «Spatial Resources», but they either required a complicated incantation or equipment capable of absorbing them. Even if the Mate Chopper's expansion in size was due to Spatial Resources, PoH had not recited the command, and the Mate Chopper should be merely a remnant of a converted SAO account, so it ought not to have the ability to absorb Resources in Underworld.

But as though he had read her thoughts, PoH continued:

"In Aincrad, the «Mate Chopper» got weaker the more you killed monsters with it, but the more you killed players… humans, the stronger it became. Yeah, it seemed that this curse would break after killing a lot of mobs, turning the blade into a katana with a similar name, but I'm not interested in that. What's important is that its original ability to absorb human life and increase in power works in Underworld as well. The lives of all those American troops you killed and the Japanese killed by the Chinese and Koreans are circling around this battlefield. If the Chinese and Koreans start killing each other next then even more lives will seep out."

While the reaper murmured, Mate Chopper began emitting growls of gigi, gigi and was swelling nonstop. Asuna's GM equipment «Radiant Light» screeched against the blade, as though it were unable to withstand the opposition anymore. All surroundings gradually faded as her ears were filled with the sound of her own breathing and the hammering of her heartbeat.

As if even the owner of the demonic blade was growing taller himself, PoH pressed against Asuna while saying:

"After I absorb all of their lives, I'll kill every last one of the Artificial Fluctlights in this world. Not just those guys cowering in the back over there… the monsters in the Dark Territory and the humans in the Human Empire as well. I don't know how many tens of thousands there are but at that point, he's gonna wake up. If he's the «Black Swordsman» I trust."

Cold wind blew against the black poncho, exposing for an instant the eyes deep within the darkness. They were eyes glowing dull red.

He was a demon. Inhuman. A true demon.

This was the true nature of the man called PoH. No matter whether he wore the false mask of a «Cheerful Inciter» in Aincrad, or the false mask of a «Stern Commander» on this battlefield, all of it was fake. The true PoH was a cold avenger, desiring the torture and torment of humanity, desiring only to kill…

Asuna's knees gave way. Her rapier screeched again and the cleaver's blade pressed towards her throat.

"Relax. I'm not going to kill you. I'll just make sure you don't keep bothering me. Because I gotta let you watch… watch him wake up, and watch him die by my hand."

Mate Chopper had now swollen to twice its normal size. Radiant Light let out a piercing, crisp scream as hairline cracks appeared on its body.

With one knee now against the ground, Asuna's vision was blocked by the black miasma gushing from the hood. In the darkness, the only things that existed were the monolith steel blade and his eyes glowing crimson.

Before she was about to collapse, someone's small hands…

Pushed Asuna's back one more.

It's all right.

I am always by your side.

Clear, azure light burst from Asuna's chest and tore apart the darkness before her eyes.

Reflected in Mate Chopper, she saw pure white wings expanding wide behind her own back.

All sound returned, and she heard her comrades' voices mixed among the hubbub of the battlefield.

"Asuna! Keep at it, Asuna!"

"Asunsan! Asunsaaaaaaan!"

"Get up, Asuna!"

"Asunaaaaaaa!"

Lisbeth. Silica. Agil. Klein.

Not just her comrades. The voices of the surviving ALO group, including Sakuya and Alicia, Siune and the Sleeping Knights, Renri and the rest of the Human Empire Defense Army, Tiese, Ronye, Sortiliena and many other Guardians and Ascetics all went into Asuna's ears.

—Thank you, everyone.

—Thank you, Yuuki.

—I can still fight. You all have given me strength.

"……I can't lose…… I can never lose to… someone like you, who only knows how to hate!!"

As Asuna screamed, white ripples erupted from her entire body, throwing PoH backwards off his feet.

She stood up, pulling back the rapier in her right hand with all of her might. Lavender flashes discharged and ran the length of the blade, resembling bulbs and petals of thyme flowers, dyeing the world in the same hue.

"Nurgh…!!"

Directing it at the body of the reaper trying to regain his footing, now greatly exposed.

Asuna activated the Original Sword Skill she had received from «Absolute Sword» Yuuki.

Starting from the upper right she thrust five ultrfast jabs, imprinting five points of light diagonally downwards.

Five jabs starting from the upper left intersected with the path of her blade just now, imprinting another five points of light.

"Guaagh…"

Even as he spat air mixed with blood, the gargantuan cleaver in PoH's right grip remained glowing crimson. If Asuna were hit by his large counterattack, her remaining HP would be exhausted for sure.

But Asuna's attack was not over yet.

"WOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!"

Concentrating every last bit of her remaining energy at the tip of the rapier, and releasing it at the center of the crisscrossed sword paths — the final, strongest attack.

Eleven-hit combo OSS, «Mother's Rosary».

Violet radiance bore through PoH's chest like a meteor.

The reaper in the black poncho flew high into the air and crashed dully onto the ground far away.

Now, having exhausted the last bit of energy she had, Asuna dropped to one knee again, calling out in her heart.

—Thank you, Yuuki.

Page 42 She could no longer hear a response. Perhaps the hands and voice had all been mere illusions borne from Asuna's memories from the very beginning. But even so, in this world where everything was borne of memories, they definitely could not have been fake.

Yes — she should never have been able to use the OSS Mother's Rosary in Underworld to begin with. Even if Higa and Kikuoka had imported the old Sword Skills from SAO along with The Seed, the one who had inherited Mother's Rosary had been Asuna the Undine in ALO. Having not converted her character and instead using the Stacia account, Asuna ought not to have that data on her.

But the OSS had still activated with that special lighting effect. If this was the power of imagination, then the Yuuki who had temporarily awoken from Asuna's memories and encouraged her had been undeniably real. Because memories never disappeared.

PoH's avatar remained prone on the ground. But having been directly struck by an eleven-hit combo from a GM weapon, there was no chance of him surviving. Unlike other players, he ought to be using an STL, which meant that even if he died, his body probably would not burst apart and remain temporarily intact at the scene like a resident of the Human Empire or Dark Territory.

Leaning on her rapier and expending significant effort to stand, Asuna then turned to look back at Klein. His abdomen was still pierced by swords, but the three players holding him down had all left his side and were watching Asuna speechlessly along with a fourth knight who came trying to help stop the execution.

Although she badly wanted to get to Kirito's side as quickly as possible, she first had to pull out the swords from Klein's body and treat his wounds, and just as Asuna wak about to walk towards him—

She felt the ground tremble slightly.

Asuna held her breath and looked behind her again.

PoH remained motionless on the ground. But a deviant reddish-black glow blossomed from the cleaver Mate Chopper gripped in his right hand. Looking more closely, Asuna realized that the air on the battlefield was forming a slowly spinning vortex, concentrated at the cleaver.

"No… It's absorbing Sacred Power!!"

Guardian Leader Sortiliena shouted from the very front of the Human Empire army.

Asuna clenched her teeth and ran forward to destroy the demonic blade.

But a step faster than her, the black reaper's body rose up from the ground as though it were being dragged up by Mate Chopper, which had floated into the sky.

A huge rip had appeared in the very front of the poncho, exposing his bare body behind tight-fitting leather clothing. There was a large hole in the chest where he had been hit by the final strike of the OSS, and the space behind him was visible through it.

Watching PoH stand even as his entire heart had been blown away, the Underworld residents let out moans of fear. A violent stir even ran through the Chinese and Koreans who thought this was a normal VRMMO world.

It seemed that Mate Chopper had absorbed a great deal of Spatial Resources and converted it into HP for PoH. Even as she made this guess Asuna found herself trembling uncontrollably all over.

PoH was diving with an STL.

If that were the case then he ought to be suffering the same level of pain as he would in the real world. Asuna had already tasted pain almost enough to make her faint when the lances had penetrated her; it was impossible to imagine what sort of agony would come from having a huge hole opened in one's chest.

But the reaper's lips, dripping blood, grinned wordlessly — and then shrieked in an utterly deafening roar loud enough to shake the entire battlefield:

"Comrades! This is the true nature of the Japanese! Kill every last one of the weak traitors… and the filthy Japanese too!!"

He had clearly shouted in Korean but for some reason Asuna understood what he meant.

Reddish black aura spurted from PoH's highly raised Mate Chopper, spreading all the way to the ends of the wilderness.

Ohhhh….

OHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!

Half of the Chinese and Koreans also raised their swords high, emitting a ferocious roar.

They began to attack the moderates who had attempted to persuade them… and some of them began to attack the remaining Japanese players and Underworld troops as well. But Asuna had no way of stopping them.

All of a sudden, someone shoved her roughly from behind and Asuna collapsed to the ground. Her heavily damaged rapier flew out of her hand and rolled away onto the dry dirt.

Far away ahead, the black-haired young man was desperately reaching his left arm towards her.

"……Kirito-kun."

Asuna murmured, reaching her own right hand towards her lover, awaiting their final moments.

7 I'd only dozed off slightly in the classroom, but I felt like I had dreamt a very long dream.

An enjoyable, painful, sorrowful dream. I tried to recall the details as I walked through the empty corridor, but I couldn't remember anything at all.

I gave up and changed shoes at the entrance.

After exiting the school gate, a chilly, dry autumn breeze blew my slightly too-long forelocks.

I swung my backpack onto my left shoulder, inserted my hands into my uniform pockets, and walked forward with my head slightly lowered.

Directly ahead of me, my fellow classmates were chatting animatedly to each other. To block out those dream-filled, hope-filled, romance-filled, camaraderie-filled conversations, I inserted the earphones of my music player deeply into my ears, hunched over, and started home.

On the way back, I stopped at the convenience store and checked through all the week’s gaming magazines, choosing and buying the one with the most pages dedicated to «Sword Art Online», which should be releasing in around one month. I took the opportunity to charge a couple of points into my online gaming e-wallet as well.

I wouldn't have to go through these extra steps if I had a credit card, and even though I once ad-libbed a request to my mother for one, I was immediately told that I should perish the thought before I got into university. Come to think of it, I ought to be pretty grateful that she would give an allowance to a child she wasn't even directly related to, so I wasn't too bothered by her judgment.

It's about time we dropped cash and switched to a completely electronic currency… I thought as I walked through the automatic door out of the store.

Then I noticed a group of five, who weren’t there when I entered the store, crouching in a corner of the parking lot. They had probably arrived while I was still focused on the magazines. The space around them echoed with coarse chuckling, scattered with the packaging of bread and snacks.

Judging by their uniform, they looked to be from the same school as I was, but of course I ignored them and was about to leave when—

One of them earnestly focused his line of sight towards me.

It was a small boy, who probably would have been mistaken for a primary school student if he hadn’t been wearing my uniform. He was in a different class than me but we knew each other — no, I should say that, for a certain period of time, we were friends.

He had also taken part in the Sword Art Online Closed Beta held last summer.

For such a narrow gate that only a thousand in the entire nation were able to squeeze through, it was somewhat of a miracle that two people from the same school, and even the same grade level had been chosen. So even I, completely antisocial as I was, went and made contact with him of my own accord after hearing of his selection.

We talked to each other shortly before summer break began, and stopped when summer — or rather, when the SAO Closed Beta ended. During the beta we would team up every three days in the virtual game world, and got to know each other pretty well. Still, the moment I met him again a month after the second semester began, my bizarre personality, my idiosyncrasy of having thoughts like “Who is this guy, really?” towards someone right in front of me — someone I ought to be really familiar with — appeared again.

I felt that within that person, alive in the flesh, there was someone I didn’t know at all. As soon as that thought popped into my head I was unable to socialize honestly with him anymore. Because I felt the same way even towards my parents and little sister.

It seemed that he kept wanting to be my friend for the official launch of SAO in October, as well as in school in the real world, but distanced himself from me after realizing my attitude. After that we never spoke to each other again.

So why was he sitting in the parking lot of a convenience store with students of the type he seemed never able to strike up a relationship with?

From his pleading eyes, and the words thrown at me by a male student beside him with a pudding-bowl cut, the reason became abundantly clear.

“The hell do you want? What’re you looking at?”

The other three immediately creased their brows and pinched their lips together, uttering threatening noises of “Unhh?” and “What?”

In other words, he had been targeted by the «rough crowd» of the class and was either being extorted by them or forced to be their errand-boy. And now he was pleading to me for help with his eyes.

All I really needed to say was “Let’s go home together”. But my mouth just would not move for some reason.

What managed to slip out of my glued throat was…

“………Nothing.”

A hoarse mutter like that. Then I abandoned my ex-friend from a month before and kept walking back on my way. He didn’t say anything, but through the corner of my eyesight I could see his soft face contorting, like he was about to cry.

After quickly exiting the store’s property, I shrank my shoulders while gloomily walking down a path dyed the color of the setting sun. There was nothing in my head. I stared at the asphalt, walking, walking.

The setting sun behind me sank with surprising speed and the street was immediately plunged into a violet darkness. What should have been an extremely familiar road back home from school now felt completely foreign to me. Only the sound of my footsteps echoed throughout the street, not a single person or car in my view.

Pat, pat, pat… crunch, crunch, crunch.

"Huh……?"

I suddenly stopped. At some point the asphalt beneath my feet had become low, thick grass. Are there any unpaved roads like this on the way back home? I contemplated as I looked up.

But what I saw was not the commuters' street of Kawagoe City in Saitama Prefecture. Instead, I was looking up an unfamiliar small path cutting through a deep wood.

I slightly surveyed my surroundings before glancing at my own body.

The black school uniform I'd been wearing had vanished, replaced by a tight-fitting blue tunic and leather armor. My hands were coated in fingerless leather gloves, my feet wrapped in short boots fitted with metal rivets. In place of my shoulder-hung backpack was a somewhat short, yet very heavy sword.

"Where… am I………?"

I muttered, but there was no response. I shrugged and began walking along the woody path.

It hadn't been one minute before my memories began to prickle and tingle nonstop. The way the branches curled on these old trees, the feeling of the grass under my feet. I was in the expansive forest in the northwest portion of Floor 1 of Aincrad, the «Town of Beginnings». If I were right, then Horunka Village ought to be just ahead.

I had to get into the town and stay at an inn. All I wanted to do now was to get in bed. Just go to sleep without thinking about anything.

I focused on walking through a deeper part of the wood, which looked blue under the dappled moonlight.

All of a sudden I thought I heard a thin scream just ahead.

I suddenly stopped, then kept walking forward. The trees ended at a clearing ahead of me to the right, and the blue moonlight illuminated the narrow path. Again I heard someone's scream. Also, the grating growl of a monster.

I inched forward, approaching the clearing, then stealthily peeked around a large tree trunk.

It was a wide clearing reminiscent of a circular dance floor. A bizarre shadow play was squirming about, illuminated by bluish-white rays of light.

The sharp tentacles of five or six plant-type monsters resembling gigantic pitcher plants were whirling around nonstop. Surrounded by them was a young boy who was dressed exactly the same as I was. He swung his sword wildly about, but the monsters' tentacles immediately regenerated upon being severed, showing no sign of stopping at all.

Looking at the boy's profile, I realized that I knew him.

He and I had formed a party, working together to collect equipment dropped by those plant-type monsters. His name was… Coper. But why was he surrounded by so many of them?

No matter what the reason was, since he was my partner I had to help him.

Even as I thought this, once again, my feet would not move this time. It was as if they had sprouted roots into the ground. I couldn't take even one step forward.

A tentacle shot forward from behind, sweeping his legs; Coper went sprawling to the ground. The monsters approached even closer to him, opening mouths filled with human-like teeth.

His face filled with despair, Coper reached his left hand out towards me.

But his silhouette was immediately crushed by the wave of monsters, and after a moment a beam of blue light shot up, accompanied by a meager shattering noise.

"Ahh…………"

Uttering a hoarse moan, I hung my head deeply, like when I had abandoned my friend at the convenience store.

Staring only at the grass beneath me, I got up shakily, then changed the direction I was facing and began walking on the thin path through the moonlit forest again.

Crunch, crunch, crunch… clack, clack, clack.

I suddenly stopped. At some point in time the low grass beneath my feet had become bluish slabs of stone.

I looked up and realized that I was no longer in the forest on Floor 1 of Aincrad; I was now in a slightly dark, nameless passageway. This ought to be somewhere in a Labyrinth… but I couldn't place which floor I was on just from its appearance. I could only press on.

Almost without me noticing, all of my full-body equipment and the sword on my back had changed as I walked silently along the straight corridor. I continued to walk, and walk, as though I were pursuing my own shadow reflected on the wall by the oil lamps. Aincrad's largest Labyrinth was 300 meters wide, so a straight corridor this long should not exist, but I did not stop, nor did I look back. I only kept moving my feet.

All of a sudden I thought I heard a thin voice coming just ahead.

It was not a scream, but a very joyous cheer. Moreover, it was several cheers overlayed on top of each other.

Somehow, those voices felt terrifically nostalgic. I slightly quickened my footsteps, pressing towards the source of the voices.

Finally, I saw a rectangular entrance in the wall to my left, from which a warm yellow glow was pouring out. I fiercely moved my feet, which for some reason had grown leaden, and came to the entrance.

Looking through the doorway, I saw a moderately wide room. Four players were facing the far wall, their backs to me.

I didn't need to look at their appearances to immediately recognize them.

The spear-wielder with unruly hair wearing a bizarre hat was Sasamaru.

The tall and lanky shield-bearing mace-wielder was Tetsuo.

The small dagger-user wearing the beanie was Ducker.

And finally, the short-haired girl equipped with a small spear was……… Sachi.

They were all members of the same guild as me. While their leader Keita negotiated the price of a guild home, they had come to this Labyrinth in order to make some money to buy furniture.

Wonderful… Everyone was safe.

I don't know why that thought popped into my mind just as I was about to talk to them, but my mouth would not open this time either. My feet were immobile, seemingly glued to the floor.

As I stood frozen to the spot, the four of them were bent over, peering down at a giant treasure chest placed beside the wall. The instant I realized this, a vile chill flashed down my spine.

Ducker, the thief, was complacently closing in on it, attempting to disable the chest's trap.

—No. Stop. No.

I screamed in my head, but I could not articulate a voice. No matter how much I wanted to burst into that room, my feet would not move.

Ducker swiftly opened the lid of the chest.

In a flash, an earsplitting alarm rang out and two doors concealed in the walls to their left and right opened. Innumerable bloodthirsty monsters poured out from within.

"Ah…… AH………!"

My throat emitted a hoarse, cracked scream.

That was all I could do. Unable to move even a finger, I was only able to watch as my partners were surrounded by the monsters.

The first to die was Sasamaru. Next was Ducker, and then Tetsuo followed suit and exploded into azure particles, flying in all directions. Now alone, Sachi turned her head to look back towards me.

Her lips, parted in a sorrowful smile, wavered slightly.

In the next moment the monster's weapons and claws fell without mercy, and her slender body was wrapped in blue light.

"………………!!"

As I shrieked silently, Sachi transformed into countless shards of glass and flew into the air right before my eyes.

The tens of monsters also disappeared, almost melting into the air, and the room was shrouded in darkness.

Finally able to move, I dropped to my knees.

Enough. I don't wanna walk anymore. I don't wanna watch anymore.

Kneeling on the ice-cold floor, I plugged my ears and shut my eyes as tightly as possible. But the memories were like ice water, gushing at me without end and devouring me whole.

The two years of day-to-day battle within the floating castle of steel.

The boundless sky I had aimed for in the fairy kingdom.

The crimson bullets intersecting in their flight across the wilderness of perpetual dusk.

I don't wanna remember it ever again. I don't wanna know what happens next either.

I prayed desperately, but the flood of memories continued to besiege me with no end.

Suddenly being displaced from the real world.

Awakening in a clearing surrounded by thick forest.

Walking forward as though being guided by the sound of the axe, and arriving at the roots of a gargantuan tree, I met him.

The fight against the goblins. The felled tree.

The lengthy journey towards the center of the world. The two years spent training at the academy.

No matter when, he was always by my side. With that calm smile of his.

With him, I can do anything, no matter what it is.

Shoulder-to-shoulder as we raced up the marble tower, defeating strong enemy after strong enemy.

Reaching the top of the tower at long last,

Battling the ruler of the world,

And at the end of lengthy, bloody fight.

He, his,

Life———

"AH… AHHHHHHHHHHHHH—!!"

I clutched my head with both arms, shrieking at the top of my lungs.

It was me. My uselessness, my stupidity, my weakness had killed him. Had spilled blood not meant to be spilled, lost a life not meant to be lost.

I should have died. My life here is temporary. Nothing would have happened we had just exchanged roles.

"AHHHH… AHHHHHHHH…!!"

Bellowing and writhing in agony, I fumbled for the sword that should be on my back. I'd use it to spear my own heart and slit my own throat.

But my fingers touched nothing. I searched for it around me, thinking I'd dropped it, but the only thing I saw was a black, viscous fluid.

I ripped open the front of my black shirt with my bare hands.

My right hand fingers, curled into claws, pierced into my thin, bony sternum.

My skin split and my muscles tore, but I didn't seem to feel any pain. I continued to penetrate my own chest with my own hands.

To tear out my heart and crush it.

This is all I can do for him… and for all of those whom I have betrayed and abandoned until today… this final———

"Kirito-kun…"

Suddenly, someone called my name.

My hands stopped, and I raised my empty eyes.

Behind the darkness, at some point, a chestnut-haired girl was standing there.

Her brown, tear-filled eyes remained fixated on me.

"Kirito…"

With a second voice to my right, another person appeared. A bespectacled girl. Her eyes were also swimming with tears behind her glasses.

"Onii-chan…"

Then a third person appeared.

A girl with straight-cut black hair, tears streaming nonstop from her large eyes.

The will and emotions of these three girls transformed into light, projecting from them, flowing into my body.

A warmth, like that of sunlight, healing my wounds, melting away my sorrow.

—But.

But… Ahh, but.

How could I ever have the right to be forgiven like this?

"I'm sorry."

I heard the word drop from my own mouth.

"I'm sorry, Asuna. Sorry, Sinon. Forgive me, Sugu. I… can't get up anymore. I can't fight anymore. I'm sorry………"

Then, I prepared to crush the heart I tore from my own chest.

***

"Why… What happened, Kirito-kun?!"

Higa Takeru yelled hoarsely, desperately holding onto his consciousness, which was ebbing away with the blood flowing from the gunshot wound on his right shoulder.

He had already fed an enormous amount of Mnemonic Data from Yuuki Asuna, Asada Shino, and Kirigaya Suguha's three daisy-chained STLs into Kirigaya Kazuto's damaged Fluctlight in order to restore it. Even Higa, who had conducted countless experiments in his career, was utterly shocked by the sheer volume of Data, which in itself could be called a miracle.

But the 3D diagram displaying the dynamism of Kazuto's Fluctlight on his phone's screen had stopped short of the line that indicated functional restoration.

"Is even this… not enough…….?" Higa moaned.

At this rate, Kirigaya Kazuto's nearly-restored «main body» — his self image, will be unable to return to reality, connecting only with painful memories that tortured him, and will be unable to return from that point. Awaiting him would be an endlessly repeating nightmare. In that situation, one could say that being functionally terminated was a much better fate.

He needed at least one more person.

If only there were another person with deep bonds with Kazuto, possessing strong impressions of him!

But according to Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka Seijirou, the three currently daisy-chained girls seemed to be the ones who understood and loved Kirigaya Kazuto the most in the world. Moreover, there were no more usable STLs in the RATH Roppongi branch or the Ocean Turtle.

"Dammit… Goddammit…"

Higa clenched his teeth, clasping his right fist, about to slam it onto the duct wall.

But then he relaxed it.

"………What is this………? This… connection……?"

Higa murmured, bringing his blood and sweat-stained glasses closer to his phone.

He hadn't noticed it before, but just now he had realized that on the window displaying the state of Kirigaya Kazuto's Fluctlight, other than the three connection lines coming from the girls' STLs, there was a fourth one — a gray line extremely faint in color, reaching from the bottom of the diagram and beyond.

As though he were being sucked towards it, Higa poked the touch panel with his right index finger, and flicked upwards.

The image scrolled downwards, revealing the source of the gray line.

"It's… It's from the Main Visualizer!? Why………?"

Higa shouted, forgetting his own serious injury.

The Main Visualizer was the immense data storage center situated at the heart of the Light Cube Cluster, which collected all of the souls of the Underworld residents.

Only the geography, architecture, props, and related objects of Underworld should be stored there, with no human souls whatsoever.

But—

"Object… Memories as objects…"

Higa's brain raced at maximum capacity as he muttered unconsciously.

"The memories of the Fluctlights and the objects of Underworld, their Data format is the same… In that case, if someone were to brand their will, and thoughts, onto an object… would that object display similar function… to a Fluctlight………?"

Even as he arrived at this conjecture, Higa remained half-dubious. If such a thing were possible, then in Underworld a person's mere willpower would be enough to control an inanimate object.

But he believed that this single, thin connection line was his only hope.

What is going to happen? — Higa was unable to predict whether the situation would look up or worsen, but he steeled his resolve and opened the pathway between the Main Visualizer and Kazuto's STL.

***

"Kirito."

Just before my heart was destroyed—

A new voice called my name. A strong, warm voice that seemed able to contain everything.

"Kirito."

As I slowly, slowly raised my head, I saw…

He was standing firmly on where had been endless darkness just a moment before.

There was not a single stain on his blue clothing. His messy, flaxen hair gleamed brightly even against the darkness, and a calm smile rested on his lips.

His deep green eyes were, like always, filled with a soft, yet strong glow.

My hands left my imperceptibly healed chest and reached towards him as I stood.

A low voice softly called his name from my trembling mouth.

"…Eugeo."

And again.

"Are you still alive, Eugeo?"

My best friend, my best partner, Eugeo—

Silently shook his head, a hint of sorrow in his smile.

"This is your memory of me in your heart. Along with the memory fragments I left behind."

"Me… mory……"

"Yeah. Have you forgotten? Hadn't we been convinced about it back then? Memories…"

Eugeo splayed his right hand and pressed it to his own chest.

"…are right here."

I followed his movements like a reflection in a mirror, then said:

"Always, right here."

Eugeo smiled at this, and at that moment Asuna stepped forward from beside him:

"Our hearts are always connected with yours, Kirito-kun." Stepping forward from the other side, Sinon nodded, the pigtails on the side of her face shaking.

"No matter how far apart we are… even if one day we must bid farewell."

Coming forward from beside her, Suguha continued with a voice filled with energy:

"Our memories and feelings will always be connected. Won't they?"

Hot, transparent liquid finally began to stream from my eyes.

I stepped forward, earnestly returning the gaze of my forever closest friend.

"Can I do it… Eugeo? Can I go forward… once more?"

His response was very quick and very firm.

"Of course, Kirito. There are many waiting for you. Well then… let's go, together, and no matter where, I will always be by your side."

Our outstretched hands touched. Asuna, Sinon, and Suguha's hands overlapped with ours as well.

In an instant, the four people before me transformed into white rays of light and flowed into my body.

And then———

8 A red-armored boot stamped down upon the hand that Asuna reached towards Kirito.

She looked up, deep into the visor of the crimson knight, into the eyes blazing with fierce hatred, as he raised his longsword high in a reverse grip.

The longsword thundered down, accompanied by an earsplitting stream of jeering.

She was completely deprived of any remaining fighting strength, but the least she could do was stop herself from closing her eyes. With this resolve, Asuna stared down the steel that was about to impale her chest.

Clang.

The stiff ring of metal. Beige sparks.

The knight's sword bounced backwards into the air, as if it had been deflected by a colorless, transparent blade.

"Uh…?"

Making a confused noise, the knight swung the sword downwards again. But again, sparks erupted and the sword remained unable to strike Asuna.

A third, and fourth attempt produced the same result.

But there was no fifth try. Sortiliena had come running and blown the crimson knight off his feet with a large sword-hilt knockback Sword Skill, «Torrent».

Sortiliena helped Asuna stand, while asking in a voice filled with barely concealed surprise:

"That «Incarnation blade» just now… Was it your doing, Asunsan?!"

"Incarnation…?"

Hearing the word for the first time, Asuna faintly shook her head.

"No, it wasn't me."

"Then… Renri-dono…?" Sortiliena asked, looking behind her. Asuna followed her eyes, but the heavily wounded young knight was currently delivering orders to the troops to counterattack the oncoming crimson legion. He really did not seem capable of affording any peripheral effort to protect Asuna.

Instead of searching for the cause of the phenomenon, a better use of their time would be rescuing at least one more Underworld resident.

Rising to her feet with Sortiliena's help, Asuna spared no effort in draining her exhausted willpower and began surveying the situation around her.

Then she felt renewed despair sinking into her heart like icy black water.

More than 80 percent of over 20000 Chinese and Korean players were embroiled in internecine conflict, but the pro-war faction appeared to be wielding a crushing advantage in morale. Blue light columns signalling the destruction of player avatars could be seen rising up throughout, and with each beacon would come a savage roar.

Worse, a portion of the pro-war faction — a legion numbering well over 2000 — was slowly pressing closer and closer to the Japanese players and Human Empire Defense Army, who were both concentrated at one spot. The Japanese were almost completely out of any remaining fighting strength, and the Underworld residents led by Integrity Knight Renri were riddled with injuries. Even with their edge of Sacred Arts and Sword Skills, there seemed no way to repel the enemy.

Speechless, only able to lean on Sortliena's arm, Asuna heard…

The layered, echoing guffaws of PoH.

With a giant hole in his chest as he stood over Kirito's sprawled frame, the reaper arched backwards in laughter with his arms in the air, the now vast Mate Chopper gripped in his right hand, and his left splayed open. A gargantuan vortex of black clouds had formed unnoticed above him, and his body was absorbing the Life Resources spilled onto the battlefield; he resembled a tornado touching down.

To be precise, the demon sword in his right grip was performing the actual absorption of resources. If they could destroy that sword, the source of energy it was providing to its owner would also be severed, and without his heart the reaper would immediately perish.

But things had progressed to the point where merely defeating the enemy commander would not be enough to bring the situation under control. Provoked by PoH's distressing words and malicious aura, the pro-war faction would only view their commander's departure as more fuel for their fiery rage. The battle would drag on until every single Japanese and Underworld citizen was massacred.

What to do?

What to do———

Hanging her head in distress and despair, Asuna suddenly noticed something inexplicable.

Up to a moment ago the ground had consisted of starkly exposed black gravel, but it now lay underneath a wispy yet unbroken layer of white mist.

Sliding and drifting like ribbons of thin silk, the mist glided between the feet of Asuna and her friends, then expanded to fill the space behind them. Simultaneously, a refreshingly sweet fragrance tickled their nostrils.

Roses………?

Asuna and Sortiliena's eyes followed the movements of the misty ribbons.

Then, the instant they found its source, a faint sigh escaped both their lips.

"Ahh………"

And again.

"Ahh."

The source of the mist was one young bone-thin adolescent, stretched out on the ground a few tens of meters away.

More precisely, the source was the bluish-white longsword griped within his left hand. The blade had been snapped down the middle, but its mist-wrapped form seemed to confer upon it a muted glow.

"Kirito-kun…"

Just as Asuna uttered in a quavering voice the name of the person she loved above all else.

"That Incarnation… It's Kirito's…" Sortiliena murmured, almost overcome with emotion.

Before they knew it, the white mist had already permeated the space around the feet of the allied Chinese-Korean forces and was continuing to expand. Locked in battle, they seemed not to notice, but everything below their knees was gradually being consumed by pearly-white ribbons.

Finally noticing this unusual spectacle, PoH ceased his laughter at last.

His eyes first went to his feet, then sprang like bullets onto Kirito behind him. PoH's tall figure immediately began to shake violently as the Mate Chopper in his right hand spun once before slapping into his fist, and he advanced with large strides.

One step. Two steps.

But no third.

Almost like a whisper, almost like song… yet very definite, a voice reverberated across the entire battlefield.

Enhance armament.

A voice Asuna was certain belonged to Kirito echoed through her mind, but it seemed to overlap with another voice; one she had never heard before.

The next instant.

A stupendous phenomenon, the scale of which was difficult to estimate — one could say it rivalled Stacia's geographical manipulation — engulfed the entirety of the battlefield.

Transparent, sapphire tendrils of ice stretched from within the white mist and wrapped themselves around PoH and each and every one of the 20000 Chinese and Korean players. The tendrils appeared quite delicate and fragile, looking as though they would shatter at the slightest touch, but the movements of the battle-frenzied players stopped cold in the blink of an eye, as if some sort of time-bending magic had been applied to them.

A short silence was followed by sounds of shock and anger, but those voices immediately faded too. Ensnared by the ice vines, the players were swiftly cocooned in frost and frozen solid in a matter of seconds.

Asuna stole a glance at the crimson knight who had rushed over to help Klein, but he too had been transformed into an icy sculpture. He seemed not to feel any pain, however; the eyes behind his visor were calmly shut. It was not meant to cause pain or suffering, merely a technique to restrict movement—

Turning her head back around, Asuna saw that PoH had been frozen snow-white as well. She looked to Sortiliena's face and nodded at her.

"Thank you, Liensan… I'm okay now."

The female Guardian leader silently withdrew her hand and Asuna bolted across the frost-covered ground with utmost urgency towards Kirito. Sortiliena was close behind, and a Guardian girl, Ronye, also came scrambling from the ranks of the Human Empire army.

Kirito remained prone and motionless on the ground, his left arm hugging the broken sword. But Asuna understood.

This was the moment in which Kirito's heart was about to be revived. She only needed to grasp his hand, embrace him tightly and call his name, and he would return for sure. For sure. For sure.

That distance of 10 short meters seemed as far as the ends of the earth. That duration of 10 or so short seconds, seemed as long as an eternity. But with each step of her overworn feet, the figure of her loved one would grow just a little closer. Look, just a tiny, tiny bit further, and her hand would touch—

Right when Asuna's fully outstretched right hand was about to touch the black hair she so sorely missed.

An deafening shattering noise roared behind her.

She immediately spun her face to the right and saw…

The form of the reaper, ripping apart the icy vines and frost, taking a violent step forward.

The hem of his black poncho whirling like demonic wings, PoH screeched a thunderous roar.

"I've been waiting a long time for this…!! Now, let's dance… KIRITO!!"

Bellowing his name for the first time since SAO as far as Asuna could remember, PoH brandished the Mate Chopper in his right fist while leaping into the air like an outlandish bird.

Swathed in a reddish-black aura of death, the dreadfully thick blade screamed down from above. It was heading not for Kirito, but Asuna and the others.

"No…!"

Sortiliena rushed forward and raised her scarred longsword to her head, preparing to take the reaper's blow.

But the demon blade, swollen to nearly three times its original size, needed not even make contact with her sword; the aura wrapped around it was enough to blow Sortiliena's weapon in half.

The impact threw the Guardian leader off her feet. Asuna and Ronye desperately supported her from behind.

The fatal slash roared directly towards the trio, huddled together on the ground—

Shiiiiiiiing!!

A tremendous crash brought Asuna and the other two collapsing onto their bottoms.

The Chopper's blade did not strike them. It was trembling above them as though it had smashed into a transparent barrier. Just like moments ago, when the same phenomenon had saved Asuna from the hands of the crimson knight.

Asuna truly felt it this time. The feeling of protection by the pair of warm, dependable arms she had so dearly missed.

She was able to glimpse a certain faintly glowing object in front of the barrier. Contoured in midair by golden particles was a right hand with all five fingers splayed open.

A faint crunch was heard.

Asuna looked to her left as though her eyes were being drawn by something.

Face down on the ground, Kirito had inserted the broken white sword into the soil with his left hand.

Then, using it for support, he slowly, slowly pushed up his emaciated body.

The empty right sleeve of his black top fluttered in the wind. No, that wasn't it. It was gradually inflating, pointing straight ahead — approaching the phantom hand supporting the barrier.

The instant his sleeve joined the hand.

An explosion of golden light instantly dissipated the reddish-black aura swirling behind the barrier. The barrier collided violently with PoH's body, throwing his whole body backwards.

As the light dimmed, Asuna's eyes reflected a fully restored, corporeal right hand. Her line of sight followed those slender arms upwards, past his shoulders — and she saw him.

Slightly lengthy bangs fluttering in the breeze. Lips curled into a calm smile. And two black eyes, gazing back at her from the same height.

The lips moved, and his voice called her name.

"I'm back, Asuna."

Tears. They fell uncontrollably from her eyes, as irrepressible shrill sobs escaped her throat. Asuna clasped her hands tightly at her chest, earnestly attempting to articulate her overflowing emotions into words.

"………Welcome back, Kirito-kun."

Then Sortiliena and Ronye called in unison:

"Kirito…"

"Kirito-senpai."

After smiling and nodding at them both, Kirito looked back in front of him. His profile turned stern.

Having been thrown more than ten meters, PoH was slowly ascending to his feet as though he were no longer bound by the pull of gravity.

There ought not to be any new Spatial Resources since each of the Chinese and Korean players waging fully fledged massacre against each other had been ensnared and frozen by tendrils of ice, but the black cloud above PoH continued to tumble and warp organically as his Chopper continued to absorb. It became apparent that if that demon blade was not destroyed, there was no stopping this reaper.

Standing up a little later than PoH, Kirito stumbled for a second, but immediately regained his footing. Asuna frantically restrained herself from bolting over to support his body. Since she no longer had the strength to walk properly on her own, she would only be a hindrance to him. Now, she had to trust Kirito. She needed only to remain intent on trusting him, and that would become strength.

Kirito raised his regenerated right hand and the jet black sword lying faraway exited its sheath of its own accord, silently floated up, and arrived in his palm.

It was shaped differently than the «Elucidator», his beloved sword from the past, and the white blade in his left hand had snapped down the middle, but as he gripped both blades of black and white his appearance was exactly that of the one who had protected, guided, and given Asuna the strength to fight ever since the day she met him: The «Black Swordsman».

The white sword in his left hand continuously radiated glittering light like diamond dust and wave after wave of freezing cold. Even while he ought to be maintaining his incredible technique of instantaneously freezing over 20000 players at once, Kirito’s calm profile displayed no such sign. It was as if there was someone standing next to him, granting him power.

PoH’s eyes glinted red as he stared closely from the depths of his hood at the two swords, and at Kirito, who was slowly walking towards him. He threw open his arms as if to welcome him, while exposing the large hole in his chest:

“…Finally awake, are you? I wonder how long it’s been since I’ve gotten to speak face-to-face with you like this…”

The reaper’s voice ground like rusty metal against rusty metal, and was met with a response from Kirito that resembled his floaty, yet chilly voice from back in Aincrad:

“Who knows? I’ve forgotten. But what I can be sure of is that this will be the end.”

Whiuu. PoH whistled.

“Amazing… You really are the best, Kirito. Come on… let’s continue. Let’s continue our showtime that got interrupted in Aincrad.”

With a flick of his right hand, he raised his Mate Chopper ─ swollen to three times its original size, resembling a giant cleaver. The black clouds above him swirled even more fiercely, and the thickset hunk of iron crawled with reddish-black lightning.

Standing opposite him, Kirito held his own black longsword aloft.

But the moment the sword arrived at its zenith, his emaciated body shuddered again, appearing unable to withstand the weight of the weapon.

Asuna already understood that Underworld was not merely a VRMMO world created with The Seed. Every object was a «Mnemonic Visual» — a memory itself, and could be interfered with by way of imagination.

According to Integrity Knight Alice, Kirito had spent nearly half a year’s time in this time-accelerated world in an unconscious state. It was unclear whether he had memories of this period, but he ought to have realized that he had been asleep. Perhaps Kirito's own impression of "I've grown weak" had caused his physical body to diminish for real.

No, perhaps that was not all.

Higa Takeru from RATH had explained the reason behind the destruction of Kirito's main body — his Self-Image.

—Kirito-kun seems to have had several colleagues, and by that I mean he had friends. Nearly all of them perished in the battle against the Axiom Church, and as a result, when he successfully opened a connection to contact us, he felt guilty to an extreme degree. In other words, he attacked his own Fluctlight. Right at that moment, those guys dressed in black cut the power line and an electrical short caused a power surge that instantaneously spiked the STL output. Consequently, Kirito-kun's self-destructive impulse became reality, and his «self» became immobilized.

It was not information she could immediately understand, but the gist of it was that Kirito had lost someone important to him in this world. His spirit had broken from overwhelming grief. Asuna already knew that person’s name. That night when she had chatted with Alice, Ronye, and Sortiliena until the sun came up, she’d heard that name many times over: Elite Swordsman-in-Training Eugeo.

Even though Kirito had, by some miracle, taken back his spirit, he remained unable to accept Eugeo’s parting. The unhealed sorrow had cast his spirit… and his body in shadow.

—Kirito-kun.

Asuna called in her mind, gazing at his figure with black sword raised.

—Right now, I… find it impossible to imagine just how much pain and suffering you have experienced. But there is one thing I can be sure of.

—Your important friend lives on in your spirit. Just like how Yuuki lives on in mine. These memories will give you strength. The strength to take up your sword again and fight.

Asuna’s thoughts seemed to become a voice, reaching out─

Kirito’s right hand kept the black sword aloft, his left raising and pressing the snapped white sword to his chest.

Appearing to view this as an opening, PoH moved.

His tall frame swayed forward as he ran the 10 meter distance in an instant, seeming to glide above the rubble-strewn ground. The mammoth, thickset cleaver swung as cleanly down as if it were weightless.

Kirito did not step out of the way. He readied the sword in his right hand to intercept the blow. But as Asuna saw it, his slash was already lacking the sharpness he had in the past.

The longsword smashed into the cleaver and narrowly avoided being sent flying, but the blade lock was not evenly matched; instead it was being pressed directly downwards from above. Kirito’s kneecaps buckled as his entire back arched. Pressed tightly against the ground, his boots skidded over 30 centimeters backwards.

“…Hey, hey, don’t disappoint me. I’ve waited nearly two years for this day…”

Muttering dejectedly, the black ponchoed reaper then placed his left hand in addition to his right on the Mate Chopper's hilt, which had expanded just as big as its blade.

As the blade lock screeched kin-kin, Kirito’s kneecaps continued to sink. If he could support his sword with both hands just like PoH… he thought, but his left hand continued to grip the white sword by itself. Moreover, since it was snapped down the middle, it could not be used to counter.

A sadistic, warped grin split the thick lips deep within the reaper’s hood. Slowly, but surely, he pushed the descending cleaver’s blade near Kirito’s neck.

“…Kirito…!” Sortiliena muttered hoarsely, grasping her own snapped sword, ready to stand.

But Asuna pressed down on her shoulders with conviction.

“It’s okay, Liensan.” She murmured to the female Guardian Leader ─ Kirito’s own mentor in the Human Empire Swordcraft Academy ─ all while suppressing her own fear.

“Kirito-kun will be fine. He’ll never lose to… a guy like him.”

On the other hand, Kirito’s mentee Ronye nodded tearfully.

“Yep. Kirito-senpai won't lose.”

“……You’re right.” Sortiliena replied, tightly gripping the hand Asuna placed on her shoulder.

But just then.

PoH’s Mate Chopper seemed to mock the trio's prayer-like certainty as it sank much further downwards. Kirito’s left knee struck the ground. His right arm trembled nonstop while holding up the black sword, giving one the impression that he was already near the end of his tether.

As Kirito clenched his teeth, PoH brought his own face close and sneered again:

“…About time you tossed that shit sword and put your left hand to use. You realize that those Chinese and Korean players you froze have killed a lot of your friends, right? It shouldn’t matter to you if they decide to wage a massacre amongst themselves, now should it?”

The demon whispered ─ Kirito resisted the heavy pressure and replied coldly:

“I know your methods well. Making people fight amongst themselves, planting the seed of hate and causing the next conflict. It drove me crazy during the SAO era, but in Underworld… you’ll never get your way.”

"Oho… and what're you gonna do about it? As soon as that ice melts, they're gonna kill every last one of the remaining Japanese and those Underworld people you care about so much. The only way to stop 'em is to kill 'em yourself. Cut 'em down while they're still frozen. Your friends oughta be able to it. Come on, give the order… kill all of those Chinese and Koreans."

"……"

Kirito said nothing to the venomous instigation.

Asuna was also distinctly aware of PoH's vile plot.

Bound by vines of ice, the Chinese and Korean players seemed not to feel any pain now, but shattering those vines would cause them excruciating agony. That agony would bring about rage, causing decisive hatred towards the Japanese players.

By then, PoH, with the help of his Mate Chopper, would be able to absorb the immense swathes of resources ejected into the air following the deaths of the Chinese and Koreans. He would gain the power to defeat Kirito, and personally vanquish the entirety of the Japanese players and Underworld people combined.

Kirito ought to be aware of this. There was no way he was going to bend to PoH’s instigation, but to avoid a disastrous outcome, all he could do was maintain the large-scale freezing Art emanating from the white sword in his left grip; however, doing this plunged the showdown with his old enemy into an even worse situation.

With every tremor of his right hand from blocking the giant cleaver, sparks would burst from the intersection point. The cleaver's blade was continuously and irrefutably descending, barely two fists away from Kirito’s left shoulder.

“…Well, it doesn’t matter to me if your stubbornness kills you.” PoH sniggered.

“Relax. After I kill you, I’ll send the «Flash», and everyone else into their own coffins, until no one’s left.”

Deep within the hood, the reaper’s eyes gleamed red like will-o-the-wisps. His mouth split open to his cheeks, exposing sharp teeth.

“C’mon… Lemme taste your blood and life, Kirito.”

His pointed tongue licking over his lips like a wriggling worm, PoH intensified his grip on the Mate Chopper. The black sword screeched shrilly as the fatal blade inched closer towards Kirito by the second─

Suddenly, the soft sound of prayer was heard behind Asuna.

“Please, Eugeo-senpai. Save Kirito-senpai.”

The three of them looked behind them and saw the redheaded girl with her hands clasped at her chest ─ Tiese.

In an instant, Asuna distinctly felt it. Tiese’s hair billowed softly as a breeze-like wave bloomed.

She looked back ahead.

Now a cleaver, the Mate Chopper made contact with Kirito’s left shoulder.

With only that, the fabric of his black shirt exploded open. Awaiting the moment when blood would come spraying out of him, Asuna could not help but hold her breath.

But─

Just then, the Mate Chopper ceased its descent.

Slowly, but surely, it was actually being pushed back. How would Kirito’s emaciated, exhausted right shoulder possibly possess this sort of strength…

“Ah……”

A soft cry from either Ronye or Sortiliena.

Asuna saw it at the same time. A second, golden, transparent hand was tightly gripping the hilt of the black sword.

A moment’s pause later, Kirito seemed to notice the hand too. His eyes widened and his face contorted. Tears slid from the corners of his eyes, the droplets dancing into the air.

His lips moved, but no sound was heard.

But then─

“Ohh… OHHHHHHHHHH!!”

A roar sharp enough to tear silk burst from Kirito’s throat and he violently forced back the Mate Chopper. PoH's arms were thrown backwards; he staggered back, cursing.

Kirito immediately stood up from his genuflecting posture, raised the broken sword in his left hand high in the air, and cried:

“RELEASE RECOLLECTION!!“

An indescribably blinding light exploded and bleached the world white. PoH threw a hand in front of his face and continued backing away, as though he couldn't stand the brightness.

Even as she squinted her eyes, Asuna saw it.

The light itself was concentrating on the body of the horribly snapped sword, regenerating it, as if it were crystallizing.

Restored to its original form in a matter of seconds, the sword blossomed an even greater light─

Swoosh! The flash expanded outwards.

After a moment’s silence, there came a clear, grandiose sound heard throughout the entire battlefield, like thousands or tens of thousands of bells. Turning to look, Asuna and the other three’s eyes grew large.

Innumerable flowers were gradually blooming atop the bodies of the Chinese and Korean VRMMO players, frozen white. They looked to be carved from glass; roses exuding a transparent azure.

Blooming proudly, the large-petaled roses began to disperse silver particles from their bulbs. Asuna instinctively knew that they were pure Life Resources ─ the players’ HP.

These players who not ten minutes ago had been blazing with rage and ready to massacre each other, were one by one, as though they were simply asleep, wrapped in a column of light and vanished. There was no pain or suffering whatsoever; it could be said that they were being force-logged out in the most tranquil way imaginable.

The seeds of hate that PoH wanted to plant within the hearts of the Chinese and Korean players should not sprout anymore.

“Motherfucker… Don’t fuck with me…!”

The reaper cursed, his vile plot foiled, but he immediately regained his complacent smile and raised the immense Mate Chopper in his right hand.

Seeing PoH’s movements, Asuna realized what he was planning.

This battlefield was currently filled with Life Resources released by the innumerable blue roses ─ in Underworld terms, the air was thick with Sacred Power. PoH was plotting to claim it for himself with his Mate Chopper, using its ability to absorb Resources.

“Kirito-kun…!”

Dazed and trembling, Asuna called out the name of her beloved.

Just by absorbing the lives of the Japanese players killed in the recent battle, almost 2000 people, PoH’s cleaver had swelled to thrice its size, displaying a power even exceeding that of Stacia’s GM equipment. If it were to absorb ten times that, the lives of 20000 people, PoH would become a true demon… No, he would become Satan himself. If Kirito could not take action while he was using a large-scale Art, then Asuna had to help him─

But, just as she urged on her paralyzed feet in an attempt to stand.

It’s all right… Look.

She thought it had gone, but Yuuki's voice blew past her ear once more like a soft breeze.

Then Asuna noticed it. Silver light amassing in midair like many sinews of ribbon, completely ignoring PoH’s Mate Chopper. No matter how the reaper brandished his demon sword, the light showed no signs of approaching it.

Again came the faint voice.

You said it yourself, Asuna. Life carries and passes on your spirit.

These people gathered from all the countries in this world don’t really want to kill each other.

Everyone has the same wish. To head for a thrilling, exciting world… a beautiful, happy, and joyful world like the fairy kingdom where I met you, Asuna… That’s it, really.

“…Yup. That’s right, Yuuki.”

Asuna’s inaudible murmur seemed to become the turning point for what happened next.

Kirito kept the fully restored white sword raised high, then brought the black sword in his right hand straight above as well.

The rotating black cloud summoned by PoH spun backwards while expanding. A ray of golden sunlight peeked through a sliver of blue sky in the direct center, making the body of the black sword gleam like dark crystal.

“Release recollection.“

Almost reflectively this time, Kirito incanted the same command from before.

At that very moment─

The countless silver ribbons slowly undulating about the sky above the battlefield seemed to blend together, becoming absorbed into the black sword.

“Suck!!“

Cursing in English, PoH brandished the Mate Chopper in apparent defiance to Kirito. But the ribbons seemed to act of their own accord, evading the demon sword and continuously melding with Kirito’s sword.

“…Eugeo-senpai told me before. Kirito-senpai’s black sword was originally a huge cedar tree that grew at the northern edge of the Human Empire.” Tiese said in a trembling voice from behind Asuna. Immediately, Sortiliena nodded as though she had understood.

“I see… That’s why it has the ability to absorb Sacred Power…”

As her words blended with Yuuki’s murmurs just now in Asuna’s head, Asuna finally realized the meaning behind the events unfolding before her eyes.

Even if Kirito’s black sword had the ability to absorb Resources, why was PoH’s Mate Chopper unable to completely absorb the Resources released by the blue roses, since it had the same ability? It was because the cleaver’s true ability was not to «absorb life», but to «absorb death».

PoH had said it himself. The more players… The more people Mate Chopper killed, the stronger a weapon it would become. If its wielder’s imagination was granting the demon sword the ability to absorb Resources, then even if it could absorb the «Death Resources» released from the gruesome murders, it would not be able to absorb the «Life Resources», which, with the help of the white sword, could be released without the need for death.

However, Kirito’s black sword was different. Since it was originally a tree surviving off the power of the earth and sun, then both sword and wielder should have imagination powerful enough to absorb life.

The white sword in his left hand froze a wide range of targets and released their life into the air.

The black sword in his right hand absorbed the life from the surrounding air and converted it into energy.

It was an extremely simple, yet consequently peerlessly powerful synergy. The perfect pairing. The best partnership.

As it absorbed an astronomical number of ribbons, the black sword began to gleam gold at its center. Resources flowed through the hilt of the sword into Kirito’s hand.

Kirito’s body began to restore from bone-thinness to its original muscular form at a blinding rate. The rebirth was not limited to his body; even his black shirt, riddled with tears from the fierce battle, regenerated instantly; fingerless gloves wrapped themselves around his hands and his feet were covered by riveted boots.

Rays of light continued to reach over his shoulders onto his arms and descend onto his back, and a moment later, materialized into lustrous black leather. It was his trademark long coat from the SAO era. As the violently flapping hem settled, the two sword sheaths that had landed far away flew over and installed themselves on his back in a criss-cross pattern.

“……… Kirito… kun………”

A plethora of emotions welling up in her heart, Asuna beheld through teary eyes the fully revived form of the «Black Swordsman» Kirito with his two swords raised high. Glittering liquid flowed down Sortliena’s cheeks on her right, and Ronye’s on her left. Faint sobs from Tiese came from behind her.

Seconds later, having absorbed all of the life ribbons, Kirito slowly lowered both swords.

Most of the Chinese and Korean players cramming the battlefield full had been logged out. Asuna turned her head and sent a thankful gaze to the crimson knight helping Klein. Right afterwards, he too disappeared, and a barren silence enveloped the wilderness, giving one the impression that the multiple fierce battles in rapid succession had been nothing but a dream.

The only things audible were the dry wheeze of wind, and the cling, cling of hot metal rubbing against itself. The source of the noise was the black sword, concentrated with an astronomical amount of energy and brimming with a golden aura.

Finally giving up on absorbing Resources, PoH lowered his Mate Chopper in silence.

His chest was still perforated by the large hole that Asuna’s OSS Mother’s Rosary had hit him directly with. When the Resources remaining in his demon sword were exhausted, PoH’s life would end.

Even though he clearly ought to understand this, the reaper no longer let fly curses, instead standing silently. But he seemed not to acknowledge defeat at all; the bitter chill emanating from his entire body stung Asuna’s skin even as she merely watched from far away.

Deep within the hood, lips that curved into a lopsided grin began to move slightly.

“You really are the best, Kirito. You are the first and last guy I’ve wanted to kill so much of my own will. It really is a shame that we have to end it here, but there won’t ever be an occasion better than this…”

Smoothly readying the cleaver in his right hand, he put forward his left. Then, as though he were displaying the «Laughing Coffin» tattoo on the back of his hand, he beckoned with slender fingers.

“…Now, shall we properly enjoy ourselves, Black Swordsman?”

Faced with tempting words that seemed to be the ultimate concentration of evil, Kirito replied simply:

“Yeah, let’s end it all.”

He parted his feet, lowered his waist, and adopted a posture with his white sword in front and black sword behind.

Combative energy erupted from both of them at explosive speed, discharging violent sparks where they clashed in between.

Just as both of them had said: the next blow would end it all. With that premonition, Asuna watched with bated breath, eyes open as fully as possible.

A parched breeze rustled by; the Black Swordsman and the dark reaper moved at the same time.

Held aloft, PoH's Mate Chopper was engulfed with viscous, reddish-black light. Next second, the reaper was running at blinding speed and split into three separate bodies. It was a Sword Skill of which Asuna had no knowledge.

Opposite, the sword in Kirito's right hand remained pointed downward, while the white sword in his left hand took on a crimson gleam. This was a single-handed Sword Skill for the longsword: «Deadly Sins».

PoH's slashes from left, right, and center were intercepted by Kirito's combo attack. Every clash of giant blood-red cleaver and ruby-gleaming black longsword caused powerful tremors in the ground and the air.

The three PoHs struck twice for a total of six attacks; then the flanking clones vanished. Now alone, the original brought the thick blade thundering down from overhead. Kirito blocked the strike with a left diagonal slash, creating an impact akin to a detonating bomb.

Page 93 «Deadly Sins» was a seven-hit combo attack. As the skill ended, Kirito was locked into a rigid state. If PoH had another attack coming, then Kirito would not be able to block it.

The blowback from his deflected overhead strike billowed the reaper's hood, revealing for the first time since the SAO era his true face underneath.

That not-quite-Japanese, sharply defined face split into an savage grin — once more, PoH readied his giant cleaver, twisted with a reddish-black aura, ready to roar towards Kirito's chest. The eighth hit.

But in that instant.

The black sword in Kirito's right grip swelled anew with deep crimson light. A flamelike crimson deeper, hotter than the lighting effects of «Deadly Sins».

Breaking free of what ought to have been a second-long rigid time, the black sword let loose a lightning-fast stab. Activating multiple one-handed Sword Skills with one's left and right hands was a special move that only Kirito alone was capable of — «Skill Connect».

With the thunderous, metallic roar of an external combustion engine, the single-shot heavy attack «Vorpal Strike» collided fiercely with the supposed last attack of PoH's eight clone combo.

The strongest shockwave yet ripped through the ground in a radial pattern of cracks. A gale of sand and hot air blew past, but Asuna merely squinted slightly, intent on watching the final result of the duel.

When the wind settled, she could see the two of them immobile, black sword and giant red cleaver in hand, blade tips touching.

The fight was not over. Each of them had concentrated an enormous amount of energy onto an infinitesimal point, trying with all of their might to push back the other's attack.

If one were merely comparing the amount of resources stored in their weapons, then Kirito's black sword having absorbed the lives of 20000 people, far exceeded PoH's Mate Chopper without question. But the situation was not that simple. In this world, imagination… «Incarnation», as the knights called it, bore with it the possibility to overturn any numerical specifications.

PoH's Incarnation was exceedingly simple, and was extremely strong for that reason. To murder… Bent on filling the world with discord and distrust, the reaper waged war with hostility and malice.

What was Kirito fighting for, then?

He had lost a special friend in this world. There had been external factors as well, but he had tasted enough grief to render him unconscious for half a year. Yet now he was standing up, gripping his longsword. What kind of Incarnation had given him such power…?

Asuna could not articulate the answer, but she did not see the need to do so. Kirito had shouldered much in his continuous battle until today. Whether in the old SAO, ALO, or GGO. And this moment was no different.

Bewilderment, pain, and grief could become strength. Tears could be transformed into light. That light would never lose to PoH's darkness.

Isn't that right?… Kirito-kun.

Asuna did not know whether her prayer reached Kirito, but in the next moment, a faint yet resolute sound was heard.

Crack.

PoH's demon sword, the lethal weapon «Mate Chopper» that existed only for humans to murder other humans, began to split from tip to hilt like a crimson lightning bolt.

Next, the giant cleaver burst into innumerable pieces and scattered in all directions—.

Together with the sword, Kirito's Vorpal Strike blew PoH's right hand to smithereens, and continue to thrust forward more than five meters.

As a second gale stole away her vision, Asuna could not resist standing up. Tiese and the others beside her, along with Klein, Silica, Lisbeth, and all of the others who were released from bondage stood up as well.

At last, the dust cloud dissipated, and the tightly interwound figures of the two SAO players came into view.

Weaponless, PoH's limbs hung uselessly as Kirito's black sword plunged deeply into his chest. But since Asuna had blown a large hole there already, no fresh damage was dealt to his body.

Perhaps from the severance of the Mate Chopper's resource supply, blood splattered from his mouth and the hole in his chest, but PoH's confident smile remained wide.

"…Expected nothing less, that's what I'm talking about. But… this ain't the end. Even if you log out from this world, I will appear before you all, again and again. It doesn't matter how many times I do it before I slit the throats and tear out the hearts of you and the «Flash»…"

Faced with this curse of a declaration.

Kirito's calm reply seemed almost emotionless.

"No, this is the end. You will not log out from Underworld."

Next second, the black sword emitted an instant flash of light.

Then, Kirito slowly extracted the sword from PoH's chest and took a few steps backward.

Even without support, PoH did not fall. A gruesome smile was still plastered on his face as he seemed to want to say something.

But his gaping mouth froze with a squeak.

His arms and legs as well. Frozen in awkward positions, his limbs squeaked and creaked as they changed texture. Shining black leather became finely cracked fibrous material. Metallic rivets became swollen lumps.

Kirito spoke again to the bizarrely transfiguring reaper:

"…This sword was once a great cedar tree that the people of Rulid Village called the «demon cedar». The villagers' axes couldn't cut it down for 200 years. And now, this «sword's memories» have flowed into your body."

Just as he said, more than half of PoH's body surface had transformed into tree bark, as black as charcoal. His feet fused together and began to sprout roots into the ground; his two hands twisted into twigs bent at queer angles; his hair was lengthening into sharp leaves… nothing was left of his eyes and mouth except for three tiny consecutive holes.

"When they find out that the Chinese and Korean players have logged out, your buddies are probably going to start the time acceleration again. I don't know how many years will go by before they take you out of the STL… or how many tens of years, so I would pray for a smaller number if I were you. If some settlers build a village near here, maybe some axe-wielding kids will come cut you down."

He did not know whether PoH had consciously heard him. The object before Kirito was no longer human, but a grotesque, two-meter tall cedar tree.

After gazing at it for a while, Kirito turned away from the tree and looked first towards Asuna and the others. He smiled slightly, nodded, then looked towards the wounded Japanese and Underworld residents.

Then, once more his right hand raised high the black sword, some golden light still remaining within—

"System call. Transfer durability, right to area."

Vsssshhhh…

A faint, but ubiquitous sound filled the battlefield.

It started to rain.

Resources bursting from the sword materialized in midair, then fell back down as a soft rain of light. It was healing the bodies of the maimed, exhausted Japanese players lying on the ground, and the Guardians of the Human Empire Defense Army, enervated by continuous battle.

Perhaps, their spirit was being healed too—

Expending the last of their stored Resources, Kirito quietly inserted the black and white swords back into their hilts on his back.

Within the all-healing rain of light, Asuna did nothing but look fixedly upon the swordsman in black, taking step after definite step towards her.

She did not make a move, nor did she open her mouth to talk to him. She felt as though as soon as she said something, it would all become an illusion. So all Asuna did was keep her eyes firmly open, a slight smile on her lips, waiting.

Walking forward in her place was Klein.

His severed left arm and pierced body were completely healed, but the katanwielder still clutched his chest in apparent pain, then hobbled forward.

"Kirito… Oh, Kirito."

His normally lively voice carried a hint of wetness.

"You always… You always have to steal the spotlight, you little.."

His voice was a barely a whimper.

The lanky katanwielder seized the black dual-wielder's shoulders, and pressed his bandannless forehead to his chest. His back quaked, racking with thick sobs.

"Uhhh… Uhhhhhhhh…."

Kirito wrapped his arms around his weeping friend. His eyes were shut tight and teeth firmly clenched, and there was something glistening on his face as well.

"…Senpai."

Ronye muttered from beside Asuna, then jumped up and broke into a run. Droplets flying from her eyes as she ran, she collided with Kirito's right shoulder. Sortiliena was close behind.

Agil's eyes were wet too. Lisbeth and Silica were embracing each other in hysterics. From the crowd of Japanese players gathering around them — the faces of ALO leaders Sakuya, Alicia, and Eugene, Siune and Jun of the Sleeping Knights, and numerous others were flowing with droplets of mixed rain and tears.

The Guardians and Ascetics of the Human Empire army watching from afar were red-eyed as well. All of them sank to their knees, heads deeply bowed and right fists pressed to their chests.

"……Ever since I first saw you, I knew. That person, and his two swords, will save us all."

A calm voice suddenly came from behind.

Asuna turned to look and saw Renri the young knight, accompanied behind by his dragon. Both had been almost fatally injured, but the only wounds left now were the scratches on their armor.

Asuna's chest was full; she was only able to nod once or twice. Renri returned her nod and walked to Tiese, who was still knelt on the ground, and sat down beside her.

Another sweeping look around them revealed that more than 20000 Chinese and Korean VRMMO players had vanished without a trace.

Once the attackers realize that they had logged out, they would cease their tactic of bringing in reinforcements from the real world and turn the time acceleration back up to maximum. By then, Klein and the others who had logged in via AmuSphere would be automatically disconnected.

Seemingly realizing this, Kirito patted Klein on the shoulders and moved away, then cast a look upon the surrounding Japanese players.

He bowed his head deeply towards them, and spoke:

"Thank you… everyone. I will make the most of the emotions, the blood, and sweat that you all have spilled for me. Really, thank you."

Yes—

The battle was not yet over.

Although their arch-enemy PoH, along with the American, Chinese, and Korean attackers had been eliminated, the enemy mastermind Emperor Vector was still in this world. Having kidnapped the fruit of Project Alicization — Integrity Knight Alice, at this very moment he was flying far south towards the «World End Altar».

Asuna inhaled a deep breath, then stood up at last.

Beset by a hundred different emotions all at once, she passed through various players standing stock skill, stepping gradually towards Kirito.

Kirito looked up, gazing straight at her.

In an instant, a wave of irrepressible emotion gushed up within her, and she stopped breathing.

Now. She wanted nothing more than to fly into her lover's embrace. To howl like a little girl, to release all of her repressed emotion.

But Asuna suppressed her overflowing feelings with all of her might, and announced what was on her mind.

"Kirito-kun… Emperor Vector, he took Alice-san—"

"Yeah. I have some hazy memories of the situation."

Kirito nodded with a stiff expression. Then he reached out his right hand.

"Let's go save her. Please help me, Asuna."

She could not hold it in anymore.

Asuna trotted over, took his hand, and pressed it against her cheek.

Kirito's left arm circled around her back and pulled her towards him.

It was only a moment's embrace, but in that moment Asuna felt that their souls exchanged a great amount of information that which could not be expressed in words.

Kirito exchanged a close look with Asuna, nodded, then turned his eyes towards the southern sky.

He raised his right hand in that direction. His five fingers moved, seemingly searching for something.

"……Found them."

"Huh…?"

Asuna blinked, but Kirito did not reply; he simply revealed a hint of a smile.

Surveying the crowd once more, Kirito gently patted Klein's shoulders and Ronye's head before saying:

"Well, here we go."

And then—

***

And then Lisbeth watched as Kirito and Asuna were enveloped in bright green light and took flight at extraordinary speed towards the south.

She blinked her wide eyes a few times, then dragged out a long sigh.

"Good grief… Always going too far. Or maybe I should just call him reckless…"

Silica chuckled from aside.

Klein clapped his hands together loudly and bellowed.

"Wait one minute, goddammit… Is that bastard ******? Isn't he unstoppable now? Goddammit, he always steals the show…"

The katanwielder groused, his cheeks shining with renewed tears, uttering the name of the male protagonist from a very old manga. To him, Kirito must have always been that kind of person he had been enamored with, ever since they had first met in Aincrad. An unstoppable, absolute, eternal hero.

─And he's the same to me.

Lisbeth turned her own tear-stained face towards the southern sky.

To burn this world into her memory, this world that they would log out of soon, that they might not ever return to.

And to convey the message to the many players who were disconnected in agony and humiliation, that our efforts were not in vain.

References 1. Kawahara made a typo and wrote “Seventh Day”. It’s been corrected here.↩

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