Floor 94th, January 27th, 2027
The sea wind whistled while the Sun rose from the horizon. Reddish orange beams of light clashed against the city of Nuceria.
The Narwhal had just been docked at the port, after spending several days in the sea searching for ships. It was a large Frigate with 100 meters length and 30 meters width. It was made of a dark wood and carried a total of 28 magic-charged cannons; one half on the deck and the other half on the level below, and seven at each side. It had four large masts; the one at the middle of the ship was the longest, measuring over 90 meters, while the other three approached half that size. One of the wooden beams extended diagonally beyond the prow, while the other three were placed vertically. Different sets of ropes connected the four of them. The sails were colored cream, but since they were always out in the open, they’d become grayish. The black flag with the symbol of the pirate guild was located on the top of the ship, waving as the wind made it twist and turn.
As soon as the ship had finished docking and tying up the sails, the pirates started unloading the cargo.
Kirito and Klein entered the seaport, discussing. Over the last days, the Salamander had been arguing about most decisions the Black Swordsman took, always suggesting a more drastic solution to a given problem. He was especially radical about the prisoners. He didn’t want them inside the city any longer. And he didn’t mean to release them either.
“There’re more important things to worry about right now than food.” Klein complained.
“What do you expect to feed our men then?” Kirito replied.
“With victory. Hao’s certainly going to send more soldiers. We must prepare.”
“Right now we’re; by making sure our men don’t go to battle weakened by hunger.”
Both generals entered the vessel by a wood thick plank, where they found the captain on the quarterdeck, staring at the horizon.
“Captain.” Kirito said.
“Shiver me timbers! King Kirito and General Klein!” Thatch said, surprised to see them. “I didn’t expect to find ye here.”
“How did you fair in this trip? We’d any luck?” Kirito asked.
“We came upon one legionary vessel. If yer thirsty for alcohol, today’s yer lucky day.”
“You carry no food?” Klein asked.
“Some salted beef, and a couple of bags filled with potatoes. Nothing more.”
“The food you brought when you arrived is running low. Liquor won’t feed my people.” Kirito said.
“The Legions have probably secured their food somewhere, to keep it secure from the upcoming cold from winter. It’ll be difficult to find suck booty.”
“It’ll be as costly as difficult?” Klein asked.
The conversation is interrupted when a bag teared apart and the potatoes inside fell to the ground. A group of knights started grabbing the food while others, led by Hogun, fought them to grab the food. Kirito and Klein rushed to stop the fight.
“That’s enough!” Kirito screamed, and he succeeded in stopping the fight. He then approached to Hogun. “Give each of them a handful of potatoes, and clear them from the docks.”
“Kirito! Klein!” Leafa called over. She’d just arrived to port. “More players have arrived at the gate!”
Kirito walked back to the city and Klein followed swiftly.
“King Kirito?” Thatch asked.
“We’ll talk later Thatch. Right now, I need to look over this.”
“As you command then!” the pirate captain added before returning his sight to the horizon.
“Will you give the new arrivals a handful as well?” Klein asked.
“Maybe…” Kirito answered, as he walked passing by Leafa.
“Kirito, the food is running low.” Klein continued. “You said that yourself. We don’t have to waste food on fucking prisoners.”
They walked by a group of prisoners and Abelia, who was talking to them on their way to the entrance.
“You know what I think about that.” Kirito added.
“I’m with Klein on this one.” Leafa said. “Cousin, it’s just a game. What type of difference would killing a few dozens of prisoners do?”
“If it’s just a game, then why’re we even fighting?” Kirito argued. “This war is more than just a game now. I thought you had that clear by now.”
“Kirito, on this one I think the end justify the means.” Klein claimed. “If we want to win the war, we may’ve to take a hard decision. But in the long run, it’ll benefit us. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
“How can we fight Hao and the Kingdom while use his same methods we criticize?” Kirito stressed, raising his voice. “I’ve already given Abelia my word, I promised not to harm them. It will not be broken!”
Klein sighed. He stopped for a moment, looking to the back of Kirito’s neck.
“Sooner or later, he’ll realize we’re right,” Leafa told him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Better be damn soon,” Klein noted, while he observed several Prisoners eating a piece of bread.
They followed and remained silent until they arrived to the wide and short corridor gateway. They could see the large amount of players entering to the city. Asuna greeted them there.
“Hello.” Kirito said. “How many arrived?”
“Four to six dozens.” Asuna said.
“Where’s Lamorak?” Leafa asked, after looking around.
“He’s near the gate with Galant, Sybil and others, trying to keep the refugees calm as we let them in and making sure they follow the two rules.”
There were just two simple rules to enter the city. The first one, the refugee had to reveal his player card and show who he was. In that card, it was stated his guild allegiance. This was for making sure that all those who entered weren’t friends with the Kingdom. The second rule was to give up all weapons when entering the city. Once the player proved that he or she was worthy of trust, the weapons were given back.
“The pirates arrived, haven’t they?” Asuna asked. “Did they get some food?”
“None,” Kirito answered, slightly angered. “Just alcohol.”
“We need to start thinking of something,” Asuna remarked, folding her arms. “Otherwise we’ll be screwed.”
“We’ll see as soon as we finish here…”
“Kirito!” Lamorak shouted once he saw his leader. He approached alongside Galant. With them there was a young female player.
“What’s happening?” Kirito asked.
“This girl carries information about Hao’s army,” Lamorak informed. “They’re in floor 93rd, half a day’s march from here.”
“How many soldiers with him?” he asked.
“Thousands, same as that letter from that messenger said.” Galant said; hands inside his coat’s pockets.
“That’s more than we have,” Asuna frowned.
“But he has stopped his advance and settled his camp near the Labyrinth,” Lamorak added.
“If he outnumbers us why does he stop there?” Leafa asked puzzled.
“Doesn’t matter,” Klein said. “He’s quite wrong is he believes he…”
Scream coming from the gate interrupted Klein’s phrase.
“Soldiers!!!” a voice shouted over.
“Seal the gate!!!” Kirito screamed.
Next to the gate, Agil released the lock of the pulley and the gate came down with a loud thud once it clashed against the floor.
Kirito and company drew their weapons and rushed forward, but they were blocked by the mob, which had become a steam of scared players, rushing inside the safety of the city walls, as a stampede of antelopes escaping from wild lions. In the chaos, ten hooded players with sword in their hands engaged combat against Fandral, Kana and several more. After the howling crowd had escaped, letting the five knights advance and engage combat with them. As fast as they appeared, the ten players were dead, except for one. A player with shackles in his wrist held the last Legionnaire on the ground, pressing with the chain of his fetters against his neck. After a gruesome but short struggle, the player killed him, snapping his neck. He released the dead body and sat on the ground, exhausted.
“These fucking shits attacked us when we told them to reveal their player card!!!” Fandral cursed.
“Thanks for the help,” Kirito told the player, sheathing Elucidator on to his back.
The player rose from the ground and removed his hood, revealing his face. He it seemed that his race was Sylph or Pooka. He was a male player, with long blond player with messy hair and a single black bang near his right template. His eyes were grey as old steel and his skin was slightly tanned. In his triangular chin and above his lip they could see young whiskers growing. He was wearing a black, grey and brown poncho with a hood.
“There’s no greater praise than yours.” the player said, looking to Kirito to the eye. Immediately afterwards, his eyes look down. He took a key from the dead corpse and opened the shackles on his hands. He reached his belt and gave his only weapon, a small single-edged knife, to Kirito.
“Why were you in chains?” Lamorak asked.
“I was coming here to join your guild, when these fuckers attacked me.” the player said. “They wanted to guide them to enter the city and kill you, Kirito.”
“And you did.” Klein
“I did what I had to do to survive,” The player retorted. “I apologize if you think I did wrong, but I was sure you could stop ten Legionnaires.”
The player walked a single step to walk around the Knights in front of him, but Kana stopped him, placing one of her daggers against his throat. The player raised his sight and saw Sinon knocking an arrow in her bow and taking aim. The other ones gathered around him.
“Wait…I’d like to see your player information card, friend,” Kirito asked.
“Of course…” he moved his left hand and his menu popped up. Then he quickly searched for his card and showed it to Kirito.
The Dual Swordsman quickly skimmed through it. The player name read “Lyd”. He wasn’t a member of any guild. His gender was male and his race Spriggan, much to Kirito’s surprise. It was the first time he saw a player of his own race with blond hair.
“It’s all good,” Kirito said, and the Knights released him. “You can join the others now, Lyd.”
Lyd nodded his head did as commanded.
“The next time you open the gate for prisoners, be more careful.” Kirito ordered. “Galant, Asuna, Klein, Lamorak, we need to talk in private.”
Floor 93rd, January 27th, 2027
Inside his tent, Markus sat on his bed as the medic used a magic healing spell and ointments to heal his wound.
They’d spent four long days on the wilderness, trying to find their way back to his brother’s main camp. Four long days he’d fought against the stinging pain of the wound and the fear of death, and as result, he’d been left unable to command. Taikeus took the command of the half-century left from the battle of the outskirts of Nuceria and guided them back to level 93rd. There, they were lucky enough to find the camp near the Labyrinth. Hao greeted him there. When he arrived to the camp, he imagined his brother would greet him with open arms, happy to see him again alive; but all he found was disappointment in his face.
Now a week had passed since then, and his wound was almost fully healed. Now it was only a long red line in the left side of his stomach. But even still, it stung with pain.
“I don’t like seeing you with pain,” Taikeus said, standing in front of his friend.
“Don’t worry about this mere scratch,” Markus sadly said. “You can’t see the deepest wound right now.”
“Your brother hasn’t come here to see you, has he?” Taikeus asked, giving his friend a cup filled with wine.
“I remember the gloomy look on his face when we arrived.” Markus said; taking a sip of his drink before raising his arms so that the doctor could start wrapping his stomach with a new, clean bandage. “I haven’t seen him since them.”
“His Majesty is just preparing for the upcoming battle.” the young colonel assured before taking a drink of his own cup.
“We’re moving to reclaim our city?” Markus asked with his eyes widened.
“I haven’t received an order to set off to level 94th. But Mordread has left with his three right hand men, and a thousand men have been sent to floor 94th.”
“I have no idea. Your brother doesn’t trust me with that confidence.”
“That makes us two…” Markus said, taking the last sip of his drink before giving it back to his friend. The medic finished wrapping up his stomach and left the room as silent and fast as he worked.
“What of Zar?” Markus asked. “How’s he behaving now? Does he walk around, like a vulture, ready to strip my tittle as second in command?”
“No. He’s not in the camp.”
“What then? He’s fallen?”
“He’s just following my orders.” Hao said from the entrance of the tent. Both boys looked at him surprised until Hao looked to Taikeus. “Leave us.”
Taikeus obeyed and left silently.
“You’ve given him a secret mission?” Markus inquired.
“Yes. He’s exactly where I need him to be to speed up the fall of KoB.” Hao said, with a harsh tone of voice and a stern look on his face. “I’ll tell you of my plan once the right time comes.”
“I’d like to know it now.”
“Learn to be patient, Markus.” Hao scolded him. “That’s how we’ve succeeded so far. That’s how we’re going to take Nuceria. That’s how we’re going to win this war.”
Markus looked to the ground and nodded slightly.
“Now rest, and allow the wound to properly heal.” Hao turned around to walk out of the tent.
“I’m your second in command brother.” Markus said, rising from his bed. “I’m your word and your will. But I can’t assume that position if I’m lying on my back.”
“Alright then,” Hao said, quite surprised for that comment. “Put on your armor. Find my on my tent, and we’ll talk about the punishment your men deserve for that foolish attempt on Kirito.”
Floor 94th, January 27th, 2027
The five commanders arrived at KoB’s HQ.
Kirito stabbed a wooden table with Lyd’s knife before speaking.
“Apparently we discovered what Hao was planning and that he’s holding his advance.” he said, pointing to the embedded weapon.
The five players separated inside the room and make a deformed circle, all of them looking to the middle.
“Screw him!” Lamorak swore while he sat down on a chair.
“He underestimates us if he really believes a few soldiers can defeat us.” Klein added, looking at the table with the maps.
“Hao’s not that stupid, Klein.” Galant pointed out. He laid his back against a wall and crossed his arms. “I’ve participated in many of his plans, and I can assure you that Hao doesn’t move as the others we’ve faced. He’s a master strategist. He’ll try to turn everything we do against us.”
“We have to be cautious then,” Klein suggested, placing his hands on the top of the table and tapping it with his fingers. “The gates must remain closed.”
“We can’t deny entrance to those who escape from the Legion’s jaws,” Asuna protested.
“Asuna’s right. We can’t leave them outside,” Kirito said.
“That doesn’t really matter now,” Lamorak said before standing up. “Once the legionnaires arrived, many players rushed inside, and probably without following the two rules. We’re in big trouble if they’re at Hao’s side.”
“If there’re spies or traitors here, we must find out who they are,” Kirito added.
“That’s a lot of “ifs.”, and I have one more,” Galant added, before looking to Kirito. “If you’re killed by one of these traitors, how can we fight without a proper leader?”
“Klein, I’m sure you’re capable of leading the guild, with the help of the council gathered now on this room.”
“I hope that day never comes,” Klein wished while he walked to get closer to Kirito. “But if I was in your position right now, I’d move quickly against Hao.”
“I agree with him,” Lamorak added.
“We’re men of battle!” Klein emphasized with his strong voice. “The streets become more and more restless without a good fight.”
“You’re wrong in this Klein,” Asuna said. “We have leverage over Hao right now.”
“Yes. We’re surrounded by the walls of the city. If they storm the city, Hao’s legions will suffer on the open plains, while we can train the players inside to defeat the weakened army.”
“We still have problems receiving food Kirito and we don’t have an unlimited storage of weapons.” Klein pointed out.
“For now, we’ll have to ration,” Kirito decided out loud. “That way it’ll last a couple more of weeks if we’re lucky. I’ll talk to Thatch in the meantime, see what we can do.”
“About the weapons,” Galant said, pushing himself from the wall. “If Antinomy was still alive, he’d craft more weapons.”
“You’d prefer the traitor living instead of Leafa?” Klein retorted angrily.
“I didn’t say that. You…” Galant said.
“Let Antinomy serve as an example for anyone who dares to release the prisoners.” Klein interrupted the Blue Knight, who got annoyed after Klein’s comment about his best friend.
“You two, cool down,” Asuna said, ending the argument.
“Focus on what’s happening right now,” Kirito ordered. “Check out the prowess of those who joined us.”
“Food running low, escaped prisoners yet to be found, Hao on our gate and you want me to be a damn teacher?” the salamander commander complained.
“I want to be ever-vigilant,” Kirito underlined. “If anyone stands out too much, he or she may be more than he appears.”
Klein understood his point and nodded.
“Join him Galant,” Kirito added.
Galant and Klein leave the room.
“A couple of months ago, I would’ve said “fucking salamander”,” Lamorak said. “Now I must say I kind of agree with him.”
“A lot has changed,” Asuna pointed out. “You have.”
“Anyhow, we still need to take measures against this unknown threat. Kirito, we need to keep you safe. So from now onwards, I’ll become your fucking shadow.”
Kirito smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Then follow me. We need to learn more of our enemy,” he turned to his in-game wife. “Asuna, what will you do?”
“I’ll go with Abelia. She asked for my help before.”
“Alright then. Come Lamorak.” Kirito said, walking out of the room with Lamorak following him as his shade, like he promised.
Asuna looked at them as they left. Once they did, she walked towards one of the walls and kneeled in front of it. There, she started touching the marble tiles with her knuckles until a knocking sound came from it, like if the floor was hollow beneath it. Using her small fingers and nails she removed the tile, placing it on the floor next to the empty space .Looking inside, Asuna saw small a tied woolen bag. She opened the bag and saw several pieces of bread. It wasn’t too much. A loud sound coming from outside startled her.
“They’ll have to make do with this for now,” she murmured to herself. She then quickly tied the bag again and relocated the loosen tile on its place before getting up and walking out of the HQ, carrying the bag on her left hand.
Once she was out of the HQ, she could see the long shadows projecting by buildings, player some Blood Knights were lighting torches and placing on the streets. The Sun was already setting in the horizon; soon day would give pass to night, and with it, the colder winds would come from the ridge. She hastened her pace, to get to the stables where Abelia was. She turned, entered an alley, bumping into Sinon. The bundle of bread she carried fell to the ground and unwrapped.
“I’m so sorry,” Sinon apologized, but she was taken aback when she saw the bread inside and the fact that Asuna carried such a big amount of food with her.
“You mustn’t speak about this,” Asuna said, grabbing Sinon’s hands.
“…Alright…” the Cait Sith responded. She helped in wrapping up the bundle of bread.
“Thank you Sinon,” Asuna said before walking off, quickly. “I’ll explain you later, I promise.”
Sinon got up and watched her going away before turning left on one of the nearby alleys.
Floor 93rd, January 27th, 2027
Markus got out of his tent and started walking to his brother’s tent, now donned his armor. During the skirmish at the outskirts of Nuceria, his uniform had been broken in the stomach area, but it had been completely repaired by a blacksmith so it almost looked new. Under the Sun, the onyx-colored armor and its gilded details shinned like a gemstone while the vermillion cape danced as the wind whistled.
The young prince was filled with pride now that his men could see him again at form. Many men even saluted him and asked him how he fared. However, it wasn’t all happiness. During the battle, he had lost Dainsleif, and now he had no other choice but to carry a standard Gladius alongside a Pugio. He tried not to think about that dishonor too much, and convinced himself that he would recover the weapon or die trying to do so.
He moved aside the fabrics that covered the entrance of the tent with his hands and entered. Hao was there, talking with General Tyr. After some brief moments, the Salamander bowed to the King and walked out of the door, but not without giving a brief nod to Markus in the passing.
“My Word and my Will,” Hao said, keeping his eyes in a document Tyr had given him. “Do you know what that means?”
“Yes. I do brother,” Markus answered.
Hao raised his sight. “Do you?” Hao asked again. He walked towards Markus and stopped in front of him. His yellow eyes showed notable anger and they were looking directly to Markus’. “The first battle in my campaign as commander in the Great Aincrad War, all the players in the game will remember it as a victory for Kirito.”
“He was not to be engaged in combat!” Hao said, interrupting him. “Not until I arrived with proper force. Makoto, wasn’t my command not fucking clear enough!?”
Markus was stunned for a second or two. He knew that if his brother was calling him by his real name, he was really angry. He gulped down saliva and talked.
“It was as clear as ever. But an opportunity presented when Kirito left the city. I thought you’d be angrier if I hadn’t used that opportunity to strike.” Slyly, he took a deep, but very fast, breath. “I apologize for disobeying your command, brother.”
Hao nodded his head slightly and his facial expression softened.
“I can forgive your actions Markus,” he said. “But I can’t be so soft with the insubordination when it’s coming from soldiers.”
“I ordered them to stand ground and fight.”
“They ignored you and fled,” Hao noted. “Because they fear their enemy more than their own commanders. And that’s a thing we must correct.”
Markus nodded his head. “What punishment will they receive?”
Hao looked away for a second, thinking, before looking to his brother again.
“One to make them a proper example and send a clear message to my troops. The death at the hands of KoB pales against my wrath.”
A player swung his blade against Kana, but she easily deflected it with her left dagger. The player came again, slashing in the opposite direction, but the Cait Sith girl easily blocked with her left blade. He advanced sideways, swinging his sword, aiming to Kana’s neck, but she bent her body backwards and the weapon slid inches from the tip of her nose. As soon as it’d passed, she raised her torso and landed a firm kick right on the player’s backside. He felt flat on his face to the ground.
Kana turned around.
“If I was a legionnaire, I’d have already killed you instead of kicking your ass! Again!” she yelled to the player.
He got back up and attacked Kana.
In the central plaza, the rebels had formed an oval ring. In the middle of it, Jack and Kana sparred with the freshly refugees to test their skills in combat. Most of them prove to be of little to no skill, since both Knights easily best them with little to no effort. From the sidelines, Klein and Galant watched the fights.
Jack defeated his opponent by striking his abdomen with the hilt of his blade. With the wind blown out of him, the refugee fell to the ground.
“If these are the assassins, they’re the worst the Kingdom could’ve ever sent.” Galant noted.
“Next man.” Klein ordered.
The player Jack had just defeated left the circle, leaving his blade on the ground.
Jack grabbed the sheath of his blade and slid it across his belt while he looked to the newcomers to choose his next opponent. He recognizes one of their faces.
“You!” he ordered, pointing his blade towards a player. “Step forward!”
The last player who entered to the city on the morning, Lyd, was the one who walked forward. He had removed the poncho he wore at the entrance, and he now spotted a grey sleeveless robe, with a brown belt and black pants. His boots were also brown and he also donned black fingerless gloves.
“I’ve seen that it’s easy to you to fight unsuspected foe,” Jack noted. “Let’s see how you fair with sword against a prepared one.”
He kicked the sword on the ground, lifting it in the air. Lyd caught it and, as soon as he did, Jack lunged forward. The Imp started his onslaught by thrusting his katana forward, which Lyd deflected. Jack quickly changed his momentum and slashed from right to left and then the other way around, but the Spriggan’s defense was effective enough to block the attacks while he backed off. Seeing he had no defense on his legs, the Lone Ronin slashed towards one of his legs, but Lyd blocked and moved sideways to change his momentum to attack Jack’s unprotected body. However, the Imp ducked under the blade and they, switched positions separated.
The Imp attacked again swinging his blade from right to left and then the other way around in a tandem. Lyd blocked both before countering, slashing towards Jack’s legs, but he parried. The newcomer quickly stopped his momentum and raised his blade to slash his opponent’s face. Jack caught his hand with his left before kicking Lyd.
The Spriggan fell flat back to the ground and many laughed. Nevertheless, he got back up again quickly.
“Not bad, newbie,” Jack complimented. “You’re not a stranger to the clash of steel. You know how to defend yourself.”
“During the war, all of my guild mates died, so I had no choice but to learn,” Lyd said out loud, so that everyone could hear him. “Many wanted to steal something of mine, kill me or both. And all of them failed.”
Jack grinned slightly. He was having fun.
He attacked again, swinging his blade from above. They started switching positions from attack and defense. Lyd blocked the blow and changed his momentum to attack. However, Jack moved his blade fast enough to block the attack and then counter with a thrust, aiming to the newcomer’s stomach. He parried yet again, and slashed diagonally, but Jack was faster. He deflected the attack, moved his katana swiftly and certain, placing the edge next to Lyd’s neck, grazing it.
Jack laughed and started pivoting on Lyd, while keeping the blade on the Spriggan’s neck. Lyd had no choice but to follow his opponent.
“Which was the name of your guild and how did they die?” Jack asked.
“Gigant’s Fist. All of them died by the hand of the Legion, a favor I’ll return to them!” Lyd yelled.
As soon as the words had come out of his mouth, Lyd raised his blade as fast as he could, moving the katana away from his neck. He started his own flurry of constant attacks against Jack, but the Imp’s defense was flawless. He managed to block every attack while he reached his back to grab his scabbard. As soon as he found an opening in Lyd’s offense, he raised the sheath from bellow, powerfully hitting the Spriggan on the chin. Lyd rose in the air and fell to the ground, soundly. His blade flew a bigger distance, and some players in the audience even had to move aside so that they weren’t wounded or killed.
Lyd rose from the ground. He had a cut on his chin and his mouth was bleeding. But his face didn’t show anger. Far the contrary. He was smiling. He looked to Jack, who was sheathing back his blade.
“I’ll have a rematch, one day.” Lyd said.
Jack and many other Knights in the audience laughed after hearing the comment.
“Alright. We will.” Jack said.
Lyd left the circle.
“Next man!” Galant ordered.
After walking a couple of steps, Lyd rested on sink near the plaza. He opened the faucet and filled his mouth with water before spitting it out. A lot of blood came out.
“They’ve taken an interest in you, newb.” Fandral said, laying his back against the sink; next to Lyd.
The Spriggan looked to Klein and Galant for a second before turning to Fandral.
“Do they take interest in you as well?” the Spriggan asked, lifting his body up. “I saw you were taking the Yrd of any player back at the entrance, saying Kirito didn’t want his men to hold coin. Last I checked that isn’t one of the two rules.”
Angry, Fandral faced him.
“If you ever say that again, newbie, I’ll take away from you something far more important.”
“No. You’re mistaking me, brother,” Lyd said. “I was just curious. I have ideas of my own. A city like this can offer a great opportunity, for those who’re brave enough to take it.”
The stern look on the Sylph’s face disappeared, and in its place, a smile was drawn.
Galant watched the fight between Jack and other player, but for a brief moment, his eyes blurred on the fight and saw beyond. At the other side of the circle, amidst the crowd, was Aki, looking back at him with her lusterless brown eyes. The words she told Galant resounded in his head: “I killed my brother.” she directly and grimly and plainly said, like it was nothing. They look at each other for a while until she averted his gaze and began walking away. Galant on her face knew that look very well. He once had that look himself, back when he was a solo player. Hate was what drove her actions and path.
The ring of clashing steel jarred Galant back to the fight. Jack defeated his opponent with a swift stroke, sending his blade flying away before kicking soundly him in the chest. All the players in the audience laughed. Awkwardly, the player got up and walked back to the audience.
“You, Salamander girl!” Klein said, stepping forward and pointing his hand at Aki. She stopped moving and looked askance at Klein. “Step forward.”
Grudgingly, she stepped forth from the crowd. In that moment, both Jack and Kana recognized her.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Aki didn’t answer. He just gazed at Klein with a death stare.
“I’ve seen you walking around the city since we arrived,” the salamander general added. “But you didn’t participate in these tests.”
She still didn’t say anything.
“Jack, face her,” he ordered.
Aki revealed the rapier hanging from her belt and got in position for battle, ready to draw.
“There’s no need for her to participate,” Galant said walking forth. His eyes clashed against Aki’s before turning to Klein. “She’s as strong as any general of this guild.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I know her. She’s a player from SAO; her name’s Aki.”
“Aki…” Klein said. He turned to Aki. “…you’re the player killer known as the Black Rose Witch.”
In that moment, the eyes of every player in the crowd widened. The bravest ones stepped forth, ready to draw their weapons and attack her.
“Don’t interfere.” Klein commanded to them. “She’s way beyond your level.”
“Even still,” Leafa said as stepped forth and drew her katana from her belt, pointing it to Aki. “We can’t have SAO PKs running around free.”
“I’m a SAO PK Leafa,” Galant retorted. “So is your cousin. If you don’t have any problems with him and me, you shouldn’t have any problems with her.”
“There’s a difference between you two and her, Galant,” Klein added, grasping one of his swords, ready to draw. “I’ve heard a lot about you and your atrocities in SAO.”
“I’ve heard as well,” Jack added. “Horrible stories about you and your powers.”
“She could be using a VRSMA right now! Or she may be a spy!” Leafa accused her, walking closer, always keeping her blade pointing at the Salamander girl.
“It’s different now. She’s changed.”
“Mind your own business, Galant,” Aki told him. “I didn’t ask you do defend me.”
“See Galant, she doesn’t want your help,” Leafa said. “What should we do with her, Klein?”
“Get her out of the city.”
Galant walked forward and placed himself between Klein, Leafa and Aki.
“Not while I’m here,” Galant warned. He raised his right hand and grabbed the handle of Maximus Caliburn.
For a while, there was a tense atmosphere in the plaza.
“Fine for now.” Klein said. “You’ll keep an eye on her. We’ll see what Kirito has to say later.” The salamander before looking to the players surrounding them. “Enough training for today.”
The mob scattered and Klein turned around and left the plaza, followed by Leafa. Galant released the grip of his blade and turned around, but Aki was gone. He looked around and saw her, entering a narrow alleyway alone. He followed.
“Aki, wait!” he shouted.
She didn’t stop. Far the contrary. She started walking faster.
“Wait!” he shouted again.
She walked even faster after hearing the second yell, but Galant was quick enough to catch her shoulder. She quickly moved her body, breaking free from his hold.
“Don’t you fucking touch me!” she vociferated, looking at him with her lusterless eyes filled with anger.
“Well you were escaping from me, so I had no choice.” Galant replied.
“Why’re you even following me!?” she demanded to know.
“I wondered if we could talk,” he said. “It’s been a while since we last saw each other.”
“No. Mind your own business.” Aki replied, adjusting her coat. “We’re not going to talk. Ever. Period.”
She turned around and walked a couple of steps, but Galant passed her by and got in the middle of her way.
“What part of mind your own business you don’t understand?”
“The part where you don’t tell me the truth about Haruka. The part where you don’t tell me anything else about SAO. The part where you don’t tell me anything.”
“You don’t have the right to poke around in my stuff. That’s not your damn concern.”
“Your brother made it my concern when he begged me to defeat you and forgive your life.”
“Don’t talk about my brother as if you knew him well! You didn’t!”
“True. But I know you two enough to know you wouldn’t kill him.”
“Shut up.” she murmured, looking to the ground.
“I want to help you.”
“Why are you in ALO?”
“What happened to Haruka?”
After hearing this, Aki snapped. She slapped Galant across the face, strongly. Surprised, the blue knight raised his hand and covered his cheek. Her face was reddened, but not for embarrassment, but rather anger. She was breathing heavily.
“Shut up!!!” she yelled angrily. “I never asked for your help!”
She turned around and began walking away.
“From now on, lean mind your own fucking business,” she said before she turned and disappeared.
Galant saw a piece of glass on the ground. He grabbed it and looked to his face. His left cheek was completely red, and it even had the mark of her hand.
“You definitely have a thing with girls, Champion of Aincrad.” Kana said, entering the alleyway. Next to her was Jack.
“Stop it,” Galant said, letting the glass fall from his hands and fall onto the ground, shattering into hundreds of splinters. “I’m not in the mood for jokes right now, Kana.”
“It’s true then?” Jack asked. “What they said about her?”
“Yes. She was a Player Killer in SAO,” Galant answered. “She was a Unique Skill user. She could control and summon plant life monsters, but couldn’t control her powers. She went on a rampage until her brother asked me to defeat her and. And I did, that’s how I became the Champion of Aincrad”
“Why do you trust her then?” Kana asked this time.
“Because Aki is not evil.”
“Correction: maybe the Aki you knew wasn’t evil.” Jack corrected. “The one we currently know, I don’t think so.”
“I don’t know that. I guess I’ll have to talk to her later.”
He began walking away.
“Why so obsessed with her, Galant?”
“Hell I know...” he said. He stopped walking for a second. “…But I guess…I guess that’s because she somehow reminds me of me.”
Inside his tent, Markus stood on the edge of table, grabbing small oval stones from a bag and plunging them into one of two paint cans. He submerged one of them into the can, and it came out white as the moon. He placed it on the table and submerged another into the other tin. It came out black as the night. He placed it near the other stone and continued for a long while until there were fourty nine stones on the table.
“Decimatio!?” Taikeus yelled, entering his tent. “Do you know what that punishment means?”
“I perfectly know what that punishment means.” Markus replied. He raised his sight for a moment, but he soon continued painting his stones. He submerged the last stone into the tin with black paint. “The men will be divided into five groups of ten. They’ll draw lots, and one of the ten will be executed by the other nine.”
“That’s an understatement,” Taikeus said, shocked by the decision. “They’ll be clubbed to death by their other nine!”
“That’s why it’ll be a good way of making an example. That’ll show the men what happens when they flee while facing our enemy.” He submerged one of the stones into the tin with black paint. “Half a century came back. Fifty men. Fifty stones. Five, stained with the promise of death. The men will draw lots. Draw white, you’ll live…” Then removed the now black stone and looked at it. “Draw black, and….”
“What about me then?” Taikeus remarked. “I’m one of the fifty men who came back.”
“Our men broke rank and ran away, you didn’t have other choice.” Markus argued.
“I’m still one of those men, Markus. I fled from the battlefield.”
“You stayed at my side when the others escaped!” Markus continued, emphasizing the difference between his best friend and the ones who fled. “I’m still alive, here, because of you!”
“Forget about that…Just pray I draw well.” Taikeus sadly said, but determined to keep his honor.
“You don’t deserve to be placed with cowards,” Markus grabbed a nearby cloth and cleaned the paint his hands. “Where’re the justice in that! I’ll go and talk to my brother right now. I’ll beg him to remove you from Decimatio.”
“He’ll not allow that. It’ll only diminish you in the King’s eyes, Markus.” Taikeus said, blocking Markus’ way. “It’ll serve neither of us any good.”
“You’re a colonel. You’re a brave soldier. You’re one of the most loyal in his legions and this is your fucking reward!?!?” Markus screamed and flipped the table over. Taikeus had to move so that the object didn’t hit him. The paint tins fell to the ground, the paint splatters across the room. The stones scattered as well. The young prince looked to the broken table, angry.
Taikeus approached him and placed his left arm on his right shoulder.
“I just do as commanded, Markus.”
“As all soldiers must…”
They hand-shacked and hugged form a brief moment. They separated and looked at each other with teary eyes. Taikeus nodded his head before leaving the tent.
Markus sat down on a chair. He opened his right left hand and looked to the black stone he had just painted.