Floor 94th, February 5th, 2027
Asuna grabbed a hamper filled with bread and begins walking inside the building, giving a small ounce of bread to each prisoner. After the massacre, the few remaining captives had been sent to the HQ. They remained in chains, but no one mistreated them and they were well fed. Several soldiers remained inside, standing guard to make sure no one escape and to protect them.
The door opened, and Kirito entered followed by other Knights.
“Asuna, we need to talk, in private.” he said. They hadn’t talked to each other since the night of the slaughter.
Asuna nodded her head before looking to Yui on her left arm. “Yui, remain here please.”
“Okay…” she said reluctantly, puffing out her cheeks after.
Her boyfriend walked towards the upper floor and she followed silently. They entered the council room; Asuna sat down on one of the chairs while Kirito remained standing. They remained staring at each other for a moment, until Kirito talked.
“Are the prisoners faring well?”
“Yes.” she answers coldly.
“Good,” he took a short pause before continuing talking. “I’m leaving the city with the pirates for a few days.”
“Leaving?” she says surprised. “Where?”
Kirito didn’t answer.
“Alright then…” she said, dissatisfied.
“You’re to remain inside the HQ until I return.”
“Why do you think?” he retorted. Asuna didn’t answer, so he continued. “Why did you release the prisoners?”
“Because what they were suffering was brutal. It was mercy.”
“You betrayed me…”
“No!” he yelled, interrupting her. “You knew I wouldn’t allow it, and you did it anyway. I kept them alive. That was mercy.”
“Mercy? Starving to death and being constantly bullied by our men is a funny way of mercy.”
“I couldn’t release them and I didn’t want to kill them. What other choice did I have?”
“…I don’t know…” Asuna answered, shaking her head while looking to the ground.
“When Klein and the rest found out it were Abelia and you who released them, you indirectly caused the slaughtering of the other prisoners remaining within city walls. You’ve put my authority into question among my ranks. You brought discord into our camp. And you did all of this behind my back.”
Someone knocked the door.
“Kirito I’m sorry for interrupting,” Lamorak said from outside. “The ship’s ready and waiting in the port.”
“Thanks,” he said, before walking to the door. Just before opening it, he turned around. “I love you, with all my heart. But I can’t have you walk through the city. Keep taking care of the prisoners and Jack. We’ll speak once I return.”
He opened the door and walked off, followed by Lamorak.
“Make sure she’s guarded day and night.” Kirito ordered.
They walked out of the HQ, passing next to Sinon, Agil, Sybil and others. All of them quickly wished good luck to Kirito on his journey, and after he kept on walking, followed by Lamorak.
“Lamorak,” Sybil said, following them a couple of steps out of the HQ. “I want to talk with you.”
Lamorak stopped, turned around and looked at her. “I don’t want to. Perhaps you’ll have better luck with Crow.”
Without anything else to say, the Sylph General turned around and followed his leader. Disappointed, the Sylph girl entered back to the HQ and closed the door behind her.
Lamorak hastened his feet until he was behind Kirito. On their way to the docks, they arrived at the main plaza. A big amount of players was gathered there, training. On the middle of the mob, Klein sparred with an Imp, while being watched by Leafa, Fandral and Rorge. Once the two Generals appeared, Klein remembered his anger toward Kirito. This distraction left him open for the Imp to hit him, sending him to the ground. Despite this, he got back up and prepared. Confident, the Imp attacked first, but Klein easily avoided the attack, and then advanced, ramming his knee against the player’s side. The Imp swiped with his blade, but the Salamander jumped backwards. Then he advanced forward as quickly as he avoided and smacked the player on the head with the pommel of his sword, defeating him. He glared at Kirito for a couple of seconds, until the player got up and they reassumed the training.
“I know that look very well…” Lamorak said, tabbing the handle of his blade.
“I do to. He stared at you the same way, during the battles against Thanos.”
“Agil and I have heard rumors. Many Blood Knights believe that Klein has a greater authority with the slaughtering of the prisoners.”
“What do you believe?”
Lamorak looked at Klein for a moment, before turning to Kirito. “I’m with you. And I’ll always be with you on the field of battle.”
Kirito placed his left hand on Lamorak’s shoulder and they handshake.
“Return to the HQ. I want you to guard the prisoners and make sure that Asuna doesn’t leave.”
“I’m acting as your bodyguard.”
“It won’t be necessary. Galant and others will be close to me on this journey. Besides, I don’t want you close to Crow.”
Lamorak nodded his head reluctantly. “It’s a good idea to leave the city when there’s so much trouble within them? Shouldn’t you try to talk with Klein and try to settle this argument?”
“Not today.” Kirito said, looking at Hao before walking away, towards the docks.
In no time, he arrived at the docks, and saw Galant, Hogun, Kana, Jun, Nori and Tecchi, two former members of the Sleeping Knights, already on board. He also saw Thatch followed by Crow, getting off the ship.
“Everything’s ready for yer voyage, King Kirito.” the captain said happily.
Kirito gave to him a leather bag filled to the top with Yrd and closed with a string. “This is just a fraction of what I’ll pay you.”
“Ho ho! More than enough to splice the main brace, Crow.” he laughed while he side-hugged his quartermaster and turned around, to walk back to the city.
“You aren’t sailing with us?” Kirito asked before they could leave.
“I’m busy with more urgent business.”
“I paid for your services.”
“Nay. Ye paid for a trip in me vessel.”
“Who’ll sail it in your place?”
“That’s why Robberts is going with ye.”
Kirito looked up and saw Robberts on the quarter deck, holding a harpoon on his left hand. He was a muscular black pirate with onyx eyes and greyish dreadlocks, and was always seen with a serious face, squared jaw and furred brow. With almost 7 and half feet tall, he was the tallest of his crew, towering even above his captain. He was as silent as he was tall. He wore a sleeveless red shirt, that served to show his large arms, and on his forearms brown bracers. He also spotted matching brown boots, black breaches with a grey belt, which spotted a golden buckle.
“Good fortune, King Kirito. I’ll drink in yer honor.” Thatch wished, before walking away.
Floor 93rd, February 5th, 2027
Three soldiers came out from a tent serving as tavern, laughing and cheering. They made a circle and drank from their cups until they were empty, and after they threw them to the ground, breaking them into hundreds of yards. After this, the group started to walk back to the main camp, but on their way there they saw a few soldiers from the decimated legion, sitting surrounding a fire while they cooked their food. The three soldiers walked closer to them and spat on the can where the food was, before walking away.
Markus saw from afar the picking on his men, but little did he care about them. They were responsible for his affliction, so he only wanted them to feel as he felt. He looked down and saw the small black stone in his hand; the rock which sealed the fate of his best friend. He couldn’t think of anything else no matter how hard he tried. Taikeus’ face when he saw the stone. His face filled with fear and body shaking when the beating was about to start. The bleeding corpse on a pool of blood and mud. The whole memory had played and replayed in his head for all day ever since that night.
The loud noises jarred the young prince back to reality. Two punished soldiers had begun fighting over a bowl of stew. Angry, he got up and walked towards them.
“So you wish to fight now?!” he yelled.
He punched the player on the right on the face. The one on the right grabbed his arm, but Markus quickly waved his arm, breaking free from the hold and then punched his nose. The player fell to the ground. The other one attempted to attack, but the young prince quickly hits the throat of the player while, at the same time, kicking his leg. He felt on top of the player already on the ground.
“Where was that bloodlust when you fought against Kirito?” Markus asked them, while they writhed on the ground to get up. “We’re mired in shit because of you. Because you turned and fled like frightened children! Why the fuck scum like you is still alive, when my best friend, the man who stood by my side, was killed because of your fucking cowardice!!! ”
The sound of trumpets interrupted Markus’ ranting. He looked towards his left and saw his cousin, Mordread, riding a horse, followed by a portion of his army, The League of Darkness Knights. They donned an armor that was very similar to the one of the Legions, except it was trimmed in red instead of gold and they bared the symbol of the League, a white skull. The commander rode through the follower’s camp, towards the main camp. As soon as he entered, Hao walked out of his tent, surprised.
“Hello cousin, I didn’t expect to find you here, so far from your army.”
“I needed to come back here,” he said while jumping down from his horse. “I wanted to ask a question.”
Hao nodded his head and walked inside his tent, followed by his unexpected guest. He then ordered his men to leave them alone.
“Couldn’t you send a player as messenger?”
“I was growing bored of you waiting, so I decided to come here myself.”
“Do you want a drink?” Hao offered, lifting a silver jar of wine from a table.
“Why did you assemble your army, only to stop here, half a day’s march from Nuceria?” Mordread straightforwardly asked.
Calmly, Hao filled a cup and started drinking. “This is my army. These men joined my ranks. Every sword, every horse, every piece of armor, everything your eyes see within this camp has been bought with coin from my vaults. So, they’ll follow no other’s orders but my own.”
“And did you order Decimatio?”
“I just taught them a necessary lesson about commitment! The next time my soldiers fight against KoB, they will lose.”
“You did the right thing on that. I know very well that being feared is better that being loved.” Mordread admitted, while cracking his fingers. “However, you’re still taking about victory, but you’re still here, scratching your ass, doing nothing…”
“What do you want me to do, Mordread?” he took out a Mirage Sphere and activated it. The map projected a map of the 94th floor. “Initiate an assault against the walls of the city in a mad attempt to take it.”
“I want to end this once and for all, King.”
“I’ve already set that in motion.” Hao looked at him seriously. He took a quick sip and finished his drink. “For instance, General Zar is in the exact position I need him to be to take the city.”
“Zar!?” Mordread exclaimed angrily, with a notoriously fake smile. “You’ll place our victory in the hands of that arrogant fucking piece of shit.”
“Kirito won’t be defeated by brute force, as you’d surely attempt. He’s a man of keen intelligence and incredible battle skill.”
“You’re talking as if you admire him…”
“He started his guild with less than a hundred men when my Legions had already conquered half the castle. Over time, he defeated several of my commanders. And now, the numbers of his army almost matches my own. Even you tremble to their strength. I can’t imagine a better reason to admire someone.”
“I never tremble to anyone; but I grow tired of waiting with each day.”
“Well, if we want to win, we’ll have wait for the proper moment. But, if you grow impatient, I’ll send a small force to Nuceria.”
“How many players?”
“With how many do you travel?”
Mordread smiled sarcastically. “You want me to do what your men won’t?”
“I just want to include you in the fight against Kirito. If you don’t want it, go back to your army, and leave matters of war to the men who wage them.”
Floor 94th, February 5th, 2027
Fandral grabbed a blade and tossed it up. The weapon swirled over its own axis in the air as it flew across the plaza where the Blood Knights were still training. As the blade began to descend, Lyd easily caught it from the handle.
“You give me a sword?” Lyd asked.
“You’ve proven yourself worthy of trust, Lyd.”
“Thanks,” he swung the sword in the air a couple of times and checked the worn-out edge.
“Yeah, I’m sorry I couldn’t find a better sword for you.” Fandral extended to him a belt and the sheath.
“Don’t worry; I’ll make do with this one.” Lyd said smiling. He grabbed the belt and adjusted it to his waist before sheathing his blade. “I already want to use it against an opponent.”
“So do I. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, we’ll get out of this city, and destroy those fucking Legions of Hao.”
“What about Kirito? He’ll return from his voyage with the Pirates to join us?”
“Kirito’s no longer within the city?!” Klein asked, walking closer to the two players.
“On the morning, I saw him boarding the Narwhal with Galant, a small group of knights and the Pirates.” Lyd explained. “You didn’t know about this?”
“No I didn’t. He didn’t tell me anything.”
“Where did they go?” Leafa asked. She had joined the conversation just after Klein.
“Thatch and Crow didn’t sail with him, and remain in the city. They probably know.”
“What about Lamorak and Asuna?” Klein inquired, showing notable anger. “Were they with Kirito when the ships left?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see them.”
“Seek Thatch, and find out where they went and why.” Klein ordered to the duo. “We’ll talk with Lamorak.”
He walked off, towards the HQ followed by Leafa.
“The fucking chasm in our guild gets bigger and bigger.” Fandral cursed before putting his hand on Lyd’s shoulder. “Come, let’s find these fucking pirates.”
Lamorak walked through the HQ and entered to a small room. There, Asuna was healing Jack. After fighting against several frenzied Blood Knights, he had been grievously wounded on multiple places. He had remained in bed since then, and each day Asuna proceeded to heal him, once in the morning and then once at the evening. She was now using her advanced Healing Magic while using the Crest of Yggdrasil, a magic wand crafted with a small branch of the World Tree.
“Kirito and the others left?” Jack asked, as soon as he saw Lamorak on the door.
“I should be with them…”
“You should consider yourself lucky to even be here having this conversation,” Asuna reminded him. “You were half dead when Sinon and the Black Rose Witch arrived to the plaza.”
“Aki,” Jack corrected. “Her name’s Aki.”
“Aki,” she nodded her head before stopping healing him. “Enough for today. You heal fast Jack, I’ll give you that.”
“When will I be fully healed again?”
“Tomorrow, maybe the day after. Now rest.” she got up from the chair and walked out of the room with Lamorak.
The gate of the HQ opened widely and Klein stormed into the HQ along with Leafa. A Knight nearby got on his way, but the Salamander easily grabbed his neck and pressed him against the wall.
“Let me pass or it’ll not end well for him…” Klein warned.
“Forget whatever you want here!” Lamorak told them. Asuna and nearby Blood Knights got closer to the gate. “You won’t touch these prisoners!”
“We’re not here for them.” Leafa announced.
Klein released the player and walked forward. “Why has Kirito left the city?”
“How did you find that out?” Lamorak asked, quite bewildered.
“Give me a fucking answer.” Klein demanded, dismissing Lamorak’s question.
“You’ll get it from Kirito, once he returns,” he answered before turning around.
“I thought that Kirito was more than a coward, of just secrets and plots.”
“Last I checked, you schemed to slaughter the prisoners.”
“They’re the enemy! They’re no different to the ones that killed so many Sylphs and Cait Siths under your command!” Klein taunted. “Back when we started the war, you wouldn’t have thought twice about killing them. What happened in between?”
“Many things.” Lamorak said, hiding his anger. “I’m different now. Many of us are.”
“Not all of us…” Klein remarked. “Tell Kirito that I want to talk to him once he returns.”
He turned around and took his leave with Leafa. Resentful, Lamorak walked away.
“All sail lads, she’ll take it!” Robberts ordered. As the wind blew strongly, the pirates untied all the sails of the ship and it began slithering faster across the water while a soft rocking from side to side started as the vessel clashed against the waves formed by the breeze. The clash against the first wave made Kirito skip, but he managed not to fall by grabbing the wooden railing on his side.
“Seems the Black Swordsman has no sea legs!” one of the pirates quipped. The whole crew laughed, and even Kirito grinned a little. He leaned against the rail and looked to his guild mates. Hogun sat on the main deck, feeling seasick. He had a pot between his legs, which was already filled halfway; he had puked three times since the beginning of the voyage. He hated traveling by ship, but Kirito wanted to bring people he trusted to the mission, so the Gnome had no other choice but to deal with vomit. Next to him was Galant, sitting on a wooden box while he drank from a jar of alcohol and watched Kana and Jun playing with throwing knives, using a bullseye nailed on the main mast. So far, Jun was losing, much to his annoyance. The two last Knights of the group, Nori and Tecchi, cleaned their weapons with pieces cloth while they conversed about the old days of their guild and about the legendary Absolute Sword Yuuki, the former leader of the Sleeping Knights.
Kirito walked up the short stairs to the forecastle deck and sat on the start of the bowsprit. The strong wind clashing against the prow clashed against him, waving his hair and the red cape on his left arm. In the horizon in front of the ship, he could only see the sea. The sun descended on the horizon, which gave the sky an orange coloring. As his sight went from west to east, the orange blurred into blue until it became completely black. He could spot some white starts shimmering as well.
Galant walked up to him with the jar of alcohol on his hand. “I’ve witnessed many of your mad plans, but I never expected they’d lead me across the sea.”
Kirito didn’t say anything, and remained with his eye.
“You seem troubled,” the blue knight realized. “What happened?”
“I punished Asuna for helping Abelia on releasing the prisoners.” Kirito answered. “She can’t leave the HQ for as long as I’m gone. But now I’m regretting it. I’m wondering if I did the right thing.”
“You were harsh, but took the right choice.” Galant answered plainly. “Asuna challenged your authority. If your men see that you can’t control your own girlfriend, why should you control them? Besides, it’s better to keep her away from Klein for the time being.”
Kirito nodded his head before turning his sight towards his friend.
“You know, I often look at you three so happy together,” Galant paused for a second. ”I’m jealous of your luck, Kirito. You remind me of what I once had. Never forget that your girlfriend and your daughter are the reasons why you’re fighting this war. It’d be better to settle the argument quickly, before you can’t.”
“As soon as I’m able I will,” Kirito decided. “Thanks for your council.”
“Can you answer me something then? I’m not sure what you’re planning.” he wondered. “Klein’s loose within the city and Hao could be marching to our walls in any time. This isn’t a good moment to go away from our base.”
“You’re right.” Kirito admitted. “But Thatch told me that Hao’s legionary ships gathering on the small island of Scilliana collecting food.”
Galant remembered the map of the 94th floor. The floor was half sea and half solid land. Scilliana was a small island on the west in the middle of the sea. Nuceria was located at the south, at the end of Solnia’s ridge, which covered most of the coast of the floor. The rest of the solid ground was mostly a wasteland, with forests on the north and the southeast.
“We want to defeat Hao, not steal his food.” he remarked.
“The food is for his army,” Kirito said. “Stealing it’ll help in weakening his army, and force Hao to do what we want him to do.”
“Plan well-conceived.” Galant took a long sip from his drink.
“I think you would’ve figured that out, if you weren’t drinking.”
Galant grinned. “Sometimes you do what you got to do to put up against the shit of the simple day…”
“I believe you can do way better than that. Many players look up on you. If I were to die...”
“You know what I think about that,” Galant reminded him while shaking his head. “I’m not fit to be a leader.”
“You’ve proven a better one that Klein, when the slaughter began.”
“I could’ve killed Klein you know...” Galant sadly admitted. “I was angry with him, after Antinomy’s death. Darkness activated alone, it temporarily took over me. Even when I wanted to stop, I couldn’t. If Leafa hadn’t knocked me unconscious, I would’ve killed Klein…Maybe I’d have also killed the prisoners…”
“No. You wouldn’t have.”
Galant didn’t know what to answer, so he simply stayed silent.
“Land ahoy!” the pirate on the crow’s nest cried. Louds cheering from the crew soon followed.
“Let’s see what we can find here this night.” Kirito said while patting his friend’s back.
Floor 93rd, February 5th, 2027
Hao walked through the follower’s camp followed by four Kingsguard, who held their blades handles tightly. Every soldier on his way quickly moved aside and bowed their heads in respect, but the King kept on walking, ignoring them completely.
Just before entering a tent, he spotted Markus, sitting against the wheel of a cart. His body and grey clothes were dirty and the sandal’s brown cords had broken. On his left hand, the black stone moved constantly. His yellow lusterless eyes glared back to him, but showed nothing but absolute coldness.
After a short while looking him, Hao turned.
“Wait here.” he ordered to his soldier before entering to the tent.
“Hiro.” Freya said smiling, running to his arms. Hao hugged her tightly, happy to see her. “I didn’t expect you to come here today.”
“I managed to find us some time.” Hao said. They separated and Freya walked towards a nearby table. She grabbed a jar of wine, served one small cup and gave it to her lover. Both drank from their glasses in a single gulp.
“You have a bad look on your face.” Freya observed while placing his hand on his cheek. “What happened?”
“I saw Markus outside…” while he removed the breastplate from his armor, he paused for a moment. “I looked to him in the eye and no longer see the boy I once knew.”
“I witnessed his cold gaze.” she helped Hao remove his belt. “You should talk to him; draw him closer, where he belongs.”
“There’s nothing I want more than that.” Hao removed the armguards. “But he must find his own path, or be lost forever.”
“Of course. I apologize for speaking without thinking. It must be hard for you, to see your little brother adrift.”
“I can’t guide him to a shore; he must find the way by himself.” he touched her cheek left with the back of his hand and slowly moved it towards her cheek. “But you’re like the stars on a cloudless night, always try to guide him.”
“I just want one thing: to see you both reunited and happy.”
They joined lips happily.
“Let’s stop talking about this.” Hao smiled, lifting her up and taking her to bed as she giggled. “When you’re with me, I forget everything else.”
Floor 94th, February 5th, 2027
The player on the scenery played a song, cheering up the tavern, as some players sang along while others remained silent or chatting with somebody else.
Lyd grabbed the deck of cards and started deftly shuffling them. After doing so for a few seconds, he gave it to Fandral on his right, so that he could cut the cards. Afterwards, he gave one to Thatch on his left, then to Fandral, then to him before restarting the circle. He repeated the circle until all of the people in the table had five cards on their hands, though he intentionally skipped Crow, who had passed out from drinking an hour ago and laid his face against the table. Feeling lucky, the pirate captain bet a hundred. Lyd quickly folded, but Fandral matched and even raised another three hundred. Drunkenly smiling, Thatch matched revealed his cards: flush, formed by the ace, three, seven, nine and queen of spades. Fandral smiled and revealed his hand: full house, two kings and three fours.
“Fucking finally! It seems that luck’s now with me.” he said, as he laughed and grabbed Thatch’s chips. “I’m now recovering what you stole from me…”
“Another game, now!” Thatch exclaimed smiling while raising his cup filled with alcohol. “I gained this coin easily, and it’s only a small fraction of what yer king will give to me.”
“If only all of us profited so well in dealings with Kirito.” Lyd said smiling, giving the deck to Fandral. The Sylph shuffled them before proceeding to deal them.
“I hope King Kirito’s faring well in Scilliana.” Thatch said. He checked his cards and bet a hundred and fifty Yrd.
“Scilliana?” Lyd wondered, matching his bet.
“What’s he doing there?” Fandral asked, matching the bet.
“Isn’t that obvious? He’s attacking the food holdings of the strongest player in the entire Kingdom.” Thatch eagerly revealed, before showing his hand. Heart straight, from seven to eleven.
“So Kirito attacks Hao…” Lyd murmured, folding his cards.
“While we sit here, scratching our asses doing nothing…” Fandral added, showing notable anger. He revealed his cards. Four of a kind, nines.
“Oh…fuck me…” the captain cursed once he saw the hand of cards. He jumped from the stool with a thrust of his waist. “I need to take a piss, and afterwards I’ll fuck you in the ass, you Sylph fuck.”
He waddled to the back of the bar. Once he entered inside the bathroom, Fandral looked to his friend.
“I bet Klein can’t wait to hear for this…” he whispered, collecting the cards on the table. “But he will; I’m finally recovering what Kirito stole from me. Let’s see what else we can learn from the captain of the pirates.”
Lyd turned back, looking to the captain swaying from side to side as he returned. He then turned to Fandral, with a chuckle drawn on to his face. “You read my mind…”