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« SAO:NA - Chapter XXXI: The Wolf, the Rose and the Viper

Sword Art Online: New Aincrad
Written by: FedeTkd
Published: FedeTkd (talk) 03:31, August 6, 2017 (UTC)
Chapter XXXII: Stalemate

SAO:NA - Chapter XXXIII: Seed of Tears »



Floor 94th, February 7th, 2027

One night and half a day riding without stop had got them out of the hills of the southeast and into the northern forest. Aki rode first, leading them north, Abelia followed while Galant was in the rear; often turning to see is somebody followed them. But every time he had turned, he had never seen a rider coming at them or a light of a torch; neither had he heard the rider’s voices or horses’ hooves during a trot, much to his surprise. He expected either Zar or Hao to send at least a dozen riders after him, especially since he was considered a traitor. Maybe it was just luck, or maybe the riders hadn’t caught up to them. Either way, he tried not to question it too much.

Once he’d tapped at the steed’s loins and bolted out of the city, it was difficult to find Aki and Abelia in the darkness, but after his eyes had grew used to the dark he managed to find them riding east. It was then when he told them to go north. The hills seemed endless during the night, with nothing but the quarter moon behind them and stars lighting their way forward. Even still, they couldn’t properly see the ground beneath them, so they continued on a constant and careful trot, to make sure no horse stumbled on the uneven floor and broke a leg.

The forest’s trees were dark greyish brown and leafless. Few of them did have leaves, and those which did, had less than a dozen dancing at the winter’s wind. The muddy wet floor was covered by them; light brown large leaves that occasionally danced away to the north. On the west, the grey mountains rose up to the sky, almost touching it if it were not for the snowstorm raging on top. Galant had his eyes focused on that direction. Kirito and the surviving Blood Knight were there, if they survived the retaking of the city and the way to the top. They needed to go back with them, and the only way there is through the ridge’s northern entrance.

His turned back his head north when he saw Abelia falling from her horse.

“Aki wait!” Galant called, and rode next to Abelia. He jumped off his horse and offered a hand.

“I can’t, I need to rest,” Abelia said between breaths, still lying on the ground.

“What happened?” Aki asked, after wheeling around her horse and coming at them.

“She fell,” Galant said, kneeling next to her and checking for wounds on her head. Fortunately, she had none to find. He took a wineskin from his menu and gave it to her. “It’s water, drink.”

She did as she was told. Galant then checked on the wound on her stomach. The bandages she’d placed around her belly were wet with blood, same as her gown, bleaching the orange parts into red.

“We need to change her bandages.”

“We’ve got no time for this,” Aki said, “riders could be getting close to us as we speak. Put her on her horse and let’s continue.”

“We can’t just leave her here,” Galant said.

“What’re our options then? Galant, she can’t ride like that. She lasted as long as she could, but she won’t for much longer. We should keep riding north and see if we can encounter the Blood Knights.”

“I won’t leave her behind,” Galant claimed, “I’ll stay here and tend her wounds. You go north, see how far are we from the entrance. I’ll give you one hour and a half, if you’re not back by then, I’ll ride with her to the ridge.”

Aki remained looking at him for a moment without speaking, until she did. “What if you get caught here?”

“I’m the Champion of Aincrad; I’ll figure it out somehow. If you come back and don’t find us here, go to the ridge and don’t look back. Help Kirito, he’ll need it.”

It took her a while to nod her head, but once she did, she wheeled her horse around and bolted off north. Galant remained looking at her until the woods hid her figure. He tied both horses’ reins to a tree and then carried Abelia and laid her down against the same tree.

“You’re softer than you originally let on,” she whispered with a vague smile and half-opened eyes. “Thank you...”

“So I’ve been told,” Galant responded, “but you don’t need to say thank you. It’s just not in my nature to leave someone behind.”

He removed the cloth from her stomach and removed part of her dress, taking a look on Abelia’s wound. It was a deep wound, but it was not impossible to heal.

He entered his menu and put out another skin and gave it to her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Rum,” Galant responded, “take a good sip, because this will hurt like a bitch.”

She nodded her head, and did as she was told, taking a good drink before giving it back to Galant, who drank a mouthful himself. He then put a stick inside her mouth.

“Try not to scream,” he said, before pouring the rum into her wound.

She screamed, but the gag on her mouth was enough to cover it up. Her eyes enlarged and her face turned as red as the bandages. After a few seconds, Galant stopped. He took out a new clean bandage from her equipment and tied stomach with it and put cotton close to the wound. Once he tied the bandage around her belly, her pain seemed to have gone away.

“And you’re a lot tougher than you appear to be,” Galant quipped. During the ride, never once she had complained over the situation or cursed her luck. She rather grunted and groaned, but softly and without calling much attention. For a female player with no experience, she was better than he expected.

“I have to,” she said, “I won’t die here.”

“You better keep that spirit, because we won’t be able to stop again. Not in the mountains, the blizzard would kill us. So, until Aki comes back, rest. We have the worst part of the march ahead of us.”

He stood up and walked away, towards a nearby fallen tree. Galant drew his blade, and placed it on one of the tree’s branches. He took a look at the golden edge of his sword, and then touched it. The blade was dull; it would take him several swings to cut wood. He reached into his coat to find a whetstone, but then decided to sheath back his sword and drew Carnwennan from his right boot. With its red blade made by combining a rare metal with Hellkarium, the lightest and most durable metal in all of ALO, the weapon never lost its edge. Even if he tried to sharpen the edge more, he’d need a new whetstone, and maybe even another hand.

He grabbed a nearby stone, placed blade against wood and hammered the blade until the branch was cut. He repeated the process until the tree had been reduced the tree to a pile of dry logs, and then added it to his equipment. All but the largest, which made the base of the tree. He carved a large hole into it, and filled it with water from a flask inside his saddlebag and gave it to the horses. He didn’t like wasting the water, but the horses hadn’t drink or ate since they left Nuceria. They needed to rest and eat; otherwise they wouldn’t last on the mountains during the storm.

He sat down in the remains of the tree, with his right sword next to him and his hand resting on its cross guard. He closed his eyes and tried to rest for a while.

After resting for a few minutes, the sound of horse galloping and getting closer from the south forced him stand. He couldn’t see the rider, but he stood in front of the horses and his blade shined in blue, preparing his sword skill. The sound became lighter until it he could no longer hear it, and Aki appeared in front of him.

He sighed and sheathed back his sword. “What happened?”

“I got lost,” she said, before tossing a piece of metal to Galant. A small white human skull, with triangular eye and nose sockets, with three incisors and two larger fangs at the sides. Galant knew the symbol very well; it was from the League of Darkness Knights, Mordread’s guild.

“How did you find this?” he asked.

“I came upon a soldier on my way north,” she answered, “I also found other two thousand of them going on north, towards the northern path of Solnia’s ridge.”

Galant looked to the ground, thinking for a moment until he looked at Aki. “They’re going to use the same plan as Kirito. They’ll attack us from two fronts: Hao from the south and Mordread from the north. With the walls of the mountain pass trapping us, they’ll obliterate our army. That was their plan all along.”

“Wait…” Abelia said. She had woken up when Aki arrived. “I overheard a colonel back on Nuceria. The labyrinth to go to the next floor is there, in Solnia’s ridge.”

Galant looked to the mountains, and the top was covered in nothing but grey stormy clouds. That was why we never found it.

“Why would Hao allow his own enemies to take the first place?” Aki asked.

“Hao isn’t the type of player who gladly gives and advantage to his enemies, he must’ve thought of a way to trap them there,” Galant thought about his plan for a moment, but then turned to his horse and untied them, “it doesn’t really matter now. We need to go to our partners and warn them.”

“We should be able to slip past them, if we haste our pace,” Aki told him.

Galant helped Abelia on to her horse and then mounted his own. “Aki, you lead our way, and don’t stop until we arrive at the entrance.”

---

The cold wind clashed against Kirito’s face, waving the black cape around his shoulders and the red hanging from his left. He rubbed both ears until he could feel them again and stepped forward with his left foot until the drifts of snow reached his knee, and then with the other.

Behind him, Klein, Asuna, Lamorak, Jack, Leafa and Sinon followed at his same pace through the snow-covered vale. Klein and Leafa had wrapped scarfs around their necks, black wool cloaks hanged from their shoulders and leather gloves covered their hands. Asuna’s attire matched her boyfriend’s but her cloak was white. Lamorak had removed his shoulder pauldrons and donned his green coat over his cuirass, being the first time he actually missed wearing the coat. Sinon covered her body with a grey cloak and its large hood covered her head and Cait Sith ears. Since her regular attire was rather bare in the stomach and right arm she was suffering the cold the most. Jack was the only one who didn’t donned clothes for cold, even when Asuna and Sinon had offered him some, he refused them several times.

Since they were forced by Hao’s Legions out of the city and to the way which lead them to Solnia’s ridge, Klein had suggested more than one turning back and re-taking Nuceria. Leafa agreed with the Salamander; but Kirito, Asuna and Lamorak disagreed. They had spent the whole night walking through the pathway to the mountains and by midday they arrived at the center of the mountain chain, where the path expanded to become a gargantuan vale covered in snow. At its sides were dark grey rock-made walls of mountains, covered in snow and frost. Impossible to climb by any means possible. The vale served as a pathway which connected the north and south of floor 94th. During the summer months, it was a safe pathway but, as Dinnac had told Kirito and his generals, during the winter months it was impassable.

Kirito ordered to make camp and to rest after the long and dangerous night’s journey. He had defensive spikes set surrounding the camp and ordered Sinon, Sybil, Hogun and other soldiers to recognize the area ahead of them. Close to nightfall, they had returned and informed Kirito of several trenches blocking their path. He wanted to see them for himself think a plan, so at dawn’s break they started the march north. They had been walking for almost two hours, with occasional pauses in between.

“How far are we?” Kirito asked.

“A few hundred meters more,” Sinon answered.

They kept walking. Soon, the drifts became shallower until they disappeared under their feet, and suddenly Kirito could see his feet again. His black boots were covered in white. He moved his legs a bit, letting the snow fall. The blood pumped into his feet again, and he could feel his toes once again. Both feet and ankles ached, but he tried to ignore it and raised his sight.

The ditch a few meters ahead.

He took a few steps forward and looked down. The trench carved bellow them was ten feet wide and twenty feet deep, for what Kirito’s eyes could tell, with hundreds of spikes of different sizes pointing to the sky. Ten feet in front of the first was another, and after it other two. All of them as deep as the first for what Kirito could tell. Beyond the four ditches, the path continued until the falling snow blurred with the white floor, creating an illusion of a white wall beyond them. They couldn’t see past it.

“Sinon, shoot one of your arrows down the pit,” Kirito ordered, “let’s see how much snow is on the bottom.”

At once, she drew an arrow, nocked it and released. It pierced through the snow, leaving a small hole on it that was soon covered by the blizzard.

“The length of my arrows is 80 centimeters” Sinon said, tossing her bow to her right arm and laying it on her shoulder, “there must be at least a meter of snow down there.”

“That’s more than enough to give us no hope to climb down and going back up again,” Leafa said.

“If we could do that, we’d have to repeat the process other three times with every single player in our army,” Jack added, “and those who have no strength to climb are doomed.”

“Fuck the Aesir,” Lamorak cursed, “seems Hao planned this out from the very beginning.”

“Put Zar as a spy in our ranks, turning the pirates to his side, waiting for us to leave the city to retake it,” Asuna listed, “all those were his moves to trap us here.”

As his men discussed, Kirito crossed his left arm and raised his right hand to cover his mouth. He remained silent, looking down at the trench from the edge. Sometimes, he preferred remaining silent and thinking when he had to assemble a new plan.

“Kirito,” a Leafa called from behind.

He turned.

“We’ve called you three times,” she added.

“What’s your plan then?” Klein turned to Kirito with a furred brow; his face clearly holding his anger.

Kirito looked to the ground before raising his sight. “We should head back.” he said bluntly.

“You don’t have any, do you?” Klein grabbed Kirito’s collar. “How in the hell can you say that?”

The members of the party didn’t intervene, and remained standing aside.

Klein went on. “I trusted that you had a plan to defeat Hao, now this happens and you tell me you have none?!”

“Klein that’s enough,” Jack clenched his hand around Klein’s shoulder, “Kirito could’ve never predicted that Hao had planned this. Even if we went forth with the first plan he head without problems, your half of the guild would’ve been trapped right here in the snow. It was a pointless plan from the very start.”

Hesitant, Klein softened his grip on Kirito’s collar and released him. He turned on Jack. “At least, it would’ve only been half a guild and not all of it.”

The Salamander walked a few steps, his eyesight lost on the black walls surrounding them.

“We should head back to the camp,” Asuna suggested, “see what we can think all together.”

Kirito nodded his head and started the walk back. The calm yet steady blizzard didn’t have had enough time to cover their tracks so the return to the camp was shorter; thanks to the path they’d carved on the way to the trenches.

By midday, they were close to their camp. Sybil was the first to greet them. Lamorak ran at her with a smile, but she passed him by and went straight to Kirito.

“Kirito, Legionnaires approach from the mountain pass,” she said.

Kirito’s eyes widened, he looked at Klein and the others, who returned his uneasy look, before turning back to Sybil.

“Move all those who can’t fight to a safe distance, the rest can’t should prepare their weapons.” Kirito ordered, and Sybil rushed away. He drew Elucidator from his back, and so did his fellows, before they all started walking forward. As they did, many Blood Knights joined them. All of them screaming and yelling, raising their weapons to the sky, eager for a reprisal after the defeat in the city. Once they arrived at the defensive spikes at the southern end of the camp, Kirito ordered his men to stop by raising his clenched fist.

Five hundred meters from their camp, three columns of Legionnaires poured into the valley from the mountain pass. Hundreds of soldiers in tight formation armed with tower shields and spears, donning a red cape on their shoulders to keep them warm. At the distance, each single soldier was like a black dot in the white, but together were a fierce black beast ready to engage in battle.

“Let Legionnaire blood fall on the fucking snow!!!” Klein shouted, and the Blood Knights yelled in agreement. “Or our own, in glorious death!!!”

The army roared again, but Kirito remained silent, his eyes fixed in the upcoming army. “Halt! Calm down!”

The Blood Knights stopped their screaming and looked at their leader, speechless.

“What’re you doing Kirito?!” Klein demanded to know. “We must attack now, before their formation can fully spread across the valley.”

“It’s not necessary, they won’t advance.” Kirito retorted without turning his eyes from the Legionnaires.

They turned again to the Legions. Trumpets sounded, and the army stopped close to the mountain pass. They lowered their shields and looked towards the Blood Knights.

“What now Kirito?” Jack wondered, a sharp smile carved into his face. “The Aesir gave you the power to see into the future?”

“I’m familiar with their tactics,” Kirito answered. He swung Elucidator sword in the air beneath him before sheathing back. “Hao’s men aren’t in a battle formation, but rather a travelling formation.”

“But they outnumber us!” Klein remarked. “Why’d they stop so close to a checkmate?”

“We’ll have to wait and see.”

---

Markus woke up early, as it was any soldiers’ duty, even though he was not a one. After putting on his off-duty general’s gear he walked down to break his fast. Generally, he would’ve asked a serving girl or boy to bring it to him, but ever since he was stripped from his tittle, he was denied such benefit. He didn’t dislike it however; preparing his own food had given his liberties to choose what he wanted to. He heated up milk and put coffee beans inside a cup. Then he grabbed apples, strawberries and pears, cut them up and ate it while he drank the coffee with milk.

Presenting the executions the night before was quite a pleasure for him, he liked being the center of attention for a while and it seemed all those speeches he’d heard from his brother helped him in something else. He became quite orator as well. The soldiers cheered on as he presented the spectacle, and they had enjoyed the executions very much. Now, they had marched to Solnia’s ridge, to finish of what was left of the Blood Knights. He had enjoyed the executions as well, and he would have more if the brown beast had killed Zar as he expected he would. But Zar was smarter and defeated the dumb Gnome. After that, he thought he had won something once the rebel took his own life and striped Zar of the honor of the last kill. However, Hao intervened, claiming him victor without the need to kill, much to the cheers of the mob and Markus’ anger. Just before going to sleep, he heard news. Zar had been attacked in the city by the traitor Galant, and a couple of rebels. The Wolf General tried to give chase, but he’d been wounded by the former Champion of Aincrad himself.

That was more than enough to give Markus a good night sleep.

“Markus,” a voice said, and Markus returned to the present. He turned and recognized one of Hao’s Kingsguard Legionnaires, the large Gnome, Gnaeus. He carried his helmet under his left arm, showing his bald head, squared jaw, furred brow and small brown eyes.

“Your Majesty summons you,” he added.

He didn’t have to say anything else. Markus slurped the remaining coffee, ate the few pieces of fruit in the plate, jumped off his seat and followed the Legionnaire.

“Did he say why he’s calling me?” he asked once his throat was clear from all the food.

“I never ask a thing when his majesty orders me something,” Gnaeus answered, “I simply carry it out.”

Markus inquired him no more. Gnaeus was never much of a talker and his harsh voice didn’t help him.

Once they arrived at the King’s study, the guard told him that his majesty should be arriving soon.

Hao’s study inside his new HQ was a small square, with white walls and matching marble floor. He had five Legion’s golden eagles all with different positions and shapes placed on the only shelve. Kirito had stolen after battles he had won, but now they returned to their rightful owner. In the middle of the square-shaped study was a desk that occupied most of the room and a chair next to it. On top of the desk there were several documents, but he could barely read them upside-down. One said something about an upcoming army of different races from the lower floors of Aincrad; other beneath it had the Legion’s inventory of the food resources and another beneath the first it detailed orders for the League of Darkness Knights.

He heard his brother’s voice from behind and turned around, forgetting the documents. He overheard the name of Zar while his brother talked to Tyr. Once the General left, Hao turned to his study and entered.

“I had to send a few orders to our soldiers up in the ridge, I apologize for being late,” Hao explained while walking around the desk and standing in front of the chair.

“That wouldn’t be a problem,” Markus said, standing firm with his chest slightly pushing out and his arms behind his waist. “I couldn’t help to overhear Zar’s name, how’s he?”

“He’s licking his wounds, but he should be properly healed by night.”

A dog like him should keep on licking until he no longer has a tongue, Markus thought. “I hope so; maybe the soldiers should’ve researched the city more.”

“It doesn’t really matter now,” Hao responded. “In any case, I didn’t call you here for searches of Blood Knights.”

Markus eyes widened and he had to remember not to smile. “Why did you call me then?

“Thank you for your service as host of the executions, and for not being pray of your own wishes.”

“A true man has to always choose the right time for his own wishes, and mine are always linked to yours.”

A smile took shape in Hao’s face and his eyes shined. “I’m gladdened that you feel that way,” he walked around the desk again, “I’m also pleases me to see you behaving now, as a proper man should.”

Markus still tried to hide his smile. “You honor me, my King.”

“No, you’re honoring yourself in thought and action,” he walked into the next room; this one was an empty square, and two times bigger than Hao’s room. “And I hope you follow my next command with that same spirit.”

“Then say it, and consider it done.”

Hao opened his right hand and one of Supreme Weapon’s golden ripples appeared. A wooden box slowly emerged from the infinite storage that was Hao’s Unique Skill until it was lying on the floor next to one of the walls.

“You need to take this chest away,” he ordered, “very simple thing, but it’s as important.”

“Where should I put it?” Markus said, approaching his brother.

“That’s not a question for me, but rather for you,” Hao stepped back from the desk, “open it and decide for yourself.”

Markus opened the chest. A Gladius and Pugio sheathed into a belt was the first thing he saw, and beneath it the black armor with golden trim and details and matching crested helm, vambraces, gauntlets, polyenes, greaves and sabatons. The young prince turned to his king.

“Kirito’s end is close at hand,” Hao added, “and I need my word and my will next to me. I need my second in command. I need my younger brother.”

“Same as I want to stand next to you, brother,” Markus happily replied.

Hao placed his hand right on Markus’ shoulder. “Then get dressed in your proper attire, there’s a lot we need to discuss about the near future.”

After this he walked out of the room, leaving Markus alone contemplating the armor. This time, he allowed the smile to form into his face.

---

Salted pork beef with garlic sauce and spices and potatoes with cheese was the King’s lunch. Freya added a hot vegetables soup as first course, knowing fully well that he was going to the mountains soon. She also poured a cup of Undine wine. Once she placed it on the tray it was ready to serve. The only thing missing was the bread, and Hao liked it hot and crispy, just out of the oven.

She took a fresh baguette from a bag and put it inside the oven.

“Fine meal,” a voice said from the entrance of the kitchen, and the hairs in her back stood as a shock came from her feet’s fingernails to the top of her head. Markus was wearing his armor again, carrying a Gladius on his left hip and a Pugio on his right. His eyes had recovered that gleam they had when he first saw him wearing it, but he looked different. More mature, but she only saw a specter of the boy she once knew.

“You have some food in the table,” she said.

He entered the room. “Zar asked for oysters yesterday, I’d like something even better for me.”

“Your brother returned your tittle to you?” she asked. Not that she needed an answer; she could see him after all, but she formed whatever first words came to her mouth.

“Now my tittle is well earned,” he said, walking towards the table where she prepared her food, “now I’m no longer a crybaby, but the man who my brother always wanted me to become. The only thing missing is Taikeus to be once again next to me, once the war is over. You think he’ll be proud of me?”

“He estimated you, didn’t he?” she walked towards the oven, opened it put the bread inside.

“Same as you did.”

“Your path will take you far away from that problem,” Freya said, this time with a firm voice and looking him to the eye, “Kirito will fall soon, with that your brother will become King of Aincrad and you’ll rise to become one of the generals that’ll conquer the ALfheim continent.”

She turned to look into the oven again.

“I yearn to honor my brother’s name with victories, but once the rebel scum is dealt with, I’ll stay here, in this city.”

She turned to his again. “You won’t come with us to the Ruby Palace and rule from there alongside your brother?”

“This city will become a center for trade in the upper floors, and I’ll be named the administrator of Nuceria, to safeguard my brother’s interests within this city. That will be until we suffocate any other rebellion that could appear within our new Kingdom of Aincrad and we gain stability and peace.”

She couldn’t help to smile a bit. “That’s an important tittle, and duty.”

Markus nodded. “One you’ll help me in.”

“…I will remain here? In Nuceria?”

“Yes, in this very same villa.”

She turned around and bit her lip. The weight of his presence was too much for her to bear, but she had too even when she couldn’t. Her legs trembled, and once again those eyes of him looking at her back, piercing her throughout her body as a thousand spears. He got right behind of her, but she couldn’t turn around. She didn’t dare.

“My brother will give you a tittle second only to mine,” he continued, “to oversee all those who’ll work under my command, and to make sure you continue to guide me in my path.” He was behind of her once he finished that sentence. “I owe you a lot, Freya. Very soon, I’ll have free time to repay you in full.”

A footstep followed, and then another and another until she could no longer hear them. She remained alone, looking blankly at the wall until a smell brought her back to reality.

The bread had burnt.

---

Kirito had set his personal tent on a hill close to the eastern wall of rocks that were the mountains. It was the perfect vantage point to see the whole vale, once the snowstorm had stopped. The camp of Blood Knights at the foot of the hill, the trenches at the north and the new camp of the legions at the south.

Their camp consisted many makeshift tents, made with leather, ropes, pieces of metal and whatever else they could find. The Blood Knights wore cloaks, scarfs, gloves, caps, hooded coats or anything they could get their hands on to remain warm. The useless pieces of wood they could find were set on fire, to keep themselves warm from the freezing wind.

The Legionnaires had set proper tents on a small hill at the end of the cliff’s pathway, and on the foot defensive spikes to the north, towards them, in case the Blood Knights planned a cavalry attack. They also had lit bonfires, with large tendril-like columns of smoke which were visible even with the strong wind that hit the ridge.

Kirito’s Generals and Captains assembled in a circle around a fire, discussing what they had gone through the last two days and discussing their possible options. First, Kana and Sybil declared that only a few hundreds of players had fallen during the re-taking of Nuceria, and less than a hundred had been only wounded. Most of them were attended in the largest tent by several Undine doctors. Asuna then declared that it’d be possible for all of them to heal, with a few days of rest.

Afterwards, the conversation moved to their present problem.

“Hao erected his camp almost as if he didn’t care that we’re fucking here,” Lamorak cursed.

“He cares a lot,” Jack remarked, “that’s why he came here, to make sure we didn’t even try to return to the city once we arrived to a dead end.”

“That’ll be his doom,” Klein exclaimed “he’ll see what the Blood Knights are capable off, even in this situation! We should attack now!”

“We’ve faced odds as bad as this, and came out as the victors,” Leafa added, “We’ve done the impossible time after time, what says that we can’t do the same here again?”

“That was by smart tactics, Leafa,” Asuna commented, “not brute force. Even if we unleashed all our might against Hao’s army right now, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Close to the entrance to the vale, they hold advantage over numbers, the higher ground, discipline and armor.”

“And we’re bound by canyon walls, and with their eyes always over us it’ll be impossible for us to use any strategy.” Sinon commented.

“And that’s why we should’ve pressed when they had just arrived from the corridor,” Klein recalled, “without a proper formation, they would’ve fallen quickly to our swords.”

“The first wave, probably.” Kana said, “The second, maybe. The third would’ve destroyed us. And even if we somehow survived, the forth would’ve finished us off.”

“We didn’t attack. What can we gain from gazing into a path we never took?”· Sybil asked. “What does that even matter now? We’re here right now. We must decide what to do now, in this situation.”

“What about the trenches?” Kana wondered. “They’re deep I guess, but at least undefended. We should be able to do something about them.”

“There’re iron spikes on their bottom of the first, and probably of the rest” Jack said, shaking his head, “even if we could climb down without dying, we’d have to climb up again and repeat the process other three times. And do that for every single player in our army.”

“Not to mention those who can’t climb or those who are too week to do so.” Asuna added.

“What about a bridge then?” Kana asked again.

“With which materials?” Klein reminded her, “we don’t have enough wood to make four bridges. We’re lucky if we can even make one.”

“If I could shit large pieces of wood and instruments, I would start right now.” Lamorak dryly quipped.

“I hoped we could decide something rather than change stupid jokes around a fire, Lamorak,” Klein curtly said.

Lamorak looked at their black leader. He was looking to the vale and apart from the group yet close enough to hear all what they were saying. “Kirito, you’re incredibly silent now, and that’s making many of us nervous. Tell us you have a plan.”

The Black Swordsman approached his friends. “We’re in an impasse. Asuna’s right, we can’t attack. We’d be decimated within minutes. Jack’s right too, we can’t advance either, the trenches are impossible to cross. The only possible plan right now is to stay here and hold our ground, calm.”

“Hold our ground here?! Calm?!” Klein yell as he rose from the snow, “Fucking…Calm?” he walked towards Kirito. “Don’t you see we’re in the middle of a mountain range and that it’s snowing? Half of our army will starve or freeze to death.”

“What should we do then, Klein?” Kirito asked him. “Engage them? Now? They’ll destroy us.”

“So what’s your option then? Wait for more snow to come and freeze half of our army while the surviving half is then slaughtered by them?”

“At least, we’ll have time to think of something.”

“Something?! That’s what Hao wants us to do! To sit here and wait for a miracle from the Aesir that will never come! Once we’re weak enough, he’ll come with his army in tight formation and eradicate us, alongside any hope of winning this war!”

Lamorak and Jack held the Salamander from the shoulders.

“Enough!!!” Lamorak screamed. The Salamander was about to lunge at Kirito, but both players managed to hold him back. After a moment, he stopped, disappointed and upset.

“If that’s what you think we should do, we’ll do it.” Jack said.

Klein stormed away of the small council of commanders, his silhouette becoming smaller as he descended from the hill. Kirito turned to his friends.

“You’re my brother Kirito,” Lamorak said, “but I find myself agreeing with Klein this time.”

“Same as I do,” Leafa added.

Kirito nodded. “I understand, but right now we need to stand together if we want to survive the incoming storm, and for that, we all need to do the same. I hate ordering this more than you hate following this command, but we have no other choice.”

“You leaded us until here didn’t you?” Jack said, drawing his sword, and cutting the cold wind, “we’re with you until bitter end.”

Everyone nodded.

“Let’s pray it won’t come to that,” Kirito said, he drew Elucidator, stabbed the ground with it and suddenly he was their leader again, “save reserves of food for as long as we can and give everyone a ration for the rest of the day. Prepare all tents for the upcoming storm and everyone should have their weapons close at hand. This night will be a long one.”

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