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« SAO:NA - Chapter XXXII: Stalemate

Sword Art Online: New Aincrad
Written by: FedeTkd
Published: FedeTkd (talk) 05:37, February 2, 2018 (UTC)
Chapter 33: Seed of Tears

SAO:NA - Chapter XXXIV: Separate Paths »




Floor 94th, February 7th, 2027

Zar almost punched the soldier that came to wake him up when he shook his shoulder, but when he heard Hao ordered him to wake up, Zar told him to wait outside.

He was naked, same as the two girls in his bed. One of them used his chest as a pillow, while the other rested at his right, and he had his hand on her breasts.

He removed the covers, crawled out of the bed discreetly, and sat down before removing the strips of cloth around his chest. The wound Galant around his chest had completely healed, but the wound in his pride was not. He donned his recently fixed armor and washed his face before walking out, where the soldier awaited him.

The sun had not yet risen, but the golden and orange light coming from the horizon showed it was soon to sprout.  

“Why is the king calling me before daybreak?” he asked the soldier, as both of them started walking towards Hao’s villa.

“I don’t know, my general,” the soldier said, “I was simply ordered to call you here.”

Zar wasn’t expecting another answer, but he asked it nevertheless.

The villa Zar stayed was just one block away from Hao’s villa, which also served as the temporal HQ of the Legions. His escort knocked the door twice once they arrived, and two soldiers opened the doors from the inside.  The soldier stopped at the foot of the stars. “His majesty awaits you in his office.”

The general gave him a slight nod and walked up the stairs, to Hao’s office where they had talked to Mordread the day of the retaking of the city. The door was opened, so he did not bother to knock. There he found Hao, sitting with his full armor donned…and Markus, smiling and also with his armor on. Zar bit his lip, knowing what that meant.

“At last, the wolf general has awakened from his slumber,” the young prince said as soon as he saw him enter.

“And you’ve risen back from your punishment,” Zar countered, but his remark did nothing to erase the smug and cocksure smile that was drawn on Markus’ face. Slightly annoyed, he turned to Hao. “What’s so urgent, that couldn’t wait to the rise of the morning sun?”

“I depart for the ridge once the sun rises,” Hao answered, drawing up from his chair.

Zar couldn’t help but smile. “Let’s prepare the troops then! I…”

Hao cut him off. “You’re to stay here, to gather the remaining soldiers. Follow the commands of Markus and arrive there before the sun gives way to the moon.”

Hao walked towards the door, but Zar turned and spoke before the King walked outside.

“Shouldn’t the man that took Nuceria lead them?” he asked, “instead of a boy who lost his sword.”

Hao turned his body to face Zar. “So, my gratitude is too little now for you?” he asked. “Forgiveness to you and your soldiers for turning heel and running away from the frontline floors? Giving you the title of third in command in this army? A celebration held in your honor, after your pivotal help in the retaking of this city, and presented by the man you just disrespected!?”

“I remember it quite well, my King,” Zar tried to be as cordial as he could, to keep the anger he felt in check. He paused for a second before continuing. “I simply made a suggestion.”

“And I simply gave you an order,” Hao countered, “as I commanded you to enter within city walls to serve as my instrument. I was the one who took this city; as I’ll be the one who defeats the Knights of the Blood Oath with my brother next to me.”

“And where will Zar be, once you achieve that goal?”

“In the same place where he’s always been unless he strays from the path I’ve set.”

Zar nodded his head.

Hao smiled and patted Zar on his left arm. “Follow my plans, and we’ll reach the heavens as promised. I’ll meet you both on the ridge. Arrive as quickly as possible, and thirsty for our enemies’ blood.”

He donned his helm and walked out of the room with the red cape waving behind him. Zar remained still, looking at the open door.

“Finally, here we are,” Markus said happily, ending the tense silence within the room “my title has been restored to be, placing you beneath me.”

Zar turned around and walked towards the prince. “Mind your steps, boy. Many giants have been killed because they thought they were too big to fall.”

Markus’ golden eyes gleamed as did his teeth. “Assemble the men, as commanded.” With the order given, the young prince strolled out of the room.

Zar screamed and slammed his fist against one of the walls. He left a small hole in the wall, alongside a few cracks. All the knuckles in his hand were bleeding and the skin of his fingers was almost as red, but after being slashed in his side, he could ignore the pain. He walked the length of the room several times until the anger he felt had settled. Once he was done, he walked towards the room, but stopped once he saw Freya lurking in the dark corridor of the first floor.

Zar stared at her silently for a few seconds. “Doesn’t somebody sleep in this fucking villa?”

“My apologies,” she said, “I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation and the following discussion with Markus.”

“What we discuss is none of your concern, even if you are the King’s personal attendant.”

“I know I’m overreaching, but I need to discuss something with you, now that Markus has regained his imagined power.”

Zar’s eyes widened. “You’re talking behind the back of your own leaders?”

She came closer to Zar, “I’m just whispering about a dangerous threat, one we need to remove of our mutual concern.”

“Follow me,” Zar stated, before walking into the room and shutting the door behind them, but not before checking that nobody was close.

“Thank you for the private audience,” she said, “it’s better for both of us if nobody knows we’re talking right now.”

“I agree,” Zar had already a substantial problem after Markus had regained his title. The last thing he needed is to be seen talking alone in the middle of the night with Hao’s attendant. Or even worse, plotting, if that’s what she wanted to talk about. Tense, he walked to the table and filled a cup with wine, and emptied it with a single sip. Without turning to look at Freya, he spoke. “As you can tell, I’m having a bad night and I’m in an even worse mood. Don’t make it even worse and go straight to the point you want to talk about.”

“Much has changed lately, the boy I once saw as my little brother has been transformed into something else. That something is threatening us both.”

He turned to look at her, with one of his eyebrows raised. “How deeply has he wounded you?

Her lips trembled before she answered the question. “You only need to know that I’m wounded because of it. Same as you have been when he recovered his title.”

“And you’ve been thinking about haven’t you? Doing something about this problem?”

“I should’ve done something a long time ago.”

“Then do it alone,” Zar said curtly, before walking towards the door, “and leave me far from your schemes.”

Freya spoke before he placed his hand on the handle. “If they’re victorious over Kirito together, I fear the bond between brothers will be impossible to destroy. Maybe even for me.”

Freya looked at him with her emerald eyes, and he did with his onyx. His imagination went wild, wondering what had happened between her and the boy, but no matter how he asked, she would not tell him. Either way, the Sylph girl knew Hao well. He loved his brother, even when he hid it from most of the guild. No matter what floor Zar cleared or what city he took, Markus would always be Hao’s younger brother, and forever a step beyond him. But if she knew something to break them apart beforehand, it was his only chance to remove Markus from the spotlight and keep it to himself.

“Enough of your stories,” he said, “tell me what you want from me…”

---

The cold winds rose by each hour, bringing the hefty snowstorm closer.

Kirito had put his hood up and wrapped his arms around it; to make sure the wind didn’t blow it away as he walked through the camp. Freedom’s cape remained hanging from his left shoulder, twisting and turning on the wind, a red snake slithering in the air.

Most players were inside their tents, with only a few outside hammering stakes, tensing ropes and holding poles, trying to keep their shelter standing against the gusts and snow. Many others who saw him coming approached to him asking for help, to save them from their predicament, to stop the storm, to wave his sword and call on lighting and thunder to strike the Legions down.

Just as Galant said, they think I’m some kind of God. But he wasn’t. He could do nothing but tell them to stay inside their tents and await the storm to pass, which by the look of it, would stay the whole night. All those who came, returned to their tents disappointed and some even crying. Kirito clenched his fist and kept on walking forward.

The wind hit hard on his eyes, and he could only look thirty to forty feet ahead, more than that was nothing but whiteness. But a few meters away from the camp and close to one of the walls of rock, a small circle of players kneeling on the snow around an improvised altar, made of rocks, tattered clothing, frozen thin branches with fabrics of different colors tied to their extremes, items made of carved wood and old bones. As the wind made their bodies shivered and the snow covered their makeshift clothing, they remained there still, praying hands with interlaced fingers. Frozen snots feel from their noses and their lips were red and broken as they whispered.

They pray for me, no they pray for all of us. Kirito stared at them until the wind only allowed him to barely glimpse the players around the altar. He wanted to tell them to stop praying, but he wouldn’t leave them without their only hope. He turned around and kept on walking. Seek shelter, you idiots, or you’ll meet the Aesir on the other side.

He kept on walking, until he found Klein’s tent and the Salamander himself outside of it, filling a jar with water from an almost frozen barrel. He turned his head for a moment, scowled at Kirito when he saw him and returned to fill the jar with liquid.

“You’ve come here with a better idea?” he asked.

“I came to talk with you,” Kirito responded.

“There’s nothing to talk about, King of Aincrad,” he closed the faucet of the barrel, “and we have no time either. The worse part of the storm is coming, and with it, death for most of our men here.”

“There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“For once, you’re right,” Klein walked closer to his leader. “There’s nothing we can do now. Back in Nuceria, we had the time and the city’s walls in our favor. When Hao attacked, we still had the chance to fight and throw them out of the city. When we got trapped here, we could assault the upcoming soldiers before they set camp. But, now we’re going to die, frozen in the snow and the wind. The city was lost because of you. We’re trapped here, because of you. All of this happened because of you, and your stupidity.”

“And you think a little quarrel here will solve everything?”

“It will serve for nothing, but get this anger off my chest. What would’ve helped was an assault against Hao’s troops with our full strength.”

“The only result of that decision would’ve been your early death, along with the death of those who dared to follow you.”

“I would do one thing: fight! Your plan against Hao was just one simple thing; wait for our deaths, from either the cold or an enemy’s blade. To me, you seem too proud to admit that you’ve been outmatched by Hao’s mind.”

“What then, former SAO Guild Leader? Tell me what you’d do?”

“You know what I’d do! Everyone with strength enough should grab a weapon and attack the Legions! NOW!”

“We’re constricted by canyon walls, and a flanking maneuver isn’t an option. If we face superior numbers in the middle of this storm without proper strength, armor, and discipline, we’ll be dead in no time.”

“Then let them see how we accept our deaths!”

“You really think the weak among us wait and pray for death?!”

“NO! They’re praying for their leader to do something!” A vein popped on Klein’s neck with that last scream.

Once Klein had said that last line, he and Kirito were centimeters from each other, staring at each other silently. And neither spoke. And neither spoke.

Until Kirito couldn’t stand it any longer. “I won’t march my own people to their deaths.”

“And I won’t die frozen to death! I’ll gather players who think as I do and press attack on Hao.”

“You’ll follow my or-”

Klein slammed the jar against Kirito’s left temple, breaking the clay-made jar into hundreds of pieces and splashing water and ice. The Black Swordsman knelt on the ground, his head ringing hard, wet and with hot blood coming out of his temple.

“Just because you cleared SAO, you’re no fucking Aesir!” Klein continued, “I think it’s time for me to take command!”

Kirito rose from the ground, struck Klein on the jaw with his right fist and then chained another hook with his left. Stunned, Klein stepped back, just avoiding the second stroke, and then slammed his fist into Kirito’s forehead. The Black Swordsman tripped back two steps, but then planted his foot firmly on the ground, regaining balance.

Klein jumped forward while raising both arms, his feet as high as his chest. Kirito sidestepped the kick and punched Klein’s ribs and then chained another to his temple. The Salamander punched Kirito in the middle of the chest, pushing him back, but the Spriggan slid on the ground.

Klein advanced with a wide hook while screaming angrily, but it barely grazed the top of Kirito’s head as he punched Klein’s stomach, blowing the air out of him. Bent over, Klein grabbed his leader’s arm and then slammed his forehead against his nose, and both of them fell to the ground.

Kirito felt the sting in his nose and his head was still ringing, though not as much as before. He snorted to get the blood out of his nostrils. Klein knelt on the ground, struggling to return air into his lungs. He spat out blood and moved his jaw from left to right. Angry, he rose from the ground and advanced, but Kirito was quicker and lunged at him, and both felt to the cold floor. There, Kirito sat on Klein’s legs and threw blind punches, while Klein did the same. After a while, both of them grabbed each other’s neck and squeezed.

“KLEIN!” a voice called. Shortly afterward, Jack arrived, and grabbed Kirito from the arms, dragging him away while Lamorak helped Klein up and then pushed him away from Kirito.

“Have you two lost your fucking minds?!” Lamorak yelled.

Klein spat blood. “That’s a question for your leader…” and with that, the Salamander stormed back into his tent.

“Klein!” Kirito screamed.

“Now’s not the time for more quarrels,” Lamorak held him back, “a few tents have been struck by the wind.”

“The storm and the night approach!” Jack said. “Make sure those exposed find some shelter!!!”    

---

After entering the cave, Galant fell from his horse and onto the rock-hard floor, exhausted. The fall hurt, but anything was better than being lost in the snowstorm raging outside. He wanted to close his eyes and rest, but his almost-freezing clothes would kill him if he did.

He went back outside, “Aki!!!” he screamed, “Abelia!!! Over here!!!” He ventured into the white, screaming as loud as his lungs allowed him to, but did not dare to step too far away from the cave. For a while, he looked at nothing but whiteness, until he heard a whinny close. Shortly afterwards, both girls appeared, riding double the last remaining horse.

Galant took hold of the rains and guided them into the cave. As soon as they entered, Abelia fell to the ground, unconscious. Galant knelt and checked her head.

“She’s not hurt,” Galant lifted her up and walked further into the cave, “check her wound.”  

Aki jumped down her mount and knelt down beside her.

Galant then dragged the animals to a wall before tying their forelimbs with a piece of cloth. Sitting down, he entered his menu and summoned the branches he had hacked before in the forest. The wind hissed outside as he struck spark with flint and dagger until a wisp of smoke appeared. He fanned the fire, and fumes turned into flame. He thanked the Aesir, even though he never believed in them, but finding shelter and feeling of warm fire in the middle of a blizzard was nothing short of a blessing.

As the blaze rose and flickered and crackled, he peeled off his fingerless gloves and felt the warmness. He then removed the poncho, the belts that carried his swords and his blue coat and laid them close to the fire. Most of the poncho and the coat’s tail were frozen stiff enough to serve as a table, while the torso of his coat was soaking wet, same as the rest of his clothes. He would have removed them as well if it were not for cold winds that came from the entrance. He then took out both swords from their sheaths and deactivated their unique skill, fusing the blades back into one. He drew a whetstone from his equipment slid it across the golden edge of his blade for a while as he chewed a piece of dry and salty horse meat.

When Aki sat cross-legged in front of him, the blade had a proper edge again and the sun had already set. His coat was dry as well, and he had placed it on his shoulders. The entrance had become an open wolf’s maw, and beyond it, nothing but black and cold throat was ready to swallow it all.

She wiped her hands clean of Abelia’s blood with the old bandages before removing her black coat and the brown cloak around it. The flickering flames playing across the soft planes of her face and dark burgundy hair. She chewed on some salty meat as well and drank water from a bottle they had filled with snow earlier. Abelia slept calmly a few feet away from the fire, where Aki had covered her with a cloak she found on her horse’s saddlebag and her head rested on a smooth rock. They stared at the flames with no words, while the wind hissed and the storm raged outside.

Once Aki had come back from the front and told him that the League of Darkness Knights marched towards the northern pass of Solnia’s ridge, Galant contemplated the fact that they may not be able to get to the mountains first, and that his guildmates would be trapped between two armies in a corridor made of rock and stone and ice. Nervously, he had told Aki to hasten her march.

But when they arrived at the foot of the mountains, he saw the League’s camp on the east.  Black tents surrounded by spikes at all sides and a red banner with a black trim and white skull in the middle. Part of Galant wanted to rush into that camp, slay as many players as he could and defeat Mordread, but his dominant side wheeled his mount and trotted into the pass following the two girls.

The way up was narrow at first, made of bare rock, loosen stone and hundreds of cracks, but as they continued, the path enlarged and the rocky ground became covered in snow or ice. Since then, their advance was made slower and more careful. As the evening set, the snowfall started, slow and steady. Galant hoped that Kirito and the rest could resist the cold the top of the ridge, low on food, without much equipment for cold and with Hao’s army marching behind them. The one good thing was that it would take days for the League to get to the top of the mountains, and even more if the blizzard continued. So if they somehow managed to survive, they would manage to get to the labyrinth and the Blood Knights would maintain the rear.

After an hour, the snowfall turned into storm. The cold knife of the wind clashing against their faces, twisting their hairs and waving their cloaks. Each step was harder than the one before and the drifts of snow became deeper each minute.

Shortly afterwards, Aki’s horse fell to the ground, and she had to struggle to get her leg out from beneath it. She then tried to get the horse back up, but the beast did not. It was then when Galant realized that the steed had not drunk or eaten since they left Nuceria. It was not going to get up no matter what they did. He jumped down his horse and drew Carnwennan from his boot, ready to do what needed to be done, but Aki stopped him. “It’s my horse,” she said as she drew her rapier, “it’s my thing to do, not yours.” She pointed the sword at the beast’s throat…and remained still. She looked at the horse’s brown eye, looking back at her without making a sound but the one of its breath, its belly expanding and shrinking. The rest of its body as still as a thousand-year rock. Aki began trembling, but Galant could tell it was not from the cold. Her eyes teared up, her teeth gashed and her blade quivered.

She can’t do it. Galant drew his dagger again, but Aki then thrust the blade into the dying animal’s throat. It twisted and turned. A long and loud whiney came shortly afterwards, and then was still. Aki blankly looked at the corpse for a moment, drew her blade and thrust it again into the flesh of the carcass, loudly screaming. She did it again and again, putting hole after hole in the corpse until Galant caught her firmly arm and she stopped. She looked at him, eyes glistening with tears. The blade fell from her hand and she collapsed to her knees, blood staining the snow where she knelt. Galant looked at her, not knowing what had just happened or what to say, so he hopped onto his horse.

“Get on your horse, or we will die here and all would’ve been for nothing,” he said, “I’ll go forward, try to find somewhere to hide for the night. You two follow me.”

And then went; that was how he found the cave.

Aki had not said a word since.

Galant remained thinking silently about that scene, as he stared into the flames stirring and swirling with each gale that came from the entrance until he dared to speak.

“What happened to you out there?” he asked, a hand extended over the flickering fire.

Aki raised her brown eyes from the ground and looked at him. The redness on them was gone, and instead, they were sad.

“Having to put down the horse made you lose your nerve that much?” he asked again.

“When I looked at the dying horse I remembered Haruka, and how he died back in SAO,” she said.

Galant did not expect an answer in the first place. He only guessed she needed to talk after her violent episode against the horse.

Her eyes returned to the fire as she continued talking.

“After you defeated me, Haruka and I became closer. We spent day and night together, eating, fighting, laughing and sleeping. Even those days we spent outside of the labyrinth were joyous. We thought about joining a guild, but we never did. We preferred to not tie bonds with anyone, and do however we pleased and whenever we pleased.

“A few months before the clearing, we decided to go and fight the 73rd floor boss by ourselves. No, I decided and Haruka obliged. When we entered the boss’s chamber, we were confident of our victory, and then the crystals on the chamber began glowing and its figure appeared. Sennus, the Centaur Lord. True to his name, he was a ten-feet-tall centaur, armed with a spear on his right and a shield on his left. We were dumb, and entered the fray, confident of our victory. But the beast was stronger than he looked, and we could barely fight him. It was then when I drew a teleport crystal from my pocket and called for a city’s name, but nothing happened. When I turned, the boss was rushing toward me, with its spear aiming. I thought I was going to die when Haruka shoved me to my left, and took the blow himself, directly to his chest. He went flying and clashed against the wall. I went to help him, but it was too late. He shattered before I could do anything. I would’ve shared the same fate if a group of players hadn’t rushed into the chamber and distracted the boss while I fled. The rest of the story is just redundant.

“So, you see, I killed my brother. I killed Haruka.”

The fire crackled when she finished her story.

“You blame yourself for what happened to your brother,” Galant said after a moment of silence, “just like I blame myself for what happened to my friends and my girlfriend. You started playing ALO; you want to finish the game for him. So that he didn’t die for nothing.”

Aki nodded.

“I understand what you feel. I understand it perfectly. And I’m probably the last person that should tell you this, but his death isn’t on you.”

“Galant,” it was the first time he called him by his name, “he died because I dragged him here.”

“Maybe, but bashing yourself over the head with that won’t do you any good. I know that better than anyone.”

“He died because of me…”

“No. Haruka died because he did what any older sibling would’ve done in his position. Protect the little one.”

There was another silence in the room.

“Unlike me, your brother acceded to go into the boss chamber and then sacrificed himself for you.  I was the one who led my friends to their death, as I was the leader of my guild. and I hate Mordread for what he did, but it was my fault as well as his.”

“How do you do it?” she asked, “How do you live with all that blame? With all that hate and anger towards you?”

“I’m still trying to find an answer to that question,” he paused, “I’m trying to find so many answers. For now, I only know I have to keep on going forward to find them.”

A strong gust of wind came into the cave after that comment.

“Tomorrow we have to reach the top,” he put on his now dry clothes and lay down, “rest now, because we’re waking up early tomorrow.”

---

Hao was sitting on his chair when a soldier came with his supper. The first course was a creamy soup of vegetables. Hot vapor steamed off the bowl, and in the cold ridge during a snowstorm, nothing was more welcome than hot food. The soldier brought undine wine shortly afterward. Hao loved to drink wine, but to drink in the middle of a battlefield when a battle could soon break was not smart. He ordered him to go back and get water.

He finished the first plate quickly and ordered to be brought the main course, roasted boar with spiced potatoes. One of his favorite dishes, when cooked by Freya. This one was not as good as hers, but still quite good. This time, he took his time slowly with the plate, enjoying it while he wondered what Freya was doing at that moment if she was eating or sleeping or thinking about him as much as he was about her. It had been less than a day, but he already missed her. Her emerald eyes, the long golden hair, the soft features of her face, the touch of her lips, the warmness of her skin when he held her, her ample breasts and the pleasures below. He longed to see the look on her face once he surprised her with her new title in Nuceria, just under his younger brother. But that would not happen until he gained the title of King of Aincrad. Once true peace had been achieved in the floating castle, he would send Markus and Zar in a campaign to conquer the ALfheim continent, and he would join them after Freya became his queen and they had spent a long honeymoon together.

Once he was done, he called for the soldier.

“Do you wish for a dessert?” he asked.

“It won’t be necessary, I’m more than satisfied.”

The soldier picked up both plates. “General Tyr awaits that you outside finish your meal. He requests a meeting.”

“Send him in once you leave.”

With a bow, he walked out of his tent, and Tyr came in next. He wore a pelt around his shoulders and above the red cape. He removed his helm before speaking.

“Your majesty,” he said kneeling, “I apologize to interrupt your meal.”

“I have just finished Tyr, you interrupt nothing but my boredom.”

“It is another report, from the patrols in the lower floors,” Tyr rose from the ground and handed over a roll of a parchment with a broken wax seal. “It’s about the upcoming army lead by Alicia Rue and Sakuya.”

Hao opened it read, and then he spoke. “Scouts from floor 90th report an army formed of six of the nine races consisting of 1500 players in total, led by those two.” He got up from his chair

“As you commanded, I brought it to you as soon as I received it.”

Hao got up from his chair and turned around, his hands clasped behind his waist. “In the last message, it was an army of Salamanders, Sylphs and Cait Siths. My fear became true, Leprechauns, Pookas, and Gnomes have joined them, and their number has risen from 1,000 to 1,500.”

“It’s still less than a quarter of the men of the Supreme Legion, and they are nothing if we also count Mordread’s men.”

“For now, but their numbers will swell before they reach this floor,” Hao turned around, “I had a small glitter of hope that if we defeated the Blood Knights we could use diplomacy against them, but since they keep advancing, we’ll have to eliminate them.”

“If it’s too much of a pest, you can dispatch me with 2000 men,” Magnus suggested, “I can deal with them quickly and be back to you in less than a week.”

Hao looked at him silently for a few seconds before responding, “I’ll consider your offer, along with other possible solutions.”

A gust of wind shook the tent.

“Seems the cold wrath of the Aesir will wipe clean the blood knights before we engage in a decent battle.”

A soldier moved aside the flaps of the tent, and a soldier entered. “Then we’ll rise with the light of morning sun, and finish whatever is left of them.” 

It was Zar, carrying his helm beneath his right arm and with his left hand resting on his sword’s pommel. His red cape was covered with frost as well as the pelt around his shoulders.

“Zar,” Hao said, “I didn’t hear the horn of welcome that announced your arrival, alongside Markus and the remaining soldiers.”

“They haven’t yet arrived. I advanced before all of them.”

Hao frowned. “You were to aid him in the preparation and movement of the troops was my order not clear enough to you?”

“As the air between us,” Zar responded, “but somebody asked me for a favor, and I couldn’t say no.”

He turned to the entrance behind him, and a hooded player walked into the tent wearing a hooded black cloak, trimmed with fur and large shoulder pads. He pulled back the hood, revealing Freya beneath it.

Hao’s eyes filled with rage as she saw her. “You bring her here, to the middle of a battlefield?”

“My apologies your majesty,” Freya explained, “Zar just did what I begged him. If you have to punish someone for this, punish me.”

“Leave us,” Hao ordered, forcing the anger back inside.

---

Zar walked out of Hao’s tent with a wolfish smile on his face.

The day had left him tired. The preparation of the remaining soldiers within Nuceria, the journey across the cliffs and mountains and smuggling a disguised Freya into camp had left him with heavy shoulders and an aching back. He ordered a soldier to bring the supper to his tent. Once he had removed the pelt and cape and helm, the food arrived and he ate on a small table pressed against one of the walls. Once he was finished, waited impatiently while drinking water.

Not much afterwards, the welcoming horn sounded, and not much after, Markus entered inside his tent.

“Zar!” he screamed, “why didn’t you wait for me at the northern gate as you ordered?!”

Zar finished his glass of water before turning around and looking at him. The Kingsguard Gnaeus accompanied Markus, alongside other regular soldier Zar did not recognize. “My apologies,” he said calmly, “an urgent matter forced me to take initiative, and I had to renounce to the pleasure of your company.”

“My brother won’t be very pleased when he hears of your insubordination!”

>But he already knows, Zar thought. “I’d wait before asking for an audience. His Majesty is already occupied with the presence of his dear attendant.”

“Attendant?” Markus repeated, “Freya?! You disobeyed commands to bring a fucking civil into the camp?!”

“She was desperate to speak with the King before he returned to the city, and I couldn’t find the strength in me to say no.”

The anger in the boy’s eyes was quickly replaced by nervousness. “What’s so urgent that she couldn’t wait?”

“That’s quite a mystery, isn’t it?” Zar stood up, a cut of a smile on his face. “But don’t worry; I’m sure that as soon as the king finds out, you’ll be the first to learn about it.”

---

Hogun opened one of the flaps of the tent as Lamorak helped Kirito enter the tent with a hand on his shoulder. Once inside, the Spriggan fell to the ground, his head bleeding.

Asuna came walking with Yui sleeping on the collar of her coat. “What the hell happened?”

“Klein, there seems to be disagreement between the two.” Lamorak dryly remarked as he helped Kirito back up.

Asuna held Kirito’s cheeks, checking the wound on his forehead. “You’re two idiots.”

“That’s nothing. You should’ve seen how Klein ended up,” Kirito joked as they helped him sit down on the snow.

“I should go now,” Lamorak said, winding his aching arm, “there’re a lot of players without shelter, I’ll make sure most of them find any.”

“That’s my job,” Kirito raised from the ground, but his leg stumbled and he fell to the snow. His face would have hit first if it were not for his arms.

“I wouldn’t argue with you if you could stand. Stay here and let Asuna heal your wounds. Let me and a few others handle this.”

With reluctance, Kirito nodded and Lamorak returned outside. His teeth were clashing like hammer and anvil from the cold. He rubbed his hands together, trying to feel his fingers again.

Asuna sat down at the left side of her boyfriend, enchanted a healing water spell on her hands and placed them on Kirito’s temple.

For a while, that was the last words that passed between the two.

Once Lamorak went outside, the cold winds made the tent’s flaps clash against each other as if they were clapping until Hogun stood up and tied them. It was a medium-sized tent with space for eight to ten players but it was filled with fifteen at least, most of them laying on the ground. The sick players were coughing and most of the ones sleeping were snoring. The rest shivered from the cold, covered in half a dozen blankets or cloaks while eating cold venison stew, one of the last foods they had from the city.

>All these players…have I failed them? Kirito wondered.  He then turned to Asuna and Yui. Have I failed them as well?

Asuna removed her hands from his head. “He hit you hard, but I finished,” she said, standing up.

“Asuna, please stay. I need to ask you something,” he said, catching her hand as she was about to leave. It was the first time they talked since their argument in the city. “You think I’ve let down all the players who’ve followed us so far?”

She sat down. “That’s what you feel?”

“It’s what Klein said. And even though I don’t want to believe that, part of me does. Look at this situation we’re on, it’s on me. Maybe if I had chosen something different Hao would be the one desperate right now.”

“Or maybe not, and we’d be in an even more dire situation or perhaps we’d be wiped out by now. Thinking that won’t change a thing, so what does that even matter?”

“But, the storm and we’re trapped…”

“We’ll find a way out of this,” she put a hand on his cheek, “that’s what you do.”

Kirito closed his eyes and placed a hand on Asuna’s hand on his cheek. “All these days we haven’t been talking, I missed you,” he pressed his lips to hers, and she put no resistance. The kiss was the warmest thing he felt since they got to the top of the ridge. After both had forgotten about the cold, they separated their mouths and put their foreheads together. “I’m sorry about not allowing you to leave the villa.”

“That’s my line as well. I shouldn’t have helped Abelia h-”

She was cut off when a gust of wind hammered against the tent and the flaps opened wide and clashed against the walls. Hogun jumped up and tied the two flaps together with the help of another player, but the time it was open was enough to make all the players inside shiver.

Asuna did as well, as her white cloak opened as the flaps did, and the warmness of the kiss was gone. Kirito wrapped his black cape around her, hugging her from behind.

“I know what you meant,” he said. Their cabin in floor 22nd came back to his mind, along the time they spent there in SAO for those two weeks of their honeymoon.

She placed her head on his chest, “You have a strong beat. Bum. Bum. Bum. Are you nervous?”

“I guess I haven’t yet calmed down. I…”

She hushed him. “Kirito, let’s forget about Hao, Klein and everyone else right now. Let’s forget about what could’ve happened or what couldn’t have happened. Right now, I want to be here. I want to remember this moment.”

---

Once Zar and Tyr had left the room, the King stood up from his chair and filled a glass with water from a desk against one of the walls of his tent.

“I hate my commands being defied,” he said, “I told you I’d see you once the battle was over and the Knights of the Blood Oath were crushed.”

Just tell him what you have to, Freya. She thought. “I’m well aware of that my command here is a violation of the rules,” Freya said, trembling, though she didn’t know if it was from the cold or her nerves, “but I could wait to see you.”

Hao approached and handed her a glass of water, gently caressing her arm, “Drink now, and feel at home.” He then walked to the door, and opened the heavy flaps and contained the storm away, before closing them again. “The worst part of the storm rages now. You’ll stay until it’s over, and Zar himself will accompany you back to Nuceria.”

“Nuceria…” Freya repeated, uncertain, “where I’m to stay once the war is over and you are King?” >Why are you talking about this, you foolish girl?! Just tell him!

Hao paused, surprised. “Markus told you, didn’t he? The boy tells you when I haven’t given the orders that order fully public. I hoped to tell you privately.”

“Why’re you banishing me from your side? What have I done to offend you?”

“Banishment?” Hao couldn’t help but to laugh and held her close. She trembled as he slid his arms around her.  “I’ve claimed Nuceria for you so that we can have a place to spend together whenever I visit. Far from the annoying voices from my future court on floor 100th. You’ve done nothing to offend me, quite the contrary actually. It’s not a punishment but a gift, for the help you gave to Makoto after Decimatio.” 

That’s right. You can do it. It’s too late to doubt. “And…I’m to say with him…after the war is over?”

“He’ll be beside you, with you serving as a guide, giving him company and wisdom. I’ve seen how much he cares for you, and you for him.”

He kissed her, gently, lovingly, tenderly, lightly.

He walked to the table again and filled a glass with water.

>Tell him, you idiot. Tell him that he took you against your will. And he’ll do the rest. Her lips quivered in fear and her fingers moved nervously. The words choked her throat like an invisible tight collar. He closed her eyes, swallowed and her throat was clear. “I fear I don’t know if I’ll be able to correctly guide him,” the wrong words came out of her mouth.

“Forget about your doubts. You made him mature into a man, I couldn’t be more grateful. I can think of no one better to show him the way.

What are you doing? “He’s been a big disappointment from the past, hasn’t he?”

“It’s true that he made big mistakes, and I was angry with him from that. But he’s learned from it. Now we’re one.” she held her close from behind, “and it’s clear to me now, there’s no mistake Markus commits that I wouldn’t be able to forgive.”

No. She thought, eyes filled with tears.  No. No. No. No. It’s too late now…You foolish girl, you took too long to tell him…it’s too late now for anything. Utterly defeated, tears began streaming down her cheeks. She couldn’t, she just couldn’t.

Hao turned around her and wiped them with his fingers. “I thought my gratitude wouldn’t make you cry…”

>I’m done…I’m done… “Pay me no mind,” she said as she stopped crying, “it’s nothing but the worries of a foolish girl.”

“As long as the woman is clear about what she wants.”

“Yes, Hiro,” she smiled, a fake smile, “everything is now very clear to me.”

She kissed him this time, but there was no tenderness, only hunger. Hunger for him. Hao did not seem to mind, as he opened her mouth, and their tongues wrestled with each other. He kept on until she moaned. He started working his way through her cloak and uniform as she did with his armor. Once both were naked, Hao carried her to bed, as she whispered her ear and stroked brisk black hair. He entered her, and Freya smiled and hugged him, locked in his loving embrace.

---

Lamorak moved opened the heavy woolen flaps and entered the tent. As he shook the snow off the coat he looked around. It sheltered more players than it could comfortably house, same as the rest. He had housed all the Blood Knights he could within any empty enough tents. Some complained about the lack of space and for the heavy air to breathe, but Lamorak remarked that it was better to smell rancid flesh rather than freeze to death. He continued until the sun had hidden behind the mountains, hindering his sight, and the cold was too much to bear for him.

But he still had one thing left to do in.

“Crow!” he shouted.

“Here!” a voice responded from the back of the tent. He pushed his way inside, passing between the players until he found Crow, sitting with his hands and legs bound. He was shivering, even though his he had somehow got hold of an old and patched cloak. His left eye was swallowed and muddy brown, and he had dry cold blood falling from his nostrils.  

>Seems Sybil was right, he was beaten bloody by Rorge. Lamorak though, but he could not say he was not somehow happy about it. Let’s get this shit over with.

“Lamorak!” Crow said surprised once he saw him.

“You look nicer now,” Lamorak said, “you know, there were many dead players in the city that could be in the exact spot you’re sitting right now.”

“Once we arrived at the top of the mountains Kirito commanded me to stay here; I don’t have any other choice.”

“Well, it happens I do have,” Lamorak knelt in front of him, drawing a dagger from his belt.

Crow’s eyes widened when he saw the blade, but they did, even more, when he used it to cut the ropes on his ankles and wrist.

“You want to set me free?” Crow asked.

“No, I don’t,” Lamorak responded, blunt as always, “Sybil does. After she saved you from Rorge’s wrath, you told her that you’d be willing to do whatever it took to prove that you’re no traitor. I dismissed that, but many players will freeze to death tonight. We’ll need new warriors to fight to fight against the Legions, and you’re a capable one.”

Crow sighed happily. “Thank you.”

“You owe it to Sybil. If it weren’t for her, this blade would be slick with Cait Sith blood.”

---

One hour before dawn’s break, Kirito and Asuna moved the flaps aside and walked outside, with their fingers interlaced.

The storm had lost part of its strength, and only a few snowflakes kept on raining. Everything outside was covered in white. The ground beneath their feet, the nearby tents, the black rocks that made the mountains and the few spots on the ground where the dark brown soil could be seen during the day before. Even the dense dark grey storm clouds in the sky had turned white and soft.

They started walking through the camp with Hogun carrying a blazing torch.

It was not long until they found the first body. A Pooka girl, younger than Silica, with dirty blonde hair wearing a black zipped-up jacket and a short red skirt, with black stockings and boots and woolen cloak over her shoulders. She had a pretty face, but it was as pale as the ground she laid on. Her eyes, lusterless, starred at the sky.

Asuna and Yui turned their sight away, but Kirito did not.

>No…He hastened his pace towards one of the walls. Asuna and Hogun followed.

It was not long until they arrived at the western wall. The makeshift altar remained there, covered in white as all the rest, same as the players praying did, frozen with their hands still clasped. Kirito knelt next to one of them, touching her pale face, solid as the rocks beneath his feet, same as her long black hair and the cloaks that covered her body.

“The freezing skin doesn’t allow them to shatter into polygons,” Kirito said, “Yui, how many Blood Knights died in the storm?”

“Seven hundred and fifty-one players, papa.”

“Seven hundred and fifty-one…” Kirito repeated.

“Kirito…” Hogun called.

Kirito turned.

A column of players, led by Lamorak appeared, followed by Sybil, Leafa, and Sinon. Jack led another column, followed by Kana.  Several of them carried torches. They gathered in a semi-circle in front of their leader.

Kirito approached Lamorak with an extended hand. “I thought you were dead.”

“I got lucky and found shelter,” Lamorak took his hand and made a small smile.

“Not all were so lucky,” Asuna stated.

“No, they weren’t,” Sybil knelt next to the frozen players, “they prayed to the Aesir for our saving. So that we could find means to get away from between sword and stone. And this is their reply?”

“Perhaps even with that cruelty, the Aesir may’ve given us the means to save the ones yet living,” he turned to the players, “you saw many more bodies on your way here?”

“Dozens on the northern side,” Jack said, “there’re probably more.”

“Give the order to break encampment then, immediately,” Kirito ordered, “tell every player who can properly move to carry one of the dead bodies to the trenches.”

“What’re they for?” Lamorak asked.

“They’re the means we prayed for,” Kirito responded.

In only a few minutes, all the tents had been unmade and every Blood Knight yet living was walking north, towards the trenches.

Kirito led the group, followed by his generals and captains when Klein walked next to him.

“You’ve regained reason?” he asked.

“I have,” Kirito answered, “what about you? You still want to face Hao’s legions on the snowy field?”

“That was when we still had seven hundred and fifty-one men more players. What about the deep of the trenches? How will the wagons carts or horses cross them? What about the wounded?”

“The storm has just given us those means.”

“You’re speaking in fucking riddles, hiding the truth….”

“Same as Hao has been playing with us so far, shrouding all that he’s done, shadowing all his moves in deception. The fake attack at the game of Nuceria. Getting Zar into the city. The pirates betraying us. Nothing is ever as it appears to be.”

“Your point being?”

“I thought Hao trapped us here to freeze and starve, but he wasn’t going to attack us. He was waiting for something else. But in that waiting, he also gave us time and with the storm came the means to cross the trenches: the frozen corpses.”

And shortly after that comment, they arrived at the first trench. Kirito stepped forward and threw the corpse into the trench. Once he turned, he saw that most of the faces of the players showed notable distaste.

“If you want to live, step forward and throw the corpse to the trench. If not, stay here, and die.”

After a moment of silence, Klein stepped forward and threw the body next to Kirito’s. Then Asuna. Then Jack. Then Sinon.

And so it continued.

---

Tyr’s voice woke him up.

“My King,” he called.

He touched his eyes first, trying to get the tiredness out of them and then turned to Tyr.

“The rebels are gone.”

Hao jumped out of bed. “Sound the awaking horn and gather the men to formation immediately.”

Tyr walked out and the waking signal came from the trumpets.

Hao then turned looked to his bed, and Freya was nowhere within the tent.

“Was my attendant escorted back to Nuceria?” he asked to one of his Kingsguard legionnaires.

“No one has left your tent in all the night, my King.”

Confused, he got dressed in his grey shirt and pants and then donned his full body armor. First, the segmented breastplate, the spiked collar, the six spikes jutting out of his back. Then vambraces, gauntlets, graves. Finally, the black capes falling from his waist and the red one from his shoulders. Once he was about to put on his crown-helm, a cold wind clashed against his left cheek, the opposite side of the only door of his tent. He walked in its direction, where he found a cut on the tent’s walls. The moved it aside, and behind it was a regular legionnaire laying on the snow with his throat slit open. His skin was pale, the blood on the ground had frozen and snow piled on top of him.

Hao put his helmet on and rushed out of the tent, there Markus awaited him, alongside Zar, Tyr, and a few Kingsguard.

“My King did you…” Zar said, but he cut off when Hao laid angered eyes on him.

“Freya’s gone,” he said.

Zar’s eyes widened.

“Begin a search through the camp for her immediately,” Hao ordered to one of his Kingsguard before turning to his three commanders. “Is the army ready to advance?”

“Not yet, your majesty,”

“Hasten speed then!” he howled, “We advance on Kirito’s camp!”·

---

Once the bridge was done, the snow had stopped falling and the white clouds had opened, giving way for the sunlight to pass and clash against the eastern side of the left wall of mountains. They could now see a large circular rock column rising up to the sky until it reached the roof.

The Labyrinth to advance to the next level.

Kirito advanced first, followed by his generals, captains and a dozen more men. He wanted to make sure there were not any more of Hao’s traps or worse. The other side of the ridge was as white as the other, with drifts as deep. The group ventured into them, walking forward north with weapons honed and ready in hand.

After less than a hundred meters of walking forward, the ground rose into a hill before it began descending enough for them to not be able to see what was in front as if it were a cliff with an unseen abyss below. As they approached, horse’s whinny of a horse came from the other side of the hill, and then two large mounted and hooded players appeared, riding towards them. The Blood Knights prepared weapons, but the two players continued the gait, becoming larger and larger with each step. Once they were close enough, the one that came first drew back his hood.

“Fuck the Aesir…” Lamorak cursed with a smile.

“Missed us?” Galant dryly remarked as he hoped down his horse.

He walked towards them, with the horse’s reins in hand. He stopped a meter away from Kirito and the rest.

“I thought I was a difficult player to kill…” Kirito commented.

Kirito raised his hand and Galant took it firmly. Both laughed as they hugged. He then greeted the rest of the group.

“Who’re you bringing with you?” Kana asked once she released him from her tight hug that almost broke his lungs.

Aki pulled back her hood and Abelia’s as well.

“Two prisoners?” Jack asked.

“Aki helped me to get here; I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. And Abelia has been forced into slavery, now she’s like any of us.”

Aki jumped down her horse. “She’s wounded, but she can live, if her wounds are attended.”

Asuna ran to her and Jack lifted her up on his arms.

“It’s a miracle that we all got here alive,” Galant remarked.

“It won’t be one that lasts for long,” Klein said, “only until Hao comes here with his army.”

“Where’s the entrance to the labyrinth?” Lamorak asked.

“We haven’t seen it,” Galant answered, “but it should be close.”

“Then we got no time to celebrate,” Kirito said, sheathing back Elucidator, “half of you will search for the entrance to the labyrinth and the other half will supervise the army as it crosses the trenches. Send the warriors first to take out any monsters that may spawn in front of us. Once our army passes, we’ll back to the trenches, with shovels and the remaining jars of pitch. There’s something we have to prepare for the Supreme King.”

---

The Blood Knight Camp, or what remained of it, was nothing but a frozen wasteland. Zar did not think of it as much of a camp. A few tent cloaks, wooden poles, ropes, pegs and charcoal of old fires. The defensive wooden spikes pointing towards the Legionary camp remained as well, probably since it was easier to craft new ones rather than carry them. Strangely enough, there were no bodies.

Zar’s thoughts, however, were not in the camp but rather on Hao, gloomy and thought as Zar had ever seen him. She knew the girl Freya had something to tell him, but for the look of it, she did not. He rather seemed to be thinking about the girl and where and why she had escaped while looking around the former rebel camp, emotionless.

Markus was with them as well. The boy gave Zar a few of his smug smiles on the way to the camp, and Zar could do nothing but to clench the pommel of his sword and look somewhere else. Even still, his eyes somehow ended on him again, and Markus gave him that smug smile again.

That made the army’s march to the camp seem so much longer than what it really was.

A soldier came from the camp and knelt before Hao. “My King.”

“Have you found her?” he asked.

“No, my King,” the soldier said, rising from the ground, “and none the soldiers patrolling the southern entrance have seen her.”

That left only one choice. “She left the camp in the middle of the night and the storm to join the Blood Knights?”

“She wouldn’t have had that opportunity if she hadn’t been brought to the camp at all,” Hao bluntly said. Zar saw that he was hiding his anger.

Zar’s eyes then fell on that smug smile draw on Markus’ face as he discreetly shook his head. 

“My king, I thought her to have a just cause to speak with you. I-”

“Give report,” Hao commanded, as Tyr appeared in front of him.

“There’s no sight of Kirito’s army north of the wall,”

“Maybe Mordread engaged them once they crossed them,” Tyr suggested.

“Impossible,” Zar shook his head, “it’s been snowing the whole night and the drifts would be too deep for an army of two thousand players to get to the top of the mountains in less than a day. Even if they did, Kirito has twice that number at the very least.”

“Mordread is the last of our concerns right now,” Markus added, curtly, “those trenches were too deep for thousands of players to just climb up and down several times. How the hell did he pass the trenches?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Hao began walking towards the trenches. Zar followed, as did Markus, Tyr, and nine Kingsguard legionnaires, with their large tower shields, separated into lines of three.

The walk towards the trenches was faster than Zar expected it to be. This time, he ignored Markus’ smirks and remained silent. Hao seemed to be angry with him, so he tried to remain silent to not call on his wrath.

The drifts were thawing with the heat of the day, and the reflection hurt on Zar’s eyes until he grew used to it. By then, he could not believe what he was seeing. A straight pathway had been made with the hundreds of bodies. Most of them were yet frozen, but the heat of the morning was enough to de-freeze some of them, giving away an awful stench.

“Fucking savages,” Zar cursed, forgetting to remain silent.

“He just uses whatever means he has left,” Hao corrected him. “Matters not. They can’t have traveled too far. Give the order to the Legion to advance. I’ll claim what is rightfully mine…”

When Hao finished saying that, he squatted in front of the bodies, and once he did, Zar heard a hiss passing close to his right ear and then a grunt. As he turned, Tyr was on the ground, holding his left arm. Screams came from the other side of the ridge, as another arrow came hissing close to the red feathered crest of Zar’s helm and nailed one of the soldiers behind him in the eye. Hao jumped, barely avoiding an arrow that would have nailed his thigh. As Zar turned and run, a spear caught one of the Kingsguard in the middle of the chest, piercing through armor and flesh. He heard Markus screaming commands choked by the noise everyone made, while the soldier behind him fell to a hail of arrows. As the four commanders fell back; the soldiers stepped forward, forming a large circular wall with their tower shields together. A few projectiles rebounded away from it, while other arrows nailed themselves to the ground as spears flown above the legionnaires and embedded into the ground.

Behind the wall of shields, Zar could finally look across the trenches. Dozens of Blood Knights were hidden under a fifth trench and aimed at them with spears or bow and arrow or magic spells.

Sinon notched drew and loosened constantly while Sybil, Klein, Galant, Jack, and Kana hurled spears at them and Lamorak and Asuna used magic spells. The rest, he did not recognize, except for Kirito, who was in the middle of the line calmly, staring at Hao with a smile. Hao stared back at him with eyes filled with anger and his mouth firmly clenched.

“We must fall back!!!” Zar told him, grasping his shoulder.

Hao wanted to bathe them in a storm of metal with his unique skill, Zar saw that on his face, but he turned around and began walking. Zar and Markus followed quickly, while two soldiers helped Tyr to walk forward. The remaining Kingsguard walked backwards, with their shields and their eyes towards the Blood Knights.

Klein jumped out of the trench they had dug and spread his arms widely. “EVEN THE MIGHTY HAO SHOWS HIS FUCKING ASS AS HE FLEES FROM HIS ENEMIES!!!”

The Blood Knights cheered and roared to Klein’s taunting. .Once it was over, Lamorak spoke.

“He’ll return with his whole army behind him,”

“He’ll return only to find the gruesome bridge we build taken aflame, thanks to the pitch we brought. That should give us enough time to go to the next floor.” Kirito added, “Let’s go as far from here as we can. Once we regain our strength, we’ll honor those who died with future victories, and the blood of the Supreme King.”

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