[[[SAO:NA - Chapter XXXV: The Reprisal]] »
Floor 95th, February 17th, 2027
The sun began rising in the east as the Blood Knights reassumed their march.
Kirito and Asuna walked up to a hill as the guild advanced through the woods on their way east. Warrior players carried swords, axes, shields, spears and other weapons, while those who did not fight carried blankets, branches and ropes for the tents, what little food was left, wineskins with no wine but water and other items. The few animals that survived the storm at the ridge were put to good use. Those who were too weak to walk were carried on carts, pulled by mules, while a few players were lucky enough to ride one of the remaining horses.
The ten days of march north had exacted a toll out of the Knights. Advancing through the Labyrinth and killing the spawning monsters was the easy part, considering they used their numbers against them. It was harder to engage the 94th Boss Floor. It killed two hundred and thirty-six players until they finally took him down.
Kirito thought that after that, the way up to floor 96th would be easier, but the food they had left was gone on the third day of marching. Floor 96th had a tall mountain range in the middle, leaving only two options to advance, going east or west. They decided east and had been walking through a dry forest since then.
Whatever they could scavenge from spawning monsters was not enough to feed an army of thousands of players. They had been lucky enough to find a brook of water on the fourth day and filled whatever recipient they had with it.
On the sixth day, a troop of Legionnaires assaulted their rear, killing two dozens of those players too weak to fight and wounding three and a half. Kirito and his men fought back and killed the soldiers, but the damage was done. Half of the wounded died from the wounds, and a few others fell to the ground, never to rise up again. They were too weak to continue walking or to be put on a cart or to be healed. Kirito took it upon himself to put them down with a quick stab on the heart. They mourned each of the fallen with a few prayers and continued. On the eighth day, the same happened. A larger troop of Legionnaires attacked, this time killing forty players and wounding sixty-three. They fought back and killed them, but two-thirds of the wounded did not live for the next day. Kirito then ordered some of his warriors to remain in the rear and to be expecting a third attack.
Kirito looked upon his men marching. The weak players with scared faces and doubting hearts, walking towards the Labyrinth of floor 95th, the only hope they had to finish the nightmare. Many looked at him, on top of the wall for a few moments, as if they were expecting him to say something inspiring, but he had nothing, so they kept on walking They aren't strong, he told himself So I must be their strength. I won't show any fear, weakness nor doubt, even when my heart fell all the three, my face won't. I'll look forward and keep on looking for a way out of this.
"Kirito," Lamorak called from the base of the hill, "a clutch of Legionnaires attack the rear." Kirito turned to Asuna, "Hasten pace, and lead them until I'm back." and he rushed to the rear, followed by Lamorak.
When they arrived at the tail of the army, they found most of the Legionnaires dead on the ground alongside many Blood Knights.
In the middle of the battlefield was Klein leading the man, as he engaged a group of Legionnaires. Leafa followed him closely alongside Rorge and a few others. On the left, Galant had thrown a rider off his horse, while the right, Jack drew his katana, cleaving through the shield and armor of a soldier. He also saw Kana, Aki, Hogun, and others.
Kirito drew Elucidator and joined the battle.
Klein rammed his katana into the throat of a soldier while he slashed at the shield of another with Dainsleif on his left, the legionary longsword he had taken out of the body of Telken. He then blocked one of the player's slashes and rammed the cross guard into the Legionnaire's face, and the soldier fell hard onto the ground.
"Is that all Hao has to offer today?!" he screamed, drawing back his sword and lifting both of them in the air. "I haven't had my fill of blood!"
Once he slashed the neck of a soldier crawling on the ground, Kirito approached Klein, and all gathered close to him.
Galant was the first to speak. "The third assault of the Legions in five days,"
"Again, with a handful of men," Lamorak added, sheathing his blade into his shield.
"He only wants to gain time so that his legions can get closer to us, knowing we'll slow down to protect the weaker among us," Kirito deduced, "and so far, his strategy seems to be succeeding."
The Legionnaire beneath Klein coughed, much to the surprise of all the Blood Knights. His face was bleeding, and a sword had slashed in between the metal plates that made his armor. Klein approached and readied his blade to stab him, but Kirito took his arm.
"Wait, it can be the only chance we have to get information," Klein nodded, "How many days of marching are between us and Hao?"
"Bite me, you fucking rebel."
Kirito shook his head, "Klein…"
Klein drove his blade into the player's left thigh, and he squirmed in pain but did not speak. The Salamander did it again, this time to his right thigh.
"Three days!!!" he screamed, "three days!"
"Three," Kirito nodded, before looking back to his men. "Help the wounded, gather items, equipment and weapons, and rejoin the march."
He turned to go back with Asuna and the rest, but the soldier's hand caught his ankle. "I told you what you asked; I beg you spare my life."
"I'm not the one you should be begging to," Kirito said before walking away. Two steps after, he heard the player sobbing for his life, then his scream, then the sound a blade piercing through flesh, and then silence.
Floor 95th, February 20th, 2027
In the dark of the night, it was hard for Zar to see through the forest. With the long branches of the tall trees, the moonlight was mostly blocked. The only things lighting their path were the two torches carried by the soldiers behind him. Typically, the Legionnaires carried five or more per troop, but his majesty did not wish to warn the Blood Knights of their approach. Zar thought of it as an unnecessary precaution, considering the rebels were probably days away, but Hao dismissed his comment.
Ever since Freya joined the rebels, Hao had barely slept, spending most of the night drinking almost to the point of drunkenness, and spent most of the day ordering soldiers, with a harder tone than his typical one. The first order was to quell the fire Kirito had made on the trenches, then to create a pathway broad enough for his army to pass, and then he ordered his officers to find the pathway through the labyrinth that led to the next floor.
Once they arrived at floor 95th, he ordered to set an encampment and sent a troop after Kirito's men. The day after, they continued their pursuit, following the squad. The routine was fourteen hours of walking without stop, and the other ten to set camp, eat, sleep, weak up and prepare for the next day. It had been almost two weeks of repeating the same routine.
Three days after he had sent the third squad, Hao sent another and a third squad three days after that. As the whole guild marched, they had found the remains of the first two troops alongside a few Blood Knights. They came across the first squad two days ago and the second one the day after. Their corpses mangled, with lost limbs, slashed bodies and chopped heads. Weapons and broken pieces of metal and wood were spread through the battleground, same as splashes and pools of blood. From the look and the foul smell of the corpses of the second group, they could tell they were four days behind Kirito.
Once they had set camp that day, one of the scouts returned, stating he spotted the third group, dead, just like the other two.
Hao decided to go and check the bodies himself, with Markus, Zar, and Tyr with him, alongside the scout, ten Kingsguard legionnaires and a troop of thirty soldiers. After walking for ten minutes, they found the troop, annihilated, just like the other two. Markus knelt on the ground, touched the head and then brought the fingers to his nose. "Three days, by the stench."
"We've gained another day on Kirito," Hao said, stoically.
"It shouldn't surprise us," Zar said, his arms crossed, "the men have barely rested since the ridge."
"And they won't this night either," he turned to Tyr, "give the order to the fourth squad to rise from sleep and continue the pursuit. The rest will follow promptly on the morrow."
Zar shook his head. "With all due respect, your majesty, it's been days since the soldiers have properly rested. You're pushing them too much."
"Our enemy is three days ahead of us and advancing towards floor 100th, and right now we are gaining," Markus protested, as he always did with Zar's counsel. Not like Zar did otherwise with Markus' own counsel. "Now's not the time for soft commands."
"I think of the long run," Zar countered, "an army on the brink of collapse is ill-fit to fight the Blood Knights in an open battle."
"Maybe my guild needs a proper motivation to keep on going," Hao stated, "any Legionnaire who is unable to keep pace will be executed immediately."
"Wasn't Decimatio threat enough…" Zar protested.
Hao cut him off. "I won't let Kirito sleep from my fucking grasp!"
Hao rarely cursed, and if he did, he had a proper cause to do it. Zar did not know what to counter.
"My king," Tyr said, "Mordread and his men have arrived. He demands a meeting with you, immediately."
They had not seen Mordread and his guild since Hao had ordered them to go to the northern entrance to the ridge so that they could attack the Blood Knights by both sides, but the plan failed when the Blood Knights had found a way to cross the trenches meant to trap them. It had taken the League almost two weeks to march through the pass to rejoin the Legions.
"At last, the mad dog appears," Zar said.
"Order the fourth squad to follow Kirito," Hao told Tyr, "I'll get rid of my cousin now." The whole group turned around, and walked the way back they came.
Outside of Hao's tent, Mordread's three right-hand men awaited. Sabrac was playing with a dagger, tossing it to the air and then catching by the handle. Each time she threw it, it was higher and faster than the one before. Yakuza was sitting down on wooden, honing his katana with a whetstone. Zar wondered how he knew the blade had regained its edge with his bandaged eyes. Whipper stood with his arms closed, a furrowed brow on his face, like always. He was the one who approached, while the other two ignored the upcoming group. The Gnome towered above Hao by a head, even when he had his crown on.
"Lord Mordread awaits you in your tent," he said.
No respect, like always from Mordread's dogs. Zar thought.
Hao did not seem to be annoyed by this, or if he did, he hid it well. He entered the tent without words, followed by Zar and Markus.
Mordread was there, sitting on a chair with his left foot resting on his right knee, drinking undine wine. "Coz and company," he said turning to them. He had removed his mask, revealing his purple scar running from his forehead, through his right eye and cheek and finishing close to his mouth. "I've been expecting you. Come, let's drink to-"
"Mordread," Hao cut him off as he removed his helm, "why're you here?"
"Straight to the point, like always," Mordred took the whole cup in a single sip, then stood up, "you dispatched me north to make our final move on Kirito's forces, only to find out they've slipped from your grasp."
"A simple miscalculation, one that will soon be corrected," Hao countered, as he circled around his desk and laid his helm on it.
"Miscalculation," Mordread repeated, "that's a way of putting it. My way would be "Kirito made me look a twat of myself"."
Zar tightened his grip on his sword's handle. He would not dare to attack the Salamander in Hao's presence and with his guild outside, but it was the only way to release tension.
"Kirito only prolonged his fall," Hao said, "if you're so displeased, you and your two thousand men are more than welcome to follow him."
"So, you want me to do the job you and your men fail to do? No, I'm done picking up your shit and cleaning your ass."
Hao stared at him for a brief moment, "If it weren't for me, you would've never gotten this far, not without the army I gave you. You're only here because of me. Or have you forgotten about our alliance?"
"You really think those men are following you? Or do they follow the commands of the men they truly fear? You and I got our benefits from our alliance, but now that is no longer. I've been quivering for a fight for a while, and you disappoint me. I doubt you'll be able to defeat Kirito and his shits."
Hao walked around the table, with a calm tone. Zar could tell he was hiding his anger deep inside. "Nothing changes so radically by Kirito slipping from my fingers once. As I've told you on several occasions, I'll crush the Blood Knights with you beside me."
"Nice statement, but it comes from the man whose personal whore joined Kirito!"
Faster than Zar could expect, Hao struck Mordread's face and the Salamander fell to the ground.
Zar stood a step forward, but Markus took hold of his arm. "Don't interfere," he whispered.
Mordread moved his hand aside from his mouth, revealing two red tendrils dripping from his nostrils that reached to his chin. He looked up at Hao, with his golden eyes locked against Mordread's reds, and he smiled. "I just hit the right bullseye, haven't I?" he said as he rose from the ground, "It seems that the even the mighty Supreme King loses all control over himself without a good pair of tits and a tight hole."
Hao slammed his forehead against Mordread's nose, and he fell to the ground, flat on his back. His lips and chin were covered in blood and his nose was twisted to a side. He then began laughing loudly in between gargles of blood.
Hao walked closer and grabbed his grey shirt, lifting his upper body a few inches from the ground.
"Yeah, let me help you get that arousal out of your system."
"Shut up!!!" Hao screamed as he slammed his right fist against Mordread's face.
"Oh, yeah!!!" the Salamander screamed and then laughed again.
The next strike was backhand with his knuckles, the next was a blow to his jaw, and the next one was a blow to his eye.
"Yes! More!!! Oh! More! Yes!!!"
Hao kept on hitting him to the point that Zar had lost count of the number of blows. Mordread's face was covered in blood, his left eye was black, his lips swallowed, and his mouth filled with blood. But the Salamander kept on madly laughing, even when Hao stopped the beating and drew a dagger from his invisible armory, aiming to his throat.
The flaps of the tent clashed with each other as the three of Mordread's right-hand men entered. Whipper had unleashed the whips from his back and his arms, while Sabrac had slid free her sword and dagger from her belt. The only Yakuza remained without a weapon in hand, but he was pushing his katana slightly out of its scabbard with his left thumb.
"HIRO!!!" Zar screamed, with opened hand extended towards his King.
Hao looked at him, then at the three players on the entrance with their weapons ready and then to Mordread, who simply looked back at him. The dagger on his hand disappeared into golden dust.
"If you want a battle, I'll give one to you. An army of multiple races is getting closer to us from the lower floors. I was wondering what to do with them, but now I have an answer. You and your army will eliminate them, leave no one alive." Hao pulled him closer to him. "And if you ever speak to me in a disrespectful manner again, you'll find no place in Aincrad where you'll be safe from my wrath!"
He then released him with a push to the ground. Slowly, the Salamander rose from the ground, spit out the blood out of his mouth. He then walked to Hao's desk and picked up his mask before turning to Hao.
"Your majesty," he said while bowing his head before putting his mask on with a smile, a few teeth missing from his mouth. He then walked out of the tent, followed by his three men.
Hao then turned to both of his Generals on the tent, but Zar did not recognize the man behind those golden eyes. He only saw a raging beast.
"Make sure the League leaves before dawn," he said, "and the fourth squad to continue the pursuit of Kirito."
After three days of march without an attack on the rear, the Blood Knights had set camp close to the edge of the forest.
As Kirito walked around camp, Klein and Lamorak accompanied him.
"Give word to be ready to continue at any moment's notice," Kirito told Lamorak. It had been three days since the last attack, but he did not want to risk it.
"I hate running like rabbits from a hunter," Klein said.
"We all do," Kirito countered, "but we have no other choice here, at least not until we can find a way to turn the odds in our favor."
"For the time being a hard but the only path we have left," Lamorak added, "however, I'd prefer one paved with heads of Legionnaires."
"Our heads will pave theirs if we're not cautious enough."
"Caution," Klein repeated, "judging for the six months, I thought you didn't know that word." "I'm thinking of those less capable of fighting," Kirito differed.
"Nevertheless, we won't be able to fight against Hao if our ranks are poorly fed."
"I'm with Klein on that one," Lamorak said. It was rare to see him agreeing with Klein. "The supplies we had from the ridge are gone; whatever we're eating is what we found on the road." Kirito saw Galant nearby, helping a group of players to set up a tent.
"Galant!" he called, and the blue knight turned, "once you're done with that search for Hogun, Sybil and Sinon and scout ahead. I'd like to know if we can find enough food for all of us." Galant nodded and returned to help the players.
"For the moment, we can keep on walking to the upper levels, but sooner or later, we'll have to turn around and face Hao."
Kirito looked down and slightly bobbed his head. "I'll go check on the wounded, you guys rest." And he walked away.
The medical tent was the largest and widest of all in the camp, with enough space to allow sixty players to sleep inside in three lines of twenty. With the forty wounded that remained from the three attacks during the thirteen-day- march, it was the only one which could host all. They had placed ones with the worst wounds on the left line, and the ones with simple wounds on the right. A dozen or so healers were in the tent as well, walking from left to right and attending as many people as they could.
Asuna was one among them, healing a spear wound on the side of a young female player alongside Abelia. After her wound had fully healed, the Pooka had decided to help Asuna and those wounded.
The wounded girl seemed in pain, but her eyes widened when he saw Kirito kneeling down next to her. "Black swordsman," she said impressed. She appeared to have the same age as Yui.
Kirito patted her head, "be still child, these two ladies are going to help you."
The young girl nodded and offered a hand to Kirito, which he held.
He then turned to Asuna, who smiled at him.
"How many died?" he asked.
"We had almost seventy wounded after the last attack three days ago," she said. Her hands beamed sky-blue light. When she placed them on the girl's side, she almost shook in pain, but Kirito tightened his grasp around her hand and took hold of her arm, that seemed to calm her down. "Now we have forty. We had to put down at least ten, way beyond saving."
"How many warriors died?"
"Few, compared to those players that wouldn't make a difference against Hao's hordes," Abelia said.
Kirito clenched his fist and jaw, "thirty people in three days. I'll double our defenses on the rear once the moon reaches its zenith."
"What about tomorrow?" Asuna asked. She removed the hands of the girl's body once the wound was almost closed. She then wrapped it around with white fabrics. "How many innocent players among us die until this ends? Until somebody defeats the final floor's boss, how many players will we have to or kill put down?"
Kirito knew that since most of the Legionnaires were not VRSMA users, most of their dead would not die in real life as well. However, since the players had join Kirito because they all believed in him, he had grown to see all their in-game lives as a responsibility.
I don't know, he wanted to say, but he did not what anyone in the tent to hear that. A scream came from the other side of the tent.
Kirito and Asuna jumped up.
"I'm sorry for interrupting," a voice called. She was a Sylph, with emerald eyes and long golden hair that reached half of her back. She wore a long brown hooded robe that reached past covered from her neck to her feet, leaving only her hands visible, covered in fingerless black gloves. "I need aid!"
The couple and Abelia walked towards her as well.
The Sylph was attending a young player with a badly wounded left calf that had turned dark red. His foot was covered in dry blood, and darkening blood vessels were spreading up his leg, like black tendrils that reached to his knee. There was a bandage next to him, so filled with dry blood it had turned black.
The Sylph knelt next to him and took out a belt from her loosened sleeves. "We need to cut his leg, or the rot will spread."
"NO!" the player screamed, covering his left leg, "Don't, please!"
Asuna knelt down next to her, and Kirito pushed the player down to the ground and held him strongly by the shoulders as the Sylph tightened the belt around the player's thigh.
"Please leader!" he begged, "I don't want to have my leg sewed off!"
"You'll die if you don't," Kirito argued.
"Your leg can regrow with time," Asuna said, "but you'll die if we don't cut it off now."
Kirito forced a piece of leather into the player's mouth, "Bite on it, it's better than biting off your own tongue, and whatever you do, don't look."
The Sylph girl began moving the saw right and right and left and right. The player screamed loudly, even with the leather on his mouth. He twisted and turned, but Kirito and Asuna held him tightly as she moved the blade. The player kept on screaming until the limb was cut, then he passed out.
She then drew a piece of cloth from her sleeve and tied a tourniquet close to the cut, before wrapping the stump with a clean bandage. At last, she placed her fingers on his neck, and after a few seconds removed them with a smile.
"He passed out, but he'll live. Give this man some wine, he'll need it for the pain," the Sylph girl said while she wrapped the limb in the old bandage.
A few wounded players clapped in amusement, closely followed by all the players in the tent. The Sylph girl blushed, rubbing her cheek and looking down to the ground. Once the clapping had died out and all players had returned to their own, she walked out of the tent after with a jar of water, followed by Kirito, Asuna, and Abelia.
"That was quite impressive," Asuna said, "I've healed lots of players before, but I've never sewn off a limb and saved the player."
"You're too kind, your majesty," she said with a quick bow.
"You have no need of those courtesies," Kirito said, "We're not Hao. We're only the leader of the guild, not your Kings."
"How did you acquire those skills?" Abelia asked.
"I helped those wounded in my former guild. I had the chance to do this on many occasions, though it was before the war, when the Pain Absorber was ten and not zero. I did it to save them from the death penalty."
"What happened to them?" Asuna asked.
The girl seemed to stammer before responding. "They died, fighting the Legions."
"I'm sorry," Asuna said, bowing her head in apology, "I shouldn't have asked."
"Your apologies are unnecessary, I…" she stopped talking, and her eyes widened as if she had seen a ghost.
"Kirito!" a voice called from behind of them. They turned and saw Jack walking towards them, carrying his sheathed katana on his left hand. "We've found a few monsters to hunt, enough to feed a large group of players for the night."
"That would be enough. Thank you, Jack."
Jack looked at Asuna, "Something happened?"
"No, this girl is a lifesaver" When all of them turned, the Sylph girl had donned her hood, covering her face.
"You're most kind," she said.
"Thank you for your help again," Asuna said, "what's your name?"
The girl stammered yet again, "I'm Syvia, a pleasure to meet you all." After that, she bowed and walked back to the tent, but a white blur flashed behind her and the hood of her cape flew away. The sword then came again, stopped touching her throat.
"Jack!" Asuna screamed when he saw the Imp in front of Syvia with his blade drawn.
"Put the sword down, now!" Kirito ordered, reaching up for Elucidator.
"Sorry, but I can't follow that command," Jack countered, before turning his eyes to her, "I can't, because she lied. She isn't who she says she is."
All three widened eyes. Syvia's lip trembled and her eyes looked down in between blinks. "Who's she then?" Kirito asked.
"Let me present to you, Freya, a member of the Supreme Legion and Hao's personal attendant."
Kirito walked next to her and looked directly into her eyes. She tried to form some words, but her lips were trembling. "Seize her," he told Jack.
The Lone Ronin then grabbed the girl's nape and placed the tip of his sword on her back, "You try anything and I'll pierce your heart in less than a second."
"Come, we'll question her," Kirito walked first, followed by the three Blood Knights and their new prisoner. They rushed up a small hill where Kirito's tent had been set. Once inside, Jack pulled the robe away from her, revealing she was wearing a female version of the uniform of the Legions under the brown robes.
"So it's true?" Kirito asked when he saw her uniform, "you were Hao's personal attendant?"
"Don't lie," Jack said, still holding the point of his blade against her back.
"I was!" she admitted, with teary eyes.
"Another spy to infiltrate our ranks!" Jack deduced, tightening the grip on his blade. "What type of spy would heal his enemies?" Abelia argued.
"One sent by the man trying to kill all of us!" Jack countered.
"He didn't send me!" Freya cried, "I fled the Legionary camp during the night and crossed no-man's land to join you."
"Why did you run away from him, knowing you betrayed your King?" Kirito asked, drawing Elucidator and aiming it at her chest. She remained silent with shaking knees. "Talk! Or you won't be able to talk again!"
"She's a fugitive from the Kingdom of Aincrad, same as all of us, regardless of which guild she once was" Asuna blurted out, "she deserves protection, not threats of death."
"That's only for players who reveal to us their intentions when joining," Kirito said. Freya held back her tears, "Hao himself hasn't hurt me in any way, but his younger brother has. And he would've continued doing so if I remained with them."
Kirito looked directly into her eyes, silently, and remained like that for unending seconds until he let down the blade.
"She can stay, but under supervision. She's your responsibility Asuna. She won't be able to walk in the camp with those clothes; find her new ones," Kirito walked a step closer to Freya, "just know that if we find out that you lied to us, she won't live to tell his Majesty what you've learned from us."
Freya put back on her cloak and walked out, followed by the two girls.
Jack waved his blade in the air, and slowly sheathed it back. Once the chape clicked with the scabbard, he spoke. "I don't like this."
"Neither do I," Kirito admitted, "but Asuna's right. No matter from where they came, we can't turn our backs on player who wishes to be free of the Kingdom of Aincrad."
Zar had supper alone in his tent. Roasted beef spiced with peppers, garlic, and parsley alongside a salad and a cup of wine. However, when he remembered Hao beating Mordread and the gore on the ground, his appetite was gone. He threw the wine to the floor and ordered the soldier outside his tent to fetch him water.
Once he returned with a jar, he remained sitting on his chair, remembering between long sips of the whole brutal scene on his head. Hao's rage, Mordread's madness, the blood dripping on to the ground of the tent and the feral animal that had taken control of his king.
‘‘What can I do to stop that rage?‘‘ He wondered. I have to do something. Anything. Since we became friends, Hiro always trusted me to be a right hand of his, and to do what was right for the guild and the kingdom. And then he remembered: he was not the only right hand Hao had. He jumped from his chair and walked across the camp, going to the opposite side. No soldier was standing ground at the entrance of Markus' tent, and the flaps had been tied opened, so he entered. Markus was sitting next to the table, eating the same roasted beef and salad alongside Gnaeus and that other soldier he did not know the name. Zar could only wonder how he could eat after what he had witnessed.
Markus raised his eyes to look at him and returned to the plate after. "I don't remember calling you here."
Impolite, like always. Zar tried to keep his witty comebacks out of his head this time. He had something more important to do. "I had to come here to talk to you."
"Can't you see I'm eating? Wait until I'm finished."
Fucking brat. He walked a step closer to the table, "I'm concerned about your brother." Markus gave Gnaeus a quick look and a nod, and the two soldiers stood up, walked out of the tent and untied the flaps, leaving both generals alone.
Markus spoke first. "What worries so much about him?"
"His erratic ups and downs," Zar answered. He slowly walked to his left and then to his right as he spoke "His attitude since Solnia's Ridge has been, unsettling to say the least. The conduct he's demanding from the soldiers since then is borderline inhuman."
"He's just commanding as any King should, with a firm hand."
"I'd rather say he's commanding with an iron fist, or have you forgotten what we just saw?" "Mordread spoke out of term," Markus got up and poured some wine into his glass from a jar on a table next to the tent's wall.
"Like Mordread always does. He's an idiot, you'll find no arguments of me defending him. But this idiot is a VRSMA user and the leader of the most powerful guild ally we currently have."
"And my brother is the leader of the largest and the most powerful guild in ALO."
"And his reply was far too excessive, especially for someone like him, who's take pride in always being calm and rational."
"Even he has limits to his patience, and the fact that we have been following Kirito for almost two weeks has filled his. Mordread was only the drop that made the glass slip over." Markus took a sip from his drink.
Zar shook his head. "That wasn't the main thing that angered him. We're at war Markus, and fighting the most powerful adversary we've ever faced. One that will exploit even the slightest weakness we show, and push all of us to our doom."
Markus placed the half-filled glass on the bigger table and sighed. "Stop circling around it, and get to your fucking point already. My supper is getting cold."
"Hao's beloved brother has regained his favor. A few words from your mouth may help him to regain reason, and help him get over Freya's escape."
"The fucking cock between your legs!!!" the young prince yelled. "That's why you've come to me! You want me to soothe his rage before he focuses it on you! After all, you're the one who smuggled Freya into the camp, and gave her the opportunity to betray us."
This won't work. Zar realized. He sighed and looked at the ground, remembering the conversation he had with Freya on Hao's office, and how she did not want to tell him what had happened between her and the young prince. That was when Zar rose his eyes, meeting Markus' own. "She begged to me with tearful eyes to do it, so she could talk to Hao, about his fucking younger brother."
"You're so simple Zar. That was nothing but a ruse! An excuse to join Hao in the mountain camp so that she could escape and join the Blood Knights."
"You're right," Zar agreed, much to Markus' surprise, "there was a ruse, but not one crafted by Freya against his majesty." Zar placed both hands on the table and bent forward, closer to Markus while keeping his eyes set on him. "What did you do to her boy, to make her flee in fear?"
Markus remained silent, with his golden eyes fixed on Zar's onyx, but Zar did not expect anything else from him. "Did you force that tiny cock of yours inside her?"
"You are fucking overstepping, soldier!!!"
"I've forgotten my place quite a few times, but this time, we both know I'm not. I'll do everything in my power to find out what you've done to her, and then your brother will regain his reason once she finds out that Freya isn't the one who betrayed him."
Zar saw the impotence in Markus' eyes after he stopped talking. With a smug smile, he turned walked out of the tent with a confident stride, leaving the young prince aghast and alone.
Klein was honing his blade inside his tent when Leafa came looking for him, saying that Galant and the others had returned from the scouting, and Kirito was setting up a reunion. He sheathed back the blade and swung his swordbelt across his chest. When he came out, he realized it was midnight by the position of the moon.
He walked to Kirito's tent on the small hill and inside found his three fellow generals and Galant sitting in front of a table with a holographic map on it.
A single chair was empty, and Klein took it, right between Galant and Lamorak, and in front of Kirito.
"What did you see?" Klein asked, turning to the blue knight.
Galant pointed at the map, drawing what he saw with his index finger, "A valley, with hundreds of monsters on it and a river that flows from the mountains north. And beyond that, the labyrinth to the next floor."
"Then let's attack once the sun rises," Klein suggested, "and we'll be able to feast day and night."
"After that, we'll cross the river and turn southwest," Kirito added. "completing the circle around the mountains in the middle and arriving back at the entrance to floor 95th."
"You want to assault Hao in his own rear?" Klein asked, smirking.
"No, I want to go back to floor 94th, and once we're there go to the edge of Aincrad's castle and allow all the players unable to fight away from Aincrad."
The smirk banished from Klein's face.
He remembered one the rules of the Great Aincrad War. Any player was free to leave the event anytime they wished so, but if they did; they were not allowed to join ever again. Wide-eyed, he looked at the other three players in the tent. Galant and Asuna seemed unmoved after hearing Kirito's plan, but Lamorak frowned and remained looking at the table.
"Has he at last gone fucking mad?" he asked.
"Think of it Klein," Asuna said.
"Hao's pursuing an army easily tracked," Galant added.
"If we divide our army into thousands of players, not even he has resources enough to find so many scattered across the Alfheim Continent."
"All that we've accomplished, All that we've lost, it would've been for nothing if we turn around and flee with our tail between our legs."
"If we stay and keep on going to the upper floor, Hao will be attacking our rear in less than a week." Kirito countered.
"Let them!" Lamorak stated, eager to fight the legions again, "we've bested them before!"
"Perhaps we will again, but what would be the cost? How many innocent players have died already, and how many would die if we continue going north that way. I want them to be free, without the shadow of Hao even near."
"If that's what you really want, then let's pierce its heart, and we'll destroy the shadow forever," Klein exclaimed. "We only need to separate our forces in the next floor into several groups, then rejoin forces to fight against the boss, then separate again. That way, Hao will only be able to track smaller portions of our army at a time, slowing him down as well. If we keep on repeating that strategy, we'll arrive at the 100th floor before Hao eliminated all of us."
"You want to advance on a near-suicidal mission to floor 100th?!" Kirito asked.
"I want to see the Kingdom tremble!" Klein countered, "as you promised when we formed this guild and started this war."
There was a pause and a silence after as Kirito and Klein looked at each other.
"Leave us," Kirito ordered. Lamorak, Asuna, and Galant rose from their chairs and walked out of the tent.
Klein was the first to talk. His tone has softened. "You know that I'm right on this one. How many Legionnaires have we defeated? The Kingdom trembles when they hear the name Kirito, and his army, the Knights of the Blood Oath."
"We've given the beast a decent enough fight, but to aim our fangs to its throat…" he paused for a moment, "I'm afraid of the reprisal."
Klein chuckled, "The Black Swordsman, the player who defeated Kayaba Akihiko is afraid?" "Not for myself, for all those players who've trusted me to defend them. How many of them have I failed so far? How many more will I fail if Hao encounters all of us on a battlefield? How do I protect so many players unable to fight the Legions? There's only one choice: run and let them be free."
"I've grown tired of running from them without having the chance to win."
"Then we should rest-"
Klein interrupted him. "I don't want that either! And many warriors among us share my thoughts. We want to see the Kingdom of Aincrad beneath our feet."
Kirito shook his head. "You want us to march to our doom."
"No, I want us to look to the whole continent of Aincrad from the top floor. There is where we'll be free, truly free.
"Do you really think that Hao'll stop once most of the army is out of the war? That he'll be satisfied by that and he'll take his crown as the King of Aincrad, becoming a game master, and forget about the continent beneath his floating castle? He won't. He won't because we've shown that he's vulnerable! We've shown to him how we turned a trembling hand into a powerful fist. We've shown them that we have another choice than submission, to stand and fight for what we believe to be right! By compliance, many players among us have helped built Hao's mighty Kingdom, with their hands, blood, and lives! We all together, by fighting back, can see his kingdom fall, at that equal cost."
Klein bent forward, "You were the one who opened my eyes to this, Kirito. Don't ask me to close them now."
Kirito looked down at the map, and his mind returned to the two years inside, the death game. "It was simpler in SAO, where all we had to do was to push to the upper levels, and without thinking who might defeat the final boss."
"It's been more than three years since then," Klein remembered, before looking back at his leader. "With or without you, I'll go to the upper levels, with those who share my desire for absolute victory against the Legions."
"We've fought to have the choice our own paths," he then looked back at his friend, "I won't stand in your way anymore."
Klein straightened his back, silent, looking at the ground until he raised his eyes. "At tomorrow's dawn then, we'll finally separate our paths." He turned around and walked to the exit.
"Klein," Kirito called him, "there's one final thing we have to do, together."