Volume 24 Chapter 5

Despite the unplanned battle, I successfully met up with Argo as we’d promised on the train and intended to head straight back to the Great Zeruethelial Forest.

But then, Argo said she wanted to return to the Stith Ruins. She gave me two reasons.

One was to see what happened to the quest «Ancient Vengeful Ghost».

And the other was to sneak into the groups’ joint meeting that was to be held in the center of the ruins at 10 PM—.

 

 

“…Well, I’m interested in it too, but… Is it okay for outsiders to attend that meeting?”

When I asked this as we walked toward the north gate of the Stith Ruins, Argo replied, coiling the ends of her hair around her fingertips.

“It’ll be fine, there’ll be like close to a hundred people in attendance. Well, we’ll have to get creative with our outfits”

“Well… this doesn’t look like starting equipment, nor like anything brought over from ALO…”

After looking down at the rugged metal armor that was clad all over my body and muttering that, I suddenly realized.

“Wait, no, we can take off our armor, but what about Kuro? Doesn’t he stand out like a sore thumb”

Kuro, walking gracefully on my right, had a stately appearance, with a head-to-tail length of slightly over two meters. Even though a few players seemed to have pets with them, this panther wouldn’t be inconspicuous.

“Oh, yeah… There are plenty of empty, abandoned houses, can’t we have him wait there?”

“Well, it’s not like we can’t, but…”

While I was at school, Kuro seemed to spend free time playing with Agah and the others, patrolling the town, and taking a nap. Even after more than eight hours away from his owner, there was no sign of its tamed status being released, so it seemed possible to have him wait for about thirty minutes. Still, we weren’t familiar with this place—not to mention a place where other players were roaming around, so I was worried about taking my eyes off him.

“Then, I’ll stay with Kuro.”

Alice said from my left, and I turned my face toward her.

“Eh, are you sure?”

“I don’t really like being in crowds. Instead, I’ll let you handle the shopping that Sinon asked me to do.”

I took the coins offered to me in a leather bag and put them away in my own belt pouch.

“Of course I’ll do that much… but I don’t think they sell bullets or gunpowder”

“That can’t be helped. Seriously, just don’t embezzle that money on sweets”

“I’m not a kid, you know”

I protested, and Argo laughed with a “Nihihi.”

I put all my metal armor back into storage and draped a large coarse cloth over my clothes as a cloak, looking completely like a «low-level player from just after the end of the grace period». Alice had been wearing a hooded cloak the whole time, so removing her armor didn’t change much. Only our swords were left in place because I was worried about removing them, but they were mostly hidden by our cloaks.

“Wah, I can’t wait to get my hands on one of those hooded cloaks. It’s hard to calm down when your face is left uncovered.”

By the time Argo said that, the northern gate of the Stith Ruins was already close ahead. The surrounding ground was trampled, compacted soil, with very little vegetation growing.

“Tell me that sooner. If we were in a place where we could pluck a lot of grass, I could’ve made a cloth like this.”

“Ehh, so that’s made of grass?”

“Not that just any grass can become cloth, though”

“Give me that, then”

“Nah, not a chance”

As we were arguing over this, Alice opened the ring menu.

“I’m pretty sure there was some extra cloth left over, so I’ll make you a hooded cloak.”

“Eh, you sure, Ali-cchi?

“Hey, don’t give her such a random nickname”

“Fufu, it’s fine. It’s fun to be called by a nickname”

Alice, showing a magnanimous expression, quickly navigated the sewing skill’s production menu. With that, a gray hooded cloak appeared on the window.

“Ehh, it’s just a button press, huh. That’s very convenient”

Alice held out the cloak to the impressed Argo while commenting, “The only things I can make from the menu are these simple items”

“Here, Argo”

“Thanks, Ali-cchi, I’ll never forget this favor”

Argo, who received it in thanks, wore the cloak on top of the leather armor that she probably brought from ALO. If she pulled the hood down far enough, she’d look exactly like the «Rat» from the SAO era—I wanted to say that, but it was a shame that she didn’t have three whiskers on her cheeks.

If only I had a permanent marker, I’d catch her and scribble the whiskers on, I insolently thought as I looked her up and down.

“Kii-bou, you shouldn’t gawk at a lady’s face”

“I-I’m sorry”

I hurriedly apologized and returned my gaze to look ahead.

Looking up from up close, the Stith Ruins were even more massive than I had imagined. The outer walls were probably over thirty meters tall. Each of the stone blocks used as materials was more than a meter wide, and as for how all this was stacked up and then destroyed, I had no clue.

The gate’s decorations were also elaborate and led me to believe that this must have been a beautiful metropolis before it was destroyed. But now, no residents or merchants were passing through the gate.

Surprisingly, there were no players in sight either. At least 5000 players had been forced to convert from ALO to Unital Ring, and almost all of them should’ve still been using the ruins as their base. It was just after 9 PM, the prime time for VRMMO players. There should have been an endless stream of players going to the field to hunt or returning to resupply. 

When I voiced this concern, Argo gave me a simple answer.

“Ah, because the north gate isn’t very popular.”

“Huh? Popular?”

“This is also information I got from the Wiki. Apparently, it’s because the roads are complicated, making it difficult to access the center, and because the respawn patterns of the mobs in the northern field are bad. That’s why I chose to meet you here.”

“Haha… But still, there isn’t a single person to be seen here…”

“You know, Kii-bou, of all of the ALO players, no, The Seed players, who were converted to this world, not everyone is still playing. My guess is less than half… maybe even a third. The rest of the players are just sitting back and waiting for things to get sorted out, including the ALO lords.”

“………”

Come to think of it, that was probably the common sense response. The Unital Ring Incident was indeed an «incident»—if we considered that players paid a monthly fee to the companies operating their respective games, this was already a criminal anomaly. Only optimists, egoists, or game-addicts would be willing to believe in unconfirmed announcements and aim to reach the «Land Indicated by the Aurora».

In other words, what we were about to infiltrate was a gathering of such people. People like Mocri and Schultz, if I were to describe them in a nutshell, were «guys who were way too serious».

As I had unknowingly stopped in my tracks, Alice, Argo, and Kuro were silently waiting for me slightly ahead.

“Ah… sorry.”

I apologized quietly and resumed walking.

As I passed through the half-crumbled gate, I felt the temperature drop a bit. The wide cobblestone road stretched forward for ten meters before it was stopped by a new wall and branched off to the left and right.

“There should be some nice empty houses this way”

Argo said as she led the way, while Alice, Kuro, and I silently followed.

 

 

The houses in the Stith Ruins were built connected to the inside of the multi-layered walls. This structure seemed to be the worst for exposure to the sun, but that shouldn’t have been a reason for the city to be destroyed.

The building itself was a magnificent stone apartment reminiscent of an ancient European city, but most of it had collapsed like the city walls. Insect-type and small-animal-type monsters had probably built their nests in such an abandoned house like this one, so I hurried ahead without getting too close.

The house Argo led us to had a massive hole in the roof, but the front door and stairs were fine, and there was only one room on the second floor. Alice and Kuro remained there on standby while Argo and I headed for the center of the ruins.

As we turned left and right through the complicated corridors, I completely lost my sense of direction, but Argo continued moving quickly without hesitation as if she had some exceptional ability. After going for what felt like six or seven hundred meters, a waterway appeared ahead of us. It seemed to be a sort of boundary line, and as soon as I crossed the collapsed bridge, the surrounding atmosphere changed.

There were cast-iron bonfire pits placed at equal intervals along the street, their orange flames flickering in the air. As we continued on, smaller-scale stalls appeared on the left and right sides of the road, and the number of NPCs and players began to increase. Unital Ring, unlike SAO, didn’t display cursors just by focusing your gaze. However, the NPCs had morbidly pale skin and were dressed in ancient Roman-style piercing robes, so I could easily recognize them. The only items for sale at the stalls were all low-grade material items, with no bullets nor gunpowder to be found.

“…The Basin tribe looked very healthy, so why do the NPCs in this city look so terribly pale…”

When I subconsciously mumbled this to myself, Argo, who was walking next to me, shrugged.

“Well, that’s what happens when you live in a place like this.”

“It feels like they’re of a different race. What tribe are the NPCs here part of?”

“Who knows… But then again, we basically don’t understand anything the NPCs are saying. The only exception seems to be the shop owners.”

“Ah, I see…”

So it was probably the same as the Basin and Pattel tribes. According to Sinon, you could obtain each of the language skills by learning a particular word from an NPC who could understand your language and repeating its pronunciation.

I’d like to be able to eventually control the languages of all races, but how much time would I need… As I walked along while thinking that, small shops began appearing in between roadside stalls: a tool shop, then an apothecary, then a weapon shop.

“Can I take a look at that weapon shop for a moment?”

“I already checked that place. There were no guns, no bullets, and no gunpowder, either.”

“…Ah, I guess not then.”

I figured that I would have to go to the Giyol Flatlands to get the materials for gunpowder after all, so I kept walking. After fifty meters or so, the modest shopping street ended, and we saw a magnificent arch in our path.

After passing through it, it looked like we’d reached the center of the Stith Ruins.

The circular square was surrounded by large buildings, such as a castle and a church, and in the center was an amphitheater built of stone that looked like the Colosseum in Rome. The outer wall, lined with countless arches, was half-collapsed as usual, but I could feel the presence of innumerable humans from the inside.

“…Is that the venue for the joint meeting?”

“That’s it”

Argo nodded and put her face close to my ear, continuing as softly as possible.

“Okay, if anyone asks you which group you’re on, say «Announcer-chan’s Fan Club». It’s the largest group, and the members aren’t managed well, so it should be easier not to get exposed”

“Haha… just to be sure, Announcer-chan is the one with the voice I heard when the first day’s grace period ended, right? The “I shall grant thee everything” person”

“I haven’t heard her voice”

“Ah, that’s right…”

But that was the only time there was anything resembling a system announcement in Unital Ring, so my guess was probably not wrong. It was definitely an attractive-sounding voice, though.

“…They must be quite experienced to start a fan club based on just a voice. We don’t even know if the voice’s owner is human, divine, or demonic, or if they’re even humanoid in the first place”

“That’s better. It’s because they don’t know”

After uttering that spot-on remark, Argo began to walk briskly toward the stadium.

We crossed the polished cobblestone plaza to reach the main gate. After passing through a dimly lit corridor, we emerged into the arena instead of the spectator seating.

Nearly 100 players were hanging out in the 50-meter-diameter space, just as Argo had informed me. Most of them were wearing cloth equipment, but some could be seen wearing leather armor and chainmail. From looking at their designs, they probably weren’t created in this world but were instead inherited from ALO. If these one hundred people were the top-notch group of ALO converts, it would mean that none of them had been able to reach the level of an iron civilization yet.

There was a stone stage on the north side of the arena with many bonfires set up. That was probably where the organizers would appear. Argo and I took up positions along the opposite wall and waited for it to start. Fortunately, the other players were so engrossed in exchanging information with each other that they didn’t seem to be paying any attention to us over here.

“…Argo, are your SP and TP okay?”

I confirmed just to be sure, and the informant quickly shifted her gaze up to the top-left corner.

“Hmm, I have some water from a well over there, but I’m not so sure about food”

“Here”

I pulled two sticks of bison jerky out of my pouch and handed one to Argo.

“Ah, sorry about that”

Although she accepted the gift, she didn’t put it into her mouth.

“Ummm, I’m not used to getting stuff for free, even if it’s from Kii-bou”

“Get used to it. It’ll be hard for you to become one with our circle of friends if you worry about every little debt. In this world, it’s easy to die of hunger and thirst… I think water and food should be considered common property”

“Friends, huh. Uhihi, that’s a bit embarrassing”

【T/N: こそばゆい (kosobayui) and くすぐったい (kusuguttai) both mean “embarrassing,” and Argo combines the two into こそばったい (kosobattai) here.】

After Argo uttered this questionable adjective, probably a mixture of “kosobayui” and “kusuguttai,” she finally took a bite of the jerky. I bit down on mine too. The meat’s flavor of the bison we fought on the Giyol Flatlands was close to that of the beef we were familiar with, and it wasn’t as wild as the meat of the Spiny Cave Bear, but relatively easier to eat.

Even though she didn’t show it on her face, Argo was hungry. After finishing her food in no time, she took a long and narrow nut-like thing from the cloth bag around her waist. She pulled out the cylindrical stem and put her mouth on it. There seemed to be a liquid inside—water.

“……W-what is that?”

I waited until she had finished her drink before asking, to which Argo replied, corking it again with the stem.

“There’s a well a little south of this plaza, and this is a nut from the tree that grows on the side of the well. The NPC who manages the well gives each player one of these nuts to use as a water bottle… its volume is pretty small, though”

“Ehh… well, it certainly isn’t easy to get a water container…”

Impressed, I also materialized from my storage the unglazed water bottle that Asuna had made and drank some water. Its volume was probably about three times that of the nut, but it was heavy and easily broken, so I couldn’t leave it in the pouch. I wanted to make a lightweight, durable water bottle out of leather or something at some point, but for now, I had many other priorities.

While we did this, the time had already approached 10 PM. The front of the group began murmuring, so I turned my gaze to see four players climbing up the stairs leading to the stone stage.

The person in the lead was a tall man equipped with studded armor and a one-handed sword, and the second person was a man with a scimitar at the waist of his scale armor. The third man was wearing cloth armor but had a large two-handed sword on his back; the fourth had a white hood and was a slender… woman, I guessed. Since they were nearly 50 meters away, it was impossible to identify faces.

“Hey, let’s move a bit closer to the front”

I whispered this to Argo and tried to move away from the wall, but she stopped me with her right hand.

“As long as you can hear them, it’s fine. Don’t be conspicuous”

“……Right”

If an informant, who was supposed to be used to this kind of infiltration operation, told you something, you had no choice but to obey. In an effort to not miss a word, I eagerly pricked up my ears.

“Hey guys, let’s get started!”

The guy in studded armor who stepped on stage first let his well-projected voice resound.

“I’m Holger, the founder of this meeting and the leader of the «Definitely Surviving Team»! Many, many thanks for gathering so many together like this!”

I hadn’t heard that name before. —But for some reason, I was struck with a nostalgic feeling, and I soon realized the reason.

In the northern part of the floating castle Aincrad’s First Floor, in a town called Tolbana, there was an amphitheater-like facility similar to this one, albeit much smaller, where the First Floor Boss strategy conference was held. It was led by a one-handed-sword wielder named Diavel, who had also introduced himself in a jovial voice.

—I’m Diavel, and I consider myself a knight in profession!

To that cheerful declaration, one of the assembled players said, “Nah, you should be a hero!” There was a wave of laughter. With just a few words, Diavel relieved the participants’ tension, and I could feel a strong sense of charisma in him; I reminisced about this.

Come to think of it, the Argo next to me had first appeared before me as Diavel’s agent. His demand was to buy my then-beloved sword, the Anneal Blade +6. In the end, I was offered nearly 30,000 Cor for it, but I stubbornly refused the request.

Sometimes I still think about it. If I had sold the sword, then perhaps Diavel wouldn’t have tried to take the floor boss’s Last Attack bonus and died…

I shook off this momentary sentimentality and listened carefully to Holger’s voice coming from the stage.

“I’d like to introduce you to the nice guys who helped make the meeting happen! First, Diccos, leader of the «Weed Eaters»!”

The man with the scimitar raised his hands high, and a round of applause broke out.

“Next, the leader of the «Announcer-chan’s Fan Club», Tsubroh!”

There wasn’t as much applause for the two-handed swordsman, but instead, there were many wild cheers and hooting.

“And the leader of the «Virtual Research Society», Mutasina!”

In an instant, “Who’s that?” The air was filled with confusion. But that only lasted until the player named Mutasina removed her hood. Her long black hair gently flowed down, revealing pure white skin. Even from this distance, you could tell from the atmosphere that she must be quite beautiful.

The male players, who made up more than 90% of the participants, let out the biggest applause, cheers, and whistles yet. Mutasina waved her hands charmingly, making the audience even more excited.

When the noise died down, Holger stepped forward again.

“Today, I’m honored to be hosting! Unfortunately, I heard that group «Fawkes» was wiped out last night, so they will not be participating!”

Immediately, the arena was wrapped in commotion. I’d never heard of that group name before, either. I couldn’t help but look at Argo, but she just averted her eyes and said nothing.

Demands for an explanation came from all around the venue, to which Holger replied in a slightly evasive tone.

“No, I don’t know many details, either. It seems that the members of «Fawkes» and a few others who were invited left the ruins yesterday evening, but then they lost a group battle somewhere up north.”

Hearing this explanation, the players nearby whispered to each other.

“If it was in the north, could it have been the Basin tribe?”

“That’s not good…… all those guys who challenged the Basin during the grace period with inherited equipment and levels were the ones who ended up being killed by the Basin.”

“It’s impossible that the guys in Fawkes didn’t know that. Why would they take a chance on such a dangerous bet now, of all times…”

As I listened in on these conversations, a bad feeling reared its head, but I forced it down and turned my gaze back to the stage. Holger took a step forward and shouted as the flames of the bonfire dazzlingly reflected off the studded armor’s studs.

“Anyway! All I can tell you right now is that this Unital Ring can’t be dealt with using any conventional method! Tonight marks the third day since the incident occurred, and there’s still no prospect of recovery from Ymir! Then, the ALO group will be the first to arrive at the «Land Indicated by the Aurora» and solve the case from the inside!”

“O—!” And, “that’s right, that’s right!” Such vigorous voices filled the wide stadium.

Whether it was me, or Asuna and the others, or even Argo next to me, we were all part of the «ALO group» for now, so our goal was the same as the players’ here. I’m not like the type of person Mocri, who we fought on the first day, was; I didn’t believe in plotting to be first, so if I could work with them, I should. Building a town in the forest was also me hoping for it to become recognized as the first stopover point for ALO players leaving the Stith Ruins… it’d be great if that could prevent a third attack; I had such intentions as well.

—But.

With a premonition that wouldn’t go away even if I held it down, I waited for Holger’s next statement.

Once the excitement in the hall subsided, the tall, one-handed swordsman returned to his jovial tone and said.

“The purpose behind tonight’s get-together is for the four groups that have agreed to play cooperatively to get to know each other and exchange information! We’ve prepared food and drink, so you can recharge your TP and SP as much as you like! Of course, the only ingredients are rabbit meat, some grass, and some nuts!”

Cheers again. Several wooden wagons that looked like they were made with carpentry skills were brought in from the aisles on either side of the stage. Holger was humble about it, but the ingredients were prepared really well, and the enticing scent of spices wafted through the air from the large pots and plates.

“…Where did they get all those spices and stuff?”

“I think they sell them at the market stalls.”

Hearing Argo’s reply, I decided to buy some on the way back. The only cash I had was the money I kept for Sinon, but I did have some materials in my storage. If I sold them, I should be able to make some money.

Leaving that aside, I was also craving for the food in front of me, but eating free food while undercover would be the height of brazenness. Anyway, now that I had a grasp of the «serious guys» and their lineup of ALO converts, I was satisfied enough.

“Is it ok for you to not be eating?”

As Argo asked me with a grin, I replied with a surly face.

“I’m not going to prove your «saying that Kirito is also a glutton even in the virtual world». Let’s get out of here before we cause a huge mess”

【T/N: In other words, “Let’s get out of here before they notice that we’re here and start an uproar.” 】

“Okay. But it should be fine if we buy some food from a street vendor. I’m sure Ali-cchi and Kuro-cchi are hungry”

“Then, let’s do that”

I broke off my lingering thoughts and began moving toward the pathway from which we had entered, but then.

Suddenly, the cobblestone pavement under my feet glowed a bluish-purple.

“Oa!?”

“What!?”

Argo and I couldn’t help but shout out to each other. But our voices were drowned out by a hundred startled voices. It seemed that this event wasn’t part of the plan.

As I stood on tiptoes and looked at the ground, I could tell that it wasn’t the paving stones that were glowing, but rather the complex texture that emerged. Countless rings, patterns, and symbols combined and made what looked like it had to be—.

“A magic circle…?”

While muttering, I followed the line of light and turned my attention to the center of the arena. There, an enormous crest appeared, shining extraordinarily strongly, which seemed to be the center of the magic circle. In other words, the circular arena, with a diameter of fifty meters, had been entirely swallowed by magic of its same size. The scale was so large that in ALO, it would’ve been called «Great Magic» or «Extreme Magic».

Suddenly, the central emblem began to wriggle like a living thing. It was winding, undulating, swirling, and rising up. The pillar of light, which grew to more than ten meters tall in an instant, unraveled and cast a bizarre silhouette.

An elongated head which grew countless spikes. Long, entangled hair. Four arms with two elbows. A slender, feminine upper body, and a tentacle-like lower body.

The monster, whose appearance could only be described as an evil god, held its four arms high and screamed something in an inhuman language. An outstretched palm produced a ball of blue-black light.

—Magic, what, who, why, where.

One after another, spark-like thoughts flashed through my mind. This was, by all accounts, entirely malicious magic. The best response would be to attack the sorcerer and make him fumble, but in this chaotic crowd, it wouldn’t be easy to find him.

Pages 4 – 6 colored illustration.
Pages 4 – 6 colored illustration.

“Kii-bou, let’s get out of here!”

Argo shouted and was about to start running for the northern doorway. But my instincts told me we wouldn’t make it in time, so I grabbed the collar of her hooded cloak and swung her behind me. I drew my sword,

“Stay out of sight!”

Right as I shouted that, a great number of light bullets were fired from the evil god’s palm.

Giiiiiiiiiiii! The light bullets that flew while emitting this jarring sound drew a complex trajectory in the air. Whether it was a player who was panicking, a player who was left dumbstruck, or a player who was trying to evade, they were all hit. The homing performance was considerably advanced. It didn’t look like those who were hit would fall down immediately, but they must have been given some kind of inhibition or delayed damage.

I absolutely refused to confirm its effect with my own body. I fixed my gaze upon the two incoming light bullets while holding my beloved sword at the ready. It would be impossible to evade them or defend against them using armor.

But if the magic of this world was given the same logic as in ALO, it could be dealt with using an Outside System Skill I developed and honed in ALfheim—«Spell Burst».

ALO’s magic—a mass of light fired from the sorcerer—had no substance in principle. It was impossible to defend against it using a sword or a shield, but there was a special «Collision Detection» on a single point at the center of the magic. You could destroy it by hitting it there with a precise attack of a non-physical attribute… it was something like that.

Although there were Sword Skills derived from SAO in the Unital Ring world for some reason, whether or not the attribute damage derived from ALO had been added was still unconfirmed. But right now, I could only believe.

While staring down the light bullets falling from diagonally above me, I prepared to activate the two-hit Sword Skill «Vertical Arc». However.

The light bullets didn’t form a simple parabola but swung erratically like a knuckleball. It would be nearly impossible to destroy both of them with a two-hit Sword Skill. I should give up on one of them and put my all into destroying the other with a single-hit Skill.

Quickly deciding that, I switched my Sword Skill to «Sonic Leap» and leaped for one of the falling light bullets. This technique had the physical attribute plus wind damage in ALO; believing that it was the same in Unital Ring, I aimed at a single point in the center of the light bullet—

“Ooh!”

Accompanied by a short cry, I cut it.

There was the sensation of a tremendously small and hard grain crumbling. The blue-black light bullet scattered like a highly viscous liquid. But the other light bullet turned sharply in the air and hit my neck area.

A strange sensation that could not be described as heat nor cold enveloped my neck. It was as if I was being strangled by a transparent devil’s hand. I landed while gritting my teeth and turned around.

“Argo, are you okay?”

Argo, who was standing by the wall, stared at me with wide eyes for a bit and then replied in a faint voice.

“I’m fine, Kii-bou, you…”

“We’ll talk later, we first need to go somewhere to avoid this! If the caster noticed Magic Destruction, we’d be done for!”

“…………Got it”

Together with Argo, who nodded, I bent down and moved to a light jog. Stopping by the side of the doorway, I checked our situation.

Just then, the evil god towering in the center of the arena was about to disappear, melting into the night. The magic circle on the ground also rotated, shrunk, and disappeared. Between the fallen wagons and scattered food, players were either standing stock still in dumbfoundedness or bending down in fear.

Finally, someone said.

“You, neck…”

As a result, everyone started looking under the chin of the player next to them while touching their own neck. Subconsciously looking at the neck of the man standing closest to me, I found it inlaid with something like a black ring—No, that wasn’t it. It was a ring-shaped pattern drawn directly onto the skin.

I reflexively looked down toward my chest, but my neck remained out of sight, and I didn’t have a mirror. When I looked at Argo, she nodded stiffly in response. Apparently, a ring existed on my neck as well. But so far, my HP nor MP nor TP nor SP had decreased, and I didn’t feel any abnormality in my avatar. What kind of effect did this debuff have? First of all, wasn’t it way too large of a scale for magic that should be usable at this point in time?

“You…… what are you planning to do!?”

Suddenly, such a shout came from the direction of the stage. When I turned to look, I saw Holger, Diccos, and Tsubroh draw their swords from their scabbards, with all three of them pointing at Mutasina, the bright flower in the group.

【T/N: Mutasina is described as 紅一点 (JP: kō itten, CN: 一点红, yī diǎn hóng, lit. a dot of red), an abbreviation of 万緑叢中紅一点 (万绿丛中一点红), derived from Chinese poet 王安石’s poem in which he described the outstanding presence of “only one red pomegranate flower blooming in the green grass.” Nowadays in Japanese, it refers to a lone woman in a group of men.】

“Mutasina, you said you were going to give a huge buff for morale! But this is a debuff, no matter how you look at it! Even as a joke, it’s not funny!”

Even though Holger denounced her as such, Mutasina didn’t seem frightened by him. Leaning slovenly against the long staff she had been holding before anyone noticed, she replied in a calm voice.

“I’m not joking, of course. It was all planned”

“It was planned… you say!? So, when you said OK to attending the meeting, it was because you wanted to cast that spell on us from the start!?”

“That goes without saying. Why would there be any other reason to attend such a pointless gathering?”

Her words drew angry shouts from all over the audience.

“You’ve got to be kidding me! Break this damned spell now!”

“Do you think you can win against a hundred enemies!?”

As if those shouts of curses had pushed his back, Holger took a step forward.

“You heard ’em; deactivate the debuff now. Or else we’ll disarm it another way.”

There was no doubt that «another way» was to kill the caster. At Holger’s signal, Diccos and Tsubroh pinned Mutasina from both sides. The participants in the arena also crowded to the front of the stage.

Seeing this, it occurred to me. In this venue, there had to be members of the group that Mutasina was the leader of, as I recall… the «Virtual Research Society». Had she debuffed her own people as well? Or did they just evacuate the members before activating the magic…?

I was unlikely to get an answer to this question. Whatever the debuff’s effect was, it shouldn’t be able to stop a simultaneous siege attack from such a distance. Perhaps Mutasina would be killed here, leaving the Unital Ring world with a great unknown.

“…Fine then, we won’t hold back either!”

Holger shouted and held his one-handed sword up. At precisely the same time, Tsubroh’s two-handed sword and Diccos’s scimitar also shone with the light of Sword Skills.

Mutasina stood there, unperturbed, and lifted the long staff in her right hand up high—then vigorously struck it onto the ground. Kaaa—n! A high-pitched sound rang out, and at that moment.

Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe, and I dropped to my knees on the ground.

It felt as if my airway was clogged with a sticky substance, leaving no gaps. I pressed my hands to my neck and tried desperately to breathe, but I couldn’t inhale or exhale. Gripped by panic, I looked forward and saw that whether it was Holger, or the others on the stage, or the nearly one hundred others in the arena, all of them had fallen to the ground are were suffering in pain. The group appeared to glow vaguely blue because everyone’s neck rings shone a bluish-purple. The one on my neck was probably glowing, too. As I looked over to my HP bar, even though it hadn’t decreased, a debuff icon depicting two hands strangling the neck was lit up to the right.

“Kii-bou!”

Argo jumped at me and slapped me repeatedly on the back. But the feeling of foreign matter in my throat didn’t go away. Ten seconds, twenty seconds…… I felt the panic inside me grow stronger. The suffocating sensation was all too realistic; I could only think about whether my body in the real world had stopped breathing as well. But was such a thing possible? If the who-knew-how-many layers of safeguards in the AmuSphere could be disabled to stop the user’s breathing, then this was already the Death Game SAO all over again.

I forced my right hand to move and tried to bring up the ring menu. The only way I could think of to escape this agony was to log out. After several failed attempts, I finally succeeded in opening the menu, and as I was about to try selecting the System menu, right then.

Again, kaaaa—n! There was this sound.

The feeling of a blockage in my airway vanished as if it had been a lie. I lay on the ground and insatiably pumped air into my avatar’s lungs.

A few seconds later, Argo forcefully picked me up by the shoulders as I somehow came out of my panicked state.

“Are you okay, Kii-bou!?”

“A……aah, I’m fine.”

I answered in a hoarse voice, making sure the debuff icon was gone, and then looked up at the stage in the distance.

Holger, Diccos, and Tsubroh had also stopped moving as they lay on the ground. With Mutasina standing composedly in the center between them, I saw a little—just a little—of Underworld’s Supreme Priest of the Axiom Church, Administrator, who ruled the Human World, overlaying her figure. She made a hundred people stop breathing and writhe in pain, yet she didn’t get uppity or hesitant and only smiled faintly; that wasn’t any average human’s level of fortitude.

“Well, now do you understand what I said?”

Nimbly gesturing with her left hand, Mutasina spoke to Holger and the others in a clear voice.

“The spell I have cast on everyone here is called the «Stranglehold of the Abominable». Its effect is what you just experienced… Once the casting succeeds, its range is infinite, and it lasts forever.”

As soon as they heard those words, the players in the hall let out shouts of horror. “You’re kidding…” A murmur spilled out of my throat as well.

Infinite? Forever? So from now on, every time Mutasina poked the ground with that staff, every player here would be unable to breathe no matter where they were?

The commotion got louder and louder, but with a slight lift of her long staff, Mutasina stopped it.

“But don’t worry. I never cast this spell just to tease you all. I want to clear this game as much as you do… I just want to pursue the best way to do so.”

“…The best, you say?”

As he staggered to his feet, Tsubroh, the two-handed swordsman, asked boldly.

“Are you saying that blackmailing your friends with this shitty magic is the best option? Aren’t there members of your Virtual Research Society in this coliseum?”

“Friends…?”

When she repeated that, Mutasina let out a quiet laugh.

“The reason you guys gathered here is that you happened to have a temporary coincidence of interests, right? I can assure you, even if you commit to cooperation now, once you get close to the goal, conflicts will arise between the groups, and then you’ll start killing each other within each group. But at least as long as my magic is activated, such a situation can be avoided. ……Right? If clearing is the goal, then this is the best and most efficient measure, is it not?”

The words, uttered in a tone that seemed even innocent, left Tsuborh speechless. Instead, Diccos, who remained seated, shouted.

“……How can that be! We… Holger and Tsubroh and I, we trust each other! Even if it comes down to a race in the end, we would never betray or kill each other! We’ll help each other until the last minute, aiming fair and square for the goal with a “ready, go!” And then we’ll congratulate whoever wins… These games, these VRMMOs, isn’t that what they’re for!?”

“Fufu…… fufufufu”

Page 123 illustration.
Page 123 illustration.

 

Mutasina’s slender shoulders shook as she laughed.

“Fufu, fufufufu…… sorry, but your sayings are just too ridiculous. —Trust? Congratulations? Do you really think there is such a thing in this world… no, in the virtual world?”

Mutasina’s voice, which had been light-hearted, was suddenly wrapped in icy coldness.

“—There’s no way, is there?”

With her jet-black eyes, she glared at the players in the square.

“In the virtual world… at least in a VRMMO using The Seed standard, whether it’s trust, or love, or redemption, it’s all just an illusion. All that really exists is hatred, betrayal, deception, and despair. Because the origin of every FullDive virtual world is Sword Art Online! That hell on Earth, where four thousand players died harboring grudges”

—You’re just spewing whatever nonsense you like!

I wanted to shout, but I gritted my teeth as hard as I could.

A huge number of players had indeed lost their lives in Aincrad. As for the number of victims in an incident caused by a single person, it should be the highest in the history of world crime. But by no means was hatred and despair the only thing that existed in that world. If that was the case, then how about the people I met in Aincrad: Asuna, Silica, Liz, Klein, Agil...... and Argo; how could I still be with them, even now?

But as if to ridicule my thoughts, Mutasina’s voice continued to echo with a chill in it.

“The darkness born in SAO was scattered and multiplied across the vast The Seed Nexus. And now, the myriad worlds have once again become one. In this Unital Ring world, the darkness will condense again, and when the pressure exceeds the limit, something new… perhaps something deeper and darker will be born. I only want to see it happen.”

After saying that, Mutasina added as if she just remembered.

“……Of course, there are Virtual Research Society members in this place. They agreed to be involved in the «Stranglehold of the Abominable». Although it may contradict what I’ve said so far, there is an unshakable trust between them and me. Therefore, I believe we can have the same kind of relationship with you.”

The heavy silence lasted for more than ten seconds.

It was broken by Holger, who tiredly sat down on the stage.

“Just what do you… want us to do?”

“Haven’t we been talking about that this whole time. Let’s all work together in harmony and aim for this game’s goal, the Land Indicated by the Aurora”

After she announced this in a tone that made her sound like she was the head of the athletics department, Mutasina laughed briefly and continued.

“Well, that said, a concrete roadmap is still needed. Rest assured, our first target has already been decided”

“Target…?”

“Holger-san, you said in your introduction that the group «Fawkes» was wiped out last night, right. It wasn’t a boss monster that killed them, nor was it the Bashin tribe. In the large forest far upstream of the «Malbe River», which runs east of these ruins, they attacked another group’s base and ended up losing.”

As I listened to the players shouting and making a commotion once again, I realized that the premonition I’d had before Mutasina used her great magic had become a reality.

The group called Fawkes was undoubtedly Schultz’s group, who had attacked the log cabin last night. I was afraid that Mutasina chose to bring this up now because…

“You guys will have to crush that group first.”

“…Why crush them? Why can’t we just cast this choking spell on them as well and make them our servants?”

At Diccos’ point, Mutasina lightly shrugged her shoulders.

“Successfully casting the «Stranglehold of the Abominable» is not easy. The gestures are long, and the magic circle is very conspicuous. It’s impossible unless the opponent and the situation allow a trivial lie, such as flashily granting a buff at a banquet as entertainment, to be believable.”

The black-haired witch spoke extraordinarily softly to the dejected Holger and his friends.

“Please don’t look at me like that. It’s not that you’re stupid; it’s just that this time, the enemy is formidable. Because camping in the Great Zeruethelial Forest to the north… is the group of the «Black Swordsman» Kirito”

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