Sword Art Online Unleash Blading

Sword Art Online
Unleash Blading

Dark Emperor, Chapter 4

 About a day from Centoria by carriage, there sits a rather large city. Ever since the Human Unification Council liberated this territory, it became a hub where people migrate to find new Callings. Because of this, it was peppered with inns and lodging houses. And the inn where Linel Synthesis Twenty-Eight and Fizel Synthesis Twenty-Nine were staying was one of the cheapest of the bunch.

"Oh. Hi, Zel. Welcome back."
"Hi, Nel. Boy, am I tired."
 As soon as Fizel entered the room, she flopped onto the grubby bed without even removing her coat.
"Zel, please. At least remove your coat."
"Nah... Too much of a pain."
"Don't be like that. Come on. Sit up. Once you get yourself cleaned up, I'll put the kettle on."
 The promise of tea inspired Fizel to begrudgingly remove her coat.
"Did you obtain the information?"
"Of course! I got some good stuff!"
 Fizel's tired and grumpy face lit up.
"And our hunch was right—the former emperor's imperial guardsmen were stockpiling weapons and food. And the merchants selling the goods were in cahoots with them. Except they had seemingly-normal shops."
"I investigated myself, and I identified a spot where people were coming and going."
 Linel handed Fizel a cup of hot tea and looked at a map they had pinned to the wall.
"This place used to be under imperial control. People with weapons came and went into houses on the outskirts. I also saw them hauling in something from a carriage."
"That was probably food. So we finally have all the proof we need. Dang, that sure took a while."
"The job couldn't have been rushed. All the former imperial guardsmen disappeared underground."

 Fizel and Linel were there on orders from Xiao, head of the Human Unification Council's Information Bureau, to investigate the rebel cells in the four empires. During the Uprising of the Four Empires, Emperor Aldares Wesdarath V barricaded himself in the imperial palace and waged a brutal battle against the Human Empire forces. According to witnesses, he was burned to death by Fanatio's Memory Release skill, but his remains were not found. Because of this, rumor had it that some of the former imperial guardsmen were plotting a rebellion under the belief that Aldares was still alive.

"I know we couldn't find the body, but it's practically impossible for him to still be alive."
"But it seems the dead emperor of the north did survive..."
 Linel was referring to Emperor Cruiga Norlangarth—the northern emperor Ronie and Tiese had encountered during their investigation of the missing goblins from the Dark Realm. Some of the Integrity Knights thought this new Cruiga was a fake, but Kirito believed Ronie's and Tiese's testimony, since they had seen him with their own eyes.

"Well, I doubt the emperor is at our point of interest, but it wouldn't hurt to nip it in the bud anyway, I guess."
"Yes, indeed. And it's on a small-enough scale militarily where you and I can quash the situation ourselves."
"Of course we can! After all, we're Integrity Knights!"
 Fizel's voice was brimming with confidence. The girls rarely lost a match against Ronie and Tiese in the Training Hall. And if the fight was in earnest, and involved making use of the terrain or situation, not even Renly or Deusolbert would have an easy time defeating the two of them.
"Let's just get the deed done and head back to the Cathedral. I'm sick of the tiny bath here."
"And our meals aren't all that good, either. All we eat is bread and potato soup."
"I just know there's better inns we could've stayed at, but Xiao insisted we shouldn't stand out..."
 Fizel spat Xiao's name with scorn...but then, her eyes suddenly sparkled and she cried out.
"Ooh, I know! Let's have Lady Asuna bake us some sweets when we get back! I think we deserve a little reward for locating the secret base of the rebel forces!"
"Of course! And I am certain that Lady Asuna would oblige. She is very kind."
"I can't wait to taste it all! That settles it! We're definitely finishing this up tomorrow, Nel!"
"You bet we will!"

 The next day, Fizel and Linel headed towards the mansion they believed to be the hiding place of the former imperial guardsmen. It was a bit away from the main road, so not many people passed by. But as they observed the mansion from a distance, they could see armed men at the gate, and sense the presences of several people inside. After making eye contact and nodding silently, Fizel scurried behind the guards. Meanwhile, Linel carefully ran her eyes over the rest of the property to check for other security.

 Fizel crouched behind the bushes next to the gate and chanted quietly. And without a sound, little light element orbs came to life hovering in the air. They floated right in front of the guard before coming to a stop.
"What the heck...?"
 The guard reached out to the light, which then flitted away.
 The guard lunged after it. But the light element just bobbed in the air, teasing the man as it darted away.
"Damn it!"
 The guard lost his temper and took another step away from the gate. Without a sound, Fizel swooped behind him and struck his neck with the flat of her sword.
 After the guard fell, Fizel beckoned to Linel, who looked both ways before running to join her partner. They then hid in the bushes together.
"There. We're locked and loaded! Wait...is that how you're supposed to use that phrase?"
"It was probably acceptable. I've heard Kirito say it that way sometimes."
"Right? Well, then, let's hop to it and secure the building!"
"You got it!"
 The girls giggled together, in a way so girlish and innocent that it was hard to believe they were about to infiltrate an enemy base. And with that, they slid through the gate and into the mansion proper.

 They entered the mansion from the back entrance and picked off their enemies one by one as they emerged. Shockingly, neither girl had unsheathed their sword. And yet, they both had the mansion under control in a matter of minutes.
"This is the only room that's left, huh?"
"Yeah. And judging by the fancy door, their leader must be inside. Kirito will probably want to question him, so we mustn't kill him, Zel."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. It's a pain, but even I know we have to do as Kirito tells us. Okay. We're going in."
 Fizel opened the door with such casual confidence that it might as well have been the door to her own bedroom. Inside, there was a man dressed in armor far grander than the other soldiers, weapon at the ready.
"Ch-Children...? Snot-nosed brats... This is what the Human Unification Council sent?!"
"You're patronizing us, because of our physical appearance, I see. But at the very least, we are stronger than you."
"We sure are. So be a good boy and surrender. That way we don't have to hurt you."
 Linel's and Fizel's composed voices made the man's face turn crimson. But he couldn't attack them—he must have been aware of how skilled they were with their swords. After a few seconds, the man's shaking blade lowered.
"So you finally give up? Good. Then throw down your weapon, okay?"
 Just as Fizel finished speaking, and Linel stepped forward towards their opponent, a black silhouette appeared outside the door. Before they could detect it, Fizel, struck by an attack from the side, went flying.
 Fizel groaned and tried to pull herself upright. But the pain from the blow had immobilized her. Linel drew her sword and turned to face their assailant. But before she could do so, a giant sword struck her side.

 The powerful blow knocked the wind out of her. She tried to ready her sword to fight, but the next slash knocked her over to where Fizel lay on the ground.
 As she fiercely fought to stay conscious, she tried to get a good look at their assailant. He carried a giant sword as long as Linel was tall. His physique was imposing. And he was dressed like someone from the East. In fact, he looked very familiar to Linel.
"C-Commander Bercouli?!"

 When the girls regained consciousness, the mansion was an empty shell. The leader and the swordsman who had knocked them both unconscious were gone. What's more, the imperial guardsmen they had knocked out were also nowhere to be found.
"Oh dear... I suppose we've failed."
 Their voices were gloomy. But that wasn't only because they had been unable to fulfill Xiao's command.
"Zel...did you see what I saw?"
 She said "what"...even though she meant "who." And naturally, Fizel knew exactly who Linel was talking about.
"Yeah... That sword, that aura, that strength... It was definitely the Knight Commander. And I don't mean Fanatio."
"Yes... And yet, it wasn't him. Commander Bercouli died in the war..."
 Linel, unable to say anything more, stared at Fizel. But Fizel couldn't think of anything to say either.
"Anyway, we have to tell Kirito about this. Let's get back to the Cathedral as fast as we can."
"But what about our investigation here?"
"If Commander Bercouli really has returned, there's no way you and I could beat him alone. And even if it's not him...he's still really powerful. We need backup."
"Yes...I suppose you're right. But what will we say to Commander Fanatio...?"
 A pained look appeared on Fizel's face.
"We'll let Kirito tell her... I just know he'll be able to break the news the right way."
"Yes, that's a good idea. Kirito should be up to the task."
 They dragged their battered bodies up off the floor and leaned on each other as they put the mansion behind them.

"Whaaat?! Kirito isn't here?!"
 Fizel's voice boomed through the Central Cathedral's great hall. Asuna, a troubled look on her face, tried to console Fizel.
"No, he isn't. Sorry, Fizel, Linel."
"Well, he can't help it if there was an uprising in the Dark Realm. But still..."
"Even though Kirito is gone, Fanatio and Deusolbert can take care of things in his place."
 Linel and Fizel exchanged glances.
"Fanatio is with Berche right now, and Deusolbert is probably giving a lesson in Sword Arts. I'll go fetch them for you..."
Asuna turned to leave the great hall, but Fizel quickly stopped her.
"Wait! It's all good!"
"Huh? It's all good? What's all good?"
"Um, well, you know... Nel, it's that thing, right? Yeah, that thing!"
Fizel gave Linel a pleading look. Linel racked her brain and said,
"W-We let the ringleader of the former western imperial guard escape. So there might be a rebellion. So we thought we should first deliver our report to you, Lady Asuna."
"Y-Yes, that's right! Especially since we ran into a very skilled knight and all!"
A question mark hovered above Asuna's head as she listened to the girls' nervous explanation. She then lowered herself back into her chair.
"Well...that does sound like a big problem. Okay, well, tell me what happened first."
The girls sighed in relief.
"Okay, sooo... First, we'll tell you about their secret headquarters..."

 After finishing their report, Linel and Fizel left the great hall. Asuna was to deliver the report to Fanatio and the other leaders, while the two girls were permitted to rest for a while and mend their weary, bruised bodies.
"We didn't manage to tell her about Commander Bercouli, did we."
"Well, we're not sure it really was him. And we did tell her there was a powerful swordsman there, so it's okay."
"I'm not so sure about that..."
 Where Linel's mood was uneasy, Fizel was angry.
"Well, blame Kirito! It's his fault for being gone at a time like this."
"Yes, I suppose so. If Kirito were here, we could have explained everything to him."
"Exactly. Ugh, sometimes Kirito can be just so..."
 Putting all the blame on Kirito seemed to calm both the girls. They were a bit more cheerful now as they talked.
"We'll probably join them when they go to the western empire anyway. Let's just rest up while we can."
"Yeah. It has been quite a while since we enjoyed a nice long dip in a nice spacious bath, Zel."
 Once Kirito returned, once they explained everything to him, all would be well. This baseless sense of calm washed over Fizel and Linel. He was the black swordsman who had escaped his thick chains in the dungeon and defeated not only several Integrity Knights but even the High Pontifex herself. To the girls, Kirito and his partner Eugeo were heroes capable of accomplishing anything. And even now, when their allegiance had switched from the Axiom Church to the Unification Council, their admiration for him had not changed.

 While Fizel and Linel were in the Great Bath, Asuna spoke to Fanatio, Deusolbert, and Renly in the Great Hall.
"That emperor is still alive? It's hard to believe he survived the explosion and all those flames..."
 Fanatio, who had burned the palace herself, had a look of astonishment on her face.
"Oh, but they didn't quite confirm that it was actually the emperor. But considering they were laying in supplies, it wouldn't surprise me if a rebellion sprung up soon."
"What worries me most of all is that powerful swordsman who defeated Fizel and Linel. He was able to approach them undetected—a feat most of us would be unable to accomplish so easily."
"Yes, it sounds like he is a swordsman on par with us Integrity Knights."
 Deusolbert and Renly's faces were both grave. A lone Integrity Knight was the equal of a thousand ordinary soldiers. This was a fact the Integrity Knights who fought in the Otherworld War knew better than anyone else.
"Let's summon General Serlut of the Human Guardian Army first. Then we'll contact Kirito in the Dark Realm and..."
 But in the middle of Asuna's sentence, the door of the Great Hall burst open. Ronie and Tiese, their faces white as sheets, ran over to them.
"Girls, why the sudden intrusion? We are in the middle of an emergency meeting."
"M-My apologies, ma'am!"
 Asuna spoke to the frightened Tiese.
"No, it's fine. It must be urgent. Won't you tell me what's wrong?"
"We just received word that soldiers are gathering in the former western emperor's private lands!"
 When Fanatio heard Ronie's report, her face clouded over with worry.
"Things are escalating far too quickly... No, perhaps they hastened their rebellion because they were seen by Fizel and Linel."
"You're probably right. We need to draw up a strategy immediately. Ronie, could you bring General Serlut of the Human Guardian Army here?"
"Right away, ma'am!" 
 Ronie dashed out of the great hall to carry out Asuna's command.
"Tiese, do you know anything about the enemy's numbers and equipment?"
"No, we've still only received the preliminary report—the details are still unknown. I did tell the guard who sent the report to assess the enemy army's size and marching speed..."
"Thank you. That was the right call. Well, I guess we'll just wait for more intelligence on the enemy then."
 Asuna smiled. Tiese bowed deeply in reply.
"Subdelegate, we must quickly determine our stance: do we go on the offensive, or do we stay here and defend? If it's the former, we will need to make the necessary preparations to take the field."
 Since not only Kirito, but Integrity Knights Eydis, Nergius, and Entokia were all away, there were limits to what the Unification Council could do. If they formed armies or sent them out, they would need weapons, food, arrows, and materials for Sacred Arts spells. After making some quick calculations in her head, Asuna turned to Fanatio for advice.
"Fanatio, what do you think?"
"Meeting them in battle here would be easier. But I don't want Centorians to get caught in the crossfire."
 Asuna nodded.
"I agree. Okay, tentatively, we sally forth. Let's wait for General Serlut before we make any final decisions. Deusolbert, please give me an update on our supplies in the Cathedral. Renly, I need you to bring Ayuha and Soness here. We will need help from everyone who uses Sacred Arts." 
 The Integrity Knights bowed and left the hall. And as she watched them go, Asuna murmured to herself.
"Oh, Kirito... Why did an uprising have to happen while you're gone..."
 She shook her head to expel the negative thoughts. Then she looked up in determination.
"But don't worry, I'll take care of everyone. I'll protect this world and all its people for you."

 Two hours later... The Human Empire Guardian Army led by Sortiliena, the Sacred Artificers Brigade, and four Integrity Knights: Renly, Deusolbert, Fizel, and Linel all assembled at Centoria's main gate. Asuna, Fanatio, Ronie, and Tiese would remain in the Central Cathedral to guard it from within. Linel and Fizel expressed concerns over another fight so soon after their last, but when Asuna promised to give them some welcome-home sweets upon their return, they quickly came around.

 And by the time the rebel forces marched out, Ronie was organizing the supplies in the Cathedral. What with Kirito and the others gone to the Dark Realm, and a punitive force needing to be formed so quickly, the Central Cathedral's stockpiles were quite low.
——If they were attacked here...
 Ronie quickly shook the morbid thoughts out of her mind. She should spend every moment she had bracing the Cathedral for danger, not indulging in fantasies. While Fanatio was busy, she had to look after Berche. She had no time to waste worrying over theoretical futures.
"I have to be strong."
 Ronie slapped her cheeks hard, and chided herself.
"In Kirito's absence, we must make sure the Cathedral is kept safe!"

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