Leaving the campsite of the anti-rebel punitive force, Sylvie moved swiftly for the battleground where both sides had clashed earlier that day. She slipped away without telling anyone because she wanted to find out if the people she saw were really her parents. If her absence was discovered, she would receive far more than a reprimand. But Sylvie simply could not sit idle. If her parents really were alive and she had a chance of reclaiming her life together with them... Sylvie's mind was consumed with these thoughts.
Sylvie had been walking for about an hour now. She slipped through the field of broken weapons and pieces of discarded armor and traveled all the way to the enemy camp. As far as she could see, the tents on the enemy side were as still and quiet as those on her own side. The soldiers were also probably sleeping off the day's battle.
"It's not too late to turn back now..."
One step more and she would be at the point of no return. Sylvie stopped in her tracks as the thought hit her. If she called the idea off now, she could rejoin Shirley for the battle. While she had her reservations about Kirito and the other members of the Human Empire, she already considered Shirley a friend as a fellow denizen of the Dark Realm. She regretted slipping away without saying goodbye to her.
"Shirley...I'm so sorry. But I just have to see my mother and father."
Apologizing quietly, Sylvie steeled her heart and walked on.
The rebel tents were still—everything was eerily quiet. Not a single lantern or fire was lit—probably for fear of a night raid. Lunaria was dim as well, hidden by the clouds. The entire area was shrouded in darkness. Unlike people from the Human Empire, citizens of the Dark Realm did not fear the dark. And yet, there was an icy gloom to this blackness. It stirred a sense of foreboding in Sylvie. "If I disguise myself as someone of the Dark Realm, I won't get discovered if someone sees me," Sylvie justified to herself as she hurried deeper into the enemy encampment.
"This...must be their food reserves."
Sylvie lost track of how long she had walked. She had arrived in an area piled high with wooden crates and boxes. A fleeting thought hit her: the enemy would be deeply crippled if she set all of this on fire... But she continued on.
Just then, there was a voice. Sylvie jumped in surprise. She had assumed she was alone. But in the corner of her mind, she felt it. A familiar feeling...a feeling that made her want to cry.
It couldn't be... That voice...
"Father! Father, is that you?!"
Sylvie cried out, forgetting she was in enemy territory. The clouds parted at the sound of her voice, letting the light of the moon shine on her. Standing there before Sylvie, clad in Dark Knight armor, was her father.
When she had seen him earlier that day, she knew her eyes were not mistaken...yet a part of her still found it hard to believe it was him. But the man standing before her was undeniably her father. Countless feelings spun through her. Relief over finally seeing him, suspicions over why he was alive... These feelings turned to tears, flowing freely from her eyes. But for some reason, when Sylvie's father saw her, he gave her a confused look.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?"
Sylvie could barely speak. She knew that was her father. But he couldn't have possibly asked her who she was. And yet, the look in his eyes was clear: he thought she was an intruder.
Maybe...this isn't my father after all. But...
"Father, it's me! It's Sylvie!"
She pleaded with him, but his eyes still swam with doubt. In time, however, his stern expression melted, and his gaze upon Sylvie filled with love.
"Sylvie...is that really you?"
"Yes. It's me, Father! It's Sylvie!"
The sound of her father calling her name. Over and over, Sylvie had replayed in her mind his final words to her before he left for the battlefield. But nothing could ever compare to hearing his voice in person. Unable to contain herself any longer, Sylvie flew into her father's arms.
"Father... Father! Oh, Father!"
As Sylvie clung to him and cried against his chest, her father awkwardly but gently wrapped his arms around her. And the moment she felt her father's familiar touch, all of Sylvie's doubts flew out of her heart.
Sylvie stayed in her father's arms for a while, sobbing heavily. And her father held her all the while, stroking her back and hair. Sylvie was filled with bliss. She felt like she was a child again.
And when she finally stopped crying, her father gently pushed her back.
"Your mother is here, too. I'll go get her. You stay put and wait, you hear?"
Sylvie nodded obediently. Her father gave her head a gentle pat then walked away.
But just as Sylvie's excitement over the reunion was staring to subside, the doubt that had disappeared from her heart welled up again. Why had her father not recognized her when they first met? It didn't matter how dark it was—he should have recognized his own daughter. Sylvie had recognized him even from a distance.
She had other doubts, too. Why was he in the enemy ranks? How had he survived death? And why had he not informed Sylvie that he was still alive? Being alone and in the dark, Sylvie could not shake off these doubts, no matter how hard she tried.
As she stood there, fighting her anxieties and waiting for her father to return, silhouettes appeared before her. Thinking it was her parents, Sylvie's face bloomed with a moment's joy. But instead, she found herself face to face with a large man with a full beard in a dark hood and a man in a black cloak. Sylvie hastily drew her sword, remembering she was among the enemy.
"That's no way to greet your emperor, little brat."
The bearded man answered with a throaty sneer. Though not particularly loud, it was a voice that made anyone who heard it feel very small. A voice that sounded as though it was used to having people obey it.
"However, I shall let it slide just this once, given that you are of the Dark Realm, if you swear loyalty to your emperor, Tolgash Southacroith at once."
"S-Swear loyalty to you?! Never!"
Though confused by the sudden appearance of this self-proclaimed emperor, Sylvie fiercely stood her ground. Her mind raced, trying to formulate an escape route. She wanted to escape with her parents if possible, but she didn't know where they were. She could retreat temporarily, then return later and...
"Shall I tell you where your parents are?"
The cloaked man beside the emperor spoke softly. Sylvie was stunned. At first, she was taken aback because he had seen into her mind. But then, she realized——
"How...how do you know my mother and father?"
She was so shocked she almost dropped her sword. The cloaked man smirked in amusement at the sight.
"Oh, of course I know them. It was I who reanimated them from the dead, after all."
"Correct. Your parents died, little girl. But my magic brought them back to life. As minions, that is..."
"Minions? Don't lie to me! All minions look like monsters!"
"Heeheehee... Oh, I see. So you don't believe me."
"Of course I don't! Father and Mother...could never be minions..."
Sylvie struggled to string the words together. She was partly saying it in an attempt to convince herself it was true. She did not want to believe the parents she finally got to see once more were just minions. The idea was a nightmare. But she could not deny the truth: She had seen an Integrity Knight kill them with her own eyes. Did such magic exist in this world? A magic that reanimated the dead... She rejected the notion with all her might.
"Well, if you don't believe me, that is not my problem. How about I return your parents to clay? That would convince even the most stubborn person."
"Naturally, once I return them to clay, they can never be reformed. But if you won't believe me otherwise, there's nothing else I can do."
Sylvie bit her lip, at a loss for words. She did not want to believe her parents were minions made from clay. But if this man was telling the truth, she would lose them again. She had to avoid that at any cost. Sylvie glared at the man with hatred. But he seemed unperturbed, and merely smiled back at her in amusement.
"Fine... I believe you. Just leave my mother and father alone."
"Very well. In exchange, you will pledge allegiance to Emperor Tolgash and serve in our army."
If Sylvie agreed, that would mean betraying Shirley, Kirito, and the others. But if she refused...she didn't need to ask to know their fate.
"I will fight for you."
"Then kneel before us, little girl. As a sign of your loyalty."
Sylvie silently knelt in obedience. Her mind was swimming with so many thoughts and feelings—shame and bitterness, regret over betraying Shirley, desperation to save her parents—she did not hear the boisterous laughter of Tolgash, or the quiet snickering of the cloaked man. But the man's parting words reached her loud and clear.
"Your parents do not know that they are minions. If you tell them this, they may self-destruct and return to the dust. So be careful, little girl."
The emperor and the man left. Sylvie stumbled to her feet. She had no idea what her next move should be. Only one thing was clear: She could not return to Kirito's side.
"Sylvie? Are you there?"
Sylvie flinched at the sound of the voice behind her. It was surely the voice of a minion. But no matter how many times she heard it, all she could hear was the voice of her beloved father.
"I've brought your mother along. Come here, Sylvie."
Drowning in a feeling she could not put into words, Sylvie turned around...and there was the face of her mother. The face she'd missed so much. Just like her father, her mother looked confused at first to see Sylvie. But once her father explained things, the woman's eyes gradually filled with emotion.
"Sylvie...I've missed you so!"
Sylvie's mother held her tight as she spoke. Her hand on Sylvie's head was as warm as it always had been.
"Mother...! Oh, Mother!"
As she and her parents embraced, Sylvie reached a resolution. She did not care that her parents were minions. She would rather sever ties with Shirley and the others than lose her family. She did not care if they thought her a traitor. She would live with that, and the guilt of keeping the truth from her parents for the rest of her life. Everything would be worth it...if she could just live with her parents like this.
The carver, watching them from the distance, let out an inaudible squeal of glee.
"Incredible... The minions' memories and personalities are complementing each other...just by bringing them close to someone they know well, it can all be restored."
He was so excited, he stumbled over his words. His minions had their memories back... It was a truth more shocking than ever before.
"Your Highness, we've done it! By luring that little girl to us, we've obtained results beyond our wildest dreams!"
"Good work, Carver. Additionally, with that little brat on our side, that swordsman delegate will lose his edge, I'd say. Now, if we could just exploit this gap in his defenses... Heeheehee, he will lose his life as well."