A few days had passed since Deusolbert and his team left for the western empire. And in the empty hallway of the Central Cathedral, Ronie was walking quickly. She had just finished taking inventory as Fanatio commanded and was now on her way to tend to the dragons. Most of the Integrity Knights and mages had left for the battlefield as reinforcements for the Dark Realm to quash the rebellion. Because of this, the Central Cathedral was deathly quiet. With the other Integrity Knights gone, the duties of Ronie and all those who had stayed behind had doubled. Time passed in a flash.
"Oh! Hi, Ronie!"
Just as she turned the corner, Ronie bumped into Frenica. Since Soness, Deusolbert, and the other instructors had departed for the battlefield, the apprentices had no lessons that day. This was the first time in a while that the girls had seen each other.
"Oops, I'm sorry. You must be busy."
"Oh, no, I was just finishing up my tasks for the day. I was about to go take care of the dragons—want to come with me?"
"Could I? Wow, it has been quite some time since I last saw Tsukigake."
Their voices bubbled as they chatted and walked to where the dragons were kept.
"The Integrity Knights sure have a difficult task..."
"They sure do. But aren't things hectic on your end, too, Frenica?"
"Yeah... We're learning how to make medicine and catalysts for spells. They say we need to build up our reserves as much as possible."
"We really do..."
Just as with their weapons, the Central Cathedral was low on the catalysts and herbs needed for Sacred Arts spells. Militarily speaking, Centoria was at only about one third of its normal capacity. An ominous thought kept plaguing Ronie's mind: If Centoria were attacked now... But she forced it away.
"What's the matter, Ronie?"
"It's nothing, don't worry. When this war is over, let's go out to eat, okay? We'll bring Tiese along too."
"Sounds great! But won't we be too busy?"
"It's just dinner, we should be fine. Anyway, I'll be in touch."
Ronie's spirits were lifted by finally having some fun plans on the horizon. Tiese would surely be happy about it, too. She continued down the hall, imagining the good times ahead. I should invite Lady Asuna along. Then I could introduce her to Frenica and... But her little moment of fun was cut short by a guard running up to her.
"Lady Ronie! I finally found you!"
"Is something the matter?"
Ronie's eyes grew serious as she saw how flustered the guard looked.
"Please make way to the great hall at once. Commander Fanatio and the vice-commander are there waiting for you."
"Both of them...?"
If the two high-ranking officers were together, something quite terrible must have happened. She needed to hurry over there as quickly as she could. She felt bad to leave the dragons, but she would have to postpone their little visit until some other time.
'Sorry, Frenica. I have to go."
"It's okay. I understand."
After a quick apology, Ronie dashed down the hall with the guard. Left behind, Frenica stared at her retreating figure for a while, until...
"Be careful out there, Ronie."
She whispered softly.
When Ronie ran into the great hall, Tiese was already there. Chief Xiao of the Information Bureau was there as well. Their expressions were all serious and the tension in the room was so thick it could be cut with a knife.
"So sorry I'm late! Ronie Arabel Thirty-Three at your service!"
"It's all right, Ronie."
With a smile, Asuna looked at every face present.
"So, now that we're all here, Commander Fanatio, could we please have that report once more?"
"Aye. A mob gathered at the former Wesdarath imperial castle in Centoria earlier, and it has organized troops ready to march on Central Cathedral. Enemy morale is high. The army defending the castle has withdrawn and is currently regrouping."
Fanatio delivered the report coldly, killing all trace of emotion in her voice.
"These soldiers were dressed in the uniforms of the imperial guardsmen of the western empire. We also received word that there are horse-drawn carriages in the center of their ranks. We believe it's likely commanding officers of the nobility are in them."
"A mob... Does this mean Centoria will be..."
Tiese moaned in shock, unable to finish her sentence with the word "attacked." Ronie felt just as gutted. The ominous feeling that plagued her mind earlier had turned out to be valid far sooner than she would have liked.
Asuna, who likely heard the report earlier, did not even flinch. She just closed her eyes and listened as Fanatio spoke.
"Our forces have reported that no emperors were seen among the rebel army's ranks. And the imperial guardsmen were lower in number than anticipated."
Xiao said, reading the report in hand.
"So this means the riots in the Dark Realm and the uprising in the western empire...both were mere diversions."
Fanatio's voice was filled with bitterness. She was ashamed that she had not foreseen this as knight commander.
"We still couldn't have ignored either threat, Commander."
Asuna's tone was consoling. Ronie nodded in agreement. Both knew that if the "diversions" had been ignored, either would have wound up being a threat to the Unification Council.
"Right now, we must prepare to fight the enemy on our doorstep. Fanatio, how long will it be before the platoons we sent to the western empire return?"
"At the very least, two days. Perhaps three. The Integrity Knights alone could return faster than that."
"Understood. Then until they return, we must hold off the enemy with what forces we've got here."
Fanatio nodded. She then cast a stern glance at Ronie and Tiese.
"While the swordsman delegate is away, we Integrity Knights shall defend the Central Cathedral and Centoria with our lives! Understood, girls?!"
Ronie and Tiese shouted in unison. Fanatio was right. Letting the Central Cathedral be breached during Kirito's absence was simply not an option. Ronie swore a silent oath to lay down her life to defend this place if needed...
"The Human Guardian Army will also take defensive posts around Centoria. I believe our enemy's target is the Cathedral, but we want to keep civilian casualties to a minimum."
"Understood, ma'am. I shall deliver the order to the Guardian Army."
"I would feel much more secure if Liena were here..."
General Sortiliena Serlut, who was held in high regard by the Integrity Knights and Swordsman Delegate Kirito, was away leading the anti-rebel forces. If only she were here, then we might have had a better defense plan in place. The thought crossed Asuna's mind, but it was irrelevant now. Sortiliena was gone.
"Ronie, the artificers-in-training might have to fight. Can you deliver that news to everyone?"
Frenica and Selka were already more advanced than Ronie and Tiese in the Sacred Arts. And Frenica, being an alumnus of Swordcraft Academy, was proficient with a sword. In her head, she knew the girls had more than enough training to fight...but in her heart, Asuna felt saddened to send the apprentices out into battle.
"We will make our final defensive line up here on the ninety-fifth floor. Fanatio, we will keep Berche here for safety."
"At the very least, two days. Asuna...if the worst-case scenario should happen, please take care of Berche."
By "the worst-case scenario," Fanatio meant Central Cathedral falling. Asuna understood what she meant.
"I understand... But I won't need to. I will see to it that the Cathedral and everyone inside it are safe."
She would protect the world and all its people that Kirito loved. During Kirito's absence, Asuna made this pledge to herself over and over. And once again, she pledged anew.
"Aye! We Integrity Knights shall fight with our last breaths to keep you and the Cathedral safe!"
"We will protect it, too!"
"As will I!"
Fanatio, Tiese, and Ronie all chimed in one after another. Everything would be all right now. Asuna assured herself.
"So please...come back soon, Kirito."
One hour later... Ronie and Tiese were at Central Cathedral's front gate, waiting to meet the enemy in combat. Fanatio was among their ranks as well. All the Integrity Knights had been placed on the front lines, to nip the invasion in the bud before Central Cathedral could be breached. But if the Cathedral were breached, only Asuna and a few apprentices and guards remained to stop the enemy.
In time, the two girls heard the roaring of voices and the stomping of boots. The enemy barely numbered one hundred. The Human Guardian Army had not encountered the imperial guardsmen yet. But once the two forces clashed, many would die. Integrity Knights, however, could neutralize the enemy without killing them. That was why Asuna had sent the Human Guardian Army to protect the civilians instead. And just as anticipated, the imperial guardsmen bypassed Centoria and headed straight to the Central Cathedral.
"I'm glad I can count on you two."
As the Integrity Knights drew their swords, the imperial guardsmen charged up to them. But the soldier at the head of the pack fell unconscious without even a whimper at a crack on his helmet by the tip of Fanatio’s sword. Every soldier that swarmed up after was humanely incapacitated in a similar way. Morale and training were high among the imperial guardsmen, but they were no match for Integrity Knights. Their numbers were not thinned much, since the Integrity Knights were holding back, but there were no signs at present of them breaching the Central Cathedral.
――If we can keep going like this, and just thin out the enemy numbers, we've won!
A faint glimmer of confidence lit up in Ronie’s heart. Ronie and Tiese had both become far more skilled than they thought. In their normal training sessions, they sparred with higher-ranking Integrity Knights. As a result, the girls had underestimated their own abilities. Imperial guardsmen they may have been, but these were ordinary humans all the same. There was no way they could gain the upper hand against Ronie. Tiese and Fanatio thinned the enemy numbers without hitch. It looked like the fight was as good as theirs.
But when one knight with a sword emerged from one of the carriages deep within the enemy lines, the situation turned on its head. His face was obscured, but the man had a huge sword slung over his shoulder. And he was sizing them up. Just the sight of him standing there was so intimidating that it made Ronie shiver all over in fear. But she got the sense she had fought this man before. Though she didn't know why.
"It...it can't be! No, it's impossible!"
Fanatio, who was fighting nearby, let out an anguished cry. Hearing this, Ronie assumed that Fanatio was just as stunned by the man’s powerful aura as she was. But when she looked at Fanatio, she saw something in her eyes that far surpassed shock—grief. Ronie wondered what it could be...but she didn't have the time to spare.
She looked away from Fanatio to find the enemy right in front of her. He had been several mels away just a second ago, but he was now within reach of Ronie, sword poised above her. It was as if the soldier had teleported. And his sword was aiming for Ronie's head.
――I can't dodge it in time!
She couldn't evade or block it with her sword. That was just how swift her opponent’s swing was. An image of Kirito materialized in the back of Ronie's mind. If she could get in just one more swing of her sword for Kirito... Thinking this, Tiese gave up on saving herself, and thrust her sword forward instead.
But Ronie's head did not fly. Just before the enemy sword could reach her, Fanatio's sword intercepted it. And at the same time, Ronie's sword hit the enemy, sending him flying. It was then that Ronie was finally able to get a look at her assailant.
"Wait... Are you...?"
He carried his huge sword on his shoulder and wore Eastern clothing. He stood about two mels tall and his hair was a dark steel blue.
Fanatio muttered, squeezing the words painfully between her tight lips.
Tiese was shocked by the sudden appearance of Bercouli. In the Otherworld War, Bercouli had defeated Emperor Vecta once, at the cost of his own life. What was Bercouli doing there?
"Did they do to you...what they did to Cruiga? But..."
"This is the essence of our secret technique. We can reanimate the dead and control them as we desire."
A grand voice boomed behind Tiese. She turned around to see an elderly man in luxurious clothing standing behind her. Tiese had never seen him in person before, but it was Aldares Wesdarath V, emperor of the western empire.
"You're lying! The dead can never be brought back!"
Tiese screamed, running her hands through her hair. Her red tresses tangled with the Blue Rose Sword on her back. Tiese had once chased after shadows of the sword's former owner, putting the life of her friend in danger. When that happened, Kirito had said something to her: Even though you may hear the voice of a dead man, it is not his true voice. So when she saw this man standing before her that resembled Bercouli, she knew it could not truly be him.
"How dare you toy with the souls of the dead... You will burn in Hell for this!"
"Oh-ho-ho, I'd like to see you try to send me there."
With a snap of his fingers, Aldares summoned three strangely shaped monsters behind him. Tiese dodged their attacks, falling back.
Fighting three minions was a much harder task than fighting Aldares. But Fanatio and Ronie were busy fighting the fake Bercouli.
"I have to be the one to stop them!"
Not only was Asuna in the Central Cathedral, but if it were breached, inexperienced apprentices and employees would come under attack. She had to avoid that at any cost.
"Eugeo... Lend me your power!"
She touched the Blue Rose Sword on her back in prayer. And through the cold steel on her fingertips, she could have sworn she felt Eugeo's presence a little.
"Commander...Commander Bercouli! It's me... It's Fanatio!"
Fanatio gritted her teeth as she fought for her life against Bercouli. Bercouli's sword was every bit as sharp as it had been in life. But in countless battles since, Fanatio had grown much stronger. Still, defeating Bercouli was no easy task.
And all Ronie could do was helplessly watch them fight. If she tried to interfere, she might put Fanatio in harm's way. And even though she knew he was almost definitely a fake, a part of her was still hesitant to attack Bercouli.
Fanatio was overcome with despair. She could sense no thought or feeling in his gaze. He was merely intent on killing the enemy before him. No matter how much Fanatio called out to him, called him by name, Bercouli never even flinched. The man she loved and lost was right before her eyes...and yet, she could not reach him. Her grief knew no bounds.
"Commander... No, you are not my commander...not anymore."
Fanatio finally put the jumbled thoughts and feelings in her heart into words. She said the words out loud, to convince herself they were true. And to guide herself towards the action she must take. Fanatio had to protect the Central Cathedral and everyone inside...including Berche.
"Ronie, go help Tiese."
"But Lady Fanatio..."
"I'll be fine."
The grief in Fanatio's voice was gone. In its place was a strong determination. Ronie nodded, answered, "Yes, ma'am!" then turned to run to Tiese.
"You are an imposter, defiling the memory of Commander Bercouli. I'll make you regret showing yourself in my presence... Hahh!!!"
Fanatio knocked away a horizontal swing from his sword and sharply thrust her own blade at him. Her sword grazed Bercouli’s chest as he dodged it, leaving a shallow cut in his skin. A faint light flickered in Bercouli's eyes. Then he swung his sword with more strength than ever before. Fanatio dodged his attacks, repeating her own deadly blow over and over.
Their battle lasted over five minutes. Fanatio was covered in cuts, none of which were life-threatening. Bercouli was in much the same condition. Either fighter could slay the other if their swords could only find solid purchase. It was a fight that seemed like it would go on forever.
But Bercouli started to change. Light gleamed in his once-lifeless eyes, and emotions began to show on his wooden face. And when they were both gasping for air after what very well could have been their hundredth set of attacks, he finally spoke.
"Fanatio...is that you?"
Fanatio's eyes shot open. It was his beloved voice...the voice she had heard every night in her dreams. Hearing his voice made her eyes overflow with tears. But Fanatio mustered her faltering strength and screamed.
"In spite of this...I will never——!!!"
And with all her might, she pushed her opponent’s sword away. Unable to withstand the impact, Bercouli lost his footing. Seizing her first opening of the fight, Fanatio initiated her Perfect Weapon Control art.
Her sword shone white as it ran through Bercouli’s chest.
Looking down at the light in his chest, Bercouli chuckled. And then, he lowered his weapon and gazed upon Fanatio with gentle eyes.
Just as Fanatio said the words, her sword buried itself even deeper into Bercouli's chest.
"Your sword...and your eyes. No matter what became of me, I could never forget them."
"It's always been that way, remember? Whenever you get that look in your eyes...I know you're in the right."
"No...but I always needed you to guide me..."
Bercouli's body began to collapse into the spot where Fanatio’s sword had pierced it.
"It didn't last long...but I'm glad I got to see you one last time."
"Commander Bercouli...I named your son Berche. I promise he'll grow up into a fine knight!"
"Good...I know you'll be okay, Fanatio."
Bercouli's fingers ran through Fanatio's hair. She gently lay her hand on top of his. Holding it until it dissolved into dust.