While Fanatio and Bercouli were exchanging deadly blows, Ronie and Tiese were locked in combat with the minions summoned by Aldares. Against opponents who assailed them from the air, their swords were unable to strike land one blow. Using Sacred Arts was off the table, too—any time they started an incantation, they were cut off by attacks from above.
"My minions, do not leave this place until every last one of these people is dead."
Aldares commanded as he observed Ronie and Tiese's desperate fight. He then left their side and headed for the Central Cathedral.
"N-Not so fast!"
Ronie tried to chase after him, but the minions blocked her path. They didn't attack Tiese, though—they instead flew left and right to prevent Ronie from pursuing.
"Oh-ho-ho! Have a fun time playing with them. I have better places to be."
And with a final sideways glance at the immobilized girls, Aldares headed inside the Central Cathedral.
Ronie and Tiese stood back to back, swords raised against the minions that surrounded them. It would take too much time to pick them off one at a time. But they had no other way to force their enemy to fall back.
"Tiese, at this rate, everyone's doomed..."
She told her friend over her shoulder. They needed to think of some way to blast through all the minions. Aside from Asuna, no one inside the Cathedral had battle experience.
"Ronie, I'll hold them off. You need to get into the Cathedral."
Ronie whirled around, shocked by the words.
"B-But I can't do that! We're barely holding them off as it is..."
"Aldares said he had better places to be. I don't know where that is exactly, but I know we can't let him get in there."
This gave Ronie a sudden realization. Their enemy had had a lot of time to carefully plan their attack on the Central Cathedral... They probably had a trick up their sleeve that Ronie and her friends were still unaware of. Defending the Central Cathedral was important, but Tiese was right. They needed to follow Aldares before it was too late.
"So please, Ronie. Go. Don't worry, I'll keep these guys distracted. I'm just as tough as you are, you know."
Tiese's gaze stayed glued to the enemy. Her voice was so deeply committed that any traces of doubt in Ronie's mind vanished.
"Understood. Promise me you won't die, Tiese."
"Of course I won't."
Ronie had barely heard Tiese's answer before she started running to the Central Cathedral. The minions swarmed to Ronie, trying to stop her. But when Ronie swung her sword, a faint blue light shone from her blade. It was the same Aincrad style rush attack she had used to save Leazetta: Sonic Leap.
Ronie snapped forward like a rubber band, zipping through an opening in the minions who barred her path. And riding on her momentum, Ronie jumped past the main gate of the Cathedral. Since there were no enemies beneath her to slash, she tucked her legs under herself and tumbled to the ground.
"I won't let you get away!"
Ronie slashed through the minions running up to her and took a detour around them. And now, their roles were reversed—Tiese was blocking the minions from pursuing her friend.
"You guys were ordered to immobilize us, right? Come on then! Immobilize me!"
Hearing Tiese's emboldened cries at her back, Ronie ran inside the Central Cathedral, praying for her friend's safety all the while.
There were no traces of a battle at the entrance to the Central Cathedral. Frenica and the others had probably been evacuated to the middle levels or higher. Nobody knew what Aldares's target was, but it was surely on the upper floors.
"I have no time to waste..."
Ronie rushed up the stairs with all the speed she could muster. For a moment, she wondered how an elderly person like Aldares could possibly run up the stairs like this, but then she remembered her opponent was somebody who was supposed to be dead. It was best to abandon rational thought at this point.
There was a dragon landing dock on the thirtieth floor. All the Integrity Knights' dragons were out on the battlefield now, except the baby dragons Tsukigake and Shimotsuki. As Ronie ran up the stairs to that floor, she heard screaming and an explosion in the distance. She was finally almost there. This put a fire in Ronie's weary legs that helped her fly the rest of the way up.
"Generate Cryogenic Element! Form Element, Arrow Shape!"
Frenica's ice arrows flew, piercing through a minion. The creature's body shook, as if in pain, and its movements dulled a little.
Selka's light elements burst forth. Radiance enveloped the minion, slashing off one of its wings. But the minion still shakily sprang up, lunging at Selka with its claws.
"Ugh, just die already!"
Selka complained, gasping and wheezing for breath. But her annoyed words fell on deaf ears. The half-destroyed minion kept attacking Selka and Frenica.
"Selka...I'm running low on sacred energy."
The apprentice mages on the thirtieth floor were battling two minions that Aldares had summoned. But to most of them, this was their first battle. Some were even rendered unable to chant their spells in the face of a real enemy. Selka and Frenica had taken the lead and sent the wounded away. After a struggle, they were able to defeat just one of the minions, but the other was fighting fiercely. And with the need to heal their comrades nearby, the girls were almost out of spatial power. They needed to either retreat or make their final stand here... Just when they were about to make a decision, someone flew in from the hallway at an inhuman speed.
Letting her momentum carry her, Ronie slashed the one-winged minion in two. With a shrill death cry, it took its last breath.
"Are you guys okay?!"
"Yes, Frenica and I are both fine."
"Everyone else has retreated. They're all alive."
Ronie sighed loudly in relief at the news that everyone was safe. But she quickly snapped herself to attention.
"Aldares must have run through here."
"Ah, I know who you're talking about. He unleashed some minions on us and ran upstairs."
"Sorry, Ronie. We tried to stop him..."
Frenica's shoulders slumped. Selka worried at her lip in frustration. Ronie put an arm around each of their shoulders and hugged them tight.
"Don't apologize. I'm just glad you're okay. It took a lot just to stop those minions. You were both very brave."
Boosted by Ronie's words, Selka and Frenica gave each other a determined nod.
"You have to stop that Aldares guy, right? Then leave everyone here to us, Ronie. You go catch him."
"But what if more minions arrive...?"
As Ronie tried to stop them, Selka and Frenica gripped her hands.
"As long as we stay on the defensive, we should be able to manage. You have to go up and stop him, Ronie."
Ronie gave Frenica a worried look. She nodded confidently in reply.
"Understood. Selka, Frenica, take good care of everybody. I need to save Lady Asuna and the others."
With a parting hug, Ronie took in a deep breath.
"Be careful out there, Ronie."
She gave Selka a nod and began to run up the stairs.
As Ronie ascended, she thought about what Aldares might be after. Was he planning to kidnap Berche to threaten Fanatio, like what happened at Obsidia Palace? Or was his target Asuna, the person the townspeople believed to be Stacia the Creator incarnate? Either was plausible, but neither seemed worthwhile enough to go to such extremes as launch two diversions in the Dark Realm and in the West. It was likely they had seen a demonstration of Asuna's powers in the Otherworld War. If Berche was their target, it would be wiser for them to kidnap him in some underhanded plot like they did at Obsidia Palace.
"Which means, maybe this is connected with Cruiga somehow..."
They had been able to kill Cruiga, but so many mysteries remained unsolved. The flying red jewel, the insignia that came from Cruiga's remains... Ayuha's team was working with Kirito to try to decipher the meaning of the insignia, but they had yet to reach any conclusions. And that insignia was being kept in a location only Asuna and Kirito were privy to—
"Oh! Is it the insignia...?"
If the secret Cruiga left behind was hidden in that insignia, it was highly likely that it was Aldares's target. It was being kept in a place unknown to anyone, but it was something the emperors had originally forged themselves. So it wouldn't at all be strange if they had some means of tracking it.
When Ronie arrived at the fiftieth floor, she headed for the floating platform. And just as she expected, the floating platform was already in use, climbing up to the top floors. For a moment, Ronie wished that Airy were still operating the floating platform...but she quickly dismissed that thought. Airy might have been killed if that were the case. So it was actually a good thing that she wasn't there.
"Maybe I should just take the stairs... No, if I'm going all the way up to the ninety-fifth floor, it's definitely faster to take the floating platform."
She called for the floating platform, but it wouldn't return. Just how high up had it gone? As she fidgeted, waiting for the floating platform, she heard footsteps behind her. She drew her sword out of habit and whirled around...but when she saw who it was, her face brightened into a smile.
"Ronie! I finally caught up to you!"
Arriving at Ronie's side, Tiese took several breaths to steady herself.
"How's it looking at the front gate?"
"Good. After Lady Fanatio defeated Commander Bercouli's...minion, she came to help. And we made short work of all the enemies."
"Oh, thank goodness."
Ronie explained everything she had theorized about Aldares thus far, that it was highly likely he was after the insignia, but only Kirito and Asuna knew where it was kept.
"So I was thinking of going to the ninety-fifth floor to ask Lady Asuna about it..."
By the time Ronie finished filling Tiese in, the floating platform arrived on their floor.
"But Ronie, that will take too long. You have to face Aldares directly."
"But I don't know where he is..."
"Why don't you try Incarnation Sense like you did before?"
Ronie gasped a little. Incarnation Sense was a means of detecting the locations of humans or other living beings by using the power of Incarnation. Ronie's and Tiese's powers were still not strong enough to work at long range, but if they combined their powers using a Mind-Body Link, they could search a wider circumference. Still, when they used that earlier in Cruiga's manor, they were barely able to scan up to just the second floor.
"We've been training hard every day. I just know we're stronger than we think. Let's do our best to search for his aura!"
She was right. They were no longer apprentices. They were full-fledged Integrity Knights, supporting the Human Unification Council and Swordsman Delegate Kirito. They might not be able to sense ten kilors ahead like Kirito could, but a dozen mels was well within their reach. Ronie and Tiese firmly clasped hands.
Tiese slowed her breathing to match Ronie's. Soon, their senses knew no bounds. Their range of perception expanded farther from themselves. From the fiftieth floor to the fifty-fifth floor...the sixtieth floor...the seventieth floor—
They said in unison when their scan reached the eightieth floor. The eightieth floor—the Cloudtop Garden. It had an icy, ominous feeling about it. It resembled the auras of Cruiga and Zeppos that they had felt before. Without a word, they climbed on the floating platform and poured enough wind elements into it to put it at full speed.
The Cloudtop Garden was a floor overflowing with greenery, flowers, and crystal-clear streams. It was a place that Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty had loved very much. Even now, with Alice gone, Kirito and Asuna still go there often. But what greeted Ronie and Tiese there now was a swirling, evil aura, and the eerie chanting of Aldares Wesdarath V. Even when Ronie and Tiese caught up to him, he kept chanting, not even paying them a glance.
There was no time to ask questions. They had seen Cruiga's ritual with their own eyes—they knew time was short. So they charged at him without warning. Whether he noticed them or not, Aldares paid them no mind. Ronie's sword slashed his torso partly in two. Tiese lopped off his left arm.
With his chest slashed and one arm missing, Aldares lost his balance and began to fall. Yet he did not stop chanting.
"I knew it... He's not human!"
"We need to stop his spell!"
Ronie and Tiese raised their swords again. And then, with a glimmer of a smile on his chanting lips, Aldares's head flew off.
Now on the ground, Aldares spat thick, dark liquid from of his mouth. It was indistinguishable from blood or mud. His chanting finally stopped. Ronie sighed in relief, but only for a second. Aldares's eyeballs suddenly fixed on her.
"Pity...you were too late. The metamorphosis...is complete."
But Aldares did not dispel Ronie's confusion. His body melted into a jet-black slime. Ronie's heart assured her everything was over...but her fears only grew.
"Ronie! Look at that!"
Tiese's voice confirmed Ronie's worst fears. Where Tiese pointed—in the spot where Alice's beloved Osmanthus tree once grew—a black blob was taking shape. Little by little, it formed into the shape of a human. But it far surpassed a normal human in size. As they watched in horror, it grew to five mels in height—the size of a giant.
The face of the giant was the spitting image of the man Kirito and Ronie had defeated twice before: Cruiga Norlangarth.
"The talisman... That insignia..."
It all came back to her. Cruiga had said that Hozaika Eastavarieth could not be revived because his talisman had been lost. At the time, she had no idea what he had meant, but now, everything was clear. That insignia was Cruiga's talisman.
All they needed to do was destroy the talisman. It was now the nucleus of his new body. That way, he could never be revived again. Ronie raised her sword and took her Sonic Leap stance. Ronie's blade snapped back, then hurled forward, piercing Cruiga's right leg.
But before her very eyes, his half-severed leg knitted itself back together again. Ronie cut him a second time...a third...but those wounds also healed themselves in the blink of an eye.
"“How about this?!"
Seeing sword attacks were ineffective, Tiese flung a heat element arrow at Cruiga. With a popping crack, his flesh burned where her arrow struck, gouging out a hole. But the wound quickly closed, the same way his flesh had healed from the sword slashes.
"Wh-What... Neither swords nor Sacred Arts work on him?!"
With no means of attacking the giant, the girls fell into an astonished daze. That was when Cruiga's huge fists came swinging at them. Unable to dodge the faster-than-anticipated punches, Ronie and Tiese were blown backwards and smashed against the wall.
The impact knocked the wind out of Ronie. Then Tiese came flying towards her. She barely broke her fall. Then the two fell to the ground in each other's arms.
"Nng... T-Tiese...are you okay?"
Gasping for breath, they struggled to their feet. But Cruiga's second attack was already upon them.
――I can't dodge it in time!
Reaching that realization, Ronie took a defensive stance to lessen the damage. But the dreaded attack never reached her. Instead, a sound split the air, snapping Cruiga's arm off.
"Wh-What was that?"
"Are you all right, Ronie?! Tiese?!"
It was the voice of someone who was supposed to be on the ninety-fifth floor: Asuna. She was holding Berche in her left arm and her rapier in her right. It was her rapier that had lopped off Cruiga's arm.
"Lady Asuna! Yes, we're fine!"
Asuna smiled awkwardly at Tiese's concern.
"I sensed a great presence on this floor, so I abandoned my post. But there was no way I would leave Berche on his own."
Asuna carefully adjusted the baby in her arm.
"Don't worry. I'll keep him safe. So even though I won't be able to do anything crazy...I can still join the fight."
Ronie and Tiese raised their swords again. Cruiga's arm was slowly regenerating itself.
The fight between Cruiga and the three of them was intense. Normal attacks had no effect against his massive body. Even if any of them were able to inflict major damage, all would be regenerated in a matter of seconds. But between Ronie's and Tiese's Aincrad techniques and rapier attacks from Asuna so swift it was hard to believe she was holding a baby, Cruiga's body became more and more battered. It was now starting to be beyond regeneration.
"No more... Stop defiling this sacred place with your evil!"
Asuna pointed her rapier at Cruiga, who was in shambles and losing his footing. With a little time, he would likely regenerate himself.
Asuna gritted her teeth and swung her rapier. Its tip was aimed straight at Cruiga's head. And with a slashing noise, Asuna's attack approached Cruiga's face. He reached out with his hands to deflect it, but Ronie and Tiese cut in from both sides with Sonic Leaps. With a sharp, crunching noise, both swords dug halfway into each of Cruiga's arms, chopping them off. Now armless and defenseless, Cruiga's face was at the mercy of Asuna's rapier.
For the first time, Cruiga made a noise: a guttural howl. The entire eightieth floor shook from the noise. With more than three quarters of his face ripped away, Cruiga lurched forward. Then his neck snapped. And with a loud, dull thud, his whole body fell. Then he turned to foul-smelling mud, seeping over the ground.
"We...We did it!"
"We defeated that monster!"
Ronie and Tiese clasped hands and rejoiced. Asuna, her forehead shining with sweat, sighed in relief. Feeling her chest heave up and down, Berche began to stir in her arms.
"Oh! Sorry, Berche. But you're all safe now."
The Cloudtop Garden was a mess...but she had kept Berche and everyone else alive. Now she could face Kirito without shame...or could she?
Tiese let go of Ronie's hands and gasped in surprise. Cruiga's headless, lifeless body had started to swirl back together.
A shocked gasp escaped Asuna's mouth. She gripped her rapier again, ready to fight. She was prepared to use Stacia's powers this time, until a violent pain struck her head.
"N-No...I can still do this!"
Asuna wiped the sweat from her brow, facing the pain. She needed to put an end to him once and for all, before he could revive himself completely. She tried to move, but the exhaustion was fiercer than she'd thought. Her pain was intense, too.
Cruiga's body crumbled, turning to black mud. But the mud gathered back in on itself, as if it once again had consciousness. It grew, changing shape as it went. Ronie and Tiese mustered up their morale to attack him again, but the damage inflicted upon them in the last fight was great. They could no longer move as they wanted. In time, Cruiga's mud enveloped the mud that was once Aldares, sculpting itself together. Until eventually, it grew into a thing so grotesque and massive it reached the ceiling.
It looked like a sort of octopus...or another multi-limbed creature. It had a big round head, and countless tentacles slithered from it. But the biggest difference was the giant mouth at its center. It hung open large enough to swallow a person whole, and was rimmed with jagged fangs. When the monster waved its tentacles, the Central Cathedral shook wildly.
"Ronie! Tiese! Fall back!"
Asuna stopped the two when they raised their swords for combat.
"But Lady Asuna! If we don't fight, the Cathedral will—"
"Don't worry. I'll protect the Cathedral."
Asuna then handed Berche to Ronie. Instantly knowing what that meant, Ronie shook her head violently.
"Lady Asuna, you mustn't!"
"This is nothing you need to worry about, Ronie. I just can't fight to my true potential with Berche in my arms."
"You're lying! Lady Asuna...if you use all your power at once, you'll..."
She knew that if Asuna used Stacia's miracle, she could die. She had proof—back when Asuna used her ability to scry the past in the Centoria murder investigation, Asuna had fallen limp afterwards. If she used such draining powers against an opponent like this, she would die.
"I will join you. If we all fight together, we can win."
"She's right! We can fight, too. We're Integrity Knights!"
"No. If you stay and fight, nobody will be able to protect Berche."
Ronie looked down at Berche, asleep in her arms. It was a miracle that he was able to sleep soundly through this. Asuna was right. Somebody needed to get Berche to safety. And while that somebody was fleeing with Berche, she needed someone else to cover her, buy her time. She and Tiese were the obvious choice.
She felt wretched, unable to say the words: Yes, my lady. We will buy you time.
"Come on, hurry and—ahh!"
With a roar, the monster swung its tentacles down to where Ronie and Tiese were. They were able to avoid the worst of the attack, but still ended up flung against the wall. Luckily—if one could even use that word—it was where the entrance to the Cloudtop Garden was.
Without further word, Asuna drew her rapier. If she died, it would not be a real death. She would only disappear from this world and return to her body back in reality. She could not force Ronie and Tiese to fight, when their deaths in this world would be real.
"Isn't that right, Kirito?"
If Kirito were there, he would have agreed to her plan. Though he probably would have also cried a lot over it. Let me apologize in advance... I'm sorry, Kirito.
"Come at me! I'm the one you want!"
Ronie stared in horror as Asuna rose to challenge the monster in combat. She had to escape. But she couldn't leave Asuna to die. The conflict in her heart kept her glued to the spot. The same must have been true for Tiese. Her body was facing the exit, but her eyes were locked on Asuna.
—Kirito, Lady Asuna is in danger!
—Kirito, please come save her!
Before she knew it, Ronie was screaming. He was in the Dark Realm. He would not be able to get there. Her voice would not be able to reach him. Startled by her screaming, Berche began to wail. And as Ronie hugged him protectively to her chest, a giant tear rolled down her cheek.
She thought she heard his voice.
—It's obviously an illusion. Kirito was far, far away.
And yet, she grabbed ahold of a ray of hope and turned her eyes upward. Before her lay the giant monster and the pure white walls of the Central Cathedral. Realizing it really was an illusion, tears filled her eyes once more. But when one of the tentacles flew in the air and disappeared...Ronie's eyes shot open.
A young man in a black coat slashed dual blades through the monster's tentacles. He was not dressed like the swordsman delegate she knew, but he was definitely Kirito. Ronie's eyes filled with tears again—tears of joy and relief, this time. When both blades plunged into the monster's giant mouth, it let out a hair-raising scream. Ronie shrank back, but that terrifying shriek was proof that Kirito was killing the monster.
"That's right, where's Lady Asuna?!"
Kirito had distracted her and she had lost Asuna. But Tiese had run up to the kneeling swordswoman, to stand protectively in front of her and shield her from the aftermath of the battle. Tiese was overcome with love and admiration for her friend.
A little while ago...
As he was flying from the Dark Realm to Centoria at top speed, Kirito had a bad feeling, so he used Incarnation Sense and discovered the giant monster in the Cathedral. It was far more ominous and dangerous than Tolgash, the one he'd just felled, and Cruiga, the one he defeated in the past.
Accelerating even faster than his previous top speed, Kirito flew to the Cathedral. When the Cathedral finally came in sight, it was shaking violently. Cracks were running up the walls. And Kirito kept his speed, flying straight towards one of the openings. He used his Incarnation power to smash through the crack in the white wall before him, and flew into the Cathedral interior. The first thing he saw was the monster's tentacles attacking Asuna.
Kirito descended quickly upon the beast. Meanwhile, he transformed from his Swordsman Delegate form to the way he formerly presented himself as the Black Swordsman. He gripped Elucidator and Dark Repulser in his hands.
Letting his anger fuel him, he slashed off the tentacle that was headed for Asuna. Then he slashed off all the other tentacles coming their way and sank both swords into the monster's giant mouth.
The monster's scream sent pulses pounding through the air. But Kirito did not fall. He yanked his swords out and stabbed the monster once again. The flailing tentacles gradually slowed, and its screams grew quieter. Until finally, starting from the tips of its tentacles, the monster dissolved into dry sand and scattered on the wind.
Asuna smiled weakly at the boy, now back in his swordsman delegate form.
"I'm sorry...I just couldn't defeat that thing alone."
"Don't apologize. You did more than enough. You kept everyone here alive."
"Yeah...I guess I managed somehow."
"Thanks, Asuna. Sorry I took so long."
"It's okay...I'm just glad you're here. You always come save me when I'm in trouble."
"And I always will."
Weary with relief, Asuna collapsed into Kirito's arms. He lifted her off the ground and called out to Ronie and Tiese.
"I'm glad you're all safe. Is everyone else okay, too?"
Ronie, who had been dreamily staring at Kirito, snapped to attention.
"Yes, sir! Lady Fanatio and everyone who works at the Cathedral is safe!"
"I'm glad to hear that. Thanks, Ronie."
If she let her guard down, she would start crying. But if she cried now, Kirito would feel awkward, holding Asuna in front of her.
"Kirito, please make sure that Lady Asuna takes a rest. I'll go check on Lady Fanatio and the others!"
"Thanks, Ronie. Make it so."
And with another bow, Ronie turned and ran away. Ronie couldn't deny it...Kirito was her hero. He always came to her rescue, no matter what. That's why she wanted to grow even stronger. So that next time, Ronie could be the one to rescue Kirito.
Several days had passed since the attack on the Central Cathedral. The uprisings in the Dark Realm, Western Empire, and Centoria were all quashed. The Cathedral itself suffered significant damages, but luckily, hardly any of the people were harmed. It took a lot of work to repair the walls, but perhaps a new technique might be born from it. Or that's what Kirito hoped would happen.
Back from the Dark Realm, Sylvie knelt before Kirito, Shirley, and General Serlut of the Human Guardian Army in apology.
"Even though it was for a short time, I was a soldier of the Human Empire. Yet I betrayed you. I am prepared to face the consequences, whatever they may be."
"Anyway, that's her story. What should we do, Liena?"
"Well, she did desert. That cannot be overlooked."
When Sortiliena said that, Kirito gave her an astonished look.
"Liena...you can't mean..."
"Loyalty must be rewarded, disloyalty must be punished—it's the law. If we let her desertion go unpunished, discipline in the army will crumble."
"That may be true, but—"
"However. Sylvie aided you in toppling the enemy general—an act of bravery and merit. According to my formerly stated law, I cannot let her act of bravery go unrewarded."
Sortiliena stopped and smiled.
"Taking Sylvie's act of merit into account, I will disregard her mysterious absence during the night. Is that suitable for you, Kirito?"
Kirito nodded eagerly. But Sylvie did not look happy with the verdict.
"B-But...I betrayed you...and I pledged my loyalty to the enemy."
Her voice shook in protest. But Sortiliena merely answered, with an air of secrecy.
"But I was told that it was only a trick you played to infiltrate the enemy ranks."
Sylvie looked at Kirito in surprise. Kirito nodded at her.
"People like you are vital to us, Sylvie. You're strong and well-versed on matters of the Dark Realm. We would love to have the service of someone like you."
"Well...since I'm an exchange student, I've no choice, have I."
Sylvie answered daringly. Kirito and Sortiliena laughed...then Shirley and Eydis followed suit.
"Glad to hear it, Sylvie! I can't wait to go to school with you in the Human Empire again!"
Shirley took Sylvie's hands and waved them around. Sylvie just smiled awkwardly and nodded. Eydis stared lovingly at the pair for a little while, then she suddenly clapped her hands together and made a suggestion to Kirito.
"So hey, if you really want her to help us, why don't you just turn her into an Integrity Knight?"
Sylvie let out a crazed shout at the suggestion.
"An Integrity Knight, eh? I'm not so sure..."
"That way, I could have a chance to work with Sylvie, too. And if you think we're moving too fast, she can always be an apprentice Integrity Knight, rather than an official one."
"An apprentice, you say... Well, that could work..."
"H-Hey, wait a minute!"
Sylvie frantically pulled the brakes on the runaway conversation.
"I don't want to be an Integrity Knight. I'm going to be a Dark Knight."
"That's right. You and I are gonna be Dark Knights!"
"Aww, what a shame..."
Eydis looked so sad that everyone there burst out laughing. And Sylvie, through her laughter, had a thought.
—I want to learn more about the Human Empire...and about Kirito, too.
At the front gate of the Central Cathedral, Fanatio held Berche in her arms as she stood where Bercouli's remains were.
"Commander... I don't care what form you took—I was happy to see you. Do you think the gods will punish me for saying that?"
Berche started squealing and giggling in her arms in reply.
Inside the Cathedral, Ronie and the others were having lessons with Soness in a classroom slightly disheveled from the aftermath of the battle. They were trying to fill the void left by a lack of classes. Soness was strict as ever, but Ronie studied even harder than before, holding dear to the conversation she and Tiese had before their lesson had started...
"I must become stronger. I want to serve Kirito well and I want to be the one to rescue him next time."
"I feel the same way. And I need to be worthy of using the Blue Rose Sword someday, too. Otherwise, I could never rescue anyone the way Eugeo did."
Later that night, Kirito and Asuna clasped hands in their slightly rumpled bed.
"I know I said it before, but, I'm sorry you went through all that, Kirito."
"Yeah. And I'm sorry I put you through hell too, Asuna."
"Don't worry about me."
She squeezed his hand tight.
"Thanks. But the river of worry never runs dry..."
"That may be true. But everything will be okay. We have so many wonderful friends."
"We sure do."
Kirito squeezed her hand back.
"And I have the one I can count on the closest to me: you."
"Good. Keep counting on me."
Asuna touched her forehead to his and smiled into his laughing eyes. They could feel each other's warmth through their skin. It was a calming warmth...a warmth that told them that no matter what happened, everything would be okay.