The Third Month of Human World Calendar 378
There were scents in the air.
My fragmented thought had sensed as such just before I woke up.
The air which was flowing into my nasal cavity contained large amounts of information. The sweet scent of flowers. The scent of bright green grasses. The refreshing scent of trees which felt like it could cleanse my chest. The scent of water which stimulated my thirsty throat.
As my consciousness leaned towards awareness, the flood of the sounds information surged into me. The sound of numerous leaves rubbing against each other. The sound of small birds cheerfully twittering away. Below them were the occasionally buzzing sounds from the insects. The faint murmuring sound of a small river from far away.
Where am I? At least it is obviously not my room. Usually, when I wake up, there is always a sunny-like scent of the dry sheet, the groan of the air-con, and the sound of the cars running on the Kawagoe bypass slightly further away, but all of these aren’t present. Furthermore —— the green light which irregularly brushes my closed eyelids until now isn’t the book light I forgot to turn off, but sunlight filtered through the foliage, isn’t it?
I pushed aside the desire to return to the deep sleep which still lingered, before finally opening my eyes.
I repeatedly blinked several times due to the sudden shot of numerous swaying beams of lights. As I rubbed my eyes, which were blurred with tears, with the back of my right hand, I slowly raised my upper body.
“……Where am I……?”
I unintentionally muttered.
What I saw next were green bushes. There were small white and yellow flowers at various places on them, the shiny light blue butterflies were flying back and forth between them. About five meters away, the carpet of grasses was cut off, from there on, was a stretch of deep forest, lined up with the huge gnarly trees which should have aged for tens of years.
As I focused my sight to the gloomy gap between the tree trunks, the grove of trees seemed to continue until the limit where light could reach. The rugged rippled tree bark and the ground were covered with thick moss, shining green and gold under the sun.
I glanced to the right, then turned around, I was greeted by old tree trunks from all directions. In other words, it seemed I was lying in a small circle of grasses in the opening of the forest. Lastly I looked upwards, and from the gap between the gnarled tree-tops stretching in all directions, it was the blue sky where the scattered clouds were drifting, like I had expected.
“Where is…… this place?”
I muttered again as I sighed. But there was no answer.
I searched every nook and corner of my head, but I couldn’t find the memory of how I came to take a nap in this place. Sleepwalking? Amnesia? As those dangerous words crossed my mind, no way, I quickly denied it.
I am…… my name is Kirigaya Kazuto. Seventeen years old and eight months. I live at Kawagoe, Saitama prefecture with my mother and little sister.
I felt somewhat calm as my related data came out smoothly, then I pulled out more memories.
Currently, I’m a second year high school student. But as I’d met the graduation requirement in the first semester of next year, I was thinking about entering a university in fall. Yes, I had consulted with someone about that. On the last Sunday of June, when it was raining. I went to Agil’s shop, «Dicey Café» in Okachimachi after school, and talked to my friend Sinon, Asada Shino about Gun Gale Online.
Then, Asuna —— Yuuki Asuna joined up, the three of us talked for a while before leaving the shop.
I have a lover, I softly uttered a name of the girl, who was the partner I could leave my back to with full confidence. I looked around my surroundings many times, tried to search for the figure of her, who existed clearly in my memory, however, I couldn’t find a single human’s figure on the grass floor or in the deep forest.
While fighting with a sudden strike of loneliness, I went to retrace my memories.
Asuna and I separated from Shino after we went out of the shop. After coming out of the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line in Shibuya, we switched to Tōyoko line to go Setagaya, where Asuna’s house is.
The rain had already stopped when we exited the station. As we walked side by side on the brick tile footpath, we talked about entering the university. I spoke openly about my desire to go to the university in America, and made an unreasonable request for Asuna to come along, at that point, she gave her usual tenderly bright smile, and then——
My memories stopped at that point.
I couldn’t recall it. How did Asuna reply? How did I say farewell and return to the station? What time did I come back home, what time did I go to bed? I couldn’t recall any of those.
As I was slightly amazed, I desperately tried to pull out more memories.
However, Asuna’s smile just faded away like it was blurred in the water, the scene after that didn’t come out no matter how hard I tried to recall it. I frowned as I closed my eyes, and hastily dug up the gloomy grey vacuum.
I was suffocating as if I was going mad.
Those were just two images that came to mind, like small bubbles. Unintentionally, I inhaled the sweet air deeply into my chest. And I strongly sensed my dry throat, which I had forgotten about until now.
There is no doubt about it, yesterday evening I was definitely at Miyasaka town in Setagaya ward. Then how did I end up sleeping in the middle of a forest I don’t know?
No, was it really yesterday? The breeze which is brushing against my skin feels cool and pleasant. This forest doesn’t have the slightest bit of the humidity at the end of June. This time, a genuine fear ran through my back.
The «Yesterday’s memory», which I’m desperately clinging onto as if it were a small float floating in the middle of a stormy sea, did it really happen? Am I… really who I think I am……?
After caressing my face and pulling at my hair several times, I lowered my hands and looked at its details. I calmed down slightly as they looked just like what I had in my memories, there was a mole at the base of the right thumb, the back of the left middle finger had a scar which I got during childhood.
At that point, I finally noticed my strange appearance.
Replacing my usual pajamas wasn’t a T-shirt nor a school uniform, no, it wasn’t even anything I owned. On the contrary, no matter how I looked at it, I didn’t think it was ready-made clothes available in the market.
The tunic was dyed in a pale blue, it was either a rough cotton or flax short sleeved shirt. Its texture was irregular, which gave a coarse feeling. The thread sewed on the cuffs seemed to be hand-sewn rather than machine sewed. There was no collar, the V shape cut on the chest was tied with a light brown cord. As I looked at the cord held by my fingers, I could see that it wasn’t made of braided fiber, but seemed to be of finely cut leather.
The trousers also used the same material, but they were in beige as they seemed to be unbleached. There was no pocket, the leather belt which tied my waist wasn’t fastened with a metal buckle, but a long and narrow wooden button. The shoes were also hand-sewn leather, several tacks were struck to the cleats of thick leather shoe sole.
I had never seen such clothes and shoes before. ——In the real world, that was.
I relaxed my shoulders, as I muttered with a light sigh.
Even though they were completely different, at the same time, they were the garments that looked familiar. From Europe during the Middle Ages, or it could be said from fantasy, these were what were the so-called tunic, cotton pants, and leather shoes. This place wasn’t reality but a fantasy world, or a virtual world I was familiar with.
I said again as I tilted my head.
This means I was sleeping while FullDiving? But when and what game did I log in to? Why can’t I remember anything?
Anyway, I’ll know after I logged out, as I thought that, I waved my right hand.
After a several seconds, the window wouldn’t open, so this time I waved my left hand. The result was the same.
As I listened to the uninterrupted sound of little birds twittering and leaves rubbing against each other, I recklessly tried to shake off a discomforting feeling which was creeping up from my waist.
This place is a virtual world. It should be. But —— at least it isn’t Alfheim I’m familiar with. Before that, it isn’t even the standard VR world which is created by The Seed.
But didn’t I just confirm the mole and scar I have in the real world? A VR game which could precisely reproduce such things, as far as I know, doesn’t exist.
“Command. ……Log out.”
I pronounced it along with a faint glimmer of hope, but there was no response. As I sat cross-legged, I looked at my hand again.
There were swirled fingerprints on the tip of my fingers. There were wrinkles at the joints. The fine soft hairs grew thinly. The beads of cold sweat had been perspiring for a while now.
I wiped them off using my tunic, and checked the details of the fabric again. The rough threads were knit into the cloth using an old method. The fluffy and very fine fiber was clearly visible on the surface.
If this was a virtual world, the machine which created it would have a fearfully high performance. As I set my gaze on the grove of trees up ahead, I quickly tore a blade of grass with my right arm and held it in front of my eyes.
The Seed’s standard VR world, which used «Detail Focusing» technique, wouldn’t be able to keep up with my sudden movement, a slight time lag would occur before I could see the fine detailed texture of the grass. However, from the thin running vein and the jagged edge, until the water droplet dripped off the slit, all were presented in ultra-fine detail the moment I stared at it.
It means the objects which entered my vision is generated in real-time with a precision of millimeters. Then the capacity needed to store this single grass would be in several tens of megabytes. Is something like that really possible?
I don’t want to pursue this anymore, I suppressed such thoughts within my mind as I pushed the grass between my feet aside and started digging the ground using my right hand in place of a shovel.
The damp black soil was surprisingly soft, the entangled small grassroots entered my eyes immediately. I saw a wriggling movement between the tangle of roots and gently picked it up with my fingertips.
It was a small earthworm, about three centimeters long. The lustrous green creature, which was pulled out from its safe haven, was struggling recklessly. Is this a new species? right as I thought that, it raised one end of the tip, which apparently was its head, and made a small Kyu— kyu— cry. While I was feeling dizzy, I returned it to the top of the dug up soil. I then looked at my right hand, my palm was covered in black dirt, the gaps of my fingernails were full of the fine soil.
I was absentminded for several tens of seconds, then, while being reluctant, I came up with three hypotheses which could sufficiently explain the current situation.
First, it is possible that this place is a virtual world created by an extension of the current FullDive technology. The situation in which I woke up in the middle of the forest, is a standard fantasy RPG starting scene.
However, in that case, no matter what kind of supercomputer I know, none of them had enough capability to generate these ultra-fine detailed 3D objects. It could be said that I have lost part of my memories and the time in reality had already passed by several years, or several tens of years.
Next, the possibility that this place could be somewhere in the real world. It means I am the subject of a crime, an illegal experiment, or a terrible prank, someone dressed me up in these clothes and threw me out in the forest somewhere —— from this weather it could be Hokkaidō, or perhaps somewhere on the southern hemisphere. However, I don’t think Japan has a species of metallic green earthworms which could cry ‘kyu kyu’, or even any country in the whole world.
Then the last hypothesis, this place could possibly be a real different dimension, a different world, or perhaps an afterlife world. It is a familiar event which occurs in manga, novels, and anime. According to the dramaturgy of those, after this I would save a girl from monster’s attack, listen to village chief’s request to become the savior hero, and fight against the devil king. But there is no «Steel sword» at my waist.
I held my belly as I was attacked by a sudden desire to burst out laughing, after I somehow managed to let it pass, I decided to exclude the third possibility as out of the question as well. As I lost sight of the border between the reality and non-reality, I felt as if I was starting to lose my sanity as well.
After all —— is this a virtual world? Or is it the real world?
If it’s the former, no matter how super real the world is, it’s not difficult to confirm. I just have to climb to the top of a nearby tree and jump down head-first. If I was logged out, or resurrected at a save point in a temple somewhere, then it would be a virtual world.
But if this is a real world, the worst result will come out from that experiment. In a novel I read long ago, a certain criminal organization, in order to film a real death game, abducted about ten people and left them to kill each other in an uninhabited wilderness. Even though such thing would be unthinkable to happen in reality, the same abnormal event that was the SAO incident had occurred. If this is really a game set up on a stage in the real world, I don’t think committing suicide right at the start is a good choice.
“……If it’s something like that, they still haven’t done that yet……”
I unconsciously said that out. At least Kayaba Akihito still carried out his minimal duty, explaining fine details at the start of the game.
I looked up into sky through the treetops before speaking again,
“Oi, GM-san! If you’re listening then reply to me!!”
However, no matter how long I waited, a huge face or a hooded human figure didn’t appear. At that point, I started checking the surrounding bushes again before searching through my clothes for something that could be a rule book, but I couldn’t find anything.
Apparently, whoever threw me out in this place has no intention to respond to my call for help. This situation, if it’s not accidental then… but…
As I listened to the birds’ carefree twittering, I recklessly thought about what to do after this point.
If this is an accident in reality, I have a hunch that moving around carelessly isn’t a good idea. It could be possible that currently, a rescue team is already on its way.
But, what is the reason that this kind of accident happened in the first place?
If forcibly straining to get one, it could possibly be, trouble happened to the vehicle I was boarding during traveling —— be it a plane or a car, and I fell unconscious in this forest, the shock made me lose memories of the events that occurred before and after it. But that can’t explain these strange clothes, and there are no scratches on my body either.
Or, an accident happened during my Dive in a virtual world, something like that is also possible. An obstacle occurred along the communication route and caused me to log into a world which was not originally connected. But in this case, there is no explanation for these high-detail objects.
Also, if assuming that it is a situation designed by someones intention. Then it would be better to think that as long as I didn’t take any action, the situation wouldn’t change.
“Just which one is it……”
Is this reality? Or is it VR world? There must be a method to identify it, I thought that as I muttered.
There must be a way. A virtual world which approaches perfection until one couldn’t be able to distinguish it from reality, although it is a commonly used phrase, I don’t think it is possible to recreate everything in the real world with a hundred percent precision.
It was close to five minutes that I sat on the short grass thinking about various things. However, I couldn’t find any feasible ideas for the current situation. If I had a microscope, I could search for the existence of microorganism on the ground, or if I had a plane, I could be able to fly to the edge of the surface. However, sadly, with only the hands and feet that I had, digging the ground was the best I could do.
At a time like this, if it’s Asuna, she’s sure to have a way to identify this world which I didn’t think of, I let out a short sigh as I thought that. Or if it was her, she wouldn’t be sitting worrying like this, but quickly taking action.
I bit my lips as hopelessness struck me again.
I was surprised that I was at this much of a loss just because it wasn’t possible to contact Asuna, but I also accepted this fact. As during this past two years, I discussed almost all my decisions with her. Now, without Asuna’s thinking circuit, my brain was like a CPU with half of its core disabled.
It feels like only yesterday that I enjoyed talking with her at Agil’s shop for several hours. If I knew this would happen, I wouldn’t talk about RATH or STL, but about how to distinguish reality from the ultra-precise virtual wor——……
I inadvertently raised my body. The ambient sound rapidly receded.
So that is it, and I didn’t realize it until now.
Didn’t I already know about it? The existence of something far beyond the FullDive machine, a technology that could be said to be able to create a VR world with a super-real quality. It means this world is……
“Inside of Soul Translator……? Is this place… Underworld……?”
There was no response to what I muttered as I unconsciously looked around my surroundings in confusion.
The forest of gnarled old trees I could only think of as the real thing. The swaying grasses. The flying butterflies.
“These are…… a man-made dream written directly into my Fluctlight……?”
On the first day I started the part-time job at the venture company, «RATH»; the researcher and operator, Higa Takeru-shi, proudly explained to me the rough structure of STL and how real the world it could create was.
And I realized by the Test Dive soon after, that his words weren’t an exaggeration at all —— however, what I saw at that time was just one room. Although the table, chair and various small things placed there were hard to distinguish from the real thing, the room itself couldn’t be called a «World».
However, the size of the forest which surrounds me now, perhaps it would be several kilometers in reality. No, if the ridge of the mountain range that faintly floated beyond the trees was the real thing, then the size of this space would be at a level of several tens or several hundreds of kilometers.
Trying to create this using the existing technology, even using all the storage available on the internet wouldn’t be enough to fit all the data required. Only a totally new technology…… such as the «Mnemonic Visual» of STL, would allow not only a scene that was impossible in reality, but permit this large amount of objects, I totally didn’t imagine it.
Then, if my guess that this place was Underworld, the virtual world created by STL, was correct, it would be impossible to verify it no matter what action was used inside.
That was because every object existed here, no, every ‘thing’ here were at the same level as the real thing in my consciousness. No matter how many grass I tore, the same information as if I did it in the real world would be given to my consciousness —— my Fluctlight, so it was not theoretically possible to verify that it was a virtual existence, absolutely.
So, if STL is going for commercial use, a marker to help in identifying that it’s a virtual world is absolutely needed…… I stood up as I thought that.
Although I still haven’t obtained solid proof, it’s better to think that this place is the Underworld. It means currently in the real world, I’m lying inside the STL experimental machine in RATH’s Roppongi development office, doing a two thousand yen per hour part-time job.
“But…… isn’t it strange……?”
After a brief moment of relief, I tilted my head again.
The operator, Higa certainly said that in order to prevent the contamination to the test data, the real world memories of Kirigaya Kazuto would have to be blocked. But currently, what I can’t recall is just one day, from sending Asuna off until I go into STL at RATH the next day, it’s far from saying blocked.
Also —— yes, since the final test is approaching, didn’t I decide to quit this part-time job to have time for studying? I don’t think I’m a person who easily breaks my promise with Asuna after one day because of a good hourly wage.
Moreover, from this situation, even though this is STL’s test Dive, it’s no doubt that some problem had occurred. I looked into the blue sky between the gaps in the treetops and shouted in a loud voice,
“Higa-san, if you’re monitoring, stop the Dive for a moment! Looks like a problem has occurred!”
I stood like that, waiting for more than ten seconds.
However, the countless leaves continued swaying under the serene sunlight, the butterflies continued flapping their wings drowsily, there was no change to the scenery.
“……Uu……perhaps, this is……”
I groaned in a low voice to a certain possibility I suddenly realized.
Perhaps I have agreed to this experiment —— is that the case?
In other words, in order to obtain data about the action I would take if I was in a place where I couldn’t be sure if I was in reality or a virtual world, they blocked my memory right before the Dive and threw me into a super real different world created by STL.
If that was the case, I felt like slapping my head who had easily agreed to that evil experiment. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that it was shallow to think that I could effortlessly come up with an accurate and swift way to escape from this situation.
I counted the percentage of possibilities which could sufficiently explain the current situation as I folded the fingers on my right hand.
“Hmm…… the possibility of this being reality is… 3 percent. The present VR world… 7 percent. My agreement to test Dive in STL… 20 percent. A sudden accident during the Dive… 69.9999 percent……”
In my mind, I added the final 0.0001 percent possibility that I had lost into a real different world. And that was the limit I could squeeze out of my little wisdom. In order to obtain more information, I would have to brave the dangers and try to contact other humans or game players or test Divers.
So it was time to take action.
First, I want to moisten my dry throat which has protested up until now. I turned my body around on the center of the grass covered ground I was standing on. The direction where a faint streaming sound came from, judging by the sun’s location, would probably be the east.
Before I started moving, my right hand searched my back again, of course there was not a single stick there, let alone a sword. I kicked the hopelessness away as I put my right foot out, it was just in ten steps that I reached the end of the grass covered ground. I passed through the two old trees which rose as if they were natural gateposts, and stepped into the gloomy forest.
The forest floor was covered in a velvet-like thick moss, the space felt suspiciously strange. The leaves of overgrown trees obstructed almost all sunlight, it was just narrow beams of golden light that managed to reach the ground. The butterflies dancing over the grass were replaced with strange beetles which looked like dragonflies or moths, they glided soundlessly in the air. Occasionally, a sound of something from somewhere reached my ears. It was a scene I didn’t think could be earth in the real world.
I walked for about fifteen minutes while praying that a hostile large animal or monster would not venture out. I felt greatly relieved when the path that had a deluge of sunlight came into view. As the sound of water became clear, I was certain that up ahead would be a river. I naturally quickened my feet while suppressing my dry throat.
The moment I rushed out of the dense forest, separated by a three meter wide area of grass, was the surface of water, in which the silver light of the sun bounced off and entered my eyes.
With a miserable groan, I unsteadily walked along the final distance, before throwing my body down onto the soft undergrowth riverside.
I unintentionally raised a sound once I laid on my stomach.
What a beautiful stream. The river wasn’t wide, as I slowly crawled, I could see the stunning transparency of the water current. Like a drop of blue paint hanging on pure lack of color, I could clearly see white sands of the riverbed through the extremely clear mountain stream.
Up until several seconds ago, with the remaining small possibility that this place was the real world, I would have to consider the dangers of drinking unboiled water. However, watching the stream which looked as if it was from melted crystals, unable to resist the temptation, my right hand plunged into the river’s surface. With a high-pitched sound as if it was cutting the cold water, my right hand poured the liquid into my mouth.
Could this be called sweet? I couldn’t feel any impurities at all, the faint sweet and fresh taste of water made me no longer want to buy mineral water from convenience stores ever again. After using both hands to dip in the water in rapid succession, I finally put my mouth into the water surface.
While thinking that this was exactly the taste of the water of life, in the corner of my mind, the possibility that this place was a virtual world created from the current FullDive machine was completely eliminated.
That was because, for the most recent machine now —— namely, the AmuSphere, it was impossible to recreate liquid to this perfection. A polygon was an infinite number of coordinates forming a leveled surface before connecting to each other to create an object, it wasn’t suitable to reproduce the randomness and complicated shape of water. However, the state of water swaying in my hands, spilling, and flowing down had no trace of artificiality in it at all.
I also want to drop the possibility that this is the real world—— while thinking so, I raised my body and looked around again. Such a clean river, the fantastic forest that continues along the opposite bank, and those vividly colored small animals, I don’t think exist anywhere on earth. In general, isn’t nature the thing that if touched by human hands will become a harsh environment? Also, is there any reason that I have yet to be bitten by an insect, even though I wandered around for a while dressed lightly like this?
——As I thought this, I had a feeling that the STL would summon a large horde of poisonous insects, I stood up while shaking that thought off. After I readjusted the possibility of this place being the real world down to one percent, Now, I looked to my left and right.
The flow of the river drew a gradual curve from the north to the south. The end of both directions were swallowed by groups of big trees. However, from its cleanliness, coolness, and width, I thought the source of the river should be quite close. If that was the case, the possibility of houses or towns existing downstream should be high.
It’d be easy if I had a boat… I thought as I started to walk downstream —— at that time,
The breeze that changed direction slightly carried an odd sound into my ears.
Something hard, either a big tree or something similar was struck, that kind of sound. It wasn’t just once. I listened to the regular paced sound that had about a four second interval.
It isn’t from an animal nor a natural source. It’s almost certainly a man-made sound. It should be the sound of someone cutting a tree in this forest. But trying to approach might be dangerous, I made a bitter smile after thinking for a moment. This isn’t an MMORPG world where fighting and killing is recommended anyway. Getting into contact with other people and obtaining information is currently the option at top priority.
I made a half circle turn toward the upstream of the river, where the dry echoes came from.
Suddenly, I had a feeling that I saw a strange scene.
On the right was a rippling surface of a river. A dense and deep forest on the left. In front was a green path extending to somewhere.
There, three children were walking side by side. Between a black haired boy and a light brown haired boy, a girl wearing a straw hat had her long golden hair swaying dazzlingly. Under the full mid summer sunlight, the gold radiance scattered freely.
Is this —— memory……?
Far away, the days which wouldn’t return. The eternal trust they vowed to do everything to protect, but like ice dropped into sunlight, abruptly vanishing——
Those nostalgic days.
Just as I blinked once, the illusory scene abruptly disappeared, just like when it had appeared.
What was that just now? Even though the illusion had already disappeared, the overflowing feeling of nostalgia wouldn’t leave, the middle of my chest felt tight and painful.
A childhood memory—— I had a strong feeling when I saw the back of the three children walking along the river bank. The black haired boy walking on the right, wasn’t that me?
But such a thing can’t be possible. As there are no deep forests nor that clear river in Kawagoe, where I live, and I never had friends with those hair colors either. And before that, all three children were wearing the same fantasy clothes I’m wearing too.
If this is inside the STL, the illusion just now is the memory from the continuous Diving on the first weekend? But even thinking of it that way, due to the STL’s Fluctlight Acceleration function, I should have been inside for ten days at most. Such a short time wouldn’t be able to cause that throbbing pain in the chest from nostalgia like just now.
The situation seemed to proceed further and further into an inexplicable direction. Am I really who I thought I am? as such doubt returned to me, I fearfully looked into the surface of the river beside me, however, I couldn’t see the difference as the face reflected off the undulated stream was distorted.
As I tried to forget the prickly pain of the remaining memory for now, the continuous sound that reached my ears became clear. When I tried to listen to it again, this sound also made me feel nostalgic, but I didn’t know if I had heard this sound of wood being cut before. I shook my head slightly before starting to walk upstream again.
While I was moving both feet single-mindedly, I had a chance to enjoy the beautiful scenery once more, then I noticed that my direction had veered off to the left. Apparently, the source of the sound wasn’t from the river bank, but seemed to be a place slightly deeper inside the forest on my left.
The strange sound I tried to count on my fingers didn’t continue to echo constantly. It repeated for exactly fifty times, then was followed by a gap of about three minutes, before resuming another fifty times. Finally I was certain that it could be nothing but a human-made sound.
During the three minutes of silence, I walked in the general direction of the sound, then made some minor adjustments when the sound resumed. I had already separated from the river bank and returned to within the forest. I proceeded silently as I reunited with the strange dragonflies, the blue lizards and the giant mushrooms.
An unaware low voice counted at the exact same time as the fiftieth strike had ended, it was then I noticed that the gap in the grove of the trees up ahead became brighter. So that’s the forest exit? Or it could possibly be a village. I quickened my feet toward the light.
I clambered over the tree roots which were raised up like stairs and when my face came out of the shadow of the old tree trunk, in front of my eyes was —— a scene that could be said to be unbelievable.
Although the forest ended right there, there was no village. However I didn’t have time to feel disappointed, as I absentmindedly stared with my mouth open.
It was a circular open glade in the forest. It was certainly wider than the place I woke up a while ago. The diameter should be about thirty meters. Also, the ground which was covered in green and golden moss was different from the forest I had walked past, there were no ferns, vines, nor short shrubs at all.
Then, at the center of the clearing, my gaze was fixed on something that rose up high.
What a huge tree!
Estimating with my eyes, its diameter shouldn’t be less than four meters. The trees I saw until now in this forest were all broadleaf trees with rugged and gnarled trunks, but the huge tree stretched high up in front of my eyes was a needle-leaved tree. Its bark was of a dark color close to black, and upon looking up, I could see that its branches spread out over each other high up into the sky. While I thought the Jomon cedar in Yakushima and the sequoia cedar in America I saw from images and videos were huge, I didn’t think the overwhelming presence of this tree could be something in the realm of nature, and I felt that it emanated the presence of an emperor.
My gaze went from the top part, which completely obstructed the view above it, back to its base. I noticed the roots that were like big snakes wriggling about spread like a mesh in all direction, barely reaching the forest boundary where I stood. Or rather, as this tree had absorbed all the fertility, no other plant but moss could grow, resulting in the large clearing in the middle of the forest.
Thinking about intruding into the garden of the emperor made me waver slightly, but the temptation to touch the trunk of the great tree led my feet forward. Although I tripped several times due to the meandering roots below the moss, it didn’t stop me from looking up above my head, I slowly proceeded.
I, who was approaching the trunk of the great tree while sighing many times in admiration, had completely forgotten to be cautious about the surroundings. As a result, it was already too late by the time I realized it.
My line of sight, which suddenly returned to looking straight ahead, met the face of someone whose pupils were watching me from behind the tree trunk. I swallowed my breath. Being startled, I retreated half a step before falling to the ground. My right hand was about to take something from my back, but of course, there was no sword.
Fortunately, it seemed the first person I met in this world didn’t show hostility nor caution, just tilting his head in wonder.
His age should be the same as mine —— I looked at the boy, aged around seventeen, or eighteen. His soft-looking ash brown hair was slightly wavy. His clothes were the same unbleached short sleeved tunic and trousers as mine. He used the roots of the tree as a bench to sit on, and in his right hand was something round.
What was strange was his appearances. Although his skin was cream colored, he couldn’t be considered a westerner and at the same time, he couldn’t be an easterner either. I looked at the dark green eyes on his thin and tender features.
The moment I saw his face, my head…… the insides of my soul felt a throbbing pain. However, that feeling vanished as soon as I tried to catch it. I patiently tried to forget it, as for now, I opened my mouth to declare that I had no hostility against him. ——But, what should I say? And before that, what language should I use? I had no idea at all. As I opened and closed my mouth repeatedly like an idiot, the boy spoke first,
“Who are you? Where did you come from?”
That slightly foreign intonation was —— in perfect Japanese.
I received the same shock as when I first looked at the jet black great tree, and became absentminded for a while. In this place, which no matter how I looked, wasn’t Japan, hearing my native language in this different world was something I didn’t expect at all. Once I got used to hearing the words flowing out of the mouth of this boy, who was wearing exotic clothes akin to western Europe during the Middle Ages, it felt like non-reality, as if I had jumped into a dubbed western film.
However, this was not a situation I could become engrossed in. This was where I practiced thinking. I began to desperately rotate my brain, which I felt had become rusty these days.
Assuming this world is a virtual world created by STL, in other words, «Underworld». The boy in front of me is either, ① a test player during the Dive, and possesses the real world memories just like me, ② a test player but his memories were restricted, becoming a resident of this world, or ③ an NPC being operated by the program.
If it’s the first then it’d be quick. Just explain my strange situation to him and ask him for a way to log out.
But if it’s the second or third, the situation won’t be that easy. Toward the human that acts as an inhabitant of Underworld or an NPC, if I suddenly said something he couldn’t understand like Soul Translator’s abnormality or a way to log out, it might cause an intense cautiousness which will make gathering information later on become difficult.
So, it’s necessary to choose some safe words to talk to this boy and assert his position. As I secretly wiped the cold sweat off my palm using my trousers, I put on a smiling face and opened my mouth,
“Umm…… my name is……”
I hesitated for a moment. Japanese style or western style, what is the common way used in this world? I then gave my name while praying that it would be suitable for both ways,
“——Kirito. I came from over there, but at the moment I’m a bit lost……”
As I spoke, I pointed at a direction behind me, probably to the south, and the boy looked at me in surprise. After placing the round object in his right hand down, he stood up with an agile movement, then pointed in the same direction as me.
“There…… the southern forest? Are you from Zakkaria?”
“N-No… it’s not like that.”
My face became stiff at the sudden dilemma, but I managed to answer,
“That, erm…… I also don’t know where I came from…… I found myself collapsed in the middle of the forest when I woke up……”
‘Oh, is something wrong with STL? Just wait for a sec, I’ll connect to the operator.’ ——was a reply I had expected from the bottom of my heart, however, the boy still looked surprised, he asked while still gazing at my face,
“Hmm…… don’t know where you come from…… what about the town you were living in up until now……?”
“A-Ah…… I can’t remember. The only thing I know is my name……”
“……That’s a surprise…… The «Vector’s Prank», huh. Even though I’ve heard about it before…… but this is the first time I have actually seen it.”
“Eh, you’ve never heard about it from your hometown? It’s what my village calls a person who one day suddenly disappears, then later on, suddenly appears in the forest or the field. The god of darkness Vector loves to play pranks on humans by kidnapping them, pulling out their memories before throwing them out in a faraway land. Longgg ago, an old woman in my village disappeared.”
“H-Heh…… Then it’s possible that I’m also like that……”
My situation is getting more suspicious, I nodded as I thought so. The boy in front of me no longer seemed to be a test player who was role playing. As my emotion was driven up the wall, I started saying something a little more dangerous,
“Also…… there’s some trouble, and I want to get out of here once. But… I don’t know how to do so……”
I desperately prayed that this would make him understand the situation, the sympathy showed in the boy’s green eyes as he nodded while saying,
“Yeah, not knowing the way, it’s natural to get lost in this deep forest. But it’s alright, if you go north from here, you will find a road.”
Well, just do it then, I said out the main keyword,
“……I want to log out.”
To the word I bet my ray of hope on, the boy tilted his head before asking,
“Log…… what was it? What do you mean?”
It seems it’s confirmed by this.
He is either a test player that is a pure inhabitant without any idea about this being the «Virtual world», or an NPC. While I was careful not to let my disappointment show on my face, I somehow added on a few words to deceive him,
“S-Sorry, it seems I used the wrong wording for this region. Hmm…… I mean is there a village or a town somewhere I could stay in.”
It was painful for me to say it. The boy then nodded in appreciation.
“Heh…… It’s the first time I heard such a word. Your black hair is also unusual around here…… it could be possible that you were born in the south.”
“Y-Yeah, that may be so.”
I gave a stiff smile as I looked at the boy who was smiling without any ill will, then, he frowned in pity.
“Hmmm, a place to stay. Although my village is just to the north, as there are no travellers around here, there is no inn. But…… if you explained your circumstances, perhaps Sister Azariya would help you and let you stay in the church.”
“I-Is that so, that’s great.”
Those were my true feelings. If there was a village, it could be possible that there might be staff from RATH Diving in, or they might be monitoring the village from the outside.
“Then I’ll go to the village. Is it directly north from here?”
My gaze moved towards the almost opposite direction to where I had came from and there I saw a narrow path stretched out before me. However, before my feet could start moving, the boy made a gesture using his left hand to stop me.
“Ah, wait a bit. There are guards at the village, it might be difficult to explain if you suddenly went there alone. I’ll go with you and help explain the circumstances.”
“That would help a lot, thank you.”
I smiled as I thanked him, at the same time, muttered in my mind, Apparently you’re not an NPC. Your replies are too natural for the pseudo-personality program which can only act on the preset responses, and the active action toward me just now also wasn’t NPC-like.
Although I don’t know whether he Dives from the development office in Roppongi, or from the main office somewhere in the bay area, the owner of the Fluctlight which moved the boy in front of me has a really kind personality. As soon as I escape safely, I want to thank him properly.
As I was thinking about this, the boy made a gloomy face again.
“Ah…… but, I still can’t go right now though…… As I’m still working……”
“Yeah. I’m on a break now.”
I moved my gaze to something wrapped with cloth beside the boy’s feet, two items of which one seemed to be a portion of round bread could be seen, So that’s what he held at first. while the other object was just a water canteen made from leather, a pretty simple menu for a lunch.
“Ah, did I disturb your meal?”
I shrank my neck, while the boy smiled timidly.
“If you can wait until I finish work, I’ll accompany you to ask Sister Azariya to let you stay at the church…… but it would be about four more hours.”
I actually wanted to go to the village and search for the person who could explain this situation to me as soon as possible, but the feeling that I wanted to avoid having further conversations that were like treading on thin ice was even greater. Four hours wasn’t a short time but when thinking about the consciousness acceleration function of STL, the time in reality that would elapse would be about an hour and several minutes.
Also, for a reason I didn’t understand, I also felt like I wanted to talk with this kind boy a bit more. I nodded as I said,
“It’s fine, I’ll wait. I may cause you trouble, but I’ll be in your care.”
Then, a smile brighter than earlier appeared on the boy’s face as he nodded in return.
“I see, then… just sit there for a while. Ah…… I still haven’t told you my name.”
The boy extended his right hand, as he continued,
“I’m Eugeo. Nice to meet you, Kirito-kun.”
As I grabbed his strong hand, which contrasted with his slender looks, I repeated the boy’s name several times in my mouth. It wasn’t in my memories, I didn’t know what language it came from, but somehow I felt the name was familiar with my tongue for some reason.
The boy who called himself Eugeo pulled his hand back and returned to sit at the base of the great tree, before taking out the round bread from the cloth wrapping and offering it me.
“N-No, I can’t…”
I hurriedly waved my hands, but the boy showed no sign of withdrawal.
“Kirito-kun must be hungry, right? You haven’t eaten anything yet, have you?”
Just as he said that, I unintentionally held my hand over my abdomen to suppress the overwhelming hunger. Even though the water from river tasted good, I couldn’t say it could fill me up.
I was still refraining myself, but the hand pressed the bread forward even more, I then accepted it unavoidably. The boy —— Eugeo grinned and shrugged.
“It’s okay. Even though I said it like I want you to eat, in truth, I don’t like this anyway.”
“……Then I’ll gratefully accept. To be honest, I’m really hungry to the point where I could collapse at anytime.”
‘That’s what I thought,’ As Eugeo laughed and sat down on the root in front of the tree, I added,
“Also, just Kirito is fine.”
“Oh? Then you can just call me Eugeo too…… Ah, just wait a bit.”
Eugeo lifted his left hand to stop me from putting the round bread into my mouth.
“Well, since it’s not the ‘Pan’ that can last long, just to be sure.”
As he said that, Eugeo’s left hand moved while his right hand held the bread up. His index and middle fingers stretched and aligned neatly with the other folded fingers. With his hand in that shape, he drew a trace which looked like the alphabets S and C in mid-air.
In front of me, who was watching dumbfounded, his two fingers tapped lightly on the bread which made a strange metal striking sound and a pale purple translucent rectangle appeared. Its width was about fifteen centimeters, while the height was about eight centimeters. According to my knowledge, this familiar looking rectangle, along with the alphabets and Arabic numerals being displayed on it using a simple font I could understand right away. This was —— without a doubt, the so-called «Status Window».
With my mouth left opened, I thought to myself,
——Then it’s concluded. This place isn’t reality nor the real other world, but the virtual world.
My body felt lightened with relief as soon as that acknowledgement had settled down at the bottom of my abdomen. Now I’m ninety-nine percent convinced. Really, without this clear evidence, the anxiety would eat up my whole body.
While the circumstances about the Dive still remained unknown, in the meantime, I had better get used to this virtual world and enjoy the situation. First off, I should try opening that window, I stretched two fingers of my left hand straight.
I imitated what I saw by tracing the S and C shape, fearfully tapping my bread, resulting in a sound resembling that of a bell’s, and a purple window floated up. I brought my face close and gazed at it.
The displayed string of characters were unusually simple. It was just [Durability: 7]. I could easily understand that it was the endurance value of this bread. As I thought what would happen when the value reached zero while gazing at the figure; in front of me, Eugeo doubtfully asked,
“Hey, Kirito. Don’t tell me this is the first time you have see the sacred arts of «Stacia Window»?”
When I lifted my face, I saw Eugeo with his head tilted as he held the bread in one hand, his window had already disappeared. I quickly made a face that looked like ‘Don’t say something nonsensical like that.’ When I touched the surface of the window, it turned into sparks of light and scattered away, I felt slightly relieved.
Fortunately, Eugeo didn’t show any more doubt and nodded.
“There’s still quite a lot of «Life» left, so there’s no need to hurry eating it. But if this was summer, it wouldn’t have this much remaining though.”
Perhaps the «Life» he mentioned is the number displayed next to the item’s durability, and the status window displaying those is called «Stacia Window». Seeing the action command that called the window out being declared as sacred arts, Eugeo wouldn’t know that was the function of the system, but acknowledged them as a religious or magical phenomenon.
There’re still many things to think about, but better shelve them for now and deal with my near-term hunger first.
I brought the bread into my opened mouth as soon as I finished saying that, but the hardness of the bread caused my eyes to darken. However, I couldn’t spit it out either, so I forcefully bit and tore it off. I was unintentionally impressed by the sense of wobbling teeth in this realistic virtual world.
It was similar or perhaps even harder than the whole grain bread bought by my younger sister, Suguha. The hungry me operated my jaw to chew the thing which was crunchier than necessary, although its taste was passable. With some butter, or a slice of cheese…… no, just grilling it a little bit should be much better, as I thought various ungrateful things, Eugeo, who also frowned while biting the bread, said as he gave a bitter smile.
“It’s not very good, right?”
I hurriedly shook my head.
“N-No, it’s not like that.”
“It’s fine, no need to force yourself. I usually buy them from the Pan shop in the village before leaving, but as I leave in the early morning they only have the Pan left over from yesterday for sale. At noon, I don’t have enough time to go back to the village either……”
“Heh…… Then it should be better to bring a boxed-lunch from home……”
To my casual words, Eugeo lowered his eyes with the bread in his hand. I shrank my neck unsure if I blurted something rude, fortunately, he soon lifted up his face and gave a little smile.
“A very longgg time ago…… at noon, there was a person who would bring a boxed-lunch here. But now……”
The green pupils shook, they were filled with a great sense of loss, in that moment, I forgot that this was the artificial world as I leaned my body forward.
“That person… what happened……?”
After I asked, Eugeo looked toward the treetop far above his head in silence for a while, then he slowly moved his lips,
“……My childhood friend. The girl, who was the same age as me…… we were always playing together from morning until evening since we were young. Even after I was given the Sacred Task, she would still bring a boxed-lunch here everyday…… But… six years ago…… during my eleventh summer an Integrity Knight came to our village…… and took her to the capital……”
Integrity Knight. Capital.
Those words of unknown nature were the kind that bore the mark of those who maintained the regularity and the capital of this world, I stayed silent to encourage him to continue.
“It was…… my fault. On one rest day, we both went to explore the northern cave…… but we got lost on the way back and ended up on the other side of the Mountain range at the Edge. You know, right? The Dark Territory where it is written in the Taboo Index not to set our foot on. Although I didn’t exit the cave, she tripped and her palm pressed on the ground outside…… But just because of that… the Integrity Knight came to the village and tied her up in chains in front of everyone……”
Eugeo crushed the half-eaten bread in his right hand.
“……I wanted to help her. I thought it was fine if he took me along with her, and planned to use the axe to attack him…… but… hands too… feet too… I couldn’t move them. All I did was just… watch her being taken away… without saying anything……”
His face was void of any expression as he gazed up into the sky for a while but soon after, a faint self-deprecating smile floated to his lips. He then tossed the crushed bread into his mouth and chewed it while looking downward.
I didn’t know what I should say, so I also took a bite of the bread, and thought as I chewed with all my strength.
The existence of the status window proved that this is a virtual world created by the realistic technology, it could be some experiment by someone. However, why did such an «Event» like this happen? After I swallowed the bread, I hesitantly asked,
“……Do you know what happened to her……?”
Eugeo shook his head slightly as he faced downward.
“The Integrity Knight said she’d be executed after the interrogation…… But, what kind of execution, I don’t know. I once… heard from her father, the village chief Gasupht…… that she is already dead…… ——But Kirito, I believe that she’s still alive.”
The next moment,
“Alice is… definitely alive and is somewhere in the capital……”
I inhaled sharply the moment I heard that name.
Again, I felt a strange feeling running in the center of my head. A sense of irritation. A sense of loneliness. And more than those, a sense of nostalgia that shook my soul——
It’s just my delusion. I persuaded myself, It’s just what remained after the shock. There is no reason for me to have a personal relationship with Eugeo’s childhood friend, or in other words, «Alice» who is the inhabitant of this world. Surely it was just the reaction to the common name Alice. Yes —— didn’t Asuna tell me yesterday at Dicey Café? «RATH», the company which developed the STL, and the virtual world «Underworld», weren’t those names taken from the novel『Alice in Wonderland』?
Her name fitting with the other two names is a surprising coincidence, there might be a meaning behind it. Also, I noticed another piece of information from Eugeo’s words.
Just now he said six years ago, when he was eleven. It means that he’s now seventeen, but that’s just too long —— his manner of speech is like he has all the memories of those ten years of life, just like me.
But something like that can’t be possible. From what I’ve been told, the Fluctlight acceleration function could speed up to three time, in order to simulate this world for seventeen years, it would require six years in the real world. However, it shouldn’t have been three months since the roll-out of the STL experimental machine yet.
What should I think about this?
This isn’t the STL I know, but inside of an unknown FullDive machine, moreover, it has been running for seventeen years. Or, maybe what I’ve heard about the FLA function being three times was a mistake, and it actually could accelerate more than thirty times. But either of them is equally unbelievable.
Inside my head, anxiety and curiosity were rapidly expanding. I wanted to log out right now and ask the person outside to explain the situation, on the other hand, I also wanted to stay inside and continue chasing after the questions.
After I swallowed the last piece of the bread, I fearfully asked Eugeo,
“Then…… don’t you want to go looking for her? At that… capital.”
I thought ‘Crap,’ right after I asked that. As my words pulled out an unexpected reaction from Eugeo.
The light brown haired boy looked at my face absentmindedly for several seconds then soon after, he whispered ‘Unthinkable.’
“……This Rulid village is at the north edge of the northern empire. Going to the capital to the south, even if we used a fast horse it would still take a week. If we walked, it’ll take two days to reach the closest town, Zakkaria. It’s impossible to reach that place even if I leave the village on the dawn of a rest day.”
“Then…… just make some proper preparations for a long journey……”
“Hey Kirito… You look similarly aged as me, weren’t you given a Sacred Task at the village you live in? Abandoning the Sacred Task and going out on a travel isn’t something we can do, is it?”
While I was nodding, I carefully observed Eugeo’s reactions.
It’s obvious from the start that this boy isn’t just a simple NPC. From his abundance of expressions and his natural replies, he couldn’t be anything but a real human.
But at the same time, his actions seemed to be bound to absolute rules which are more effective than the law in the real world. Yes, it’s similar to how the NPC in VRMMO can’t deviate from within their movement boundary.
Eugeo said he wasn’t arrested because he didn’t trespass into the area restricted by the «Taboo Index». In other words, that Index is the absolute rules which binds him, perhaps it has direct control over Fluctlight. While I don’t know what his Sacred Task…, no, what his occupation is, I couldn’t imagine what job would be more important than the life and death of the girl who was always together with him since birth.
To confirm it, I carefully selected my words and asked Eugeo, who was drinking from the water canteen,
“Umm, in Eugeo’s village, other than Alice-san, is there anyone else who broke the Taboo…… Index and was taken to the capital?”
Eugeo made rounded eyes again, before wiping his mouth and shaking his head.
“Nope. In the three hundred years history of Rulid, the only time the Integrity Knight ever came to the village was six years ago, this is what Garitta-jiisan said.”
As he finished his words, he passed me the leather canteen. I received it and pulled off the cork-like plug after thanking him. I then brought it to my mouth and drank the liquid, which wasn’t cold but had a fragrance, as if it was mixed with lemon and herb. After three gulps, I returned the canteen to Eugeo.
While I wiped my mouth with an innocent look, the insides of my chest were blown by the storm of surprise for god knew how many times.
————Three hundred years!?
Without the so-called «Setting», but instead actually simulating across that long period, then the actual acceleration of the FLA function should be several hundred times…… or might even reach a thousand times. In that case, if that rate was applied during my continuous Dive test on the first weekend, how much time could I actually feel inside? At the same time I shuddered, I felt light goosebumps on my arms, but I didn’t have time to admire that realistic physiological reaction.
As I obtained more information, the mystery seemed even more complex. Is Eugeo actually a human, or a program? Also, what exactly is the purpose of creating this world——
I couldn’t know more than this without going to the village Eugeo calls Rulid and making contact with other people. From there, it’d be great if I could meet people from RATH who know of the situation…… As I thought so, I somehow managed to smile before saying to Eugeo,
“Thanks for the food. But I’m sorry I took half of your lunch.”
“No, don’t worry. I’m quite sick of that Pan anyway.”
He replied with a very natural smile as he quickly collected the lunch wrapping.
“Then, sorry but just wait for a while. Until I finish my afternoon work.”
Eugeo said as he stood up with an agile movement, I then asked,
“Now you mentioned it, Eugeo’s work…… the Sacred Task, what is it?”
“Ah, right…… you can’t see from over there.”
Eugeo smiled again while beckoning me. I tilted my head as I stood up and walked around the trunk of the great tree behind him.
Then, being struck by another surprise, my mouth was left wide open.
On the trunk of the huge tree, which was as black as a dark night, there was a cut about twenty percent or more into its diameter —— around a meter deep. The black wood inside was reminiscent of coal, the thick layers of the annual tree rings were glossy like metal.
My gaze moved down from the cut, to an axe set against the trunk. Although its simple single-edged shape wasn’t used for battle, the very large axe blade and the long handle were both made from the same greyish-white material. As I stared at its mysterious radiance, like it was a stainless steel matte finish, I somehow felt it was carved from a single lump of the raw material.
Eugeo’s right hand grabbed the axe by it’s handle which was bound with black shiny leather, and shouldered it. He then walked to the left edge of the one and a half meter cut, spread his legs, lowered his waist, and tightly clenched his hands on the grip.
The slim body bent, the axe, which was drawn greatly backward, took a moment to gather the momentum before it sharply tore the air. The blade, which looked heavy, cleanly hit at the center of the cut, Gaan! a clear high-pitched metallic sound reverberated. No doubt, this is the true nature of the strange sound that led me here. A wood cutting sound, my baseless intuition was correct.
In front of me, who was observing in admiration, it could be said Eugeo handled his body perfectly, he repeatedly hit while maintaining the pace and trajectory beyond the accuracy of a machine. Drawing back took two seconds, gathering force one second, swinging one second. His chain of actions were so fluent it was as if the sword skills also existed in this world.
Exactly fifty times at a pace of four seconds each time, the axe continued hitting for two hundred seconds, and after the final strike, Eugeo pulled the axe out of the deep cut and let out a long breath. He then set the tool against the trunk and sat on top of the root nearby. The beads of sweat on his forehead were shining as he caught his breath. While I was watching him, I thought swinging that axe must be more difficult than I had imagined.
I waited for his breathing to settle before asking,
“So Eugeo’s work…… no, Sacred Task is «Woodcutter»? Is it cutting the trees in this forest?”
Taking a handkerchief out of the pocket of his clothes and wiping his face, Eugeo titled his head slightly and replied after thinking for a moment,
“Yeah, well… it can be said like that. But the tree concerning the Sacred Task that I have spent seven years trying to cut down is just this one.”
“The name of this huge tree is «Gigas Cedar» in the sacred words. But the elderly in the village call it the evil tree.”
……Sacred words? Giga……Scedar……?
Eugeo gave an understanding smile toward me, who was in doubt, as he pointed straight upward to the treetop far overhead.
“The reason they call it as such is because it absorbs all of Terraria’s blessing from its surrounding ground. So nothing but moss would live under the branches of this tree, and the trees within range of its shadow wouldn’t grow taller either.”
Terraria, while I don’t know what that is, it seems my first impression after I saw this tree and the clearing isn’t wrong. I nodded to encourage him to continue.
“The adults in the village want to expand the wheat fields to this forest. But it’s futile as long as this tree still stands. So they want to cut it down, but as expected from the evil tree, its trunk is terribly hard. If a normal steel axe is used, its blade would break and no longer be usable in just one hit. Because of that, they spent a large amount of money to order this axe, which was carved from an ancient dragon’s bone, from the capital, and assigned «Cutting duty» to someone to keep cutting at it here daily. And that would be me.”
I rotated my gaze between Eugeo, who carelessly said it, and the one quarter cut on the great tree.
“……It means, in the past seven years Eugeo spent every day trying to cut this tree, and you only got this far in that time?”
This time Eugeo made round eyes and shook his head in surprise.
“No way. If this cut required only seven years, then I’d feel a little more encouraged. Listen, I’m the seventh generation for this cutting duty. Ever since Rulid was found on this land, for three hundred years, each generation of the people with cutting duty came here everyday. Perhaps, the progress when I become a grandfather and pass over the axe to the eighth generation would be……”
Eugeo used his two hands to make a gap about twenty centimeters wide.
“About this much, I guess.”
I couldn’t even let my breath out anymore.
In a fantasy type MMO, even though the craftsman and miner production jobs were generally recognized as jobs which required enduring working single-mindedly, spending a whole life and still unable to cut down a single tree was just far beyond normal. As this was the artificial world, it must be someone’s intention to place this tree here, although for what purpose, I still had no idea at the moment.
——But, anyway, I had an itching feeling like something was crawling down my back.
Partly due to impulse, I said to Eugeo, who stood up and grabbed the axe after he had rested for three minutes.
“Hey, Eugeo…… could you let me try for a bit?”
“Um, I took half of your lunch. So I should use my muscle to help with half of your work too, right?”
I felt as if it was my first time offering to help someone to do his work —— and it was probably so —— Eugeo had his mouth slightly opened, but soon after he hesitantly replied,
“Hmm…… well, although there’s no rules forbidding someone to help with the Sacred Task…… well, this is unexpectedly difficult. At first I couldn’t even strike at the right place.”
“We won’t know until we try, right?”
As I grinned, I stretched out my right hand and grabbed the handle of the «Dragon Bone Axe» which Eugeo held out while he still had a doubtful expression.
The axe was heavy, despite its looks that it was made out of bone, and weighed down my right hand. I quickly grabbed the leather grip with both hands and made a small swing to confirm the balance.
Even though I had never used an axe as my main weapon in SAO and ALO, I should be able to hit a stationary target without any problem. I stood on the left of the deep cut, then mimicked Eugeo’s pose by spreading my legs and slightly lowered my waist.
Eugeo still had a doubtful expression, but at the same time he also looked amused. After I had affirmed that he was far enough away, I lifted the axe high over my shoulders, then I clenched my teeth and put as much force as possible into my arms, before swinging the axe down, aiming at the center of the deep cut on the trunk of Giga Scedar.
Gagi, with a dull sound, the axe blade hit at a place about five centimeters away from the cut. Orange sparks scattered while a violent feedback assaulted my hands. I couldn’t bear it and dropped the axe, before putting both wrists, which were numb to the bone, between my feet and groaning,
Unsightly, looking at me who couldn’t even do a single strike, ‘Ahahaha……’ Eugeo laughed amusedly. When I turned my reproachful glance toward him, ‘Sorry,’ he indicated with his right hand, but still continued to laugh.
“……You don’t have to laugh that much……”
“Hahaha…… no, sorry sorry. Kirito, you didn’t use force from your shoulders and waist. You need to use force from your entire body…… hmm, how should I explain it……”
While watching Eugeo repeat a slow swinging movement of the axe, I belatedly realized my mistake. Perhaps the strict law of physics and the contraction of the muscle were not simulated in this world. As this was a realistic dream created by STL, the most important thing had to be the power of my imagination.
Finally as the numbness left my hands, I picked up the axe off my feet.
“Just watch, this time I will surely hit……”
As I grumbled, this time I tried as hard as possible not to be concerned about the force. I kept focusing on the movement of my entire body in my consciousness while I made a big and slow drawing movement. Before entering the motion of the horizontal slashing attack type sword skill, «Horizontal» which I used frequently in SAO, I drew power from twisting my waist which was added into the rotating momentum of my shoulders and passed through my wrists towards the blade of the axe… and striking into the tree——
This time I hit the tree bark far away from the cut, Gain, the axe bounced off after it made an unpleasant sound. However, my hands didn’t go numb like the first time, it seemed I had completely neglected the aim because I focused only on the movement of my body. This time too, Eugeo sure has more things to laugh at, I turned my head while thinking this, but Eugeo made an unexpectedly serious face as he gave a comment,
“Oo…… Kirito, just now wasn’t bad. But, you didn’t watch the axe as you swung. Your gaze must not move off the center of the cut. Try again before you forget it!”
The next one was also crude. But after that, Eugeo still gave advice here and there as I continued swinging the axe, I forgot how many times it was before the axe finally managed to make a high-pitched metallic sound as it struck at the center of the cut, sending off some small black fragments.
After that I took turns with Eugeo and had a chance to watch fifty of his excellent axe swings. Then I took the axe and made another fifty swings.
We repeated this for some time, and by the time I realized it, the sun had already reached the horizon, and the clearing was bathed in a hazy, orange tinted light. As I drank the last gulp from the big water canteen, Eugeo also finished his last strike, and then said,
“Alright…… this makes two thousand.”
“Eh, we did that many?”
“Yeah. Five hundred from me, and five hundred from Kirito. Together with the morning part, striking the Gigas Cedar two thousand times each day, that’s my Sacred Task.”
“Two thousand times……”
I looked at the big cut on the jet black great tree again. No matter how I looked, it wasn’t any deeper than when we had first started. What an unrewarding job, while I was astonished, the cheerful voice of Eugeo came from behind.
“Actually, Kirito has good muscle. Of the last fifty times, you made a good sound two… three times. Thanks to you, today I had a lot of fun.”
“No…… but it should have finished a lot faster if Eugeo did it alone. Sorry, I was supposed to help but instead I was holding you back……”
I apologized in embarrassment, but Eugeo just smiled as he shook his head.
“Didn’t I tell you I couldn’t cut this tree down within my life span? Because half of the cut we did today would recover during the night…… Oh ya, I’ll show you something good. I’m not supposed to open it too often, though.”
While he said that, Eugeo approached the great tree and stretched his left hand. After he used two fingers to slice the symbol, he struck the black bark of the tree.
I see, this tree is also set up with durability, I rushed over to Eugeo as I thought that. Along with a bell-like sound, the status window floated out, no the «Stacia Window», I peeked at it along with Eugeo.
I inadvertently groaned. The figure displayed on the window was some two hundred and thirty-two thousands, an absurd amount like that.
“Hmmm, it’s about fifty less than when I looked last month, huh……”
Indeed, Eugeo also said in a tired tone.
“Kirito, this means…… even if I spent a whole year striking it, the Life of Gigas Cedar would decrease by about six hundred. By the time I retire, over two hundred thousand would still remain. Now you understand…… just half a day of slightly less progress isn’t a big deal at all. My opponent isn’t just a tree, but the «Titanic great cedar» after all.”
When I heard those words, I realized the origin of the title of the Giga Scedar. It was a combination of Latin and English. The word didn’t cut at Giga, but Gigas Cedar…… the giant cedar.
In other words, to the boy who is standing before me, aside of the Japanese language he uses fluently, English and other languages are some kind of spell incantations, the «Sacred Words». Then perhaps he doesn’t realize that he is speaking in Japanese. The Underworld language…… no, the Norlangarth empire’s language? But wait a sec, just now he called the bread «Pan». Pan is probably not an English word…… is it Portuguese? Or Spanish?
As I was having a spree of derailed thoughts, before I noticed, Eugeo had already finished packing up and said,
“Kirito, sorry for the wait. Let’s go back to the village.”
After that, while shouldering the Dragon Bone Axe, and carrying the empty water canteen, as we walked back to the village Eugeo cheerfully talked about various things. About his predecessor, the elder named Garitta who was adept at using axe; about how he was slightly unhappy that the children of the same age in the village thought that Eugeo’s Sacred Task was easy; while I kept responding to his stories, my mind still focused on the same thought.
It was the question about what was the purpose of this world, how it was being operated.
If it is to verify the STL’s «Mnemonic Visual» technology, then it had already achieved perfection. As I already sense its indistinguishable from the reality all too well by now.
Regarding the internal time of this world, at least three hundred years had been simulated, the terrifying thing is that great tree —— considering the amount of Eugeo’s work could do against the durability of Gigas Cedar, I think it would continue for close to a thousand years.
While I don’t know what the upper limit the Fluctlight acceleration function can reach, in the worst case, the person who Dives into this world with sealed memories could spend the entire life inside. Certainly it wouldn’t cause any danger to the muscles in the real world, and as the memories were blocked until the time the Dive ended, the person would probably feel like it was just a vague «Long dream» —— however, what would happen to the soul, the Fluctlight which experienced that dream? The aggregation of light quanta which made up human consciousness, wouldn’t it also have a lifespan?
No matter how I think, what had been done to this world is just too overexerted, unreasonable, and inconsiderate.
By braving such danger, there must be a purpose —— but what is it? At Dicey café, Sinon said, to create just a realistic virtual space, the AmuSphere would already be feasible. There must be «Something» that could only be achieved by spending infinite time in the virtual world which matches the level of the real world——
I suddenly lifted my face, I could see the orange light spreading over the gap in the forest ahead of the narrow path. At the gap of the roadside near the exit, there was a building which seemed to be a storage hut standing there. Eugeo walked toward it and casually opened the door. As I took a peek from behind, there were a few ordinary iron axes, a small bladed tool which looked like a machete, and group of tools such as rope and a bucket, among them, there was an elongated leather package which I didn’t know the contents of.
Eugeo placed the «Dragon Bone Axe» between them, and closed the door shut. When he then turned around and came back to the path, I quickly asked,
“Eh, is it alright not to lock the door? It’s a very important axe, isn’t it?
Eugeo rounded his eyes in surprise.
“Why… wouldn’t it be stolen……”
I said until I finally realised. A thief didn’t exist. Because, it must be written in the «Taboo Index» he mentioned earlier to forbid the act of stealing. To me who had interrupted my own sentence, Eugeo made a serious look and gave an answer I was expecting,
“There is no way such a thing would happen. Because I’m the only one who opens this hut.”
‘That’s right,’ as I nodded in response, a question welled up in my mind.
“Err, but…… didn’t Eugeo say there are guards at the village? If there are no thieves then why is such a job needed?”
“Isn’t it obvious? To protect the village from the forces of darkness.”
“The forces of…… darkness……”
“Look over there, you see it, right?”
We just walked past under the last tree as Eugeo lifted up his right hand.
In front of my eyes were the wheat fields. They were still young, the green heads which had yet to swell were swaying in the wind. The scene which was greatly pleasing, in the dusk sunlight looked just like the sea. The path stretched into the meandering expanse of the fields, where I saw a small elevated hill far up ahead. When I focused on the hill which was surrounded by a grove of trees, I saw sand textured buildings gathered together and there was a noticeably tall tower at the center. Apparently, this seems to be where Eugeo lives, the Rulid village.
But where Eugeo pointed at was beyond the village —— at the faint pure white line of a mountain range in the far off distance. The steep mountain ridge which looked like a saw stretched to the left and right edges of my vision.
“That is the «Mountain range at the Edge». On its other side is the place where the light of Solus can’t reach, the land of darkness. Even at noon, the sky would be covered by dark clouds, the light from the heaven is red like blood. The ground, the trees, are all black like charcoal……”
Eugeo should have recalled a certain event in the distant past, as his voice became weak and trembled.
“……Living in the land of darkness are the cursed demi-humans like goblins and orcs, along with other terrifying monsters…… also, the dark knights who ride the black dragons. Of course the Integrity Knights who are protecting the mountain range have prevented them from invading, but sometimes, some seem to be able to slip through the underground caves. But I haven’t seen any yet though. Also, according to the legend from the Axiom Church…… once every one thousand years, when the light of Solus weakens, the forces of darkness led by the dark knights would cross the mountain range and start their attacks against us. In that great war, the guards in the village, the sentinels from all towns and the imperial army would be led by the Integrity Knights to fight against the hordes of monsters.”
As he tilted his head in doubt, Eugeo asked,
“……It’s the tale which even the smallest child in the village knows. Has Kirito also forgotten about this tale?”
“Y……Yeah, I felt like I heard about it before though…… just… a bit different in details, I guess.”
I fearfully tried to dodge his question, Eugeo expression changed into a smile like he had no doubt, before nodding.
“I see…… Perhaps, it could be possible that Kirito didn’t come from Norlangarth but one of the three other empires.”
“T-That may be so.”
While I was nodding, I tried to drive him off this dangerous topic and pointed to the hill which we were now considerably closer to.
“That is Rulid village, right? Where is Eugeo’s house?”
“What we see is the south gate, my house is near the west gate, so we can’t see it from here.”
“Hmm. The highest tower is… Sister…… Azariya’s church?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
I focused my gaze at the top of the tower, there was a symbol which was a combination of a cross and a circle.
“It’s somehow… even more elegant than I had thought. Someone like me can really stay there?”
“Don’t worry. Sister Azariya is really great person.”
It might not be easy, but if Azariya-san had the same belief in the intrinsic goodness of other people like Eugeo, then the problem wouldn’t occur if I gave sensible responses. But, right now I’m the guy who lacks sensible ideas about this world.
Ideally, if Sister Azariya is the RATH’s resident observer, then the story would be easy. But perhaps, the staff whose purpose is to observe shouldn’t be assigned important roles like the village chief or the sister. The possibility that he would be one of the very plain villager is higher, I have to find out by any means possible.
But that’s only if they actually placed an observer in this small village…… as I worried, Eugeo and I crossed the moss covered stone bridge which spanned over the narrow waterway, and set foot into «Rulid village».
The weather was wonderful the next morning.
While feeling the weight of the boxed-lunch Selka made for us in our right hands, Eugeo and I walked toward the south, along a road we wouldn’t come back on for a long time.
When we arrived at the junction which lead to the narrow path toward the forest where Gigas Cedar once stood, I saw an old man standing there. The deeply wrinkled face was covered with a white moustache, his backbone was straight, the glint in his eyes looked like it could penetrate through me.
As soon as he saw the elder, Eugeo smiled happily and started running.
“Garitta-jii! I’m glad you are here. I didn’t get to meet you yesterday.”
I remembered when I had heard that name. He was surely the predecessor of the «Gigas Cedar cutting duty».
A tender smile floated under the moustache of the the elder Garitta as he placed his hands on Eugeo’s shoulders.
“Eugeo, you certainly managed to cut down the Gigas Cedar, which I could only make a cut about a finger deep…… Could you tell me how you did it?”
“It was this sword and……”
Eugeo pulled the Blue Rose Sword out from the scabbard on his left waist slightly, then he turned and looked at me.
“More than anything, his…… it’s thanks to my friend. His name is Kirito. He’s really a ridiculous guy.”
I hurriedly lowered my head while thinking ‘What the heck is with that introduction.’ Elder Garitta walked to me before giving me a piercing look with his sharp eyes —— and gave a broad smile immediately.
“So you’re the rumored «Vector’s lost child», huh. I see….. such a variable companion.”
It was the first time I ever heard something like that, while I tilted my head trying to figure out the meaning of his words, the elder pointed his left hand toward the forest and continued speaking,
“Now, I’m sorry that I interfered with your long awaited departure, but I would like you to come with me for a little while. As I need you to do something.”
“E-Err. Kirito, it’s okay, right?”
I nodded as I didn’t have any particular reason to deny the request. The elder smiled again, before beckoning us as he stepped on the narrow path into the forest.
Even though I only commuted along this path daily for a week, I sensed a deep emotion that felt like nostalgia, as we walked for about twenty minutes, before we arrived at the large clearing.
The ruler of the forest, which stood tall as if it could reach the heaven across the long centuries of time, now lay with its great body quietly. Thin ivy had started to clamber over its jet black bark, in a far distant future, I thought it would decay and return to the earth.
“……What is the matter with the Gigas Cedar, Garitta-jii?”
The elder didn’t answer Eugeo’s question but walked toward the top of the fallen trunk. We chased after him in a hurry, but were greeted by a maze which was created from the branches of the Gigas Cedar and the other trees intertwined together. When I looked carefully, the black branches of the Gigas Cedar, no matter how thin they were, there was not a single one which had been damaged, although some had pierced into the ground or the rocks. Their toughness was really astonishing.
We got some scratch wounds on our bare arms as we struggled through the branches, and before long, we arrived next to elder Garitta who looked invigorating as he stood still. While using his palm to wipe the sweat off his forehead, Eugeo said in a grumble,
“What is here, exactly?”
What the elder pointed at, was the topmost point of the fallen Gigas Cedar, its treetop extended straight out. It was a small branch which hadn’t grow yet, its length was considerably long, the tip was tapered sharply like a rapier.
“What’s with this branch?”
To my question, the elder stretched his gnarled right hand and stroked the part of the treetop which was about five centimeters thick.
“In all of the branches of Gigas Cedar, this is the one which had inhaled the most blessing from Solus. Now, use that sword and cut it off from here. Cut it in a single blade strike, many strikes may damage it.”
The elder used his hand to chop at the part about one meter and twenty centimeters from the tip, before taking several steps backward.
Eugeo and I exchanged glances with each other and nodded. After taking his boxed-lunch, I also stepped back.
When the Blue Rose Sword was drawn out of the scabbard, it shone brightly with a light blue under the sunlight, the elder beside me whispered a faint sigh. ‘Perhaps everything would have changed if I had that sword when I was young,’ —— I thought this kind of regret probably echoed within his mind, but glancing at his calm face, I couldn’t read his mind at all.
Although Eugeo had set up his sword, he didn’t move at all. The tip of the sword shaking slightly probably due to the hesitation in his mind. The branch which was as thick as the wrist, perhaps he doesn’t have the confidence that he could sever it in one hit?
“Eugeo, let me do it.”
As I stretched my hand forward, Eugeo nodded obediently and offered the hilt of the sword. After receiving the boxed-lunches, he went to stand next to the elder.
I stared at the black branch thoughtlessly, then swung the sword upward and immediately slashed it downward. Kishi— with a clear sound and a light response, the blade passed through the place I aimed at. The long black branch which fell down right after that was caught by the blade of the sword, before it sprung up. As it spun in the air while falling down, this time I caught it with my left hand. It was cold like ice and I slightly staggered due to the heavy weight on my wrist.
After I returned the Blue Rose Sword to Eugeo, I used both hands to offer the black branch to elder Garitta.
“Just wait a little bit.”
As he said that, the elder took out a thick cloth from his bosom, before carefully wrapping the branch in my hands with it. In addition, he tied it up with a leather string.
“Now it’s good. When you arrive at the capital Centoria, bring this branch to the north seventh ward, and give it to an artisan named Sadre, who set up his shop there. He will be able to make a powerful sword from it. It certainly wouldn’t be inferior to that beautiful blue silver sword.”
“R-Really, Garitta-jii!? That would be great, as I was worried about the future as we only have one sword even though there’re two of us. Right, Kirito?”
Eugeo said in a happy voice, I replied with ‘That’s right,’ as I nodded while smiling. But I could feel that the jet black branch in my open arms became slightly heavier as I rejoiced.
To both of us, who were bowing our heads repeatedly, the elder gave a smile.
“It’s just my farewell gift. Be careful on the way. Because nowadays, there are not only good Gods reigning in this world. ……I’ll stay here to watch this tree for a little bit. Farewell Eugeo and the young traveler.”
After following the small path and exiting back to the main road again, the fine weather until now started to decline as some small black clouds sprung out from the east.
“The breeze is a bit humid now. We better go before it’s too late.”
“……That’s right. Let’s hurry.”
I nodded in response to Eugeo, the leather string of the cloth wrapped branch of Gigas Cedar was firmly tied to my back. The thunderous roar from the far distance away resonated with the heaviness of the branch, and my mind trembled slightly.
A pair, two swords.
Is that a hint, a sign of something in the future?
Shouldn’t I bury this parcel in the depths of this forest? that moment of thought made me stop moving. But, what is the reason that I fear it will be necessary? I don’t get it at all.
“Hey, let’s go, Kirito!”
As I lifted up my face, the bright smile of Eugeo, who was anticipating the unknown world, entered my eyes.
“Alright…… let’s go.”
It was just one week ago that we met, but for some reason I felt as if he had been my best friend for a long time, I walked side by side with the boy on the road extending to the south —— toward the heart of Underworld, the place where all answers to the puzzle were awaiting us, as we started to quicken our pace.
(Alicization Beginning End)