Volume 16, p.1
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       Volume 16, p.1

           Reki Kawahara
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Volume 16


  Chapter 18

  War of the Underworld

  June ~ July AD 2026

  Solus’s afterglow dyed the gate isolating the two worlds in the red of blood.

  «Great East Gate».

  The humongous structure, built at the hands of gods, that isolated the Human Empire and Dark Empire for over three hundred years started crumbling away this very moment.

  Tremors thundered throughout the world like roars from some immense beast in the Great Gate’s death throes, the last of its effectively infinite Life dripping away, while the five thousand in the Human Empire Defense Army and fifty thousand in the invading army watched on without a word. Those crossed from the Human Empire’s central capital, Centoria, in the east to the land of darkness’s imperial capital, Obsidia, in the west as distant, ominous thunder, prompting all in the Underworld to peer up towards the skies.

  Seconds passed.

  A crack streaked through the core of the over three hundred mel tall Great Gate. White light gushed from within and scorched the soldiers lined up on both the east and west.

  The fissure branched out infinitely, reaching the ends of the Great Gate in no time, as the white light chased after, spreading out like a mesh. Giant words in the sacred script erupted among flames upon the gate’s two sides next. There were merely two throughout the vast battleground who understood the meaning behind the words, [Final Tolerance Experiment].

  It started just about as those words burnt out.

  The Great East Gate crumbled from the top, releasing flashes of light that extended to the skies.

  1

  “Uoohh…”

  An excited voice escaped from Vassago Casals whose upper body went over the command vehicle’s rails.

  “This the «final load test»? It puts even Hollywood movies to shame. Shouldn’t we be taking this videography technology instead of the AI, bro? We would be billionaires in no time if we start a VFX studio.”

  Despite having his eyes glued to the great spectacle in the distance, Gabriel Miller coolly pointed out upon hearing that.

  “Unfortunately, this sight cannot be recorded onto any medium. After all, it’s not polygons that form everything in this world. It’s a grand show visible only to those connected to the STL.”

  Half of the Great East Gate had already crumbled into countless pieces of rubble. Though the noise and tremors were tremendous, the massive rocks all melted into light right before they crashed into the ground. Judging from that, it seemed the remains of the gate would not end up as a barricade.

  Gabriel stood from the throne installed on the command vehicle’s roof with his jet-black fur mantle aflutter before walking towards a large skull set up by one of the Ten Lords of the land of darkness, the chief of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild, Dee Ai El.

  The skull placed on a small table was apparently an artifact capable of transmitting sound. She said that by speaking into this master skull, his voice would be sent to the slave skulls in the generals’ possession. Though inferior to the Stryker Command Vehicle’s multi-channel transmission system, it was far more effective than sending an army of messengers for every little command.

  Looking down into the skull’s hollow eye sockets, Gabriel let out a somber voice suited to his role as the «Dark Empire’s emperor and Vector the god of darkness».

  “Warriors of our land of darkness! The time you have await’d hath arrived! Kill all who live! Pillage all without hesitation! ——Trample upon them all!!”

  War cries burst forth from all across the battle formations, their volume exceeding the Great Gate’s collapse. The countless machetes and pikes thrust upwards shone in the hue of blood under the setting sun.

  The first batch of the Dark Territory Army comprised five thousand mountain goblins, five thousand plains goblins, two thousand orcs, and a thousand giants for a total of thirteen thousand units. He would first have them lead the charge and observe the enemy army’s reaction.

  Swiftly swinging his raised right hand down in front, Gabriel gave his first command as a player in this war game.

  “Group one—begin the assault!!”

  * * *

  The one who assumed command over the five thousand mountain goblins on the right flank of the goblin force making up the first group of the fifty thousand-strong invading army was its new chief named Kosogi. He was one of the seven sons of the previous chief, Hagashi, who incidentally died through the Dark General Shasta’s rebellion drama.

  Hagashi was extoled as the most cruel and greedy even among the past chiefs. Not only did Kosogi inherit a strong tendency for that disposition, he only concealed a high intelligence unbecoming of goblins under his hideous face.

  Having reached twenty this year, Kosogi had been pondering over why the goblins were regarded as the worst among the five races of the land of darkness—the humans, the giants, the ogres, the orcs, and the goblins—for over five years.

  Certainly, the goblins were the smallest among the five races and the weakest physically too. However, they once held numbers to compensate for that disadvantage and in fact, they conducted battles against the orcs and humans on equal terms during the ancient «age of blood and iron».

  When the races eventually ended their wars, exhausted, the goblin chief, too, gained a seat in the Ten Lords Assembly, the highest aggregation in the land of darkness, upon the conclusion of the five races’ peace treaty. However, the treaty was, in reality, in no way fair. Both the mountain and plains goblins were given no more than the withered wastelands in the north as their dominion and there was nowhere near enough agriculture or game to preserve the Life of a whole race; their children constantly starved and their elderly rapidly died.

  In short, they were done in by the chiefs of the other races.

  In order to curb the goblins’ greatest strength, their numbers, they forced upon them a vast but infertile land. As such, the goblins had to exhaust all ends to even survive to this current day and could not further their civilization. Having maintained training institutions for their children to practice like the black iums was impossible; they were instead sent down rivers on boats in order to reduce the mouths to feed. All while aware of the treatment their children would receive in the lands of the other races when they arrive.

  If only they had fertile land and sufficient resources, their soldiers would now hold not these machetes and plate armor casted from crude iron but tempered steel equipment. They would have amassed Life from ample food supplies and studied sword techniques and tactics. They might have even acquired those dark arts monopolized by the black iums eventually.

  If they had, no one would claim the goblins to be an inferior race.

  Kosogi’s deceased father, Hagashi, was constantly haunted by his anger and jealousy towards the black iums, but he lacked the brains to think about what he could do about it. He possessed wisdom enough only to hope to stay within Emperor Vector’s thoughts through military exploits in this great war.

  What foolishness. How could they hope to distinguish themselves in battle? That was obvious with a look at the army’s arrangement.

  It was likely suggested to the emperor by the chief of the Dark Arts Users’ Guild. That woman must have forced the «honor as the shock troops» upon the two goblin races to use and dispose of them from the start. The goblins would charge in as the vanguards and be promptly cut down by those devils of legend, the Human Empire’s integrity knights, before incinerated by her as collateral damage from the safe rear with the intention to rob them of their merits.

  —How could he let her?

  However, that, in no way, meant that they could disobey their orders. The descended Emperor Vector was not damaged by even a hair after immersed in Dark General Shasta’s attack which instantly annihilated the two goblin chiefs an
d the head of the Assassins’ Guild. The emperor held absolute strength and the law in the land of darkness decreed that the weak shall not disobey the strong.

  However, that black ium female was different. Kosogi was now one of the ten lords, on equal footing as her. He had no duty to obediently abide by her malicious schemes.

  The order given to the goblins was truly simple. They would penetrate in with a charge as the vanguard and annihilate the enemy army.

  That was all. There was nothing about maintaining the warfront until the flames from the art users poured in from behind. They had the allowance to outwit that woman.

  Kosogi secretly passed down a directive to his trusted commanding officers right before the Great Gate crumbled.

  The moment the slave skull given to him clicked into movement and delivered the assault order from the emperor, he stuck his hand under his armor and pulled out a small ball he prepared prior. His commanding officers ought to be doing the same at that time too.

  The clump of rocks that was once the Great East Gate crumbled completely with a roar and vanished as light.

  He spotted multiple watch fires and the glint of dazzling weapons and armor further into the valley that opened straight on.

  That was the white iums’ defense army.

  Beyond them were lands sufficiently filled with abundance, endless resources, and manpower, enough for the mountain goblins to regain their age of glory.

  How could he become some discarded stone? He shall have the plains goblins, cursed with a chief without brains yet again, and the orcs, who were even stupider, play that role.

  Kosogi gripped the ball firmly within his left hand and thrust up the thick mountain knife in his right as he screamed in a deep voice.

  “All of you, stick together and come with me!! —Chargeeeee!!”

  * * *

  “First Unit, draw your swords and prepare to engage! Ascetics, prepare your healing arts and incantations!”

  Fanatio Synthesis Two’s proud voice pierced through the twilight, in her role as the integrity knight serving as the deputy head for the Human Empire Defense Army.

  Jyariin!! The chorus of swords slipping from their scabbards rang through the valley. Their watch fires, whose numbers were suppressed, imbued their steel blades with a red gleam.

  A thunderous noise finally approached from beyond the collapsed Great East Gate with the ground practically rumbling from it.

  The goblins’ short pace. The orcs’ tepid pace. The giants’ footsteps, which sounded like hammers slammed into the ground, mixed in and overlapped atop their war cries. The howl of the massive beast known as war yet unknown to all humans.

  It took everything they had for the mere three hundred guards lined up in defensive lines two hundred mel from the Great Gate to stand their ground. It would not have been strange for their files to collapse before even crossing swords once and to scatter in confusion. This was the first experience all of those guards had in a battle with their lives at stake, let alone with war.

  What kept them standing at their post were the backs of three integrity knights standing alone in intervals at the frontmost line.

  In charge of holding the left flank was the «Frost Scale Whip», Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-one.

  In the middle was the «Heaven Piercing Sword» who also served as the force’s commander, Fanatio Synthesis Two.

  And the right flank was protected by the «Conflagrant Flame Bow», Deusolbert Synthesis Seven.

  The three knights clad in full body armor which would glitter beautifully even in the depths of darkness stood firmly on the ground with each of their two feet and awaited the enemy troops without even a twitch.

  Fear and fright were present even within the knights’ chests. They might have experience in real battles unlike the guards, but most of those were no more than one-to-one combat with dark knights. No one had experienced fighting against a force this massive: not Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio, not even Integrity Knight Commander Bercouli Synthesis One who commanded the second unit in the rear.

  To top things off, the ruler of the Human Empire, the highest minister of the Axiom Church, Administrator, was no more.

  The absolute justice that served as the symbol of the church, too, had long gone missing.

  The knights stood on this battleground, trusting in their one last belief. Ironically enough, it was one particular emotion that should have been destroyed through the «Synthesis Ritual» once performed on them.

  Deusolbert Synthesis Seven awaited the enemy army with his chest boldly puffed up while gently stroking the aged ring fitted on the ring finger of his left hand, holding onto the Conflagrant Flame Bow, with his right-hand fingers.

  Ranking among the oldest integrity knights, he had protected the order in the Human Empire’s northern region for over a hundred years.

  He drove away invaders from the Dark Territory in their attempts to cross the mountain range at the edge, exterminated large magical beasts within his base of operations, and occasionally took in criminals who committed taboos. He had ceased thinking about the reasons for his responsibilities since long ago. Believing without doubt that he was a knight summoned from the Celestial World, he held not even a drop of interest in the activities of the humans living on the surface.

  What confused Deusolbert at times were those mysterious dreams that would pay him a visit at daybreak without fail.

  A small hand so pale it seemed see-through. The light shining from a simple silver ring on its ring finger.

  That hand would stroke his hair, touch his cheeks, and softly shake his shoulders.

  He would hear a gentle whisper.

  —Wake up, dear. It’s morning…

  Deusolbert told no one about those dreams. He thought the Chief Elder would erase them with his arts upon hearing of them. He did not want to lose those dreams. After all, the ring shining on that small hand in his dreams had the same design as the one he had on his left ring finger since he woke up as a knight.

  Were those memories from the Celestial World? If he fulfilled his mission as a knight in this lower realm and gained permission to return above, could he meet with the owner of that hand and voice once more?

  Deusolbert hid that question—or hope—deep in his heart for the longest time.

  However, something happened during that severe shock sent throughout the Central Cathedral half a year ago.

  Deusolbert, who fought with the two youths rebelling against the church, lost despite resorting to his armament full control art. The black-haired youth, who broke through the Conflagrant Flame Bow with a sword technique he witnessed for the first time, spoke of something he found hard to believe.

  The integrity knights were not summoned from the Celestial World. They were mere common folk born in the Human Empire, trained to become knights with their memories sealed.

  The highest minister, Administrator, the supreme good, the absolute order, and personification of perfect justice could not possibly be involved in deceiving all of the knights. However, those youths repelled Deputy Knight Commander Fanatio, Knight Commander Bercouli, and Chief Elder Chudelkin, reached the top floor of the Central Cathedral, and defeated even Administrator herself. A party of mere rebels could not hold such might in their swords.

  He frankly knew from the start, ever since he first fought them. Their straight sword strokes possessed not even a trace of falsehood or deception.

  That then meant the owner of that small hand in his dreams, too, was not from the Celestial World but a human born on the surface.

  Deusolbert did something for the first time since he became a knight the moment he realized that truth. He embraced the ring on his left hand to his chest as tears flowed from his two eyes.

  After all, unlike the integrity knights, the lives of the people in the Human Empire were extinguished within seventy years at most. In other words, Deusolbert understood he would never meet again the one who called him, “dear”.

  Yet still, he responded t
o Knight Commander Bercouli’s plea and advanced onto where the decisive battle would take place.

  To protect the world where he lived with the owner of that small hand, regardless of how far in the past it was.

  That was to say, what gave Integrity Knight Deusolbert Synthesis Seven the strength to stand his ground without budging before the great force from the land of darkness was the strength from that one emotion he should have gotten rid of—«love».

  And unknown to him, Knight Fanatio and Knight Eldrie, too, stood there to fight alongside him for their respective loved ones.

  Deusolbert separated his right hand from the ring and grasped four steel arrows at once from the gigantic quiver set on the ground by his side.

  He arranged them carefully onto his divine instrument, the Conflagrant Flame Bow, that he wielded horizontally.

  He was nearly done with the incantation for his armament full control art. Fanatio and Eldrie would still restrain from doing so, but Deusolbert’s secret technique could not display its might when it became a ruckus.

  With the resolve to expend half of his beloved bow’s Life, the integrity knight sucked in a deep breath and uttered the final phrase.

  “Enhance armament!”

  Crimson.

  The humongous flames from the great copper bow dyed the invaders who reached two hundred mel away in a brilliant red.

  The four arrows nocked on the bowstring shone too, immersed within deep crimson flames.

  “—I am Integrity Knight Deusolbert Synthesis Seven! All who stand before me, you shall burn away, leaving not even your bones!!”

  Though it did not remain within his own memories, he once named himself similarly when taking in a single girl from a small village in the northern region eight years ago. However, with his thick steel mask now removed, his voice rang out, accentuated and sonorous.

  The knight’s fingers released the taut bowstring drawn to its limit.

  Zudoo!! Four streaks of flames shot forth in a radial formation with that roar.

 
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