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Chapter 10 - The Last Stand

Sister Carnelia made such haste as she aimed for the path on the opposite side of the sludge-filled channel that I could have sworn she was actually running on the liquid's surface, based on my observation of the minuscule spatters her feet produced. And of course, she passed me by in the blink of an eye, the space growing wider and wider between us as I continued to trudge my way through the filthy muck.

Flashes of magic erupted from the darkness by the sluice gate and ripped through the air in rapid succession, but none of them could overtake the speed at which Sister Carnelia moved. In an unyielding offensive by the shadowed aggressors, the settled feculence in the depths of the channel was thrown up in the form of a powerful tsunami, and in the instant before clearing myself from its destructive path, I feared that the terrible wall of sedimented filth would crush me under its weight and bring me to an unsightly end.

With a mid-air spin to avoid the last of the oncoming magic, Sister Carnelia flew to the opposite side of the channel with incredible speed. Hurdling the wall of piled-up sandbags behind which the attackers took cover, she whirled her arms in a ferocious onslaught. One by one, like a row of pins being struck by a weighted object, the line of standing Jaegers crumbled to the ground.

Sister Carnelia's attacks were like a whirlwind of death, blurry with the speed at which they struck. They came in advancing at inconceivable angles, puncturing throats, slashing open arteries, and then they were gone. So it was that when I finally reached the cobbled path beyond the stagnant channel, not a soul was left standing besides Sister Carnelia and myself.

'The cathedral is at the end of a ladder just beyond this gate,' she indicated as she flicked dripping blood from her fingers like a child who forgot a handkerchief to dry her wet hands. Her eyes shone with the afterglow of battle. 'The Jaegers can't be far behind, so we'd better hurry,' she warned. And as if to punctuate her warning, the damp sound of numerous feet kicking up water as they advanced toward our present location had now become clearly audible to my ears.

Stepping over the handful of Jaeger corpses lying scattered about behind the wall of sandbags, we made our way for the dry-bed channel which lay ahead of us. I placed my hands on the slightly damp stone floor of the empty channel and crawled through the half-open door of the sluice gate. A falling water droplet struck the nape of my neck as I passed through the cramped opening, causing me to stop dead in my tracks. In the moment that followed I recognized the sound of an orbment overhead on the verge of discharging a burst of magic.

'Toby!' came the ostensible voice of Sister Carnelia as my vision was instantly flooded with a wave of exceeding brightness. Then, in the midst of this world of blinding light, came the hand of a savior which grabbed me firmly by the shoulder. The powerful feeling of being dragged and the explosion produced by magic rupturing stone were almost simultaneous.

As the booming roar swept across the whole of my body, I was thrown backwards toward the ground. Despite my clouded vision, I managed to somersault before landing in the prone position.

Choking on the filthy puddle I had fallen face down in, I lifted my head in time to see a cloud of blackened dust being heaved from the mouth of the halfway-raised sluice gate door. And as if my worst nightmare had now become reality, I watched as one after another, the blockading Jaegers emerged from the smoky cloud, each bearing a glinting blade.

I floundered about on the slippery mud and watched as their ranks sprang into action and closed in, their rugged facial features now visible to my eyes. Instantly rolling to the side, I unsheathed my hidden blade as I attempted to deflect a wide-arching slash of another with my bag. The cloth of the bag, over which the sharp edge ran, split open without a sound, and the paper-wrapped orbment fell onto the cobbled floor.

Frantically, I searched for the orbment at my side, but I was unable to get a grip on it because of my clumsy, panic-stricken state. One of the mercenary men, his eyes intent on my throat, drew back his long sword to end my life. But before he could make his move, a dark silhouette appeared from behind him.

It was Sister Carnelia.

Her hands, moving with such finesse, disarmed the man in an instant, and left only his sword behind before he was launched from view into the hanging shadows veiling the dank conduit. As the sound of the falling sword struck the ground with a high-pitched clink, Sister Carnelia dropped to her knees. Her soft, whispered words were full of regret.

'I'm sorry, Toby.'

With her head bowed forward, I watched in disbelief as several streaks of blood began to run down the side of her face.

'It looks like the Goddess may be calling you home, too,' she said gently.

Once again, Sister Carnelia rose to her feet, her coat hanging in tatters. Eyeing her outer garment's ragged state, I knew for certain that it had been caused by the previous blast of magic. In order to protect me from harm, Sister Carnelia had willingly used her body as a shield to absorb the brunt of the force. And now, a stain of effervescing crimson blood had begun to seep through the cloth covering her breast.

I swiped up the artifact which had tumbled to the ground from the hole in my severed bag and tore away the wet paper which covered its surface. Then, with the cold lump of metal in hand, I placed it atop my orbment as I gripped them both tightly together.

The sound of footfall from the jaeger corps had by now subsided. They stood in a cluster with their swords drawn, effectively blocking any possible escape through the sluice gate. Sister Carnelia let out a shrill cry and I, as if taking the sound to be a command to attack, unleashed the energy pent up within my orbment.

The device roared, and at the instant the magic was discharged, I felt an intense wave of searing heat graze over my cheeks as my entire body was immediately blown backwards by its powerful force. Stunned, I collapsed onto the floor.

When I finally forced open my eyes, I could see Sister Carnelia standing above me with her back turned to face me. Her right arm had lost all strength to function and hung limply at her side. Dazedly, she slid to her knees and slumped onto the ground before me.

I pulled Sister Carnelia close to myself and hugging her tightly, blasted the pack of assailing mercenaries with an instantaneous wave of magic. But then it was all over, my last stand ending as soon as it had begun.

Countless razor-sharp sword tips stared down at us from all sides. Convinced that I had finally reached my life's terminus, I raised my right hand and while placing a false hope in my orbment that it could somehow protect us, I activated it, the last of its energy being consumed as it was drained to empty. Whirling aeroblades spun around us as I closed my eyes and accepted my fate. And behind my darkened eyelids, an endless realm of whiteness began to spread out before me.

第10回 発動

対岸めがけ、シスターは黒い水煙を引いて飛ぶように駆けていった。たちまち僕は引き離される。

水門の方から魔法(アーツ)がひらめき、立て続けに空を切り裂くが、どれもシスターには届かない。水路に沈殿した汚物を吹き飛ばし、僕の体に爆風となって襲いかかってくる。最後の魔法をひと飛びでかわすと、彼女は恐ろしい速度でそのまま岸へと踊り込んだ。

砂袋の壁を飛び越え、彼女は両腕をしならせる。居並ぶ猟兵たちが地面へと垂直に崩れ落ちる。風車のように縦横に回転するシスターの腕は、常に刃よりも早

い。彼女の腕は想像もつかない角度からやってきて、喉を突き、脈を絶ち、去っていく。

だから僕がようやく石畳を踏んだときには、もう彼女の他に、そこに立っている人影はなかった。

「その先の梯子を登れば聖堂よ」カーネリアはハンカチを忘れた子供みたいに手を振って返り血を飛ばし、戦いの余韻にきらきら輝く瞳で僕を見た。

「後詰めが来てる。急ぎましょう」

水を蹴って進む低い足音は、もうはっきりと耳に届くまで近づいてきていた。猟兵たちの死体を踏み越えて、僕らは干上がった水路へと向かった。

濡れた石に手をついて、半ば口を開けた水門の下を潜る。うなじに水滴が弾けたとき、僕は頭上から響く音に気づき、動きを止めた。それは魔法(アーツ)を駆動する導力器(オーブメント)の音だった。

「トビー!」白い光が視界に満ちる。シスターの声を聞いた気がした。どこからか伸びてきた手に、肩を引っつかまれる。僕の体が後ろへと引きずり出されるのと、魔法が敷石を炸裂させるのとは、ほとんど同時だった。

轟音に全身を打たれながら、僕は背中から地面に衝突し、もんどり打って腹ばいになる。汚水にむせながら顔を上げると、もうもうと土煙を吐き出す水門が見えた。その中からまるで悪夢のように、両手に白刃を光らせて猟兵たちが湧き出てくる。

泥の上で僕はもがいた。見る間に傭兵どもの顔は近くなり、地を蹴って飛びかかってくる。とっさに横へ転がって太刀を外し、返しの刃をバッグで受けた。音もなく布が裁ち切られ、古紙の包みが石畳に転げ落ちる。腰の導力器を探すが、指先には鎖がじゃれつくだけだ。

僕の喉を見つめ、長剣を引き上げる傭兵の男。その後ろに人影が現れる。シスターだった。彼女の手が無造作に動き、長剣だけを残して、男は消し飛ぶ。剣のはずむ甲高い音と共に、シスターは膝をついた。

「ごめんね、トビー」うつむいた彼女の頬を伝って、赤い筋がいくつも流れ落ちる。

「あんたも、女神に呼ばれるかも知れないわ」

彼女はまた立ち上がる。ひるがえすコートはずたずたに裂けている。さっきの魔法(アーツ)だ。僕を逃がすとき、それを浴びたに違いない。泡立つ真紅の血が、彼女の胸元から染み出す。僕は地面に転がる《アーティファクト》を拾い上げた。濡れた紙を剥がし、冷たい金属塊を、自分の導力器と重ねて握る。

もう《猟兵団(イェーガー)》の足音はない。彼らは水門への道を塞ぐように、刀を連ねて立ちふさがっていた。

シスターが声にならない雄叫びを上げ、僕は導力器を駆動させる。機構をうならせ魔法(アーツ)を放つ瞬間、頬を焼けるように熱い刃がかすめていく。たちまち突き飛ばされ、前のめりに倒れ込む。頭上にシスターの背が見えた。その右腕が力を失って、肩からぶら下る。彼女は少し顔を下に向けると、そのまま滑るように、目の前に崩れ落ちてきた。

僕はシスターを抱き止め、撃ちかかってきた傭兵を魔法(アーツ)で吹き飛ばす。だが、それで終わりだ。数え切れない剣尖が、僕らをにらんでいた。導力器を駆動させたままの右手を、身を守るように高くかざす。刃が風を切り、僕は目を閉じた。

真っ暗なまぶたの裏に、果てしなく白い世界が広がっていった――

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