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Chapter 7 - The Death of a Friend

Wheezing, I breathed in, the sound high and whistling as the air fought to make it through my constricted windpipe. Still clutching tightly to my orbment, I unwound the sheets from my throat. Utterly exhausted, I tilted my head on its side and watched with reddened eyes as a small stream of saliva dribbled down over the edge of my mouth and pooled onto the floor. When fresh air finally made its way into my lungs it initially choked me nearly as badly as the sheet had.

A thump from somewhere behind startled me from my fit. The Jaeger demoness, like a spring-loaded doll, leaped up from the floor of the room. The single shot of magic I had previously landed in her gut should have done the trick, but the fluid way she moved about made it appear as if she were unfazed by the blast.

Within arm's reach of where I had subconsciously curled myself came the splintering sound of unseasoned wood being hewn down by a giant woodcutter's axe. In the following instant, Sister Carnelia came flying through a newly opened hole in the timber door, her entry punctuated by a cloud of splinters. Her arms as pliant as whips, she passed by the female Jaeger in a lightning quick motion, and with a turning assault, clocked her opponent full tilt in the face. The woman spun with the force of the blow and fell with a tumultuous thud, her head cracking hard against the floor. Like a prima ballerina, Sister Carnelia raised her knee high until she had it tucked securely up against her sternum. She stared down at the outstretched figure on the floor. Muscles flexed and without an ounce of mercy, Sister Carnelia let her judgment fall with the heel of her boot stomping down and crushing the wretched woman's throat.

As I witnessed the grotesque and unsightly scene, Sister Carnelia gave a quick glance in my direction, and beckoned me on. Then, with a nimble hop into the unknown before her, she cleared the broken window frame and lighted to the ground below. Quickly scraping my belongings together, I made after her in the same manner as she had left: out the window with a two-story drop to the cobblestone side road below. Waiting close-by and helping to break my less than elegant fall, Sister Carnelia led me on as we took flight along the avenue, brightly lit by the morning sun.

A deafening blare from an orbal engine's whistle indicated that the first train was about to depart. Sister Carnelia immediately pulled a ticket from out of her coat pocket and held it out to me from the side. Reaching for the fluttering strip of paper between her fingers, I realized that I was still carrying the bar of soap from before so I chucked it, not caring where it landed or who it might hit.

Aboard the train, the smoggy haze from the incessant smoking of the nattering gentlemen had permeated into every nook and cranny of the passenger car. There was also the smell of newly printed publications and the occasional sound of someone clearing their throat. It felt rather awkward to have boarded a train bound for the Imperial city with my bag still in hand.

'Do you know what your problem is, Toby?' Sister Carnelia remarked. 'You're just like that orbment of yours.'

Using her white handkerchief, she stanched the flow of blood from my leg which had been lacerated by the spinning aeroblades of the magic.

'Once you get yourself into trouble, you keep digging yourself in deeper until someone comes along with a billy club and whacks some good sense into you.'

Placing a folded magazine on my lap, she tapped on it with the nail tip of her index finger, indicating that I should read what was inside. It was a copy of the Imperial Chronicle which had been published just that morning. A several-lined article, buried pages behind more titillating news, told of the suspicious death of one orbal factory owner somewhere within the capital. This was the first time I had ever become aware of Micht's real age.

Sister Carnelia continued her lecture as she mercilessly upbraided me for my reckless behavior.

'You missed being caught up in all of this by a hair's breadth,' she informed me coolly.

At a loss for words over the shock of Micht's death, I put the magazine away in my trench coat pocket.

'Another five minutes in that shop and you would have gone to meet your maker, too.'

I shook my head and with trembling lips, let my thoughts fumble out of my mouth. 'I just don't get it. Why did Micht have to die?' Images of Micht's cold body behind the counter alternated in my mind with that of the lump of metal wrapped in scrap paper.

'Just what the hell had I been carrying all this time, and why did anyone have to die over it?' I pondered at length.

Sister Carnelia met my eyes and held them. 'Because it's an artifact,' she said simply.

'An artifact?' I scoffed as I blew off her answer. 'It's not like I haven't carried a bunch of them before.'

Artifacts, in short, were the remaining legacy of an ancient civilization and the generic term for any unidentifiable mechanism which resembled that of an orbment.

I had spent my days as a courier smuggling any number of those items under the false pretense that the goods I was carrying were nothing more than rare antiques, and readily placed them in the hands of those aristocrats, amongst whom they were especially in vogue. And for the most part, my current possession appeared as though it belonged in the same group as the others. Personally, I could find no other value in the collecting of these artifacts besides the indulgence of oneself in a decadent hobby.

Chiding me as if I were a clueless child, Sister Carnelia rebuked, 'You're wrong, Toby. This one's much different than the others.' After a moment's pause, she added, 'It's alive.'

Unable to grasp what she had meant, I looked at her with a questioning expression on my face.

Sister Carnelia tried again. 'What I'm trying to tell you, is that it still works. Although, I'm not really sure what kind of power it actually has. It was unearthed during an excavation within the Empire's territory about thirty years ago...'

Sister Carnelia's subsequent story about the peculiar lump of metal told of the dark history surrounding a group of aristocrats who relentlessly sought after it. The artifact itself had transitioned from hand to hand by those in power, as one after another, they were murdered while slumbering in their bedchambers. Then, at the end of the Hundred Days War, its whereabouts were said to have been lost.

'And strangely enough, it finally turned up in the capital after all this time,' she said, finishing up the account.

An announcement chimed in the passenger car notifying those riding of the scheduled time of arrival. Sister Carnelia uncrossed and recrossed her long legs.

'The one who is after that artifact hired that jaeger corps to bring it to them, whatever the cost. So as a result, I was dispatched by the church in order to protect both you and it from falling into their hands.'

I sat staring down at the bag resting next to my feet as we approached our destination, and the moving train quietly began to lose speed.

第7回 女神(エイドス)行き

隙間風のような音を鳴らして、僕は息を吸い込む。導力器を握ったままの手で、首に食い込むシーツをほどいた。横を向くと、口から唾液が溢れた。どん、と背後で何かが動く気配。《猟兵団(イェーガー)》の女が、まるでバネ仕掛けの人形みたいに跳ね起きる。腹に1発魔法(アーツ)をお見舞いしたはずなのに、そんなこと気にも留めていないような滑らかな動き。

思わず後退った僕の肩口で、生木の裂けるような音がする。次の瞬間、千切れたドアと一緒になって、シスター・カーネリアが部屋へ転がり込んで来た。その腕が鞭のようにしなり、すれ違いざま女猟兵の首を払う。くるりと女は宙を舞い、頭から墜落する。踊り子みたいに高く膝を抱え込むシスター。床に伸びた女の喉を、ブーツのかかとで踏み抜く。

ちらと僕を見て手招きすると、シスターは窓から地上へ身を躍らせる。まるで踏み台から降りるような気安さだ。バッグを手繰り寄せて、彼女の後に続く。待ち構えていたシスターに抱き止められ、朝の通りを駆け出す。僕らの耳に、始発列車の警笛が響いた。シスターが横手から乗車券を差し出す。受け取ろうとして僕は、ずっと握りしめていた石鹸(せっけん)を投げ捨てた。

車内は紳士たちのタバコで煙っていた。刷りたての雑誌の匂いと、咳払い。僕はひどく落ち着かない気分になる。帝都行きの列車に、バッグを抱えたまま乗り込むのは妙な感じがした。

導力器(オーブメント)と同じなのよ」魔法に裂かれた僕の足を白いハンカチで止血しながら、カーネリアは言った。

「1度駆動(ドライブ)し始めたらね、あとは誰かにぶん殴られるまで、もう止まらないの」彼女は半分に折った誌面を膝に置き、とんとんと指で突いた。今朝発売されたばかりの《帝国時報》。数行の差し替え記事が、帝都で起きた工房店主の変死を伝えていた。ミヒュトの本当の歳を、僕はこのとき初めて知った。

「間一髪だったわ」とシスター。雑誌をコートの懐にしまう。「あの店にもう5分いたら、トビー、あんたも女神(エイドス)行きになってたとこよ」

「分からない」僕は首を振った。カウンターの奥で冷たくなったミヒュトの姿と、()()紙に包まれた金属塊とを、僕は同時に思い浮かべた。一体これはなんだろう? 僕らもあんな物のために死ぬのか?

「《アーティファクト》だからよ」答えるシスターの声を僕は鼻先で笑い飛ばした。「古代遺物? そんな物、今までだって運んできたさ」

《アーティファクト》とは古代文明の遺産で、導力器めいた正体不明の機構の総称だ。骨董品として貴族たちの間で人気が高く、僕が密輸してきた盗品の中にも、それらしい代物が結構あった。大抵は今回の品と同じく泥まみれ。退廃趣味以上の価値を、僕は見つけることができなかった。

「違うのよ、トビー。今度のやつは違うの」

カーネリアは子供にさとすような声で言った。

「あれは、生きてるのよ」

意味が分からず、僕は彼女の目を見る。「今でも動くってことよ。どんな力があるのか、判ってはいないけど」シスターは言い直す。

「あれが発掘されたのは30年前、帝国領内――」

シスターの語る金属塊の物語は、貴族たちの暗闘の歴史そのものだった。権力者の交代に合わせ《アーティファクト》も手から手へ。しかしそれは《百日戦役》の直後、行方知れずになってしまったそうだ。

「で、今回ほんと久々に帝都に現れた」到着時刻の案内が車内に流れ、シスターは足を組みかえる。

「あれを狙ってる奴が《猟兵団》を、そして教会はあたしを派遣した。あんたと《アーティファクト》を連中から保護するためにね」

僕は足元のバッグを見つめた。列車は静かに、その速力を落とし始めた。

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