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Chapter 9 - Carnelia

The flicker of dying orbal lamps mounted at equidistant lengths along the sewer walls sent thin streaks of light across the surface of the rippling flow of filthy sewage. Passing in front of these one by one, Sister Carnelia sped down the stone sidewalk as the sound of her body cutting through the racing tunnel winds trailed out behind her. Panting and out of breath, I continued to move my feet toward the darkness which lay before me as I chased after Sister Carnelia's flickering shadow.

Wayworn, yet without a moment of repose, we headed unrelentingly with our sights set on the cathedral of the Septian Church. We moved swiftly across the moss-covered stone pavement, the clacking of our heels echoing in the dimly lit underground.

Above ground, the walking distance on the city roads from the railway station to the cathedral was about three blocks. If we made our way up through the drainage ditch just beyond the sluice gate, we would find ourselves in the public square outside the massive sanctuary.

Up ahead, the light of another orbal lamp came into view. Turning her head in my direction and without a word, Sister Carnelia extended her right hand outward in a wide motion indicating that we would be turning that way at the next corner. Then, as if preparing for something she rolled both shoulders in a grinding motion and relieved the last of her tension with a pop of the neck. It seemed to me as though she knew all too well what was lurking within the tenebrous conduit ahead.

Under the unsteady and sporadic coruscation of light, the body of Sister Carnelia surged around the corner and disappeared from view. One, two, three went the walloping echoes, followed by the sound of something being rolled into the channel of filthy sludge. As I turned the corner, the first things which leapt into my sight were the contorted figures of two men on the ground whom I barely missed treading on. Sister Carnelia, who was by this time several steps ahead, continued to run at her usual pace as if nothing had happened during the preceding seconds.

'It's Carnelia!' came an angry (but noticeably wavering) voice from behind.

I glanced to my rear to locate its source, and there I found a man who had dragged himself from the fecal-filled liquid, now lying next to his dead comrades, yelling with his dying breath as blood leaked out of his open mouth.

'Carnelia, she's down here!' he managed to croak before falling silent and still. Sister Carnelia paid no attention nor made any effort to look back. I turned my face forward and followed her example.

The walls of the conduit leading directly to the sluice gate squared out into an ominous mouth of darkness, seemingly waiting for its next unsuspecting meal. Sister Carnelia gradually slowed her pace to match mine as I had by this time become completely exhausted and out of breath.

'It looks like these guys are dead serious about getting their hands on that item this time,' she said as she focused her eyes on the darkness before us.

'So were those men old friends of yours or something?' I inquired.

Sister Carnelia turned to face me with her darkened scarlet eyes. 'Is that what you heard from those bracers the other day?' she asked. I nodded my head and questioned her no further. With head slightly turned down I forced myself onward, eyes fixed on tips of my boots.

Unexpectedly, Sister Carnelia opened her mouth and said, 'Do you remember that woman you had a run-in with back at the inn?' I nodded slightly.

'The whole reason I gave up my life as a mercenary is because I didn't want to meet a tragic end like that,' she continued. 'A life of no meaning. Forgotten by all...'

I looked up at Sister Carnelia, and seeing a slight show of emotion in the side of her face, heard her repeat the same line of words a few times more before finishing her thought.

'If I'm going to cash in my life's chips, then I think it's best that I fight for something worth fighting for. At least that way, I'd be able to leave a legacy of my existence behind.'

Taking in her words, I ran steadily beside her as I felt a sense of nondescript apprehension slowly begin to creep over me. During the short intervals between breaths, it suddenly seemed as if I were hearing the faint sound of sloshing water from behind which caused me to prick up my ears and turn my head in its direction.

'So you noticed it too, huh, Toby?' Sister Carnelia slowed her step until finally coming to a complete stop. 'They've blockaded us from behind, so there's no turning back now,' she said, the direness of our situation heavy in her voice.

We had arrived at an intersection where the conduit we were in and another crossed paths and just beyond the wide, fetid flow of sewage water before us, I could see the dimly lit sluice gate. I placed my back against the damp bricks of the nearest wall and for a moment, tried to catch my breath.

'They're probably lying in wait for us,' Sister Carnelia assessed stolidly after glaring across the flowing sewage of the merged channels and then turning her head to the rear and narrowing her eyes again. 'And, unfortunately this time, we won't be able to circumvent them.'

With a sound of composure revealing her utmost resolve, Sister Carnelia took in a few deep breaths. I laid hand on my orbment, gripping it in the palm of my sweaty hand, and then wrapped the strap of my bag securely around my opposite wrist. And as always, Sister Carnelia checked her boots before standing upright. Then, taking a few steps back and holding my breath, I raced forward and darted into the stygian flow of waste.

第9回 カーネリア

切れかけた導力灯の明滅が、汚水の波面に細い光を走らせていた。その前を、風音を残してシスターが駆け抜ける。足先から彼方の闇へ、斜めに遠ざかっていく彼女の影を追い、僕は息を切らして足を動かし続ける。

七耀教会の聖堂めざし、僕とシスターは休むことなく苔むした石畳の上を走っていた。鉄道の駅から聖堂まで、地上の街路を行けば3街区ほどの距離だ。水位調整用の水門の先から排水溝を上れば、聖堂前の広場に出られる。

遠くにまた導力灯の光が見えてくる。シスターは首をこちらに向けて、大きく右手を横に伸ばし、次の角で右折だと教えてくれる。そのまま彼女は、何かに備えるように両肩をぐるぐると回した。シスター・カーネリアには、この先の出来事が見えていたのかも知れない。

またたく照明の下、カーネリアの体が角の向こうへと消える。1つ、2つ、3つ。続けさまに鈍い衝突音がして、何かが水中に転げ落ちる。角を曲がった僕の目に飛び込んできたのは、奇妙な姿勢で横たわる2人の男で、思わず道の端へと身をかわす。数歩先を行くシスターは、何事もなかったように相変わらずの歩幅で走り続けている。

「カーネリアだ!」

背後からの怒声に僕は振り向いた。1人の男が、角の死体のそばに這いつくばったまま、血の色をした口を開けて叫んでいた。

「カーネリアがいるぞ!」

シスターは振り返ろうとしなかった。顔を前に向けると、僕もそれに従った。

水門までまっすぐに続く水路が、四角い闇となって待ち受けていた。ずいぶんバテて来た僕に、カーネリアは歩調を合わせてくれる。

「連中、かなり本腰を入れてるみたい」彼女は宙の一点を見据えたまま言った。

「さっきのは、昔の仲間?」

カーネリアは僕に赤茶色の瞳を向けた。

「遊撃士から聞いたの?」僕はうなずき、もうそれ以上は聞かなかった。導力灯の明かりの中で動く自分の足の影を見つめながら、ひたすら前へと体を進めた。

「宿屋でやりあった女のこと、覚えてる?」

不意にシスターが口を開いた。

「あたしが傭兵を辞めたのは、あんな風に死にたくなかったからよ」

僕はカーネリアの横顔を見上げた。「あんな風に、消えてなくなるんじゃなくて」そうシスターは繰り返し、「どうせ死ぬなら何かのために戦って、生きた証しを立てて、それから死ぬの」

得体の知れない危うさを感じながら、僕は彼女の横を走り続けた。ふと自分の呼吸の合間に、かすかな水音を聞いた気がして、後ろを振り返った。

「トビー、あんたも気づいた?」シスターはゆっくり歩をゆるめ、やがて立ち止まる。

「後ろから、連中の後詰めが来てるのよ」

2つの水路が十字にぶつかる交差点に、僕らはたどり着いた。悪臭を放つ幅の広い水流の向こうに、薄暗く照らされた水門が見える。湿ったレンガの壁に背をつけ、僕はしばらく息を整えた。

「たぶん、待ち伏せされてるわ」シスターは対岸をにらみ、それから背後へ顔を向けた。「でも、迂回してる時間はないわね」2度3度と、彼女は鋭い音を立てて深く呼吸する。僕は汗ばむ手で導力器(オーブメント)を手に取り、バッグの持ち手を手首に手繰る。いつものように靴を確かめ、シスターが体を起こす。

粘りつくような闇色の流れの中へと、僕らは息を止めて一気に駆け込んでいった。

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