Chapter 4 - Three of Swords

They haunt me relentlessly.

All the people I've murdered over the years.

I've cut off their heads. Carved their hearts from their chests. Sliced their torsos right through the middle. But no matter what I do, an army of corpses continues to pursue me. I see them every time I close my eyes. The politicians, the nobles, the merchants, the rich and powerful.

'Just leave me alone! Leavemealoneleavemealone leavemealone!'

I frantically swing my sword at them.

I cut and cut, bisecting them. Slashing them apart.

But they don't relent.

Chunks of flesh and bone, viscera and intestines, lungs and brains. They gather into a writhing mass that comes crashing down on me like a gory wave, threatening to swallow me whole.

'Getawaygetawaygetawaygetaway!!!'

I try to escape, but they corner me again and again.

My victims, staring at me with hollow eyes. Accusing me.

'How could you do this to us?! How?!'

They throw themselves at me, their decaying fingers gripping my neck, trying to rip the life out of me just as I did to them.

'Let me go! Letmegoletmegoletmego!'

I frantically thrash and struggle, but no matter what I do, I can't break away.

Rotting blood and bile trickles down my body, dissolving my skin.

The wave finally swallows me up.

I just want a normal life.

I just want my humanity back.


I woke from my nightmare, my breath short and ragged. My entire body was soaked in a horrible sweat. I fought back the rising urge to vomit.

The night after completing a mission was always like this. The only difference was seeing one more face in the crowd.

Even after years, my disgust for murder had never abated, not even in the slightest. No matter how much time passed, I couldn't rid myself of the scars left in my mind by the terrible acts I'd performed. And yet, I had no choice but to continue.

Nine and I were nothing but tools. Our individual thoughts and ideals had no meaning. They were completely unnecessary. All the Organization required from us was a skillful capacity for murder and unquestioning subordination--to kill as we were ordered to. Our entire existence boiled down to this singular point. To reject an order or attempt escape was tantamount to suicide.

The Organization...

To even speak its true name was forbidden. It was a group of professional killers that existed in the shadows of society. Its core business was eliminating marks, but its true objective likely lay elsewhere. As a low-ranking member, I was simply one of the Organization's weapons--there was no reason for such info to be shared with me.

Most members of the Organization had served it since they were children. Children deemed to possess special potential were made to undergo combat instruction and exercises in a place known as 'the factory.' The majority of children who entered the factory would never again see beyond its walls. Unable to endure the merciless training they were put through, it would become their tomb. The 'lucky' ones who did survive, however, were officially recognized as entry-level members of the Organization.

That's what happened with me. I was forced to abandon who I was when I first passed through the factory's doors at seven years old. Anyone who dared utter their former name would be subject to severe punishment. There was no concept of individuality. Life in the Organization meant being nothing more than another tool in an arsenal. It wasn't until I graduated at the age of ten that I was given a name. It only served to solidify my status as a weapon, however. Our names--more like titles--are based on tarot cards.

In my case, the moniker I received was from the Minor Arcana: 'Three of Swords.' It didn't have even the slightest bit of humanity to it, but it was better than having no name at all. Both the higher ups and a small fraction of the very best candidates were given a name based on the Major Arcana. Everyone who survived training and made it in was skilled, but in terms of combat ability, the Major Arcana could run circles around the rest of us. Rumor had it they were even more powerful than top-ranked bracers.

I left my room and peeked into the neighboring one. It seemed like Nine was still sleeping. It was time for my report, so I headed out on my own. Lower-level members of the Organization generally operated in pairs. My partner is Nine of Swords, a girl one year my junior.

Nine was a natural genius. She graduated from the factory in a single year, despite the fact that the average kid takes three to five--if they even make it to graduation without 'dropping out,' that is. From gathering info to analyzing battle situations, acting abilities to infiltration tactics... She was top-class in a multitude of fronts. That's to say nothing of her combat style, which made use of needles and wires, allowing her to control the field of battle and dominate her foes. All in all, her abilities were far better suited to assassinations than mine were. It was a bit awkward for us when we were first paired up, but after working together for a year, I could honestly say she was the best partner I'd ever had--and the most reliable.

At the same time, she was also the person I needed to regard with the most caution. The reasons why the Organization used a partner system were twofold. The obvious reason was that it helped facilitate missions, but it also forced each partner to monitor the other. In the Organization, betrayal was swiftly returned with death. A tool is doomed to serve until it breaks. As such, we were expected to be part of the Organization the entirety of our lives. As a general rule, we were afforded no freedom. There did, however, exist special rules. If one were to sense that their partner was scheming to betray the Organization, they could sell them out to gain their own freedom. All you had to do was make your report, present sufficient evidence of your suspicion, and then you were given the task of eliminating them yourself. If you succeeded, you were free.

Simply running away meant resigning yourself to looking over your shoulder the rest of your life. The Organization had eyes everywhere. Anyone who wanted true freedom was better off waiting for the chance to turn their partner in.

There was another problem, too--the worst of the worst would actually fabricate proof of their partner's betrayal in an effort to earn their own freedom.

Thus, the person you needed to regard most cautiously was not an enemy you'd face on any mission, but the partner who was always at your side. You needed to entertain and accept the notion that you could be betrayed at any time. Members did not turn their backs on the Organization. This was an absolute requirement for survival, and a lesson I learned very early on through personal experience.

Three years ago, I tried to escape. Well, I suppose it was more 'we' than 'I.' At the time, I was partnered with another boy--one known as 'Ace of Swords.'

Ace was a year my senior, and he was a pretty good guy. We got along well enough, and he quickly grew into an older brother figure for me. He wielded a giant sword with ease--one as long as he was tall--and he used it both to destroy our enemies and protect me. He really was an ace when it came to battle. In that sense, his name couldn't have been more appropriate.

One thing Ace and I shared was contempt for the murders we were forced to perform. I can't remember how the idea of escaping the Organization came up initially, but I do recall that neither of us objected to it.

As I mentioned, the system was set up to prevent individual members from betraying the Organization, as they could be sold out by their partner. We figured the best way around that was to simply work together and escape the Organization as a team. With our objective decided on, we began planning in earnest.

We quickly decided we'd need to execute our plan as far away from other pairs of assassins 'employed' by the Organization. The first part of our plan went well enough. We entered Erebonia, thinking that its considerable distance from our normal area of operations meant we could enjoy a certain degree of safety.

That was a severe misjudgment on our part, though. The Organization had eyes there as well. We were approached by other pairs of assassins twice, and both times ended with combat. We managed to fend them off, however. Ace and I were partners for a reason, and we fought well together.

The third time, however, it was the Overseer that paid us a visit. To say that his power was overwhelming wouldn't do it justice--it was like trying to fight a force of nature.

We barely managed to escape with our lives, suffering heavy wounds in the process. With nowhere else to go, we huddled together in a cave, conscious of the fact that our next encounter with the Overseer would surely be our last. There was nothing more to be said about the situation, and for what felt like an eternity, we passed the time in silence.

'Hey, Ace?' I began speaking, believing that it would be the last conversation we'd ever have.

'What's up, buddy?'

'I just want to say that...all things considered, I think everything could have went a lot worse.'

'What's that supposed to mean?' he struggled through the pain to force out a little smirk at my comment.

'Don't get me wrong, I have plenty of regrets, but still...'

Ace waited in silence for me to continue.

'Being by your side all this time, well...it's made my life so much better, Ace. And even if we're fated to meet our deaths here, it's a million times better than spending a lifetime as just another tool.'

The fire flickered. Our shadows danced on the cave wall.

Finally, Ace broke the silence, his voice a mere whisper.

'Three... Thanks for everything, man.'

'You, too, Ace. Thank you.'

I had said what I needed to say. I felt that if our opponent were to arrive at that very moment, I'd at least be able to give my whole soul to the battle.

But then...

'If that's how you feel...' Ace started.

Suddenly, the ambience in the cave completely shifted, like some horrible hallucination. Ace's icy voice pierced through me, chilling me to the bone.

'...then die, buddy. Die for me.'

My first reaction was slight confusion. I actually interpreted it as a clumsy way of saying that we would face our deaths together. I turned to face him, just to clarify, and what I saw next was Ace's massive sword speeding down toward my head.

I immediately dodged his strike, and the ground where I had been laying only a moment ago had been shattered into rubble.

'Ace! What are you doing?!' I cried out.

'You can't figure it out on your own? Have you forgotten the final rule for those who betray the Organization?'

The final rule. I hadn't forgotten it, I simply hadn't given it much thought. It seemed irrelevant to our situation. But everything clicked into place then.

When two partners betray the Organization, the only way for one of them to gain its forgiveness was to kill their partner and present the Organization with the corpse.

The idea behind this rule was to force escapees into a sense of desperation, and then push them into killing each other, taking care of the problem so the Organization didn't have to.

To my absolute shock, this was precisely what Ace was trying to do. I understood what was happening, but all I could do was ask why, over and over.

'Ace! Why? Why are you doing this?'

'You know, buddy, becoming partners with you was the only bit of luck I've had in my whole goddess-damned life. I really did want to be free together. To get our humanity back together.'

'Then why are you--'

'Because I need to survive!' he said, his voice dripping with desperation, 'I can't die like this!'

Screaming wildly, Ace swung his sword at me again. The same sword that had been used to save my life more times than I could count was now being used in an attempt to end it.

'Just die!' he screamed.

I tried to scream back, but the horrible knot in my stomach and the storm of emotions in my heart ensured that the only thing that came out of my mouth was a meaningless warble as I met his sword with my own. Engulfed in despair, I surrendered control to my instincts and engaged this 'enemy' in combat as I would any other.

I don't clearly remember what happened from there. All I know is that I was overtaken by rage and sadness and became a slashing, screaming monster. I was finally brought to my senses by the sound of Ace's body collapsing to the ground. That's how I managed to survive. How I 'won' back my position as one of the Organization's tools.

And that's where I'd been ever since.

Our escape was a deadly failure that laid bare my inadequacies. I still hadn't given up on winning back my humanity...


...but I'd be damned if I was going to trust anyone else ever again.


To be continued

第4巻 スリー

“ヤツら”がオレを追いかけてくる。

今までオレが殺した人たちだ。

頭を切られ、心臓をえぐられ、胴体を両断され、それでもオレを追いかけてくる、無数の死体たち。
どこかの政治家も、どこかも貴族も、どこかの商人も、どこかの金持ちも。

来るな来るな来るな来るなぁ!!!!!―――

必死に剣を振る。
斬って斬って両断して()ぜて――

それでも、“ヤツら”は止まらない。
肉片になっても、骨になっても、胃も肺も腸も脳みそも、全部(うごめ)いてオレに向かってくる。
波になってオレを()み込もうとする。

走って逃げて逃げて逃げて逃げて――
そして前方に“アイツ”がいた。オレが殺した、“アイツ”が。

Three and Nine - Volume 4-1 (Hajimari).jpg

『よくも俺たちを殺したなぁ!!!』

オレを突き飛ばし、オレの首を絞める。
放せ放せ、オレを放せ!!
必死にもがくが、(ほど)けない。
腐った体液がオレの体に(したた)り、皮膚を溶かす。
そして、“波”に呑まれる……

オレはただ、“人間”になりたいだけなんだ――


悪夢から目覚める。

荒く息をし、全身から嫌な汗が噴き出て、込み上げる嘔吐感を無理矢理おさえ込む。
任務が終わった夜はいつもそうだ。何回やっても薄れない、殺人への嫌悪。
いつまで経っても拭えない、手のひらの感触。だけどやらなければならない。
オレたちは道具だ。意思は求められていない。
求められるのは人を殺す力と命令への服従。

ただ“組織”が命じるままに、人を殺す。その一点にのみ、存在意義が与えられている。命令への拒否も、“組織”からの逃走も、“死”を意味する。

―――“組織”。

その本当の名を口にすることすら(はばか)られる、「裏世界」の殺し屋集団。

おもな業務が暗殺だからそういう認識になっているが、本当の目的は別にあるかもしれない。ただしそれが何なのか、下位構成員――道具であるオレには知る(よし)もない。

構成員のほとんどは子供のころから“組織”に隷属している。ワケありの子供を“かき集め”、“養成所”というところで戦闘訓練を受けさせる。そのなかの多くは過酷な訓練に耐えきれず途中で“脱落”するが、運よく生き残れたら、“名前”を与えられ、正式に下位の構成員として認められる。

オレもそうだ。7歳で無理矢理“組織”に入れられ、10歳で“養成所”を出た。

元々の名前は“養成所”に入ってすぐに捨てさせられた。名乗るのはもとより、口にするだけで厳罰の対象となる。“自分”というものがない、単に“大勢いる道具候補のなかのひとつ”でしかない日々だった。

構成員になって、やっと名前が与えられる。しかし、それも“道具”であることの証明でしかない。「タロットカード」の「小アルカナ」、その56枚の中の1枚が、下位構成員に与えられる名前だ。

オレの場合はソードの3(スリー・オブ・ソーズ)。少しも人間味のない名前だけど、ないよりは、マシだ。

ちなみに幹部とごく一部の特殊な力を持つ者には「大アルカナ」の名前が与えられる。その戦闘力はオレたち下位構成員をはるかに凌駕し、高位遊撃士以上の実力を持つと噂されている。

宿の部屋を出て、オレは隣の部屋の気配を(うかが)う。ナインはまだ寝ているようだ。ちょうど報告の時間だったので、そのままひとりで宿を出る。

“組織”の下位構成員は基本的に二人一組で行動する。オレのパートナーはソードの9(ナイン・オブ・ソーズ)、ひとつ年下の少女だ。通常3年から5年、もしくは途中で“脱落”する“養成所”を1年で卒業した“天才”。情報収集、戦況分析、演技、潜入……あらゆる面で優れた才能を持ち、針と糸を武器とするその戦闘スタイルは対人戦で優位に立ち回れる。こと暗殺に関しては、その適性はオレの比ではない。オレと組んだ、最初の頃はぎこちなかったが、いまでは任務中で最も頼りにしているパートナーである。

――同時に、オレが最も警戒すべき対象でもある。

二人一組という制度は任務の成功率を上げるためのものだが、それ以上に、互いを“監視”させることを目的としている。

裏切りが“死”を意味する“組織”。
自由はなく、あるのは“道具”としての一生のみ。しかし、“組織”のなかにはある特殊なルールが存在する。

(ひとつ)、パートナーによる組織の裏切りを察知できた場合、上に報告し証拠を提示する。

(ふたつ)、その当人を殺す。

このふたつを達成できた場合に限り、特例として“組織”から自由になれる権利が与えられる。

下手に逃走してもいつ“組織”の追手に殺されるかわからない。確実に自由になりたいなら、逃走よりも、常にパートナーの行動に目を光らせたほうがいい。最悪パートナーに“組織”を裏切る気がなくても、バレないように証拠をでっちあげられれば、自由を手にすることができる。

最も警戒すべきは敵ではなく、隣にいるパートナー。
“組織”を裏切ろうとせず、パートナーの裏切りを常に警戒する。それが生き残るための絶対条件だ。

オレはそのことを、身をもって知っている……3年前、オレは一度“組織”からの逃亡を試みた。

……いや、正確にいうと「オレたち」だった。

オレと、あの時のオレのパートナーである少年《ソードの1(エース・オブ・ソーズ)》。

エースはオレのひとつ年上の気さくなヤツだ。人当たりがよく、オレとはとくに気が合っていたし、パートナーになってからは、オレにとっては兄貴分のような存在だった。身の丈ほどもある巨大な剣を軽々と振り回し、時には敵を(ほふ)り、時にはその剣身を盾にして敵の攻撃からオレを守ってくれた。「エース」の名に相応しい実力者だった。

エースはオレと同じく、殺人を嫌悪していた。そんなオレたちが、“組織”からの逃亡を決め込んだのも自然の流れだった。

Three and Nine - Volume 4-2 (Hajimari).jpg

パートナーに売られるから“組織”を裏切れない。
だったらパートナーと一緒に“組織”を裏切ればいい。
そうすれば二人とも助かる。
そう結論付けて、二人で逃亡を計画した。

他のペアの目が届かないある遠出の任務で、それを決行することにした。

最初はうまくいったつもりだった。普段の活動地域から離れたエレボニア帝国に入ったことで、安全だと思い込んだ。しかし、そこにも“組織”の“目”があるのは誤算だった。すぐに他のペアが追手としてあらわれ、戦闘となった。それでもエースとうまく連携し、2回も追手を撃退した。

でも、3回目に現れた追手はオレたちのような下位の戦闘員ではなく、“管理人”だった。圧倒的な力の前で、オレとエースはなす(すべ)もなかった。重傷を負い、命からがらの状態でその場から逃げ出した。もう先はない。次に敵と遭遇したら、終わりだ。洞窟で身を寄せ合うオレとエースは言葉を交わさずとも、互いにそのことをよく理解していた。

「なあ、エース」

「なんだ、相棒」

最後の会話になるかもしれないと思って、オレは言葉を(つむ)ぐ。

「オレは、これで悪くないと思う」

「なにそれ」

「未練も悔いもたくさんあるけど、それでもさ」

エースは静かにオレの言葉を待つ。

「それでもオレは、お前と最後まで一緒に戦って死ねるなら、悪い気はしない。“道具”として人を殺し続けるよりは、何万倍もマシだ」

篝火(かがりび)が揺らめく。しばらくの沈黙の後、エースはつぶやく。

「そうか……いままでありがとうな、相棒」

「オレのほうこそ、いままでありがとう」

これで話すべきことは話した。もういつ敵が来ても、オレは最後まで戦える。そして――

「それならさ」

突然空気が変わったような錯覚に襲われ、エースの冷たい声が聞こえる。

「俺のために死んでくれ――」

一瞬、言葉の意味が分からなかった。すぐにそれが「一緒に戦って死のう」という意味だとオレは勝手に解釈し、確認のためにエースのほうへ振り返る。その視界に映ったのは―――

Three and Nine - Volume 4-3 (Hajimari).jpg

―――振り下ろされようとしている巨剣だった。

とっさにそれを回避し、一瞬前にオレがいた地面が砕かれる。

「どうして!? エース!!」

「どうしてだと? “組織”のルール。パートナーに関しての最後の項目、忘れたか?」

最後の項目。
自分には無縁なものだと思い、ずっと意識していなかったその内容を思い出す。

――パートナー二人がともに“組織”を裏切ったとき、片方が自らパートナーを殺し、その死体を献上した場合に限り、“組織”に許される。つまり、裏切り者二人が逃亡に失敗したとしても、互いに殺し合えば、ひとりだけ生き残ることができる。そしてそれを、まさに今エースが行おうとしている。

そこまで理解して、それでもオレは、同じ言葉しか発することができなかった。

「どうして……エース――!」

「相棒、お前とパートナーを組めたことは、煉獄の底で生きるような日々のなかで、唯一の幸運だった。お前と一緒に人間になりたかった、自由になりたかった」

「それなら――」

「それでも俺は、死んではいけないんだ!生きていかなきゃいけないんだよぉ!!!」

そう叫びながら、エースは巨剣を振るいオレに斬りかかる。幾度もオレを死地から守ってきたその剣は、今度はオレの命を

「死ね! スリー――!!!!」

「あぁぁああああああああ!!!!!!」

オレも剣を振るう。

悲しみと絶望に呑まれ、ただ本能に従い、目の前の“敵”に応戦する………

………

……

それからどんな風に戦っていたのか、(おぼ)えていない。
怒りと悲しみに身を任せ、必死に、無様に、獣のように斬って叫んで引きちぎっていた。
そして気が付いたときには、そこにはエースの死体が転がっていた……

こうしてオレは再び“組織”の“道具”になり、今日まで生き永らえた。
“人間”になる願いを諦められず、同時に人間が信じられなくなった、出来損ないとして。

TO BE CONTINUED


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