|1||The Imperial Chronicle||Prologue||Rhett, City of Rolent|
|2||The Train Station||Chapter 1||Private Harold, Verte Bridge|
|3||Representative of the Septian Church||Chapter 1||Marco, City of Bose|
|4||Human Fodder||Chapter 1||Libro, City of Bose|
|5||Emissary of the Sabbath||Chapter 2||Matilda, City of Ruan|
|6||Ascertaining the Inner Workings||Chapter 3||Purity, Jenis Royal Academy|
|7||The Death of a Friend||Chapter 3||Bruno, Wolf Fort|
|8||In the Bowels of the Imperial City||Chapter 4||Private Orta, Air-Letten|
|9||Carnelia||Chapter 4||Private Selborne, Gurune Gate|
|10||The Last Stand||Chapter 4||Ralph, Grancel Landing Port|
|Finale||A Legacy Never to be Forgotten||Chapter 4||Anton, City of Grancel|
|1||The Imperial Chronicle||Chapter 3||Erebonian Embassy, City of Grancel|
|2||The Train Station|
|3||Representative of the Septian Church|
|5||Emissary of the Sabbath|
|6||Ascertaining the Inner Workings|
|7||The Death of a Friend|
|8||In the Bowels of the Imperial City|
|10||The Last Stand|
|Finale||A Legacy Never to be Forgotten|
|1||The Imperial Chronicle||Chapter 2~||Bookshelves, The Hermit's Garden|
|2||The Train Station|
|3||Representative of the Septian Church|
|5||Emissary of the Sabbath|
|6||Ascertaining the Inner Workings|
|7||The Death of a Friend|
|8||In the Bowels of the Imperial City|
|10||The Last Stand|
|Finale||A Legacy Never to be Forgotten|
|1||The Imperial Chronicle||Chapter 1||Tommy's Imported Goods, Celdic|
|2||The Train Station||Chapter 1||Tommy's Imported Goods, Celdic|
|3||Representative of the Septian Church||Chapter 2||Fortnum Books, Bareahard|
|4||Human Fodder||Chapter 2||Fortnum Books, Bareahard|
|5||Emissary of the Sabbath||Chapter 3||Kilte's Store, Nomadic Settlement|
|6||Ascertaining the Inner Workings||Chapter 4||Alterna Bookstore, Heimdallr|
|7||The Death of a Friend||Chapter 4||Alterna Bookstore, Heimdallr|
|8||In the Bowels of the Imperial City||Chapter 4||Alterna Bookstore, Heimdallr|
|9||Carnelia||Chapter 5||Watteau's Store, Legram|
|10||The Last Stand||Chapter 6||Boronia's General Goods, Roer|
|Finale||A Legacy Never to be Forgotten||Chapter 6||Boronia's General Goods, Roer|
|1||The Imperial Chronicle||Epilogue||Sara Valestein, Class VII Dormitory|
|2||The Train Station|
|3||Representative of the Septian Church|
|5||Emissary of the Sabbath|
|6||Ascertaining the Inner Workings|
|7||The Death of a Friend|
|8||In the Bowels of the Imperial City|
|10||The Last Stand|
|Finale||A Legacy Never to be Forgotten|
Chapter 1 - The Imperial Chronicle
I stood there, upright in front of the revolving door, scuffing the heels of my boots against the ground. Pulling slightly on the collar of my trench coat, I dropped my chin and gazed at my partial reflection in the curved glass. Aside from my short-cropped hair, I wore a modest-looking, double-breasted leather raincoat and a pair of special order, steel- reinforced boots, both of which at first glance appear to be the most common of common apparel. Yet, they were in fact, much more than the naked eye could detect.
My ordinary, average appearance--It was of just as much importance today as it had been on any other day in times past.
Not far off, the sound of footfalls echoed rhythmically like the steady beat of a pendulum swinging back and forth, as the throngs of those coming and going moved quickly along the cobblestone avenue, enveloped and tinged silver by the morning mist. At times, the calling voice of a street peddler disrupted the steady flow, but as soon as the hawking cry faded away, it would resume its course.
Each morning that I found myself setting foot in the imperial city, I also found my surroundings to be unchanged and stained by the same somber tone of gray. Snatching up a magazine from the underarm of a street vendor, I tossed a few mira into the left hand poised expectantly behind his back.
The Imperial Chronicle; the magazine I read so often that even the ink bleeds were familiar. Roughly flipping open its cover, I scanned the headlines along the top of its monochrome pages. Then suddenly, my breath caught in my throat.
At the very bottom of the local news page, I found those letters, that sequence of characters which I had not heard nor seen since the time of that life-changing incident. My eyes instantly gravitated to the spot, and for a time, remained fixated.
'Ein Selnate.' The very meaning of those letters became lost to my senses as I stood motionless, my gaze fixed on the same line of text, until it all seemed to coalesce into a single blotch of ink. After a few seconds of blank comprehension, my vision settled and I wrenched my eyes to the beginning of the article. As I began to read, my memories verged on a single point in my past, and then slowly started to run in reverse, heading for that fateful event three years prior when this name was first introduced to me.
It was on an afternoon all those years ago, on a day not unlike this one, where the capital was overshadowed by its typical gloomy aura. I was a little younger than now, a twenty-two year old boy who stood silently in front of the boutique door as usual, double checking his appearance before lightly treading over to Micht's Imperial Factory.
It was on this day that it had been arranged for me to receive a new job from Micht, the shop owner, himself. Although he was a drab middle-aged man, I, being the orbment enthusiast I was, had found myself as one of his few regular customers.
I headed down a dank alleyway and after passing through a partially rotted wooden-gate, I could see the soft glow of the flickering orbal light just outside the entrance of the factory whose structure was halfway below street level. I first began receiving jobs from Micht about the time when dissension began to occur in society over the Hundred Days War. It was during this period that relations between the Liberl Kingdom and the Empire were at their worst and the importation of orbments had become almost non-existent. Conspiring with underground elements and planning a smuggling operation, Micht made me out to be his accomplice in crime. For the job which I received by his hand, was none other than that of the courier.
Being nothing more than a commoner in my teens at the time I met him and a juvie devoid of any connections in life besides, I naturally jumped at the opportunity without a moment's hesitation. Yet, even after relations with Liberl had returned to some degree of normalcy, I realized I was in no mood to give up my specialty which focused mainly on the delivery of stolen goods. The reason being: there was no job out there which could bring in the kind of mira this one did.
With an unrefined and inconspicuous appearance, I had countless times before, hidden items of various sorts in my hat and trousers and made my way hither and thither between the borders of these neighboring nations. And though to my delight, my wallet had become increasingly laden with a bounty of monetary rewards, I had routinely changed my alias as a precautionary measure. So much in fact, that these false names had built up into quite a list over the last few years. I had been known as Phil, the frivolous, Rooney, the trickster, and even Kris, the coward. However, Micht had always called me by one name: Toby. This was the identity I had used for my initial job, and the one I liked above all the others.
Chapter 2 - The Train Station
'Hello there, Toby. You've come at just the right time.'
Greeting me with these words, Micht shuffled slightly in his seat behind the counter. The baked confection he had been eating was ever so carefully placed atop his lap to prevent it from falling onto the floor. He smacked both of his powdered sugar-covered hands together with a clap, and a cloud of white particles puffed into the air. The smell of sweet spices and baked apple pervaded the dimly lit shop.
'We had an item dropped off no more than a few minutes ago,' he continued.
Turning in his seat, Micht reached back and snatched up something wrapped in old magazine paper from off the shelf, tossing it to me. Knowing full well I wouldn't get any sort of answer, I asked anyway.
'What do we have this time?'
Laying out my railway and airship tickets, Micht ignored my question and said, 'Make sure this gets to the same place as always.' In his slow drawl he added, 'It would be in your best interest to keep your involvement to a minimum by leaving the business side of things to me and focusing solely on getting the job done, Toby.'
He leaned back in his chair and let out a deep sigh, the balls of his fingers kneading the bags under his eyes. Then, once again, his large hand extended down toward the unattended cake resting on his leg. Before the sweet treat could reach his watering mouth, I had already made my way out the door of his tiny shop.
As I walked, the waste paper-bundled package bounced around inside the folds of my bag. By the feel of its shape and weight as it beat steadily against my side, I concluded that the object in my possession was probably just more swag. It didn't make me nervous not to know what it was that I was carrying, for I had done this type of job many times before. And no matter what kind of trouble I found myself wrapped up in, I had always somehow managed to come out unscathed.
In truth, my experience on the job had made me tough, and I had become well-versed in the art of orbal magic. So it was that when I laid eyes on that rough-looking trio at the station, I felt no more knots of uneasiness in the pit of my stomach than was necessary for someone of my abilities.
The platform for the train bound for Liberl was a bustle with passengers awaiting its eventual arrival. Seeing that the benches were so crammed full of people that they could have very well been a tin of packed sardines, I resigned myself to standing near the entrance as I patiently waited for the train to come in. Twisting my body in order to move the bag to my other shoulder, I noticed the figures of two men.
Heads bent together and conversing in an inaudible tone, they stood just beyond the ticket gate, right about where the horse head of the imperial emblem lay embedded in the ground in a grand mosaic of tiles. After a short interim, another man approached and joined in the conversation.
From my own perspective, this was one ragtag group I most certainly couldn't have given a passing grade to based on looks. All three were extremely well-built and sported the same haircut. To put it mildly, they stuck out in the crowd like a bunch of sore thumbs.
Making sure to avoid eye-contact with them as they glanced in my direction, I slung my bag back onto my shoulder, and ever so calmly reached my hand into my pocket and ran the tips of my fingers across the surface of my orbment.
A woman's voice reverberated within the walls of the station notifying the passengers that the train had arrived. The low rumble of an orbal engine could be felt in the distance and after a few moments, a large vehicle was seen rolling up on the shoulder.
I muttered to myself, 'All is well,' but the sound of my voice was drowned out by the din of the massive machine. Brakes screeched, and a flash of black light reflected off the surface of the giant iron beast as it came sliding in across the rails. The immense vibration in the air emanating from the moving locomotive at its epicenter let me know that the orbal engine had been put into full-reverse in order to decelerate and bring the train to a grinding halt.
While being shoved to and fro by the waves of impatient travellers flooding out of the waiting area, I was swept toward one door of a passenger car. As we passed by the conductor, I caught another glimpse of the ticket gate. The men who were once there were now gone and the only thing that remained was the profile of the horse made of glossy tiles, glaring back at me in a shade of deep crimson.
Chapter 3 - Representative of the Septian Church
The train barreled on, almost flying through the thick veil of fog. Droplets of water splattered against the window glass, extending out like transparent veins, and continued to wriggle back and forth under the pressure of the swiftly passing wind.
Placing the temple of my head against the glass, I stared blankly down at the tickets in my hand and rubbed the two of them together between my fingers. I would be traveling by train to the border city, far south of its imperial cousin, and then to reach the Liberl Kingdom I would have to transfer to an airship. Both of my tickets were first-class-- but not the highest-end seats available.
The passenger car was nearly at full capacity, but for some peculiar reason, nobody had seated themselves in the space next to mine. As I mused about the empty seat, it occurred to me that Micht may have purchased the spot ahead of time, leaving it vacant on purpose. There was no doubt in my mind that he was being
paid handsomely to make sure this job was done and done well.
'Will you be traveling to the Liberl Kingdom, sir?'
Right around the time my trip on the rails had passed its halfway mark, I was met with this sudden question, and set up with a start. My eyes searched for the one who asked it. There, standing in the isle, was a single woman with a radiant complexion, beaming down at me. She wore a coat with overlapping buckles secured slightly above her breast and appeared to be in her mid-thirties. Gingerly bending her knees and pointing her finger at the empty seat beside me, she asked, 'Do you mind?'
With a tilt of her head, she indicated the rear of the passenger car where swirling smoke saturated the air and softly muttered, 'The smell from the tobacco smoke is just dreadful.'
Wordlessly, I nodded and dragged my bag from its place on the floor, moving it over by the window to the opposite side of my feet. The woman expressed her thanks and delicately sat herself down in the seat next to mine.
For being a perfect stranger, she talked on endlessly, and I appropriately reciprocated the conversation by saying that I was on my way to the Liberl Kingdom on business as an orbment specialist. Her story was that she was on a mission of mercy for the Church and had an errand to fulfill in the border city.
'Just so you know, people sometimes refer to me as 'Sister',' she went on. 'Of course, it's just a nickname.'
She recrossed her black leather boot-clad legs and let out a sort of suppressed titter from the back of her throat as she made mention of this. Sister Carnelia was her nickname.
We continued on in this fashion, subjecting ourselves to a variety of idle banter. And as the time drew on, the sun overhead began to dip in its arc, crossing the celestial meridian and descending into the west. Each time the moving train cleared a grove of trees, the entire vehicle-- passenger cars and all-- was bathed in a warm apricot hue, flooding into the cabins, creating a majestic spectacle. I gaped at the coruscating effect, and in doing so locked eyes with Sister Carnelia right at the moment the brilliance of the sinking western light seeped into her rich brown irises, causing them to give off an exquisite rubescent sparkle. The glimpse made me wonder if the origin of her nickname was somehow related to the color of her eyes being likened unto the luster of a polished carnelian stone.
The train gradually began to decelerate, and Sister Carnelia returned to her original seat in order to collect her bags. As a matter of habit, I checked my bag and orbment and found both the junk paper-covered package and the magical device fastened into my trousers' inner pocket by a series of chain stitches-- exactly where and how I'd left it.
A woman's voice came over the intercom system announcing that the train would be arriving on schedule and that rainy weather was to be expected at our destination. At the conclusion of the announcements, a number of disappointed sighs could be heard coming from along the rows of seats. Raindrops pattered against the windows outside as the looming silhouette of the overcast city came into view. The station's signal lamp emitted an angular light which was scattered with a refractive effect by the falling droplets of water. Then came a spine-chilling metallic sound followed by the jolt of the orbal engine's reversing thrust as the locomotive at the front of the train lurched to a halt.
Over the loudspeaker came another announcement asking passengers to ensure that they did not leave their baggage behind. And with that, several people stood up and crowded into the
aisle. Watching a station worker in uniform as he waved a small flag amidst the falling rain, I picked up my bag and rose to my feet. I crossed paths with Sister Carnelia as I attempted to step into the aisle, but when she tried to step aside and allow me room to pass, she suddenly tripped and fell forward. Grabbing onto my shoulder for support, she picked herself up and, with an embarrassed smile, let me by. I gave her a short bow in line with general etiquette practices, then headed for the exit ahead of her. Following my lead, Sister Carnelia shuffled along closely behind me-- so close, in fact, that it felt as if she would step on my heels.
Something about it just didn't feel right.
Instinctively sliding my right hand into my pocket, I searched for my orbment, but the brass feeling I had grown accustomed to was nowhere to be felt.
In an instant, I felt my arm being twisted behind my back by someone or something with incredible strength. The sleek sound of a blade being unsheathed and then a warning prick of the tip at my back indicated the seriousness of the situation.
'I have what you're looking for, Toby,' whispered Sister Carnelia in an almost inaudible tone, her lips barely moving just behind my right ear. 'Let's not try anything either, shall we? I'd hate to see your afternoon spoiled any more than it's going to be.' And to show that she meant business, Sister Carnelia slightly altered the angle of her grip on my wrist, causing an explosion of agony that sent sparks flashing behind my eyes.
Chapter 4 - Human Fodder
Sister Carnelia spoke to me in a tender tone as she sent a wave of immense pain rushing through the whole of my right hand.
'I won't have any trouble with you, now will I, Toby?' she asked.
Far from eyes just brimming with tears, I nodded my head in consent as the salty streams of water ran down my face. Satisfied with my answer, she loosened her grip, and I felt the pain vanish as if it had all been some sort of illusion.
With a wry smile, she further added, 'Don't get me wrong, Toby. I've been sent here to protect you by the Goddess, herself.'
This is what she said while instructing me to keep my eyes focused on what lie beyond the window glass. Yet, there was something about the way she pronounced the last syllable of my name that really rubbed me the wrong way.
Little by little, the line of passengers slowly began to flow out of the train car. Prodded on by Sister Carnelia, I inched forward while keeping my gaze on the platform through the passenger car window. Down the stairs which led to the front ticket gate were the figures of those men from earlier this morning, the three thug-like passengers who had been loitering near the large horse head emblem of tile at the imperial station.
A muffled laugh echoed from her throat as she, too, noticed them. 'Well, isn't this a warm reception party you've got going on.'
Cocking my head, I quietly pleaded, 'Give me back my orbment!'
Sister Carnelia said nothing.
Members of the crew bid us farewell as we stepped through the exit to disembark the train onto the lead-colored platform below. Angrily, I thought to myself, 'Dammit! What's wrong with these fools? Can't they see what's going on?'
I shut my eyes halfway to protect them from the drizzle whipping against my face, and I unhurriedly descended the wet set of stairs, a half pace at a time. Sister Carnelia moved along behind me at precisely the same length of stride. Below, the group of thugs waited expectantly at the bottom of the stairs. Waited for me, no doubt.
Contemplating the rate at which I was going, I ultimately believed it was only a matter of time before I would be handed over to the enigmatic group. I caught sight of their soured faces as the distance between us grew smaller and felt the heat of my left hand tightly gripping my bag grow in intensity until my palm began to sweat profusely. Hitting the midway point on the stairs, Sister Carnelia suddenly whispered in my ear, 'Keep your eyes on the ground, Toby.'
I did as I was told and cast my gaze down upon the tips of my boots, stained to a darker shade by the rainwater. Then, right at the moment I let out my breath, I felt a deep sense of pressure just below my shoulder blades as I was forcefully shoved forward.
Droplets flew from my saturated fingers and my world turned upside-down as I tumbled down the stairs and slammed back first into the group of hoodlums. With a muffled crunch, I felt the painful sensation of my ribs crumple under the weight of my body and then return to normal from their severely compressed state. Two of the seemingly military men who were hit as I toppled down the stairs (like an avalanche unleashed on a a pair of young saplings) absorbed the transfer of force and were thrown into a large puddle collecting on the ground nearby. Shrieks erupted from startled passengers nearby, more shrill than the high-pitched sound of the railway brakes from a decelerating locomotive.
As my world spun wildly about me, I lay there, the chill of the tiles seeping into my back. With a concerted effort I rolled my eyes to the left where my arm remained in an outstretched state.
By some act of the Goddess I had managed to keep my tight five-finger grip on the bag I had been carrying. In an effort to get up, I slid into a prostrate position, keeping my chin in contact with the ground. Making a low visual sweep of the vicinity as if my life depended on it, I noticed the military-like physiques of the men had vanished from view. The only figure I saw standing above me now on the platform, was that of Sister Carnelia. And on her shoulder, as if she were merely hefting a sack of grain, was one of the men.
Turning in the direction where the train sat in its motionless state, she lobbed the unfortunate man down onto a set of empty rail tracks below. By this time, I had risen to one knee while keeping the other planted firmly on the ground in a half-standing position. The world in front of me was still swaying, undulating in my wavering eyesight. My head slowly rocked back and forth with it as the double vision of Sister Carnelia's boots approached me. Then, with a strong grip, she tugged on my hand. For some strange reason or another, when she did this, I failed to notice the unpleasant feeling that her hand wrapped tightly around mine brought.
'Let's go, Toby,' she instructed in an authoritative voice. Nearly dragging me, she pulled me to my feet and before long, we were hightailing it out of there.
The onlookers made quite a commotion as they moved hastily out of the way in a determined attempt not to be caught up in the middle of our flight path. The bag in my left hand swung helplessly, knocking against my thigh. After clearing the ticket gate, Sister Carnelia finally let go of my hand, but a sickening slippery sensation came with it. Looking over at her, I realized that the stomach-churning, slimy feeling on my hand had come from the bright red blood which stained both of hers.
I peered back over my shoulder in the direction of the platform as I continued to run, but the figures of those three men who had been waiting for me at the station were nowhere to be found.
Chapter 5 - Emissary of the Sabbath
I sat staring at a partially-melted lump of butter on a stack of cold pancakes. Picking up a fork, I poked at them, and after turning the top one over, I daubed the milky yellow substance between the rubbery layers. In doing so, my interest in what sat atop my plate faded to nil.
A hanging lamp dangled overhead, making a sporadic buzzing sound as its honey-colored light flickered, creating jittery shadows and distorting my vision within the inn. The pouring rain outside didn't appear as if it would let up anytime soon, either.
Bringing my face closer to the window, I peered through the film of water flowing down the outside of the glass as I tried make out the dimly lit avenue. Although the station house sat right at the end of the road from where we were lodged, all that was visible was the side of the structure obscured by a shadow which prevented me from being able to see the platform.
'There's nothing to be worried about,' said Sister Carnelia as she returned, wiping her hands with a handkerchief as white as newly driven snow.
Stretching the square strip of cloth out, she sat down and placed it neatly on her lap like a napkin. Then, in a reassuring tone, she added, 'We've seen the last of them for a while.'
Watching the tips of her fingers move as she smoothed out the wrinkles in the piece of fabric resting on her legs, I was hit with a sudden flashback, reviving the awful sight and coppery scent of the sticky blood which had covered those hands not more than a few hours before.
'How can you be so certain?' I asked, still having more than a few reservations.
'Because that's how these types of crime syndicates work,' she replied, clearly seeming to know all the answers.
The waiter came and set a plate in front of Sister Carnelia with a soft clink as the base of the glassy dish tapped lightly against the hard surface of the table. After scooting the meat- laden porcelain plate closer to her, she licked off the sauce now covering the tips of her fingers in an almost sensual way. Sickened by the bloody image already in my mind and now the sauce, I tossed my fork aside and leaned heavily back in my chair.
The city outside began to fade into shades of gray and by the time Sister Carnelia was finished tucking away her steak, it had completely sunk into the darkness of night.
I questioned her again, 'How can you be so certain that no one will come after us?'
Using a piece of black-crusted bread to wipe up the last drops of sauce, she answered, 'Because that's how they function. One unit consists of three people.'
Then, as if remembering something else important, she added, 'That group that was after you. They're known as Jaeger Corps.'
Upon hearing this, I recalled seeing some of those men at the landing port some time ago. The Jaeger Corps were an elite group of mercenaries for which only a few were chosen and given the revered title. Or at least, that's what Micht had told me about them. They were soldiers of fortune who were said to relentlessly follow the flow of mira wherever that happened to lead, and they would stop at nothing to get at it, even if it meant spilling blood.
'War hawks, mercenaries without borders, and a group never to get involved with,' is what Micht often had a habit of saying about them.
Instinctively, I slid my foot forward and checked the location of my bag with the tip of it.
'It's quite simple, really,' Sister Carnelia explained as she reached for her dessert. 'You, Toby, are carrying something that's apparently got a lot of people on edge. And someone's hired the Jaeger Corps to take you out.'
'But it's not me they're after. It's what I'm carrying.'
'It's all the same,' she retorted as she gulped down her cup of tea in a single breath.
'They're going to kill the courier before they even think about searching the contents of his bag. A butcher kills a cow before someone grills the steak, not the other way around.'
Lecturing me all the while, Sister Carnelia took a glossy tallow-handled knife in hand and sliced into her apple pie. The powdered sugar sprinkled on the flaky crust danced under the golden light.
I felt a stabbing pain of guilt race through me, just above my gut. Unexpectedly, I began to think about what Micht could be doing at the moment, but my short period of rumination was cut short when I saw Sister Carnelia's hand stop cold.
Glaring into the darkness, eyes focused and intent like a hunting dog's, she tossed something shiny onto the table and eventually rose to her feet.
There it was, my orbment.
'Where are you going?'
Without pausing to answer my question, Sister Carnelia expeditiously fastened the buckle of her coat.
'You've got good taste, Toby.'
One at a time she set her heels on the chair and tightened her boot laces.
'Using the full capabilities of that orbment is no small feat. I think even most bracers would be in for a real surprise if push came to shove with you in the ring.'
Growing ever more impatient, I asked again, 'So where is it exactly that you're going?'
'That's none of your concern,' came the answer. 'Suffice it to say, I will be seeing you again on the morrow.' And with that, Sister Carnelia disappeared through the door of the women's restroom.
As if exchanging places, two other men entered the restaurant. They walked directly to the table at which I sat and stood before me.
Flashing the emblem on his chest and without making any sort of eye contact, one of the men said, 'We're with the Bracer Guild. I apologize for disturbing you in the middle of your evening meal, but you'll need to come with us.'
Chapter 6 - Ascertaining the Inner Workings
My orbment, emptied bag and package wrapped in old magazine paper were laid out neatly on the table in front of me. The bracer sitting opposite me gazed alternately at my face and the items on the table as if trying to gauge my reaction to them. Constantly rubbing his chin between his fingers, it appeared to me as though he were making an effort to display his right hand, snugly fit within a leather gauntlet.
I had been led to the second floor of the lodge by the two men, and then, after they had painstakingly checked the layout of the floor, I was taken to the farthest room from the stairs. It occurred to me that the reason for the use of the makeshift space was due to there being no guild branch nearby.
The first man to sit in front of me was the lanky one. He told me his name, but I soon forgot which one was Clayton and which one was Pavel. About the time I had finished being frisked, the bracer wearing the gauntlets, Clayton or Pavel, whoever it was, returned and whispered something in his partner's ear. It seemd as though they were trying to locate Sister Carnelia, but having no luck.
After much probing on the subject of her and the Jaeger Corps, and after relating everything I had heard from her on the train, I turned the conversation around and, playing the role of the victim, inquired into her past history. (Though strictly speaking, I guess I was, in fact, a victim.)
'Her name is Selnate. Ein Selnate,' read aloud the lanky bracer from a pocket book he held just below eye level. 'Originally a constituent member of the Jaeger Corps, her present affiliation and activities are unknown.'
'In short,' added his partner pompously, 'she's not the type of person any upstanding citizen should be getting involved with.'
He reached out his gauntlet-clad hand and picked up the object bundled in scrap paper. Checking my reaction all the while, he unwrapped the paper, laying it out flat in the center of the table. Its contents turned out to be a lump of metal ingrained with a sort of clay-like substance.
I blurted out, 'I was on my way to a research institute with the item when everything happened,' and then threw in the address of some non-existent client for good measure.
The bracers took notes, making sure not to leave out any of the details of our conversation. Then, to dispel any lingering suspicions, I agreed to stay with them under their watchful eyes for the night.
The next day, I also found myself inclined to go along with them to the nearest guild branch in order to file a report about the events that happened back at the station, but I had no qualms over the matter. My greatest concern at the moment, after all, was not running into any more trouble.
I awoke as the sun came up over the horizon and day broke. With the advent of a peaceful morning, I sat up in bed and breathed a sigh of relief. The bracers who had stood guard the previous night were no longer present in the room, but the sound of their voices could be heard echoing out in the hallway beyond the closed door.
Slipping my arms through the sleeves of my jacket, I felt a sharp pain in my right elbow which brought back vivid memories of the woman from the day before.
Suddenly, a feeling of uneasiness came over me and still half-undressed, I began adjusting my orbment. After opening its back cover, I used a thin piece of tanned doeskin and started plucking out the quartz installed in each slot. It didn't take but five minutes to insert them each into different slots and rearrange their configuration with a set of light magic as my base. One by one, I replaced each screw until finally the metallic panel was back in place, and as a feeling of calmness set in, I rolled back over in bed.
It was at that time that a tall woman appearing to be a maid opened the door carrying a basin of hot water for the sink, with which guests could shave and wash their faces. After placing the small steaming tub on the table, the woman went quietly about her daily task of removing the bed linen.
Finding myself shooed from my own bed, I reluctantly headed toward the basin when just beyond the open door, I caught sight of two shadows cutting across the hallway in succession.
'They're here,' I heard myself mutter as the low tone of my suppressed voice reached my ears.
With only a bar of soap in hand, I remained unbelievably calm as I quickly shut and bolted the door. Then, pondering my next move, I stood still with my back pressed up against the wall.
On the other side of the hardened clay wall, the brief clamor of fighting ensued. Fumbling with the chain attached to my hip pocket I grabbed hold of the orbment I had adjusted just barely moments before.
It was two bracers versus the two others I had seen moments ago. Throwing myself into the mix with the two men from the Guild would definitely put us at an advantage from a numbers standpoint. However, when I turned again to face the door, the voice of self-doubt came percolating through my closed lips in the form of a distant mutter.
'There were only two of them?' I murmured to myself.
If Sister Carnelia's words were to be believed, then one unit consisted of three people, not two. Again, I questioned myself inwardly, 'Then where's the third?'
The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I realized my plight.
Something swung down over the top of my head, catching me around the neck, and the next instant I was flung to the ground. From the corner of my blurred and spotty vision came the inexplicable view of a woman with demonic blood- shot eyes standing over me, trying to wrench the very life out of me with every twist of the sheet she had wrapped tightly around my throat.
Clutching my orbment in hand, I activated it and fired off a burst of magic while lying half- asphyxiated on the wooden planks of the room floor. The destructive vortex of compressed air sliced deeply into my hip, but at the same time, caused the woman to double over before forcefully blowing her to another part of the room. Shreds of whirling linen flecked and sprayed with fresh blood blasted out through a gaping hole in the wall where a closed window once stood, leaving nothing behind but shards of broken glass and a frame rent beyond all repair.
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 the 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.
Chapter 8 - In the Bowels of the Imperial City
Moving purposefully through the crowd, we made our way between the rows of seats. Each time the swinging bag in hand struck the side of my knee, I became keenly aware of its presence. It was an unnerving feeling, quite like I had unintentionally brushed up against someone in an offensive way. Furthermore, it was nearly inconceivable to my mind that the ancient relic the Jaeger Corps were pursuing with such a frenzy was sitting right here inside the stitched cloth of this cheap hand bag.
What a fool Micht had been. Hadn't he known the burden this object would bring would be one far more weighty than the both of us could have ever hoped to bear?
I squeezed my eyes shut against the thoughts flying around my mind and addressed Sister Carnelia, who followed closely behind me. 'Will we be making a break for the cathedral once we get off?'
'Yes, that was the plan,' she answered, scanning the scene outside the window of the passenger car. 'I think that's the only option we've got if you want to make it through this day alive.'
The station where the train was set to arrive was unremittingly crowded with countless droves of passengers. And as usual, the sky was slightly overcast. Everyone outside on the platform stood shivering in silence with their collars drawn up to their ears, huddling close to one another for warmth, like a flock of waterfowl out on the tidelands in mid-winter.
'Don't worry, I won't be tossing you down a flight of stairs this time, Toby,' jested Sister Carnelia. 'Although, if there were two more of you at my disposal, I might have decided otherwise,' she added.
Evidently, the numbers in our welcome party this time had seen a rather dramatic increase.
'The odds don't appear to be in our favor,' she said in a low voice, her warm breath tickling the lobe of my ear. 'We won't be able to leave through the ticket gate.'
As soon as we stepped off the train, we stealthily moved to the opposite end of the platform, and after sneaking out a large door for only authorized station personnel, we jumped down onto the path of railroad ties and steel rails below. The biting cold wind of the capital swept freely across the unobstructed railroad tracks, causing me to shudder as it ruffled our coats with its chilly touch. Slipping between the couplers of a pair of freight cars, we moved cautiously along their edge, sticking close to the shadows. Over on the cargo platform, workers were busy unloading containers.
For someone who had his mind set on becoming a dealer of pilfered goods, gaining illicit entry into the station house would be one of the first of all basics. Showing my ticket I spoke politely to one of the workers. Then, with a scenario picked out in my head, I sold it to him as I played the part of a manager here on business with a celebrity of notable repute. Midway through our conversation, I introduced Sister Carnelia, who did her best to show the man a glamorous smile and feminine pose. I had possibly gone a bit overboard when I stated that she was an opera singer, because the way that she carried herself made her look more akin to a low-wage sell-song in a bar of drunkards. Yet, in spite of it all, the worker graciously let us through.
'You're so good at that it's almost scary, Toby,' Sister Carnelia said as we raced through the station's warehouse sector. 'You should seriously consider doing another job,' she went on.
'I bet you're going to tell me to join the Bracer Guild, right? Come on, those guys would turn me down in a heartbeat,' I said as I laughed off the thought. Then, throwing the idea back in her court I asked, 'So how about yourself? Why don't you join the Bracer Guild?'
Reaching the end of the warehouse sector, we came to a stop in front of a large chain-link fence. Sister Carnelia crouched down, and while sliding a drainage cover to the side, laughed at my previous question as if it were insane.
'Are you kidding?' she asked. 'They'd gun me down the second I set foot into one of their branches.'
The winding, narrow stone tunnels like the one we were in ran everywhere beneath the capital. We crawled along as the light shining down through the drainage grates on the side of the large road above us illuminated the way like a trail of flickering orbal lampposts. The feet of those walking along the avenue passed right by where we were, but not a single person noticed us scraping our way along below them. And for some strange reason or another, the world just beyond the thin flagstone-paved road appeared so dazzling in my eyes. Yet, the Jaeger Corps, loss of the artifact in hand, and a senseless, sudden death; all of which had never crossed my mind before; lay in wait for me dared I to venture into the open world above.
As we pressed on, I began to think that the small round tunnel which we were crawling through would run on forever, when finally it merged with a high-ceilinged sewer surrounded by walls of countless blocks of chiseled stone.
'We'll go through here and make our way over to where the cathedral is located,' Sister Carnelia insisted. Raising one brow, she pointed her finger upward. 'It's a lot safer down here than it is up there.'
'That's fine and all, but what are we going to do if it gets attacked?'
Sister Carnelia grabbed my hand, and with that, stepped into the muddy darkness beyond. 'Don't worry, Toby,' she reassured me. 'Faith isn't the only thing supporting the Church.'
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.
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.
Finale - A Legacy Never to be Forgotten
I was swallowed by the light only to be spewed moments later onto a patch of hardened ground. The air was filled with the scent of sun-baked earth. Yet, for being the floor of some grandiose, heavenly estate inherited by those in the afterlife, it felt quite like the flagstones I had grown accustomed to in my past life.
Upon feeling around in my immediate surroundings, my searching hand found soft locks of disheveled hair. It seemed as though Sister Carnelia had come as well as I to meet our creator firsthand.
Gradually, as I lay there, I felt something warm swell within the pit of my stomach. Weary and spent I just let the feeling spread over me. It was at about this time that the sound of murmurous voices started to fill the air around us. Warm breath tickled across my nose and brow, letting me know that I was being stared at directly in the face.
As my eyes adjusted to the intensity of the light, I realized that I was looking into the face of a young girl who beamed back at me brightly with the widest of smiles. However, she seemed a bit young to hold the esteemed position of the Goddess.
The knell of a bell overhead rang out loud and clear. Strangely, it had sounded exactly like the catedral's distinctive toll. Taking in this series of events to be rather odd, I picked myself up, and at last, awakened from the dream which had temporarily invaded my senses.
There it was, the familiar cityscape, the sounds, and even the scent of the breeze. I knew the place by heart. It was the public square of the Imperial city which unfolded before the great cathedral of the Septian Church.
I opened the fingers of my right hand and stared down at the metallic lump in its palm, entrusted to me by Micht. Golden filaments of light swirled across the surface of the artifact. I instantly recalled Sister Carnelia's words. 'It's alive,' she had said. And as I watched the ancient light gradually fade away before closing my hand around its surface once more, I believed it.
Supporting each other by wrapping our arms around one another's shoulders, Sister Carnelia and I hobbled and limped our way toward the magnificent cathedral as the awe-inspiring figure of the Goddess, Aidios, stood silently with unfurled wings, watching over us from the deep-hued stained-glass window above. And as for the events which followed, they were all settled in an orderly fashion.
The metallic lump which Sister Carnelia had so daringly risked her life for was turned over to His Eminence, the cardinal, who presided over the cathedral. He disappeared with it through the thick open door of a sacred vault.
The level of corruption which had spread like a plague among members of the Imperial court, influential aristocrats and even commissioned officers in the Imperial Army astonished even those mediators acting on behalf of the Bracer Guild.
I stayed close by Sister Carnelia as she was laid out on a pew within the chapel of the cathedral. The real sisters of the church delicately pulled off her coat and cut open her vest, now stuck to her body with dried blood. Upon doing so, they found an ornate shirt of chain mail just beneath the layer of her clothing, which for some strange reason seemed to bewilder them all.
The next day a certain aristocrat, who had hired the Jaeger Corps to carry out his selfish bidding, agreed to relinquish the artifacts in his possession in return for keeping his estate. Hence, his collection of forbidden antiques were brought under the safekeeping of the Septian Church.
Sworn to secrecy, I made immediate arrangements to take leave for the Calvard Republic. My destination: a high-class resort, which turned out to be an excellent way to recover physically and mentally, as well as forget about the series of events which had occurred over the past few days. Naturally, the bracers assigned to provide my escort were none other than Clayton and Pavel, who before we left, guided me without a word to where Sister Carnelia was resting.
I talked with Sister Carnelia, who had awoken for a short interval, but as I got up to leave she reached out her dainty hand and said to me, 'Before you go, I want to tell you my real name. It's Ein. Ein Selnate.' I took her unblemished hand in mine and gripped it firmly as I expressed my appreciation for what she had done.
And today, now three years later -- I stood staring at her name once again, but this time, printed on a page of the Imperial Chronicle.
Below those printed characters ran the few lines of an unembellished article.
'Yesterday, a corpse was discovered in an urban area of the capital just before dawn. The body was found to be covered with multiple stab wounds. -- The departed, in life, had been involved in charitable work and brought salvation to many afflicted souls in various regions throughout the land.'
As I read the last line, I envisioned the deceased figure of Sister Carnelia lying motionless upon a darkened street. Yet, despite the blood-stained face I envisioned in my mind, I saw her as she rested in peace, a gentle smile crossing her face, and vindicated of any transgressions in life.
As I rolled up the copy of the magazine in hand, I brushed my hand lightly across the shining bracer emblem pinned on my chest. Almost two years had passed since I converted to my new line of work, which Sister Carnelia had so graciously recommended to me. And finally, I had even become used to using my real name.
'Toby,' came the whisper of Sister Carnelia as it resurrected in my ears.
Now only known as Toby, I pressed my forehead up against the cold, clouded window of the passenger car, the refulgent eyes of Sister Carnelia shining brightly like a carnelian stone, forever ingrained in my memory. In my mind's eye I watched as her coat sleeves trailed out behind her and she dashed away into the darkness of my memories.
Opening my eyes, I gazed out through the window glass. And there, I saw the bleeding rouge-colored illumination of the Imperial City, as it faded away beneath the heavy white fog.