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Chapter 6 - Bloodstained Rose

The city of Heimdallr was deathly silent. During the day, word had been spread throughout the populace from the Garrard Team regarding the culprit behind the Vampire Murders. Knowing specific details about the perpetrator instilled an even greater sense of fear into the people of the city, making them even more wary of stepping out of their homes at night. That the streets would be empty was an inevitability. And yet, on one dark avenue in the city, a petite woman walked alone, as if to defy all of that.

She wore a plain, undecorated dress, and from all appearances belonged to the middle classes. She walked quite quickly, the sound of her shoes against the ground echoing loudly in the empty streets. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her chest, almost as if embracing herself, and she was hunched forward,  clearly afraid of something. Of course, it was perfectly natural for her to be afraid considering that the majority of the victims of the city's serial murderer were young women like herself.

She looked around restlessly, carefully surveying her surroundings for signs of danger before disappearing down a dark alleyway. The faint moonlight illuminated her profile as she turned the corner and cast a long shadow behind her...which slowly and silently began to enlarge. 

Gradually, the silhouette extended upwards, the inky depths taking the shape of a man. It loomed behind her.

The figure was swathed all in black, with the top half of its face covered. The bottom half remained exposed, revealing a wicked grin and sharp, pointed fangs. It was a vampire, a creature of legend. It stood silently behind the woman, very much real despite its supposed mythological standing. From the sable folds of the cloak swaddling its body, it slowly extended a pale hand. 

The fingers stretched forward. Sharp, pointed nails gently swept aside the woman's shoulder- length blond hair. The tips brushed the back of her neck almost caressingly. The second they did, though, it seemed to sense that something was wrong.

Its prey was behaving oddly. It hadn't expected the frail creature before it to put up the slightest resistance. She should have frozen at its touch, or given in to despair, having no choice but to succumb to the inevitable and have her blood drained. What it felt from her instead, however, was defiance and danger - this woman was no prey. Hunter had met hunter. The creature tensed, ready to leap backwards. Too late, it realized another threat radiated from directly beside it. 

There was no avoiding it. The sound of paving stones cracking resounded in the still night, and its outstretched right arm was suddenly shredded by numerous sharp objects.

The vampire let out an involuntary hiss of pain as a wave of silver blades arced through air and flesh, one after another, but the attack wasn't over. The vampire sensed danger from below, too, and the blades which impaled into the ground suddenly arced upwards with alarming speed, as if retracing their path through the air. Just as the blades were about to sever its right arm from its body once and for all, it was able to jump out of their way. 

Clutching its mangled limb, the vampire edged further back to put distance between itself and the woman. It watched balefully with narrowed eyes as the razor-sharp segments that had pierced it soared back over to the bladeless handle in the woman's hand - when she had drawn it, it didn't know.

Connected by sturdy steel wires, the segments interlocked one by one, eventually forming a complete blade known as a templar sword. She swung it, shaking the blood from its surface. Every last trace of the weakness she had shown earlier when hurrying through the night was gone. 

She turned around finally, revealing the dignified, expressionless face that had lain on the other side of the sleek blond curtain of hair.

It was the vampire hunter, Rose.

'So you were trying to lure me out, were you?' the vampire sneered. 'Heh. Such cunning.' Its words were sharp, but the delivery fell somewhat tremulously on the rough cobblestones of the empty alley. 

'You flatter me,' Rose said.

Her templar sword still raised in her right hand, she put her left hand into her pocket and pulled out an unbelievably large caliber pistol, greater in size than those used in the army. She aimed it at the vampire's forehead and pulled the trigger without a moment's hesitation. The gunpowder flash illuminated the alleyway briefly, and a single blessed silver bullet flew from the muzzle with merciless intent. Such was the force of the discharge that an ordinary person's shoulder would have been dislocated, but Rose didn't so much as twitch. 

The vampire moved with liquid speed, dodging the projectile just in time and slipping behind Rose. Not the slightest perturbed by its change in direction, Rose moved as well and kept the pistol focused on the creature, tracking the vampire's every movement.

'You're quite adept at fleeing, if nothing else,' she said coolly.

'Would you prefer I did something like this, then?' the vampire asked. As it spoke, it fluttered the black garments it was draped in, and they began to expand, the folds stretching to impossible size before her eyes. Pitiful moans echoed in the dark depths. Rose watched with narrowed eyes as a number of ghouls crawled out from within as if emerging from thin air. 

...5...6...7...

Eventually, she counted ten in all.

It hadn't even been 24 hours since their previous  battle. The vampire couldn't possibly have attacked that many people in that time...

Rose's mouth tightened. 'I see. And here we believed the reported murders to be the only victims, but that wasn't the case at all. You were abducting others who had no living relatives to notice that they were gone and keeping them locked up somewhere, weren't you?' 

'Precisely. With a vampire hunter on the loose, I had to make sure I had some food in reserve. I'd rather not run the risk of going hungry, you see.'

'The very thought makes me feel physically ill,' Rose replied quietly.

With a vicious yank she tore the dress she had worn as a disguise from her body. Underneath it, sturdy leather clothes designed with mobility in mind were revealed. Attached to them were numerous belts holding large guns, knives, and other anti- vampire weaponry in place. It was clear at a glance that she was well prepared for battle. 

The sight of Rose's arsenal coaxed a sickly smile from the vampire.

'Go forth, my minions.'

And with a wave of its pallid hand, the ghouls leaped forward. 

'Where are you, Rose?!' Alphonse shouted between pants as he ran back and forth across the city, desperately searching for her. Try as he might, though, he could find no sign of the blond woman. Even his fellow soldiers patrolling the streets had seen nothing.

Alphonse had a very specific reason for pursuing this case, and he didn't intend to lose this opportunity to put the past behind him. That was what led him to propose that he and Rose work together, a proposal which she had accepted. And yet despite all of that, she was trying to fight the vampire all on her own. It was too risky, even for her. His mind was full of worry for her, and that fear conjured forth the image of his parents' dead bodies. 

Never again. He never wanted to see a sight like that again. Wishing over and over again that Rose was still all right, he raced on, and it was then that he heard a sound that caught his attention: the clash of battle. As soon as the noise reached his ears, he quickly surveyed his surroundings. The source seemed to be an alleyway nearby. Without a thought spared for his own safety, he charged into the alleyway. There, an unbelievable sight met his eyes. 

Two ghouls lunged at her. Sheathing her templar sword into its scabbard, Rose drew a second large  pistol in its place. The ghouls swung their fists and ragged nails towards her with inhuman power, but she dodged them gracefully. As she spun out of their range, she aimed one pistol at each ghoul's forehead and pulled the triggers simultaneously. Flesh and bone were obliterated instantly. The sheer force  of the blast sent the mangled remains somersaulting  backwards through the air.

The move left Rose slightly unbalanced and, as if seeking to take advantage of that, three more ghouls flew at her from outside her field of vision. The mere sound of their movement was enough to alert her, however, and without even turning to face them she sent two more bullets through the heads of the two ghouls charging her from the sides. The third ghoul's mouth distended, seeking to crush Rose's skull with its teeth, but she danced out of reach, holstering the pistols. Fluidly, she then flipped back through the air, drawing her templar sword at the same time and slicing the lower half of the ghoul's body from the upper half in one swift stroke.

She landed gracefully and kicked the ghoul she had just cut in half out of the way without even waiting for its body to hit the ground. Two more ghouls approached from the fringes, but without waiting for them to draw closer this time, she swung her blade horizontally through the air. It split into pieces, and the countless segmented parts pierced the ghouls' necks. Their heads dropped to the ground like fruit falling from a tree.

Seven of the ghouls incapacitated in what seemed like an instant, Rose turned her attention to the defiantly grinning vampire and the remaining three ghouls with him. She drew the two pistols from around her waist a second time and sprinted towards them, showering them with the remaining loaded bullets. 

The vampire evaded the projectiles by using the remaining ghouls as shields. Out of bullets, Rose drew her templar sword and swung it in the direction of the vampire's neck in one fluid motion, seeking to decapitate it. The next instant, the high-pitched screech of metal against metal filled the air.

The vampire had drawn its own weapon from inside the black garments. It met Rose's blade in midair. The two swords locked against one another, filling the air with sparks and leaving them in a stalemate reminiscent of the previous night's battle. 

'I'm impressed at how unfazed you seemed fighting against those ghouls,' the vampire said, teeth bared but with a slight curl to its lips. 'I would have expected a human to at least hesitate when being forced to fight their own kind.'

'They ceased to be my 'kind' the moment you drank their blood. They are nothing but soulless puppets now - why should I hesitate against them?' 

The creature inclined its head almost respectfully at that. 'Heh. You certainly think like a vampire hunter.'

The sound of metal against metal continued to  reverberate throughout the area. Drinking the blood of the ghouls had allowed the vampire to become even  stronger than the previous night. Its once crippled right arm had already healed and regained its original form. Even so, Rose met it without any sign of strain, her strength matching that of the fell creature before her.

'Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!' 

The loud war cry split the air, startling both combatants, and a third figure suddenly burst onto the scene. The charging figure was dressed in an army uniform and brandished a silver sword. It was Alphonse. Catching the vampire off guard, he slashed at its side. Having no experience with the weapon itself, it was a shallow attack and the damage it dealt far from lethal, but it was enough to break the stalemate.

Seizing the opening, Rose forcefully knocked the vampire's sword out of the way and in one flowing motion slashed horizontally from its exposed chest to its left arm. A crimson gout of blood arced from the wound, splashing the cobblestones. Something also sheared off from within the vampire's garments and flew into the air. 

The vampire clutched its chest in pain, but it was clear that her attack had only grazed it. It seemed that, once again, the creature's preternatural speed had saved it from mortal injury. Eyes darting from one to the other, it backed away with an audible 'tsk'.

'...It looks like the odds are stacked against me.  I will retreat for today,' it said, its outline growing dim, before it turned to mist and vanished into nothingness. 

After a moment of heavy silence, Alphonse sheathed his sword, staring at the spot where the vampire had previously been.

'It got away again...'

Finally looking at him, Rose let out a sigh of disbelief.

'...Why did you come?'

Hearing the coldness in her voice, Alphonse lost his composure. He seized her shoulders in his hands.

'Of course I came!' he yelled. 'What were you thinking trying to fight him on your own?! It's too dangerous to take him on without help!' 

Her cool blue eyes locked with his. 'Dangerous? For me? Do you honestly believe that?' she asked. Her face was as mask-like as ever, but her tone had dropped from chilly to downright glacial.

It had a cooling effect on Alphonse's anger. He took a half-step back and looked at her from top to bottom. Illuminated by the light of the moon, he could see that she was covered in gore. He released her shoulders and stared down at his own hands. They, too, were now wet with blood from touching her. And yet, there was not so much as a scratch on her whole body. The filth covering her entirely belonged to the ghouls she had defeated. 

'I am a vampire hunter, and this is not the first vampire I have hunted. I have killed more of them than you could possibly imagine.'

Alphonse couldn't deny what she was saying. He had seen for himself the skill and grace she had shown when mercilessly slaying all of those ghouls, unmoved by the fact that they were once humans. She had been an artist in battle and the sword her paintbrush. What he had witnessed was beyond his comprehension, a struggle between monsters rather than human beings. That was why he could do nothing but stand and watch at first, unable to intervene. He was lost for words. Rose broke the silence with a short, frosty laugh. 

'Al. I have no further need of your assistance. I suggest you forget about all of this and return to your ordinary life.' She then gave a respectful curtsey much like the one she had when they first met.

第6回 血涂れのロゼ

 夜の帝都は、しんと静まり返っていた。 

日中、帝都の治安を守るガラード队から『吸血鬼事件』の犯人と思われる人物についての通达があった。具体的な犯人の特徴が伝わり、人々の事件への恐怖がさらに高まるとともに、事件への警戒心も强まった。この夜の静寂は、访れるべくして访れるものだった。

 そんな、世の动きとは逆行するかのように——薄暗く、人気のない夜道を、女性と思しき小柄な影が歩いていた。

装饰のあまりされていないドレスを着た、中流阶级の娘といったいでたちで、静まり返った街にコツコツと靴音を响かせながら、早足でどこかへと向かっている。

 身体を抱くようにして小さく丸まった背中は、どことなく恐怖に怯えているように见える。実际、若い女性を中心に全身から血を抜かれ、杀されると言う猟奇的な事件が起きているのだ。彼女が怯えたような足取りになってしまうのも、无理からぬことだろう。 

女性はキョロキョロと注意深く辺りを见回しながら、さらに暗い路地へと足を踏み入れていく。月明かりの淡い光に照らされ、彼女の足から后方へと伸びた影。 

 その影が、静かに、ゆっくりと膨张し始める。膨张した影は歩く女性の后ろにぴたりとくっついたまま、徐々に立ち上がっていく。

 そうして影は、音もなく——人の形を成す。 

全身を黒衣で身を包み、颜面の上半分をも覆った祸々しい姿。妖しく笑みを浮かべた口元には、锐い牙が覗く。

 吸血鬼。伝承の中の存在でしかなかったはずのそれは、もはや完全にこの场に顕现していた。影と同化した黒衣の中から、青白い手がゆっくりと现れる。それはことさら静かに、女性に向かって伸びていく。锐く尖った黒い爪が、肩まで伸びた金髪を静かに掻き分け、首筋に触れる——

——その瞬间、吸血鬼は爪の先端から全身に駆け巡るような何かを感じ取った。

それはまさしく“杀気”である。これから全身の血を吸われて命を落とし、怜れな尸人へと変貌することを运命づけられたか弱い生物から、放たれるはずのなかったものであった。

危険を感じた吸血鬼は一瞬で飞びのこうとするが、真横から新たな杀気が飞来し、それを逃すまいと袭い挂かってくる。足元の敷石を破壊する音と共に、伸ばされていた吸血鬼の右腕はずたずたに切り裂かれた。

『グッ……!』

吸血鬼は思わず呻き声をもらす。

银色に煌く锐い刃——弧を描きつつ连続で飞来したそれが、次々と右腕を通过したのだ。だが、それで终りではない。地に突きたてられた无数の刃は更なる凄まじい杀気を発する。次の瞬间、それらは地面から凄まじい势いで発射され、先ほどの轨迹をなぞる様に弧を描く。今度こそ右腕を切断されようとするその寸前に、吸血鬼はかろうじてその场から飞び退く。 

ぼろ衣のようになって烟を喷出しつづける右腕を押さえつつ、女性との间合いを计る吸血鬼。无数の刃たちは、女性の前方——いつの间にか构えられていた柄だけの剣——に向かっていく。顽丈な鉄线でつながれていた刃が次々と段々重ねになり、やがてそれは一振りの剣の姿となった。

 不可思议な剣——法剣《テンプルソード》と呼ばれるそれを振り、ついた血が払われる。剣を持つ彼女にはもはや、先ほどまでの夜暗に怯えたか弱さは感じられない。 

 ゆっくりと振り向くと、金髪の向こう侧に凛とした无表情の颜立ちが见える。

吸血鬼狩り——ロゼ。 

『おびき出されたということか。クク、见事な手并みだ』 

「お褒め顶き光栄です」 

 ロゼはそう言いながら、右手に法剣を构えたまま、即座に懐から何かを取り出す。白银に辉く大口径の拳铳——军で使われているものよりさらに巨大な、化け物のような铳だ。

狙いを吸血鬼の眉间に定め、その引き金が容赦なく引かれた。火薬の炸裂によって発生する轰音。常人なら肩が外れるような凄まじい冲撃をロゼは难なく受け止めると共に、教会で祝福を受けた银の弾丸が放たれた。 

 しかし吸血鬼は一瞬早くそれをかわし、今度はロゼの后方へと回りこむ。

隙なく反応し、常に照准を吸血鬼に向けるロゼ。 

「逃げることだけはお上手ですね」

『ならば、これではどうだ?』 

 吸血鬼はそう言うと、黒衣を大きく翻す。それはもともとの质量を无视して膨张し、その下から呻き声をあげる虚ろな尸人《グール》が这い出てくる。その数は、5、6、7——段々と増えていき、10に届くほどとなる。 

昨晩の戦闘からまだ1日と経っていない中、これだけの人间を袭う时间はなかったはずだった。

「——なるほど。あなたは今まで人々の血を吸いながら、同时に捜索届けの出されない身寄りのない人々をさらっていたのですね。

そして、今までどこかへと闭じ込めていた」 

『ご明察だ。“吸血鬼狩り”の存在は知っていたのでな。万が一にも食事ができない场合の“备蓄”とさせてもらっていたわけだ』 

「吐き気を催します」

 ロゼは静かに言うと、身にまとっていた変装用のドレスを引っ张り、强引に破り舍てた。すると、その下から——顽丈な皮の素材で作られた动きやすい服装——所々にベルトが装饰され、巨大な铳やナイフといった対吸血鬼用兵装を至る所に备えつけた、戦闘用の服が露になる。 

 先ほどよりさらに高められたロゼの杀気に、吸血鬼は邪悪な笑みを浮かべた。

『ゆけ——』 

合図とともに、尸人たちが一斉にロゼに向かっていく。

「はあはあ……どこだ、ロゼ!?」

 アルフォンスは、酒场を出てから帝都を走り回り、ずっとロゼの姿を探していた。

だが、深夜の巡回をする同僚たちは谁も、その姿を见かけていなかった。

アルフォンスにはこの事件を追う理由がある。両亲が杀された事件に、何らかの区切りをつけるために。だからこそロゼに、吸血鬼狩りの协力を申し出たのだ。だが、彼女はおそらく一人きりで吸血鬼と戦おうとしている——危険すぎる。どうしても惨杀された両亲の遗体が脳裏に浮かんでしまう。

 あんな光景はもう见たくない——走りながら强く念じるアルフォンス。そんな彼の耳に、ある音が闻こえてきた。

——戦闘の音だ。そう直感して辺りを见回すと、视界に入った路地の一つがその大元だと确认する。アルフォンスは迷わず路地に飞び込み——その凄绝な光景を目の当たりにした。

最初に飞び挂ってきたのは2体の尸人だ。ロゼは法剣を鞘に収めると、代わりにもう一丁の大型拳铳を取り出す。人间の限界を无视した强烈な拳と爪を鼻先でかわすと、二丁拳铳をそれぞれ尸人の眉间に向け、同时に引き金を引く。凄まじい冲撃に头部が破壊され、もんどりうって吹き飞ぶ尸人たち。

体势を崩したロゼに追い讨ちをかけるように、死角からさらに3体の尸人が袭い挂かる。ロゼはそれを音だけで闻き分けると、そちらを见もせずに拳铳の照准を合わせ、そのうち2体の头を正确に打ち抜いた。 

攻撃を免れた残り1体が狞猛に开いた口でロゼの头盖骨を噛み砕こうとするが、彼女は体势を整えながら持っていた拳铳を素早くしまうと、おもむろに前方に転回し、刹那、引き抜いていた法剣で尸人を股下から両断する。 

 そのまま绝妙なバランスで着地すると、たった今切り裂いた尸人が倒れるのを待たずに真横に蹴り飞ばす。そして、向こう侧から迫ってきていた更に2体の尸人に向かって横剃ぎに法剣を振る。势いのままに刀身は分裂し、无数の刃が尸人たちの喉を通过した。2つの头が果物のように刎ねられる。 

瞬く间に7体を戦闘不能にしたロゼは身を翻し、不敌に笑う吸血鬼と残り3体の尸人を双眸に捉える。彼女は再び腰に携えた二丁拳铳を抜き、残りの弾丸を扫射しながらそちらへと疾走していく。

 吸血鬼は尸人を盾にしてそれをかわしていく。やがて弾丸を撃ちつくし、尸人の全てを倒したことを确认したロゼは弾装の空になった二丁の铳を投げ舍てると、势いのままに再び法剣を引き抜いて、吸血鬼の首を飞ばそうと横剃ぎに振りぬく。

 甲高い金属音が鸣り响いた。金属と金属がかち合う音だ。 

吸血鬼が黒衣の中に携えていた剣を抜き、ロゼの法剣を受け止めたのだった。锷迫り合いとなった剣の接点からちりちりと火花が上がり、昨晩の戦いをなぞるかのような胶着状态となる2人。

『あそこまで容赦なく尸人を倒してのけるとはな。あれと対峙した人间は、少なからず动揺して动きを钝らせるものだが』

「私にとって尸人は、吸血鬼に操られる怜れな人形でしかありません。魂がもはや失われている以上、ためらう理由もないでしょう」 

『クク、面白い。さすがは“吸血鬼狩り”と言ったところか』

金属がこすれる音があたりに响く。吸血鬼は尸人となった彼らから血を吸ったことで、昨晩より明らかに力を増している。先ほどボロ布のようになった右腕はすでに回复し、元の形状を取り戻していた。しかし“吸血鬼狩り”としての全力を出したロゼも、决して力负けはしていない。両者の力はやはり、拮抗していた。

「——うおおおおおおおッ!!」 

そこへ叫び声と共に现れたのは、军服を身にまとった青年——アルフォンスだ。不意をついたアルフォンスは、ロゼに渡された短剣で吸血鬼の横腹を斩りつける。 

 使い惯れない武器での攻撃は浅く、致命的なダメージにはならなかったが、均衡を破るには十分と言えた。 

生まれた隙を见逃さず、力任せに吸血鬼の剣を打ち払ったロゼは、流れるような连撃に繋げていく。空いた胸元から左腕に向かって一直线の横剃ぎが放たれると、吸血鬼の身体から血しぶきが上がった。

 そのとき、黒衣の内侧からなにかが千切れて飞んでいく——。

 吸血鬼は胸を押さえてうずくまったが、どうやら法剣は薄皮一枚を裂いただけだったらしい。凄まじい体捌きだ。再び间合いを取った吸血鬼は舌打ちをして、こちらに剣を构える2人を交互に见やった。

『……流石に分が悪いか。退かせてもらうぞ』

そう言って、その轮郭をぼやけさせると、一瞬でその身体を雾と化して、そこから消え去っていった。

「また逃げられてしまったか……」

 アルフォンスは短剣を懐にしまい、吸血鬼のいた位置を见つめる。ロゼは、そんなアルフォンスを见やると、ため息をついて呆れた。 

「……どうして来てしまわれたのですか?」

无表情のロゼにそんな言叶をかけられ、思わずカッとなって彼女の肩を掴むアルフォンス。

「どうしてだと?君のほうこそどうして一人で戦った!?危険すぎる!」

「危険……だったと本気で思いますか?」 

ロゼは无表情に——いや、今までに见せたことのない、圧倒的なまでに冷たいものを孕んだ——そんな颜で、アルフォンスを见つめた。

 アルフォンスはハッと我に返り、今のロゼの姿を改めて见直す。

 彼女は、真っ赤に染まっている。月明かりがそれを照らしてはっきりと确认できる。肩に置いていた手を离して掌を见ると、そこにもぬらりとしたものがついていた。 

ロゼ自身は伤一つ负っていなかった。それらは全て、尸人の中に残っていた浊った血液だ。

「私は仮にも“吸血鬼狩り”を名乗る身です。 

 今まで、どれだけの吸血鬼や尸人を葬ってきたか——あなたには想像もできないでしょう」

アルフォンスは确かに见ていた。容赦なく尸人たちを葬り去るロゼの姿を。人の形をした相手に容赦なく武器を振るい、鲜血と共に舞い、踊るように戦う彼女を。あきらかに次元が违っていた。あれは——化け物同士の戦いだ。それを肌で感じていたからこそ、あんなタイミングまで介入できずにいたのだ。 

 完全に言叶に诘まってしまったアルフォンスを见て、ふ、と冷たく笑うロゼ——

「——アル、あなたの协力はもはや必要ありません。

 どうぞ、全て忘れて元の日常にお戻りください」 

彼女はそう言って、最初に会ったときのように恭しくお辞仪をした。

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