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Chapter 9 - A Fool

'So you showed up after all, did you, Vampire Hunter?!'

Elroy glared at Rose, teeth clenched in anger and pain. Red smoke was rising from his now amputated right arm. It gave off a faint hissing sound. Rose turned her attentions from Alphonse to him. She raised her templar sword and stared without expression at her target. Elroy glowered back. They both maintained a distance from one another, each trying to work out what the other would do next.  Without taking her eyes off Elroy, Rose addressed Alphonse.

'I told you not to get involved in this any further. And yet despite that, you tried to fight a vampire alone. I cannot BELIEVE you would do something so foolish.'

Her words were tinged with anger. Alphonse rose unsteadily to his feet.

'You were the one who tried fighting him alone first. And besides, I never had any intention of seriously trying to defeat him by myself.'

'...What?'

He faced her and spread his hands. 'I was pinning all of my hopes on you coming for me. And you did. Just like when we first met.' 

Alphonse's response seemed to catch Rose completely off guard. He could tell as much even from his position behind her. She quickly regained her composure, though, and the wavering sword steadied.

'I...don't know what you're trying to say.'

'You told me that you didn't want to work with me anymore because I was getting in your way, because there was nothing more that I could help you with. But that's not the real reason. The real reason is that you didn't want to put me in any more danger. 

You didn't want me to lose my life helping you like the last person who worked with you did.'

'...That is just idle speculation,' she replied coolly.

But Alphonse knew he was right.

'Then why did you lie about discovering the vampire's true identity?'

Rose gasped. 'So you noticed...'

It hadn't taken much effort to see through her lie. Rose herself had said that vampires were only capable of unleashing their powers at night, meaning that the best way to defeat one was to discover their true identity and kill them during the day. And yet despite that, Rose had gone to the effort of trying to lure the vampire out, taking the great risk of using herself as bait. Logically, her actions made no sense whatsoever if she had known the true identity of the creature. Deliberately lowering her chances of success wasn't like Rose at all. 

'I imagine you noticed something else during our investigation,' Alphonse continued. 'I don't know what, but whatever it was, it made you think that letting me cooperate with you any longer would put my life in danger. And that was why you lied, in order to try and keep me away from that danger.' 

Rose didn't react, but also she didn't deny his words. To Alphonse, that was the same as an admission.

'Hmph. Enough of this!' The vampire before them opened its eyes wide and began to concentrate its power. The moment it did, the red smoke that been rising from the stump where its arm had been was replaced with a jet of liquescent black ichor. It bubbled and frothed from the open wound. On the cobblestones some distance away, the arm itself also began to expel the same noxious-looking secretion. 

Suddenly, the black liquid from both stump and severed limb stretched and pulled, seeking out the other.

'No...!'

Knowing what was about to happen, Rose quickly  swung her templar sword in the direction of the liquid. The sword's countless parts sliced through it, but the dark matter just reformed around the damage. Moments later, the liquid had done its work, and the severed right arm was back where it belonged, as good as new.

'How could he recover so quickly? I knew it, he really is a...' 

'Haaaaaaaaaah!'

Elroy swung the sword with his newly attached arm at Rose. Calm as ever, she pointed her templar sword at him and fired the bladed segments that formed it. They flew from the handle and wrapped around him, binding and tearing simultaneously. Before they could completely ensnare him, however, Elroy transmuted into mist. The blades of the templar sword fell from the spot he had been as the mist dispersed. It reconverged a moment later at a point just behind the vampire hunter. No sooner had the mist solidified than Elroy swung the sword. His attack caught her completely off guard, decapitating her. ...Or so he expected, but Alphonse blocked it, his saber back in hand. 

'Gah...!'

Alphonse gritted his teeth, desperately trying to hold his ground. Elroy had the clear advantage in terms of strength, but try as he might, he could not break Alphonse's guard.

'How many times do you have to get in my way before you're satisfied?!' cried Elroy.

'Al!' 

Seeing a chance, Rose drew one of her giant pistols and, holding it in a backhand grip, pulled the trigger. The bullet ripped through Elroy's shoulder, propelling him backwards. Alphonse steadied himself and readied his saber again.

'I won't die on you, Rose! I'm not going to let some vampire kill me! So--'

'Can this not wait?!'

Rose aimed her pistol, resting it on Alphonse's shoulder, and fired it repeatedly at Elroy. His wound already fully healed, Elroy dodged all of her bullets with snake-like grace, and flew at them with great speed. 

Rose's pistol was now empty of bullets, and the vampire's charge gave her no time to draw the other. Elroy swung his sword at them as if trying to cut them both down in a single stroke. Alphonse brought his own saber to bear and braced with all his might to block the path of the falling sword. The two blades collided with such force that Alphonse's saber was sheared in two.

The collision repelled Elroy as well, but if he were to swing his sword downwards a second time with the same level of force, Alphonse and Rose would have no chance of surviving. The vampire's lips curled up in a smile, sensing impending victory. That smile was replaced almost immediately by shock when he saw what Alphonse had drawn from the depths of his uniform. 

Alphonse had expected that his saber would not survive Elroy's attack and had immediately reached for the silver short sword given to him by Rose.

'So I'm never going to allow you to be alone again!' he cried out as he swung the silver sword downwards across Elroy's body, a trail of glittering argent light following in its wake.

'...!' 

'Aaaaaaaaaah!'

Elroy recoiled backwards, clawing at his chest. Alphonse's attack had missed his heart, but the damage it had done was the greatest he had received yet.

'How could I be wounded by the likes of HIM?! Damn you, damn you, damn you, damn you!'

Elroy's expression was one of pure hatred mixed with intense agony. There wasn't a trace of humanity left on his face. Alphonse, meanwhile, had exhausted the last of his strength with that attack, and was on his knees, out of breath. Rose stared down at him, a peculiar look on her face. 

Alphonse was desperately trying to accept and understand her solitude. He recognized the intense loneliness she had been burdened with when she let her companion die all those years ago and was trying to save her from it. The words 'I'm never going to allow you to be alone again!' resounded in her head over and over. She knew that what he had said was purely based on emotion, but it was enough to fill her heart with warmth - a heart that she had thought long gone cold.

'You really are a complete fool,' she laughed. 

The sound of her laughing so naturally was enough to make Alphonse snap around to stare at her.

'But perhaps that isn't such a bad thing after all,' she said with a small smile.

He goggled at her. It was Rose, and yet, he felt he had never seen this woman before in his life. The warmth, the gentle smile...

'Wh-What's that supposed to mean...?' he stammered.

Feeling as though he had seen something he should not have, Alphonse turned around again, flustered. Elroy was now back in his direct view. The vampire was still in the same spot, watching, motionless. 

Alphonse had almost forgotten about him. Now was hardly the time to be talking with Rose. He needed to finish off the vampire - Elroy - for good. He looked back at Rose, and they nodded to one another.

Rose began to walk towards Elroy, leaving the exhausted Alphonse behind. Elroy remained still, his head bowed, mumbling something absentmindedly to himself. Rose pointed her remaining pistol at his head. All that she needed to do was pull the trigger and it would all be over. But she didn't. She stopped, confused. Something wasn't right. 

'The scent is...gone?'

Suddenly, Elroy looked up and faced Rose. His eyes were wild and unfocused.

'Wait. I haven't lost, of course I haven't. I could never lose to the likes of him. I just need to drink more blood, then the likes of Alphonse will never...'

His eyes suddenly darted back to Rose's face with terrible intensity. The monstrous grin stretched wide. The next moment, the wound that had been left by Alphonse's slash began to erupt red mist with incredible force. 

'I-It's...'

The mist filled the surrounding area at an alarming rate, and their field of vision was completely obscured by the crimson haze. All that could be heard was Alphonse's voice crying out.

'Rose, what's happening?!'

'Stay calm,' she ordered. 'It isn't harmful!'

The red mist was yet another special ability of vampires, employed only in moments of desperation. The creature would use its own wounds as a kind of smoke screen. Knowing this full well from experience, Rose tried to track Elroy by his scent. It should have been easy. She didn't need to see the vampire to find it, and yet...there was nothing. Despite having every reason to believe that he was right in front of her, not a trace of the vampire's trail was to be found. 

'Why?' she wondered, desperately trying to make sense of the situation.

Slowly but surely, the red mist began to dispel. When it cleared, only two figures remained - Rose and Alphonse. The vampire was nowhere to be seen.

'...Damn it!' she cried.

Elroy had managed to escape from them. But where? 

With a wince, Alphonse rose to his feet. 'Rose, we can't lose him!'

All things considered, it seemed safe to assume that Elroy was searching for more victims to drain in order to replenish his own power. Meaning that if they didn't catch him before then, there would be more fatalities. Not to mention the possibility that he might grow too strong for them to handle.

Rose waved Alphonse to silence. 'Hold on, I'm trying to follow his scent!'

Though she meant to reassure Alphonse, in her own mind, Rose felt deeply uneasy. 

How could the trail have just disappeared all of a sudden? She'd never known anything like it.

Is my power growing weaker? she wondered to herself.

Just as she was pondering potential causes, though, the scent suddenly returned. That fact did nothing to allay her confusion, but as long as there was a trail to follow, pursuing it needed to be their top priority. She focused her mind on the odor, trying to ascertain its location. Eventually, she was able to find the answer she sought. The source was startling. 

'It's coming from the direction of that tavern!'

The Alegria was only one street away from where they stood. Alphonse didn't even spare Rose a glance. He just dashed off towards the restaurant, his face a mask of fear. 

第9回 愚か者

「吸血鬼狩り……现れたか……!」

 吸血鬼エルロイは、歯轧りをしてロゼを睨みつける。法剣によって落とされた右腕はシューシューと赤い烟を上げていた。ロゼはアルフォンスに向けていた颜をそちらに向きなおし、无表情のまま法剣を构える。

 じりじりと间合いを保ちつつ、両者は次の一手を探って胶着する。

こちらを见ないそのままの体势で、ロゼは口を开く。 

「——これ以上は関わるな、と申し上げたはずです。

 なのに……一人で吸血鬼と戦おうとするなんて。 

 あなたがここまで愚かだったとは思いませんでした」 

若干怒気を孕んだその声に気圧されつつも、アルフォンスはよろよろと立ち上がる。

「先に一人で戦おうとしたのは君のほうだ。

 それに俺は、最初からそんなつもりはなかった」 

「え……」 

「——赌けていたんだ。君が来てくれることにな。 

 そして、君は来てくれた。最初に会ったときと同じように」

その言叶は、ロゼにとってあまりにも意外だったらしい。彼女は背中越しでも分かるほどに动揺しつつも、すぐに剣を构え直して冷静さを取り戻す。

「意味が……わかりません」 

「……君が俺との协力関系を解消した一番の理由は、用済みになったからとか、足手まといになったからとかじゃない。

 きっと、俺をこれ以上巻き込みたくなかったからだ……

 过去に君が犠牲にしてしまった协力者のように」 

「……それは、あなたの胜手な解釈です」 

 あくまで冷彻に言い舍てるロゼ。だがアルフォンスには确信があった。

「なら、どうして“吸血鬼の正体を突き止めた”なんて嘘をついた?」

「……! ……気づいていたのですね……」

考えてみればおかしかったのだ。

吸血鬼が本来の力を発挥するのは夜であり、正体を突き止めて日が出ているうちに倒すのが理想——ロゼはそう言った。だが昨夜の彼女は自らを囮にするという危険な方法で吸血鬼を呼び寄せたのだ。合理的でないし、彼女らしくない。 

「多分君は、调査を进める中で何らかの事実に気づいた。

 详しくは分からないが、このまま俺が协力していては危険だと判断した君は、 

 早々に俺を远ざけるために、あんな嘘をついたのだろう」 

ロゼは无表情のまま、答えなかった。それは逆に、彼の言叶を认めたことを意味していた。

「フン……何をゴチャゴチャと!」

2人に対峙する吸血鬼エルロイは、目を见开いて力を集中し始めた。すると——今まで右腕から上がっていた赤い烟が消え、代わりにどす黒い液体が断面から泡立ち始める。切断され、地面に落ちていた右腕からも同様に——そして、それらの液体は一気に喷出し、互いを求め合うようにくっついていく。 

「いけない……!」 

ロゼが何かに気づいてすばやく法剣を剃ぐ。伸长した无数の刃が液体を切り裂くが、すぐに元通りに复元していく。そして、それは急激に右腕を引き寄せ、切断面同士を结合させた。境目に泡立っていた液体が治まる顷には、エルロイの右腕は完全に元通りになっていた。

「法剣のダメージをこんな速度で…… やはり、この吸血鬼は——」

「ハアアアアアアッ!」 

 エルロイは右腕に握られたままの剣に力を込めると、一直线にロゼに向かっていく。

ロゼはあくまで冷静に、法剣の刀身をエルロイに向けて再び射出させる。伸びきった刀身はすばやく络みついていき、その身体を引き裂きながら捕缚していく。 

 だが、エルロイは完全に拘束される前に、一瞬で持っていた剣ごと雾に姿を変える。法剣の无数の刃は空を切り、雾は四方へと散る。そして、ロゼの左后ろの死角から现れて、再び剣を振りぬいた。

 完全に虚をついた攻撃は、ロゼを头から両断してしまうはずだった。

しかし、咄嗟に间に入ったアルフォンスが、拾い上げていた剣で受け止める。

「クッ……!!」歯を食いしばり、死に物狂いで踏ん张るアルフォンス。

 力では完全に胜っていたはずのエルロイだが、死力を尽くした防御を崩すことはできなかった。

「ッ……どこまでも目障りな!」 

「アル!」 

その隙に乗じて、ロゼは逆手で大型拳铳を引き抜いてすぐさま引き金を引く。弾丸はエルロイの肩口を射抜き、彼を后方へと退かせた。

 阵形が入れ代わり、ロゼを背にしたアルフォンスは再度、剣を构えなおす。

「——ロゼ、俺は决して死なない!

 吸血鬼になど、杀されない! だから——」 

「なんですか、こんな时に!」

ロゼはアルフォンスの肩を补助台として、エルロイに狙いを定めて大型铳を连射する。肩の伤をすでに修复したエルロイは、その全てをありえない速度で避けつつ、再びこちらに肉薄する。弾丸は撃ちつくされ、もう一丁を构えなおす暇はなかった。 

势いのまま、2人をまとめて切り舍てようとするエルロイの刚剣。アルフォンスはそれに向かって、浑身の力で剣を叩きつけた。凄まじい冲撃が発生し、アルフォンスの剣は真っ二つに砕けてしまう。

 仕挂けたエルロイも弾かれる。だがこのまま膂力に任せて再び剣を振り下ろせば、今度こそアルフォンスとロゼは绝命するだろう。胜利を确信した吸血鬼は口の端を持ち上げる——

しかしそれは次の瞬间、惊愕に歪んだ。己の剣が砕けることを予测していたアルフォンスは、すでに懐から取り出したものを握り缔めていた。ロゼから渡された——银の短剣を。

「だから! 君を决して“孤独”にはしない!!」 

「——————!」 

 そう叫びながら振り下ろされた短剣。银色の一闪はエルロイの身体を、一直线に切り裂く。 

「ぐああああああっ!?」

たまらず、大きく退いたエルロイ。深くつけられた袈裟斩りの伤は、心臓を纸一重で外したものの、これまでで最も痛烈なダメージを彼に与えた。 

「なぜ俺が、あいつ如きに……! 

 おのれ、おのれッ……!! 

 おのれおのれおのれおのれ、おのれぇええええッ……!!」

エルロイの颜には凄まじい憎悪と苦闷の表情が刻まれている。その油断こそが一撃を喰らう要因になったことに、彼は気づいていない。もはや人间を装っていたころの面影はどこにも感じられなかった。

 一方のアルフォンスも、今の攻撃で力を使い果たしたらしく、息を切らして膝を突く。そんな彼を、ロゼは不思议な面持ちで见つめていた。

 彼は自分の“孤独”を受け止めてくれようとしている。过去に协力者を死なせてしまったことで抱えてしまった、巨大な“孤独”に気づいて。

 君を决して孤独にはしない——さきほどの言叶が何度も、头の中に响く。

何の根拠もない、ただの感情の块のような言叶だったが、それはロゼの冷えきっていた心に温かなものをもたらしていた。

「……ふふっ、あなたと言う人は……

 本当に度し难い、愚か者なのですね」

 今まで无表情を贯いていたロゼが、自然な笑い声を漏らした。アルフォンスは思わず振り返る。

「——でも、嫌いではありません」

 そこにあったのは、今までの无表情だった彼女からは、まったく想像のできない——女神のような慈爱に溢れた微笑みだった。

「な、なんだそれは……」

 アルフォンスは见てはいけないものを见てしまったような気がして、慌てて前に向き直る。视界に入ったのは、いまだ动き出さないエルロイの姿だ。

そうだ、和んでいる场合ではなかった。あの吸血鬼に——エルロイにとどめを刺さなければ。

 もう一度向き直り、ロゼと颜を见合わせて颔きあう。 

 ロゼは力を使い果たしたアルフォンスを残して、エルロイのもとに歩き出す。彼は放心状态で俯いたまま、ぶつぶつと何かをつぶやいている。その头に、ロゼは照准を合わせる。あとは引き金を引けば、事件は解决だ。「……………………?」ロゼはふと、引き金を引く指を止める。

 何か途辙もない违和感を感じていたのだ。

「匂いが……消えた——」

——突如、俯いていたエルロイは、ぐりんとロゼに颜を向ける。

「そうだ、俺が负けるわけがないんだ。

 もっと血を吸いさえすれば、アルフォンスなどに——」

 そこに浮かんでいた焦点の定まらない瞳と凄惨な笑みに、思わずたじろいでしまうロゼ。次の瞬间、彼の袈裟切りになった伤口から、凄まじい势いで赤い雾が喷出した。 

「こ、これは……」 

 雾は瞬く间に周囲を包み込み、その一帯の视界は完全な赤に支配された。「ロゼ、なんだこれは!?」アルフォンスの声だけが闻こえてくる。 

「大丈夫、害はありませんから落ち着いてください!」 

吸血鬼が苦し纷れに使うことがある、自分の伤を利用した目くらましだ。

 今まで経験からそれを知るロゼは、视界から消えたエルロイの匂いを辿る。彼女には吸血鬼の気配を匂いとして察知する力がある。こんな目くらましなど何の意味もなさない——はずだった。

 吸血鬼の匂いはどこにも感じられなかった。目の前にいたはずなのに。

 なぜ——? 予想外の事态に困惑するロゼ。 

やがて、赤い雾は徐々に晴れていった。 

「くっ……なんてことだ……!」 

 その场に残っていたのは——アルフォンスとロゼの2人だけだ。

 エルロイはいない。まんまと逃げられてしまった。一体どこへ? アルフォンスは少しだけ取り戻した体力でようやく立ち上がる。

「ロゼ! 奴の気配を追ってくれ! でないと……」

おそらくエルロイは、新たな血を吸いにいった。また犠牲者が出てしまう。彼が更なる力を手に入れたら、果たして太刀打ちできるのか? 

「待って下さい、今、追っていますから……!」

 ロゼもまた、アルフォンスとは别の悬念に囚われていた。なぜ急に、あの祸々しい匂いが全く感じられなくなってしまったのか? こんなことは、今までなかった。自分の力が弱まったのか?

 様々な要因を考えていると、今度は唐突に吸血鬼の匂いが复活した。

再び困惑するロゼ。本当に訳のわからない事态だが、とにかく今はエルロイを追迹しなくてはならない。

 精神を集中して再び匂いを辿る——。

 ロゼは吸血鬼の匂いがどこにあるのか、それをようやく突き止めた。そして、惊愕した——。

「吸血鬼の匂いは……あの酒场の方角です!」 

 宿酒场〈アレグリア〉は、この通りから道一つしか离れていない。

アルフォンスは、鬼気迫る表情で走り出した。