...Yeah. This is one long chapter, so set aside plenty of time to read it.
Chapter 10 - The Flower Heals the Heart of the Sinner, and...
In the beginning, the vampire was but a simple flower.
But once she had taken the form of a human girl, some began to feign understanding in spite of knowing nothing about her.
“It looks like a human girl, but that’s how it lures you close before it devours you.”
“She’s just like an anglerfish.”
“A glutton of a vampire who can’t even hunt for herself.”
But anyone who came to know her in person quickly found themselves changing their minds.
She was just as gentle as she appeared, and there was nothing about her resembling the vampire from storybooks and myths.
Though she subsisted on blood and was born under a guillotine, though she nested in the midst of many tools of execution, she was incredibly kind.
More accurately, she was possessed of good character. Or, to put it in negative terms, she was good-natured to the point of stubbornness.
Though she was far more beautiful than most other vampires in spite of her youth, she would never abuse her looks in order to draw closer to humans and drink their blood.
The thought had probably never even crossed her mind.
The more anyone spoke with her, the more they realized that her heart was impossibly pure.
Those who grew closer to Selim were taken aback by her character--so different from what they had expected--that they were embarrassed by their own prejudice and left fearing for her sake.
They feared that perhaps this innocent vampire would one day be betrayed and broken.
Perhaps this pure-hearted girl would then despair at the world and fall from grace.
Perhaps this sincere and gentle soul--such a rare thing in the realm of vampires--would one day become just like themselves. Both those who were blind to their own malice and those who were generally called ‘good’ found themselves humbled by her character.
Perhaps worrying for her sake like this could be considered nosy. But they could not just leave her be.
It was not love that guided them.
Nor was it pity.
The thought of protecting her simply occurred to them.
Then was she truly such a lofty creature? Was she a saint? The pool of blood would answer thus:
[Not so, I must say. Though I must confess I have never personally witnessed her in such a state, even she sometimes falls to her own greed. Even she is sometimes angered for reasons others would consider unacceptable. From a human perspective (though one must keep in mind that she is a plant-based vampire), she is possessed of a perfectly normal character. But something about her draws others to her. Perhaps this magnetic charm of hers is the vampiric ability with which Selim Vergès was born.]
[I also confess than I am one of those drawn to her--in an entirely platonic sense, of course.]
And yet again, the alraune’s charm drew in another to her presence.
The moment the boy who was lost in a struggle with his own identity met her in the cavern, his heart was already hers.
The first sentiment he had ever felt. His oldest memory.
The only words he produced before his psyche was blended with those of others.
The one sentiment he could truly trust finally came back to life, and the boy named Valdred found himself captivated by the alraune in a slightly different way from the others.
It was love at first sight. A truly human emotion.
But it was still beyond the self-conscious watermelon to deny such a thing, for he had yet to even realize the fact.
He was certain that he could never hold romantic feelings for anyone--a being with no clear identity, he felt, had no such right.
Waldstein Castle, Laboratory.
[I also confess than I am one of those drawn to her--in an entirely platonic sense, of course.]
“Hoh hoh. You also speak for the rest of us, Viscount Waldstein.”
<Eek! There’s so much competition! I really love Selim too!>
Watching the recorded footage through one of the monitors, Professor’s speakers let out something that sounded like a sigh.
<It’s no good. I’ve combed through all this past information about Doctor, but I can’t find a single clue.>
This particular piece of footage was from a conversation Doctor had with the viscount about Selim. At the time, it had been just a few short years since Doctor’s arrival at the castle. It was also:
<This is around the time when my memories begin...>
The being that the castle’s residents called ‘Professor’ possessed no memories of her past before she had taken on this form. She knew that her main body was the skeleton inside her coffin. But she knew nothing about the face the skeleton used to wear, and the kind of vampire she was.
But she was happy.
Once it was determined that her skeleton was likely female, she collected a great deal of data in order to become feminine in character. Of course, a large majority of her sources were foreign animated series some of the castle’s vampires had imported.
Doctor had helped her all this time as she floundered without her memories. And though her skeleton would not regenerate flesh and blood, he created a coffin through which she could interact with the world around her.
At first, she was curious about her lost past. But as she grew accustomed to life in the caverns, she slowly began to lose interest. In fact, she began to worry that the restoration of her memories would somehow destroy the happy days she spent with Doctor now.
After all, the ordinary days she led here were all she had, as well as the source of all her joy.
But now, it was all falling to pieces.
Each time she recalled Doctor’s words, her fears grew worse.
She began to wonder if, perhaps, she was also somehow connected to his problems. Professor desperately rummaged through the lab to find some clues as to Doctor’s whereabouts.
‘Doctor is going to come back,’ she reassured herself, holding onto this one last ray of hope.
The mountain path.
“To think you’d actually find me here...”
“What’s wrong? You’re not here to just show me your face and leave, right? Though I actually can’t see your face right now. Hah hah!”
‘What am I so scared of?’
“C’mon, Rudy. Let’s play. Just like old times.”
‘Why am I shaking?!’
Each time Theodosius spoke, Rudy’s heart was rattled.
Part of the reason was hatred and anger.
His entire body was fueled by hostility, and his rage was infinitely worse than what it had been earlier that day against Ferret and Mihail.
The hatred had festered within him for a full decade. But this one moment of fear threatened to turn everything to naught.
‘Fire stakes from the armor.
‘Pin his limbs to the ground.
‘Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.
‘Make him taste despair. Just like he did to me.
‘Make him taste even greater despair.
‘Pluck out his innards.
‘Massacre his friends as he watches.’
Every part of his body--every part of his mind--every memory stored in his heart--screamed out different orders to him, pumping bloodlust through his veins. This would be revenge.
But the soul of Rudy Wenders--the one who controlled the power held in his body--was, more than anything else, terrified by the sight of his nemesis.
He had stockpiled fury during his time as an Eater. He had made sport of vampires unrelated to his quest for revenge, killed, and consumed them.
He had gained power.
He had been so certain that he was strong enough.
He had been convinced that he now had the power to toy with, murder, and devour the boy standing before him.
His mind tried to remind him again and again. But logic was not enough to sway the instinctive fear that had taken root in his heart.
‘I want to run.’
Each time the words echoed in his head, his trembling worsened uncontrollably.
Each time he shook, the urge to turn tail and run threatened to overpower him.
The fear grew worse and worse, eventually taking over his thought processes entirely. If no one said anything to him, he would soon succumb to the terror and flee.
But the one who spoke to him, of course, was the boy he so feared.
“Hey... Are you okay? Are you even going to be able to kill me like that?”
The weight of the fear would destroy Rudy’s mind if he didn’t respond. But the vampire was not the one who was holding this fear over him; it was Rudy’s own mind that was breaking from inside out.
The act of calling his foe’s name--if only in a mumbled gasp--very slightly alleviated his panic.
And that was enough.
Rudy swallowed bitterly and glared daggers at the boy before him.
His own heartbeat echoed through his armor.
The sound snapped the Eater back into reality.
Though fear incarnate was standing before him, Rudy was still alive.
Though his nemesis was doing absolutely nothing, the act of confirming the fact of his survival was of great significance to Rudy.
‘I’m alive. I... I’m alive! Mom and Dad... And everyone... They’re all dead. But I’m still alive. Yeah. I’m still alive!’
The air around the gigantic suit of armor changed.
‘I’m alive... But what for?
‘...To make that bastard know despair!’
In the blink of an eye, a white stake was launched from the helm of the armor, where the wearer’s eyes should have normally been. It flew straight towards the vampire, who was standing only a short few meters away.
The stake had been aimed directly at the boy’s face, but Doctor--Theodosius M. Waldstein--did not even twitch.
Just when it seemed that the stake would be drive through his skull, his face dissipated into fog.
As soon as the white projectile had passed through where his face should have been, Theo reformed his head over his neck as though nothing had happened.
“Ha. Hah hah. That’s an amazing toy you have there. But it’s not going to work on me.”
So casual was the boy’s tone and grin that what little courage the armored man had mustered shattered to bits.
In an attempt to hide his fear, Rudy fired off one white stake after another.
He had slaughtered countless vampires and turned them to ash with this weapon. But this tried-and-true method had no effect on his foe. Though Rudy had faced many vampires who were capable of turning to fog, he had killed most of them before they could transform completely.
But the speed of Theo’s transformation was unheard of. Though it began only after Rudy had fired the stakes, the stakes had no time to connect before the transformation was complete.
As Rudy began to panic, Theo said casually:
“If you think this is something, just wait ‘til you see the jester work her magic.”
Rudy also had experience fighting vampires who were completely in fog form. But that was no problem once Theresia tore through the surrounding air with her silver whip.
It was then that the Eater realized that his partner was not by his side.
Although they did not constantly work as a pair, when working as a team, they were among the strongest of the Organization’s dogs. It was an insulting moniker, but Rudy forced himself to accept it until the day he could tear out Theo’s throat.
But now, Theresia--who was always there to accept that moniker by his side--was absent.
She was probably still on the island, but Rudy knew that by acting alone, he had put himself at a disadvantage. His panic worsened as her absence became more and more pronounced.
The vampire seemed to have read his fear. He tossed out an encouragement at his old friend.
“That can’t be all you’ve got, Rudy. Those stakes aren’t everything. You’re strong enough to use that armor freely. You have years of experience and power from devouring all those vampires.”
“Don’t worry, Rudy. I know you’ve become stronger.”
He smiled innocently as he spat words of pure poison, taking a step closer to Rudy.
“After all, we’re friends, aren’t we?”
His rage boiled over.
His bloodlust had almost reached its limits.
But his fear overcame it all.
He could not even take a single step.
He could not take the first step towards attacking the vampire and making him suffer. When his brain ordered his body to move, it froze and refused to budge. When his body attempted to step forward, his fears put everything to a halt.
Rudy was rooted to the spot. It was all he could do to force out a trembling voice. This was both his limit and the greatest bluff he could muster.
“I’m scared... I... I’m scared... Shit... But... But I swear... I... I’ll... I’ll... K-ki-ki...”
“You’ll... What?” Theo repeated, speaking in a threatening tone for the first time. “I can’t hear you.”
To let out a scream would be to admit defeat.
There was nothing resembling a child in Theo’s voice. Rudy, who was without a doubt much stronger than Theo, found his will breaking.
“You’ll... What? Oh! You were trying to say that you were going to kill me. It’s okay, Rudy. If saying so makes you stronger, then say it all you like.”
Theo’s provocation pierced deep into his memories. In mind, Rudy was now the helpless little child who had just lost everything that was dear to him. Standing before him, just like that day, was the never-changing vampire. The darkness reminded Rudy of that night, and the lights from the castle turned to the smell of fire that burned away at his will.
Theo sighed at the sight of his old friend being consumed by the past, and shook his head.
“Still so weak.”
Rudy showed no sign of responding. The armor stood utterly still.
So Theo decided to drive the final nail in the coffin.
“Do you remember what your sister Elsa said that day?”
The memories replaying in Rudy’s mind came grinding to a halt.
The moment Theo mentioned his sister’s name, it was as though time itself had frozen.
All his fear, his hatred, the sounds of the world around him, and even his breathing forgot the passage of time for a single second.
The name ‘Elsa’ was the trigger. His nightmares came to life once more. The final part of his memory.
His beloved sister. His sister, whom he cared for more than even their parents.
In his memories, she was in the arms of the vampire before him. His fangs had been sunk into her neck. And the last words she ever spoke to Rudy--
Theo stood before him today, looking just as he did in Rudy’s nightmares, and repeated:
“So... what you tell me now is going to decide if your sister will live or die. I’ll kill her if you say you love her, and I’ll kill her if you say you hate her. What are you going to do? Hah! Try and stop me if you can! Come on, try and save your sister! Ahaha! It’s all on you now. How does it feel, holding your precious family’s life in the palm of your hand? You could even say that you’ve subjugated her, just like a vampire! Ahahaha! Hahahahahaha!”
The vampire’s thread of logic did not entirely make sense, but it was enough to etch his words into the boy’s thoughts. It felt as though the sounds entering his ears were rattling his brain from the inside out.
The vampire soon stopped laughing, putting on the most gentle smile yet. He slowly demanded a response.
“Now... tell me your answer.”
There was a story unfolding in his dream.
A re-enactment of his past, caused by the memories etched into his mind.
The beginning of his memories as an Eater--an avenger--being played back in reality before his very eyes.
The very moment the boy named Rudy gave up his humanity.
But this was different from his nightmares. Rudy tasted endless despair at the sheer realism of the recreation of his past. Though he had seen this image in his dreams again and again and again and again and again, the moment he heard the name ‘Elsa’, it dawned on him that dreams really were nothing more than that--dreams.
Reality was not so kind. It stirred Rudy’s memories, forcibly bringing back his most painful memory.
In the memory, Rudy was trembling. He shook as he asked Theo:
“...Are you... going to... spare me...?”
It was as though something had ransacked his memories.
He had tried to put it away. He had tried to forget.
But this was all the more reason why he could never forget this moment.
Worse than the fact of his father’s death, his mother’s death,
Or having had to beg his nemesis for his life,
Was the agonizing fact that he had abandoned his beloved sister.
Fearing that his answer would lead to his sister’s death, Rudy could not respond to Theo’s question. Prioritizing his own life was all that he could do.
“Huh. I guess you love yourself more than you love your sister. ...Hey, Elsa. Say something. Say something to your sweet little brother. That self-centered brother who’s just abandoned you.”
Elsa turned her unfocused gaze to Rudy as though hypnotized.
And she went on to say:
“I... I wish... You never existed...”
His scream echoed through the woods, threatening even to push away the festivities taking place not so far away.
Taken aback for a moment by the intensity of Rudy’s cry, Theo leapt back without thinking.
But he did not manage to widen the distance between them.
The gigantic suit of armor had charged forward almost simultaneously, closing the gap like a magnet.
“I wish... I WISH YOU NEVER EXISTED!”
Catching sight of a stake being fired from the armor’s helm, Theo quickly turned his head into fog to avoid the strike.
But he had not thought far enough.
Just before the stake made contact with Theo’s head, Rudy snatched it out of the air with his right hand and drove it into his chest.
“Urgh! Agh... Ack!”
So quick was the feint that Theo was too late to transform his chest into fog. The pain pulsating from the right side of his torso stopped even the transformation of his head.
‘...I broke him.’
The moment Theo’s nonchalance broke and his face contorted with pain, time around Rudy began to move again like gears that had been snapped together.
Part of the nightmare that terrorized him all these years had been destroyed.
At the same time, his confidence in his skills as an Eater--the mind of a Hunter--finally returned in full force.
‘...I made him feel agony!’
“Heh... Heh heh...”
He let out a stilted, trembling laugh, drawing air from the very depths of his lungs.
“Hah... Hah.... Ahahahahaha! Hahahahahahahahahahaha! Ahahahahahahahahahahahaha!”
Using the terror he had been feeling up until just moments ago as a proverbial footstool, he laughed like a madman as Theo lay fallen on the mountain path.
“I get it. I get it now, Theo! Theo, Theo, Theo. Theodosius M. Waldstein! I see now. You can only turn parts of your body into fog at once! Ahahahaha! This is why you’re acting so high-and-mighty and provoking me! Right? I’m right, aren’t I?! And one more thing! You can only turn to fog for seconds at a time. It’s all you can do to avoid projectiles and stakes! Am I wrong?”
Theo responded with a resounding silence.
It was essentially an act of acknowledging his weaknesses.
But in spite of the pain evident in his eyes, Theo put on a friendly grin.
“You’re absolutely right, Rudy. But don’t you think you’re being too harsh on an old friend?”
“I never hurt you personally, you know.”
A gigantic, armored foot stomped down on Theo’s shoulder. The same attack was used on Ferret earlier that day for the expressly calculated purpose of making her suffer; but this time, Rudy had lashed out without so much as thinking. The stake lodged in Theo’s chest snapped, driving countless splintered pieces into his body.
Even tiny splinters of wooden stakes were powerful weapons against vampires. Theo was overcome by agony, rolling down the slope while squirming like a bisected worm.
“Gah... Hah... Hah... Heh heh... That... really hurts, Rudy...” Doctor gasped, but he quickly put aside his look of pain and once more flashed Rudy a casual smile.
“What are you going to do now, Theo? Turn into a flock of bats and disappear? Transform into a wolf to try and maul me? Try to hypnotize me to do your bidding? Are you going to try and drink my blood? Or... Or... would you beg like a pathetic dog for me to spare your life...? Just like... Just like I did back then?”
Though Rudy was so quiet his voice was almost at a whisper, each and every word he uttered was clearly full of hatred. As though he was desperately holding back the urge to let loose all his bloodlust, killing Theo instantly.
“Ahaha... Don’t degrade yourself like that, Rudy. You weren’t pathetic.”
“There’s no use trying to provoke me. All you have to do is scream. I’ll tear off your limbs and force you to watch as I make your beloved friends and family die long, painful deaths. And then, I’ll spend the next ten... No, hundred years... Making you experience all the agony this world has to offer before finally killing you. I’ll make you regret having been born a sturdy creature like a vampire until the moment you die!”
The avenger was merciless in laying out his threats. But Theo looked up at the night sky from the ground and smiled at Rudy.
“Heh... You know what would hurt me most, Rudy? Losing my old friend.”
“Then you won’t have anything to worry about. You never had any old friends to begin with.” Rudy replied, once more trampling down. He put one foot over Theo’s gut and slowly put weight into his leg. He wanted to hear the sound of Theo’s ribs breaking and see the moment he vomited blood as his organs were crushed.
There was a sickening noise as red foam began spewing from Theo’s mouth.
The sight brought Rudy unparalleled joy, but he stomped down on Theo over and over again in an attempt to hide the strange feeling of emptiness in the corner of his heart.
Each time his hated nemesis cried out in pain, Rudy reaffirmed his own strength.
And each time he was reminded of his foe’s frailty, annoyance sprouted in his heart.
“Now I know... You’re nothing but a pathetic excuse for a vampire...! Shit! The werewolves I faced today look stronger than you! But you... you took away everything from me! A powerless vampire like you! I lost everything to a disgustingly weak vampire like you!”
One kick after another after another after another after another after another after another. Theo’s white lab coat was stained with blood, covering his body like a beautiful red cloak. Rudy kicked him again and again and again and drove a stake through him and trampled on him, stake and all.
This was already beyond torture; it was a drawn-out execution. And yet Rudy always made sure to avoid Theo’s head and heart--his sense of reason was still intact.
But once Rudy stopped kicking Theo in order to conserve his strength, the mangled vampire began to howl with laughter.
With each laugh, Theo’s body changed. Rudy could not believe his eyes.
Each time the boy laughed, the wounds on his body faded. Lacerations, bruises, and broken bones disappeared one by one.
It was much too quick a process to be classified as regeneration. The countless splinters wedged in his body were expelled as thought they had crawled out of their own free will. His torn sinews wove themselves back together cell by cell, restoring Theo’s movements.
The blood that Theo had lost--now hardened--remained where it was. But the blood that was on the surface of his body was quickly re-absorbed back into him. Theo then went on to turn a part of himself into fog--the part upon which Rudy’s foot lay--and took to his feet in one inhuman motion.
He turned half his body into a flock of bats and leapt up as though the bats were lifting up the rest of his body. Theo then easily landed on the ground about ten meters from Rudy.
“Aha... Hahahaha... What an idiot... You’re such an idiot, Rudy.”
He turned his neck as though testing his regained health, and looked directly at Rudy.
“You know, I spent years studying ways to make vampires immortal--ways for us to overcome our weaknesses. I vivisected countless vampires, and I even used myself as a guinea pig.”
Flicking his bloodstained clothes, Theo taunted:
“Rudy, you can’t hurt me permanently with attacks that weak. And one thing: How many more stakes do you have left to fire? You couldn’t have an infinite supply in there. And if you’ve already used some of them on someone else... You should be running out right about now.”
Rudy was silent at the sight of Theo’s incredible regenerative ability.
But a moment later, an overjoyed voice escaped the suit of armor.
“You shouldn’t be worrying over how many stakes I have left. And as for your regeneration speed... I’m actually happy, Theo.”
He had overcome his fear of the vampire. All Rudy saw was the image of Theo from moments earlier, his face contorted in pain.
“Now I can kill you over and over again.”
There was a clatter and a click from the armor’s vambraces.
His gauntlets popped outward at the elbows, revealing a pair of thin hidden blades.
Although they were only the length of pocket knives, the blades were forged in beautiful arcs fit for full-length swords.
“I’d heard that Carnald liked little contraptions like that, but it’s almost a joke compared to the stake-shooting mechanism he built into that armor. ...I guess those knives must be part-silver, but this is really too bad, Rudy. Silver won’t have any effect on me.”
“That doesn’t matter to me. I’ll be happy enough tearing off your limbs with these knives.”
From the promptness of his response, it was likely that Rudy’s threat was meant to be taken literally. The flippant grin on Theo’s face disappeared, giving way to a different kind of smile.
His childlike attitude was nowhere to be found. His eyes shone, humanity having utterly drained from his expression.
“Then just try it. But we might get interrupted here. Let’s find ourselves a better spot.”
Theo was not growing nervous by any measure. His suggestion was little more than the act of a cat finally taking a stance to kill the rebellious mouse it had been toying with. The air around him grew tense.
But it was all broken in an instant.
Several oblivious cries shook the woods, destroying the tension between the combatants. A voice even more childlike that Theo’s was earlier exploded into their presence.
“Heeeey! I found him! I found Doctor!”
“Wow, I’ve never seen Doctor not wearing white before.”
“No... I think... That must be blood...”
Following the freeloaders of Waldstein Castle were a girl dressed like a jester, a boy with green hair, and a bespectacled girl following right next to the green-haired boy.
The instant Doctor caught sight of them, his eyes visibly swelled with fear.
But fortunately--or unfortunately--Rudy was so distracted by the vampires’ sudden arrival that he did not notice the change in his nemesis.
Waldstein Castle Laboratory.
The festivities must have already begun by now, but there was no sign of Doctor’s return.
Professor had combed through many more videos and archives, but she could not find anything of particular use. She sometimes turned to check the live footage being fed from all over the island, but she could not see him on any of the cameras. In fact, there were very few people showing up on the screens now. It was as though humanity had vanished entirely from anywhere that wasn’t the heart of the festival.
Professor was stumped. She sighed worriedly and went to Doctor’s desk in a corner of the room.
<Oh, Doctor... I know you might scold me for this later, but you left my lid flipped open! We can call it even now!>
Though she felt sorry for having to do so, Professor reached her arms towards the locked drawer.
There was a crunch. Professor’s arm quickly began to rifle through the distorted drawer.
There was a photograph partially sticking out from a notebook.
Thinking it unusual, Professor gently reached out and grabbed the picture.
<This is Doctor and... Um... I wonder who this could be?>
The photograph seemed to have been taken in this very laboratory. Its subjects were Doctor and a girl. The girl looked to be slightly older than he was, and there was a somewhat downcast look in her eyes.
She was an unfamiliar face to Professor. The photograph was likely from the time before her memories began.
<I wonder... Could this be... the old me?>
With trepidation, Professor began to search for more information about the girl. But the only clue she found was the note scrawled on the back of the photograph.
[I’ve printed out another copy of the photo of myself and Theo as per the viscount’s request. -Elsa]
Professor struggled for a moment, trying to match up the name on the note to the face in the photograph. But she soon turned her body from side to side in defeat.
<Ohh... I can’t remember a thing!>
But holding on to the hope that the photograph might provide her with some sort of clue, Professor decided that she would show it to the viscount or another vampire.
<Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this pretty girl was really me?>
Professor took a magnet from a whiteboard in the corner of the room and fixed the photograph onto one of her arms.
It felt as though Doctor was right by her side. Professor grew slightly more hopeful.
Not yet knowing what was taking place aboveground,
Not yet knowing the true identity of the girl in the photograph...
Somewhere along a thoroughfare on Growerth.
The street was eerily quiet, deserted and lit at regular intervals by blindingly bright streetlights.
The countless eyes shining from the fluttering darkness glared in unison at the being at the center of the shadows.
Until just moments ago, the eyes had been smoldering with fury and hatred. But now those emotions had been replaced by a sense of sadistic joy.
Surrounded by these innumerable eyes, Shizune Kijima closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Though she was by no means crippled as though trampled upon by a suit of armor, Shizune was clearly injured grievously. She was covered in cuts that would not heal, blood spouting from every laceration.
When she was first surrounded by the flock of bats, Shizune had dodged the dancing silver whip. But her advantage was quickly lost.
Melhilm, in the form of countless bats, tore at her from every direction. Each attack was ruthlessly directed at her eyes. And despite the fact that his attacks had never once fully connected as he intended, his abilities worked in flawless conjunction with Theresia’s Eater abilities.
The dense clump of bats was darkness incarnate.
If Shizune focused, she could have easily cut down the creatures that continued to target her eyes. But each time she resolved to either attack or defend against them, the silver whip cut through the shadows and made its way towards her.
The darkness clawed at her and invaded her line of sight.
The sound of countless wingbeats concealed Theresia’s footsteps. The movement of the great flock of bats confounded her sense of direction.
So widely were the bats spread that even Theresia was partially blinded by their masses. But her whips struck true, perhaps thanks to her ability to sense vampires--or perhaps because Melhilm was signaling her somehow.
Shizune, meanwhile, sensed Melhilm from every direction. But Theresia’s presence continued to elude her.
It was a one-sided battle where her foe could locate her with pinpoint accuracy while Shizune herself was helpless to counter. The mass of darkness blinded her as it attacked.
The assault continued for some time.
Then, the blow that would decide the battle was driven into Shizune’s thigh.
The tip of Theresia’s whip tore through cloth, cut past her thighbone, and lodged itself in her leg. A splash of red lit up the blackness around Shizune.
Swallowing her scream, Shizune took hold of the whip buried in her thigh and drew out the silver tip from her flesh.
“...Gotcha...” The former Eater chuckled, covered in cold sweat.
The darkness parted slightly, creating a tunnel of bats leading straight to Theresia.
But in spite of Shizune’s grip on her weapon, Theresia could not have looked more nonchalant.
“Maybe this is because you’re a former Eater, but it looks to me that you rely too much on your ability to sense vampires. I’ll take care not to reproduce your mistakes myself in the future.” She said plainly.
Theresia then lightly pulled on the whip. Shizune’s entire body was rattled by the impact. Although she just managed to avoid being dragged along with it, the movement made clear the difference in their respective abilities.
The bats gathered next to Theresia, and quickly took on the form of a sneering Melhilm.
“This is all you have to show me? I’m almost disappointed. But unlike you mongrel dogs, Theresia’s prey was carefully selected. She is a perfect Eater, raised on the most efficient diet of victims.”
Theresia was as good as being treated like livestock, but she did not seem to care.
Shizune’s spirit must have been broken by now, Melhilm thought, but she was still sneering as though he and Theresia were nothing but ingredients for her next meal.
“Mongrels, huh.” She said to herself, her smile twisting further.
Annoyed by the sight, Melhilm spat:
“...Enough of this. Kill her.”
“Yes, sir.” Theresia answered mechanically, hauling back her whip and retrieving the end from Shizune’s grip. Realizing that there was no point in attempting a tug-of-war match, Shizune relented easily.
The whip bolted back towards Theresia, before disappearing in the blink of an eye.
With a sharp crack, the pointed tip again drew nearer towards Shizune, several times faster than it was when Theresia had pulled it back.
Her thigh muscles torn apart by silver, Shizune was unable to avoid the strike.
She didn’t even have time to withdraw her grin before the silver glint pierced her chest.
“...It’s over. Hmph. I’d wanted to land the killing blow myself, but some things just can’t be helped.”
Shizune lay spread-eagle on the ground, her body slowly turning to ash. Melhilm threw her a disinterested glance, then turned away.
“Let us be off, Theresia. There is no need to devour this one.”
Theresia also showed no sign of emotion at having murdered the vampire.
Melhilm took several steps forward.
“We must be on our way now. If I’d known things would be so simple, I’d never have requested support from Sigmund--”
Melhilm was just about to finish speaking. Theresia was just about to turn around as she realized that Shizune’s presence was not at all diminishing.
They were both lightly struck on the back. The impact soon gave way to a sharp burst of pain that assailed their entire bodies.
“...It can’t be!”
When they turned, they saw Shizune standing on the road.
They were so close that they could almost feel her breath on their skin.
Shizune was smiling self-deprecatingly, standing just within arm’s length. How had she gotten so close when her thigh was injured? And before that, how had she survived the blow to the chest?
Melhilm was lost in panicked confusion, but the answer was simple.
“Yeah... You’re right, Melhilm.”
Both he and Theresia had forgotten one important fact.
Thinking of Shizune as an Eater-turned vampire, they fought her as they would an Eater--a human being with enhanced strength and reflexes that could overpower vampires.
“I’m an Eater. I’m a worthless mongrel who eats the flesh of my enemies and steals away their powers.”
And so, Melhilm and Theresia had underestimated Shizune’s abilities as a vampire.
“That’s why... I’ve always been pretty good at stealing other people’s techniques.”
They never realized the fact that there was single a bat flapping in the air, high above them. Shizune’s heart, in the form of a bat, was looking down on them as though watching a pair of clowns in a performance.
Theresia quickly lashed out with a kick, but Shizune’s body turned into fog. The attack would not connect.
Though surprised by Shizune turning into fog, Melhilm made to transform back into a flock of bats. Swallowing the anger he felt at Shizune turning into fog--an ability he did not possess--Melhilm prepared to devour the fog in the form of his many bats.
But just as his transformation began, another mass of bats rose up as though in a wall after his own black flock.
The bats originating from Shizune chased down Melhilm’s bats one by one, plunging their fangs into the mouths of his bats and tearing out the tongues of their enemies.
Melhilm understood instinctively as he lost his advantage; at this rate, his own bats would be devoured by Shizune’s. He quickly gathered back the intact bats and reformed his body--though there were no pieces missing from himself, his face looked gaunter and his skin was pale.
Shizune followed suit, gathering her bats back to her own body.
“You two forgot one important thing. Especially you, Melhilm. You’re a pretty poor excuse for a vampire.”
Energized by the feast of the bats, Shizune Kijima smiled ruthlessly.
“It’s nighttime, Melhilm.”
She sneered at Theresia, swallowing her confidence whole.
“And you know what that means, right? This is the hour of vampires, little girl.”
Theresia’s practiced nonchalance faltered.
‘I can’t believe I let my guard down...‘
When she first realized that Shizune had dipped her own legs in hot asphalt and fled, Theresia had sensed something about her--something like aggravating tenacity.
But her own overwhelming superiority had robbed her of that sense of caution. No Eater would allow themselves to relax if all they had done was pierce the target’s heart. Theresia bit her lip.
“I bet you’ve only taken down vampires the Organization assigned to you.” Shizune said with a sympathetic look, “you’ve only ever fought vampires they knew you’d be able to defeat, in terms of strengths and weaknesses. You have a lot of experience in battle, but you’ve never really been in trouble, have you?”
Without even listening to Shizune, Theresia once more prepared to strike with her whip.
Shizune, however, did not react. She looked up into the air with her hands behind her back, as though about to recite her life story.
“It was the same for me. But for the past year, I was all alone. That one year’s all the difference between you and me.”
Something about the scene struck Melhilm as odd.
And by the time he looked down at his subordinate’s feet, it was already too late.
As Theresia prepared to attack the defenseless Shizune, she leaned back to prepare for the strike. The moment she was at the furthest point, something grabbed hold of her ankles.
Theresia lost her balance and nearly toppled over. But her reflexes allowed her to push off the ground with her hand and leap backwards.
Shizune did not miss this chance.
With frightening speed, she closed the gap between herself and Theresia as the latter was in midair. Shizune’s arms were gone below the elbows, and a pair of hands were limp on the ground where Theresia’s feet had been only moments earlier.
Realizing that Shizune had copied his own technique, Melhilm let out a silent scream. She couldn’t have so quickly mastered the art of turning her hands into bats and exercising control over them. He narrowed his eyes and looked closely.
The two arms sticking out of the ground were not completely separate from Shizune. The bats were connected through the shadow cast under her feet, reaching even to the ground under Theresia.
In other words, the arms had never been separated from Shizune. Of course, putting the bats in the distance into the form of her own hands must have taken a great deal of effort, Melhilm theorized. And by the time he reached this thought, Theresia had been caught in Shizune’s grasp.
As soon as Shizune brushed up against them, the flock of bats returned to her body and gave back her hands. With them, she tightly took hold of Theresia’s whip-arm.
Theresia could feel her bones creaking under the strain. She tried to lash out with a kick, but Shizune’s knee came forward and stopped her.
Although Theresia was still physically stronger, their position closed the gap in strength to its limit. If Shizune knew any Judo or Aikido techniques, at this point she could easily overcome Theresia’s raw power.
But in spite of her great advantage, Shizune paused to say to the Eater:
“My teacher Traugott told me; one cycle of seasons is enough to change a human completely.”
Her eyes glinted as she put even more pressure into the arms holding Theresia’s.
“And that goes even more so for vampires!”
The moment Shizune broke out into a cold grin, Theresia saw her chance. She quickly leaned her head back for a headbutt.
But the moment she did so, an animal’s jaws were clamped around her neck.
“?! ...Ugh... Ack...!”
“You know, once I see power, I can’t go without making it mine.”
Melhilm made to jump in, but he quickly stopped.
“‘Cause I’m a worthless mongrel Eater, that’s why.”
A wolf’s muzzle was sticking out of Shizune’s chest--the spot Theresia had pierced with her whip earlier--and was holding Theresia by the neck. Although neither Melhilm or Theresia had any way of knowing, this was a technique of Mage’s that Shizune had fallen victim to last year.
“I finally got back at you for what happened earlier. We’re even now.”
Before even finishing her sentence, Shizune let go of Theresia’s arm, and with the latter’s neck still in the jaws of the muzzle, kicked her body.
Her free hand slid down towards the wolf’s muzzle, but Shizune withdrew the jaws. If she had been a second later, Theresia’s carotid artery would have been slashed open.
Shizune jumped backwards and licked her lips with Melhilm and Theresia locked in her sights.
Her smile was cold as ice. She would probably carry out her threat word-for-word.
Melhilm felt a chill run down his spine as he remembered their encounter the previous year.
But Shizune’s feast was interrupted by a sudden intrusion.
The sound of a car’s engines reached her ears.
The headlights illuminated them from the distance. The honk of a klaxon signaled them to move.
Not even blinking at the noise, Shizune elegantly walked over to Theresia. She intended to drink the Eater’s blood before finally devouring Melhilm.
Melhilm considered transforming once more to escape, but once he saw the state of the car racing towards them, a twisted grin rose to his lips.
Shizune was certain that the car would either stop or swerve to avoid them. And even if the driver could not, she knew that she had enough time to get out of the way.
But when the car was within spitting distance, her ears caught the sound of the engine growling even louder than before.
She leapt into the air with her uninjured leg and jumped sideways, glancing at the source of the noise.
A mass of metal blitzed past the spot she had been standing in a moment ago, before skidding to a stop several dozen meters away.
“...Probably not a drunk driver, huh.”
She knew this was no accident because she took note of Melhilm, standing across the road from her. A nonchalant smile had returned to his face.
At the same time, she heard something else approaching from the distance.
Throughout the course of the battle, the island’s thoroughfare had been strangely devoid of vehicles. But it was as though the all the absent cars were returning at once, racing towards Shizune without caring that she was on the road. The cars slowed as they drew near, ignoring lanes as they parked in a formation around her.
“Hmph. It’s a good thing I requested support.” Melhilm sighed. Crowds of people disembarked from the vehicles.
Although Shizune did not sense any vampires among them, the people all looked at her with empty eyes, carrying metal pipes and bladed objects.
It was a group of humans plucked indiscriminately from the city. Men and women, young and old. They stepped out of the cars one by one, standing like a wall before Melhilm and Theresia.
Some of the people were even carrying shotguns. This was not a group composed only of ordinary civilians. Although things would be easiest for Shizune if she killed them all, that was one choice she wanted to avoid. She had no qualms about taking the humans lives, but to do so would be no different from turning the viscount and the island’s vampires against herself.
‘Is this subjugation?’
Because she could not sense any vampires from the group, Shizune supposed that these were ordinary humans under a vampire’s subjugation.
“...Impressive. Is this your handiwork, Melhilm?”
“Hah. I admit even such a feat is possible for me, if I scatter a flock of bats at once.” Melhilm said casually, sure once more of his superiority. He gestured with his chin to Theresia and ordered her to retreat, and did the same himself.
“Keep her well occupied, Sigmund.”
“Stop right there!”
Shizune tried to chase after her fleeing meal, but the wall of humans grew larger and larger as more cars arrived on the scene. Shizune would need to leap a great height to make it over, but with her thigh grazed with silver, it would be a difficult jump to make. And even if she transformed into fog or a flock of bats, Theresia and Melhilm could probably outrun her.
But before all that, did Shizune have any way of escaping this predicament? Would she have to transform into a flock of bats, or would she have to kill these people after all, with the understanding that she would turn the viscount against herself?
As she continued to ponder, the crowd drew nearer as though attempting to suffocate her. The sight of Melhilm and Theresia escaping made Shizune anxious, tempting her to make an unpleasant decision.
The shotguns were now being aimed at her. The words ‘justified self-defense’ rose to mind and refused to leave her thoughts.
‘I’ll kill about ten of them as soon as he fires.’ She said to herself.
But at that moment, something descended upon her from overhead.
A gigantic, human-shaped projectile landed without even a signaling gunshot.
Accompanying the gust from the impact was a man. So quick was his approach that Shizune did not notice him until he was right before her eyes.
Even in spite of his powerful presence, she had failed to notice him until now.
At first, Shizune thought that this man, possessed of a chilling presence, was the one behind the subjugation. But he grinned viciously at a man holding a shotgun and drew a firearm of his own, reciting a line straight out of a movie.
“Pointing a gun at a woman? Can you seriously call yourself a real gunman?”
A moment later, a silent projectile was launched. The shotgun was knocked out of the hands of the subjugated human. The crowd flinched in horror.
But as soon as it became apparent that the wielder of the shotgun had been unharmed, they reached out to take hold of the fallen weapon.
But the mysterious gunman was not so courteous that he would give them the chance.
The sound of something cutting through the air shot forth from the barrel of his gun, and the projectile proceeded to sink its fangs into the neck of the man with the shotgun.
As soon as the bat released the man’s neck, he went limp and fell to the pavement.
“Tranquilizer shots ain’t really my style, but, well...” The blond-haired, blue-eyed man mumbled with a scratch of the head, “gotta do what Mister Gerhardt says, y’know?”
Though the man could have easily blown off his target’s head, he suppressed the urge and instead elected to overwrite the subjugation imposed upon the human. It would be a maddening process, Yellow Bridgestone thought to himself, as he recalled his conversation with his brother.
Just after instructing Yellow to look for Melhilm, Ishibashi had added:
“Also, I’m passing on a message from Sir Gerhardt. [Please do not bring the islanders to harm, if at all possible]. This isn’t an order, by the way. He bowed his head and made a personal request. So... I’m going to echo his sentiment. Please.”
The gunman chortled at the memory.
“Pft. Can’t believe my stupid brother actually said ‘please’.” He mumbled with a laugh, and fired off one silent shot after another.
Each crisp cut of the air was accompanied by a bat. The living projectiles tore into the necks of the humans one by one.
“And that thing with the ‘if at all possible’... So if I do get people hurt, that’s as good as telling everyone something pathetic like ‘Oh, I’m too weak to get this job done properly’!”
The bats flew in perfectly straight lines, landing on the humans’ necks with incredible accuracy.
None were exempt from this show of precision; those who were lunging towards Yellow and Shizune, those who were aiming shotguns, and those who were carrying crossbows were alike taken down with equal effort.
He had an infinite supply of ammunition.
The gunman, who did not even need time to reload, was a walking cheat key. He continued to fire away, and at the same time turned back to speak to Shizune for the first time.
“Yo, cutie. I happened to see you surrounded here and thought I’d play a bit of knight-in-shining-armor. But, uh... who are you, anyway?”
The mountain path.
“Oh. Didn’t think I’d run into all of you here.”
The first words out of Doctor’s mouth were a simple greeting.
But the incongruity in his tone confused the vampires who had been searching for him all evening.
His elderly manner of speech had been replaced by one more suitable to his appearance, and it was as though his entire body was emitting a chill.
“Doctor...? Is that... really you?” Val asked, reacting to Doctor’s voice--so different from what he remembered. Why was he wearing a red coat instead of a white lab coat? Who was this armored man? Val had many questions he wanted to ask, but his first question had been the most pressing.
Perhaps, Val thought hopefully, Doctor would quickly revert to his old self with a hearty chuckle and a ‘Young man, do I look any different to you?’. Nothing about him indicated that such a thing would happen, but Val could not let go of his wishful thought.
And as though in reply, Val’s hopes were cruelly dashed.
“‘Doctor’, huh. I don’t care about nicknames like that anymore. In fact, just listening to that name annoys me.”
Val’s heart sank.
“Wait! Stop! Stop, Doctor! Something’s not right here! Something’s not right! What’s happened to you?!” The jester asked, also aware that there was something off about Doctor.
The other vampires looked around at one another awkwardly. Selim nervously clung to Val’s sleeve.
The man in the armor standing before Doctor was watching without a sound, having yet to understand what was happening. But he remained as guarded as ever, and his hostility towards Doctor was plain even to those around him.
Doctor glanced at the armored man several times as he replied to the vampires’ questions with a sigh.
“Heh heh heh... I guess I’ll have to introduce myself again. Hello, everyone! My name is Theodosius. Theodosius M. Waldstein! Please, call me Theo.”
“Theo... Uh... Waldstein...?”
The more Doctor spoke, the more confused Val became. He gaped silently, but Theo snickered callously.
“That’s right. I’m not directly related to Gerhardt. We’re very distant relatives. It’s been quite a few years now since I started taking advantage of the fact that I share his name.”
The usual Doctor was nowhere to be found. Even at his most condescending, Doctor never failed to show some degree of warmth.
“You see, this island is the perfect place for me to hide from people like him. People who are bent on revenge.”
“...Revenge? Doctor... D-did you do something to that man?” The jester asked, taking note of the armored man’s bloodlust.
The childlike vampire’s answer was all too simple.
“Haha! I just butchered his family and friends, that’s all.”
The armored man said nothing. It was as though he was building up his anger in preparation for a single, concentrated show of rage.
During the man’s silence, Doctor smiled innocently and continued:
“That’s not all. I happened to kill a lot of people before that, too. I don’t remember exactly how many, but... at least four digits’ worth, I’d bet.”
Val and the others could not hide their disbelief. Doctor was indeed a vampire, but even then his claims were too difficult to swallow. They wanted to believe that, even now, Doctor was in the midst of some sort of outlandish experiment.
Although Val had only met Doctor today, the latter had suggested to him many paths to the future and given him confidence. Val desperately wanted to believe in the boy.
But the words that shattered their hopes came from within their midst.
“So it’s true, then. You’re... the mass murderer.” Said one of the freeloader vampires.
Doctor’s eyes narrowed for a moment at the mention of the words. He then said in a tone both lonely and nostalgic:
“It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone call me that. I wonder if the Organization’s still after me.”
“You’re lying, Doctor! You’re lying! You never had any reason to kill people like that!” The jester cried, as though trying to deny Doctor’s claim--trying to deny the existence of Theodosius M. Waldstein. But Doctor’s reply was simple.
“Do I need a reason? I’m a vampire. Maybe it hasn’t gotten through to you yet, but we vampires have the right to do whatever we want with humans. But if you’re curious about why I went so far as to kill them...”
Doctor trailed off and paused dramatically, preparing to enjoy the vampires’ reaction to his next words:
“...I killed them because it was fun.”
The innocence evaporated from his eyes. Doctor turned his gaze to the sky with a look of euphoria.
“It was so exciting. That feeling of superiority I got from toying with their lives. You don’t understand, do you? But in the end, I bit off more than I could chew. I was hunted by the Organization, so I came to this island. I fooled Gerhardt into letting me stay, and threw away my name and my past. And I even hid away my true nature.” He said, sounding particularly pleased with his final statement, before closing his eyes and continuing with a disappointed expression.
“But now that Rudy’s come all this way to find me, I can’t stay here anymore. But before I left, I wanted to see my old friend just once more.”
Doctor turned to the armored man as he spoke, but the ‘old friend’ remained silent.
The jester, meanwhile, seemed to be speaking even in Rudy’s place. She emphatically mentioned the vampire who was awaiting Doctor’s return.
“Then what about Professor?! Doctor, do you have any idea how worried she is?! Do you?! I don’t know what you’re planning, but if you’re going to run away, you have to at least take her with you! You have to!”
It was a gamble of sorts, referring to Professor.
It was one final gamble for the prize of returning the boy to his old self as Doctor.
But the jester’s gamble ended in defeat, rather appropriate for someone of her appearance.
“Oh. That piece of scrap?”
“Who cares about that thing? I fooled around with it for my immortality research, but even that’s starting to get boring now.” Doctor said with a chuckle. There was no hesitation in his eyes.
The moment she heard Doctor’s callous response, the jester walked up to him and swung back her right hand.
She then flung her palm forwards, directly at the boy’s face.
But there was no crisp sound to signal impact.
The moment the jester’s hand had reached Doctor, he had transformed only his face into fog. The jester slapped nothing but thin air.
But the jester did not stop. She swung her hand again and again, trying in spite of her failures.
“Stupid Doctor! Stupid, stupid, stupid! Professor’s really worried about you, you know?! You know how much she loves you! So why?! Why?! And even if you really didn’t like her back... you could have at least told us a white lie!”
‘Doctor... He can’t really mean it, can he?’
Val didn’t know how to react to the sight of the jester’s tear-streaked face.
This small part of the world, one he had only recently accepted, was changing rapidly. Though Doctor was unchanged in appearance, it was as though his very soul had been replaced. Val reflected upon this sudden change.
Perhaps he himself was very much like Doctor, changing his appearance and character at will.
‘No... That’s not it...’
Though Val was distracted by his musings about himself, he decided it was more important to turn his attention to the meaning of Doctor’s words. He stepped forward to question him further.
But before Val could say a word, Doctor said lazily, as though answering the jester’s questions were a tiring task:
“It’s all such a bother.”
He would bring everything to an end between himself, the armored man who radiated bloodlust, Val, and the jester.
“Say, Rudy? Feel free to slaughter anyone who lives in my castle.”
“...What?” The jester gasped, stopping mid-slap.
So shocking were Doctor’s words that the air itself froze.
“You can kill off the Waldsteins and these vampires here. Then we’ll finally be even, right? We can be friends again. Just like old times.”
Val, the jester, and the freeloader vampires all turned to the armored man, shocked into silence.
In spite of the many gazes thrown his way by his natural prey, the suit of armor was silent. He remained so for some time, before finally addressing the vampires who had come to find Doctor.
“...You know... I wanted to kill all of Theo’s friends. All of you.”
The vampires were first surprised by the youthful voice that came from the armor. Then they found themselves battling a terrible chill at the content of his claim. No one, after all, would be happy to be on the receiving end of such undeserved hostility.
“But now... to be honest, I don’t know. If you vampires decide to turn against Theo, then I’ll consider you my allies. But let me warn you. If you decide to protect Theo, I’ll slaughter you all as he watches...”
On the surface, it seemed that there was no emotion in his voice. But each and every utterance was dripping with hatred for Theodosius. Even Rudy’s near-inaudible mumbling was full of bloodlust.
Val’s illusionary body trembled at the sight, shaken by an unknowable fear.
But Doctor seemed to be amused by it all. He shook his head with a childlike laugh.
“Ahahaha! That sounds interesting. Yeah... Go ahead and side with Rudy if you think you can beat me. I was just about to take care of all of you anyway. Val and Selim and the rest... I was just thinking about killing you as part of my experiment.”
His cheerful grin instantly took on the sharpness of a fine blade. It felt as though Doctor’s gaze would tear Val and Selim to pieces. Under the dim lamps, his eyes glinted like those of a ravenous wolf, burning Val with the sheer force embedded within.
‘Is Doctor... Serious?’
So terrifying was Doctor’s gaze that Val was forced to avert his eyes. This was not the gaze of the eccentric child he had seen earlier that day--it was clearly the look of a murderer. It was similar to the way Val perceived Watt without his sunglasses, but Doctor’s eyes were incomparably colder and more vicious than Watt’s had ever been.
Val was struck by fear at the sight, but what bothered him more was the way Selim would react. She must have known Doctor for much longer than himself. This betrayal must have broken her heart more than it did Val’s.
Worried, Val quickly turned back to look at Selim.
But he came face-to-face with her usual expression: a melancholy but gentle look.
Had she not understood the situation fully, Val wondered, but his suspicions were quickly proven incorrect.
“It’s all right.” Selim whispered with a lonely smile, so quiet that only Val could hear, “no one in this world is truly evil, Val. We... we just have to believe... and everything will be all right.”
‘What does she mean, we have to believe? In what Doctor just said? Or is she saying that this Doctor is a fake and that we should believe in the one from before?’
Val grew more and more confused, ultimately unable to choose a side. He was gripped by the weight of the pressure bearing down upon them all.
‘I don’t care about choosing sides. ...I hate this. Doctor, please... please, it’s not too late to say you were just joking. Please...’
But it was as though his wishes were being directly insulted.
The helm of the armor was loudly assaulted by a flying drop kick.
The first to gasp in confusion was none other than Doctor himself.
The armored man standing before him fell prey to the sudden attack and lost his balance, falling to his knees.
And as though waving away the heavy air that had been clouding over them, the man who had landed the attack--one of the freeloader vampires--cried out impatiently:
“Blah blah blah blah blah. I don’t get a word of what you’re saying, Doc. We’re just gonna side with whoever’s giving us our money. Am I right?”
The other freeloaders chimed in in agreement.
“Hell yeah! Doctor, you’re the only one who can open the safe.”
“And if Doc’s really that mass murderer everyone’s been talking ‘bout, we’d be safer off siding with him.”
“We live by the rule of siding with the strong.”
“And if we stick with Doctor, the others at the castle’re gonna side with us, too.”
“The maids, too!”
“Nice and simple. All this stuff about tragic pasts and good and evil just makes my head hurt.”
The vampires moved to stand behind Doctor as though they had been in agreement from the very beginning.
“G-guys...?!” Val cried quickly, but the freeloaders did not hesitate.
“Kiddo. Val. Remember who we were working for before?”
“Watt was one hell of a petty villain.”
“And Doctor might be a villain, but he looks like a seriously serious guy, totally different from Watt. You get what I’m saying?”
The vampires’ line of thinking was obviously flawed, but the man who had landed the drop kick on the suit of armor made a more compelling argument.
“And if nothing else, we can trust the viscount.”
“Well, y’know. The viscount let Doctor live under the castle because he trusted him. You think he’s gonna turn a blind eye to someone who might hurt the people here, even if he’s family? And even if Doc was lying, you think the viscount wouldn’t have seen through him?”
Val’s indecision was challenged more strongly than ever before. Up until this point, he had been so concerned with Doctor’s change of character that he had been completely blind to those around him. His thoughts, which had distrusted Doctor for a moment, returned to neutrality.
But just as Val resolved to address Doctor once more, the vampire who had attacked the armored man bent his body forward without warning. He was immediately launched deep into the woods.
It was like watching a car accident. The man did not even have time to scream.
He was thrown against a tree trunk, several of his bones and perhaps his spine having been broken by the impact. He was unconscious before he slid down to the ground.
The armored man’s movements had been exceedingly simple.
All he did to the unfortunate freeloader was give his shoulder a powerful punch.
That was enough to rob the vampire of consciousness.
“If you’re going to side with Theo, then just die.”
The bloodlust radiating from the man grew more dense as it permeated the air, sending a chill running down the vampires’ spines.
“This ain’t good. Anyone got a contingency plan for if the armor guy turns out to be stronger than Doctor?”
The hostility he had shown Doctor was now being directed at the rest of the vampires. The armored man was determined to show his thoughts through action alone.
He would begin with those that looked the weakest.
His unfortunate first target was a green-haired boy with middling vampiric presence.
“Wh-what? Uh... wait! Why us?!”
Val and Selim had yet to openly make a decision. So why was the man turning his sights on them? Caught unaware in the flood of bloodlust, Val opened his eyes wide in shock.
And once he caught sight of the figure approaching from behind the suit of armor, his already-wide eyes turned to dinner plates.
There was an impact.
A sound that easily dwarfed that of the drop kick from earlier echoed across the mountain path.
“Damn it. You have any idea how hard it was to pick up your scent after you jumped into the sea like that?”
The newcomer was a werewolf with a dyed blue mane, his fangs and nails seemingly made of iron.
Unlike vampires, werewolves could not be sensed by Eaters. This particular werewolf had moved with the sound of the wind, sneaking up behind the armored man and kicking him in the head.
The suit of armor was thrown against a tree trunk. At the same time, multiple silhouettes appeared from the shadows of the woods.
Three young werewolves, standing in a formation around the suit of armor.
And a girl Val and the others knew very well.
She was wearing her usual black dress, but for some reason, it was torn and ragged. She had clearly gone through something terrible earlier that day.
For a moment, Val’s mind did not register the fact that he knew this girl. So different was the air around her that he was more surprised by this transformation than he had been by Doctor’s sudden change in character.
Her face, her eyes, and the length of her hair were all unchanged.
But the voice that came from her lips was unfamiliar and icy.
“...I care not if you choose to take your own life or flee this island.”
Slowly, she stepped forward. Val flinched at her every step, heavy like the sound of a gavel pounding for a death penalty.
As the watermelon vampire trembled without knowing why, the girl in black continued plainly--Ferret von Waldstein bared her silent bloodlust against the armored man.
“But either way, disappear from my sight at once!”
A command to depart.
In some ways, it was more powerful an utterance than a threat to kill. It was as though Ferret were an exorcist bent on erasing a demon from her presence.
Showered with words that could be taken as either a show of great pity or hatred, the armored man got to his feet without a hint of worry about the werewolves around him. He turned to Ferret.
“Perfect timing.” He said.
Rudy then turned to Doctor and continued mechanically:
“...I don’t care whether she’s a friend of yours or not. I’m going to kill her.”
“Hah! Why would you do that? I’m the one you want to kill. You know, that girl has nothing to do with me. I won’t shed a tear if you kill her.”
“I know. But I’ll kill her anyway.”
Their respective responses did not match one another. But the armored man had already long abandoned any intention for meaningful conversation, using words only to declare his goals. Doctor’s smile faltered for a moment, but the young man in the suit of armor did not notice; he instead repeated himself over and over again. Not towards Ferret, but to someone else deep within.
“You and that girl. You’re exactly the same. You get close to humans and fool them with words of kindness, only to betray them in the end. She’s going to do what you did to me. She’ll murder humans left and right without a care for their lives.”
“What are you-”
Cutting the flow of their meaningless conversation was Ferret’s powerful declaration.
The vampires around them gulped as she displayed her power through words alone.
“If I should deceive humans, and if I should take the lives of tens of thousands...”
The force contained in her every word filled the air. Ferret’s strength of will was almost palpable.
“Even if I should one day betray Mihail, and even if I should one day drink his blood and make him one of us...”
“Ferret...?” The jester gasped, startled by Ferret’s unusual attitude. But her voice did not reach Ferret’s ears. Ferret’s words grew ever more forceful.
“No matter what Doctor might have done to you in the past, and even if he should be hounded by thousands of people bent on avenging themselves...”
Though Ferret had not been on the scene since the beginning, she must have reasoned out the story behind Doctor and the armored man through snippets of conversation she heard and the man’s assault upon herself and Mihail. Both Doctor and Rudy froze.
“And no matter what it may be that drives you to find self-satisfaction...”
The young man in the armor could feel cold sweat running down his back.
Unfolding before him was a scene he could not accept. The girl he had so easily defeated earlier that day was now cornering him. The fact ate away at his mind, little by little.
The girl finally stopped in place. And there, she uttered emphatically:
“Nothing will excuse what you have done to Mihail. I... will never forget.”
She did not say that she could not forgive him.
But before the other vampires could even turn this matter over in their heads, they had been distracted by something else Ferret had said.
All she did was mention Mihail’s name. The boy himself was nowhere in sight.
The facts came together like puzzle pieces. A profound sense of loss swelled up amongst the vampires.
“F-Ferret... Did this guy... do something to Mihail...?”
Val was the first to speak. His illusionary eyes displayed shock more clearly than any real pair of eyes could, and he had recreated even the sensation of cold sweat on his back.
The jester was next, questioning Ferret to try and bring some semblance of calm back to her rattled thoughts.
“Ferret? Wh-where’s Mihail...? You were always together, so I thought you’d be at the festival with him... What happened, Ferret? What happened? Ferret?! Where’s Mihail?!”
To the jester, Mihail was a friend. And to Val, he was the one who had helped him find freedom on this island. Mihail had always treated Val in the same way, no matter his appearance or character.
If the island were full of people like Mihail, Val never would have found the need to go see Doctor. He would have been able to enjoy life, full of self-esteem.
Mihail was his friend, and when Val was in the form of a woman--
As Val and the jester stood there in shock, Ferret remained silent.
But the blue-haired werewolf spitefully explained the conclusion of what had happened to Mihail.
“Internal bleeding. Compound fractures to his right arm. Contusions all over his body, and fractures to his spine. The laceration on his shoulder where he was shot with the stake was so bad that he was going into shock from blood loss by the time we carried him to the hospital.”
The mechanical recitation of the list of Mihail’s wounds reached Val’s ears. His thoughts came to a standstill. Though the werewolf’s tone could not have been more emotionless, he was clearly glaring daggers at the suit of armor before him.
‘Please. Let all this just be a lie.’
Unable to accept the reality presented to them, Val and the others turned to Ferret with one last glimmer of hope in their eyes.
But Ferret did not say a word, merely hanging her head ever-so-slightly.
And as though driving the final nail into the coffin, an emotionless voice echoed from inside the suit of armor.
“Oh. So I didn’t end up killing him after all.”
It was as though a switch had been flipped in both Val and the jester.
The armored man’s words, though rather short an utterance, was enough to tell them everything that mattered: He had done something to Mihail that should not have been done. Something they could not allow to pass unpunished.
Doctor’s past sins did not matter to them. No matter what atrocities he had committed--even if he were still an unrepentant monster--and even if the armored man did indeed have the right to take revenge on Doctor--
He was an enemy.
The armored man was an enemy.
The moment the realization hit her, the jester’s form faded from sight. She had turned to fog and dissipated so quickly that it was almost as though she had teleported out of view.
The armored man flinched at her sudden movement. He quickly remembered what Doctor had said earlier--”...just wait ‘til you see the jester work her magic”.
And if her disappearance now was actually her turning to fog--
Understanding what this meant, the man in the armor quickly leapt backwards. He could not otherwise pick out the jester’s presence while surrounded by so many vampires.
Glaring at the armored man, who had put some distance between himself and the vampires and taken a fighting stance, Val apologized to Selim.
“I’m sorry, Selim.”
“I’m... Going to have to move away from you for a bit.”
He had barely finished his sentence by the time he untangled his arm from Selim and leapt towards the armored man.
He changed form from that of a young boy to an image that personified the state of his emotions.
For a single moment, the young man in the armor wondered if he was hallucinating.
Lunging towards him was the disembodied maw of a great carnivorous dinosaur, the likes of which he had seen only in movies.
The gaping jaws opened fully, and from within emerged hundreds of tentacles. Smaller dinosaurs emerged from each tip, opening their jaws and exposing their glinting fangs.
A monster made of fangs and tentacles was rushing directly towards him.
Distracted by the sight unfolding before his eyes, the Eater did not realize that this presence belonged to the green-haired boy he had targeted not too long ago. He raised his right arm, sword and all, without even thinking. But Val’s illusion regenerated itself even after being cut down. His teeth reached out to tear the armor’s hand.
The armored man’s reflexes were quick enough to help him evade the attack and leap forward diagonally to avoid the monster’s charge.
But it was as though the girl in black had been waiting for this moment.
She was standing before him, blocking his way.
“Just as you said, I am indeed a mere girl who has no experience in battle.”
In her right hand was a white stake--likely one he had used earlier that day against her.
The young man in the armor quickly made sure that he still had more stakes in reserve, and sent them into his helm to prepare to fire.
It would be a simple task indeed to shoot her down.
But once more, he found himself interrupted.
The jester’s presence, thinned to its utmost limit by her fog state, rapidly grew dense right before his eyes. A shroud of colorful fog covered his line of sight and blocked his path.
“But you had no idea that Mihail possesses a power greater than yours. The many creatures on this island who call him a friend!”
By the time the fog dissipated once more, Ferret’s right arm was driving the stake into the man’s helm. The stake he was about to fire was pushed back into the barrel, destroying the mechanism from the inside.
“Now, reveal your face. And then... disappear from my sight for all eternity!”
She angrily thrust the stake into the helm once more.
The helm began to creak, before helplessly rolling off the great body underneath.
But compared to the value of what was about to shatter,
That tiny act of destruction was trivial indeed.
Six hundred meters over Neuberg.
The flock of bats flying through the air--Relic von Waldstein--caught sight of a strange phenomenon.
Though the rest of the island was eerily deserted, the courtyard of Waldstein Castle was filled with a mass of attendees easily double that of last year’s number.
That alone, however, would not have troubled him.
But once the phenomenon became visible even from the skies, Relic cautiously descended in order to get to the truth behind the occurrence.
The throng of people he saw from overhead began to squirm as though they collectively made up the body of a single organism. They began to move in one direction, as though led by one objective.
The bats descended towards the gathering point without a sound.
On the mountain path.
Ferret and the others waited. The suit of armor remained silent.
“...What is the meaning of this? I will not take silence for an answer.” Ferret said, cold fury running through her words. The werewolves around her exchanged glances.
Their purpose was not to kill the armored man. It was to prevent Ferret from making an attempt on the man’s life. This was why they had been hoping he would quickly surrender.
But the werewolves, their senses intently focused on the man’s movements, realized something. Their noses began twitching.
“What...? Ferret. His scent--”
It had disappeared from within the suit of armor.
But before the werewolf could finish his sentence, the wind changed direction ever-so-slightly. The werewolves froze.
The scent of the armor’s wearer was now coming from a point that had until just now been downwind.
The werewolves turned to the source of the scent. Val, Ferret, and Doctor followed suit.
There they spotted a lone figure.
‘Who is that?’
This was the question on the minds of most who had glimpsed the figure. He was slender, and had a still-somewhat childlike face. He was not very tall, perhaps reaching up to the armor’s chest-level at most. His mostly white Gothic outfit made him look very much like a local resident out to enjoy the festival.
But the werewolves, who were tracking him by his scent, and Doctor, who knew his face, had already realized the truth. This young man was the wearer of that seemingly indomitable suit of armor.
“Bastard... I didn’t even see him slip out of his armor!”
The werewolves looked on in shock. The young man’s eyes were practically burning with outrage, his gaze unquestionably directed at Doctor.
Doctor called his name with his emotions concealed, recognizing the boy from the past in the young man’s features. At that point, Rudy’s gaze fell to his own two hands. He lightly clenched his fists.
Less than a second later, a powerful noise echoed across the mountainside.
At the same time, the thick tree trunk that had been next to Rudy disappeared. The firm trunk had been carved out, leaving behind fist-sized gashes. Then there was a sudden cry of pain as one of the werewolves doubled over on the ground, holding his arm.
“...?! What happened?!”
The other werewolves turned to their friend. His arm was bent at an unnatural angle, and in front of him was the large chunk of wood that had left him in such a state.
“That bastard... Did he tear out and toss the tree trunk?!”
Many Eaters and werewolves possessed enough strength to break tree trunks barehanded. But to carve out a tree trunk was a different story altogether. It was a feat requiring incredible speed and power.
What bewildered the werewolves most, however, was the fact that they had been focusing on Rudy’s movements from the beginning. In spite of this, none of them had been able to catch the sight of him taking action.
“Urgh! Shit... Wh-what happened to me?!” The injured werewolf cried, clutching his broken arm. The other ‘monsters’ gathered around him could not give an answer.
A tense silence filled the area. The lively chatter coming from the castle bounced off the foliage, creating an eerie chorus of noise.
‘Yeah. Yes. I... I can do it. I still have this power.’
Looking down at his clenched fists, Rudy brought back to mind the fact of his own power. And remembering that there was one thing he needed to confirm, he turned his sights on Doctor.
“...I’m amazed. So you were holding back all this time.”
Doctor had withdrawn his expression of surprise. He taunted Rudy with a malicious grin.
“Then I guess I’ll have to get serious, huh.” Doctor said, as though he had been hiding something up his sleeve. But the air around Rudy was different from the air around the suit of armor. He was wearing a terrifying, icy smile.
“Yeah. Let’s see. I want to know just how strong you really are.”
Rudy’s form vanished from the mountain path.
To be precise, he had merely leapt into the air from where he stood. But his dizzying speed deceived the eyes of all who watched.
Doctor, however, kept his eyes solidly trained upon his old friend. Rudy was indeed quick, but Doctor knew he could keep up with that level of speed.
The moment this thought went through his head, Rudy was already passing by him.
Taken by surprise at Rudy’s feint, Doctor looked up at the vampire in Rudy’s sights.
By then, the scene was already unfolding before his eyes.
The alraune who had up until this point been nothing but an observer was being hoisted into the air, Rudy’s grip around her creaking neck.
Doctor, the jester, and Val in his monstrous form froze. Rudy, however, did not avert his gaze from Doctor. And as though having waited for the moment Doctor finally understood what was happening before him, he stepped back with his free hand spread open. He held his flesh-and-nails hand at Selim’s face as though he would a knife.
It was clear from his show of strength with the tree trunk that his hand was, in fact, more destructive than a bladed weapon.
Without hesitation, he thrust that weapon into her face. The face of a girl he had never even spoken to.
There was a sickening noise. A gush of blood disappeared into the dark of night.
But that blood did not belong to the alraune.
“Heh... Heh... Ahahahahahahahahaha!”
Just as Ferret and the others realized what was happening, Rudy’s laughter assaulted their ears.
The subject of his entertainment was Doctor, who had reached out his arm into the way of Rudy’s attack. In exchange for diverting the blow, he had lost his hand.
Rudy let go of Selim with a mocking chuckle and leapt back. With his face twisted into a euphoric smile, he turned towards Doctor.
“Who knew you’d be the type to protect your friends? Is it because you’re both vampires? But either way, Theo, you have no idea how happy I am! Now... Now I can finally bring you despair!”
Doctor’s severed right hand turned to fog and instantly returned to his body, fully intact. But that resilience mattered nothing to Rudy at this point. His entire body trembled as he spread his arms wide and looked up at the skies.
“Theo. Theo! Hah! You have no idea. You have no idea how happy I am. I’m finally going to get my revenge. I’ll take away everything you hold dear. I’ll crush it all and make them beg for mercy. Then the past will finally come full circle. Yeah. Yeah... I’m going to become what you were, back on that day you took everything from me!”
As Rudy laughed like a madman, something tugged at his thoughts.
‘What did I just say?’
The same thought had occurred to him earlier that day, but at the time he had desperately rejected the notion. He had been ashamed of what he had done to the boy named Mihail and his vampire companion. He had wept on the seaside, disgusted at himself and horrified.
‘But this time... why am I accepting the idea of becoming Theo? No, that’s not the right question. Why did I reject that idea before? Why was I crying earlier?’
Then, Rudy realized the truth. He had been intoxicated.
He was drunk on his own power, finally allowed to break free of the restraints of the suit of armor. He was drunk on the joyful prospective of finally making a break from his past. And most of all, he was drunk on the objective truth of the fact that he was no longer the victim, but the devastator.
He knew he was toying with a terrible and dangerous thought. But he did not reject it.
After all, he was no longer scared of Theo.
Nothing could scare him now.
No sooner had Doctor called his name in an anguished voice than was his tiny form thrown backwards, past Selim and into a tree trunk.
Rudy had appeared before his eyes before he had even realized what was happening, thrusting a hand at Doctor’s jaw and sending him flying into a tree.
‘I couldn’t even see him move.’
Rudy’s movements when he was approaching Selim earlier had been slow enough for Doctor’s eyes to follow. But this time, his mind did not even have the time to register the fact of Rudy’s movement. The swipe at Selim earlier must have been a deliberately slowed show of strength on Rudy’s part, intended to provoke a reaction out of Doctor.
The moment he completed this analysis, Rudy’s hand sliced apart his body diagonally from the shoulder to the waist.
Having once more regained some semblance of calm, Rudy spat with an icy look:
“You just stand there and watch.”
Before he even completed his sentence, Rudy tore at Doctor’s body with his bare hands. His arms flew like a pair of whips, eating away at bits of flesh from Doctor’s body.
One cut after another after another after another.
It was a mechanical series of blows, driving into Doctor’s body with unmatched cruelty.
Flesh was ripped from Doctor’s childlike body as though he were being shot from the side. Each hit left him reeling in excruciating agony.
If Rudy were to use the silver blades equipped on the suit of armor, he could likely cause Theo even more damage. But in spite of this knowledge, he chose to feel the sensation of destroying his enemy’s body with his own two hands.
The force of the blows was such that Theo was pinned to the tree trunk, unable to even fall forward.
“You just watch. I’ll make you hear their screams of pain. The sound of them begging for their lives and cursing the fact that you ever existed! After all, if you never existed, none of your friends here would have had to die!”
So suddenly did the brutal scene begin that for a moment, the vampires and werewolves of Waldstein Castle could not bring themselves to move. But as they finally returned to their senses, they charged at their enemy one after another.
Rudy did not even have to turn around to sense the presence that bore down upon him from his blind spot.
‘This presence... It’s that girl from before. Perfect. I’ll start by lopping off her head.’
The hands that had been gouging out Doctor’s body stopped for an instant. Rudy’s attention was being turned to Ferret, who was approaching him from behind.
In the midst of the pain that assaulted his senses, Doctor realized what Rudy was planning to do, and finally raised his voice.
The look of anguish on Doctor’s face filled Rudy with a sense of elation.
‘Yeah. That’s perfect. That’s the face I wanted to see.’
What he had been searching for all this time was finally right before his eyes. A pitiful scream filled with fear and sorrow.
But Rudy’s movement did not slow.
‘After sorrow... comes despair.’
He turned around, putting himself in the perfect position to cut off the girl’s head.
But as he reached out with his hand, he was struck by an overwhelming wave of agony.
Rudy froze as though struck by sudden paralysis. Spurred by the momentum of his attempted attack, he spun where he stood and fell to the ground.
Even Ferret had been taken by surprise at the turn of events. She found herself stopping where she stood and looked down at the fallen Eater.
The young man was twitching violently as though being electrocuted. His eyes rolled back as he gasped for breath with an agonized expression.
“Rudy...?” Doctor called nervously.
Rudy’s only response was a furious look of loathing, communicated with difficulty through his bulging eyes.
‘Shut up! Don’t say my name! I don’t need your pity!’
Rudy felt as though he was being torn apart from the inside. Pain ran through his body in waves both dull and sharp. But he desperately clung to consciousness, using his hatred of Theo as an anchor to the waking world.
‘Shit... Damn it! Why now...?! Why so soon?!”
The vampires could do little but look around at one another in confusion. But the werewolves stepped forward, in front of Ferret, and surrounded Rudy as he lay twitching on the ground.
“Dunno ‘bout all the details, but let’s just chop off his head.”
“Do not kill him. But it’s probably a good idea to break his arms and legs, just in case.”
As the werewolves began to discuss their plans for the Eater, Doctor spoke up without thinking.
“H-hey... Hold on.”
“Finally talking like a kid, Doc. What, get tired of acting like an old fogey?”
Though the werewolves had only now realized the change in Doctor’s attitude, they did not even wait for him to reply as they continued talking amongst themselves.
“...We get there’s some bad blood between this bastard and Doctor, but he tried to kill Selim and hurt Mihail and Ferret.”
“Wh-what about me?” The injured werewolf said from a slight distance, but the blue-haired werewolf ignored him and turned to Ferret.
“...What are your orders?”
“My decision remains unchanged. I will be satisfied so long as this man leaves the island and never enters my sight again.”
In spite of her composure, Ferret was fighting her own anger. She had tried to suppress her bloodlust alone, but nothing she did could hold it back. But each time she came close to the breaking point, she remembered Mihail’s face. His image neutralized the hostility that threatened to boil over into violence.
Understanding that Mihail was a part of her heart even now, Ferret sighed in defeat.
“Say... Why did he fall over all of a sudden?”
“Maybe it was his lunch.”
“I’m more curious about who this guy is.”
“Seriously. We dodged a bullet there.”
“We were lucky.” “Luck is a skill, too.” “Really? So this is all because we’re actually seriously skilled?” “We’re pretty amazing, huh?” “Heh heh heh... To grasp victory without lifting a finger... That is the way of the shin kage-ryu vampires.” “The hell’s that supposed to be?” “Ugh, ouch... Guys! What happened while I was out cold?”
The freeloader vampires, finally released from the tension in the air, returned to their usual chatter.
“Anyway, about that safe of yours, Doc...” One of the vampires said.
But he was cut off by a shadow passing by before his eyes.
By the time he began to wonder what it could have been, a second shadow, and a third passed before him.
“Are these... bats? Did somebody transform?”
Were they merely wild bats, the vampires wondered, but the flock steadily grew in number and began to circle around Rudy as though in an attempt to distract the werewolves.
“What is this?!”
The werewolves took a step away from the Eater, leaving a gap where they had been standing. The flock of bats converged there, creating a single figure.
“...Who are you?” Ferret asked. The figure finally took on colors and the fabric of clothing materialized as he regained his form. The man bowed courteously.
“I apologize for the sudden nature of this visit. My name is Melhilm Herzog. I am an old friend of your father’s, as well as the former overseer of your birth parents.”
It took Ferret some time to process the meaning of the second part of Melhilm’s introduction. But as soon as the realization hit her, blood drained from her face.
“Of course, it seems that some of those gathered here have no need for introductions.”
Val’s illusionary body broke out into cold sweat and turned his gaze towards his creator. The jester was wearing a clearly uncomfortable look. The freeloader vampires were huddled behind the werewolves. But without sparing them a glance, Melhilm mechanically reached over to Rudy and pulled him to his feet.
“Rudy. How many times must I remind you to never unleash your full strength when fighting alone?”
Rudy’s moans of pain were silenced as Melhilm put a hand over his mouth before giving him an injection in the back of the neck.
“The pain will subside soon enough. Take deep breaths. My word... I don’t recall giving you permission to remove your armor.” Melhilm mumbled. But he quickly spotted Rudy’s helm rolling around the mountainside.
“Ah, so it was forcibly taken off of you. Then I suppose you had no other choice.”
Melhilm looked around once more, and turned his gaze to a point further up the path.
“...You are late, Sigmund.”
It sounded as though he was speaking to himself. The werewolves quickly turned their attention to their surroundings, expecting Melhilm’s allies to arrive. That was when they realized what was happening around them.
The lively chatter that had been echoing from the castle had been all but silenced. They could still hear music and singing from the direction of the festivities, but the presence of people had been sucked out of the ambience.
A moment later, a great wave appeared at the top of the mountain path.
The wave approached like a tsunami, bent on destruction as it slowly descended the slope.
Ferret stared into the darkness. The identity of this great mass soon dawned on her.
It was a mass of humans, thousands--perhaps tens of thousands--strong, making their way down the mountain in utter silence.
“What...?!” Ferret gasped.
“Allow me to make things clear. This is the ability of my friend Sigmund Kiparis. It is no different from the subjugation imposed by ordinary vampires. Of course, Sigmund is capable of using airborne infection to subjugate up to a hundred thousand humans at once...” Melhilm trailed off. But his brief explanation was enough for Ferret to understand in horror what exactly was happening to the people of the island.
Normally, she would have scoffed at the idea of a vampire subjugating humans through airborne infection. But the sight of the crowds in the distance were proof enough that Melhilm’s claim was a genuine one.
“Sigmund is in the process of gathering eighty percent of the island’s human population at this point. Those occupied in essential facilities like power plants, of course, have been left untouched to make the task of covering our tracks easier.”
The image of a certain boy flashed through Ferret’s thoughts.
‘Then what of Mihail?’
Fraught with worry for the human boy she had left in the hospital, Ferret quickly began to lose her grip on her composure. She walked up to Melhilm, grabbed him by the collar, and asked:
“...For what goal are you doing all this?”
“‘Goal’? I’m afraid you’ll have to give me a clearer definition. You refer to the goal of the Organization? Or the goals held by me, the individual? Caldimir’s goal, of course, is the petty act of bringing trouble upon Gerhardt.”
Ferret tensed as the man continued at length with names she did not recognize. The subjugated humans were still descending the mountainside. And just as the freeloader vampires attempted to escape towards the base of the slope, they discovered yet another wave of humans approaching from below.
“This ain’t good.”
“I guess we could transform into bats and run. But then what?”
“Ferret and Selim can’t transform, you know.”
Whether or not they tried to hide their growing worry, the humans continued to draw near. They said absolutely nothing as they advanced, but their silence only deepened Ferret’s fear.
They came down like sand in an hourglass, or perhaps an avalanche in slow motion. Like a languid school of sharks slowly cutting through the darkness. People, people, people. A mass of people gathered around them with no gap in sight.
The silent wave was now a mere hundred meters away. Ferret let go of Melhilm’s collar and carefully picked out words of negotiation.
“What is it that you people want from us? Why would you stoop so low as to involve all these innocent humans?!”
The image of Mihail lying in his hospital bed flashed through her thoughts. It then shifted into the image of Mihail being subjugated by some unfamiliar vampire, turned into a hostage--or worse, made to swing his fists at her--the fists with which he had defended her earlier that very day. A chill ran down her spine and a scream escaped her lips.
Melhilm snorted in response, his expression ever unchanging.
“To answer your question, one of the purposes of my visit today is to reclaim something that rightfully belongs to me. The other--though it has no direct connection to you--is... Hm?”
Before Melhilm could go on, the mountainside was swept up in the very same scene as before.
A single bat passed by before Melhilm’s eyes. A strange cacophony of noise descended rapidly from overhead.
A moment later, his line of sight was completely obscured by a thick shadow. The streetlights illuminated nothing in the pitch-black darkness of the mountainside, the only clarity being the powerful wingbeats filling Melhilm’s ears.
The identity of the blackness was clear. It was a massive flock of bats concentrated in one area--the same tactic Melhilm favored.
‘These bats... they outnumber even mine!’
Even the subjugated humans stopped where they stood.
But in the sight filled with humans and bats, Melhilm caught sight of a strange object out of the corner of his eyes.
There was a great hole in the ground, lined with the fangs of a wolf.
“What... In the world...?”
He struggled to get a closer look, but the bats were too much; the maw disappeared from view.
By the time he was finally freed from the living smokescreen, the hole in the ground had already vanished. The bats dove into the earth as though having waited for that very moment, melting into the very ground.
The darkness passed, and the path was once more illuminated by the street lamp.
But all Melhilm saw were the trees trembling in the wind, the waves of humans approaching him, and Rudy, who was just beginning to overcome his gasps of pain. Ferret, Valdred, the jester, the werewolves, and the other vampires had vanished without a trace, as though having melted into the flock of bats.
‘What is happening here?”
“What’s going on here, sir?” A woman asked from behind him, echoing his own sentiments. Melhilm did not need to turn to identify the owner of the voice. It was Theresia, who had followed after him through the throngs of people.
“You are late, Theresia.” Melhilm spat.
But Theresia ignored him and went straight for Rudy, anxiously cradling her childhood friend in her arms.
“Rudy! What’s happened to you?! How could you go off on your own like that...?! You know what happens when you fight at full strength without your armor!”
Perhaps her voice had snapped him back into consciousness; Rudy slowly opened his eyes, taking deep breaths.
“Theo... Where’s Theo...? I don’t care what happens to me. I don’t care... But... but I have to make him suffer... I have to make him know despair...” He gasped.
Even under the dim lights it was clear to Theresia that Rudy was in ill health. The veins crisscrossing his body were fully visible under his skin. The whites of his eyes were clouded yellow, and there were purplish cracks all over his body--wounds that did not bleed, likely because his circulatory system had ceased to function.
It was a sight for panic, if nothing else, but Melhilm stoically observed the scene. From the way Rudy and Theresia were reacting to the former’s physical state, they clearly knew what it was that led to this condition.
“Rudy... please. Please don’t do anything stupid. If you died alone before me... if you died killing Theo, I... I wouldn’t have any reason to live on.” Theresia whispered, holding Rudy in her arms, “Please don’t forget, Rudy. Ever since that day... we’ve been on the same boat.”
“That is quite enough of losing yourself to your emotions, Theresia. Now, seek out the presence of vampires other than myself in this area.” Melhilm commanded plainly.
Theresia nodded. Rudy shakily got to his feet with her support, having finally recovered from his pain.
“Sir. An immense presence had been spread over this area not very long ago, but that presence has now taken a singular form and is currently moving alongside many other vampires.”
“I see. Which direction?”
When Theresia gave her answer, Melhilm’s eyes grew nostalgic.
“S-sir. They’re... they seem to be moving under the earth.”
‘What is this place?’
Ferret looked around in the darkness.
It was pitch black, but she could hear the others’ voices around her.
“Wh-where are we?” “What’s going on?” “All those bats came out of nowhere...” “Then there was a hole in the ground, huh?” “Hey, this feels kinda familiar.” “I think we fell into a hole. Definitely.” “You all right, Ferret?” “Hey, where’s Selim?!” “I’m over here! Please don’t worry about me.” “Eek! It’s so dark! Places like this are no fun without Master Watt!” “Hey, keep your mind out of the gutter! You’re making me start imagining stuff!” “Shut up!”
With a mumbled, “I am all right”, Ferret once more attempted to find out what had just happened to them.
Although they were surrounded by darkness, from the echo of everyone’s voices, they were probably in a rather open area. The walls seemed to be made of dirt, but there was one thing she knew for certain:
‘This space is moving.’
The moment she came to this conclusion, a very familiar voice piped up in the darkness.
“Sorry, everyone. I didn’t really understand what was happening, so I just pulled in everyone I knew.”
As soon as Ferret and the others realized that the sheepish voice belonged to Relic, they heaved a sigh of relief.
‘Then this place must be...’
“Oh! We’re underground right now. I turned part of the ground to fog and made us a little space in the dirt.” Relic said. Ferret laughed, astonished.
When a vampire transformed into fog or a flock of bats, those with greater power could also transform the clothes they wore and small objects around themselves. It was essentially the act of labeling inanimate objects as part of one’s own body, altering its composition through the power of the soul. Relic was born with an immense capacity for this ability, known as ‘synchronization’. At one point, he had synchronized with the entire island of Growerth and nearly transformed the island itself into fog and bats.
“I’m getting better and better at controlling my abilities now. I didn’t think I’d end up getting to use it so much, though.”
He was now controlling rocks and earth as he pleased, moving his friends as though operating an elevator. It was an unbelievable act by most standards, but none gathered there doubted the veracity of his powers.
Soon, a ray of light pierced the darkness. Ferret’s line of sight quickly widened. And a moment later, the vampires and werewolves emerged into a humid space and fell onto a hard surface one after another.
“Whoa! I’m sorry! I must’ve gotten my calculations mixed up. We shouldn’t have come out this high up...”
“Damn it, Relic! I was just starting to think you were pretty awesome, y’know?” One of the freeloaders cried, rubbing his aching head and looking around.
There was a sturdy stone wall lined with silver suits of armor.
“Oh. This is...” Val started,
“The storage area in the castle basement.” Selim said. The others soon grasped their current location.
“The humans might find us here, so let’s head for the caverns for now.” Relic said. He had barely finished his sentence by the time he recited an incantation before the large suit of armor that guarded the door.
“...I wanted to hear your side of the story on the way, but there’s something I need to ask you first.” Relic said to everyone, his assuringly cheerful voice quickly giving way to worry.
“Has anyone here seen Hilda?”
The mayor was left alone.
The human audience that had been screaming in excitement at the two singers on the stage had gone silent in an instant, departing the courtyard like children led by the piper.
Even the VIPs took to their feet one after another. They leapt off the balcony where they were seated and disappeared into the crowds, hobbling along with their ankles twisted.
The singers seemed to be shocked at the sudden development, but they showed no signs of stopping their performance. In fact, their singing grew even more passionate as they poured out all they had into bringing back the departing crowds.
‘So those two’re vampires too. That’s some professionalism they’ve got. Maybe I’ll actually take care to remember their names.’
Listening to the singers’ exceptional voices, the mayor followed the VIPs off the balcony. He cracked his neck loudly and turned his gaze to the mass exodus.
The wave of humans looked almost like a giant amoeba threatening to swallow the entire castle.
The crowd was moving.
Anything this crowd so much as grazed could be affected with ease, in many senses of the word. It was a great mass of energy, one that could cut down everything in its path if the will to destroy were to be imposed upon it.
‘So you’ve finally made your move.’
At this point in time, Watt had no way of knowing where these people were headed.
‘Boring as shit.’
At this point in time, Watt was capable of nothing. All he could do was run simulations in his head of the many different scenarios that could result from this occurrence in an attempt to ascertain just how much work he would have to put into the cover-up job that would inevitably happen afterwards.
“Excuse me, Mayor.”
Someone was talking to him.
If someone still possessed free will here that would allow them to speak, the speaker was clearly a vampire.
Watt then realized that the vampire was both a complete stranger and a familiar face.
“It’s nice to meet you, sir. My name is Loa.”
It was the girl whom he had encountered earlier at the viscount’s parlor. He had seen her several times now in the crowds.
Wondering about her nationality from the sound of her name, Watt attempted to figure out why this girl would approach him.
But before he could say a word, Loa revealed her intentions to him without hesitation.
“Sir, how would you like to make a deal with me?”
Underground, Waldstein Castle. The laboratory.
<What’s going on here?>
Even knowing that there was no one to answer, Professor could not stop herself from uttering a question.
A strange scene was unfolding on the monitors she had checked to find Doctor’s whereabouts.
According to the cameras, there were almost no humans in the castle courtyard--this, on the first night of the Carnale Festival.
In order to solve this mystery, Professor cycled through the monitors one by one. And eventually, she found one camera that had captured some familiar faces.
Displayed on the monitor was the entrance of the castle’s storage room. It was the room that housed the entryway to the underground caverns, and the camera was installed inside the suit of armor that acted as the gatekeeper.
Many faces were being displayed on the camera, all of them familiar to Professor.
The jester. Selim. Val. Relic. Ferret. And...
His white lab coat had been replaced by a red one, but Professor knew from the single glimpse she had caught as his face flashed by the monitor. It was the vampire who had disappeared from the lab several hours earlier.
Ecstatic at their impending reunion, Professor leapt out of the laboratory without even bothering to get dressed--of course, she was already only wearing a lab coat to begin with--but there was one thing different about her appearance this time. A single photograph had been affixed to one of her arms with a magnet.
She left the room excitedly, not knowing that this single picture would unleash tragedy.
Underground storage area.
“If they are indeed below the earth, they have nowhere to run but the underground caverns stretching underneath the castle.” Melhilm said, looking around the storage room in the castle basement.
Once Theresia had reported that the vampires were moving underground, he had come to the storage area without a moment’s hesitation. He had the subjugated masses stand in a formation around the castle, and was currently accompanied only by the two Eaters and approximately a dozen of Sigmund’s Leaves.
“The cavern entrance is hidden in a place like this, sir?”
“Hmph. I used to cavort through this place centuries ago in my youth.” Melhilm answered, and added to himself: “I was expecting the maids to get in our way. It’s almost eerily silent here.”
In spite of his worries, Melhilm quietly stepped over to the cavern entrance mechanism and looked at the suit of armor.
“...This is a new addition.”
There were no other pathways in the area. The suit of armor was likely a locking mechanism, but Melhilm considered breaking it down by force. But just as he prepared to give his Eaters the order, the armor creaked and began to move aside as though permitting them entrance.
“What is this?”
Shocked at the sudden movement of the suit of armor (which was easily twice the size of Rudy’s), they glared up at it. There they found the master of the castle.
The pool of blood was hovering in midair, as though there were nothing more natural than his presence in this place.
[This suit of armor was a rather recent installation. I’m afraid I would prefer to keep it intact. I shall lead the way, old friend.]
“Gerhardt.” Melhilm said, looking slightly surprised. Theresia and Rudy, on the other hand, were clearly astonished at the letters of blood being woven in midair, turning to Melhilm for an explanation. The vampire sighed.
“It seems I didn’t even have the time for a proper explanation. This pool of blood is Gerhardt von Waldstein, the master of Waldstein Castle and the lord who governs the island’s vampires. He is also my sworn friend.”
‘...Another Waldstein.’ Rudy frowned at the mention of the name. Normally he would have lashed out without a second thought, but he was stopped by the fact that Melhilm called this vampire a friend, and the fact that he had no idea how he would go about attacking the pool of blood. All Rudy could do was grind his teeth and glare at the viscount.
[Ah, I also happen to have some business underground at the moment. I shall guide you to the execution area. After all, they say that no journey is complete without a companion, do they not?]
“If I remember correctly, it’s a straight path to the execution area... Never mind. Do as you will, Gerhardt.” Melhilm said with a chuckle. Theresia was shocked by the two vampires’ affable interaction.
“Sir, isn’t this vampire our enemy? What if this is a trap...?”
“Hold your tongue, Theresia.” Melhilm said sternly. Wearing on his face a sort of condescension different from the one he had shown Shizune, he said to the two Eaters:
“You would dare show distrust towards my friend?”
Underground, Waldstein Castle. The Execution Area.
“Then... all this is your fault, Doctor...?” Val asked solemnly. Doctor nodded without a word.
As the vampires and werewolves made their way to the execution area of the caverns, Doctor had confessed everything about his crimes.
How he had murdered thousands upon thousands of humans in the past. How he had betrayed two children and slaughtered their loved ones for amusement.
And the fact that the children--now grown--had come to this island for revenge, and the way their intentions formed a large part of this incident.
“That’s... that’s terrible, Doctor! We all got involved in this mess because of you!” Val said indignantly. But the other vampires did not entirely share his sentiments.
“Whoa, Val. Calm down. Doc was just acting like the bad guy to keep us safe back there.”
“He pretended to be our enemy so we wouldn’t get attacked. Then he’d take that armor guy and leave the island... Is what I think he was planning.”
“Textbook stuff, if you think about it.” “C’mon, let’s forgive him. Look at that spirit he’s showing!” “Don’t be like that, Doctor. If you’re really feeling sorry, just give us the key and the combination to your--”
But before the freeloaders could fully lighten the mood, Val cried out to stop them.
“Everyone! Shut up for a second!”
It was very much unlike Val in this form to be so emotional. The vampires flinched.
“Doctor’s still responsible for getting us all into this mess! Mihail was hurt badly, and Selim almost got killed!”
Ferret looked away at the mention of Mihail’s name. She had silently given ear to Doctor’s confession in silence, her expression locked in mystery.
Val, on the other hand, could not hold back his anger. The two people to whom he could open his heart--Mihail, to whom he was deeply indebted, and Selim, in whom he was nurturing an interest--had both been endangered indirectly by Doctor’s past actions.
Doctor received Val’s outrage head-on, hanging his head meekly.
“I’m sorry. Everything that’s happened today... it’s all my fault.”
“Talk is cheap, you know--”
“That’s enough, Val! Please.”
To Val’s surprise, it was Selim who tried to soothe his anger.
“You might be okay with this, Selim, but I...”
“Then... Val, how could I help you to not be angry anymore?”
Val caught a glimpse of Selim’s eyes and deflated. She was right; unleashing his rage on Doctor would solve nothing. And if nothing else, he was quite certain that Doctor had indeed been playing the villain earlier for everyone’s well-being.
‘Playing the villain, huh. But then again... he really used to be one.’ Val thought, glancing over at Doctor. The jester was speaking to him.
“So Doctor? When you called Professor a piece of scrap earlier, you didn’t really mean it, did you? Did you?”
“...No. Professor is my most cherished--”
The jester cut him off before he could even finish.
“Yay! That’s great! I forgive you, Doctor!”
“...Thank you, Pirie.”
There was nothing about Doctor now that made him seem like a so-called mass murderer. So what had led to his change of heart? Why did this boy with the blood of thousands on his hands suddenly change?
‘Maybe I can hold off the interrogation until after he tells us why.’
Val’s anger slowly dissipated. He sighed and addressed Selim and Doctor.
“All right. I’m sorry for blowing up at you, Doctor. I guess the most important thing now is to focus on that armor guy and Mr. Melhilm.”
Selim smiled at his apology, relieved. She turned to Doctor.
“Doctor, please. Please don’t call yourself a villain. Even if you’ve done something truly unforgivable... Please don’t cut yourself down like that. No one can measure the weight of their own sins. Don’t create any more sins in here, of all places...”
It was unusual for the introverted Selim to be so forthright with her opinions. Doctor, Val, Relic, and Ferret could not bring themselves to interrupt her.
Selim looked into the distance and concluded her statement quietly, as though speaking to herself.
“After all, there’s nothing but punishment here in this place, built for execution.”
‘What does she mean?’ Val wondered. What was on her mind as she lived here in the execution area? And how could she treat others this way--both Doctor and himself?
“Selim... How? How can you--”
How could she trust others so easily, he wanted to ask.
But his question was interrupted by a flash of silver.
The silver point slithered towards Val, but Relic caught it before it could reach him.
Relic glared. There was a woman holding a whip standing at the door leading aboveground.
“...Who are you?”
“I’m surprised you actually caught that.” Theresia said, not answering Relic’s question. She smiled and pulled back her whip with a powerful tug, using as little force as possible.
Relic was caught off guard by Theresia’s surprising strength. He lost his grip on the end of the whip.
Once the whip was completely back in her control, Theresia turned her sights upon one vampire in particular. It was the vampire whom she had encountered with Rudy as children; the one who had destroyed their families and hometown. Theodosius M. Waldstein.
“It’s been a long time, Theo.”
“Theresia...!” Doctor cried in shock. At that very moment, several figures entered the execution area one by one.
“Theo...” Rudy growled. He was followed by Melhilm, who was in human form, as well as a dozen or so locals and tourists who all seemed to be under subjugation.
“...Did the Eaters follow our presence here? I thought they’d bring all the humans along, though...”
Although Relic knew nothing about Sigmund, the state of the humans on the island clued him into what might be happening on Growerth tonight.
‘Maybe... Just maybe...’
Remembering the face of a certain human girl, Relic began to wonder if, perhaps, she was among the crowds gathered on the mountainside.
But his hopes were cruelly dashed by a single voice.
Amongst the dozen or so humans gathered was one familiar figure.
It took Relic several seconds to understand that this was his beloved childhood friend.
And it took yet another thirteen seconds before he could finally accept that she was under subjugation.
“Hilda!” He cried out, but she gave him no answer. She did nothing but look at him with an empty smile. Relic turned to Melhilm and questioned him in an uncharacteristically furious tone.
“This is your doing, isn’t it?! Release Hilda right this second!”
Relic had instantly reached the breaking point, so incensed that he looked just about ready to turn the entire cavern to fog and crush everything within.
But before he could do anything, a sight even more familiar than Hilda came into view.
[Calm yourself, Relic.]
The viscount suddenly descended from the ceiling as he addressed his son.
“F-Father! What are you doing here?!”
[Ah, allow me to answer! It seems nothing unnatural to me that I am here within the bounds of my own castle. And before I forget, allow me to introduce you. This man here is my sworn friend, Melhilm Herzog. I do believe I’ve spoken of him in the past.]
So nonchalant and surprising was his father’s interruption that Relic’s anger quickly abated and gave way to confusion.
“What’s going on here, Father? And what’s happened to Hilda?! If you know this person, please just tell him to let her go!”
[This subjugation is the work of another vampire known as Sigmund, who unfortunately has chosen not to join us in person here.]
“...How’s this possible? And why are you with these people?”
[Ah, naturally, I am here to resolve the situation taking place on this island.]
As the viscount and Relic continued their discussion, Rudy and Theresia were facing down the vampire who had started everything.
“Theo... You won’t get away this time...” Rudy said grimly. But Doctor was nothing but upset by Rudy’s countenance.
It was not apparent on the dimly-lit mountain path, but here it was clear as day; Rudy was clearly in excruciating agony. What had happened to him? This was no ordinary illness or injury. Did his condition have something to do with being an Eater?
As though confirming Doctor’s suspicions, Melhilm placed a hand on Rudy’s shoulder.
“Control yourself, Rudy. Even the shot I gave you has its limits. Do not release your powers for any longer than a single moment at a time.” He said with an annoyed sigh, “this is precisely why I warned you to keep your abilities in check. Once you remove your armor and battle with reckless abandon, your Eater powers overstep the bounds of your human body.”
Instead of giving a response, Rudy groaned in pain.
The viscount finally reacted to their conversation. He continued his discussion with Relic with part of his body, while using another to speak with Melhilm unnoticed.
[That is indeed a surprise, Melhilm. To think that such a weakness existed among Eaters.]
“An Eater’s body is strengthened by their victims’ powers only up to a certain point. Too much power, however, will eat away at their bodies. Thought most Eaters would never even sense the screams of their muscles and organs, the pain builds up little by little... until they become like this pitiful Eater. Of course, we were fortunate enough to have Rudy’s precedent that Theresia could be spared the same fate.” He said, not caring that Rudy was also listening to the truth about himself, “and even if Rudy were to never again use the full extent of his powers... An optimistic estimate gives him a year to live, so long as no measures are taken to save him.”
The viscount and Doctor were silent. But while the former was plainly unreadable, the latter could not hide his distress.
Rudy, however, did not react to the revelation; he only remained true to his goals, no matter the consequences.
“I don’t need any help. One year is all I need. One year to make Theo suffer and despair...”
Doctor felt guilt gnawing at every part of his body. He was the one who had driven Rudy to this point.
“It’s okay, Rudy. I promise--if you die, I’ll corner Theo in your place.” Theresia said with an icy smile. Doctor shot her a murderous glare.
It was the first time today that Rudy had seen such an expression on his enemy’s face. But something about it struck him as odd.
‘Is he... angry at Theresia? But why? He never looked at me like that.’
Theresia only smiled sheepishly.
But Rudy’s question lingered. Why did Theresia’s reaction to seeing Theo look so different from his own? Why was there no hostility in the look she gave Theo?
“This is getting pretty heavy, don’tcha think?”
“Can we go upstairs and get some sleep now?”
As the situation grew complicated with the arrival of Melhilm, the freeloader vampires gave up on trying to follow the series of events.
But the coming of Melhilm’s company was not to be the last of the interruptions in the cavern.
One final player arrived on the scene--the person who seemed to be the most out of place in the unfolding sequence of events.
Of course, the descriptor of ‘person’ was very difficult to justify in the case of this particular player.
<Oh! There you are, Doctor! I finally found you~!>
With an unbelievably cheerful cry, the white coffin equipped with mechanical arms and caterpillar tracks made her way into the execution area from the opposite direction as Melhilm.
<Oh? Wow, we have so many guests here today! I get it! You went out to invite all these guests over, didn’t you, Doctor?>
Although a fight had yet to break out, Professor seemed to have taken no note of the tension in the air.
In contrast to his partner’s gaiety, Doctor turned to her with a look of utter desperation and shouted:
“No! Please stay away, Elsa!”
At that moment, Doctor and the two Eaters froze. The former went pale as a sheet.
‘Why... Why did I just call her that... in front of these two? No, that’s not right... I probably called her that because... because Theresia is here. Damn it! I... I don’t even know if she’s really Elsa or not... So why...?’
<‘Elsa’? Doctor... Are you talking about the girl in this picture?>
Professor seemed to be chiefly concerned not with the content of Doctor’s warning, but the name he had used to refer to her.
<Then... is this girl here... who I used to be before I lost my memories?>
And in an attempt at confirmation, she raised her mechanical arm to show him the photograph.
When Rudy caught sight of the girl in the picture, everything came to a standstill.
“Big... sis... Elsa...?”
‘Could that coffin be... my sister? No... Is she inside it? And what’s this about losing her memories? Does that mean she’s even forgotten that day...?’
The root of his cursed memories--the moment he abandoned his sister--came back to haunt Rudy once more. His agony intensified, several times worse than it usually was.
Then, it occurred to him:
‘What was it that I wanted to do if I ever saw her again...?’
What if this coffin truly was his sister? What then? Would he rejoice at their reunion? Would he ask her how she had survived? Or...
He remembered that his sister was herself the cause of his unending nightmares. A sickening emotion began to swirl in the pit of his stomach.
Rudy knew full well that nothing could make up for his abandonment of Elsa. And what could he do, now that she was standing here before him?
‘What did I want with Sis?’
The claim that she had lost her memory sunk its claws into Rudy’s mind. But what if she were to recover her memories?
“I... I wish... You never existed...”
What if he were to hear these words again?
But Rudy’s train of thought was derailed by his own childhood friend.
Theresia had been frozen in shock for some time now, finally opening her mouth to speak.
But her words offered Rudy no salvation--instead, they pushed him into a pit of utter confusion.
“How... can Elsa still be alive...?”
But before Rudy could voice his question, Theresia squeezed out a trembling voice:
“I... I killed you that day! I know I did!”
“Unbelievable. I suppose I have no right to say this after being eaten by Shizune, but I can’t help but marvel at the mental frailty of these subjects. To be swayed by a moment of weakness to utter unnecessary truths like this...” Melhilm said with a sigh, glancing at the two Eaters, “your inability to hold your tongue will be the death of you, Rudy. Theresia. And you as well, my old failure.”
The moment he heard Melhilm, Val thought that the sentiment was being directed at him. He flinched, remembering how Melhilm had in the past called him a failure. But for some reason, the vampire at the end of Melhilm’s gaze was none other than the terrified Doctor.
[Melhilm. These sentiments you express may call for more emotion than what you show now.]
“...If I recall, I’ve already told you why I’ve come to this island today, Gerhardt.” Melhilm said with eyes narrowed, slowly walking over to Doctor, “I... have come to right the wrongs of my past. Shizune and Watt, and even Caldimir’s plans are nothing more than bonuses. I am here today as a researcher. To cut down my past mistakes.”
[It has long been a troublesome habit of yours, Melhilm, to believe that destruction can truly wipe clean all slates.]
Realizing that they were once more treading on thin ice, Val and the others tensed. Doctor looked at Melhilm with fear in his eyes, not even trying to hide his trembling hands.
“I... never imagined that you would come to Growerth in person.” He squeaked.
But Melhilm ignored Doctor’s comment and asked him a question:
“Do you resent me?”
“No. The only people I truly resent are myself... and Theresia.”
“I see. A failure you may be, Theo, but I am glad to see that you do not despise me, your creator.”
As the conversation between Melhilm and Doctor reached his ears, Rudy’s already-confused mind was stirred once more.
He quietly fell to his knees, not registering the meaning of the word.
‘Theo... despises Theresia? What does that mean? And... what did Theresia say earlier? What did she say? Is that strange coffin... really Sis?
‘What... what is going on here...?’
He could hear something in his heart collapse. Everything he had strived for until today, crumbling to dust. It was as though his entire past was nothing but a dream, though he still knew nothing of the specifics.
But there was one among those present who would answer all his questions. Not to save him, however, but to demolish the things that had already begun to fall.
An unfamiliar voice echoed in the caverns. Melhilm frowned and stopped where he stood. One of the dozen or so humans who had come with Hilda was walking over to him.
“You must prioritize Comrade Caldimir’s mission.”
“Hm? I see. I thought you were all Leaves, but to think that there was a Branch among you here...” Melhilm said, to the confusion of many, and glanced over at the humans. The Branch continued.
“I have no quarrel with your obsession with the past, Melhilm. But do not stand in my way.”
“What goal could you accomplish, now that things have come to this?”
“Comrade Caldimir has provided me in advance with seventy-eight stratagems to be applied in various situations. Allow me to cite an example. In this particular situation...”
The man acting as Sigmund’s Branch cracked his neck and fixed his gaze upon a certain Eater--the confused and dazed young man.
“...In this situation, I am to reveal every truth to Nidhogg--Rudy Wenders.”
‘The truth? What about?’
Rudy could do little but look up at Sigmund in silence. His eyes trembled, and the world around him seemed to shake.
“Comrade Rudy. Who do you think it was that created the vampire Theodosius?”
It was a sudden question. Rudy had no answer to give.
“What is the meaning of Theodosius M. Waldstein’s middle initial? Do you realize its significance?”
Sigmund then turned to look at Relic, Ferret, and the viscount in turn.
“Yes. Everything began when the twins’ parents left the Organization’s custody and sought asylum on this island.”
Confirming that he was now on the receiving end of Rudy’s attention, the Branch slowly began to orate to the entire cavern.
He would reveal the truth that led to the beginning of everything, as well as one particular conclusion.
Things had begun approximately fifteen years ago.
When Gerhardt took the twins’ parents under his protection, the Organization gave up on retrieving the family. But they did not so easily let the incident pass.
As retaliation against Gerhardt von Waldstein, they sought out the youngest child of Gerhardt’s distant human relatives and turned him into a vampire of the Violet Sage.
After the transformation, the boy took on the name of the one who turned him as his middle name.
He would thus be known as Theodosius Melhilm Waldstein.
The experiment to create a Relict continued, this time by combining the souls of multiple vampires within one entity.
“The experiment ended in failure, creating nothing but one mentally unstable vampire. Believing that the half-broken boy would be capable of nothing, Melhilm carelessly abandoned him. Is that not correct?” Sigmund asked. Melhilm answered with silence, as good as acknowledging his part in the experiment.
Doctor listened to everything with fists and teeth clenched.
Noting this, Sigmund gleefully continued with the story.
“But you see, Melhilm’s experiments were only half a failure.”
The boy who had been deemed powerless at the end of the experiments slowly grew in strength in the form of maturation. But in spite of his growing power, he had already long been cast out of the Organization.
Having been conditioned to hold absolute loyalty to the Organization, the unfortunate vampire had lost even a place to go back to as a human being. And little by little, he came to know his own strength.
But he still knew of no way to contact the Organization. The boy waited and waited for the day someone would finally need him. The day when he, the vampire, would be needed by others of his own kind.
Perhaps it was because he was still an oblivious child when he gained such power, or perhaps it was because the continued overshadowing of his mind had eaten away at his heart. The boy, even in his twisted state, lived with but one thought: “I want to show my strength to the world”.
Because he was a powerful vampire, he would behave like one.
‘I’m a vampire. I’m a really really strong vampire.’
The boy did everything he could to live up to his image of the quintessential vampire. He desperately tried to behave like the monsters and demons he had seen in movies and storybooks.
And the moment he sucked the blood of a human for the very first time, the boy so easily crossed a fatal line. He was now a murderer.
“Several years passed, and the insane child had become a monstrous mass murderer. Rudy... I am sure you could say more about his state than I could describe.”
Rudy flinched at the sudden mention of his name.
He was still terribly shaken, unable to properly process his own emotions. Sigmund’s words were registering in his mind as raw data, but it was difficult to translate the implications into a reaction.
‘No. Don’t try to understand. Forget everything Sigmund says,’ his instincts told him, but Rudy continued to listen. The way he was, to choose anything else was unthinkable.
“And as for what happened afterwards... Theresia knows quite well.”
Theresia said nothing, only glaring at the white coffin. She tightly clenched her whip as she glowered at Professor with a look that could kill. It was difficult to tell if she was even listening to Sigmund in the first place.
Chuckling at her reaction, Sigmund broke out into a grin and continued.
“Theresia was always in love with Theodosius. Even when she was a child. Even after Rudy’s family and her own were murdered, her feelings for him never once wavered.”
Theresia had accepted Caldimir’s offer not for revenge, but for love. She believed that if she continued to search for him--as an avenger if that had to be the case--she would one day be reunited with Theo.
One day, she had been acting separately from Rudy as she undertook a mission concerning a certain incident connected with the Organization. And that day, she finally found the vampire she was searching for.
Theodosius, living in hiding and in fear of the sins he had committed.
Alongside a certain girl who had been supporting him all this time.
Theresia was jealous of the girl--Elsa--who had become a vampire and was now in hiding alongside Theo.
“...The rest is just as you might imagine. Overcome with envy, Theresia devoured the third survivor of the massacre! Although I suppose, to humans, it might be difficult to call this girl a survivor when she had been turned into a vampire.”
Theresia listened in silence. She neither acknowledged nor denied his claims, standing there as though lost in her own memories.
“That vampire should then have returned to dust. I know nothing of that white coffin.” Sigmund said with a meaningful look, turning to Doctor solemnly. But he was not the only one. Melhilm, Rudy, Theresia, Relic, Ferret, and every other eye in the cavern was now fixated upon him.
The coffin at the center of the story, more concerned about Doctor’s emotional state than the question of her own identity, whispered his name.
Spurred by the many gazes bearing down upon him, Doctor hung his head and mumbled as though to himself:
“I... I was scared of losing Elsa.”
Elsa was crumbling to ash before his very eyes. As soon as they had escaped from Theresia, Theo had poured out most of his blood over Elsa’s body. Her flesh had mostly rotted away and her bones were exposed, but he continued to spill his blood into her coffin.
Was what happened next a miracle, or a nightmare?
Elsa’s remains--her bones--had become a vampire. Had she been revived, or had a new creature been born?
Was this vampire without memories really Elsa?
Though he still had many questions, Doctor eventually came to accept her. Afraid to give her a name, he always insisted on calling her ‘Professor’.
And so, time passed.
The avenger in the middle of the events of the past was at once the centerpiece and a voiceless puppet. He hung his head, hiding his expression from sight.
Until just moments earlier, he had been so confused by the massive quantities of information entering his head that he could avoid piecing together the truth. He could scatter that information into chaos in order to deceive himself.
But things came together piece by piece, filling Rudy’s heart to its furthest corners.
‘Theo was saved by Sis? And he lived with her?
‘He’s lying. He must be lying. How is that possible? That can’t be. And even if Theo subjugated her, why would Theresia kill her?’
And if he were to take everything he heard at face value, he would reach one inevitable conclusion.
“...When Elsa said to you that day, ‘I wish you never existed’, she wasn’t talking to you... But me.”
‘Shut up. Shut up. Shut up shut up shut up shut up this is a lie no more please I am sick of lies it’s disgusting it’s all lies everything is a lie the world is a lie.’
His sentiments echoed back and forth through his mind like a magic spell, slowly tightening his gut with anxiety.
‘I don’t want to hear any more lies. If the people I trusted, my past, and my entire world is a lie... Then I... I won’t let that world exist any longer.
‘This is all a pain. Such a bother.
‘Heh. Heh. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah...’
The air quickly grew cold as Relic realize that his instincts were setting off alarm bells in his head. He turned his head around to survey the cavern without a second thought.
The moment he caught sight of the avenger, Relic felt goosebumps forming on his skin.
The young man’s blood vessels were more clearly visible on his skin than ever before. Flesh dribbled from his fingertips as though melting. His eyes, filled with the determination to destroy everything, looked much like a bomb whose fuse had run out, pondering which way to ricochet.
‘This is bad. I don’t know what’s happening, but... That man is trouble.’
Relic was not the only one to sense the danger posed by Rudy, who now knew everything. And even before the matter of the air around him, no one would have wanted to approach him in the moments after his finding out the truth.
Sigmund would not let this chance slip by.
“Look out, everyone. Don’t get any closer to him.” Relic said.
‘I have to protect Hilda...’
Immediately after warning the others to stay back, Relic quickly looked around to search for the girl whose face rose most prominently in his thoughts.
She was standing there, no different from any other day.
She was showing Relic a perfectly intact smile, sending her gentle gaze his way.
Of course, at this particular time, her eerily casual expression was dissonance itself. Although Relic’s sense of reason told him so, the waves of emotion surging in his heart easily overpowered such a rational conclusion.
Hilda, under Sigmund’s control, leapt from the ground where she stood.
She was headed straight towards the slender form of Rudy, standing in the middle of the execution area.
Relic had no time to think. And even if he did, he would have regardless made the same decision.
He slipped between Hilda and Rudy with incredible agility, standing before her to keep her safe. With Hilda behind his back, Relic swore to himself that he would protect her at all costs from Rudy’s wrath.
But at that very moment, Hilda--with her ever-constant smile--wrapped her arms around Relic’s neck and restrained him from the back.
Relic would normally have no problem fighting off this level of force, but he had been caught completely off guard. He had been rendered immobile for a single precious second.
Standing before Relic, whose movement had been halted, Rudy did as his Eater instincts dictated.
He ruthlessly sunk his teeth into Relic’s arm, tearing off flesh without a moment’s hesitation.
Relic was overcome by agony. It felt as though his senses had been erased from part of his body. It was an insurmountable sense of loss, as though part of his very power was being sucked away from him.
On the contrary, Rudy’s body was filled with an incredible surge of energy, madly running through his senses like electricity. His latest meal was on an entirely different level from those in which he had partaken before. If ordinary vampires were the Eater’s equivalent of food, this was closer to being injected with a powerful, instant-acting stimulant. Though he felt great power under his control, he had also become slave to it.
And so, Rudy was once more led by his instincts to gain more of this sublime power. He lunged for Relic’s carotid artery.
Rudy’s mind, lost in the current of power, was held in place by one vampire’s call.
Quickly registering the owner of the voice, a sliver of sanity was restored to Rudy’s unstable mind.
“Rudy... I’m the one you’re after, aren’t I?”
As Rudy teetered on the verge of madness, the voice of his most hated foe entered his ears. It was a desperate plea from one he had once called a friend.
“Rudy... If you’re still in there, please... I have just one request.”
Rudy could feel something ominous looming overhead. He broke out into cold sweat. But unable to cover Doctor’s mouth or his own ears, he stood rooted to the spot and listened.
“Rudy. I know that what I’m about to tell you is probably only going to make you even more angry.”
‘It can’t be... are you really going to say...? No... Stop... Don’t say it!’
“And I know that I really have no right to be saying this. But Rudy... I’m still going to say it.”
‘Stop... Stop stop stop stop stop!’
“I don’t care what you do to me. I don’t care if you spend the next hundred years killing me slowly. But the others have nothing to do with this! So please, Rudy! Just end it with me! I’m the only one you have to hurt!”
For a split second, the image of the boy Rudy met earlier that day--Mihail--overlapped with Theodosius, standing before him. And,
“DON’T SAY IIIIIIIIIT!”
‘Saying that stuff won’t make me angry, Theo! It won’t make me hate you! It’s... It’s only going to drive me to despair!’
Rudy’s despair took the form of a scream.
It had been summoned to this world by Rudy’s own hands, brought to destroy everything--his own self.
The sacrifices had been chosen. Rudy himself, and Theo.
Once they were offered up, he would be destroyed. His despair would break him to pieces. It would lock his world in utter darkness. With his belief in all else shattered, Rudy cried out at the top of his lungs.
Melhilm coldly watched Rudy, whose skin was crumbling like rags.
“Hmph. I have no objections to watching a subject’s body fall to pieces.” He said, smiling with all the emotion of a scientist who was losing a somewhat valuable specimen, “but if even his mind is shattered in the process... That is the end.”
But Melhilm’s voice no longer reached Rudy. A monster was coming to life in the execution area.
Swallowed by the currents of power, even the young man’s heart was crumbling.
But there was one thing clear in his sights.
The nemesis who had stolen away all he had held dear.
The one who had forced him to betray his beloved sister.
The one who had shown him a new world.
The one who had destroyed that world.
The one he had met in the forest.
The vampire boy.
Theodosius M. Waldstein.
Rudy moved like lightning.
Now little but violence in human form, the Eater launched himself straight towards Theo.
By the time the others had realized what he was doing, it was already too late. Though possessed of unimaginable strength, Rudy was collapsing from the inside out. The heart that should have prevented such a collapse had long been broken to bits.
His final thoughts would not be that of his parents. Nor would it be of Theresia or Elsa.
But Theodosius M. Waldstein.
There was nothing left for Rudy but the boy from his past.
No one could stop him now.
Relic, Ferret, and the werewolves--all were convinced of Doctor’s impending death.
But there was one vampire in particular who would not accept this fate.
Up to this point, it was all she could do to watch.
She had neither the right to intervene nor the knowledge of who was right and who was wrong.
Though she believed herself powerless to do a thing, she thought of one thing and one thing alone--that she would step in should anyone be on the verge of being killed.
This place had been created for punishment. She had said so herself.
But she had done nothing but wait, trying to prevent the very purpose of this place--trying to prevent all from receiving the punishment of death.
And the time had finally come.
The girl had put down her roots in the ground, but she used the momentum of withdrawing them to fly forward.
She leapt forth with great force, faster than the wind--faster than Rudy, who had become a monster--
Unhindered by the friction that threatened to eat away at her body, she leapt between Theo and Rudy.
There was a sound like something bursting.
Chunks of red flew across the cavern.
Selim dazedly looked up at the bits of red, her thoughts slowly departing far away.
Somewhere deep within her memories.
Her consciousness was led to the moment of her own birth.
And her past flashed by before her eyes like a dream.
The past replayed itself to the alraune in human form.
It was a past that should not be remembered,
But also one that should not be forgotten.
Centuries ago. A town square in a certain country.
At first, it was nothing more than a flower possessed of a will.
It spoke no language, knew no names of the things it could see around itself.
It did not know what it meant to think.
‘What. Am I? Is this place? What? Ah...’
But the flower with a sense of self was curious about the world around itself.
It absorbed the sounds that made its petals tremble. It focused its senses on the fact that light was reflected off all sorts of surfaces, delivering data about colors and shapes. The flower, who possessed neither ears nor eyes, had already begun a transcendent process of evolution.
‘I wonder why this red water is so tasty.
‘It comes down from the sky whenever the sun is at its highest.’
It had a surplus of voices from which to draw practice.
Although it was usually accompanied only by the wooden scaffolding beside itself, each day humans gathered at the square and talked about all sorts of things.
‘I hear that sound.
‘I hear it again.
‘Every time I hear a thud, blood falls from the sky.
‘So much blood falls from human necks.’
Each time the guillotine claimed a new victim, the flower was showered with massive quantities of blood.
The flower was granted this peculiar source of nutrition more often than rain. The blood fell into the soil and sank deep where its many branching roots lay, absorbed into the flower and making it cleverer and stronger.
But the words that usually flew around the guillotine twisted the flower’s soul in one particular direction. Of course, from a vampire’s perspective, this was a perfectly natural bend of morality borne from a perfectly natural instinct.
As the flower grew to learn more and more about humanity, it occasionally wondered about its own identity. But drunk on the daily bath of blood, the flower quickly stopped caring.
‘Heh. Heh. Someone got killed again.
‘Oh, this feels great. I love the feeling of blood raining down on me.
‘I hope they kill more and more people. I hope they execute more.
‘Stain your hands even more, you ruthless executioner.
‘It’s not just the blood. Their cheers, too. Their cheers are music to my ears.
‘More blood. More cheering. More cries of the damned.’
“Any last words?”
The executioner’s mechanical statement served as a signal for the alraune’s feast.
Each time a criminal was executed at the guillotine, the people gathered in the square roared in ecstasy. The flower loved that sound.
Rooted at the center of this hurrah, the flower felt as though it was being praised by all the world.
The people--the prey--gathered around it and cried out in joy.
The screams of the criminals made it feel as though it were in the position of absolute power.
But the flower eventually grew to realize that this was all just a misunderstanding.
The humans were cheering for the entertainment of the execution, taking place overhead on the guillotine. And the criminals never once spared the flower a glance.
No one among the throngs gathered at the square paid the flower any mind.
The flower was alone.
It was lonely, not knowing a thing about what it was.
‘I need more.
‘I need more blood. So much more.
‘I want you to scream for me.
‘I want you to cheer for me.
‘Not just during the day. I want to feel alive, even at night.
‘I want to feel alive because it’s night...’
The alraune began to consider one day slipping out of the ground and cutting humans’ throats to drink their blood.
There had been no rain for several weeks now, and the executions had also been put on hold for several days. The alraune was starving, finally beginning to seriously consider using its own roots to cut off the feet of those who walked by.
But one night, under the full moon, a lone girl appeared before the flower under the guillotine.
‘...Is this... water?’
Realizing that something cold was trickling down from overhead, the flower turned its consciousness above.
Standing there was a girl holding a small container, scooping water onto the alraune.
“Are you all right? It’s been a while since it last rained. I thought you were looking a little down.”
‘...A human girl?’
The girl wearing large spectacles smiled at the flower in bloom, her mouth a combination of joy and loneliness.
“You know... I knew all along that you were growing here.”
At first, the alraune thought that the girl knew it had a will of its own. But from the sounds of things, it realized that the girl was probably talking to herself.
“I wonder why no one else noticed. You’ve been blooming here for an entire year without wilting now.”
And yet she was indeed speaking also to the alraune.
It was a first for the flower, to be spoken to in any way by anyone.
“You’re blooming so beautifully, so I wonder why...”
Looking up at the girl’s downcast face, the flower began to feel its own loneliness slowly fade from its heart.
“I’m sorry. You must be doing your very best to live, right?”
But as though in the flower’s place, the girl’s loneliness grew more and more pronounced in her smile.
‘This girl was looking at me all this time.’
Looked at by someone for the first time in its life, the flower felt a new emotion sprouting in its heart.
‘So I hope that this girl will be happy too.’
From that night onwards, the girl visited the guillotine every night to give clean water to the flower.
And at some point, the flower began to truly love seeing the girl come to visit.
It gained greater joy from her company than being showered in blood, being at the center of the crowd’s cheers, and listening to the screaming of the criminals.
After all, the girl recognized its presence and looked after it.
She was living testimony to the fact of its existence.
It listened to the girl many times over, chewing over her words and their meanings.
And eventually, the girl became the flower’s standard of humanity.
The girl’s words had affected the thoughts and identity of this inhuman creature.
Before it knew what was happening, the flower had lost its thirst for blood.
Time passed again, and the girl came to the flower with a strangely different self-confession.
“This is amazing. You’ve been blooming here for two years now without wilting once.”
Although her smile was as lonely as ever, the flower was still happy. The girl cared for its existence. The very idea gave it great joy.
“If there’s a flower spirit living inside you, I want to make a wish.”
They had known each other for a long time, but the girl had never realized that the flower possessed a sense of self. Understanding this, the flower clung to her every word.
“Many more people are going to die here from now on. So please... don’t wither. Please stay in bloom forever.”
The flower was overcome by a strange sensation.
“Please let the people see your beauty in this town square. I’m sure someone besides me will notice you. So please...”
‘...What... Is she saying?’
“Everyone says that those people being executed are evil, but please let them see your beauty too. I’ve seen so much of you already, so please let others see you too.”
Fear swelled in the flower’s heart as it desperately tried to understand what the girl was trying to say.
“No one in this world is truly evil.”
But her lonely smile remained inscrutable as she uttered:
“And if anyone is truly evil, I must be it. After all, even though I know that no one is evil... I still can’t bring myself to forgive them.”
It had been one year and several months since their first meeting. But this was the first time that the flower had ever tried to speak to the girl. It was gripped by the feeling that the girl was bound for some faraway place, never to return.
But having no mouth or vocal cords, and possessing no telepathic ability, the powerless flower’s words echoed only in its own mind.
And the flower’s fears soon became reality.
The next evening, the girl did not come to visit.
Nor the next evening, nor the one after.
Perhaps she had collapsed of an illness. Perhaps she had been rendered immobile in an accident. Perhaps she was dead.
All kinds of scenarios went through the flower’s mind as it understood for the first time the meaning of fear.
Realizing just how important this girl was to itself, the flower shook in fear of losing her.
Two days later, as the flower languished in terror, the girl finally appeared once more.
But her visit was not at night, as it usually was.
The sun was at its highest point.
The square was filled with people.
The girl emerged at the center of everything, on the guillotine that loomed above the flower.
The girl was still quite young for someone being executed here. Perhaps this was why so many people had been gathered today.
“I heard she stabbed the assemblyman.”
“He was in a rage about this being a coup d'état, but he probably ordered this out of spite.”
“Well, he’s the one who sent her father to die at the guillotine. And now the daughter’s gotten herself into this mess.”
“Shush. Someone’ll hear you. Anyway, the assemblyman’s totally fine now, you know?”
“But treason’s treason. I can’t believe this.”
“In other words, they want us to know we’re not supposed to go against them.”
“But a girl that young... normally she’d be sent to the gallows.”
“Maybe the assemblyman wanted to make a point.”
“That too, but I heard the girl asked for the guillotine specifically.”
“Wha...” “Gives me the chills.” “Kill her.” “I wish we could do something...”
Countless voices circled around the square, but no one honestly made to try and rescue the girl.
Even in the midst of their whisperings the crowds swelled into one gigantic circle, surrounding the guillotine. They looked up at the glinting blade, some unable to hide their grim expressions, and others laughing as though watching a piece of entertainment.
And the moment the girl was brought up to the stand,
The square was filled with a cheer no different from what the flower had heard at the moment of any other execution.
Countless thoughts swirled through its head like a storm, refusing to organize themselves into coherent notions.
Why would the girl have to die?
The roar of the crowd, once a glorifying cheer of worship, had now become a thousand voices shouting a criminal’s curses.
The flower wondered if it had reveled in the execution-goers’ hurrahs even at the death of the girl’s father.
It wondered if it had condescended at his screams.
“Any last words?” The executioner asked mechanically.
The girl said nothing, only shaking her head. But when the executioner reached out to remove her glasses, she declined.
“Could I... keep my glasses? I... I’d like to see the world until the end.”
The executioner nodded silently and laid the girl under the guillotine frame. The cheers of the crowd grew more and more intense, the sound driving the people to even greater excitement.
‘I have to save her. I have to save her.’
The flower tried to move its body, but it was impossible.
Before meeting the girl, it had been capable of a certain degree of movement. But once it had abandoned the idea of moving around to seek out victims, it had never again considered the idea of becoming mobile. After all, it was in want of nothing thanks to the girl’s constant visits.
And so, the flower was powerless to save her.
The string attached to the blade of the guillotine had been pulled taut; the clamor of the crowds came to a stop. But that was only for a moment. The people whispered to those around them in excitement, each and every murmur building up to greater noise and once more giving way to shouts of exhilaration.
But why was it so disgusted, the flower wondered.
The sound that had once given it such pleasure was now nothing short of sickening.
But even in the midst of all these emotions, the flower concentrated. It reached out overhead with its soul, trying to stretch its leaves towards the girl.
Then, it caught the eyes of the girl lying face-down under the blade.
Although the flower had no eyes of its own, the girl had definitely seen it.
“I’m so glad you’re still in bloom.”
And she delivered to the flower the final words that no human would hear.
The moment she caught sight of the flower, the loneliness disappeared from the girl’s expression. Her smile was now truly genuine.
Though the crowds threatened to drown the girl’s voice in the noise, the flower did everything it could to pick up the pieces of her words.
It tried to convince itself that, perhaps, so long as it continued to listen to her, her life would be preserved.
“Beautiful... You’re so beautiful.”
Was this the flower’s self-righteous but tragic delusion? It almost seemed as though the girl was no longer talking to herself, as she usually had. This time, it was as though she knew clearly that the flower possessed a sense of self.
It was a painstakingly familiar sound.
Blood splattered over the flower like rain.
The shouts of the people reached the heavens.
The force of the impact knocked the girl’s glasses off, and they plummeted down a gap in the guillotine stand. The moment the flower saw this, it knew that she was dead.
Was the girl’s severed head smiling to the last as it lay in its basket?
The executioner hoisted her head into the air to show the crowds, but the flower could not see from its position. Of course, even if the executioner had brought the head before the flower, the flower would still never have looked upon it.
After all, the flower had averted its senses from the scene.
It had run away from the girl’s death.
That night, the flower was wallowing in grief, covered in the girl’s blood.
It despised itself for being so powerless. It despised the lonely days to come.
Each time it heard the sound of the guillotine--each time it partook in a meal, it would remember her.
The bespectacled girl’s smile would not leave its thoughts.
‘I’ll kill them.’
Soon, the flower’s grief turned to hatred. The alraune nursed a growing sense of animosity towards the world.
‘I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them all! Why did she have to die?! Why? She loved the townspeople more than anyone else! I’ll kill them all. The one who beheaded her, the one who sentenced her, the one who created that guillotine, the ones that cheered at her death, and the ones who stood by without trying to help! I’ll kill them. I’ll slaughter them all! All of them. All of them! And... after I kill them... I’ll die too.
‘After all... There aren’t any more humans who’d look after me...’
Suddenly, water fell from overhead and quickly cooled its petals, which had been hot with fuming rage.
It was water from the well, no different from what it had tasted every day.
For a moment, the flower wondered if the girl had somehow returned. It focused its senses upwards in surprise. But it soon realized that the one standing there was a very tall man in his twenties, who was dressed somewhat like an aristocrat.
Clouds obscured the moonlight. The flower could not see the man’s face, but continued to concentrate its senses upon him.
Once the man finished watering the flower, he mumbled solemnly:
“...I don’t know how much more time you have before you wilt away, but if nothing else, thank you for staying alive until today.”
The voice was vaguely familiar to the flower, but it could not recall when exactly it had heard the man before.
And before even that, the flower had no idea why this man was speaking to it in the first place. Its anger and hatred had momentarily become confusion at the man’s sudden appearance.
“How mysterious... No. I think... I think I know why. You’ve been in bloom ever since that vampire--I think--was beheaded. Yes. I was looking at you all this time. Just like that girl who died today.”
Unlike the way the girl had spoken, it almost seemed as though this man was aware of the flower’s self-awareness.
The flower now knew--the girl was not the only one who noticed it.
And this man even knew that it possessed a sense of self.
Shocked by this revelation, the flower struggled to understand who this man was.
“That girl... She worried for you to the very end. And she asked me--after she was gone, there would be no one to water you. So she asked me if I could come look after you once in a while, if there were to be a drought.”
Something came to the flower about the man’s identity. But unable to immediately confirm its suspicions, the flower silently listened to the man.
“And mark my words, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I will water you every day. So... I know I’m in no position to be asking this of you, but please...”
The man gulped, swallowing a certain emotion as he continued. He stepped over to the flower with a complicated expression.
“Please... live on in her stead.”
He spoke to the flower as he gazed upon its bloodstained petals, his voice filled with sorrow and anger.
“If you’ve drunk her blood, then drink in her soul as well. And... be happy. Be happy alongside that girl... alongside Selim.”
The flower finally knew the name of the girl.
The man shook his head and looked at the flower with grim determination.
“I’m begging you...”
And once he finally hung his head, the clouds broke apart for a moment to illuminate the man’s face in moonlight.
Written on his face was a look of utter sadness, deeper than that of any the flower saw on the girl.
The man’s face, the flower realized, was an all-too-familiar one.
It had heard the man’s voice every day. But it had taken it so long to realize because his voice never held emotion, and because his words were the same each time he spoke.
“Any last words?”
Watching the executioner depart, the flower remembered what the girl had said.
“No one in this world is truly evil.”
Repeating her words in its head, the flower told herself:
‘You were right.’
A moment later, the blood soaking into the soil around her was drawn into her roots without a drop left behind. Even the blood covering her leaves were soon absorbed into her cells.
“You were right. No one in this world is truly evil.”
And so the flower filled its entire body--down to the very last cell--with one powerful desire.
‘I have to move. I have to move.’
‘So you’re not an evil person either. You shouldn’t have had to die. So... so please...’
Her powerful strength of will manifested in the form of vampiric powers. Her roots began to move as she slowly reached out towards the space under the guillotine. At first, her movements were slow and sluggish. But as her cells became accustomed to the action, she began to slide more gracefully towards her destination.
‘Please. Let’s live on together.’
Several minutes later, the flower’s roots were clutching the glasses lying under the scaffolding.
By the time she saw herself in the reflection of the spectacles, the flower’s heart had been cleansed of hatred and regret.
Having taken on the form of a human girl, the alraune began to call herself ‘Selim Vergès’.
‘Selim’ was the name of the girl.
‘Vergès’ was the surname of the executioner who had spent his entire life beside the guillotine.
He came to water Selim every day from that day onwards, until he finally passed away of old age many decades later.
And time passed once more.
The girl realized that the rain of red was not the splash of her own blood.
Then she realized that it was not blood to begin with.
The sound of something bursting had indeed indicated something being destroyed, but it was not her own body.
It was the round green object that had jumped in to save her.
The watermelon’s shell was crushed like jelly, and its ripe insides flew gracefully through the air in many pieces.
It scattered like rain--the red rain that had in the past showered Selim under the guillotine.
It sparkled ever so brightly and beautifully.