A good distance away from the stronghold, a girl sat in a tree bathing in the moonlight with a glowing golden ball in her hands as she waited for the night to pass.
The ball grew and shrank, brightened and dimmed. Finally, the ball seemed to pop as it faded away in golden sparkles.
“Was that better than before, Mistress?” Kagriss asked. Within her hands was a dark version of Purification, with exactly the same basic construction but with undead mana powering it. Due to the difference in mana, the “Dark Purification” wasn’t a true spell, just a clump of mana that Kagriss forcibly held together.
She was copying what Carmen did, but her construction was much more complex. Liches were on another level when it came to undead magic. In the end, she was just a zombie warrior.
Carmen sighed, shook her head and dropped her hand.
Her control over her holy mana seemed to have plateaued and it wasn’t improving any further. She’d have to sink a lot more time than she already has to grow better.
“No. I’ve stopped improving. So then, you can leave me now that you’ve seen the limits of what I’m capable of.”
Since Kagriss claimed that she was following her because Carmen was strong, then Kagriss had no reason to remain now, right?
But the lich shook her head. “Of course not. I have already swore my fealty to you, so I will not abandon my oath so easily.”
Kagriss’s reaction was about what Carmen expected, since she had tried to get Kagriss to leave several times the past few days. Just because she didn’t intend to randomly exterminate undead anymore didn’t mean she wanted to be friends with one.
Giving up once more for the time being, she returned to her study of magic.
Her main bottleneck so far was that it was too difficult to transform undead mana to blood mana, and then from blood mana to holy mana. The transformation was never seamless and it took her a lot of concentration to execute efficiently. As a result, the holy magic she cast suffers.
She didn’t have the same problem with undead magic, but she didn’t want to abandon her roots.
As Carmen prepared to cast Purification again, the tangy, delicious smell of blood appeared next to her. Blood mana.
At the same time, Kagriss jumped to her feet, looking around in alarm as black mist surged from her hand. Carmen whacked at her, disturbing her focus. “Stop, you’ll be found by the outpost!” she hissed.
Looking sheepish, Kagriss withdrew the mist but her muscles remained tense, ready for a fight. “It’s a vampire, like you, Mistress.”
“I know. Stand down.”
Red bats flitted out from the darkness all around them and gathered into a sphere of blood. The sphere morphed, gaining definition and changing colors until a silver-haired girl appeared in midair.
Fluttering her leathery wings, the girl dropped down next to Carmen and sat next to her on the thick tree branch, completely ignoring the existence of the lich beside her.
“You look like you’re having trouble with your holy magic. It’s an interesting way to use blood mana, I have to admit,” the girl said, covering her mouth as she yawned and stretched. “Mmm…”
“Victoria…Mother…” Carmen corrected herself, “did you just get out of bed?”
“Yes. I felt like taking a little nap. I felt all warm and fuzzy after watching your reunion,” Victoria said. “Ah, speaking of that, it seems that little acolyte girl has taken to calling you Camilla as well. Are you sure you don’t have to correct her?”
“Yes, it’s fine. I don’t mind, since I’m not the Carmen who she knew anymore.”
Suddenly, Carmen found herself being pulled down until her head was resting on top of Victoria’s lap. She almost fell out of the tree but managed to hang on. “Hey, what are you doing?” she yelped in surprise.
“Unhand my mistress!” Kagriss threw back her cloak, leaving her hands free to cast, only for blood bats to fly around her wrists and solidify into iron bands that glowed the more mana she tried to use.
A pair of ephemeral red lines connected the bands to Victoria, pulsing like arteries. “It’s no use. My mastery of blood mana is far beyond your control of undead magic. I can consume all the mana you try to use before you use it,” Victoria said. “I suggest you stop, and leave us. Camilla?”
Despite her initial surprise, Carmen realized that her mother’s lap didn’t feel all that bad.
“Do as she says, Kagriss. It’s…a family matter.”
“…as you say, Mistress.” Kagriss stepped back, moving further away from Carmen and Victoria. Once she was far enough, Victoria snapped her fingers and the iron bands snapped open and fell apart, disappearing in a swarm of bats.
“Thanks for the meal,” she said, shooting a grin at Kagriss, whose face seemed as unperturbed as usual. Provocations weren’t very effective on undead. Seemingly remembering that, Victoria turned back to face Carmen who was looking up at her from her lap.
“So, what am I doing, you ask? Well~, it’s just that when I saw you do this for that girl, I felt like you needed one too. Good girl, good girl. The last few days have been hard on it, hasn’t it?”
“Don’t treat me like a child. I’m already as tall as you are…”
Carmen stopped protesting after realizing that it wasn’t going to do anything, and Victoria was going to continue doing whatever she wanted. It was embarrassing to be treated like this in front of her new follower, but she didn’t have any alternatives. Instead of fighting a meaningless battle, Carmen relaxed after making sure she wasn’t going to fall out. “Not really. It wasn’t that difficult,” she muttered.
Victoria’s lap was really soft, even through the dress she wore. It…wasn’t bad, kind of comforting too.
Shifting a little into a more comfortable position, with her head still in Victoria’s lap, Carmen resumed her mana control exercise, shooting a glance at Kagriss. The lich nodded and went a little further into the forest and began to practice by herself, leaving Carmen and Victoria alone.
Carmen started with Purification and began to modify it, making it more and more complex without changing its effects or increasing the mana it takes to cast the spell. At some point, the complexity grew too much for her to control and the spell scattered.
Carmen sighed. She hadn’t gotten much further than last time.
Victoria watched her movements with interest. “You can’t do any better?” she asked.
“No. It’s difficult.”
“My, that’s troubling. Perhaps your mastery of blood mana isn’t sufficient,” Victoria suggested.
Carmen looked up at her adopted mother. “What do you mean?”
“I never see you practicing with blood mana,” Victoria said. “Since you seem to be using blood mana as an intermediary, I suspect that improving your control over blood mana will be useful.”
She yawned again. “Not to mention, a vampire bad at blood magic is a disgrace to our kind.”
“That makes sense. I haven’t thought about that…”
While Carmen nicked her finger and began to coax blood from the wound, Victoria picked her up and flew up into the sky. “Wha?”
“Hush. Don’t you find sitting on a tree branch uncomfortably and unsightly?” Victoria asked.
Ignoring her answer in the negative, Victoria raised her free hand and a verdant light began to glow in her palm. A spell that Carmen had never seen before was being constructed right in front of her eyes..
Vitality filled the tree beneath them. The branch trembled and began to grow wider. As long as the light from Victoria’s hands continued, the growth didn’t stop until the branch had become a flat plane as large as a bed, supported from underneath by many different branches growing from the trunk. The rough bark surface had become as smooth as polished marble.
After landing, Victoria stretched. Then, she leaned back with a sigh, pulling Carmen down with her. She closed her eyes while hugging Carmen.
“Wait, don’t sleep here.” Carmen pushed gently but firmly at Victoria, but Victoria only tightened her grip. She had to give up unless she was willing to use force, and she didn’t want to, especially after seeing how easily Victoria handled Kagriss. “Was that plant magic?”
Except for a small amount of it sparsely spread throughout the forest, she had never sensed plant mana before. Just like humans often used holy magic and vampires used blood magic, the elves used plant magic, growing massive green cities the same way humans built houses.
She looked at Victoria’s ears.
While vampires also had strange ears compared to humans, it was only to the extent of being a little pointier. The long ears of elves were much more pronounced, and now that she was looking for it, Carmen saw the traces of elven ancestry all over Victoria’s body.
Victoria opened her eyes, red pupils shining.
“That’s right. I am an elven vampire,” Victoria said, training her red eyes on Carmen. “Despite being a former elf, I now look like this. And you too…”
“Wait!” Carmen began struggling, but Victoria’s grip was too strong.
She brought her face close to Carmen’s and gently blew. Blood mana rode on the wind of the breath.
Trapped in Victoria’s arms, Carmen couldn’t avoid the mana-laced wind. As it blew by, it tore away a rudimentary spell that Carmen had cast on herself.
With the illusion spell gone, Carmen’s eyes and hair were no longer golden. Instead, around half her hair was silver, just like Victoria’s. Her eyes glowed red in the moonlight. Little sharp fangs poked out from under her upper lips. A pair of little wings fluttered restlessly at her waist.
The appearance of a vampire noble.
Carmen froze as Victoria tore away the disguise that she had been fooling herself with. Her pure golden hair was gone, and the silver hair at the edges of her vision constantly reminded her of her failure to prevent her own transformation. Although she had tried so hard to push back against the vampire blood, in the end, all she could muster was regaining around half of her original hair color.
A shiver ran through her body. With the disguise gone and her true appearance revealed—one she hadn’t accepted, she suddenly felt exposed and vulnerable. “Why did you do that…”
Victoria just gave her a squeeze and then held up a hand, palm facing them. A small cut appeared on the flawless skin at the tip of her finger and blood poured out, turning into a small mirror. The mirror caught both Carmen and herself in the reflection.
Two girls with silver hair and red eyes appeared in the mirror.
“Don’t we look so similar?” she said.
Carmen stared into the mirror, studying their reflections. “…Yes,” she admitted. The more she studied herself and compared what she saw with Victoria, Carmen realized that her facial structure had changed a bit to match Victoria’s appearance as well.
If Victoria didn’t look so young, they would have looked like a mother and daughter pair. As is, they looked more like sisters.
“Does it make you happy that I look like a true vampire now?” she asked.
To her surprise, the vampire shook her head. “If possible, I’d rather you have stayed the same way as you were before. To be honest, looking like this is a bit of a curse. Every member of vampire nobility looks almost the exact same. It’s like we’re all the same person.”
“Then why don’t you just change your appearance like I’ve been doing?”
Carmen had spent the past few days entirely under the effects of her blood magic, changing her hair to be golden instead of silver. If even she, a beginner at blood magic, could cast such a simple spell, then the older vampires should be able to as well.
“Because it’s a matter of pride. Even if it’s a curse, our appearance unifies us, making us less inclined to squabble. Unlike humans, we vampires rarely wage war against each other.”
Victoria reached out and lifted a handful of Carmen’s silver hair. It momentarily turned golden.
“We also discourage illusion magic that changes your appearance. It is considered quite rude to not drop your illusion when meeting in private as we are now.”
She dropped Carmen’s hair and the color faded, becoming silver once more.
Carmen nodded. “I’ll remember that for next time.”
“Excellent. In that case, let’s go.” Victoria let her go and stood up.
Still sitting on the ground, Carmen looked up on her mother. “Go where?”
“To where I live, of course.”
Carmen looked at Victoria doubtfully. The campaign she had participated in to invade the vampires had taken over a year. While most of that time was spent fighting against the forces that the vampires threw at them to grind them down, the distance from this outpost to even the closest vampire was still a vast distance.
“Are you living nearby?”
“Of course not. I live in my city.”
“How are we going to get there? I have things to do…you watched me promise Fleur,” Carmen said, confused. Although she was a bit curious about what a vampire city looked like, she wasn’t going to spend weeks to get there.
“You don’t think I’m really here, do you? Don’t forget that us vampires have powerful bonds of blood and kinship. If we so choose, we can manifest parts of our power through our kin. Even though we might not be the most individually strong race—”
Carmen rolled her eyes. “Please. Ismelda was enough to take out several of our most skilled templars, and you…” she didn’t bother finishing.
“It’s true though,” Victoria said. “Humans are just weak, but that’s a lesson for another time. Anyways, other than bloodbonding, we have another bloodline endowment called blood projection. Us vampires are never truly alone. At a moment’s notice, we can become an army. Ismelda!”
The scent of blood filled the forest as blood mana poured from Carmen’s body. But it wasn’t her mana, since her stores hadn’t decreased.
It was from another source.
The mana turned into bats, and the bats turned into an airborne girl who landed next to Victoria. She wore a flowing red dress, the color of blood.
The last time Carmen saw her was in a battlefield, clad in red armor of the same shade as her dress. Carmen recognized her—the hated enemy that wiped out the remainder of the coalition army.
Although she no longer hated Ismelda, she couldn’t help but feel threatened by her.
She grabbed the handle of her undead blade and Ismelda reached for the sword at her waist. Undead mana began to gather further in the forest. Before she could lift her weapon and before Ismelda could draw, a powerful force froze their arms and something crashed into the ground a bit further away.
“That’s enough,” Victoria said. “You’re not enemies anymore. Ismelda, Camilla, be more mature. You could say that Ismelda is your cousin.”
A bit embarrassed by her own impulsiveness at reaching for her weapon, something she had scolded Barsig over, Carmen let go of her greatsword handle. “My cousin?”
“She’s the daughter of my sister. Her mother’s mother was the vampire that turned me,” Victoria explained. “Be nice to each other.”
Despite her words, neither of them made a move until Victoria grabbed both of their hands and touched them together. Ismelda stirred at last.
“You fought well…”
After shaking each others’ hands rather awkwardly, they separated. Victoria sighed. “You two…no, never mind. You’ll have plenty of time to make up later,” she said. “What’s important is now you understand the nature of blood projection. Unless you specifically block the projection, a vampire closely related to you can scry you and channel their power through the power of the bloodline.”
She saw the look of sheer horror on Carmen’s face and laughed while covering her mouth. “Don’t worry! Only Ismelda and I know you exist, so no one else will be watching you. You already know I’m watching and Ismelda doesn’t care, so it’s fine.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better. What about my privacy?” Carmen muttered.
“Well, whatever. Once I teach you how blood projection works, you’ll naturally understand how to block it,” Victoria said with a hint of regret. “You can return now, Ismelda.”
Ismelda didn’t say anything. Instead she just curtsied and split into countless bats, fading away, leaving just Victoria and Carmen atop the branch.
“Okay. Now hold out your hands and feel the movements of the mana and your blood. I will guide you through how to use it.”
Although Carmen tried to remain calm, she couldn’t suppress her excitement. It was like she was a young knight again, about to learn a new Art. After years of standing at the top of humanity, she didn’t think she’d ever feel such anticipation again, but here she was, barely able to keep still.
Holding both hands over Victoria’s palms, she closed her eyes. Victoria’s mana enclosed both of their hands as she began to explain the specifics of the endowment.
“Like the bloodbonding endowment, projection doesn’t take much mana either. However, it requires a bit of control over your inner self. You have a strong force of will so I don’t expect you to have any problems, but be aware.”
Carmen nodded, afraid to break the silence, before she realized that Victoria couldn’t see her. “Okay.”
“Then I’m starting. Relax and follow my lead. We shall use Ismelda as your temporary destination for scrying. First, picture her.”
Obediently, Carmen pictured Ismelda’s face in her mind. Unlike Victoria and herself, Ismelda cut the hair that would have covered her face, leaving blunt bangs over her forehead and side locks cut with straight ends as well. The rest of her straight hair was left as is.
She also imagined Ismelda’s irritating emotionless face.
Something touched the defenses of the innermost location of her mind. Sensing that it was Victoria, Carmen allowed her to pass while still holding the image of Ismelda.
Victoria guided her to search for something in her mind, feeling for her bloodline. She soon found it, and the presence of a dozen vampires fell on her, but only two were clear.
When she reached toward one of the two, she found that she couldn’t get any close, as if there was an invisible wall between them. Before she could try again, Victoria pinched her hand.
“Stop. You have been blocked by Ismelda.”
Carmen opened her eyes, gasping from the sudden pain. It’s been days since she last experienced pain, and now Victoria easily penetrated her undead defenses. The humiliation hurt more than the pain itself. Holding back tears, she nodded.
Victoria opened her eyes as well. “Now that you know what your bloodline feels like, you’ll be able to feel when someone tries to spy on you, or project through you. Can you feel this?” She closed her eyes again.
Suddenly, Carmen felt the presence of a rather familiar vampire bearing down on her, but she instinctively pushed against it, blocking it outside the door to her mind. Soon, it faded, Victoria disappearing along with it.
Carmen was once again alone on the tree branch.