“Are you surprised that I’m still in touch with my old family? Even if I’ve taken a new name and appearance, it doesn’t mean I have to sever all my previous ties,” Victoria said. “I’ll have the usual. Are there any foods you dislike, Camilla?”
Carmen shook her head, still wrapping her head around the fact that Yirene was Victoria’s sister. But then, body shape wise, it did make sense.
Even though Victoria and Ismelda were both vampires, Victoria had a lot more curves compared to Ismelda.
“Not really. I do prefer sweet foods over salty ones, though.”
“Something with a lot of fruits then,” Victoria said, looking toward Yirene. The elf nodded, taking back the board and headed into the back once more, presumably to prepare the food.
The thought of eating proper food excited Carmen. Since she became a zombie, she had only eaten the flesh of other zombies. Ever since her vampire side awakened, she had only drank blood and water.
But could zombies eat? How would she digest anything? Did imitation of bodily functions like a beating heart extend to her stomach as well? She had thrown up the outpost bread afterwards so she didn’t know.
“What are you thinking about?” Victoria asked. When Carmen told her about her questions, Victoria answered them in turn. “Zombies can eat, but most of the time the little things you eat are too fragile to endure the power so close to your center. In other words, eating is meaningless for you, as over time the undead mana corrodes the food and wears it down into nothingness.”
“What about blood?” Carmen asked.
“The essence is extracted from the blood quite quickly by the blood mana, so you don’t need to worry,” Victoria replied. “Every normal food you eat is just for the taste, so it’s okay if you eat whatever you want. Normal vampires are kind of the same, but we don’t have the benefit of being able to simply eliminate the contents of our stomachs so easily. We have to expel it in other ways, often by vomiting.”
“I see…thank you for answering. That sounds tough.”
“Don’t be so stiff, Camilla,” Victoria chided. “So, what are your thoughts about ‘demons?’”
The question was so sudden it caught Carmen a bit off guard. “What do you mean?”
“I didn’t take you here just to sightsee. As a vampire, you will eventually enter this society or be exiled, so I thought I should help you become accustomed to how we are.”
“Well,” Carmen began, and then paused to organize her thoughts. “You’re all quite similar to humans, except for appearances. Everyone has their own livelihood and things they like, goals to pursue. It’s not very different from humans.”
Victoria rested her chin on her hand. Carmen shifted under her gaze. “It wouldn’t be bad to live here…” she said finally.
“Wonderful!” Victoria clapped a little and leaned forward. “However, just like everything else, there are lights and darks. All you’ve seen so far are the lights, because that’s all I’m capable of showing you. There are darks to our world as well, just like there is darkness in humanity.”
Carmen knew what Victoria was referring to. War over power and wealth was common in the human states. Backstabbing and illicit deals behind closed doors were common as well.
Being insulated from politics by the Church’s policy of neutrality didn’t stop her from hearing about some of the things being done by humans as told to her by Arvel.
The governments of many countries are rife with corruption, enriching themselves and engaging in debauchery, siphoning away money that could have been used to better their citizens’ lives.
Even their armies have grown weaker, as although humans sometimes went to war with each other, these wars were often small in scale. With the Church and its Templar Orders acting as a shield for humanity against the ‘demons,’ the countries could afford to let their armies decay.
Despite the power wielded by the Church, humanity was probably at its weakest in decades or centuries.
For some reason, the demon races didn’t deign to stamp them out once and for all.
“In a way, the aggression of humanity in the past might have been the best thing to happen to us,” Victoria said. “We used to squabble over territory, but when confronted with a small threat that hated us all equally, we united.”
“How can we cause you to unite? I don’t think that we are strong enough to overpower every single other race,” Carmen said.
“That’s easy. Compare it to some adults arguing in the streets, and then a small dog comes up to them and starts barking. What would the adults’ reactions be?”
“They’d probably gather around and laugh at the dog’s antics.”
Carmen smiled at the comparison. Even if humans are a lot weaker individually compared to the other races, they were a lot more populous. To be described as a small dog by a vampire should have offended her, but it didn’t. Instead, it was actually amusing to her.
Once again, she has grown more distant from her old identity as a human, but it didn’t bother her too much anymore. Only her status as a templar remained.
Victoria waved her arms, indicating the town beyond the walls of the Beetle Song. “You asked me if this was common earlier, didn’t you? You asked if this place was an exception.”
“In the past, it would have been. Yet by intruding upon this land and declaring war on all of us, the humans managed to bring us together. Because of this, we came to a consensus of allowing humans to continue to exist, both out of gratitude and as a common enemy to keep us united.”
The knowledge that the humans only continued to live instead of being eradicated by their neighbors weighed heavily on Carmen’s heart. Not that she hadn’t already known to some extent, but to hear it laid out clearly was a bit of a shock. Her whole life had been dedicated to the defenses of the humans, after all.
“Does the Church know about this?” she asked. Something so major could not have escaped the attention of the largest power within human territories. But if they did, then why did she not know about it.
At that moment, Yirene came out the back, balancing two large plates on her hands. She glided over on smooth steps and set the plates on the table before sliding into the seat next to Victoria.
“The atmosphere seems kind of tense. What’s the topic?” she asked, lacing her fingers and resting her chin on them.
“Camilla used to be human, and before she joins us, she wants to investigate the corruption of their Church. I thought it would be a fine test of her abilities so I went along with it,” Victoria said.
Yirene looked surprised for a moment. before she smiled.
“Hmmm, I see. So Camilla, with her still-golden hair, was a human? How interesting.”
Carmen’s heart jumped. For a moment, she thought she was looking at another Victoria. Their smiles were just too similar, equally frightful and full of hidden intentions both good and bad. They were sisters indeed.
“What do you mean? What does my hair have to do with anything?” she asked.
Before Yirene could answer, Victoria touched her shoulder. “We had a promise, Camilla. Let’s continue with where we left off.”
Seeing that Yirene had her mouth firmly shut now, Carmen could only give up. Victoria’s lips were tight, so as her sister, Yirene’s lips shouldn’t be any looser. Sighing, Carmen looked at the plate of food placed in front of her.
It was more like a dessert—berries and chunks of other fruits heaped in cream, all on top of a green jelly. She picked up the spoon set beside the plate and sliced through the jelly, putting it in her mouth.
The sweet taste of the cream and the varieties of fruit filled her mouth, dampened by the refreshing taste of the jelly. Carmen couldn’t really describe it as anything other than a subtle, gentle sweetness with a hint of grassiness.
After having not eaten for so long—the outpost bread didn’t count—the taste of the dessert was pure bliss.
Carmen covered her mouth, unwilling to let even the slightest flavor escape, even in the form of scent.
“How is it? I don’t think you’d have tasted anything like this before, right? The grass that this jelly is made of only grows in elven territory using our magic,” Yirene said.
“Ah…I really like it,” Carmen said, realizing what an embarrassing thing she had done. She composed herself and continued, savoring every bite.
Compared to her dessert, Victoria was daintily slicing at a bloody piece of meat with a knife of her own blood.
“Camilla, I can’t tell you whether your Church knows of our arrangements. That’s something for you to find out for yourself,” she said. A piece of the meat disappeared into her mouth. “But while we’re on the topic, why don’t you tell me of your plan to investigate the Church?”
The food had distracted Carmen so much that she had forgotten what they were talking about earlier, so the question caught her off guard. How was she going to investigate the Church?
It was a goal, but one that was far away. Something she continually put off thinking about, justifying it by saying that she will plan it with Arvel.
But what if Arvel did not help her?
What could she do that would allow her access into the Church’s deepest secrets, something that eluded her even as an Order commander?
The obvious way was to climb the ranks of the Church and see for herself. However, that took way too long, if she could join in the first place. Perhaps she had a chance when she still looked like a child, but when she evolved into a knight-class zombie and awakened her vampire side for good, she had grown to resemble an adolescent girl.
For the first time, Carmen thought hard about what she was going to do. “I think the only real option available to me is to find some evidence of possible rot and slowly track it to its source,” she said. “For example, the undead labor system—although I’m not entirely opposed to it anymore, I still want to see the person behind it.”
“But even if you do that, you’re going to run into problems where certain high-ranking members simply won’t see you, or cooperate,” Victoria pointed out. “What will you do then?”
“I won’t be opposed to revealing what I find to the public if they refuse to see me,” Carmen said. She clenched her fist. “And if I truly have no options left, I…will use force.”
Victoria tutted, shaking her head in disappointment. “You have another option, don’t you? Don’t think with only your fists—you won’t last long that way.”
“What other option do I have?”
“As a vampire, you have a long life ahead of you. You can simply outlive your human enemies. But even on a shorter timescale, you have a girl with you. You can train her to do your bidding.”
“Fleur? I don’t want to bring her into this. This is my own personal mission,” Carmen protested.
“You’ve already involved her the moment you asked her to question the Church and beliefs.” Victoria pointed her knife at Carmen. “Don’t be so naive as to think she will be safe. Besides, if the Church really turns out to be corrupted, that girl will forever be alienated. Who wants a dissenter in the upper ranks?”
Carmen hesitated. What she was doing was dangerous, potentially making an enemy out of all humans. However, she had an out—she was a vampire now, ultimately not human. Even if she was forced into exile, she could still survive in the demons’ territory.
She couldn’t involve Fleur.
Seeing her wavering, Victoria continued. “If that doesn’t convince you, then let’s use another example. Hypothetically, you’re wrong. You believe that a member of the Church is corrupted, but they’re not. Without someone to help you, the only things you can do are irreversible—revealing your existence and threatening them or killing them. You’d be a vigilante,” Victoria said. “But if you raise Fleur to be your eyes and your mouth, she could attempt to remove the official through proper protocols. Not only that, she’d be safer with you protecting her.”
Carmen could protect Fleur even if she didn’t involve Fleur, but ultimately she will finish her mission, leaving Fleur behind.
One the other hand, if she involved Fleur, they’d be closer together, and she’d be able to protect Fleur more easily. Besides, becoming a high-ranking member of the Church will allow Fleur to live a more comfortable life, even if she was missing an arm.
The decision didn’t sound so bad anymore.
But above all, she had to ask Fleur about her opinion in a way that didn’t influence Fleur’s decision.
“I’ll need to think about it more.”
After the talk, Victoria convinced her to just relax for a while. Carmen allowed her mother to take her on a tour around the town, looking at what Irinoth was like on the surface, and seeing how the different cultures blended together.
However, as she walked, suddenly, she felt something strange on her body.
“Camilla, what’s wrong?” Victoria asked as she suddenly stopped.
“N—no, it’s…hyah!” Carmen yelped. It felt like something was touching her chest, but when she looked, nothing was there. Unless…! She cast her consciousness back to her real body, and just as she had guessed, Kagriss was up to something.
She was…she was taking off her clothes?
“Kagriss!” she screamed, her face reddening, and that was it before she jolted herself out of the blood projection and back into her own body.