The greater dark spirit floated near the ground beside her master, watching intently as she worked some sort of skill she had attained.
Her master's words were too difficult and ambiguous for the spirit to understand properly, but she did know that her master had finally gotten what she wished for the most, even though it was taken away from her before she could finally meet and reestablish their familiar contract once again. But now, after days of hard work, her master was now about to take another step into the realm of god by taking back the thing she had desired for as long as the dark spirit could remember: family.
Claret understood just how important such a thing was to her master, for she herself had lived with the same constraints as Scarlet had. Vampires were creatures very close to spirits. They were both creatures born from concentrations of mana, and both fed on mana to survive and grow. However, there was a clear divide between the two, with several barriers that would normally keep them separate.
But one of the things that was the same between the two races was that they were born alone, the very idea of a family being foreign to both.
As Claret followed Scarlet around through the years, she came to know and understand the concept, but still felt it was something that had nothing to do withe her as a spirit. On the other hand, she grew to understand that wasn't true for her master, that the vampire she followed even as a lesser spirit developed a deep seated envy over the concept of family. But as she hid amongst the blessed races, her knowledge she had gained of the idea was fragmented, and as races who didn't multiply in the same manner, neither could know where the gaps in their knowledge were.
As the spirit's master grew driven by her fragmented knowledge, as Claret supported her master on her endeavours to the best of her limited knowledge and abilities, they came in contact with members of the mortal races over and over. Scarlet's desires colouring her actions, they were perceived in a way that was convenient for both. While for Claret simply being with her master was enough, she knew that she wasn't able to fill the void that had developed in her master's heart as she watched the blessed races with their families.
Helping the weak, helping the wounded, the spirit knew that it was akin to no more than alms to her heart, yet it couldn't fix her fundamental issue.
The dark spirit, though, hoped that her master getting her own family would finally fulfill the desire that so many others hadn't been able to.
Claret leaned in, hoping to burn into her memory the scene of her master once more doing what others had long considered the impossible.
<Alright, everything looks...!!!>
But her anticipation was betrayed when her master's expression distorted and she raised her hands to her head in pain.
<What is this. I don't get it! It hurts! It hurts! Help me!>
A voice rang in the spirit's head. The source was unmistakably from her master, yet it wasn't a voice she was familiar with. Such a thing shouldn't have been possible. The dark spirit's connection that allowed communicating her thoughts with her master shouldn't have allowed another to barge in unless if they were also contracted to her master as a familiar.
Scarlet let out a strained cry of pain as she writhed in pain.
"Master! What's wrong! What's happened?!"
Something had gone clearly wrong and emotions swirled in Claret's chest. Panic, fear, worry. She practically choked on them as she strained to understand what had happened to her master.
<It hurts! It hurts! Help! I don't understand what this is! Please! Help!>
Again, that strange voice, like that of a child, echoed through the dark spirit's head. As she did her best to block the voice of the person who didn't matter at the time, Claret's mind ran as fast as it was capable of, observing her master for any hint at what she could do to help.
Scarlet's face grew bright red as her face further distorted in pain as she gasped for breath. The vampire's eyes and fangs returned to their normal colour and shape, leaving her real identity exposed for all to see.
(Her skills are unravelling?! That can only mean...)
In the dark spirit's memories, the only times when a skill can be undone against the will of the user were either when they were interrupted by another, or when the user no longer had the capability to continue using the skill. To the best of Claret's knowledge, there wasn't any creatures nearby that could harm her master in such a way, so the only answer was the latter.
(When a skill was undone because the user couldn't continue to keep it running, most of the time, that meant...)
A memory, despite being centuries old, was as sharp in her mind as if it was only a day old. While feasting on mana treats along with her fellow spirits, Scarlet had gone on her own to check on a presence. She had confirmed it was a weak one compared to herself, so there wasn't a need for the spirits to interrupt their meal.
Yet despite that, a sharp but short lived scream came in the direction her master went. The scream was undoubtedly her master's. As dread filled the dark spirit's heart, she flew as fast as she could after Scarlet. Yet the short distance felt so far to her. That space grew infinitely far the moment the spirit felt her connection with her master disappear, leaving nothing but dread in its place.
When she finally reached her master's location, the only thing she found was a man standing over a pile of ashes and her master's clothes. Claret felt like she was torn in two at that sight. Until she was reunited with her master days before, she had felt that torn half had been lost forever.
Now in front of her, she couldn't help but fear that her master might be taken away from her again.
As fear and panic sharply rose up in the spirit's heart, her master made a desperate move. Her aura, normally suppressed to the point that it was hardly visible anywhere outside of her body, stretched out and above her. The aura pulsed and changed colour, a clear sign of magic being activated, but considering the concentration of her aura and how much of it changed colours, very little water dripped out from the tip. An almost insignificant amount.
Scarlet tried again with a different spell, but almost nothing happened. An amount of magic that would normally be seen by a beginner was the limits of her master, someone who could use magic as if an extension of her body.
And instead of a coherent spell, tendrils grew out from her suppressed aura and whipped around uncontrollably. Quickly the full brunt of the vampire's aura explosively expanded to its natural size, enveloping Claret and driving away all the lesser spirits in terror.
All spirits knew subconsciously the danger of such a powerful, uncontrolled aura. The lesser spirits could easily be killed by a swipe from one of the countless tendrils that grew from the vampire's aura. The only reason why the greater dark spirit wasn't immediately crushed to death inside such a heavy aura was thanks to the fact that her own level that didn't pale significantly to her master's. But...
(It hurts. It hurts, but compared to what Master's going through, this is nothing.)
Claret forcibly pushed through the dense aura and dove at her master who forced herself to her feet in the hopes that she could do something.
But against all expectation, she simply passed right through her master's body, only realizing part of the way, that her master had also lost control of her [Spiritualize] skill, and could no longer be touched by Claret's incorporeal hands.
Slowed to a halt in the thick, viscous aura, Claret turned around to see Scarlet attempting to walk, but not even aware of what she was walking to.
Claret tried once again, but this time activating [Materialize] first, she planted herself behind her master's body, wrapped her harms around her torso, then lifted the vampire into the air and flew into the air.
Staying in that spot wouldn't help her master in the slightest. In fact, it could only bring her harm. If the others woke up before she got better, Scarlet's identity would be immediately exposed. Claret had seen the numerous times when gratitude turned to fear amongst the faces of the blessed races upon learning her master's true race. She wouldn't allow such a mistake to happen here.
In addition, to the dark spirit's thoughts, there was only one thing that she could think of that had a remote chance of helping her master, and that was feeding. But again, feeding on her master's companions would only hurt the gentle vampire, so she had to find something else.
She hoped to find some of those imps that she kept seeing the day before. They probably wouldn't make a very good meal, but it was better than nothing.
She flew, skimming close to the surface of the rocky hills as she carried her master. Within seconds of cresting one of the hills, something came flying at high speeds towards the duo. The spirit's [Danger Sense] blared out in warning, but in her distracted state, she just barely reacted it in time. Claret veered sharply to the side, but even then she only managed to avoid a direct blow, and instead the attack grazed her side.
But it was enough, and as her arm snapped like a twig, Claret lost her grip on her master, allowing her to tumble to the ground as the dark spirit looked in horror.
In desperation, Claret started a dive down to try to catch her master, but something flew at her again. This time she had enough awareness of her situation to properly react to her [Danger Sense] and avoided the strike.
As the thing whizzed by, she got a quick glance at what was about to strike her. It was a large rock as big as her head. Following its trajectory back to its source, she laid eyes on a large, grey/brown appendage gripping another rock of similar size, readying it to be thrown. That appendage, as she followed it down, was a tail, and while its root was under water and thus not clearly visible.
Or rather than simply water, it was a small lake at the base of a crater-like valley. The front half of the beast had surfaced. At the end of its wide body sprouted nine long snake-like tendrils that each ended with a lizard's head.
Claret grimaced at the sight of the hydra, a monster strong enough that even she would normally not want to be near if she had a choice. Even in the best of times she would consider it a difficult fight, but now, with an arm that bent where it shouldn't and while guarding her master who was currently incapable of fighting, even thinking of fighting the monster felt like it was boarding on suicide.
A loud, blood-curling screech emanated from below. Claret glanced down, and looked at the lake shore where Scarlet had fallen. Underneath hear body was a large splatter of blood, with the upper body of an imp protruding from underneath as it squirmed and screeched for a few moments before growing still.
One after the next, the sounds of imps screaming in response echoed all around the spirit as her emotions plummeted at the realization of what she was facing. The hydra had split its attention between the two, and at the same time, imps started pouring over the canyon walls.
To make matters worse, as the dark spirit glanced at the imps slowly flooding the lake in retribution over their fallen comrade, her gaze moved to the sky.
(Nononono! Not this too!)
Claret was reaching her limit as the sight of purple pushing against the blackness of the night sky filled her eyes. As the familiar of a vampire, she was intimately aware of the horrors sunlight brought to their kind. As thoughts of it circulated through her mind, they were replaced by the last image of her master's body before they reunited.
"Not again! Not ever again!"
Blinking back tears, the greater dark spirit waved her arms up. She needed to eliminate all the threats to her master, first and foremost being the sunlight. The shadows cast by the rising sun surged with life, rising up and doming over the valley.
Swinging her arms back down, tendrils grew from the solidified shadow and lashed out at the imps caught inside of the dome, slashing through them, grabbing and crushing them, or even stabbing them. The tendrils on the outside of the dome lashed out randomly. Occasionally a screech made its way from the outside.
Her [Danger Sense] flared up, but this time it wasn't responding to a danger to her, but her master who she was linked to via the familiar contract.
(That wasn't an imp!)
Her eyes darting back below to the source of the newest scream, Claret's heart dropped even further than ever as she saw the horrifying sight of her master squirmed on the ground with her hands over her face. Between her fingers, green and red ooze could be seen slowly running down her face.
If Claret had a beating heart, it probably would've stopped at that sight. But fortunately for her, she didn't.
In her panic, the dark magic she had wielded waned as her concentration broke. The shadow dome split open and receded, allowing new imps to invade inside. Sunlight started pouring inside, illuminating the far edge of the canyon walls.
But as the dark spirit was frozen in place, the sight of her master suddenly leaping at the hydra at speeds difficult for even her to follow shook her out of her shock. Noticing what had happened, she pushed out her aura and reestablished the shadow dome and redoubled her efforts to eliminate the imps.
While such creatures weren't really a threat to them, they could be distracting at a crucial moment, and to Claret, it wasn't worth taking any risks regarding her master.
The dark spirit looked in horror at the sight of her master sailing through the air after taking a hit from one of the hydra's heads. She gritted her teeth as she saw her master slam into the canyon's wall, partially getting buried in it as the rocky surface shattered on impact.
Unable to bear the sight, she dove at her master in an attempt to help. As she got close, her [Danger Sense] triggered again. Instinctively, Claret broke to the left. A painful impact to her side caused the dark spirit to uncontrollably fly off above her master and bounce off of the hard cliff side.
Claret's body wracked in pain, but when she looked back, the sight of one of the hydra's heads shaking as if it was trying to ward away some dizziness entered her eyes. A brief sense of relief at protecting her master was quickly washed away when she saw Scarlet prepare to lunge at the monster again.
The hydra also was preparing to intercept, but there was no way that the dark spirit would allow such a thing.
Diving with all the speed she could muster, Claret flew towards the path of where her master would lunge into. One of the hydra heads swung from the side in an attempt intercept the ballistic vampire, but the dark spirit instead intercepted the hydra.
"You damn overgrown snake!"
Slamming her body into the head at full speed, both she and the hydra head ricochet off of each other, barely missing Scarlet.
Without waiting to check on the results of what had happened, Claret cast more of her specialty dark magic. In the near complete darkness of the crater-like canyon, rope made from solidified shadows extended from the dark spirit's body and whipped at the four closest hydra necks, binding them to her body.
With the restraints in place, Claret pulled as hard as she could on them, pulling the four heads back over its body. She then threw out one more shadow rope and tethered it to the monster's tail. Using her own body as an anchor point, she restrained the creature to the best of her abilities to give her master her best chance at whatever she had planned.
But being a multi-headed monster, the hydra simply split its attention between the two. The four free heads spat acid at the vampire while the head ensnared by Scarlet waved around in an attempt to dislodge her. The remaining heads and tail, rather than trying to pull away from the dark spirit restraining them, all reversed direction at once and slammed into her body, crushing many of her bones and rupturing her internal organs.
But rather than crying out in pain and despair, the loyal spirit instead saw it as an opportunity, and retracted the shadow ropes binding the five limbs to herself as far as she could.
Frustrated at the unexpected act, the hydra swung its combined limbs into the ground beside the small lake, tearing up the rocky surface.
The dark spirit involuntarily vomited out blood as more of her bones were broken and some of her organs were losing all recognizable shape. She immediately shut down [Materialize], but it wasn't enough to relieve her of her pain. The monster's strong aura pinned her in place. Realizing what Claret was doing, the monster suffused its aura with mana, hardening its surface to her as much as steel.
But under the weight of the hydra's body and aura, Claret smiled. She knew the more the hydra got frustrated, the better job she was doing.
The monster pulled back and pulled the dark spirit into the middle of its necks and tail before slammed into the ground again and again, crushing the dark spirit in between its limbs and its dense aura. Each time more bones broke, her internal organs became closer and closer to nothing but red sludge. But her smile didn't fade despite the pain.
And when she realized that the hydra's efforts were growing weaker each time, her smile grew.
A few more times, and the monster couldn't even raise its necks nor its tail anymore. The warmth of its body grew weak, the feeling of blood pumping faded.
Buried under unmoving monster flesh, Claret checked her familiar contract with her master. She could feel Scarlet regain her strength as the connection between the two clarified. Relief washed over the dark spirit as she released her hold on the hydra. But even in this state, she maintained the shadow dome over the canyon just in case.
To the best of her ability, she couldn't detect the presences of the imps anymore. The only living beings in the area was Scarlet and herself.
Suddenly, the hydra's limbs lifted off of the dark spirit and she tumbled between its limbs to the ground. Claret panicked until she realized that it was the act of her master. She was relieved because the dark spirit couldn't lift her body at all. Most of her bones were broken, the skin of her body was soft, holding little more than bloody sludge.
According to her status page, she had less than 10% of her HP left, but what was more critical was the number of status ailments she had. If she was a normal creature, she'd have soon bled out and died, but fortunately, blood was little more than a piece of mana imbued decoration to a spirit. But as much of a decoration as it was, as was most of their bodies, it was still a part of them, and losing parts of their bodies weakened them.
No part of their body was more critical to them than any other to live, but at the same time, all parts of their bodies were critical to allow them to live. More than merely taking damage, losing parts of their bodies weakened them more than damaging any of their organs or breaking their bones.
But for Claret, who lay there with a smile practically etched onto her face, the thought that her master was safe was the most important thought to her.
The dark spirit couldn't move from her spot, but she was satisfied.
Even if her existence were to end then and there, she wouldn't have any regrets remaining.
Of course, there was a certain someone else who wouldn't allow such an ending.