Dracula is leading Tess to his castle, the wolves following along and disappearing into the trees along the way, one-by-one.
Tess’s eyes widen as she lifts her gaze, following the structure up to the tips of its pitch-black spires. It’s enormous; but of course it is.
Technically, he’s still nobility.
< Could it look any more like a villain lair if he tried? >
Tess is struggling not to smile. < I LIKE it! >
< Ha! Of course you do. >
He leads her through an iron gate, then up to the heavy oak front doors. He opens them as easily as if they were made of paper.
He pauses. He hasn’t glanced at Tess the entire time, and he still doesn’t now. He looks left, right, up… Perhaps deciding where to take her next?
The entryway fits perfectly with the impression given from the outside: an elegant castle, beautiful tapestries and metals covered in dust, tall staircases leading to winding corridors…
I take advantage of his hesitation to ask Tess whether there is anyone inside.
She stretches her senses, searching for unnatural sounds, smells, auras, body heat…
< … Doesn’t seem to be… Aside from Dracula. >
Dracula’s cape whips into motion in Tess’s peripheral vision, and he closes the door behind him with a flick of his wrist. The impact rings through the entire castle — if anyone is inside, they know we’re here.
He’s already walking.
Doing her best to show a fear she doesn’t feel, Tess scampers after him, still shivering. It’s no warmer inside than out in the snow, but at least there’s no wind.
Dracula stops outside a random door somewhere in the middle of the giant building. He pushes it open with a loud creak, and a small fireplace lights itself inside.
“You may stay here for now. I’ll prepare a more proper room for you tomorrow night, but the daylight approaches.”
He edges out into the hallway as if to leave — then stops.
“… Sleep well.”
He disappears into a cloud of mist. Wait, no-
< -Did… Did he just turn himself into mist?! … Can you do that?! >
Tess tries for a moment, her form shifting and squirming. < … No. >
Filled with a mixture of disappointment and excitement, Tess crawls into the queen-sized bed and falls asleep.
But not for long.
Her body wakes her a few hours later, veins burning and fangs aching.
She sighs. < That’s what I get for not eating before I went to sleep. >
Tess opens the creaking door as quietly as possible, flying as bats to the front door. She reaches for the handle — then stops.
Sunlight is peaking through a window on her left. She steps toward it, reaches her hand out. Three more inches… Two… One…
… It doesn’t burn her.
The front door opens for her, although not as easily as it did for Dracula. She eases it back into place once outside. The sun is high in the sky. Tess’s eyes ache at its brightness, but that’s all the light burns.
She transforms once again, flying high above the castle and mountains. Eager to experience physicality, I take advantage of this golden opportunity by controlling half of the bats, and we search for some sign of civilization. We soon find a small village past a valley, and Tess spots a farmer napping in the shade of a tree…
Her hunger was ravenous. I had to pull her away from her meals several times, or risk villagers dying from blood loss.
It’s evening by the time Tess makes it back to the castle. And Dracula is awake.
< Y’know, it’s these “inconsequential” moments that give me anxiety. Xihrae, you jerk! >
< You called? >
< Just because the larger outcomes won’t be affected, that doesn’t mean there won’t be an effect! Include ALL the relevant information!!! >
< Hey now, the unknown is what keeps things exciting! >
The sun peaks through the door as Tess enters. Dracula hisses, dodging the light. The two stand watching each other then, one in shadow, the other lit from behind.
Tess closes the door.
“… A dhampir, then…?” she hears him whisper. Then silence.
“… I’m sorry for leaving without telling you. I just… I was so hungry, and…”
Dracula straightens. He walks forward. There’s… something in his voice. “It’s alright. I understand. And… I believe I know what happened to you, now.”
He looks down at her.
His expression is… gentle?
“Our kind… is feared by humans. And rightfully so. But for someone like you to be born…” He stops and glances away. “… There was a war. Many years ago. I… I believed I was all that was left, but…”
He closes his eyes, gathers his cloak around him, and meets Tess’s eyes again. “The only way a vampire can enter sunlight… is if they are only part vampire. A dhampir. And the only way a dhampir is born… is by the union of a human and a vampire.”
He shifts his grip on his cloak. And Tess spots something.
< His arm is shaking…? >
“I very much doubt… that any humans who found out about… you… Well…” He turns away. “I believe I have a few guesses as to how you lost your memory. And none of them are pleasant. However!”
With a flourish of his cloak, and an angry growl to his voice, Dracula declares, “You are where you belong now, where no mortal may harm you! This, I swear!”
Tess’s face lights up.
Everything is falling into place.
Which means… it’s time for me to see The Bastard.
Given her absence during the day, Dracula leaves Tess alone to regain a few hours sleep. So, with one vessel inoperable, I transfer to the other.
< You said you wanted to speak with me after Tess arrived? What for? … And where are you?! >
Xihrae is perching on the edge of a cliff, most of his feet hanging off the edge, withheld from certain death only by his heels. But that wasn’t the unusual part.
I didn’t recognize the forest he was looking out at. How far could he have come in only one day?!
< Oh, just exploring. We rode on a train yesterday, so I’m- >
< And like that, I’ve lost interest. Just get to the poi- >
< -Right, > He interrupts, having remembered, < you only have a few hours before Tess wakes up. >
< What does that have to do wi- >
< -How interested are you in learning this world’s Dark Magic? >
< … What? >
< You know how I’ve been travelling with those nomads the past few years? Well, thanks to that, I’ve gotten to hear all kinds of rumor- >
< Yes, yes, you’re always experiencing “rumors.” >
Xihrae, like Tess and I, isn’t normal. He has a rare ability — so rare, I’ve only ever seen similar ones in a few worlds. We call it “Temporal Gaze.”
He can see the memories that other souls will experience in the future. But not just ONE future — all possible futures. He describes it like seeing a vast expanse of roads splitting off in different directions, so that the farther into the future he’s looking, the less he can see.
But he can only see others’ futures. When used on himself, his Temporal Gaze allows him to see only his own past.
< What about it? >
I can feel him grin, even though his face doesn’t move. And so, he lets the memories he’s seen — other peoples’ memories — flow into my consciousness. And I learn his entire plan.
… And his offer.
< ABSOLUTELY NOT! >
< Now, don’t be so hasty. When will you get an opportunity like this again? >
My patience with Xihrae has always been short, but now it is even shorter. < Hm. I don’t know. You tell me. >
< Alright, I will. > He says, with the confidence of the adrenaline-junky bastard he is. < We’re never getting a chance like this again. >
< So I gathered. >
< Well… What I mean is — we’ll get similar opportunities for pulling this trick. But that Black Magic? It’s one-of-a-kind! >
< I know that. Every piece of information IS. >
< Not. Like. THIS. >
And he pulls up another image from his mind. An image of-
< !!! >
He grins again. < That’s right. HE’S here. And HE wants it too. >
I don’t need to say anything. And Xihrae doesn’t need to say anything more.
He knows. Xihrae, that bastard, knows I am IN.
If HE is looking for this information, then… Just how valuable…? Just how unique must it be…?!!!
No. I have to do this — I HAVE TO GET THAT INFORMATION!
Nonetheless… I cringe. And I hesitate.
Because to go through with this…
… It means betraying Ciestess.