The sun was setting. Lirael watched the fiery red orb sink below the horizon, dyeing the Tyhr red with its farewell glow. Her shadow stretched long behind her as she stood upon a dune, her hood thrown back and her snowy hair fluttering in the chill breeze that heralded the onset of the freezing desert night. With a flick of her wrist, the space around her rippled and silver ingots appeared baseless, summoned by her out of her Dungeon.
When she had sent Vlad to the Silveros residence to settle her dues, she had instructed him to purchase two other things. First, several ingots of the purest silver the Orcs could manufacture and second, a map of the desert with the known habitats of the Sand Wyrms marked upon it. The Silveros family, as the premier manufacturer of silver as well as the owners of a Sand Wyrm colony were uniquely qualified to satisfy both demands. After all, they had to have captured their Wyrms from somewhere.
Arranging the ingots in a circle around her on the ground, Lirael waited. This area, according to the map, had an underground network of metallic veins. The ore, unfortunately, was too scattered and deep underground for mining it to be a profitable proposition. Therefore, although they had discovered it, the Silveros family hadn't made any attempt to extract the ore.
Enticed by the aura of the metal, a colony of wyrms had moved in and it was their queen that the Silveros had captured. They had deliberately left behind some of the child wyrms in the hope that over the years, one of them would evolve into the new queen. Capturing it would effectively halve their production times.
The only reason they had even sold the information to Lirael was that only a short time had passed since their capture of the previous queen. The time was only sufficient for the new one to advance to Tier 2. Trading the information about a Tier 2 beast for a substantial amount of money and the favour of a Vampire Princess was a cost-effective transaction in their eyes. Let alone, they had made her promise that she would only take the queen, leaving the rest of the Wyrms behind to breed.
Closing her eyes, Lirael activated a detection shard that let her feel the vibrations in the ground. The level of the Seismic Sense shard wasn’t very high and she only got a fuzzy idea of the sand beneath her feet. But that was enough.
Without warning, she stepped forward, her form blurring as her space shard kicked in. Then immediately, she stepped back, her elbow glowing red as it slammed into the side of the Wyrm that had burst out of the sand beneath her feet, its jaws closing upon the ingots of silver. Red ripples emanated out from the point of impact, blending with the light of the setting sun as the body of the beast bent from the force of the blow. The ripples permeated its body, dissolving its flesh and organs into blood.
The Tier 2 Wyrm Queen was sent flying, slamming into the ground and drawing a wide furrow in the sand. Blood gushed out of its gaping maw as it twitched feebly a few times before growing still. The desert greedily soaked in its blood, appearing dark under the sunset glow.
Activating two abilities in quick succession, Lirael’s frosty hair elongated rapidly, winding around her body and limbs, forming into a coat of frozen armour replete with a helmet and pauldron. Three skulls made of blood-red stone appeared above her head, floating unsupported in the air. Opening their jaws, a strong suction originated from them, drawing the spilt blood of the beast towards their mouth in three separate streams.
The sand beneath Lirael seethed as five Tier 1 Wyrms burst out of it and attacked her to avenge the death of their queen. They bounced harmlessly off Lirael’s armour, catching a layer of frost every time they made contact. After a few moments, their speed slowed to a crawl as they shivered under a layer of rime. With a mournful gnashing of teeth, the largest of them abandoned the offensive and dived into the sand to escape. Demoralized by the evacuation of their strongest the rest of them soon followed suit. Just as the slowest of the child wyrms tried to burrow into the sand Lirael took action, her form blurring as she appeared beside it and gently laid a palm on its skin. Frost spread rapidly from the point of contact, turning the creature into a frozen sculpture in an instant, leaving her standing alone over the corpse of the two wyrms.
After swallowing the last drop of blood, the Bloodskull Gate closed its mouths, floating silently above her head. Despite her Dungeon being an embryonic one without the capability of natural growth, it had the ability to supplement itself by swallowing the blood of other creatures. The stronger the creature, the more mana suffused in its blood, the better it was for the Dungeon.
With a thought, Lirael summoned Igor, the Gate floating a distance from her and initiating the bloody waterfall. The Blood Thrall stepped out of the cataract wrapped in the same concealing black robes he had worn at the Arena. Walking over to the shrivelled corpse of the queen he wordlessly began dismantling it, tossing its teeth and bones into the Gate to supplement the Dungeon’s skeletal ecology and gathering its skin for further processing. Collecting the crystal core of the beast, he presented it to Lirael before walking over to the frozen wyrm. Shattering it with a light tap, he extracted two shards, presenting them to Lirael before entering the Gate and disappearing once again into her Dungeon.
The Gate turned incorporeal and dissipated, leaving Lirael standing alone in the desert holding onto the three shards.
The queen's shard resembled a transparent crystalline flower that had been plucked bare of its petals. The Mother shard was the only shard the queen condensed and each of its ‘petals’ was a Tier 1 Child shard that linked her to her minions. Not only did the connected shards allow the queen to share shards and senses with her subordinates, it locked their level at Tier 1 and any mana they produced beyond that level was transmitted to the queen to help her promote. The stronger the queen grew, the higher the Tier of the Mother shard and the more ‘petals’ it had. And more ‘petals’ meant more subordinates. It was a positive cycle.
The two shards extracted from the Tier 1 wyrm were a Child shard and a Third Eye shard. Putting them away, Lirael focused on the Tier 2 crystal. It only had five indentations where the 'petals' had been removed, the sixth one displaying signs of growth. The queen had evidently been in the middle stage of Tier 2. Once the Mother shard grew ten petals, it would reach the peak of Tier 2.
Bringing the Mother shard to her mouth, Lirael sank her elongated fangs into the crystal, injecting her venom into it. The jet-black toxin spread within the shard, dyeing it thoroughly. The crystal began to melt, reducing steadily as it was drawn into the fine channels in her canines that were built for sucking blood. The dark crystalline liquid merged with the network of crystal already lining the inner walls of her fangs, bolstering the shard within.
The major characteristics of Vampires was their predilection towards a diet of blood as well as their venom that could have varied effects based on the shard they paired it with. Some chose paralytic toxins, or ones that induced hallucinations in their victims; while others like Lirael preferred the Thrall shard. Based on the consumption of control class shards like the Mother shard, the Thrall shard could turn their victim into a mindless puppet. The Thrall would have greatly enhanced strength and no sensation of pain. Depending on the Tier of the shard consumed, the strength of the Thrall would be capped. Dedicated training could turn the Thralls into more than just mindless soldiers. They could even develop a nascent consciousness that would be absolutely loyal to their master. Vlad and Igor were prime examples of well-trained Thralls. Both of them were at Tier 3 – limited by their innate talent and the Tier of the shard Lirael had used to create them.
But for Sand, she had something else planned.
Space distorted as she disappeared into her Dungeon, leaving only a set of footprints on the sand. In a moment, the traces of her were written over by the desert breeze.
Sand's pupils dilated to combat the darkness of the interior of the tree-spirit. With the closure of its mouth the moment he had stepped in, there was precious little light to see by; and what little there was came from the two apertures high up the chamber - the two eyes of the tree. The twin beams of dim crimson light converged on a figure seated at the opposite end of the chamber on a throne of twisted wood.
Lirael watched the boy enter the cavern. Her pale, slender finger ran gently over the spine of the miniature lion lying on her lap, making it purr contentedly, her crimson lacquered nail appearing black under the sanguine light. Her red lips parted as she voiced her question, "Where did you learn that tune?"
Hastily getting down on his knees, Sand kept his eyes on the ground as he replied succinctly, the subservience of the first half of his previous life bleeding into his tone, "Reporting to the Mistress, this one learnt it from a busking caravan that performed at the oasis this one was born."
Her curiosity satisfied, Lirael beckoned for him to approach. As he got to his feet, something whistled past his ear, startling him and creating a gust that blew his hair awry. Leo's angry roar reverberated in the closed space of the cavern as he stood up in Lirael's lap, his mane fluffed up and hackles raised as his eyes darted about restlessly, trying to follow the path of the near transparent form that flitted about in front of him. A trickle of blue blood ran down from his injured nose.
With great difficulty, Sand was able to glimpse the form of the culprit as it appeared and disappeared from beneath the beam of red light. A transparent hummingbird; less like one carved out of glass and more of an outline of the bird. A core spirit. The way it flickered from one point in space to another making it clear that it was the spirit birthed by the spatial shard. The hostility it held towards its fellow spirit was quite obvious. Baring his teeth, the lion growled menacingly, the temperature of the cavern dropping sharply causing Sand's breath to fog up.
A sharp whistle sliced through the tension like a sharp knife, causing the two conflicting spirits to stiffen. Narrowing her eyes at the avian spirit, Lirael extended her hand to it with her finger crooked. Sheepishly, the bird landed on the digit, grasping onto it with its transparent talons and shifting nervously without meeting her gaze. Tapping its head sharply in admonishment, Lirael transferred it to one shoulder before waving her hand over Leo's head. A red light covered him and when she removed her palm, his wound had healed. Throwing a disgruntled look at the bird on her shoulder, Leo leapt off Lirael's lap, and much to her surprise, onto Sand's head, settling down onto his hair and pointedly ignoring her.
Sand's hair stood on end as her disgruntled gaze settled on him, a mirror of the hummingbird's expression a moment ago. 'Is she... jealous?' he wondered in amazement. Neither Leo nor his temperamental Mistress were entities he could afford to offend. One a core spirit equivalent to a Tier 5 beast and the other the owner of the Dungeon he was confined in. Cold sweat washed over him as he racked his brain for a method to defuse the situation.
Thankfully, Lirael wasn't as impulsive as her infant spirit and she settled back into her seat with a sigh, bestowing a small smile upon him. "It looks like he really likes you. Both him and the Willows, you have quite the charm, boy."
Sand awkwardly bent his waist without jolting the lion on his head. "This one doesn't dare."
Waving the rest of his platitudes away, she beckoned, "Come here, boy, I have something for you." When Sand approached, she continued, "I watched you fight back at the Arena and a while ago upon the mountain. I was impressed." She reached out with a finger and Sand felt his body stiffen as his blood stilled in his veins. "Your talent, both magical and in a fight is quite eminent." Her finger grazed a vertical line down his bare chest, right above his heart. The skin parted as though it had been sheared with the sharpest of knives, yet no blood flowed out. "So, I'll have you be my Champion." Reaching beside her, the Vampire Princess took up a shard shaped like the petal of a crystal flower and Sand's eyes widened.
"Oh? You recognize it?" she asked, mildly surprised. Even if Sand wanted to, with his blood shackling his body from the inside, he couldn't reply.
Lirael didn't really want him to. She continued the conversation by herself as she pushed the shard into the cut on Sand's chest. "What is a Champion, you ask? Well, it's the strongest and most favoured Thrall in a Vampire's retinue and you, boy, are lucky to be chosen as mine." The Child shard dissolved into a stream of liquid and seeped into Sand's heart, crystallizing over his Phlebotomy shard, merging with it. "And do you know what is most fortunate?" Lirael drew the pad of her thumb over the wound on his chest, sealing it shut with a soft red glow. "By dint of your chosen shard, you get to keep your mind."
Sand's heart began to constrict violently as the Phlebotomy shard entered the phase of evolution and his scarlet mana became insufficient to support the process by far. He sneered in his mind as he studied the beautiful visage of the woman who had been the idol in every human slave's heart in his previous life. 'Romance? Love? All the gladiator had ever been was a slave, a Thrall, and any "revenge" was the product of his indoctrination.' His dark eyes grew emotionless. 'How can love exist between different races? Such an impractical fantasy. Fools one and all.' He rebuked himself for putting his trust in information based on rumour and speculation. He realized how it could have all been a ploy by the Sangre to discredit Lirael in order to improve their own image. But now, it was too late for regrets.
Bending down, Lirael parted her lips wide and sank her fangs into the side of his neck.