The Vampire venom seared through Sand’s veins like liquid fire. For a brief moment, his world grew dark, twin flowers of white agony blooming at the points where the fangs pierced skin. The pain enveloped his mind; crushed it, shattering his conscious thoughts into jagged fragments that seemed to pierce his brain. He had believed that his experiences from his previous lifetime, the latter half of which was spent in near constant conflict, had readied him for any suffering he would have to undergo in this one. He had been wrong.
Now he knew why the Thralls devolved into mindless monsters after the transformation. No man could endure the infernal torment with their sanity intact. Now he knew why the Thralls didn’t flinch at pain. They had been born in a crucible of agony; forged by it into the relentless monsters that treated a lost limb the same as a papercut.
“Focus, boy! Use your shards.” A melodious female voice resounded within his cracking mind, parting the curtain of agony long enough for him to form a single coherent thought: an order to the shard in his heart.
His chest glowed with a crimson brilliance that spread with each beat of his heart into every single artery, vein and capillary in his body, coercing the jet-black venom spreading through his blood towards his left arm. His bones caught a dark metallic lustre as they fused the venom, a terrible bone-deep itch battering against his frayed sanity as the shard within them expanded.
Up his arm, through his shoulder and into his ribs it spread; each inch of progress a hellish torment. If not for Lirael’s magic holding him up and immobilizing him, he would have been writhing on the floor screaming. It was only instinct that kept him stimulating his shard, his mana draining like water down a sink. His reserves soon saw the bottom.
Just then, the Undead Marrow dyed his sternum black, right above his heart. He felt his heartbeat speed up as the shards in it responded to its proximity. With every beat, the glowing red crystal began to absorb the venom out of the blood, growing dark and expanding in the process. The red glow was replaced by a black brilliance as the shard overspread the heart, surrounding it in a lattice of black crystal threads.
A thread extended from the network and touched the modified bone nearest to it, fusing with the crystal within. More and more threads began to extend from the heart, joining it to Sand’s ribs. Each beat took blood in, absorbed the toxin and pumped the purified blood out. The absorbed venom travelling through the crystal threads into the bones, speeding up their conversion.
Each beat stripped more violet mana out of the venom, the energy diffusing into Sand’s body and expanding violently as it degraded down the spectrum. Each minor stage of magic doubled the density of the mana. Even a tiny amount of violet mana was equivalent to the full capacity of a red mage. Sand felt his stage promoting by leaps and bounds as his scarlet mana turned vermillion, then with a jolt that ran through his entire body, sublimated into orange. He had promoted to a yellow mage.
Incited by the change in his mana, the stalled evolution of his shard progressed again. The Child shard fused with the Phlebotomy shard under the influence of the Undead Marrow and the Thrall shards, progressing towards Tier 2. Only the aura of mana at the yellow stage or higher could sustain a Tier 2 shard. Each minor stage of magic allowed the mage to fuse with an additional Tier 1 shard and a Tier 2 shard was equivalent to two Tier 1s.
Sand’s mana seethed as it was continuously consumed and replenished as the Undead Marrow transformed his bones down to the smallest ones in his ears. When the last bone was converted, the drain on his mana reduced and its level rose again, undergoing another condensation into apricot yellow mana enabling the Undead Marrow to promote to Tier 2. Under the joint influence of the two Tier 2 shards, one converting his blood, the other altering his vessels, his blood and vessels darkened to the colour of midnight.
It was only then that Lirael released him and straightened up. Losing her support, Sand flopped onto the ground like a marionette with its strings cut, gasping for breath as his mind struggled to seal away the ordeal. Leo, who had jumped off his head once the conversion had started, trotted up to him and prodded him with a miniature paw.
Leaning back into her wooden seat, Lirael massaged the gums above her fangs with her thumbs as her venom sacs protested the overuse. To complete Sand’s transformation in such a short time, she’d had to push them to their limit. It’d take at least a couple of months for them to recover completely. Using her venom to transform Sand’s body with the help of the Undead Marrow shard was turning out to be a more consumptive process than she had thought. Specially since the two shards possessed by him had such great synergy, forcing her to promote them together, doubling her expenditure. The later stages would place an even higher demand on her venom. ‘Pushing both his shards to Tier 3 will cost me more than converting Vlad and Igor combined,’ she speculated with a sigh as she gazed down upon the prone form of the boy and the jet-black vessels showing through from beneath his skin over his entire body. ‘I hope this is worth it.’
Sand slowly regained consciousness as his mind scrambled to make connections with his senses. The first thing to return was touch. He felt coarse grit digging into his back as he lay on ground much unlike the soft sands of the desert. After touch came hearing but he couldn't make out much except the sound of his own respite and the thump of his heart in his chest. Sight returned soon after as he opened his sleep-encrusted eyes to gaze up at the sky.
Clouds of many colours swirled across the starless ceiling of night, the colours dull and lifeless like a rainbow tinted grey. Multicoloured miasma circled and swirled around the clearing like a slavering predator lying in wait for prey as it was kept off by a transparent dome of clarity. The dome caused his vision to waver once in a while like a picture seen through distorted air above heated sands.
The thought came unbidden and close on its heels came memory, flowing back into his mind in fits and starts before stalling on the sight of a visage of transcendent beauty bearing down upon him with her mouth parted wide, her fangs gleaming under the dim red illumination of a cavern within a willow. He jerked upright with a start, cold sweat beading his entire body as he breathed hard.
Then immediately wished he hadn't as nausea assaulted him making his vision to swim and his empty stomach churn in his gut. Twisting to the side he fell forward on his palms, dry-heaving into the dirt. A string of saliva dangled down from his lips, gleaming orange in the firelight. ‘Firelight?’ he wondered as he looked up.
A roaring campfire took up the middle of the clearing he was in, the branches that fed it crackling as tongues of red and yellow flame licked them. Apart from him, the clearing was empty. Glancing up again at the sky, ‘The Myriad Toxins Desert Area,’ he concluded as he stared the clouds drifting across the sky like broad brushstrokes across a dark canvas.
Rising to his feet with some difficulty, he shambled towards the fire. His body felt heavy and numb, like one’s head just before a fever, indicating worse to come. Reaching the roaring flames, he flopped down on a flat stone near it. It was then that he noticed a large knapsack placed beside the stone. Pushing through the haze of dullness that covered his mind, he pulled open the drawstrings and checked its contents.
The sloshing sounds as he had shifted the bag had given him an inkling as to its contents and opening it confirmed his guess. Several waterskins occupied its interior along with assorted camping supplies like pots, pans and ropes. Taking up one of the waterskins, Sand uncorked it and took a whiff and then a swig. The familiar coppery tang of blood filled his mouth and he felt a warmth suffuse his body as the liquid made his way down his parched throat, replenishing a bit of his mana.
Putting the waterskin back, Sand shook his head vigorously like a dog trying to shake off water. And truly, his brain felt waterlogged; it was as though his every thought had to rise from the depths of a lake before it could float to the surface of his mind. His memories felt like pearls scattered from a broken necklace, his thoughts unable to string them together into a logical conclusion.
Rattling the cage of his skull seemed to do his brain some good as his thoughts cleared up somewhat and he regained the presence of mind to inspect his current condition more closely.
Raising his palms, Sand observed them under the flickering orange firelight. His veins stood out as a jet-black network from beneath his skin. His fingernails appeared black instead of their previous pink as the capillaries transported dark blood beneath them. Unsheathing his dagger, Sand observed his eyes reflected in the gleaming metal. Dark vessels surrounded his abyssal irises leaving only a ring of white, like the corona of the sun during an eclipse. Putting the dagger away, Sand sighed. The changes were far from cosmetic.
His mana senses returned the state of his body – his bones and vessels had been thoroughly modified by the two Tier 2 shards embedded within him. It didn’t take him long to understand why he was feeling so dull and heavy. The Undead Marrow had dyed his bones a metallic black, making them denser, tougher and heavier in the process. Twice as heavy to be exact. And the alteration of his blood had affected his entire body, each organ and muscle struggling to adapt to blood the colour of midnight. His brain was the one affected the most – the delicate organ slowly adapting to its new environment.
Sand knew now why Lirael had forced him to battle the skeletons up in the mountains. She was testing his will. Not only was a strong will important to withstand the excruciating pain of the transformation and yet keep his sanity, it would help in restoring himself to normalcy as he dealt with the repercussions.
Thralls were generally utterly mindless after their creation and any consciousness they displayed later was something that was born in their minds after the fact. Other than an unquestioning loyalty to their maker, they could develop in any direction based on how they were trained. They were no different from a newborn baby – a newborn with the body of an adult and a relentless drive to serve their master, sure, but a newborn nonetheless. As such it took time and effort to teach them. Using the Undead Marrow to alter the process of ‘turning’, Lirael had managed to preserve Sand’s consciousness. It would save her ten years of training. As short on time as she was, hearing that Sand, to survive, had cut off his own arm, had been one of the major reasons she had bought him.
Finishing his examination, judging by the degree of his adaptation to the blood, Sand estimated that he had been unconscious for upward of two weeks.‘She probably kept me in her Dungeon where time runs faster,’ he surmised. Extracting a fresh set of clothes from the knapsack, Sand discarded his tattered and torn trousers, that survived only in name, and donned them. Using his knife, he sheared his messy locks close to his skull and tossed the hair into the fire. The acrid smell of burning hair assailed his nose as he walked away from the fire with a flaming branch held up in his hand as a torch.
Reaching the edge of the Domain, Sand narrowed his eyes as he observed the almost imperceptible wavering in the air. Pushing his makeshift torch outside the boundary, he watched the flame gutter like a candle in front of a drafty window before burning a poisonous green. ‘Netherfire,’ He muttered in his heart as the green flames reflected off his dark pupils. ‘So, I’m back here again.’
Taking a deep breath, he took the final step and his form was swallowed by the miasma beyond the boundary.