Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Vampiretwilight
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Things had quieter down since the condition for succession had been announced. Servants were anxious. The townspeople throughout the land were more so, and quite nervous too. The princes had quite the test to try and pass. Those from other lands were sending their daughters and such to the royal estate in the hopes that one would be chosen as his bride. Only time would tell at this point.
Hidden 3 mos ago 3 mos ago Post by gorgenmast
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A full moon rose above the hills of the Great Weald, illuminating the lands in pale blue light. In such bright moonlight, the countryside was visible as clearly as day. A vast open moor of rolling hills ran far into the horizon, terminating many leagues away at the snowcapped peaks of the Felmurg Mountains to the North. Trickling brooks coursed through the troughs between the hills in boggy lowlands of peat, heather, and the occasional copse of wind-stunted junipers. Grassy hills and ridges were crowned with outcroppings of mossy stone worn smooth by wind and rain. And winding its way through the moonlit moor was a small caravan of riders escorting a covered carriage down the muddy ruts that passed for a road in this rude country.

They were a dozen horsemen, clad in chainmail armor armed with lances, riding ahead, behind, and flanking a black carriage adorned with bats and gargoyles. Atop the carriage were wooden parapets, within which a pair of crossbow-armed attendants stood vigil, carefully surveying the surrounding countryside for any sign of trouble. And though they had at long last nearly arrived at their destination, the horsemen and crossbowmen remained vigilant even for the final leg of the journey. The keep of Felboge was in sight at last.

The Felboge was a redoubtable structure to be sure. A rocky butte situated upon a hill above the surrounding moors, it had been surrounded with a rampart built out of the native cobblestone and ringed with a ditch filled with sharpened stakes ready to impale any attacker foolish enough to attempt to scale the walls. And if the wooden spears in the moat were not sufficient deterrent to would-be attackers, then perhaps they would be given pause by the dozens of leathery hides of flayed prisoners pierced on iron nails hammered into the joints between the cobblestones. Each breeze that blew off of the moor galvanized the skins affixed to the keep's ramparts, all fluttering and crinkling in the wind like macabre ribbons. Fitting banners for the monstrous lord of this place.

The carriage and the guard contingent were recognized immediately by the gatekeepers, who immediately set about lowering a drawbridge across the stake-laden moat to allow the caravan entry to the keep. On the other side of the keep was a cobblestone parade ground surrounding the entrance to the keep itself. The natural rock face of the butte had been carved, first and crudely by prisoner labor, and then more carefully by skilled dwarven stonemasons. The natural rock faces of the landform had been carved in relief to provide pillars and crenelated balconies. A vaulted gate into the keep opened into the parade ground and was decorated with snarling gargoyles. Already, a number of attendants and courtiers were standing before the doors of the parade ground, awaiting the arrival of carriage and its escort.

The black carriage rattled up the cobblestones and positioned before the doorway of Felboge Keep. The horsemen dismounted from their steeds as the carriage came to a stop. The crossbowmen atop the carriage stowed their arms, descended, and stood at attention on either side of the carriage door.

"Your Excellency Baron Ulrek Bathory of the Felboge, Crown Prince of the Imperium," one of the crossbowman declared, "we have arrived!"

The door of the carriage creaked open. Long, clawlike fingers emerged from the darkness of the carriage's interior and curled around the edge of the door before full opening it. From the carriage emerged a being with skin as pale as the moon shining above, clad in a jet black silken robe. His face was unnaturally gaunt with a long nose; a ratlike visage curled into a perpetual sneer. Between his thin, pale lips was an arcade of crooked, sharp fangs. Baron Ulrek was a terrifying sight, even to those accustomed to serving him. But his retinue and attendants were well practiced, and demonstrated remarkable courtesy to the monstrous being standing before them. The entirety of the welcoming party bowed or stooped to one knee. Demonstrating sufficient loyalty to Baron Ulrek was paramount for those in his service, for the Lord of the Felboge was a frightful master to displease.

"Your Majesty, it is our pleasure to welcome you back to your home," announced the vampire lord's master chamberlain. "I hope that your journey to the Capital was a pleasant enough."

"Hardly," snarled the vampire. "A fruitless journey, as I suspected it would be. My father is insistent on this challenge of his and will not yield to my demands. I was, however, able to make use of the return journey." Ulrek reached with his long, bony fingers into the folds of his robe and withdrew a small stack of neatly-folded letters.

"I took advantage of the smooth highways of the Imperial Heartland and was able to draft a number of missives during the ride North." Ulrek placed the letters into the chamberlain's hand. "Seal them, and see that they are sent out at once. Pay the couriers handsomely. The sooner they arrive, the better."

"As you wish, sire," the chamberlain acknowledged with a bow before excusing himself from the Baron's presence.

Once inside the keep in the privacy of his study, the chamberlain produced a candle of black wax and a stamp bearing the crest of Baron Ulrek Bathory. Before igniting the candle and sealing the missives right away, curiosity got the better of the chamberlain. The letters were still unsealed and nobody would know if he briefly skimmed the messages. Deciding it would harm nothing to take a peek, the chamberlain looked over both his shoulders to ensure he was alone, and carefully unfolded one of the neatly-folded sheets of vellum before reading it to himself.

Esteemed Mister Solomon Kane,

It is due to a decidedly peculiar set of circumstances that I write to you today. I am unable to relay the exact nature of my situation to you in this missive, but suffice it to say that I am in need of your particular skill set and body of expertise. I am therefore requesting your presence at my court at Felboge Keep, in the northern wards of the Xelwyth Imperium, at your soonest availability. I am in urgent need and therefore prepared to pay you handsomely for the inconvenience of this summons.

It is requested that you make for the Felboge by way of the Imperium's Northern borders. As you are likely aware, your profession is looked down upon within the Imperium. You are considered persona non grata here in the Imperium and I therefore advise you to travel here under a false name. In order to more easily facilitate your travel to my court, I have ordered relaxed border patrols over the coming fortnights. In the unlikely event that you are apprehended by border guards and recognized by your true identity, do not present them with this letter as discretion in this matter is of the utmost importance. I have no doubt that you could easily dispatch any border patrol that should attempt to arrest you. Do not hesitate to resist arrest if necessary, you will be pardoned unconditionally of any crime upon arrival.

Respectfully yours,

Baron Ulrek Bathory


The letter had done nothing but intensify the chamberlain's curiosity. What had happened in the capital that would drive the Baron to summon a vampire hunter to the Xelwyth Imperium, let alone one as notorious as Solomon Kane? The chamberlain was about to read through another letter, but was interrupted when he heard footsteps in the corridor outside his study. Immediately, he folded the letter back up and melted a pool of black wax onto the reverse before pressing the stamp into the wax, leaving a black seal bearing the bat crest of Baron Ulrek.
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Vampiretwilight
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Edward Bathory had returned to his quarters since his eldest brothers departure. He sighed as he looked out the window, his eyes on the horizon. It seemed like only yesterday their once, somewhat, happy family had been broken into figurative pieces. Now, his father had made a succession condition. That had been the kings announcement a day or so ago.

Edward had watched his brother leave in obvious fury. As the first born son, some would assume his eldest brother would be the automatic successor. But, it would seem this would not be the case. There was an exception now. Edward frowned. He was lost in his own thoughts. He sent his hawk to keep an eye on things in the kingdom, but he was not sure what news he would receive. He decided to wait and see.

Emily Valentine and her father, King Stefan, were on their way to the vampire castle in the capital of that land. The king was hoping that his eldest child, who was of marrying age, would be a chosen bride. The princess sighed. She didn't want to do this. She wanted to marry for love.

The princess stared out the carriage window. There were escorts on all sides. Word would soon arrive in the kingdom of their arrival. Emily knew that woild happen for certain. People always knew when they were around.
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by The Wyrm
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Four weeks later...

He stepped carefully through the debris of the house, placing one foot ever so gently to avoid a scattering of broken glass that must have occured when the creature burst through the window and slaughtered the entire family.

He stayed crouched low, eyes scanning the darkness ahead of him. He could hear a wet cracking and slurping sound, the beast must be feeding. His long coat had been left outside along with his iconic tall hat and pistols. There would no time to try a shot in a contained space like this. Instead he had brought a shield coated in silver and polished into a mirror like burnish. A simple wooden stake was held in his right hand. It would serve well enough for his purposes.

The slurping sound abruptly ceased and a female voice cut through the silence that followed.

"I can feel your presence, human." A shadow shifted within the darkness and Solomon stopped, the tall shield held in front of him, his fingers clasping the stake tighter still.

"Interesting..." Continued the voice. "You resist my mind prob..."

Solomon did not respond. He knew well how he resisted magic without any true understanding of why, it had never been something he really needed to know.

The shadow shifted again and a creature moved into the moonlight that poured through the shattered window. It was not tall, but the once white skin had gone deep grey, the lower jaw had dropped and projected to allow large teeth to form, and what might have once been an attractive human female was now a feral vampire. Not the pretty type so many legends made out to be normal, but the true monsters that haunted nightmares.

"Who are you...?" He could see a long tongue tasting the air, the once human nose had flattened into the face to leave the skull a strange featureless grey expanse with nought but teeth and red eyes upon it. "A Knight? Some foolish peasant? Perhaps a monster slayer?"

The ability of feral vampires to speak as if they were still human had always been strange. True, they hissed the "S" a lot, but not much else was different. Despite it all he felt a little thrill roll up his spine as he spoke.

"I am but a simple man of God. I am, Solomon Kane."

The scream that met this announcement always hurt his head and the creature unwrapped itself from it's victim, a pretty young woman who was still blinking at the sky, hands feebly trying to replace her destroyed throat.

The feral hurled itself toward Solomon's voice and he stepped forward, thrusting the silver shield in front of him. In that instant the Vampire froze and an almost human look of sorrow crossed the brutal features. Solomon knew what the feral was seeing, herself, as she had been before the curse had taken her. It was fleeting but for a man of his skill it was long enough.

He took another step and drove the wooden stake into the creatures chest. A whiff of garlic rent the air as it passed him by for the tip had been dipped in garlic infused holy water. It pierced the grey skin of the chest like a hot knife might pierce butter and drove deep into the cavity where a human heart might be found. The actual location of a strike did not matter, for the introduction of garlic to the ferals bloodstream would kill it well enough.

The feral began to scream now, lashing out, narrowly missing Solomon as the wound began to smoke. In seconds the creatures whole body was consumed in a strange yellowing flame that produced no heat whatsoever. Solomon watched, as he always did, as the creature died, writhing in agony, the mouth opened in a now soundless scream. It took no more than a few moments but the fire died quickly away to nothing and only a blackened patch of floor remained where the creature had been.

A gurgling sound caused him to look up and he saw the girl that the feral had been feeding on starting to recover. The wound on her throat was closing slowly. The regeneration of a vampire and it's kin were nothing short of remarkable. Still, he had several minutes before the transformation was completed and she was dangerous to anyone.

The girl was undoubtedly pretty. Her long blonde hair and blue eyes would began to cloud over and fallout soon enough but it was enough time. In two strides he crossed the room and caught the girls wrists, quickly lashing them with a length of cord from his belt. Picking her up with ease he righted a table lying upside down on the floor and pushed her down on it. Her ability to render words was already gone and she snarled up at him, but he enjoyed those who fought back.

He took her on the table, quickly and violently, his own passions always inflamed after a hunt. When he was finished he wiped himself on her dress. The blue eyes were starting to turn red now and the first of her hair began to fall out. She made no sound as he drove a second stake through her and into the table beneath her, the yellow fire rendering her to ash as it had her maker. Had he stabbed her any sooner, he would have potentially killed a human and he rarely did that.

He glanced around the house a final time before gathering his shield and stepping outside into the cool night air. He could feel sweat on his brow and was glad of it. It had been a few weeks since he had killed.

"Is it done?" A nervous voice came from behind an overturned wagon nearby.

"No... It killed me and ate my liver." He snarled with exasperation. "Yes it's done you idiot. My gold."

A heavy set man in armour stepped out from behind the wagon flanked by two swordsmen, both of whom eyed Solomon with something akin to awe on their faces. He handed over a bag of gold which Solomon expertly balanced in his hand, judging the weight. He did not suspect deceit and he did not detect any on the face of the country nobleman who had hired him.

The sound of hooves announced the arrival of an archer who rode into sight at the top of the long drive. He waved to the nobleman, slid from his horse, and then bowed to Solomon, proffering him a letter. The paper was thick and creamy, expensive. But the wax crest caused him to raise an eyebrow. A bat. Someone from the Imperium then. Who would have words with him?

"My niece?" The nobleman inquired, breaking in on Solomon's musing.

"Dead." Solomon responded as he began to walk away, still staring at the crest on the letter he now held in one hand. He would have a read of it back at the inn.
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Vampiretwilight
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Edward was pacing in his room. The days and nights passed were still weighing on his mind. He frowned as he continued to think about what had happened. He just prayed that his brother would not resort to any uncivilized means to deal with this. They needed to uphold the reputation of the royal family after all.

Edward soon wore himself out. Those feelings from what happened had exhausted him. He went straight to his bed and laid down upon it. He closed his eyes. His hair was soon fanned out around him. He was soon fast asleep. He had truly been tired. Edward no longer thought about what had happened as dreams filled his mind instead.

Emily and her father arrived at the castle. They would be let out of the carriage once it had stopped. The king stepped out first. Then, his daughter stepped out, helped out of it by the carriage footmen. She let out a sigh. This was it. They had arrived at the place her father had told her about.

Emily and her father were escorted into the castle. The king requested an audience with their king. A servant nodded and ran off. They were going to inform those of the royal family who remained at the castle. However, the king would be told first. It was important for him to be told. That was for certain.

Anyway, Emily was escorted to a drawing room to wait, along with her father.
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Hidden 3 mos ago 3 mos ago Post by gorgenmast
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The late morning sun was already high in the sky above the Great Weald, though one would never know it in the great hall of Baron Ulrek Bathory's keep. The inner quarters of Felboge keep were kept perpetually gloomy, illuminated only by braziers filled only with glowing coals that provided only enough light for the keep's servants and courtiers from stumbling about in darkness. Occasionally, the coals in a brazier would ignite back into healthy and vibrant flames, only for servants to smother the fire back down to dim coals in accordance with Ulrek's wishes. Vampires, being nocturnal beings, were inherently adjusted for dark conditions and typically preferred the gloom. Baron Ulrek strictly maintained low light conditions in his keep not only for his comfort, but to afford him an advantage over any human that might attempt to cross him. The Baron's enemies were numerous, and not all of them were outside the walls of the keep. Should there ever be an attempt on his life, Ulrek wanted to reserve every possible advantage over an assailant.

The Baron sat in solitude upon his throne in the great hall, listening for a long time. Not with his ears, but with his mind. Some vampires could not only hear sounds, but the thoughts of lesser beings. It was a power most vampires had in some capacity, but Ulrek had studied and practiced the technique extensively to the point of being able to eavesdrop on the inner monologues of most of the guards and servants throughout the keep. Most of the thoughts were extremely dull or insipid; precisely the sort of thoughts one might expect of such lowly stock. But of late, Ulrek had read a number of disquieting thoughts from somewhere within his keep. Traitorous thoughts. A spy or foreign agent lurked somewhere within his keep, but he had so far not been able to determine who it was. Baron Ulrek listened intently once again, his mind listening through the miasma of idiotic thoughts produced by keep's numerous guards and servants with the hope of hearing a snippet of disloyal thought.

What does this miserable cretin want with us? Ulrek sensed the hateful thought at once, and focused in on it.

The vampire lords haven't spoken to our kind in damn near seven hundred of years, and now we are summoned to their court. By Sturin's Beard, what is going on with them? What's changed now to end centuries of silence?

Why does it have to be so damned dark in here? Idiots have let all the braziers burn down to coals.

Dwarves, Ulrek recognized. The delegation from the Felmurg Dwarves had arrived at the keep at last.

Within minutes, a contingent of guards had escorted the dwarves into the great hall before Ulrek Bathory. Five dwarves with bushy beards and manes carefully braided into tight braided locks. Exquisite lamellar cuirasses sat upon their thick shoulders. Though their weapons had been confiscated upon entry into the keep, it would require a brutal fight to take these dwarves down; impressive specimens of their race.

"I'm Bronnig Blacktooth, Emissary of Sturin's Folk of the Felmurg Mountains. We've accepted your invitation to hear the proposition mentioned in your message." Typical dwarven curtness, Ulrek thought to himself.

"And how glad I am that you have," replied Ulrek. "I know your kind does care for idle talk, and so I will be as brief as I can. But I would first like to refresh your memory as to the history of this land."

"No need for that, Baron," Blacktooth growled. "We haven't yet forgotten that these was dwarven lands once upon a time."

"Dwarven lands, taken from you by humans, and then liberated some eight centuries ago by my kind,"

"Seems vampires have a queer definition of the word 'liberated'. Nary a dwarf that's lived in these lands for a thousand years. The old mines in this land are still closed to us. That's hardly a liberation a dwarf would recognize."

"And what a pity that is," said Ulrek. "A pity, also, that some of the most productive mines in all the land are located in this realm, rich in gold, rubies, mithril... and unfortunately silver. It was only natural that our kind would outlaw the mining of silver throughout the Imperium. But, considering the substantial quantities of wealth purported to remain in some of those ancient dwarven mines, it seems a terrible waste to allow it to sit underground for all eternity."

"What is your proposal, Baron?" Ulrek could see the eyes of the dwarves widen with the very mention of gold and mithril. Dwarven greed was legendary; Ulrek knew they would not be able to resist his offer."

"I wish to offer the dwarves of the Felmurg Mountains access to their ancestral mines in this land. Harvest as much gold, mithril... whatever else you like. But for each pound of gold or mithril mined, you must also mine one pound of silver, and every pound of silver mined belongs to me." Immediately, the dwarves huddled together.

"A pound of silver for a pound of mithril?" One of the dwarves murmured to the others, his voice giddy with excitement. "A pound of mithril is worth 40 of silver!"

"That's a fool's trade!"

"Sturin's Beard, what does a vampire want with silver?"

Bronnig stepped out of the huddle to face Ulrek once again.

"What do you want in return? Besides the silver?"

"I seek an alliance with your people. I want assurances that, if needed, your dwarves will fight alongside my fighting men."

"That's all you want, is it," Asked a suspicious Bronnig, "an alliance with the Imperium?"

"No. With me."

The dwarves huddled once again, briefly. Their minds were made up remarkably quickly. Ulrek knew no dwarf could resist the promise of such treasures.

"Ulrek Bathory, we Dwarves of Sturin's Folk accept your proposal!"




The master chamberlain of Felboge Keep stood on the ramparts, watching the arrival of the the Felmurg Dwarves. It was a historic occasion, for no dwarf had ever been invited to a Bathory court as far as he was aware. But the dwarves were only the most recent in a great number of strange visitors the Baron had been requesting since the return from the Capital. But no request was quite as unusual as the letter he had read addressed to one Solomon Kane.

A flicker of movement in the skies above drew the chamberlain's attention from the dwarves making their way over the drawbridge. A large bird circled in the sky just above the keep. A hawk? Could it be? The chamberlain squinted his eyes and picked out the white wingtips on the bird's silhouette. It was Edward Bathory's hawk!

The chamberlain scrambled and went immediately to a nearby refuse pile collected from the sweepings of the servants. A few moments of frantically sifting through the old coals and dust yielded exactly what he was looking for: a dead rat. The chamberlain went back over to the battlements, patted the excess soot of the recently-deceased vermin, and laid it upon a battlement where he hoped the hawk would see. Several moments passed before the hawk finally swooped down over the chamberlain's head and perched itself upon the battlement. As the bird began to pick at the limbs of the dead rat, the chamberlain realized he would not have much time to act and immediately set about looking for anything to make a brief note out of. Looking around his immediate surroundings, he took a piece of charcoal from the debris pile, but could not think of something to write on. He briefly considered running inside the keep to fetch some vellum from his study, but Edward's hawk would certainly have flown off by then. It was at that moment that a breeze off of the moor set the flayed skins hanging off the ramparts fluttering and crinkling again, giving the chamberlain another idea.

He reached over the battlements of the ramparts and seized the tattered remains of some unfortunate prisoner's arm. The chamberlain tore off a leathery piece of thumb skin from the flayed hide and with the charcoal scrawled the most detailed message to Edward as was possible given the limitations of time and the medium he had to work with.

KANE COMING, BEWARE ULREK

The chamberlain tore a length of loose thread from his robe, tightly rolled his crude message, and managed to tie it to the right leg of the hawk - already tame and too busy peeling the rat's innards from its open belly to be bothered by the message being affixed to its body. Satisfied that the message was secure, the chamberlain discarded the rat carcass into the debris pile and shooed the hawk back into the sky. It would take only a rain or a heavy mist to moisten the charcoal and render the message illegible, but the chamberlain remained hopeful that the hawk would return to its master shortly so that Lord Edward could know his brother's malign intentions.
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Vampiretwilight
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Edward Bathory was asleep still. He would remain so for a while longer. The hawk had since dropped off the note. Edward would not see it yet.

He would awaken with hunter. However, more than that, he would wake up with a feeling of dread, and even fear, hanging around still. The vampire prince let out a sigh. He soon noticed the paper and frowned. He was tempted to just ignore it.

He took a look. His eyes went wide. He alerted the guards. Things were getting bad, very bad. Edward knew things were going to get worse.
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Hidden 3 mos ago 3 mos ago Post by The Wyrm
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The squeal of poorly greased wagon axles mixed with the muted sobbing of their cargo. A few faces, wet with tears, would press themselves to the small barred window from time to time, staring back the way the convoy had come. Occasionally one of the guards would slam a spear butt against the window and laugh as a shriek came from within. It was a small distraction from the tension that filled everyone in the long line of wagons.

Heavily armed Dwarves, scruffy and unkempt human slavers, neatly attired merchants, and others, all grouped together in this one large, long, train of wagons crossing into the Vampire Kingdom for the first time in any human memory. Among the eclectic group, his habitual tall hat, long coat, and markings of his trade well hidden, was a tall man dressed in red broadcloth trimmed with heavy bear fur. He looked exceedingly happy, well fed, and comfortably wealthy. A stark contrast to the slaver with whom he travelled.

"I d'nay fink der was anyfink da blood suckers moight want, but I thinks you gots a grand ider sah..." The slaver, by the unfortunate name of Bert, was pawing his own greasy hair back into the best approximation of his companions as he spoke. The tall man, who he knew only by the name Tuttle, had run into him a week back and suggested he might make some coin buying daughters from peasant families and reselling them in the Vampire Kingdom now that it seem Baron Ulrek Bathory was opening his borders to trade.

Solomon winced at the horrendous butchery applied to his native tongue but nodded along in agreement. It was a decent cover indeed. Bert, for all of his disgusting appearance, had turned out to be quite a clever businessman, and purchased some thirty young women at a tenner a piece from their starving families. He would surely get five times their value in a land starved for fresh blood. He chuckled at the pun. Each of the girls was pretty enough and Solomon had already taken his pleasure of a couple of the best of the lot. The rest of the slavers had done likewise but left the two Solomon had chosen alone, they all feared the tall man despite his genial nature and broad smile.

"Somefink weird a'bout 'im..." Bert muttered to himself as Tuttle-Solomon turned his horse to one side and began to ride back down the long column. He nodded in friendly fashion to the Dwarves who returned his gentiality with the suspicion of their kind, and drew up next to a villainous looking band of thugs who had attached themselves to the end of the wagon train. He knew Vampire Hunters when he saw them, and though they had done a decent job of hiding their tools, the way they carried themselves, openly wore crosses, and reeked of garlic made him smile to himself.

"Good day lads, fine weather!" It was spitting rain and small swathes of sunlight broke through the clouds from time to time. It was indeed a fine day in the Great Weald.

"Supposin it is." Replied a big man, taller and broader in the shoulders than Solomon. "Woot are you doin 'ere?"

Solomon had not thought his disguise would fool men of his own trade, it only needed fool everyone else.

"Same as you. Might I suggest we not bring attention to our presence here and pass this most auspicious journey in some approximation of peace."

"Aight." Stated the big man simply and a round of nods went through the group.

"I might even suggest we consider working together. I imagine any prize to be had here would pay us all very nicely indeed."

This brought a gleam to every eye and the nods became a good deal more vigorous.

"As a token of my good faith, why not join my wagons up near the front," He leaned forward over the saddle pommel as if to impart some great secret. "We have a couple wagons worth of young ladies bound for the Vampire lands. The folk there won't give a farthing if they've had a chance to enjoy your company on the journey."

The nods became verbal growls of agreement and the strange collection of men followed him along the wagon line to join Bert and his company. Bert raised an eye at their arrival but didn't ask any questions. He never got a straight answer out of the blonde man when he did.

"Company. A farthing a piece for each of them to enjoy any of the girls they wish tonight, on me." He tossed a small bag of coins to Bert who pocketed it with dexterity and a nod.

"As ye says Gov'nor."

* * * * * * *


Later that evening, as the whole great wagon train halted for the night, Solomon Kane was kneeling in the dirt near to a small hovel whose terrified occupants watched him with awe. His bright coat and loud voice was almost alien in their barren and hateful land.

Behind him he could hear the cries of the women who had been brought with them as the other Vampire Hunters took their pleasures. The woman in the doorway winced everytime a scream cut through the air but she said nothing as she watched Solomon gently rub his fingers along a green shoot that was peeping ou from the dirt.

"Garlic... Why the hell are you growing garlic?" He finally asked of the family. The father, a wasted thing of a man, shrugged.

"The Baron says we're to grow garlic so we grows it, m'lord."

"Fascinating..." Solomon touched the small stalks again. This plant was surely ready to pluck and he drew the bulb from the earth, the white skin flashing in the fading sunlight. "If you harvest it within the week you will have a fine crop."

The man nodded, an expression of relief on his face. "Thank you m'lord, I've nought growed it afore."

"I would purchase some from you." Solomon announced and took a small purse from his waist. He was conscious of the couples children staring at him from eyes sunken with hunger. He counted out what would amount to a years wages for the family and pressed the coins into the farmers hands. "Sell your harvest to the Baron, then take your children and leave here forever."

He waved away the bubbling thanks of the family, selected ten generous sized bulbs and walked back to the wagon where the screams had at last died to whimpers. He stared a the bulbs in his hand. This was an interesting development indeed.
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Roughly a month prior

Swinging. Pirouetting. Dancing and mingling. The ballroom of the palatial mansion was alight in the glow of festival. Under the vaulted ceiling the heavy chandeliers hung with streamers of pearl and glass beads. The reflected light shimmer across the floor and the great many multitudes dappled the bright happy faces with the light of a million stars. A jovial scent of spice filled the cavernous space from great banquet tables. The buffet laid across it filled with the richness of taste and the wealth of expectation of the foreign merchant who had decades before moved into the small city state of Valentine.

And like the jewels that hung above, so too did the city outside the palace's windows shine. Across the bay, rising scores of streets marched up the hillside from the shore. The dark shapes of boats sat in the dark crystalline waters of the bay. The lamp light from windows glowed in the darkness, adding to the view the light of hundreds more soft yellow and orange stars to the inky sheet of night.

From a stage erected in the middle of a room, a large band took command of the dance, and the singing praise of a multitude of string instruments swayed the dancers about in staccato energy. They sweated in their livery, beads pouring down from their brows as the heat of the dancers and the energy of their playing consumed them to their very core. They appeared as if hypnotized, as if taken by the music and by some other force. Eyes closed in intense concentration, or held up to the old mosaics that decorated the ceiling high above.

And in front of them, broad shouldered and impressive was the master of the house. The bearded and noble master. Carbono Ithilmu, or as those of more ancient times knew him: Semiane Munch Strige Vrykolas. He had come far in space and time since the days he was a low rural count, brooding over the valleys of his domain from a rude stone cut castle on a high ridge. He had passed from the languid and sepulcher tapestries and trappings of a dynasty so ancient that it was dead, save for he. Now here he was, among the warm glow of participants to his own spectacle and the light of the uncountable candles he could afford, crates of which arrived to his palace by the day and it was said the true scale of his wealth could be measured by the inordinate tons of spent wax he threw out to the bay. Who could find a master richer? Seemingly more well connected.

Who would not adore his sublime presence? His eyes, as dark as they were glowing. His presence, so immense it filled a room by itself, let alone a full one.

He commanded his steps, holding out one hand to take a new dancer; man or woman he discerned not. And each danced with him. Some more tenderly than others. And each contact appeared to boost his aura, his presence. While others tired his energy grew. He noted not the heat, or seemed to grow hungry. He drank the wine heavier than any demon, but held himself no less drunk than the simply warmly inebriated; he did not stumble or fall and moved with all the complexity of a spirited dancer, in full control.

As the Saturnalia drew on into the night, the guests began to withdraw. Those who could find the door stumbled laughing and warm in the face from the wine and the joy as they were piloted away by their drivers, the clapping of hooves echoing down the sweeping cobblestone drive that turned they away from the mansion as it had brought them in, funneled by the delicate shadows of olive trees.

Those who weren't so lucky were helped along by the servants, who stepping out of the woodwork took them to guest rooms. They appeared seemingly from no where like nimphs in the wood to take the drunken wanderers away to safe quarters. Their joyous delirious laughter could be heard all throughout before they were closed off in private chambers and stumbled their ways to beds or couches, naked or half way there.

As the ballroom empty, the band ceased to play and they soon retired. Though not drunk, the deprivation of exhaustion hung over them and they threw themselves off to the side, surrendering to their own weight and curled in a corner. The servants stepping out from their doors as the sound of party subsided and began to clean up the mess, the goblets tossed aside, the food on the floor, the sweat and blood and puke. And the last among the many to stand was master Semiane, a glass of wine held high in salute to the revelry.

“And to thee, a good sleep.” he was heard to say in the silent ballroom before downing the goblet. Emptied, he walked over the bodies that had collapsed from exhaustion and handed it to an elderly chamberlain who bowed and delivered it with the others to the kitchen.

“Oh what fun, what joy!” Semiane gloated, laughing as he walked across the sleeping hall, “Oh how man pushes themselves. The escape they seek. A much ado respect to you all. I am well fed.” he added, laughing.

The echoes of his footfalls followed after him as he walked through his estate. From the ballroom to the foyer. The towering room glowing with a lunar blue light through windows that reached up with the columns and intricate details of the architecture. Up golden flights of stairs, the railing a decadent gallery of detailed filigree and painstakingly carved scenes in carved spaces no larger than an oak leaf. Across carpets, imported from many of the far corners of the room and through even more broad chambers. Windows galleries that look out across vineyards and orchards, complete with a distant winery on the far hills, dark against the sheet of the moon glow night.

His journey ended in his bedroom. A library and gallery of all things fair and fine. Where hanging from the walls were paintings and tapestries centuries old. Books in far-flung languages and complex ciphers. Suits of armor from many periods and kingdoms stood in silent drill against the wall under sword and shield. And in the middle, in a large bed of white and gold reclined several young women, naked save for the sheets that covered them. At the sound of the door opening they stirred and rose, presenting their fair fine bodies to him as he stepped forward to kiss their cheeks, their necks, and their chests as they disrobed him and invited him in.

Free of his clothes he breast lay exposed to the warm night air. Unlike the rest of him it bore the signs of his age, his being. Far from the expression of his public self his chest was boiled and white, hairless. His massive ribs jostling for space against his tough leathery skin with the tight sinewy ropes of his muscles. The magic and skill of reconstructive surgery had done much to try and cover this, but unlike his face, what magic he possessed seemed to do little to hold whatever form was sculpted onto his body here.

But the young women he lay with did not seem to care or pay no heed as they gingerly brushed him with his fingers. Their embrace lasted until there was a knock on the door that stirred them. Indifferent Semiane rose and called out, “You may enter.”

The large doors opened, and in stepped an old man. His eyes down cast at the parchment he held. His face pale and white as he looked up and bowed. “Your honor, I hope I am not intruding.”

“It doesn't matter. What is it?” Semiane answered him as he sat up right. Folding his hands in his lap.

“There is word from the imperium. Evidently, the Emperor Zachaeus had announced he is retiring from his duties. His sons are to take to the throne, but on the condition that they are married. I know my honor is looking for opportunity, and so, I believe this opportunity would be most fitting.”

Semiane thought for a moment and nodded. I have not made my way to Xelwyth, he thought to himself. Raising his eyes he looked at his old house steward and said, “Who are the sons, whom are they looking for. I can imagine the opportunities I can have, but who might I have to contend with to gain favors.”

“That, I have here.” the old man said, producing a new scroll from his back pocket.

“Then let's sit down.” Semiane said promptly, throwing over him an embroidered robe as he invited the old man to a table near the window. He lit a few nearby candles as the case was explained to him, who the princes were, and what their dispositions may be. Semiane nodded along, feeling a taste for adventure brew on the back of his tongue.

“I may have to go.” he said, stoking his thick beard. “By morning, when can you ready a ship for passage?”

“Perhaps by the afternoon, or late evening your honor.” the old man said to him.

“Then be on it, keep me notified when it's ready or there are delays. I will be in touch by courier if I need anything when I arrise.”

“As you will, your honor.”
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The past fortnight had seen more visitors to Keep Felboge than the previous century. All manner of visitors were coming and going from the Baron's great hall in a flurry of activity that left the servants and chamberlains utterly exhausted. Baron Ulrek Bathory's malign intentions were becoming increasingly apparent. The chief chamberlain of the Keep had done all that he could to notify his liege, Lord Edward Bathory, of the Baron's actions. He hoped that Edward's hawk had made it back to the capital with his brief message intact, and that his master did something to check Ulrek's maneuverings - and fast.

The head chamberlain had opted now to ensure that he could bear witness to as much of Ulrek's treasonous behavior as possible. To this end, he insisted on attending each audience the Baron held with visitors to the keep. If Edward was able to act quickly and mobilize a force to arrest his older brother, the chamberlain hoped that his testimonial of these meetings might one day be used to mete out justice. But he feared now that the time to stop the rogue Baron of Felboge Keep without bloodshed was fast coming to a close.

He stood now in attendance in Baron Ulrek's court, standing vigil over yet another audience with a party summoned to the great hall. A gaggle of foreign alchemists and apothecaries stood before the throne behind a wooden table brought in specifically for this audience. Under the gaze of the Baron, they unpacked an assortment of dried herbs and vegetables from satchels and placed them on the table for display. The chamberlain's interest was piqued when he saw an apothecary produce a braid of garlic cloves from a satchel and lay it upon the table beside a bundle of some dried purple herb that bore similarity to lavender. The sight of garlic elicited visible unease among the dozen guards in attendance; their grip on their crossbows tightened. Garlic, a potent poison to vampires, had been strictly outlawed in the Empire for the entirety of the Empire's existence - excluding the Great Weald as of very recently. Anxious glances at the Baron gave proof that he was not at all perturbed by the garlic cloves, and so the guards allowed the alchemists to continue.

"Baron Ulrek Bathory," one of the alchemists began once the table had been set, "we are honored to attend your court today. As you have requested in your letter, we have procured all readily-available herbs, vegetables, and materials that are known to us to be noxious to your kind. To be absolutely clear, we have brought these materials at your request, and have no intention of causing any harm-"

"Understood," Ulrek cut the alchemist of with a wave of his bony hand. "Show me your goods."

"As you wish, your majesty." The alchemist began at the right side of the table, holding up one a large, dried shelf mushroom.

"Peacock's Tail, a polypore mushroom whose ashes have been reported as effective against vampires when burned. It is rare in these lands and grows only on giant trees in the frost jungles of Faresh, far to the northeast." He continued down the table to a few heaping bundles of dried plants.

"Vervain, this is highly sought after by vampire hunters, and reported to be highly lethal to your kind. And here: Warrior's Balm, a common weed in these lands. Legend purports that vampires are repulsed by this herb, but vampire hunters seldom request it which suggests that it is, in truth, not particularly noxious to your kind. Here we have Wolfsbane another herb purported to be deadly to vampires. It, like Warrior's Balm, has conflicting reports as to its efficacy in repelling vampires."

Baron Ulrek stood from his throne and descended from its dais, making his way over to the sampling of herbs on the table before him. To the surprise of the alchemists, Ulrek simply grabbed a handful of dried Wolfsbane and held it to his nostrils, deeply sniffing the crinkling leaves before laying it back upon the table.

"A slightly unpleasant aroma," Ulrek decided, "but I am hardly repulsed. Perhaps you may wish to inform the vampire slayers that patronize you that this particular plant is useless to them, lest you lose their business to some feral vampire."

"Of course, your majesty. Lastly, we have garlic. The most effective known vampire repellent," the alchemist grabbed a fresh white bulb of garlic and tore it apart, plucking one of the largest cloves from the papery husk. "Its juices are said to be highly toxic; its mere aroma rumored to drive vampires mad."

"Show me," Ulrek demanded.

"As you wish, your majesty," the alchemist acknowledged with eyes wide with anxiety. He laid the garlic clove down upon the table and with a small knife produced from his pocket, made a clean cut across the width of the clove. He held one of the halves up, presenting it to the vampire baron. The clove's sour zest slowly began to permeate the air. The aroma, after some moments, entered Ulrek's nostrils, eliciting an extreme and immediate revulsion. The vampire's normally stoic face coiled into a disgusted grimace as a smell deemed pleasant by most men was perceived by his own nostrils as a putrid odor far worse than that of a festering corpse marinating in pig shit.

"An effective repellent," Ulrek admitted, stepping back some paces to relieve himself of the garlicky aroma. "Very effective, very good."

((Suggested listening))

"One more item to show you, your majesty," the alchemist said as he produced a glass ampule containing a minuscule object only slightly larger than a grain of sand. His fingers trembled as he presented the small vial to the vampire baron. Ulrek took the ampule in his bony fingers and twirled it about before his eyes, watching the infinitesimal object within clink against the glass with a soft, metallic ring.

"Silver," Baron Ulrek recognized.

"Indeed, majesty. Nothing is more lethal to a vampire than silver. Per your request, we have brought to you the smallest nugget we could procure, but I must confess that I am perplexed as to why you wanted it. Surely, over your long lifetime, you have been acquainted with this metal at-"

Stunned silence overtook the great hall as Baron Ulrek uncorked the glass vial. He held one of his pale and bony palms up to the open ampule. He paused for a moment to contemplate and then, to the dismay of all in attendance, emptied the silver nugget into his palm.

For several moments, the Baron was perfectly still as the grain of silver rested in his palm. Without warning, the empty vial fell from the Baron's left hand and shattered upon the floor. A wispy trail of white smoke rose up from the vampire's palm, but still Ulrek was unwavering. The pallid flesh of Ulrek's palm began to smolder with the initial sparks of a yellow flame. Ulrek was wincing now and his face trembling, but even now he did not yield to the agonizing pain induced by this tiny drop of silver.

"Your majesty, release it!" A guard pleaded.

As if in defiance, Ulrek clenched his fist around the silver nugget. Yellow flames leaked out from between his fingers, licking his fingers and knuckles. Even as his hand burned with unholy yellow fire, Ulrek did not release the silver and instead braced his burning, quivering hand with the other, holding it tightly in his palm in spite the innate compulsion to release it. Through bared, gritted fangs, Ulrek watched as the flames built to an agonizing crescendo and then slowly began to subside. Smoke wafted from his clenched fist once more as the yellow flames extinguished. At last, Ulrek opened his fist and allowed the silver nugget to fall to the floor. His hands had been horrifically burned, but the vampire was still alive.

"Take your herbs and plants," Ulrek ordered to the alchemists and apothecaries between heaved pants, "and distill their toxic essences into one single potion. Make as many bottles as you can with the supplies at hand. And when you leave for your homes, go and tell any vampire hunters that might patronize your enterprises that there lives one vampire their poisons and silver will not kill."
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It was indeed an auspicious time as the sunshine rose uninhibited by clouds above the hills of the Great Weald, bathing the battered and sun starved lands in a glorious explosion of yellow and gold. The vast open moors of rolling hills where spotted with patches of dark green and black, spoiled here and there by bright green patches of fen, stretching to the horizon. Many leagues to the North the snowcapped peaks of the Felmurg Mountains stood out starkly against a pure blue sky. Trickling brooks took on the appearance of frothing streams cutting between the hills in boggy lowlands of peat, heather, and and even the wind stunted junipers seemed to stand taller in the sunlight. Soft hills and green ridges crowned with plump carpets of moss highlighted the large and unusual caravan that now snaked its way into the Vampire lands.

The Dwarves were staring about them in wonder at the land that had once been their home and the various human guards had propped their helmets on their saddle horns, there was no danger of a Vampire atack on day like this. Even the slaver, made more hideous by the arrival of pure daylight, managed to looked both pleased and surprised. The whimpering from his wagons had even died away as bruised faces pressed themselves to the bars.

"I c'nay think o'a toime t'was so sunny 'ere..." He was enjoying the heat on his face, surprisingly strong now that the clouds had burned away and the sun beat down with a vengeance on a land long deprived of its life giving powers. Several of his thugs, and a few Vampire Hunters, all voiced their agreement. Solomon said nothing, just nodded.

They crested a small rise and standing before them, tendrils of mist still clinging stubbornly to its turrets, was the keep of Felboge, in sight at last. It was a redoubtable structure to be sure. Built upon the only true "hill" in the Moor, it was surrounded on all sides by a rampart of local cobblestone, buttressed by a moat of sharpened stakes while the green covered moor lapped against it like an unmoving ocean. Dozens of leathery hides of flayed prisoners pierced on iron nails hammered into the joints between the cobblestones. As if warning the garrison of their arrival, the wind kicked up from a gentle breeze and a heavy gust hurled itself against the high stones, tearing one of the affixed skins from its mooring and blowing it out into the distant moor. There might be a monster inside, but another monster now stalked the moors.

Guards, squinting heavily against the bright sunlight, greeted the caravan at the bottom of the hill before the road began to climb toward the fortress. The Dwarves bustled forward first, eager to receive the documents allowing them to continue their diggings in the east. Their permission received, they turned away from the Keep and began their march East, a song breaking out from their ranks as they went.

The slaver was permitted to turn aside to the town that huddled in the shadow of the Keep. The market grounds, long a barren and empty place, were already alive with colour and the swirl of trade as other merchants who had swarmed across the newly opened border sold their wares to an amazed local populace. This left the Vampire Hunters and a swarm of hopeful supplicants looking for leave to begin other businesses.

"You gentlemen will have to give up your weapons." Stated the guard commander, indicating the items carried now by Kane and his compatriots.

"This is not possible." Kane replied quietly. The guard commander looked stumped, never in his living memory had anyone refused an order from one of Baron Ulrek's soldiers.

"'Fraid I cannot let you in then. Baron's orders are simple: no weapons past the gate. Leave em with me or turn around."

Kane nodded and then looked around at his gaggle of fellow hunters. Some were not even trying to hide their weapons. He had at least made an effort save for the longsword that hung at his waist. "Alright then soldier, how about we put down the long arms and you take this small gift to forget we even have a couple of daggers? A stranger in a strange land feels a bit more like a man when he can have some steel at his waist, eh?"

The guard commander's only response to Kane's proposal was a tacit glance over each shoulder, ensuring that his comrades were out of earshot and not looking in their direction. A brief beckoning gesture of his chainmail-clad fingers gave proof that the commander was amenable to Kane's bribe.

"That's right, swords and pikes with me," the guard announced for the benefit of any of his comrades. "Very good, come on through," he crowed, stealthily accepting a small coin purse from Kane as he strode past.

The Vampire hunters deposited their long weapons and stepped onto the drawbridge that spanned the stake-laden moat. Their footsteps sounded hollow on the drawbridge before echoing as they walked through a crumbling gateway framed by snarling gargoyles. The gateway opened onto a cobblestone parade ground surrounding the entrance to the keep itself. A number of attendants and soldiers stood before the doors of the keep, awaiting the arrival of the strange assembly.

Despite the sunny the keep walls were high enough to throw a deep shadow across much of the courtyard. The torches, obviously needed most days of the year, were still burning despite the heat of the day and Solomon's mouth twitched in some approximation of a smile. He could feel the fear and hatred of the place, so many people crammed together to serve their undead lord. He was certain he would one day have to kill his potential employer as well.

A concerned looking chamberlin looked them over before hustling them into the keep where all hint of daylight vanished behind thick stone walls and heavy curtains drawn across the few windows. Solomon paused long enough for his eyes to adjust to the blackness before following at the tail end of the group. The big man who he had first addressed the previous week led the way into the main audience chamber.

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Edward was pacing in his room. The days and nights passed were still weighing on his mind. He frowned as he continued to think about what had happened. He just prayed that his brother would not resort to any uncivilized means to deal with this. They needed to uphold the reputation of the royal family after all.

Edward soon wore himself out. Those feelings from what happened had exhausted him. He went straight to his bed and laid down upon it. He closed his eyes. His hair was soon fanned out around him. He was soon fast asleep. He had truly been tired. Edward no longer thought about what had happened as dreams filled his mind instead.

Emily and her father arrived at the castle. They would be let out of the carriage once it had stopped. The king stepped out first. Then, his daughter stepped out, helped out of it by the carriage footmen. She let out a sigh. This was it. They had arrived at the place her father had told her about.

Emily and her father were escorted into the castle. The king requested an audience with their king. A servant nodded and ran off. They were going to inform those of the royal family who remained at the castle. However, the king would be told first. It was important for him to be told. That was for certain.

Anyway, Emily was escorted to a drawing room to wait, along with her father.


ZACHAEUS BATHORY KING OF XELWYTH



Zachaeus looked up from the document he was reading just as the messenger entered the throne room. He gave a small nod, signalling the man could approach. The messenger took six steps towards the ornate gold and black throne before falling to one knee and lowering his head.

"I assume the king and his daughter here then?" Zachaeus asked as he rolled up the parchment and handed it to a nearby servant.

"Yes, your majesty."

"Good. Bring them here to the throne room for a public audience. And tell Edward that I request his presence here at this meeting as well." Zachaeus said as he took a sip of blood from a wineglass sitting on a small table to the right of his throne.

"As you wish, your majesty." The man replied, nodding briefly. Zachaeus watched him as he quickly got to his feet and went off to carry out his assigned tasks. Although he didn't show it, Zachaeus was concerned about the lack of response Ulrek gave to his proclamation. While the relationship between him and his eldest son was practically non-existent, he had expected some kind of a reaction from him, even if it was a negative one.

"What are you planning boy?" He mused as he slowly reclined in his throne and took another sip of the crimson liquid.
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Edward was in his room, now staring out the window again when he heard from the messenger. He sighed a bit.

"Tell father I shall be there shortly."
He made himself presentable after the messenger left. He immediately went to the throne upon where his father sat. He approached carefully and calmly.

"Yes, father? May I ask why I have been summoned?"

Emily was waiting with her father. Soon enough, a messenger arrived to inform them that the king was ready to meet with them. Emily sighed. Her father nodded. Her father held her arm and guided her along, following the servant to where the King was.

Emily was not happy. She frowned the entire time. She blinked upon seeing the vampire king. She quickly looked away. Her father spoke.

"Your majesty."
Her father said in greeting with a bow of his head.
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Edward was in his room, now staring out the window again when he heard from the messenger. He sighed a bit.

"Tell father I shall be there shortly."
He made himself presentable after the messenger left. He immediately went to the throne upon where his father sat. He approached carefully and calmly.

"Yes, father? May I ask why I have been summoned?"

Emily was waiting with her father. Soon enough, a messenger arrived to inform them that the king was ready to meet with them. Emily sighed. Her father nodded. Her father held her arm and guided her along, following the servant to where the King was.

Emily was not happy. She frowned the entire time. She blinked upon seeing the vampire king. She quickly looked away. Her father spoke.

"Your majesty."
Her father said in greeting with a bow of his head.


Zachaeus at his son and the foreign king before speaking.

"I have summoned you here Edward, to meet our esteemed visitors." Zachaeus said in a pleasant tone that carried across the large and lavishly decorated room as he gestured to the king and his daughter.

"And to ask you about what your eldest brother plans." He whispered as he leaned a little bit closer to his son, his icy blue eyes fixed on his visitors, seemingly in judgement of their reactions or lack thereof.
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Edward nodded at the guests.
"Greetings. A pleasure."

He spoke formally. He turned back to his father upon hearing him whisper. He raised an eyebrow in concern. He sighed and remembered what his hawk had brought to him. He handed it to his father.

"My hawk brought me this upon his return."
Edward kept his voice to a quiet whisper as well that time.

Emily's father raised an eyebrow and frowned. He wondered what was going on. Emily herself became concerned. She sensed something amiss. She glanced at her father then back at Edward and the king.

"Is something wrong your majesty?"
She asked as politely as possible. She was careful to not be disrespectful too. Emily was taught to act as such.

Elizabeth was leaving their home with her parents. They had business as the castle and needed to get there soon. It would take them a bit of time to get there though. Living not too far from the barons' territory wasn't easy. That was true.

Anyway, Elizabeth and her parents went to their carriage. They got inside one at a time. They prepared to head for the castle. Elizabeth glanced behind her as if she were afraid of something.
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"My hawk brought me this upon his return."
Edward kept his voice to a quiet whisper as well that time.

Emily's father raised an eyebrow and frowned. He wondered what was going on. Emily herself became concerned. She sensed something amiss. She glanced at her father then back at Edward and the king.

"Is something wrong your majesty?"
She asked as politely as possible. She was careful to not be disrespectful too. Emily was taught to act as such.


"I see." Zachaeus replied, in a hushed tone. He took the letter and placed it in a breast pocket beneath his coat before calmly turning his attention to the king and his daughter, the concerned look on his face carefully replaced by a composed, friendly, and welcoming one.

"My son was simply giving me the latest reports on the production of our farms." Zachaeus said with a slight wave of his hand. "It's a rather...disappointing report, but nothing to be concerned about. Now onto more important matters. I assume you're here because of the proclamation I issued?" He asked as he leaned back in his throne and stared at the two intently.
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Edward nodded. He frowned though. It was out of worry and even concern. He looked at their guests after a moment or so. He wondered what worried them, noticing the looks on their faces.

"May I ask the same?"
Edward used a respectful tone.

Emily blinked. She looked away.
Her father nodded. He spoke for both of them.

"Yes, your majesty."
He spoke in a formal tone.
"I brought my daughter along in the hopes that she may find herself a husband. She is long past marrying age. As my oldest, this can not be allowed. She must marry soon."

Emily sighed and frowned. She didn't look at them. She stared at the floor.
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Edward nodded. He frowned though. It was out of worry and even concern. He looked at their guests after a moment or so. He wondered what worried them, noticing the looks on their faces.

"May I ask the same?"
Edward used a respectful tone.

Emily blinked. She looked away.
Her father nodded. He spoke for both of them.

"Yes, your majesty."
He spoke in a formal tone.
"I brought my daughter along in the hopes that she may find herself a husband. She is long past marrying age. As my oldest, this can not be allowed. She must marry soon."

Emily sighed and frowned. She didn't look at them. She stared at the floor.


Zachaeus stared at the girl for a moment before replying.

"I see. And have you asked for her opinion on the matter?" Zachaeus asked, gesturing to Emily who was still staring at the floor.
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Emily sighed. Her father frowned.
"Her opinion is of no concern. She knows her place. She knows her duties. I was already married at her age to a lovely duchess. She and my other children were a result. It is time for her to marry. She can not remain unwed for much longer."
Emily remained silent.

Edward blinked and frowned. He felt bad for the girl. He wished that she'd be allowed more freedom than this. He glanced towards his father, the king. He had a saddened look upon his face. He wished that there was something that he could do.
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The vampire hunters and beastslayers had arrived. Even before the chamberlains had announced their arrival, Baron Ulrek had sensed their presence as they entered his keep; already he had begun attempting to probe their minds. It was apparent that many among them were skilled vampire slayers, for the thoughts that Ulrek perceived were unbelievably inane or crude. Ulrek probed one of the beastslayers' minds only to be subjected to the memory of the teenaged vampire slayer pleasuring himself with a large, overripe turnip with a hole poked through it. Revolted by being subjected to such a thought, Ulrek immediately untethered his consciousness from the hunter's mind. No doubt that these vampire slayers were well aware of vampires' capacity to read minds, and had therefore forced themselves to think of some drivel to distract or disgust any who would attempt to read their minds; a simple yet effective tactic in the presence of a powerful vampire. These were precisely the sort of seasoned hunters Ulrek needed.

The Keep's head chamberlain ushered nearly a dozen men into the great hall. They were a barbaric gaggle of dangerous looking men; their mere entry had stirred the guards to the utmost attention and the Baron's servants exchanged anxious glances with one another as a hushed murmur came up from the peripheries of the great hall. Even to the courtiers that had not expected them, it was clear that these men were vampire hunters from the crosses hanging openly from their necks and the reek of garlic emanating from their pores. What had compelled the Baron to invite such men to his court?

The Baron of the Great Weald sat rigidly upon his throne, eying his curious guests. Ulrek seemed attentive but unperturbed, even as the miserable garlic stench clinging to the clothing and skin of some of the vampire slayers reached his nose. Once they had settled into the great hall, Ulrek stood to address them.

"Gentlemen," Baron Ulrek began as he rose out of his throne, "I bid you welcome. You have traveled distant leagues and endured many inconveniences to join me at my court today. The matter that has forced me to summon you today is urgent indeed, and I thank you for arriving quickly in keeping with the urgency of this situation."

"Enough jabberin', Baron," a broad-shouldered beast of a vampire slayer interrupted. "Wot d'ya wont wif us?"

"You wish me to be concise? Fair enough," said Ulrek. "Guards, servants, leave me and these gentlemen for a brief while." The guards hesitated for a moment. Leave his majesty alone with a dozen vampire slayers without a single guard in the room? Had Ulrek gone completely mad?

"Guards, I insist," Ulrek repeated, sensing their unease.

Mad or not, the Baron's orders could not be denied. The guards slowly filed out of the great hall and the head chamberlain shut the doors behind them, leaving the vampire lord and the vampire hunters alone together.

"Now, as you wish, I shall speak candidly and concisely. King Zachaeus Bathory, my father and master of this imperium, has elected to forgo the legal order of succession of these lands and pass the inheritance of rule over the Xelwyth Imperium to whichever of his sons can first find a loving bride. I am a revolting monster that naturally repulses female beings, and so I am naturally handicapped in this absurd game against the likes of my handsome younger brothers Edward, Matteas, Rory, and others. I see this contest for what it truly is: a desperate attempt for my father to deny me my rightful inheritance. I will not abide this flagrant perversion of inheritance law."

"So, where do we lot come in?" Asked the giant of a vampire slayer.

"I will pay 1,000 golden vespers for each of my brother's heads delivered to me." Ulrek declared. The vampire slayers exchanged toothy grins and excited nudges to one another. A single golden vesper was more than many commoners saved up in an entire year; 1,000 was a considerable fortune. It was by far the largest bounty any of them had ever been offered.

"Which of your brothers do you think will be wed soonest?" Asked the tallest of the vampire slayers, handsomely dressed and better spoken than his cruder compatriots.

"A wise question," said Ulrek. "I believe Matteas, Baron of Solleck, is nearest to being betrothed. He has courted a noblewoman of that city for some time before my father issued his challenge and is therefore in an advantageous position." Ulrek, impressed with this taller vampire hunter, casually attempted to probe his mind.

Nothing.

Ulrek's eyes widened slightly, for this had never happened before. Never before had Ulrek encountered a mortal impervious to being mind-probed. He continued on with this briefing, wishing to distract the vampire slayers from his shock.

"Matteas is a problem, but Edward is the greatest threat. 1,500 vespers for his head."

"A bloo'y fo'tune!" Exclaimed one of the vampire slayers who could not contain his enthusiasm for the promise of such riches. "I'll be rich 'nuf to buy my own bloo'y castle when this is all said 'n done."

"A word of caution," Ulrek added, tempering the enthusiasm. "These are not the wild, feral beasts you gentlemen are accustomed to dispatching. These are powerful vampires, learned and protected by guard contingents and the laws of this land. If you should be captured attempting to kill my brothers, then there will be nothing I can do to save you. Die in the last ditch, for if you are captured my brothers will mete out the most excruciating of executions against you. Great risk warrants great reward." Truthfully, Baron Ulrek did not know if a captured vampire slayer would be immediately executed if found by his brothers, but he hoped that they would believe it and choose to fight to the death rather than be interrogated and reveal his plot.

"I dismiss you now to seek out whichever of my brothers you see fit," Ulrek said at last. "Now go and do your bloody work. But work quickly. Time is of the essence in this matter."

As the vampire slayers made their way for the doors, Ulrek focused on the tallest of the vampire hunters, confirming once again that he could not read his mind. As Ulrek's attempts to hone in on this man's mind proved fruitless, the immortal monster felt for perhaps the first time in his long life a very mortal feeling: fear. For the first time in nearly three centuries, Ulrek Bathory had encountered in this tall mortal man something that frightened him.
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