Castle Bathory shuddered and groaned under the very weight of its stones, relieving some of its stress in showers of dust and grit from the vaulted ceilings fracturing overhead. The constant, cacophonous din of battle had died down to sporadic clanging of swords and agonized shouts of dying men echoing through the ravaged corridors and halls of the castle between stretches of relative silence. As the deathly silence descended over the dying castle, a single pair of bootfalls against clattered against the cold, polished floor of the castle as Ulrek Bathory returned to the family's home and seat of power for the second time in five months.
When the Baron had come here five months ago to protest his father's announcement of the ill-fated inheritance challenge, the castle was a different place to be sure. An army of Royal Guards - each clad in standard issue, excellent quality armor and brilliant crimson cloaks - stood vigil at regular posts throughout the castle's corridors and grand halls. When Ulrek left his father's court in a fury, his protests against the inheritance challenge rebuffed, those guards ushering him from the throne chamber seemed such an invulnerable and monolithic force, as unyielding as the Castle they garrisoned and the King they defended. Now the Baron stepped over the crumpled and bloodied corpses of those same guards strewn across the floor of the citadel his own army had all but leveled.
The guard had fought savagely to defend the castle and its master, for each royal guard slain upon the floor was accompanied by the bloodied corpses of one or two of Kharald Halfbeard's mercenaries or the Baron's knights. Each of the guards died heroically, facing their foe head-on until the bitter end to keep them from reaching their rightful king. Edward, Ulrek deduced, would be found in whichever direction the slain guards were facing away from. Ulrek stepped over their corpses and pressed on into the interior of the citadel - to the throne chamber.
Ulrek made his way through the castle's library on his way to the inner stairwell, and was greeted by the stomach-turning sound of papers being rustled quickly and carelessly, interspersed by the sharp tearing of parchment. The vampire prince was dismayed to find a half dozen dwarven mercenaries tearing through the library's collection with the avarice of hogs rooting through autumn leaves in search of acorns. The mercenaries climbed atop stools and ladders to reach the highest shelves of King Zachaeus' private collection of books, scrolls, atlases, and almanacs. The dwarves tore through each and every book, grabbing each tome by its often-delicate binding and vigorously shaking it, hoping to dislodge any valuables that might be wedged within the pages. Individual pages separated from their bindings and fluttered down to the floor before the rest of the tome was unceremoniously cast off to the side. Ulrek was not sure what valuables the dwarves were even hoping to find hidden in the books. Perhaps some of the alcohol-embalmed specimens of deep-sea serpent fingerlings or atlases of distant archipelagoes of the Orient might be sold for a modest sum in a curiosity shop in Aepiranth or some stall in the Grand Bazaar, but there was nothing here that these brutes could hope to quickly pawn off in these lands.
Ulrek watched as the same pages of books he read as boy centuries ago tumbled unceremoniously to the floor as the dwarves- only now aware of the Baron's presence - ceased their pilfering in stunned awe of the vampire in their midst, glancing expectantly at one another for some indication as to whether they should attempt to kill the Baron or flee. Ulrek too regarded the dwarves as he trudged through the litter of pages strewn across the library floor, considering for a moment cutting these dwarves down as punishment for despoiling his father's library - one of the few things that Ulrek cherished in this world. Ultimately, Ulrek decided to leave the dwarves to their looting and continued on toward the throne chamber. Their castigation could wait, but Edward's could not.
As Ulrek progressed into the heart of Castle Bathory, the looting carried out by the surviving remnants of his forces became increasingly widespread. The slain guards were fewer here - perhaps the guard had withdrawn to more defensible portions of the citadel, or perhaps the royal guard had simply given up hope and abandoned their posts to join Ulrek's forces in plundering the castle. In the absence of a substantial defense, Ulrek's knights and mercenaries tore through the various chambers in search of anything they desired. The crashing of furniture being busted apart echoed down the corridors as the Baron's forces began to ransack the castle. Shrill screams rang out somewhere behind Ulrek as a handful of his yeomen discovered a pair of servant girls and set about having their way with them. He paid no mind at all to the complete breakdown of order among what remained of his forces. The levies, knights, and mercenaries got Ulrek inside Castle Bathory; whatever happened to them afterwards was no concern of his.
Ulrek reached the inner stairwell of the castle, whose polished limestone ran with coursing rivulets of congealing blood trickling from guards cut down on the stairs in defense of the throne hall somewhere above. Clashing steel and shouting up the stairway suggested that the guard was still fighting off the attackers attempting to breach the throne room. The last of the guard fighting to protect the throne hall and Prince Edward within, Ulrek assumed. The Baron climbed the stairs and, at the top, encountered a gaggle of dwarven mercenaries weilding bloodied axes and swords and each wearing several pounds worth of fine golden necklaces and amulets around their necks and over their armor. Clearly they had just looted the royal jewelry collections and were making for the exit when they met Ulrek Bathory. The Baron did not need to probe their minds to know their intentions as he practically felt their avaricious eyes crawling up and down his suit of silver plate armor.
"Well if it isn't our esteemed employer, Baron Ulrek Bathory," said a dwarf wearing a ruby-encrusted tiara of rose gold upon a greasy brow. "We succeeded in winning ya yer daddy's castle. Time to pay up."
"Sturin's Beard," another dwarf remarked. "That's a full suit of dwarf-made silver armor. Whaddya think that's worth? Chestpiece alone's probably worth 100 gold vespers."
"'Fraid it ain't gonna fetch that much," yet another dwarf said, lowering his halberd and moving to engage the Baron. "Not when I poke a hole in that pretty piece of foppery and nab the bastard's heart."
The halberd-armed dwarf lowered his weapon and lunged at the Baron. A brief mind probe of the attacker allowed Ulrek to sidestep the polearm. The vampire's sword was unsheathed in a flash of silver and mithril and at once, Pthaalma met the shaft of the dwarf's halberd with a powerful hack. The dwarf attempted to parry Ulrek's sword, but the mithril blade cut effortlessly through the tempered wooden shaft. The disarmed dwarf beheld Ulrek with wide-eyed dismay for a brief moment as the top half of his severed halberd clattered at his feet. Ulrek swung once more and removed the dwarf's head from his shoulders. The dwarf's head blinked as it went down the stairs in a tumbling roll, the last thing he witnessed was his headless corpse collapse at the Baron's feet, dispensing the stolen necklaces and amulets around his stump of a neck into a tangled, bloodied heap on the floor. Without a word, Ulrek stepped around his attacker's stunned companions and continued toward the throne room. Behind him, he heard the dwarves bound down the stairwell in terrified flight, but not before recovering the jewelry from the corpse of their slain companion.
A red-dyed carpet guided Ulrek down the hallway toward the double doors of the throne chamber. Fierce fighting had taken place here not long before. Ulrek's dying knights bled out beside the corpses of fallen guardsmen, some of whom had just enough life in them to watch as the Baron they had given their for carelessly stepped over their bodies. A royal honor guard with a split belly sat against the wall, attempting to gather his spilled entrails back into his body. The Baron's forces had inflicted severe casualties in attempting to breach the throne room, but had only scarcely failed. All of Edward's defenses had now been breached. Now that task Ulrek had set out to accomplish all those months ago - to redress the perceived wronging perpetrated by his father and brother, to claim his rightful inheritance over the whole of the Lands Under Shadow - was at hand. His father's idiotic game would end where it began.
Ulrek threw the doors to the throne hall open and barged within - Pthaalma in hand.
"Edward!" Ulrek declared as the doors slammed against the walls of the atrium, "your hour has come!"
The only responses to Ulrek were his own echoes sounding through the vast, cavernous hall.
The throne hall was empty and silent. The damage to Castle Bathory had collapsed a segment of the far western wall - directly behind King Zachaeus' vacant throne - casting a sunbeam of orange twilight into the normally dimly-lit chamber. Dozens of expansive tapestries hanging from the vaulted ceiling high above fluttered in the breeze on either side of the collonaded walkway leading up to the throne itself.
"Brother!" Ulrek called out once again. "Show yourself!"
Ulrek examined the throne room as his echoes resounded through the space. The crimson carpet running between the doors and the throne dais was severely faded as if it had been allowed to be sunbleached for many years. The vampire's eyes went up from the carpet to the linen tapestries hanging above him. They too had been severely faded, but Ulrek could still make out the dramatic scenes sewn into the fabric. To his left, the top third depicted a monstrous hag hiding in the shadows of a darkened cave that Ulrek recognized as Nystra: the Mother of Vampires. Ulrek, being well read, knew the origin of his race as thoroughly as any scholar. Nystra was cursed by birth with horrifying hideousness. Cast out from her home and despised by all, the miserable wretch went into the wilderness and lived in a cave. Without a husband to support her and lacking the strength to hunt for her meals, Nystra would stalk the woods at night in search of sleeping beasts and bite their throats to dispatch her prey, as could be seen farther down the tapestry as the crone bit into the neck of a sleeping stag.
Nystra tired of her miserable life and her terrifying hideousness. She prayed fervently that she might be beautiful one day and attract a prosperous husband. Her prayer was one day answered, and she woke one morning to find that she was now a stunningly beautiful maiden. But when she stepped out of the cave into the sunlight, the morning sun burned her skin and sent her fleeing back into the darkness, preventing her from going out and seeking a husband. As she wept in the darkness of her cave, a winged devil appeared before her. Struck by her beauty, the demon took the cursed girl as his wife and gave her a son: Hema. Half man and half demon, he was the first of the vampires.
Ulrek glanced over to the other tapestries as he approached the sunlit throne, seeing the woven illustrations of Hema and his brothers and sisters proliferating across the land. With their demonic blood, the vampires dominated the ancient civilizations of men. Two tapestries were devoted to great battles between the Free Men and the Vampires and their enslaved warrior thralls. At the foot of one tapestry was the woven likeness of a winged vampire warlord standing atop a pile of bloodied corpses, surrounded by bowing figures presenting their crowns with open arms. Even an illiterate simpleton would have immediately recognized the likeness of Nosferas.
The next tapestry depicted Nosferas' thralls under the cracking whips of the vampire vassals. Men toiled under whips, carting blocks of stone to build their master a massive palace. Various scenes of mastery over enthralled man played over the rest of this tapestry, until the end, when a man could be seen attacking Nosferas with a silver spear. Nosferas broke off the silver speartip with his sword, only for the man to stab the vampire lord in the heart with his broken spear. That assassin, Ulrek knew, was Van: the first vampire hunter. The first man to kill a vampire with a wooden stake to the heart.
On the final tapestry, nearest the throne, man and vampire were depicted fighting once again over Nosferas' bloodied corpse. But one of Nosferas' vampire vassals could be seen fighting alongside the men. In the second scene, the vampire watched over the men as they put Nosferas' other lieutenants to silver swords. And in the final scene of the last tapestry, the lone vampire sat upon a great throne, surrounded by human vassals saluting him with their swords.
King Zachaeus, Ulrek recognized. The vampire who liberated man from their fate as cattle under vampiric tyrants.
His father had commissioned these tapestries to cement this story in the minds of the lives of fleeting humans; to paint himself as a liberator and ally of mankind. In return for the subordination of his mortal allies, King Zachaeus kept the dangerous and powerful vampires at bay and secured a peace between man and vampire. A clever machination, Ulrek could not deny. Vampires made poor vassals - they were powerful, long-lived and difficult to kill. Humans were typically weak and easily slain, and even the dangerous ones could be counted upon to die after six or seven decades at the most. They were ideal subjects.
Was that why his father insisted upon this inheritance challenge? Perhaps, Ulrek surmised, Zachaeus had no intention of ever surrendering his throne, but to offer the populace a marriage alliance of sorts between mortal and vampire to officiate his centuries-long peace. Leave his detestable son Ulrek to rot in his keep up in the Weald while one of his dimmer, more-malleable, and more-likeable sons served as a figurehead ruler for the Lands Under Shadow.
Ulrek would never truly know why his father had begun this strange challenge of his. For as the vampire prince stood before the throne, regarding a great sooty stain on the carpet at the base of the dais, Ulrek felt a sharp pain radiate up his spine.
"NOW!" A voice screamed behind him. "TAKE HIM DOWN!"
Guards armed with crossbows leapt out from hiding spots behind the columns of the throne room. Their crossbows discharged, firing another three crossbow bolts into the Baron. Ulrek was jolted as bolts impacted his body, for the crossbow bolts effortlessly pierced his soft silver armor and embedded themselves deep in his flesh. The volley was over as quickly as it began, and silence resumed over the throne chamber as Ulrek stood deathly still.
The Baron's head slowly tilted down, noting a crossbow bolt buried up to the fletching in his chest, mere inches below his heart. He grasped the shaft and winced as he deftly pulled the arrow out and inspected it. Dripping with dark vampiric blood was a crossbow bolt tipped with a silver bodkin.
"Silver?" Ulrek remarked as he twirled the arrow in his gauntlets. "That
was your last hope at stopping me? Silver arrows?"
"God deliver us, he's not dying!"
As the guards furiously set about cranking their crossbow strings back, Ulrek strode over to the nearest guard with Pthaalma in hand. The guard, seeing the vampire prince approaching with arrows protruding from his body, dropped his crossbow and attempted to unsheath his own sword. His fumbling hand scarcely reached the hilt before Ulrek skewered the guard on his blade. The vampire sauntered over to the next guard. This one had wound up his crossbow and reloaded, but missed when he fired at the approaching vampire. Ulrek swatted the crossbow out of his hand when he reached him and grasped him by the throat, shoving the disarmed guard directly between the vampire and his two companions. Having reloaded as well, they fired their crossbows at Ulrek, but instead shot their fellow guard in the back. Ulrek unceremoniously cast his latest victim aside to tumble to the floor before going after the last two.
The last two guards, knowing they would not be able to reload once again before Ulrek was upon them, valiantly charged the Baron. Valiant, perhaps, but foolish and futile nonetheless. Ulrek stepped out of the way of the lunge of the first guard and then decapitated him with a chop to the neck. The final guard parried Ulrek's initial blow, but was unable to block the second swipe. Pthaalma's razor sharp mithril edge cut through the last guard's chainmail cuirass and cut deeply into his right shoulder. Ulrek flicked the blood from Pthaalma's blade as the final guard wailed and released his sword, falling to the floor to clutch his bleeding flesh wound. The vampire stood above his opponent and studied him for a moment before finally speaking.
"Where is my brother?" Ulrek asked, tapping his sword against the guard's pauldron. "If you tell me the truth, I will make it quick."
The wounded guard looked up at the Baron with a hateful glare, and then returned his dejected gaze to the bleeding gash on the shoulder.
"He's left the castle," the guard confessed. "He and his princess went through a tunnel in the undercroft that empties out at the harbor. Probably on a ship to the Orient now. You've wasted all this life and treasure capturing an empty ruin. Congratulations on your victory, Usurper." Ulrek probed the guard's mind and knew he was telling the truth. The Baron's emotionless, stoic visage suddenly contorted into a furious sneer. The vampire raised his sword and in a rage cleaved through the guard, cutting him cleanly down the torso and embedding the blade two inches down into the polished limestone floor beneath him.
"That coward..." Ulrek snarled through gritted fangs. Ulrek had not come this far nor sacrificed this much to simply exile Edward Bathory. Ulrek would never be satisfied until the entirety of his miserable family had been slain. And now, with Edward and his bride perhaps even now boarding a ship to escape the Lands Under Shadow, Ulrek would likely never get the satisfaction of killing his younger brother. Edward and Emily would likely sail away, take on false names and live the rest of their lives on the balmy shores of the Jade Islands or some other exotic locale.
Perhaps Urlek could take solace in the possibility that the reavers of the septentrional Broken Lands might well intercept Edward's ship. It would have to suffice, perhaps, that the northern pirates could be counted upon to ensure Edward met a grisly demise. Ulrek imagined how the reaver longboats might board his escape vessel, hack his vessel's crew to bit and dump their remains into the waves so as to attract the sharks. Then, surely the northern savages would take their turns with his beloved Emily, from the thanes down to the lowest deckhands until everyone had their fill, so that the last thing Edward saw was his bride being deflowered before being cast overboard amidst bloody waters teeming with ravenous sharks. That would have to suffice.No, decided Ulrek. Revenge shall be mine, and mine alone.
Ulrek unfastened his armor, carelessly shedding his battleworn cuirass and greaves to fall upon the floor with a metallic clang, exposing the undershirt and trousers of black silk beneath his armor. It was a great relief to finally rid himself of the heavy silver plate, but Ulrek did not remove it for his comfort, but out of necessity. The armor would not accommodate him for much longer.
The vampire went over to one of the dying royal guards slumped over the basal pedestal of a column - the one who had taken the two crossbow bolts meant for the Baron - and descended upon him. Though still alive, the guard was to weak to resist as Ulrek removed his helmet and sank his fangs into his neck. The relative silence of the throne room was broken by a sickening slurping and crunching as Ulrek siphoned the guard's lifeblood through his mouth. The color drained from the guard's flesh as Ulrek's belly filled. And as Ulrek's belly swelled, so too did a pair fledgling buds on both of the vampire's scapulae.
Prince Edward, it was rumored, possessed some great strength hidden from the world. But so too did Ulrek. It would be taxing and require positively gluttonous feeding to achieve, but Ulrek - like Edward - could achieve a quasi-demonic form just as their father could. With enough gorging, Ulrek Bathory could sprout batlike wings upon which he could chase Edward across the waves.
Given time, Ulrek would have no problem achieving such power; not with a ruined city filled with corpses to feed upon.