The pre-dawn glow cast the sky a hazy orange, silhouetting the spires and walls of Castle Bathory against the brightening sky. The glow of the coming dawn was enough to obfuscate the fires caused by the chaos that had transpired that evening. From a distance, the Capital appeared surprisingly tranquil. But that tranquility, though it was but a false first impression, was to be shattered. A storm approached.
On the highway running due north of the capital, pebbles in the earthen ruts began to tremble as the very earth began to shake gently. Some time thereafter, came the sound of many tens of thousands of bootfalls stamping upon the ground. For nearly an hour, the sound rose over the hills of the Imperial Heartland until just before dawn, the vanguard of the Baron's army crested the hill. For several months, Ulrek's march upon Castle Bathory was speculated and feared by the House Bathory and those who served it. Now at last, the gathered armies of Ulrek Bathory, one of two remaining Vampire Princes, were within sight of the castle.
Perhaps, at this moment, sentries in the highest spires of Castle Bathory could see the extent of the Baron's army marching toward their walls. They were at least 50,000 strong, the largest army assembled since King Zachaeus had subjugated the Lands Under Shadow a millennium ago. At the front, just now cresting over the ridgeline of the hill north of the city, was a formation of shield-bearing yeomen clad in leather and chainmail. Their slow, heavy march set the pace for the rest of the army trailing a full league behind them. The core of this army was a vast rabble of peasants, flanked on either side by columns of horsed knights riding in loose wedges on either side. A baggage train of covered wagons stretched far to the north, as far as any observer in the watchtowers or spires could see. Among those wagons, one might make out a number of wagons bearing huge, metal objects pulled by numerous oxen. And near the front of the army, the innumerable throngs could be seen parting to make way for a small party of horsemen riding up to the very front of the army. Amidst the bannerbearers and knights and even at a great distance. one figure stood out among the thousands.
Seated upon an ashen gray horse was a being clad in exquisite platemail armor made entirely from silver. A cape of silver silk was draped over his shoulders. His helmet bore a masterfully-crafted facemask of silver; a somber, emotionless visage with gaunt, sunken cheeks. The mask's eyes were open wide, exposing only a two jet-black voids from whence the wearer would see out. Pthaalma rested in a scabbard resting upon his belt. Even as Ulrek rode past his own men, they could scarcely believe their eyes. A vampire wearing silver? How could that be possible? Was their Baron more than just a vampire, but a god? A devil?
Ulrek could hear their thoughts as he rode past. He paid their collective wonder little mind. Let the men think him some sort of demon - that they might be that much less inclined to quail and flee in battle if there was Hell to pay for deserting. Indeed, Ulrek had made grisly examples of those who failed to submit before the entire army to see. Local counts and mayors who remained loyal to Edward and would not name Ulrek as their rightful king, captured scouts, and even serfs who failed to surrender their stored food to Ulrek's foraging parties; they all met the same gruesome fate. With sharp knifes, they were skinned alive before being seated upon sharpened timbers or spears. Impaled through the buttocks and hoisted high above the camp or village, they served to remind any who saw the price of defying the Baron's will. Better to meet a quick demise at the end of a loyalist's sword than risk being added to Ulrek's collection of flayed skins.
The Baron and his mounted retinue came to a halt at the ridgeline. Ulrek raised his palm, signalling for the army to halt. Horn blasts sounded behind him, communicating the order throughout the vast host. He surveyed the city before him. In the center of this sprawling city was his ultimate destination: Castle Bathory. Through those black pits in his helmet, Ulrek stared up at the castle's spires and wondered if his brother might be staring back at him through some window in the citadel.
The first vermillion rays of the sun's light rose over the towers and ramparts of the eastern skyline of the city, casting Ulrek and his army in an orange glow. The sun's golden rays shone magnificently upon Ulrek's silver armor, but there was no indication that the Vampire Prince was experiencing any ill effect from the sunlight. Underneath his armor, the Baron was dressed in thick, black cloth. Nowhere did the sunlight penetrate to his skin. Even the veils over the helmet's eye apertures were sufficient to protect his view. Through squinted eyes, Ulrek watched a red dawn rise above the Capital.
"A red sky in the morning," noted a stubby and corpulent dwarf seated upon a Felmurg pony. Orrin Goutfoot, Dwarven Lord of Muin's Folk, rode up to Ulrek's side, watching as a red-orange sun gradually rose above the city, casting the eastern sky in a red haze. "It's said that a red sky in morning portends a storm."
"How fitting then," said Ulrek, "that a red dawn would herald my arrival."
"In the literal sense, Baron," reminded the dwarven lord, "a storm approaches. If it begins to rain, the firedust will become damp and won't take a spark. These cannons will not fire in the rain."
"Be calm, Lord Goutfoot, we shall fire your cannons upon these walls soon enough. I will wait for the storm to pass before firing upon the walls. For now, you should select firing positions. Allow my army to encircle the city and then go out and select the best vantage points from whence to fire."
"Your majesty," one of Ulrek's knights said, looking over the skyline of the city, "I see smoke. A lot of it."
"What of it?"
"I think something is amiss. Now that the sun has risen, I am seeing a great deal of smoke rising from the city."
"The capital is a large city," Ulrek dismissed. "Being from the Weald, you may not be accustomed to such things. But cities of this size have a great number of people all cooking and burning fuel. There are tanneries and such that produce smoke. It is typical."
"He's right," Kharald Halfbeard agreed, seated atop a stocky drafthorse. "You can't see through those veils in that helmet but I see it too. That much smoke is not typical. It's as if some of your men got inside the city already and started a number of fires. Did you send some spies ahead of us that might be responsible for such a thing?"
"No, I did no such thing, " Ulrek dismissed. "I did not commit any resources to any such-" At that moment, Ulrek thought back to his summoning of the vampire slayers and recalled one among those gathered: a vampire slayer immune to mind probing. He recalled the surprise and the fear he felt when his attempt to listen into that man's mind yielded only silence. The other vampire hunters, Ulrek concluded, were enough to dispatch the weaklings Rory and Matteas. Edward, however, would be too strong for a vampire slayer. They would be useful distractions while he assembled his armies. But Ulrek had not counted on a vampire slayer who could block his mind probe. Such a vampire slayer was dangerous. But perhaps even Ulrek had underestimated the danger he posed. Was it possible that this vampire slayer had beaten him to Edward? If so, Ulrek's quest for revenge would all be for naught. There was no time to waste laying siege to the city now. Ulrek would not allow his overzealous employee to steal his victory."
"Lord Goutfoot, take some of the knights to escort your cannons and position them wherever you see fit. If rain threatens, I will have my men fix tents above the cannons so that they do not get wet. Begin bombarding the walls as soon as you can."
"As you wish!" Orrin declared, wringing his stubby hands together with enthusiasm before turning his pony around to reach the cannon wagons.
"As for the rest of my men, they are to advance toward the walls, just beyond the range of bows to await a breach in the walls. Halfbeard is to position his company to ladder onto the ramparts on either side of any breach."
"Your majesty, with all respect due, this seems rather hasty," one of the knights cautioned. "The Broken Lander reavers have not even reached their harbor. We will not be able to properly besiege the city until they arrive."
"I will not allow justice to be stolen from me," Ulrek declared. "As soon as there is a hole in those walls, the attack begins."