The Final Campaign of Dracon the First
The following account, dated roughly two thousand years before the rise of Malicent the Dark Witch, has been translated from the older Vampiric dialect for a modern audience. Certain liberties have been taken with text and speech to allow for better accessibility.
There was naught but gravel on the ground, and a stench in the air that might have turned the whole of creation on itself in disgust. Amid the gloom of both the late hour and the exhaust from the fissures in the earth that led to the mines, one could see perhaps ten miles off, perhaps twenty with fairer eyesight. Such conditions were not idyllic, not even ideal, but they were life, and the Vampires that marched behind the lord Dracon had no qualms with them.
Ahead through the fog and steam they could see the outpost, a small fort, four towers rising on the corners of a cubed building. All elegant and deadly curves, spiked with menace. Arranged around it was a small retinue of defenses, some catapults and barricades; it was meant to defend.
Within hours, the forces following Dracon proved it was not meant to stand, and through that noxious gloom the Imperial city of the Vampires could at last be seen.
"Farven and Gresith have made camp within the north and southeast respectively, my lord. Farven claims that his armies are well on their way to readiness; he expects to attack within days."
Dracon stood with a straight back, hands held tightly behind him, staring with gray eyes at the map of the Imperial Vale dominating the table. To the north and south he could see the positions that his allies had occupied; immediately east of his position was the great fortress they were all there to conquer. Beyond the edges of the great earthen bowl the map was marked with several indicators, the places Dracon's additional forces would occupy within a week's time.
"Order Farven to withhold his attack until I command such," he said without emotion.
"Yes, lord. Gresith claims that he has encountered minimal resistance, despite the vulnerability of the castle's southern entrance."
Dracon shook his head; no other part of his body moved. "That is of no concern. Tell Gresith to maintain a steady watch, I do not trust Xerxen to be as incompetent as we would like."
"Yes, lord. As for the palace itself, most of its defenses are as we projected." His lieutenant's hand hovered over the map, a pale finger pointing to several locations on the fortress. "There is a greater concentration of watchtowers here, here, and here than were anticipated, but Xerxen has added no more bombardment towers." The lieutenant looked up, his milky face taut with the focus Dracon had demanded of him since he was recruited almost a year ago in the opening skirmishes of the war. This was not a man that Dracon trusted; there were no men that Dracon trusted. However, he liked the lieutenant, much as he was capable of liking anyone. The man had a tactical temerity and battlefield economy that Dracon could respect.
"Then I want as many siege weapons as can be built at this point," the Vampire lord ordered. "I have no intention of being slowed by watchtowers."
"Yes, lord." The lieutenant bowed low, swept up the maps in a rustle, and motioned sharply for the rest of Dracon's command staff to follow him from the chamber. Dracon himself remained where he was, coldly unmoving, until they had all dispersed. Then he removed his hands from his back, formed them into fists, and placed them solidly on the now bare table, leaning against them, staring without cause into the rivets of the wood.
The fort was cold. All day he had felt its air washing his skin and turning it stiff. Vampiric blood was a thick substance, it was part of what made his species so adverse to light and flame; for him to feel a chill was a small achievement in and of itself. Or perhaps it was not his skin, his blood, or the fort he had assumed command of not twenty-four hours ago.
With an odd reluctance, he looked away from the table and its grooves to an immense map dominating the wall to his right, a crude image of all Vempirus. He walked over lightly and ran a scarred finger over the scratched parchment. It was with incredible recall and a mixture of revulsion and triumph that he could touch any number of images on the map and remember how he had conquered them. The northern wastes, where he had begun his campaign, where he had forced his clan and its rivals to bow to his will and follow him to victory or death. The Triad, a group of viscounties where he had personally defeated three of the greatest Vampire lords and gained the loyalty of two of them. The Vartka Fields in the Imperial south, where he had outmaneuvered and destroyed the greatest armies of the Vampire Empire and secured the path of his domination. And now he lay on the empire's very doorstep, the fortress of the capital city overshadowing him and those he had rallied or enslaved to his cause.
Yet when he moved across the room, from the map to the arched window—when he breathed in sulfurous gases thick enough to choke and pungent enough to turn the stomach of a lesser being, and beheld in the land around the fort the army massing in his name—the crawling chill he felt on his skin was not nearly equal to the chill dissatisfaction produced in his heart.
He reached into a pouch on his belt, withdrew a lone glove, and slid it over his left hand. The leather whined as he clenched it into a fist.
"You are troubled, my lord."
Dracon tensed at the noise, but made no further movement. Nistetha was there, he had forgotten. She emerged from the corner he had bade her occupy until the conference was done; lithely she came to him, the sound of her steps indistinguishable from the rustle of her gown, its hem collecting dust as she closed on him, her face at once curious and challenging. Looking at her, Dracon let his fisted hand rest on the window sill.
"I fear seeing you so distracted, Lord Dracon. What is it? You have reached the city, at last. The Xerxens cannot hold against you. That they attempt is the more ridiculous. What worries you, my master?" She brought a long-nailed hand to the edge of his cheek, and it was there Dracon had enough. He grabbed that hand's wrist, and in a single movement had her by the throat; with two steps they were back to the table, and the hand at her throat pinned her to the wood.
"My clan was among the weakest in the northern viscounties. Do you remember this, Nistetha? I was born into chaos and disorder, the northern clans warring with each other constantly while the viscounts sat on thrones of shaer-rock, laughing at our petty squabbles over power that didn't exist!"
Nistetha's eyes narrowed, but she said nothing, not even as Dracon dragged her, throat and wrist, over to a chair and forced her into it. He came to his knees, still overpowering her.
"I came to our chief, told him my thoughts. From my youth, I had seen the Empire for what it was. Hedonistic, overconfident, relying on the weakness of the wandering clans to keep order. There was no glory in this, no greatness in our people. But my clan chief had me seized and tortured for my insubordination. ‘The Vampire Empire is all that is holy, and by His Will we shall serve it,' he said to me. I killed him not for power, but because he was weak!"
His grip on her throat tightening, Dracon lifted her from the chair. "Our Master did not wish this! An Empire resting on its laurels, pitting its people against each other for the sake of control! We were created to conquer, but the Fairies and other wretches sit contented in their lands while we die slowly!"
"I know this, my lord—"
"Then your eyes are useless!" He released her wrist, and smacked her to the floor. Nistetha spat out blood, her lilac gown stained, and glared at Dracon hungrily as he grabbed her with both hands and forced her face into the map of Vempirus.
"Until this empire is at its zenith once more, until it is unified in mind and body, until it is strong again—!" He threw her to the ground, and Nistetha licked her lips of the blood, her stare still challenging.
Dracon snarled down at her with disgust. "Until we regain our original strength, glorious in the sight of the Master, I will be troubled." He turned his back on her, the left hand in leather clenched once more. "By His Will," he cursed, and without another word stalked toward the door.
Nistetha remained on the floor, smiling in delighted agony, until he called back to her, "Come. You will lay with me." Then she stood and disrobed, and followed the future emperor of the Vampires to his quarters.
In the morning Dracon rode with his command to an overlook in the north. His lizard mount writhed under him , bounding onto the promontory where he could at last see over the foggy exhaust and behold Vempirus City.
His forces were already amassing at the edge of the Imperial Vale, the great earthen bowl that dipped into the land and created a broad ring around the Plateau of Byrdav, an effective waterless moat. Strategically difficult to maneuver, the Imperial Vale drew armies in and did not let them leave easily; from atop Byrdav, the city could bombard with ease. But the Vale was not impassable, the city invulnerable, or Dracon's forces so easily routed.
"How many siege trains?" he asked his lieutenant. The man's shata bounded up next to Dracon's, the powerful lizards serving as a signal of Dracon's intent to rule. His own shata had been taken from the Imperial breeding grounds themselves.
"Nearing a hundred. Our force constitutes roughly half that in ballistae and catapults. Farven has brought up the number of rams available, he claims the northern gates have stronger defenses than we'd initially projected."
The lieutenant rarely hesitated. "Gresith…claims his force can enter from the south immediately, he's devoted little time to construction. More soldiers from his viscounty are arriving this morning."
The squelch of Dracon's leathered hand on the reins of his shata mixed with the dissatisfaction of his growl. "Gresith is to make no such move, under any circumstances. Relay this to him, and ensure he understands."
"Yessir." The lieutenant shouted to his own subordinate, who rushed off with the order. "Permission to speak openly, milord."
"Gresith has ever been the fool. He would have thrown his lot in with the Xerxens at Galjah Plains had you not conquered Farven and Tohmbe first."
"And that is why I conquered Farven and Tohmbe first." Dracon tore his gaze from the black spires of the city, glancing emotionlessly at his lieutenant. "Do not waste my time with information I am already aware of, that is not why you are here."
"Yes, lord. Forgive me."
"You are forgiven."
This man was replaceable, Dracon thought, as replaceable as any other in his armies. His skills, while advanced, were not unique. But his loyalty was unquestioning, and Galjah Plains would not be the last time the lieutenant endangered himself to save Dracon's life.
"How long did you serve the Xerxens?" Dracon asked, rubbing the gray scales of his shata to keep it calm.
"Several years, lord. My family's history is service to the Empire. My eldest known grandfather was serving when the Xerxens assumed the throne. The weakness and virulence of their dynasty can be traced through my lineage. And mine is not the only lineage to be traced." Dracon felt the lieutenant's eyes on his back. "Your vision is magnificent, my lord. Some say those words to you out of fear, or desire for favor. But your vision is magnificent. The Xerxens will never stand against you."
Dracon glared at Vempirus City again, the great ring of its outer wall, lined with defense towers. The spiked buildings that ran backwards and became the great towers of the palace. He breathed in the stench of the mines and once more regarded his lieutenant.
"I told you not to waste my time with information I am already aware of."
The lieutenant straightened in his saddle. Emotion could still be seen on his face, his sheer happiness unfazed. "Yes, lord. Forgive me."
"You are forgiven."
Dracon glanced to Nistetha on her own mount, the scars from their mating vibrant in the muted light of day. She grinned hungrily at him, baring her fangs. She was ready for blood, had intuited it from Dracon's own posture that he was too. She had worn that same expression the first time she'd tried to assassinate him.
How many will you send against me, so that they might learn of your feebleness, Xerxen? How much of my conquest is your doing?
As they came down from the promontory, Dracon could see the eagerness in his woman's eyes. He said, "And what of you, Nistetha? What form will your vengeance take once we have stormed the gates and Xerxen begs at our feet?"
"I am no royal assassin, my lord. And Xerxen lost the allegiance of my guild in his betrayal at the Vartka Fields. I would see him suffer, as any true Vampire would, but I would just as soon see you protected, my lord. That shall be my chief priority."
Dracon allowed her to see his grip tighten on the reins. "Do I need protecting, Nistetha?"
"Of course not, my lord. I need an excuse to be present when you tear Xerxen's pathetic heart from his chest."
Through the noxious gloom of the Imperial Vale, Dracon boomed a laugh.