Stunned silence filled the meeting room for several long seconds as all the attendees tried to wrap their brains around what their host had just said. It took them a while. Blacknail was the one who eventually broke the silence by letting out a deep sigh. This was already sounding like a lot of work, and he was probably going to have listen to a lot of dumb human screeching now. So annoying.
“What? How does that make sense?” a noble with a long white beard exclaimed. Based on his plain clothes and stern demeanor, he was probably from the north of Eloria.
“I also must protest. This plan sounds insanely dangerous,” another northern noble agreed.
Lord Lavista frowned coldly. “We have little choice. In order to survive the plague and launch a counter attack against the boggarts, the kingdom of Eloria needs a plentiful supply of silver. Without it, we are lost.”
“Surely, there is some other source available? What about the Homelands?”
The king’s councilor shook his head. “We could not possibly afford to buy so much silver from the empire or the costal free clans. There is also the matter of having it transported here across the sea and half the continent. Besides, this is what our coastal neighbors are already doing, and they will leave us with nothing but scraps if we try to trade with them.”
“But you risk antagonizing the Doom. It destroyed Coroulis with ease and left the greatest city of the North an empty ruin. Nothing could stand against that drake’s dread magic and horrifying strength. It levelled a city with ease.”
Lord Lavista’s frown deepened. “They were caught off guard and didn’t know what they were facing. It was the chaos caused by the drake’s sudden attack during a blizzard and the following panic that destroyed the city as much as the beast itself. The city tore itself from fear and no one could actually mobilize a proper defense. We on the other hand would be sending a small group of dedicated warriors armed with the best weaponry the guilds can design specially for this task. Also, it is possible the beast is no longer in the city. It could have moved back over the Iron Teeth mountains some time over the last few decades, leaving the silver there for the taking. There have been no sightings of Myagnoir for years after all.”
The fat southern noble looked thoughtful. “Perhaps the Doom is long gone, but what if it isn’t? We would be sending the expedition to their deaths unless these new weapons of yours are truly impressive.”
“Yes, what exactly are these guild weapons you mentioned?” another noble asked. “Can they really slay a mutant drake such as the Doom?” Werrick asked with interest. Blacknail could see the cold calculations going on behind his eyes. They were much the same as the ones he was making.
Despite the risks, reclaiming Coroulis would benefit the bandit lords greatly. They were the ones that controlled the territory around it after all, and the Doom was technically a bigger threat to them than anyone else. If a wealth of silver began pouring out of city, there was also no way they wouldn’t end up getting a large cut of the profit. It was unlikely that Blacknail and Werrick would be coming to an agreement to share though. No, the winner would take all. If Werrick could secure the city, then he could use the silver to buy a massive mercenary army and crush Blacknail. However, if the hobgoblin seized the silver, he would become irreplaceable to the southern lords and could strangle Werrick’s support.
“I will let the guild representatives describe the weapons themselves. Please be patient and remember that we are all allies here,” Lord Lavista announced with authority as he gave the two bandit lords meaningful looks. Obviously, the king’s councilor understood what was going through their heads and had plans of his own. Infighting wouldn’t serve his purposes, yet.
Blacknail was distracted from his thoughts as both the mages from the guilds stood up and turned to face everyone else.
“Yes, allow me to explain our work,” the younger mage said. He was dressed in a green robe with silver trim. His older companion in red with gold trim nodded in agreement.
“There are many written accounts of the fall of Coroulis available. Most of which were written by wealthy refugees that survived. Thus, we have a very good idea of the beast’s capabilities and have developed several effective countermeasures to its powers.”
“I find that hard to believe. The incredible might of the Doom is known to everyone. Stories of its power are used to scare children into behaving,” one noble remarked skeptically.
“I remember those stories,” someone else muttered sourly.
The lead mage frowned. “Let me show you.”
He turned and yelled out some quick orders to a pair of servants standing at the back of the room. At his command, they quickly hurried over with some equipment in their arms. One was holding a long spear-like thing, and the other had a large medallion.
“As most of you probably already know, Myagnoir is famous for using ice magic to freeze his enemies and protect himself. Several prominent guild scholars have been studying accounts of these abilities for years and discussing how to deal with them. This was mostly a theoretical exercise, until the king’s council suggested this mission, but that research provided us with a framework we could quickly use to create these.”
“What are they?”
The mage took the medallion from the servant and brandished it for everyone to see. “This is a warming amulet. It uses carefully calibrated mana stones to produce a steady heat effect and will adjust its output in response to sudden drops in temperatures. Thus, it should protect its holder from the brunt of any cold based attacks.”
“That sounds useful, but there’s that ‘should’ word again,” one noble remarked skeptically. Blacknail agreed with him. An amulet like that seemed like flimsy protection from a famously powerful mutant.
“That sounds too simple. This took years of research? Why should we trust in some common warming magic?” Werrick asked. Blacknail frowned at him. What an idiot. Who knew what these mages were capable of? Obviously, these amulets were incredibly powerful.
“These are no simple devices,” the lead mage replied as Blacknail nodded smugly in agreement. “Creating a defensive ward that can automatically adjust to match incoming attacks is very complicated and delicate work. The amulets can also be activated by non-mages, which is something the guilds do not like doing, as you probably already know. If this wasn’t an emergency, we would never have done it.”
“Alright we get it. The amulets are very impressive and will protect people from the Doom’s magic. What does the spear do?”
Putting the medallion down on the table, the mage then held up the thick spear. “These lances are actually much simpler devices. When engaged, internal flame crystals are used to superheat the shaft beyond the hand grips to incredibly high temperatures, without burning the user. That heat should not only allow them to burn through even the thickest scales, but it should also render the Doom’s magical defenses useless.”
“So, you stab the beast with it,” Werrick laughed.
The mage frowned. “It’s a lance, yes.”
Lord Lavista coughed to get everyone’s attention. “The crown is convinced that these weapons will do the job, and the support from the guild does not stop there. The enormity of the situation facing us has convinced them to aid us in other ways. They will be providing the army with as many fully-equipped combat mages as they can as we attempt to halt the boggart’s advance.”
“We recognize the danger that faces us all in this dark time,” the older mage agreed with a nod of head. “The combat mages are the least of our contribution to the cause. All the guilds have opened up their vaults in response to humanity’s plight. Our most advanced devices are being prepared and deployed as we speak. These are weapons the likes of which have never been seen on this continent. Some are capable of blasting entire cities to dust.”
Blacknail perked up. What was this now? Could human mages really do such things? He might have to seriously reconsider how powerful the guilds were and how dangerous the southern kingdoms were to him. Avorlus would be the person to ask about this.
“However, without a supply of silver, we cannot defeat the plague,” “Lord Lavista added. “Thus, three experienced combat mages will also be equipped with the guild’s best flame spells and sent to support the mission to Coroulis.”
Geralhd sighed quietly. “That doesn’t mean much. The guild researchers care very little for combat mages. They’ve always been nothing but disposable pawns to the guilds, who keep the secrets of magic for themselves.”
“The guild masters do have some concerns about sending mages and materials north,” the younger mage said with a frown, as if in agreement with Geralhd’s whispers. “There have been many reports of unlicensed dark mages hiding in the North and producing dangerous faulty mana crystals for unscrupulous buyers that don’t care about the havoc such powers can cause.”
Both Blacknail and Werrick glanced at each other and then looked away as they tried to look as innocent as possible. Both of them employed dark mages to create weapons.
The older mage scowled and glanced at Blacknail. “Even more absurdly, it seems like the rumors of hobgoblin mages are true, and now we hear that the boggarts are also capable of crafting spells and magical tools. This makes letting sophisticated tools be sent North a great risk. They could easily be stolen. There would be catastrophic consequences if a layman attempts to study and reproduce them.”
“And yet a failed expedition would be a far greater loss,” the councilor reminded them sternly.
“As you say,” the older mage admitted reluctantly as his companion and him sat back down.
“I imagine there is a limited amount of the new guild weapons available for the expedition,” Werrick inquired.
The king’s councilor nodded. “There are enough to equip a dozen champions.”
“You expect a dozen men to kill the Doom?” a noble asked in an incredulous tone.
“Sir Masnin, one of the finest paladins and most experienced mutant slayers on the continent will be leading the expedition. He will lead a hand-picked team of veteran warriors to Coroulis, where they will scout the city out and look for the silver. If the expedition runs into the beast – and that may not happen – then his task will be to slay it and secure the silver.”
“Even getting to the ruins will be a long and dangerous journey. Coroulis lays far to the North and the forest has grown dark and wild. Who knows what monsters lurk between here and that lost city. There may even be boggarts.”
“That is where our guest Blacknail’s skills and expertise comes into play. Coroulis lays just beyond his territory and he is the best guide through the Green available. He was born in the wildest forests of the North, trained by the White Raven himself, and has seen every corner of the Green.”
“Um, sure,” Blacknail replied as everyone suddenly focused on him. This was probably a very bad time to mention he’d actually been born in a sewer under a city in the south. Also, the Green was a very big place and he had only seen a very small fraction of it. He had been trained by seater though, and one out of three wasn’t bad.
Catching up, Blacknail cleared his throat and tried speaking more confidently. “Yes, I can lead some people there safely. Leave it to me. I’m the second greatest ranger ever.”
Blacknail then turned to glare at Werrick. “My master Saeter was the only better ranger, and he was actually from Coroulis. But, we can’t get his help, because he’s dead. Werrick killed him. He does that a lot. Kill important people.”
Werrick could only scowl as the hobgoblin berated him in front of the nobles. Many of them were studying him with disapproving looks now.
Ignoring the conflict between the bandit lords, a noble asked a question. “How many men will be going on this quest, exactly? And what do you expect from us?”
“Even if Sir Masnin secures the silver, we will need to transport it south with utmost haste. Towards this end, all the local nobility will need to work together to help secure the route. This of course means that conflict along the border can’t be allowed. Everyone must be working together.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that all petty squabbles must stop. Nothing must be allowed to go wrong.”
“In return for some of the silver?” the fat noble enquired.
There was some grumbling, but most the nobles seemed content with that arrangement. Blacknail glanced at Werrick, who was already looking his way. Was Lord Lavista expecting them to become long-term allies? That wasn’t going to happen. In fact, now was probably the best time for Blacknail to start messing with Werrick and weakening his position. Joy. Holding his tongue had been difficult.
Blacknail turned to Lavista. “Why is Werrick even part of this alliance? I’m going to be your guide, so I get a treaty and Eloria agrees to respect my territory, but why is he here?”
Lord Lavista frowned. “He controls a large part of the North, and several people have told me his cooperation would be necessary.”
“But he’s getting the same reward as me, and I’m doing much more than him. I’m your guide. What’s he doing to earn his pay?”
Red-faced with anger, Werrick turned to glare at a noble. The man flinched and then quickly spoke up. “Leaving the Wolf out our arrangement would throw everything into chaos. It would be a completely unnecessary risk that could doom everything we are trying to do.”
Blacknail scoffed and threw Werrick a confident grin. “He’s just a bandit. We don’t need him. I can handle him if he acts up.”
“My troops will crush your vermin like the pests they are,” Werrick replied.
Blacknail chuckled. “Good luck chasing me through the Green while all your men have the plague. Me and my hobs are all immune.”
“Are you saying you won’t help the expedition?” Lavista asked.
“I’m saying I’m the only one that can guide you to Coroulis, so you’d better pay me properly.”
“If you are immune to plague how can we know you will remain committed to the mission,” the noble that Werrick had glared at countered. It was incredibly obvious that he was working for the Wolf.
“I was fighting the boggarts before you knew what they were, and I much prefer dealing with humans. Also, I’d rather not have hordes of ghouls wandering around. They still attack hobs when the get hungry. I just want to make sure I’m being paid properly for my efforts.”
“I’d also like some of that silver,” Geralhd mumbled. “I’m not immune to the plague.”
“What exactly are you asking for?” Lord Lavista enquired.
“I just think that If I’m doing way more work than Werrick then I should get paid more. Maybe I should get a lot of his territory. That seems fair.”
“Unacceptable. If you try to take what is mine, the only payment you will get is blood,” the Wolf told the hobgoblin.
“Please, none of us can afford conflict. Asking the Wolf to give up land seems untenable. We need his cooperation,” one of Werrick’s not-so-secret allies added.
Blacknail scratched his chin and pretended to look thoughtful for a moment. “Then perhaps he should simply come with us to Coroulis. He is a skilled warrior and a powerful Vessel. He could help us slay the Doom. He should have no problem with that, unless he’s a coward or planning on betraying us.”
The gathered nobles began muttering amongst themselves, but Lord Lavista looked thoughtful. He seemed open to the idea.
“Yes, I think the expedition North would greatly benefit from the addition of a warrior as renown as the Wolf,” the fat southern noble said as he gave Werrick a smirk.
An argument quickly ensued between the various factions of nobles, but the king’s councilor quickly quashed it. “I agree. Blacknail’s suggestion seems reasonable, and we could use the another strong sword arm.”
Werrick was red-faced and fuming now. He gave Blacknail a furious glare. The hobgoblin just smiled back. It definitely seemed like he’d messed up Werrick’s plans. So many things could happen to Werrick during the long trek to Couroulis and back. Yes, that would be much preferable to another head-to-head battle.”
“Very well. I will accompany the expedition north and help retrieve the silver,” Werrick grunted sourly when it had become obvious that he had little choice.
The king’s councilor smiled. “Good, then the most pressing matters seem to have been settled.”
“There are a few more issues that should be discussed,” a southern noble countered. “If you want the roads secured, what about the refugees that are streaming across the border? Something needs to be done about them. They’ve been causing chaos for years.
Another southern noble in green silk nodded. “Indeed, since we are all here, this seems like a good time to discuss how to finally deal with the deserter problem. With the help of the bandit lords, we can end the exodus once and for all, and prevent the deserters and traitors from fleeing their rightful lords and duties.”
Lord Lavista nodded. “Sealing the borders would help us contain the plague and prevent more desertion from the army. We’re going to need to keep control over the common people in the days to come.”
“Consider it done. Denying my roads and villages to refugees would be a simple matter,” Werrick replied.
Next to the hobgoblin, Geralhd made an angry noise, and there was a furious glint in his eyes. He seemed to seriously disapprove of the noble’s stance on the refugees.
Blacknail nodded along with the nobles, but had no intention of doing anything to the refugees, so he gave Geralhd a wink to reassure him. Trying to stop the stream of refugees seemed like a lot of work, and he had a use for them anyway. They could be used for things hobgoblins were terrible at. In fact, he wanted some human servants for his mansion. Most hobgoblins weren’t great at cleaning, and having humans serve him was far more prestigious.
“What a bunch of stuck-up tyrants,” Geralhd whispered. “They believe the common people exist to serve them and that their deaths mean nothing.”
“Er, ya. Bad them,” Blacknail replied. He was doing something completely different from the nobles after all.
It took another hour for the nobles to stop arguing about the little details of their alliance. Blacknail didn’t care about that stuff at all, and Geralhd had to pinch him a few times when he started drifting off.
However, Lord Lavista eventually began explaining the timetable and details of the mission north. The expedition would be about fifty people in total, and both Blacknail and Werrick would be allowed to bring a small group of guards. They would also be leaving in five days, since the mages were still waiting on some equipment to arrive and Sir Masnin wanted everything prepared properly.
That said, Lord Lavista dismissed the meeting, so that everyone could leave or talk among themselves.
Blacknail quickly got to his feet and headed for the door. Sitting for so long had made him antsy, and he had a lot to do. This expedition was a great opportunity and he had to take advantage of it right away. Plans had to be devised and put into motion. There was no time to waste.
However, before Blacknail could leave the room, Werrick intercepted him and his allies. The Wolf had reunited with his own minions, several thugs and one blonde woman in a dress that was lined by grey fur. Blacknail was fairly sure she was the one known as Zelena.
Both sides glared at each other, but no one actually moved to attack, except for Khita. Ralphi had to grab the back of her shirt so that she didn’t start anything.
A forced smile appeared on Werrick’s face as he faced Blacknail. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to set aside old grievances? Our squabble is a distraction now, nothing more. A truce would benefit us both. Despite our mutual bravado, neither of us in any place to seize the other’s territory now. There is much more to be gained from working together.”
Blacknail had to resist the urge to spit on his face and kick him in the groin before biting his nose off. Discipline would be rewarded. Saeter had taught him that.
“We will see how the mission goes. During it, we will have lots of chances to work together,” the hobgoblin replied cryptically as he signaled for his minions to follow him out of the room.
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