“We’ve got the area under control now, sir,” a tough looking bandit in leather armor carefully explained.
He had short messy brown hair and was standing among the cluster of cabins in the center of Herad’s encampment. There was only one other person nearby, but there was a lot of human activity off in the distance. The occasional cheer or exhilarated laugh rang out as groups of bandits wandered about and celebrated their recent victory.
“We’ve pushed all hostiles out of the perimeter and set up watches,” the man continued. “A few of the Black Snake’s minions managed to flee down the road but there’s nowhere for them to really go. The reserve force you left a few miles back is sealing their only escape route.”
The bandit then saluted and waited for the armored man in front of him to respond. It took a few moments for a response to be forthcoming.
“And those that have surrendered?” Werrick eventually asked after thinking something over.
The bandit chieftain was still dressed as if for battle, although he hadn’t put his helmet back on. There was an unhappy expression on his face. His long brown hair was messy and he took a second to push a lock of it away from his eyes.
“They have been rounded up and await your decision, sir. As per your orders,” his subordinate quickly answered.
“I’m in a foul mood. Let them stew for a while,” Werrick replied. “Things didn’t work out like I’d hoped they would.”
“Sir? It was a perfect victory. We destroyed Herad’s forces and killed her, all while taking acceptable losses,” the man remarked uncomprehendingly.
“Yes, that’s the gods given truth. However, things could have gone better after the battle...” Werrick mused to himself. “I had my eye on recruiting a few more useful pieces.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” the bandit replied carefully.
“Not your fault,” Werrick told him.
The bandit chieftain took a second to look around. There was no longer any smoke rising into the sky or any sounds of fighting. However, most the tents that Herad’s men had set up had been ransacked as their victorious opponents searched for loot. The camp had quickly been gutted and debris of various sorts now littered the ground.
Off in the distance, tall trees surrounded the camp. Their leafy green branches blocked the view in every direction.
“What about those that fled into the forest?” Werrick asked his subordinate as he studied the trees.
“We have squads of scouts and hunters out to pursue them. They’re unlikely to get far but some will probably try to circle back to the road so I thought it important to make sure none of them catch us unaware,” the other man replied.
“Indeed, only the truly desperate would seek safety out there. The wilderness is far more merciless than me, and even if they make it back to civilization all the North is now under my control,” Werrick chuckled.
As he was talking, a cloaked figure stepped out of the shadows and approached him. There was nothing remarkable about the newcomer, except that their features were hidden under a fur hood, but Werrick recognized them and gave them his complete attention.
“You are dismissed,” he told the subordinate he had been talking to.
The man saluted again and hurried away. When he was out of earshot the hooded figure spoke up.
“Lord, I watched the mage as you requested,” they announced in a surprisingly feminine voice. “So far he has done nothing to arouse my suspicion, although the loss of all his papers in that fire was inconvenient. I had hoped to go through his correspondence.”
“I think that fire hurt him far more than it did us, Zelena,” Werrick replied. “It also changes nothing really. We will simply have to be cautious in case he has struck additional bargains with the Broken Wheel behind our backs.”
“I will remain vigilant, my lord,” Zelena replied as she pushed her hood back to reveal her long blond hair and elegant looks.
Her blue eyes gazed down submissively but they still shone with intelligence. Her every movement was calculated and controlled.
“I know you will. It was very reassuring to have you there during the battle. I wouldn’t have wanted to actually put myself under that traitor’s power,” Werrick told her.
“He could not have harmed you. I had defenses ready to neutralize anything he could have cast,” Zelena explained as she held up her hands.
The sleeves of her thick coat slipped down to reveal a pair of delicate looking golden gauntlets. They were exquisitely crafted and fit her petite hands snugly. Symbols ordained the metallic surfaces and large crystals had been set into the palms.
“Oh, I don’t doubt your abilities as a mage bodyguard. Mahedium would never have known what hit him if he had tried to back out on our bargain,” Werrick told her confidently.
“We should kill that man now that we no longer need him,” Zelena replied as she scowled in distaste. “It is dangerous to associate with a dark mage such as him. Nothing good will come of drawing the attention of the guilds. They are ruthless in protecting their secrets.”
“You don’t think his research will be useful?” Werrick asked her. “I would have thought you’d welcome a new source of mana stone.”
“I can buy new ones on the black market or from my connections, and his dealings with the Broken Wheel concern me,” she replied.
“Perhaps, but I also have plans for our renegade alchemist and the magic he can provide us. The mage guilds are a long ways from here and care little about the North,” Werrick countered. “If he betrays us you can kill him, though.”
There was a disapproving scowl on Zelena’s face but she nodded in acceptance. Werrick was amused by her reaction and smiled.
“I will make sure he has no chance to work against you, lord,” she observed with complete confidence. “His understanding of magic is deep but he is a floundering novice when it comes to conspiracy and subtle manoeuvrings.”
“That’s what you said about Herad when you went to Daggerpoint, and we both know how that turned out,” he replied.
“She had resources and allies I did not suspect,” the blonde explained defensively. “How was I to know that...”
“It was not a rebuke, Zelena,” Werrick interrupted her. “I was simply reminding you not to be overconfident. You have already been punished for your failings in Daggerpoint, such as they were.”
“Yes, lord. You are right,” was her immediate reply.
Before they could resume their conversation there was an interruption.
“There you are, Werrick,” Mahedium yelled as he walked over towards the bandit chieftain. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”
“No, I was just about to go look for you, myself,” Werrick replied cheerily.
There was no hint of suspicion or dislike in his voice, and Zelena’s face went carefully blank.
“Hmm, how should I address you?” Mahedium asked uncertainly as he squinted at the bandit chieftain.
“Sir or Werrick is fine. How goes the recovery efforts at your lab?” Werrick asked him.
The mage sighed deeply before replying. He looked deeply frustrated.
“As well as can be expected,” he admitted. “I’ve managed to save most of my equipment but a lot of my notes have been completely destroyed. It will take quite a bit of experimentation to get some of the measurements and details I lost right again.”
“You’ll have that time and also more resources than Herad ever gave you,” Werrick reassured him.
“Yes, I’m very grateful for your patronage,” the mage commented sincerely.
There was a frown on his face though, and Werrick noticed it.
“Is something else bothering you?” he asked the other man.
“Ah, nothing much. It’s just that a... pet of mine disappeared during the fire. I’m somewhat glad it didn’t die, but I find myself concerned about where it ended up,” Mahedium answered.
“I’m sure its enjoying its new-found freedom,” Werrick replied dismissively.
“Hmm, yes. On a related topic, I hear that Blacknail managed to evade capture and is now out in the woods somewhere,” Mahedium remarked with a hint of nervousness.
“The hobgoblin? Yes, it managed to escape. After everything you hit it with I thought it would have been long dead, but it got up and slipped away,” Werrick replied.
“A pity, he was an interesting example of inhuman Elixir binding,” the mage commented. “I would have liked to examine him a few more times.”
“So the bloody beast was really a Vessel!” Werrick remarked in surprise. “I had assumed those rumors were tall tales.”
“I told you that they were not,” Zelena interjected irately. “No natural creature could have done the things it did in Daggerpoint. I was thwarted at every turn by that monstrosity.”
The blonde woman’s face was red with anger and her fists were clenched tightly together. A shiver of rage went through her as she rounded on Mahedium, although her hands remained carefully concealed in her sleeves.
“Were you the one that created that foul thing?” she accused the mage.
“Uh, no... I had nothing to do with that. He was already a Vessel long before I ever met him. In fact, his origins are a bit of a mystery. I deal mostly with mana stones, not Elixirs,” Mahedium replied carefully.
“I think I would have liked to get a closer look at this Blacknail,” Werrick interjected. “I’ve never seen a hobgoblin and if he really was a Vessel than some of the other stories about him might have been true as well.”
As he spoke he took a step forward between the two mages. He clearly wanted to prevent any conflict between them.
“I validated most of those reports myself,” Zelena told her boss.
“Yes, but many of them were still too outlandish to believe, and I judged that you weren’t the most impartial of witnesses at the time,” he replied dispassionately.
“You know I am not one to exaggerate the prowess of my enemies to excuse my failures, lord,” she countered sullenly.
“As you say. However, the men in the reports spoke of him like he was the shadow of death itself, instead of flesh and blood. It was like they thought he was a monster that lived under their beds, just waiting for the right moment to strike,” Werrick explained. “It was difficult to take seriously.”
“Their fear was understandable,” his lieutenant countered. “Even I have never heard of such a creature and it left a trail of bodies in its wake. It hunted down some of my best men and slipped unseen into the strongholds of the allies I recruited.”
“Which is why I would have liked to get a closer look at him,” Werrick replied.
Mahedium frowned and turned to regard the forest off in the distance. The trees swayed slightly as a breeze blew by.
“Be careful of what you ask the gods lest they grant your desire,” he remarked nervously.
“I hardly think one hobgoblin is much of a threat. He will soon run out of Elixir, as well,” Werrick replied.
“Blacknail was dangerous long before he was provided with Elixir. I personally saw him kill a powerful human Vessel without it. Hobgoblins are dangerous predators and they excel in hunting men and women,” Mahedium explained.
“Do you really see him as a credible threat to me,” Werrick asked in disbelief. “What do you think he will do?”
“If Blacknail is truly out there then I have no idea what he is thinking or planning. He may just wander off, never to be seen again,” the mage admitted.
“That would be smart thing for him to do,” Werrick laughed confidently. “One man can’t hope to stand against the forces I have built.”
“He is not a man, and he doesn’t think anything like one,” Mahedium countered. “If he does resurface he won’t come as an enemy or a competitor. We are prey to him, nothing more. The aurochs have both incredible strength and numbers, but that doesn’t save them from the lion’s jaws.”