James, Thomas and the others of the company rode into Kellion's Hold after the battle. Men canvassed the killing fields about the hold's walls, some recovering bolts fired by the hold's artillery and others incinerating corpses let they rise up as worse monsters. Inside the hold, men worked the forges and filled up the infirmary; the smell of smoke mixed with that of charred flesh to become an odor most foul, and waiting at the heart of the hold's central tower stood Warlord Scott and Magister Adrian- both of them displeased.
"Warlord Scott," James said as he led the company into the room, "we are here as requested."
The company filled out behind him, falling into rank and file, with Thomas standing behind James- mirroring the stance that Scott and Adrian took. Both of the elder men looked over the youths with a discerning eye.
"The sorcerer is known to us." Adrian said, "He's known as 'Nim', and he's a potent infernalist. Your account shows that he wasn't interested in battle so much as in breaking through to the interior. Thomas, you in particular did very well."
"Thank you, Magister." Thomas said.
Warlord Scott stepped forward, clapping James on the shoulder, and said "As for you and your men, you performed very well- with discipline that I'd not expect from such untested youths. In that encounter, you quickly understood what had to be done and did it. Well done."
"Thank you, Warlord." James said.
Warlord Scott turned around and waved James over to the nearby map table. Pointing to the hold's position on the map, Scott turned to James and again looked him over.
"This is it, young man." Scott said, "Beyond here, you and your men pass beyond what remains of civilization and enter the barbarian wastelands. We know little about the lands beyond; we're charged with holding the line, not launching campaigns into the wilderness. What we do know is that there are several tribes of mutants, tribes that replenish their numbers quickly, and don't fight often amongst themselves due to the common element amongst them."
"The infernalist cult?" James said.
Scott nodded affirmatively. "Nim knows you and your men now. No doubt that, once you're beyond our reach, your real problems will begin. I don't envy your task."
"So, we can expect hostility from this point forward?"
"Indeed, James. Much more hostility, and not just because you're on their turf. The terrain becomes much harder to pass through, as most of it is undeveloped or ruined; the barbarians and mutants don't work the land or do anything else civilized. These tribes aren't much better than animals."
"That must be why the infernalists dominate them so easily."
* * * * *Magister Adrian led Thomas and the others out of the tower and into a nearby barracks. Detailing a subordinate to see to the men, Adrian then took Thomas up to his private quarters atop the tower.
"The infernalists dominate the mutant tribes through snatching up spawn that aren't likely to match well as adults, but possess cunning and ambition."
"All of them? This 'Nim' doesn't look like one that only a blind idiot could love, sir, and I know of others equally fair of form."
Adrian chuckled, bemused. "Nim is one of the leaders of the cult, he--like me--is part of that generation born before the Azure Flames. The others, by and large, in the leadership are just as old; most are just as fair, or better. The rest are all like those mutants you saw with your eyes."
"Their master is our target." Thomas said, "He's the master of Silvertop, and we're for his location."
"So the Warlord and I hear." Adrian said, "You will find their magics to be horrific in effect, and their capacity to summon demons is infamous amongst us on the frontier; I'd imagine that they would be more dangerous if they got past us."
"I have reason to believe that they have, but so far failed to do more than that, due to circumstances beyond their control- and barely within ours. This cult's been after us since we started expanding outside the citadel walls of the White Tower, and this mission is an attempt to head off a major offensive on their part."
Adrian's face showed his interest. "Go on."
"The Archmage sought this man for years, yet all this time our enemy organized and ran the very barbarians and mutants that we've spent blood and treasure to expel from the lands we now hold and use. We've pushed him and his minions out of the fertile lands about the White Tower, and now he's forced to raid us from the mountains. I'd expect that, if the enemy is at all intelligent, he would foresee this eventuality and plan accordingly."
Adrian nodded, understanding where Thomas went with this logic.
* * * * *"You think that this is a trap?" Scott said, "What then do you intend to do?"
James smiled. "Go forth, of course."
"This is not a thing to take lightly, youth."
James kept smiling. "I do not make light of this, sir. I fully intend to go forth, but knowing that there is a trap waiting for us shall allow us to avoid it and take initiative from the enemy. Torquil is an excellent scout, and properly channeled Cavil is devastating; the other men are competent and well-ordered, as you noted, so I place full confidence in them come battle."
"I trust him utterly, sir."
Scott saw in James face that this was not all at the youth's disposal, but let it go- he'd been around long enough to know better than to ask. He would learn the full truth soon enough, one way or another, and that was enough.