On the first day of Year 576, more specifically, that night, Claude was quiet sour. Though he had started the evening intent on looking for his brother and teaching him a lesson, all he got was a fight with Blacksnake and an empty-handed withdrawal. He had, at the very least vented much of his anger during the fight, and his identity had not been discovered.
As for his encounter with Kefnie, it was just a small diversion. He had disguised himself completely, even wearing a mask. He didn't think she would recognize him. The two only had a more engaged meeting during new year's the previous year and had not interacted much since. Her recognizing him was a ridiculous notion. He had never thought himself someone charming enough he would leave a lasting impression on a beauty's mind.
He thus returned home most casually. He didn't even glance at the mess he'd made. It was supposed to have nothing to do with him, after all, best to have nothing to do with it. He'd underestimated how deep Blacksnake's foundation was.
The hall was still full of people. At least 200, probably something closer to 300. Many had been summoned from neighbouring settlements, most dragged right out of their beds. No one had yet to yawn, but none dared complain in front of Bidlir Blanche. He'd just axed one of his lieutenants for yapping the wrong yaps, after all.
A lieutenant near Bidlir stood out of the ground and delivered his report on shaking knees.
"It looks like 35 dead. The 27 people working tonight's shift are all among them. There are... f-fourteen d-dead... and... and two crippled. Eleven are severely wounded and will need many months to heal and recover, a couple might not at all."
"Look after the families, and the crippled as well. Blacksnake does not abandon its own. And rewards for everyone who survived. I am proud that, despite the enemy they faced, not one deserted his post."
"Understood, benevolent Boss," the lieutenant bowed.
Bidlir waved him away.
"Bring them to me."
A couple burly Blacksnakes appeared a few moments later. Their hands were in terrible shapes, fingers pointed in random, unnatural directions; the men who'd brought Claude into the den. The thinner of the two was drooling foamed blood and moaned with an empty mouth.
"I have their testimonies here, Boss. We've confirmed they weren't lying," one of their escorts said, handing over a stack of bound sheets.
Bidlir glanced over the first couple pages, then frowned and waved them away.
"Take very good care of them. Show them what happens to stupid people who make empty promises and then bring this kind of trouble to our doorstep and let it into our house!
"You believe what that man said? Some sailor who's going to buy a house in town? Someone who has money and loves to gamble instead of fooling around with a woman? Someone who tips a whole thale? Fools! What kind of sailor would give such a tip? He's no shop-owning merchant! Not one of you discovered this hole in his story? Hmph!"
The two bloodied sods were dragged away as Bidlir spoke. They were not the first Bidlir had dealt with personally this night, and he doubted they would be the last. The first had been a green lieutenant too eager for recognition. He'd barged into the den and chastised the survivors for not doing their jobs properly. Bidlir turned him into carpaccio.
Now of all times was not the time for in-fighting, and he didn't care whether the fool had been too stupid to realise what predicament they were in, or whether he had been too ambitious to not try to exploit it. There was no place for fools like that in Bidlir's gang.
He turned around and found Hurian behind him. He'd called for the fat old man when he'd arrived. The sod was still rubbing sand out of his eyes.
"I'd say it was a magus. The same one I came across last time. He's even more practiced than he'd been then though," Hurian said between casual yawns, "The wounds last time were made up close. This time he kept his distance. All but three were taken down from range. Last time he also took care to miss the vital spots, but this time he aimed for them deliberately. Last time was likely a fluke encounter and he'd not wanted to get into unnecessary conflict with you, or he'd not decided whether he was interested in making an enemy of you yet. He's clearly made up his mind. He took them all out in one hit, too. He's not just good, he's powerful, too. And it looks like he was gunning for you."
"I know," Bidler snorted angrily, "I apologise for troubling you so late, Master Hurian. Krido, send Master Hurian back and give him the carton of wine I showed you."
Hurians eyes were suddenly fully awake.
"Don't feel bad. We're old friends. It's only natural to help you out here and there. I won't say no to good wine though."
Bidlir stared at his lieutenants when Hurian was gone and rubbed his temples.
"Messen, take Baldie Alaika's place and pick a fresh group of guards for the den, double their numbers. Don't pick cowards either."
"Yes, Boss," Messen answered quickly, "I won't disappoint you."
Bidlir stared at him for a moment, then nodded.
"You better not."
His gaze swept over his lieutenants again, then he pointed at the men behind them.
"But, Boss, are we not going to teach the bastard a lesson?" one of his lieutenants asked.
Bidlir flashed him a furious glance and gave a single sudden step in his direction. The man jumped back in fear, but he was too slow; Bidlir's hand already had his collar.
"And what would you do? Hmm? Where do we find him? Do you know where he lives, or what his name is? And tell me, if you do, how are we supposed to catch him? Did you not see what he did to our finest on a whim tonight? Are you wusses up to the job?"
The hand loosened suddenly and the lieutenant dropped to the floor, right into the yellow puddle he'd made while up in the air.
Bidlir's gaze swept his lieutenants yet again.
"You think I don't want revenge? You think I don't want to tear the bastard limb from limb? I want to cut him into a thousand pieces with a spoon! But I won't send my men on a wild goose chase that will more than likely just be a waste of our time and resources, and will more than likely get us all killed if we somehow actually manage to find him!
"Look at this mess!--" Bidlir's giant arms swung through the room. "--All this, by just one man! One... Man! And he disappeared into thin air once he left the tunnel. Tell me, can any of you do this? Do any of you know anyone else who can?"
His eyes darted from lieutenant to lieutenant as he spoke, and they all withered under his gaze.
"We can't kill a magus with bolts or blades. We need muskets. As many muskets as our men can carry! But, tell me, where do we find the men brave enough, or stupid enough, to walk around with them in public? Hmm? How many of you can legally walk around with one? And who here doesn't know what the constables, nevermind the keepers, do to those they find with muskets that aren't allowed to have them?
"And don't think I'm deaf! I've heard the stupid among you start to criticise me in those oh-so-secret meetings of yours. You think I shouldn't be giving our money to Robert, huh? That I shouldn't be footing the bill for the new garrison? Do you understand why I'm doing it now? We can't get the weapons we need to take out that magus, so we have to find people that can and will do it for us. Or, even better, if we can get some of our own into the garrison, we will have a force, small as it may be, that will have the weapons, and be able to carry them, to take out this bastard. We'll take our time with whoever's related to the f*cker then, understood?"
"Understood, Boss," the lieutenants answered as one.
"Good. Now go do your jobs. Behave for now and don't go looking for trouble. The next couple of days will make or break all my efforts as far as the garrison is concerned. I'm not going to tolerate anyone that puts this in danger of failing! Got it?!"
"Got it, Boss!"
"Then go. And don't let any of you men f*ck this up, either! And keep your ears on the ground. I want to know the moment you hear so much as a rumour about a magus anywhere this side of the prefectural capital!"
The lieutenants scattered like mice freed from a trap and Bidlir wandered up to the first floor. The elegant, middle-aged man Claude had spotted earlier was waiting for him, his guard still at his side.
"It must've been terrifying, Mister Kristoff," Bidlir said, a gentle smile on his face.
The middle-aged man's elegant aura was nowhere to be seen, however. His comportment was that of a scared rabbit.
"Have you found out what the hell that was about?"
Bidlir's smile vanished, replaced by regret.
"No. All we know is that he's a magus. We don't know his age, name, address, or appearance. We only know it's the same man that fought us in the alley a while back. He is very cruel. At least last time he let the men live, this time..." Bidlir's voice trailed off. The blood still soaking the hallway on the floor beneath their was more than enough to finish his sentence for him.
"The first time it appeared like the men just got in his way, but this time he's definitely come for us."
"I-I knew t-t-they would never let me off so easily. I hid in such a backwater and changed my name, but they still found me. Mister Bidlir, I know they're here for me. This magus must be on their payroll. Thank the gods I managed to get out of the tunnel and scatter before he caught up to us. If I hadn't run the moment I saw him use magic I would be one of those corpses now, or worse..."
The man named Kristoff kneaded a handkerchief mercilessly as he spoke, his face a contortion of angst and fear.
"I have a farmstead just outside the prefectural capital. Why not go there for a couple days until we've sorted this business out? Consider it a vacation."
"Yes, that sounds like a good idea!" Kristoff yelped, almost literally jumping at the chance to get away, "I won't forget what you did for me if you can get rid of this magus!"