The incident sent waves through Freia and Nubissia. Claude now knew why Bolonik said it was over for them. Even with Saljorak there to bear the blame, the other generals couldn't shake off responsibility, not even Claude who had been heavily injured by the assassination. At the end of the day, a general and soon-to-be Lord Militant had been killed... a representative of the old nobility in the army no less.
Aueras had been rather unstable internally, with the king in his sickbed and the heir unappointed, which resulted in fierce arguments between the first and second princes. The civilians had also been poor since the last war. Even so, they were still an undeniable powerhouse on Freia. Despite the colonial war with Shiks, they won great respect along with their three victories and were heralded a military superpower.
Yet, now, a general had been killed during a military ceremony right before he received the merit he needed for his promotion. It was utter humiliation for the kingdom, and the assassins were all magi, so no normal soldier could be sent to deal with them.
As long as they could not locate the grey-robed magi, not only would Saljorak have to take most of the blame, even Skri, Bolonik, and the heavily injured Claude, Birkin, Bernard, and even Eiblont in distant Wickhamsburg would be scapegoats. They would also be the target of the old nobility's ire.
"Is there any chance to salvage this? Did we really not capture even a single assassin magi?" Claude asked.
"No. The five magi shot in the plaza were reduced to meat pulp by the soldiers. On your side, there are the corpses of the seven magi," Saljorak said, shaking his head helplessly, "We only locked down the city two hours after the assassination. We've not found a single magi since. We suspect they left Lanu immediately. Only the gods know where they could be now."
Claude felt a headache welling up and asked Angelina to rub his temples.
"In other words, we have no idea where the magi come from."
"No, of this we are well aware," Saljorak answered, "They are the Greytower Magi from Siklos, assassins among the magi. There are countless files on them in the libraries all over Freia. They infiltrate the area near their targets with differing identities and put on grey robes when they carry out their operation. They immediately vanish once its done.
"It's said that among the magi our ancestors drove out of Freia, those who wanted to fight their way back into Freia formed Greytower, the assassin syndicate that carried out this attack. They specialise in killing Freian nobles and generals.
"Our ancestors had various methods of dealing with them, such as temptation, setups, and extermination upon discovery without regard for casualties. Eventually, they were given a fatal blow and they disappeared. This is the first time they've acted in decades.
"We've been fighting them constantly since the magi's fall. Every kingdom has lost at least one high-ranking noble to them. Many have even lost a monarch or two. Every kingdom has some kind of special unit to deal with them. In our case we have the Watch.
"Greytower has been waning, however. Even on Siklos things have been going badly for them. We've been hearing rumours that the island's resources are running out. They can't train enough magi to replace they ones they're losing to old age alone, nevermind acting on Freia. The quality of their agents have been decreasing as a result. It's also taking them longer to train them because of resource shortages.
"They were last seen on Freia sixty years ago when the king of Moloshik and a princess from Lesnia were to be married. Thirty assassins descended on the banquet to kill all the guests. The security were ready for them, however, and they were all killed. We've not had so much as a whiff of their farts on Freia since... not until now.
"We grew suspicious after about twenty years of peace and sent people to Siklos to find out what was going on. They reported that Greytower had given up on the assassination business and had turned their focus on internal Siklosian politics. They'd not changed their rhetoric on Freia, however.
"Despite all the talk, they were very quickly fading away. Their top brass were dying of old age and they couldn't recruit and train enough people to replace them. The latest reports from several years ago had said they'd even lost their influence with the magi council. We'd lowered their threat level as a result. We'd thought they'd disband within another century at most."
Saljorak had done quite a lot of research on the organisation and could even recount their history by mouth. Claude was sceptical.
"Are you certain all the magi are members of Greytower? Not just imposters?"
"We are certain because the robes are identical to those described in the records. They have a unique insignia. Additionally, the material used to make the robes are unique to Siklos. Sigrui linen and silos sheep wool are not available anywhere else."
It was no wonder so many magi showed up in an instant. What Claude still found weird was how weak the magi were compared to how he imagined them to be. If it were only one or two of them, he could survive them for quite some time even without a revolver with only his abilities as a two-ring magus.
"By the way, when I asked the magi why they came to kill me, they said it was because of prize money. Majid III of Shiks offered them 100 thousand gold keptons for my head," he recounted.
Saljorak's expression warped after hearing that. "That's impossible. General Claude, are you certain those magi said that?"
"I am. The grey-robed magi said they would tell me the truth since I was about to die anyway, so they'd let me pass with a clarity. Why are you so panicked?"
He noted that Saljorak's mood instantly changed.
"General Claude, the Greytower Magi would never kill anyone for money or reward. They only target high-ranking officials or those at the top like kings, dukes or anyone who's a threat to the magi on Siklos. They see themselves as noble and lofty magi. Though they use underhanded methods, it's all for the restoration of their magic civilisation. They would never stoop so low as to do it for money. That's also why it's easy to counter them--" Saljorak smiled in resignation. "--If those magi did say that, does that mean we focused on the wrong target? Or are the magi intentionally trying to confuse us by saying so? There's also the possibility that they've changed their core creed and truly became a for-profit syndicate."
Claude looked at Bolonik and Skri.
"Did you report the incident to the capital?"
"We did. General Skri made the report the next day. Something so huge has to be reported immediately and word should reach the royal capital in a week or so. I also rushed to Lanu for a brief investigation and wrote a detailed incident report. The three of us signed that document."
"What of the royal guard?"
"Not good," Skri answered, "Everyone's on edge. Of their high-ranking officers, two are dead and six are injured. More than 300 of their own died during the fight against the magi. I have to admit that they are far fiercer than the troops from our war theatre. The soldiers of 3rd Monolith were completely terrified and turned tail to run immediately.
"The royal guard delegated their tasks magnificently. They bravely blocked the magi's way at the cost of their own lives for the comrades behind them to load their guns and fire. That was how the five magi were held back and killed. 3rd Monolith fell into total chaos and couldn't even do something so basic as maintain discipline.
"Later, when I asked the men, they said they had been trained in group swarm tactics against magi. It was unique to their corps, since they were usually stationed in the royal capital and had to prevent the attacks of evil magi from Siklos. After the incident, many of them began to panic. They feel like coming to Nubissia was a huge mistake. Not only was their general killed, they wasted their trip."
Claude closed his eyes. The rest thought he was tired and prepared to leave, only to be stopped by him.
He turned to Bolonik and said, "Deploy and take the royal guard folk to conquer Port Vebator."
"What?! How can we deploy now? Everyone's still reeling from shock from the assassination, and the royal guard might not obey my orders! Claude, you can't seriously be taking what the magi said as truth, right? They could be messing with you intentionally. The 100-thousand-kepton bounty on you could be a ruse! If you accuse Shiks for doing so, you might end up a laughing stock! Nobody believes that Greytower kills for money!"
Claude shook his head. Bolonik's greatest strength was his dependability. He was staunch as a monolith when it came to defence. However, it was also his greatest weakness. His indecision would cause him to miss out on any opportunities that presented itself on the battlefield.
"We have to take it as fact," Claude resolutely said, "I've thought it over and can't imagine who would send so many magi out to kill the generals in the theatre other than Majid III.
"It's simple. Shiks is the only faction to benefit from this assassination. I would believe it if someone wanted General Aljess dead for a personal vendetta. Perhaps the kingdom or even some in the old nobility don't want him to be promoted to Lord Militant. Even so, I doubt they would hire so many magi to do this.
"On another note, I simply don't understand why they would come for me. While I'm a lieutenant-general of the kingdom, there are more than a hundred of those who bear my rank. I'm also not a corpsman of the main standing corps and am posted far away from the kingdom in Nubissia. I can't even approach the core power structure of the kingdom. Even the corpsmen of the irregular corps there have more say than me and a more extensive network.
"I simply don't even qualify to be a target of such a large-scale assassination conducted by anyone in the kingdom. Even if I personally offended some bigwig, they wouldn't send seven magi to kill me alone. So, I believe the reason the magi gave to be true. I was the one responsible for the downfall of the three Shiksan standing corps. That is why Majid III's willing to pay 100 thousand keptons for my head.
"Additionally, people other than me are also targets. There's General Aljess, General Sevict, and so on. The reason they want us dead is clear: Shiks wants to buy time and keep Port Vebator, since that's what General Aljess' objective is. I believe Shiks knows.
"With him dead, the deployment is done for. All we can do is wait for the capital's final decision. It'll take at least half a year for any decision to be made by communication between two continents, and Shiks would be able to keep their port without worrying about an attack from us.
"With half a year, Majid III might be able to quell the rebellion in the Shiksan heartland and rebuild his armies to be sent to Port Vebator to continue the colonial conflict. Our kingdom would then lose the opportune moment to take the port. If our current state shifts yet again and we end up unable to resist the Shiksan advance and lose more territory, we'd no doubt be blamed for the losses in the colonial wars."
Skri nodded. "Claude's right. We can't let the assassination affect our plans to retake the port. The kingdom needs the colonial wars to end as soon as possible. It can't drag on. We can also use this as a reason to strengthen our troops' morale. We'll say the Shiksans paid a bounty for the lives of a few generals in the war theatre. Since Claude's bounty is 100 thousand keptons, we'll say General Aljess' is 300 thousand. We'll tell them the enemy intends to buy time and delay our attack on Port Vebator.
"Additionally, the royal guard folk came all the way here for merits. While General Aljess has fallen, many of the officers he brought along are descendants from old nobility. I believe they would go along with the attack if we frame it as avenging the general. They'll definitely obey your orders then, as their trip will really have been for naught if they just return like that."