Lorist walked into the campsite of the mercenaries together with Patt and Reidy.
Stopping his horse, he saw Supervisor Kedan and the two mercenary leaders, Hausky and Jim, heading his way.
The reason Lorist had visited the place was to decide on the location of the construction of the military base near the intersection point of the two mountain ranges so that they can start building it immediately. According to Kedan, the mercenaries have already picked a spot and were waiting for Lorist's agreement.
Upon entering the tent, Hausky brought out a beastskin map to show Lorist where they picked to have the base built. However, the maps the mercenaries used which they made themselves and were rather nonstandard, causing Lorist to take quite a while before he was able to figure out that it depicted the terrain of the mountains.
"Let's go check it out on site," Lorist said.
It took 3 hours of travel on horseback to arrive at the intersection point from Poplar Coast. Unlike the terrain of the opening at Morgan Hills, one of the mountain ranges stretched over the other from the front with the opening sandwiched between the two overlapping sides. Beyond the opening was a small river and a dense forest which stretched all the way into the area of the Magical Dragon Mountains.
The place the mercenaries picked was a cliff which was nearby the small stream. However, Lorist shook his head and revoked that decision entirely and said, "Hausky, did you think that I would pay you mercenaries so much just to have you guard a surveillance outpost all the way here? Did you think your job would be finished after lighting a signal fire upon noticing the barbarians? What I want you to do here is to form the first line of defense. If you detect a small number of barbarians, you should take the initiative to eliminate them, hence the reason for the reward bonus I offered. While the spot you chose is no doubt good for defense, you would lose all ability for the first strike since the barbarians would have run off far away by the time you descend from the cliff."
With a slightly flushed face, Hausky argued, "Milord, our numbers are few and it will definitely be an insurmountable task to defend against large scale barbarian invasions. Surely you wouldn't wish for us to all die over here... If we're up there, even though we wouldn't be able to mobilize that easily after discovering signs of the mountain barbarians, at least we will have a better chance at survival."
Lorist laughed out lightly and said, "Wrong. The true danger only presents itself if you are stationed on top of that cliff. Let me ask you a simple question. Where do you intend to obtain water from up there?"
"Milord, isn't there a small stream not far away from the spot? That was the main factor which prompted me to choose that place in the first place. If we get besieged by the mountain barbarians, we will be able to retrieve water from the stream to hold out longer periods of time..."
"Don't think that your enemies are idiots. Even though the mountain barbarians are savages, that doesn't mean that they can't think. Where would you get your water if they block or redirect the stream?"
Hausky only listened without being able to offer a counter argument.
While they would still be able to tough out a food shortage by killing and feeding on their horses, they wouldn't be able to last more than three days without water. Lorist's point instantly pointed out the fatal flaw in the mercenaries' choice.
"Check out that spot," Lorist said as he pointed at the couple of small hills that were in the distance.
The largest of the hills still seemed to have some signs of habitation from some time ago. Supervisor Kedan explained that for the past hundred or so years, the Norton Family had wanted to build a military base and an alert outpost at the intersection point just like Lorist had wanted so that they would be better prepared to face the barbarian threat. However, they had failed for three times in total and the signs on the largest hill was what was left of one such attempt to set up a base roughly 60 years ago in which only 4 out of the 20-odd family soldiers returned alive.
"Then, we'll pick that spot. It's not more than 80 meters from the stream and it would be quite easy to secure a water source by building a well nearby. Thus, the largest problem is solved," Lorist said as he made his decision.
"Milord, what would we do about the defense then?" asked Hausky whose expression had turned dark after hearing what Kedan told Lorist just moments ago.
"Hehe, don't you worry. I won't have you defending a poorly-built base. I'm prepared to build two towers over here and surround them with a wall roughly 8 meters tall. You also don't have to worry about the manpower and materials required to build it and only have to be in charge of the security during the construction. Within a month, you will have a strongly-fortified base at your disposal," Lorist said.
Even though Hausky wanted to say something else, Jim thumped his chest in a salute and said, "Milord, as long as you build a base here, we will definitely defend it to the best of our ability and not let the barbarians invade your dominion."
After deciding on the location to build the base, everyone took some time off to relax. Lorist was prepared to rest up for 2 hours before returning. As expected, the mercenaries were skilled in surviving in the wilderness as shown by their hunting and fishing prowess. It didn't take long before they returned with quite a huge haul and started grilling food by the stream.
With an impatient expression, Jim dragged Hausky and brought the other mercenaries to Lorist.
Jim said agitatedly, "Milord, I've told them that you managed to defeat Crew Leader Adams with a single move but they didn't believe me and even said that you probably caught him off-guard and exhausted after the long battle he had fought. They also wouldn't believe that you were able to kill so many Feathersoar mercenaries because you aren't even a Silver rank and dared to challenge you to a duel..."
Lorist tossed the chicken bone from his hand and stood up before he laughed and said, "They can believe what they want. Why should I care?"
Hausky stopped Jim from saying anything else and bowed to Lorist before he said, "Milord, please don't fault Jim for this. That happened because he kept praising you for days after his return and nobody else was willing to believe him. Adams was a very formidable and famous mercenary within our circle and his two adopted sons have an even more fearsome reputation than he does as the twin shield-bearers. It's only natural for the rest to find it hard to believe that you have defeated the two of them together in combat according to Jim. That's why, if you don't mind, could you show us lowly mercenaries your swordsmanship that is so highly praised..."
"You guys..." Patt was already enraged and ready to reprimand the mercenaries harshly.
"Patt!" Lorist shouted for him to stop and waved his hand. "Alright, I happen to have extra time on my hands after all. Let's have a duel. Leader Hausky, mercenaries are not lowly at all, I hope you remember that. Back in Morante City, I also worked as a mercenary for around 6 years. How about this? I want you to pick out ten men whom you think have the best swordsmanship to duel with me. It's okay if they are Silver ranks as well."
Under the impression that Lorist would face them off one-by-one, Hausky and the rest of the mercenaries started picking the participants and felt that even if Jim had exaggerated the facts, Lorist must have some sort of ability after all for him to dare to accept the challenge.
Given that they understood the abilities of their comrades well, it did not take long for nine mercenaries to be picked out to stand together with Hausky. The rest of the mercenaries surrounded the group and started betting on how many Lorist could defeat with Jim as the dealer. The rest of the mercenaries who participated in the operation at the construction site alongside Jim had all bet on Lorist's complete victory.
"Reidy, lend me your sword," Lorist said.
Given Reidy's above average strength, Lorist had fashioned a heavy sword for him. As it was only a friendly duel with some of them being Iron ranks who still weren't able to infuse their Battle Force into their weapons, Lorist didn't intend to break their weapons with his more durable swords lest any of them have hard feelings left over after the duel. Using Reidy's heavy sword which was far less durable than his own would prevent any damage to the mercenaries' weapons.
After giving the heavy sword a few swings, Lorist said with a satisfied tone, "Come at me all at once."
"Huh?" The mercenaries were all stunned to find out that Lorist hadn't challenged them to one-on-one duels but instead wanted to fight them all at once.
"Since milord has requested it, we will act accordingly. Everyone, don't get distracted and show milord the best of your abilities lest we disappoint him..." said Hausky while feeling rather pissed. He's underestimating us too much, isn't he? He chose to fight the ten of us all at once and even went out of his way to not use his own weapons... He probably doesn't even consider us to be a threat at all...
As their leader, Hausky took command during this duel. He first sent a few of the mercenaries to test Lorist out so that he would be able to gauge his true abilities to be able to formulate a proper strategy to use against him.
However, with but a few moves, the four mercenaries who were sent to engage with Lorist had all slumped to the ground. It happened so quickly within sheer moments that Hausky wasn't able to clearly see what Lorist did.
Right after that, Lorist rushed over to the six remaining mercenaries and the two in front hurriedly slashed at his silhouette. This time, Hausky managed to get a close look at the scene: Lorist parried the two of their strikes and moved in between the two mercenaries right after that. The mercenary in front fainted and wobbled to the ground after Lorist struck the back of his head with a backhand flick using the flat of his blade.
The mercenary behind suddenly noticed that Lorist was too close for comfort and quickly attempted to retreat backwards to regain some distance. Unexpectedly, after the mercenary stepped a few inches back, the sword which Lorist had previously retracted flashed past the chin of that mercenary, causing him to fall face-first towards the ground unconscious.
Surprised, Hausky thought, that's way too fast! Within moments, six of the ten mercenaries had already collapsed with only four including Hausky still standing. Hausky quickly commanded the Silver rank and the two other Iron ranks to quickly get into a defensive formation to face Lorist's assault head-on.
The formation was diamond-shaped with the two Silver ranks lined up front and back and the two Iron ranks flanking the two of them. If the one at the front of the formation got attacked, he could retreat backwards to allow the two diagonally behind him to flank the attacker and switch places with the one directly behind him and take turns to hold off the enemy. That formation was only normally used when fighting against magical beasts.
But being a human being and not a magical beast, Lorist definitely wouldn't attack only one target at a time. He circled around the formation quickly in an unpredictable manner and lashed out against the two Iron ranked mercenaries instead. As a result, Hausky and the other Silver rank were put in an awkward position of trying to help the Iron ranks defend against the strikes, thus rendering the formation useless. It ended up becoming a battle between Lorist and the three mercenaries with the other one not being able to do anything due to being blocked off by the rest.
As Lorist fought, he started to move to his right faster and faster and one of the Silver ranked mercenaries could no longer hold up against his incessant strikes and took a mistaken step backward, causing the whole formation to reveal a fatal weak spot which Lorist didn't hesitate to budge into.
Sensing that something was off, Hausky intended to strike with his sword but was obstructed by his comrades. The moment he hastily moved aside to get into a better position, he saw the three of his comrades falling to the ground with the only one left standing in front of him being Lorist.
Looking to his left and right, Hausky dropped the sword in his hand and said bitterly, "It's our loss..."
During that duel, Lorist didn't use an ounce of internal energy and relied mainly on footwork and swordsmanship to gain victory. He could have used his internal energy to completely crush the mercenaries head-on, but that would be causing them to lose to much face. Lorist wasn't too keen on hurting their confidence and pride as it was merely a friendly duel and not a life-and-death battle.
After witnessing that amazing battle, the mercenaries who were watching with amazement disbanded. However, Hausky remained and asked, "Milord... I have a question..."
"Go ahead and ask away," Lorist said as he tapped on the rock beside him, signalling for the mercenary leader to sit down.
Without giving it much thought, Hausky took his seat and said, "Milord, I understand that the Norton Family is rather formidable right now and the Kenmays Family really poked their noses in the wrong spot this time. I am really thankful that my crew managed to get out of that hellhole early so that we didn't have to face off against you. What I don't understand is why the formidable Norton Family want to hire a crew like us? I've always been wondering if your true intention is to send us to our deaths..."
"Was that why you picked that spot on the cliff to build the base? Tell me the reason you think the Norton Family is formidable. The reason I decided to hire your crew is precisely because I have nobody else who are better suited for this purpose," Lorist said.
"No other people? That can't be the case. Milord, among the laborers building the town at Poplar Coast, over 200 of them have awakened their Battle Force, not to mention the garrison squad of 200 men which have a few Silver ranks among them as well..." Hausky said agitatedly, obviously doubting what Lorist had just said.
Letting out a bitter laugh, Lorist said, "Leader Hausky, no wonder you suspected me. But didn't you notice how weirdly those men you mentioned behaved towards the Norton Family? I can tell you the real reason, but I need you to promise that you won't spread it around as it's quite embarrassing for the family."
After hearing Lorist explain the nature of the relationship of the Nortons with the people at Wildnorth Town, Hausky seemed to have understood it all. "Mi-milord... I really don't know what to say. I've never heard of anything remotely similar to this situation... Your ancestor was far too gracious and benevolent to those people. It was truly their fortune for having met a dominion lord like him. Conversely, it's precisely because he was a dominion lord like that which allowed a garrison force as audacious as that to be formed."
"I, on the other hand, can understand the intentions of my ancestor for making that concession. Surely you know that the Northlands lack people the most among many other things. Even if they were the lowest dredges of society ranging from thieves, bandits and murderers, they were one of the most precious resources in the Northlands. What my ancestor intended was for them to settle down and lead a stable and peaceful life under his rule while serving the family. That was why he set those favorable conditions. Nobody back then expected a loophole like that to cause a problem that would exacerbate generation after generation into what we have today..." Lorist sighed.
"But I'm sure that with your power, you can wipe out the garrison force of Wildnorth Town, right? Knight Josk can hold off their Silver ranked fighters and we will be able to help out as well..." Hausky said.
"If I rally up all the soldiers of the family and have your cooperation, there's little doubt that I'll be able to wipe the garrison force out. However, I feel that the price of doing so will be too high for us to bear. Don't look at me like that. No matter how strong I am, do you think I can take on more than a thousand people solo? There's also the fact that many people of Wildnorth Town is quite close to some of the members of my family. Many of those living within Maplewoods Bastide have relatives among the residents of Wildnorth Town. I'm worried that a forceful approach would cause even more strife among those within the family. Even though the garrison force is rather impudent, they're still subjects of the Norton Family in name and we can't justify wiping them out if we have no concrete evidence on their treason. That's why I can only endure and cross the bridge when the time comes. I for one can't wait for them to rebel so I can have an excuse to wipe that cancerous tumor once and for all.
"Then, I'm sure that you have a plan in mind, right? I understand. A couple of days ago, a number of youths with awakened Battle Force asked to join our crew to become mercenaries. I was worried that it would cause some conflict so I declined their request," Hausky said.
"It's alright. If they're willing to live the tough lives of mercenaries, you can allow them to join. After a certain amount of time, the family will also pick a number of them to form a new defense unit. Letting them build the military base here is but a test for them..." Lorist said.
"Okay. Thank you, milord. Please be assured that we will definitely stay firmly nailed on this spot to become the first line of defense against the barbarians for the Norton Family," pledged Crew Leader Hausky.