Staring out at the dark coast, Leon immediately understood why it had been strongly recommended that he seek the assistance of the locals: the entire coastline was taken up by rocky hills and black cliffs with a familiar hexagonal pattern that blocked passage from the coast further inland. More than that, the cave that the fishing village’s mayor had directed him to was secreted away in a small cove that pushed into the cliffs. So well hidden was it that Leon doubted he would’ve been able to find it without the mayor’s help, and even if he did, there was still a seventy to eighty-foot cliff blocking his team from the coastline.
“We should’ve gotten the navy to help with this,” one of the knights behind him said, striking a bitter tone.
“Given how uncooperative they’ve been lately, I doubt they would’ve spared even a single transport,” said another.
“I think someone’s coming out of the cave,” the third knight stated, changing the subject.
Below them, they could see a faint light coming from within the cave, and that light was growing brighter by the second. What emerged was a group of young men that had a range of ethnicities rarely seen in the isolated Bull Kingdom. Perhaps half of them appeared fair-skinned enough to be natives, though they still sported healthy tans, while the rest had skin tones dark enough to be obviously foreign. A few appeared to be from the deserts of the Samar Kingdom to the south, while others seemed to be from even sunnier regions.
One thing they all had in common, however, was that they were all mages; none were mortals, which was fairly unusual for unskilled labor work like transferring cargo on and off a ship. The man in charge was obviously one of the Samar men, who was a fourth-tier mage that had a wicked-looking halberd strapped to his back. Leon took special note of that weapon, as it seemed as if the smith that had forged it stuck every spike and unused bits of metal that they could get a hold of onto it until it appeared almost demonic.
“That’s a lot of foreigners,” the first knight stated.
“Well, it’s good to see that at least our criminals are open-minded,” the third knight said while glancing at the first.
“I’m plenty open-minded!” the first knight angrily retorted.
“Sure didn’t seem like it when we-“ the third knight began.
“Enough!” the second knight interrupted. He was the oldest, with a robust fifth-tier aura but hair that had turned almost entirely silver. The second knight turned to Leon and asked, “What’s the plan, Sir?”
“We follow the path that the mayor told us about, and assault that cave,” Leon swiftly answered, but his eyes never left the smugglers getting to work down below. “But, before that, how many archers do we have?”
“Five of the men-at-arms are good enough to trust with a bow and arrow,” the first knight informed.
“The others, I’m afraid, would be more likely to shoot themselves than our opponents if their blades were replaced with bows,” the second knight added with a wry smile.
“Then we have seven archers,” Leon said with a smile as he summoned his magic and called forth his bow and a handful of arrows from his soul realm, while Alix not too far behind him pulled a bow off her shoulder. “Get those archers over here, we’re going to wait and see what they’re doing down there, and then rain some fire down upon them. If they panic and run into their cave, then that’s fine, we’ll deal with them during our assault. If, however, they’re waiting on a galley, then they may try and get away. If that happens, I want you three and your fourth-tier subordinates to jump down there and delay. Everyone else can circle around on that path and get to that cave as fast as they can. Just make sure they know not to attack before we do. In fact, I want you to go with them, to keep them in check. If the fighting hasn’t started once you get into position, then wait for us to make the first move, and then you can flank them when these guys jump down there.”
The second knight nodded, acknowledging Leon’s order without any complaint. In fact, Leon was a little surprised that these knights were so willing to follow him, especially after his experience at Fort 127.
‘Not that I’m complaining,’ he thought to no one in particular. ‘I guess that’s just a perk of being a direct follower of royalty…’
“Let’s get to it,” Leon said, and the knights immediately jumped into action. Most of the men-at-arms behind them didn’t hear their whispered planning, so the knights had to repeat the plan for their benefit. Once that was knocked out, the first and third knights organized three lower-ranked fourth-tier knights to stick with them and the five archers to stand with Leon and Alix. Meanwhile, the second knight took the remaining men-at-arms and ventured off into the wilds; the path down to the coast involved trekking past a pair of hills up on the cliff, then walking down some stone stairs cut into the opposite side of the cove, so Leon and the rest didn’t expect to see them for a little while.
Fortunately, they had some time to wait, and they spent that time silently observing the smugglers down below. For a few minutes, Leon was slightly confused as to the lack of a suitable dock, especially since the beach was entirely made up of ugly jagged rocks that made landing directly on it nearly impossible.
However, as they waited, they saw more smugglers emerge from the cave carrying what Leon could only assume were pieces of a disassembled pier. The smugglers began sliding wooden support pillars down concrete cylinders that had been hidden so well in the beach’s rocks that Leon hadn’t noticed them until then, and once the pillars were in, the wooden platforms quickly slid into place over them. Once it was all said and done, the smugglers assembled a sturdy and permanent-looking pier in less than ten minutes.
“Damn, that’s clever,” the third knight whispered.
“It’s not surprising that they’ve got something like that,” the first knight responded. “I mean, if their network is big enough that they can hire what I’m assuming are foreign mercenaries, then they certainly have the resources for something like this.”
The group didn’t have to wait long for whoever the smugglers were setting up for, as only about five minutes later a small single-sail galley appeared on the horizon. The galley wasn’t that big, perhaps small enough for a person to operate alone if they had to, but it was certainly big enough to carry a significant amount of cargo. What’s more, from what Leon could tell as the galley came closer, it hadn’t any more enchantments than what might be considered crucial—one to prevent the wood it was made of from rotting, another to prevent fires, and another to harden the hull in case of unseen rocks in their way.
The galley clearly wasn’t that expensive, and whoever owned it only put enough money into it for it to do the job.
Another couple of minutes passed as Leon’s group and the smugglers waited for the galley to slide into the dock, at which point the man in charge of the smugglers and the captain of the galley’s small crew met on the pier to exchange a few words. As they spoke, a few more smugglers filed out of the cave carrying a number of crates, bringing the total number of smugglers in the small cove to thirty.
Across the cove, Leon noticed the second knight’s team arrive at the top of the stairs.
“No point in waiting any longer,” Leon said as he readied an arrow and took aim at the Samari in charge. “Aim carefully, we’re not going to get another opportunity like this where they’re all relaxed and vulnerable…”
The other archers around Leon prepared their own arrows. Leon glanced over at Alix, who nodded confidently. She’d been practicing her archery quite a bit over the last year, though she still wasn’t anywhere near Leon’s skill level.
Leon immediately fired his arrow, followed by the other six doing likewise. Leon’s aim was true, and the Samari was struck in the throat and killed instantly. Alix’s arrow also killed her target, a first-tier smuggler, as did the arrow of another archer, while the other four only inflicted light wounds upon the smugglers.
Without missing a beat, Leon fired, again and again, killing two more third-tier smugglers—including the captain of the galley—before anyone could react. But, once they did react, the smugglers began to shout and scatter across the beach to avoid the arrows falling upon them from on high.
“Go!” Leon shouted at the knights at his side, and they leaped down from the cliff. For fourth and fifth-tier mages, a fall of seventy-ish feet wasn’t anything to write home about, and they landed with cat-like grace. Across the cove, the second knight burst out from the narrow stairway, and the two groups caught the smugglers between them. With the arrows from Leon and the others on the cliff, the smugglers were falling left and right.
The battle lasted for all of thirty seconds. These weren’t soldiers or hardened raiders, they were smugglers, and most didn’t even reach the third-tier. As soon as they realized they were being attacked by strong and experienced Legion soldiers, any weapons that had been drawn were instantly dropped, and the rest of the smugglers surrendered.
Leon was slightly taken aback when he saw the smugglers throwing down their weapons and tossing their hands in the air. “Huh…” he muttered. “I wasn’t expecting that…”
“Neither was I,” Alix said quietly. Neither of them had ever fought anyone that had been so willing to surrender so quickly before.
“Hold fire!” Leon ordered, and the archers complied. The knights on the ground were easily taking charge and arresting the smugglers, tying their hands behind their backs and sitting them down with their backs against the cliff. “Let’s get down there,” Leon said, leading Alix, Anzu, and the five archers toward the path. He could’ve jumped down without any difficulty, but that would be leaving the archers without any officers, and since they were all third-tier or weaker, they couldn’t jump down with him; his hands were tied.
The three knights in charge on the ground, fortunately, glanced up at Leon, and he used hand gestures to order them to stay put. They probably would’ve been able to hear him if he spoke loud enough, but there was no guarantee that any smugglers still in the caves wouldn’t be able to do the same. So, the knights busied themselves securing the captured smugglers and the galley.
When Leon arrived down in the cove several minutes later, the situation was in hand.
“Anything on the ship?” Leon asked the second knight, who had been acting as the de facto second in command.
“Nothing, Sir. Looks like it was only here to take cargo away,” the knight replied.
Leon nodded, then walked over to one of the crates that had been brought out of the cave. With almost comical ease, he ripped the top off of the nearest one, revealing several bales of Silverleaf thicker than his waist.
Many of the smugglers at the cliff paled or averted their eyes as Leon turned his helmeted head in their direction.
“Have they said anything?” Leon asked the second knight.
“Nothing useful,” the knight responded.
“Hmm. No matter,” Leon said. “Get ready to storm the cave.”
“Yes, Sir. Should we leave anyone behind to keep an eye on these guys?”
“Grab four, including one of the fourth-tier knights,” Leon answered.
Once that was arranged, the team formed up to assault the cave. It was wide enough for them to advance in a group three wide, so Leon and the remaining two fourth-tier knights formed up to lead the way. Out of curiosity, Leon attempted to project his magic sense into the mouth of the cave, but his magic was immediately scattered at the entrance.
‘They had the wherewithal to set up defensive enchantments…’ he thought, his wariness increasing dramatically after it had been lowered by the smugglers’ quick surrender.
Leon glanced back to make sure the rest of the knights and men-at-arms were ready, and his eyes scanned the captured smugglers again. He almost shouted the order to advance, but he quickly said as a forethought, “If we can capture any more smugglers, then do so. But, if you judge that it’s impossible, then don’t bother.”
The others nodded to him, and Leon trusted in the experience of the older members of the team to keep the younger men-at-arms in line.
“Then let’s do this,” Leon said, relishing every word as he advanced into the darkness of the cave.
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