After taking a few dozen steps into the cave, Leon felt like he passed through a thin curtain and the darkness instantly receded.
“Looks like there were more enchantments at the entrance than just those blocking my magic sense…” he muttered.
He tried to project his magic sense again, but once more his magic was instantly scattered as it exited his body.
“I guess we’re doing this the old-fashioned way,” one of the fifth-tier knights behind him said after trying the exact same thing.
The team advanced deeper into the cave, their way lit by cheap yellow magic lanterns and the occasional candle. About two hundred feet in, the tunnel they were walking in opened up into a massive natural cavern with a huge crack in the ceiling, through which moonlight was pouring in. In fact, the light was great enough that Leon and the team wouldn’t specifically need their night vision, though they kept utilizing the technique so the darker corners wouldn’t fade from view.
The floor of the cavern was rough and uneven, being made up of the same trap rocks as the Border Mountains and covered in piles of dirt and dead flora that fell in through the crack in the ceiling, so the height difference between neighboring sections of floor varied greatly. Consequently, the eight single-room wooden huts that the team could see in the cavern were all raised on stilts. Some of these huts had light shining through the cracks between wooden planks, and Leon could hear a number of different voices coming from within.
“Let’s proceed slowly,” he whispered to his team, and he led them onward. They advanced through the cavern, taking advantage of the larger space to spread out and cover more ground.
Once the team approached to within twenty feet of the closest hut, Leon tried one last time to project his magic sense, and to his great surprise, his magic power wasn’t scattered this time. Leon called the group to a halt with a quick hand gesture, then silently told them to spread out as much as they could on the broken ground while he spread his magic sense out as far as he was able to within the cavern.
He managed to squeeze half of the huts within his magic sense’s radius, and he counted about ten more smugglers, plus dozens of crates of what he assumed were more Silverleaf. None of the smugglers seemed to know he and his team were there, as they were lounging around reading, playing cards, or sleeping. The strongest mage he could see was one more fourth-tier mage—a woman who appeared to be a native citizen of the Bull Kingdom.
Before Leon decided what to do next, he carefully examined the ambient magic that permeated the cave. The auras of mages would disturb the magic in the air, so he tried to determine how the magic flowed if there were any more strong smugglers around. Generally speaking, this was an unreliable technique, as there were hundreds and thousands of ways for magic in the environment to be disturbed, but Leon figured he’d give it a try since an almost completely sealed cavern wouldn’t have quite so many factors involved that might alter the way magic in the air moved.
From what he was able to glean, there didn’t seem to be any radical currents of magic that would indicate the presence of strong mages, but that could just mean that any strong mages could be restraining their aura. Regardless, Leon felt confident that he and the other three fifth-tier knights were the strongest mages in the cavern.
But that still left how he was to deal with the smugglers. He could simply order the knights and men-at-arms to storm the huts and kill everyone within, but these were smugglers, not bandits, murderers, or monsters. The more he thought about the problem, the more his thoughts turned back to Trajan’s goal of making the Bull Kingdom safe and secure for everyone, to make it a place that wasn’t prejudiced and was ruled by fair and impartial laws.
Every time Trajan spoke with Leon about these things, he would always phrase it in a way that was, in Leon’s opinion, a little naïve, but it was still rhetoric that was hard to argue against without sounding like an asshole. At the end of the day, Leon believed that Trajan genuinely wanted to make the Bull Kingdom a better and brighter place, and he had agreed to help the Prince do this to the best of his ability, all for the Prince’s support in finding his family’s enemies.
To that end, Leon didn’t think simply charging in and killing the smugglers was the best option. He was even starting to regret attacking the smugglers outside without giving them a chance to surrender first, especially since they had seemed so willing once they saw the odds they faced. These weren’t barbarians intent on raping, burning, and pillaging, and they weren’t monsters that would fight to the bitter end.
After several seconds of thought, Leon decided to give them their chance. None of the smugglers he could see were armored, anyway, so he figured the risk of his decision was worth it if they could end this quickly and without further bloodshed.
So it was that Leon whispered to his team, “Get ready, I’m going to order them to come out here.”
The knights nodded, though a few curious glances were thrown his way.
Leon took a deep breath, and with the feeling that he was making a grave and deadly mistake that made his heart beat like it was trying to break free from his chest, he shouted so the entire cavern could hear, “THE ROYAL LEGIONS HAVE YOU SURROUNDED! COME OUT UNARMED AND WITH YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEADS, OR WE WILL COME IN AND GET YOU!” He backed his words up with some of his magic and let the sound carry a fraction of his prodigious killing intent to the ears of the smugglers, simultaneously signaling to them both his seriousness and his power.
There was a brief silence from the huts, followed by a lot of shouting and moving around. Leon could see the smugglers peeking out through any hole and crack they could find to get a look at the soldiers blocking them off from the exit, and then the telltale sounds of blades being drawn. Leon sighed and summoned his sword, as did the other fifth-tier knights who could see what was happening.
For a moment, Leon thought about ordering the smugglers to come out again when a better thought occurred to him. His voice, even backed with his aura and killing intent, clearly wasn’t enough, so he decided to try something a little showier. He called upon his power, conjuring a dozen small bolts of golden lightning that sprouted from his sword and arced between him and several nearby trap rock pillars and filling the cavern with the booming sound of thunder.
Leon’s thunder echoed throughout the cavern, even shaking the crude huts a little. Once these echoes faded away, silence again descended upon the cavern.
And then, Leon heard the dull sound of metal hitting the wooden floor of one of the huts, followed by several more of the same. He heard a little more arguing, but he couldn’t pick out anything more than, “… paid you to… rrender?” and “… ot dying for… got nothing in this…”
Several seconds later, the doors of several of the huts opened and smugglers began to file out of them with their hands in the air with not a single weapon to be seen. The fourth-tier woman was the last to file out, and the look on her face was certainly not one of acceptance. That being said, when the team rushed forward and the smugglers felt the weight of the auras of four fifth-tier mages, any lingering thoughts of resistance vanished; Leon’s team bound the smugglers’ hands and took them into custody.
“We’ve got them,” the first knight reported to Leon.
“Good. Take three guys and watch over them,” Leon ordered. “Everyone else, check the rest of the cavern, make sure no one else is still here!”
“Yes, Sir!” the others shouted as they spread out among the huts.
Meanwhile, Leon, Alix, and Anzu took a more leisurely pace as they poked around in the first hut. There wasn’t much to find in there, as it was nothing more than a barrack for about fifteen people. The next hut they explored was the same, as was the third.
It was only in the fourth hut that things began to get interesting, as it was clearly the residence for the fourth-tier mages. Unlike the other barracks, this hut had a small but private bathroom with a functioning toilet and shower. Apart from that, there was space for three people to live quite comfortably, though it was clear that only two of the bunks were in use.
Leon quickly began to poke around in the drawers, causing Alix to ask with a slight tone of offense, “What are you doing going through a lady’s things, Sir?”
Leon, with a complete lack of shame, answered, “Looking for any sign of who these people worked for.”
“And how is going through their clothes going to help?”
Leon paused for a moment as he glanced back at Alix. Anzu, meanwhile, was poking around the place himself, though Leon didn’t actually expect the griffin to find anything he’d be interested in.
“About two years ago,” Leon explained, “my father and I participated in a raid on a bandit fort back in the Northern Vales. After we took the fort, we discovered that the men leading them hadn’t sterilized their clothing; we found shirts, tabards, and a bunch of other things emblazoned with the crest of Marquis Grandison, leaving no doubt as to who they served. Grandison sent hundreds of his personal soldiers north to steal, pillage, and enslave, and we know this because we went through the clothes of the bandits we killed.”
Alix nodded in understanding, but her mouth still continued to curve downward in a disapproving frown.
“All right, then, if you feel so strongly about it, then you search this stuff!” Leon said in a mock-offended tone as he stepped aside.
The squire’s frown disappeared and all but dove into the fourth-tier woman’s drawers, causing Leon to think, ‘I guess it was just me going through a woman’s things that she was offended by…’
He shrugged, then moved over and started searching the rest of the barrack.
Unfortunately for them, these people were either not in the direct service of a noble, or they were far smarter than those who Marquis Grandison sent north, as neither Leon nor Alix found anything that would suggest the fourth-tier smugglers were knights in disguise.
With empty hands, Leon, Alix, and Anzu stepped back out into the cavern where the second knight was waiting for them.
“Sir!” the knight called out.
“What is it?” Leon asked.
“We found a couple hundred crates full of contraband. We’re checking them now, but they all seem to be more Silverleaf.”
“Keep it up,” Leon ordered.
Leon glanced over at the captured smugglers, then said to Alix, “Have everyone outside come in. No point in guarding two separate groups when we can consolidate.”
Alix nodded, then took off for the entrance while Leon walked over to the storage huts to inspect what his team had seized.
As the second knight had told him, most of the cargo was Silverleaf, with three of the four storage huts dedicated to the drug precursor. The last hut, however, held something quite a bit different: weapons and armor, for the most part. There were a few crates with luxury goods like glassware and wine in unmarked boxes, but for the most part, there were swords, spears, axes, individual plates, suits of scale and mail, and most egregiously, several hundred Legion shields.
“Arms smuggling?” Leon wondered aloud.
“Indeed, Sir,” the second knight said. What had been found in that last hut was enough for the fifth-tier knight to monitor personally. “We also found a stash of several million silvers and a small office area. We’re seizing every paper we can find.”
“Good. Oh, and send someone back to the Horns and report to His Highness and Dame Minerva. Make sure they know to send reinforcements, there’s too much here for twenty people to deal with on our own.”
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Efflorescence - Kyle J Smith
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