It was dark; I could not see anything. That should have been expected since it was night time, but the fact that I was covered by a cloth blanket made that darkness even more apparent. I was being smothered— it was difficult to breathe, but not impossible. And yet, I was in this position out of my own volition.
I felt the wooden boat rock as another wave splashed against its side. The crates and barrels shook, but they did not topple. They were fastened firmly onto deck specifically so they would stay— even if they were just there for show. The real cargo in the boat was me.
Or at least, I was one of the ‘goods’ being transported.
There were six others with me. Six of us had been chosen to go on this sabotage mission. We were supposed to infiltrate a warehouse on the southeastern side of the city, gather whatever information we could, and apprehend or kill the supposed Dark Crusaders that were there.
Apparently, the leader of the Elise was a Dark Crusader, yet he was the only ostensible tie between the organization and the powerful group of zealots. Ginah wanted to ensure that the partnership between the two remained as limited as possible.
It made sense: the Dark Crusaders were not very unified despite its large size. This Half Elf named Bahr was probably acting out of his own authority, and was trying now to prove it was now something worth investing more manpower and resources into, to the Infernalis. And since facing the Elise alone was bad enough, them getting the support of this continent wide group would have exacerbated the issue significantly.
As such, we simply had to show the Infernalis that supporting the Elise was not a goal worth pursuing by ruining any of the burgeoning attempts at partnership between them.
I was not happy knowing that the Dark Crusaders— or rather, the Infernalis— were participating in further immoral acts with the weak justification that if furthered their cause; I could not excuse this unlike other of the morally dubious things they did.
It was supposed to be a small meeting, so only a small group of ‘elite’ fighters were chosen to go; I, obviously, knew magic, so I was considered a significant asset to them. And yet, not everyone in this group were fighters.
I glanced over at Lisa, also huddled under the cloth blanket. I could barely make out her figure— it was nothing more than a shadow— yet I knew she was there from when she first came. The young woman was one of the people picked to join us in this mission. And she was with Jack, of course.
Apparently the duo were known to always be together, and we needed their help to get to where we needed. That was why she and Jack were picked to come too. They were both pertinent to us getting to where we needed to be.
Gennady wasn’t joining us— he was not known for his subtlety, nor was he really necessary for this. With the recent rift between me and Lisa, I was left only in the company of strangers. And while I would typically find that uncomfortable, there was someone else I knew on board. Yet, his presence did not reassure me— in fact, it bothered me more than anything. And that was because…
“You know, the last time I entered Luke, a group of five thugs tried to mug me.”
Braz recounted his tale after a drunken night out. My eyes darted over to him, and I gave him a glare. He did not see it, of course, and simply continued.
“You’d think someone as skilled as me would just beat them all up, but I froze up! I gave them all my money, and they took off with it! My intoxicated mind chose flight over fight, when fight was obviously the better option. Can you believe that?”
I took a deep breath, calming myself down; he was finished. All I had to do was nod, and he would be done. Slowly, I brought my head up and down, trying to signal to him that I heard his story, and found it entertaining. He would be satisfied with that—
“Anyways, the next day, I—”
I felt my eyes twitched, and then I had enough. I turned to my companion, and shushed him. “Shush! Can’t you keep it down?”
“Why should we?” Braz asked, a bewildered look plastered onto his face. “It’s not like they can hear us over the wind and the sea. Ignoring the fact that no one is probably nearby. We’ll be fine!”
I could not understand the man’s chipper attitude; he was almost always like this, which I initially thought was an act to get me to lower my guard, but I now knew this was just how he was. He dismissively waved a hand.
“You don’t need to be so on edge all the time, Melas. I’ve done this a hundred times, and I have never been caught!”
I bit my tongue and balled my hand into a fist, both stopping a retort from coming out as well as preventing me from instinctively knocking on wood. Is he serious? I thought stupidly. There was no reason to think that: no one would fool around purposely at a time like this.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry, Braz,” I said simply.
“You’re too uptight,” he replied uncaringly. “But if you insist, I’ll put a lid on it. Anyways, we’re almost there.”
I frowned. How did he know that?
And yet, he was right. I felt the boat jerk as we came to a slow but sudden stop; the boat still rocked back and forth, but it was more stable now. I waited with bated breath as the sound of footfalls on wooden planks approached, and a conversation broke out.
Light shone against the cloth blanket, and I could see the shadow of figures talking just a few feet away from me. The discussion continued on for about a minute, while I felt sweat slowly trickle down the side of my head. I could almost hear the tiny bead of water splattering all over the creaky wood floor, despite knowing that it was my fear getting to my head.
After what felt like forever, the guards left and the light went away. I exhaled deeply, but did it as quietly as possible; it might not have been over just yet. A moment passed, and finally I could relax.
I heard the whisper; it was the signal that we could leave. Along with Jack, Lisa, and Braz, I slowly rolled over the thick cloth blanket covering us amongst the barrels and crates, and we got to our feet.
Blinking to adjust to the light, I glanced around to take in where we were: it was the docks. The same pier that Gennady and I found ourselves in a fight with sailors from The Lightbringer’s Vessel in. Or perhaps they were criminals? They apparently worked for the Elise, so they probably were criminals.
I turned to face the man who had been in charge of bringing us here. Kai and two other pirates from the crew that saw me do magic were the ones that had brought us here. They sailed the relatively tiny wooden vessel here under the guise of small time merchants coming in from a nearby city’s port to sell their wares out of desperation. It had worked, and now we were good to continue with our plan.
I met the brown-green eyes of the Quartermaster as he switched his disguise. He had previously been dressed as a merchant, but now he was donning the cap and vest of a sailor, as he stepped out onto the wooden platform.
“What now?” I asked, hopping onto the pier right behind him.
Kai nodded in the direction of Jack and Lisa. “We’re following them.” He gestured back at the two pirates by his side. “Myself, Vinnie, and Elda are going to pretend to be part of their crew. You and Braz are their bodyguards. They’ll get us to where we need to go, without any questions asked.”
“What exactly am I supposed to do as their bodyguard?” I raised an eyebrow underneath my mask.
Braz patted my lightly on the shoulder as he walked past me.
“Just stand there and look intimidating. It’s easy!”
I rolled my eyes. That’s not exactly going to be easy, I quipped mentally.
I said nothing further, and followed Jack and Lisa as the two led the way.
The two smugglers were well connected in the city of Luke; they had their own network of spies, informants, and allies… up until the Elise came about and alienated them from their contacts. It was not a complete separation.
In the same way that drugs, gambling, and prostitution were ostensibly proscribed in Laxis yet was still prevalent throughout the country— especially Luke— Jack and Lisa still worked with some of their former informants and allies. Sure, it was miniscule compared to those they previously worked with, and sure, it was never for anything big since they had to remain subtle, but they did work together.
And it was with their help we were going to get to the Elise’s warehouse.
Jack and Lisa entered what appeared to be the front door of a liquor store, and I followed behind them walking next to Braz who had a cloth facemask on. The two of us stood closer to the smugglers than Kai and the two fake sailors, since we were their bodyguards-apparent and should be around them at all times.
After speaking to the man at the front of the store, we were ushered down to the cellar with barrels of wine, beer, and other alcohol lined up on either side of the walls. We went past it, up until we found a group of men gathered around some open crates with stacks of crushed leaves poking out the top.
I cocked my head, but did not say anything. That was not the enuim— it was probably some other drug, considering the enuim was not a naturally grown substance. Plus, adding to the fact that Jack, Lisa, and Ginah’s Crew were literally against the Elise because of their selling of the enuim and its dangerous effects, I felt like I could safely assume that whatever this drug was, it was not detrimental to one’s entire life.
Thankfully, I did not need to talk since I was supposed to just act like a bodyguard; a man broke off from his conversation as he saw Lisa approach. He was probably the boss of the group. Spreading his arms wide open, he warmly welcomed the young woman.
“Lisa,” he said, a smile spread across his rough and weary face. “It’s good to see you! I haven’t seen you in almost a month.”
“It has only been two weeks,” she replied, reciprocating his demeanour. “But I’m glad to see you too.”
Jack scowled as the man brought her into a hug; for a moment during their embrace, I could see Lisa’s facade slip as her body tensed, but she was back to normal in an instant.
The man stepped back, giving her a curt nod. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to support you more, but you know how it is with the Elise, right?”
Lisa just waved a hand nonchalantly. “Right, right,” she said, glancing back at us. I took a deep breath, knowing what she had to say next. She turned back to the man. “Well, that won’t be a problem anymore.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Lisa gave him an obviously fake smile. “We were, uh, coerced into joining the Elise.”
And there it was. That was the lie we had concocted when we were planning this; Jack and Lisa were going to twist the truth and pretend that the Elise were successful in recruiting them by force while they were at sea. They would not have let word leak out that they failed in doing so, so we were going to use it to our advantage.
The man paused, as Lisa let him take in the implication of her words slowly Then his brows snapped together, as he clenched his fist. “They forced you to join them? Those bastards!”
The young woman hurriedly put her hand up, trying to calm him down. “It’s fine! They didn’t… hurt us or anything. We just exchanged some… words, and Jack and I decided it was in our best interest to stop being so stubborn and just help them out like everybody else.”
He relaxed slightly, hearing that. “That’s good,” he said, placing an arm around Lisa’s shoulder. She stiffened, but kept quiet once again. “I don’t care about Jack. But as long as you’re fine.”
“And we’ll be fine as long as we have our bodyguards with us. You know—”
“Is that a Goblin?” the man cut her off, glancing at me. He took his arm off Lisa as he frowned, looking me over. “I think that’s a Goblin, right John?”
A man behind him voiced his agreement as he slowly reached for a weapon on his belt. I tensed, but Jack stepped in front of me, putting a hand out.
“So what if she is?” he asked, resting a hand on the hilt of one of his blades.
“We don’t like their kind here,” the man spat back. “The last group of Goblins we met killed Kenny— those bastards. Robbed us of our goods. Why in Hell would you be working with Goblins?”
“If you’ve got a problem with her, that’s too bad for you,” Jack said, voice uncaring. “You’ll just have to deal with it.”
My eyes darted between the two men: it was obvious from the start that neither liked each other. I wasn’t sure of the specifics about their relationship, but it probably had something to do with them being ‘tough men’ in front of a pretty, young woman like Lisa. That meant Jack came to my defense not to defuse the situation, but to agitate the man.
And it appeared that they were both getting dangerously close to starting a fight. Kai looked like he was about to intervene, but held back by the glares coming from the group of men backing up their boss. Taking a deep breath, I opened my mouth to speak.
“I’m with the Elise.” I received a few confused looks from both our guys and their guys, before realizing I stupidly repeated what Lisa had said. I hurriedly added, “Bahr sent for me directly— from the Dark Crusaders.”
Lisa immediately picked up on what I was doing, and followed up on what I said. “That’s right. She’s a Dark Crusader.”
The man hesitated, as his men exchanged a few glances at his back. “So what?” he asked. “That doesn’t change that she’s a Goblin bastard.”
“It means,” Lisa started, wagging a finger, “if you attack her, you’d be making an enemy of not just the Elise, but the Dark Crusaders too.”
He still looked uncertain, although his men had fully backed down at this point. Lisa placed a hand lightly on his shoulder.
“I know you’re tense because of your own personal issues with Goblins, but it’s not worth it. Come on, I need your help and I would be greatly indebted to you if you could do it.”
Finally, that convinced the man; he broke his gaze off from me, and focused on the young woman at his side. “Fine. What do you need?” he asked, giving me one last sidelong glance.
“It’s nothing much. Just a little favor, that’s all,” she said softly. “And it’s not just for me, it’s for the Elise too.”
“The Elise?” He blinked. “What’s going on?”
Lisa put on her best smile— I couldn’t even tell it was a fake smile this time— and began to explain. “Jack and I have a meeting with them tonight. It’s kind of supposed to be a secret meeting, but we need help getting there.”
“A meeting? Wait— you don’t mean…”
“Yes.” She leaned over, placing a finger over his lips and winked. “It’s a secret. But you should have heard rumors about it, right?”
“Uh, of course. We heard about it because it’s taking place in the distillery where we get our best whiskey.” He gestured at large barrels of alcohol all around us. “It’s a profitable business.”
Is that an euphemism? I thought, narrowing my eyes. It almost sounded like one, but why would they need to use code words here? It made no sense, and I was pretty sure he was being truthful with what he was saying. And that meant he was still doing criminal activities while he could live a lavish life doing perfectly legal things.
I felt a sudden surge of disgust as Lisa and the man continued their conversation; I almost wished that I hadn’t managed to stop the fight from breaking out, just so I could have a reason to fight these people.
It was not just the fact that they sold drugs— the drugs could be harmless for all I cared. It was the fact that they obviously partook in other criminal acts as evident by the weapons they carried with them, which made me revile them.
I had to live doing terrible things I never would ever wished to do out of necessity. And yet, these guys were— or perhaps just the man was— doing the exact same things just to get richer? It made me sick.
Lisa and the man finished their discussion as I glared daggers at him from the side.
“…and that’s all you need?” he asked, not noticing the look I was giving him.
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “Just for you to lend us one of your official wagons so we can enter the distillery without a problem or raising suspicion. And maybe some documentation too in case a patrol of city guards stops us and we can’t bribe them to go away.”
He scratched a scar on his cheek. “That won’t be too difficult to arrange. I’ll get my men on it. You just need it for tonight, right?”
“Oh, thank you so much.” Lisa threw her arms around him. “Yes, we just need it for tonight. We’ll return it, I promise.”
“Of course!” He puffed up his chest, and began barking out orders to do just that.
His men scurried around us to get everything prepared as he and Lisa socialized for just a little longer; finally, with everything ready we could leave.
“I’ll see you soon, promise.” Lisa waved her fingers at him as she left.
He just grunted in affirmation. I ignored it, and followed after Lisa and the obviously disgruntled Jack as they left. Braz poked my shoulder as he walked alongside me.
“What’s wrong?” he said, peering into my mask’s eye slits.
I quickly turned away, choosing to stare at the floor instead so he could not get even a glimpse of my face. “I dislike him,” I said slowly.
I expected Braz to prod further into my reason, or even defend the man. But instead, he just shrugged.
An hour later, we arrived at the location. We were let into the distillery without a problem, and found ourselves in a mostly empty storage room full of barrels of whiskey. Jack, Lisa, myself, Braz, and Kai hopped out of the back of the wagon, while the two other pirates with us pulled off their disguises as wagon drivers.
“This is it,” Kai said. “You all know your roles, right?”
I nodded, as did everybody else.
“We don’t expect there to be a large group from either the Elise or the Dark Crusaders. They’re just meeting up to begin their preparations. Nothing serious. However,”— his eyes darted over to me momentarily— “if there are more than we think we can take, or if this is some sort of… ambush, we pull out separately and reconvene in the docks. Got it?”
So he doesn’t trust me, alright.
Ginah might have appeared to trust me, but that seemed in line with her personality. She was the leader who inspired and earned trust— which meant she had to give others trust to do so— while Kai was her adviser who had to screen the people she worked with more thoroughly.
“However, the first thing we have to do is find where this meeting is at,” he continued. “Scour the area. Find them. Meet back here in half an hour. Do not get caught, and stay hidden.”
Lisa just threw Kai a thumbs up, and quickly jumped back into the wagon, putting on the same cap Elda had been wearing when we entered this place. That was her job, after all. She was a noncombatant, so all she could do now was leave and wait for us back at our boat.
Jack snorted at her cheerful departure, but straightened quickly after. Then, with just the six of us left, we all split up into our own groups and began our search.
Sneaking through the shadows, I quietly made my way through the building; I was with Kai, who might have seemed like he was a rather booksmart fellow with no other skills, but was proving to be rather diverse in his repertoire. I had learned how to break into places with Karna, and while this man was not as subtle as a Goblin, he definitely surprised me with how lithe he was able to move.
I was pretty sure he assigned me to be with him so he could keep an eye on me— which was fair. But I was actually glad for this matchup, as I remembered how he fought. He was good. Perhaps not as fast— and definitely not as strong— as Braz. But he worked as a support.
If anything happened to just the two of us, I believed he would be able to aid me better than anyone else in our group would be able to…
That is if he decides helping me is in his best interest.
There were risks to things, and this was one I had to consider significantly: I barely knew the man. He might decide trying to save my life for whatever reason was not worth it, opting to leave me if things even began to look dangerous. I was not sure how high of a chance that had of happening, but I had to be aware and wary of it.
We continued through dark corridors together, although I made to track Kai’s movements carefully just in case. The building was large for a distillery— and that was because it was used for more than just making alcohol. It was a drug den too.
This was where they made the enuim and stored it too. It was extremely large for that reason.
Kai and I found ourselves stepping out onto a catwalk on the second floor of a big open room. There were pot stills with pipes connected to them laid out across the room, and although none of them were currently in use, I still saw something flicker.
Dark figures moved about in the warehouse. It was hard to see for a regular person, but I had spent too much of my time in the shadows and dark places. It was something I had accustomed myself to ever since I was with the Dark Crusaders, and had stuck with me since. So I could see what Kai could not. And what I saw was this:
People— probably Humans— with hoods over their heads tried to quietly funnel into a room across from us. But it was not just them. There were others, and they were more blatant in what they were.
They were Goblins.
My old allies, and my current enemies.
The Dark Crusaders.
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