Chapter 39 - Slaver Camp
This has to be a joke. Why now, after all this time?
Ever since I received those error messages from the [World System], there isn’t a single day I haven’t checked the location of the unknown object with the [Map]. There wasn’t much I could do from a distance, and I pretty much had zero information about it, but the [Map] at least allowed me to ease my mind by letting me know that it was inactive. And it is exactly because I checked its location every day that I can tell it moved.
The unknown object wasn’t exactly on the move, or at least, at the map’s scale, it didn’t seem to be in motion. But it definitely moved from its original location.
Crap. I thought it was inactive, why did it relocate now?
It’s not like I had planned to ignore this matter forever -I did receive a warning message from the [World System] after all, it wouldn’t have been wise to turn a blind eye to it. But I had hoped it could have waited until I settled the matter with my uncle, and since it seemed inactive, I thought it wasn’t urgent.
But now, it moved. What changed?
Maybe it’s alive. Maybe it stayed dormant for all this time, and suddenly woke up for whatever reason. But the [World System] described it as an object, and I’m pretty sure it can make the difference between a living organism and an inanimate item. But then, if it’s not alive and it’s moving around, it means someone is moving it. And that is not good. Because it means there is a risk that someone will activate my little virus.
I definitely need to take action about this, but at the same time, I can’t leave, not now. Should I just send someone else? It would be quite convenient if I could… but who? It would need to be someone both capable and trustworthy.
Thinking about this, my eyes fell upon the sleeping fox on me, letting out a long yawn, seemingly unbothered by the rhythmical shocks of the unicorns’ hooves on the ground.
…Nah. Don’t even think about it, Lynett. It’s a fox. What can a fox do? Besides, you don't even know her that well yet. The [Contract] may prevent her from turning her back on me, but that doesn’t necessarily make her trustworthy.
What’s more, this is a potential world threat we’re talking about. I can’t entrust such an important matter to a spirit. She may be stronger than most mortals, she is not invincible either. I would need someone at least at a god’s level to deal with that. And as it happens, I do know such people. But one left on a whim, and the other is keeping a close watch on my mother. As for the rest… I haven’t gotten in touch with them yet, but even if I do, they won’t necessarily be on my side.
Yep. That’s a dead-end. Fuck.
“Big sister…” Axis’ voice brought me back to the present moment.
I couldn’t see the boy’s face, but his tone sounded worried.
“What are you going to do once we get there?” he asked.
I frowned at his question.
“What do you mean?” I inquired. “I’m going to help your parents, isn’t that what you wanted?”
“It is, but…” his voice grew weaker, hesitant, “how?”
How? I didn’t really think about it. I must say I’ve been distracted by another problem. I casted my eyes up in the sky, pondering.
“Well, I’ll figure it out on-site,” I eventually concluded.
Unsatisfied by my answer, the boy turned around to give me a weird look.
“You don’t have a plan?!” he sputtered.
“I plan things as I go along.”
Axis’ eyes twitched just before he turned back, facing the road, as he probably didn’t want me to read his expression. I can imagine how frustrating my answer can be. His parent’s lives are on the line, so going there without a plan is just reckless. Yet, I’m his best shot, so he can’t bring himself to show me his disappointment.
I’m not particularly worried, though. Or maybe I am. We’re talking about people playing with human lives as a living here, after all. I’ve never dealt with this kind of person before. My aunt may be violent, thoughtless and selfish, at least she’s… she’s… Nevermind, I can’t think of any redeemable qualities for her. They’re probably the same kind of people. Still, I probably should think up a plan. This isn’t just about me, after all.
Alright. For now, let’s forget about the unknown object. I’ll deal with it as soon as I’m done with this, but until then, I need to focus on the present matter.
This is the total time it took us to reach the capital. A record time, indeed.
Going on a journey on a horse has always been on my bucket list, and now that I’ve done it, I can confidently say that I’m not looking forward to doing it again.
The first three hours were somewhat bearable. The unicorn kept a steady speed, seemingly unbothered by the occasional changes of terrain. Whether it was steep, flat, rocky or muddy, it seemed to keep a firm footing while I seized the moment, enjoying the ever-changing scenery. However, after a couple of hours, the magic faded. I quickly learned to relax my tense body and counterbalance myself with air magic instead of just clenching and gripping the unicorn, but the ride still became uncomfortable. My butt was sore, my arms were stiff, and I could feel the cramps coming. Nobody told me that riding a horse could cause body aches. Isn’t the horse supposed to do all the work? Why is it so physical? However, the unpleasant experience was finally reaching its end.
I woke up Axis who fell asleep during the journey. Exhausted, both emotionally and physically, I allowed him to lean on me to rest as the unicorn continued on its course. I am still amazed by how he managed to sleep in those conditions.
“We’re here,” I gently taped the boy’s shoulder.
Axis opened his eyes, slowly regaining his senses as he stretched his back. Without waiting another second, I got down from the unicorn with Cotton on my shoulder.
The unicorn hadn’t stopped directly at the gate of the capital, but the city was in sight. By foot, it would take us less than a quarter hour to reach it.
“Where are we?” Axis asked a little confused as he couldn’t immediately recognize his surroundings.
“The enchanted forest,” I replied, helping him down. We were in the forest where I first met Yoko. “The one beside Eskor.”
“Already?” Axis exclaimed, finally spotting the city from afar.
Leaving the magical beast behind, we finished the rest of the journey on foot. It didn’t take us long to reach the main road. It was evening already, yet, the main road was still busy with people trying to get in and out of the capital. Most of them were merchants, but a few seemed to be travelers, like us. We easily blended into the crowd whereas a couple of eyebrows were raised at the sight of Cotton. While her presence attracted curious gazes, it wasn’t surprising enough to disturb the peace. I’m starting to think that people have no idea what a fox spirit is.
Finally reaching the gates, we joined the end of the queue and waited for our turn to come.
“It’s alright,” I told the boy at my side, who was growing visibly nervous.
For now, we need to locate Axis’ parents. As I was thinking this, I noticed the golden plate on the carriage in front of us. On it, the name of a famous merchant guild was inscribed, and with a few mercenaries obviously hired to guard it, the carriage clearly belonged to a wealthy trader, used to do business in the area. Seemingly representing no threat, the mercenaries deemed it unnecessary to stop me as I approached the front of the carriage. There, a middle aged man was seated, hunched over a box, whip and reins in his hands.
“Hello?” I tried to get his attention.
The grumpy merchant sighed when he saw me.
“What do you want, kid?” he complained. “If you want to cut the queue, forget it. Get in line, like everyone else.”
His expression was of frustration and fatigue. Like most people here, waiting had made him irritable. However, the second I took out a golden coin from the pouch I didn’t forget to bring, his worn-down face illuminated with interest.
“I would like to buy something,” I said.
“But of course, of course!” the merchant quickly got down from his seat.
Realizing that I was a client, he immediately recovered his professionalism. There was no longer any trace of fatigue on his face as he promptly guided me to the back of his carriage to show off his goods.
“I have the best merchandise in the city,” he asserted with a confident smile, “fabrics, materials, weapons, food, you name it! I have everything in there. Do you have something on your mind, young lady?”
His carriage was indeed full of bric-a-brac. However, there was nothing in there I needed. I only wanted his knowledge of the current market.
“How much for this?” I pointed at a random garment.
“You have a sharp eye, young lady,” the merchant complimented. “This is one of the finest cloaks you’ll find in the whole kingdom! The wool is from mountain sheeps, it has been spinned and weaved with the greatest care. But it isn’t too warm, either, being just perfect for everyday use. It will fit you perfectly!”
“How much?” I repeated, not very interested in his speech.
A bright smile spread across the merchant’s lips.
“Two gold coins,” he responded.
That’s quite expensive for a cloak, but if it can make him more open to discussion…
“I’ll take it,” I declared, “I’ll also take the one beside it.”
“This one is made of cotton yarn. How about four silver coins?”
“Wonderful! You won’t regret your purchases, young lady.”
The merchant unloaded his carriage of the two goods as I handed him the money due. I put on my newly bought cloak, allowing Cotton to hide in it, and gave the second one to Axis.
“Here, take it,” I said, “this one’s for you.”
“F-For me?” the boy repeated, taken aback by my sudden gift.
“Yes, take it before I change my mind.”
Without being asked twice, Axis grabbed the cloak. He let his finger run along the textile, enjoying the softness of the cloak, as his eyes sparkled. It wasn’t even of such a high quality, yet, he seemed delighted about it. I guess I did well buying that for him. As the boy happily put on his cloak, I returned my attention to the merchant. A satisfied smile on his face, he was counting the coins I just gave him.
“Can I ask you something?” I inquired.
“Of course, anything!” the merchant turned to me with a friendly expression, putting away the money.
“My little brother and I are traveling to the south,” I randomly made up a story, “but I’m worried the roads aren’t safe.”
“Only the two of you?” the merchant widened his eyes. “Of course it’s not safe! Such young children shouldn’t be traveling alone! Forget about the wild beasts, you could come across bandits! Those lawless scum are merciless even with children!”
I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes to appear as worried as possible.
“Do you know where we can find someone to protect us? We had a bad previous experience with mercenaries and adventurers. They ran away with some of our money so we don’t really trust them anymore.”
The merchant brought his hand to his chin.
“I see,” he muttered, “it’s true that they could easily take advantage of children like you. They are not always very trustworthy…”
The merchant definitely noticed the sullen glares of the mercenaries at his side, whom he just indirectly insulted, but he didn’t pay them any attention.
“How about joining someone else for the journey?” he proposed. “It’s always safer than traveling alone.”
I shook my head.
“We’re going to a very secluded village, no one else is going there.”
“Is that so…”
The merchant fell silent. His gaze lost somewhere on the ground, he stayed still for a few moments, pondering, before an idea finally crossed his mind.
“Then how about slaves?”
There it is.
“Slaves would never betray you,” he continued, “they’ll protect you with their lives, and if needed, you can always abandon them and run away.”
It felt almost unreal how easily he talked about human lives being disposable. But in a country where slavery has been implemented for millennium it was inevitable that he had different values.
“Young lady, you seem wealthy enough to afford a couple of slaves. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to buy a beastman. With that, your security is assured!”
“That sounds like a good idea,” I acknowledged, “where can I buy some slaves?”
“You’ll have to wait for a few days,” the merchant explained, scratching his head, “our slave traders are currently out of town.”
At that moment, Axis’ face collapsed. His eyes left the precious cloak on his shoulders to lay on the merchant.
“They left?!” he cried out in surprise, “but they were here just yesterday!”
“Yes, well they left this morning,” the merchant casually explained.
“Where to?” I asked, as the boy directed his panicked eyes on me. It didn’t seem logical for the only slave traders of the area to abandon the city.
“Where else? Their camp, obviously.”
“Their camp?” I repeated.
The merchant nodded.
“Yes, they do that once in while, as the supply of slaves isn’t continuous,” he confirmed. “I heard their recent raid was successful, so once they return, there’ll probably be a whole new stock of slaves for sale.”
“There should still be a few slaves left in the market though, if you’re in a hurry,” the merchant continued. “But at this point, it’s probably only children and elderly, so if you want a strong slave to accompany you for your journey, I suggest that you wait for the restocking.”
That’s definitely not an option.
“And where is their camp?” I asked.
“A little further in the north, beyond the pine forest and just before the Gray Hills. Quite a secluded area to-” the merchant started before suddenly stopping, realizing something. He marked a pause and directed his squinted eyes on me. “You’re not planning to go there, are you?”
“Of course not!” I denied. “Thank you for your help, mister.”
I took Axis’s hand, immediately pulling him out of his thoughts, and left the waiting line, heading to the forest. There was no need for us to enter the town anymore.
“Where are you going?” the confused merchant inquired. “If you leave, you’ll have to queue up all over again.”
“It’s okay,” I told him, “since we’ll be staying here for a few days, my brother and I will collect a few mushrooms in the forest to sell. We’ll return before nightfall.”
Not entirely convinced by my explanation, the merchant raised an eyebrow. Collecting herbs was the task of young adventurers and considering the amount of money I had, there was no need for us to do that. Still, he didn’t try to stop us. Unrelated to us, he had no reason to.
“Where are we going?” Axis finally asked as we left the main road, sinking into the pine forest. “You’re not serious about collecting mushrooms, are you?”
“Of course not,” I smirked, “we’re going to the slavers’ camp.”
The boy widened his eyes.
“You said that those slavers were using your mom as a means to extort money from your dad, right? So I doubt they just sold her off,” I explained. “And your dad was captured recently. Your parents are most likely both there.”
“But, even if they are… it’s probably well-guarded, isn’t it?” he worried.
“You… still don’t have a plan, do you?”
I gave the boy a meaningful smile. Axis blinked at me several times.
“M-Maybe it’s better to wait for them to return to the city!” he suggested. “Then, we can sneak them out or something and-”
“Axis,” I called out, “we don’t have time, it’s now or never. There is no telling if your parents will be among the next restocking of slaves, and even if they are, just because they are in the city, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easier to save them. On the contrary, we’re taking the risk of having the authorities getting involved.”
The boy ground his teeth, unable to find anything to retort.
“Don’t worry,” I continued, “we’ll save them. I promise.”
One hour. One more hour to reach our destination.
The pine forest wasn’t small enough to be crossed on foot, so much to my dismay, we had to return to the unicorn to reach the slavers’ camp. Fortunately, the journey was much shorter than before, so the discomfort didn’t last long. Following the merchant’s directions, the magical beast stopped on a small hill, just a few hundred meters away from the camp. Up there, hidden in the vast vegetation, we could clearly see everything.
The camp wasn’t nearly as small as I imagined it to be. It was far, far bigger than that. How many tents were there? Three hundred? Four hundred? It looked more like a camping site for an army than a simple slaver camp. I expected a few dozens of slavers, terrorizing maybe twenty, fifty slaves at most. But there clearly wasn’t just fifty slaves. There were thousands of them, all untied, uncuffed, but all wearing the same locking steel collar, preventing them from running away.
Shit. And here I was thinking that I just needed to charge in, get rid of the slavers and free Axis’ parents. Among all these people, it’s already hard enough to spot the slavers, so how am I supposed to find his parents? It’s as bad as finding Wally. I guess it’s going to be a little more complicated than I initially thought…
“Cotton,” I called out.
Cottontail immediately jumped out of my cloak, landing right in front of me as she looked up at me with expectant eyes.
“Can you transform?” I asked.
The little fox nodded. Light erupting from her body, Cotton changed back to a human.
I turned to Axis. The boy was frozen in terror at the sight of the camp. He too, probably imagined that it would be smaller. But now that he could see it with his own eyes, he understood that it was a suicide mission. There would be at least a hundred slavers here, supervising the camp. If we wanted to free his parents, we would have to defeat them all. We might even have to face all those slaves, who had no choice but to obey them. And that, for only the three of us, was impossible. At least, that is what he thought.
“Axis,” I brought him back to reality, “I’m going down there with Cotton. You stay here.”
“What?! Why? What are you going to do?”
“First, I’m going to locate your parents.”
The boy furrowed.
“How? The moment you approach, they’ll attack you!” he exclaimed, his eyes tight and worried.
“Axis,” I called, “what do you think of me?”
“Huh?” The boy tilted his head, wincing at my random comment.
“How do I look?” I clarified my question.
“You look… pretty?” he hesitated.
“And? What else do you notice when you see me?”
“Ummh… Your eyes. They’re golden.”
I directed my gaze to Cotton.
“What about her?” I asked.
“She’s also pretty,” Axis noted, “she’s a cool-looking demi-human with two tails.”
“Right?” I smirked.
The boy frowned even further, still not understanding my point.
“What do you think our value is to slave traders?” I continued.
Axis raised his eyes, pondering.
“I guess you would be pretty valuable?”
“So what do you think is going to happen if they find us, Cotton and I, all alone and helpless in the middle of nowhere?”
Finally understanding where I was coming from, his eyes enlightened.
“They’re going to capture you!”
But Axis didn’t approve of that plan.
“You’re going to let them capture you?!”
“Axis, if we want to locate your parents, we need to infiltrate that camp,” I explained. “And the best way to do that is to let ourselves be captured.”
“But they’re going to enslave you!” he opposed. “They’re going to put that slave collar on you and you won’t be able to go against them anymore!”
“It’s alright, I have a plan.”
The boy frowned, not entirely convinced.
Not really. It’s just an assumption, but it’s a relatively safe one. Cotton is a spirit. As a spirit, she can’t be bound by a simple collar. And even if she could, as my familiar, as long as our [Contract] is effective, she can’t enter another contract, not even a slave-master one, so she should be safe. As for me, well… I’d like to see them try. It’s certainly not a magical item that will bind my will. My [Authority level] is way too high for that.
“I want to come with you!” Axis demanded.
“No,” I flatly refused, “you’re staying here.”
“Why? I can help!”
“You can’t. You’ll be in the way. Besides, they might not even want to capture you,” I explained. “Cotton and I may have some value in their eyes, while you are but a simple human boy. You’re frail and small. They might think that you’re not even worth feeding and then they would just kill you on spot.”
Axis flinched at my harsh, but fair remark. Frustrated, he clenched his fists and bit his lower lip.
“Then I’ll stay here and keep watch…” he muttered.
“Yeah, you do that,” I patted his shoulder, “and if something happens, you take the unicorn and run back to safety, okay?”
The boy shyly nodded, clearly not pleased with the idea.
“Until then, I have one instruction,” I said, “and that also applies to you Cotton.”
As Axis looked up at me, an eyebrow raised in curiosity, Cottontail simply nodded with her head.
“From now on, no matter what happens, do not address me by my real name,” I demanded. “From now on, call me Aileen.”
If anything happens, I need to be able to disappear. I can’t let anyone track back the incident back to me. So just for the next few hours, I’ll stop being Lynett. Just for the next few hours, I’ll go back to being Aileen.
Having made sure they both understood my order, I gave Axis and Cotton one last meaningful look.
“Shall we go, now?”
I have some unfinished business to settle with those slave traders. A business going back over fourteen years ago.