Chapter 40 – Responsibility
Ah… I’m tired. My legs are aching and I can feel my heart beating through my chest. Getting down that hill is more physical than I thought. I’m not even going up, I’m going down, so why is it so exhausting? How can people say exerting yourself feels good? I hate feeling tired like this. Exercising releases endorphins? What a load of bullcrap. I guess I’m really not cut out for sport after all.
Finally reaching the valley, I let a long sigh of relief escape my mouth.
“You okay, Cotton?” I asked the young girl at my side.
Cottontail nodded, her face impassible.
Why am I even asking? She’s not even sweating one bit. I’ll just comfort myself pretending it’s normal since she’s a spirit.
The camp probably wasn’t too far from here, but since we couldn’t hear any voices in the distance, we set out again on our way.
“Cotton?” I called.
“Do you know where we’re heading to?”
“A slavers’ camp,” the fox girl responded.
“That’s right,” I confirmed, “a lot of mortals will be there.”
I marked a pause, carefully studying the fox girl’s expression.
“How do you feel about mortals?” I asked.
“I think they’re fragile,” Cotton replied immediately, without having to think about it, “but quite prolific. A good compromise for their survival since they don’t live long.”
Such a bland response. As I thought, although she doesn’t particularly disdain them, she doesn’t feel any sort of attachment for them either. They are simply disposable beings in her eyes.
“Cotton, when we get there, don’t do anything rash,” I ordered. “Follow my lead. No matter what happens, do not pay attention to the mortals. Do not talk to them, do not attack them. Just… Let me handle this, alright?”
The fox girl did not reply immediately. But after a few seconds of reflection, she accepted my order.
“Alright,” she complied, not questioning my intentions.
Good. She’s not very talkative, but at least, she’s obedient. She’s much easier to handle than Yoko, I don’t think she’ll cause any problem.
After walking for a few minutes, there were finally some changes in our surroundings. Cottontail was the first to stop. Then, right after her, detecting an unknown mana, I realized that we weren’t alone anymore.
“Someone’s here,” the fox girl said.
“Yeah, there are two of them.”
Since the strangers hadn’t noticed our presence yet, I turned to Cottontail, for one last rehearsal.
“You remember what I said, right?” I inquired.
“Don’t talk, don’t attack, don’t do anything rash,” she replied, “just follow your lead.”
“Good, and who am I?”
My eyes set on the direction of the two strangers, I took a deep breath.
It was just as I expected. The two strangers were slavers, patrolling around the area. Seeing how they allowed themselves to rest, lazily chatting on the ground, they had clearly not expected to meet intruders. Nevertheless, the moment we got within their sight, they quickly got back onto their feet. The first one to react was the older one, a bulky middle-aged man.
“Don’t let them get away!” he shouted to his partner, as he first charged Cottontail.
According to my request, the fox girl did not try to fight back and allowed the man to overpower her, tackling her to the ground. Following his example, his partner, a much younger boy, charged at me. Without resistance on our part, it was easy for the two slavers to subdue us. Within the matter of a few seconds, we found ourselves completely tied. Then, eager to show their comrades their new found captures, the two slavers brought us to their rallying point. And just like that, Cottontail and I infiltrated the slavers’ camp.
The camp seemed even bigger from here. Completely crowded with slaves, it was hard to see the end of it. Still, among all these people, our abductors still managed to venture deep into the camp, as the slaves opened a path for them upon their arrival. And after a couple of minutes, we finally reached our destination. Stopping in front of a bigger tent, the two slavers put us down on the ground, as the older one whistled loudly.
“Guys!” he called, “check this out! Look at what we found!”
A few slavers came out of the tent. Immediately noticing our presence, they quickly gathered around us.
“Shit, a chosen one and a demi-human?”
“And quite pretty too. Talk about a booty!”
“They’re going to fetch a lot!”
As the slavers grew excited at out sight, one of them crouched down to reach my eye-level. He extended his arm to grab my cloak, carefully studying its fabric, and frowned.
“That’s some high quality apparel,” he noted before getting up, returning his attention to our abductors. “That one’s clearly a noble,” he pointed out, “or the daughter of a wealthy merchant.”
“Who cares?” the bulky slaver dismissed with a shrug. “Do you know where we found them? In the middle of the forest. No noble or wealthy trader would let their daughter wander there, all alone. She’s probably a runaway. No one will look for her.”
“What about this one?”
Their attention shifted to Cottontail.
“They were together, she’s probably a servant who followed her.”
The bulky slaver shrugged.
“There are some people like that once in a while, who consider demi-humans our equals. But it doesn’t matter now. Now, they’re our booty.”
The others nodded at this statement, seemingly convinced.
“Hey, kiddo!” one of them called out.
The young boy who captured me immediately took a step forward.
“Bring the collars.”
Complying with that order, the boy headed to the big tent, before coming out of it only a few seconds later, two locking steel collars in hands. As he was about to hand them over, his senior gave him a meaningful look. Understanding the silent order, the boy crouched down in front of us. He brought one of the collars to my neck but, his eyes meeting mine, he suddenly stopped in his action.
“What are you doing? Hurry up.”
The boy averted his eyes, unable to maintain the eye-contact. I guess one of them still has some conscience left. He couldn’t have been older than Aoban, so I couldn’t help but wonder how he ended up becoming a slave trader.
“Sorry…” he muttered, guilt showing on his face, before bolting the collar around my neck.
You have been enslaved.
The required conditions have not been met: target’s authority level too high.
[Will bending] failed
[Slavery Contract] could not be established.
Yeah, I thought so. No surprises here.
I shifted my gaze to Cottontail, who also received the slave collar. Judging by her lack of reaction, I’m guessing it doesn’t have much effect on her either. Completely unaware of that, the slavers exchanged proud grins. They had no way to guess the collars weren’t effective against us.
“Perfect! Excellent additions to our stock!”
“And they seem quite the obedient type too!"
“The others are going to be delighted when they hear about that!”
“Kiddo! Put them with the others!”
Leaving his seniors to boast about their recent catch, the young boy invited us to get up.
“Come with me, please,” he asked politely.
He led the way a bit further into the camp, as Cottontail and I followed him in silence. A few moments later, the boy stopped. Surrounded by slaves and tents, this part of the camp didn’t seem so different from the others, but we had walked for a while, so I’m guessing we’re somewhere in the center. The boy turned around, taking a knife out of his pocket. With the slave collars’ on, there was no longer any use to keep us tied, so he extended his arm to cut the ropes around our wrists.
“Sorry about that,” he apologized one more time.
His mission accomplished, the boy turned around and disappeared into the camp, leaving us behind.
Finally left unsupervised, I inspected my surroundings. The slaves around us had been eying us with wariness ever since we arrived, but the moment the slaver boy disappeared, the tension somehow relaxed. I, on the other hand, was growing worried. Remembering the reason why I was here, I couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to find Axis’ parents among all these people.
I did ask Axis for information about his mother during the journey, information that could help me find her. But he simply said she was of average height, that her hair was black, long and straight, and that she had hazel eyes. That fits the description of about one fifth of the women here. I did know Troy though. He looked like your perfect average human male and had no particular features either, but at least, I knew his face. I would be able to recognize him if I saw him.
“Are you alright?” I heard a voice suddenly speak up.
Turning in the direction of the voice, I noticed a young woman looking at me, her eyes full of concerns.
“Are you alright?” she repeated, a little bit louder this time. “I know it must have been scary, but you’re okay now.”
I blinked a couple of times, a little bit confused, as a few other slaves approached.
“It’s going to be fine,” one of them said, “as long as you don’t fight back, they’re not going to hurt you.”
“You’re not alone,” another added, “we’re with you.”
Remembering the collar around my neck, I realized they were trying to reassure me. But before I could answer anything, someone else spoke first.
“What are you guys doing? Isn’t she a noble?”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” the young woman said, “we’re all lumped together in the same situation anyway.”
But the man clearly disagreed.
“Just because she was enslaved, it doesn’t change anything,” he growled, “you know how nobles are. She’s not like the rest of us.”
“Gale,” the young woman called out, “she’s not the one who put that collar on you. She’s just a child.”
The man named Gale clicked his tongue in annoyance, as the woman turned her attention back on me.
“Don’t mind him,” she tried to ease my mind with a soft smile, “he has a grudge against nobles.”
Yeah, I can see that.
“Don’t take it personally,” another slave advised, “he ended up here because he pissed off some big shot.”
“How about you mind your own business?” Gale snarled.
But his comrade ignored him.
“We all have our own history,” the young woman added. “It doesn’t matter where we came from. Now, we all share the same fate. We need to support each other.”
She was looking at me, but her words were clearly directed to Gale. Gale understood that perfectly.
“I don’t know how you got here, and you don’t have to tell us,” the young woman continued, “it’s going to be fine, now.”
This time, she was addressing herself to me, and since she seemed to expect a reaction from me, I nodded my head.
Her face brightened as a soft smile spread on her lips.
“Don’t worry, it’s not that bad,” she said, patting my head.
I know she was trying to reassure me, but it’s true that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I had expected a bunch of depressive slaves, resigned to their fate, but hope hadn’t left most of these people. A few children could be seen playing with each other while the other slaves were clustered in small groups, chatting together. I think there were even some families here. They definitely didn’t seem like people to be sold. It was probably the strong solidarity that had developed among them which helped them withstand the situation.
“Oh, my name is Clarice, by the way,” the young woman introduced herself. “What should we call you?”
“Aileen,” I responded, “my name is Aileen.”
Clarice flinched as I revealed my name. And she wasn’t the only one. I received a few curious gazes as the slaves around us interrupted their conversation.
“Your name is Aileen?” Gale repeated, his eyes squinted. He seemed determined to ignore me until now, but my name somehow peaked his interest.
He exchanged a silent, but meaningful look with Clarice.
“Is something wrong?” I asked, concerned about the lasting silence.
“It’s nothing,” Clarice dismissed with a smile, returning her attention to me, “it’s not important. What about your friend?” she asked, shifting her gaze to Cotton. “She seems awfully quiet.”
Unwilling to meddle with others, Cottontail hid behind me. She hadn’t said a word until now, and I knew this wasn’t going to change.
“Cottontail is a bit shy,” I lied, “she’s not good with strangers.”
“I see, we won’t bother her then,” Clarice gave the fox girl a compassionate look. “Try to get accustomed to this place, though. You don’t know how long you’ll be here, so try to make yourself comfortable, okay?”
The young woman was being unusually friendly and caring. It really didn’t seem like I was in a slavers’ camp.
“You’re quite lively for someone who is about to be sold,” I noted.
But Clarice didn’t reply. She simply gave me a half-smile.
“If you guys need anything, let me know,” she then added, changing the subject.
Well, ‘we all have our own history,’ huh? Fine, I won’t push it any further. It’s not my problem anyway. I have my own issues to deal with here, anyway.
“Actually, there might be something you can help with,” I remembered.
“I’m looking for someone,” I explained. “Do you know of a woman called Olivia? She should be in her thirties.”
As Clarice tilted her head, pondering, I continued.
“She has hazel eyes, and her hair is black, long and straight. She’s about one meter and sixty tall, and she’s been there for a few months now.”
Unfortunately, after carefully thinking about it, the young woman shook her head.
“It doesn’t ring a bell,” she apologetically said, before turning to her friends. “Guys?”
“I do know of an Olivia, but she’s blond and she’s in her twenties.”
Yep, I thought so.
“Are you sure she’s here?” Clarice inquired. “If she’s been there for months, she could have already been sold.”
“No, it’s very unlikely, she should still be here.”
I brought a hand to the nape of my neck, a long sigh escaping my mouth.
“Sorry we couldn’t help,” Clarice apologized.
“It’s fine, I didn’t think it would be that easy to find her anyway,” I tried to ease her mind.
With a name as common as Olivia, I knew I wouldn’t find her immediately. And with no surname and no particular features either, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I might have to ask every single person out there if they know her to find her. Fortunately for me, Axis’ mother wasn’t the only person I was looking for.
“What about Troy?” I asked. “Do you know of a guy named Troy?”
If Olivia is a relatively common name, Troy is already rarer. There might be a couple of thousands slaves here, they aren’t millions either, so if anyone has heard that name before, it’s highly likely to be my guy.
“He’s about this tall, brown hair and…”
I started describing Troy, but soon realized that it wasn’t necessary, as Clarice’s wide eyes revealed that this name did sound familiar to her.
“You know him?” I inquired.
“Troy, is it?” The young woman averted her eyes, a forced smile playing on her lips. “Well, Troy is… Umh…”
“He’s dead,” Gale interjected.
“Gale!” Clarice immediately turned around to shoot him a deadly glare.
“What? It’s true. Dead is dead. There is no need to beat around the bush.”
The young woman returned her attention to me, her eyes full of worries.
“Don’t listen to him!” she demanded. “Troy isn’t dead!”
She didn’t seem to be lying, but at the same time, she didn’t seem entirely convinced by her own words.
“Where is he?” I hesitantly asked, my heart unsettled.
“Up the hill,” Gale responded, finally approaching.
Following his gaze, I noticed a huge canvas shelter on a small hill, secluded from the other tents.
“See that?” Gale pointed with a quick gesture of the head. “That’s the slavers’ base of operations. And you don’t want to go there. Because if you do, you’re not coming back. No one ever did.”
He marked a pause, giving me a meaningful look.
“Troy went there,” he continued with the same hard expression. “He rocked the boat, trying to start a revolt, so he was dragged there, and no one saw him since.”
“That doesn’t mean anything!” Clarice stressed, “he could still be alive!”
“That was two weeks ago, Clarice,” Gale emphasized. “The dude tried to start a revolt, do you really think the slavers would have allowed him to live?”
Shit, shit, shit. You better be alive, Troy. I made a promise to your son.
“What the hell was he thinking?” I complained, thinking out loud.
“Well, isn’t it your fault?”
“Gale!” Clarice scolded.
I frowned, looking up at Gale. He was giving me an accusing glare.
“What are you saying? How is this my fault?”
The man sneered at my ignorance.
“The dude was delirious,” he explained, “he started spurting out nonsense as soon as he arrived. He mentioned an Aileen. Wasn't he talking about you? You said you know him, right?”
Aileen? Not Lynett but Aileen? Aileen is the name I gave when I introduced myself to Yoko, but Troy knows that I am known as Lynett among normal people. So if he used my [True Name] instead of my mortal name then…
“The Gods’ judgement will fall upon us, he said,” Gale continued with an ironic smile. “Their wrath will be delivered to those who force their will upon the others, and the slaves will be freed.”
Oh, that fucking idiot. I should have known he wouldn’t be able to keep his mouth shut.
“He told us he knew the Gods personally and that we were under their protection. That we should fear nothing.”
You have some guts, Troy. Now I’m tempted by the idea of abandoning you to your fate.
As I could feel the headache coming, I noticed a little hand pulling my dress. My eyes fell upon a small child, who I didn’t even see approaching.
“Are you the Aileen Troy talked about?” the little girl asked, her eyes full of expectations. “Are you really going to save us all?”
My eyelids twitched as I tried to keep a straight face.
“What did he say about me?” I inquired.
“That you were a goddess!”
Yeah, I thought so. Troy, I’m going to save your ass just because I promised Axis, but after that, you’re dead.
“And you believed him?” I patted the little girl’s head. “Do you think I look like a goddess?”
The little girl stared at me silently for a few seconds before a smile broke onto her face.
“Yeah!” she beamed.
Before I could add anything else, a woman appeared out nowhere. Forcing her way through the crowd, she dashed to our side, suddenly stopping right next to the little girl.
“I’m sorry, please don’t mind her,” she apologized in a hurry, her head lowered.
“Uh, it’s alright?”
Unable to meet my eyes, the unknown woman -probably her mother- took the little girl in her arms and quickly re-entered the crowd. A little startled by her weird behavior at first, I then quickly noticed the weird looks of the other slaves, all around us.
“Troy is quite famous here, you know?” Gale suddenly started to recount, regaining my full attention. “A lot of us were enslaved because of a debt. And when you’re in that case, families are quick to abandon you. But Troy didn’t. He kept coming here every single day, bringing slavers all the money he had collected during the day to beg them not to sell his wife. Quite an admirable man.”
“But then he stopped coming,” he continued, “for weeks. And since there was no point in keeping his wife, it was decided that she would be sold away. Only then he reappeared. But well, you know the rest of the story.”
Gale marked a pause, his expression hardening.
“So, what did you tell him?” he questioned, glaring at me. “Did you scam him? Troy isn’t such a gullible guy, but considering your eyes’ color, it wouldn’t be so weird for him to believe you if you told him you were a goddess or something.”
What kind of groundless accusation is that?
“I haven’t scammed anyone,” I objected, slightly annoyed.
But Gale clearly had no intention to listen.
“Were you that bored?” he scowled, completely deaf to my words. “You nobles have it easy, huh? You live on people’s taxes, and when you’re bored, you can decide to play with a poor, desperate man’s heart.”
“Gale!” Clarice called out, grabbing his arm. “Watch your words! She’s a chosen one!”
“So what? Fuck the gods and their chosen ones,” he spat, shaking her hand away.
Quickly understanding that arguing with him would be pointless, I let a long sigh out of my mouth.
“Does it even matter to you what I do?” I grumbled.
“It does,” Gale declared, returning his attention to me. “Because this isn’t just about Troy. It’s about all of us. Look around you.”
The slaves around us had all fallen silent. Some of them were looking at me with the same expectant eyes as the little girl before, while others squinted suspiciously at me. But all attention was focused on me.
“When Troy started spurting out this nonsense about the gods coming to our aid, his words spread quickly. And no matter how foolish it sounded, some people actually believed him. Do you know why?” he queried, clearly not expecting an answer. “Because this is how desperate they are. No matter how much they hide behind smiles, no matter how they play all buddy-buddy with each other, we all know what’s coming for us once we’re sold away. That’s why, as crazy as it sounded, people were willing to hold onto that idea of a divine intervention.”
Yeah, I can understand that. I know that feeling. Being so helpless that you can only wait, pray and hope. But it’s exactly because I’ve been there before that I can’t help but feel annoyed at this.
“So what?” I croaked. “What do you expect me to do?”
“Take responsibility,” Gale demanded. “Those people are all expecting something from you. You started this by deceiving Troy. Now you end it.”
I clicked my tongue as I felt the annoyance growing in me.
Responsibilities? What responsibilities? Don’t make me laugh. Why should I have to be responsible for the life of strangers? Why should I bear their hopes and expectations? This is exactly why I never wanted to follow the path of a hero. Those people are desperate, I know that. But the look in their eyes is unbearable. This is not about pressure or anything. But for some reason, this is just... annoying.
I do feel sorry for them, I really do, but I came here for my own selfish reasons and that’s not going to change.
“I owe you nothing. Nor to you, nor to anyone else here,” I declared. “Why should I take care of you people’s credulity? If you believed the words of a delirious man, that’s your own fault. Don’t blame it on me.”
“What?” I cut him off. “Isn’t that what you wanted to hear? I am not here to be your savior.”
Emphasizing this last sentence, I made sure everyone heard me. Around me, people’s expectations died out soon enough. I had flatly crushed their hopes and beliefs. Disappointment showing on their face, the initial amiability of the slaves quickly disappeared, leaving room for hostility. It couldn’t be helped.
“If you want a miracle, create one yourself,” I advised. “Don’t wait for it. And don’t expect others to save you.”
I know better than anyone how pointless it is to wait for a miracle. I’ve waited all my past life for one, and when it finally came, the gods spit on my face. Miracles don’t exist. The best thing you can do in a bad situation is to turn the odds in your favor. And you can’t do that by only waiting and praying. You can't do that by leeching on the others. That's not how the world works.
No longer welcomed here, I turned on my heels as I signaled Cottontail to follow me. No one tried to stop me, not even Clarice. But it’s fine. I no longer had any reasons to stay here after all. I knew where to find Troy and, lucky me, he was at the slavers’ headquarters, the one other place I intended to go. There, I should probably be able to meet the slavers’ leader. And even if he isn’t there, I should at least meet someone important. Important enough to tell me what I want to know.
Leaving Clarice, Gale and the others behind, I headed to slavers’ base of operations with Cotton.
… But it's strange.
I feel weird.
Why am I so irritated?