The little girl lay sleeping in her bed, muttering something in her sleep. She was twisting and turning, caught in a nightmare no doubt.
I was sitting next to her bed, casting healing magic on her from time to time while Kai and the others sat around a small table in the center of the room.
“Thanks for taking off her collar, Kai. Are you sure they won’t be able to find her anymore?” I asked, casually casting another healing spell.
“Don’t worry, they’ll think she’s dead. They might come after us for stealing their merchandise, but we won’t be staying here for long anyway.” replied Kai, leaning his chair against the wall.
I was relieved. We could handle ourselves but the girl wouldn’t have been able to escape her pursuers for long. She was too skinny, too weak, and definitely couldn’t fight off a bunch of grown men and women. She probably didn’t know a lot of magic either.
Besides, after seeing her status…I knew we had to help her, no matter what.
“Should we help her find her family?” I asked.
“No, there are only two ways to get stuck in a hell like this; you either get sold into it or you’re born into it.” answered Runir.
Neither of those options were appealing, so I gave up on the idea of taking her to her family. But…
“What do you mean born into it? Are her parents slaves too? We can go rescue them if that’s the case.” I asked.
“Her parents probably were bonded laborers but since factory owners encourage procreation to help increase the number of laborers, the kids don’t even know who their parents are. They’re tossed into a collective nursery as soon as they’re born and forced to sign a contract before they can even walk.” He said.
“Fuck,” I said, slapping my fist onto the table. This world was more fucked up than I thought.
Surprisingly, Kai spoke up in anger too. “Born into slavery? Enslaving children? Disgusting. Why would anyone do that?”
“Money, of course. All the worst shit happens because of money. I don’t know what they make them do, but I bet there’s a whole lot of Tel involved,” I said. “But here’s the real question. This world’s a shitty place just like ours, I get it. But what I don’t get is why no one is doing anything about this? The King or the government-”
“Are bought out by the factory owners.” said Runir.
Some things never change. Greedy bastards and corrupt assholes exist in fantasy worlds too. I thought, gritting my teeth.
“But why here? Why weren’t there any in the Southern Continent? Is it because of the Demon Lords? Did they do this? This place is part of their turf, so I guess their evilness spreads here.” I said.
“No, bonded laborers are used all over Erath. There were many of them in the Fire and Light Kingdoms too, we just didn’t see them. The Air Kingdom has the most though, since every factory has dozens of them.” said Runir as he flipped through a book. “I still can’t find what they use them for. I have a few hunches but I can’t find anything to prove them.” He frowned, closing the book.
“They’re in the other kingdoms too? But why would they…” I said, my voice trailing off.
“You know why,” said Runir, smiling. “No one can refuse cheap labor when they know how thick their pockets are going to get.”
I’d never trusted that damn Light Goddess or the sleazy king, but to think they’d do this kind of shit too.
Guess running away was the right thing to do after all. I thought.
“And they call themselves the good guys…” I said, mockingly.
“You of all people should know that there is no such thing as good and evil, Lily.” said Kai, leaning on the table. “That applies to everyone. Even the Demon Lord.”
“So the Demon Lord-”
“Is just another ordinary, albeit unfortunate, soul trapped in a role by Fate.” finished Runir, putting away the book.
That was a little surprising. I’d known that the Demon Lord was summoned from Earth too, but I’d assumed that he’d be a psychopath or something. Somehow, imagining the Demon Lord as a middle-aged salary man made him seem a lot less evil.
Then again, he was already dead so it didn’t matter anyway.
“Fate? Is this fate’s fault too?” I said, pointing at the girl with bruise marks all over her face. “Does she have to accept this just because she was born as a slave or a bonded laborer or whatever?”
“No,” said Amy, shaking her head. “This isn’t Fate’s doing. If it was, we wouldn’t have been able to save her.”
“Right, you can thank good old-fashioned human greed for this,” said Kai. “And also, you can stop pretending to be asleep now. We’re not going to hurt you.”
The girl stopped mumbling and stiffened.
“It’s okay, you’re safe here. And don’t worry, you can leave if you want to. We won’t stop you.” I said, as we all turned to face her.
She didn’t respond, but sat up and faced us. Her back was to the wall and although she was staring at us, she was also looking at the window with the corner of her eyes.
I was sure she’d run at the first sign of trouble.
I didn’t mind. It was a good thing to be cautious. And although I knew she wouldn’t trust us just yet, I also knew that giving her the option to leave was the right thing to say for now. For someone who’d lived a life of captivity, the promise of freedom would be the best thing you could offer.
“You’ve probably heard everything but I’ll say it again, just in case. We’ve taken off your collar so those bastards will think you’re dead. We can help you leave the city and settle down somewhere else or we can take you to the Air Goddess’ shrine and-”
She suddenly flinched and tried to jump out the window but her feet got caught in her blanket and she crashed into the floor.
I stared at her blankly, unable to understand what had happened. Why had she suddenly tried to run away?
I unconsciously cast a healing spell on her but she rolled around to dodge it. Then she glared at me sharply and muttered something under her breath.
A gust of wind blew into me, knocking me off my feet. She pounced onto the bed again, ready to jump out the window at a moment’s notice.
“Oi kid, we said we’d let you go if you wanted to. No need to get violent.” said Runir, looking at her expressionlessly.
The girl met his gaze for a while while casting furtive glances at the window.
“You can’t stay in this city, since someone might recognize you, but trying to get out of the city on your own will be tough. You’ll probably get attacked by monsters or bandits, not to mention the fact that you have no money on yourself and can’t buy food.” said Runir.
She hesitated for a while before easing up a little. She still stood next to the window and would probably jump out if she was scared.
I got up from the ground and dusted myself off, like I didn’t care at all about how she’d attacked me. But I did care…
I jumped at her as fast as I could. I saw her eyes widen slowly as I reached her. She tried to flee out the window but I was already on top of her. She saw me looming over her, closed her eyes, and whimpered.
And I hugged her.
She froze in shock as I held her lightly against my chest. Even though her status said that she was ten years old, she was so small for her age that I had to bend down really low to hold her. But that wasn’t surprising really, considering how she probably hadn’t had a decent meal in her life.
“Don’t worry kid, no one’s going to hurt you. No one’s gonna make you do stuff you don’t want to do. If you don’t like something, just tell us and we’ll make it go away. You don’t have to be afraid anymore. You’re free and you’re going to stay that way. I promise.” The words sounded pretty corny when they came out of my mouth, but it was all I could think of saying.
The old lady at the orphanage used to do this whenever we had a nightmare and it always seemed to work back then so I guessed that it would work here too.
“I promise too.” said Amy, patting the little girl’s head.
“No one’s going to mess with you now.” said Runir, grinning.
“Besides, sticking with us is the right thing to do. We’ll help you get back home.” I said, letting her go and looking into her eyes.
She gaped at me in shock, mulling over what I’d just implied. I met her gaze and smiled.
I also looked at her status again.
…Ability: Sacrifice…Title: Cursed in Two Worlds…level: 24…Name…
“Welcome to the party Zoe.” said Kai, with a smile.
Zoe lay curled up next to me, her back pressed into my chest and her head resting on my arm. Since we’d only booked four rooms at the hotel, Zoe had to share one with someone else. Besides, although no one was looking for her anymore, we did promise to keep her safe after all, so someone had to guard her for the night.
We let her choose and for some reason, she chose me.
And that’s why my hand was so fucking numb right now.
“Hey, I know you’re still awake so do you mind getting off my hand now?” I complained.
She cuddled closer to me, still pressing down on my arm. I thought about forcing her off but couldn’t bring myself to do it after I saw the burn marks on her neck.
“Hey, where were you from? Back on Earth.” I asked.
“…Felton City.” she replied.
“Cool…” I said, lamely.
Felton was the largest city in America and definitely the richest too. But where there’s money, there’s crime, and Felton was chock full of all the worst shit you could think of. And judging by her title, she probably hadn’t spent her time there playing in the parks in the brighter part of the city.
“…Hey. I heard you guys were wondering what they made us do at the factory.” she said.
“You don’t need to-”
“Magic. They made us do magic.” she whispered.
Magic? Not the kind of inhumane treatment I was expecting...
“Every day…every night. The same spell…over and over again. Kept feeding us drugs to make us keep going. Beat up the stragglers…killed the ones who tried to run away. No food, just drugs and nutrients. It was…hell.” she said, her voice barely audible.
…Fuck! Treating people like animals. No, worse than that. What do these bastards think people are supposed to be?
I thought back to something Kai had said.
‘Monsters kill because they have to. They are monsters by nature.’
But these guys, they were the real monsters. They weren’t doing this because they had to but because they wanted the money and didn’t care how many people they screwed over to get it. Just like that mayor back home.
“Don’t worry Zoe, we’ll make them pay. Just you wait.” I said, hugging her closer.
I can’t just sit back and let this happen. The King may not want to fix this but I will. This kid is just like me, scared and alone. Betrayed by the world and a system that claims to work for everyone except for those who really need it.
I don’t have to accept this. I won’t accept this.
After all, I’m the fucking Hero, aren’t I?
A tall middle aged woman cracked a whip over her head.
“Move faster. If the turbine stops moving, I swear I’ll skin you alive and feed your corpse to the Netherhawks.” she said, kicking a straggling little boy in rags.
The boy fell on his knees and misfired the spell he had been preparing. It rebounded off the ground and slammed into him, sending him flying through the air.
People in rags stood in front of a large pipe, sending gusts of wind into it. Their lifeless expressions didn’t even flicker as the boy crashed into the ground and the frowning lady walked over to him.
“What’s wrong with you? How dare you waste mana on yourself! All of your mana belongs to our clients. If you want to cool yourself down with a Breeze, go buy a fan instead.” she said, raising the whip into the air. “It’s because of your laziness that I couldn’t meet my quota for the past three months. I need to meet it this time or they’ll terminate the contract, and yet you insist on messing up my plans.”
The boy quickly shuffled upright, wincing in pain as he put his weight on his bleeding legs.
The lady scowled. “This is the fifth time you’ve made a mistake like this. I should probably get rid of you and get one of the younger ones to replace you.”
She brought the whip down.
The candles blew out, engulfing the room in darkness.
There was a grunt. Then a scream. And then a cry of agony.
There were crashes and bangs. Chains clinked, doors creaked open and slammed shut, and something snapped.
There was a hole in the ceiling and when the clouds parted, a ray of moonlight pierced through the darkness and lit up the chaos inside the factory.
Pipes lay broken and scattered on the ground. The chains binding the slaves were gone. As were the doors locking them inside their cages. A bunch of confused eyes stared at the figure standing under the moonlight.
The lady lay on the floor, unconscious. The little boy was still on his knees, gaping at the weird figure in front of him.
Silver hair, a shiny white mask and a flowing gray robe; this person was weird. Very weird.
…and she knew it.
Damn that Kai! What kind of outfit is this? I look like a creepy serial killer! I thought, gritting my teeth.
I’d asked him for a disguise and he said he’d have one on me as soon as I broke in but he never told me how ridiculous it looked.
I’ll deal with him later. For now…
I walked over to the unconscious lady and waved my hands. I walked back to the boy who was staring at the naked woman lying on the floor.
These clothes look expensive…hu hu hu! I laughed inwardly, checking out the clothes in my storage.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” came a voice from inside.
Two burly men came out from inside a room on the other side of the factory. They saw the broken pipes, the unchained laborers, and the stripped woman and froze.
“What the-?” said one of them, just before I punched him in the gut.
The other one swung at me but I swayed back to dodge it. I hit him in the chest and felt a few ribs crack as he collapsed next to his friend.
I took all of their possessions and left two naked men groaning on the floor. I walked into the room they’d come from and emptied the safe before returning outside.
I walked up to the boy who had almost been whipped. He flinched as I reached out to him but didn’t resist as I patted him on the head.
Then I turned around and went to the corner of the room. I tapped it thrice and a tunnel appeared.
“Follow.” I said, motioning towards the freed laborers.
They hesitated for a while, looked at their captors lying naked and wounded, and stared at the trashed factory around them.
In the end, they all followed me down the dimly lit tunnel to their freedom.