“…we’re above the clouds,” mumbled Zoe, holding the ground tightly while peering over the edge.
“It really is amazing isn’t it?” said Kai as he sat down next to Zoe and dangled his feet over the empty skies below.
“Don’t sit so close to the edge Zoe,” said Amy.
Seeing her refuse to budge, Amy walked over and picked her up before sitting on the edge and putting Zoe in her lap.
Zoe struggled for a bit but eventually relaxed as Amy stroked her hair and smiled at her. Amy was good with kids, that’s for sure.
I noticed Runir standing on the road and called out to him. “Hey Runir, do you think that’s the town we came up from?”
“Probably, sure, whatever you say,” he said, shading his eyes with his hand while looking down the road.
“Come on over and see the view Runir, it’s quite the spectacle,” said Kai, leaning further over the edge.
“No thank you. We still have a long way to go until we reach the shrine. We need to start moving or we’ll be late,” replied Runir.
“Late for what?” asked Amy, without turning around.
“Breize Labs will be holding their annual exhibition at the Air Shrine in a week. It’s open to the public so we’ll be able to get into the shrine by mingling with the crowd. We can use the opportunity to sneak into the tower, get the goddess’s blessing and ask her for a way back to Earth,” he answered, finally turning around.
I sensed something weird in the way he was looking at me while I sat on the edge of the floating island. Was he worried I might fall off? Or was he…
“Are you scared of heights, Runir?” I asked, snickering.
“What? Hell no!” he said, flustered.
I didn’t believe him at all. He was standing way too far away from the edge. He should at least have been curious about how high we were, shouldn’t he?
Amy chuckled too, and Kai gave him a pitying look.
“You’re surprisingly pathetic, Mr.Demon Lord,” said Zoe, with a disappointed expression.
Runir frowned. “Who told you I’m the Demon Lord?”
Of course it was me. He’d said he was fine with it, so what was he complaining about?
“The annoying one,” she replied, pointing at me.
“The annoying one? What the-”
“Aptly put, kid,” said Runir, cutting me off.
I glared at him. He smirked before turning around to face the road again.
“Let’s get going already,” he said, before starting to walk away.
I kept glaring at him as I stood up. I followed him down the road but stopped immediately.
Someone screamed behind me as I turned to see Amy leaning over the edge with her hand outstretched. Kai jumped off with a serious expression on his face. He shot past Amy’s hands and disappeared behind the ground.
I rushed forward just as he floated back up again with a struggling Zoe in his hands.
“Let…me…go…” she grunted, kicking and clawing at Kai to no avail.
Kai landed on the ground and flung Zoe into my arms. I reflexively crossed them to hold her tight as she continued to struggle.
“What were you thinking?” cried Amy, reproachfully.
There were tears in her eyes. She must have felt guilty about letting Zoe jump off. It was surprising really, that someone could get out of Amy’s grip. Was she caught off guard? No one really expects someone who was talking to you normally one second to suddenly jump to her death.
Zoe continued to struggle but I didn’t dare to ease up. She was crying tonight, mumbling about something as tears fell down her cheeks.
“…let…let…go…please…” she muttered before going limp.
The rest of us exchanged grim looks. All of this had happened too suddenly. She tried to kill herself out of the blue. It made no sense at all.
But Runir nodded and looked like he’d expected it.
“So she’s still a little insane. I thought that might be the case. After all, her Ability runs along the principle of equivalent exchange and since she didn’t completely sacrifice her freedom, she probably didn’t completely earn her sanity either,” he said.
I looked at the little girl hanging in my arms and felt pity and anger. Why did she have to suffer so much? What had she done wrong? Her body was light. Her breaths short and ragged. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.
I didn’t let go though.
“What do we do now?” asked Amy, looking at Zoe with concern.
“We take her to Farden. I’ll try to heal her on the way but she’ll need a long time to recover mentally. For now, Runir can order her to stay with us at all times and forbid her from trying to kill herself again,” said Kai.
“Why Runir?” I asked.
“As a citizen of the Dusk Alliance, she is bound to listen to the orders of the Demon Lord,” he replied.
“But-” I covered Zoe’s ears with my hands. “He’s not the real Demon Lord.”
“Doesn’t matter. As long as she believes he is, it should work,” said Kai.
Runir looked at Kai with a frown but then nodded and walked up to me. I removed my hands from Zoe’s ears.
“I know you’re pretending to be unconscious right now kid,” he said, poking her cheeks. “Open your eyes. It’s an order.”
Her eyes snapped open immediately. She stared at him in surprise, probably because her body had acted on its own.
“I don’t want to give you too many orders because then I’d be just like those factory owners but I am going to tell you two things that you absolutely have to follow all the time. Understood?”
She nodded unwillingly.
“Number one, you will not try to kill yourself or bring harm to yourself in any way. Number two, you will not try to run away without telling us. We’ll let you go if you ask but if you disappear all of a sudden we’ll be worried and we’ll start searching,” he said.
She slowly nodded, defeated.
“So, this isn’t an order but I’d like to know. Why do you want to kill yourself?” he asked, bringing his face close to hers.
“…sometimes the…pain comes back. It goes into my head and…and…I just…can’t…” she stammered.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” said Amy, walking over and stroking Zoe’s hair. “We’ll help you get through this so please, trust us.”
“Yeah, if the pain comes back just tell us. We’ll bear it with you if we can,” I said, hugging her closer.
“They’re right, you’re not alone anymore. You’re safe with us. We aren’t like the other people you’ve known before,” said Runir as he patted her head.
That’s not true, I thought. We bound her too, didn’t we? It may have been for her own good but she probably doesn’t think of it that way. For her, we’re just another bunch of factory owners trying to use her for our own personal gain.
And I could see it in her eyes. Her unwillingness. She wasn’t going to trust us just yet. But then why didn’t she just leave? We’d told her that we’d let her go if she asked. Did she think we were lying or that it was some sort of trick? That we would punish her for trying to leave?
Whatever the reason, we’d have to earn her trust soon. Runir’s orders wouldn’t stop her for long. But more importantly, I didn’t want her to stay with us without wanting to. It didn’t feel right and was way too similar to the way those factory owners treated her.
“Don’t worry Zoe,” said Kai. “I can’t promise that you won’t feel any pain, but what I can promise is that as long as you stay with us, you won’t have another nightmare ever again.”
She looked at him skeptically, meeting his gaze before breaking it to nod.
“Right then, now that that’s behind us, we should probably get going. It’s almost time,” said Kai, jumping onto the road.
“Time for what?” asked Runir.
“We need to get there before noon,” he said, walking down the road.
“Get where?” I asked.
Amy followed him as if she knew what he was talking about. Runir and I shared a confused glance while Zoe slid down my arms and followed Amy.
“Kai, what the hell is going on?” asked Runir.
“Hurry up or we’ll be late!” shouted Kai from up ahead.
“Late for what?” I shouted, annoyed.
“The bus of course! We’re about to miss the bus!”
The sun blazed overhead, making the already stifling atmosphere even harder to endure. We stood in a long line of people waiting outside a gray bus that had just arrived and they, like us, were drenched in sweat and filling the air with the disgusting stench of sweat and bodies.
The bus wouldn’t have looked out of place on Earth, which just made the whole thing feel even weirder. You just didn’t expect to roll down a highway in a bus in a world full of magic.
Then again, there were signs of magic on the bus too. A few runes here and there, the unmistakable glow of magic stones under the hood, and a couple of communications prisms hanging by the doors reminded me that this was not the world I’d grown up in.
Someone tried to push me from behind but I didn’t budge. I looked back to see a middle aged lady glaring at me while holding her arm.
How is it my fault, bitch? I thought, frowning.
Runir and the others were standing in front of me. Kai was holding onto Zoe’s hand and unlike the rest of us, they weren’t sweating at all.
Damn it Kai! Work some of your magic on us too, I thought.
Runir and I didn’t dare to use Water magic to cool ourselves off because we didn’t want to attract attention. Only people from the Water kingdom could use water magic, and we didn’t want everyone thinking we were from the Holy Alliance since that would almost definitely get us killed.
Then again, maybe we could pass as traveling merchants? That LeAgua company that Runir kept mentioning was based in the Water kingdom. We might be able to pose as their employees or something.
But those were all excuses. I just really couldn’t take the heat anymore. I needed to cool down, but how?
“Ticket please,” said a short bald headed man standing next to the bus’s door.
Kai took out something from his robes.
“S-sir! Please, the VIP section is all yours sir. Thank you for gracing us with your presence sir. It is an honor, truly an honor,” said the man with a bow.
Zoe looked at him curiously but the rest of us casually walked in unperturbed.
She’ll get used to it, I thought, watching her look at us like we’d all gone crazy. Wait till you find out how we paid for them in the first place, kid.
The first thing I saw when I entered the bus was a small compartment right in front of the doors. The driver was barely visible behind it, her long frilly hair bobbing up and down as she said something to the people inside.
We all had unpleasant expressions on our faces as we saw the ragged figures inside the compartment.
Through the murky glass and iron grating we could see a group of people wearing collars just like Zoe’s.
They were bonded laborers.
I saw Zoe tense up as she stared at the men and women inside the room. Their faces were marred by years of abuse. Their eyes were lifeless and drained. They had no hope for the future.
The other travelers shouted at us to get a move on and Kai led us to the back of the bus where there was another room with a gray insignia on it.
It was a shimmering gray tornado with the words “Breize Labs” written under it. We pushed the door open and sat down inside.
The room was decorated with shining gems and priceless antiques. The furniture was obviously expensive, probably worth swiping if I could get away with it. There were fruits in a basket on the table in the center of the room as well as rich wine in bottles lining the shelves on the walls.
But most importantly, it was cool.
“This is impressive,” stated Amy as she sat down on a chair.
Zoe sat down on the sofa without a word and began picking through the fruits.
“Yeah,” said Runir as he lay down on the bed in the corner of the room.
“…what kind of bus is this?” I asked.
“It’s the express service to Farden. Busy this time of the year because of the Exhibition, but it’s still the fastest way to get there,” said Kai.
“And what was up with those laborers…or fuck it, just call them slaves,” I said.
The atmosphere instantly became a lot more serious.
I heard the doors close. Someone started shouting for everyone to settle down and the bus began moving.
“They probably use them to power this thing,” said Runir, closing his eyes.
“The bus runs on air magic too?” I asked.
So even the bus was running on the pain of innocent people. Was it really worth it? We could have gotten to Farden by walking. We didn’t need to strap down a bunch of people in a tiny compartment and have them blast magic into a pipe for several days.
“We have to do something,” I said.
“Like what?” asked Runir.
I took out the ‘Trickster’ outfit from my Inventory.
“I can jump out the window, crash through the roof, and break them out.”
“No, it’ll draw too much attention to us. If we keep doing this, anyone with half a brain will realize that The Trickster appears wherever we go. Besides, what will you do after that? Where will you take them? And what about the other passengers on the bus? They probably couldn’t cross this monster infested country on their own. Even the bus can barely fight off some of these monsters despite all the weapons they have on board,” he said, sitting upright.
“But we have to do something!” I cried. “Damn it, what’s happening to those people isn’t right!”
“Lily,” said Kai. “I know that this system disturbs you but going around randomly saving these abused laborers isn’t going to solve anything. Didn’t we already decide that we’ll take down the whole system because doing anything less wouldn’t cut it?”
He was right and I knew it. But it wasn’t easy ignoring the people in the front of the bus, slaving away inside a tiny box so that we could enjoy our journey inside a beautifully decorated compartment.
I remembered their lifeless faces. I remembered Zoe voluntarily jumping to her death.
It wasn’t the way things should be. We needed to save these people…but Kai was right. I couldn’t go around saving them one at a time. I needed to bring it all crumbling down.
I looked at the shining, metallic gray tornado on the back of the door.
Breize Labs…they’re the ones responsible for this. They owned that factory in the second anchor town and they own this bus too. If I wanna set things straight…
“Hey Runir,” I said. “Use your Ability.”
“Alright, what’s my first goal?” he asked.
“Taking down Breize Labs.”
He smirked and took out some paper from his Storage. Kai and Amy leaned closer while Zoe went to sleep on Amy’s lap.
While Zoe enjoyed her nightmare-less sleep, we hashed out a plan to turn the entire Air Kingdom on its head. We needed to bring down all the centers of power in the country. All the nobles and the royalty and the labs and the guilds and everything else. We needed to destroy anything and anyone that held up the current system so that we could replace it with a new one.
By the time we were done, I almost felt sorry for them.