The rude man, whose name I still don’t know, leads his two female companions through the streets of Kohln, and I follow a few steps behind them.
I’m not entirely certain he’s indeed heading for the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce, like he promised he would. I suspect he might be leading me into some sort of trap designed to kill me, or something of the sort.
Even if that’s the case, though, that will only result in his immediate death, along with that of anyone else involved in his plan. And then, it will also result in me asking for directions from someone else on the street. It’s not like he’s the only human in the world who knows where this Blackwood Chamber of Commerce is located, after all. His usefulness is limited enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him for even an instant.
Fortunately enough, however, it looks like my fears are unfounded. Soon, we arrive in front of a rather large building, a wide sign hung above its gate. Written on this sign is the name ‘Blackwood’ bracketed by drawings of two black pine trees. Two majin stand on either side of the gate. They’re both male rakshasa, almost two and a half meters tall, with long and thick curling ram-like horns growing from their foreheads. Their entire bodies are covered in bulging, powerful muscles, their sheer size bringing an intimidating oppression down on anyone passing near them. Even the amount of qi sleeping inside them is on the high side of what I’ve seen of Caldera. The two are only wearing simple, white, tattered robes, along with a rough, metallic collar around their necks, countless small runes etched all over its surface.
Judging from how the rude man behaved when he only felt the mediocre pressure of the city guard berating him, he should by all rights be terrified of these two, especially considering the general dislike between majin and humans, but strangely enough, he shows absolutely no fear and apprehension and directly walks up to the gates of the building, not minding the two rakshasa in the least.
“This is it,” he says, turning to me. “The Blackwood Chamber of Commerce. Let’s quickly go inside. You don’t need to worry; I’ll definitely put in a good word to the manager for you.”
When I follow him inside, the two rakshasa take a glance at me, their eyes filled with emotions too murky for me to decipher them. For a moment, I wonder if they’re going to attack me or prevent me from entering the building, but no. Quickly, they turn their eyes away from me and open the door for the rude man, bowing mutely toward our group as we enter the building.
Inside is a single wide room. A long counter stretches over half of the opposite wall upon entering, with people standing behind it, reminding me of the High-Sea Verse mercenary group’s headquarters in Aldenfell again. But the most noticeable thing in the place isn’t this counter. The most noticeable things are the cages set up in regular lines up and down the room, people, both majin and human, trapped inside them. The cages are of various sizes. Some are small, some are large, so as to accommodate the needs of different species. Scattered groups of humans wander around between the cages, gazing with appraising eyes at the people held within, while being accompanied by women wearing revealing uniforms of some sort who introduce the characteristics and history of whichever prisoner catches their eyes.
As soon as I enter, my senses sweep the entire room, but I instantly find that… Nerys isn’t there at all. There’s not even a single trace of her scent hanging in the air.
In fact, while there are all kinds of majin here, I can’t see any elves at all.
When our arrival is noticed, another uniform-wearing human girl comes up and greets the rude man. “Welcome to the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce, dear customers.” The girl’s eyes fall on me, standing a few steps back. “May I ask if you’re here to purchase or to sell?”
The rude man lets out a disdainful laugh and looks over his shoulder at me. “Both! I’m here to buy a tenjin girl. A beauty, of course. I trust your firm should know my tastes, by now. And as for the one I’m selling, it’s this girl, here.”
The woman examines me dubiously for a moment. “This child is…?”
“Isn’t she a rare species? I haven’t seen you sell this sort of majin before, right? Even though she looks a bit battered, she should still fetch a rather nice price, right?”
“Dear customer, please wait a moment. This servant is not capable of recognizing your slave’s species. Allow this servant to call for the manager. He will be better able to respond to your request.”
“Hmm. Go, then.”
After bowing, the young woman leaves in a hurry, trotting toward a discreet stairway, over by the counters in the back. In the meantime, the rude man turns back to me, his sneer more obvious than ever.
But he seems somewhat displeased by my complete lack of reaction to his worthless little plot.
As far as I understand it, he’s trying to sell me for money to those people, so that they’ll put me in one of those cages. Which might be more a threatening proposition if I wasn’t perfectly capable of ripping the bars out of the ground with a single finger, or of killing everyone in this building in less than 10 seconds.
As it is, him calling for that ‘manager’ only makes my own work easier.
If anyone here would know where to find elves, that would be him.
“Hey, subhuman. Why don’t you try to escape and see what happens? Go ahead. Show us how you run. Hahaha! Or are you just going to let yourself be enslaved without resistance? I suppose that would be good, too. Now that I think about it, you’re just about the right age to fit the tastes of some of my acquaintances. If one of them buys you, I promise they’ll definitely treat you veeeeery well. Hahaha!”
[…Be silent. Idiot.]
His nonsensical babbling is really starting to get annoying.
The man rears back and looks at me with a dumbfounded face, as if it didn’t even occur to him that I might ever insult him or tell him to shut up. “W–What did you say to me?”
I’m just about to repeat myself when the human girl from earlier comes back, accompanied by a man with streaks of white in his hair.
When they reach our position, the old man is the one to speak first. “Young Master Herval, a pleasure to see you again. I hear you have once more brought interesting business to my door?”
The new question seems to displace the rude man’s anger and surprise right out of his brain – perhaps there isn’t enough room inside it to follow two conversations at the same time – and he turns to smile amicably to the old man, as if completely forgetting about me. “Manager, you know me well. I only deal in quality merchandise.”
“Haha. Yes, a tenjin girl, is it? And… this one?”
The manager finally turns to me, taking a few steps closer to examine me in more detail. However, the instant he meets my gaze, his whole body suddenly stiffens.
“You… You are…”
The rude man – Herval – glances at me with a cruel smile on his lips. “So, what do you think, old man Manager? Isn’t this a rare find? Do you know what species she is?”
“Um… Young Master Herval, might I ask where you found this… young lady?”
“Huh? Well, I found her in front of the city gates. I didn’t kidnap her from anywhere, if that’s what you’re asking. Anyway, even if I had, she’s just a majin. No one’s going to care about where she came from. And she already wanted to come her on her own before I met her, if you can believe that. Hehehe. I only… provided her with some guidance. It was my civic duty.” He rubs his hands together, as if he can’t wait for what’s coming. “So, what kind of commission fee do you think would be appropriate for such a catch?”
“Y–Young master Herval, um…” Cold sweat starts to profusely stream down the manager’s brows, before his voice fades away, and he turns to me. “Child, are you… I mean, might I ask, do you have business with my establishment?”
[…I’m not a child.]
[…I’m not a child.]
“Oh. Um, my apologies. I didn’t mean…”
The manager’s sudden politeness and nervousness apparently stumps the rude man. His mouth opens wide enough to fit an egg inside, while the two women behind him look back and forth between the manager and me.
“Old man, what’s up with you? Haven’t you always welcomed every…”
“Young master Herval!” the manager cuts him off, looking a bit frantic. “This young lady is clearly not one of your slaves! My Blackwood Chamber of Commerce is well-known for its uprightness and honesty, and we would never condone the capture and selling of free people!”
“If this honored young lady wanted to come here on her own, as you say, then my firm will of course offer you a commission fee for your help in bringing us another customer, but anything else would be criminal.” Then, before Herval can speak any more, the manager turns to the girl in uniform next to him. “Thulia, show the young master our female tenjins and help him handle his business. I will take care of this new customer myself.”
The girl named Thulia looks a bit perplexed by the manager’s instructions, but nonetheless executes them without complaining. “Young Master Herval, please, if you’d follow me?”
Apparently, the shock of seeing his ploy to sell me fail so pitifully is enough to render the idiot speechless once more. He follows after Thulia without another word, his eyes staring blankly into space like his whole world has just collapsed, and his two women accompany him while throwing nervous glances in his direction.
They quickly disappear amidst the forest of cages, and the manager bows obsequiously in my direction. “Young lady, allow me to welcome you to the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce. We here do business honestly, and we accept and respect every single one of our precious customers, no matter what their species, genders, ages, or appearances. If the young lady might deign to tell this old man here what the young lady is looking for, this old man will do everything in his power to satisfy the young lady to the best of his ability.”
Well, this is a bit unexpected, but this welcome will certainly hasten the process.
[…I’m looking for an elf.]
The manager’s eyes widen. “Oh, I see! Elven slaves are quite rare, but we do have a few of them here.”
“They’re all on the third floor. The value of our merchandise climbs with each floor. Elves are some of the most precious slaves one can buy, and thus deserve their place on the top floor of our firm. Please, let me guide you there.”
Sketching another bow, the manager leads me toward a wide stairway off to the side of the room – different from the one through which he himself came – with steps of polished marble and a gilded rail.
Up on the second floor, the cages and the slaves inside them look distinctly different. Tiny, complex runes flash intermittently up and down bars made of orichalcum, while the people held inside them seem better-fed and less vacant-eyed than the ones downstairs. I can’t sense any qi pressure radiating off any of them, but I suspect it has more to do with those flashing runes than it has with the shallowness of their cultivation.
But as expected, there still aren’t any elves, here.
As we gather gazes from the clients wandering around this room, I follow the manager to another staircase similar to the first, and we directly head up to the third floor.
The third floor is a lot smaller than the other two, and the cages here aren’t made out of metal at all. In fact, the cages don’t look like cages in the least. Rather, they’re restraining and sealing magic formations, directly carved into the floor, which cover and trap the people within them in transparent forcefields, sometimes shimmering with bluish highlights.
And two of these cages hold elves inside.
Neither of them is Nerys.
The manager approaches one of the cages, and the elf woman inside raises her head to look at us. There’s hatred in her eyes when she looks at the manager.
“Young lady, if you wish to buy an elf, I’m sure you’ll be very pleased with this one. She is in perfect health and condition and is also quite talented in cultivation. Barely 350 years old, yet already a 6th-rank warrior – you must realize this is rather impressive, for an elf. With a proper slave collar on her neck, you won’t have to worry about any sort of rebellion, so you might make very good use of her as a bodyguard. Additionally, she has been schooled in various disciplines and is gifted in a great variety of different fields. Even if she does not yet possess the skills you require of her, we can fix that for you free of charge. Our dedicated instructors guarantee great results in just a few weeks. Really, the only flaw in this lovely package is that this elf’s not a virgin. But, if you’ll look over there…” The manager turns to the second cage. A little girl is sitting there despondently, tears at the corners of her eyes. As she looks at us, I see her mouth a few words, but her voice can’t reach me through the sealing formation. “This is the elf’s daughter. They were captured together, barely a month and a half ago.” The manager turns an ingratiating smile toward me. “I’ll offer the young lady an exclusive deal. If the young lady wishes to buy the mother, this old man will be able to offer you the child at 50% – no, 80% off! What do you think?”
There seems to be some sort of misunderstanding, here.
I restrain the pulses of anger flashing through my mind and focus on my goal.
[…I’m not here to buy anyone.]
I take a step toward the adult woman’s cage and direct a strand of soul force toward her, in order to initiate conversation. But the sealing formation not only prevents the woman from escaping her cage. It also prevents my soul force from reaching her.
It turn back to the dumbfounded manager.
[…Open this sealing formation.]
“U–Um… Young lady, the cages cannot be opened. The slaves are under several layers of restraints, but the formations are still the greatest and surest of them. Without them, they might try to escape.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the black-armored guards standing at the corners of the room suddenly stir. Their hands don’t actually drift toward the swords at their waists, but I sense their attention shift unto me.
Then, with a burst of magic, a thick wall of ice suddenly grows over the mouth of the stairway to the second floor, wispy tendrils of white mist rising up from its surface as the moisture in the air nearby condenses from the cold.
When the only way out suddenly closes, the manager takes a panicked step away from me as the armored guards draw their swords and rush in our direction.
But they are all painfully slow.
Before the manager can draw back or his reinforcements can save him, another spell has turned my hand into a massive block of ice that closes around his body, its grip painfully tight. As for the black-armored guards, ice spikes suddenly sprouting from the ground underneath them skewer all but one of them, who had the luck or the skill to dodge at just the right time.
But when this last survivor is about to continue his headlong rush toward me, a wave of frozen fog suddenly engulfs him, leaving a good half of the room covered in frost and his whole body encased in a thick layer of ice.
When every potential threat has been dealt with, a heavy silence falls over the room, the only sound that of the drops of blood slowly dripping from the corpses of the three impaled guards. The slaves were all protected by the sealing formations trapping them here, so none of them were hurt during the short confrontation, but their eyes are wide as they stare at me.
I turn my attention back to the manager, still choking in the crushing grip of my ice hand.
This time, the manager doesn’t try to come up with any excuses. He frantically digs into the pocket of his vest and fumbles with a small pendant of some sort. When a faint qi fluctuation arises from within it, all the sealing formations in the room abruptly deactivate, all at once.
As soon as the formation around her comes down, the elf woman rushes to her daughter and picks her up in a tight hug, quickly moving her behind her own back and interposing herself between me and the child, as if she’s afraid I might be planning to attack them. She even starts cycling her qi, perhaps hoping to intimidate me.
But she’s doesn’t understand the situation, yet.
My own blood-qi starts coursing through my meridians, instantly filling them to the brim and shaking the building with its force. The elf woman and her daughter, along with every other slave in the room, suddenly fall to the ground, uncontrollably kneeling under the weight of that pressure. I hear exclamations ring out from the lower floors and from outside the building.
But since I’d have some trouble questioning unconscious people, I immediately put my blood-qi to rest. Still, my point has been made rather clearly. Pale faces and fearful eyes are turned toward me.
[…I’m looking for an elf named Nerys. Have you seen her?]
I transmit my voice to both the elf woman and her daughter at the same time. Perhaps because the two of them saw me ‘talking’ to the manager already, they don’t react much to my telepathy.
“I… I–I don’t know,” the mother stutters.
The daughter doesn’t say anything at all. Perhaps the pressure I exuded was too strong; she seems to have temporarily lost the ability to speak. It might take a while for her to compose herself enough to hold a proper conversation.
[…What about your daughter?]
“My… My daughter?” The woman slowly moves a few centimeters more to the side, to hide the child from my view a bit more thoroughly. “M–My daughter has been with me ever since we were captured. But… I didn’t see any other elf at all during that time. Are… Are you sure this Nerys was here?”
[…Last time I saw her was 300 years ago.]
“W–What…? But then… D–Did you attack this place just on the off-chance that someone you know might have been here 300 years ago?”
Well, even I didn’t exactly hold high hopes for this from the start, but what else am I supposed to do? Where else am I supposed to look? Of course, I’m unlikely to find Nerys like this, but I’m even more unlikely to do so if I just wander around without any kind of goal.
Still, maybe I’ve been spoilt after finding the place where my house used to be barely a week after returning to Caldera and with practically no effort at all.
I hoped that my luck would continue, and that it would be as easy to find Nerys.
No matter how stupid it is, I can’t help but be disappointed.
I sigh inwardly and glance out of the corner of my eye at the little girl hiding behind the elf’s back. Her shock seems to be slowly fading, but as if to replace it, tears are welling up and streaming down her cheeks.
But it seems like she doesn’t dare to make any noise.
She bites her lips so that her sobs won’t be heard, staring at me from behind her mother’s back, her balled fists tightly grasping the hem of her clothes.
Haaaa, damn it…
Gritting my teeth, I turn back to the manager, whose face is starting to turn a faint blue after spending the last minute wrapped in ice.
[…I have questions for you.]