Dominion's Paradise: IF
Deep, orange hues melding day into dusk streaked across Outset’s setting sky. The east gate into the walled city, which should have been a hotspot of activity, was instead a ghost town with almost no one sight. Only murmurs from thin crowds just beyond the inner drawbridge could be heard.
What’s going on? Daichi glanced around for suspicious activity, careful not to disturb Sanae resting on his back. From the forest behind them to the towering gate ahead, no other people or creatures were in their vicinity.
Except for two hooded figures standing by the entrance.
One of the strangers was a child-sized NPC, and the other an Adventurer. Daichi checked their Playercards from afar:
Wait, why does his level have a question mark? This feels sketchy. Should I wake Sanae? Even if I do, her MP probably hasn't finished recharging. I'll just have to wing it . . .
He guardedly walked up towards the large gate but kept his distance as he passed the two strangers.
"Pardon, sir. Would you have a moment?" The mysterious Adventurer pulled back his hood. Masato looked like a man in his late thirties: balding, but with a tuft of orange hair remaining. He had a bit of a rat face but otherwise didn’t appear threatening.
"Huh? Moment for what?" Daichi's voice sounded skeptical, not wanting to speak more than necessary to these individuals. He adjusted himself to keep Sanae's face hidden from view.
"You two are the ones from the tavern earlier, right?” Masato asked. “Who were talking about going to Trinket?"
They've been shadowing us this whole time? Not good. "So what if we're headed there?" Daichi's pinky tried finding scrolls around his waist but he forgot to reset them. Crap!
The orange-haired Masato bowed his head. "I'm sorry to cause alarm, we mean no harm. We've been waiting here to ask a favor."
"Go on, it's okay.” Masato’s hand nudged the NPC standing next to him. "You’re safe here. You can show him."
The small, nervous NPC stepped forward then removed their ragged hood. A little girl with red hair and striking, blue eyes emerged. She was covered in filth from head to toe and wearing shoes that were falling apart. Her twiddling fingers brandished several small cuts, but she otherwise seemed physically well.
Also, she had big cat ears.
"Huh? Cat girl?" Daichi yelled, a mix of amazement and surprise. "There's cat girls in this world!"
"Catwhatshappening?" Sanae on his back awoke from the commotion. Sluggish movements still inhibited her reactions.
Abby—the NPC—scampered away and hid behind Masato.
"It's okay, they won't hurt you," he told her. "We checked them out, remember?"
Daichi tried meeting Sanae's eyes behind him. "We were followed from the tavern, and these same people wanna ask us a favor now."
A look of sudden alert spread across her face. She inspected Masato from afar and then drew her eyes down to Abby. "Oh, a Felonian!"
"Felonian?" Daichi said.
"Yeah. They're the only other human breed for NPC's," she replied. "Pretty hard to find these days outside of Trinket and Falcon Heights though."
"That's what I wanted to ask," Masato said. "You're the only trustworthy people heading to Trinket I could find. I'd—I'd like to ask if you could escort Abby back to her family in Trinket, if possible." He bowed at a harsh incline. "Please."
But it was a hard sell considering the whole stalking aspect. Is this legit, or some sort of trap? "Why can't you do it yourself then? Trinket isn't far from here."
"Daichi . . . " Sanae chastised from behind, as if reprimanding him.
"It's ok, young lady. Your friend is still new here. " Masato kneeled over to pull the right sleeve of his trousers up, revealing a black collar strapped around his leg. It radiated trace amounts of cursed energy. "I'm a slave. I can't venture too far from my master, or this thing will kill me."
"You're a slave?" Daichi stammered. The shock almost made him lose his grip on Sanae's legs. "Didn’t Princess Dominion pass new laws before we got here to illegalize stuff like that?”
"She did," Sanae interjected. "Felonians were all slaves before Adventurers came around. But Princess Dominion went against nobles and ordered all slaves in Paradise released. Owning Paradisian or Felonian slaves from then on was banned too."
"Wait. Does that mean . . ."
Her fist curled over his chest, trembling like she was frustrated. "Princess Dominion couldn't have guessed we'd invent slave collars and start enslaving ourselves. Her decree only applied to Paradisians and Felonians, not to Adventurers," she said.
"Can't they just update the law then?"
She shook her head. "Makoto told you right? How much she's hated by most NPC’s?"
"Well, she passed controversial reforms to soften the impact Adventurers would have on Paradise. A revolution almost started before we got here, but she calmed tensions by promising not to pass new laws while we’re here."
"What kind of messed up compromise is that?"
"The circumstances don't matter," Masato added, hiding his leg collar again. "This is something I asked for—something I wanted."
"Alright, I’m a little lost now, haha." Daichi's confusion caused him to hunch over.
"Plain and simple, I'm just a coward." Masato's pained eyes looked down towards his shoes in shame. "All I've ever wanted was to see my daughter again back in reality, leveling be damned. I lived on the streets for a while here and that's when I heard from other cowards—about nobles offering Adventurers food, shelter, and safety in exchange for enslavement."
"And you just accepted that?" How does it even get that bad?
"Like I said: I'm a coward. But my master treats me well and I don't have many duties. Fetching daily groceries around town is one of them. That's when I ran into little Abby one fateful day."
Abby's cat ears twitched at the mention of her name. She looked up as Masato gingerly petted her.
"This girl here escaped from a Dearth hideout in Outset, after being kidnapped from her family in Trinket. Owning Felonian slaves is illegal, but black markets still exists thanks to people wanting 'cat girls'—Dearths and Dusk Nobles are happy to serve in those cases."
Dusk nobles? Daichi's mind blasted on full power absorbing all the information. He just barely even noticed Sanae hyperventilating behind him. "Huh? What's wrong?"
Her chest contracted and expanded, air darting out like a piston against Daichi's back. Her legs being held at Daichi's side were shivering hard enough to force a tighter grip. Feral eyes akin to a cornered beast's glared in Abby's direction.
"The Death hideout! Where—which one is it! TELL ME!" she screamed. A shrillness in her voice sounded almost bloodcurdling.
"E-Eeep!" Abby hid behind Masato again.
"I'm sorry, she can't remember those details well," Masato said. "Please calm yourself, miss. You're scaring her."
"Ahhh . . . Haha . . . Ha." Sanae mumbled to herself, slowly sliding off Daichi's back. She crouched into a ball on the ground and hid her face with convulsing hands.
"Hey, seriously! What's wrong?" Daichi's hand reached out to comfort her but she immediately slapped it away, like a reflex. There was panic in her eyes that even Omicron King couldn't replicate. She heaved breaths in several more times before at last calming herself.
"I'm okay—I'm okay," she said as she stood up to wobbling legs. "S-Sorry you all had to see that."
Masato's beige eyes seemed sympathetic, like he knew the cause of her spasm. "Time doesn't heal all wounds; I know better than anyone."
After she patted off her white robe, Sanae walked over to a frightened Abby hiding behind Masato then crouched over. "I'm really not that scary, see? I'm a regular person, just like you in more ways than one."
"Y-You're nice?" Abby murmured.
"Mhmmm! I'm the nicest girl around! In fact, this nice girl is about to agree to take you home soon!"
"Really? Super really?"
"Yup! And I promise I won't let anything bad happen to you!"
Abby leapt into Sanae's arms and they wholesomely embraced each other. "Thank you! Thank you so much!"
Woah. Didn't even ask for my opinion though, haha. Daichi strolled over towards their festive gathering. "Well guess that settles that then."
"It means the world to us! Thank you for accepting a rewardless task.” Masato bowed once again like a butler.
"Alright, listen." Daichi turned towards him. "I get that you don't have money for quest requests, but if your master is as good a person as you say he is, can't he do something for Abby?”
"Heavens no. My master is kindred, but his one flaw is extreme bigotry towards Felonians. He'd sooner return her to Dearths than help."
"Not to mention that Dusk Nobles might retaliate," Sanae added. She was busy stroking Abby's fluffy head, a bit too gleefully. "They're the whole reason Dearths still exist as an organization. No doubt they're all cozy even today."
Masato nodded. "I've been sheltering Abby in an abandoned house and keeping her fed. I can’t raise her forever though; you two are the best bet she has of finding happiness again."
Sanae stood up with Abby cradled in her arms. “Mm! You can count on us!”
“Be good, ok?” Masato told Abby. “Don’t give them any trouble.”
But a somber expression lined the cat girl's face. “I want you to come too . . . ”
“We’ll see each other again someday," he smiled. "My master takes business trips often. I'll sneak away and look for you if I’m ever in Trinket.”
Abby sniffled. “Alright . . .”
Satisfied, Daichi hovered nearby while they all exchanged some final words. It all culminated with Sanae's eyes beaming with excitement as she nestled Abby into a bear hug.
"Let's head into town for a bath and some new clothes!" the elated Cleric said.
"Ehhhhh?" Abby cutely protested.
"Daichi, you head back to the inn. We'll meet up later and I'll finish healing you then."
"Oh, yeah. Just be careful.”
"Mm!" She lowered Abby's hood again over her head, covering the red cat ears. "Come on, we're gonna have some fun! Girl's night out!"
"Ehhhhhhhh?" The reluctant loli looked miserable as Sanae happily carried her away past the towering gate into town.
Sanae is a sucker for cuteness confirmed? He chuckled to himself as he drew parallels to Hanako's strange penchants. Maybe it's a unifying factor for most girls I've known actually.
After a quick, cordial discussion with Masato, Daichi said his own farewells as he formulated his next stop in Outset.
"It was nice meeting you, man! I'll make sure Abby gets home safe and sound!" Daichi started making his way towards the entrance gate. “Take care!”
Masato's arm flopped high up for a goodbye. “Don’t have too much fun in Trinket!”
Wait, is that city fun or something? Well whatever. Daichi blended in with streaming crowds waltzing through Outset's streets. There was somewhere he wanted to investigate before regrouping with his friends. Hope no one minds if I’m a little late today.