A large number of people could be seen at the plaza next to the port in the distance. However, when Lorist rushed over there, the group of people merely stirred slightly before stepping aside to make a path while looking with an odd gaze of wonder and envy. Their tattered rags made their identity clear; they were slaves.
Lorist found it weird that so many slaves were gathered at the port and wondered why they had done so. However, Lorist was a little slow to arrive. The guards of the port who had been busy frightening the slaves at first had cast away their armor and entered the inner walls of Nupite before hurriedly closing the gates.
It didn't take long for another wave of pained cries and moans and a few streaks of smoke coming from the distance to take Lorist's attention. A large group of enslaved women and children were despairing on the bridge near the port, where another 17 to 18 small speed boats could be seen carrying huge linen sacks that were set aflame.
Lorist quickly understood the reason for the women and children's cries. Those slaves had been chained to the port and were unable to move away from where they were. They could only stare as the linen sacks burned brighter and fiercer and await their death with despair.
Some of the slaves wore expressions of grief while others looked as if they were finally going to be liberated from their life of suffering. There were also those who were coughing nonstop for inhaling too much smoke. One huge, scarred man seated at the frontmost part with a burning sack behind him called out to his family and implored them to stay strong and live.
Like a huge bird, Lorist dashed his way to the burning speedboats. The moment he set foot on the deck, a waft of smoke rushed into his nostrils.
Good Sol, these sacks have all been doused with oil. No wonder the fire's so strong.
Without hesitation, Lorist used a long stick he picked up by the side of the port to push the sacks into the ocean, causing one cheer after another to resound along the bridge. A few other soldiers and knights made their way to the bridge and helped their lord save the slaves.
The household knights easily cut the slaves' chains with their silver blade glows, allowing those who had barely just survived to reunite with their families.
"Sir, good Sir..."
Lorist turned around and saw the man with scars all over his body holding two children around ten years old come to him and prostrate himself as he said, "Thank you, Sir, for saving our lives."
Lorist stepped back and said, "Stand up, you don't have to thank me in this fashion. House Norton forbids slavery. You are free."
On Grindia, prostrating oneself with all limbs flat on the ground was one of the most extreme forms of submission. It was normally reserved for sacrificial ceremonies to the gods. It just so happened that the Hanayabarta kingdom mandated that the slaves show them the same degree of respect to sate their egotistical cravings for power.
The huge man looked flabbergasted as if he couldn't believe what he had just heard.
"We... we're free?"
"That's right, you are free. However, you will still have to be monitored temporarily so that you don't cause trouble for our operations. We are in the midst of a war, so you will only regain true freedom once I defeat the slavers and slave traders."
The huge man straightened his back and hugged his two children, crying.
"We're free... We're finally free..."
Lorist took a good look at that man and his two children. The older one was a boy around the age of twelve while the younger child was a girl of around seven. She was dressed just like a boy, however. Her hair was incredibly messy. Lorist assumed it was a protective measure to ensure her safety.
"Sir, apologies for showing you my unsightly form," the huge man said after a good long sob, "Can you tell me your name, Sir? I will definitely not forget my debt to you."
"We are House Norton from the Northlands, also known as the Roaring Raging Bear," replied a guard beside Lorist proudly.
"Northlands... Norton... Raging Bear?" the huge man mused, "Ah, I know. You're here to exact revenge. No wonder your armor looks so familiar. A fight broke out over one of your armor sets and some people even died as a result."
"Oh, what are you called?" asked Lorist, raising an eyebrow.
"I'm called Karman, Sir. I come from the Romon Empire," replied the huge man respectfully.
"The Romon Empire? Wow, that's quite far. Stand up. Tell me how you came to be a slave in the first place," said Lorist.
"Thank you, Sir," said Karman as he stood up, "I used to be an apprentice attendant to Count Bilop. The count angered the prime minister and was stripped of his dominion and attacked by the empire's army. After the attendants and guards were captured, of which I was one, we were sold off as slaves. It happened about 19 years ago. I was just 15 at the time."
"You've awakened your battleforce?"
"That's right. Had it not been for that, I wouldn't have been able to stay alive for so long. It's only because of my battleforce that I was considered in a much better light and even allowed to bear two children," replied Karman.
"Then, why were you chained up over here?" asked Lorist.
"Look," Karman said as he pointed at the Windstorm near other sunken ships in the distance, "Is that ship one of your family's, Sir?"
"That ship's far too powerful! The ten of the royal family's patrol ships were sunk in mere moments. The remaining ones don't dare to engage it. So, one of the people in charge came up with a ploy to dump flaming piles on the speedboats and have them sail towards your ship. They wanted us slaves to paddle the boats in exchange for the safety of our families..."
Lorist felt a chill run down his spine and relieved that he had made it in time to stop the enemy's plan. Over 30 flaming boats ramming into the Windstorm would be something terrible to behold.
"Search all the ships around the port and capture anyone on board and bring them here. Kill anyone who resists," instructed Lorist to the guard nearby.
"Sir, the crews of the royal patrol fleet have already retreated behind the inner walls. Their ships have long been evacuated," said Karman.
"Aren't there still people on the other merchant vessels? Everyone must come here to be screened," said Lorist with satisfaction.
The 200-odd ships would become his property soon. They alone were easily worth more than a million gold Fordes.
"Karman, tell me more about the incident regarding the armor of our troops."
"Did the slavers attack your dominion three months ago, Sir?" asked Karman.
"That's right. They attacked one of our island dominions."
"Sir, the garrison troops of your dominion were really amazing," Karman praised, "I still recall that more than 20 guards from this port joined that attack and only three of them came back. Even though they managed to gain quite a bit of coin, they only managed to get one breastplate from your troops. After they returned, the three fought over who should take possession of the breastplate without end. Due to being excessively drunk, a fight broke out and it ended with two dead and one heavily injured. The injured one died two days later from excessive blood loss, so the leader of the guards took the breastplate for himself.
"I was among the slaves who were tasked to deal with the corpses, so I got a good look at that breastplate. The moment I saw your troops wearing armor of the same design, I knew you were here to take revenge. However, Milord, there seemed to have been lots of people who were captured during their attack. I recall seeing tens of thousands of enslaved people. We were wondering where they came from in the first place."
"Only a part of the people captured were subjects of my dominion. Most of them are refugees who were brought in to develop our dominion. It was precisely because of their presence that the slavers decided to attack us. Karman, many of our troops were captured as well. Do you know where they are being held?" asked Lorist.
"I seem to have heard something about it before," said Karman in deep thought.
"Bali. Bali, come over."
Karman called out to a slave behind him.
A thin young man around the age of 17 came forward timidly and asked, "You called for me, Uncle Karman?"
"Yes. Bali, do you remember seeing a group of weird-looking slaves at the port two months ago?"
Karman continued, "Think hard about this. Why did those slaves strike you as weird? Also, where were they taken?"
"Oh, they looked a little too prideful to be slaves. Many of them were injured and some were even outright cursing, saying that their lord would come to save them and kill all of the slavers without question. The leader of the guards here was present at that time and attempted to use his whip to teach them a lesson. But the slavers said that those slaves were for the Hamidas Dueling Grounds and that the guard leader would have to pay for the losses should the slaves be injured. In the end, the guard leader took his anger out on us and even gave me a few whips," explained Bali.
"Hamidas Dueling Grounds?" mused Lorist with dread.
What Karman said proved Lorist's fears to be right.
"Sir, perhaps, only a few of your soldiers are still alive. The Hamidas Dueling Grounds is nothing short of hell. That place hosts the crying souls of the dead slave gladiators. The slavers love performances like those the most. They love to see magic beasts tear helpless slaves apart and pit one group of slaves against another until one side is completely wiped out.
"There is usually a 'show' once every ten days, but those shows are relatively small scale with only a little more than ten dying each time. Every month, however, there would be a large-scale battle with more than a hundred slaves participating for the slavers' entertainment. Last month, they held one of those shows to celebrate the founding of the kingdom. I heard that up to a thousand slave gladiators died during the fights."
He said with bloodshot eyes, "Very well... For every one of our troops that died at the Hamidas Dueling Grounds, I will have ten slavers buried with them. If one of my household knights die, I will sacrifice ten of those slaver nobles to appease their souls."
"Milord," a heavy-armored soldier called out as he rushed over, "We have already sealed off four of the city gates, but there are lots of ballistae on the walls that caused us a small number of casualties. Blademaster Engelich sent me here to ask you when we will begin the siege."
Lorist raised his head and looked at the distant inner walls upon which many people were gathered.
"Are there that many ballistae up there?"
"We estimate at least a hundred," replied the soldier.
Even though Lorist was still feeling seething anger after finding out where his troops and knights were sent, he didn't let his emotions affect his decision to order the troops to attack the walls immediately.
"Order our troops to retreat to a safe distance. Form a defensive line to stop anyone from escaping. Order the wheelbarrow-ballista units to keep firing at the walls around four gates to put pressure on the enemy troops on the walls operating the ballistae. Since we've occupied the port area, have Ovidis's Thunderbolt Brigade come ashore for now. We'll let the enemies in the inner walls live for another day. We'll launch our attack tomorrow," instructed Lorist.
"Yes, milord," said the soldier before he ran off.
"Milord," said Potterfang as he came over.
"What's up with your situation?" asked Lorist.
"Yuriy and Josk have already begun operations with the light cavalry scout brigade. Apart from the ships that have docked, we had the remaining ones come over to the port over here. I've already had the battlefield cleaned up. We have around 300 casualties and more than 2000 dead enemies," replied Potterfang.
"Good. If Fiercetiger Loze, Malek, and the rest managed to conquer the eight islands, order them to bring their men here. Have all the slaves and captives brought over to the main island and leave a company of troops to defend each of the islands. Make sure to light a smoke signal the moment any enemy movement is noticed. Also, get Senbaud's Oceanic Legion to increase the patrols around the islands. Assign one brigade of heavy-armored troops and another brigade of wheelbarrow-ballista to him to deal with the remaining 19 islands. Have the slaves and captives brought over here as well."
"Understood, Milord," replied Potterfang.
"Sir, Sir..." Karman called out.
"What's wrong?" asked Lorist.
"Sir, can you give us a chance to aid you in any way? You've saved our lives and have given us our freedom. We are willing to form up and help you attack the walls. Sir, we are not afraid of death. As long as you give us some weapons, we will be more than willing to revolt and pay the slavers back for all the pains we've suffered."
Lorist shook his head.
"Karman, I appreciate your sentiment, but to be honest, you guys are not well-trained and have quite weak constitutions. It's not that I'm looking down on you guys, but sending you to attack the walls is nothing short of suicide. It is a sacrifice that will not bring us any benefit at all."
Karman's gaze dimmed as he understood that Lorist spoke nothing but the truth.
"However, there is a way that you can help me out," Lorist said as he pointed at the slaves gathered up near the port, "Organize them properly. We will need guides to show us the way to the palace's food stores so that we can get something prepared to feed you. I heard that there are more than 400 thousand slaves here in the kingdom. If I merely liberate you and leave you to your own devices, a food crisis would surely ensue.
"Find some more talented and trustworthy ones among the slaves and gather them up. I believe that you are more than capable of this. Form a temporary settlement to help us organize and deal with the slaves we rescue. Only after the slaver nobles are exterminated can we transport you lot back to the mainland and return you to your homes.
"Also, there's a lot of things I will need your help with. You guys can help us screen the slavers and determine which are worthy of death and help us find their hidden warehouses; you can also help with cooking… Support the injured instead of charging to your deaths. If you are willing, you are also free to follow us back to the Northlands to our dominion and start your lives there. Karman, are you willing to help me out?"
Karman bowed deeply and said, "Milord, it is my greatest honor to be able to serve you. I trust that the other slaves are more than willing to do so as well."