The situation was quick to grow awkward as soon as I freed the norbold girl by removing her collar and then the muzzle that bound her maw. Deta was quick to try and tell me that I was doing the wrong thing and putting myself in harm’s way, but it was clear to me that there was no potential danger regarding the girl.
She looked harmless – incapable of hurting even a slug. The way she moved was so delicate that she did not disturb a single rock on the floor.
Not a single thing about her was dangerous.
Deta was dismissed back to the northern entrance of my territory with South Guardian, Pit Twin, and Ahti sent to watch them. I did not intend on letting them leave yet, but I wanted nothing to do with them for the moment.
The reason for that was mostly Deiti.
Deiti expressed her gratitude once I helped the girl but then opted to stay silent. No words from the dragon entered my mind. Instead, only one emotion did: concern.
This concern caused me to look the norbold girl’s body over. The closer I paid attention to her, the more injuries I took notice of. Scratches, missing patches of hair, some hairs looked burned – the girl was covered in subtle injuries that looked as if somebody tried to cover them up.
It looked as if somebody tried to hide just how hurt she was.
“What was that about?” Lucia asked as I brought the norbold girl over to her.
With no way of understanding what the others were saying and no way of knowing what was going on inside of my head, Lucia was left more clueless than everybody else.
“Check on her. Make sure that she’s alright,” I told Lucia.
“It’s already obvious that she is anything but alright,” Lucia was quick to respond.
“I want you to tell me how bad it is.”
“If that’s what you want, but could you explain to me what’s going on?”
“Unashamed cruelty.” I used Deiti’s own words for the explanation. “I will not allow unashamed cruelty.”
“I see. Well, alright. That’s not a law I ever expected to hear a dungeon core implement, but it’s not a bad law.”
“Law? What’s that?”
“I’ll teach about laws later. For now, I’ll look over your new friend here.”
“Alright. Thank you.”
Lucia crouched down in front of the norbold girl to check on her, but the girl backed away.
From both of us.
As much as I would have liked for her to find comfort in me and hide behind me after just meeting me, that was not the case. Yes, I freed her from her bindings, but I was still unknown to her. I was also much larger and stronger in appearance than Deta and the aurbolds, so I was not exactly non-intimidating.
It made perfect sense for somebody in her position to fear everybody around her.
“What do I do now?” I asked Deiti.
“I… do not know. I would normally say to pet her head and to try and hug her, but I do not think that would be appropriate in this situation,” Deiti explained, leaving me clueless.
Deiti had no idea what to do, the girl backed away whenever Lucia or I attempted to come closer to her, and… it was awkward. Very awkward.
I wanted to help the girl but I had no way of doing so. Furthermore, I kept on forgetting that Crim was attached to my thigh since I had already grown so used to his presence. Not only was I a large, clearly powerful man of impressive stature, but I was a man with a humanoid slime attached to my thigh going everywhere that I went.
It most likely looked very strange to her.
Now, not wanting the awkward situation to continue, I opened my mouth to speak.
But somebody else stepped in to assist us.
“You… you dare move away from my lord after what he did for you?!” Corra shouted at the norbold girl, approaching her with killing intent in her eyes.
The norbold looked so genuinely terrified as she backed away before tripping.
I lunged forward suddenly enough that Crim wasn’t able to anticipate my move, separating myself from him so that I could catch the norbold girl to save her from falling and hitting her head on the hard floor.
“My lord!” Corra shouted. “She – she does not deserve such—”
“Stop. Now,” I ordered her.
It did hurt to see how pained Corra looked from me scolding her, but it needed to be done. She was acting out of line toward somebody I wished to help.
“I – I’m… sorry, my lord. I – it pains me to see you treated so disrespectfully. I only – I only wish… wish for you to – to—”
I could barely understand her as she choked on her voice while failing to hold back her tears.
Truthfully, I wanted to embrace her and tell her that it was alright… but she was in the wrong and there was somebody in more need of her to be tended to.
“We will talk about it later,” I told Corra before finally giving the norbold in my arms my attention.
Her whole body was shivering within my hold, but she did not try to get away from me even though doing so would have been easy.
“I’m sorry for Corra. She was doing what she believed was best for me. You are safe here. I will not allow anybody to hurt you, even if they are my own monsters,” I told the norbold girl.
When she finally opened her eyes, she was quick to notice that something was wrong. She wrinkled her nose and looked down at the source of the smell – my blood.
She finally opened her mouth to speak. “P-pain-hurt! I… did I – I hurt-cut you? My – my fault? I – I’m sor—”
Her first words were those of self-blame. Despite there being no way for her to harm me, she assumed that she did.
Perhaps she was simply so used to being blamed and apologizing that she naturally assumed the worst in every situation – that everything was her fault.
“Calm down. You did not hurt me. I received this yesterday,” I explained.
“I – but – you weren’t… no wound-blood before…”
“My Crim was helping me.” I motioned to Crim.
He returned to my side, moving carefully enough to not surprise the girl, and returned one of his slimy hands to my thigh to seal the wound and assist with my flowing blood.
“See?” I asked the girl.
“A-ah…” I realized that she was no longer shivering. Instead, her eyes were busy watching how Crim’s slime interacted with my wound. “Pain-hurt?”
“Your leg-limb. Is it – it in pain-hurt?”
She spoke like nobody I had heard before, so understanding her took me a bit more effort than usual. “I can barely feel it.”
“Ah… do… I – I can heal-tend i-if – if you… want-need. A-as apology-sorry.”
“There is nothing for you to apologize for. Stop saying sorry.”
Her eyes quivered from my words. “I – I’m sor—”
I knew that she needed to be treated with care, but you must keep in mind that I was still not used to doing such a thing.
Her repeated apologies despite my order to stop doing so annoyed me.
That was when I pushed a finger against her lips to stop her.
“Stop,” I ordered again.
Between my finger, my annoyed tone of voice, and the fact that I was still holding her with one arm, she began to shiver again.
I undid what little progress was made with her.
“Listen to me,” I said to her. “I had you brought here because I need healing, but I did not know of your position. I would not have asked if I knew you were… no, knowing now, I would have asked for you to be brought here only so that I could help you again. I will not force you to heal me, but I will appreciate you if you do, and you are free to leave and go wherever you want at any time.”
It might have been a lot to say at once, but her shivering decreased the more I spoke. Either my voice or my message calmed her, perhaps both as I no longer sounded annoyed like I previously did, and my voice always has been very charming.
“Please, heal my leg. I will help you after,” I repeated.
“Pl… pl-please?” the norbold girl repeated after me. “Y-you – you… give me choice-offer?”
“Yes,” I answered. “It is your choice. Nobody else’s.”
Her eyes began to water similar to when I tore the collar away from her. But, this time, there was no fear in her eyes. Her tears were not those of shock and fear. Rather, her tears were of relief – of finally being given choice and being treated like an individual rather than property.
Perhaps for the first time in her life, she was given a choice.
She was given free will.
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“Will you heal me?” I asked.
The girl was quick to nod her head as she wiped away her tears.
I looked up at Crim. Without saying a word, he understood what I wished for and stepped away so that the girl could have some space.
She finally lifted herself away from my arm before getting onto her knees in front of my leg.
“S-so… pain-hurt,” she whispered to herself. “Ca-can – can I touch-feel?”
I nodded and answered, “Yes.”
The girl brought her hands up to my thigh. The undersides of her hands were covered in soft pads discolored from dust and ash. While aurbolds had very reptilelike features, norbolds were ratlike – softer and covered in fur with squishy pads under their feet and on the undersides of their hands and fingers. They even had similarly shaped snouts, but aurbolds did not have noses. Aurbolds might have had nostrils, but they were simply there at the ends of their snouts. This norbold had a small, pink nose at the tip of her snout with short whiskers sticking out from around it.
Her whiskers should have been longer, but they were cut much like the rest of her body.
Now, after getting a closer look at my wound, she took a deep breath and slid each of her hands into my opened flesh to grab onto each end of the severed artery. The next second, I felt an aether unlike any other flow into me. The aether surrounded each end of the artery and, as she held the ends close together, fused them into one whole artery once more.
Bleeding out was no longer an issue.
Next, she did the same with the muscle inside of my leg. She tried her best to move the cut tissue close together and then flooded the area with her aether to fuse everything back together – back to how it was.
The process was repeated several times until she eventually made it back to my skin. All she had to do then was push my skin together before using aether to heal it once more.
All that was left by the time she was done was a numb sensation and a long, straight scar across my thigh.
I lifted my leg to test it out and there were no problems… aside from the fact that I lifted it while she was still kneeling in front of it. That caused her to flinch and cover her head.
“Sorry,” I said, “I did not mean to scare you. Thank you for healing me. I feel perfect now.”
“All… a-all better?” she asked, still struggling to look up at me sometimes, but she did at least take occasional glances toward my eyes.
Her mouth curled into a subtle smile but only for less than a second. Any joy she expressed was quickly replaced by concern. “Now... n-now what? What – what happens-comes to me?”
“Anything you want. You healed me, so I will do anything for you even if it is impossible.”
Her eyes widened. “Any-a-anything?”
“I… I could – could leave-go?”
“If you want to, yes.”
“What… what if – i-if I stay-wait?”
“You are welcome to stay. You would be useful here and I would make sure that everybody treats you with respect.”
“I-if I change-alter my mind?”
“Then you can change your mind and do something else.”
“This not – not trick-trap?”
“My territory has traps, but they are not for you and there are no tricks.”
“Then… I may really-truly stay – stay?”
“Yes. You are welcome here.”
“You won’t send-give m-me back-return?”
“Not unless you want to be.”
She quickly shook her head. “N-no! I – never… want to go back-return.”
“Then what is your choice?”
She looked up at me, down at the floor, back up at me, down at the floor, around the room at the rest of my monsters present, and then finally took a deep breath to look up at me. “Stay. I – I… here, I want to be-live.”
“Then you may stay here.”
“Can you feel that?” Deiti asked me.
Surely enough, there was a noticeable feeling of something coming from the girl.
It was not the same type of aether that came from her earlier to heal me, either. It was a much more natural – a more primal aether.
It was the aether of her soul.
“I do not know if she even realizes what she is doing… but she is offering her aether to you – her very soul. If that is what she is doing… CORE, I believe it is possible to officially invite her to the dungeon. Her aether is so vulnerable right now that you are capable of eternally bonding it to you. She will become one of our—”
“Mine,” I corrected.
“—one of your monsters. She will benefit from the dungeon as much as the others do. Do you wish to make her yours?”
I thought about what Deiti told me.
The norbold girl’s aether was so vulnerable to me – she was exposing her soul to me whether she realized it or not. That gave me the ability to turn her into one of my monsters for the rest of her life.
Regardless of what I wished to do, the choice was clearly not mine to make.
I would not force her into servitude after freeing her from her abusive life.
“If you wish, I can turn you into one of my monsters. You will be like all the others, except for Lucia, the human there, in here. You will understand them, you will share your feelings with me, you will benefit from all of my boons, and you will be protected and cared for,” I explained.
“Family. Just call you and your monsters family already,” Deiti suggested.
I liked how that sounded.
“We are a family. You are welcome to join our family, or you may stay without joining,” I added on.
“Fam-family-clan? I… I can join-enter your family-clan?” the girl asked. Her eyes watered even more than the previous times.
I thought that meant she didn’t want to. “You can, but you do not have t—”
“I want-need! I – I… a-am I accepted-wanted?”
She looked up at me before glancing over to the depressed Corra.
“Corra,” I said, causing her to look slightly less depressed and to look over at us. “Will you accept her as family?”
“If it is what you wish for, my lord,” Corra answered, nodding her head to the norbold girl.
Looking back at the situation, the norbold girl should have decided to stay with us but not join the dungeon. That way she could be safe while getting a chance to learn more about us – getting to learn what we were like, who we were, whether we were truly trustworthy, and so on.
But none of that mattered to the girl.
All that mattered was that she previously lived a life of abuse and bindings, and now she was being given the opportunity to be part of a family.
And it was all her own choice. Nobody was forcing her to do anything.
No, that is incorrect.
I was forcing her to be free.
“You may make your choice whenever you are ready,” I said. “Whatever you choose, you are—”
“Stay! I – I want… I want… w-want… fa-family-clan,” she answered, tears freely running from her eyes as she choked on her words similar to Corra earlier. “I feel like… this is dream-f-fake.”
“This is not a dream. You are awake.”
The girl sniffled and reached her arms out toward me before pulling them back to her side.
“Will you join us?” I asked once more.
No hesitation accompanied the nodding of her head.
All that was left from that point on was to follow the feeling I received from her. It was like I had to chase a feeling with my own and, when I finally caught it, I turned the girl before me into one of my monsters.
My newest family member.
“Welcome to our family,” I said, gently placing one hand on the top of her head to pet her.
To my surprise, she latched onto my arm with both of her hands and pulled it down to her chest so that she could hug my arm and rub her face against it.
For the first time in what must have felt like forever to her, she could let loose all of her emotions that she bottled up.
And now that she was a monster of mine, I could feel just how relieved and overjoyed she was.
How safe she felt.
How overwhelmingly happy she was.
I was glad to lend my arm to her.