After learning that the children had slave collars on them, Thomas understood why the boy lashed out against him. The two of them were on the run so they couldn't trust strangers. Thomas hadn't seen their parents anywhere so he wasn't sure if the boy was telling the truth about them still being in the picture.
Making Estella stay with the cart, Thomas approached the two kids and stopped a few feet away from them. "Want to get rid of those collars? I can help you."
The boy was still wary of Thomas so he hid his sister behind his back. "You can't take them off. They're too strong to be cut off and they're locked using magic so there's no key." The boy's tail was tucked between his legs and was shaking.
Since Thomas was within scanning distance to the collars he had asked the AI to scan them and see whether or not he could remove them. The answer was better than he imagined; absorbing the collar would not only be able to remove it from the kids but it'd also supply him with points due to the magic stone powder that was added to the iron. The iron and magic stone alloy was tougher than regular iron and it allowed devices to power their own magic formula; in this case it was a lock that only released when supplied with magic energy that had a specific wavelength.
"Others might not be able to remove it but I've got my own special tricks. I might not be able to take it off and leave it intact but there's no magic device out there that I can't destroy." Thomas left out the part where he could only destroy them if they were in close proximity to him and that he almost died because he couldn't get close to one--only being saved when one of the enemies took out their own magic device by accident.
The boy was still wary of Thomas but he wanted to believe that this stranger really had a solution to the greatest problem that he was currently facing. He couldn't enter a city because the guards would catch him once they saw his collar. There was an award for recapturing slaves so even regular people would sell him out just for a chance to make their lives a little better. "If you're lying then I'll bite you to death."
The boy got closer to Thomas and raised his chin, exposing the collar on his neck. The iron alloy used was black due to the magic stone powder being mixed in. Magic stones usually appeared to be multicolored but when ground up they would turn into a blackish-grey powder. Thomas held on to the collar and after pretending to struggle a bit he told the AI to start absorbing it; this way everyone would mistakenly believe that what he was doing was tough for him.
The boy felt that the weight on his neck and when he realized that the collar was gone he had a big smile on his face before running to his sister. He picked her up and spun her around before placing her in front of Thomas. "Quick, remove hers too."
"I'll remove her collar as well but you should let me rest for a bit first. Let me ask you a question while we're waiting." Thomas could just remove it but without a guarantee that the kids would stick around he wasn't sure that they'd answer his questions. "You mentioned your parents earlier. Are they around? If so I can help remove their collars as well. Although it's a bit tiring I'm sure that I've got enough in me to remove another three collars."
The boy's stiff expression betrayed his true thoughts--although the boy claimed that his parents were currently hunting and that they didn't have any collars on, it was clear that he was lying. Thomas didn't call the boy out or make things difficult on him before absorbing the girl's collar as well. It seemed that the two were traveling alone and didn't have a penny to their name so Thomas didn't ask for anything in return; the points earned from absorbing the collars were enough of a reward for him.
When the boy invited them to stay for a while, Thomas declined and let him know that they were in a hurry to reach a city. To make sure that they were able to survive if they went to a village that had people, he decided to leave them with two silver and ten copper coins; Thomas had plenty of money on him and that amount of money would allow the siblings to eat for at least a couple of weeks if they rationed their food. Thomas then returned to Annie and Estella before heading off. Since the two of them started walking, Estella's eyes were locked on to Thomas. It was unknown what she was thinking and Thomas didn't even know that he was being stared down since he was too focused on looking at the path ahead and keeping watch for danger.
Eventually the abandoned path met up with a well-worn dirt road. Thomas didn't know exactly where they were but since he had been traveling with the sun behind his back it seemed like they needed to take a left. The road to the right was aimed towards where the sun rose so it must lead back to the destroyed village and it would be dangerous to both of them if they headed back that way.
"How long do you think it'll be until we find a city?" Thomas tried to start a conversation with Estella but she was distracted. Seeing that she wasn't answering he decided to give her a small shout. "Hey!" She snapped out of her daze so he asked her again. "How long do you think it will take us to reach the nearest city?"
"I don't know. This is my first time in this part of the country. Why even ask me? You're the one that was supposedly raised here." Thomas wasn't sure but Estella seemed a bit different. Her behavior towards him was a bit dismissive which had him worried and maybe a bit annoyed.
"Do you have something on your mind?" Thomas didn't want a repeat of what happened last time--her bottling everything up before exploding all at once--so he decided to ask her what was bothering her. "You seem distracted."
"I don't like this." Estella stopped, causing Thomas to stop pulling the wagon as well, and started to show anger towards Thomas. "Every time something happens you boss me around. You never let me do what I want to do. You're always mean to me." She sighed before continuing. "Why is it that you needed to release those puppies? Someone is probably looking for them right now."
Thomas knew that as someone with memories from a more advanced society his perspective would be very different than those born and raised with this world's values. His upbringing was much too different from Estella's and he couldn't understand her reasoning. "They're not puppies. They're people like you and me. They're capable of talking and carrying on conversations the same as we're doing right now. Just because someone puts a collar on them it doesn't mean that they no longer have any feelings or thoughts of their own."
Estella thought for a bit but then shook her head. "They're slaves and they even hit you. You didn't even want to have them as pets. What do you get for helping them? I don't understand you. One moment you're nice and trying to woo me but the next you're calling me an idiot to some slaves."
"I..." Realizing that he went too far when insulting her, Thomas decided to apologise. "... sorry. I really shouldn't have said that. I didn't actually mean that you were an idiot. It was just meant to lighten the mood for the kids."
"Enough. If you really feel sorry then you'll leave me alone for now. I don't feel like talking to you." Thomas wasn't sure if he could salvage their relationship but for now he realized it was a bad time to be arguing with her. He nodded and kept walking forward in silence.
The road eventually split and they were given the option to either go north or northwest. There was a road sign that pointed in three directions. The way they came from was labeled Valkland and was the city directly south of the village that he was from which meant that he was right earlier when he decided to travel north. To the left or northwest it was labeled Fort Togo; Thomas didn't know anything about this place but knew that it wasn't where they needed to go. The last direction was labeled Adierton--a city named after the noble family that ruled over it and the closest city to the north of the village he was from.
The walk north was filled with an awkward silence. 5 Best Chinese Romance Books of 2020 So Far