“This seems dangerous.”
Bertelgia squirmed as she commented on the rather severe response. Sungchul wordlessly slid into the shadows to hide. Although it was not nearly as good as someone of Ahmuge’s talents, Sungchul’s skill with stealth was close to the pinnacle.
Several hundred servants of Vestiares that appeared in between the settlements searched for but failed to find traces of Sungchul. Several child Vestiares persistently doubled back and combed the area to seek out intruders but it ended in vain. And their appearance served only to feed Sungchul’s conviction.
‘As I thought, there really is something going on in the Settlements.’
The larger the secret, the larger the organization behind it trying to keep it hidden. The security for the Settlements were far more relentless than even Ixion itself. Sungchul felt a strong desire to infiltrate the Settlements. But there did not seem to be a way to sneak in above ground. It didn’t seem possible to sneak past Golems that need no rest nor the numerous detection barriers set up all over the place without being discovered.
But Sungchul had his own way of dealing with this kind of situation. He pressed hard down on the ground with his leg.
Before Sungchul had arrived in the Other World, he had worked in hard manual labor as a construction worker. On top of that, he had the misfortune of having spent every year of his military service under a reproachable superior who had him participate in digging trenches until the end.
The shovel was a familiar tool of trade as well as a weapon in his hands.
And the shovel held in his hand was made of black steel forged by dwarven mastersmiths. It was the highest quality shovel that neither dulled nor broke.
Sungchul used that excellent tool to dig a tunnel at god-like speed.
Even the jaded Bertelgia couldn’t help but exclaim at this. Digging a tunnel from a distant point beyond sight has long been a method of war. Back in his rebellion days, Sungchul had even managed to successfully siege several cities and castles by sapping the walls. Of course the act of digging was physically strenuous and required pouring sweat and exhausted bone and muscle even before the fight, but Sungchul believed that spilling sweat was always preferable to spilling blood so he did not mind the hard work. Furthermore, things have changed and he now even had god-like strength within his arms, so there was nothing that could stop his shovel.
The shovel displaced immense quantities of dirt at a pace faster than the eye could see. There was no break in the shoveling so Sungchul’s pace was no different from walking normally. Problem was that the dirt he removed did not automatically remove themselves from the site and he would be blocked from behind from time to time. But he had a solution for even this.
The magic spell that enabled breathing underwater was effective even underground where there was limited supply of air.
Sungchul soon arrived below the ground where the golems were defending. From this point onward, he paid close attention to check the activity on the surface as he continued to dig with his shovel. The golems did not react.
The golems may need no sleep nor feel any fear, but they lacked the flexibility and imagination of a human being. They were powerless once they encounter a situation outside of their pre-programmed parameters.
Even the child Vestiares were searching for enemies on the surface. It didn’t seem like they were capable of worrying about the potential for an underground infiltration.
And even if they were to dig around underground, they would not be able to find anything since Sungchul’s tunnel was incontinuous.
Once Sungchul reverified that the patrols were incapable of discovering him, he hastily dug towards the nearest Settlement. And soon he finally arrived under a Settlement.
He cautiously moved his shovel to scoop out the last of the dirt leading to the surface.
The Settlement was shrouded in darkness. There was no sign of life at all. Sungchul carefully inspected the interior of the Settlement. There were roughly 150 houses located within the walls. Aside from the houses that were arranged in a checkerboard pattern, there were wells, laundry spots, and fountains as well. At the laundry spot were clothes that had fallen due to the wind as well as other clothes left behind by someone, and at the fountain was an abandoned cup that had clearly been used.
The evidence of people having lived here until recently was unmistakable. But not a single person could be found in the entire place. All of the inhabitants were missing as if an epidemic had swept the whole town.
Sungchul carefully approached the castlewall to check the location of the nearest Settlement. Several had lights on and a few of them were completely dark like the one here.
Sungchul headed towards the Settlement that still had its lights on. Of course while carrying his shovel.
There were people still living in the next Settlement. A great many.
Although it was late at night, the streets were bustling with activity and the sound of conversation could be heard from all over. Sungchul covered the hole he had climbed out of with the sack he had always carried with him before heading into the streets. This was unmistakably a town where people lived. Sungchul could clearly see that despite all the hardships, the people who lived here were filled with hopes and dreams. At the center of the square shaped Settlement proudly stood the statue of Lesser God Sidmia that could be commonly seen around Ixion.
Sungchul was able to eavesdrop on a few conversations between people who were gathered at a small tavern that was still open late into the night.
“McRaed Nim apparently stated that we’re going to receive citizenship soon.”
“Well, no wonder. Our Settlement 7 boasts the highest productivity.”
“It’s too early to let our guards down, since Settlement 44 has managed to catch up right behind us. We should work a bit harder to meet our quota!”
Sungchul was able to tell that these people were the Refugees. While these people were leading a life of poverty in a refugee camp, they decided to migrate here after coming across the advertisements by the guides. The camp they had come from was not from the Empire but from further south, from the Dominion of the Allied Merchant’s Guild.
‘They’re not bringing in people from only La Grange.’
The maximum number of people that could be crammed up into a single Settlement seemed to be roughly two thousand people, but comfortably fit about a thousand.
There were over fifty of these Settlements. It was on a scale that could accommodate tens of thousands of individuals. But there was no arable land nor livestock nor natural resources that could sustain such a population nearby.
Even the greatest nation on the continent, the Empire, struggled to deal with the refugees. But a city erected overnight could sustain all of them? There was no possible way this could be done.
‘As I thought, this reeks horribly.’
Instead of heading to the next Settlement, Sungchul remained here for the sun to rise. He thought that he could possibly get a clue by observing the daily activities of the residents.
The moment the sun rose, the doors of the Settlement opened and a wagon pulled by a large water ox was led in by Homunculi and began to hand out rations.
The rations were high quality and plentiful. But for people who weren’t content with just this, jobs within Ixion were offered.
“Virtuous settlers who wish to work are to quickly come and wait in the wagons yeyo!”
A few men answering the call to temporary jobs stood around the campfire near the wagons to await departure. Sungchul joined the group as naturally as if he lived there. He stood among those who were smoking weed as he lit their joints for them and exchanging small talk to pass the time. The time for departure soon arrived and a pale and thin Inspector from Ixion appeared. Exquisite outfit aside, he seemed to be of a very high standing judging by the number of aids who attended him.
“Today, we are recruiting one traffic guide, ten pavement builders, eight logistics crewmen, and four abandoned settlement cleanup crewmen.”
Sungchul observed for now. It was because it was likely for a crowd to gather around the best work available.
The people swarmed towards the traffic guide position. The next most desirable seemed to be pavement work.
Everyone seemed to dread the logistics position, but those who were not selected for pavement work reluctantly volunteered for the job. But not a single person volunteered for cleanup work at the abandoned Settlements. Sungchul turned to ask a man he shared a joint and got to know a bit.
“I’m asking because I am new, but how come no one wants to clean up the abandoned Settlements?”
The man spat and replied in a gruff voice.
“It’s fucked up, that’s why. Why are those fuckers infected with an epidemic coming all this way to spread their disease? They should just stay and die quietly in their own lands.”
From what he gathered later by asking around, the abandoned Settlements refer to Settlements that have been wiped out completely by an epidemic. From their explanations, the purpose of strict seggregations and walling off settlements were to combat the spread of a terrible epidemic that was spreading across the Eastern Regions.
‘The reason itself seems believable.’
But Sungchul had not heard of any great disease spreading across the continent other than the Curse of Extinction.
Sungchul willingly volunteered for the clean up duty.l Sungchul was dispatched along with two elderly men and one youngman who still looked quite young. Sungchul was able to see golems stationed atop the walls as the wagons rolled by.
“Those are sentry golems that protect us. You should have seen those small golems attack bandits that tried to ambush us!”
The elderly men greatly praised the golems at length. The bandits greatly increased in numbers after the Colossi destroyed many people’s source of income, and the Elderly who became subject to all sorts of unspeakable hardships valued nothing higher than security and order. Also, Sungchul was able to learn that McRaed’s popularity among the inhabitants of the Settlements were very high.
“McRaed is a very enlightened person. Instead of herding everyone indiscriminately into a pen like the Empire did, she somehow came up with the idea of sorting newcomers by their place of origin and giving them their own settlements.”
“Her excellency is arguably a refugee herself after the Colossi destroyed her country, so she must understand refugee’s pain.”
“Ixion’s former king was said to be a great ruler himself. Where would his blood end up if not her? She inherited all of his virtues.”
While the elders sang praises of McRaed, Sungchul stared at the wordless and hapless young man. He looked terrified for some reason. It was most likely because he had heard just how terrifying the cleanup duty was from others.
The wagon soon arrived at the abandoned Settlement. Before it was designated as an abandoned Settlement, it had been called Settlement 34.
‘Are there no fruit cultivating Settlements?’
Sungchul entered the Settlement while being lost in idle thoughts. He could not sense any living being.
“Now, wear these masks. The epidemic had been eradicated by Vestiare nim’s blessings, but you never know.”
The inspector provided masks to everyone. Once Sungchul got off of the wagon after putting on his mask, he was soon able to see the countless corpses covering the streets.
Sungchul’s brows became furled upon checking the condition of the corpses.
“Ugh… how horrible. Eastern Region was already wrecked by Colossi and now there’s an epidemic!”
“Let’s gather the bodies in one place!”
These deaths were not caused by mere diseases like these elders were speaking. The dead had been shriveled up and dried like mummies. Like something had wrung them of moisture. Once he had been around the entire Settlement, Sungchul came to at least one conclusion. That the Settlement was not just a tool to house the refugees.
‘The entire Settlement system is a facility for conducting human sacrifices.’
Sungchul made his conclusions as he spent the entire day cleaning up the corpses. The square shaped Settlements surrounded by walls were actually altars dedicated to the Lesser God itself. Those inside were sacrificed whole to the Lesser God. There were no exceptions.
Gathering up the bodies in one place and burning them concluded the work for the day.
“Did we get them all?”
The Inspector showed up once the smokes rising from the pile of bodies were visible. He verified that the work had been carried out without a problem before walking to the town square with his bodyguards. Sungchul pretended to smoke a joint as he inspected the man’s action. The Inspector headed towards the statue of Sidmia that stood at the center of town square. It was the identical statue to the statues found in all the Settlements.
The Inspector looked around before manipulating something at the bottom of the statue. Suddenly, a portion of the statue opened up and spat something black into his hands. The Inspector carefully wrapped that thing in red silk and hid it in his vest. Although it happened very quickly, Sungchul got a good look at the black object the Inspector had collected.
Sungchul’s eyes lit up.
The object ejected from the Statue of Sidmia was a fragment of the Calamity.
Although it was miniscule in comparison to the one in Sungchul’s possession, it was unmistakably a fragment of the Calamity.
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