Chapter 43:

Pigs to a Slaughterhouse

The Consequence of Saving the World


My head slammed into the side of the horsecart as it came to a sudden halt. Thankfully, Ain, who was lying down asleep in front of me, didn’t suffer the same fate. She was just startled by the sudden movement.

“What happened? Is it time for lunch already?” she asked as her eyes adjusted to the light.

No, Anita knew her way around the reins well enough to not make such a rookie mistake. This kind of abrupt stop definitely spelt trouble.

“Sereya, Uncle, there’s a group of people ahead of us. What should we do?” she made her observations known.

There was no way we could take another route—we were on a long path surrounded by woods. The cart couldn’t navigate between the trees without getting damaged.

At the very least, these weren’t bandits. If they were, they would’ve jumped on us already. We could still turn around but, if we wanted to go to Breven, we only had one way to go—forward.

Sereya and I hopped off the back of the cart for a better look. There certainly was a large group of people, judging by the number of tents that they have put together by the side of the road.

What I found offsetting was that this was not the right spot to set up camp. The river was far away and if I were a bandit, they were literally begging me to attack.

“There’s an argument going on,” Sereya pointed out.

I took several steps forward and squinted my eyes like a hawk. There were two male figures in the distance shouting loudly at each other. There were also other people around them, but it was impossible to count how many when I was this far.

“Wait, I know them,” informed Anita, “They’re part of the pilgrimage!”

Anita rode forwards as us escorts walked alongside. Have we already caught up to the main group of pilgrims? We weren’t travelling super fast or anything, so why were the pilgrims so slow?

As we got closer, I could make out more of what was going on. Even though there were tents all around, these two men decided to get into a verbal confrontation right in the middle of the road underneath the hot sun. Talk about a ‘heated argument’.

Around them, there were other pilgrims, clearly trying to not get involved. They were just spectators. The few mothers that were there kept their children close to them while the men just watched with uneasy expressions.

There weren’t just pilgrims around, though. Armed men dressed in light armour and combat gear were also part of the audience. I was able to count about eight of them, including one lady who appeared to be a mage. They had to be adventurers, serving as escorts for the pilgrims, just like what Sereya and I were doing for Anita and Ain.

Some of those amongst the crowd had spotted us, but the two men arguing in the centre were still oblivious to our presence.

Something felt off—they were too many tents for a group this size. Including the adventurers, I estimated about thirty people in total. Judging by how many empty tents there were, I was willing to bet that the fight going on had something to do with it.

“The hell are you talking about? You expect us to just leave them behind?!” the larger gruff man moved his arms a lot as he yelled at the other fellow.

“Avery and the others already moved on! If we stay, we’re just going to end up like—”

“For the Goddess’ sake, you think leaving your brothers and sisters behind is the right thing to do on a pilgrimage like this?” the larger man interjected, “Put yourself in their shoes—no, put yourself in Lord Evan’s shoes! You think a Hero would just leave innocent people to suffer like that?”

Knowing Hanasuke, pretty much, yeah.

The smaller man answered back, “I’m leaving, Bernard! You can stay and search for them as long as you want, but unlike you, I have a wife and children! I can’t risk having them go missing!”

As he turned around and left to gather his family, Bernard screamed at him, voice cracking in the process, “How dare you call yourself an Evanist?! You think you’re the only one with family?! My sister, she—” Avery bit his lip. An emotion greater than his ire was preventing him from ending his sentence.

“This is a test of faith!” he found his words again, “If I see you and Avery at the temple, I’ll kick you false believers out myself!”

As the other party got their stuff and left on foot, Bernard called out to the crowd, “Are there any other false believers here as well?” the only reply he got was from the humming of the wind, “If not, then we’ll head out into the woods for another search!”

“Bernard, look! It’s Anita!” someone from the crowd finally alerted the raging man.

“No way. Anita, it’s really you!” the wrinkles in Bernard’s face smoothened out as the redness in his face was fading, “Wait—why are you on a horse? Who are these people?”

As he rushed forward to greet her, Anita dismounted from Zephyr, “Ain was sick, remember? I only set out after she recovered. These two over here are adventurers kind enough to be my escort.”

Bernard quickly sized both me and Sereya up. As his eyes met mine, I could tell that he had been in his fair share of brawls. Probably the only thing stopping him from roughing up the other guy was his religious beliefs. If not that, then it was definitely his age—he may be a whole head taller than me, but he had to be approaching his fifties.

“What in the world happened here?” Anita asked, causing Bernard to break eye contact from me.

Before he could answer, I felt a light tug on my sleeve, “Uncle, what’s going on?”

“We’re about to find out,” I gestured towards the conversation happening between her mother and Bernard.

“Some of the women and children have gone missing,” he answered with a defeated tone, a far cry from his earlier hollering. Anita could only cover her mouth with her hands in shock as he continued, “I got us to stop and look for them, but that bastard Avery took half of the pilgrims and went ahead. Now, more and more of us are either going missing or leaving by themselves, like what you’ve just seen.”

It was clear that there was a disproportionate number of grown men as opposed to women and children here. This uneasy tension and restlessness in the air were more akin to escaping refugees than pilgrims going for a holy journey.

“If you want to go on ahead for your daughter’s sake, I unders—”

“Let me discuss with my escorts first. Ain, stay with Uncle Bernard,” her daughter obeyed her command as Anita gestured for me and Sereya to have a private conversation.

We walked a few steps to the side of the road, away from curious ears. With the three of us alone, Anita suddenly fell to her knees. Sereya reflexively supported her, helping her up as she pleaded:

“Please, I know this is not part of the quest, but I beg you—we have to help them.”

“I know how you feel Anita,” my partner consoled, “but I’m not sure how much help we could offer. Even with all these people and adventurers around, they still couldn’t find anything.”

Doubt crept into my heart. I already made it clear several times now that I didn’t want to be a Hero. If I tried to stick my nose into other peoples’ business, what’s stopping a repeat of what happened in the Seven Heroes Summit?

Most of all, I lacked the strength to help. If even Sereya, a genuine Hero, wasn’t sure we could help, what more me?

I took a deep breath.

“Sereya, is there any creature around here that only targets women and children?”

“No, the only monster with some level of intelligence in this region would be Dire Wolves. I don’t think there’s anything around here that had such an awful taste.”

Then that narrowed it down then.

“Good, then it probably wouldn’t be too hard to find the missing people.”

“What do you mean?” Anita questioned.

“Even if there was a monster that Sereya didn’t know about that only went after women and children, they still had to leave behind some sort of trace—blood, bones, anything. But Avery said there were missing, not eaten. If I’m right, then the culprit had to be amongst the pilgrims or adventurers.”

“But why would they—”

“Shhh! Keep it down,” Sereya read my mind and shushed Anita immediately.

Thankfully, even if the kidnapper had outside help, they probably weren’t strong enough to take the easy approach and attack this lousily positioned camp. Someone was purposely keeping them here, herding them like pigs to a slaughterhouse so that the pilgrims could be picked off one at a time.

As I told the two of them my plan, I already knew I was starting to regret this.

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