We continued on our way, and just as the sun was dipping on the horizon, the village came into view.
There were no forests in the vicinity of Lutra. Perhaps it was because of the intense sunlight or the salty sea breeze. With only flatlands stretching far and wide, you could see things even from a distance.
There was a broad and gently-flowing river, with a bridge spanning over it, and on the other side was a cluster of houses. I could see a wide plantation in the distance. There seemed to be some crops growing in the fields. At first glance it looked like a peaceful village.
Except for one thing: it was black.
The entire village seemed to be covered in a black haze. The plantation, in particular, looked ghastly. It was as if black ink was spilled all over it. A putrid smell hung in the air.
“It’s like a battleground in the summer,” I said. “The stench alone could make me sick.”
Unable to stand the stench, I covered my nose and mouth with a cloth. Zero and the priest did the same. It was just that foul.
As we approached the village, enduring the smell, our legs became heavier. Insects crunched underfoot with our every step. There were so many bugs crawling around on the ground that we couldn’t take a step without crushing them.
The sound of insects buzzing filled the air. The black haze blanketing the village was none other than flies swarming the dead bodies.
Yes, there were bodies. Considering that Dea Ignis conducted an investigation and torture to find the witches’ lair, one or two dead bodies would not be surprising.
But unfortunately, several dozens of corpses littered the fields, not just ten or twenty. The most peculiar thing about them was their condition.
Zero closed her eyes softly and let out an indifferent sigh. “It looks like a child played a little too much. No wonder there were so many souls.”
“I can see why the Knights Templar blocked the road,” I said.
The knight described the scene as a hellscape. A charred pumpkin patch was lined with some round objects—heads. Heads of humans buried up to the neck. The flesh on their faces had decomposed from the heat, attracting worms and insects. An ignorant traveler would no doubt scream and run away if they saw this horrific sight.
“Nowadays many people are calling for the execution of Dea Ignis,” I said. “If a bard saw this, the Church’s infamy would reach the ends of the world.”
“Planting people instead of pumpkins? This is beyond barbaric,” Zero said. “I think the adjudicator who did this has the capability to become a witch. I thought the Church was supposed to hunt down witches who would commit such atrocity.”
The eyepatch covering the priest’s eyes prevented him from seeing the gruesome scene, but he could still imagine the extent of the devastation from the smell and our words.
The priest was silent, his face still. Suddenly, he turned his head toward the village. He must have noticed the figure tottering from the riverbank, carrying a wooden bucket filled with water.
It was a thin, young woman. When she got close enough, she finally noticed our presence and flashed a smile.
“Oh, my. Guests? I’m sorry I didn’t notice you,” she said. “I was too focused on carrying this bucket of water.”
It was a normal greeting, yet also far too strange. How could someone smile in this situation?
“Can you wait for a moment? It’s scorching hot again today. I need to water them.”
The woman poured half of the water from the bucket onto the heads buried in the field. She then scooped the remaining water with a ladle and poured it into their mouths.
“Wh-What are you doing?” I asked.
“Watering them. They’ll die otherwise.” The woman laughed.
Her vacant eyes were bloodshot, her eyelids swollen, her cheeks tear-stained. Her whole body was covered in mud and the smell of putrefaction, and her hands were red from crushed blood blisters. She must have been carrying the bucket back and forth between the river and the field several times a day.
“An adjudicator told me to water the plants,” she continued. “They said it’s good for them. That’s why I’m doing this. I really want to give water to everyone, but I can’t do it all by myself, so I just give it to my husband.” She stroke the hair of one corpse. It was in better condition than all the other bodies, almost as if it was alive until a moment ago.
Then I realized. It wasn’t corpses that were buried. These people were buried alive then subsequently died.
Unable to accept her husband’s death, the woman lost her mind and kept on bringing water to his dead body.
“A hellscape indeed.” Recalling the knight’s words, I glanced at the silent priest. “Hey. Is this part of the Church’s plan? Or just a personal hobby of this Gravedigger?”
“As long as they’re working to kill witches, I have no right to criticize Corruption. Letting one witch go could lead to a thousand deaths. We adjudicators are willing to sacrifice a hundred to prevent that.”
“Really, now?” I looked around the field. “Looks to me like you’re using the whole “hunt witches” thing as an excuse to kill people.”
“It’s not your place to judge,” he replied indifferently. “A lowly, bloodthirsty mercenary like you has no right to criticize our methods.” There was bitterness in his voice, however. He didn’t seem to approve of this madness.
“Father?” Light suddenly returned to the woman’s eyes. The moment her gaze rested on the priest, she tossed the bucket aside and clung to him. “Please forgive us! We didn’t know they were witches! They said they would help with the harvest, so we let them. We weren’t thinking. We’re not hiding anything, I swear! We’ve all repented! So please… Please help us.” Her voice faded into a murmur. “Help us,” she repeated as she crumbled to the ground, sobbing. It looked like she would rub her forehead on the muddy ground at any moment.
“I can’t look at this anymore.” I quietly averted my gaze.
“I agree,” Zero said. “You can stop the awful acting now, Sanare.”
The woman suddenly stopped crying. Not only that, but she stopped moving completely. The woman’s body drooped, and the priest quickly caught it.
“She’s cold,” the priest murmured, astonishment in his voice.
The woman’s body no longer had a trace of life in it. Her muscles turned flaccid. It was clearly a corpse. It almost felt like her talking and moving a while ago was just as an illusion.
“Awful acting? Come on. That’s a little bit harsh, isn’t it?”
A chuckle, like the rustling of leaves, came from somewhere. It wasn’t from the dead woman. All the corpses buried in the field were giggling.
One of them looked at Zero with cloudy eyes. “As a necromancer, I am simply conveying the wish of the dead to the living. The words she said and the actions she took all belonged to her. If you showed up before she died, she would have said the exact same thing and acted the same way.”
Another corpse twisted its lips into a smirk. “Poor little thing.” It was the body of the young man that the woman was giving water earlier. “This man dug his own grave. Can you imagine that? He did it to protect his beloved wife. Do you want to know more about what happened? Of course, you do. It’s a story that’s going to spread far and wide. A story that Cestum will circulate around the world to show the cruelty of the Church. Among Dea Ignis’ infamous deeds, this has got to be the worst by far.”