༺ The Slum (4) ༻
A day and a half had passed, and Renee still hadn’t returned.
Vera stared blankly at the ceiling, breathing as if he were about to pass out.
Did she leave? He suddenly had such a thought.
Such an idea had entered his dazed mind.
Wasn’t that how it was supposed to be? It had been almost half a month. It was about time she grew tired of it. Despite her weak state, she had been caring for him, even after being unable to properly eat even one meal a day.
Vera momentarily laughed at the thought that crossed his mind, but quickly felt suffocated by the chest pain that followed with every breath.
Now he felt it for sure. The remaining embers of his life were fading away.
At last, this miserable life was about to come to an end.
Once again, a smile appeared on Vera’s lips.
The damn beggar at the bottom of the slums, the slum’s butcher, the ‘Empire’s Savage Hound’, and the cancer of the continent, would finally perish.
The sinner, who would be at the bottom of hell, was dying alone in a corner of this filthy slum.
Wasn’t it the greatest of all the good news, something to celebrate for the entire continent?
Vera, who had been laughing for a long time at those thoughts, felt his laughter stop at a certain point.
It didn’t happen because he wanted it to.
It was because there was a person who came to his mind.
An ugly woman with burn scars covering every inch of her skin, covered in filth. She came to his mind.
He remembered a woman who made his stomach churn with every word she said.
A woman who seemed to be the embodiment of the word nobility, a woman who made him feel ‘regret’ for the first time, came to his mind, the very same woman who showed kindness even to an evil being such as himself.
Even at this very moment, he was belittling her, but Vera knew.
That, even if he only knew her for a short period of time, the woman he had seen wasn’t a person who would ever give up on him.
She probably didn’t run away. If she was going to run away, she would have run away long ago because she couldn’t stand hunger.
Vera knew better than anyone how painful the hunger was.
So, he also knew how difficult it was to fight hunger during those 15 days.
He couldn’t believe that a woman who had endured such hardships would have run away now for that reason.
‘… She must have died.’
She was a woman who didn’t listen to even a word of warning, so she must have died after being skewered by a scavenger. The corpse lying somewhere in the slum.
Vera, who was looking at the ceiling with hazy eyes, clenched his teeth as he thought of Renee’s corpse lying in muddy water, and an emotion surged over him.
It was an unknown emotion.
It was a feeling he had never felt in his life.
He knew countless similar emotions, but he just couldn’t think of a word to describe this feeling.
It resembled regret, and it resembled compassion at the same time. It took the form of guilt, but it could not be called as such.
It seemed as though it could be expressed as fear, but rather than such an overwhelming feeling, it felt more like a smaller ember that spread faintly.
It was a feeling of gratitude, with some guilt mixed in.
Vera felt his body tremble at this emotion that made his innards churn.
It was such a complex feeling. It was a feeling that gripped his belly and made him feel more stuffy than the chest pain that had tormented him so far.
In an effort to move, Vera twisted his whole body even though he was paralyzed.
“Heh heh… !”
As he moved his fingertips, the pain spread throughout his body. Then, as he moved his arm, he could feel the blood seeping from within.
However, he couldn’t stop.
Because of this dizzy feeling that made him want to throw up, he couldn’t afford to worry about the pain in his body.
He raised his upper body.
Blood gushed out of his mouth.
His body collapsed, producing a ‘thump’ sound.
Simultaneously, Vera raised his head up and looked at the half-open door of the shack.
Arms stretched out. He touched the ground with his arms and began to crawl while quivering.
He crawled, looking so miserable that he couldn’t even bear to see himself.
Leaving the door, going through muddy water, he crawled for a long time, not even knowing where he was going.
The blood that had been gushing out of his mouth flowed back up and came out through his nostrils.
Every time he stretched out his arms, he felt a crushing pain all over his body.
Nevertheless, he still couldn’t stop.
It was because of this strange suffocation that tightened his stomach.
Vera crawled aimlessly as if he were a madman, and found a figure lying in a corner of the slum, covered with muddy water.
Vera knew at once who that person was.
It was Renee.
Her burn-scarred skin, muddy water-stained white hair, and the lightless blue pupils exposed under her half-closed eyelids were all telling him.
The entire area was drenched in a dark and gloomy shade.
It had a color that evoked death. It shared the same color as those who perished in the slum. It was a grim color that always emerged when the clotted blood and muddy water mixed.
Seeing those colors spread around her, Vera stopped.
He had been crawling for a long time, and when he finally stopped, he was a complete mess.
He had been tormented by a strange emotion for some time, and now another emotion had been added.
This time, an emotion that came to mind was one that Vera was certain of.
It was a feeling that dominated his entire childhood, so he couldn’t be ignorant of it.
That was the emotion that came to mind.
He didn’t know why he had such feelings.
He could only instinctively realize that the emotion that came to mind had taken the form of despair.
Vera, whose face was covered in blood and filth, looked at Renee’s corpse for a long time, then slowly crawled in her direction.
He crawled the distance, barely reaching.
Vera barely managed to crawl to Renee, burning through the last embers of his life, and looked at her with the expression of a man about to die.
Somehow, even though she must have died so painfully, she had a peaceful face.
“… You look ugly.”
They were words mixed with gasps.
Having said that, Vera looked at her face for a moment and continued.
“What did I say? I told you that you would die.”
He tried to smile, but he didn’t even have the strength to raise the corners of his lips.
His eyelids were heavy. He couldn’t breathe.
Vera felt that the end was really coming and looked at Renee’s face.
She was truly a selfish woman.
You made me break my vow to bear all of my sins and die miserably alone, and now you’re sleeping while making such a peaceful face.
I still don’t know the identity of this heartbreaking feeling, but you fell asleep without teaching it to me.
His whole body had lost its strength. That thought weighed down like cotton soaked in water.
Vera looked at Renee with his half-closed eyes, and unintentionally, his lips moved then uttered these words.
“… Did you know?”
Talking to a corpse was a truly ridiculous thing to do, but Vera didn’t stop speaking, even as he was thinking that.
“I have a really great talent. With this talent, a good for nothing beggar was able to become the most evil being on the continent.”
Vera finally reached out and grabbed her hand, which was submerged in the muddy water, using all the strength that had remained in his body up to that point.
There was a tattoo in the shape of eight curves intertwined to form a circle under Vera’s sleeves and forearms.
“Stigma, you say. I have one as well.”
Vera said so and giggled. This was because it was funny that he was divulging secrets he had never told anyone in his life.
“The God of Oath. That is my stigma. With this stigma, I can confer weight on my words.”
I don’t know why. Just one day, a stigma suddenly appeared on my forearm.
Because the stigma was a miracle known to have been bestowed by the Gods on their most cherished servant, Vera wondered why the stigma appeared on him.
It was a natural thought. He didn’t believe in God, nor did he want to represent God’s will.
So, Vera used this stigma simply for his own greed.
“… If I make an oath and pay the price for it, I get that much power.”
With this talent, with this miracle, half of the continent was in his grasp.
Every shadow that fell on this continent could be put under his feet.
“There are penalties, of course. If I don’t keep my oath, besides what I paid for, the amount of strength I gained will shatter my soul.”
There was only one time when I didn’t keep my vow.
Vera still remembered the pain of that moment clearly.
It was like his existence was being torn into pieces, a pain that made cold sweat flow through one’s body just by thinking about it.
That moment was more painful than everything he had ever experienced in his life, and he feared it more than anything.
The pain that came from breaking the oath was that kind of pain.
So, I will never break my oath again. I vowed.
“… But, because of you, I broke my oath again.”
Because of you, I broke the oath I made for the rest of my life, that I would never feel regret, that I would be willing to bear the punishment for all the sins I had committed in my life.
After meeting you, I regretted my life because of your light.
Now his soul would be wiped out. Will there be only an insignificant speck of dust remaining? Even if he didn’t know, it was clear that it would be difficult for him to remain in existence.
With such thoughts in mind, Vera looked at Renee blankly and reflected on the past 15 days or so he spent with her.
Those times seemed to last forever, yet passed by so quickly.
If I had to pick one of the most miserable moments of my life, those moments would be number one. However, ironically, those moments are also the ones I cherished the most.
Vera savored the thoughts passing through his head as he stared at Renee with a vision so blurred he couldn’t properly distinguish anything.
Slowly, his lips moved involuntarily as he spoke.
Those words weren’t accidental. It was just this unfamiliar feeling making me say that.
That’s what I wanted to say to her, who made these feelings of ‘regret’ sprout inside of me.
That, you were the one who changed me.
By your side, even this evil being would dare to live what could be called life.
Saying so, Vera used his stigma for the last time in his life.
The stigma burned with a gold hue.
Now I can engrave the oath on this stigma.
Vera, as always, engraved an oath on the golden stigma.
I will put you in the most honorable position and live standing by your side, and devote my life to protecting you.
I engraved such an oath into my soul.
My body reverberated as the oath was engraved. I felt a burning sensation in my soul.
It was a feeling that was infinitely close to pure abstraction, but was a feeling very familiar to Vera, who had been using the stigma throughout his life.
Only after confirming that the stigma had been activated, Vera slowly closed his eyes.
Like that, he was thinking, ‘I’m going to die at last.’
In Vera’s ears, the sound of a clock was heard.
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