10 First Man Down

By the time they decided to stop, Sunny was on the verge of fainting. After hours and hours of traversing the rough mountain slope, his body was almost at its limit. However, to everyone's surprise, Shifty seemed to be doing even worse than him.

The roguish slave's eyes were muddy and unfocused, aimlessly wandering around. His breath was ragged and shallow, as though something was exerting pressure on his lungs. He looked feverish and unwell.

As soon as Hero found a suitable place for a camp, Shifty simply collapsed on the ground. The most unnerving part about all of this was the lack of angry cursing that they had already gotten used to. The slave lay silent and motionless, with only movements of his chest betraying that he was still alive. Several moments later, he uncorked his flagon with a shaky hand and greedily drank a few large gulps.

"Conserve your water," Hero said, a hint of concern somehow finding its way into his usually stoic voice.

Disregarding these words, Shifty drank more, emptying the flagon completely.

Scholar didn't look much better than him. The arduous climb took a heavy toll on the older slave. Despite the unbearable cold, he was sweaty, with bloodshot eyes and a grim expression on his face.

Being the weakest of the three, Sunny had somehow managed to endure the best.

"Can't we just melt the snow once there's no more water?"

Hero gave Scholar a complicated look.

"There might come a time when we won't be able to make a fire, as to not attract unwanted attention."

No one commented, knowing perfectly well whose attention they had to avoid. The memory of Mountain King's horror was still fresh in their minds.

Luckily, today Hero had managed to find a natural alcove in the mountain wall, perched precariously behind a narrow ledge. The fire was well hidden by the rocks, allowing them to enjoy its warmth without the fear of being noticed. No one was in the mood to talk, so they just roasted slices of oxen meat above the flames and ate in silence.

By the time the skies had turned completely black, Shifty and Scholar were already asleep, lost in the thrall of their own nightmares. Hero took out his sword and moved to the edge of the rock outcropping.

"Try to rest, as well. I'll take the first watch."

Sunny gave him a nod and lay down near the fire, dead tired. Falling asleep inside a dream was a new experience for him, but, unexpectedly, it turned out to be quite mundane. As soon as his head touched the ground, his consciousness slipped into darkness.

After what felt like only a second, someone had gently shaken him awake. Groggy and disoriented, Sunny blinked a few times, finally noticing Hero hovering above him.

"These two didn't look too well, so it's better to give them some time to recover. Don't let the flames go out and wake us up once the sun starts to rise. Or if… if the beast appears."

Sunny silently rose and changed places with Hero, who added a couple of logs into the fire and was soon fast asleep.

For a few hours, he was on his own.

The skies were black, with dim stars and a sharp crescent of the newborn moon. However, its light was not enough to pierce the darkness that enveloped the mountain. Only Sunny's eyes seemed to be able to do so.

He sat quietly, looking down the way they came. Despite the fact that they had managed to climb quite high during the previous day, he could still see the distant ribbon of the road. He could even trace it back to the stone platform where the fight with the tyrant had taken place.

The tiny dots littering the stones were the dead bodies of the slaves.

As he was watching them, a dark figure slowly crawled on the platform from beneath the cliff. It stayed motionless for a while and then moved forward, scraping its claws against the ground. Every time a claw hit one of the bodies, the tyrant would grab and bring it to its maw.

The wind brought the muffled sounds of crunching bones to Sunny's ears. He flinched, accidentally pushing a small rock off the ledge. It fell, hit the slope and then rolled down, causing a few more to follow.

The noise of these falling rocks sounded like thunder in the silent night.

Far below, the tyrant suddenly turned its head, looking directly at Sunny.

Sunny froze, petrified. He was scared to make even the tiniest sound. For a while, he even forgot to breathe. The tyrant was staring directly at him, not doing anything.

A few torturous seconds passed, each feeling like an eternity. Then the tyrant calmly turned away and continued to devour dead slaves, as though he had not seen Sunny at all.

'It's blind,' Sunny suddenly understood.

He inhaled, watching Mountain King with widened eyes. It was true. The creature could not see.

Looking back at everything that had happened earlier, he grew more and more certain of his guess. Those milky, expressionless eyes. Come to think of it, he never saw the tyrant moving them at all. And back when Sunny was pushing the wagon off the cliff, the tyrant only reacted after the wagon's had started to fall, scraping loudly against the rocks.

Of course! It was all making sense now.


At the break of dawn, Sunny had woken the others up. Hero had hoped that a full night's rest would do Shifty and Scholar some good, but his hopes were crushed. Somehow, the two slaves looked even worse than before. It was as though yesterday's climb had overstrained Scholar too much.

However, Shifty's condition could not be explained by simple overexertion. He was deadly pale and shaky, with half-conscious eyes and a lost look on his face.

"What's wrong with him?"

Scholar, who himself was not doing very well, helplessly shook his head.

"It might be the mountain sickness. It affects different people differently."

His voice sounded raspy and weak.

"I'm fine, assholes. Get out of my face."

Shifty had trouble forming full sentences, but still insisted that he was alright.

Hero frowned and then took most of the supplies the defiant slave was supposed to carry before adding them to his own load. After hesitating a little, he gave some to Sunny, too.

"Did anything happen while we were asleep?"

Sunny stared at him for a few seconds.

"The monster ate the dead."

The young soldier's frown deepened.

"How do you know?"

"I heard it."

Hero moved to the edge and looked down, trying to make out the distant stone platform. After a minute or so, he clenched his jaw, showing signs of uncertainty for the first time.

"Then we'll have to move faster. If the creature is finished with all the bodies, it will come for us next. We need to find that old path before nightfall."

Frightened and dejected, they set out again and continued to climb. Sunny was slowly dying under the weight of the added load. Thankfully, Shifty and Scholar had already drunk most of the water, lightening it a little.

'This is hell,' he thought.

They climbed higher, and higher, and higher. The sun was climbing with them, slowly approaching the zenith. There was no talking, no laughs, only strained breathing. Each of the four survivors was concentrated on his own steps and footing.

However, Shifty was falling farther and farther behind. His strength was abandoning him.

And then, at some point, Sunny heard a desperate scream. Turning around, he only had time to see a panic-stricken face. Then Shifty fell backward, his foot slipping on an ice-covered rock. He hit the ground hard and rolled down, still trying to grab onto something.

But it was too late.

Frozen in place and powerless, they could only watch as his body tumbled down the slope, leaving bloody marks on the rocks. With each second, Shifty looked less like a man and more like a rag doll.

A handful of moments later, he finally came to a halt, hitting the top of a large, protruding stone in a pile of broken flesh.

Shifty was dead.

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