Turning in the direction of the thundering noise, many slaves raised their heads — only to see rocks and heavy shards of ice raining on them from above. They instantly panicked, lurching away in a cacophony of screams. Shadows happily danced on black stones as, entangled by the thick chain, those slaves fell to the ground and pulled others with them.
Sunny was one of the few that remained upright, mostly because he was ready for something like this to happen. Calm and collected, he gazed at the night sky, his Attribute-enhanced eyes piercing the darkness, and took one measured step back. In the next second, a piece of ice the size of a man's torso hit the ground right in front of him and exploded, showering everything around with sharp shards.
Others weren't that quick. As ice and stones continued to rain, many were wounded, and a few even lost their lives. Agonizing wails filled the air.
"On your feet, fools! Get to the wall!"
The veteran soldier — the one who had whipped Sunny a few hours before — was shouting angrily, trying to get the slaves to move towards the relative safety of the mountain slope. However, before anyone could heed his command, something massive came crashing down, sending a tremor through the stones beneath their feet. It fell right between the caravan and the mountain wall, plunging everything into silence for a few seconds.
At first, it looked like a lump of dirty snow, roughly round in shape and as tall as a mounted horseman. However, once the creature unfurled its long limbs and rose, it towered over the stone platform like a nightmarish omen of death.
'That thing must be at least four meters tall,' Sunny thought, a bit stunned.
The creature had two stumpy legs, an emaciated, hunched torso and disproportionately long, multijointed hands — two of them, each ending with a set of horrifying bone claws, and another two, these ones shorter, ending with almost human-like fingers. The thing that at first glance looked like dirty snow turned out to be its fur, yellowish-grey and ragged, thick enough to stop arrows and swords.
On its head, five milky, white eyes regarded the slaves with insect-like indifference. Beneath them, a terrible maw crowding with razor-sharp teeth was half-open, as though in anticipation. Viscous drool was running down the creature's chin and dripping into the snow.
What unnerved Sunny the most, though, were the strange shapes endlessly moving, worm-like, under the creature's skin. He could see them clearly because, unfortunately, he was one of those unlucky souls closest to the monstrosity, getting a nauseating first-row view.
'Well, that is just… too much,' he thought, stupefied.
As soon as Sunny finished that thought, all hell broke loose. The creature moved, slashing its claws in his general direction. But Sunny was one step ahead: without wasting a single moment, he jumped sideways — as far as the chain allowed — conveniently placing the broad-shouldered slave between himself and the monster.
His quick reaction saved his life, as those sharp claws, each as long as a sword, sliced through the broad-shouldered man a fraction of a second later and sent streams of blood flying through the air. Drenched in the hot liquid, Sunny hit the ground, and his fellow slave — now simply a corpse — fell on him from above.
'Damn! Why are you so heavy!'
Temporarily blinded, Sunny heard a chilling howl and felt an enormous shadow passing over him. Immediately after, a deafening chorus of screams filled the night. Not paying it any attention, he tried to roll the corpse to the side, but was stopped by a forceful lurch of the chain that twisted his wrists and filled his mind with white-hot pain. Disoriented, he felt himself being dragged a few steps, but then the chain suddenly slackened, and he was able to control his hands again.
'See, things could have been worse…'
Putting his palms against the dead man's chest, he pushed with all the strength he had. The heavy corpse stubbornly resisted all his attempts, but then finally fell sideways, setting Sunny free. However, he didn't get to celebrate this newly found freedom, as his blood suddenly turned to ice.
Because at that moment, with his palms still pressed against the broad-shouldered slave's bleeding body, he clearly felt something wriggling under the dead man's skin.
'You just had to think about how things could get worse, right, you idiot?' he thought, and then flinched back.
Pushing the corpse with his legs, Sunny crawled as far away from it as he could — which was about a meter and a half, thanks to the ever-present chain. He quickly glanced around, noticing a mass of dancing shadows and the silhouette of the monster rampaging amidst the screaming slaves on the opposite end of the stone platform. Then he concentrated on the dead body, which was starting to convulse with growing violence.
On the opposite side of the corpse, the shifty slave was looking at it with slackened jaw and a horrified expression on his face. Sunny waved to get his attention.
"What are you staring at?! Move away from it!"
The shifty slave tried, but immediately fell down. The chain was twisted between the three of them, pinned down under by the broad-shouldered man's weight.
Sunny clenched his teeth.
Right under his eyes, the corpse was going through a nightmare-inducing metamorphose. Strange bone growths pierced its skin, extending like spikes. The muscles bulged and wriggled, as though trying to change shape. The fingernails were turning into sharp claws; the face cracked and split, bearing open a twisted mouth with one too many rows of bloodied, needle-like fangs.
'This is not right.'
Sunny twitched, feeling a strong urge to empty his stomach.
"Th— the chain!"
The scholarly slave was just a few steps behind the shifty one, pointing at his shackles with a face as pale as a ghost. That remark was far from helpful, but given the circumstances, his shock was understandable. Being shackled was bad enough, but being shackled to such horror was truly unfair.
But Sunny's conclusion that things weren't right did not come from self-pity. He just meant that this whole situation was literally not right: the Spell, mysterious as it was, had its own set of rules. There were rules for what type of creatures could appear in any given Nightmare, too.
Nightmare Creatures had their own hierarchy: from mindless Beasts to Monsters, followed by Demons, Devils, Tyrants, Terrors and, finally, mythical Titans, also known as Calamities. The First Nightmare was almost always populated by beasts and monsters, rarely with a demon mixed in. And Sunny had never, ever heard about anything stronger than a single devil appearing in it.
However, the creature had clearly just created a lesser version of itself — an ability that belonged exclusively to tyrants, the sovereigns of the Nightmare Spell, and those above them.
What was this tyrant even doing in a First Nightmare?
How powerful was that damn [Fated] attribute?!
But there was no time to ponder.
Unfair or not, there was only one person now who could save Sunny — himself.
The broad-shouldered man — what was left of him — slowly rose, his mouth producing strange clicking noises. Without giving him time to fully come to his senses, Sunny cursed and jumped forward, grabbing onto the length of the slackened chain.
One arm of the monster, now fully equipped with five jagged claws, shot forward to meet him, but Sunny sidestepped it with one calculated movement.
What saved his skin this time was not quick reaction, but simple presence of mind. Sunny might not have learned any fancy combat techniques, since his childhood was spent on the streets instead of a school. But the streets, too, were a kind of teacher. He had spent his whole life fighting for survival, quite often literally. That experience allowed him to keep a cool head on his shoulders in the midst of any conflict.
So instead of freezing or being consumed by fear and doubt, Sunny just acted.
Stepping close, he threw the chain around the monster's shoulders and pulled, pinning its hands to its body. Before the creature, still slow and groggy from its transformation, could properly react, Sunny wrapped the chain around it several times, barely saving his face from being bitten off by the creature's terrifying maw.
The good thing was, the monster couldn't move its hands now.
The bad thing was, the length of the chain he used to immobilize it was gone, leaving almost no distance between them.
"You two!" Sunny screamed, addressing his two fellow slaves. "Pull on that chain as though your lives depend on it!"
Because they were.
The shifty slave and the scholar gaped at him and then, understanding what he was thinking, started to move. Grabbing the chain from the opposite directions, they pulled as hard as they could, tightening its grip on the monster and not letting it shake loose.
'Great!' Sunny thought.
The monster bulged its muscles, trying to break free. The chain creaked, caught on the bone spikes, as though slowly breaking apart.
'Not so great!'
Without wasting any more time, he threw his hands in the air and caught the creature's neck with the short, thinner chain connecting his shackles together. Then he circled the monster with a quick step and pulled, ending up back to back with it — as far away from its maw as he could.
Sunny knew that he wasn't strong enough to strangle a man with his bare hands — let alone a weird, terrifying mutant like the one trying to eat him. But now, using his own back as a lever and the weight of his whole body to pull the shackles down, he at least stood a chance.
He pulled down with all his might, feeling the monster's body pressing against him, bone spikes brushing against his skin. The monster continued to struggle, clicking loudly and trying to break the chain tying him down apart.
Now it was just a question of what would break first — the chain or the monster itself.
'Die! Die, you bastard!'
Sweat and blood were rolling down Sunny's face as he was pulling, and pulling, and pulling down with as much force as he could muster.
Every second felt like an eternity. His strength and stamina — what little he had to begin with — were quickly running out. His wounded back, wrists, and muscles pierced by the bone spikes were in agony.
And then, finally, Sunny felt the monster's body go limp.
A moment later, a faintly familiar voice rang in the air.
It was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.
[You have slain a dormant beast, Mountain King's Larva.]