The three of them stood motionless, looking down in uneasy silence. What happened to Shifty didn't come as a shock, but it was still a hard thing to digest. An ominous feeling settled in their hearts — seeing the broken body of their companion, it was too easy to imagine one of them sharing the same fate.
No one knew what to say.
After a minute or so, Scholar finally sighed.
"It's a good thing that you took most of the supplies he had been carrying."
p ᴀɴ da-n ᴏv el 'A bit heartless, but not wrong,' Sunny thought, giving the older slave a careful look.
Scholar frowned, realizing that his mask of a kind-hearted gentleman had slipped for a second, and hurriedly added in a somber tone:
"May you rest in peace, my friend."
'Wow. What a performance.'
Actually, Sunny had not believed in his benevolent act for a second. Every kid from the outskirts knew that people who acted kind for no reason were the ones to be most wary of. They were either fools or monsters. Scholar didn't seem like a fool, so Sunny became cautious of him from the moment they met.
He got this far by being a mistrustful cynic, and there was no reason to change now.
"We have to go." Hero said, casting one last look down.
His voice was even, but Sunny could feel a well of emotion behind it. He just couldn't tell what that emotion was.
Scholar sighed and turned away, too. Sunny stared at the bloodied rocks for a few more seconds.
'Why do I feel so guilty?' he thought, bewildered by this unexpected reaction. 'He got what he deserved.'
ᴘᴀ ɴ ᴅᴀ n ᴏ ᴠᴇʟ
A little unsettled, Sunny turned around and followed his two remaining companions.
Just like that, they left Shifty behind and continued to climb.
At this altitude, traversing the mountain was getting harder and harder. The wind was slamming into them with enough force to throw a person off-balance if they were not careful, making every step seem like a gamble. The air was becoming too thin to breathe. Due to the lack of oxygen, Sunny was starting to feel dizzy and nauseated.
It was as though they were all slowly suffocating.
Altitude sickness was not something one could overcome with effort. It was subtle and overbearing at the same time, affecting the strong and the weak with no regard to their fitness and endurance. If his luck was bad, an elite athlete could succumb to it faster than a random passerby.
It was just a question of your body's innate aptitude and adaptability. Lucky ones were able to get over it after experiencing mild symptoms. The others were sometimes crippled for days or weeks, suffering from all kinds of torturous side effects. Some even died.
As though all that wasn't bad enough, it was getting colder, too. The warm clothes and fur weren't enough to keep the chill at bay anymore. Sunny felt simultaneously feverish and freezing, cursing every decision he had made in his life to end up here, on the endless icy slope.
This mountain was not a place for humans.
And yet they had to go on.
A few hours passed. Despite everything, the three survivors continued to struggle forward, slowly moving higher and higher. Wherever that old path Scholar had talked about was, by now, it couldn't have been far. At least that's what Sunny was hoping for.
But at some point, he started to doubt if the path even existed. Maybe the older slave lied. Maybe the path was long ago destroyed by ravages of time. Maybe they had already missed it without even noticing.
Just as he was about to fall into despair, they finally found it.
It was weathered and narrow, barely enough for two people to walk side by side. The path wasn't paved, but rather cut from the black rock by some unknown tool or magic, winding its way up the mountain like a tail of a sleeping dragon. Here and there, it was hidden beneath the snow. But most importantly, it was flat. Sunny had never been that happy to see something flat in his life.
Without saying a word, Scholar dropped his rucksack and sat down. He was deathly pale, gasping for air like a fish out of water. Despite that, there was a slight grin on his face.
Hero gave him a nod and looked around. A few seconds later, he turned back to the triumphant slave:
"Stand up. It's not time to rest yet."
Scholar blinked a few times, then glanced at him with pleading eyes.
"Just… just give me a few minutes."
The young soldier was going to retort, but Sunny suddenly put a hand on his shoulder. Hero turned to face him.
"What is it?"
"What is gone?"
Sunny gestured down, back the way they came.
"Shifty's body. It's gone."
Hero stared at him for a few moments, clearly failing to understand what Sunny was trying to say.
'Oh, right. They don't know that Shifty's name is Shifty. Ahem. Awkward.'
He wanted to explain, but both Scholar and Hero seemed to have grasped his meaning. Simultaneously, they moved to the edge of the stone path and looked down, trying to spot the place where Shifty had met his end.
Indeed, the splattering of blood could still be seen on the jagged rocks, but the corpse itself was nowhere to be found.
Scholar flinched back and crawled as far away from the edge as he could. The young soldier also backed away, instinctively grabbing the handle of his sword. The three of them exchanged tense looks, clearly understanding the implication of Shifty's disappearance.
"It's the monster," Scholar said, even paler than before. "It's following us."
Hero gritted his teeth.
"You are right. And if it is that close, we will inevitably be forced to fight it soon."
The idea of fighting the tyrant was as frightening as it was preposterous. He might as well have said that they will all be dead soon. The truth of it was painfully clear to both Sunny and Scholar.
But the older slave, surprisingly, did not look panicked. Instead, he lowered his gaze and quietly said:
Hero and Sunny turned to him, all ears. The young soldier raised an eyebrow.
'Here it comes.'
"The beast had traced us this far in just a day. That means that there are two most probable possibilities. Either it is smart enough to realize where we are going, or it is following the scent of blood."
After a bit of thinking, Hero nodded, agreeing with this logic. The older slave smiled slightly and continued.
"Whether it is one or another, we can throw him off our trail and buy some time."
"How do we do that?"
Despite the urgency in Hero's voice, Scholar hesitated and remained silent.
"Why are you not answering? Speak!"
The older slave sighed again and slowly, as though against his will, answered. Sunny was waiting for this moment for a while now.
"We'll just have to… make the boy bleed. Drag him down the path, then leave him there as bait and go up instead. His sacrifice will save our lives."
'Right on time.'
If Sunny wasn't mad — and scared witless, of course — he would have smiled. His judgment, it seems, was eerily on point. Affirmation was always nice… but not in the situation where being right also meant potentially being used as monster bait.
He remembered the words Scholar had spoken back when Shifty was campaigning to have Sunny killed — "Don't be too hasty, my friend. The boy might prove useful later on." These words, which had sounded benevolent then, now turned out to hide a much more sinister meaning.
'What a bastard!'
Now it all depended on whether or not Hero would decide to follow through with Scholar's plan.
The young soldier blinked, astonished.
"What do you mean, make him bleed?"
Scholar shook his head.
"It's simple, really. If the monster knows where we are going, we have no choice but to abandon our plans to reach the mountain pass and go over the peak of the mountain instead. If the monster is following the scent of blood, we have to use one of us as bait to mislead it."
"Only by leaving a bleeding man further down the path can we reliably avoid the pursuit no matter how it is tracking us."
Hero stood motionless, his eyes jumping between Scholar and Sunny. After a few seconds, he asked:
"How can you bring yourself to propose something so vile?"
The older slave masterfully pretended to look aggrieved and somber.
"Of course, it pains me! But if we do nothing, all three of us will die. This way, at least, the boy's death will save two lives. The gods will reward him for his sacrifice!"
'Gee, what a silver tongue. I'm almost convinced myself.'
The young soldier opened his mouth, then closed it again, hesitating.
Sunny was silently watching the other two survivors, measuring his chances of coming on top in a fight. Scholar was already halfway to being a corpse, so overpowering him would not be a problem. Hero, however… Hero presented an obstacle.