He woke up with a throat more parched than he had ever experienced before. He let out a hoarse groan and tried to open his eyes, fighting against the mucus that had glued them shut. The back of his hand hit the chilly rock wall of the cavern.
His surroundings were strangely bright. He looked on the soft, downy hair growing on his arm. The wound caused by the beast’s fangs had already started to clot and heal.
Last night he had lapsed into delirium due to the high fever, and he felt as though he had dreamed of something terrifying.
Was it really only last night?
Somehow he couldn’t seem to keep track of time. He didn’t know how long he had slept. He felt like he had had a terribly long dream, but he also felt an odd, floaty sensation like he was in space.
No, it wasn’t as simple a feeling as being hungry. It was a fierce sort of hunger, the likes of which made it feel as if he was being eaten from the inside out by his hunger. His hands trembled uncontrollably.
I might faint if I don’t get something to eat as soon as possible. But I can’t just go find food when I’m chained down like this. There’s still ages before it’s time for morning porridge.
Once he realized that, he broke out in a cold sweat.
My throat is dry. I also feel dizzy…But other than that, my head hasn’t felt so clear in a long time.
The next morning, he stayed in the loose straw that made up his bed, sweating profusely even as the heat of his fever steadily declined. His senses were heightened to a new level.
And yet, it was quiet.
He couldn’t hear anything besides the rats and bugs bustling around. He heard the usual whir of the ventilation blades, but not a single voice or movement from a person was audible.
Is it still the dead of the night?
Puzzled, he rolled over from his spot facing the rock wall. Sitting up with some effort, Van was greeted with a horrifying sight. Heaps of corpses were scattered as far as his eyes could see.
The man diagonally opposite of him who had been alive last night, the man chained to the wall on the opposite him…all the men in this layer were dead. It was obvious at a glance that they weren’t just sleeping either.
All that remained of the torch, apparently having burned out at some point, was black charcoal. In the faint light from the passageway, he could make out the faces of the corpses, still twisted in agony from their last moments.
Van began to tremble within the silence. His heart was beating furiously. He felt like he couldn’t get enough air.
What happened…what is happening…I don’t understand what’s going on at all.
All he knew was that he couldn’t stay here, something was telling him to escape as quickly as possible. The hunger growing in the pit of his stomach was also spurring him on.
I have to leave. ──I have to leave now.
Just as he was about to blindly start running, his right foot was violently jerked back, the chain clanking as the momentum sent him pitching forward. Catching himself before his head slammed into the bedrock, Van clicked his tongue.
Suddenly, he was filled with rage. This thing keeping him from leaving had become more of a personal affront than ever before.
Van grabbed the shackles and pulled them with all his strength, lost in his wrath. A rasping clank echoed. The iron plate and the two stakes bolting it to the bedrock that his chains were attached to were creaking.
Intellectually, he knew that it was impossible for him to pull it out, but he didn’t give a damn right now. Driven by his blazing rage, Van roared, gritted his teeth, and strained all the muscles in his body to pull on the chain. The muscle fibers in his arms and shoulders bulged.
And then…he felt the unmistakable sensation of metal twisting and tearing. With a snap, the chain broke, the residual momentum sending Van toppling backwards.
Van stared dumbfoundedly at the remnants of the chain hanging in his hand, still seated on the disheveled straw “bedding” he had landed on.
He sat there processing the fact that he had torn it off with his own strength for a long while, before coming to his senses, and beginning to run even as the half of the chain attached to his shackles was dragged behind him.
His own breathing ringing loudly through his ears, he ran up the branching path, which began to slope up gently, heading to the shaft leading towards the surface.
He could see light distantly above him. Sturdy wooden beams supporting the pulleys for the salt winch blocked out the light, the ropes dangling down towards him.
Van began to climb the thick wooden ladder steadily, blowing up clouds of white salt.
As he got closer to the upper layer, the surroundings slowly brightened. Once his head was above the bedrock of the second layer, he heard the scrabbling of a horse’s hooves against the rock.
…The horse is alive?
It had probably noticed Van. The horse, bound between the rock wall and a wooden fence, calmly looked his way, raised its snout, and neighed.
Nothing else moved.
Focusing, he surveyed the tunnel but didn’t find anything but lifeless, fallen slaves.
Van clenched his teeth, and concentrated on only continuing to climb up and up.
Suddenly the beast that had attacked him several days ago crossed his mind.
How did that manage to get down this ladder? Regardless of whether it was a dog or wolf, it couldn’t have made it down a ladder, much less climb back up.
If it’s that beast, it might be capable of it. Considering its agility, and how it managed to avoid colliding with the wall by twisting and kicking off the wall, it’s probably capable of climbing and descending through this narrow, dug-out hole by kicking the ladder and rock wall in alternation.
Just what were those beasts?
The slaves started dying one after the other after getting bitten. Even though the work was back-breaking, exhaustion wouldn’t kill off so many slaves all at once.
There are times when poisonous gases suddenly rise up from underground, but if it were poisonous gas, the man sleeping by the entrance should have survived. It was unbelievable that so many men in so many layers of the mine would have all died. Everyone was coughing violently, but I feel like that was also caused by the fact that we were bitten.
Recalling the beasts, which had indifferently bitten each person as if carrying out a mission, Van chewed on his lip.
If being bitten by them is the reason why everyone is dead, why am I alive…?
Grabbing hold of the last rung on the ladder, Van pulled himself out of the shaft, rolling out into the tunnel to the mine’s entrance.
In the yawning entrance of the mine, Van squinted into the light. The setting sun dyed the wall in a light crimson.
It’s not morning? Just how long did I sleep for then? Half a day? Or, even longer…?
Pursing his lips, Van left through the mine’s entrance. Immediately, he was wrapped in a honey-colored light. A cool autumn breeze brushed against his cheeks. The evening sun shone through the swaying leaves on the trees, bathing everything in the colors of the sunset. There were no people present as far as the eye could see. No soldiers in the guard house to protect the salt mine and prevent escapes, no overseers for the slaves, no one.
Only the flies buzzing around incessantly suggested what their final fates were.
Van shivered in the chilly wind.
Anyway, I need to eat. Anything will do as long as it’s edible.
Looking around, he spotted several buildings.
When he was brought here, he had been blindfolded to ensure that he didn’t know enough to escape. When he was transporting the salt, he didn’t have the spare energy to look around – it was crowded with many slaves and overseers anyway. As such, this was the first time he was seeing the surroundings of the salt mine.
The first thing that drew his gaze was a watchtower. The row houses lined up next to it likely were where the slave overseers lived.
Several chimneys stuck out from the roofs on two adjacent buildings of different sizes on the eastern side.
That might be the kitchen where the slaves’ food is made. It looks like there’s a storehouse next to it, so I think it’s a pretty good guess.
The doors of all buildings were locked tight. Tormented by his hunger, stealth was the furthest thing from his mind. Van kicked the door of the building closest to him, ramming his body against it again and again. It was apparently barred from the inside. Even though he managed to force open a gap, the door wasn’t quite open enough.
Not giving up and throwing his body against the door a few more times, he heard the sound of something breaking, and the door suddenly gave way. As he stumbled inside, nearly falling over, he banged his shin on something hard. Van rubbed at the pain and clicked his tongue. Three chairs were upended on the ground.
I guess these were blocking the door.
The inside was utterly silent. The evening sun shone down into the room through a window, illuminating the dust as it slowly swirled through the air.
There were women lying in the pale light. There was even a woman who was still reaching for a water jug on the ground, having perished trying to drink some water.
They probably collapsed during their meal.
Slices of famu (wheat bread) were scattered in a pool of spilled soup on the kitchen table in the middle of the room.
Suddenly he remembered the rag wrapped around the arm of the female slave who had brought him the porridge.
A bar…blocking the door with chairs…
They had been afraid of being attacked by something.
Those beasts, huh?
This place definitely got attacked as well. Shards of broken plate have been swept together into a corner. I can almost see the women, cleaning even as they watched the door in fear. They probably only slept after barring the door at night so as to not get attacked once again.
One day, two days, three days…coughing and hoping the coughs were simply a cold, forcing their fevered bodies to keep working, only to collapse in the end.
As he gazed at the fallen women, Van recalled the terrifying moment when his body had suddenly become heavier than lead.
There were reddish brown spots dotted along their bloodless faces and necks, probably caused by the fever that had assailed them.
He felt as if his head would crack open, violent trembling taking over his body. Just breathing was difficult. Even so, he couldn’t simply ignore these women who had suffered a sudden and miserable death.
Van put his trembling hands together, closed his eyes, and prayed that the women’s souls would be welcomed in the distant land of everlasting spring.
And then he opened his eyes, and looked around himself.
For some time now, the scent of food had been enticing him. Looking up, he saw bundles of meat and chili pepper hanging from the ceiling. Sausages bound in circles also dangled beside them. A large, round, uncut famu, fresh out of the oven, was on the big kitchen table.
It seems that this wasn’t the kitchen where the slaves’ food was prepared. All the slaves got to eat was a syrupy, wheat porridge. He hadn’t seen sausages and famu for a long time.
But first, Van went for the water jug, scooping up water with a ladle, and gulping it down. The cold water tasted unbelievably sweet to him. He scooped and drank, scooped and drank. After he had his fill, he grabbed the famu from the kitchen table, and sank his teeth into it, tearing a big piece off.
The famu was big enough to serve as dinner for a family of four, but he barely even chewed it, wolfing it down. And then he savagely tore into another piece, continuing until the pangs from his stomach settled.
A small voice in the back of his mind pointed out that he shouldn’t eat so much. His stomach had received only meager amounts of food for so long. The calm voice informed him that he would die if he ate too much all of a sudden.
But he just couldn’t stop his hands. It was as if there was a gaping hole in his body, he ate, and ate but the hole didn’t get any smaller.
He extended a hand and violently tore a sausage off the string it was hanging on, biting through the briny skin. Even the hard, white tallow of the cold sausage was heavenly. The nostalgic aroma of meat seemed to trigger something in his body. His entire body heated up like a candle suddenly revived just as it had been about to go out. Taking a break to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, he suddenly felt as though he had heard something. Van looked up and strained his ears.
Yep, I can definitely hear something. ──Is someone crying?
…Someone else survived?
Where? Where is it coming…?
Listening carefully, he followed the sound of the crying. Once he left the kitchen and went outside, it became slightly louder.
Next door, huh?
The building next door was cruder than the one he was just in, but it was fairly big.
As he had expected, something was blocking the door from inside. His body sated, he didn’t have the sheer determination to smash the door in like before.
Looking around instead, he discovered a dormer window high on the eastern wall.
Using a chair he carried over from the other building – the one he hit his shin on – he squeezed in through the window.
The interior of this dim building was bare unlike the neighboring one. Several stoves with black pots on them were lined up in the oddly wide room. This is probably the kitchen for the slaves.
And, there were dead women here too. Among this group were young girls. Seeing shackles coiled around their ankles, Van ground his teeth.
──These girls were also slaves. They probably lost the war, and were rounded up in their hometowns and brought here.
The ash from the stoves had been cleaned out and piled into a dedicated container. Most of the black pots were also clean and dry. Only the two stoves in front of him still had ashes, and the black pots on top of these still had leftover porridge in them.
I suppose they collapsed at the time while they were making their own food after cooking for the slaves in the mine and cleaning up.
He could hear the crying voice a lot better now, though it had subsided into more of a whine. However, of the women he could see in the room, not a single one was breathing. Most of them were lying prone on the floor, but there was one that had her back to a stove. Her cloth headband had slipped down allowing her hair to fall loosely over her face and she was only about twenty-two or three. The way she had died implied that she had desperately protected the stove from opening till her dying breath.
I think she was trying to save something from those beasts, even through the delirium and hallucinations caused by the fever.
Van gently grabbed the woman’s body with both hands, and shifted it away from the stove’s opening.
Immediately, he heard more crying.
Peering into the stove, round, black eyes peered back at him, surprised. Inside was a very young child with tear-streaked cheeks and a piece of famu balled in its hands.