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    Chapter 23: Dreams and Nightmares

    That was something Sunny was keenly interested in.

    Of course, he had a general knowledge of how things were set inside the Spell. But the First Nightmare had already shown him that reality was different from how it was portrayed in popular culture in a number of small, but infinitely important ways.

    He needed to separate truth from the myths. And, of course, it was very advantageous to hear it from the mouth of someone who had actually been to the Dream Realm. So Sunny was all ears.

    Awakened Rock began to speak:

    "Most people are aware of what Nightmares are — because they have an impact on the real world and their lives. All of you have been warned before entering the First Nightmare that, should you perish there, a Nightmare Creature would be allowed to cross the threshold and enter reality."

    Yup, that was the reason why Master Jet had to wait patiently by his side, prepared to deal with the monster if it appears.

    "First Nightmares are unique, because each of them is individual. That's why only a single Creature can appear. However, starting from the Second Nightmare, things become much more dangerous. These Nightmares are not tied to an infected person. Instead, they are born in the Dream Realm. While the Seed of the Nightmare is growing, any number of Awakened can attempt to conquer it."

    Hunting down Nightmares was the main responsibility of the Awakened. Sunny knew that much.

    "Should they all die or fail to find the Seed before it matures, a Gate will open in the real world, letting through countless monsters. You all know the consequences. Other Awakened will be forced to withstand the onslaught on this side, but then there can be massive destruction or losses among the civilian population."

    Opening Gates were something that every person on the planet feared. It was also the second disaster brought upon by the Spell after the initial appearance of the Nightmare Creatures. The main difference was that, in that initial wave, there were only dormant beasts. However, Gates had ranks of their own, and any type of Creature could potentially step through.

    Not long before Sunny was born, a Rank 5 Gate opening left a whole continent uninhabitable. Luckily, high-rank Gates were very rare.

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    Awakened Rock's voice grew solemn.

    "So it is not wrong to say that the purpose of the Awakened is to enter the Dream Realm, seek out maturing Nightmares and close them before any harm could befall the real world. From this, you can see that the Dream Realm and the Nightmares are connected, but are not one and the same. If Nightmares are the destination, then the Dream Realm is the road. But it is also so much more."

    'Very romantic. Does Awakened Rock have poetic inclinations?'

    "Simply put, the Dream Realm is a world. It is vast, mysterious and mostly unexplored. It is also dead. There is no life out there except for the Nightmare Creatures, corrupted ecosystems… and now us. But it wasn't always dead. We can tell that once, a long time ago, the Dream Realm was home to several primitive civilizations. There are a lot of ruins buried in its soil."

    From what Sunny knew, those lost civilizations were not really primitive, it's just that their development was centered around soul cores and mysticism as opposed to technology. So, basically, miracles and magic. What were their names? How did they fall? No one knew.

    Maybe they were destroyed by the Spell.

    "We don't know if the Dream Realm exists inside the Spell as one of its illusions, just on an unimaginably larger scale, or if it's real, with the Spell only serving as a pathway between two realities. However, we do suspect that the illusions conjured up inside the Nightmares are based on its history. They are replicas of past events, somehow reconstructed from the depths of time."

    So, there might have been a real slave caravan on that black mountain once, a long time ago. Sunny remembered how time seemed to move in reverse at the beginning of his Nightmare. He thought about how things would have ended up without his involvement. Did the nameless temple slave perish in Mountain King's maw with the rest of the caravan?

    Somehow, he felt that the nameless slave was not that simple. Otherwise, why would the Spell remember him? And what about Hero? Was he able to escape?

    'I wonder.'

    "There are four main differences between the Dream Realm and the Nightmares. Firstly, it doesn't have a "story". There is no predetermined conflict you are forced to resolve. You can move freely and explore, provided that you have the strength to stay alive in the wilderness. Most people tend to stay close to one of the human Citadels."

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    'That's good to know,' Sunny thought, unconvinced.

    Sure, there were no predetermined conflicts in the Dream Realm. But with his [Fated] attribute, he was pretty certain to end up in some kind of trouble. So that freedom Awakened Rock had mentioned was relative in his case.

    Meanwhile, the instructor continued:

    "Secondly, as I have already mentioned, there are no people in the Dream Realm except for those who came from the real world. There are only monsters. Some of them can mimic human appearance, though, so be mindful of that."

    Sunny felt cold sweat running down his back. Nightmare Creatures mimicking humans? So creepy! Since when was that a thing? Why hasn't he ever heard about it?

    He stole a glance at the Legacies standing in the first row and noticed that they did not show any sign of surprise. So, they knew.

    "Thirdly, unlike the First Nightmare, no Nightmare Creatures will appear in the real world if you die in the Dream Realm. It may sound cruel, but that's a good thing. Awakened forces are already spread thin. If we had to monitor every Sleeper, we wouldn't have resources to handle more important matters."

    Considering that each Sleeper could spend weeks, sometimes even months in the Dream Realm, there was ruthless logic in that statement.

    "And lastly, and most importantly. Unlike Nightmares, which are bound by the rules of fairness, there is no limit to what kind of Creature you can meet in the Dream Realm. During its trials, the Spell won't pit a dormant human against an opponent many ranks above them…"

    'Oh really?' Sunny sneered.

    However, he was forced to agree with Awakened Rock. Even though both Hero and Mountain King were way out of his league, they were still just one rank above him.

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    "... But in the Dream Realm, no such restrictions exist. Theoretically, you can stumble upon an Unholy Titan and die before even realizing what happened. So be careful and stick to the regions with enemies on par with your own rank. It's not an ironclad guarantee, but at least there will be less of a chance of you biting off more than you can chew."

    Sticking to a region populated by Nightmare Creatures below his rank was even better. That was exactly what Sunny was planning to do.

    Awakened Rock paused for a few moments, studying the faces of Sleepers in front of him. Then he added:

    "When the solstice comes, you will be drawn into the Dream Realm. The exact location of where you will appear can't be predicted in advance, but there is a high chance that many of you will find yourselves in close proximity to each other. Band together and proceed to the nearest human Citadel. Each Citadel is built around a Gateway. Once you reach it, you will be able to return."

    Gateways were special portals that served as exit points from the Dream Realm. Once Sleepers reached such a portal, they would be able to escape back to reality and become Awakened. Their core would evolve, and they would also receive a second Aspect Ability. After that, they would return to the Dream Realm each time they fall asleep.

    "If you can't locate or are unable to reach the nearest human Citadel, search for an unclaimed Gateway. It will usually be inside or near the most prominent landmark of the region. Work together to defeat its guardians and come back alive."

    He gave them a heavy look.

    "That is all for today. Next, follow the instructions sent to your communicators to find your assigned dormitory. Once settled, you may proceed to the cafeteria for some late supper. There will be a round of interviews after that, to prepare your suggested curriculums. Get a good night's rest. Your training starts tomorrow."

    With that, he gave them a short nod and left.

    Sunny sighed.

    'Can't be predicted in advance, huh?'

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    With his luck, he would either drop right in the middle of a prosperous human Citadel and immediately roll into a Gateway, or appear in some region of the Dream Realm so remote and deadly that no one had ever heard about it or returned from it alive.

    'Let's hope for the former.'

    Since he couldn't do anything about it, Sunny wasn't very worried. There was something much more important on his mind — what, exactly, do they serve here for supper…

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