Sunny was sprawled in the mud, trying to catch his breath. The subtle voice of the Spell echoed in his ears.
[Your shadow grows stronger.]
Immediately, he felt a slight change. His body grew a little bit stronger, his vision a little sharper, his skin a little smoother. The change was minimal, but apparent.
'What was that?'
He had a guess, and it was easy to confirm. Sunny summoned the runes.
[Shadow Fragments: 14/1000].
Previously, he only had twelve of the mysterious shadow fragments, with no knowledge on how to acquire more. Now it seemed that the process was automatic: he only had to kill an enemy to absorb a part of their shadow and enhance his own core.
More than that, the number of fragments he was able to receive wasn't directly correlated to the number of slain enemies. After a bit of thinking, Sunny came to a preliminary conclusion: dormant soul cores gave him one fragment, while awakened ones gave two. However, only enemies he defeated directly — more or less — counted.
Killing the Mountain King's Larva, a dormant beast, had given him one shadow fragment. Finishing off the veteran slaver, a dormant human — another. Mountain King itself was an awakened tyrant, which meant that it had five awakened cores. With each giving Sunny two shadow fragments, he ended up with a total of twelve. And now, after killing the Carapace Scavenger, he had fourteen.
Interestingly, he didn't receive any fragments from the deaths of Shifty, Scholar and Hero, even though they perished as a result of his machinations. It seems he had to finish an enemy off with his own two hands to absorb a part of their shadow.
Well, or at least by summoning an ancient dead god.
The process was quite similar to how normal Awakened increased their power, with the only difference being that the steps of extracting and consuming the corresponding material, soul shards, were skipped in favor of instant absorption. That meant that shadow fragments could not be stored, and subsequently could not be bought or traded.
He won't have an opportunity to receive them as a reward for completing missions, providing services or selling various spoils. If Sunny wanted to grow stronger, his only option was to fight and kill.
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'No peaceful life for me, I guess.'
Previously, Sunny thought that he at least had the choice to choose a relatively safe path. Many Awakened never left the confines of human Citadels and never faced Nightmare Creatures, choosing instead to perform various jobs in the Dream Realm just as they would in the real world.
They received payments in the form of soul shards, which were simultaneously the fuel of one's progression and the universal currency inside the Citadels. Sunny was never set on pursuing such a life, but not even having a choice was sort of irritating.
Luckily, there was a bright side, too. Without the need to use soul shards to strengthen his core, he would be able to spend everything he earns freely and without concern. After all, after he kills an enemy and absorbs the shadow fragments, the soul shard would still be there, ready to be collected and exchanged for something Sunny might need in the future.
That would effectively make him twice as efficient in terms of earning and spending, which was not a small advantage.
Additionally, there was the matter of the Shadow Core…
Since both Sunny and his shadow were tied to it, strengthening the core would not only increase Sunny's power, but also enhance the shadow. So, if he were to use it to further empower himself, the actual effect would be stacked, producing a twofold enhancement. So, for each shadow fragment he collected, Sunny would actually be able to rip twice as much benefit as an Awakened would from a soul shard.
'Not bad. Not bad at all!'
Ah, the future was bright. Provided he survives and gets the opportunity to even have a future, of course.
Sitting up, Sunny moved his eyes and found the cluster of runes describing his Memories. Azure Blade… had he finally gotten a weapon?
Memory: [Azure Blade].
Memory Rank: Awakened.
Memory Type: Weapon.
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Memory Description: [On this forgotten shore, only steel remembers.]
Not very informative, but interesting.
Sunny summoned his new weapon, and a sharp, light sword immediately appeared in his hand. It was about a meter long, including the handle. The blade was straight and single-edged, ending in an angular tip. It was forged out of azure steel, with a beautiful layered pattern. Deep inside the steel, white sparks could be seen. The crossguard was minimalistic and simple, offering almost no protection to the wielder's hands.
If Sunny knew his way around cold weapons, he would have called it a tang dao. However, he had no idea about such things: all he could gather was that the blade was single-edged, which meant that it was probably meant for slashing and cutting as opposed to piercing, and that the handle was long enough to accommodate two hands.
Also, the sword was pretty.
He summoned the shadow and made it wrap itself around the Azure Blade. Immediately, the steel became bluish-black, with a scattering of white sparks. It looked like a starlit night sky.
Sunny stood up and waved the sword a couple of times, getting accustomed to its weight. The sharp edge whistled as it cut the air.
'Well, now I finally look like a real Awakened.'
After that, he cast a gaze at the corpse of the carapace scavenger and grimaced. Eh, this part was not going to be pleasant.
After some time, he managed to break open the cracked carapace and cut away a few strips of tender, pink meat. He also did not forget to extract the radiant crystal from the beast's chest — the soul shard.
Without much hope, he tried to absorb the shard, remembering how it was supposed to be done — just as he expected, nothing happened.
'They're really of no direct use to me.'
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With a shrug, Sunny places the shard and the meat in a makeshift rucksack he weaved from black seaweed and looked at the sun.
The day was still young. He still had a good chance of making it to the distant hill before the sea came back. However, his left leg was banged up in the fight with the scavenger beast, so walking wasn't as easy as it was before. He gritted his teeth and began limping.
Hours passed. Due to his bruises and increased vigilance, Sunny's progress slowed down considerably. He was sweating and grinding his teeth, feeling pain with each step. What's worse, the further he reached into the labyrinth, the more confusing and entangled the paths became. Even with the shadow's help, he constantly had to backtrack and struggled to move in the right direction.
'Crap, crap, crap…'
If nothing changed, Sunny would not reach his goal. Which meant that he'll be crushed to death by the returning sea.
Not allowing himself to think about dying, Sunny tried to walk faster. However, he couldn't be too hasty: making a wrong turn would have taken precious minutes away from him, so he had to choose the way carefully. Additionally, missing to notice another ambush could end his life directly.
Just when he was beginning to feel desperate, his shadow suddenly saw something that momentarily sent Sunny into a stupor.
Some distance further down the path, beyond a few turns, the corals widened, creating a small clearing. And in the middle of that clearing, someone was walking across the mud.
The first thing Sunny saw was fair skin… a lot of skin. The tall, lithe girl was only dressed in a makeshift skirt and a crude brassiere, both made out of seaweed. However, it didn't seem to bother her. With a calm expression, she stopped and looked back. The wind was playing with her short silver hair.
It was Nephis, the Changing Star.
In one hand, she was holding the end of a strange golden rope.
And on the other end of the rope, Cassia, the blind girl, was carefully following behind.
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