In the evening, Sunny continued to practice with the sword under Neph's watchful eye. With his new insight, every movement felt different from before. After the thousand strikes were finished, he sat down to rest and studied the Azure Blade, tempted to continue obsessing over the abundant mysteries of the Forgotten Shore.
After a while, Sunny asked:
"Do you think I'm well-suited to use a sword? Should I consider switching weapons in the future?"
"That depends on your goals. However, the sword is considered to be the king of weapons for a reason."
"And why is that?"
She tilted her head and deliberated for a few seconds. Then, she asked:
"Do you know how natural selection works?"
He raised an eyebrow.
"Survival of the fittest? The strongest species survives?"
Changing Star glanced at him.
"Somewhat correct. But actually, it's not the strongest species that survive, it's the most adaptable. Otherwise, lions and tigers and bears would have been the ones ruling the world instead of humans."
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Sunny knew about lions and bears from archival footage, but he had no idea what a tiger was.
'Probably another extinct predator?'
Meanwhile, Neph continued, not at all like her usual taciturn self. She seemed to be much more eloquent when talking about subjects she was confident in.
"The same logic can be applied to combat. A sword is not the most effective tool in every situation. A spear is more useful against enemies with long reach. A war hammer is much better against armor. A mace is easier to maintain. However, swords are the most versatile."
She cast a gaze at the Azure Blade.
"A sword can pierce, it can cut, it can bash. It can be used effectively at a variety of ranges. It is swift and maneuverable. Every part of the sword, from tip to pommel, can be used to attack. While wielding a sword, you won't be the best at everything. But you'll be the most adaptable."
Nephis turned to him.
"Do you understand?"
Sunny thought for a bit before answering.
"I think I do."
She gave him a nod and looked away.
"But in the end, you must remember one thing. It doesn't matter that much what's in your hands. A sword, a spear, a club… that's just tools. You are the weapon."
He sighed and dismissed the Azure Blade. As always, Changing Star's lesson gave him a lot to think about.
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'You are the weapon.'
He repeated it in his mind, feeling as though another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.
Together, they watched the sun set in comfortable silence. As the night approached, the sea was coming back, flooding the crimson labyrinth like a rush of darkness. Far below them, scavengers were scurrying to find a hiding place. A few of them were climbing the cliffs, hoping to spend the night on the small island.
Sunny's shadow was keeping an eye on them.
"We're going to have guests soon," he said, disheartened at the thought that their short respite was about to end.
"That's alright. With the higher ground advantage, dealing with them won't be too hard."
Sunny nodded and looked at the disappearing sun. Suddenly, his mood turned solemn. Doubt raised its ugly head, plunging his mind into the gloomy embrace of anxiety. Staring into the distance, Sunny hesitated and asked:
"Do you think we'll be able to reach that castle?"
She glanced at him with no particular expression on her face.
He turned to her and forced a smile.
"Why are you so sure?"
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In the blood-red blaze of the sunset, Changing Star's calm eyes seemed to burn with heavenly fire. Looking west, she summoned her sword and answered:
"If that is our will, who dares to stop us?"
Dealing with the climbing scavengers, indeed, turned out to be comparatively easy. Sunny and Nephis just had to ambush and push the bulky creatures off the cliff before they could find stable purchase. He received four shadow fragments practically for free, increasing the overall number to thirty-two. Sadly, the soul shards couldn't be retrieved.
They spent another day on the cliffs, resting and training. Sunny practiced with the sword while his shadow explored the nearby paths of the labyrinth. With the Echo still recovering, their group was not in its optimal condition. That's why there was no point in hastily abandoning their current camp.
However, very soon they were going to resume the journey west, moving from one height to another in hopes of reaching the mysterious human citadel.
This time they were not going to travel without sufficient preparations. Knowing that a sudden storm can come at any moment, covering the world with darkness and summoning the sea back before sunset, the three Sleepers decided to thoroughly scout a route before committing to moving their camp to the next landmark.
Nephis spent the day meditating. Her eyes were closed. From time to time, it seemed as though a soft white glow was radiating from behind her eyelids. However, when Sunny looked closely, it was always gone, making him think that he was just imagining things.
He suspected that Changing Star was training herself to endure the pain of her Flaw.
If so, he wished her luck.
Cassie behaved like her usual self, being cheerful and friendly. It was as though their strange conversation had never happened. However, Sunny could feel that something about her was different. He couldn't quite put a finger on what exactly had changed about the blind girl, but she seemed to possess more resolve. It wasn't a bad thing.
They spent some time chatting and remembering their time in the Academy. Sunny told her about his lessons with Teacher Julius and various strange things he had learned from the old man. Her reaction to the idea of studying dead languages of the Dream Realm was exactly the same as Sunny's initial protest and bewilderment.
Soon, the night was upon them again. This time, no scavenger tried to climb the cliffs, so Sunny and Nephis could rest easy. However, they still slept in turns, keeping watch over the camp in case something unexpected happens.
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In the morning, they ate the last of the centurion's meat and prepared to climb down into the labyrinth.
It was time to continue their journey.