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    Chapter 58: Survival of the Fittest

    Days later, Sunny was sitting on top of a dead scavenger, calmly cleaning the azure blood off his face.

    [Your shadow grows stronger.]

    His sword was still stuck between the plates of chitin armor, trembling slightly as the beast's body convulsed before falling still.

    Somewhere behind him, the sound of breaking carapaces announced that Nephis was already digging out soul shards from the corpses of the creatures they had slain. After dozens of such battles, the two of them were nothing if not efficient.

    Glancing back, he evaluated the scene of carnage.

    The path between two crimson walls was littered with corpses. Initially, they were simply planning to lure the carapace centurion that had been tracking them for the past few days into this narrow passage to turn its size against the monster. However, things quickly took a turn.

    Attracted by the noise of the battle, both the scavengers and the weird centipede creatures that were waging war against the carapace legion in this part of the labyrinth showed up to join the fight. In the ensuing mayhem, Sunny and Nephis used the animosity between the two tribes of monsters to their advantage and ended up as the only victors.

    Not far from him, the Echo was mutilating the corpse of the centurion. Its lost arm had long grown back. Now, the scavenger was tearing pieces of monster meat with its new pincer and vindictively devouring them.

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    Technically, an Echo wasn't supposed to experience hunger. This one, however, had seemingly acquired a hatred for carapace centurions after their encounter with the massive scythe slayer on that fateful stormy night.

    It had already been two weeks since they left the cliffs. In that time, many things had changed, while many remained the same.

    Moving from one high point to another, they steadily traveled west. With Cassie riding atop the Echo, the speed of the group was dramatically enhanced. Still, they took care to explore paths to their next stop before committing to a day-long journey.

    This way, the risk of being caught in another storm was minimized, as they could always either reach the next landmark in time or return to the previous one.

    Their approach to traveling through the labyrinth had also changed. In the past, Nephis and Sunny tried to avoid the scavengers, resorting to fighting them only if there was no other choice. However, the battle with the centurion opened their eyes to the fact that they desperately needed to become stronger, and do it fast.

    That's why they began to actively hunt the carapace beasts, taking out any creatures that were either completely isolated or moving in groups of no more than three. The idea of two Sleepers consciously seeking out Nightmare Creatures of the Awakened rank was pretty ridiculous, but somehow, they made it work.

    Just as Nephis had said, both of them were abnormal.

    Clad in the Starlight Legion Armor, Changing Star, who had always been an extremely formidable fighter, was now able to showcase the full extent of her combat ability. Simply put, she was a menace. It seemed as though her silver sword had a mind of its own. Whenever the tall figure in white armor appeared, rivers of azure blood were sure to flow.

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    What's more, Neph's powers grew with each soul shard she consumed. Every increase was barely noticeable, but with dozens of them added up together, the difference was apparent. She was slowly approaching the line between the peak of human physical form and the threshold of superhuman prowess.

    The same could be said about Sunny, although, in his case, it was predicated on the timely use of the shadow. His own body had become considerably stronger due to the rigors of the Dream Realm, but it was still far away from reaching its peak potential.

    While Nephis was growing more powerful through the consumption of soul shards, he was quickly collecting shadow fragments. Of course, he wasn't able to get every kill, so their amount was less than that of the shards. But he also didn't have to share them with Cassie, which Changing Star was continuously doing.

    As the result, the rate of their progress was more or less the same.

    However, the slow accumulation of power was not the only factor that influenced the rapid growth of their combat effectiveness.

    Sunny's skill level and battle sense were also improving by leaps and bounds. Under the tutelage of sword goddess Nephis herself, he was quickly learning the ins and outs of wielding the blade.

    Then, he was forced to apply these lessons to practice, participating in bloody battles each day with his life on the line. This brutal, merciless reality was, for better or worse, the best training grounds for a true fighter. There was no room for mistakes, only progress — because a single mistake would most likely become his last.

    One real fight was worth a thousand hours of training. With experience, Sunny was able to gain knowledge. With clarity, he was able to turn this knowledge into a seed of understanding.

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    But even that wasn't the biggest contributor to the dramatic increase in the group's overall might.

    The main culprit was, to his endless surprise, teamwork.

    After fighting side by side for so long, Sunny and Nephis had developed a tacit, intuitive understanding. Without the need for words and signals, they were able to act in unison with each other, perfectly coordinating their attacks and actions to better control the battlefield and destroy their opponents.

    The importance of this unity was hard to overestimate. With proper cooperation, it was as though their numbers doubled. The effect was immediate and overwhelming — at least as long as they chose their battles carefully. It was nothing short of jolly.

    With all this added up together, their group had turned from a trio of lost kids into a cohort of well-equipped, experienced and battle-hardened survivors.

    Even Cassie was becoming stronger. Apart from the boost she had received from absorbing the soul shards, the blind girl was also slowly learning to live and function with her disability.

    After all, it was less than two months since she lost her sight. Cassie was still adapting to her condition, and she was doing an incredible job, considering the circumstances.

    She was still unable to help them fight against the monsters, but the burden of taking care of her was becoming less and less heavy. Sunny had also grown accustomed to it, even finding the time spent watching over the blind girl somewhat calming.

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    The goal of reaching the human castle did not seem as impossible as it had before.

    And now, he felt as though they were getting closer and closer.

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