Back then, it took him a couple of seconds to realize what she was talking about.
"The spire from your vision? The one with seven seals?"
"Yes. In my dream, it seemed to be as tall as a mountain. I could even see it from the walls of the human castle, looming in the distance like a crimson spear piercing the skies. When the sun sets, the Spire's vast shadow falls over the castle and stretches east, as far as you can see."
She was silent for a moment, then added:
"The feeling I got when looking at the Crimson Spire was very similar to what you had described, only much more intense."
Sunny frowned, trying to remember the exact words Cassie had used to describe her vision. Seven severed heads guarding seven seals… a dying angel being devoured by hungry shadows… feeling of extreme terror and loss…
What was the deal with that Spire, exactly?
"Is it crimson because it's made out of the same stuff as the labyrinth?"
The crimson "coral" surrounding them was not, in fact, coral. It's just what they called it based on some resemblance, for the sake of simplicity. The actual nature of the strange material remained a mystery.
"Maybe it's the other way around. Maybe the labyrinth is made from the same stuff as the Spire."
In other words, the Crimson Spire might have been the source of all this madness. Still, it was just a theory — there was too little information to confirm it.
However, Sunny did feel that the Spire was, in one way or another, at the center of all things that they had encountered. He just hoped that it wouldn't be their final destination.
Knowing the reason behind his restlessness, Sunny was able to endure it much better. He even found a hidden benefit to this situation — as long as he sensed the shadow of the Crimson Spire, he could pinpoint the direction to the human castle, since it was situated somewhere between their location and the source of the shadow.
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In a sense, the Crimson Spire had become his inner compass.
Neph's voice took Sunny out of his reverie. Shaking off the distracting thoughts, he focused on the task at hand.
They were getting close to the Bone Ridge.
This name came to their minds as soon as they had first laid their eyes on this towering landmark. It was visible from quite a distance, sharply contrasted against the crimson coral and the grey sky in all its ivory splendor.
The Bone Ridge was, in fact, made of bone. The skeletal remains of a colossal sea monster lay on an enormous mound of chaotically growing coral, with its arching spine protruding especially high above the ground. It was impossible to say what the terrifying creature had looked like while it was still alive, but one thing was certain — it was gargantuan even by the standards of the dark sea.
This wasn't the first giant skeleton they saw during their journey. In fact, the labyrinth was littered with remains of dead leviathans, their massive bones forming natural arches and palaces throughout it. They were easy to spot because the coral formations were especially tall and dense in their vicinity, as though trying to bury any sign of whiteness in the sea of crimson.
Sunny, however, had a feeling that the situation was actually reversed. To him, it seemed as though the coral was actually growing out of the old bones and spreading in every direction, slowly consuming the world. When he looked at the crimson mounds surrounding the colossal remains, he couldn't help but see them as rivers of ancient, solidified blood.
He was almost sure that if they were to dig deep enough into the black mud to find the roots of the crimson forest, they would find nothing but endless layers of bones.
What a scary image.
Regardless of what Sunny thought about the nature of the labyrinth, the beast whose remains formed the Bone Ridge was especially large. Thanks to that, a portion of its long spine was tall enough to remain above the water during the night. That's why they had chosen it as the next stop on their journey.
With the evening approaching, the next task was crucial. They had to scale the dead leviathan and make sure that no other creature had decided to take shelter in its remains.
If something did, they had no choice but to try and kill it, since there was no time to retreat to their previous safe haven.
The last step was often the riskiest.
Coming to the base of the coral mound, the group moved around it, searching for a convenient path up. Eventually, they arrived in front of the creature's cracked, misshapen skull. With its lower jaw missing or buried under the mud, the upper formed a vast, cavernous cave.
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Feeling shivers running down his spine, Sunny passed beneath the terrifying palisade of teeth and entered the cave. With his shadow leading the way, they made way to the back of the creature's skull and soon entered the hollow expanse of its spine.
Inside the spine, the bone surface under their feet was as wide as a road. Actually, it looked a lot like a highway running through a long tunnel, with stark beams of light falling through the gaps between the massive vertebrae. The tunnel was inclined upward, most of its length hidden behind the bend of the ceiling.
When the Echo entered the spine, its chitin legs produced a loud, echoing clatter.
Sunny checked with the shadow and shook his head.
Changing Star looked forward and slightly lowered her chin.
Despite the fact that the shadow had not noticed any danger, they still summoned their swords before moving forward. It was not their first time being ambushed at the edge of safety.
Luckily, their precautions turned out to be unnecessary. Nothing was hiding inside the gargantuan remains, so they were able to reach the highest point of the spine without having to cut their way through an unknown number of monsters.
By the time they got to safety, the sun was already setting. The dark sea was returning, filling the inside of the sea monster's spine with the echoing sound of rushing water. Sunny took the saddlebags off the Echo and dismissed it, making their camp instantly feel much roomier.
All three of them were in desperate need of a bath. Leaving the girls alone to give them an opportunity to wash themselves, Sunny walked some distance away and sat down, letting his tired body rest.
His shadow returned to the lower parts of the spine, watching the black, dim water slowly rise and devour the ivory whiteness. He had to make sure that nothing would crawl out of the water at the last minute.
With half of his mind preoccupied with observing the rising tide, the other half was free to wander. Sunny summoned the runes and checked the number of shadow fragments in his possession.
Shadow Fragments: [96/1000].
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Not bad… he only had twelve at the beginning of all this. In less than a month, the amount increased dramatically. He was stronger and faster now. He was also more experienced.
However, that still left him far inferior to even the weakest Nightmare Creatures of the Forgotten Shore in terms of raw physical might, even with the help of the shadow.
'How long before I'm able to wrestle a scavenger with my bare hands?'
The answer was pretty obvious, not to mention extremely disappointing — not before his own Shadow Core had awakened, which could only happen after returning to the real world.
Soon, it was his turn to wash. Taking the Bottle of Endless Water from refreshed, rosy Cassie, he walked back to his secluded spot and dismissed the Pupetter's Shroud.
A cold breeze touched his pale skin, making Sunny shiver. He looked down, shaking his head at the amount of dirt, sweat and dried blood that was covering his body.
Being an Awakened was not the cleanest of professions.
While he was washing up, Nephis used the remaining time before nightfall to make a fire and cook some meat. These days, they even had salt to season it. At first, the idea of using the sea salt left behind by the dark sea did not seem very appealing, but after a while, they grew accustomed to it.
Salt made every meal they had much tastier.
They ate in silence, too hungry and tired to talk. Soon, it was time to sleep.
Sunny took the first watch, planning to fit in some sword practice before it was his turn to rest. Going through the motions of the basic kata, he split his mind in two. One part was concentrating on the movements of his body, while the other, smaller part, was observing the surface of the black water through his shadow.
In the absence of wind, the dark circle covering the lower part of the spine was strangely calm. This was his first time seeing the black water without the constant undulation of waves, with its surface strangely flat and absolutely still.
It looked like a giant mirror, one that was made of pure darkness.
It was unnaturally mesmerizing. Suddenly, he felt a strong desire to come closer and take a look at his reflection.
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However, Sunny didn't move.
He was terrified of what might look back.