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    Chapter 61: Sea of Ash

    In the morning, Sunny woke up feeling grim and uneasy. The memory of the frightening dark mirror was still fresh in his mind, making every shadow seem sinister and foreboding. He scowled sullenly.

    'What the hell. I'm the Child of Shadows. Why do I have to be afraid of my own domain?'

    But then again, darkness and shadow were not the same, even if a lot of people tended to mistake one for another. Shadows were born from the absence of light. In a sense, they were manifestations of emptiness. True darkness, on the other hand… true darkness was its own entity.

    In a sense, shadows shared more in common with light than they did with darkness.

    'I mean… I guess they do. Do they?'

    Philosophical debates with his internal monologue were not the best way to start the day, at least as far as Sunny was concerned. His already sour mood only got worse. With a short sigh, he sat up and stretched his arms, yawning.

    "Good morning."

    The sound of his voice was almost drowned by the echoing noise of rushing water. With the sun rising, the dark sea was in a hurry to retreat. Sunny was finally able to relax a little.


    Nephis had been guarding the camp during the latter part of the night, so she was already awake. As usual, she was meditating with her eyes closed — in the absolute darkness of the night, "watching over" something actually meant listening for suspicious sounds, so keeping one's eyes open was not that useful.

    For everyone except Sunny, that is, who had perfect night vision thanks to his Attributes.

    Hearing him stand up, Changing Star slowly opened her eyes. A soft afterglow left behind by the dancing white flame could still be seen in their depth, quickly disappearing as her sight adjusted to the twilight of dawn. She looked at Sunny and offered him a polite smile.

    In the past two weeks, Nephis had also been training, perhaps even more diligently than him. However, she wasn't trying to improve her swordsmanship.

    She was actually trying to learn how to behave like a normal human. As the result, their interactions had become slightly less awkward… for the most part.

    Sunny was able to recognize Changing Star's efforts because they were very similar to a phase he himself had gone through many years ago. On several occasions, he had caught her intently observing how Cassie talked and behaved around them. Sometime later, Neph would randomly try to mimic small details of her friend's behavior. The results were… a mixed bag, to say the least.

    The first time she tried to greet him with a smile in the morning, Sunny panicked and almost summoned the Azure Blade. However, Nephis was very smart and persistent. Today, her polite smile looked almost natural.

    He had no idea why Changing Start decided to work on her social skills, of all things, during their perilous journey through the monster-infested hellscape that was the Forgotten Shore. But he didn't mind.

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    It was actually rather entertaining to watch!

    …Watching her torture herself every day, enduring terrible pain in hopes of learning to better control her Aspect Ability, on the contrary, was not fun at all. They never talked about it, but Sunny knew that every time Nephis pretended to meditate, she was actually subjecting herself to the excruciating agony of her Flaw.

    When he thought about it, his heart ached. Sunny wasn't used to feeling such things, but he suspected that this was what other people called "compassion". At least it was similar to how it was described in books and dramas.

    Not that he knew a lot about that stuff.

    After they had breakfast, Nephis stood up and looked at the beam of light falling through the nearest gap between giant vertebrae. Turning to Sunny, she said:

    "Let's study the surroundings."

    They needed to get the lay of the land and decide on their next step. Usually, that implied looking for the nearest natural features that were high enough to stay above the surface of the sea and deciding on which one they would try to reach next.

    Then came a day or two of scouting and hunting, followed by moving the camp to that feature.

    Sunny gave her a nod.


    He summoned the Echo to guard Cassie while they were away and left the shadow behind to keep an eye out, just in case something happens. Then Sunny followed Nephis to the gap.

    Boosting her, he watched as Changing Star flew through the air and then seemingly ran up the wall, kicking herself off at the last moment and propelling her body even higher before grabbing onto a bone protrusion. Relying only on her upper body strength, she then climbed up and disappeared into the cascading light. Soon, the golden rope fell down, allowing him to follow.

    Nephis helped him climb atop the gargantuan spine and then straightened, turning to take a look west. Sunny shook his hands and did the same, expecting to see the usual picture — an endless expanse of the crimson labyrinth, dotted here and there with rare high points.

    However, what they saw left them both speechless.

    Some distance away, the labyrinth seemed to lose color. The crimson blades of coral stood grey and misshapen, as though struck by some unknown disease and drained of all life. The stone-like material looked brittle and fragile, ready to crumble to dust at any moment.

    The patch of dead coral spread for as far as the eye could see. Further away, the walls of the labyrinth seemed to have collapsed into a sea of ash-grey sand. This ashen wasteland looked so alien and strange after weeks of seeing only the endless crimson pathways that Sunny felt a shiver run down his spine.

    The fact that they didn't notice even a single monster moving through the mud beneath made him feel even more disturbed.

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    There was only one visible high point to the west of them. Far away into the distance, the ground rose, forming a tall hill. The hill was probably the largest they had seen, easily capable of becoming a real island once the water rose in the night. Its shape reminded Sunny of a colossal barrow.

    Covered in the grey sand left behind by dead coral, the hill resembled a mountain of ash. That mountain was crowned by a giant tree.

    The tree rose into the sky like a tower, its branches wide enough to cover the whole island in their shade. The bark of the giant tree was as black as the water of the dark sea, while its leaves were red as blood.

    Contrasted against the grey sky, the crimson crown of the majestic tree looked incredibly vibrant and magnificent.

    Sunny gulped.

    "What… the hell… is that?"

    Nephis was either thinking or had nothing to say. She just stared into the distance, a slight frown on her face.

    At that moment, something glistened brightly from beneath the tree. The glimmer was clear and easily visible even from their position, like a beam of sunlight reflected by a large mirror. A moment later, it was gone, only to appear again after a few seconds.

    'A mirror…'

    Sunny shivered, remembering the previous night. For some reason, the bright glimmer suddenly seemed to become menacing.

    After some time had passed, he addressed Neph again:

    "What do you think?"

    She lingered a bit before turning to him. While Changing Star was deliberating on what to say, he glanced at the ashen wasteland again. Finally, she spoke:

    "This is the only way west."

    Sunny grimaced and looked away.

    He didn't like this turn of events one bit.

    "So, we are going?"

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    Nephis turned to face the giant tree and, as though affected by its grandeur, hesitantly shrugged.

    "Do we have a choice?"


    Some time later, they abandoned the remains of the giant sea monster and moved west, planning to check the situation inside the wasteland that lay between them and the Ashen Barrow.

    Initially, they weren't planning to approach the strange island. However, things turned out to be rather unusual once they entered the wasteland.

    With grey sand under their feet and dead coral walls surrounding them, the group was fully prepared to face unknown danger. Despite the fact that they had not seen any monster moving through this area from the top of the leviathan's spine, neither Sunny nor Nephis truly believed that no one was going to attack them in this strange region of the labyrinth.

    There were too many ways for the Nightmare Creatures to hide themselves, and if there was one thing the Sleepers had learned during their time on the Forgotten Shore, it was that everything here was either deadly or concealing something capable of killing them. In that regard, their first encounter with the carnivorous worms was especially traumatic.

    However, their common sense turned out to be wrong this time around. The wasteland was quiet and empty, completely void of any signs of life. The absence of monsters was, in theory, supposed to make Sunny feel better, but he felt even more nervous than usual instead.

    This whole situation reeked of danger. It was strange and unnatural.

    If even the monsters were afraid to approach this place, what were they doing walking deeper and deeper into the wasteland of their own free will?

    Were they fools not to turn around and run away immediately?

    Soon, they reached the point where the walls of the labyrinth had crumbled into dust. Now, there was nothing but a vast expanse of grey sand between them and the hill crowned by the giant tree.

    Nothing could hide on that ashen flat.

    However, they would also be unable to conceal themselves from anyone's gaze.

    Sunny glanced at Nephis.

    "Are you sure you want to do this?"

    Changing Star scowled and lowered her chin. Then, looking forward, she scowled and said:

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    "Let's go."

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