As soon as they left the familiar confines of the labyrinth and stepped into the vast expanse of the ashen wasteland, Sunny felt strangely uncomfortable. It was as though he had unknowingly turned slightly agoraphobic while traveling through the complicated madness of the crimson maze.
He had grown accustomed to being surrounded by tall walls of coral, with endless tangled paths stretching in all directions for as far as he could see. Despite the fact that the labyrinth was hiding numerous dangers, it also offered a strange sort of safety.
At least in the case of Sunny, who had the advantage of being able to see beyond its twists and turns thanks to his stealthy Shadow Scout.
Now, with grey sand beneath and nothing to break the line of sight, he had lost that advantage. The idea of not being able to hide from the enemy made him feel naked.
'Keep cool. There's no one here.'
That thought, which was supposed to calm him down, had the opposite effect instead. Indeed, there were no Nightmare Creatures anywhere in the desolate wasteland… but why was that?
What made them so eager to avoid this place?
Nephis was walking in the front of the group, with Sunny right behind her. The Echo was in the rear, moving at a slow pace. He looked around and, after a bit of hesitation, said in a low voice:
"I don't like this."
Nephis glanced at him with her usual indifferent expression. Turning away, she simply said:
They continued forward in silence, sand squeaking under their feet. A dozen or so minutes later, Changing Star raised her hand, gesturing them to stop. Turning to Sunny, she asked:
"Has your shadow noticed anything?"
He shook his head.
"No. There are some irregularities here and there, like small knolls or shallow pits, but nothing is moving. Mostly, it just seems flat and lifeless."
He turned to Cassie and asked hesitantly:
"Do you hear anything?"
In some cases, her keen hearing was more effective than his shadow sense. When they were caught by the strom, Cassie had been able to sense that something was wrong long before her seeing companions noticed anything.
However, this time it was of no use. She simply shook her head, indicating that there were no unusual sounds around them.
Nephis sighed and lowered her head, thinking. Then she cast a gaze at the distant Ashen Barrow.
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However, she did change the direction of the group slightly, aiming to approach one of the knolls that Sunny had noticed.
By the time they approached it, it was already noon. The sun was right above their heads, making their shadows small and shapeless. Sunny's own shadow had returned and was now hiding beneath his feet, looking like a formless blob of darkness.
This time of day was its least favorite.
Nephis summoned her sword and slowly approached the knoll, trying to determine its nature. There was nothing remarkable about it except for the fact that everything around was flat, and it was not. The knoll was about as tall as Sunny, somewhat oblong and covered in the same grey sand as the rest of the wasteland.
It didn't seem dangerous, but there was no harm in checking… well, most likely. Maybe it could provide them with some useful information.
Just as Changing Star was about to stretch her hand and touch the surface of the knoll, Sunny's shadow suddenly noticed something moving in the distance, back at the edges of the labyrinth where they had come from.
Acting on instinct, Sunny jumped toward the Echo and hissed to Neph:
At the same time, he dismissed the hulking scavenger. Suddenly losing her mount, Cassie flung her hands up and fell. Catching her in the princess carry, Sunny darted toward the knoll and lowered himself to the ground, placing the blind girl between himself and crouching Nephis.
Changing Star put one hand on Cassie's shoulder and looked at him with a silent question in her eyes.
Sunny raised one hand with his palm open, telling her to wait. His shadow was already peeking from behind the knoll, carefully observing the source of the movement.
Already some distance away, the dead walls of the labyrinth rose from the grey sand. Suddenly, one of them collapsed, knocked over by a massive figure. Surrounded by the cloud of ashen sand, the figure moved forward, stepping onto the flat surface of the wasteland.
Eight legs, two terrifying bone scythes, black and crimson carapace that looked like ancient armor that had been splattered with blood… another centurion.
Sunny silently cursed.
They fought these monsters twice before, and won both times. However, that was because each battlefield had been carefully prepared to stack advantages in their favor, with plenty of planning and devious scheming on their part.
He wasn't sure that they would be able to kill one in a direct confrontation, at least not without suffering serious damage.
Turning to Nephis, Sunny whispered:
"A carapace centurion had just walked out of the labyrinth."
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She scowled. Cassie, meanwhile, lightly touched his hand and asked:
"Where is it heading?"
Sunny blinked, then concentrated on the shadow's vision. Soon, he exhaled with some relief.
"Looks like it's heading for the Ashen Barrow. If we stay hidden behind this knoll and it doesn't change course, there's a high chance that it won't notice us."
Changing Star thought for a second and then nodded.
"Keep an eye on it and tell me as soon as something changes."
Trying to become as small and silent as possible, the three of them pressed their bodies to the knoll. There wasn't a lot of space to hide, so they had to endure being cramped against each other.
Well… maybe "endure" was not the right word. Sunny might have even enjoyed the situation in other circumstances…
'What are you thinking about, fool?! Concentrate on the dealy monster!' he thought angrily, berating himself.
But it was so hard to concentrate with Cassie's soft body pressed against his…
Finally able to get his mind out of the gutter, Sunny sighed and focused on observing the centurion.
The hulking creature was moving through the wasteland, slowly drawing closer. Soon, he was able to see every crimson line and every spike on its weathered carapace. However, his eyes were glued to something else.
Cautiously held between the centurion's scythes, a beautiful crystal was gleaming with hypnotic inner light. It was bright and strangely alluring.
A transcendent soul shard.
They had already seen a similar scene, back when a pair of centurions were retrieving two of such crystals from the remains of the giant shark-like creature.
'So that was their destination.'
Sunny glanced at the magnificent tree standing atop the Ashen Barrow. With its onyx branches and vibrant scarlet leaves, it looked striking and majestic.
Like something holy hidden in the depths of hell.
He shared his findings with the group, careful to keep his whisper as quiet as possible.
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The centurion was about to walk past their hiding spot. Despite the fact that there was some distance between its path and the knoll, Sunny was still nervous. This was the most dangerous moment.
The monster came level with the knoll, then proceeded forward without blinking an eye.
"It's walking toward the Barrow."
Nephis did not relax, still ready for things to go south at any moment.
Sunny nodded. A moment later, his shadow slid from behind the knoll, sneakily pursuing the Nightmare Creature. With how much the range of Shadow Control had improved, he was pretty sure of his ability to tail it to the footsteps of the ashen hill.
The centurion crossed the wasteland with the transcended shard clasped tightly between its scythes. Its bearing was somewhat strange, seeming almost… pious. It looked like a pilgrim walking toward a mysterious, sacred site.
Soon, it approached the Ashen Barrow and suddenly stopped, as though afraid to cross some invisible line. Then the centurion carefully placed the shard on the sand and backed away from it, its eyes turned to the ground.
After distancing itself from the gleaming crystal, the massive creature… kneeled.
Sunny had to rub his eyes to make sure that he wasn't seeing things.
He wasn't. The carapace centurion bent its eight legs and lowered itself to the ground, submissively placing its terrifying scythes in front of its bowing torso.
Noticing Sunny's strange behavior, Nephis raised an eyebrow.
"What is it?"
At this moment, his shadow, which was safely hidden some distance away from the kneeling monster, noticed a slight change on the surface of the Ashen Barrow.
The bright glimmer they had seen from the top of the leviathan's spine was back. Only this time, it was even more blinding.
The glimmer rose into the air from the shadows cast by the branches of the towering tree and moved, slowly approaching the footsteps of the hill.
When Sunny was finally able to discern the source of the shining, his eyes widened.
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Feeling a cold shiver running down his spine, he forgot to breathe.