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    Chapter 79: Twist of Fate

    It was already dark when Sunny returned to the great tree. Cassie was asleep, snuggled comfortably under her cloak. There was a peaceful smile on her face.

    'Sweet dreams.'

    She wasn't bothered by her terrible visions in a long time. Everything became better since they decided to stay on the tranquil island.

    …Everything except for Neph's mood. She didn't even bother to return to camp today, staying at the western edge of the barrow. Sunny didn't like that she was so close to the black water.

    He sighed.

    'I need to get some tasty fruits for her as soon as possible.'

    She definitely would not be able to stay sad after eating the magical fruits. They were so sweet and delicious! Sunny began salivating just from thinking about them.

    '...Maybe I'll find one for myself, too.'

    In the beginning, they took turns climbing to the lower branches of the Soul Tree to gather fruits. Lately, though, Nephis seemed to be distracted by her strange melancholy. As the result, the group relied on him to bring down fruits for everyone.

    He had already picked the lowest branches clean, choosing the ripest fruits first. Later ones were smaller and not as heavenly, although they still tasted amazing. Since each fruit was big enough to satiate a person for a long time, they rarely ate more than one in a day. The ripest fruits provided Sunny with one or two shadow fragments, while the smaller ones gave one or even none at all.

    'I wonder how many shadow fragments I accumulated. Should be more than a hundred, right? Maybe even one hundred and ten… no, no way. We've been here just for a few days, a week at most.'

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    He could just summon the runes and check, but somehow that thought didn't even occur to him.

    …If it did, he would have been horrified.

    Forgetting all about the shadow fragments, Sunny looked up and scratched the back of his head. Initially, he was planning to climb the tree in the morning and explore higher than he had previously gone, looking for the best, most delicious fruit possible to give to Neph. But after thinking about it, he decided to not wait until the night was over.

    He could see perfectly in the dark, after all. And this way, he would be able to give Changing Star a delightful present much sooner.

    Stepping close to the trunk of the miraculous tree, Sunny began climbing. The first stretch was the most difficult since he had nothing to grab except for small cracks and bumps on the smooth, obsidian bark. Reaching the branches required a lot of effort.

    However, he was already accustomed to it. Moving his hands and feet almost on instinct, Sunny got higher and higher. Soon, he was already pulling himself on top of an enormous, wide branch.

    These first branches were as wide as roads. He sat down and rested for some time, enjoying the coolness of the night air.

    Sunny had never climbed the Soul Tree in the dark before. Without the bright sunbeams falling through the leaves, it looked strangely different. The vibrant magnificence was gone, replaced with eerie stillness.

    The rustling of scarlet leaves did not seem calming and tranquil anymore. In fact, it made Sunny shudder. It sounded like... thousands and thousands of trapped souls, all screaming in agony.

    'What's up with me today? How can I even think of such things? What a fool! Good thing that the great tree can't hear me — otherwise, I'd be so ashamed. Please forgive me, Soul Tree…'

    Shaking his head, Sunny stood up and continued climbing. He was very disappointed in himself. After all the good things that the tree had given them, he had stupidly doubted its benevolence… its greatness… its desire to devour… always ravenous, always growing… starving, hungry… forever…

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    How ungrateful.

    Why did he even begin to think about… huh… what exactly was he thinking about?

    Sunny frowned, failing to recall his train of thought.

    'Ugh, whatever. I'm here to find a tasty fruit for Neph, not practice my reasoning.'

    Climbing higher and higher, he soon abandoned the area that they had explored before. The crown of the great tree was vast enough to form a maze of its own. The large branches grew chaotically in all directions, twisting and crossing each other, with thick foliage blocking lines of sight and making any attempt of looking for the fruits difficult and time-consuming.

    Still, Sunny was determined to continue. He figured that if he went really high, where sunlight was denser, the fruits would be much riper.

    They had never tried a fruit from the higher branches. If he could find a really amazing one, Nephis would have to change her mind and abandon her strange thoughts of leaving the island. After all, these fruits were magical. Maybe she'll even smile!

    Encouraged, Sunny continued climbing.

    Time slowly passed. After a long while, Sunny finally decided that he had climbed high enough. He wasn't sure how many hours ago he had started the ascent, but judging by the soreness of his muscles and the visibly diminished width of the branches, he was somewhere in the upper part of the tree.

    Stepping on one of the branches, he slowly walked forward and looked from side to side. Searching for the fruits was not easy. It required good perception and patience.

    …And a great sense of equilibrium, of course! Falling from this height would not be a great experience. In fact, it would be his last.

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    Carefully observing the surroundings, Sunny moved further and further away from the trunk of the great tree. The branches were softly swaying under his feet. A few times, he jumped from one to another, causing a change in the melody of rustling leaves.

    On the way, he noticed several hanging fruits. They looked ripe and delicious, but none of them was really special. And he wanted to find the most wonderful fruit possible.

    Finally, Sunny got so far that the branches grew really narrow and thin. Now, they were almost the same size as those of a normal tree, barely able to support his weight.

    But he still did not find a suitable gift for Nephis.

    Sunny helplessly looked around, crestfallen. He really thought that he would be able to.

    Then, he noticed something strange.

    Some distance away from him, the branches just above the one he was standing on were twisted downward, as though weighed down by something. However, he couldn't quite see what it was behind the almost impenetrable wall of leaves.

    In fact, he only noticed the anomaly because it was dark. In the light of day, the bright color of the Soul Tree's foliage would make the shape of the branches indiscernible. But in Sunny's night vision, all colors were muted, almost turning into various shades of grey.


    Jumping, he grabbed onto a higher branch and pulled himself up. Then, careful not to fall, Sunny approached the leaf barrier and forced his way through. In the process, he had to enhance his strength and agility with the help of the shadow — otherwise, he would either have had to turn back or tumbled down to his death.

    Finally, he freed himself from the last layer of leaves and took a step forward.

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    Then, Sunny froze, his eyes opening wide with wonder.

    Right in front of him, hidden from the world in the secretive pocket of twisted branches, a giant, elaborate bird nest rested between the scarlet leaves.

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