Nephis was still at the western edge of the island, gazing over the receding black waters. It seems as though she barely moved since the last time Sunny saw her.
Looking at her with clear eyes, free from the most debilitating effects of being Enthralled, he was able to notice things that he had not noticed before.
Neph's hair was indeed longer. Back at the Academy, it was short and usually parted to the side. Now silver strands were already long enough to cover her ears, hanging messily without their usual luster.
Changing Star's face seemed much thinner, with dark circles under her eyes and a bleak, dull expression. Her usual confidence and energy were gone, replaced by exhausted stillness.
She looked as though some unknown illness was consuming her from inside, slowly turning the once radiant girl into a pale shadow of her former self.
Sunny suspected that he knew what that illness was.
He had known for a long time that Nephis had a mysterious goal, and that her determination to achieve that goal was nothing short of frightening. That burning desire of hers, it seemed, was strong enough to resist even the enthrallment of the Soul Devourer.
However, while the feelings remained, the actual memories were gone. Thus, Nephis had been left longing desperately for something that she did not know, with no way to understand the nature of her emotions or satiate them. This inner conflict was the reason for her terrible state.
Coming closer, Sunny sat down and looked at Neph, wishing to see her striking grey eyes shine once again with unbreakable resolve.
She turned her head to him, not saying anything. Sunny gritted his teeth, feeling dark anger blossoming in his heart.
'That loathsome tree!'
"I have something to tell you."
Trying to stay calm and not miss anything, he told Nephis everything that he had found out. He told her about his trip to the upper parts of the Soul Tree, the giant nest he had discovered, the Vile Thieving Bird's Spawn and how he had killed it, the strange Memory with no rank and type, the new Attribute he had received and the hidden one he had accidentally discovered.
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Finally, Sunny told her about the nature of that Attribute, the true nature of the Soul Devourer, how long they had been on the island, and what they had forgotten.
When he finished, Changing Star's expression didn't change one bit. Looking away, she simply said:
"I see? I see?! That's all you have to say?!"
She glanced at him and smiled darkly.
"What do you want me to say?"
He gaped at her and clenched his fists.
"Wow! How horrible! Good job, Sunny! Say something, at least! Is it so hard to behave like a human?!"
She turned away, not answering. Sunny stared at her for several seconds, then said in a tired, defeated voice:
"I don't know what to do. Tell me what to do, Neph. How do I get us out of this?"
She was silent for a while. Sunny almost assumed that Changing Star had already forgotten everything that he had told her, but then he noticed sparks of white radiance dancing in the depths of her eyes.
Nephis had activated her Aspect Ability, using pain to stay lucid for as long as possible.
Finally, she looked at the retreating dark sea and said:
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"We need to build a boat."
Changing Star sighed and turned her face to look at him.
"We've been here, on this island, for many weeks. Our minds are slowly being erased by the Soul Tree, turning us into its slaves. Forever. However, the process is not complete."
He nodded, listening.
"What thoughts did the Soul Tree put in our heads? That it is benevolent and great. That its fruits are desirable. And that we shouldn't leave the island, staying as close to it as possible. The first two commands make perfect sense. The third, however, is not so simple."
Nephis gestured at the vast expanse of black water.
"From that third command, we can deduce that the effect of the Soul Tree's enthrallment weakens with range. And that if we put enough distance between ourselves and the tree, it will be broken."
Sunny's face brightened when he understood Neph's logic. So there was a way! They just had to leave the Ashen Barrow and flee, not looking back until the Soul Devourer's brand was gone from their souls. However…
"But why a boat? Why not just run away on foot?"
Changing Star lowered her head and said quietly:
"We'll never make it to the castle on foot. We'll just die. I was too arrogant before to think… well, it doesn't matter now. It will take many months to go around the crater through the labyrinth, especially now that we don't have the Echo. And every day we spend there is another day we risk encountering something that will kill us without even breaking a sweat."
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"We were already lucky to survive for as long as we did. But in the end, no matter how much we fought and persevered, we still encountered the Soul Tree. This should have been our end. Do you know how improbable it is that we even got a chance to have this conversation?"
Sunny hesitantly shook his head.
"First, we had to have an oracle in our group to see the future. Then, Cassie had to formulate and execute an ingenious plan in the short amount of time her memory remained intact. That plan was based on the fact that there was someone with an awakened armor of fifth tier in our group, one enchanted with the extremely rare mind protection trait, no less…
Awakened with the revelation affinity were few and far between. Sleepers with a Memory equal to the Puppeteer's Shroud were even rarer.
"...That person then had to find and kill a Great Devil. More incredibly, he had to receive an actual Lineage Memory from it. Do I need to explain how implausible this combination of events is?"
Sunny slowly shook his head.
Nephis closed her eyes.
"My point is… If we go into the labyrinth, we will inevitably meet the next Soul Tree, and even if we miraculously manage to survive that encounter, there will be the next, and then the next. Sooner or later, we will die."
She looked west, where the last remnants of the dark sea were disappearing beyond the horizon.
"But if we build a boat and use Cassie's staff to fill the sail with wind… maybe we'll be eaten by the dwellers of the depths, or maybe they won't pay us any attention at all. It's a gamble either way. Either we die, which is the same as returning to the labyrinth, or not. If we survive, we'll be able to travel a hundred, maybe even two hundred kilometers in one night. More distance than we had covered so far."
Sunny froze, stunned by that number.
In all the weeks preceding their battle with the Carapace Demon, they had traveled for no more than a hundred, maybe one hundred and fifty kilometers from the giant knight's statue. It was a considerable amount, especially because of how hard each step through the crimson labyrinth had been.
To travel as much, perhaps even more in a single day… that would have been incredible. But…
Sail… on the dark sea?
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Suddenly, he felt very cold and small.