There was a problem.
They were planning to follow the road up to the mountain pass and then over it, getting as far away from the scene of the massacre as they could before the night came. However, the road was no more.
At some point during the last months, or maybe even just yesterday, a terrible rockfall occurred, obliterating whole segments of the narrow roadway and making its other parts untraversable. Sunny stood on the precipice of a vast chasm, looking down with no particular expression on his face.
"What do we do now?"
Scholar's voice was muffled by the collar of his scavenged fur cloak. His follower, Shifty, angrily looked around. His gaze stopped at Sunny — a suitable victim to vent his frustration.
"I'll tell you what we need to do! Get rid of some dead weight!"
He eyed Sunny's fine boots and turned to Hero:
"Listen, your lordship. The boy is too weak. He is slowing us down! Plus, he's weird. Doesn't he give you the creeps?"
The young soldier answered with a judgemental frown, but Shifty wasn't done.
"Look! Look how he's glaring at me! I swear to gods, ever since he joined the caravan, nothing had gone right. Maybe the old man was right: the boy is cursed by the Shadow God!"
Sunny struggled to not roll his eyes. It was true that he was unlucky: however, the whole truth was opposite to what Shifty was trying to insinuate. It was not that he had attracted misfortune to the slave caravan; on the contrary, it was because the caravan was doomed to begin with that he had ended up here.
Scholar cleared his throat:
"But I've never said that…"
"Whatever! Shouldn't we get rid of him just in case?! He can't go on for much longer anyway!"
- Visit ʟɪɢʜᴛɴᴏᴠᴇʟᴘᴜʙ.ᴄᴏᴍ for a better_user experience
Scholar gave Sunny a strange look. Perhaps Sunny was getting paranoid, but there seemed to be a bit of calculating coldness in the older slave's eyes. Finally, Scholar shook his head.
"Don't be too hasty, my friend. The boy might prove useful later on."
Hero finally spoke, putting an end to their quarrel.
"We're not going to leave anyone behind. As for how much longer he'll be able to endure — just worry about yourself."
Shifty clenched his teeth, but then just waved a hand.
"Fine. So what do we do then?"
The four of them looked at the broken road, then down the slope of the mountain, and finally up, where a sheer cliff wall was broken apart by the falling rocks. After a bit of silence, Scholar finally spoke:
"Actually, in the old days, there used to be a path leading to the peak of the mountain. It was sometimes used by pilgrims. Later, the Empire had widened parts of the path and built a proper road on top of it — now leading to the mountain pass instead of the peak, of course."
He looked up.
"The remnants of the original path should still be somewhere above us. If we reach it, we should be able to find our way back to the undamaged section of the road."
Everyone followed his gaze, shifting uncomfortably at the prospect of climbing the treacherous slope. Except for Hero, of course, who remained as calm as a saint.
Due to the rockfall, the slope wasn't an almost vertical wall anymore, but still, the incline was quite sharp.
Shifty was the first one to speak:
- Visit ʟɪɢʜᴛɴᴏᴠᴇʟᴘᴜʙ.ᴄᴏᴍ for a better_user experience
"Climb that? Are you insane?"
Scholar helplessly shrugged.
"Do you have a better idea?"
No one did. After a bit of preparation, they began the ascent. Shifty and Scholar stubbornly carried the weapons they had picked up off the dead soldier's bodies, but Sunny, with some regret, decided to leave his newfound short sword behind. He knew that this climb was going to test the limits of their endurance.
The sword might not have seemed to be that heavy right now, but every extra gram of weight was bound to feel like a ton all too soon. As the weakest member of the group, he was already struggling to keep up, so there wasn't a lot of choice. Shedding a few kilograms of iron was the right thing to do.
Walking up the mountain road with the weight of the supplies on his shoulders was already hard enough, but climbing up the mountain itself turned out to be pure torture. Just half an hour later, he felt like his muscles were going to melt, with his lungs on the verge of imploding.
Clenching his teeth, Sunny continued to move forward and up. He had to constantly remind himself to watch his footing, too. On this unstable, icy slope one misstep was enough to send a man tumbling down to his death.
'Just think about something pleasant,' he thought.
But what happy thoughts could he summon?
Failing to come up with something else, Sunny began to imagine what reward he was going to receive at the end of this trial. The boon of the First Nightmare was the most important thing given to an Awakened by the Spell.
Sure, later trials could provide them with more abilities and vastly improve their power. But it was this first one that determined what role an Awakened would be able to play, how great their potential would be, and what price they would have to pay… not to mention giving them the necessary tools to survive and grow in the Dream Realm.
The main benefit of the First Nightmare's Boon was simple, yet possibly the most important: after completing their trial, Aspirants were bestowed with the ability to perceive, and interact with, Soul Cores. Soul Cores were the basis of one's rank and power. The stronger your Core was, the greater your might would grow.
The same went for Nightmare Creatures, with a deadly caveat that, unlike humans, they could possess multiple cores — a lowly beast had just one, but a tyrant like Mountain King had five. Coincidentally, the only way to improve your Soul Core was to consume Soul Shards scavenged from the corpses of other Dream Realm inhabitants.
That's why Awakened went out of their way to battle powerful Nightmare Creatures despite the risk of death.
- Visit ʟɪɢʜᴛɴᴏᴠᴇʟᴘᴜʙ.ᴄᴏᴍ, for the best no_vel_read_ing experience
The second benefit was less straightforward, but nevertheless vital. After completing the First Nightmare, Aspirants were elevated to the rank of Dreamers — colloquially known as Sleepers — and gained access to the Dream Realm itself. They would enter it on the first winter solstice after passing the trial and remain there until an exit was found, thus becoming fully Awakened. That time between finishing the First Nightmare and entering the Dream Realm was very important, as it was the last chance to train and prepare yourself a person would receive.
In Sunny's case, that time was only about a month, which was as bad as it gets.
And then there was the final benefit, unique to every Aspirant passing the trial… the first Aspect Ability.
This was the "magic power" that elevated Awakened above mundane humans. Aspect Abilities were diverse, unique, and powerful. Some could be categorized into types — like combat, sorcery and utility — but some were simply beyond imagination. Armed with the power of their Abilities, Awakened had been able to save the world from the flood of Nightmare Creatures.
However, that power came with a catch. With their first Ability, every Awakened also received a Flaw, sometimes called the counter. These Flaws were as diverse as Abilities, ranging from comparatively harmless to crippling, or, in some cases, even fatal.
'I wonder what type of Ability a temple slave would get,' Sunny thought, not too optimistic about his prospects. 'The choice of Flaws, on the other hand, seems to be almost limitless. Let's hope my Aspect will evolve at the end of this fiasco. Or, even better, change completely.'
If the Aspirant performed especially well, there was a chance of his given Aspect going through an early evolution. Aspects, just like Soul Cores, had ranks based on potential power and rarity. The lowest rank was called Dormant, followed by Awakened, Ascended, Transcendent, Supreme, Sacred and Divine — although no one has ever seen the last one.
'With the amount of crap it had put me through, the Spell — if it has any conscience — has to give me at least an Awakened Aspect. Right? Or maybe even an Ascended one!'
Finally, there was a tiny possibility of receiving a True Name — something like an honorary title bestowed by the Spell to its favorite Awakened. The name itself had no benefit, but every famous Awakened seemed to have one. It was considered to be the highest mark of excellence. However, the number of people who had managed to get a True Name during their First Nightmare was so small that Sunny didn't even bother thinking about it.
'Who needs excellence? Give me power!'
He cursed, feeling that this attempt at wishful thinking had only made him more depressed and angry.
'Maybe I'm allergic to dreaming.'
An allergy like that would be truly ironic, considering that he was destined to spend half of his remaining life in the Dream Realm — if he even survives long enough to get there, that is.
However, Sunny's mental escapade was not completely useless. Looking up from the slippery rocks under his feet, he noticed that the sun was already considerably lower. Come to think of it, the air also seemed to be much colder.
- The latest_epi_sodes are on_the ʟɪɢʜᴛɴᴏᴠᴇʟᴘᴜʙ.ᴄᴏᴍ website.
'At least it helped me pass the time,' Sunny thought.
The night was approaching.