Nephis stared at Sunny, shocked by his sudden act of self-mutilation. Hissing through gritted teeth, he dismissed the Midnight Shard and slowly rose back to his feet.
"Ah! Crap! That really hurts!"
His poor finger was red and swollen, pulsating with sharp pain. It was unmistakably broken. Sunny was so full of self-pity that he wanted to cry.
'Why am I so unlucky? First that nightmare in the nest, now this. How come no one else is suffering, just me…'
He conveniently decided to forget that Changing Star had been literally torturing herself for weeks and that due to her blindness Cassie was always covered in bruises.
Hearing his pained voice, the blind girl turned her head and asked:
"...Sunny? What happened?"
He grimaced and tried to smile.
"Ah, it's… nothing serious, really. I just, sort of… smashed my hand a bit."
Nephis opened her mouth to say something, but he hurriedly interrupted whatever she wanted to say.
"Anyway, Neph. Can you help me drag this gruesome masterpiece of yours to the edge of the island?"
At this point, one wrong question could make things very complicated. He didn't want to reveal the true purpose of his actions until the last moment. That way, he would have more leeway in how to deal with problems… should any arise.
Changing Star hesitated. A few seconds later, she shrugged, looking at him with a concerned frown.
"Are you sure you're okay, Sunny?"
He forced a smile.
"I will be if you help me."
Giving up, she shook her head and walked over to the front of the boat. Sunny turned to Cassie.
"We're off, Cas. Wait here for a bit, alright? I'll come get you soon."
She lingered, as though not quite understanding his words, then answered with an uncertain expression.
Sunny raised his healthy hand to grip her shoulder, then hesitated and turned away with a dark look in his eyes. Enduring the pain, he walked toward the boat.
'Hold on a little more, Cassie. It will be over soon, I promise…'
The night was already approaching.
Sunny and Nephis dragged the boat across the island, pulling it as oxen yoked to a wagon. The ashen sand was not the most difficult of terrains, but the spikes on the strange vessel's hull were making the task harder. Thankfully, the boat was lighter than it looked.
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Sunny knew that the alloy of the demon's carapace was extremely light from his experience with the Midnight Shard, which was forged from the same lustrous metal. If he were to believe the sword's description, this miraculous alloy came from a shard of a fallen star.
Whether this omen was good or bad, he didn't know.
Soon, they heard a thundering rumble in the distance. It came from the direction of the colossal crater.
The dark sea was awakening.
Gritting his teeth, Sunny grabbed onto the golden rope that was coiled around his chest and pulled harder.
'Come on! Faster!'
The sun was just about to touch the horizon when they finally reached the edge of the island. Falling to his knees, Sunny released the rope and gasped for air, his chest rising and falling frantically. A wave of overwhelming exhaustion was drowning his senses, making it hard to stay awake.
'Not yet… you can't let go yet…'
Nephis was silent, looking at him with a frown. For once, Sunny felt glad that she was weirdly taciturn by nature.
Gathering his strength, he stood up and glanced at the darkening sky. Time was running out.
Turning to Neph, he strained his parched throat and said in a raspy voice:
"I'll explain everything once Cassie is here. Don't go anywhere until I bring her, alright? Please."
Changing Star stared at him for a few seconds, then shrugged with indifference and didn't say anything.
'I'll take it as a yes.'
What else could he do?
Cursing under his breath, Sunny turned around and hurried away. He had one last task to accomplish before returning for Cassie.
Some time later, he came back to the spot where he had left Cassie. The blind girl was still there, sitting some distance away from the Carapace Demon's carcass and idly staring into the ground.
Hearing the sound of his approaching footsteps, she smiled weakly.
He walked over, tired to the bone, and said while trying to keep his tone casual:
"Yeah. It's me."
Cassie got distracted for a moment, then asked:
"Do you have a fruit? I'm hungry."
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He flinched, then shook his head.
"No. Listen, we need to…"
"...I'm hungry. Do you have a fruit?"
Sunny stopped, looking at the blind girl with a forlorn expression. She sounded like a broken doll, repeating the same phrase over and over. Her condition wasn't good.
He licked his lips.
"Come with me, and your hunger will disappear."
This was the best misdirection he could come up with within the confines of his Flaw. However, this time, he failed to achieve the desired effect.
Cassie smiled and said:
"Really? You'll take me to the fruits?"
Due to his exhaustion and the debilitating effect of the enthrallment, Sunny got distracted for a moment and failed to control the Flaw. Without realizing it, he opened his mouth and said:
Cassie pouted and lowered her head:
"That's not nice, Sunny. Why did you lie to me?"
Still reeling from his mistake, Sunny missed the moment and made things even worse, turning a small oversight into a real problem:
"...Because I want to take you away from this cursed island."
As soon as the words left his mouth, Sunny froze and opened his eyes wide, refusing to believe that he had just messed up that bad.
However, the damage was already done.
Cassie turned to him with a deep scowl.
"Take me… away? But I don't want to leave. Why would I leave the Soul Tree?"
Sunny silently cursed and shouted, abandoning any attempt to control himself:
"Because that thing is evil! It's pure goddamn nightmare! Come on, let's go…"
Grabbing her hand, he tried to pull the delicate girl away, but she resisted with surprising strength.
"Let go of me, you jerk!"
Cassie managed to rip her hand away from his grip and flinched back, looking at Sunny with anger.
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"I said I don't want to go! You're acting strange, Sunny! Stop, please!"
Sunny froze, not knowing what to do.
"This island is our home! It's so nice here, with the three of us together! Why do you want to leave?!"
He lingered, struggling to do what he knew had to be done. Finally, Sunny gritted his teeth and said:
"Because it's five! Remember?!"
'I'm sorry, Cassie…'
Then, he lunged forward and violently grabbed the blind girl, easily suppressing her resistance.
"What are you doing?! Stop! Help! Help! Neph!"
Throwing her over his shoulder, Sunny turned around and ran toward the edge of the island. Cassie resisted desperately, using her small fists to pummel his back with a rain of punches.
Despite the fact that she had never taken part in battles against the Nightmare Creatures of the Forgotten Shore, she still was considerably stronger than a normal person. All those soul shards Changing Star had shared with her gave Cassie enough strength to make Sunny feel every strike.
It wasn't enough to seriously injure him, but more than enough to hurt like hell.
'I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, Cassie...'
Deeply disturbed, Sunny tried to block out Cassie's desperate screams and rushed to the boat. His forehead was covered in cold sweat.
As the last glimmers of light were disappearing from the sky, he finally returned to the edge of the island. The ghastly boat was silently standing on the sand, just a few meters away from the restless black water. Changing Star was resting just in front of it, raising her head to look at the source of the commotion.
"Neph! Help! Sunny had gone crazy!"
Nephis slowly rose to her feet, her indifferent expression radiating coldness. She slightly outstretched one hand.
"Wait! It's not…"
Before he could finish the sentence, the silver sword appeared out of thin air, aimed at the ground… for now.
Changin Star's voice was even and calm, but Sunny could feel the hidden threat in it. Suddenly, he saw her in a new light… or, rather, in an old one.
As a potential enemy.
The idea of facing off against Nephis sent chills running down his spine. He had almost forgotten the feeling he got back in the Academy, watching her wipe the floor with most of the Sleepers in their batch.
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He had forgotten that she, too, was a monster.