Sunny felt that he was at the end of his rope. He had put himself through too much abuse during these last few days. Now, it was hard to even remember when was the last time he had slept.
A day before climbing the Soul Devouring Tree in search of a special fruit, perhaps.
Since then, he had lived through the harrowing torture of the Blood Weave transformation, spent countless hours on the verge of mental collapse to resist the effects of the enthrallment, mangled his hands to stay lucid, guided the boat through the terrors of the dark sea in absolute darkness, saw it being destroyed by the horrid dweller of the deep, and gave battle to that monster in the cold black depths, almost drowning as the result.
His body and mind were on the brink of shutting off.
Despite that, Sunny stubbornly continued to swim, bringing himself and Cassie closer and closer to the giant stone hand that was rising from the water, as though trying to embrace the skies.
The dark sea was surging around him, still reeling from the effects of the light explosion that had rocked it sometime earlier. Tall waves were threatening to drown the two Sleepers, throwing them around like toys. Struggling against them was a hard task.
And still, he persisted.
The dawn was drawing close, but for now, there was still nothing but cold, darkness and danger all around them. Any second, something could rise from the depths of the abyss and put an end to their desperate attempt to save themselves.
At least the tentacles were gone, perhaps scared away by the pain of being exposed to the searing light.
By some miracle, Sunny eventually managed to reach the stone hand.
Hoisting Cassie up, he helped her climb on the dark rocks and followed closely behind. Soon, they reached the open palm of the hand and crawled to its center, then fell down, utterly spent and exhausted.
For a long time, neither of them was able to talk. All Sunny could do was lay motionless, draw in raspy breaths, and try to stay awake.
His mind was empty of thoughts. That was fine, because he didn't want to think. If he did, he would be forced to remember… remember what had happened to…
What was the point of remembering? He couldn't change anything.
The sound of the black water crashing against the base of the giant hand reminded him that the night was still not over.
Opening his eyes, Sunny tried to understand their current circumstances.
Their shelter was slightly raised above the waves, the base of the giant thumb almost touching the surface of the dark sea. The palm was not very spacious, roughly half the size of the circular platform that had saved his life on his first day on the Forgotten Shore. It was angled upward, creating a slight slope.
The fingers were higher above waves and wide enough to accommodate a person, but they were bent upward toward the sky, making them less suitable to serve as a refuge.
'We need to get further away from the water.'
With that thought, Sunny tiredly stood up and bent down to touch Cassie's shoulder.
"Cassie. Stand up. We have to move higher."
His voice sounded hollow and brittle.
The blind girl flinched and raised her head, her skin deathly pale.
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"Yeah. It's me."
She was still in shock. Sunny could see that Cassie's mind was not all there yet, so he gently pulled her to her feet.
"Come on, let's go. It's just a few meters."
"What happened? I heard a… a sound… and then something was pulling me down…"
He gritted his teeth and tried to keep his tone even.
"We were attacked by a sea monster. The boat was destroyed. I dove down and managed to find you, then swam to this pile of stones. It's not very high above the water, so…"
Sunny hurried to interrupt her, unwilling to answer the next question.
"Come, follow me. We can rest when we're higher."
Gently guiding the blind girl, Sunny climbed to the base of the giant hand's index finger, which was the highest point they could reach without climbing the fingers themselves. Sitting down on the cold stone, he rested his back against the giant phalanx and stared at the restless surface of the dark sea.
His eyes were cold and empty.
Cassie was silent by his side. Her pale face was contorted, as though she simultaneously wanted to ask the question and dreaded the answer.
Finally, gathering her courage, the blind girl whispered, her trembling voice barely audible:
"Sunny. Where is Neph?"
He stayed silent, not willing to speak the words out loud.
Stupidly, he felt that if he spoke them, they would become the truth. But if he didn't, there was still a possibility that they were a lie.
'I'm not answering.'
A few moments later, the familiar pressure appeared in his mind. The pressure grew and grew, making his head spin.
Then, the piercing pain came. Sunny stubbornly endured it. He lasted for much longer than he had ever done before, keeping his mouth shut until hot tears rolled from his eyes, his whole body shaking from the terrible suffering.
But eventually, he was still forced to say those bitter words.
"She's… she's g…"
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Before he could finish, a subtle sound attracted his attention. It came from below, from the edges of the restless dark waves.
Sunny's heart skipped a beat.
Out there at the base of the giant thumb, where the cursed sea was almost touching its stone surface, a pale white hand appeared from the black water and grabbed onto the rocks.
Then, a tall figure slowly pulled itself onto the opened palm of the stone giantess.
His eyes widened.
Feeling that something was wrong, Cassie turned her head and asked:
"Sunny? What is it?"
He trembled and whispered, gripped with sorrow.
An uncertain smile appeared on the blind girl's face.
"Neph?! She is alright?!"
Sunny found himself unable to answer.
No, Nephis was not alright.
In fact, he didn't know how she was even alive.
The Starlight Legion Armor was shattered and torn, revealing the mutilated flesh beneath. There was a horrifying gaping wound on Changing Star's torso, looking as though almost half of her right side was missing. Sunny could see the sharp shards of broken ribs, the rivers of blood streaming down her legs, and the mangled mess of viscera spilling over the edges of the wound.
He wanted to close his eyes.
Another large chunk of flesh was missing from her thigh, exposing the shredded remnants of muscle and the white surface of the femur, cracked and barely holding together. Her right arm was severely damaged, too. In fact, it was almost torn off, hanging only by a narrow strip of skin and a few tendons, like that of a mistreated, broken marionette
Even her face was not spared. One of Neph's eyes was gone, its socket crushed and shattered, the skin of her cheek was shaved off as though by sandpaper, leaving behind a mangled mess of bleeding flesh and broken teeth.
The sight of her was harrowing and heartbreaking.
It was apparent that Changing Star was about to die.
"Sunny? Why are you not answering?"
He glanced at Cassie and bit his lip, trying once again to suppress the answer that was fighting its way out. Something sharp and hot was stabbing at his heart, making his vision blurry.
Meanwhile, Nephis staggered and blindly stepped forward. Her legs buckled, and she heavily fell to her knees, splattering blood all other the cold surface of the stone. A terrible moan escaped from her lips as her cracked femur finally shattered, bone piercing through muscle and skin.
Sunny felt as though he was thrown into his worst nightmare. He wanted to scream, but his voice was gone. A deep, almost physical pain was tearing him from inside.
He didn't want to be here. He didn't want to see this.
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And yet, he couldn't look away.
…That's why he noticed instantly when two white flames ignited in Neph's eyes. The radiance grew brighter and brighter, spilling from her eyes, her mouth, the gaping wounds in her body. It was as though there was a flaming star burning in the place where her heart should have been, as though she was nothing but white flame hidden behind a thin layer of human skin.
The incandescent radiance filled Changing Star's blood, turning it into streams of liquid white fire.
As Sunny watched, frozen in place with his eyes opened wide, that fire began to melt and reshape her flesh. Slowly, her muscles repaired herself, her organs returned to their places, her bones reassembled themselves from the shards.
Where there was nothing to replace a missing part, the fire took its shape and solidified.
With a terrible scream, Nephis grasped her almost severed arm and tore it away, then pressed it to the stump that was bleeding with white flame. Soon, the mangled halves melted together, becoming whole again.
Shocked, he saw every terrible wound on her body heal, washed in the purifying fire.
Soon, there was nothing but pristine white skin showing through the wide gaps in the shattered armor.
Nephis raised her head, looking at them but not seeing anything. There was no recognition in her gaze, all understanding destroyed by the cruel crucible of the sacred fire.
Then the last daughter of the Immortal Flame clan closed her eyes and fell to the ground, losing consciousness.
…Finally, the first rays of sunshine appeared from beyond the eastern horizon.
The dawn was coming.
In the end, Nephis had remained unconscious for an entire two days.
On the third day, she finally opened her eyes and slowly rose, looking around with subtle confusion.
Her face, as usual, was calm and indifferent.
However, she did flinch a little when her gaze fell on Sunny, who was sitting at the top of the giant hand's index finger and grinning from ear to ear at her.
Frowning, Changing Star looked herself over, noticing the embarrassing gaps in her armor, and said:
"Why are you smiling?"
Sunny gave her a mischievous wink and shrugged.
"Look behind you."
Lingering for a few seconds, Neph sighed and turned around, wondering what is it that he wanted her to see.
Behind her, a dark expanse of land was rising above the slope of the colossal crater.
And on it, a tall city wall built of grey polished stone was towering over the giant chasm of the abyss. It looked ancient but still impenetrable, able to withstand the crushing pressure of the dark sea for a thousand more years,
They've made it.
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That had found the human castle.
[End of volume one: Child of Shadows.]