39 Journey to the West

In the ensuing silence, the smile slowly disappeared from Cassie's face, replaced by confusion. Feeling the sudden tension, she asked:

"Uh… what's wrong?"

Sunny sighed.

"No, nothing is wrong. It's just that that direction is the one we wanted to avoid."

After some thought, he added:

"That's where I came from yesterday. There's a lot of scavengers down there."

The blind girl's face fell.

"Oh."

Nephis, who was quietly listening to them, gave him an indecipherable look and finally spoke:

"Tell us more about the castle."

A shadow of the previous excitement returned to Cassie's eyes. With a serious nod, she began describing her vision.

"I dreamt of a vast, ruined city built of weathered stone. It was surrounded by tall, impregnable walls. Various monsters were wandering its narrow streets. In the center of the city, the was a hill, and on that hill stood a magnificent castle."

She smiled.

"But there were no monsters in the castle! Instead, it was full of people. I think… no, I'm sure that they were Awakened. Some were guarding the walls, some were going about their lives without a care in the world. There was food, safety, and laughter!"

'Well, that sounds great.'

If this castle really existed, then all of their problems would be solved. Sunny cleared his throat.

"Did you see anything else?"

Cassie frowned, trying to remember. Then, her face cleared.

"Yes! I saw Sunny leading me through the gates of the castle! That means we will make it!"

A brilliant smile appeared on her doll-like face, beaming with so much joy that Sunny couldn't help but curl his lips.

Inwardly, however, he was stuck on a certain detail of Cassie's vision. It was that, when talking about reaching the castle, the blind girl only mentioned the two of them. Was there some meaning behind it?

Sunny turned his head a little and secretly glanced at Nephis, trying to discern if she had picked up on that little discrepancy, too.

Changing Star, however, was as enigmatic as ever. Without showing much emotion, she thought for a while, and then slowly nodded.

"Okay. Then we will go west."

***

While the sea was still retreating, they had their breakfast and then spent some time planning for the journey and preparing to abandon the temporary camp. In the process, Sunny had a chance to get to know the girls a little better.

It was then that he came to a sudden realization, which almost made his head explode from bafflement. That mind-blowing realization had to do with Nephis.

Back when they first met in front of the Academy's gates, Sunny had formed a certain impression of the confident, distant girl. Later, her behavior and the different revelations about Changing Star's past only served to reinforce that impression.

Nephis seemed to exist a bit apart from the world. She was mysterious, aloof and rather cool. Her taciturn character and strange speech patterns made people interacting with her feel unnerved and rattled, often revealing more than they had been planning to. The less she talked, the more she seemed to know. That silent, indifferent confidence was arresting, and sometimes even oppressive.

However, that impression turned out to be completely wrong!

The actual truth behind the matter had nothing to do with being cool and aloof. After talking to her a bit more and observing their interactions with Cassie, Sunny almost fainted when he realized that Nephis was simply an incredibly, ridiculously... painfully awkward person.

It was as though she had no idea how to talk to people. Every time she tried to convey something, she would either use the wrong words or stumble in the middle of the sentence and fall silent. Her tone never matched what she was trying to say. Often, she would forget to put correct intonations in her speech, making questions sound like statements or vice versa.

Added to that was the fact that, like many introverted people, Nephis was not in a habit of openly showing her emotions. It's not that she didn't have feelings: it's just that she was really bad at emoting them! As a result, her face always looked cold and neutral.

That's why, most of the time, she simply chose to talk as little as possible or not to talk at all.

All of that added up together, then multiplied by her general weirdness, was ultimately responsible for creating the false image of a mysterious, unapproachable ice princess.

When in fact, she was just shy and completely inept in communicating with people!

After coming to that realization, Sunny tried with all his might but still failed to stop himself from staring at Nephis with wide eyes. He just barely managed to not let his jaw hang open.

'What the hell? That's not in line with how a protagonist should be!'

In his mind, Nephis had definitely been the type of person to be the main character of any event. At the center stage, there were always confident, strong people like her and Caster. People like himself and Cassie, on the other hand, were relegated to exist far away in the background. Now, however…

No, that line of thought was also wrong. The fact that Changing Star had problems with expressing herself and lacked social skills did not mean that she was not strong. In fact, it might have meant the opposite. She still achieved everything that she had achieved, but with the added layer of adversity.

She was still dangerous.

At that moment, Nephis finally noticed that Sunny was staring at her. She looked at him and, after a long pause, asked in an emotionless tone:

"...What?"

He blinked, extricating himself from this sudden flood of thoughts, and cleared his throat.

"Uh, nothing. I was just going to ask when are we setting off."

Nephis appeared to be thinking. After a while, she turned away and said:

"Soon."

'You... you really can't manage more than one word, can you?'

Utterly bewildered, Sunny hid his emotions and smiled.

"Ah. Alright then."

***

In the grey light of morning, they abandoned the tall hill and ventured west, retracing their steps from yesterday. Knowing the path, the small party made quick progress.

Nephis was walking in front, her sword arm ready to strike at any moment. A bit behind her was Sunny. This time, the responsibility of holding the golden rope and guiding Cassie along was entrusted to him.

Of course, the actual person… creature?.. leading them was his shadow. It scouted ahead, carefully observing the labyrinth for signs of danger.

The labyrinth was just as it was before, confusing and seemingly endless. Crimson blades of "coral" protruded from the black mud, creating a vast, tangled forest. However, today something about it felt different.

It wasn't long before the shadow stumbled onto a mass of hulking, hungry scavengers…

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