41 Strength in Numbers

Sunny was sprawled in the mud, looking at the sky. He didn't even have to catch his breath since the whole fight took less than ten seconds from start to finish. No one was dead, wounded or even bruised… well, with the exception of the scavenger. It was completely out of his expectations.

He glanced at the monster's corpse to make sure that it was actually dead, then summoned the runes and took a look at the number of Shadow Fragments in his possession.

[Shadow Fragments: 16/1000].

It was actually true. The mighty awakened beast perished just like that. And, although Nephis did most of the work, he was the one to deal the killing blow.

'Why can't it always be so easy?'

Sunny got back on his feet and dismissed the Azure Blade. Then, he remembered the words Master Jet had once told him: "No one can survive in the Dream Realm alone."

Back then, he noted her advice, but didn't really believe it. After all, he had always strived to be self-sufficient, not allowing himself to depend on anyone. In Sunny's mind, this was the true meaning of strength.

However, now he was beginning to suspect that this logic was flawed. Indeed, having someone to share your burdens meant the difference between heaven and hell here in the Dream Realm. If he was alone, fighting against a single scavenger might have been the end of him.

Similarly, even though Nephis was far more skilled than Sunny, it would have been extremely hard for her to defeat the armored monster alone, being that its weakest point was out of her reach.

But together, they had accomplished it with relative ease. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, there was strength in numbers that surpassed individual power. In that sense, being able to depend on a group was not a sign of weakness, but, on the contrary, an important facet of personal strength.

Lone wolves would always be at a disadvantage. That was another lesson to learn.

'It's not like I had much of a choice.'

He walked over to Nephis and checked if she was okay. Apart from slight damage to her makeshift seaweed clothes, everything seemed to be alright. She glanced at Sunny.

"Memory?"

He shook his head.

Nephis sighed. It seemed that she was a bit impatient to get herself a suit of armor of her own. If Sunny was a gentleman, he would have suggested to loan her the Puppeteer's Shroud for a while… but alas, he wasn't. That armor was extremely valuable and had cost him a lot.

Plus, unlike Changing Star, the picture of Sunny wearing nothing but a seaweed loincloth would have been more disturbing than aesthetically pleasing. So, he said nothing.

Meanwhile, Nephis headed for the dead scavenger and said without turning her head:

"Bring Cassie."

With a sigh, Sunny turned around and left the clearing.

Soon, he approached the place where the blind girl was waiting patiently for their return. Hearing his footsteps, she flinched and raised her head:

"S—Sunny?"

'How did she recognize me? Ah... must be the way I walk.'

"Yeah, it's me. Everything is over. Come on, I'll bring you to Nephis."

Using the wooden staff, Cassie stood up and turned to him.

"Are… are you guys alright?"

Sunny smiled.

"Of course! We dispatched that critter in no time. Didn't even get a scratch."

Cassie smiled with visible relief.

"Good, that's good. Oh, right, the rope…"

Sunny took the rope and guided the blind girl back to the clearing. On the way, he felt a bit weird. With the delicate girl walking behind him, he couldn't help but think of his little sister. As a toddler, she used to follow him around too, as though they were glued together.

As the familiar pain stabbed him in the heart, Sunny gritted his teeth and tried to think about something else. It was all in the past anyway.

Back in the clearing, Nephis was done breaking apart the scavenger's carapace. The shimmering soul shard was already in her hand. Without saying anything, she tossed it to Sunny.

He caught the crystal and looked at her with surprise.

"Why are you giving it to me?"

Nephis blinked and stayed quiet for a few seconds. Then she said as a matter of fact:

"I don't have pockets."

"Oh."

Still a bit bewildered, Sunny put the soul shard into his rucksack.

'But why wouldn't she just absorb it?'

He opened his mouth to ask the question, but she seemed to realize something and added:

"We'll divide the spoils later."

"Ah. Alright."

Nephis, meanwhile, turned to Cassie and said after some deliberation:

"I was careful."

Then, she smiled.

***

[Your shadow grows stronger.]

[Your shadow grows stronger.]

[Your shadow grows stronger.]

Sunny was feeling somewhere in-between of being ecstatic and peeved. Throughout the day, they managed to kill three more scavengers, each time with not much risk to anyone except for Nephis. The process was largely the same: after discovering the monster, he would hide in the shadows, while Nephis would act as bait. Then, when the time was right, Sunny would stealthily approach and finish the fight with a precise strike of the Azure Blade.

He was wondering if that was what being in the main hero's party felt like. To anyone else, maybe with the exception of Caster, dancing around a deadly awakened beast would have been a tall task, most likely ending with the dancer's death. Nephis, however, had managed to do it over and over again seemingly without too much strain.

What's more, her performance was based solely on skill, with no Aspect Ability involved. In that regard, even Caster couldn't have done better.

She was swift, calm and precise. Every move she made was calculated and perfectly timed. She seemed to innately understand the flow and logic of combat, which gave her the ability to roughly predict what actions the mindless beasts would perform in the next seconds. Then it was just the question of physical prowess to evade and even manipulate them to a certain degree.

Sunny had always known that skill and experience were more important than raw power, but by watching Nephis, he vividly understood just how vast the difference between them was. Even though his divine Aspect allowed Sunny to exert more strength and speed than Changing Star, in an actual fight, he would never stand a chance.

Of course, he was also an important part of every encounter. His role as the finisher was not trivial, and not just anybody would have been able to accomplish four kills with four strikes. Even though Sunny was not taught any elaborate techniques, he was still a somewhat experienced fighter. He had good physical coordination, combat intuition, and — most importantly — a cool-headed mentality.

Not to mention the fact that they were only able to ambush the scavengers so effectively due to his shadow scouting them out in advance.

All in all, it was an almost equal cooperation. Still, watching Nephis fight was nothing short of sobering.

Trying not to get too dejected, Sunny summoned the runes.

[Shadow Fragments: 22/1000].

'Eight fragments today. Pretty excellent.'

Currently, they were waiting on the edge of the labyrinth path leading directly to the giant statue of the headless knight. There was a group of scavengers between them and the statue, moving past without any haste.

The sunset was near, but they still had time.

Slowly, minutes flowed by. At some point, Nephis gave the command to move.

Helping Cassie along, Sunny followed Changing Star and quickly traversed the open space between the labyrinth and the statue. Now, they only had to get on top of it.

However, it wasn't that easy. Scaling the two-hundred-meter tall monument would have been hard in normal circumstances, but now, they also had to somehow pull Cassie up. Leaving her behind until they were at the top would not have been safe.

In the end, Nephis and Sunny took turns pulling the rope every twenty meters or so. Cassie would hold onto the rocks and wait until they climbed higher, and then the process would repeat. It was slow and torturous, and by the end, Sunny's muscles were sore and almost on fire.

But they managed to get to safety before the dark waters washed them away.

As the night began to descend, the three Sleepers sat in the center of the circular stone platform and rested. As they did not bring any materials to make a fire and it was already too late, there was no way to cook food. They ended up chewing on the strips of dried meat, passing the bottle of limitless water around.

After some time, Nephis gave Sunny a sign to take out the spoils of today's journey. He took out the four shimmering soul shards and put them on the ground.

Without any discussion, Changing Star moved two crystals in his direction and took two for herself. Then, she gave one of hers to Cassia.

Sunny watched it in silence. By the time Nephis and Cassie had absorbed their soul shards, he still didn't make a move to take his. After a while, he took another crystal out of the rucksack and moved all three to Nephis.

The silver-haired girl looked at him with surprise.

"Don't you want... to grow stronger?"

Sunny grinned.

"Of course, I do. But these won't do me much good right now. It's no secret that you are the main fighting force of our group."

He sighed.

"The stronger you are, the better our chances of survival will get. Plus, it's not a gift. It's a trade."

Nephis raised an eyebrow.

"A… trade? What do you want?"

Sunny deliberated for a few seconds before answering.

"It's rather simple. I will give you these soul shards, and all other soul shards I earn on the way to that castle…"

Then, he looked her in the eyes and said:

"In return, you will teach me how to fight."

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