29 The Last Day on Earth

On the day of the winter solstice, Sunny woke up feeling tired and drowsy. No matter how much he tried to shake off this listlessness, it wouldn't go away. In the end, he just stayed in the bed for a while, wrapping himself in a blanket.

He was already familiar with this feeling of neverending, ensnaring sleepiness. It was the same in the days before his First Nightmare. It was also quite similar to what he had experienced while slowly dying of hypothermia on the slopes of the Black Mountain.

Remembering the cold embrace of approaching death, Sunny couldn't help but shiver.

This was his last day on Earth… at least for a while. By nightfall, the Spell was going to take him away once again, this time to challenge the vast expanse of the Dream Realm. What was he going to face in that ruined magical world? Would luck be on his side this time, or would there be another disaster?

'Ugh.'

There was no point in guessing. He had already done everything in his power to prepare for the inevitable. He studied hard, trained hard, and kept his secret safe. His Aspect was better than most, and his will to survive was long tempered by the harsh reality of the outskirts and the even harsher ordeal of the First Nightmare.

All in all, he was ready.

With a sigh, Sunny got out of bed and went along with his morning routine. If this was going to be his last hot shower in a long while, he was going to really enjoy it. If it was going to be his last scrumptious breakfast for the time being…

Actually, he had no appetite.

The cafeteria was full of Sleepers, but no one was talking. Everybody was in low spirits and seemed to be uncharacteristically introspective. There was no usual laughter or boisterous conversations — only the Legacies remained calm and collected. However, even they kept to themselves.

Sunny thought about the last time he was preparing to enter the Spell and, with a bit of trepidation, approached the coffee machine. During his stay in the Academy, he had long discovered that a lot of people were in a habit of adding sugar and milk to their coffee. So, on this auspicious day, he decided to give it another try.

After all, it was nice to have a tradition.

A few minutes later, he had taken his usual seat near Cassia, the blind girl. Despite their compulsory closeness, they had not talked to each other even once, just like two strangers forced to share the same space by circumstances beyond their control. Sunny did not see a reason for anything to change today.

However, as soon as he took the first seep of coffee, Cassia suddenly turned her head and stared at him with her beautiful, blind blue eyes.

Unnerved, Sunny looked around, checking if someone else had attracted her attention, and, after making sure that there wasn't anyone standing behind him, asked:

"W—what?"

Cassia was silent, as though hesitating if she should reply, and then suddenly said:

"Happy Birthday."

'What?'

Sunny frowned, trying to comprehend the meaning behind her words. Then, a flash of surprise appeared on his face.

'Oh, right. It's my birthday today.'

He had completely forgotten about it. He was turning seventeen today.

'Wait… how did she know about this?'

Sunny gave the blind girl a strange look, opened his mouth, and then decided to let the issue go. She was just too creepy.

"Uh… thanks."

With a nod, Cassia turned away and seemingly lost interest in having a conversation once again.

Which was for the better.

Sunny returned to his coffee, finding it not too bad this time. Of course, sugar and cream were making most of the work. However, he did feel a little bit more awake after drinking it.

'Seventeen, huh?'

Sunny was never sure that he would make it to this age alive. And yet, despite everything, he did. Life was sure unpredictable sometimes.

If anyone would have told him a year ago that he was going to celebrate his seventeenth birthday by drinking real coffee with real milk and sugar, he would have laughed in their face. But now it was a reality.

Unwillingly, Sunny remembered all the people who used to celebrate his birthdays with him, a long time ago. Before his mood turned sour, he decisively dispelled these thoughts and forced himself to smile.

'This is not bad. Let's do it again next year, when I'm already an Awakened.'

Cheering himself up like that, he finished his coffee and left the cafeteria.

There were no classes today, but he still visited the Wilderness Survival classroom and said his goodbyes to Teacher Julius. The old man got pretty emotional when sending him off. He gave Sunny "one last tip" a dozen or so times in a row and even promised to apply for a research assistant position to be opened after the young man had become a full Awakened.

Sunny left thanking him for his time and patience.

After that, there wasn't much to do.

When the sun was close to setting, Instructor Rock gathered them in the foyer of the Sleeper Center and led them outside.

In the snowy parks that surrounded the white building, other Awakened were leading their own batches of Sleepers to the same destination. It was the Academy's medical center.

The center looked more like a shrine than a hospital. Its interior contained both highly advanced technology as well as some of the best Healers among the Awakened. For the duration of their first journey into the Dream Realm, the bodies of Sleepers would be kept safe in specially designed pods and sustained by the magical powers of those Healers if anything unfortunate were to happen on the other side of the Spell.

Of course, whether or not they would wake up in the end wholly depended on the Sleepers themselves.

To Sunny's surprise, after entering the medical center, Instructor Rock did not take them directly to the wing containing Sleeper pods. Instead, he led them to a comparatively deserted floor and then opened the doors to a spacious gallery that was brightly illuminated by the beautiful crimson rays of the setting sun.

There, they saw rows and rows of wheelchairs. In each wheelchair, there was a person with a blank, strangely peaceful expression on their face. All these people were completely silent, motionless, and still. They did not show any reaction to the appearance of guests.

They all seemed to be… empty.

In the eerie silence, Sunny felt his hair standing up and a creeping terror sipping deep into his heart.

Instructor Rock looked at the empty people with solemn eyes.

"There is a reason I brought you all here. Look well and remember. Some of you may know who these people are… for those of you who don't, they are called Hollow."

He gritted his teeth.

"Each one of them was once either a Sleeper or an Awakened. Some of them were weak, some of them were strong. Some were even incredibly powerful. All of them have perished in the Dream Realm."

'Their… their souls are gone,' Sunny realized, horrified.

'If you're lucky, once your spirit is destroyed, your body dies with it. But if not, you'll become just like them. Hollow.'

Instructor Rock glanced in the direction where Caster and Nephis stood, and then added:

"So don't die out there."

***

Half an hour later, Sleepers had been led to their personal rooms and were preparing to enter the pods.

In one of the rooms, the blind girl, Cassia, was helplessly trying to orient herself in the unfamiliar space, touching the walls and strange pieces of machinery with her hands. Tears were streaming down her beautiful, doll-like face.

In the other room, proud Legacy Caster was staring listlessly at the floor. His lips were moving, repeating one strange phrase over and over again. He was trembling.

Somewhere else, Changing Star Nephis, the last daughter of the Immortal Flame clan, was looking down at her hands. Underneath her skin, soft white radiance was slowly growing brighter and brighter. Her face was contorted in a grimace of harrowing agony.

And finally, there was a room where Shadow Slave Sunless, Lost from Light, turned away from the sleeping pod and glanced down at his shadow.

"Well? Are you ready?"

The shadow shrugged and didn't answer.

Sunny sighed.

"Yeah, me too."

With that, he stepped forward and climbed into the pod.

***

In the vast echoing darkness, he heard:

[Welcome to the Dream Realm, Sunless!]

Next chapter