The night was quiet and Naito’s house was completely silent. While he was asleep, Airi was sitting on the couch inside the living room, just scrolling on social media and watching videos on her smartphone. It had been a very long time since she slept so well and without the fear of having a nightmare. Sometimes she would sleep without the shadow appearing in her dreams, but even the idea of it made it very hard to fall asleep, and the anxiety this thought brought her made stressed in her sleep. After all it is more possible to see a nightmare under stress than when your subconscious is clear and light.
She had promised Naito that she wouldn’t move anything inside the house - she was sure that even if she touched something, he would be able to detect it. What a weird person.
She couldn’t understand why he was so obsessed with things like that.
How could this fixation help him in his life? Everything having a specific and unchangeable position inside the house - not a millimeter left or right. That’s psychosis, mate! If you relax a little bit, life will be easier for sure! But even if she promised not to touch anything, she was extremely curious about what person he was. Naito was something completely different from what she already knew, from what she herself was. How can he not give a damn about what other people think? How can he stand being alone, without any company? She stood up and started walking around the house. There were almost no decorations, no pictures of his family on the walls or furniture. His house was simple and practical - only something that had a direct use was allowed inside.
His kitchen was also extremely clean and tidy - no dishes in the sink, no fruits gone bad on the table. She opened some of the shelves above the sink. There were four packages of coffee one next to the other, each one of them with a different flavor. Caramel, Hazelnut, Vanilla and Harmony Blend. On the next shelf there was a tea collection inside a wooden case - from varieties of black and green tea, to herbal teas and mixed spices. She was about to keep looking around when she heard the door from Naito’s room opening. All his motions were so silent, it would be impossible to hear him if there was the slightest sound in the house. She closed the shelves as carefully as she could and went to the sink to put some water in a glass.
Naito came out of his room and went straight into the bathroom. Airi could hear the sink running, and after some seconds later, him washing his teeth. He got out after 5 minutes, looking so fresh, like he was already awake for hours, instead of just having woken up.
He walked to the living room, looked at Airi and then went to the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water and put some coffee in the coffee machine. He picked one carefully, like a pharmacist chooses the perfect medicine from the storage shelf. He added exactly 2 two scoops of coffee and two cups of water - without asking Airi if she wanted any - and then pushed the button, while he was drinking his water. Although very relaxed, at some point he stopped moving and looked outside the window, remaining at the same position, very concentrated and still. Then he turned around to face Airi again with a very troubled look in his eyes.
“How long has this been happening?”
“What are you talking about?”
She stood up and walked to the kitchen next to Naito. Naito made a motion showing her outside of the yard. Airi’s face suddenly turned white.
“Wh..Why is it here?”
“You tell me.”
The shadow was staring at them from behind a tree, looking completely menacing.
They exchanged glimpses for one moment. When they looked back at the shadow, it had moved closer. And then closer. Until it reached the front door.
“What are we going to do now?”
“What do you mean what are we going to do? Keep behaving like we did before. Why should we change the way we have been treating it until now? If we try to avoid it, it will start looking for us, like it did just now. I told you, if we don’t take action first, it will.”
“I cannot just go out there. Look at it! There’s no way it wants something good from us!”
Naito started feeling drowsy. The mark on his side suddenly started feeling hot and heavy.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s nothing, just a little dizziness leftover from sleeping.”
“Are you sure? You don’t look well.”
“I’m sure. Just let me be, it will soon go away.” He said trying to keep his calm and let no emotion visible. It was like this mark, this stain on his side, was taking over him, eating him from the inside out. It must have to do with the presence of its initial host. The closer it is, the more power the stain gets. It activates when it feels the shadow being in a close distance.
He smothered all the discomfort and gathered all his might to speak in a steady and strong tone.
“Listen to me carefully. We have to find a place for you to sleep.”
“But I just woke up.”
“Don’t interrupt me for a few minutes and just listen. We have to go back to your house and sleep. Both of us. First you, then me. We have to make sure the shadow is around, and then force it inside the dream. After you sleep, I will follow you in your dream.”
“What? Now you’re talking nonsense. Stop joking, look at what situation we’re in!”
“I never joke when it comes to problem solving. You have to sleep before me, so that I can ensure that the shadow follows you. When you reach REM sleep, it will no longer be able to go outside until you wake up. This is when I will enter too.”
“How will you do that??” Airi kept insisting.
“Kyuu will help me. There’s no need for you to know any more details for now.”
“And where is Kyuu-chan?”
“I’m begging you, stop asking questions. We already have one big problem we need to solve.
Even if we manage to fall asleep, and me and the shadow enter your dream, we need someone to ensure our physical safety as long as we are in the dream world. Things are going to get ugly in there, and we need to keep this chaos only in your dream. We need to be sure that the shadow will not come out of your dream, and even if it does, we will have to know where it will be. So the person who will look after our physical bodies while we are away, is someone who can see the shadow and knows about our situation. Unfortunately, we have only one option.”
“Rookie..” whispered Airi, visibly shaken.
“Exactly. We don’t have the luxury of time to find somebody else and tell them what’s happening.”
“And somebody who trusts our crazy story and we can trust too. Rookie considers us, for better or worse, his closest friends. We can put our faith in him.”
“Don’t get sentimental. But either way, you’re right. His naivety can be of use to us.”
“And you don’t be such an insensitive piece of garbage. He’s a good kid who admires you, at least appreciate that. Treat him like a friend, and not like a tool.”
Naito felt annoyed by her attitude but also a little embarrassed. He hasn’t been scolded by anyone for eons, and now he’s suddenly getting life lessons by miss “I know better than you”.
He just turned his head and muffled “ok”.
Airi realized that he got the message, so she left him in peace.
“Let’s contact Rookie for now. Don’t you agree?” she asked as gently as she could, to mend the heavy atmosphere.
“Send him a message to meet somewhere.”
“He already knows where my house is, he can come straight there.”
“Why does he.. Ok, ask him that.”
Airi took her smartphone out of her pocket and started typing.
“He said he can be at my house anytime today. He even offered to take the next day off.”
“Let’s hope he doesn’t have to do that. But it would be reassuring to be sure about what we are going to do. Tell him to do that. I’ll find a way to return the favor.”
“You mean WE will find a way to return the favor. We both owe him big. And I owe to you too.”
“It’s not time for that. You owe me nothing until we find a way to escape this situation. Now that we have our third player, we can initiate the plan. I am pretty sure that the shadow can somehow feel your presence, and this is how it managed to find my house. Another thing that I confirmed is that your connection with it gets stronger when you sleep, because you “open” the gate to its world. The last time you came to my house you didn’t sleep. And this has to be the reason why it didn’t follow you.”
“You say that there is no place I can sleep in peace? I thought your house was a safe zone…” said Airi, completely desperate.
“Let’s hope that your house will soon be a safe zone too. Since you are not sleeping anymore, the shadow doesn’t feel your presence as intensely as before. I say, we try to get out of the house from the window inside my bedroom. Once we are out of the house, start walking fast, but try not to make a sound. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I guess so..”
Naito grabbed his backpack with all his notes and before leaving the kitchen, he opened a drawer and took out a small container. He put it in the pocket of his jacket and turned off the lights, while taking a last glimpse of the shadow, which was moving towards his window.
“Go before it sees us.”
Airi fled to the inside of the house and walked towards Naito’s room. Naito got in her way and opened his door before she had enough time to do it. He took a thick thread from his desk’s drawer and tied it on the window’s handle. Then he put the drawer away and opened the window silently. He put his finger on his lips and signed Airi to be quiet. Then he made space for her and told her to climb up the window. She jumped soundlessly like a nocturnal animal and Naito gave her their shoes to hold. Running barefoot in the middle of the night was the last thing that he wanted, but shoes would make their steps louder, and the shadow would definitely hear them.
He climbed up the window too, and landed quietly. Then he grabbed the threat, closed the window and then slowly pulled the thread. The window handle moved and locked from the inside.
Aiti looked at him impressed but with a mocking expression on her face. Naito didn’t even pay attention to her idea of “humor”. He shut his eyes tightly, cliched his teeth and tried to accept that he was stepping outside without shoes. Then he gave the signal and they started pacing up.
Naito would turn his head to check if the shadow was following them. Up till now, all clear.
The city was awfully silent. They stopped at the park to wear their shoes and be able to run properly. Naito had to stop very often for Airi to catch up to him.
“You suck at running.”
“You suck at being human.”
Their relationship had become a kind of a joke to him. She can’t be so ignorant. That’s almost hilarious.
They reached Airi’s house in no time. Jin-woon was already waiting for them outside the yard.
“Hey, you’re already here. Thank you for doing that.” said Airi, talking to him like a big sister.
“I wouldn’t miss an invitation from my friends for the world!”
Naito sighed. Airi hit him on his back.
“We’ll explain what’s been happening inside. Let me unlock the door.”
The house was quite messy for Naito’s standards. On the other hand, Jin-woon was thrilled as ever, having the chance to go into a girl’s house and not only that - an older girl’s house.
“You can sit down wherever you feel comfortable. Naito, do you mind explaining?”
“Yes. I guess you remember what I told you regarding the shadow, right?”
“Something that accidentally manifested and came out of Airi’s dream. It’s a part of her subconscious.”
“Basically, yes. After some very uncomfortable experiences we had with this thing, I figured out that it has to be dealt with from inside the dream. Anything that we may do in the real world doesn’t have an effect on it, because they’re not made from the same…”material”. I will try to do something you may find weird, but since you cooperate until now, I guess you’re ok with this much oddity. Airi will fall asleep, and attract the shadow to get inside her dream with her.”
“You mean the shadow will come here? Inside the house? While we’re here? What are we going to do”??
“Don’t panic, the shadow doesn't recognize your presence, it will not even see you. I will be here when it appears. When we are sure that it got inside, I will fall asleep too. The only thing you have to do is wait. There is a possibility that the shadow comes out right before we wake up. It will still not be able to see you, so keep your calm. If it tries to escape, you have to follow it and tell us where it went. Another thing you have to do is be sure that….we wake up. If we don’t wake up until tomorrow night, call an ambulance. Do you follow me so far?”
“I think I do….You’re crazy guys.. What if you don’t wake up? What am I going to do?”
“First of all, we are going to secure your alibi. While Airi was asleep, I wrote a full report for any law body that may ask you what happened. Me and Airi will sign, and write a note with our handwriting. I have also prepared a video with related information to help you get away with any accusations. You understand that what we are going to do is not a child’s play, and there is a possibility it gets ugly. I know that you may want to refuse to help us, but.. You’re our only..”
“HOPE, just say it H-O-P-E” shouted Airi with her patience running low.
“Well, yes. You’re our only hope. I’m asking you as a friend. I promise to buy you whatever food you want after this.”
“You know I wasn’t going to deny. It may be a huge responsibility, but I don’t want to turn tail and leave. I may look like an idiot most of the time, but I’m not as stupid as you think.. Until now, you two were the only people who didn’t take advantage of me and treated me with honesty. Even you, Naito. You were clear when you didn’t talk to me or avoid me - you wanted your own space, I get it. But you never used me in your favor, or played the fake good friend to get something from me. I prefer honesty that hurts - it’s still honesty. I’ll help you as much as I can.”
“We both thank you. I can send you the video now..” said Naito with a lowered and shy voice.
“You mean you have my number? See, that’s what I mean. Thank you, Naito.”
“Please don’t say things like these. We are the ones getting you in this situation. Save it for better days..”
“It’s amazing how fast your mood changes.” said Airi with a smile. “Thank you again for doing that.”
Naito started feeling the weird drowsiness again, and his side was getting slowly numb. The shadow must be coming closer.
Naito, Airi and Jin-woon were sitting in the living room of Airi’s house, trying to deal with the discomfort and get over this deep, unsettling fear. They were about to try something that possibly no other human being has ever tried - at least successfully. Naito could feel the shadow’s presence somewhere around him, so he took the initiative.
“Since we are done with the intro, we have to start organizing everything. It is now 21.00. Airi must fall asleep in the next hour. After around 60 minutes, I can try to join her.”
“How am I going to fall asleep when I have just woken up? I don’t feel any sleepiness at all.”
Naito made a short pause and put his hand in his pocket, getting the little container out.
“One of the things that a Lucid Dreamer must never do, is take sleeping pills. Sleeping pills put you in a coma-like condition, which you cannot control, since you are under the influence of drugs. It’s the same when the doctors use anesthetics before a surgery - to ensure that the patient will not wake up, even if his mind tells them to.”
“Why is it forbidden to take sleeping pills, Senpai?” asked Jin-woon, looking extremely interested.
“Don’t call me… ugh never mind. If you take sleeping pills, you automatically block your body from waking up. In case you are having a nightmare, your body tells you to wake up, because it cannot withstand the emotional load. The reason why it cannot withstand it is that when you feel emotions, your body actually produces a variety of chemical substances, which are meant to be produced only for a few seconds. If you extend this time period for too long, your body reacts like it is facing an emergency, and your instincts tell it to survive by any means. So it stops basic bodily functions to deal with the intense brain activity. If these bodily functions remain inactive for too long, it can have severe consequences..”
“I am not sure if I want to know, but...what kind of consequences?” asked Airi, completely frightened.
“From light ones like heartburns, shaking or trembling and arrhythmia, to impaired balance and organ failure. All these, considering that you will.. Wake up.”
“You mean there is a possibility that we don’t wake up after this?”
“The chances are extremely low, because we are going to use a small amount of the substance - and just once. But our case is a little special, and nobody has ever tried to study what happens if you try to deal with a creature from your subconscious that jumped outside of a dream..”
“Being cynical doesn't help, Naito. But in the situation we are in, being cynical is the only thing we can do. Better than despair.”
“Nobody said we would despair. We just have to be aware of all the possible scenarios.”
Airi and Jin-woon looked at each other and nodded.
“Airi...you will have to take two pills. It’s still a normal dose, so don’t worry.’”
“Why do I have to take two? How many are you going to take?”
“I am going to take one. You will have to sleep longer than me, so we have to ensure that you will not wake up midway. I can also control my dreams better than you, as we saw last time you tried Lucid Dreaming.”
“Don’t worry, Airi-chan. I will be here, taking care of both of you. Just try your best and let me handle the rest!” said Jin-woon, full of determination.
“Thank you, Rookie. I hope you will not have to do anything except wait.”
Naito opened the plastic container and took out two pills and handed them to Airi. She took them reluctantly and swallowed them one after another.
“Aren’t you going to take your pill, too?”
“Not now. I will wait until you reach NREM N2 - the second stage of sleep. Until then I have to prepare, and wait for the shadow to trap inside your dream.”
They all took a long pause to pull themselves together.
Naito was feeling his side bothering him more and more. The shadow had to be somewhere around there. He stood up and checked the rooms of the house. The other two were looking at him unsettled. While he was checking the balcony of Airi’s bedroom, he heard her surprised scream coming from the living room. Jin-woon’s terrified and trembling voice followed right away.
“Naito! Naito! It’s here! Don’t worry, Airi-chan, I’m here! I, I will protect you.!”
Naito ran back to the living room, to find the shadow coming slowly inside the room, passing through the wall, like it was just a hologram.
“Stand back, Rookie. You cannot do anything for now. You cannot prevent it from doing anything. Sit back next to Airi and try to remain calm. Airi, lie down and take deep breaths. The pills will start having an effect any second now. Be patient for a little more.”
Airi was breathing fast and intensely, barely living any time between her breaths, obviously anxious and unnerved. The shadow flew closer to them and stood in the dark corridor, facing them. Airi’s breathing tempo was getting slower and slower. Naito and Jin-woon weren’t saying a word. They were just looking once at Airi, once at the shadow. Airi’s eyelids started feeling heavy, and were slowly closing.
“Are both of you ready?” Naito broke the silence.
“Yes.” said Jin-woon with a composed voice.
Airi nodded half-conscious. Then she fell asleep.