Naito and Jin-woon were looking at Airi, concerned and anxious. The moment she lost consciousness, the shadow became instantly jittery. It must have noticed that the connection with Airi had started to shift.
“Rookie, now there are the two of us left. Soon enough you will be completely on your own. Try to adjust to the situation, ok?”
Jin-woon agreed without saying a word, but showing understanding and courage. Then Naito took his notebook from his backpack and started writing.
Just read silently. The shadow can hear everything we say. There is a possibility that it can read anything we write - I haven’t proven it yet, but let’s be careful to be sure.
In order to enter Airi’s dream, I need to get help from something. This something is also a creation of my subconscious, and it has been keeping me company in my dreams. You could say that its nature is similar to the shadow’s, but their difference lies in their intentions. This something, Kyuu-chan, as I named it, tries to help me deal with the current situation. Its conscience is a part of mine, and although it has gained its own logic, it still has the functionality I gave it: Behave like a manifested version of my thoughts - and thus my own conscience.
After some time of interacting with it, I managed to drag it outside of my dreams, to the real world. If the shadow could do that, then Kyuu-chan could too. So it happened. Kyuu-chan is the one that will help me get inside Airi’s dream. Don’t freak out when it happens. It will take some time to complete the process of getting inside the dream, so you will definitely need to get used to its presence. We have to be fast.
Jin-woon read everything carefully and then asked for Naito’s pen in order to write. Naito hesitated to give him his own pen, but he tried to smother his peculiarity and just hand him the pen, even reluctantly and half-heatedly. Jin-woon took his pen carefully from his hand and started writing.
Why don’t you summon this Kyuu-chan already and get over with it sooner?
Naito took his pen back and wrote back.
Because the last time Kyuu-chan and the shadow were near each other.. It...didn’t end up well. The shadow .. attacked us. It was furious. If it weren’t for Kyuu-chan, who knows what would have happened.
They looked at each other and then Naito closed the notebook and put it back in his backpack.
“If you need to say anything, type in your smartphone or something. I prefer writing because it’s faster.”
20 minutes had passed and the shadow had started approaching them, slithering across the walls, like it was being dragged inside the dream, the deeper Airi was sleeping.
“Be ready. It’s happening.” Said Naito as calmly as possible. Without taking his eyes from the shadow, he opened the container with the pills, threw one on his palm and swallowed it immediately. He had no time to waste. Everything had to happen completely synchronized.
The shadow was coming closer and closer to Airi’s body. Jin-woon was distancing himself from her, trying to avoid contact with this horrifying creature. Naito was trying to keep his eyes open to catch the moment of the shadow jumping inside Airi’s dream. The shadow was incredibly restless and tense, like it wasn’t able to control what was happening. An internal force was dragging it inside the realm of dreams, and there was nothing it could do about it. Naito was looking carefully without blinking. The shadow started shaking uncontrollably and in a matter of milliseconds it just got squeezed in a single spot and vanished. His eyes barely caught the whole thing.
“What the hell just happened? Where did the shadow go?” asked Jin-woon, obviously distressed and fidgety.
“It’s already trapped inside. Now it’s my turn. Just stay there and wait, ok?” said Naito and closed his eyes, trying to concentrate. He raised his left sleeve, revealing a big dark mark, with mixed purple and blue splashes inside it, sprinkled with glittering dust, looking almost like a piece of the Milky way.
“What is that?” Jin-woon was staring at Naito’s wrist like children look at candy, turning instantly from terrified to bewitched. Naito didn’t reply, and just touched his wrist with two of his right hand’s fingers and pushed inside slowly. Then his eyes started moving behind his closed eyelids, and bright runes started forming around him. His right arm started shaking, while he was trying to keep it stable with all his might. He grinded his teeth and remained concentrated, until..Puff!
Kyuu-chan appeared out of thin air.
The runes around Naito started disappearing gently one by one, and Naito opened his eyes smiling.
“Welcome, Kyuu-chan. That’s Jin-woon over there.”
Kyuu-chan turned around in the air to face Jin-woon, who was looking at the creature astonished and speechless.
“I” “know” “you” “Hello”
“Wow.. you don’t look like the other creepy thing at all! You are so cute!”
Like always, Naito broke the happy scene.
“Now it’s not the time for flattering. We have to rush. Kyuu-chan, let’s do this. Jin-woon, I hope we are back soon. Take care of our bodies for us. See you.”
He touched Kyuu-chan with his hands and tilted his head towards it. They both stopped moving and runes started forming around Naito again, encircling both of them this time. A bright light appeared inside Kyuu, becoming stronger and stronger every second. The light reached the runes, and a flashing shine blinded Jin-woon’s eyes. When his vision recovered, both Naito and Kyuu-chan were gone.
“I guess I have to just.. Wait.” sighted Jin-woon. He grabbed Naito’s backpack and took his notebook and pen out.
“HEY! HEYY! Here, I’m over here!” Airi’s voice filled the air with a high-pitch clean tone.
“It seems we made it. It’s all thanks to Kyuu-chan” explained Naito.
“Thank you, Kyuu-chan. You’re a life-saver!”
Kyuu-chan moved around but didn’t talk.
“Why doesn’t it talk? Have I done anything?”
“Since we are neither in the real world, nor in my own subconscious state, he has no means of communicating with us.”
“You aren’t a part of my subconscious either, so why can you talk to me?”
“I may not be a part of your subconscious, but I happen to have a part of your subconscious..”
He raised his hoodie and revealed the stain on his side. Airi was shocked with what she was seeing.
“What is that…? Are you ok?”
“I’m fine - at least for now. I got this mark the day the shadow attacked us. Kyuu-chan told me that what has blackened my side is a part of the shadow, like its ash or smoke. Since it doesn't belong to the real world, it tries to return back to its natural environment - your dreams. This is why I was able to get inside too. It was because I had the proper “ticket”.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know yet. Since it’s a part of the shadow, it will try to return back to it, now that they are both inside their natural environment and can meet.”
“And how are we going to find the shadow?”
“The stain will take us to it. Be sure about it.”
“I guess I have no choice but to trust you. You were right about everything until now. But how is this going to happen? How do you know where to go to find it?”
“While I was awake, I could feel a very intense drowsiness taking over me, especially when the shadow was around. Right now there is just something like a noticeable force pulling the stain out of my body, but it’s still very weak. I guess that it will become stronger as we approach the shadow. The shadow itself will start looking for the stain too - missing one of its parts makes it weaker too.”
“I see. Let’s just walk around until you feel something.”
Kyuu-chan was just following them around, looking very nervous and anxious about being inside another person’s subconscious. It wasn’t sure that it was safe - it may be more vulnerable inside this world.
Naito was observing the environment around him. It was very normal for a dream, especially in relation to his dreams. The whole set up was like a replica of the real world - the buildings, the streets, the people, everything. He was trying to figure out what the main idea of Airi’s dream realm was.
“It’s very lively here isn’t it? There are so many people around. How come?”
Airi heard his question and she suddenly realized that it was the first time somebody was asking anything about her dreams. Naito was the first real human to step inside her subconscious and view whatever was going on in her mind. She felt very exposed and embarrassed for a moment and then tried to explain herself. There was no reason for hiding anything at this point.
“I enjoy being around people. It makes me feel secure and comfortable.”
“Why is that? How can you remember so many faces?”
“I spend lots of time observing the lives of others. People are very interesting. How they laugh and cry, how they argue and fight, how they interact and protect each other. It’s fun.”
“But you can see that in the real world, why bother transferring it here?”
“I want their company even when I am asleep. I was missing their presence and felt very lonely. Plus I can have as many as I want here, for as long as I wish.”
“Is there a particular reason you feel the need to have them around?”
“Well, kind of...it’s a big story…”
“You have time until we find the shadow.”
“Why are you interested in the first place? You have never asked me so many questions since I met you.”
“I have my reasons.”
“If you request answers, you have to give me satisfactory explanations, too. Otherwise I’m not gonna open up to you.”
“You’re behaving childish. I just find psychiatry and psychology very interesting. Human brains react to social stimuli in a very unique way, and it intrigues me. Thus, I enjoy finding reasoning behind specific behaviors. In your case, it may help me understand the environment and possibly find the shadow based on what you’ll say.”
“I’ll skip the first part and just keep the second explanation of yours.”
“Do as you like.”
“So..where should I start from.. I kind of miss the days of my childhood, when I could just walk around the neighborhood, the parks and playgrounds as I wished, without having to worry about anything. My parents didn’t pay much attention to what I was doing, as long as I was behaving properly and left a good impression on others. For my parents etiquette was and still is the most important thing in someone’s life, and they always paid extra attention to how they would dress me up, how they would present me and our family to others, and how they would create the impression that we were a perfect family. As a child that wasn’t an issue; trying to appear as a perfect child meant only one thing: I had the chance to meet and play with more kids, and go to more amusement parks and playgrounds. And since I had made so many friends in elementary school, my social life kept being very vivid in middle school and high school. I don’t think that there was anybody that hadn’t heard of me at least once. I almost never stayed home and always had somebody to hang out with. I had many sleepovers, barbeque parties and trips with my friends - my parents would give me a huge allowance to do all that, as long as my grades were at least average. They never paid attention to what I personally achieved; just to be there and help keep the good name of the family.”
“So you were rarely on your own.”
Naito had already started being skeptical. In his mind, yourself is the first and foremost friend you have to make, and try to spend most of your time with, in order to understand it and help it evolve. Based on Airi, she had probably never spent time with herself; she and herself were apart since childhood. There was a huge gap between them, that was filled with all these social interactions.
“You can understand now that being around so many people is something I’m used to from a long time ago, and I enjoy it very much.”
“Why don’t you do that in the real world then? I’ve never seen you with a group of people, just that occult creep.”
Airi became red from embarrassment.
“Uhm, ehm, adult life is not so carefree and easy as the student life! People work, have families and stuff. They don’t go out as often as they used to.”
“Fair enough. I don’t really know how it works, but as an adult I also spend time with myself so I think I get it. Adults are busy and don’t have enough time to spend with others - at least not so often as before. But you still have time to do that?”
“Well, I don’t have a boyfriend or a family to spend my time with. Most of my friends are like this though.. I may have to find somethi-”
“Ouch!” screamed Naito suddenly and felt on the ground touching his side. Kyuu-chan started floating panicked around Naito and wiggled its tail nervously.
“What is it?”
“The stain is pulling itself somehow and it hurts like hell! Don’t bend down - keep your head high and look for the shadow! It has to be somewhere near us!”
“But you are in pain -”
“Let me be and look for the shadow!”
Airi stood up and started scanning the area around them. There it was. It was looking at them from the tall clock-tower in the middle of the square. Flying like the grim reaper above the rooftop with its long black fingers hooked on the tiles. It knew they were there. It knew Naito had something that belonged to it. And it had to get it back.
“Can you stand?”
“I don’t know, it keeps pulling me towards it.” Naito was struggling to even speak. He was feeling like his skin and internal organs were being pulled out of his body. It wasn’t exactly pain what he was experiencing, but a weird force, trying to drag him to its center of gravity.
He started losing control over his body. The force was pulling him closer to the shadow. At the same time Kyuu-chan wrapped its tail around his arm and tried holding him back. Airi did the same after seeing Kyuu-chan, grabbing his other arm.
The shadow started moving slowly towards them without losing height. It has hovering above the buildings’ rooftops, floating unbothered from one to another. It seemed like it had complete control of the environment. Airi was unable to do anything to prevent the shadow from doing as it liked. She felt utterly powerless in a world that she herself created, a world that was only inside her mind.
“Kyuu-chan do something!” she screamed at the little creature which had put all its might to hold Naito back from getting pulled from the shadow. Naito tried to concentrate and command him to put a barrier around them to protect them from the shadow. Kyuu-chan realized that Naito was sending him a command, but wasn’t able to do anything. There was no power coming from inside his core. It was completely deactivated.
“What’s wrong, Kyuu-chan? Why can’t you do it?” Naito was now shouting in order to make words come out of his mouth. Airi was panicked and started being hysteric. She couldn’t accept that she dragged Naito and Kyuu-chan inside her own dream and had put them in such grave danger. Her grip felt weak and she wouldn’t hold Naito’s arm any longer. Kyuu-chan was trying its best to activate its core and drag Naito back.
Then the shadow raised its horrifying limb in the air and did a sudden move. A huge shock wave started approaching them rapidly, destroying roofs and walls, bringing down whole buildings and sweeping people around like feathers. Airi and Kyuu-chan fell behind with force and hit the wall behind them. Airi looked immediately up and saw Naito being pulled in the air in the direction of the shadow.
“Oh damn! Naito! Naito! No!” Airi had now snapped out of it.
Kyuu-chan tried to fly to Naito’s direction and catch him. Then the shadow raised and swung its other limb in the air. Another shock wave came, throwing Kyuu-chan on the ground, which started trembling like an earthquake was happening at that exact moment. Cracks started appearing around Airi and Kyuu-chan. The concrete underneath them started cracking, and huge railings arised from the underground. The railings were at least 10 meters tall, made out of heavy blackened iron. When they were fully erected, they encircled them and started emitting an ominous black light, which connected the railings and closed the gap between them, creating a huge cage.
“What are we going to do? What is that?” Airi kept screaming on her own, with Kyuu-chan trying to remain calm and find a way to get them out. Meanwhile, Naito was approaching the shadow more and more. The shadow had stretched its arm and spread its fingers, waiting for Naito to land on it and grab him. Kyuu-chan was also panicking. He flew to the top of the cage, trying to find a gap or hole to the semi-transparent walls. Nothing. Airi was screaming from the bottom of the cage. “Don’t leave alone, Kyuu-chan, don’t go, please!” She was in no state to help finding a solution through this right now. She had to calm down. Kyuu-chan had already realized that it wasn’t able to use its powers inside Airi’s dream. Both it and Naito were just a projection - their source of mental power was still in Naito’s body. It flew down slowly and went near Airi. It fell into her arms and tried to comfort her. That was the only thing it could do for now.