Naito was floating in the air, still feeling this unsettling and unbearable force from his side, pulling his ribs violently and painfully. He was trying to look back at Airi and Kyuu-chan. His vision was blurry and he didn’t have full control of his body. But with the edge of his left eye he spotted the huge cage that was forming around them. Instinctively, he started moving his arms and legs trying to escape from the shadow’s invisible bonds, but in vain. He was approaching the shadow faster. The shadow was waiting for him patiently. Then Naito started hearing something very distant, as if Kyuu-chan was trying to communicate with him, but from very very very far away. He concentrated and cleared his mind from anything else, isolating the sound, which was becoming steadily louder and clearer. It couldn’t be.. A very crazy thought crossed his mind. If Kyuu-chan wasn’t able to talk to him inside Airi’s dream, then who else could..?
“If you can hear me, answer.” This phrase was repeated in his head, louder and louder every time.
“I can hear, who is it?” asked Naito, totally alarmed. Whatever it was, it was inside his head.
“Don’t panic and stay still. Soon everything will be explained?”
“Are you expecting me to just accept and do nothing?”
“I don’t see how you have another choice.”
Naito was speechless and terrified. His instinct was right. The voice was coming from the shadow, which was waiting for him with its filthy fingers spread in front of it. His foot had already reached the surface of its limp. A very familiar sensation was spread all over his body, giving him the chills. It was exactly the same feeling like the one he had when the shadow attacked them, and left this stain on his back. This unworldly, eerie emotion of threat and insecurity, being sucked inside nothingness, inside a deep and unending void of empty matter. Naito was trying to come up with a plan to escape from the shadow. It seemed like it had control over his body and had business with him. He had to be patient and see what the hell it wanted. Until then, he had time to think.
The shadow grabbed his leg and pulled it closer to it. Then it grasped his torso and squeezed it like a baby with a toy. Naito was feeling helpless. The shadow’s sticky fingers had wrapped around his body and were touching him with this disgusting black membrane which was covering them. Although he was inside a dream and knew that this wasn’t his real body, his instincts wouldn’t let go. He felt nauseated.
The shadow moved higher to the roof of the building it was waiting on, squirmed its light body for a moment, and then blasted off. Naito couldn’t realize what was happening. It was like he had gotten inside a wormhole in space, and gravity was pushing him from all sides. This insufferable emotion lasted for less than 2 seconds, but was enough for him to suffocate. When he regained his senses, he was on the top of a hill. There were flower beds around him creating square perimeters here and there. On the west and east side of the hill there were some trees creating a kind of a fence. Naito stood up, with his legs still numb from the shock, but his side not hurting anymore. The sun was setting, forming an orange path between the trees.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Naito heard the same voice again. While he was trying to find its source, he realized that the flower beds that were creating these little squares all around, were planted there as boundaries between gravestones. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rising.
He kept looking around.
There it was.
The shadow was staring at him from the top of a tree. But it didn’t look as ferocious as it did some minutes ago.
“It seems you can hear me now.” Naito was sure now. The voice was coming from the shadow.
“What do you want from me? Where is Airi? Why are you doing that to her?”
“Usually, you are more composed than that. I apologize it has to be like that. It’s time to explain everything now.”
Naito just shut up and stared at the shadow, which had started to descend. It reached the ground and moved towards him, without getting too close.
“I know it will sound hard to believe but.. I didn’t plan to hurt Airi. I wanted to help her. My name is Akihiko. She.. knew me. I don’t know to what extent you are aware of her personal life. She doesn’t talk to anyone anymore… She used to be such a lively girl. It’s all my fault that everything changed like this.”
“Why? What have you done?”
“What? Explain yourself.”
“It doesn’t seem like you know anything at all. Airi doesn't open up at all these days. I have to take it from the beginning. The reason all this is happening right now, is because I didn’t want Airi to keep doing this to herself. You don’t know her at all, so there was no way that you could have realized what was happening in her life. Airi has been having wonderful days before she became an adult. She was with her friends all the time and she was enjoying her youth to its fullest. She was like this until she started receiving extreme pressure from her family environment, suddenly being the center of attention. She had to find a way in life to succeed the family’s good fame, and become something that the family could brag about. After she graduated from high school, she spent one whole year not being allowed outside of the house, because she hadn’t chosen any universities to enroll in. Being locked was a punishment in order to understand her mistakes and start being responsible for her life. Of course all that was a complete farce. She lost all of her friends, who proved to be only superficial. Then she started having symptoms of depression, but her parents were too proud to accept that their own daughter had such a problem, so they never took her to a psychologist to deal with it. They wouldn’t accept that she even had depression. They were in total denial. Who knows when she lost it and decided to leave the house.”
“How are you related to all this?”
“I..I had to protect her while I had the chance. But I didn’t do it and now my guilt keeps hunting me.”
“What could you have done then? It was her own personal problem, wasn't it?”
“Since it was her problem, it was automatically my problem too. I shouldn’t have left her alone all these years. I could have done something about her family before it was too late. Her parents were the ones who destroyed her life. But I was the reason behind it. If I hadn’t died, I could have put some logic into their rotten brain and prevent from her torture to happen. She was so strong.. She’s been lying to them for longer than 5 years now about going to the university, you know..”
“She’s a student??”
“You don’t even know that? I see. So there’s no way you’re her boyfriend then.”
“Who ever said I was her boyfriend?”
“You’re the only person she ever talks to and meets so often.”
“You know you are the reason behind this, don’t you?”
“She started talking to me because she wanted to find a way to get rid of you!”
“Oh..at least something good came out of it.. Who could have guessed. There are some things I want you to tell her. This is going to end soon. And I want to be sure that these things have reached her ears, and she has understood them.”
“Why don’t you tell her yourself? You’re a part of her subconscious, aren’t you?”
“Well.. yes and no. You will understand soon enough. Just listen to what I have to say, go find her and tell her. I promise you that I will not appear again after that. She will be freed of this torture.”
Airi was worried sick and was squeezing Kyuu-chan like a plushie. She had no idea what could have happened to Naito, and the worst was that she didn’t know when she would wake up. It felt like she was trapped inside the dream for weeks. The time had stopped for her, and she was feeling completely helpless. She had remained silent for quite some time, but she couldn’t restrain herself anymore, so she started talking to Kyuu.
“I know you cannot reply to me, but at least hear me out. I am very sorry for everything that happened to both of you. It must have been painful for you, being attacked out of the blue, you poor thing. And from something I myself had created.. And now, you and Naito are trapped inside my own dream, and there is a possibility you never get out. I trust Naito, and I hope he is safe, but… we cannot deny the possibility of being lost inside the dream or.. something worse. The damn shadow was looking merciless when he snatched him away from us. Who says it hasn’t killed him? I get nausea even talking about it… I am a good for nothing, Kyuu-chan. What have I done in my life? I have been locked in my house for so long, only going to work and extremely rarely to the university. What am I doing waiting for my fate to change my life? I should have done something myself all these years, instead of waiting for the others to come to me.. And when I was about to finally make some new friends, this happens. Ironic, isn’t it? I wonder what have I done in my life to deserve that. Bad things coming one after another. How should I-”
Airi suddenly stopped and observed Kyuu. It was starting to lose its color and turning semi-transparent. It was disappearing.
“Oh no. No, no, no. Don’t do that to me, Kyuu-chan. Don’t leave me. Please don’t vanish. What am I going to say to Naito? That I left you to die in my arms? Why should I do now, what should I do? What is it? Is it the railings? Is that what makes you weak? I have to wake up, I have to wake up.”
She started crying and screaming, while trying to find a way to get out of the cage. She stood up, with Kyuu still in her arms, getting weaker and weaker, and hit the railings with the rocks which were lying all over the destroyed pavement under her feet. The rocks were hitting the black wall and reflecting back inside the cage. She threw more than 20 rocks, completely desperate. Then she started kicking the railings as hard as she could, with tears covering her eyes, barely able to see clearly. On the third kick, she fell back on the ground. She threw one more rock out of frustration, when she thought she saw something weird over her blurry eyes. Could the rock.. She stopped whining and threw another rock. She wasn’t wrong. The rock had crossed on the other side of the wall, which had started to disappear.
“This must be Naito’s doing!” Screamed in triumph. She turned her head to tell Kyuu. But Kyuu was almost invisible now.
“No, Kyuu-chan, don’t disappear on me, please! Now that the wall is even vanishing! You can get stronger! It doesn't weaken you anymore! See, see?”
Kyuu-chan didn’t even react. There was no coming back from it. The cage around them was now gone. So was Kyuu-chan.
Airi started screaming in despair. Her heart was about to burst open, her face burning and her body started being numb. The stress was too much, and she couldn’t control it. Maybe Naito was right. I have no capabilities in handling my dreams. I think I am having a heart attack, exactly how he described it would happen. So this is how it ends for me.
And then she passed out.
The next thing she saw when she regained her consciousness was somebody wiping her face with a wet cloth and talking to her.
“Airi-chan, Airi-chan! Can you hear me? Are you ok? Are you awake?”
She could hear a very familiar voice calling her name. Who was it though..
“Ah, thank God! You’re back! You’re awake!”
She tried to stand up.
“No, no. You cannot stand up yet. Stay as you are. Orders from the boss.” Jin-woon pushed back on the couch and put a new towel on her forehead.
“What.. where.. why are you doing this?”
“Well, you started murmuring in your sleep, and then you moaned one or two times. I came closer to check on your pulse, and realized that you had a very high fever. After some minutes you started crying like it was the end of the world. What happened to you?”
Then Airi remembered what happened. She pushed Jin-woon’s hand away and stood up.
“Where’s Kyuu-chan? Where is it? What have I done, oh god.”
“Please sit and calm down.” A voice other than Jin-woon’s sounded from the kitchen.
“Yeah, that’s him. Welcome back.”
“Why, did you want to get rid of me so badly?”
Airi moved towards him, not being able to believe that he was in front of her. She looked at him with teary eyes and forced a hug on him. She started crying again.
“I am so sorry, Naito. I am so sorry. I couldn’t do anything, it just...it just disappeared from my arms..it vanished in thin air. I couldn’t -”
Naito pushed her away and looked her in the eyes.
“Stop crying. Take deep breaths. Of course it would vanish. Kyuu-chan followed me back when I got out of the dream. It’s recovering right now, but it’s ok. I’ll give it a week of vacation as a thank you gift.”
“You .. you mean.. Kyuu-chan didn’t disappear?”
“Well, from your dream - yes. But he still roams around mine.”
She kept crying, this time with tears of relief.
“I just told you to stop…” said Naito, while Jin-woon made a sign to let her take it all out. He went inside the kitchen to bring some water, while Naito put his hand on her head and petted her.
“Just calm down. Everything is ok.”
Jin-woon handed them a glass of water each, and sat on the couch.
“I have been dying to know what happened, but Naito insisted we wait for you to wake up and tell us both at the same time.”
“Well, there was a reason behind it. I wanted to ask Airi for permission before talking about it.”
Airi had calmed down and was finally able to talk.
“Ask my permission for what?”
“To talk about your .. personal matters.”
She looked at him, troubled, but then thought about what she said in the last moments of her dream.
“You can say whatever you want in front of Rookie. You are both my precious friends, and I have nothing to hide from you.”
“First of all - thank you. Secondly, you don’t have to call him Rookie anymore.”
“You mean...?” asked Airi in anticipation.
“You will learn right now.”
Airi and Naito narrated what happened until the moment they got separated, and Airi explained why she thought Kyuu had vanished. Then it was Naito’s turn.
“When the shadow grabbed me, it took me to a very.. Special place. It was a graveyard. It told me about the situation in your house, Airi. Everything that happened from when you were in elementary school until now. It was watching you all this time, you know.”
“Why did it choose to appear now and not all these years?”
“Because it couldn’t. The shadow told me that there was a specific reason your life turned upside down. He told me the reason your parents started pestering you about what you will do in your life, while they were paying no attention to you until .. that happened. The shadow couldn’t appear in your dreams before, because it wasn't with you all this time. Because it’s not exactly a part of your subconscious. It’s somebody else's subconscious.”
“You mean someone violated her thoughts?? Like you did today??” Asked Jin-woon, so excited, like he was hearing a scary story at a campfire.
“Somehow. Before your parents started pestering you, they were occupied with somebody else. Somebody who had excellent grades at school, helped the neighbors, wanted to become a doctor and was creating a good fame for the family. You never told us you had a brother.”
“I thought you told me you were an only child, Airi-chan.”
“Well...I am.. somehow”
“What is that supposed to mean?” asked Jin-woon, troubled.
“He’s been in a coma for 7 years..” answered Airi hesitantly.
Jin-woon was speechless. He was exchanging glimpses between Airi and Naito one after another.
“Yes. He’s in a coma, but he’s not what they call “brain dead”. He told me that you go and visit him, but not often. In order to avoid meeting your parents accidentally. Your mother seems to be there almost all the time. And when you have the chance to go, you talk to him about everything that goes on in your life. So he knew everything from the first time you went there. Some months ago, you fell asleep on his bed. It was then, when he had the chance to get in your dream.”
Airi was listening to Naito without believing her ears. How could that be..After all this time..It cannot be possible..
“There are some things that he wanted me to tell you. First of all, he tried to talk to you many times in the past, but for some reason he couldn’t communicate with you. He tried everything he could, but his words seemed to never reach your ears. He couldn’t understand why you didn’t react even to his presence. Then he tried looking at his reflection at a mirror in your dream, he realized that he didn’t even have a human form to begin with. He had been unconscious for so long that he had forgotten how he looked. He had even forgotten how to talk.”
“How was he able to communicate with you, then?”
“Through the stain he left me. He told me this was the only reason he left this mark on me. Having a part of him on me, was like installing a driver to communicate in the same language with him. He tried talking to me outside of the dream too, but it didn’t work. He was too weak when he wasn’t inside your dream.”
“Then.. why.. did he do all that?”
“He didn’t want you to dream anymore.”
“It was because he couldn’t communicate with you in any other means, and he had no other choice but to do it this way. So, the reason he bullied you in your perfect dreams and destroyed all the beautiful situations you created, was because he didn’t want you to get trapped inside a fake world. He wanted you to wake up and realise that the world is out there, and that you were losing your life, trying to create something that wasn’t even true. He thought that if you started having nightmares and saw your world being destroyed, you would end up trying to fix the world outside of the dream, in your real life. But you never did that. This is when he tried finding something, or someone to help him. This someone was me. He said he tried it with other people in the past, but didn’t work with any of them. He was lucky he found me.”
“Oh my god.. I..I never noticed.. I couldn’t tell..”
“Of course you couldn’t tell, this is what I am trying to explain. His state didn’t allow him to communicate with you in any “normal” means. He couldn’t remember how it is to be human. He had forgotten his physical existence, having spent so much time with only his brain being active. He said that at first he hardly recognized you. It was your voice that gave you away. Visiting him and talking to him as often as you could helped him a lot.”
“If his intentions were benign though, why did he do that to Kyuu-chan that day? Why did he leave that big stain on you? Did he want to hurt you?”
“One thing at a time. The day he met Kyuu-chan, he was very upset that we managed to do something like that, as to bring a creature from the dream world to the real world. That would automatically mean that I, at least, had reached such a high level in Lucid Dreaming, that I had started manipulating the two worlds as I wished, and that I would help you reach that level of handling too. That was, of course, the last thing he wanted, and the basic reason why he started bullying you in the first place. Until the day he met Kyuu-chan, he thought that I was helping you get back your life somehow, that you have finally made a true friend. But when he realized that I may have been dragging you in the dream world, he reacted somehow instinctively and tried to threaten us, so that we never do it again - bring Kyuu-chan in the real world. He also hoped that by doing that to Kyuu-chan, he would make it weak enough to disable it from coming back to the real world. I think that if I didn’t give the command to launch that shock wave and send him off, it may have been the last time we saw Kyuu-chan.”
“So he did it to keep me off from interacting with the dream world?”
“Yes, nothing more. He didn’t have enough time to think of anything else at that time; he just acted on a whim, based on his instincts.”
“And what about you? Why did he do that to you? The stain…”
“That was a combination of luck and ulterior motive. When Kyuu-chan was close to him, he started feeling stronger than usual. He told me that being in the real world required extreme energy and he had around 30% of the strength he had inside your dreams. But for some reason he could feel that he could drain energy from Kyuu-chan like it was water in a river. He used that energy to attack Kyuu-chan, and leave that stain on me, hoping that he would be able to communicate with me somehow, by leaving a part of his conscience with me. But he soon realized that it wasn’t possible in the real world. But thanks to that, I was able to enter your dream, so.. It kind of worked out.”
“What if you had never thought of it, and never tried to get inside my dream? Would the stain remain on you forever?”
“Who knows. There’s no reason to make hypotheses now. Whatever is done, it’s done. The stain is off me, and Kyuu-chan is safe. That’s all that it matters.”