JC’s response is begrudging, yet swift. His focus kicks into high-gear, and he races through the city, swerving around to avoid the few cars making chase. The storm continues to unfurl as strings of lightning scatter the dark sky and torrential rain pours in every direction with the relentless winds.
I do my best to stay calm and keep my throbbing heart from failing. My body feels numb with adrenaline— or maybe it’s the power of the dreamscape. Either way, a strong emotion sweeps over me, sending my heart aflutter.
As JC turns down a wide street and I see the sky-high business building surrounded by a mob of people, a smile breaks out on my face despite the scene of chaos.
“You know…” I mutter softly. "I’ve never felt so alive in my life.”
“Really?” JC remarks, gazing at me in the rearview mirror with a raised brow as he accelerates toward the crowd.
“I’ll save the explanation for after we’ve found my heart and Mirei,” I respond, my soft expression turning rigid as the crowd takes notice of us.
“I’ll hold you to it,” JC declares, smiling as he jerks the wheel and pulls the hand-break, sending the car into a horizontal drift. The crowd disperses, opening a path for the car to screech to a stop just in front of the building’s base.
I leap out of the car and thump my palm on its roof. JC peels out as I run to the railing and climb to the building’s empty forefront. The crowd is in a panic, but several are beginning to recognize me. They’re staying clear only thanks to JC circling the car, creating billows of smoke around him.
I need to stay calm and wait, but more of the NPC’s are noticing me. I look over the building’s entrance and confirm its secure doors, black suits guarding the entrance from inside. The plexiglass windows aren’t something I can break, which is why I’ll have to hope our haphazard plan works.
Leaning over the railing, I spot the two cars that had been making chase. They’re coming straight for the short wall underneath the railing, their speed only increasing as they fly through the crowd toward me.
If I move now, it might not work. I wait until they veer around JC’s circus act, and dive to the side. The first car slams into the wall and contorts at an angle. The second car follows suit in a skid, crashing sideways into the first vehicle. It rolls over the top of the first car, soars through the air— and smashes through the plexiglass.
I waste no time in rushing in, traversing the shattered glass where the black suits had been. I hear footsteps coming from the north corner of the building where a hallway leads out of sight. I hear the furious mob rushing up the patio, which stops me from making a run for the elevators lining the west wall.
With no other choice, I dash behind the crashed car, which had landed on its roof. Smoke rises around it, and I smell what can only be gas. Still, I have to stay here for the moment. I peer over the car as the mob rushes In, searching for me. Instead, they meet a group of some twenty suits that had come from the hallway. The men draw their guns, which only exacerbates the crowd.
A pandemonium of gunfire ensues as the crowd relentlessly rushes them. Sensing my chance, I leap out from the car just as a fire begins to spark. As I run along the back of the crowd, covering my head, the car bursts into flames.
Much of the crowd turns at the spectacle, but the suits don’t stop shooting. I, too, carry on, and find a young woman’s body laying limp in my path. She’s wearing a dark gray jacket with a hood, and a small knife rests in her open hand. I wrestle the jacket off her body, and snatch the knife, offering a silent apology as her body falls to the floor.
The hood is over my head before another second passes, and I scale the back of the crowd with ease. I crane my neck once I reach the far side of the room, where the front lines of the group had been scattered wide by the endless assault, blocking my path to the elevators.
I try to blend in by holding my knife aggressively, spurring on those in front of me. After a few more seconds, the front lines of the group finally reach the first volley of suits, allowing others to close in around the rest. The people blocking the elevators also rush in.
I hasten to the nearest elevator, press the button, and slide into the door as soon as it opens wide enough. Whipping around, I beat the close button until the door begins to close. Several people nearby notice the door, and rush over with a crazed look. I keep pounding on the close button as if it will make the door shut faster, and it closes just as several people slam into it.
Instinctively, I select the topmost floor, and the elevator begins lifting me up. I beg it to move quickly since they still have the other three elevators. Given the display on the outside, they’ll also see which floor I’m going to— so I have to be quick.
As I reach the top and the door glides open, my prayers are met. Standing before me in the hallway is none other than the fake me. Around her are three suits who immediately draw their guns, but I’m already prepared. I fire off three shots at the suits while dashing ahead. The men dissipate into a swarm of shadow and vanish. Two of their shots, however, meet their mark. My shoulder is hit directly, and my rib is badly grazed, enough to stagger me.
I struggle to one knee, teeth clenched. The fake me is steps away, looking down at me with a smirk. “I hoped you’d come, but I didn’t expect you to cause such a scene, you know?” Her soft voice sounds too polite to be me.
“Well, I didn’t come to chat,” I reply, scowling. “This is game over. I want my heart back.”
“Oh, and how exactly will you get it?” she scoffs. “It’s deep inside me, and I’m afraid you might not have the strength necessary to take it back. So, you should just let me handle things from here.” She extends her hand and forms a polite smile, but it’s so fake it sickens me.
“I’m not as weak as you think,” I respond, slowly rising to my feet. “If you’re the half of me that was left behind, then you have no idea how strong I’ve become; so don’t get carried away. You only have half of my heart… not all of it!”
I grasp her hand and pull her into me. She doesn’t have any time to react and can only watch, eyes wide as the knife in my other hand sinks into her left breast. The world immediately distorts as I stab her, and a low-pitched boom rings out. I fall into her as the world distorts, and everything becomes a blur— yet I hold the knife firm. As the sound of static overwhelms the deep booming, a faint whisper reaches my ear.
“If that’s your choice, I hope you’ll surprise us both. Please, come and take me, Mary.” The static ceases when I open my eyes and release my throbbing head from my hands. The red carpeted hallway spirals abnormally, and I can’t tell the difference between floor and ceiling. I try to fight the dysphoria and walk, but nearly collapse as wounds open throughout my body.
I grasp my bloody chest, and feel my heart, its beats reverberating prominently in my ears. It feels tight, but I can’t help but feel a certain excitement within the rapid beats. Rather, it’s pounding with excitement. Not only that, but the sound I’m hearing isn’t my heartbeat. Or maybe it is, but it’s beating in tandem with something else.
The soft strokes of a piano’s key overtake all else, clearing my head and allowing me to walk despite the pain. I only have to reach the door in front of me. The hallway isn’t as long as it had seemed, and the piano’s melody draws me in. Its sweet sound numbs my bleeding limbs and soothes my throat
I reach for the door and open it with haste. On the other side, I can just make out the figure of the one I’ve been wanting to see. “You came,” she mutters, her reddened eyes wide with shock. A flurry of shadows around her escapes out the open door, allowing the few lights in the room to illuminate her meek figure sitting at the piano in pink pajamas.
“I was looking for you all this time,” I declare, exhaling in relief.
“But, why?” she asks, rising to her feet. “Didn’t you want to get your heart back, and win?”
“Something told me I'd find you in the place my heart was.”
"How...” she mutters, blinking at me.
“There were several reasons,” I respond, gazing sternly at her. “The most important being our agreement. We promised we would help each other if things got too difficult, right?”
“That’s… right,” she says, tears brimming.
“When you said you felt guilty about what you were causing, and that you were most afraid of dying, I began to realize,” I mutter, hardening my gaze. She winces anxiously, her watery eyes fluttering away from mine.
“Once I discovered the possibility, I wanted to think you had no idea what you were doing, that you were only aware that something was happening while your consciousness remained here in the deep dream world. I’m not so sure about that now, but why else would you have told me all those things, if you hadn’t wanted to keep our promise? You wanted to work together, right?”
She can only nod her trembling head, the tears falling silently down her cheeks. “Then, tell me, Mirei,” I demand, my voice quivering with emotion. “We don’t have much time. Tell me how you created the fake me and controlled it from here.”
“I…” she stammers through half-sobs, “I really don’t know how it started; I just remember being picked up by the Shibutani group after we separated. I told them how scared I was, and that I wanted to be stronger and defeat you and your dreamworld. After that, I’ve spent all my time here. It was probably after you told me about your past that the fake was created, or maybe that was when she first acted, but I didn’t realize it right away. I was subconsciously controlling her, I think. It’s true… I betrayed you, Mary.”
“What about you?” I ask plainly. “Weren’t you being tormented by those shadows the whole time?”
“…yeah,” she replies weakly. “They were suffocating me, forcing me to play the piano. I think that was how I controlled the fake.”
“It also led me to you, though,” I respond, stepping forward.
“Are you going to destroy me like you did the fake?” she asks, shoulders quaking. “I deserve it, so it’s okay. Take back your heart, and get out of this place, okay?”
“That’s what I’m doing,” I confirm. She shies away from my advance. However, when I grasp onto her shaking hand, her eyes dart to mine, wide with shock.
“I feel like I already have my heart back. I don’t blame you for betraying me to save yourself. It was scary for you, and we simply weren’t on the same wavelength.”
“We are now, so I’m taking you out of here with me,” I declare.
“Are you sure?” she asks, wearing a desperate expression.
“Yeah, this is my world, didn’t you know?” I respond, grinning.
“O-okay,” she mutters with a nod, allowing me to pull her by the hand out of the room and down the distorted hallway. The blaring noise returns as we suddenly fall to the floor of the Danson Emporium’s thirtieth story. Mirei looks around, panicked. I take her by the hand and lift her to her feet. “Ah, Mary!” she cries as I drag her into the elevator.
As I slam the close button, I hear the other elevators opening. “Looks like I wasn’t in there too long,” I remark, watching the NPC’s swarm into the hallway, some looking back at me and running, only to slam into the closing door.
“Listen, Mirei,” I say as I grasp her shoulders. “All hell is breaking loose in this place. We have to run as fast as we can to JC, okay?”
“Ah, okay,” she stammers in reply, looking in horror at my bleeding flank and shoulder. “But, are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine, don’t worry. This is my world, how could one or two bullets stop me?”
“Alright then,” she mutters with a half-smile. “I’m ready, Mary.”
The elevator door opens, and the scene before us is worse than I’d expected. The large lobby is almost entirely engulfed in flames, save for the section of the building we’re in. The barrage of gunshots is still clapping around the room, and many of the NPC’s are finally beginning to flee. The suits stand in the flames, along with a few dozen NPC’s who use others’ bodies as shields in their desperate attempt to reach the suits.
“Let’s go,” I whisper, jerking her hand.
“Yeah…” she replies, peeling her eyes away from the horrendous scene. We run along the glass wall toward the broken entrance. Thanks to the flames, nobody notices us. Everyone’s too busy either trying to flee to safety or fight the suits. Several of them stagger out of the building ahead of us, engulfed in flames and shouting maniacally. I feel Mirei’s fear when she tightens her grip on my hand, and something tightens inside me.
This can’t happen right now. My heart cannot fail me at a time like this. Like before, everything is tightening and going numb, but not the same numbness I’d felt earlier. This is a more debilitating numbness. I usually stop and rest to control my heart rate when this happens, or else my limbs lose circulation and shut down, among other things.
But, there’s no way I can stop here. The exit is just ahead. I grit my teeth and spur my stiffened legs on. Mirei seems to have noticed, quietly taking the lead. I can’t see her face, but her figure as she leads us out into the storm looks majestic to me. I wonder how many times she’s saved me.
I push myself onward, and we descend the front steps. Countless NPC’s are running from the building in flames, causing the remnants outside to flee the scene. The silver classic car ceases its circling and accelerates toward us.
It comes to a stop, and the back doors are flung open from inside. The passenger window rolls down, and JC cranes his neck at us. “Why are you here, Mirei?” he shouts in disbelief before looking frantically at the scattered NPC’s. “Nevermind, just get in!”
“Yeah!” Mirei replies, skirting around the back of the car and diving into the backseat. I follow suit, bending down as a sweet relief sweeps over me. That relief, however, is followed by a heavy ringing.
The distinct toll of a single church bell reverberates. Once more, the wounds from the deep dream world open up throughout my body, and I collapse into the backseat of the car, clutching my chest.
JC and Mirei cry out, but I can’t hear their voices over the toll of the bell. Wherever it’s coming from, it’s indiscriminately pushing all else out of the world in favor of its rhythmic toll. My vision becomes a blur, and an acute pain I’ve never felt courses through my chest and arms. A weak breath escapes my lips, one that I can’t take back in.