My heavy eyelids peel open, enchanted by a bright fluorescent light and a warm, buzzing sensation coming from my hand. The moment my eyes open, however, the light is gone. Instead, I’m sitting in an unfamiliar room, on a comfortable couch.
A stranger sits on the other side of the couch, within arms reach. The slender, beautiful girl with long bluish-black hair simply bats her long lashes at me, as if she'd just woken from a long dream.
"Um, do you... know where we are?" Her face goes white at my words, fear permeating her expression. A bone-chilling breath leaves her lips and her wide eyes gloss over as she clasps a hand over her heart.
“You don’t remember?” she asks, voice trembling.
“I’m sorry, but do I know you?” I respond with an awkward laugh, taken aback by her shock. “It seems I have a case of amnesia, because I can’t really remember anyth—”
“Mirei, it’s me, Mary,” she pleads, her hands shaking as they grasp mine. “Please, try to remember. I don’t know what happened, but we ended up back here…”
“Oh, so you know me,” I say, a bit relieved. “But, I’m really sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What is this place?” The abstract murals on the walls, coupled with the churning fireplace, give me a sense of unease. “Are we… okay?”
She might have noticed my anxiety, as her expression relaxes a bit and she shifts away from me. She lays her head in her hand and laughs. “Of course, we aren’t okay, Mirei. But we’re together, at least.”
Her shaking voice sends a shiver down my spine as I begin to comprehend the gravity of our situation. I feel tears running down my cheeks. Something inside my chest twinges, like a strong feeling of deja-vu.
The fireplace sputters, and rising, shape-shifting flames draw our attention. Every fiber of my body freezes. The thing in the fireplace is both a faceless shape and a shapeless face. Its appearance is enough to petrify me, while Mary stands to her feet with an exasperated look.
“You… deceitful devil,” her voice quakes along with her clenched fists.
“Good evening, ladies,” the fire hisses.
“Don’t give me that shit,” Mary fires back, fury in her eyes. “Why are we back here with you?”
“It is not me you should worry about,” the flames recite, stirring my chest again with the feeling of deja-vu. “You are battling against each other, after all.”
“What… does that mean?” I ask, lips trembling. Mary clicks her tongue as she glances at me, but remains silent.
“I am Aku,” the fire continues. “I am the power that you seek. You may only gain this power by defeating the other, overcoming your dreams, and proving yourself strong enough to receive my power. You both desperately need this power of gods. And you will fight in a battle of dreams to obtain it. That is,” a thin smile forms within the shroud of flames, “If you wish to wake up from this world of dreams, and return to your real bodies.”
“You have the nerve to spout that bullshit…” Mary seethes as she lunges at the fireplace, but the warped face fades into the flames before she can reach it. She stops and hangs her head in defeat, clearly afflicted by something.
“Mary, what is this?” I cry, unable to restrain my panicked features. “Please, tell me what’s going on? What’s happening to us?”
Mary lends me her gaze, radiating beauty despite her distress. “We’ve done this once already, Mirei. I guess you don’t remember because I won the first time, but we went through hell…”
“We’ve done this… already…?”
“Yeah, next, a smarmy guy with slicked back hair is going to come through the—”
She’s cut off by the sound of the only door in the room swinging open. A man bursts through it, bearing an innocuous demeanor and gazing with wide eyes at us.
“JC… I shouldn’t have trusted you for a second,” Mary growls, glaring a hole through the well-dressed man. A fearful expression sprouts on his face as he watches her stamp toward him.
“Mary, listen,” he pleads, raising his hands in defense. “I didn’t know this would happen, okay? It’s the structure of the dreamsc—”
Before he can finish, Mary launches a kick at his head. Her black leather boot smacks against his raised arms, which barely shield the kick from his head. He crumples to the floor, coughing as he smooths his disheveled hair.
“Who is he?” I ask, struggling to keep up thanks to the panic overtaking my chest.
“You knew all along, didn’t you?” Mary demands of the fallen man, ignoring me.
“I promise you, I didn’t,” he responds as he stands to his feet. “My memory is being blocked. Probably in order for me to guide you naturally. I don’t know why you didn’t win, and I didn’t know the dreamscape would reset. You have to believe that.”
“Reset...?” I mutter, but neither of them pay me any mind. Mary gnashes her teeth in contempt, while JC stares her down. I feel as though it’s a familiar scene, but I don’t have any memories to justify that feeling.
“There’s more to the dreamscape, Mary,” he remarks. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.” He seems to be leaving me out on purpose, almost as if Mary is the only one he sees. “There’s a deeper reason to why you didn’t win. If we can figure that out, this time might be different…”
He trails off, finally turning his gaze my way. Mary follows suit, narrowing her eyes on me. “She doesn’t remember anything at all,” she says, sparing any of her earlier pity as she refers to me like I’m not here. “I’m guessing that’s an effect of the reset, but it almost makes me think she’s one of the NPCs.”
JC blinks at me, prompting me to avert my gaze. “There’s no way she’s an NPC,” he says. “Look at what she was able to do with the fake you. She’s a contestant, no doubt. It’s likely that she doesn’t remember the first round because she lost. You distorted the world by your design, and despite her efforts, you took the other you back and essentially won— right?”
They’re in their own world now, ignoring my growing anxiety as they talk about a past I have no recollection of. “But that still wasn’t enough,” Mary mutters, glancing my way. “Did I really take the other half of myself that was lost with my heart? What more should I have done?”
“I’m not sure, but you’re probably on the right track,” JC ponders as he sits down on the chair next to the sofa. “It could be that taking us back with you was a mistake. I know that may sound counterintuitive to my theory about connecting wavelengths, but maybe you should have left us both here and escaped the dreamscape with Aku’s power and your other half.”
Mary silently takes a seat on the sofa, beckoning me to follow. As I hurry to my seat, I follow her gaze out the window, where a spectrum of oversized stars line the night’s sky. “My other half,” she mutters. “Have I lost that again, in this new world? And how was Mirei able to use it…”
“It’s possible she simply latched on to something that already existed within the world,” JC says. “It’s also possible that it no longer exists, since we left your world. If we assume that half of you is your very own soul, however, we can’t ignore the possibility that it remains with you. What that may mean, I can’t say— but it does give us an idea of what we’re dealing with as we change worlds.”
“...could you please tell me what all this means?” I ask, despite my intuition screaming to stay out of their way.
JC chuckles through his nose as he looks at me with a smile. “That’s right, we’ve been quite rude to you, haven’t we? I apologize, Mirei. The truth is, for the second time we are going to be changing the world using the power of gods, and dreams. This time, I presume it will be your dreams specifically.”
Mary snaps her head around, showing more shock than me. “Why would…” Her voice trails off and she looks down, as if grasping the answer herself.
“Mary has overcome her dreams,” he continues with a hesitant glance at Mary. “The dreamscape will be less sensitive to her dreams now, and more sensitive to yours, Mirei. It’s almost a guarantee that you’ll shift the world to the place your dreams reside, this time.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” I groan, holding my head as I battle an onslaught of nausea.
Mary lays a hand on my shoulder, rousing me. “It means that you’re in control, this time,” she says in a soft voice. “It means this is your fight to win. You may not remember right now, but you have a strong conviction that should help you overcome this.”
“Is that our strategy, then?” JC asks her, smiling.
“What else do we have?” Mary answers, a conflicted look on her face. “If we can’t overcome this by linking wavelengths and bringing the planes together, we’ll have to figure out how Mirei can obtain absolute victory over me like Aku wants.”
“And you realize what that might mean for you… right?” JC asks, staring into her eyes.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says, grasping my trembling hand. “If there’s more to this dreamscape, then we’ll follow your lead and dance to Aku’s tune to figure it out. I’m not giving up on myself; you can count on that. I’m just going to support Mirei if she’s meant to be the star of the show.”
“But why would you go so far for me?” I ask, overwhelmed by her righteous display.
“Because, this is scary, isn’t it?” she says, smiling. “In that case, we should help each other— isn’t that right?
“Ah… right,” I answer, tears welling as I take in a short gasp upon recalling those words.