JC blinks at me in the mirror, his facial muscles twitching. “Uh… e-excuse me? I must have misheard... I thought you just said something about driving toward the falling sun?”
“Right,” I declare, still grasping at my heart with pained breaths. “I’m the only one that can stop it. And I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but if we’re after Aku’s power, that’s the place to go, isn’t it?”
“Ah…” he mutters, trailing off into a deep sigh. “I was thinking that. But still, this is crazy! Mary, don’t you agr—”
“I say shut up and drive,” Mary growls, her breathing even rougher than mine. Her supportive and thoughtful demeanor from the beginning of my world is gone, leaving her true self bare before me. Just as I catch myself staring at her fatigued visage, she shoots me a devious smirk.
“Don’t think I’m giving up for you, princess,” she says in a near whisper, her stubbornness emanating from her hoarse voice. “Helping each other when it’s scary is one thing, but if I have a shot at this, I might just snatch it right out from under your nose.”
I look at her plainly, blinking until the corners of my mouth crack open on their own. “Ehe, let’s have a race then, Mary.”
“You say that, but I’m the one racing here, ya know?” JC quips, furrowing his brow at us.
“Right, can you keep going for us, mister driver?” I jab, winking at him through the mirror. “I’ll figure something else out once we’re close enough, so in the meantime let’s just try to stay cool. Can you turn on the AC?”
“It’s already blowing hot air, so why don’t you use your own cooling system, Princ—”
“Good idea!” I exclaim, clapping my shaking hands. Concentrating on my arms, I create several branches of ice. The branches reach the car’s ceiling and floorboard, and spread into a thick layer of ice, covering nearly everything but the windows. The previously arid space turns cool instantly.
As the temperature decreases, Mary’s condition seems to stabilize. Her breathing is still ragged, but she seems to be in control of it, and her flushed face is regaining some of its peachy complexion.
“Alright, much better,” JC cheers energetically. “Never let your driver overheat, they say. Wouldn’t want me suffering a heat stroke with such precious cargo.”
“Remember when I said to shut up and drive…”
“ I do, I just thought we should be thanking our savior— don’t you agree?”
As Mary clicks her tongue in disdain, I can’t help but laugh at their exchange, even as the emblazoned sun begins to fill the frame of the windshield. While telling myself not to grow fearful by the impending doom, I remember something. “Ah, JC! Let me see your phone!”
“Huh? Why not ask for Mary’s?” he replies, glancing at her in the mirror. My eyes fall on her distressed figure, nearly half of her clothing torn to reveal much of her legs and torso. As if sensing our gazes, she turns toward the window, crossing her arms and legs as she exhales what sounds like steam from her nose.
“…don’t have it, jackass,” she mutters, her low voice shaking along with her reddened cheeks.
“Ah, right,” JC responds, smiling awkwardly with closed eyes while running a fidgeting hand through his hair. I find myself grinning dumbly, my eyes stuck to her perfect figure.
JC reaches his smartphone in my face, snapping me out of my stupor just as Mary catches my gaze. When our eyes lock, I realize that my own condition has improved. Because of her unintentional display of charm, I hadn’t even noticed. Hurriedly snatching the phone, I bury my blushing face into its display and begin tapping away.
“Well, this is certainly your world, Mirei,” JC remarks, breaking the silence after some time. I glance up from the phone and gaze out the window. The country road is surrounded by pink grass, lined with scattered cherry-blossom trees. Small flares fall from the red-orange horizon, scorching the beautiful grass and trees. However, even amidst them, small patches of snow still remain, melting before my eyes. I look up, curious, and discover an anomaly— a light snow is still falling from the sky alongside the flares, melting into rain and evaporating into gas before it can fall to the earth.
My jaw hangs open as I stare at the sky, blinking in disbelief. “Mary, do you see?”
“Yeah, it’s eerie,” she replies in a mumble. “Even more-so than my burning, storming world…” Her voice trails off as she stares out the window with a melancholic demeanor. I want to say something to her, but instead recall my objective and quickly return to the phone.
“You know…” JC says after another brief silence. “It really is amazing what you two have managed to make into reality, here.” I slowly look up upon hearing the severity of his tone, only to see an expression that I can only describe as complicated.
Suddenly, the car’s engine stalls, as if force-stopped. A noxious smell invades the car as it begins to teeter as if we were driving over small mounds on either side.
“I’m afraid this is as far as I can take you,” JC declares, turning to us with a meek smile, sweat permeating his face. The car slows down, rocking back and forth before coming to a stop. “The tires are melted down, and the gas is starting to burn, I think. That aside, the heat is really starting to get to me despite your cold treatment.”
Indeed, his demeanor looks worse than Mary’s had earlier. The sweat drips from his face, which bears something beyond that of lethargy.
“Let’s get out, then!” I cry, throwing my door open. While Mary follows, JC emits a languid chuckle, and turns to face the sun threatening to crash down on us.
“So that’s what you were using my phone for,” he mutters, resting his head against his seat. Suddenly, a crushing wind comes upon us from the west. A rapid beating noise follows as a black helicopter approaches, lowering itself. Passing us over, it hovers in the air in front of us, its wind creating a ripple throughout the surrounding pink grass.
“Well, aren’t you resourceful, Princess Apocalypse…” JC remarks with a smirk.
I grin as I step outside, holding my hair down. "It’s Apocalyptic Princess, remember? I just had to let my fans know I’m planning to stop this and save this world, and that I needed their help. Now, get out so we can catch our new ride!”
“Like I said, I’m at my limit, here,” he responds casually, keeping his gaze on the beaming sun. “This world is just too bright for someone as normal as me. Your fates are too heavy for someone like me to hold in my hand, and your resolve shines far too bright for me to look at. This is the result of your time moving once more— just look at how strongly the flame of your mortal life burns. The road ahead bears too much heat... It'll burn right through my shoes, you see? Not all of us have such extreme burdens, after all. The road ahead is suited only for those who have proved themselves worthy. Right, Mary?”
Mary stops her ascent through the open door, and looks at the back of his head with a difficult expression. “Let’s go, Mirei.”
“But Mary!” I cry, staggering across the rippling grass as I fight the wind on my way around the front of the car. Despite the wind’s strength, the humid air burns my skin, forcing me to reinforce my body with a layer of ice.
I reach the front of the car, and raise my head, pulling my hair away and shielding my eyes from the scattered dust. The driver’s door has somehow opened, but I don’t see Mary. Suddenly, her figure emerges from inside the door, holding JC’s arms over her shoulders.
“What are you doing?” he shouts, despite the disorientation written on his face.
“If you’re going to sit the rest out, at least get away from the car before it blows up… idiot.” Mary’s voice is as fierce as her expression. Though clearly fighting debilitating pain, she looks stronger than ever. Her appearance alone fills me with hope.
Ignoring her wind-whipped hair, she walks toward the helicopter, JC in tow. Bouncing my gaze from her, to the car, and then the helicopter, I follow, matching her stride-for-stride. We quickly reach the hovering helicopter, pushing past the wind. Glancing back to confirm our distance from the car, Mary finally drops JC onto the pink grass. With some effort, he sits on one knee, holding onto the grass to anchor himself.
“Whatever fate may await you at the end of this…” he mutters just loud enough to reach my ears. “I want you both to know that I meant what I said. The strength you’ve both displayed has been astounding. The worlds you’ve created surpass anything we ever expected. I truly hope I’ll see you both in the next world, with that same strength…”
The wind overpowers his voice as it trails off, and he simply smiles weakly at us. Shifting my gaze to Mary, I offer the defeated man a smile and a short wave. “Thank you for all of your support… for everything,” I exclaim over the heavy winds. Maintaining my smile, I wink at him one last time. His smile breaks open, accompanied by a welling tear. He winks his watery eye at me, allowing the tear to break open with the wind.
I shift my gaze back to Mary, who nods at me. Nodding back, I turn to the helicopter, hovering some ten feet off the ground. We take a running start, and together, leap toward its small opening.
Both of us grasp onto the ledge of the helicopter, and with a cry we raise ourselves up and over the threshold. Rolling to our backs, we catch our breaths, both clutching at our chests again. The pain sears across my chest and back, threatening to sever my consciousness. However, the burning sun’s waves lick my skin, reminding me why I must maintain my focus. As the helicopter gains altitude, I stand up into a crouching position, holding onto the ceiling to stabilize myself.
Mary quickly follows, bending over and breathing heavily. “So… what will you do? Stop the sun, or go for Aku?”
My fists clench as I focus on the snow falling around us, my eyes naturally averting her gaze. “I… I'd like to do both.”
“What?” she asks, shocked. “Why wouldn’t you focus solely on reaching the goal?”
I maintain my focus, letting the snowfall dissolve. However, before the heat evaporates it, it transforms into ice. The ice connects to form a wall, shielding us from the sun’s heat. As we grow closer, I push the wall of ice forward, throwing it toward the sun. However, it melts before it can reach the blazing light. “Stronger…” I mutter, gritting my teeth. “…has to be stronger.”
“Mirei!” Mary shouts. “Are you listening to me? Why are you wasting energy like this?”
“Because…” I mutter, fighting bated breaths as I send three walls of ice on a futile trip to the sun. “This is the world my dreams— no, my heart, created. I’ve always been selfish, Mary. I’ve only ever sought my own salvation. Because of that, people have suffered.” I turn my gaze to her, tears in my eyes. “You lost everything… because of me! Now, the people in this world are suffering. NPCs or not, they’re feeling pain and the desire to live— just like you and me! I don’t want to turn my back on anyone anymore, Mary. For once in my hopeless life, I have to take responsibility!”
“So… you’ll sacrifice yourself for an illusionary world?” she barks, shaking her head. “You don’t even know what will happen to this world if you’re gone from it!”
“I won’t sacrifice myself,” I reply, forming a weak smile. “I don’t want to die, remember? I’ll take Aku’s power, and protect this world until I leave it. You’ll still have your shot, so won’t you help me?”
Her face goes still, and her gaze shifts away from the burning sun behind me. As I wait for her answer, the helicopter stops moving and the heat becomes nearly unbearable. I glance in the cockpit, only to see a fleeing shadow where the pilot had been.
The chopping sound of the helicopter’s blade beating against the humid air gradually fades away. Mary's gone deathly pale, stricken by something. Her hand moves toward her chest, but she jerks it away, forming a fist instead.
“Listen, Mary… if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have had the courage to change this world from the beginning.” My voice trembles as my eyes dig into hers. My hand, too, is compelled to clutch at my chest as it sears with a hot, sharp pain, burgeoning by the second. However, it stays in a firm, outstretched position, inviting her to take it.
“Without you helping me to face myself and move forward, I couldn’t have become any stronger,” I continue, doing my best to harden my wavering voice. “It’s thanks to you, and JC, that I’m able to take this thing on— that I can be strong enough to win this! So please, come with me!”
“Mirei…” she mutters, finally breaking from her distraught daze and looking me in the eye. “You really are… so bright. JC was right, as much as I hate to admit it. Like a phoenix, burning beautifully at the end of its life— you’re simply too bright and beautiful. A spectacle too great for my eyes. It’s not just now, either. You have no idea how many times you’ve saved me.”
“That isn’t...” I mutter, my outstretched hand trembling as I struggle to hold its posture. Just when it feels like it’s about to break, however, its plea is finally answered. With a firm clap, her hand meets mine. She grips it tight, her fierce smile showing only a trace of her discomfort as she beams at me, nodding her head in the direction of the sun.
I return her smile and give a curt nod. My bare feet scamper across the helicopter’s floor as I lead her out of the threshold. As if skydiving, we take the plunge together, hand in hand, into the hot sky.
“Mary, can I leave the lift-off to you?” I shout, a confident grin plastered on my face.
“Yeah,” she replies as she rears her left arm back and closes her eyes. Just as she brings her arm up, her hand taking the shape of a claw, a gust of wind whistles underneath us. Several cracks of thunder sound around us as thick rainfall forces itself from thick clouds into the chaotic sky.
The gust grows into a blast of wind with the momentum of her arm, rocketing us skyward. As we fly toward the sputtering, bulging sun, the downpour of rain hits us. I freeze the rain immediately around us, taking it in to form new branches like the ones I’d used before.
However, this time my branches of ice grow longer than before. As Mary struggles to supply me with more rain, the branches multiply, growing into great white wings made from my ice.
My wings beat the heavy rain as we soar faster, and closer to the falling sun. The rain freezes as it's stricken, joining my wings. As I struggle to flap the heavy wings, they grow even longer and wider as more rain hits them. The strength of the wings propels us so close that the heat should already be melting us. The sweat permeating our hands threatens to bring them apart, but I use Mary’s rain to freeze our bodies, providing a shield of defense against the scorching heat.
My wings beat once more, and continue growing broader. Their reach extends some hundred miles in just two movements. The sun’s sheer strength begins to melt everything, but we maintain our focus. Mary wears the exhaustion on her face as she somehow manages to spawn new rainclouds as quickly as they evaporate.
Similarly, I engage every nerve in my body in maintaining the wings and the ice coating our bodies, freezing everything as quickly as it melts. Veins begin bulging from my head and arms, and then my chest. Blood pours from my nose, eyes, mouth, and ears— but I freeze it too. Another beat of the wing cuts the distance in half. I can no longer see the extent of my wings as they fight to survive, wrapping around the sun itself.
“This is it, Mary; one more will take us there, so hold on just a bit longer.” My voice rings effortlessly, as if the wind, heat, and rain are of no consequence.
“Worry about yourself, pinkie,” she quips, doing her best to mask the wavering in her pained voice. “My heart is in good shape, so you make sure yours is too.”
“Right…” I reply, summoning all of my strength for one last stroke of the wings. “Thank you, Mary. I’m glad you’re here with me.”
“Yeah, I’m glad I got to be with you all the way to the end,” she says gently, just as my wings beat toward the earth one last time. The crushing wind intensifies with our speed, as does the heat. The rain evaporates, leaving my great wings of ice to rise upward under my power alone. My teeth tear through my bottom lip as I bare down, forcing my ice to continue holding out against the heat. Just as I realize her clouds have completely vanished, the grip on my hand tightens.
“I’m happy… that it's you who stole my heart.”
The fiery sun, only several miles away, takes a back seat. My gaze drifts back as the sound of singed flesh reaches my ear. By the time I look, she’s already gone.
All that remains of her is the hand I’ve been holding. However, as it melts away, I realize there’s something within it— a small pink lump coated in a thick layer of ice.
As her hand melts into dust, the small lump begins to fall away. However, something appears from beneath, holding the heart firmly against my hand. The small gray owl, one eye closed as it struggles to prop the heart up with its beak, burns away just as quickly as it had appeared.
Thanks to its support, the heart fits perfectly in my hand, as if it had belonged there all along. Even though her entire body gave in to the sun’s heat, her heart is still fighting. Therefore, I take it with me to the end.
My wings rise once more as I soar into the sun. The tears pouring from my eyes freeze and shatter as I shake my head free of them, baring my teeth at the goal ahead. My vast, dense wings envelop the sun as I plunge into it. The expansive ice, and the unyielding sun, coalesce into a solid sphere, leaving only a small gap for me to enter the blinding orange-white light.
My wings break from me as I dive into the light, the heat overflowing within me. Losing all feeling, I hold on tight to the heart in my hand as my body melts to nothingness. Suddenly, a cold wave comes over my transformed being, devoid of a physical body other than the two half-hearts in my possession.
The air on the inside of the sun freezes and dies, sapping even its light from within. I float across nothingness, my very soul holding our merged heart.
“You’ve done well in exceeding my expectations, miss Mirei.” The deep voice permeating the void around me sounds satisfactory despite its emptiness. “You defeated your opponent and your dreams with ease, ruled over your world, and even manipulated your opponent into helping you and ultimately handing over the means to victory, right at the very end.”
“Of course, you need a full heart to take on my power,” he replies, pleased with himself. “You’ve therefore met all the requirements to return to the real world with my power as your own. Congratulations, miss Mirei— you’ve won.”
“Yes, that’s right!” he declares, overly-agreeable. “Or, well… maybe I’m getting ahead of myself?”
He pauses, as if waiting for an answer. Suddenly his figure appears before me, a mere candle light flickering amidst the dead void. Just like in the fireplace, the darker flames curl to form thin wisps, completing his demented smiling face.
“There’s just one thing,” he says. “That is, you can only take on my power if you let go of some things. I did say you need to prove yourself strong enough to be the vessel for a god. So, you must forget everything that happened in this dreamscape. Your strength will be preserved in that completed heart, so there will be no need for extraneous memories of things that do not exist. Which means…”
His pause makes my soul shudder as I realize what he wants.
“You can forget about Mary, right?” The heart, my only matter of being, which had stopped feeling pain— aches at his words.
“I…” It must be the nature of this place, or the power in his words to compel, but my heart cuts through all thoughts and finds the truth. Despite the grief it will bring my father, my heart speaks with more conviction than ever.
“I could never do that.”
The thin wisps of flame grow into an even broader smile. “Therefore, you lose. Truly, a waste of a nearly flawless display. You could have been a wonderful vessel. But… I suppose he calculated all of this. You were this close to stealing it from underneath him… oh, how entertaining that would have been. This could have finally ended...”
The menacing figure called Aku laughs a slow, maniacal laugh, as if bemoaning humanity itself. My consciousness begins to fade as his echoing laugh fills the void, and my heart aches as even the nothingness fades away.
“Still, I suppose I should offer you a reward, as well. Enjoy it. I’ll be waiting for the final game.”
The void disappears, forcing me awake. I’m lying in a small bed in a stuffy room. Fighting a daze I’ve never experienced, I open my frozen eyes. I can hardly make anything out through my blurred vision. All I see is the legs of a hospital bed, and a small, pale arm reaching, with great difficulty, toward me.
The pinky finger of the hand touches my own hand as it rests on my bed. I wake the frozen nerves in my hand, and gently hold the weak, trembling hand that struggled so hard to reach me.
Despite the numb feeling in my hand brought by my long, long slumber, I feel the warmth in this person. The warmth begins to clear away the fog obstructing my vision, and I make out a pale, slender face and long black hair just before my consciousness cuts out like a light.
My weightless eyelids peel open, having been enchanted by a bright fluorescent light and a warmth coming from my hand. However, the moment my eyes open, the light is gone. Instead, I’m sitting in a familiar white room. As I blink my eyes, trying to regain my senses, I discover a companion in the room.
“Don’t tell me…” The girl sitting next to me on the red sofa gasps, eyeing me desperately.
“Ah! Mary… you’re here,” I exclaim, remembering everything.
“You… you won, didn’t you?” she says, frantically gripping my hands. “That must be why I can’t remember… but I’m sure there was another world...”
“You’re right,” I answer with a weak smile, allowing her to squeeze my dainty hands. “I won, but lost. Kind of like you did, ehe.”
“Don’t ‘ehe’ me! What happened?” she demands, transferring her grip to my wrists, as if sensing she’d been hurting me.
“Ah, Mary, my wrists are more sensitive than my han—”
“Shut up and answer me!” she growls, glaring daggers at me.
“Well… I guess I just wasn’t strong enough, after all,” I answer, smiling awkwardly.
“You weren’t…?” she mutters, releasing her grip on my wrists.
“Why not tell her the truth?” The voice seething from the fire fails to surprise either of us this time. Mary simply gazes back and forth between us inquisitively, while I look down, biting my lip.
“Well, if you won’t, I will,” Aku continues, his deep voice echoing within the small fireplace. “Miss Mirei could not forget your existence, so she lost her chance despite meeting nearly all the requirements to be the absolute victor.”
“All the requirements…” Mary mutters underneath her breath, bringing her hand to her chest. Upon resting it there for a moment, her eyes widen, prompting my own chest to thump strongly from within. “But… why, Mirei?”
“I’ve thought about it,” Aku says in an emotionless voice. “I believe that man planned everything from the beginning, even without his memories.”
“What do you mean?” The two of us demand simultaneously.
“Isn’t it obvious? He guided you in such a way that you would return here to me, for a third time.”
Mary lets out a sigh, before kicking off her expensive flats and resting her feet in front of the fireplace.
“…your impertinence before a god demonstrates why you were deemed unworthy, woman,” Aku seethes, displeasure emanating from his voice for the first time.
“Yeah, whatever,” Mary scoffs. “It’s like I said from the start, this whole thing is just a big farce. We were just puppets dancing, and you gained entertainment watching as he pulled our strings.”
“You could say that,” Aku responds in his usual satisfied tone. “Though, my highest pleasure was in rooting against him. I wanted it to be fair, so I tried to help you both… like with your father, miss Mirei. I thought if I kept JC away, you would not be influenced by him. I did not know he would be quite so resolute, though— so, I could not know for certain that we would arrive here for the true ending.”
“The true ending…” I mutter, glaring at Aku with contempt. “What does that mean?”
“Well, of course,” Aku replies, his satisfaction turning to glee. “That is, the intended goal, for the absolute victory of—”
Aku disappears as the room’s only door swings open, revealing a winded man dressed in a black business suit. The young, charming man combs his hair back with his hand, before letting out a long, deep breath.