Chapter 23:

FINAL ARC: prelude


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I’m having that dream again. It’s a simple dream, yet it has demented me so. Every time I’ve had it, I’ve been thrown completely off track from saving myself. The last thing I need is to be in this wasteland, but somehow I've returned. What was it that brought me here this time? It’s a world void of life, only the presence of tarnished buildings and what like the sun descending onto a thunderstorm-infested earth.Bookmark here

Before me is a person in some sort of old-fashioned deep-water diving suit, helmet and all. It never fails to creep me out. However, I ignore it in favor of what lies in my hands— a large, golden ball that gives me the same impression as the falling sun. It’s beyond hot, and incredibly heavy. It feels as though it holds a brilliant fire within it, one that both excites and intimidates me. This fire must be what makes it so heavy. Therefore, since I can’t bear to hold it any longer, I extend my arms, and launch it in the direction of the suit.Bookmark here

He slowly raises his arms and catches the boisterous ball with thick gloves that emit a low boom. As he holds the ball, not moving a muscle, its glow begins to dim. I can’t see his face through the tinted helmet’s glass, but I get the feeling he isn’t paying any mind to the ball. As if in a daze, he slowly pushes his arms out. Like it’s inevitable, the ball floats back to me.Bookmark here

Before it can reach me, I run. As fast as I can move my stiff joints, I run. It’s what I’ve been doing all along. The decayed world transforms as my shoes meet wood. A narrow, endless pier stretches out over a boisterous ocean. I run across the pier, desperate to escape the fiery ball. Thrashing waves threaten to overtake the pier as I run, eyeing a string of beach houses hugging the nearby shore.Bookmark here

The sweet whistling of woodwinds draws me to the houses, and the pier sprouts new wood, creating a branching path to them. Without hesitation, I follow the path, eager that I might find something inside the homes.Bookmark here

However, the heat from the fiery sphere looms, and brings with it the falling sun and storm. Before I can reach the houses, the ocean's waves swell, swallowing everything. As I drown helplessly amidst shattered wood planks, the water pulls me in every direction. I reach a hand toward the decimated houses, but my hand is torn apart, followed by the rest of my body. The sun and the fiery sphere are gone, but I'm broken down into nothingness with them. Only my heavy eyelids remain, and with a blink as loud as a shutter's click, they allow me to escape.Bookmark here

A gloomy fall day awaits me. I’ve always had a penchant for days like these. I make it to work on time without trying, pass through familiar revolving doors, and enter the lab without greeting anyone.Bookmark here

A bearded man comes to me, making small talk. I’m not in the mood, so I brush him off. With a defeated smile he places a report on my desk, and retreats to the cubicle of a woman who seems to be harboring some nerves about something.Bookmark here

It seems they’ve altered the machine again without consulting me. They don’t seem to understand my role. I specialize in social research rather than engineering and programming, but I have a vital role in maintaining relationships with the subjects. As such, even the slightest tweaks in the settings could have a huge impact on the operation. After all, I’m the one putting my neck on the line here.Bookmark here

Wait, the operation… What was it, again? The subjects? I must be tired from overwork. I better rest a bit. Another dream finds me as I escape. I’m in the middle of working in the living room of my family’s house, but I don’t find anything strange with that. Bookmark here

I make for the corner to go down the hall, I see a large crowd lining up to get in the back door to my left. I assume this is something to do with work, however, a commotion catches my attention. Low groaning sounds come from within the crowd where a man is laying down on the ground. For a moment I think it’s a drunk in line, and this thought is buffeted when I see several black-clad people who look to be security or police surrounding him.Bookmark here

However, as I continue walking, a gap opens to reveal what looks like IV tubes, at least four sticking into the man’s arms while the ‘guards’ hold him down. I can’t see where the tubes are coming from through the boisterous crowd. I realize I must address the situation. When I get close, though, I’m immediately stopped in my tracks by what feels like a supernatural force. It’s like I’m in a car that’s reached the top of a steep hill and left with no gas or breaks.Bookmark here

A man is gripping my chest’s pressure points with near superhuman strength. It feels like my entire upper body is being constricted, my spine shocked as I begin to lose feeling and motor skill. I’m being pushed forcibly backwards. I don’t know if my legs are moving or if I’m inexorably gliding. Within seconds I’m pulled to the ground, and an old man with a beard and white coat is injecting something warm into both of my arms. I see the kitchen at the other end of the hallway as I begin to lose consciousness.Bookmark here

As everything fades away, I think that I should try to alert my parents. The idea of the workplace setting has gone. As I begin screaming for help, I realize that I’m only screaming in my head. My sounds are muffled, my mouth and body completely numb.Bookmark here

I’m falling to a place where everything is dark. Before the feeling of finality can finish washing over me, I decide I can’t give up, and reject this scenario. One last try, I decide, forcing every last bit of my mind to explode with energy.Bookmark here

With a shutter’s click, I awaken, gasping for air and rousing my numbed limbs. Nonetheless, I’m awake— truly awake. Rather, I’m still technically in a dream-state. However, I finally have a grasp on my consciousness.Bookmark here

I’ve returned to the train with white walls and fluorescent lights. I leap up from the futon laying bare on the floor, and step out into the long hallway. My black dress shoes click along the old-fashioned brick floor as I run, compelled forward by a force within my chest. As I grasp at the fine fabric over my chest, I reach a small mirror on the wall. My black suit and slicked back hair, slightly disheveled, remind me of everything.Bookmark here

This place is the current base of operation. A dreamscape brought forth by Aku’s power. It’s the third and final round. As expected, Aku is going to throw everything into this one. From the beginning, the reset was almost impossible for me to recover from. If I'm already having those dreams, it's only going to get harder. But I know I can’t falter, both for my sake, and theirs.Bookmark here

I reach the section of the hallway lined with abstract murals, and find the door toward the end. Swinging the door open with urgency, I step through the doorway, breathing ragged breaths.Bookmark here

Here, in this decidedly more colorful room, the two beauties sit, arms folded in indignation. The scarlet sofas match their demeanors, even the normally shy Mirei. Not wishing to waste a moment with Mary’s murderous gaze on me, I take one last long breath before stepping into the room with an air of confidence. “I’m sure there’s a lot you two want to hear.”Bookmark here

“Explain.” The perpetually cross face of Mary’s tears into me as she rests her bare feet dangerously close to the fireplace. I hesitate for a moment, before wiping my sweaty brow.Bookmark here

“You two might not want to believe me anymore, but this is how things are.” I take one more breath, folding my arms. “This is the third and final round. You completed the first two rounds to prepare you for this final one. Now that you have a better grasp on your circumstances, you stand a chance against me.”Bookmark here

“Against… you?” Mirei exclaims, unable to hold her emotions back.Bookmark here

“Yes,” I answer with a nod. “The destination of this final train ride will be the place my dreams reside in. We’ll be fighting in my world, this time.”Bookmark here

“Your world…” Mary mutters.Bookmark here

“And I’m sorry I have to break it to you, but this third and final round—”Bookmark here

The girls glare at me, reluctantly hanging onto my words.Bookmark here

“—will be my absolute victory.”Bookmark here


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