"You made it!"
The moment he climbed up the final stone step, Freddie was greeted by applause.
It wasn't a hallucination. The real Catherine stood there beside the door. She continued clapping, her expression unreadable. So the voice had been right when it had said that he could see her if he made it to the top.
"Th-thank God. Catherine..."
Freddie spread his arms out, going in for a hug, and Catherine extended a slender finger. "Hm? What're you doing?"
The finger pointed behind Freddie. He turned, and there he saw Sophie. Even though she had been such a terrifying presence that it froze his very soul just moments before, now she simply looked so pitiful that it made him sad.
"Isn't it obvious?"
He gripped the knob of the golden door and twisted without hesitation. A holy, pure white light spilled forth, swallowing Sophie behind him.
"Ah... Ah... Ah..."
Sophie reached out, screaming, trying to cling onto Freddie. He took a step back and dodged her.
A single tear spilled from Sophie's eye. ...Freddie, said the familiar sweet voice from when they had dated, and then she vanished along with the light.
"...I did it," Freddie murmured in a daze. Was the nightmare over? For real?
"Basically, yeah." Catherine nodded. "Not that I ever expected you to make it this far, if I'm being honest."
Her words brought him back to earth. "...What are you? This is a dream, right? Are you from the dream world, then?"
Freddie didn't consider that all of this might be a delusion of his within a dream. Catherine existed here so vividly.
"Yeah. I'm a succubus. I decided on a whim to help out with this plan."
He didn't know what Catherine was talking about, but Freddie did understand that what she was going to tell him would explain the root of the bizarre phenomena that had been occurring around him over the past few days. He waited in silence for her to go on.
"I'm a succubus," Catherine repeated in a singsong voice. "I seduce human males and cull those who get in the way of the plan. This nightmare is a device he made for that purpose."
"Thomas Mutton. You know him, right?"
"No, I don't." Freddie shook his head. The name didn't sound familiar.
"Oh, right. So you don't know." Catherine let out a chuckle. He'd thought her habit of putting her hand to her mouth when she laughed devilish, but never that she might be an actual demon.Even still, just as Freddie had always felt, Catherine remained bewitching.
"The sheep fell, right?"
The sheep who had vanished, slipping or falling prey to Sophie. Their dying screams were still seared into his eardrums.
"They were humans, just like you."
"So they were after all. What about Sophie, then? She died ages ago. Did her death have something to do with this nightmare, too?"
"No. Only human males are culled here. Her death was a pure accident. That means the thing that appeared was all created by your mind."
"It's a manifestation of your subconscious feelings of guilt for dumping her. The thing that appears is different for each sheep, but they all try to kill you and make you atone for your sins."
"What sin are you saying I committed? I feel bad about Sophie, but it's honestly not like I feel all that guilty about it."
"You're always such a bad liar, Freddie." Freddie couldn't tell whether Catherine was looking at him with sympathy or pity. "Hearing of her death on the news really did shock you to your core. You've been blaming yourself all this time, wondering whether she might be alive now if you'd been living together instead of breaking up with her."
"I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't thought anything like that for a second."
"I'm telling you; I'm talking about depth psychology here."
"'Depth psychology'? You mean that I'm unconsciously trying to punish myself, and that's why Sophie's been chasing after me every night?"
Maybe she was right. Freddie had denied it, but had wondered the same deep down. He couldn't say for sure that he didn't feel a sort of want to atone for Sophie.
"Well, this device was created to draw out that kind of emotion, anyway. His shittiness shows right through." Catherine tutted lightly. He approached and gripped her slender shoulder.
"So Sophie, she... she's resting in peace, right?"
"Probably. It's outside of my jurisdiction, but I haven't heard of her becoming a ghost or anything, so I guess so."
From start to finish, Sophie had never been anything to do with this. All she must have wanted to do was sleep peacefully, and he felt apologetic for having dragged her into his nightmares.
"I'll go and visit her grave soon."
From Sophie's point of view, there would be no sense in the guy who dumped her bringing her flowers, but he still wanted to at least send her a prayer. That was Freddie's way of making things up to her.
One of his questions had been answered. His conjecture that Sophie had been the cause of the nightmares had been totally off the mark, but this brought forth a new question.
"The sheep with a rosary hanging from its neck. That was Georg, wasn't it?"
Catherine's silence served as the answer to his query. All of the fragmented happenings began coming together in his head like a jigsaw puzzle.
"The mysterious deaths have something to do with this dream, don't they?"
"If you dream of falling and don't wake up right away, you die" - who had said that?
"The rumours were true. That means that Daryl's death..."
"Yeah. He fell here and was culled."
"What do you mean, culled? We're not saplings."
"Hey, that hurts!"
Catherine shook free from Freddie's grasp. A faint redness stood out against the white of the shoulder he had grabbed.
"Ask him for the full details. He just asked me to help. All I can probably tell you is that everyone who gets in the way of the 'flourishing of the species' is tossed into this world, and if they can't climb all the way up to the end they die."
"'Flourishing of the species'? So basically baby-making, then?"
"Even more simply than that, I guess it could just be marriage or whatever. I don't really know. Anyway, all of the sheep who come here are considered 'people who get in the way of healthy-minded women'. That's what he told me, anyway."
So that meant that men who wouldn't commit to marriage were subject to being culled, then? Now that she mentioned it, it did seem to fit. Daryl's wife had found out about an affair at work and filed for divorce, but everyone at the office knew that, worried about appearances, he'd kept denying it. Freddie had dated and cast aside many women in his life, but the word "marriage" had never so much as crossed his lips. Maybe there were women who bore a grudge towards him because of it.
Had he started a relationship with Stella, doing what he pleased with her body and intending all the while to toss her aside? Ignoring his own faults, a blistering anger rose up within Freddie. That goddamn old witch. You can't just do whatever you like to Stella. She's wiser than she looks, clever, and strong-willed. I think she would've made a good friend, if she wasn't a woman. Catherine watched Freddie silently as he bit his lip.
"Come to think of it, where is Stella?"
The voice in the fog had promised Freddie that if he could make it to the top, he would be able to see both women. As long as it had been telling the truth, Stella had to be here, too. He looked around, but couldn't see her anywhere.
"What's going on?"
"I dunno. I was just waiting here because I was interested in you."
"Interested in... me?"
"Watching you climb gave me chills." Catherine licked her lips lightly. The leech-like movements, which he hadn't seen in a while, almost seemed to suck Freddie in, enthralled. "Hey. What do you want to do to me?" For once, her question was serious.
"Right. I've been looking for you for ages, wanting to tell you this."
Freddie took her hand. Her silky skin was cold, but not without warmth. In all honesty, he couldn't care less about a cull or some plan; all he wanted was to see Catherine again and speak with her. That determination was what had brought him this far.
"I want you with me," he said, staring straight at Catherine. It was probably the first time he had looked a woman in the eyes when talking to her since elementary school. "I like you. I want us to live together forever."
"Wh-what? I can't." As if Freddie's confession had come as a surprise, a blush came over Catherine's porcelain cheeks and she turned away. "I mean, I'm a succubus."
"That doesn't matter, does it?"
"It does matter."
Catherine twisted away from Freddie's hand as he brought his face closer and took a step back. Hand on her hip, she let out a deep sigh that seemed purposely exaggerated.
"Honestly, Freddie." With that, she finally seemed to regain her composure. Drawing her shapely eyebrows together, she gazed at him with upturned eyes. "Have a gooood think about it. Being with me means that you can't stay the way you are now."
"The way I am now?"
"I'm saying that you won't be human anymore."
Catherine's tone was casual, but that was what told him that it was the truth. The unexpected response brought the high-flying Freddie crashing back down to earth.
"I won't be human anymore? So what happens to my life?"
"We'll be living together in the spirit realm, so you're gonna have to give up your life in the other world. Then you'll be a demon, like us."
"You don't wanna?"
Catherine's eyes glinted blue, probing. He'd never thought that he would have to stop being human; the thoughts that filled his head had been of him awakening from the dream in his own room and carrying on happily with Catherine as they had been.
"What about my unfinished work?"
The blank proposal document. He'd be fired if he didn't submit it by tomorrow.
"None of that matters anymore, does it? You just want to be with me, right?" Catherine whispered seductively. "Then nothing else matters, right?"
He thought of his car, in for repairs. He wondered if he should buy a new one. He'd never considered it before, and yet suddenly, cruelly, he wanted to do it desperately. And his fridge had been on the blink lately, too. His PC magazine was out tomorrow, and he still hadn't opened any of the beers he'd bought. Freddie pictured having a cold beer after work and gulped.
"...What's wrong?" Catherine looked at the silent Freddie in confusion.
"Um, can you, like, drink beers and stuff in the spirit realm?"
Catherine's eyes lost their sparkle. A clear film covered them as she watched Freddie, her blushing cheeks chilling. He realised now that he shouldn't have said it, but it was too late.
"Oh. So you like reality more than me, huh?" Her eyes were hidden behind long eyelashes.
"I never said that. I just..."
"No. It's alright." Catherine drew back by another step. He reached out to her, but she was too far. "I knew, really. Maybe I've had just a bit too much of a fun dream."
She turned her face away from him. Had he imagined the tremble at the end of her sentence?
"It was silly of me to think of how nice it would be to live with a human, even though I'm a succubus... I'm... sorry."
"I guess this is goodbye, then."
Face still downcast, Catherine waved to Freddie. She vanished, as if melting away.
He leapt to her breast, trying to embrace her, but his hands clutched in vain at empty air.
His cry was swallowed up by the silver moon, and Catherine was gone. He collapsed to his knees. He'd screwed up right at the very end. Struggling to breathe, he clawed at his throat. The feeling was so terrible that "regret" didn't cover it.
How long did he spend like that? Freddie finally got unsteadily to his feet. Before him was the golden door. Now that he had lost Catherine, he had no business left in this world. He could only return to his own reality. As he reached out to grip the knob, the door was enveloped in a pale light.
Surprised by the faintly blurry door, he panicked and dashed inside, but there was nothing opposite. While he had been lost in his confusion, the door had completely vanished.
Now he wouldn't be able to return to the real world.
"Don't fuck with me now. Not after coming this far."
The top of the spire was narrow, surely no larger than Freddie's one-room apartment. There was nothing aside from the spiral stairs he had climbed to get there, and an expanse of black stone flooring. Freddie had been left all alone in this narrow space. The previously forgotten chill returned.
"Catherine!" he yelled in a half-scream. "Catherine? Can you hear me? Let me out of here!"
There was no response.
Spontaneous tears streamed from his eyes. He paced frantically, repeating the name of the woman who had said her goodbyes and desperately searching for a secret passage, but could find nothing.
"So it's a dead end, huh!? No chance in hell; not when I've come this far. Someone. Let me out. Let me out of here!"
He couldn't even hear that awful whispering voice from the fog.
"What the hell? There's no way...!"
A feeling of despondency stabbed at him. What had all of his efforts up until now been for? Was he to spend the rest of his life here, never moving either forward or back?
No. No no no.
Freddie flailed his arms like a child throwing a tantrum. I am not letting it end like this. I'll live. I'll survive. There are still things I have to do in the real world.
"Let me out of here! If this still isn't the end, I'll climb as high as you want me to!" he screamed, using up the last of his strength.
As his voice melted into the emptiness, it happened - a golden rope slipped soundlessly from above.
"What in the...?"
He gripped the rope timidly. It wasn't a hallucination; he could feel it against his palm. The rope was pleasantly cool, but seemed strong enough to support Freddie's body weight. He looked up and saw that the rope seemed to lead up to the giant moon hanging overhead.
"You want me to climb up there, huh?"
This spire wasn't the top floor. Something else awaited him up ahead - that had to be it. He repeated this to himself, then tugged hard on the rope. It felt sturdy. The other end appeared to be firmly anchored, and he didn't think he would have to worry about it snapping midway up.
"Let's go, then."