He gripped the rope with both hands, crossing over his legs and wrapping himself around it as he climbed. He had no rope-climbing experience, but it was easier than he'd thought. He scaled it at a pace that surprised even him, and before he knew it he had left the spire far below.
He shouldn't have looked down so carelessly. Instinctive fear of his hand slipping rose within. Trying his hardest not to think about it, he resumed his climb, focusing intently on moving up.
"How far does this go, exactly?"
His goal was definitely the moon above. As proof, the moon grew larger as he climbed, by now covering more than half of the sky. Its pockmarked face glinted silver.
"Freddie," he heard a woman's voice say. He thought he might have been hearing things, until the voice repeated itself: "Freddie."
Sophie couldn't have chased after him, could she? Freddie shook his head, flustered, brushing off the pooling doubt. There's no way. Sophie was just some delusion in my head - and didn't Catherine say that she had vanished completely?
So what's this woman's voice that's seeping straight into my head?
He wanted to cover his ears, but couldn't take his hands away. If he did, it would be head over heels into the abyss for him. This was the worst form of torture.
"I've been waiting for this moment, for so long..." The joyful voice let out a snicker.
"Stella. That's you, isn't it, Stella?" No other woman laughed that way. "Where are you? I've been looking for you for ages."
Freddie looked all around, still clinging to the rope. Stella, however, was of course not floating in the air.
"Me too, Freddie. I've wanted to see you for so long."
"Are you... trapped in the nightmare, too?"
Had Stella got lost in the real world and wandered into the nightmares on this side?
"No. Only men get dragged into the nightmare. I came here by choice."
"By choice? What do you mean? Why would you do something like that?"
"Why? Isn't it obvious?" Stella's tone changed abruptly, calm one moment and explosively emotional the next. "To get revenge on youuuuu!"
If her emotions could be summed up by one word, it would be "curse". The rope to which he clung swayed violently. Freddie wrapped his body tightly around it, trying to avoid being shaken off, and shouted back.
"What do you mean by revenge? Not that I can't think of anything at all, but..."
"It doesn't matter anymore." Stella slammed Freddie with murderous emotion, no longer even attempting to conceal the hatred that spewed forth. "You can't tell me you don't remember Georg."
"Georg. Right. So you two really were..." Freddie bit his lip. Pain filled his chest, but he looked up, shaking it off. "I'm not gonna go off at you for getting with Georg at this point. You're both adults, and yeah, I was shocked at first, but it's okay now."
Stella remained silent, so he gulped and went on.
"I wasn't looking for you because I was jealous or anything like that; I was just honestly worried about you, since you up and vanished all of a sudden. I just wanted to talk it out with you and then have a clean break-up. That's all."
"So show yourself to me. We can talk face-to-face, okay?"
"Talk it out? Hah." Stella let out a dry laugh. "You want me to talk things out with you when you don't get any of it? I was going out with Georg? That's not possible."
"What do you mean?"
Freddie's body stiffened at the unexpected profession. Hadn't Stella been two-timing him? There were a bunch of things that wouldn't explain, though. Their matching rosaries. The photo of them standing side by side. How was she going to explain those away?
"Georg wasn't my boyfriend." Stella's voice was filled with pain, like she was dragging out feelings that had been stowed secretly away in her heart. "He was someone far more important to me than that. He was my little brother."
The confession made Freddie feel as though his back had snapped. The shock made his hands slip, and his body slid down a few feet. He was lucky to just barely be able to regain his grip on the rope. He was suspended high in the air, swaying to and fro like a pendulum.
Brother. Georg... was Stella's brother. Don't be so stupid. That's not possible. Their surnames are different and everything.
"Georg was my stepfather's son. I was an only child, and had wanted a little brother so badly since I was little. When I got my wish, I wondered if I was dreaming."
Like the whiteboard being erased after a planning meeting, all of Freddie's thoughts had been wiped clean.
"I loved my brother so dearly. I got him a matching rosary for his birthday, and we went places like the amusement park. He idolised me. And you..." Her tone suddenly shifted. "Freddie. You killed him."
The falling sheep. Georg.
"We'd talked several times. About a bizarre dream in which he climbed castle walls. About him being chased by a strange creature, and about the appearance of the sheep he met there."
"My brother said he helped you; that he was glad to be of use, even if it was in a dream. And this is how you repaid him?"
"That wasn't my fault. There was nothing I could do. It wasn't within my power to help."
"You stole away my happiness."
"Stella, please, listen..."
Stella didn't seem interested in hearing any more of Freddie's excuses. Her curse-filled voice echoed even louder inside his head, making him feel like his brain would explode. Is this Stella's revenge? he wondered inside his foggy head. Luring me to a place with no escape route and torturing me as much as she pleases?
Slick with sweat, his hands loosened their grip on the rope. He wrapped his body around it, somehow managing to cling on.
"Cut it out. Help me, Stella."
"Help you?" She chuckled. "That choice isn't mine to make."
The rope began to swing from side to side more violently. He felt like a small boat being tossed about by the wind.
"I'll tell you something good. I'm pregnant."
He was no longer even calm enough to respond. It took all he had just to cling to the rope and stop himself from falling.
"It's your child."
He remembered the pregnancy test that Toby had found at her house. Pregnant? Could it be?
"Let's talk about Rapunzel." Leaving Freddie in his daze, Stella suddenly changed the subject. "The Rapunzel I came up with... Once upon a time, there lived a princess."
She began to speak as if in recitation of a story. It was one of Stella's habits when talking about the plot for one of her books.
"Rapunzel was shut up all alone inside a tall, tall tower. Her only company was the witch who had shut her away there, who would sometimes come to check on her. Do you think she was unhappy?"
Freddie couldn't think of anything. Stella continued, not seeming to want a response.
"No. Rapunzel was happy. She was satisfied with her life inside the tower with the witch. She had never so much as considered leaving it."
"One day, she happened to be looking out from the tower. On a pure whim, her gaze was caught by a songbird that was passing the window. That was when the prince appeared. He looked up at Rapunzel from the foot of the tower, and found himself desperately craving her pure body, untouched by man."
A rainy night. He had happened to spot her, and called out to her. It was the first time after he'd selfishly cast Sophie aside that he'd begun to miss the feel of a woman. The princess had said that her name was Stella.
"The prince cunningly convinced Rapunzel to let down her long hair. Not knowing anyone other than the witch, she dangled her hair from the tower as told without suspicion. The prince used it to climb to the top of the tower, then forced his way into her room."
Rapunzel, pinned down to the bed, breathing heavily. Her white skin and golden hair were illuminated by the moonlight.
"Once the prince had done the deed, he left with a laugh, leaving Rapunzel behind. Finally, she noticed that her belly was growing large. Yes. She was pregnant - with the unwanted child of the man."
He hadn't bothered with contraception, and Rapunzel hadn't said no, so she hadn't thought that it mattered. Was she going to accuse him of it now?
"Rapunzel was worried. Yes. She would discuss it with the witch. She would surely be able to offer her some wisdom. But, oh, what misfortune - the witch had been killed by the prince, pushed from the tall tower."
A lone sheep plummeting into the abyss.
"Unforgivable. Rapunzel shed tears of blood. Not only had he violated her, but he had murdered the witch, her only support. She hated him. She hated the prince. She said curse upon curse, waiting patiently until she could exact her revenge. Finally, her wish was granted."
"That's enough, Stella!" Freddie yelled. All too late, he finally understood what it was that Stella was up to. The rotation of the moon overhead steadily increased in speed, exposing its hidden side.
"It was my fault. Please, forgive me."
"It's too late for that."
As the moon turned, it exposed pomegranate-coloured lips. A slender nose. Long eyelashes. The fissures that crept across its surface slowly widened, grey-green eyes that reminded him of a thick forest opening wide. They stared straight down at Freddie.
The moon was Stella's giant face. The golden rope that hung down from it and from which Freddie dangled was her hair.
"The prince climbed his way up the entire tower." Stella's huge, unblinking eyes moved closer, seeming on the verge of swallowing Freddie up. "But that isn't how my Rapunzel will end."
"Stella, stop this."
Freddie could hear something. It was a faint sound, like the snipping of bundles of branches being hacked off with a hatchet. Suddenly, the resistence of the hair he had been holding onto loosened, and his body began to slide downwards. A few feet above his head, invisible scissors were cutting Stella's hair right across.
"Goodbye, Freddie. My prince."
The moon smiled sadly. As it did so, the lifeline he clutched was severed.
"The nightmare won't end. You will wander the world of the rift for eternity."
"Stellaaaaaaaaaaa!" Freddie screamed as he fell. On and on and on he fell in blind darkness, for what felt like forever.
He could hear a siren. He woke to the unpleasant feeling of its strong yet weak rocking, undulating against his body. Opening his eyes, still lying flat on his back in bed, the siren turned into a sharp, cutting sound that flooded Freddie's ears. It seemed to be coming from the real world, not a dream - and from very close by, at that.
"My head's killing me."
Each time the siren sounded, it felt like his brain was being scooped out. He covered his ears with the sheets and got up, opening the curtains. The red lights of police cars flooded in along with the morning sunlight. Several of them were parked outside the neighbouring building, policemen hurrying to and fro. A curious crowd surrounded them. He even saw a few people holding cameras who looked like they were members of the press.
The adjacent building, much like this one, was a cheap apartment complex. It was a cheaply-built, three-storey affair, and he had seen immigrant workers and people struggling to find employment come and go late at night. He didn't know their names or backgrounds, of course. All he knew was that, like him, they smelled of outsider.
He turned on the TV. The news was just starting.
"We have just received some breaking news. At around 7AM this morning, an apartment door was found open at a building at 13 Walter Street, and a person was found collapsed inside by a fellow resident."
That was the apartment right next door. Headache forgotten, he leaned towards the TV.
"The police were notified, and an officer discovered a woman lying unconscious inside Room #6. The woman was taken to hospital, but it has now been confirmed that she has died. From the driver's licence found on her person, the deceased appears to be Ms. Stella Simmons, 29."
Time came to a standstill for Freddie.
"From the state of the scene, the police appear to have ruled that there is a high possibility that this was a suicide."
The newsreader's matter-of-fact reading of her script grew fuzzy.
"According to the resident who found her, Ms. Simmons had moved in three days earlier, but had hardly been seen and had no friends nearby."
The report continued, but there was no more detailed information. Freddie got unsteadily to his feet, crossing the room in order to go outside. He at least wanted to know what had happened. What was the cause of death? Why had she been renting a cheap apartment next door? In order to obtain more information, he decided to visit the scene.
His foot caught on something in front of the bookcase. He reflexively looked down, seeing something black and metallic lying on the floor.
He picked it up and saw that it was a small camera. Containing a battery, it was roughly the size of his index finger - one used for dubious spying purposes, then. It wasn't familiar to Freddie.
"What's something like this doing here?"
He hadn't noticed it at all the night before. Or had it been there for even longer than that? Who had put it there, when, and what for?
He sensed an eerie coincidence. The situation bore a strong resemblance to the proposal he and Catherine had come up with together.
"Could there be more...?"
He swept his eyes across the room. His own, familiar room felt to him now like an alien planet.
Cameras. Countless cameras, watching me.
Letting out a muffled scream, he fled the room on still bare feet, hurrying down the stairs and outside. The sun was dazzlingly bright, but to him, it seemed like the fires of hell torching his body.
"What an awful thing."
The onlookers were standing around chatting, watching the next door apartment. Without even trying to listen, he could hear what they were saying.
"Still so young. Sounds like she was pretty poor, too."
"Poor thing. I have no idea what she was going through, but death surely wasn't the answer."
"Have you heard? Keith, the guy who was the first to find her, says she stabbed herself in the throat with scissors."
Through his daze, Freddie listened to the rubberneckers' commotion. He somehow managed to support his body, on the verge of collapse though it was, and slowly approached them.
Death by stabbing herself in the throat. Was there really nothing else? Tell me more about Stella.
"There was something even weirder, too."
"I heard the landlord talking to the police. It sounds like the dead woman chopped all her hair off to the root."
All of her hair. Cut off.
"I hear it was super long hair that went almost to her waist, but when the body was found, all of her cut-off hair was found coiled up next to it."
"Geez. Give it a rest; you're creepin' me out."
"Was it really a suicide? Maybe some pervert did it."
"I dunno, but the media are saying that it's likely she cut it off herself."
Stella had cut all of her hair off. Right. Stella had done it to herself.
"Goodbye, Freddie," he remembered her say.
Suddenly, Freddie felt like the ground beneath his feet was giving way and he crouched down, grabbing onto it, letting out a long-short scream. One of the onlookers, noticing this, walked over with a concerned look.
"What's wrong? You okay?"
"Look at the face on him. Maybe he should be taken to hospital, too."
He couldn't hear what they were saying. All he heard was Stella's triumphant voice.
"I'll always be watching you - from the depths of hell, with those cameras."
The image of Stella in his retinas was of her with her hair cut short like a boy's, gripping the camera he'd found in his room in her right hand. She grinned at Freddie.
"You'll be coming here too, soon."
He shoved past the onlookers and sprinted away. He couldn't stand being there any longer. He had to get out of there - just run somewhere far away. Freddie kept running, sobbing, until he could no longer see the cursed apartment.
Midnight. A single light was lit in the corner of an empty office building. A man sat at the desk below it, working. He booted up his PC, tapping away intently at the keyboard. His clothes were caked with mud, stubble covering his slightly dirty face, but his eyes sparkled as if possessed.
Women really are terrifying, the man thought. But if I'd been more faithful to them, maybe this would never have had to happen to me.
Catherine. Sophie. Stella. The women's faces surfaced and vanished inside his mind. Where had he gone wrong? He hadn't fallen and died of weakness without ever reaching the top. Just as Stella had warned, the nightmare followed him everywhere.
His throat was dry. The man loosened his collar, realising that he hadn't spoken for some time. He wanted a drink - a rum and coke.
The small, run-down bar that stood inconspicuously in the rift of the night. What had it been called? Yes, the Stray Sheep. Were the people he had met there doing well?
"Orlando... Jonny... Toby... Vincent..." he muttered.
Don't let yourselves become like me. Not like this. I'm the only one who needs to fail with women.
His tapping at the keyboard increased in speed. The screen filled with words at the same pace he thought them, making it seem unbelievable that he had once struggled so hard to write.
"Each level is composed of square blocks, and the character can move them around at their discretion to form a path."
"Insert a story in between levels to form a background for the game."
"Aim not to have just one solution, but to let the player come up with methods using their own ideas."
Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap.
The passages now went beyond the man's control, filling the screen of their own accord. Soon. Soon it would be done. He had thrown away every proposal he had written so far and given his all to this one. He wanted men to play the game and use it to create favourable relationships with women, so they would get their happy ending.
"A game to set you free from the nightmare..."
This was a gospel for the lost lambs, the man believed, and continued to type.