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Evina's head was spinning. Not again! Where am I now? I feel so sick.
"Evina?" a concerned voice said. "Oh, it is you. Are you alright?"
Evina knew that voice, and he tried to answer, but it only came out as a nonsensical mumble.
"Kyle, come over here! Look who I found!"
The sound of approaching footsteps stopped a few feet from where he was lying. "Why is he so sweaty?"
Evina opened his eyes to see the faces of Jenny and Kyle standing over him. This couldn't be possible. He clambered to his feet and found himself in the middle of a very familiar place. It looked the same as the day he left it. "Ok, now this is weird."
The sky was black, the lights on the buildings were glowing, and there was the smell of crime and despair in the air. This couldn't be anywhere but Toontown Central. "So... how did I get here?" Evina asked.
"We were hoping you could tell us that," Jenny said. "When we saw you storm out of HQ like that, we figured you weren't feeling well. So, we had to do what any good friend would do and look for you."
"Yeah," Kyle said, "and why did you suddenly become red?"
Evina looked down at himself. The Shadow had indeed left him. "Yeah, I guess I'm cured."
"That doesn't matter right now," Jenny insisted. "Why don't you walk with us?"
Evina strolled with his old friends around the playground. He was having trouble coping with this new reality, even though it was exactly like he remembered it, down to the smallest detail. The dream zone had felt so real, as real as this was now. He wondered if he was losing his mind. Is it possible that The Shadow could have left me so quickly? If so, why now? Why not after I had defeated Doom? And is Gyro cured as well?
"You look distracted," Kyle said. "Are you feeling any better?"
"Yeah, better than before," Evina admitted, "but I still have no clue what's going on."
"I get it. You probably hit your head or something. You may have been unconscious for an hour or more."
"An hour? It felt a lot longer like that! I went to the northern wastelands. I trained with monks. I went to Earth. I must have been away for days!"
Kyle looked at Jenny with a look of confusion, and she looked back at him, shrugging. "I guess it was a pretty bad concussion. Anyway, we're sorry that you're struggling with some personal issues. It must be tough to deal with... whatever it is you're dealing with. But, um, don't you think we should get back to the real problem?"
"The real problem?"
"Yes," Jenny said. "s<um and d!rt. Remember them?"
"Of course, I remember them!"
"Then you'll come back to the police?"
Evina was still struggling to accept this. But since he apparently never left Toontown Central, and The Shadow was no longer a part of him, there was nothing stopping him from returning to work. "Sure, I'm in."
She smiled. "Great! It's just the three of us against the world again. Nothing can stop us when we're together!"
Evina cracked a smile as he walked into the tunnel. "Yeah, I guess things aren't so hopeless after all."
"Oh, there's just one more question I have to ask you," Jenny said. She pulled a horned helmet from behind her back and put it on her head. "Do you like it?"
Evina was confused. "Um, yeah, I guess."
Jenny began singing opera badly. Kyle began to join in after a few seconds.
Evina was seized with a feeling of dread. "This isn't right," he said.
"Well, maybe this will help," Kyle said. He pulled some jellybeans out of his pocket and offered one to Evina. "Have you been a good doodle?"
Evina barked like a doodle and accepted the jellybean. Wow, that was yummy... wait... WHAT THE HECK?
He jolted awake and gasped. The sun had appeared, and he was blinded, but a moment later, a figure blocked it. When his eyes adjusted, he saw Gyro standing over him, smiling feebly as he usually did. "Are you alright, son?"
Evina had a headache and was dizzy once again. "I guess... maybe. I honestly don't know anymore." Then he caught a glimpse of the headless statue. "Oh no, you've got to be kidding me!"
"But it's true!" Gyro said. "You defeated Doom! You saved us all! And The Shadow has finally left us!"
Evina stood up as quickly as he could. This looked and felt exactly like Disneyland, but Toontown Central had felt real too. "I can't believe it!"
"You were amazing," Kate said. "It was crazy how you grabbed the tentacles and—"
"No!" Evina shouted. "Everyone, be quiet! I... I can't accept this! This isn't real!"
"You don't look so well," Glue Stick said.
"I've had enough of these games!" Evina shouted to the sky. "I know none of this is real, so STOP IT NOW!"
The world began dissolving before his eyes. Gyro, Kate, and Glue Stick vanished along with everything else.
A sinister laugh filled the air. "It seems I can't fool you, Evina. If reality is what you want, you can have it."
Evina appeared back in the metal room. His limbs were tightly strapped to the hospital bed. A bright light shined down on his face, blinding him. "I demand to know who you are!"
"You already know who I am," the voice said. "I am The Master."
"Why don't you show yourself?"
"Patience, little one. I can't reveal myself now, but you will see me soon enough."
Evina was dizzy and frustrated. "What do you want with me?"
"Before you proceed with this quest of yours, I need to remind you who is in control. You are not as free as you think you are."
The spotlight shifted to the table next to the bed. The bowl of black beans was still there. They were evil and diseased, but the sight of them made Evina's mouth water.
"Go ahead," the voice said, "they won't hurt you."
The strap unlatched off Evina's right hand. He had the urge to take a bean, but he didn't. "You are not my master. You can't make me do anything!"
The Master laughed lightly. It was terrible to hear.
Evina felt nauseous. He felt weak. He was desperate for a bean. Every moment that passed felt like a lifetime of pain. His heart was racing. No matter how hard he tried to resist, his trembling arm slowly reached for the bowl, and he finally surrendered. Throwing one into his mouth he felt the icy chill. It was unpleasant at first, but then he felt at ease. Everything was fine, at least for the time being. Only minutes later, he became restless again. "Please, don't make me do this."
"You must," The Master said.
Evina took another bean. A few minutes later he took another. This cycle continued. It went on for what felt like days until the bowl was finally empty.
"It seems you've finally learned your lesson," The Master said. "In time, you'll see that it's better this way. Remember where you stand."
The other restraints were released, and Evina jumped up. The room appeared to be empty again, but he knew that The Master was still present. He could feel something watching him. He panicked and ran to the exit as fast as he could.
The door opened, and he saw that he was not in the cave but in another part of the dungeon. This place overwhelmed his senses with a sickening, unnatural feeling. He was lost in a maze of rusty metal walls, with some disgusting black liquid smeared all over them. Bright lights shined down from above and followed him down the corridors. He ran and ran until he was out of breath and broke down in tears.
However, it was at this moment of hopelessness that the walls suddenly gave way to a chasm. Floating in the air were stones leading to a more wholesome light up ahead. It was dangerous, but he was desperate for an escape from this awful nightmare. So, after collecting his courage, he jumped onto the first stone. It bounced slightly but held his weight. This continued, step by step, until he finally reached the end. The air over here was cooler and smelled fresh. It was a welcome relief.
He began to feel relaxed now. Carefully, he followed the path through a tunnel until it ended at the most beautiful garden he had ever seen. He had never seen any of these plants before, but they glowed brightly, filling the void around him with multicolored light. It was warm and comforting, something he hadn't experienced in what felt like ages. This felt like home, a home more comforting than any place he had lived before.
At the center of the garden, there was a large fountain. Its water shimmered with the light of a million forgotten memories. Standing in the fountain was a statue of a woman with an outstretched, open hand. Evina approached slowly and inspected it. It was made of a type of stone he had never seen before, but there was definitely something familiar about its shape. He raised his hand and reached for hers. The moment their fingers touched, the statue transformed into a cloud of vapor. It was strange and mesmerizing. Then, at last, the specter materialized into a being shining with light. Evina's mother stood in front of him.
"Hello, Evina," she said with a smile.
Evina was stunned. For a few moments, all he could do was stare. "Is... is it actually you?"
She nodded but remained silent.
"It's been so long," he said. "How can you appear in an awful nightmare like this?"
"Don't you remember? Wherever you go, I will be there also. I am always with you."
Evina stood in silence for a while, stunned by her presence. His mission seemed like the least important thing right now. "What should I do, mom?"
"You will need to discover that for yourself. But I can tell you that you're on the right track. You must keep going."
"Will I ever be able to escape the dream zone?"
She paused. "The future is uncertain. I don't know how this will end, but I can offer you some advice."
"Anything will help," Evina begged.
"Evina, my son, you have a trial ahead of you. I won't lie. It will be the most brutal challenge you ever face. You will learn some horrible things. Don't let it crush you. If you're not careful, it will destroy you and everyone else."
"Can I pass this trial?"
"You may or may not. I for one believe in you," she said warmly. "But no one will blame you if you fail. This is a lot to ask of any toon."
"But I have to try," he insisted. "I can't turn back now."
"I never doubted your courage, Evina. But be careful! You have no more room for error. Don't believe the lies. And above all else, remember who you are!"
"The Master told me something like that too."
"And who do you think you are?"
Evina didn't know what to say. "I, I'm not sure," he admitted. "I guess I've been confused about my identity my whole life. Do I belong with the toons? Do I belong with the cogs? Who is Evina supposed to be?"
"Your name is no coincidence. You will solve this puzzle yourself before the journey ends. After all, the dream zone has a way of opening the deepest secrets of the mind." She paused and looked over her shoulder. Another doorway was opening. "I think you should get moving to the next dream."
"Wait! Is this the last time I see you?"
"Even though you won't see me, I promise I will still be with you, until the very end."
"I love you, mom."
She smiled and vanished into smoke. Her last image was burned into his eyes.
Evina stood still for a minute, watching the last lingering light fade away. But he came to his senses and knew he couldn't stay in the garden. He fought back the tears. He pressed forward into the next dream, determined to bravely face whatever came next.
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