Along with sunset, the bats who made their nests inside the tunnels of the irrigation ditch awoke, beginning to fly above the flow of the water. They followed the ditch along through the woods, then headed back upstream to the dam. It was a small dam that provided electricity to the surrounding area. On the other side of the embankment something walked along, giving off a faint, comet-like glow.
It was a girl, in the uniform of a St. Loudun's student, walking atop the water with her long hair fluttering around her. The night continued to darken, yet did nothing to dim the flickering light, like white flames, coming from inside her.
Morning came once more. It was Sunday.
Michi left the school with Aya and Risa, passing through the place where Kasumi vanished into the woods, walking down the path towards the embankment. They could see a blurry, dark grey tank in the distance. The early-blooming buds peeked out from the bushes.
They approached a suspension bridge. Someone had said that the place that was now a dam used to be a small lake, with a village by its edge, and the suspension bridge had been the only way of reaching it. Risa and the others had no idea whether "used to" mean ten or even a hundred years ago. People don't have a real sense of the length of time at such an age.
Michi led the group. Turning around, she realised that sweat was beading on Aya's pale face. Her body trembled.
"I'm fine..." Aya said, her upper body swaying dramatically.
Maybe Aya has a fear of heights, Michi thought, and grabbed onto her hand, pulling her back up. She could faintly smell blood from Aya. Maybe she's on her period, thought Michi. Maybe she collapsed because she's anaemic. But the Aya that Michi held onto sensed a temperature-less voice in her wandering mind. There was no other comparison she could make besides "temperature-less".
"So... Which is going to be sacrificed?" the voice asked her.
Aya was bewildered by the horrible question. For some reason, it felt like she had been asked this before.
Sacrifice? Who? Me? Am I going to be sacrificed to someone?
"Hey, Aya!" a voice - far clearer than the other, indefinite one - called to her again. Michi slapped her lightly on the cheek. Aya looked up slowly, relieved to see Michi's face.
"Are you okay? You look like you're having a hard time with your period."
Oh, I get it. Michi thinks I collapsed because I'm anaemic, Aya understood.
Seeing Aya stand up on her own two feet, Risa began to cross the suspension bridge. When she awoke that morning, rumours that Itsuki was dead had been spreading around the school, and then she received a text message from Mary. It was short, written about a cursed shrine, which she didn't want them to go to. That Mary had given them the information after avoiding the subject for so long was enough for Risa to be convinced that the rumours of Itsuki's death were true.
"Open your eyes and walk carefully," Michi said to Aya. "This is the only way to get to the shrine with the true curse that Mary told us about, so let the three of us go together. You don't want to lose anyone else, do you?"
No. Aya didn't want to lose anyone else.
When she awoke after falling asleep, like she had been anaesthetised, and being taken aback by Michi mentioning it to her, she checked the calendar and realised that several days had passed. That was all that had happened to her. And yet all around her, incidents had been occurring day and night, going around and around like a carousel - two girls had vanished and been killed. Someone had to stop it.
"Putting your photos on the back wall of the confessional is just a curse to make them love you back. The real curse is something different. Even if I don't believe in it," Mary's message had said. It continued: "You guys might be obsessed with love and things like that, but there's something that binds you together even more tightly. That's death. You'll be bound to the one you love in the next world. That's the real curse that only affects girls. It's not a love charm, but a curse centred around being together in the next life." From this, Risa finally learned the real meaning of the curse she had been toying with.
Although spring had not yet begun, the girls' path was thick with greenery. The branches of the towering trees wove together, blocking out the light. It was like summer.
"I wonder how old the shrine in these mountains is?"
Michi turned around, forcing herself to smile at the others. Aya, and even Risa - brooding ever since hearing the rumours about Itsuki - returned awkward smiles.
"Ah..." Aya murmured.
Michi followed Aya's gaze. The woods suddenly opened out, and there stood a brand new shrine. The shrine was made out of concrete, making it look a little out of place. Even the stone paving was new. It didn't look lie the kind of shrine that had anything to do with a shady curse. A Heisei year was engraved upon the foundation stone, from a little more than a decade earlier.
"Wasn't this shrine built only recently?" said Michi. She broke out in a nervous sweat, dampening her shirt.
"Yeah. The foundation is made of concrete," Aya said calmly.
"Mary said that the curse has been going all the way from the Meiji era. There's no way the shrine could be this new, then. Maybe the shrine she was talking about is further in," Michi said, going around the back of the shrine. Aya and Risa followed. They could hear the pure burbling of water, like the twittering of small birds. There they saw a clear, clean stream. They could smell the sweet nectar of early-blooming winter daphnes.
"One of this dam's downstream tributares is a stream, from which comes the town's irrigation ditches..." Michi said, looking at the water's edge. Her period had ended, so she had moved the eyepatch to her left eye, looking at the stream with the right one.
"Our academy is Christian, right?" Aya said from behind.
"But look here. It has 'St. Loudun's Academy For Girls Offertory' written on it. Don't you think it's weird for a Christian school to be having something to do with a shrine?"
She was right. It didn't made sense.
"I guess it must be somewhere around this shrine after all. Just like Mary said..." said Aya, and Michi nodded.
"Yeah. I don't want anyone else to vanish. Kasumi and Itsuki are gone. No one else can..." Michi suddenly found herself stuck for words. Tears tried to come out.
"I know. Let's go."
Aya put her arm gently around Michi's shoulder. Then the girls in their black dresses began climbing the stone steps to the shrine.
The shrine door was locked with a padlock, but the key was still inside. Michi opened the lock and went inside. The other two followed.
The shrine smelled mouldy inside, but light filtered in from the skylight, making it seem like a newly-made classroom. Further inside were lots of white ceramic foxes wrapped in red cloth.
"Foxes at a shrine... Isn't that really average?" said Aya.
But something about the orderly row of foxes seemed odd to Michi. She inspected them all, looking closely at each red fox. She noticed that a single fox from the line was facing in the other direction. At that moment Risa, who had until then been down, suddenly swept the foxes from atop the altar and began searching for something.
"It's not here... It's not here..." Risa shouted, even pulling out the holy object from the altar. It was a simple round stone, rolling across the floor with a dull thud.
Risa and the others had come here to make sure of the existence of something. Mary had told them that definite proof whether or not the curse had really been performed was there. Michi took Risa's hand to stop her.
"I guess maybe the things Mary said were just a rumour after all."
"But Itsuki's dead!" Risa yelled. "I cursed Itsuki so I could be with her. If the curse I put on her is the real one, then I want to go to her. I have to find the thing Mary mentioned to make sure," she blurted out, tears running down her cheeks. They pooled, like walnuts, falling onto the collar of her uniform.
"But that's not what this is about. If we find out that the curse is real, then we have to end it," Aya said, feeling like she had finally realised what it was that she was supposed to do.
Aya nodded at her own words. They had to end the curse - the one that Kasumi and Itsuki, and probably Risa too, were under. Its source, Aya felt, was the curse she was under herself. Embracing Risa and wiping away her tears, Aya inexplicably touched her damp fingers to Michi's lips. It seemed like some kind of holy ritual. Her fingers smell like cherry petals, thought Michi.
"...You can it, can't you?" Aya said gently.
"Huh?" Michi said, her mind still on the lips Aya had touched.
Michi strained her ears.
"See - you can hear it in the distance. The faint sound of water."
"I can!" Risa shouted.
Shaking free from Aya's arms, Risa lay down and pressed her ear to the floor.
"Here. Under the floor. I can hear something. Hey - Aya, Michi. Listen."
Ignoring the dishevelled hems of their uniforms, the pair lay down and pressed an ear to the floor.
"There's something beneath the floor..." Michi could sense.
Risa said she could hear the sound of water, but it had been the presence of "them". This had to be the location of the curse. That meant that she, having the power to see "them", would have to go on ahead and protect the other two. Michi was greatful for the ability to see "them".
Michi noticed a handle poking out from the dimly lit floor, that had been hidden by the altar that Risa knocked over. They went over to it.
"There's a door in this floor. Look - there's a handle. Let's try opening it."
Michi pulled pard on the handle, but it wouldn't budge an inch. Risa pushed her aside, grabbing the handle herself.
"Kasumi... Itsuki..." she murmured, tugging on the door. The nails Itsuki had painted for her tore off, falling to the ground like peach fragments. "It's no good. It won't open." Fresh tears spilled from Risa's light brown eyes.
"Don't be so quick to cry."
Michi felt a little annoyed. Why do girls do nothing but cry? she wondered.
"Maybe there's a key somewhere?" Aya said calmly.
Michi had hardly ever spoken to Aya in the past six years, but was surprised by her ability to calmly assess the situation. It was something she was unable to do.
"Somewhere..." Aya desperately began looking around the shrine for something. "It has to be somewhere..."
Then, simultaneously, Aya and Michi shouted, "Ah!"Out of all of the foxes Risa had knocked over, only one - the one facing the wrong way - hadn't fallen off the altar. It was stuck to the altar's concrete stand.
The two both grabbed the backwards-facing fox. With a loud noise it turned around, its mouth tearing wide open, red as dead meat. At the same time as the fox turned around, part of the floor sprang up and opened like a door. For a moment, Michi alone saw something strange, like a sudden mirage. It was one of "them" - but it was already gone. It wasn't Kasumi or Itsuki. It was one of "them" that floated all over the place.
Michi peered into the opened door, and her breath caught.
"There are steps going down into the basement," Risa said excitedly.
Water seemed to have accumulated at the base of the steps, the water's surface rippling gently. It looked like water was seeping in from somewhere.
"Let's go down there," said Aya.
She couldn't see "them" right now. Michi nodded.