Going down a floor, they found themselves on a granite-paved shrine path. It was not pitch black, but rather lights shone faintly by their feet, like nightlights. The floor and walls were covered in moss, coming to a stop here and there like an old carpet. The headmistress had probably passed through here over and over.
"Hey, look up ahead," Karatsu said, pointing to the end of the path.
There was an altar. It wasn't a concrete altar, like the one they had found inside the mountain shrine - it was made of stone. Michi and the others approached it. Makino took something out of her pocket, and there was a click. She had lit her lighter.
"I have a penlight, too, but if I use a manmade light then the thing Karatsu's trying to sense will get a shock and run," she said, holding the lighter up above her head.
Michi gasped at what the light illuminated. Countless photos of men and women were enshrined on either side of the shrine. Photos of a young man and woman were side by side in each frame. In most cases, the man was in military uniform, the woman dressed in a bridal outfit. Michi, lost for words, looked around each pair.
"Yuukon," Karatsu muttered.
"Yeah. We've dealt with this before," Makino said, looking at each photo. "The dates on them are from the early 20th century - the time of the Russo-Japanese War. At the time, the land corps arrived at 203 Hill at Port Arthur, with ten thousand soldiers killed in battle, and there was a flood of criticism that they were using the fighters as padding. On top of that, thirty thousand died from beriberi, because of vitamin deficiency. An author and military physician called Mori Ogai was stubborn about it and wouldn't give up on his own theory. In the end, we won the war and everything got unsettled, but the grief of the families of those who died wasn't eased by winning in the war. They wanted to perform yuukon - posthumous marriage - which is an old tradition where, wanting the dead to have someone to be with in the next world, they put up votive pictures, but around the time of the Russo-Japanese war it seems to have turned into enshrining photos of soldiers who died in the war and their wives or girlfriends. There should be some not just of women, but also brides," Makino said, shining her light slowly around each photo.
"So the traditions of yuukon at this shrine changed into the girls' curse," Karatsu explained.
The thing that Michi and the others had intended as a simple love charm had really been something totally different, which shocked them. Then, Michi noticed that the final pair of photos, lit up by the flame, was the only one where both were of women.
"Is this where the curse that only affects girls started?" Makino said, looking up at the framed photos.
"These are the same photos as in the album. One of them is the headmistress after all. Looking at such a big photo, I can tell for sure. The one on the right has a different hairstyle and outfit, but it's definitely her."
The one on the right was not the ribbon girl, but the broody-looking one. Michi felt her voice get shrill at her own conviction. She had just as good as stated that the headmistress was not a normal person.
"How can you be so sure?" Karatsu asked.
"I've always watched people through my camera, so I'm a bit better than other people at noticing people's faces, bodies and bone structure and things like that. Normally, people recognise others by their impression, which causes mix-ups, but I have a habit of looking at bone structure. That's why there's a high possibility that it's the headmistress."
Karatsu nodded. It was the first time Michi had ever had her explanation totally accepted by an adult.
"There are dates on the photos, right?"
"1905... This photo's from more than a hundred years ago," Michi answered.
"How do I put this..." Makino said, drawing out the words. "Is this headmistress person really alive?"
Their breath caught at her words. They hadn't thought about that, but if it was her pulling the strings behind the string of incidents... There was no way someone could be manipulating things from behind the scenes in real life like they did in books and movies, Michi thought, but the things that had happened to them seemed quite detached from reality.
Karatsu's eyes glittered. Everyone present sensed "it" passing by far away. It was a dim, vermilion light. Michi couldn't guess what it was for sure, but it was the first time she had seen one of "them" be vermilion. It looked like Karatsu knew, however.
Karatsu stood in the centre of the shrine and closed his eyes. He was searching for the "thing" that had just passed before him. Without thinking anything, like scooping up the bubbles inside his mind, Karatsu waiting for "it" to visit him. And then it entered him.
"The ghost has been apart from its body for so long that it can't tell me itself, but... I think she wants to show me what she saw," Karatsu said.
"Yeah. It seems like she's the girl beside the headmistress in the photo."
They turned to look at the pictures. Beside the headmistress, her lips stiff as though she had decided something, was the girl with the ribbon.
"Your hand," Karatsu said to Michi. "Hold my hand, then take someone else's, too. Let's form a circle."
Michi took Karatsu's hand. It was the first time she had ever touched the hand of a man who wasn't her father. From his hand, an intermittent vision, like an image from an old TV, played through Michi's head.
Was it night or afternoon? She couldn't even tell what season it was. She was beside the water. Engulfed in light, two girls held onto each other tightly. A short girl, still with vestiges of youth about her, looked up at the other.
"I don't want to get married."
"I want to keep holding you like this, my adorable little sister."
"I want to be your little sister forever. I want to be a young girl forever. I want you to hold me forever."
The one the girl called her big sister would later become the headmistress. She would enshrine a photo of her beside the girl at the shrine.
The two looked up as they embraced. Then, the girl showed the album to the headmistress.
"I put the same photos inside this album. It's just for us."
"Oh? What is that written on the first page?"
The girl's cheeks turned crimson. "It's Ophelia's Song from 'Omokage' - I added in a love charm for you."
How should I your true love know,
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
And his sandal shoon.
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.
White his shroud as the mountain snow
Larded all with sweet flowers,
Which bewept to the ground did not go
With true-love showers.
The headmistress was reciting from memory. In the Meiji period, the etiquette was to write down a love poem and confess one's feelings. Hearing the one she loved say it out loud made the girl's eyes well up. Her having memorised it was as good as her whispering, "Even if I die, I will still know you." It made the girl's heart burn hot.
"You aren't giving me a poem?"
"On the last page..." the girl said, her voice barely audible. The headmistress turned to the album's final page. There was Ophelia's Song. "I made it."
"It's a love song, isn't it?"
A love song. Putting your feelings for each other into poetry. The girl had written a new poem in response to the Ophelia poem she had sent to the headmistress.
"Thank you. Please recite it to me so I can hear it. Then, let us throw ourselves into the lake along with your poem."
The headmistress softly pulled the girl who wrote the poem closer and kissed her. Standing beside the lake, they joined hands, sinking into the light, transparent blue water. The water swallowed up their knees, chests, and then heads. Ophelia's Song echoed in the water.
Dazzling light and summer's darkness
A painting of a revered maiden at a manor
You float in the waters of the spring
Oh, my beloved sister
Deep in the night, the moon is a wave
A single pearl atop a coffin
Kiss me and I shall lead you to the Underworld
You should turn back, my love
Yomotsu Hegui gives you form
Lighting a single flame
Fleeting dreams become not love
Leave for the real world and do not turn back
Cast off the comb from thine hair
Your flower garland into the water
White fingers on stones that line the path to the Underworld
We are parted, but I remember you
"Don't let go of my hand, okay?" the girl's sad voice sad from somewhere. "If you do, I can't die..."
"It's alright. We'll go together."
Their whispers became ripples upon the water's surface, until finally they vanished, too. A long time passed. The girls' footsteps by the water's edge were erased by the waves. But... As night drew near, and the lake was enshrouded in fog, a girl poked her head out of the water by the bank. Then, expressionless, as though nothing had happened, she followed the small path by the lakeside, descending from the mountain. The other girl would never come back.
That was Karatsu's vision. It was a tale of trusting lovers' betrayal. The headmistress had betrayed the one she loved.
In silence, the group retraced their steps back up the underground shrine path. In just a short time, the girl who had possessed Karatsu had told him a tale, not of tragic love, but of betrayal. Everyone thought that that was where it began. The girl left in the lake was so sad, unable to say anything to anyone, that she had returned behind the Ophelia painting. Karatsu touched the back edge of the frame. It rotated 45 degrees. Michi let out a sound of surprise.
"So you've finally arrived, too."
The one pointing her index finger at them was committee chairwoman Ritsuko.
St. Loudun's' only connection to the outside world was the AV room. Each person had one computer terminal and one large screen each. All of the students used them in lessons, taking direct tuition on English from Americans overseas and learning native pronunciation. Ritsuko led the group there.
Ritsuko seemed somehow different from usual. She had taken off her glasses, her normally tightly pulled-back hair hanging to her shoulders, held back by only a pink scrunchie. Aya and Michi had no idea what Ritsuko was going to do, or what she had been doing in the headmistress' office. Makino and Karatsu, however, spoke like they were somewhat familiar with her. They seemed to know each other. Ritsuko stood in front of the computer desk on the stage, then held a USB stick between her fingers and showed it to everyone.
"I'm going to play you a video I made. Take a good look. In about thirty seconds, you'll know the shrine's secrets."
Michi had no idea what she meant by "video". Ritsuko inserted the USB device into the computer with familiar movements, then began to use it. The monitor screen was projected onto the whiteboard. A video began to play suddenly, accompanied by strange music.
"By the way, the narration is sampled from my own voice. Like Miku Hatsune."
Aya and Michi had no idea what Ritsuko was talking about. They could hear the narration. The voice wasn't accented, but it was clearly Ritsuko's.
"This academy has a curse. It is a curse that only affects girls..."
Footage of St. Loudun's was overlapped by video of a dark shrine. The shrine image turned into flat scenery, like a really old computer game. Then, two female students wearing hakama appeared in front of the shrine, like video game sprites. They were most like the headmistress and the girl she betrayed.
"This is how it began," Ritsuko's electronic voice said in the video.
"I don't want to marry," said one of the girls.
"Nor do I," the other girl responded. It told the same story as Karatsu's vision.
"In that case... let us die together. As girls, we will never be able to be together in this world. But in the next..."
"We can be together there."
"Let us perform the yuukon rite that has been passed down in this area since the olden days."
"Yuukon" appeared on the screen along with her voice. Ritsuko's electronic narration played over it.
"There was a custom known as 'yuukon' in this region. It was a ritual of love, where, by enshrining a photo of you beside a lover who had already passed or a soulmate you could not be with at the Shinto shrine in the village, you could be together in the next world. These two St. Loudun's' girls performed it, too."
The video cut to the lake. The girls entered it slowly. They could hear Ophelia's Song being sung over it. Michi recognised the song. The voices of the prior year's graduating students had been recorded singing it, and Ritsuko had sent them to everyone's mobile phones so they could practise.
Lots of white doves flew through the blue sky. Peaceful silence fell by the water's edge. A long time passed. After a while, only one of the girls got out of the lake. Her whole body was soaked. Waves rippled at her feet, like the ticking of a clock. They heard a faint voice. Finally, another character appeared from the water. She was a strange girl, her body transparent. She, too, was wet from head to toe.
"You betrayed me, didn't you, my sister?" she said to the other girl, her face filled with anger. "You're going to let me sink beneath the lake while you return to the old world. Do you really wish to live that much? I see how you truly feel, now... Then I shall grant your wish. I will curse you forever, from the bottom of this lake..."
"I'm sorry. When I was in the lake, I missed the world of the living so. But as long as I live, I will only ever think of you. I shan't marry. I will carry you, your voice, your eyes with me. Then, one day, when the time comes for my life end naturally, I will come to you."
"I cannot allow that." Flames of anger danced in the girl's eyes, piercing the other's heart.
"Forgive me..." Tears appeared in her eyes, but the girl kept glaring at her.
"I have made my mind up, sister. I will curse you. There are two curses. The first: you may not die. You will live forever. That means we will never be able to meet again - we can never be together, and you will carry that sin. As punishment, once every three years you must make an offering to me in your place. That's right - a human sacrifice. As repentance for the three years we loved each other, you must perform the yuukon rite, putting the sacrifice's photo beside mine in the album. That is the second curse. You will live forever, cursing girls."
Announcing this, the seethrough girl vanished. The other simply stood there in the cold. From a plane tree by the lake's edge, as if she had ordered it, hung a rope that looked like it would work for hanging oneself. The girl tried to use it to kill herself, her mind fading, but when she came to the tree was nowhere to be found. Narration played.
"The girl returned to the academy, graduating and returning there as a nun, later becoming the headmistress. Then, each three years, she would place the photo of an unfamiliar girl inside their album. Finally it became an urban legend at the school, turning into the curse that only affects girls."
The room grew bright. "So? What did you think of my video? Wasn't it well-made?" Ritsuko asked proudly, looking around the group.
"Yeah, that use of effects..." Makino said, and Karatsu whacked her over the head.
"Who asked you to give pointers?"
Michi looked at Ritsuko in amazement. "Um, Ritsuko... don't you seem quite different? Are you an otaku or something? Or maybe an occult fanatic?"
"How rude. Call me a lover of modern folklore. I investigate all kinds of things, like urban legends and rumours."
"How do you investigate them?"
"I make videos and upload them to Nico Video and stuff like that," Ritsuko said flatly.
Michi was a little surprised. "So you are an otaku, then? You never looked like one to me."
"I'm actually a friend of Ritsuko's from a networking site for occult fanatics," Makino said, turning to Michi.
"That's right. I've been investigating the rumours of a curse ever since I first joined St. Loudun's, but there was no one at the school to give me advice, so, you know."
"As we messaged each other, one of our members noticed that there's a shrine by the lake that's now a dam, and the yuukon rite was performed there, and told Ritsuko about it."
"Yeah. I found out that the shrine and worship hall had been rebuilt, but then I discovered the hidden door here in the headmistress' office and found that all of the photos had been moved to an underground shrine here."
"...You've been busy, huh."
Michi still couldn't believe how different Ritsuko was - or rather, what she was really like. She was the type to get a head start and clear everything up before anyone else, though.
"Anyway - what I was really curious about is how the headmistress could go on living, always looking the exact same, since the Meiji period," said Makino.
"The headmistress is from an old family from the region, and on the surface of things the position of headmistress passed from mother to daughter, daughter to niece..." Ritsuko said, moving the mouse.
The photo of the headmistress on the screen gradually changed. Her name, hairstyle and outfit were different, but as Ritsuko put the photos together "100% match" was displayed on-screen.
"So it's true. By facial recognition, they're the exact same person," Makino said, impressed. Ritsuko laughed embarrassedly.
"It's only because of the NCA counter-terrorism facial recognition software you gave me."
Michi couldn't follow Ritsuko and Makino's conversation. Is the NCA something like the FBI? she wondered.
"...You even leaked that to the kid, Makino?" Karatsu asked, in real shock.
"Um, where did you get something like this, Ms. Makino?" Michi asked, also surprised.
Makino grinned. "I have a friend who's a very skilled hacker," she answered, as if it was something completely normal. Michi realised again that to these people, the abnormal was totally normal.
Aya, in complete shock, finally managed to say, "You did a good job to get this far too, Ritsuko." Ritsuko looked a little happy to hear it.
"First, the hidden room behind Millais' painting in the headmistress' office. That was the first thing I noticed. I'm chairwoman of the committee, so I go into the room to replace the flowers every day, right? I thought something was weird about it. Then I visited people who have lived in the town for ages, and former students. They told me quite a lot. I don't know whether the people in this little town like rumours, or just talking. Anyway, that's how I found out about the Ophelia Album. I talked to Mary, too, and she gave me a photo. Then Kasumi went missing and was found dead, so I contacted Ms. Makino."
"When I heard about a body being found all cut up, I sent out emails to all of the funeral homes in the area and, as I'd expected, got picked up," said Makino.
"She thought maybe she might not be able to handle it by herself, so she brought along Mr. Karatsu."
"Well, there's nothing we can do about what's on the news, but we can do something here."
"So... You mean that the headmistress would get a photo of the girl to be sacrificed and put them in the shrine for the yuukon rite all this time? But how did she get the photos? Wouldn't it be weird if that many girls from the area suddenly vanished?" Michi asked Ritsuko, wanting to know further details.
"Our school is pretty prestigious, right? It gets so many applicants for middle and high school. That's where the photos come from."
"I get it... the applicants' ID photos..."
"Yeah. She could choose from them who to cast the curse on. If she chose applicants not only from this area but other places, too, then even if once every few years a teenage girl applying from somewhere else went missing, it may cause a bit of a stir in her hometown, but no one would think there would be a connection. There are lots of missing girls on the news, so they'd forget right away."
"So does that mean the disappearances this time were the work of the headmistress' curse, too?" Makino said.
"I wonder," said Karatsu, folding his arms.
"Before, the missing girls only vanished," Michi said after a long silence, "but now they're showing up dead and cut up. It's being done differently. I think some other criminal is doing this," Michi said, talking about the curse as though it had been a fairytale, but dragged back to reality but the word "criminal".
"Right." Karatsu nodded. "It started with Susumu's photo of Maya's ghost being mistaken for Aya, and the girls at the school turning it into a simple love charm about a curse that only affects girls. But Maya's dead."
"So you mean it ended up as the yuukon rite where they're joined in the other world?" Michi said, and Karatsu nodded.
"Something like these murders happened here about ten years ago, too."
"When we hacked into the local police's computer records, we found a case from twelve years ago when a student at this academy was found cut up. The perpetrator was never arrested." Ritsuko talked about hacking the police so calmly.
"It's my fault," Aya said, her face tight. "If the headmistress' lover cursed her for betraying her, then I think I must have been cursed by Maya for betraying her, too. I did the same thing the headmistress did. I let Maya die by herself. I wish I had died with her, but I survived. So Maya hates me, like the headmistress' lover, and cursed me." Michi could tell that Aya's voice was trembling from the profound sense of sin she felt.
"That's not true," Michi argued desperately. "Maya's your sister, right? She'd never curse you."
"But we all know the truth - a photo that looked just like me was inside that album. It was the photo Susumu took of Maya's ghost, and everyone started performing the yuukon rit with Maya in order to curse me. Maya ended up being sacrificed herself. I'm the primary cause of the curse for failing Maya," Aya blurted out. Karatsu patted her lightly on the shoulder.
"Don't dwell on it too much. I get the feeling that the truth is just a little bit ahead of us. The problem right now is how we remove the curse."
"Remove the curse?"
"That's right. I think that there are a few curses all tangled up. We've got to untangle them. You guys don't want to lose anyone else, right?"
No, thought Michi. Only video games ended with solving the curse. We don't want a video game answer. I want us all to graduate together, no one else dying, and sing the Ophelia Song. I'll do anything I have to so that it happens.
Michi nodded. Aya and Ritsuko followed. They both thought the same thing she did. We'll end this curse with our own strength and become adults.
The constellations in the night sky outside of the AV room alerted them to the changing of the seasons.