The headmistress peered into the dam that had once been a lake. Beneath it was a sunken village, and houses. The village had stood on the edge of the lake. I wonder if she's still at the bottom of the lake now, thought the headmistress. The scenery flipped around, taking her back to the past. The area was enveloped in darkness. She could hear the rhythmic sound of water dripping, like pressing one key of a piano at a time.
The girl the headmistress had loved stood at the bottom of the darkness, her body seethrough. She smelled strongly of mint - her favourite smell. She always put a single mint leaf in my tea, the headmistress recalled.
"This happened because you wouldn't sacrifice anyone to me after Maya, my sister. Do you see? All that will happen if you don't sacrifice is the sacrifices creating more sacrifices."
Her face contorted with grief, a stream of tears fell from the headmistress' eyes. They slid down her cheek, dripping into the water. "Forgive me now..."
"No. I told you I wouldn't forgive you, did I not? Even if you destroy the shrine and try to stop the ritual, my curse will go on."
She was right. After the terrible thing she had done she had made her mind up to destroy the shrine, but one day, after she had done it, a worship hall had appeared on the other side of the Ophelia painting in her office. The shrine's basement, which should have been a mere storeroom, was flooded with water, the album - which she had tossed into the lake, deciding not to create any more sacrifices - floating in it.
"Do you understand now? Girls will keep dying. It's all your fault for betraying me, my sister."
Tears no longer fell from the headmistress' eyes. She had forbidden herself from crying about her own plight. It was the punishment she had given herself. She had to hold back the tears.
"What a fool you are. However hard you try to escape your destiny, everyone around you will seek sacrifices. You remember, don't you, what it was that made you want to destroy the shrine? It was my curse."
Oh, of course, thought the headmistress. Of course it was. After killing Maya, the headmistress had gone to the mountain shrine to put Maya and the girl's photos side by side in the album. The highschool student Taruho Saginomiya had been there, clutching a saw and standing in a pool of blood. She smelled bad - it was the intense smell of dead meat, the kind of thing you never forgot.
"Ms. Saginomiya? What are you doing?"
The headmistress looked at Taruho Saginomiya's bloodstained face. Beneath her lay limbs she had chopped up with the saw. They look like silent doll parts - but it was a human body.
"Can't you see? I killed her. This dreadful girl tried to seduce my Takashi. I told her this would happen, but she ignored me."
"But... No, you're wrong. What a terrible thing to do, to kill someone..."
"Oh, don't make me laugh. Didn't you just murder someone yourself not long ago, Headmistress?"
"What?" The headmistress felt as the the earth beneath her feet had crumbled and she had been tossed into an empty space. She literally stopped breathing.
"I saw you..." Taruho stood, bloody, before the headmistress, staring right at her. "I was watching from start to finish when you pushed that girl," she said, as though she saw the headmistress as being the same kind of person as her.
I'm not like you, she wanted to say, but the headmistress saw Maya's final moments again. The hand outstretched towards Maya. Her voice, squeezed from her throat. The sound of water. She's right. I'm a murderer, just like her.
"I would be happy enough to give myself up to the police, but if I do, I tell them all about what I saw earlier," Taruho said, elated.
The headmistress had lost. Taruho wiped her bloody face, but all it did was add fresh bloodstains. Her hands were soaked in blood, too.
"Then let's keep each other's secrets. That sounds good. This worship hall is covered in blood, so I will destroy the building to conceal the evidence and rebuild it. I will pay. I have my parents' inheritance. Takashi can live off the money for a long time, too, without having to do anything. I will make a donation to the school, so please rebuild the shrine there."
You see? said her lover's voice. For the sin of sacrificing me, you must produce sacrifices as punishment. You may not punish those who seek sacrifices. That is a punishment, too.
Yes - I took on that sin, the headmistress thought. It will simply go around and around, like a chorus singing in a round. I can't stop it.
That was what gave birth to the curious co-conspiratorial relationship between Taruho Saginomiya and the headmistress. Taruho graduated from the school and went on to a local university, then obtained her teaching licence and returned to the academy. They both held the same secret, keeping watch over each other. Perhaps, in a manner of speaking, they were friends. They shared a taboo that no one else could know. That was what it meant to kill a person. Something is definitively different between people who have killed and those who haven't. So, in a way, the two stood on the same side of good and evil. They could never go back to the other side.
"What happened after that?" Karatsu muttered suddenly. The girls looked at him in surprise. He kept his eyes closed, palms pressed together. Makino put her finger to her lips and shushed them.
"Don't worry. Karatsu's, um, working right now."
Michi realised that Karatsu was following the thoughts of the headmistress and the girl fixated on her again.
The headmistress stood opposite the seethrough girl beside the dam. The girl, giving off a strong minty smell, stared at the headmistress.
"So you think I'll accept the excuse that you can't sacrifice anyone else because Taruho Saginomiya has found out your secret, my dear sister?" The girl gave a tinkling laugh. She was as beautiful as an angel. The headmistress remembered the days when she had loved the girl. It had been a honeymoon - but it hadn't lasted. Spring is short, and the seasons change.
"Forgive me..." the headmistress pleaded once more. The girl shook her head slowly.
"No, my sister. Your conscience may be hurting now, but I won't forgive you. Do you see? Even if you throw yourself into the lake trying to atone for your sins with your own life, you will wake up on the bed in your room as always. However many times you jump. You can't die. That is the curse..."
She was right. How many times had she thrown herself into the waters of this lake? But she always woke up in her own bed, her nightclothes wet through, the only thing telling her that it hadn't been a dream. Someone kept twisting the strings of fate. They were wound tightly around the headmistress' fingers, and would never end. I can't get out of here, thought the headmistress. The thread will continue on forever, until the end of the world.
"I think I'm starting to get it," Karatsu said finally.
"Doesn't your sixth sense seem weirdly strong today, Karatsu?"
"Yeah. I generally can't get a very good grip on such an old ghost, but it looks like there's a girl here with power close to my own." Michi was surprised. "It's you, isn't it?" he said, looking at her. "Thank you." For the first time, someone else had been grateful for Michi's horrible power. "The headmistress is cursed, too. It looks like we need to separate that curse from Maya's."
"What do you mean?" Ritsuko asked.
"I mean, we have to save Maya's soul," said Karatsu.
"How do we do that?" Aya said, looking at him. Ritsuko knew that it was Aya's utmost desire.
"Leave it to us. It's our job to think of that." Karatsu looked at Aya. She nodded, relieved.
The next day, headed for the shrine deep inside the forest, Aya and Michi walked up the hill. They were going to curse Aya herself. Karatsu had suggested it to her. It was dangerous, but Aya had decided to do it immediately. Karatsu's plan involved Aya cursing Maya herself. She had the Ophelia Album clutched to her chest.
"Are you really sure about this, Aya?" Michi asked worriedly.,/p>
"Mr. Karatsu and Ms. Makino told is that we had to go to Maya and release her, didn't they?" Aya said plainly, having made her mind up long ago. "Someone has to go to her. Who can do it but me?"
"But what if you don't come back?" Michi really was worried. She had begun to think of Aya as more than a friend.
"It's going to be fine. You'll make sure to find me, won't you?"
Aya turned around and held out her hand to Michi, who held onto it. Aya squeezed hard in return. She trusts me, thought Michi. She nodded again.
When the two arrived at the shrine, they moved the same backwards-facing fox as the last time and went down into the underground room. It was the place where Risa had vanished for a time. They were scared. When did I start being scared of things? Michi thought curiously. Aya went down into the water, as if to say that it was okay, then opened the newest page of the album. The photo Susumu had taken of Maya was already there. Aya steeled herself and placed her own photo beside it. It was a printout of a photo Michi had taken earlier.
"That will do," Aya murmured, closing the album. The ritual was complete, and the curse should begin to stir. Michi put her hand on Aya's shoulder as Karatsu had told her to do. She felt "it" arrive. She looked around her, searching for Maya's ghost. The next second, she felt Aya vanish from beneath her right hand. She was gone.
"Aya?" Michi called in confusion. "Where did you go?" There was no response. "Are you gone? Aya...?"
She knew, but she was afraid. Michi flopped to the ground. A friendly glow flitted through the water momentarily, like a hitodama.
But there was no need to be in despair here. Aya and gone to Maya. That meant that if she followed her, they would know where Maya's ghost was. Pulling herself together, she took her mobile phone from her pocket and dialled a number.
"Aya just vanished," she announced.
Ritsuko, Risa, Susumu, Karatsu and Makino were assembled in the AV room. Perhaps because she had been dead for a while, Risa wasn't at full strength, but she had wanted to come and try to help. She wanted to go from behind someone who needed assistance to being someone who assisted others. They had summoned Susumu today, too. He was a little nervous at being told that he had an important role to play. Ritsuko was using the computer skilfully. The large monitor on the stage was split up into several tens of screens, each block showing a different image.
"Just like Mr. Karatsu said, we hacked into the security cameras across town and put them on the monitor. The drainage ditch, river and dam area, as well."
"The cursed girl appears and disappears around town as a ghost. According to Michi's memories, that's where Maya is, but we don't know where that is. So we had Aya curse herself, but we don't know where she'll appear. According to you, though, your camera often takes pictures of ghosts around water, right?" Karatsu said to Susumu, who nodded.
"My father said that ghosts often show up around water."
"That's where you come in. This monitor here shows all of the security camera footage from around town in places near water. Would you take a look at them with your dad's camera and tell us if you see any ghosts?"
"Yes, you, Susumu," Makino said, and Susumu's face brightened. As told by Karatsu, he peered through the camera's viewfinder and looked at the monitor.
"Playing the security camera footage on the monitor is all fine and everything, but can you really see Aya's ghost by looking at it with the camera?" Risa asked Makino.
"Ghosts and ethereal bodies are both a kind of thermal energy," Karatsu answered instead. "They're physical phenomena, so you can capture them with a camera's lens. The same goes for heat sensors and UV ray cameras. That camera's lens seems to be kind of special, though."
Hearing his father's camera called special made Susumu proud. Then, he let he let out a noise.
"What is it?" Ritsuko asked. Susumu pointed to one of the monitor frames.
"Could you enlarge this?"
They could see a silver tank high up in the forest. Makino moved the camera to it.
"...I can definitely see something," she said in surprise, looking at the camera. Ritsuko's phone began to ring.
"Michi? Did it go okay?"
"We did it just like Mr. Karatsu told us to. Aya just vanished."
"Her ghost appeared by a tank up in the mountains between the dam and the shrine," Ritsuko announced into the phone.
"Alright. That's not far from here," Michi said, hanging up.
"Well then... Next, Aya looks for Maya, and Michi finds Aya. It's all up to you guys whether or not you lift this curse," Karatsu said, and he and Makino stood up.
"This is where we say adieu," said Makino.
"Something came up, and we can't hang around here much longer." Karatsu laughed.
"Yeah. Things happened and we're being followed at the moment."
Risa made a worried face that said, I didn't hear that. But Ritsuko nodded. Oh, yes - I have to be strong like Ritsuko, she thought. But how?
"It's okay. Everything is done except what you guys have to do. We've set a bunch of things up. Whatever happens next, Aya has to remove this curse by herself. Besides, I put a bit of a curse on Michi so she won't lose sight of Aya. It's fine."
"Well, bye-ee, ladies!" Makino blew them a kiss.
Then, they left just as suddenly as they had arrived. To Risa, they seemed so cool they could be the heroes of a manga.