Camellias fell to the ground in the morning mist. Winter was drawing to an end. Michi gripped her phone tightly.
"Itsuki... Kasumi... Maybe I couldn't save you, but I will save Aya instead. I promise..."
The silver tank glittered dazzlingly in the morning sun. Michi followed the water towards it, where Aya should be.
How far had she walked? Where was she? Deep in the forest. Faint sunbeams. Clouds covered the sun, and suddenly night approached.
Have you ever dreamt of being killed? said an unfamiliar voice. About having your head torn off completely, falling to the ground like a doll?
Itsuki, thought Michi. Itsuki had been torn apart. Kasumi, too. She couldn't let that happen to Aya. She could hear birds taking flight admist the trees. Looking towards them, she saw the drainage ditch. Aya floated in the water, her eyes closed, like the moon.
"Aya...?" Michi murmured, her voice hoarse. "Aya? Are you... alive...?"
But Michi sensed someone else watching Aya. A man appeared. It was Takashi. Michi reflexsively hid herself in the shadow of the trees. Takashi hadn't noticed her. As if he saw only Aya, he bent down over her body as it lay there. Michi watched silently from the shadows.
"How wonderful. The girl she's been waiting for finally came," he said to Aya. 'She' must mean Maya, thought Michi. Aya sat up in the water and opened her eyes.
"Who are you?"
"...Who is waiting for me?"
"Her, Aya. You know who's been waiting for you, don't you?"
"How do you know my name?"
"I heard it from my sister."
"The one you call a nun. I really knew long ago, though. Maya told me." Takashi held out his hand to Aya. "Come with me... Maya is waiting. That's why you came here, isn't it?"
Yes. For Maya. The young man must be Maya's messenger, thought Aya, and stood. She couldn't go back now. If she could get to Maya, she would go with anyone.
The two went into the sea of trees. Michi followed them. Dark, lightless green. White breaths. Even the sound of their footsteps was absorbed by the earth. The leaves were still. A soundless world. To Michi, it seemed just like a world that wasn't anywhere. The undergrowth entangled, swaying. Michi felt as though she were wandering through the shallows, like a shell collector.
Without even knowing what had happened, Michi fell down a sudden slope in the forest. She had lost her footing. For a while, she couldn't breathe. Her right leg hurt. Michi bit her lip. She stood resolutely. Pain ran sharply from her leg to her head. Aya. She looked up at the slope she had fallen down. They weren't there. She had lost sight of Aya. She stared with her right, "them"-seeing eye in the direction of the tank, shrouded in morning mist. Suddenly she sensed someone behind her.
"Aya?" Michi tried to turn around, but something like a thin cord wrapped swiftly around her neck. "Who's there?"
"You, this time?"
Michi looked up, despite the pain from the string around her neck. It was a nun.
"I won't forgive any women who come here to steal Takashi's beloved."
Michi had no idea what the nun meant. The string bit into her neck. The nun was strangling her. She intended to kill her. She had to get away. But her consciousness began to fade.
When Michi blacked out, Aya's consciousness entered her. It was just like she was being possessed by a ghost, like Karatsu's strange power. Why can I do it? thought Michi.
Led by Takashi, Aya took his hand and walked onto the stream. Scenery passed by in the distance. The greenery was still tinged with winter. The sky was the clear blue of winter's end. But finally the sunlight vanished, and Aya and Takashi entered the dense forest of their rendezvous. The lake would be ahead - the lake into which flowed the river that Maya had been swept away by, that was now a dam.
But Takashi stopped long before the lake, then went down a side path. It's not that way, thought Aya, but he dragged her along behind him. Then, through the layers of leafless tree branches, she saw a silver glow. It was a water storage tank. Spiral stairs going up and up surrounded the silver tank. At the stop was a rusty iron door. Takashi stood at the bottom, pointing out the stairs to Aya.
There, for the first time, Aya realised that she stood beneath the water tank on her own two legs. She was out of breath. Her bare feet were bloody. It told her that she wasn't a ghost, but living flesh.
"Maya is here," Aya confirmed.
Aya climbed the spiral steps that Takashi pointed to. The iron door at the very top was open. Aya timidly peeked inside. It was dimly lit, and she couldn't see well. She leaned forwards. As she did so, someone pushed her hard in the back. Losing her balance, Aya simply fell into the tank - just like Maya back when she had fallen from the bridge. For a moment, Aya wondered if Maya had pushed her. She pushed against the water with her hands, poking her head out, desperately trying to grab onto the wall despite swallowing water, then let out her breath in a puff. That moment, Michi's consciousness was expelled from her.
Aya looked up from inside the water. She saw a young man with graceful features. He was Takashi. More than anything, Aya was pleased that it hadn't been Maya.
"She's been waiting for you for so long, Aya," Takashi said sadly from above.
"Yes. She was lonely, just like me. She's been looking for you for so long."
Aya put her hands to the wall, trying to climb up, but couldn't grab on. The water was deep, and she was sure she would drown.
"Help me," she tried to murmur, but water went into her mouth and no words came out.
Takashi leaned forwards, wanting to make sure of what was to come with his own eyes. He had finally managed to bring the girl she had been searching for to her. A girl slowly began to float up through the water in the tank. She's come to greet her, he thought. She was his Ophelia, who he had found on the banks of the dam and hidden in this silver water coffin. His Ophelia looked just like aya, her long hair floating in the water. He was deeply glad that he had finally the twin Ophelia.
Aya began to black out in the water, closing her eyes. Behind them, she saw an orange light. It seemed somehow warm.
She heard the blunt sound of a knife being brought down. It had been brought down within inches of her ear.
"Thank goodness. There would have been no point in killing you if you didn't wake up," she said when Michi opened her eyes, removing the knife.
Michi had slipped out of Aya's mind and woken up, returning to her body, but she couldn't speak. Her mind was back, but she couldn't use it to control her body properly. Michi had lost consciousness and been taken to the nun's house. Then she had put her on a large bed in the basement. Her limbs and neck were tied to the bed. It looks just like a murderer killing someone in the movies, thought Michi. The only thing that was different was that this was real. The nun was going to cut her head off.
The nun slowly polished the knife. It really was like a B horror movie. And yet it seemed to be reality. She couldn't even make a sound. The nun was obsessed with the murder she was about to commit. This girl will be a "thing" soon, she thought. It was strange. Even when she had been choked into unconsciousness, her body had given off messages that she was still alive, but if she died she would be an object in no time at all. Then she would no longer be able to convey or respond to anything. She would be an object, just like the knife, the saw she had prepared, and everything in the room. When she brought the knife down on her neck, she would be nothing more than a corpse. Something about it was so amusing, that for some time now, once she had begun to kill she couldn't stop.
The basement door opened and, sensing someone coming down the stairs, Taruho turned around. There stood Takashi, wet, his eyes blank.
His pupils dilated, his eyes deep black like ink. Takashi was always unstable, but something about him seemed different from usual to Taruho. She held him gently and stroked his cheek. His wet body cooled her. He glanced at Michi but didn't show any interest, simply standing in Taruho's arms.
"Did you go and see her again, Takashi?" Taruho questioned.
Takashi couldn't speak properly in front of Taruho. He wondered why, but the words always got stuck in his throat. It would be pointless to say anything to her. Meanwhile, Taruho gazed belovedly at him.
"I know. She's important to you - that beautiful drowned corpse. Like father like son, hm? It's okay. I will kill everyone who tries to get near your Ophelia, however many it takes."
Her face was not that of a nun, teacher or sister, but of a mere murderer. Most people would never kill a person. It would drive them crazy. But she was different. She felt joy from killing. Takashi had always been silent about it - But today is different, he thought. Today I have to say what I really think.
Takashi gently put both hands over Taruho's hand against his cheek. He couldn't upset her.
"She was searching for someone else, not me," he said seriously, his voice quiet but clear. "So, in her place, I put the girls' photos from the confessional at St. Loudun's in the Ophelia Album."
The nun didn't seem to be able to take in what Takashi was saying, but Michi understood right away. It was the legend told at St. Loudun's about putting your photos side by side in the confessional. But nothing really happened. Someone had to put the photos in the album. It was Takashi who had been doing it. He was the one who had finally set the curse in motion. The nun finally understood what Takashi was saying, but couldn't help but try to deny it.
"What are you talking about, Takashi? Those foolish girls at the school did the curse ritual and tried to get close to your Ophelia, didn't they? So I killed them for you."
"No. I was always helping her look for the girl she was searching for, but you kept killing them. I finally found her, though."
"I don't know what you're talking about. We'll talk about this later. First, let me kill this girl."
Taruho had killed the foolish girls who tried to get near the drowned bride Takashi had found, but he said he was the one who had called them. Then what had she been doing? Taruho was confused. But first she had to kill the girl. She picked up the knife again. Michi still made no sound, and wasn't moving. Karatsu had told her it was alright, but she wasn't alright at all. She felt like she had been betrayed. But then she saw a flash of light; the loud sound of a shutter clicking. Taruho's hand stilled.
"Who's there?" She strained her eyes.
"Hello there. It's Maaary." Mary grinned, wearing her usual white clothes with white ribbons, a smartphone in one hand. Then she moved over to the dazed Taruho and took her knife. She had been too slow.
Michi went limp. She had let out all of her tension at once, and couldn't speak.
"Sorry. I've been following you this whole time, like that Karatsu guy told me too, but I had to put you through this for a while to get concrete evidence."
She knew that Mary had saved her, but not so much how Mary had come to help. The knife still in her hand, Mary glared at the nun.
"I've been investigating you for a long time, but just couldn't pin you down." She was quite intense.
"Who are you?" Taruho asked, her voice trembling. Mary's face contorted.
"Hm, you don't remember?"
Takashi tugged on Taruho's hand, telling her to run.
"Fleeing, are we?" said Mary in response, lowering the knife. As she did so, embracing Taruho and fleeing from the basement.
"Are you okay?" Mary asked Michi on the bed.
"Go after them, quick! They're getting away," Michi finally managed to say, but nothing more would come out.
Mary took off the belts that held Michi's body to the bed.
"It's fine. I recorded the woman and her brother's conversation, and they'll be able to extract DNA or something from her bloody fingerprints in this basement. And there's that photo I took earlier. We have plenty of evidence. I guess now that we have phones that can take pictures, though, even if he'd been alive we still wouldn't have the photo studio." Mary spoke with a face that was both Mary and Kazumi.
"But... you..." Michi couldn't swallow the meaning of Mary's actions.
"You mean who am I? I'm just a weird old lady, as you know. But that was all just an act, one I put on while I was investigating Taruho Saginomiya. There was a student at that St. Loudun's school you guys go to who died about twelve years ago. She was the victim of a dismembering. She was my best friend. She was really pretty, popular with everyone. And yet, for some reason, she became friends with me, someone who wasn't pretty with no redeeming features. I was just one of her many friends, but she was my only one. Before her body was found, the last one I saw her with was Taruho Saginomiya, and it looked really suspicious. So I pretended to be a stalker, looking into her this whole time. I even tried putting photos of me and her in the Ophelia Album. However much I sniffed around, no one noticed. But I'm glad I could save you."
Michi looked at Mary, smiling quietly. "Thank you."
"It's not like I did it for you or anything. I just freed myself from my own curse. Now you guys have to remove yours."
I get it. So everony has to remove their own curses like this, one by one, thought Michi. Then, her phone rang.
"Michi... Are you okay?" said Ritsuko.
"Mary saved me."
"Thank God. Just like Mr. Karatsu said. Now there's just Aya." Ritsuko told Michi that Susumu's camera had shown Aya's ghost in the water tank.
"Right. I have to hurry. I felt her fall into the tank, too. I was inside her head," Michi said, then stopped herself, afraid of scaring her.
"Michi..." But Ritsuko wasn't. "Isn't that amazing? Just like Mr. Karatsu."
"Yeah," Michi said, for the first time feeling her ability validated by someone else.
"Risa and me will come, too. Wait for us," Ritsuko said and hung up.
Okay, let's go and save Aya, thought Michi.