First of all, we did a once-over of the mansion by torchlight. Its aura had been swirling around before we entered, but once we were inside it went perfectly silent, quelled. It momentarily made me wonder if the fear I felt earlier had been a hallucination. But that had felt horrible, like being at the bottom of a building pile of heavily falling snow. Being relaxed, because it's too silent for anything to be falling, then it piling up into a mountain so big that everything around you is completely covered in it, and instantly being crushed...
Miku. If you can hear me, Miku, answer me, I prayed silently over and over as parts of the mansion were illuminated by the torch. Though we have strong sixth senses, they're different from those of people with psychic abilities (though I've only heard stories about those kinds of people existing). Sometimes we hear voices that can't be heard, or things that other people wouldn't think about appear in our heads, though these things don't happen consciously to us. However, maybe if I wished it hard enough, I could convey my thoughts to Miku. I clung to that thought.
"Wowww, it's amazing. Everything here looks just like Himuro Mansion in the game, huh? The mirror in the hallway, the hearth in the dirt floor, the old Japanese chests of drawers and the decorative suits of armour and hanging scrolls... each thing is identical to it. This mansion really has been reproduced in the game with such faithfulness," said Mr. Ioka.
"Are they really that similar?"
"If there was a girl here it'd be perfect."
"Huh, a girl?"
"Ah - you've played the game too, right, Hinasaki?"
"Yeah. But I ran out of health and got a game over partway through. I'd used up all my Herbal Medicine and Sacred Water, and picked up pretty much all of the Stone Mirrors." They were all healing items.
"I've beaten it three times. Oh - the girl thing was a joke, of course. She's a ghost in the game, after all. If she was really here, I'd be freaked out."
So it was a joke? I was somewhat disgruntled by his insensitivity, but was humbled by his passion for work.
It had been only three days since I had got the game's beta version. As I thought about that, Mr. Ioka smiled brightly.
"I'd have to scold the chief editor, though. You can't just do nothing but play games while you're working."
"Speaking of which, Mr. Ioka, you look just like the editor from the game, Koji Ogata. Doesn't that feel strange?" I said, and Mr. Ioka tilted his head, mystified.
"Like Ogata? Cut it out. Just because we're both editors, that doesn't make us the same. Hey, I have brown hair, right?" Mr. Ogata shone the torch on his brown hair.
His words made me feel uncomfortable, but I didn't pursue it any further. Even if I'd tried, I wouldn't have known how to try to explain it, and I felt that over-complicating things would be troublesome.
"But if you looked so alike you could see it in the sketch in the plot data," I said casually as I walked.
"That's right. Anyway, Mr. Shibaguchi isn't so talkative. It'd be nice if he'd say something."
But Mr. Shibaguchi remained silent. Looking at him in profile, and not just because of the darkness, he was clearly cold and stiff. Perhaps it was my imagination, but he seemed to be beginning to tremble.
"What's wrong, Mr. Shibaguchi?" Mr. Ioka asked, perhaps sensing that something was strange.
"Something's different," he answered, after quite some time had passed.
"Different? What is?"
"I really did model it on this mansion. But even though I used its atmosphere as a thorough reference, but the floor plan and the items here are completely different."
"What are you talking about? It's just alike, right? Don't try to take us for a ride like that," Mr. Ioka said with a smile as Mr. Shibaguchi's face tightened further.
"I'm not lying. The last time I came here, it was completely different. It was in a better condition than this, good enough for someone to stay the night here. But this time it looks just like the Himuro Mansion we created for the game."
"T-that's..." Mr. Ioka looked at me, his brows knitted.
Mr. Shibaguchi's trembling grew more intense. He finally held his head in both hands, crouching down where he stood. At that moment, I sensed the aura, which had until then drawn back like a dried-up lake, suddenly came back in a wave, engulfing us. Here and there pillars creaked, and though there was no breeze the torn paper in the screens fluttered. From somewhere I heard the pitter patter of a child running barefoot.
"Did you hear that just now?" Mr. Ioka asked me. It looked like something weird was beginning to happen in this mansion, something strange enough for even someone without a sixth sense to notice it.
"Anyway, let's take a rest somewhere. It would be better to come up with some kind of plan rather than just wandering around aimlessly."
Along with Mr. Ioka, I helped Mr. Shibaguchi up. We chose the steps that exited onto the sakura tree courtyard as our rest spot. I was grateful to have a place where I could breathe the outdoor air, rather than being shut up in a room. Even as we sat there, Mr. Shibaguchi's body continued to shiver. Maybe the temperature had dropped, since it was nighttime, but I wouldn't say that it was cold.
Mr. Shibaguchi wrapped the blanket he'd brought from home around himself. Even still, his trembling didn't cease. I knew the cause. He wasn't shivering due to any perceived cold. It was extreme fear that was causing his body to shake. I sat down beside Mr. Shibaguchi and gently placed my hand on his shoulder.
"Don't be afraid by yourself. Talk to me."
Mr. Shibaguchi was silent. I was conscious that first, I had to concentrate on calming myself down. I desperately wanted to search for Miku, but if I just impatiently wandered around and prayed to find her, I would simply be slowing myself down. I would first have to ask Mr. Shibaguchi about this mansion in more detail. I thought it would be wise to use that to take a guess what to do next.
Ghosts are good at reading human emotions. If they sensed our fear, they might get bolder. In order to prevent that, it was important for me to calm down, and help relieve Mr. Shibaguchi's fear. Patiently, like using hypnosis, I encouraged him to speak to me. Even though Mr. Ioka didn't know what was going on he seemed to sense that I was trying to do something, and watched the course of events from where he sat.
Perhaps about 10 minutes passed. Mr. Shibaguchi finally spoke. "It was all my idea to use this mansion for research when we were making 'Zero ~zero~'. Actually, the last time I came here it had this kind of atmosphere, which made me feel strange, but there were no ghosts or strange phenomena or anything like that whatsoever. I gradually got bolder, to the point where I stayed the night. But when I went back to Tokyo, strange things I couldn't explain started happening."
"Things like the ones you told me about on the train, right?"
"Yeah. And things other than that..." He spoke from his chest, like he was putting all his effort into turning a flywheel.
"After I came here to research, the image I had in my head gradually began to get clearer, become more concrete. As I kept imagining it, it was just like rather than coming it myself someone was manipulating me to their own will. Even when I should've been sleeping, the scenario kept coming to me, thing that I didn't remember but that I clearly saw the image of. Of course, maybe Kitaike helped me out with things I didn't know, but even then...
"I didn't really notice it during creation, but when it was complete, my memories suddenly returned and I noticed that it was hugely different from the mansion I'd visited, and if I got the chance I wanted to come back. When Mr. Ioka told me that you were going to be coming here to do research for the novelisation, I thought it was as good a chance as any, and decided to come along. But that something like this could really..." Mr. Shibaguchi's story ended, and he again held his head. And then, suddenly, a voice.
"But, now, now you're here, where, where on earth are we?"
Having dropped my gaze to the stones scattered across the courtyard, I immediately looked up and scanned the area. That voice undoubtedly belonged to Mr. Takamine. But I couldn't see a figure resembling him in the area.
That wasn't the only surprising thing. Mr. Ioka was gone from where he was only just sitting on the steps.
"Mr. Ioka?" I called, my voice echoing around us, but there was no response.
"Mr. Shibaguchi, where is Mr. Ioka?"
"'Mr. Ioka'? Who's that?" Mr. Shibaguchi said, looking down.
I froze in shock. That was Mr. Takamine's voice. Mr. Shibaguchi quickly stood, turning his back to me, and walked out into the sakura tree courtyard. With each step he took his figure became more and more hazy in the mist, and changed into the form of Mr. Takamine.
"Mr. Takamine?"As I called he stopped, and turned slowly. But his face was stained with fresh blood. Frightened, I let out a scream. My voice, high-pitched, echoed throughout the garden, as petals danced as they fluttered down from the moonlit sakura tree. Like the way the small number of petals seemed to be erased, Mr. Takamine suddenly vanished. The shocking events continued.
I muttered unconsciously. "Now my brother, having come this far, was sure it was Mr. Takamine."
Miku! I tried to call out, but couldn't make the words. In its place, I heard murmured, "Mafuyu?"
It was Miku's voice - but it came from my mouth. I looked closely at my hand. The thin white fingers were not the ones I was used to having as my own. Unbelievably, I was becoming Miku.
I desperately called out to Miku. Miku held a torch in her hand, walking along the mansion's hallway. Miku. Miku, I'm here! I called, astonished. Even if I said "I'm here", where exactly was I? No, I had vanished. Only my consciousness remained, my body assimilated into Miku's. My body was Miku's, I saw from her viewpoint, and not only that but I even sensed what Miku was thinking. But because of this, I couldn't contact her.
Even though I desperately prayed in my thoughts, I could only hear them faintly in my ears turned into Miku's, sounding like something misheard. It was so weak that Miku quickly thought she was imagining it. Her feelings were acutely conveyed to me. I could use a simile, say it was like picking them up, but it wasn't like that. It was like two sheets of glass glued together, nothing between us, overlapping perfectly.
I suddenly began to sob. I could hear no one and no one could hear me as the tears spilled out. The cause of it was Miku's feelings. Mafuyu, where are you? Please, show yourself. I want to see that you're okay. Had Miku been thinking about me like this all this time? That she had purposely come this far all alone, to look for me...
Me... me... my... from... from in front...