"The girl in the white kimono... Kirie. Is that the girl's name?" Miku murmured to herself as she closed the notebook.
"That's right. Her name is Kirie," said a man's voice from behind her. Miku jumped at its suddenness, straightening up and turning around. In her shock she almost dropped the torch and Camera Obscura in her hands, but knelt and scooped them up.
"Sorry, did I scare you? You're Miku Hinasaki, right?" the man said. Miku, still nervous, vaguely replied 'Yes' as she observed him.
He was a young man, wearing a denim vest. She hadn't met him before, and yet somehow he knew her name...?
Barely managing to ask 'Who are you...?' took all of her strength.
"'Scuse me. I'm Ioka of MediaWorks. I'm the guy who asked your big brother to do this game novelisation, so maybe you've heard of me."
"You were the one who gave my brother the novelisation work?" Miku tilted her head.
The man called Ioka smiled complacently. "I know all about what happened. The way you told him not to accept this job."
"Did my brother tell you that?"
"No. I read it in the novel. It's written in the novel version of the game 'Zero ~zero~', the one I asked your brother to write."
The man took a book from the shoulder bag slung over his shoulder. He flipped through several pages at the start. "Got it, got it. Here. Uhh, let me read it to you." He read it aloud triumphantly. "But... The next day, when I was heading out for the meeting, I was stopped by my little sister with whom I lived. 'Don't go to that meeting,' she said suddenly. That's what it says. Right at the start of the novel."
"Did my brother really write that?" Miku asked, and the man passed the book over to her.
Miku gasped. The illustration on the cover showed her, lying on the ground with ropes tied to her wrists. It was titled 'Zero -zero-', and the author was listed as having the name of her brother, "Mafuyu Hinasaki".
"Take a look at the publication data. Isn't that exactly the same name as your brother?"
With trembling hands, she turned to the final page, and his name was there, too. He really had been writing something for work. But she'd heard nothing about it having been published or anything like that, and not once had he mentioned work to her.
"What on earth...?" The question in Miku's head tumbled out of her mouth. "...How did you get this book? And for that matter, why are you in a place like this?"
"Why do you think?"
The man took the book back from Miku's hands, put it back in the bag, and returned the question. A seemingly mocking smile appeared on his face.
"Could it be that you came here with Mr. Takamine, for research?" Hearing Miku's words the man chuckled, like what she had said was too amusing for him to bear. "What's so funny?" Miku asked, disgruntled. Why was he laughing at her like a fool for no reason? She had no idea.
As the man said 'Sorry, sorry', his expression was still one of ridicule, and he seemed to look down on the short Miku. Chewing on her lip in chagrin, she stared back at him. Inside the dark, abandoned mansion, the strange staring contest continued.
Finally - though it couldn't have been more than twenty or thirty seconds, it seemed more like ten times that to Miku - the man slowly opened his mouth. "That's right, you're Miku Hinasaki from the game."
"What do you mean 'in the game'?" Miku asked, confused.
The man, as if confirming something to himself, said 'I see, I see, so that's how it is...' over and over, nodding his head. "Then I have to change how I interact with you," he said, nodding his head deeply.
The way he bowed his head was not normal. His head seemed to dangle before him, like he had no spine.
"Mr. Ioka..." Miku called out the name he had given her. When she did so, he spoke with his head still down.
"No, my name is Koji Ogata, the editor who represents Mr. Takamine in magazines. I came to this mansion with Mr. Takamine and Hirasaka to do research. Then I vanished, and your brother came here looking for us."
"Then, you've met my brother?"
"You could say that."
"What do you mean?" Miku spoke in a harsher tone. Even at this stage, he was still mocking her?
"Doesn't look like you've noticed, Miku." He continued talking with his head down. "That you and me both, we're just characters in the game."
"Characters in the game?"
"Yeah. We're no more than characters in the game 'Zero ~zero~' released by Tecmo. We only exist in the virtual world; we're not real."
It was so stupid that a wry smile appeared on Miku's lips. Joking around when you're trapped in a mansion is poor form. Normally, she wouldn't have got involved and just left. But she couldn't do that now.
At least this man knew something about her brother.
If she wanted to get some kind of clue, she would have to be patient and tolerate his remarks without taking them seriously. Miku bottled up her feelings of irritation and spoke. "Teasing people at a time like this is a really poor hobby. Where's my brother? If you know, please tell me."
"How much do you talk about your past?" the man said, ignoring her question.
"Please, stop that."
"If you will, let's talk about it. What do you say? Can you do it?" He was persistent. Miku felt as though she was trying to get rid of a pest that wouldn't give up.
"Of course. I'm Miku Hinasaki, 17 years old. Unfortunately both of my parents have passed away, but I have a brother. As you know, he's Mafuyu Hinasaki, a journalist."
"Enough about your family. What about your friends?"
She did have companions she spoke to at school. But when asked if they were really her friends, she couldn't answer immediately. The man spoke.
"She is often with friends, but won't let them get too close. The only one she truly opens up to is her brother Mafuyu, the only one who understands her power."
"How do you know...?"
"It's simple. It's written in your character background."
"That's a lie. You heard it from my brother, didn't you? You must've done," Miku retorted, leaning forwards.
"Then name one of your classmates. Anyone will do."
"That's easy. In class, I always meet up with..." Miku paused, her lips still slightly open. She couldn't think of any one of her classmates' names.
Calm down. Think calmly. You're just confused because of the situation. In class, you always speak to...
She tried to bring a face to mind, but her mind wandered, and nothing came to her.
"Not just your classmates. Can you tell me the name of your school? Where the school is, or what kind of building it is? Not just your current school. Do you remember the names of the elementary and middle schools you came through? Can you tell me the name of even one of your classmates from back then?
"Or something you're even more familiar with. How did you get to this mansion? Can you answer that? The basic things, like which train you took, or from which station?" he asked in rapid fire.
As she listened, Miku could only stand there, feeling like a broken puppet. She couldn't remember a single thing. Things she had naturally known until now, which when she tried to recall she simply couldn't; her mind was blank. Like if she opened the door to her memories, the inside would be empty.
"It's natural for nothing to come to mind. It's because your background wasn't thought about up until that point." The man turned a piteous gaze at her.
"You're lying. That's impossible." Miku's head snapped up angrily. This man was looking down on her. Her memory must just be temporarily impaired due to being asked in such a high-handed manner in the extreme situation of being in a mansion like this.
Perhaps it was some kind of leading question - it was like hypnosis. Miku puffed out her chest and took a big, deep breath. She could feel the damp, musty air inside the mansion pass through her windpipe and enter her lungs. Its freshness was proof that she was alive.
She took several more deep breaths, then spoke calmly. "For as long as I can remember, my brother and I have been able to see impossible things... My brother was such a kind person. He was the only one I, who could see things other people couldn't, could open up to. After our mother's death, he was my only family..." As soon as she began speaking, the words kept pouring out of her mouth. "This is Himuro Mansion... My brother was looking for 'him'. Junsei Takamine, a famous author and my brother's benefactor. Mr. Takamine vanished while out researching. When my brother told me he knew where Mr. Takamine was, I felt like he was going somewhere far away..."
The man cut into Miku's flowing speech, interrupting her. "It's been two weeks since my brother last contacted me. Using the note he left as a clue, I came here. It was a strange feeling, like I was being called by something..." She felt as though someone had pushed her off a hill with all their might. The words the man spoke were the words she had been about to say.
"Lies... You have to be lying..."
"Maybe it's a shock to you, but it's the truth. After that I, Koji Ogata, meet you here at Himuro Mansion, and what happens then is already detailed in the data. It's nasty. Here, take a look." He held his hands out. On his wrists, she could clearly see rope marks.
"Not just my wrists. Take a look here, too." He opened his shirt collar. On the nape of his neck, too, were marks of a rope being tightly wound, a red-black bruise.
"That's horrible..." Miku murmured, and as soon as she did so a rough, monochrome video played in her head.
There was a man in front of her. Terrified, he hid himself in a closet. But countless arms immediately reached out at him from all directions inside the closet, randomly groping about for him. At some point ropes were tied around his wrists, ankles and neck, and the next second they were suddenly tugged...
"Noooooooooo!" The screams of the man in the video's scream and Miku's own cry overlapped. She crouched down and covered her face.
No. This... None of it's true. It's complete nonsense.
She rejected the reality she saw before her, feeling uncomfortable, like something was weighing on her. Discomfort seemed to well up from inside her stomach. It was the usual sign she got that a ghost was nearby.
Her head shot up, and standing there was the corpse of the man from before. The dead flesh of his face was horribly decayed, and maggots plopped out of tears in his cheeks and mouth. His white eyeballs stared into blank space, and his arms were stretched out, straining and grabbing at the air.
"Ropes... More ropes... There are more... more and more ropes..." he muttered hollowly as he chased after Miku. Miku, having fallen on her backside, earnestly crawled away from the man. Unlike the man from just a minute before, he was in no state to be talking with. He had turned into a ghost. No... he had been dead before he appeared in front of Miku.
He was a mass of the malice released when he was killed, so frightened, jealous of the living Miku, and was ranting about untrue things. Then Miku would be confused, and he could possess, curse and kill her.
"The key is gone... Where is it...? Oh, Mr. Takamine... Hirasaka... Where... Where did you go...?"
"No, don't come near me!"
She tried to stand, but her foot slipped, and Miku toppled over. But if she stopped moving, the man's ghost would possess her. Holding the torch and Camera Obscura tightly in her arms, she rolled across the floor. She thought that if she could get enough distance between them she could photograph him with the camera and seal him away.
But the floor was rotten. Her skirt caught on it, and the splintered floorboards pricked her soft thighs. A wrinkle creased her shapely brow and she bit her lip as she turned herself around, but she dropped the Camera Obscura. This is bad, she thought, unable to stop herself from recoiling; unfortunately, the man's ghost had already passed over the camera.
Soon, she would be driven into the corner. She somehow managed to sit up. There was about three metres between Miku and the camera, in the middle of which the man stood. Her body stiffened with fear. Large, involuntary tears began to fall, blurring her vision.
It's hopeless, there's nothing I can do.
At this rate, the man would possess her, and his rage would stop her heart. Amidst the fear and confusion, her mind was blank.
My head's blank...
The word caught her attention. Was her memory blank because she wasn't a real person? Was she really just a character created for a game?
"No, that's not it," she muttered. It was all just a lie by the man.
She didn't know what kind of a person he had been when he was alive. But he had suffered, and now he was a ghost with nothing left but anger, hating the living. So he derided people with lies, sending the living into despair, making them suffer, so they could experience what he did.
She had encountered those kinds of spirits many times before. But this time it was so shocking that she had lost the strength to decipher it. And being in such a strange place, she was experiencing more realistic paranormal phenomena than ever before. She couldn't judge it calmly, and there was no one else to help her out.
But she was okay. She hadn't come this far just to be killed by a ghost. Yes, he was a ghost - in other words, he didn't exist. If she was just frightened and passive he would take advantage of that, and it would be all over.
If she gathered her courage and faced him, she should be able to cope.
I can do it. If I am real, and he's a ghost, there's no reason I can't get through it. But if, like he said before, I'm a character in the game...
For a moment, these thoughts mixed around inside her head. But that was where they ended. The man was still trying to attack Miku. She couldn't escape. If things kept going like this, she would just be killed. But if she went against him, she'd be destroyed. Because she was a real person.
Chewing on her lip, Miku assumed a posture as though she was about to dive into a pool, faced the man and charged at him. She couldn't predict how he would react to it. He stretched out his arms, holding them aloft, trying to grab at her. She rushed headfirst through the area around his abdomen.
The sensation was not like running through a liquid - more like something made of gel. And rather than pushing her way through his body, as she ran through, it felt like it seeped gradually the pores on her entire body, making her tremble both inside and out.
She felt uncomfortable, like she was being turned inside out. Vomit rose up in her throat mixed with bittersweet stomach acid which she desperately tried to keep down. Before, she'd been touched by the woman's ghost. Then, he had tried to escape right until the end, and been caught.
But this time, albeit having no other way, she had gone body to body with the ghost and broken through. It went against Miku's habit she had had until then of quickly getting away when she saw a ghost or a ghostly thing.
She was aware of the pain. But it was natural to hurt. Because she was alive.
She wasn't a character in the game; she was a living person, flesh and blood. It was proved by the pain caused by making contact with the ghost, but also that she was fighting to stay alive.
Even with the resistance, like getting into a pool of coal tar, Miku concentrated on moving herself forwards. Something like smelly mucus filled her windpipe, lungs, her internal organs. It hurt so much she couldn't breathe. But it was because she was alive, it was because she was alive... She proceeded without stopping, that belief strong in her mind.
A layer of something like coal tar, or perhaps clay, covered her head, and it was like she was hopelessly struggling to get to a place she couldn't go. But she didn't give in, and kept moving forwards.
I'm alive. I'm alive, so I have to get out of this situation using my own strength.
She couldn't breathe. It hurt so much that it felt like the blood vessels in her body would rupture.
It's no good... No, I can't give up.
But... when she thought she was almost at the limit of the pain and strain she could take, the resistance holding her back vanished, like an obstacle before her had been removed.
Still bent over she threw herself forwards, like doing a forward roll in a mat exercise. Not taking the time to worry about the state of her skirt she rolled over, planting her backside on the floor with her knees still bent. It hurt, but even as she breathed in the dusty air, the fresh air made her feel better. It didn't hurt to breathe anymore.
Hair dishevelled, she looked back over her shoulder and saw the man's ghost behind her. She had made it through him successfully. She was panting hard, but quickly grabbed the Camera Obscura and trained it on the man. Changing direction slowly, his head tilted curiously, both hands raised, he leaned towards Miku, who was crouched on the floor as though she had fallen.
Her body trembled with fear. The discomfort she had felt while running through the man a moment earlier bubbled up inside her. Suppressing the desire to flinch, Miku aimed the camera straight at him, holding it tightly in her shaking hands, and just as he was about to make contact with her she clicked the shutter.
She successfully took an extreme close-up. The man's movements stopped, like time had been paused, and the next moment he was twisted into a swirling emptiness. As he groaned, a sound like one a toad would make, like fog being sucked in by a ventilation fan, he uttered one final groan before disappearing into the Camera Obscura.
"Kiri...e... Beware of... Kirie..."
The murmuring suddenly ceased, and Miku was enfolded in the serenity after the tension. She let out a deep sigh of relief. There was no strength left in her body, and she instantly became aware of how heavy it felt. Not just was she afraid and tired, but there was a very vague pleasant feeling mixed in.
Her happiness at having faced him, not deceived by his lies, and proving her own existence was perhaps exaggerated. But the final words the man had murmured weighed heavily on her. He had said 'Beware of Kirie'. That same name was written in the notebook of Tomoe Hirasaka that she had picked up earlier. Was the woman called Kirie the originator of the ghosts infesting the mansion?
And suddenly, like someone had taken a peek into Miku's mind as she thought, a voice rang out...