When I regained my own consciousness my whole body was covered in sweat, like I had been in the shower. The scene of the fight between Miku and the man called Ogata was so realistic that it seemed like it took place right in front of me. My sister had been attacked, but I couldn't help her. However much I called out to her, she wouldn't hear me. Had my sister been possessed and killed before my eyes?
Mind and body ripped apart, not feeling alive... but Miku had overcome Ogata's ghost. She had used the camera called the 'Camera Obscura' to suck him in and eliminate him. I briefly felt relieved that she was okay.
Remembering the scene I'd glimpsed, my thoughts were all over the place at the complexity of it. I learned of the Camera Obscura when I took on the job of novelising 'Zero ~zero~'. It was just something in the game. Of course, our mother hadn't really left us anything like it, and it wasn't true that right after our mother's death I had hidden something I didn't want Miku to see. But that was what Miku believed.
She believed that the camera had been left by our mother, and used it to fight the ghost. It was just like a scene from the game.
Does Miku... not exist?
The question sprang into my mind, and I quickly shook it off. There was no way that was true. How could I check whether the Miku in the game was my real sister? I was sure that something, somewhere, had gone amiss. It was hard to believe, but perhaps I had stepped into some kind of mysterious phenomenon people always talk about.
A fighter aircraft that mysteriously disappeared into a fourth dimension in the waters of Bermuda, the Philadelphia Experiment, the case of the Marie Celeste, in which all of the passengers vanished and everything was left as it was...
With my sharp sixth sense, I didn't think I could try to deny those kinds of mysterious phenomena. Perhaps this world isn't just the three dimensional world we live in, but also a fourth, and many other, dimensions. Ghosts, too, come from those kinds of places, and Miku and I have the ability to sense the disturbance in the air they cause. Though only a small percentage of people, not only us, have that ability passed down to them through their blood, they do exist.
Of course, there are plenty of fakes. There are also people, general people without a sixth sense, who make a living off saying they can banish evil spirits and sense the impossible. Miku and I, having real sixth senses, viewed them as unbearable fools. If they truly had a sixth sense, I couldn't see any reason they would want to show it off so publicly, or appear in the media.
We didn't. Fearing that the media would get us caught up in troublesome affairs we intentionally hid from and avoided them. Then how had we got involved in something like this?
"Back then," I said suddenly.
This warp in spacetime - as I provisionally interpreted it to be - we were trapped in... I had got a glimpse of it when I got on the train to head to the meet-up about the novelisation. Back then, once I set foot inside the station I felt a mysterious discomfort. It somehow felt different from the buzzing feeling I'd felt before then when I encountered spirits. For that reason I couldn't explain it myself, but it was different from a simple change in atmospheric pressure or adjustment of the air conditioning, a physically perceived change. Maybe it had something to do with the albeit vague feeling of unease I had when Miku stopped me that day.
But I ignored it, and got on the train. Since I didn't normally use that station, I paid it no heed. But as I thought it over once more, even though it was in the centre of Tokyo, there didn't seem to be anyone but me there. Perhaps the station I used had already been sucked into a spacetime warp, and was usually a bustling station.
I waited alone on the empty platform for the train at the station, and then got on it. That was where I met Mr. Takamine and Hirasaka. Maybe they were victims, too. Maybe it was the mechanism for leading people not from this world to the other, but into some kind of alternate dimension.
By some kind of coincidence, Mr. Takamine, Hirasaka and I had ended up sharing a train. But there was one difference between us. Only I had got off that train midway through its route. Since I got off it I returned to the normal world, but they stayed on, and their existence was erased from the world.
Even I thought it was somehow maybe a simplistic and arbitrary interpretation, but thinking about it gave me a kind of inspiration, and I felt like perhaps I wasn't so far off.
And then... I was even more stunned. Even though I got off, I had also been on the train. When I disembarked and exited to the street above, was it really reality as I had been sure it was? The world in which I met Mr. Ioka at Ichigaya station that day, the world in which we were now here to investigate the mansion, and the world in which until now I had lived my life - were they all out of sync with each other?
In the past, I had read a novel called "What Mad Universe" by the American author Fredric Brown. It appears to be regarded as a classic in the sci-fi world. In the novel, an explosion causes the dimensions to deviate, and the protagonist is thrown into another dimension.
At first glance, nothing seemed to have changed from the world he lived in, but as he continued with his life he began to notice various differences, and no longer sure of himself he becomes trapped in confusion.
The novel is written in the perspective of someone who thought of the universe as multidimensional. There is not only the world we live in, but also countless concurrent worlds. The life of each person living in each world differs subtly due to differences between the worlds. This was the impression I got from the sci-fi way of thinking. Maybe you could also think of the distinctions society makes between this world and the other as being like a multidimensional universe.
The underground train I got on that day was like the explosion in "What Mad Universe". If you think of it as a mechanism for sending people involved in it to another dimension, to some degree it would explain these events.
That I didn't have my sister, Miku. That there was no novelist called Junsei Takamine. And that the remnants of the real world (or the world I had started out in) were collated inside a game called 'Zero ~zero~' in this current world.
It was also hard to say that this current world would never be stable. While there is a fray in spacetime, people can come and go, and things not of that world can appear. I couldn't contact Miku, even though we should have been in the same mansion, but maybe that was why sometimes I could see the things she was experiencing, and feel the way she felt.
"No. All you were given was the beta version, so maybe there were just bugs left over?" a voice suddenly said.
Looking up, I saw that Mr. Shibata stood there. I looked at him silently. I thought it best to make sure of the situation before I asked him any questions. It was definitely Mr. Shibaguchi standing before me. I could see him even more clearly than I had in front of the waterwheel earlier.
Of course, that wasn't proof that he was real. It didn't matter. What was important was that Mr. Shibaguchi would understand what I had been thinking about. But I couldn't talk to him about nothing but impossibilities. I was thinking about Miku. I didn't know why, but I could feel the things she saw, heard and thought - maybe, in that way, Mr. Shibaguchi could see inside me? It just like...
"It's just like you're the player controlling a character in the game, isn't it?" Mr. Shibaguchi said.
As he spoke, a sneer appeared on his lips. I instantly resented him, and felt the blood rush to my head. But before I could get out a word of protest, Mr. Shibaguchi spoke again.
"It's not an invasion of privacy, or some kind of cliche. Saying that, since you know how Miku feels, she must have no objections. Though I've seen it all both through Miku and you."
"If you simply read my thoughts, how are you seeing things through me?" I said, holding back my emotions.
"No, I do see through you. Because you and Miku are characters I created."
"That's no more than what you want me to think. If I'm real, so is Miku. In the reality I lived in."
"That old-fashioned novel you mentioned earlier, 'What Mad Universe' - things in it like the existence of multiple dimensions, virtual worlds and the like are common amongst authors of games and manga these days, and in that film, 'The Matrix', huh?"
"I know that much."
"I guess. You know of 'What Mad Universe' because one of the old guys on staff sometimes mentioned it during the writing stage, and I remembered it when I was building up your character," Mr. Shibaguchi said assertively.
The line was to take complete control of me. His attitude, seeming arrogant, made resentment well up inside me; it also, however, made me recall the conversation between Miku and the ghost of the editor called Ogata I had only just witnessed.
Ogata had said the same kind of thing to Miku, scorning her. Just as Miku had thought then, it was the conventional means of casting doubt upon the existence of someone with little confidence in their own being. But still, even at a time like this, I admired my little sister's courage. Fighting on like that, even while cornered, isn't a simple thing to do.
Now, if I could just send some words the way of Mr. Shibaguchi, I could shake things up. Even as the thoughts of respect towards Miku revived the loneliness I felt, I instructed myself.
I can't forget the memories I have of the world I live in as being fact. If I lose those, I will lose not only myself but also the things dear to me.
"But it feels kind of weird to me, you know? Conversing with a character I created..."
"I won't be fooled by you anymore, Mr. Shibaguchi. The events taking place inside this mansion certainly do bear a resemblance to the game you made. But this place wasn't created by you. It's been here from the start. You came here to do research, and chose to base it on this actual mansion, no more than that. So you came here once more... isn't that right?"
I focused on Mr. Shibaguchi's face as I spoke. As he listened, I didn't fail to spot the look of fear that passed across his features. And at the same time, fresh doubts sprung up in my mind. I wondered whether it was truly a coincidence that Mr. Shibaguchi had used all the people I knew - me, Miku, Mr. Takamine and Hirasaka - as characters in the game.
But as I thought it, I couldn't help but burst out laughing. It couldn't be a coincidence. Even if one or two names were the same, I was sure he couldn't have got our appearances and personalities from our names alone; he must have copied everything about the real me.
But why would Mr. Shibaguchi do such a thing? In fact, had it really been his doing at all? What if he was simply a scapegoat, and there was someone else entirely behind it all...?
"Hey, quit that, that's not a fair thing to suspect me of. Stop sticking your nose in where you feel like it."
Had Mr. Shibaguchi broken into my point of view, my thoughts? He held his head in his hands.
"Huh? Why are you in such a hurry?" I asked, but Mr. Shibaguchi, not responding, ran off somewhere, still holding his head.
I took a step, intending to chase after him, but immediately noticed that he had dropped something. It was a pair of cassette tapes. I picked them up, and looked around me. Mr. Shibaguchi had already vanished. Even straining my ears, I couldn't hear even his footsteps.
Why was he in such a fluster? Did he have some anticipation of what would happen, us being used as characters in the game, or...? Thinking about it would get me nowhere. Maybe the tapes he had dropped would yield some kind of clue.
Fortunately, I had the small tape recorder I had picked up earlier. I took it out of my jacket pocket and put the tape with the red label on it inside. There was crackling noise, and then I heard Hirasaka's voice.
10th of September, 10:20AM
Something caught my eye in the photo I found in a chest of drawers. It seems to be of the child of the folklorist who lived here, like Mr. Ogata mentioned in his notes, and another child. It's quite an old photo of kids playing demon tag. Faintly shown, in the corner of the photo, is a young girl wearing a white kimono. She points this way, and her eyes seem to be pleading for something.
As I wondered whether or not Hirasaka had finished speaking, I heard a faint sound like cracking ice, along with another, different voice.
"Hurry... Hurry... Please... Stop me..."
It was the innocent voice of a child. But didn't seem like Hirasaka had noticed it at all, because the recording ended without any reaction from her. And immediately the recording began to play again. Hirasaka's voice played along with the background noise.11th of September, 8:16PM
We searched the entire mansion, but still haven't found Ogata. Even though it may be large, I'm sure we would have found him by now in any other mansion of equal size. Maybe he left ahead of us? Since his photo was taken yesterday, he seems to have been mumbling incoherently about 'more ropes'..."
She trailed off into silence, as though thinking. As if it had been waiting for that silence, another voice became audible.
"Everyone... Just the same... Ropes tied... the tearing ropes..."
It was the strained voice of a woman, its malice unnerving the listener. Just hearing it was spine-chilling. Perhaps if a normal person played the tape, they wouldn't hear it. Only with my sharp sixth sense was it audible to me. It was undoubtedly the voice of someone not of this world. After the pausing sound, yet another recording played.
12th of September, about 9AM
We... found Ogata. His body was just like the ones in the murders in the village at the base of the mountain... His head, arms and legs had been torn off... I can't believe what's happening."
"You... the same fate... You can't escape... The ropes..."
It was again overlaid with the same, madness-filled female voice. I stood there, dumbfounded, forgetting to stop the tape. Regardless of my emotions, a new recording began.
Since I saw that woman, I've had so many visions. The ghosts of the mansion plead with me. I... don't think I can get out of this mansion again. I don't even know how much longer I can hold onto my sanity for. Anyway, I'm leaving this tape behind. But... I hope... it's all just a dream...
Hirasaka's voice became strained, as though frozen. But more importantly, in the background the voice of unknown ownership continued to call out incessantly. It was a repulsive sound, like the groans of all manner of demons and ghouls coming from below the ground. And it was joined by that woman's insane voice.
"You can't escape... You'll feel the same pain... The same pain..."
Unable to take any more, I pressed the pause button on the recorder. Regardless of the tape being paused, the woman's voice seemed to echo from somewhere in the mansion.
"You can't escape... The same suffering... All of you... All of you..."
Like trying to escape a nightmare I took the red-labelled tape out of the recorder and hurriedly inserted the other, with its white label. It was Mr. Takamine's voice on the tape.
12th of September, 3:20PM
It's hard to believe, but it seems as though there is something in this mansion besides us. I've witnessed something like it several times. It was a woman in a white kimono. It seems like something is happening in this mansion. Did we awaken it? Or did it call us here...?"
The tape cut off suddenly, but began to play again before long.
Was it the work of that woman? The deaths that occurred in the past, the deaths of Koji and Tomoe, all of it... Does the same fate eventually await me, too? The Rope Shrine Maiden of legend. Both arms, legs, and the neck. When they are all affected, the curse is complete. Ropes are already showing in my photo. There's no time to waste.
As Mr. Takamine spoke, the urgency in his voice steadily grew. The Rope Shrine Maiden ritual of legend... What would happen next? I took the data pages out of my jacket pocket, where I had shoved them. The plot summary for 'Zero ~zero~' was written on them. I momentarily hesitated about reading it. Even though I believed that I existed, I was looking for help from pages referencing details of things that only happened in the game.
I was relying on the manual, not making decisions for myself. But whether I believed it or not was another problem entirely. There was no crime in looking through the plot summary and using it as a guide. And more than anything, it would be less mental pressure than if I was to wander around the mansion, anxious as I was, without a single clue. Maybe it was just an excuse, maybe I was being cowardly, but I kept reading through the data as I considered this.
To break the rope curse... Hirasaka, the novelist's assistant, relying on the voice of the girl in the white kimono, learns how to break the curse, but is torn limb from limb by Kirie. Takamine realises that he must fix the Holy Mirror, broken into five pieces, to break the curse, but just locating the pieces takes all of his strength.
Miku obtains a piece of the mirror at Narukami Shrine, where Takamine dies. Another disconcerting vision enters her mind. A mirror shattering into five fragments. And many people collapsed throughout the mansion...
"Then, Hirasaka and Mr. Takamine are already..."
Even though I told myself as I read that it was just a plot summary, it was a huge shock. I shouldn't have read it after all, I thought, but went back to reading once more, and what lay ahead was even more interesting. How was it going to come to a climax?
Stop, don't read it, I was aware of myself crying out mentally, repeatedly. But I couldn't stop my hand from turning the page. The second I did so, however, my uneasiness intensified. Whether consciously or coincidentally, the page on which the summary continued had been torn out. What followed was a list of lines displayed in the game.
A large beam, fallen from the ceiling, blocks half of the entrance. The door won't budge an inch, like something is pushed against it. It seems to be sealed by some strong force. I tried pushing the door open, but it won't budge. It looks like I'll have to look for another exit...
Something large is on the other side of the lattice. Covered by cloth, its silhouette somehow resembles a person...
On the other side of the lattice is something roughly person-sized...
It has been crushed by the fallen beam, and barely retains its original shape.
Cool air flows through a big hole in the ceiling. Maybe something fell through.
The area below the floor is pitch black, and even if I shine my torch on it I can't see a thing.
There are several footprints in the dust. Was someone other than my brother here...?
The fallen beam has crashed through the floor. An unpleasant sound comes from the hole. I don't want to get too close to it...
The fallen beam has crashed through the floor.
There is a broken screen.
The candle is lit. Did my brother light it...?
The candle is lit. Did my brother light it...?
The candle is lit. Did my brother light it...? The candle is lit. Did my brother light it...? The candle is lit. Did my brother light it...? The candle is lit. Did my brother light it...? The candle is...
I closed the pages as though crushing them. Even as my whole body trembled with aggravation, I didn't have the faintest idea what to do. I never should have read it. I should have decided what to do for myself without having to rely on the data. I knew that, but in the end...
In any case, I had to look for a way out of the mansion. Even if there had been a warp in spacetime, Miku had definitely come here. Somehow, I had to find a way to save her.
I put the data away inside my jacket pocket and looked up, began to walk away, and stopped after only one step. Inside the room, which had been dark, at some point the candles against the wall had been lit. The candles were lit, the candles were lit...