From the mansion's exterior, Miku exited into the sakura tree garden as the child had told her to. It was now even later at night, and quite chilly. Though her goal was still to find her brother, she couldn't turn down the girl's earnest request. Miku believed with conviction that if she turned her down, the strange events occurring at the mansion would never cease.
If it wasn't contained, the calamity would only spread. It didn't only mean that future visitors to the mansion would meet with disaster. The rage of ghosts is strong. They musn't be allowed to get more and more sorrowful. Miku couldn't tolerate it. Like the child had said, the woman called Kirie had finally lost her life while in unimaginable pain, and had turned into a vengeful spirit.
Thinking about how much pain and suffering she must be in made her chest hurt. But this was what she thought in her head - her heart was different. In honesty, she was scared. She was so scared she couldn't bear it. If Kirie was a being controlling a mansion filled with such swirling rage, how much spiritual power dwelled within her...? Could she soothe her, or would she be possessed and killed on the spot?
It was like the ghost of the editor who appeared earlier. Unfortunately, it appeared as though her brother's benefactor, Mr. Takamine, and Hirasaka were no longer of this world. Then next would be...
As she thought about it, Miku realised that she wasn't going to calm Kirie's spirit simply because the girl had asked her to. After Mr. Takamine and Hirasaka were killed, the next to die would doubtless be her brother. If so, she would have to hurry to see Kirie before it happened, and calm her spirit.
She was scared, terrified.
If possible, she didn't want to go. But all of fate was leading her towards Kirie. It was like she was on invisible rails. As she had been told by the girl, she circled the sakura tree garden. There, she found the preservation room. It was like a cool indoor refrigerator enclosed by stone walls. Instead of a bridge above the water, boards were laid out. In the damp, moist room she could tell just by shining her torch on them that the boards were covered in mould.
As she took a step onto the plank, she felt as though she was about to slip. A pebble that had been on top of the board sprang up and dropped into the water with a plop. Immediately, as though acting in concord, there was a sound of something hitting the water, then another, and another. Miku gasped, her body freezing. Fearfully, she turned the beam of her torch down into the tank.
One side was covered with moss of a charming green colour, sticking to the wall where the water lapped up against it. And then she saw a shadow moving slowly around below the water's surface. When she reflexively took a step backwards, the moving shadow exited the water with a splash.
It was a black carp. It was easily over fifty centimetres in length. To the side, she could see a fish swimming along that seemed to trail an even larger shadow, and when the area was illuminated she could see something long and thin moving around under the water, causing the water's surface to undulate.
It caused a chain reaction of thoughts in her head: a snake... a water snake... She recalled memories of school, when she had learned how rotten string represented snakes, though she couldn't remember exactly when or during which class she'd heard it. She felt as though she remembered being told that the reference came from the way rotten rope looks like a writhing snake.
But when had she been told that? However hard she thought about it, she couldn't remember. Even though she completely lacked any memory of the teacher or the classmates she had been with at the time, that reference alone was strangely powerfully ingrained into her mind, and it bothered her.
What came to her was what was written in the notebook she had picked up. "Kirie... the Rope Shrine Maiden... There's another rope. Rope..."
Could it be that, just like the man's ghost said, I'm really a character in the game? ...No, it can't be...
She shook her head firmly from side to side, shaking off the absentminded thoughts. Then she noticed the sound of a person's voice coming from somewhere. Someone far away was singing a song to themself. It was only faint, but she could hear that the voice singing it was unskilled.
Suddenly the voice stopped, as though being sucked into nothingness, and in its place was a dry, gloomy sound inside the preservation room. It was coming from the direction in which Miku was heading. As she held her breath and stared, she could see something shining on the other side of the dark, damp, humid room.
Miku turned off the torch, which had been illuminating the centre of the room. It was a sudden movement. Perhaps she reflexively thought that she didn't want anything catching on that she was in there. Once she had done so - she didn't know whether it had been lit in place of the torch when she turned it off, or if it had been there the whole time - Miku saw the faint light of a candle ahead.
The preservation room wasn't particularly large. At most, it was maybe the size of half a volleyball court. And yet amidst the faint haze floating in the air, perhaps created by the dampness of the room, the light of the candle that had been nearby seemed a moment later to be ten or more metres away, flickering weakly.
Right beside the candle she could see something flickering brightly like a star, accompanied by a scraping sound. Miku stood still and peered at it. She gradually became able to see what was ahead of her. She couldn't see it clearly, but the humidity from many years of storing fish had left the walls coated with slime. The algae glowed faintly, allowing her eyes to grow accustomed even to the faint light of the single candle, so she could see.
"They're going to be cooked for the festival."
The shadow of a person, who seemed to have been there the whole time, had at some point stepped in front of her, and began talking to Miku. On the side lit by the candle, she could see a man wearing a cook's apron, looking down. The scraping sound she had heard earlier had been coming from the kitchen knife the man held in his hand. He had a black carp on a chopping board, and was enthusiastically removing its scales.
"The... festival...?" Miku murmured, surprised by the fact that she was asking such a question.
"Yeah. Once a year, Master Himuro invites the villagers to the mansion. Actually, the 'once a year' part is from long ago. It's been a long time since the festival has been held."
She shouldn't ask about it; it was best not to get involved. She knew that, but a curiosity contrary to that disturbed her heart, like the horribly noisy rustling of dead leaves, plopping into her head like a raindrop.
"Why has it been so long?"
The knife stopped. The tail of the de-scaled carp the man held in his hand flopped. "Well, there was that incident a while back."
He raised the knife and vigorously chopped off the carp's head. Its headless body twitched.
"What do you mean by 'incident'?" Miku asked.
She couldn't believe it herself, but for some reason the space between her and the man flowed an air which she could only describe as strange, a sensation like she was imprisoned in a space that was separate from reality.
"The master went mad. He was a man who adhered strongly to the family precepts, but the family members and villagers loved him dearly. But he made a mistake that he should not have made. He was unable to bear the weight of his blunder. He had always been skilled with his sword, but when he went mad he used it to slice all of the family members to pieces, then committed suicide."
"A mistake he shouldn't have made...?"
No, I've got to get out of here, now.
Even as the scream echoed within her mind, and she felt the hairs on her entire body stand up, her slight curiosity won, and she questioned him. "He misread the feelings of the 'Rope Shrine Maiden', didn't he? He killed the one she loved. It caused the 'Strangling Ritual' to fail, and brought about the Calamity."
"The woman called the Rope Shrine Maiden..."
"You know of her, too."
The man stopped cutting. "I know her...?"
"Her name is Kirie."
The man looked up. He had neither eyes nor a nose. On his smooth face were bright red, crooked lips. Thick, gooey blood oozed from the corners of his lips, dripping onto the carp. The instant the blood fell on it, the carp began to wriggle around and change shape. It was that of the snake she had seen in the preservation tank before... a headless snake... rotten rope...
As though reacting to Miku's thoughts, its scales changed into knots, and what was left behind on the bloodstained chopping board was a coil of old rope. It seemed to wrap around the wrist of the knife-wielding man as though it were alive, and the man reached the hand up to his neck. The knots cut into the nape of his neck, seeming to tear at it.
The man's head was roughly lopped off, falling onto the chopping board with a thud, then rolling into the fish tank.
"Gyaaaaaaaah!" Miku screamed, her voice echoing around the room.