Miku somehow managed to slip past the headless man and sneak out of the preservation room. Jogging down a footpath enclosed on both sides by a bamboo fence, she entered a garden with lit lanterns. On top of a scaffold amidst the lanterns a happi-clad man was beating a drum, men and women of all ages dancing around him in their yukata. Just like the man in the preservation room had said, a festival was taking place.
chitose yama karaa, kouka no tane maita yoo, aa shanshan, sore de yama agataa, haa, anadarake saaa, satsuka sharetsu ka sharya, saita hana yori naaa, miru hana yori mo yoo aa, shanshan, tsunde tanoshii wa naaa no utaa, saa saa saa satsumasharetsumashare, shanshan.
Don't look. Don't get near.
Flattening herself against the bamboo fence she increased her pace as much as possible while looking down. Children in yukatas ran towards her, innocently laughing, "Kyahahaha!" The face she caught a glimpse of was like that children often have, like a ripe pomegranate. The flesh was cut deeply, its face peeping out from under flesh from which dripped a viscous liquid.
"Don't come near me, I'm begging you! Don't come near me!" she murmured in a trembling voice, quickening her pace.
One of the children gripped the hem of Miku's skirt with its small hand. The child crouched down, kneeling on the ground.
"I-I'm sorry." She hurriedly suppressed her feelings and stood still.
The child covered its face with its hands, and began to cry. The sound of the drum stopped instantly. Taking a quick glance, she saw that the dancers had also stopped moving, and were looking at Miku. All of them had blood-covered faces. People with their eyeballs gouged out, their ears and noses cut off, people with their mouths torn cheek to cheek, people missing their hands and feet with sticky, clotted black-red blood staining their yukatas...
The people held out their arms, and all at once began to move towards Miku. "N-no, don't... don't come near meeeeeeee!" she screamed, tears appearing in her eyes, and ran.
A multitude of footsteps, kicking up pebbles and earth, chased after Miku. Her constricted heart began gradually to beat faster, and she started to pant. It was painful, but she couldn't afford to stop. If she did, they would catch her. If she so much as stumbled, it was all over.
If lots of ghosts caught her, they might tear her apart in cold blood and eat her alive.
The tension and fear made her stomach constrict; she somehow managed to stumble out of the garden, and walking forwards she stepped onto stone steps. It seemed to be the shrine path in the forest that the child had spoken of. Lurching forwards she collapsed onto the long stone steps.
The dread pursuing her felt like countless needles piercing her back and backside from above as she focused all of her attention on climbing the stairs. Eventually, when she was unable to catch her breath and felt as though she was about to faint, the steps ended. A torii stood before her, and ahead was an ageing shrine. It seemed as though she had arrived at the shrine she had been heading for.
Turning around, she couldn't see anyone climbing up the stairs, nor could she hear footsteps or any commotion. Miku finally crouched down as though collapsing. She sat, her skirt against the stone paving, panting, relieved. Sweat trickled down her neck, mixing with her tears and stinging her eyes.
"Hello..." said a voice.
Looking up, she saw a thin cotton cloth held out in front of her. Unnoticed by Miku, a girl of about the same age as her wearing a white kimono had been standing beside her. Miku, having relaxed due to fatigue, immediately tensed. As she looked up at the girl, her movements were stiff.
The girl looked slowly down at Miku, a faint smile appearing on her soft lips.
I've met her somewhere.
It felt like it had happened long ago, but also very recently. She wasn't sure of the exact details, but knew that they had definitely met before.
"Who are you?" Miku asked.
Without answering her question the girl softly murmured, "Here, wipe away your sweat."
It was natural for her to be confused and, above all else, afraid. But Miku, seeming strange even to her, wasn't scared of the girl. On the contrary, although "affectionate" was probably an exaggeration, she did feel friendly with her.
Thanking the girl she took the proffered cloth and wiped the sweat from her forehead and neck. Miku stood and neatly folded the cloth. "I'm sorry I got it dirty."
She held out the cloth, but the girl turned her head gently away. "No, you take it," she said, taking two, three steps forwards in her zori sandals with red straps, turning away from Miku and looking out into the dark foliage lining the shrine path.
Miku looked at the girl's back spontaneously. Her long, black hair passed her shoulders, hanging down the back of her white kimono, its glossy sheen visible even at night. When she had looked at her face she had thought they were the same age, but looking at her from behind she seemed much, much older. When she suddenly wondered why, although very abstract, she felt as though she knew why.
She thought it was due to sorrow. In some cases, looking at a person from behind can convey their deepest emotions better than words. But this was the first time she had experienced anything so heart-rending as this. From looking at the girl's solemn back, she could sense a bottomless, profound sadness. She couldn't explain why in simple terms, but it was a cold, lonely sensation.
Miku put the cloth the girl had given her over her eyes. She had suddenly begun to cry. As she did so, without turning around, the girl murmured 'Thank you'. Her voice was soft, pained, full of sorrow. But immediately after, like being hit sharply with a whip, said, "But..."
The air instantly became tense. "Who...?" Miku began to ask, but stopped.
Without asking, Miku knew who the girl was. She must be Kirie. But then, she looked so different from the person she had imagined on the way there, that in the end she did want to ask who she was, to be sure it was actually her. Perhaps it was more accurate to say that rather than wanting to ask about it, she wanted to be sure of it.
Are you Kirie? Are you really the Kirie who is supposed to have brought calamity to this mansion?
The girl murmured 'Yes' and, turning to Miku, continued, "I am Kirie. But it was not my fault that the disaster occurred."
Miku waited for the girl to speak, but she said no more. Instead, the solemnity radiating from her back intensified even further. Its relentlessness became even more dense, like a pile of deep, freshly-fallen snow. She became aware of a deep, dark ditch between them, though they couldn't have been two metres apart.
Her tears fell ceaselessly. She didn't know why. It wasn't only because of the girl's severity, but also another reason, though Miku didn't know what it was. But there seemed to be an even deeper connection between the two than memories or consciousness. The feeling of not knowing the reason made Miku's heart freeze, and the only way she could express her feelings was to cry.
"Look at this."
The girl turned and held out her hand. In it, she held an old scroll. Miku took it and shone the torch on it, looking at the words written on the scroll.
Mourn for the revered soul of the Rope Shrine Maiden. Offer up the five holy Buddhas to her pained limbs.
Show gratitude for the five gods' protection; put the stone representing the five mirrors in the correct place.
Show the shrine maiden no mercy; tie the sacred rope to her pained hands and feet. From the right arm to the other. From the right leg to the other.
The Strangling Ritual
On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, a purified shrine maiden who has cut off her ties to the world of the living, for the length of 3,669 days, is torn apart to give the sacred rope its power.
The Blind Demon Ritual
On the twenty-sixth day of the eleventh month, in preparation for the Strangling Ritual a decade thereafter, choose a shrine maiden imbued with sacred power, past the age of seven years, nine months and twenty-five days.
The Occurrence of the Calamity
On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Tenpou Eight, the Strangling Ritual failed and caused the Calamity. Miasma, called by the wrath of earthly deities, resulted in the loss of 1,347 souls.
"What is this...?"
"I mourned so much after that. I wanted to live. I wanted to live with him... But they joined forces against me, tying ropes to my arms, legs and neck, and tore me apart. They tore me limb from limb while I was still alive..."
As soon as she stopped talking, the girl's body exploded. Miku staggered backwards four, five metres as though blown by a sudden gust, and unable to stand she crouched down. Miku looked at Kirie as she protected her face with her arms. Standing there was someone completely different from the serene girl who had been there only moments before.
It certainly was Kirie, but she had undergone a complete transformation. From behind, both arms outspread, crimson flames flared and danced. No, they weren't flames - it was a conglomeration of malice. So much of it that Miku's honed sixth sense had mistaken it for fire.
A foul smell wafted through the air, like lots of rotten boiled eggs. The stench, which made her nauseous, was characteristic of evil things. She had experienced smells like it before, but never so concentrated.
Along with the smell, something like dark smoke rose from Kirie's body. Writhing around in it, produced of ill will, were the forms of countless souls. They were the souls of people cursed and killed by Kirie's rage, the curse not letting them rest in peace, bound to the area around her.
The repulsive ghosts wriggled around, emitting a howl that seemed to tear apart the heart of the listener.
"Iiiiiiiit huuuuuuurts. My hands and feet were torn off. My h-head was pulled offff!"
"Aaaaaaah, help meeee..."
"Aaaah... How long... How long will this suffering go on? I would rather... I'd rather be sent to Hellllll!"
Stop it, let them go, Miku wished, covering her ears. The rage Kirie was emitting intensified. She refused Miku not with words, but with her actions. To Miku, the sound of the ghost's screams, like vomiting blood, had already driven her to the limit. If she stayed there their dreadful screams would ruin her mentally, drive her mad.
The image of the kind Kirie from before crossed her mind. Once more, she prayed silently, clinging to the image. I'm begging you, stop this. Let them go...
A sudden breeze blew across Miku. "You cannot escape. I will make you feel my pain... the same pain..." Kirie's shout roared like thunder.
Things were bad - at this rate, Miku would join the ghosts in front of her. While being pushed back by the rage, like a tremendous storm, Miku raised the Camera Obscura. As she aimed it at Kirie the viewfinder reacted to the spiritual power, glowing blue-white. Whispering 'I'm sorry' to Kirie, centred in the viewfinder, Miku clicked the shutter.
But nothing happened.
It had only the effect of adding oil to flames. Once, twice, three times she clicked the shutter, but it only added to Kirie's malice. "You will feel my pain. I will make you feel my pain."
Becoming a mass of hatred, she turned in a circle. A hannya mask was attached to her face. The angry fire in its eyes grew hotter, rage tearing the corner of the lips visible through it almost from ear to ear.
No... it wasn't a hannya mask. It was Kirie's true face. The second she realised this, Miku's entire body was paralysed, so that she couldn't even click the shutter. Kirie's roar penetrated not only hear ears but flowed through her, feeling like a strong earthquake.
"I will make you feel my pain. The same pain as me..."
The loud sound shook her entire body, seared into the furthest corners of her mind. Noise ran through her.
Miku's nerves were severed all at once.