I ran away from Mr. Shibaguchi. I didn't know what would happen if I stayed with him any longer. The sight of Mr. Ioka being wiped out before my eyes was a huge shock. I concentrated on running around the mansion, trying to get out of range of Mr. Shibaguchi. Even as I did so, I wondered if it was futile.
As soon as the thought came into my head, the pressure was so great that I couldn't contain myself. Mr. Ioka wasn't real. Then was me receiving the work request from him real? If Mr. Ioka was a figment of Mr. Shibaguchi's imagination, I would have accepted the request from a being that didn't exist in this world.
No - wait.
Mr. Ioka and I had known each other from before we met Mr. Shibaguchi. Would that mean that my memories of before, of working for the magazine with Mr. Ioka, weren't actually real? If that was true, did Mr. Takamine, who introduced us, not exist either? And would that mean that both Miku and I existed only in the virtual world?
When I thought that far, I began to lose more and more of my composure, and distracted by my irritation I could only run through the mansion randomly. As I did so I fell into desperation, and lost track of time. What finally stopped me was a scarf that had been dropped in a hallway.
It was a red scarf, and I recognised it. I picked up the scarf as I panted. I already knew that it belonged to Miku. It was her favourite, so she always had it wrapped around her neck. I thought of Miku - when she came to the mansion, she would have been wearing it.
I looked around me. It was the place where Miku had fought the ghost of the editor called Ogata. I gripped Miku's scarf tightly. The soft feel of it brought back the confidence and vitality that had been stolen from my heart. If Miku wasn't real, she couldn't have dropped the scarf. The fact that it was still there was my only proof that she actually existed. It was indirect proof, but in my state it gave my heart strength like nothing else.
Finding Mr. Shibaguchi suspicious made me run even deeper into the mansion. I opened a closet I found and hid inside, hugging my knees. In the darkness, I thought back upon the events that had occurred so far. The very first thing that came to mind was that I couldn't say with certainty that Mr. Ioka's disappearance had been due to the fact that he was a virtual existence. The Mr. Ioka I had seen earlier was created by Mr. Shibaguchi, but there was no evidence that he was the corresponding "real" version of him. On the contrary, something felt unnatural about the memory, a difference from the Mr. Ioka I had known before.
The next thing I thought of was Mr. Shibaguchi's behaviour. He had reacted nervously to the words I uttered, kept his mouth shut, and then vanished. Then, like it was nothing, he reappeared, and began to speak self-assuredly. His manner of speech and attitude were inconsistent, and felt unnatural. From my point of view, I wondered if maybe Mr. Shibaguchi was the virtual one.
As I thought about it, I had a kind of inspiration. Even if Mr. Shibaguchi was real, what if he was being manipulated by someone? Maybe he played a major role in the series of troubles we had been in, regardless of whether he desired it or not. No, had been made to perform.
Maybe even he himself was confused about what was reality and what was the game and had broken down, no longer acting of his own volition. But if that were so, who was behind it all? Other than the problem of "who", had they predicted that we would be trapped in a simple game? As part of that plan, me, Miku, Mr. Takamine and the others had become caught up in it. Reality and the game world had become muddled, taking us in on some kind of huge prediction.
Who, and for what purpose...?
As I ran with my thoughts, I felt as though the pieces were coming together bit by bit. I didn't have the whole picture, but I could see a part of it. At least, what I had been caught up in wasn't just a simple novelisation job. I was needed for something bigger. And the full picture was quite large.
My mind and body were excited. Perhaps my journalist's blood could smell a big mystery. But that said, where should I begin? As I considered it, I felt as though I should go back to the start. Perhaps in the end I would know nothing - or the circumstances would just get more mysterious.
"Focus. Calm, be calm," I said to myself.
My mind going blank and my thoughts going into turmoil when confronted with events beyond my wildest imagination was a bad habit of mine. Mr. Takamine had pointed that out to me once. "If you rush into making decisions, you'll only confuse yourself. Even with a huge mystery, you must search for an opening and grab at a single thread to gain proper clarification.
"For example, even if you already think the situation can't be explained, if you are still diligent you will eventually get that thread. Whether you believe that, or whether you can't get past your short temper - this is what defines whether or not you will be successful."
Calm down, and search for an opening, I told myself, and one came naturally to me. Miku. I would begin by searching for her. As I did so, surely I would find a new clue, be able to see something. But more than anything, I couldn't stop worrying about Miku. I set my sights on finding her first of all. But how would I do that? The last time I had seen her, she had been going to a shrine. There, she met a girl called Kirie, and then...
I hurriedly took the data pages out of my jacket pocket. The plot summary was torn, and I couldn't read the beginning, but maybe there was something else. When I looked diligently, I saw a note someone had written on the back of the page. Places were marked out with a flow of scribbled arrows. It seemed to have been used while the game's flow was being fixed.
Amidst it was a room order: preservation room → garden with well → deep-forest shrine path → Narukami Shrine.
It was clearly the route Miku had taken earlier. Of course, proceeding wasn't limited to the way written on this chart. There may, however, be a high chance it would deviate from the game. But it was a clue. I would follow the chart's route first, and wait for Miku.
With this in mind, I looked at where the arrows were leading. "Miku encounters Kirie at Narukami Shrine. Passes out. Night 1 clear → Night 2 start. Miku regains consciousness in the Japanese doll room."
"The doll room..."
When we came to the mansion, and I had been searching for Mr. Shibaguchi and Mr. Ioka, there had been a room with a doll stand covered in a red cloth with dolls stood upon it. Maybe it was there. If I was right, I might meet Miku when she got there. Deciding that was my opening, I left the closet.
But I was already horrified. Because I had run around blindly in order to escape from Mr. Shibaguchi, I didn't have the faintest idea where I was.