"No, none of that is reality," I called out to Miku once I was me again. And then I noticed something.
The old photo in the room. The person in it was Mr. Kitaike. Miku and he weren't acquainted, so she mustn't have sensed anything.
"Why would Mr. Kitaike..."
No, saving Miku was my top priority. What she was experiencing were only the events of the game. But Miku didn't know that, and she was confusing them with reality. I had to help her, before she became permanently trapped. I called desperately out to Miku, but it was no good, she couldn't hear me. I would have to find a way to meet up with her. Seeking a point of contact with Miku, I flipped eagerly through the game data pages.
The last plot summary page that I had thought was gone was there, and it was intact. When I saw it before it had been torn. But... No, there was no time for hesitation. I hurriedly read through it.
"The Folklorist, Ryozo Munakata"
The ones kidnapped while playing demon tag were the daughter of Ryozo Munakata, a folklorist who went to Himuro Mansion to research its rituals, and her friends. In order to investigate the Himuro family's rituals, Munakata moved into Himuro Mansion with his wife, Yae and daughter, Mikoto. To open the forbidden path leading to the Rope Temple where the ritual was performed, Munakata descended into the underground using the door Mafuyu disappeared into.
"The Camera Obscura and Memories of Her Mother"
After Munakata's wife, Yae, got hold of the strange camera her daughter, Mikoto, had, it began to eat away at her mind. Things that shouldn't be there appeared in photos she took around the mansion... Then she hanged herself from the sakura tree in the courtyard. When Miku has the vision, she recalls something. Her mother, Miyuki, committed suicide in the same way, by hanging herself from the tree in their garden. And just like the photos left by her mother, the photos she picks up in the mansion show impossible things in them.
The Camera Obscura Miku's mother had been in possession of was originally from this mansion.
"The Whereabouts of the Kidnapped Mikoto"
Mikoto, who was the demon in a game of demon tag, fled the mansion when she was attacked by the ghost of a man with long arms. She had the Camera Obscura with her at the time. Mikoto, taken in after being found wandering around the mountains, lost all of her memories due to shock: watching her friends being spirited away, the fact that only she escaped, and her life at Himuro Mansion.
Mikoto was adopted by the Hinasaki family and became Miku's grandmother, passing on the Camera Obscura to Miku's mother.
The moment Munakata opened the door, he was attacked by ghosts and dragged inside. He died long ago after opening this door. What could be inside...? His corpse lies inside the forbidden path. When Miku reaches out to take the mirror piece clasped in his hand, Kirie appears once more.
"This is what's happening to Miku now. The rage-filled Kirie..."
I was frustrated. Where should I go to meet Miku? I desperately ran my eyes over the data.
The final page listed the contents. One title read "Reunion with Her Brother".
"Reunion with Her Brother"
When Miku arrives at the stone pillar into which the Sacred Mirror is inserted, Mafuyu appears. But his eyes are empty, like he is possessed by something. Miku calls her brother's name. But Kirie appears behind Mafuyu, and absorbs him.
"Now we can be together... forever..."
Because Kirie held feelings for the young man, he was eventually killed. Her regrets made her angry, driving her even further into madness. Kirie, projecting her feelings for her lover onto Mafuyu, sucks him in and smiles eerily.
"The underground. I have to go underground."
I hurriedly opened the map of the mansion. I used it to confirm positional relationships for the fastest route from my location to where Miku was - aiming for the Hell Gate that was said to be in the basement.
I hurried on, following the map. In the courtyard overlooked by the sakura tree there was a shrine, which must be the Moon Shrine. As I used the electric light of my weakening torch to light up its dark interior, I removed the floorboards and revealed the path to the cave that led underground.
I descended using the rotting wooden ladder. The air inside the underground passage which seemed to be a limestone cave, which was stagnant after many years of humidity, made it hard to breathe. Using Miku's dropped red scarf in place of a facemask, covering my nose and mouth with my hands, I proceeded.
Here and there in the narrow cave lay miserable-looking, decaying bones of the long dead. Like their malice was showing contempt for me, my foot slipped on the slime on the rock's surface. But what disgusted me more than anything was neither the stagnant air nor the human bones. It was the evil aura that strengthened with each step I took.
The extreme aura blew like a storm. I seemed as though if I wasn't vigilant it would run wild and engulf me, send me flying somewhere far away. I was heading towards a place I absolutely should not be going, a place I should fear. Even as I realised that clearly, I continued. I had to do it, to save Miku...
Had I come far enough? The cave widened out, and the stormy aura suddenly stopped. The ghostly presence would never abate. The complete opposite. Like I had walked into a typhoon, I had arrived at the core of the place from which it spewed. Shimenawa was tied around the stone ahead of me, and a mirror was inserted into its centre. The five broken mirror pieces had been gathered together into one, the Sacred Mirror placed there.
As my mind raced I walked around the stone and proceeded on. The cave was huge, and a large stone gate towered over me. It was the Hell Gate, which separates this world from the next. And in front of it, with Kirie, was Miku.
Even as I stumbled on the uneven stone I ran desperately.
"Mafuyu!" Miku acknowledged me and ran towards me.
Seeing her made my heart leap. She could see me, too. We weren't in different dimensions, we were finally in the same spacetime, and had happened upon each other. We both ran, stopping together when the distance between us was about a metre. I looked at her, trying hard to convey my feelings to her with that alone. How scared had she been when she came here? And yet she hadn't given in to it - how much had she thought of me as she kept going, kept searching for me?
I couldn't put all of my memories and emotions hidden in my heart into words. But warm tears poured from the eyes Miku watched me with. Large tears fell from her eyes, as though she knew how I felt. The gap I had always felt between us had vanished. I spoke the words I had been unable to form as smoothly as running water.
"Thank you, Miku. Always, always."
As she spoke I looked down a little shyly. I looked at my hand, and remembered that I was still holding Miku's scarf.
"Hey, you dropped this."
"Why do you have that...?"
"Don't you want it? I thought it was precious to you."
Nervous, I faced Miku, and noticed that her words were strangely soft.
"Yeah, that's the special scarf mother bought for me..."
"Don't drop it again."
I got closer to Miku and wrapped the scarf tightly around her neck. A dry sound echoed throughout the underground cave. I looked to where the sound had come from.
"He's the one from the photo that was in the doll room..." Miku said.
It was impossible for her to know who he was, since it was the first time she had met him.
"It's so moving to witness a scene of such love between siblings," Mr. Kitaike said, clapping. Beside him were Mr. Shibaguchi and Tsukihara.
"What are you doing here?" I asked Mr. Kitaike.
"Achieving my goal."
"That's right. Now that I have brought you and your sister this far, Mr. Hinasaki, the need for tricks has passed," Mr. Kitaike said complacently. Again, I had no idea what was going on.
"'Tricks'? What do you mean by that?"
"Everything. About creating a game called 'Zero'. Everything, up to and including creating Shibaguchi and Ioka to request you do the novelisation, was a trick."
"W-wait a minute. What do you mean I'm a character?" Mr. Shibaguchi said, flaring up at Mr. Kitaike.
"Hey, get rid of him," Mr. Kitaike said with a fed-up expression on his face, pointing at Tsukihara.
Tsukihara did something on the mobile computer she had with her, and Mr. Shibaguchi instantly vanished.
Miku leaned in close to me. I could feel her frightened heartbeat through my clothes.
"Before all of this, starting with you, when you came to meet up with me at Tecmo, I gave you a hint," Mr. Kitaike said.
"I said to you, about this mansion, 'It really was an amazing place. I'm proud to call it my masterpiece'."
"Now that I think about it, back then..."
I remembered it, but at the time I had thought I'd simply misheard and brushed it off.
"But however many questions you asked, you weren't suspicious at all. Even though I gave you a chance to escape... Well, what's done is done. It's all happened the way I set it out. That woman, too."
Mr. Kitaike pointed at Kirie. In the place where Kirie had been with Miku before, she stood frozen. Parts of her body were distorted. She looked like a still image of a person in a video.
"Kirie..." Miku said, her voice trembling.
"Why would you do this?"
I started at Mr. Kitaike, feeling angry and perplexed.
"I told you. It was to bring you here. Don't worry, you're not a game character. You're a real person. The only real people in my series of tricks are me and Tsukihara, and you and your sister."
"If Mr. Shibaguchi and Mr. Ioka aren't real, what about Mr. Takamine?" I asked Mr. Kitaike.
"He's virtual, of course."
"But I've known him since before this incident occurred."
"I planted those memories. I'm a skilled hypnotist."
"Why would you..."
"Haven't you realised yet? The 'Zero ~zero~' game is just a front to cover up the truth. To hide such a big truth, it's best to use something representing events close to it, rather than just lying."
"So in other words, the game incorporates reality?"
"Its role is different, but yes. Like the Himuro family, there is a family that protects the balance between this world and the next. There is only one gate left, and it is here, in this mansion - that gate," Mr. Kitaike said, looking up at the Hell Gate.
"Could you be part of the family that presides over the gate...?"
Mr. Kitaike clapped to indicate that I was correct. "Yes, I am a descendent of a family that has protected the gate for generations. Because my family keeps the gate sealed, people are able to lead carefree lives in this world," he said arrogantly, looking proudly at me.
"Regardless of whether or not we want to do it, we must offer up sacrifices to stop the gate from opening. And now I have found the perfect sacrifice, with my own power."
"Like Kirie in the game, someone to become the sacrifice is required. She must be a seventeen-year-old maiden with a sixth sense. Your little sister fits the bill perfectly. Honestly, even in our family's long history it's rare to find such a perfect person for the job. But not only that. I needed you, too, Mafuyu."Mr. Kitaike looked at me with his almond eyes. As I was about to ask him about his true motive, a woman's voice echoed around me.
"You will feel... my pain..."
It was Kirie's voice. The frozen Kirie had suddenly started moving stiffly, but she was trying as hard as she could to move. It seemed as though she was bound tightly with ropes, and she appeared to be in pain.
"That's enough, Kitaike. Kirie will go on a rampage," Tsukihara said as she used her mobile PC.
"There's a reason you've come this far, too, Mafuyu," said Mr. Kitaike.
As usual, there was a smile on his lips, but bitterness lurked in his expression. What exactly was going on? The still, virtual Kirie seemed to be able to move of her own accord. But was she the cause of my being brought here? Some doubts entered my mind.
"I understand," Miku murmured. "Kirie isn't a character from the game. Kirie is... a real person..." She closed her mouth and looked at me.
Looking into Miku's eyes a thought popped into my head, like she had spoken to me. I took over from where she left off.
"She was an actual person - a real being, inside whom a soul dwelled. Maybe she was born as a game character. But she had a real soul. So you can't control her, and that's why she's moving around like that."
"Dear me, what impressive logic. That's not a bad guess. But because of that, since you're to be sacrificed, you're probably the biggest victim," Mr. Kitaike said.
"I'm a victim? What do you mean?"
"I mean that, like you figured out, Kirie is virtual - but she seems to have acquired strange power that we can't control. However many seventeen-year-old maidens we sacrifice, the gate won't shut. Kirie's rage is getting in the way. We needed a sacrifice that could calm her."
I was speechless. If Mr. Kitaike's words were to be believed, were my sister and I perfect sacrifices? We'd been led there like moths to the flame. Even at a time like this, I cursed my stupidity. When I'd accepted the job - when I'd got involved in the impossible circumstance of Miku and I appearing in a game, I should have asked detailed questions and been more vigilant in my reading of the data. If I had, this wouldn't have happened. I could have kept not only myself but also Miku out of danger.
"I can't do it. I can't let Miku get caught up in this..." I said to myself.
"Resistance is futile. Look, it's time," Mr. Kitaike said, pointing at the Hell Gate.
The gate, which had been tightly closed until now, was slightly open. It emitted a sharp scraping sound as it continued to open. From a gap in the door, along with a cool breeze, countless screams echoed. I could barely hear them, but they froze my mind and body, seemingly dragging me into the depths of unimaginable fear.
"Hurry, Kitaike. If you don't tie Miku Hinasaki to the gate, it'll open and all kinds of nasty creatures will come into this world," Tsukihara said.
"Program Kirie to catch those two."
"Stop it. If you do that, our acquaintances will submit a search request and reveal everything."
"Your acquaintances? And who would they be?" Mr. Kitaike asked, and I couldn't respond.
I couldn't think of any relations or friends. Including Mr. Takamine, who had taken care of me, I didn't think there was anyone in the world who would worry if Miku and I went missing. The victorious smile returned to Mr. Kitaike's face.
"There's no need to worry. Becoming a sacrifice doesn't mean anything horrible like what happened to the Rope Shrine Maidens. You'll be sealed into a certain area, and live there forever."
"A certain area?"
"Yeah. You'll live forever inside the game I created. Though I doubt the players will ever imagine that two real people are stuck inside."
"Mr. Kitaike, we don't have time for this," Tsukihara said in a worried voice.
"Right, let's do it," Mr. Kitaike instructed her.
Tsukihara focused all of her attention on the mobile PC.
"Gyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!" the awkwardly-moving Kirie screamed, holding her head.
"What did you do to Kirie?" Miku asked nervously.
"Don't worry. Her reasoning has just been momentarily suspended; she's in pain now, but she'll be calm in a minute. After that, she has been programmed to fulfill her romance. She will finally be joined with the young man she has waited for all of these years."
I looked at Kirie. She was unmoving, holding her head, then slowly looked up at me. At that moment her face seemed to freeze over, perhaps in confusion.
"Well now, Kirie. You've finally found the man you longed for. You should stop getting in the way of sealing the Hell Gate and be with him. In that world. Hahaha... and with this, I will be the pride of my family. Me, of a branch family, outwitting the main line, will be remembered for many a year. Haha... ha... hahahahahaha!"
Mr. Kitaike laughed, not concealing his feelings about what he had done. As his cackle rang out, I watched Kirie and saw her lips move. Although she was unable to speak, I could clearly see her mouthing 'I... wanted... to... see... you...'.
"Kirie," Miku whispered from behind as she clung to my back.
I immediately felt warm dampness on my back. It was Miku's tears. Miku was crying because she felt sorry for Kirie.
"Poor Kirie. All of it was programmed... from her fate to the man she loved... it's too cruel. Do you have a heart?" Miku muttered.
"Your thoughts are sentimental, like a real young girl, but they're wrong. Something certainly does seem to have dwelled inside Kirie, but it has been suppressed."
As though reacting to Mr. Kitaike's words, Kirie's face grew stern.
"No, Kirie," Miku murmured, like she was praying.
At that moment, I saw a blue-white aura whirl up around Miku's body. It cut through the air, nearing Kirie, wrapping itself around her. Kirie's expression changed. The sternness immediately cleared, and she stared with sad, kind eyes. But Mr. Kitaike still looked victorious.
"She has no free will now. Seeing the man she dreamt of before her makes her remember her completely programmed love, and in the happiness of finally achieving that romance she will forget about us..."
Mr. Kitaike suddenly stopped speaking. His victorious expression was warped by pain. At some point, a rope had been tied around his neck. The rope around Kirie's arm dug deeply into his neck.
"S-such a fool..." Mr. Kitaike and Tsukihara said simultaneously.
"To let... a game character... defy her own... creator..."
The mobile PC she had been holding dropped onto the stone and broke. I knew what had happened. She tried desperately to remove the rope, but it only cut deeper, both of their faces swelling and turning red. Their saliva bubbled and poured out of their mouths.
"You will feel my pain. I will make you feel my pain," Kirie said, her voice filled with hate.
She raised her hands over her head, an aura like crimson flames engulfing her entire body. The whirling aura twisted the air like ropes. Its violent force spread through the air.
The frenzied Kirie planned to prey on Mr. Kitaike and Tsukihara, and we would be next. Thinking this I used myself to shield Miku. I had to save her, at least. Even if I had to sacrifice myself...
I had an idea, and closed my eyes at once.
Please, let only Miku go, I prayed to Kirie in my head. I prepared to be entangled in ropes and killed.
But I didn't feel pain, or myself being restrained. Instead, a second later, two hideous screams rang out. I opened my eyes, and saw that it was Mr. Kitaike and Tsukihara. Their faces were a reddish-black colour, and they were both half-dead. Rage burned brightly in Kirie's eyes. Along with her fierce anger, she raised the ropes. Mr. Kitaike and Tsukihara's bodies danced in midair. Like a hammer hitting a hammer, their bodies were tossed into the slightly-open Hell Gate.
Trailing screams of death agony, they vanished.
"Kirie..." Miku murmured.
Stunned by the events that had occurred in front of me, I looked silently at Kirie.
"I have caused so much pain..."
Kirie looked at me. The intense rage that had been on her face subsided like the tide. The expression on her face was that of a sorrowful, pained woman.
"I'm sorry. It's my fault that you two got into so much trouble..." Kirie said apologetically, her eyes clouded with grief.
Miku stepped out from behind me, walking towards Kirie.
"No, don't come," said a young child's voice.
A girl with a bobbed haircut had been standing in front of the Hell Gate without me noticing.
"Thank you. I'll be leaving now," the child said to Miku and, facing Kirie, "Well, let's go."
She turned her back to us and vanished into the Hell Gate. The seventeen-year-old Kirie followed, heading for the closing gate, and as she was about to disappear...
"I wanted to see him for so, so long..."
Tears welled up in her eyes. Her lips trembled weakly. She turned to me to say something, but closed her lips tightly. And then, like she had broken free from something, or shaken something off, she turned away from us and disappeared inside the gate. As soon as the two Kiries, the child and the seventeen-year-old, had vanished, the gate shut firmly.
"Kirie!" Miku called.
But there was no response. Silence enfolded the underground cave. I took the data out of my jacket pocket to try to find a clue to the mystery, flying through the pages. At the end was a photo of the minor characters. In that one photo was the answer to the mystery. It was a picture of the man who long ago, when Kirie had been alive, she had seen in the mansion and fallen in love with. It was of course a computer-generated image, but it doubtlessly depicted me.
"Kirie wasn't a character in the game. She was a person with human, womanly emotions," Miku said softly.
I had no response. But I nodded firmly, and put my hand on Miku's shoulder. My sister and I continued to stare emotionally at the Hell Gate into which Kirie had vanished.