This was originally written for a fanworks contest on Beyond the Camera's Lens, for the themes "Scariest Moment"/"Saddest Moment".
Ryozo had cut his wife down from the tree.
He wasn't thinking about that. Couldn't. He had to find Mikoto and the other children.
He flinched, hearing that crunch again in his mind, seeing the way Yae's leg had folded beneath her as she'd fallen. She was so light, the illness had stolen so much of her substance, but he still hadn't been able to hold her up, so she had fallen with her leg under her. He'd cut her from the tree and she'd fallen.
He'd crumpled the page of his diary without realising it. He smoothed it with a hand that trembled. He had to write, make a record, make...
Yae falling to the ground.
He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, as if to make that scene stop playing out in his head. Yae had killed herself, but Mikoto might still be alive.
Yes, Mikoto. He had to concentrate on her.
The certainty had come to him, horrible, that Mikoto and her friends had found their way through some locked door in the mansion and been unable to get out again. He should have seen that a house with all these hidden rooms and trick doors was no place for a curious child. It had been some days since they had disappeared – he couldn't be sure how many, time was blurring – but perhaps they had managed to survive. He could have his daughter back. He wouldn't have to be completely alone, the way Yae had once been alone, in the forest where her village had vanished from the world.
At least she hadn't remembered. That had been a blessing, a miracle. He thanked the heavens he'd never told her what she'd lost that day. He'd saved her from knowing this feeling.
He attempted to write, but the first few wandering strokes convinced him he could not do it. He couldn't put Yae's death down on paper. Now wasn't the time for writing, anyway. He had to act; he had to find Mikoto.
It was hard to keep that in his head. He couldn't seem to organise his thoughts. That struck him as absurd – he was a scholar, and mental discipline was the foundation of his work. But now he couldn't find that focus that had come so easily before.
When he wasn't seeing Yae, her open, staring eyes, her poor swollen neck, the image that kept returning to him was a study, empty, its doors and windows flung open, the wind scattering papers, paging through open books, blowing in dead leaves and autumn rain. It was so desolate he could hardly bear it.
He picked up the mirror piece Mikoto's friend had brought him, careful to avoid the jagged edges. He could see part of his reflection in it, his eye and brow and temple, sliced away from the rest of his face. His skin looked loose and grey. He remembered the boy bringing it to him, a little nervous of Mikoto's father, but unable to keep back the proud smile.
"I found a piece of the mirror, Mr Munakata, and I brought it to you like you said," he'd reported, the grin poking through in spite of his attempt to be formal. Ryozo had thanked him very solemnly, until he hadn't been able to resist smiling too. And that afternoon the boy had disappeared, and the mirror was all that was left.
Mikoto, the boy, the other two girls. Surely they were somewhere in this mansion.
He wrapped the mirror in cloth, tucking it absently into the breast of his kimono, and started to stand – and then Yae was smiling at him, the memory as strong as sudden sunlight on a stormy day. Her smile had grown weaker as her illness had advanced, then distracted and faint after she had started using that camera, and it had vanished with Mikoto. The last time he'd seen her looking really healthy had been the day of their walk in the mountains; there had been colour in her cheeks and she'd had real energy for the first time in months. He'd allowed himself to hope that the mountain air would do her good, enough good that she might get better for a while, or even for good...
Ryozo might have stayed in his study, wandering through the forest of his memories for the rest of the night, had something not stirred him. From the walkway on the other side of the door came the sound of footsteps, light and swift, like a child's.
"Mikoto?" He stood, hurrying to the door, but when he opened it the hallway was dark and empty.
Yae had hated the mansion. He realised that now, though he had pretended not to before, when it would have made a difference. She'd said that it was a bit creepy, a bit too big for them, but she was not used to disagreeing with him, and her unaccustomed diffidence had made it possible for him to ignore the real anxiety that ran under her vague words. After all, it had been perfect for them, full of history and legend, a place where he could study all day and still be by her side, where Mikoto could occupy herself for hours without distracting her father and tiring her mother. It had been perfect, Ryozo had insisted, and Yae had said nothing more.
But now he saw the mansion the way she had – endless shadowy halls, dim corners cradling secret doors, hidden rooms, a history that was all blood, blood soaking into the wood and the earth; and the dark mansion swimming in it.
Again, he thought he heard a child's scampering footsteps, this time on the floor below. He started to call Mikoto's name, but caught himself, because it wasn't her. For explanation, he might have said that he knew the sound of her tread by now, or that he knew his daughter wouldn't run away from him when he was calling her, but the simple, illogical truth was that he just knew it. Whatever ran down there was not Mikoto.
"Who's there?" he called warily. No answer; no other sounds. As he descended the stairs his foot struck something that clattered on the floor, wood on wood. He picked up the mask and looked down into its glaring face. He'd seen it before somewhere.
As he gazed into the mask's blank eyes he remembered Yae's voice, low and weary from travel, soon after they had arrived: "What an ugly thing to hang up in the entrance hall, so that it's the first thing you see when you walk in. Couldn't we take it down? I don't like it there looking at me."
So Ryozo had taken it down, glancing with brief interest at the character etched into the wall beneath, before he'd been called to oversee the men bringing their furniture up from the road. He'd carried the mask with him and put it down somewhere, and couldn't remember having seen it since. Now it was lying on the floor of the walkway, where someone should certainly have seen it and picked it up long ago.
He turned it slowly in his hands, and then, with sudden decision, took it back to the entrance hall and studied the engraved panel with the Sanskrit character. There were two wooden pegs sticking out for the mask to hang on, and that pricked at his memory. He'd seen something similar recently; it had nothing to do with Yae, so it took him nearly a minute to recall, but at last it came to him: there were two pegs just like that on the wall in that underground chamber with the enormous stone doors.
He stood still for a moment longer. From his reading, he'd deduced that there must be an altar somewhere deep in the mansion, where the Rope Shrine Maiden carried out her rite – or where the rite was carried out upon her, if the stories were to be believed. He'd speculated that this altar must be behind the enormous doors, but he hadn't been able to get them open.
But what if Mikoto and her friends had? What if they were trapped underground in that sacrificial altar?
He knew there was no reason to suppose that she was there, but the idea was planted now, and he had to be sure. In his mind, it made an odd sort of sense that the altar he'd been trying to reach and the daughter who'd disappeared should merge into one goal, one end to all the last weeks' fruitless searching.
Ryozo hung the furious-faced mask in its former position, and in the silence, he heard something move. When he pushed the wall, it rotated – another locking mechanism, which meant that the doors in the demon mouth probably worked in a similar fashion. The documents he'd read had indicated the presence of a hidden room where masks were kept, and a particular mask used for blinding. It was starting to come together now.
It was a puzzle, just an exercise for the mind, and he followed it to its end without having to work too hard. The blinding room was beautiful when he reached it, and he felt another pang of sorrow and regret, wondering what Yae would have thought if she had lived to see it. Of course, she wouldn't have considered it beautiful if she had known its purpose. Ryozo supposed it did not reflect well on him that he could still admire the gorgeous lacquer-work, even knowing that young women had been held down to have their eyes gouged out on this exquisitely decorated floor.
As he left he thought he heard someone sobbing behind the walls – not a child, he didn't think, but he couldn't tell if it was a man or woman; the sound was low and distorted, and all that came through was the misery. He imagined it was Yae, and took an odd sort of satisfaction in the pain that thought caused him.
But do I really believe that? he asked himself. Do I believe that the dead can linger?
Perhaps not, under normal circumstances, but in this place, it seemed the only sensible conclusion. And he had brought his family here.
"It was a mistake," he murmured aloud. Unknowingly, he pressed his thumbs down against the sharp stakes driven through the eyes of the mask, almost hard enough to break his skin. "It was a mistake to live in this mansion. We should never have come. I should have listened to her."
But he was going to find the altar, and that would make it right, somehow; either because he would find his daughter there, or because the act of finding it would give his research meaning, or because whatever tormented, raging creature was down there would kill him too.
The blinding stake drew blood from his left thumb, and he nearly dropped the mask. Yae falling from the cherry tree – he shook his head, bringing his bleeding hand to his mouth. He wished he could stop thinking altogether, make a blank of his memory until Mikoto was back in his arms and he had one good thing left to concentrate on.
He didn't know what he'd do if he found her dead. Probably he would go mad. That didn't frighten him as it once would have.
Yae on the mountainside, her eyes lively and bright. She had fairly danced along looking for things to photograph. Then they'd got home and she'd wilted, grown pale and somehow diminished.
At the end she'd said she could see them without the camera. He'd thought she was hallucinating; perhaps she had been. But now he wasn't so sure. This place was...
"Underground," he said aloud, trying to bring himself back to the task at hand. "That's where I have to go." He went, one foot after the other, but his mind was far away.
Yae as she'd been when they were young. He used to catch her standing quite still, staring arrested at her reflection in a mirror as if it had spoken to her. When he stirred her from her trance, she'd say she'd thought she could remember everything, and the answer was in the mirror.
But she'd stopped doing that years ago... until she'd found the camera, he realised. Then she'd become fascinated by mirrors again. He'd seen her gazing at her face, touching it, covering parts with her hands. He hadn't thought anything of it, hadn't connected it to the things she'd done so long ago. Perhaps he'd chosen not to.
The demon mouth was breathing out cold that night, an immensity of frigid darkness that his lamp could make little impression on. He blew warm air onto his hands, trying to loosen them before he attempted the climb down the ladders. His knuckles and joints troubled him more and more these days, especially in the winter; all the same, he'd never felt old until today.
He tucked the blinding mask safely into the breast of his kimono and descended, slowly, taking great care to test each rung before putting his full weight on it, gripping the lantern precariously in the last two fingers of his right hand. If he dropped it, he'd be in total darkness. The thought brought an icy terror that Ryozo couldn't remember ever feeling before. By the time he reached the ground, he was breathing hard, and not with exertion.
Cold. It was so cold down here. He thought of the braziers arranged around the rock circle; he'd lit them last time with a pack of matches, but they were burned out now, just a few damp charcoal-husks still lying inside them. He started to pick his way across the floor, not trusting the feeble light of his lantern to show him obstacles before he tripped on them.
Sudden light blossomed at his back.
He whirled, lifting the lantern high as if it were a weapon, feeling the cold of fear creep over him again. The light was from one of the braziers: it burned perversely bright and merry, and the shadows it cast leapt and capered in wild patterns across the walls.
The next brazier ignited, just as if it had been full of dry fuel and someone had put a torch to it. Nobody was there; only the fire-shadows moved. Ryozo found his back against the wall as the next brazier caught light, and the next, until all five of them were blazing.
Now the lower chamber was filled with red light, though the upper levels remained in shadow, as if to remind him that the darkness could descend again at any moment. Ryozo stayed still for a long time, but nothing more happened, and eventually the rapid beating of his heart slowed to a more normal rhythm. He put the lantern on the floor beside the ladder and approached the door with the space for the mask beside it.
He took out the mask. Something else was digging into his ribs, and after a moment he remembered the mirror piece. The gate it was supposed to seal... that must be behind here too.
Did he hear chanting from beyond those enormous stone doors? Did he hear the rumble of the earth shaking? He couldn't tell.
He hung up the mask on the wall, and heard the grinding shift as the ancient mechanism stirred. He felt calmer now. He'd found the right mask, and he had the mirror piece that belonged somewhere behind these doors; perhaps he was meant to be here.
And would Mikoto be in there? He found he no longer thought so. All of a sudden his daughter felt very far away from him, and he didn't think he'd ever see her again. Down here, with the waiting darkness hovering outside the reach of the braziers, he didn't think he'd ever see the light of the sun again.
He opened the doors. He had a glimpse of a long passage, passing into obscurity after just a few feet. And then the hands exploded outwards and caught him, and dragged him inside.
In the midst of the pain the hands inflicted on him as they pulled and twisted and tore his body, he heard the doors roar closed again, was aware that the light of the braziers was gone, and there was only blackness. Only blackness, and a voice in his ear.
"I'll make you feel my pain."
And he was groping for the thought of Yae to carry him into death, but Yae, too, was far away, and he was alone down here, where there was only suffering.