The Lost Village can be strangely beautiful, when you don't have to be afraid.
In the fog you don't see how the houses are mouldy and splintered, how their windows gape and their doors hang loose. Everything is soft with shadow, and when Mayu walks down the street she feels wonder - wonder at this little piece of the past, preserved.
She told Mio she didn't mind being in hell, as long as they're together. But it's not really hell. If you can ignore the scent of blood that carries on the wind, and the tormented spirits that wander, dazed with suffering, from place to place...
Maybe it's just that she's happier than she's ever been.
She pretends it's all a dream. It's easier than you'd think. Nothing that's happened since she followed the butterfly feels real. If it's a dream, then all those people aren't really dead, and there's nothing to fear. The only true thing is that Mio is with her.
Sae is with her too. Sometimes they're joined, and Sae is just a voice in her head, so much like Mayu's own that she can't always tell who the thoughts belong to. Other times, Sae walks like a shadow at her side, and they can talk like normal people. Normal friends. Mayu's never had a friend, except Mio, and she feels a little guilty about it, but she knows Mio wouldn't want her to. She was always encouraging Mayu to make friends, pursue hobbies. She thought that would make Mayu happy.
For Sae the village is just home. She's sad to see what it's come to, swallowed by the Darkness, but it has none of the mystery for her that it does for Mayu. She knows every room of every building, and it's all full of memories.
"Here's where Yae fell and hurt herself," she says, passing a place where the roadside ditch is hidden by weeds. "I was so scared, but I helped her get back home. She was always taking care of me, but that was the first time I took care of her."
Mayu tries to remember if she ever helped Mio that way. She doesn't think she ever had the chance. When she tries to picture Mio hurt or weak, something locks in her mind. Her leg starts to ache.
She and Sae walk the circumference of the lake. There are more houses behind Kurosawa House, dozens of farmers' huts lumped up between the trees like big ant-hills. They all stand empty and silent, and looking at them makes Mayu think of the people who once lived here - hard lives, probably miserable lives, but that didn't mean they wanted to die. She turns back to the lake instead.
"Once we made a raft and sailed out to the island," Sae tells her. "Me and Yae and Itsuki and Mutsuki, the four of us. Of course the raft sank, and we were stranded."
"What did you do?"
"Swam back, in the end. We could all swim. We just didn't want to get in trouble for ruining our clothes. But when sunset came and no one was looking for us, we knew it was that or spend the night."
She makes it sound like such an idyllic life, as if none of them were aware of the shadow of the ritual hanging over them. But they must have been. Itsuki knew, at least, and they were planning their escape years before. Maybe it only seemed peaceful to Sae, who was always waiting for the day when Yae would kill her.
Sometimes Mayu imagines what it would have been like to grow up in the village with Mio. There's a rightness to the idea, as if it's the life they should have lived, something that was denied them. She pictures a modern version of Minakami Village, far off the main road, still mostly cut off and keeping to the old ways. Perhaps they cover up the birth of twins, and mark them down as only one baby. Perhaps they don't have to. Maybe nobody notices the unusually high levels of farming accidents or heatstroke or accidental drownings in such a tiny, out-of-the-way place.
In many ways it wouldn't change much. She and Mio would still have spent hours playing in the forest. Maybe they would still have attended the Shadow Festival. And, Mayu thinks now, she might have worried less, if she had known that she and Mio would be one again. They would never have to grow apart and live separate lives. She feels serene, imagining it.
But that isn't they life they had. The years passed, and nothing eased Mayu's fear, and she just grew more and more twisted. And when she asked, when she would have begged, Mio wouldn't hurt her. Not even when Mayu wanted her to.
She goes... blank, for a while, thinking of that.
When she comes back she's at the edge of the lake, lying back in the cool sand and watching the moonlight shimmer on the water. Now Mio's the one who's always stuck inside, and Mayu wishes she could save this view up to show it to her. Sometimes stars appear between the drifting rafts of fog, and Mayu stretches up her hands as if to catch them, like diamonds at the bottom of a well. If she could cut down the stars and bring them back to Mio in sparkling handfuls she would do that, too. She'd cover Mio in stars, and fill the village with starlight.
The drowned woman drifts across the water, breaking Mayu's happy reverie. She floats face-down, her dress spreading out like white weeds. Mayu watches her for a moment, then looks away.
"Is there even anything on the island?" she asks Sae, but Sae is no longer by her side. Some birds' nests, Mayu thinks, not sure if it's a memory or just a guess. Some wildflowers.
Something moves on the bridge. It doesn't belong. She knows all the ghosts and their movements by now; she knows how they drift like clots of fog. This is a person, a live person. Someone new has come to the Lost Village.
Mayu can't tell if it's a man or a woman; they're too far away. And she's sure they can't see her here, in the shadows, as long as she doesn't move. But her heart beats unpleasantly hard. It's like the time she almost got caught reading Mio's diary, or the time she picked up a pair of earrings in a shop and impulsively put them in her pocket. Guilt, shame, the fear of being caught. But what does she have to feel guilty for?
If we had performed the ritual...
But that wasn't her fault. She would have done the ritual, if she'd had a choice. There's nothing wrong with making the best of a bad situation, is there?
Maybe, she thinks uneasily, she should go and find the outsider, and try to help. Tell them the way out, before something nasty gets them. But something in her recoils at the thought of exposure.
All her life, people have looked at her strangely, and whispered behind her back. Why doesn't she have any friends? Why won't she talk to anyone? Why is she always clinging to her sister? Teachers gently trying to separate them, classmates trying to worm in between them. She thought she was done with that when she came to the Lost Village. Even when these people were alive, they wouldn't have found anything strange about twins being everything to each other.
But an outsider won't understand. They'll see Mayu and her lifeless sister and think - Mayu can't even imagine what they'll think. That she's crazy, probably. That she's dangerous, or that she needs rescuing. They might try to make her leave Mio behind.
As soon as the figure across the water has disappeared into Kurosawa House, she gets up and slips in through the basement. Her leg is throbbing by the time she finds her way back to Mio. Breathless, she locks the door behind her.
"I'm back," she whispers, taking her place behind the screen and stretching her leg it out with a wince. Mio is just where Mayu left her, sitting up against the wall, and Mayu rests her head on her sister's shoulder. "Sorry I was gone so long. I wanted to bring you the stars, but they were a little hard to catch."
She laughs, feeling better already. She'll paint Mio's nails instead. She still has the nail polish that was in Miyako Sudo's bag - dark red, with glitter in it. Almost as good as the stars.
As she's working she hears the footsteps coming closer. She hears the stranger's voice, distorted by the acoustics of the house, calling out, "Hello? Is anyone here? Please, I need help..."
Later, a hand tries the door, but of course it doesn't open. The footsteps go away. Mayu starts to sing softly to herself.
She never hears the voice again, never finds out what happens to the outsider. For a while she looks out for an unfamiliar ghost, but some of them just fade, just fade into the mist. "It was nothing to worry about," she tells Mio, a while later, recounting what she saw. Mio's eyes stay dull and cloudy, like the sky without stars. Her eyelashes are as soft as the unfurling fronds of a new fern. "Don't be afraid," Mayu says, tracing the lines of Mio's face with gentle fingertips. "Don't be afraid," she says again, closing her empty eyes to the world.