heavenly host smells of all encompassing rot. the floorboards creak under the weight their feet and the bodies of students left to decompose alone in the dark. ayumi feels she may never forget the scent of corpses or wash it completely out of her uniform. the wax of the candle in her hands begins to melt, offering a small piece of comfort in the dark and dank halls of what was once an elementary school. ayumi stares at the flickering flame fighting against the shadows, the hot burn of tears clouding her eyes. she doesn't know how long they've been inside heavenly host, but she's done nothing but cry since she woke in the classroom with kishinuma and ms. yui. she can't stop herself no matter how hard she tries.
this is all her fault. they're all here because of her. she never should have made them do the sachiko ever after charm.
ayumi rubs the sleeve of her uniform over her eyes, smearing more tears into the dampening fabric. her insides are at war, almost physically as she feels she may vomit at the slightest provocation. she wants nothing more than to return home, but she also feels stuck in place, practically glued down by her desire to just give in, to sit down and cry over what she's done. ayumi can tell what would happen just from the thought alone. if she doesn't keep moving, if she lingers in one place for too long, she won't ever leave heavenly host. if kishinuma wasn't here to motivate her from stopping, she wouldn't have made it outside the classroom in the first place.
kishinuma is close by, waiting for her to set the candle down so they can continue searching for their friends. ayumi takes what's supposed to be a calming breath, but a soft hiccup stands in its stead. the sound attracts kishinuma's attention, his steps toward her causing the wood to groan and echo in the empty halls.
"you're shaking," he says, eyes downcast to her trembling hands. "let me do it." he takes the candle from her gently and sits it on the wooden floor, the flame swaying. ayumi doesn't look up at him until she's sure the candle can be left by itself.
she must look awful because kishinuma's face goes a bit slack around the mouth, his face turning a bit pale. he's been so attentive and brave since they got here. ayumi wishes she could be the same way, wishes she could shake off the fear running marathon laps up and down her spine. no amount of scary stories could have prepared her for this. so much for having a reputation as the girl who likes scaring people. it must surprise kishinuma to see her like this.
"don't worry, shinozaki," kishinuma says, trying for a smile. he shows his teeth, and ayumi knows he's putting up a front for her, knows he's scared too. "we'll be out of here before you know it." he puts a hand on her shoulder and squeezes.
ayumi manages a nod. she swallows around the lump clogging up her throat. "o-okay," she says, her voice low and cracking.
"all right then," kishinuma says giving her shoulder a pat before standing and offering her his hand. "let's keep searching."
ayumi takes his hand and pulls herself up.
the school is more restless now, shaken at its very seams. the opressive, hard to breathe air feels heavy to the point of near choking. a tiny part of ayumi, the smallest regretful and self-sustaining part of her mind, still wishes she'd taken the momentary salvation of returning home when she had the chance. but she couldn't leave knowing that saving grace had only been won for kishinuma and her.
her scrap of the paper doll sits together with naho's notes in her skirt pocket. ayumi still can't believe that someone like naho, someone she looked up to and admired, ended up deceiving everyone and cursing so many students to a gruesome fate. she still can't believe she took naho's blog post about the sachiko ever after charm wholesale without thinking it over first. ayumi knew this was the guilt talking. how could anyone have known that the instructions were deliberately wrong? how could anyone have guessed it would rip open a temporary hole between dimensions?
out of everyone who ayumi roped into doing the charm, she feels the most sorry for suzumoto. good intentions and promises of friendship even through distance, all what she thought the sachiko ever after charm was for, can't make up for a high impact collision into a solid wall. just thinking about the mess of gore that is now suzumoto's body makes bile push up at the back of ayumi's throat.
they've all been sucked into a nightmare, and the body count keeps rising, but ayumi can't give up. and if cleansing sachiko and the other child spirits is the only way to rid this hell from the world, ayumi won't stop until she's dead herself.
ayumi cries for days in her hospital bed. hinoe is gone. her sister is gone and it's all her fault. she hurts too much to curl into herself, and the nurses would have a fit if she opened up her wounds and bleed into her bandages, so she cries laying on her back, eyes closed to the ceiling and lights above. she cries until it hurts to breathe, until she can barely breathe at all, and even after the tears won't stop spilling over her hot cheeks.
when did her hands become so stained with accidental blood? why does she continue to lead all those she cares about to their deaths? was she cursed now? was this her punishment for being so foolish?
had heavenly host twisted her luck so terribly that she could not make up for her mistake no matter what?
in the end, she had accomplished nothing of what she had set out to do. shinohara, suzumoto, morishige, and ms. yui were still dead, still forgotten by the world they used to live in. the memory of them burned in her and in those who survived the tragedy at heavenly host, but only nakashima and she would remember the sight of suzumoto's body when they tried to resurrect her. ayumi couldn't bear to let anyone be privy to this new shame coiling like a snake in her gut.
all she wanted was to return those who had been lost to her mistake. shinohara's family lost her supporting and bright presence. suzumoto's parents no longer had a daughter who was kind to everyone no matter what. morishige could never act in the drama club ever again. ms. yui could no longer be a sweet and kind teacher for her or any future students. their faces haunt ayumi. she sees them as they were, vibrant and alive and happy. but she also sees suzumoto's splattered remains covering a wall. she sees ms. yui's smiling and pleading face as she slips into a hole so dark the bottom can't be seen, all in the act of saving her students. nakashima won't say how shinohara died, which may be just as well, because ayumi already imagines what shinohara looked like in death. and ayumi may never know what truly happened to morishige, but she sees him all the same, still dead, still unable to be brought back just like the rest. ayumi misses them so much she might as well have lost a limb in the halls of heavenly host.
she should have put more thought into visiting the shinozaki estate. she should have been more cautious about handling the book of shadows and the contents it held. she shouldn't have been so hasty in using its forbidden black magic to bring back her friends.
had the experience of heavenly host truly taught her nothing?
guilt eats away at her through all her tears. guilt turns her stomach as her breaths transform into choked off sobs. guilt stays with her every day in the two months she sits recovering in the hospital.
it takes two months and the words of yamamura mirai for ayumi to decide that she won't mess up again.
find the book of shadows.
two months ago, ayumi would have never entertained the thought of returning to heavenly host for anything. two months ago, she still thought the elementary school and the dimension it inhabited no longer existed. she's had time and the creaking floorboards underneath her feet to confirm that heavenly host was not finished with her just yet.
and now ayumi stands at the apex of it all with new purpose in her chest.
the steps stretch out and float up into the dark abyss of the nirvana. up there lies the final climax of everything she's done ever since she pulled out a paper doll and made her friends perform a charm for the sake of everlasting friendship. except now the fate of the entire world rests heavy on ayumi's shoulders, adding its weight on top of her guilt. the book of shadows lays quiet in her hands. the stairs are still leading her up to fate.
her return to heavenly host started out as her last chance, her last possible chance to fix her mistakes and bring back her friends. and she still could, but the blackened sky yawning at her and the glowing red steps freeze her in place. even now, she is afraid. she has the book of shadows, the greatest tome of black magic to ever exist with her as its new master, and yet she is still afraid.
ayumi could fail again. all the determination in her body could not stop a mistake if she made it. she can't mess up this time. she can't mess up.
taking one last look at the worried and frightened faces of her friends behind her, ayumi prepares to climb up into the nirvana.
she's ready to fix everything.