Fall was in the air, and with it, melancholy. Leaves skittered around trudging feet as students headed home, another school year ahead after the holidays. The days were growing shorter, the grey sky steadily darkening. And some felt the fading of summer's cheer more than others.
Somewhere in the distance, notes from a koto lyre sounded. A melody in minor, that would have induced shivers, had its recipients been able to hear it. A couple walking down the street paid the song no heed as they bickered, but as the atmosphere turned thick with bitterness, their argument intensified.
A joyless laugh. Another eerie tune. Inside an apartment, a young boy's breathing sped up with anxiety as he pored over his homework.
Spectral fingers plucked at strings, the melody carrying through an unseen dimension. The figure wasn't alone. She danced past drifting forms, in and out of their earshot, their auras of malice growing as they absorbed the song's curse.
In the material world, shadows lengthened, and the streets began to quiet as people headed home for the day. When the public's activity decreased, that of the hunters would increase. The Onryo too, with their growing strength, would also relish the hunt.
"Well this was a waste of time and money. Nearly closing time, and nothing spooky's happened yet."
Overhearing the not-quite-whisper, Kasumi glanced at the group of teens gathered around the table. She bit the inside of her cheek. The rumours about Chiba Cafe being haunted had yet to subside. They'd been correct, but seeing people treat it as source of entertainment made her feel sick. She continued clearing the little rustic tables, reminding herself she couldn't blame them. They didn't know the full story.
She looked up from the tray as another comment piqued her attention.
"I sure hope we have better luck at the Fujiki. As far as haunted hotels go, I've heard it's quite something."
A girl leaned forward, nodding. "Ohh yep, as well as all those reports of weird chills in the night? Apparently a fight broke out the other day. Some guy even got arrested. That's been happening more and more often, out of nowhere. And pretty recently, a woman tried to jump off of the roof."
Kasumi's stomach clenched as she watched the other two teens' eyes shine. "Yeesh, there's gotta be something lurking around there," one of them replied. "No wonder hardly anyone stays there any more. Oh well, we can make up for that, if you're both brave enough."
A chuckle. "Yep, just don't snap and beat us up or anything... Hey!" The girl's eyes flicked to Kasumi. "What's your problem?"
"Eheheh, nothing!" Kasumi took a step back and bowed. "Sorry. Just, uhh... wondering if you wanted anything else?" She cringed, staring down at her tray. Considering the time, that excuse wouldn't fly.
"Nah, we're good." The customer scraped her chair back and stood, the others following suit. "Alright, ready for the fright of your lives?"
Laugher and banter faded as they left. Kasumi, hurrying from table to table to make up for her lapse just now, mentally prepared herself for her next task. Hotel Fujiki. This whole hunter thing still overwhelmed her, but she could do this. All she had to do was be more like the few other hunters she'd met...
"Aaah!" In her rush, she'd stacked too many glasses onto the tray, which wobbled and crashed to the floor in an explosion of fragments. Several customers turned. "S-Sorry!" Kasumi, scrambling to gather up the pieces, felt the weight of their stares. Was she really suitable hunter material?
Nonetheless, shortly after cleaning up the mess and consulting the Internet for research of the area, Kasumi was on her way to Hotel Fujiki. She gazed at the building's silhouette against the dusk sky. With its quaint design and hanging flower baskets, it looked like a pleasant little resort. The stories she'd found online, backing up the teens' words, said otherwise - as did the hostile presence emanating from it, growing stronger as she neared.
"Well, we're here," she whispered, reaching into her bag and taking out a small tea kettle. "Ready?"
The kettle's metallic tanuki head nodded, as if jointed. "Looks as good a place as any for a tea party," Bunbuku replied. "Ready."
On a bench under street lamps, a blonde teen sat, tapping at her phone.
Ghostlight: So! Any oogie-boogie activity going on tonight? Who's up for showing those ghosts who the real scary ones are?
With the group chat she and several other hunters had started up, Burabura couldn't accuse her of being disorganised any more. Well, the chochin-obake would anyway, but that wasn't the point. Solidarity and strength in numbers were important. After all, wasn't that how people in horror movies screwed up, by failing to stick together?
Wasn't that how she'd screwed up, all those years ago?
Ukiko sighed, refreshing the page - and looked up, a hint of cursed energy catching her attention like a whiff of smoke. A woman in a carer's uniform trudged past, face expressionless, the trace of corruption lingering around her.
"Hey!" Ukiko jumped up. "Hey is everything ok there?" The woman didn't reply, didn't even seem to notice her. She simply kept shuffling on like a sleepwalker. "Can you hear me?" Again, no answer. Worry souring to panic, Ukiko followed her to the outskirts, where a forest stretched ahead. She winced, goosebumps breaking out all over her skin. Forests weren't exactly her favourite place, but she couldn't afford to be a wuss about this. Especially as another figure drew closer, then another, in the same hypnotic state as the woman. Eyes darting from the scenario to her phone, she typed up a hurried message.
Ghostlight: Ok we've got a situation. People acting like zombies, heading to the woods on the edge of town. I can feel something in there, something BAD.
She pocketed her phone and darted after the hypnotised group, fumbling to open her bag. She didn't feel great about keeping Burabura stuck in there, but there wasn't exactly another way to hide her. The blue lantern floated out, lighting up with a ghostly gleam as her single eye opened. "Whoever's in there," Ukiko panted, "they're no match for us!"
"Be careful-bura!" The chochin-obake bobbed by her side, casting light over their surroundings. "Onryo may have been growing stronger lately, but this one's something else-bura! At least wait for other hunters to show up and help-bura!"
Fists clenched as she ran, Ukiko could tell Burabura was right. The aura of malice pervading the area was nothing short of oppressive, and the further she ventured, the more the temperature dropped. "There's no time," she said, breath rising as mist. "We can't let anything happen to these people. So let's out-spook whoever's doing this!" With a deep breath, she mustered her power and stepped forward, into another dimension.
In a flash of light, a frilled Victorian-style getup replaced her casual dress, her skin taking on the same pallor and blue-green glow as her clothes. She and Burabura were the only sources of colour, the trees appearing grey and misty, the people resembling vague silhouettes. Only when she drew close could she see their features. Shoulders squared in an attempt to quell her trembling, she stared into the distance. "Quit hiding and show us what you're made of!"