The building towered up into the sky, the flashing of its neon lights dimly visible in the morning light. By the doors several young employees shouted and waved, handing out fliers to the surrounding crowd. The wind caught one from the ground where it had been discarded, whipping it briefly through the air. He caught it and studied the dense characters. Above, behind the concrete and glass, something waited.
The crowd didn't exactly part, but there was no one in his way as he walked into the building.
The electronics department was nearly deserted. She sighed again and checked her phone: still no signal. Noise from the crowds drifted up from the lower floors. The traditional arts fair was in full swing. Few people bothered to head past the chaos and to the upper floors.
Still, not everyone seemed to mind the boredom. She glared at the entrance to the audio-visual department. Giggling and hushed moans came from the darkened room, the flickering of the screens almost seeming to keep time.
'Hey! Are you two done in there? I want to go on break!' The noises continued for a few seconds before tailing off.
'Kayo!' Minako's head poked around the corner. Her lipstick was smudged. 'We're busy!'
'I can hear that,' she muttered. 'But I want to go look round the exhibition! There's nothing to do here.'
'Just tidy up or something,' Minako snapped, disappearing back into the room.
'I guess that's what I get for being the new girl.' Kayo muttered, looking around. The department was already fairly tidy. Laptop screens flickered down one aisle; cameras hung on a wall nearby. By the lift a few tables had been set up as overflow in case extra vendors showed up. For now they remained empty.
Suddenly the window nearby slammed open. A stack of fliers from one of the tables blew across the room. Rushing over, she tried to wrestle it closed. Outside, the ground was a dizzying distance away. It was a large window, ending lower to the ground than normal. For a moment she shivered and clutched at the frame. Regaining her composure she closed it firmly, checking the aging latch carefully to ensure it would stay closed this time.
Holes were drilled through the latch where a lock normally held it shut. Looking around, she couldn't see it anywhere. Making a mental note to go and get one from the home-ware department later, she turned and began collecting up the fliers.
It was by the phone section that she found it. As she bent down to collect a flier, a glint of light caught her eye. The tacky phone charm was one they sold downstairs. She pulled it out from under the stand and, to her surprise, a phone followed it. Looking at the stand she couldn't see where it would have come from. It looked worn, probably something a customer had dropped.
The stairs spiralled upwards; his footsteps echoed on the worn marble steps. With each step, the noise below him faded away. Above there was a crash, and he paused as something pricked at the edge of his awareness. Slowly, he climbed the remaining steps listening to the scuffling sounds that drifted down. Glass doors at the top blocked the sales floor off from the stairwell. His hand hovered over the metal plate, tracing the word 'pull' engraved there.
At the edge of his vision something stirred. He spun around, eyes scanning the deserted stairwell. The floors below and above were dark. Looking down the stairs, even the next landing was invisible. The light above flickered.
Smiling, Kayo stuck her head through the arch to the AV department, being careful to keep her eyes closed. 'I'm just heading down to lost property. Keep an eye on the till for me for a few moments, OK!' Ignoring the protests that followed her she pushed the glass door to the stairs open. 'Freedom!'
Bright colours enfolded her. Strange scents filled the air, some musty, others sweaty or acidic and several that she didn't know how to describe. A strong hand grasped her shoulder. As she was spun around and pushed back through the doors, she caught a glimpse of the walls in the darkened stairwell. Black and red shapes twisted over the walls and for a moment she swore a red eye was watching her. Then the doors swung shut.
In the sunlight streaming through the damaged window, she looked up at the stranger as he stared at the doors. His hand reached out from the colourful kimono and smoothed a rectangle of paper over the gap of the door.
It was a young man. Makeup decorated his face, and his hair appeared to have been dyed. Kayo wondered if he was one of the street fashion fans who occasionally drifted into the store. Startled, she realised he was watching her out the corner of his eye.
'Um, er.. W... welcome to the electronics department. Is there anything I can help you with?'
Walking past her, he removed what she now saw was a large wooden case from his back and set it down on the of the spare exhibition tables.
'This table, can I set up here?'
'Oh! are you one of the exhibitors? What do you sell?' she asked, brightening up as she cleared the remaining fliers from the table for him. On the way in she'd walked past several of the stalls downstairs. Most of the goods on sale had been touristy. The few authentic sellers had been friendly, but most had been about the same age as her parents. The flier's tag line of 'the dying arts of Japan' apparently held true.
'I'm just a simple medicine seller.' A drawer in the wooden pack sprung open, and from inside he pulled out a strange jewelled device. He balanced it on the tip of his finger and looked around the room carefully. 'Well, I have a few other things too.'
'Wow, hold on. I'll go and get my manager.' She spun around to head out the door, but he extended the hand with the device to block her. It wobbled for a moment, then the side near the door dipped abruptly, a bell chiming as it did so.
'Unfortunately, it seems it won't be possible to leave that way anymore.'
'Huh?' She blinked, taken aback. Behind her, the door to the office closed softly. She turned to see her manager, Fujihara, standing there. The middle-aged woman looked towards the faint noises still coming from the AV department and sighed. A moment later the smile she reserved for customers was fixed back on her face. Polite but distant.
'May I help you?' Kayo stepped forward and was about to introduce the new seller, when Fujihara cut in suddenly. 'Where did you get that?' she asked, pointing towards her hand. Kayo looked down at the lost phone she was still carrying.
'Oh, I found this. I was about to take it down to lost property. Do you know whose it is?'
The new woman's face tensed, and she opened her mouth but said nothing for a long moment. Behind his back, the balance tipped away from the door. The scales wobbled slightly, but then tilted towards an archway leading into a darkened room. The faint flickering light from within intensified suddenly.
The woman looked like she was about to say something, but a shout from the darkened room interrupted her. Two disheveled teenagers appeared at the archway. The girl's lipstick was smudged from her lips. Behind her, the boy stood back slightly, self consciously wiping his mouth.
'S-something's wrong with the TVs,' the girl stuttered. Her eyes were wide as she pointed back into the room. 'W-we were just... sorting things out and they suddenly went crazy. I can't get them to turn off.' As she babbled on, he walked past her and into the room. The aura of the mononoke filled the room, nearly pushing him back. The boy turned slowly to watch him. His sleepy eyes half lidded even in the gloom.
Inside, row after row of flickering screens turned on and off at random. The scales wobbled again, the sharp point digging into his finger as he held it out in front of him. Slowly, he waved his hand in an arc across the room. To the side, near a wall, it finally tilted.
As he stepped closer the hiss of the static grew, along with something behind it. Sobbing, perhaps, along with indecipherable words. Something flickered on one of the screens, a face lingering there for a moment until the exorcism slip slammed across it. The sound of metal clicking faintly on metal came from under his geta. Bending down he scooped up the object.
The boy was still watching him as he left the room. He dropped the belt over the boys shoulder.
'This is yours?'
'Yeah,' was the only response he got, as the boy looked down at his drooping trousers.
Kayo sighed as Yuuta sidled quietly behind a display of calculators to put his belt back on. He was handsome enough, but seemed to wander through the day in a haze. Once or twice, she'd tried to talk to him, but he seemed to forget the start of her sentences by the time she got to the end.
Beside her, Fujihara was trying to calm the near hysterical Minako, the medicine seller already forgotten as he walked back to his pack. Minako was babbling about a face on the screens watching them. Her manager looked nervously into the room, venturing far enough in to try and turn off the nearest screen. It flickered off for a moment, only to return almost immediately.
'M-must be some sort of timer. Kayo, get the instruction manual folder, would you? It's somewhere under the till.' Kayo cast a look over her shoulder at the medicine seller. He had taken something out of his pack and was unwrapping it carefully.
The cupboard under the till was a little dusty. Apparently it hadn't been opened for some time. Paper and several boxes were stacked up on top of each other. Spotting the folder at the bottom, she attempted to pull it out, but the pile shifted sending everything crashing down. Something hard landed on her foot. Wincing she picked it up. It was a mobile phone charger.
The lost phone was still in her hand, and on a hunch she tried the charger. The connector clicked in securely. Was it an old demo phone then? She plugged it in and left it charging on the counter. The folder of instruction manuals was under a pile of books. As she fished it out, a shadow fell across her.
The medicine seller's pale hand reached past her and picked up something from the pile. It was an old book with traditional binding holding it together. However someone had stuck a modern sticky label on the front. There were several neat words written on it, but she couldn't read them. Every time she tried, the words seemed to dance into new shapes.
Holding the folder she straightened up and watched as the medicine seller opened it. Inside, the effect was even worse and she had to look away.
'What is that?' He was already walking back towards the AV room. 'It's old, isn't it.' Pausing he looked back at her, studying her carefully. Slowly he smiled, waiting for her to catch up.
'Yes. Over 100 years.' He pulled something out from his obi, and her eyes widened as she saw the intricate sword. He held it horizontally at eye level, studying it as he spoke. 'It's probably the form. Tsukumogami.'
His hand holding the sword seemed to shake for a moment, but then fell still. His eyes narrowed. 'Or not? Not quite.'
She didn't have a chance to ask what he'd been expecting. His hand holding the old book was suddenly jerked forwards, as if someone had pulled him off balance. He staggered and when he regained his footing Kayo gasped. Blood dripped from his now empty hand.
'Are you OK? What happened?' He held up the hand for her to see. The cuts were long and shallow. 'Paper cuts? Where did the book go?' His fingers curled over the bleeding palm as he pointed across the room.
Three nervous faces looked back at her from where they were crouched in front of one of the malfunctioning screens. As he walked forwards, her manager, Minako and Yuuta backed away to give him room. Following, she watched as the screen came to life. A girl, in the same uniform she wore, looked back. She mouthed words, but only static came through the speakers.
Underneath the TV, the book sat neatly.
Their eyes were glued to the face on the screen. There was no doubt: they knew her. Around the room, the aura of the mononoke was growing oppressive. Looking back over his shoulder he saw that the light from the other room was gone. It was drawing them in.
The sword in his uninjured hand flickered with heat and cold. It was demanding, insistent. The half truth of the mononoke's form had woken it partially, and now it twisted like an anxious sleeper. He turned to the three cowering from the face.
'You three can hear her, right? I think it's time you told it to me. The truth.'
The girl with the smudged lipstick's eyes remained on the screen in terror. She clutched at the boy who stood, blankly staring with nervous concentration. The older woman turned to him. Her lips wobbling as she tried to hold back tears. He pointed to the book. The words on the cover still twisted incomprehensibly.
'Can you read it, that name?'
Fujihara's face crumpled as she nodded.
'She used to work here. Her name was Shiori Watanabe.' Her legs folded under her and she dropped to the ground. 'She died. From the window.' She pointed towards the other room. 'From that window, she jumped.'
'You mean the broken one by the stairs?' Kayo asked, remembering the broken lock. Fujihara nodded. 'But why?'
Beside her something rattled. She turned to see the medicine seller examining the sword with a smile on his face. She wondered if she should be afraid of him, but she couldn't quite bring herself to be. 'That's a sword, right?' she asked quietly. He nodded. 'What's going on?'
Even though she'd been talking quietly, she could feel the eyes of her manager and Minako on her. Yuuta just continued to stare at the screen, the furrow in his brow growing deeper by the minute.
'This is a mononoke,' the medicine seller answered. Turning, he covered the few steps towards the door where his wooden pack was resting. He must have moved it from the table while she was at the till. 'It seems something happened to that girl. Something that caused it to develop a grudge against those here.' As he spoke, he slid the drawer open. From inside, another of the jeweled objects hopped out. Looking around, she spotted the one from earlier perched over the screen with the girl's face. One by one, more of them jumped from the case, to his finger and then to one of the screens round the room.
She wasn't sure why she stepped forward and held out a hand, but from the case one of the things jumped onto her waiting finger. When she moved it flitted away, like a butterfly, to land on the next screen. The medicine seller was watching her. 'So it's still like this, then. Very well, I'll leave the scales to you'. He seemed amused somehow as he stood, leaving the task to her.
Turning back to the others, he held up the sword. 'This sword is used for killing mononoke. However, before it can be unsheathed it needs three things. The form, the truth and the reason.'
Fujihara shifted nervously under his scrutiny. 'Is it her, is it Shiori?' The medicine seller paused at her question and looked thoughtful for a moment.
'No, this is something else. However, its truth is her truth. So, if you want to live, I suggest you tell it to me.'
'Ah!' While the two women had frozen at his words, the boy suddenly looked at him. It was the fastest movement he'd made so far. One hand pointing the the screen he said. 'Hey, I know this girl.' Around the room, the scales that Kayo had been setting up tilted suddenly, spiralling in on where he stood.
The girl turned to him, her own fear betrayed by the sharp tone of her voice. 'Of course you knew her, idiot! We worked with her,' she snapped. He watched in amusement as the boy turned back to the screen.
'We did? I don't remember that.' The older women sighed faintly and the girl bristled further. 'But I remember. She asked me out. I said I'd think about it.' On the screen the girl was still mouthing words lost to static, but now he knew what to look for, he could see some of the words her mouth was forming. A confession. 'I wonder, did I ever give her an answer?'
'Poor girl,' Kayo snapped from behind him. 'Isn't that cruel, to forget about her like that! I bet she waited and waited. Guys like you are the worst.'
'Don't blame Yuuta!' The other girl blurted out, her earlier anger at him forgotten at the outside threat. 'It's not his fault. I knew, I knew she confessed! That's why I.. I...' Around the room, the aura swam, restless. In the far corners, the screens began to grow dim. The room was growing darker. The Taima sword twitched in his hand, as if it were leaning forward to hear better.
'I made him forget.' On the screen, the image of Shiori continued its silent monologue, her face growing more impassioned as she continued. 'I overheard, but Yuuta and I were already going out. I was worried she'd take him away.
'So I distracted him'. She smiled then, an ugly smile. Her hands went to her breasts, pushing them together through the fabric of her shirt to indicate exactly how. 'Every time he'd remember he needed to give her an answer, I'd give him something else to think about.
'And eventually, I guess, he stopped remembering altogether.' Her hands fell away from her chest, balling into fists on her lap. Her voice grew quieter. 'But even when she died, I was scared.
'It was supposed to be my job, making a memorial for her. But I put it off and put it off until there was no point.' When she looked up, she was crying.
'No one even noticed that there wasn't one!'
Kayo watched in horror as Minako descended into sobbing. Yuuta sat down slowly beside her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. It was a strangely absent-minded gesture, automatic, as if someone had once told him that was what he should do rather than something he'd decided on. She looked away.
'You two deserve each other.'
'No, I'm to blame as well.' Fujihara moved over to the screen, one hand reaching out to take the old book. 'I knew what was going on. I noticed there wasn't a memorial. I noticed, that you were always on your own, writing in this book.
'And I did nothing.'
Beside her, the sword rattled in the medicine sellers grasp again, louder this time. Turning in surprise she stared at it. It seemed to stare back at her. The medicine seller was looking at it too, the tendons in his hand tensing to keep a firm grasp on it. She couldn't see his eyes - in the dark room his hair hid them - but he seemed pleased.
'So this is it, then: the truth of what happened.'
'Truth?' she asked.
'Yes. Now we need the reason.'
'You mean why she's angry like this? Isn't it enough! Being forgotten like that. He shook his head.
'That girl is not the mononoke. Her regrets created it, but mononoke are not human. They don't think like humans.' He gestured with the sword towards the book her boss was clutching. 'It has something to do with that.'
Around the room, a sudden trill began. One by one the TV screens flickered off, the scales set out on them tilting one by one in a pattern that raced towards them. The darkness from the corners of the room seemed to follow. She clamped her hands over her ears as the air pressure seemed to shift, making them pop. Her chest felt heavy, leaving her short of breath. It was as if the air had been crushed out of her.
Her legs nearly gave out, but a strong arm gripped her shoulders, supporting her and she clutched at it. Eventually, the crushing weight eased enough that she could take in her surroundings. Her hands were clutching the medicine seller's arm. Around them, she couldn't see more than a few meters into the pitch black room. A few black screens were just visible. Paper was plastered to them, its surface writhing with black and red symbols.
The only light in the room was the TV with Shiori on it. Minako and Yuuta were slumped on the floor near it, at least as far as she could tell. Only their shoes and legs were visible, intertwined, the rest of them hidden in the darkness.
In front of the screen, Fujihara was reading by its light, a calm expression on her face as she sat turning the pages of the old book.
'Shiori mentioned it once,' she said quietly. 'It was her great-grandmother's, though she never used it. It was passed down to her, and she used it as a diary.' Beside her, on the screen, Shiori hammered her fists against the inside of the screen. Tears streamed down her face and Kayo could clearly read her lips. Read it, Read it, Read it.
'She told me that, and she left it at work, unguarded.' It wasn't a large book, and she was already nearing the end. 'I think... I think she wanted me to read it.' Behind her, Shiori's image leant forwards, resting her head on the inside of the screen, eyes hidden behind her fringe. Still chanting her silent refrain she she banged one fist repeatedly on the glass. There was something in her hand, Kayo noted, but she couldn't make it out.
'A book wants to be read'. The words were hissed next to her ear. 'This is the mononoke's reason'. She saw it clearly this time; the carved face on the sword seemed to grow more alive. its painted grin expanding. Dimly, she became aware just how heavily she was leaning into his arm. The pressure bearing down on them was getting worse. His feet were braced hard against the floor as he held the sword out in front of him, as if fending off a powerful gust of wind.
It seemed to grow stronger with each turn of the page. As her manager turned to the last one she found herself holding her breath. Watching Fujihara's eyes trail down the page. They reached the end and she gently closed the book before turning the the screen.
'I'm sorry.' There was a pause as Shiori said something, and Fujihara's brow furrowed. 'I don't understand. I read it all.' Again the Shiori shouted, bashing her fists on the screen. 'But that's all there is!' She held up the book, open at the last page to the screen. 'Look, it's full, right to the end.'
The girl looked up, and Kayo saw that her face was twisted and inhuman now. As she bashed her hands on the screen one last time, the pressure increased and Fujihara was tossed sprawling across the floor. For the first time Shiori's words rang out, crackly with static but clearly understandable.
'READ IT ALL'.
As the screen flickered out, Kayo finally saw what was in the girl's hand. The cheap charm dangling from the worn phone. The room plunged into darkness. The bells on the scales rang out as something raced away from them. Even over their noise she heard it, a distant electronic chime.
She ducked under the medicine seller's arm, and was nearly driven to her knees by the force of the mononoke's aura. Stumbling, she ran as fast as she could back to the other room. Half following the chimes from the scales and half her own memory she groped towards the till.
The screen was a green rectangle in the darkness. A notification flashed on it. Trying to send message. The last part of Shiori's story. In the corner of the screen the 'no signal' message blinked. Frantically she tried to get her bearings, pulling the charger wire roughly from the phone. Then she sprinted towards the window.
Her hand met cold glass as she fought to tug it open. Somewhere behind her, she heard the medicine seller's voice.
'So that thing is also part of its form. This is all of them, form, truth and reason'.
Gold light burst from behind her. It reflected off the darkened glass and she blinked against its glare. With the light, she finally found the latch. Pulling the window wide open she thrust the hand holding the phone as far out as she could.
'Please, please, GET A SIGNAL!'
Her other hand slipped on the low windowsill.
For a brief moment she felt herself falling forwards out into the blackness outside. Something golden rushed past her, grabbing her shoulder and pulling her back into the room even as it dived out.
Then everything went black.
The music that told customers the store was closing woke her. She was alone in the department, but from the AV room faint noises told her that the others were waking. The window hung open, fresh evening air drifting in with the last of the light.
Cautiously, she made her way over and looked out. The ground was an incredible distance away. It made her head swirl.
'And yet, she jumped from here.'
As she pulled the window closed, she swore she saw a swirl of colour far below.
He stood watching as the store closed. Some time later the staff began to filter out, along with the vendors from the festival. Fliers littered the pavement outside. The scale, balanced on his finger, continued to tilt slightly one way, then the other.
They came down as a group, silent and subdued, the girl and the boy clutching at each other as the woman guided them forwards. Kayo followed them outside, waving goodbye as they headed off. She watched them until they turned the corner.
Once they were out of sight she walked over to where he stood. Smiling, she held up a small package wrapped in brown paper.
'I got her family's address from the company files. Turns out they moved overseas sometime back and she stayed behind. I'm going to send this onto them. Is that OK?'
He nodded, and together they watched as the scale finally stilled, then fell to the ground.