((DISCLAIMER: I don't own Ushio, Tora, or any of the other wonderful characters of the Ushio & Tora universe--they all belong to Kazuhiro Fujito himself. Original characters created here do belong to me, so please don't take them without permission!))
Secret of the Beast Spear
by Becky Tailweaver
Chapter 2: Something Wicked This Way Comes
The Beast Spear's sudden sonorous shriek of alarm, followed instantly by the thundering explosion nearby, served nearly to knock Ushio out of his desk chair from surprise. As it was, he leaped to his feet as one with the rest of the class, adrenaline surging anew through his muscles. While the other students milled and pressed themselves to the windows trying to see what had happened, Ushio grabbed the Spear and darted out in the commotion, not heeding Mayuko's call nor Asako's irate demand to know where he was going.
The circumstances were eerily similar to another time--the previous explosion in the old school building was still fresh enough in people's memories that teachers were too absorbed in their own speculations to notice that Ushio had slipped out.
Ushio didn't have to wonder where; the Spear had already indicated that. He sprinted until his muscles burned, tearing through the hallways and across the yard, heading straight for the rickety old building that still lay unrepaired, still broken in half from the devastating battle with Ishikui.
He pulled to a stop just outside the ruin, noting the newly-charred ground, the fresh little flickers of dying flame on the broken timbers, and the sharp scent of ozone in the air. This had been the work of a beast that threw lightning...and the only one that Ushio knew of happened to live at his own house.
But what had made Tora let off with such a blast in broad daylight in the middle of the schoolyard? Ishikui was a legitimate excuse last time...but now, where was the enemy?
"Tora?" he called into the cool, still air. "Tora! I know you're here!"
"Shut up, Brat," the bakemono's voice rumbled from behind the building's far wall. "Those human girls are coming."
Frowning, Ushio stepped forward, through the charred rubble, coming around the corner of the broken wall. Tora crouched there, looking grim and threatening and quite...bristly. "What happened here?" the boy asked.
Tora just scowled at him, eyes narrowed and dangerous. "Shut up. Something came. I--"
He broke off as Asako's voice called out from the direction Ushio had come. Mayuko in tow, the girl jogged up to the broken building, glaring at Ushio with her hands to her hips.
"What's the matter with you, running out of class like that?" she demanded, stepping carefully through the scattered timbers on the ground. "This place is dangerous! And you just went tearing off in the middle of that explosion!"
Ushio whirled on her, frustrated at her interruption. "If it's so dangerous, why are you here?"
Asako didn't back down. In fact, she didn't even bat an eye. "Baka! Because you're such a blockhead and I'd end up the one explaining it to your dad if you got yourself hurt!"
"I don't need a babysitter--especially not you! I can take care of myself!"
Mayuko waved her hands, trying to push between the two combatants, trying to defuse the fight. "Now, come on, I'm sure it was just a fluke. Right, Ushio? Maybe something just collapsed in this old building." She glanced at Tora, but couldn't say anything in Asako's presence. "In fact, it's probably dangerous to stay here...why don't we all head back inside and relax?"
Ushio and Asako continued to glare at each other for a while, until Ushio finally snorted and turned away. "Fine! Whatever. Just don't go following me around, got it?"
"Don't worry! Next time you run off into something potentially dangerous, I'll be happy to let you go!" Frustrated, Asako stomped off in a huff. Mayuko spared Ushio an apologetic glance before following her friend.
Ushio watched them go, still frowning. But when he turned to resume his questioning of Tora, he discovered the bakemono had already gone as well. Angered, he spat a brief curse before heading back toward the school. There was nothing for it; he'd just have to wait until he got home to find out what had happened.
"Jeeze...! That baka just gets worse every time I see him!" Irritated, Asako kicked sullenly at a pebble on the sidewalk, watching it bounce and skitter down the concrete.
Mayuko walked at her side, silent as they headed home, a gentle listening ear as usual. She couldn't really say anything at this point without it being an outright lie, and she wasn't exactly comfortable with that idea. She'd thought from the beginning that it wasn't a good idea for Ushio to keep such an important secret from his lifelong best friend, but he wouldn't listen to her.
"What's the matter with him?" Asako went on, well into a temperamental rant. "He's getting weirder and weirder lately! He's always asleep in school, he's never home when I visit, he never talks to me any more--and when he does he's either teasing or fighting or just so preoccupied he doesn't hear a word I say! I just don't get it! He is such a jerk!" Another pebble flew across the sidewalk.
"Now, now," Mayuko offered hesitantly, trying as always to defuse her friend's volatile temper. "Aotsuki-kun just has a lot on his mind..."
"Like what?" Asako demanded. "How can an empty-headed idiot like him have 'a lot on his mind?' And what's he trying to pull, anyway? 'Something just fell down' in that old school building...hmph! It sounded more like a gas main blew!"
"I'm sure he was just trying to keep you from worrying," Mayuko tried diplomatically, knowing that Tora was probably the one who blew, and probably because of a dangerous monster. No wonder Aotsuki-kun hadn't wanted them to hang around.
"Why would I worry about him?" the fiery girl huffed, turning up her nose. "He's such a stupid baka!"
With a hidden smile, Mayuko shook her head and followed her friend; sometimes there was just no pleasing Asako where Aotsuki-kun was concerned. Those two were so stubborn sometimes...
Also in a fine mood that afternoon was Ushio Aotsuki, the object of Asako's irritation. He stomped through the front gates of the Aotsuki Shrine fully intent on his mission--to corner a certain slippery orange bakemono and wring some details out of him. After a quick stop by the house to drop off his bookbag and check around for his father--who was conspicuously absent yet again--he headed off to search for his target, calling loudly.
Tora turned up absent in all of his usual spots, such as the Shrine roof, the shady corner in the back yard, the kitchen, or the TV room. He didn't answer Ushio's calls, either--and though he'd never admit it aloud, the boy began to grow just a little bit nervous. Tora would usually have either appeared or snarled at him to shut up by now.
Growing concerned, Ushio began to turn to unusual places, including the old shrine outside the gates. Still no sign of Tora--and at this point, the youth was growing more than just concerned. He was starting to worry.
He ended up standing in the middle of the yard, Beast Spear clutched tight in his hands, shouting out Tora's name to the surrounding countryside. Half-prepared to charge off back to the school and look there, he nearly started to transform out of sheer anxiety--when a gruff, irate voice suddenly called out to him from the walltop near his house.
"Brat! Why the hell are you out here making so much noise?"
"Tora!" The knot of tension that had been building in his stomach abruptly released and drained away, taking with it the pressing urges from the Spear. He whirled to face the bakemono, hiding his relief with anger. "Where have you been? I've been looking all over for you! What the hell happened back there at the school?"
The bakemono snorted, drifting down from the top of the wall. "Just some skulking bastard I tracked there. He tried to take me on, but fled when he witnessed my power." By all appearances nonchalant, Tora examined the back of one paw in careless indifference.
"Is that all?" Ushio blinked and gaped for a second, disbelieving. "I saw you back there--you looked like you'd seen a--"
"Feh!" Tora grunted, sitting down. "Slimy sleazeball...he had an awful stink about him. Probably been eating dozens of humans. I'd rather not dirty my claws on such a filthy bastard; you can have him--it's not worth my time."
Ushio shouldered the Spear, eyes narrowing. "That's it? You're just handing it to me after what you did at the schoolyard today? What the hell's the matter with you?"
The orange bakemono bared his teeth, turning to stride away. "Che! That thing's stench turned my stomach, that's all. I'm sure you can handle it, with your weak nose. He's headed in this direction from the schoolyard, but he's staying near the town."
Ushio rolled his eyes, glaring after the departing monster. "Great. Just great. I get to go chase another booger around all night, by myself. You're getting lazy, you fat fuzzball!" he shouted after him, as Tora headed toward the Shrine.
The bakemono merely snorted at him again, barely tossing a glance back. "What's the matter, Brat? Do you need me to hold your hand?"
That brought a snarl out of the boy. "Jackass! I can handle it by myself just fine! I'll show you--I'll bring that thing's head back on the end of the Beast Spear! Just you watch!" With that, Ushio turned and marched toward the gate, his weapon clutched tight.
"What?" He cranked around, annoyed, glaring at the bakemono that had half-turned to regard him with eyes that were startlingly serious. Tora's gaze gave him pause, halting his irritation long enough for the bakemono to speak.
"A word of advice, Brat," Tora said, his voice low and stern. "Don't let him touch you."
As Ushio blinked in brief confusion, Tora turned away and continued his stride up the Shrine steps, disappearing into the building. The youth remained there for several seconds, puzzled, before he too turned back on his way, out the gate, heading for the edge of the city.
Many long and fruitless hours of searching saw him to the beginning of night, the stars starting to glow and a brush of orange-violet on the western horizon. Still, he walked the streets, the shrouded Spear resting on his shoulder; he listened to it carefully, waiting for any sign of the enemy. Thus far there was none--not even a tingle of danger. It was as if the thing he sought just didn't exist.
Perhaps Tora had been wrong...
Ushio frowned, sighing wearily as he turned up yet another side street, eyes, ears, and senses open. It was dark now--the perfect time for any monster attacks--yet he didn't get even so much as a faint vibration from the Spear.
"Dammit...maybe I should just go home and get some sleep for once..." he muttered to himself in disgust. It would be nice to stay awake during school; keeping the hours that he had, fighting bakemono at random times, he was spending less and less time asleep at night. If this kept up, he'd be completely nocturnal.
It had been so quiet all evening that he actually jumped when the Spear hummed.
So soft, so faint it was barely a feeling at all, the Beast Spear sang out at last, its usual thrum muted to a whisper. "What the...?" Suddenly charged with adrenaline, Ushio came alert in a heartbeat, eyes scanning the dimly-lit street for a threat but finding none. All was still, and the street was filled with hollow silence.
Utter, echoing silence.
There were no sounds. No cricket chirped, no dog barked, no stray cat yowled--there weren't even any moths fluttering around the flickering street lamps. The only noise was a faint, regular dripping from a gutter somewhere...and his own breaths, suddenly loud in the unbearable stillness. Even the Spear's hum had faded to a lingering, constant pulsation--warning of danger nearby, unknown and intangible but there nonetheless. Something even the ancient weapon couldn't pinpoint...
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up at that thought. Suddenly it seemed as if something was watching him--something invisible and malevolent. Silent and still, he barely turned his head to scan the street, the sidewalk, the buildings across from him...
The Spear's vibration leaped to a sudden loud thrum inside his head, brief like a woman's startled shriek, like a child's scream of surprise. On some instinct Ushio whirled, eyes fixing on the darkened alley opening just a few meters down the street--a black passage that was a perfect hiding place for any vicious beast that was out to get him.
Something, he felt from the Spear's tremors, had just moved.
His throat suddenly very dry, he gulped, hands tightening on the Beast Spear's haft. It was still wrapped in its shroud, but that could be pulled aside in an instant; hesitant and wary, he stepped forward, his gaze locked on the dark passage as he advanced step by step, pausing every so often to listen.
He jumped a meter backwards when the Spear shrieked again.
Heart pounding anew, chest heaving, he swallowed hard again and prepared to pull the sheet away from the Spear. As he approached the alleyway, he moved aside to press himself against the wall near the corner, the edge of the shroud gripped tight in one hand--gripped, and pulling, as he prepared to advance around the corner and deal with whatever was in there...
"Boy! What on Earth are you doing out here?"
The voice--totally unexpected and echoingly loud in the silence--made him jump even higher than the Beast Spear's warnings. With an involuntary yelp he jerked around, platter-wide eyes catching sight of his own father less than two meters away. He was so badly startled that he almost dropped the Spear, the gruff voice both scaring the daylights out of him and making him feel like a child caught in the cookie jar.
"Oyaji--!" Shaking with adrenaline, he gaped at the older man in shocked surprise.
Shigure Aotsuki strode the rest of the way over to him, glaring sternly. "I asked you a question, boy--what are you doing out here this late?"
Ushio's mouth worked for a moment, stuttering, until his brain finally engaged once again. "I...I just...I heard something in that alley so I--"
"Never mind." Shigure shook his head and waved a hand, cutting the youth off. "Get yourself back home--it's past dinnertime and I had no idea where you were!"
Ushio's jaw dropped; he was once again so startled he couldn't speak. Since when have you ever cared? his mind demanded, though the words didn't make it to his mouth; anger began to grow through his surprise. And what the hell are you doing out here looking for me, anyway?
"What are you waiting for? Get moving!"
Ushio's eyes flashed with sudden hostility--resentment at his father's interference with his hunt, bitterness that the man heeded his activities now when he had never cared a whit before. "Why the hell should I?" he demanded. "Mind your own damn business, Oyaji! I'll come home when I--!"
Shigure's face hardened, becoming stone, a grim stare like Ushio had never seen. "Ushio. Go."
Taken completely aback, the boy found himself retreating. So seldom did his father call him by his true name--he was usually addressed as "boy" or sometimes even "son." It meant that the man was utterly serious--that he would brook no argument whatsoever...and somehow, it forced him to obey. With a startled gulp, Ushio complied, slipping beneath his father's severe gaze to dash away down the dim sidewalk.
Shigure waited until his son was out of sight before he turned back to the alleyway. His eyes narrowed sharply as his fist tightened around the handful of ofuda in his pocket. For a long time he stared into the blackness within the passage, gaze hard as if seeing something his son could not. After several tense moments he at last turned and strode away, his hand still clutching the ofuda as he left the dark alley behind.
Infuriated, Ushio all but threw the Beast Spear down against his bedroom wall, stomping over to throw himself down on his futon and stare vexedly at the ceiling. "Why now?" he demanded of no one in particular. "Why the hell does he care now? He didn't give a damn what time I came home last night!"
Only then did he realize that Tora was perched outside his window, watching him.
Ushio sat up, vindictive. "What do you want, jerk?"
Tora's face remained impassive. "Did you find him?"
"I think so." Scowling, the boy turned away, shoulders hunched. "There was something real weird in an alley, but my dad showed up before I could see it."
The bakemono rumbled, phasing through the wall to seat himself on the floor, taking up a substantial amount of space on that side of the room with his massive size and shaggy mane. "So you didn't fight him."
"Who? The bakemono or my father?" Ushio snorted derisively. "Shit, I couldn't even stand up to an old man..."
Tora continued to regard him, silver eyes narrowed to slits; the feeling made the spot between Ushio's shoulder blades itch, but he ignored the irritation, staring at the far wall. After a time, the bakemono rose from the floor in a faint rustle of fur, heading back out throught the window/wall into the night.
Ushio turned then, frowning. "Where are you going?"
"Out for a stroll," Tora growled tritely, giving no further answers as he lifted off the roof and flew away.
Ushio jumped up, rushing to the window to call after the rapidly-disappearing shape in the distance. "Dammit, where are you going? Get back here! Tora!" More furious than before, the boy slammed his fist onto the windowsill. "I'm not just going to sit here and...!"
He paused, something clicking in his mind. Eyes narrowing, he glanced at the Spear where it lay against the wall near his futon. He made his decision in that instant; snatching up the Beast Spear, he sat down against the wall near his bedroom door, listening to the sounds outside, waiting for his father to go to bed.
Then no one would be in his way, and he could deal freely with that frightening, sneaky bastard lurking somewhere in the city.
Tora's flight path took him to the hills outside the city, the higher ones further into the forests than the Brat's home--places that were even now still slightly wild, still unfrequented by humans. Places where bakemono might still live if they chose, those still fierce enough that they did not desire to live with humans in a human city, in human homes.
He swooped low over one particular hillside, seeking out a rocky clearing just in view of the cityscape. He landed there silently, alert, pausing a moment to take in the changes that five centuries had wrought. The rocks were mossier, the trees larger, different, or gone. There were more brambles grown up in the clearing, but his eyes and his nose could still make out the faint path that led into the woods, uphill out of the open spot.
His padding steps made not a sound as he advanced into the forest, quiet and fluid in the darkness like a tiger stalking through the jungle. He knew the route well despite the time that had passed and the changes in the woods; this place hadn't even crossed his mind until that afternoon, after he'd spent long hours contemplating his brush with disaster.
He only hoped the one he sought was still alive; he had been old enough already--though still quite strong--when Tora had been sealed away, and five hundred years was a long time for one so ancient. And even if time did not do the deed, other more powerful bakemono could, or a human monk or priestess--or even a common hunter if time had sapped enough strength.
He suddenly found himself almost worried that the one he was looking for was indeed dead and gone. There was no one else he knew of with the knowledge to answer his questions. The Old One he sought was perhaps the very last of an ancient generation--and there was no one else in Tora's memory who knew more about the world, about legends and magics and long-forgotten creatures.
The path petered out at the edge of an open spot amidst tall, ancient trees; little brush grew in this place, though the canopy above was thick and dense to avert aerial detection. The ground ahead was clear of any tracks--and the cave was almost invisible amidst the small scrub-trees that grew near its mouth. But Tora knew well what to look for, despite the camouflage; without hesitation, he stepped slowly up to the entrance and peered in. The tunnel curved just enough, making it impossible to see the den beyond from the outside.
He tested the air as he stepped inside, just far enough to look into the den, but the scent within the cave was cold--not centuries cold, but it was readily apparent that no one had passed this way for many hours, perhaps even a day. But at least it was reassuring to know that the one he sought was not decades gone; the Old One still dwelled here, even after five hundred years. For a few moments he just stood there, gazing into the silent den, remembering other times he'd visited this place--many times, long, long ago, and it seemed that the lord of this cave had lived here forever...
With a final glance around, Tora turned to leave the tunnel, striding to the sands outside once more. The dark forest beyond was still and peaceful, and once again filled with night sounds; the owls, bats, and insects had resumed their activities in his absence within the cave, undisturbed by far more dangerous nocturnal predators, like himself--and they would go silent again, fearful, when he emerged.
Nothing was amiss. He paused there again, glancing back into the cave one more time, disappointed that he hadn't found the one he was looking for. He turned to leave--
--and spooked visibly, startled and snarling in surprise. The large gray shadow standing there across the sand seemed to have just appeared there, as if it had teleported to that location in the brief moment his gaze had turned away. Not a sound, not a footpad, not a breath to betray its presence--not even the crickets had silenced. The mist-colored shape was quite simply there.
Tora caught himself gaping slightly at the silence, the abruptness of the gray figure's arrival, and closed his jaws in chagrin, guarding his expression once more. He was startled indeed, but relieved to have found the one he sought.
The gray shadow padded forward, footfalls silent on the sand, features becoming clearer through the dimness. The movements were those of an old lion, stiff and arthritic while still graceful and dignified.
For long moments the two regarded one another from a meter's distance, both taking in the changes five centuries had caused--and during those moments nothing was said, as Tora's face gradually grew stunned and the gray bakemono's lips slowly curved into a smile.
"So..." spoke a soft, low, hoarse voice--a voice that creaked under the weight of centuries of wisdom, rasping like dried leaves...yet still rumbling with an inner strength, deep with aged gentleness. "Finally...you've come to see me. It has been a very long time, Nagatobimaru."
To be continued...
AN: Whew...this took a long time. And I don't think this'll be too regular of a thing--I just got bit by a writing bug in the midst of working on Detective Conan stuff. (DC fans, yes, I am still working on that!) I'll write on "Secret" as it comes to me, but I really want to finish "Relative Truth" first. Wish me luck!