((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 4: Rumble of Foreboding
"What the hell--?"
Caught off-guard by this new and unexpected anomaly, Ushio could only stare--and in his shock he hesitated for a crucial second. Roaring and hissing, Tora bore down on a shadowy figure that seemed almost to have no shape of its own, though in that second Ushio could barely make out limbs, head, and tail as the thing ran like hell, its movements somewhere between the scurry of a rat and the skitter of a lizard. It was running for its life--but Tora was gaining.
After that second of involuntary pause, Ushio finally lurched into action, bringing his own weapon up and launching himself after the speeding shadow. Shock was replaced by anger--and the intent to kill. Whatever this thing was, it had Tora in such a state as Ushio had seldom seen, and with its startling emergence at the end of his battle he was certain this creature had something to do with the centipede-spider's attack--making it fair and legitimate prey.
Tora's speed ate up the gap between himself and his quarry, and Ushio followed doggedly though he knew the bakemono would get there first. But he would be right behind if Tora was unable to kill the thing on the first blow, no matter how unlikely that was. Even if by some miracle Tora missed, Ushio would not.
He was almost there as the scampering black creature made the rim of the roof, apparently thinking it could escape by leaping for the alley; Ushio couldn't help the predatory grin that spread across his face as Tora snarled to strike, practically on top of the thing--
It happened too fast. Tora's claws flashed, gleaming razor-sharp; the black creature pivoted off the rim of the roof, diving straight down into the shadow-bathed alley. Even as its tail disappeared over the edge and it was out of the moonlight, Tora's's talons were raking down in a slash so powerful that Ushio heard the bakemono's hand slam into the brick wall below--but then Tora was suddenly stopped, hanging half over the rim of the roof as if he'd tripped and fallen there, with a sharp snarl of "What the hell--?" that echoed Ushio's earlier surprise.
It was so rapid and surprising a sequence of events that Ushio didn't have an instant to respond. Fully expecting the battle to be carried to the floor of the alley below, and having no time to adjust his present course, he crashed quite solidly into Tora's broad back, still moving at his rather impressive top speed. As per the principles of physics, his current form gave him the necessary strength and velocity which, when combined with his usually-insignificant size and mass, was enough to send the much larger bakemono sailing over the ledge--and to slam himself into the low wall at edge of the roof, a slab of concrete that riddled with cracks from his impact but didn't give way to his knees and midsection, all but knocking the breath from him.
Despite the sudden shocks, Ushio pulled himself upright with a groan, Spear in hand, eyes searching the alley below for their quarry--which had inexplicably vanished. What the...? Where'd it go? Did Tora land on it or something?
"Braaaat--!" As if in answer to his thought, a furious orange bakemono picked himself up off the trash-covered asphalt below and roared thunderously up at the startled-looking youth on the roof edge. "Why the hell can't you watch where you're--?"
"Where'd it go?" Ushio demanded, cutting off Tora's outburst with a snarl of his own. "That thing--where is it?"
As if the collision had knocked the shadowy creature completely out of his mind, Tora blinked, then swore. Launching himself back into the air, the bakemono zipped toward Ushio at such a pace that the youth jumped back from the roof edge, alarmed. But instead of charging him, Tora stopped at the rim of the wall, narrowed silver eyes peering at the brickwork as if he could see through it.
After several moments of this, Ushio finally relaxed his grip on the Beast Spear; growing curious, he frowned and stepped closer to the hovering orange bakemono. "What is it? What's the matter with you?"
It was spoken so calmly and so abruptly that Ushio jumped. Leaning over the wall to peer down, he made out the hand-shaped crater in the side of the building that Tora's claws had left--but no sign of the creature they'd been pursuing. Not even a drop of blood. "But...how...?"
"Feh..." Tora's muzzle wrinkled in tooth-baring disgust as he levitated himself to perch on the top of the wall, taking a deep rumbling breath. Both boy and bakemono scanned the alley, the walls, the nearby rooftops, searching for motion but finding no trace of their enemy.
"At least it didn't eat you," Tora finally snorted.
"'At least it'--what?" Ushio fixed the bakemono with an indignant stare. "All right, what's up? You know something! What the hell's going on?"
"Stop flapping your jaws, Brat," Tora growled, studying the dim depths of the alley below. "In answer to your question...that was a demon of shadows. An...acquaintance of mine warned me of it."
"A...demon of shadows?" Ushio's eyes flicked to the shadow-pooled alley, apprehensive, then back to Tora's unmoving shape. "Okay...then can you tell me why it's got you all upset?"
Abruptly, the bakemono rounded on him. "I am not upset! Why would I be upset over something like this? I just won't let some conniving bastard stroll right in and take my meal!"
Scowling, Ushio fought down an acute urge to apply the flat of the Spear to Tora's head. "Thanks for your show of concern," he muttered sarcastically. "It wasn't like I couldn't handle it, you know--"
"Stupid Brat, you had no idea what you were dealing with. You still don't." Tora frowned sharply as well, his own thoughts admitting that even he wasn't completely sure yet either, despite Arashikumo's warnings. His eyes passed over the shadows, then the rooftop, his face settling into lines of stone as he did.
"So tell me!" Ushio demanded, thumping the butt of the Spear on the roof. "For God's sake, do we have to come to blows every damn time I want to get some information out of you? If you want to eat me then eat me, but I'm getting tired of--!"
"Shut up for once, Brat." Tora was looking past him now, still scowling--and his voice was sharp and somber, his tone startling Ushio out of his tirade more than the actual words did. The youth whirled to follow Tora's pointed gaze, his wild eyes coming to rest on the hulking bakemono that still lay unmoving on the roof tiles where it had fallen.
Ushio gulped, remembering the battle. "If...if that was the enemy...what's this thing--?"
"It's dying, that's what it is," Tora replied flatly, stepping off the roof wall and hovering to settle roughly three meters from the insect-like bakemono's head. As Ushio stared, Tora regarded the fallen beast for long moments, hard silver eyes meeting pained red orbs. "You're free now, warrior of the Mukade-Kumo tribe," the orange bakemono stated, his voice almost loud in the sudden stillness. "The one who enslaved you will be slain. Know this, and die in peace."
Ushio bit back a gasp, startled at the flat civility in Tora's voice. Rooted to the spot, he stared in disbelief as the centipede-spider barely stirred, gurgling up some choking, rattling sound while Tora seemed to listen. Crouching back on his haunches, the bakemono nodded once. "It shall be done."
Ushio jumped again when Tora glanced back at him and snapped, "Brat! Come here."
Gulping again, the boy hurried to Tora's side, eyes wide with apprehension. "What...?"
Tora jerked his chin at the insectoid monster, fixing Ushio's eyes with his own. "He wishes a quick and honorable death. See to it."
Ushio's jaw dropped; he stared after Tora in abject shock as the orange bakemono rose and began to stride away. "Wh...wh-what--?" he tried to stammer, finding his tongue to be frozen. "What do you--?"
Seemingly angry, Tora glared over his shoulder at the boy. "He doesn't want a lingering, suffering death drowning in his own fluids and writhing like a worm! It was your hands that fought this battle, Brat, and it's yours that have to finish it!"
Ushio gaped at him in horror, his grip slack on the haft of the Spear. He was suddenly shaking, suddenly struck by a cold sweat as he realized what Tora and the insect-bakemono wanted him to do. "You...you can't be...serious...!" he choked. "You can't think that I'd...that I could...but...isn't there anything we can...?"
Tora stared at him for a moment, his silver gaze unreadable as he half-turned to face the terrified youth. Perhaps it was just the moonlight, but it seemed as though something softened in those cold, inhuman eyes. "He was forced to fight the Bearer of the Beast Spear. Do you think any common bakemono could survive a battle with you? There is nothing you can do for him now, save give him what he wishes."
Tora's face didn't change, but inside, he knew why it was so hard for the stupid human Brat to understand. It wasn't in the boy's nature to think this way; he wanted to help anyone and everyone who needed him, and lately his scope had extended beyond merely his own species. Yes, he remembered...
"Once I see someone injured, I can't just leave him without doing anything."
Stupid Ushio-brat had even tried to heal Tora--a monster who was trying to eat him. Even tried to help Juro the Kamaitachi, who had come closer than any to actually slaying the boy. Even this centipede-spider beast, who had just minutes ago been trying to kill the silly human...
"In this case, Brat, you must be cruel to be kind," he stated, bringing the boy's gaze back up to his. "Do it!"
"This is your battle, Spearbearer," Tora bit out, sharpening his voice. "That damn Spear is the quickest way--my claws and my lightning both would take too long! Just do it--now!"
Ushio flinched again, trembling to the very core. As Tora turned away once more, Ushio looked back to the suffering insect-bakemono, swallowing hard as he stepped hesitantly closer. Standing over the fallen monster, he gazed down into the dimmed, glittering orbs--and found himself peering into the eyes of a tortured, tired soul. His hand tightened on the Spear; the half of him made fierce and predatory by the Spear said Enemy, bakemono, kill. But the other half--the human half that Ushio clung to despite what the Spear did to him--cried out against ending the life of another living being. This creature was not his enemy--it was all that damn shadow's fault--
"Strike into his left eye, Brat." Tora's voice made him start, flat and calm from a distance behind him. Gritting his teeth, Ushio raised the Spear and turned it point-downwards over the centipede-spider's main left eye, the largest and most whole left in the beast's head.
Once, twice, he nearly drove the Spear down, but each time that pulse of humanity stayed his hand. The Spear lowered slowly as he stared into the dying bakemono's eye, tears coming to his own. This was unfair--so hideoulsy unfair--he wanted to kill that cursed shadow-demon, not this...
It is well, little one.
"Agh--!" Startled, Ushio blinked as the monster gurgled and something spoke in a tiny voice inside him.
Be at peace, and strike. The voice was tired, so very tired, and hoarse with pain--but quiet and calm, patient and kind. You fight with honor, and show great mercy--please, give me that mercy now. Let me die an honorable death at the hands of a fellow warrior. It is nothing less than any of my tribesmen would ask.
It is well with my soul, little warrior. Be at peace, and strike.
"I'll get that bastard...whatever it is...I'll kill it..." Ushio's jaw was so tight it hurt; the Spear came up again, half-unwillingly, and his hands gripped hard until his knuckles turned white. He was still looking into the monster's eye, his mind whirling, unable to tear his gaze away from the soul within.
Do it, just do it...oh God... He steeled himself, but his guts still clenched and his eyes burned. Why...why...why...?
With a stricken cry, he squeezed his eyes shut and raised the Spear high. "I'm sorry--!" he choked, sending the weapon stabbing downward with all his strength. --just let it be fast--don't let him suffer, please--! He kept his eyes tight closed, but his aim was perfect regardless; he felt the blade slide through yielding flesh, crack through chitin and bone, felt power thrum deep and lethal as splatters of warm thick liquid struck his skin and clothing. After that eternal moment of killing, the Spear's tip lodged in the surface of the roof, its downward progress finally checked by hard concrete.
It's the same...! Shaking, Ushio stumbled back, releasing his grip on the Beast Spear. Almost immediately--but almost reluctantly--the power of the Spear withdrew, flooding out of him. The night grew cold and dark and quiet as long black hair fell to dust around him, all the strength going out of him as he dropped to his knees. It's just the same...we're all the same...Tora--Tsubura--Juro...we're the same. Our souls...bakemono or human, it doesn't matter what shape...God, I could still see it even when I closed my eyes--the soul...! Why did that shadow bastard do this?
When his eyes opened again, they were brown once more--human eyes, incapable of seeing much more than gray and black shadows in the moonlight of the rooftop, and for that he was grateful. The pitiful hulk on the roof was nothing more than a big black lump in his peripheral vision, a shapeless mass rapidly fading away into whatever comprised it; once the life was gone, the body would soon vanish, leaving no evidence behind but the broken roof and splatters of dark green ichor.
It was so dark, and so quiet now; the night had faded from a thousand sights, sounds, and scents to a chilly blanket, muffling everything. Still adjusting to the change from...whatever-he-was to human, he didn't hear Tora come up beside him--and when the bakemono spoke, he started badly, already strung taut.
"Well done, Brat."
The shock of the compliment nearly drowned the grief he felt as he turned wide eyes up to the shadowed felinoid shape above him. "T-Tora...?" Tora...praising me...?
Still uncharacteristically reserved, the bakemono regarded the rapidly-vanishing corpse. "Fetch the Beast Spear, Brat, and let us return home. If you don't piss me off, I might feel inclined to share what I've learned. I expect you'll want to have a hand in killing that shadow-demon."
At the mention of their new enemy, Ushio's eyes brightened at last, a flinty hardness coming into them. By now he'd been through enough that grief and fear could no longer paralyze him--at least for long--and the thought of sinking his weapon into the flesh of the monster that deserved it gave him the strength to stand again.
"Damn straight I do," he replied, startling Tora with the quiet vehemence in his voice--though the bakemono didn't show it on his face. "I'm gonna see to it personally."
"Hurry up and get on, then," Tora snorted. "We don't have all night!"
Without another word, Ushio swung up onto Tora's back, and in a rush of air they were aloft, banking over the rooftops and heading home.
In the distance, thunder rolled ominously.
A nasty storm was brewing.
Shigure Aotsuki could hear it roiling over the hills, far beyond the city. Soon it would ride the winds down from the mountains and pour out its fury over the countryside, lightning and thunder and driving rain, a kind yet brutal cleansing of the land.
He just hoped his son had enough sense to stay in out of it when the time came.
Shigure lay awake in his bed, listening to the sound of distant thunder, waiting for the hint of noise that would inform him that Ushio had returned. Contrary to his son's opinion, Shigure was neither as blind nor as ignorant as he seemed; he was well aware of the boy's recent nocturnal outings, though he had little idea where he went or what he did. He knew it had something to do with the recent bakemono-related incidents that had been cropping up more frequently of late--and that being the case, he was most worried about this latest shadow on the horizon.
Shigure had noticed a difference the very day he'd come home from the Japan Sea to discover his own son a very changed young man--suddenly Ushio's eyes were much darker than before; there was so much depth behind them, and they knew things, hid things, where before they had been bright, innocent, open windows. Shigure was no fool; he'd been around long enough to know those kind of eyes.
Hell, he'd gone through the same change himself as a young man, when he'd joined the Order and fought his first battle. Though he'd taken pains to see to it that the Order left Ushio alone, somehow it seemed that his son had come through the very same experience. From what--Shigure had a pretty good idea, actually.
As stated before, Shigure was not stupid. He'd come home to find Ushio carrying around that shrouded pole, never letting it out of arms' reach--and that darkness that seemed to hang over the boy's shoulder like a second shadow... He had no idea how it had happened, or why, but it was more than a shock to eventually realize that his very own son--his careless, loudmouthed, ill-mannered, kind-hearted boy--had been chosen as the Bearer of the legendary Beast Spear.
He'd told the boy stories for years, extolling them as true history rather than historic myth--while himself wondering if the mystical weapon was real or just a legend based on some time-skewed impression of a battle. Shigure was too familiar with the world of the supernatural to be so skeptical as to disbelieve in the Spear's existence--the Order was far too involved in the affairs of monsters and demons to allow him to think otherwise--but after a decade of relating five-hundred-year-old "fairy tales" to a bored young boy even he was bound to become a little doubtful.
Still, coming in the door to find Ushio sitting at the kitchen table, his dark eyes haunted and deep, with a long pole wrapped in a sheet leaning near his shoulder--and a tangible presence in the room, a chill he could feel as if unseen eyes watched him--
--and sudden, cold, crashing realization of what the long object was when Ushio rose to his feet, bringing the pole with him with the easy grip of someone who'd been handling weapons all his life--Shigure had known in that instant that the thing his son carried was indeed a weapon, and one the boy had used with his own hands to fight a battle to the death. That much was clear in Ushio's flatly obscure gaze.
It was all Shigure could do to simply greet the boy in his usual perfunctory way, shuffling off to his room to drop off his bags and clear his head. And to wonder...where had his son gotten that polearm? Why did it seem as if he'd carried it all his life? Why were his eyes so...dark?
The legend of the Beast Spear was his first and only answer--bringing with it a tide of shock so strong he couldn't stand up for several minutes, his old knees going weak from the impact. Somehow his son had opened the forbidden doors to the old Shrine's basement--doors that no one had ever opened, never--and found the ancient weapon down there in the depths.
The thought of what else might have been down there gave Shigure a frightening chill.
But despite all this, Shigure had not said a word. He hadn't done a thing to indicate to his son that he knew what the boy was up to, or what it was he carried; he continued to feign ignorance and unconcern. It rather unnerved him, seeing what his son was becoming--how the Spear stayed so close to him always, how that presence seemed to have filled the Aotsuki Shrine, how Ushio spoke and moved and thought and acted now...
Shigure held no doubts that the Spear was changing his son, just like the legends said. He'd been around warriors almost all his life; the men of the Order were all those who had fought life or death battles, who had faced doom up close, who survived on their own speed, strength, and wits.
Shigure himself ranked among those men; he'd spent years taking part in horrible conflicts, bloody battles--he knew the signs. Ushio had a grace and poise about him now, as if all those years of trying to drive home martial arts principles had finally, suddenly paid off overnight. The boy was quieter, more alert; he saw things now, more aware of the world around him. He walked with the stride of one who is ready to spring into action without a moment's notice, carried himself with the poise of one who is prepared to fight at any time, and wielded that "pole" with casual ease that Shigure had seldom seen even amongst the finest men of the Order.
With a wry smile into the darkness of his bedroom, Shigure wondered if that was why he hadn't pushed the boy into any brawls lately. His own warrior's instincts had warned him of the danger of such a move now; with the Beast Spear's influence it was quite likely that Ushio would be the one knocking him around. But still...he'd never seen Ushio in action with the Spear. What must it be like, he wondered, to see the legendary Spearbearer in combat with a fierce bakemono-beast, such as it must have been when their samurai ancestor faced that feared monster long ago?
It would be a sight to behold, he was certain. And the thought of Ushio, his son, wielding the mystical Beast Spear against the forces of evil gave him a feeling of...pride, despite the twinge of parental concern. If the Order knew that the youngest Aotsuki had uncovered the mythical Spear, they would insist that the boy be inducted--and Shigure wanted to spare his son the trouble of the Order's involvement if at all possible.
But if the rumors he was picking up--both inside and outside the circles of the Order--were any indication, it was likely they already suspected that something had changed. The Spear made waves wherever it went--and the ripples were beginning to reach other shores.
A faint thump jerked Shigure out of his thoughts; instantly he was alert, ready to leap up and face the threat--when he realized that the sound came from the direction of Ushio's room. The boy was home at last.
Barely audible footsteps, rummaging sounds--perhaps changing clothes; Shigure didn't need to ask what many of the stains on Ushio's garments were. The faint, stiff thump-clank he'd come to recognize as the Beast Spear itself being set down against the wall; the whisperings, not unlike many he'd heard from his son's room before--mysterious sounds that played havoc with his emotions. Half of him was worried father, and such sounds, combined with the knowledge behind them, gave him an icy chill; the other half was warrior monk, and the noises reassured him and gave him confidence that another battle had been fought and won.
How strange, he considered again, that the Fates would choose his son as the Bearer of the Beast Spear--and that he had been chosen to be the father of the Bearer.
And as a father, he had to warn his son away from the most recent darkness to fall over the city. That shadowed feeling lately, as if he were swimming alone in dark ocean waters knowing that the shark circled below...
He shivered faintly, remembering the foreboding he'd felt--still felt, whenever he sensed that strange, unpleasant blackness. Something much darker than anything he'd ever faced--something so evil he didn't want his son, Spearbearer or not, to have to face such an abomination. When he found it...
Hopefully he could put an end to it quickly, before Ushio got involved. Whether or not the boy was the Spearbearer, he was still a boy. Such a thing was not for a child to face--not something that dangerous and twisted.
With a sigh, Shigure tried to relax, turning aside on his pillow and at last closing his eyes as the voices nearby grew softer. Apparently there was little he could do to stop Ushio from following the call of the Spear; it only heightened his resolve to end the problem more quickly. As he forced himself to sleep, his thoughts dwelled on Ushio, the Spearbearer...and the suffering he hoped to spare his son.
In the distance, thunder rolled ominously.
In the darkness near a small sub-station on the outskirts of the city, sheltered from the light of nearby streetlamps, a shadow rippled like water. Something began to rise up from the darkness like a man rising from a pool, silent and smooth. As the shape came up, the broken surface of the shadow spilled down, running like liquid back into its own plane as something black and undefined stepped up from the nothingness and onto solid asphalt.
Hissing breaths panted into the cool night air. The strange figure seemed to hide from the light as it stepped closer to the pole that was the shadow's source, invisible but for the pair of blood-red eyes that glowed dimly in the darkness. Shapeless but at the same time well-defined, it was formless yet had all the appearances of arms, legs, and body. It seemed unearthly, a creature of a nether realm, more shade than flesh.
Yet it was mortal enough to gasp for breath; mortal enough that, if one posessed the ears to hear, a heart pounded with exertion. It was leaning against the fence pole with the attitude of a man who has run for miles with hellhounds at his heels.
In a sense, it had--fleeing from a power too great for it to face just yet. A marvelous, delicious dark power, full with age and strong blood...
Sickly-red eyes glowed a little more brightly, but the thought that made them light most was not the tasty aura of the great fire-colored thunder-beast that had driven it away, but the savor of the smaller warrior with which it had done battle.
Such a tempting flavor...something so deliciously powerful, yet so sweetly young... Rich and heady, fresh and vibrant, the "odor" alone was enough reason to abandon all caution and go for the prize. So much of it, laced with the strangest, newest savor--like nothing ever smelled before; the tang of bakemono, the spice of raw power, but the essence of...something...
The shadow remembered the abrupt jolt at first touch--the taste/feel of that aura itself was appallingly strong, as if in a single nibble one was forced to swallow an entire dish. A rush, too fast; the shock of turbulent, untamed strength and wild, bottomless energy, all suffused with crackling gold--so much, so sweet a taste, and he wanted more, more--!
Then flash, and pain--the blinding taint of human spoiling the potential meal with glaring, soul-deep brilliance that rendered it untouchable. The small bakemono-thing glowed with a mortal's spirit, far too bright for the touch of a shadow. So potent a source, just out of his reach--damnable human essence...!
The little human-thing was the perfect meal--but one he could never devour. The second best would have to suffice for now...
The shadow rose from its place at the fence pole and smiled at the darkening stars, anticipating clouds and rain and blackness. Chaos would come--and with it, the feast.
In the distance, thunder rolled ominously.
To be continued...