((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 5: What Lies Beneath

"Tora." In the stillness of the silent house, Ushio's whisper was like a snarl, shattering the quiet like a bullet through glass. At last it seemed to be the time for words, now that they were safely ensconced in the solitude of the boy's bedroom. "Start talking. Tell me what you know about that thing back there on the roof."

Crouched in the corner near the closet, Tora's slitted silver eyes settled on the youth seated on the futon. He didn't like the way the Brat was looking at him, dark eyes catching moonlight from the window and glowing as if Ushio were one with the Spear still. It was a cold, focused look, full of thought and threat, and the human's hand twitched nearer to the haft of the Beast Spear with each passing second.

"Che..." Tora grumbled softly, shifting position slightly. "I guess I have to, if I want to get that bastard out of my territory. Listen up, Brat, I'm only going to tell you this once."

"Let me make one thing very clear, Tora," Ushio bit out, his hand actually closing on the Spear. "I'm sure as hell not doing this for your pride or your 'territory'--"

"So shut up and listen," Tora snapped, knowing that such a retort might get him the flat side of the Spear upside the head. "I don't care why you do it, so long as it gets done."

"Fine. Talk."

Tora rumbled, then decided he was too tired and exasperated to pick a fight just now. "I was told that thing is a shadow-demon, as I said. It's one nasty son of a snake, according to...my source. It eats humans to fill its belly when it has the need, but it consumes bakemono to satisfy its other appetites. Sick bastard..."

"Says a lot for your standards," Ushio muttered. "It's fine if it just eats humans, but when it turns on other bakemono it's a 'sick bastard?' Keh! What 'other appetites' are you talking about?"

Tora chose to ignore Ushio's jab, answering the real question instead. "It's called a Hungry Shadow for a reason, Brat. It devours the souls of bakemono and enslaves them, living off their energy and bending them to its will."

Ushio's breath caught, and Tora had the satisfaction of seeing the Brat's icy glare break. "So...that poor monster on the roof was--?"

"No, that was merely a puppet; lucky Mukade-Kumo only had his shadow taken--his soul was still free."

"Yeah, lucky for him, but--shit, Tora, if that thing can do that just by...by taking someone's shadow..."

Tora remained still, pushing aside the memory of an abandoned school building, a tarry, enveloping danger and horrific, hungry red eyes. "It is much worse to be devoured by him," the bakemono replied. "That's why I warned you not to let him touch you. With the Spear, I'm not sure..."

The boy's throat quivered with a gulp. "You said he just eats humans, right? Just for...uh, for the meat?"

"That's what I was told." The memory of the shadow's first attack still had the power to make his fur bristle; he hated that thing--hated that it had frightened him, hated that it had the power to possibly take him. "Human souls are too bright for him to devour--they would drown his shadow essence and nullify him if he tried to consume one. He must take the flesh and let the soul go free. But bakemono souls are dark enough to be useful to him."

The Brat's eyes were wide and dark in the starlit bedroom. Dark and round, no longer seeming to gather the moonlight to themselves, becoming only large, frightened human-child eyes; eyes that he had seen in a thousand faces centuries ago, instants before he slew them--the eyes of fearful prey. "Damn. Tora, you...you should stay away from him--"

"Shut up!" Tora snarled, his voice startlingly loud and sharp in the stillness, making the boy jump, his hand tightening on the Spear. "I will not hide from that shadow bastard! Do you hear? I fear nothing!"

"I know, I know!" the youth protested. "I just meant...I thought you...I mean you might..." He trailed off, frustrated at his inability to express what he wanted. "I just...don't want to have to..."

Silver eyes narrowed to hot, guarded, almost hostile slits. "I've no need for your protection, human."

"So what if you don't?" Ushio spat back, temper flaring. "If that shadow creep eats you and makes you his puppet--what if it's you I have to put down like a rabid dog? God, Tora, I couldn't stand do something like that again--!"

"We will kill him first," the bakemono stated with icy, utter conviction. "You will kill him first."

Struck by Tora's tone, Ushio fell silent again, gaze turning inward. "Why...me?" he asked softly after a moment.

Recovering from his earlier ire, Tora looked briefly disgruntled before scowling at the human boy. "I was informed that I may not have powers of the sort needed to destroy that Hungry Shadow," he replied stiffly, almost as if he were insulted.

Ushio blinked, slightly confused. "Meaning...?"

Tora only had the patience to say it nicely once. "Meaning that goddamn Spear might be the only thing that can kill the bastard!" he spat, as if he'd been forced to say something vile. And perhaps for him it was. "Che! Stupid Brat...if I didn't need the Spear for this I'd kill you right now. I'm tired of your whining and weeping!"

Ushio stared right back, undaunted by the irate silver glare directed at him. "I'm tired of your nagging and threats! What's your problem anyway? Just because I'm concerned now that we've got two things to worry about--getting rid of the shadow bastard and making sure you don't get eaten--"

"Why the hell do you care?" Tora growled, humphing and turning away.

Ushio glared at the bakemono's shaggy back. "I have absolutely no idea."

Dead silence reigned.

Suddenly fed up with the whole discussion, and feeling the weariness of the long battle creeping up on him, Ushio sat back on his futon and pulled the Spear down beside him, safely in hand. "I'm sick of this--I'm going to sleep. Go get 'devoured' or whatever--see if I care. Just don't come crying to me to put you out of your misery."

The human turned over and closed his eyes, thinking that he'd seen to the end of the conversation. However, at his last statement Tora had turned back with something unreadable in his eyes.

"What if it was you the Hungry Shadow consumed?" Tora asked, his voice like soft muted thunder.

Ushio hid the jolt he felt by tensing his muscles, tightening his grip on the Spear beside his bed. "What are you complaining about now? You said the bastard just eats humans. All I've gotta do is keep his teeth off me--"

"Idiot." The bakemono's tone was sharply derisive now, rough with scorn and something unknown. "Why do you think he's hunting you? He thinks he can take you, fool!"

"What?" Ushio sat up abruptly, making Tora jump. "He thinks what?"

Tora rumbled softly. "You know you're not human when the Spear takes you. You see it from the inside, but I see it from without--and if he sees what I see, then you may be in danger as well."

Ushio's dark eyes narrowed, something glimmering in their depths. "And what do you see, Tora?" the boy asked quietly, almost dangerously--and his gaze made Tora's fur tingle oddly. The Brat's eyes had changed again; no longer prey, no longer fearful--they had changed to the eyes of a predator, gathering moonlight once again. It was almost as if someone else were looking at him for a moment.

The Brat was suddenly angry, that quiet sort of angry that happened whenever the subject of the Spearbearer's Change was brought up. The silent, dangerous, withdrawn kind of angry that simmered around him like a second aura whenever Tora questioned his humanity, whenever Mayuko teased a little too much. The Brat was the Spearbearer through and through...but that didn't mean he liked what it did to him.

"What are you talking about, Tora?" Ushio demanded, startling the bakemono out of his thoughts. "What do you see? What does he see?"

Tora's muzzle wrinkled with a low snarl. "Do not," he grated, "presume to put challenge to me through your eyes, Brat."

The flat of the Spear's blade was smacked against the floor with a sharp clank! that made Tora flinch involuntarily. "Dammit, Tora, just tell me!"

The rumble in the bakemono's throat increased. "I've told you before what I see, fool! You're not human in that form! I know what I smell and what I sense--you've got bakemono running all through you whenever that goddamn Spear takes hold of you!"

"And that makes you think the shadow freak could take me?" Ushio demanded quietly.

"If it makes you bakemono enough that he wants you..." Tora let the grim phrase trail off and linger in the air like a hung corpse, morbid and frightening.

The memory of the spider-centipede's tortured scream made Ushio flinch inwardly; if that were only some sort of shadow-puppet, how much worse would it be if his own soul were taken from him by that monster? Losing his will, his sanity, his self--hell, he already worried about his soul enough where the Beast Spear was concerned. Little by little he felt it eating away at his humanity, pushing at him with a feral darkness that he willfully denied--but despite his best efforts, something within him always reveled in the change; his doubts would be pushed aside and he would begin to enjoy the prowess, the hunt, the kill.

Sometimes it seemed like he was being torn into two halves; one, the human that would shed tears at having to put down a hapless bakemono who had been enslaved by a demon; the other, a monster who enjoyed the fighting and the mayhem and the deaths, something that found dark glee in what the Spearbearer did so often.

Was that what Tora meant by having bakemono all through him? The snarling feral beast-boy he became through the change--was that what might give the shadow-demon a foothold in his soul?

With a shudder, he looked up to find Tora's eyes meeting his, clear of anger or accusation--in fact, studiously neutral. "The Hungry Shadow is weakest in daylight," the bakemono announced softly. "We should do our hunting then."

Ushio fought off the eagerness he felt when Tora said the word "hunting." It seemed rather frightening, especially after what he'd just realized. "I've got school tomorrow, baka. I can't just take off and--"

"Worry about that later, Brat. What do a few days of school matter when that shadow is running loose?"

He's got a point there, but... "I'm going to school, Tora. I've missed enough as it is, and Asako's already on my case. I'll do it afterwards--you can do what you want until then."

"Che!" Tora scowled, but grumbled to himself and finally rose from the corner. "Stupid Brat..." he snorted as he strode toward the window, apparently done talking for the night. Still muttering unsavory things about the idiot human he was forced to work with, he phased through the wall and out into the night, heading for his customary spot on the main Shrine roof.

After he was gone, Ushio at last was able to relax his grip on the Beast Spear's smooth haft, drawing a sigh of relief that their conversation--if one could call it that--had not degenerated into a physical argument. Maybe it was the danger the Hungry Shadow represented, or maybe it was that they were getting a little more comfortable with each other, but Ushio was grateful that lately Tora seemed less apt to attack, more likely to answer. If they were able to continue to work together, killing the freaky shadow-demon shouldn't be too hard at all.

It was just hard to get over what he'd had to do that night. Killing a helpless, wounded, innocent bakemono simply because some shadow-grabbing bastard had forced it to attack him...

And if worst came to worst and Tora was captured by the demon...what then?

Or perhaps even worse...if he were the one devoured--if the Spear made him too inhuman to escape the shadow's greedy clutches...

It was a long time before Ushio was finally able to sleep.

* * * * *

The shadow fled from the light as dawn approached.

He was weaker in sunlight, yes, but that didn't mean his power waned in the day; light harmed him, not the hour nor the position of the earth. To avoid the burn of the rising sun, he escaped into the passages beneath the city--miles and miles of subway tunnels, sewers, basements, and drainpipes, an entirely separate world beneath the streets.

A world populated by millions of light-fearing bakemono.

They were good food, of course, and the hungry void inside him had room for many more than just the few hundred he devoured in his first hours there. He supped well, gaining power and knowledge as he rent bodies and twisted souls to his own desires. He would sit still for minutes on end to enjoy a particularly strong and flavorful soul, twitching in delight as he broke it bit by bit until the gibbering scrap of being was no longer recognizable as sentient.

Still, these small creatures didn't have what he wanted--the taste, the savor of ancient thunder, aged like fine wine...the tantalizing memory of the orange bakemono still tempted him like a cake in a store window. All he needed was the strength to break the glass.

And strength he could gather by devouring these bakemono--it had been so long since he'd seen so many in one place. One city held more creatures than an entire country of the West! Born centuries ago in northern Japan, the weak young shadow had been driven away from his homeland and far into the Western world--where there were many humans, but far less of the food he really needed. Forced into hibernation by starvation, it was only by chance that he waked to the smell of a powerful bakemono nearby and chanced to consume the wounded creature, granting him the strength to rise up and return.

Return to this land of such bounty and delight...

Delight...surprising treats...like that strange bakemono-thing, human-thing that fought alongside the orange beast. Only that one--the one with the flavor of raw power and golden blackness, but a soul too bright to reach--stood above his current target. Mere human essence was the only thing preventing him from hunting the creature--strange as it was, the scent of that odd thing's soul was as potent as a drug. Taunting, tempting him with hints of utter darkness, but gleaming brilliant gold with untouchable fire.

Such a strange little creature...

So many of the bakemono in these sewers knew and recognized the image of the small warrior--once he had them, he forced them to divulge their knowledge. But their minds shied away from that snarling, humanlike visage with raw terror that outstripped even the panic they felt at being taken by him. They would even run back into his clutches, like rabbits fleeing into the fox's den to escape the wolf. Their pitiful consciousnesses cried out in fear of that strange human-creature, and from any of them the most he could get was a single horror-ridden thought--"Spearbearer! Spearbearer! Spearbearer!"

The word pointed him at the legends he'd heard many times in his existence. Rumors, whisperings of a nightmare that hadn't been encountered in five hundred years, half a myth and half a bedtime story, that everyone thought had vanished into the mists of time. Tales of a terrible enemy that stalked the night hunting for bakemono to destroy, wearing the shape of a human and wielding a long deadly spear, bearing fangs that grinned in bloodlust and the eyes of a beast that glowed with infernal fire.

He was no stranger to the tales--the Spearbearer, the Beast Spear, the legends handed down among monsters. So many young monsters thought the Spearbearer was just a story their parents made up to scare them...but now that it was real they'd spent months cowering in terror of an ancient horror. So many of the older ones had thought the legend had left this world long since...but now they groaned in fear of something that had reappeared after five centuries of silence. The shadow had consumed enough of them to know the tales very well--all the variations of them, all the rumors and myths and lies and truths.

But still, despite all the information he'd absorbed, despite what he'd witnessed firsthand...by all appearances it was a mere human-thing with a big sharp stick. How did it inspire such panic amongst the entire underground population--and why did a human have a soul that flickered with dark, and bore the scent of his prey?

Within the shadow's endless hunger there rested an insatiable curiosity--the same that drove him to explore other lands, to seek greater depths in the sewers, to hunt down new flavors of souls. That desire to know more was second only to his desire to devour the human-thing, the Spearbearer. He hungered for knowledge, for knowledge is power as well.

He would explore, he would consume, he would search until he found one who knew more of this Spearbearer creature. "Know your enemy" was a valuable lesson; perhaps with time and patience he could gather enough power and knowledge to take the orange thunder-beast. Such an ancient bakemono would certainly increase his strength enough that he could take his greatest prize.

The shadow crept deeper into the tunnels beneath the city, savoring the memory of the Spearbearer's soul-taste, grinning in anticipation of the feast.

* * * * *

Ushio couldn't decide which was worse; the utter droning boredom of another long day in class--after things like monster-hunting, school was pretty dull--or the dark, constant nagging in the back of his mind, reminding him of the Hungry Shadow that stalked the city devouring innocent souls. He'd had another row with Tora that morning about going out to hunt the thing, but at the moment he couldn't remember what had been so important about getting to school on time.

Perhaps it had something to do with wanting to continue his education, get into a good college, and someday become a known and respected artist. Yeah, maybe that was it...

There were a couple of bright spots, however; Mayuko, who was her usual cheerful self, and Asako, who uknowingly and obligingly took his mind off his problems by egging him into yet another verbal--and nearly physical--brawl.

At least Mayuko waited until after school to ask him what was wrong. That way fewer people would notice how his face closed down, how his eyes grew dark, how he seemed to withdraw into a shell again. He couldn't really explain it to her in much detail--not with the threat of Asako coming out of the school building at any moment--and besides that, it wasn't something he really wanted to explain to her. Not about the hunt, the battle, the shadow, the death; instead, he just told her that it was something dangerous, and it might be following him and Tora, so she should keep her distance for a while.

And then Asako was coming out the doors and heading toward them, and all Mayuko did was give him a poignant look and state that he really should tell Asako the truth, and soon, because she was his friend too and just yelling "Leave me alone!" wasn't going to keep her away from any danger.

Though he couldn't reply, he knew that in Asako's case something like that would only make it worse--she was way too stubborn for her own good.

The trio left the schoolyard, and Ushio realized they were being followed the instant they stepped out the gates. Instincts well-honed by months of fighting bakemono let him know within moments that something dangerous trailed them, but within a block he relaxed his guard, recognizing Tora's familiar presence. As he did, the bakemono shifted in response, coming out of hiding and drifting to perch in his usual place on Ushio's shoulders.

Ushio dropped back a bit as the girls walked ahead, continuing to chatter. Tora's silence was meaningful, as was the slightly-tighter-than-usual grip on the boy's shoulder. "Don't push it," Ushio muttered, a near-whisper he knew Tora could hear perfectly well. "I'm walking them home, then I'll go with you."

The bakemono only snorted.

Mayuko's house was the first stop, and she said cheerful goodbyes to Asako but only gave Ushio another meaningful glance as she took her leave and entered her home. Still rather lighthearted from her girlish conversation with her friend, Asako walked at Ushio's side with a pleasant smile, chin uplifted to breathe in the air, the faint breeze tickling her hair into her face. She pushed it back with one hand; Ushio caught himself watching her appreciatively and glanced away. He scowled as well when he realized that Tora was watching Asako--and he didn't like the narrow-eyed, unreadable stare the bakemono was giving her.

Rather sharply, he shifted the Spear on his shoulder just so, and the flat of the shrouded blade bumped Tora's side. The bakemono jumped, hissed a curse, and nearly fell off his perch.

Asako glanced at the boy beside her. "What did you say?"

"Hm?" Sparing Tora a glare, Ushio pasted a confused look on his face and turned back to her, eyes wide and innocent. "Did I say something?"

"I guess not," she replied, shrugging. "I thought I heard..."

They walked on in silence for a few minutes more, both of them watching the pavement go by under their feet as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. Tora grumbled inaudibly and yawned, drifting off the boy's shoulders to hover along behind the pair. Ushio stewed in his own juices, his thoughts beginning to betray him by drifting toward the Spear, the hunt, the kill he was going to make...

Asako watched her friend's face change out of the corner of her eye and fought a shiver. Though she'd confided to Mayuko that she was angry, in truth she was a little bit scared too. Something was happening to her best friend and she didn't know what, but it was changing him in ways she'd never seen before--in ways he obviously thought he could hide from her. But she'd known him since they were children--since they were babies; she couldn't remember a time in her life when she hadn't known him.

There was always Ushio. Her earliest memories included him, bright brown eyes and short shaggy dark hair and that silly crooked Ushio-grin she knew so well--parts of him that stayed constant no matter how they both changed and grew. Ushio was everywhere in her memory, always with her--he was the toddler in the sandbox with her, the little kid fighting over the playground swings with her; he was the gradeschooler riding bicycles with her...the teenage boy studying and arguing and walking home with her...

She knew him like she knew herself--or at least she thought she'd known him, before he started changing so much. But even now...she still knew when he was happy or sad, angry or tired--almost as if they were empathically linked, she knew how to tell if there was something on his mind, or if something was hurting him...

Like something was hurting him now. Just like it had been hurting him for months. A shadow had been over him ever since...ever since...when? It had been so long since Ushio was the brash, bright-eyed, cocky boy she'd always known; now there were things hiding in his gaze, painful frightening things he thought no one noticed. Maybe no one else did...but she did, and it made something in her chest hurt when she saw his eyes grow dark with some inner burden.

It was getting worse, too. He was quicker to anger now, quicker to close down--much quicker to push her away. Whatever was bothering him...it was getting stronger somehow. It was starting to seep through whatever barriers he had erected to keep it inside himself. She saw it every day now--especially today, and even yesterday--and it sometimes made her feel as if she was looking at a different person. As if some dark, angry, melancholy youth had stepped into his skin and replaced her cheerful, mouthy, happy-go-lucky Ushio.

She wanted to make that pain go away, if only to bring back the Ushio she knew...

But he wouldn't tell her what was going on--he would either clam up and walk away or open his big mouth with some baka-Ushio insult that made her temper flare and her original intent fly right out of her mind.

She almost felt like she was losing him--like she was desperately holding on to his fingertips as he slipped over the edge of some terrible cliff...


She jerked at the sound of his voice, drawn forcibly out of her thoughts to look into his concerned eyes; such quiet was unlike her, she knew, just like such gloom was unlike him. Then she realized that he'd called her name several times, and that they were standing in front of her home.

"We're here," Ushio announced blandly, concern vanishing, as if she were a child sleeping in the back of a parent's car.

"I can see that," she shot back, bringing her mind back to the present and stepping up to reach for the door. "Well? Aren't you coming in for a snack?"

Ushio hesitated, his eyes flicking away from her, then back again. "Not today. I've got some things to do. I'm...a little behind on my homework."

"That's nothing new," Asako commented, earning a flash of indignant scowl from him--it was a little more like his old one, but not much. "We can study together if you like."

Again, Ushio glanced away, almost as if something had called to him. "No...that's okay. I've gotta go. Oyaji's expecting me."

Something inside her drooped with disappointment. "Fine then," she replied, her voice a bit sharp. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow. I sure hope you can manage to get that chemistry assignment handed in on time."

"Yeah...whatever. See you."

It unnerved her that he barely responded to her jab--barely even glared at her. She slid back the door as he turned to walk away, watching his retreating form until he had reached the corner, further and further away from her--

...desperately holding on to his fingertips as he slipped over the edge...

"Ushio!" she called after him suddenly--to her own surprise.

"Huh?" He glanced back at her, his eyes so flat--

"Are you...are you mad about something? Mad at me...?" she asked--again, surprising herself with the words coming out of her mouth. "You--you've been such a basketcase lately...!"

For the first time in a long time, she saw him respond. It might have been the tone of her voice, slightly worried...or maybe the look on her face, earnestly concerned--she wasn't paying attention to either, just to him--but his flat eyes softened and seemed to light from within, a half-smile touching his lips. "Baka! Why the hell would I be mad at you? You're such a helpless idiot, how could I get mad at you for anything?"

Again with the baka-Ushio comments--! "Why--why you--!" As she cast rapidly about for something hard to throw at him, he made a face at her, laughing at her irate expression--finally laughing for real--and by the time she looked up again, startled by the clarity in the sound, he was gone.

Her tight fists loosened, her own face softening in a strange sort of relief--at last, she'd gotten through to him, really touched him for the first time in days. She hadn't heard him laugh like that in weeks.

"Ushio no baka..." she whispered. It was good to know her Ushio was still in there somewhere.

Her Ushio? Now where on Earth did her brain come up with something like that?

Shaking her head, she gave a short laugh at her own silliness and stepped inside, closing the door behind her with an eager greeting to her parents.

* * * * *

Ushio was smiling until Tora settled on his shoulders again, the bakemono's huge paws reminding him of the supernatural presence that followed him. "Not a word," he growled, hunching his shoulders under the monster's weight. "Not one word."

"Did I say anything, Brat?" Tora grunted irritably, claws flexing just enough to brush Ushio's jacket. "We have a shadow to hunt--or have you forgotten?"

"Shut up." Ushio shifted the Spear again, not quite bumping the bakemono with it, but enough to warn Tora that it was still there. "I expect you've found a few leads--it's not like you to sit around all day waiting for me when there's something to kill."

"Of course," Tora grunted almost haughtily. "I was told he moves through shadows, and I saw proof of that last night--it's impossible to track him when he does. But I found trace of him some distance from the place you fought, and followed it to where the bastard went to ground when the sun rose. He's damn hard to track, but I caught his scent yesterday and I could recognize it anywhere."

"So where is he?"

"Underground." Tora growled softly, claws flexing again.

"Underground where? There's a lot of underground under this city." Ushio scowled; if Tora got any more irritated, he would need a new jacket. He was half inclined to boot the bakemono off his shoulders.

"South of here, closer to the place we last saw him. Near that metal structure with lightning inside it."

"Lightning inside it?" That sure helps a lot... "What? You mean some kind of power plant?" Ushio obligingly turned his steps southward at the next corner, trying to remember where exactly he'd fought that battle. Finding the place on foot at ground level in daylight was different than reaching it from the rooftops in the silver light of the moon.

Tora snorted in annoyance. "I don't know what you call it. It's one of those places where humans gather up lightning and send it to other places. Different from the place that makes lightning."

"The sub-station near the bus depot...?" Ushio muttered, half to himself. Sometimes Tora's lack of modern knowledge made things frustrating, but it could be humorous as well. Being a creature of lightning himself, Tora could sense electricity to a degree, and it had been amusing enough to see his reaction to learning how humans used it; the bakemono had wanted to know how the hell--and exactly when--had humans learned magic that allowed them to harness "the power of lightning," as he called it.

Ushio'd just tossed a science book at him and told him to read chapter three; humans didn't just harness lightning--they made their own.

Just to be witty, he wondered how many city blocks Tora would power if he were hooked up to enough wires. Trying to hide his twitching smile at the thought, he kept his head down and continued to walk in the direction Tora indicated, trusting that the bakemono remembered how to get to the place they were going.

Finally, Tora's large hands tightened on his shoulders; Ushio stopped, growing wary. Without words, he knew they had arrived in the vicinity.

It was a fairly deserted place, more industrial than commercial, with many large buildings and open, empty lots. He gripped the Spear tighter, his eyes scanning the street--there was the sub-station, less than fifty meters down the street--and frowning as his gaze swept over so many shadows. Too many black shadows cast by buildings, telephone poles, mailboxes--shadows made long and threatening by the sinking late-afternoon sun.

"There's the place you fought the Mukade-Kumo tribesman." Tora pointed back toward the denser part of town, toward a stand of slightly taller buildings almost a kilometer away, which Ushio couldn't quite make out in detail with his human eyes. "That bastard slipped through the shadows and came out there--" Tora pointed to the small sub-station down the road. "--then walked in the shadows of those walls to here."

At this, Tora pointed to the ground--and Ushio stepped back, startled, as his eyes flew downwards and settled on the manhole cover almost under his feet, barely a step away off the curb. "You mean he went--?"

"Right through here," Tora confirmed, stepping off to drift to the ground. "His stench is all over it, besides the claw-marks on the metal. Apparently he can't pass through solid things; he can only travel through shadows."

"Where did he go from here?"

Tora glanced at him, almost askance. "You think I followed him down there? It's all shadows in that realm, Brat--we're flies walking into the spider's web if we go further."

"But...we are going, aren't we?" Ushio asked, his voice soft with a sort of resignation.

"What else?" Tora snorted, reaching out with spreading claws to skewer the heavy manhole cover like the top half of a hamburger bun, lifting it clear of its resting place as if it were merely the lid of a jar. He dropped it on the asphalt with a thick clank. "Feh! What a stench...!"

Ushio peered down into the blackness. "Tora...are you sure about this? You just said we'd be--"

"Why do you think I waited for you, Brat?" the bakemono snarled, showing white fangs. "Change yourself so you won't be completely useless in the dark--and let's go!"

Ushio fought off the urge to bare his teeth at the bakemono in reply; not only would it be fruitless, it would also be rather silly-looking--he wouldn't have fangs until he changed. So he did as Tora ordered, drawing on adrenaline and anticipation to tap into the Beast Spear's wells of power, asking for the Spearbearer's Change to come upon him, to remake him--and after the eternity/moment passed and he opened his eyes again, the passages below the manhole seemed not so dark as before.

"Phew, you're right, it does stink..." Ushio commented offhand as he knelt to peer into the hole. Somehow, the change...took a lot of the fear away, made him feel bolder, more dangerous--so it didn't seem as terrifying to stick his head in a hole full of shadows where something might wait to bite it off. "Shall we?"

"I've been waiting for this all goddamn day, Brat," Tora growled, scowling at him--but as Ushio braced himself to swing down into the manhole, the bakemono spoke again, his voice surprisingly stern. "Just remember, Brat--you're the source of light down there. If we are attacked, you are the light. Do you understand? Remember that."

Wide-eyed at Tora's solemn statement, Ushio nodded. Then, as Tora phased through the asphalt and descended, the boy slid off the edge and dropped into the darkness, landing with preternatural grace on a concrete ledge three meters below.

Alongside him ran pipes of metal and plastic, bolted to the brickwork wall; overhead were underground power cables. Below the ledge upon which he stood flowed a sluggish river of sewage and drainwater, reeking of many known foul odors as well as several Ushio didn't want to identify. He silently cursed the sensitive nose that came along with this form; the stench almost brought tears to his eyes.

The only light that touched this gloomy world flowed in from the open hole above, along with whatever filtered in through other manhole-covers and drainage grates on down the tunnel. Grateful for his catlike night-vision, Ushio peered ahead and behind, watching for movement.

"This is an unsavory place," Tora announced quietly at his side, curbing the volume of his deep raspy voice so that the echoes wouldn't travel down the tunnels and alert their enemy. He sounded so solemn, so free of mocking or insult that Ushio couldn't help but stare at him and listen. "Many bakemono live here--and have lived here since this city was laid down. This is the place all the lesser bakemono go--those who cannot take human form or otherwise disguise themselves, those who still prey on human flesh or excrement, those who do not wish to leave the city and live in the wilds." The monster's whiskers twitched as he tested the air. "This place reeks of them...and of that damn human filth. I can't track that shadow bastard in this place," he admitted with a look of disgust, a faint growl in his throat.

"We could always go down there and cause some trouble," Ushio suggested quietly, feeling his lips pulling back into a frighteningly eager grimace. "Like the flies in the spider's web--the spider won't come if the fly stays still. Only we're not flies--we're wasps." The grimace became a fang-baring grin. "The spider's going to get one hell of a surprise."

Though he was usually disdainful, Tora couldn't help but smile darkly at the Brat's eagerness. "Brave words, little human. Let's see what happens, eh?"

Ushio gripped the Spear tighter and headed off down the concrete walkway, Tora close behind. Whatever waited for them in the darkness ahead--he was ready to face it with Tora at his back. And if necessary, he would be the light as Tora asked--he would call upon the power of the Spear and turn this brackish darkness into blinding brilliance. That shadow would be found, and then it would pay.

The little rumble in Ushio's chest had less to do with wariness at venturing into the darkness...and more to do with the anticipation of sinking his weapon deep into the Hungry Shadow's black flesh.

Behind him, Tora tried to ignore his misgivings as they strode ever further into the foul blackness. He just knew, somehow, that the true danger of the shadow ran deeper than the deepest pits of Tokyo's sewers--and that this conflict had only barely begun.

To be continued...

AN: Sorry for all the dull introspection, folks, but don't worry--the action should pick up any time now...