((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 6: Storms of Strife
The shadow lounged in a deep, rank-smelling passage near a leaking trickle of sewage, blood-red eyes half-lidded, his attention focused inwards on the many new souls he had consumed. Safe and secure in the comforting blackness of a tunnel so old that even the city maps had forgotten it, the shadow sprawled out to rest and "digest" his prey.
He was still hungry, of course--mere peons such as these could never be enough to satiate him--but all the bakemono in the vicinity had fled, and he had no desire as yet to chase them. No, at this point he preferred to savor the torment of the creatures he'd devoured and imagine what it would be like to finally take the orange thunder-beast and its little human companion. He could hunt down more of the scum here any time he wished.
Fearsome Hungry Shadow that he was, he was quite used to having other bakemono flee from him. However, he was not accustomed to them running toward him.
It began as a faint rustling very similar to the sound of creatures fleeing him in the distance. Then it grew louder and louder, until it was reminiscient of the stampedes he'd caused when he'd first arrived in this shadowed under-realm. Waked from his restful ruminations, the shadow jerked upright just in time to see the first wave of creatures pour around the corner--stragglers of the hordes he'd devoured before, the edges of the crowds that had once scattered in that direction.
But now, they ran--skittering, humping, crawling, slithering, whatever their best means of locomotion--at full speed straight toward him, as if uncaring that he could snatch up a half-dozen of them in a single gulp. And by the look of utter terror in their many eyes, it seemed that there was something even worse than him in the depths of the tunnel beyond.
The front of the horde reached him, parted around him, flowed past him like a river of sewage. There were uncountable numbers of hideous bakemono, from mouse-sized to easily the span of a small car, all rushing in panic, squealing and growling and gurgling, pushing and shoving and biting. The shadow was barely spared a glance, barely spared room to stand.
Whatever could frighten these creatures so--that they would actually risk approaching him to escape it--must be a fearsome beast indeed. The sheer numbers of bakemono that ran like rats fleeing a ship made him wary; he immediately leaped into the horde, snatching up the first creature that looked somewhat intelligent and possibly communicative.
It squealed when his claws closed around its throat, and thrashed as he brought it close and ordered it to tell him what was happening--and what they were all running from.
Its voice was high and shrieking in fear, and it never stopped struggling to get away from him. Too terrified to resist, it babbled mindlessly. "He's coming--he's coming! Kill us all--gonna kill us all--gotta run! Run! He's coming--!"
Eyes narrowing, the shadow demanded to know who was coming.
"It's him--it's him--Spearbearer--Spearbearer--Spearbearer--!" It was gibbering in panic now, its thoughts retreating into the same thrall of terror that gripped even the souls he had devoured.
The shadow simply let go of the bakemono, allowing it to fall back to the ground and disappear into the fleeing hordes. He glanced back down the tunnel, feeling his hunger intensify--but no, no, now was not the time. The darkness here was plentiful but he hadn't yet enough power to do it--not against the Spearbearer and thunder-beast both, not when he still needed to know more...
Hissing to himself, the shadow skittered away along with the crowd, losing himself in their midst as they fled ever deeper.
He was tired, he was footsore, he was hungry, and worst of all, he stank to high heaven.
The only thing Ushio found to be thankful for was the fact that he was no longer in his Spearbearer form and therefore the stench wafting from his clothing and Tora's fur was no longer as overpowering as it had once been. Thank God for small favors, such as the insensitivity of the human olfactory system.
He didn't have to ask why Tora was floating along behind him rather than perching on his shoulders. At least the bakemono reeked almost as much as he did, and thus couldn't complain.
"Nothing," he muttered for the hundredth time, kicking a pebble on the sidewalk. "Not a single clue. Not one frikkin' thing."
Ushio was in a mood nearly as foul as his current odor, having spent the last few hours mucking around in a dark sewer with nothing to show for it but an unpleasant new perfume. And the grime that caked his clothes, but that was something he didn't want to think about right now. He was almost home, heading up the road that led to the hills and his house, and the thought of a hot shower was the only thing keeping him going.
Tora snorted, his muzzle still wrinkled in distaste at the scent of human waste. "I thought you knew that a spider can sense the difference between the snared fight of a wasp and the futile struggles of a fly."
"Don't you get all smug on me," Ushio shot back. "You're the one who said we had to go down there."
"You're the one who agreed--and as I recall you were quite eager to--"
"I was eager to kill the bastard, not stumble around in that hellhole for five hours!" the youth snapped.
"We didn't even run across a single clue! And now I look like I fell in a pit toilet--and you smell like one."
Tora bared white fangs in an unamused gimace. "Don't complain at me of what you stink like, Brat. Whatever you can detect, I can smell a thousand times more."
"Aren't you lucky," Ushio grumbled. "I spent more time stumbling through that...that shit than I did getting anything useful done. You couldn't even find a trace of him with that wonderful nose of yours."
"You were down there too, Brat--could you have done any better?" the bakemono spat back.
"It would've been handy to be flying, jerk."
"You honestly think I'd let you on my back after you fell in the first time?" Tora snorted, almost in disbelief.
"I wouldn't have fallen in at all if you'd let me on when I asked!" Ushio retorted. "Now I'm covered in it--and it's my school uniform! I don't know how I'm gonna explain this to Oyaji--it's kinda hard to miss when he can smell me coming a mile away."
"Further than that," the bakemono muttered as the Aotsuki shrine came into view ahead.
Ushio cast a brief glare over his shoulder before moving into a jog, anxious to get home and get cleaned up before anyone caught him. It was after the dinner hour already, so hopefully his father would be meditating or something in the main Shrine and Ushio could sneak past unnoticed--if the wind was right--to get a fast shower. He wondered if he should bother to launder his uniform, or just give up and bury it.
Inside the gates, all was quiet. Tora snorted derisively at Ushio's furtiveness and drifted away, heading for the Shrine roof and his own business.
Ushio ignored the bakemono's scorn and hot-footed it for the house, anxious to be clean and presentable before he was seen. He carefully slid back the door and slipped off his shoes, then made for the stairs--only to be brought up short by the sharp bark of his father's voice.
"There you are, boy. I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever grace us with your presence," Shigure drawled from his seat at the kitchen table.
Caught like a buck in the headlights, Ushio froze. "Oyaji--?"
But Shigure wasn't the one who made Ushio flinch like a guilty thief--it was the figure sitting beside his father, pinning him with a hurt, angry, accusatory glare. "Ushio, where have you been?"
"That's a good question, dear girl," Shigure continued in the same laconic tone, scooting his chair back from the table to fully regard his son. "Since I had thought he'd be with you, considering his usual practice..."
"And he told me he had to go home in a hurry," Asako put in, though her accusing eyes never left Ushio's.
Ushio gulped, trying to force his suddenly-dry throat to work. "Look, I..."
Shigure was rising from his chair now, curtness changing to ire. "Especially since I'm sure he knows it's past a respectable dinner hour, as well as past dark, and I've had no word as to where he is or what he's doing. He seems to have forgotten the rules in this household concerning his curfew."
"Just--quit talking about me like I'm not here!" Ushio managed to spit out, irritated.
Shigure's gaze turned direct. "Fine then--where were you, boy?"
"I wasn't doing anything wrong!" Ushio replied hotly, scowling. He already felt guilty enough--the anger helped to hide the sheer terror he felt at having to explain himself.
"Then why'd you have to lie about it?" Asako demanded from her place at the table.
"That's what I'd like to know," Shigure seconded, stepping toward his son with a purposeful air, his voice sharpened with disappointment and exasperation. "Imagine my surprise when I called to order dinner from Nakamura-kun and you weren't there; Asako even told me she thought you'd gone home. You've ignored the rules of this house, and you've lied to Asako--how is that not wrong? Eh?"
At a loss, Ushio glared up at the older man, stubbornly mute.
"Speak up, boy. God only knows what goes on in this city after dark--is it so wrong for me to wonder where my son is and what he's doing at ten o'clock at night? Well? Answer me, Ushio--!"
His father's hand came up, moving to grip his shoulder--but somehow, with how tight his insides had wrung, Ushio reacted without thinking. He caught the wrist of the approaching hand, ducked and whirled to the outside, and slammed Shigure to the wall, arm twisted up behind--all with one hand, somehow keeping the shrouded Spear tight in his grip. Asako gasped, Shigure grunted upon impact, and Ushio froze solid a second time--suddenly, it felt as if the whole world had just spun sharply.
"Very good," Shigure commented, muffled by the wall. "I didn't think you'd ever get that move right, boy."
Ushio released his grip and jumped back as if his father's flesh had burned him. "I--I--!"
In the silence that followed, Shigure removed himself from the wall with perfect dignity, straightening his shirt and fixing Ushio with a level stare. Not even Asako made a sound, too shocked to speak.
"Heavens above, what is that smell?" Shigure suddenly asked, nose wrinkling. "Is that you, boy?"
Flustered and angry at his own actions, Ushio stuttered a reply. "I-I fell...into a ditch."
"Are you sure it was a ditch, and not a sewage treatment plant?" Shigure cocked a brow, his eyes still coolly flat, his face lined in distaste. "Go clean up. When you're ready to explain yourself, get down here."
His nerve lost, Ushio fled as soon as the words were out of his father's mouth, feeling both confused and cornered. As he tumbled into his room, letting the Spear drop with a heavy thunk, his mind whirled with desperation and resentment--how dare they pry into his business, it wasn't any of their concern, his life was his own...
On the heels of that, his guilt returned; it was his father down there--his father and Asako, two people who'd known him all his life and had more right than anyone else to know what was going on. His father always talked about the Spear's legend--he might even understand...
But then there was Asako. No way in hell she'd understand this. Not the Spear, not the monsters, not the blood and the fighting and the deaths and the changing--she couldn't handle something like this, not when he himself had only barely begun to understand it.
She wouldn't laugh--no, her response would be much worse; shock, disgust, fear. She wouldn't want to be around him if she knew. She wouldn't want to be his friend, not if she knew what he'd done--how many battles he'd fought, how many lives he'd taken. She'd be afraid of him, she'd avoid him, scorn him--worse, she'd run away from him. She'd never want to see him again.
The thought of her fleeing from him in terror, never to return--somehow, it made his stomach clench and his heart pound, almost more frightening than the idea of facing some soul-sucking shadow monster.
Mayuko knew, but...Mayuko was different. Mayuko...didn't...matter the same way. He had all but begged Mayuko not to tell Asako what was going on...because he didn't want to lose her like that. He couldn't bear it if Asako hated him.
Ushio locked himself in the bathroom and turned the water on full, scrubbing hard and trying to drown every trace of his worst fears. Somehow he'd fumble through this, but he would tell no one--this was his own horror, his own burden. If Asako fled...he felt almost as if he couldn't breathe, the thought hurt so much. If she were suddenly gone from his life...he didn't know why, but it felt as though his heart would stop.
No, she couldn't know. He would die if she was gone. The only way to survive was to bear this burden alone.
"What is the matter with him?" Asako fumed. "I can't believe he'd...he'd just do that to you--you're his father!"
Shigure actually smiled faintly, sardonic and unaffected once more as he leaned back in his chair. "Child, you've known my son and I long enough that you know that sort of thing is a daily occurrence. Well, perhaps not so much any more..."
"I just don't understand!" Asako continued, barely hearing him, her voice slightly plaintive along with the anger. "What's wrong with him? He's been like this for days--weeks--God, how long has it been? He's always out doing weird things, and he never talks to me any more...!"
"Asako-chan..." Shigure's steady voice gently broke into her upset tirade, somehow giving her thoughts an anchor. "You're not alone," the older man told her quietly. "Ushio has been...withdrawn from both of us for some time now."
"Ojisan...do you know what's going on?" Asako asked, her voice almost a quaver without the temper to back it up.
"I might," Shigure replied, pausing to phrase himself tactfully. "I suspect that the boy is dealing with some...outside pressures that we are not familiar with, and I have tried to be a patient father and allow him to come to me when he needs to. So far, he hasn't."
Asako frowned a little, remembering--as Shigure had asked her to remember--how well she knew them both. And as far back as she could remember, Shigure had never struck her as the "patient father" type; more often than not, the two would come to blows over matters, more like a cranky master and a stubborn pupil than a father and his son. "What if...he can't?"
A shadow flickered across Shigure's face that Asako couldn't see. "Then I must be an impatient father."
"But if you don't know..." Asako frowned, running a hand through her hair. "God, what's going on around here? It's like everyone's under a cloud...even Mayuko--" She paused, eyes narrowing. "Mayuko knows something--she has to! I always see them talking, and they get all quiet and guilty-looking whenever I come--"
"Leave Mayuko out of this."
Ushio's sharp voice caused both of them to turn to the doorway. He stood there as if waiting to be shot--or something equally unpleasant--his eyes dark and closed and his hands fisted at his sides. For a second he seemed somehow incomplete--and then Asako realized that he didn't have that long, sheet-wrapped pole-thing with him. She'd gotten so used to seeing him with it...and now looking at him in just a clean T-shirt and sweats, a towel over his shoulders and his hair damp and scruffy from his shower--it reminded her of the old days, before he started carrying that thing around with him...and before he started changing so much...
"I'm here, Oyaji. Start the inquisition." Ushio stepped into the kitchen at last, stopping at the end of the table and disdaining a seat. He had definitely come ready, if the iron in his eyes was any indication--ready for a fight, not an explanation.
"I'm not here for an inquisition, boy," Shigure replied evenly. "I would simply like to make it clear that I don't want you running about at night, especially when I don't know where you are. You had both of us very worried--I'll have to call Nakamura-kun and tell him we've found you, so they don't worry--"
"God, Oyaji, did you have to tell the whole damn city I went missing?" Ushio snapped. "Why the hell does it matter so much to you now? Most of the time you don't give a rat's ass where I am or what I do! You don't even care!"
"Watch your mouth, boy."
"Screw it! I'm old enough to take care of myself--I sure don't need you! So what if I went out and fell into a sewer? It doesn't matter one bit to you! Leave me the hell alone--!"
"Ushio...!" Asako's voice startled him out of his tirade--she sounded so shocked, as if he'd been shouting the words at her...
And by the look on her face, it was as if he had.
"I...I can't believe you!" she finally all but shouted, her temper rapidly returning as she stood up to meet him eye to eye. "How dare you treat your father like that--just because he loves you and wants you to be safe--! What's the matter with you, Ushio? I don't know what's happened to you lately, but I don't even know you any more! You're so cold--and you treat the people who love you like this--!" Her voice cracked, but her eyes still flamed. "You're such a jerk! You push us away--just because we care about you--"
Ushio could barely find his own voice. "That's not--!" But he broke off, his protests dying in his throat. Were those...tears welling up in her eyes?
"You...you baka! What happened to you?" Asako yelled, her voice shriller than he could ever remember--her anger was different this time-- "I don't even know you any more!"
He couldn't speak--not even when she rushed past him into the hall, heading for the door; his mouth opened to call her name but his voice just wouldn't work. Her last shout had cut deep, reaching him past the armor he'd erected to bully his way through this confrontation, wounding him in a place he couldn't defend.
Coming from his father, perhaps such a thing would have simply bounced off. But coming from her...
He ignored his father's stern voice, finally forcing his legs to move, stumbling out into the hall just in time to see the door slam shut. "Asako--dammit--!"
The presence at his shoulder startled him; Shigure had finally made it to the kitchen door, and stood gazing at him with a look that was strangely knowing.
"She's right, you know."
"About what?" Ushio demanded, unable to meet his father's eyes for long.
"Everything." Shigure leaned against the doorframe. "Just because you haven't said anything doesn't mean we haven't realized something's wrong. What you see as intrusion is in fact our concern, boy."
"Shut up!" Ushio whirled and stalked past the older man, snatching up the Beast Spear where it rested against the wall near the stairs.
"You should be more honest with yourself--and with those who care about you." Shigure responded calmly.
Ushio turned to glare at his father, his eyes bitter and angry. "Just stay the hell out of my life, Oyaji."
Shigure just looked at him for a long time, something unreadable in his expression. Then he rose from the doorframe, turning to step back into the kitchen. "Very well...get going, then, or you won't catch up to her."
"What?" Ushio scowled irately, already halfway up the stairs. "Why the hell do you--?"
Shigure's voice still didn't change--not even a little. "Can't you hear? It's starting to rain, boy. If you've got one shred of decency left in you, go get the damn umbrella and walk that girl home."
Ushio paused on the stairs, listening, catching the sound of thunder overhead--the same that had rumbled over the mountains last night, brewing for the coming storm.
A storm. And Asako was out in it, running home.
By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs again, his father had vanished into the kitchen. Spear in hand, Ushio slipped on his shoes and reached for the umbrella near the coatrack--hesitating only a second when he remembered the hurt and anger in Asako's voice, on Asako's face...
"Dammit..." Jaw clenching, he snatched up the folded umbrella and stepped out into the night, into the growing wind, feeling the prickle of cold raindrops just beginning. Tora was nowhere in sight, probably disappeared into the Shrine for the night to wait out the weather.
Curse it all, his father was right--if he didn't hustle, Asako would be soaked before he reached her. Though he had no idea why he was rushing out to do this for her after she'd just yelled at him, damn it...
But no matter how angry he was, he just couldn't bear to leave her out in the rain. Not caring to open the umbrella for himself, Ushio dashed off across his yard, into the darkness of the gathering storm, hoping to catch up to her before it was too late.
Too late for the rain, too late for their friendship...whatever it was, he couldn't stop the cold urgency beginning to thrum in his heart...
The Hungry Shadow watched the human girl dash from the gates of the Spearbearer's dwelling. Though at this point no part of him had the shape of a mouth, he smiled.
The girl smelled wonderfully of anger, frustration, and emotional pain, and though he couldn't reach out and taste her for the risk of being burned, the edges of her feelings drifted to him and made him salivate. Humans could have such delectable odors--such a pity he couldn't taste her soul, as strong as it was...
But what a marvelous opportunity for a bit of anguish. He couldn't attack the Spearbearer directly--not yet--but this girl perhaps seemed to mean something to that human-creature.
Still smiling, the liquid black mass began to pull away from the trees, the stones, the ground, changing and emerging from a flat shadow in the night to a three-dimensional form, something with barely-recognizable arms and legs, topped by a head set with blood-colored eyes that glowed faintly through the pattering rain.
The shadow simply stood there for a long moment, those bloody eyes sliding closed and solid-shapeless body going slack. He didn't move save for an occasional twitch, and the real smile that slowly grew across his features--a smile that turned sharply to a grimace in an instant as his eyes flew open again.
He suddenly began to swell, losing his vaguely humanoid shape once again, but this time, instead of flattening to the ground and becoming a mere shadow--merging with the shadows--his ever-inconstant form ballooned, stretching like a filled plastic bag, like a bubble of chewing gum expanding to burst.
Twice a man's size--then three times, continuing to stretch until the shadowy mass was the size of a small truck, its surface beginning to shudder and ripple. It was almost roiling, as if struggling--as if there was something within the shadow.
Something burst forth--a dark, clawed, leathery limb, coverd in horns and scales. The shadow's substance began to pull back, drawing away, as the thing continued to emerge, tumbling free of the tarry mass like a newborn foal from its mother--a twisted inception that left the new creature gasping on the ground and the shadow exhausted, drawing his components back together into his loosely humanoid shape.
The thing on the ground was some kind of giant, hideous, many-horned bakemono, all scaly leather skin and sharp-clawed limbs. Bigger than an elephant, it could have peered into the second story window of the Spearbearer's house. It rose sluggishly from the damp ground, unmindful of the rain, its eyes dull, black, and empty.
The Hungry Shadow said nothing, merely turned his back on the thing he had birthed--or rather, regurgitated--and flowed deeper into the woods, taking the straight way back to the city rather than the road. He had no need to remain or command his slave; having once been part of him, its soul twisted to his will, it knew before awakening what was expected of it. He had given it an order, and now that order burned in its mind with an intensity of need that rivaled any pull of thirst or starvation. It would die before it failed him.
The creature didn't look at the shadow, either. It simply began to move, leaving the forest's edge and, staggering at first, heading for the road. Its pace increased with every step, until it was a chugging, drooling freight train of horns and claws--and very long tusks as well--galloping apelike down the darkened road, bearing down on an unsuspecting human that hurried obliviously home not so very far around the bend...
Shigure Aotsuki brooded in the kitchen after his son left, wondering if he'd done the right thing. He knew it wasn't like Ushio to be so callous--but he also knew it wasn't like the Spearbearer to be kind. If what he guessed was true, Ushio was having to deal with a lot more than either he or Asako expected. To be honest, he was fairly sure his own experiences in the Order paled in comparison to the weight of a life spent as the Bearer of the Beast Spear. Such ancient power and massive responsibiltiy...
Legends could never prepare one for the real thing. And the legends themselves were sketchy at best, vague about the Spear's age and origins; in fact, the only story told in any real detail was the one behind the founding of their temple--the one about the Samurai and the evil bakemono and the Spear left beneath the Shrine, during the retelling of which Ushio always fell asleep.
Rather ironic, that.
The legends did say, however that the Spearbearer and his lineage belonged to the Spear, just as the opposite was true--but there was a price to pay for so much power. The stories told that the Spearbearer was something no longer entirely human--changed completely by the duty and power of the Beast Spear.
If that was the case, perhaps Asako was more right than she knew--perhaps Ushio really was becoming someone they no longer knew...
And if that was the case...was he doing the right thing in trying to protect his son--or what was left of him--from the deadly dangers of what roamed the city these past nights? Or was he in over his head this time, standing between a far mightier hunter and his prey...?
A sense of danger drew Shigure out of his troubled musings like the tug of an impatient hand. With a catch of breath, he glanced about the empty kitchen as if expecting the source of disquiet to simply appear there before him. It was a feeling he recognized well, having brushed it many times in the past few nights--something deadly, potent, covetous...drenched with a darkness and a hunger that even he could sense plainly.
It was near. God help him, it was near and the children were out there alone in the storm--!
The instant of paternal panic passed without a move on his part; he waited until the hammering in his heart died down, then rose from the kitchen table once he felt level-headed again. Now was not the time for fear; if anything, Ushio was perfectly safe--and if he was with Asako, then the girl was safe as well.
And if Ushio was walking Asako home, he would not be out hunting for whatever stalked the night.
He made his decision in that instant; it would be a much easier this way to set out, destroy the threat, and keep his son from that terrible danger--
Was it foolish of him to still want to keep his only child safe and protected, even when he knew that his child was the legendary Spearbearer?
Perhaps it was...and perhaps it was still only paternal protectiveness that made him desire to shield his son. But he told himself that he was a monk of the Order before he was a father--though that was seldom the case--and it was his obligation to eliminate this evil, Spear or no Spear. Even if his son Ushio was just an ordinary boy, Shigure would still be duty-bound to destroy the monster than haunted them.
He barely felt the rain as he stepped out of the house, heading for the Shrine. Inside, he reached into the recessed closet and drew forth his monk's robes, donning them with easy familiarity. Behind the hanging clothes rested his staff, and beside the staff was a trunk full of goods--ofuda, jizu, and other priestly weapons. He filled the pockets and recesses of his robes with them, ensuring that he was ready to deal harshly with whatever awaited him.
Moving with determined grace that would have surprised his son, Shigure stepped to the door of the Shrine, pausing a moment to center himself. He took a deep breath, his hand tightening on his staff as he sent up a prayer for the safety of his son and future daughter-in-law. On such a night, with such evil lurking to snatch them all, he found that he worried more for the children than he did about any injuries he himself might receive.
Let them be safe, he prayed, his hand reaching to the door. Ushio is my son, whom I love more than life--let those dear children be safe.
With another breath, he found his center; his eyes opened at last, steeled for action. Sliding back the door, he stepped forth into the rain, marching on to battle.
Deep in the far corners of the Shrine's main hall, invisible in the depthless shadows, narrowed silver eyes watched the old priest depart. Unseen but perhaps not unfelt, Tora waited motionless until the sound of the monk's footsteps vanished from the yard, hidden in the pounding rain. He didn't stir even when the lightning flashed, even when the thunder began to roll; he knew what waited in the darkness beyond the walls--what lurked there, impatient to devour him.
The sky rumbled with ominous foreboding as the rain continued to pour. As if the thunder itself had spoken to him, Tora growled in reply, knowing in his bones that something awful was going to happen on this turbulent night.
To be continued...