((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 7: Blood and Thunder

Bright, Asako...real bright...

As she hurried home muttering dire things about a certain stubborn young man, Asako had failed to make note of the weather--and now found herself caught in the beginnings of a downpour. She was out in the middle of nowhere on the dark curvy road leading from Ushio's house, and no cars were likely to happen by at this hour--not that she would ever consider hitch-hiking, with the dangers involved--and with outskirts of the city still a ways away, the closest place of shelter was the Aotsuki Shrine.

Yeah, right. Like she'd even consider going back there to that jerk and asking if she could wait out the rain. She was tough enough--she could handle this. Her home wasn't that far away.

Despite her will to continue, her arms betrayed her, creeping up to wrap around herself as she fought off a shiver. This rain seemed like it was only going to get worse--and by the thunder she could hear beginning to roar, it was likely to sock in for a while...

Well, screw that. She was going home.

It was getting stronger; she could feel the rain beginning to seep through her clothes, into her hair. It was damn cold too, like the storm had blown in from the North. Lightning flashed, and the thunder pealed so quickly afterward that she jumped at the abruptness and volume. It was like the crash was right overhead.

On the tail of the thunder, she could hear a noise like an old, clunky, chugging car engine--one with very a bad muffler. It rumbled up from behind her, tempting her with the urge to stick out her thumb and hitch a ride into the city--though perhaps she didn't want to know what kind of person would drive such a noisy, weird-sounding car...and it was getting so close, why couldn't she see the headlights by now? What an idiot, driving without lights--and something wrong with the wheels, making a thump-thump-kathump-bump that made the ground vibrate almost like giant footsteps running--

Her brain finally caught up with the oddness and she turned, simply unable to figure out what was so weird about--

--flash of lightning like a single burst of strobe-light outlining some huge spiky sickening shape coming straight at her, jaws gaping full of tusks, massive clawed hands reaching--

Blinded by the lightning, she could barely hear it still coming before the thunder drowned it out momentarily, but she knew it was there--bearing down on her like a stampeding elephant, her mind supplying her with an instinctive knowledge of what was coming, of what would happen; all in a single moment, before her cerebrum had even realized what was going on, her cerebellum had already processed danger and calmly informed her body that her inevitable death might hurt a lot, so brace yourself.

It wasn't even that that saved her life, really. It was more the utter shock, the instant where her muscles went stone-cold frozen in terror, all her thinking processes interrupted--including those going on between her feet and her brain. The monsterous thing was coming straight at her, one giant hand upraised to strike her down; she was still looking over her shoulder, her body pulled half around to face the danger, for all the good it would do.

What saved her in that moment was the fact that she tripped over her own suddenly-unresponsive feet and fell flat on her ass.

It was a miss that could've been measured in nanometers, in milliseconds. It was so close she could feel the wind of that hand's passing--even the warmth of its reeking skin--before gravity jerked her out of the way and slammed her hard into the muddy ground.

The huge thing was unable to adjust in time, still deccelerating from its initial charge. Asako lay waiting for the stars to clear as it tried to correct itself but its sheer mass caused it to overshoot her position. One heavy foot slammed into her side as it stumbled past her, rolling her clean over and into the ditch beside the road.

New stars flashed in front of her eyes, springing straight up from her suddenly-numb arm and ribs; over the rain she could hear the thing coming back, all heavy thumping footsteps and rushing, blowing breaths. She couldn't see in this darkness, nothing beyond faint rain-shine and shadows--until lightning lit the sky again and showed her the hideous monster leaning over her.

Somehow she found the strength to scream, though it took what breath she had left. Without any air left in her lungs, adrenaline alone gave her the power to scramble backwards, the numbness fading from her arm and side to be replaced by throbbing pain. It was coming again and she ducked and stumbled, trying to get her feet under her--and something hit her, hard, and the ground disappeared from beneath her and she couldn't even feel which way was up--until the ground returned to impact with her shoulder and then her back, and she realized she'd been flying through the air and who knew how far she'd gone, landing and rolling over wet grass and sharp sticks--she couldn't breathe, couldn't see a thing, and it took forever to drag in a single ragged breath.

She'd never been hit this hard, not by anything--not when she'd sparred with her father, not even when she'd fallen off her bike--not ever like this--

It was coming and she could hear it in the darkness, and somehow she knew that it could see her as clear as day and she was just a blind, crippled little rabbit. Again it was only adrenaline that let her move, let her roll to her belly and lever up to her knees. She realized she was sobbing as she tried to regain her feet, slipping and scrambling through the grass and mud, her hands scratched and stinging. Her death felt as undeniable as the storm, but God she didn't want to die like this, not with what she'd said to Ushio--she'd never see him again, never get to tell him she was sorry, so sorry and more than anything she--

Flash. Just when she thought her eyes had adjusted, the lightning stole her vision again. Craack-kabooom! The roar drowned out her thoughts.

Through the thunder, someone was screaming her name--the voice was so familiar, but so different, she couldn't quite... It was a boy's voice, harsh and loud, and the way he said her name--

Ushio! It's Ushio! Why is he--wait, the monster--Ushio, no--!

Fear, again--and this time, all for him. She could hear the stampeding feet of the monster as it came, and Ushio's voice--he seemed so near. Somewhere close to her. In front of her.

In the path of danger.

No, Ushio, run away--no, don't--!

Flash. Two figures briefly outlined by lightning, one large and one small, almost colliding. One of them held a long pole-like object; with no white shroud on it, it looked like a spear. But that--that--it wasn't Ushio, was it?

Thunder rolled again, blending with sounds like those she'd only heard in movies--flesh-on-flesh, heavy blows, the whirr of a weapon, a deep, bestial scream of pain. Always coming closer to her, a dance of footsteps she could hear rumbling over the grass.

It came to her slowly as she dragged herself to her feet for the first time since the thing had come at her--the monster was after her, it was trying to get to her, and Ushio was standing in its way. Somehow, he was fighting that awful thing...fighting it all around her, she could hear it--so close she couldn't even hear the rain any more over thuds and grunts and snarls and the pounding of feet against the ground. She couldn't get away from it, no matter which way she turned--

Flash. Two bodies locked in mortal combat falling toward her like a pair of battling cats--barely seeing it in time to get away, but her escape was hampered by the sluggish numbness pervading her body, and the impact threw her back to the ground again--something unbearably heavy crushed her right leg into the mud, making her cry out--she heard Ushio shouting, yelling, like she'd never heard him before.

Something else knocked into her yet again, and she felt the scrape of scaly skin through the fabric of her clothes, then heard something solid connect with that leathery flesh with bruising force--suddenly the pressure and contact was gone, and she could hear Ushio screaming furious threats somewhere beside her.

She'd heard Ushio shouting in anger before but never like this--never screaming, snarling, so full of rage and violence and hate, his voice so thick and rough she could barely make out his words; half the time they blurred into sounds so inhuman she couldn't tell if he was even still talking.

Flash. Someone was standing beside her, covered in mud just like she was--but that wasn't Ushio, couldn't be Ushio, it was more like something out of a dream--out of her dreams, something that she'd dreamed about several times before, when there was danger and something hurt her--it wasn't Ushio, no way, but it was standing over her and screaming with Ushio's voice and it sort of looked like him but she couldn't see enough to know--

She didn't know, and that scared her almost as much as the monster did.

She gave up on trying to reach her feet and started to crawl, attempting to put the furious havoc at her back, moving as fast as she could despite how the battle seemed to follow her--always on top of her, she could hear it and feel it and even smell it, but she couldn't see it and she knew it was coming for her, raging all around her. There was another impact and an awful monstrous roar, and then Ushio was howling at her to look out--look out--!

The ground disappeared again--God she wished she could see what was going on, and at least then she could brace herself before it hit her. She slammed to the earth again, this time on something harder than grass--had she landed partly on the gravel beside the road? She couldn't tell; her head was spinning too fast. When it stopped, maybe she could find out...

Ushio--he was screaming again. Angry. Furious. Enraged. She'd never heard him sound like this--it was worse than even before, and it frightened her--

She wished she could see.

--and there was a sound like a knife through a pumpkin--like when her mother had cut open the watermelon Ushio gave her--

She wished she could see.

--and something shrieked, and the sound came again and again, like someone chopping wood, only it wasn't the wood it was the melon, soft and wet--the shrieking was dying to a rattle, a gurgle that turned her stomach--and she couldn't move this time and she hurt--

She wished she could see.

Flash. There was something huge and broken on the road not twenty feet from her, and it wasn't moving--it didn't look like the monster any more, just a lump of something, and it sickened her--there was a spear-thing sticking out of its...head? Or was its head already gone?--and there was something--someone standing over it, a blurry human shape with hot hateful eyes and a snarling face--

Darkness and thunder, and suddenly her heart was beating even harder than before...

* * * * *

Shigure was actually surprised that he made it past the first stand of trees across the road without being attacked. He had figured that with an evil of this caliber, it would've jumped him the instant he passed into the forest on the hillside.

That's not to say he wasn't expecting the attack when it came.

He barely even flinched when the dog-sized bakemono dropped shrieking through the canopy at him like some hellish monkey. Three ofuda and a short incantation later, it was nothing but ashes. He didn't give it time to fight back.

Continuing on down the hillside, he followed the sense of darkness as it cut a straight path toward the city rather than following the more roundabout road. The lightning gave everything an eerie cast when it flashed, and thunder dangerously drowned out telltale noises. Twice more he fought off minor monsters that attempted to ambush him, as if whoever lurked ahead were sending its servants back to hamper his progress. None of them lasted very long, but each was stronger and more difficult. The last forced him to bring his staff into play, engaging it in a brief skirmish when his first jizu-attack didn't completely kill it. One of his special ofuda made short work of it thereafter.

He was already wary, but with the death of the last bakemono he began to be concerned. Whoever mastered such creatures would be strong indeed...and Shigure was no longer the spry young monk he used to be. Despite what he'd gained from wisdom and experience, he was well aware that he'd lost some of his strength and stamina since the old days--since the days with her, fighting evil side by side and vanquishing their foes in a brilliant flash...

Focus on the now, he told himself sternly, growing even more cautious as he reached the bottom of the hill. This isn't the time for reminiscing, old man.

Ahead, the outskirts of the city began. At the edge of the trees lay the back walls of some houses and lots, dark and quiet in the rainy night. There weren't many lights in this area, being a lower-income, more run-down part of the immediate neighborhood. But there were homes, and people, and children asleep in their beds...

He hurried across the small stretch of open space between the wood and the open lot ahead, staying low and keeping his senses open. It was close--and he knew it sensed his presence as well. If it was that powerful, it certainly wasn't blind or stupid. It was sending its minions back to try and destroy him before he found it...and if that was the case, did it actually fear him?

Don't be stupid. Something like this wouldn't fear a mere human like me. He snorted to himself as he crossed the lot and waited at the corner near the crumbling sidewalk. But that's a mistake that many have made before him--and they haven't lived to regret it.

He rather hoped it didn't choose to send any more creatures after him; cities--especially suburbs--always made for bad fighting. Too many innocent lives at risk too close by--on the other side of a wall, walking around a corner, driving by in a car. That was probably the reason it was fleeing here.

A galloping scuffle was his only warning of the next attack. He whirled, staff raised and jizu outflung, barely deflecting the monster as it leaped at him, turning aside its first rush in a crackling flare of priestly power. It yelped and hit the ground several yards away, rolling back to its four feet and snarling at him.

Lightning briefly illuminated it; it was some kind of angry, pony-sized inu-youkai--but like none he'd ever seen, and he'd traveled the length and breadth of East Asia in his lifetime. It was huge, rawboned and loose-jowled like a hunting dog in western medieval books. Its smooth, short fur was pure white, and it seemed almost to glow through the rain, easily visible in the night; its eyes shone golden, glimmering like hateful yellow embers--

--and it was coming at him, mouth gaping wide to bare gleaming teeth--teeth that clamped into the hem of his robe as he ducked away, ripping out a good portion of fabric. He spun easily despite the twinge in his knees, using the sharp end of his staff to slice into the inu-monster's side. Blood bloomed across the white pelt, and the dog howled. As it fell away, he brought forth three ofuda and flung them down, reciting his incantation in a quick, hard tone.

The inu-youkai was blown back by the force of power, burned and shrieking and thrashing in the dirt--but not dead. To Shigure's surprise, it was not vaporized instantly.

An even stronger bakemono, then? No...this is different than the last--no intelligence, merely a demon-animal. Then why--?

He had no more time to think, because it was coming again--as determined as a dog, indeed, unwavering in its desire to attack, leaping unerringly for his throat. Someone had set this inu-youkai on him deliberately, and the beast was obeying its master to the death. But his ofuda-incantation wasn't working; he didn't understand--what was wrong with his tools? If they couldn't destroy the beast in a single blast, either the ofuda were defective...or the dog wasn't exactly what he thought it was.

He couldn't fend this inu-monster off all night--and if he couldn't kill it with ofuda, he'd have to do it the old-fashioned way. Time to try something new...

Shigure dropped his staff and brought out one of his strongest jizu, gripping the beads in his left hand while holding a confining ofuda in the other. This was an old trick in the Order; his string of beads wouldn't be as effective as a true-made subduing rosary, but it would work as a temporary measure. Or at least he hoped it would.

Even more enraged, the monster-dog lunged at him again, half its face blackened by his attack. And this time, he let it come--he had to do this just right.

As the dog came at his throat, he flung the jizu up, letting it fall around the beast's neck. Once there, he clamped his fists into the short fur and wrinkled skin behind the dog's ears, both hands gripping flesh and jizu tightly as the beast's massive body came down on him.

Every muscle in his arms strained as he forced the dog's head aside. The heavy jaws scrabbled at his shoulder, seeking flesh; his right hand stuffed the ofuda through the jizu and barely secured it as the inu-youkai's teeth found his shoulder and sank in deep. He bit back a grunt as he kicked upward, rolling the dog off him. As he forced power into the ofuda and the beads it bound, he fought for breath and shouted "Down!"

With a snarling cough, the inu-youkai was jerked flat to the ground, its teeth ripping free of his arm and taking a good chunk with them. Shigure rolled away, stumbling to his feet, already searching for his staff. The beads crackled as the dog-beast fought the spell that held it to the ground; it wouldn't last long, and would work perhaps only once, so he had but seconds to finish the creature.

Shigure found his weapon and scooped it up in his good hand, tripping in the darkness as he rushed back to plunge the sharpened tip into the monster's head and stop it once and for all.

Danger pressed in on him again, and in a single instant he realized that he was being watched--someone was observing the battle close by, something hungry and powerful. With a jolt, he whirled, senses stretching to their utmost--and when he found his target in the shadows by the wall of the neighboring house, his attacking ofuda flew out like a warrior's arrow.

Something black and near-shapeless leaped from the shadow as the sealing bit of paper found its mark, sizzling on the wall. Pure malevolence drifted into the air like a cloud as the thing landed on top of the fence, glowing eyes of blood peering at him through the curtains of rain. He could see teeth as it smiled, and he realized it was laughing at him.

"You have good eyes, priest," it chuckled, its voice a deep, hissing, hollow baritone, out of place coming from its its crouched, hunched, vaguely ratlike shape. "Too bad they won't do you much more good."

"Who are you?" Shigure demanded, feeling a bit unsteady as the throbbing in his shoulder continued to worsen.

"It won't matter to you much longer," the shadowy, shapeless shape replied, almost casually. "But I am famous as he of the Demon Eye, known throughout the lands as the Hungry Shadow. My name is Magan."

"So you're the one--" Shigure bit back his exclamation, schooling his features to iron.

The shadowy figure chuckled again. "How much longer will your little spell hold back my pet, eh monk? It will be amusing to watch him tear you to pieces. That youkai there is a Yell Hound from the West--not like what you've faced around here, is it? No matter what you do, that dog will keep pursuing you, until dawn or death--his, or yours."

"We shall see," Shigure responded, betraying none of his hesitation. A foreign youkai--a creature made of different stuff than the local monsters; no wonder his ofuda didn't work as well on it. He stood with teeth gritted; the night was barely beginning, so he couldn't outlast the dog until morning, but he hardly dared to turn and kill the beast with Magan the Hungry Shadow so close by. And the seal was wearing off--he had to do something--!

The crackle behind him told him that the Yell Hound was breaking loose; in a moment, his mind burned with a plan and he delved into the pockets of his robes to put it into action. A handful of ofuda were flung in Magan's direction, all of them deadly, and as he spat the incantation he whirled to face the snarling Hound; Magan hissed and dove out of the way of the flashing display--Shigure ducked as the Hound leaped, bringing the staff up with his bad arm and a lance of agony, and as the inu-youkai came at him its own weight and momentum drove the sharp end of his staff up through its mouth and into its brain.

The Yell Hound gave a short gurgle and collapsed, crashing down on top of him, its mass toppling him as it rolled over him and skidded to a stop on the muddy ground. Shigure lay where he had fallen, his staff wrenched out of his hands, trying to clear his head enough to stand up again.

In the sudden stillness, his own breaths seemed harsh and loud. He was dimly aware of a few warm yellow lights from houses near the lot and across the street--the people nearby had been awakened by the commotion. He hoped no one was stupid enough to come looking for its source.

His head was fuzzy with pain, and his shoulder throbbed like a thousand bee stings--was the Hound's bite venomous? He had no way of knowing--but right now he had to get up, had to face the new enemy waiting for him by the fence, cold and angry that he'd killed its pet...

Somehow he made it to his feet, though he hardly remembered how he got there. God, he was getting too old for this--and maybe he was a stupid old fool, thinking he could handle this sort of thing alone. This was more dangerous than anything he'd fought since he was young...and even then, he'd had her at his side...

"Well played, old human," the shadowy figure said, its voice thrumming with sudden ire--sudden danger. "I'll have to deal with you myself."

His staff--where had his staff gone? It was still in the damn dog's mouth--and he was almost out of ofuda and his remaining jizu wasn't going to be adequate. And Magan--whose edges had once been indistinct yet not fuzzy, whose form had once been vague but never completely shapeless--seemed almost to be solidifying; suddenly, without changing his appearance, the Hungry Shadow's more threatening attributes seemed to take on definition and distinction.

Shigure could never see the demon's features in any detail, but the teeth and the eyes and the claws suddenly seemed to jump into sharp focus. Sharp white teeth, wickedly curved claws--and eyes of dark blood-red like the promise of his impending death.

With calmness that surprised even himself, Shigure focused on his staff, some two meters away stuck in the Yell Hound's maw. He had to get to it if he was going to survive this--but as he guaged the distance between Magan and himself and calculated what he'd experienced with bakemono before, he doubted he could move fast enough to reach his weapon before Magan caught up with him.

Well, shoot--he'd just have to get sneaky about it.

Some part of him wondered how he could be so calm in this situation--he'd never felt so tranquil, so focused. That wondering part of him was the part that wanted to gibber and flee in terror--the prey/human part of him that always acted up in the presence of monsters. But it was drowned out completely this time, as if...

As if it was inevitable; as if he knew what would come and that he couldn't change it, and he was going to go down fighting and this bastard was damn well going to remember him for a long time to come--

Shigure darted for his staff, knowing without having to look that Magan was coming at his back. But he wasn't aiming for his weapon--not yet.

The rattling hiss of Magan's battle cry echoed over the lot like a rattlesnake's buzz of warning; Shigure felt the right moment come and forward-somersaulted into the mud--hooked black claws tore across his thigh and calf as he rolled clean over to his back--and as Magan overshot him, red eyes wide in startlement, he flung up his last two strongest ofuda, catching the shadow-youkai straight in the belly.

Magan's resulting scream was very satisfying.

Monsters might not get scars, but by God he won't forget that anytime soon... In another moment, Shigure was rolling to his feet once again, Magan still flying through the air from the blast. He was at the Yell Hound's head in a second, wrenching his staff free of the beast's disintegrating flesh.

His shoulder had dimmed into hot numbness and his leg burned with fresh fire, but somehow his injuries faded into the background as he found himself strangely exhilarated, as if fighting a losing battle freed him of worries, of doubts, of inhibitions. He couldn't help his grin as Magan picked himself out of the mud with an utterly incensed look on his indistinct black face.

"Got you that time, bastard," he tossed across the lot, almost cheerfully.

"You'll pay for that, monk." Magan snarled audibly, something tarry and glistening even more black splashed across his stomach region like wet paint. Shigure hoped it was whatever made up the Hungry Shadow's innards.

Well, he was down to three ofuda and a jizu--and he doubted the collar-rosary trick would work with this youkai, anyway. If this was to be his last battle, he might as well make it count. Give Magan here a few more things to remember him by.

Hissing like a cobra, the shadow-demon lunged again, talons outstretched; Shigure focused his power in his staff, bracing to meet the challenge--and then, they fought.

For a while, running on his fighting high alone, Shigure managed to keep pace with the Hungry Shadow. Blow for blow, dodging the demon's talons, inflicting wounds where he managed to punch through his enemy's defenses--and though he knew it wasn't going to last, he pushed to his utmost while he could. It was like reliving his glory days again--almost like adventuring in the depths of China, when she was with him and they fought together, against so many monsters, just like this...

But it wouldn't last--it couldn't last. Shigure was too old, already too injured. He began to falter, began to be driven back with each blow, his torn leg wavering beneath him, unbalancing his defense until he had no footing left; Magan knocked his staff aside in a single blow, sending it whirling into the sky, and coiled to strike again before the human could collect himself--

Shigure was prepared, even then. Those three ofuda he'd kept in reserve were brought out and up, almost into the shadow-youkai's face--the priest spat the spell in a harsh, smug voice, meeting Magan's once again startled eyes for an instant before the wards let go with their power.

The Hungry Shadow was blasted back yet again--but the ofuda were weakened by their wielder's exhaustion, sapped by his injuries. Though his face and chest were scalded by the brilliant flare, Magan was still very much alive--and very, very angry.

A scream ripped from the youkai's throat this time--a cry of pure rage and hate. Shigure stood calmly, waiting, knowing what was to come; now, now was the time, he had given his utmost--almost--and there was only one thing left to do...

Magan charged. Shigure watched him as if in slow motion, seeing bloody eyes maddened, jaws gaping wide, hooked claws extending toward him--

The impact knocked the breath from him, blanked out his vision, made a dull ache tear through his body. It centered in his diaphragm as if he'd been punched, and made it hard to breathe, hard to even swallow. His eyes cleared as he felt raindrops on his face, and realized he was lying against the fence on the far side of the lot.

Then the pain hit him, stealing his breath completely. Fire spread through his stomach--down to his belly, up into his ribs. He didn't scream--he couldn't spare the effort to; it hurt so that he couldn't even close his eyes, couldn't even black out. He could only stare in mute agony at the black shape directly in front of him, eyes blank and glassy.

His snarl changing to a smug grin, Magan began to stalk toward the downed priest. Confident and collected once again, the shadow-youkai stood over the wounded human like a triumphant conqueror.

"You're a crafty one, priest," the Hungry Shadow conceded mockingly. "Too bad you're human--I would've enjoyed breaking a soul like yours. But I'll just have to content myself with the taste of your flesh instead."

Magan knelt beside Shigure, meeting the monk's agonized gaze with smug red eyes. Shigure's mind was sharpened by pain, however--and with his last bit of strength, he concentrated on the object held in his right hand. He would make damn sure Magan never forgot him--

As the shadow-youkai's taloned hand reached out toward Shigure's throat, somehow the wounded monk moved. Lunging up, one straining hand slipped the last remaining jizu around Magan's wrist. Shigure's faint, whispering voice hissed one word--a sharp, unfamiliar word, like a curse, a word he'd never used before. The jizu's beads glowed briefly crimson like a red-hot string of iron--

--and as liquid blackness began to pour from Magan's wrist like thick water, the Hungry Shadow started to scream. Rearing back so hard he fell clean over, the youkai thrashed in the mud like a wounded snake. Howling, he leaped away across the lot, stumbling and scrabbling and tearing at the string of beads that stayed immovably on his arm, burning and cutting and cleansing and sealing and horribly, horribly wounding him in even deeper places than just his limb--

Like a mad bull, Magan crashed into the fence, then up and over it, still running like a buckshot dog, still screaming into the night as the jizu's power ate away at his flesh--knocking over trash cans and slamming into parked cars, creating a din and havoc even worse than the battle itself had. Not only did even more lights come on, but now windows were thrown back and sleepy humans peered out into the rainy night with concern--and, hearing what they did, many picked up their telephones.

Lying still once more on the sodden earth by the fence, Shigure had only the strength to smile faintly. Serves you right, you soul-eating bastard...

At least the agony was fading away. Some part of his mind dimly registered that as shock, mercifully sparing him the pain of dying--and that wasn't necessarily a good thing, since he'd always been told that pain lets you know you're alive. If he was feeling this numb now, he must be as close to dead as one could get and still have a heartbeat.

Then he wondered why he found that thought vaguely amusing.

Perhaps it had something to do with the regretful resignation he felt. He knew he was dying--knew it from deep within, knew that there was nothing that could be done. He knew it, and he wasn't afraid. He had resigned himself to death from the moment the fight had begun in earnest, somehow realizing that this would be his last battle...

But that didn't mean he wanted to die. Or even that he didn't regret that it was happening.

He had a lot of regrets, he considered as he lay there staring at the rainy clouds. Most of them centered around Ushio, his dearest and only son...how he had never spent enough time with the boy, had never been much of a father to him. If a miracle gave him a second chance tonight, he knew he'd do something to change that.

But that wasn't likely--not even in his line of work. He regretted that he'd not gotten a chance to say goodbye to his boy, that they'd parted on such angry terms. He regretted that he was dying alone here and now--it would be inexplicable, and Ushio didn't know any of the truth and wouldn't understand when he found out; his poor boy...poor dear child...this would hurt him terribly, and Shigure regretted that. He regretted not telling his son "I love you" more often--and he regretted not having that chance right now.

If he couldn't get his life back, perhaps the heavens would grant him one final wish...and let him see his son just one more time...

To be continued...