((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 9: Desolation
"What's Oyaji doing hunting a monster in the first place?" Ushio demanded, half to himself, as he and Tora flew rapidly over the city. The rain had worsened since they left Mayuko's, and now it pounded into Ushio's face and spat in his eyes, forcing him to squint. The thunder was gone, but now the clouds had truly begun to open up into a real downpour.
"The priest's involved in something, Brat," Tora grumbled in reply, barely audible over the hiss of rain. "I watched him take out ofuda marked with seals even I have not seen in all my time."
"But...why wouldn't he say something? And what kind of thing could he be involved in?" Ushio scowled, ducking closer to Tora's thick mane to try and shield his face from the pouring rain. "If he was someone like that Hyou guy, maybe, but--"
"Even the bakemono have tales of human groups who hunt them," Tora snapped. "You think the Spearbearer is the only campfire story the lesser scum frighten their spawn with?"
"Well, I..." He did, really, but he had to admit that it was supremely arrogant--and ignorant. "I didn't know, okay? Are we there yet?"
"Keep your shirt on," the orange bakemono growled, beginning a rapid arc of descent toward the outskirts of town, in an area remarkably close to the Aotsuki Shrine. "The battle may well be over--I can't tell if the shadow-bastard is near."
"I sure hope Oyaji kicked his ass," Ushio muttered, with confidence he didn't feel. Something like that shadow...could his father handle a monster like that? But if Shigure was involved with something as Tora said, and had powers like Hyou...
"I smell...foreign beast," Tora snarled deeply, obviously miffed at the intrusion into what he considered his territory. "Heh...dead foreign beast. Probably the priest's work." They drifted low over a warehouse, both squinting through the downpour with night-seeing eyes.
"I can't hear anything," Ushio said after a moment. "I thought you said there was a battle going on!"
"There was, stupid Brat," Tora shot back. "But there's obviously not one now, and if the blasted priest handled the shadow then--" The bakemono broke off with startling finality, maned head coming up as he swooped across the street. "Shit. Blood."
"I smell human blood."
Ushio's own blood froze to ice in his veins. "Where? Dammit, Tora--where?"
"There!" The bakemono was speeding up, heading for the fence on the far side of the street.
Ushio didn't wait. He sprang from the orange monster's shoulders, using Tora's flight thrust as a springboard to hurtle himself to the top of the tall, sagging wooden fence around the empty lot. He crouched there and peered through the rain as Tora caught up, and now Ushio could smell the strange monster, could sense the fleeting echo of powers used here. And, through the rain and mud and monster-smells, he caught the thick, sweet scent of human blood.
Wide eyes flicked over the lot, catching sight of the unmoving form sitting against the far fence at the same moment Tora did. The bakemono spat an unintelligible curse, but Ushio was already diving off the fence, sprinting across the yard with a desperate cry.
There was a howl that called him, its tones half desperate child and half stricken animal.
Then he recognized it.
When Shigure dimly heard the voice of his son calling for him, he thanked the heavens for answering his last prayer. As the sound beckoned him from semi-consciousness, he began to force open his eyes, attempting to focus on the blurry dark shape above him as raindrops fell heavily on his face.
Shigure Aotsuki opened his eyes to find himself face-to-face with the Spearbearer of legend.
Dear God, the stories are true...
And yet, in the same instant, he knew it was his son.
It was Ushio's face, changed and unchanged; his son's eyes, the same and yet not. Rife with expression--anguish, shock, grief, fear--in a way he knew so well, speaking to him in a voice he would recognize anywhere.
"Oyaji? Oyaji! Can you hear me? Oh God...! Oyaji please--!"
He didn't think he had the breath left to speak, but somehow it was there. "Ushio..."
"Oyaji! What happened--what the hell've you been doing out here?" Anguished relief spread thinly across the boy's altered features, washing away some of the crinkles of worry.
"My job," he replied, smiling faintly, wryly, but without the strength to chuckle. "Ushio, this is...are you...?"
He saw his son's throat bob in a swallow; lambent eyes lowered, flicked away, then returned to his own. "It's nothing, Oyaji--don't worry about it. I'm fine, it's just what the Spear does..."
Shigure's eyes fell to the gleaming object in his son's hand, low beside him where he crouched in the mud. "The Beast Spear...!"
Ushio set the Spear down beside them, shaking his head and pushing back long wet tresses, reaching forward. "Not now--I'll tell you everything later--right now you need help; let me look at your wounds--"
Weakly, Shigure caught the boy's wrist, his other hand pulling ever closer the torn flap of his robe. It was the only thing that hid the extent of his injuries, sticky-slick with half-dried blood and sodden from the pouring rain. He had covered his torn body with it before, as he'd drawn himself up to sit against the fence, and had no intention of revealing anything now--it wasn't something his son needed to see.
"Don't bother, boy," he grunted softly, just the effort of moving proving to be too much. "It's too late for me anyway...just listen..."
"Oyaji, no--" Ushio shook his head again, more firmly. He pressed forward, breaking Shigure's frail grip. "Just let me help you! Shit, you think I want to let you bleed to death out here? I could smell your blood clear across the lot, for God's sake--!"
"Boy!" Shigure's voice hissed out, a shadow of its former authority but still enough to make the youth flinch to a stop. "Boy...let it go."
"The priest is right," spoke another voice then, pulling Shigure's attention further beyond his son--a deep, growling voice full of steel and danger, but somehow he didn't fear it at all. Another shape moved closer, coming into focus over Ushio's shoulder--a massive, long-maned form with a broad, striped face and huge, narrowed silver eyes that shone in the rainy night. "The wound is mortal; he has lost too much life already."
Ushio whirled to him, face stricken. "But...Tora...!"
"You..." Shigure found himself smiling. The appearance of this newcomer was unfamiliar, but the sense of his presence was not. "You're the one who's been haunting about the Shrine...these past few moons. You're the bakemono our ancestor...pinned to the stone..." His chuckle came out as a single faint cough. "What...an odd face you have..."
"Odd--!" the great bakemono snorted, eyes wide as if surprised, or offended.
"Never mind him, Oyaji!" Ushio broke in, still desperate. "I've got to get you to a hospital...somehow...! I've gotta do something... Tora, will you help me carry him? Just as far as the emergency room--I won't ask any more--!"
The bakemono looked supremely startled at the boy's request--startled and hesitant. Ushio had put Tora in the uncomfortable position of attempting to refuse, for it would do no good.
"Ushio," Shigure spoke up, drawing the attention of both. "Just listen, boy. The one I fought...a shadow-demon, Magan...controls many creatures...beware..." He ran out of breath, unable to continue, but the bakemono's gleaming eyes met his--unwavering, measuring.
"You fought the shadow, priest?" Tora asked, one eyebrow raised in grudging respect.
Shigure managed another breath. "I am...a monk of the Order. My duty...my vow...destroy monsters, destroy evil..."
"Baka Oyaji!" Ushio choked. "Why the hell didn't you tell me? What were you thinking, fighting bakemono alone...?"
Shigure was silent for long moments, gathering the strength to continue. One hand slipped from his chest to reach for Ushio's where it clenched in the mud, gripping it weakly. "Boy...thus far I've kept them from you...but should they discover the Spear...the Order will try to control you--as they have me...for so long. Even now they want you...for your mother's power..." He choked, sucked in a ragged gasp. "You can't let them know!"
"Oyaji...why?" The boy's face was confused, aggrieved, bleak.
Poor child...I just haven't enough time, nor strength...! "You have to go," he rapsed faintly, feeling his strength flooding away like an upturned bowl of water. "Leave me here...go home..."
"No!" Now the boy looked stricken, tears welling in his lambent eyes. "How could you say that? Baka Oyaji--!"
"Brat!" the bakemono snapped. "There's humans coming!"
Ushio glanced away, and gradually Shigure became aware of what the other two picked up--the sound of sirens, of voices, loud and piercing through the rain.
"Shit! Help me, Tora! We've got to get him over to--"
"Shut up and listen to him, stupid Brat!" the bakemono snarled back. "He's already dying! Those stupid humans are going to come here and ask stupid questions--do as he says, or they'll think you killed him!"
Ushio's voice became a roar of anger. "Tora! How could they say--?"
"Think, meat-for-brains!" the bakemono snapped, right in the boy's face. "You don't look like you--you're a stranger with a deadly weapon standing over a dying man who's been sliced open! Humans are stupid and jump to conclusions! What do you think will happen?"
Ushio deflated like a pitiful balloon. "No...no..."
"Ushio...please, go..." Shigure whispered. "I can't...put you in danger...you must be innocent...ignorant...in this matter..." The racket of approaching humans was getting closer. Even his foggy ears could hear it clearly now.
"No...Oyaji, don't ask me to..." Ushio's voice broke as tears fell, sobs began. His voice shrilled in soft, frantic entreaty as he hugged his father like a pleading child, face pressed to the older man's neck. "No, no...please, don't go--don't die now....don't die, don't die--I'm sorry, I didn't mean any of it, I'm sorry for everything--oh please don't die...please, Tousan don't die, don't leave me...!"
For the first time, Shigure felt a sense of desperation well up in his own heart--a desperate will to live, to stay here with his beloved child, to hold the boy close with all his strength and make the tears go away. But it quickly faded, crushed by the bitter knowledge that his life was over; already he was living on borrowed time. Shigure's own eyes welled as he reached up with one trembling hand to run near-nerveless fingers over his son's soft wet hair, down to caress the youth's tear-damp cheek.
"My boy...." Shigure whispered, breathless. "My boy..." My beautiful boy...so like your mother...especially now--those eyes... My son, I was wrong; it hasn't changed you at all--you're still so kind and sweet, like her...I wish I had the time to tell you everything...
He managed a smile when Ushio looked into his eyes, shaking with sobs. It took all the breath he had left to speak again, even pulling the strength from his arm and dropping it back to his chest. "My boy...love you...my son..."
"Brat, we must leave now!"
Shigure's body felt cold, numb. He couldn't move now--not for anything. But he could still look into his son's desperate eyes, still feel remorse and regret. She'd be so proud...I wish she could see this boy we made. I should've told her--should've told him...now he'll be alone, he doesn't know--she'll never forgive me for abandoning him like this, with nowhere to go...
He couldn't move, but somehow his lungs still drew breath. "Go...you must go!"
"No--no!" Ushio shook his head in frantic denial, even as the flashing lights began to illuminate the lot.
Shigure's eyes met Tora's, earnest and pleading. "Tora-dono..." the dying priest rasped, finding the strength to speak once more. "Take him...take care of him...!"
For one eternal moment their gazes locked, man and bakemono. Some silent understanding passed between them, filling that agonizing instant. Then Tora moved forward, silver eyes flat with purpose.
Ushio let out a frantic yell as Tora scooped up both him and the Spear, trapping him against the bakemono's unyielding body in the crook of one muscular arm. The boy fought wildly, but Tora's arm was like steel and the bakemono began to pull him away, lifting from the muddy ground to drift toward the forest, picking up altitude and speed.
Shigure could barely watch them go as his vision dimmed, hearing Ushio's grief-stricken screams of protest fading into the sky as Tora bore the boy away from the danger of discovery. He wished again that he could stay but, knowing that was impossible, prayed instead for comfort for his son. Prayed that there was some way Ushio could find home and family and love now that he was alone.
He couldn't hear the sirens any more, couldn't see the clouds; all he could feel was the cold rain on his face, and even that was gradually washing away in the darkness that surrounded him like a coccoon. My boy, I'm sorry... Even to the end, he had only one thought as the last of his life faded.
My dearest, precious son...
When the emergency teams, paramedics, and police officers at last swarmed the scene, moments after Ushio was borne away, all they found was the body of a middle-aged monk bearing a calm, saddened expression. Some of the medics scratched their heads as they began their examinations; the deceased had been shedding tears right up until death, despite the tranquil expression on his face.
Little did they know, those were not tears of grief for his own death--they were tears of love and remorse for the son he'd left behind.
On a hillside above the city, far away, an ancient mist-gray monster lowered his head, silently mourning the passing of yet another of those he watched over. He also grieved deeply for the sorrow of the little hunter, sensing faint echoes of the young one's pain.
Hold fast, little Yin-Liao; I am with you. Be brave and strong as I know you are...for now you are the last...
Ushio fought and kicked the entire way, screaming obscenities at Tora through his sobs, demanding to be released. Tora ignored his protests and did nothing more in retaliation than tighten his grip on the youth to avoid further injury or potential escape. Crazed by grief and rage, the maddened Spearbearer had kicked hard enough to bruise, struggled with surprising strength, and even bitten Tora's arm deep enough to draw blood.
Silent and implacable, Tora carried the boy all the way back up the deep, forested hill, heading for the Aotsuki Shrine. Tora was no samurai, nor even remotely knowledgeable of human codes of honor, but the old priest had made a dying request of him, and for some reason almost beyond his comprehension, the bakemono felt obligated to carry it out.
When Tora reached the road and flew over the Aotsuki compound's wall, he swooped straight for the main Shrine building and pulled in to land on the front porch, sheltered from the rain. At last his grip on the Spearbearer was relinquished; released, boy and Spear clattered to the wooden deck in a heap.
In an instant, Ushio was on his feet, the Spear in his hand as if teleported there; in another instant, the Spearbearer was dashing mindlessly out into the rain, intent on returning to his father's side--when a giant orange hand clamped into his long thick hair and dragged him back, slamming him against the Shrine's front door.
Ushio didn't even waste time with words, just a cry of rage. The Spear was up and swinging before he had finished rebounding from the wood, forcing Tora to duck back with a threatening snarl. The boy's eyes were flaming with anger and pain, blank with shock and grief; screaming mindlessly, he attacked the bakemono as though trying to kill his own agony.
Tora was more startled at his reaction than anything else; he'd never seen the Brat so inarticulately enraged. He'd luckily dodged the razor-sharp blade--but again it seemed he'd forgotten about the other end. Completing his whirl, Ushio brought the butt end of the Beast Spear around, catching Tora in the shoulder hard enough to knock the bakemono into one of the porch posts, nearly cracking it.
That hurt. Now, Tora was angry.
Still howling in anguished rage, Ushio came at him again. Unlike times before, the youth's attack was wild, utterly clumsy--less that of the legendary Spearbearer and more like the last thrashing of a wounded animal. Ushio was stumbling over his own feet as he charged, the Spear swinging in a wide, ill-aimed arc, easy for Tora to evade even in the close space of the Shrine's porch.
Even so, it angered Tora further that the stupid little human would turn on him so. "Dammit, Brat--!"
Before Ushio could attack again, Tora sprang forward, his right arm thrust out to strike the not-quite-human boy. So massive was the bakemono's outstretched hand that it spread across most of the youth's chest, hitting with enough force to knock the breath from his lungs and drive him over backwards. Tora came down on him like a cat on a mouse, one broad hand flat against his chest, slamming him hard to the wooden surface of the porch. The Spear was lost on the first impact, clattering away against the building wall, lying still and unresponsive as Ushio struggled under Tora's great paw.
Ushio gripped Tora's thick wrist with enough force that his own sharpened claw-nails threatened to pierce the furred skin. Tora's own hand was rigid, the edges of razor-sharp claws slicing through Ushio's shirt and drawing thin lines of blood on the flesh beneath--wounds the boy refused to heed while his struggles only worsened the cuts. Teeth bared, Ushio glared up at the massive beast crouched over him, growling and sobbing in anguished rage all at once, sounds that quickly shifted to helpless, snarling wails as Tora's powerful arm refused to budge.
"Why? Why? Why?" was all he could sob, over and over.
Silent, Tora let him thrash, let him wear himself out with futile struggles. There was no way the Brat could escape him like this; this time, he had won. He merely pressed down, holding the boy to the deck, trapping the Brat's legs with his knee. In time, Ushio's fighting would tire him enough that he would no longer be a threat, free or not. Tora leaned over him and waited, staring down at the youth's grief-stricken face as snarling demands turned to frustrated sobs of rage and anguish.
"Why, Tora, why? You bastard--I could've saved him--damn you--damn you--!" Gasping, Ushio was already losing the strength to fight against Tora's restraint, already weakened by battle and loss and sorrow.
"Shut up and listen to me!" the bakemono snapped, feeling the boy jerk under his hand at the abruptness of his voice. Tora lowered his volume, barely softened his tone; strangely, he almost sounded as though he were speaking to an upset child. "Stop it! Stop your wailing, Brat! Listen!"
When Ushio's accusations faded to gritted teeth and swallowed sobs, Tora leaned closer to speak snarling, steely words. "He's dead. Do you hear me? The priest is dead."
The youth's body flinched with every slow, punctuated word of his last sentence.
"He was already dying when we found him!" Tora continued, baring long white fangs. "Stupid, stupid Brat--even you should be able to tell that! There was nothing you or I could have done--if there was, don't you think I would've tried? Idiot!"
"Dammit, the ambulance--they could've found him sooner--I could've saved--!"
"Stop it!" Tora's snarl echoed over the yard. "Only a miracle would've saved that old man! Couldn't you tell? That shadow-bastard ripped him almost in half! Stop blaming me--stop blaming yourself! Start blaming the bastard who killed him!"
Ushio could no longer swallow the sobs stacking up in his throat. They bubbled up, blurring his eyes and choking him once more. "But I...I couldn't just..." he croaked.
"I know you grieve, Brat." Tora's voice had stilled to a near-whisper. "There are few sorrows like the death of close kin. Even I know this. But even so, I cannot offer you platitudes of the afterlife or pretty words of comfort. I cannot offer you a guarantee that all will be well and you will live on as you have before. I cannot offer you tears or sympathy or compassion. But I can offer you the hope of revenge. I can give you my word on this alone: I will be at your side as we hunt down that shadow-bastard, the one called Magan--and I will be at your side when you pay him back in blood for the death of your sire."
Ushio stared at him silently, tears streaming, so many emotions flooding and buffeting him that he had no idea how to deal with all of them. He was lost in the backwash of fading rage, deep grief, vanished denial, and heartrending pain; all he could do was lie still in Tora's grasp, helpless and weakened.
Tora watched him, eyes narrrowed, alert to the boy's reactions. Weaponless and pinned, the Brat was as helpless as a newborn cub, lacking the strength and weight to resist him. The mighty Spearbearer was laid low by grief, turned into nothing more than a strange, inhuman human child. Such a little thing he was; Tora had never come close enough to see him like this, not even when he was sleeping. So puny and frail beneath his claws; a little more weight could crush the boy's ribs, a flex of his hand could slice the small body to pieces.
Tora blinked, going still as a sliver of realization slid sharply into place.
He had the Spearbearer of legend at his mercy.
But...so strange...he had the boy right there in his claws, and yet...he felt no desire to kill him. None at all. Merely impatience, exasperation...and perhaps...
Perhaps he had lied. Perhaps he did feel pity for the Brat after all.
He still didn't know what had posessed him to honor the priest's dying request; having a natural aversion to monks and such, he'd avoided the old man for the most part but had found him to be an intelligent sort for a human, if sardonic and cantankerous--no worse than Tora himself, but as far as doing a favor for him...honestly, he didn't even know the old priest.
Perhaps it was true after all--perhaps he did feel sorry for the stupid little Brat. He honored the father for the sake of the son.
So why did he only feel pity for this helpless child he'd easily pinned to the porch with just one hand? Why didn't he feel the slightest inclination to eat him and have done with it? Just because he felt sorry for the little human...
After long moments of gazing down at the boy, trying to sort through his own thoughts, his face crinkled in a brief snarl and he snorted disgustedly. Growling low in his throat, he cautiously drew back, at last lifting his heavy hand from Ushio's chest. He stood motionless on the porch as the youth rolled over.
Ushio managed to pull himself into an unbalanced crouch, far too shaken for the Spearbearer's usual collected grace. Lambent violet eyes stared out at Tora from a shadowed face, through a tangled curtain of long black hair that flowed every which way; it was limp and sodden from the mud and the rain yet seemed to envelop him like a black spiderweb, snarled thickly about him from the tumble to the deck.
Tora gazed at him through narrowed silver eyes, betraying nothing of his thoughts as tense seconds ticked by. The Brat was just a small huddled shape, damp and bedraggled, crouched in the rain-gray shadows of the Shrine's porch, not quite man nor monster; the glowing catlike eyes of a bakemono stared out at him with all the fear and grief and anger of a lost and hurting young boy.
The Brat's face was wet with tears, not rain; the salty droplets seemed to catch tiny fractals of light from his dimly glowing eyes and carry them down his cheeks to disappear into the tangles of his hair. They shared the light with the gleam of his fangs, bared in a grimace of effort as the boy strove to keep from breaking down again. He was trembling, both from emotion and weakness; he'd fought Tora's grip to the point of exhaustion, and his limbs shook visibly.
Tora saw the boy's gaze flick to the Spear for but an instant and rumbled softly in warning, stepping forward, his eyes never leaving Ushio's. But the Brat didn't make a move for his weapon; rather, he stood shakily on two legs once more, head lowered until Tora couldn't see his eyes through the thick fall of black mane. Ushio's hands were fisted tight despite how hard he trembled, and a strange sound came up from the his throat, hissing through clenched fangs--a rattling noise half choked growl, half broken sob.
Then there was silence for so long Tora began to wonder what was wrong with the Brat. If there was one thing he knew about Ushio, it was that he was never this silent--not for long. If this caused another row between them...
When Ushio finally spoke again, Tora almost started.
"He's...really gone..." Almost a question, like a child waking from a dream and wondering if it was real. "He's gone..."
"He's dead," Tora said simply, bluntly.
"I'll kill that...that..." The boy took a step, stumbled, and caught himself with one hand braced against the Shrine wall. His expression was still half-hidden behind a curtain of sodden hair, and Tora couldn't even begin to read it; all he could see was the gleam of fangs as the Brat shook. "The shadow--I'll kill him..."
Ushio tried to move again but his muscles were giving out; he attempted to push away from the wall but his legs were so unsteady that they almost buckled. He reached to pick up the Spear and overbalanced, scrabbling to brace on the wall but only stumbling further off course, toppling headfirst toward Tora--only to jerk to a stop when the bakemono reflexively caught him by a handful of hair and shirt like the scruff of a kitten.
"Leave it, Brat," Tora growled when Ushio's eyes flashed dangerously wild with instinctive response. "You'll do nothing now."
Again, bared fangs and a short hiss of breath, frustration and anger. Ushio's eyes screwed closed as he fought down his own emotions--a losing battle, too great a tide to overcome. "Nothing...but kill..."
Snarling silently in irritation, Tora brought the boy's face closer to his own, eliciting a glance of faint alarm. "Brat." His voice was all rumbling steel, utterly resolute. "There is nothing we can do right now." That said, he slowly lowered the boy to the deck in front of him.
With his legs no longer able to hold him, Ushio went to his knees as the bakemono's support was taken away. "But...Tora..." his hissing breaths grew harsher and harsher until that choked, rattling sound came from him again. "It's Oyaji...he's my tousan...and he's gone..." No more words would come; his voice broke into deep, wracking sobs.
"Brat..." Tora caught himself letting out a breath of relief. No more mindless rage, no more violent anguish--just pure grief and cleansing tears.
Ushio went half-limp as he cried, unthinkingly resting against the crouched bakemono's arm. Unthinkingly--desperately, because there was no one else, no other source of warmth or solace. Unable to flee to seclusion, unable to leave this one friendly presence, he buried his face in Tora's rough fur and sobbed.
Tora ignored the potential offense; for some reason, right now it didn't bother him. As he released his grip on the Brat's shirt, his massive hand lingered a moment on the trembling shoulders. He only growled softly, not moving either to pull away or to shake the Brat off.
The night was quiet. There was only the bubbling, hissing patter of pouring rain filling the yard, almost drowning out the low rumble of a bakemono and the weeping of an inconsolable boy.
To be continued...