The Ushi Oni
InuYasha studied the gathering of old men watching him from across the room, and wished he were home. He knew if he were home, Kagome would be starting to cook dinner about now, and he would be out in the yard chopping wood while Noriko, one of Miroku’s twins, played with his children, trying to keep Yukika out of her mother’s garden and making sure that Atae brought in enough wood and filled the water jug. But today he was a long way from home, sitting in a guest house listening to the leaders of this village explain why he and Miroku had to rescue them.
There were five of them, the village’s most important men, gray haired and well fed but weathered from years in the sun and work. InuYasha knew he ought to feel honored. They had put away their mud-stained work clothes and had dressed in their best for this occasion, fine linen with bold prints and even some silk. For them, the occasion was grave, even as they sat there and tried to look impressive, their scents filled with anxiety and worry. He flicked a triangular ear as he watched them whispering to each other, knowing that he was the cause of at least some of their discomfort. It irritated him a little, but it was nothing unexpected.
Idly wondering how they would have reacted if he had brought Kagome with him, he took a last swallow of tea and sat his empty teacup on the low table in front of him. His thoughts drifted away from the pleasantries that Miroku was handling. One wall of the building had the doors thrown open to catch the breeze, and he found himself staring past the gathered crowd to the view beyond. A bird called out from a tree nearby, and took flight. InuYasha felt a flash of envy as he watched it fly away. Given free choice, he wouldn’t be sitting there, either.
But four days ago, one of the villagers, a man named Hideo, had shown up at Miroku’s temple with a lurid tale of a horrid oni wreaking havoc, begging for help. Miroku, never one to turn down an opportunity, immediately agreed to help. InuYasha, unwilling to let his friend go off into danger alone, knew he didn’t have much choice, and the next morning, he reluctantly kissed Kagome goodby, ruffed his son’s hair, hugged his clinging daughter, and followed his friend and the villager down the road, promising Sango to keep the monk out of trouble.
When Miroku and InuYasha arrived, they had been met at the edge of town by a delegation of the village men. Hideo, their guide left them, anxious to check on his family. The two were quickly ushered into a guest house in the center of town, where they were served tea and dumplings to refresh them after their journey. A woman named Aka served them. She had been dressed up in a fine kosode of blue flowered silk for her job, and moved with grace, but she was young, not much older than Miroku’s twins, and once she saw the hanyou, she became unnerved by her task. Her voice had trembled as she muttered her greetings and her hands had shaken as she brought in the refreshments, and neither Miroku’s smile nor attempts to flatter her had been able to calm her. She fled out of the room soon as the job was done.
InuYasha sighed as she left. It had been a while since he had been anywhere but his village of Inumura or at Kaede’s village or at the local markets, places where people knew him.
Miroku looked at his friend with sympathy. He knew the price his friend sometimes paid when they went on their journeys.
“I think you surprised her,” the monk said. “Maybe she’s not used to men who don’t try to flirt with her.”
“Feh,” InuYasha replied. “More likely she’s heard about your reputation.”
“Or perhaps Sango’s.” Miroku poured InuYasha his cup of tea.
The hanyou snorted, and returned the favor.
“At least the tea is good,” the monk said after he tasted his first cup.
“Keh,” InuYasha replied, but had to admit that it was true.
They had not been there long before the village elders were ushered in. Outside of the room, and visible past the open doors, a group of curious onlookers had gathered.
The gathered elders looked at InuYasha warily. InuYasha was sure that they had heard tales of the monk and hanyou who were expert youkai exterminators, which is why the village had sent for them, but evidently, sitting so close to a youkai made them extra nervous. The scent of their anxiety was irritating. InuYasha, in a sour mood anyway, fought against the urge to crack his knuckles and flex his claws just to see their reaction. Instead, he stifled the growl that kept forming in his throat, refilled Miroku’s empty teacup and waited.
Miroku picked up the teapot and refilled his friend’s cup. “So tell me more about your problem.”
Seemingly surprised by the hanyou’s use of good manners, the headman watched as InuYasha brought the cup to his lips and then held it appropriately in the palm of his hand. He shook his head and took a deep breath, and met Miroku’s eyes. “The oni appeared about two months ago, right before the wheat harvest,” the headman said. His face was haggard. Whatever his nervousness about being near a hanyou was, it did not mask the strain he had been under. “He did some damage, but we were able to get most of the harvest in.”
“But then,” said the elder to his right, “Our livestock started disappearing. Two bullocks we needed for the plowing, and a horse and a calf. We began leaving food for the monster after that, hoping to get through the rice planting, and for a time things quieted down.”
InuYasha sipped his tea, watching both the elders and Miroku as he assessed the men in front of them. He could almost see the wheels turn in his friend’s head as he began calculating what they might do and, no doubt, what they could charge. This ability of Miroku’s to assess the leading people of a community frightened the hanyou. Reading the connection between men’s fears and their pocketbooks was a mystery he would never learn.
Miroku looked at the elders sympathetically, then sipped his tea.
“Then what?” the monk said.
“Then, Houshi-sama, after we had planted the rice, he began attacking the paddies. He drained two and trampled the rice in another. We gave him more food more often. But we are afraid. Last week we found another dead bullock, and two days later, a trampled child,” said another of the elders.
“We cannot give him any larger quantities of food. Already we may not have enough for the winter. And our taxes . . . well, we won’t burden you with that.”
InuYasha’s ear twitched. He saw the same calculating look in the headman’s eyes as he saw in Miroku’s, calculating the two of them. He stifled a snort, suspecting the headman had found his match in the monk.
The headman made a gesture with his fan. “This is why we sent for you. Can you help us?”
“Anybody get a look at whatever’s doing this?” InuYasha asked. “Hideo told us a lot on the way over here, but he never got a look at it.”
The elders looked surprised for a moment that he actually said something. The headman motioned, and a younger man who was standing in the doorway came over to them and bowed. He looked at the monk and the hanyou with determined, grieving eyes.
“I saw him,” he said. “The oni . . . he killed my son.”
“Ah.” Miroku looked at the man with sympathy. “After we are through here, if you would like, I will come and chant sutra for him.”
The villager nodded. “Thank you, Houshi-sama.”
“So,” Miroku continued, “Did you get a good look at him?”
“The monster . . . He had a bull’s head, and a bull’s feet, but a man’s body and carried a huge club,” the farmer continued. “A group of us was walking through the woods back to the fields. My son . . . my son had gotten ahead of us, and we didn’t see the monster until the path curved. He turned when he saw us. Dai was in his path, and he just walked over him like he wasn’t there.” His voice cracked at the memory.
“His eyes . . . he looked at us with those red eyes and snorted. ‘More food!’ he yelled, then kicked my boy out of the way and disappeared up the path.” The man buried his face in his hands. “Please help us. Help my Dai to rest, avenged.”
InuYasha began to growl softly. “An ushi oni?” InuYasha said. “A bull youkai?”
“Yes,” said the headman. “You are familiar?”
“Yeah. Damn hard to kill, but we can handle it,” he replied, clasping the hilt of Tessaiga tightly.
Miroku took another sip of tea. “Now, gentlemen, before we take on this duty, let us discuss costs,” he said. The headman gave him a thin smile.
“I need some air,” InuYasha said, knowing his cue, and stood up. He never stayed around for the negotiations. Miroku preferred it that way.
As he left, he heard someone breathe a deep sigh of relief.
To be continued....