The Ushi Oni
InuYasha and Miroku woke up at dawn in the guest house to the raucous crowing of a rooster. With a hesitant knock, a sleepy-eyed but still nervous Aka slid the door open to bring them food not long after. Putting down the trays, she bowed, then bolted without speaking. Breakfast was tepid rice and bad miso soup with no pickles. But the tea she provided was once again excellent.
“How can she be such a bad cook and make such good tea?” Miroku wondered.
InuYasha shrugged. “The tea kami, I guess.” He took a bite of his rice, and made a face, but swallowed it down. “I still would still feel better if we could spend some time checking out where the youkai has been going.” The hanyou drank the last of his soup then looked at his tray. “She should have least sliced up some daikon if she didn’t have any pickles.”
“But even you liked the idea last night,” Miroku replied, warming his hand on his teacup.
“Yeah, it sounded good, but I still wish I knew what I was getting into first,” InuYasha declared.
“You never used to be so cautious, my friend.” Miroku finished the last of his rice and stared at the bowl. “Hopefully when we get back, they’ll feed us something better than this.”
“Keh,” InuYasha said. “I used to be a lot of things once upon a time, like lonely and single. Besides,” he said, picking up his teacup, “That was before I was in charge of getting your butt home in one piece. This isn’t some little rat youkai harassing a farmer’s storeroom. We haven’t fought something this nasty in a while. Anything happen to you, Sango’d come after me and when she was done, Kagome’d purify me into next month. More than that, who else would I get to teach Atae?” He swallowed his tea down.
Miroku laughed. “Ah, the joys of self-preservation. But really, we might not get such a good chance again. It will give us the element of surprise.”
“Keh,” InuYasha said, scowling, but still knowing Miroku spoke the truth. “That might be worth something. Let’s just get there. Then we’ll decide.”
“That’s fair,” Miroku said. He put down his chopsticks and stood up. “Well, shall we be on our way?” He grabbed his staff from where it was leaning up against the wall.
With a nod, InuYasha unfolded his red-clad legs and stood up. They left their trays for the hapless Aka to deal with and headed out of the door into the village.
As they walked out, they noticed a few people doing chores, but the village was mostly quiet.
Breaking the morning’s peace, a small child ran by, chasing a squawking chicken. She almost bumped into Miroku.
“Sorry, sorry, Houshi-sama” she said, looking up at the monk.
The monk smiled down at her. “Be careful, little one,” he replied.
With a quick nod, she left, and they watched her hurry off, running even faster as she chased her bird. An old woman, carrying a basket of vegetables back from her garden nodded at them. But they saw no one working in the fields near the village.
“Not many people out yet,” InuYasha noted.
“I suspect they might be busy with the oni’s demands,” Miroku noted.
And as they walked the main road past the paddy fields, bright green with the young rice in the morning light, they were joined by a few villagers going in the same direction, carrying bundles and baskets, proving him right. Several of the villagers gave the two a wide berth, hurrying up or dropping behind, and one made a sign against bad luck when InuYasha got too close, but a couple of villagers greeted them. Before they had gotten very far, a familiar voice called for them to slow down, and Hideo balancing a basket on one shoulder, caught up with them.
“So, off to climb the mountain?” he asked.
InuYasha nodded. “We’ll at least get a good look. We’ll decide what to do once we see it.”
“Good, good. I hope the mountain kami brings you luck,” Hideo said smiling as he shifted the basket off of one shoulder and onto the next.
“Thank you, friend. Good wishes are worth a lot,” Miroku replied. “What are you carrying there?”
“Millet and chrysanthemum greens,” Hideo replied. “My share of the offering. I’d have already been there if I hadn’t stopped to cut the greens before going out.”
InuYasha looked at the people walking ahead with their bundles – a few women walking with their husbands and children, but mostly tired-looking men. To his sensitive nose, many of the men still smelled of last night’s sake. Their bundles and baskets and jars smelled of rice and miso, pickles and fish.
“This better be the last time,” one of the young men ahead of them grumbled, shifting his burden as he turned back to look at the hanyou and monk. “I hear the Takada are asking for people to come work on their lands.”
“Hey Jiro,” Hideo said. “You’d go and work for them after what they did to your sister?”
Jiro spit. “Better than feeding damn youkai.” He hurried down the road, bumping others as he went.
“Fool,” Hideo said and sighed.
They walked in silence for a moment.
“What’s the oni doing with all this food? He can’t eat it all at once,” the hanyou asked, breaking the tension.
“True, true,” Hideo said. “We take it to the base of the hill. He eats some, takes some home up the mountain, leaves the rest, and comes back down for more until he’s eaten it all. Nobody would dare touch it; everybody’s too afraid that the oni will come after them if they did. I don’t know about the foxes and the birds. Maybe they’re braver than we farmers.”
A man behind them snorted. “Or slyer.”
Hideo laughed, then pulled InuYasha and Miroku to the side of the road, and waited until the clump of villagers passed. When no one was there to overhear them, he shifted his basket again, and pointed at the mountain.
“There’s a path from the place we leave the food that runs up to the cave I told you about. It’s an easy way up, but long and round about. That’s the path we know the oni takes most of the time. But if you stay on this path, it’ll take you around the base of the mountain where it comes to another trail that heads up the mountainside. That’s the path I told you about last night. It’s steeper, and we don’t think he’s been using it much. It leads up to the cave, too, a harder walk, but you can get up the mountain faster that way, I think, without worrying about the oni seeing you.”
“Yeah,” InuYasha said. “We don’t want to run into him until we’re ready.”
“Make sure the village elders keep the people off the mountain,” Miroku said. “Even the woodcutters. We don’t want anybody accidentally hurt.”
“With the monster on the prowl?” Hideo said. “I don’t think that’s going to be much of a problem. We’re only farmers, not heroes.”
Miroku snorted as they moved back onto the path. “Heroes, eh.”
“Or crazy. Never have decided which,” InuYasha replied.
To be continued....