The Ushi Oni
Ahead of them, to the left of the road, a space had been marked out in straw ropes with streamers that fluttered in the wind, warning the unwary to stay away. A slab of rock was contained in the enclosure and a line of people had formed to drop off their bundles.
“What’s Takeshi doing there? He your priest, too?” InuYasha asked.
The headman stood behind the slab. Dressed in flowing white robes and a towering hat, he spoke something to each villager that came up, and blessed each bundle with a wand decorated with folded paper streams. When he was done, a girl dressed in the red and white of a miko standing on his right, handed the villager a branch of holy sakaki branches. Most dropped their loads, received their blessing, and hurried back to the safer confines of the village, hoping they had bought themselves more time. A few gathered talking. A group of children played under a tree.
“Sometimes. Each of the village elders is priest sometimes,” Hideo said as they neared. “We’re too small and unimportant to have a full-time priest here. Still, the kami seem happy. Takeshi seems to think if we treat all of this like a gift to the kami of the mountain, then we will get a blessing out of it. He told me that finding you two so close to here was a sign of how the kami was pleased.” The farmer shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Huh,” said the hanyou.
“Stranger things have happened to us,” Miroku stated, giving InuYasha a sharp look.
They reached the place in the road where Hideo needed to leave them.
“Take care, my friends,” Hideo said, joining the offering line. “I’ll ask the kami to watch over you.”
A few heads turned their way, looking at them curiously. Takashi caught InuYasha’s eyes. The hanyou stood there, and nodded his head. Miroku bowed more politely and made a sign of benediction.
“We’re off to find the oni,” InuYasha announced, gripping the hilt of his sword.
“Good hunting,” the headman said.
Heads turned as villagers watched the monk and hanyou standing there. Not all felt as charitable as the headman. InuYasha chose not to comment on the few dark wishes he heard mumbled. They turned and left.
The road left the paddy lands behind as it rose up and moved into higher ground where the villagers farmed things besides rice like fruit and hemp and had their pasture lands for the few horses. The pastures were empty, and they saw no one working in the fields. It was easy to understand why. The further they got from the village, the more signs they saw of the youkai’s behavior – broken fruit trees and smashed fences. They passed one field, planted earlier in the year with millet, now mixed with weeds and neglected. The fence had been broken in several places, and heavy rocks tossed in it, gouging the soil, recently too, from the lack of growth in the disturbed soil.
“Strong bastard,” InuYasha said, looking at the ruined field and the size of the stones.
“Not a neighbor you’d like living near,” Miroku commented.
“Keh,” the hanyou replied.
A crow, spotting them, cawed and flew off. InuYasha, seeing a brief bit of motion out of the corner of his eye, turned around, and looked behind him, wondering if something disturbed the bird, but didn’t see anything out of place, just some tall waving grass lining the far side of the road, and beyond that, a stand of trees. After scanning the area for a moment, he shrugged and they continued on until they found the path they were looking for and headed up the mountain.
The path they were on was marked from time to time with broken trees and scattered bones. At one point they saw a crushed hut once used by woodcutters. Missing were birds and other signs of life. Even the animal droppings one normally ran across in a wooded hillside were old.
They came across a kill, old and weathered bits of hide and bones and shreds of meat, and paused a moment while InuYasha examined it.
“So this is the path the oni doesn’t use much?” Miroku asked, squatting down for a moment to look at what the hanyou was studying. “I wonder what the other one looks like?”
“Feh, you don’t want to know,” InuYasha replied, wiping his hands on his thighs. “Funny how nothing’s scavenged this. Not even a fox.”
“Smart fox,” Miroku said.
“I think he’s hunted the area out,” InuYasha said, stepping over a thighbone. “I haven’t smelled a fresh deer or boar or rabbit scent since we left the farmland. Oni either ate them or they left.”
“That would explain why the youkai’s demanding so much from the village,” Miroku noted.
“Yeah.” InuYasha replied. Suddenly he looked up, his ears strained.
“Hear something?” Miroku stepped gingerly around the remains.
“I don’t know,” InuYasha said. “You sense anything?”
“I don’t feel any youki,” the monk replied, shrugging. “How about you? Want to backtrack?”
“No,” the hanyou said, shaking his head. “Damn wind, blowing the wrong way. Probably just a squirrel or a branch falling or something. Let’s hurry. I want to get up there before the oni. Just keep your eyes and ears open.”
They continued up the hill until their progress was stopped by a felled tree that partially blocked the path. At one place, the bark had been scuffed off and the wood crushed, as if hit with a heavy load. This he could scent. “This oni sure stinks. In fact, this whole area stinks like him. Been here long enough to make the whole place smell just like home.”
Miroku nodded as they headed up the path. “The way you talked to the village elders made me think you’ve had dealings with ushi oni before.”
“Keh” InuYasha said. “It’s been a while. The one I ran into was dumber than any other oni I ever came across, but very, very strong. He wasn’t very clever in how he attacked. He charged straight ahead without thinking, or I might not have been so lucky. Not only did he have a bull’s head, but spikes in its wrists. You got to watch those spikes. They contain a nasty venom. If it looks like he’s going to try to hit you with a fist, run, cause he really means to hit you with them. The one I fought used them to freeze his prey. Given a choice, he preferred his meat still breathing.”
Miroku shuddered. “Obviously not a good Buddhist monster.”
InuYasha snorted, but refrained from the urge to tease Miroku about all the fish and sometimes meat he had seen the monk eat since they’d been together. “You could say that. And watch out for your shadow. I’ve heard some bull youkai can suck the very life out of you that way.”
The road slanted up at an angle, moving higher the mountainside, and the forest grew thicker. Heavy brush, sometimes trampled, lined the path they were on. They concentrated walking over the obstacles and moved on in silence.
“I think – ” he began to say, but somewhere, off in the distance, the youkai bellowed. They stopped and listened.
“Breakfast time must be over,” Miroku noted.
“At least he’s not close yet.” InuYasha said after the noise quieted down. “You sure you want to try Hideo’s plan?”
“If it works, we could be done today and on our way home tomorrow,” the monk replied. “We’ll know more when we get there.”
“I’m still not sure if your idea of a good plan and mine are the same, Bouzo,” InuYasha said.
A few minutes later, the road leveled out as they neared their destination, opening into a broad flat area in front of a towering rock wall.
“It looks pretty much like the Hideo said,” Miroku said as he and his hanyou companion drew nearer to the rise.
Strewn with vines and half hidden by low-lying shrubs, the rock wall in front of them was broken by the gash of a cave mouth. An unpleasant pungent breeze wafted out of the dark recess. The ground in front of it had been heavily trampled, and the area was littered with broken pots and bamboo wrappers, scattered bones and some things better left undefined. To the left of the cave was a stand of tall pines waving in the wind, and between that and the cave a small field filled with grass and brush, some of it almost dense enough to hide in.
“Just barely enough room to fight in, and damn little good cover. Damn it, Miroku – how do you get us into these situations?” InuYasha growled as they examined the area.
“Skill, my friend, or perhaps just luck,” Miroku replied with a sigh as he looked at the grounds surrounding the cave. His staff jingled as he stepped gingerly around the rubbish. The air was ripe with an earthy, almost barnyard smell, tinged with the smell of rotten food, decay and old blood.
“He’s not much into cleanliness, is he?”
“Feh.”The hanyou stepped over a pile of offal, wrinkling his nose. “Too dumb to know not to foul his own nest. This one’s not any smarter than the one I ran into before. You saw all that damage on the way up. Dumb. Don’t think he knows enough to go around a tree.”
“All the things I’ve read indicate ushi oni are formidable and strong, but not necessarily very smart,” Miroku answered. “But then, most oni aren’t.” He turned and looked back down the hill. “I don’t feel his presence yet. We have a little time.”
“We’ll know when he gets here by the stink. As bad as it smells now, it’ll only get worse.” InuYasha tossed a rock in the cave and tilted his ear forward, listening for any sound. The only other sound was the wind in the pines. “Well, let’s go for it. So what do we do first?”
“You know the plans we discussed. First, seal his den so we don’t have to worry about digging him out of there later,” Miroku said, pulling out some ofuda, which he attached to the opening of the cave. It began to glow with a blue aura. “Next, we find some place to wait.” Another roar from the oni echoed on the mountainside. “From the sound of it, it won’t be long. And then, you’ll take him out with a kaze no kizu. And then we go back down to have another one of Tatsume-sama’s dinners.”
“Well, you better hope the oni likes your plan,” InuYasha said.
They found hiding places in the brush, and settled down to wait. Miroku closed his eyes, as if meditating. InuYasha listened to the wind in the trees and the sound of the monster growing closer, clutching his hand around Tessaiga’s hilt.
Suddenly, the bellow of the oni was right on top of them. The hanyou could feel the ground tremble with each step that the oni made as he entered the clearing.
It was time.
To be continued.....