The I of the Beholder
By Ysabet

Ysabet's Notes: Hi again! This one is set about a year after the Spear came to Ushio; I thought I'd try something a bit spooky using another main character, rather than just focusing on the Spearbearer all the time. He & Asako are about 16 now, and she knows about the Spear. If you're following the manga, it could be anytime after Volume 13; if you're following the anime, well.... it's just in the future after the last episode. She knows about the Spear, she knows about Tora.... and she's not at all sure how she feels about the whole deal. This may be a long one; hope you enjoy! Aaaaand, once again: These characters belong to the mighty Kazuhiro Fujito, who I wish would pick up the series again & continue it.....

Chapter 1: Smoke and Mirrors

Nightmares are strange things. You finish your day tired and worn out, ready to drop all the cares and worries of life into the smooth dark waters of sleep--- and what happens? You end up wrestling with those self-same cares grown huge and overwhelming, beating you down, eating you alive..... Or perhaps it's something from the hidden recesses of your childhood that invades your rest, something small made unreasonably horrifying and significant: the eyes of a doll, the shadows in the closet just beyond your bedroom door, the thing under the bed that never sleeps and only comes out when you drop your wide-eyed child's vigil..... Reason dies very young in dreams.

And then there's the other kind of nightmares, the ones you can never quite talk about: the ones where you find yourself doing and saying all the things you really, *really* would like to do, but won't do because of morality or fear or social embarrassment. Dreams of desire, of violence, dreams of greed and fulfilled anger, temptations that blossom in the night into a temporary reality that both horrifies and thrills you. Wrong, all of it (and you know that, don't you, even sleeping?)--- it shakes you and breaks your peace and sends you gasping back to shatter the surface of sleep, shivering and wondering *how could I even THINK that?*

Those nightmares are the worst of all..... maybe because, deep down, some part of you wants them to be true.********************************************************************************************************************************************

"Ah, CRAP!!"

*Wham! Crash!! Thud!!! tinkle, tinkle, tinkle.......

The young archaeology student braced himself, panic-stricken, as boxes began sliding down in a convoluted waterfall beside him; he spread his arms wide, trying to keep several months' worth of work from going down the tubes. Behind him he could hear a distant, frustrated shout from his instructor: "Goddamit, Toshii! Can't you do ANYTHING right?!?"

Moments later he knelt sullenly on the dusty floor, trying to collect scattered tags and documents--- Toshii had caught the boxes alright, but as for the papers stacked in between them.... Well, shit. He was going to be here all evening dealing with this mess, and that old fart of a supposed teacher wasn't helping much, was he? 'Pick up the damned boxes, Toshii, and clean up this pigpen--- what the hell did *I* do to get assigned such a blundering jackass for an aid?' and 'Get busy, Toshii, it's not like you're doing anything better with your time, is it?' That was the kind of bullshit he had to put up with everyday on this dig; he flushed even redder than before as he recalled the giggling he had heard from several of the female aids.

Well, screw them. He picked up the last couple of tags and began sorting through the remaining boxes, looking for a match. It was quiet now at the dig site; six o'clock had come and gone, and everyone had headed home for dinner... everyone except him. *He* had to stay and play cleaning-woman for a bunch of junk. Toshii sighed and ran a dusty hand through his short-cropped black hair; archaeology had sounded like such a great major when he started in it--- his head had danced with visions of Masutero Toshii the new voice of Japanese history, discovering yet another great and wonderful example of ancient cultures and lost cities..... Photo-spreads in National Geographic and Smithsonian, his face staring seriously from beneath one of those beaten-up khaki hats like all the adventurer-archaeologists in the movies wore--- it all sounded so *attractive*, so possible.....

He grunted as a box nearly slipped through his fingers. Nobody told you about all the endless cataloging of potsherds, all the notes, the hours stringing a site and attaching little tags and laying tarps down to prevent rain-damage. Hell, no, he groused to himself, checking yet another box. And then there were the professors..... They all thought they were *such* hot shit! Like they walked on water, like they had never been students themselves. Well, someday HE'd be the one holding the stick, and they could *all* look out for their goddamned reputations then..... Toshii frowned as something in the box in front of him made a distinctive broken-glass tinkle; oh hell, had he broken something after all? He *thought* he had managed to grab everything before it hit the ground---

Looking around to make sure the coast was clear, he opened the small box. Weird; the student bent his head over its contents, one eyebrow quirked in curiosity. This site they were working on wasn't really that old, just four hundred years or so; it had been an old manor house on the outskirts of Tokyo (or what had grown into Tokyo eventually), and it wasn't that important. But it *was* slated for demolition sometime in the next year, so one of the universities had provided funding for an onsite dig. This thing.... It lay shining up at him from the box: A bronze frame, perfectly round with a handle, etched with water plants (as far as he could tell); and all around it pieces of--- silvered glass? Not too old, then, if the mirror was glass and not metal. Sixteenth or seventeenth century, probably. Toshii wondered frantically if the mirror had been broken before it was put into the box, or whether the breaks had happened only a few minutes before. Oh, hell--- if his professors found out that *he* had broken an artifact, they'd have his head on a platter! There would go his diploma, his chances for greatness, his cushy job someday at a national museum.... But if he put the pieces back together again inside the frame, maybe they'd think that they had been broken *before* it came out of the ground; yeah, he could do that. And if they weren't all there, he'd know that this was the case anyway.

This piece went here, and that piece went there..... CRAP! Sharp!! Toshii swore and stuck his freely-bleeding finger in his mouth, wiping a blood-drop from a piece of silvered glass. He'd have to wash up well later if he didn't want tetanus or something equally inconvenient--- who knew what you could catch at a dig? It was just a very old garbage dump, really. He glanced nervously over one shoulder, checking that he was still alone; no problem. Those lazy bums that also called themselves student aids were all still out stuffing their faces. It was dark outside now, and very quiet; the only sound was that of a distant dog's barking, and the sad little noise was lonely in the night. No traffic racket even, not this far up in the hills. Toshii shivered a little for no real reason, hunching his shoulders; for a moment it had felt like someone had walked across his grave.

Only a couple more pieces to fit in--- it looked like they were all here. Hell, his professors should *thank* him for the careful job he was doing; whoever had packed it away hadn't bothered to see if the mirror was complete, that was pretty certain. He gently popped the last little sliver into place; it slotted in with an audible "snap!"

Toshii sat back for a moment, absently sucking on his wounded finger and admiring his work. It sure was a nice piece, put together like that; how many pretty young noblewoman's' faces had been reflected in this little toy? His own face smirked rather sardonically back; he could just put this in the box and say nothing more about it, and no-one would ever know. That was one over on the old farts, wasn't it? He grinned down at himself.

WHAT the fuck----?? The mirror was darkening, reddening, going all crimson like someone had poured paint across it--- oh SHIT, had he screwed it up somehow? It was still sort of silvery, but--- Toshii ran his still-bleeding hand across the fractured glass, smearing it with a remaining droplet---

OH GOD----- OH GOD, WHAT----!?!!*******************************************************************************************************************************************

When the other aids came back from dinner, it took a few moments for them to realize that the burned, ravaged thing in the storage room had been Toshii. But by then they had all started screaming anyway, and they didn't really care.*******************************************************************************************************************************************

On a hillside just beyond the buildings of Tokyo, a young woman sat cross-legged behind a bush, watching the scene below with a frown on her face. She brushed a stray lock of hair back from her eyes, squinting in the late afternoon sunlight as she tried to hear the comments of the policemen a few hundred feet away.

Asako huddled a little lower as one of the men glanced her way; she could see the sunlight reflect off his glasses as his head turned, but she didn't think he had seen her. So many policemen--- she could count six cars from where she was sitting..... And there went another ambulance, sirens off; that probably meant bad news for whoever was inside. It was likely that, for them, haste was no longer of any use.

What in God's name had happened?

She had been coming here for days, watching the dig; the students had gotten used to seeing her up on the hillside--- some of them would wave to her now and then. Asako had wanted desperately to climb down the hill, to take a really *good* look at the site, but..... Not until they asked her to. They were all older; college students for the most part interspersed with the professors in charge. She wasn't going to butt in, not 'til they asked her to. It wasn't that she was shy exactly (this was Asako, after all; she was *never* shy), it was just that---

Asako was..... fascinated.

History was always so *boring* when you were stuck in a classroom listening to the teacher drone on and on. But *this*, this was different. You weren't just hearing dry words about who won this battle or took over that region--- at a dig, you could *touch* the past. When you found a broken piece of pottery in the earth, you were touching something that might not have been seen for hundreds of years--- and yet, there was still that common link of humanity between you and the last person who had touched it.

Clasping her hands around her knees, Asako thought back to a moment when, as a child, she had been poking around up at her grandfather's house high in the hills. There had been a few ruins around, nothing special, mostly tumble-down stone walls. But she had played that they were her kingdom, her fortress to defend, running about with a stick for a sword. And then she had found the broken clay bowl, half-buried under the tall grass at the edge of an old well. The child had picked up the pieces, running her fingers wonderingly along the rain-worn clay.

And underneath, where the pottery had rested against the soil safe from the ravages of the weather, she had found a fingerprint. Just like hers it was really, just like when she stuck her thumb in sticky clay on the riverbank; a fingerprint. It had been made by another person, just like her--- hundreds of years ago.

That moment of wonder had never really passed. And Asako wanted terribly to see the dig, but she wasn't going to go charging down there with her usual forthrightness--- she'd screw things up, she knew she would. So she had watched and waited, hoping.

And now----- what was going on? When she had arrived, things had been cordoned off with "CRIME SCENE -- DO NOT ENTER" tapes and the place was *crawling* with policemen. Of the students that she had watched so eagerly there was no sign at all.....

The policemen were finishing up; she could hear their distant voices and the slamming of car doors as the last few men climbed into their vehicles and started them. Would they leave a guard? No, they must've locked everything up. The lights were off down in the site; beyond it the remains of the old mansion looked incredibly lonely in the red-gold haze of sunset.

As the last car rumbled down the road and around the curve, Asako slowly rose to her feet, dusting her hands against the back of her pants. *No,* she told herself, *I'm not REALLY going to go down into a crime scene, that would be illegal. No, I'm just going to climb down the hillside a little so I can see better..... Well, maybe a little closer than this. I'm only half-way down the hill and my footing's unsteady; they wouldn't want me to fall and hurt myself, would they, those policemen? So I'll go just a little further to the bottom of the hill. That's all.*

The young woman slid to a halt and looked down at her toes; her tennis-shoes were covered with mud from the hillside, slippery on the rocks beside the tangle of haphazard temporary sheds that housed the dig's storage and work areas. She kicked idly at a pebble, watching as it rolled away; maybe she should see about getting some of this mud off before she climbed back up the hill. What if she slipped and hurt herself? There'd be no-one around to help her; surely the police wouldn't want her to do that, now would they? She could just step inside and see if there were some rags around, or maybe a little water.....

*Oh, the hell with it.* The dig had become important to her. She wanted to know what had happened----- She'd just have to be careful. It would be... inconvenient... for her parents to have to bail her out from jail on trespassing charges.

Slowly Asako stepped forward; there was still a little light left in the sky, enough for her to see by; but it would be dark soon--- the surrounding hills blocked a lot of the sunset's afterglow. She frowned a bit, wondering at the disarray around her; tools lay scattered, papers were tossed in all directions..... this was nothing like the ordered chaos that she had been watching for the last few days. Still frowning, she continued to pick her way through the sheds, her footsteps crunching in the dirt underneath.

*Huh; look at that.* She was at the main workshop now, a sturdy Quonset-hut sort of affair meant to house the sorted finds and computer equipment used on the site. Weird--- there were *holes* in the door and walls, holes as big as her head or as small as her fingertip. Had someone been shooting at the building? But..... they almost looked like they had been *gnawed* through.

Asako scrubbed one hand across her face nervously; maybe coming down here hadn't been the brightest of ideas..... Especially now that the sun was pretty much completely behind the hills; it felt..... dark. Darker than it should.

Maybe she should go and get Ushio-kun; something was wrong here--- it was giving her the creeps. He dealt with things like this----

Scowling at her own timidity, Asako knocked one hand against her forehead: Idiot! So Ushio was the Big, Bad Spearbearer; that didn't mean that she should go running to him like a scared rabbit every time she---- What was that?!?

It was a faint hissing, clicking sound, not very loud..... it was coming from inside, from low down. A snake or something?
Asako swallowed hard and stepped up to one of the larger holes, crouching and peering in.....

The single room beyond was a shambles--- boxes were strewn everywhere, several chairs were overturned, computer equipment was broken into bits--- God, there was even a hole right in the middle of the monitor. Not a cracked, shattered hole, either; it was more like something had taken a bite out of the glass, exposing the circuitry within. But the noise---? It was quiet now, she couldn't see anything that could've made that chattering hiss..... There was something all over the place though, something was..... pooled, dark and sticky-looking on papers, boxes, everything. She could smell it, thick and coppery in the air, mixed with a scent of--- burning?

And all around on the floor she could see outlines marked in antiseptic, clean white tape that screamed 'Official Police Business, Do Not Touch': human outlines. Several of them. But.... they were missing things. Hands, feet, heads.....

WHAT had happened? And she heard it again, a soft, sibilant sound combined with scrapes and gritty noises, like someone combining a fuse and a hand-tool of some sort--- where---?

*!!!* Asako's eyes widened.....

It was coming from BEHIND her---!!! Still crouching, she turned in place very slowly, skin crawling.....

Red. It was red, seeping silently up from crevices in the ground, a thick mist.... no, no, not a mist; it had shining *things* in it, bits of glow like the eyes on a spider, and there were dark spots too, ringed with white.... That was where the sounds were coming from, she thought, frozen in place: from those dark places, from the mouths (she could see them better now, she thought numbly; they were getting bigger, more distinct.....) ringed with teeth, hissing and snapping at her----

Asako yelped, slamming back against the door behind her; then, as if it had been some sort of springboard at a pool, she was suddenly leaping over the red thing, just leaping (*ohgodohgodohgoddon'tletmefall-------*) without a moment of conscious thought. She cleared the thickening red substance with inches to spare--- it was so low to the ground, a good thing too--- she felt something brush and snag the back of her jeans-leg as she landed, and she tore down the length of sheds at a dead run.

Dark, it was *really* dark now, she had to get away------- she was making too much noise to hear if she was being pursued, but it didn't matter. Asako scrambled up the hillside again, slipping and sliding and swearing incoherently; the red thing was behind her, maybe coming after her--- *get OUT of here, you ass, get AWAY from here, just get away, you can figure out what to do when you're safe---*

.....then she looked behind her, and it was there, pooling around the base of the hill; she could just see it in the near-darkness, tiny gleaming eyes floating at random in thick scarlet like fireflies in a fog--- sharp-toothed maws gaping and closing, the clash of teeth drowned out by the thundering of Asako's heart in her ears----

And she reached the top of the hill. But momentum is a powerful thing--- she kept going down the other, more cliff-like side, flailing her arms as gravity won out and pulled her into the air---- crying out, falling like a broken bird-----

..... and then gravity was defeated by a huge, sharp-clawed hand that snagged one ankle, plucking Asako from her trajectory and dangling her head-first over the darkened stones and grass too far below. Her scream cut off in mid-shriek as the air went out of her lungs, "WHOOF!" at the sharp jerk of inertia.

"Stupid girl," hissed the great orange bakemono, still holding her leg carelessly in the grip of a huge thumb and forefinger; "Shut up or I'll drop you!! Do you want THAT to hear you?!?"

Asako snapped her mouth shut, taking in a huge gulp of air as the enormous monster glided silently towards a nearby hillside. *Oh shit,* she thought faintly, watching the ground passing swiftly by below her as she hung upside down; *Tora-----?!?*

************ To be continued**************

Heh heh heh..... Don't you just LOVE cliffhangers?..... Ysabet