His eyes were open but he could not see.
The asphalt beneath the torn, dirty soles of his socked-feet felt rough and damp, still somewhat slick from the rain of the day before. The air pumping in and out of his overworked lungs was dry, almost tasting of the settling mildew of the old, traditional houses he knew lined the road’s path. The deep cut across his face throbbed with heat and pain, blood tickling his skin as it poured down his cheeks, trickling onto the ground below off the tip of his chin where each streak of crimson converged.
Iruka could parse all of this, despite his terrible state, but the moonlight above was absolutely blinding, and he couldn’t see a damn thing.
For two and a half years Iruka had been locked away in a storage room, kept like a prisoner that his uncle hadn’t bothered to acknowledge for more than a short amount of time each day; just long enough to give him a meal, change out the water bucket he left for Iruka to wash with, and check to make sure the squat toilet in the corner of the room still worked. Iruka didn’t understand why—he didn’t understand how he had wronged a man he had never met before—but a large part of him had been so traumatized, so emotionally worn down by the loss of his parents when he was only 11½-years-old, that he’d merely accepted what was happening to him without any resistance.
Iruka had been taken out of the hospital by a man the nurses told him was his uncle, on his father’s side, and locked away without even hearing the man utter a single word. Over time, he had learned a few simple things, such as his uncle’s name (Umino Anago) and the fact that he was Iruka’s father’s younger brother, but more complex truths came to light as time went on and Iruka began to forget what daylight looked like. His uncle had a habit of mumbling, sometimes outright ranting to himself when he came in for his daily check-in, and said a lot of things that Iruka suspected his uncle couldn’t say aloud to anyone else.
Not without dire consequences, anyway.
And it was during those times that Iruka learned that his uncle had inherited the house they were in from his grandparents, more relatives Iruka had never met, and that those grandparents had disliked Ikkaku greatly after...something. There was some sort of past event that had left a divide between Ikkaku and the rest of his family, but Iruka could only piece together what he heard Anago say with what he knew of his father. Despite being so young Iruka wasn’t stupid—his parents had both made sure of that, investing readily into his education—so he eventually started painting a picture of what he surmised had happened.
And he really hated what that painting depicted.
His father had been a court judge, but back when Ikkaku was still in law school he had helped Anago out of a terrible situation. Anago had been accused of kidnapping and killing a 15-year-old girl, but with the help of Ikkaku, and a lot of inconclusive and circumstantial evidence, Anago was released without being charged, and eventually another man was arrested for the girl’s unfortunate fate. But that man had been proven to be mentally unstable (a fact Iruka’s uncle had recalled with a chilling smirk, disturbing the poor boy greatly), and was gullible and easily influenced, which had ‘made him perfect’...a statement Anago had never elaborated on, but Iruka didn’t need him to.
Thread together what you know to weave the truth into existence, his parents used to say.
And Iruka had.
Anago muttered about an urge, one he had been keeping in check for a long time, but now Iruka was here, and he was perfect. It was those words, words that made everything in Iruka tense up and caused his skin to break out into a cold sweat, that finally pulled the boy out of his complacency and thrust him into desperate action. After deciding it was time to escape, Iruka had started using his time alone to pull away some floorboards, which were hidden by his ratty old futon in the middle of the storage room, and use one of them like a shovel to dig. He burrowed downward until he hit the compacted stone foundation of the home, then picked a direction forward and dug some more, eventually hitting plant roots that told him to start moving up.
It was an arduous task, and for a while he had to hide his evidence by flushing dirt down the toilet in small batches, not wanting to clog the plumbing with it and bring attention to what he was up to. But after a little over five months of digging, flushing, washing dirt from under his nails in his bucket, and recharging with his meager meal and some anxiety-ridden sleep, Iruka had finally reached the surface.
He was ready to escape.
So after his uncle had come and gone that night Iruka had sat there and waited, feeling the shadows of the room wash over him, calm him, until he was certain he could leave without being caught. Then, without any hesitation, he threw back his futon, pulled up the loose floorboards to reveal his dug-out tunnel entrance, and began to crawl with no regard for being careful or quiet.
Iruka had been locked away in the dark for so long that scurrying around in that same darkness, but surrounded by the smell of wet earth, and the occasional feeling of brushing past something hard and/or slimy like a rock or plant root, did little to scare him. The only terrifying thing he knew in the world slept in the house above him, hiding his crimes behind an innocuous face; the blackness that filled his sight and engulfed him completely felt like a comfort, a friend, that even when he reached the end of his tunnel, and something sharp dragged across his face as he pulled himself free of it, he felt no malice towards the dark.
It was a small price to pay to be free.
From there, Iruka ran into the night.
But the moment he burst out of the thick trees of the yard he’d emerged from, Iruka couldn’t see. Or, to be more accurate, all he could see was the bright moonlight above him as it washed out the road ahead, reflected off the rained-on surfaces of the houses and their stone gates before him, and made his own skin seem almost translucent in its harsh light. He allowed himself only a moment to try to adjust, looking down at his hands as he held them palms-up, the blood falling from his face being unintentionally caught by them. The red was so bright, so stark against his skin, that it jolted him into moving, uncaring of what direction he blindly ran in, so long as it was as far away as possible from that place.
That dark, hidden storage room he hoped to never see again.
Time passed by the position of the lustrous moon in the sky, and it was only when it began to finally dip behind the trees lining the streets that Iruka let himself slow down to an exhausted walk, his eyes starting to make out more than vague shapes seen through the harsh glint of celestial light. Houses no longer framed his path, and other than the empty road there was a large set of stairs ahead of him, leading upwards towards a massive, vermilion torii.
A shrine, he thought, and slowly stumbled towards those stairs, but when he reached the bottom of them and looked up he was unwittingly overcome with the feeling that he couldn’t climb them. The feeling that, with whatever awaited him at the top, he wasn’t welcomed there.
He didn’t belong there.
But Iruka was barely managing to keep himself standing, and surely a shrine would be able to offer him help, so regardless of what his instincts were screaming at him (stay back, leave now, there’s danger here) Iruka began to climb the stairs. He made it a third of the way up before he felt something...wrong. The stone beneath his feet shook with the weight of heavy steps that weren’t his own, and he heard leaves rustling and the creak of shifting bark to his right.
Those instincts went from screaming to howling, and this time Iruka listened to them.
Iruka bolted into the trees to his left, running away from the wrong thing that he could still hear coming from behind. His palms scraped against the surfaces of trees as he clumsily pushed himself forward, unforgiving thorny bushes snapping at his ankles as he ran through the brush, but no matter how hard he pushed, or how fast he thought he was moving, whatever was behind him was gaining ground quicker than he could escape it. Then his foot caught on a protruding stone in the grass, sending him tumbling forward, and Iruka shut his eyes and controlled the fall as best as he could, coming to a stop as his body slid into a clearing.
He was on his back, heaving for breath, his arms and legs splayed out and unable to move an inch in his enervation. Laying there for a moment, waiting for his breathing to ease back into a normal pattern, Iruka realized the sounds of being chased had ceased, and he chanced opening his eyes.
Blessedly, there was nothing.
Nothing but the night sky above him, that same bright moonlight from before shining through the leaves of the tress’ canopy, and bathing the minor clearing where he lay in soft, fluttering luminescence. It was still too bright for him to look at, even like that, but it was a sight better than whatever he had been running from, that much he was certain. So, taking a deep breath, Iruka carefully lifted his left arm and rested it over his eyes, simply feeling the gentle night breeze caress his skin as he contemplated what he would do next.
He had nowhere he could go, no one he knew who would help him, and he had very little idea on where he was, exactly, other than somewhere in Kyoto. Perhaps he could find a police box, or the shrine would be more welcoming than his paranoid instincts claimed it would be, but Iruka knew that none of his options were plausible until the day arrived. And if the moonlight was hurting his eyes this much, he dreaded what sunlight would do to them.
An involuntary whimper escaped him at the thought, but he was pulled from his contemplation as Iruka felt the blood still weeping out of his face-wound pool between the fingers of his hand resting atop it, sending an unnerved chill down his spine at the sensation. It felt disgusting—he felt disgusting—and as that blood made a path down his ring finger to drip back onto his face, back over the wound in a pathetic attempt to return to whence it came, Iruka suddenly felt overcome with a hopelessness he couldn’t quantify.
After all that work, and all that pain and suffering to escape, it suddenly felt like none of it mattered as he laid there, bleeding out one droplet at a time, and he couldn’t even find the strength to call out for help. He was going to die there, he thought, and another whimper passed between his lips, lilting into a soft yet hysterical laugh right at the end.
Better to die in the dark of night, where he could become a meal for some starving animals, than in the dark of a storage room where he’d be buried and forgotten. The thought made him laugh a bit more, but he quickly fell into silence as the last of his strength left him, and Iruka felt himself starting to slip into unconsciousness.
But then he felt it.
The ground was shaking again.
Only this time it was faster, like the frantic beat of a taiko drum, covering the distance between where it had lost Iruka to where he now was, at such a frightening rate that Iruka felt he was made out of stone. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t see, and now he couldn’t even feel his heart pounding as the enormous footsteps swallowed the feeling entirely in their thunderous noise. Until, just as suddenly, the earth no longer trembled, but it was replaced by the sound of the trees above him rustling, branches snapping loose from stressed bark, and several nocturnal animals scurrying away in fright.
Iruka wished he could follow them, but he might as well have been already dead with what little he could do.
A new sound took over when the others settled down, and Iruka couldn’t tell what it was. It almost reminded him of the dangling parts of a wind chime knocking against each other, but they were solid, and rang with a foreboding melody instead of something kind and gentle from a hollow cylinder. It hung over him, that sound, until it was right there, and the slightest of pressure dragged over the palm of his hand.
Iruka’s body trembled terribly, but he did not move a muscle until that pressure went away, and then he slowly, reluctantly pulled his arm from over his shut eyes and let it rest atop his stomach. He was overcome with an intense, morbid curiosity to see exactly what nightmarish thing had come after him in the night, and now had Iruka completely at its disposal.
So he cracked open his eyes, let the world come into focus, and tried to make sense of the madness he was seeing.
A skeleton the size of a house—no, it was bigger, dear lord it was huge—was using the trees as support as it leaned over them, staring down at Iruka with two black, empty eye-sockets, his mouth gaping open in a sad mimicry of breathing. Its canine teeth were sharp and far too long to be human, clicking against its lower teeth whenever it took a ‘breath’, and Iruka noticed an odd scaring over its left eye that went from its brow bone all the way down to mid-cheekbone. The mark was carved so deeply into the beast that Iruka could see shadows within the groove, and it spoke of such violence that Iruka couldn’t begin to fathom how such a thing came about. Though, the left eye socket also had something dark smeared around it, and Iruka had the nagging suspicion it was blood, and hoped to any god listening that he wouldn’t find out.
Iruka’s eyes followed the skeleton’s line of eyeless-sight down its arm and to its hand, where it had a finger pointed at him. The tips of its fingers looked sharp, almost like claws if a skeleton was capable of having them, and that sharp end lent itself nicely to allowing the blood it had scooped up from Iruka’s hand to drip back down to earth, right next to Iruka’s face.
Ah, so that’s what this was.
Suddenly, everything made sense to Iruka.
This was a Gashadokuro, eternally starving for the taste of human flesh, and it had followed the trail of blood Iruka had left behind to find him.
To eat him.
The trembling of Iruka’s body stopped, his fear dissipating so swiftly it left him stoic and emotionally numb, and he relaxed back into the grass as he stared up at what would be his end. This wasn’t what he’d had in mind when he’d thought he’d make a decent meal for some starving animals, but this would do nicely. There were worse fates, he thought.
He’d only just escaped one.
Somehow, Iruka summoned the strength to push himself upright, and further still to stand so that he could bring the tip of the Gashadokuro’s finger to eye level. He slid his arms around it in what could almost be construed as a hug, pressed the side of his face against the cold, hard bone of the finger, and then looked up at the beast with an expression that felt as desperate as it probably looked.
“It’s okay,” Iruka said, his voice quiet and hoarse.
The Gashadokuro tilted its massive head to one side, almost like a curious dog, and Iruka knew it could hear him.
“I know you’re hungry, and I know you don’t need my permission, but...it’s okay. You can eat me,” he said, and he felt his body start to betray him as his legs shook under the strain of standing, and his hands slid a bit as he began to lose his grip strength.
“I won’t be much of a meal—” Iruka could taste the bitter smile that formed on his face at that, realizing he wasn’t worth a lot to a creature so large, “—I’m sorry about that.”
Iruka watched as the Gashadokuro opened its mouth, the breathing-like movement having stopped, and he prepared for it to lunge down and bite him in two, but instead it did something else. It somehow made what he could only describe as a groaning sound, one that had a strange ringing quality to it, and the sound hit a bass so deep that it rattled Iruka’s very being and made his skull feel heavy on his neck.
The world began to tilt, and his vision regained that vague, unfocused quality to it that the moonlight had brought about before. As his body began to fall along with his sight, Iruka felt the finger he’d been grasping slide under his back and catch him, cradling him far more gently than anything attached to a Gashadokuro had any right to be.
The edges of his vision started to blacken and, even more profoundly than before, Iruka felt himself slipping away into unconsciousness. But before he completely drifted away his body was lifted so that he was face-to-face with the Gashadokuro, and the last thing he saw before he was truly gone was its empty eye sockets, their depths dark and seemingly endless and so utterly, terribly...sad. Perhaps it was nothing more than the musing of an injured, tired, malnourished child who didn’t have the capability to put two thoughts together any longer, but that was the impression that Iruka had.
And it would be that sadness—sadness that didn’t belong in the eyes of a bloodthirsty beast—that would follow Iruka into the dark as he fell asleep blanketed by the scent of bone marrow and the forest leaves.