4-8 The humans called the youma a shuen. His upper body resembled a red-haired ape. The face alone was white, while his legs were a striking shade of vermillion. He had sharp fangs, and feet and claws that resembled those of a bird of prey.
And the keen intelligence to use those weapons well.
The shuen had taken over this particular region of the Yellow Sea. He usually hunted other youma and scoffed at their attempts to intimidate him, no matter how ferocious they otherwise might be. Consistently able to outwit any straightforward attack, he actually enjoyed tearing his victims apart.
Once he’d exhausted all the available game, he’d switch hunting grounds, periodically shifting his territory around the Yellow Sea.
Now and then some two-legged critters wandered into his domain. They were weak and small and rarely made for a satisfying meal, but he enjoyed ripping the fragile things to shreds.
Then one day, for whatever reason, a whole herd marched right past his nest. Slaughtering them all at once hardly presented a challenge. Besides, the corpses soon decayed. Picking them off one by one was more fun.
So he shadowed them, attacking the herd from the rear one day, circling around to the front the next.
He snagged one of the two-legged critters, dragged it behind a rock, tore off a few pieces, and took a satisfied nap. He woke up only to stuff the rest down his gullet. Not terribly filling but the taste wasn’t bad.
When the hunger pangs again aroused him from sleep, he emerged from behind the rock and scanned the savanna. His eyes were drawn to the red dot of a fire. Where there was fire, the two-legged critters were never far away.
With a cackle of glee—an almost human laugh—he slipped away from the rock.
Shuen could cover the distance to the speck of light in three bounding strides. Except the moon was out. So he crept forward low and slow. The two-legged critters had smartened up of late. They didn’t make it easy for Shuen to get close, scattering as soon as they spotted him. By the time he’d brought down one or two, the rest were out of reach.
Shuen crawled along the ground until he was almost on top of them. Though the firelight washed out his vision, he detected two or three of the two-legged critters sitting next to the fire. Turning his gaze back to the savanna, he couldn’t make out any other prey close by.
To make sure, Shuen slightly raised his head and sniffed the air. No, these few were hardly alone. The rest were hiding. A great variety of odors wafted around him. Among them were unfamiliar smells, extraordinarily delicious smells.
His spirits roiled up inside him. Seeking to stifle them for the time being, he again slunk close to the ground. A little patience always made the reward that much more sweet. And something very sweet was surely waiting for him ahead.
Leveraging his front and hind legs, the red monster crawled through the bushes, as silent and slippery as a snake in the grass.
When he couldn’t get any closer without being noticed, he pounced. With a single leap, he crossed the remaining distance, raking the two-legged critters with his talons a split second after his feet touched the ground right beside his prey.
A strange sensation and the sharp stinging in his claws make him pause to examine his targets. Planks bound together with hides. He’d been outfoxed. Shuen scowled and looked around. A pair of two-legged critters were beating a fast retreat, a big one and a small one.
He was about the attack when his attention wavered. That delicious aroma struck his senses. He could not rest until he’d ferreted out the source. The smaller of the two-legged critters flung something to the side. The contents spilled out of the container as it fell to the ground, casting off a glitter of light.
The nondescript container wasn’t worth his while. The indescribable smell came from the small pile of objects spilled onto the ground next to it. He’d get right back to them after finishing off the two-legged critters. That would be the most fun. Except Shuen couldn’t resist the enticing smell.
There’d be plenty of chances to hunt more two-legged critters. But he might never see one of these again. He’d never seen one before in his life.
Eyeing the small, fleeing figure, he inched forward. Some had an enchanting odor. Delicious aromas came from others. Mixed in with them were ones that did nothing for him at all. He pushed his snout forward and pawed at them with his forelegs.
The scent only grew stronger, so rich he couldn’t stand it. Ah, here was the source of the smell. Several of them.
They surely must taste as good as they smelled. The fragrance filled his mouth. He bit down. The fragrance intensified, penetrated the core of his brain and sent his thoughts reeling. The small, retreating figure vanished from his mind.
Shuen’s hind legs lost their hold. He didn’t care. He lolled onto his side as he combed through the mound with his forepaws. The next morsel he found was covered with a smelly, slimy substance, but he didn’t care about that either. He popped it into his mouth and drifted off in a daze.
Bright red suddenly blossomed in front of him. Incandescent white assaulted his field of view. He couldn’t see a thing. He didn’t feel any pain. The good feelings persisted. His benumbed brain managed to conclude that this wasn’t normal.
Before he could imagine what, he registered a hard shock in his side. The kind of thing that should bring him to his feet in response. His hind legs scooted out from under him. Barely managing to get to his feet, he still couldn’t see a thing. His head spun.
His body took another blow. Waving his arms in a futile attempt to parry, he was hit—no, stabbed—again.
Something was stabbing him, thrusting and slashing. The dull, throbbing pain kindled inside him, not just where he’d been struck, but across his whole body. Once it did, it quickly grew to a scorching hot torture penetrating his legs, neck, back, eyes.
Shuen didn’t understand what was happening, only that danger was upon him. He jumped at random, swinging his front and hind legs at his invisible attackers. If he connected with any of them, he couldn’t tell.
He could hear nothing, see nothing but the blinding white light. His talons caught and dragged against a heavy weight. Trying to shake it free, he leapt and rolled and leapt again.
Black splotches peppered the veil of white before his eyes. The splotches grew larger. The pain intensified then receded. By the time it gave way to blessed relief, his eyes finally revealed to him the black world of the night.
The youma bounded away at a terrifying speed. Shoutan sprinted after it. Stumbling over the rocks and bushes, he caught his foot, tripped, and sprawled forward. He looked up to see the ball of fire bouncing into the distance, until it seemed to fall into the earth and disappear from view.
Armed men ran up to him. Shoutan scrambled to his feet. The ground was uncertain underfoot. His knees shook. But the trembling was nothing compared to when the red beast—a shuen, it had to be—first appeared.
With the shuen entranced by the jewels, the oil came in especially handy. The rampaging shuen made for an easy target when it couldn’t keep upright. Except—
Of all things, in one of its wild swipes the shuen’s talons had hooked Shushou’s cloak. Shoutan and the men hiding nearby took off after it, practically falling over each other as they raced through the early dawn in the direction they’d last seen the shuen.
The ground dipped down and slanted away. They came to a halt in a hurry. Thirty feet below them, something glimmered on a descending trajectory, like a ball rolling down a hill. The shuen was still on fire.
“She must be around here somewhere.”
Or had been shaken off along the way. Shoutan crawled around looking for her. The sun finally rose, flooding the savanna with light. They resumed the search in earnest and were equally unsuccessful.
“What in the world happened to her?”
Shoutan sat down. One of his fellow searchers, an old woman, was hunched over a ways off. She straightened and called out. Shoutan jumped to his feet and ran over. She pointed to a cloud of dust headed their way. A group of at least ten kijuu came into view.
Shoutan stood there like a statue. A day earlier, how much more reassuring a development this would be. But they were a few hours too late, a few hours that might as well be a lifetime.