A/N: I am a failure of an author. I am so sorry guys. This chapter had been so hard to write and plan for, since I don't, as of yet, know what's going to happen in this particular arc.
... Like I said, I'm a fail!author.
That and I'm busy. But mostly it's because I'm a fail!author. So you are welcome to send me angry comments suggesting I get my crap together. I totally deserve it (I'm sorryyyyyyyyyy!).
Anyway, there are going to be a few things that requires a bit of understanding of Chinese culture, so as always, look to the cultural notes at the bottom. And before I dismiss all of you, I would also like to do something I've never done before: publicly dedicate a chapter to someone.
This chapter is dedicated to Zara Allegra Vespertine, who aside from being an awesome friend and reader deserves an apology because I failed to meet up with her this past weekend and left her panicking because kindhearted that she is, instead of wanting to tear me to pieces she worried that something terrible had happened to me (if you couldn't guess, the first reaction would have been mine; I'm a terrible person). Why? Because genius that I am, I left my phone at home and the meeting place was an entire mall (double genius!). So I am so so so sorry! I still owe you dinner.
Okay, now that all of my failures have been brought to light, let's move on to the story, shall we? Yeah?
(I'm really, really sorry everybody!)
And sorry for the parentheses. I'm using them a lot today (a lot!).
Neither Fish nor Fowl (China Arc: 2/8)
I keep searching for signs of familiarity, signs that the home I know has connections to the place I see here. My lack of knowledge prevents me from seeing. It is there, I know, closer than I could ever expect. But so too are the differences. And never have those differences made me feel so utterly alone. So completely helpless.
In that moment, Natsume knows, without a doubt, that he could die. Never mind that so long as he has followers he is technically immortal. For the first time since he has become a god, Natsume faces death.
The blade is sharp, sharper than anything any human could possibly make, sharp enough to cut the very air between them. But then, it is a weapon that has been made to defeat beings less substantial than shadow, beings that exist on a separate plane from the physical world. Shimmering with an internal light that has no visible source, the blade points less than a centimeter away from his throat. One careless swallow will be all it takes to draw blood.
"Do not move. One move, and you will be looking at yourself from an entirely new angle."
Breathing as shallowly as he can to avoid the blade, Natsume presses back into the wall and tries his best to stay perfectly still. He can sense the energies exuding from the spirit, colored with hostility and suspicion, and knows all it will take is one false move.
The one holding the blade appears human, dressed in archaic armor of practical brown. Underneath is a plain white robe and gray trousers. Even the hair, long and flowing, is tied back into a practical ponytail. The face is handsome, though the spirit's expression is currently shaped into a fierce glare.
"Well? Will you say nothing? Or will you just stand there, demon?"
"It can hardly speak with you pointing the blade so closely at its throat, Zhenjun."
Even as Natsume continues to stand quietly, another spirit appears, emerging from the wall of the hotel room as if it is as insubstantial as air. Dressed in robes that have clearly seen better days, the second spirit has a head full of long, white hair, the top of which has been swept up into a neat bun. In his right hand he holds a fan made of feathers, though from which bird, Natsume does not know.
"It may be dangerous," the armored spirit objects, though the blade withdraws slightly, and Natsume lets out a breath he had not known he had been holding. "And when have we ever been merciful towards demons?"
"I never said that we should be kind to it. But we should at least allow it to explain itself. Surely that is only just," the old spirit says, his expression kindly. But as he turns toward Natsume, the expression hardens, becoming aloof and severe. "Well, demon? Mercy compels us to give you a chance to explain yourself. Do note however, that your life or death depends upon your answer, so answer carefully."
Natsume swallows, debating whether or not he should drop his human form. With things as shaky as they are, such an act could be misunderstood. His human form however, is a handicap, limiting his power and his actions. He does not want to fight—it is an act of last resort—however should things become violent, Natsume intends to use every resource at his disposal to stay alive.
I cannot afford to die.
Even if it means living with the injured pride of a god. Internally, an unanticipated battle rages: Lord Onwa, full of self-righteous fury and outrage, and Natsume Takashi, who is all too used to such humiliation.
"Where would you like me to begin, my lord?" Natsume says softly, his eyes carefully downcast. For now he will choose caution, but the anger of a god has only been temporarily leashed, not contained.
The spirit in armor sneers. "You are properly humble at least," he says with satisfaction. The blade however, remains where it is. "Start with your name."
"My name is Natsume Takashi," Natsume says.
"That is a human name," the old spirit interrupts. "Do you take us for fools?"
"I was born human," Natsume says, frustration causing a bit of heat to enter his words. "It was the name that was given to me at birth. I have as much right to claim it as you do yours."
"Born human?" At this, the armored spirit appears stunned, turning to give the old spirit a look that can only be a request for clarification. As Natsume continues to stay still, he notes the blade tip waver, then drop slightly downward. "Is that possible? Can humans be transformed into demons?"
"There are many odd things across the ocean. And times are changing. But surely even so only a human steeped in the blackest of sins could end up in such a lowly state."
"Exactly." The armored spirit looks gratified by the answer, turning back to glare at Natsume once more. Yet again, the blade tip drops. "You—"
Unable to bear the humiliation any longer, Lord Onwa instantly surges up and outward, the force of his power knocking both spirits back into the wall with a cry. Another thought creates both a shield and a barrier—the former around himself, the latter trapping them in the room.
The armored spirit immediately jumps back on his feet, his weapon in hand.
"So demon, you finally show your true colors!"
Meanwhile the old spirit slowly climbs back up. He does not have the athletic ability of the armored spirit, but neither does he move like the old man he appears to be. Together they eye the shield around Lord Onwa warily, noting its strength. Nor is it lost on them that the barrier serves a dual purpose: to keep them in, but also to keep others out.
There will be no one—human or otherwise—to interfere.
"You will start by introducing yourself," Lord Onwa says, ignoring the armored spirit's words. "That is only polite, when strangers meet for the first time."
"Why should we—"
"I am Rongye," the old spirit interrupts. "And this is Zhenjun. We are the guardian gods of this area, sworn to protect humans from demon incursions."
"Which includes you," Zhenjun growls.
"Has there been many demon attacks in this area?" Lord Onwa asks.
"Once they would not have dared to trespass here, but now they grow bold," Zhenjun says. His face suddenly darkens, but not with anger. "Ever since humans have abandoned the old ways, since that time…"
"Many come to feast on the emptiness within human hearts," Rongye says sharply. Left unsaid is one question: And are you one of them?
"Then it is good that I have no interest in human hearts, empty or otherwise," Lord Onwa says. Zhenjun narrows his eyes. "Please, allow me to reintroduce myself. My name Natsume Takashi." He smiles faintly. "But my followers," he says softly, shedding his human form, "know me as Onwa."
"Onwa. Interesting choice," Rongye murmurs. His eyes miss nothing, taking in the richness of Lord Onwa's robes and headdress, carefully reassessing his previous assumptions. Finally, the eyes stray toward the small shrine that has only been partially unpacked from Natsume's backpack. "You say you have followers."
"Spirits come to me for protection, and in return their loyalty and dedication provides with me with power."
Zhenjun eyes widen.
"They provide you with power? But then that makes you a…"
"A god," Lord Onwa says.
"Impossible. A god of spirits. That is…"
"It seems we may have been overhasty in our judgment," Rongye says.
"I will tell you my story, if you will listen."
"We are listening."
Sensing that hostilities are at an end, Lord Onwa releases the last of his anger, and once more Natsume Takashi returns. Slowly, Natsume removes his mask.
"Please sit, for the tale is long."
Zhenjun makes a noise of protest, but Rongye sits on one of the beds without further preamble, with Zhenjun shortly following. They look at Natsume expectantly.
And with that, Natsume begins.
Cultural Notes: Before I begin, I would just like to make a disclaimer for the facts below. As with most mythologies, there are many different versions, so do not take the following as definite or exhaustive. Please do your own research as well! If you see something I wrote that you've heard alternatives or I completely got wrong, do let me know and I will fix it. I tried to make this as accurate as I could (did a lot of double-checking), but as I pulled most of this from my childhood memories and the stories I grew up with, there are bound to be some inaccuracies.
1) Several things happened in this chapter that I want to highlight, one of them in particular being the language spoken in this chapter. Natsume, obviously, does not speak Chinese. And the two gods in this chapter do not speak Japanese. Nevertheless they are communicating without a problem, and this is in part because they are, well, gods (thank goodness).
Similar to Speaking in Tongues (more specifically xenoglossy, not glossolalia, which is what several Fundamentalist sects believe) in Christianity, where a person can speak and be understood by any listener, this is supposedly an attribute of Chinese gods. They can also understand any language spoken to them as well. As a child I had always been told that I could pray to the gods in whatever language I wished, as they could understand all of them. In Taoism, which is where many of these gods originate, language is something that is confining, and so it is eschewed. The ideas are supposed to be understood instinctively, in a way that goes beyond mere words. The gods, supposedly operating on a higher plane, are therefore also not limited by language.
For the purposes of this story, I have decided that Natsume has this ability as well, though he does not know he has it. It would make sense, being that there have already been hints that the texts of spirits in the canon story operate on this instinctive level (the letter the tree spirit writes to Shibata). In the manga, Natsume had also been able to read the names within the Book of Friends because of his spiritual power.
2) As for the gods I have introduced, they are what are formally termed tutelary deities: deities that guard a specific person, area, culture, or nation. Chinese mythology is filled with many such gods, as does Shintoism in Japan. They are bound to a small area as patron gods, but are not perfect, as they can be corrupted. There was in fact one notable case in Taiwan where a tutelary god was actually sued by a local man, charged with extortion, and later replaced by another. Gods in Chinese mythology almost always take human form, with rare exceptions. Of those, most are mythological creatures.
3) Demons in Chinese mythology on the other hand, are often corrupted animals/insects who have learned to take human form. When they are defeated, they usually return to their original animal state. Animals are lowly, trapped on the material (and thus earthly) plane, unable to contemplate higher ideals, and so use an earthly power. This is an interesting contrast to Shinto, which is at its core a form of animism and nature worship. While the major deities do occupy the heavens, they are not there exclusively, and often live on earth. There is another type of demon, very similar in appearance to goblins of western mythology. These can be good or bad, as many serve the god Yanluowang (people familiar with DBZ would recognize the Japanified name of King Enma) in the underworld, but others go to the human world to cause mischief until they are caught and judged.
This was a point in Natsume's favor, who had purposely removed his mask to show that his spirit form matches his human one. Though of course, Zhenjun, the more hotheaded of the two, could argue that he could be hiding his primal form.
4) As for humans becoming demons, oddly enough, while humans becoming deities is quite common in Chinese mythology (in fact, much of the religion is based upon this assumption), humans becoming spirits or demons is not so common, but is common in Japanese mythology. Jealousy, anger, greed, are all common emotional triggers that can cause a human to debase themselves to the point where they become demons.
Still here? Congratulations on making it so far. But this is where I will end for now. I hope that this section has proven educational and helpful.