Fictober, Prompt 21 – “Change is annoyingly difficult.”
Warnings: magical battle, slight creepy imagery.
It was large, amorphous, and colored with a sickening swirl of unpleasant greens and reds and oranges. It looked like something that should have oozed over the ground, but instead it was fast, and the discordance jarred my head worse than the colors.
The creature came straight for me, scarcely seeming to notice the kami.
She intercepted it before it could reach my shields, cutting off a reaching, gooey arm with a sword made out of light.
The thing screeched in pain and drew back, only now seeming to focus itself (did it even have eyes?) on the deity standing before it. Still, it did not move to strike her, but squirmed sideways, working towards me again.
I sent out a blast of my own power, dark and heavy, aiming for another multicolored arm.
The magical punch struck home, and did some damage, but this time the creature shrieked in rage rather than pain.
I was the target of its malice, clearly. Because I was human? What did that mean?
The kami went on the offensive now, darting forward with her shining blade, her sword strokes fluid and practiced as she hacked off piece after piece of the strange, magical flesh. Some of the pieces quickly reattached themselves, while others wisped away into nothing.
Now it did strike back against her, but either it was unable to touch a deity, or her own magical protections were strong enough to fend it off, for she sustained no apparent wounds. Slowly, she drove it back.
I followed as close as I dared, sending my own magic in whenever I could get a clear shot. I doubted that my strength would do much to touch a kami, but I did not wish to hit her, even by accident.
As we pressed closer to the river, the thing seemed to temporarily regain some strength, surging up larger again, as if drawing form and power from the area where it had originated. I could almost tell what the kami meant about its power having a weird taste; it wasn’t quite that, not for me, but the smell of the air was strange here, a swampy miasma where there should have been only forest and rock and river.
Still the kami pressed it, relentless.
“Give me a direct hit!” she called abruptly, and I had just enough time to get my hands up as she turned back out of the way, and my blast hit what seemed to be the creature’s head squarely.
It wailed again in rage…but then the kami was there again, her sword slicing clean through, splitting the thing half.
“Again!” she commanded, and I did. We fell into a quick rhythm then, magical blast followed by consecrated blade, and eventually it had been reduced to something small. If a puddle could have radiated hatred and anger, that would have been the closest description I could name.
“The last blow must be yours,” the kami told me. “You must mean it.”
Remembering the unsafe path and the way it had reached for me, eager to rend me apart, I raised my hand once more and let dark, heavy magic shoot from my palm.
What remained of the creature disintegrated, and was gone.
A gust of wind blew over us, and already the air felt cleaner.
I took a step back, stumbled in surprise at my shaking fatigue, and let myself fall gracelessly back to lean against a tree.
The kami stood nearby, eyes closed, blade gone. She did not look tired, exactly, but I sensed a slight dimming in her power that had not been there before.
It was only a slight change, though.
“Kami-sama,” I asked carefully, “why did you need my help for this?”
Her dark eyes opened, and turned to me, their gaze intent.
“Your own power was more than strong enough,” I went on, “and mine is nothing in comparison.”
“Your strength is sized correctly for you,” she said, in one of her not-quite answers, “and it is human.”
“It was going after me,” I said, turning back to where the last of it had disappeared. “I was the one it wanted to hurt.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “It was a creature born of human malice, against other humans.”
“It didn’t appear if you came alone,” I puzzled out, still watching the kami. I thought I knew the answer now, and she seemed inclined to let me spell it out. “Because it only cared about humans on the path, so you needed a human to draw it out.”
“And human power to finish it, at the end,” she agreed. I thought that maybe I should feel indignant over having been used as bait, but it was clear that she would never have let it harm me. “A circumstance that I have not encountered before.”
“Never?” Although I did not know much about the kami beyond the basics that we were taught, I had enough sense of her now to know that she was old.
She shook her head. “Change is annoyingly difficult, some might say. And at times it is, as in this case. But one may also view it as an opportunity. I have never before battled alongside a human ally, either.”
“Huh,” I said. “That all makes sense, I guess. But…why me?”
At this, her mouth quirked slightly towards a smile. “You are the first to come along who seemed to have enough power to hold your own against it, and to do real damage. I did not want to bring someone vulnerable if I did not have to.”
“Thank you for choosing me, then, Kami-sama.” I wasn’t feeling up to standing just yet, but bowed my head. She accepted this with an easy nod, and closed her eyes again. I had a sense that she was checking the area, perhaps making sure that the damage was healing. My own power was going to take some time to recover, but I was not dangerously drained.
By the time she opened her eyes, I felt ready to stand. My legs were reasonably steady, and she led me back into the forest along the almost-not-there trail. I doubted I would ever find it again, should I come back this way on my own.
“The kannushi will have come, so there will be hot tea and food for you. You may stay the night on the grounds, if you like,” she offered as we neared her shrine.
There was indeed a priestess there, a young Nihon woman who hurried forward with a worried cry of “Kami-sama!” when we arrived. I was the one who looked like I had just been through a battle, but apparently human hiking clothes were not the kami’s usual appearance.
Even as I thought this, her form flared brightly and then she was wearing an elaborate kimono, her hair now long and pulled up partially with ornate jade pins and combs.
“I am well,” she assured her priestess. “This one has done me a great service today, and will rest here tonight.”
“My thanks,” the kami told me, smiling once more, before fading from view.
The kannushi was staring at me with slightly wide eyes, but quickly got over her surprise. She bowed to me, which I returned, and then welcomed me warmly. I explained what had happened, assuming that the kami would not mind, and the priestess was grateful to know that the problem had been solved.
I started out along the river path again the next morning, and my steps this time met only with solid, comforting stone.
Kami – Japanese word for “god/spirit/deity/etc.”. It doesn’t translate well, being a (somewhat deliberately) ambiguous and flexible word in regards to what it refers to.
-sama – Japanese suffix (one of many) used to address someone formally and respectfully. I believe this one is often translated as “lord/lady” (for example, “Name-sama” would be “Lord Name”) but is gender neutral in Japanese, and there might be other words in English that would work. It is more respectful (elevating the person you are addressing) than the “-san” suffix, which is still polite but more everyday.
kannushi – according to the Encyclopedia of Shinto, this is a general term for shrine priests in the modern usage. It has had more specific meanings in the past. I don’t know if it is commonly used for women who might hold this position in Japan today. The term miko, referring to the shrine maidens, wasn’t quite what I meant here, so I went with this one instead.
I’ll note again here that my understanding of traditional Shinto beliefs is that the kami do not exist directly in the human world (existing on a separate world/plane), but rather use intermediaries. I am working with a variant of the idea here, in which a kami can manifest in this world if they choose to do so.