Chapter 9: The Divide

They sat across from each other, a barrel of high quality traditional sake and two shallow cups from the altar marking the invisible line that divided them. Natsume threw back glass after glass of the liquid crystal the young woman ladled out for him, draining them as if his past lay submerged somewhere at the bottom of the cask. Chihiro did not follow his lead, instead sipping delicately at the rim so she could think clearly for what would undoubtedly be a lengthy conversation.

After the waterline had noticeably depleted, Natsume sighed and slumped, sweeping his perpetually unkempt hair back from his face. Chihiro noticed for the first time a thin, shiny white scar that stretched from his left cheek to his temple and into the hairline above his ear. She had never seen a spirit with a scar before.

"The two worlds weren't always so different, you know." The cat spirit said finally, staring intently at the way the flame from the flickering oil lamp sparkled on his alcohol. "Spirits and humans too."

Chihiro said nothing, patiently waiting for him to gather up the threads of his story. Ito-sama had mentioned that the two worlds had been one and the same at some nebulous point in the distant past, though he hadn't gone into much detail...

"Tell me, little girl, what do you think makes a god?" He asked suddenly. His eyes, made yellow in the warm light, lanced through the young woman. She hesitated, trying to reconcile the differences between the religion she practiced at the shrine and what she knew to be true from experience.

"I guess...they're personifications of nature that preside over a certain area or object or even a concept." She responded, attempting the Shinto definition of the word kami.

Natsume scoffed and waved her answer away with a flick of his hand. "That could be said of any of my kind, even down to the billions of little kodama. One for every tree in the world. No, I'm asking what makes a god."

Chihiro chewed on her lips, thinking of all the ways that a god could be described in all the religions she knew. They had little in common. A singular, all knowing entity that created the universe? A pantheon of powerful but flawed immortals? A nebulous, primordial energy? Finally after thinking hard enough to give her a headache she gave up.

"I don't know, what?"

"The worship of humans." He sneered with a strange combination of wonder and distaste. "Even the weakest of you creatures have a certain power, though it is much diminished from the great sorcerers and diviners you used to have among your ranks. Your reverence, your feeble will, is barely worth noticing most of the time, but combined it becomes a force to be reckoned with. I am technically the god of this shrine, but I am more powerful with the few prayers I receive these days than I ever was before being trapped here."

Natsume took another swig of his drink, and his companion couldn't help but notice that it was slowly loosening his tongue. She'd never heard him speak for so long.

"Not that it's much use to me here, as I can't leave the boundaries of these four walls. The only things I can use my divine gifts on are the petty whims of the humans under my 'protection' (this he said with a scrunched up nose as if he'd smelt something bad) and their painfully mundane prayers. Blessing marriages, granting luck, bolstering harvests, it's all so horribly repetitive. I wouldn't bother with them at all if I weren't practically catatonic with boredom most of the time. If only someone would ask me to smite their enemies or something, at least that would be fun. But you know, Shintoists. Always have to be so peaceful and understanding these days." He shook his head with disgust. "Sometimes, if I'm feeling spiteful about it, I'll even lure unsuspecting humans through the Gate, just for a laugh."

A sinking feeling tugged at Chihiro's stomach at the mention of this. An image of a great, groaning clocktower with wind beckoning a few innocent, unsuspecting humans into a dark tunnel superimposed itself over her memory. At the time, the place had spooked her, and she'd begged to go back, but her parents had been strangely insistent on taking a peek inside…

"That was you?!" She accused, setting down her cup to avoid the urge to throw it at him. He raised his hands in surrender, but his cheeky smile was nowhere near as apologetic as Chihiro felt it ought to be given the circumstances.

"Well, as the guardian of this Gate, only I have the power to open it from this side. So yeah, it was me. Nothing personal, of course, it was just too tempting. Like mice wandering willingly into the claws of a barn cat. I may not be hungry, but the urge to play with food is just instinct." He shrugged nonchalantly.

"I could have died! I nearly did! Several times!" She chastised shrilly, but he simply gave her a cheeky wink in return.

"But you didn't! Quite the accomplishment actually. Imagine my surprise when, after letting three humans in, I ended up letting three humans back out. That almost never happens." He paused to consider her, "Exactly how did you manage that, by the way?"

Chihiro was instantly reminded of Haku leading her across the bridge, Haku offering her onigiri and a shoulder to cry on, Haku soaring with her through the sky. Without him, she would have vanished into the night within only a few hours of crossing the border. Not to mention being turned into a piglet and fried into the next morning's breakfast bacon. She slapped her cheeks to disguise the redness that was pooling under the skin there. Of course, many others had been instrumental in her survival. Kamaji, Rin, Zeniba, Bou, even Noh face had played a pivotal role, though he'd also had a go at killing her.

The hollow ache of a very old loss echoed in her chest, and she clutched at the lapels of her uniform to cover the hole that seemed to be there. The memories seemed fresh and vivid in her mind, but echoed in her soul like the throb of ancient joints when it rains.

"I had friends there." She whispered wistfully.

The young man regarded her with an indecipherable expression, his attentive gaze unwavering for several long seconds.

"Friends, was it? You must have had friends in very high places if you wriggled out of Yubaba's clutches. Nasty, manipulative bitch. Her and her sister both. Zeniba was the one who…" his teeth ground down like a pestle in a mortar. "Well, I hardly need to remind you about those trolls, in any case."

He gave her a speculative once-over, like he was sizing her up. "I've said it before, but you really are strange. Not many people get thrown into the Spirit World and make friends. Putting aside the fact that we look like "monsters in the closet", to use your eloquent phrasing–"

She rolled her eyes at this.

"–but you might have also noticed that most of us hold a fair amount of hostility towards your lot."

"Why is that?" She interjected, "I mean, I know we don't think enough about our impact on the environment, and we can be a little destructive..."

He snorted, "A little? I don't think you have a broad enough perspective." His sharp features, so often contorted by sneers or laughter, suddenly became very serious. His shoulders slumped forward as his luminous eyes connected with hers across the species divide. She wondered, if someone were to look at them now, how different they would really seem.

"Chihiro," and for once his voice did not mock her, "you have to understand that both humans and spirits share this earth, even as they are separated into two halves. The plants and animals, the stones and the winds and the waters and the fires deep beneath the earth have an energy, a spirit, if you will. All things that exist here have their counterpart in the other world. It's not one to one, mind you, and to say that we are all dainty nature spirits each assigned their own little corner of the world would be giving you the wrong impression. But the hierarchy of spirits is much too complicated to be getting into just now. Suffice it to say that while you live in this world, we are this world. Do you follow?"

Chihiro nodded her head hesitantly, though privately she was having a hard time wrapping her head around this interdimensional concept. She wasn't about to stop his explanation now though, only to embarrass herself with her inane questions. She could always ask later. He ran his sharp hand over the neat folds on the outer edge of his hakama, eyes still locked on her. She was beginning to feel self conscious under his gaze, and twiddled her loose hair to alleviate some of the nerves.

"Humans lost their connection to the earth they stand on long ago, and now they see it as little more than dead stone and raw material. You raze the ground for your fields and till it until there's no life left in the soil. You cut down forests for your wood and your paper, and don't bother to replace it with new growth, you hunt animals into extinction and poison the water with the byproducts of all your filthy habits. To you, it feels like progress, to us, it feels like genocide."

She shuddered at the strong word, instantly reminded of the apartment blocks that now stood where Haku's river used to flow. "A-and what happens to them? The spirits?"

He shifted his weight, a tense sigh escaping through his clenched teeth. "It varies. Spirits very rarely die a natural death. They live as long as they have a source of energy. It's easy enough to explain with simple nature spirits, like the kodama, since they really are one to one. When a tree sprouts, a kodama is born, or vice versa. No one really knows which comes first. Anyway, they can live for hundreds of years undisturbed until their tree withers and then they simply cease to exist. We call it the Blissful Parting, and it happens to all of us eventually, even if it takes a few millennia. After all, nothing is truly permanent.

A spirit might choose to stop existing, if they have grown weary of living so long, by bequeathing their soul onto someone else, and then destroying their bodies. That is not an uncommon occurrence, relatively speaking. Often their mantle is taken up by their children, or an apprentice. It is also possible to kill a spirit. Spirits are immortal insofar as they do not age the way humans do, and they are very sturdy in comparison, but if you can manage to destroy their physical form, they'll be just as dead. It would take a considerable amount of average humans to even maim a spirit, let alone kill it, but it's not an uncommon occurrence between spirits themselves. Most do it to steal power but it can happen just because someone got looked at the wrong way."

Here the cat paused to take another bracing swallow of alcohol, looking suddenly somber. He looked at the young woman across from him with a penetrating gaze. She wished he would look away so she could breathe. After several long moments, he did, choosing instead to stare down at the lines in his open palm. She watched him watch the long fingers open and close over it, as if he were reassuring himself that his body still moved.

"But there is a fate worse than death for the likes of us." He whispered. "If we lose the source of our power, our 'soul', and do not get it back or bind ourselves to another energy, we will become Lost. We will slowly begin to lose our memories, our voices, and finally, our bodies until there is nothing but an empty husk of a creature, forced to wander in search of identity and purpose for all eternity. Monsters that mindlessly consume everything around them to fill the void inside themselves."

He smiled wryly, "as you can imagine, that outcome doesn't particularly interest most. Many spirits would rather destroy themselves than end up Lost, but some…" his eyelashes fluttered, "some are too attached to life."

Chihiro had a sort of sinking feeling in her stomach. Is that what happened to Haku? When his river was forced off his natural course, he said he'd been lost until he found Yubaba and began his apprenticeship with her.

"What about Yubaba and the Bathhouse? What do they have to do with the Lost?" Chihiro asked. Natsume scowled.

"Yubaba is one of those who gained their power by stealing it from others, whether it be their knowledge, their resources, or their souls. At her heart, she is a greedy creature. It's her nature. The Bathhouse is one of the oldest and most respected establishments in the Spirit World, because of its sacred healing waters. There are some places that naturally accumulate vast amounts of energy, and are considered sacred because of it. This mountain is one of them, because of the massive deposit of jade lying beneath its surface. The springs at the Bathhouse are another, but they are unique in that anyone who bathes in the waters can draw from its power source. Yubaba coveted it, and she killed and connived her way into becoming the owner. Now she ruthlessly uses it for her own ends.

On the surface it's a reputable place, but underneath that it's a front for all sorts of shadier business. To the point where it eventually got her in trouble. I don't know the whole story, but she committed some sort of grave crime and was forced to take an oath in penance for it. From that moment on, she had to give a job to anyone who asked. You see, one of the ways the Lost can stop themselves from fading into empty husks is by bathing in the waters at the Bathhouse regularly. Yubaba swore to take in any who came to her for sanctuary. But charity isn't that troll's style. She found a way to use her penance for her own gain. Desperate spirits come to her seeking her aid, and she provides them with refuge as per her oath, but once she has them she never lets them go. She uses those desperate spirits as indentured servants, eternally bound in servitude to her."

Chihiro stared at him, horrified by this account. She looked on her own experience there with new eyes, and shivered at the implications of how dire her circumstances really were. "Yubaba had me sign a contract while I was there. I never got to read it properly, but she stole my name from the paper. I would have forgotten it entirely if it weren't for my friend." She whispered. What would have happened to her if Haku hadn't given her that card from Rumi to hold on to? Natsume let out a low whistle, regarding her with a new level of respect.

"And you still made it out? You've got to be one of the only ones to ever manage that. That's how Yubaba snares people. She lures them like ants to honey and then traps them by stealing their identity. True names are a very important concept in the spirit world. By taking it, she quite literally owns you." He said gravely. Chihro wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly very cold.

"Is there no way for the spirits to escape her? What would happen if they got their names back?" She asked hopefully.

"Even if they did, where would they go? They have no souls, and rely on the bathhouse to keep them alive. You were lucky, you had a place to return to. But not them. The minute they sever their bond to the springs, they'll slowly begin to fade again. They would suffer for decades before finally succumbing. That's what makes Yubaba so cruel. Even though she exploits and abuses them, they have no other choice but to serve her."

Chihiro was beginning to feel a little sick to her stomach. All the spirits she had met were essentially slaves for eternity. And Haku, what had happened to him? He was losing himself when he came to the Bathhouse because his river was destroyed. He had escaped with her, but he had no energy source. Did that mean that he started fading away again the minute he left the Bathhouse?

Natsume regarded her pale expression over the rim of his glass. "I see you've finally grasped the situation. Becoming Lost is one of the worst fates a Spirit can face. But the phenomenon was quite rare up until recently."

"What happened? How come there are so many now?" She asked, though she already had an idea of the cause.

"Humans happened." He sneered. The flame of the lantern flickered, and just for a moment, the cat spirit's face was cast into shadow. But the sparkle of hatred burned all the brighter in his golden eyes. Chihiro had to look away.

"What did we do?" She muttered, almost not wanting the answer.

"You got greedy." He answered, and something in his tone made Chihiro look up. She caught a brief glimpse of deep sadness before it hardened back into anger.

"Like I said, humans and spirits lived in relative harmony for most of our existence together. To the point where spirits began to adopt humanoid forms in order to better cooperate. Spirits shared their power and resources with humans, and in exchange, humans would worship them and help tend the earth. But eventually, humans became dissatisfied with their simple life. They wanted more. They began to stretch their arms out past their means, and the careful balance of the world started to topple. Conflicts broke out, and the gap between spirits and humans began to widen. It was during this time that I was born."

Chihiro started, having completely forgotten that they were supposed to be discussing how he came to be sealed away here.

"I don't remember my early years. I just remember waking up here one day, having been picked up injured and unconscious in a ravine at the base of the mountain. The person who found me was the God of this mountain, a half-spirit named Komorebi, or Tamayama no Eihei as you like to call him."

"Half spirit?! Is that possible?" Chihiro exclaimed, surprised. It had never occurred to her that spirits and humans could have children together. She hadn't given it much thought, but if asked she would have assumed that there would have been some sort of species divide.

Natsume raised an eyebrow at her. "Of course. Where do you think all of your sorcerers came from?"

Chihiro shook her head incredulously. "Sorcerers? We don't have any of those. Well, unless you count fortune tellers and psychics and the like, but those might just be performers trying to scam people." She said skeptically.

"Those scammers very well might have remnants of spirit blood running through their veins if they can do what they say they can. But they are a pale imitation of the real thing. Half spirits used to be fairly common back when the two sides intermingled. Ever heard of Abe no Seimei?"

Chihiro's jaw dropped. "The famous onmyoji? You mean he was…?"

"That's right. Half-bloods aren't as powerful as spirits, because they aren't born connected to an energy source like we are, but most of them do end up with special abilities. They are stronger, hardier, and more long lived, but they will slowly age and die like humans do. They were the intermediary between the two sides for a long time, before relations between us devolved."

"So this Komorebi person was the original God here?" Chihiro asked, trying to follow along.

"No, he succeeded the title from the previous one. I told you before that some spirits choose to pass down their power to the next generation? Well that's what happened with him. It's rare for a half spirit to acquire a spirit's soul, but not unheard of. What made him unique was that he was worshiped as a God. He was extremely powerful, and well respected." Natsume looked at his knees, his brow furrowed heavily. Chihiro had to lean in to hear what he said next. "I respected him."

Silence stretched on as Chihiro tried to think of what to say. The usually intimidating cat looked suddenly like a dejected child. Confusion, pain, and a simmering viscous anger warred in his expression. She reached out, her fingers hovering just above his shoulder. Would he welcome comfort from her?

She let her hand fall back to her side, and sat back. He was very proud, it must be hard for him to be this vulnerable with her. If she tried to soothe him, he might mistake her compassion for pity. No, the best she could do was listen. Then, after she'd heard everything he had to say, maybe he would let her in.

"Then how did you end up here?" She asked gently. Natsume's whole demeanor changed. His shoulders tensed and his back arched, his nails pierced the hard wood, and his face twisted into something ugly.

"He betrayed me."