"Are you listening, Yato-san?"
The young carpenter, barely old enough to be considered a man, gave a small, annoyed grunt as he sat cross-legged on the earthen floor of his dingy old workshop, a huge wooden pillar settled at his feet. His thin, calloused hands were preoccupied with a small hammer and a sharp, hooked chisel, slowly working through the delicate pattern of flowers and symbols that, when finished, would cover the beam from head to foot.
"I asked you a question, Yato-san. Were you taught no manners at all?"
Yato wanted dearly to bite at the provocation, to use one of the filthiest curse words his late master had left him and see the priest's stupid, personable face go slack-jawed with shock. His guest had no appreciation for the concentration and artistry required in Yato's trade, and he had long overstayed his welcome. Saying so, however, wasn't worth the long, preachy lecture it would inevitably trigger.
Yato reluctantly bit back a retort and hit the chisel with a bit more force than necessary.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm listening," he muttered, rubbing his wrist gingerly. "Please, Kouto-sama, by all means, continue."
The man, satisfied with the reply, cleared his throat, regarding Yato with his haughty mahogany-colored eyes. He was only a year or two older than the young carpenter, but a full season had passed since Kouto had inherited the position of village head priest following the death of his aged predecessor. Compared to the mild, conservative old priest, Kouto was infamously ambitious and more zealously devout than anyone else in the village. He was certainly more self-righteous than anyone else in the priesthood, at least.
"As I was saying," Kouto said. straightening up as if to prove how important he really was. "In the age before myths, when the gods walked the earth..."
Yato groaned aloud, blowing his messy, black bangs out of his face with barely-disguised irritation.
"Not this old story again, I've heard it plenty of times from my master, thanks," he scoffed, picking wood shavings out of the chiseled grooves before him. Kouto narrowed his eyes, clearly displeased.
"This is exactly your problem, Yato-san," he scolded. "If you showed even a little respect toward the gods-"
"I respect the gods just fine!" Yato snapped, pointing his chisel at the priest. "But if it's all the same to you, milord, I have work to do, and I don't have the time to sit around listening to old tales!" He ran his fingers over the half-finished carving, trying to gauge what still needed refining. "I barely get any jobs as it is, and I can't afford to keep Natsume-san waiting on this when he was nice enough to commission me in the first place."
Kouto clicked his tongue.
"That you even have clients is a stroke of divine favor, foolish boy! You should be on your knees, thanking the gods for their magnanimity towards you! You of all people-"
Yato felt a vein twitch in his temple and began hammering loudly to distract himself from the urge to break something, anything.
Breathe, focus, a warm, graveled voice echoed in the depths of his memories. Destruction's the bosom friend of chaos, his master used to say. Our work's the enemy of chaos. Bringing somethin' to life with your own two hands is a sacred thing, 'cause creation's the realm of the divine. Just focus your energy on makin', don't ya worry 'bout anything else... and for the love of the War God's knickers, kid, you're gonna go bloody cross-eyed if you're always scowlin' like that! You don't hafta focus that hard!
A small smile tugged at Yato's lips at the memory. The scolding was usually accompanied by a good-natured flick to the forehead or an exaggerated imitation of the boy's expression, meant to elicit a laugh from his oft-sullen apprentice. Master Kuraha had been a rough, strict old bastard, but Yato dearly missed the good-natured banter and the old man's roaring fits of laughter now that he was gone.
"I am speaking to you, Yato-san!" Kouto said angrily, snapping him out of his thoughts.
Yato could feel his patience slipping away by the second. The old man and Kouto had one thing in common, at least; they both never stopped talking.
"Look, whatever you've got to say, I've already heard it!" Yato said, fuming. "Why do you think I spend all my time holed up in this workshop by myself?! It ain't a choice, you know! I'm seventeen years old now, a full grown-man! I'm supposed to be in the prime of my life, searching for a wife, starting my own family, working the fields and hunting with the others before winter comes, just like everyone else. I don't do this cause I like to!"
Kouto tutted in that infuriating, obnoxious manner of his.
"Now, now, Yato-san, the elders forbade you from taking a wife for a very good reason. The last thing you'd have wanted was to see your poor bride afflicted by some terrible misfortune-"
"I know that!" Yato said bitterly. "It doesn't mean I have to be bloody happy about it. Did you just come to pour salt in the wound or something?! I haven't bothered anyone, there hasn't been an incident in weeks!"
The high priest glared at him, an unspoken reprimand, daring him to challenge his authority. Yato didn't make a habit of speaking to other people very often, but he recognized the look instantly. Hatred, anger, fear, resentment... A silent accusation, demanding a reason for his unwelcome presence in their lives. He'd spent a lifetime averting his gaze from that look, guilt knotting in the pit of his stomach whenever he accidentally met with someone else's eyes.
He tried to stand his ground against the priest, but shame inevitably forced him to lower his head in submission. Kouto made a satisfied sort of sound with his tongue and Yato decided, with more conviction than he was used to feeling about anything, that he really didn't like this new priest much at all.
"I'm not here for anyone's sake except your own, Yato-san," Kouto said patronizingly. "My predecessor may have believed that the best that could be done for you was to keep you away from the rest of the village, but I can sense that the gods want more of you than that. They want you to repent, to devote yourself to them and prove that you can still be saved-"
"I am devoted!" Yato insisted, and in his indignation and distraction, he missed the chisel by a wide mark, hammering his own thumb with a hiss of pain. He shook his hand loosely, glaring resentfully at Kouto's smug expression. "I've always observed rites and left offerings. I pray three times a day, every single day, what more could the gods even want from me?!"
Kouto sighed, an exaggerated, dramatic sort of gesture. "Humility, for one," he said drily. "Pride is the sin which damned us all-"
"Like I said, I know the bloody story," Yato interrupted, inspecting the damage to his hand. Nothing was bleeding or broken, so he filed the pain away and kept working. "People thought they didn't need gods, the gods abandoned our dumb asses to prove us wrong, the whole world basically fucked itself over and went up in war and flames. Believe me, I get the damned message."
The priest rolled his eyes. "Crass as ever, Yato-san."
"But accurate," the carpenter huffed, returning to his work. "I've spent my whole life paying for my mother's sins, and I'm not about to add my own to the list. You don't need to tell me that disavowing the gods is a bad idea."
"And yet you forgot the most important part of the tale."
Yato carefully angled the chisel around a corner, smoothing the edges of a carved petal with his fingers, and blew away the shavings, gently, like a lover might. Yato hadn't used any references, but a perfect blossom stared back up at him nonetheless, as though a real morning glory had somehow been trapped into the soft wood, eternally in bloom. Yato could imagine his master's satisfied nod, almost feel the old man's rough fingers tousling through Yato's soft, dark hair with pride.
"That's the way, boy, put your soul into somethin' and it'll answer honestly. Carpentry ain't sorcery, but magic's in everything if ya look hard enough."
Yato regarded his work for only a moment before he moved on to the next flower.
"I haven't forgotten anything," Yato said, calmer now that he'd slipped into his usual rhythm. "I'm not such an idiot that I don't know our clan's history. And I'm not gonna recite it all to prove it to you either," he added sharply as Kouto opened his mouth to do just that. "If what you're trying to get me to say is that it's all thanks to the War God's sacrifice that we can live in peace, then you don't have to treat me like a five-year-old kid."
Kouto raised an eyebrow.
"Very well," he said, with that same smirk he'd been flashing all morning. "I apologize for making you feel... dimwitted, Yato-san."
Yato scowled. Didn't the Head Priest have better things to do than waste his time and look down his stupid, thin nose at him?
"Still, you are correct. That is the point I am trying to impress on you," the young man continued.
"What, that human beings are ungrateful little shits that can't even stop killing each other when a god comes down to save them from themselves?"
The side of Kouto's mouth twitched, and Yato couldn't help a triumphant surge of satisfaction. His Lordship the Head Priest may have been the holiest man in the land, but even he still found a dumb wisecrack as amusing as the rest of them.
"No," the priest said, feigning annoyance. "That it is only by the mercy of the gods that we insignificant mortals are allowed to exist."
"Funny," Yato said, holding up a corkscrewed wood shaving to the morning sunlight, giddy with his own success. "And here I thought what the story was saying was that even gods need help from insignificant humans sometimes." Too late, he realized he'd carelessly crossed a line; Kouto's eyes went wide with terror and alarm, his skin nearly as pale as Yato's own.
Fuck, he cursed inwardly, knowing he had about five seconds to fix his blunder before Kouto raised the alarm and brought the entire village guard down on him.
"No, I mean- that was just my stupid mouth running, I don't really think that-!" he said, holding his hands up as a bead of ice-cold sweat trickled down the side of his neck. "I swear on my mo- on my father's grave," he corrected hastily as the priest went another shade of white. "I'm loyal to the gods and would never presume to think myself above the will of the divine. I'd sign a blood oath proclaiming my faith, if you needed me to-"
At the mention of the contract spell, the priest relaxed somewhat, though his eyes remained wary as they looked him over for any signs of dishonesty.
"Arrogance, the same as your thrice damned mother," he finally spat angrily. "This is exactly why I'm here, to ensure that you beg for the gods to save your accursed soul before you're led to repeat her mistakes. Don't you realize what a plague you are on this village, Yato-san? You risk all our lives just by existing, just look at poor Ryou-"
"I told you that wasn't me!" Yato cried indignantly. "You know I can barely use magic! I've got to be the most incompetent sorcerer this village has ever produced; as if I, of all people, had the power to set Ryou's house on fire, even without meaning to!"
"Even so!" Kouto said loudly, in a tone that promised retribution if Yato kept talking. "Ryou is not the only victim. We have seventeen years worth of misfortune that proves that wherever you tread, calamity follows, Yato-san. Your own injuries and struggles are more than enough proof. Isn't that the very reason you've kept your isolation even after your parents and the old carpenter died?"
As if I had a choice, Yato thought moodily. As much as he wished he could argue, Kouto was absolutely right; Yato did suffer from abysmal luck. He broke bones like they were made of glass, caught ill from the smallest exposure to the elements, and was routinely bitten by every snake, cat, and flea-ridden mongrel within five miles of the village. If he went out into the forest, chances were he would fall down a ravine, get attacked by a bear, or caught out in a blizzard and forced to shelter in a cave for two weeks (that one had been particularly nasty, because not only did Yato nearly starve and freeze to death, but he was attacked by two different bears and it was only them noticing each other and fighting over his scrawny, underfed body that gave him the opportunity he needed to get to safety). He somehow always managed to escape his bouts of misfortune with his life, but only by some strange twist of fate or by the skin of his teeth. It was a long proven fact that anyone who came near him risked the same dangers.
Actually, his job was the only thing Yato could do without setting off a chain of bad luck. Nothing he ever built or carved was affected by his curse, and as long as he was actively working on something, neither he nor the people around him seemed to fall prey to his unlucky aura.
That was the only reason Kouto hadn't made Yato put down his tools during their conversation, though it was considered plenty rude not to drop everything when as esteemed a guest as the High Priest came to visit. Yato was pretty sure that Kouto wouldn't have left anything up to chance, though; the older boy almost certainly had some spelled talismans or amulets hidden in his robes, just in case.
Not that magic actually helped, not when Yato's bad luck really wanted a piece of someone. Frankly, if Kouto wanted to risk food poisoning or a broken toe (never mind the case of gangrene the village healer caught when he cut himself on an old nail, trying to treat a nasty wound on Yato's forearm), it wasn't Yato's place to comment on it.
"The truth is, you owe this village, Yato-san," Kouto continued, unaware of the slightly macabre (and mildly amused) direction of Yato's thoughts. "We could have banished you, but we let you stay and live among us, even when it put our lives and livelihood in danger. The least you could do is try to remain in the gods' good graces." Kouto said, sighing with the air of a parent trying to teach a disobedient child.
Yato said nothing, choosing a sharp, thin tool and etching small details into the flower petals one tiny line at a time.
"Yato-san," the priest said sharply.
"I'm listening," Yato muttered. "But I don't know what you want from me... sir," he added, remembering his manners. "Like I've been saying all along, I've always venerated the gods and listened to everything the elders and priests have ever asked of me."
The priest's expression softened, a twinge of sympathy flickering in the depths of his dark eyes.
"What I want is to help, Yato-san," he said earnestly. "Not just the village, but you as well. You may not feel welcome here, but the truth is that you're a member of this clan too. Your blood carries our magic, our history, and that makes you one of the War God's chosen, just like the rest of us. Whatever your mother did, I truly believe you can be redeemed."
Yato blinked, taken aback. No one had ever mentioned him in the same breath as his mother and not blamed him for her transgressions. Before he could say anything, however, the High Priest took Yato's shoulder, clasping it firmly under his hand. Yato flinched and automatically tried to pull away; it had been years since anyone had dared touch him, not since his master had died.
"I-It's not like the elders haven't tried to break my curse before!" Yato insisted, his palms sweating nervously from the stress of the unfamiliar contact. Kouto merely gripped his shoulder tighter, as if trying to impress his resolve through sheer pressure. "Nothing they ever tried worked-"
"But that's where I think they went wrong," Kouto explained seriously. "The elders and the former High Priest, they all tried to use magic to change your disposition. Sorcery is a mortal art, it has limitations, and it is usually impossible to undo the natural state of things. But the gods, the gods have no such limitations!"
Yato gave him an exhausted look. "Kouto-sama, you should know better than any of us that the gods don't interfere in the affairs of mortals anymore."
"Most gods don't, but the War God is different, sworn to protect the surviving children of man. She alone is a merciful deity; she wouldn't abandon a true believer who devoted themselves fully to her."
The War God also single-handedly wiped out most of humanity in three days, Yato thought, but he had a feeling Kouto would probably rake him over the coals if he pointed that unfortunate little detail out.
"If you say so," he said, finally dislodging the priest's hand with no small sense of relief. "What do you want me to do exactly?"
"Don't you worry about the details, Yato-san," the priest said confidently. "All I ask is that you have faith in the War God. I'll handle the rest."
"...Fine, I'll try."
Kouto nodded with satisfaction.
"Good, good. But one last thing before I go," he said, reaching into the folds of his kimono. "I think it would be best if you sealed your intention to devote yourself in blood; that way, the gods will see your resolution all the more clearly." He tugged a small scroll free and unrolled it at Yato's feet.
"A blood oath? For this?" Yato asked, a little unnerved. Promises sealed by magic had... unfortunate consequences for those who tried to break them, and they were easy to trace in case someone tried to spell their way out. He eyed the hand-written script apprehensively, wishing his master had thought to teach him how to read and write before he'd passed away. Then again, Yato had the suspicion that Master Kuraha had been every bit as illiterate as himself.
"It would give anything we try more weight with the gods," the priest explained earnestly. "Spoken words are like leaves on the wind, but an oath sworn in blood is tangible."
"Just think about it, Yato-san. If you prove you truly mean to serve the Protector, then even if we can't completely remove your curse, she may at least deign to lessen its severity. If that were to happen, the elders might be persuaded to ease the restrictions on your isolation..."
Yato ran a hand through his unkempt hair, trying to think.
What did he really have to lose? His existence was depressing enough: short of losing a limb or coming down with some terrible chronic illness, his life couldn't really get much worse. He was poor, eternally living on the brink of starvation, and he was unbearably, achingly lonely. He'd gotten through the last few years with the small, faint hope that there might, just maybe, be a girl in the village somewhere who wouldn't despise the idea of marrying him too much, but that hope had been dashed the minute he came of age and the elders forbade him from starting a family of his own. These days, he had nothing to look forward to, nothing in his future but wood, nails, and more silence.
If Kouto really could help him weaken the curse, what was the harm in spending a little more time and effort praying every day?
"...Alright, fine," he sighed. "If you really think it'll help..."
"I truly believe it will, Yato-san," Kouto said firmly. "I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to help you."
Yato still couldn't bring himself to like the young priest, but as he bit his thumb and let three drops of blood fall onto the scroll with a murmured incantation, the spell taking with a faint, scarlet glow on the parchment, he thought Kouto might not be so bad after all. Annoying, yes, self-important, definitely. But he seemed to at least take his job to protect the village seriously, even if it meant dealing with Yato and all his ominous, unnerving qualities.
In hindsight, Yato wished with his entire being that he'd had the courage to use his master's choicest, most shockingly filthy expressions when he'd had the chance.
It was past sunset when Yato finished his commission, his wrists and palms aching from all the precise movements and awkward angles. He yawned and fell back onto the dirt floor, sleepily blinking up at the ceiling and thinking longingly of how nice it would be to have a drink.
Not that I could afford one, he sighed inwardly, letting his eyes droop closed as he listened to the chirping of cicadas outside his open window. Most people found the sound irritating, but Yato found he rather liked the sound of their screeching chatter more than he liked talking to actual people. After all, cicadas didn't think he was cursed or ominous, and they could care less if his eyes were a cold, unnatural shade of blue or if his skin was so pale that the veins were clearly visible over his wiry frame. To them, Yato was just another human being, indistinguishable from the rest of the secluded villagers living deep within the forest. Cicadas had no reason to avoid or be afraid of him.
Besides, their cries made him feel less alienated from the world. With each shrill, staccato note, Yato let himself hum along, superimposing the words of an old rhyme all village children knew by heart. The lines formed on his lips, familiar and comforting in their quiet, cryptic meter.
Soft treads the wolf that won't bend the knee,
Bitter and hateful, howls lost to the sea,
The sky sheds her tears, earth scarred verily,
Her mantle worn crimson by cruel destiny,
He waits for her words to come set him free,
'Remember thine oath,' he cries, 'Do not forget me.'
"Do not forget me."
Children liked to repeat that line as part of their games, but Yato sometimes wondered whether he was the only person lonely enough to take the words to heart. He was fairly sure that he'd learned the rhyme at his mother's knee, and some romantic, poetic part of himself couldn't help attributing that line to the woman who had brought him into the world, a woman he barely remembered at all.
In truth, his memories of both parents were very faint; his mother had been tall and willowy, he knew, with dark brown eyes and tan-colored hair, her face kind and perpetually smiling no matter how poor or how hungry they all went. His father was even less distinct, a sturdy but mild-mannered sort of man, and Yato had a strong impression of a ticklish brown beard and sun-baked skin crinkling gently around his beetle-black eyes. Over the years, those vague recollections faded so much that he couldn't even remember what they had sounded like, or what life had been like under their care.
He thought he must have been a relatively happy child, though; he had the suspicion that he would have remembered more detail if he'd been mistreated or neglected. Contentment, even in the face of perpetual starvation and poverty, had a way of smoothing out the past, blurring the days together into a series of fond emotions rather than concrete memories.
But not misery, he sighed to himself, staring up at the thatched roof, shadows flickering in the light of the fire in the hearth. Misery is hard to forget.
Yato's awareness of time really only started when he was five years old, right after his parents caught ill and died. He could recall with startling clarity the ashen paleness of his mother's hand as it went limp in his grasp, the empty, frightening look in his father's eyes boring through Yato's soul.
That was the first time Yato really understood what everyone meant when they said he was a child of death. There was something deeply terrifying about a dead person, the inherent wrongness of their blank eyes and stiff, bloodless limbs a painfully inadequate echo of what they once had been. Yato wasn't dead, of course, but it was only when his own parents passed away that he could finally see a resemblance between them and his own unusual appearance, so maligned by the rest of the village. He wondered if every person who had ever looked at him saw the same imitation of life, the same soulless eyes that betrayed nothing in their fathomless depths...
"Ugh, I really need a drink," he groaned aloud, determined not to go down that particular line of thought. "It's bad enough everyone else says you're cursed, no reason to make yourself miserable too," he added, just to hear his own voice fill the emptiness of the workshop. The words reverberated in the air for a moment, and he let himself pretend for just a second that someone else was speaking, and that any moment now his mother or father, or maybe even his master, with his gruff, scarred visage would stand over him and say, with a hint of amusement, 'What'cha doin' down there, Yato-kun? Don't ya know you have to go outside if ya wanna have a look at the stars?'
He lay there a moment longer before he sat up with a weary sigh. Seventeen years old, and already Yato felt like he'd been alive a long, jaded century. He rubbed his wrists absently, wondering what day it was. One of the drawbacks to living by himself, isolated from everyone else, was that his sense of time was completely skewed. He kept no record of the days or years, and it was only from other people and the quiet turning of the seasons that he ever confirmed his own age. What was the point of keeping track, when every day was as lonely and empty as the next?
"Ugh, quit being such a miserable sack, Yato," he told himself firmly, determined to cheer up. If he let himself wallow in his misery, he'd never get out of bed again, and that was such a pathetic prospect that he refused to let it come true. "You couldn't wait for Kouto to leave this morning, right? It's nice and peaceful now, so get up and enjoy the night air for a little bit." He nodded in response to his own assertion and got to his feet, nudging his tools out of the way with his bare toes as he loosened and adjusted the obi of his shabby, threadbare yukata. He raised his arms over his head and stretched, running a mental tally of his supplies and what he could manage for supper.
A few vegetables had survived the last boar attack on the little garden outside the workshop, and he'd managed to trade a few small decorative carvings for a rather forlorn bag of stale rice earlier in the week. Better fare than usual, really, so Yato stepped over the finished pillar and onto the elevated, rough tatami that marked the separation between his workspace and his living quarters, making a plan.
"What do you guys think, rice and vegetables? Or vegetables and rice?" he asked the cicadas in the tree outside as he leaned out the window to pull the shutter closed. There was a tiny pause as the insects were startled by his voice, and Yato took that as a sign. "Yeah, vegetables and rice is better," he agreed.
He rolled up his sleeves and set to preparing his meal around the hearth, peeling and slicing his meager rations into thick chunks as he added them to the rice steaming over the fire. Twice he cut himself, but he barely noticed. A few nicks were normal, barely unlucky at all. He sucked at the wounds for a second before returning to his task, humming absentmindedly.
There was a sudden, loud knock on the wall outside, and Yato gave a start, the knife slipping in his grip and slicing through his palm. He hissed, dropping the knife and a half-peeled, somewhat despondent looking radish to the ground, watching blood well up from the jagged line.
"Yato-san, are you there?" called an unfamiliar voice. Even through the pain of his injury, Yato registered the strangeness of a second guest so soon after the first. His interactions with the villagers were usually very sparse.
"Y-yeah, just a minute," he called, searching around him for a spare bit of cloth he could use to staunch the bleeding. He reached for an old cleaning rag and tore a strip from it with his teeth, awkwardly wrapping it around his palm with one hand. He flexed his fingers, wincing at the sharp ache, and hurried to the reed curtain that served as his door, brushing it aside with the back of his arm. "Sorry, I was just-"
He stopped, confused. A group of people were gathered outside his workshop, bearing torches and unreadable expressions. He recognized a few of them as villagers he'd had interactions with in the past, and a few of them he knew as part of the village guard, if only by sight. The tallest of them, a large, heavy man whose name might've been Sato or Sousuke or something along those lines stood at the front, bearing a long coil of thick rope and a suspiciously familiar scroll in his right hand.
"W-What's going on?" Yato asked, his voice betraying his unease. Had Kouto turned him in for his thoughtless comment after all?! His eyes scanned the crowd frantically but he saw no sign of the priest's sandy hair among them.
The large man (Yato decided to call him Sato in his head until proven otherwise) cleared his throat, pointedly unrolling the scroll.
"Yato the carpenter, correct?" he asked, as though anyone in the village didn't know exactly who Yato was.
Yato frowned, irked by the man's standoffishness.
"You know any other damned carpenters this side of the forest?" he challenged before he could stop himself. He cursed inwardly at his lack of impulse control, wondering what he should do if they attacked him. He could probably fight a couple of them off in an altercation; carpentry required at least a little muscle, and he was pretty quick on his feet when he had to be. But if it came down to magic...
Well, at best, he might be able to bluff his way out of trouble, provided they were scared enough of him to ignore common sense. His lack of magical ability wasn't exactly a secret.
Thankfully, Sato ignored the provocation entirely. He held the scroll up to someone's lit torch, letting the corner of the thin paper smoulder just the tiniest bit, and Yato suddenly hissed, clapping his uninjured hand to his upper arm as his skin flashed hot.
"Ow! What the hell-?!" he exclaimed, but everyone else suddenly seemed to breathe a sigh of relief and relax, and someone at the back of the crowd actually cheered.
"No mistake, it's him all right!" Sato-or-whatever-his-name-was said with a small grin, rolling the scroll up once more and tucking it into his yukata. "What a relief, and just in the nick of time too," he said, good-naturedly. "Well come on then, Yato-san, everyone's waiting at the shrine."
"Waiting?" Yato repeated blankly, completely lost. "Waiting for what?" he asked, still rubbing his arm.
Sato-if-that-was-really-his-name regarded him with surprise and a hint of suspicion, his brow furrowing.
"Is he being serious, Shinsuke?" someone whispered from behind the large man (damn, it was Shin... oh well, close enough). "I can't tell-"
Yato would have rolled his eyes, if he weren't so preoccupied with trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
"It's the new moon," Shin said slowly, as though that were a real answer. "You're needed at the shrine, of course."
"What's the moon got anything to do with..."
Yato glanced up at the dark sky, recalling some of his lessons in the basics of sorcery. It was customary for certain powerful rituals to draw from the power of the phases of the moon, particularly when it came to venerating the gods. Throughout the year, the village habitually held several ceremonies and festivals of that sort, but never on the new moon, which was considered a door into death-
"Oh. Oh." he realized with dawning horror.
There was just one exception to that rule, one particular ceremony observed once every fifteen years, during the first new moon of the summer season. The last one had taken place when he was a small child, and in his careless perception of time, Yato had completely forgotten all about it.
If they were here to bring him to the shrine, that could only mean one thing, and though Yato's life was hardly enviable, he was not about to let them sacrifice him in the name of the War God, guardian deity or not.
"Oh, FUCK NO!" he exclaimed, turning back to the crowd so quickly that his neck cracked painfully in protest. He backed up against the wall of his workshop, wishing he hadn't dropped his knife in his rush to see who was outside. "You can't do this, you're not allowed to pick an unwilling sacrifice! If you try, the gods will curse us all-!" he argued, his mind racing as he tried to find some way to get himself out of his predicament.
"But we haven't picked an unwilling sacrifice," Shinsuke interrupted, shrugging as though it didn't concern him at all. "You felt the burn just a minute ago; that's your blood seal on the oath, isn't it?"
Yato gaped at him in horror, clutching at his arm so tightly his fingernails dug into his flesh.
"No! I never made a blood oath about this!" he cried, torn between bewilderment, fear, and anger. "I didn't volunteer, I swear it!"
"The oath says otherwise, Yato-san," a young, raven-haired woman stepped forward, speaking with a reasonable, even tone. Yato recognized her as Mayu, the village orator. "I read it myself, it's a clear declaration of intent to take the High Priest's place as this year's offering."
"The High...?" he repeated stupidly, unable to concentrate and grasp the enormity of what she was saying. "But I didn't- I just spoke to him-"
It hit him all at once, disbelief and fury coursing through his veins like he'd never felt before. The fucking weasel! Kouto had tricked him!
He remembered now, an old rumor he'd heard from his master when Yato was young and asking about the details of their faith. In times when a willing sacrifice refused to come forth from the villagers, it was the duty of the High Priest to fulfill the role and appease the War God with his own life. As far as Yato was aware, the High Priests tended to get sacrificed with alarming regularity, but they were usually much older, experienced men than Kouto currently was, and they often had successors lined up to replace them. Kouto, having just ascended to the position, didn't even have an apprentice yet.
"That fucking, slimy little snake!" Yato snarled, startling several of the crowd with his ferocity. More than one took several steps back, clutching amulets to their chests. "I should have known he was up to something with his thrice-damned concerned act! He lied to me, he got me to apply the seal under false pretenses, you have to believe me! I didn't choose this!"
Mayu and Shinsuke exchanged a look.
"Even if that were true, Yato-san-"
"It is true!" he swore, making a fist over his heart in the gesture that everyone recognized as a solemn promise. "Kouto pretended he wanted to help me break my curse, when all along he was just scheming to find a replacement to take the fall for him!"
Mayu shook her head, an almost pitying frown on her ruby red lips, and with a cold sensation of foreboding, Yato realized that she knew. She, and everyone else there... they were all complicit, desperate to spare their only trained priest even if it meant losing their only trained carpenter.
"It doesn't matter, Yato-san," she said, almost gently. "The moment you swore the oath, the gods recognized you as theirs. If you try to escape your fate now, your heart will stop, rendering you useless as a living sacrifice, and the entire village will face the War God's wrath for failing to keep the pact."
"No! It's not right, it's against everything the ritual stands for!" Yato insisted, his throat dry as Shin and several other men drew closer, one step at a time. "The sacrifice has to be willing, there's no point if the blood isn't freely given! Besides, you need me, who else is gonna build your damned houses and fix your stupid furnitu- GET AWAY FROM ME!"
Someone grabbed his arm and Yato lashed out instinctively with his fist, landing a blow on his assailant's jaw. There was a mangled cry and a moment of shocked silence in which even Yato stared at the injured man incomprehensibly, and then they were on him, a pack of rabid dogs, fighting tooth and nail to force him to the ground. Yato had never fought anyone properly before, but he found he was stronger than he'd even dared to hope, his desperation to break free more than making up for the difference in experience and stamina. He fought dirty, kicking and screaming, more than willing to bite or swipe at someone's eyes with his nails when he couldn't manage a proper blow. But there were far too many of them, and there was only so much he could do by himself unarmed. He knew it, just as he knew he would die before the night was out, but he refused to go down without proving just how unwilling a sacrifice he really was.
"Stop- fighting-!" someone grunted as they pinned him to the dirt with an arm held painfully behind his back, still struggling furiously as they tied his wrists together. "You should be glad to do this, this way your curse can be broken too!"
By 'broken' you mean it won't affect any of you anymore, cause I'll be dead!" Yato snarled furiously.
"Not dead, sacrificed! There's a difference."
"There is to the gods," Mayu said, standing over him with that same, affronted look Yato knew all too well.
"You fucking bitch, you and that slimy bastard of a priest, I'll curse you both!" Yato shrieked, losing his head in his righteous fury. "I'll fucking curse every single one of you if it's the last thing I do! Just you fucking wait, you think you've seen bad luck?! I'll summon demons to tear the skin from your fucking limbs, I'll have them suck the marrow from your bones, I swear it on my mother's grave, they'll rip the throats from your children like rag dolls- LET GO, LET ME FUCKING GO RIGHT THIS SECO-!"
A heavy blow hit him across the back of the skull with a sickening thwack and Yato slumped forward, knocked out cold.
The first thing he noticed when he came to some unspecified amount of time later was how much his head hurt.
Of all the different types of injuries and illnesses Yato had experienced in the past, it was always the headaches he hated most. It wasn't the pain he hated, exactly; he'd felt far worse than that, what with all the accidental stab wounds, the blistering burns, and an unforgettable broken femur snapped cleanly in two, as well as its equally excruciating magical treatment. Even then, headaches, particularly the ones that made it impossible to sleep or get any meaningful rest, those were a torture of a different caliber altogether. There was something specifically horrible about not even being able to retreat into his own thoughts for comfort and distraction, the constant pounding against the inside of his skull a blinding, repetitive form of weaponized anticipation.
Cathartic, he slowly regained control over his senses, his tongue running over his uncomfortably fuzzy teeth, his half-lidded eyes blinking dully in the flickering light. There was a smoky residue tickling the inside of his nose, and his fingers ached with numbness, but it took him a long while to realize that the excruciating sound in his ears was more than just his own heartbeat thudding angrily in his chest.
Taiko drums, the answer came after what felt like a very long mental inquiry.
Normally he would have found their steadiness reassuring, but all he could feel was a cold sense of dread growing stronger with each measured strike-
All of a sudden, everything came rushing back in a nauseating wave, and Yato hissed, snapping his eyes open and forcing himself to focus on his surroundings.
They were in the forest, that much was obvious. Even with the torches and the ritual bonfire in front of him, it was much darker under the densely packed trees than it was in the open spaces of the village proper. Despite that, a clearing had been cut into the woods around him, maintained carefully over generations, a perfect circle open to a dark patch of starless sky above.
Anyone from the village would recognize the place, even if they, like Yato, mostly kept to themselves. A quick glance to his right proved his suspicions without a doubt; an old, weather-beaten shrine stood beneath the boughs of a majestic elm tree, the raised altar before it bearing a single cup made of something that looked suspiciously like carved, smoothed bone. Around the cup were a series of lit candles, spaced at even intervals. A strange, unidentifiable instrument lay over the mouth of the cup, flat and impossible to see from Yato's position.
In front of the shrine stood a bright red torii gate, and across the clearing, hidden in the shadows, Yato could just make out the form of another, larger gate, marking the path from the village that led to this particular sacred space. Most people normally avoided crossing that gate, but today was clearly an exception. The entire village seemed to be assembled in the clearing facing the shrine, murmuring quietly amongst themselves as they avoided looking Yato in the eye.
That, more than anything, pissed him off. Yato was currently tied to a post sunk into the ground, his arms bent behind his back. Not a single person raised any objection at his treatment, though the fact that he was tied up was as obvious a sign of his reluctance as anything he could have possibly said in his defense.
"Fucking cowards!" he shouted, tugging desperately at the ropes binding his hands. Whoever had tied him up had done a cruelly thorough job, though, and his efforts merely tore the skin at his wrists. "Bloody sons of pockmarked whores! You'd sacrifice an unwilling innocent to save your own fucking skins, but not a single one of you even has the balls to look me in the fucking eye, do you?!"
"Be quiet," someone said sharply from somewhere to Yato's left, and he turned to find Shinsuke standing guard nearby, holding a long, ceremonial spear. "The sacrifice is to reflect in silence before the priests arrive."
Yato would have laughed derisively, except he was too terrified and angry for laughter.
"Let me go, damn it! Don't make me curse you into a shriveled husk!"
Shin prodded him with the blunt end of his naginata.
"Don't bother, Yato-san. It's too late, you made a blood oath. Curses won't change your fate now."
"Maybe not, but I'll be damned satisfied at least," Yato snapped.
"Even if you could use such magic, and I know you can't, it wouldn't work," said an unpleasant voice, and Yato whipped his head around to find Kouto standing at the front of the crowd, dressed in a white, ceremonial kariginu with a smug sort of look in his eyes. "It was in the oath, you see," he continued holding out his hands as another priest approached him with the bone cup and the thin instrument from the shrine, which Yato now recognized with a chill as a very long, very sharp ritual knife. "You cannot curse me or anyone else present without breaking the terms of the agreement. I made sure of that when I wrote it."
"YOU!" Yato snarled, straining against his bindings in a panic. "You tricked me! You planned this all along!"
"It was necessary, I'm afraid," Kouto said, holding the blade up to the torchlight, inspecting it for defects. "As you know, if no one in the village volunteers to sacrifice themselves, the High Priest must do so. My predecessor was aging, but we all expected him to live long enough to stand for us this year, after which I would take his place as his student." He returned the blade to the other priest and turned his attention to the cup next. "Unfortunately, he died of illness this spring, forcing me to take up his role before my time."
"So what, you decided to trick someone else so you could save your own stupid skin?!" Yato argued. "You're supposed to be the holiest person in this village, the most selfless and devoted of us all! It's your fucking job to dedicate your life to the gods in the first place!"
"Yes, and this is no act of self-preservation on my part, I assure you," Kouto replied smoothly as he turned the cup over in the light. "But it's an old law, you know, that says the duties and knowledge of the High Priest can only be passed down orally, from teacher to pupil, once a generation. I am the only one in the clan who now carries that knowledge, and it will take me years to pass it on to whoever becomes my successor. If I die tonight, righteous a death as it may be, my craft will be lost with me. That must not happen, for the village's sake. I take no pleasure in this necessary act of deception."
"Oh sure, you're not at all glad you get to keep your head," Yato said sarcastically. "You never fucking cared about helping anyone but yourself, snake."
"No, no, you have it all wrong," Kouto said innocently, as though they were having a normal, friendly conversation over tea. "I truly believe this is in your best interest, Yato-san. Only the gods can intervene on your behalf, to save your soul from your mother's curse. But you must be willing to serve the gods to the best of your ability before you can be forgiven, and a curse like yours is too strong to be dispelled without the cost of a life."
"EXCEPT I HAVEN'T DONE ANYTHING!" Yato shouted. "All I've ever done is live! I don't know if my bad luck is really a curse or not, but that doesn't mean I want to die! I've stayed away from the villagers even when I needed help, and I've prayed and worked for the good of everyone even though you've all hated me my entire life!" Angry tears formed at the corners of his eyes as he spoke. It was just so unfair; whatever anyone else said about him and his origins, Yato wanted to live just as desperately as anyone else. He had that right, miserable as he might be, didn't he? "I trusted you, Kouto! When I said I'd devote myself to the village, this is NOT what I meant! I don't need forgiveness!" He wrenched his arm forward, trying to get loose, only to succeed in tearing his shoulder painfully from its socket.
The crowd waited patiently for his colorful stream of curses and screams to die down.
"We'll need to tie them more securely to prevent this in the future," Kouto noted casually at Shinsuke.
"Yes, sir, we'll keep this in mind for the next one. It's such a pity to cause the sacrifices undue distress."
"THIS ENTIRE SITUATION IS A CAUSE OF UNDUE DISTRESS!" Yato cried through gritted teeth.
Kouto gave him a small, almost kind smile as he took the knife and cup in his hands and stepped forward to address the villagers gathered around them.
"In the age before myths, the gods walked the earth," he began, and everyone fell silent as he began telling the story. "And for a time, they lived among us, the life they cultivated and brought forward from the barren lands. Under their care, we mortals flourished, never knowing suffering or hunger. All the gods asked of us was our trust and veneration, and so we worshiped them, and lived together with them for many a long century in peace.
"It was a single person who destroyed that balance, a man, clever and ambitious, who grew arrogant in his prosperity and thought himself worthy an equal to the gods. Why should mortals cower before the gods, he asked, when humankind had long proven they could look after themselves? What use is a parent when the child has outgrown their protection?"
"Oh for fuck's sake!" Yato interrupted loudly. "If I have to die here, at least fucking spare me this damned story one last- HRRF!" He was cut off by Shinsuke's large hand, firmly clapped over his mouth.
"Be quiet, fool!" Shinsuke hissed as Kouto glared in their direction. "This is part of the ritual, the spell! It must not be broken!"
Yato would have gladly made a fuss out of pure spite, but the more he tried to make himself heard over Shinsuke's hand, the tighter the man held on until he could barely breathe. Dazed from lack of air, he fell quiet, and Kouto continued speaking, his voice echoing in Yato's head strangely. He couldn't make sense of the words anymore, and he found he really didn't care either.
I don't want to die.
He knew the story well enough. The man, the leader of a tribe, led his people to rebellion. Furious, the gods decried him and his ilk, and named all mortals unworthy of their protection and trust. They abandoned humanity for good and returned to the Celestial Plain in the heavens, never to return.
But without the gods, humans became greedy and proud. They sought to take from others, forgetting their respect for nature and life. War raged, soaking the land in blood. The mortals who remained loyal to the gods prayed for their forgiveness, hoping to find salvation from their own hatred and violence. Only one god heard their pleas, a god who was well-known for her kindness and gentle heart.
The god took pity on the humans and came down to quell the fighting, but the bloodlust in the world was so great and her betrayal so profound that she lost herself to the violence and became nothing more than a vengeful spirit, slaying anything that crossed her path. A clan of sorcerers recognized that she needed to be calmed and enshrined her, and then, in order to sate her fury, a willing sacrifice was chosen from among them and their blood offered to the god in a ritual that bound her as their guardian deity. The god was thus appeased, and every fifteen years, a new sacrifice was promised to ensure her continued protection.
The village was supposed to be descended from that clan, and Yato had never had cause to doubt the veracity and importance of the ritual before. But now, tricked and bound by magic he had no knowledge of, Yato wondered just how many others had been killed under the pretext of signed oaths. Had they all felt this angry? This helpless? Had no one spoken for them either?
I don't want to die.
Yato had no one. Not a single relative, no friends. No one liked him or wanted to get to know him. The village saw him and his unnatural appearance and they whispered that he was an aberration, a creature brought back from the dead. He had nothing to believe in, nothing to look forward to, but it was precisely because he was so miserable, exactly because they treated him as though he were already dead, that Yato so fiercely wanted to live. Surely there was more meaning to his life than these seventeen years of loneliness?
I just want to live... and know what it's like to be happy.
He heard nothing of Kouto's speech up until he was standing right in front of him, the knife brandished under Yato's throat.
"Try to relax, Yato-san, it'll hurt less," he said, almost kindly.
"HOW THE HELL WOULD YOU KNOW?! YOU EVER BEEN DEAD?!"
"Well, no," the priest admitted, looking thoughtful. "But they say you have, so I'm sure it can't be too bad. This is for the village's sake as well as your own, Yato-san. So don't worry, I'm sure the gods will spare you any suffering."
They most certainly did not.
He couldn't breathe, he couldn't keep air in his lungs. A burning sensation tore across his throat, his scream choked in the flow of his own blood. In seconds, Yato's vision darkened, and his eyes fell closed.
As if from far away, he heard the faint echo of a cheer and several voices speaking indistinctly around him, and over it all, drowning out their voices, the drums beat fiercely to a chorus of cicadas, a long-forgotten verse sung from Yato's namesake, the night itself.
'Wait,' cries the sparrow from high in its tree,
And watches the young ones take wing and flee,
Bereft and abandoned, clipped wings plain to see,
Its song long forgotten to ancient decree,
'Remember,' the wind whispers, an old, silent plea,
'Remember thy wings, and fly back to me.'
I am a huge sucker for arranged marriage AUs. That's my only excuse for this.
This story has been under extensive editing for the last few weeks, and as such, I will be posting each chapter again as I finish them. I hope that the story will make more sense and have a smoother feel to it this time, and I really hope you'll enjoy it!
Please like and review if you did! 3