“What indeed,” said Chirikai tonelessly. “I am fascinated by appearances. It is in my nature. There’s a common misconception that a person never hears the rumors concerning himself or his kind. That we do not know the stereotypes others assign our sort. I know the stories you hear about fox demons; I grew up on those stories. Tell me, Heimatsu, what is the common theme in the stories of fox demons that wander down to the city to make a new life?”
Heimatsu shook his head in confusion. Chirikai continued as if explaining to a particularly dense pupil. “They go down, they fall in love, and they end up killed, yes?”
“And yet, I am capable of replicating myself into ten bodies. I can now cast an illusion that even the most powerful shamans cannot dispel. My mother split a mountain in her rage once. Tell me, Heimatsu, why do the fox demons who go down to the city and fall in love always wind up dead?”
Chirikai exhaled, staring straight down the coastline. He ran his hands through his hair, turning it wild, and there were no tears in his eyes, but Heimatsu felt his throat closing up as the truth crept around them.
“The stereotype is that fox demons are lovestruck mischief-makers who eventually slip up. That we’re foolish and have this weakness and we make this same mistake over and over again and go and get ourselves killed. That is what all the other demons think, yes?”
Chirikai leaned over, across to Heimatsu’s boulder, his face inches away. “Was my mother a fool?”
“No,” answered Heimatsu.
“Then perhaps the common wisdom on this topic is incorrect. Tell me, Heimatsu, if my mother left for the city, aware of all these stories, what was she looking for?”
Chirikai’s eyes were wet, and his voice was hard, shaking. “What did my bastard of a father drive my mother to do?”
Heimatsu turned away—he couldn’t take it. “You should go see her.”
Chirikai gazed at his ancestral home. “Maybe I should,” Chirikai whispered. “I am so very tired of this place.”
Chirikai got to his feet and spread his arms. His ragged, brown clothing disappeared in a flash of light, and when Heimatsu opened his eyes, Chirikai was clad in billowing green and gold robes. His fingernails shortened, his hair turned black and grew long in the fashion of the Capital nobility. But in one hand, he clutched a staff made from a lemon branch. Chirikai pressed his hands against his eyes, and they turned the color of wet sand. He trailed his fingers over his face as if to be sure that his mask and costume were in place. Then, he shook his head to change the shape of his face again; his hair turned bright yellow, his clothes to leaves, and bright green eyes—now the guise of a spirit with a staff of lemons in his hand.
Heimatsu hurried off his boulder, reaching out to grab his friend as he strode away.
“Who knows what will come of it?” said Chirikai to himself. “Perhaps I shall fall in love.”
Chirikai vanished in a cloud of mist off the ocean, and Heimatsu was left with a sea breeze between his fingers. He froze, staring at the spot where Chirikai’s footprints ended, and regret at his visit welled up.
“What do I do?” Heimatsu spun around, kicking up sand as he looked up and down the shore. He clapped his hands. “I’ll go to the Capital. I’ll get there and stop him from doing anything rash. That’s what I’ll do.”
The catfish demon gathered his robes and hurried over the dunes. Ocean mists rolled into the tall grasses along the beach, and Heimatsu had to struggle to see. His vision was perfect in the water.
Foxes had great eyes—Chirikai had no trouble maneuvering in the mists around his home, and given fox demons’ affinity for fire, Heimatsu had no doubt that his friend’s vision could pierce smoke as well.
Heimatsu was yanked from his thoughts as something crunched beneath his feet. If Heimatsu had been a human, not a demon, he might have assumed it was a seashell amongst the dunes. But Heimatsu was a demon, and he knew the sound of a broken skull when he heard it.
He stepped to the side—no need to damage his new shoes—and more bones shattered under his weight. Heimatsu paused. This fog, this mist from the ocean was not moving inland. The mist was just hovering over this particular spot.
The catfish demon prodded the sand all around him, finding more bones. His nose tingled as he sensed Chirikai’s aura sizzling in the air around him.
“Fox magic,” Heimatsu whispered to himself. All fox demons were masters of illusion, and Chirikai was no exception.
Heimatsu frowned, then extended his arms and reached out with his own aura, feeling for the edges of the illusion. “Where does Chirikai’s aura end?”
Something whimpered deep in the mist, then fell silent.
Heimatsu shook his head. He wouldn’t be able to dispel completely an illusion Chirikai had created, but he could overwhelm it. Catfish demons had reserves of energy and stamina unmatched by any other demon. Heimatsu hurled his energy into the mists, burning through the fog.
The fog dissolved with a moan.
The dunes were filled with the corpses of demons and petty spirits, their bones bleached by the salty air. Horns arched up from the sand like giant’s fingers, ribs were scattered amongst the sawtooth grasses, and more skulls than Heimatsu could identify—monkeys, cats, turtles, wolves—speckled the ground. The long skeleton of a dragon undulated with the curves of the dunes.
Heimatsu stumbled back in amazement. The rat demon who had approached Chirikai earlier was lost in the midst of this graveyard, his eyes madly following a horror only he could see, his flesh peeling away from his bones.
Because Heimatsu was a demon, it was not the corpses themselves that astounded him, but the sheer number of them.
Chirikai must have been slaughtering demons every day for a decade. His friend bore no battle scars, no poison burns or cursed flesh. No missing limbs. There was a dragon skeleton! Heimatsu’s father couldn’t have killed a dragon, even at the peak of his powers. And Chirikai was merely an adolescent.
A stupid, gifted, grief-stricken adolescent.
The rat demon’s eyes stopped wiggling in their sockets, and his face fell apart like ashes crumbling into the sand.
Heimatsu rolled up his sleeves and hurried back towards the ocean. The waves lapped at his legs. He would approach the Capital from the water and then find Chirikai before…
Heimatsu shook his head. “I’m coming, Chirikai.”