VII. The Catfish

Like an idle vagrant, Chirikai stretched out on a rock in front of his ancestral home. That ancestral home was a illusionary fortress beside the ocean, surrounded by shifting dunes. Humans saw only a barren coastline, and the enchantments were so strong that most demons would walk right past the fortress—though it was the size of a small mountain. Half of the fortress was built over the water, the other half seamlessly merging with the shore. Bones and skulls of the demons his mother had killed dangled from the roof like wind chimes. A beautiful home. 

At least, Chirikai thought so. Chirikai remembered when he was a child, and his mother commissioned—tricked and gently kidnapped—the most talented human painters in the land to decorate the walls. The painters had spent years covering every inch of the fortress rooms in gold leaf and ink, sweeping clouds, scenes of demon wars and human sages, the moon people, and colorful maps of all the realms. These spectacular murals filled his home and his imagination.     

But now, spending time inside the fortress made Chirikai feel sick. 

He had taken to wandering the dunes, attacking wayward humans and demons—and one goddess, that had been a mess—and perfecting mischief.     

He lounged about the beach, and slept on the boulders, only going inside when the servants begged him to bathe and change his clothes. He purposefully scratched the walls, his father’s most favorite paintings. One he peed in a corner, just to be difficult. 

Fox demons split their time between fox bodies and human-like bodies. The human-like bodies were convenient for communicating with other types of demons and, of course, humans. Chirikai had not transformed back into a fox in years. He rolled over onto his belly, the rock warming him through his threadbare robes.     

“Well,” rumbled a voice above him, “you’re in a wilder state than I saw you last.”     

Chirikai rolled onto his back and looked up at Heimatsu, a black-skinned catfish demon, and, if demons had friends, his best friend. Heimatsu shook the water from his robes as he completed his transformation to walk on land, blue slippers forming around his feet. His catfish whiskers shrank against his face.

“Well,” drawled Chirikai, “you’re taller.”     

Heimatsu examined his friend, struggling to hide his surprise and dismay. Chirikai had inherited his mother’s beauty and his father’s aristocratic bearing, and even though he was sprawled on a rock in grimy brown trousers, his pedigree was clear.     

As a child, Chirikai had been spoiled rotten even by his family’s enemies who would lose themselves in his beguiling smile and bright green eyes. As an adolescent, he had displayed uncommon abilities early—a natural affinity for illusions, shapeshifting, and magical fire—and a prodigal ability to read others. The two friends had studied side-by-side in the fortress.    

Their teacher had claimed that one day Chirikai would be able to read minds. Chirikai had thrown himself into honing his powers, but Heimatsu had been called home to the sea to help his family control the faults and earthquakes, and he had lost touch with his friend.     

Heimatsu had heard rumors about Chirikai, even beneath the ocean. That Chirikai had abandoned his studies, wandered the coast, turned filthy and dangerous, and with his father gone, no one was  willing to take a hand to him. 

“You’re dressed like a peasant,” said Heimatsu finally. He fiddled with his robes, a silky blue under-robe and black, scaly outer robe.     

“I got bored.”

“What a strange sort of boredom,” Heimatsu muttered. “I was under the impression that you had the biggest wardrobe in the realm.”     

“I threw a party and burned it. I invited you, but your invitation must have gotten lost.”     

“Must have,” echoed Heimatsu. He didn’t know what to say. The fox demon was his friend, and it had been some time since they had spoken, but not that long; demons never changed this much. Humans, yes, because they were inherently mercurial. He desperately tried to think of something to say to bring the conversation back onto familiar ground as Chirikai flicked sparks off his fingernails.     

“Perhaps we should talk inside?” Heimatsu suggested.     

“Take a boulder,” said Chirikai with a gracious wave of his arm. “Plenty of rocks for everyone.”     

Heimatsu wiped off bits of dried seaweed and sand and took a seat. “It’s been a while. I’m sorry for not keeping in touch. I have taken over the family estates.”    

“How is the earthquake business?”    

“It’s an unsteady business, but that’s how we like it. My parents have gone traveling. My sister wanted to try managing affairs for a bit, so I thought I would visit dry land.”    

I thought I would see if the rumors are true about you, thought Heimatsu. “I missed you. I haven’t had any fun in ages.”    

Chirikai smiled at that, but his expression was guarded. “Maybe we can arrange some fun then. There’s a…”

The fox demon trailed off as a scrawny figure approached from over a dune. Heimatsu judged the shabby little man instantly. With his pointy face and whiskers jutting from his humanoid face, he had to be a rat demon. Heimatsu swallowed his disgust. Ten years ago, a rat demon would not have dared even to approach the beach, much less the son of a demon lord.     

The creature shuffled over, and curled inward in an approximation of a bow.“My lord, I am sorry for bothering your worshipful self, but I need your help.”     

Heimatsu realized his mouth was open and closed it. 

“What sort of help?” asked Chirikai, disinterested. “I confess, I’m really only in the mood for killing things.” 

The rat demon looked up at Chirikai. “I need money.”     

“Storehouse to the right,” said Chirikai blithely.    

Heimatsu froze as the rat demon groveled and thanked Chirikai. “You’re just giving your family’s money away?”    

Chirikai shrugged. “My father is whoring himself out to the Sun Goddess, and I daresay if she’s pleased with him, she’ll refill our coffers.”    

Heimatsu glanced at the sky, uncomfortable. “And if she doesn’t?”

“Either way, I doubt he cares.” 

Heimatsu heard the pop of an enchantment near the storehouse and the rat demon yelping in pain. Heimatsu exhaled, relieved.  “Don’t jest with me like that!” 

The rat demon scurried away from the beach as his tail dropped off like a noodle.    

Chirikai grinned. Heimatsu laughed, half amused, half frantic. The rat demon had seemed to believe that Chirikai was giving away his family’s money, and Heimatsu was not sure if his friend had spread rumors and was engaging in an  extended prank, or if there was truth to the idea. Either way, this was dangerous. Chirikai’s father was dangerous. “Aren’t you worried about your father finding out about such games?” 

Chirikai rolled his eyes. “My father hasn’t come here in almost twenty years. I don’t care.”    

“So, you’ve been here by yourself?”     

Heimatsu saw Chirikai’s jaw clench. “Hardly. Demons come and go all the time. Like now.”

Heimatsu felt himself falling again, unsure of what to say. He tucked his hands into his robes and spoke to his shoes. “That’s not what I meant.” 

“I am sorry,” said Chirikai. He didn’t sound sorry at all. “But I’m not in the mood to sit here and confirm or disavow the rumors surrounding my tawdry family so that you can hurry back to the ocean and have gossip material for your parties.” Chirikai paused, and then he smirked, his eyes lighting up. “Or maybe I am.” He placed a finger on his lower lip. “Give me a moment to come up with something sordid.”    

“I came out of concern,” snapped Heimatsu. “Chirikai, I consider you a friend. I heard that your fortress was overrun with lesser demons, that no one had come to help, and...”     

“I don’t need help,” interrupted Chirikai. 

I am insane, suicidal, thought Heimatsu. I am a good friend. He shook his head to himself, then plunged: “I heard your mother was dead.”