Chirikai stopped in the street beside the construction. Shrines were marked by a grand gate, like the ones at the entrance of city. But shrines to the gods were built amongst the trees and water for the protection of the tree and river spirits—like the irritating river spirit that had held him hostage underwater for kissing Asuka. The humans enclosed the shrine precincts with sacred rope covered in pure white paper.
There was no gate. There was no rope. There was no water and no trees, just endless rows of boards and boxes of tools, the remains of the building. Chirikai looked from side to side, then crept onto the premise.
He could smell magic, and he didn’t fear it—he couldn’t fear it. His fur stood on end.
Not petty shrine magic.
Not demons either. Not something strange and something more, like his dad. The soil and dust dirtied his paws, the grass long stripped away, and he couldn’t sense any spirits. It smelled like the sweat of civilization and raw incense. A sacred construction site to something he did not know.
What is this place?
Chirikai crept past a pillar, jumping nimbly over a beam. He should have been more careful, and he knew he should, but he felt like his insides had been ripped out over the course of the day, and all he had was a dull ache. Let someone catch me.
When he had walked the streets, every time someone had looked at him funny, Chirikai had been ready for them to catch him. Ready to fight. It would be bloody, hot, and mindless.
He walked further into the quiet of the building.
Oiled beams criss-crossed above this head, supporting a tiled roof that could have engulfed his new villa. Black tiles and monster joints held the conglomeration together. Beams made from ancient trees had been stripped of their bark and stabbed in the ground. The fractal mass of wood and tile towered above him, a man-made cavern the likes of which Chirikai had never seen.
He was a demon, he realized, truly. He scratched his claws against the earth. But he had always imagined himself savvy to humans and their ways, as opposed to older demons that just ate oxen or chewed on lily pads, gossiping at drinking houses. This building and the aura called his knowledge into question. He did not know what this all was.
Chirikai finally reached the center of the structure, where someone had placed a statue of a man.
An unattractive bald man, Chirikai noted with a snort.
A small plate of oranges sat in front of the bald man as an offering. The half-finished building was empty, save for the little statue of the bald man in the center. And the plate of oranges.
Chirikai circled the statue: bronze, with painted eyes and engraved pictures around the edge. He sniffed the bronze.
No one ever made statues of the gods. Not the gods that Chirikai knew anyway, and he turned around in confusion, looking for the clue that would reassure him that this was just a new, bizarre palace. Maybe this was a hiwau? A secret, fat, bald hiwau.
His tail brushed the ground, and Chirikai noticed the chalk sprinkled on the earth. Someone had drawn a circle of lotus flowers on the ground, and he had just blundered right through it. Weird magic clanged in his ears, like a child slamming a gong in his ears, and Chirikai collapsed as pain gripped his bones.
Chirikai growled. He bared his fangs at the man who stepped from behind the statue.
He couldn’t see straight, it hurt so much—whatever this magic was.
A man in purple and gold, a man wielding a staff.
Chirikai had taken the small form of a fox for stealth, but when he intended to terrify his opponents, he transformed into a larger body. He snarled against the spell, his magic sluggish, and elongated his limbs. Smoke billowed up from his paws. His energy scorched the pillars in waves.
The strange man kept chanting, shouting. Chirikai saw his mother’s face, the river, the frogs and poems, and his father—he roared in frustration, and the man kept chanting.
“The demons will be banished, the demons will be banished!”
Chirikai was not a god, but he could pretend to be a god with the flashing lights and thunder, and if anything was going to get him out of this mess—spirits and demons were lower on the supernatural hierarchy—there was nothing like fear of divine retribution, if he could just muster the power...
The fox roared again.
“Let him go, now!”
The ground began to tremble, the structure creaking and groaning.
The strange man stopped.
Chirikai gasped, blinking the tears from his eyes as Heimatsu stepped over his twitching body. He gagged into the dirt floor, transforming into his humanoid form, shivering. Not his human disguise, but the one that Heimatsu knew. His seaside face. His childhood face.
Foxes could speak to foxes, but Heimatsu wouldn’t understand his growls. Chirikai shuddered as his face finally rippled into place. It was the first time he transformed back since his mother’s death, and the feel of the face left an ache worse than the spell. It was the face that felt truly his.