Foxglove and Snakeroot
Liwa could still feel Lan's cold hands around her wrist, chafing uncomfortably like dragon scales against her skin. Between the two of them, Liwa had always been the one who was physically stronger. But rubbing at the red, angry marks snaking around her wrist, the difference between the Azure Dragon and her own mortal strength was clear.
Lan looked somewhat apologetic. “I’m really sorry, Liwa. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Whether she meant to or not, it had already wounded Liwa’s pride. It was a very real reminder of the hierarchy and the nature of the world.
“So you think the white snake is on the prowl,” Liwa managed, keeping her voice level. “So what? My legend is completely irrelevant now that I’m like, literally a human. Why would I seek out the silver lake?”
“To raise your grades?” Lan suggested playfully, and for a moment it was like her old friend had not changed at all before her voice grew somber. “That, I’m afraid I do not know. But your motivations matter not. The white serpent has already arrived, and with him brings a great flood and destruction. You must steer clear of him at all costs.”
“So you’re telling me to be careful of everyone around me just in case they’re a snake,” Liwa said, frowning. “Kind of a weird kind of interpretation but I’ll believe you. But why did you have to send the other two away to say this?”
Lan gazed into the house, as if she was staring at something far away only she could see. “Daughters of Zhinu are attuned to the fabrics of the universe. She must’ve noticed something was amiss, but wanted to hide it to protect you. And your xiezhi friend is an emissary of justice. This is a delicate matter, and I cannot allow his outside interference.”
“Right,” Liwa said, slowly processing those words. “But Lan, why are you referring to Yuna and Jin as if they aren’t your friends too?”
Lan blinked. She rubbed at her eyes, and seemed to snap out of a trance. “Oh. I’m sorry, sometimes everything blurs together, my consciousness and that of the Azure Dragon’s spirit. As I was saying, can you promise me you’ll try to stay out of trouble at least?”
“Staying out of trouble, huh?” Liwa echoed. “If it doesn’t come find me first, I’ll do my best.”
The official story was that Jin had wandered off into some random closet to take a nap, and when Yuna found him she had chewed him out thoroughly for bad houseguest etiquette before dragging him back. The three of them didn’t stay too long after Yuna delivered the lecture notes because Lan excused herself to work on the reports and documents for official business that she’d neglected on her trip.
“Thank you for these,” she said, gazing fondly down at the neat, handwritten transcription of Professor Liu’s lecture. “But I’m afraid returning to school at all this semester might not be possible. Thank you for coming to see me today, everyone. It made me very happy. I hope the three of you stay safe and well.”
“Same to you, Lan,” Yuna said, her voice cracking slightly as she flung her arms around Lan’s shoulders. “Thank you for having us.”
Jin drove them back to town, and he and Yuna seemed to be back to their normal selves. Liwa was quiet the whole trip back, which the other two did not comment on.
It was Saturday afternoon, which meant they had less than a day and a half before the calculus exam. Yuna was feeling generous and so she gave both Liwa and Jin a copy of her notes as promised which wouldn’t ensure that they would pass—she told them sternly—but at least they could focus on reviewing the important topics.
So Liwa and Jin spent the rest of the weekend at their usual cafe studying miserably, poring over Yuna’s detailed notes and annotations and being grateful that at least one of them was smart.
“Did you look up where your exam’s gonna be?” Jin asked, standing up from the cramped table and stretching out his back. They’d been at it for a few hours without taking a break now, and Liwa was starting to realize that there was an ache in her neck. Jin continued, “Yuna and I, our last names are really close so we’ll be in the same building. You might want to double check yours, just in case it’s in some obscure corner of campus.”
“Looking it up right now,” Liwa said. She signed into the student portal on her phone, then scrolled through to locate the exam schedule information. “Surnames from H to K—there it is, PHRM203. That’s...the pharmacy building?”
Well, at least she knew exactly where that was.
“Good luck tomorrow,” Jin said with a sigh, “because we’re both going to need it.”
Liwa squinted down at the next question on the test paper. The graphs were already blurring together, and the numbers were starting to read like gibberish. She rubbed her eyes and tried to focus on the question again, suppressing a yawn.
It hadn’t taken her too long to find the classroom in the pharmacy building even though she’d only been here twice. She had to ask around to figure out how to get upstairs, but she made it before the proctor started reviewing the exam rules with time to spare.
But when the exam began, she realized she should’ve studied a bit more than just flipping through Yuna’s notes over the weekend. Granted, a lot of things had gotten in the way, but she really should’ve started reviewing the material a week ago. At least there were multiple choice questions, so she had a 25% chance of getting a third of the test right…
When the hour was up and the proctor collected all the exam papers, Liwa texted Yuna gloomily to thank her for the notes and promised that she’d work harder from now on. Then she packed up her things and headed out of the classroom with everyone else. Halfway down the stairs on the way to the first floor of the building, a sudden wave of nausea surged over her and her heart lurched uncomfortably in her chest.
It had been twenty-four hours since the last time she’d taken the antihistamine pills, she realized, reeling from the growing discomfort in her chest. Unfortunately, the bottle of allergy meds were still at home on the counter where she’d left it. She’d forgotten to take one this morning.
Liwa stumbled blindly through the hallway, supporting herself against the walls in case her legs gave way. She fought to remain conscious, at the very least until she could make it to Mengjiao’s clinic in the west wing, past grey double doors and into the brightly-lit laboratory—
The heart palpitations seemed to be getting worse, and she looked wildly around for the familiar figure of the doctor. There were pharmacy students clustered by the lab equipment dressed in white lab coats and others standing against the wall chatting quietly to themselves. There was a receptionist by the counter, and Mengjiao was nowhere in sight.
Liwa tried to steady her breathing, telling herself to keep calm while her heart thudded, loud and painful in her chest. She could ask the receptionist for some allergy meds. Then they’d kick in after a few minutes, and she’d be fine. Everything would be fine.
But at that moment, she couldn’t move.
For the first time in her life, she felt an overwhelming sensation of terror, like she was frozen stiff before the jaws of a giant python just moments before being devoured. She could feel her life flash before her eyes, the life of a small red fox quivering in fear as she gazed into the eyes of a predator.
“A snake will always come back to bite you, so do not turn your back on him,” she could hear Lan say, even though Lan had never said anything of that sort to her.
In the next heartbeat, she jerked her head to look behind her, forcing herself to turn around even though every instinct in her body was telling her to run. And when she turned, pushing down the irrational dread that bubbled up in her lungs, she found herself face-to-face with a pair of yellow snakelike eyes.
A soft, serpentine smile.
And then came a low voice that cut through the sound of her deafening heartbeats. “And in the end, the white snake stole the fox’s heart.”