Foxglove and Snakeroot
In the face of death, Liwa cursed her past self from that afternoon for zipping up the allergy pill so carefully in a plastic bag to keep lint and dust from sticking to it. She also cursed herself for only bringing one. And most of all, she cursed her past life for the asterism-attributed heart pain—if the fox spirit didn’t want to die, then at least put some team effort here?! They were in this together!
That was what she was screaming inwardly at her thundering heart as Kai’s teeth sank into the padded shoulder of her jacket, piercing skin. Back in the day, Liwa was guilty of playing dirty and biting in street fights by taking advantage of her sharp fox’s canines but this…this was like trying to fend off a viper striking to kill.
And the entire time, she was still desperately trying to fish the pill out of the plastic bag as her heart and forearm and shoulder throbbed. Screw resealable bags—she was only going to use sandwich bags from now on.
“I’ll help you if you swear to stay away from him from now on,” Qin called out cheerfully.
Liwa couldn’t afford to take her eyes off of Kai for a moment but she still managed to spit out, “What can you do? This is your fault in the first place, you little—”
She finally pulled the tiny allergy pill free from the plastic just as Kai tensed, coiling to strike again like he could never tire. Liwa’s reflexes alone would not be enough to dodge the inhuman speed of a snake, she knew that better than anyone after exchanging blows with him for this long. That she’d kept up all this time as her heart threatened to burst was nothing short of a miracle.
“Snap out of it, Kai!”
She’d have to let him wound her again for the opportunity to—
Less than seventy milliseconds was beyond what she could comprehend, but as he was suddenly looming over her with fangs glistening with blood, there was a moment that she thought she could see him struggling with himself. That moment was all she needed.
“Take this!” Liwa all but flung the allergy pill into his throat with all the strength she could muster. And of course, since she’d been pushing herself past her limits all this time, she finally succumbed to the pain in the red fox’s throbbing heart and blacked out before her head hit the ground.
“So you want answers, do you?”
The sound of the disembodied voice quavering in the formless world was jarring, and Liwa didn’t register that this was a dream at first. Dreams had always been an abstract sequence of events, taking her through the visuals and sounds of the red fox spirit’s memories. The world had never been empty and grey like this, with the fox talking to her directly.
And she sounded exactly like the way Liwa’s voice was on the phone.
“Who are you?” Liwa asked, and her own voice echoed into the horizonless distance. When she glanced down, she realized she too, had no physical form. She was just a voice, having a phantom conversation with her own voice.
“I am you. You are me,” the other voice intoned. Because it sounded so much like a recording of herself, it was a little hard to take it seriously.
“It’s you isn’t it? The red fox spirit of my past life that keeps meddling with the life I have now.”
“I am merely your sealed memories, Liwa,” the fox spirit said grimly. “And I am only here for one reason—to warn you not to make the same mistake as last time.”
Being also just a disembodied voice, Liwa could not frown like she wanted so she settled for making herself sound as annoyed as possible. “What mistake? You’re talking about Kai, right?”
“Why do you go so far for the white snake?”
“He is my friend,” she said. “Ugh, you sound just like Lan. What do you guys have against the poor guy, anyway?”
“You are an idiot.”
Liwa did not want to hear those words sounding like they came out of her own mouth.
“I warn you time and time again,” the fox spirit continued, “and yet you dismiss my centuries of agony. You brush off the Azure Dragon’s concern. You fraternize with the enemy. And now, you give him an opportunity to sink his fangs into your heart. When will you learn?”
Liwa remembered now. Kai hadn’t been himself, attacking her indiscriminately and in a crazed frenzy. Qin must’ve done something to him with his share of the powers of the Azure Dragon. Kai’s behaviour had been so strange. But a part of her considered that perhaps that was just the true nature he had managed to suppress with antihistamines running through his veins. Just as her heart throbbed at the sight of the reincarnation of the white snake, his fangs coveted her heart.
“You’re right,” the fox spirit’s voice said, pleased.
But that wasn’t right, Liwa thought. Modern medicine gave them the opportunity to set aside their differences, so that they could sit across from each other at a cafe and hold a normal conversation. They were university students just trying to live their lives—so what if a long-dead snake tried to kill a long-dead fox once? Their lives now belonged to themselves, and no one else. That was what it meant to go against fate.
“You cannot go against—”
“You have been blinded by a grudge that has lasted far too long,” Liwa snapped, annoyance coursing through her words.
“And in every lifetime you are blinded by love!”
The fox’s spirit’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “The white serpent lies as he breathes. And yet every time without fail, you are swayed by his honeyed words and his golden eyes, and when you let down your guard he will take your heart!”
“If that’s true, then so be it,” Liwa said roughly. “You keep talking about the past lives like they’re things I’ve done. But it’s all just you. You’re afraid of facing your own mistakes. Even if I am you and you are me, we are not the same. I’m not afraid. And I want to trust Kai.”
A hysterical laugh filled the space of nothingness. Then the fox finally spoke again and her words sounded far away. “Trust, you say? With your foolish actions, you have already placed yourself at his mercy. There is nothing I can do but wait for you to wake up with a hole in your chest. Perhaps then you will finally understand what it means to die over and over again at the hands of the one…you once thought you loved…”
And then the voice that sounded so much like Liwa’s own faded into the horizonless stretch of grey.