Foxglove and Snakeroot
When Jin returned before the fireworks started, Liwa breathed a quiet sigh of relief. A part of her had been overthinking Qin’s intentions, worried that he’d do something to her friends. But Jin joined them safely in the soft picnic blanket that Yuna had woven over the snow-covered grass.
The thrum of festival music had become background noise, but it suddenly went quiet to make way for an announcement over the loudspeakers. The announcer gave a brief speech about how the fireworks would be starting shortly, and to be mindful that all powers from the stars and constellations would be blocked for the duration of the show.
“Once again, for those with severe asterism-attributed illnesses or those whose powers are essential to maintain their quality of life, we advise visitors to attend the show with caution,” the amplified voice rang out through the venue. “We have doctors that specialize in past life ailments on-site should any visitors require their services and complimentary antihistamines are carried by all staff members.”
“Did you bring antihistamines?” Yuna whispered to Liwa, who nodded and dug into her pockets to show her.
Jin blanched. “Er, that’s a lot…are you running a medicine shop or something?”
Then the announcer's clipped tone became jovial. “And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! It’s almost midnight to ring in the new year, let’s begin the countdown! Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five…”
The crowd cheered while counting along, and Liwa joined in with a small smile on her face as she watched her friends. This was the kind of normal that they deserved, for a moment, for a lifetime.
Liwa turned to look at Kai sitting on her other side, who was staring into the sky, transfixed, even though there was no light show yet. She stifled a giggle, tapping his shoulder.
His gaze was soft when it met hers, and the way the light of the stars reflected in his liquid gold eyes was breathtakingly beautiful.
Liwa wanted to tell him happy new year, to throw her arms around him and her other friends before the first fireworks drowned out her giddy laughter, but the moment the sky lit up like lights blossoming on an inky canvas was when she felt her heart stop. And then there was nothing at all.
Perhaps if it were a sudden cardiac arrest she’d still be conscious for a while longer, but the moment her heartbeat ceased she fell instantly into a dream.
A red fox stood overlooking the edge of a redwood forest, far east of the sea. In a world where celestial spirits roamed free and long-lived, the fox watched those that had descended to become mortals in idle curiosity. Those that had been reborn still maintained a fragment of their powers. They were to be regarded with respect, but they were not to meddle with the affairs of the spirits that guarded the galaxies in the sky.
But the fox did not have a star of her own, and the other woodland spirits did not allow her to join them. And so she planted a field of foxglove flowers among her dwellings, keeping to herself in her weary days. Despite cultivating her spirit, her celestial powers remained weak even after centuries. She lacked a founding legend, as she was born from a mere wish.
“Without a star, you are nothing,” her raccoon spirit neighbour told her disdainfully.
Her magpie spirit neighbour said, “When you are born again as a mortal, surely you will be without any powers to give your future incarnation.”
The fox did not like either of those spirits' words, so she clawed at their fur and feathers so they would leave her alone. In the cycle of reincarnation, she would remain ordinary again, and again, and again—whether spirit, beast, or mortal, she would always be just an ordinary red fox. But she did not mind, for the wish buried in her heart had already come true.
And one day when the blue dragon appeared before her with those very words her woodland neighbours mocked her with, she clawed against his impenetrable scales with all the anger she could muster.
“Who are you?” the dragon said, completely unfazed.
“Your subjects are forgettable of course, Lord Dragon of the East,” the fox spirit said through gritted teeth. For a spirit without even a corresponding star, she was as easily forgotten as she was weak. The seven astrological mansions of the eastern sky had no room for her; the horn, neck, root, room, heart, tail, and winnowing basket that mapped out the spirits governed under the Azure Dragon with the pattern of the stars in the sky.
Those that ruled loftily at the top had no need to remember.
“When you join the cycle of reincarnation,” the dragon said. “I hope we can get along.”
“Well I don’t,” the fox replied. “I don’t like your face.”
It must be blasphemous to speak in such a manner to the lord of the east, but her words did not faze the blue dragon god at all.
In the years that passed, the Azure Dragon continued to perform his duties as the guardian of the land. And in tandem, all of the fox spirit’s wishes continued to gather in the depths of her heart under the watchful eye of the crescent moon, giving her powers unheard of that she would not even be aware of until it was too late.
Centuries later, the celestial red fox was still just a mere fox in the next life. The Azure Dragon was right—they’d remained begrudging friends because they had no one else. The fox, shunned by those who valued power. The dragon, unfathomable by the ordinary folk.
The hierarchy, written in the stars, rewritten in their friendship.
But with the following life, the fox’s memories slowly began to fade. That was the nature of past lives—to coexist with every past existence would be undeniably overwhelming for a minor spirit. To be born anew was to start anew. The blessing of longevity of the Azure Dragon was also a curse as he watched his first friend forget the times that they shared.
“Did you know?” the Vermillion Bird said to the dragon one day, “That fox you keep around has a peculiar power? I know because her soul has the same stench as phoenix ashes.”
“What do you mean?” the Azure Dragon asked distractedly, gazing upon those who had alway shunned the fox hanging around her now in this life.
“The last ingredient of the gift of immortality,” the bird replied with a ruffle of her illustrious plumage. “The Jade Rabbit of the Moon covets that power. It is only a matter of time before he decides to extinguish your fox friend’s life in exchange for eternal life.”
“Eternal life only brings eternal loneliness,” the dragon said wisely. “I have seen your face for thousands of years, and I am sick of it.”
“Well, suck it up,” the Vermillion Bird snapped. “But they say the elixir is not just an elixir of immortality. It is an elixir of life, cultivated from millenia of wishes and dreams from a single ordinary fox. It has the power to grant eternal life, cure illnesses, or relieve one from perpetual existence. If you have tired of your worldly routine, then—”
“You fool!” the dragon roared, and the land between the east and the south seemed to tremble. “Never speak of this to me again.”
But the dragon grew wary, for he had begun to notice the trail of spirits that sought after the fox’s heart. One of them was a white snake spirit with shrewd eyes and a vapid smile, and to the dragon’s horror the fox was enamoured.
“What do you see in that snake?” the Azure Dragon asked the fox one day, unable to believe that a serpent could bewitch her so. “Surely he just wishes to take from you, take what you should never give!”
“What?” the fox said. “Why are you speaking in riddles?”
Because thousands of years of existence did not help the dragon learn how to communicate very well.
“Your heart!” he blurted out. “Keep it…safe.”
The fox, still confused, could only laugh while nodding. “Sure, sure. Whatever you say, Lord Dragon.”
And that was only the beginning of their tragic tale.