In the land of a thousand demons, some would say Anzi should have been grateful that in her village of Oye, she only had to fear one. Often they lived under stones near houses, or roamed forests, rumbled down from mountains, or hid in household objects, while this one lived in a hundred foot high, black pagoda atop a hill apart from the village. Often they wore frightening masks, bore tusks and horns, and came lurking with wide eyes and slavering mouths, yet this one appeared as a man.
But one was all she needed to fear when her coming of age birthday had come and gone, for this demon of western lands, far away, had set his eyes on her, and came for her when the sun, too, had come and gone. Red lanterns flared through the black pagoda, lit by dead men who still walked under the demon’s control. The pagoda’s sliding doors remained closed, but the black iron doors embedded in the hillside swung open like a beetle’s mandibles, spitting out a foreign carriage pulled by fire-breathing horses as white as burned-out coal. They roared out from the hill, through the street, until they halted outside Anzi’s parents’ little home.
He dressed in white, and so the elders called him the White Death, but far back as Anzi could remember, villagers called him Beautiful to his face, and he much preferred it, for his face fit the name. Beautiful’s black hair swayed long and pretty around his neck and his bright, honey-colored eyes demanded politeness, honesty, and obedience. “I have come for Anzi,” he said. “I will honor this house by wedding its only daughter. She will join me at tomorrow’s sunset and from then on, she will be mine. Do not worry—she will want for nothing.”
Her parents agreed, as they had no choice. Once in every season she could remember, Anzi had watched the same carriage spill from the hill and fetch a maiden from a home, be the family rich or poor, be the father fisherman or scribe. Every family opened their door, inviting Beautiful inside, and everyone let him take the women, though they knew they would never see the girls again, though they knew his name was not his true name, and though they knew he was gifted in his deceit.
The village elders said that once a wise man, Ennsu, had ruled the village, until his death at Beautiful’s hands. Now and then you might see him wander to and from the forest, with messages written by the village’s master. The elders also said the White Death had tricked the gods and demons into believing he had been to the land long before they had, that he had sprinkled the place where Oye stood with blood of his family, and so all others who appeared there were cursed. The old folks even whispered that he would not use his own dead men and wolves, but made deals with three wild foxes to carry his messages and further his lies, though foxes tended to prefer mischief to rewards.
Beautiful did not leave the area of Oye and the hill, and by day did not leave the black pagoda. While other villages housed warriors, and fended off or begged help to escape the raids of mercenaries and demons, Oye remained quiet. All Beautiful asked in return for his protection was a bride at the beginning of every season.
“I should have run away,” Anzi said to herself as her parents and brothers prepared her colorful ceremonial garb. “But his spies would find me or his dead men, and they would drag me back here. No, I should have wed before my time.”
Mere hours before the next dusk, Anzi fled to the house of Kyne, a young merchant’s son who had once been fond of her. For a while, young men had been avoiding her when they should have become more interested as her birthday drew closer, as if the mark of the White Death was burned into her head already. She did not know what would become of her in the black pagoda. Beautiful drank the blood of some brides and turned others’ skin as white as snow. Some said he did both, drinking and changing his wives, and then he sent them with Ennsu to be traded to the foxes. None knew for certain but the brides themselves.
Anzi had a better fate in mind for herself. “Wed me, Kyne,” Anzi said when she found him. “Save me from this foreign demon, who drinks and wets the earth with blood, and who seems to have been young when my grandparents were, yet doesn’t age with time. I would rather grow old with you.”
Anzi was quite eye-catching herself, and perhaps that was the true mark that told men to steer clear of her, unless they wished to invite Beautiful’s wrath. But Kyne was taken by surprise and agreed to wed the beautiful Anzi, ignoring whatever betrothal wishes his parents might have had for him. The two ran outside of town, to the sun shrine, where a disciple of the sun gods blessed their brows and said their lives were one.
When Beautiful returned to Oye at sunset and knocked on the door of Anzi’s home, he found her prepared for a wedding. He took her arm in his slender, soft hands and an inviting smile passed over his bare, pretty face, but there was a murkier smile on Anzi’s lips.
“I am already wed,” she said, indicating Kyne behind her. “But I would be happy to welcome you as a second husband, should my first find it acceptable. Men have two wives sometimes, so why not a wife with two husbands? Or three? We may see.”
The smile and softness wavered. “We may see.”
Beautiful left the home and rode his carriage back through the iron doors beneath the black pagoda. Anzi thought herself free and clear, moving her belongings to Kyne’s home that very evening, and she would come to like her husband better as he learned his father’s trade. Yet when she awoke in the morning, she found him gone from their bed, without a ruffle in the fabric or a change of clothing taken from his room.
The day wore on and Anzi searched high and low through Oye, steering clear only of the black pagoda, still lit with red lanterns. Finally she traveled to the sun shrine, hoping Kyne had gone to pray, yet she found no trace of her husband and the disciple hadn’t seen him either.
On her way back to the village, Anzi met a red-furred fox in the road with blood on his lips and tongue. “I have seen your husband,” he said. “You had best run, before the White Death finds you.”
Anzi did not believe him, but when the sun set after she returned home, the carriage abandoned the underground chambers beneath the hill, riding through the iron doors once more, and Beautiful appeared at Anzi’s home yet again. “I have my answer,” he said. “I will be second to no one. That is not how we wed where I come from, and so Kyne is no more. You will wed me now.”
“Give me a day to grieve,” Anzi said. “Tomorrow evening, I will appear in your home.”
Taking this for obedience, Beautiful left, vowing to return once more and retrieve Anzi as his betrothed.
Anzi vowed to leave first though—she put on her brother’s clothes so as to travel more easily and waited with the black pagoda in sight for the undead wise man, Ennsu. At dawn, the withered man emerged just as the elders said and Anzi followed him to the forest. He carried a scroll in his hands and nothing more. Anzi made sure to hide behind hills on the way and behind trees within the forest, and kept silent until Ennsu stopped in a clearing where a narrow brook flowed between stones and three foxes of different colors surrounded a tiny stone shrine, no bigger than a man’s head. The brook ran from a waterfall nearby, covering the mouth of a cave, and caught the sun’s light in its sparkling, clear surface.
Ennsu silently laid the scroll across a rock and the foxes stepped forward to read.
“He says we will have another of the monstrous brides soon,” said the Red Fox. “This means he caught the woman Anzi despite my warning.”
“He asks that we not take her from him, but he feels obliged to fulfill his end of the bargain,” said the Golden Fox.
“In return, he wishes one of us to travel as far east as the Glittering Isle,” said the White Fox. “It won’t be me.”
“I have no desire to talk with the demons of that island,” said the Golden.
“I have no desire to swindle a fisherman out of his boat or swim those waters so we might take another worthless horror,” said the Red. “Perhaps we may let him keep this one.”
“They are fiends that devour other demons,” said the Golden. “He wants them and so we must take them.”
“It is the only reason to take the screeching witches,” said the White.
Ennsu left the foxes once they were finished reading and Anzi waited for his footsteps to fade before emerging into the clearing where the foxes basked in the sun. She bowed her head and knelt to the ground as a sign of respect, but the foxes growled as if a bear had entered their territory and set to circling her like wolves ten times the foxes’ sizes.
Illustration by Momijigirl.
“Who are you?” the White and Golden asked.
“I am, or would be, the bride of Beautiful,” Anzi said. The foxes looked puzzled. “Beautiful, the master of Ennsu, ruler of Oye, who lives in the black pagoda. The White Death.”
“Beautiful?” The foxes ceased their circling and rolled in the short grass, laughing hysterically. “His true name is Dagshire,” the Red Fox said.
“He tells all the demons of his long lineage,” the Golden Fox said.
“Rather, trades us to tell them,” the White Fox said.
“You told me my husband was here,” Anzi said, looking to the Red Fox.
“I told you I have seen him,” the Red Fox said. “He never left the village, but was taken by Ennsu into the black pagoda. It seems, if my eyes tell me the truth, that you are not yet changed by the vampire. I urge you to flee.”
“Why would foxes help me?”
“We do not care about you,” the Golden Fox scoffed.
“We do not want another of his changed brides,” the White Fox said, looking to the cave. “Vicious monsters. They feed on spirits and demons the way Dagshire feeds on humans and their blood, only we have kept them starved, bound by the sun-soaked water and our shrine.”
“The last thing we want is yet another,” the Red Fox said. “When he first came to this land, he wanted to trade with us, as he knew the slyness of our tongues. He wanted us to convince the demons to leave his place alone, with whatever lies we needed to tell. In return, he’d give us anything, but begged us not to take his changed wives—his only kin, he said.”
“Naturally, we said our only price was the changed wives,” the Golden Fox said.
“He pleaded and wailed, but in the end, he relented,” the White Fox said. “They do us no good, but to see a proud creature suffer and cry is too pleasing to pass up.”
“We were hoping you would escape so we would not have another, as he means to change you and be happy with you,” the Red Fox told Anzi. “We would be obliged to take you so his misery would continue, and we do not need another wailing demon in that cave. We have no desire to hear your maddening screams in the night when all should be quiet, a time we might better sneak and trick and laugh the hours away if not for their noise.”
Anzi thought over the elders’ tales of Beautiful’s partnership with the foxes, his isolation from other demons, and the foxes’ explanation of when this deal was made. “Great foxes, I do not think Beautiful wants to keep these brides,” she said. “He has played a drama for you, to convince you that you’re taking away what’s his, when really he’s glad to be rid of them. But I see a way for you to sneak and trick and laugh away a few hours with them, if you’ll listen, and if Beautiful will seek me out as he vowed to do.”