LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

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PROLOGUE

 

The darkness was suffocating. A man was floating alone in an endless ocean, and he had been there for God knew how long. Countless years had passed since his last human interaction. In fact, he no longer remembered his name. He simply… existed.

The only variance to the man’s existence was an occasional wave or gentle murmur. Yet try as he might, he could never reach those voices, and he could never break free from the water that contained him. He used to fear the darkness, the unknown, but now it had become a part of him. He was one with the darkness, and one with the water surrounding him.

One day, he became aware of another existence. It, too, was trapped in the darkness. He couldn’t see anything, so he assumed it was a serpent. After all, he could think of no other creatures that were so long and thin. Normally, such a beast would strangle him alive and swallow him. Yet he felt kinship with it, a connection of sorts. They were companions in the darkness, inseparable friends. Even the cruelest devil would never kill the only other creature in existence, lest madness take him and drive him to ruin.

Humans couldn’t live alone. That was what made the darkness so unbearable for the man. He faintly remembered the last breath he had taken, in the outside. His water-filled lungs longed for fresh air. With air, he could speak. The more he thought of it, the more he wished he could befriend that coiling snake.

Time passed by, day by day. Each moment was torture for the man, but he endured until the day that he finally saw it—the light. At first it was only a single sliver, a ray of light shining upon his gloomy surroundings.

Light. I had forgotten what it looked like. After all these years, I can’t bear to look at it and can only keep my eyes closed in fear. And yet he could feel the light on his skin. He needed it.

He forced himself to swim toward that sliver, which pulsated and grew with each passing moment. He swam with arms that had weakened with time. The strength of a grown man eluded him, and he felt as weak as an infant. But he didn’t give up. No man who had ever seen the light could return to the darkness. As the man struggled, he felt the coiling snake tighten up around him, holding him back.

Come with me, he thought. The light is so much better than this emptiness. Hold on to me, and I’ll take you out to see the world in all its glory.

The coiling snake seemed to hesitate before finally loosening up and letting him swim once more. It didn’t let go, however. It simply clung to the man and waited for him to lead the way out.

After what seemed like an eternity, he finally felt himself making progress toward the ever-widening rift. Now it seemed to attract him. The rift was there just for him, waiting for him to crawl through to a better world. He exerted all his strength to finally pull himself against the opening, only to find out that it was too small for him.

I will not let this stop me. I will pull through this rift that I’ve waited for all these years. Since he couldn’t pull himself through, he would simply squeeze through. And he would bring that snake along with him. He first pushed his hand through the rift, and he felt nothing but cold beyond it. But if there was light, he could stand a little cold. Anything was better than the darkness. So he shoved his arm in deeper until he finally had his elbow through.

That was when he felt the “others.” He felt the hands of giants guiding him. He heard the soft murmurs that he’d heard all this time.

Have they been calling to me? Have they been trying to find me? He wasn’t sure, but even if they were enemies, he’d still charge through that portal and out into the sunlit world.

The giant hands latched on to his arm, gently guiding him out. He cooperated with them, forcing his head through the tiny crack. Even if my skull shatters, I’ll force my way through! He felt immense pain as his head began squeezing through the portal. Surprisingly, it didn’t resist him; instead, it began expanding, accommodating him. It pulsed as it seemed to try to pull him through. Both the portal and the man were working in tandem, matching their rhythm to pull him through to the other side.

With great effort, he finally pushed his head through the opening. His mind shook as a massive headache overwhelmed his every sense. The pain was soon relieved as he and the snake were pulled through the portal into a mysterious, cold world. Despite the cold, and despite his closed eyes, he felt that he was in the right place. This was the world of light, the world where he belonged.

He clutched the snake and shivered as a large cloth dropped down on him, drying off the water that had drenched him in the darkness. The water was finally gone, so he opened his mouth and breathed in with all his strength. That first breath was painful, and he let out a shrill roar as he swiftly exhaled.

Right, I’ve forgotten how to breathe. Time has atrophied my lungs, so I need to take things step by step. He instantly recovered and began taking in fast, shallow breaths. Each one spread warmth throughout his body to his weak limbs.

“Let me give you a hand,” he heard a loud booming voice say. He didn’t have the strength to resist as a giant hand patted him down and helped him wipe himself off. “Finally, he’s here after all this time.”

“He’s beautiful,” the quivering voice of a woman said. He felt two large hands firmly grip him in the towel, and the giant lady took him to her chest. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, he felt warmth. Perhaps getting treated like an infant wasn’t so bad.

“What should we call him?” the man’s voice asked.

“Let’s call him Cha Ming,” she replied weakly.

 

***

 

It was raining outside. While Diyu was hardly a humid place, its proximity to the Yellow River ensured a dense miasma of soul vapor constantly rising to the clouds above. It accumulated day by day, eventually materializing as a soul monsoon. The plant life in Diyu welcomed this refreshing downpour, which revitalized many soul life-forms and brought color to their ethereal limbs.

Every soul monsoon brought about the birth of many spiritual life-forms all over the city. Countless creatures used the energy to break through to the next level. Yama would have done the same if he hadn’t reached the limits of this realm. As much as he yearned to leave, he was bound by duty to serve for all eternity. The universe depended on his unrelenting efforts and impeccable work ethic, which was why he found himself outside his office tower in such wretched rain in the first place.

Yama was elegantly dressed and carried a magnificently crafted umbrella. Not only was its handle carved from jade, but the various runes on the both the handle and the fabric made sure that not a single speck of rain could land on his carefully crafted suit. It was a Hades Limited Edition suit from a few aeons ago. Collecting suits and drinking tea were two of his few hobbies. Fishing was the other.

He hailed a taxi that just happened to pass by the building, only to have it splash a puddle of soul water off the street and directly onto Yama’s umbrella shield. He smoldered in rage but held himself back, lest he destroy the entire city block. That would be a public-relations nightmare, and their department was already working triple overtime.

A few moments later, another taxi stopped and ushered him inside. It sped off at ten times the speed of light toward the center of the massive city. Yama didn’t often go downtown. Everyone kept telling him that it was the best location for an office, but he’d never seen the appeal. There was nothing to do downtown, and it was easy enough to host a half dozen coffee shops and a few premium restaurants inside the office building. Besides, the commute downtown during rush hour was atrocious.

For now, however, the car plowed ahead at full speed, dodging thousands of cars to save precious minutes. Driving a taxi like a stolen vehicle was a time-honored tradition throughout the universe. Yama didn’t mind, of course. If he’d wanted a reasonable driver, he would have hired a rideshare driver. That sort of company was all the rage in Diyu nowadays. He couldn’t be bothered trying out the service, however. He questioned whether they had the proper insurance and training.

Traffic soon slowed to a crawl, and the skyscrapers of Diyu’s downtown core shone brightly in their magnificence. This was the true city that never slept. Each high-rise building was over ten li tall, and some even pushed a hundred. Thankfully, slowing to a crawl was a relative term. In gridlock here, cars still managed to travel at half the speed of light.

I hope I won’t be late.

Yama took out his communicator when he felt a vibration affect his true soul. It was a soul message from Usama, the man he was meeting.

Where are you? it read.

He deftly typed in a few words in reply. Be there soon. Traffic is backed up, but I should be there in about thirty minutes.

Time flowed differently in Diyu. Thirty Diyu minutes was akin to several years in some mortal realms, but only a passing second in others. Even Yama wasn’t sure why this happened, but he knew that the brightest minds in the Underworld were studying the subject with utmost vigor.

Soon, the taxi broke through the gridlock and dropped Yama off in front of a posh-looking establishment. Usama stood there waiting for him, wearing a familiar red Hades suit. Also limited edition, if he wasn’t mistaken. The shorter, bearded man handed him a cigar as they walked past two large bouncers and made their way into a large banquet hall. They passed by several thousand tables before finally arriving at a small one reasonably close to the stage, where speeches would be given.

Another short man with curly hair stood up to greet him and shook his hand. “Usama’s said so much about you. It’s great to finally meet the legend in person. My name is Judah, at your service,” the man said jovially. Yama nodded, and they sat down, enjoying complimentary spirit wine as they waited for the event to begin.

“Good wine,” Yama commented. “Desolate Steps vintage, forty-sixth great kalpa[1], if I’m not mistaken?” he said while savoring its full body. Such exquisite wines not only calmed the mind but soothed the soul. This bottle was extremely expensive, capable of funding a thousand of his employees for ten Underworld years.

“I never thought you’d be such a wine connoisseur,” Judah said.

“Well, it comes with age, I suppose. You have no idea how many hobbies I’ve gotten to try since the beginning of time.” Yama sighed self-deprecatingly. He wasn’t sure why, but he instantly had a good impression of the man. He had a pleasant demeanor, obviously the type of man people flocked to. In Yama’s experience, this type of person would easily become the core of his group of friends. He was slightly envious. Despite having lived for aeons, Yama’s friends didn’t number more than a few dozen.

“Judah, Usama said that you know a way to help alleviate my staffing problems,” Yama said, cutting to the chase. “I must admit, Usama has done a great job filtering through the billions of potential contractors, and I’ve already reached out to several who are clearly deserving of full-time, permanent employment. But I’m curious—beyond temporary workers, what help could you possibly provide?”

The short, curly-haired man nodded understandingly. “I understand. Being lord of the Underworld and all, you certainly have a very high-level perspective. However, I think that is exactly the problem.”

Before he could continue, the clear sound of a bell rang out, and tens of thousands of servants flocked out to the various tables. The bustle continued for a few minutes before they finally disappeared, leaving only the finest dishes for the guests to enjoy. Broiled Star Anemone, Poisoned Dragon’s Liver, and all sorts of exotic delicacies were included in what Yama could only assume was an extremely expensive meal.

Despite priding himself on his Spartan lifestyle, Yama filled his plate with gusto. The first few bites he ate were heavenly, so much so that he almost cried. The others at the table looked on with shock as the man single-handedly polished off a quarter of the dishes on the table. They didn’t dare complain, of course. The man could technically reincarnate them, mere spirits, with a single thought.

After finally sating his demonic food lust, he looked around and realized his impropriety. He put away his cutlery and cleared his throat before speaking. “My friend, what exactly do you mean that my perspective is too high level? After all, I’m extremely familiar with the inner workings of my company, and anything my employees can do, I can do better.”

“Right,” Judah admitted. “You’re so capable that you often do not realize the problems of lesser souls. But that isn’t what I meant. Your status is so lofty that you’ve ignored the governance of the Underworld, letting the free market decide what’s best and only interfering in extreme cases.”

“That’s right,” Yama said proudly. “The free-market system is well known throughout the universe as the best way to allocate scarce resources with alternative uses[2]. Literally billions of kingdoms and countries of the past seventy-two great kalpas have failed due to inappropriate government intervention, and a smart man learns from the mistakes of others.”

“Rightly so, Your Highness, rightly so,” Judah praised. “Of course, there are exceptions, as you know. Things like primary roadways are best done by the government, as are a few other select activities like law enforcement and the military. But have you ever thought of the structure of government? More importantly, have you thought of the way taxes are structured, specifically?”

“What do taxes have to do with anything? It’s common sense that everyone should pay into the system. However, successful people have benefited more from the system and should be taxed at higher rates.” The lord of the Underworld had given much thought to this in the past.

“In principle, you’re correct,” Judah acquiesced. “Heaven shares the same opinion. As does the demon world. But did you know that Hell[3] and the Immortal Realm have recently introduced tax reform which has greatly affected the Underworld?”

Yama frowned when he heard this. After all, he didn’t meddle much in foreign affairs, and the Underworld had always been a strictly neutral party. He hadn’t even interfered in the Twenty-Seven Universe Wars that had devastated the entire cosmos. In some, the devils attacked Heaven, and in others, the angels attacked Hell. Sometimes, the demons decided that they were the rightful rulers of the universe and staged a large-scale rebellion. Throughout all these genocides and righteous crusades, the Underworld had kept its neutrality.

How dare they hurt Diyu.

Seeing the man’s agitation, Judah acted quickly to defuse the situation. “It’s not as bad as I made it out to be. You see, your current taxation system consists of a five-percent flat tax and a progressive tax that can reach as high as fifty percent. Meanwhile, you’ve also eliminated corporate taxes, which is a good move with respect to attracting businesses and having your economy prosper. Meanwhile, you also have a hefty consumption tax of ten percent, and it’s impossible to avoid ever since you digitized currency several aeons ago.

“What Hell and the Immortal Realm have done is to cap the progressive tax at twenty percent. And because of this, their economy has thrived.”

The lord of the Underworld pondered in silence before giving the short, blue-eyed man the okay to continue. “You see, this has enabled them to retain top talents in Hell and the Immortal Realm. In addition, many souls have flocked away from Diyu to take advantage of the favorable tax treatment. If that wasn’t enough, these are all your most capable people. They’re leaving, and only the unambitious and the unskilled are left behind.”

“How do you propose we counter this?” Yama asked in a worried voice.

“I ask that, in your capacity as lord of the Underworld, you support me for mayor in the upcoming election. My platform is very simple: cut spending and cap the progressive tax at ten percent. We’ll then increase the consumption tax to twenty percent to make up for lost revenue. The people in Diyu will be discouraged to consume and waste resources, but they’ll be able to save beyond their wildest dreams.

“Ambitious souls would flock from everywhere, knowing that after slaving away for a few millennia, they’ll be able to retire peacefully in the Blessed Isles in Heaven, among other various exotic locations. With the Diyu advantage, skilled workers will flock to the Underworld. Then, attracting talented individuals will become much more manageable.”

The lord of the Underworld nodded seriously, but he wasn’t born yesterday. Politicians liked to meddle in all sorts of things, and he was sure that this man was no exception. “What other pieces of the platform should I know about?” he said shrewdly.

“Oh, nothing major. I want to remove the following pieces of art in the city. They’re atrocious, and whoever made them should be ashamed of themselves.” Judah passed him a list of the supposed “art” objects that City Hall had approved as a part of mandatory art spending. Fortunately, Yama agreed. They were terrible, and the person who’d approved them needed to be fired.

“Anything else?” the ancient man asked.

“Yes, I want to regulate the movie industry. And the book industry. Nothing too major—I just want to ban the use of time travel as a literary tool. Same with dream worlds,” Judah replied between bites.

“What’s wrong with those? It’s not like it affects children’s morals, and it doesn’t really affect anyone negatively…” Yama replied hesitantly. Truth be told, he had a friend in show business that did these things quite often. He was a terrible writer but an excellent friend.

“Let me ask you something,” Judah pressed on. “Have you ever, in the countless aeons you’ve lived in this universe, seen good usage of time travel or dream worlds in movies? I mean, when used seriously. When used ironically as a literary trope, it doesn’t really matter.”

“You do have a point,” he admitted begrudgingly. The only good ones he’d seen were parodies of the genre. “Fine. It’s a deal.”

 

[1] An ancient Buddhist time unit representing about 1.28 trillion Earth years. It is related to the birth, stability, destruction, and subsequent emptiness of the universe until it is finally reborn.

[2] Reference: Basic Economics, 5th Ed. by Thomas Sowell. It’s a good read, and I highly recommend it.

[3] In Chinese mythology, Hell and the Underworld are not the same thing. The Underworld is simply a place that judges people and handles reincarnation. Hell, on the other hand, is the lowest realm one can be reincarnated to, reserved for sinners and devils.



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