The way forward was dark. The ever-present blackness sought to devour the small group of adventurers as they wandered through the underground tomb. A sphere of light traveled in front of them. It was a warm, soothing brightness that banished away the cold shadows that bit them. The artifact shone with unfettered gold, banishing the traces of corruption wherever they passed.
“Why would they build such an extensive labyrinth?” a man said. He was bald and wore an orange kasaya. Unlike Master Zhen, he looked to be in his midtwenties. His qi cultivation was practically nonexistent, but his soul shone brightly, banishing the mortal world’s corruption wherever he walked.
The middle-aged Master Zhen had spent fifty years establishing his resplendent soul. He was now one hundred years old, the oldest of the World Tree Master’s direct disciples.
“Patience is a virtue, Sibi,” Master Zhen said. “The battle we Buddhists fight is an eternal one, and impatience invites corruption and fetters one’s heart.”
“My apologies, Master,” Sibi said, regaining his usual composure. “It has been so long since we’ve seen the sun, and the shadows eat away at one’s very soul.”
“You are right,” Master Zhen said. “These shadows aren’t natural. They are the reason we’ve wandered so far and so long. Our order was wrong to ignore this tomb until now.” He caught a glint of gold at the end of the dark corridor. Seeing this speck of brightness, the impatient monk beside him quickened his steps. “Hold your ground, Sibi,” Master Zhen said, stopping him with a gentle palm. “You must not let temptation corrupt your innocent heart.”
“But I’m not tempted by worldly possessions,” Sibi protested. “This gold means nothing to me.” Nevertheless, he slowed down and allowed his teacher to take the lead.
“You were not tempted by gold, but by time,” Master Zhen said. “You were tempted by hope, by an end to the dreary scenery. But you must remember that these are all illusions that shackle us to the mortal realm. Only by shedding these attachments can we transcend and become a buddha. The only surefire way to Buddhahood is diligence, perseverance, and purposeful avoidance of these temptations. If you do not shield your heart…”
“… it will be corrupted by karma and sow seeds of evil in your spirit,” Sibi finished. “Don’t worry, I always remember your teachings.”
Master Zhen smiled at his disciple’s quick response and continued his slow pace toward what was now a golden glow. The rough stone walls eventually transitioned to marble inlaid with golden runes. They preserved the resting souls of the ancient emperors so they could guard the dynasty for all eternity.
“What a foolish ancient practice,” Master Zhen muttered, shaking his head. The bodies of the ancient kings rested on marble slabs, which were adorned with a golden plate inscribed with protective runes.
“Why foolish?” Sibi said. “Do the Bodhisattvas not teach to protect those who cannot fend for themselves? In my opinion, these are honorable men. Despite their empire fading into ruins, they still protect their descendants without fail.”
Master Zhen shook his head and walked over to one of the marble slabs. A gentle wind blew the dust off the gold formation plate, revealing a blurry name he couldn’t quite make out.
“It isn’t their purpose that is foolish, Sibi, but their methods. Souls who transcend using the Buddhist path and the Evil Spirit path are expelled from the plane because their transcendent souls are eternal. Even without transcending, a soul will survive for fifty thousand years. Mortals, on the other hand, have a much shorter lifespan. A mortal human can live for up to one hundred years, while a demon monarch can live for five thousand. This is the natural order of things.”
“That is naturally why they sought this path, Master,” Sibi said. “It is the only way in which they could extend their protection through the generations.”
Master Zhen sighed. “How long have you been alive, Sibi?”
“Twenty-five years,” Sibi said.
“And how has age affected your perception of the world and your perception of time?” Master Zhen asked him.
“I can barely remember my younger years,” Sibi replied. “They are gone like a ripple in the water. I can only live in the present, for fear of being confused by the dull image of a once-sharp past.”
“And that is the problem,” Master Zhen said, gesturing to the corpse. “This man died ten thousand years ago. How does his spirit see the world now? Does it still see the nation as something to protect? You need to realize that we Buddhists do not become spirit entities until we transcend to a higher plane, where we can continue our good work. That is because a mortal soul is far too vulnerable to outside influences. It is better that we enter the cycle of reincarnation rather than bare our souls to the material plane’s corruption.
“Conversely, these kings have mimicked the path of evil spirits. They have bound themselves to their nation’s karma and the will of their people. They will remain as spirit protectors for 50,000 years. Will they remain unaffected by the ravages of time?”
Sibi nodded slowly as he absorbed this useful knowledge.
The pair soon left the protector’s marble slab behind and continued deeper into the mausoleum. The narrow hallway opened up into a large gold-covered room. In the center stood a gold dais which held a small jade object surrounded by twelve golden sarcophaguses.
Master Zhen gestured for them to halt and took out his exorcist’s staff, which he waved back and forth while chanting mantras. His resplendent soul shone with a golden light that resonated with the runes on the walls. The dais and the walls shattered like a thin sheet of glass, dispersing the wondrous illusion and showing the tomb’s true colors.
What remained was a scene from a nightmare. Crimson lines covered the once-pure golden walls like spider webs. On the broken dais lay a crimson seal. Only a single speck of green jade remained on its corrupted surface.
“And that is why this method is foolish, Sibi,” Master Zhen said gravely. “The emperors bound their souls to the karma of the nation using their imperial jade seal. They thought that by doing so, they could protect the destiny of their nation for eternity.
“But look at it now. The descendants of their once-prosperous nation have been through multiple civil wars, plagues, and famines. Devil cults sow chaos and panic, and civil strife is rampant through the competing kingdoms that once formed their empire. The nation’s destiny is corrupted, and as a result, their holy spirits have now become evil spirits.
“They now haunt and curse the nation in their bitterness, the opposite of what they had hoped to achieve.” He sighed, shaking his head. “Only the Grand Master can take care of this. It will cost him dearly, but he will do it for the sake of mankind. The corrupted artifact will soon sow discord throughout the empire, causing friends to kill each over paltry matters and children to turn on their parents. Millions will die in the process.”
“Is there truly nothing we can do?” Sibi asked, his eyes downcast. “There is still a speck of purity on the crimson seal. If we act quickly, we can propagate it.”
Master Zhen patted Sibi on the shoulder. The boy was far too young, and this was only the first of many setbacks he would encounter.
“We are helpless,” Master Zhen said. “If we approach the seal, the brightness within our souls will conflict with the corrupting aura within it. Either the seal will be unfettered, or we will be corrupted.”
“So it’s possible?” Sibi asked.
“For me, there is a one in three chance of purifying it,” Master Zhen replied. “For you, it’s a one in five chance. You must consider that losing one of us will grant the evil spirits a powerful new recruit. We would turn against mankind and sow misery amongst the countless mortals. The damage we cause could be much worse than the corruption of the seal itself.”
“But if we do nothing, millions will suffer,” Sibi said. “I became a monk to save the innocent. How can I possibly give up on my calling?” He moved toward the seal.
“Stop!” Master Zhen yelled.
As he spoke, the golden characters of the Mantra of Restraint surrounded the young monk and pushed him backward. Sibi remained calm. His resplendent soul shot out and expanded around his body. It glowed golden, and the vestment was covered in Buddhist scriptures. The Mantra of Restraint could only bow in obedience and shoot back to their originator. Master Zhen was now the one bound by his own mantra.
“When did you achieve the Soul-Like Scripture Realm?” he asked in shock. Only the Masters had achieved such a thing.
“I’m sorry, Master,” Sibi said. “This is something that I must do. If there is a chance to alleviate the people’s suffering, I will do my utmost to help them. Even at the cost of my soul.”
Master Zhen could no longer stop him. Therefore he silently supported Sibi and hoped for his success. Sibi grasped the seal, and the battle between buddhas and evil spirits began—unfettered gold and corrupted crimson ate away at each other like swarms of ravenous insects. Slowly but surely, the seal’s crimson aura receded. The small speck of jade became one percent of the seal and soon expanded to thirty percent.
Since he achieved the Soul-Like Scripture Realm, he still has a chance, Master Zhen thought.
He calmed his mind and held out his exorcist’s staff. He chanted the Mantra of Support as he poured out his soul energy into the struggling youth. Little by little, the crimson aura receded to fifty percent. It continued slowly until it ultimately reached seventy percent before stopping. At this point, Sibi’s golden soul suddenly underwent a drastic change.
The corruption in the seal shot out and sent eighty-one crimson chains that began digging into his spiritual flesh. Master Zhen looked on tensely as one by one, these chains were unfettered. They poured into Sibi’s soul, brightening its golden color as they disappeared. This continued until only a single chain remained. This chain was far thicker than the rest.
Seeing the young man’s struggle, Master Zhen ignited his remaining vitality to aid the young monk. He burned away his life and soul until only ten years of life remained. To his relief, a light golden glow returned to Sibi’s rapidly fading soul. The last chain disappeared and fused to his body.
Master Zhen sighed in relief. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” Sibi said.
Master Zhen realized with a cold shudder that the young monk’s voice seemed off.
“Turn around and greet your master,” Master Zhen said. His sweat-covered body barely had any strength remaining. He could only despair as little by little, Sibi turned around and revealed a drastically changed appearance. His golden face was covered with crimson veins of corruption that crawled across his body like evil runic lines.
“Greetings, Master,” Sibi said, giving the older man an awkward bow.
Master Zhen sighed. “Why did you fail? How could you fail when you’d clearly resolved the corruption?”
Sibi shook his head. “If only the final trial were so easy. But it wasn’t a complete loss—by fighting against the corruption, I realized the truth.”
“And what truth was that?” Master Zhen asked as he ignited a tattoo that rapidly replenished his soul. It was a gift from the World Tree, a blessing only given to potential World Tree Master candidates.
“That this country is terrible, and it must be annihilated,” Sibi explained. “They ignored their origins and murdered their countrymen for the sake of profits. Tens of millions have died in the process. The only way to resolve the karma of this nation is to destroy it.” The man’s gentleness and compassion were gone. They had been replaced by the malice and resentment of the Song Empire.
“Hate only begets hate,” Master Zhen said firmly. “With mercy, even an evil spirit can be saved and reenter the cycle of reincarnation. Will you follow your master to obtain the World Tree’s blessing and unfetter your soul?”
He didn’t know if this was possible, but it was worth a try.
“I’m sorry, Master,” Sibi said. “You monks show no mercy toward evil spirits, so I dare not follow. I cannot obtain vengeance for the Song Empire if I die.”
The man’s hands came together in a teaching pose. A crimson glow appeared around Sibi as he uttered corrupted Buddhist mantras. They shot out from his mouth and struck the aged monk one after another.
Master Zhen shot out 108 talismans, which turned into 108 golden lights. They purified the corrupted runes, buying him time to jump back and evade a hidden assault. Having avoided the lethal strike, he pulled out a large rosary. Ten thousand and eighty golden pearls shone with unfettered gold light as they came together in an exquisite formation that banished Sibi’s crimson light.
But Sibi’s glow fought back. It intensified as his scripture-covered vestment unraveled and shot out toward the 10,080 rosary. They clashed together, granting Sibi an opening to charge at Master Zhen. The old and young monks exchanged gentle fist strikes in the monastery’s traditional style as their artifacts fought in midair. As they fought, Sibi’s style changed little by little. He shed his gentle fighting style and transformed it into an insidious and tricky one. Soon, Sibi found an opening. He struck Master Zhen in the chest and threw the older man into a crimson-colored wall.
“It pains me to do this,” Master Zhen said, tears flowing down his cheeks. He had severed most attachments, and his apprentice was one of the few that remained. “Ten Thousand and Eighty Spirit-Banishing Pearls,” Master Zhen said in a commanding voice. “Using my life force as a selfless medium, grant me the power to banish evil spirits from the realm. Grant me the strength to fight corruption and cleanse this man’s soul. Ignite my own soul to grant him eternal peace.”
Master Zhen’s golden soul dulled, and with this sacrifice, the golden glow inside the pearls grew in power and tore apart Sibi’s scripture-like vestment. Sibi howled in anguish as he quickened his offensive. He slashed at Master Zhen’s weak body with claws coated in crimson corruption. It invaded the older man’s soul and eroded it one piece at a time.
“Ksitigarbha, grant me your blessing,” Master Zhen intoned as he ignored the pain. “Let your unfettered goodness send this evil spirit back to the cycle of reincarnation where it belongs.” The 10,080 pearls flew out toward Sibi’s crimson body and burned into his corrupted flesh. Sibi could only stop his offensive to defend against the golden rosary.
Master Zhen coughed up a mouthful of blood and tightened his fist, causing the pearls to dig into Sibi’s crimson skin. They ate away at his body until all that remained was a golden skeleton and a weak crimson soul.
“Congratulations on destroying this useless body,” the crimson soul said. It sounded nothing like Sibi. “Your lifespan has been significantly weakened. Meanwhile, I will enjoy the next fifty thousand years of existence. If I accumulate enough karma, I could even transcend and enjoy eternity.”
“You won’t live that long,” Master Zhen said weakly. “The World Tree Master won’t let you live.”
“That old fart?” the evil spirit said. “By the time he gets here, I’ll be long gone. Any last words?” The golden skeleton’s fist clenched. Sibi’s evil spirit could control the remnant body like a corpse puppet.
“One of us will kill you,” Master Zhen said. “If not me, then someone else will take up the mantle.”
Crimson tendrils shot out toward the older monk, who activated the teleportation sigil that had been branded onto his inner arm. The evil spirit, sensing the fluctuations in the surrounding space, rushed out to land a killing blow. A crimson talon slashed out toward Master Zhen, leaving a deep gash on his chest as space lurched and brought him back to the temple.
Master Zhen woke up in a cold sweat. It’s all in the past, he thought, reaching out to the 10,080 beads around his neck. The lustrous golden pearls were blessed by the will of his predecessors. He too would bless it before reentering the cycle of reincarnation.
He rose from his bed and walked outside. It was hours before dawn, but most of the monks had already woken to perform their daily tasks. Both monks and animals bowed their heads in respect as he walked across the bridge and arrived at the Bodhi Tree.
“My old friend,” Master Zhen muttered to the ancient tree. “It’s time.”
Yama, the Lord of the Underworld, was seated at a small golden table in the middle of a large temple. He didn’t like it here—the monks were preachy and insufferable. Which was why, a few aeons ago, he’d placed a ban on door-to-door preaching. Ksitigarbha had been less than pleased, but his ire was a small price to pay for never having to hear the famous words, “May I please come in to discuss our lord and savior, Ksitigarbha?”
Speaking of which, this particular buddha was seated before him serving tea. He poured gently and without a word, using tea grown in his own backyard. Yama recognized this as a recent fad—meditation through tea drinking. They had been at it for ten Underworld days, and even Yama was beginning to lose patience.
As though sensing the man’s volcanic temper, Ksitigarbha banished the tea set. “How do you feel? Are you one step closer to enlightenment? Has a small bit of karma faded?”
“My karma binds me to the universe for all eternity,” Yama said wryly. “I doubt a few cups of tea will make a difference. Besides, you’re making us sound estranged, like a preacher and his clergy. Why, it only seems like yesterday that we last spoke.”
Ksitigarbha raised his eyebrow. “We haven’t spoken in aeons.”
“Which passed by in the blink of an eye,” Yama said. “Surely you can forgive a man for his moment of foolishness?”
Ksitigarbha sighed. “What do you want? You are never this pleasant unless you want something.”
“Well, you see, I’m in a very difficult position,” Yama explained. “The Yellow River is overflowing, and I’m very shorthanded. Heaven and hell have been poaching my talent, and I’ve been left scrambling as I try to salvage the cycle of reincarnation. Therefore, I am supporting a candidate for mayor to push for tax reforms.”
“You know I don’t involve myself in politics,” Ksitigarbha said dismissively. “Politics breed more attachment than sweets and loving promises. Political discussions have ruined more friendships than all other causes combined.”
“I understand that,” Yama said. “However, I have no choice. I need supporters, and the monks in your church live forever. You have so many of them.”
“And why would I have them perform such senseless actions like voting?” Ksitigarbha said. “We all know it’s a money game in the end.”
“I…” Yama said, gritting his teeth, almost vomiting in the process. “I can end the ban.” The ancient man’s croak was barely audible in the quiet monastery.
“What?” Ksitigarbha said, his face finally showing a trace of emotion. “The ban that you should never have instated in the first place? The ban that us benevolent monks could only passively accept? Meanwhile, you allowed those petty door-to-door preachers with pocket scriptures to move unhindered in the Underworld, converting countless souls in the process.”
“That’s different!” Yama said. “All they’re trying to do is tell people to be nice to each other so that they go to Heaven when they pass away. It’s rather harmless if you think about it.”
“And how exactly is it different?” Ksitigarbha asked. “We tell our people to be nice, and they actually do it with no karma attached.”
“It’s very different,” Yama said solemnly. “Your followers were swelling out of control. Their preaching was emptying out the Underworld. Every soul that comes here is precious and rare. They stay for as long as their destiny allows it. However, you were convincing them to forcibly sever their karma with the Underworld and reincarnate. My workforce was getting decimated, and I was at my wit’s end!”
“And now you’re willing to reconsider,” Ksitigarbha said. “All for the sake of winning an election.”
“All for the sake of the cycle of reincarnation!” Yama yelled. “I do what must be done for our universe, without fail. In return for the votes of your clergy, I will allow you to preach door to door once more. However, it must be within reason. I won’t have preachers visiting the same door dozens of times every day like last time. In addition, your clergy cannot exceed more than ten percent of the Underworld’s population at any point in time.”
“It’s a start,” Ksitigarbha said. “I imagine you’ll have to allow evil spirits to start preaching again as well?”
“Don’t remind me,” Yama said, massaging his temples. “Truth be told, I would decimate the lot of them if I could do it without being punished by the cosmos.”
“Might I make a suggestion?” Ksitigarbha said. “Now, I would never encourage you to do something dishonest, but I recall the Underworld’s bureaucracy being notoriously slow. If their application for a preaching permit was to be delayed by ten thousand Underworld years, it would save us both quite a few headaches.”
Yama’s eyes lit up. “In fact, I’ve heard that some permits require up to 100,000 or a million years to get approved. Applications get lost, and trivial paperwork errors get made. Better yet, there is nothing they can do about it.”
“Then we are in agreement,” Ksitigarbha said while escorting Yama out of the premises. The faces of his followers were burning with fervent passion—it was obvious that Ksitigarbha had already informed them of the deal. Seeing that unmistakable gleam in their eyes, Yama secretly contacted Cerberus and sent him an employment offer. If there was anything a preacher hated, it was a vicious guard dog standing between him and a heathen’s door.
“By the way, I’ve noticed some strange movements in the mortal realms,” Ksitigarbha said. “It seems the evil spirits are making a play. Meanwhile, there have been some anomalies in your cycle of reincarnation. You should look into the reincarnation edicts you’ve issued recently.”
Yama paused thoughtfully. “I think I’ll do just that.”
Then, eyeing the leaflet that had suddenly appeared in his pushy friend’s hands, he promptly vanished.
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