KINDLING

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PROLOGUE

A generous portion of black fish simmered as Yu Wen looked on in rapt attention. “The key to proper Devilish Noodles is dipping the freshest fish into boiling broth and letting it cool as the fish cooks,” the kindly old man in front of her said. “I know this because it is what my grandfather told me, as did his father before him. People flock from all over Silverstream just to have a bite.”

Yu Wen drooled as her noodles cooked within the steaming broth in the bowl. Her chopsticks were ready to pounce. “So many people come here. Why don’t you raise your prices?” she asked. “I waited outside for three days just to get in.”

“If I raised the prices, then how would the common people eat the continent’s best noodles?” the shop owner said. “Our family came from humble origins. How can we turn our backs on the community after digging ourselves out of poverty?” He sighed. “Though, I won’t have much choice in the matter if things keep going the way they are. Taxes have been going up every year. It’s only a matter of time until I have to raise my prices or close up shop.”

A delicate aroma filled the air as the noodles approached perfection. The owner waited patiently before scooping up the bowl with a practiced hand and deftly placing it before Yu Wen. Her curly locks bounced as she ate the fish and noodles with inhuman speed and drank the steaming broth in a single gulp.

“These are the best noodles I have ever tasted!” she said, sighing in satisfaction. “The prince who raises your taxes is just a crook who wants to keep them all to himself.”

After she said this, the noisy restaurant quieted substantially. People began speaking in hushed whispers, and many customers around Yu Wen finished their conversations and left the restaurant, leaving their payment and a generous tip on the table.

“You’d best be careful with your words,” the owner said. “The prince has ears everywhere.”

The chatter in the restaurant began picking up where it had left off—save for two people, who dutifully relayed what they’d heard through their communication devices.

“Those are the prince’s men,” the shop owner whispered, pointing them out with his eyes. “You should leave now while you still can. The prince’s uncle is a mighty martial artist. We lowly commoners can only obey.”

“Let’s see if he dares,” Yu Wen said with a sniff. “By the way, I want another ten bowls.”

“Ten?” the owner exclaimed. “A pretty young girl like yourself shouldn’t eat so much.”

A dreadful chill suddenly washed over him.

Yu Wen looked at him with a pleasant smile that belied her dangerous aura. “Would you care to repeat that?” she said.

“I mean… you have such a healthy appetite for a young lady,” the owner said nervously. “Eat up, eat up, it’s on me!”

A small white-jade creature popped out of her travel bag as they waited for the next bowl. “You really shouldn’t eat so much,” the creature said. “You should also stop causing so much trouble wherever you go.”

“But I can’t help it.” Yu Wen pouted. “They’re so delicious. You should try some.”

“A jade rabbit eating meat?” the creature asked. “Maybe when hell freezes over. Speaking of which, we should go. That mighty martial artist isn’t powerful, but he can blow our cover. I don’t mind dying, but I really don’t want to break my moon-cake-eating streak.”

“How many are you on now, Xiao Bai?” Yu Wen asked.

“This one makes fifty-seven million five thousand and forty-six,” Xiao Bai said, popping a yellow cake into her tiny mouth. “Over fifty-seven million days without gaining weight and still perfectly healthy. The moon cake diet is the future, mark my words.”

Yu Wen chuckled as she prepared to dig in. But at that moment, a tall man wearing a white cloak burst in with a half dozen armed guards. The two gentlemen who had been communicating earlier stood up to greet him. The remaining customers in the restaurant ceased eating.

“Is there anything I can help the crown prince with?” the owner said from behind the bar.

The prince ignored him while looking Yu Wen up and down. “This is why I keep telling you to restrict your clientele,” he said to the owner. “If you did, you wouldn’t have to deal with these pesky unregistered guests.”

I told you we should have registered at the city gates, Xiao Bai said to Yu Wen. But you never listen. All you think about is food.

He would have caused trouble anyway, Yu Wen said. Look at his eyes. She gestured to the prince, whose faint yellow aura caused both the woman and the rabbit a large amount of discomfort. His eyes were filled with a familiar look of uncontrolled lust and greed. She met people like this wherever she traveled.

We should run, Xiao Bai sent to Yu Wen as the prince and the guards drew their weapons and rushed toward them.

Just a minute, Yu Wen said.

Ripples of gray energy surged around her and encompassed the entire room. They continued until they formed a mile-wide bubble that caused everyone to freeze in place. Only Yu Wen, Xiao Bai, and the noodles were unaffected. The piece of devilfish reached perfection a few breaths later, and Yu Wen rapidly gobbled it down.

She then looked toward a handsome man she’d been eyeing the whole time. His body was muscular, and his jaw was sharp, like chiseled marble. She ran a finger across his forehead and watched as his life’s memories were displayed in a fast-moving projection.

“Why do I have such bad luck with handsome men?” she said as she saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. “Most of the ones I meet are terrible, and all the nice ones go away.”

She scooped up the tiny rabbit and disappeared from the restaurant. A few breaths later, the prince and the owner moved again, quickly realizing that the young woman had vanished before their very eyes.

“I want everyone to fan out and find her!” the crown prince yelled, startling the nearby guards.

They rushed to obey his commands, but in the process, many of them tripped. Meanwhile, the crown prince didn’t notice the contents of his bag of holding spilling out onto the ground as he ran out of the building. Some customers, who were less than pleased with the prince, rapidly snatched them up. They then approached the owner and placed all the spirit stones in their possession on the bar.

“Thank you, everyone,” the owner said, teary eyed. He knew these customers by name, and they all had one thing in common—they were the poor who everyone else had forgotten, the downtrodden in this oppressive country. They were the dregs of Silverstream City.

 

***

 

“Why is everyone around me so lucky, but I always get discovered?” Yu Wen moaned. “Why is fate so unfair?”

“Who knows?” Xiao Bai said. “Luck aside, you shouldn’t use your Grandmist powers so often.”

They ran across a ten-mile bridge that connected two giant mountains floating on a sea of mists. Nine gigantic liquid metal rivers ran beneath them; they reflected the light of the planet’s three suns, bringing color to an otherwise drab and uninteresting world.

“If I hadn’t used them, I couldn’t have eaten the noodles,” Yu Wen said. “Besides, it’s not like they can do anything to us anyway. Those slowpokes couldn’t stop me if their lives depended on it.”

The duo leaped over a crowd of guards and rushed over to the second island, where a large platoon stood ready for them.

“What now?” the Jade Rabbit said nervously.

“Watch this,” Yu Wen said. She grabbed the rabbit and jumped off the bridge. At the same time, she threw out a small jade object that floated in front of her. It returned after letting out a soft click. She looked at the resulting picture in satisfaction. “My camera always takes the best pictures. See how it perfectly caught the reflection of the silver streams on the mist and caught the fear and hesitation in their eyes?”

“This is the most wasteful use of a soul-bound treasure I’ve ever seen in all my lifetimes,” Xiao Bai said dryly.

“At least you remember your lifetimes,” Yu Wen muttered.

They dodged the spirit ships that chased them and landed on the silver streams. The rivers rippled as they ran, causing the lights they reflected to shimmer and scatter. A large gate appeared in the distance. It was nine miles tall and three miles wide, the large opening in its center filled with a hazy gray substance.

“You think I’ll let you escape through the planar portal after the ruckus you’ve caused?” a voice called out of nowhere. A man in a golden robe appeared before them. The space around him was filled with sharpness, as though anything that entered this domain would be reduced to mincemeat.

“You’re awfully brave for a rune-carving cultivator,” Yu Wen said as she and Xiao Bai stopped.

“How can I not be brave with the generous bounty on your head,” the man said. “I only need to force you or your rabbit to use your powers, and my soul will be reincarnated into a life of luxury. This is enough to make anyone go crazy. I’m fortunate that my stupid nephew happened to stumble on you.”

This older man was surrounded in a thick ochre glow, and a large apparition with gold-and-ochre wings stood behind him. Its large claws held the man’s domain firmly, reinforcing it with the power of sin.

“Let’s see if you have the skill,” Yu Wen said as she quickly analyzed the route to the planar gate.

Silver strings burst out around her and shot toward the old man. Meanwhile, the meek Xiao Bai underwent a startling transformation. Her eyes turned red while her two front teeth grew into vicious hooks that could decapitate gods and devour immortals.

The girl and the rabbit darted out in opposite directions. The golden-robed man grunted and chased after Yu Wen. His devilish speed caused even the Silver Streams to churn. Seeing this, Yu Wen raised her fist and struck out against the man’s domain, which shuddered under the impact.

The man coughed up blood but cackled as he pulled out a black spike. The sinister object immediately disintegrated and fed the ochre glow in his devilish apparition. The phantom of a second pair of wings appeared behind it, which in turn caused his domain to almost double in size.

“Damn it all,” Yu Wen said as her skin began suffering various cuts and lacerations. Although they were healing rapidly, they were incredibly painful. She tossed out dozens of silver threads to fight against the many blades surrounding her. Unfortunately, they couldn’t stand up to the ruthless assault; the silver threads became silver dust that scattered into the rivers below.

Just as she was about to activate her own domain to counteract her opponent, she received a mental message from Xiao Bai. The small rabbit appeared behind the ochre avatar and took a large bite out of it. It roared in pain and threw the white animal to the floor. Ochre blood oozed out from the apparition’s strange wound.

We can’t beat them without unlocking at least a tiny bit of our power, Yu Wen sent. Her eyes turned cold as they locked on the golden-robed man. We might as well make it worthwhile.

“For your information,” she said, “your employer withheld some information from you.”

“And what might that be?” the golden-robed man said, stalling for every scrap of time he could.

“He might have promised you eternal life, but if your soul is destroyed, then even the supreme ruler of Hell can’t reincarnate it for you,” she said.

A gray cloud oozed out from around Yu Wen and expanded unreasonably quickly. Despite its gaseous appearance, it weighed more than the heaviest metal. Spatial cracks appeared around the oozing fluid, completely shattering the golden domain. It was as though the transcendent plane couldn’t bear the weight of the mysterious substance.

Bit by bit, the energy that comprised his domain was absorbed into the expanding gray cloud. It formed a domainlike sphere that encapsulated him before he had a chance to resist.

“No!” he yelled as his body, devilish avatar, and soul were consumed by the gray barrier in a fraction of a moment. Then, the gray cloud vanished as though it had never existed in the first place.

“Let’s go!” Yu Wen said as she joined up with Xiao Bai, who was completely unharmed by the devilish apparition’s strike. They floated toward the gray gate that hummed after sensing their presence.

“Where to this time?” Xiao Bai asked.

Yu Wen thought for a bit before her expression brightened. “The Bridge of Stars will be opening soon,” she said. “It’s the perfect place to lay low. Let’s go see if we can make some new friends.”

The portal shimmered slightly as they entered it. Unbeknownst to them, a black-cloaked figure appeared behind them just before they finished passing.

“I’ve finally found you,” the figure said as he raised his hand.

Time seemed to flow in reverse as the ghostly images of Yu Wen and Xiao Bai appeared just in front of the gate. Their lips moved slightly before the technique collapsed. Several bolts of lightning rained down on the figure, who accepted the plane’s punishment without complaint.

As the bolts struck him, his barely visible face was revealed. It was gaunt and pale, and his hair was white as fresh winter snow. His eyes were black.

 

***

 

“Just what are those devils up to?” Yama muttered as he looked through a literal mountain of ledgers.

He was currently at a repository company called Iron Planet. According to the Underworld’s accounting regulations, every company operating in Diyu was required to keep a minimum of 10,000 Underworld years’ worth of records. His findings thus far were infuriating.

“Han Yu, come here,” Yama said. His assistant instantly teleported to his side. “I want you to look through this small pile of documents and investigate the individuals who issued them. If you do this well, you’ll get a raise.”

Her bright smile made him immediately regret his brash decision.

“I think five percent would go a long way,” he added.

The comment instantly doused the fire in her eyes. It was replaced with frustration and indignation, and most importantly, unwillingness and stubbornness.

A good sign, he thought. You need to keep them hungry or they won’t work hard.

“Am I looking for anything in particular?” Han Yu asked stiffly.

“Connections to devils,” Yama said. “Investments, relatives, friends, roommates of a third cousin. No matter how obscure they are, I want them found. I don’t particularly care that we sell edicts to devils, but everything must be balanced. We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, not a custom reincarnation company that supports the cosmos on the side.”

“Then what about our participation in the election?” Han Yu asked.

“That’s different!” Yama said. “It affects the very survival of our universe.” He looked into the void. “Lily, come join us as well.”

A second woman in a suit appeared beside them. While Han Yu sported a navy outfit, Lily wore a white one, complete with white bordered glasses.

“What can I help with, Your Eminence?” Lily said. A hint of flirtation appeared on her otherwise deferent expression.

“For the last time, ‘boss’ will do fine,” Yama said sternly, hiding his pleasure. “This pile of documents shows that our edict sales have been heavily favoring devils. In passing, I’ve also noticed some disturbing financial details. Our sales group has been booking sales before delivery and has been refusing to write off bad debt. As a result, our numbers have been inflated by thirty percent over the past century. As our company’s controller, I need you to perform a full internal audit and get back to me with suggestions for further accounting regulations.”

Lily’s eyes brightened at the prospect. “I’ll be suggesting the most comprehensive, most ironclad management recommendations possible!”

Yama massaged his brow. “I just want reasonable, incremental regulations that can prevent this specific problem. Why do all you accountants go on a crusade every time someone steps out of line?”

“With all due respect, sir,” Lily said, “if people can’t do anything, it’s impossible to make mistakes.”

Yama groaned inwardly as he flew off the small storage planet and into the chill of empty space. He didn’t dare admit that she had a point, lest it get to her head.

By the way, sir, you have a guest waiting in the lobby, Han Yu sent via SpiritChat, a new messaging service that was taking the Underworld by storm. You could do everything with it, including paying, phoning, and messaging. If you paid for the add-on, it could even take your kids to school. It’s the Jade Emperor. He said you didn’t accept his SpiritChat invite.

“Why does everyone expect me to answer these SpiritChat messages right away?” Yama grumbled. “If it’s really important, can’t they just call me? Or send an email with an urgent tag followed by a second email reminding me to read the first one?”

He swiftly teleported to his office, the only location he could teleport to within Diyu. After straightening himself out, he walked out to greet the ruler of Heaven.

“My friend, Yama, it’s been ages!” a graying man with jade robes said as soon as he entered the lobby. He wore a thin jade crown on his head. “I’m here to ask about my—”

“Your daughter,” Yama cut in. “Yes, I know. It was the same last week and the week before that. I still haven’t seen her, and if I did, I’d inform you immediately.” Just as the stately king was about to protest, Yama continued his tirade. “You’ve lived for aeons, but you still can’t let her wander off for a millennium without getting antsy about her. Are you a king or a housewife suffering from empty nest syndrome?”

“This is different,” the Jade Emperor said indignantly. “I have a foreboding feeling. I feel like our father-daughter karma is about to expire. And when you didn’t add me to SpiritChat, I started to worry.”

“I just added you, so you can stop worrying,” Yama said. He shuddered as he rapidly swept through the man’s profile. It was filled with pictures of him and his daughter, some as much as a million years old. “If you’re so worried about her, why did you lend her your soul-bound treasure, the Jade Moon Cloak? You can’t even keep tabs on her when she wears it. If I were you, I would have placed her under house arrest in the heavenly courts. None of this ‘you’re your own person and you can do whatever you want’ nonsense.”

“How could I do that to my own daughter?” the Jade Emperor said, taking a seat. He sniffed the tea Yama offered him, making sure that the man wasn’t drugging him with Meng Po’s tea. “She has such a free spirit, and if I don’t let her wander, the cosmos would have made something happen. Traitors would have appeared within our ranks and would have tried to kill her from within the palace. Flaws would have appeared in our defensive formations. Rebellion would have fermented in the heavens and lured me away.” He sighed. “It’s not easy being that girl’s father.”

“If you can’t even bear to put her under house arrest, how will you deal with her two reincarnations from now?” Yama said.

A pained expression appeared on the Jade Emperor’s face, causing Yama to regret his words.

“I don’t know,” the Jade Emperor said. “I can only live in the present. In this lifetime, she is my daughter, cosmic balance be damned.”

“You know of cosmic balance, yet you’ve spoiled your daughter,” Yama said. “It’s brought the heavens untold fortune, but you know full well that when the cosmic scales shift, you’ll reap what you’ve sown. The heavens will experience unprecedented disaster, and countless mortals will get caught up in the resulting storm. Hell, I’m experiencing it right now. The Yellow River is flooding, and Heaven and Hell’s policies are forcing me to get involved in politics again. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure the devils have been tampering with my edict system.”

The Jade Emperor shook his head. “You know I can’t budge on this. My hands are tied. Not only are Heaven’s policies good for Heaven, but if I don’t do this, my senior statesmen will push for Heaven to go on the ten-thousandth-and-eighty-third crusade against the devils. I absolutely loathe our two-party system sometimes.”

Seeing Yama’s downcast expression, the Jade Emperor’s softened his stance.

“I can lend you Fuxi for some pro-bono work,” the Jade Emperor conceded. “Maybe he can think of something that will increase the efficiency of the Yellow River system as a whole.”

“Thanks for doing what you can,” Yama said. “The fate of the universe is at stake. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know as soon as I catch a whiff of your daughter.”

After exchanging a few more pleasantries, the Jade Emperor left. Yama’s gaze wandered over to Iron Planet, where his two assistants were hard at work. He hoped he was reading too much into the situation. As the CEO of Samsara Incorporated, he was karmically responsible for the actions of his employees.



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