All was quiet around a dark pit, carefully wedged beneath two demonic mountains far away from human eyes. There were no birds flying above, and no rustling of tree leaves in the gentle wind. For there was no wind here; the light breeze that normally blew through these mountains was stagnant. It lost all momentum the moment it reached the darkness and lingered around the pit, where something breathed. It was a continuous breath, always inhaling and never exhaling. The sides of the pit crumbled away little by little with each passing second.
A horn poked out from the pit as a creature—black and humanoid, yet walking on all fours—pulled itself out. It had been resting, for eating was hungry work. Days ago, he had successfully devoured the nearest mile of spirit woods. It had taken him until now to convert the vital demonic energy into something useful.
Now, he hungered. The ravenous pit inside him was empty and needed to be filled. He looked around, scanning east and west, looking for something, anything that moved. Not even the wind did. Everything he’d missed in his first pass had run away, forsaking their birth land rather than facing certain death.
Which way should he go? How fast should he travel? These basic instincts were in their infancy, nudging him slightly to the northwest. There, a mountain stood strong, its powerful beasts keeping watch on him, hiding among the deep-rooted trees reeking of demonic qi.
The creature walked, slowly but surely, his footsteps leaving only a dull thump behind. He breathed in as he walked, consuming the thin demonic qi that leaked off the demonic mountain. It powered his initial-purification fiend body just enough to bring it to a group of pines, whose inhabitants ignorantly chattered away as it placed its clawed hand on the sappy red bark. The color where it touched faded, and the tree cracked. The squirrels and birds, initially indignant at his presence, began dying. Only the smartest among them flew to another tree branch.
One tree, many lives. Two trees, many more. Two became three, and three became many. One by one, a carpet of darkness expanded around him, swallowing lesser spirit beasts in his wake. A boar charged toward it, cutting deep into his body before ultimately being swallowed by him. Birds followed suit, plunging at him as directed by the sovereign of the mountain. For they would never stoop so low as to challenge him, weak as he was. A mistake, he knew. Demons often made mistakes like these when dealing with his kind.
Wave after wave of demons swarmed toward him, and though the swarm didn’t harm him, it slowed him greatly. Annoyed, he fought back. In response, the waves increased in intensity, and before long, he could take it no longer. He dissociated into nothingness, leaving behind only a black stain on the forest floor. All stood still.
A mountain lion, the sovereign of the mountain, let out a sigh of relief from her perch in a nearby tree. She had been watching the dark creature, praying to her ancestors that it didn’t head her way. The creature felt ancient and terrible. And worse, she knew nothing about it. It was weak, so it wouldn’t be honorable to face off against him. Yet that weakness conflicted with the sense of danger it gave her. It was a rare moral dilemma, a question of honor that couldn’t be ignored.
Fortunately, all was well now. Her minions had destroyed it in roughly thirty seconds, and there would be peace once again. Or would there be? Her eyes narrowed as a cluster of black stains, remnants of the creature, merged together in a puddle of black ooze. It writhed violently, black horns poking out and stabbing creatures that had moved back into their homes. Endless moments passed as an arm poked out, then another, then two legs. A large horn sprouted on its forehead, and its eyes, blacker than the deepest shadows, opened.
The creature lashed out, horns shooting out from its back in every direction. Tiny tentacles of blackness touched the nearby forest dwellers, draining their life in an instant. The mountain lion called out orders, rallying her lords to the cause. They ran from their dwellings, and on her orders, slayed the foul beast once again. It only took thirty-one seconds to down their fierce opponent.
Only a single black stain remained, but the sovereign dared not trust it. Like clockwork, it wriggled and reformed, coalescing into the fearsome creature from before. The lords pounced again, and they defeated it easily. This time, it took thirty-two seconds.
Far in the Southern lands, a man lay dying. The infected wound on his side sent pain lancing through his entire body with every breath. It was a welcome pain, for it told him he hadn’t yet passed. Anything was better than what awaited him, even the agonizing seconds before his demise.
It served him right, he supposed. He never should have left. Things might have been different then. At the very least, he wouldn’t have been killed like a common criminal. Death would have come for him anyway, but through it, he might have gained something greater: immortality.
Only the Spirit Temple could grant immortality, and even then, only to the worthy. He was a true believer. Life was unfair, the temple taught, and as such, it was full of suffering. The only way to transcend it was to embrace the suffering, embrace the regret of a life wasted. Only then could one become an evil spirit, free from the fleshly woes and carnal desires of the living.
Unfortunately for him, it took strength to do that. Not of body, but of spirit. As an acolyte of the Spirit Temple, he’d been pitted against the others like gu in a jar, killing each other until only the most poisonous remained. He’d thought himself strong, but a few days in, he’d been relieved of that notion.
He’d left the Spirit Temple that same day. Out the front door, no questions asked. The Temple didn’t punish deserters in the flesh but in the spirit. They simply waited till the parting, when shackled souls returned to their origins. There, they became fodder for true remnants, true believers with strong spirits and a need for vengeance. They were the core of the spectral community, the assassins that roamed the lands and the watchers that saw through all. They were the shepherds that consumed souls and saved the few members of the flock they could.
Spirits, what possessed me to steal that sword? he thought, the pain preventing his mind from wandering further. The wound on his side had festered, and black lines radiated outward from it, poisoning the rest of his body. Stealing the sword had seemed like a good idea; it had been right out in the open where anyone could take it. Unfortunately, someone had spotted him, and during the brief tussle with the merchant’s guards, he’d suffered a shallow cut to his side. The merchant must have also been a believer, for who else would arm their guards with poisoned weapons? The wound had festered that same night.
The man sighed—a sigh of regret for a life poorly lived. It was the sigh of a man who’d sworn oaths that shouldn’t have been. It was the sigh of a man who’d been dying, for life no longer remained in his body. All that remained was a spirit, its incorporeal form covered in crimson veins and tangled karma. One of them, a thinner string, led to the west, where his parents still lived. A slightly thicker string led back to the merchant who’d killed him. The thickest line, however, resembled more a chain than a thread. It was made of crimson links covered in blackened runes that reeked of hatred.
That same chain ran all the way back to the Spirit Temple. The moment the man’s spirit completely left his body, the chain pulled him away at a speed no mortal could travel, leaving the reaper that had come for him empty-handed. He left the woods and entered infertile plains where serfs worked themselves to the bone. Their sweaty, dirty figures brought up painful memories of the things he’d done to leave such a life in the first place. He traveled quickly, so the plains soon gave way to rocky hills, which then became the foothills that led up to the capital of the Ji Kingdom, Bastion. It lay just south of a canyon that led deep into the mountains, the Shattered Lands filled with life-leaching death.
The distance between the spirit and the city shrank quickly. Though Bastion was covered in a thick shield of soul-repelling runes, the spirit passed through them without a hint of difficulty. He bore the mark of their temple, after all, and the temple welcomed its own. He zipped through the houses of rich and poor men alike, through markets, through bars, through gambling dens and inns, before finally arriving at his destination: the Bastion Spirit Temple. He was forcibly dragged in through the front door and brought across active traps, spying specters, and Spectral Assassins. Some new acolytes—those who weren’t yet aware of their impending doom—looked up as they performed their menial duties. The more senior ones ignored him, as they were too focused on their brutal competition with their peers.
The spirit passed a few priests, some mediums, and even a high priest. Eventually, his soul settled in a small pond in the temple’s deepest room. To his surprise, the Shepherd wasn’t there to welcome him as he’d feared. Instead, the leader of the temple was seated behind the pool at an elevated table with eleven empty seats.
No, not empty, he thought. They would have seemed empty if he were alive, but as a spirit, he could see them clearly. They were spectral substitutes, a disposable ghostly body used to facilitate communication between leaders. After all, why waste spirit stones on valuable core-transmission jades when souls were freely available?
He was safe, for the time being, at least. Maybe the Shepherd won’t notice me, he thought. Maybe I’ll get to roam the Pool of Souls until he needs a servant.
It was a feeble hope, but he clung to it like a drowning man clung to a piece of flotsam in a stormy sea. He wandered over to a corner of the pool and tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, just in case. As he did so, the Shepherd spoke.
“Your failure in Gold Leaf City is inexcusable,” the Shepherd said. “The forces in our temple are spread thinly enough as it is. And now you’re expecting reinforcements?”
“It’s truly not my fault,” one of the spectral substitutes said. “We’re a branch temple, not a main temple. Even so, we had mediums and spirits monitoring everything. We had all our servants bound by enforcement specters so as not to leak out our activities. Yet somehow, the fledgling Red Dust Mistress managed to pry information from their captured members, thwart a very important deal, and kill dozens of Spectral Assassins. The first and last of these things should have been impossible for her to accomplish.”
The Shepherd sighed. “How did they even manage to locate their old members?”
“You know full well how they did,” the figure huffed.
“It was the Greenwind Pavilion,” another figure said. Unlike the other spirit, his soul body was almost tangible, a testament to the strength of his soul. Only another Shepherd could achieve such a thing. “I spoke to Elder Zhong. He admitted to selling the information.”
“Likely as a reminder,” a third Shepherd at the table said wryly. “They’re always telling us we’ll regret not buying confidentiality on our own information.”
“The cost is too high,” the Shepherd of the Bastion Temple said. “And it continues to be too high.” He sighed again. “Did you at least manage to wriggle out how they extracted the information from our contracted servants?”
“He didn’t know,” the second Shepherd said. “As an apology, he let us know how the Red Dust Mistress killed all those assassins. It was Wang Jun from the Wang family who helped her. He speculated she was able to pry information from their former members using that man’s unique abilities.”
The Shepherd of Bastion Temple cursed loudly. Then, he stood up, calming himself before speaking again. “You’ll get your reinforcements, but not as many as you’d like. Your quota will remain the same.”
“I’ll… try to fill it,” Gold Leaf City’s spectral substitute said.
“Failure is not an option,” the Shepherd of Bastion Temple said. “I also want the Red Dust Pavilion eliminated, and Wang Jun along with it. His family won’t care, and very few people will miss him.” He gestured to the pool, and the spirit, who’d just arrived, floated into his hand. The soul shivered as it lay there naked, unprotected by a fleshly shell. “If you let me down, you won’t fare any better than this acolyte.”
“Acolyte?” Gold Leaf City’s spectral substitute asked.
“He thought he could escape my grasp by leaving the temple,” the Shepherd of Bastion Temple said, “only to realize that his soul was mine. When he arrived at my spirit pool, he tried to hide in the hopes that I’d forget him. But I have a long memory, and I forget as often as I forgive.”
The Shepherd clenched his fist, and the spirit writhed in pain as, slowly but surely, it was converted to pure soul energy. “I hope you understand my meaning.”
“What about that man?” Gold Leaf City’s specter said, his voice becoming softer and softer. The spirit, who was still listening, quickly realized that it wasn’t the voice that was growing softer, but himself that was growing weaker.
“That man won’t interfere,” the Shepherd of Bastion Temple said. “Not even for his own disciple.”
“But how do you know?” the specter muttered.
“He told me,” a whisper said.
Then, the spirit heard nothing. His awareness, no, his existence, faded. For that was the horror of the Spirit Temple. There would be no rebirth for souls like his, nor would there be existence as a spirit body. Even a merciful existence full of pain and misery would be beyond him. What awaited him was unattached and unfettered oblivion: a fate much worse than death.
Just how do these things happen? Yama thought as he massaged the space between his brows. His flowing white hair, untied today, covered his immaculate desk like a flowing river. Finding no relief, he grabbed hold of a tiny sand rake, which he used to groom a tiny fengxue garden filled with sand and a few rocks. It helped, if only a little.
They’d committed a blunder, and a big one at that. The worst thing about it was that there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. Nothing, save perhaps not choosing Judah in the first place, to stop it. Yama glared at Judah, the hopeful mayoral candidate, who sat nervously before him. And nervous he should be. As the most powerful man in the universe, the only being who could forcefully reincarnate any spirit he desired, he inspired fear wherever he treaded.
His timeless black eyes staring daggers at Judah, Yama pressed a bony index finger on the daily paper’s front page. There, on the crisp but cheap soul paper, was a moving picture of the mayoral candidate. He was running around waving his hands, making sounds that spirits didn’t normally make. He also looked younger; it was difficult to say by how much, since time passed strangely in Diyu. His transparent white skin, the kind that came naturally to spirits, was covered in vein-like crimson streaks. He wore a transparent black cloak that also emanated a crimson glow. It was covered in runes, but they were obviously fake, as this was a cheap costume he’d bought at one of those pop-up stores that took over deserted locations once a year.
“Why did it have to be ghostface?” Yama finally said.
“In my defense,” Judah said, raising his hands. “I didn’t know what ghostface was where I went to school. Besides, it was for a school play. I wanted to look the part. You know, Ghost of Christmas Future and all.”
“And this?” Yama asked, flipping the page. The ghostfaced Judah was running around scaring normal spirits and performing obscene acts. He was quite the barbarian, and everyone around him laughed. “It just so happens that ghostface is the most insulting thing evil spirits—or ghosts, as they are often called—have ever heard of. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that ghosts were nothing more than slaves and servants. Maybe a billion years. Back then, ghosts couldn’t even act their own roles in plays, since pure spirits didn’t want the ghosts tainting their performance. Instead, they’d have normal spirits dress up as an exaggerated caricature of their kind, taking every opportunity to insult and debase them and put them in their place. The resentment still hasn’t died down.”
“A billion years ago?” Judah said incredulously. “And they still remember? Lord Yama, that’s a little extreme.”
“Tell that to the media,” Yama said wryly. “Now what are we going to do about this?”
“Apologize, I guess,” Judah said, looking none too worried.
“Again?” Yama asked, surprised. The Lord of the Underworld didn’t apologize, and though it wasn’t him that would be doing it, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever get used to the concept. Further, he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen a politician apologize either.
“They bought it last time,” Judah said. “They’ll probably buy it again. They’re not used to seeing us humble ourselves, and something about it comforts them. No, maybe it’s better that this ghostface scandal happened. It’ll make me look more like a real spirit while our competitors look like they’re used to lording it over them from an ivory tower. My main competitor went to private school for Diyu’s sake.”
“His father was mayor, so he could afford it,” Yama said. “But we’re not getting into an argument about public school versus private school again. You go do your thing, and I’ll stay here and do mine. I still have a lot of work to do today.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Judah said, giving a sloppy salute.
Once he’d gone, Yama pushed a button on his desk, calling for his trusty assistant, Lily. She appeared almost immediately, her ghostly figure cutting through time and space to get here.
“Reporting for duty, sir!” Lily said, giving him a sharp salute.
Yama nodded and waved her over. Judah had his advantages, like his relatability and likeableness, but he lacked the strict discipline Lily brought to the campaign.
“How did it go?” Yama asked, summoning a map of Diyu. The projection, which fit snugly on his desk, perfectly replicated the city’s iconic skyscrapers. It was divided into prefectures, which were in turn divided into districts. Every district would elect a councilor, who would in turn nominate a mayor.
“It went well,” Lily said. “Councilor Ruthar has promised his support, though he’ll require funding for three orphanages in his district—random reincarnations due to the past few epidemics that have hit his district hardest. He’ll also need someone conveniently removed.”
Yama nodded. “We can take care of both of those things, but the removal will only happen if Judah wins. I want him to feel the pressure and motivate him to talk to the other councilors.”
“That brings us up to one thousand and seventy,” Lily said. “Still very short if we are to win the election.”
“Hm…” Yama said, fondling his wispy beard. “Have we tried funding other candidates? Getting them to fight one another to split the vote?”
“We have, but it’s a balancing act,” Lily said. “Our campaign analysts are generating targeted ads on social media. We’re spreading as much disinformation as possible, while making sure we can claim plausible deniability if this gets out.”
“Plausible deniability is everything,” Yama said. “No one will be willing to go all in and investigate us. Especially not considering they could be next on my random reincarnation list.”
“A fact I’ve taken great care in reminding them about,” Lily said.
Elections were a tricky thing. Democracy was great in theory, but in practice, it led to huge polarization in the population. Taken to one extreme, facts became optional, and opinions became everything. Judah was somewhat naïve in thinking charm could win him the election, but he hadn’t done anything to relieve the man of the notion. They would take care of all the hard work involved in winning votes, keeping him blissfully ignorant for as long as possible.
Yama didn’t like meddling in the affairs of mortals, but something needed to be done. The fate of the city—no, the universe, depended on it. He’d been given a job, and by Pangu, he’d do it. He wouldn’t have a second world-ending apocalypse as a black mark on his resume. One was already enough.
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