EDGE OF OBLIVION

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PROLOGUE

Clank. Clank. Clank.

VOID-X3CX-R04 turned his head sharply toward the sound of metal on the bars of his cage. It was a delicious sound, he decided; every sound had a taste, and every sight had a flavor, adding color to his otherwise dreary existence. Meaning could also be savored. The clanking was a distraction, a simple attempt by simple beings at catching his attention. They were treating him like a two-day-old kitten, an insult if he knew one, but something far preferable to being sealed again, cut off from all sources of sustenance in a place where time lost all meaning.

Though he preferred this result to the alternative, it didn’t take away from the fact that every single one of these humans was an annoying gnat. The first thing he would do when he broke out of his cage would be to consume whoever was doing the clanging. But then again, what didn’t he want to eat? Alas, the bars imprisoning him, the only things within his reach, were inedible. Their ochre glow reeked of delicious transcendent might, and while he instinctively knew its flavor and its corresponding value, he could only stare at it with a wide, drooling mouth not powerful enough to savor it.

Clank. Clank. Clank.

He drank in the sounds, annoyed. Did they think he was a child? Did they think he was mentally incapable? He was smarter than the lot of them, that annoying gnat of a seer included. Sure, he was slow to respond. Who wouldn’t be with a gnawing hunger like his, forever urging him onward, everything in sight just another tasty morsel to fill the endless pit in his stomach? It was a wonder he could even function, let alone recognize each of their delicious scents with everything he had going on in the background.

But that didn’t stop them from being annoying. The gnat was back, it seemed. This time, however, he brought something tasty. Bones, delicious bones of a peak-core-formation demon were pushed through the bars of his cage. He immediately grabbed them with his horned tentacles, stuffing them into his torso, where his main mouth appeared and bit down on them.

Bliss. Pure bliss.

Every time he ate something significant, he felt a sense of raw, untamed happiness. And for a moment, he could even forget the gnawing hunger and that wretched unfilled void that egged him on, telling him to destroy, when really, all things considered, all he wanted to do was paint. He’d tasted many paintings, and he appreciated their colors, their emotion, and their tasty ink. How nice would it be to sit down, sated, and paint on a blank canvas with all the colors that he knew?

Alas, that would never be his lot in life. He was never meant to create, only to destroy; his master had seen to that, wherever he was. Without him, he could only do what he could to fill his stomach. Right now, that meant pandering to that pesky seer. VOID-X3CX-R04 contorted his face. Was this the kind of response the gnat was looking for? The seer shook his head, so VOID-X3CX-R04 changed his posture—it had worked last time. The seer seemed unimpressed.

Drat, VOID-X3CX-R04 thought. If he couldn’t please the seer, how could he get more food? He panicked and tried many simple yet energy-efficient gestures. The second platter waited outside his cage, taunting him. The tasty demon-beast meat on it had been shaved off the bones he’d just eaten. He heard a sound coming from the seer but ignored it. What could be more important than the literal feast waiting just outside his cage? After all, that might be the one, the last bit of energy that would finally propel him to the half-step-initiation realm by forming his World-Ending Calamity Mark.

The seer continued talking, and VOID-X3CX-R04 tasted more buzzing. He scratched his head. He held up a claw. He stood on his head. Nothing seemed to work. So, unsure how to proceed, he did a little dance, though he doubted the seer would understand its subtle intricacies, the emotion behind it, and its significance to his people’s heritage. A lonely people, they’d been forced to come up with a style only they could understand, an amazing development given there were usually only two or three of them in existence at any given moment. The dance failed, predictably. The seer facepalmed and let out more annoying sounds.

Maybe I should actually listen to what he’s saying, a small piece of VOID-X3CX-R04’s mind said, if only to get more sustenance. He waited, and the seer repeated himself. Instead of immediately sucking in the sounds like he usually did, he savored them, savored their meaning. Then he looked to the seer in confusion. Just that? You just want me to nod if I understand you? So, he did. Immediately afterward, or as immediately as mere ants could make happen, the tray of beast meat entered the cage. He ate it ravenously, and when he was done, he discovered another tray had appeared. The seer spoke again.

This time, VOID-X3CX-R04 listened. The seer said words—a silly thing like “stand on one leg and put your hands behind your head, flailing three tentacles.” He did just that, and he was rewarded with another delicious tray. Another tray appeared, and he listened to instructions. He lay flat on his back, propelling his humanlike feet like he was riding a bicycle—a pastime he would enjoy, he was sure, if only he didn’t have to spend every waking moment foraging for food. He finished another tray, and just as he looked to the seer for more instructions, he noticed the man was gone. Everyone but his guards had vanished, and there was no food to be seen.

VOID-X3CX-R04 howled the song of his people. He’d been played with, given the illusion of endless food, only to have it snatched away. Illusions were tasty but not at all that filling. His stomach let out a soundless growl as it returned to its normal state—empty.

He sang for what seemed like hours. Likely, it was only a few minutes. Time was subjective that way, especially when you were hungry. No one came. No one cared about him or his plight. He waited. To conserve energy, he lay down in his cage, his tentacles licking at the delicious transcendent bars he couldn’t eat. The time would come, he was sure. But by then, even the entire plane wouldn’t be enough to satisfy his endless hunger or slake his infinite thirst.

 

***

 

People hollered and screamed outside Town Hall, waving signs and doing everything they could to voice their support for their chosen candidate. Thousands of ballot stations were accepting votes near Town Hall itself, and millions did the same, scattered across the massive metropolis known as Diyu. Spirits, ghosts, and buddhas alike waited in line to submit their votes. After all, this single Underworld day would determine the next ten thousand years of mayorship. Oh, and the counselors, but no one seemed to pay attention to those, even though it was them, in the end, that held pretty much all the power.

“Down with the devils!” one supporter shouted.

“Tax the rich!” another shouted.

“Regressive tax!” yet another said. That last one was one of Judah’s supporters. The regressive tax, a cornerstone of his electoral platform, was predictably only popular among the top twenty or so percent. In effect, the poor would get taxed a higher percentage than the rich, driving them out of the city if they couldn’t push their way to the top.

“Look at all of them,” Judah said, a glass of ghost wine in his hand. Made from ghost grapes, it had an ethereal flavor only spirits could truly appreciate. “So many people, riled up to vote.” He shook his head. “On my home plane—the one I lived on before dying and coming to Diyu—it was amazing if forty percent of the general population showed up. But here, it seems like every person wants a say. It’s truly an outstanding sight to behold.”

His electoral team shifted uncomfortably at his words. His closest confidants, Usama being one of them, coughed lightly. One of the key counselors up for reelection stepped up to answer the unasked question.

“It’s more like six or seven percent, sir,” the tall graying woman in a black skirt and bright-pink blouse said. Mary was not only one of his most fervent and level-minded supporters, but she helped fill in many knowledge gaps whenever she could. “Spirits used to care, but then the elections got so polarizing that only a minority bothers to vote anymore. All of them are crazy, without exception.”

Yama, who’d been brooding beside the window, nodded. “We tried to fix the system many times. With proportional representation, it got worse somehow. Even more fringe parties were introduced, and believe me, a government with literally thirty different parties arguing on how to get things done can only be a bad thing. Plus, campaigning was confusing.

“We experimented between first-past-the-post and preferential ballot. The first led to the most liked candidate being elected, but everyone grumbled unhappily for the next ten thousand years. The preferential ballots were, on the other hand, a smashing success. While most people didn’t get who they liked in power, they got to be smug about picking the winner as their second or third choice. It also narrowed down the playing field so that no more than four or five candidates ever participated in one election.”

“Huh,” Judah said. “Whoever thought democracy could be so universal? I said forty percent, but it was on a downward trend.”

“It happens in every mortal plane,” Mary said understandingly. “At first, they’re super enthusiastic, but then it wanes, leaving only the crazies with enough energy to stand up for what they believe in. Then, one of two things happen: A civil war splits the country apart, leading to two competing dictatorships, or you get a situation much like ours. The advantage in the second case is that no one has the energy to mount a revolution, because not enough people care.”

“Do some places trend one way or another?” Judah asked, curious. “We had a pseudo-democracy in Rome, but then it eventually imploded. Some people say it had something to do with lead in the water.”

“By and large, it seems to depend on the level of technology or cultivation,” Mary explained. “When you reach the point where 99.99 percent of the population could theoretically be wiped out by the most powerful democracy in the span of a day, people tend to call the situation good enough, and no one bothers with a revolution. Eventually, it merges with other countries around it and forms one massive mega government where no one can really do anything. Most people think that’s just rosy.”

Usama, who’d been chatting with a business associate at the back, walked up. “Hey, buddy!” he said, shaking Judah’s hand. “I just wanted to wish you congratulations in advance.”

“Isn’t that bad luck?” Judah asked. “I hear all of the other candidates are way more popular than I am. It’ll be a miracle if I win.”

“And who’s saying that?” Usama asked with a twinkle in his eye.

“The news?” Judah answered uncertainly.

Yama hmphed, drawing glances. “The news wouldn’t know what’s going on if it hit them upside the head with a spirit-sealing brick. They’re all mouthpieces for one candidate or another, spewing crazy rhetoric as though it were fact. There are a few sane media outlets out there, but they don’t fare very well on election years. It takes them a few decades to recover after each election.”

“He’s right,” Mary said, shaking her head in disgust. “You mostly don’t have to worry about the news and reporters, though it really would have helped if you’d spoken out against Ragthor the Bloodied. That devil-worshipping psycho deserves every bit of bad press he gets. I mean, come on! Bringing back spirit sacrifices? Bicentenary wars to cull our population?”

“He’s very popular with the middle class,” Yama pointed out. “We didn’t want to alienate them. They think very highly of their odds of survival in the bicentennial wars, given their better resources. Since our regressive tax policies already attracted the rich, it was wiser to remain silent.”

“I’m just not sure how people can take these guys seriously,” Judah said, shaking his head. “Here I am, trying to keep a clean election, but there’s Elsa of the Hive Mind here saying every spirit should be connected to a hive matrix to operate more efficiently, and everyone should get equal resources. She literally wants to enslave the entire population. Then, she weakens her case and admits it should be done slowly, first subduing ten percent of the population by random lottery to see how it works out.”

“Instantly creating a hive mind is tricky,” Usama chimed in. “We tried it once at my evil research and development company. It didn’t work out so well.”

“And then there’s the sanest of the lot, Galahad the Brave,” Judah said. “He’s all about honor and justice. Going over the entire law with a fine-tooth comb, doubling our police force, and increasing standards for judges. He’s got all this good stuff going for him, but then he wants to do unnecessary things like fine people for shaking off after peeing in the urinal.”

“He’s always been a bit of a puritan,” Yama muttered. “Runs in every election, and he always seems to get about twenty-five percent of the vote. His base is very strong and self-righteous. Still, you’re polling behind him by six percentage points. The other two are neck and neck at twenty-eight percent.”

“Are you kidding me?” Judah exclaimed. “Elsa of the Hive Mind and Ragthor the Bloodied? Are these people crazy?”

“I did say that,” Mary said dryly. “They have personal appeal. Unfortunately, the people you’re appealing to just don’t care enough.” She sighed.

Yama sighed too. As he looked over the crowds, his consciousness reached out to the Yellow River. It was surging again, and his employees were having trouble keeping up. The shark squad was working double overtime, and their newest invention, sin-purifying nanoweave, was barely holding off sin from corrupting the reincarnation pool. Which wasn’t a bad thing, per se, since that time was coming. He just had to hold it off for a few more millennia before letting it loose.

This election was the key to getting him the labor he needed, at a price he could afford. With those things in hand, he could keep the universe running in good order and avoid a Second Great Apocalypse. Not that most people knew there had been another, but the lack of public embarrassment didn’t make it any easier for Yama, especially since the Jade Emperor and the Curse Sovereign were privy to that information.

Unfortunately, they were losing. Without a miracle, most of the universe was doomed.



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