Dao Lord Blackwater’s hand moved quickly and deftly, painting a white rune on a black stone with the precision of a man who’d lived for millennia. The ink was thick, white, and cloudy, and the heavy stone was the deep color of ink. The gray brush in his wrinkled hands was covered in mystical carvings, gildings, and etchings. It infused qi into the rune he painted, as well as charm that could not be replicated save by those who understood it. Dao Lord Blackwater was an artist. He knew his craft inside and out.

The rune glowed with pale-blue light as it drank in color from the near-black water that came up to his bony ankles. It reflected off the waters of the shallow pool he stood in, a pool that stretched out several hundred kilometers in every direction. Near-spherical stones that came up to his waist poked out of the water like small bumps on a well-worn road. They spiraled outward, creating a greater pattern that was joined together through the white lines he’d painted on every one of them.

At the center of the spiral lay a larger object, over a hundred times taller than Dao Lord Blackwater himself. It was covered in pieces of slatelike shell that seemed brittle at first but refused to break. He would know—he’d tried to do so several times. At this point, he assumed breaking through was impossible, as few on the plane were stronger than he was.

“That ought to do it,” Dao Lord Blackwater said, nodding in satisfaction. He stowed his brush and leaped up from the pool, landing atop a shell-covered stone that was so large its round surface seemed almost flat. From within it came a glow, inky black, just like the pool surrounding it.

“Do an old man a favor and cooperate, will you?” he said to the stone. It pulsed as though it understood him, but by now, he knew it pulsed at whatever living being touched it. Was the reaction instinctual? Was it yearning for a connection that no one had been able to give it for tens of thousands of years? Perhaps today, he would discover the answer.

One last time, Dao Lord Blackwater thought. I’ll give it one last try before giving up. If he failed, he’d have to pass the torch on to someone more deserving. Given how long he’d been trying, he expected failure, but any chance at success was better than giving up.

Dao Lord Blackwater took a deep breath and placed his hand on the shell-covered orb. The runes around him glowed blue, and the blue was so deep it appeared black. They radiated with a Dao he’d painstakingly stitched from law fragments he’d gathered from across the plane, runes infused with happiness and loss and drenched in the blood of his enemies, as well as countless tears of innocent mortals.

They stretched out the entire length of the pool in a spiral that widened ever so slightly with every coil. The three-hundred-kilometer-wide pool lit up in its entirety, both from the runes and from the lines that spread out from them, as per the dictates of the laws they represented. They wove a tapestry so fine and so detailed that they could speak to the life and death of mortals and create an entire world.

His runic core tugged at him in his Dantian. It was a large blue-black object that glowed brightly with the law tapestry it held. It yearned to merge with the pattern and become something greater. He knew from experience, however, that a mere law tapestry wasn’t nearly enough.

Accordingly, Dao Lord Blackwater refused the merger. Instead, he reached deep into his fused body and soul, and an inky-black projection appeared above the pattern on the water. Dao Lord Blackwater was no mere Daoist. He was not a human, but a demon. He lowered the demonic manifestation into the rune-covered sea and let the tapestry wrap it like a blanket. Laws and nature blended, creating something even greater than he could have ever imagined.

This will work, he thought. They pulsed. They struggled. They wanted to create, to make life. They wanted to make a universe they could call their own. A spark ignited within them, threatening to explode at any moment. With creation came destruction, the destruction of his core, his body, and his soul.

Yet he took that spark and smothered it like the last ember of an undesired fire. It glowed mutely for a moment before fading forever.

Dao Lord Blackwater didn’t want another world. He wanted this one.

He centered himself. What he was attempting could only be described as suicidal. He pressed down on the orb of fused demonic nature and the law tapestry and forced it downward. He pushed on it with all his might in an attempt to force it into the shelled sphere that anchored the will of an entire plane.

It resisted. His phantom groaned. Yet there was an even greater pulsing than before. Is it working? There was only one way to find out. He pressed even harder, using every scrap of his will to force the merger. A few layers did merge, and for a brief moment, he was overjoyed.

He’d succeeded. The nightmare was finally over.

Then a jolt ran through his mind, warning him of impending danger. He scrambled to undo the link, all the while wondering why he had failed. Surviving this ordeal was secondary to the truth that could finally save them. He grasped handfuls of karmic threads and followed them. As he did so, he coughed up black blood, and his body threatened to fail. He stood there between life and death, reaching for an answer that had long eluded him. It hid like black writing beneath the inky waters of the Inkwell Sea. The answers were beyond a mere transcendent, so he burned a portion of his body and soul.

A modicum of information appeared—the limit that his now-weakened soul could handle. He was no immortal, and the complete truth would crush him. His eyes widened as he confirmed what he’d long suspected—the power in the sphere was too great. Even his demonic nature fused with immortal laws could not accommodate it. It was like trying to fit all of heaven in a tiny glass sphere and expecting it not to break. No wonder he’d failed. No wonder his efforts had gone to waste.

Dao Lord Blackwater scrambled to separate his phantom and tapestry. They’d been fused for a while now, and he’d burned part of his essence. As they ripped apart, holes appeared on his body and gaps appeared in his understanding. Not only had the sphere rejected the merger, but it was sucking him in, feeding on his power.

If all it took was little old me, I would let you have me, he thought. He would willingly feed himself to the orb if it could buy them a meaningful amount of time. But they’d tried such a thing for millennia, only to realize it was a drop in the bucket. The phantom faded as the inky-blue glow disappeared, and the ink on the stones drained into the knee-deep sea.

The quiet ocean grew completely still as Dao Lord Blackwater withdrew his power and trembled. He suppressed the backlash that had nearly killed him. He felt around the incomplete law tapestry and sensed the fresh holes in his mind. Information was missing, as were several pieces of his greater demon body.

“A sub-realm regression on both paths,” he muttered. “Better than dying, I suppose.”

Then he looked up toward the entrance of the large unlit chamber. It was closed, but he could tell at a glance it had just been opened. “You might as well come over now, West Sea.”

There was a flash and ripple of gray as an old balding human with a few loose white hairs appeared. The skin on his face and hands was severely wrinkled, but his youthful eyes matched his robes. They were dark blue like the deep oceans at the most distant edges of the plane, the ones not colored with ink that flowed from its center.

Daoist West Sea, also known as the West Sea Guardian, looked extremely unimpressive. But anyone evaluating him as such would be committing a fatal error. He was strong. Stronger than Dao Lord Blackwater now that the backlash had taken its toll on him.

“Another failure, I see,” Daoist West Sea said, pursing his lips with displeasure.

“Alas, it is as you say, Brother Ling,” Dao Lord Blackwater said, holding his hands up and laughing desperately. “Twenty thousand years of effort, and nothing to show for it.” He nodded to the small black-and-white cat that appeared on Daoist West Sea’s shoulder. “The only thing I got for my trouble was a kick in the pants. Your cat is now stronger than I am.”

“Now, then,” Daoist West Sea warned, “don’t you go insulting Mr. Mao Mao. You know full well he’s the only thing keeping me sane after you let that daughter of yours loose upon me.”

“Speaking of which,” Dao Lord Blackwater said, “I’m glad she found you. I was afraid you’d still be off vacationing when I failed and died.”

Daoist West Sea frowned. His body flickered, and he appeared beside the man. He placed a hand on Blackwater’s chest and closed his eyes. “You won’t die,” Daoist West Sea said as he opened them, “but you’ve shaved off a good ten thousand years from your life span. At your realm, it’s practically impossible to get it back.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “We don’t have ten thousand years. And that’s even after it stole what strength it did from me.”

“Such is life,” Daoist West Sea said. “But it’s like I said—what comes from the world cannot heal it. You didn’t stand a chance in the first place.”

He disappeared and reappeared atop the inky-black water, walking on it instead of wading. The black liquid tried to reach up and stain his robes, but he gave it a solid frown, and it retreated. Mr. Mao Mao appeared beside him. Blackwater followed, looking a little less pale, though a trickle of black blood ran down the corner of his mouth like someone had given him a good slap across the face.

“I’ve always found it curious how he prefers his small demon form instead of a more energy-efficient human form,” Dao Lord Blackwater said.

“Me too. But I love him for it,” Daoist West Sea said. “He’s much softer and easier to cuddle with.” He scratched the small cat under the chin adoringly.

Dao Lord Blackwater sighed. “I just don’t know what to do. I thought that perhaps by merging immortal and demonic paths, I could accommodate the energy. Only now, having failed, can I see that such a thought was foolish.” He shook his head. “I don’t think adding a godly path or soul path will make a difference.”

Daoist West Sea nodded solemnly. “I think it’s a matter of law compatibility. What you used was just a fraction of a greater whole, which was just a piece of what you tried to merge with. It’s no wonder you failed so spectacularly.”

“We’ll have to resort to my backup plan, then,” Dao Lord Blackwater said.

“Backup plan?” Daoist West Sea asked. “I never heard of a backup plan.”

“That’s because you were off relaxing for over a century,” Dao Lord Blackwater scolded. “The other guardians have picked out a few seedlings that they’ve begun grooming. I’ll be a picking a few myself. Whether demigods or Daoists or demons, it matters not. What’s important is level.”

“Cultivation level?” Daoist West Sea asked.

“Law level,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “The Dao of Black Water is a lower Dao, and my hope was that it would be most compatible with the Inkwell Royal Manifestation. I was mistaken. Now, I realize it could well take the full Dao of Water, or one of the sub-Dao of Creation or Destruction.”

“Shadow might work,” Daoist West Sea muttered, tapping his lips with his wrinkled fingers. There was a wildness in his eyes that made one wonder what wicked ideas he was having. “Met a young seedling on a mortal plane that fit Shadow a while back, but I can’t find him no matter where I look.”

“I saw him too,” Dao Lord Blackwater muttered. “But an immortal nabbed him, or so Immortal Zhong said. I don’t think we’ll be able to pry him away.”

“I suppose not,” Daoist West Sea said. “There was another boy. Creation and Destruction laws. Soul-bound treasure too. But he was spoken for as well by someone more powerful than I. His immortal’s mark put me out of commission for a day.” He sighed. “I taught him a few things, so I suppose that makes me only half a teacher. It seems I’m destined to never take on any disciples.”

“This is serious business,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “The fate of the plane is at stake.”

“Some things can’t be rushed, and some things can’t be forced,” Daoist West Sea said with a shrug. “Anyone who can solve our problem won’t settle on a transcendent master anyway. Maybe it’s best that I do not take on any disciples.”

Dao Lord Blackwater nodded slowly. “Fine. Have it your way. But if you do find someone worthy, give him a pointer or two. Don’t let him struggle. It might be fine in normal times, but trillions of lives are at stake.”

“I’ll do my best,” Daoist West Sea said. “I know full well what’s riding on this. Now, will you do it, or shall I?”

“Please, go ahead,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. He held up an inky-black key and gave it to the aging man. “And keep it while you’re at it. These old bones of mine can’t protect it from the enemy, and I don’t have time to recuperate.” He coughed and coughed, and kept coughing until inky-black blood came up from his lungs. These were only injuries on his human body; the damage to his demonic body was far more extensive. He wouldn’t be able to summon his manifestation anytime soon. Such was the price he’d paid for a chance at survival.

The two blinked out of existence and appeared beneath a clear purple sky, and below them was a rocky mound of black slate that resembled a turtle’s shell. It was a hemisphere that perfectly protected the inside pool where the most important item on the plane resided.

Daoist West Sea poured law fragments into the key, and black lines appeared, revealing inky bars and an inky doorframe made of runes and lines so thin they were nearly invisible. He stuck the key in a transparent lock and gave it a twist. The door closed, and the inky prison vanished along with the rocky mound and the secret place that lay hidden within it. So it would remain until absolutely necessary.

All that remained of the prison was an inky spot. Blackness oozed out from it, staining millions of square kilometers of ocean and transforming them into the pure, drinkable water of the Inkwell Sea.




It was another beautiful day in a beautiful place. Stars shone brightly in the black sky as the sun beamed down on the waters beneath Yama’s boat, tickling the yellow waters of the Yellow River, where souls awaited judgment. It was immediately forthcoming, courtesy of a school of piranha administrators. Millions of bites cleansed tens of thousands of souls in a little under five seconds.

“I think that’s a new record,” Yama said cheerfully, waving at the leader of the crew with a smile.

“You should have seen them yesterday,” the leader said. “Always pushing to do better.”

“As they should, as they should,” Yama said. It was nice to be dealing with professionals for a change. The ragtag crew of contractors that had been staffing Reincarnation, Inc. had all but vanished, as the more competent ones had long ago been converted to full-time employees. As for the remaining positions, they’d been filled by old employees and new faces that had always wanted to try their hand at the soul trade but had never gotten around to it because the pay wasn’t great.

Well, now the pay was great. Taxes had changed, and much-needed new blood had poured into his company. Things were better than ever. And it wasn’t just Reincarnation, Inc. that was doing better. All of Diyu was booming like it hadn’t in ten aeons. Everything was running like a well-oiled machine running on infinite power.

“Keep up the good work!” Yama shouted as he returned to his inspection with gusto, paddling his little boat down twists, turns, and waterfalls in the rushing river. The large Yellow River spanned the entire universe, running between planes to pick up stray souls across all space-time. He followed its flow past filtration devices and many recent innovations. One such invention was using preachers on pulpits and having them speak to the souls as they passed. Somehow, it worked. He’d been doubtful at first. After all, wasn’t religion something you turned to before you died? How blind he had been.

Tens of thousands of ghostly remnants chanted hymns and sermons and lectures in all the major religions. Flow in the river here was baffled to maximize exposure to the preachers and their long, droning voices. The sheer weight of judgment they laid out on the rush of sin-infused souls was such torture that even the shark squad’s laser-fueled frenzy was no match. And the process was scalable and could affect large sections of river.

Yama turned to another invention. This one consisted of an image of a single man displayed on a large monitor. It was literally impossible for the small yellow ghosts to avoid seeing it as they passed by. Every one of them saw the man doing something different. In the instance Yama was seeing, the man on the monitor did nothing but type slowly on a keyboard using software he was awfully familiar with. He wasn’t using shortcuts of any kind. The mental anguish blasted away at even Yama’s substantial sin like he couldn’t believe. Unfortunately, it was too little too late for his ancient soul—he was responsible for the death of too many innocents.

Then came the Bridge of Forgetfulness. It was something he had never thought could be improved upon aside from increasing contact time with Aunty Meng’s tea. He’d been proven wrong yet again. Apparently, dosing the river in soul alcohol and getting them all completely wasted beforehand decreased the requirement for tea several times over. To say that Aunty Meng was unhappy was an understatement. Tea consumption was down, but he still couldn’t get rid of her. The pre-treatment wasn’t worth anything without the finishing touch. Though she’d upped her prices, they were still saving money by the boatload. Meng Po’s tea was Diyu’s single greatest expense.

Nodding in satisfaction, Yama proceeded to the last part, the Sea of Reincarnation. There, carrier pigeons carried souls to their respective reincarnation gates. There was no real need to improve upon the process, but now that they were properly staffed, they’d managed to squeeze out a backup team in case they needed anyone on standby for a flood of souls.

They were as prepared as they would ever be.

After taking one last look around, Yama teleported to his office. He was immediately greeted by his assistant, Lily, still professionally dressed but looking significantly less tired than before. Now, she had assistants for her assistants. In so doing, she’d effectively doubled her capacity to assist him. What a smart girl she was.

“Welcome back, sir!” she said, proffering a stack of papers. He grabbed them and sat at his desk as he flicked through them.

“Performance is up,” he said with a nod. He flipped a page and frowned. “Costs are also up.”

“We’re currently experiencing a soul flood, so overtime is currently required,” Lily explained. “On the bright side, revenue is up.”

“What brought that about?” Yama asked. The price of soul by-products was usually stable.

“Warring evil spirit factions are trying to increase their numbers,” Lily said. “I reckon they’ll be at it for a few more centuries. We’ll likely see a decrease in their population.”

“You can’t make up good news like this!” Yama said with a grin. He looked at his watch, then yelped. “I’m late!”

He flew down the stairs well past the speed of light and ran down the street with no regard for traffic safety laws. Fun fact—taxis were relaxing, but they were still slower than you if you were the fastest person in the universe. And speed limits only applied to vehicles.

“Before you object,” he said to a police officer who opened his mouth as soon as he appeared again, “I’d like to note that I didn’t teleport, I simply moved at super-luminous speed. I technically didn’t break any rules.”

“You broke the laws of physics,” the officer said with a glare. “I have no choice but to give you a citation.”

“Before you perform such a career-limiting move, might I suggest we talk this through?” Yama said. “Think about it—can a person truly break the laws of physics? Isn’t such a thing impossible?”

“But the laws—” the officer said.

“Are just symbolic,” Yama said. “Now then, would you still like to charge me, or shall we agree that nothing wrong was done?”

The stunned officer simply shook his head and walked away. Yama continued on his way. He walked across the open square to where a single resplendent statue stood. It was a complete waste of space, all to satisfy a single man’s vanity. Not an uncommon sight in Diyu, where souls lived long, prosperous afterlives.

A short, pudgy, curly haired mayor was standing beside the monstrous edifice, and a short man in a very menacing black helmet stood beside him. That same man clenched a gauntleted fist and smashed it into the statue. It broke into a thousand pieces that rained down over the thousands cheering in the square, mostly an assortment of ghosts resembling goblins, orcs, skeletons, and a bunch of surly-looking men. And a creature of fire and shadow that cracked its flaming whip as it pumped a cheering fist.

“With that, the reign of terror is over,” the Marquis of the Rings said in his harsh, domineering voice that didn’t match the nerdy man within the carefully padded armor. “Out with the old, in with the new.”

“You’re smug now, but you’ll get what’s coming to you,” a voice said boldly. It was a man in white robes on a white horse. The man on which the statue was based. He looked ready to charge and attack the marquis, but when he spotted Yama, he wisely decided not to start anything. “Watch yourself, dark one.”

“No matter what you do, it will still remain that I smashed your statue,” the Marquis of the Rings said smugly. “You’ll never forget this humiliating defeat.”

The white wizard snorted, flicked his sleeve, then left the square at a trot, where the same police officer that had intercepted Yama ran up to him. He was likely going to give the man a ticket.

“Amateur,” Yama muttered. “Know your bylaws before you showboat in my city.”

“Our friend the Marquis of the Rings has an announcement to make,” Mayor Judah continued.

The crowd clapped, but Yama frowned. What announcement? His eyes widened when a large banner unfolded across the square. It migrated to where the statue had stood, then glowed with runic light as it emanated a massive projection.

Seriously? Yama thought, rolling his eyes. He wanted to break all these statues to replace them with worse ones? What was depicted was a large statue, a tower with a large flame burning at its peak. The building was black as midnight, and merely looking at it chilled the soul. The crowd cheered when they saw it.

“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Mayor Judah said with raised hands. “Replace one piece of art with another? What are you playing at?”

Yama nodded, then waited for the explanation.

“Behold: our newest piece of functional art!”

Doors suddenly opened all around the projection. Windows did as well. What looked like a useless decorative tower was actually a tall commercial building filled with office spaces, shops, and restaurants, you name it. Every inch of space was fully utilized, and not a bit of land—save what was necessary to surround the building in enough greenery to meet code—was wasted.

“We’ve wasted premium land for too long,” Mayor Judah said. “This is but the first of many projects. We will demolish the old, terrible art, and replace them with functional works. This will reduce eyesores while simultaneously bringing revenue to the city and lowering the average property tax in Diyu.”

Yama almost shed a tear. Everything was as it should be, and nothing could possibly ruin this moment.

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