CROWN OF THE STARRY SKY

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PROLOGUE

Prologue

 

Chaotic waves buffeted Silver Fish’s body as he swam through the deep waters of the Burning Lake. He took care to avoid danger zones and areas of concentrated demonic activity. Creatures of the deep swam beside him and around him, inspecting this unknown entity that had suddenly appeared within their territory. He ignored them, mostly, choosing instead to push forward and put as much distance between him and his pursuer as possible.

The Burning Lake was a large body of water situated more or less at the center of the Burning Lake Prefectural City. It might not be the largest or deepest of lakes, but it was much larger than the average village and a quarter as deep. Its waters were inky, like most waters were, which helped shroud his presence as he evaded pursuit. Thus cloaked, his own personal shroud of ink could focus on guarding him against the machinations of the lake. They were out to get him, just like everyone else.

Hide, he told himself. Run. You’re prey. You can rest later. His lungs burned, as did his muscles, but he carried on despite the fatigue. He might be one the lake’s favored few, but the lake was still of nature. That meant it was capricious and heartless. Moreover, there was nothing unnatural about the hunt. Nothing unseemly about the chase. Silver Fish was prey, and his hunter several orders of magnitude stronger than he was. It was a fair matchup, the lake told him, and he knew it was right. His odds were much better than the average fish could ask for.

Silver Fish, a pale-skinned demon of a man, finally stopped to rest after several minutes of exertion, taking shelter in a forest of algae. The clean lake supported many such sub-ecosystems by virtue of the nine freshwater rivers that fed it. Relatively speaking, it was a safe place for demons. Millions of bestial demons and quite a few initiation-realm demons in human form lived here, sustaining themselves on the ample greenery and prey.

Yet where there was prey, there were also predators. For why else would he be hiding here, among the helpless and the scared? It had been several days since he’d jumped ship in the harbor, avoiding every vessel before working his way up the well-guarded stream. Ever since then, he’d been hunted, a fugitive on the run. He’d never laid eyes on his hunter, but he knew that the moment he did, it would be too late.

Prefecture Lord Dripping Blade. That was the only person it could be. He was an authority figure from another prefecture, and a man who, by all rights, shouldn’t even be here. Yet his son had died by Silver Fish’s hand, and no one begrudged his presence. He was powerful, and thus a law unto himself. Just as nature intended. All was right in the world, though Silver Fish wished it wasn’t.

Just stay low, Silver Fish thought to himself. No. Not thought. Thought required mental reflection. It was more like being lectured by the instincts in his blood. The same demonic ink that hid his presence ran through his veins, whispering well-hidden secrets into his unconscious mind. This same blood told him that if he hid long enough, the predator stalking him would eventually go away. Predators were imperfect, and they would eventually tire in much the same way he would.

So hide he did. Amid the seaweed and lesser fishes. The latter eyed him warily as he swam beside them, remembering what he’d done to some of their brethren. Silver Fish wasn’t part of the food chain, per se, but he was quickly asserting himself as a dominant creature in this underwater forest, as much as he ate his lessers with great reluctance. Though slight, he could sense a sort of kinship with these creatures, the denizens of the inky lake. Within their veins ran traces of the same ink that filled his own, the same ink that filled the rivers, the lakes, and the oceans.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to hurt you, he conveyed to the fish. He used ink and will to communicate his intent. He wasn’t here to eat—he was here to hide. Besides, he’d just eaten. And much to Silver Fish’s relief, they grudgingly accepted his explanation and didn’t dart away, thus alerting his hunter. In exchange, he didn’t give in to his hunger. Better to be cautious for now.

Several minutes passed, but the presence didn’t disappear. Something about it changed, however, something he couldn’t put his finger on. The cultivator’s aura transitioned from that of a hunter to one who was resting. Could he go out? Was he safe? His instincts were undecided. Fortunately, he had others he could trust in. His neighbors immediately began venturing outside of the algae and into more open waters, where they could nibble at smaller floating bits of nutrition and the outermost—and softest—algae leaves.

It was peaceful, for a time. He fed, and he continued absorbing the lake’s ample demonic energy. Damn Dripping Blade, he thought as he tentatively munched on the same algae leaves as the fish. It wasn’t Silver Fish’s fault that the man’s son was a psychopathic nutcase hell-bent on destroying his family and friends. You’d have to be blind not to see it. Yet here he was, not leaving until his grudge was fulfilled. Would Silver Fish be doomed to stay here beneath the lake, forever subsisting on what it provided until he broke past the initiation realm? That could take centuries, given the local conditions. He might as well wait for the prefecture lord to die of old age.

No, if he could help it, he would find a way to get stronger, faster. Surely there were useful treasures in such a vast lake. And as he thought it, he noticed something in its waters. Something floating, shining, and glinting in the moonlight that somehow pierced through the omnipresent darkness.

What’s that? Silver Fish thought. Memories surfaced in his blood. Pockets of information. Three possibilities came to mind, and all of them excited him. One was a pure-blooded demon koi that he could use to add to his bloodline. Another was a deep-lake silver alga, a plant that was rich in demonic energy. It could also be a trap, of course. Everything could be a trap. But either of these things would reduce his journey to the Investiture Realm substantially. Careful. Verify first. Confirm before any other predators get a chance to eat it.

He approached the item in the water. It was a round thing, silver colored and free of corruption. Surrounding it was a strange bubble of dense demonic energy. Though this was neither of the two items he’d thought of, it was still a pleasant surprise. Was it something new? It felt dangerously powerful. Perhaps it was a rare natural treasure, or the remnants of a powerful demon. He wondered nervously why no one had consumed it.

The other fish around Silver Fish thought likewise. They rose up around the item, perplexed at its existence. When some of the smaller fish moved to nip at it, stronger demons forced them away. Silver Fish frowned when he saw this. Who were they to push others around? Wasn’t he the strongest among them? Shouldn’t he have the item?

A modicum of rage bubbled up inside him as he flew out of the swarm of fish. He confronted one of them, who reverted to his human form, that of a gilled man with dark, scaly skin. He wielded a trident, a standard weapon for water-based initiation demons. The others also drew their demon weapons, and the match began in earnest.

Silver Fish grinned. He didn’t draw his weapon but held out his bare hands. Inky waters swirled around his arms, daring them to fight. They looked at each other, hesitated, then clicked in anger before fleeing. It only took an instant for them to realize they were bested, and that he wasn’t worth fighting.

He ignored the rest of them and moved toward his prize. And what a prize it was. If he took it, he would gain at least a quarter of the energy required for his next advancement. The demonic energy was thick and pure. It hovered around a priceless silver treasure that he would also claim as his own. He caught the item in his hands, and the demonic energy flooded into him. It was a wondrous sensation.

His bones crackled as they readjusted and strengthened. His blood quickened and thickened. His skin grew tougher, as did the thin layer of black scales he could summon around himself as armor. His demon weapon, a large anchor he could summon at will, grew heavier and harder.

Now what to do with this wondrous treasure? Silver Fish thought, looking at the silver item that remained after all the demonic energy had been consumed. Then he frowned. Why is it even here? It was a small silver ball that radiated rune-carving energy. He wasn’t sure what it did, but surely it must be useful.

Besides, even if it wasn’t, the silver string leading away from it would be. Down in the inky lake, there were few things more useful than string. He pulled at the item, and it was only then that he realized his big mistake. Ancestors, how could I be so stupid?

Black water surged around him as the string pulled back. It dragged him several kilometers in less than a minute, eventually yanking him out of the waters and into the open air. It happened so quickly he had no time at all to react. One minute, he was in the water tugging at a silver treasure, and the next, he was gasping for breath. No, wait, he wasn’t a fish. He could breathe in the air. He adjusted and breathed, though it did little to calm him—his movements were completely sealed.

He tried desperately to free himself from the invisible energy binding him. He summoned his inky sea domain and pushed with everything he had. It was useless, of course. How could he hope to resist against such a foe? A three-colored domain of water, wood, and fire pushed away the ink, and within the domain, he saw something that made his blood run cold: spatial energy. This wasn’t just a domain, but a world projection. A rune-gathering cultivator had indeed caught him like a stupid fish.

“There’s no use struggling,” said a calm, lazy, and almost cheerful voice.

Silver Fish tried to rise, but his captor would have none of it. His body was heavy on the small wooden boat, which contained a tackle box, a fishing rod, and what looked like a picnic lunch. A large cat looked at him curiously. No. Hungrily.

“He’s not yours to eat. Sit down.” The cat scowled and walked away instead of obeying. “Cats. No respect,” the cultivator complained.

This was it. This was what Silver Fish had been afraid of. He’d been running for a week, but now, he’d finally been caught. Was it Prefecture Lord Dripping Blade, whose son he had killed for sweet vengeance, or the loathsome boy’s uncle, Prefecture Lord Burning Lake?

“I guess this is how it ends,” Silver Fish said with a chuckle. He’d known he would die for killing Dao God Ember Lake, but he’d held out hope for survival. If only he could have grown strong enough, fast enough. Then, neither prefecture lord would have been able to catch him. He moved his head and tried to look up, but the pressure still weighed down on him. All he could see were dark-blue robes and sandalled feet. “Just get it over with. I have no regrets for what I did.”

“Oh?” the man said. “And what did you do, pray tell?”

Silver Fish clenched his jaw. He tried to straighten himself, but it was difficult. The man wanted to drag this out. Did he want names? A confession? It didn’t matter. He would give him nothing, even if he had to endure weeks or months of torture. After the hell he’d been through, his tormentor was free to bring on anything he wanted.

Anger burned in the pit of Silver Fish’s stomach. It burned in the middle of his torso. And in that moment, he felt the lake more clearly than he ever had. Specifically, in his rage, he felt his faint connection to the waves deepen. It resonated with his blood. It sympathized with his emotions.

“If you think I’ll let you kill me,” Silver Fish said, forcing himself up, struggling against the world projection bearing down on him, “you’re dead wrong. I won’t sit here like a fish on a chopping block. I’ll fight you with everything I have.” He felt the waves even more clearly now. They lapped at the side of the boat, threatening to turn it over.

“Really now?” the man said. “I’d like to see that. It’s hard to find anyone so spirited these days.” Then he did precisely… nothing. He crossed his arms and waited. “Well? Go ahead. I’ll give you a free shot.”

Silver Fish’s eyes narrowed. A free shot? Was that how weak he thought he was? The man might be a rune-gathering cultivator, but he wasn’t a Dao God. If Silver Fish managed to land a clean strike with enough power, he might just be able to kill him. A final act of vengeance before the second prefecture lord in the city found and executed him.

Anger seems to be the key, Silver Fish thought. Rage. He drew upon the heat burning in his chest and added a second source of resentment: the frustration of being looked down upon. It was small in comparison to the larger ball, but surprisingly, the waves reacted violently. I might be a small fish in his eyes, but I will be the fish whose bones he chokes on. The thought caused the inky waters around him to gather around the anchor he summoned. It, too, felt his anger, and using it, it channeled the waves.

“A demon weapon?” the man said. “Intriguing. Let’s see just what you’re capable of.”

Silver Fish’s muscles bulged as he poured in everything he had into this single strike. His qi. His blood. His soul. It would be the strongest attack he’d ever unleashed, and he would be weak as a goldfish after executing it. Afterward, even the smallest tadpole in the lake would be able to devour him if it was patient enough. But better them than the prefecture lords, who saw the weak as mere cattle to be milked and fruit to be harvested.

Power swirled around his anchor. Waves crashed violently. Silver Fish heaved without technique manifestation. He simply poured everything he had, every ounce of power he could muster. It merged with his rage and resonated with his inky blood.

The air blurred as he moved. The waves moved with him. The anchor shot forward and crashed against a small shield the man summoned at the last second. For a moment, Silver Fish thought he’d succeeded. The shield rippled, threatening to break, and to his surprise, shattered into a million pieces. He grinned as the waves struck the man’s bare body. He’d done it. He’d actually done it.

Silver Fish fell to one knee, breathing hard. The cat in the boat eyed him curiously. It sniffed at him, then purred as it rubbed against his wet leg, its fur somehow immune to the moisture. Silver Fish frowned. Why was the cat still here? He’d just attacked its owner. Shouldn’t it be angry? He looked up and realized his mistake. The inky waters he’d summoned were no longer under his control. They were floating around the rune-gathering cultivator, who had easily stopped them.

“Not bad,” said the man. “Not bad at all. You need to work on your anger a bit. I know you thought you were angry, but I wasn’t quite feeling it. Wouldn’t you agree?” The cat meowed as the inky water around the man began to swirl. It expanded until it enveloped Silver Fish. Then, it shoved the air from his lungs and obscured his sight. Waves pummeled him from every angle.

I should have known, Silver Fish thought as he floated in the inky-black waters. He’d been a fool to think he could fight a prefecture lord. Well, at least he’d tried. He struggled for a moment more, but his body was weak from his last attack. He kicked and kicked, and the more he kicked, the less he saw.

Finally, the world went black as the waters of the inky lake. He saw nothing. He felt nothing. Soon, it would all be over.

 

***

 

Deep in the city of Diyu, a place beyond the reaches of space and time, the great lord of the Underworld, Yama, felt a twinge of fear. It was a strange sensation—almost alien. It had been hundreds of thousands of Diyu years since he’d actually felt threatened.

No, threatened isn’t the right word, Yama thought. The feeling wasn’t the crippling fear a man would feel when he was mere inches away from getting hit by a vehicle. It was more akin to the fear a great-great-grandfather would feel for the safety of his adopted great-great-grandchildren. It was a fear for the rest of existence and its many inhabitants. This feeling was why, as Yama watched the news and ate breakfast cereals, he spat spirit milk and too-sweet marshmallows all over his antique dining room table. His butler swooped in to clean up the mess almost immediately.

Yama’s forehead wrinkled like a prune as he thought about what could cause this feeling. He was a very stable and venerated reaper, despite his old age. It wasn’t just a light feeling of concern, like the one that had prompted him to interfere in Diyu’s election. This was something else entirely. The last time he’d felt such a thing, he’d been forced to carve six medium-sized realms away from existence, lest they corrupt the whole of the universe with an infestation of reality-eating maggots. That was the level of threat they were dealing with.

How is this possible? Yama thought, opening his too-black eyes wide and tracing the tangle of karma that crisscrossed his city. He spotted the source in an instant. He was connected to it via a thin line of causality, which meant that he himself was partially responsible for the danger. A first in many aeons.

“Don’t you dare, you little ghost,” Yama muttered. “Don’t you dare mess around.” But the man couldn’t hear him, and the sensation grew stronger by the second.

“Problem, my lord?” his butler asked. Percival had already cleaned up the mess and had even cleaned the rest of the kitchen while he was at it. The man was the best of assistants in those few times that Yama actually frequented his home.

“I need to take a quick field trip,” Yama said. “You’ll take care of the mansion while I’m gone?”

“Naturally,” Percival replied with a bow. The home was more his than Yama’s anyway.

The lord of the Underworld bolted. On the way out, he grabbed his reaper robes. It was raining now, and he didn’t want to get drenched. He left his scythe, the one he kept around just in case he needed to put down immortal emperors or cull worlds. It wouldn’t be needed—for now. As he ran past the blur of traffic, he flipped open his cell phone and made a call. It rang twice before someone answered.

“Sir?” a voice asked. It was his assistant Lily, and she’d probably been sleeping.

“Please submit an emergency request for inter-city teleportation,” Yama said.

“Right,” Lily said. Ever the hard worker, though he expected her to put in four hours of overtime for these fifteen minutes of work. “What reason should I give them?”

“Saving all your sorry butts,” Yama snapped.

She went silent for a moment before answering. “Your request has been approved.” Thank the Painter for technology.

Flash. Yama appeared above the city, giving himself a full bird’s-eye view of the center of it. His sharp eyes focused on the main karmic thread, indicating that the individual in question wasn’t at home as he should be. He traced it all the way to the public offices, a sprawling behemoth of buildings where administrators, accountants, managers, and all types of busybodies and paper pushers who wanted a cushy job for a few millennia aggregated.

Flash. He appeared just outside the archives, which wasn’t a single building but a sprawling complex. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite tell which building to go to. They were shielded against all types of scrying—for obvious reasons.

Yama made his way to the door and found an old friend waiting for him. “Evil Dave. Fancy seeing you here.”

“Yeah,” said Evil Dave. “It’s been a while. Shall we?”

“Yes, let’s,” Yama said. He adjusted his robes and prepared himself for a fierce battle with the gatekeeper. Meanwhile, he reflected on the oddity that was Evil Dave.

Evil Dave was a strange man. His name made no sense, as he was basically the nicest person Yama had ever met. That was saying something, as he’d met trillions, if not quadrillions of souls. He was also a bit of an anomaly, as somehow, Yama remembered going to graduate studies with him. Moreover, he remembered Evil Dave being a very hard worker with a particularly intolerable supervisor.

That made no sense, of course. Yama had never been to graduate studies—at least not in this universe. Yet somehow, Evil Dave had superimposed himself on his timeline as an acquaintance that Yama remembered. Yama had seen stranger things, so he’d always taken it in stride.

They pushed through a door and left the rain behind. A dimly lit desk was situated just at the entrance. “Madam,” Yama greeted. The gatekeeper, an old lady with gray hair and half-moon spectacles, lowered said spectacles to take a good look at him.

“Old man,” the gatekeeper said, not impressed by his appearance whatsoever.

“You’re looking quite ravishing this evening, my dear,” Yama said.

“And you’re looking like you want something,” the old lady replied. “Well, you can forget it. You have no authority here, and I don’t like it when people try to bully me.”

“Let’s be reasonable,” Yama implored. “I don’t bother you often, and even when I do, it’s not for much.”

The woman looked at him, unconvinced. She resembled an ice sculpture, the kind that took hours and hours to chip away and took forever to melt. They glared at each other, and it was only after few tense moments that her eyes flickered to the man beside him. “Oh, I didn’t see you there, Evil Dave.”

“Hey,” Evil Dave said shyly. “You think you could give us a hand? This is kind of important.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say so, Evil Dave?” she said. She pulled her wrinkled face into a poorly practiced smile. “What do you need, Lord Yama?”

Yama blinked. She’d never treated him this well before. But he wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Strangely, Evil Dave’s powers of superimposition didn’t just apply to him, but to anyone who’d ever gone to or would go to graduate studies. In any lifetime. That meant Evil Dave knew most people in the universe and was on very good terms with all of them.

“We’re looking for the mayor,” Yama said. “He’s poking around somewhere he shouldn’t.”

The gatekeeper’s expression darkened. “You should have mentioned that part first.” She pressed a buzzer. “Seventeenth building, fourth quadrant, second floor, hundredth room. Be quick about it.”

Oh dear, Yama thought. Things must be worse than they seemed. Administrators like her were not helpful people. In fact, they were the opposite of helpful. The whole point of their existence was to ensure that people didn’t poke their heads around in the wrong places. Every time someone entered their domain, they would carefully screen the individual in question and analyze the potential for them to make a ruckus. For high-risk individuals like him, she should be using every scrap of her authority to circumvent his efforts at getting anything done. The fact that she’d pointed them to a specific room was very telling.

“Brace yourself, Evil Dave,” Yama said. He put a hand on his skinny friend’s shoulder. Somehow, the man was even more skeletal than Yama was. They performed a short-ranged teleportation in the building they’d been pointed toward, which set off all kinds of alarms. Yama ignored them, and soon they appeared in front of a very ordinary-looking door. The door was ajar.

They found Mayor Judah and his assistants sitting on the floor, scratching their heads. “Oh. Hey, Yama,” Judah greeted. “And Evil Dave. Long time no see!”

“Long time no see,” Evil Dave agreed. “Mind stopping? This is kind of important.”

“Oh, if you’re the one asking, sure,” Judah said. His entire crew stopped working, and everyone, including the newly reincarnated interns, greeted Evil Dave. Some of them even had the presence of mind to greet the lord of the Underworld himself.

Yama coughed awkwardly. “I’m going to need you to stop what you’re doing.”

“What?” Judah said. “Why? We’re onto something here. Something big. These records show serious mismanagement in the city, and even how it connects to the entire universe in overlapping space-time. As the mayor of Diyu, I need to look into this right away.”

“Just stop,” Yama said, pleading. “Don’t say any more. You’ve already said too much.”

“How can I stop?” Judah said. “It’s my job as mayor to—”

Yama cut him off. “It’s your job as mayor to look pretty and give general direction to the counselors, who won’t listen to most of what you say and vote however they damned well please. Their votes will in turn slightly adjust policy in a way that the bureaucracy will eventually get around to addressing.”

“See, that’s my point,” Judah said. “The place is a huge swamp. No one has any idea what’s going on.”

Yama sighed and massaged his eyebrows. “Evil Dave, could you help out here?”

“Sure,” Evil Dave said. He was just about the most useful ally a man could have in this situation. He walked over to a folder Judah was holding, closed it, and placed it back in the filing cabinet. “How long do you think Diyu’s been around, Judah?”

“I dunno. Aeons?” Judah said, shrugging.

“Many of them,” Yama said. “Quite frankly, it’s existed almost as long as I have. Which is saying something.”

“And?” Judah said.

“Thing is,” Evil Dave continued, “I remember Yama when he came up with the whole design for the Underworld in the first place. He was a dreamer. When he started, he used to do everything himself. Then, as the universe expanded, he didn’t have time to do things on his own.”

“So the government…” Judah said.

“Started because Yama couldn’t get it all done,” Evil Dave finished. “It’s not just Reincarnation, Inc. Pretty much all of Diyu’s infrastructure, business, and taxes exist almost purely to make sure reincarnation continues happening.”

Yama sighed. “I’ve only kept the most core pieces of the cycle of reincarnation in Reincarnation, Inc. The others, I had to spin off. The government is there to make sure everything doesn’t devolve into chaos.”

“I’m with you,” Judah said. “So… shouldn’t I help run things as smoothly as possible?”

Yama facepalmed.

“Thing is, Judah,” Dave said, “that swamp has been there for almost as long as Diyu. Since the mayors change all the time, they started running things themselves. Most government and administrative policies are there specifically to shield the people administrating Diyu from government intervention. In case they mess things up.”

“It is a swamp,” Yama said. “You’re right. It’s an intentional swamp. And within that swamp lies a system so intricate and so profound, that destabilizing it would cause shock waves throughout the universe. The damage would be astronomical.”

Judah gulped. “So… I should just let these things go?”

“You should do your real job,” Yama said. His expression grew gentler. “There are many things you can do. You can look pretty and smug at having won the election, and in a few hundred years, you can start slandering future rivals and abusing your position to try to gain an unfair advantage. You can milk it for all its worth and even line your pockets a bit. With any luck, you’ll retain your position and continue milking said system and keep fooling the populace into thinking they actually have a choice in how things are run. In the meantime, if there’s something you want to do, like destroying statues, completely redesigning our zoning bylaws, or renovating our entire street system, you’re welcome to convince the councillors to do it. Or heck, raise property taxes by double if you can get away with it.

“You mean those are small things?” Judah asked, shocked by the notion.

“Peanuts,” Yama said. “As long as I have workers and base infrastructure, the swamp will adjust and accommodate to solve the rest. The issue with labor and taxes was one of the few times where the swamp couldn’t adjust enough, so I had to personally intervene. Damn heaven and hell for forcing me to do it.”

“Wow,” Judah said. “Well, if you say so… But this thing that I just read, maybe I could—”

“If you value your life, don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole,” Yama said. “If not for yourself, for the people you know.” He shot an evil glare at Judah’s staff, then swept out his hand. “You will forget everything you saw here.”

“I will forget everything I saw here,” they repeated, then blinked in confusion.

You are now the only one who remembers, Yama sent to Judah. Specifically, so that you don’t attempt this again. Evil Dave and I didn’t dare read the content that you did, so keep it secret. Keep it safe.

“Right…” Judah said. He looked around, uncertain of how to make a graceful exit. “Well, we’d best be hitting the ol’ dusty trail…” They exchanged a few more awkward looks and coughs, wondering how they’d gotten here in the first place, and Judah herded his staff out of the room and straight out of the archives. Though they were confused, Yama had no doubt that by the time they’d left the building, they would have very good ideas about their next irrelevant project. Something about that wall he’d mentioned a while back. Like the council was going to give him funding for that.

On their way out, Yama and Evil Dave had a pleasant discussion with the gatekeeper. Apparently, she grew the most wonderful petunias. It wasn’t enough to break the ice between them, but on the whole, Yama upgraded their relationship in his book from “frosty as the queen of winter” to “a cold snap just when it was getting warmer.”

They were outside now. Yama sighed as he looked toward his distant home office. It would take him a while to get back, since his permission to teleport had expired. Still, he had time to spare. His emergency had been dealt with. The damage he’d dealt to space-time by teleporting here in the first place could be dealt with at his leisure.

“So…” Yama said to Evil Dave as he walked. “Fancy playing a board game? Like the good old days?”

“Sure,” Evil Dave said. “Like the good old days.”

They left, speaking about a past that Yama was sure didn’t exist, wondering about things that couldn’t possibly have happened. It was relaxing, really. As they walked, the fear in Yama’s heart faded to mild concern, and he was sure that, with time, it would fade away to nothing.

So involved in his conversation he was that he didn’t notice the straggler from Judah’s group walking out of the building. She’d gone to the bathroom during their encounter with Yama and was running in a frenzied hurry to catch their group as they exited the complex. And in her arms, tucked away beneath the many papers she would need to push before dawn, she carried something. A thin white file folder containing pages of seemingly irrelevant information.

It would be quite some time before she got to it.



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