CLADDINGS OF LIGHT

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PROLOGUE

 

It was early in the evening when the storm struck, flooding the streets of the Burning Lake Prefecture with wind and water and mud and sleet. The rain was uncommonly strong, to the point that even the city’s rune-worked sewers couldn’t keep up. All available street cleaners, sewage workers, and plumbers were hard at work salvaging what they could. Yet the prefecture lords simply watched them, not deigning to help.

Even the city watch was fully occupied. Such a large malfunction could result in the deaths of tens of thousands. The wealthier districts weren’t at risk—they had been built with such weather in mind. Instead, the watch focused their attention on the poorer districts. Even then, some areas had to be prioritized. The demon districts lost out in this exchange, as they always did.

Barriers broke and basements flooded. Huge gushes of rainwater punished new cultivators brimming with misplaced confidence. Scores of innocent mortals drowned. The prefecture lords could have saved them, but they did not. They watched it all happen, not assisting, even now.

“You don’t get storms like these very often, do you?” Prefecture Lord Dripping Blade asked from his vantage point at the window. He was a tall hook-nosed man who stood with a straight back as he looked down indifferently at the struggle below. His once-black hair was streaked with gray, his son’s recent death having taken its toll.

As for Burning Lake himself, he was a wonderfully contradictory man. To the casual observer, he was relaxed and kindly. He even acted the part. He usually kept his dark-blue hair in a loose braid, and his eyes radiated warmth, as did his smile. Those who knew him, however, saw the passionate flames burning deep within his eyes. He was a bundle of repressed emotions contained in a calm outer shell.

He was also much stronger than Lord Dripping Blade. After all, he was a Dao God, both a middle-rune-gathering cultivator and a middle-muscle-empowering body refiner. Mere Daoists or demigods of the same rank couldn’t hold a candle to him. It was for this reason, he guessed, rather than mere familial ties through his sister, that Dripping Blade had tied his fate to him.

“Once a century,” Prefecture Lord Burning Lake answered. He sat at a small tea table with his own personal pot and personal cup. He poured none for Lord Dripping Blade, as he now knew the picky man didn’t enjoy the beverage as much as he pretended to. “Mortals forget, but cultivators like us remember. The ones who don’t perish will learn, only to forget it all when another century passes.”

Lord Dripping Blade nodded. “We get them once a year where I’m from. Backwater prefectures can’t afford lavish enchantments like your own mid-tier prefecture. Moreover, the storms get more powerful farther out from the mainland.”

“How do you manage?” Lord Burning Lake asked, taking a sip from his teacup and savoring the tea’s earthy undertones. How wonderful it was to drink tea in the rain.

“The good old-fashioned way,” Lord Dripping Blade said. “Our drains have five times the capacity as yours do. Our buildings, though shorter than those in your vertical-leaning prefecture, are sturdier at the base. The citizens have learned to decorate the first floors with disposable or exceptionally durable materials that either won’t be washed out or can be changed out with every storm.”

“If I didn’t know you any better, I’d almost think you cared about the residents of your prefecture,” Lord Burning Lake said. “How odd, given how much time you’ve spent away from them. They must be having quite the time handling the flood themselves.”

It was something he’d noticed about the man. There were layers to him that weren’t obvious to lesser cultivators. He put up a sociable front, but he wasn’t a social person. But Burning Lake had come to learn that Dripping Blade was much like himself, in that he was not a kind person. He pretended to be calm and collected to hide his disdain for others.

“I do care,” Dripping Blade said. “I just have things to do here. They take precedence.”

“If you’d just ignored the boy, he would never have come back to haunt you,” Burning Lake said.

“I wasn’t willing to bet the fate of my family on it,” Dripping Blade snapped. “You would have done the same.”

“That’s true,” Burning Lake said. “But I wouldn’t have hesitated. It was your unwillingness to act decisively that got us both into this mess.”

An admittedly terrible mess. The boy Lord Dripping Blade had come to eliminate had survived. Something that should have been solved in a month had now escalated, and now the boy had connections. Ones that weren’t afraid to go head to head with a powerful Dao God like himself.

“My hesitation cost us,” Dripping Blade admitted, turning away from the window that overlooked the storm front. “But this will all be over in five months. So what if he’s under the Crimson Division’s protection? So what if he has the Kingfisher Guard’s backing? It takes more than luck and time to break through to rune gathering. What did it take you to get there? A century? Two?”

“Three, but even then, I am wary,” Burning Lake replied. “Geniuses are different breeds, Dripping Blade. They thrive under pressure. I am not so foolish to think our duel’s already won. And I sincerely hope you aren’t either.”

Burning Lake put his teacup to his lips but paused when he noticed something. His tea was cold. Unlike Dripping Blade, he liked tea, but there was no way he was drinking lukewarm tea. His eyes flickered with flames of irritation, which in turn increased the temperature of the room. Some of this heat seeped into his teacup, which began steaming once again. Only then did he allow the room’s temperature to return to normal. Heating tea with one’s domain might look simple, but doing so without incinerating the furniture was much harder than people assumed.

“Are you sure you don’t want a cup?” Burning Lake asked.

“I’d rather drink bathwater,” Dripping Blade said. “You know that. Regardless, I don’t see your concern. Six months just isn’t enough. A month ago, he’d barely reached the late-rune-carving realm. Moreover, his concepts configuration and domain are out of balance. Four elements? Who does that?”

“He’s obviously doing all five elements,” Burning Lake said. “Powerful, but difficult.”

“And that’s my point,” Dripping Blade said. “In the timeframe we’re looking at, it can’t be done. Gaining a concept that’s compatible with four others is extremely difficult. And I’m not even counting the difficulty in breaking through to the rune-gathering realm and solidifying his first runes. He’ll need five of them or he’ll throw his entire cultivation off track. Besides, he’s just a Daoist.”

You’re just a Daoist,” Burning Lake pointed out. “Also, didn’t you say he had a shell-marking-potential body-cultivation method?”

“One that he hasn’t cultivated since arriving on the Inkwell Plane,” Dripping Blade said. “Which means its requirements are particularly onerous or its cultivation expensive or time consuming.”

“I think you forget exactly what’s at stake here,” Burning Lake said. “I wouldn’t be so calm if I were you.”

“Calm? I’m the opposite of calm,” Dripping Blade said. Indeed, he’d begun frantically pacing during their conversation. “And despite your disdain for my intelligence, I know exactly who’ll be fighting him first.” He stopped and bowed mockingly. “One disposable minion, at your service.”

“I would prefer that my minion win,” Burning Lake said. “While I’d love to win his possessions, my dear sister would hate it if you died. I’d have to live with her whining about it for over a thousand years.”

“I’m certain it has nothing to do with the fact that soul-bound treasures break when their owners die,” Dripping Blade said. A fair point, and part of Burning Lake’s calculations. Soul-bound treasures usually had large storage spaces that couldn’t be stolen, and as such, any great wealth possessed by its owner would be stored there as a matter of course. The boy’s entire fortune would disappear the moment he died.

“You need to improve,” Burning Lake said.

Dripping Blade took a seat and sighed. “It’s no use,” Dripping Blade said. “My Dao of Dripping Blade is limited. Perhaps I can break through a sub-realm in a century or so, but five months? Impossible. There’s a reason I chose to stay in a backwater prefecture, brother-in-law. I’m not young or rich like you are. I wasn’t fortunate enough to awaken divine blood like my son was. All I have is my sword, and what meager riches I’ve been able to scrap together.” He looked tired. Exhausted. None of this had turned out like the man had expected. He’d thought himself a cunning fox, only to be outsmarted by a newborn rabbit.

“It’s not the end of the line, you know,” Burning Lake said. “There are other ways to gain power. It’s like I said, I’d rather have you win your confrontation.”

“There’s no way he can grow in time,” Dripping Blade said. “I’m happy to wait until he presents himself for death.”

“That’s wishful thinking,” Burning Lake scolded. “And I won’t let you sabotage yourself again. For my sister’s sake, if anything else.”

“Fine,” Dripping Blade said. “What do you suggest?”

“Your progress has stalled,” Burning Lake said. “Your Dao is obviously limited without much room for growth.”

“A fact that is painfully obvious to me in my old age,” Dripping Blade said.

“In addition, it’s far too difficult to awaken any residual god blood in your veins after so long, even with the best of treasures,” Burning Lake continued. “So why not shake things up? Why not change your Dao?”

“My core is carved,” Dripping Blade said. “Changing my path now would cripple me.”

“Maybe,” Burning Lake said. “But let’s be realistic. You never stood a chance at breaking through to the next realm. You’ll never be able to afford the pills required even if you do figure out the intricacies of your inadequate Dao. I would have trouble affording such a pill, even with the generous stipend I receive in exchange for managing this prefecture. Even with the gifts I receive as tribute every decade. It’s not a question of talent. It’s a question of natural laws and their limitations.”

“I take it you have a solution?” Dripping Blade asked. “I doubt you called me over just for a chat.”

Yes, the prefecture lord was cleverer than Burning Lake gave him credit for.

Burning Lake smiled, his prominent canine teeth glinting in the room’s subtle lighting. “Most avenues are closed to you. But there are exceptions to every rule. Have you considered… a demon path?”

“Considering that I’m the opposite of friendly to demons, no, I have not,” Dripping Blade said. “There’s no need to entertain this notion. Besides, don’t demons cultivate slowly? Mustn’t they complete quests and protect their homelands?”

“I’m not saying you should pursue a full demon inheritance, of course,” Burning Lake said. “You’re completely unsuited to such a path, and you wouldn’t survive a day walking it. But… certain methods are known. Certain ways to graft a bloodline, slightly changing a cultivator’s nature to attune with certain concepts. You would need to adjust your cultivation methods, and your core would be slightly altered, but it could be just what you need. Especially if we were to find ourselves in surplus of the natural resources you require to grow.”

“I’m listening,” Dripping Blade said.

A vial appeared in Burning Lake’s hand. It contained an inky-black fluid, not unlike the rain falling upon their city or the black waters in the oceans, both inside and outside the central continent. It was a viscous fluid, only slightly runny. It glowed with power and life.

“What magic is this?” Dripping Blade said, accepting the vial. Heaven-and-earth energies around the vial warped and twisted.

“A new method,” Burning Lake admitted. “Dreamt up by greater men that I. This is a vial of blood essence from an ink-aligned demon, which can be grafted via a cultivation method that is available for purchase. Most importantly, however, it’s affordable.”

“You mean experimental,” Dripping Blade said. “And I suppose the war will allow us to secure any additional resources I require to graft this? Bloodlines alone aren’t enough.”

“Yes, and I’ve already spoken to Cao Wenluan,” Burning Lake said. “He’s agreed to help you—for a price you can afford. In fact, it was through him that I obtained this sample. It is our good fortune that he’s taken an interest in Clear Sky. Not because of any urging of mine, but because he happened to discover the presence of another karmic anomaly. He has… plans to keep him distracted.”

“The oath…” Dripping Blade warned.

“Doesn’t apply here,” Burning Lake said. “I have never mentioned harming him, and in fact actively discouraged Cao Wenluan. Unfortunately, he’s headstrong. He can’t be convinced. I’ve even officially reprimanded him, so he had to relent to some extent.”

“Clever,” Dripping Blade said.

They were prohibited, quite strictly, from harming Clear Sky, also known as Du Cha Ming, or any of his associates. In fact, they were obliged to instruct their direct subordinates to do otherwise. It was a fine line they were treading, and a single misstep would cripple and weaken them. In fact, it was a chilling possibility that Clear Sky was planning on forcing them to break their oaths, thereby weakening them prior to their death matches. They needed to watch their words and question their every action.

“I haven’t encouraged him,” Dripping Blade reassured. “In fact, I owe Cao Wenluan a favor in exchange for him giving up on directly pursuing Clear Sky. The man is quite fearsome—he plays every card he can to his advantage.”

But Dripping Blade wasn’t listening. He only had eyes for the vial. Its contents wriggled with the beating of his heart. “I won’t grow scales or anything, will I?” he asked.

“This one had feathers,” Burning Lake said. “As for how you should use it, I’ll have the method sent to you, as well as the requisite runic plates to begin the attunement process. It will take much time and a great many inkwell jades. But in all seriousness, you’re not at risk of developing demonic features. You’re not becoming a demon. You’re simply realigning your nature, your core, and your Dao.”

“And it’s safe?” Dripping Blade asked.

“Ninety-five percent of those who’ve grafted this bloodline experienced no rejection,” Burning Lake said. “Of those, eighty percent grew in strength, and thirty percent had a cultivation breakthrough.”

Dripping Blade frowned. “There must be a drawback.”

“Karma,” Burning Lake said. “I’m not sure why, but while this is not a sin-infused bloodline, the plane considers grafting this bloodline a sin. It will not tilt the scales to devilish, but the negative karma is substantial. You’ll be cursed with ill luck for the rest of your life should you choose this path.”

Dripping Blade nodded. “I thought as much. If that’s all, then count me in. Thirty percent odds is more than I’d give myself even if I cultivated for the next five hundred years.”

“I thought I’d have to prod you a little harder,” Burning Lake said. He’d even prepared many different arguments, most of them involving his wife or dead son. Dripping Blade wasn’t a rash individual.

“Maybe on a normal day,” Dripping Blade said. He looked out the window, which was covered in rivulets of black water from the storm. The streets below were flooded, and pedestrians fully evacuated. Everyone was safely tucked away in their homes. “The storm jogged my memory. In my younger days, I’d thought the storms would only catch the weak and unprepared. But then my father faced a storm, the kind that came once in a century. He’d grown arrogant and complacent in his old age, and he died in his refusal to change or bend.”

“Clear Sky is much like a storm. He will pass over most, but he is a karmic anomaly. Wherever he goes, he will bring devastation. He’s already brought me to this prefecture, foiled a plan in the outer sea, and stopped a war but facilitated another. I’m weak compared to my father. If he fell to a storm in his stubbornness, how can I expect to do any better?”

“I think things aren’t as bleak as you imagine,” Burning Lake said. “This isn’t a death sentence. It’s an opportunity. The pressure will make you stronger than ever.”

“What about you?” Dripping Blade asked. “I don’t see you grafting any bloodlines.”

“My means are much greater than your own,” Burning Lake said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be ready.”

“Fine. Be mysterious,” Dripping Blade said.

They sat and continued their watch as the storm expended itself. Mortals died, as did cultivators. Men and women scrambled to salvage what they could. The prefecture lords did nothing, but those below were used to that. They would never interfere unless things got seriously out of hand.

Burning Lake kept a running tally, however. A list of deficiencies and sub-optimal preparations. Whereas Dripping Blade might favor letting the storm run over his city, Burning Lake did not. This storm was a disaster, but it was also an opportunity. The city would be stronger and wealthier for overcoming it.

He approached the rest of his life in much the same manner. The Dao of Burning Lake required a passionate heart hidden beneath deep waters. Just as the next storm would find his city much improved, Clear Sky would find Burning Lake fully prepared for their confrontation.

 

***

 

Yama’s bones creaked as he inched the barbell down to his bony chest, stopping it bare millimeters from his pectoral muscles. He paused there, enjoying the strain in his ligaments before pushing back up from his final repetition. His arms trembled as he did so—as was proper. Even an Eternal Emperor would have trouble lifting the twin masses of dark energy he’d affixed to a bar of unbreakable metal.

The lord of the Underworld sighed in satisfaction as he set the bar atop an equally indestructible rack. Nothing but the best for the most powerful being in the universe.

“You’re doing great today. Fabulous, in fact,” said Relik, his personal trainer. The well-built man was as strong as he was sycophantic. “I daresay that if you said you were the second-best lifter, no one would say he was first.”

“No need to exaggerate,” Yama said, though his body language told the man to keep going.

“Exaggerate? I wouldn’t dare,” Relik said indignantly. “Why, you’re the very image of what all men strive to be. All that strength in such a compact frame.” It was the nicest way to phrase “you’re a powerhouse trapped in an eighty-one-year-old body” Yama had ever heard. His mood suddenly turned sour.

“Bah, out with you,” Yama said. He hated remembering how physically old he looked. Relik, knowing full well that he was less a coach and more a paid cheerleader, wisely retreated from the personal gym.

Should I shower? Yama thought. No, I showered last week. He settled with wiping the sweat off his brow and donning his reaper robes. Then he began pacing, as he’d been doing with troubling frequency lately.

Yama jumped as the door suddenly opened. He quickly grabbed his reaper’s scythe, fully prepared for a dimensional beast attack. Whatever it was, he would cut it down and carve it from this world. He relaxed when he saw that it wasn’t a creature of doom and devastation but his assistant, Lily.

“I saw Relik sneaking out like he usually does during one of your moods,” she said. She pushed a protein shake into Yama’s bony hands, causing him to fumble his divine tool of mass spatial destruction. “Drink.”

“I’m not thirsty,” Yama said, carefully placing the world-ending scythe back against the wall. The universe wouldn’t be happy if he accidentally killed billions in some parallel mortal plane.

“Drink,” Lily said, glaring at him until he finally took a sip.

“Ah, pineapple,” Yama said, sipping away at the rest of it. You never knew what they put into protein shakes these days. “Something’s bothering me, Lily.”

“Clearly,” Lily said. “I came in to implement the protocol.”

“The… protocol?” Yama asked. What protocol? His memory wasn’t great as far as reapers went, so he tended to make procedures that his underlings would enforce when necessary. “I don’t exactly remember the one you’re talking about.”

She didn’t stop to explain, and began placing strange instruments all around him. Then, adjusting her glasses, she took a clipboard and began marking things off with a pen.

“Do you find you’ve been sleeping less often?” she asked.

“I… maybe?” Yama said. “It’s been what, three years since my last nap?”

“Mmm,” Lily said. “I’ll mark that as five out of ten. Physical strength?”

“Still unkillable,” Yama said uncertainly. “I think?”

She pressed a button, and a nozzle appeared.

“What’s this?” he asked, touching it with his bony finger, only to have it blast him with destructive plasma. “Right. Right. We designed this. Still unkillable.”

“Memory seems to be six out of ten,” Lily said. “Have you been eating?”

“Sometimes?” Yama said. He sat down at his desk. “I just don’t know what’s happening. Something’s tugging at the back of my mind.”

“And when did it all begin?” Lily asked.

“I’d say it was that time when I played board games with Evil Dave,” Yama said. “No wait, before that. When we intercepted the mayor at the records office. We took care of the problem, but I haven’t been able to shake a terrible feeling.”

“Have you tried karmic tracing?” Lily asked gently, putting the clipboard down. He saw the tallied score and the underlined words on the page: worryingly stressed.

“I have,” Yama said. “Couldn’t find anything. In fact, the Underworld has never run more smoothly. To be honest, I feel kind of useless.”

“Useless how?” Lily asked.

“Like… like I’m not needed,” Yama admitted. “I’ve never been one of those hands-on reapers. I’ve always been good at delegating and managing. It’s what’s kept me sane all these years, as opposed to those burnouts who do their jobs for a few aeons and realize immortality isn’t for them. But now?” He shook his head and sighed. “What’s the point, Lily?”

“You always knew moments like this would come about,” Lily said. “We made plans for them, remember?”

“I know,” Yama said. “It’s just so depressing. All I do is exercise every few years to keep up my joint mobility and read news and social media all day. And there’s really no point these days because there’s no upcoming election, and no one really ever knows what’s true and false to begin with. Now that my political debts are paid off…” He trailed off. “I’ve got nothing to do. Should I go on vacation?”

“It’s definitely an option,” Lily said. “Though I advise against it, for now. As I’m sure you know, our special guest could reincarnate at any time. I thought you might want to personally involve yourself, given the recent grudge match between the Curse Sovereign and the Jade Emperor, and the fact that this would be a transitional reincarnation.”

“Yes, of course,” Yama said. “You’re right, as always.” The last time he’d let his guard down, Heaven had ended up with a million years of uninterrupted favor. There would be literal hell to pay for all this, even if the rest of the universe didn’t know it. “What should I do, Lily? I feel like you do more work than I do, and that’s even considering the fact that you delegate most of it to your assistants.”

“Delegating can be challenging,” she admitted. “What I like to do when I have too much time on my hands is to perform surprise inspections.”

“Do you ever actually find anything?” Yama asked.

“Not at all,” Lily said. “But I find it helps to show your face every once in a while. It keeps them honest. Besides, have you ever thought that they might be honored to receive a visit from the lord of the Underworld himself?”

“Honored?” Yama asked. He stroked his chin. “Yes, I failed to consider their feelings. Morale is very important. In fact, how have I been so ignorant? So stupid!” He turned to Lily. “I want my schedule booked with surprise visits. Nothing official—no inspections. I want to tour every piece of this wonderful business, even if it takes me a thousand years.”

“I’ll see it done,” Lily said, getting up promptly, ignoring the fact that she’d basically counseled him through a mental breakdown. “Shall I alert the dragon tamer? It’s been too long since you’ve taken any of them out for a ride, and they’ve been getting restless.”

“Of course, of course!” Yama said. “My dearest pets. I’d forgotten all about them. In fact, I never had the time, but now that you’re taking care of all the menial work, I can finally see them. How wondrous it will be to fly the skies of Diyu on a giant skeletal dragon once more.”

They strode out of the gym and into his office together, proceeding straight through into the reception hall. An assistant ran over to Lily, and they exchanged a few hushed whispers before running off to do her bidding.

“I’ve already booked your first appointment,” Lily said. “The Bridge of Forgetfulness is undergoing structural inspections today, so the entire crew is on standby. It will be a good chance to mingle.”

“Have takeout ordered on my dime,” Yama said. “Nothing but the best for employees of Diyu.” Then he hesitated. “Make that second best. Or second tier.” There was a running list of high-quality starred restaurants in Diyu. You could go through the first thousand names without any significant price changes.

“It shall be done,” Lily said.

As his assistant stalked off to organize travel and alert the necessary agencies, Yama stared out the window that overlooked the bright and sunny Diyu. How long had it been since he’d bothered to gaze upon it? How long had it been since giant reanimated dragons had graced its skies? He’d grown complacent, even sedentary. It was time to change that.

There were still things he could do. He wasn’t restless because he was unneeded, but because he had even more to do than he’d ever realized. There was no such thing as things running too smoothly, was there? He’d have Lily look into it. For now, he had a job to do.

He was Yama, lord of the Underworld, and this vast universe’s one and only reaper. His people needed him.

 



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