ECHOES OF DIVINITY

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Prologue

 

It was just past sunset in Verdant Crossroads. A relaxed time for most, but not for Clever Dusk, who was scrambling out of her room, half-eaten fruit in one hand and a glass of water in the other. Her short hair was in disarray, and her robes were barely fastened. She was late, and being late was a terrible sin.

Her quick steps tilled the packed earth beneath the roots of the Tree of Life as she made her way to the nearest ladder. She pushed other demons out of the way lest she lose out on valuable seconds. Instead of climbing, however, she jumped, using her strength as an investiture-realm demon, bringing herself up to the next level in just a few seconds.

Faster, she told herself as she ran. Her handlike feet bounced her from one gnarled root to the next, allowing her to cross the tangle at the base of the Tree of Life and reach its towerlike trunk in record time. Yet despite her haste, Clever Dusk couldn’t help but think of why she was late, in addition to cursing the Thread Seer for placing her residence belowground in the first place. It would have been a simple matter to arrange closer living quarters for her one and only apprentice.

“Sorry!” Clever Dusk shouted as she pushed through a crowd of Monkey Clan children. The younglings were making their way to a tree-branch obstacle course under the supervision of a teacher. They were too young to be initiates but had been born in human form. As such, they were a bit lacking in terms of survival skills. School to teach what should be learned in the wild—what a concept.

The power of the Tree of Life filled Clever Dusk as she climbed, feeding the transparent demon armor that could cover her body in plates of star-speckled night at a moment’s notice. It provided her with great strength compared to an initiation demon, in addition to facilitating her new abilities. She could change her environment if she set her mind to it, though here, this ability was useful for little more than creating handholds. This was the Thread Seer’s territory, and the Thread Seer was a mighty fusion-realm demon.

It took her minutes to arrive at the top of the Tree of Life that towered over Verdant Crossroads. She was several minutes late, so she kept her eyes downcast as she walked onto the flat, glassy surface at the top of the massive tree. It was made up of thousands of rings, each one representing ten years of growth. This tree was ancient, far older than the Thread Seer herself.

Clever Dusk pointedly avoided looking at the shining leaves and the runes on the Tree of Life’s branches. They were filled with concentrated starlight as well as black leaves that stored the demonic qi delivered by sparse inky rains.

“You’re three minutes late,” the woman waiting at the center of the platform said. She was old, far older than any other demon Clever Dusk had ever met. Like Clever Dusk, she was also of the Star-Eye Clan, and her eyes shone with a deep and hidden power.

There were other similarities. Like her, the woman also had a queen’s crown that could protect her from the exposure of starlight and any corrosive effects it might have on her mind. Moreover, she had a different constellation in her eyes compared to the rest of her clansmen. Not the Builder or the Warrior, but the Weaver, like Clever Dusk. She was a Weaver of Fate, which allowed her to see the strings connecting everyone and the future roads that could be traveled. She was also the strongest in these lands, and therefore the ruler of Verdant Crossroads.

“I’m sure Master knows why I was late,” Clever Dusk replied calmly. “I am also sure Master already predicted this outcome.”

“I do, and I did,” the Thread Seer admitted. “But tell me, was this fate set? Were there no roads in the tangled web that could have accommodated your timely arrival? Were you doomed to arrive several minutes late and prompt me to waste several more minutes on this conversation?”

“You are correct as always, Thread Seer,” Clever Dusk replied obediently. “I had a… project that kept me waiting. An object I couldn’t help but finish weaving before I came here.”

“Let’s see it, then,” the Verdant Thread Seer said, holding out her hand. The silver-haired woman exerted not a single hint of pressure, yet Clever Dusk felt compelled to obey. She resisted out of principle, choosing instead to walk over and deliver it in person. It was difficult, though this wasn’t because the Thread Seer was trying to make things difficult. The inherent pressure given off by a fusion-realm demon was no joke.

“I would appreciate Master’s input and advice,” Clever Dusk said as she handed over her creation. It was a set of men’s cultivation robes—a blood-bound item meant for a demigod. Though its defensive capabilities would be useless to an armored demon, its secondary functions would be useful to anyone.

She’d personally woven the cloth with the leavings of starshine silkworms and had imbued them with her finest red inks. She’d quite literally poured her blood into it. It was this very personal ink that manifested as inky-black runes that ran along the length of the garment and even inside the fibers that made it.

“The runes need work,” the Verdant Thread Seer said, looking over the item. “See here? The tangle?”

“Yes, it was my first time creating an inner world inside a piece of cloth,” Clever Dusk said. “I was unsure how to facilitate a connection. It’s a prototype for now.”

The Thread Seer snorted. “An expensive prototype.” She motioned to a nearby branch. Starlight peeled off its leaves and jumbled together in a disorderly bundle. It unfurled as the Thread Seer willed it and began to weave a colorful pattern in the sky. It didn’t take Clever Dusk long to realize that this wasn’t a mere tangle but runes. The pattern constantly shifted and rearranged itself as though searching for something.

“There,” Clever Dusk said. The shifting tangle froze, showing Clever Dusk exactly what she was missing and how she could complete her pattern. “You’ll have to tell me how you do that, Master. You’ve told me many times you know nothing of runework, but I find it increasingly difficult to believe you.”

The Thread Seer scoffed at her. “Does a queen need to know how to perform every menial task?” She dismissed the pattern of starry threads, dispersing it into empty leaves on the Tree of Life. “A thread seer is always faced with such problems, as it is impossible to have intimate knowledge of every thread. Still, with a starting point and a destination, it isn’t difficult to find directions. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Clever Dusk nodded in thanks. “Are you not upset that I am late?” In her experience, it wouldn’t do to try avoiding punishment. Best to ask for it up front so they could proceed with their lesson.

“Of course I’m upset,” said the Thread Seer. “I have much to do, but teaching you is equally important. Every minute you are late delays my other work, and I can only accept this loss, for it is necessary. Tell me, Clever Dusk, have you ever wondered why I put you on the first floor?”

“Likely because I am easily distracted,” Clever Dusk replied. “My room is on the first floor to teach me that I must be vigilant when performing every task. Otherwise, I will miss important appointments and waste other people’s time.”

“That is only half of it,” the Thread Seer said. “Do you have another guess?”

“To teach me the importance of timeliness?” Clever Dusk answered tentatively. It was a more general answer, but her teacher liked cryptic replies.

“Just so,” the Thread Seer said. “But not in the way that you think. Tell me, Clever Dusk—if you saw a perfect opportunity to change the Web of Fate, one that you couldn’t miss, yet you were minutes late in seeing it, would you not be disappointed? For thread seers, timeliness is more important than technique. There is no use in predicting something when you can no longer change anything. Knowing is useless unless it’s possible to respond.”

It wasn’t the first time her master had scolded her, but Clever Dusk’s face turned beet red nevertheless. The Thread Seer never beat her, but her words were far worse than a bludgeon. “Still, it was important that you be late,” the Thread Seer continued. “Your mistake wasn’t that you spent time on this item; it was that you spent too much on other trivial pursuits. Men can wait, Clever Dusk. Duty can’t.”

The crimson on Clever Dusk’s cheeks deepened. “It wasn’t anything like that,” Clever Dusk said. “It was just a conversation, and I didn’t want to be rude, and—”

“Yes, yes, a three-hour-long conversation,” the Thread Seer said. “I’m sure it was very important.” Then she chuckled softly. “Clever Dusk, I do not wish to discourage you in matters of the heart. You are young and should spend your time accordingly. I just wish you would see things with a little more perspective. In fact, why don’t you scry your fate with him? It would be very entertaining.”

“I’m… reluctant to do so,” Clever Dusk said.

“Understandable,” the Verdant Seer said. “Not all matters need be known, and there’s no point if you won’t change anything. I will not spoil the secret. Regardless, you are late, so as a punishment, I give you this assignment.” She held up her hand, and the glowing leaves and branches around them shimmered once again. Starlight oozed out of them like juice from a pressed fruit. They formed thick threads of shining white light that spooled up into a large ball of celestial yarn.

“Your assignment is this: Weave this starlight into the robe. Fix the design. With starlight, it will be possible to form runes that can link the cloth’s inner world to a demigod’s, as you originally intended. There is enough thread here for a single robe, so if it doesn’t work, you’ll need to pull it out and rethread it. You are not allowed to use additional materials. The base is fine, but you must learn to work with what you have.”

“I just wanted something to keep him safe,” Clever Dusk said softly. She wasn’t sure what had come over her, but there must be a reason. “I’m afraid for him. Something’s happening. I can feel it.” She’d come to trust her sixth sense, as it had saved her life many times in the past.

The Thread Seer smiled and walked up to her. She patted Clever Dusk’s shoulder and placed the ball of celestial yarn into her hand. “Your instincts are right, and your intentions are good. This thread will make your wish into reality.”

“Will it be good enough?” Clever Dusk asked. “Teacher never gets into small trouble.”

“It will have to do, my dear apprentice,” the Thread Seer said. “He’s had three years to put his heart at ease, but he himself should know that his fate is not a peaceful one.”

“Do you mean…” Clever Dusk said.

“Yes,” the Thread Seer said. “Three years have come and gone, but now fate grows restless. I have bought him as much time as I can, but matters out of my control have decided to interfere.”

Clever Dusk’s eyes narrowed. “You mean you’ve been refusing to see him on purpose?”

It was her master who looked surprised this time. “Of course. I would normally jump at the opportunity to recruit a powerful immortal soul to our cause. Alas, doing so would start a chain of events that he might not be able to handle in his emotionally unstable state. Three years was the most I could delay him by.”

“I am confused, Master,” Clever Dusk said. “None of the threads I’ve read show any of this.”

“That is because your view is still limited, and your powers are still shallow,” the Verdant Seer said. “Show me what you see, Clever Dusk. Show me what you’ve been delving into, despite my warnings about your teacher’s unique situation.”

Clever Dusk hesitated. The Web of Fate was a complex thing, and scrying Cha Ming’s fate was incredibly tiring. She could perform ten normal scryings in a single day, but only one of these would put her out of commission for half a week. Besides, she still had robes to finish weaving.

Seeing the Thread Seer’s expectant gaze, Clever Dusk gathered starlight. Not quite as quickly as her master, but much faster than most investiture-realm experts could manage. Instead of peeling off the leaves and branches like the Thread Seer had, the starlight flowed off them like syrup or pitch. It flowed into Clever Dusk’s hands and into the crown on her head, forging a connection between her mind and the starry sky.

Her vision expanded. It would have been overwhelming if not for the shielding of her crown. Her star-filled eyes saw a vision, a colorful pattern of threads that covered the entire city. A few tangled threads led outward, some thicker, some thinner, but each thread had an origin, a destination, and a purpose. It was all very organized despite the implied chaos.

The city was divided into two parts, the first being the mostly demonic area near the Tree of Life. It was located at the center of Verdant Crossroads, and most individuals in this place had a strong interdependent connection with the tree. The second part consisted of several clusters of tall glass buildings and accompanying low-lying residential areas, stores, and churches that glowed with a bright light that outshone almost everything else.

There were other features of note in the web, of course. For example, the larger points of light representing the stronger demons and humans in the city. The web wove itself around these main influences, treating them as the center of a giant pattern. The webs they wove were thicker than the weaker specks, and their mere presence pulled the smaller points into orbit.

Yet even among these bright lights, there were exceptions. In this case, there were three. One was right beside Clever Dusk herself, and it represented the Thread Seer. Another was a golden spot that resided in the Church of Jezeriah. Likely their bishop.

The last one was the eventual recipient of the garment she was wielding. His light wasn’t quite as bright, but he formed an eddy in the pattern that tugged everything toward him. His influence was even greater than the Thread Seer’s. There was no need to mention a mere bishop.

“Impressive,” the Thread Seer said, walking up to the vortex in the pattern that was Du Cha Ming. It pulled everything around him, including the clan elders and the human priests and officials. Everywhere the man went, he made waves, including, of all things, the school he’d chosen to teach at for the past three years. It was one thing to observe his comings and goings like a common person, but another thing entirely to see the impact he had on the Web of Fate. And to think that three years ago, his influence had been insignificant.

“Maintaining this much is my limit,” Clever Dusk said. Already, her forehead was covered in sweat. She could maintain this level of exertion for a few minutes at best, but any longer and she’d have a migraine for days.

“Your skill exceeds your cultivation, as always,” the Thread Seer said. “It’s good that you realize the effects he’s had on this city. Prior to his arrival, we were being decimated in trade and knowledge. Social angst was at an all-time high, and friction between humans and demons was intolerable.

“Since his arrival, he’s managed to build some common ground. He’s trained key individuals in the next generation and awakened many others to a whole new way of thinking. Every student he’s trained has become a smaller focal point on which the web weaves anew. Which leads me to conclude that he’s not just a karmic anomaly. Given enough time, he creates them.”

Clever Dusk saw them now. The hundreds of tiny dots wandering about the map. Some tugged at other threads lightly, and others strongly. But they were there, and they were important, even if she didn’t see how. Even the stronger cultivators bent to their will, and to her surprise, she was one of them. A tiny eddy that grew with each passing day.

“I fail to see how the time draws near, Master,” Clever Dusk said. “With your instruction, I see the changes he’s wrought, but I see no inflection. No change in course.”

“Your powers are remarkable for your age, but alas, you are young,” the Thread Seer said. “He is young too, fortunately, or else we would never have been able to bear his presence in the first place. You might not see it, but by being here, he has attracted many disruptive elements to Verdant Crossroads. Some desirable. Others not.”

Clever Dusk hesitated. “Can you show me?”

The Thread Seer raised an eyebrow. “I can, but that would be your entire lesson for the day. The weight on your mind and the drain on your demonic energy would be immense, and you would find it difficult to concentrate. You only have a single week to finish your assignment, Clever Dusk. One week to deliver him this lifesaving item. It will be far more difficult for you to succeed without starlight guiding your fingers.”

“Perhaps my powers will be lessened,” Clever Dusk agreed. “But is it not important to see why I am weaving these robes in the first place?”

“Very good!” the Thread Seer said. “You are right. Knowing the need is half the battle.” A smile graced her lips. “Now pay attention, but don’t concentrate. Don’t even try to focus. Let your awareness wander and take in as much as you can. Bear with the pain, both mental and physical, for it will be excruciating and may render you unconscious.”

The Thread Seer moved her hand, and at her direction, the leaves on the Tree of Life glowed. So, too, did every star in the sky. The pattern Clever Dusk saw began to expand in every direction. Many threads she’d missed within the web began to weave themselves in, illustrating not only direct relationships between individuals and events but subtle ones.

There was more definition to everyone, and she began to see important things she’d missed. She saw the relative magnitude of her own whirlpool in the pattern and its effects. Graceful Twilight was another outlier she’d missed, and her influence was growing by the second.

This was all happening in conjunction with other points of light that were quickly approaching the city. Verdant Crossroads shrank, becoming a small dot on a larger map of the Mendin republics. Other cities appeared, and now she could see how her own city interacted with others, as well as the Mendin Republic of Asherall, where they were located, and neighboring states.

Not only did she see Verdant Crossroads and other demon settlements, she also saw the human cities and how they tried to choke the life out of them. She even saw their alliance woven in threads of gold and how tenuous it truly was. She saw the darker elements that moved in the shadows. Undercurrents that couldn’t be seen. Trouble was on its way, and it would impact not only their city, but the country they resided in.

The map grew, and soon it encompassed more than just Mendin. She saw Slovana lands to the west, as well as the upheaval in the distant Crimson Lotus Empire. Its point of origin? None other than the former Burning Lake Prefecture. The place they’d run from. The trap they’d escaped.

Chaos was rife in the land. There were smaller kingdoms, smaller states, all with their complex dynamics. This even applied to the Wild Lands. On the surface, they seemed disorganized, but now that she looked at them, she saw a coalition bringing everything together. A powerful presence was merging the fractured demon clans and rallying them against their common enemies. She tried to focus on the source of it, but before she could get a proper look at it, her teacher pulled her away. Not there, child, the Thread Seer said. That threat is too great for you to comprehend.

So Clever Dusk forced her awareness back to Verdant Crossroads and its surroundings. There were many lesser demon settlements peppering Asherall, though none of them were powerful enough to warrant a link through starry roads. That was reserved instead for twelve main strongholds on the central continent, vestiges of the Star-Eye Clan that hadn’t succumbed to human encroachment. There were also many traveling tribes outside Verdant Crossroads. One such group of wanderers was coming in from the west. It would arrive at the city in a week’s time.

She focused slightly on this group. Though it bore no major connection her, it was linked to the Thread Seer with thick bands of obligation. It was also connected to Cha Ming, and to Graceful Twilight of all people.

As for Cha Ming, there were three other large eddies pulling at him. All from within Mendin lands. One was connected by brotherhood, and another by choice of destiny. It was a location, but he didn’t have to go there. Then again, it might be difficult for him to escape this decision. There was another thread that pulled at him strongly. So tightly did it pull that it threatened to tear the entire web apart.

“It’s…” Clever Dusk said, panting. “It’s too much. I can’t take it.”

“Hold on for as long as you can,” the Verdant Seer said. “The more you can withstand the pressure, the more you’ll draw on your ancestral memories, and the greater your control over your investiture will become.”

“I will… do as you say,” Clever Dusk said. Her eyes burned, and her mind felt like it was being stabbed with icy needles.

“Verdant Crossroads seems peaceful on the surface,” the Thread Seer explained. “But there are threats in every direction. Discounting other republics, Asherall alone is home to powerhouses even I dread. Some are friendly to demons, even accommodating, but others aren’t.

“Moreover, you must never forget that it is the nature of the humans of Mendin to encroach. They speak kind words and preach of common good and salvation, but their ultimate aim is conversion. Be wary of them, for all they are kind and honorable.”

Clever Dusk heard the Thread Seer’s words but could barely comprehend them. It was too much for her. Still, she forced herself to look at Cha Ming’s whirlpool one last time. It had too many connections. She saw a fox—that would be Eight Directions. She saw a Runebound Python. She saw a waning moon. She saw a journey. She saw mystery. She saw great riches and great danger. There was much to be gained, should certain choices be made, but there were many hidden dangers.

Moreover, she saw something frightening. Whatever the result of this journey, it would greatly impact Verdant Crossroads. Most of the Thread Seer’s carefully laid plans would unravel. Surprisingly, the Thread Seer didn’t seem to mind. This result was preferable to what she’d previously planned. The situation was so dire that even a cautious woman like her was willing to gamble.

Everything went blank before Clever Dusk could wonder further. The weight of the starry sky crashed down on her and forced the air from her lungs. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. When she finally managed to draw in a ragged breath, she realized she was kneeling on the ground, confused and despondent.

It was difficult to think. All she remembered was that something big would happen in a week’s time. Something dangerous to Cha Ming. She couldn’t stop it. She couldn’t influence it. All she could do was help in her small way. The robe, she thought. He needs the robe. He could well die without it.

“Was it worth it?” asked the Verdant Thread Seer, who was now standing next to her. The old demon embraced her like a mother would her child.

“Yes,” Clever Dusk said. Traces of inky-black blood stained her cheeks. “If his life is at risk, all the more important that I finish this.”

“If you are so worried about him, you may go with him if you wish,” the Thread Seer said.

Clever Dusk hesitated, then shook her head. “No. That is not my fate. I can’t help him as I am now. Besides”—she looked up at the starry sky where the Web of Fate had been so clear mere seconds ago—“there are many other threats to consider. Problems to take care of and contingencies to plan for.”

The Verdant Seer smiled wistfully. “Our gift is a blessing and a curse, my dear apprentice. We guide sparingly, knowing our energy is limited. Every ripple we cause in the web could lead to our intended result but could very well court disaster. Moreover, we are not alone in guiding the pattern. It is… a competition of sorts.”

“The Church’s oracles?” Clever Dusk asked.

“And the Bone Seers, and the Augurs of Fate. The Crimson Lotus Empire has their people, as do the warring demigods in Slovana. Our only blessing is that the Stripeless do not have this gift, though these days, I wonder.”

“These events will cause much disruption,” Clever Dusk said. “I also sense your hand in them. Was putting all this into motion necessary? I sense great suffering in the future.”

“Yes,” the Verdant Seer said softly. “It is necessary, as much as I weep for the future dead. If it were times past, the Inkwell Clan would have shielded us, but now they are gone. We can only rely on ourselves to resist the goddesses and their followers, and the Stripeless that amass their powers.

“Moreover, we are not the only ones at a crossroads. Champions are emerging from major bloodlines in the Slovana Empire, and the Crimson Lotus Empire is on the verge of fracturing.”

“These matters are too great for me to comprehend,” Clever Dusk said. “So please do not bother me with them until my power is sufficient.” She then stood up slowly despite the disconnect between her mind and body. Her tail was slow to respond, and her ears were not nearly as sensitive as they used to be. Overall, however, it wasn’t as bad as she had expected. “I have an assignment to finish, Master, and a deadline to meet. With your permission, I will get to work right away.”

“Granted,” the Thread Seer said.

“After I am finished, I hope to begin helping you in earnest,” Clever Dusk said. “I am not strong, but I grow quickly. If you are willing to accept what little help I can provide, it would be my honor.”

“Hoho,” the Thread Seer said, covering her mouth. “Very well. I gratefully accept.”

Clever Dusk retreated, leaving the seer on the ringed platform she rarely left, tracing out patterns on the web and tugging at its threads. As was the case with all seers, her work was lonely and thankless. Still, the woman didn’t complain. She continued building roads and pathways of survival for her people as she had for millennia. She would continue to do so until the day of her death.

 

***

 

Elsewhere in the universe, construction was underway. Or at least, reconstruction of work that hadn’t been done right in the first place.

Builders were tearing up aeon-old concrete and erecting new rune-worked foundations; an additional crew was following up on their work by refurbishing an outer layer of protective bricks. Concurrently, a large crew of inspectors was checking for deficiencies, marking off as-built drawings for future reference.

As for the engineering, that was complicated. The engineers were mapping out and designing as the rebuilding progressed—not out of choice but out of necessity. This wasn’t new construction. Whatever they built needed to accommodate the old design.

It didn’t help that the ancient structure was very lacking in documentation. It had been built on multiple planes of existence, including several dimensions that transcended the physical. The calculus was nearly impossible, especially considering that the dimension called “time” was involved, meaning that the original structure had been built in several different time periods.

In other words, the entire project was a nightmare.

“As you can see, Lord Yama, the sewer system debottlenecking project is going quite smoothly,” the spirit accompanying the lord of the Underworld said. “We estimate we’ll be done correcting this ancient oversight within the week.” The spirit’s name was Major. He was a short man whose stoutness could rival any dwarf’s. Yama wasn’t really sure of his heritage, but he could tell the man had been something other than human before becoming a spiritual resident of Diyu.

“I can see that your men are professional and well trained,” Yama said, looking around with a pleased expression. He hid his disappointment carefully while reminding himself that though things weren’t perfect, he couldn’t do everything himself. Moreover, the alternative was going around catching souls all day, something he would not be going back to, thank you very much. Yama had transcended being a mere Reaper—he was a lord of the Underworld, and he’d be damned if he was going back to such drudgery. “Tell your men I’ve arranged for a special bonus if they finish within the next ten days. You’re a credit to the force, Major.”

“Thank you, sir!” Major said. “I’ll let them know during the next lunch break.”

“Pizza should be on the way,” Yama said. “I wasn’t sure what to order, so I got ten of everything. Planetary size. You can all take the leftovers when everyone’s finished eating.”

Ordering food was one of the many tricks Yama had dusted off during this recent spurt of scheduled inspections. He issued small bonuses where they were warranted and gave praise even when it was not deserved. If they were meeting expectations, he made sure they felt good about it. Encouragement, he’d found, was the lowest cost productivity boost in the universe.

Only coffee came close in that regard, and any company that skimped on either one was doomed to fail.

“That’s a lot of food,” Major said with a grin. “Don’t you worry, though. We’ll find a place for it.” Yama had no doubt he would. Maintaining such a girthy soul wasn’t easy—putting on physical weight was orders of magnitudes less difficult than soul weight. “Can I show you anything else, Lord Yama?”

“That’s all right, Major,” Yama said. “I’ll just take a look around and speak to the men.” Another must-do when your goal was to boost morale.

Yama walked instead of hovering through the concrete and brick tunnels. He was careful to avoid any residual puddles of spiritual waste. Mortals didn’t seem to think that ghosts and spirits required sustenance, but the massive infrastructure network beneath Diyu to support their waste streams proved otherwise.

Residential waste aside, the sewers of Diyu were constructed to solve a geographical problem. The soul energy in the Land of the Dead was so dense that it covered the city in a perpetual haze. At least once per week, it would condense into a light rain that scrubbed the air clean of emotional pollutants.

There was also a bit of overflow form the Yellow River to consider—not whole souls, as those were all accounted for—but bits and pieces of soul remnants and sin that hadn’t been scrubbed clean or merit that hadn’t been properly collected and tallied. Undiverted and untreated, these were not just pollutants to the souls who lived here, but a net loss to the core of the universe.

“That’s very good runework you’ve got there, lad,” Yama said to a young ghost who had barely seen two centuries. The young man was kneeling in barely dried soul sludge and cutting at rock with a transparent knife that could cut through soul matter just as well as physical matter. Soul alloy, they called it. A very appropriate name.

“Thank you, sir,” the man said. “Pardon my curiosity, but you’re very important. I wouldn’t think someone of your caliber would take the time to learn such a mundane craft.”

“No need to overdo it,” Yama said with a chuckle. He bent down to pick up the inscribing tool the man had dropped from the excitement of meeting him. Nostalgia filled Yama as he picked it up. How long had it been since he’d used such tools himself?

On a whim, Yama began carving. He followed the pattern the man’s original runes implied and adapted as the material indicated. It was difficult work they were doing for their level, as there were multiple overlapping realities to consider. Any instabilities would have dire ramifications, and precision was paramount. So he, the lord of the Underworld, worked cautiously, with a focus he’d thought lost to time and space.

It only felt like a few seconds, but when he came to, Yama realized the man was standing around nervously. They’d gone far ahead of the rest of the crew. In fact, was that lunch he smelled? He’d been at it for hours, and no one had mentioned anything. To his knowledge, at least.

“I brought you some,” the uncomfortable rune worker said, proffering a small pizza box. “We weren’t sure if you ate the same things us ghosts do, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to bring it.”

Yama chuckled. He opened the box and cut a small slice from the pizza. At least, it was small when he cut it. When he pulled it out, however, it was several feet long and just as wide. Moreover, the sheer density of the food was such that a small nibble could keep an average ghost chewing for days.

The rune worker went slack-jawed when he saw the voracious lord of the Underworld devour the fully loaded pizza in only a few seconds, then burp. “I haven’t had anything so filling in a good decade,” Yama said.

“A decade, sir?” the rune worker asked.

“Oh, I don’t need to eat very often,” Yama said. “My duty, and the good work this city does, feeds me. In fact, every single piece of work you do, every contribution the residents of Diyu make, nourishes my very soul. Such is the contract I have signed with the universe. Such are the rewards for my duty.”

His words made the man stand a little taller. Most men never realized why he did this. It was his job, yes, but it helped for them to know his well-being was tied to their fate. Yama’s body would never age, for he had an undying body. But his soul could age, depending on the job he did as a Reaper. Theoretically, he could live on forever, assuming he played his cards right and didn’t disappoint this world too badly.

“Honored to do my part, sir!” the man said with a salute.

“We’re all in this together,” Yama said. He handed back the man’s tool. “I may have overdone it, but I think it will be all right for you to claim credit for this, don’t you?”

The rune worker shook his head. “That wouldn’t be right, sir. If it’s fine by you, sir, we’ll call it a team contribution. I’ll go and help the others catch up.”

“You’re a rare find, Paul,” Yama said, reading the man’s name from the complex tangle of karma that floated above his soul. “Go on ahead and help your crew.”

The man immediately got to work. Names had power, Yama had discovered. They weren’t just useful in summoning and restraining, but also in inspiring and letting others know that they existed and were worth remembering.

“Lord Yama?” a voice called out.

Yama’s head snapped up to identify the speaker who dared… rouse him from his inappropriate nap. Crap. When did I doze off again? He’d been doing so more often lately, and he wasn’t sure why.

“I was wondering where you’d gone,” the voice said. It was Major. He’d finished his lunch hours ago. “I just heard back from our engineers that we’ve discovered the root of the flaw. Would you care to watch as we work?”

“I’m very interested in seeing what you find,” Yama said. He followed the man down reconstructed sewer tunnels until they got to a section worn down by aeons of use. The water was filthier here, and the air more fetid. In fact, there was something here that eroded at spirits and chipped away at the brick and concrete in the tunnels. It had taken weeks to formulate the procedures to even allow this work to happen in the first place. Even then, it wasn’t completely safe.

Time warped as they walked. Planes came together and came apart. Creatures appeared that didn’t belong here but had decided that Diyu’s sewers were prime real estate. Ghostly warriors and adventurers hacked and slashed a path forward as they made progress toward a dead end in the tunnel system.

Looking into the darkness, Yama felt that strange fear. It was a familiar fear, but one he couldn’t quite place. He didn’t get a chance to think long, however, as the feeling left as quickly as it came. This left him only with the present and a lingering sense of frustration. What’s with this dreadful place?

It wasn’t long before the tunnel stopped at a large wall blocking off an entire segment of the sewage system. Diggers and demolition men were present, as were a fair number of engineers and city planners. Some of Mayor Judah’s employees were here, but he didn’t greet them any more warmly than anyone else. It was important that they knew they were all citizens of Diyu, regardless of their company affiliation.

“Lord Yama!” called a man with a clipboard. He ran over and bowed. He was a shorter man with a bowl cut and sharp eyes that belied his petulant attitude.

“No need for formality, Percival,” Yama said. “Major says you’ve gotten to the root of all this mess.”

“Yes, and what a mess it is,” Percival said, gesturing to the source of the issue. “Our technicians detect a large amount of corruption behind this wall. Flow is stagnant here, as you might have noticed, but that doesn’t just apply to the spiritual dimension. Somehow, this wall exists in a total of eight dimensions, and it has been reinforced several times over several millennia. Despite this, there are no records that formalize said maintenance.”

Yama frowned. “It seems like this is more than a design flaw.”

“We’re not sure what we’ll find,” Percival admitted. “What we do know is that it’s hampering the overall efficiency of the system. From what we’ve gathered from the original as-built documents, they’d originally intended to complete this pathway. Then, for no well-documented reason, someone decided it wasn’t worth building here, so they truncated the tunnel system and worked around it.

“Now, I know what you’re saying—it’s just one small tunnel. Well, it wouldn’t have been a problem if the original design hadn’t included this place as a central node in the system. But then no one ever bothered to change the rest of the system, only going so far as to make patchwork additions to make up for lost capacity.”

“How much lost capacity hasn’t been made up for?” Yama asked.

“Five percent,” Percival replied.

Yama winced. Such a large deficiency in the universe’s soul-recycling system activated one of his many contractual compulsions. He needed to do something—anything­—about it.

Don’t worry, I’ll get it fixed, Yama sent to the universe’s controlling core. It was enough of a response that the compulsion ended, and Yama was able to relax and observe the proceedings. He was curious, however. These bypasses had come at a great cost. It would have been easier to build things right in the first place. What was the original reason for the workaround? And why were these walls getting fixed regularly without documentation?

It took days to prepare and design a solution, but Yama waited patiently. Not only did they need to ensure that the sewage system could accommodate the increased flow, but they also needed to deal with the inevitable surge of impurities.

Eventually, they completed their preparations, and the demolition teams got into position. Almost everyone retreated to safety.

“You’ll want to get to shelter, Lord Yama,” Percival advised.

“If this small demolition device of yours can even damage the hem of my Reaper robes, I’ll double your salary,” Yama said dryly. As a Reaper, he had a special constitution that could resist all but the most rigorous of space-time traveling. His robes were built of a similar material. “I’ll personally be purifying what comes out of here so that your systems aren’t overwhelmed.” And so I don’t have to take these robes to the dry cleaner afterward.

“Many thanks, Lord Yama,” Percival said. The man then sensibly retreated. Relying on Yama’s protection would have been stupid.

I wonder what we’ll find, Yama thought, quite pleased at how all this was going. It was his third year of inspections, and he’d gone through all of Reincarnation, Inc. and had proceeded to government operations. The experience was eye opening and satisfying.

The massive explosion that occurred in that moment didn’t dampen his enthusiasm in any way. Neither did the cloud of filth that tried its best to destroy his sense of smell. He caught everything that came his way, and by the end of it, only a spiritual mist and debris from the explosion still hung in the air. As it began to clear out, masked men and women of the city task force made their way in with measuring devices.

“All clear!” some shouted, and others followed them inside. Yama went along, taking note of the ancient architecture and the design of the sealing runes in the room. Whoever had done this had been quite thorough with their work. It seemed less like a workaround and more like a containment unit. In fact, the sheer strength and scope of the sealing formation was mind-boggling.

“What in the Painter’s name did they seal in here?” Yama muttered, taking a good look at the room. With this much runework, it wouldn’t be out of the question to seal up an eternal emperor if you went about it properly. Not the Jade Emperor or the Curse Sovereign, but most of the others.

Yama’s eyes narrowed as the mist parted, revealing a room filled with black stones. He picked one up, frowning.

“Best not to touch that, sir,” said Percival. “We’ll have the technicians analyze them.”

In fact, they were already on it. As for Major and the others, they’d gone scouting up ahead.

“There’s an anomaly here,” Yama said, looking around. As a Reaper, he was very attuned to space-time fluctuations. “Something that escaped my notice originally. Give me a moment to analyze it.”

“It must be the seal that’s hiding it,” Percival said.

Yama nodded and felt out to the crack in space—real space, not those silly membranes that separated realms for optimal distribution of energy. No, this crack led out to the outside. The place of danger that the realm wisely kept at bay.

“Be careful everyone,” Yama said gravely. “This could be dangerous.” He then proceeded to send out a wisp of his soul into the crack and follow it to where it came from. He took a peek around and thankfully found nothing. There was no malignant plane or a battalion of otherworldly invaders. There was no world-devouring entity or space-shattering monster.

There was simply the emptiness of the inter-verse, a place so fraught with danger only a handful of people on the plane could survive traveling through it. It was empty. It was lonely. Yama thanked his lucky stars that nothing had been lying in ambush.

Satisfied that the universe was not in danger of collapsing, Yama stitched the crack closed. A pressure that had previously filled the room faded, bringing relief to all those who’d been uncomfortable in the presence of the crack but hadn’t known why.

If they’d had mortal bodies, though, they’d have died in an instant, Yama thought. One of the many reasons souls manned Diyu.

“Lord Yama, could you take a look at this?” a woman called out. One of the technicians—Dr. Jyoti Mukhtar—was holding one of the many black spheres Yama had noticed. This one was covered in slits and holes. “I could be mistaken, sir, but I believe this is an egg.”

“An egg?” Yama muttered, taking the second spherical item and forcing his soul into it. It was difficult to penetrate the outer shell despite the holes peppering its surface. “Yes, it’s definitely a space-beast egg. Not a very threatening kind, mind you, but definitely worth investigating. Now where have I seen this kind of egg before?”

He sifted through his hazy memories in Reaper Academy. He’d never been the best at Interdimensional Space-Beast Management and its close cousin Defense Against Otherworldly Creatures. But he’d passed, so he should be able to at least identify the genus of the interloper, or at least its immediate relatives.

It took a while to penetrate the many layers of the egg’s shell, but soon, Yama’s soul encountered a thick, gooey layer. Many bits and pieces of it were solid, and there was little to no circulation. Whatever it was, it was dead. It wouldn’t be causing problems for this world anytime soon. He’d destroy it, and all the other eggs as well to be sure, but first he wanted to identify it.

“It appears to be some sort of bird,” Yama muttered, deepening his scan, noting the skeletal structure and the blood vessels that were taking shape. “That or a very small reptile. Some kind of creature that reminds me of velociraptors, but if they were shorter than your knees and came with wings and claws that could bite through fifth-tier spatial glass.”

“That sounds incredibly frightening, sir,” Dr. Mukhtar said.

“Oh, it is,” Yama replied. “Mere mortals and even soul life forms wouldn’t last a second against them. But as you can see, these things are dead. They died ages ago, likely due to the lack of circulation in the room that denied them the nutrients they needed. You might not know this, Dr. Mukhtar, but space-beasts invade universes because of their huge appetite. They can’t live long without something eat.”

“Shall we gather these up for you?” Dr. Mukhtar asked. “We’d be happy to take care of them, and there are many of them.”

“Quiet,” Yama said suddenly, and the room went still. Something was off. He could hear it, like a silent alarm that was growing louder and louder with each passing second. Something here threatened them all, and he wasn’t sure what it was.

Yama eyed the egg. It was tough, so he summoned his Reaper scythe and cut it in half. The world-annihilating blade made short work of it, revealing a half-formed reptile bird.

But that wasn’t what Yama was concerned about. No, what troubled him were the small glowing specks inside the egg. Birds were one thing, but insects? You had to be careful with those. One stray insect could result in a swarm that would ravage the entire universe. Insects were unpredictable, voracious, and difficult to contain.

“Gather all these eggs up and quarantine this place,” Yama instructed. “Strongest sealings. Don’t skimp.”

“We’ll have them here in minute, sir,” Percival said. Major was already instructing his men to harvest the eggs and gather them in piles.

“Sir, I think we may have a problem,” another man said.

Yama teleported straight over and grabbed an egg out of his hand. It was cracking, and small creatures were crawling out of it. Yama covered the thing in a bubble of sealed space-time, but the insects grew tiny wings and flew out toward the barrier. They latched onto it and began sapping away at its energy.

“S-class emergency!” Yama bellowed with a voice that carried across the cosmos. He received confirmation of mobilization within the second, and in that time, he split into multiple incarnations—not copies, but multiple physical and spiritual presences across space-time, all of them with the same strength.

The room filled with thousands of Yamas that began throwing balls of soul fire at tiny bugs that began erupting out of the small black eggs and refused to be contained. They were extremely resistant to his attacks, so he was forced to alternate elements and test their weaknesses. He found none. That was concerning.

In the time that it took for ten more of his clones to bar the exit and reinforce the walls, he determined the insects were immune to fire, poison, cold, space, and time. They were very susceptible to metal poisoning, however, so he filled the air with miniature blades and began hacking them apart. There was little else he could do but buy time for others to arrive.

Souls died. Major was an ex-soldier, so he managed to arm himself just in time to repel the first wave of insects. Others weren’t so lucky. Dr. Mukhtar and Percival fell in the first wave, devoured by the swarm. By the second, their corpses bred and incubated another batch under space-time acceleration.

These insects were classic examples of dangerous space-beasts in that they didn’t play fair and didn’t follow the same rules as native beings of this realm. They would take advantage of every loophole to breed and overwhelm.

“Meng Po, you lazy wench, get here this instant and start fumigating!” Yama called out. He continued slicing apart insects like his life depended on it, because even though these bugs couldn’t kill him per se, the universe didn’t like them, and they wouldn’t tolerate failure. Moreover, the backlash of such a large universe’s destruction might well kill him.

“Already on it, you sack of bones,” Meng Po said, appearing beside him. The middle-aged lady with clearly Asian features rounded up thousands of the rapidly propagating insects inside her cauldron. Ingredients poured out from the many pocket dimensions she controlled, and she used the light of several stars to heat them up, mix them, and match them, thousands of batches at a time, which she immediately tested on her frightened captives.

“I hope I’m not too late,” said a man as he appeared in the room. His flames didn’t glow the usual blue—now they were golden. He’d gotten the memo. Hades, the famous tailor, filled the room with a metallic inferno. Shields of fire sprang up to protect those still living in the room. Hades might not be the most flexible person on their response team, but the sheer variety of flames he could control was mind-boggling.

“Fuxi, I know you’re there,” Yama yelled. “What’s happening?”

“I’ve set up a yin-yang sealing formation, an eight-directional confounding array, and a mist-grade space-time lock,” Fuxi replied. “It’s holding for now, but there are many of them. Hushao is busy.”

“Of course he’s busy,” Yama said. As he spoke, insects dove into his body, tearing him apart from the inside out despite his best efforts to fend them off.

“A space-beast swarm appeared,” Fuxi said helplessly. “Very coincidental, wouldn’t you say?”

Yama’s eyes narrowed. “Tell him to keep an eye out for potential stowaways. Someone might try to sneak in during the confusion. Now where are my favorite quarreling brothers?”

The moment he said this, an ochre-winged eternal emperor entered the room and began to cut away at the bugs with his dual scythe blades. Though he didn’t do much damage to them individually, by cutting one, he could cut the others through curses, magnifying the damage to the overall swarm.

Meanwhile, a jade-winged eternal emperor entered. His brilliant jade cloak shielded what was left of the workers. Everyone in his presence began to heal faster, dodge better, and everyone began to hit harder. His blessings even affected Meng Po’s success rate and lessened the rate at which they ate through the walls. Still, they didn’t have much time remaining.

“Where are my Buddhists? Where are my evil spirits?” Yama asked.

“Fighting, Lord Yama,” said Lily as she appeared in the room. She was dressed for business, skirt-suit and all, but the moment she entered, an order imposed itself among the chaos. Their coordination greatly improved, and synergies not otherwise physically possible asserted themselves. A running tally of the insects appeared in everyone’s mind.

“Done!” Meng Po said.

“Do it!” Yama yelled. The Jade Emperor’s cloak glowed with merit as he shielded them all, and the Curse Sovereign’s ochre aura penetrated the insects. Metal-based poison filled the room, and finally, after an absurd amount of effort by some of the most powerful men and women in the universe, the dimensional swarm began to die off.

“I don’t know how long I can hold it!” Fuxi warned.

“For the love of all that is painted,” Yama cursed. “They’re dying, so they’re attacking the containment. Nuwa, where are you?”

“I’ve been here since the beginning,” a woman in earthy brown robes and a distant look said. A shell of clay surrounded the tunnel walls where the insects finally broke through. The walls complemented Fuxi’s array where it crumbled away piece by piece. As husband and wife, they were perfect in their coordination, even without the substantial blessings that had been stacked upon them, in addition to Lily. Still, there was only so much that even they could do as a pair, and the swarm was agitated and highly motivated. They knew that if they didn’t break through now, they would perish.

It was time to make a difficult decision. Time froze all around Yama. That included the bugs, his collaborators, and his own body. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t so much that time slowed down but that Yama sped up his own mental processes. A grid lay out in front of him, indicating all probable paths if they continued on their perfect course. They played out in his mind one after the other.

Primary Scenario: Breakthrough in section 280 of Fuxi’s shield. Insects invade Diyu and ten trillion souls consumed.

Alternative Scenario 1: Nuwa’s supplementary shield subverted and blitzes through a larger fissure in the formation. Diyu falls. Cycle of reincarnation compromised.

Alternative scenario 973: Jade Sovereign breaks limit. All insects annihilated. Several stages of eternal battlefield lost to hellish forces due to Jade Sovereign’s temporary weakness and Seven Heavens compromised. Note: Unlikely due to impending karmic shift.

Alternative scenario 996: Curse Sovereign breaks limit. All insects annihilated. Several stages of eternal battlefield lost to heavenly forces due to Curse Sovereign’s temporary weakness and Seven Hells compromised. Note: Unlikely due to impending karmic shift.

Alternative scenario 2049: Self-sacrificial offering of Nuwa or Fuxi. All insects annihilated. Instability ensues in all mortal and transcendent realms, response to future crises uncertain.

On and on they went, and Yama saw them all. He calculated both the expected costs as well as future ramifications. It was certain that they could contain this mess. It was just a matter of what sort of cost they were willing to pay now, and in future days.

It took fractions of a moment for Yama to evaluate all the possibilities he saw in time and space. He discarded most of them for being far too improbable. The Curse Sovereign, breaking his limit after biding his time for aeons? Unlikely. He didn’t even want to consider what would happen without Fuxi and Nuwa’s help, as they were the most neutral of the heavenly immortals.

All in all, the probability of the primary scenario happening without him forcing alternative scenarios was 98.12%. That was almost a certainty. To avoid this, he needed time. And there was only one scenario in which he could buy himself time that was completely under his control.

Time unfroze then, and Yama spoke. “We can’t stop them. I’m calling in the boatman.”

They gasped.

“Lord Yama, even I think that’s a little extreme for a small infestation,” the Curse Sovereign said.

“This is no small infestation,” Yama said. “Tens of trillions of souls are at stake. Further, I am this realm’s Reaper. I will do what I must to protect the whole. Charon, come!”

Planes overlapped in that moment. The Yellow River surrounded them, completely enclosing them in a separate dimension. Charon the Boatman was a poorly understood character—he didn’t just ferry souls; he managed the entire river system. He poured in waters from the Yellow River, chock full of souls. The moment he did so, the insects reverted to their baser instincts and began feeding.

Souls died. Some of them ones that had been there since the beginning. As they did so, the insects multiplied like there was no tomorrow, completely ignoring any outside threats. Their number grew a hundredfold in mere moments. That was because soul energy was one of the purest forms of energy in the multiverse, and depleting it exhausted the strength of the realm. Yama would prefer not to make such sacrifices, but he couldn’t let these pests escape. If they did, the damage would be catastrophic.

Billions of souls disappeared in an instant. Never again would they reincarnate. Yama could feel the universe’s displeasure, but he could only push that aside for now. His actions had bought them the time they needed, so now it was time to get down to business.

“Done!” Meng Po yelled, and released another cauldron of poison. This was an optimized batch, taking into account the weaknesses she’d observed, and also taking advantage of the resistances they’d undoubtedly built.

The insects began to die much faster now. They tried bashing against the barrier again, but Fuxi and Nuwa had reinforced it as the insects were feasting. There was little they could do as the poison wore away at them, and a few seconds later, the last of the insects were dead. The crisis was averted, so Yama dismissed the boatman.

The realm was saved. They’d survived, but not without a cost. Billions of souls had perished, and further, Yama was injured from the backlash. He was sure the others knew it, but no one said anything. After all, he was the strongest among them, and always neutral in their scuffles. Moreover, they knew that without him, they’d be goners within a century.

The Curse Sovereign spat. “Gautama should have come. One of the Hauntings should have as well. With them, we could have beaten them back even without the boatman.”

“They’ll get what’s coming to them, that much is certain,” Yama said frostily.

“That should be the last of them,” Meng Po said, putting away her cauldron. She looked around disdainfully. “This place is a mess. If you’re going to seal something away like this, at least make sure the seal will last. And definitely make sure it can’t be broken from the outside with mere explosives.”

“Agreed,” Fuxi said, teleporting beside them. The man was exhausted, his soul force overdrawn. “What elementary work.”

“All of this because of some eggs from the other side,” the Jade Emperor said, shaking his head as he tossed one of the egg pieces he’d collected. He threw it to the Curse Sovereign, who backed up and let it hit the floor.

“I’m not touching that,” the Curse Sovereign said. “With my luck, they’ll come back to life and haunt us.”

“They’re not strictly living creatures,” Meng Po said, picking one up and sniffing. “I’d very much like to take one for my research.”

“Don’t you dare touch a single one,” Yama said. “I will have my team carefully gather them and dispose of them.”

“But the research potential—” Meng Po started.

“Isn’t worth it,” Yama cut her off. “I know you’re all struggling to reach the next realm, and I empathize with you. I don’t how you can reach it, but I do know this: You cannot bear the weight of willingly unleashing such dangerous beings on this realm. Even accidentally facilitating this threat would have major consequences.” In fact, he’d seen many young Reapers perish in pursuit of foolish dreams of power. And unlike them, these cultivators weren’t actually immortal. They just felt like it because they’d been alive for aeons, some of them since the beginning.

“Well, there had better be consequences,” Hades said, adjusting his still pristine suit. He slicked back his fiery hair and made his way toward the exit. “If we can’t trust the others to at least contribute to the welfare of the cycle of reincarnation, how can we coexist?”

“Don’t worry,” Yama said. “There will be a reckoning.”

Hades nodded and walked away, his dress shoes maki



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