PENDULUM OF FATE - PART 1

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PROLOGUE

 

In the void straddling the Inkwell Plane, a tiny fissure appeared. It was a hairline crack, barely noticeable among the spatial tempests and the shards of spatial glass native to the area. Even so, the stench of the material world traveled quickly, and the creatures of the void that feasted upon such sources assembled like starving minnows.

Unfortunately for said creatures, a black-robed figure emerged from the other side and resealed the gap just as quickly as it had opened. He was not weak—could not be weak—because he wasn’t immediately torn to shreds by the spatial turbulence inherent to this plane of existence.

“Off with you,” the figure said, and the creatures ceased to be. They didn’t die but faded into the obscurity of void space.

“Voidspawn,” the man muttered disdainfully. “Such pitiful creatures, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Mao Mao?”

Yes, the black-and-white cat on his shoulder was Mr. Mao Mao. Who else could this man be but Elder Ling, who also went by Daoist West Sea or West Sea Guardian or other annoying titles. Neither the cat nor the old man were bothered by the void, because very little in this place could threaten them.

“Meow!” the cat said loudly.

“Quite right,” Elder Ling agreed. “We shouldn’t waste time we don’t have.” They were on an important mission. Elder Ling kicked off a pane of spatial glass and propelled himself through void space, using a compact turtle-shell-like shield like an umbrella to keep annoying corrosive essences and spatial shards at bay.

The requirements of Elder Ling’s mission were quite straightforward. First, find the missing Dao Lord Blackwater, the oldest remnant of the Inkwell Clan and the nominal leader of the fractured Inky Sea Sect. After that… well, he would have to see. It really depended on his mood at the time, and whether Dao Lord Blackwater was cooperative.

“If only the void wasn’t so darned dreary…” Elder muttered. Mr. Mao Mao nudged his neck and purred, and everything was right again.

The void was a cold and uncaring place. Very few cultivators traveled the void, whether Daoist, demon, or otherwise, because far too many things could kill them, and extended exposure would result in certain death. Void travel was something usually practiced around initial or early law stitching for Daoists and middle shell marking or middle fusion for demigods and demons.

Many likened void travel to the short-range teleportation hops of Daoists and the many competing teleportation networks joining several points on the plane. They were partially right, but they missed the point. The void was a place, and such techniques took advantage of shortcuts. They merely skimmed the surface and never truly touched on true void travel.

Void creatures were, of course, real threats to void travelers, but the biggest threat to those starting out was the spatial debris that littered the space adjacent to the surface of a material plane. This was especially the case for a broken realm like the Inkwell Plane, which was quite literally falling apart at the seams.

It was safest to travel through established void tunnels trailblazed by people who came before, and it was this network of tunnels that Elder Ling and Mr. Mao Mao made use of. There were advantages to this method compared to the teleportation network. For one, you didn’t need to wait in line, and therefore feel obligated to buy a cup of tea or coffee as you waited in what should have been a free seat.

“I’m worried for him, Mr. Mao Mao,” Elder Ling said, scratching the purring cat behind its ears.

The cat looked at him inquisitively.

“I know you don’t like him, and I know that he’s very strong, but he’s quite weak since he failed his breakthrough.”

Mr. Mao Mao looked unconvinced, and Elder Ling couldn’t blame him.

“That wouldn’t be a problem if so many people didn’t want him dead, naturally, but Blackwater was never one to be polite. If I didn’t have his life seal, I would have gone ahead and declared him dead three years ago.”

Elder Ling was not the fastest traveler, but he was one of the more powerful cultivators on the Inkwell Plane. He crossed vast distances that an initial-law-stitching Daoist would consider a harrowing daylong journey in minutes, and pretty much ignored the glasslike fragments continually smashing onto his shield. It should be noted that said glass shards would be able to cut through the average middle-law-stitching artifact with ease, and the crystalline dust was capable of giving a peak-fusion-realm demon a severe case of asbestosis. Such were the benefits of being awesome.

Today’s first stop was hidden in spatial debris. Elder Ling was forced to play janitor by first tearing a small slit in space then shoving the spatial debris through said slit like stubborn wet snow. It was only when he emerged after said debris that he realized that this might not have been a wise idea; spatial debris didn’t much like the material plane, and vice versa, and the resulting explosion had ripped apart everything in the vicinity, including half a school of hook-toothed silver-scaled barracuda.

“Meow!” Mr. Mao Mao said.

“What’s that?” Elder Ling asked, looking from the small cat on his shoulder to the remnants of the school of fish. “You’re hungry?”

The small cat purred and rubbed against his neck.

“Well, you can’t eat them. I just saved them!” If not for his law projection, not even meat paste would have remained of the pitiful group. Mr. Mao Mao decided to go hunting on his own. He jumped off the old man’s shoulder and entered the deep dark ocean.

The demon cat naturally expanded until he was as large as a small whale. Mr. Mao Mao was a mighty saber-toothed adamantine hellcat, and he was quite capable of growing to the size of a small mountain. He was a patient hunter, so he waited in the inky depths, ignoring lampreys and ribbonlike fish that gave light to their barren surroundings, only giving a passing glance to the swarms of tiny crystal-gold fish that normally served as food to the barracuda but now feasted on their pitiful remnants.

There was one group of demons that was too curious for its own good. It was a shiver of amber devil sharks, quite rare in these parts. “Beautiful creatures,” Elder Ling said to Mr. Mao Mao as they drew closer. “Notice the stripes on their leathery skin. People often hunt them just for those skins, since they can be used to craft exquisite leather armor fit for the top generals in a coastal capital.

“Also notice the glow in their amber-red eyes. The beauty. The wonder. If I had the authority, I would designate them a protected species.”

Mr. Mao Mao nodded excitedly, and Elder Ling approved, until, to Elder Ling’s dismay, the cat crouched and sprang out at the shiver. Elder Ling facepalmed. Of course he was having them for lunch.

The alpha devil shark was dead before it even knew what hit it. Despite its tough skin and hard skeleton, it was no match for Mr. Mao Mao’s sharp teeth. At this point in his development, Mr. Mao Mao could crush mid-grade-law-stitching treasures with his jaws and knead them into a ball using his oh-so-soft paws—if he had the inclination.

The death of their leader did not deter the shiver. They immediately regrouped and began glowing red and gold as they activated their bloodline. Doing so would drastically heighten their defenses.

Their efforts were meaningless, of course. Mr. Mao Mao broke through their defenses with ease, and in two swift chomps, he devoured two of the remaining six in the shiver. The survivors scattered in the opposite direction.

Mr. Mao Mao liked playing with his food, but lunch running off on its own was unacceptable. He lazily shot out four silver blades of energy that, while slow for a demon of his caliber, easily caught up to two of the gorgeous creatures and shredded them to ribbons, breaking their cores before they could use any of their other abilities.

“That’s quite enough, Mr. Mao Mao,” Elder Ling scolded, preventing him from chasing down the last two devil sharks, a male and female pair.

The large cat transformed and settled back onto his shoulder, purring with a plaintive tone.

“Yes, yes, I know I haven’t been making much time for you. I’m a busy man, you know.” More purrs followed. “You’re completely capable of exercising on your own, Mr. Mao Mao. You don’t need me to accompany you for walks.”

The cat purred a few more times, and Elder Ling was forced to relent. “Yes, you’re right. I know we made a deal. Fine, I’ll walk you around to find fresh fish in a week or so when we finish searching.”

Mr. Mao Mao was satisfied with his answer and promptly fell asleep.

The dangerous duo found no opposition as they sank down to the middle of the sea and entered one of Dao Lord Blackwater’s old haunts: the North Sea’s Runeward Whale graveyard. The place was littered with the crystalline bones of those who’d come back here to die of old age.

A few of their descendants could be seen here and there, some in human form, some in bestial form. These bones were both sacred to their people and very valuable for the advancement of their descendants.

A bubble-shaped boundary surrounded the graveyard, and even Elder Ling had to exert himself to push his way through the restriction. The moment he did so, a wave of awareness washed across him and Mr. Mao Mao. It only stopped once it confirmed the mark on their souls that identified them as members of the Inky Sea Sect, the guardians of the Inkwell Clan.

A large male figure in crystalline black armor greeted them. He was also a member of the Runeward Whale Clan and was known as the Tomb Keeper. To qualify for such a prestigious position, one had to first be a peak-fusion-realm demon, then pass a series of trials to gain the approval of all other senior members of the clan.

“West Sea Guardians,” the Tomb Keeper said with a light bow. “How may I be of assistance?”

“Greetings, Tomb Keeper,” Elder Ling said, returning the bow. “We are seeking the whereabouts of Dao Lord Blackwater. Have you seen him?”

“Not for many months, Esteemed Guardian,” the Tomb Keeper said. “Has something happened?”

“Nothing you should concern yourself over,” Elder Ling said. He looked the demon up and down and noticed he was twitching nervously. Runeward Whales had a powerful bloodline, but they were known to be terrible at lying or hiding things. “Has anyone else been here?”

“No one,” the Tomb Keeper said. More twitching ensued.

Mr. Mao Mao growled in annoyance, and his aura, slightly more powerful than the whale’s, gave the Tomb Keeper pause. Only briefly, since they were in Runeward Whale territory.

“None of that,” Elder Ling said, flicking the cat with his finger. The best way to get what you wanted with creatures like these was bribery. He tossed the whale demon a crystalline object the size of a human head. It was an obsidian heart lotus, a flower with sharp black petals that could only be found in the deepest crevices of the deepest oceans. Even peak-fusion-realm demons could use such a flower to enhance their bloodline, but its best use was in nurturing members of the younger generation. “Would you be at liberty to say who came before me in exchange for that?”

The Tomb Keeper’s eyes flickered uncertainly between Elder Ling and the obsidian heart lotus. Ultimately, he grabbed it and nodded. “It was the South Sea Guardian and his diamond tooth eel,” the Tomb Keeper said. “He asked me to be discreet. Please don’t tell him it was me who told you.”

Elder Ling smiled. “My lips are sealed.” As if you wouldn’t just tell him yourself in exchange for another bribe.

“Would you like to come in for a visit?” the Tomb Keeper asked. “The elders have not seen you in far too long and would be delighted to exchange pleasantries.” His body language said otherwise, and Elder Ling had a feeling this had to do with the abrasive cat on his shoulder. He had to refuse.

“We are quite busy,” Elder Ling said. “Perhaps next time?”

“If it’s convenient,” the Tomb Keeper said. More twitching. Staying longer would only be an embarrassment, so they retreated from the graveyard. A short while later, they were back in the void.

“The South Sea Guardian, eh?” Elder Ling said to Mr. Mao Mao. “Seems a bit too easy, doesn’t it?” The South Sea Guardian was the most wicked of the four guardians and was very cutthroat in his methods. He was devious and power hungry, and the main reason Elder Ling was seeking out Dao Lord Blackwater was to protect him from this individual.

“We’re not going to be able to find him in the usual places, Mr. Mao Mao,” Elder Ling said. “What are your thoughts on the matter?”

The small cat thought for a moment before purring a reply.

“Yes, that’s a definite possibility…” Elder Ling said. “The Titan Squids have always been reliable allies. He might just ask for their protection. Then again, he’s never been the trusting type, has he?” He scratched his scraggly chin. “If I were Dao Lord Blackwater, where would I be hiding? Would I find a rock in the middle of the ocean and hide beneath it, or would I play my opponent’s game?” Then, before Mr. Mao Mao could reply, he snapped his fingers. “That’s right! I’d be somewhere where I could watch things as they happened and respond to things accordingly.”

This brought up an interesting problem, however. If Dao Lord Blackwater would do this, wouldn’t the South Sea Guardian do the same? The man was anything but sloppy. Nine out of ten odds said his visit to the Runeward Whales was a diversion. “If that’s the case, let’s not make things easy for him.”

They continued their steady flight through the depths of space, accumulating glasslike fragments and spatial dust as they went. At their level of cultivation, he could easily fly across half the Inkwell Sea before resting. Their destination this time was one of the most treacherous areas on the Inkwell Plane: the deepest depths of the Central Inkwell Sea, where only the most powerful and violent creatures lay dormant.

These creatures took refuge here because they had exceeded the limits of the realm but did not wish to leave. They would rather be the largest goldfish in a small bowl than a midsized shark in a massive ocean.

They were so powerful that their shadows could be seen even through the thin membrane separating the Inkwell Plane and the empty void. “There they are,” Elder Ling said, pointing out a few such creatures. “The mighty leviathans. Are you ready, Mr. Mao Mao?” His trusty companion bared his teeth and claws and jumped off his shoulder. There was no holding back when dealing with such creatures.

Elder Ling charged. Mr. Mao Mao charged. It was a suicidal display of raw power. If they collided with the wall at such a velocity, their odds of survival were nil. It was this strange behavior that finally prompted a fluctuation from the one that had been tailing them this entire time. Elder Ling turned around at the last second and faced the trail of spatial dust with his shields, smashing it into oblivion.

He followed up by throwing out three talismans, one that shone like the sun and illuminated this vast stretch of void space, and another that exposed karmic threads, especially hostile ones. The third talisman was a Spirit-Revealing Talisman of the highest grade, which he kept on his person as a precaution. It was a good thing he used it, because the moment he did, dozens of evil spirits appeared.

“I knew it,” Elder Ling muttered. “It’s a haunting curse.” This sort of tracking method was very effective against someone with his skill set, and very difficult to dispel. But if he knew they were there, he had a few options.

Elder Ling took out twelve more talismans. These ones resembled strips of a cut-up painting, complete with epic scenery and historical context. The key character was none other than Mr. Mao Mao, the scourge of many battlefields.

“Combination Talisman: Saber-tooth Spirit Rend!” Elder Ling called out. The talismans combined, and the paintings and characters peeled off the paper and into the surrounding space.

Vivid trees, towering mountains, and a deep inky lake appeared. At the center of them lay a small golden temple. A projection of Mr. Mao Mao jumped out of the painting and roared. Wave upon wave of golden Spirit-Slaying Intent lashed out at the evil spirits, flaying their exposed soul bodies.

This Mr. Mao Mao was not the same as the Mr. Mao Mao fighting alongside Elder Ling. Rather, it was the Mr. Mao Mao that could have been, had he chosen a different path. This Mr. Mao Mao was the bane of ghosts and the unliving, a Buddhist temple beast without compare.

The imagery only lasted a few seconds, but the power released in those seconds was more than enough. Only three evil spirits survived the onslaught. These were the three strongest spirits.

“Follow me!” Elder Ling yelled.

Mr. Mao Mao followed him, and together, they did what they’d telegraphed in the first place: they shattered space and entered the deepest depths of the Central Inkwell Sea.

A wave of power swept over them as soon as they entered. The Inkwell Leviathans were very territorial, and as such, lashed out at these pesky invaders. To these massive turtle-shelled crocodiles, the two of them were little more than bugs, but as it happened, they had been sleeping, and as such, were incredibly grouchy.

“Greetings!” Elder Ling called out politely.

They answered with a roar that shook him to his bones. This was quickly followed up by a demonstration of their signature skill—Leviathan Quake. The seawater in the area broke and shattered as though it were land, and the adjacent void broke with it. The resulting mixture of energy obliterated everything in the nearest square kilometer.

This naturally included the three remaining spirits and any traces of Elder Ling’s passage. Elder Ling and Mr. Mao Mao weren’t affected, as they had been expecting such an attack to begin with. “Thank you!” Elder Ling yelled, further enraging them.

It was naturally impossible for Elder Ling to retreat into the void after an attack of such magnitude. The three Inkwell Leviathans, seeing that ranged attacks wouldn’t do the trick, propelled themselves forward with their four webbed limbs and snapped at the man and his cat with their devastatingly large jaws.

It was do or die. Elder Ling pulled out a row of black turtle shells covered in golden runes. These were Elder Ling’s sole immortal treasure. For the low cost of half their energy, a golden turtle shell surrounded them, complete with angelic wings. Neither the leviathan’s jaws nor the spatial storm in the area had any effect on it.

“Take me to the Scriptorium!” Elder Ling yelled. The golden turtle shell acknowledged his destination, pried itself from the jaws of the leviathan, and shot off into a slit in space. It did so in spite of the deadly spatial storm. Not only were they safe from any dangers, but travel was an order of magnitude faster than it had otherwise been and did not leave any traceable aura.

Minutes passed before the shell broke apart, delivering them directly to their destination: a small temple in the Southern Inkwell Sea. He stowed away the black-and-gold shells, as they couldn’t be used more than once per day.

They were currently in the South Sea Guardian’s backyard, and normally, he wouldn’t come here. “If I were Dao Lord Blackwater, I would definitely come here, Mr. Mao Mao,” Elder Ling said. “Where better to hide than in enemy territory, in a place that can’t be breached and allows me to spy on the rest of the realm?”

They floated through a membrane that peeled the inky-black seawater away from their bodies so that they didn’t track mud through this otherwise dry location. The Scriptorium’s shield was an impressive formation that, among other things, staved off ten kilometers of water pressure at all times.

The place was filled with blue light that illuminated a simple-looking building. No fighting was allowed inside this holy place, and they would be safe as long as they adhered to this rule.

“Mr. Mao Mao!” Elder Ling scolded, and the small cat stopped dead in his tracks. “Don’t you dare eat any ink sprites! The guardian of this place will have your hide if you do!”

The small cat spat out a small inky creature with great reluctance. Ink sprites were a rare breed of creature, and quite valuable, and anywhere else on the Inkwell Plane, they were hunted.

But not in this location.

Tens of thousands of ink sprites flew around them as they walked. They flew in patterns and formations of all kinds. Elder Ling and Mr. Mao Mao ignored their obvious taunting as they traversed the stone pathway leading up to blue stone building.

Flight and teleportation was possible in this place, but disrespectful. This was a sacred place. The Scriptorium was not a location per se, but an artifact that predated the Inkwell Plane, a personal possession of the Inkwell Ancestor.

The Scriptorium’s stone doors opened as they neared, allowing the man and his cat entry to its vast halls, which belied its outwardly small appearance. Its inner space spanned no less than a ten-by-ten-kilometer area.

The Scriptorium’s purpose was to display. Every few feet, it was possible to see shifting inky patterns in various stages of development. These patterns were naturally formed by ink sprites that merged in groups to become something greater: living stories.

Some took the form of a few hundred floating characters, while others resembled compact books. No story was the same length. The form would likely get thrown in the stacks, while the latter stood at chance at making it to the vast shelves that lined the Scriptorium’s vast walls.

“Can I help you, young man?” a voice asked.

Elder Ling looked up and saw a much larger ink sprite, radiating a powerful but peaceful aura. Elder Ling bowed deeply, because in comparison to this ancient artifact spirit, he was indeed a toddler. Even Dao Lord Blackwater had to give it deference, because the Inkwell Ancestor had treated the Scriptorium not as a tool but as a friend. Together, they had assembled and written some of her greatest tales.

“I’ve just come to look around, Esteemed Keeper,” Elder Ling said. “Would it be possible to keep outsiders at bay while I peruse this place?”

“Of course, Esteemed Guardian,” the Keeper said. “Feel free to peruse and read at your leisure. I highly recommend the stories developing at the back of the room. I imagine you’ll find them to your liking.”

“Thank you, Esteemed Keeper,” Elder Ling said, bowing once again. He blinked, and the ink sprite was gone. A spatial barrier had appeared to block off the doorway, and even the Inkwell Leviathans wouldn’t dare try to barge in.

Elder Ling and Mr. Mao Mao took their time walking toward the end of the Scriptorium. Every trip through it was different, the stories in this place constantly changing. The area the Keeper had recommended was where a small replica of the Inkwell Ancestor was located. Once upon a time, countless clansmen would come here on pilgrimage to place their offerings.

No one ever disturbed these offerings, and some priceless treasures had even withstood the test of time. Anyone foolish enough to try to take them would be reduced to ashes and their names struck from the Scriptorium’s archives.

Even Elder Ling was tempted to try his luck, but he resisted the urge. The weakest of these treasures were peak-transcendent treasures, and the strongest were immortal treasures. These lay in haphazard piles alongside the scales of true dragons and tiny piles of immortal-grade sacred sand.

There were even preserved shells of Inkwell clansmen who’d treaded a half step into immortality. Alas, they had all perished before finishing that step, since leaving this place would only serve to further destabilize the realm.

The Inkwell Plane was their home. Their duty. When Dao Lord Blackwater perished, he would send his shell here as well.

Foreign visitors to the Scriptorium might be led to believe that these treasures were the true attraction. After all, who wouldn’t want an immortal treasure? But this was all a backdrop to the true treasure the Scriptorium kept: its stories. Every story of interest developing on the Inkwell Plane was recorded here in real time. All exciting events were recorded in these writings, which were centered among the greatest variables on the plane: karmic anomalies.

The entrance of the temple displayed the least of these stories, and the closer to the Inkwell Ancestor’s idol they were, the more vivid and lifelike the ink-sprite stories became. The smallest stories were simple arrangements of characters, which condensed into books, until finally, they became something closer to living paintings.

Elder Ling had come here before, so these stories did not surprise him. What did surprise him was an arrangement closer to the ancestor’s idol and her sacrificial altar. “I don’t remember there being such things here…” Elder Ling said as he reached a pillar of ink that reached up from the floor and traveled all the way to the roof of the building. Like the books, these were made of ink sprites, but such an amalgamation was simply unheard of.

Each pillar was formed of at least a hundred ink sprites, and there were hundreds of such pillars. The pillars were only there to protect what lay inside them: a large inky amalgamation the size of a human being. Countless characters swirled within these shells.

As interesting as the pillars were, Elder Ling did not get a chance to examine them, as a familiar aura appeared at the edge of the room. It was none other than Dao Lord Blackwater, and though the distance separating them was large, each of the Dao Lord’s steps brought him forward a hundred paces, even without teleportation.

“Looks like I finally guessed right,” Elder Ling said, a hint of irritation in his voice. “Maybe next time you could leave a note?”

Dao Lord Blackwater chuckled. He looked much healthier than the last time they’d met. He was still old and had the same gnarled, wrinkled hands. His hair still looked brittle and dry despite its deep black coloring. This worried Elder Ling, but his worry faded when he noted that the man’s eyes were still deep and brimming with energy.

“I’m glad you found me, West Sea,” Blackwater said, stopping in front of Elder Ling. “And you too, Mr. Mao Mao.”

“You could have visited, seeing as you’ve completely recovered,” Elder Ling said. “Or at least let the scattered members of the Inkwell Clan know where you were so I didn’t have to chase you around the four corners of the plane.” He produced a black key with a flourish and offered it to the older man, who shook his head and ignored the item before proceeding past Elder Ling toward the forest of pillars.

“Keep it,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “Let’s call it a feint, in case someone manages to do me in.”

“Anyone who can kill you could easily kill me,” Elder Ling said.

“Not if you see it coming,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “And definitely not before you find a place to hide it. That immortal treasure of yours is precious even in the eyes of immortals.”

Elder Ling nodded and stowed away the key. He followed Dao Lord Blackwater, his mentor and friend, who took his time walking around the lifelike agglomerations of ink sprites. “When did these pillars come about?” Elder Ling couldn’t help but ask.

“Ten years ago,” Dao Lord Blackwater answered. “South Sea came here, and that was how he found his apprentice.”

“Then these are…”

“Karmic anomalies. The most promising ones,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “Many are ascendants, but some are native to this plane. These pillars contain their likenesses and deeds and compile their stories as they happen.”

Elder Ling frowned. This story-recording function was common, but typically, their prominence in the hall was according to strength and age, as these factors would weigh heavily on the length of a given story. Here, only members of the younger generation could be seen.

One of them was none other than Dao Lord Black Fish, his apprentice. Or Silver Fish, as his friends knew him. The inky replica was a spitting image, and the swirl of characters surrounding him was greater than that of his neighbors. Was this a good thing? A bad thing? Elder Ling wasn’t sure.

“I’ll save you time and explain the situation,” Dao Lord Blackwater said, noticing his confusion. “From what I’ve gathered, the plane has started keeping track of particularly heroic individuals and is exerting karmic influence on them. I’ve spent much time observing such individuals and have come to the conclusion that the runes surrounding each one are proportional to the strength of their deeds, regardless of where these deeds happened. Their placement is also proportional to their influence, which the Scriptorium seems to value most highly. In other words, their ability to impact others.”

“I see that all of them have the potential to reach the peak,” Elder Ling said.

“The strongest have only reached the peak of rune-gathering realm or an equivalent realm,” Dao Lord Blackwater confirmed. “There are all sorts of individuals. Archers. Generals. Bounty hunters. Angels. Even devils qualify.”

“There are both humans and demons,” Elder Ling said. “But I see that it’s mostly humans that are qualified. I see Daoists, demigods, demons, and even rankers.” One figure stood out to him, an archer wielding a golden bow with an aura that was much stronger than a ranker should have. “Archer of Aeons? Is it a new class?”

“It’s unique,” Blackwater said. “Out of the hundreds of figures here, only about twenty are rankers. All have never-before-seen classes that I suspect costs their goddess more than she gains. They have the strength of Dao Lords as rankers, though fortunately, their growth is much slower than is common for rankers.”

Elder Ling frowned but said nothing as Blackwater led him past the pillars. He noted a pillar along the way, a scholarly man who wore glasses and a suit.

“This is one of Hardi Dej’s,” said Blackwater.

“What a little monster,” Elder Ling said as he sifted through his deeds. He was a general who cared for nothing but money. His aura was as powerful as the archer’s.

Elder Ling suddenly thought of someone else. Would Cha Ming be here? He cast out his senses and found the boy’s likeness closer to the front. Though his aura wasn’t as strong as the prior two, there was a quality to it. It continuously broke apart anything near it, but repaired them right away.

“Interesting lad, isn’t he?” Dao Lord Blackwater said, noting his gaze. “Same with the girl beside him, Yu Wen.”

Elder Ling hadn’t noticed her before, but now that he looked at her, his jaw slackened. Whereas Cha Ming’s aura was like a mixture of hot and cold, of breaking and remaking, the girl’s aura was ethereal. The ink that made her was transparent as mist. She had a thousand times more runes than anyone else, and other likenesses trembled in her presence.

“I wanted to take her as my student, but she refused me. Three times, no less.”

“How is this even possible?” Elder Ling asked.

“Note her age,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “Not her physical age, but the age of her memories.”

“Ah… a reincarnator,” Elder Ling said. “I’m surprised you didn’t insist on taking her in.”

“To what end?” Blackwater asked, shrugging. “All here have a chance at something great. To be part of a wonderful story that will determine the life and death of this realm. To my knowledge, each of these have a chance at saving or ending us. Their choices will determine who they become and what they can accomplish, and as time passes, some will be added, and others will vanish.”

“What of South Sea’s protégé?” Elder Ling asked. This was, after all, the second reason he’d been looking for Blackwater. First, to inquire about his health, and second, to seek guidance on a difficult matter.

“You’re not happy with him, I take it?” Blackwater asked. He motioned to the very front of the assembly of pillars. There, before all of them, stood a tyrant. He was imposing, and merely standing in his presence made one’s hair stand on end. His deeds spoke volumes, as vicious as they were, and the characters surrounding him glowed with a destructive light that sought to overtake everything. This person was a natural conqueror, one that could unify entire planes of existence.

“Thus far, he’s in the lead,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “He’s not the strongest, but he makes up for it with his unique cultivation method. It’s a soul-cultivation method he obtained from his soul-bound treasure called Black Heart of the Conqueror. The more he conquers, the more he grows. He already greatly exceeds Dao Gods of the same cultivation level.”

“He’s getting out of hand, Blackwater,” Elder Ling said. “He’s pure evil. You know that, don’t you?”

“He spills rivers of blood, if not oceans,” Dao Lord Blackwater agreed. “Alas, you won’t be able to do a thing to him.”

“I could kill him in an instant if you distracted South Sea,” Elder Ling said.

“Perhaps,” Dao Lord Blackwater said cryptically. “Why don’t you try this first: Try locking on to his aura. Do so with the intent of tracking him down and killing him.”

Elder Ling frowned, but Dao Lord Blackwater insisted. “Anyone here can be tracked, and you won’t come to any harm if you know what’s good for you. Go on. Try.”

Elder Ling knew where Cao Wenluan was and did not need to do this, but he listened to his mentor. He used the force of his soul and his law tapestry to perform a divination. Almost immediately, he felt something push back: a cold and deadly presence.

He felt a smothering feeling that originated from the very core of the Inkwell Plane. It was a threat that he understood intuitively. It warned him that, should he try following through on his intentions, he would regret it dearly.

Things didn’t stop there. The longer he looked, the more he felt strings of karma rearranging themselves in such ways that Cao Wenluan would be shielded in some way or another. Elder Ling watched as old figures hidden in the woodwork suddenly woke from their seclusion, wondering if they should perhaps go on a trip near where Cao Wenluan was located. For completely unrelated reasons, of course.

The moment he pulled his soul force back and ended the divination, the feeling left him. Karmic threads returned to normal.

Blackwater chuckled at his reaction. “Now you see?”

“I do,” Elder Ling said. “The plane is protecting him.”

“It’s protecting all of them,” Dao Lord Blackwater explained. “The plane clearly wants to generate a few more powerhouses in the short term, and as such is shielding them from the older generation, giving them room to grow. Old farts like us will find ourselves making enemies if we try to interfere. In fact, getting involved could have the opposite effect. You cannot harm South Sea’s disciple, and neither can he harm yours. The same applies to the few inkborn here, and even the demigods in Slovana. The Inkwell Ancestor’s will lingers in this Scriptorium. As for why she wants such things to happen, no one is certain.”

“There must be a reason,” Elder Ling said. “The plane’s will might just be a shadow of the ancestor, but such things will consume that will quickly. These actions will accelerate the destruction of the realm.”

“I wish I knew the reason, but I don’t,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “All I know is what I heard from the Scriptorium’s Keeper. Apparently, it has to do with setting up a good story.” He held his hand out past the pillars toward an open space where many likenesses were interacting. One group consisted of Cao Wenluan, Silver Fish, Daoist Eternal Song, and someone Elder Ling recognized as Xing Tianlong, who sometimes liked to go by the alias Captain Xing to free himself of his princely shackles.

There were other groups, some with only demigods and others with demons. One last group stood out to Elder Ling. It had a large assortment of individuals, including Cha Ming, the girl called Yu Wen, and Cha Ming’s demon companion, Huxian. There were even a few inkborn, that archer Blackwater had pointed out, and the evil man with the glasses. This story was just in its beginning phases, but for some reason, it was front and center.

“I have only gleaned a few rules in my time here,” Blackwater said. “First, no interference from the older generation. Second, these people will have abnormally strong karmic influence and will naturally be drawn together, for better or for worse. Third, by killing another character, one gains a portion of their influence.”

As if to punctuate that statement, one of the likenesses at the center began to tremble. It was in the group with Silver Fish and Cao Wenluan. He wasn’t anyone Elder Ling recognized, but at this present moment, he looked especially pitiable.

The trembling continued for a few minutes until suddenly, it broke apart. Its story was repurposed, and its ink sprites poured into Cao Wenluan’s likeness, adding to his aura.

“What are we allowed to do?” Elder Ling asked. He did not like the situation, but he wasn’t brave enough to fight the Inkwell Plane’s influence head on.

“We can guide them,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “Encourage their growth. Promote their strength, with limits. There are many unguided talents here, West Sea, and they will eventually all clash with each other. As far as I can tell, there are many suitable individuals to foster if your goal is to take down Cao Wenluan.”

Elder Ling frowned. “How long do we have?”

“Who knows?” Blackwater said. “The plane is feeding these few hundred its remaining destiny. Whether that leaves us a few thousand years or a few hundred, I can’t say.”

Elder Ling shuddered at the thought. The Inkwell Plane was not in the best of shape. And he knew that Dao Lord Blackwater erred on the side of optimism for matters like these. “I’ll consider it.”

“Please do,” Dao Lord Blackwater said. “This is the plane’s last chance. Also, remember that not everyone here is a potential savior.”

Only then did Elder Ling remember one of the Inkwell Ancestor’s core teachings: for there to be heroes, there had to be villains.

 

***

 

Far away from the Inkwell Plane, and on an entirely different level of existence, the immortal realms were in a state of turmoil. The Eternal War was on hold, and the humans and demons had called a temporary ceasefire. It was madness, and only geniuses like Elder Zhong would ever see it as a problem.

Even gods of opposing alignments were ignoring their games and paying very little attention to their mortals. In the short term, this was a relief to the masses, but in the long term, Elder Zhong knew this was just turning off the relief valve on a cheap pressure cooker. If you weren’t careful, it would blow up in your face.

Elder Zhong was a profiteer, and the collaboration between good and evil was very bad for business. Moreover, it was difficult for him to justify his absence since the leaders of every faction under the heavens were involved.

Having upset too many people, and having absurdly high control over space-time compared to other Daoists, Elder Zhong had been relegated to cleanup and maintenance duty in Diyu. It was a punishment of sorts, or so the official story went. As for the real reason he was here, there would be time to explore that. It was always possible to spare a bit of time here or there if you were economical about it.

One of Elder Zhong’s incarnations was currently flying over a burning sector of Diyu. Its ancient yet modern-looking buildings lay in ruins, and trillions of its ghostly citizens were… dead? He wasn’t sure how it worked with ghostly life-forms. Many more had been evacuated on sanctuary-class ships, because unfortunately, the disaster wasn’t over. Wave upon wave of outsiders were surging through the thousands of rifts that had yet to be closed and sealed.

“Elder Zhong, you’re needed in sector BX-759,” a voice spoke through his portable communication assistant. “A single incarnation. Medium exertion.” The speaker was none other than the ever-capable Time Adjudication Empress, who also went by the name Lily and worked as Yama’s chief administrative assistant.

She was also Elder Zhong’s estranged daughter, which made working under her direction somewhat awkward. But Elder Zhong had lived a long time. He was experienced, and if this was how she chose to interact with him, so be it. He prepared himself and jumped through time and space.

With a flicker, Elder Zhong’s incarnations appeared just outside BX-759, where a pack of wolflike creatures as tall as skyscrapers was tearing at the fabric of reality. “Incarnation 257 on location,” the incarnation said.

“Proceed with quarantine,” Lily instructed from her position in central command.

Elder Zhong’s incarnation formed hand seals and mustered his immortal energy to summon nine heavenly pillars. Their appearance caused the chaotic space and time to stabilize and fold over, creating a perimeter around his targets. He didn’t worry about the buildings, because either their residents had been evacuated or they were already dead.

The wolves were outsiders, not demons. On the lower planes, they were also known as fiends. All beings native to this universe detested them instinctively. Since they had dared journey from another world, these creatures were all very sensitive to space-time manipulation, so they instantly sensed what he was up to. The moment the pillars landed, they let out a communal howl, and the resulting sound waves nearly destroyed Elder Zhong’s incarnation. If not for the precautionary quarantine, the nearest hundred sectors would have been destroyed. Lily’s judgment had always been impeccable in that regard. It was something he attributed to the Zhong side of the family.

Now that they were sealed off from the outside world, it was just him and the wolves in their makeshift gladiatorial arena. He’d clearly underestimated his opponents, so he adjusted the amount of power available to this incarnation. “Requesting assistance,” Elder Zhong sent to Lily.

“Denied,” Lily answered. “The locusts have returned, so our primary fighting force is busy. Reallocate five incarnations to strengthen this one and eliminate the threat on your own.”

“What a thankless job,” Elder Zhong muttered. “Can’t you show a bit of favoritism to your old man?”

Lily didn’t answer, but he counted it as a win. Still, he did as instructed and took in a deep breath. Five incarnations that weren’t currently locked in battle faded from existence and filled this incarnation with strength. It was now six times stronger than his original body, thanks to the wonderful powers of Space-Time Superimposition.

The wolves began circling him like they were actual animals. They sniffed the air and the void to prove his weaknesses but came back empty-handed. Elder Zhong decided it would be poetic to use the power of a wolf to deal with this wolf pack, so he drew a bone-white blade with a star on its pommel.

“Fang of Sirius the Star Wolf, heed my call,” Elder Zhong said. The star and the runes engraved on the wolf-tooth object glowed in affirmation. “Star Wolf Sword Art First Stance: The Star Wolf Howls!”

He charged into the pack. The wolf fang in his hands let out a keening sound that froze time and space. He appeared in the middle of the pack via teleportation and swept the sword fang in a wide arc, marking each of the outsiders with a seal that pierced through their natural law defenses and locked down spatial travel.

The wolves weren’t slouches. Two appeared in his periphery. No, that’s not right. They appeared in the past in response to my being here and are trying to flank me in non-spatial dimensions. It was admittedly a tricky move, but to a veteran like him, such juvenile actions were very easy to see through.

All it took was a slight adjustment to his past technique, and the Star Wolf Howls was still able to catch them despite their time transposition. The technique also had a knockback effect, so the two wolves were sent flying back, bleeding stereotypical black blood from their shark-toothed muzzles.

The Star Wolf Sword Art had been around for aeons, so it had an additional effect. Sirius was a twin star, after all, so it was only fitting that each stance have two abilities. Seven projections of the Sirius the Star Wolf appeared above the battle and howled at the jade moon in unison, causing the outsiders to bleed from their ears, eyes, and nose.

Their leader, enraged by the surprise attack, suddenly sprouted sickle-shaped blades from his body. They were space-aligned weapons, and their appearance shattered what was left of the buildings in the sealed quadrant.

“Did you catch that?” Elder Zhong asked.

“Yes, Lord Yama confirms that this is a pack of sickle-fur void wolves,” Lily intoned. “You’ll find their fur quite impenetrable, even with your mastery over space-time. They have seven weaknesses in total, but their regenerative abilities are so high that you’ll need to attack them simultaneously to put them down. Sending over specifications.” Information on sickle-fur void wolves instantly surged in Elder Zhong’s mind.

Time was money, so Elder Zhong acted rather than wait. He held up his sword and bellowed, “Second Stance: The Pack Leader Cripples!” He swung the sword fang seven consecutive times, and each swing projected a blade of energy that struck a different wolf and predictably glanced off their fur.

“You missed,” Lily said flatly.

“I didn’t,” Elder Zhong said with certainty. “Learn to trust the boots on the ground, girl.” Inwardly, he was quite delighted that she was paying attention.

“Then…”

“Watch,” Elder Zhong said smugly.

The wolves had morphed into monstrosities of sharp void metal to execute a combination technique. It was a natural formation of sorts, and just being surrounded by them slowed Elder Zhong down.

Elder Zhong charged into this mess of metal and void and began to land simple strikes on their metallic fur. He didn’t strike to wound. The Pack Leader Cripples was a debuff that relied on cumulative attacks to take effect. With every strike, the wolves became slower and weaker, which would in turn grant him more openings.

The elder Daoist was far too fast, so the wolves had a hard time attacking him physically. Conversely, Elder Zhong had a very easy time hitting them, because he didn’t aim for their bodies directly but struck them through slits in space.

The enemy pack leader began to grow frustrated. It didn’t take a genius to realize that the situation was quickly turning unfavorable. It could only charge in rather than hold back as it usually would; if it dealt enough damage to Elder Zhong, the curse would naturally unravel. Little did it know that doing so would trigger the second effect of the Pack Leader Cripples, hitting him with a time-freezing effect for a half second.

A half second was an eternity in a battle like this. Elder Zhong grinned and struck. “Third Stance: Leaderless They Fall!” The star on his sword pommel glowed with a devastating energy that could only be activated seven times in a single day. The strike was very easy to avoid and not great for precision work, but when your enemy was frozen…

Of course, he wasn’t one to leave anything to chance. He knew of a few other abilities the wolf could possess, so he drew on some of the many treasures he’d accumulated over the aeons. He flicked his sleeve, and dozens of binding treasures poured out onto the surprised pack leader from his personal pocket dimension. Chains of Godly Imprisonment. A Seven Emotions Sealing Pagoda. A literal mountain he’d picked up from some corner of the immortal realms. They all slammed down on the creature simultaneously, stunning it so that it couldn’t use its substitution ability.

There was also a chance that the pack itself could intervene, so Elder Zhong sent out a silver ocean at them, sealing all of them in place. The duration of such an effect was only another half second, as they were resistant to such treasures, but the delay was enough for Elder Zhong to use his signature ability: Lord of the Middle Realm.

The incarnation’s energy stores plummeted as time slowed to a crawl, then began to flow in reverse. Elder Zhong began to move backward in time, and since he knew exactly where his fiendish opponent would be and when, he executed Leaderless They Fall a second time, simultaneously with the first execution. He reentered the flow of time beside his original self and was immediately punished by reality for messing with the flow of time.

Lily had mentioned seven strikes were necessary, so he repeated the process, bringing him up to four strikes. He did so again, bringing it up to six, and executed the seventh and last strike alongside three copies of himself going forward in time. The outsider didn’t even have time to howl in agony as the seven strikes sank in. Elder Zhong’s three copies disappeared as they entered the flow of time to feed his current incarnation.

It was all very complicated, and it involved getting hit upside the head by the will of the universe, but the end result was that the pack leader was dead. Its corpse fell to the ground just as its pack broke free of the ocean’s freezing restriction. With their leader gone, the sickle-fur void wolves were easy work, and moments later, only seven corpses remained. Seven very poisonous corpses that needed to be disposed of immediately.

“Stupid corrosive outsider blood,” Elder Zhong muttered. It was a pity to destroy such high-energy materials using space-time grinding, but many had tried to put such materials to use, only to suffer corruption from outsider sources and get struck down by the universe’s immune system.

Once the area was clean, he turned his attention back to what was left of the sector. “Reverse,” he commanded. The sector flowed backward in time, with the notable absence of all living creatures, including the wolves but also those who had been killed before they could evacuate. Buildings that had taken tens of years to build restored themselves to how they’d been roughly twenty-four standard immortal days ago, and once he was satisfied at their state, Elder Zhong unsealed the sector, merging it back with its original location, the Spectral Plane, Diyu.

“Targets annihilated. Splitting off incarnations and recovering. Standing by.”

“Please scout as convenient as I formulate new orders,” Lily said.

Freedom at last, Elder Zhong thought. He relaxed this portion of his mind in preparation of what would come next. After all, cleanup duty was just a cover for his real purpose: investigating the cause of all this.

One might think that he would resent such a duty, but Elder Zhong relished it. He’d always wanted to be a detective, for one, and for another, he wanted to figure out who was responsible for wasting all his valuable time. Time was money, and he was losing out big while this matter dragged out. If he ever found the culprit, he would skin them.

I’ve already ruled out most of the buddhas and hauntings, Elder Zhong thought as he flew. Wherever he looked, he used a technique called Eye of a Thousand Days. It enabled him to see things not as they were but how they had been up to five hundred days prior. Conversely, he could also see how things would likely be five hundred days going forward, but he’d found that ability pretty useless and mostly ignored it.

This ability was the single greatest reason Elder Zhong had accumulated so much wealth. Yama knew it. The other big shots knew it. But no one could do anything about it, and no one had ever replicated the technique. It had many advantages over time traveling, because time traveling was risky since whoever was responsible for changes had to physically bear the backlash of any changes. Even legendary figures like Bagua Hushao would never dare go too far back.

Elder Zhong’s completely overpowered ability was now being used to observe ghosts fleeing an explosion created by lizard-type outsiders that had found a weak spot in Diyu’s defenses. Billions died in reverse as he zeroed in on the event’s origins.

As usual, there was nothing worth noting. It was always nothing. That’s what made it so darned suspicious.

“So…” Elder Zhong said. “What have you been up to lately, dearest?”

“We’re working, so please stick to professional topics, Elder Zhong,” Lily answered flatly.

“A little back and forth wouldn’t hurt our collaboration,” Elder Zhong countered.

“I disagree,” Lily said. “In fact, I predict it would most likely harm it.”

“Maybe a little?”

“No.”

“A few sentences?”

“No.”

He continued prodding until he felt he’d worn her down enough, and then proceeded to what he really wanted to talk about. “Lily?”

“What?”

“This is an inside job, isn’t it?”

There was a pause on the other end, then a sigh. “We don’t see how else this was possible,” Lily replied. “The amount of outsider attacks is unprecedented, and the damage to the cycle of reincarnation is devastating. The universe’s source of energy has already suffered great and irreparable harm.”

“Well, wouldn’t that leave some sort of karmic imprint?” Elder Zhong asked. “From what I understand, the universe doesn’t take kindly to that sort of tampering.”

“We’ve found nothing of note,” Lily answered. “Which is why we requested your assistance. We can’t have this going on for much longer, or else the entire universe might consider wiping out all life via catastrophe as a preventative measure.”

Elder Zhong shook his head. “I’m not going to find anything, girl.” She began to protest, but he silenced her. “I’ve been working on this since the beginning and haven’t gotten anywhere.”

“Then do you recommend ceasing the investigation?” Lily asked. “That is a valid course of action, naturally. You call the shots on this, Elder Zhong. No one else can do better.”

Elder Zhong was tempted, of course, but the cycle of reincarnation’s destruction and all life getting destroyed was pretty bad for business. “I didn’t say we should stop, just that we need to stop being so inefficient. I loathe waste, and my business is suffering. I’m sure Yama can sympathize.”

“We’re cut from the same cloth, you and I,” Yama said, cutting into their conversation. “What are your thoughts, Elder Zhong? I’ve seen much in my life, but nothing like this.”

“Well,” Elder Zhong said, licking his lips and trying to recall as much as he could from the many mystery novels he’d read. “Typically, investigators rely on a few tools for their work. First, they look for hard evidence, which to date we haven’t found. Then they look for testimony, which we also haven’t obtained.

“We haven’t found anything between the two of us—which, in my opinion, is mindboggling. Three hauntings and three buddhas, all of whom hate each other, have also not found anything through karmic inference.

“Therefore, I can only suggest total reliance on the third approach.”

“Which is?” Yama asked.

“Examining motive and capability,” Elder Zhong said. “This is a costly undertaking, Lord Yama. Rallying so many outsiders and revealing so many vulnerabilities in our realm simultaneously would require significant planning. Moreover, the risks involved with damaging the universe’s source energy is astronomical. The slightest hiccup would lead to instant death, even for the strongest Primordial. So, to start things off, I’d like to ask you a sensitive question: Do you have any enemies?”

Yama thought for a moment before answering. “The buddhas and the hauntings have always had it out for me. It’s possible that one or two of them might try something against me or the cycle of reincarnation. As a group, they are incapable of a united conspiracy.”

“But it’s possible that some of them could be in on it,” Elder Zhong said. “What about from the outside?”

“Rival reapers could want to take over my realm, I suppose,” Yama said. “I have been monopolizing the place. But I would detect them, I think. Unless it was a reaper of a far greater rank. I did upset a fair number of people, both in my undergraduate and graduate studies. My thesis was not well received.

“That being said, reapers are very susceptible to karmic retribution of physical realities. They are unlikely to attempt something like this. Aside from reapers, that would leave only outsiders, which are the natural enemies of all reapers. I don’t know any who would bear a grudge, since I killed them all, but there is a remote possibility that some slipped through the cracks aeons ago and have somehow infiltrated our society.”

Elder Zhong’s brow creased. “How could they hide for so long?”

“It’s not unheard of,” Yama said. “Some creatures specialize in it. They are very careful with their actions, since every harmful act they commit will bring them one step closer to exposure.”

“I see,” Elder Zhong said. “Well, I have no suspects of note.” As in, he had suspects, but he didn’t want to scare them off. “This brings us to capability. There are few in the universe with the capability to evade the universe’s karmic retribution and ignore my Eye of a Thousand Days. That’s not even mentioning your vast abilities as a reaper. In my opinion, everyone who fits the criteria should be investigated.”

“I can think of a few…” Yama said. “You could do it. So could I.”

“I can’t investigate myself, but if you want to, feel free,” Elder Zhong said dryly.

Yama ignored the jibe. “Two of the buddhas could do it. Mahātmā is skilled in karma. Siddhārtha Gautama has many lives to draw on. Though I doubt he would ever consider something so drastic. Two of the hauntings, the Haunting of Aeons Past and the Haunting of Darkest Night, would be able to avoid detection. A few Primordials also make the cut. The Time-Shackling Nine-Tailed Fox, for instance, as well as the Myriad Universe Leviathan.”

“Aren’t those two a bit… you know… big?” Elder Zhong asked.

“They can shrink down to the size of a grain of sand if they wish to,” Yama said. “They maintain their larger forms for posturing, and very few have ever seen them shrink. As for gods and immortals, normal gods aren’t powerful enough. There are about ten eternal emperors who could attempt such a feat, but I doubt they’d have the ability to manage the situation.

“As for immortals… Well, there’s you. And one other.”

“Daoist Obscurus,” Elder Zhong said.

“So impatient,” Yama said. “Don’t think I didn’t see how you’ve been railroading the entire conversation just to bring up his name.”

“I admit that I have,” Elder Zhong said. “We’ve never seen eye to eye, he and I, and there’s something wrong about him.”

“The wrongness is simply an anomaly in the universal laws,” Yama dismissed. “I’ve inspected him countless times, and he’s been very cooperative.”

“Then where is he now?” Elder Zhong asked.

“Investigating, just like you are,” Yama said.

Of course he is, Elder Zhong thought.

“But you have a point,” Yama continued. “He mentioned you by name as well, so I would be remiss not to investigate both of you in detail. Again.”

Elder Zhong’s face fell. Damn it all, he thought. This is why I hate this kind of job. Whenever Yama called Elder Zhong, he always called Obscurus too.

“I’m only trying to resolve the situation as quickly as possible,” Elder Zhong said. “I would never focus on grudges when so much is at stake.”

“And I appreciate that, and I’m thankful for all your efforts,” Yama said. “It should all be over soon, in



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