HEARTFORGE

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PROLOGUE

 

In a deep, dark corner of the universe that was far removed from most material planes, there existed a world that was perpetually wreathed in shadow. No sun shone there, no matter the time of year, and no moon ever graced its skies.

This world was not as barren a wasteland as some might think. Its core produced more than enough heat to sustain it, and the many ley lines crossing through it produced large amounts of heaven and earth energy. It was a proper transcendent plane in that it could support creatures through the three middle realms of cultivation and support ascension.

Where this plane differed from others was that darkness was the predominant form of energy, and all native creatures had adapted to it. It was also difficult to find for a transcendent plane, so few people ascended.

A lone traveler was treading upon a lone mountain path. Like the many creatures lurking in the mountains, his eyes were closed, and there was no telling what extra senses he was relying on to navigate the treacherous terrain.

He walked at a ponderous pace, and somehow always knew where to step. He did not step on a single one of the hundreds of demons burrowed inches beneath the soil around him, waiting to impale unwary travelers with their single horn.

Some might think luck had something to do with it, but any who knew this individual were aware that his luck was far from stellar. Few people remembered him, but those who did would not be surprised to see him suddenly stop amidst the hundreds of demons and send out six shadowy awls that pierced half a dozen of them in the small of the neck.

The man had dark hair, dark eyes, and even darker lips. He wore a dark robe, and some might even call him handsome, assuming they remembered his gender. He was extremely easy to forget, but those who remembered him would recall seeing shadows hugging him, like a royal cloak that separated him from the common people.

“Six blighthorn lizards,” the man muttered to himself in a dark voice that didn’t travel far. “Not bad. Enough for meal.” He took out an obsidian knife and lopped off their horns, then gutted each of them before adding them to a thick chain around his waist.

I don’t know why you even bother, a voice told him as continued along his way. They’ll hardly put a dent in your appetite. You need to eat something bigger. Better. Stronger.

The man ignored that voice. He also ignored the gnawing hunger in his belly. The sky was currently light gray. In this world, that meant early evening, when the ambient water in the atmosphere cooled and shrouded the land in mist. The mist would grow thicker as the evening progressed and would only ease up in the earliest hours of the morning, when the plane’s many volcanoes erupted and painted the skies in a shade of red not much different from black.

The man was tired after a day of traveling, so he decided to strike camp. He was an old hand at living in the wilderness, as he had done so ever since ascending.

He didn’t like civilized places. Not because there were people, but because people brought trouble. Or, to be more accurate, he brought trouble where people were, and had done so for as long as he could remember. Which was only about four or five years, assuming his memory wasn’t failing him again.

Despite the dense mist, rain wasn’t common in this land, and even if it had been, rain never seemed to find him. There was no need to make a shelter. He lit an open fire using a clump of spark moss and dried mushrooms. The fire was bright and warmed the darkness in his heart.

He cooked and ate the blighthorn lizards mechanically. They were chewy, stringy, and unappetizing. The voice was right, they weren’t at all filling, but he ate them to keep the gnawing hunger at bay.

You’re fooling yourself again, the voice told him. Buying time is one thing, but this is just pathetic. Suppressing your appetite won’t fix anything. You need to eat. Eat!

You think I don’t know that? the man shot back at the voice, immediately feeling silly doing so. After all, the voice wasn’t a stranger, but a part of him. It went where he went, and there was no avoiding it.

He wondered if the voice was a consequence of the hunger or the loneliness. He hadn’t laid eyes on a human being for two months. Coincidentally, he hadn’t eaten anything substantial in the past two months. Were they related? He couldn’t remember, and until he did, trying to visit another city again was off the table. Not that it was ever a particularly pleasant experience.

Time passed, and the misty pallor of evening deepened. Whatever redness was left in the sky was completely obscured by it, thereby fulfilling the basic conditions of what could be considered night.

In the end, he did not have to go looking for trouble because trouble came looking for him. It was easy for him to detect the many footsteps that tried their best not to produce a sound.

He counted fifteen—no, seventeen—cultivators. Fifteen of them hid while the other two walked up to him. They wore the cheerful expressions of pleasantly surprised travelers meeting a familiar face after a long journey home.

“Is there room for two travelers at your fire, friend?” the female member of the pair said. She leaned into her male companion ever so slightly, and whatever incongruence there was in the picture was washed away by her deceitfully bright expression.

“Go away. Do it now,” the man said, poking at the embers of his fire. “You picked the wrong target, and I’m in no mood for killing.”

The woman’s expression stiffened. “Whatever do you mean?” Meanwhile, the others didn’t even wait for her signal. Arrows shot out of the woods alongside Daoist techniques. Flying swords, talismans, daggers, and tamed beasts, all wreathed in shadows, emerged to take advantage of the darkness of the night.

The log the man had been sitting on splintered. The campfire went out. The last two lizards, which were almost roasted to perfection, were blown to pieces. Even the grass and dirt was torn up, which was why it was so surprising that the man himself was unaffected.

What’s going on? one of the bandits said.

I don’t know, another said. We clearly hit him, but he doesn’t look hurt. Or is it a woman? Wait, why can’t I remember what he looks like?

It’s like all those things we threw passed into him and never came out, another said. They were speaking mentally, but the man’s soul senses were powerful. To him, they might as well have been shouting.

“You destroyed my dinner,” the man said.

“Yeah, well, we’re going to be destroying a lot more than that,” one of the bandits shot back. He stared at a spot three feet away, because even now, he couldn’t get a lock on the man’s position. “Ranged attacks are no good. It must be a phasing ability. Melee combat is our best option.”

The few demons and demigods in their group joined the fight. Out of seventeen members, six of them specialized in melee combat. One wielded a large staff, another a vicious blade, and three others used standard short swords and bucklers common amongst military deserters.

Before they could even get within a foot of him, they were forcibly stopped by dozens of shadowy awls and their chains.

“Wh-what?”

All six of the bandits had stopped, as they’d all been shot through the abdomen simultaneously. None of them had seen it coming.

“Limit breaks!” the person that was presumably their leader said. They did not hesitate to do so, because by now, it was clear they’d kicked an iron plate.

If it were another situation, the man might have walked way and not killed anyone. He did not enjoy slaughtering lesser cultivators, even those who provoked him. But today, he did not ignore them. He could not ignore them. He was hungry and had been for so long, and fresh food had walked right into his encampment and given him a good excuse not to pity it.

He exerted the slightest bit of his power, and their divine abilities started to fail. Their techniques fizzled, and their domains were torn apart. As for their weapons and armor, his awls and chains made short work of them before piercing into fresh bodies and sucking the life out of them.

What remained of his victims were wilted flesh bags, but even those did not have much substance to them. They began to fade into the darkness of the plane as though they had never existed.

It was a short, horrifying slaughter. It didn’t even qualify as a battle. In less than a minute, the fight was over, and not a trace of blood remained. Neither did their treasures, or even signs of their passage, for that matter. It was as though they’d never been at all.

“A monster, they called me,” the cloaked man said as he started another fire. “I suppose I am, at that.” He remembered being human at one point, but it was more of a lingering feeling than anything else. It was one of five things he remembered from before his amnesia settled in, alongside ice and fire, a smile, and a red dress.

There was one last thing he remembered: his name. Even if others didn’t remember it, he did. He clung to it with every ounce of his will, even as the hunger gnawed away at what remained of his personality.

His name was Wang Jun.

“I see your powers of devouring have increased again,” a voice that was not a voice said as Wang Jun poked at the fresh fire.

Wang Jun rose and bowed to a figure only he could see. “Master,” he greeted with a bow. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence?”

The immortal known as Daoist Obscurus looked at Wang Jun with an unreadable expression. “How long have you been on this world, Wang Jun?”

The man—he was a man, right?—tried to search his memories but couldn’t quite remember. “Maybe four years?”

“You ascended not long before that. To reach the peak of rune gathering in such a short time is nothing short of spectacular,” Daoist Obscurus said. “I need you to continue as you’ve been doing. Keep growing. Keep getting stronger. Before, I said soon, but now I have something a little more concrete. I have a deadline now: two hundred years. Within two hundred years, you will ascend.”

“Two hundred years…” Wang Jun repeated. It didn’t seem like a long time, given how quickly he’d cultivated to this point. Then again, how long had he cultivated for?

“Do not underestimate the difficulty of this task,” Daoist Obscurus said. “It is imperative that you ascend to the immortal realms during this timeframe.”

“Remember?” Wang Jun barely heard his words, however, because something stirred inside him. He dug deep into his mind… and found nothing. Nothing where there should be something. A nauseating sensation struck him and almost knocked him off his feet.

Daoist Obscurus looked at him for a time, then sighed. “Don’t think of the past, Wang Jun. It is a painful thing to remember for beings like you and me. And besides, it was you who asked for this. It was you who wanted to forget.”

“Did I?” Wang Jun asked, straightening his back.

“I think you know the answer in your heart,” Daoist Obscurus said. “Modifying the memories of creatures like us… is extremely difficult. The only way I could manage it was with your consent, and at a great price.”

The mention of memory modification jogged Wang Jun’s own patchwork of memories. This question had actually come up fairly often, and as such, he’d conducted memory experiments and had delved into memory manipulation—on others, and on himself.

The desire to know who he was—what he was—had driven him to do terrible things. He’d therefore boxed up these memories and stored them away for later.

Manipulating the memories of other cultivators was easy. Too easy. But affecting his own? Storing them was a trick, but it was not the same as forgetting. No matter what he tried, he was unable to forget.

Wang Jun would not get to the bottom of this today, so he asked a more pertinent question. “Is there a reason for this timeline?”

“A plan has been set in motion, and for the foreseeable future, the leader of the Seven Hellish Sovereigns, the Curse Sovereign, will be indisposed,” Daoist Obscurus said. “It is therefore the perfect time to ascend into his territory and infiltrate it. Although I can come and go anywhere as I please, there are a few individuals that can sense me. Moreover, I am currently being watched by these troublesome individuals for things I may have done.”

There was only one way to answer a command from his master. He clasped his hands together and bowed low. “I will do as you asked without fail, Master. Within two hundred years, I will break through and ascend to the immortal realms.”

“Very good, my disciple,” Daoist Obscurus said. “It has been quite a long time since my last visit. Did you have any questions? I see doubt in your eyes.”

Wang Jun shifted uncomfortably. He thought about the ups and downs of asking this question and decided it would do no harm. “The will of this world is uncomfortable with my presence. It rejects me. It hates me. Even after all these years.”

“And unfortunately, this will continue to be the case,” Daoist Obscurus said. “Once you enter the law-stitching realm, however, you will be able to obscure the heavens more deliberately. For now… bear with it.” Daoist Obscurus hesitated a bit before adding to his statement. “Once you the reach law-stitching realm, you will be able to walk among them, Wang Jun. You will be able to visit their cities and interact with them as you wish. It’s only…”

“Only what?” Wang Jun asked.

Daoist Obscurus expression was unreadable. “I just wonder if you’ll truly enjoy their company, that’s all. It’s your life, no matter your obligations to me.” There was loneliness in his voice. Or her voice? Wang Jun was becoming increasingly uncertain about that. His master had once felt like a father figure, but now he—or she—felt more like a sibling than anything else. A far older sibling.

“Did something happen?” Wang Jun asked. He did not often ask about his master’s personal affairs.

Daoist Obscurus shrugged and let out a soft sigh. “I spent much time among humanity back in the day. Aeons, in fact. I found friends. I found allies. I found company. But in the end, we just didn’t have the same goals. We drifted apart. Those I considered my closest friends became my most hateful enemies. They betrayed me, and I was forced to put an end to them.”

Wang Jun wondered if something similar had happened to him. Was that why he’d abandoned his memories? Why he’d chosen to forget? “Many thanks for sharing your past, Master. Rest assured that I will accomplish my mission.”

“Take care of yourself, Wang Jun,” Daoist Obscurus said. “And call out to me if you have dire need of my assistance. Do you still have my protective treasure?”

“I keep it with me always,” Wang Jun said.

“Then I am relieved,” Daoist Obscurus said. “The umbrella I gave you will not slay your enemies. Neither will it defend against attacks of any kind. But there are few things in this universe that will be able to find you before its power is expended. That includes great beings like immortal emperors, demon monarchs, and Primordials.”

“I could never thank you enough for your care, Master,” Wang Jun said.

Daoist Obscurus shook their head, then vanished, as though they had never existed. Such was the nature of his master. Such was his own nature.

The sudden visit had been a wonderful reprieve, but now that his master was gone once again, Wang Jun felt the loneliness set in. He looked at the patch of wilderness where the bandits had once existed and wondered what it would be like to be normal.

Would these bandits have attacked him, or would have they gone after someone else? Could he have spent a peaceful night in an otherwise restful forest? He sighed. Both because of what had transpired and because of what he knew he had to do. Two hundred years might seem like a long time, but climbing up the ranks would only get harder for him.

He set his sights on a place in the distance. Too far for most humans to see, but well within striking distance.

A group of a hundred bandits were waiting there for the various scouting forces they’d sent out to sweep the woods. Many had returned, but Wang Jun’s attackers had not. They were beginning to wonder if something had happened to them, and whether they should send in a rescue party.

Waiting for them would take far too much time. Wang Jun’s form melted and traveled through the trees and crept into their shadows, which were barely visible beneath the moonless sky.

By the time he was done, there were no traces of them. And no traces of them having come or gone. They weren’t there. They hadn’t been there. They hadn’t been part of this world for many hours.

But they also had been. They’d been going somewhere, and now they… weren’t. There was an inconsistency there. There were many others as well, because it was impossible for a single person to pick up all the stray threads and undo the consequences of such a large raiding party.

It was too much. The inconsistencies were too many.

And the will of the world finally noticed.

 

***

 

Time. It was a mysterious thing, even to Yama. No matter how many aeons passed, no matter how powerful he became, it was difficult to escape its effects.

Time had few constant properties across the many worlds in the multiverse. In general, it passed by more slowly in high-level universes and faster in lower-level ones, and the same applied to high- and low-level planes. Some worlds just flipped that on its head, and time went in reverse.

Contrary to what some might believe, time was full of contradictions. Laypeople couldn’t see it, as in their world, time operated in one direction, and there was no turning it back. But Yama saw it all the time. It happened whenever anything meddled with existence or space too strongly, and whenever creation and destruction conflicted. Quite often, since one was generally not without the other.

Time was also interesting in that it was universally in short supply. There was simply never enough of it. No matter where you went, not matter who you were, that fact never changed. Time was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and even the great beings that could accelerate, freeze, or turn it back were in agreement.

It was for this reason that Yama was currently participating in about twelve video conferences while also writing three different reports. He did so while violent spatial winds buffeted his skeletal body at the prow of his void-faring ship, tossing up his gray hair to dramatic effect.

Behind him, his skeleton crew was working triple overtime, both physically and metaphorically. It was quite literally composed of animated skeletons, and due to personnel shortages, he had to make do with only twenty of them.

The war was over. Diyu had won. Many very competent people were currently picking up the pieces and getting Diyu back into gear. If only there was enough time to put things back in order, to get them right again.

Just looking at his city pained Yama. Leaving it had pained him even more. But he did what he had to because time was something he didn’t have, even as he was here wasting it.

“No. Painter, no. Absolutely not.” He focused on one of the many dream web conversations he was having.

“But, sir…”

“No.”

“If you would only consider—”

“I have considered. Many times more than you’ve lived, young man,” Yama said. I won’t budge on this matter. It’s a slippery slope. Reincarnation Inc. will have nothing to do with your proposal, and neither will Diyu’s government.” With that, he ended the call.

In truth, Yama felt bad for the hardworking ghost. His chief financial officer, Henry, had been given the difficult task of securing additional funding, and he was rising to the occasion. But he was relatively new compared to Yama, and he did not yet know what lines could be crossed and which could not.

Henry was one of the most competent people in existence. He had the perfect temperament and went after funding opportunities faster than a crowd of local musicians. And sometimes, ironically, he ended up with similar results.

“T-shirts. Apparel. Sponsorship.” Yama shook his head. “Yes, it could work. After all, Reincarnation Inc. is the single largest employer in all of Diyu, and in close second is the city’s government. But would it be worth it? There is a price to be paid for using your people as walking advertisements for other companies.”

He could understand the business case for it. It was pragmatic way to raise money, albeit a shortsighted one. Not only would employee morale hit rock bottom, but they would be selling more than just advertising space. Diyu had to remain neutral at all costs.

“I should have given him a crash course on legitimate funding routes,” Yama muttered to himself. “Donations. Fees for services. Taxes. Diplomatic strong-arming and outright political blackmail.” Souls would always find a way into a plane. Yama couldn’t do anything about that. But souls and yin energy accumulating in a single area for an extended period of time? That was catastrophic.

There were other important meetings. Yama sat in on a summary meeting of the many meetings that had taken place on Diyu’s reconstruction, while also reviewing the schedule and ghost-power requirements for the inevitable flooding of the Yellow River.

That last one was especially important. A karmic shift would traditionally result in a backlog of billions of unjudged souls. This one was delayed, so the flooding would be especially bad, and if it wasn’t handled properly, souls would be pushing their way over the Bridge of Forgetfulness and getting shoved through spatial cracks to be reincarnated with memories of their past lives.

There was also the matter of tracking four key individuals who might be responsible for the outsider invasion of Diyu. The first was the Jade Emperor, whom he would be meeting shortly. The second was the emperor’s brother, the Curse Sovereign. The third and fourth were Elder Zhong and Daoist Obscurus. The Jade Emperor and the Curse Sovereign were under scrutiny because the timing coincided with the karmic shift, which they had meddled with, and the last two because they were suspicious as hell.

“Great Lord!” a voice suddenly called out.

“Gahhh! Don’t do that!” Yama snapped at the captain. “Lily, I’m going to have to call you back.” He ended the conversation and glared at the skeleton. “What is it?”

“Great Lord, we have almost arrived,” the skeleton captain intoned.

Yama sighed. “Captain, I’m going to need you to stop calling me Great Lord. It makes me feel like an evil villain in a young adult bestseller.”

“I will do as you say, Great Lord,” the skeleton captain said.

Yama knew it was a lost cause. Animated skeletons were intelligent, and they had personalities, but unfortunately, there was no changing their habits or cognitive makeup after their creation. “Make your preparations,” Yama said. “Steer the ship to my private dock.”

Up ahead was a mountain so large it was impossible to see the whole thing without an Immortal Emperor’s cultivation. It floated in the void like a slow-moving iceberg, never quick enough to collide with the hateful ships that flew by it with great hubris.

At its base floated the single largest city in existence, the Seven Heavens, which consisted of seven floating cities connected by a network of bridges.

There were only seven ways to enter the Seven Heavens. Seven official ways, at least. Each of the seven heavens had a Heavenly Arch, which could only be accessed by angelic cultivators. In theory, this meant that everyone in Heaven was an angel. In practice, people like Yama often came and went on a temporary basis.

“Be sure to dock properly, or Chastity will have my hide,” Yama reminded the captain, who nodded as he executed practiced maneuvers.

Cultivators gaped at the ship. This came as no surprise to Yama. Other ships were built for speed or freight, but Yama’s was built for style and elegance. It did not have the latest technology, because it was a vintage space-pirate-style ship that had been all the rage in diplomatic circles a few aeons back.

Some loved it, while others naturally hated it, though he suspected that had more to do with the ship’s skeleton crew and their distaste for necromancy.

“Visa?” an angel wearing full golden plate asked as Yama’s ship latched onto the dock’s metal flooring. The angel had four pairs of wings—an impressive achievement for any cultivator.

“Just a second,” Yama said. He fished through his robes and found a badge. It was gray with golden engravings and was, to his knowledge, the highest-level diplomatic visa one could find. The angel in question quivered in fear when he saw the badge.

“My apologies for offending you, Lord Yama!” the angel said. He vanished before Yama could even ask about current events.

“Diplomatic visas,” Yama muttered. “Why did they even bother giving me one?” Only a blind man wouldn’t be able to recognize him. No, I fixed that, he remembered. Aeons ago.

Yet he had one, so he’d used it. A visa that granted him complete diplomatic immunity. He could level a city block and not be held accountable. Or even half of one of the seven heavens, though that might get a bit dicey.

The reason behind this was quite simple. Once upon a time, one of Temperance’s people, who were generally good at their judiciary duties, had let a few bad apples sneak through the system. They weren’t bad judges, but they were too good at their job and enforced the law with extreme prejudice.

Once, Yama had parked in the wrong area, and his grav car had been towed. This had not gone over well, and suffice to say that all seven Heavenly Emperors and the Jade Emperor had agreed to never allow Yama to have anything to do with their legal system—ever.

The visa had other privileges. Aside from entering the city via its eighth, unofficial gate, he could skip the long spiel about the city’s many rules because they didn’t apply to him. He waltzed directly past a grumbling crowd of merchants listening to a lecture, then proceeded to fly in his own traffic lane—created on a whim—across the beautiful mix of classic and modern architecture.

The city blurred past him as he broke all kinds of natural laws. Normally, he would teleport, but space was far too stable in a place like this, so it took him hours to cross a city most would take weeks to navigate. Only then did he reach the base of what was called the Jade Mountain, where a path rose up from what was called First Heaven, the level where the gigantic but poorly named city was located.

There was a pathway leading up from First Heaven. One that theoretically no one could ascend from without sufficient merit, wings, angelic values, and whatnot.

Yama ignored that rule and stepped up the path with relative ease. He attracted glares from the devout pilgrims who were struggling to climb the mountain, as if that had anything to do with being a good person or refining their soul.

Well. Maybe for Diligence’s lot. But for anyone else, it was pointless.

The path led up to a second city, Second Heaven, where most of the inhabitants were angels with two pairs of wings. It wasn’t that others couldn’t exist there, but that the mountain would suppress all who didn’t to the point that they couldn’t function. Even the inhabitants would feel some of this pressure, but to them, it would be nourishing. Seven Heavens held some of the best cultivation environments in existence.

There was also a third city, and a fourth, all the way up to the seventh, which was more like a small retirement community than anything else. Only those on the same level as the Heavenly Emperors could reside there, and those old fools were ancient. Their friends and families could come visit them every once in a while, but it was very uncomfortable to do so, and for the most part, they kept their own company.

Yama greeted the few that were present as he climbed past it all without breaking a sweat. As far as he was concerned, these rules didn’t exist. They came from the mountain, but the mountain had no soul.

It was only when he approached Eighth Heaven that he began feeling the pressure. His muscles and tendons came to life as they finally got a decent amount of exercise. But it slowed him down. It took away his time, and to Yama, that was unacceptable.

“My time is precious, Emperor Yu. You would do well not to goad me. Hide in your mountain if you must, but make things difficult for me, and I’ll make you pay.” It was bad enough that the Jade Emperor wasn’t answering his spirit mail or accepting any calls despite the pressing situation in Diyu and the disastrous effects of the karmic shift.

Eighth Heaven, which most cultivators did not know existed, only contained a single palace. Since the creation of the Dao Origin Law of Angelic Ascension, Emperor Yu was the first and only one who’d climbed the mountain without cheating like Yama was doing.

Such a feat was worthy of respect, but it wasn’t enough to stop Yama from kicking down his door, shocking servants and diplomats waiting patiently just behind it.

They wisely chose to retreat when they saw who he was, and Yama, a little embarrassed at having intimidated a bunch of junior immortal emperors, apologized. “Sorry about that. I know my way around. As for the door… Emperor Yu can afford it.”

The Jade Palace wasn’t large, and Yama, being a reaper, could sense all souls in existence. He found the Jade Emperor in his garden, which was filled with all manner of exotic greenery fed by a constant stream of silver liquid that ran down a steep rocky incline before flowing up a waterfall in reverse to repeat the cycle.

Emperor Yu was trimming rosebushes. Not the expensive kind, but the kind that grew in mortal realms. They were very difficult to maintain in places with such dense spiritual energy, and any slipups would result in them gaining sentience.

“Emperor Yu,” Yama said.

The Jade Emperor sighed and stood up. His eight pairs of wings were especially prominent in this place, his seat of power. They were white, not jade, and they floated upon his back like misty streamers.

He was the only angelic cultivator to ever have condensed eight pairs of wings. Conversely, the Curse Sovereign was the only devilish cultivator to have condensed eight pairs of black devilish wings. And despite what some might think, their appearance at roughly the same time was not a coincidence.

“I know why you have come,” the Jade Emperor said. He looked older somehow, despite being an eternal existence. He looked like Yama sometimes did. Weary. Stretched thin.

“I don’t like to impose, but you weren’t answering my calls or messages,” Yama said. “Tell me, Emperor Yu: Is it so hard to pick up? Is it so hard to exchange a few words?”

The Jade Emperor shrugged lazily. “I’ve been out of sorts. And can you blame me? You know what he’s done, and right under your nose.”

It was a good reason to sulk, Yama had to admit. His daughter from a past life had been reincarnated by his evil twin brother and forcefully bound by karma. Though her soul was currently missing, it was only a matter of time until he found her. And when he did…

Yama could only shake his head. “I understand that you are grieving, but this matter is far too important.”

“This is more than grieving. I’m inconsolable,” the Jade Emperor said. “She was my daughter for three hundred thousand immortal years. He crossed a line, and I won’t have it.”

“What would you have me do, Emperor Yu? Find and destroy her?” Yama asked, and immediately regretted it. He took on a gentler tone for his next words. “She was someone else’s daughter before she was yours. It’s something that can’t be changed, for that is her fate. To always change faces and change names. To forever move forward and never backward. To go from one life to the next, never remembering, despite never touching the Bridge of Forgetfulness.”

“And whose fault is that?” the Jade Emperor asked bitterly.

“I could never have predicted this result,” Yama said. “It was my duty to shatter the memory, so I did. I couldn’t have anticipated the results.”

“I understand that you had to shatter the memory, Yama. But you did not have to kill Lady Luo.”

“That was an accident, and you know it,” Yama said “Time is already a difficult thing to grasp, and Lady Luo was the embodiment of it in this universe. If I had been able to predict her actions—a physically impossible feat, by the way—I would have taken a different tack.

“Besides, we’ve had this argument many times in the past. Why now, of all times? Why do you need to do it when my resources are the most strained, and when the universe is reeling from the single largest outsider attack in its history? What’s worse, the karmic shift that was delayed for so long is now occurring. You’re the one who created this mess in the first place. Are you really going to abdicate your responsibilities so easily?”

The Jade Emperor shook his head. “Of course not. You know that I could never do such a thing. Even if I wanted to, my nature wouldn’t allow it. I… I just wanted to make you work for it, old friend. Recent events have opened up wounds that I forgot still bothered me, and I can’t help but feel a little vindictive.”

“So you’ll lend a hand?” Yama asked.

“Of course I will,” the Jade Emperor said. “What you did was unforgivable, Yama, but you have always managed the souls of Diyu with impartiality and dedication. If you require aid, I can only give it to you. You require people with powerful souls that can resist Diyu’s corrosion, and I will provide them. You require guardians to ensure that no one sabotages Diyu a second time, and I will send them over. Moreover…” He smiled ever so slightly. “I still have a lot of frustration to vent, and this happens to be a good way to pass on a few worries to my lesser half. His inherent distrust of me means that for every angel I send, he’ll be compelled to send a devil to prevent any tampering.”

“Of all people, he should know that you’d never risk the cycle of reincarnation,” Yama said.

“But that is his nature,” the Jade Emperor said. “I am ever hopeful, and he is ever doubtful. Return to Diyu, Yama. A host of angels will arrive shortly after you do, and news will mysteriously leak out to the Curse Sovereign. He will then proceed to double your reinforcements.”

“Thank you,” Yama said.

“We have our differences, Reaper, but I won’t let them get in the way of doing the right thing,” the Jade Emperor said. “As for the door… I’m sending you the bill. You need to keep your temper under control, Yama. If not for my sake, for your liver’s.”

Yama took that as his cue to leave. He didn’t bother paying to replace the door, but instead inverted time. The door was as good as new, though everyone present would still remember that at some point he had kicked it in.

It took Yama just as long to fly down the mountain and just as much time to cross First Heaven. Even the Jade Emperor could not facilitate long-range teleportation here.

Once he was safely aboard his pirate ship, he contacted Lily. “He said he’d send us a host of angels, but I never got the details.”

“Malakiel got in touch,” Lily said. “He said a minimum of ten million souls would be arriving. Standard composition.”

“Excellent,” Yama said. “Ten million should do the trick. Especially if Hell sends just as many.”

There was no workforce more motivated than a mixed angel and devil one. Their very natures demanded competition, and that would serve them well in Yama’s cutthroat company.



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