Icy puddles cracked as Zhou Li walked on the hard clay road. It wasn’t hard because it was dry but because of the rain from the night before. It was November—yes, that was the month’s name—in the season called “autumn.” A house burned in the distance, and many tendrils of smoke spewed out from cracks in its distorted walls. There were no screams, nor sounds of alarm. The inhabitants were dead, and their neighbors fast asleep.
He could faintly see the starry sky through the billowing clouds of smoke. The country skies, unpolluted by light and smog, revealed a vivid picture of swirling lights. Through his seer’s eyes, he could see certain trails, certain signs; paths that he must walk but others he mustn’t travel. But watching through the smoke wasn’t perfect. And so he stepped up above the smoke, and then higher. He appeared on the edge of the stratosphere, where he looked back at Earth in contempt. It was an insignificant planet in an unnaturally large mortal plane. The small blue-and-white orb was a useless decoration in the black emptiness of space.
He wasn’t sure why he was here in the first place. It was only a dream, after all. But he knew firsthand how real dreams could be. Ignoring his visions would be both foolish and risky. Therefore, he took his time looking over the planet and its crude, rudimentary technology. It had no conception of spirit, natural energy, and runes. Surrounding it were several planets that orbited around a single sun in the surprisingly large solar system. But despite its impressive size, it was still a drop in the black void surrounding it.
Four groups of stars were particularly noticeable. One represented the Sage, and the vision it had given him previously was one of preemptive action. His time in the Song Kingdom and his rebirth during this period were related to the wise constellation. He’d thought that by striking the Song Kingdom at its weakest point and at many different crucial junctures, they could win over the plane without much effort and bloodshed. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Zhou Li sighed as he recalled the consequences. A karmic anomaly had appeared, completely derailing his carefully laid-out plans. Now war was a necessity. The Merchant was watching, as was the General. The plans he’d drawn up based on their advice were already in motion, and in a decade at most, the South would come bearing down on the North with both coin and sword.
And then there was the void. This fourth constellation was a path he hadn’t given much thought. It was a road filled with death and destruction, and even his seer’s eyes couldn’t fathom where it led. It was a path of desperation, a path he would avoid unless given no alternative.
As he looked into the brooding darkness, Zhou Li caught a glimmer out of the corner of his eye. It was a small light that moved slowly across the starry backdrop, almost unnoticeable to the untrained eye. But his eyes were trained, and they narrowed upon discovering that all around the light, the stars in the sky were shifting and realigning. That small light was causing a chain reaction, and as it moved, the Merchant shifted. A bad sign.
Don’t look. Don’t you dare look, Zhou Li thought. If only words and thoughts could change the stars. The Merchant slowly turned its attention toward the light, which was actually a small star. The Merchant’s grace was now focused away from the South, where he’d carefully guided it. Damn it. How could this happen? He needed to do something about it.
Gritting his teeth, Zhou Li traveled through space, completely disregarding temporal laws in the process. This was his world, his own domain. He appeared beside the star in an instant, and what he saw made his blood boil.
The star’s soft yellow light was surrounded by trinkets, each one more interesting than the last. Foxes of light and darkness danced around it, and so did some familiar-looking coins, as fuzzy and obscure as they were; they were only visible due to their proximity to a strange flame that both chilled his mind and seared his soul.
Zhou Li looked around and sighed in relief when he didn’t see a spear or a rosary. Those two were tricky, but fortunately, they were busy with something else. The coins and the flames were somewhat distant as well. Only the black and white foxes were close enough to influence it. That, and those four insignificant stars. But were they growing?
Wait a moment, Zhou Li thought. His eyes narrowed as he realized the star looked familiar. He focused his seer’s eyes on its blinding light and saw a clear brush surrounded by clouds of gray mist. No wonder. The star represented the karmic anomaly, Du Cha Ming. And now, he was alone and unprotected.
According to his sight, the young man from the Song Kingdom was headed toward the ocean. He was on a collision course with one of Zhou Li’s most promising plans and would likely derail everything if left unchecked. He thanked his lucky stars he’d noticed. He still had time, if he acted quickly.
Zhou Li woke, his grogginess and blurred vision disappearing in less than a second. He washed his face and fixed his robes, then walked through the blacksteel door of his personal chambers, passing his deathsworn guards on the way out. These slaves, bound by devilish contracts, followed him and ensured no one approached him unbidden.
Several turns and a long staircase later, Zhou Li entered a room. Twelve men sat there discussing plans, while others stood off to the side. He nodded slightly to the man he’d needed to call “master” a few years back, and the man returned a deep bow. Fate was funny that way. He, a mere mortal cultivator, now enjoyed a higher ranking than a transcendent. But when you played a game as long as theirs, cultivation realms hardly mattered. Only a few individuals in the room had the standing to discuss matters with him, and even then, barely so. When he spoke, others listened. For he had the sight, the plan, and the vision.
“There’s been a change of plans,” Zhou Li said. “We need to accelerate phase sixteen or forever lose the opportunity.”
The men at the table frowned. They exchanged confused glances, and their looks toward the maps on the table were very telling. Some were nautical maps, while others were trade contracts and promises.
“Would you care to elaborate?” a man finally said. He was a transcendent, and his position in their hierarchy made his standing only slightly inferior to Zhou Li’s.
“The complexity of the situation makes it difficult to explain everything,” Zhou Li said in an annoyed tone. “But long story short, the karmic anomaly known as Du Cha Ming is moving again. He’s returned from Jade Moon Planet stronger than ever.”
“How certain are you that he’ll derail our plans?” the man asked.
“Sixty percent,” Zhou Li said. “And that’s if we accelerate the plan but don’t otherwise hamper him. Ninety percent if we do nothing in response to his actions.”
“And if we add you into the mix?” the man said.
Zhou Li grinned. Those were the words he’d been waiting for. “Fifteen percent chance of derailment, but sixty percent chance of removing him permanently. He might be strong on this plane, but compared to me, he’s weak. He’s also separated from most of his friends.”
“We should just remove him,” a gruff-sounding man said from the side. The gray-haired man had sharp teeth and bloodred eyes. Despite these frightening features, his tanned skin and chiseled jawline made him unusually attractive.
“Sure,” Zhou Li said. “Which of our transcendents would like to volunteer for this mission? Lu Tianhao only has two men guarding him as we speak, so in all, we’d only have to sacrifice three transcendents to get the job done.”
His sarcasm was biting and served to highlight their greatest weakness—fear of death. Despite all their power and tens of thousands of years of effort, death and reincarnation wasn’t something anyone wanted to go through needlessly. It was due to this weakness that, despite his vision and planning, they’d yet to succeed. Their fear wasn’t unfounded, of course. Who could truly know if there would be a next life? They’d already lost half of their original members through spiritual erosion, and any one of them could be next.
“We’ll cede to your better judgment,” the original man said, defusing the situation. “When are you leaving?”
“Immediately,” Zhou Li said. “Meanwhile, please contact the Spirit Temple. They need to remain vigilant and push for early completion. It will cost them, but they’ll regret it if they don’t.”
The man sighed. “I’ll try, but you know how stubborn they are.”
“I do,” Zhou Li said. “But if they fail again, I won’t be able to guarantee their standing in the Alliance. I’ll let the Buddhists come at them with everything they have, and they’ll soon learn that even monks can harbor grudges.”
The man gulped. “I’ll pass on the message.”
“I don’t doubt you will,” Zhou Li said. Then, he turned to a taciturn man in a corner, a man who’d yet to say anything. “Is everything going well on your end?”
“Peachy,” he said. “Run along and don’t meddle with my plans. You’re not good at this sort of thing.”
“I suppose I’m not,” Zhou Li said. He hated war, as it was a boring, chaotic mess. As he left the room, the building, and his associates, he began fleshing out a plan. Countless threads of possibility danced before his eyes. He plucked them, one by one, evaluating his future actions.
Elsewhere in the universe, an old man with white hair and timeless eyes gazed at a trickling stream in a mighty canyon. The man was Yama, and like any good CEO, he was doing research. Market research. The River of Souls, which usually delivered a constant flood of fresh clients, had receded. It now ran at less than ten percent capacity, as though the mighty lake from which it flowed had been dammed, preventing it from escaping downstream.
Such a slowdown was unusual, especially given the current political climate. It was like the river had been purposefully slowed, stopped up until the reservoir was full to bursting. Eventually, it would burst, and given their stretched resources, Yama wasn’t sure how he’d deal with it.
I need more employees, Yama thought. Good ones. He shifted his thoughts back on the solution: politics. He hated politics. Unfortunately, winning the election was now more important than ever. If they didn’t get more workers soon, the entire universe might collapse within an Underworld millennium, and he really didn’t know how he’d answer to the board if that happened.
Then again, he thought, I might just be the only one to survive a universal collapse. Maybe the Jade Emperor could survive, or even the Curse Sovereign. Neither of them, however, were good company. Shuddering, he whipped out his phone and sent a message to Han Yu. He waited for a second before following up to her reply: Yes, he wanted all of them. All the books in the universe. He’d take all the movies too, but unfortunately, data storage devices got atrociously expensive once they reached a certain size.
Han Yu soon appeared beside him wearing her trademark gray dress suit. She pushed up her black-rimmed glasses and flicked through a tablet before pulling up an appointment. “It’s time for the rally at Time Square,” she said. “I’ve taken the liberty of having your reaper’s robes dry cleaned.”
Yama nodded and motioned for the package in her hands. It disappeared and reappeared on his own body, replacing the jogging suit he’d been wearing and making him look like the Western depiction of the god of death. His bony, albeit strong hands looked skeletal enough; all he was missing was a scythe, but he loathed to carry that archaic tool. Like the farmers before him, he, too, had outgrown the traditional cutting instrument. He now relied on machinery and highly skilled labor to harvest souls.
Han Yu held out her hand, which Yama grasped. Their surroundings lurched as they reappeared in a square where a large clock tower was present. True to its name, Time Square was inhabited by the Sea God and his wife, the goddess of time. The giant clock tower presiding over the square could house billions of spirits within its independent space. It was a great place for holding a speech.
Speaking of which, Judah, his candidate for mayor, was just stepping up to the podium beneath the giant clock. His short stature didn’t matter much, as everyone present was able to zoom in on him and hear him clearly. He held his hands up and waited for everyone to quiet down.
“Ladies and gentlemen, buddhas and spirits, angels and devils, demons, and those who belong to a species but don’t wish to be associated with them… we have a crisis on our hands,” Judah said gravely. “The cycle of reincarnation is under threat. Though it’s true that the demand for souls and soul products is greater than ever, we are struggling. We’re struggling to bring our resources to market.
“Our neighbors have abandoned us; they’ve changed their tax policies to attract the best and the brightest. Meanwhile, all we’re left with are hardworking devils, lazy demons, and slightly pompous angels who’ve decided they want to live in this great country without contributing anything to it. It isn’t enough.”
“Those angels are arrogant!” a man suddenly yelled out in the crowd.
“They think they’re better than us!” a woman yelled.
“I don’t know about that,” Judah said reassuringly. “I’m sure there are some very fine people on both sides.”
“Send them back!” a voice yelled.
“Send them back!” another dozen voices yelled. And suddenly, the bewildered Judah was drowned out by chanting voices. “Send them back! Send them back!”
What the hell is going on? the wide-eyed Yama thought. This was supposed to be a campaign rally, not a gathering for spirit supremacists. He wondered if he should do anything, but then he decided that forcefully reincarnating the lot would be counterproductive to his efforts to gather votes.
Then, his eyes narrowed when he saw Judah’s response. The man pumped his fist almost encouragingly and did nothing to stop them. The chanting lasted far too long before Yama, fed up with the spectacle, coughed lightly in intimidation. The crowd quieted instantly.
“Right,” Judah said awkwardly. “That was… unexpected. Like I said, we don’t have a lot of spare spirits in Diyu, and it’s important to draw people in. Not everyone, mind you—only the best and the brightest.”
“No angels!” a man said.
Yama didn’t wait this time. He snapped his finger, and the soul was whisked away to a special hell he reserved for pedophiles and people who talked in movie theaters. That would teach him.
“That’s why it’s important that you come out and vote,” Judah continued. “Vote for the Diyu Advantage so we can bring the best and the brightest to this city. Together, we can prosper. Together, we can win.”
The remainder of the rally was uneventful. The few scattered voices that tried to egg on the crowd were forcibly detained, and the mayoral candidate got down to business. He talked about fiscal responsibility, taxes, and recognition of professional accreditations. He talked about legal immigration, and for some strange reason, a wall to prevent illegal immigration. Finally, he mentioned destroying some unpopular art, the proposed ban on time travel literature—which, to Yama’s surprise, the time goddess approved of—and finally, a message to make Diyu great again. Like it wasn’t already.
The crowd dispersed, and soon they were back in Yama’s office. The spirit that used to be a mere mortal trembled slightly as Yama curled his lips in disapproval.
“Do you know why we’re having this meeting?” he asked, tapping his bony fingers on the desk. Fortunately for the object, it was an empyrean god-grade artifact. It could handle the abuse.
The short man gulped. “It’s about the wall, isn’t it? Yes, I know it’s inhumane, but we really need to make sure everything is legitimate. And as much as it isn’t practical, there’s a certain amount of symbolism—”
Yama cut him off. “No. Great circle of reincarnation, no. I’ve been arguing that we need a wall for decades. I want as many immigrants as possible, but only legally, which isn’t rocket science as long as you hire a few government employees to file the paperwork.” He sighed. “No, I called you here because I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in your behavior. You should have condemned those bigots. Instead, you almost egged them on.”
“That’s not true,” Judah said. “I wasn’t happy with it. I disagreed with it. And I didn’t say that. They did. I started speaking very quickly.”
“Thirteen seconds,” Yama said sharply. “You waited thirteen seconds. Do you know what people can do in thirteen seconds?” Seeing that Judah was speechless, he picked up Han Yu’s tablet, which conveniently listed off many things mortals on Earth, Judah’s home planet, could do in thirteen seconds. “An earth mortal can run 100 meters in thirteen seconds on Earth. He can buy something online in thirteen seconds. He can down a pint of beer, solve a Rubik’s cube, or can break into someone’s home in thirteen seconds. Hell, he can probably peel and eat a mandarin orange in that time. And you’re going to tell me you started speaking very quickly?”
“Point taken,” Judah said. “I’ll cut in faster next time.”
“It’s too late for a next time!” Yama said. “Thirteen seconds is all it takes to form a first impression. Now we need to run damage control.” He breathed deeply and controlled his emotions. “Now we need to deal with the media. Those politically correct news anchors will tear you to shreds. We need to demonize them and tell everyone their news is fake. Or we could just reincarnate anyone who dares publish any bad articles.”
“That sounds a bit harsh,” Judah said. “Can’t we just do some serious backpedalling and apologize like reasonable people?”
Yama paused. “What does apologize mean?”
“Are you serious?” Judah said.
“It’s when you’re, you know, wrong. And then you admit that to everyone.”
“But I’ve never been wrong in my life,” Yama said. Which was true. Every time someone had told him otherwise, he’d obliterated them from the face of the universe, which, as far as he was concerned, cut at the root of the problem.
“Right…” Judah said. “Which is why you have me. I was wrong, and I can do the apologizing. I’ll save some face, and you won’t have to do anything drastic. Make sense?”
“Somewhat,” Yama said. “I may need convincing. Just do what it is you do, but don’t hesitate to tell me if I should annihilate someone. Do we have a deal?”
“Sure thing,” Judah said, wiping the sweat off his brow. “I’ll be going now.” The short man walked out of his office, looking back nervously before closing the door.
“Mortals,” Yama muttered in bemusement.
Han Yu came in moments later, ushering in his next appointment.
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