BLOOD MOON

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PROLOGUE

A black-robed stranger urged his horse forward along a clay trail. The clay was dried and cracked, likely due to the lack of rain in recent months. It was winter, though winter in this part of the continent did not necessarily mean snow. Instead of snow, the trees and yellow-green grass were all covered in frost every morning, which would dissipate once the sun came out. While the scenery was beautiful, it went by unappreciated. The black-robed stranger didn’t bother to look anywhere but forward as he continued urging his horse toward the village.

Of course, he had enjoyed sightseeing at some point in his life. In fact, he had once traveled throughout the four neighboring kingdoms with great gusto, sampling the various delicacies and painting the beautiful sceneries. There was no greater joy in life than perfectly capturing a moment on a canvas.

Unfortunately, that was all in the past. His greatest joy now was surviving yet another day and seeing his daughter once a month. And that didn’t happen unless he stayed focused on his work. Therefore, the beautiful scenery went by unnoticed by this man who would have loved to appreciate it.

As the man traveled, he took note of bleating sheep, which were somewhat agitated at being gathered. They were pasture animals, used to wandering around and eating grass all year round. Such a large gathering only happened twice per year—during shearing and during culling. It was currently only midway through winter, therefore it was not yet time for shearing.

The man quickly put such things out of his thoughts and focused instead on the road ahead. Those who didn’t focus on the road ahead made mistakes, like urging their horse to step into a deep puddle and thereby breaking their ankle. That would lead to costly delays and could ultimately cost him his job. Without his job, how would he and his daughter survive?

 Soon the man arrived at a small town. He passed by many people, and while it was not as bustling as a larger city, everyone here was in a hurry. Not a single person could be seen walking slowly. As if to emphasize his thoughts, an agitated clerk ran out of the building he had halted in front of. He quickly collected the purse of gold the man passed him, as well as the ledger which accompanied the bag. The clerk exchanged these with another ledger containing the man’s next mission. They didn’t greet each other, since it was a waste of time. Their business completed, the man proceeded to a small inn. Tomorrow was the day that he had custody of his daughter, so he wanted to be fully refreshed for their meeting.

The town never used to be so busy. That was, until the Merchant came. He brought with him great opportunity and great hardship. The rider was an example of a man whose family had been torn apart by the Merchant’s arrival. The clerk, on the other hand, was one of the few examples of those who saw great success with the Merchant’s coming.

The Merchant had always been a calculating man. Back when he was a store owner in the capital, he had always been exact and fair. Further, he had always been rigorous in his accounting. Whenever his customers tried to cheat him, he supressed them. Whenever thieves stole his goods, he always demanded the maximum punishment allowed by the law, even if the price of prosecuting the thief exceeded the damage to his property.

Likewise, he had always been particularly strict with his employees. The many checks and audits he had incorporated over the years had kept embezzlements to a limit. His rates of embezzlement were the lowest in the entire country for the volume of business he dealt with.

Occasionally, he caught a schemer who tried to line his pockets with his rightly earned gold. He was always sure to make the strictest examples of these people. It was a matter of principle, after all, the cost be damned.

This was all in the past, however. He spotted several examples of corruption as he pored over a paper copy of his current accounts. They were blatant and unhidden, as though they were advertising their “good” behavior. All that mattered to him now was the ever-increasing amount of gold that filled his vast pockets. Consequences be damned! He was especially delighted whenever one of his minions managed to cheat one of his many customers.

After confirming that his accounts were still aggressively growing, he walked downstairs and grabbed a bite to eat from a nearby employee’s lunch. The pitiful employee didn’t dare protest, lest the Merchant take more from the meager fare he had prepared for the day. In fact, he was currently worried that the food might displease the skinny man, propelling him into a fit of uncontrollable rage. The Merchant never bought food, relying on his fearful subordinates to fill his stomach. Even then, he ate very little, as though frugality was part of his very being.

After finishing his brief meal, the Merchant walked outside onto a poorly maintained street in the small town he currently occupied. All those who saw him gave him a wide berth, granting him a twenty-foot kill zone in every direction.

His current destination was the pleasure house, where they trained some of their more profitable merchandise. The door was quickly opened for him as soon as he arrived. The doorman sweated profusely as he chastised himself for almost being late in opening the door. He was paid handsomely for his services, as the owner of the establishment knew that the Merchant especially valued his time. Time was money, after all.

After walking through a few more promptly opened doors, the Merchant arrived in front of the latest group of fresh “recruits.” The selection process was quite simple. Every time they took a village, they first separated the men and the women. The women would then be separated into two categories: the chaste and the beautiful. Those who were both chaste and beautiful were especially prized. The ugly were not even considered, and their fate could only be imagined.

Innocence was of primary importance to the process. Virtues like kindness, purity, and humility would be transformed in unimaginable ways, until a final product was produced. Slaves produced in this fashion possessed many advantages, undying loyalty being only one of them. To the Merchant, their resulting depravity was only a meaningless consequence of his end goal: profit.

After completing his business in the pleasure house, the Merchant continued his daily inspection. A small group of skinny monks and boys were chained to a wall. For the next month, they were to be fed increasingly large amounts of food, building the appetite of these formerly small eaters. The remainder of the process was a secret, but the result was not. Those who survived would be trained as the toughest slave warriors.

Finally, the Merchant arrived at the last training house, the house of choice. The training program in the house of choice was different from the others. The facility was also much larger than the other training houses, since many “assistants” were required for every candidate.

There was no age limitation for a candidate; the only requirement was that the candidate be patient and kind. Each candidate was accompanied by all their friends, family members, and loved ones. The more loved ones they had, the better. Every day, the trainees were presented with a choice.

The choices would become increasingly difficult, and suffice to say, not many people survived the process. Ultimately, the experience culminated in vengeance, resulting in a slave warrior full of viciousness and rage. They were the fiercest killers and yielded the highest profit.

The Merchant chuckled as he checked the rosters: fifty kind men, and eight hundred friends and family members. With so many helpers, it would be easy to generate many fine slaves. This training camp would be his most profitable one yet.

 

***

 

Far away in a distant place, a fisherman was slowly pushing his boat forward with a long pole, propelling himself against a vicious current. The river was the largest he’d seen in a long time. When King Yama said “a long time,” no one dared refute him.

After pushing himself along the river for many centuries, he finally stopped, anchoring himself to the river bottom with a small tethered anchor. Centuries meant nothing, and time flowed differently in Diyu than in the material planes. Yama creased his brow as he observed the raging Yellow River. His black eyes glazed over as he recalled events from countless eons ago. A wave of sadness overwhelmed him as he recalled the events he had buried in the recesses of his memory. He was destined to be an observer for all eternity.

A fierce wave buffeted his small boat, threatening to capsize it should he be the least bit negligent. The flow of souls was strong and overwhelming, over ten times its previous rate. Such a fierce tide of souls could only be the result of countless deaths throughout millions of mortal realms in the cosmos.

The fierce torrent was also much lighter than normal, indicating that many innocents had died, and that many people had died prematurely. Yama sweated as he pondered the implications of such a flood. It seemed that the Ten Courts of Hell would have to do the unthinkable, something no one would ever dare to suggest to him ever since he’d implemented his foolproof system: They would need to hire contractors.

Contractors made the worst employees and were very bad for morale. If his business had been profit oriented, he would have questioned whether hiring contractors was even worth the effort. Unfortunately, his business affected the very underpinnings of the universe. Despite being immortal, his staff was physically incapable of working more than triple overtime. He gnashed his teeth once again. He would have to hire contractors!

Worse yet, to hire so many contractors on such short notice made it necessary to involve the various recruitment companies throughout the Underworld. These companies hired the worst scum, and as soon as they managed to find someone half decent for you, that recruit would soon find a better-paying job with another employer. All the efforts made in training their recruits would be wasted, leaving him with a rabble of inefficient trash that performed at forty percent or less efficiency. This fact alone was infuriating to Yama. The Yellow River System had long been performing at 98.5% efficiency for billions of Underworld years.

He sighed as he pulled up his anchor, letting the raging river entrain his little boat all the way down the river. The river flowed five times as fast as it had during his previous, fruitless excursion. He quickly arrived at his office near the Bridge of Forgetfulness. The office was located on premium real estate, but his time was very valuable.

Over the next year, he placed orders for vast amounts of ingredients to shore up his stock of Aunty Meng’s tea. Meanwhile, his research and development team were hard at work, searching for ways to optimize the usage of their precious tea stores. Perhaps they could produce an additive that increased the contacting efficiency between the tea and the souls… Or perhaps they could design a better mixing system than passing them underneath a bridge? As he pondered the possibilities, he regretted his decision of not hiring more engineers during his tenure in Diyu.

A soft knocking sound interrupted his train of thought. It was his assistant. The pretty lass was very tired, as she had hardly gotten a wink of sleep over the last decade. Nothing but sheer resolve and willpower saw her through these trying times. He was very impressed with her performance. Perhaps he should give her a raise soon. It was outside of the regular performance review cycle, but exceptions could be made for trying circumstances.

“Sir, Potential Vendor 1008796 is waiting in the lobby for his scheduled appointment. He’s due in ten minutes.” She placed a stack of papers in front of him, which contained information on the prospect. The information included the vendor’s response to the request for qualifications (RFQ), complete with a resume of the CEO and a company audit. “I’ve included the necessary company evaluation sheet for when he gives his presentation. Please let me know if you need anything else. I need to go pick up my son from his spiritball practice. I’ll be back shortly after.”

Yama gave her a smile of appreciation. “My dear, you should take the rest of the day off. This past decade has been very trying, and you need to take care of yourself.”

In response, the pretty assistant shot him a coy smile. “We’re in this together, boss. I’ll come back after I drop my son off. I can’t slack off, after all. How about a raise instead?”

Yama choked on his hot cup of tea. He’d been trapped! After assuring her that she was indeed due for a raise soon, he stressed the need for strict adherence to the performance evaluations. He then quickly skimmed the tea-contaminated vendor application, careful to avoid tearing the wet pages.

Thank Pangu I requested a soft copy on a jade slip, he thought.

A short while later, a man with a fashionable hairstyle and a prominent beard confidently walked into his office. The man wore dark-bordered glasses and a very professional suit. Yama was a collector of suits, and he noticed that this man was wearing a limited-edition suit crafted by the most popular tailor in the Underworld, Hades. The crimson suit accented his dark, handcrafted leather shoes. The man gave him a very good impression.

“Sir Yama, my name is Usama the Lion, and I’m the CEO of Spiritas Staffing Solutions. I’ll be very brief today, as I’m sure your time is very valuable.” The man was charming but reserved. Yama motioned for him to continue.

“The soul industry, as you know, has been booming of late. Everyone has been scrambling to snatch talents everywhere, unfortunately leaving nothing but the chaff from otherwise full fields of wheat,” Usama said with a grave voice.

Yama’s heart palpitated slightly. None of the previous staffing agencies had mentioned this! Was this really true?

Observing the slight reaction, Usama continued. “Regrettably, the Yellow River is flowing at record speeds, and the industry has been flooded with various natural resources—like soul fragments, excess spiritual force, and spirit floss. Many industries that might not otherwise be possible have been flourishing! Premium talents have been requesting outrageous salaries. In turn, the entire consumer goods and services sector has experienced a huge influx in demand, propagating an ever-increasing shortage of competent labor.

“The consequences of such a shortage are quite clear. If you aren’t able to incorporate competent labor into your organization quickly, the entire system that you’ve worked hard for, and for countless billions of years, will collapse, leaving you to pick up the broken pieces. Conversely, if you can grasp this opportunity, you will be able to bring your organization to new heights!”

Yama was intrigued. How was this an opportunity? Worse yet, his friend was the CEO of Soul Power Ltd., and he knew for a fact that the great dam was operating at excess capacity, producing soul stones like they'd been going out of style. This required vast amounts of experienced personnel.

As if reading his thoughts, Usama projected an image on the wall, which reinforced his carefully chosen words. He showed an example of several successful companies that had collapsed over a few short nights. Finally, he showed several examples of recent successful staffing events, in which crunch labor was required. These companies, instead of collapsing, acquired several high performing talents over the course of their stay in the company.

When it came time to lay off these excess employees, several key talents were integrated into the company. The new blood stimulated change, challenged the status quo, and finally, the efficiency of the company soared from 95% to 111%. In other words, the introduction of new blood revolutionized the industry and enhanced the output of each employee to the point that the previous efficiency metric was rendered obsolete.

The gentleman in the red suit finished with a call to action. “Here at Spiritas, we turn nobodies into somebodies. At the end of this ordeal, we guarantee key talents that you will be begging to recruit into your organization. All we ask is a generous finder’s fee. If we can’t boost your efficiency by at least five points, we’ll give you your money back!”

A few minutes later, Yama was filling out the rest of the evaluation form on his desk. This young man was quite the talent. To think that he had only been in the Underworld for a few millennia. Previously, he had been a mortal on a small world called “Earth” on one of the many material planes. He frowned as he recalled his last adventure up the Yellow River. Wasn’t that small trickle he had been observing for many years from Earth as well?

Shaking his head self-deprecatingly, he continued poring through the large amount of paperwork on his desk. Even in the Underworld, there was no rest for the weary.



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