And Ensylfera, the famous
storyteller from the capital, spoke:
"This is the tale of Ying Zhen, the hero of the demon race who set out to the underworld in the hopes of saving his comrades and preventing his people’s demise. It is also the tale of Laryana who provided the souls at the river of forgetfulness with lanterns and waited for her creator’s return only to find another source of happiness. It is the tale of a love that nearly plunged the world into pandemonium and it happened after the high gods were banished and when the war between the lower gods and the demons rampaged in Kishin."
Lightning cleaved the sky above the immortal realm of Kishin and doused the battleground in glaring light. Lifeless bodies covered the ground, laced with wounds, dressed in tattered robes, and not just a few of them deprived of limbs. The weapons those men had once carried were now scattered between them. The metal glinted in the glow of the fires that had devoured parts of the valley. The smoke rising into the air and the fog enshrouding this place let them appear as ghostlike flames, trying to illuminate a white sea but failing miserably.
In the sky above, a deep sigh sounded. A demon was hovering there between the clouds, his black hair fluttering in the wind and his hands tightly holding onto his sword. Scratches crisscrossed his armor and blood coated his face wherever he had been hit before. But he was alive. Contrary to those on the ground, he was alive.
This demon was none other than Ying Zhen, the last one standing on the side of the demons in what seemed like an endless war and the one who had won the decisive fight. Still, he felt no relief.
It was over. The battle was won. The war … lost?
Ying Zhen motioned with his hand. The mist dissolved and revealed the battleground underneath. Ying Zhen floated down and paced between the lifeless bodies of the demons and gods. He stopped next to one of them and looked down. "Wu Rong." He sheathed his sword and sighed once again. "The cost was too high."
His gaze slid to the sky. The thunder had faded away, the lightning couldn’t be seen anymore, only the dark clouds still hovered above him. A raindrop fell and landed on his cheek. Like a tear, it trickled down and left a clear trace in the blood on Ying Zhen’s skin.
What should he report when he went back home? What would happen to his people when all the others didn’t return? The gods were numerous. Without fail they could mobilize a new army soon enough and then … the demons would fall. And even if they managed to survive, then they would at least lose their freedom. That wasn’t a future Ying Zhen wished to see.
"Heidan, Xingula, Chaayin …" he called out to his peoples’ ancestors. "Was that, what you wanted for your heirs?"
The next drops fell and washed the blood away. Soon, they pattered on the last remaining demon as if heaven cried for them.
Ying Zhen looked back to the dead and slowly, determination entered his eyes. He wasn’t willing to accept this outcome. After fighting for so long, after giving everything they had to give, it had to be enough. It needed to be enough.
He sheathed his weapon and narrowed his eyes. "Heidan. Isn’t it your realm we enter after our death? So where is the difference between living there or living in our homeland? It should be all the same to you."
Ying Zhen did not think any longer. He pushed off the ground, flew over the bloodstained land and the ocean whose borders had been dyed red through the war, and followed the river until he reached a stone gate.
Ying Zhen landed and knelt at the river bank right in front of the gate. He lifted his arms, folded his hands, and bowed three times. "Pardon me, Heidan, that I pass the border of your realm uninvited. But surely, you wouldn’t wish for so many of your heirs to lose their lives. Certainly, you wouldn’t condone your heirs’ demise."
With those words, the demon rose to his feet and passed through the gate in front of him, stepping onto the path to the underworld that usually only the souls of the dead would lay eyes on.
This arch is what marks the passage between the world of the living and the dead but it is by no means the gate to the real underworld yet. Behind it merely lies the path that every soul has to take before they may pass the true gate into the next world.
Nonetheless, this place is part of what had once been the realm of the high god Heidan many, many thousands of years ago before the demons’ ancestor had fallen by the hands of the other gods very much like the demon race had on the day Ying Zhen started his journey. Now, he was returning to their origins, hoping to shape a new beginning for them.
Whether he could succeed would depend both on his luck and his tenacity because the path ahead and what one experiences on the way depends on the soul’s previous life and its capability to disengage itself from it. For a living man like Ying Zhen, it would not be easy to reach his goal but he was not willing to give up without trying so he could only walk ahead, trying to close in on that brilliant future with each step.
Thankfully, the first part of his journey was still the same as that of the dead souls. He could see some float past him, their appearance almost the same as that of the demons or gods or maybe the humans in the mortal world just that the faint light still shining in from the gate behind him seemed to pass through their bodies.
Ying Zhen followed the souls, keeping close to the bank of the Alessian that was said to originate somewhere in the world of the high gods and pass through all the realms before it reached the underworld’s sea deep below. As long as he kept close to it, Ying Zhen didn’t think that he could go wrong.
Soon enough, he reached a bend in the river. A dock was erected there, the white wood like a bony hand sticking out of the water. Ying Zhen stopped some distance away and silently watched.
There were stories about the underworld and the path leading there in the demon realm. From what he knew, this should be the place where the ferryman gathered the souls of the departed and brought them further down before they had to go the rest of the way on their own. Only souls were allowed to board the ferry so there was no way for him to do so unless he was willing to discard his fleshly body.
Ying Zhen glanced back but finally decided against it. His body might be safe here but he did not want to take the risk. This was his own body after all. Losing it would mean losing his life. And especially this close to the gates of the true underworld, he did not dare to take the risk.
He waited for the ferry to return. Looking at the ferryman in his wide cloak that hid everything from his head to his toes, he narrowed his eyes. Not even the hands could be seen despite him holding onto the oar. In fact, Ying Zhen couldn’t even be sure that this person was a man. Not that it was important at this moment.
The ferry reached the dock and the souls slowly entered, taking their seats in an orderly fashion as if they had been instructed or were somehow drawn there. The ferryman once again used the oar to push off and the ferry turned in the other direction. For just a moment, it seemed as if the ferryman was looking at him but he did not say anything and just steered the boat forward.
Ying Zhen faintly furrowed his brows and then pushed off the ground, hovering just a step above the ground and following the ferry silently until they reached the next bend in the river.
By now, the gate from the entrance had long been left behind, as had the light that shone down from the mortal realm, casting everything into darkness. Or, at the very least, that had been the case until this bend.
Ying Zhen landed at the edge of a small headland and watched on in silence, trying to get a better grasp on what was happening. This place wasn’t completely drenched in darkness but instead enveloped by twilight. Every now and then, he saw silvery sparks glowing in the air that would then be extinguished again.
He narrowed his eyes and watched more closely. There … seemed to be a person in the dark? After a bit, his eyes got used to the strange lighting and he realized that there was indeed a person there and she was who extinguished the lights. Or rather …
The woman moved toward one of them again and reached out, gently enveloping the spark between her fingers. It seemed to brighten for just a spell before it turned muted and when she turned around, she was holding a small lantern in her hand. She walked toward the bank where the ferry just arrived.
The ferryman nodded at her and she inclined her head as well before handing the lantern to one of the souls on the boat. She turned around afterward, picking up a lantern that was quietly burning beside her feet as if she had already prepared it beforehand and handing it to the next. She proceeded to do so for all the twelve souls in the ferry and only stepped back when the last one had received theirs.
With a smile, she folded her hands in front of her body and inclined her head toward them. "These lanterns will brighten your path to the underworld. They will burn for seven days so that you have enough time to pass the gate. But don’t take your time on the path: After those days have passed, not only the lanterns’ light but even your souls will be extinguished if you don’t cross the gate. So don’t linger outside for too long."
Ying Zhen closed his eyes. Her voice sounded like the tinkling of water, like a faint breeze in the depth of the night: One moment there, in the next past. He couldn’t help but be overcome with melancholy when he heard it. Had his comrades listened to this voice as well after they lost their lives on the battleground? Had they also been handed these lanterns and were now long hurrying on their way to the underworld’s gate? How much time did they have left? Could he really reach them before then?
Ying Zhen did not know and he did not have time to consider much. The ferryman pushed his boat off again and brought the souls further down the stream. The woman on the headland went back to her own work and captured the sparks to prepare the lanterns for the next batch of souls that would arrive.
Ying Zhen opened his eyes and continued to watch her for a moment. His knowledge about the underworld was limited despite this being the realm of their ancestor Heidan. If only he could gain some help … it would surely make this so much easier.
He did not hold much hope but he still walked toward her step by step, hoping that maybe she would be sympathetic toward his plight.
The woman captured the next spark and transformed it into a vitreous lantern, turning around to carry it to the riverbank just when Ying Zhen arrived in front of her. She screamed and drew back. The lantern dropped from her hands and extinguished. A glittering trail of smoke floated up and vanished in the current of the Alessian.
Ying Zhen halted in his steps, a hint of a guilty conscience arising for scaring her this much. There was nothing he could do to change that now but he still raised his hand and cold fire flared up around his fingertips, its glow sufficient to illuminate his face for her to see.
The woman clasped her hands over her mouth but her eyes grew wider and before Ying Zhen could utter a single word of explanation, tears gathered in her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. She threw herself to the ground in front of him and extended her hands, her fingers clutching the hem of his robe. "You returned!"