Yanluo Wang waited at the base of the Sang-La Mountains in the mouth of a dark cave. A cave which, with the correct spells and a day’s travel, led to the upper levels of Diyu. He missed the darkness and despair of the realm he ruled. The mountains towering above his sedan chair bored him; they were plain compared to the slopes of knives his sinners had to climb, again and again, their bodies healing once they reached the top so they could shed fresh blood on the way back down.
“Be still!” His minions stopped shifting beneath his sedan chair. Before him the valley descended toward the vast canopy of the Forest of Caldavar, which stretched as far as he could see. Bird songs and animal calls erupted from the trees constantly, despite his commands for silence. At one point he heard the scream of a dying creature, which cheered him slightly, but it was no replacement for the moans and shrieks of Diyu.
If not for Tangseng and his self-righteous mission, Yanluo Wang would have returned to Diyu immediately. But if Tangseng found the Jade Scriptures and used them to end the glorious war between the Legion and Hellbourne, the sinful souls flooding into Yanluo Wang’s Hell would slow to a trickle.
If the failed assassin attempt on Tangseng was any indication, the Hellbourne seemed to share his opinion. The woman who sent the cutthroat was called Hachina, Yanluo Wang’s spies had discovered, and she had been acting on orders from the highest daemon command. If she and her cursed syndicate had been successful, Yanluo Wang thought, he would still be in his realm of the dead.
Yet here he was, his powers and patience greatly diminished in this domain of the living, waiting for a pig man. It was good his minions were not allowed to talk; if word of this spread it could bring a sliver of joy to his tortured souls. The swine creature Bajie had been punished and banished to Newerth by the gods, who thought they were sentencing him to Hell with his hideous appearance and slavery to his base desires.
Yanluo Wang scoffed. Amateurs.
He would show Tangseng, Bajie, and any others who knew of the Jade Scriptures what Hell really was. Ah, and here they were, strolling down the mountain path as if damnation was not mere seconds away. There was a young monk with scrolls and books tucked in his deep pockets; another draped in orange robes with a stave and a serene, confident air about him. Bajie the pig man trailed behind, breathing heavily
To Yanluo Wang’s eye the three of them glowed with a golden light, originating from the young monk. Tangseng. He was protecting them somehow, shielding them from harm. Even without the Jade Scriptures he sought to heal those around him and end all suffering he encountered. Yanluo Wang examined him for sin and found none. Even so, he would condemn Tangseng to Diyu until he learned his lesson and forgot about the Scriptures. A few centuries ought to do it.
The three companions reached the bottom of the rocky path and Yanluo Wang commanded his sedan chair forward out of the cave. “Tangseng! I command you to surrender yourself and your mission, forego all hope and accompany me to Diyu. If you do this, I will spare your companions.”
Tangseng recovered from the sudden outburst and regarded the furious-looking man being carried toward him on a golden throne by four purple, sinewy laborers. The man’s burning eyes were fixed upon him, and one gnarled hand pointed a talon-like fingernail at his chest.
“That is the man who sent me up the mountain,” Bajie huffed, his lower arms resting on his knees. “That is Pandamonium.”
“I’m afraid not,” the Shào monk said. To Tangseng: “This is worse than I imagined. I believe we will need all of your guardians to survive this.”
Tangseng felt a pang of guilt at these brave warriors risking their lives for him. But the Jade Scriptures could save thousands, millions. “These guardians—how many are they, and how far?”
“One, and he is already here.”
“Save your plotting,” the man in the chair called. “I am Yanluo Wang, god and ruler of the endless torment of Diyu, and your souls belong to me.”
“This is not Diyu,” the Shào monk said. “And your strength grows weak in our realm. I can feel your power withering.”
Yanluo Wang waved a finger. “Harboring pride and slandering a god; these are grievous sins. I think it will be the boiling cauldrons for you, holy man, until your debts are repaid.” He clapped his hands, his long beard shaking. “Now come, all of you. Into the cave!”
Yanluo Wang turned in his chair. Standing atop the cave entrance was a tall, lean warrior with the head of a fierce dragon. His green flesh shimmered in the sunlight. He grinned down at Yanluo Wang with insolence as he released the nunchaku tucked beneath his arm and began to spin the wooden sections around his body.
The Shào monk stepped between the sedan chair and Tangseng, his stave whirling. Bajie joined him, that rake of his held by his two free hands while the chained pair flexed, preparing for combat. Tangseng stood behind them, his face lined with concern.
Enough, Yanluo Wang thought. He summoned three of the worst souls in Diyu; murderous, treacherous sinners who reveled in causing pain to others. Yanluo Wang invoked them in the realm of Newerth and sent them hurtling toward the dragon warrior, the monk, and Bajie. Something to occupy them while he gathered Tangseng.
The cursed souls attacked with a fervor the companions had never encountered. The Shào monk swung and missed with his stave, teleported and struck again, but the soul was too elusive, too determined to do him harm.
Bajie stumbled up and down the mountain path, his rake sparking against the stone as he tried to swat the fiendish soul out of the air. The wraith sliced in and out, drawing new blood with each assault.
The dragon warrior whipped his nunchaku in a blurring pattern—usually enough to form a wall against any attack—but the soul cut through without hesitation and sent him tumbling from the arch above the cave.
Yanluo Wang urged his sedan chair forward, wading into the chaos, his eyes locked on Tangseng. “Relax, young monk. You’ll see them again soon enough. When my souls are finished with them they’ll stand with you to accept my judgement—then we shall see whose strength is withering.”
Tangseng stepped away. The brave Shào monk was on his back, drenched in sweat and blood, jabbing weakly at the wraith dragging him toward the mouth of the cave. Bajie’s hooves kicked at the air as his massive body was carried toward the cave by the wooden yoke across his back. The tortured soul above him shrieked and slashed at his face. The dragon warrior tried to stand his ground but the phantom struck again and again, driving him deeper into the cave.
“Will you let them die alone?” Yanluo Wang said.
Tangseng knew it was a trap. If he rushed to aid his companions Yanluo Wang and his wraiths would trap all four of them in the cave. And whatever lay within, if Yanluo Wang yearned for it, it must be worse than remaining outside.
But Tangseng could not help himself. He valued the well-being of those around him more than his own life, and so he ran past the cackling Yanluo Wang into the mouth of the cave. He stood among his dying brethren and offered a prayer that brought their suffering upon him while restoring them, filling them with vitality and renewed strength.
Tangseng sagged to the floor of the cave. His vision blurred and darkened, though he caught glimpses of the Shào monk rising and casting one of the wraiths into the heavens; Bajie shattering the yoke that bound his hands and using his rake and cord to bind a soul until it burst into thick plasm; the dragon warrior flipping through the air and tossing the last phantom into the echoing depths of the cave.
Then all three companions attacked the cave itself, stave and fists and nunchaku shattering stone and pummeling every surface until the ceiling collapsed. Tangseng vaguely felt himself being carried into the sunshine by four arms, wheezing and snorting somewhere above him.
When the dust from the cave-in cleared, Tangseng stood with his three companions at the base of the Sang-La Mountains. Tangseng’s magic had healed all of them, all except himself. But he would recover. Yanluo Wang was gone.
Tangseng leaned against Bajie’s rake to keep his balance. “Yanluo Wang…is he trapped within the cave?”
“No,” the Shào monk said. “He has fled, likely seeking an alliance with the Hellbourne. He knows he is not powerful enough to stop us from searching for the Jade Scriptures. When we see him again, he will have help.”
“So will we,” the dragon warrior said.
Together, they walked into the Forest of Caldavar, their journey just beginning.