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Chapter 1: Lord of the Soul Courts
The planet’s surface was desolate and strangely quiet but not devoid of life. An ancient palace was towering above the dry wasteland with towers of cold stone piercing high up into the sky.
Around the palace, there were millions upon millions of strange humanoid creatures crawling on all fours over the desolate landscape. They had no hair, only bones protruding under their yellowish leathery skin. They wore tormented expressions on their twisted faces as they roamed the planet’s surface. But as if affected by an invisible force, they avoided drawing too close to the palace’s massive walls.
Inside the main hall of the ancient palace, some wooden podiums stood in a long line at one side. Twelve gray-robed men were sitting behind them, one behind each. And a mass consisting of hundreds of thousands of souls was floating before them in the ancient hall.
Bang! One of the gray-robed men pounded his wooden gavel down onto his podium.
“Thou will be granted the right of reincarnation as a human mortal. Thy mind shalt reform, and thy memories of the past shalt fade,” the gray-robed man announced with an authoritative voice.
A little light orb floating before the wooden podium stopped shaking as it heard these words. It had finally received its judgment; it was its turn to be reincarnated.
The gray-robed man sent out a speck of white light from his hand, which enveloped the judged soul. Immediately, the soul became transparent and, after a moment, faded away completely.
All the surrounding souls observed the process with indifference. They had already seen countless souls being judged by those gray-robed men, the elevated immortal judges. Most of the souls would be sent away to an unknown place for reincarnation. But some weren’t as lucky. Those souls would remain behind, receiving punishment for the unspeakable atrocities that they had committed while still living.
Having seen that time and time again since their arrival in this hall, the countless floating souls had already lost interest in the process long ago. They would only care once they themselves would be judged.
Time passed. Souls were sent away, and new souls arrived filling the empty spots.
The cosmos was vast, being home to more different species than anyone could ever hope to count. And their souls would all gather in soul courts like this one for reincarnation after their deaths.
Within this endless cycle, something out of the ordinary would rarely occur. But this wasn’t to say nothing abnormal could ever happen. As presently, a little unrest was forming in the hall.
“Keep your vile presence away from this king! Don’t you know life from death?” a small but angry voice resounded.
It was a little soul, inky in color, floating very close to the front of the hall. It was scoffing at a nearby blueish soul, proving in a rather unsightly manner that souls were indeed capable of articulating.
“Trash! Move out of this king’s way!” The inky soul’s voice dripped with the purest form of disdain.
But the blueish soul before it, although being fiercely scoffed at, remained completely quiet and did not move away either.
‘How long does this imbecile plan to remain quiet?’ The inky soul grew visibly more agitated the longer it thought about it.
It already prepared to let another tirade rain down upon this most hated peasant, but that was when its train of thought was suddenly broken.
A powerful voice resounded inside its mind, a voice that shook its very soul essence.
“Who art thou declaring thyself king before this court?” One of the gray-robed immortal judges asked, his words mixed with displeasure.
The inky soul froze in place. It didn’t realize that its voice would travel all the way to the gray-robed judges.
But now that it thought about it… hadn’t it been eerily quiet before? He had only ever heard the voices of the immortal judges, but the other souls had all been silent since the very moment he had arrived in the hall. None of them had been speaking even a single word, so it was no wonder that its voice had traveled so far.
Had it noticed this situation in time, would it have spoken such words? Only an idiot would have! A true idiot with a death-wish!
The inky soul looked up nervously, “I w──was just──”
“Quiet!” the immortal judge interrupted the inky soul with a thundering voice.
“Do not fool thyself, little thing. Thy former glory art but void now that thou stand before Us. Thy riches art of no concern. What counts art thy crimes. Thou came before Us, and We shalt judge.”
The immortal judge stared at the inky soul. He didn’t get to see many presumptuous souls, especially not those daring enough to utter such arrogant words before the soul court.
Actually, he had never encountered even a single one.
And that was because the souls of the deceased were prevented from talking in the ancient hall. They couldn’t even move out of line. But somehow, this inky soul didn’t seem to be affected.
‘Well, let Us see what you are hiding.’
A silvery glint was visible in the judge’s eyes as he was sizing the inky soul up. Millions upon millions of white strands appeared before his eyes, all of them connected to the inky soul and going off into the distance. One lone strand was even attached to the other blueish soul beside it.
These were karmic strands.
They were a record of all one’s relations with the world around them. They spelled a story of a soul’s entire existence. And they were a detailed testimony for the soul court.
The immortal judge’s gaze was sharp like a knife as he pieced together the inky soul’s past life. His eyes scanned through the thicket of white in but a short moment. As he was done, his brow slowly fell into folds.
The inky soul had been born a king in a minor world, crowned ruler of his people from birth. Growing into a young man, he continued the tradition of his forefathers and didn’t reign from the capital. He traveled with thousands of his servants, guards and other followers through his kingdom instead.
Whenever he reached the abode of a local lord of one of his provinces, he settled down with his entourage for a few years. They stayed until the lands had been stripped bare, then he would set off once more. He would leave behind a starving population and the lower nobility in financial ruin.
The years went by, and, as he was growing older, he felt the clutches of mortality closing around his neck. Thus he began amassing forbidden techniques and artifacts from all over his domain in pursuit of eternal youth. And finally, he found what he had been looking for all along.
He invaded other nations to invigorate an ancient devil relic by drowning his world in blood. This relic, once nurtured with blood, would allow his might to soar into the sky and his life to last for ages.
And for this reason, he brought senseless slaughter upon the world. He waged war all over the continent. But in the end, it wasn’t enough. He failed. In an uprising by the people, he died at the hands of his own.
Unraveling the inky soul’s past, a glimmer of scorn stirred in the immortal judge’s eyes. He raised his gavel and knocked on the wooden podium.
“Thy soul is tainted! Thou shalt be sentenced to damnation, and thy soul shalt burn for eternity.”
Hearing his judgment, the inky soul panicked, “Y──your Honor, I deeply regret my impious and disgraceful words from before! But I shouldn’t have to suffer for one slip of my tongue!”
The inky soul hadn’t yet realized that it had already been judged within a split second. It presumed it was being condemned for its lack of respect to another soul before the soul court. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be more wrong.
“I wish to atone for──” Before the inky soul could finish, a bright light flashed sealing its words away.
“Mortal, do you believe your small words can plunge you into damnation or save you from it?” a flat disembodied voice rang out.
A short laughter resounded as a tall figure clad in black armor stepped out of the shadows. The figure’s pale face was turned towards the terrified inky soul.
Eyes of lifelessness deep embedded into white leathery skin stared at the presumptuous little soul. The figure’s thin lips, a shade of blue, were cracked up into a dark, menacing grin.
The figure arrived in front of the inky soul in an instant and grabbed it.
‘Ah…?’ The inky soul couldn’t react at all.
Its whole being froze in place as it looked into the vacant, dead eyes of the black-clad figure. Its mind became lost within those two ghastly grey marbles.
The immortal judge’s face remained expressionless. But as he was watching the black-clad figure take the inky soul away, his face became somewhat thoughtful.
The story that the karmic strands told was always accurate but never complete. Not everything would turn into one’s karma. Much to his annoyance, how the inky soul had come about the devil’s relic didn’t end up in its karma. It remained a mystery to the immortal judge.
But the black-clad figure, one of the guards of the lord’s brigade, certainly wouldn’t fail to squeeze what they wanted to know out of the inky soul.
And the immortal judge knew very well what lay ahead after that. Suffering for all eternity, the inky soul would never reenter the cycle of reincarnation ever again. It would experience a fate much worse than anything that it could ever imagine.
‘But this shalt be of no concern to Us.’
There was no need to care about the strange inky soul’s fate. Evil had to be purged. That was his life’s sentiment as an immortal judge.
Resuming his calm demeanor, he glanced at the next soul awaiting judgment. A silvery glint once more appeared in his eyes as he dove into the soul’s karmic strands.
But neither he nor anyone else realized that the black-clad figure dragging the inky soul away suddenly shuddered and turned to look around with a blank expression in his lifeless eyes. After a long pause, the figure vanished from the hall, the inky soul in tow.
Souls were crowding the palace hall, all patiently waiting for their reincarnation. But one spot remained empty. None of the myriads of souls even seemed to notice this bizarre occurrence. As if guided by an invisible hand, every being in the hall averted this deserted area without even realizing it.
Still, a young man was sitting on a beautifully crafted wooden chair in this empty spot. His crimson eyes were gazing at the spectacle unfolding in the hall, and he was leisurely sipping on a cup of fragrant tea from time to time.
The young man had short fiery-red hair and two small black horns on his forehead. He exuded an otherworldly air. There was something inscrutable and profound about his every movement, even if he was only putting down his cup on the small one-legged wooden table in front of him.
Tap… Tap… Tap…
His long slender fingers were restlessly tapping on the table’s rough wooden surface.
‘And there is yet another one.’
The red-haired young man shook his head as he watched the guard of the brigade grab the pretentious inky soul. He lovingly stroked the handle of his teacup before placing it down in front of him.
With a swift hand movement of his, an elegant crown appeared on the table right beside the teacup. An unassuming inky stone fragment was embedded in the crown’s inner side. Dark veins pulsed on the metallic surface around the stone, and an hue black as ink was forming around the crown within mere moments.
The young man glanced coldly at the crown, and the inky hue instantly vanished. The pulsing rhythm of the crown’s veins also slowed down, coming almost to a halt.
The young man raised his crimson eyes, and his sharp gaze fell upon the figure in black in the hall. The black-clad brigade guard visibly shuddered in response, and his lifeless eyes were darting around looking for something. Suddenly, he blended into the shadows and vanished from the spot.
After a moment, the guard reappeared right beside the red-haired young man. He immediately fell to one knee, bowing his head.
His disembodied voice rang out like a scratchy violin, “Your humble servant is at your service, my lord.”
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