The King of the Dead rose from his stone coffin with the tattered tangles of his once-royal robes hanging from his limbs. Bandages to cover up the damage of his ruined skin. He pushed his matted hair from his face, his crown nowhere in sight.
He walked on the snow-covered cave floor, ice crunching under his bare feet. He inhaled. Breath whistled into his cold lungs. The air was spiced with a faint flowery scent.
An insignificant sting punctured his chest. Wind snaked through the tears in his clothing. Humming faintly, he pinched the jagged shard of metal protruding from his flesh and pulled.
Left side. That was the heart, was it not?
He threw the blade fragment to the ground – the only kind of blade that could place the King of the Dead closest to the dead himself.
But not quite.
Ten generations of rulers in the Yin world whose thrones he had reared, and they had dared to stand by as a blade was stuck into his heart. The heart that had never beat since the moment he was born.
It was the way he was meant to be.
So, was he alive?
He emerged from the cave, able to feel the pinpricks of frigidity from the snowy mountain winds; he knew dead people couldn’t feel that.
He looked around at the wasteland for fallen gods. Was he a fallen god? He had been the most powerful and feared, struck down by the son born from a mere shadow in his dreams. He had never been fallen… just resting.
It must have been hundreds of years. How changed was the world? Could he still make flowers die? Here, the sign of the end of winter came when a single white rose pushed through the snow.
Why the one?
Because all the others never made it.
He found it on the edge of the mountainside, unwavering. If only I could be sorry, strongest one. Closing his palms over the thin petals, he felt it shrivel under his touch.
That’s right. Death belongs to me.
He had named his son Kalleian. It meant the dust before the storm. Because that was what he was. A tiny, insignificant thing that warned destruction.
But he had been wrong. Kalleian hadn’t been the dust before the storm. Nor had he been the storm. He had been the lightning that snapped through the sky at just the right moment.
He didn’t hate his son. Far from it. He was proud that Kalleian had the ability to send him into hibernation for hundreds of years. Not many regular folk were capable of that.
The King smiled at a momentary halt in the wind. So subtle of a shift that only the truly familiar would be akin to. See, son, you say I don’t love you, yet I always know when you are near.
“Come to greet your father?” the King said.
The winds howled in response.
The child had manifested from shadows – gained physical form and grew into the size of a toddler in mere hours, able to speaks the languages of all creatures; humans, demons, anything in between.
If the King were to describe him, the spirits of the dead would think him a princess. Skin as white as snow. Hair as black as the darkest rose. It was the eyes that took him by surprise. Two pale sheets of faded blue – sharp, piercing and cold.
No human would be able to withstand that gaze.
He watched the Yin rulers who each had control of a realm – one dimension of torture for those who had committed that wrong. Only the truly saint-like could pass through all the trials without being tied to a realm – it was designed to be unfair.
Most people were not saints.
Eighteen realms of hell for the murderers, liars, the disrespectful, the foolish.
And he commanded it all.
A child had come before him, having passed the trials. The only thing she needed was the King’s blessing. He had bent down, stroked the child’s soft cheeks. “Kalleian,” he said, reaching for his son, who was watching from behind. “Touch her forehead, and give her the blessing.”
“What blessing?” Kalleian asked.
“The blessing to be reborn,” the King replied. He did as he was told, and the child disappeared with a burst of light. “See, son, it is not entirely darkness and suffering down here. I can sit on this throne, and tell you that light exists.”
“I want to see it, Father,” Kalleian said. “Where those humans live. I want to see their life.”
“You cannot, child,” the King said. “Down here, I can protect you. But up there, that place is the true hell. You have seen the torture these disgusting humans will spend eternity enduring for what they have done.” He gripped Kalleian’s shoulders. “So, no. I will not let you.”
Kalleian didn’t speak about it again until he reached twenty. Still a child. Nothing compared to the King’s thousands of years of existence.
“I hear you have been spending your time with the humans again,” the King said.
“You will not let me go to their world,” Kalleian said. “So I will hear stories from them. They tell me of flowers and birds, the stars in the sky, embraces they long to feel again. You only tell me of treachery and cruelty, as if you have treated me any different.”
“You doubt my love for you?” the King said. Not growling, not bellowing. “I warn you not to go because of my love. You truly want to know what flowers are made for – they are made to be looked at, and then die.” He faced his back to Kalleian. “Since you are so desperate to go, I can only lock the gates. You cannot see that world. Unless you would like to stick a blade in my heart.”
He understood his son’s desires. Long ago, he had walked the Yang world, curious of the human ways. He had even loved another. Once. He never could again.
He didn’t think Kalleian would actually pierce his heart, nor did he think the Yin rulers would help him. But humans surprised him all the time, so he shouldn’t deny his son credit.
However, that moment when Kalleian’s hand was still on the handle of the dagger, faced with the prospect of what he had done, his eyes remained cold.
Humans might have thought, goodness, what have I raised? But the King only thought, if you have the nerve to do this, you might just have the nerve to endure the trials of the living. However, I cannot promise you will be left unbroken.
“You took me into the Yang world with you,” the King said. “Couldn’t part from your dear old father?” Kalleian’s footsteps were soft on the snow. He was no longer the smooth-faced, naïve little boy. There was a crease between his brows, a tightness in his mouth.
“It has been four hundred years,” Kalleian replied. “I have lived four hundred years without you.”
“What an achievement,” the King said. “How is this world you so longed to see?”
“Cruel, violent, revolting,” Kalleian said. “Just as you told me.” He glanced down at the white rose the King had killed. Brushing his fingers on the crumpled petals, the flower rose again, the petals bloomed to match the snow as if someone had wound back time.
Kalleian smiled – an action the King had never seen. “Yet it is only here that I have known happiness. Even if it never lasts.”
“You have been here,” the King said. “The throne has remained empty for four centuries.”
“I go back occasionally, bless a few souls,” Kalleian said. “The Yin world has no need for a king. Yanxalan.” No one had ever dared to speak his name. Then again, no one had dared to stab him through the heart.
He inhaled, turning his palm to encompass the swirling shadows. His crown materialised in his hands. Black, gleaming and beautiful. Yanxalan lifted it to his head, fitting it on his unruly hair.
“You see, Kalleian,” he said. “It is not about whether there is need for a king.” He smiled an eerie reflection of Kalleian’s previously. “Because, once a king. Always a king.”