Adventure Fantasy East Asian

The night falls, Yanlin and Shenzi are ready.

They laid down in two empty lots of graves they dug earlier, a pile of joss paper smoldering on the ground nearby. The two close their eyes as they each place a paper talisman onto their foreheads. 

Tonight, they will be as the dead. 

Moments later, the Heralds of Underworld have arrived. Grotesque creatures with heads of oxen and horses, they came brandishing their spears and halberds. Amidst the grunts and whinnying, the souls in the cemetery are escorted to Underworld, Yanlin and Shenzi among them.

They arrive at the River of Three Crossings, Underworld is just a bridge across. There, they will fulfil their assignments as Underworld Smugglers. 

This time, they’ve disguised as two elders who passed naturally. The Guardians of the bridge let them through easily, and show them the way to Purgatory, where decent souls reside before facing judgment.

“We have a long list tonight. We should take care of Mr. Zhao first." Yanlin says.

"I’ll go get our stuff, you look for him in the city.” Shenzi replied.

Zhao was a wealthy merchant, though his miserly ways have made him many enemies. His family worries that those grudges will trouble him in the afterlife. However, that really isn’t reason enough to hire the Smugglers. He has accumulated vast wealth, but due to his sudden passing, nobody alive knows where it’s hidden.

Yanlin travels through the city with great familiarity. She knows the streets and neighborhoods better than she knows cities in the living world. Cities of the souls are ever-changing, yet there is a pattern of constancy. It doesn’t take long for her to find out where the new souls reside.

Zhao almost flinched when he saw an elderly woman approaching him. Ever since he passed to Underworld, those he had wronged in his life sought him out and took everything from him. He has been living in squalor.

“Your family sent me,” Yanlin tells him. “I can get you out of this trouble.”

Zhao eyes her suspiciously, not understanding.

“Your family wants to know where you’ve hidden your treasures.” She says tersely. “I can go and bring the message, as well as other things, back to them.”

Zhao’s suspicion turns into rage. “Never! For all I know you could be one of those thieves who want a piece of what’s mine.”

Unfazed, Yanlin pulls out a paper talisman. With a curt incantation the talisman burns, from the ashes comes a jade seal.

“This is from your son. You are dead now, wealth is of no value. You should live off the offerings from your family and then move on to your next life.” 

Zhao is confused, he never believed in magic and superstition in his life, but being in Underworld opened his eyes. Still, he can’t simply trust this strange woman.

“I need some paper and ink.”

Soon, Shenzi has found them by using the tracking spell between him and Yanlin. He came with the supplies they burnt earlier that day. 

Burning items made of joss paper transforms them into materials in Underworld. They use this to transport bulk items such as Underworld currency and simple goods. The Smugglers must choose a secluded location to materialize their supplies as to not get stolen by others.

They’ve prepared stationaries among the supplies, as they often have to deliver messages from the souls back to the living world. Zhao wrote a cryptic letter and handed it to them. Shenzi took out a paper talisman and with an incantation, the letter is stored in it. Afterwards, they gave some money and clothing to Zhao before moving on.

“That’s simpler than I thought,” Shenzi muses. “But the rest are gonna be tough.” 

Unlike normal souls, those who committed violent crimes are sentenced to punishment in Hell. Only the most skilled Smugglers can safely venture to Hell. Furthermore, the preparation of the journey is expensive. They usually collect months' worth of Hell assignments and do it in one go. 

This time, they have hundreds of people to visit. The souls are often tortured beyond recognition. For that, each assignment involving Hell must be provided with a sliver of the subject’s remains. The Smugglers can then sense the aura of the soul by referencing the remains.

Hell is vast. It is divided into the Burning and the Frozen Realms, each with many levels and sub-domains.

“I’ll take the burning one this time.” Shenzi summons a glowing cerulean orb from a paper talisman and crushed it with an incantation. The energy infuses into his soul.

Simultaneously, Yanlin summons a crimson gourd containing alchemical fire. She casts a spell on herself and took a swig from the gourd.

The Frozen Realm is sparsely inhabited. For miles, there’s only endless blizzard and ice. For each soul on her list, she found them lying, kneeling, and curled up on various icy surfaces, all nude with red blisters blooming all over their skin. She brought them food, warm clothing, and regards from their loved ones, though she knows that such comfort will not last.

On the contrary, the Burning Realm is teeming with monstrous Servants of Hell, more terrifying than their regular counterparts. In addition to the burning surroundings, the Servants slash, hack, and pierce the souls with wanton devastation. The souls are delirious and aggressive here. Shenzi summons a sword made of peach wood to repel them. He carefully avoids the Servants while bringing supplies to the souls on his list.

Time passes slowly in Hell, more so as one descends further. They’ve spent ages trekking through the treacherous realms to complete their tasks. To the outside world, only hours have passed. Yanlin left first, followed by Shenzi moments later.

The sky is a lighter shade than before. The two see the otherworldly sun almost rising from the horizon. They know they have to leave. Their bodies cannot endure the separation from their souls for more than twelve hours.

Fortunately, leaving Underworld is simpler than entering it. They find their way to a secluded part of the River of Three Crossings. Fewer Guardians are patrolling the river banks now as the dead rarely ventures out to the living world during the day. Standing on their wooden swords, they quickly fly over the river and return to their bodies.

They open their eyes to the breaking dawn of the living world. 

Yanlin sits up in the grave, peeling off the paper talismans on her. Her body is sore from lying on the stiff ground. She stumbles as she pulls herself out of the grave and quickly dusted herself. 

“I feel like I was sleeping like the dead.” Shenzi chuckled, followed by a yawn.

Yanlin broke a tiny smile, seeing that Shenzi hasn’t changed a bit. She remembers training him so many years ago when he was but a young lad. 

She offers a hand to him, who’s still in the grave. Together, they return to the headquarters. They’ll have someone from the clan to clean up later. 

“Go have some actual rest, I’ll deal with the clients.” Shenzi says. As the clan leader, he has a day of work ahead of him. However, he travels to Underworld much less frequently than Yanlin. 

Without a word, Yanlin retreats to her quarters.

Underworld Smuggling is a lucrative business indeed, for it requires tremendous skills. Trainees have to train for a decade before taking on assignments.

To Yanlin, however, money means nothing. She joined the clan to learn the occult arts, all so that she could find her sister. 

Growing up, her sister was the only loved one she had. Their mother was drowned in a pig’s cage after their father accused her of adultery. In truth, their father was unhappy at their mother for giving birth to many daughters and no son. He abused his daughters and gave them away when they are of age. 

Yanhui and Yanlin were the youngest two. Yanlin was too young to remember her other sisters. One day, while their father was heavily drunk, Yanhui killed him. She took her little sister and ran away. 

They went to the city and became housemaids for a wealthy household. They didn’t have much, but they were content.

There was a fire in the manor, and Yanhui was among the perished. The remaining members of the household hired the Smugglers to contact the dead. Grief-stricken, Yanlin begged to learn from the Smugglers, so she can see her sister. Years later, the clan eventually took her in as a novice. 

When she finally traveled to Underworld, she couldn’t find her sister in Purgatory. She bribed the Servants of Underworld for information. Yanhui didn’t reincarnate, she’s still somewhere in there. Yet for a decade, Yanlin looked through Underworld, she couldn’t see her sister anywhere.

She found their father in a level of the Burning Realm, she felt no satisfaction, only bitterness. Still, she found no sign of her sister, even after venturing a little further down.

The constant traveling to Underworld drained the vitality from her body and soul. When she reached forty-three, she could feel her life coming to an end. She didn’t want to leave her sister suffering, tucked in some corner of Hell. Yet, there’s nothing she could do to extend her life. 

Unwilling to give up, she devised a plan. On her deathbed, she clutches a paper talisman with a tubular vial sealed within. 

Each passing soul resides in Purgatory for up to three years. In that period, they visit each of the Ten Kings of Underworld to receive judgments on different matters.

On the seventh day in Purgatory, the Servants led Yanlin to the First King. In the shadowy throne room, the King sat behind his desk. He judged that Yanlin had a regular measure of good and evil karma. She would be expedited to the Tenth King for reincarnation matters, who then ruled that Yanlin was to be reincarnated as a human. 

For reincarnation, the souls exit Underworld from the same bridge they crossed when they entered. But this time, they will be made to drink the Brew of Oblivion to forget their past lives.

As Yanlin was finally escorted to the River of Three Crossings, she summoned the vial and carefully placed it in her oesophagus.

When it was her turn at the bridge, she carefully drank the Brew, making sure that every drop was caught by the vial in her oesophagus. After crossing the bridge, she carefully removed the vial. She would retain her memories.

For her next lifetime, she continued searching.

One lifetime bled to another. Soon, three hundred years have passed. She is now in her tenth life.

Once again Yanlin is on an expedition in Hell. This time, she takes the tasks in the Burning Realm. One of the souls she’s after perished quite recently, yet she could not find him in the usual places. She focuses herself to sense his aura. The trail is fresh, the soul’s aura bled through the jagged, blade-like terrain. 

Following the trail, she finds strange, twisting paths and warped tunnels leading into the depths of Hell. She skillfully hides her presence from assorted infernal beings, while keeping alert on their presence. 

As she treks, the heat seeping into her is unlike anything she’s ever encountered. She consumes another cerulean orb. It is enough to keep her from becoming feverish, yet it doesn’t stop her skin from blistering. 

Finally, the trail reaches a chasm, there is no more land, everything is aflame. 

She isn’t sure how to approach her task. Her magic isn’t strong enough to protect her from the great fire beneath. She focuses once more, trying to think.

Suddenly, there’s a loud burst in her head.

A familiar presence.


In the great fire. Scarlet. Burning.

Before she knew it, she dives into the chasm.

After all these years, Yanlin finally sees her sister. Her form is a cycle of constant disfigurement and regrowing anew. Yanlin hears her screams fade into voicelessness and rise back again.

Yanlin has seen death and torment in myriad forms. Never did she think that Yanhui would be subjected to the cruelest of all.

She tries to pull Yanhui from the fire, but the fire grips on Yanhui like a viscous sludge.

“No!” She conjures a blade. “I will bring you out!” She cuts a part off Yanhui.

If she cannot take her whole, she will take her in pieces. 

It is of no use. The severed parts of her reduce to ashes, while she regrows the lost parts in the fire. Yanlin’s protection magic is wearing off, the wooden sword she stands on soon combusts. She plunges towards the fire.

There is a forceful tug.

Her soul was stretched. Longer and longer it becomes, it’s as if it’ll rip.

Yanlin wakes up in the grave, Shenzi stares at her worriedly.

“What was that?” He scolded. “You were gone for the entire night! None of our tracking spells worked. I had to forcibly recall your soul.” 

Yanlin does not reply, the pain is too overwhelming.

Despair rises in her. She never felt so powerless. There’s not a thing she can do.

It baffled her, she’d seen the punishments of many crueler beings, of murderers, of her father. What could Yanhui possibly do to warrant her a punishment magnitudes greater? 

Yanlin is not one to give up.

Though she dislikes dealing with the grim gods of Underworld, she turns her question into a petition and took it to the temple of the Ten Kings. As the paper burns, the petition will reach Underworld.

Her soul is battered from her last journey, but as soon as she heals, she requests an audience with them.

There’s no need to fool the Heralds this time. Under the orders of the Kings, she’s escorted to Underworld and led to the main palace.

Shadows shift in the great hall. Each King takes a throne, two ghostly Guardians standing at their sides. Yanlin stands in front of them.

“I petition against the judgment of Yanhui. The punishment she endures is completely unjustified.”

A King clears his throat. He almost voiced his rebuttal before being interrupted by an exasperated sigh. It came from the middle throne.

From the shadows, a figure rises. The First King steps forward. Instead of a beastly visage like his underlings, a human face is revealed.

 “I’ve seen your petition.” He says. 

“It’s true, some who committed greater magnitudes of violence, those who’ve massacred and tortured…they suffer a lesser punishment than her.” He sighs again. 

“I…agree. The rules are unfair. What your sister committed is patricide, one of the Grave Offenses. She will suffer in the Hell Incessant until the end of time.” He sounds increasingly defeated. “We don’t make the rules, we merely follow them.”

“We were humans too, ascended to godhood to serve Underworld.” He adds. 

“But because we were humans, we understand. The rules are rigid, so we allow leeways. How else are you ’Smugglers’ able to come and go as you please with your various shenanigans? You didn’t think we’re that oblivious, do you?” He scoffs. 

“And you. Retaining memories through reincarnations. That’s…a serious misdeed. But we let it slide-” 

“And am I supposed to be grateful?” Yanlin interrupted, her voice trembling. “I’ve spent centuries in false hope and meaningless efforts.” She pauses. “Tell me then, who do I find to change the rules?”

There’s a bustling among the thrones. 

“That…would be the Great Emperor.” The First King says. “The Eastern Mountain, there’s another entrance to Underworld. It leads to his palace.” 

“But to awaken him?” He grimaces slightly.

Yanlin has a plan. She will move mountains if she must.

She gathered the clan and all its branches. With their influences, the Smugglers spread the word and collect as many petitions as they can from everyone, occultists and laypeople alike. She isn’t afraid, the injustice must be known.

They hike the Great Eastern Mountain, paving a path to the top. Carts of paper are transported to the mountain every day.

Eventually, they reached the summit. The Smugglers place the petitions in ritual circles all over the path. With a spell, they set them ablaze.

“So,” Shenzi quips. “We’ve resorted to literal arson.”

On the tenth day, Yanlin feels a strange distortion. She blinks, nothing changed, but the sky has taken an otherworldly hue. There’s a small house at the summit where there was none. 


Yanlin steps into the simple abode. There, she faces the supreme ruler of Underworld.

The Emperor is unlike any human monarch. There is nothing majestic or domineering about him. He is radiant with divinity, all warm and gentle, in a distant, inhuman way.

“Tell me, why does bringing one to life gives one dominion over the child?” Yanlin doesn’t know what came over her. 

Centuries of bitterness overflows at this instance.

“My father did nothing but the measly contribution of seminal fluid.” She says disdainfully.

“He brought nothing but pain and suffering to his family. Yanhui put an end to it, and she is punished for that? You claim benevolence, yet you are so removed from humanity you do not understand the intricacies of life.”

There are so many words, so much pain accumulated through time. The Emperor listens.

In the end, Yanhui is pardoned, with the rules revised.

“Yanhui.” Yanlin sees her sister in Purgatory. The young woman walks up to her. Yanhui has no memory of her time in Hell. Yanlin told her that she’d died in the fire not long ago.

For now, Yanlin wants to pretend that all those lifetimes didn't exist.

Over the next three years, she visits Yanhui often. She sees her through her judgments and bids her the final farewell.

Several years later, it is Yanlin’s turn. This time, she truly downs the Brew of Oblivion. 

She can finally let go.

October 25, 2020 19:58

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Hello there Saizen! You asked me to critique on your story, so here I am!! By the way, is this your first story in Reedsy? I can't believe it! Before I even start this critique, I want to wish you the BEST writing journey! I know that you are going to have a bright future and succeed in many other life tasks and goals you may have! Your story was honestly speechless! I am amazed by the quality of it! 😃 My first appreciation is, (all though I have a very LONG list of things I love about your story, I am not going to include all of them bec...


00:50 Nov 04, 2020

Wow. That’s an amazing comment if ive ever seen one!


Thank you so much!


Also, I loved your new story! I am so glad you wrote one!


00:53 Nov 04, 2020



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Saizen 🦜
01:52 Nov 04, 2020

Thanks for the critique! It takes an experienced eye to see the details, and I'll definitely look to improve my future stories with your feedbacks.


No problem! Just notify me every time you write a story! It will be my pleasure to write a critique for you because I KNOW your stories are going to be amazing! :)


14:02 Nov 14, 2020

Hey, I just wanted to throw in here, I was reading through your comment, and some of these grammar/syntax critiques aren't correct... Five, six, seven, eight, eleven, and fourteen aren't accurate changes--most of these are fine already. For example, on six, "bulk items" is correct. Bulk items are items shipped in large numbers or quantities. Bulky items are items that are large. Coins are not large.


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Tiffany 🌻
18:22 Nov 01, 2020

Wow this story is so amazing!! It could be a movie, with the action, adventure and characters- everything is so good. Really well written, it feels like we're the ones going on the adventure throughout the whole story. Never stop writting, you're awesome👏👏


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15:21 Nov 14, 2020

"Moments later, the Heralds of Underworld have arrived. Grotesque creatures with heads of oxen and horses, they came brandishing their spears and halberds." In this sentence, "Their" is an unnecessary word--when you cut it, the sentence holds the same meaning with fewer words. This is the only grammatical issue I saw--on to the actual story! So, the key item I saw here is that you lack a LOT of necessary details. For example, traveling to Underworld. You never even stated that their souls left their bodies. You also don't explain li...


15:22 Nov 14, 2020

Oh, just wanted to add, I see you're a concept artist--you should be VERY familiar with the concept of showing. ;)


Saizen 🦜
15:53 Nov 14, 2020

Hello, thanks so much for your review! You should never apologize for an honest feedback. To address them: - The grammar was quite bad, and I thought it was a good idea to try using present tense to tell the story to separate with the flashback. Turns out, it's quite silly and mistakes were rife, 100% won't attempt again. - I completely agree with you about the lack of details of this piece. Frankly, I forgot how unfamiliar the average Western reader is to Taoist mythology. Using peach wood for ghost-repelling purposes and flying on...


16:18 Nov 14, 2020

Ok, cool. -That's interesting about concept art, I'll remember that. (looking back, I kinda confused concept art with storyboard art--where showing IS a priority :P) -I agree, flowery words aren't always necessary or correct. Telling is definitely more concise, and there is a place for it. However, telling doesn't invoke emotions in your readers. You can show with terse, short statements as well. In all practicality, if we were exclusively showing our story, we'd have to craft a scene for everything we wanted to explain. Telling ...


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03:42 Nov 05, 2020

Hi Saizen! Thanks for the comments on my story. You have a very full story here that I would recommend splitting up so that you can include all of the extra details you had to cut to fit the word count. (Maybe one story that is the backstory about Yanlin's many lives and another about the trip to Hell) You should also update so that it is all present or past tense unless you are primarily in the present tense and have a flashback that would require past tense. You go back and forth between the present and past. I appreciate the details...


Saizen 🦜
04:57 Nov 05, 2020

Thanks for the feedback! I don't know if it is obvious but I try to separate the flashback and the present events with past and present tense. But I guess writing with present tense is pretty novel among.. novels. Perhaps it's more familiar for readers if I just use past tense all the way?


15:43 Nov 06, 2020

OK. Switching tense makes sense for flashbacks. It got a little confusing for me as it switched back and forth. You might try a signal to the reader that you are going into a flashback like saying a character is thinking back to the previous situation or like when you used the phrase "Growing up, her sister..." An example of switching back and forth that I am referring to is this pair of sentences with "says" and "replied" being present and then past: “We have a long list tonight. We should take care of Mr. Zhao first." Yanlin says. ...


Saizen 🦜
18:14 Nov 06, 2020

Good catch! Didn't notice about that. Thanks for the feedback!


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15:32 Dec 21, 2020

Hello Saizen! I can tell you're incredibly dedicated to your craft because it definitely shows. I hope to communicate with you more in the future. You have a rich, intricate world and story here. Clearly you know what you're talking about and how to detail your vision. Just one problem: The worldbuilding will not mean anything if the reader does not care about the main character. Would Narnia be as wonderful if Lucy wasn't curious? Would Hogwarts be as magical if Harry wasn't brave? Basically, the beginning of the story, for me at least, ne...


Saizen 🦜
16:15 Dec 21, 2020

Hey, thanks so much for reading the story! You have an incredible point here. This is my earlier story, which was translated from something years ago. Your examples of Lucy and Harry are spot on and I haven't been able to put that in words. But yes, a fictional world does need an interesting character to guide the reader into its intricacies. It you like, you can read The Gilded Pearl. I hope I did improve on making good characters. Once again, thanks for your feedback. I'll go check out your stories!


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00:38 Nov 05, 2020

This is fantastic.


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Saizen 🦜
07:19 Oct 26, 2020

I had a blast coming up with this short story! The setting is inspired by Taoist mythology of the afterlife. Balancing the plot and details within the word count was an interesting challenge. I left many less plot-relevant things implied and ambiguous. If you happen to be interested in those details, I am happy to answer in the comments. Critiques are welcomed!


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