Judge of the Underworld Household

Submitted into Contest #113 in response to: Write about a character whose dreams are portals to other worlds.... view prompt

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East Asian Fantasy Coming of Age

Bao Si Ran’s dreams lead her into the underworld household. 

The underground household she goes to is not Hell, nor was it the Greek Underworld ruled by Hades. It is called 阴朝地府(Yin Chao Di Fu) in Chinese, which relatively translates to the Dynasty of Yin and the Underworld Court. 

Depending on if the person accumulated good or bad karma in life, one can either be send to their next life that would be filled with joy immediately, be promoted into a minor deity in the area or a guardian ancestor for their family so people can build temples for them, or given time to serve in the Underworld Household as punishment. But no one is trapped here forever, the King and Judge of the Underworld Household, 阎罗王 (The Yan Luo King), is always fair and impartial. 

He cannot be bribed nor be coerced. He is the most just deity in the Chinese pantheon, because while most other Heaven Officials are bureaucrats who are up their divine asses, Yan Wang never forgets about his duty. 

Yan Wang told Si Ran once.. “苍天无情, the Heaven has no emotions. Those gods sit on their pedestals and receive sacrifices from the people on Earth. They only take and take, they don’t know what it feels like to have something taken from them. If one has no emotions, they cannot feel the pain and suffering of the victims. How can they deliver fair judgement without being burdened with feelings?”

Si Ran, who was taken from her country as a child and had basically no recollection of the mythology from her country, stood there and cried. She had just fallen asleep and she thought she was in Hell. 

There are people like Si Ran in the world, whose eyes could see into the world of the dead. At day time, it means she can see ghosts. 阴阳眼, the eyes of Yin Yang, which means she could see into worlds not of the living. 

At night, however, it means Si Ran’s dreams could bring her to the Household of the Dead. That was where she met Yan Wang, the Judge of the Underground Household, her ancestor. 

The first time she ever found herself walking into the Underground Household, she was only seven. It was a pretty place upon first sight. All the poppy flowers with their lush redness, Si Ran was delighted by them at first. She thought it was just a dream, so her childish interest drove her to run into the poppy flower filled shores and pick them flowers up. Very soon, she was holding a whole bouquet of poppies in her hands. Some of them fell down and hit the Yellow Streams, broken pedals washed away into the unending flows. 

“Hey, child. Those aren’t things you can just pick up!” 

Si Ran turned her head as a harsh voice sounded behind her. At the sight of the creature that was yelling at her, Si Ran let out a cry and shook in horror. It was a creature with an ox’s head and a human’s body, who was holding a trident that they pointed at Si Ran. 

His tone was also quite rude, which made Si Ran burst out crying. 

“Hey, hey. Child, don’t cry.” Ox Head said, he sounded panicked, as if it Si Ran’s response was not what he was anticipating. 

“You scared the child,” another creature said, her voice much calmer. If the Ox Head’s voice was the harsh wind that blows through the poppy flower shores, hers was the gentle tug of the Yellow Streams. “Dead spirits of children are automatically sent to the Reincarnation Cycle. What are you doing here, little girl?”

Si Ran stopped crying as she thought she had found an ally. But when her tears cleared from her eyes so she saw the true face of the gentle voice, she was scared back into howling with tears. The voice belonged to a creature with a horse head and a human body. 

“Oh, great job, Horse Head.” Ox’s Head mocked his partner. “Because you’re doing a much better job than me.”

“Shut up,” Horse Head sounded annoyed. “This child is alive. So she must be one of the Yan King’s descendants. They sometimes wander into the Underworld mistakenly. Let’s take her to him.”

So they took Si Ran to the Yan King, kicking and screaming no less. “You’re a fierce girl,” the Ox Head complained. “How the hell did you not inherit the King’s calm nature.”

Si Ran only kicked him in his Ox eyes in response. 

She didn’t remember much about that first trip to her ancestor’s household. The only thing she remembered was that the building they brought her too had green roofs and red walls. It resides in the middle of the Yellow Streams that slowly grew into a lake. The interior design was simple and not lavish at all, despite the creatures claiming it’s their king’s residence. 

In the middle of the room was a man in his late sixties. He had a dark complexion and very stern looking eyes. Si Ran stopped crying upon seeing him, because those eyes bore into her like two searing hot flames despite being as dark as the abyss. There was a moon symbol carved into the forehead of the old man. 

“Sir, we found one of your descendants wandering around the Ming territories.” Ox Head said. “It would be much appreciated if you tell them to, maybe not do that. It’s annoying to care for humans who are alive, we already have a handful with the dead. If this carries on, we might demand a raise in salary.”

“Ox Head,” Horse Head muttered to him loudly enough for Si Ran to hear. “We don’t get paid. Now stop disrespecting the Yan King.”

“Sure, then we demand more breaks.” Ox Head said. 

“OX HEAD.”

“I will take that into account,” the man, Yan King, opened his mouth. His voice, surprisingly, was very ordinary. Despite the stern tone, it was a voice Si Ran could hear from anyone. “Go have your break. Leave us alone.”

“Yes, sir.” Ox Head and Horse Head said as they evaporated into smoke. 

Si Ran let out a little yelp. 

Yan King stood up and walked closer. Si Ran scrambled backwards on instinct. Seeing that, the Yan King stopped approaching Si Ran, instead moving backwards to keep a safe distance between them. 

“Sorry for the circumstances of our first meeting,” the Yan King said. He sounded much more gentle and soft than when he was talking to the animal-headed creatures. “What is your name?”

“Si...Si Ran,” the girl stuttered. 

“Okay, Bao Si Ran,” the Yan King said. “It is very nice meeting you.”

“How do you know my family name?” Si Ran shivered, this can’t be good. 

“Because your father is the son of my son’s son, give or take a few dozen generations.” Yan Wang replied. “Only humans with my last name and blood could enter the Underworld in their dreams. ”

“You...are you the Devil?” Si Ran asked hesitantly, she was thinking of Hell of what she learned growing up. 

“I don’t know what that is, child.” Yan Wang said patiently, a patient smile filled with wrinkles appeared on his face. “Judging by your tone, it seems to be something bad. If you are talking about Yao Guai. No, I am not a Yao Guai. Yao Guai are the spirits of animals or inanimate objects when they obtain human level of consciousness. Even Yao Guais can be kind and good. It all depends on the route they choose. We can only judge people only by their conduct.”

Si Ran, as a seven-year-old, didn’t catch any of that. The only thing remembered was that she was mesmerized by the matter of fact tone of the Yan King. He wasn’t condescending like how adults usually talk to her. As a child, that was all it needed for Si Ran to trust her

“Okay,” Si Ran said. “You seems nice.”

“Thanks,” Yan Wang said. “Because you’re going to see more of me in the future.”

Sure enough, Si Ran did see more of Yan Wang. Sometimes she’d walk directly into one of Yan Wang’s court sessions where he is judging dead souls, where Si Ran would scream Yan Wang’s name and run up to hug him while Ox Head scrambles after her to keep her out of the courtroom. Much to the dead soul’s confusion, no less. 

Sometimes she’d catch Yan Wang in some of his free time, which wasn’t much considering how many people die all the time. During these precious times, Yan Wang would carry Si Ran up and let her ride on his back. She’d tug at Yan Wang’s beard or the bead of his judge's hat and giggle. Yan Wang never stopped her. He would obey any of Si Ran’s increasingly absurd demands, all just to make the little girl smile. 

The souls in Yan Wang’s court were always shivering and afraid. Si Ran didn’t understand how so, Yan Wang was such a pushover in her eyes, like the grandpa across the ocean that she never met. Yan Wang would sometimes even allow her to sit next to her on his judge seat as he delivers the verdict, as long as Si Ran promised to not stir and disrupt the court session. 

“You can do whatever you want, Si Ran.” He said. “My home is yours. But remember, a court session is something sacred and firm. Under no circumstances can you disrupt the procedure of the judgement. Because it could be a game to you, but to the soul, it is their entire life and afterlife at stake. I cannot make a mistake.”

Si Ran nodded. As she grew up, she developed a reverence to the court and the justice system. She would sometimes demand her parents take her to court just to watch sentences being carried out, much to her parents’ confusion. They don’t get why a little girl would be interested in sitting in a quiet and serious environment such as a court room for hours or even days on end, all while being as still as a rock. 

However, once Si Ran became a bit older, she started to realize the sentences carried out in the courts of day time are very different from the ones in her ancestor’s Underground Court. 

One time when she was thirteen, she demanded Yan Wang take her to see where the punishment of the sentencing was actually carried out. Yan Wang appeared hesitant at first, but he could never deny any of Si Ran’s requests, so he took her to some of the levels of the Underworld. 

In one of these levels, souls are being boiled in hot oil. Si Ran gasped in horror as she heard the bubbling of skins bursting from the heat. The smell of roasted meat tugs on her taste palette, but was accompanied by the howls of animals but from human’s mouths. She couldn’t help but bend down and vomited. 

“Is this too much for a living child’s eyes,” Yan Wang furrowed his brow. “Maybe we should go to the higher levels where the punishment is a bit kinder.”

So he took Si Ran to the first level of the Underground Court, where people’s tongues are being pulled out as long as they can. The sound of sinews being stretched out like rubber bands with the veins popping out on the glowing red flesh made Sin Ran dizzy. 

“How can you do this to people?” Si Ran asked as she could not believe what she was seeing. She was shaking like a leaf in the autumn wind. The grandpa that spoils her rotten slowly morphing into a monster.  “They are just people! My teacher said even the death penalty is wrong and immoral, because we cannot be as bad as the people who do horrendous things. Let alone that - it’s torture! No one deserves that.”

Yan Wang looked at her carefully, there was a deep exhaustion in his eyes. “Child, you are just like the gods.” Yan Wang said, his voice still kind but firm. “You know nothing of the suffering of the victims. The man you saw was roasted in hot oil. He lured sold thousands of women fleeing from a country or poverty as sex slaves or wives to man who can pay the price, The person whose tongue was pulled out, stole children from their parents and sold them to beggar organizations to garner sympathy of the pedestrians. He pulled out their tongues or cripple them. Do you know how many children disappear in the land of Hua Xia each year? Enough to fill the eighteen levels of the underground household. Compared to the million of people they have hurt, only a few thousands are truly condemned to suffer in the Underground, most of them are let off free into the next life - even though maybe as an insect or a cattle due to bad karma.”

“Maybe they do deserve it,” Si Ran said. “But what if you are wrong? That’s one of the reason the death penalty is bad. It kills innocent people sometimes. And even if they are guilty, you who put them through that kind of torture, aren’t you just as bad as them?”

Yan Wang shook his head. He looked older, as if the ages were catching up to him all of a sudden. “I am nothing but a judge, child.” Yan Wang said, “If you think delivering punishment to people the same amount to the pain they cause is wrong, then you must have your way. You grow up on a land not of your ancestors, you do not understand our philosophy or our law. 杀人偿命,天经地义. A life must be repaid by a life, such is the law of Heavens and Earth. Showing mercy to the perpetrator is exactly the same as standing against the victims.Y ou shouldn’t come back until you learn the pain of the victims.” 

Si Ran was speechless. She was still stunned at the cruelty that her ancestor was capable of, let alone the fact that her dear grandpa was chasing her out of his territory. Yan Wang turned his back against her and waved his hand. Ox Head and Horse Head appeared to escort Si Ran out. 

“You are such a stupid child!” Ox Head said as Si Ran walked numbly out, her eyes floating without focus. “How can you question the Yan King? You know how in five thousand years of Hua Xia history, he is the only one who gained the right to judge the souls entering into the Underground Household. Five thousand years, with Hua Xia’s huge human population! You’re just one girl, what makes you think you have the right?”

“Shush,” Horse Head slapped Ox Head’s head with the flat side of her ax. “Shut up, can’t you tell the little princess is already not in a good mood? It’s between the girl and the Judge. Don’t meddle in the boss’ business.”

Before she stepped through the portal and woke up, Si Ran turned her head up for a little bit and looked into Horse Head’s eyes for the first time. “Thank you,” she muttered quietly. 

“No problem, little lady.” Horse Head said kindly. “You make the Judge happy. In his long existence as the Yan King, you are the only descendant that stuck around enough to form a relationship with him. Judging dead souls is a tough job, you have to consider every single person’s miserable life as your own in order to understand what they deserve. It is a tiring and thankless job, and one must be done well and not allow mistakes. Because a mistake literally destroys a life. Sometimes I think people living the world above forgets that no matter how they paint him as a legend, Bao Zheng was just a human who was once alive.” 

“Bao Zheng?”

“That’s the Yan King’s name,” Horse Head said. “Only humans can judge humans. Lady Si Ran. The Yan Wang before the Judge was cruel and unfair, who crossed out the names of people who gave him sacrifices and built him temples. That was why when Bao Zheng died, he was given this job. Only him can be the true judge of the underworld household.”

One year led to the next. For years, Si Ran lived on without ever dreaming again. Her dreams would always lead her back to the Yellow Streams filled with poppy flowers, and a kind grandpa who delivers verdicts to souls. 

She learned in those years, after going into university and studied law herself. Human laws could never be fair, sometimes it would let go of guilty people on the sway of human biases or condemn the innocents based on their prejudices. Some judges and juries  would let go due to leeway to preserve the future of men who raped women instead of protecting the women. Some courts would destroy the life of people who have a different shade of skin despite them never being in the wrong. 

She witnessed all of it, and learned that those crimes are most unforgivable where those went unpunished, the pains of victims of the system with no place to cry for help. 

She might never agree with the method of her ancestor and the punishment he delivers. But she learned what he meant by the pain and suffering of victims. 

The night as she held her graduation certificate, Si Ran dreamed again. She saw a door open in front of her that led to the courtyard filled with poppy flowers, with a house that had a red roof and green walls. 

A pair of monsters with ox and horse heads bowed their heads to her. 

“Princess of the Underworld,” they said to her. “The judge has missed you very much.”

September 29, 2021 20:53

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2 comments

Alex Sultan
09:28 Oct 03, 2021

I have not read about this part of Chinese history before, and I really enjoyed how you wrote it. Everything flowed nicely and I like your use of Chinese characters scattered throughout the piece. I hope you'll write more like it :)

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Liam Murphy
16:39 Oct 07, 2021

Hi Chenchen Du, What a dark submission, filled with commentary on the various imperfections of different justice systems, real or imagined. It flowed well and was a very interesting read. I liked it. Liam Murphy

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