I stood tall in the forest, my hands folded at my waist. A soft wind blew past me, ruffling my short hair. I cast my eyes downwards, to what lay before my feet.
A pile of dirt was before my feet. Earlier in the night, I had dug out a crude tomb for the priest. Unfortunately, I had been unable to recover much of the old man, as his body had been crushed into virtually nothing by Sol Invictus. But I had managed to gather his destroyed clothes and few bits of his body that had remained intact.
It had been one day since I and the other gods had condemned the sun god to Hell. After the battle and gathering what remained of the priest, I had been forced to hide in a nearby cave to avoid the rising sun. After sleeping the day, I had awoken on this night and decided to give the old man a proper burial. It was the least I could do for failing to save him when he had saved me before.
I turned my head and saw the three deities standing nearby. They were all watching me silently, waiting patiently for me to finish the burial. I was surprised they had not left yet, but I supposed they wanted to see me once more.
I turned back to the spot of dirt before me. I sighed and whispered, "Huǒ, I am sorry. I failed to save you from the claws of death. Even with all my power, I could not avert your passing."
I shook my head and looked at the night sky. Clouds blotted out the stars tonight, making everything darker than it already was.
"I should have heeded your warning," I muttered to myself. "Perhaps if I listened, I would have been able to escape. Maybe I had listened to you, I would still be a human right now. Maybe…my mother would still live…"
I looked down at my pale hands. For a moment, my mind turned back to only a few days ago, when I was a simple rice farmer, ignorant of the true nature of the universe, content to harvest the rice and obey the customs of Taoism. That seemed so long ago, a lifetime away. It was almost as if those memories belonged to a different person.
"But, perhaps this was meant to be," I said, looking back at the priest's makeshift grave. "Destiny has something in store for all of us, does it not? If I had remained human, the jiang shi might have succeeded in their plans. Maybe my path was not meant to end so early as a human. Who knows what I will accomplish now that my path shall go on forever?"
I sighed again and shuffled my feet. "And maybe you were supposed to die here, honorable master. Everything has a time and maybe you had served your purpose in the world. I hope you shall go into the Emperor's kingdom knowing that your life was well spent. You helped destroy the army of jiang shi, the monsters you had hunted for all your years. I do not know if there would be anything left for you, if you had lived through this battle."
I smiled a little. "I am sorry I could not get you a better grave, old master. You do deserve better than being buried beneath the dirt. But…I do not think you mind. In fact, I believe you might prefer this to a tomb of rich and splendor."
I leaned down and grabbed a nearby branch. I lifted it up and stuck it into the dirt the priest's remains were buried under, marking the grave.
"Goodbye, honorable master," I whispered. "May you live out an eternity of happiness in Heaven. You have been a good soul on this world, and I hope that the gods reward you for your undying faith. I hope you earn a spot on the Jade Emperor's court and I thank you for stand by me, despite I am an affront to all that you had worshipped."
I stood and bowed before the priest's small grave. I rose slowly and looked down upon it for several moments, the only sounds around me that of animals in the dark.
I kept standing there silently, until I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and saw the stove-master approaching me.
"Do not feel upset, young Jiayi," Zào Jūn said, stopping when I looked at him. "The sole of the old one is already climbing its way to Heaven. He was very faithful to the Jade Emperor's teachings throughout his life and shall be commended for defending the way of Taosim in the face of evil. Do not mourn him, for I doubt the priest would want you to remember him that way."
"Yes…" I said, turning away from the dirt covered grave. "He was an elder, anyway. He did not have long to stay in this world. Many would long for a grand death such as his."
The stove-master nodded and raised his hand, wiggling his finger forwards. The other two gods noticed this and moved forwards.
"So, young one, we must leave soon," Zào Jūn said, stroking his mustache. "We three all have duties to attend to and cannot abandon them for long. This extended visit to the mortal plane might have caused some damage in the balance all ready. We are leaving you on your own, and I hope you do not mind that."
"No, of course not," I said. "I understand you three have duties to attend to, all of them of great importance."
"Mine is the most important of all, naturally," Zhōng Kuí said, moving besides the kitchen god. He grinned, folding his meaty arms together. "Oh, I am going to have such fun tending over Sol Invictus. I am already planning over a hundred tortures to inflict upon him in the first hour! Now, I will not get bored listening to the repetitive screams of the damned!"
"I thought that gods could not be harmed," I said, titling my head in confusion.
"Not usually, yes," The ghost king replied, his massive smile growing evil wider. "But I am sure I will find a way to make that pompous fool scream."
I felt a little shudder go through my body. I turned away from the king of hell and looked back at Zào Jūn.
"Well, young Jiayi, our time to depart is near," The kitchen god said to me. He looked up at the sky, his eyes seeming to look straight through the clouds. "But before we leave, I do have one question for you; What do you intend to do now?"
I sucked in my breath. I crossed my arms, my gaze looking over the three great deities. They watched me patiently, waiting for an answer.
"I have been considering that for sometime now," I answered after some moments. "Although I am unsure of my exact next course of action, I have reached a decision."
I looked at the ground, glancing again at the old priest's grave. I then looked up, feeling determined.
"I will leave China," I stated. "Before I am became a qi-drinker, I would have never dreamed of straying far from my village. But now, I have seen a much larger world. My eyes have been opened, and I can that there is far more out there than this little place."
"I do not think there is anything left for me here," I continued, sighing inwardly. "I am an outsider to both the humans and the jiang shi. Humans fear me, and will never accept me, for I am a monster. The jiang shi despise me, especially since I aided in killing an army of them. They will also never accept me, for I am far too human for them."
"So, I have nowhere to go in China," I said. "My mother's death has been avenged, my village is gone, and everything I had held to be true has been shattered. All these factors together have convinced me that I have nothing left. Thus, I will leave, as soon as I possible. I may even begin the journey tonight."
"Where will you go?" Zhù Róng questioned, his voice still not betraying any hint of emotion.
"I am not sure," I said truthfully. "I know little of the lands outside this one. But, I have a feeling that my destiny, my purpose, lies far away from China. I will find a home somewhere else. Somewhere, perhaps, where someone will accept me for what I am."
Zào Jūn smiled. He nodded and said, "It takes bravery to leave one's home, to run adrift in a strange world you barely know of. But I am confident you will adapt, Jiayi. Your instincts will carry you to where you belong. I wish you the bust of luck on your journey."
"Just do not eat any innocents," The fire god said.
"Do not worry about that," I replied. "I have sworn to only feed upon evil men and women. I will never harm an innocent person ever again."
The kitchen god stretched out his hand. "Goodbye, then, Jiayi. Know that you have done your ancestors proud and you have proven yourself in the eyes of the gods. Wherever you go, know that they will be watching over you…always."
I shook Zào Jūn's hand. His grip was weak, yet somehow very firm. He smiled and then stepped back behind the other two deities.
Zhù Róng looked at me. His mouth twitched, before he stepped forwards and stretched out his hand.
I shook it as well. The fire god let go, and then, so quiet I could barely hear him, whispered, "You are a worthy ally, Jiayi. I would be happy to call upon you as a battle mate anytime."
The god of fire stepped back, moving beside the kitchen god. I looked up, at Zhōng Kuí.
The ghost king rolled his eyes and grunted out, "I do not do heartfelt goodbyes, little man. So do not expect anything from me! It is you who should be crying over my departure! Whole villages have been known to threaten to kill themselves to prevent me from leaving, you know."
I chuckled. I reached out and patted Zhōng Kuí on the shoulder. "Goodbye, then, lord of hell and eater of ghosts. May you strike fear into the hearts of spirits long into the future."
The ghost king looked surprised for a moment and then laughed. "Yes, I shall. And may you strike fear into the hearts of men. Remember, just because you swore to never hurt innocents does not mean you cannot frighten and threaten them!"
I smiled. The king of hell stepped backwards, taking a spot beside the two other gods.
Zào Jūn clasped his hands together, and muttered something under his breath. A white light suddenly surrounded both him and the fire god.
The stove-master gave one final nod to me, before he and Zhù Róng disappeared in flashes of heavenly light. They vanished and I caught a quick glimpse of two balls of light flying into the sky overhead.
Zhōng Kuí raised his left foot and pounded it upon the ground several times. He shouted, quite loudly, "Hey, you lazy maggots, wake up! It is time to take your lord and master back to Hell! If your late, expect me to eat about three hundred of you before I return!"
Instantly, the ground opened. Four red creatures, all together carrying a mattress, quickly ran out of the hole and laid the mattress before the ghost king.
Zhōng Kuí snorted and said, "That was nearly one second late, you fools. I will have to eat three of you to teach you a lesson."
All of the creatures gulped nervously. The ghost king sat down on the mattress, crossing his legs together. The red creatures all grabbed the stilts supporting the mattress and hoisted it up, carrying the king of Hell above them.
They marched forwards, carrying Zhōng Kuí toward the gaping hole. The ghost king called out, "Hurry now! We have a new guest to attend to and we do not want to keep him waiting!"
The ghost king turned, and waved to me one more time, before the creatures carried him into the hole and they all vanished from sight. The earth then sealed itself up, and everything was quiet.
I smiled and said, "Thank you, great deities."
I then began to run. I shot off like an arrow, running so fast the world around me became a blur.
I ran through the trees, jumping over boulders and rivers in my path. Animals scattered before me. I felt hunger within my form, and decided I would have to feed on something later. But for now, I kept running, going faster and faster.
I did not know where I was going, but I was going somewhere.