The dead ruled the back roads. They had worn and weathered faces, eyes hard against the horizon. They were staring at that unwavering point, always visible, no matter which direction one was traveling. The horizon beyond the horizon and the sky beyond the sky. No matter where one looked, it was there, and the dead were always walking toward it, though they could never arrive at that destination. It was the land of the living, and they had passed beyond it.
Xue had as well, though he was not dead. Not yet, anyway. He avoided the dead, hiding himself along the roadside whenever he saw them approaching. Caution was his watchword in this place, for he had none of the powers of the inhabitants here. He was a mere swordsman, practitioner of those sacred arts, though no master. His failures were that of any man, and for them he had been punished—cursed—and now he found himself wandering this land, just as the dead did, hoping somehow to reach that point on the horizon and cross to the world beyond.
Xue stayed to the nether regions and the back roads, for beyond them were things far worse than the dead. If he wanted to return to the land of living he needed to stay alive, a difficult proposition in this realm, where ghouls, demons, and things not even imagined by mortals existed. Had he understood the terrible cost his actions would carry, the damnation he would incur for his wrongs, he would not have been so quick to act.
“Vengeance is a luxury only the rich can afford,” his master had once told him. He had been correct, but Xue had not been willing to listen. Now he rued his impatience and anger every day.
The road upon which he walked during this endless day—for evening never came here, just as morning never returned anew—was a trail worn by an unending multitude of walkers. Dust stirred with his every step. He was on a vast and arid plain, that seemed to cross all of the realm here, the sky above vast and incomprehensible. It was blue, though somewhat faded and drawn, with specks of clouds adrift within. They never seemed to move and the weather never changed. It was as though the sky was caught in an instant forever. And he was ensnared in it as well.
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