The golden drop of essence, circulated throughout Zhang's body and dispersed its power into his body. After a day Zhang finally stood up, as the golden drop had completely integrated into his body. Surprisingly, his essence now reached level 4. After being stuck at the first level for most of his life, Zhang was filled with joy. Then suddenly he heard the mysterious voice once more.
"Although your body lacks the ability to produce a lot of essence, thanks to that drop of pure essence it has reached the 4th level unexpectedly. This is probably the highest level you could reach if you were alive."
"What’s the point if I’m already dead? What’s the point of having power now? I have no one to protect, nothing to fight for." Zhang sighed.
"Indeed you are dead, but not all things stay dead. There is actually a way for you to go back to the world of the living, without having to reincarnate actually. But first I need to devour more souls, my power is still lacking and there is no way for me to help you." The voice said.
"What??!! There's a way for me to go back?!!” Zhang yelled.
"There is a certain place in the underworld, a forbidden place, called "The Pool of Regrets”. This pool is linked with the other side, but usually it only let souls pass one way, meaning it only sends souls into the underworld. But every 1000 years, during the solar alignment, if one had enough power they could reverse the flow and return to the world of the living as a loose soul. And once you are in the world of the living there are many ways to revive. For instance, you can possess someone or if you manage to gather enough negative energy from a battlefield perhaps you can condense it into a body. But first you must gather 100 000 souls of the dead and the best place to do that is within the 18 Levels of Hell. I can cloak you in a layer of energy that can conceal your presence to weak souls. Also you must make haste the solar alignment is going to happen within two years’ time" The voice said
"How will I gather the souls? And where is the Pool of Regrets?” Zhang asked.
"Simple, close your eyes and look into your soul and tell me what you see?” The voice said.
Zhang listened to the voice and closed his eyes and fell into a meditative state. Inside his soul he could see a raging black fire.
“I see a raging black fire.” Zhang replied calmly.
“I bestowed on you a bit of my power, use the black flame to absorb the souls into the pendant. And the Pool of Regrets is within the Palace of the Yama. For now you must use the pendant as a medium to use the black flame but as your control over it grows you can produce your own." The voice said. A layer of mystifying black energy coated Zhang's body which made his body appear transparent. And from the pendant a black fire shot out and revolved around Zhang, constantly flickering as if it would go out any second.
For the last six months, Zhang began mapping the City of the Dead. He needed to find the quickest route from the 18 levels of hell to the Yama's palace. Because once 100,000 souls had gone missing it would obviously cause a huge stir in the underworld. The Yama would certainly send out the Army of the Underworld. And possessing only the little power he had now, how would Zhang contend against them? Even if the mysterious voice from the pendant helped him, he didn't believe that he would be able to make it out. Because he needed all the energy from the 100,000 souls to reverse the flow of the Pool of Regrets to escape.
Zhang had spent the vast wealth he had gotten in hiring people to map out every part of the capital. Six months had already past but only sixty percent of the city was mapped. The entire city was simply too vast, and was filled with too many alleyways and streets to be entirely mapped out quickly.
The 18 levels of hell were located outside the capital, pass the Forest of the Forgotten. The tricky part of the plan was to sneak into the 18 levels of hell and then make it out and cross through the Forest of the Forgotten. The Forest of Forgotten was huge and was covered in dense fog that made one lose any sense of direction they had. Zhang would have to navigate his way through with the possibility being chased by the Army of the Underworld, which had many experts in it.
Today Zhang had set out from the capital and headed into the Forest of the Forgotten, he wanted to leave markers, so he could make out a path later on. The day of the solar alignment was quickly approaching, so he had to make sure there were no loose ends to his plan.
Zhang made a trail of rocks and marked various trees, as he made his way across the Forest of Forgotten. Luckily he had not run into any of the mad souls that were banished into the forest. After he made it across the forest he saw an imposing fortress, with a massive tower situated in the center, the place known the 18 Levels of Hell. He activated the energy in the pendant that enveloped him, and decided to scout the fortress.
Zhang had to figure out to see if any of the guards were able to sense him, because it would be simply stupid to try to sneak in if they could see him. And so he made his way toward the main gate of the fortress.
He saw groups of people in chains being escorted into the fortress by platoon of guards. Zhang walked closer and closer at a relatively slow pace, he had to make sure not to make any noise. Eventually, he reached the gate unnoticed and walked right in. There were countless guards in the fortress, hundreds of thousands of them. What stood out the most in the fortress was the entrance to the giant tower. It looked like a monster with its mouth open, as if everyone who walked in was simply walking into a monster's stomach.
Zhang made his way across the forest and back into the city unnoticed by anyone. He came back to the inn he had been staying in and pulled out a huge map and began making a route.
Two months had passed since Zhang's trip through the forest, the map of the capital was now about eighty percent complete. Zhang was able to make connections with various powers within the city, using his wealth. He had planned for them to make disturbances throughout the city on the day of his escape. He even acquired a map of a small section of the Yama's palace. The map had about ten percent of the palace on it, and he was hoping to find a complete one before the Solar Alignment.
Throughout this whole time the voice within the pendant had never once talked to Zhang. But he was now able to somewhat control its power. Zhang was now able to make four small black flames appear and move at his will. Zhang decided to spend the rest of his time, attempting to control more of its power. Because the better he can control it the quicker he would be able to gather the 100,000 souls and escape.
The day before the Solar Alignment, Zhang headed out of the city and into the Forest of the Forgotten. He needed to gather the 100,000 souls and reach the Pool of Regrets during the Solar Alignment which would happen at midnight. Zhang had a total of ten hours to gather the 100 000 souls. He figured that any longer than ten hours would be too long, the larger the gap of time the more room there was for errors to appear in the plan.
And so Zhang walked into the fortress, and into the gate of the 18 Levels of Hell. Zhang witnessed the horrifying scenes that were being enacted in the tower. Although it is a massive tower but the 18 Levels of Hell was actually located beneath it, and one would start from the first level then walk all the way down to the 18th level. The lower one went, the more dangerous it became, because the lower levels only contained souls who had sinned heavily or souls that were too strong to be kept in the upper levels.
Zhang's goal was the 6th level. He didn't want to go too deep or did he want to absorb the souls of those who had sinned lightly. He felt those souls weren't necessarily that evil compared to those who were in the lower levels, so Zhang decided to spare them.
There were all manners of terrifying scenes could be seen the 18 levels. The first level that Zhang had entered was called "The Mountain of Knives." Where sinners were thrown in a cliffs and would land on mountain of sharp blades sticking out. While others were climbing trees with knives or sharp thorns sticking out of its trunks and branches.
As Zhang saw the exit to the 2nd level, a smile appeared on his face. It did not take him very long to locate the exit, which was a good sign. But right when Zhang crossed the threshold through the exit, a loud bang rang in his ears. He turned his head back to see a giant Minotaur holding a huge trident standing at the exit he had just passed.
"Who dares to pass without permission!!!" the Minotaur growled.
Zhang's heart sank at that very instant. If he got caught on the very first floor, then his entire plan would have been a failure. All the time and effort that he spent into planning would be for naught. But to his surprise the minotaur started swinging its trident at the ground randomly, nowhere near Zhang.
"It seems he detected that I passed through the exit, but he does not know where I am." Zhang said with relief.
Suddenly an immense heat struck Zhang, and as he turned his vision away from the minotaur he saw giant pots of oil and huge lines of people were being lead to jump into these sizzling hot pots of oil. This floor would be the floor where sinners were fried in oil cauldrons. Being dead they wouldn't actually die, but they would still feel the pain from the torture. These poor souls would have to experience being burned in pots of oil over and over again until they make up for all their sins.
Zhang winced as he imagined the pain these people would have to experience every hour, every minute, every second, until they redeemed themselves. The fumes emitting from the cauldrons caused the air to be suffocating, let alone the actual heat of the oil.
But his goal would still be the 6th floor, the people here did not deserve to be destroyed. So Zhang quickened his pace, and soon he saw the exit to the 3rd level. And to his surprise, this time, when he passed the exit nothing happened, compared to when he passed the exit on the first level.
Having passed the exit, Zhang had entered the hell of dismemberment where sinners were dismembered by various means, including sawing, slicing into half, mashing/pounding into pulp, being crushed by rocks/boulders, being run over by vehicles, etc.
Each floor gave off a different aura, and as one went down deeper the aura was getting more and more sinister and eerie. The atmosphere and conditions was getting worser and worser. Zhang felt suffocated by just passing from one floor on to the next, but oddly enough the guards that were torturing the sinners seemed not to be affected at all.
Zhang continued to go down until he reached the Hell of Burning, where sinners would be set aflame and thrown into smoldering hot inferno. The air here was dry and it burned the back of Zhang's throat, his energy sapped away much quicker. It eventually came to the point where he decided to kill one of the guards and find out how they were able to be perfectly comfortable in these conditions. After doing so Zhang found out it was due to their uniforms. Although Zhang could have gone back into the previous floor and started gathering the 100 000 souls, from those who sinned less, but he decided not to.
It wasn't because his moral compass was always pointed in the right direction, but when he decided he would do something, Zhang would do it. He would not turn back nor would he waiver, Zhang would just simply push on harder. That’s how he had lived his life from an early age. If he couldn't practice his cultivation like everyone else that didn’t mean he would stop, it just meant he had to keep trying harder and in a different way.
With this, he pushed on and finally passed the Hell of Burning and entered the Hell of Ice. Also known as The Ice World where sinners were frozen in ice. Some unclothed sinners suffered frostbite in an icy world and their bodies eventually fell apart or break into pieces. The air was dry and cold, while the wind was fast and sharp. If one was unlucky enough a really strong wind could pass by and cause the person to be knocked into freezing cold water, or worst yet be cut in two. One could not die in 18 Levels of Hell but pain could still be felt. To the strong, this could be seen as a sort of mental training to wash away their fear and pain but to the weak it would be one of the worst possible ways of torture. The Hell of Ice was by far the hardest level that Zhang has been on, he had been cut countless times by the wind and his entire body was covered with frost.
Luckily, the exits and entrances to the levels were located relatively close to each other, and always in a certain distance. Because if one had to roam each floor, it would take them countless years let alone hours. Each floor was like its own world, it was vast and boundless.
Finally, Zhang reached his goal, the 6th floor. This floor was known as the Pool of Blood, where those who murdered were sent sent. Each level after this were the prisoners who had committed greater sins than murder. The Pool of Blood, had no guards, nor did it have any land nor trees. The whole level was simply just blood. Some sinners would find themselves on a knee-deep pool of blood, while in others would be in over their head. Or if the sinner murdered countless lives they would end up in the bottomless part. The sinners would simply drown in blood. The blood here symbolized the blood of the innocent people who was spilled, and so that the sinners would never be able to get the blood off their hands.
Having arrived at his destination, Zhang into his inner soul where a massive black fire was burning and made a 100,000 small black flames appear. Normally this would not be possible in the mortal world, but because the essence in the Underworld the was much more concentrated, Zhang was able to form so many flames.
And so all of the 100,000 flames flew up in the sky, the sinners looked up in amazed and at the same time confused. Some of them had been here for hundreds or even thousands of years and something this had never been happened before. It was a sight to behold, 100,000 black fires swirled in the sky as they began to descend like falling stars. Each fire would fall on a sinner, and the sinner would ablaze in black fire and turn into nothingness. The black fire then would fly back towards Zhang and then into the Dragon Pendant.
Although Zhang was able now to independently control the black fire without the help of the Dragon Pendant due to a part of it entered his soul through the golden drop that increased his essence. At first, Zhang thought that the golden drop only increase his power but later on he found out that was not the only thing it had done. He still needed to use the pendant to store the souls.
The mysterious voice that neither sounded young nor old, nor like a man or a woman had told him that, if he were to absorb the souls into his own body he would at most be able to hold ten or so and anymore would cause him to explode. Also that if he were to absorb the souls himself he would at most be able to get ten percent of the soul’s total energy, whereas the Dragon Pendant was able to absorb all 100%.
Many of the sinners who saw what happened began to frantically scream and run, while others seemed to embrace it. This would be their way out; they wouldn't have to suffer anymore. They would finally be free from everything. Not much time passed before Zhang had been able to collect the required souls. Now, the Dragon Pendant had a frightening amount of energy in it and Zhang would use it to reverse the flow of the Pool of Regret and go against heaven's will. Zhang would cheat his death and fate.
After he stored all the souls in the Dragon Pendant, Zhang began to ascend through the previous levels. But now, problem presented itself, he was no longer invisible to the guards or to the other souls. The concealment that the mysterious voice had put on him now faded away, and the massive amount of energy that was in the Dragon Pendant was like a beacon giving off a peculiar aura and golden white glow around Zhang.
As he made his way back through the 6 floors, various sinners would be attracted to Zhang and followed him. As Zhang reached the exit back to the 5th floor he made a massive black flame appear which sealed up the exit. He did not want any of the murderers to follow him, if it were the souls from the first 5 floors then, that would be fine but not these murderers.
Zhang entered the 5th floor and just like in the 6th floor a massive group of sinners began following him, luckily the 5th floor had a very few guards so none of them was alerted. Just as Zhang reached the exit a group of guards noticed him.
"HALT!!! Any further and we will send you lot to oblivion!", one of the guards yelled as he and the rest unsheathed their swords and readied their spears.
But to their amazement small black fires appeared out of nowhere and engulfed the group of guards.
Zhang would not give the guards any mercy because a soldier was a soldier. In other words, if one was a soldier and was ready to kill then they also must be prepared to be killed. That was a simple law of the battlefield that everyone must follow. To be ready to take a life, one must be ready to lose a life.
The sinners following behind Zhang all had mixed feelings; some were excited while others were scared. But they all knew one thing, this would be a one in a lifetime chance to escape. For those with light sentences they obviously choose to stay until their time was up. But for those who had to be punished for thousands or tens of thousands of years, they chose to follow. They did not care if following Zhang would meant for them to be sent to oblivion and disappear. At least it would be better than being tortured for tens of thousands of years.
When they entered the 4th floor a group of guards was stationed at the exit the the third floor, but this time the group of guards chose to run. While one of them pulled out a strange-looking orb with a green hue and had an odd designed carved into it. The guard sent his energy into the orb which made it fly into the sky. And once it was in the sky, the orb exploded and waves of green light flashed across the sky. This was a signal that the guards used to call for reinforcements and that prisoners were leaving their assigned floors in large numbers.
It wasn't unheard of for sinners to amass and try to escape. So this was a simple protocol for the guards. They would recall all the guards and have them amass at the exit to the 4th floor and then engage the sinners to push them back. Many sinners would be killed and fade away. This would set as an example for the other sinners not to act up.
Soon, the sinners from the 4th floor joined with those from the 5th floor and the group doubled in size. Although they were following Zhang they were not with him. So he paid no attention to them, and simply kept moving and eventually Zhang reached the exit to the 3rd floor.
An army of guards was present, with their weapons drawn. The guards were naturally fewer in numbers compared to the sinners but they had weapons and their energy was not sapped away due to being tortured. So they were very confident in containing the sinners and pushing them back. There were a total of 100,000 guards assembled on the 4th floor and if their essence was measured, they'd all be categorized as level 8 warriors.
One hundred thousand level eight warriors would be an elite force in the world of mortals, but these were simply regular guards in the underworld.
In a flash, the sky was once again filled with black flames and like before as it as it began to rain on the guards. Zhang decided to absorb the soul of the guards into the Dragon Pendant so that he would have a stored energy to pull outout in times of need. The energy that the guards gave him was many times more than that of the prisoners, due to their high level.
And so Zhang entered the exit to the 3rd floor. Surprisingly only a small group of guards were located on the other side of the exit. This was due to the floors not successfully communicating to each other. Also the fact that Zhang had wiped out the guards at the exit in the 5th floor too quickly.
So once more, a guard pulled out a green signal orb and sent it into the sky. Also, the sinners in that floor congregated and joined the sinners who were following behind Zhang.
When the exit was in sight, this time, an army of 200,000 guards were present. And the same scene unfolded once more. The sky was blocked out by black flames and the guards would then again be annihilated. Using the black fire did not cost Zhang any energy because of the high essence levels in the air together with the low consumption of the flames themselves.
When Zhang reached the exit into the 1st floor he did not see a massive army of guards waiting for him like before. This time it was the gigantic Minotaur from before and to make things worse, he had two friends who were also Minotaurs of similar sizes.
The sinners following Zhang were stricken with fear, but they did not choose to turn back because they had simply gone too far. And freedom was almost in their reach.