Em X. Liu’s 2023 If Found, Return to Hell is a stand-alone modern fantasy novella.
One Wizard (a company, not a person) has a passionate commitment to the right of every person to sign binding contracts with One Wizard and for customers to provide One Wizard with subscription fees. The company’s passion for delivering services in exchange for said fees is more muted but in principle, the company is not opposed to the idea, provided the end result is more profit.
Working in One Wizard’s phone center, journeyman Wen Mingyan is sufficiently bored that the journeyman finds a plausible excuse for Wen and close friend Nathaniel Feng to visit a caller in person. This proves an effective cure for boredom.
Shine Ming Junlei has an alarming arcane symbol painted on the wall of his accommodations. Neither Wen nor Nathaniel can determine precisely what spell the pattern invokes. They can determine that whatever the spell’s nature, it has something to do with Hell. Despite initial assurances that they would help Shine, Wen now fears the young man is beyond any help Wen can offer.
Further illumination follows. Shine is now sharing his body with a sullen Wang Ran. Wang Ran is unwilling to provide much of a backstory. What is clear is that Wang Ran is some manner of infernal entity and that having escaped Hell, Wang Ran has no intention of going back.
Fortuitously for Shine and Wang Ran, they find it tolerable to coexist. Even more fortuitously, neither is especially annoying. Wen takes pity on them. Wen even permits the two-in-one to take up residence in Wen’s tiny apartment until a better solution comes along.
Hell’s laws are different from those of mortal lands. In Hell, people can be owned. In Hell, Wang Ran is owned by no lesser a person than King Death, the Emperor of the Liminal Domain, the Master of Death, the One Who Sees Over All Souls. King Death is determined to recover his missing property.
All that stands between Shine, Wang Ran and an eternity in Hell is stubborn, cunning journeyman Wen.
This novella was published not by tor dot com but by Solaris Satellites. I am as astounded as you are. It is almost as though there are a great number of publishers of stand-alone novellas, not one single very well-known source.
The Hell in this story isn’t Christian Hell but Chinese Hell. Both appear to be unpleasant but the Chinese Hell is far more bureaucratic. Also badly lit for some reason. Perhaps it’s difficult to file requests for lightbulbs in Hell. There’s room here for a workplace comedy, which is fortunate as this is a workplace comedy.
Hell was unpleasant, but in a humdrum way. Hence it wasn’t clear to me why Wang Ran was fleeing, save from King Death’s overbearing manner. It might be as simple as a youth seeking independence … which hints at parallels between Wang Ran’s situation in Hell and Wen’s at One Wizard.
Although the two stories are dissimilar in almost every way, If Found, Return to Hell has considerable A Chinese Ghost Story energy. Nobody in this novella proclaims “Scholar, it seems we’ve got to storm Hell!” but only because they are too busy storming Hell to issue proclamations about intentions. That is a recommendation for If Found, Return to Hell if you’ve seen A Chinese Ghost Story, and for both if you are unfamiliar with both.