This is a thought.
The realization caught him by surprise. Thoughts felt new , sluggish, like newborn animals stumbling when they tried to walk. His mind almost cowered away from the fact that he was thinking, as if it would be safer lying dormant. His brain felt as if rags had been stuffed inside, wrapped tightly around each and every portion of it, squeezing it of the ability to function.
He shifted a hand, before remembering he didn’t have one. The other tingled. What had happened? Oh, right—HanGuang-Jun, to save Jin Ling, his own nephew—
Ah, yes. He was Jin GuangYao. His chest ached, and he coughed, and only then did he realize he had been forgetting to breathe. His lungs felt dry, weak, shuddering like thinning, elderly tapestries in the wind as he inhaled. One. Two. And then he blew it out.
He coughed again. Dust.
Notes filled his ears, a lovely flute warping the atmosphere. He stiffened, remembering where he was lying because Lan XiChen—Lan XiChen—
He stabbed me.
And I pushed him away.
XiChen’s face when Jin GuangYao pushed him away—desperation, his lips curling, mouth open, eyes popping out of his skull, the flare in his nostrils, the scream Jin GuangYao had lost too much blood to hear, the scream he imagined even as Da-Ge lifted him up, up, up, choking the breath from him, snapping him into death.
What he deserved, he supposed. But at least he’d had the chance to tell Da-Ge fuck you.
Da-Ge lay beneath him. Jin GuangYao scrambled, panic filling him. He turned, falling out of the coffin and onto the floor of the temple he’d built to consecrate the one person who loved him, the temple he poured so much into at the same time he rebuilt the Cloud Recesses for Lan XiChen. Two temples. And the Lookout Towers… he’d devised them for Qin Su, for RuSong.
The structures remained, but the for s had long burned to ash.
How am I alive?
The music suddenly sounded sinister. Was Jin GuangYao a corpse, one of Wei WuXian’s puppets, akin to Wen Ning now? I don’t want to be controlled! A cry burst from his lips. He could make sound. Spittle flew. His knee throbbed. He turned.
A man he didn’t recognize stared at him, and the moment Jin GuangYao’s eyes met his, he knew.
This man was a petty man, angry, insecure, draped in rags and skin filthy. Jin GuangYao got to his feet. He would not be a match for Jin GuangYao. But then who was playing the flute?
“Calm yourself, Jin GuangYao. Your body is still fragile,” came a voice from behind him.
Jin GuangYao whirled. He would not gasp. He would not show fear to whomever—
A man dressed all in white stood before him, and Jin GaungYao couldn’t help it. Horror pried his mouth open.
Three faces, distinct faces, peered at him from one larger face. What the fuck? What kind of demonic entity was this?
“Don’t be afraid,” said another voice. A man dressed like a priest walked towards him. The petty beggar glared at the priest, who returned the look with a serene one of his own. “We’re here to help you. Your brother will not awaken.”
Well, at least there was that. He didn’t particularly want to give Da-Ge the satisfaction of murdering him again.
Jin GuangYao flexed the hand he had. The other still stung. He shook his wrist and regretted it. Nausea gripped his stomach. Why did his hand hurt if there was no hand? Why did he breathe, if he had been dead? Wen Ning didn’t need to breathe…
“It hurts because it is still a part of you, even if no longer attached,” said the priest simply.
What? “Get out of my head!” Jin GuangYao lurched back.
“I’m not. I could just tell what you were thinking,” replied the priest.
The man with the demonic faces stepped forward, sighing as if conversing with Jin GuangYao was beneath him . “I am Jun Wu.”
“I was a god,” said Jun Wu. “And a demon. And now I’m here.” He scowled.
Jin GuangYao felt his throat clench. He quivered. “Why are you here?” Are you going to tear my soul apart? Haven’t I already done a decent job of tearing my reputation apart? Can’t I at least have hope that my soul will have another chance, someday, in a hundred years or whenever the curse lifts? Whatever it’d take, he’d beg or—
“To help you, not to harm you,” the priest said quickly.
Jin GuangYao frowned.
“I’ve done way worse crimes than you,” said Jun Wu, meeting his eyes.
Jin GuangYao paled. How was that possible? Oh, well, if he was a god or a demon or both, he supposed it was more than possible. But still, why would this person admit to that?
You know what I’ve done. He studied his shoes, dusty and dirt-encrusted, dingy against the pristine tiled floor.
“And I... want to atone for them,” said Jun Wu. “Would you?”
There was no chance. He was a laughingstock. What was he to do, go and submit himself to lose his head on his knees before a society that always scorned him? How would that be atonement?
“You have choices,” said the priest.
What a laugh. “What choice did I have?” Jin GuangYao managed. “If you were a god, you had all the resources—I had—”
Don’t make me go!
“You had two brothers and two sworn brothers,” said the priest. “But they failed you, too—”
“Lan XiChen never failed me,” Jin GuangYao cut in, heart beating. He could feel it. I failed him.
If I had told you...
The priest sighed. “ If you had choices, what would you do with them?”
Jin GuangYao couldn’t answer for a moment. And then he knew. A glowing orb appeared in his mind, a dream he’d never quite been able to grasp even as Mother kissed his cheek, tickled him, assured him he would hold the dream and it would be a reality no matter what happened to her.
I want to be a good man. How long had it been since he was able to hold that warm light in his hand, that hope? Since before he married Qin Su, for sure. And even then, he kept trying. But it was all futile.
It was what he’d always wanted.
“Something different,” he answered. “Something better.”
In the end, Mother’s corpse was destroyed in the place built to honor her, because he was trapped by the one person he’d never suspected. Mother, Mother, Mother, come back.
Mother, I’m no good, could you still tell me I could be? Would you?
“Good,” said Jun Wu. “Because I can give you that chance.”
Jin GuangYao blinked. “What? Do you want me to go and turn myself in?”
He couldn’t comprehend a single way, and his mind always plotted out dozens if not hundreds of paths. He’d truly screwed up and there was no way back, even resurrected. “What, then? Look for Lan XiChen? I’m sure that’ll go over well, with his brother and the YiLing Patriarch—”
“No,” cut in Jun Wu. “We’ll be sending you back in time.”
Jin GuangYao goggled at them. His mind struggled to make sense of the words.
“We exist in one world among many,” said the priest, almost apologetically. “In one, you are merely a character in a story, an antagonist until the end even if one to be pitied. In another, you do not exist, but a system to fix things does. And in a third, you still do not exist, but that’s where we come from. And then of course, there is this one, where you were dead but now are alive.”
Jin GuangYao couldn’t even pretend he understood. He felt stupid. He hated feeling stupid. He clasped his hand around his elbow, drawing in on himself.
“You can’t change the story one,” said the priest. “But you can change this one, and the one with a system, where Shen Jiu comes from.” He nodded towards the bitter man. “And in the third, you can help—”
An inkling of what the man wanted niggled in his mind. “Fix your mistakes?” Jin GuangYao interrupted, focusing on Jun Wu.
“A few of them,” replied Jun Wu. “You likewise will not be able to fix all of yours. But some, yes. It may be enough to change your fate, change the fate of Lan XiChen, who now sits in seclusion, gripped by a grief he cannot express, scorned by society who resents his ignorance.”
What? Shame prickled Jin GuangYao. “I—I—he’s not—”
Not for me, not for me.
I was never worth it, Er-Ge!
Still! No! “I never meant for that to happen.”
“What we do affects others,” said the priest. “A flutter of a butterfly’s wings may cause a typhoon across the world. They may not have welcomed you as part of the world, but you were, and they were wrong.”
That at least made Jin GuangYao feel a bit better. Still, he wanted to cry. He’d never intended to harm Lan XiChen.
Have I truly harmed him so?
Jun Wu scowled.
“Why me?” asked Jin GuangYao. “Why did you pick me? As a god—or devil—surely you could have picked anyone.”
A smile almost flickered across Jun Wu’s face at that. “There was no one else.”
Jin GuangYao frowned. His heart pounded. The idea that he might be chosen for something…
“Because I know what you feel, and you know what I feel,” said Jun Wu. “That is why.”
Jin GuangYao didn’t understand. How could a god, someone so powerful, possibly know what a pathetically late cultivator, disgraced committer of incest, son of a prostitute, scorned by his own father, would feel?
“In the first world,” said Jun Wu. “You will have access to a system that will assist you in your task. The system is generally for people who transmitigate into others’ bodies. That is what happened to Young Master Shen here. He was transmitigated to this world while another transmitigated into him. Which may be a good thing, because in the world in which he is in a novel, he is a monster, more despicable than you.”
Shen Jiu scoffed.
The words still wounded Jin GuangYao, even if “despicable” barely covered it. He had a sudden urge to hide himself.
“Shen Jiu will accompany you, and if you succeed in your tasks there, you will leave him and return to a previous time in your life, transmigrating into your own body. You’ll know everything you know now, but you’ll be able to make new choices, rewrite what happened.”
His own body? Earlier? When, before he married Qin Su? Before he even met her? He was afraid to hope.
“You’ll have to live through years of that. Once you’ve achieved a measure of redemption there, you’ll be sent to my world.” Jun Wu swallowed. “I must tell you. If you see me as a white creature, wearing a mask, do not approach. I do not know what sins the system will allow me to rectify, and what it will not. But do not approach me. Just try to—help those you can.”
Jin GuangYao squeezed the one hand he had into a fist.
“You’ll return to your own world then, in your body, picking up from whatever happened in your redeemed timeline and then… you will be able to live until the timelines intersect, until the timeline catches up with the moment you would have died in the world of your unredeemed life.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jin GuangYao. “What happens when they intersect? I return to being a corpse?”
“I don’t know what will happen then,” replied Jun Wu. “All I know is that everyone will have two sets of memories, then, both equally true, equally lived. I don't think you'll die.”
“You cannot outrun time, or your sins. Not now. Not ever. No matter what, you will always end up back in this place,” the priest said. Jun Wu glared at him as if those words were no more welcome to his ears than to Jin GuangYao’s.
Jin GuangYao didn’t understand. If there was no point, if fate was set, then why was this god even sending him on this journey?
Do you just want me to suffer more? I don't want to die again!
The priest managed a small smile. “Do not worry. You will understand what I mean when you need to. You can and will live, if you want to.”
Stop being so cryptic. Jin GuangYao functioned best when he had all the information. This seemed rather important, and the god was deliberately leaving it out?
“You cannot not have committed your sins,” the priest tried again. “But you can save yourself, anyways.”
“So I won’t have to die?” he ventured again, trying desperately.
“That’s up to you.”
He swallowed. He glanced at Shen Jiu, who folded his arms across his chest, glowering as if waiting to spit at Jin GuangYao. “And if I refuse?”
“You’re welcome to live,” said Jun Wu. “In the body you have now, in a world that despises you.” His voice made it clear he knew what Jin GuangYao would choose.
Jun GaungYao’s stomach cramped. Lan XiChen…
You will hate me forever.
If I got a second chance, even if everyone still hates me in the end when they remember, maybe you wouldn’t? Or would you?
I don’t know. I’m afraid I never knew you, not until the moment you stayed with me, stayed to die with you. Or maybe I still didn’t know you. Maybe all I knew then was that you were hope, you were the likes of a human being I could never become.
But I wanted to be a good man.
“I once wanted to save everyone,” Jun Wu said. “I couldn’t, and it broke me.”
“I abandoned him,” said the priest. “In those moments. I will not abandon him this time.”
This is your second chance, too? “Why do you think you can save me?” Jin GuangYao asked.
“I don’t,” Jun Wu admitted. “But I think you might be able to save yourself.”
He wanted to run. But Lan XiChen…
I cannot abandon him. I want to shove you out of seclusion, Er-Ge.
Live. I pushed you away to live.
And still, Jin GuangYao knew there was a part of him smirking, glad someone mourned him. Am I really so awful? Does it matter than I never wanted to be? That I don’t want to be?
“If you are ready,” said Jun Wu. “To make a decision, please do. I have other things to take care of.”
“It’s a big decision,” reminded the priest.
Shen Jiu let out a snort. “And if he says no, what the hell happens to me?”
“You stay here in this body,” said Jun Wu.
“Why is my fate dependent on him?” Shen Jiu demanded.
“Fine, fine,” said Jin GuangYao. “I’ll do it.” The words tasted like metal as he spat them out. He felt lightheaded. He coughed again.
“Good,” said the priest. “Also, you cannot tell anyone about what is happening, about the dual timelines. They will be unaware until they meet. If you do, you will return here a corpse.”
So I’ll flat-out die . A shiver of fear wriggled through Jin GuangYao. No option of being able to return here as he was now, alive and cursed, was there?
Shen Jiu nodded stiffly. Jin GuangYao copied him.
Jun Wu held out a lantern. Fire flickered inside, and incense dribbled out, sweet and floral, like jasmine and lavender. He’d forgotten how much he liked the smell of jasmine. Mother always wore them in her hair.
This time, could I protect her coffin?
“If I should die in these worlds that aren’t mine,” Jin GuangYao began.
“Don’t,” said Jun Wu. “You must not die. Not even to sacrifice yourself. Redemptive death is an overused, tired trope, and I’m afraid you’ve already done it.”
Jin GuangYao blinked. Redemptive? Was it redemptive, to die saving Lan XiChen, when XiChen wouldn’t have ever been in danger if it were not for him?
The fog from the incense grew thicker. He coughed. Shen Jiu met his eyes. And then the scent’s fingers shot down his throat, grabbing hold of his lungs, filling them, filling them—he felt as if he was going to die from the pressure building inside him, building around him, pushing against each other with his skin in-between—
He landed on sweet grass, two hands in front of him. His hair hung loose, like it had when he was Meng Yao. Shen Jiu still looked much the same as he had in the old world.
Jin GuangYao got to his feet.
Where are we?
Welcome! chirped a voice inside his brain. Jin GuangYao jerked. You have embarked on a mission to redeem three villains. Congratulations on accepting a quest most would not dare to!