It ends for the first time in Yi City. His blood sings a familiar tune as it rushes through his veins, twin blades flashing as he dodges and slashes, parries and cuts. He knows the expression he wears: pointed teeth bared in a savage grin and dark eyes sparkling in glee. Why shouldn’t he enjoy himself? He knows this dance, has whirled and twisted to the beat of steel on steel a thousand times before.
Then his Daozhang’s blade flies from his grip, and he can’t help the snarl that escapes his lips. There’s a roaring in his ears as he tightens his grasp on Jiangzai and charges the white-robed cultivator before him, striking at the man in a desperate flurry.
The rest, as they say, is history: Xue Yang dies, pierced through the chest, still clutching Xiao Xingchen’s last gift to him.
His second death comes much quicker. One moment he’s on his knees in a dead, decaying city, watching his life pour out onto the cobblestones… the next he’s still on his knees but it’s bright and loud and the phantom pain in his left pinky is suddenly real. An oxcart rolls away from him, wheels clattering against the stones.
He doesn’t question where the rest of his wounds have gone or why he feels so weak and frail. All he knows is that something deep inside him hurts and there’s a searing pain in his hand and Chang Cian is getting away. He’s going to make him pay. He shrieks wordlessly and chases after the wagon.
Chang Cian’s eyes widen in surprise and disgust as the bloodied child catches up. Xue Yang has one hand on the oxcart’s wooden paneling, ready to pull himself up and sink his teeth into the man’s throat, when a high-pitched whistle cuts through the air.
The whip carves a new line of fire across his face and he’s helpless as his fingers release their grip. He’s falling and the cart is still rolling along. He screams when his maimed hand is run over for the second time. Another shriek leaps from his mouth when a splinter of wood catches on his robes and pulls him under the wheels again. He stops screaming soon after that. His broken body is dragged through the streets.
His next several deaths are not much better. He chases the cart screeching bloody murder. He sneaks after Chang Cian, climbing into the back of the cart and concealing himself until an opportunity arises. He climbs the roof of a neighboring building and flings himself at the man with a sharpened stick clutched in his good hand. He fights with tooth and nail and rocks and sticks and, one time, a stolen kitchen knife.
It doesn’t matter. Seven-year-old Xue Yang does not get his revenge on Chang Cian here in the streets of Yueyang.
He dies in many ways: run over, beaten to death, slashed by a family guard’s sword, torn apart by a pack of stray dogs. The worst ones take weeks. He starves to death a few times after his injuries leave him unable to feed himself. Once, he lingers, feverish, while his wounds fester and blacken.
He starts taking bigger risks. He doesn’t understand why he wakes in this pathetic, tiny body every time he dies. But he’s come to expect it, and he’s going to make Chang Cian suffer a thousand times over for every hurt Xue Yang experienced in his first life and all these subsequent little lives.
He doesn’t. He loses count of how many times he tries. Eventually, the rage and pain burning inside him fades into a dull and hollow ache.
He’s on his knees screaming again. He’s tired. He doesn’t chase the goddamn oxcart. He doesn’t loop around through the winding alleys and catch up to them by the city gates. This time, Xue Yang buries his face in his maimed hands and sobs.
When he finishes crying, the sun is setting. Across the street, a man lights lanterns hanging from the eaves of his shop. Xue Yang watches, and through his tears, the lights twinkle like stars.
He remembers a gentle smile and a warm voice and elegant hands gripping a sword as blood pours out. He remembers a lot of things.
Something twists nastily inside him.
The store catches fire that night. They find the man and his family the next morning, blackened bones amidst the charred skeleton of their home and livelihood. They find an extra body too, tiny features burned beyond recognition, curled up in a corner among empty oil jars.
His next life is much longer. He doesn’t quite remember the details of his original life anymore, not with his recent lives and deaths cluttering his brain. But now, he does his best to conjure up what memories he can and carve a similarly bloody path to Yi City. It’s hard, even when he forces himself to recall half-forgotten scenes: most of the people he victimized, the places he terrorized, their names hadn’t been worth learning to begin with. He makes a mental note to ask any future victims to introduce themselves before he kills them.
He spends his childhood laying low to avoid suspicion, hiding out in back alleys and abandoned buildings between bouts of crime. He steals, he robs, he murders. He cozies up to Jin Guangyao. He restores the Stygian Tiger Seal. He massacres the Changs.
When Xiao Xingchen arrives to bring him to justice, Xue Yang can’t help but stare. Time and death have chipped away at his memories, leaving only fleeting impressions. A smile. A few words, softly murmured. The motion of long, deft fingers patching a threadbare blanket. The man he remembers was graceful and ethereal, otherworldly but kind. The man standing before him, this man made of flesh and bone and blood and breath -- he is the sum of all these things and more.
“Daozhang,” Xue Yang whispers, lowering his trembling blade.
Song Lan runs him through with Fuxue on the spot.
After that, Xue Yang is filled with something almost like hope. It takes some trial and error to figure out just how far he can stray from his past actions and still end up with Daozhang in Yi City. If things don’t go as planned in one life, he cuts his own throat with Jiangzai. He has eternity, after all.
Xue Yang spends his next several hundred lives in Yi City, until the memories bleed and run together like figures on a painting abandoned in the rain
Sometimes, he finds and kills A-Qing before she even meets Daozhang. But in these lifetimes, his Daozhang is smaller, sadder. He’s slower to laugh and quicker to cry. It’s not the same. So Xue Yang stops killing the girl.
Other times, it’s Song Lan he seeks, before he can ruin the life Xue Yang has built with his Daozhang. At first, Song Lan has the advantage and Xue Yang gets used to the sensation of Fuxue’s cold steel as it bites into his flesh. Eventually, lifetimes of experience win out and Xue Yang easily dispatches the rogue cultivator each time they fight.
It turns out it doesn’t matter. Killing Song Lan buys him a few more years at most. Weeks, months, years of constant paranoia, jumping at shadows, and the ever-present knowledge that it could all come tumbling down at any moment. No matter how deep he buries the skeletons of his past, they’re always brought to light in the end, as though the universe itself is conspiring against him. A-Qing hears some rumors at the market and recognizes him, Xue Yang himself lets some incriminating detail slip, or some dumb accident leads him to brush his bad hand against Xingchen. Then it all inevitably goes to shit.
So he takes a different approach. Across so many lifetimes, Xue Yang tries desperately to be good when he gets to Yi City. No murder (except maybe Song Lan), no mayhem, not even a single petty crime. He tries to earn an honest living in the city, biting his tongue or gritting his teeth to avoid starting fights. Anything to stay at Daozhang’s side just a bit longer. Anything to see him smile.
It hurts, every time Xingchen finds out the truth. Even if Xue Yang hasn’t done the whole corpse poison thing in literally ages. Even if he files down his sharp edges and hides his claws and spends his time in Yi City basking in the sheer domesticity of everything, Xingchen still recoils in horror when he learns he’s been living with a predator.
Sometimes both of them die in the ensuing confrontation. Sometimes Song Lan shows up and dies too. Xue Yang starts letting Xingchen kill him, but after one life where Xingchen turns Shuanghua on himself and they both bleed out into the dirt, he doesn’t see the point anymore. He resumes fighting back and rejoices in the vicious thrill as he and his Daozhang cut each other to pieces. Dying isn’t so bad when they go together.
It finally occurs to him that perhaps part of Daozhang’s disgust comes from how easily he lies. The next time around, Xue Yang tries brutal honesty. As soon as his wounds are healed, he confesses his identity and throws himself at his Daozhang’s feet, begging for mercy. As it turns out, Daozhang’s idea of mercy is trussing him up and bringing him to Qinghe to face justice. In this life, Xue Yang dies screaming after days of torture. At least he gets some new ideas for his next time as Jin Guangyao’s pet monster.
He tries a different kind of honesty. He stops lying to himself and peers into the maelstrom of feelings inside of him. He pushes aside the rage constantly howling within him, unwraps the many emotions he can’t even begin to name, and there, nestled alongside a shrieking, gibbering fear of rejection, he finds it. It burns like a hot coal, this fierce jealous desire to hoard all things related to his Daozhang. Xue Yang names it love and laughs bitterly to himself.
When he wakes in Yi City, he gives his Daozhang a false name. The confession of love he gives a few months later on a starry winter night, however, is real. In response, Xiao Xingchen leans over as though to kiss him, and heat pools in Xue Yang’s gut. But before their lips meet, his Daozhang hesitates. Something passes over his face and he pulls back, murmuring, “No. I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Xue Yang isn’t sure what happens next. Something dark and awful flares inside of him as he hauls himself to his feet. The next thing he knows, his Daozhang is under him on hands and knees. He’s begging, voice cracking as every “please, no, stop,” is punctuated with gasps of pain. Xue Yang realizes, somewhat belatedly, that he’s fucking his Daozhang, hips moving of their own accord. One of his hands is tangled in Xingchen’s hair and the other is holding Jiangzai to his throat.
His Daozhang is so fucking tight as he struggles and spasms around him. Xue Yang opens his mouth to tell him that but all he can manage is a half-strangled “Fuck.” The hand gripping his sword shakes, and Xingchen jerks back, hissing. Xue Yang tugs harder on his hair, arching the other man’s neck until he can see the thin cut. He leans over to lap at the blood welling up in crimson beads. He shudders and groans. So does his Daozhang.
Xue Yang traces his tongue up the pale crescent of the other man’s throat, nipping at the underside of his jaw. He licks the bloody tears off his Daozhang’s face. It tastes almost as good as candy. He can’t get enough.
He pulls out and half-drags, half-shoves Xingchen until the man is on his back. He fucks into him again, ignoring the cries of protest as he carves bloody lines into the other man’s skin, his Daozhang gasping and clenching around him with every fresh mark. Mine, all mine, thinks Xue Yang and he comes with a wordless cry, fingers digging into a wound below his Daozhang’s sternum.
He collapses forward, panting. Their foreheads are almost touching, and he finally gets a good look at his Daozhang’s face. Pain, misery, horror, fear...disgust.
Xue Yang is still holding his sword. He sits up a bit, raises his arm, and draws Jiangzai’s blade across his own throat. Blood cascades from the gash as he dies, still buried to the hilt in Xiao Xingchen.
The oxcart runs over his hand. He throws up and keeps on heaving long after his stomach is empty. He bangs his head against the cobblestones.
He doesn’t know why he’s like this all of a sudden. It’s not the first time he’s taken what he’s wanted. What do other peoples’ desires matter to him?
Oh, he realizes. His Daozhang isn’t like other people. Xue Yang imagines sitting in the man’s lap, riding his cock while Daozhang embraces him closer and urges him to keep going, don’t stop. He wants his Daozhang to like it. He wants someone else to burn with the same desperate need that he does.
Well, then. He snorts. He’ll deal with that later. Right now he’s one hell of a fucked up seven-year-old. He wipes the snot off his face, ties a scrap of fabric around the bleeding stump of his pinky, and sets off down the road.
Years later, he’s back in Yi City. He bides his time before making his move. This time, he doesn’t just blurt out “I love you.” Instead, he lets his touches linger just a bit too long, sits just a bit too close, laughs just a bit too loud at every dumb thing his Daozhang says. The first winter, he grits his teeth in frustration every night as he lays in bed alone. The second winter, he’s almost ready to give up and wander out into the cold to die some dramatic lovelorn death when finally, one night, Xingchen leans over and presses their lips together.
Their first kiss isn’t anything special. Xingchen barely gives him a peck before withdrawing, an apology already on his lips. Xue Yang catches his face in both hands and silences him with his mouth.
Their second kiss is frantic. Xue Yang pours a thousand lifetimes of desperation and desire into the movement of his lips, the press of his teeth into Xingchen’s lower lip, the way he tangles their tongues together as if to find and devour Xingchen’s very essence. They’re both breathing hard when he finally pulls away.
Afterwards, he studies his Daozhang’s expression intently. And so, he is present for every twitch and grimace of blooming horror as Xingchen counts the fingers still gripping his cheeks. His Daozhang’s breath stutters as he mouths two syllables.
Xue Yang doesn’t say anything, but the way he freezes before jerking his hands back is as good as any confession. And so, another life ends in bloodshed and tragedy.
He tries again. And again. And again.
Finally, he holds a map of his Daozhang’s heart. His hopes, his dreams, his fears, his regrets. He learns when to flirt and tease, and when to speak with his most earnest-sounding voice. He finds the empty spaces in Xingchen’s heart, old wounds where he can burrow deep and entangle himself amidst the scarred flesh. He learns how to contort himself to fill those holes and how to make his Daozhang love him for it.
He learns everything about their bodies too. He knows how to make their first time perfect: the right words to whisper, the things to do to make his Daozhang gasp breathlessly under his touch.
It takes half an age to get it right, but he learns too: after that first evening of gentle, halting caresses, the best way to incite his Daozhang to shed all hesitation and gives Xue Yang what he really wants. He learns how to goad and when to act out until finally, Xiao Xingchen gags his filthy mouth, bends him over their kitchen table, and fucks him until he cries. Step by step, he breaks down the other man’s guilt and trepidation, until his Daozhang only smiles placidly as he makes Xue Yang beg for mercy every night.
In all of these lives, their domestic bliss is inevitably shattered. No matter how fiercely Xue Yang loves, no matter how warmly Xiao Xingchen loves him back, the seeds of tragedy were planted long before they set foot in Yi City. No matter what he does, he gets the same thing in the end. About three years, give or take.
The thought occurs to him one day as he tries to shove his intestines back into his body while his Daozhang sobs and beats his fists against Song Lan’s chest: A lifetime of suffering, an ocean of blood, all this for only three years of happiness?
It shouldn’t have to be this way. Xue Yang tries to set his fate on a different course, a chorus of what-if, perhaps, maybe echoing in his head. So, he leaves Baixue Temple alone.
This time around, Song Lan is never blinded. Xiao Xingchen does not give him his eyes. Song Lan does not lash out in all-consuming grief and shatter their bond.
Xue Yang watches them wander the world together, until jealousy gets the better of him and he attacks Song Lan. The ensuing fight is two against one, and Xue Yang dies with the satisfaction of knowing that the black-robed fucker won’t be walking away either.
He tries the same approach a few more times, but without the trauma of Baixue Temple to drive a wedge between them, Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan are inseparable. All his attempts to pull them apart, to kill Song Lan and replace him, to trick Xiao Xingchen into straying -- they all end with one or both men hunting him down.
In the lives where they capture him, he sees a hint of something different in his Daozhang. This man is not the same as the one who once refused to pass a death sentence and brought a criminal to face someone else’s justice instead. This man is not the same lonely Daozhang he knows best, the one who cries tears of blood and lets Xue Yang sink claws into his heart. This man is one who no longer has faith in the great sects to deliver justice -- a man who, upon capturing a killer, hardens his heart and his expression and parts the villain’s head from his body.
Once, some morbid curiosity drives him to smother his own violent impulses for an entire lifetime. He follows the two cultivators, taking care to avoid discovery. Every time the urge to leap in and tear Song Lan apart becomes too strong, he slashes at his own flesh with a knife instead. He tells himself the tears in his eyes are from the pain.
He watches them build a life together. They roam the countryside, delivering the common people from evil, and everywhere they go, people recite that stupid couplet in praise of their deeds. It all makes Xue Yang want to vomit.
In this life, Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan remain completely and utterly devoted to each other. They grow old together. They establish the sect they’ve always dreamed of leading. Their sect remains small and humble, but its members are righteous and brave. The years fly by.
Time eventually takes its toll. On one night hunt, Song Lan is slow to evade a hungry ghost’s attack. The wound festers. After Song Lan’s strength gives out and he passes on from this world, Xiao Xingchen refuses all sustenance, fasting and meditating to hasten his return to his beloved. He dies with a smile on his face.
Xue Yang almost weeps in relief when it’s finally over. There’s no place for him here. He opens his throat and moves on.
If Baixue Temple isn’t the right turning point, then the critical moment must lie earlier. He will find it. He has to. He systematically reenacts the events of his original life, choosing to diverge from history earlier and earlier.
He tries not killing the Chang clan so that his Daozhang and Song Lan will no longer pursue him for his crimes. It works too well. His reputation as a demonic cultivator and Jin Guangyao’s lackey makes them rebuff his offer of friendship.
He tries sparing the Chang clan again, but this time, he makes up for it with a few extra-gruesome war crimes. All in service of Lanling Jin of course. The two rogue cultivators come after him, but with far more background political upheaval. It’s a mess. He’s not sure what else he expected to happen.
He tries avoiding Jin Guangyao altogether. Now he’s just boring, another petty criminal forgotten long before the day is over. He hates being boring.
So on and on he goes, stepping backwards through a lifetime, until he starts to feel like he’s living life in reverse. At every crossroads, every possible turning point, he tries every choice that could possibly lead him to his Daozhang. Song Lan always bars his path. Only a sea of blood can wash away that bond, Xue Yang learns, and he never figures out how to do it while keeping his Daozhang mostly intact.
What if Song Lan is never there to begin with? To find out, Xue Yang kills Song Lan before Xiao Xingchen leaves the mountain. By now, he knows where to be in order to put himself in the path of his Daozhang’s wanderings.
And so, one day, Xiao Xingchen takes in the sight of the delinquent of Kuizhou standing before him. He smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Excuse me,” he says, and drifts away like a mote of dust on the wind.
Xue Yang follows him through this life and the next and the next. Daozhang Xiao Xingchen floats through the world, keeping everyone including Xue Yang at arm’s length. He’s still polite and unfailingly good, he still makes a name for himself as a champion of the common people, he still cuts down ghosts and monsters with deadly grace, but something is missing.
How did Song Lan bring this guy down to earth, Xue Yang wonders. What could Song Lan possibly have that he doesn’t?
He spends his next slice of forever watching their first meeting from every conceivable angle. He practices the words that Song Lan says, all the expressions the man makes, even the way holds himself.
When he’s finally ready, he kills Song Lan the day before he is due to meet Xiao Xingchen. Not a bad imitation, Xue Yang thinks as he dons the man’s black robes and straps Fuxue to his back.
His encounter with Xiao Xingchen goes off script almost immediately. His Daozhang is supposed to smile and hesitantly invite him to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Instead, the smile on his face is as warm as ever, but no invitation is forthcoming. Xue Yang stammers in confusion and retreats. Pathetic, he scoffs at himself. A blushing maiden could have done better than that. He swallows down the last bits of the poison he had used to get rid of Song Lan and tries again.
It doesn’t matter how good he thinks his acting is. There’s something wrong, some subtle difference between him and the real Song Lan, and he can’t figure it out. Whatever it is, his Daozhang can pick up on it and their conversation always veers off track within minutes. The bitter taste of the poison is getting too familiar now. Another dead end.
So, he tries to bring his Daozhang down to earth another way. When Xiao Xingchen leaves the celestial mountain, Xue Yang is there, waiting. He slips liquor into his drinks, hoping it will make the young man more pliable.
When this fails, he tries more exotic substances: powders and potions to confuse the spirit, dull the mind, or incite a desperate, burning lust. Xue Yang tries every mind-altering concoction he has ever heard of and even invents a few new ones. Kidnapping the young Daozhang in order to conduct his tests more efficiently seems only like a natural choice to make.
Every lifetime, his experiments produce a different Daozhang. Most versions don’t turn out well -- the substances he gives them destroy their minds or wither their bodies. He dies with them. He’s nothing if not devoted.
Even the ones that don’t shatter all the way but are broken enough to love him back are still...not quite right. They might smile at him or stroke his hair the way he likes. They might lean into his hungry, desperate embraces. The better ones will wrap their lips around his cock and swallow him down obediently. But still, every last one of them is cracked in all the wrong places.
He tries pulling out their eyes. It’s still not the same.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been doing this, trapped in an endless cycle of death and rebirth.
He’s so tired of hurting. He’s tired of chasing moonbeams. Fuck Daozhang Xiao Xingchen. Fuck it all.
He takes his hate and hones it like a blade. This time, when he restores the Seal, he doesn’t stop at killing the Chang clan. By the time a poisoned arrow slips through his wards and finds his heart, three-quarters of the cultivation world is dead and the countryside is in flames.
Lifetimes of study allow him to surpass even the genius of Wei Wuxian. He’s the most powerful demonic cultivator to ever walk this earth. Nobody can stand against him.
Ending the world gets boring. He sets himself ablaze in the ashes of civilization. He drowns himself in seas of boiling pitch. He opens a fissure in the ground to swallow a city and hurls himself into the depths. He runs out of new war crimes to commit.
No matter how much he destroys, the hole in his heart remains.
Some wild, desperate thought leads him to spend a lifetime trying to be good, wondering if this will fill the ache inside him. It’s a stupid idea, he knows, but clutching at half-baked schemes is apparently what he’s doing with eternity.
He doesn’t have a real plan, just lets himself drift wherever life takes him. Every time he so much as opens his mouth to speak, he asks himself what his Daozhang would do in his place.
Xue Yang dies of pneumonia at the age of 74, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. His wife is holding his hand when he closes his eyes for the last time.
He dies lonely, bored, and unfulfilled.
He spends the next few rounds trying to be slightly less good. No murder, no scheming. He stays the fuck away from Jin Guangyao. Instead, he commits petty thefts, drunkenly carouses late into the night, instigates a few bar fights, runs his mouth, and pisses off anyone he can. Anything to feel alive.
He crawls into bed with anyone who will have him. He closes his eyes when they fuck. He bites his tongue and swallows down the name that’s still on his lips after all this time.
He still feels hollow.
In all these lives, he dies young. Sometimes he slashes his own wrists or throat, sometimes he leaps from the tallest building in town. He makes sure to get the blood everywhere. Someone else can clean up his mess.
Other times, suicide isn’t enough to satisfy the monster in his skin. His bones itch with a craving for violence, real violence, the kind that can only be shared between two people. He needs the slickness of blood dripping from his hands, the dull crunch of breaking bones, the animal urge to leap at the nearest target and fight, fight, fight.
Times like this, he goes looking for trouble, offering up his own flesh to sate the bloodlust. Trouble finds him in many forms: a knife twisted in his guts, a blow to the head, a curse eating away at his flesh.
Once, before the end, someone carves out his eyes. At the sensation of blood and vitreous fluid oozing down his cheeks, something in him snaps and he laughs so hard he coughs up blood. He thinks he finally understands how his poor, stupid Daozhang feels, cutting away parts of himself for other peoples’ sakes. Fuck it. He’s not nearly that noble.
He goes back to Yi City. Back to Daozhang Xiao Xingchen. His Daozhang. He still remembers how it goes, what words to say and things to do to make the man fall in love with him all over again.
He worships his Daozhang with such fierce intensity and utter devotion that he often catches Xingchen wearing a concerned expression after their lovemaking. But the other man never seems to know what to ask. In a way, they’re suited for each other. Xue Yang doesn’t know what to say either.
On the day that Song Lan is due to arrive in Yi City, Xue Yang sweeps the floor of their coffin home. He goes to market early in the morning and brings back a basket of vegetables. He even buys some of A-Qing’s favorite candies, even though she has awful taste and only likes the worst flavors. He washes his Daozhang and A-Qing’s clothes.
Then, he steps out into their yard. He draws Jiangzai. He cuts his throat.
See you next time, Daozhang.
He does it again.
Each time the cycle comes back around, he makes his choice. He knows how this story ends. He knows what awaits him. What awaits them. He could turn back. He refuses.
He imagines his bloody footsteps wearing a path through the universe itself, a barren scar littered with bones and ashes. He imagines walking along the bottom of a ravine in the dark, gazing up at moonlight pouring down through a sliver of sky.
He imagines a lot of weird, sentimental shit.
Sometimes he wonders what his Daozhang does after he and A-Qing find his body. Does he cry bloody tears? Do they mourn him?
He never lets himself think about it for too long. He reminds himself that this is the best he’s ever going to get.
Today, Xue Yang is lying in the grass at the side of the road to Yi City. He’s bleeding. It hurts. He’s long used to it by now. He feels himself slipping away and knows that the next time he opens his eyes, he will be in Xiao Xingchen’s bed.
When he wakes, he will disguise his voice. He will hide his maimed hand. He will smile and laugh and joke with his Daozhang. He will wring every single drop of joy he can from this life before it dissolves on his tongue like a sweet.
And when it ends, as it always does, in blood and steel and tears, he will struggle to his feet and walk this road again and again and again. After all, he never could resist the promise of candy.