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    Chapter 58: Regrets - A Wager

    Thick mist swirled in the air, like black silk ribbons suspended and gently undulating.

    An Zhi observed all before him in silence.

    It was the first day of eleventh month in the winter of the eighth year since the incident at Xixuan Men. It was the day of the Pure Pond Festival.

    During every festival, children were always overjoyed, eager to immerse themselves in its festivities at every moment. They wandered, ate, played, and as night fell, they eagerly anticipated the dazzling display of fireworks.

    "Fireworks, fireworks! Let's go see the fireworks!" A group of children ran along, some clutching sugar canes, others spinning windmills, and one with both hands occupied. They hurried towards the pavilion where the fireworks were being set up.

    As they ran, the one with both hands full suddenly cried out, "Oh no, my candy figurine dropped!" He promptly stopped and bent down to retrieve it.

    Just as his chubby little hand touched the wooden stick of the candy, a slender and fair hand, unblemished by any veins, reached out to join his.

    Lifting his gaze, he was stunned, his eyes wide and mouth agape, unable to utter a word. The owner of that hand was none other than Empress Jiaomiao of Jade Mountain Hall.

    Observing this, Jiaomiao chuckled softly. With a gentle flick of her finger, a small, jade-like ball of spiritual energy formed and was infused into the shattered candy figurine on the ground.

    In an instant, the sugar figure returned to its original state.

    She picked up the candy figurine and gently presented it before the child, her voice imbued with a subtle smile as she softly said, "Everything is favorable, there are no taboos, don't be afraid."

    The child fetched the candy figurine in a trance-like state.

    Only then did Jiaomiao rise and depart, venturing towards the bustling, lantern-lit heart of Shangchicheng.

    The child turned around, his gaze following her.

    It was a night of dazzling lights and fireworks, a symphony of colors illuminating the sky and casting golden hues upon the earth.

    She wore a scarlet robe embroidered with flowers, a jade belt cinching her waist, and in her hand she held the Demon Subduing Pagoda. Her solitary silhouette seemed detached from the lively, bustling world of mortal pleasures.

    "Looking at what?" asked the child's companions, who had come searching for him when he didn't return. They found him standing dumbfounded, staring at the ground.

    The child turned back, his voice trembling with excitement. "I! I!... Just now, I saw Lady Jiaomiao!" As he spoke, he offered the sugar figurine to his friends. "All is auspicious, nothing is taboo!"

    Prosperity is fleeting, and Jiaomiao found herself strolling down a dimly lit alley. She had intentionally ventured here.

    The squalor was overwhelming, with moldy corners untouched by sunlight, providing a haven for rats scurrying to and fro.

    "Empress, Empress, we've been hungry for four or five days now. Please, Empress, bless us with a single steamed bun," cried out four beggars suddenly, emerging from the shadows. Upon seeing Jiaomiao, they swarmed around her.

    The fluttering scarf before her did not hinder her view. Lowering her head slightly, she scanned their faces and said, "But I only have three buns. How can I divide them fairly among you?"

    The beggars were taken aback, unable to come up with a solution. They fell silent.

    After a moment, the one who had first bowed pointed at an elderly man among them and venomously suggested, "Him! That old thing doesn't have long left anyway. He won't survive many more years, but we're still young, with futures ahead. Empress, you needn't give him anything."

    Jiaomiao nodded. "Very well." With that, she distributed the three buns to the three younger beggars, excluding the elder.

    Once she left, the old man vanished into the moonlit night.

    Since the demise of Xixuan Men, Shen Yuan had instructed Jiaomiao to imprison its soul, locking it within the Demon Subduing Pagoda.

    Carrying the Pagoda in her hand, Jiaomiao walked through Shangchicheng, hearing all the happenings in the world around her.

    Recollecting the first year he entered the Demon Subduing Pagoda, Jiaomiao attempted to extract his divine bones, only to invoke heavenly retribution that forced her to seek shelter, compelling her to withdraw her action. With frustration, she brushed off her sleeves and cursed, "Twenty years of meticulous planning led to this day, yet just when I was on the verge of claiming all you possess, the Heavenly Dao still shields you!"

    Exhausted by her teasing, Shen Yuan labored for breath. Upon hearing this, he mustered the remaining strength in his body to prop himself up halfway off the ground. "Everything of mine? What do you mean?"

    As the words faded, Jiaomiao materialized by Shen Yuan's side like a wraith. Gently, she brushed her hand across his cheek, tucking a strand of white hair behind his ear. "Twenty years ago, strange occurrences emerged around Yu Yuan – a demon god was about to be born, unleashing malevolent energy that devastated all living beings. Wang Wanhe and I stepped in to quell the chaos. Afterward, my hair turned white, and I secluded myself in Jade Mountain Hall to recover. You all assumed it was due to the demon god's malevolent aura that harmed me. But what if I told you that beneath Yu Yuan, what was about to emerge wasn't a demon but a pure heart transformed into the highest deity, surpassing all other gods?"

    A massive boulder seemed to have fallen from his heart, causing Shen Yuan's chest to throb with a resounding impact.

    Jiaomiao's words completely upended his understanding.

    "Your own subjects were the ones who killed you," Jiaomiao continued. "I am the demon, but I came into existence before you. For a long time, I tried to be a god, and I succeeded – I was beloved. But the curse of the demon lurked within my bones and blood. On that fateful day, when the strange phenomenon occurred, I could no longer suppress the dark aura, and my hair turned white as I succumbed to my demonic nature. The people I had protected with all my heart were slaughtered by me... And then you appeared. At that moment, I wondered if I could exchange my blood with yours, would I be able to escape that curse?"

    Jiaomiao's black hair danced gently before her forehead, while Shen Yuan's silver strands swayed at his temples. The sound of lonely winds echoed in their ears.

    "I convinced Wang Wanhe to help me devise this scheme," she said. "When you ascended to godhood through your self-immolation, my plan was only half complete. The other half was carried out in the East Sea. The Azure Dragon clan suffered because of me, trapped there forever, unable to leave. In pursuit of freedom, they followed my instructions, each one embedding a Soul Forging Stone into your chest, gradually replacing our bloodlines. Now, my hair remains black, but yours... Hahaha."


    Jiaomiao returned to the bustling city of Shangchicheng, stopping by a stall where artisans created artificial stars by casting molten iron. She watched the mesmerizing display, lost in thought.

    Within the Demon Subduing Pagoda, Shen Yuan gently closed his eyes, plunging into an endless darkness. "Regarding what just happened, you either buy another steamed bun or don't eat any at all. Sacrificing one person to save many - that person must also have someone who cares for them. Your actions will only breed resentment."

    Jiaomiao spoke nonchalantly, "Oh, is that so? That old beggar was pushed out by his family. He wasn't a sacrifice, just like you. He was despised and ignored, let alone having anyone who cared about him."

    "Ha ha ha." Shen Yuan's shoulders shook as he let out a mocking laugh. The iron chains rattled, clanging together in a crisp symphony.

    With his laughter, a dense aura of malevolence spread from the Demon Subduing Pagoda, extinguishing all the lights in Shangchicheng.

    The iron blossoms soared into the air, disappearing before they could even touch the ground. The flags planted at the five cardinal directions crumbled.

    "Oh, what's going on?"

    Confused, people began speculating,

    "The iron blossoms have three rules: they don't bloom during years of famine, national mourning, or wartime. With demons running rampant these days, could it be because Shen Yuan has returned...?"

    "Nonsense! He's been dead for eight years, his body sealed beneath Jingtan. How could he possibly come back?"

    As she spoke, Jiaomiao gathered strength in her palm and lightly tapped the Demon Subduing Pagoda. The force was so gentle, it was as if she was tickling it.

    Inside the Demon Subduing Pagoda, Shen Yuan felt a tremendous wave of force sweeping toward him, threatening to shatter his soul. But he knew that Jiaomiao wanted his divine bones. Until she found a way to avoid divine retribution and obtain them, she wouldn't let him dissipate.

    He gritted his teeth and endured.

    He wasn't the only one in the tower; there were also numerous ancient demons.

    Whenever Jiaomiao inflicted punishment, they would suffer alongside him.

    The first time, they almost tormented Shen Yuan to the point of soul dispersal until Jiaomiao discovered the situation and warned them off. After that, they dared not act recklessly.

    Unable to lay a hand on him, they resorted to their tongues.

    "Hey! You're neither divine nor demonic, so what the hell are you?!"

    Shen Yuan clenched his teeth. "You're the one who's nothing but trash!"

    "Well, I think you don't belong in the Three Realms or Five Elements, neither divine, demonic, ghostly, nor human. You, my friend, are something that shouldn't exist at all."

    Shen Yuan despised being referred to as "something" and even more so when someone said he shouldn't exist. His anger flared. "If you call me 'something' again, I'll tear your mouth apart!"

    "Ooh!" The monster chuckled, deliberately ignoring Shen Yuan's request, lacing its words with sarcasm. "We've seen through you. You were crafted by Jiaomiao from a snowflake of Jade Mountain as your heart, a piece of floating weed for your body, and her own drop of blood. You're nothing but a mere creation sent into Dian Chao's belly. Do you think Jiaomiao is protecting you? In truth, she's using you! Back in ancient times, before Jiaomiao became the Moonlit Night Goddess of Jade Mountain, we already frightened her to the point of urination and defecation. Who are you to challenge us?"

    Shen Yuan remained silent, allowing the cacophony of the monsters' voices to fill his ears. He listened quietly.

    As their words grew increasingly offensive, he could no longer bear it. So, he shut off his senses, isolating himself in a world of silence and darkness, waiting for Jiaomiao to retrieve his divine bones.

    But Jiaomiao never came back to him.

    This sudden transmission of sound into his desolate world stirred up all his fears and resentments once more.

    Jiaomiao asked, "Shen Yuan, do you want to clear your name?"

    Perplexed by her question, Shen Yuan paused before responding, "Wang Wanhe dedicates himself to order. If you truly became a goddess, what would be your purpose?"

    Jiaomiao replied, "To protect."

    "Very well," Shen Yuan resolved. "Let's make a bet, shall we?"

    Jiaomiao countered, "You're already dead. What could you possibly bet with?"

    Shen Yuan declared, "Everything you desire from me."

    Jiaomiao inquired, "What's the wager?"

    Shen Yuan responded, "Give me some time to clear my name. We'll bet on the day the truth is revealed. If the people believe in you, you win. If they know the truth yet still trust me over you, then I win. Regardless of the outcome, I will willingly give you the divine bone. How about it? Are you willing to take this bet?"

    Jiaomiao didn't hesitate at all. "Of course." Puzzled, she asked, "Why are you betting with me?"

    Shen Yuan explained, "I am merely a person on the verge of drowning. It matters not who extends their hand to save me—I am already dead, bound for nothingness. When I return, I won't be who I am now. Before that, I wish to set the record straight about the things I did not do."

    Jiaomiao queried, "But what if they don't believe you?"

    Shen Yuan replied, "Their belief or disbelief will put an end to my obsession. As for their choice, it's... up to fate, I suppose."

    Upon hearing this, Jiaomiao sighed, "Truly stubborn and foolish."



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