“Will you go down yourself, or do you need me to make a move?”
They stood facing each other, master and disgraced disciple. Xiu Ya pressed into Luo Binghe’s chest, blood blossoming from its point. Luo Binghe held the blade without pressure, never breaking eye contact. He did not move backwards or retaliate, that hurting, trusting gaze still on Shen Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu looked back coolly, expression carefully controlled. To think that Luo Binghe would trust this shizun to this extent - Shen Qingqiu’s heart was crying! Desperately, he pressed more insistently, watching Luo Binghe’s face carefully. Go, go! So that he didn’t have to push his beloved disciple down, so that he might renounce this scum villain title of his!
Still Luo Binghe did not budge. Shen Qingqiu resigned himself, about to retract Xiu Ya to perform his fated deed, when suddenly his insides twisted painfully and his knees shook. Without a Cure had decided to make itself known yet again.
What infernal timing! He bore the wave of black that crossed his vision and the cold sweat that accompanied it, struggling to remain standing.
“Shizun?” Luo Binghe’s feeble query was a whisper on the wind, nearly swallowed up by the faint howls emanating from the Endless Abyss.
Shen Qingqiu’s vision returned in increments, the static receding, and his eyes widened at the sight before him. Xiu Ya had pierced his disciple quite deeply in his poisoned fit, Luo Binghe looking up at him with a shaking mouth and tearing eyes. Both of his hands had gone up to the blade instinctually, still holding it gently, so gently. He did not move, still, trusting entirely in his shizun, though Xiu Ya was surely moments from piercing this bleeding protagonist’s heart.
Shen Qingqiu grit his teeth. Close, too close! In a motion that required more effort than it should have, he wrenched the sword away roughly, drawing a cry from Luo Binghe. His disciple stumbled sideways, balance off, but most importantly, unguarded. His hands were clutching at his chest, and Shen Qingqiu did not dare allow himself to think about what this meant. Do it now, he urged himself, before this poisoned body gave out on him! Xiu Ya slipped out of his trembling fingers and he aimed a kick, missing spectacularly as his knee buckled. He stumbled, rolled to avoid head trauma, and, of course, fell right over the edge and into the maw of the Endless Abyss.
Xiu Ya had fallen with him. Oops, he thought as the sword’s butt hit him squarely on the temple as if in retribution. He didn’t even have time to lament his poor fortune and this unexpected outcome before he felt his consciousness rapidly fading. The last thing he saw was, strangely, Luo Binghe’s desperate, tear-streaked face.
In the distance, a mechanical voice faintly intoned:
【Congratulations! You have successfully completed the important mission ‘Beginning of the Legend: Luo Binghe’s Fall and Rebirth.’ Rewarding Protagonist’s Coolness Level 10,000.】
The wind whistled piercingly in his ears as Luo Binghe unhesitatingly dropped into a freefall. His hands reached out desperately to the unconscious Shen Qingqiu. His heart still ached, and the wound in his chest burned in painful reminder of his shizun’s disgust, but he obviously couldn’t let his beloved shizun die. There had to have been a mistake anyhow-
He managed to grab hold of Shen Qingqiu’s sleeve. By some stroke of luck, Xiu Ya had ended up caught on his shizun’s sash as he pulled him upwards, piercing through his clothes and stoppered by its hilt. Shen Qingqiu’s robes fell open as the cloth tore, pieces of fabric fluttering upwards as the two men hurtled downwards. Luo Binghe yanked his shizun towards himself, shoving all decorum out of mind as he cradled the man to protect his head and rolled in midair to brace himself for impact and protect his shizun from further damage.
Their fall was broken by the grasping hands he had glimpsed from before, up on the cliff ledge. It turned out they were attached to demons with terrifying appearances, tongues lashing and vicious teeth clattering as they clamoured and shrieked in anticipation of a new meal. Luo Binghe unflinchingly raised a hand, calling up his demonic energy to knock them away. He found his power lurching to a sputtering halt as the stab wound at his chest throbbed and his shizun’s apathetic, unseeing eyes flashed through his mind.
His hesitation lost him precious time as the demons finally managed to wrench him apart from Shen Qingqiu, a Ghost Head spider crawling up to cradle his shizun’s head. Luo Binghe’s vision went violently red, and he lurched to draw his shizun’s sword from his side with a roar.
“NO!” He dispatched the spider with far more violence than was necessary, immediately hauling Shen Qingqiu away from clawed hands and teeth and onto his back. Expelling a wave of spiritual energy was enough to send several demons flying, stunning them temporarily. Luo Binghe darted away, adjusting the precious cargo on his back to sit more securely, and turned to face the tittering wave of hungry demons with his shizun’s sword in hand.
“You will not harm my shizun,” he breathed, poison in his tone.
Some of the monsters, sensing his strength and bloodlust, hung back. The more foolish ones bounded forwards, too starving and desperate to hesitate.
Luo Binghe cut them all down methodically, quickly, for he could feel Shen Qingqiu shivering minutely against his back and his fevered breaths in his ear. Faster, faster, he needed to help his shizun with his Without a Cure affliction before he suffered for too long!
Urgency fueled his movements, giving his exhausted body the strength and speed he needed to eliminate his enemies. He did not notice the small spiked demon escaping the scene amidst the chaos.
The largest of the horde, a heavy demon with cobbled, rock skin, had crashed into the stone wall of the cliff they had fallen from, creating a sizeable crevice. Luo Binghe sent the corpse rolling away with a kick.
He set Shen Qingqiu down gently, on his own recently shed outer robe, careful to place him on the side unstained with blood. Though he was exhausted and on the brink of collapse, he determinedly set about tidying and polishing the recently created alcove of its hard edges and dust so his shizun would not be uncomfortable.
His work done, Luo Binghe gathered Shen Qingqiu and Xiu Ya in his shaking arms and dragged them into the shallow alcove not a moment too soon, for sheets of blood started pelting downwards. Luo Binghe wondered briefly where it could be coming from but redirected his attention to the more important task at hand. He pressed his limp shizun to himself, chest to chest, and stubbornly ignored his heart thumping in remembrance of the time his shizun had held his younger self just like this to help him heal. ‘Impure, impure!’ he thought frantically, ears burning. This was just for his shizun’s health, he had no other untoward intentions!
He took a moment to remember what he had overheard from Shen Qingqiu’s and Liu Qingge’s late night conversations about the poison’s treatment. He breathed deeply and set about thinning the poison through his shizun’s meridians, melting through the clotting with delicate care and precision. He did the best he could with his limited knowledge, and was rewarded by the evening out of Shen Qingqiu’s brow and his slower, calmer breaths.
Relief claimed Luo Binghe and he finally allowed himself to flop backwards, closing his eyes momentarily. He would not sleep, would stay on the lookout until his shizun woke and they could move again. Staying in one place was practically an invite for death to come knocking, but Luo Binghe was terribly exhausted. Just a moment, just one moment of peace…
The blood rain drizzled down, and through its resounding patter Luo Binghe’s thoughts worked sluggishly.
Good and evil. Evil and good.
He gazed down at his shizun’s lax face. Over it, he saw an impression of the frigidity of several moments before.
He did not let himself look after that, staring resolutely outside and straining his ears for suspicious noises.
They were in hell, he realized suddenly, quietly. He shivered, holding his shizun closer to himself and wishing very, very faintly to himself that Shen Qingqiu would not wake up, so that they might sit together in this stifling stasis for just a moment longer.
Shen Qingqiu woke slowly, sluggishly. His tongue being quite parched, he found himself craving for tea.
He made to call for his disciple but managed only to smack his lips, the sound not coming out. Shit, he ached everywhere. Why was he upright?
Shen Qingqiu froze as he groped at the fabric pressed against him, too rough to be his own silken sheets. He realized with dawning dread that though he was quite warm, the air was very cold.
He cracked an eye open, assessing his state of half-nudity and the bloodstained overcoat thrown over his shoulder. He then took in the (man’s!) chest he had been leaning against. Dried blood crusted at the left breast, over the heart, where a sizeable silvery scar glimmered in the faint light. Shen Qingqiu’s breath hitched as he remembered with a start the cliff, the fall, the System -
“Shizun?” whispered Luo Binghe from above him, breath mingling in his messy hair.
Hmmmm. Shen Qingqiu lifted his chin apprehensively. He took in Luo Binghe’s strangely blank face, then turned calmly to take in his surroundings.
They were in a small stone alcove, looking as if it had only been recently carved out if the coarse texture of its walls was any indication. Outside, a rather diverse assortment of demon corpses were strewn left and right, dark blood streaking the hard-packed ground. He could hear animal chittering and agonized howling and cries somewhere in the distance. Most concerningly, blood rain dripped slowly from the sky, splattering just far enough away that Shen Qingqiu and his companion were not struck. Appropriately dark and over-the-top, Shen Qingqiu thought this scene was quite fitting of the demon world!
“The demon world,” Luo Binghe announced in that same low, quiet voice, as if speaking to himself. He shifted beneath his shizun, sitting up to gaze at the scenery outside. Shen Qingqiu slipped out of his lap - his lap!? Why had he replaced the hypothetical pretty sister in a rose-tint worthy scene yet again!? - and felt a familiar shape at his side. His fingers skimmed Xiu Ya’s blade, lightly crusted along its sides. It thrummed with the energy of recent battle.
Luo Binghe saw that he had found his sword. “This disciple apologizes, shizun’s blade was used by these unworthy hands to fend off the enemy.” He paused, then, fist clenching at his side as he drew in a breath. He seemed to be chewing on words, the weight of them so significant that the boy opened his mouth only to reclose it several times.
Now that Shen Qingqiu was conscious, Luo Binghe’s calm facade fell away to reveal the agony boiling up inside, his face working as he fought against the tears that threatened to fall. The arm around Shen Qingqiu, who did not dare move, tightened, presumably to prevent his escape.
Shen Qingqiu watched his disciple with both trepidation and an aching heart, sweat beading at his forehead yet again. His fear and guilt mingling, he felt his pulse spike against his will.
Had his diversion from the script activated a painful heartbreak scene that would lead to the awakening of the black lotus protagonist? Explaining himself seemed to have become an impossibly high hurdle to jump, suddenly. ‘The script,’ he cried to himself though his face did not change. ‘I was only trying to follow the script!!!’
Luo Binghe was supposed to fall, alone, into the Endless Abyss where he would train for five long and difficult years, obtain his special protagonist power-up items and the legendary protagonist’s sword, add several lovely sisters to his harem, and complete his evolution into the invincible protagonist of a stallion novel. The suffering, the betrayal, the harem, it was all necessary for him to achieve his destined path. Shen Qingqiu ending up in the abyss as well after his dramatic actions just a little while before seemed to be implicating him for his past hypocrisies. He hadn’t even managed to push or coax him down in the end, pathetically falling in himself. He must have collapsed part of the cliff on his way down, though, for how else would Luo Binghe have ended up here with him?
The System had definitely confirmed that the Fall and Rebirth mission had been completed; was he to die, then, at the hands of his fallen disciple? Would his death be the catalyst for the ‘rebirth’ in this convoluted plotline? This overcoming of the shizun who had wronged him, just like in the original but far earlier- ironically, it seemed he had hastened the approach of his future as a human stick. ‘Damn you, Shen Qingqiu’, he projected vehemently heavenwards. The scum villain could not be forgiven after all, his past sins too incorrigible, no matter his own hard work in remedying them for the past few years.
Returning to himself, he swallowed imperceptibly and checked his spiritual power reserves- his meridians were miraculously clear, but his energy was still depleted. He was useless as he was currently. Fuck fuck fuck. Shit!
Ah, goodbye to this life, it was sweet while it lasted!
‘System, can I do this event over!?’ he tried.
Luo Binghe started to lift his arm and Shen Qingqiu instantly flinched backwards, dragging Xiu Ya with him. Standing shakily, exposed back beaten by blood rain, he looked down at the protagonist, arms still half-raised. Luo Binghe’s stricken expression made Shen Qingqiu feel ill.
His disciple stood slowly, stooped over as he braced himself against the low ceiling of the alcove. A lone tear fell from his overly bright eyes, tracing the handsome curve of his cheek and pooling at the tip of his chin. Shen Qingqiu watched its path, unable to tear his eyes away.
Luo Binghe took a breath, preparing to speak, and Shen Qingqiu braced himself.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, shizun!” the boy cried in a breaking voice. The tears fell freely, now, Luo Binghe releasing a violent sob.
“I only wanted power enough to protect you! If I had known you abhorred demons so much I would never have practiced demonic cultivation! Please, shizun, didn’t you say that humans and demons were the same, that there is good and bad in both!? Is a Heavenly Demon so much more despicable?” His face reflected such agony that Shen Qingqiu could not help but to take a step back. Seeing this, Luo Binghe’s expression took on a shadow of desperation.
“Am I so hateful to you now? Is this d-disciple so repulsive, as much so as...?” He swept a hand outwards. Shen Qingqiu knew he was referring to the vicious demons’ corpses strewn outside.
Shen Qingqiu felt like tearing his hair out, his stress mounting. What a grand misunderstanding! Of course all those things he had said to assuage Luo Binghe’s insecurities and inform him of the truth of his heritage would be taken in all the wrong ways!
Luo Binghe fell to his knees, crying too violently to stand straight. His shizun balked. No, no, Luo Binghe should not be reduced to such a sad state, not at the expense of this Shen Qingqiu! Shen Qingqiu stopped thinking about scripts and destiny and stepped towards his disciple with single-minded focus.
“Please don’t leave me too,” cried Luo Binghe. “I’m sorry- I’m sorry, shizun, this disciple was wrong!”
Shen Qingqiu gathered his crybaby disciple in his arms and patted his head, barely taking notice of how it was caked in blood and sweat. “This silly child,” he sighed fondly despite of himself. “How could this shizun ever despise you?”
He gently lifted Luo Binghe’s chin so that they could make eye contact. It was imperative that Luo Binghe understood him clearly, this time. His eyes were glossy and nearly swollen shut, though he still obediently did his best to look his shizun in the eyes. ‘Ah’, Shen Qingqiu thought offhandedly, ‘even covered in tears and snot this boy is stupidly handsome.’
“What I said was true. Demons and humans both have equal capacity for good and for evil.” He paused, thinking on his next words. “I… overreacted. Though you have the blood of Heavenly Demons running in your veins, your capacity for good far outstretches any propensity for evil you might have. But because you have the blood of demons nonetheless, you needed to return to your roots. That is why you had to enter this Endless Abyss to learn to wield these powers safely and effectively.”
Luo Binghe stared up at him, enraptured. “Then does shizun… accept this disciple’s demonic practices?”
Shen Qingqiu inclined his head, and, feeling quite wise all of a sudden, said: “It is only another tool at your disposal, Binghe. You mustn’t attach such sentimental value as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to it, regardless of what other cultivators might say. I ask only that you wield it responsibly.”
Hiccuping, Luo Binghe dashed at his dripping nose and huffed out a tiny, relieved laugh. Shen Qingqiu felt himself grow soft at the boy’s smile. Such purity and brightness was admirable- as expected of the protagonist!
“Do you understand what you must do, Binghe?” he asked softly, once Luo Binghe had been given a moment to compose himself.
Blazing determination set those dark eyes alight. “Yes, shizun,” said Luo Binghe. “This disciple understands very well.”
【Protagonist’s Coolness Level +1000!】
...why!? Why such a large amount!? Was this resolution really so significant?
Well, whatever. The plot had already changed this much, why wouldn’t the value of certain decisions change as well?
Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat, satisfied. “Good.”
He then realized again his state of undress, and, feeling tired suddenly, said, “...I have just one question, Binghe.”
Luo Binghe mopped at his eyes and sniffled, mustering up a blinding smile. “Yes, shizun?”
“What happened to my clothes?”
The boy seized up and his tears abruptly stopped, at a loss for words. His eyes darted downwards and then straight back to Shen Qingqiu’s eyes, trembling minutely all the while.
“...ripped… then… clearing meridians…” the boy mumbled. His nape and ears coloured very quickly and violently.
Ripped again? Shen Qingqiu felt his eyes glaze over. It really was as if this old man was taking the place of all the harem sisters’ fanservice scenes.
He considered covering his chest with his hands but discarded the thought as easily as it came. As embarrassing as it was, he was a man, wasn’t he? He and Luo Binghe were just two fellow half-naked men, there was nothing to be ashamed about, really!
He paused, then tossed the discarded overcoat over his shoulders anyways. Bloodstained as the robe was, it was impossible to tell who it belonged to, it might as well have been his own!
Luo Binghe, upon seeing this, seemed to grow quite excited.
【Protagonist’s Coolness Level +100!】
What exactly is this fluctuating points logic, System!? Shen Qingqiu resolved not to think about it - he wasn’t complaining, exactly - and bent down to retrieve Xiu Ya from where it had fallen.
“We must move, Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu told his disciple as he tied Xiu Ya to his waist with a strip of cloth torn from his lower half. His resolution fortified itself anew as he thought back to the game-changing word he happened to hear when Mobei Jun had appeared. “There is someone we must see, after you have strengthened sufficiently.”
Shen Qingqiu’s lips curved upwards in a slight, predatory smile. “You will find out,” he said mysteriously.
Luo Binghe looked appropriately puzzled, but did not press, obediently falling into step beside his shizun. After a moment’s pause, he reached down and clung to his shizun’s clothes like he had as a child. Shen Qingqiu only chuckled and allowed him this.
The blood shower had begun tapering off as they left their temporary shelter, and together they set off for the first trial, white robes stained in red, red, and red.