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Betwixt mine eye and heart

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Shen Yuan opens his eyes.

He’s surrounded by darkness—no light, no discernible shapes, nothing. Breathing deep, he feels the sensation of his body floating as though it’s in zero gravity, buoyant and weightless. His fingers twitch and his head turns from side to side, but he can’t move much else. Can’t smell, or hear, or feel anything, either.

Where the hell am I, he thinks, heart seizing.

As if in response, a mechanical voice echoes through the void, coming from all directions.

[Welcome to the Proud Immortal Demon’s Way. Please wait while the System is booting...]

“The Proud Immortal Demon’s Way," created and developed by Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky.

An indie love simulation game that’s a horrific, unoriginal blend of the British magical school system from Harry Potter, Japanese high school romance from shoujo manga, and Chinese fantasy concepts from xianxia novels. The plot is unimaginative, the dialogue cringe-worthy, and the characters, one-dimensional. It’s like the game developer puked out this putrid mess after an extended acid trip, and yet, the damn thing is Shen Yuan’s greatest guilty pleasure.

What man can resist playing as Luo Binghe, the male stallion protagonist? A handsome half-demon student of Cang Qiong School of Cultivation that possesses god-like traits and the option to bed any female character. There's the whole tragic childhood bit, of course, being the son of a demon and a human, but he surmounts the pain, the abuse, and the story ends with him exacting revenge on all the scums who tried to break him and getting the woman of his choice. 

For Shen Yuan, who spends his free time with his game consoles and his books, it’s the perfect fantasy. One that allows him to look past the fatal flaws of an otherwise idiotic game.

And now he’s in said idiotic game?

All right, Shen Yuan. Think. Focus. What happened before the floaty black void?

Last he remembers, he was crossing the street with the green walk light on. He also had his head down. Why did he have his head down? Ah yes. He had his head down because he was rummaging in his bag for his phone; the stupid thing was ringing, ringing, ringing incessantly, and then… then he looked up to the sound of a horn—

—oh, right, that’s the last thing he remembers.

The front of a bus rushing up towards him.

So he’s dead, then.

Dead as a doorknob.

Deader than his great grand-aunt who keeled over from eating too many dumplings last week. 

...dear god, he’s fucking dead.

And, somehow, transported into a love simulation game.

Shen Yuan breathes again. In and out, in and out.

It’s fine, he tells himself. Totally fine. There must be worse hells than building a harem as a male stallion protagonist in a love simulation game.

Even if it’s the shittiest game of the century.

The voice rings out, loud and clear.

[Thank you for your patience. The System is ready for you.]

Darkness consumes him before he can truly panic.

 


 

Shen Yuan opens his eyes.

For a start, it’s not darkness that greets him. No, he’s on a bed this time, with white curtains and mint-green tassels hanging at the corners. He sits up, gaze dropping down as he lifts his hands—long, delicate fingers, gauzy inner robes, pale slender legs.

Not at all how he recalls Luo Binghe from “The Proud Immortal Demon’s Way.”

Rolling out of bed, Shen Yuan grabs the mirror from the desk, looks at his reflection—

—and promptly screams.

He’s not Luo Binghe! He’s Shen Qingqiu! The scum villain NPC that abuses the protagonist throughout their school days, gets expelled for his wicked, scheming ways, and then is tortured to death by the protagonist.

Tortured. To death.

Shen Yuan believes the exact phrase was, “carved into a human stick.”

“System,” he shrieks. “Why’d you put me in a character that’s going to die?”

The mechanical voice returns, reverberating in Shen Yuan’s mind.

[Once again, welcome to the Proud Immortal Demon's Way. Your soul has bound to the body of Shen Qingqiu.]

“Are you ignoring me!?”

[Your mission is to achieve a Romantic ending within the academic year before graduation. Otherwise, the System will reboot itself.]

“Reboot?” Shen Yuan yelps. “What does reboot mean? Am I going to die? Why would that matter if my character dies anyway? And how I supposed to get a Romantic ending as Shen Qingqiu? Steal women from the protagonist? Like that’s not going to lead to my death?”

A pause, before the voice chimes in again.

[Would you like a profile of your character?]

Shen Yuan drops his head in his hands. No matter what, this stupid System isn’t willing to answer any of his questions.

“Yes,” he says through gritted teeth.

There’s a loud ding sound.

[Shen Qingqiu. Birth name: Shen Jiu. 22 years old. 7th year student and Senior of Qing Jing Peak in the Cang Qiong School of Cultivation. Passed the Comprehensive Cultivation Examination (CCE) in his 5th year. Sword name: Xiu Ya. Anticipated graduation: end of this academic year. Starting parameters are as follows:  ]

Well, of course. Shen Qingqiu was conniving and wicked and loathed by everyone and their mothers; it’s no wonder his Respect and Kindness parameters are so low compared to his Intelligence. But a Romantic ending typically requires a specific set of parameters based on the chosen partner. A character who values Kindness, for example, would want Shen Qingqiu to have a Kindness level of 200, whereas a different character might prefer higher levels of Culture. He'll have to raise his parameters like a mad man within the academic year.

The thought calms him, somehow, gives him something to latch onto. It's a game, that's all. A shitty game in the afterlife, but a game nonetheless.

Raising his head, Shen Yuan takes stock of his room. It’s neat and immaculate, the complete opposite of his own room in the real world. Fans are also on display, rows and rows of fans of all patterns and designs. In-game illustrations of Shen Qingqiu always depict him holding a fan, but Shen Yuan didn’t think the character’s obsession went quite this far.

After brushing his hair (good thing he's had experience combing his sister's hair) and pulling on the green uniform of Qing Jing Peak (Shen Qingqiu sure loved green), Shen Yuan takes his time choosing a fan from the vast collection. He picks a light grey one with a trail of green leaves across the front. Slips it in his belt before he straps on his sword, marveling for a moment at the light weight, that he even has a sword to carry.

Then, he spends the next few minutes staring at the door, fists curling and uncurling by his sides.

He can do this.

He can do this.

No longer is he Shen Yuan—awkward and sardonic Shen Yuan, who hasn’t found a job or girlfriend for longer than he’s embarrassed to admit.

He’s Shen Qingqiu, Senior of Qing Jing Peak. Cool, elegant, cultured.

Also: bitter, resentful, and petty as all hell, his mind supplies unhelpfully.

Exhaling, Shen Qingqiu slides the door open and steps out.

Below the flight of stairs is the common room, a cozy space where the students of Qing Jing Peak spend their free time. They leap to their feet the second Shen Qingqiu arrives, fear reflected clear as day on their young faces.  

Just what on earth did the original do to these poor kids?

“Good morning, Senior Shen,” the students chorus in unison, fists hitting palms in salute.

Shen Qingqiu nods, letting his eyes roam over them as he flicks open his fan. He picks out two that he can recognize from his gameplay: Ning Yingying and Ming Fan.

Ning Yingying is the first female the protagonist meets in the original, and the first option to flirt with and seduce into bed. Pure and innocent, this sweet sister is considered among fans as one of the easiest to win over in the game.

Ming Fan, on the other hand, is trouble. He fanned the flames of the protagonist's vengeful heart, adding pranks and dumb tricks to the original Shen Qingqiu's abusive treatment. (Ming Fan didn't survive Luo Binghe's wrath, either.)

“Luo Binghe is waiting for you in the bamboo house, Senior Shen,” says Trouble, with eager eyes. “I’ll bet he failed the assignments you gave him again.”

Shen Qingqiu has the sudden image of a small dog humping frantically against his ankle. He hides the smirk that threatens to surface behind his fan.

Despite the obvious effort at sucking up, Shen Qingqiu is thankful for Ming Fan's reminder of the plot. The original Shen Qingqiu had offered to tutor Luo Binghe when the protagonist transferred as a second year student from the Institute of Demonic Cultivation. Bullied and ostracized for his demon heritage, Luo Binghe was initially filled with gratitude for what looked like a gesture of kindness. Little did Luo Binghe know that Shen Qingqiu had merely wanted a slave to answer his beck and call, to call him “Shizun” as he believed he rightfully deserved.

“Please, Senior Shen,” Ning Yingying speaks up, her wavering voice as gentle as a spring breeze. “A-Luo is really trying his hardest.”

Shen Qingqiu resists the urge to clutch at his chest. What a sweet child! What a pure heart! The “world's little sister” is not an exaggerated fan title for this character.

“I won't hurt him,” he assures her.

And with that single declaration, he sweeps out of the common room, missing the exchange of startled looks among the students.

 


 

The bamboo house would have been cramped if not for the sparse furniture inside. One table, two chairs, and a small bed in the corner—just enough for the night. Barely. And Luo Binghe has accepted it as his living quarters, wholeheartedly, assuming that this is all the generosity that the original Shen Qingqiu can afford to provide. (It’s not.)

When Shen Qingqiu enters, Luo Binghe’s reaction is no different from the other students. Rising to his feet, he greets Shen Qingqiu with a “Shizun!” and a salute, before he pushes a crumpled sheet across the table. Mumbles, head bowed, that he tried his best to copy the Heart Sutra as Shizun has instructed, he really did, please forgive him for his bad handwriting.

Shen Qingqiu smooths out the sheet before he makes a great show of studying the writings, eyes flicking up to study Luo Binghe instead.

So this is the male stallion protagonist of the Proud Immortal Demon's Way.

It’s so easy to forget that Luo Binghe starts out as a sweet, humble boy. Naive, even. Hard to believe that this is the same character who will, later, want to crush Shen Qingqiu's bones into dust.

Yet, with the long eyelashes, the high cheekbones, the broad shoulders and lean build, his handsome looks are already every inch a protagonist’s. And his eyes, oh those eyes. Bright as stars, every female sings verses of his eyes, the way they glint like dark obsidians in the light, the way they can make even the straightest man pregnant with a single gaze.

Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. Right, that's enough of that. He should be figuring out Luo Binghe's current status, not topping Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky's flowery descriptions.

A quick mental calculation helps him to place this Luo Binghe as a 3rd year, at the tender age of eighteen.

One year of mistreatment, evident in the dark bruise peeking out from under Luo Binghe's collar.

Time to rectify that bullshit.

Shen Qingqiu flips over the sheet and sets it down on the table. Luo Binghe’s throat bobs as he swallows, hands clasped behind his back as if awaiting punishment.

Well, punishment is not what he'll get. Not today, not anymore.

“How have you been?”

Luo Binghe blinks, surprised. Then, with a nod, “Well. Ning-mei has been kind to me, and I am grateful for Shizun’s tutoring.”

Ah, so he has affection for Ning Yingying, just as he did in the original. Even if the player chooses not to pursue Ning Yingying, Luo Binghe will continue to have private scenes with her, some of them alluding to a more intimate relationship than mere allies. It’s to be expected, given the circumstances.

“And your classes?” Shen Qingqiu asks.

“I am learning a great deal,” Luo Binghe says, carefully.

The students continue to mistreat me, is left unspoken.

Binghe ah, Binghe. This Shizun can't help you if you don't admit that you're being bullied. 

Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth to pursue further, when a gong sounds in the distance.

Really? Now?

“It’s the gong for breakfast,” Luo Binghe says, mistaking his frown for confusion. “With the Peak students at the dining hall.”

“We’ll continue this later then,” Shen Qingqiu says, moving towards the door. He looks over his shoulder when he realizes that Luo Binghe hasn’t shifted from his position. “Are you not coming?”

Luo Binghe’s eyes go wide. “...Shizun advised me to stay here, since the students don’t take well to my presence.”

“Oh. Right. Of course.” Shen Qingqiu lets out a string of swear words in his head. This is what he gets for skipping dialogue in his recent playthroughs. “Then where do you get your meals?”

“Ning-mei will bring me snacks later.”

Shen Qingqiu’s brows furrow. Luo Binghe isn’t starving by any means, but his noble form certainly isn’t as filled as it should be, and snacks are hardly nutritious.

No, this won’t do.

“I’ll be back,” he tells Luo Binghe, whose eyes only grow wider.

 


 

Walking into the dining hall makes Shen Qingqiu want to grab Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky and shake him till his teeth rattle and fall out. 

Floating candles, long oak tables that span the length of the large hall, endless heaps of delicious food? With the Cultivation schools and Peaks replacing houses, and now this hall, this setting couldn't be any more of a Hogwarts rip-off.

Copyright infringement, Airplane bro! Your idiotic game is full of it! You're just lucky that billionaire author can’t be bothered with some small-time love simulation game that only sold a few hundred digital copies!

(What the hell does that make him for buying the stupid thing?)

A deep, involuntary shudder pulls him out of his thoughts. Turning, he finds a group of students seated at the end of one of the long tables, their stares fixed on him with burning intensity. 

The Peak Seniors of the Cang Qiong School of Cultivation.

Mentally, Shen Qingqiu runs through the list.

There’s Liu Qingge, 6th year and Senior of Bai Zhan Peak. His sword skills and core cultivation are unrivalled, and if his glare is any indication, he’d like to use both techniques on Shen Qingqiu until every last bone is shattered in Shen Qingqiu's body. That’s no surprise, given that the original Shen Qingqiu, jealous of Liu Qingge’s fighting prowess, used every trick in his book to sabotage Liu Qingge’s assignments and tests. The fiasco of Liu Qingge’s CCE was the culmination of their one-sided rivalry, with Shen Qingqiu spilling scalding hot tea on Liu Qingge’s sword hand, nearly costing the other Senior his entire exam. In the original, Liu Qingge died from qi deviation, allegedly brought on by Shen Qingqiu, who was then expelled without trial. 

Next to him is Shang Qinghua, 5th year and Senior of An Ding Peak. Every teacher at Cang Qiong still questions how this bumbling fool has managed to pass the CCE. His skills are average at best, abysmal at worst, yet he has clawed his way up to the top, sitting at the apex of his oft-forgotten Peak. In the original story, not only did the protagonist have little to no interactions with him, he also died early, no more than background cannon fodder.

On Liu Qingge’s other side sits Mu Qingfang, 7th year and Senior of Qian Cao Peak. He’s the sensible one, and no less attractive than the others. Well-versed in herbs and plants, he pursues the path of healer, and as his path calls, he remains neutral in the face of all the hatred for Shen Qingqiu. Not much is known of this Senior, as the game has relatively few scenes of him compared to the rest.

Missing are two other Seniors: Qi Qingqi, a 7th year and fierce Senior of the all-female Xian Shu Peak, as well as Yue Qingyuan, an alumnus and former Senior of Qiong Ding Peak, who returns as an adjunct teacher and to occasionally fill in the role of Headmaster for the ever-sickly Elder Wu. The only kind Senior willing to look past Shen Qingqiu's flaws, he, too, died a sad death under the hands of the vengeful protagonist. 

Save for Shang Qinghua, this is a group of powerful, formidable cultivators.

And most of them hate his guts.

Shen Qingqiu quells down the urge to bolt, glides past their table to the buffet with his head held high. He can't even fathom how the original swallowed his food under the weight of such scrutiny. At the very least, he holds the knowledge that he won’t die under their hand, no matter how much they might desire it.

Still, he’s relieved to find a friendly face in Ning Yingying, who greets him cheerily at the buffet table. “Senior Shen. How was A-Luo’s scriptures today?”

“Good, good,” Shen Qingqiu says absently.

Something flickers in Ning Yingying’s eyes before it vanishes as quickly as it appeared. “That’s the first time Senior Shen has complimented A-Luo’s assignment.” Beaming, she takes a plate and offers it to him. “What will you be eating today?”

“I haven’t decided quite yet,” Shen Qingqiu hums, reaching past her to take a second plate. She gives him a puzzled look. “Can I ask you a question?”

Ning Yingying straightens, eyes as wide as Luo Binghe’s in the bamboo house. “O-Of course, Senior Shen!"

“What does Binghe like to eat?”

For a moment, Ning Yingying stares at him, mouth open. Then, a smile spreads slowly across her face, soft and bright. “I’ll tell Senior Shen everything he needs to know.”

An obnoxious ding rings out, before the System’s voice fills Shen Qingqiu’s head.

[Kindness +10, Respect +5. Well done on your first parameter increases!]

That’s it? Shen Qingqiu thinks, while Ning Yingying gives him the lowdown on Luo Binghe’s favorite foods. Just those parameters? In the original game, this sort of action was usually rewarded with at least one Heart for the increased affection.

[The Heart level parameter is not available for Ning Yingying.]

What, why? Romantic options get the Heart level parameter, so it should be available for her. It’s because she’s too easy, is that it? Or is she off-limits because the original protagonist has eyes for her? 

The voice is deadpan.

[The Heart level parameter is not available for Ning Yingying.]

I fucking hate you, Shen Qingqiu declares, flashing a mental middle finger.

Plates loaded with all of Luo Binghe’s favorites, he sweeps out of the dining hall, muttering to himself about crazy Systems and their crazy, arbitrary rules.

Back at the bamboo house, Luo Binge looks as if he's about to swoon at the sight of so much food. Shen Qingqiu busies himself with searching for utensils in that godforsaken little hut, deciding that he's going to bring in more items for Luo Binghe to use. The maternal instinct is a side effect from having a younger sister who lacks basic survival skills, like remembering to eat, or bathe, or even sleep.

Part of him wonders how she's faring now, without him.

“Shizun...” Luo Binghe's voice is filled with wonder. “Shizun did this… for me?”

Right, Shen Qingqiu thinks. He should be focusing on the present, on this poor hungry student of his. 

“Eat, eat,” he says, pushing one of the plates closer to Luo Binghe. The mountain of food wobbles, slightly. “I’m not exactly welcomed at the dining hall, either, so let's have our meals together from now on."

Luo Binghe frowns. “Did someone insult Shizun at the dining hall?” 

More like the past version of him offended everyone else in there.

Sighing, Shen Qingqiu settles onto a chair, twitching at the way it creaks in loud protest. (Yeah, these damn things need to be replaced.)

“I realize I haven't been the most… agreeable person. Nor have I done right by you.”

Luo Binghe shakes his head, about to protest, but Shen Qingqiu holds up a palm. “I haven't, you and I both know it. So, from this day forth, I intend to treat you with the respect you deserve.” He tilts his head, fan snapping open with a flick of his wrist. “Does that sound good to you, Binghe?"

Luo Binghe's smile rivals that of a thousand suns. “Yes, Shizun!”

Ding, goes the System.

[Heart level +1! Congratulations on your first Heart level parameter!!]

What the fuck???

 


 

In his room, Shen Qingqiu feels the rise of an impending seizure as he paces back and forth, carving grooves into the floor.

“The protagonist is a Romantic option? The protagonist is a Romantic option??”

[That is correct.] 

“But how can the male stallion protagonist be a Romantic option? For me, another man?”

[Gender and sexual orientation are fluid and limitless in the Proud Immortal Demon's Way.]

“All the Romantic options in the original were female!”

[Gender and sexual orientation are fluid and limitless in the Proud Immortal Demon's Way.]

“Well I’m not! I’m straight! Straight as an arrow! Straight as a right-angled triangle! So straight I'd crack if you bent me in half!”

The System is silent.

Shen Qingqiu slaps his hands to his cheeks.

Hold up.

Is this a Boys’ Love adaptation of the original game? Is that why Luo Binghe has turned gay?

Oh god, he realizes, falling back onto his bed. If this is a BL version, then he’s screwed. So screwed. Because he’s seen what happens to the male protagonists of his sister’s BL games, and they actually, literally, get screwed. Hard. Often without consent.

This must be his karma.

But karma for what? What atrocious crime has he committed to have warranted such a damning fate?

As far as he can tell, the worst thing he has ever done is call someone a “fucking asshole” for pulling his sister’s hair, but he paid for it in the form of a broken nose immediately after. Or maybe this is punishment for lying in bed all day, wasting away his parents’ money like the unfilial son that he is.

Fuck his life.

“If anyone forces himself on me, I'm kneeing the bastard right where the light don't shine,” Shen Qingqiu declares.

The voice returns then, with a slight hint of amusement.

[Remember that you can increase your parameters by attending class.]

Shen Qingqiu snorts. He just learned that his entire life has culminated into him having to seduce the male stallion protagonist of the worst love simulation in the world. Classes are the last thing on his mind right now.

“I'm taking a walk. Do I get access to a map or a list of locations?”

A whirring noise starts up.

[Please wait one moment. Opening Dating Spot Menu…]

Shen Qingqiu flinches as a translucent pop-up screen appears before him like some futuristic hologram.

[Dating Spot Menu loaded. Please select from the following:

Bamboo House
Pasture
Forest Park
Local Town
Lake  ]

“...why's the bamboo house a dating spot?”

Silence, then,

[Please select from the follow—]

“Forest Park, Forest Park,” Shen Qingqiu snaps, kneading at his forehead with a thumb and forefinger. The System never answers important questions, he should have learned that by now.

The screen slides off to reveal a second menu option.

[Where in Forest Park would you like to go? Please select from the following:

Botanical Garden
Hiking Trail
Frozen Pond  ]

Shen Qingqiu chooses the Hiking Trail, seconds before a map pops up on screen to reveal his current location and the route to the trail. Oh good, the trail leads to the Botanical Garden; he can meditate there for a while, in peace and away from his worries about Romantic endings and non-consensual dick attacks. 

Ensuring that he has Xiu Ya on him, he departs. 

The trail is beautiful at this time of year, with the warm fall colors, the smell of crisp, clean air, the refreshing brush of wind against his cheeks. It's one thing to view this as an image on the screen of a game console, quite another to actually experience it.

He's just starting to relax, admiring the scenery around him, when he hears it, just above the chilled autumn breeze.

A harsh wheezing sound.

Shen Qingqiu halts mid-step, seconds before a burst of spiritual energy strikes him, nearly throwing him off his feet. Swiftly, he rights himself, hand flying to the hilt of Xiu Ya.

His first thought is an enemy from a rival school. Some upstart from The Huan Hua Academy for Gifted Cultivators, maybe. Or a hungry demon from the Institute of Demonic Cultivation.

The last thing Shen Qingqiu expects to find is a familiar figure in pure-white robes, stumbling towards him with jerky, uneven movements. 

He stares at the handsome face, drained of all color, just as it stares back at him through bloodshot eyes.

“Liu-shidi…?”  

 


 

MESSAGE FROM THE GAME DEVELOPER

Hi friends, this is Airplane Shooting Toward the Sky! You might have noticed a few changes to the way characters are addressed in here. Because this game version of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way takes place in a school setting, the Sects are schools, the Peaks are houses, and so the characters aren't Peak Lords, but Seniors. Kind of like head prefects, but for each house! (I was inspired by the HP books, okay, inspired.)

Also, only Seniors address each other as fellow disciples, hence Shen Qingqiu's way of calling Liu Qingge “Liu-shidi.” Other students who have yet to pass the CCE and attain seniority rank must address them as “-qianbei,” or “Senior.” Of course, our Luo Binghe is special and gets to call Shen Qingqiu his Shizun!

I don’t usually elaborate this much, but some of you can be such purists when it comes to names and titles…….. (ノдヽ) wuwuwu

Oh, and if anyone wants, I'm happy to provide more explanations on the cultivation schools!

Until next time!

PS: if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all…..