Liu Qingge is slitting the throat of a large, gurgling beast, its armored legs kicking in its death throes, when he feels a brief flash of demonic qi nearby.
His eyes narrow, as his nose wrinkles with the release of the fumes from the creature’s neck. Cheng Luan slashes through the air, flinging the reeking blood from its blade in a clean, white arc.
Liu Qingge flew for a few days in order to reach the area he’s in now: a somewhat isolated, wooded ravine with steep, rocky sides and a concentration of challenging prey. He is not, however, anywhere near the border with the demon realm. Which doesn’t make demonic energy unusual, necessarily- there are plenty of demons stealing about the countryside, especially in areas rife with large monsters like this one- but the quality of the energy was unusual. Not only strong, but very cleanly controlled.
Well, regardless of the ubiquitousness of demonic hangers-on, the rules are clear. Demons belong in the demon realms, and if there are any out here doing something violent enough that it requires demonic qi, a cultivator such as himself would be well within their rights to send them back where they came from.
Preferably after a fight, Liu Qingge thinks, blood rising, as he hops onto Cheng Luan and takes off in the direction of the flash of energy.
Liu Qingge doesn’t know the area, but his directional senses are unerring. He flies in a straight line to the area that he felt the qi come from, and is met with an exceptionally clean kill site.
The grass in front of him is barely even ruffled with the clawprints of the demonic beast that lies on the ground, a precise cut to its neck neatly having separated its hairy head from its body. It’s the same type as the one that he fought, but slightly bigger. The blood is still spurting out in small, foul-smelling gushes, so its heart must have barely stopped.
The kill was very recent. And very swift, judging by the evident lack of struggle.
Liu Qingge’s attention sharpens, and he glances around the clearing. The beast that he fought was no joke. Not a danger to someone of his skill level, but still something he wouldn’t have expected to kill in a single move.
Who killed this one? Did they attack it while it was unguarded, taking it by surprise, to kill it so cleanly?
Not seeing anything out of the ordinary, he closes his eyes and lets his senses reach out; but after a few moments of careful listening and sensing, he feels no trace of the demonic qi from earlier.
Frowning, he opens his eyes, and in front of him, unnoticed by any of his senses, is a tall figure, dressed in gray and black, barely a few paces away, watching him.
Cheng Luan has swept to strike the other man even before Liu Qingge realizes, from where he’s flown back, that he knows him.
The clash of metal on metal, as Xin Mo unsheathes itself only a few inches to block, almost drowns out Liu Qingge’s angered shout of “Luo Binghe!”
“Liu Qingge,” the other man replies, eyes glinting and robes billowing with the wind of Cheng Luan’s strike. “How interesting, to find you here.”
Liu Qingge scowls, but motions Cheng Luan back to its sheath. It slides into place with a smooth click, and he glares, not moving from where he stands.
‘Liu Qingge’ indeed. This demon is always playing at propriety while Shen Qingqiu is around, but drops all pretense as soon as he’s not.
“Why are you here? Where is Shen Qingqiu?”
Luo Binghe raises an eyebrow cooly. “Am I not allowed to travel without him?”
“The better for him if you would,” Liu Qingge snaps, crossing his arms. “What have you come for? Taking my kills?”
“If Liu Qingge would like this monster, he is welcome to it,” Luo Binghe says easily, waving a hand at the craeture’s corpse. “I just noticed it in the way. A small matter.”
Liu Qingge’s scowl deepens. The demon knows the level of skill that fighting the beasts requires, and is mocking him. Again.
“Or perhaps he would like something more challenging to fight?” Luo Binghe says, voice even.
Liu Qingge’s hand grips at Cheng Luan. What does he mean by that? Is he offering to… to fight Liu Qingge himself?
His eyes narrow.
“You want to drag yourself out of the woods bleeding?” he snaps, knuckles tightening on Cheng Luan’s hilt.
“Not at all,” Luo Binghe says, raising a hand appeasingly. “I was just thinking of pointing Liu Qingge in the direction of more interesting prey. The river nearby holds a few beasts of mention, I was thinking of harvesting a few myself.”
“For what purpose,” Liu Qingge snaps, highly suspicious.
“For parts,” Luo Binghe says, smiling.
Smiling? Too suspect.
“I don’t need your directions,” Liu Qingge says angrily. Cheng Luan unsheathes itself, and he steps onto his sword, already turning to leave.
“Ah, Liu Qingge,” Luo Binghe says, as though remembering something. “There is one area to be avoided around here. If you see something like a large sand pit, stay away from it.”
Liu Qingge sneers, and Cheng Luan slices away through the air, leaving the black and grey clad demon behind him on the ground without a look back.
Five hours later, Liu Qingge, staggering, slams to his knees in the sand, halfway out of the steep sand pit.
At the bottom of it lays a monstrous, grotesque insect, more like a giant grub than anything else, but with far too many spindly legs and far, far, far too many needle-like teeth, slowly twitching in its death throes. Liu Qingge grits his teeth and reaches down, ripping a few of the thin, thorn-like hairs out of his arm, where they embedded themselves during a lucky brush of its leg against him.
His arm flashes hot and then cold, the pain tripling.
He grits his teeth, and yanks out another handful.
Breathing heavily, he lurches back to his feet and continues climbing, the steep walls of the sand pit sending him sliding back down half the length of each step he takes. His legs burn, his qi circulating in only uneven fits and spurts, forcing him to rely on his muscles alone to climb. Cheng Luan is unresponsive, strapped uselessly to his hip. Biting the inside of his cheek, he pauses again, and rolls up his sleeve, to inspect his bleeding arm for any more of the thin hairs. He pulls out the remaining few, feeling his skin light up with pain, then binds the sleeve tightly around his arm, to cover the wounds from any falling sand.
He digs his hands into the steep walls of the pit, and continues to climb, using all four limbs.
By the time he makes it over the lip of the pit, an indeterminate amount of time later, his whole body is shaking in fits and starts. It has been for a while, though, so he ignores it, even as his muscles spasm with the sudden lack of movement. He collapses to lie on his back a safe distance from the pit and closes his eyes.
At least he killed it.
He tries to pull Cheng Luan from its sheath, to ensure that the blade is clean, but the muscles of his hands won’t allow his fingers to close around the handle.
He lets his arms fall by his sides, breath still heaving in his chest.
He tries to circulate his qi again, now that he’s not moving, but the movement of energy through his body is uneven and rough, slamming against something like a river forcing rocks into a dam that blocks its path. It makes him grit his teeth with the pain, and he feels his vision graying out a little.
He forces himself to pass the energy through his meridians as best he can anyway, even as his ability to do so slows to a thin ribbon, and then a trickle. The pain is getting worse.
At some point, he must pass out, because when he opens his eyes again, he’s lying in the same spot, and the sky is the deep blue of midafternoon.
He goes to sit up, and the muscles of his body listen to him, but when he unconsciously tries to supplement their strength with his qi, the searing pain returns, knocking him onto his back.
Well, maybe he’s just going about it too delicately. He was able to kill the thing with his cultivation, so he knows he was able to use a lot of spiritual power all at once only a few hours ago. Maybe that’s all he needs to do- to force as much qi through his veins as he can.
Sitting up with an arm bracing itself around his stomach- careful not to use his cultivation- he manages to stand, and limps over to the side of the pit, looking down into it. The carcass inside has changed color, the thick, pale exoskeleton starting to go brown in the searing sun.
Liu Qingge grits his teeth, and takes a firm stance, facing down into the pit.
He’s going to blast this stupid monster with all his remaining cultivation and spiritual strength, and let the force of the strike clear the obstructions out of his veins as he does it.
He raises both his hands, fingers spread wide and palms facing the hideous worm, panting from the strain of standing.
And, with a ragged shout, he channels everything he has into a strike downwards into the pit. He doesn’t know whether his vindictive attack is effective or not, though, because the blinding pain makes his vision go black immediately, and he passes out.
He wakes up facedown in the sand, grit in his eyelashes and between his lips. There’s a steady stream of cool energy making its way into his body, and he coughs his way back to life, spitting out the sand in his mouth feebly.
How did he end up back in this forsaken sand pit after sliding down so many grueling steps dragging himself out of it?
Furrowing his brow, he pictures his white boots, braced on the edge of the pit, as he readied his full-powered strike just before passing out.
...Maybe he should have stood a little farther back from the edge.
He coughs again, and tries to push himself up, only to slump back to the ground after an unsuccessful few moments of effort.
A shifting of something that was resting on his back- a hand?
The hand slides to his shoulder, and helps him turn over, though he slides a little down the cascading sand slope as he does. The cool flow of energy from the hand doesn’t stop, though, even as he slips further down.
Liu Qingge coughs again, shaking his head in an unsuccessful effort to knock the sand from his face, and opens his eyes to see-
He closes them immediately, forehead wrinkling.
“Liu Qingge,” Luo Binghe says, free hand nonchalantly brushing sand off his front. Liu Qingge resists the urge to slap his hand away; his arm doesn’t move when he tries it, anyway. “I didn’t expect you to be so contrary. Maybe I should have told you to try coming here, instead? Then would you have stayed away?”
“Stop touching me,” Liu Qingge bites out, voice hoarse. “I don’t need your help.”
“Mm,” Luo Binghe says, not removing the hand that’s channeling energy to him. He stops brushing away the sand, though, which Liu Qingge feels viciously satisfied by, even when he ends up coughing on the grains that fall into his mouth.
Whatever. He’d put up with a lot worse than some grit, to minimize his contact with Luo Binghe.
“Well, the monster is dead, at least,” Luo Binghe says, glancing down into the pit. “Your cultivation is going to be a mess, though. I’m patching it up for you temporarily, but you’ll need the real cure before long.”
“What cure,” Liu Qingge gets out, voice catching on the sand in his throat. He coughs again.
Luo Binghe glances down at him, and his eyes catch on his sleeve, which is stained brown and encrusted with sand. He picks up Liu Qingge’s arm- Liu Qingge feels his anger rise, as he tries to jerk it back to no avail- and pulls back the sleeve, exposing the still-bleeding wounds.
Luo Binghe makes a low noise of judgment, and squeezes lightly at the skin of his arm, pinching around the wound.
Liu Qingge’s vision starts to white out again with the pain.
“There’s still poison in here,” Luo Binghe says, sounding annoyed. He lowers his face to Liu Qingge’s arm, and-
Liu Qingge flops uselessly in the sand, though his intention was to jump to his feet and send Cheng Luan slicing through Luo Binghe’s insolent mouth that dared to touch him. His useless muscles are shaking with anger, as he sputters at Luo Binghe.
Luo Binghe turns his head to the side and spits out some blood, then lowers his head back to Liu Qingge’s arm, sucking harder.
Not only is it disgusting, it’s extremely painful. Liu Qingge grits his teeth, and the fingers of his arm feebly twitch, trying to clench into a fist to distract himself from the crawling fire that is eating at his arm.
“You missed some pieces,” Luo Binghe says, lowly and judgmentally, spitting another mouthful of blood onto the sand. “How hard did you yank when you pulled them out? Those spines aren’t easy to break.”
Obviously a rhetorical question, because he doesn’t even look at Liu Qingge’s face before bracing his arm across his knee, as though planning to break it at the elbow. He doesn’t move his hand that channels energy into Liu Qingge’s sternum, the cool trickle still flowing steadily into him; but the fingers of his other hand come to hover over the wounds. A sudden, concentrated flash of demonic qi, and Luo Binghe is slicing into Liu Qingge’s skin with a single fingernail, the pain so excruciating that Liu Qingge almost blacks out.
“Stop twitching,” Luo Binghe says lowly, eyes intent on his arm, bracing his elbow on Liu Qingge’s wrist to keep his joint pinned across his knee. “There’s only a few more.”
Liu Qingge can do nothing but tilt his head back and bite his lip hard enough that it bleeds to keep from making noise, as Luo Binghe cuts the remaining shards of spines out of him. Time bleeds together with his arm, as the pain disrupts his senses.
“There,” Luo Binghe’s voice finally comes, just as Liu Qingge is considering passing out again. Liu Qingge blinks his eyes open, slightly blurry with unshed tears, in time to see Luo Binghe throw a tiny shred of something to the side. “The last one.”
“Let me go,” Liu Qingge says, voice rough with the pain.
“Yes, yes,” Luo Binghe says without looking at him, then puts his mouth on his arm again .
This time, though, the pain isn’t quite as bad- and, in fact, by the time Luo Binghe has finished smearing his disgusting spit along all the bloody marks on Liu Qingge’s arm, it hurts only the same amount as a deep stab wound.
And in fact, the circulation of Luo Binghe’s qi in his body is starting to flow more freely, too. It’s enough that Liu Qingge can marshal himself to slowly add some of his energy into the stream, letting it flow through his own meridians testingly.
When he doesn’t pass out again, he considers it a success.
“I’m fine now,” he says, trying to sit up.
Luo Binghe’s hand on his chest keeps him pressed down, and he scowls. “Let me up.”
“After I’ve finished this,” Luo Binghe says, voice pleasant and fake. “The more I do now, the better off you’ll be.”
“Let me up, ” Liu Qingge says, and subsides into seething silence when Luo Binghe’s immovable hand prevents him from rising, qi still flowing through him irritatingly.
Luo Binghe brings up his free hand to wipe at his lips, stained red with blood, and looks down at Liu Qingge. His eyes rest on his face. Xin Mo’s energy pulses irritatingly at his side, as it has for the last few minutes.
Liu Qingge ignores it stoically for a few minutes, and then snaps.
“What?” he spits out.
“Nothing,” Luo Binghe says pleasantly. “I was just thinking you remind me of your sister.”
Liu Qingge scowls. What’s that supposed to mean?
“Not your personality,” Luo Binghe clarifies. “You look like her.”
“How would you know?” Liu Qingge glares.
Luo Binghe blinks, then smiles. “Just the eyes,” he says, though his gaze drops to Liu Qingge’s mouth.
Liu Qingge makes an aggrieved noise, then closes his eyes. Luo Binghe can stare all he wants at his face; he’ll just pretend he’s being passed energy by a particularly irritating rock until this farce is over.