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The Ring

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Day 1

It starts, as these things often do, with Ning Yingying.

In {Proud Immortal Demon Way} Ning Yingying had been a magnet for trouble. Kidnappings, attempted assassinations, stumbling into bandits and demons and cults at the drop of the hat. She’d attracted cursed artefacts and been targeted by rituals and prophecies no matter how contrived.

This Ning Yingying, with Shen Qingqiu’s somewhat haphazard and made-up-on-the-spot attempts at teaching and guidance, had evolved into a lovely, kind and sweet young lady.

Who still attracted trouble like a magnet.

So Shen Qingqiu is not what one would call surprised when Ming Fan drags a tearful Ning Yingying into his bamboo house.

“Apologies for the interruption, shizun,” Ming Fan says, bowing. His eyes dart towards the distant hallway and side room, the habit of looking for someone who they all know is no longer here. “Ning-shimei has…”

“Shizun!” Ning Yingying bursts out, extending her hands towards him. She’s holding something small and crystalline and flat — a viewing stone. Similar in nature to the viewing screens used at the Immortal Alliance Conference, it’s a portable version capable of recording and playing back a short sequence, like an xianxia video camera. “I think it’s cursed!”

Shen Qingqiu taps his closed fan against the table. “Put it down,” he instructs her, rather than pluck it from her grip. Touching cursed objects is the first mistake. “Where did Yingying get this object from?”

“A travelling cultivator in the foothill town,” Ning Yingying says, kneeling across the table from him and placing the viewing stone gently in between them. It doesn't seem particularly ominous, except for existing in this cursed world created by an idiot. “He said it was empty and I could record whatever I liked on it! But it wasn’t…”

Being someone who would never dream of tricking others, or of causing harm, Ning Yingying is far too trusting. Especially in times when she shouldn’t be — like dealing with travelling cultivators selling rare and expensive goods.

She looks ready to burst into tears again, so Shen Qingqiu switches his gaze to Ming Fan. “A travelling cultivator?”

Ming Fan folds his hands together neatly. “We searched for him as soon as Ning-shimei expressed distress. According to the town, he had been desperately trying to get rid of the viewing stone for several days and departed as soon as Ning-shimei purchased it from him. No one had seen him since.”

“I didn’t buy it,” Ning Yingying corrects. “He just gave it to me. As a present.”

It's absolutely cursed, Shen Qingqiu thinks in resignation. There's no other reason to give away something as precious as a viewing stone, no matter how lovely a young lady Ning Yingying is.

“If it’s not empty,” Shen Qingqiu says, “then what is on it?”

Because something has to make Ning Yingying think that it’s cursed, and it’s clearly not any of the suspicious circumstances surrounding her acquiry of it.

Ning Yingying actually looks uncertain, and chews on her lower lip, as if she actually has to think about the answer to that question, despite it making her so upset. “I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense. It’s white, like it’s snowing, and there’s a lot of blood. And a girl in white? I think she’s a ghost. Or a demon. I don’t know, shizun, it just makes me feel so bad!”

“And has anything happened since you’ve watched it?” Shen Qingqiu asks practically. If he focuses, if he lets his eyes slide almost closed and his attention drift, he thinks he can see a dark cloud hovering around her, instead of her pure bright golden core. Not a good sign.

“I heard a voice that said ‘five days’,” Ning Yingying says and shivers. “But there was no one around. And when I came back to Qing Jing Peak, all the birds flew away.”

Shen Qingqiu taps his fan thoughtfully against his mouth. Definitely cursed, but the problem is that without knowing specifically which kind of curse or demon it is… there are far too many possible solutions.

The easiest way to narrow it down would be, of course, to simply pick up the crystal himself. If the travelling cultivator had been desperate to pass it along and free himself of the curse, then taking the curse upon himself should free Ning Yingying from it.

Shen Qingqiu does not, particularly, want to be cursed. But he picks up the viewing stone anyway and channels a small amount of spiritual energy into it. The images stored in the stone flash across his mindseye and he instantly recognises them.

The snow-static of a bad tv screen. The circle of glowing light — an eclipse or well-lid closing. The dark haired girl in white.

Five days, says a mocking voice on the wind, because of course {Proud Immortal Demon Way} doesn’t have telephones for her to call.

Shen Qingqiu doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t. He sets the viewing stone back down on the table with a click. “Ning Yingying, did you show this to anyone else? Anyone at all?” If his voice is a touch more forced and urgent than usual, neither of his disciples mention it.

She shakes her head. “No, shizun. And I didn’t put it down, either! It’s been in my hands the whole time.”

That’s one problem circumvented then. It still leaves many problems to go because Ning Yingying isn’t safe at all.

Shen Qingqiu exhales. “We’re going to An Ding Peak,” he says and sweeps the viewing stone into his sleeve. It feels cold to the touch and impossibly heavy. “Come along now.”

One of the last things Shang Qinghua wants to encounter at the start of his day — at any point in his day! — is Shen Qingqiu stalking into An Ding Peak looking like he wants to kill someone, anyone, but maybe specifically Shang Qinghua.

Shen Qingqiu has become slightly less terrifying once Shang Qinghua learnt he was no longer the original totally-murdered-a-lot-of-people-and-willing-to-do-so-again Shen Qingqiu but… only slightly.

“You better have blank viewing stones,” Shen Qingqiu grits out, which Shang Qinghua mentally translates hi, hello, nice to see you again, do you perchance have any viewing stones and may I have one, my good friend Airplane-Shooting-Towards-The-Sky. By the way, I love your writing. I'm a huge fan.

“Um, yes?” Shang Qinghua answers and then scampers off to retrieve one from the An Ding Storage Room, which is a task that takes slightly longer than it ought because the storage minions are in the middle of moving everything around and doing a stocktake, just as they have been doing for the past twenty years. Eventually he finds them on a shelf tucked behind a box of Night Pearls and tucks the whole case under his arm.

Shen Qingqiu plucks one out of the case when it’s presented to him, and turns to the smallest of the two disciples trailing after him. “Ying-er,” he says, “you need to use your spiritual energy to copy the imprint from one stone to the other.” He pulls another viewing stone out of his sleeve.

The girl looks hesitant but takes both. “To make another one, shizun?” she asks, looking concerned. “That doesn’t seem… safe.”

“It will free Ying-er from the curse,” Shen Qingqiu explains. “Then this master will be able to deal with it.”

Shang Qinghua is abruptly more worried, particularly as the small disciple does what she was instructed to do with an undramatic flare of spiritual energy, and returns two possibly cursed viewing stones to her master.

“Now run back to Qing Jing Peak,” Shen Qingqiu tells them. “I’ll deal with this.” His voice goes ominous. And, even worse, he turns to glare at Shang Qinghua.

“I didn’t do it,” Shang Qinghua says, instantly, desperately.

Shen Qingqiu waits until his disciples are out of earshot and hisses, “you incredible hack! I can’t believe you plagiarised The Ring. What were you thinking?”

Oh shit.

“Oh shit,” Shang Qinghua says. “I mean, I wasn’t thinking I’d have to live it.” He eyes the two Very Cursed viewing stones with absolute trepidation. “It was a scary movie, bro! I was scared! It was, like, cathartic and shit to have her beaten.”

He hadn’t actually released it as a chapter because a) it really was awfully obvious plagiarization and b) it had kind of fizzled out a bit because he’d written it when Luo Binghe was already Lord of Three Realms and too dangerous to really be bothered by anything as simple as a psychic ghost. He’d had the half regretful thought that it might have made a decent plot at an earlier point of the story, then forgotten about it entirely.

How?” Shen Qingqiu asks.

Shang Qinghua winces. “Well. You know. Luo Binghe.” He waves his hand like, he’s the protagonist, you know?

Luo Binghe can beat everything. That's just a fact. A distinctly uncomfortable fact for two people who are destined to be his enemies.

Shen Qingqiu kinda looks like he wants to beat Shang Qinghua to death with his fan. “In case you haven’t noticed,” he says, “we’re lacking in Luo Binghe right now.

Ah, that is a problem.

“That is a problem,” Shang Qinghua says. He keeps eyeing the viewing stones. "Well, at least you have time to work it out?"

"Five days," Shen Qingqiu agrees, somewhat absently. Then his gaze sharpens again. "Why five? Shouldn't it have been seven?"

"Bro," Shang Qinghua whines, "do you know how hard it is to write to a timeline? Seven days is a lot of stuff! There's no way it would have taken them that long to deal with it."

Shen Qingqiu makes a sound of disgust and looks like he's winding up on another tirade about how bad Shang Qinghua is at like, plots and writing and stuff. Which is just hurtful. He casts about for a distraction. “Are you going to, you know, copy and release them?”

Shen Qingqiu looks down at his hands, like he actually has to think about it and then narrows his lips. “No,” he says heavily. “That is a prime scum villain move and they’d probably just come back. Or wind up in the hand of another wife and then I would die twice.

Shang Qinghua winces, but feels a little relieved. Just knowing they were out there would give him a lot of sleepless nights. Even more than he has already. “So what are you going to do?”

Shen Qingqiu purses his lips. “Well, first,” he says. “You’re going to watch this.”

Shang Qinghua jolts back away from him. “Absolutely not!” he declares in a panic, trying to gauge the effectiveness of fleeing. Shen Qingqiu can fly on Xiu Ya, so the odds are not in his favour at all. Shang Qinghua should definitely have put more effort into training that skill. In hindsight, a huge failing of his. That’s a great exit strategy.

Which is when Liu Qingge appears on An Ding Peak. The timing is so auspicious, and the visitor so unusual, that Shang Qinghua immediately suspects that the Qing Jing disciples met him on their way back and told him to come here.

Beautiful, fantastic kids.

Shang Qinghua throws himself behind the bulk of the Bai Zhan War God, safe from Cucumber-bro’s scathing critique, and repents ever writing him dead. Sure, Liu Qingge is kind of a jerk to him, and sure, Shang Qinghua didn’t go out of his way to prevent him getting dead or anything like that but— but he’s really glad he’s not!

“There’s a bad curse and an unbeatable monster!” he squawks out, before Liu Qingge can throw him away.

“Unbeatable?” Liu Qingge repeats, interested. His gaze turns to Shen Qingqiu, which is just a little insulting but also, knowing what a nerd Cucumber-bro always was about the monsters, totally understandable.

Shen Qingqiu sniffs and pulls back on his ‘dignified Peak Lord’ face, like he wasn’t just chasing Shang Qinghua around waving viewing stones and threatening to kill him. “Nothing is unbeatable,” he says. “But it’s targeting one of my students and I won’t stand by and watch her die.”

“That won’t happen,” Liu Qingge says, giving Shen Qingqiu an awkward pat on the shoulder, being the only one in the room under the misapprehension that Luo Binghe is actually dead. Then he takes the viewing stone out of Shen Qingqiu’s hand, because there’s actually something wrong with him and he likes being targeted by monsters. “Where is it?”

“It’ll come to us,” Shen Qingqiu says.

Safe from being killed to death by a horror movie monster, Shang Qinghua feels brave enough to re-join the conversation.

“That’s your plan?” he asks doubtfully. “Just… wait the week out until she tries to kill you?”

“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu says, coldly.

Shang Qinghua takes a long, long look at his face and says, thoughtfully, “Actually I think I feel a bit sorry for the demon now.”

The first thing they do is destroy both viewing stones, because Shen Qingqiu isn’t actually a scum villain who wants other people to get cursed and suffer horrible fates. The viewing stones want to be passed around and spread their curse, and now that there are two of them that’s double the risk.

A large part of a cultivator's duty is to deal with cursed objects and demons and to prevent the common people from falling prey to them. What this means is that An Ding Peak has a process for disposing of cursed artefacts. This process involves putting them in some very secure containment boxes, throwing them in a deep hole — which seems to exist solely for artefact-disposal-purposes — and then exploding them.

It's an efficient process.

“Those are handy,” Shen Qingqiu says, examining the containment boxes, because he knows of at least four up-coming plot points that could be easily circumvented if he had one at hand. Liu Qingge seems slightly disappointed that the destruction of the viewing stones did not cause the demon to appear instantly — an actual real concern that Shen Qingqiu brought up — but that does take care of one issue.

“They’re expensive,” Shang Qinghua protests feebly, before caving like he has all the backbone of a cooked noodle. “You get to explain to Sect Leader why you need one.”

As if Yue Qingyuan will deny Shen Qingqiu anything. He probably won’t even ask why.

Shen Qingqiu sniffs. “I will,” he says, sounding a little more like a threat than might be strictly necessary. Shang Qinghua just brings it out in him.

“So we just wait?” Liu Qingge asks, crossing his arms. He seems unimpressed.

For a second, the white of his robes looks like nothing but fuzzing TV static, and the old, forgotten hum of it echoes in Shen Qingqiu's ears.

As if looking at Liu Qingge isn’t distracting enough already.

Shen Qingqiu ignores it, tapping his closed fan against his lips. “I want to try and search for this travelling cultivator,” he says. “The one that gave Ying-er the viewing stone. At the very least we should find out where he acquired it and discover where it originated.”

Shen Qingqiu suspects that will be a dead end, literally, given Ming Fan’s report of how long the cultivator had spent trying to pass on the viewing stone before Ning Yingying had taken it, but it is still the best lead they have as to where the curse came from.

They descend the mountain range to the nearest town. It’s a busy, bustling place that is well used to Cang Qiong Sect cultivators spending their leisure time and allowances in its marketplace. They start asking around — or Shen Qingqiu starts asking and Liu Qingge trails after him like a white robed shadow — and it seems that small town gossip has done ninety percent of their work for them.

“It was serious then?” the first merchant they ask says. “Whatever scared the young miss? All the green robed cultivators came ‘round asking about it.”

“Quite serious, yes,” Shen Qingqiu says. “He gave her a cursed object. I’m quite interested to know where he got it.”

Her eyes gleam in interest. “He was here… three or four days? Seemed really eager to get rid of the thing, you know? Desperate. Probably why no one took him up on it. I figured I could make a tidy profit on a cultivator stone but there had to be some reason he wanted it gone so badly. Seems like it was a good call.”

“A very wise decision,” Shen Qingqiu agrees. “Did he say where he was from? Or where he was going?”

She shakes her head. “He didn’t say much of anything,” she says. “Though he was always muttering to himself. A bit strange, really.” She pauses. “Guess we should have considered that he was possessed or something, but he seemed harmless. Oh! But Lan Yi was talking to Xiao Xiao who said they passed him on the north road when they arrived!”

“Excellent,” Shen Qingqiu says.

They walk to the outskirts of town and then use their swords to fly above the north road. They fly for a considerable time, until it's nearly dark, though Shen Qingqiu is willing to bet that it would have taken their mysterious cultivator much longer to traverse the same distance — not everyone can fly as fast or as far as a peak lord.

Unfortunately, when they do catch up to him, their quarry is already dead.

They find the campsite where the cultivator must have begun to bed down for the night. There’s an adequate attempt at a protection array around it — something that might have kept out a lesser problem than a horror movie demon — but the body is flung across the grass with a petrified look on his face. There’s plenty of broken branches and furrows in the ground like a tremendous fight took place, or like a localised hurricane hit, but it tells them very little.

“I don’t recognise the uniform,” Shen Qingqiu notes. “Do you?”

Liu Qingge gives him a look that says that is a stupid question which, okay, fair. The only way Liu Qingge might remember a sect was if they had people worth fighting, which is a lot to ask of a minor sect.

“There’s a lot of physical damage,” Liu Qingge notes. His brow furrows. “That takes a lot of strength for an incorporeal demon.”

“Hm,” Shen Qingqiu thinks about it. “It’s possible that it will become corporeal on the final day. Once the curse that connects the demon to the target has strengthened enough for it to use as an anchor.”

“Otherwise there wouldn’t be any reason for it to wait so long. It would just kill as soon as the viewing stone was watched,” Liu Qingge concludes. He paces around the clearing, stopping here and there to inspect pieces of damage.

Shen Qingqiu ignores him and goes to crouch by the body, trying to see if there are any identifying marks that might help work out where he came from or who he is. There’s little enough to look through — the cultivator has either already been looted or wasn’t prepared for travelling and left in a hurry.

Once they’re done, Shen Qingqiu isn’t entirely certain what they should do. It feels incorrect to simply just leave the body there — though, as Liu Qingge points out, “he won’t get any deader.” — but they certainly can’t take it with them. In the end, they set a spiritual marker at the camp and Shen Qingqiu resolves to make sure someone is sent to collect the victim.

It’s probably not his fault that The Ring Demon killed him.

“I’ll speak with Yue Qingyuan,” Shen Qingqiu says, as they return to Cang Qiong Mountain. “He will probably recognise the sect uniform.”

Liu Qingge nods. And notably doesn’t offer to come with him, the bastard. Shen Qingqiu really could use someone to distract Yue Qingyuan with.

The Sect Leader is going to be horribly over protective once he hears about the curse.

Day 2

Liu Qingge finds Shen Qingqiu staring moodily into the Qing Jing Peak’s Pond of Tranquillity which… does not seem very tranquil. The water is rising up out of the pond in a twister of water with the koi inside thrashing about in a panicked mass.

It's more interesting than how the demon had tried to attack him.

“Liu-shidi,” Shen Qingqiu says, voice tight with annoyance. He’s clutching his fan with a white knuckled grip and the glare on his face has probably scared more of his disciples away than the localised hurricane in the fish pond.

“Hey,” Liu Qingge greets, walking around the pond to examine it from all angles. “Have you tried nullifying-“

“That will kill my fish,” Shen Qingqiu hisses.

Liu Qingge stops and stares at him. Shen Qingqiu does not appear to be joking. Shen Qingqiu who was, before his fever, the very definition of heartlessness… will not disrupt the effects of a demonic technique on account of fish.

He has to turn away before he smiles at the ridiculousness of it all.

Liu Qingge is still examining the curse when Shang Qinghua hurries up the path to Qing Jing Peak. “Oh, good,” he wheezes. “I thought you might have already left.”

“I wish we had,” Shen Qingqiu says, but it’s reflexive and not even all that bitter. “It would spare me talking to you again.”

Shang Qinghua just looks past him. “Bro—" he says and doesn’t die for it.

Liu Qingge thinks that Shang Qinghua might just be Shen Qingqiu’s favourite person in all Cang Qiong Mountain. He’s not sure that even the Sect Leader would get away with being so casual.

"— your fish pond is cursed.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Shen Qingqiu says, drowning the words in sarcasm. “Have you any other helpful observations?”

“Uh, I found the location of the mine we get the viewing stones from,” Shang Qinghua answers, holding out a piece of paper like an offering. “Like, she’s had to infect the stone somehow, so she’s probably close to the mine or whatever.”

Shen Qingqiu plucks the page from his grip. “That had better not mean there are more cursed stones,” he says, voice dark.

Shang Qinghua pales. “Probably not!” he says hastily. “One is traditional, right? There’s only one. For sure. Oh, hey. You know what. I could go and get a net and we could move your fish to a not-cursed pond.”

That would likely be an adequate solution. But Liu Qingge can foresee it taking time and, given that Shen Qingqiu is already concerned about the issue, he’s probably not going to be willing to leave until it’s resolved.

So instead, Liu Qingge reaches out and sticks his hand into the column of water.

Instantly the demonic energy reacts, slamming into him. Most of the water splashes harmlessly back into the pond and the rest scatters into droplets into the air, not quite enough to soak him but enough to mist him with an uncomfortable dampness. He slides backwards half a step, the Qing Jing courtyard cobblestones too slick for good purchase, and his robes whip around his body as they’re tugged and pulled with vicious intent. But Liu Qingge has wrestled a Giant Demonic Bone Ox to a standstill with one hand behind his back; the insignificant telekinetic force of a still-weak disembodied demon is nothing.

He resists, spiritual energy flaring, muscles tensing, and refuses to move.

The demonic energy exhausts itself and fades, or gives up and retreats.

“Or Liu-shidi could punch it, I guess,” Shang Qinghua says, numbly. “That is what he does.”

Shen Qingqiu is staring at him, blinking rapidly, mouth hanging open just a fraction. Liu Qingge refuses to feel embarrassed about fighting a fish pond. No one had better hear about this. Ever. Especially not Mingyan.

She will never let him live this down.

“Are we going, or what?” he demands, brushing his hands off and stalking towards the Qing Jing entrance. “This demon is getting on my nerves.”

Yue Qingyuan had recognised the dead cultivator sect uniform and — in what Shen Qingqiu is sure is a total coincidence — it turns out to be only a stone's throw away from the location of the mines that Shang Qinghua had found.

With a letter from the Cang Qiong Sect Leader in hand, Ya Quina Sect welcomes them as honoured guests the moment that they arrive. As much as they can, given that there only seems to be two or three cultivators on the premises. It’s not a large sect, by any means, but that’s still unusual.

Shen Qingqiu completes the bare minimum of polite greetings, before getting down to business. He hands over the letter from Yue Qingyuan and explains about the dead cultivator.

“We suspect the cursed artefact came from here,” he says bluntly.

The Sect Leader Mo — though, actually, he had not introduced himself as the Sect Leader, had he? — winces. “Yes, that is likely so,” he confesses, flattening his hands on his knees. “For the last three months, our sect has suffered grave misfortunes, and most of our cultivators have… passed on. None of our exorcisms or containment techniques had any result and things kept getting worse. In the end, we put a quarantine around our sect and attempted to stop the curse from spreading. However…”

“At least one of your cultivators managed to leave,” Liu Qingge concludes.

“That is so,” Mo says, sounding both humble and exhausted. “This one apologies to Cang Qiong Sect for the trouble.”

Shen Qingqiu dismisses the apology with an elegant flick of his hand. “What techniques did you use to try and stop it?" he asks. "What kinds of misfortunes? Did anything of note happen before people started dying?”

Though it’s clearly a topic that causes pain, Cultivator Mo attempts to answer as many of Shen Qingqiu's questions as he can. It becomes clearer and clearer that Shen Qingqiu's suspicions are correct — this is not actually the Sect Leader so much as… the highest ranking person left.

"I don't recall anything of note happening before the deaths started," Cultivator Mo says, a little helplessly. "Most of our senior disciples went out on a demon hunt, but they returned with no injuries and I don't recall them reporting anything of significance? But maybe they ran into something out there, or picked up the cursed… thing."

Possible. Maybe even likely.

“Is there,” Shen Qingqiu asks at the end, “any sort of… well or oubliette or cave nearby? Some sort of deep circular hole, most likely. Probably between here and the crystal mines.”

The cultivator frowns, eyes darting over his face as if trying to interpret the question. “Do you mean… the Demon Well?”

“Most likely,” Shen Qingqiu says, dryly. The name is certainly a heavy hint towards it being correct. "What is it and where is it?"

"It’s an opening to the demon world,” Cultivator Mo says. “A very dangerous one, but it’s narrow so we don’t often have to worry about the larger demons coming through.” He frowns, looking a touch worried. “Our sect has been responsible for warding it for so long. Are we going to be strong enough now?”

It’s a rhetorical question, but Shen Qingqiu has a vested interest in the world not becoming even more demonically infested. He lives here. “Send for help from Cang Qiong Sect if you can’t,” he says. “Our Sect Leader will be amenable to some sort of arrangement.”

Most likely support in exchange for techniques or some other interesting resource. That will be Yue Qingyuan’s problem to solve. But the Ya Quina cultivator's frown fades and he gives them directions to the Demon Well, which is — again, surely a coincidence — almost directly between the sect and mines.

“To the Demon Well?” Liu Qingge asks, drawing Cheng Luan as soon as they leave the sect hall.

Shen Qingqiu casts an amused look at him and his sudden eagerness. When he had shown up at Qing Jing Peak in the morning, Liu Qingge had had a red handprint burnt into his neck, like something has tried to strangle him and failed, and Shen Qingqiu rather suspects he is eager to return the favour — but with much more success.

“To the mines first,” Shen Qingqiu corrects. "We should investigate there first." He pauses. "Unless you'd rather split up."

It wouldn't be a bad option. Liu Qingge would get to go and fight whatever horrible demons might be lurking in the Demon Well, and Shen Qingqiu would get to not fight whatever horrible demons might be lurking in the Demon Well. A win/win situation for all involved. Barring whatever might be waiting for him at the crystal mines.

Liu Qingge appears to deeply consider the option, then shakes his head. "We should stick together," he says.

It's sweet in an irritating sort of way, because it's not like Liu Qingge thinks that he needs backup. Shen Qingqiu is perfectly capable of taking care of himself, thank you very much. Current curse notwithstanding. Or the Without A Cure poisoning.

He hops onto Xiu Ya instead of arguing the point, because he knows from experience that it's an argument that he would lose. Liu Qingge, most frustratingly, does not change his mind once set. Not for the most well reasoned arguments, the most underhand guilt trips, or the most interesting distractions.

It's nearly sunset by the time they arrive at the crystal mines. It's far enough out from the nearest town — especially for those that can't fly — that it has its own buildings and accommodations for the workers and there are a reasonable number of people moving around them.

Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge make no efforts to hide their approach and land near the buildings.

A heavy set man hurries out to greet them. "Esteemed cultivators," he greets, bowing to them. "This is an unexpected visit. This one is Jin, the head foreman. Is there something I can help you with?"

He has the air of a retail worker who expects to be yelled at.

"Are you the one in charge here?" Shen Qingqiu asks. He expects so, given that the man has come to greet them, but hardly wants to go through the hassle of explaining twice.

"That is so," the foreman says, bobbing into another bow. "Lady Ana... is not here at present."

"Hmm," Shen Qingqiu says. "Well. We're here on behalf of Ya Quina Sect. There was a cursed artefact in this area, say… three months ago. Do you recall any strange occurrences, disappearances or deaths?"

There's a beat of very awkward silence. "Yes. That was when Lady Ana and her daughter disappeared."

Shen Qingqiu nods. "Her daughter wouldn't have happened to be, say, about ten years old? Possibly named Samara?"

The foreman nods.

Shen Qingqiu sighs, though he supposes that's what they came here to find. "Yes, we're going to need to ask you some questions about that."

Foreman Jin knows very little about it, in the end. He's a miner, not a cultivator. Lady Ana had been, but she had been unaffiliated with the nearby sect, and mostly a business woman. There had been no other family, and Samara had no father.

Foreman Jin hesitates every time Shen Qingqiu asks about the girl.

"She was a weird one, meaning no disrespect," he says. "No one here would ever wish any harm on a child, of course, but… she made the place feel odd." He shivers, involuntarily.

"Did she happen to have any… strange marks on her skin?" Shen Qingqiu asks, chasing after a half formed suspicion. "Perhaps on her forehead?"

Jin shrugs and shakes his head. By the time they finish questioning him, it's fully dark. He offers them the use of the single guest house that is on the property. It's clean and dry — and much preferable to sleeping out in the open camping or flying back to Cang Qiong Sect in the dark — but small. There's only a single room. And only a single bed.

Shen Qingqiu mentally stutters then decides to ignore the issue entirely. He’s most certainly not going to sleep on the cold, hard floor when there is a bed available and if Liu Qingge wants to do that, or meditate in a corner, he can. Without saying anything. Because there’s nothing to say. They’re both adults and there’s nothing weird about this.

No problem.

Shen Qingqiu resolutely doesn’t make eye contact as he prepares for sleep. He takes down his hair so the hair pin doesn’t jab him while he’s trying to sleep. That had been a xianxia lesson he’d only needed to learn once.

He hears a strangled noise, and looks up to see Liu Qingge staring at him. They make brief, incredibly awkward, eye contact and then Liu Qingge spins away and begins his own night preparations.

"You think the kid was a demon?" Liu Qingge asks, as if searching for a safe topic.

Shen Qingqiu shucks his outer robes and hangs them carefully. "Possibly," he says. "Or a half demon. Or maybe a normal human girl with a strange and unfortunate power. I suspect we will find out more at the Demon Well."

He slides into the bed, keeping to one side, which is as much of an invitation as he's willing to make. "Good night," he adds firmly.

He doesn’t mean to glance in Liu Qingge’s direction, but it just kind of… happens and he realises why Liu Qingge had been staring at him earlier.

To see Liu Qingge with his hair down is… Well. Strange. The high ponytail and hair piece are such integral parts of his look that to see him without them is almost like looking upon an entirely different person. It seems too familiar and intimate. Shen Qingqiu presses his eyes closed but knows that he will definitely be remembering that sight a lot.

“Good night,” Liu Qingge echoes softly.

Weight sinks down on the bed, but Shen Qingqiu is definitely, totally, one hundred percent asleep.

Shen Qingqiu must actually drift to sleep, eventually, because he awakens with a jolt. The room is dark. Liu Qingge has sprawled out over the bed, one arm braced across Shen Qingqiu’s chest like a first line of defence and his cheek is pillowed on Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder.

That isn’t what woke him.

Shen Qingqiu sits, slowly, heart beating too fast in his chest, full of the knowledge that something is watching him.

He stares into the darkness without blinking.

A flash of white. A ghostly face and long dark hair.

For a second — for a long, impossible second — Shen Qingqiu freezes. His mouth is dry. His breathing stutters in uneven gusts. He's back in Shanghai. He's a regular person, helpless against the unknown things that may, possibly, lurk in the dark.

He’s had this fear before. This awake-at-night-seeing-ghosts-after-watching-horror-movies anxiety. This is why sane people don’t watch horror movies, Airplane-bro.

And then she moves and Shen Qingqiu is abruptly reminded that this is his life now. Ghosts in the night are real, horror is real, demons are real and can kill you. But. He can fight back. That's real too.

Xiu Ya flashes into his outstretched hand—

— and the ghost is gone.

“Shen Qingqiu?” Liu Qingge asks, voice soft. He hasn’t moved — his arm has fallen down and is now slung across Shen Qingqiu’s waist — but Shen Qingqiu can feel the tension in his muscles, coiled and waiting. Give him a target and he’ll be gone.

Shen Qingqiu could almost bet that Cheng Luan is in his other hand.

“You didn’t see that?” Shen Qingqiu asks, more to break the silence than anything. If Liu Qingge had seen the ghost, he would have attacked. Which means it wasn’t physically there.

A dream demon? Maybe. Obviously it had some form of psychic projection, what with the mental images, so this was just another attack.

Shen Qingqiu would almost rather deal with the water tornados. At least they were there.

“It’s gone now,” he says, letting Xiu Ya drop. But he leans it against the side of the bed instead of setting it down, leaving it in close reach. “You should sleep. I’ll keep watch.”

He’s certainly not going to be able to go back to sleep, anyway. Not with the way his heart is still racing. His palms are clammy and cold. There’s a worm of anxiety that has burrowed itself deep into his brain. Feelings that have been triggered with nowhere to go. Every time he blinks, he jerks his eyelids open again, sure that she will be there, waiting—

“You sure?” Liu Qingge asks, but the tension drains out of him, as if it's that easy to go from 'attack' to 'relaxed'.

“Go back to sleep,” Shen Qingqiu repeats. He moves until he is sitting against the headboard, and breathes slowly and steadily, as if he is doing meditation. “It’s not strong enough to kill us yet.”

Just strong enough to scare them. To make them panic. To wind them up like good little horror movie victims, so that they make stupid decisions to keep the plot rolling.

The worst part is, Shen Qingqiu thinks, it might be working.

“This demon,” Shen Qingqiu echoes, “is getting on my nerves.”

Day 3

In the morning, they inspect the crystal mines to ensure that there are no other cursed viewing stones ready to set Samara on some other unsuspecting fools.

Shen Qingqiu is actually — though silently — willing to side with Airplane-bro on this one. The story beats of there being one cursed viewing stone fit the situation better than there being many of them. Very few plot arcs in {Proud Immortal Demon Way} had infinite carry through — very few had any carry through in fact — and this was most certainly a one off villain.

That said, it's not really something he wants to leave to chance. Hence, a careful inspection of the mines to check for any lingering demonic energy and curses.

They find nothing, though Shen Qingqiu warns the foreman to be cautious of any suspicious deaths and to report them to a cultivational sect.

The guy is all too ready to agree.

Then they board their swords and fly out towards the Demon Well.

It's a giant crater. It looks like someone has taken a massive drill and pressed it down, causing a circular depression with steep sides that drives into the earth, as if the demon realm were actually just beneath the surface and someone had tried to dig down to reach it — and succeeded.

In actuality, the two dimensions overlay each other everywhere. The fact that there's a permanent opening to the demon realm at the bottom of the Demon Well is just coincidence. Or thematically appropriate landscape design.

The Demon Well is deep enough that the opening between worlds is shrouded in darkness and they cannot see into it. They fly towards it, passing over the containment arrays that the Ya Quina Sect has set around the crater. They're strong and intact, most likely doing a very good job keeping the things that belong inside the Demon Realm inside the Demon Realm.

Shen Qingqiu holds out a night pearl, shedding light around them as they descend down the crater.

He sees the shadows of something moving, seconds before Liu Qingge calls, "throw it here!" and a swarm of Feathered Water Serpents burst out of the Demon Realm to attack them.

He throws the night pearl to Liu Qingge, and the serpents follow it, clearly drawn to the light, falling back out of attack range as Liu Qingge turns into a whirling dervish of blade and murder. The Feathered Water Serpents are only of a moderate threat level, hardly much of a threat to a Peak Lord, but beyond them lurk larger and more dangerous foes.

"You look around," Liu Qingge says, teeth flashing in something like a feral smile. He would probably have the time of his life fighting his way from one end of the Demon Realm to the other. "I'll handle this."

"As you say, Liu-shidi," Shen Qingqiu says mildly, fan open in front of his face. He floats his way toward the Demon Realm ground, keeping a careful fraction of attention on the fighting. When he glances up, the human realm sun shining through the entrance makes a bright circle in the sky. Exactly the image shown on the viewing crystals. It makes shivers crawl down his spine and something in his brain want to lock up in artificial fear.

This is definitely the place.

He casts around until he finds what he suspected would be here — skeletonised remains. Child sized bones. Shen Qingqiu eyes the demonic ground dubiously, but steps off Xiu Ya. It does not immediately turn out to be a swamp or a cavernous mouth full of teeth, so he considers that to be a win.

Given the sheer number of demons summoned by their arrival, Shen Qingqiu is vaguely surprised that the bones are still here — that they were not disrupted by scavengers or worse. There are definitely demons that regard humans as food, and yet, the bones remain, untouched and undisturbed. It's a sign of something though Shen Qingqiu isn't sure what.

Probably that Airplane-bro is a shitty author. It's definitely a sign of that.

"Hmm," Liu Qingge says, having defeated enough demons that the rest have fled out of self preservation or injury. "Bones."

"Most likely the missing daughter," he says, as dispassionately as he can. It's hard and this sucks — The Ring ghost girl is creepy and trying to kill them, but at some point she was still a child that got killed. He's staring down at a pile of child sized bones and he's not scum villain enough to not care about it.

Liu Qingge is frowning, a line creasing his noble brow. "A vengeful ghost? They're not usually so strong."

"Maybe," Shen Qingqiu says. "She could have absorbed a lot of demonic energy when she died." He gestures around idly with his fan. There is a lot of demonic energy available here to be absorbed by a hapless dead person. "Or maybe she was a demon. Either way, it begs the question of how she ended up down here."

Who had killed her? The mother? Ya Quina Sect? Was Samara striking out at them deliberately or were they simply unlucky to be the first targets? Shen Qingqiu suspects there will be no answers for that question — not with most of the cultivators already dead.

Liu Qingge grunts but doesn't disagree. "If it's a ghost," he says, "exorcising and cremating the bones will help."

And if she was a demon it would still likely weaken her — even disembodied, Samara most likely still had some form of connection to her physical body, or she never would have had one to begin with.

They gather the bones together. This time Shen Qingqiu is prepared, having been half certain of what they would find. He has a white sheet in his qiankun sleeve and they use it as a shroud to wrap the skeletonised remains to transport back to Ya Quina Sect.

It's closest, afterall, and the idea of transporting the bones all the way back to Cang Qiong Mountain gives Shen Qingqiu the shivers.

Cultivator Mo is not precisely thrilled at their return, but quickly sees reason in the necessity of performing some last rites. They use the cultivators ceremony — without the time or familial connections that one would usually use to set a person to rest — which makes up for it's briefness in the sheer efficiency it has at setting vengeful ghosts to rest.

"I think that's all we will find here," Shen Qingqiu says, eyeing the position of the sun in the sky. "We ought to be able to make it back to Cang Qiong Mountain before nightfall."

It's a long flight, but returning to their home base provides a feeling of safety, however illusionary. They pause, flying above the rainbow bridge, and Shen Qingqiu turns aside to return to Qing Jing Peak and allow Liu Qingge to return to Bai Zhan Peak — or wherever he wanted to go.

But Liu Qingge says, "hey."

Shen Qingqiu turns to look at him.

Liu Qingge hesitates a second, then says, "Do you want me to keep watch tonight?"

Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth to say 'no, don't be ridiculous' and can't manage it. He thinks about the darkness of the room, the sure certainty that the demon was going to come back making his pulse pound. All the feelings of a nightmare, paired with the unfortunate truth that it would be real.

Liu Qingge nods. "I'll keep watch," he says, as if Shen Qingqiu's lack of rejection speaks loudly enough.

Day 4

In the morning, the Qing Jing disciples bring them breakfast — freezing nervously when they enter the bamboo house, eyes darting over the occupants, as if the demon might be in there with them. Given the waterfall in the Pool of Tranquility, their concerns are not totally unfounded, but none of their worry seems to ease when they lay eyes on both Peak Lords.

The food is pale, watery congee but better tasting than what Liu Qingge gets at Bai Zhan Peak though Shen Qingqiu stirs his rather than eat it. He looks a little pale and drawn, and it's clear he is troubled by the demon's feint attacks. All night, the burnished mirror in the bedroom had dripped water, condensation beading on the surface and running to the floor in an uneven lines, no matter how often they wiped it dry. Through the water, Liu Qingge had thought he could see a shape that was no reflection at all — the demon watching them back — until he had carried the damn thing outside.

The curse is frustrating — but Liu Qingge knows that the demon is not strong enough to truly kill them, yet. It will not be strong enough until the fifth day. And on that day it will be strong enough, be present enough, to be killed in turn.

Surprising many, Liu Qingge knows how to wait. He can hunt. He can stalk prey. He can plan and reason and set traps.

He just prefers the fight.

"The psychic nature of the attacks," Shen Qingqiu says absently, as if continuing a train of thought more than starting a new conversation.

Liu Qingge furrows his brow. "We already knew it was disembodied," he says, not entirely sure what Shen Qingqiu is angling towards. "The cremation of the body will ensure the final link is broken, if any remained."

"Yes, I meant—" Shen Qingqiu stops stirring his food, still uneaten, and reaches for his tea cup, "Hm. I don't think it's utilizing the dreamscape exactly but the mental nature of the projections is at least somewhat similar."

"Maybe," Liu Qingge says, guarded, because he has absolutely no idea what relevance that has. But there is a reason that Shen Qingqiu is of the scholar peak, and Liu Qingge does enjoy the chance to watch him puzzle things out in his element.

"I wonder if any of the talismans or arrays I have for dream demons could be tweaked to work against her…"

"You have talismans?" Liu Qingge asks in surprise. To know about them isn't so surprising but to have gone to the effort of creating such specific defences and lines of attack—

But there's a particular glint in Shen Qingqiu's eyes. Something a little angry and a little anticipatory and just a little bit bloodthirsty.

Which dream demon crossed you? Liu Qingge swallows the question, along with, how many pieces will you leave them in for it?

In some ways, that hint of grudge-holding reminds him of how Shen Qingqiu had been before. In others… he doesn't care. He would offer his assistance against any enemy the Peak Lord of Qing Jing had, no matter the reason or cause.

"Might work," he says. If not, if it comes down to swords and spiritual energy — well. That's no great loss. He's ready. More than ready.

Shen Qingqiu rocks back onto his heels, as if to move away from the table and stand, and Liu Qingge flashes a hand across the table and gently grasps the loose material of his sleeve to stop him from rising.

Shen Qingqiu blinks at him, more puzzled than offended, and made no moves to react to sudden movement that could have been an attack — as if he never considered that it could be one at all.

"Eat first," Liu Qingge says, absolutely sure that if Shen Qingqiu rises and begins to work he will not stop. He gives a gentle tug to the green silky fabric.

Shen Qingqiu sighs. "Liu-shidi must cease spending so much time with our Zhangmen-shixiong," he says, voice thick with resignation. "He is becoming too much of a mother-hen."

Liu Qingge lets the maybe-insult roll off his shoulders. To be compared to the Sect Leader is no bad thing, anyway.

Someone has to watch out for Shen Qingqiu.

Shen Qingqiu is writing up protective talismans with neat calligraphy when Shang Qinghua sidles into Qing Jing Peak.

It's definitely sidling, with an air of nervousness and potential sleeze hanging about him like a bad cloud. He could not convey 'I'm doing something shady' any louder if he'd actually spoken the words.

"You weren't invited," Shen Qingqiu says because this is really all Shang Qinghua's fault. "And you're interrupting me."

Shang Qinghua drops down to sit across the table from him and has the nerve to steal his tea. "Bro, I was awake all night looking for ways to help you," he says pitifully, like that isn't the least he could do.

Shen Qingqiu gives him a look of ultimate disdain. "Oh, I couldn't imagine what that is like," he says.

Shang Qinghua drinks his tea — gulping it down like a heathen — and fishes around in his loose robe sleeves. He pulls out a tacky medallion and slides it across the table.

"This might help?" he offers. His eyes are focused on the woodgrain, as if by not looking at Shen Qingqiu he can escape the rightful derision about to head his way.

Shen Qingqiu lifts it, inspecting the heavily carved spiral on the burnished metal surface. "What is it?" he asks, suspiciously. He doesn't bother asking where Shang Qinghua got it from — An Ding Peak is where junk goes to die.

Shang Qinghua coughs. "It's, ah. It's a Dead Demon Consuming Seal," he says. "It was meant to— anyway, it doesn't work for that. But if the name became literal then it might be good now? How often do you run into demons that are already dead, anyway? So, basically, it's perfect for right now."

Shen Qingqiu has too much experience with how wonky ridiculous trash artefacts can get in this world to even want to follow that train of thought. Not when the name is ringing some very faint bells.

"And where," he says, dangerously, "did you plagiarize this one from?"

Shang Qinghua bolts to his feet, already retreating towards the door. "Ihavetogobye."

Day 5

They decide to set up the ambush on Bai Zhan Peak. This is largely because Shen Qingqiu doesn't want Qing Jing Peak damaged in the fighting and Liu Qingge doesn't care. It's unlikely any amount of damage done today will even be noticed on Bai Zhan Peak.

It turns out to be a much bigger event than either of them really anticipated, because Yue Qingyuan simply isn't willing to let Shen Qingqiu be attacked by a cursed demon trying to kill him without the Sect Leader's presence. And if the Sect Leader is there, then the other Peak Lords are also there. Even Shang Qinghua has been dragged along, though he's definitely lurking by the every edge of the field, eating watermelon seeds and will be no help at all if things go wrong.

Shen Qingqiu counts it as a sign of his improved relationships with the other Peak Lords that he doesn't think they're there to watch him die. Mu Qingfang has brought a slightly insulting amount of medical supplies with him, though.

"This is unnecessary," he grumbles to Yue Qingyuan, watching the Peak Lord of Ku Xing pace around chanting and wafting incense all over the place.

The Sect Leader smiles tightly at him. "One can only hope," he says, one hand on the hilt of Xuan Su. Yue Qingyuan is much too steady and stable to be described as 'eager to fight' but, in this instance, he most certainly gives the impression of being ready and willing.

Shen Qingqiu judges it a battle he's unlikely to win and retreats. He instead rounds on Da Qingdi for touching his talismans.

"They'll be more effective if they're set in formation," the other Peak Lord argues. "Maybe a pentagram… arranged by the five elements…"

"They'll be compeltely in-effective if they're not set at all," Shen Qingqiu points out, slapping his hand away as he goes to lift the talisman. Da Qingdi is far too indecisive. Shen Qingqiu doesn't trust him to reposition them in time.

And, yes, fine, maybe he should have thought about where to put them in advance rather than just slapping them down in a slightly wonky circle, but! Not his fault. He didn't think this was going to be a public event.

He plonks himself down in the center, folding his legs and resting his hands lightly on his knees, centering himself into mediation. There's a rustling, movement of cloth, and the warm presence at his back as Liu Qingge sits himself down. Back to back, maximum defensive coverage. Maximum opportunity to attack.

Shen Qingqiu waits. He watched the video first, so it will come for him first. He circulates his spiritual energy, keeping himself energised and ready. He can almost taste the curling darkness of the curse as it gets thicker and heavier and stronger. It weighs down his chest. It's so thick he can't breathe. He's suffocating.


With a noise of pure alarm he leans forward and retches up water. More water than he has consumed, bitter and salty. Ocean water.

How undignified, he thinks. His eyes crack open a sliver and in the puddle of water he can see—

Samara reaches out, a small hand bursting through the surface of the water, real and solid, latching onto his ankle. She's deathly pale and dangerous as she claws her way out of dreams and into reality.

Shen Qingqiu surges his spiritual energy and slams it down onto her, trying to force her back into it, away from him. Her hand burns ice cold, even through layers of cloth.

There's a scream — an alien, high pitched noise, inhuman and unearthly — and a wave of pure force rebounds onto him, throwing him high into the sky, giving him the distance he wanted.

He flips easily, controls his descent and lands lightly on his feet, Xiu Ya in one hand. The other forms a hand seal, ready to return force with force, if necessary.

But Liu Qingge is already in his place, sending great slashing waves of light from Cheng Luan at Samara, preventing her from launching any further telekinetic blasts with his own brand of forceful overwhelming attack.

Shen Qingqiu uses the time to critically assess the situation. Samara is neither large nor physically intimidating — indeed, she looks exactly like the ten year old girl she was. His talismans seem to be preventing the mental intrusions from crippling them — there's no fuzzing of white static, no buzzing in his ears — and the wafting incense from Ku Xing Peak has calmed their hearts and minds.

The lingering disquiet and generated horror is nowhere to be found.

She's just a demon. Just another foe that can be fought and beaten.

Shen Qingqiu circles around, pulling the Dead Demon Consuming Seal Medallion out of his robes and clapping it between both of his hands, forcing spiritual energy into it until it activates and hums eagerly. It drags air in with hunger.

Shen Qingqiu belatedly realises he never questioned Shang Qinghua about how much he had tested this seal. If he had tested this seal. Whether it would consume other things along with Dead Demons.

The medallion writhes in his grip, tremoring and vibrating, but he holds it steady, ready to dart close and thrust it out at Samara the second he sees an opening.

Working out how to turn it off afterwards will be a concern for later. He can only deal with one problem at a time.

And then — of course — Without A Cure steals the strength from his hand.

It's fine one second, then the next — nothing. His hand cramps, his spiritual energy blocks in his wrist with a flare of pain, and the medallion drops to the ground, vibrating so hard that it feels like a jackhammer has struck the earth.

A black whirlpool of dark energy opens up right over it. Shen Qingqiu throws himself backwards away from it as fast as he can, using Xiu Ya to pull himself to a greater distance.

Liu Qingge sees him. Sees the medallion and the vortex. And then throws himself bodily into Samara, shoving them both into the pull of the vortex. The demon vanishes into it, is consumed by it, with an eerie scream that echoes through Shen Qingqiu's skull until it feels like he will split in half—

— and then Liu Qingge drives his sword into the medallion before it can swallow him too.

The vortex vanishes. The wind ceases. Pieces of broken metal scatter across the dirt, inert and powerless.

Shen Qingqiu coughs lightly, resuming his unaffected mein. "I don't suppose we could pretend that was the plan?" he asks. It's terribly unfortunate that all the other Peak Lords know that it wasn't since it really was a remarkably efficient way of ending the fight.

Liu Qingge snorts and crosses the space between them in a few easy steps. He looks disgustingly unphased for just having fought a horror movie demon and escaped certain death — it was clearly not even a workout.

"Your hand," he says, lifting one of his own in clear request.

Shen Qingqiu acquises, settling his poisoned hand into Liu Qingge's grip. Liu Qingge's fingers are warm and gentle, and his spiritual energy flows slowly between them, brushing aside the weakness of the poison one flicker at a time.

Mu Qingfang is already hurrying towards them, with Yue Qingyuan not far behind. Shen Qingqiu resigns himself to losing the rest of the day to their mothering but, well… this could have ended far worse, he supposes.

"I'd still like to say we handled that well," he insists.

Liu Qingge smiles, striking him silent. "We did," he agrees. "It didn't stand a chance."


Ning Yingying carefully scatters the pellets of fish food into the Pond of Tranquility, giggling as the swarm of koi gather to the surface, mouths opening in eager anticipation. They're friendly and well adjusted to people and if she's very careful she can run her hand over the water and touch their scales.

Shizun's fish are so pretty, she thinks, spotting her favourite a giant glittering gold and white koi. It butts up against her hand and she drops in the handful of pellets she saved just for it.

She's very glad none of them were hurt and sorry to have brought even the possibility of it to Qing Jing Peak by watching the cursed viewing stone. Even though Shizun fixed it — and even though Liu-shishu saved their fish! — Ning Yingying vows to be more careful.

The sound of footsteps behind her causes her to jerk upright — carefully, though, so she doesn't fall in like A-Luo had done once — so she isn't caught playing with the fish.

It's Shizun and Liu-shishu, walking side by side down the path. Shizun is talking, voice too low for Ning Yingying to hear the words, and he trails to a halt when he sees her.

"Ying-er," he says, when they get close. He smiles, his small fond smile that only a few of his disciples ever get to see, especially these days. Sometimes it feels like only Ning Yingying gets to see it, now that A-Luo is gone. She treasures every one. "Are you finished your chores this morning?"

Ning Yingying bows. "Yes, shizun," she says demurely. "Everything is done. Would you like me to bring you some tea?"

He shakes his head. "Go. Enjoy the morning." He taps her gently on the head with his fan, to shoo her away. "And don't feed the birds so much. They're getting fat."

Ning Yingying beams at him, scooping up the bucket of fish food and darting off down the pathway, her hair swinging in it's tails behind her. She will feed the songbirds even though they're not technically part of her chores; she scared them something awful when she was cursed and they all flew away from her! She has to coax them back into liking her again!

When she glances back behind her, just briefly, she sees Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge leaning towards each other and talking quietly, silhouetted against Qing Jing's bamboo forests. Shizun has his fan between, covering his face from Liu-shishu's sight…

But behind it, he's smiling his small, fond smile.