“You look like someone with regrets in his life.” The crone said to him, so wrinkled that she looked as if she may fall apart at any second. “Wouldn’t you like to see what could’ve been?”
The woman couldn’t be trusted; he knew this. Nothing in the abyss was kind, no demon was altruistic. If the loops consume him, if he gets stuck, surely she’ll feast on him, despite the kind, grandmotherly looks she was now giving him.
He knows what day it’ll bring him to. The day everything changed, the day of his disownment.
It had been a year since he had been thrown into the Abyss, give or take some time. When he had first been thrown down, he hadn’t wanted to move, he hadn’t wanted to take one step from where he had hit the ground. His body had repaired itself quickly, healing much faster than it ever had before, but no matter what he did, he couldn't put the shards of his bleeding heart back together.
Luo Binghe had given Shen Qingqiu his soul, whether his Shizun was aware of it or not, and Shen Qingqiu had rejected him. Luo Binghe had never told him how he really felt, out of fear, out of shame, out of embarrassment. How could a disciple have the audacity to feel that way about his own master? He had wanted to say something, perhaps after the conference, after he had won for Shizun, perhaps when he turned 18, or 20. Surely even if Shizun didn’t accept his feelings, he would still allow Luo Binghe to continue to serve him; Shizun had a gentle heart, he wouldn’t deride Luo Binghe even if he didn’t return the affection that Luo Binghe had for him, or considered it to be too inappropriate to even consider.
Now Luo Binghe knew that he had never even truly had a chance.
To an extent, despite cultivating demonically, he had written off the heritage in his mind already. What was being the bastard child of some demon that had nothing to do with him in comparison to being a favored disciple of Qing Jing peak? Compared to being Shizun’s disciple. It meant nothing to him in comparison, despite what it may mean to others.
Now, this cursed blood was all that he had. He had no true teacher in its use, having only himself to rely on to try and learn the ropes. The dream demon had his uses, but heavenly demons were rare, and his knowledge had his limits.
Luo Binghe touched the scar on his chest with his hand, the two raised lines touching each other.
Shizun’s last gift to him.
“I accept,” he said to the shriveled woman, and he was thrown into the past.
When Binghe opened his eyes, it was to a wide and open sky. His body felt light in a way it hadn’t in ages. He felt unrestrained once again. Even if it was only a mind construct, he felt a cool breeze on his skin and looked over to the stream that rushed nearby and knew that this was more than a dream, even if it wasn’t strictly real.
He quickly tried to fix his appearance as he saw Shizun approaching. Luo Binghe’s hair was tied up, having been washed and combed of all tangles rather recently. The hair on his true body in the Abyss was tangled and matted, the ribbon that had tied it back was nothing but frayed thread now. Even though he was far neater in the illusory world, he still took a moment to make himself at least slightly more orderly despite the battle that had taken place only moments ago. Luo Binghe couldn't help a pained smile. Shizun hated dirty disciples after all.
Now it was time to see if Shizun could ever find it in his heart to take him in, despite his uncleanliness, the kind he couldn’t wash away.
When Luo Binghe saw Shen Qingqiu approach, he couldn’t stop looking at him, it had been a year since he had seen the delicate slope of Shizun’s nose and the paradoxical softness and darkness in Shizun’s eyes. He couldn’t tear his gaze away from him. Belatedly, he realized it had been just as long since he’s seen Shizun since he’s seen the sun.
Green and white fabric rippled as Shen Qingqiu moved, he was incredibly graceful as he sliced apart the spider demons smoothly and effortlessly; the difference in ability between him and the disciples that had almost fallen to them was clear, this was a master. Even the disciples who had never even seen Shizun before were in awe, as they should be. Not a drop of filth from those abominations even touched his teacher.
Luo Binghe was so mesmerized by him and the melodic sound of his voice that he hadn't even registered the words Shen Qingqiu had been speaking.
“Binghe? What is it, do you see something dangerous?” Shizun asked him, stopping to quickly scan around the area, looking for threats.
No, Shizun, the only dangerous thing here right now was you, Luo Binghe thought. The one person that Luo Binghe loved, the one he believed had really changed; he thought that he had been a good enough child to finally melt the ice-cold heart of his Shizun.
Now he knew that the iciness had never truly melted, the winter had just been shoved deeper and deeper, to a place Luo Binghe didn’t see.
There wasn’t a hint of it, as he walked alongside his teacher. Despite the environment being perfect, this is what doesn’t feel quite real to him, he knows it’s not real, but that’s not what ruins the continuity. He knows he’s staring at Shen Qingqiu, he can barely respond to his teacher’s inquiries. He had worried that the elderly demoness’ construct would feel fake, superficial, but it was all too easy to believe that it was all real, that he was 17 years old, that he was Shizun’s disciple again.
That’s why he’s caught off guard when it all began to go sour, as it had before, at the time that Shang Qinghua appeared. Despite being Shizun’s martial brother, Luo Binghe could see that Shen Qingqiu outshined Shang Qinghua by far, though some would say he was biased. He just looked so plain, so unremarkable, it was like he faded into the background.
The other disciples ended up collapsing, they couldn’t keep up with the onslaught of demons, exhaustion taking them.
It all goes to hell when that ice demon comes and unseals his blood in front of his teacher yet again.
“Shizun, didn’t you say that even demons could be good? That we could have friends on that side?” Luo Binghe pleaded, just like he did the first time, waiting for Shen Qingqiu’s familiar response that he had repeated in his mind now hundreds of times.
“You are not just any demon. The blood of the Heavenly Demons flows through your veins. Countless atrocities have been committed by that line, and cannot be ignored.”
“Shizun…” Luo Binghe pleaded. Now it was time. He had to show Shizun his devotion, his determination, his desperation. He dropped to his knees and he pressed his face to the ground. “Shizun, I don’t know what demon sired me! I only know humanity, I only know how to be human!”
“If Binghe only knows how to be human than what exactly has he been cultivating in secret for so long? What is it that his demonic master has been teaching him?”
Binghe pulled his head up from the ground, eyes wide. “Shizun is my true master. Not any demon. If Shizun wants I’ll hunt him down, slay him, and bring Shizun his body. I’ll never use demonic cultivation again, Shizun can forget I was ever a demon-”
Shen Qingqiu spoke softly, but every word that came out of his mouth was heavy. “This teacher… does not take kindly to empty promises and flattery.” Shizun said, and he looked at Luo Binghe like he was an enemy. His eyes were scrutinizing Luo Binghe’s every move now.
“Demons really don’t hesitate to say anything to get what they want.” Shen Qingqiu sneered.
It was true that Luo Binghe was saying these words to keep his life, but none of them were false. The power of demons wasn’t a necessity for him, he could abandon that path and cultivate to a golden core as a human just like Shizun. The dream demon…. Luo Binghe knew who he valued more, as did Meng Mo.
“Shizun-“ Luo Binghe pleaded from the ground and Shen Qingqiu stepped forward, sword drawn. “The promises are not empty, Shizun, I can be your disciple still.” He said and smiled brightly, though he knew that there were tears forming in his eyes. Everything felt so vivid, despite it only being an advanced construct. “Does Shizun really want to kill me?” he asked, repeating the question he had asked his teacher the first time again. He knew the answer, he repeated it to himself in his mind every day, but it wasn’t enough to just remember.
“Luo Binghe. I don’t want to kill you, but you must already know. You don’t belong here.” Shizun said those damning words and stabbed Luo Binghe through his chest. In his time in the Abyss, Luo Binghe had become accustomed to pain, it had become a learning experience every time he was hurt. How quickly could he heal himself? How much faster could he heal his wounds each time? How close to death would he come before he would return again?
No pain in the Abyss was as strong as the pain he felt when Shizun shoved Xiu Ya into his chest. Shizun’s eyes held no love and no affection as he pulled his sword out and Luo Binghe did not move an inch as Shizun dealt the blow that knocked him down again.
Luo Binghe closed his eyes as he fell further and further down the crack, away from the light of the sun and away from Shizun.
He didn’t feel the ground. When he opened his eyes, he saw the sun again, he was clad in unstained white and green. He blinked and just as he had seen before, Shen Qingqiu was approaching, sword out and decorated with the blood of previously slain demons. But not Luo Binghe’s own.
Looking at him again, Luo Binghe knew that he still couldn’t hate his teacher.
When he comes back, he can’t stop the doubt. What did Shen Qingqiu think about him before his fall? Did he really favor Luo Binghe, or was he simply deluded by his own feelings for his teacher? Was he a pest or was he cherished?
It should have been easy, he remembered Shen Qingqiu’s soft smile, but the fact that honey had quickly become poison brought a doubt that was consuming him, not unlike how the Abyss swallowed him whole.
He followed Shen Qingqiu absently, his mind in a haze as he walked the same path they had before, only barely responding to his teacher’s words, whenever his Shizun spoke. Luo Binghe forced himself back to reality, determined to focus himself.
“Shizun, do you think that this disciple has been good?” he couldn’t help but ask. Shen Qingqiu didn’t look at him, instead, he looked thoughtfully into the distance.
“Binghe has been a very good disciple to this teacher,” Shizun assured him but didn’t meet his eyes. Is it a lie? At age 15, Luo Binghe would rather pluck out his own eye than call his master a liar, but the Luo Binghe of today knew better. Though knowing better didn’t mean he could tell what his Shizun was thinking.
Had he been a good disciple? He had tried. Even before Shen Qingqiu had taken a liking to him he had tried. Was it all for nothing?
Again, he fought the demons, and again, he and Shen Qingqiu were the only ones left standing. Luo Binghe was tired. Not just physically, but he was tired of seeing Shizun with such a fearful expression on his face.
“So, Binghe has been practicing the demonic path?” Shizun asked, rhetorically. “To go with his demonic blood…”
When Shen Qingqiu’s grip trembled on his sword, was it anger, fear or exhaustion?
"Shizun, you're right. Cang Qiong Mountain has no place for something such as me." Luo Binghe watched as Shen Qingqiu's grip on Xiu Ya faltered and his eyes become even more pained. It hurt him to think that he had raised a heavenly demon for so long, didn't it? "Shizun doesn't have to do anything. This disciple knows that he cannot stay here now."
He didn’t belong next to someone who looked at him with only that look of emptiness.
"Binghe..." Shizun whispered as he looked at him. He was shocked but collected himself in a matter of seconds, yes, Shizun was always so poised, so graceful. "So you know you have betrayed me."
Luo Binghe tensed, despite the defeat and tiredness that weighed on him.
"Shizun! I haven't betrayed you. I only wanted..." What had he wanted? He wanted Shen Qingqiu's approval, his love; when Shizun said he admired demon's natural talent Luo Binghe had been overjoyed at the idea of one day showing Shizun his capability in both paths. "I just wanted you to be proud of a talented cultivator. I will take my leave from Qing Jing Peak and Cang Qiong Mountain Sect."
Luo Binghe stepped away from the edge.
"Never come back here," Shizun said, but he couldn't look at him. "This master..." there was a pause, a choked swallow. "I never want to see you again." He couldn't even look at Luo Binghe, but he sheathed his sword and turned his body away. “Go quickly, before I can regret this.”
Shizun's feelings were clear, even if he hadn't been so filled with hatred this time as to throw Luo Binghe down with his own hands. Luo Binghe watched as the Abyss sealed itself, without him inside, trapped. He looked again at Shen Qingqiu's back, straight and upright, his posture impeccable even at a time like this.
Luo Binge tore his eyes away from Shen Qingqiu, he had to leave. Shizun couldn't accept him today, but maybe after some time-
There was a thud and Luo Binghe whipped his head around. Shen Qingqiu was on the ground now, taking shaky breaths and clutching his chest.
"Shizun!" Luo Binghe cried out, rushing to his side, the agreement to leave forgotten in his distress. "Shizun, what's wrong, tell this disciple-" but Shizun couldn't speak, he only seized and writhed, his body shaking. It was the poison from all those years ago again. Why did it appear again, now? What happened?
Luo Binghe screamed for help, he grabbed at the cleansing lotus flowers, but the demonic energy of the abyss had been too strong, they all withered and crumbled under his fingertips as he pulled at them.
"MU-SHISHU!" He yelled. "LIU-SHISHU!" he didn't know what to do, he couldn't help Shizun, he could only hold him as the tremors became smaller and smaller, as Shizun's breaths got shallower and shallower. Luo Binghe could do nothing as he watched Shen Qingqiu die in his arms.
He restarted again.
There was no point in being out of the Abyss if there was no Shizun.
He watched Shen Qingqiu approach him and smile at him yet again, and it occurred to him that he didn't know if Shen Qingqiu’s poison acting up had happened after he had fallen in, either minutes, or days, or weeks later. Shen Qingqiu had taken the attack meant for Luo Binghe when he had been only 15 and years later, still suffered. Was the poison troubling him now, wherever he was? Surely he hadn’t died, that was just the construct, the shock, an anomaly. Luo Binghe would get out of the Abyss one day. He would come back to Shizun, he would cure Shizun so that he never had to rely on the kindness of his siblings, so he could stand strong on his own again, healthy, and not having to live with the risk of pain again. Shizun would be healthy again, he would see that Luo Binghe had never really betrayed him, he would take him back. He couldn’t be dead now.
Luo Binghe took a breath and calmed himself.
How often did Shizun hide the effects? Surely at least half the time, if he knew Shizun.
The first time that he was in the valley, he had thought of the flower and its potential, but Shizun had brushed him off, quite quickly. Why? Shizun was quite knowledgeable and usually willing to share it with whoever sought it, truly a scholar. Why would he hide some truth here?
"Shizun, about the flower..." Luo Binghe started as they walked to his doom yet again. It felt more natural now, the anxiety that Luo Binghe felt crawling on his body like ants as they grew closer and closer to that place was becoming tamer and tamer. It's possible to not be thrown in, it's possible, he has to keep saying it, thinking it, remembering it every time his heart beats.
"The flower is not our focus," Shizun said, clearly at least a little annoyed, but Luo Binghe pressed on. This is a matter of life and death. Shizun should really value himself more.
"This disciple must insist! If the flower is so close and if can be used to cure Shizun-"
“This master already knows that the flower is useless!” Shizun scolded him, frustrated and his face flushed. Shen Qingqiu took a breath to calm himself, but Luo Binghe has already heard his words.
"Shizun, have you tried this flower before?" Luo Binghe asked. It wasn't completely impossible, but it was unlikely. Perhaps someone in the sect had attained it, unbeknownst to him, only to have the cure fail.
"This master... has heard of a young woman who was once poisoned with this poison. A young man went through the quite arduous trial of attaining a flower for her in the hope that it may restore her health." Shizun said as he motioned for Luo Bignhe to follow him.
"Shizun, you knew of someone who was poisoned like this before?" Shizun had never said anything about that before, at least not to Luo Binghe. "What happened?"
"She died," Shizun said, without inflection or any hint of attachment. "She was not fortunate enough to have the care that this teacher has, it happened rather quickly despite eating the flower."
Luo Binghe felt his heart sink. It was a dead-end again. Without A Cure was really aptly named wasn't it? Still, he couldn’t help but entertain the idea that he could give Shizun the cure, that Shizun would realize that Binghe was still the disciple that he used to have, the one that he cared for during all those years. Shizun would be grateful that Luo Binghe had cured him, and he might accept him back.
"Does Binghe trust this teacher's experience, or would he like to see the pointlessness of the flower himself?" Shizun asked, giving him a look out of the corner of his eye that made Luo Binghe look down, cowed.
"Apologies, Shizun, this disciple was simply too hopeful." That was why he was here, though, wasn’t it? Was he wrong to be hopeful?
"You have a good heart, Binghe," Shizun said, the words felt like praise but the tone was wrong, as was the small frown on Shizun's face. What did it mean? "It's good to have hope, but some things cannot be changed. The past is immutable."
Luo Binghe found it slightly ironic to be told those words by a past version of a man that now despised him in the current day, but he let it slide. He was silent as he thought to himself. When did Shizun know this woman? How did he know her? How long ago? How was she poisoned? Perhaps she was a friend of his. Was it when Shizun was a child?
At times, Shizun felt like an entirely timeless person. In Luo Binghe's mind, he always had lived on Qing Jing, he had walked out of the bamboo one day, already dressed in those smooth, flowing, robes of his and become peak lord. Logically, Luo Binghe knew that long ago Shizun had been just another disciple, and before that, a child with no cultivation at all, but it wasn't like Shizun ever spoke of those times.
Who had he been before he was Shen Qingqiu?
As they walked to the familiar end, Luo Binghe let himself fantasize slightly. What would a world be like where he and Shizun were born in the same generation and were disciples together? Obviously Shizun, no, <i>shixiong</i> would be the head disciple, and Binghe would be his shidi. Perhaps he would help him hide his heritage from the sect, or run away with Luo Binghe, far from Cang Qiong.
It was a stupid thought, unrealistic, but it was a world that was less harsh than reality, and less harsh than when Binghe said nothing to defend himself, did nothing to resist when Shizun plunged his white shining sword into his chest for the nth time, and he fell again, letting the darkness close over him like a cocoon.
He needed to hear something, just a single kind word. Just to keep going a bit longer.
Again, again, again.
"Shizun... do you think that you could ever hate me?" Luo Binghe asked. He had put a false energy into his voice, in an attempt to sound less tired than he felt.
"Where does this come from all of a sudden?" Shen Qingqiu, asked, eyeing him. “Is this really the time to be lost in such silly thoughts?”
"Shizun..." Luo Binghe must have looked more fragile than he intended because Shen Qingqiu, sighed lightly before indulging him.
"Binghe, you're a good child. Even if you did something terrible, I would be sad, but this teacher won't hate you."
He won't, he won't, he won't, he won't hate him, he won't.
Luo Binghe's hands shook and he distracted Shizun with a smile so he wouldn’t look down and notice the trembling.
He said it.
Luo Binghe said nothing when Shen Qingqiu asked about his tutelage under the dream demon.
"So you have nothing to say to defend yourself?" he asked. "Binghe has nothing left to say to this master?"
This master, not this teacher.
Luo Binghe said nothing, he simply waited, he closed his eyes, ready to feel the cold steel.
It greeted him with a familiar plunge through his chest, one that never seemed to get easier.
He tries again.
He let himself be bested by the ice demon the next time, after each loop, it’s become easier and easier to fight against him, but Luo Binghe isn’t there to defeat the ice demon and his invasion. It didn’t matter why the invasion was taking place, it had already happened, all that had died there had long been lost. It was immutable.
Luo Binghe could only hope that his teacher could change. He had to. He had before. But every time he looked at the blade of Xiu Ya turned against him it was becoming harder and harder to believe that something, anything could make Shen Qingqiu stop.
“Are you going to push me down, Shizun?” Luo Binghe asked. Shen Qingqiu would always deny his desire to kill Luo Binghe, which admittedly, did give him hope.
It really was a dangerous thing to have.
As Shen Qingqiu approached, he faltered in his step as Luo Binghe spoke.
“Didn’t you care for me before, Shizun? Do you really hate me now?” Luo Binghe asked, to no response from his teacher. “I’m the same person. I’m still the same.”
“Shizun… don’t do it.” Luo Binghe pleaded, but Shen Qingqiu just came closer and closer, at the same pace, not stopping, his expression as hard and cold as marble.
“Shizun.... no, please, please don’t, SHIZUN- NO PLEASE.” Luo Binghe’s begging was cut off by his own voice breaking, a sob taking over his throat as the blade was plunged in his chest again. That time he can’t help but let out a short scream as Xiu Ya was shoved through him.
It wasn’t a question of how many repeats would make Luo Binghe break. He was already shattered. He was shards that had been ground to dust by the Endless Abyss and there was no telling what he would be when he got out.
He had to get out.
He needed to believe that there was hope for him on the outside to keep himself going.
“Shizun. I’m still your disciple,” he whispered as he gripped the blade that his teacher had stabbed into him with his bare hands, not even flinching as it cut into his palms. His view of Shen Qingqiu was blurred, the wetness in his eyes making it hard to see as it welled up and ran down his cheeks.
Though Luo Shen Qingqiu remained silent as he pulled the blade out and pushed Luo Binghe down.
As he went over the edge, he blinked some of his tears away and as he got one last glimpse at his Shizun’s face, just before Shen Qingqiu turned away from the Abyss, Luo Binghe spotted a tear running down his teacher’s face.
It’s a cycle. The way the loop begins, the way he obediently walks after Shizun as they make their way through the demon invasion, the way he fights the ice demon, the way Shizun turns on him. The way he falls.
At the edge of the world again, Luo Binghe smiled at Shen Qingqiu. "Shizun, you said it. You said you couldn't hate this disciple," he reminded him. His eyes were wide as Shen Qingqiu shoves his blade through him yet again. He doesn't even think about the pain now, he only thinks about Shizun. "Shizun," he repeats, just to hear it again, to watch Shen Qingqiu's face falter slightly at the softness in his disciple's voice.
"Shizun you said you don't hate demons so why do you hate me?" he doesn't mean to start to cry but he feels a warmth in his face as his vision blurred. He tries to hold it back, crying is so unsightly, but he can't stop it. "Shizun please don't get rid of me. I want to be with you, I want to-"
"Binghe has no place at my side," Shizun said. He spoke with none of the warmth he had previously.
"I want to." It was all that he wanted, everything he wanted. He was happy on Qing Jing, he never had to be afraid like on the streets, he never had to worry about not having enough food, he didn't have to worry about the cold winters, or having enough money to get by. The weight of poverty was lifted, he had felt like he could do anything. He read every book in the library because he had the time because he wanted to learn because he heard that Shizun had done it as well and he wanted to impress him.
"Shizun, all I want is to be with you." He hasn't said it before in any of the loops, he hasn't dared to confess the truth. "I don't want to be a demon, I don't want to have to fight, I want to walk with Shizun in the bamboo forest, I want to cook for him every day I can." He can't hold back the tears now. “I don’t want anything else but to be with you!” He shouted it out firmly. Only he and Shen Qingqiu were standing here, at the end of his world.
Shen Qingqiu dropped Xiu Ya in shock.
"Shizun, please, please don't hurt me." He dropped to his knees again. He wanted nothing more than to grab onto Shen Qingqiu's waist and bury his face in Shizun's firm chest, but he didn’t dare to now, he couldn’t do something so forward, so shameless when he truly has something to be ashamed of. No matter what he did, he couldn’t change the dirty blood in his veins. All he could do was try to prove himself with his words, his actions, his love.
"I won't be a demon, I can hide it, Shizun can pretend he doesn't know, and we can go back to normal, I'll disown any demon who tries to claim relation. We can kill the demon who sired me, Shizun can watch this disciple do it, this disciple will do anything to prove it. I'll kill the dream demon. Only Shizun matters to me." Luo Binghe babbled, nervousness beginning to take hold of him as Shen Qingqiu didn’t respond.
Xiu Ya lay on the ground as Shen Qingqiu hands shook at his sides.
Luo Binghe finally looked up and saw tears openly streaming down Shen Qingqiu’s face.
“Stop it,” he whispered as his student looked up at him. “Binghe doesn’t- he doesn’t know what he’s talking about-”
Luo Binghe hadn’t come this far for Shizun to deny reality.
“This disciple knows exactly what he means,” he said. “Shizun, please.”
Please, don’t pretend.
“If Shizun throws me down, this disciple can never search for a cure for Shizun, he can never cook for Shizun again, he can never keep making Shizun smile.” Luo Binghe said. “He wants to keep being happy with you. Can’t we be happy? Together?”
“I don’t want to do this,” Shen Qingqiu whispered, then continued, louder. “But doesn’t Binghe want to be strong? You said you wanted to be strong-”
Shizun seemed to be in a fugue, he looked like he could barely focus on Luo Binghe. Was the poison affecting him again somehow, or was he simply overwhelmed? Most importantly, what did he mean?
Shen Qingqiu had asked him if he wanted to be strong above all else. Why was he repeating it now?
Luo Binghe frowned, then spoke clearly to his teacher. “Shizun, this disciple is very strong now, Shizun doesn’t need to worry about educating me any further. Just let this disciple take care of you, let him- let him love you.”
Shen Qingqiu looked back to him, now more focused, but still distressed. “I… I can’t. This is wrong. It’s all wrong, this isn’t how it’s meant to go!” Shen Qingqiu said, his hand pushing his disheveled hair away from his face. His expression was pained and confused, but the fear in his eyes was lessening.
Luo Binghe cocked his head in confusion. “Shizun? What do you mean-”
Shen Qingqiu spoke softly, but firmly. “Our fates are already written. You aren’t meant-”
Shizun was cut off, by the cacophonous rumbling of the earth as the Abyss began to close.
Was this it? Was this the end? Despite Shen Qingqiu clearly still being conflicted at his confession, Luo Binghe felt a smile grow on his face. He wouldn’t be going down this time, his teacher knew his feelings and hadn’t rejected him, things were finally, finally, looking up.
“No, No, NO! God DAMN IT.” Screamed an unfamiliar voice, and a grasp on the back of his robes pulled him off balance and then a strong hand pushed him, shoving him down into the abyss yet again. As he fell, his attacker’s face peeked over the edge, as if to check that Luo Binghe was still falling and not desperately clinging to the edge of the cliff. The last thing he heard was a distressed yell.
“What the fuck is going on? It’s all RUINED-” The voice screamed until Luo Binghe could no longer hear it.
The ground swallowed him, and he started again.
Luo Binghe didn’t watch Shizun, for once, as he looped yet again.
This time, he kept his gaze locked on the newest variable. Shang Qinghua.
Despite being in the same sect, and Shang Qinghua being rather close at the 4th peak, Luo Binghe could hardy recall seeing the man. Perhaps once or twice, and they had certainly never spoken to each other one on one, at least in Luo Binghe’s memory.
It left him with questions.
Was his Shizun’s martial brother really such a coward that he would play dead during a time like this?
Something was wrong with Shang Qinghua; before he hadn’t been a variable at all, just another unchanging part of the scene, but now, he was a vital piece of the puzzle that needed to be tested. Which meant the other variable would need to be removed.
Luo Binghe wouldn’t dare to do such a thing if this were reality, but in the end, this wasn’t really his last day with his teacher, and this wasn’t really Shen Qingqiu. He took a deep breath, before addressing his teacher.
“Shizun, should we send the other disciples back the way we came? They’re too tired to continue and should retreat to safety.” Luo Binghe offered. He glanced at Shang Qinghua. “I’m sure that two peak lords and myself will be enough to defeat the demons we come across. It would be best to leave those that are tired somewhere safe.” He watched as Shang Qinghua’s expression twitched nervously, looking to Shen Qingqiu for direction instead of commenting on Luo Binghe’s suggestion.
“Binghe is very considerate to think of the other disciples.” his Shizun said. “Shang-shidi, Binghe, and I will continue ahead. Those too tired to continue should rest here until we clear the way.”
As Luo Binghe expected, none of the other disciples are fit to move onwards, as he expected as most of them would fall soon anyway. As they ventured out of the sight of the other disciples, Luo Binghe spoke up again.
“Shizun, can you come here for a second?” he said and in an instant, his teacher was by his side.
“Is something the matter, Binghe?” he asked, his eyes filled with concern. “Did you see something?”
“Yes, Shizun.” Luo Binghe lied easily, his mouth feeling sour. “Look, out that way.” Luo Binghe pointed into the distance at absolutely nothing. “Look closely.” To the side, Shang Qinghua also stopped, looking to where he pointed.
As Shizun squinted, Luo Binghe took a step back and inhaled, then struck. It was remarkably easy to knock Shen Qingqiu out, perhaps it was the integrity of the illusion, or it was a show of Shen Qingqiu’s trust in his disciple that he would let his guard down so much.
“What the fuck?!” Shang Qinghua yelled as Luo Binghe caught the unconscious man in his arms and set him down gently, only letting out his breath when Shen Qingqiu was comfortably set down on the ground.
“Shang-shishu is so foul tongued.” Luo Binghe criticized as he stood up. Was he always so? Or only when shocked. “I thought he was just a coward.” he challenged. Luo Binghe then drew his sword.
“I’m both! I’m anything!” Shang Qinghua shouted, putting his hands up, dropping his blade on the ground. “Please. I’m innocent. Have mercy.”
“Have mercy? When I know what you’ve done?” Luo Binghe challenged. It was a complete bluff. He knew nothing of Shang Qinghua, but he had the feeling that he was going to learn very soon. A small smile stretched across his face as Shang Qinghua dropped to his knees.
“Please, he made me do it. I had to.” Shang Qinghua blubbered, beads of sweat forming on his brow. This man was meant to be a cultivator on par with Shizun, why was he so afraid of Luo Binghe, a mere disciple?
What exactly had Shang Qinghua done? Faking weakness, that was one thing, but Shang Qinghua wouldn’t act like this if that were all.
“Please, I tried to reduce casualties, you believe me right? Cang Qiong will get off lightly. You don’t need to worry. You- you never even have to see me again after this.” Shang Qinghua attempted to bargain. Luo Binghe coldly put Zheng Yang to his throat.
“Confess,” he commanded, but he was cut off. The Abyss opened, shaking the Earth beneath his feet, and throwing both him and Shang Qinghua off balance. Luo Binghe stumbled backward. With the blade away from underneath his chin, Shang Qinghua caught Luo Binghe’s eyes, frozen in fear for a single second. Then he bolted.
They were both blurs as they raced forward, towards the Abyss yet again. There, the ice demon stood, clearly waiting for action.
“My King!” Shang Qinghua screamed desperately, and the demon turned his head. Instantly, the demon summoned his signature blades of ice and hurled them forward, not even grazing Shang Qinghua as he ran forward but convalescing on Luo Binghe.
Shang Qinghua served that ice demon? The one that had beat Luo Binghe, the one that activated his blood?
So that was it. Shang Qinghua had been a traitor. He had let the demons in the barrier.
He worked for the demon that had brought ruin to the immortal alliance conference, that one that had fought Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu, that had beat them. The reason his demon blood was revealed in the first place.
The demon that activated his bloodline and that caused his fall. It occurred to him, that no matter the loop, it seemed that somehow, Shang Qinghua was always downed, but it was never exactly clear how or when.
Luo Binghe deftly deflected the razor-sharp ice, hitting the attacks with such force that they shattered apart, and as the ice demon ran forward to swing his sword at Luo Binghe, he called out to him.
“Wait! I don’t want to fight.” He said loudly, and his attacker stopped in his tracks. “Let’s talk for a moment.” Luo Binghe offered, lowering his own sword first.
The demon appeared to be confused, but he lowered his blade, as Luo Binghe had.
“This Mobei-Jun will listen.” A few steps behind Mobei-Jun, Shang Qinghua wrung his hands and looked nervous.
“You opened this rift?” he asked of Mobei-Jun.
“Yes.” the demon confirmed. The ground suddenly shook again, and Shang Qinghua glanced at it nervously.
“He’s not here. It’s not supposed to be like this,” he whispered, catching Luo Binghe’s attention again. The words felt so eerily similar to what Shen Qingqiu had said in the last loop, it gave him a chill down his spine.
“Be like what?” Luo Binghe asked aloud, looking away from the ice demon, to Shang Qinghua, causing Mobei-Jun to also turn his gaze to his servant.
But Shang Qinghua seemed to be in his own world.
Slowly Shang Qinghua paled by several shades. Lower than a whisper, the words came out.
“It has to be done.”
With a sudden overwhelming strength, Shang Qinghua rushed forward with a boldness that Luo Binghe wasn’t aware the mouseish man possessed. It came out of nowhere. Luo Binghe couldn’t even react as someone <i>other</i> than Shizun pushed him down.
The last thing he saw was two fearful and desperate eyes looking down at him.
Before the blackness took him again, Luo Binghe’s mind was frozen.
Shang Qinghua threw him down? Twice?
His blood hadn’t even activated, he never fought Mobei-Jun, he wasn’t in danger of death. Shizun had thrown him down for the crime of being born to the line of heavenly demons.
In this loop, Shang Qinghua should have known nothing of Luo Binghe’s demon blood, and clearly, he didn’t have any qualms about demons if he was working with one against Cang Qiong.
Had he pushed Luo Binghe down to save his reputation and position as a peak lord, despite the fact that Luo Binghe had been attempting to negotiate? Was Shang-shishu taking advantage of the chance to get rid of a witness?
Or did this hint at a conspiracy?
The loop restarted. Luo Binghe was now walking, yet again, with Shen Qingqiu in front of him, but he couldn’t help but look behind him at Shang Qinghua.
‘He’s not here.’ Could only mean Shizun, but the words ‘it has to be done’ were far more ominous, making Luo Binghe feel a completely new fear, one that gave him chills and made his heart pump faster with anxiety.
Was his fall planned by Shang Qinghua? Was it planned by Shizun? Why would they both say it?
Did he know that Luo Binghe was a demon? Was this all a plan to get rid of him?
Or was it that this was organized by Shen Qingqiu to make him stronger?
"Do you want to be strong above all else? So strong no one would dare challenge you?”
Did Shizun plan this all because of that one question he asked so long ago?
How was it that Shizun knew that he studied under the dream demon that they had encountered so long ago? Was it a guess? Had he figured it out from something Luo Binghe had said or done? Shizun was well known for his intelligence; it wasn't unbelievable.
Was it worse for Shizun to have thrown him down out of hatred or of misplaced love?
He had once called Luo Binghe a beast, a mongrel, back before he had become kind, did he know from the start somehow? Anxiety pounded through him at all this implied.
Luo Binghe knew that Shen Qingqiu would have done a lot for him. Shizun had saved his life multiple times, he had taken a blow that could’ve meant his own death to keep Luo Binghe safe.
Maybe Shizun could have hidden him at the sect, somehow resealed his demon blood, hidden his marking, kept him among the human cultivators and kept the secret of his heritage.
But if he had resealed Luo Binghe, then he wouldn’t be strong above all else. He wouldn’t be so strong that no one would dare to fight him.
Thinking of the endless darkness of the abyss, of sour water and dusty soil, of muck that he sunk into with every step, of a dampness that never left him, of the stains and the dust, the feeling of heavy air that crushed his lungs, Luo Binghe wondered what power could possibly be worth this.
“If before that, you have to undergo a lot of painful torture, suffer countless hardships, your physical and mental state approaching collapse, would you still want to be a supremely strong person?”
He could only mean the Endless Abyss. No better words could describe the living hell that he had walked through daily for the last year.
Luo Binghe’s hands shook. Was this the truth?
Was Shen Qingqiu an opportunist or a mastermind? Did he take advantage of the Abyss’ opening or did he help organize it? Which was worse?
With one last look at the mere illusion of his teacher, Luo Binghe unleashed a burst of demonic qi, blowing the loop to pieces.
He had enough.
“Did you get what you wanted?” She was clearly irritated that he had apparently found what he wanted, that he won’t continue to let her feed off of him until she sucks his entire soul dry. But Luo Binghe had what he wanted.
The question of ‘could shizun love him again’ was now replaced with did Shizun do this for him and not to him.
Why would he make Luo Binghe this way? Why would he put him through all this?
“I have what I need,” he responded, and the elderly demon showed him her teeth, all sharp canines.
“What a shame, what a shame, I thought for sure I would be eating well tonight!” She exclaimed. “You spent so long in there, and so few make it out. You aren’t just anyone are you?”
Luo Binghe looked back at her, but began to walk away. It was strange to be back in his stained and tattered clothing again, but that was the least of his worries.
For so long, he had been trying and failing to try to find his way back into the human world, attempting a nigh-impossible feat, when it may actually be easier to venture into the demon realm.
The idea of falling even deeper was discouraging, he would seemingly be further and further from everything that he had ever known. It felt like trying to win a race by walking the wrong direction past the starting line.
But it seemed if he wanted answers, if he wanted out this would be the only way to go.
No matter what was in his way, he would make his way back to Shizun.
Oddly enough, Mobei-Jun wasn’t a hard man to find, once Luo Binghe knew his identity. Before the loops, all he had to go on was “large, powerful ice demon”. Now he was aware that this demon was the Lord of the North, thanks to Shang Qinghua, not that the man would ever know what he had done for Luo Binghe.
The north of the demon world was freezing, far colder than anywhere he had ever been in the human realm. Behind him, Sha Hualing was wearing several layers of fine furs, looking incredibly put off.
“The palace will be just over this ridge, my Lord,” she informed him. It was clear that she was uncomfortable so far north, but she had sworn her loyalty to him and if he wanted to see Mobei-Jun, she would guide him without question. Though not without some light complaints.
As the two of them approached the palace, they began to notice servants bustling around, some racing back to the palace, likely to inform their king that they had visitors, powerful ones. Luo Binghe continued to stride confidently forward, Sha Hualing close behind him.
The entrance hall was long, but at the end of it was the Lord of the North, and Luo Binghe’s first real step to returning to the surface. His plan, years in the making, was finally coming to fruition.
The hall was silent, with only their footsteps echoing through the room. As they grew closer and closer, Luo Binghe could finally make out Mobei-Jun’s face. It was exactly the same, the unmoved, stern expression.
“Here for another round?” He asked, moving from his relaxed position on his throne to stand up.
“Mobei-Jun.” Luo Binghe, acknowledged, before drawing Xin Mo. The second the sword was out of its scabbard, Mobei-Jun’s blade met Luo Binghe’s.
Though Mobei-Jun had only fought Luo Binghe once, years ago, Luo Binghe had tested himself against Mobei-Jun many more times, thanks to the loops. Maybe if he hadn’t gone through them, he would’ve struggled, but his moves were familiar to Luo Binghe now, and while Mobei-Jun had not grown much, Luo Binghe was more powerful now, by leaps and bounds.
It wasn’t long before Mobei-Jun was defeated. His ice blades were shattered, the shards now scattered the floor of his own palace, and the blade of Xin Mo was on Mobei-Jun’s throat, practically crackling with demonic energy.
“Do you swear your loyalty to me, Mobei-Jun?” Luo Binghe asked. Mobei-Jun simply nodded, and Luo Binghe sheathed his blade.
“Junshang.” Mobei-Jun said, and kneeled. At the edges of the room, the servants and other witnesses kneeled as well, and Luo Binghe took the opportunity to survey the room, looking for one particular figure, someone who did not belong.
Shang Qinghua was not present.
At least, he wasn’t now, but Luo Binghe had waited years now. He could afford to wait a little longer.
Mobei-Jun didn’t mention his spy in their first strategic meeting together, nor their second, or third. It isn’t even until Luo Binghe himself grew impatient and directly asked Mobei-Jun if he had any agents in the cultivation sects, that he was mentioned.
“I would like to meet with him.” Luo Binghe said, smoothly, carefully not sounding too eager, as to not spook Mobei-Jun. He didn’t want to be denied this chance, or have to force this meeting to finally, finally happen.
Mobei-Jun seemed to tense, his rigid posture becoming even more tense for a tenth of a second, before returning to normal.
“It will be arranged,” Mobei-Jun said. “Tomorrow night. He will come.”
Luo Binghe smiled, finally, it would all be coming together.
The next day, Shang Qinghua arrived, looking rather alarmed at being brought to the demon realm without warning, but he looked even more alarmed when he scanned the room and spotted Luo Binghe.
“Leave us.” Luo Binghe commanded, and Sha Hualing nodded, and left. Mobei-Jun hesitated, but exited the room, glancing once back at Shang Qinghua before exiting the room.
“Hello, Shang-shishu.” Luo Binghe greeted. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it.”
Shang Qinghua instantly backed away from Luo Binghe, but the door was behind him and Shang Qinghua was only increasing his distance from it.
“Y-you’re still alive! This is a miracle, incredible, I can’t believe you survived!” he said, wringing his hands. “Shen Qingqiu- he told us you died all those years ago!”
“Shut up.” Luo Binghe commanded, and Shang Qinghua obediently shut his mouth.
“I know that you and Shizun are working together,” he said, and instantly, Shang Qinghua’s eyes widened, and he opened his mouth, but Luo Binghe continued, not letting him speak. “Don’t deny it.”
“Mobei-Jun has been defeated by me in combat. Despite the fact that you’re completely human, I’m sure you’ve spent enough time with demons to know what this means for you.” Luo Binghe stated, calmly, as Shang Qinghua looked up at him in fear.
“I have only a few questions for you. You just have to tell me the truth.” Luo Binghe said, continuing his calm but dangerous tone. “Sit with me, Shang Qinghua.” he said, gesturing to the chairs. “We aren’t enemies,” he said, leaving an unless hanging in the air.
He took a seat, and uneasily, Shang Qinghua did the same.
“Tell me.” Luo Binghe stated. “Does Shizun know that you’re a spy?”
Shang Qinghua swallowed. “Yes.”
The truth was out, but Luo Binghe couldn’t stop to contemplate it now.
“I know you weren’t really unconscious that day.” Luo Binghe said, staring down Shang Qinghua, who was fidgeting in his seat. “You saw it all, didn’t you. You know I wasn’t harmed by demons. You know it was Shen Qingqiu.”
Shang Qinghua was shaking now. “Please, don’t hurt him,” he pleaded on Shen Qingqiu’s behalf. “He didn’t want- He never wanted-”
“To hurt me?” Luo Binghe finished for him. “Are you sure?” Shang Qinghua looked away.
“I know that it must be hard to believe, but… he’s been heartbroken.”
So he really did care after all? No matter what he had chosen to do in the end, whether it was a set up or not, the word stuck out to him.
Yes, Luo Binghe’s heart was broken too. Were they both miserable in the end?
“Yes, thinking of you down there, angry and bitter and hurting has really gotten to him-” Shang Qinghua continued before suddenly stopping himself, covering his mouth.
“So you did know I was alive,” he concluded, but it didn’t make him angry, as Shang Qinghua must have expected.
Luo Binghe found himself suddenly more reflective, quieter.
“Do you think… that Shizun will be happy to see me again?” he asked quietly, mostly to himself, but Shang Qinghua responded.
“Yes!” he affirmed. “I’m sure he’ll be overjoyed! At least, when, um. He realizes that you aren’t angry. You’ll need to clear that up. He’s very skittish you know, haha.” Shang Qinghua reached to scratch his head.
“I guess you just need to talk to each other, but I’m not sure how you’d even get close… he’s sure you’ll be out for his blood you know.” Shang Qinghua informed him.
Luo Binghe frowned. It was sad to think that all this time that Shizun was waiting for Luo Binghe to exact his revenge… he was upset, he was emotional, frustrated and occasionally bitter and jaded, but to kill Shen Qingqiu? His own teacher? The one person that he cared so much for?
He wouldn’t. Ever.
But how could he make someone who didn’t even want to see him listen to him? How could he convince Shen Qingqiu of anything like this? His Shizun still seemed so far away, despite all that Luo Binghe had done to get to this point, to get so close.
“Really, if he saw you he’d be much more likely to run away in terror. He may not actually hate demons but he’s well aware of exactly how powerful they can be.”
And Luo Binghe was of the blood of the most powerful demons ever known. If he saw his former student, why wouldn’t he run?
“Things would be so much easier if you could just… lure him in, lock the door and force him to talk about his feelings for once.” Shang Qinghua said, clearly frustrated. But his words gave Luo Binghe an idea.
“Oh no.” Shang Qinghua said, and froze.
“Oh yes, Shishu.” Luo Binghe said, and smiled, not afraid to show every last one of his teeth. “Who better to help me than you.”
The setup was simple. Shang Qinghua would inform Shen Qingqiu that someone wanted to meet with him, and bring him here. Luo Binghe sat patiently in the room; he had prepared food himself for Shen Qingqiu to eat, his old favorites from when Luo Binghe was his disciple. He had seen to it that it was well decorated.
“You won’t tell me why I’m here, you just keep saying-”
“That it’s important! Because it is! I promise I’m not wasting your time, just trust me.”
The muffled voices outside of the door signaled that they had arrived, and Luo Binghe sat up straight, just as the door opened.
The sight of Shen Qingqiu, in the flesh, brought nothing but joy to Luo Binghe. He was alive, well, looking as beautiful and refined as he always did, if slightly tired.
In return, when Shen Qingqiu’s eyes fell on Luo Binghe, it was clear that he didn’t feel the same peace of mind that Luo Binghe did. He watched, as Shen Qingqiu’s eyes fell onto Luo Binghe’s and as he recognized the disciple that he had cast away.
Shen Qingqiu had only taken a few steps from the door, but almost instantly he was back at it, struggling to open it.
“SHANG QINGHUA!” he yelled as pulled, but Luo Binghe knew that the door was locked, thanks to Shang Qinghua on the other side. “Shang Qinghua, open this door-” he commanded, but there was no response.
Luo Binghe simply sat at the table, waiting for his teacher to calm down. It seemed that he noticed nothing of the room, including the food on the table, but that was understandable, given how afraid he looked.
“Shizun, it’s alright,” he said, trying to assuage his Shizun’s fears. Luo Binghe reached out a hand, but all it did was make Shen Qingqiu flinch.
“Shizun… please… won’t you just speak to this disciple?” Luo Binghe held up his hands. “I don’t want to hurt you. I’m unarmed.”
He had very deliberately brought no weapons with him, not wanting Shen Qingqiu to feel threatened. He knew that his presence alone would bring his teacher anxiety, it would be best not to make it any worse.
“May I come closer, Shizun?” Shen Qingqiu simply eyed him warily from across the room, eyes full of pain, but he didn’t protest as Luo Binghe approached, coming closer and closer, then reaching out to touch Shen Qingqiu.
Luo Binghe held Shen Qingqiu’s face in his hands, he looked down at him. Two years have gone and while Luo Binghe had clearly grown and changed, but Shen Qingqiu looked exactly the same.
The only difference, was that he looked at Luo Binghe like he was a stranger.
“Shizun, I only wanted to talk to you again. You don’t have to be afraid of me,” he said, rubbing his thumb across Shen Qingqiu’s smooth cheek. Once, he wouldn’t have dared to be so audacious, but Shen Qingqiu wasn’t listening, he wasn’t even looking. Luo Binghe had to take drastic measures, even if he once would have been offended by his own actions.
It would be so easy for him to be angry, to be bitter, to hate his teacher, but Luo Binghe knew that even if Shen Qingqiu hated him, he couldn’t hate him back.
“Shizun wanted me to live. He wanted me to come out of the Abyss stronger, didn’t he? Have I not satisfied Shizun yet?” Luo Binghe asked. Shen Qingqiu swallowed and Luo Binghe could feel it underneath his fingertips. “I can prove it to you. If Shizun wants me to slaughter the demons who have hurt him in the past, this disciple will. If Shizun wants to go anywhere, this disciple will escort him, and destroy those who stand in his way. If Shizun wants the moon, this disciple will tear it from the sky.”
Even before he had become powerful, before he mastered his demon blood and both forms of cultivation, Luo Binghe would have done anything for Shen Qingqiu. Now he had the power to prove his devotion.
“I don’t want anything from Binghe.” Shizun said quietly. “I only wanted him to have a chance to-” Shen Qingqiu cut himself off. “It doesn’t matter now.”
It was clear that Shen Qingqiu wanted to end it there but Luo Binghe wasn’t willing to let go now that he finally, finally had gotten something.
“Did you want me to die?” he asked.
“No.” Shen Qingqiu said, voice quiet but firm.
“Did Shizun want me to suffer?” he pushed further.
“I knew you would-”
“But did Shizun want it?”
“No.” Shen Qingqiu confessed, and Luo Binghe let go.
“Then this disciple can be at peace.” His hands returned to his sides.
Shen Qingqiu, clearly didn’t expect this, his brow was furrowed as the confusion in his eyes only grew deeper.
“Binghe isn’t angry that I did this? He doesn’t want revenge? To make me suffer as I did him?”
Luo Binghe looked at Shen Qingqiu. Despite his cultivation keeping him looking as ethereal and eternal as he had years ago, he was paler now than he had been then. His eyes were forlorn, even the way he stood had shown a solemnity in it.
“I think that Shizun… has also been suffering already.”
Yet again, Shizun was suffering for Luo Binghe’s sake. Not just physically like with the poison, now even his soul was suffering.
And for what?
What did either of them gain but misery? Luo Binghe couldn’t help but laugh.
What was all of his power worth anyways? His blood, his alliances, even his blade, what did it matter if he kept feeling so desperate, so empty inside?
“Shizun, I don’t need to be strong above all others.” Luo Binghe said, confidently. At his words, Shen Qingqiu’s brow furrowed. Luo Binghe wondered what he was thinking right now.
“All this disciple wants is to be with Shizun.”
He repeated the words from the loop, in far better circumstances. Shizun stared at him, confused, for a few moments before the wheel began to turn. His face reddened.
Luo Binghe interrupted him. “If Shizun will have me of course.” He stared into Shen Qingqiu’s eyes.
It took a minute for Shizun to pull himself together, but when the shock melted away, there was only warmth left.
“If Binghe really feels this way… this… I would be glad to have him.”
His grin grew as Shen Qingqiu stumbled over his words.
“Shizun really wants me?” he asked.
“You don’t want to get rid of me?”
Shen Qingqiu hesitantly reached toward Luo Binghe, grabbing his hands, slipping his fingers in between Luo Binghe’s own.
“I never want,” Shen Qingqiu swallowed, mid-sentence, his eyes slightly wet, “-to let go again.”