The act of bringing Shang Qinghua to the demon realm had been a gamble, one that had payed considerable dividends. Lord Luo’s army had benefited greatly from the man’s administrative skills, and his knowledge of the human realm had become invaluable for their search.
As quickly as he had taken the throne Luo Binghe had abandoned it, forming a small battalion of his most valued lieutenants and taking them to the borderlands. All to search for a human. They had been crushing slave caravans for weeks, slaughtering the slavers and freeing the captives.
The new demon emperor would personally inspect the freed stock, but he never seemed to find what he was searching for. His frustrations had been building daily and even Mobei Jun had been fearing the moment the sovereign's control would break.
So, he had sought out Shang Qinghua. The man had always proven useful, knowing more than even some of the oldest demons. Mobei Jun was loathe to share the human’s wisdom, but Luo Binghe had refrained from killing him and such an act deserved loyalty.
He had opened a portal to the human’s peak only to find Shang Qinghua being assaulted by one of his own. This spurred Mobei Jun to act instinctively, protecting his human. It would have been easy to suffocate the pitiful cultivator then and there, such an act didn’t matter to Mobei Jun, but it seemed to have mattered to Shang Qinghua.
It mattered enough that he had used words against his king, it mattered enough that he had used Mobei Jun’s name.
The demon lord should have been furious, that a meek cultivator would dare to exert any influence over him. To control the Mobei Jun, one who’s name is well known and feared amongst both humans and demons alike, it was laughable. It would have been easy to shrug off the power as he had done many times before, only this time Mobei Jun instead found himself focusing on how the syllables of his name had sounded rolling of the tongue of the man he trusted most.
It was strange, how he hadn’t even realized how much trust he placed in Shang Qinghua. It started with an unavoidable situation but that hadn’t been the last time he’d sought the cultivator out to assist him. Not even his most loyal retainers had been allowed to attend him when wounded. It was an honor he only reserved for Shang Qinghua.
Years of trust and not once had the man ever uttered his name, and now that he did all Mobei Jun could think of was how to get him to say it again.
Which was especially unfortunate since his rash action of bringing Shang Qinghua with him had made the man more fearful. The deferential attitude had never made any sense to Mobei Jun, and now even more so. Had he not saved Shang Qinghua? He’d done nothing but show the man favor, why had it earned him fear? The cultivator drowned him in praise and thanks, but it had felt wrong; his fear had soured it. The usual honorifics felt distant and too formal.
Not that Mobei Jun didn’t deserve the title of king, even serving under Lord Luo he was the formidable ruler of the northern lands, but Shang Qinghua’s nervousness bothered him.
Instead he tried to soothe it with small gestures and gifts, He had been particularly proud of the ornate jade brushes he’d gifted the man. He also was careful not to leave Shang Qinghua alone with certain members of the demon hierarchy, Sha Hualing in particular always looked ready to eat the man alive, Mobei Jun did not like it when she made his human jump or squeak nervously.
Mobei Jun’s feelings aside Shang Qinghua had proven himself invaluable, his insights into the human realm had directed Lord Luo’s search and his administrative skills had somehow effortlessly organized and controlled those under the emperor all while Luo Binghe himself was absent.
He was proud of the man, but at the latest council meeting Shang Qinghua was too preoccupied to add his own suggestions, only speaking up when asked. He had seemed distracted and rushed, impatiently sweeping up his notes as the meeting ended.
Usually Mobei Jun would be content to let him leave the council room unsupervised but there was something about the man’s demeanor that urged him to pursuit. He carefully followed Shang Qinghua as he raced towards his private rooms.
Shang Qinghua had been in such a rush the door slammed so hard that it had swung back open just as quickly. Mobei Jun approached and was met with the sight of Shang Qinghua hastily shoving things into a qiankun pouch.
It took a moment of staring before the cultivator noticed his presence.
“My King!?” He hunched defensively over the bag, flailing as he failed to hide his guilty expression.
Mobei Jun took in the scene. He wasn’t a fool, Shang Qinghua’s intent was clear.
“Your leaving.” It wasn’t a question but a statement. There was a bitter satisfaction as he watched the man take care while packing the jade brushes, but it still hurt. The man he had trusted most was preparing to leave him, Mobei Jun had naively thought that trust had gone both ways.
It seemed now that he was wrong.
“I, I’m sorry. I have to.” What hurt most was that the human flinched away as if expecting a blow.
“You have to?” Silently he considered who might have threatened his human, short of Lord Luo himself no one in the demon realm would dare to contest Mobei Jun’s strength, even Sha Hualing knew better.
He considered who he might need to kill on his human’s behalf when the cultivator continued. “Huan Hua is planning an ambush, this servant can’t just let that happen. Someone has to warn Cang Qiong, this humble servant is still a peak lord, I have to help.”
Shang Qinghua looked so frightened, but there was a dogged determination to his posture. It was a look Mobei Jun remembered well. That was the look that he had when he had insisted on treating the ice demon the first time they had met. It was the look that convinced Mobei Jun to make the decision to trust the human then, and now it made him want that trust in return.
“ Mobei Jun Plea-” The demon lord cut him off, as much as Mobei Jun was thrilled to hear his name, he didn’t want Shang Qinghua to think it was his words that influenced him.
He placed one hand on the man’s shoulder “Then we will go.”
The battle at Huan Hua’s gates had been short. Shen Yuan’s fall had spurred Cang Qiong’s forces to quick action and while their enemy had not been prepared for such an assault, they had not been there to drag it out. Cang Qiong had only been there for Shen Yuan, once he was free from the field they quickly followed.
Shen Jiu would have loved to press the advantage, but as it was there had been minimal casualties and no reason for their forces to throw themselves into an ill-thought-out siege. It truly had been the best-case scenario, strike then retreat. Their hostage regained and no one else lost.
Shen Jiu and Liu Qingge had remained on the field the longest, ensuring their retreat was successful preventing any pursuit by the palace sect. Bai Zhan’s war god may have been a brute, but he did have his uses.
Upon his return to Huayue Shen Jiu ignored those clamoring for his attention, he didn’t have time for a debriefing or praise, rather he stalked through the small town straight to the small estate they had set up for medical care.
He stormed through the place, not bothering with directions. He knew who he wanted to see, and his destination was made clear by the dark clad disciple pacing nervously by one of the doors. He barely spared the boy a glance, there was something familiar about him but that didn’t matter. He hadn’t been dressed in Huan Hua gold rather favoring a black and red ensemble, still he had clearly emerged from the enemy lines. Lao Gongzhu’s cries of traitor labeled the man a defector, not that Shen Jiu cared. He’d judge the strange cultivator only after he knew of his brother’s state.
He swept past him into the room. A-Yuan's savior made to follow but Shen Jiu was quick to shut the door behind him.
The room was small, but it had a proper bed where Mu Qingfang was tending to a haggard looking A-Yuan. Despite everything his brother was looking far better than he had on the battlefield.
“How is he?” Two sets of eyes focused on him.
Mu Qingfang reacted first nodding amiably. “I’ve managed to calm his fever and now that he’s able to circulate his own qi the bruising should clear up quickly.” That was good, a proper core usually promoted rapid healing; Shen Yuan’s had been newly formed before the accident and he felt a pang of loss not having witnessed his advances.
“A decent meal wouldn’t hurt though.” Mu Qingfang continued; the healer always did have a talent for understatement. Despite his clear eyes and improved bearing Shen Yuan was too thin, even under the fresh robes he looked emaciated.
He looked at his brother’s face now, eyes tracing the hollows of his cheeks and how it made his cheekbones looks sharper, just like his own. Shen Yuan wouldn’t hold his gaze deliberately looking away as he was inspected.
All Shen Jiu could think was, This shouldn’t have happened. I should have been there.
He had been trying to guide Shen Yuan away from his own past, but he had clearly failed.
Thankfully Mu Qingfang was the most perceptive of the peak lords, “I’ll go see what they have in the kitchens.” He politely excused himself, Shen Jiu nodded to him as he left.
The torn robes had been replaced but the cuts and bruises still visible were angry and red telling Shen Jiu a painful story. A-Yuan's hair was matted and tangled but when he returned his gaze to Shen Jiu his eyes were clear and focused.
They stared at each other letting the silence stretch between them. Shen Jiu was in mute turmoil as he struggled to think of a way to bridge a twelve-year absence that he hadn’t truly registered until now. He couldn’t find the words he needed to say as the quiet became less comfortable.
But A-Yuan had always been better at silence.
His hand motions were fluid and practiced but even he couldn’t hide the slight tremor, it made Shen Jiu’s heart break all over again. Why hadn’t he woken up sooner? This couldn’t have been the only danger his brother had faced without him.
Shen Yuan hesitated a moment before continuing.
They were simple signs and yet they had rocked him to his core. A-Yuan had nothing to apologize for. That he felt he needed to, it made the pit of anger in his chest flare up. He had never wanted that for A-Yuan, to have the little boy he swore to protect blame himself for Shen Jiu’s fate.
He’d watched him fall apart over Su Xiyan, and since then he had dreaded the idea of Shen Yuan doing so over someone like him.
Shen Jiu had never been an impulsive man, he was quick-witted and temperamental but even then there was always some forethought, but this time he let impulse guide him as he pulled his brother into a protective hug.
It was awkward and stifling; he was sure he was gripping too tightly, but it would have to be enough. Shen Jiu had never been soft but he was all Shen Yuan had, and this was the best he could do.
“A-Yuan is not the one here who should be apologizing.”
He would never admit it, but he needed the contact as much as Shen Yuan did. It was tangible proof that his brother was here and alive and didn’t hate him.
He hated the way his brother felt small and frail in his arms, his underfed frame reminiscent of his own painful past.
He wanted to say it, to articulate every apology Shen Yuan was owed. How sorry he felt for leaving his brother alone with a sect of idiots, sorry for letting Huan Hua take him prisoner, sorry for not saving him sooner, sorry for not being softer or kinder, sorry for letting them take his voice away.
It didn’t matter how much he wanted to the words caught in his throat, he could only hope A-Yuan understood, and the way he was gripped back just as tightly A-Yuan probably did, words or no.
A-Yuan had always been better at silence.
They sat there for a while, at least until Shen Jiu adjusted his grip and a hand lands in the matted mess of A-Yuan's hair.
“How did you fool anyone into thinking you were this master with hair like this?”
Shen Yuan huffed and pushed him away quick to respond.
No combs in water prison.
Shen Jiu pointedly ignores the remark to instead grab his comb from a sleeve and position himself behind his brother, just like he did when Shen Yuan was younger.
They both sit there comfortably quiet as Shen Jiu gently untangled Shen Yuan’s hair. He didn’t have any oils and it still could’ve used a proper wash but by the time he tied it up his brother's hair was at least halfway presentable.
Just in time for something to slam violently into the door.
Liu Qingge’s voice carried clearly through the wood, “How dare you show your face here!”
The brothers shared a glance before Shen Jiu stood and stalked over to the door, flinging it open violently. He didn’t care if the damn brute started a fight, but he would not allow him to do so outside Shen Yuan’s door.
Door open both Liu Qingge and the black clad cultivator tumbled into the room. Shen Jiu was less than impressed with the scene before him.
“Just what do you think you are doing?”
Liu Qingge was the first to recover leaping to his feet standing tall to glare righteously at Shen Yuan’s savior. “This is the cultivator who ambushed us, the one who broke your stone and took Shen Yuan.”
Shen Jiu would have mocked Liu Qingge for sounding like a disciple tattling on his peers if the accusation hadn’t been so jarring.
He had questioned his shidi extensively about the man who had dared to harm his brother. He had planned a brutal fate for the strange cultivator, one almost as cruel as what he’d planned for Lao Gongzhu. Apparently, the man who had captured his A-Yuan was the same one who had saved his life.
A man who shrugged off words with ease, who had crushed a voice stone with his bare hands.
He looked back to A-Yuan who had shuffled forward on the bed to get a better view, the widening distress of his brother’s eyes was confirmation enough.
He turned back to the beast hand on Xiu Ya’s hilt. To his credit the man was bowing, keeping his eyes low only to send a nervous glance in Shen Yuan’s direction. It was then he noticed the glowing red mark on his brow.
That caused the man to flinch, but he didn’t otherwise move, his gaze redirected to the ground.
Shen Jiu nodded to Lui Qingge and they both move to draw their blades, but before Xiu Ya could get more than an inch out of it’s sheath Shen Yuan was there standing between him and the demon a hand on both cultivators swords, a gesture to stop them.
He clenched his teeth and glared at his brother, “What are you doing?”
Shen Yuan glared right back. His brother was soft, but he was also stubborn. He only releases their sword arms so he can sign at them.
He saved me.
“He’s a demon.” No better than a beast, likely the only good he’d ever done was saving Shen Yuan and even that probably had a motive. He was tensed to move before Shen Yuan signed again.
He’s Shijie’s son.
That’s when he known he had lost. The familiarity he had perceived before shifted into a focused relief. The same hair, the same nose, even the same determined set to his jaw. Shen Jiu had only met Su Xiyan briefly but now that Shen Yuan had pointed it out, he could not unsee the resemblance.
However, that wasn’t the only thing he had noticed. The whip marks around his neck were gone, only traces of blood to indicate there had been a wound in the first place, his nails were black and a little too sharp, most prominently he couldn’t help but stare at the demon mark glowing on the man’s forehead.
Su Xiyan had meant everything to A-Yuan, and Shen Jiu wasn’t fool enough to believe that her kin wouldn’t hold any influence over his brother, even two decades after her death. To Shen Jiu it didn’t matter who the demon’s mother was, she didn’t raise him, and he had already proven himself a threat.
Though a small part of his brain couldn’t help but point out that the half-demon bastard was the only reason Shen Yuan was alive and not a bloody smear below Huan Hua’s walls, but if Qingge was to be believed he was also the reason A-Yuan had even been in such danger.
Bai Zhan’s peak lord clearly was not having the same reservations.
“He tried to kill you.”
He did not
“He’s a threat to Cang Qiong.”
He’s my disciple . Shen Jiu couldn’t comprehend why his brother was so intent on defending the beast, but he knew that unless he could convince Shen Yuan of the danger his brother would not let the issue go.
“Clearly he’s Huan Hua’s man now.”
“This humble Luo Binghe has only ever had one Shizun.” Hearing the creature speak up had been unexpected, his voice was hard as if the implication had insulted him. His gaze however softened when it landed on Shen Yuan. The implication was clear, the beast would apparently only answer to Shen Yuan.
Liu Qingge looked as if he had eaten something sour, but he seemed to accept the statement. Letting Chen Luan fall back into it’s sheath, he did not remove his hand though.
Shen Jiu did the same, still poised to defend his brother should anything change.
Shen Yuan relaxed slightly as he turned to this Luo Binghe character.
Then you owe this teacher an explanation . At least his brother wasn’t stupid enough for blind faith, it was still more than Shen Jiu would have offered.
The beast nodded eagerly; it was strange to see such a childlike action from a demon but under Shen Yuan’s attention he seemed to melt into a puppy. Shen Jiu would have found it funny if the man’s true heritage were easier to forget.
Shen Jiu would listen, but he wouldn’t let his guard down. He never did but with Shen Yuan so weak if felt especially important.
“What does Shizun want to know?”
Why did you ask this teacher about voice stones?
The beast straightened puffing out his chest, “ Since this disciple was young, there was voice stone that had spoken this one, sung to this one to sleep, even saved this lowly one’s life. This disciple has always wished to find the one it belonged to and return it.”
He reached into the neck of his robes to pull at something, "I didn’t realize it at first but now that I found you Shizun, this disciple can fulfill that wish.”
His hand drew up to the back of his neck, but a look of panic crossed his face. He grabbbed again at his own neck again as if he’d lost something a necklace or -
A red cord, one Shen Jiu distinctly remembers slicing to free the demon from a Huan Hua whip. The memory makes his stomach drop.
Shen Yuan felt the weight of the concern of the three men in the room. Their horrified dread made him want to laugh.
He’d been without a voice for over two decades, living most of his life without one, what was another day? At this point he wouldn’t have been bothered by the rest of his lifetime. It was almost comical with how close he’d come only to hand his own voice off to the boy all those years ago.
He wasn’t worried about not having a voice anymore, what concerned him was what he may have unintentionally said to Binghe over the years. He couldn’t think of anything specific but if Gege’s night terrors were anything to go by he may not have had much control over whatever shameful things Binghe may have heard.
That didn’t even include the dreams, the ones he was becoming more and more certain were more than the self-indulgent fantasies he’d assumed.
Rather than dwell on his possible embarrassment he looked over to his brother. It was clear that Gege was furious. The man had always been so insistent that Shen Yuan would get his voice back, finding out that he was at least partly responsible for robbing Shen Yuan that opportunity was probably eating at him.
Not that Shen Yuan blamed him. How could he? The action had saved his life, Binghe’s too. He may have been hazy with fever, but he was certain that without Gege or Luo Binghe he would have never lived to escape Huan Hua.
What good would a voice be if he was dead?
Nobody else seemed to come to that conclusion since he had to stop Binghe from hitting the ground to kowtow. It was bizarre to see him acting like the white lotus disciple anywhere but the misty clearing. It made him feel a bit disoriented, Binghe was here, alive and real. Not a figment of his imagination or a construct of his guilt.
Not that he had the time to dwell on the absurdity of it all, instead he needed to reassure everyone else.
It’s no one’s fault.
Gege looked ready to protest and there were tears gathering in the corners of Binghe eyes, even Qingge seemed less than satisfied with his answer.
Thankfully Mu Qingfang returned, and he brought with him news. “Shen Shixiong, Liu Shidi you best come with me. Shang Shixiong is outside.”
That started a whole new commotion. Shen Yuan insisted on joining them to meet Shang Qinghua, Shen Qingqiu protested claiming he should be resting. He quickly changed his mind however when Shen Yuan then implied that he would be left alone with Luo Binghe should they leave him to rest.
Despite Shen Yuan’s willingness to forgive Binghe’s transgressions both Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge were far more suspicious. He had no issues with using this fact to manipulate them into letting him see his friend, even if he had to walk with a peak lord on either side of him all the way to the courtyard.
Seeing Shang Qinghua was actually a relief, sure he had been upset at the time, but watching the man disappear with the demon had worried him. He’d never admit it out loud, but he had missed the idiot.
Unfortunately said idiot had brought with him the same demon that had a habit of kidnapping members of Cang Qiong.
The tall pale demon loomed over Shang Qinghua menacingly, the cultivators that had been tasked with watching their ‘guests’ kept their distance while they nervously gripped their swords.
Shen Yuan couldn’t blame them, twice he’d come face to face with this particular demon and twice he’d come up short.
He bitterly thought that perhaps if he had been sober the second encounter may have gone better though it was unlikely.
He was concerned about Binghe, worried that the icy demon might have brought up unfavorable memories but Binghe looked unperturbed when he spied the imposing man.
He still shuffled nervously wishing for a fan to hide behind, he was surprised when Liu Qingge unceremoniously placed one in his hand.
It was the same one he’d had on him when they’d been ambushed. His friend kept his eyes forward but answered his silent question.
“You dropped it.”
Liu Qingge was so thoughtful! Shen Yuan nodded graciously and was quick to open it, which kept him from seeing the way Luo Binghe was glaring at Bai Zhan’s peak lord.
Instead he looked over the gift at his wayward friend. Shang Qinghua however was glancing nervously between the two demons, only to start glancing nervously between himself and Gege. He’d on many occasions told the man that staring that way was rude, but Qinghua had always been a bit of a gawker.
Shen Qingqiu tired quickly of the silence and snapped, “Well, what is it?”
That made An Ding’s former peak lord shrink into himself like a startled rodent, this in turn causes the ice demon’s intense glare to land on Shen Qingqiu.
Shen Yuan shivered involuntarily, as two frosty glares met.
Shang Qinghua eventually found his voice, “Huan Hua is planning an ambush.”
That made Gege scoff, “We’re plenty ready for them.” He wasn’t wrong, Huayue wasn’t large by any means and their forces weren’t either but it was well-fortified geographically. If they were to be besieged there, they would need only a fraction of the attacking army’s forces to come out victorious.
Gege’s confidence was not ill-informed.
Still, Shang Qinghua shook his head emphatically, almost as if he forgot to be afraid of his martial sibling. “Not here, they’re headed for Cang Qiong. My contacts have been watching them move people and supplies for days now. “
Liu Qingge swore, while Shen Qingqiu seemed to process the information. Shen Yuan couldn’t help but think of the small shanty town of refugees that had been built at the mountain’s base. They would be the first to suffer if Huan Hua were to attack. That didn’t even include the disciples of Cang Qiong too young to go to war.
Shang Qinghua looked unnaturally serious as he answered, and that was what truly worried Shen Yuan. “Two days, maybe three I’ve already spoken with Zhangmen Shixiong, he asked me to come here.”
Of course he had, Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge had absconded with their strongest fighters to rescue Shen Yuan. He could feel the familiar tendrils of guilt creeping up the back of his neck.
The mood had dropped, with the incoming threat weighing heavily upon them. Nobody dared to say it, but they all knew even if they could get back in time Cang Qiong might still fall. The odds had not been in their favor.
Unexpectedly it was Binghe who broke the somber silence. “This Luo Binghe will meet Shizun back at Cang Qiong with what resources he has to assist.”
Shen Yuan was surprised to see Binghe slap a hand on the ice demon’s shoulder before the larger demon nodded in deference, cutting through the air to create a portal.
Did he just call Shen Yuan’s little white lotus disciple Lord Luo?
“Where is Shang Shidi going?” Shen Qingqiu unsubtly brought everyone’s attention to the man who had moved to follow the two demons.
Rather than answer Shang Qinghua just stood there, jaw slack gaping like a fish. “Is Shang Shidi not still And Ding’s peak lord? His expertise will be crucial for Cang Qiong.” Shen Yuan Knew that tone, it was one that was polite in the presence of company but promised future retribution.
Shang Qinghua’s demon companion looked ready to object but Binghe pulled him back, and simply nodded. The two backed into the portal but one didn’t look particularly happy about it.
For that matter neither did Shang Qinghua.
Huayue was barely half a day’s flight from the mountain sect, for an individual cultivator it was an easy trip, for the small army they had campaigned to the edge of Bailu forest it took nearly the whole day. Thankfully most of the peak lords hadn’t left Cang Qiong, but their forces had been split and there was no way they could face the full might of Huan Hua so divided.
It had been difficult for them to abandon the hard won territory, but no one could deny the necessity. If Cang Qiong fell that was it, all the reclaimed sects would be easily picked off one by one.
Their most difficult challenge had been transporting the injured. Shen Yuan hadn’t been thrilled to be counted among them, but he couldn’t deny that he was unable to fly back on his own. Qingge had let him ride along on Chen Luan back to the sect.
It hadn’t taken long for Shang Qingqiu to bully Shang Qinghua into organizing the retreat, staggering departures so they didn’t alert Huan Hua with a cloud of flying cultivators. It was a risky move, but it was riskier to leave the mountain without some of its strongest defenders.
Shen Yuan wished his return to Cang Qiong had been happier, but there was planning to be done. The peak lords had gathered with allied sect leaders to prepare for the inevitable carnage.
Together they all poured over the battle map, reviewing and discussing their options and strategy. In the years opposing Huan Hua they were used to being outnumbered, what they were not used to was defending a small city’s worth of refugees, along with youngest disciples who had never left the peaks.
The history of Cang Qiong was long enough for there to have been many sieges successful and otherwise but there had been none in the memory of the current generation of peak lords, and if Shang Qinghua’s information was to be trusted they were still grossly outnumbered.
Shen Yuan had been welcomed at the war table, but he still felt a bit awkward. For all of his struggles with being an imposter he had still managed as Cang Qiong’s head strategist for most of the war. Despite the real Shen Qingqiu’s talent for it the other sect leaders seemed to be unable to decide which brother to defer to.
Even with him unable to vocalize his thoughts they still seemed to look to him for confirmation of Gege’s tactics, which was laughable because he needed his brother to translate his resulting opinion, more laughable was the fact that Gege was the one who had taught him strategy in the first place.
“It still would be better if we had a group to circle in from behind, in a pincer movement. Catch them by surprise.” Shen Yuan was certain that Gege was going to burst a blood vessel dealing with these idiots. This particular sect leader seemed determined to undermine their position with his ‘good idea.’ It was clear that not everybody was well versed in the art of war.
Shen Yuan had become used to their foolish persistence and even he was starting to get a headache.
Still Shen Qingqiu did an admirable job of not punching the man in the face while he coolly explained, “Such a maneuver is only effective if we have greater numbers, which we do not.”
“Please allow this one to provide.”
The mass of sect leaders immediately turned the door to see Luo Binghe standing at the door with the demon Mobei Jun at his back. Clearly the demon’s portals were unaffected by the protections and arrays that surrounded Cang Qiong.
Binghe’s simple black and red robes had been replaced with a far more regal set, his curls braided into a royal crown. This wasn’t the white lotus of Shen Yuan’s dreams, nor was it the cruel jailor from Huan Hua. Luo Binghe standing amid sect leaders and peak lords blended in seamlessly with the bearing of a king.
Shen Yuan hid behind his fan, why was his sticky little disciple acting so cool now? Could he not decide on a single personality and stick with it?
Shen Qingqiu glared daggers at him while Liu Qingge shouted, “You!”
Binghe held up his hands in a placating gesture, doing so he had the bearing of a magnanimous ruler, “This Luo Binghe comes to offer aid.”
Liu Qingge growled, “What aid could you possibly be demon.” Shen Yuan noticed the not so subtle way several peak lords positioned themselves between him and Binghe.
That comment caused Binghe’s face to darken, sending a chill down Shen Yuan’s spine. Still the demon smiled charmingly in jarring contrast.
“This lord Luo; Emperor of the demon realms, offers Cang Qiong his aid against Huan Hua.” The declaration caused a few of the assembled leaders to gasp. “Let it be known that the aid of this one’s armies is only offered on behalf of this one’s Shizun.”
Deep red eyes focused solely on Shen Yuan, making him glad for his fan letting the thin paper obscure his thinner face. Who are you to make such declarations on his behalf?
“This one intends to prove himself worthy of Shen Yuan.” and Oh that was the first time Binghe had ever said his name. Not master Shen, not Shen Qingqiu or Shizun. From the rising heat in his cheeks he was sure to be blushing, no matter how he schooled his expression.
Since when was Binghe the emperor of the demon realm? Binghe you missed this part in your explanation!
Still the other demon, Mobei Jun? He seemed to be treating Luo Binghe as the one in charge. It was a little unnerving considering She Yuan’s previous interactions with the ice demon, but it backed Binghe’s claim.
The room exploded into fervent whispers, sect leaders arguing with peak lords. Everyone questioning the merits of taking aid from a demonic army. It was after all one of the accusations Lao Gongzhu had used to justify attacking other sects.
Shen Yuan was too stunned to make his opinion known, eyes only focused on the man who had literally brought an army to fight in his name. If he hadn’t been so distracted, he would have noticed that his brother had been conspicuously silent, content to let the war council exhaust themselves over the issue.
After the most incredulous members had finally quieted down, he spoke up. “It would give us the numbers.” His voice was carefully neutral as if he were merely commenting on the weather. Still Shen Yuan had thought he would have fought harder against the idea, particularly with how vicious he’d been to the demon lord earlier.
“You trust him?” Wu Huan asked
Shen Yuan wanted to speak out, without thinking he would have said yes but the question was Gege’s to answer.
“The number of people I trust is incredibly small. Most of the people in this room would not make that list.” His gaze seemed to land on each of Cang Qiong’s peak lords before resting on Shen Yuan.
“To answer your question, no. I don’t trust him, but if his intent aligns with our own, I don’t see a reason to turn him away.” It wasn’t a ringing endorsement, but it was likely the closest that Gege would get to showing Binghe any gratitude.
Shen Yuan also knew his lofty brother was prepared to sink low if it gave him the tactical advantage.
Yue Qingyuan who had been mostly quiet finally stepped forward, “Let us put it to a vote.” It seemed like the gesture of a gracious host, but Shen Yuan knew better. This was Cang Qiong, the twelve peaks belonged to their peak lords, and the martial siblings were in everything united. The twelve of them outnumbered the rest of the war council and if Yue Qingyuan voted one way the rest would follow in a show of solidarity. Anyone who knew the sect leader knew that since Shen Qingqiu had already made his decision Yue Qingyuan would go along with his favorite Shidi’s designs.
It was truly a foregone conclusion.
He should have probably chosen a different place, maybe Qing Jing peak, or even his own palace, but every time he pulled Shizun into a dream they had met in the clearing and he didn’t feel like this time should be different.
He still visited the real one from time to time, his mother’s meagre headstone long since worn away. Still it was the place where Shizun had first saved his life, and now it was the place where he had taught Binghe so many lessons.
But it wasn’t just Shizun now, it was Shen Yuan.
Finally having a name for his teacher made him feel giddy. It wasn’t enough to overshadow his failure but Binghe would take what pleasure he could in the small victories.
It was strange to hear his own voice form the syllables of his name, but it was necessary. He didn’t have Shizun’s voice anymore, so he had to lend the man his own in the dreamscape.
At least he could take gratification in finally seeing the man’s true form rather than the sharp planes of jade.
Even finely carved stone could never truly do the stunning man justice.
Despite these small joys he still held himself back from embracing his teacher. Their last dream encounter weighed heavily on his mind and he didn’t want to overstep. Clearly, he had already made that mistake but if he could help it it would not be repeated.
“Is it really you?” Shen Yuan spoke then placed a hand to his mouth as a thoughtful look creased his brow. Not even the smallest detail made it past Binghe’s Shizun.
“This disciple has shamefully lost Shizun’s voice, so he has offered his own until it can be returned.”
Shen Yuan nodded in understanding. It was glorious to finally be able to read the micro expressions on his face. He still held a haughty expression, but it was softer more human.
“The stone was a focus, that must be why this master is no longer green as well.”
Binghe nodded and tried to smile, but it doesn’t feel genuine. He’s still bitter about treating Shizun’s voice so carelessly.
He distracts himself with staring at his Shizun, dressed as he would’ve been when Binghe had been a disciple on Qing Jing. It was the clothing Binghe had imagined for him, but it probably wasn’t right, he’d only been pretending to be Shen Qingqiu.
Binghe wanted to ask what Shen Yuan would prefer to wear but it was such a trivial question, he didn’t dare.
Still the white and pale greens suit him, the pastels making him look soft and kind, while the golden crown woven into his hair gives him an ethereal elegance.
Knowing his Shizun’s face only made Binghe fall more in love with the man. He still wondered how Shen Yuan must have felt about him. The man had defended him at first but at the war council his face had been hidden behind his fan so Binghe was only able to guess at his thoughts.
It had taken all of Binghe’s self-control to maintain demon king mask rather than drop to his knees in front of his Shizun and beg for forgiveness.
But Shen Yuan had made it clear that wasn’t what he wanted.
“Binghe must have questions for this master.”
He did, he had so many questions. What would Shizun choose to wear? What was Shizun’s favourite food? What did Shizun truly think of Binghe? Would he stay with this disciple forever?
Binghe was sure that none of them were the kind of questions Shen Yuan had meant when asking.
Still there was one thing that had been weighing on his mind. When Shen Yuan had defended him he had mentioned someone, it had made the real Shen Qingqiu pause, and the way Shizun had looked when speaking of them had made bitter jealousy coil in Binghe’s gut.
“Who is Shijie?” Binghe had known that Mei Ling hadn’t been his birth mother, but he never really cared about the woman who had set him adrift.
But Shen Yuan did, he cared enough that it worried Binghe. Binghe couldn’t even admire the beautifully wistful look on Shen Yuan’s face when it made his heart blacken in his chest.
He had imagined so many things about his Shizun; good and bad, but he had never even considered that the man wouldn’t have room for Binghe in his heart, not because Binghe wasn’t good enough but because it was otherwise occupied.
He didn’t like how that thought made him feel, that’s why he needed to know and had asked.
“Su Xiyan.” Shen Yuan inhaled steeling himself to continue, “Su Shijie was the first person to listen to me after I lost my voice, she taught me to read and how to sign, and sometimes she would sing to me. I was young. Too young to realize it but she gave up everything to protect me and get me away from Huan Hua.”
“When She died, I thought it was my fault. She had made me a promise and I believed that promise had killed her. I recently found out she had been protecting someone else too.”
Binghe was used to hearing his own voice waver on the verge of tears but when it was coming from Shen Yuan it felt different, like someone had punched him in the gut.
“Lao Gongzhu told me the truth, she had died trying to protect her son, a half demon with heavenly blood.”
The revelation should have meant more to him, but Binghe already had a mother. One who had loved him, one he wouldn’t have traded for anything. They way Shizun was breaking down talking about this one he had never known made him feel a little guilty.
The ragged jealousy faded into a sort of pride, his mother had made Shen Yuan happy so he would find a way to continue that legacy.
“She would have been so proud of you Binghe.” This time he didn’t stop himself from crossing the distance to hug his Shizun. “This master is so sorry you couldn’t meet her.”
“This disciple is not.” and he wasn’t, “She gave this one the greatest gift.” Shen Yuan stilled in his arms momentarily confused. “She gave this one the chance to know Shizun, if she rasied him than this one knows her already.”
Feeling brave he decided he would follow in his mother’s footsteps, “This disciple will promise to return Shizun’s voice just like Su Xiyan.”
“No.” Shen Yuan instantly pulled from his grasp face composed and serious.
“This master has already watched too many people suffer for his want of a voice. Binghe will make no such promise.”
He tried to protest but Shen Yuan wasn’t having it, “If Binghe insists on making a promise than he must promise this master that he will come out of tomorrow’s battle alive.”
Binghe’s heart skipped a beat, he stared at Shen Yuan stunned. Just like that he felt a glimmer of hope, his Shizun might love him back.
He grabbed Shen Yuan’s hand and dropped to one knee. He couldn’t help but smile as he looked into the man’s eyes to make his promise.
Even in the dream realm the words smell like fresh lightning.
“ This disciple promises Shen Yuan that he will live to stand by his side always.”
Watching the blush creep up his Shizun’s face was well worth getting smacked with a fan.
The plan was solid, it wouldn’t be easy, but they could manage. As long as the beast followed through with his promise Cang Qiong could come out of the war victorious.
It had been a risk to involve the demon lord but for some unfathomable reason Shen Yuan seemed to believe his claims, in turn the demon’s declaration had seemed genuine. He still wasn’t sure how his brother was able to inspire such devotion, but he could believe that even a demon king could not resist his brother’s approval. Even Shen Jiu could admit he had long since been charmed by A-Yuan.
Surging into battle had been a catharsis, not like the last time. Now his brother was secure at the back of Cang Qiong’s ranks, and he could tear through Huan Hua’s free of remorse for the repercussions. He would personally end Lao Gongzhu’s cursed existence now that there was no longer a hostage between them.
He had quickly found a rhythm, Xiu Ya dancing though the waves of yellow clad cultivators painting them red. He was only weeks from the day he first woke but he felt as strong as he ever had. While a weaker cultivator would already be tiring Shen Jiu was merely hitting his stride.
He spotted his target just as the demons entered the battle. Luo Binghe’s forces emerged from the forest close to Huan Hua’s rear ranks. Closer to Lao Gongzhu than Shen Jiu. The demon was eager for the death of the old palace master, but Shen Jiu’s grudge had festered longer. With Su Xiyan’s words had weakened but they were still backing him he was determined to be the one to kill the bastard.
He cut a swath through the enemy, eyes focused on the source of his ire. It was strange to watch, any combatant from Cang Qiong or the demon ranks who came close to Lao Gongzhu quickly turned tail to rejoin the fray. Stranger still they seemed to be return only to fight on Huan Hua’s behalf.
Not that he took the time to think about it, his only real thought was about how he was going to maim Lao Gongzhu before the beast could do so.
He had made a promise, and he intended to keep it.
Luck was not on his side though and the demon Lord made it to the man first, but rather than rip Lao Gongzhu limb from limb they appeared to be talking. That wouldn’t do, Shen Jiu tightened his grip on Xiu Ya, if the demon brat wouldn’t do it, he was more than ready to put his famous sword to use.
As he approached, he began to hear them over the discord of battle.
“Such a powerful voice from such an unremarkable man, even your demon horde falls in line. It seems he even had you so thoroughly charmed.” Lao Gongzhu was waving around something small.
It took a moment before he realized it was Shen Yuan’s voice.
Luo Binghe literally growled at the man and moved to advance on him.
“ Not one more step” two voices twined together; the force of the order far more powerful than any Shen Jiu had heard before. He knew Lau Gongzhu’s voice, but the other one he felt like he should have known it.
It was one thing to be told about the cultivator against whom all words failed, to witness it happen was something different.
Shen Jiu had seen words lacking in strength, he faced demons who were able to push past powerful commands, but for such a powerful statement to just fizzle as the beast strode forward was a frightful sight.
Lao Gongzhu realized that fear too, he glanced quickly around the field for aid and when his eyes settled on Shen Jiu a wicked smile crossed his features.
“You truly are that heavenly demon’s bastard.” He held the voice out to taunt the demon then pointed to Qing Jing’s peak lord.
“Too bad he’s not.”
Shen Jiu halted as an old terror froze his limbs. His hackles rose and his anger boiled uselessly. The static scent overwhelmed him and urged his limbs to move even as he tried to remain still.
“ Kill the demon.”
It was a cacophony of violence, one Shen Yuan had never been able to adjust to, no matter how often he found himself in the thick of battle. While he had always enjoyed a contest of blades war did not suit him.
Swords flew across the sky carried by words, it was a scene he was accustomed to, only this time it was different. The clash of cultivators' blades were now punctuated by demonic battle cries.
He’d been nearly blocked entirely from participating altogether, if it weren’t for the fact that they needed every able-bodied cultivator to defend Cang Qiong he would have been locked in the bamboo hut on Qing Jing peak. Even then it had taken half of Cang Qiong’s peak lords to convince Shen Qingqiu that it wasn’t a terrible idea.
Truly he did have enough time to restore his qi and his core had felt stronger than ever. More than that he was eager to see an end to the war, something the upcoming contest was sure to be. One way or another.
“Shen Shidi has proven himself more than capable while Shen Shixiong was incapacitated.” Qi Qingqi practical as ever had stood fast in his defense. She even continued to refer to him as a martial brother which made him feel eternally grateful.
“That may be, but A-Yuan had a voice to aid him then.” It hurt to hear but Shen Yuan had to admit that perhaps Gege had a point.
It took another round of arguments until Liu Qingge had stuffed a blade into his hand and stared Shen Qingqiu down. “We all know he’s too stubborn not to get involved, at least this way he’ll be properly armed, and we know to keep an eye on him.”
Shen Yuan couldn’t argue that Qingge was wrong, but he wished the man would have at least tried to save him some face. He may have been the youngest amongst immortals, but he didn’t need to be babysat.
Still the argument had been effective enough for Shen Qingqiu to relent.
Still he had been placed near the back in support of the less experienced disciples. By the time they met enemy fighters the clean lines of the initial conflict had long since been swept away in the struggle.
He surveyed the field keeping an eye out for familiar figures, unable to help the worry that crept into his mind. Everyone he knew, everyone that had ever been important to him was somewhere in the mass of combatants and he dreaded the loss of any one of them.
He couldn’t help but miss Xiu Ya’s spiritual glare as the sword in his hand had begun to feel heavy. Still it was enough, Qingge had given him a good quality blade and he’d spent enough of his life training without words that he could wield it with little fear of injury.
When he was well and truly entrenched in the carnage, he finally caught a glimpse of black and red. He hadn’t realized he’d been looking for it, but he’d been drawn to it anyway. It was quickly followed by a familiar flash of green.
He pulled his attention away to quickly cripple the Huan Hua disciple in front of him so he can take a moment to focus on the scene.
He watched Shen Qingqiu swing Xiu Ya and it became devastatingly apparent that his brother was aiming the blade at Binghe’s head. Shen Yuan couldn’t comprehend what his brother was trying to do but Gege pressed his attack. What could the demon lord do but dodge?
His heart lodged in his throat as he forgot his own surroundings, only able to watch. Something wasn't right; Shen Yuan had trained for years with his brother and his attacks had never been so sloppy. Shen Qingqiu was clearly a master, quick and powerful with each movement but the form was off.
A flash of yellow drew his attention to the old palace master standing back and watching with horrific glee on his face. That’s what caused Shen Yuan to realize the truth, Huan Hua’s sect leader was holding something tightly, and while the distance was too great to see the object, he didn’t have to. He knew what it was.
Not only did that bastard have his voice but the piss poor imitation of a human being had used it to control Gege.
He watched on helplessly as Shen Qingqiu brought the full force of Xiu Ya down again. Binghe sidestepped it effortlessly, but every move he makes towards Lao Gongzhu was blocked by his brother’s blade.
He’s not sure how much longer it could go on, he was grateful that Binghe seemed to be trying not to harm Gege, but how long could that last before one of them was killed? The thought terrifies him, he’s already had to grieve them both once and he wouldn't be able to do it again. Here are the two most important people in his life and he’s about to watch them kill each other.
Just as the horrifying thought crossed his mind Binghe made a move. The demon pushed towards Lao Gongzhu completely ignoring Xiu Ya as it pierced his chest and protruded from his back.
Shang Qinghua had always been more of an organizer than a fighter. He excelled at administrative tasks, putting together inventories faster than most cultivators could draw their swords. He was a master of allocating resources, making do with less and churning out a novel or two on the side.
To actually be labeled as one of these resources in the middle of the battlefield was not ideal. He was by no means useless in battle, who would have dared to make him a peak lord if he did at least know how to use his sword? They wouldn’t do that right?
The fact that his martial siblings still considered him one of their own had been a bit of a surprise. Sure, there had been a veiled threat or two, but they had been surprisingly receptive. Qi Qingqi had even implied that it was good to have him back.
It might have been a mistake though, it seemed like nobody had informed Shen Qingqiu of his betrayal because the newly awakened peak lord had been the first to accept him back into the fold. Which was extremely concerning since Shang Qinghua was certain that the man had never liked him, though he was also certain that Qing Jing’s lord didn’t really like anyone except maybe Shen Yuan.
He hadn’t expected the man to insist he stay when Luo Binghe and Mobei Jun left Huayue. Mobei Jun looked furious and Shang Qinghua was sure that his martial brother’s insistence had lost him any goodwill he’d built up with the ice demon.
He was especially sure after the way Mobei Jun had stared at him during the war council. The intensity of those icy blue eyes made him feel like a particularly juicy rabbit sitting right in front of a hungry fox.
When he’d been first whisked away from Cang Qiong he had expected to be killed, particularly with the way Mobei Jun never let him out of his sight. To prevent that from happening Qinghua had groveled and tried incredibly hard to make himself useful, ensuring he didn’t even come close to using the demon’s name again.
For a while it had worked, or at least he thought it did. Mobei Jun never mentioned his slip up and gave him enough authority to streamline the demon’s messy petitioning system, he even managed to pick up the pieces of his spy network, which had not been easy.
He’d almost relaxed into his new role when his spies reported Huan Hua’s plans.
Sure, he wasn’t the most liked of the peak lords, and the war had put a stupidly large workload on him when he was still a part of it, but he couldn’t leave them defenseless. They were the only family he’d really known.
So, he had made a plan; it wasn’t a good one. He’d always been better at the bad decisions and this time it had been no different. He wasn’t even sure he could’ve made it out of the demonic on his own, but he felt like he had to try.
Then Mobei Jun had caught him, and instead of some creatively cruel punishment the ice demon had offered to help. The only reason Shang Qinghua could think of to explain it was Mobei Jun finally repaying him for saving his life all those years ago.
Whatever the reason Cang Qiong now had a chance at repelling Huan Hua, even more so thanks to Luo Binghe and his apparent obsession with Shen Yuan. He hadn’t realized his bro was the object of the demon’s affections until it was far too late to do anything about it. If only he had a demon lord pining for him then maybe he wouldn’t be stuck in the middle of a warzone praying for survival.
Only his preferred demon lord most likely hated him now that the peak lords had reclaimed him. Which was also awkward because since his return they had ensured that at least two of them were nearby always. He wasn’t sure if it was a measure to keep away the demons or to make sure that he didn’t escape. The motive probably depended on which martial sibling was guarding him at the time.
Still the constant surveillance made him miss the icy shadow he’d acquired in the demon realm. He would have probably felt more confident going into battle with a seven foot tall demon lord to hide behind.
While Shang Qinghua’s mind was usually a chaotic whirlwind in a sea of calm the turmoil of battle shifted the dynamic. He had to pull his thoughts away from Mobei Jun’s appeal so he could narrowly avoid being skewered by a passing blade.
The air was filled with the sound of clashing steel and thick with the metallic tang of clashing words, all of it mixed with blood. He narrowed his focus to simply surviving, all he needed to do was make it out of the battle alive.
Still when Luo Binghe’s forces took to the field his attention shifted, drawn to a specific form.
If he had the opportunity, he would have stopped to watch Mobei Jun tear through his enemies. The demon moved savagely, like he was the most dangerous thing on the field. Which was an opinion difficult to argue against when he impaled three cultivators simultaneously. Shang Qinghua had known his king was capable of such violence, but he had so rarely had an opportunity to witness it. It was magnificent.
Every second of respite Shang Qinghua found had his gaze wandering back to the northern demon king. The demon army’s entrance had begun to turn the tide of battle. Mobei Jun’s captivating movement had been directly responsible for Shang Qinghua being nearly impaled on enemy blades at least thrice.
Still after the fourth near miss he still couldn’t help but look back at Mobei Jun, which was when he noticed the cultivators behind the demon. They had been pulling out fire talismans preparing to attack the demon from behind.
Moments like that made Shang Qinghua wish his words were stronger, that he could call out demands rather than make polite requests. Wishing he didn’t have to scheme to make them effective. In that moment though it didn’t matter, it would be enough to simply get his king’s attention.
“ Mobei Jun! Behind you”
He focused on the volume rather than the effect, and it seemed to have worked. Mobei Jun turned sending shards of ice into the hearts of the men trying to ambush on him.
At least that’s what Shang Qinghua had assumed had happened. Distracted by the demon’s predicament he nearly failed to notice his own. He’d been quick enough to avoid being disemboweled, but he had not been quick enough to avoid the following kick that had caused the bones in his leg to snap.
He fell to the ground with a pained scream, he had broken bones before, but it was never a pleasant experience. This time he doubted he’d live long enough to complain about the inconvenience of healing. The gold clad cultivator was standing above him sword raised.
He squeezed his eyes shut unwilling to watch his own demise, able to only wait for the inevitable.
He heard it first.
The nauseating wet schlick of a body being impaled. Only it wasn’t him, or at least he didn’t think it was him. Even Shang Qinghua couldn’t screw up getting stabbed, eyes still clenched shut he felt something wet drip onto his face.
Only it wasn’t warm like blood, it was cold like a winter rain.
Gingerly he opened one eye to see the Huan Hua cultivator above him held aloft by a jagged column of ice, blood dripping down the crystalline surface onto his own face.
It was a mere moment later and Mobei Jun was there blocking his view.
His king’s expressions were subtle, but he had spent the years of association trying to translate them. Right now, the demon looked concerned; but that couldn’t be right. What did a demon lord as powerful as his king have to be concerned about?
Mobei Jun stared at him intently his expression softening as he crouched over Shang Qinghua seemingly oblivious to the battle raging around them.
“Say it again.”
Huh? Say what again? Maybe it was the near-death experience but Shang Qinghua’s usually speedy brain had slowed to a crawl, unable to decipher Mobei Jun’s demand.
“My King?” the pain in his leg was making it difficult but he was sure that was right. Mobei Jun’s eyebrows furrowed and his lips thinned impatiently.
What could he have said that was so important to the demon? He had only used words to get Mobei Jun’s attention, unless.
He hesitated for a moment, he’d spent so much time intentionally avoiding saying it for so long it felt blasphemous, but his king was asking.
The ice demon’s eyebrows lifted and was that a smile? Had Shang Qinghua saying his name made him smile? Why didn’t he figure this out sooner? That smile was devastatingly handsome.
Before his brain could shut down; too focused on that smile, Mobei Jun nodded decisively and swept him up into his arms. If it hadn’t been for the agonizing pain from jostling his leg Shang Qinghua would have thought it romantic.
“Healers?” so stunned by the turn of events he couldn’t do much more than point in the direction of Qian Cao’s disciples.
Mobei Jun complied, following his direction, at least until an overpowering voice rang out over the battlefield.
The scream penetrated his brain, the pure anguish freezing him in place.
Shen Jiu had never heard that voice before, but he knew it. He knew it and the agony in that singular command broke his heart.
The words that had moved him were gone, consumed by the exclamation. His limbs were locked, trembling in place, and there was a heavy weight pressing back against his sword arm.
It’s the weight of a corpse.
He met the carmine eyes of the demonic beast impaled on his blade and it made him feel sick to his stomach. He didn’t want this, Lao Gongzhu had said the words and even as he tried to struggle against them he had still obeyed.
The thought makes him want to retch.
He personally held no love for the demon king, he'd been wary of the man’s obsession over his brother, but A-Yuan had enough regard for the beast that Shen Jiu would not have killed him.
Not if he had been given a choice.
Instead he had done the deed as ordered by Lao Gongzhu with A-Yuan’s voice. He’d stabbed the beast right in the heart, breaking his brother’s in the process.
He heard the wet sucking sound of the demon sliding off his blade and it made him realize that perhaps the demon wasn’t dead.
At least not yet.
Luo Binghe grunted as Xiu Ya slid out from between his ribs, but rather than fall to the ground he straightened his back and held a grizzly prize up for all to see.
A bloody heart.
Shen Jiu whipped his head around to see a satisfyingly macabre sight. Lao Gongzhu had fallen back with a gaping hole in his chest where Luo Binghe had torn out the organ.
Apparently, the bastard did have a heart. Well not anymore.
He resisted the urge to laugh, instead focusing on the small jade bead that had rolled out of the man’s hand. It’s quickly swiped up and crushed with what qi he could muster.
The familiar taste of lightning danced across his tongue as the fulfilled words faded. It felt like a hollow victory, he hadn’t kept Shen Yuan safe, not like he had promised.
Luo Binghe did.
His own intentions had counted for nothing. He wondered if this was the impotence Qi-Ge felt.
There was no time to ponder the thought, so he turned back to the demon just in time to catch him as he collapsed to the ground. The beast coughed up blood and wheezed concerningly.
Luo Binghe was heavy, but if there was a chance to keep him up Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t let him fall. For A-Yuan’s sake he decided to see the beast alive through the battle.
Lao Gongzhu was dead.
Shen Yuan had watched a mortally wounded Luo Binghe rip the bastard’s heart out from his chest. It should have felt different, he should have felt elated, relieved or vindicated.
His whole life the man’s existence had hung over his head like an executioner’s blade ready to fall. He could readily admit that he had felt a great hatred for the monster, the man that had stolen his voice, killed his Shijie and pit the entire cultivation world against itself.
There was no doubt that Lau Gongzhu had deserved his fate, no one else had earned a more violent death, still there he didn’t feel any sense of satisfaction.
Sure, the man was dead but nothing had changed. The battle hadn’t ended, swords still clashed around him, men and women were still dying, Binghe was still dying. How could he find any contentment in an action that had killed his disciple? with his own voice no less?
Everyone continued fighting but he couldn’t move, stuck staring at the two figures in the distance. Lao Gongzhu had long since collapsed and Binghe had almost followed. Gege was the only thing keeping him upright and alive, but for how long?
Shen Yuan started to feel numb, what was the point of all this? Why hadn’t anyone stopped fighting? This stupid war should have been over now, right?
He finally pulled his eyes away; He wasn’t sure why. Maybe he meant to call a healer, maybe he just couldn’t bear to watch. He’d already stood by once unable to save Luo Binghe, to re-live that might break him.
He didn’t know how to feel about Binghe being privy to his thoughts, but the peaceful lessons in the misty grove with his sticky disciple had been heartwarming. He wasn’t sure how to handle the demon lord’s devotion but he was sure he didn’t want him dead.
His vision blurred as the tears started. He was so lost in his thoughts he had missed Luo Qingge’s yell.
His arm was wrenched behind him and his sword dropped. A boot to the back of his knee caused him to hit the ground hard. Before the momentum could push him forward a fist buried itself in his hair and his head was wrenched back to expose his neck.
The abrupt action was followed by the cold feather-light kiss of steel against his throat.
“Back off or I slice his throat!” His captor was panicked, her voice wild but unmistakable. The little palace mistress, Xiao Gongzhu had him at her mercy.
He could see Liu Qingge standing in front of them, rage rolling off him in waves. Chen Luan drawn and ready, but he wouldn’t dare to use it as long as she used Shen Yuan as leverage.
He wants to laugh, like father like daughter.
“ Stop” the word had rolled off his tongue without a thought, the calm even tone sweeping over them. It took a moment for Shen Yuan to even realize it had worked. Liu Qingge had looked just as shocked as he felt.
He had a voice.
No not just any voice. He wasn’t speaking with Gege’s harsh tones or Binghe’s smooth bass. The voice he’d used was undeniably his own, and it had been so easy to let his power pour through the single word.
Xiao Gongzhu’s muscles had locked unmoving, allowing him the opportunity to calmly remove himself from her grasp. He stepped towards Qingge without turning his back on her.
“ Lay down your blade”
Just as before the command flowed effortlessly and he watched as she deliberately placed her sword on the ground.
Movement behind her drew his eye, the surrounding cultivators had started to do the same. He looked to Liu Qingge only to see his friend reverently lay Cheng Luan on the ground.
He turned on the spot to get a panorama of the battle and what he saw nearly stunned him. Cultivators and demons alike had begun to drop their weapons.
Could this possibly be his doing? Was his voice truly this strong?
The possibility took over his thoughts. if Lao Gongzhu’s death couldn’t stop the war, maybe he could.
t was the second time in almost as many days Shen Jiu had to witness a blade held to his brother’s throat, and just as before he was too far away to do anything about it.
All over again his anger surfaced, ready to drop the demon to rush to Shen Yuan’s side. The only thing stopping him was a single word followed with the static scent of a spring rain.
He couldn’t move. For the third time that day the same voice wrapped itself around his limbs dictating his movement. Only this time there was a degree of relief attached to the feeling, this time they were saving A-Yuan's life.
“Lay down your blade”
He immediately let go of Xiu Ya, it didn’t occur to him that he should have been too far away for Shen Yuan’s voice to reach him, it only made sense that a voice was most powerful when used by it’s original owner.
He was hit with a surge of pride. Such immense influence with barely a thought, he’d always known A-Yuan would have such great power. Now that he had a voice there was no telling what his brother could do.
“ This war is over.”
Those words pulled him from his stupor the aroma of fresh rain intensifying around him. The way they echoed across the battlefield made him understand and dread seeped into his bones.
The command was too great, how could such words take. If Shen Yuan continued the words could kill him, pulling power from the man to make the impossible happen.
Binghe shifted beneath him understanding and sharing his fear. Shen Jiu couldn’t move held in place, so the demon had to pull away from his support.
Shen Jiu can’t counter the words, but the beast was unaffected by them. All he could do is hope that Luo Binghe won’t be too slow.
He waited a lifetime to hear A-Yuan speak, but now he hopes his brother can find silence before it’s too late.
H e w i l l b e s t r o n g
It had happened again, and again Liu Qingge was helpless to do anything. Standing barely a foot away eyes fixed on Shen Yuan he was anchored and immobile.
The first word had cemented him to the ground, the next four had him relinquishing Chen Luan, the four after that had him fearing for his friend.
The actions felt so alien as Shen Yuan’s words swept across the field, it was reminiscent of the panic that had him fleeing that ambush. Words circling his brain and influencing his muscles. Only it was affecting more than just him. The massive amount of qi resonated through the battlefield. The scope of it frightened him.
It was too much like the day when he had deviated. Liu Qingge needed to move, to stop Shen Yuan, to save the man he’d failed so many times over already. Too bad he was bound in place by the same power that was going to kill his friend.
Shen Yuan had hated the war, he enjoyed battles in theory, in discussion and testing of tactics. War for measuring one’s mind was entertaining, the real thing was abhorrent. Shen Yuan had railed against it for as long as Cang Qiong had been involved. Qingge knew his friend would do anything to stop it.
That was what was truly terrifying, Shen Yuan had found a means to end this war, and he had no care for the cost.
“ You will find a way to make peace.”
H e w i l l b e K i n d
Binghe had always dreamed of saving his Shizun, he often imagined a world where he could return his debt to the man tenfold. He could charge in and sweep the man off his feet and be his hero’s hero.
Only those dreams never felt like this.
In those dreams he wasn’t being overwhelmed by panic, in those dreams his enemy had a face, he never once thought he might have to save his Shizun from the very thing that had drawn him to the man in the first place.
The slowly closing wound in his chest barely hurt when compared to the all-consuming fear that drove him forward.
The still and silent battlefield would have felt more eerie if he hadn’t been so desperate. Instead he frantically dodged between stationary combatants; eyes locked on the man at the center.
Shizun. The only person who meant anything, the one person who meant everything. Binghe could feel him dying and he had to do something, he couldn’t just let it happen.
The words were powerful, even with the blood of a heavenly demon running in his veins he could feel them trying to wrap around his being and bend him with their intent. He could feel the qi pouring out of Shen Yuan forcing every fighter to obey. Still he forged ahead heedless of the blood pouring from the wound in his chest.
He didn’t bother to be concerned; it was demon blood, his heart would heal, but only if the man who occupied it survived. Otherwise what would it matter if his body was healthy? He would be broken, and no amount of heavenly demon blood would be able to fix him then.
As he approached more words seemed to fall from Shen Yuan’s lips, only now they were garbled, unintelligible. The sweet scent of a spring rain soured as Binghe finally managed to reach it's source.
“Shizun!” He grabbed the man’s arms desperate to divert his attention and stop the words. “Please stop.” It was useless, Shen Yuan’s eyes were open, but they were unseeing, his mouth moving mechanically as each word escaping ripped him to pieces. Ripping away Binghe’s happiness.
At first, he tried to place a hand over Shen Yuan’s mouth to hold it shut and stop him from speaking, but even in death Lau Gongzhu still tried to ruin everything. The man’s blood was all over his hands causing them to slip. A grotesque smear of blood across his face emphasizing how pale Shen Yuan had become.
Tears burned behind Binghe’s eyes, this couldn’t be how it ended, he had searched his entire life and now his Shizun was standing before him, dying.
He felt impotent, helpless in the face of losing everything he had ever desired. There was so much he had wanted to do, things he wanted to tell his Shizun. So what if he fulfilled his promise, he still hadn’t been able to show his Shizun how much he meant to Binghe. How much Binghe loved him.
He needed to stop him from speaking, to still his mouth to save his life.
Desperation and despair coalesced into reckless abandon, and Binghe pressed his lips to Shen Yuan’s.
He poured his own qi into the kiss, ignoring the metallic tang of blood. He held Shen Yuan like that until his jaw stopped moving, his lips no longer trying to shape any words. A moment later the man’s stiff form collapsed bonelessly into his arms.
H e w i l l b e l o v e d
His consciousness returned to him little by little.
It starts with a familiar lullaby sung in a deep resonating tone.
He felt warm and comfortable and the voice was just so soothing, Shen Yuan wanted to lie there and just listen.
So he did. At least until the gentle darkness of unconsciousness claimed him once more.
The next time he woke he felt a gentle hand stroking his hair, that same warm voice reassuring and calm.
He could’t quite make out what is being said but it made him feel safe.
He’s still too tired to open his eyes content to just let the feeling of safety wash over him.
Eventually he did open his eyes only to be greeted with a familiar grey clearing. He turned to his caretaker to see a strong figure carved from red jade.
His head was in their lap as they soothingly stroked his hair, all while humming another familiar lullaby.
He was still too weak to sit up or to speak but there was something about the figure that pierced the calm in his mind making him feel an inexplicable pang of sadness.
He’s not sure how long he goes on like that, simply existing in the dream realm floating in and out of consciousness but eventually it ended, and he woke up for real.
It wasn't as jarring or sudden as he felt it should have been, his mind was still fuzy and new voices drifted around him distant but too hard to ignore.
Gingerly he opened his eyes.
His voice was hoarse, his throat dry, but he had a voice. No, he had his voice.
Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan were sitting together on either side of a small table at the foot of his bed. Both stood at his words quick to redirect their attention.
They hadn’t been fighting or more accurately Gege hadn’t been yelling. That was good right?
He was too exhausted to really think about it, probably better off not knowing.
He tried to push himself into a sitting position but his arms wobbled weakly. Still he didn’t want to go back to sleep, something told him he’d slept too long already.
The two peak lords were quick to play nursemaid helping him up. Shen Qingqiu even held a cup of cooled tea to his lips and he gratefully gulped it down.
“This one will retrieve Mu Shidi.” With that Yu Qingyuan left the two brothers alone.
The silence between them gave Shen Yuan a moment to get his bearings, he was in his room in the bamboo hut, he could hear the wind whistle through the forest outside and it helped to calm his scattered thoughts.
Still he had expected a lecture from Gege, to be reprimanded for doing something foolish. He should have known better. He did know better but after watching Binghe die he hadn’t really cared. He hunched into himself feeling like a child ready for his lesson, but the lecture never came.
He didn’t want to think about it and rather than endure the silence he asked, “Did? Did it work?”
Shen Qingqiu snorted, “Only A-Yuan would be able to survive something so reckless.”
Shen Yuan lifted his gaze and can’t help but notice the lines of worry framing his brother’s eyes. They’re more glassy than usual but he nobly pretended not to notice.
He didn’t stay awake much longer than that, just long enough for Mu Qingfang o arrive and check his meridians. Letting him know there was no permanent damaged, he’d just drained them.
He never got a chance to ask about Luo Binghe.
He still dreamt of the red jade statue and it made him afraid of what answer he might get.
The next time he woke up he was alone, giving him a chance to notice the stone.
It’s a small bead of jade, identical in every way to the ones he remembered, the only difference was that it was red. Red like blood, red like Binghe’s eyes, red like the figure in his dreams.
It’s tied with a leather cord around his wrist, the knots designed to keep the stone against his pulse.
Memories of the battle flashed through his mind, Binghe covered in blood with Xiu Ya protruding through his chest.
Clutching the small stone to his chest after listening to the lullabies he can only really come to one conclusion.
Binghe didn’t keep his promise. Shen Yuan’s sticky little disciple had died again. His heart twisted painfully. It wasn’t long before he was a sobbing mess.
Shen Qingqiu found him there on the bed gripping the stone tightly, desperate to hear something anything, instead it was bitterly silent, drowned out by his tears.
He hadn’t cried like that in a long time, not since Su Xiyan’s death had he let his emotions flow so freely. It was a poor twist of fate that this time he was mourned her son.
Shen Qingqiu sat there next to him in silent sympathy waiting for him to cry it out. Gege had never been good at comfort but even just having him nearby was enough for the tears to dry up.
When he finished Gege calmly held out his hand. “Give it here.”
Shen Yuan delicately unwound the cord from his wrist, not really thinking before he handed the small stone to his brother.
He wished he gave it a bit more thought because Shen Qingqiu immediately crushed the stone to dust.
He stared at him horrified. Why would? How could Gege do such a thing?
Shen Qingqiu looked unconcerned as he calmly faced him, “I told the fool leaving that here would upset you, this way he’ll be able to apologize to you properly.”
Shen Yuan just stared dumbfounded at his brother, being without a voice for so long it took him a moment to remember he could now use it.
“Your disciple ,” He emphasized the word in a way Shen Yuan is not quite ready to read into, “has been running all over the realms for the last two months searching for some sort of cure. Despite the fact Mu Shidi has repeatedly informed him all you needed was time.” If the action wasn’t so undignified, Gege would have rolled his eyes.
Shen Yuan however could only continue to stare at him. Did that mean Binghe wasn’t dead? He can’t bring himself to hope, only because the memory of Binghe’s blood dripping down Xiu Ya’s blade was so visceral he could’t let himself imagine that the half-demon survived. If he did and was proven wrong. his heart might break a third time.
He won’t trust that his little white lotus is alive, not until he can see it for himself.
Over the next two days his strength returned to him, being able to leave his bed and go for a short walk was liberating. He still tired out easily but it made things easier. Though his dreams were no longer filled with the comforting lullabies.
Shang Qinghua visited him soon after he first woke and he was finally able to get a decent account of the battle’s aftermath.
Apparently, his words had taken root and in the two months he’d been recovering the sects had held peace talks, to hash out their grievances. Even the demons had been involved.
Somehow, they had come to an acceptable treaty wrapping up a few short weeks after battle. Shang Qinghua unsubtly hinted that Luo Binghe had been a big part of the reason why. Thought it had helped that all the sect leaders were eager to return home and rebuild.
It was truly unprecedented for a single cultivator’s words to have so much power, yet Shen Yuan’s had. It nearly killed him, but still he’d managed to stop the war.
And Binghe had managed to stop the words from taking his life too. He still couldn’t help but blush when he thought about Shang Qinghua description of how exactly the demon lord had managed it.
Still he couldn’t fault Binghe, it had saved his life, again. It may have been embarrassing but as much as he didn’t want to address it, he knew how Binghe felt about him. The demon had made his intentions clear, sure it had taken several misunderstandings to get there but Shen Yuan knew he owed it to Binghe to figure out his own feelings.
It was actually simpler than that. He didn’t need to figure anything out he just needed to acknowledge the truth. The more he had thought about their interactions in the dream realm, added to Binghe’s actions since he couldn’t help but admit it. At least to himself.
It was even more apparent when he thought about the anguish he had felt just thinking Binghe dead a second time.
He loved Luo Binghe.
Coming to that conclusion made him want to bury his face in the dirt and never come up for air, but it was the only answer that seemed right.
Now he just had to tell the man himself.
He’d been having tea with Gege two days after shattering Binghe’s voice stone. Despite his realization he still couldn’t help but worry that Binghe had left his voice with Shen Yuan out of some sense of obligation, that now he had it back he might not return.
Two months was plenty of time for Binghe to forget about him.
Within two day’s he’d managed to work himself in to a state of melancholy and he stared sadly at the swirling leaves in his tea.
Gege was content to let him stew as he blatantly ignored Shen Yuan’s mood.
They had barely sat down for more than a few moments when pounding footsteps interrupted their quiet teatime.
The door to the bamboo hut slammed open revealing a handsome silhouette haloed by afternoon sunlight.
Upon seeing their visitor Shen Qingqiu simply picked up his cup of tea, leveled a sharp but silent glare at the intruder then gracefully left the hut. For some reason Shen Yuan believed Gege was headed for Qiong Ding peak.
It didn’t really matter where Gege had gone because his departure had left him alone with Luo Binghe. He couldn’t help but take in the beautiful sight, a handsome face framed by a fluffy curtain of curls. He looked so much like Su Xiyan and yet he was still so completely and uniquely Binghe.
The half-demon was breathing heavily as if he had just run up Cang Qiong’s legendary steps, and belatedly Shen Yuan realized he probably had. He’d rarely seen Binghe with a sword.
They stayed like that one seated one standing, just staring at each other, neither quite ready to break the tender silence.
Finally, Luo Binghe spoke rushing to Shen Yuan’s side and kneeling in supplication, “This disciple apologizes for taking so long to return. The abyss holds many legendary medicines but many dangers as well.”
Shen Yuan chose to ignore the apology, instead placing a hand on Binghe’s face. He was far too scared that it was a lie, another dream. He needed to make sure that he wasn’t facing an illusion.
“Binghe is alive,” His words were barely louder than a whisper, afraid that if he was any louder the words would spill out of him again.
“This disciple could not break his promise to Shizun.” Binghe lowered his voice reverently to match Shen Yuan’s. The sheer awe in his tone was clear and it made Shen Yuan’s face heat. Still he steeled himself to be brave and lifted Binghe’s face to meet his own.
The kiss is gentle and chaste, but it can’t stop Shen Yuan’s face from growing thin. He tries to pull away and cover the embarrassment that has threatened to send him into qi deviation.
He doesn’t quite manage though, before he can hide himself Binghe has gripped his wrists and pulled him forward. Even he can’t resist opening his eyes to witness the brightest smile he’d ever seen.
Binghe looks beautiful, and happy and it the breath is stolen from his lungs. It is further pushed from his chest when he is pressed to Binghe’s chest in an intimate embrace.
It really is his sticky white lotus disciple, alive and well. Shen Yuan couldn’t be happier to have the man in his arms.