Chapter 1: Stolen
Chapter edited 09/06/2020 general grammar + tense corrections
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A-Yuan never remembered much from his early childhood, but he couldn’t forget the day they took his voice.
He hadn’t been much older than six. A third son in a minor family, too frail and too small to tag along with his brothers, he had made his friends among the serving staff.
It was on that fateful day that the kindly cook took him along to buy some supplies for dinner. She called him a sweet boy and her best helper. It made him feel important, like his brothers were, in fact more important because without his help they wouldn’t have such a nice dinner!
Arms full of supplies they had made their way back to the estate and that’s when they had run into the cultivators. A-Yuan couldn’t remember what his caretaker had done to offend them, but whatever it was her cries and apologies couldn’t protect her from their ire.
How dare they hurt her? She didn’t mean it!
He had panicked, he was just a child, but sometimes; if really wanted them to, sometimes people listened to him.
He mustered every ounce of conviction in his six-year-old frame, pulling whatever power he had to his lungs and then shouted.
“Leave her alone!”
For a moment it was like time had stopped. It felt as if his words had stretched out then tangled amongst the men wrapping around their limbs holding them still. There was the faint scent of a storm in the air, but A-Yuan hadn’t noticed. They had listened and his friend was safe.
The warm relief that had settled in his chest suddenly sank, a stone of cold dread weighing down his stomach. Just as quickly as they had stopped the cultivators’ attentions turned from his caretaker to him.
At the time he had believed them to be angry at him. Speaking out of turn and interrupting their sport. As he grew older and looked back on that day he realized it was not anger that had motivated their actions.
It was fear.
He was just a child; he had known nothing of cultivators and their words of power. Since then he learned. No child that young should have controlled experienced cultivators with nothing but a few words, but he had. His desperate cry had bent them to his will and that’s why they had taken him to Huan Hua Palace.
To speak things into existence was a talent only those who cultivated were able to do. To imbue their words with spiritual energy and cause the world to abide by them; willing or otherwise, it was a coveted skill. Words were the reason the sects held so much power, words were the means used to fly upon swords, and words were the only advantage humanity held over the demonic realm.
His words were the reason at the tender age of six A-Yuan trembled before the sect leader Lao Gongzhu, unable to stop the hand on his throat that pulled out the small jade stone that contained his voice.
He should have been too young to use words of power, so they had taken them away.
The other thing he could never forget was Su Xiyan.
They had stolen him there on the road, if his family noticed his absence he’d never know. He’d been told that the palace was his new home but little else.
He’d been placed with the younger disciples, but was by far the youngest and the others had lost any interest in him when he didn’t answer their questions. Not that he could, why couldn’t he talk to anyone? Finding no help there he’d left the dormitory and gotten himself lost wandering around the unfamiliar halls.
That was when Shijie found him.
Su Xiyan was Huan Hua’s head disciple, she had been absent on some mission when A-Yuan and been brought to the palace.
He had been wailing soundlessly in some alcove frightened and confused. It was cold and he was alone unable to tell anyone that he needed to go home. His father might punish the kindly cook if she returned home without him. It wasn’t her fault!
Su Xiyan stopped mid stride when she noticed him there. After realizing he was alone she cautiously approached him. Patiently she coaxed him out of his cubbyhole into her arms. She was the first person A-Yuan had met during this whole ordeal that had spoken to him rather than around him.
Despite her gentle questions he could only nod yes or no. He couldn’t tell her anything, nothing about his family, the kindly cook he couldn’t even tell her his name.
After more frustration he buried his face in her collar and the tears returned with a vengeance. Patting his head soothingly she promised to find a way to help.
She seemed to know the halls better than him. Already exhausted from crying just the cadence of her step lulled him to sleep.
Her furious yelling was what woke him.
He was pressed to her chest her grip squeezing him closer to her with every shout. His sleep addled mind couldn’t make out what was being said but it was clear she was incensed.
“You will never use him!”
A-Yuan shivered at the words, there was something about them that was different. Something that made him feel safer, protected. It reminded him of the words he had yelled in defense of his caretaker.
He wrapped his small arms around his defender’s neck as she stormed away from whomever she’d been verbally assaulting.
A-Yuan peeked over her shoulder and was distressed to see the Palace Master scowling at them. The fear pierced through his sleep addled thoughts as he ducked, hiding his face back into his new Shijie’s arms, her hand coming to rest protectively on the crown of his head.
She had brought him to another room this one was empty of other disciples, the bed was large and opulent. He guessed that this must be her room.
Once the door was closed she leaned her back against it letting out a ragged breath.
That’s when he noticed her crying.
A-Yuan had thought she’d been angry not sad, and he couldn’t fathom what could have made her cry. Seeing her tears all he could think about was making them stop.
He wriggled towards her face and tried to wipe them away, his little hands not quite as dexterous as intended but he didn’t know what else he could do.
She slid to the floor and chuckled. Soon he found himself placed neatly in her lap and a finger under his chin directed his gaze to hers.
“It’s A-Yuan right?” He opened his mouth to tell her until he remembered it wouldn’t work, he then nodded solemnly. He missed how the aborted movement had caused her smile to falter “Well A-Yuan I’m your new Shijie, and I’m going to take care of you from now on.”
His eyes widened and she had to choke back a sob, “You’re going stay with this disciple now, doesn’t that sound nice?”
He broke into a smile and nodded eagerly, Shijie was the nicest person he’d met here by far. He jumped up and gave her the biggest hug his tiny body could. She gripped him back tightly as if she let go someone might take him away. It made him feel safe.
Face once again buried in her shoulder he didn’t notice the tears falling for the poor little boy who’d lost his home and his voice over the petty ambitions of fearful men.
Shijie had been good to A-Yuan, she had shown him how to talk with his hands so he could be understood. Only Shijie and a few of the palace servants knew how to read the hand signs but he didn’t interact with any of the other disciples anyway, so he was content to keep his conversations selective.
She’d tell him stories, sing him lullabies and even teach him some cultivation basics. If the weather was nice, they’d picnic somewhere on the palace grounds or peruse the library.
A-Yuan still missed his family but Su Xinyan made it easier, taking care of him just like she had promised.
It was hardest when Shijie was away, he had a small room adjacent to hers and he rarely left without her especially if she was gone from the palace on some hunt or mission. Even after he became more comfortable with the mazelike halls of Huan Hua he stayed close.
He’d tried to explore on his own several times but often got stopped by some disciple who couldn’t understand him. He’d end up frustrated and in tears, so he decided it wasn’t worth the stress, especially after the time he had almost run into Lao Gongzhu.
Shijie was the head disciple but she always seemed stiff when interacting with her master, at least she did when A-Yuan was with her. He didn’t particularly like the looks the Palace Master sent his Shijie’s way, he liked even less the ominous glares the man leveled at him.
Especially when they evoked the memory of a hand around his throat.
So rather than wander the palace and try to learn cultivation with the other disciples who couldn’t understand him, A-Yuan would fill his small room with books and lose himself in the pages.
Su Xiyan had been quick to teach him to read, she even gave him some basic cultivation manuals to study. He had taken to it easily. He practiced as instructed but he quickly got bored with the instructional books. Shijie Laughed at him and told him he should read them again, but that same night he had found a small pile of new books resting on his desk.
She would take him to the library and bring him new books often, his favorites were either heroic stories or the ones that catalogued monsters. The best ones had heroes, monsters and pictures to match.
It still did get lonely when Su Xiyan was gone. He missed her lullabies, he tried humming them to himself in his head. It was better but just not quite the same.
She’d hum them wordlessly as she blew out his candle and pried the latest manuscript from his tired fingers.
Some nights she would sit by his bed and stroke his hair until sleep claimed him. He missed those nights most when she was gone.
But Shijie was important, the head disciple of a sect couldn’t spend all her time taking care of some kid who wouldn’t ever get to be a disciple. So, he would try singing silently to himself imagining that she was there singing him to sleep.
“A-Yuan wake up.”
He was almost ten years old the night that Su Xiuyan pulled him out of his bed well past sundown. She had been absent more and more recently, and even half asleep he’d wrapped his arms around her neck welcoming her return with a hug.
She hugged him back tightly, lifting him out of his bed but something was wrong. Her smile that was almost always warm and comforting seemed strained. A quiet anxiety seemed to pull her gaze to the door. She gently put him to his feet and gripped his shoulders, kneeling to his eye level.
“I need A-Yuan to listen to me, you are going to be leaving Huan Hua tonight understand?” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes nodding obediently.
Whatever Shijie asked of him he’d do, he didn’t understand why he couldn’t wait and leave in the morning but, if she thought it was best he wouldn’t argue.
“I have a friend he is going to take you to Cang Qiong mountain.” His eyes widened, he’d read about the twelve peaks in some of his books. Some of the most righteous and talented cultivators in his stories had belonged to Cang Qiong.
Although some of his books had said the same about Huan Hua, and he knew firsthand how righteous they could be. Then again, they weren’t all bad. Shijie was Huan Hua’s head disciple after all.
A-Yuan tilted his head curiously why couldn’t Shijie take him?
She kept her voice hushed but it was still brimming with emotion, “I have to stay here, but it won’t be safe for either of us soon.” her gaze shifted to the door again, “We’re not going to have a better opportunity to get you out of here.”
A-Yuan nodded again. He had been comfortable here; the library was big, and he’d finally figured out all the twists and turns of the hallways but the only thing he had really liked about the palace was Su Xiyan. Most of the disciples scared him so he’d avoided them and everyone else pretty much ignored him.
Leaving wouldn’t be too bad but the fact that Shijie wouldn't be coming with him made him a bit nervous.
She smiled weakly at his nod and hastily began dressing him in some warm travel robes. “We’re going to have to be quick and silent.” Not that that’s ever been a problem for you.” she bopped him on the nose affectionately and he grinned at her. Quiet was what A-Yuan did best.
Once he was dressed, she enveloped his hand in hers and they made their way through the labyrinth of halls. A-Yuan struggled to keep pace with her hurried strides, but he wasn’t going to complain. It seemed important to her that he leave the palace so he would leave and try to make her proud.
Shijie led him down an unfamiliar hall and seemed to find a door where there had only been a wall before.
A-Yuan didn’t even have a moment to be amazed by the secret passage before they had exited the palace and made their way into the surrounding forest.
Su Xiyan pulled out her sword and spoke the words that would lift it into the air. She stepped onto the blade and pulled A-Yuan up with her, gripping him securely as she directed them deeper into the forest away from the palace.
They stayed low.
This was A-Yuan's first chance to fly, he was excited and wanted to enjoy it to fly higher and see the world below his feet. but his Shijie’s grip on his shoulders was so strained, and she kept them covered by trees it was if they were hiding from something. He couldn’t help but worry.
Shen Jiu had been eager to leave Huan Hua Palace, he’d only recently ascended to Peak Lord status and he was uncomfortable being away from Qing Jing for so long, even if visiting other sects was considered a part of his duties.
Lao Gongzhu was one of the worst sect leaders he had to deal with. The man barely considered Yue Qingyuan his equal let alone the ‘lesser’ peak lords.
It didn’t matter that Shen Jiu had worked harder than any other cultivator to earn his place, one where no one would look down upon him, and yet this Old Palace Master had the arrogance to barely treat him better than some rogue cultivator.
It was clear that the man only saw Cang Qiong as stepping-stones on his ascent to power, and that rankled Shen Jiu. He had taken great care to overcome his shortcomings in the formalities of politicking. For a man born to the privilege to simply ignore it? Well that aggravated his already volatile temper.
Not that he let it show, the only thing worse than the sect leader’s scorn was letting the bastard know how much it bothered him, so Shen Jiu’s expression had remained impassive throughout the meeting. It bothered him that he hadn’t been wholly successful in maintaining his untouchable persona, no matter how hard he tried Shen Jiu’s words never lost their acidic edge.
Needless to say he hadn’t made any friends, or at least that’s what he had assumed. Just as he was preparing to leave, Huan Hua’s head disciple had approached him. She requested a rendezvous at the edge of Bailu forest. She hadn’t said why but at the very least if her proposition wasn’t worth his while Shen Jiu could at the very least get some blackmail out of the woman.
She was a pretty woman and the meeting could easily be an attempt to sully his own reputation. If that were the case, she would learn the hard way how he earned his place as a peak lord.
Shen Jiu found the mentioned location and waited.
He had not expected Su Xiyan to show up with a child.
Was this some secret lovechild she needed hidden from her sect. if so, she had severely misjudged his capacity to care.
A small boy pale and nervous. At a glance he could easily be mistaken as an early disciple from any of the sects.
The child ducked behind Su Xiyan clinging to her robes. She glowered at Shen Jiu with protective fury challenging him. To what he wasn’t sure, whatever he had been expecting from this rendezvous the young boy was not it.
“Can Qiong doesn’t need your leftovers.” He sent her one of his more scathing looks from behind his fan, but she remained unmoved.
“He isn’t safe here and I can’t be around to protect him anymore.” The child peeked out and she placed a hand defensively on the back of his small head.
Shen Jiu sighed, why anyone thought him a bleeding heart was a mystery. He’d spend his life building a reputation of aloof superiority, and yet people still tried to appeal to his non-existent sense of pity.
More so since he took his place as Peak lord, these people where honestly exhausting.
Although Su Xiyan wasn’t someone to be discounted. She was the head disciple of a powerful sect. If he took the boy, she’d owe him a favor, perhaps taking on the child could benefit him. He tapped his fan against his chin as he considered his options.
He snapped his fan shut decisively gesturing in front of him, “Boy come here.” the child perked up and scrambled to the spot, standing ready for inspection as any disciple might. “What is your name?”
For whatever reason the question caused the small boy’s face to crumple, he turned dismayed to Su Xiyan.
Shen Jiu barked at him, “Do not look at her, this master is asking the question of you.” It was the same tone of voice he would use with any of his own unruly students.
The boy looked at him again furrowing his small brow. He seemed determined not to break eye contact but still refused to answer.
Shen Jiu locked eyes with the child but addressed Su Xiyan, “Does he not have a name?”
She raised her chin in a challenge, “His name is A-Yuan, he does not have a voice.”
That caught Shen Jiu’s attention meeting the woman’s eyes, “Lao Gongzhu took it from him.”
Suddenly the odd request made a lot more sense. This wasn’t some love child she was trying to shuffle out of sight for propriety, no this was far worse. Taking someone’s voice was a common practice amongst slavers, not cultivators.
Unless the Palace Master intended to use it.
Now he found himself studying the boy more closely, looking more carefully he could see the truth of the matter.
A-Yuan hunched into himself in a way that made Shen Jiu’s shoulders ache with the memory of it. Instead of one boy standing there in front of him he saw two. The other skinnier, bruised and angry. Angry in a way that could never be forgiven, angry in a way no child deserved to be.
Even now years later with his voice long since returned and the power of a peak lord at his disposal the rage at being so helpless filled his chest.
But looking at this boy he didn't see the same hatred. No A-Yuan is not the same boy as Shen Jiu was, and if he takes him in then he may never have to be.
He knelt to face the boy at eye level, careful and slow as not to spook him. Shen Jiu made a few deliberate hand gestures and A-Yuan's face lit up with recognition. His small hands signed back enthusiastically, then he turned back to grin at Su Xiyan.
“He will come with me.” there’s no more negotiation, none is needed. Su Xiyan noded at him but by the quiver in her lip he understands that there are still goodbyes that need to happen.
He stood back to give them space. Wasting no time Su Xiyan immediately griped the boy in a powerful hug.
“Be healthy and happy and don’t cause too much trouble okay?” The boy noded dutifully keeping better composure patting her back comfortingly, “They have lots of books for you to read and Master Shen Qingqiu will keep you safe.”
She pulled away from A-Yuan looking the small boy in the eye, trying to convince him of the depth and sincerity of her determination. “and I promise you A-Yuan I will find your voice and take it back.”
The hairs on the back of Shen Jiu’s neck prickled as he felt the power she poured through those words, the way she trapped herself with them. It’s clear to him now how the woman had earned her place as head disciple and she would fulfill her promise. Her words practically guaranted it.
Her eyes turn to Shen Jiu and he stiffened uncomfortably under her gaze “You will keep him safe.” The sharp scent makes him wrinkle his nose and his hackles rose. He had no plans to let the child come to harm but for her to speak words of power over him set him on edge.
He reaches for the boy and grips the small shoulders protectively as Su Xiyan rises to meet him eye to eye, “He will be no one's slave.” His own words coil tightly around hers making the binding his own. Shen Jiu had fought hard and clawed his way out of that cursed life, his claws were still sharp, and he was willing to lend them so this A-Yuan wouldn’t need a set of his own.
He called forth Xiu Ya speaking the words for flight as A-Yuan signed comfort and promises to his shijie, likely unaware of the power that had been put in place just for him that night.
Su Xiyan’s eyes were watery and red as she waved mutely to her former charge. Shen Jiu didn’t understand it, while things were tense between Huan Hua and Cang Qiong she would not be unwelcome should she visit Qing Jing peak.
The boy would be safe there, he’d make sure of it.
Standing atop Qiong Ding peak waiting for one of their fellow peak lords to return felt needlessly formal.
It hadn’t been intentional really, they had just wrapped up the latest council meeting and upon learning of one of their absent member returning Yue Qingyuan hand insisted they greet him upon his return.
Since they were all fairly new at the whole peak lord deal none of them had felt comfortable rejecting their sect leader’s request, despite none one them being particularly fond of their returning shixiong.
Shang Qinghua settled himself next to Qi Qingqi tugging at the formal robes he still wasn’t accustomed to.
It still didn’t quite feel real, Shang Qinghua had worked hard his whole life but he still felt a little shocked that anyone had actually noticed that work and then rewarded him for it. He wasn’t even sure if he was any more well liked than the man they were waiting to greet.
As Shen Qingqiu drew near, they could see he was not alone. Qi Qingqi next to him snorted, “let the bloodsport begin.”
No one could deny that Shen Qingqiu earned his place at the peak of Qing Jing, but what nobody could seem to understand was why Yue Qingyuan was seemingly oblivious to the man’s acerbic manners and foul temperament. Something that the shrewd scholar took advantage of at every opportunity.
Something about the sect leader made him particularly hostile, then Yue Qingyuan would turn around and indulge the man. As if doing so would earn him favor, when it was clear to everyone else there was nothing to be gained.
Shen Qingqiu dismounted gracefully, his passenger clearly trying hard to mimic his elegance did not quite manage.
The boy was slight, he’d be small amongst most of the mountain’s disciples but he seemed to be the right age.
Shang Qinghua felt something familiar when he saw the child, like he should know who he was but at this very moment he couldn’t quite place him.
Even the unflappable Yue Qingyuan seemed taken aback by his shidi’s guest.
“This is my brother Shen Yuan.” That was bullshit, not that had ever stopped Shen Qingqiu. Shang Qinghua’s investigations had examined through his shixiong’s sordid past but even if the man’s family wasn’t long dead there was no room for reconciliation in the bastard’s shriveled heart.
Not that Shang Qinghua would ever call him out on the lie, then he’d have to explain how he knew it was a lie and nope! Not doing that. No thank you. The key to being a good spymaster was making sure no one knew you were a spymaster. It was basically lesson number one.
But Yue Qingyuan should also know better.
“Shen Shidi, there are rules for choosing new disciples.” The handsome man frowned, clearly trying to avoid calling him out directly.
“He is not a disciple he is my brother.” Shang Qinghua wished he knew how to maintain such cool aloofness, but alas he knew his strength and it was being a blabbering coward.
It seemed he wasn’t the only one who envied Shen Qingqiu’s poise. The young boy tried his best to mimic the man’s posture and expression.
Qi Qingqi leaned over to him with a loud whisper fully intended to be heard, “You have to admit the resemblance is uncanny.” it was especially so when both man and boy directed the same haughty glance her way.
This only managed to cause her and Shang Qinghua to snort. It was almost adorable, which was a word that had never ever been associated with Qing Jing’s new peak lord.
Yue Qingyuan’s ever present composure continued to slip. “Shidi the rules ar-”
“He cannot be a disciple when he doesn’t have a voice.” The peak lord snapped.
Yue Qingyuan looked stricken by those words, a complex range of emotions flashed over his face as he glanced between the boy and his shidi. Eventually it settled on guilt
“His name is Shen Yuan and he will be staying with me on Qing Jing peak.” It was not a request, it wasn’t even a demand. Shen Qingqiu was merely informing his fellows of a new development in a way that clearly told them that their input would not be necessary.
A taste of ozone burned at the back of Shang Qinghua’s throat. it was a familiar charge to the air that would occur as words of power exerted their intent.
Ah, so it seems perhaps a promise had been made. That was interesting. Shang Qinghua filed that in the back of his mind for future use. Still a boy that age without a voice tugged at some distant memory, perhaps a report he’d forgotten.
“Mu Shidi, I would appreciate if he gets a proper checkup before he settles in.”
And that was the end of it. Shang Qinghua was jealous he never had that kind of confidence. Even when framing his words of power requests were stronger than demands.
Even his cultivation had to convince people that it wasn’t his words but their idea before it would work. Qinghua sighed, such was his lot in life.
Not that it mattered, Shen Qingqiu would keep his ‘brother’ on his Qing Jing, and hopefully for the rest of the peaks there would be no repercussions.
Qing Jing peak was nothing like Huan Hua palace, rather than endless halls and grand rooms there were sprawling vistas and serene bamboo forests. A-Yuan, now Shen Yuan felt it suited him well.
Maybe not at first though. He had to get used to not being allowed to hide away in his room with a pile of books like he was used to. Which was a little unfair because Qing Jing put Huan Hua’s meagre library to shame.
Instead of pursuing his favorite stories from the safety of his bed Shen Qingqiu actually expected him to attend classes with the other disciples.
The prospect was terrifying.
In Huan Hua staying away from lessons was a survival strategy, at best the other disciples had ignored him. At worst he became their live training dummy.
While everyone here seemed to treat him better it was still distressing for Shen Yuan. Not only was he to be present for lessons but he was forced to actively participate.
Clearly Shen Qingqiu was a liar, the most obvious lie being that he was Shen Yuan’s brother but he had also promised the sect leader that Shen Yuan was not a disciple, then he turned around and treated him exactly like a disciple!
Or maybe near enough, he didn’t stay in the dormitories with the other disciples, instead there was a small room in Shen Qingqiu’s bamboo hut that he now occupied.
But still, it seemed rather unfair that Shen Yuan now had access to all these new books and barely a free moment to read them.
At least they had better monster manuals that Huan Hua.
After his first week, he had to admit that it wasn’t actually that bad. He did enjoy the opportunity to learn new things and all the elder disciples at least could understand his hand signs.
They weren’t quite as adept at understanding as Su Xiyan or his new brother, but if he went slow they usually could figure out what he wanted to say. Some of them were eager to speak to him with their own fumbling fingers, he’d even managed to make a few friends. Although none of the disciples his age seemed to know the language and he couldn't quite figure out why.
At least not until one of their language classes.
Shen Qingqiu stood at the head of the room as Shen Yuan and his peers filed in. The Peak lord did not teach every class, in fact most lessons for the youngest members of Qing Jing were taught by the more senior disciples. But occasionally their Shizun would take charge if only to remind them of a what a true scholar should be.
Graceful, poised and terrifyingly ruthless.
“Today you will learn how to speak without sound. As scholars it is our duty to learn every method of communication, so we never fall short in the pursuit of knowledge.”
Shen Yuan’s little chest swelled with excitement. This was why the older disciples could understand him. His signs were important! This was one class that he was already ahead of his peers and the thought made him giddy.
He wiggled excitedly in his seat, sure he didn’t really need to learn all this again, but it was heartening to know he’d be able to finally talk to his classmates soon.
That excitement withered as one of the other boys spoke up. “Why would we ever need to know the way servants speak? That should be beneath noble scholars like us.”
Shen Yuan’s brow furrowed. Why wouldn’t this boy want to speak with him, or servants for that matter. What was wrong with servants?
He didn’t have much time to ponder the boy’s statement before a fan rapped harshly on a desk.
“As cultivators we cannot pick and choose the people who require our aid. How will you figure what plagues a lord’s manner if you cannot question the entirely of his staff?”
Shen Qingqiu approached the boy’s desk and looked down at him, voice like an icy chill on the back of one’s neck “Or are you simply afraid of what those servants might have to say about you?”
The boy shrunk into his seat thoroughly cowed.
Everybody stared at their teacher in awe. Shen Yuan’s new Gege was so cool!
“Be mindful upon which peak you reside and remember, you can never know too much, only too little. Ten laps around the mountain for your arrogance, speak out of turn again and I will remove your tongue. Maybe then you will see merit in today’s lesson.”
Shen Yuan smiled brightly. So cool!
Overall, Shen Yuan had adjusted well to life on Cang Qiong. He had finally decided that he like his new lessons almost as much as he like reading books. His status as ‘not quite a disciple’ didn’t bother him like he thought it might and everyone treated him like one anyway.
Disciples from the other peaks didn’t seem to know his hand signs but that was alright, he rarely ran into them without another member of Qing Jing present anyway. They could translate for him, and it wasn’t like he was sent on many errands across the rainbow bridge.
He still missed Su-Shijie though. He thought about her often, he knew she was out there doing important things. He still longed for her singing, especially since there was no way he would ever get Shen Qingqiu to sing him a lullaby.
He wondered if she missed him too.
The nights he couldn’t sleep, he thought of her the most, he had to be satisfied with singing his favorite lullabies to himself just like when she had been away. It helped a little bit not enough though, especially since it was only in his head.
It had been over a year since he’d waved goodbye to her, he wondered when she’d come to visit.
He knew she would.
She had to. After all, she had promised him she would get his voice back and his Shijie never broke a promise.
Until the day he discovered that she had.
Su Xiyan had hoped for many things.
She had hoped she would have more time, she hoped she could’ve been more persuasive, she had hoped that despite everything Lao Gongzhu would not hurt her.
She had always thought herself more practical than hopeful, but she supposed Tinglang Jun’s habits had become her own.
Now she watched all those hopes go up in flame and she spread the ashes in the wind.
Her faith in her sect had been eroding away for quite some time, ever since the day she’d discovered A-Yuan frightened and voiceless cowering in one of their halls. Perhaps it had only a matter of time after that before they would turn on her.
Maybe she had thought she could divert their course, another foolish hope.
At the very least she had stopped her master from using a child’s voice to boost his own cultivation. It didn’t matter how powerful the voice it was a horrifying notion.
“You will never use him!”
That had been the first time she had ever used any words against Lao Gongzhu but clearly it was not to be the last.
He had kept the voice, useless to him or not.
Oh A-Yuan I hope you are happy away from this mess, I hope you have endless books and friends like you could never make here.
She thought of him more and more especially now that she was expecting a child of her own.
She desperately hoped that she had done the right thing. She hoped she was doing it now.
She had always channeled the most power through direct statements. Truths that would make the world twist and turn at her will to ensure they came to pass. She had always been deliberate with her words and she refused to regret them.
Even now when they would kill her. The master had taunted her, forcing her to imbibe the demonic poison knowing full well that whatever words she wished to use may not affect her child. She couldn’t merely speak her babe stronger that the vile tincture flowing though her veins.
Not only was her child’s father a demon he was Tinglang Jun, a heavenly demon. While most demons could resist words of power heavenly demons were immune to them. Her babe was half human too but that was not a guarantee that her words would have any effect.
Not on the child at least.
“The demonic poison will burn through me and never reach my womb.”
Her foolish master had considered the matter settled, he merely locked her in her rooms as if she wasn’t his head disciple. He didn’t take her voice, he hadn't even tried to use immortal binding cables.
He considered her loyalty absolute, oblivious to how he had degraded it over the years.
Lao Gongzhu couldn’t fathom that she might sacrifice her life for her unborn child regardless of demonic heritage. He didn’t understand how anyone might choose to die to allow another to live.
That and his self-serving greed would be his downfall. Su Xiyan only regretted that she would be around to witness his undoing.
Anger had fueled her words, and that same rage would sustain her as she escaped. Huan Hua was no longer her home and she wondered how long it had been since that had changed. How long had she looked at her fellow disciples as enemies rather than allies?
She had a limited time before the poison drained her strength, she needed to be away from the palace and soon, but she couldn’t leave yet. Not while another set of words still hung over her head.
“I will find your voice and take it back”
She would never regret her words, not now, not ever. She would leave the palace with A-Yuan's voice stone, or she would die trying. The only uncertainty being if it would be the poison or the backlash from unfulfilled words that would kill her.
Even if they killed her they were still words she would never regret uttering.
Few knew the secrets of Huan Hua like it’s head disciple and it had been too easy to slip away from her guarded room, towards the maze array to the water prison. Where better to keep valuables but in a nearly impenetrable vault next to a nearly impenetrable prison.
It was embarrassingly effortless to slip past the disciples on guard. The vault was vast but as often happened with words of power she found the small rack of voices stones with ease. The charged air directing her attention to a flawlessly beautiful bead of pale green jade.
There no doubt in her mind who’s voice it could be.
When she snatched it up, she nearly cried holding it close to her heart. Now that she was holding his voice stone, she could hear him. He was reciting some facts about some monster a three eyed lynx. He must’ve been reading another monster manual, truly he was still the same little boy.
But it was already so late at night. Su Xiyan thought to scold him for being up so late, realizing her instinct she fought back the urge to laugh. He was safe in Cang Qiong and no longer her charge.
Not that he could hear her anyway.
The idea that he might be happy at his new home warmed her heart even as it twisted painfully. He deserved to laugh and sing, to complain loudly when reminded of his bedtime. She was trying hard to make that happen.
Eyes watering, tears threatening to spill she tied the stone with a red cord and placed it around her neck. She had two children to save tonight and there was no way she was going to let them down.
She slipped out of the palace, her only obstacles; the poison weakening her qi and the beginning pangs of labor. She had barely made it to the far edge of Bailu forest before a new agony caused her to fall from her sword.
It was the start to a long night.
It was not long before Huan Hua realized she was gone. Far longer than it should have but still too quickly for her own sake.
She trekked as far as her body would take her before she had no choice but to stop. It was by sheer luck she had found a small hut long since abandoned along the edge of the Luo river.
That was where she had given birth. It had not been an easy delivery and she had felt both relief and terror in equal measure as she heard her son’s first cry.
She had a son, a precious baby boy, and now for his sake she would have to send him away. Already weak from the poison her exhaustion was almost enough to claim her life, but not yet.
Her son would be safe away from her sect before she died, she would be sure of it.
“They will not find him.” Using words of power now stole air from her lungs, every syllable costing the energy it would take to climb a mountain.
Even the words themselves felt weak, but it would be enough.
It had to be.
She swaddled the babe in her inner robe and placed him in an old wooden basin, glancing out the decrepit shack’s window she eyed the river.
They would find her, that much was inevitable, but she needed to make sure when they did he would be long gone. The river was her only option.
Each step she took was like wading through a swamp, whether it was the poison sapping her strength or her own hesitation that caused the difficulty she was not in a state to know.
Her thoughts turned back to her son. Healthy and stunningly beautiful. A full head of curls and his father's eyes. If only Tianlang Jun could see him. She imagined the delight that would shine in the demon’s eyes if she were able to present him with their baby. Perhaps it would be filled with the same love he had once showered upon her.
She nearly collapsed as she reached the river’s edge, tears staining her cheeks. She’d never get to see those things and the loss of it tore through her chest.
Even now she crouched protectively over the basin, choking back sobs as she tried to circulate her qi trying to keep the poison at bay. Even so It wouldn’t be long now and her son... her son would be alone.
As her grief consumed her a small tug at her neck dragged her out of those dark thoughts. Her charming little boy was babbling and tugging at the stone around her neck.
Of course, A-Yuan's voice!
With the events of the night Su Xiyan had almost forgotten the other boy she intended to save. Gently she unwound her son’s hand from the string holding the stone close and listening.
He was humming one of the lullabies she had used to sing to him, it made her heart swell. It was nice to know that sweet little A-Yuan hadn’t forgotten her. He’d keep her little boy company, and maybe he could return A-Yuan's voice one day. Perhaps A-Yuan could tell him about her.
Her hope had returned and this time she clung to it, knowing soon it was all she would have left.
Carefully she removed the stone from around her neck and tied the string short placing the loop around her newborn son, tucking the jade gently beneath the swaddling.
Her lip trembled as a fresh wave of tears threatened to overwhelm her as she gazed upon her sleepy baby boy. She focused on everything she wanted for him and gathered her waning strength.
She lifted him to her chest for a final hug hoping to pour all her love into the small form she gripped in her arms. They would not meet again, not in this world, but she would give him the best chance she could before he would see her in the next.
She kissed his forehead gently before she spoke the words.
Each one felt like it was trying to wrench away a piece of her soul, but rather than fight it she allowed it to happen. She stopped circulating her qi and every piece of herself that she let bolster her words was replaced with a burning pain.
She ignored it in favor of the power coursing out of her and enveloping her son like a blanket, swirling and coalescing around him.
“He will be strong,
He will be kind,
And he will be loved.”
The scent of lightning and a tingling along her skin let her know that the words had taken root, the strongest she had ever uttered.
A fist clenched around her heart as she let her shaking hands lower the babe into the basin and her final tears fell as she set him adrift.
When Mei Ling went to the fish market that morning she had not expected to return with an infant.
Apparently, the newborn had been fished out of the river by a few of the fisherman. They had dubbed him Luo Binghe and brought him to market with them.
It was quite clear that none of them knew what to do with such a catch and as the conversation turned to selling him Mei Ling quickly intervened.
While she never had any children of her own, she had more of a mind for how to care for one than the fisherman she had saved him from. The poor thing was so cold that she was sure he would have frozen to death had she not volunteered to take him.
Mei Ling made a modest living as a washerwoman, her husband had died young and she had never tried to find another. Her life wasn’t easy but there was a satisfaction in the simplicity of it, she hoped she could bring the small babe the same degree of contentment.
She set about warming water for a bath, there was still a chill settled on his skin and she worried that a newborn should have cried at least once by now. He was so small, and the cold could take him yet.
She gently unwrapped the swaddling, it had protected him from the morning’s chill but now it retained the cold. It appeared to be an underrobe made of fine fabric but stained and a little worse for wear.
Why someone who could afford to discard such expensive cloth would give up a child baffled her. Was he perhaps some lord’s bastard? And illicit love child of a married lady? She shook her head, it didn’t matter he was hers now and she would protect him from whatever malice his heritage created.
How such an adorable child could be so cruelly discarded broke her soft heart. He already had dark curls framing his cherub cheeks, and sweet little doe eyes that looked so trusting, so sweet.
No matter. She would clean up the garment and sell it to help pay for the necessities her new son would require.
Testing the water, she tenderly lowered Luo Binghe into the wash basin. That’s when she noticed the slash of red. Briefly, she worried that it was blood, that his sending down the river had been a premature funeral rite. She held her breath, chest tight as she looked for confirmation.
A lightness swelled within her when she realized it was merely a cord leading to something gripped tightly between his chubby little fingers. An even breath left her lungs as she gently pulled each digit off the object. His grip was far stronger than it had any right to be, but he was still a newborn.
Mei Ling slipped the item from his gasp and slid the cord off his neck. Holding it up to the light her eyes were met with a small jade stone. It idly spun on the cord and she felt her heart break all over again.
Barely a day old and her little Binghe had met so much tragedy.
It was a voice stone. They were not common, too expensive for most to afford. Often if they could people would have them made from their deceased loved ones. A memory to hold on to, a memento so they could listen to a voice that would never be truly heard again.
She wondered perhaps if the voice was his mother’s or maybe his father’s, either way his abandonment tragically made a lot more sense.
She had been contemplating the stone and what it might mean for her son when a howling shriek pulled her from her thoughts. She put aside the voice stone and moved to calm him.
Perhaps the water had been hotter than she had thought, he was clearly distressed, and she whispered quietly in an attempt to soothe him, to no avail.
After toweling him off and wrapping him up once more she no longer worried over his silence.
Even feeding him hadn’t cause him to settle. How such a small creature could create such a deafening wail was as confounding as it was impressive. She paced back in forth in her small home rocking him comfortingly.
It had felt like half the day had passed before in her own distress Mei Ling remembered the discarded stone. In her tired desperation, she retrieved it from where she had left it next to the basin, dangling the cord in front of Luo Binghe.
The instant he noticed the swinging stone he immediately latched on to it, gripping it once more in his chubby fist. The tears ceased, followed by wet hiccups and eventually a contented babble.
Mei Ling said a silent prayer of thanks to the voice’s owner. She continued her rocking and placed and hand over Binghe’s tiny fist.
She wondered if it was her tired mind that heard a little boy’s voice singing a lullaby, not that it truly mattered. Her little Binghe had finally drifted off to sleep.
Shen Jiu was all too familiar with the harsh realities of the world. He’d been forced to face many of them long before he reached A-Yuan's age. Savage truths had torn down the counterfeit childhood he had endured.
He’d hauled himself from the barbarism that had shaped his early life, but he could never forget it. Nor would he shy from educating any who thought themselves above life's cruelty.
Teaching those lessons had a certain appeal, retribution for ignorance. He was a teacher after all.
This? He would gain no satisfaction from this lesson. A-Yuan was hardly a deserving student.
He wouldn’t lie to the boy. Lies to spare feelings always hurt more in the end. Shen Jiu had first-hand experience with such painful dishonesty. Just because the child had taken it upon himself to imitate Shen Jiu didn’t mean he would let the lies corrode and twist him into a perfect replica.
Besides A-Yuan deserved to know. Even if the truth would warp him in other ways, he was entitled to it.
He also deserved someone softer to tell him. Someone tender and comforting, Shen Jiu was all sharp edges and cold grace.
But who else knew?
No one else had met with Su Xinyan that fateful night in Bailu forest. No one else knew that it was Lao Gongzhu himself that had ripped away the boy’s voice. No one else knew of the promise that had been woven into his bones, helplessly tying the child to a man that was nothing but caustic remarks and severe gazes.
No one else could break the news.
Su Xinyan was dead, it was going to shatter A-Yuan's heart, and there was nothing Shen Jiu could do but watch it happen.
This was a doozy of a first chapter for me, but I think having a decent outline prepared is gonna help me get the other ones done well too. That and a lot of free time atm. I adore any and all feedback, let me know what you think, and I promise next chapter will have more Binghe.
Chapter 2: Misplaced
Growing up isn't easy with or without a voice. It helps to have the right people to support you as you become who you want to be.
First of all Thank you all so much! I love all the comments and kudos and I'm glad so many people are as excited about this idea as I am. Quarantine is helping me write everyday so I hope I can keep this pace up for as long as I'm stuck at home. Hope you all are staying safe and healthy.
I had intended for this chapter to go farther with the story but this seemed like a really good place to stop for now.
Edited 09/06/2020 - grammar and tense errors
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Three words were all it took, three words were enough for Shen Yuan’s world to fall apart around him.
He’d gotten used to the silence, event took comfort in it, but never in his life did he wasn’t to scream so much.
He looked back up at Shen Qingqiu searching for any sign of a lie. Gege was many things; a demanding teacher, an exacting perfectionist, and a ruthless judge of character, but he wasn’t; at least in A-Yuan's experience, a liar.
He locked eyes with the man, desperately hoping that if he focused on maintaining eye contact he wouldn't cry. Gege never cried and maybe if he stared the man down, maybe he could absorb his indifference.
It would be nice to not care, then maybe his chest wouldn’t feel so hollow. It was like someone had reached through his ribs and ripped out something important letting pressure bear down on whatever was left.
It took him a few tries before he was able to sign his question. What happened?
Su Xiyan was so strong, he’d seen it. She wasn’t afraid of anything except maybe the palace master. What if she had been trying to get his voice back like she had promised and-
His knees hit the ground and he choked back a cry, not that anyone would have heard it anyway. Still it felt like something he needed to keep inside, like if he let it out it would kill her again.
Then it struck him, it was his fault wasn’t it? She had made him a promise and they had killed her trying to fulfill it. Shijie why couldn’t you just forget about him, it would have been better that way.
Why would they kill her though?
His breath was coming faster and the hollow feeling beginning to burn as his vision went hazy.
What did it matter? It was all his fault. He hadn’t really needed his voice; he was getting by just fine. Now she was dead because he was selfish, because he wanted to be more.
It wasn’t until he felt the fan tilt his chin up that he realized how hard it was to breathe. Wasn’t that a sign of qi deviation? Oh gods, he was having a qi deviation now and he couldn’t breathe. He tried to suck in a lungful of air, but it wasn’t right, it only exacerbated his panic as more pressure pushed on his lungs.
Could he even go into qi deviation without a voice? Was that even possible? None of the books he read ever mentioned it, though none of them ever mentioned losing your voice eith-
“A-Yuan Look at me.” Immediately his eyes snapped to Shen Qingqiu. “Breathe in.” Obediently he took a breath ignoring the metallic tang that came with it. The Peak Lord waited a beat before, “Breathe out.”
Shen Yuan emptied his lungs.
“Good. Again.” Gege’s face was calm, unruffled by the panic A-Yuan felt consuming his own diminutive form. The man’s unflappable expression was almost soothing as he clung to his instructions. “Breathe in. Breath out.”
They continued like that until Shen Yuan felt his vision clear. His chest still felt raw, but his breaths had evened out naturally. He didn’t feel like he was drowning any more.
“Can you stand?” Shen Yuan nodded feebly and as he did so he found himself being led to the small table in the bamboo house. Now seated he found an interesting whorl in the woodwork, not daring to look back up at his brother.
The sounds of a boiling kettle acted as a ballast, the mundane activity anchoring him to reality. It still took effort to breathe but he managed to keep the sedate rhythm from before.
Soon his vision was interrupted by a cup of tea set before him.
“Do you still want to know?” No mention of his breakdown, no reprimand for his tears, just the question.
Wrapping his hands around the warm cup he felt steady enough to nod, he needed to know.
Even if it was, even if he was-
“It wasn’t your fault.”
The way Shen Yuan jerked to look up at him felt like a punch to the gut. He knew it needed to be said, A-Yuan need to hear it. Shen Jiu knew because he had wished someone had said it to him back when it was still true.
“It wasn’t your fault.” He couldn’t be comforting but he could teach, “Even if it had something to do with your voice it will never be your fault. She chose those words and uttered them without hesitation. Do not disregard her decision by assuming your own significance.”
He knew it was harsh, but he was only ever good at harsh, even now Shen Jiu couldn’t temper his words.
Shen Yuan looked so small as he stared back at him. The look made him want to fidget and only years of rigid self-control crushed the impulse.
“She was a powerful cultivator, you are not strong enough to influence her, it will never. Be. Your. Fault.”
The boy couldn’t be yet twelve and he was feeling responsible for someone who had done so much to protect him. Such a burden should never be placed on someone so young and yet the boy seemed intent to shoulder it.
Shen Jiu hoped that A-Yuan didn’t feel that way about him, he didn’t need a child ever thinking he had that kind of control over a peak lord. Even the idea of it made guilt twist in his gut.
A-Yuan to a sip of the tea keeping his head low.
“Huan Hua claims it was a demon. A heavenly demon.” the worst of their kind, practically unstoppable.
That sparked curiosity, placing the cup on the table A-Yuan signed another question. You don’t believe them?
“I don’t believe any information spoon fed to me by someone else. But it does appear that this Tianlang Jun poses a very real threat. The sect leader will be meeting with Huan Hua to decide what to do about him.”
You don’t trust them. The boy was smart, he felt proud and resigned all at once. No one his age should be so concerned about the politics of all this. He should be allowed to just grieve, But Shen Jiu believed in rewarding acumen.
“I don’t trust them, and neither should you.” Trustworthy men didn’t steal voices from children. A-Yuan should know that better than most.
Silence stretched between them, but it was clear the boy had more to ask, so Shen Jiu patiently waited for him to ask.
Does it stop hurting Ah, that’s what he wanted to know. Despite everything he was still so soft.
“Nothing ever does.” Not from his experience, not if the ball of rage packed beneath his own ribs was any indication.
He let a rare impulse take him and he passed his fan to A-Yuan, “The best you can do is not to let them see how it hurts.” The boy held the fan reverently inspecting the misty forest painted on its surface. “Then they can never use it against you.”
It wasn’t much as far as advice goes, but it was the best Shen Jiu could do to protect his charge. He hoped it was enough.
“Now get to bed, you still have lessons in the morning.”
Luo Binghe didn’t have much growing up, none of the fancy toys they sold in the market, no room to himself, sometimes not even enough food so he wouldn’t go to sleep with a growling tummy.
But he didn’t let that take away from the things he did have, he had a loving mother who would do anything for him, he had a home that kept him warm and dry and he had a secret friend.
His mother told him he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, but he had a friend better than anyone else.
His friend was amazing, he was smart, sweet and sometimes really funny. His friend could also sing really well, Binghe loved it when he sang.
But his friend was also sad.
Especially when he was singing one of Binghe’s favorite songs his voice would crack and waver the way Binghe’s did when he was going to cry.
Binghe knew what it sounded like because Binghe cried a lot. His mother said that sometimes he cried too much, but he couldn’t help it, when he’s upset his nose stings and his eyes water and it’s really not fair for her to expect him not to. He wondered if it’s how his friend feels too.
He wished he could give his friend a hug, like when he cried his mother would hug him. But hugging the small jade stone always got him no response.
Not that his friend was actually just a bead of jade, Binghe knew better than that. If that were the case his friend would have been able to hear him too.
Then Binghe would tell him everything, about the tallest tree he climbed, his favorite hidey hole under the bridge. How his Mom’s congee was the best in the world, and that she was teaching him how to make it too. How he was going to help her when he got bigger, so she wouldn’t have to work so hard.
How much he loved his friend’s singing and how much it really meant to Binghe.
He hoped he meant something to his friend too.
His friend was really smart. Way smarter than Binghe, and for a kid his age Binghe was pretty smart.
But his friend, his friend seemed to know everything. Binghe would listen for hours as his friend went on about monsters, or swords, or poetry.
He couldn’t quite follow along when his friend would talk about numbers and managing them but Binghe was just content to listen to his voice. His friend was so smart and taught Binghe so many things he started calling him Shizun.
Sometimes Shizun would get frustrated and say words that Binghe wasn’t allowed to repeat. He tried it once and his mother got mad at him.
When he told her Shizun had said it first she looked a little sad. She pulled Binghe onto her lap and told him that he shouldn’t repeat everything he hears.
“You also shouldn’t tell anyone else about your Shizun.”
“But why not?”
“Someone might try to steal him away from you.” Binghe felt the stinging in his nose just thinking about someone taking Shizun away.
His tiny chest puffed up “I’ll never let them!”
She chuckled at his bravado, then she gently tucked the small pendant into his shirt patting it next to his heart. “I know you won’t my Binghe is brave and strong, but if nobody knows about your friend nobody will try to take him away.”
He thought about her words and eventually nodded, she was right, it would be easier to keep Shizun safe from bad people if they didn’t know about him.
“So, you keep Shizun safe and I will keep Binghe safe.” She kissed his forehead and he giggled.
Binghe didn’t have much when he was young, but he was happy. He had his mother and he had his Shizun, as long as he had them, he didn’t need much else.
The dappled sunlight fell streaming through the bamboo, and the breeze was warm and light. Truly the best sort of day to sit in the bamboo forest and read a book. It was the weather, it couldn’t be ignored.
She Yuan absolutely, with one hundred percent certainty was not hiding.
So what if he was supposed to be sitting through another lecture with his peers. People missed classes on Qing Jing all the time, they were encouraged to study independently.
Qing Jing had many lessons to offer, and for the most part Shen Yuan enjoyed his classes. Music, calligraphy, painting even warfare tactics, he dutifully attended all those lectures. It was just a few of the newer lessons that he found it difficult to sit through.
So what if most disciples considered them the most important lessons on their path to becoming cultivators? They didn’t apply to him; He was much better off reading the compendium on demon lore he found in the back of the library.
Even the sword lessons he’d been so excited about a few years ago now turned his stomach into a churning pit of dread.
Soon his classmates would be learning words of power and they’d all be flying around Cang Qiong.
While Shen Yuan would be stuck on the ground only able to watch.
He wasn’t even a real disciple anyway. The characters on the page started to blur and he swallowed back the tears. It’d been so long since he’d thought himself different from his peers, but it was finally catching up with him. they’d all be learning to be great cultivators while he’d just be voiceless Shen Yuan.
He was quiet, nobody would even notice that he was missing.
At least that’s what he had thought, hoped really. Shen Yuan should have known better.
Nothing happened on Qing Jing without Shen Qingqiu knowing about it.
He’d barely made it through two chapters when the book was unceremoniously ripped out of his hands.
“What do you think you are doing?” The Peak Lord's voice was even and cold. Shen Yuan met his glare with one of his own.
It wasn’t easy to convey a glib tone with only hand signals, but Shen Yuan was pretty sure he managed.
“You know what this master means.” The words held a threatening edge, no matter how passive his expression Shen Qingqiu couldn’t temper his words. What right did he have to be angry? Shen Yuan’s sullen mood shifted to irritation.
“You have a lesson.” It was the tone he used that brooked no argument, the one that told everyone that Shen Qingqiu was right, and they were less than him.
That infuriated Shen Yuan. He stood, now nearly eye level with his brother, his anger giving him courage.
It’s a waste of time
The look Shen Qingqiu gave him wasn’t going to work, his condescension only antagonized Shen Yuan. “And what, made you come to that decision?”
Because I don’t have a voice His gestures were choppy taking a pause to emphasize each one.
“This master is aware.”
He wanted to punch that composed expression off Gege’s face It was aggrivating.
“It hasn’t stopped you before from attending lesson, why would you let it stop you now?”
It was like he was a junior disciple again, Shen Qingqiu being deliberately vague waiting for him to figure out the answer himself, and Shen Yuan was sick of it. He was fifteen, hardly the ignorant child that had been upon first coming to Qing Jing.
He didn’t often feel the need to scream but he gave it a try anyway. It was pointless, not even giving him any catharsis for his anger. He diverted his attention to responding.
I can’t use words of power If. I. Don’t. HAVE. A. VOICE!
Shen Qingqiu scoffed at him as if it was an unreasonable stance to take. He walked over to a bamboo shoot plucking a single leaf. He eyed Shen Yuan to make sure he was watching then he flung the leaf past the boy’s head.
His anger melted as the shock set it, he heard the thunk of the leaf embedding itself into a stalk behind him. He had to turn to confirm, the once harmless leaf had become a dangerous blade in the hands of the peak lord.
He turned slowly having trouble processing the action and he looked to his brother.
“Did this master utter any words?”
Glancing back at the leaf he shook his head.
“There is more to cultivation than flying swords and binding words. You do not need to speak to cultivate a core.” Shen Yuan hadn’t... he hadn't ever really thought of it like that.
The older man flicked his fan open lazily. “There is more to a cultivator than just his words. There are many in our number who may as well be voiceless the way they neglect all else.”
“Furthermore, when you get your voice back it’ll be too late to teach you.”
When he got his voice? Shen Yuan had long since given up on the possibility of having his voice returned. That hope had died with Su Xiyan, and here Gege was talking about it as if it was an inevitability. Speaking with that dammed imperial certainty that had angered Shen Yuan mere moments ago.
But if I get it back could I even use it? He hadn’t felt this small in long time, he almost wished he had a fan to hide behind.
“You will.” His voice never wavered his eyes fixed on Shen Yuan.
But how do you know I’ll get my voice back
“ Because I did.”
That admission startled Shen Yuan; froze him in place. Shen Qingqiu never talked about his past, the man thrived on being considered an enigma. A Peerless scholar, pristine and beautiful outsmarting people at every turn.
Here he was revealing to Shen Yuan a very telling piece of information, watching Shen Yuan as if daring him to contest it.
Just as abruptly he continued glossing over such a compelling revelation.
“Even if a sword can’t fly it can still cut deep. If you don’t master these skills how can you expect to join this master on a night hunt.”
Night hunting? Him? Shen Yuan had honestly never even considered it, some of his peers had already been for a few but he’d never thought it something he could do. He’d always expected to only be able to read about the monsters that populated the world.
It was an exciting possibility, not to have to lock himself away. He had a lot to think about.
His world had changed in practically an instant and he had Gege to thank. He was about to express his gratitude, but Shen Qingqiu didn’t give him a chance.
“Now get to class.”
He nodded and ran off, Gege acted prickly and would never show it but he did care and it gave Shen Yuan comfort to know that maybe he wasn’t so easily forgotten.
Shang Qinghua had made some questionable decisions in his life.
Most of them pertained to a series of novels he published every so often, other ones managed to get him promoted to peak lord.
He still wasn’t entirely sure how that had all worked out but he wasn’t really going to complain, well not about that any way. It probably had something to do with his hobby of collecting information.
It was habit really; he’d picked it up when he started traveling to research his novels. Finding the biggest gossips in a town and getting them to tell him everything. There was always inspiration to be found in the drama of average people’s lives.
He kept the connections when he realized that same gossip could make his job easier too. The fact that he happened to pick up secrets nobody wanted him to know was their fault really.
It was inexplicably easy to know too much when you well... knew too much. He’d get reports from all over the realm, keeping up the ruse of needing inspiration for his novels. If he picked up a plotline here and there even better.
So he had, sort of, accidently, become a spymaster. But it felt like an appropriate hobby, and his writer’s brain often connected the dots that some people rather not be connected.
But really, he needed all the advantages he could get. His cultivation wasn’t bad; he’d become a peak lord after all, but his strengths with words of power were not ideal.
Words of power worked differently for every cultivator, sort of. Sure two cultivators could say the same words with the same intent but it didn’t mean they’d react the same.
Even issuing a simple command could have drastically different consequences. How you spoke was as important as what you said. The words could have effect immediately or exert themselves slowly over time. One cultivator’s words could be overwhelming, while another’s could be easily ignored.
Some people could issue commands effortlessly and the world would obey, others could enhance their own abilities beyond what should be possible. Shen Shixiong was particularly adept with denials, Mu Qingfang’s were most powerful when particularly specific, and Qi Qingqi’s while more ambiguous tended to affect more people at once.
Not Shang Qinghua. If he wanted his words of power to be most effective, he had to frame them as a request. Which meant there was always an opportunity for refusal no matter how much qi he poured into them.
So, if, he had a network of spies feeding him the info he needed to make him better at his job who could really blame him?
Not telling his martial siblings about said spy network probably wasn’t the smartest decision he could have made but it wasn’t his worst.
That honor when to the demon Lord Mobei Jun.
He’d been away from Cang Qiong on one of his research trips in a small town near the border to the demon realm working on his next novel.
He’d specifically traveled to the border to ask about the demon realm. He was writing about an unparalleled beauty sacrificing her freedom to a demon lord for her father’s safety. He’d had a promising start writing it but he needed to know more about demons to do the male lead proper justice.
He hadn’t learned all that much about demons from the locals, there was woman insisting that a child had used words and then been kidnapped by cultivators. She was clearly crazy, but it was the most interesting story in the village that day.
So, when he came across an absolutely gorgeous half-conscious demon bleeding out in an alleyway, he saw it as an opportunity, rather than rather poorly thought out decision that it actually was.
Forgetting whatever gossip he’d collected that day he’d instead taken the demon back to his rented room and spent the night piling ice upon his unconscious form, lamenting how unfair it was that the demon could still be so devastatingly handsome while so direly wounded.
But that was beside the point, do a demon lord a favor and suddenly your spy network extends into the demon realms right?
Well not exactly.
Mobei Jun had not been particularly grateful upon awakening. Qinghua’s only saving grace had been that he hadn't tried to use words of power, he’d figured they probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.
Words and demons didn’t really mix. They couldn’t speak them like cultivators but they didn’t need to. They were usually well equipped with their own demonic power, and sure words could work on demons but only the weaker ones. Even then if you wanted them to really stick you needed to use a demon’s name, which still wasn’t a guarantee of success.
If a demon gave you their name it meant they were confident enough to break any words you might use. It was why cultivators whose words bolstered their own ability in combat, Like Liu Qingge, fared best against the demon realm.
Shang Qinghua didn’t stand a chance.
So he did what he always did whenever he made a terrible decision that was likely to get him killed.
Prostrating himself in front of the demon lord he did his best to hug the man’s thigh, calling him ‘my king’ so there was no way he could be mistaken for using words of power.
Somehow it had worked, and he’d come out of the experience mostly intact.
At the time he figured at best he’d never see the demon lord again, at worst? Well he considered it prudent to abandon his research and return to Cang Qiong expeditiously.
He’d have a better chance at survival with his more battle-ready martial siblings nearby.
He never did end up finishing that novel.
What he hadn’t expected was for him to return to his room late one night, nearly two years later, to find the demon lord once again injured and in his bed.
The wounds hadn’t been particularly severe, but it seemed that the demon lord expected Shang Qinghua to care for him as he’d done before.
Which of course Shang Qinghua did. What other choice did he have? Mobei Jun was the most terrifyingly attractive man Shang Qinghua had ever met; and he knew Liu Qingge.
It was the first of many such visits and it seemed that Shang Qinghua had somehow adopted the stray cat of demon lords. Just his luck.
It didn’t help that the demon lord had a better poker face than Shen Qingqiu, he could never tell if the demon was grateful, constipated or preparing to rip out his spine.
He decided if he groveled a little more, he’d hopefully never have to find out.
It wasn’t very often that Shen Yuan had the opportunity to visit the other peaks, this time though he had decided that the trip to An Ding was necessary.
Necessary for him not to be anywhere near the bamboo hut while Yue Qingyuan was visiting.
Shen Qingqiu never raised his voice, not with his students, not even when Shen Yuan was being a little shit. He had a reputation and an uncanny ability to convey the strictest authority with nothing more than a glance.
There was however one exception, Cang Qiong’s sect leader. Shen Qingqiu at least had the grace to only do so in private. Which put Shen Yuan in the incredibly awkward position of not only being the only witness but also the only person unfortunate enough to have left the book he was reading in his room.
The list wasn’t urgent but at the very least it would keep him away from the one-way shouting match that would be taking place on Qing Jing. If he was lucky by the time he’d gone and come back Yue Qingyuan would have given up on whatever it was that always incensed Shen Qingqiu.
He didn’t know exactly why Shen Qingqiu was always so angry at the other man, all he knew was there was bitter history there and for the sake of his personal safety and sanity he was better off not knowing it.
In an effort to maintain his ignorance, he headed across the rainbow bridge hoping that by the time his errand was finished he’d return to a much quieter home.
He never had much of a chance to know most of the other peak lords, they didn’t often visit Qing Jing and since he didn’t often leave Qing Jing opportunities to cross paths with them were few and far between.
Even his exchanges with Yue Qingyuan; who visited the scholarly peak most often, were fairly limited.
They usually consisted of the Sect leader asking after Shen Qingqiu’s mood and then blatantly ignoring any warning Shen Yuan attempted to give him.
Definitely better off not knowing.
Most of what he knew of An Ding’s peak lord came from his brother’s opinion. She Qingqiu often referred to the man as a blubbering coward, though he did mention that Peak Lord Shang did his job better than his predecessor. That was high praise by Gege’s standards.
This meant when he handed the man the requests for Qing Jing he wasn’t quite prepared for the man’s response. Shen Yuan was far too used to his brother’s reserved nature and meticulous organization,
Shang Qinghua stayed still just long enough to read the request then he practically exploded into action, sifting quickly through piles of paper that littered his desk muttering to himself about supplies and manpower.
It was evident that he had no discernable filing system.
Shen Yuan wanted to let him know that the matter wasn’t urgent but he didn’t know if the man knew his hand signs. Even if he did, he hadn’t bothered to look up from whatever it is he was doing.
“Ah left that inventory by the stock room, stay right there,” with barely a warning Shen Yuan was alone in the peak lord’s office feeling rather awkward.
There were some pages blown off the desk in the whirlwind of Peak Lord Shang’s departure, he grabbed them before they could hit the floor. Not knowing exactly where they belonged, or how long their owner would be, he began to read them.
He really shouldn’t have, any documents on a peak lord’s desk could hold all kinds of sensitive information. The kind of information disciples shouldn’t be privy to, let alone someone like him who had such an ambiguous position on the peaks.
But having always been such an avid reader it was impossible to stop his eyes from drifting to the characters on the page, and when they did, he realized that these pages held nothing even remotely peak related.
It was fiction.
The two pages he’d managed to snag had been written about some glorious hero fighting some righteous battle against his rival? Brother? Doppelgänger? It wasn’t very clear. It seemed like an honestly interesting excerpt, but the dialogue was pretty ham fisted and cliché. So much so that any emotional impact intended by the author was completely eclipsed.
Shen Yuan made a face.
“That bad huh?” That startled him.
How could a man who was clearly a walking disaster enter a room so quietly?
Turning to the peak lord he guiltily offered back the wayward pages. He tried to put on a mask of indifference just like Shen Qingqiu would have.
Shang Qinghua took the pages and eyed him thoughtfully. “What did you think?”
He had been expecting to be scolded so the eagerness of the question threw him. Before he could stop himself, he began signing a scathing review of the text. He’d read a lot of stories, but nobody had ever really asked his opinion of them.
And he had opinions.
Halfway through the review he realized he didn’t even know if Shang Qinghua could even interpret it. But the man seemed to be paying him rapt attention.
When he’d finished the man in front of him whined.
A literal whine, from a grown man, from one of the cultivation worlds respected leaders.
“Oh c’mon, I mean I know it’s only a first draft, but it makes way more sense if you read the rest of it.”
Suddenly the whirlwind was back pilfering pages from the mess of the desk, putting them in some semblance of an order.
When he was satisfied with the haphazard pile he stuffed it into Shen Yuan’s arms.
“Here take this with you. Don’t lose it, it’s my only draft. Read all of it and then tell me what you think. I need a second opinion to help me sort out the story.”
Before he could even register that he had just ripped apart a piece of the novel written by one of Cang Qiong’s peak lords he was shooed out the door. He was then unceremoniously pulled back in only to be given a note regarding his original request then shoved out once more.
His trip back over the rainbow bridge was a bewildered shamble.
He’d insulted the man’s writing and then was asked to read more of it. It was baffling him as to why. Perhaps he’d return the manuscript with an apology, if he was to read this drivel, he would be hard pressed to flatter the man who’d written it.
Then again Peak Lord Shang hadn’t seemed too off-put by his less than stellar first impression.
Still it would probably do him no favors to continuously insult a peak lord.
He returned to the bamboo hut a little dazed but decided he wouldn’t even read the damn thing. Shen Qingqiu already offended the other peak lords plenty Shen Yuan didn’t need to further antagonize any of them.
He was about to open the door before he registered the yelling. It seems his brother was not yet finished berating Sect Leader Yue and it sounded like he had plenty of vitriol left to go.
He forlornly remembered that the book he intended to read was still trapped in the hut, he could probably study but he really had just wanted to spend the afternoon reading. The pile of paper shifted in his grip.
Perhaps he’d just give the manuscript a once over, it would be the polite thing to do.
Life continued relatively peacefully on Cang Qiong, Shen Qingqiu had yet to take a head disciple which left Shen Yuan with all the work of one, minus teaching the junior disciples. He did teach one course regarding how to recognize and deal with some of the rarer beasts a cultivator may encounter but only senior disciples attended, even then it was only the ones who best understand his hand signs. He would get excited sometimes and even the most advanced students would have trouble following the gestures.
Having few classes to teach though meant his brother had absolutely no qualms giving him all of Qing Jing’s paperwork. Which honestly wasn’t all that bad usually but as of late it had put him in a mood.
Shen Yuan had long since come to terms with his place in the sect. He didn’t use words, but he could still work on his golden core, focus on the physicality of his sword forms and he would always be Qing Jing’s foremost expert on monsters.
But that didn’t mean that his voicelessness didn’t bother him now and again. Especially as another Immortal Alliance conference approached, and with him responsible for all the paperwork. His brother had him help pick out the best students to attend and he couldn’t completely tamp down the sliver of jealousy that slithered around the edges of his mind.
He’d never get to attend, not even as a spectator. Huan Hua usually hosted and Shen Qingqiu had made it clear he was to never go near the other sect.
Which honestly, he had agreed with, fifteen years later and his skin would still prickle at the idea of running into Lao Gongzhu.
But what were the chances that the old palace master would even recognize him? Especially if he were to be relegated to the stands with hundreds of other disciples.
It seemed petty but he would at least like to witness one conference, not even to compete. He was almost too old to do so now anyway. The real attraction was the chance to see such an array of different monsters and beasts all in one place, and maybe hearing his peers return from an exciting conference telling stories about the competition made him feel just a little more like the forgotten child who used to hide in his room and bury himself in books. Loosing himself to stories and adventures he himself could never experience.
It was lonely
So, if that particular week, he doled out a few extra laps around the mountain, or possibly assigned several extra chapters for his students to read, and internally sulked; just a little, who could really blame him?
Maybe he’d rip apart Shang Qinghua’s latest novel chapter, that usually made him feel better. Somehow the man still asked for his reviews, no matter how brutally he decimated the prose. It was a strange arrangement, Shen Yuan wouldn’t call it friendship, If he did Shang Qinghua might act even more ridiculous around him.
He still couldn’t figure out how the man had been made peak lord, and all Shen Qingqiu would say was that he was better than the last head of An Ding.
He did genuinely enjoy reading Qinghua’s stories, even if it was mostly so he could complain about the ridiculously contrived plot holes, the one-dimensional characters and the abominable romance. It made him feel needed
So, he resigned himself to an evening of reading, at least he had until his brother had approached him.
“Get ready for a hunt. Mu Shidi needs us to bring back blue horned tiger eggs. We leave in the morning.” They hadn’t gone out for a hunt in awhile, but Shen Yuan was fairly certain Mu Qingfang’s stock of powdered blue horned tiger eggshells was hardly low. It wasn’t a commonly needed component.
He nodded his understanding and grinned after Shen Qingqui left the room. You’re not subtle Gege , I see what you’re doing. Shen Qingqiu was not an affectionate man, but he did care. It had taken Shen Yuan years to figure it out but the other man showed it in other ways, subtler ways.
It wasn’t the tight hugs and gentle lullabies the Su Xinyan had provided, and Shen Qingqiu would never admit to it under pain of death, but it helped push away some of the loneliness that had contributed to Shen Yuan’s mood.
A night hunt was just what he needed, to step away from the conference planning for a few days. Something to remind him that he wasn’t useless without his voice. Objectively he knew he wasn’t, Gege had convinced him of that long ago, but it didn’t hurt to have a tangible reminder every once in a while.
Spirits lifted he put away Qinghua’s manuscript and began sorting through what they’d need for their hunt, silently singing along to one of Shijie’s favourite lullabies.
It was a Huan Hua arrow.
A bold move; underhanded and opportunistic, but bold.
Shen Jiu even in his haggard state had to hand it to whomever had fired the damn thing, had they pulled it off, had he or his brother been any slower, it would have been the perfect murder.
A peak lord and his disciple mauled to death by a wild beast. No fault would fall upon the lavish sect and a political obstacle would have been removed.
He didn’t flatter himself in thinking that he was Lao Gongzhu’s greatest obstacle, but he had never let the man sit comfortably either. Especially after taking in Shen Yuan, moreso after Su Xiyan’s death.
It had been an easy enough hunt, A-Yuan had always been so keen on studying beasts and it had translated well in practical application. Sitting back and letting the young man find their quarry was rather satisfying.
He had seen how the upcoming Immortal Alliance conference had weighed on him. Here in the middle of some god-forsaken forest A-Yuan's confidence had returned. It was truly amazing to see how the cowering child he’d taken in all those years ago had become such an assured and competent man.
Shen Jiu was never one for sentimentality, but no one could ever accuse him of being above pride.
There were other cultivators in the area, Huan Hua disciples looking to stock the arena for the upcoming conference. Their target was far fiercer than what would be considered appropriate for the event, so they kept their distance with little worry of crossing prey.
Blue horned tigers were not the easiest of beasts to hunt, there were very few disciples he’d dare to take on such an endeavor. Even fewer who could collect the eggs without killing the beast.
After finding the beast slumbering in the nest A-Yuan insisted on it.
Blue horned tigers were rare. Their pelts were coveted by the wealthy, the blue and black stripes a sign of prestige. Especially since obtaining one meant dealing with their namesake. Wicked horns curling out from under beast’s chin they would gore any creature unfortunate enough to be caught in the tiger’s jaws.
Letting the thing live didn’t matter much to the peak lord, but he indulged A-Yuan’s demand. If they were quiet and careful retrieving a few of the eggs would be easy. No need to face the monster and they’d be able to return if more eggs were ever needed.
He could appreciate the practicality of it. Besides A-Yuan was adept at silence, not only because his lack of voice. Shen Yuan was a shadow, calmly approaching the nest each footstep almost eerily quiet.
He’d managed to put two of the eggs in his qiankun pouch before the arrow struck the beast’s flank.
Head down focused on his objective A-Yuan didn’t stand a chance. Shen Jiu moved without thinking pulling A-Yuan away from those wicked horns, only managing to be skewered by them himself.
He couldn’t tell if the metallic taste on his tongue was indicative of words activating, or if it was merely his own blood. He didn’t particularly want to think over either implication.
Momentum sent them both sprawling away from the nest, he endeavored to keep himself squarely between A-Yuan and the tiger, but he had difficulty even moving under his own power.
The tiger prepared to charge a second time but, to his credit, Shen Yuan was quick to act. Sending a barrage of qi infused leaves, he distracted the creature as he hauled Shen Jiu to his feet.
The cultivators stumbled through the brush as discreetly as they could manage, eventually coming across an alcove in the hillside, obscured by a large tree. It was thankfully vacant, and Shen Yuan gently set him down.
The qi pulsing through the wound could only do so much for the pain and he let out an undignified grunt as he hit the ground.
A-Yuan had grabbed Xiu Ya and placed it next to him. When had he even drawn the sword? It would have been useful against the beast. No matter. It was good that A-Yuan had grabbed it, he would need it.
The younger man began fussing over his injury pulling some sort of salve from his supplies. His expression became more distressed as he tried to figure out how to apply it to the bloody mess of Shen Jiu’s side.
Hissing he grabbed A-Yuan's wrist, “Don’t bother. You’re no healer.”
If he was more coherent the stricken look on Shen Yuan’s face would have concerned him. Over the years he’d nearly perfected the role as Shen Qingqiu’s shadow and such a blatant display of emotion should have been troubling.
He huffed as more qi was poured through the new point of contact. A-Yuan would have to stop that if he was going to make the flight, besides Shen Jiu could circulate his own qi.
He didn’t dare look at the wound himself, he didn’t need to see it to know that it was bad. Muddled as he was he could still feel the blood soaking through his robes far too quickly. He should probably focus on stopping that first.
Instead he locked eyes with A-Yuan, “It won’t kill me, but you need to get Mu shidi.” Shen Jiu hated asking for help but even he had enough sense to know when it was needed. Shen Yuan’s face went from grieved to angered and the steady stream of qi increased.
“A-Yuan, It won’t kill me.” The words felt heavy but the familiar spark of them wrapped around him. His denials were always strongest, Shen Jiu excelled at breaking inevitabilities and this would be no different. The words would take, and he would live.
“You need to return to Cang Qiong.” He released A-Yuan's hand breaking the contact point of the qi transfer.
Irritably the man signed at him. You won’t make it, it’s three days back.
“ Not by sword.”
The way A-Yuan's face crumpled just then reminded him of the first time he’d asked the boy’s name. That moment felt like a lifetime ago and now, now he was trusting that boy more than he’d ever trusted anyone.
A-Yuan was about to look away but this was important, so Shen Jiu grabbed his collar keeping him close.
“Focus your qi through the stone and keep it flush to your skin. Don’t fall off my sword, you’ll lose too much time if you do.” He’d broken eye contact, he couldn’t look A-Yuan in the eye. It was hard enough just knowing what he was about to do, the state he was going to put himself in. ”You know the words for Xiu Ya.”
He’d promised himself long ago that he’d never end up like this again, but the sharp scent clinging to his nostrils told him that this would be the best way to keep A-Yuan safe.
Binghe sat next to the meagre grave, cold and more alone than he’d ever felt. He’d cobbled together a gravestone, it wasn’t enough.
It would never be enough.
His mother had worked so hard her entire life and all she had to show for that work was a poorly carved grave marker, and him.
He clutched the jade pendant, the last gift she’d ever given him strung below Shizun’s stone. The two most important people to him now hung close to his heart, but all he really wanted was a hug.
He felt so hollow, when she’d fallen sick he’d scrambled, desperate to find a way to afford medicine. By the end he couldn’t even afford food.
He hadn’t even been there when she’d passed.
He’d come home so elated to have finally scraped together enough coin for a bowl of congee, he almost threw it at the wall when he realized she was gone.
The thought of her scolding him for wasting precious food stopped him. Especially when his own stomach was aching with emptiness.
Now she was gone, and he was alone. Alone for the first time in his short life, even Shizun had been quieter than usual only adding to his feeling of isolation.
He let the weight of that settle on him and the familiar sting in his nose hit him. His face contorted without his permission and he couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.
He collapsed in front of her grave. He’d always cried so easily but this felt like the first time he truly needed to, like he deserved to, and once he started there was no way he could stop. Each sob stealing his breath, increasing the weight upon his chest.
Absorbed in his grief he didn’t notice the men sneaking up on him. His mother had always warned him to watch out for slavers. She was afraid they’d be after him if he wasn’t careful, his face was too pretty.
He’d once laughed it off as a complement, but she had good reason to be afraid.
A pair of hands grabbed him lifting him away from the dirt, realization struck him and he began thrashing.
No they couldn’t take him, he still needed to say goodbye to his mom, and he still wanted to find Shizun.
That thought made his blood run cold, if they took him, they’d take away Shizun too, his mother had said they would. He redoubled his efforts, flailing his arms hoping to hit his captor in the face. It was of little use, he was too small and already exhausted from hunger and grief.
“ Leave him alone!”
Immediately everything stilled, the slavers froze midmotion. The one holding Binghe dropped him and he hit the ground stunned.
That was Shizun’s voice.
He had enough sense to scramble away from his attackers, the spark of hope kindling in his chest. Shizun was here! And he’d come to save Binghe!
He swiveled his head hoping to find the man behind the voice he’d found comfort in all his life.
But there was no one.
The slavers had clearly heard it too, also spinning back and forth, looking for the source of the voice. So much so that they had completely forgotten about Binghe.
“Shizun!” He called out but the only people in the clearing appeared to be Binghe and the four slavers. Realizing this his elation withered.
He had heard Shizun he was sure of it, the slavers did too. He clutched the stone around his neck.
- Find a place to hide, we need to get away from here. That alarmed Binghe, head never heard Shizun sound so worried before, had he known Binghe was in danger?
Fuck, fuck, fuck somewhere to hide, can’t let them find us.
That finally spurred Binghe into action, he ran. Rather than following the road back to his empty home he ran into the forest. If Shizun said they needed to hide, then he would hide.
Eventually he found a small dugout beneath some gnarled tree roots. Wiping his tears on his sleeve he shimmied himself into the crevice. It was barely big enough for him. There was no way the slavers would be able to reach him.
He covered his mouth to stop himself making noise. Shizun was talking about staying quiet. Eventually his breath evened out and the exertion of the day finally caught up with him.
That’s how he fell asleep, buried under a tree curled around himself clutching the small bead like a lifeline.
Horror dawned on Shen Yuan’s face as he watched Shen Qingqiu reach for his own neck. Mesmerized he watched as the man pulled a small stone of jade from his throat.
He knew what that felt like and all he could do was stare at the deep green stone as his brother shoved it into his nerveless hand.
What are you waiting for GO! Gege’s voice rang out, but it was wrong. He wasn’t hearing it with his ears but in his head.
It took another moment for his mind to catch up, when it did he gripped the stone tight to his chest. Hastily he grabbed Xiu Ya and just before leaving he turned back towards the injured man.
“I...I won’t let you down.” The words were awkward, they felt clunky. As if his mouth was moving faster than the sound. What was more disturbing was the familiarity of the voice. It was the first words he’d been able to utter in more than fifteen years, but the voice that said them was clearly Shen Qingqiu’s.
As he escaped into the night clambering onto Xiu Ya he heard another echo in his mind.
I know you won’t
It's amazing how much a story can change from its inception. When I first was thinking about this fic I thought I’d try to tone down the OG character’s tragedy a bit. But then I started writing it and apparently fictional suffering fuels my soul.
Also I was planning for Shen Jiu to be dead right off the bat (or like have SXY kill him and take his voice for SY while smuggling from Huan Hua, basically make him a throwaway character) Boy am I glad that didn’t pan out. He’s actually one of my favourite characters to write and omg he makes such a good emotional foundation for Shen Yuan.
As always I love hearing from you.
Chapter 3: Borrowed
Pretending to be someone else isn't easy, especially when there is someone out there looking for you.
I wanted to have this chapter up yesterday but it's become such a behemoth that I needed a little extra time for quality control. RIP Airplane but I'm different.
Wow this is a long chapter but there wasn't really a good place to split it. I had a hard time starting this chapter but when I did it just kept going. At first I thought this might be a boring chapter and now I don't know why I had thought that.
I am still abosolutley giddy about all your comments and kudos, thank you all!
Edited 09/06/2020 - grammar + tense
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Usually Liu Qingge would let his disciples take themselves to Qian Cao when they were injured; but since it had been him who’d broken Ru Zhaohu’s leg, bringing the boy to the healers seemed like the least he could do. Even if the fool was determined to leave his left side open with every attack.
He’d been ready to return to Bai Zhan when he’d spotted the figure flying towards him, it was moving quickly but weaving erratically. Swerving dangerously back and forth as it approached the ground.
As the figure drew closer the details solidified and he could make out Qing Jing robes, only they were in a state that would shame most of the scholars of said peak. Dark stains showing up starkly against the whites and pale greens.
It was a sight strange enough to cause the familiar creep of worry to traverse his spine, something was amiss. Liu Qingge’s instincts were never wrong.
The man descended quickly stumbling as he leapt from his sword. Qingge caught him, steadying him as he tried to catch his breath.
For a split second he thought it was Shen Qingqiu, but he quickly abandoned the notion. The man's features were too soft and his emotions far too visible.
It must have been the brother, the one that didn’t speak, upon closer inspection he wondered how he could’ve made the mistake. Especially since Shen Shixiong wouldn’t be caught dead so unkempt, nor would he hold on to Liu Qingge like he was a lifeline.
Still the few times Qingge had ever crossed paths with the brother he’d been as pristinely kept as Qing Jing’s peak lord. Now that he was close, he could tell his robes were in fact stained with blood. From a distance Qingge had thought it mud, now he was close enough to smell the stale scent of iron.
The sheer amount of it was troubling.
The man twisted his grip, clutching tighter to Liu Qingge’s robes, breath ragged. He wanted to say something, but exhaustion was weighting on him.
Qingge frowned, he didn’t know the hand signs the man used to communicate, did Mu Shixiong? Probably. He moved to pull the man to the building behind him when a familiar voice made his blood run cold.
“Need Mu Qingfang. Gege... Gege’s hurt.”
He’d never heard it filled with fear, but it was Shen Qingqiu’s voice, he was almost sure of it. Still he did a double take to confirm that, no, it wasn’t the peak lord who was clutching him so desperately.
The words had been stilted, awkward. Too awkward to be his martial brother, not nearly enough venom. But the man in front of him was supposedly without a voice. At least that’s what Shen Qingqiu had claimed all those years ago. But if they were brothers it should stand to reason that they’d sound alike.
Rather than question the strange turn of events Liu Qingge simply nodded and led the man to Mu Qingfang, allowing him to place his weight on Qingge’s shoulder. Time seemed to be of the essence and he’d always preferred action to contemplation.
Mu Qingfang at first seemed surprised by seeing Qingge again, but a glance at the man at his side and the healer moved to tend him.
But the man pushed him away.
Used to such unruly patients; which Qingge may have been one, Mu Qingfang calmly reprimanded, “Shen Yuan,” Right, that was the man’s name. “You are covered in blood.”
Shen Yuan shook his head emphatically, “It’s Geg- Shen Qingqiu. He needs your help right away.”
That startled Mu Qingfang who now stared dumbfounded at Shen Yuan. Good that meant Liu Qingge was right and it was unusual for this man to talk.
Shen Yuan extricated himself from Qingge’s grip and held something out to the healer, Qingge couldn’t see what it was but it was apparently explanation enough, Mu Qingfang looked to Qingge. “Go get Zhangmen Shixiong, tell him it’s urgent.”
Whatever it was, it must’ve been. He didn’t know what had happened but what he did know was more than enough to get the sect leader to rush to Qian Cao.
Shen Yuan and Mu Qingfang met them outside. The younger man had been given clean robes, he looked as if he was trying to maintain calm, but it was clear his anxiety was bleeding through.
When they landed Yue Qingyuan looked to Mu Qingfang for an explanation, the healer gestured to Shen Yuan in response.
“Tell him what you told me.”
“We, we were hunting.” Yue Qingyuan’s eyes widened and Shen Yuan seemed to shrink under the new intensity. “I, I screwed up, the blue horned tiger attacked us and Gege was hurt, He needs help now!” The last few words were rushed, the young man desperate to get them out as quickly as he could. It was odd as if his mouth was moving faster than his words “He gave me his voice so I could bring back Mu Qingfang.”
Once again, he held out his hand, this time Qingge could see the emerald jade cradled in his palm.
Both Peak lords drew back. As far as Liu Qingge was aware voice stones were heirlooms of long dead family members. Removing one from a living person was unthinkable, he didn’t know it was possible.
The look on Yue Qingyuan’s face was one of unrestrained horror, eyes locked on the small stone. He reached out hand pausing just above Shen Yuan’s “Where is he?” It was no secret he had a soft spot for Shen Qingqiu but Qingge had never heard his voice tremble before.
Shen Yuan pulled back his hand and squared his shoulders. “I’m coming with you.” he hefted Xiu Ya, and it was clear now that it was in fact Xiu Ya he’d flown in on. Qingge still wasn’t sure how he’d managed to use the voice stone to fly, but he must have if the legendary blade heeded his words.
The distress on Yue Qingyuan’s face worsened but he still deferred to his more medically minded Shidi.
“Shen Yuan you’ve been flying all night you won’t have enough q-”
“ I’m coming with you. A shiver ran through the peak lords, the young man had adopted a stern look, one oh so familiar. If he hadn’t known better Liu Qingge would have sworn it was Shen Qingqiu facing them down.
“I’ll take you to him. He doesn’t have time for you to search the entire forest.”
He stared down Yue Qingyuan almost daring him to protest, his determined poise screaming finality. The matter was not up for discussion, which it would have been if he hadn’t just used words to demand it.
Words that weren’t even his own.
All arguments rendered useless Yue Qingyuan mounted his sword and indicated that the other three should do the same. If time was so crucial, they wouldn’t waste it on debate.
The flight was not pleasant, nothing Liu Qingge was unused to, but flying through rain was never ideal, particularly in the fall.
Shen Yuan had already done this trip the one way; it was clearly wearing him down. Their guide kept his trajectory steadier than his landing but not by much. His thin disciple robes would be poor insulation from the cold rain.
Admirably he didn’t let it show, Qingge was impressed by his single-minded focus, eyes never deviating from the horizon.
It took many hours before they drew closer to the ground, Xiu Ya still a full man’s height above it before Shen Yuan was already leaping from the blade.
“Gege! We’re here!” He slipped behind a large tree into an alcove dug into the rock.
The peak lords had barely landed, and he was already gripping a limp hand like it might squeeze back. As odd as it had been to see the younger brother so disheveled it was practically nauseating to look at Shen Qingqiu.
Qingge was not unfamiliar with such grievous wounds; no war god could be, but to see the man so ghostly and sallow, his usually pristine robes were so soaked in red it was easy to forget the pales shades they’d been.
The man had never stood a chance, that much was clear. While Liu Qingge had never gotten along with his Shixiong he would have never wished such a death upon him. He grimaced, swallowing back the metallic bile rising in his throat.
He looked away as Mu Qingfang moved to attend the body. Yue Qingyuan’s face held the same ashen shade as the corpse. Even so it seemed he couldn’t take his gaze from the uncharacteristically serene expression gracing Shen Qingqiu’s sharp features.
Their sect leader seemed to be an expert in self-flagellation, barely even blinking as he scanned the corpse.
The small alcove would have been deathly silent if it weren’t for the small desperate pleas coming from Shen Yuan.
All with a dead man’s voice.
The horrifying moment seemed to stretch into an eternity, until it cracked like a piece of porcelain.
“He still lives.”
It was clear that even Qian Cao’s greatest healer had not expected as much after looking upon the scene. None of them had.
They should have known better; the bastard was far too stubborn to die so trivially.
“Give me some space.”
Yue Qingyuan moved almost too fast to see, but he was still gentle as he pulled Shen Yuan away from the dying man, leaving the healer to his work.
Outside the alcove the rain still came down, but at least the canopy of leaves above them protected them from the worst of it.
Yue Qingyuan had seated Shen Yuan on a nearby log, the man was not in good shape. His teeth were chattering, and he could only stare off into the distance. The fresh Qian Cao robes were now almost as stained as the Qing Jing ones he’d changed out of.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar look, Qingge had seen many disciples in a similar state. He knew that he wasn’t exactly a calming presence, but it was clear that the younger Shen needed a distraction.
Thankfully Yue Qingyuan could fill that role, it was likely that Shen Yuan didn’t have enough of a core to keep himself warm so Qingge took the practical approach and set about building a fire.
The rain hadn’t made it easy, but he managed to find some dry wood in the underbrush, a fire talisman took care of the rest.
The sect leader had crouched in front of Shen Yuan, directing his focus and speaking in hushed tones. A barely formed core, almost a day of flight and next to no food, it was more than enough to exhaust even some of the most experienced cultivators. It seemed only the uncertainty of his brother’s condition was keeping him conscious.
He couldn’t possibly fathom what his fellow peak lord had done to earn such concern. Perhaps it was unfair to expect the man to be constantly unpleasant, but Qingge had personally never experienced anything else. Shen Yuan’s worry seemed to say otherwise.
Maybe Shen Qingqiu wasn’t as unredeemable as he’d had always assumed.
Curiosity peaked he approached the hushed conversation, Yue Qingyuan was getting Shen Yuan to go over the incident in further detail. It felt like something wasn’t adding up, it couldn’t just be as simple as Shen Qingqiu being mauled by a wild beast. Despite the danger posed by a blue horned tiger, the Xiu Ya sword should be more than a match for such a creature.
As he spoke Shen Yuan accompanied his words with the hand signs to match. His eyes were darkly shadowed and rimmed with red, but the story seemed to ground him, pull him from his earlier stupor. He didn’t look any less miserable but at least he looked more alive
“And after he gave me his voice, I could hear him.” It was incredibly uncomfortable listening Shen Qingiu’s voice get choked up even if it was Shen Yuan who was talking. “It was all my fault, but...”
“But what?” Yue Qingyuan prodded him gently.
“For most of the flight here he kept talking about Huan Hua. Saying it was their arrow.” the man buried his face in his hands. “He wasn't really coherent, but he kept cursing them until, until his voice stopped.”
The sect leader stiffened while Qingge’s eyes narrowed.
“Where is the beast?” Finally, this was something Qingge could do, an action he could take.
Clearly this wasn’t the question Shen Yuan expected but Yue Qingyuan seemed to be of the same understanding, “Where did you face the tiger?”
“The nest was about a yin south” He pointed in the direction.
Yue Shixiong looked to Qingge a determined set to his jaw, “Go.” Qingge nodded before disappearing into the underbrush.
Something bad had happened.
The peak lords had been called together on very short notice, that was the second sign. The first was three of their number leaving the sect at once with literally no notice.
Thankfully they returned, still it was nearly two days of Shang Qinghua trying to put out fires caused by nervous disciples left to their own devices.
Most of the peaks looked down on An Ding and the services it provided, but who was the first lord approached when things went sideways? Well technically they went to Qing Jing first, but Shen Qingqiu had been away a few days already on a planned trip.
In theory, all of the peaks should have been able to function without their peak lord present, but some were more adept at the practice than others. Thank the gods that Bai Zhan was used to Liu Qingge just flying off whenever something piqued his interest, Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure if he could’ve managed those meatheads.
Qiong Ding and Qian Cao however were much less accustomed to having absent peak lords and even well-trained head disciples couldn’t seem to control the swirling concerns of their peers.
He felt incredibly relieved when he was told they had returned, that relief instantly vanished when someone mentioned the body they had brought with them.
He felt off balance knowing so little, even his extensive spy network wasn’t good enough to get him info quite so quickly. So, Shang Qinghua had to wait for the meeting of his martial siblings to find out more.
As Yue Qingyuan began the meeting a general uneasiness in his gut reformed into a cold dread.
There were only eleven of them.
He looked to Qi Qingqi seated next to him to express his disbelief, but her eyes were concentrated on someone standing behind their sect leader. Following her gaze did not help the ominous feeling as it prickled the back of his neck.
It was Shen Yuan and the kid looked like he’d been dragged out of hell. Dark circles under red rimmed eyes and the wrong color robes. Shen Yuan had always taken after his ‘brother’ and had been meticulously put together, unreadable expressions were the bread and butter of Qing Jing, but right now he saw lines of defeat in the slump of his shoulders, and a grief in the corners of his eyes.
Shit bro what happened? He wanted to give the man a hug, this might be the only time an attempt to do so wouldn’t result in him being beaten with a fan. Only a meeting of the peak lords was not the time or the place.
The news that Shen Qingqiu was injured sent a ripple of worry through his martial siblings. It was not good to be down a peak lord, especially one so highly skilled.
The murmur of concern gave way to shocked silence when Shen Yuan began recounting the incident using the injured man’s voice. Their rapt attention finally reached a crescendo of outrage when Liu Qingge unceremoniously revealed the beast’s corpse with the offending arrow.
The evidence was there, damning in its’ simplicity. Each sect had their own manner of fletching and Huan Hua’s was like everything the sect did garish and eye-catching.
The implications were clear, the attack had been engineered by one of their sister sects. But then again nothing was quite that simple. Shang Qinghua’s mind whirred as the other lords exploded.
“What would Huan Hua even have to gain by such action? It was clearly an accident.” Qinghua snorted, it was clearly something Feng Shidi but he’d bet An Ding’s rice stores that accidental wasn’t it.
Shang Qinghua had always appreciated Qi Qingqi, she was astute and blunt but not in the tactless way Liu Qingge tended to be. She seemed to think about problems in a similar manner that he did only she was far more aggressive about her opinions.
She was also the only peak lord who could match Shen Qingqiu in verbal sparring. With him absent, her intensity went uncontested.
“You are not so complete a fool Feng Shidi to have not seen how Lao Gongzhu has plucked power from the smaller sects. We all knew it was only a matter of time before his grasp reached for Cang Qiong.”
“I hardly see how removing Shen Shixiong strengthens Huan Hua.” That was a bit harsh, Shen Qingqiu wasn’t particularly well liked but that didn’t mean he wasn’t valued.
“By weakening Cang Qiong.” the acidity in her voice was caustic enough to rival the missing man, “If we are on less in number than Cang Qiong is less. Whether it is Shen Shixiong or Feng Shidi we are made less by the absence.” She let the statement settle before muttering to Shang Qinghua in her intentionally loud manner. “but perhaps that loss would be less consequential.”
The meeting had devolved to little more than a shouting match, Shang Qinghua was a little impressed and how quickly it had escalated.
“Enough!” Yue Qingyuan spoke with just enough volume to silence the room. He maintained his usually pleasant smile but Qinghua could see the strain in his features. Shit, considering his history with Shen Qingqiu this was probably wearing heavily on him.
“Shen Shidi is alive, and Qian Cao is doing their best to help him recover. Since he will be unable to attend, we should discuss the upcoming Immortal Alliance Conference.” Oh, Qinghua’s mind started racing again, what could they do about that. What would be the implications if Shen Qingqiu didn’t attend what if they could...
“Cang Qiong is of enough renown that one of our number being absent should not be questioned, his dis-”
“No!” Two voices rang out, and Qinghua shrank into himself when he realized one was his own. Damn. Qi-Shimei had stood next to him confident in her objection. Well at least he wasn’t alone.
The attention of the room had fallen on the two of them, Yue Qingyuan nodded, “Care to explain?” He didn’t seem particularly pleased by the interruption.
Qi Qingqi dug her heel into his foot, causing him to jump up. He gave her a hurt look, she returned it with an elbow. Apparently, she was going to make him explain. Qi Shimei they don’t listen to me like they do you!
“Uh..” he took a second to order his thoughts, he’d forgot to bring paper and had neglected the note taking that would have helped him. “if, uh, If Huan Hua is hoping to destabilize Cang Qiong not having all twelve peak lords attend the conference would be telling. Even if we say that Shen Shixiong is fine, they’ll know they’ve struck a blow, it may even encourage them to act against us similarly in the future.” That made sense right, it made sense to him. Huan Hua had always been opportunistic. This wasn’t the first instance of them creating that opportunity either.
Feng Qingmu seemed to be determined to be an obstacle “How do we have all peak lords attend when one is laid out in the infirmary?” He had a point but Qinghua did have an idea, and the way his Shimei was sizing up Shen Yuan she had the same one.
He gulped nervously scanning over every set of eyes had locked on him, he shrugged,
“We find a replacement.”
That was the wrong thing to say, the room erupted into a frenzy. Accusations were hurled at him from at least half the people in the room
“How dare you suggest such a thing!”
“We ascend together we retire together!”
“How dare you call yourself our brother!”
Qi Qingqi pounded on the oak desk in front of her, successfully silencing the room. Shang Qinghua had curled into himself as far as he could, they hadn’t even let him explain.
Thankfully his Shimei took over. “What Shang Shixiong is trying to say is we find someone to stand in for Shen Shixiong. Someone similar enough to be taken for him, just to prevent further hostilities.” She turned to glare at Feng Qingmu, “If we are wrong about Huan Hua’s intent that it would be a perfectly harmless action.”
Why couldn’t Qinghua be that eloquent? It really wasn’t fair.
“But who could take our Shixiong’s place? He would not be an easily man to match.” Many of the other lords nodded in agreement.
The gleam in Qi Qingqi’s eye was absolutely predatory when she turned it on Shen Yuan. “What better replacement than a brother who is already in possession of his voice?”
The color drained from Shen Yuan’s face as the attention of the room turned to him.
Shang Qinghua winced internally
Sorry bro, but she’s right.
It was an excellent plan, Qi Qingqi had always been amused by Shen Qingqiu’s shadow. From the day he stepped foot on Cang Qiong the boy had taken after the lofty immortal’s mannerisms.
Standing in front of her wearing his brother’s robes, hair pulled back in a precise and scholarly manner the resemblance was uncanny.
Sure, the younger Shen’s face wasn’t quite as sharp as his brother’s but only those who spent enough time with the elder brother would ever notice the difference.
“It’s a perfect likeness.” and it was, especially after the man sent her a flat glare. It was like Shen Qingqiu was standing before her.
She adjusted the choker that had been given to him. It wasn’t a particularly noticeable piece of jewelry but that was the point. It was designed to keep the voice stone pressed against the hollow of his throat the centerpiece gem hidden rather than displayed, refined enough not to look out of place on Qing Jing’s peak lord.
“Like Shen Shixiong is right here with us.” She did feel a little guilty about how much she was enjoying this. She was dismayed by Shen Qingqiu’s injury, she’d never say she liked the man; at least not out loud, but he was one of the most driven of her martial brothers and she had always appreciated that how when he had goal it got done.
She also couldn’t help but feel bad for Shen Yuan, this was a lot to deal with and he’d not been given any time to grieve.
But Cang Qiong wasn’t prepared for war, not with Huan Hua, not yet. They needed time and this charade would buy it for them. The fact Shang Qinghua felt the same was confirmation enough. He was jumpy and skittish but over the years she had noticed his unusual insights. He was far savvier than he appeared, and she trusted his opinion.
“This master is still not sure this is entirely necessary.” Yue Qingyuan was hovering like a worried mother. He was there to ‘supervise’ the endeavor but continued to doubt it’s need. “Lau Gongzhu is not an unreasonable man.”
She huffed imperiously as she continued to adjust small parts of Shen Yuan’s outfit. “Reasonable men do not extort other sects.” they had all heard the rumors.
Shen Yuan finally spoke up. “Nor do the steal voices from children.”
She froze her hands on his collar. Yue Qingyuan seemed to be in a similar state of disbelief.
The man seemed to realize that something was wrong, she was almost proud at the way he quickly hid himself behind a Qingqiu trademarked face of indifference, except.
What the fuck?
“Shen Yuan, please explain.” Yue Qingyuan’s voice was gentle, but firm. She was glad he spoke up because she was still too stunned voice the question herself.
What the fuck?
“Gege didn’t tell you.” It was a statement, a realization about the nature of the man in question. Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t share anything unless he thought it was useful. Damn him .
The explanation was short and sweet. Qi Qingqi hadn’t thought herself capable of disliking Lao Gongzhu any more than she already did but now as she learned of this greater atrocity her lip curled in disgust. Suddenly Shen Shixiong’s open hostility against the man made too much sense.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t dwell on this discovery needing to leave for the conference. Yue Qingyuan had taken the revelation with an increasing sense of horror. He seemed prepared to call off the whole conference which would only weaken Cang Qiong’s image.
She had told him as much and managed to convince him to continue with the ruse.
They had enough time before the conference to do some planning, no deception would succeed otherwise. Yue Qingyuan and Qi Qingqi would accompany Shen ‘Qingqiu” for the majority of the conference. Due to their martial brother’s prickly personality any of the other peak lords would be too suspicious.
They had also arranged a carriage for herself and Shen ‘Qingqiu’ so they could go over any lingering issued before arriving.
The carriage trundled along, and she couldn’t help but stare at the man in front of her. It was like a puzzle piece had clicked in place.
When Shen Qingqiu had first brought the boy to Cang Qiong his situation had been unusual but not worth investigating; the sects were full of orphans of nebulous origins, it was an unfortunate reality of their world. Questioning the provenance of every parentless child would be nothing but an exercise in heartache.
But this man had grown up well, despite it all. He hadn’t been pleased with the idea of impersonating his brother but when she had argued with Yue Qingyuan that it was too late to change the plan, Shen Yuan had agreed, with some very sensible points. They were asking a lot of him and he rose to the challenge the way any disciple of Cang Qiong should.
And Cang Qiong took care of its own.
“If the Old Palace Master Approaches you, do you want me to run interference?” The bastard had done so much to traumatize him she could do that at the very least. The poor boy couldn’t be expected not to panic, “I can make sure he doesn’t go anywhere near you.” It would break ‘Shen Qingqiu’s’ character but that wouldn’t matter, if he didn’t want to see that monster she’d stand in the way.
He looked slightly surprised by the offer and looked down to the fan he held in his hands. Opening it he stared at the delicate painting. It was a bamboo forest hidden in the mist, it reminded her of the forests on Qing Jing.
Something about it seemed to steel him, looking up to her he channeled an austere expression snapping the fan shut decisively.
“Thank you Shimei, but this lord can handle himself.”
She couldn’t help but grin, this brat’s impression was flawless. Still she resolved to keep an eye out.
After all, Cang Qiong took care of its own.
He’d survived the Immortal Alliance conference, but it had felt like a near thing. Imitating Shen Qingqiu hadn’t turned out to be particularly difficult; he’d been raised by the man after all.
Still he had to stop his stomach lurching with every interaction he’d been forced to make, every comment and every greeting was underlined with a single thought.
His only real saving grace was that he was supposed to be Shen Qingqiu, a man who never showed any warmth or familiarity with anyone. Shen Yuan managed to fake his way through greetings and pleasantries, after that if he was sought out it was for intellectual discourse, something he didn’t have to fake. He'd long ago adopted his brother’s debate tactics, and this was his first chance to really use them. The discussions even had him forgetting that he was not in fact Qing Jing’s illustrious scholar.
If you were to ask him, he’d say he did quite an admirable job of being Shen Qingqiu. If it was purely based on his performance, they would have been easily successful
No, what had nearly given him away was nothing that Shen Yuan could’ve controlled, what had nearly given him away was Yue Qingyuan.
He suddenly had insight into why Gege had never told the other peak lords about Shen Yuan's voice. There was no evidence of his claim and no one could’ve acted, not without bringing the might of Huan Hua down onto Cang Qiong. Since nothing could be done, what was the point of bringing it up? Shen Qingqiu had operated on a need to know basis and his martial siblings at the time didn’t need to know.
Especially when one was as transparently noble as Yue Qingyuan, the sect leader was constantly trying to place himself physically between Shen Yuan and the Old Palace Master.
It was far from subtle.
Thank Heavens for Qi Qingqi, the woman was shrewd enough to catch on and rather than Lau Gongzhu she ended up playing interference with her own martial brother.
The whole charade had been devised to save Cang Qiong the face it had come perilously close to losing anyway.
The regular tongue lashings Shen Qingqiu laid on the sect leader started to make a lot more sense, the man’s guilt complex was dangerous.
Despite all that, Shen Yuan thought he had handled Lau Gongzhu with a grace and poise even his Gege couldn’t help being proud of. Possibly maybe adding a little bit of spite, an amount that Gege would have probably claimed was insufficient. Honestly though it was good for a first try.
“Esteemed master Shen, it’s good to see you well.” the statement activated something primal in his brain screaming at him to run. Instead his stepped forward thankfully intercepting Yue Qingyuan’s attempt to block him.
He flicked open his fan and sent an accusatory glare at Lau Gongzhu, internally though all he felt like was screaming. Could he tell? It was obvious wasn’t it?
No, No, No he had a part to play! Gege , I promise I’m doing my best to save you face. “And why would this master be unwell?”
The man frowned at him with false concern, Shen Yuan didn’t need to act for a sneer to form. “some of my disciples had informed me that you had been injured.”
His fear gave way to rage, his anger on behalf Shen Qingqiu boiling over. How dare this bastard pretend at concern. He absently placed a hand on stone at his neck as he snapped his fan shut.
“Does this master appear injured?” Yue Qingyuan loomed behind him, while inconvenient it was certainly intimidating.
“You should be more concerned for Huan Hua’s disciples. If they cannot tell an injured man from a healthy one how will they fare in the competition.”
That caused the man to bristle, good at the very least he deserved to be uncomfortable.
“And Qing Jing’s should fare any better?” A challenge.
“Mn.” Lofty superiority, the one thing his brother could never resist and in that moment Shen Yuan could completely understand why. There was an intoxicating power in feeling such a smug sense of being better than someone else.
“Would Huan Hua’s master care to make a bet?” Betting was common during the conferences something Gege participated in often, particularly when he knew he could win. Right now, Shen Yuan knew he could win.
Not only had he helped pick out this year’s candidates from Qing Jing he’d taught all of them. If anyone wanted to succeed hunting demonic creatures for the conference, they made sure to attend his class.
Nobody knew more about such creatures than Shen Yuan and he made sure that Qing Jing Disciples were similarly well educated.
“I’m afraid I will have to decline Master Shen’s offer.” Coward, still it was enough to drive the man away leaving ‘Shen Qingqiu’ to place his bet with someone else.
Yue Qingyuan didn’t seem pleased with the encounter, but Qi Qingqi was radiating with absolute glee.
He’d won the bet, of course.
Eventually he’d felt guilty for enjoying himself so much. He had always wanted to attend a conference, and while the circumstances were less than ideal, he finally had been able to experience the atmosphere his peers had always raved about.
Well it was only seven days. Once it was over, he would return to the sect as himself. Gege would wake up and Shen Yuan could give back his voice. He’d return to his mountains of paperwork, teach the occasional class and enjoy his return to much more limited responsibilities.
If only it had been that simple.
He’d finally made it. That night after escaping the slavers there was only one thing Shizun had wanted him to do.
Make it to Cang Qiong, don’t stop until you do. They’ll be able to fix everything.
At the time Binghe hadn’t know where Cang Qiong was or even that it was a cultivation sect but if Shizun thought it was important he decided that’s where he would go.
He still couldn’t be sure if his Shizun was aware that Luo Binghe was listening. He didn’t answer any of Binghe’s questions, and most of his rantings still seemed as if the man was talking to himself. It didn’t matter though, there was still a chance of finding his teacher at Cang Qiong. Besides whether the man knew about him or not, Binghe had absolutely nothing to lose.
He would find his Shizun and thank him for all he’d done. Let him know how much he was worth. It was upsetting how his brilliant, beautiful Shizun could doubt himself.
That day had been a turning point, for Shizun as much as Binghe. His teacher was so distressed all the time. He’d become so unsure of himself and the familiar lullabies wavered with every verse.
While his mourning seemed to match Binghe’s it made the boy wish he could do something to comfort the man.
Somehow though whenever Binghe was feeling particularly morose Shizun would let loose a string of curses and he couldn’t help but giggle. He knew his Shizun was upset, but it reminded him of happier days when his mother scolded him for repeating such profanities.
It was also fairly impressive. The way the man could string together curses was practically an art form, even if he had been swearing more lately it always made Binghe smile.
But now he could start his search in earnest, after a few hard months of travel he made it to Cang Qiong. He was lucky enough to arrive just in time for the entrance exams.
His mother must have been looking out for him, not only was he did he arrive in time, he’d even been chosen. Him, Binghe, picked out among hundreds of other candidates, by Qing Jing’s peak lord. It made Binghe feel special just like his mother had always said he was.
Apparently, Qing Jing was the scholars peak and that only made him surer that it was where he was going to find his Shizun. Shizun was too smart not to have found a place among immortal intellectuals.
All Binghe had to do was keep an ear out for a familiar sonorous voice, one he’d recognize anywhere. He wasn’t sure what he’d do when he found Shizun.
Probably cry, but in a good way.
He’d been chosen alongside four other children to join the peak, and all five of them had been seated before Shen Qingqiu himself.
His new peers fidgeted under the immortal’s calculating gaze, but Binghe couldn’t contain his excitement. Could this be his Shizun?
The man was gorgeously refined, the perfect image of an immortal scholar. Long silken strands of inky hair were artfully arranged around sharp planes of a perfect face. Binghe wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anyone more beautiful than the man seated before them.
But it wasn’t the beauty that had him convinced that this was his Shizun, no it was the look in his eyes. While the Peak lord’s face remained stoic and impassive the man’s eyes spoke of depths unfathomable, unless of course like Binghe you had heard the man speak on every subject.
While his fellow disciples seemed to wither beneath the scrutiny Binghe couldn’t help but stare, wide eyed and eagerly awaiting the man’s words. Of course, his Shizun would be the most brilliant man in charge of the smartest peak. That and he had handpicked Binghe, no one else would have that kind of faith in him, he was so sure.
All he needed now was to hear the man’s voice and confirm it.
Shen Qingqiu opened a fan and peered over it, eyes landing on each of the new Qing Jing disciples taking in a measure of their worth. Binghe puffed up under the gaze determined to convey his potential to Shizun, and those eyes seemed to soften for barely a second. This was his Shizun, he had to be.
But then the peak lord spoke, and all his expectations shattered in an instant.
“This master welcomes you all to Qing Jing peak.” With each syllable Luo Binghe felt his hope decay, this was not his Shizun’s voice. It was too sharp, too precise, it wasn’t unpleasant, but it was definitely not the soothing timbre he was so familiar with.
“Here you will master cultivation through the study of scholarly pursuits. Here you shall endeavor to broaden your knowledge base and you will seize any opportunities for growth.” Binghe tried not to let his disappointment show, he should have known finding Shizun wouldn’t be so easy. Still it was hard to not let a bitter sense of defeat settle in his stomach.
“Qing Jing is where you will better yourselves.” He tried to cling on to those words, at the very least he could endeavor to become worthy of Shizun while he continued his search.
“Remember, one can never know too much, only not enough.”
It was only supposed to last seven days, the deception that he was Shen Qingqiu. It was only supposed to go on for the seven days of the Immortal Alliance Conference, and then it would all be over.
But Shen Qingqiu didn’t wake up.
It wasn’t unexpected, his wounds were particularly severe and having him back up and controlling his peak was not going to be an expedient process, but nobody had really expected it to take years.
Shen Yuan had tried at the very least to return his Gege’s voice, but he’d been refused. Without his voice there was less opportunity for a qi deviation, he wouldn’t unconsciously use words that could consume him.
So, he had continued to use his brother’s voice, and apparently, he had been so successful impersonating the man that the peak lords insisted he continue to do so as the Shen Qingqiu.
It made sense, Cang Qiong needed to give the impression that it was still operating as It always had, and since Shen Yuan had been already doing the work of a head disciple, he’d be saddled with the work regardless.
Thus, he was tasked with being Shen Qingqiu, until the real one woke up.
It was not a seamless solution and Qing Jing’s elder disciples needed to be made aware of the situation, but to any outsiders there would be no sign that anything was amiss.
Many of the older student’s refused to call him Shizun, which was honestly fair, he felt awkward enough feigning his brother's identity. Instead they called him Master Shen, which for everybody felt like less of a lie.
The younger ones though didn’t even notice the switch, perhaps since both Shen Yuan and Shen Qingqiu so rarely taught them.
He didn’t like it, pretending to be Shen Qingqiu felt disrespectful. It made him feel as if he was sipping tea in a burning hut. Ignoring the flames engulfing the walls and commenting how nothing was wrong.
Even so Cang Qiong had more pressing matters, matters he was now partially responsible for.
Tensions with Huan Hua were rising, it became clearer that war was on the horizon and the peaks needed to prepare.
Any of the peak lords still skeptical prior to the Immortal Alliance Conference were quickly disabused of the notion. All of them had become particularly enraged when Yue Qingyuan had shared the issue of Shen Yuan’s missing voice.
He had to admit hearing their outrage had been grounding, he was basically an imposter among them, yet they hadn’t hesitated to close ranks.
If war was coming, preparations had to be made.
The first was the issue of numbers. Cang Qiong was by no means one of the smaller sects but if it came down to a numbers game Huan Hua had the advantage. They were doing their best to ensure alliances but doing so required discretion and there were no guarantees who those allies would side with them when the time came.
They needed more disciples.
Shen Yuan had felt extremely hypocritical watching over a selection test he himself never participated in, then picking not one or two children for Qing Jing but five.
It hadn’t been an easy choice; he was by no means going to do his peak a disservice and choose quantity over quality, but all the peak lords had been urged to recruit larger numbers.
He had to admit the new disciples were cute. Shen Yuan having rarely spent time with the younger students, found himself internally fawning over his new eager disciples.
Not that he was allowed much time to teach them, with his new role as ‘peak lord’ it was up to him to attend the meetings with the other immortal masters, meetings which had increased in frequency.
It made him wish for his brother’s recovery even more.
Especially since Shen Yuan could still hear him. It wasn’t often and was rarely coherent, but it still startled Shen Yuan from time to time. Particularly the first time when Gege had screamed.
He had rushed to Qian Cao in a panic, desperately hopeful that his brother had awoken, instead he’d found the man still unconscious thrashing in a silent wail.
Only Shen Yuan heard it all.
Mu Qingfang had assured him that the night terrors were not unusual or particularly harmful, but it still dug into his heart to listen to his stoic Gege crying out.
By the time Yue Qingyuan appeared he’d already removed the choker and held it out to the man.
“He was asking for Qi-Ge.” The way the sect leader’s eyes widened and bounced between the unconscious man and the piece of jewelry was confirmation enough.
Still better off not knowing.
He handed off the stone and left to get some fresh air temporarily free from the mental anguish, even for just a moment.
“What are you doing here?” he whipped his head around to find Bai Zhan’s war god eyeing him suspiciously.
Shen Yuan attempted to tell him exactly what had happened but as he signed the story to the man it was clear he wasn’t understood.
“Is he awake?” Shen Yuan shook his head. “Did you lose his voice.” that earned Liu Qingge a glare, Shen Yuan was starting to understand why Gege had referred to this martial sibling as ’that brute.’
"Shen Yuan, Zhangmen Shixiong asked me to let you know he’ll return Shen Shixiong’s voice this evening.” Mu Qingfang had found them, “Lui Shidi do you mind keeping A-Yuan company in the meantime?”
Shen Yuan hastily signed; He doesn’t have to.
Really, he didn’t need to be babysat, and surely the peak lord had more important things to attend to.
But the healer just smiled genially at them, “I’m sure he doesn’t mind.” Yeah, but maybe Shen Yuan minded! He’d never really spent any time with Liu Qingge and he wasn’t exactly prepared to carry the conversation.
Regardless Qingge nodded in agreement and Shen Yuan had somehow acquired a shadow. A stoic and brutish shadow.
They didn’t really talk mostly because Shen Yuan couldn’t, and Liu Qingge wasn’t really the talkative sort, but soon enough the ordeal was over. Until the next time Shen Qingqiu bellowed in his sleep.
Somehow it turned out the same, Yue Qingyuan held on to Gege’s stone while Liu Qingge followed him like a bodyguard.
this time he had decided to curl up with a book and the war god practiced sword forms nearby.
It had been only an hour when Shen Yuan found himself pulled out of his text by an acrid burning smell.
Cultivators like Liu Qingge often used words to boost their own skills and abilities, words that were often said prior to battle. Words that like most everything else needed to be practiced.
But looking over at Liu Qingge something had gone wrong.
The metallic tang of ozone that usually accompanied words of power smelled more like blood left to rot. He could feel the excessive amounts of Qi being pulled out of the man, through a string of words that should have long since ended.
Qingge looked haggard but unaware of his state and that was what worried Shen Yuan the most. There was no time to call for Mu Qingfang, he needed to act now.
While he was not especially experienced with words of power, he had read up on the subject extensively and in that exact moment he was once again grateful that Gege had not let him quit the lessons all those years ago.
First, he needed to stop Qingge speaking.
Book abandoned he practically flew towards the man forcefully clapping a hand across his mouth, putting enough pressure in his grip to stop any jaw movement. That caused Qingge’s eyes to snap open, he matched his gaze but didn’t let go. He placed his other hand Qingge’s back to started channeling him qi.
Tension crackled through the air for a moment and then all too suddenly it was gone, even the scent of decay started to dissipate.
Confident the peak lord was out of danger he removed his one hand from his mouth but still kept up the stream of qi with the other.
Liu Qingge seemed to sag, he looked tired but otherwise unharmed. Shen Yuan figured he was okay so when the man pulled away, he didn’t stop him
He meant to ask if the peak lord was alright, and it took a second of confusion him to remember he didn’t actually have a voice, not that it would have mattered because Liu Qingge had already fled.
Despite Qingge’s apparent embarrassment It quickly became a routine, any time Gege started screaming and it became too much for Shen Yuan he would dutifully notify Mu Qingfang and hand the voice stone over to Yue Qingyuan, and no matter what he did or where he went eventually the Bai Zhan peak lord would find him.
Qingge even asked him to teach him how to read the signs, something he dove into with fervor when he realized the possible military applications.
But more often the man would mostly just exist in his general vicinity. If Shen Yuan decided to read a book Qingge would practice, If Shen Yuan decided to take a walk Qingge would come along, sometimes they’d even spar. The outbursts didn’t happen often but enough that over the years the man’s silent presence became a quiet comfort.
Looking back on his entrance to Cang Qiong Binghe couldn’t help but feel stupid.
For nearly two years he’d been hoping to find his Shizun by recognizing the man’s voice. A voice that Shizun couldn’t even use because Binghe had been holding on to for his entire life. No wonder he’d never found Shizun, he was searching for a distinctive voice when, in reality his Shizun would have no voice at all.
It made him angry, mostly at himself which then made him feel bad for his Shizun. The man seemed to know so much about cultivation and words of power, but he wasn’t able to apply it to practice.
He found it out one day in class. They had been learning how to talk with their hands; a class for some reason they shared with Bai Zhan disciples, and one of his classmates had questioned the practice. Their Shijie had patiently explained that some people couldn’t speak, there were people who never had a voice, some had their tongues cut out and worst of all some had their voices stolen.
It was a slaver’s practice; a servant was more docile when they had no way of talking back. Unjust people had taken a tradition used to preserve the memory of loved ones and turned it on those unlucky enough to fall into their clutches.
It reminded Binghe of how close he had come to falling victim to slavers himself, if it hadn’t been for his Shizun he’d be one of those unfortunate victims.
But the fact that Binghe had Shizun’s voice stone meant that such a fate must have befallen Shizun.
The thought made tears well up in the back of his throat, he wanted to leave Cang Qiong and tear the world apart just to find his Shizun, to save him from whatever had hurt the man so unforgivably. It was very apparent to Binghe that the man had been hurt.
But he couldn’t do that, he had barely been twelve and wasn’t strong enough, not yet. Shizun had urged him to come to Cang Qiong, he must have had a reason, Binghe was sure of it. He’d be patient, he’d learn to cultivate, he’d get stronger and then he’d face whatever evils dared hurt the man he cared about.
He had to. Shizun was all he had left.
After class he’d hung back daring to ask his Shijie more about voice stones. She told him what she could, but it wasn’t all that much. Apparently, there wasn’t a whole lot of information on them in general, but she did mention that perhaps Master Shen would know more.
That made sense, Qing Jing’s peak lord was probably the only person Binghe could think of that could rival his Shizun’s brilliance. Regrettably the man was not easy to track down, often in important meetings, teaching some class or away from the peak.
Binghe instead resigned himself to searching the library for more obscure tomes on the subject, though they didn’t seem to have any more information than Shijie.
It wasn’t a bad life on the peak. Binghe didn’t have a lot of friends, mostly he spent time with some of the female disciples, Ning Yingying seemed particularly fond of him. Most of the boys his age didn’t seem to like him, Ming Fan in particular. But it wasn’t like he slept in the woodshed and for the most part he was left alone.
Which suited him just fine, after all he still had Shizun. The time alone gave him the opportunity to go over Shizun’s lessons, sure he still had lessons provided by Qing Jing but if he was lucky his free time would cross over with one of Shizun’s more interesting teachings.
The years passed and he would often run off to find a spot hidden in the bamboo forest, so he could follow along. He just seemed to learn better when Shizun was teaching.
When he was sixteen, they started to learn words of power. The first few lessons Binghe had struggled. By the third he was the only one who hadn’t managed to get the practice sword to even jump at his command. Ming Fan and his cohorts had mocked him openly for it, and even Yingying had looked on his struggles with pity.
He’d left that day holding back tears. He was too old to cry now, everyone told him so, so he did his best to hide it. Even when one of his favorite Shijies offered to help him he just shook his head and bolted for his secluded spot.
He was trying so hard to hold back the sniffles when he heard Shizun’s voice. The man was going over another lesson, maybe he could help!
Gege was having another episode, he’d already notified Mu Qingfang and handed his voice over to Yue Qingyuan.
It had been years and it felt that every time he heard his brother scream, another piece of him died. He felt so guilty admitting it, but it was exhausting.
Not just the outbursts all of it, pretending to be someone else, managing Qing Jing, preparing for war. Just that week Wei Qingwei had brought up the idea of bringing the younger disciples into some of their organized wargames.
He felt so ugly considering the option and he’d tried to argue that they were just children.
“So were you, when they took your voice.” trust Liu Qingge to deliver a proper gut punch.
Qi Qingqi twisted the blade as it were, “Huan Hua won’t hesitate to harm them just because they are children, they should at least be prepared.”
They weren’t even at war yet, but the other peak lords were right, and the possibility was becoming more of a certainty day by day.
It hadn't helped that today Shen Qingqiu’s screams had been particularly haunting. It didn’t leave him in much of a mood for reading, so instead he decided to take a walk. Maybe Qing Jing’s bamboo forest would settle his mind, he could review a lesson or two.
He supposed he should maybe seek out Liu Qingge’s company, but it was likely that the man would find him on his own before long. He always did.
Rather he elected to enjoy the comforting sound of the wind as it whistled through the bamboo stalks. Some of the students were having trouble with their words of power and he was mulling over a better way to teach them. The silence, for once was comforting. He’d always been good at silence.
He let himself ruminate over the issue losing focus and letting his feet guide him along a familiar path, until a watery voice stopped him.
“It’s still not working!” The frustration was clear, and Shen Yuan managed to peer through the bamboo stalks to see one of his disciples staring forlornly at a stick on the ground.
It was one of the first disciples Shen Yuan had ever chosen Luo Binghe. He’d developed a soft spot for the boy, something about his bouncy curls and the jut of his chin reminded Shen Yuan of Su Shijie. He hadn’t only picked the boy because of that but he couldn’t lie and say that sentimentality didn’t have a hand in it. That and the child had been utterly adorable at the time.
Even now a few years older and clearly frustrated, Shen Yuan had the urge to go over there and pinch his cheeks. The only reason he didn’t was that he was curious as to why the boy was there.
He practically shouted the words of power at the stick, trying to make it lift as if it were a sword. Even at a distance Shen Yuan could tell they lacked the potency to do so. Suddenly it made sense, he was probably the disciple that Lin-Shimei had been concerned about. The one having trouble with words.
I wonder what the issue could be, perhaps his focus? Binghe tried again with no result and Shen Yuan couldn’t help but empathize with his frustration but the solution may have not been so difficult.
Trying to throw qi out your mouth like a dragon breathing fire will never work. Shen Yuan had firsthand experience; he’d tried that when he was too bored to watch his classmates achieve success where he could not. It needs to filter through your voice like the wind through the bamboo. He specifically thought of how he personally used his Gege’s stone, if the qi never passed through the stone it would only effect something he touched, otherwise it would dissipate, as if it had never existed
But if it was magnified through a voice it could make miracles real.
Binghe seemed to be concentrating thinking about the problem as hard as Shen Yuan had. If he wasn’t without Gege’s voice he would have probably already moved to help the boy but as it was, he was just as interested to see what Binghe would do.
The boy was more deliberate with his words this time, and it worked!
The stick leapt into the air nearly smacking the teen in the face, he hardly noticed instead whooping for joy.
Shen Yuan did too only without the whooping. It gave him a warm feeling in his chest when he got to see a student succeed. Guess he wasn’t needed after all.
The boy pulled a necklace out from his shirt and clutched it excitedly to his chest, “Thank you Sh-”
Whatever it was cut off by a hand slapping him jovially on the shoulder. “Good job, looks like you’re not so useless after all.”
The act of comradery was heartening, Ming Fan and a few of the other disciples were apparently there to congratulate their friend. Shen Yuan was just about to leave the boys to their celebrations when he heard the tone shift to one less friendly.
“whatcha got there beastie?” To Shen Yuan’s disappointment the other boy grabbed at the necklace and ripped the cord taking it from Binghe. The violent action broke something free, a small bead that landed right at Shen Yuan’s feet.
“Give it back!” Ming Fan held the item just out of his victims reach. The younger boy went to jump for it but instead he took a knee to the gut and went sprawling.
“If you want it go get it!” Ming Fan wound up and threw the object deeper into the forest, away from Shen Yuan’s hiding place.
This would not be tolerated! Shen Yuan had been lucky enough to never encounter bullies on Qing Jing and clearly, he’d been mistaken to think that none existed. He picked up the small bead and emerged as noisily as he could into the small clearing.
“Shizun!” One of the thugs had noticed him and the three bullies froze for a beat, then all three of them scrambled to kowtow to their teacher.
Shen Yuan walked towards them hardened gaze set imperiously on each one. He made his intent very clear without speaking a word. He waited for them to stop averting their gaze before gesturing their punishment and waving their dismissal.
Every student on the peak knew that sign, Ming Fan got up hastily tugging at his cohorts, “He said ten laps c’mon!” The bullies scampered away eyes forward desperate not to meet their teacher’s steely gaze. He should have given the little jerks fifteen.
Once they were out of sight, he turned his attention to the boy on the ground. Luo Binghe appeared to be scrambling desperately searching for what had been stolen from him.
Part of it was lost in the copse of stalks behind them but there was the bead the Shen Yuan had picked up. He unfurled his grip to see what the boy was so determined to find, and his heart clenched painfully when he realized what it was.
A voice stone.
Jade just like is Gege’s but of a much paler green. It wasn’t uncommon for the stones to be kept as mementos; the boy’s desperation suddenly made a lot more sense. It must have been someone important to him.
Gently he tapped Luo Binghe’s shoulder, since he could call for his attention. He felt like he took another punch to the gut when the boy flinched at the touch. Shit he was going to have to be a lot stricter with bullies on his peak.
Big wet eyes turned to look at him cautiously, half hidden by a cascade of unruly curls. The boy stood quickly realizing who he was, bowing abruptly to the peak lord, but his gaze kept wandering to the ground. Tears threatening to spill as his eyes darted around still searching the clearing.
“This humble disciple thanks Master Shen for his help.” How was this child so polite? A true white lotus.
Rather than trying to lift the boys gaze so he could sign Shen Yuan instead grabbed one of his hands and gingerly placed the stone in it.
The young boy’s face went from distraction to awe, he smiled up at Shen Yuan. The expression was so bright that it nearly blinded him.
He reached a hand out to pat the boy’s head, and for a second, he could only think about how fluffy his hair was. Too late he realized that the tears the boy had been holding back had finally spilled. He withdrew his hand quicker than if it had been burned.
Oh no, he screwed up. He didn’t think he’d hurt the boy, but he probably didn’t like being touched, especially after those bullies. Damn.
He was desperately trying to think of a way to fix things, whiles still not strictly able to speak, when he was nearly leveled by the kid attaching to him like a limpet.
“Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!” Luo Binghe hugged him tighter and feeling a little awkward about where to put his hands Shen Yuan did his best to return the embrace.
It was painfully nostalgic, the last time he remembered being hugged like this was Su Xiyan. This kid’s likeness was astonishing right down to the uncontrollable tears.
That won’t do. He couldn’t resist stroking the boy’s hair they way Shijie used to do for him. Shhh , it’s okay don’t cry.
That only made the poor kid cling to him tighter. He didn’t dare pull away afraid to start a fresh wave of tears.
That’s how Liu Qingge found them.
Another assassination attempt had left Mobei Jun injured; it was a superficial wound, but the blade had been laced with a toxin to slow his usually rapid healing. Rather than invite further indiscretions he brought himself to the human sect to recover.
He wasn’t so weak that he needed to hide away, but he always slept better with his fussy human fawning over him and tending to his injuries.
He had been lucky when the man had come across him; injured and dying, all those years ago. Had it been literally anyone else; human or demon, Mobei Jun was sure he’d have been doomed just as his uncle had intended.
Instead he had somehow earned an inexplicably loyal servant, one who was somewhat influential among the human cultivators. At least that was what Shang Qinghua had claimed; his demeanor was hardly that of an authority, but Mobei Jun cared little for human power structures. The unstable politics of the demon realm took up far too much of his time.
Still he never could quite figure out the small man, Shang Qinghua kowtowed and flattered him for nearly no reason at all. Sure, Mobei Jun could easily kill the man, but he’d hardly been in the shape to the day they’d met. Thanks to Lianguang Jun’s plotting he’d been hard pressed to defend himself from a child let alone a seasoned cultivator.
Especially one that knew his name. He’d never made a secret of it like a weaker demon might have, but in such a state he would have been hard pressed to defend from the cultivator's words.
But Shang Qinghua had never even uttered it, not with words or otherwise. Instead he’d tried to ingratiate himself, referring to Mobei Jun, as King or Lord, groveling and prostrating himself to the weakened demon.
It was almost cute.
It didn’t hurt that his human lived somewhere no other demon would be able to reach. The peaks were well defended with arrays and wards, if Mobei Jun hadn’t been able to teleport past such defenses they would have likely kept him out too.
It was nice. A reprieve from the constant battles for power that had raged across the demon realm his entire life. Even if he had carved himself out a relatively stable position of power among his kinsman it was relaxing to be away from it all, even for just a night.
He still only came to the peaks sparingly, disappearing too frequently invited opportunistic fools to try their luck and act against him, but this time he was able to afford it.
So, he was lounging in the peak lord’s room, his wound finally stitching itself together after being tended to by Shang Qinghua the night before. When the morning came the man had flailed, begging Mobei Jun’s pardon before leaving to attend his daily duties.
Mobei Jun had been enjoying the quiet, at least he had been until he felt a spike of demonic energy.
That wasn’t right. No other demons should have been able to reach his sanctuary, the thought had angered him. Who would dare?
Shang Qinghua had pressed upon him the need to remain hidden away from the other humans on the mountain, but if another demon tried to stake claim to this place he would not stand idly by.
Whatever it was it was strong but small, he would dispose of it quickly then his human would be none the wiser. Perhaps he’d even thank him for ridding his home of such a threat.
That thought made the corners of his lips want to turn up, it would be very satisfying to watch the smaller man show him gratitude.
Mind made up he opened a portal just far away enough from the spike so he could observe this new obstacle.
He was just hidden from a group of humans that seemed to be dispersing, all of them young wearing similar white and green robes, it must have been a group of students he often heard his human whine about.
There was one human who was dressed differently, elegantly flowing robes standing slightly taller than the rest. Was that the origin of the demonic presence? No, it may have been the most powerful human of the group but there was nothing demonic about them.
But the boy running up to the figure was. It was subtle, if it hadn't felt spike earlier even Mobei Jun wouldn’t have noticed. To anyone else the child would seem completely human.
That was interesting.
He’d need to take a closer look.
Abandoning any pretense of hiding Mobei Jun approached the pair, he ignored the gasps and cries of the humans he passed on the way.
He sent a shard of ice towards the teen hoping to pin him or at the very least take a measure of his strength. Instead the elegant master pulled the boy out of the line of fire and met the shard with his sword.
Clear and concise Mobei Jun could feel the word tugging at his ankles and urging him to stay still. It was powerful and he stilled for a moment, then he let his aura surge and consume the power that had been used against him.
The man stood defensively between him and his target, not waiting for Mobei Jun to come closer before sending his sword back at the demon. He scoffed, parrying each strike almost effortlessly with walls of ice manifesting at will.
He was unconcerned with the man, at least he was until the cultivator was suddenly holding the other end of the blade and cutting into his shoulder.
That was enough to draw his attention away from the boy and to the man impeding him. He drew his own blackened icy sword from the air as he pulled his opponent’s blade away from him. It was a spiritual blade and quite a powerful one, it sliced through his shoulder effortlessly, but it was nothing the demon lord couldn’t easily heal from. He let more ice ripple over the wound closing it almost as soon as the blade left his flesh.
“ Leave this place demon.” Once more he felt a cascade of influence pass over him, though this time he didn’t stop even for a second. It was however just enough to draw his notice to the swath of more cultivators approaching on blades.
Assessing the situation Mobei Jun decided the fight wouldn’t be worth the scolding his Shang Qinghua might give him for killing other humans. He lashed out, a wave of demonic qi throwing the man in front of him to the side, he was careful not to strike a lethal blow while still incapacitating him. That finished he turned his attention toward the teen.
“Master Shen!” The boy looked panicked; he was unarmed unsure of what to do.
Mobei Jun grabbed him by the collar ignoring his struggles and inspecting him carefully. The demonic aura he’d felt earlier was buzzing just below the surface, sealed away by a human heritage, but apparently that seal was breaking.
So, the boy was a half breed, that was unusual. Most half demons didn’t survive their first year let alone to adulthood.
Curiously he sent a tendril of demonic qi into the seal breaking it completely. The teen writhed in his grip screaming painfully, Mobei Jun however, could only focus in dawning horror on the red pulsing symbol surfacing on his forehead.
That wasn’t good.
The last heavenly demon had been trapped under a mountain over sixteen years ago, he knew it well because Tianlang Jun’s absence was what had spurred the constant power struggles that now consumed Mobei Jun’s life. A new heavenly demon, even one that was half human would only make those struggles worse. He didn’t need another demon vying for his seat of power, he’d worked far too hard for the shred of stability had earned.
It only took a thought before he teleported the boy and himself to the endless abyss, throwing him down to the blackened earth. He could have just killed the boy and be done with it, were this a demon grown he would have, but despite his concerns doing so didn’t sit well with him.
He was Mobei Jun, warrior and king. To slay a man, still merely a boy that hadn’t yet wronged him felt, dishonorable. Even by demon standards. It was too much like something his uncle would pull.
But if he left the boy in the abyss and the child survived, the half demon could return and face Mobei Jun like any other contender and properly earn his death at the demon lord’s hands.
It would just delay the problem, but his survival would be a pretty big if. Even a heavenly demon would find their share of troubles in the abyss.
That would be acceptable then. Without giving the half demon another glance, he opened a portal back to the northern palace.
It had been years since Shen Yuan had felt so low, probably not since he was a child, when he learned about Su Xiyan’s death. Only this time he had been there, he had a voice, and he had counted for nothing.
He’d just finished teaching a class, he’d found the pendant of jade Luo Binghe had lost in the bamboo forest and had intended to return it to him. Well Qingge had found it but the details didn’t really matter anyway, it was likely that the boy would never see the memento again.
To be completely honest it was likely that the boy was already dead, but Shen Yuan found the thought too much to bear. It was barely a few days ago that the sweet child had been weeping in his arms, seeking comfort from bullies.
Somehow the demon had gotten past Cang Qiong’s wards, without setting off any of them. There had been no warning, but he wasn’t sure if that would have even mattered
Words had failed him, and Xiu Ya had been ineffective.
Maybe if it he had been the real Shen Qingqiu it would have been different. Gege was better at that, saving people. He had saved Shen Yuan plenty of times, but wasn’t able to pay it forward, not even once.
He’d thought that by now he’d have gotten the hang of grief. Gege had taught him to school is features and let nothing show, but that couldn’t stop the doubt and pain that warred below the surface. He could look perfect, but he couldn’t help but feel raw and exhausted, pain echoing in his very soul, like a bruise he couldn’t see.
Not he didn’t have plenty of visible ones, curtesy of their demon guest. The blow he’d received left him mottled with them, worse still it had cracked Gege’s stone.
It was a small fracture, thinner than a hair but it still had him worried. If the stone shattered what would happen? Would Gege lose his voice forever? None of the books he’d read had any answers, and neither did Mu Qingfang.
A dead man’s voice would dissipate, never to be heard again. Would the same thing happen to a living man’s voice? It was a subject dangerously under researched, slavers were not in the habit of publishing trade secrets.
The anxiety he’d first felt when Gege had given him the stone welled up back to the surface. How could Shen Yuan be trusted to keep something so important safe?
But they had trusted him, not only with the voice but with Qing Jing and it’s disciples.
And he had failed.
He tried not to think of the fluffy haired boy he’d chosen for the peak. For such a stupid reason, the boy had reminded him of his shijie and that resemblance had cost Luo Binghe his life.
Guilt clawed at him, making him feel ugly and selfish. He wasn’t even a proper cultivator, just a useless imposter, and somehow, he was left alive again.
Rest didn’t come easy that night, after being cleared to return to his peak by Mu Qingfang he tossed and turned. The once comforting whistle of wind through bamboo turning ominous.
When sleep finally managed to claim him guilt still seemed to plague his dreams.
He was somewhere strange, a misty grey atmosphere obscuring everything but several figures in the distance.
He heard the crying as he approached. A small boy probably around ten crouched protectively over another body. It took a moment, but Shen Yuan soon recognized the object of his guilt.
Luo Binghe was smaller, He was remembering the boy as he was when he first joined Qing Jing. Unruly curls, and doe-like eyes, the boy was unmistakable.
The body he was holding was that of a woman, likely the mother who had given him the lost pendant.
The sight was more than enough to break his heart all over again. Such a short and tragic life, and Shen Yuan couldn’t stop if from meeting such a senseless end.
There was a third figure as well, a tall man standing above the pair. Something was off about him, he looked like a vulture ready to descend; skin tinged just a little too red, teeth just a little too sharp.
It wasn’t the one that had taken the boy but there was no mistaking what it was.
He drew Xiu Ya and pointed the blade at the creature, only it wasn't Xiu Ya. The blade was just as light and refined as it’s legendary counterpart, but it was slightly longer. More like the blades Shen Yuan had preferred before taking Gege’s place. It didn’t feel wrong though, just different. More comfortable in his grip like it was his, and free of the contrition he felt wielding his brother's famous sword.
The blade wasn’t the only thing that was peculiar, the arm that wielded it seemed to be composed of a pale jade stone. It looked like it was carved roughly for a statue rather than extension of himself. It only looked different though no heavier than his arm usually felt.
What did it really matter anyway? This was clearly just a dream, a dream where he was giving himself a second chance to succeed where; in reality, he failed.
“Leave him alone.” His voice was different too, a tenor he was unused to, but still just like the sword it felt familiar.
“Shizun!” The boy whipped his tearstained face to settle on him. Shen Yuan felt the familiar tightening in his chest spurred by the hope that laced the word. This boy was truly a white lotus, far too good for his fate. “Is that really you?”
He nodded, “Binghe come here.” The boy jumped to his feet, rushing towards him and clinging to his robes. It seemed his whole being was carved of jade but still acted as skin and cloth.
He patted the boy on the head affectionately before returning his gaze to the demon, feeling more confident than he ever had outside of dreams. Boldly he spoke, “Leave demon, you’ll find no sport here.”
It was a dream he could be as heroic as he dared, it made him feel like a protagonist from the stories he’d read.
The creature set black eyes on the pair, assessing Shen Yuan. Once he stopped he gave them menacing grin. “How interesting. And who might you be?”
He didn’t bother answering, “ Leave.” the power coursed through him easily, easier than it ever had. This time he wouldn’t fail even if it all was just a dream.
The demon’s imaged flickered it’s feral grin widening before it disappeared. A sinister voice echoed even after the form was gone. “How very interesting.”
He watched the empty space feeling a hollow sense of satisfaction, why couldn't have been like this for real?
Still an awed voice spoke out behind him, “Shizun, came for this disciple?”
Now he couldn’t help but smile, if it was just a dream why couldn’t he indulge even a little. “Binghe’s safety is this master’s utmost concern.” He once again patted the boy astonished at how soft his hair was, even in a dream. This boy was too cute!
“Shizun, why do you look like that?” The boy drew his attention to the strange composition of his person, and he started inspecting his own hand.
“This master suspects that this is a dream,” He shrugged, dreams rarely made sense. If he started questioning things it would likely fall apart. Sheathing his sword, he took another look around.
Binghe seemed to have grown, he was suddenly the teen that had been taken away only hours earlier. The knowledge that none of this was real hit Shen Yuan hard.
If he’d been stronger maybe he wouldn’t have to dream like this, if Gege had never been hurt maybe he could have kept the boy safe. His thoughts began to spiral back to guilt and he couldn’t hold back the need to apologize.
“Yes Shizun?” Binghe’s face lit up as brightly as it had in life. So innocent and full of potential. He choked down his apology. It felt like the admission would ruin the little white sheep standing here with him now. What good would it do anyway? If this was a dream why couldn’t he enjoy a world where he’d saved the boy, at least for a short time, before his guilt caused the inevitable fallout and shifted this world to a nightmare.
“This master is glad to see you safe.” Why shouldn’t he pretend? Most of his life these days was pretending, at least here the only person here he was truly lying to would be himself.
This was his dream and he was the only one who could truly ruin it.
“It’s hardly safe in the abyss.”
The demon from before had returned this time right behind him. He attempted to draw his sword again, putting himself between the beast and the boy.
He wasn’t fast enough.
Fingers touched his forehead and his limbs started to go numb, he could feel his mind slowly fade from consciousness.
“The boy and I need to have a conversation, without any interference.” That feral grin looked more annoyed than before.
So it was that kind of nightmare.
Binghe’s worried face was the last thing he saw before the blackness claimed him.
The demon’s visit had left Cang Qiong in disarray for weeks. All things said and done losing a single disciple to a demon attack was lucky. It shouldn’t have happened in the heart of Cang Qiong, but most demonic encounters had often ended with a much higher death toll.
That said it was never easy, Bai Zhan’s peak was probably the most used to such losses. The peak had a reputation for hotheads and no matter how well practiced a disciple, actual demon encounters could not be controlled. Though usually it happened to older disciples, long past their training and seeking glory hunting dangerous prey.
Needless to say, Qingge had never had to watch it happen. But Shen Yuan did, and clearly it was wearing on him.
It was worrying, so much so that one of Qing Jing’s senior disciples had sought him out, asking him to speak with the replacement peak lord.
“I’ve approached him myself, but he seems determine to keep up walls. Trying to show that he’s a good peak leader. Since you’re not his responsibility I thought maybe he might open up a bit more with you.” It was a strange request, Qingge was not usually the first choice for emotional support but he was asked so he would try.
It was funny Shen Yuan wasn’t the real peak lord of Qing Jing but he took the post far more seriously than his predecessor did, which was impressive. Qingge had never liked Shen Qingqiu but the man had never shirked his responsibilities.
When his other martial siblings started plotting to put Shen Yuan in his brother’s place Qingge had objected. At the time he was barely a man, one who had hardly earned the place they had worked so hard for. Qingge wasn’t a schemer, he liked to face problems head on. If Huan Hua wanted to challenge Cang Qiong he would be ready to meet them face to face.
Eventually he could grudgingly agree with their reasoning, but it still wasn’t something he could so readily support.
But then Shen Yuan had been good at it, not only convincing the other sects that Shen Qingqiu was healthy but also at running Qing Jing. It wasn’t that he was any better at managing the peak he just went about it differently. It was clear that to Shen Qingqiu the success of Qing Jing was a reflection of his own worth, but to Shen Yuan that success was an effort to benefit his disciples.
It was a minor difference but to Qingge it was telling.
It was the reason he’d agreed to keep an eye on Shen Yuan when he was voiceless, a move that had ultimately saved Qingge’s own life.
He owed the man, which is why even if he had no idea how, he was going to try and help now.
Finding Shen Yuan wasn’t hard Qingge simply followed the well-worn path between the bamboo stalks. As he suspected the man had been in the clearing he had been to only days earlier.
His back was turned, and he was focused on an object in his hands.
Qingge was never all that good at talking, and this moment was no different. He didn’t dare call out and startle the man, any condolences or words of comfort he might have thought to offer had fled his mind.
It was almost funny, Shen Yuan was the one who’d gone so long without a voice, but Qingge was the one who never knew what to say.
Rather than say anything he just placed himself beside the man, looking off into the forest. He would be there, if his friend wished to speak than he would listen. It didn’t feel like enough, but it was the best he could offer.
His voice was so quiet; small in a way its true owner could never had made it, “I finally have a voice, and I still can’t save anyone.”
Qingge was not prepared for the wounded vulnerability on display. He’d not seen it’s like since the day Shen Yuan had flown into him on Qian Cao exhausted and covered in blood. It made him uneasy to see the man so broken again.
“Just once,” it was barely a whisper, “just once I’d wish I could save someone.” he ran a thumb over the object in his hand. It was the fake jade pendant Qingge had found, the one that Shen Yuan had insisted he return to the boy.
How could Shen Yuan even think that? He'd saved Qingge, and Shen Qingqiu for that matter. He'd more than proved himself time and again that he was worthy to be counted among the Peak Lords. Still in that moment Qingge was reminded of the small child trying desperately to appear as aloof and untouchable as an immortal master.
Qingge watched him. Shoulders pulled back, perfectly poised, even the wind didn’t dare to disrupt his elegantly styled hair. His face was smooth and expressionless like a jade statue. It was a mastery of perfection that the scared little boy hadn’t been able to perfect, but it still wasn’t complete. Delicate tears tracked down unmarred skin.
He’d never really understood why anyone had labeled Shen Qingqiu as a peerless beauty but despite their resemblance looking at Shen Yuan, he saw the elegant allure he could never associate with the man’s brother.
He needed to do something to make those tears stop, if only he was better with words, but Qingge was a man of action. He reached out to place a hand on Shen Yuan’s shoulder. It wasn’t much but perhaps...
“Shizun! Master Qingge!”
A Young man had burst through the greenery, hastily bowing to the peak lords, panic evident not only in his posture but the edges of his words.
Moment shattered Qingge retracted his hand as both masters turned to the intruder.
Somehow Shen Yuan had cleared the tears only showing a gentle concern for his student.
“Ming Fan, what’s wrong.”
“Shizun, the sect master has called the peak lords to Qiong Ding. Huan Hua has declared war on Cang Qiong!”
You all thought I was gonna kill Shen Jiu! You can put your pitchforks down, I will not kill off a character when there is more angst to be had by keeping them alive. ψ(｀∇´)ψ
But honestly if you all could live inside my head while I write this you’d all consider me the biggest dork. I personally think some of my planning bullet points are comedy gold which is a shame because all I write is suffering, and maybe the odd meme.
As always I love to hear from you, even if it's just to yell at me for being mean to characters.
Hope you're all happy, healthy and safe.
Chapter 4: Broken
Every war has casualties.
Alright so I'm back to work these days and while I'm going to try and keep up with updating every two weeks that's probably going to stretch a little bit. I'm also adding a chapter because once again this Chapter grew beyond what I had outlined, and it would be another two weeks before I could put it all together.
Hope you're all doing well and as always I love hearing from everyone.
Edited 09/07/2020 grammar and tense
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He still dreamt of Luo Binghe.
After the long days of war meetings or the longer weeks of sieges, he still dreamt of the boy he couldn’t save.
The dreams were always consistent, in setting at least. He would find himself in a misty clearing the burble of a river not far away. It was a relaxing spot; he could take a moment to soothe his turbulent thoughts.
Not much longer though, soon Binghe would find him excitedly exclaiming “Shizun” and crushing him in a hug.
It was endearing, even if a little awkward. Most times he’d reprimand the boy with a light whap of his fan, but others; particularly difficult days, he would return the embrace just as tightly.
What harm could it do? These were after all just dreams. Being able to spend his time teaching a disciple without the looming spectre of war was a sense of normalcy he desperately needed.
“What has Luo Binghe been up to since this master last saw him?” The dreams were frequent but not daily, and while the question had become routine the answer never was.
Binghe would often energetically go on about encounters with increasingly rare monsters or beasts. Some days he’d be more thoughtful inquiring after the best way to deal with such creatures, and Shen Yuan would indulge him, patiently answering every question.
It was an illusion, he was a doting teacher and Binghe his eager disciple, not an imposter peak lord and his biggest regret.
That was the beauty of a dream, reality had no power over it.
He had a unique voice; not Gege’s, and somehow, he was still carved of jade. It didn’t impede him, so he paid it little mind. Things were better here, there was no war to fight, and he could spend time with a disciple he hadn’t let die.
The Binghe in his dreams was an excellent student, hanging on to his every word, and if Shen Yuan didn’t have the answer for a particular question he would jump up and exclaim.
“This Luo Binghe will find out for Shizun!”
His enthusiasm was admirable, and sure enough the next time Shen Yuan dreamt of his disciple the boy would have an answer. He’d pat Binghe’s head and the teen would puff up as if the small gesture was the greatest gift he could receive.
It was silly, and charming, and since it seemed to make his dream disciple happy Shen Yuan praised him often.
He was after all only pandering to his own subconscious. This Binghe was a figment of his imagination, and anything he offered the boy was only a comfort to himself. Comfort that was sorely needed, if his dreams helped him deal with the bleak reality he faced in the waking world who could judge him?
The war with Huan Hua was messy; not that war was ever clean, but the tactics and theory he had once diligently studied could not be applied flawlessly.
Huan Hua hadn’t made it quite as simple as a proper declaration of war, that would have forced the emperor to intervene. Rather, they framed it as a righteous crusade to save their sister sects from moral decay.
It was absolute bullshit.
First, they had gone after Zhao Hua, claiming that the other sect had been colluding with demons and it was Huan Hua’s moral imperative to take control.
Those that had fled to Cang Qiong had told a different story.
Wu Wang and Wu Huan had led a small battered group of cultivators to the mountain’s base. They were in poor shape. Huan Hua had struck without warning sparing only those who had promised their obeisance.
Sect in ruins the refugees were injured, malnourished and weary, but the greatest hardship hadn’t been theirs. It had been Master Wu Chen’s. In the aftermath of the battle Lao Gongzhu had taken his voice. Rather than suffer the humiliation the sect leader had taken his own life.
There was no more doubting Huan Hua’s intentions.
Cang Qiong being the next largest sect soon became a staging ground, war councils taking up more and more of the peak lord’s time. The refugees from other sects making camp at the base of the mountain.
There was little time left to teach; the smaller sects needed defenses. Much of their time was used up coordinating protection for those still standing. Otherwise they would be organizing efforts to reclaim the ground Huan Hua had taken.
So, while it was depressing to admit Shen Yuan’s biggest comfort for years were the harmless dreams of what could have been with a boy long dead.
If he’d ever had doubts that Shizun had cared about him, Binghe’s time in the abyss was more than enough to discredit them.
The first dream had been startling, especially after Meng Mo had banished Shizun. He had railed against the dream demon calling every ounce of his newfound power against him.
It had taken more than a week for Binghe to be convinced that there was a benefit to accepting the old demon’s tutelage.
That benefit was being able to finally spend time with Shizun.
His voice was quieter in the abyss, muffled like there was a door between them. But that hardly mattered when Binghe could connect with him in the dream realm.
The small Jade bead that he had held onto so dearly for his entire life could be used as a focus and he could pull Shizun into his dreams.
And Shizun knew him.
That first dream, Shizun had called out to him and Binghe had felt giddy. Every time he met the man he couldn’t help the absolute joy that permeated his entire being.
It didn’t even matter that the dream wouldn’t let him see Shizun’s face, he could finally have a conversation with his idol, he could tell him everything.
If only he could work up the nerve.
All the things Binghe had promised himself he’d tell his Shizun, what he meant to Binghe how he saved Binghe’s life; they all died on his lips, instead he would ramble about his days in the abyss and the monsters that plagued his waking hours. Which wasn’t so bad, Shizun enjoyed studying monsters and he had some helpful advice that had saved Binghe on more than one occasion.
The days in the abyss were hell. Grueling battles with whatever creatures could survive in such a desolate place, taxing travel across an endless expanse of violence, but being able to speak with Shizun made it all worth it.
If Binghe had his way he would have visited his mentor every night, but that was hardly possible. He could barely differentiate night from day with the eternally red sky and even if he could, there were many nights when it wasn’t not safe enough to risk sleep.
Binghe was gaining power, his core was getting stronger, even his words had a greater effect, not that the demonic beasts followed them, but they helped.
Still his new demonic powers helped more. Some days he felt like a feral beast, hunting food with his bare hands, surviving any way possible. But the nights he was able to see his Shizun grounded him, made him feel human.
Not that he was, not anymore. Meng Mo waxed poetic about his demonic heritage, and Binghe had to admit that exercising his new powers was thrilling. His demonic blood was often the only thing that had kept him from dying in the abyss.
It hadn’t helped him escape it though, the more he searched the less hope he had for getting out. But if he didn’t leave how would he ever find Shizun?
Those were the hard days, when he gave into the despair of his situation, thoughts spiraling into hopelessness.
But then he would speak with Shizun and once again resolve to survive if only to finally meet the man who had always been there for him.
Somehow Shizun was still saving his life.
It had been an accident, a giant fireworm had decided on Luo Binghe for dinner and he’d missed the telltale tremors until it was too late.
Fireworms could be nasty, if one got too close their slimy secretions would burn, causing skin to boil and bubble, it even gave Binghe’s heavenly healing abilities a hard time. Especially when swallowed whole by one.
He was slowly being crushed, while the worm’s digestive juices were searing every inch of his exposed skin. He instinctively gripped Shizun’s stone, he could burn but he needed to keep his most crucial connection safe.
Still his mind was muddled, the pain screaming for attention, to make it stop. He thought about words, something that could save him. He was in too much pain to remember how words would be useless against demonic creatures.
“ Let me go!” That wasn’t his voice, he knew exactly what he had done the second it came out of him. He’d sent his qi through Shizun’s stone using his teacher’s words of power rather than his own.
How could he have done something so reprehensible? Binghe was shocked by his action, even more so when it had worked.
The fire worm immediately retched, and he found himself thrown upon the hard-packed earth. The acrid scent of burning flesh punctuated by a sharp crisp scent.
Free from the beast’s gullet he ignored the burning pain to take on the giant worm properly. Already coated in the corrosive slime he ignored the advantage of distance eventually managing to rip the thing in half.
There wasn’t much in the way of water in the abyss and Binghe had to sacrifice what little he had collected to clean and soothe the blisters from the slime. He was battered and exhausted but as he slipped into the dream realm all he could think about was the apology he had to make.
Orienting himself in the dream was necessary, not always appearing in the same spot, he had to look around to find Shizun but once he did, he immediately prostrated himself. “This disciple begs Shizun’s forgiveness.”
He hoped Shizun wouldn’t be mad at him, he hadn’t meant to, but in the moment channeling qi through the stone had just happened. He didn’t dare look up; the jade stone made Shizun’s expressions difficult to read but he would be devastated to see even a trace of anger.
He felt the cool edge of stone tilting his chin up, Shizun had used his fan to direct his gaze. Binghe swallowed thickly as he met jade eyes. If only the dreams let him see Shizun’s face, rather than the less defined planes of stone he now scanned. Questioning Meng Mo it seemed to be a side effect of using the voice stone as a focus to create the connection.
“What could Binghe have done that this master needs to forgive him?” At least in the dreams Shizun would talk to him, he could listen his favorite person caress the syllables of his name. Every time it made him dizzy.
It was almost enough for him to forget to be contrite, still he felt his eyes water as he thought about disappointing the one person that mattered to him.
“This disciple used Shizun’s voice.” Shizun stilled and he had to rush to explain himself. “It wasn’t on purpose. This disciple was going to be eaten by a giant fireworm.”
He hung his head, preparing himself for the rejection. Binghe couldn’t lose this and yet he’d screwed it all up anyway.
“Did this master’s voice help Binghe.” He nodded sullenly.
“Did it’s use keep him safe?” He couldn’t help but look up expectantly. Maybe Shizun wouldn’t be mad, there was no one more patient, more compassionate. He nodded again hope surging in his chest.
A fan snapped open sharply nearly making Binghe jump. Shizun gazed off into the distance hiding alluringly behind the fan. “Then there is nothing for this teacher to forgive.” Binghe’s eyes went wide.
“This master has already told Binghe that his safety is this one’s utmost concern. His Shizun can hardly be angry with his disciple for protecting himself.” he gazed over the fan and Binghe wished desperately to know the true color of his eyes, forever stymied by the pale green jade.
The fan snapped shut and the man put on a haughty air, “Besides it's not as if this master can make use of it right now.”
Binghe pounced wrapping his arms around the man’s waist, still kneeling he buried his face into the man’s stomach desperate to display his gratitude.
“Shizun is too good to this one.” After a moment his Shizun’s hands settled, one on his shoulder and the other patting his head.
Binghe didn’t know what he had done to deserve his brilliant, kind, forgiving teacher but he would do it ten thousand times over again as long as he could keep him, especially like this.
“Binghe is going to find Shizun, It’s Binghe’s turn to protect Shizun.”
The man chuckled, “What kind of Shizun would this master be if he relied on his disciple to defend him? It is this master’s duty to keep Binghe safe,” His voice went quiet and contemplative, “one he has not always been able to fulfill.”
He pulled back leaping to his feet. How could Shizun think that way! “Shizun has never failed this disciple! Not once!” he stared at the man eye to eye, hoping he conveyed every ounce of sincerity in his gaze. He wasn’t sure how to convince him of it but still he barreled on “Shizun has always been there for Binghe, this disciple only wishes that he could one day return the favor.”
His Shizun shifted nervously once again hiding behind his fan clearly uncomfortable with the praise. Still he reached out and patted Binghe on the head.
“What else has Luo Binghe been up to since this master last saw him?”
Merely days later Binghe managed to use his Shizun’s voice to help him escape the endless abyss.
The dreams tapered off eventually, Shen Yuan almost forgot about them entirely, several years had passed since he’d last seen his lost disciple. The constant stress of war was probably the reason, he was becoming too tired to dream at night, often only sleeping a few hours before his expertise was needed again.
Which was why he was perplexed the next time he found himself dreaming of a familiar clearing, once again a moving statue carved from jade.
Taking a moment to remember the place he swiveled his head searching, it had been years since he’d had one of these dreams and couldn’t help the sliver of excitement building in his chest.
It was embarrassing to think of how much a figment of his imagination could mean to him, still when the boy didn’t immediately emerge from the surrounding forest he couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
It had been nearly three years since he’d last dreamt of the boy and while he knew it hadn’t been a healthy way to cope, it still had helped him feel better. It seemed his mind was in a state for self-wallowing, giving him only a mockery of comfort.
That was what he believed until a pair of arms snaked around his waist drawing his back to a warm body behind him. He didn’t even have a chance to resist the action before there was a velvety warm voice, vaguely familiar brushing past his ear.
“Shizun. This disciple has missed you.”
A warm blush crept up Shen Yuan’s neck. Could stone blush? It didn’t matter Shen Yuan broke the grip and whirled on his assailant, habitually rapping his fan on the crown of their head.
“Do not surprise this master like that.” Binghe had always been sticky, but he needed to save some face! Even in his own head.
Pulling his fan back he took a second to assess the boy and oh, Binghe had changed.
He never noticed if his disciple had continued to grow in his previous dreams but now it was clearly apparent that he had, he wasn’t a boy, not anymore. It was still clearly Luo Binghe but very different from the one he had remembered.
His face had matured, his cheeks having lost their baby fat, his jaw and cheekbones noticeably defined. Still framed by the untamed curls Shen Yuan remembered but somehow, they seemed to have gained volume. He wondered if they were still soft to the touch.
Binghe had filled out, his skinny physique now packed with muscle, his shoulders were broader, and his posture more confident.
He’d gotten taller too, Shen Yuan had to incline his chin to look him in the eye. It wasn’t a great difference in height but being so used to looking down on the boy it was startling, especially now with them standing so close.
That snapped him out of his assessment, he backed up opening his fan to create some sort of barrier between himself and this new flight of fancy.
A look of disappointment crossed Binghe’s face when he backed away, so he found himself begrudgingly admitting.
“This master has also missed Binghe.”
That caused his face to light up, a blinding reminder of the boy he remembered.
“This disciple apologizes for being gone so long, but now he is ready to find his Shizun, and fulfill his promise.”
What sort of declaration was that? Shen Yuan felt like he should be chiding himself for such a thing. how his mind could come up with such an idea? Once again, he hoped that his jade form didn’t blush.
“This master can take care of himself he doesn’t need Binghe to do so.”
“This Binghe wants to. Shizun need only tell this one where to find him and Binghe will never leave his side.”
Binghe had reached out to take both of Shen Yuan’s hands holding them almost reverently. What was he? Some sort of maiden? Still too used to indulging his sticky disciple he didn’t draw away.
“What is Binghe on about? This master is right here.”
That seemed to bring back his tearful disciple before being swept up into a familiar crushing hug.
The warm feeling in Shen Yuan’s chest only seemed to feed his guilt. This is what Luo Binghe should have been allowed to become. A strong, beautiful and virtuous young man.
Now he only existed in an old man’s dreams, and the world was poorer for it.
Somehow with the outbreak of war Shang Qinghua found himself with even more responsibilities. Not that it hadn’t been expected, each of the peak lords had seen an increased workload. Still it felt like an uneven division of labour.
Such was the fate of the master of logistics, he was responsible for figuring out how to house and care for the steadily increasing number of refugees, how to get supplies to their allied sects and how to cut supplies off from the contested ones, he needed to provide food, clothing and weapons to all of Cang Qiong’s disciples and their allies, he needed to keep a head count of all the able bodied, injured and the dead, organize noncombatant roles and maintain a spy ring that had become their biggest asset.
He was managing, but barely. Maybe if he hadn’t let his martial siblings know about his hobby he’d have less work, but then they would be without vital information for defending their home.
the other peak lords had taken the news of him already having a network of spies relatively well. Not one of them accused him of treason, though that was likely due to Qi Qingqi and Shen ‘Qingqiu’s’ support. It didn’t hurt that war incited a need for the sect he could easily fill.
It was nice to be needed, but it had left him with the lion’s share of the work, which was objectively awful.
Especially when on top of all his current duties he was also running interference for a certain demon lord wreaking havoc on the borders.
To be fair if it was actually something Cang Qiong needed to worry about he’d have been less vague about reporting the details, but since the only targets seemed to be slave caravans Shang Qinghua didn’t see the point in wasting precious resources to stop it. It’s not like it was a full-on demonic invasion, if the newly crowned demon lord wished to rid the world of human scum Shang Qinghua wouldn’t stand in the way.
In fact, he convinced everyone that it was the work of rogue cultivators and not worth investigating.
Still he felt a little guilty, especially whenever Shen Yuan visited An Ding.
It had long since become a habit, after treating the man to his latest work of fiction, Shen Yuan would visit and treat him to a bottle of wine, then viciously tear apart his creative genius.
Now the visits were more of a cathartic release of tension, rather than literary criticism. With the state of things Shang Qinghua had no time to write and Shen Yuan had none to read. So, instead they would get together and complain. About the war, their workloads, other sect leaders' whatever frustrations were haunting them most. All with the understanding that those complaints never left Qinghua’s office.
It wouldn’t do for their petty grievances to publicly lose Cang Qiong face in the middle of a war. But the outlet helped.
“I can’t believe he’d even suggest such a thing, I refuse to let any disciples that young anywhere near the front.” Shen Yuan huffed imperiously. He really had taken after his brother; over the years it had become quite easy to forget that there had ever been two lords of Qing Jing. His icy tone was identical to his predecessor, “I’m not going to lose another one.”
Shang Qinghua shivered. Shen Yuan was referring to Luo Binghe again. The guilt of the boy’s removal from Cang Qiong grated on him still. It had been six years and it still seemed to eat away at his friend.
Which in turn ate away at Shang Qinghua, because he couldn’t tell Shen Yuan the truth. There was no way he could have predicted what Mobei Jun was going to do and he still felt liable over the whole fiasco. Not like he could actually control a demon lord mind you; Mobei Jun came and went as he pleased, still Qinghua had to admit it was at least partially his fault.
It wasn’t even as bad as Shen Yuan thought, Luo Binghe hadn’t died. Apparently, the kid was a half demon who had not only escaped the endless abyss, but he’d taken over the demon realm in a span of a few years. One who apparently had a vendetta against slavers. He was a demon lord doing good for humanity.
Not that he could tell his friend that, he’d then have to explain how he knew of Binghe’s exploits and that probably wouldn’t end well. But it might make Shen Yuan feel better, and maybe it was the wine talking but Shag Qinghua was tired of being the perfect spy master.
“Bro. What if Luo Binghe wasn’t dead?”
The glare he received was particularly annoyed, “Hypotheticals won’t change what happened.”
“I’m serious. What if, he’s not dead?”
“Qinghua, this isn’t one of your ridiculous stories. Stop.” Shen Yuan’s annoyance hardened into anger, which Qinghua clearly missed due to his inebriated state.
Heedless of the danger he forged ahead.
“Bro hear me out. I may have contacts in the demon realm, and they may-”
“What?” The word was deliberate and calm and terrifying, it was then Shang Qinghua should have realized his mistake and started backpedaling. Silly him.
“Yeah, it took some work, but I’ve got some demon contacts and the- ow! Hey! Bro cut it out!” It was as he was taking blows from Shen Yuan’s fan he realized his mistake.
“You absolute idiot! What were you thinking?! How could you!” Were those tears, was Shen Yuan crying?
He shouldn’t have said anything.
He cowed under the blows, enduring a litany of swearing just hoping for it to stop. Maybe by the time it ended he could figure out what to say that would fix this. Why did his brain always shut down when he needed it most? This was exactly the reason he’d never said anything sooner, or sober.
Suddenly the beating just stopped followed by a thud and a gasping sound.
Peeking through his fingers Shang Qinghua was met with an even greater disaster than the one he just caused. Mobei Jun had appeared, and he was now holding Qinghua’s best friend by the throat.
Oh no. No no nononononnonononono . Not good, not good.
He sprung up trying to place himself between the demon lord and Shen Yuan. Uselessly he tried grabbing Mobei Jun’s outstretched arm, pulling at him to make him let go. “My King, no.” It was futile, the corded muscle was as unmovable as stone, and Mobei Jun looked furious. While Shang Qinghua didn’t know what had provoked the demon, he needed to stop Mobei Jun before he killed Shen Yuan
“ Mobei Jun, please let him go.”
He didn’t use words of power often and his never carried as strong as a scent as most, it was probably fear that had coated his tongue in the familiar metallic flavor. He’d been too panicked to stop them.
Mobei Jun was going to be mad, specifically at him. He’d never used words on the demon before and this time he even used the demon lord’s name.
Bro I hope this works otherwise both of us are going to die tonight.
His words had always managed to be relatively subtle, maybe Mobei Jun wouldn’t even notice.
When the demon’s eyes landed directly on him, he knew that hope was wrong. Who was he kidding? Shang Qinghua was horrible at subtle.
The crease of anger on the demon’s brow softened into what Qinghua had hoped was a more thoughtful expression. Slowly Mobei Jun put Shen Yuan down.
Holy Shit it worked!
Shen Yuan coughed for a second and wheezed in a sorely needed breath. His friend wasn’t going to die! Qinghua was almost happy until the demon’s hand was suddenly resting on his own shoulder.
Oh gods, it had worked, and he was going to die instead. Of course, there would be a cost for his actions. At least he wouldn’t have to figure out how to explain this to the other peak lords. He’d be too dead to do so.
Light some paper money for me bro!
Before his brain had a chance to catch up, Mobei Jun opened a rift taking them both away from An Ding, leaving a stunned but alive Shen Yuan to pick up the pieces.
Shen Yuan spoke several words to deflect the whip aimed at his head. He charged forward with Xiu Ya.
It was supposed to be a simple night hunt. Get rid of a few corpses running around the forest, give some of their younger disciples some practical experience in something other than war. Instead they had been ambushed.
These were the moments where Shang Qinghua’s absence was most keenly felt. Shen Yuan internally cursed his former friend, Cang Qiong had been scrambling to catch up ever since their spymaster’s departure. He and his spy ring would have seen this coming.
“ Get on your swords fall back! ” These disciples were still children, and he’d be damned before he saw more young lives destroyed by this pointless war. “Ming Fan, Ning Yingying, get them out of here!” Shen Yuan sent Xiu Ya flying at the woman in front of him, blocking any access to the disciples.
Liu Qingge was already engaged with a black clad attacker to his left, at least they had taken precautions over such an event. Every night hunt that was conducted since the outbreak of war would have at least two master cultivators for just such an ambush.
He could feel Liu Qingge’s commands thrumming through the air of battle, then he felt them just stop.
Words of power had never failed Bai Zhan’s war god, not like this. Even in the midst of a qi deviation his words never just failed. The moment they reached his attacker they simply dissipated.
Shen Yuan was so preoccupied with the abnormality that he almost missed the whip flying towards his throat. Instinctively he threw up a hand, letting the cord wrap around his wrist then using his leverage, he pulled his opponent off balance. Another word and the whip crumbled leaving the woman to fall to the ground.
Quickly he glanced behind him, thankfully the disciples had escaped and only the two peak lords remained. Luckily there only seemed to be few Huan Hua cultivators to face them.
Looking back to Qingge he was met with a sight he’d never expected to see; Bai Zhan’s peak lord was losing.
His opponent was raining down blows effortlessly, and unlike Liu Qingge’s his words were not so easily dissipated. Qingge had dropped Cheng Luan, his shoulder dislocated and bleeding. The black clad attacker had raised his sword for a killing blow.
Shen Yuan acted.
“ Drop it” for good measure he sent Xiu Ya flying at the man’s hand, in case his words failed too. The man stilled as if surprised by something, which was enough time for Xiu Ya to disarm him.
While he was distracted Shen Yuan rushed to Liu Qingge, helping him to his feet. “Get on your sword and get out of here now.” the stubborn man looked like he was about to protest but Shen Yuan cut him off, “I’ll be right behind.”
Qingge glared at him angrily blood pouring from his shoulder but eventually he nodded. Before he could reach for his sword his eyes widened.
Shen Yuan had enough sense to shove the man away as he attempted to face his attacker.
A hand slammed against his throat and his back slammed against a tree. If that hadn’t knocked the breath out of him the fractured stone tumbling from his choker would have.
He made to struggle, but the grip at his throat was unyielding. He had to force the panic down.
He was voiceless, again. Worse, they had broken Gege’s stone. He couldn’t warn Liu Qingge, couldn’t call Xiu Ya back to him, he couldn’t even beg for mercy if he wanted to.
Not that he did.
He could also see Qingge out of the corner of his eye, the damned fool needed to get out of here. Cang Qiong couldn’t afford to lose another peak lord.
He didn’t have any words, even powerless ones but he still had his qi. He focused on it and moved his hands hoping he could convey the same urgency.
The sign seemed to shake Qingge out of his stupor, and in seconds he was on Cheng Luan and flying away. Now the only one left was Shen Yuan, after signing to his friend the man holding his throat narrowed his gaze, inspecting him.
The gaze was cruel, but the face was familiar, he thought it was the haze of the battle, but this man looked like Luo Binghe. But he couldn’t be, Binghe was dead, carried off by some demon Shang Qinghua had let into Cang Qiong. Still this man looked strikingly like the Binghe from his latest dream, full grown, and clearly powerful.
With every second that passed he becomes surer of his initial thought. This was the boy he thought had died, slowly squeezing the air out of him. But how?
“We want him alive.” The statement caused Luo Binghe to release his grip, letting Shen Yuan drop to the ground. He hadn’t passed out, but it was a near thing, and his coughing was disturbingly silent. He had gotten so used to Gege’s voice and now once again he had nothing.
The woman he faced, approached him and briefly he wondered where she had managed to find a second whip so quickly. It took his mind a moment to realize what she wa actually holding.
Immortal binding cables.
After she has securely tied them around his wrists he wondered if the action was even necessary. What danger could he be now? Voiceless, Xiu Ya lost somewhere in the surrounding vegetation, he was barely able to sit up let alone pose a viable threat. Still the cables stopped him from circulating his qi, preventing him from easing his troubled breathing.
Once she was satisfied that he’d been properly tied up she practically draped herself over Luo Binghe. “It’s been so long since we’ve had any of the peak lords as guests,” A wicked grin spreads across her face. “Father will be pleased to see you.”
Being dragged before the Old Palace Master had felt so familiar and so disorienting all at once. He didn’t feel quite so small kneeling at the feet of the man who had stolen his voice all those years ago, but the cables binding him made sure he felt just as helpless. It was only through years of practice that let Shen Yuan maintain composure and push back the bile creeping up his throat.
He’d been thrown down roughly, but he’d righted himself, sitting as dignified as he could. The immortal binding cables twisted tightly around him, preventing anything resembling comfort, but he’d be damned if he gave these bastards any satisfaction in so much as a grimace.
The man seated before him had not changed at all in the two decades that had passed since Shen Yuan had last knelt on the gaudy stone tile of Huan Hua. He was an immortal cultivator so that was no surprise, but he wondered if Lao Gongzhu felt the same nostalgia he did. Probably not, the bastard likely didn’t remember the scared child who had withered under his scrutiny so many years ago.
Shen Yuan remembered.
He remembered the confusion, the terror, the melancholy. But that was history, even the fear that churned in his gut felt more like a memento of his past rather than a consequence of his present.
“What have we here.” The room was nearly empty, except for Luo Binghe and the woman who had led the ambush, apparently Lao Gongzhu’s daughter.
Shen Yuan returned the question with an imperious glare, not that he could do much else. It was what Shen Qingqiu would’ve done, and now more than ever he drew upon the guise of his brother to bring him courage.
Besides, even if he wanted to, he couldn’t say anything, couldn’t shout, or curse the man before him. So, he did what he’d gotten used to doing, let his posture radiate his contempt while he silently seethed.
“Such an important guest, Cang Qiong’s head scholar gracing us with his presence.” Lao Gongzhu stood from his seat upon the dais, walking slowly towards Shen Yuan. “Why don’t you share your wisdom and tell us what the mountain sect has been up to.”
If he could have laughed, he would have. If the man thought it was that easy, he was sorely mistaken. Rather, Shen Yuan settled for maintaining his steady gaze, hoping it conveyed all the scorn he felt.
A moment of silence passed before a stinging blow to his cheek sent him reeling.
Normally such a slap wouldn’t have affected him, but he was still worn from the battle and the immortal binding cables prevented him from circulating qi to accommodate. He felt the slap as any normal man would have, it was not excessively hard, but he hadn’t been expecting it.
It took a moment to school his features, at least he couldn’t embarrass himself by crying out. He refused to show them anything other than the stoic peak lord they thought him to be.
The best you can do is not to let them see how it hurts. Gege’s words echoed in his mind, a lesson learned so long ago yet the wounds still fresh.
Huan Hua had taken his voice, they had let Su Xiyan die, they had tried to kill Shen Qingqiu. They would take nothing more from him, not if he could help it.
Straightening his back he once again leveled his gaze on the Old Palace master. Fuck you and your stupid war.
The next blow was a kick to his stomach, one again knocking the air from his lungs. He wanted to scream, to yell in pain but all that came out were choking gasps.
“Stubborn fool!” the man spat at him. “If you don’t want to speak to me than perhaps you shouldn’t speak at all.”
Shen Yuan didn’t have a chance to compose himself again before there was a hand on his throat lifting his gaze back to the monster in front of him. The déjà vu sent a creeping chill down his spine.
Lao Gongzhu was going to steal his voice, only this time there was nothing to steal, he felt almost giddy with the irony of it. His composure only breaking for the corner of his lips to form a disdainful smirk.
The look on the man’s face was almost worth getting captured. “What’s this?” The old man inspected him carefully. “A peak lord without a voice?”
Shen Yuan didn’t react.
But Xiao Gongzhu did, stomping over to her father angrily. “That can’t be right! He used words against me! How could he possibly do that without a voice.” it seems she was still mourning her broken whip.
“Maybe this can explain it.” The voice was the same velvety timbre from Shen Yuan's dream, Luo Binghe tossed something over to the Old Palace master. When he realized what it was, he went cold.
Lao Gongzhu turned the broken choker over, examining it carefully. There were still a few shards of Shen Qingqiu’s voice stone clinging to the piece of jewelry.
Any sense of satisfaction Shen Yuan felt morphed into loathing as the old man began to chuckle.
“So, an esteemed lord of Cang Qiong held his peak with a dead man’s voice.” Shen Yuan glared daggers at him. Gege was the true peak lord and despite his current state the man was far from dead, he felt insulted on his brother’s behalf.
Lao Gongzhu leaned forward his face inches from Shen Yuan’s a taunting lilt to his voice, “I wonder what happened to yours.”
If looks could kill Binghe was sure Lao Gongzhu would have been eviscerated several times over. He’d never seen such bitterness in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes, but there was clearly no love lost between the sect leader and the peak lord.
On the battlefield he’d hardly recognized the man, by the time he had Shen Qingqiu was already wrapped in immortal biding cables and there wasn’t anything Binghe could have done to stop it.
Well that wasn’t true, there wasn’t much he could about it without revealing what he was. An action which would ruin his chances of finding his Shizun. He could have dismantled Huan Hua stone by stone but what were the chances he would find Shizun in the rubble?
And he would have his answers. The slave caravans had none, but Mobei Jun’s spy had claimed that Huan Hua had a history of stealing voices. This incident seemed to prove it.
More distracting he thought he had heard Shizun’s voice mid battle. It was hard to tell for sure as distracted as he had been by the fight but still, he wondered what might have happened to his teacher.
Especially when the words the Old palace master had used picked at his brain.
Dead man’s voice.
It had always been a possibility, he’d know that the practice of taking a dead loved one’s voice was common, but Shizun always seemed different.
To his understanding the dead were not so talkative, only repeating things they had said in life. Shizun always spoke of something new. Then there were the dreams, Shizun providing him answers in a way no dead man could. It’s wasn’t like the dead could dream, could they?
Or maybe had Binghe been fooling himself all this time.
No. That wasn’t right either.
Shizun had to be alive, dead men didn’t age. Their voices didn’t crack as they went through puberty, they didn’t laugh at their mistakes or curse their poor luck, why would the dead worry so much over how other perceived them or wonder if their instruction had been clear. The dead didn’t hum hopeful lullabies that kept a boy suffering through literal hell from giving up on himself.
Shizun was alive.
Or at least he had been.
That was the most maddening thought. What if the man had died recently? What if, while Binghe was wasting time trying to find leads, the one person who had mattered the most to him had passed beyond his reach?
Did Shizun even know he was searching for him?
In the last dream he had been so dismissive when Binghe had asked where he could find him. This master is right here. Was Shizun already gone? Had Binghe’s time in the demon realm cost him so dearly?
While the abyss had strained his connection with Shizun the demon realm had nearly severed it. Only echoes of Shizun’s thoughts ever made it through to him and reaching his dreams was impossible, the rift between realms was too great.
Returning to the human realm he was elated when he heard Shizun again, he could barely contain his happiness when he found him in dreams, he hadn’t considered for even a moment that anything could have changed, but what if everything had?
He shook his head to dislodge the thought. Binghe couldn’t think like that. Shizun wasn’t dead, he couldn’t be. Binghe would find him, even if he had to tear into the afterlife and bring the man to his side.
Still it had been three days since he’d heard from his mentor. Being unable to reach the man in dreams caused Binghe’s agitation to grow. If his restlessness was to be sated he would need answers. His search had gone frustratingly cold and he needed new leads to sink his teeth into.
While he’d effortlessly inserted himself into Lao Gongzhu’s inner circle the man hadn’t been very forthcoming with his secrets, it was going to take a delicate approach to learn them.
But now Binghe had another possible source of information.
Binghe hadn’t spent all that much time with the man during his time on Qing Jing peak. The master had been distant, a peerless beauty that Binghe had briefly entertained as his Shizun. The scholar was cunning, often too busy applying his devious mind to war rather than spending time with his disciples.
But then there was the incident in the bamboo grove. When Binghe had needed comfort, he offered it without question, he’d even gone so far to stand between him and Mobei Jun.
A useless gesture but still he had tried, it made Binghe feel slightly guilty about his hand in the man’s capture. Shen Qingqiu deserved better than to be tied up in the water prison. Perhaps he would free him when he was finished with Huan Hua.
It was unlikely the peak lord would speak with him so freely though, perhaps a peace offering would help, something that wouldn’t draw suspicion but may make Shen Qingqiu more inclined to answer his questions. Deciding on his course of action Binghe made his way to the kitchens first.
He remembered the stories of the water prison he’d heard during his years with Su Xiyan and now that he was a prisoner there, Shen Yuan couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.
Perhaps because a child’s mind was so much more adept at creating fear. There was no denying that it was elaborate, and particularly effective in keeping a cultivator contained. The singular platform surrounded by cascading acid was dangerous sure, but it was plenty big enough that if you weren’t a complete idiot avoiding the danger was easy.
Still bound there wasn’t much more that Shen Yuan could do but sit and attempt meditation anyway. Which brought him to the harsh reality that the water prison was terribly boring.
Three days and he’d yet to have a visitor, if Lao Gongzhu was smart he’d hold him for ransom. It’s not like they could get any intel from him, he highly doubted the pretentious cultivators had ever learned the servants’ sign language.
He spent his time thinking about Gege. His voice stone had been broken; it was one thing Shen Yuan had been afraid of happening. Since the day the demon had cracked it, he had tried to be more careful even using words of power more sparingly. Now that it had shattered, he didn’t know what would happen to his brother’s voice.
Would Shen Qingqiu wake up only to spend the rest of his life voiceless like Shen Yuan? That thought made him feel incredibly guilty, Gege had once told him he’d lost his voice and that he had gotten it back, Shen Yuan didn’t want to be the reason he lost it again forever.
That was a depressing thought, rather than dwell on it he instead wondered if Liu Qingge had made it back to Cang Qiong. Would the peak lords launch a rescue, or maybe pay whatever ransom Lao Gongzhu demanded?
He hoped not, he’d rather rot in prison that give that man anything
It was an outcome that was seeming more and more likely, three days and not only had he entertained no visitors he’d not been given a scrap of food. Sure, he was capable of practicing inedia, but he needed his core for that, and it was currently ‘tied up’.
He had just started to wonder how long it would take him to starve when his isolation was broken by none other than Luo Binghe.
He’d been deliberately avoiding thinking about the man, too guilty about, well everything. Losing him to the demon, the strange turn in his dreams. He’d been pushing it to the back of his mind still a little too stunned that the boy he thought dead was not only alive but now a disciple of Huan Hua.
As an adult he seemed to resemble Su Xiyan even more, or maybe being locked up in Huan Hua palace was making Shen Yuan nostalgic for his shijie. It was jarring to see Binghe anywhere that wasn’t the misty clearing from his dreams.
Binghe was carrying a small tray, he gently set it down and approached Shen Yuan, who watched him carefully; even nostalgia wouldn’t let him forget his situation. Luo Binghe then set about unwrapping the immortal binding cables that had been restricting Shen Yuan’s hands.
Binghe seemed to notice his questioning gaze because he chuckled before answering, “Master Shen can’t speak with this one unless he has use of his hands.” Right, he hadn’t thought anyone in Huan Hua would have bothered to learn the hand signs, but Binghe had once been a disciple of Qing Jing, he would understand them.
It was only his hands that were freed though, just enough for movement. Shen Yuan rubbed his tender wrists massaging the aching joints.
Binghe had sat across from him, watching him carefully. While his dreams had been eerily accurate in perfecting the man’s appearance they were far less so in his personality. His Binghe was a boisterous sticky disciple, the original goods was far less enthusiastic.
“Does master Shen remember this one?”
He nodded at that, how could he forget the disciple he had failed so tragically? After a moment he stiffly moved his hands to sign.
Binghe’s eyes widened at that, as if he’d never expected Shen Yuan to care. As much as he wished he had a fan to hide behind Shen Yuan settled instead for looking away as he continues.
I failed you.
It was an apology long since owed. Even if he was just an imposter of a peak lord, Qing Jing’s disciples were his responsibility and he’d failed this one.
“Will you answer my questions?” That drew his gaze back to Binghe, he almost answered of course, so used to indulging him.
But this wasn’t a dream, this was reality. He was a prisoner and Luo Binghe his captor. There was still a war going on and there were newer Qing Jing disciples, ones who this lost sheep could threaten.
He had made his apology, he owed nothing more. He shook his head. Cang Qiong would not suffer for his remorse.
Lao Gongzhu had likely sent the man for information, while Shen Yuan still felt like he owed Binghe his guilt was not enough to betray his sect. They were after all his family.
“Then you fail me again.” Binghe sounded flippant, unconcerned but the statement still struck at Shen Yuan, hitting at the heart of his remorse. He wasn’t expecting forgiveness, but further accusation held an unexpected sting. He was even more surprised when the man still placed a small bowl in front of him.
It was congee. Shen Yuan’s stomach rudely reminded him of how long it had been since he last ate. The dish smelled heavenly, was it a trap? He looked to Luo Binghe skeptically, but the man just held out a pair of chopsticks face unreadable.
Gingerly he took the offering for what it was, he’d not last long without food, if it was poisoned then he’d simply die sooner. Using all his self-control he began eating the dish as elegantly as he could manage. A true feat when he realized how delicious the simple dish was.
Maybe it was the days of starvation, but it was the best meal he had ever eaten. Internally he wanted to cry for such a gift. It almost made him want to retract his earlier refusal, but he couldn’t do that. To betray his sect over a bowl of congee was far too shameless a feat.
Still he finished the bowl.
Resisting the urge to lick it, he gently placed it back down in front of him. Before anything else could test his resolve, he held his hands out to be once again bound.
Luo Binghe eyed him thoughtfully obliging him. Taking the dismissal for what it was, he picked up the empty dish, only stopping once more to assess Shen Yuan one last time.
There was a clever cunning in that gaze and made Shen Yuan shiver. His former disciple was a man with a goal, until Shen Yuan knew what it was all he could do was stand his ground. It was clear that Binghe had been dissatisfied with the encounter. Somehow Shen Yuan felt much the same.
The crack of a whip met Binghe’s ears as he passed over the stones of the water prison. The war had not been going well for Huan Hua as of late. They had believed that in taking Cang Qiong’s tactician they would gain the upper hand.
They had underestimated the ferocity of the mountain sect. In retaliation for Shen Qingqiu’s capture they hit Huan Hua harder than ever, and whoever had taken over for Qing Jing's peak lord was even more ruthless. The assaults had become endless and their goal was clear, they were making their way to the palace itself.
His old sect’s loyalty and dedication almost made Binghe regret his part in the whole mess, but then again it wasn’t his war. Huan Hua was a means to an end, although he’d made little headway on that front. Shen Qingqiu’s continued silence only made him more desperate for answers.
He had continued his visits to the water prison, bringing congee he would make himself. Methodically he would untie the immortal’s hands and once again ask if he would answer Binghe’s questions. Every time Shen Qingqiu refused, still he would give him his meal, retie the bindings and leave.
Binghe could be patient, although with Shizun’s continued silence that patience was running thin.
By the sound of the whip, he wasn’t the only one.
It had started with rumors; during a skirmish not long after the man’s capture, there were several cultivators that had claimed to see the Shen Qingqiu on the battlefield. Such contests tended to be messy and it was easy to mistake appearances. Binghe had studied under the real deal, even with his limited interactions he could say with complete certainty that it was the true Shen Qingqiu bound and held beneath Huan Hua.
Still the imposter had appeared to be wielding the famous Xiu Ya. They had failed to retrieve the blade when capturing the peak lord and it seemed to have made it’s way back to Cang Qiong. A spirit blade of such power should have only obeyed one voice, yet somehow not only was this doppelganger able to wield it he was clearly a master swordsman.
Most recently this man worked alongside Bai Zhan’s War God; an inflated title in Binghe’s opinion, and the two peak lords had handily crushed a contingent of Huan Hua cultivators in one of the nearby strongholds. That contingent had been led by Xiao Gongzhu, the little Palace mistress and she had not taken the loss gracefully.
Now she seemed to be taking out her frustration on their prisoner.
Binghe frowned, it irritated him that she was allowed to throw a tantrum and undo all the good will he had been attempting to build with Shen Qingqiu. He was sure he had gained at least a small measure of trust with the man, now the spoiled princess and her temper was going to lose all of it.
He knew that Huan Hua had been taking cultivator voices, but he’d been losing hope of getting answers as the days bled into weeks. He’d become more certain that Shen Qingqiu could bring him closer to his goal and he would leave the warmongering sect behind.
The revelation that Shen Qingqiu was voiceless had brought about the question once more if perhaps he was Shizun, and Binghe had considered it just like when he was a child. His time with the man in the water prison though had convinced him otherwise.
His Shizun knew him, the man had readily answered almost any question Binghe had asked. The peak lord however kept a cooler demeanor, refusing his questions and only nodding his appreciation for the meals Luo Binghe brought him.
Shizun never would have done so, always indulging Binghe’s hugs and touches. He couldn't ever imagine his Shizun staring him down with such polite indifference.
No, Shen Qingqiu wasn’t Shizun, but Binghe was convinced the man knew something that could help him find his teacher. The man was the scholar of Qing Jing peak and he’d been aching to query him about voice stones since he was still a disciple.
And now Xiao Gongzhu was ruining that opportunity for him, with Shizun’s silence he felt his annoyance reform into anger. Her actions were disgraceful, even by demonic standards.
He stepped on to the platform just as she was preparing another strike. Rather than let the farce continue he wrapped the tail of the new whip around his wrist holding fast as she attempted to follow through. Only as she faltered did she notice his presence.
“Binghe, what are you-”
“Leave.” His eyes were drawn to the prone figure, still bound by the cables. An inexplicable feeling of possessiveness crept up his spine.
The Little palace mistress stomped her foot, pouting in front of him, “I wasn’t finished interrogating him!”
His eyes flashed red and he stared her down. “ Leave.” He didn’t use Shizun’s words, she was unworthy of such power. His own was more than enough to influence her as he tossed the whip into the curtain of acid. Helplessly she followed the command staring at him furious and betrayed as she did.
Binghe couldn’t really find it in himself to care.
Shen Qingqiu was trying to pull himself up as best he could, his eyes locked on Binghe expression carefully neutral.
He was clearly in pain, what his face didn’t show his stiff movement couldn’t hide. His outer robe was shredded, tears and rips artfully arranged around the binding cables. The little palace mistress was as precise as she was vicious.
A lash had cut through his collar past his inner robes, a red welt contrasted against pale skin. Another strike has split his cheek, blood dripping down. Somehow on Shen Qingqiu’s face the cascade of red had looked artistic rather than disheveled.
Binghe pushed his thoughts aside as placed the bowl of congee on the cold stone. He was here to find Shizun, what elegant beauty could compare to his beloved teacher? Shen Qingqiu would have answers, so he moved to assist the man to a more comfortable position. Warily his aid was accepted but only for the immortal to return to his elegant kneeling posture, a position that was surely causing his new wounds to pain him.
Carefully Binghe set to unwrapping the cable around the peak lord’s wrists. For some strange reason he felt the need to explain himself.
“This one genuinely regrets his association with these people, they have something this one needs. Once obtained this Binghe plans to leave.”
The look he received was clearly unconvinced, an eyebrow elegantly arched in skepticism.
“If master Shen could answer this Binghe’s questions than this one could free him.”
He would too, Binghe believed in paying back what was owed. Shen Qingqiu had shown Binghe enough kindness that he had no issue with freeing the man. Especially since he was unconcerned with the war. If Shen Qingqiu could give him what he needed there was no need to remain in Huan Hua’s good graces.
He could find Shizun and never trouble himself with the sects ever again.
Shen Qingqiu seemed to carefully consider the request.
What do you want to know?
Yes! Finally, Binghe did his best not to let his eagerness show, still he couldn’t help but smile.
“This one wishes to know more about voice stones.”
The way Shen Qingqiu stiffened caused Binghe to frown. Then the peak lord simply shook his head.
No. No how dare he turn Binghe down. What right did he have to keep Binghe from Shizun. All of his frustration and anger boiled over. He grabbed Shen Qingqiu’s collar and hoisted him up to meet him face to face.
The tear in his robes had Binghe’s knuckles pressing against the man’s skin along the raised welt. He let it them dig in to emphasize his words.
“Master Shen is going to answer my questions, and this Binghe will find who he’s looking for!”
A slight grimace had appeared marring the immortal’s flawless features. His eyes narrowed in a challenge.
That’s when Binghe Heard it.
You will put me down!
He let go so quickly it was as if he’d been burned. Binghe backed up confused.
That was Shizun’s voice.
Had he used Shizun’s voice like he had the dead man’s?
No, it wasn’t out loud.
Heart pounding in his chest he stared as the man once again pulled himself off the floor. Shen Qingqiu returned to his kneeling position and coolly stared him down.
“Who are you?” Could he have been wrong? Could this be?
The prisoner’s hands flew in quick deceive motions, Binghe could feel the hostility radiating in his posture.
Ask your new teacher
What new teacher? Lao Gongzhu? What did he know? Shen Qingqiu’s hardened gaze bore through Binghe accusingly, only further muddling his thoughts.
Unable to deal with his own confusion Binghe fled, with more questions than answers.
There is a lot of Shen Yuan and Binghe (with just a smidge of Moshang) and I hope it doesn't come off too disjointed. I try to make sure every section has a purpose and for what I have planned they definitely do.
I mentioned some of my planning points that I thought were particularly funny, they're out of context and some of them are from early plot but none are spoilery. I hope they give you a bit of a chuckle.
P.S.the shady reason is Shang Qinghua
SY is all “Bitch me too”
But he doesn’t have a voice so jokes on you asshole.
The arrow was fired by Huan hua fucking duh.
What's a scum villian but a tragedy that’s already happened
Almost broke their cover because Yue Qingyuan is a horrible liar
Nah boy is protagonist he should have all the powers
Who gave Xiao Gongzhu another whip? someone take that from her
Chapter 5: Lost
Finally an Update! we're on the home stretch. I'm not sure how long the next chapter will take me to write but I don't think it'll be a short one. This chapter was hard to write but it's fairly fast paced so a bit shorter than previous ones. I blame work writing is easier when I have all day to do it.
I absolutely love all the kudos and comments thank you everyone!
Stay safe out there.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
You will keep him safe.
It was the words that woke him. The crackling snap of power, an echoing demand. The same phrase that once had him bristle defensively now had him jolting awake.
The first thing he noticed was that he wasn’t in his own bed, as far as Shen Jiu could tell he was in one of the rooms upon Qian Cao. That was expected; even he could admit that the tiger had left him in a pitiable state.
Cautiously he placed a hand over his wounded side to check the healing. He hadn’t noticed the wound as he bolted upright but it was likely to be unpleasant if he moved too suddenly again.
Only the gentle pressure didn’t elicit pain. He pushed down harder, instead of tender healing flesh he felt the numb raised scar tissue of an injury long healed.
Mu Qingfang was a prodigious healer, but even he wasn't capable of such a miraculous feat, not so quickly. The last memory he had was waiting for Shen Yuan’s return in some godforsaken forest trying not to bleed out.
The metallic aroma brought back the words that had woken him. They were Su Xiyan’s, it meant A-Yuan was in danger.
Drawing the thin inner robes tightly around him he pulled himself out of the bed. Muscles and joints complained at the movement, he circulated some qi to ease the aches. It was clear he had been unconscious for far longer than anticipated.
But how long? How did Qing Jing fair in his absence? What of A-Yuan? What could have happened to his brother to trigger Su Xiyan’s parting words?
Ignoring his state of undress and schooling his expression Shen Jiu made his way out of the small room only to be met with another surprise.
The usual calm and gentle atmosphere of Qian Cao’s medical pavilion was absent. Instead the healing peak was operating at a far more chaotic pace. Nearly every bed was filled, with Qian Cao disciples running back and forth attending to a variety of patients. The scent of healing herbs mingled with the cloying musk of blood.
Something devastating must have befallen the mountain sect while he was unconscious, only it wasn’t just Cang Qiong cultivators. Some of the patients and even a few of the healers were wearing the colors of some of the smaller sects. He even recognized Wu Huan from Xiao Hua tending one of the wounded.
It was war.
The realization made fear solidify, the desire to find A-Yuan edging into desperation. He tamped down on the panic though, he’d be of no use until he could figure out what was going on.
A familiar tall figure drew his attention. The sect leader and Mu Qingfang seemed to be huddled around one of the beds. Ignoring any of the stares he drew from surrounding disciples, Shen Jiu made his way over.
He eyed the patient, it wasn’t A-Yuan. A relief and worry all at once; his brother wasn’t here and injured, but that could mean his fate was worse. Still there had been no backlash from the words, that at least had him certain that A-Yuan wasn’t dead.
Instead Bai Zhan’s brute was occupying the other peak lords’ attention. He was obviously wounded, covered in blood with Mu Qingfang manipulating his shoulder back into it’s socket.
Shen Jiu held no love for Liu Qingge, but even he understood how brutal it must have been if Cang Qiong’s strongest fighter was in such a bloodied state.
The man gritted his teeth as his shoulder popped back into place. Only then did he take notice of Shen Jiu, his expression going slack and pale.
“Where is he?” It seemed Shen Jiu’s voice was his own again. Good.
The other two peak lords whipped around to meet his gaze. It was uncomfortable under their stares, he was not dressed in his usual layers, his hair was loose and even his feet were bare. Still without an armour of finery he maintained his posture. Just because he wasn’t dressed like a peak lord didn’t mean he didn’t have the bearing of one.
His martial siblings seemed shocked to see him, Yue Qingyuan’s mouth was hanging open in a manner unbefitting his position as sect leader. It brought forth memories of a skinny boy that Shen Jiu pushed away immediately.
Rather than fidget under his stares he repeated his question.
“Where is Shen Yuan?”
Liu Qingge reacted first stiffening then dropping his gaze, Shen Jiu picked up on the guilt. It appears the brute knew something.
Just as he was about to verbally tear into the injured man Yue Qingyuan spoke. It was quiet, barely a whisper.
“Xiao Jiu.” It was enough to make him flinch, gaze flying from his target to the sect leader. He sounded so reverent and hopeful, it almost hurt meet his gentle gaze.
What right did Yue Qingyuan have to look at him like that? The old familiar anger bubbled up eclipsing any uncomfortable feelings he‘d rather ignore.
Just as quickly his anger was diverted, this time by Mu Qingfang who had grabbed his wrist and began clinically checking his meridians.
“Shen Shixiong has been unconscious for a long time.” the calm quiet demeanor wasn’t as soothing as intended but underlying authority kept Shen Jiu from removing his hand.
“How long?” it was a distraction, he wasn’t fool enough to not notice, but since he'd woke the question had been burning at the back of his mind.
Mu Qingfang held tightly as he looked back to his face making some sort of assessment, like he was able to strip away layers with is inspection and see to center. Whatever conclusion he came to it seemed to be enough and he nodded, prompting the sect leader to answer.
A rushing noise filled his ears and he felt his legs buckle, the disused muscle unable to keep him standing. Shen Jiu barely registered the hand and his wrist holding him up, while another pair had caught his back stopping his descent.
He’d been peak lord for about that time before the incident, and now he’d been absent just as long. That thought hit him as hard as the damned tiger had.
Who had taken care of Qing Jing? He had several promising disciples but had never named a head. Truth be told he was waiting for one to find his voice.
A foolish mistake to make.
He’d been gone for twelve years, but now old words of power woke him. The sect had managed without him but today something had gone wrong.
“Shen Shidi should rest.”
He stiffened; he wasn’t some wounded animal in need of tender rehabilitation. He was Shen Qingqiu, the Xiu Ya sword, Qing Jing’s head scholar. He would have his answers.
He moved himself away from the hand rubbing comforting circles on his back and straightened his posture. He was a peak lord not a child, he would not be coddled.
“This master has rested plenty, it would be better to learn what has become of this sect in his absence.” Narrowing his gaze, he focused on Liu Qingge.
“More importantly what has become of this one’s brother?”
Leaving Qian Cao, Shen Jiu felt the itch between his shoulder blades. Yue Qingyuan had insisted on escorting him back to his peak. He had tried to protest but the sect leader only smiled that ridiculous smile of his and asserted that it was no trouble to help his Shidi.
Shen Jiu refused to look at him, so he didn’t see the lovesick expression that followed him across the peak.
Instead he noticed how none of his disciples seemed to recognize him as he passed. They had only informed the older disciples of Shen Yuan’s deception and there had been twelve years' worth of new disciples who he had never met. It was frustrating.
It didn’t help that he was still in an untidy state. Hair still loose and only an inner robe to cover him. No belt, no blade, not even a fan. Mu Qingfang had found him some shoes to wear, but he had refused Yue Qingyuan’s absurd offer of his own outer robe.
His manner would have to be enough for the day, he strode of the rainbow bridge with the presence of an emperor.
Still it couldn’t stop him from feeling vulnerable, like the dirty street urchin he used to be, begging and scheming to find the next meal. The hushed whispers of passing disciples did little to alleviate the feeling.
He didn’t blame A-Yuan, the man wouldn’t have attempted such a ruse on his own. As much as he had tried over the years, Shen Jiu had never managed to instill any real ambition into his brother.
He could see the merit of the farce, especially in the beginning. Still it stung to know he had been so easily replaced.
He let his concern for Shen Yuan bury any bitter jealousy. It had been his voice stone that had made his brother so convincing, a stone that had been broken leaving his brother defenseless and vulnerable.
The fractured stone had been particularly concerning. Voice stones were containers formed from qi, they were difficult to break with ordinary force.
If Bai Zhan’s brute was to be believed the man who had done it was no typical cultivator. Their only hope was that Huan Hua still believed that they had Qing Jing’s peak lord and would attempt to hold him for leverage.
If they knew the truth? There was no telling what Lao Gongzhu would do.
Just the thought of A-Yuan in the clutches of the palatial sect made him grind his teeth. Shen Jiu had spent years guarding the boy, who was too soft for his own good. Shen Jiu had hoped keeping Shen Yuan’s past a secret could keep him safe, and it might have. But it seemed now his martial siblings all knew the truth and they had still placed him directly in Huan Hua’s path.
It was no wonder the old words were boiling under his skin, it seemed no one else was capable of protecting A-Yuan.
Reaching the bamboo hut, he stopped in front of the familiar door. It was strange to think that he hadn’t been here at all in the last decade. The door looked the same, unpainted wood, worn handle and little notches carved into the frame.
A-Yuan had made those when he was younger, to prove how fast he was growing. Shen Jiu had scolded him at first for damaging his door, then again for quitting when the boy felt he was too old for such foolishness.
If you’re going to start something see it through to the end.
He wasn’t a sentimental man, but somehow his thoughts had turned from what could have changed to who wouldn’t be there as he ran his fingers over the dents in the wood.
“Xiao Jiu?” the old nickname pulled him from his contemplation, striking against his bones. Yue Qingyuan had given up using it long before their ascension to peak lords. Somehow his time in a coma had given the man the impression he could use it again.
He turned to glare, even now it bothered him to give Yue Qingyuan so much as an inch. No matter how contrite, no matter how kind he couldn’t find it within himself to absolve the man of his guilt. Qi-Ge had made a promise, yet he had abandoned him all the same.
Even words of power hadn’t held him to it. Shen Jiu couldn’t forget, and he wasn’t the type to forgive.
Even now, when there was no doubt that the sect leader would give him anything, just for the asking. It was far too late; he had asked back then, begged even. It had counted for nothing. Shen Jiu had still been alone when he pulled himself out of hell. He had vowed then that never again would he debase himself in such a way.
Yue Qingyuan met his stare with an infuriatingly placid look, just waiting. For what Shen Jiu couldn’t fathom, nor would he try. The man could wait forever as far as he was concerned.
Let him know how it feels.
Which brought his thoughts back to A-Yuan, he wouldn't make his brother wait. Shen Jiu had suffered alone, but he would protect the once shy, voiceless boy from a similar fate.
But even for Shen Yuan he would not ask, he would simply take. For courtesy’s sake he’d give his Shixiong the warning.
“I made a promise. Even if I had not uttered the words myself, I will do everything in my power to bring him back. I will not leave him to suffer.”
The unsaid words hung heavy in the air between them.
I’m not like you
Luo Binghe had left rather abruptly; Shen Yuan didn’t know what had made the man turn tail so quickly, but he was grateful for the reprieve. He was tired, sore and hungry. With the poor condition of his health he wasn’t surprised as he started to feel the heat of a fever pulse through his temples.
It appeared as if his charade was finally coming to an end. It was more of a relief than anything, it had gone on too long already. It’d be nice to be himself again, even if it was only for his execution.
Which was what was likely coming next, he wasn’t a peak lord worth ransoming and he didn’t have a voice worth stealing. There would be little reason for Huan Hua to keep him alive much longer.
He wasn’t giving up; he was just trying to be practical. Preparing for the worst-case scenario.
Luo Binghe had left in such a rush he had neglected to retie Shen Yuan’s hands, which gave him the opportunity to remove the rest of the immortal binding cables. It was a small victory to throw the damnable thing into the water prison’s acid.
His joints were stiff, creaking and groaning as he tried to increase the blood flow to them. The lashing from the little palace mistress hadn’t helped.
Even unbound he was weak; he’d been unable to properly heal from any of his injuries. Sporadic meals; no matter how delicious, were not enough to keep up his strength.
He felt sluggish, but rather than circulate qi to heal he decided to focus on hoarding it instead. If he collected and held on to any spiritual energy he was able to produce perhaps he’d be able to use it to escape if the right opportunity presented itself.
At least Luo Binghe had left the congee, the simple dish had quickly become a bright spot in his otherwise miserable stay in the water prison. It was a simple indulgence and considering the situation, possibly his last. It hadn’t been enough to stave off the hunger, not for more than a few hours, but it had still tasted divine. He’d never remembered the Huan Hua kitchens being so talented, but he wasn’t about to complain.
It was pleasant to enjoy a meal without being watched and when he had finished, he tucked the chopsticks into his sleeve. He needed to hold on to every advantage he could, if they were going to kill him soon, he wouldn’t do them the favour of making it easy. Gege would never forgive him if he did.
He attempted to meditate but it obvious that he didn’t have the focus for it, fever sapping his energy and attention. Eventually he tried to stretch out to sleep.
Free of the cables he was eager to extend his limbs and take up as much space as possible, if only he could. After days of being so uncomfortably bound any effort to straighten his arms or legs just left his muscles burning or cramping. In the end he had to curl into himself humming one of Shijie’s lullabies in an effort to relax.
It wasn’t comfortable, but it was better than being tied up. Pain fought exhaustion but eventually the latter won allowing him to fall into a fitful sleep.
Binghe found it hard to feel certain of anything anymore.
He was a man who had survived the endless abyss and come out all the stronger for it, he was as strong a demon as he was a cultivator, he was the reigning king of the demonic realm; and yet,
And yet all it took was a foolish mistake to have him feeling like a stupid child. Every assumption, every hard-fought piece of knowledge, every certainty on which he’d based his life.
It was all wrong.
It had to be wrong. How else could he have overlooked his Shizun not once but twice. It seemed the man he’d been so desperately searching for his entire life had been right in front of him, and he had doubted.
But could the cold and distant peak lord truly be his supportive and caring Shizun?
The same Shizun who had been with him from the beginning; teaching Binghe, giving him comfort, saving his life. Had Binghe been too arrogant believing that he’d be able to recognize his Shizun no matter what?
He’d always foolishly thought that when he first laid eyes on the man, he’d just know.
That was how it was supposed to work wasn’t it? When you loved someone, you’d meet them and the world would shift, the missing pieces of your life were supposed to fall into place.
Yet here he was feeling like it was all falling apart.
But could it really be Shen Qingqiu? There was a time when he believed it could be nobody else. Intelligent, poised and beautiful, with a charmingly rogue inner monologue that only Binghe got to hear.
It made sense; it had always made sense. Knowing now that the man had been using another voice meant it made a terrifying amount of sense. Even the Jade avatar from the dream realm had practiced the same elegance.
But he had always assumed with all their shared time in the dream realm Shizun would have been just as driven to find Binghe. He could excuse the man’s distant behavior prior to his time in the abyss but after?
Meeting Shen Qingqiu he had seen nothing of the indulgent and affectionate man Binghe thought he knew. What if Shizun had no intention of finding Binghe outside of the dream realm?
It would explain why he had never named himself, and why he avoided the question when Binghe had asked where to find him.
The idea was devastating. So instead he turned his attention to the clue Shen Qingqiu had given him.
Finding the sect leader hadn’t been difficult. Much like the decorations of the palace he was ostentatious, gilded and eye-catching.
The man had been eager to adopt Bingheinto his sect, heaping him with titles and praise. Even naming him head disciple ahead of his own jealous students. It was unnecessary but convenient.
Still not enough to get him answers though. He had relayed Shen Qingqiu’s implication and Lao Gongzhu had claimed ignorance. The man had spent more time admonishing him for his treatment of his daughter than considering the question.
Binghe would have been more frustrated with the man if he hadn’t been distracted by a familiar humming.
Shizun was back!
Even after his confrontation with Shen Qingqiu he hadn’t heard a thing from the stone but now hearing his Shizun humming was a relief.
Maybe he had been wrong and Shizunwasn't Shen Qingqiu after all, perhaps the man had a perfectly good reason for his extended silence, and he wasn’t intentionally ignoring Binghe.
Binghe made an excuse to leave.
If Shizun was speaking again perhaps he’d be able to meet the man again in the dream realm.
The familiar grey clearing was punctuated with a pale green figure. The sight caused a familiar warmth to surge in Binghe.
“Shizun!” He didn’t even think before running towards the man arms extended for their customary hug. It had been too long since he’d been able to bask in the man’s presence. Simply seeing his Shizun again made him forget all about the possibilities of the man’s identity.
Shizun was here and all Binghe wanted was a hug.
Only something wasn’t right.
His teacher usually held himself with perfect posture; shoulders back, chin up, glancing down through his eyelashes like a god descended. Some might call the man’s gaze haughty but Binghe considered it divine favour.
Only this time there was no poise, Shizun’s jade form was slumped. Even with his blunt stone features he looked tired and sad. The jarring moment for Binghe was when dead stone eyes turned to him, stopping him in his tracks.
“So now you torment me even here.” the tone was as lifeless as his stare, laced with exhaustion and defeat, and something else. Binghe deflated when he realized it was disappointment.
Had he done something wrong? Somehow Binghe had managed to disappoint his Shizun. Just the thought of it caused the familiar prickling sensation behind his eyes.
What could he have done to make the man so miserable? Desperate to provide Shizun some sort of comfort he reached out a hand, hoping that Shizunmight take it.
Instead his hand was met with the sharp rap of a fan. He drew it back and clutched the offending limb. The blow hadn’t hurt, not physically, but somehow it felt like a wound from which he’d never recover.
Shizun did not look much better, he had pinched the bridge of his nose eyes tightly shut, as if he was fighting off a headache.
Such obvious distress made Binghe curl into himself. His Shizun was upset and somehow, it was all his fault.
“Why do I continue to torture myself this way?” it was quiet. An exasperated muttering that only served to mince Binghe’s tender heart.
“Please Shizun. Tell this one what’s wrong. This Binghe will fix it, just tell me wher-”
“Binghe’s done enough.” His voice was stern, cutting off any explanation or argument.
That started the waterworks, not that he could help it really. Even in the dream realm Binghe was a crybaby. Unable to hold back the tears he threw himself to the ground. Hoping that kowtowing might help him hide his tears.
“This disciple apologizes for what he has done to upset Shizun. This Binghe will do whatever it takes to fix it.”
He didn’t dare look up, holding the bow for what felt like an eternity before he heard a weary sigh. The edge of the fan lifted his chin. Shizun was squatting in front of him watching him carefully.
It wasn’t an elegant crouch, he was balled up far more casually than he’d ever seen the man, it spoke to how defeated his teacher must have felt.
“What is Binghe apologizing for? It wasn’t even this Binghe who caged this master, this Binghe is just a figment of this master’s imagination. An altered memory to make my dreams better.” The man explained it as if he was trying to convince himself as much as his disciple.
Binghe’s tears dried up instantly and he searched the unyielding stone. Shizun thought Binghe made his dreams better?
Wait, Shizun thought he wasn’t real?
Oblivious to Binghe’s epiphany the man pulled him to his feet, then proceeding to brush non-existent dirt from Binghe’s robes. He went on as if he was still talking to himself. “The real Binghe does not treat this master so respectfully.”
His Shizun licked a thumb and began rubbing dirt from Binghe’s cheek, but he couldn’t enjoy the attention not with the truth freezing him in place.
“Not once has he ever called this master Shizun. Not even when he was a disciple of Qing Jing.”
In Binghe’s mind everything seemed to fall into place. The silence, the coldness, the apology all of it. Binghe hadknown this man when they met, but somehow, he managed to convince himself he was wrong.
And he had spent so much time convincing himself that he was wrong he never considered what he would do if he was right.
“Binghe what’s wrong?” Shizun- no Shen Qingqiu had stopped his fussing. Binghe was sure of it now, no more doubt, still he needed that last bit of confirmation.
The man stilled, mouth agape. Binghe held still as well. The next move was Shizun’s.
Still it hurt when the man chose to take a step back, even if it was just to reassess Binghe.
“It’s not jus-”
Mid-sentence Shen Qingqiu, his Shizun jerked back disappearing from the dream realm. Leaving Binghe alone with the truth.
He had played the moment over and over again in his mind and Qingge couldn’t deny the fool he had been. Speaking with a now conscious Shen Qingqiu had only confirmed his fear.
The entire flight away from the battlefield he had convinced himself that Shen Yuan had used words and that was what had forced him to flee. There was an unfamiliar urgency prompting him to leave and he had assumed it was the influence of the other man’s command.
It had felt like the single word had wrapped around his mind forcing an action he would have never considered on his own.
Shen Yuan had told him to go and he had.
Only it hadn’t been that simple.
Shen Yuan hadn’t said anything. How could he when Shen Qingqiu’s voice was already shattered at his feet? Why would he have used his hands to say something if he still had a voice?
Shen Yuan had signed at him.
Not spoken, not commanded, there had been no power placed over him. It left Qingge with one glaring truth. He had run away, and he was a coward.
Because only a coward would leave a friend in the clutches of an enemy. So what, if his words had failed him? He still had his blade. So what, if he had dislocated his shoulder? He had two arms. So what, if he was overpowered? That shouldn’t have mattered, he should have never left Shen Yuan behind.
That was twice now. The man had gone out of his way to save Qingge’s life not once, but twice. Both times he did so without uttering a word, and his repayment had been to be sacrificed to Huan Hua.
His martial siblings insisted he was not to blame, but the platitudes fell on deaf ears. The only one who seemed to agree with Qingge was Shen Qingqiu.
The man had listened silently to Qingge’s account of the battle, but his stare hardened as he learned what had become of his brother.
“As expected of a mindless brute. You are his senior and he still had to save you.” It was the first time that Qingge had felt deserving of the man’s scorn. He expected his shixiong to make him suffer for his failure, it would be only fair. Instead his atonement had come in an unexpected form.
While Shen Qingqiu disliked Liu Qingge, he savagely loathed Huan Hua, particularly Lao Gongzhu. After learning of She Yuan’s history with the sect it was easy to understand why.
So rather than ostracize or attack Qingge, Shen Qingqiu recruited him. The tactician was intent on retrieving his brother and had a use for an ‘attack dog.’
Insults aside, Liu Qingge had eagerly agreed. He owed Shen Yuan, if he had to suffer an accord with the man’s brother to pay the debt, he would do so gladly.
While Shen Yuan had been an effective tactician he had paled in comparison to the true lord of Qing Jing. Somehow even without An Ding’s intel Shen Qingqiu was able to outmaneuver and undermine Huan Hua at every turn.
It was a ruthless pace but in a little over two weeks they had reclaimed three cities finally taking Huayue at the border of Bailu forest.
Even Qingge had to admit that he was impressed, over a decade in a coma and Shen Qingqiu had returned with a vengeance.
It was a vendetta that Bai Zhan’s peak lord was ready to see through. They had begun their staging for an assault on the palace.
They would get Shen Yuan back one way or another.
The only question that remained was whether Huan Hua was lying about him still being alive. Gods help them if they were.
If his brother was dead, they’d find no mercy from Shen Qingqiu.
Being wrenched from sleep was not a pleasant experience, particularly when what woke him was a kick to his chest.
Shen Yuan had trouble catching his breath; his meagre meal had threatened to expel itself from his gut as he greedily his sucked in air. He willed his stomach to settle, a more difficult task when he realized his arms had been bound behind his back while he had slept. At least they hadn’t used immortal binding cables this time.
He felt groggy, but it was hard to tell if it was from his rude awakening or his sickly state.
Too focused on not retching he didn’t see the rough pair of hands that pulled him up to his knees. One of the moved to his hair pulling his head back and forced him to look up.
It took a moment for the black spots dancing at the edges of his vision to clear and he found himself coughing again his body still trying to fill his lungs.
When his fit settled, he was face to face with Lao Gonzhu. His stomach decided to turn over one more time and it took nearly all his willpower not to vomit on the man.
Not that the palace master didn’t deserve it, but Shen Yuan knew he needed what little strength he had if he expected to survive.
He had done his best to mask the pain but after several weeks of being locked away his composure wasn’t nearly as solid as it used to be. The reminders of Xiao Gongzhu’s tantrum hadn’t helped, each welt pulling uncomfortably with every movement. Still he managed what he had hoped was a defiant glare.
“This master has to give you credit boy, you had us all fooled” The man’s breath was hot against his face, he was far too close. “We all believed we had the great Xiu Ya sword at our mercy. Such a convincing actor.” Shen Yuan couldn’t hide his grimace.
“Once we figured it out, we were only left with one question. Who had we managed to lock away?”
He tossed Shen Yuan back to the ground, choosing instead to loom over him. It was abundantly clear where Xiao Gongzhu had learned her poor manners.
“I will admit it took far longer than it should have for this master o figure it out. But I suppose it’s difficult to recognize you when you’re not hiding behind SuXiyan’s skirts. A-Yuan.”
It was a theatrical statement, meant to intimidate him, and he couldn’t really help the way it sent a shiver down his spine. He’d spent his life fearing the man, and the way he’d said his name; dripping with malicious intent, only confirmed everything he had ever believed about Huan Hua’s sect leader.
“I do still miss her you know. It was quite a loss for the sect, such a talented, beautiful woman, corrupted by that demonic filth.” Su Shijie’s death was an old wound for Shen Yuan, but Lao Gongzhu seemed keen to taunt him with it.
Maybe it was the exhaustion, or the ever-present pain, or even the memory of Shijie but Shen Yuan’s cheeks felt wet and he glared daggers at the old palace master.
“Don’t look at me like that A-Yuan, it’s not like I killed her. The demon’s bastard in her womb did the job well enough.”
That startled him. He’d only ever been told that she had been killed, nobody had mentioned that she had been pregnant.
“You didn’t know did you? She had a tryst with that infernal demon and insisted and bringing that abomination into the world.” Lao Gongzhu sneered, “I even gave her an opportunity to put an end to the monster and atone, instead she chose to die for her half demon brat.”
Shen Yuan’s mind supplied fluffy curls a blinding smile and the propensity for tears. Could it really be?
“Though he does have his uses, I’m sure you’ve noticed the boy, Spitting image of his mother.”
Shijie had a son, Luo Binghe was Su Xiyan’s son. Shen Yuan felt a little dumb for not realizing it sooner, he’d always thought the boy had reminded him of his Shijie.
It all made sense, the demonic kidnapping, Liu Qingge’s words, it could even explain the dreams.
The thought caught him off guard, could it have really bee Luo Binghe in his dreams? If the man was truly half-demon it was possible.
Lao Gongzhu however didn’t give him time to dwell on the revelation, not that his scattered mind could. Two burly Huan Hua disciples gripped his arms lifting him to his feet.
“Don’t worry A-Yuan, this master has a use for you as well.”
Something had pulled Shizun out of the dream, something or someone. Binghe woke himself, frustration and worry whirling in his mind. He’d finally found his Shizun, but instead of elation all he felt was dread.
He had threatened Shizun, treated him like a prisoner. He’d shown him none of the love and kindness he deserved. It was why it had taken so long for Binghe to believe the truth. He’d spent years convinced he’d never do anything to harm his teacher, but not only had he been complicit in the man’s imprisonment, he was directly responsible for it.
Even worse he had threatened Shizun.
But he didn’t have time to dwell on his mistakes, he could wallow in his self-hatred after he knew Shizun was safe. Shizun was alive he could tell that much, but from all the coughing it wasn’t good.
His thoughts turned to the little palace mistress and her accursed whip, and he was slammed with a possessive anger so potent he growled.
If she had decided to resume her ‘interrogation’ he would personally see to it that her whipping arm was removed.
Joint by joint.
Considering how she had already treated Shizun perhaps she would receive the punishment regardless.
Cursing the labyrinth of hallways slowing his progress he sped towards the water prison. He was in such a rush he didn’t even notice the harried disciples rushing past him. His rage was palpable and they were all giving him a wide berth.
He nearly stopped in his tracks, Shizun was calling him? His teacher sounded surprised, not angry, not upset. There was hope for Binghe yet.
He doubled his speed through the maze array only to reach an empty water prison.
NO, Shizun was here! Just moments ago. He felt his anger build and his demon mark flare. It had been easy to hide but now he didn’t even bother.
He grabbed the single disciple left on guard duty.
“Where is the prisoner?” the young man quivered under his demand, sputtering as he answered.
“C-Cang Qiong is at- at the east wall. The se-sect leader took the prisoner t-to negotiate.”
Bait. Shen Qingqiu was going to be used as bait. He had been a part of Huan Hua long enough to understand how the man thought.
Binghe threw the boy to the ground racing out of the water prison hoping he wasn’t too late.
Shen Yuan had fallen.
He was too far away to do anything about it as he watched his brother plunge to his death.
For a skilled and healthy cultivator such a fall would have been nothing, only it was clear as A-Yuan was paraded out that the man was anything but healthy. Even at a distance Shen Jiu could see the all too familiar marks of abuse.
Listening to that sycophant drone on Shen Jiu catalogued every bruise. There was a dried streak of blood on A-Yuan's cheek, his robes were filthy and torn, and he looked too thin. Each offense would be repaid, the words crackled galvanizing over his bitter core.
Then there was a sword at A-Yuan's throat and even the thoughts of retribution faded. A feeling of helpless dread oozed up his spine locking his limbs.
“Perhaps we shall do our sister sect a favour and put an end to the false peak lord.” Lao Gongzhu was atop one of the palace walls taunting him and pretending at negotiations.
And then he was threatening Shen Yuan.
He was too far away, even Xiu Ya couldn’t reach in time and he knew his words would have failed across such a distance. His tongue felt heavy, and his mind raced. There had to be a solution some action he could take that wouldn’t have him returning to Cang Qiong with his brother’s corpse.
That’s when it all went to hell.
Shen Yuan had somehow managed to break free from his bonds and push away Lao Gongzhu’s sword. It looked like he had tried to stab the sect leader before he was thrown from the wall for his efforts.
Shen Yuan had fallen, and Shen Jiu could do nothing.
Vaguely he registered Liu Qingge surging past him, but the horror of the situation had Shen Jiu stuck in place.
Even the brute wouldn’t be fast enough.
The one thing that seemed to penetrate his stupor was the rotten scent of stale blood. The air was thick with it, the old command ready to lash out and consume what he couldn’t control.
Y ̩͔̺̦͚̕o̸̦u̖ ̘̜̻̣w̼̪͍ i ̩͎̱̘̭͎̪l͔̪͕͓l̷̫̳͉ͅ ̭̫͎̹̖̻k̫̭̟̺̞e̬͈̹e̷̠̟̮p̝̥͍̫͝ ͉͔ ̼ͅh̳i ̳̱̙̼̬͖ͅm s͇̤a̘͖̱͔͈ f̴e ̠̫̤
Despite its age the mandate still had enough potency to cripple him with the backlash.
He had done everything within his power to save A-Yuan, and still both he and his brother would suffer his failure. Shen Jiu hadn’t thought he’d ever repeat the mistakes of the past, yet here he was only able to watch as his brother broke against the ground.
Only that was not what had happened.
A blur in black and red darted out from behind the Huan Hua lines, faster than any man could have possibly moved. Somehow, someone had caught Shen Yuan before he reached the ground.
Shen Jiu felt the wave of relief wash through him, for the first time the fiery ball of anger in his chest is extinguished. It was a strange feeling.
Still the tumultuous power weighed on him reminding him of a promise, the poisonous stench had lessene but it wasn’t gone. Shen Yuan was saved, but not by him.
Su Xiyan’s words hadn’t been satisfied meaning there was more work for him to do.
He hefted Xiu Ya and propelled himself forward.
He wasn’t dead.
An opportunity had finally presented itself and Shen Yuan had taken it.
He expelled his hoarded qi, breaking his bindings and pushing the blade away from his throat. He even had enough left to use the hidden chopstick and stab Lao Gongzhu. He’d been too weak and missed the man’s heart but burying in into his shoulder was still immensely satisfying.
How could anyone even be sure if the old palace monster even had a heart anyway?
In his fevered state he’d still managed to embed the utensil about halfway through the man’s shoulder before he was flung away from his captor. An action that sent him sprawling off the platform.
It wasn’t an ideal outcome, but it was better than the alternative. At least this way he managed to wound the man before dying pitifully.
As he fell, he closed his eyes to stop the world from spinning and waited for the inevitable.
Only it didn’t come.
Rather than an excruciating crunch against stone, he thumped solidly against a soft but firm surface, or more accurately a soft but firm someone. Rather than die embarrassingly he’d been caught and was being carried away.
Unless this was what death was supposed to be like, which didn’t seem right. His various wounds were still aching, and he was sure the fever was still muddling his thoughts.
Cautiously he opened one eye then the other only to be met by a stunning visage.
Binghe? There were tears gathered in the creases of his eyes and a glowing red mark on his forehead but there was no mistaking the man who was holding him. Binghe’s face lit up with a stunning smile when he turned his attention on Shen Yuan.
“Shizun, I’ve got you.”
His mind stuttered trying to keep up. This was the white lotus Binghe, the one from the dreams, with his exclamations of Shizun and clingy nature. Only, Shen Yuan was certain he was awake.
They seemed to be moving but all he could do was stare. Which was why he missed the tail of the whip until it had wrapped around his savior’s throat.
He flew forward out of the safe embrace, tumbling away from Luo Binghe who had been jerked back by the barbed weapon.
Dazed he tried unsuccessfully to get up, tipping over as soon as he left the ground.
He looked over to his savoir and was met with the horrific image of the man struggling to breathe. He stumbled over, intent to help purely by reflex. Shen Yuan ignored the sharp barbs of the whip as he attempted to gingerly unwind it from Binghe’s neck. He winced in sympathy as he extracted the wicked spikes that had embedded themselves in sensitive skin.
He had just managed to pull it free when the whip was jerked out of his grasp. The flesh of his palms tore, and he bit back a cry of pain. Not like anyone would have heard him anyway.
What he could hear was Binghe still choking. A red cord around his neck had tangled with the whip and was continuing to strangle him.
Before Shen Yuan could reach to free the man a familiar blade came down severing the cord releasing Binghe a second time.
Shen Yuan’s eyes dragged up Xiu Ya’s familiar blade, to a well manicured hand, up an impeccably clean pale green sleeve to piercing eyes he hadn’t seen open in years.
The fever must have been worse than he thought because he was imagining Gege.
He blinked a few times, but his brother’s face didn’t fade. Instead it turned to Binghe.
“ Get him to safety now.” It was Gege! Shen Yuan would never mistake his brother’s voice. Gege was awake, and here. Was he talking about Binghe?
He turned to Binghe in time to be scooped up a second time by strong arms. His throat looked less mangled than it should have but that was a good thing, right?
“There’s healers in Huayue. Take him there.” Shen Yuan felt like some damsel being held in a princess carry as he clutched Binghe’s robes to steady himself. If he wasn’t feeling so hazy, he would have protested the humiliating treatment.
But that didn’t matter, Gege was awake. He couldn’t stop staring at his brother, who was alive and well, and approaching angrily. But Shen Qingqiu wasn’t looking at Shen Yuan he was glaring at Binghe.
“If he is further harmed, you will wish I let them strangle you here.” Gege’s voice was dripping with venom and Shen Yuan wondered what Binghe had done to anger his brother. He wanted to reach out and hug his brother, he’d missed the man and wanted to prove his presence tangible.
But he couldn’t, already securely held in Binghe’s grip as the man started moving away from Huan Hua and Shen Qingqiu.
Shen Yuan wanted to feel embarrassed, having to be carried, but he just felt so tired. It wasn’t long before the steady pace had lulled him to sleep.
oof, I'm not sure how I feel about this chapter. What I do know is how much I missed writing Shen Jiu. GEGE'S BACK BABY!
We're getting dangerously close to the end of this and I'm looking forward to finishing. This has been an important lesson for me on outlining a story before I start writing, it's really helped me feel confident in my direction each chapter so far.
I've got a few more SV Au's in the works but I'm going to finish this behemoth first. Can the final chapter make up for all the angst? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
As always I love hearing from you!
Chapter 6: Heard
Will you listen?
Wow so from start to finish this fic has been a wild ride, but finally here it is the final chapter! I had wanted to get this out sooner, but work got in the way and it kept growing.
<(_ _*)> Thank you to everyone, all your Kudos and comments really helped motivate me to get this behemoth written. This is the longest and probably one of the best written fics I’ve done and I’m so damn proud now that it’s finished. (that said I may go back and edit a few bits eventually)
I hope this is a satisfying ending, dunno if it makes up for all the angst along the way but I will leave that up to you.
Edited 09/07/2020 - grammar and tense
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
Did I cram all of the romance into the final chapter? Maybe, but it’s a long chapter so I think it’s okay. Especially because Moshang is just too delightful not to write.
Thanks for sticking around, I’m pretty happy with how this all turned out, the fact that all of this chapter had been planned from the beginning makes me happy, I’ve never been great and endings or finishing stories, but this time I think I did okay.
I know everyone likes angry Shen Jiu who just yells at Binghe for romancing his brother but I never felt like any part of this story really gave him that kind of motivation, I also never liked the idea of him trying to totally control Shen Yuan’s life so he probably ended this story a whole heck of a lot softer than anyone had thought. I still think he’s my favourite to write, there’s just so much potential with his character beyond just ‘angry’ and I hope I managed to convey that.
So I do have some other AUs for Scum Villian I want to write and I’ve even started them a bit so hopefully it won’t be too long before I get them up on Ao3.
Thanks again for reading and as always I love hearing from everyone, you're comments fuel me!