The alarms sounded all through the Cang Qiong Peaks, for Luo Binghe had crashed some horrendous monster through the barriers. It was some sort of demonic krill-eel hybrid, summoned from the abyssal seas. Luo Binghe could be spotted riding effortlessly atop its heavily carpaced back as it crashed, still roaring, into the most carefully organized herb gardens surrounding Qian Cao Peak’s main hall.
“Mu Qingfang!” roared the Demon Lord and erstwhile master of Hua Huan Palace. “Mu Qingfang! Come out at once!”
He swung down from his stunned mount with a wild look in his eyes. Instead of a sword, he carried a bundle of ragged cloth in his arms, but it didn’t stop any of the disciples rushing out from freezing and keeling over under the oppressive demonic energy which rolled off of him in waves. They were mostly specialized in medicinal techniques. They usually left matters of defense to the disciples of Bai Zhan Peak.
Luo Binghe stepped over them and stormed up through the medicinal hedges.
Cang Qiong’s response was a bit sluggish. It wasn’t due to a lack of preparation. Even if Luo Binghe had been surprisingly sedate in the years following his failed attempt to merge the demon world with this one, no one had ever forgotten he’d attempted it, and no one expected the tenuous peace between worlds to last as long as it had.
But everyone assumed his target would be Qiong Ding, or even Qing Jing Peak. No one had assumed he’d set his sights on the sect’s medical pavilion of all things. To attack the medical personnel first -- Luo Binghe was a master of a great many cultivation arts, a man of many accomplishments, but this was truly beyond the pale!
Yue Qingyuan arrived alongside Liu Qingge and Qi Qinggi, grim-faced and ready for a vicious conflict. What he hadn’t expected was to find Luo Binghe, collapsed on his knees in front of the Peak Lord of Qian Cao, his head bowed and his arms outstretched, presenting to him a bundle of yet undistinguished nature, wrapped tightly in his outer robes.
“Do it or I will burn down this mountain,” snarled Luo Binghe, in a voice thick with grief and warning. Liu Qingge was already pulling his sword when Binghe added, more plaintively: “Please.”
Mu Qingfang just gave an exasperated sigh. “It’s against my principles to refuse a patient, but you’re going to have to let me have a look.”
Luo Binghe pushed aside the robes. Mu Qingfang was too much of a professional to blanch, but his eyebrows raised.
“This way,” he said. “Immediately.”
“Qingfang--” began Yue Qingyuan.
“Not now, Sect Leader,” snapped the doctor, with an uncharacteristic edge in his voice. The doctor led the now obedient Luo Binghe from the hall.
Mu Qingfang emerged several hours later, looking haggard and washing his bloodied hands.
“It’s him,” he said. “Unmistakably. I’ve checked his core. Binghe confirmed the rest. The patient is definitely Shen Qingqiu.”
Qi Qinggi swore in a most unladylike fashion. Liu Qingge rattled to his feet. “I’ll kill him. Right now.”
It took Yue Qingyuan an admirable extra second to raise his hand to stop the Bai Zhan Peak Lord from storming the medical rooms to duel Luo Binghe then and there.
“Will he live?” he asked, in a strange, distant voice.
Mu Qingfang sighed. “He would’ve died already if he was going to. It’s strange. Some of the injuries are old, some are not. The abrasions and whip injuries are fresh. As for his arms and legs, they’ve been missing for some time now.”
“We just saw him last week,” spat Liu Qingge. It said everything about Yue Qingyuan’s quiet horror that he didn’t try to silence him. “You all saw him.”
“He did have considerably more limbs, then,” muttered Qi Qinggi.
Yue Qingyuan’s hands shifted over the pommel of Xuan Su. The rustle of his sleeve as he did it silenced all the Peak Lords at once.
“Qingfang,” he murmured. “What do you believe happened?”
“That’s what I want to know.”
Everyone looked up. Luo Binghe stood in the door. For the first time, they noticed how his black robes had been stained from chest to waist in blood. A dried smear of it was still on the underside of his jaw. His black eyes flashed dangerously. He held the door frame hard enough it shook under his grip, the paper creasing.
“Whoever did this answers to me,” he said, simply. “I’ll find them, flay them, and hang their skin as a banner from Hua Huan Palace.”
“You’ll find them,” began Liu Qingge. “ You’ll find them. This happened while he was traveling with you.”
He moved to cut off Binghe’s exit. Binghe flung him aside with a flick of his arm. Liu Qingge crashed into the wall, teeth bared.
“No fighting in my pavilion!” snapped Mu Qingfang.
“The Bai Zhan Peak Lord is never much of a fight,” promised Luo Binghe.
“Say that again,” flashed Liu Qingge, eyes red.
But the man who swept in front of Luo Bingge with effortless skill was not Liu Qingge. Yue Qingyuan tapped the sheathed end of Xuan Su against the floor mats.
“Binghe,” he said, softly. “I think you should stay for the time being.”
“I think you’ll let me do what I will,” said Luo Binghe. “It’s what Sect Leader is good at, isn’t it?”
“Binghe,” pressed Yue Qingyuan, his voice taking a lower, more dangerous hum. The human echo of the weapon under his hand. “Please remember whose law you are yet subject to, in Cang Qiong.”
Whether or not Binghe did remember ended up not mattering, for a second commotion began in the main hall. A group of disciples came running in, breathless.
The lead sputtered, “Uh, esteemed elders. The An Ding Peak Lord has just arrived. Along with... um.”
Shen Qingqiu marched into the hall, looking harried, windblown, and entirely possessing of all of his arms and legs.
“Binghe,” he said, with an imperious confusion that he and he alone had mastered. “What is the meaning of this? Why did you rush off, and leave this master abandoned in the desert? Where is your respect for your spouse? I am your husband, am I not!?”
All the bloody-mindedness dropped from Luo Binghe’s face at once. He carded through all of his expressions within a few breath’s time: first carefully blank, then somewhat manic, then, at last, animatedly relieved, his black eyes brimming with tears.
“Shizun,” he said, voice cracking. “You’re here.”
“How funny,” drawled Qi Qingqi, into the awkward pause that followed. “He’s also there .”
The man on the bed lay in a sorry state, breathing raggedly. Mu Qingfang had cleaned and dressed the freshest injury, but the older ones were the most grisly, and still painfully apparent. Shang Qinghua took one look at the man, covered his mouth, and made as though to leave the room.
Shen Qingqiu grabbed him by his sleeve and held him still. “Don’t think you’re getting out of this,” he spoke out of the corner of his mouth, and then added something more quietly that only the An Ding Peak Lord could hear. Shang Qinghua’s eyes went big. He turned back around, pale and miserable.
“Shidi?” Yue Qingyuan watched him expectantly.
Shen Qingqiu slipped into one of his well-known odd silences. Glaring at an empty space in front of him for a full minute before answering: “...It’s him. Or rather, it’s Shen Qingqiu. A Shen Qingqiu, anyway.”
He kept scowling at the air before shaking his head. He glared pointedly at Shang Qinghua, but he spared a rather more peculiar look with Luo Binghe, who lurked in the door like a tiger, unsettling everyone.
“Qingqiu may have to explain himself,” interrupted Yue Qingyuan, with a mild but final air to him.
“I will try, Sect Leader,” he said. His eyes trailed over the small, withered figure on the bed. He looked grim, but not entirely surprised. “...Perhaps, someplace else?”
The Peak Lords filed eagerly out of the room, none faster than Shang Qinghua.
“I still don’t see why he needs to be here,” muttered Liu Qingge, casting a long, cool look in the direction of Luo Binghe, who in response raised his eyebrow and stretched out more casually in the space beside Shen Qingqiu, as though he hadn’t been ready to start a celestial war less than an hour ago. “Cang Qiong business is Cang Qiong business. Hua Huan Palace has no authority here.”
“Would Liu-shidi like to try showing him out?” asked Qi Qingqi.
“Binghe stays,” said Shen Qingqiu. “He’s the one who found him. Besides, what concerns this master concerns his husband. I would rather have him by my side.”
Luo Binghe beamed like a smug junior disciple. Liu Qingge sighed, but crossed his legs and went back to pretending the erstwhile Demon Lord didn’t exist.
“Another world?” asked Yue Qingyuan, dubiously. “Beyond the Demon World and the Heavens?”
“Is it so strange?” asked Shen Qingqiu, with a solemnity that for some reason inspired a coughing fit from the An Ding Peak Lord, who stuffed his face into his sleeve. “The world of the Gods, the world of demons. Why should there not be a world of other possibilities?”
“And you and Luo Binghe were investigating these worlds.”
“We were investigating the tears left by Xin Mo,” explained Shen Qingqiu. The rest of the assembled Peak Lords tensed. “The sword has been shattered. It can no longer cause the damage it once did, either to our world or to its wielder.” His hand disappeared behind the table to surreptitiously grasp Binghe’s. It was not the subtle gesture he perhaps thought it was. “However, the lingering shards have been known to leave scars in the material world, and, on occasion, one or two things have slipped through.”
“Of what nature?” asked Yue Qingyuan, carefully.
Luo Binghe bared his slightly pointed teeth in memory. “Nothing we haven’t been able to handle.”
“They are… occasionally hostile,” admitted Shen Qingqiu, with a pained expression. Luo Binghe gave a snort at this obvious understatement, but went back to lounging in exaggerated calm. “But contained. We’ve been closing these tears as we’ve found them. This most recent tear was located close to the Northern Desert Palace. Mobei-jun was a most generous host while we investigated the issue.”
“Yes, yes, clearly he’s the one who arranged for your lodgings, and your food, and the headstones in your room…” muttered Shang Qinghua. Luo Binghe glanced at him. Shang Qinghua shut the hell up.
“We thought it led to the Abyss,” explained Shen Qingqiu, “but, as you can see, we were mistaken.”
“And just what are we seeing?” asked Liu Qingge. “It looks like there’s two of you.”
“Because there are two of this master. I am the Shen Qingqiu of this world, and this is the Shen Qingqiu of… another one. A world where different choices were made, different battles were won or lost, and different events occurred, no matter how ridiculous or contrived they may seem.”
This caused a stir of murmurs from around the table: confusion, alarm, debating on the metaphysical nature of multiple worlds. Annoyance at just learning of the continued issues with Xin Mo. The word ‘contrived’ seemed to particularly bother the An Ding Peak Lord. Yue Qingyuan let it go on for some time, mulling over his own thoughts, before at last he raised his head, and the room fell silent.
“And his condition, Qingqiu?” asked the Sect Leader, quietly. “What does that have to do with all of this?”
Shen Qingqiu stared into his fan.
“It wasn’t the better of the two.”
They had to trust Shen Qingqiu, because the other Shen Qingqiu could offer no account of his own. He remained lost in a fever for days, tossing and turning in Mu Qingfang’s infirmary. Both Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan checked in regularly. The reports were mostly the same: his immediate injuries would heal, despite infection and illness owing to however long he’d drifted in the cold of the Abyss, but when and if he would return to full consciousness remained unknown.
“The matter of his mind and spirit… well. That remains to be seen.” It was outside of Mu Qingfang’s professionalism to speculate beyond that.
The matter was answered by the next full moon, when the other Shen Qingqiu awoke screaming in the sick room.
Yue Qingyuan arrived from the guest pavilion. The disciple who fetched him hadn’t had far to search. The Sect Leader had been conducting most sect matters from Qian Cao Peak.
“We might need you to restrain him,” said the young herbalist, visibly flustered.
Yue Qingyuan didn’t stop to ask how one might restrain a limbless man. By the time he arrived at the rooms he could see clearly enough the issue: the other Shen Qingqiu had rediscovered his access to his spiritual powers. Vases and medicine jars were flying around the room. One of them crashed into the wooden door frame as Yue Qingyuan ducked through. The frighteningly unstable aura that filled the room was almost oppressive.
Mu Qingfang held his needles ready. He might have been able to sedate his patient, if his patient’s teeth weren’t currently buried into his forearm. Maimed as he was, Shen Qingqiu’s pale, scarred body twisted like a snake as the doctor attempted to dislodge him. He threw what little weight he had against Mu Qingfang. His hair -- which had gone white from his ordeals -- hung wildly in his face, giving him a truly demonic air. His eyes were wide, dazed, and utterly panicked.
“Immortal Shen Qingqiu,” said Mu Qingfang. His steady voice spoke decades of excellent service, tested though it was. “If you continue to expend your energy at this rate, you risk a qi deviation.”
His only answer was a nearly inhuman snarl.
“Qingqiu,” said Yue Qingyuan, approaching the bed. “Mu Qingfang wishes only to help you. Do you recognize him?”
The snarl broke off into a confused gurgle. Whether or not Shen Qingqiu recognized Cang Qiong Peak’s doctor, he let him go anyway, falling back across the bed with a long, gasping sound. Furniture and jars clattered to the floor. Shen Qingqiu twisted around like a snake to look up, even through the white curtains of unbound hair, Yue Qingyuan could make out the blood on his lips.
“Qi-ge…?” rasped Shen Qingqiu, in a brittle strained voice. “...Qi-ge! Qi-ge!”
The name bled into another hoarse scream. What was left of his shoulders started to shake. Before he could begin to thrash again, Mu Qingfang’s silver needle flashed. He deftly hit the right acupoint, and Shen Qingqiu collapsed face down into cushions. His hair settled over him like a ragged flag.
Yue Qingyuan stared, blankly. Behind him, a small army of Qian Cao disciples peered around him.
Mu Qingfang pressed a handkerchief to his injured arm. “Suppressing talismans,” he said, “and fresh ointment. If you would.”
“Who’s Qi-ge?” Yue Qingyuan heard one of them wonder out loud.
“Now, please,” said Mu Qingfang.
After that there was no question about it. Yue Qingyuan set himself up in the other Shen Qingqiu’s sick room. He informed the disciples not to bother him for anything except the most urgent of news.
Underneath the mass of quilts piled on him, Shen Qingqiu slowly lifted his head, his dark eyes watched Yue Qingyuan hazily, half lit by the moonlight. He looked like a haggard ghost.
“Qi-ge?” he whispered.
Yue Qingyuan leaned over him. “Yes, Xiao Jiu?” he asked, very cautiously.
For a brief, shaking moment, those eyes met his, he could see his own face reflected in them before his pupils went wide and unfocused again.
“Hm.” As if his head were too heavy for what was left of his body, Shen Qingqiu laid it down and drifted off again.
The next day, Shen Qingqiu was conscious, but barely responsive. He refused the medicinal soups the attendants brought him. He gave no response to their polite appeals, and struggled ferociously when those polite appeals became an attempt to force the medicine down.
Yue Qingyuan watched the cracked bottle on the nearest shelf begin to rattle.
“Qingqiu,” he said, gently. “Perhaps go easy on them.”
The bottle fell over and smashed on the floor.
“Xiao Jiu,” tried Yue Qingyuan, instead. Shen Qingqiu stopped struggling, it was enough for one of the disciples to get some of the medicine past his lips. It was not enough to stop him from slamming his head to the side and spilling the rest over all of them.
The disciples retreated for the time being.
“Now they’ll have to change the bedding,” sighed Yue Qingyuan. “I know you dislike being handled like this, but is there something you’d prefer?”
Shen Qingqiu laid back on the daybed and said nothing, but the flash of impatience in his eyes told Yue Qingyuan at least some of his words must’ve gotten through. When the disciples returned, with fresh quilts and more medicine, Yue Qingyuan held up a hand.
“Will you leave us?”
The disciples exchanged looks that were louder than words: ‘What does the Sect Leader have to say to this unruly stick?’
But they left the tray and the fresh bedding on a stool and backed out the door.
Yue Qingyuan picked up the bowl and gave it a curious stir.
“They used seasoning to hide the flavor,” he observed. “You never liked strong flavors. I’ll advise them against that in the future.”
Shen Qingqiu had been pretending to sleep. He cracked one eye at this.
“I won’t be angry if you fling it in my face,” said Yue Qingyuan, “but I think it would be less frustrating to eat in private. Would you like to sit up?”
Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow, as if to say: ‘And you expect me to do that, how?’
Yue Qingyuan moved a pillow behind him and tugged carefully at his robes until he was better elevated on the bed.
“Is that more comfortable?”
Shen Qingqiu scoffed, but he didn’t struggle or push the pillows off the bed. Again, Yue Qingyuan offered him the bowl.
“It will be better if you regain your strength,” said Yue Qingyuan. “The stronger you are, the fewer attendants Mu Qingfang will send to harass you.”
Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes, but when Yue Qingyuan brought the spoon to his bruised lips, he accepted it with a sigh. He ate in silence, eyes shut as if by closing them he could ignore the frustrating nature of it. He even quietly accepted when Yue Qingyuan patted down his chin afterwards.
“Pathetic,” he whispered. “Pathetic, Qi-ge.”
Yue Qingyuan’s heart gave a bewildered clench at the familiar yet unfamiliar address. “I’ll find you a better assistant, if you’d prefer.”
And, like a stone over a slate, Shen Qingqiu’s broken voice dragged itself out of the depths of his straining chest: “As if that’s the issue,” he rasped. “What preferences does a dead man have?”
The other Shen Qingqiu did not sleep like a dead man. In the days that followed he slept intermittently, poorly, and lightly.
He woke screaming again. The Qian Cao disciples were at a loss. Despite his lack of arms and legs, he writhed at their attempts to touch him. He refused their medicinal teas, their soothing voices. It was only when Yue Qingyuan, who had set up a temporary office in the next room, came over to check on him that he’d fall back on the bed, gazing at him tiredly. He waited for Yue Qingyuan to dismiss the disciples before he spoke:
“So this hell has you, too, Qi-ge?”
“I’m here, Xiao Jiu,” said Yue Qingyuan. Shen Qingqiu craned his head back and forth to find him.
Yue Qingyuan knelt by the bed and leaned over him. Shen Qingqiu eased back into his pile of blankets. He was quiet for long enough it seemed perhaps he’d fallen back into a fitful sleep, but as Yue Qingyuan attempted to withdraw, he felt his sleeve catch. He looked down to discover Shen Qingqiu had grabbed it in his teeth, his eyes glinting viciously like a snake’s in the half-light.
“Don’t you dare leave again,” he snarled, around a mouthful of silk.
Yue Qingyuan’s breath caught, just a little.
“No,” he said, after a moment. He pulled up a stool and eased himself down beside the bed. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
He only ate when Yue Qingyuan fed him personally, and even then it was a weak, half-hearted effort.
“Qingqiu must eat to regain his spiritual strength,” insisted Yue Qingyuan. “Your core is too weak to reach innedia just now.” Shen Qingqiu’s eyes flicked over him, an eyebrow quirking as if to say: ‘And what good will that do me?’
Yue Qingyuan fed him soup, and held the napkin to his cold lips.
“Where am I?” asked Shen Qingqiu. It was the first thing he’d said since waking.
An easy enough question. “Qian Cao Peak.”
“That’s a lie. It was destroyed with the rest of the mountain.”
“Is that what happened in your world?”
“Of course, he’d come up with something this saccharine.” Shen Qingqiu turned his eyes away from Yue Qingyuan’s pleading face. “It’s what happened. Luo Binghe merged the three realms, and ground the rest under his heel. He destroyed Cang Qiong Mountain with particular relish. I know. He told me personally. I expect he’ll remind me once I wake. Or once this illusion turns. It always does.”
It was the most he’d said since coming here. His voice cracked from the effort. Yue Qingyuan quickly supplied him with another mouthful of soup. He took it with a grimace. Yue Qingyuan’s fingertips lingered on his tense jaw slightly longer than was strictly necessary. “I’m sorry.”
“When are you not sorry, Qi-ge?” huffed Shen Qingqiu. “You’re too late, anyway. You always are.”
“Nevertheless,” said Yue Qingyuan. “You’re safe here. This world has met no such fate. In fact--”
“Nothing bad has ever happened and everyone lives peacefully. Hah. Next you’ll tell me Bai Zhan Peak’s master is alive and well, and my reputation is entirely unsullied!”
“Liu-shidi is working with Shang Qinghua to requisition a sedan,” said Yue Qingyuan, quietly.
Shen Qingqiu’s eyes rolled so dramatically his head fell to one side. He squirmed to regain his balance against the pillows. “That weasel as well -- ah, well. How ridiculous. And pointless.”
“Mu Qingfang says some sun and fresh air will be good for you.”
“Mu Qingfang was crushed when the mountain fell.”
“I think it would be good for you.”
Shen Qingqiu looked back at him. “Luo Binghe left the pieces of Xuan Su by what was left of my arm.”
“To the left, to the left -- no, not like THAT -- mind the gap -- yes, there. Perfect.”
The great thud roused the piles of quilts on the sick bed. From over the warming brick, a horrible white ghost emerged from its cave, white hair falling in hangs and worming upwards.
“Oh, settle down,” snapped Shang Qinghua. “Show some respect for Immortal Shen, will you?”
The An Ding disciples were almost too jittery to hold their tools. At last, Shang Qinghua sighed and dismissed them to finish up the work himself. The object of all the fuss was the assembly of a one-person sedan chair, the kind with wheels and handles, meant to be pushed by a disciple or with cultivation.
“Immortal Shen,” said Shang Qinghua, eyes darting almost longingly towards the door as he finished tightening on one zitan wheel.
“Immortal Shang,” said Shen Qingqiu, with a voice like two stones grinding against one another as they crushed grain. He clearly wished the grain to be the man hammering in his sick room.
“Sorry to wake you,” said Shang Qinghua, “but Sect Leader didn’t want to delay on this equipment. Very important to your recovery. Which matters deeply to every single one of us. Every single one of us.”
“Even our resident traitor?” whispered Shen Qingqiu.
Shang Qinghua nearly dropped his kit. Ah, the glory of An Ding Peak, leaving its Peak Lord to do the menial tasks like putting together a medical sedan. “N-no? Not anymore, anyway. I’m more a liaison, now, anyway. A diplomat. With diplomatic immunity, all right? I agreed to do this in the name of continued peace between our...”
He trailed off when Shen Qingqiu emerged further from his cocoon of blankets, scarred shoulders particular stark in the morning light.
“Don’t mistake me,” croaked the injured former Peak Lord, levering himself up into something like a sitting position with more strength than his gaunt, wasted torso seemed like it ought to allow. His long white hair hung in his face. “It hardly matters to me. This world is either a hell or an illusion. If Luo Binghe finds humor in the idea that you have not died the traitor’s death you deserved, so be it.”
“But move against the Sect Leader and I will personally bite off your ears,” said Shen Qingqiu.
“I… should fetch him for you.”
“You should fetch him for me,” agreed Shen Qingqiu. “I’m tired of looking at you.”
Yue Qingyuan returned in a hurry.
“Ah, I’m sorry, they must have arrived early… Are you all right?”
Shen Qingqiu had rolled his way out of bed. He’d managed to struggle at least half way across the room when Yue Qingyuan found him, laying face down against the floorboards and exhausted. He’d taken down one of the side tables with him as he’d fallen. One of the dishes lay smashed and in pieces. Yue Qingyuan rushed to pick him off the floor.
“Hmph. I’m in the same amount of pieces I was when I came here, if that’s what you mean,” said Shen Qingqiu, huffing. “I’d expect more from a Sect Leader. Is this what you’re reduced to when I’m not around to offer counsel?”
“Shang Qinghua’s affiliations have been known for some time now,” said Yue Qingyuan. “He keeps his position on a provisional basis.”
“And what is that provision? That he not tell Mobei-jun everything about the sect?”
“That he act as liaison between Cang Qiong and the Northern Kingdoms.”
“You made a worm like that an ambassador. How… appropriate, actually. Don’t let men into my room without my knowing, Qi-ge. Those wretched Qian Cao disciples are already too much.”
“...I thought it would be a nice surprise.”
“I hate surprises.”
But as Yue Qingyuan knelt to lift him back onto the bed, the pieces of the broken vase skittered to life. They slid across the floor, lifted up, and flew to stop, carefully paused, right over both their throats.
“...That’s enough, Luo Binghe,” murmured Shen Qingqiu. “You’ve made your point.”
“Luo Binghe?” Yue Qingyuan blinked. “You think this is…”
“A dreamscape, obviously,” said Shen Qingqiu. “You think you can still fool me? After all this time? You may have taken my limbs, my status, everything of value to me, but you’ll have to work a bit harder to rob me of this last scrap--!”
The sharp pieces of the vase began to shake. Shen Qingqiu’s breath turned ragged from the strain.
“Xiao Jiu,” said Yue Qingyuan, softly. “Luo Binghe isn’t here.”
“Damn you for knowing that name,” hissed Shen Qingqiu. “I don’t know how you managed to dig that deep, but I won’t allow it again. Wasn’t killing him enough for you? Change your face.”
But Yue Qingyuan didn’t vanish, and he didn’t move. His eyes flooded with sadness.
“He tortured you with things like this? …I’m sorry, I wish the other me had come sooner.”
“Don’t give me that! You never came at all! You never made it to the damn door!”
“...Ah,” said Yue Qingyuan. “Then Qi-ge has let you down twice over.”
Shen Qingqiu swore, and the pieces of porcelain went scattering harmlessly to the ground. He butted his head against Yue Qingyuan’s chest, for lack of any ability to grasp at him. He pressed his face in as hard as he could.
“Damn you. Damn you, Luo Binghe. Change your face. Take my form. Take her form. Be her bastard brother for all I care. But don’t use this face. Qi-ge is gone. Qi-ge is already gone. I can’t, I won’t…”
“I’m here now,” said Yue Qingyuan. “Please, Xiao Jiu. I’m sorry I let those disciples in. The other me allowed you to be hurt so grievously. Won’t you rest awhile?”
“Take me to bed,” whispered Shen Qingqiu, hoarsely. He fell limply in his arms. “I’ll play along a little longer. Just don’t leave again, will you?”
Yue Qingyuan scooped him up. He was so alarmingly light in his arms. He rested Shen Jiu back across the bed. He used his qi to to warm the sheets, and a little to warm his body and strengthen him. He pulled the quilt up around him, and moved away to leave him in peace -- but Shen Qingqiu almost rolled out again, trying to follow him.
“I said--” he started.
But Yue Qingyuan simply finished righting the side table. He took out his crown and rested it on it.
“I know,” he said, and stretched out beside him. They passed the rest of the morning in silence.
Shen Qingqiu refused the sedan. He refused the hands of all the disciples who offered to help him into it. He would accept neither their pity nor their ineptitude -- but he did accept some extra pillows from the Sect Leader. It was late in the night when he made the attempt to escape again. He demanded Yue Qingyuan fetch him some soup. While Yue Qingyuan flagged down an outer disciple, he rolled from the bed.
He made it as far as the courtyard. It was fortunate they’d cracked the door. He tumbled down the steps, lay among the herb garden, stared up at the hanging lanterns, and with what felt like a colossally painful amount of effort, began to rock the lamp back and forth, trying to pull the fire down into the grasses with him.
It was too much. The light swung jaggedly back and forth. The flame danced and crackled, the metal screamed, but what gave first was something behind his eyes. Pain blossomed in what was left of his body. He felt blood dribble from his left nostril.
Too much, too soon. Well, a qi deviation would do just fine, then. If he exerted himself a little more…
Someone caught him by the back of his robe and pulled him upright. Before he could protest, a hand was shoved over his mouth. A second hand laid flat across his back. With a few quick, sharp jabs to particular acupoints, the throbbing subsided.
“Look for a better end than that, at least,” said his would-be savior. “Sect Leader’s working very hard to keep you alive.”
The man set him down. Shen Qingqiu balanced precariously on what was left of his legs, gasping but very much alive. He lifted his head, but the man he found wasn't Yue Qingyuan, or even Luo Binghe, but Liu Qingge, kneeling across from him with a flat look. He’d either been there minutes or hours, it was hard to say.
“Sect Leader thought you might try something,” said Liu Qingge. “I volunteered.”
“You’ve some nerve,” huffed Shen Qingqiu, surprised at the shakiness in his own voice, “sneaking up on a dead man.”
“Show some gratitude,” said Liu Qingge.
“Gratitude,” laughed Shen QIngqiu. “For the ghost that has finally decided to haunt me outright, eh? Suits you to see me laid so low at last?”
“Not particularly,” said Liu Qingge. Then, much to Shen Qingqiu’s surprise and horror, Liu Qingge lifted him up and tucked him under his arms like a sack of cabbage. He brought him back to his bed, where he set him down, and even wiped his face with a cloth he’d produced from his inner robe. He wasn’t particularly gentle about it. Shen Qingqiu squawked under the rough ministrations, but when he was done they sat across from each other, eyeing each other warily.
“You called yourself a dead man,” said Liu Qingge. “Do you actually want to die?”
“No need. I’m probably already dead,” said Shen Qingqiu. “Or worse.”
“You think Luo Binghe has you.”
“Possibly. But since when do you know about him? He was a bit after your time, shidi.”
But Liu Qingge took this jab with little more than a scowl. “Tch. I died that early in your world? Hmph. Nevermind. Don’t die yet in this one. It takes Luo Binghe effort to maintain a dreamscape this detailed. You might as well make him wait for it.”
“So I should behave for spite? My, shidi, that’s not very upright of you.”
“There are other reasons,” said Liu Qingge, “but you wouldn’t believe them.”
“Ha, you’re probably right.”
“How big is Luo Binghe’s imagination?”
“For ruining my life? Limitless.”
“No one’s without a limit,” said Liu Qingge. “Not even him.”
“And you’re the expert, are you?”
“No,” said Liu Qingge. “That’s you. You are Cang Qiong’s chief strategist. You know how to think like a villain. So. Think.”
He did have a point. There was a time when Shen Qingqiu was one of the top experts in the nature of dreamscapes, owing to the famous demons who used them in their favor, but hearing that from Liu Qingge, it was almost too much.
“How helpful Liu-shidi is for me in death,” he said, with a bitter laugh. “Strange, you’d be the one I’d summon to save my own life. What have I done to deserve such favor?”
“Probably nothing.” Liu Qingge nodded, as if having confirmed something to himself. “But you actually make sense.”
“Make sense how?”
Liu Qingge didn’t answer the question. “Focus on recovery,” he said. “Don’t die and we’ll talk more.”
“ You want to talk to me ?”
A man who kept his promises, Liu Qingge stood up and walked out without another word.
“Would Xiao Jiu like to go out?” He’d woken up screaming three times that night. Yue Qingyuan was pale and exhausted, but gentle with him.
“It would be good for you.”
“Does that nag of a doctor think that?”
“I think that.”
“What’s the point?”
“What health?” Shen Qingqiu dragged the blanket back over his head with his teeth. Yue Qingyuan sighed and peered over, nevertheless.
“If your core recovers, there are some qi exercises that might allow you more mobility…”
“I said I don’t want to go out.” He threw his shoulder stump outwards on reflex. He succeeded only in throwing the blanket in Yue Qingyuan’s face. Yue Qingyuan sighed and tucked it back over him, carefully. Shen Qingqiu glared impotently from the bed. “What’s there to see?”
“A nice sunny day?”
“An illusion. There’s nothing out there but rubble now.”
“It may be that this place is gone where you came from,” said Yue Qingyuan, gently, “but in this world…”
“This world, this world. Hah. The dreamscape’s elaborate this time, I’ll grant you.“ Shen Qingqiu rolled away. “But it will only ever be a matter of time before I’m back in that beast’s dungeon. You couldn’t take me from it before. You won’t manage it now. Only in a hell like this would I still be trying to keep you clear of it all. You’ll never listen, will you?”
“...Who would you believe?” asked Yue Qingyuan, softly.
“My own good sense.”
“I see,” said Yue Qingyuan. “In that case… Xiao Jiu. There is a man who would like to visit you. Would that be all right?”
“It’s better you see for yourself.”
In the Qian Cao courtyard, Luo Binghe could be found pacing. None of the Peak Lords had figured out exactly how to ask him to leave. Each evening he retreated to rest in the private house they all pretended he didn’t happily reside in against the Cang Qiong rules, but every morning when Peak Lord Shen Qingqiu returned to check on the matter, his Demon Lord husband was in tow. He seemed to find the matter of the second Shen Qingqiu as deeply concerning as the rest of the Peak Lords.
They’d had to figure out how to convince the krill-eel to turn itself into a horse for easier housing.
The erstwhile Demon Lord was the larger concern. Liu Qingge suggested the Bai Zhan Peak method of extraction -- which is to say, challenging him outright to combat. He had been promptly overruled out of concern for Qian Cao’s infrastructure. The only one who could do it with any authority was right there with Luo Binghe, equally lost in thought.
“Like the other me.”
Shen Qingqiu gave one of his long, detached pauses. “They come from the same place.”
Luo Binghe grimaced. “So that’s why I couldn’t find you there. Oh, shizun, that world is the worst.”
Luo Binghe paused. “You do?”
Shen Qingqiu remembered then that he was speaking with one of the most clever men in all three realms. “This teacher has visited it before.”
Luo Binghe’s eyes narrowed. “Ah. So, then, when he said--”
“Not here, Binghe.”
Yue Qingyuan appeared along the walkway.
“Qingqiu,” he said, with one of his particularly worn smiles. “May I impose on you for a moment?”
“You don’t look terribly surprised,” asked the Shen Qingqiu who stepped into the room.
“What is there to be surprised by?” answered the Shen Qingqiu waiting in it. “Either it’s another illusion or a special type of hell. You think I haven’t faced myself in a world like this before? You must be running out of ideas, Luo Binghe, if you think this will phase me.”
The other Shen Qingqiu almost smiled. “Not an unreasonable assumption.” He glanced around, moving in a slight circle. He even produced his fan, smacking it against his hand in thought. “But this is an awful large dreamscape to maintain for a long period of time, and you’ve been in it… how many hours now? Have you experienced any fade outs? Sudden jumps in time? Do the disciples you don’t care about have faces? How about textures?”
“I’m not going to be lectured in dreamscapes by my former student!”
“You never taught him a thing about dreamscapes and you know it.” They glared at one another. Finally, the other Shen Qingqiu relented. “Besides it’s a bit different this time. You must have noticed.”
“I’ve heard that before, too.”
Shen Yuan breathed deeply. “Ah, Binghe, you’re too thorough…” he muttered, but caught himself. He said, more carefully: “And if I said there’s more to it than that?”
Shen Jiu’s lips twisted bitterly. “Try me.”
“I’m a spirit who took over your body with the task of averting your fate in your world, the result of which has created an alternate timeline in which Luo Binghe never destroyed you or this sect, the demon world and human world are at peace, and everyone who died pathetically in your world is still alive. Does that sound like something Luo Binghe could have come up with?”
All of this came out very fast. It took Shen Jiu a moment to process.
“Hell it is, then,” he said, idly. “Well, then, at least Qi-ge is here with me.”
“You’re happy to think he’s gone to hell?”
“Why wouldn’t I? We both belong here.”
Shen Yuan bristled, despite himself. “Shixiong is--”
“ Shixiong , is it? Ah, now I do believe you’re some imposter.”
“He hasn’t told you?”
“Told me what?”
“Ah,” said Shen Yuan. He drew a very deep, very patient breath, and absolutely let loose the longest, most primal scream -- in his head, anyway. “One moment, please.”
Yue Qingyuan waited in the outer courtyard, staring pensively into the koi pond.
Yue Qingyuan turned to find Shen Qingqiu standing opposite of him.
“Ah, shidi, how did it--”
“I need to impose on you.”
Shen Qingqiu grabbed Yue Qingyuan by his wrist. In the normal way, the difference in their strength and build would have made it impossible for him to move the Sect Leader in any significant way, but Yue Qingyuan was so startled that Shen Qingqiu was able to drag him all the way to the open door of the recovery room.
“You need to tell him,” commanded Shen Qingqiu.
“Everything you told me.” Shen Qingqiu’s hand tightened on Yue Qingyuan’s vambrace. “The truth. Don’t leave anything out.”
The Sect Leader’s eyes widened. “Ah, that. Well. I don’t want to lay anything too hard on him, perhaps, when he’s a bit more recovered--”
With a sharp motion, Shen Qingqiu spun Yue Qingyuan and laid a foot squarely on his lower back, shoving him into the room with a strength that had, admittedly, once tossed Luo Binghe into the Abyss. Yue Qingyuan tried to turn.
“DON’T LEAVE ANYTHING OUT.” Shen Qingqiu slid the door shut in his face, crossed his arms, and leaned on it. No one would get in or out.
The other Shen Qingqiu stared. Yue Qingyuan knelt in front of him, head lowered. His inner robe lay across the stool. His outer robe was peeled to his waist. The scars were clear even in the wavering candle light. The years had only allowed them to fade so far. It was as if someone had taken a candle and methodically drawn it between each of his qi points. They followed his meridians, pale and raised. The silence stretched on.
“I see,” said Shen Qingqiu, loftily. “So it is as you said.”
“Yes. Should I dress?”
“No.” Then, in a deceptively conversational voice, Shen Qingqiu continued: “Interesting that Sect Leader didn’t see fit to tell me this. Back then. When we met again.”
Yue Qingyuan nearly looked up. “You remember,” he said -- then, lowered his eyes again. “But, no matter. It didn’t change anything.”
“No matter, he says.” His composure began to crack with his voice. A quiver began in Shen Qingqiu’s chest, the robes draped over him began to shiver. “Didn’t change anything, he says. What didn’t it change? Besides everything.”
“It seemed pointless to defend my failure. It made no difference.”
“It’s the difference between being a toy that was thrown in the trash pile and a toy that was lost.”
Yue Qingyuan’s head came up, a flash of firmness in his eyes. “Xiao Jiu is no toy.”
“Xiao Jiu is nothing but a toy now. Broken parts and all. Perfect for the trash heap. Where I thought you left me. Where you let me think you left me.” He shook hard enough he nearly rocked himself out of his bed. At last, Yue Qingyuan got off his knees to catch him by his shoulder and steady him.
“No,” said Yue Qingyuan.
Shen Qingqiu laughed bitterly. “So high-handed, Sect Leader. You took this with you to the grave. ‘Will my life satisfy you…?’ But you never told me that damnable sword was your life. You never told me anything. How easy it was for you to just die and leave me again. Damn you. You…” He swayed. “You should have said something sooner. ”
Yue Qingyuan winced, but he kept his hand on what was left of his arm. Shen Qingqiu succeeded only in slouching more against him. “My other self and I would have been of the same mind. I doubt I would have done anything differently,” he admitted.
“I know. Sect Leader is an idiot.”
Yue Qingyuan took a deep breath. His face was close enough it stirred Shen Qingqiu’s brittle white hair. “Would you have listened?”
Shen Qingqiu went tense all over. “Yes?!”
Yue Qingyuan said in a soft voice: “I’m sorry.”
“That’s all you know how to say.”
“Still, I’m sorry.”
“Say something else.”
“Am I ‘Sect Leader’ again?” asked Yue Qingyuan, plaintively.
Shen Qingqiu stopped shaking, staring. “Oh, does the mighty leader of Cang Qiong Peak want to be Qi-ge?”
“I...” Yue Qingyuan swallowed. “I’ve missed hearing you say it.”
Shen Qingqiu lapsed into another long silence. He slouched forward more, his forehead brushing Yue Qingyuan’s collarbone, and one of the raised scars which ran down his chest.
“Fine,” said Shen Qingqiu. “Get dressed, will you? It’s foolish to be hanging around here half naked, like some Bai Zhan blowhard.”
“I’m Qingqiu again, am I?” asked Shen Qingqiu, sharply. “Leave. It’s what you let me think you did, isn’t it?”
Yue Qingyuan dressed and left. The other Shen Qingqiu released him easily enough. They stared at each other.
“Shixiong,” began this Shen Qingqiu. Shixiong. “It needed to be said.”
Yue Qingyuan passed him like a cold breeze. He went to the herb garden, to meditate and try to clear the painful squeeze in his chest.
He passed the night in quiet contemplation, deaf to all but the crickets in the trees. The next morning, a flustered disciple came to fetch him.
“Sect Leader. Master Shen has, um...” he said, hurriedly, audibly stopping himself from saying ‘demanded.’ “Requested your presence. He, uh, won’t let us in the room.”
Yue Qingyuan found most of the furniture overturned, paintings knocked off the walls, and Shen Qingqiu slouched like a bored lord across the bed.
“Qi-ge,” he said, imperiously. “I’m tired of staring at the ceiling. Put me in that ridiculous An Ding contraption, will you? These idiots don’t know what they’re doing.”
Yue Qingyuan couldn’t mask the smile that came over him. “Xiao Jiu…?” he began, hesitantly.
“Yes?” asked Shen Qingqiu. “Was I unclear?”
“No,” said Yue Qingyuan, and unfolded the sedan.
“Binghe,” said Shen Qingqiu, softly. Almost too soft to be heard, but Luo Binghe’s ears perked up as he set the tea tray between them. Half demons had obnoxiously good hearing. “Do you remember what this teacher was like, when you first came to Cang Qiong Peak? Don’t talk around it. I know you’re very good at that.”
The little stupid grin that lighted Luo Binghe’s face at being called ‘very good’ at something vanished instantly as he summoned the memory. “Shizun was… strict.”
“This teacher was not kind to you.”
But the Demon Lord, in all his might, rallied to his defense. “It was part of my training. I misunderstood you.”
“Binghe knows a lot more about the world now and how people work,” said Shen Qingqiu. “Does he still believe that?”
Luo Binghe’s silence was answer enough.
“This teacher let you down,” said Shen Qingqiu. “In many ways. It took a qi deviation for me to recognize the degree to which I had been mistaken with how I handled you. It is through sheer… fortune, that correction of course proved to be enough.”
Luo Binghe abandoned his teacup and swept to the other side of the table, shoving his face against Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder.
“You say that…”
“It’s more than enough.”
Shen Qingqiu settled his hand in Luo’s Binghe’s hair, stroking that spot behind his ear that always made him sigh happily.
“Binghe.” Shen Qingqiu shook his head. “Your heart is really too big for your body.”
“This body is big enough to handle many things.” And then, with a bit of a husky tone, he added: “Many things.”
“Insatiable,” scolded Shen Qingqiu, but playfully. He turned and took Luo Binghe’s face in his hands, considering him. “The teacher who lies injured on Qian Cao Peak is one who made very different choices. Are you sure you could still think so well of him, if you knew?”
“I don’t know,” said Luo Binghe, “but the other me is so stupid and lonely.”
“The other you has… some company, I’m sure.”
“But he still wants you for himself, so he mustn't be very happy with whoever it could be! Like I said, stupid and lonely. And someone I never want to be. I’m happy to be who I am now. I like this world better. I like who I am in it better, and this is the world where I have shizun. So.”
“Binghe…” Shen Qingqiu was too overcome to say more.
“So, I’ll want to do what he didn’t. I want to help this shizun, too,” said Luo Binghe. “This way, I’ll surpass the other me in all ways.”
“Ah, you petty thing,” said Shen Qingqiu, but leaned forward, to kiss his foolish former disciple’s forehead. He wasn’t surprised to find himself tossed across the bed, and the tea left to cool untouched on the table. But well, he allowed it. After all this time, Luo Binghe had earned that much.
Ming Fan and Ning Yingying reported in by the next evening, just as the sun vanished behind the farthest peak.
“Sect Leader, shizun is in need of our assistance,” said Ning Yingying, pertly.
“Your shizun is back on Qing Jing Peak,” Yue Qingyuan reminded her, with a mildness that caused all the color to drain from Ming Fan’s face.
Ming Fan began to apologize for their impertinence, but Ning Yingying continued on with her chipper boldness.
“We know, he’s the one who sent us,” she said, bowing deeply.
Shen Qingqiu’s tactical choice of deploying his two most trusted disciples proved a wise one. The other Shen Qingqiu was less inclined to struggle and bite them -- Ning Yingying, in particular, inspired a particularly pensive silence.
“It’s all right, shizun,” she’d say. “Can I sit you up? I imagine you’ll want to see the garden.”
“Do as you like.”
“I’d like my teacher to be comfortable,” said Ning Yingying, with a bit of iron that earned her a sideways glance.
“This teacher can still be called that?”
“Of course,” said Ning Yingying. “Shizun has already explained everything.”
“Has he now?”
“Yes,” she said. “You are a version of my teacher who has come from a very harsh place, where everyone betrayed him and left him for dead, because they believed all the rumors about him. So he might be a little wary of this student, because she was one of them for some reason. Does that sum it up?”
The other Shen Qingqiu sighed, heavily.
“I suppose it does,” he said. “Fine, Ning Yingying, show me that view.”
They sat together in the sunlight in the courtyard outside of the main medical complex. Shen Qingqiu practiced moving the grass with his qi. Ming Fan brought him tea. The best tea. The kind that was fermented for months in little cakes, and had to be cut to be enjoyed. This brew was especially luxurious. Ming Fan’s family sold it to nobility and emperors' wives, but Shen Qingqiu had always enjoyed it.
“Shizun’s favorite,” said Ming Fan, proudly.
It was brewed slightly stronger than this Shen Qingqiu liked, but expensive enough he pretended to savor the bitterness of it. “Luo Binghe must’ve been very lazy in this world, to leave so much untouched.”
He’d purposely sent Ning Yingying off to fetch more pillows, so she wasn’t there to censure Ming Fan when he made a face and went: “Oh, he’s done plenty.”
Shen Qingqiu peered at him in entirely feigned innocence. “Has he?”
He’d missed Ming Fan’s gossip. It could be ridiculously useful sometimes -- but Ming Fan had some loyalty. He hesitated, eyes darting instinctively to the general direction of the Qing Jing Peak. “Shizun said I’m not to talk about him. For the sake of your health.”
“Am I not your shizun as well?”
Ming Fan wavered. “You are.”
“And hasn’t knowledge always sustained us, on Qing Jing Peak? I’ve always relied on your keen eye for it.”
He actually relied on Ming Fan’s ability to criticize literally everyone and everything who wasn’t Ming Fan, but it didn’t hurt to honey it up a little bit. Just like that, Ming Fan split open just like a freshly cut block of tea. “Well, he probably didn’t mean all of it.”
Shen Qingqiu leaned back and lifted his chin expectantly.
“You wouldn’t believe what he did when…”
It didn’t take long for Shen Qingqiu to get used to the sedan, although he complained bitterly at how it made his back ache. Soon, the complaints took a different flavor: he decided he was tired of Qian Cao Peak, its disciples, and its medicinal stench.
“I think it’s quite serene,” said Yue Qingyuan. They sat together in front of the open inner doors, looking out into the courtyard where Ming Fan was presently sweeping, clearing paths, and bossing lower disciples around. With a quiet application of his spiritual skills, Shen Qingqiu made the leaves skitter back and forth across the walkway, forcing them to repeat their work.
“You’ll tolerate anything,” he remarked, chuckling to himself. “You’ve moved your office here.”
“Just while you recover.”
“I won’t be regrowing my limbs any time soon.”
Yue Qingyuan considered. “We are exploring options. Liu-shidi, in fact…”
“Liu Qingge has been dead for years. And even if he weren’t, he has no reason to take up any quest in my name.”
“Well, what you assume to be his ghost is out in search of some potential aid to you,” said Yue Qingyuan, easily enough. “In this world you are quite close.”
“Nonsense,” scoffed Shen Qingqiu, but as his head listed into the slant of sunrise from the window, his lips twisted. “Nevertheless, I’m tired of this place. The view is only passable. My students have painted better.”
“Xiao Jiu wishes to return to Qing Jing?” Yue Qingyuan was too tactful to look concerned, but his eyebrows knitted as he made very obvious logistical leaps in his head. “I am certain we can prepare it for you…”
“And watch that imposter prance around in my clothes and wave my fan around like a toy? Bah. No.”
“Yes, you’d find that objectionable, too…”
Yue Qingyuan snapped his smile back on. “What would Xiao Jiu prefer?”
Shen Qingqiu smirked. “If I’ve already been condemned, I may as well have the gall of which I have always been accused. Give me Qiong Ding Peak. I expect no less than the seat of power itself.”
And, to his surprise, Yue Qingyuan’s smile turned into a real one. A genuine one. He even touched his lips to hold back a laugh.
“So be it,” he said.
It was one thing to sweep leaves into the path of exasperated servants, it was another to use his cultivation to throw every single object in the room at the walls, but it was an entirely another thing to do more delicate work with it. At the latest wrecked sheet, Shen Jiu threw the ink pot against the wall with a ferocious application of qi.
He was now strong enough to sit upright on his own. He could even pull himself across the room. Climbing in and out of bed without banging his head still took some work, but sitting up at the low table, however, was now quite manageable.
Writing still wasn’t.
“Come to mock me?” he said to the man in the door.
The other Shen Qingqiu snorted. “You think we all have the free time for that? I heard you’re on the move.”
“You heard wrong. I’m quite stationary.”
“It’s not what Sect Leader seems to think.”
“Sect Leader comes to his own conclusions.”
But the false Shen Qingqiu settled across from him, bidding Ning Yingying to fetch them some snacks, and leave them very much alone.
“My other self is so generous, to do without his two most prominent disciples. How are you getting by?”
Shen Yuan hid his face behind his fan, ignoring the way that made Shen Jiu twitch. “I have help, regardless.”
“The outer disciples in this world are less useless, then.”
“They never were useless, you just didn’t bother to work with them.”
“I do,” said Shen Yuan. “You were an autocratic, self-involved prick with no notion of how to mind children. You should have never been put in charge of them.”
The writing tools and dishes began to shake. “You--!”
“You were overly critical, arrogant, and yet with a raging inferiority complex that you forced on literally every promising disciple that rolled in front of you.” Shen Yuan started really enjoying this. “And nearly all of your colleagues. What’s worse, you never bothered to explain yourself in anything, so they just assumed the worst of you, and you decided it would be fitting to play along. Your hardships with them were entirely of your own making, and you could have avoided at least half of them by trying to be even vaguely collegial and listening for a change.”
Shen Yuan held up his sleeve as the brush hit it.
“But, fate has been particularly cruel to Shen Qingqiu,” he sighed. “You had a rough start, and at least some of it was misfortune, or the whim of a particularly annoying God. Needless to say, when I first came here, I despised you.”
That earned nothing but a roll of the other Shen Qingqiu’s eyes. Shen Jiu fwumped back into his sedan, looking utterly unsurprised while his other self cleared the writing table between them. “Yes, you and the entire Peaks. It’s not exactly as though I’m unaware of my reputation. Luo Binghe, have you decided to put in an appearance at last?”
Shen Yuan made a strange face. “No. Why should he? We’ve settled things between us, in this world.”
“Yes. There’s peace between the demon and human worlds. And they remain separate.”
“And how did you accomplish that? Reasoning with him?”
“In a sense.” Shen Yuan rubbed his hip a little pointedly. “But Binghe was never as beyond hope you assumed.”
“Oh, what is your tame little disciple? Eating out of your hand?”
Shen Yuan made another strange face. “I… wouldn’t… say that.”
“Hah,” Shen Jiu’s lip curled. “Be mindful, he’ll bite you. He’s always had two faces.”
Shen Yuan sighed, closed his fan, and, with great aplomb, snapped it over Shen Jiu’s head.
“Enough! I know very well how that student bites! I’ll not hear it from the person who locked him in a woodshed and was surprised he came back angry as hell about it! Yes, the punishment you received was excessive, but you could! Have! Used! A! Lighter! Hand!” When he was done smacking the other Shen Qingqiu over the head with his own fan, Shen Yuan sat back and reopened it with a melodramatic sigh. The man’s manner went from lofty to strangely curt, in an instant. “And now you have none. Living your life was annoying as hell. I didn’t know why you were so determined to make it more difficult for yourself. If you’d asked me before all this, I’d have said you deserved what you got.”
Shen Jiu stared at him under his now mussed hair, almost awe-struck at the sheer nerve of the action. Then, at last, he scowled and lowered his eyes.
“You and everyone else,” he said, bitterly. “Your point?”
“I wouldn’t now.”
“How enlightened. Have you discovered the mercy of the Buddha? After all that?”
“No,” said Shen Yuan. “For starters, I didn’t want to end up where you are now.”
“And then I learned where you came from.”
“How nice, to know my deepest secrets have been pawed over by some fool ghost. What, now you pity me?”
“Hah. No. You worked hard to make sure no one could do that.” It was the false Shen Qingqiu’s turn to roll his eyes. “I just realized it wasn’t in me to judge you anymore. I didn’t live it through it. I wouldn’t know.”
“So be it,” said Shen Jiu. “How bizarrely fair-minded. And after striking me with my own fan. You make a terrible version of me.”
Shen Yuan’s eyes flickered with a bit of fiendish amusement. “Good! You make a terrible version of you!”
Shen Yuan picked himself up and walked out the door.
A moment later he stuck his head back in. “And don’t bite my disciples when they move you to Qiong Ding. It’s getting ridiculous.”
“I’ll bite whoever I like!”
“‘I’ll bite whoever I like’ -- do you ever hear yourself?”
“I AM NOT A CHILD,” screeched Shen Jiu.
“SAYS KING BABY HIMSELF.”
“WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?”
Shen Yuan shut the door. He heard the amazing crack as the table hit it in his wake.
Over the next few days, Mu Qingfang granted them permission to have Shen Qingqiu moved to Qiong Ding Peak for long term care. The doctor stroked his whiskers in thought, but gave little protest at the proposed arrangement. He was too good at his job to look visibly relieved at the prospect of discharging his most increasingly infamous patient. His disciples were far less subtle about the bounce in their steps as they raced about for supplies and no less than ten blankets upon request. A few even hummed happily -- Shen Qingqiu was quick to inform them they were terribly off key.
But, on the next clear, reasonably warm day, they left Qian Cao. Shen Qingqiu refused the indignity of being carried by sword. They took the Great Bridge to Qiong Ding. That suited Ming Fan. He tromped ahead of the entourage, shouting ahead for any unfortunate An Ding disciples to clear the way.
Ning Yingying pushed the sedan. “I can tell him to be quieter, if you like.”
Shen Qingqiu huddled in his blankets. “Bah, let him go. It amuses him.”
“Just him, shizun?”
“Mm.” But despite the mountain cold and the winds, Shen Qingqiu found himself wriggling forward in his seat, just a bit. The early morning skies over the peaks were a blue so pale they were nearly white, only just beginning to darken with the full blush of day. It was early enough a few of the birds that lived at this altitude could be spotted winging their way between the peaks. A great, speckled hawk-eagle drifted on the updrafts, hovering over a more distant peak.
“Wan Jian… Ku Xing…” he murmured. “It really is all there.”
“What’s that, shizun?”
“Nothing, Yingying.” He didn’t say anything for the rest of the trip.
The outer disciples of Qiong Ding were all abuzz. Not just that the Sect Leader had at last returned -- though they were all fond of him and his gentle manners, even when directing them -- but that he had returned with a companion of some note. Word of Qian Cao’s terrible patient had gotten around among the outer disciples, but just who that terrible patient might be was still a subject of some confusion.
“That isn’t Immortal Shen, is it?”
“Nonsense! Immortal Shen is currently holding lectures in Qing Jing. He held one yesterday. His hair was still black and he had all his limbs!”
“But this one looks just like him, and everyone addresses him as the same…”
“I bet he’s a fox spirit, who’s taken his form. The Sect Leader spared his life during a hunt and now he must repay him with servitude.”
“I delivered that man his breakfast this morning. There is nothing servile about him. I think he’s some shapeshifting demon, who’s laid a curse on this sect.”
“I saw him out in the garden, speaking with Sect Leader. His manner was quite graceful, despite his condition. Maybe Immortal Shen encountered the Twin Souls Flower? I’ve heard it has an odd effect if inhaled.”
“Perhaps he is Immortal Shen’s ascended form, who’s come to grant us knowledge from the upper heavens.”
“Why would there be two of him, then?”
“Obviously, he couldn’t leave his students, so he had to split himself to properly ascend!”
“Couldn’t leave Luo Binghe, you mean!”
“Hey, hey, that material is banned on the peaks.”
“Well, if you asked me…”
“Maybe he’s a Shen Qingqiu from another world.”
“Yes, like… A world where he never managed to reconcile with Luo Binghe, and Luo Binghe enacted his vengeance upon him. Perhaps he has come to this world as a punishment, to learn from his mistakes.”
“Bit much. Can you really actually imagine all that? Sounds like something they’d come up in those stories on Xian Shu Peak! “
“The ones that are also banned and that you and I most certainly don’t read.”
“We most certainly don’t. Ah, well. I suppose it was a bit far-fetched. Who has kitchen duty, today, anyway? It’d be nice to know if we should avoid the mess hall or not tonight.”
The Sect Leader’s pavilion was an offshoot of the main administrative hall. An elegant and understated residential building, its most opulent features was its viewing platform and a master room which looked out on it. The inner courtyard was a simple stone garden for meditation purposes. The rooms themselves were furnished with dark wood furniture, its shelves full of administrative records and cultivation manuals. It’d been freshly dusted and washed before the Sect Leader returned. Every surface shone brightly in the late morning light.
Shen Qingqiu stared, aghast. He’d been invited many times over the course of their time on Cang Qiong, but this was his first time ever seeing Yue Qingyuan’s personal quarters. It might’ve given him pause. “Qi-ge, you live like this?”
“It is a little small, I know,” said Yue Qingyuan, “but I’ve opened my side room for you. We can move things in as you see fit.”
“Oh, no, I’ll be staying in the main bedroom, with you,” Shen Qingqiu corrected him, utterly oblivious to the look of stunned surprise that inspired. He craned his head around and clicked his tongue. “There’s nothing here. Are you a Sect Leader or aren’t you? You could show your status in some way. Are you the Peak Lord of Ku Xing?”
“...I’m usually in the administration hall,” said Yue Qingyuan. “In case I’m needed.”
“Do you sleep in the administration hall?”
Yue Qingyuan took a long, careful breath before turning to face the inner courtyard. “I meditate in my office, in the quieter hours.”
“Ridiculous, Qi-ge,” snapped Shen Qingqiu, using a burst of qi to roll his sedan forward to nudge the back of his leg. “What is the point of having a bed if you don’t use it? Did you come up this far in the world just to keep sleeping on the floor?”
Yue Qingyuan glanced down at him, with a fond, secretive smile. “No,” he said. “I came this far for something else. But you’re right. It is a bit empty. What do you think would improve the decor?”
Shen Qingqiu’s list was long and expensive. Yue Qingyuan smiled at every word.
The imposter called on them the next day. Shen Qingqiu made a noise of disgust when the outer disciple announced him. He rolled off his couch and crawled off to sit out overlooking the viewing platform.
So it was up to Yue Qingyuan alone to receive him.
“I’ve heard your latest lecture was very well attended, shidi,” said Yue Qingyuan. “Are you thinking of taking on a guest disciple? We’ve had some requests.”
“Hmph. It’s a thought, but I have enough disciples to manage,” said the imposter, “and we travel enough it would be difficult to work with them personally. I don’t have Liu-shidi’s knack for letting them run wild, even if that Yang Yixuan brought some order to the place.”
“Are you thinking of leaving again already?” asked Yue Qingyuan, his voice pitched up marginally, so the Shen Qingqiu in the open doors glanced over.
“There’s this and that to be done, but honestly, it’s Liu-shidi I’m concerned about. This quest of his… Well, me and a certain other party would like to join him on it if possible, if Sect Leader thinks he can spare another Peak Lord for the task.”
“Your presence is always welcome here.” On the other side of the room, the other Shen Qingqiu twitched in annoyance. “But if Liu-shidi is willing to accept your guidance, I think it would be good for you all. It's a more than worthy cause.”
“There’s also the matter of… Well. Ming Fan.” A proud Ming Fan strutted into the room, carrying an ornate box. He set it on the table, bowed, and backed out to the door. The imposter nodded in approval. “A gift, Sect Leader. For your hospitality, and… ah, as a welcome.”
He removed the top of the box. Yue Qingyuan leaned over, curious. His eyebrows immediately shot up.
“Shidi,” he said. “This is your favorite tea set.”
“The one I received as a gift from the Fan family for Ming Fan’s acceptance into the sect, yes,” recited the false Shen Qingqiu. Behind him, his disciple puffed himself out visibly. He’d obviously gotten the details from him. “It’s made from red clay from Lake Tai. It’s over two hundred years old, and the pot’s pour is perfect.”
“I couldn’t possibly accept this,” said Yue Qingyuan, going through the necessary social grace. He was interrupted by the hiss of Shen Qingqiu swiveling in the door. He rolled onto his stomach and crawled over with a speed so alarming the imposter jumped.
“Enough mincing,” said Shen Qingqiu, arranging himself at the side of the table with only a light toss of his head. Ning Yingying had done his hair that morning. It no longer hung in his eyes. “It’s hardly a gift if it already belongs to me. I’ll take that back.”
“I hope you enjoy it, shixiong,” said the other Shen Qingqiu, blandly.
“Don’t think this means I’ve forgiven you.” Shen Jiu straightened as best he could against the back of his personal sedan. He’d acted contemptuous of the ‘regifted’ tea set, but he’d consented to speak with the imposter, alone.
“I don’t expect you to,” said Shen Yuan. “You hold grudges until the end of time. Nevertheless, I did beat you with your own fan, so I may as well return some of your things. Do you want the second best tea set as well?”
“I’ll consider it. The Sect Leader’s terrible with arranging his space.”
“Have you? He invites you over so often?”
“For tea,” said Shen Yuan, flatly. “What do you all take me for?”
They followed the stone path along Cang Qiong’s north face. This section was flat enough that there was no need to maneuver the sedan over anything more than the occasional crack in the stones, which Shen Jiu eyed when he came to them and made note to lodge a complaint with An Ding Peak. Shen Yuan almost felt pity for Shang Qinghua’s next requisition list.
“There is a matter I wish to discuss,” said Shen Yuan.
“If it’s your apology, the second best tea set would be a good start.”
“For Immortal Shen? I’ll consider it,” said Shen Yuan. Shen Jiu eyed him sideways, but he charged forward, regardless: “I know you think you’re dead…”
“What gave you that idea?” asked Shen Qingqiu, airily. “I may no longer be in one piece, but I seem very much alive.”
Shen Qingqiu sighed and fluttered his fan, ignoring the venomous look the original shot him for that. “So you’ve come around. What did it for you? Sect Leader coming clean?”
“Hah. No. Of course hell or Luo Binghe would think of that. Makes the inevitable return to torment more sharp. The best torture is about the anticipation of pain, after all.”
“Glad to know Sect Leader’s honesty was so appreciated,” said Shen Yuan, dryly. Shen Jiu glared and used a burst of cultivation to nudge his sedan ahead of him, effectively turning his back on the other Shen Qingqiu. Shen Yuan sighed and strolled after him. “So, what did do it?”
The sedan eased to a stop.
“It was a conclusion drawn from careful observation and good sense,” said Shen Jiu, as if he hadn’t spent the last few weeks biting Mu Qingfang and his disciples and scaring the hell out of the general staff by pretending to be a worming ghost. “...And yesterday, I listened to the chief of staff rant about the quality and price of sheet textiles for a whole damn candle and a half . That beast is thorough in his illusions, but seldom this thorough. And I doubt death would be quite that... mundane in its tortures.”
“Sounds tortuous enough.”
“I endured,” said Shen Jiu, with a flicker of pride, despite himself. “And it seems I’ll have to endure more indignities, besides. You, being one of the foremost.”
“I’m honored,” said Shen Yuan, with a deep sigh. “So, if this isn’t a dreamscape, or some form of hell, what is it?”
“Another world,” said Shen Jiu, loftily, as though he’d come up with the idea himself and not had it explained to him by Shen Yuan several days ago. “Well. More like an alternative possibility. I suppose if there is the demon realm, our realm, the Abyss, and the heavens, it stands to reason there could be more.”
“A horrible apparition who has come from who knows where else.”
Well, ‘horrible apparition’ sure was a step up from ‘horrible body thief,’ at least. He’d sighed more than the wind today. He could push a boat with it. “Well, now that you believe me, I guess it’s down to business.”
“And that would be?”
Shen Yuan snapped his fan shut. “If you’re planning to rat me out, let me be the one to tell Luo Binghe. He deserves to hear it from me.”
Shen Yuan had anticipated the long pause it took the other Shen Qingqiu to register what he’d just said. He hadn’t expected it to end in a high, reedy laugh -- like, well, the cackle of a one-dimensional stock villain. Except the original Shen Qingqiu wasn’t really the sort who cackled. Chewed scenery, sure. Smirked and gave long, smug speeches, sure. Revelled the suffering of unfortunate disciples (i.e. Binghe), sure -- but never cackled.
And yet he nearly rocked himself out of his chair.
“As if I’d ever want to see that monster again!” he managed, once he’d regained his balance. He pressed his mouth into what was left of his shoulder before continuing. “Rat you out? And why do you think I’d bother to do that?”
“To take back your life in this world?”
“And you’re so done with it, are you? After all you did to make yourself comfortable in it?”
“I didn’t exactly set out to steal it.”
“Stole it, did you? What makes you think you’ve done that?” And, at Shen Yuan’s bewildered expression, Shen Jiu elaborated with a bitter twist of his lips, leaning back in his chair as if to steeple fingers he no longer had. “The Shen Qingqiu of this world is well loved! He has his position as Peak Lord, all his respect, all his status. His students hold him in high regard. The cultivation world considers him a hero .”
“Yeah, for taking it up the ass…” muttered Shen Yuan under his breath, but, like most of those mutterings, his audience didn’t catch on.
“When did I ever have any of these things?” asked Shen Jiu, in a voice as hollow and bitter as a winter wind. It froze Shen Yuan to the bone. The collective Shen Qingqiu watched each other for a long time.
“That’s…” began the new one. “You could have them now.”
“Can I now?”
“And who’s stopping you?” Shen Yuan glanced around, for effect. “Except you, that is.”
Shen Jiu’s bitter smile froze on his face.
“Now who’s dreaming,” said the original, but his voice was softer than before. He worked his jaw, as though chewing on the thought, or some acidic retort, but in the end he just shook his head. “Ah. nevermind. The sun’s getting in my eyes and Qi-ge will be getting anxious. There’ll be no end to his doting now. We may as well return.”
“Sect Leader is Qi-ge now?”
“What? Is there a problem?”
“No,” said Shen Yuan. “I never had the nerve to call him that.”
“And if you did, I would summon a wind to throw you off this cliff now. Take me home, already.”
“All right, all right, you fussy old goat.”
“Mind yourself, imposter.”
The two men who were both Shen Qingqiu made their way back down the mountain path.
And, all through the Cang Qiong Peaks, an echo could be heard off the snow crested stones, high and proud like a bird:
“You married WHO?!?!”