He thought, after Shen Jiu's death, he would feel better. That after so many years torturing his cruel Shizun, watching him decay would finally bring him peace.
Instead, all Luo Binghe feels is rage and that indescribable emptiness that has haunted him since the day he first arrived at Qing Jing Peak. Since the moment he swore he would never cry again.
Now, he stands in the water prison over that ruined body, his breathing ragged. His heart thunders in his ears, drowning out the fear, the despair, all those things that make his eyes sting and throat ache. He is the conqueror of two realms, the strongest of all! He cannot cry, cannot show any weakness, he is above that.
And yet, the feeling just gets worse whenever he glances at the broken, bloodied body of his Shizun, his matted grey-streaked hair once long and lustrous, emaciated, lips cracked and bloodied. One eye socket hollow and gruesome with infection, the other red-rimmed and blackened.
He did this to him. Demon law is to repay kindness and cruelty tenfold, and his Shizun was cruelest of all. So really, it was all Shen Qingqiu’s fault!
Why does Luo Binghe feel so awful about it?
He leaves the water prison in a flick of his black robes, expression set in a scowl. His servants flee before the wave of demonic qi he sends as a warning. He goes to Ning Yingying, the one woman who has always been there for him, always helped him, always supported him. She welcomes him with a gentle, tight-lipped smile and concerned furrowed brow which quickly melts into pleasure when he has his way with her.
After, they lie together in bed, Yingying tracing the scars on his back as he lies face-down, folded arms used as his pillow.
“What bothers you, My Lord?” Yingying asks sweetly.
She doesn’t call him Binghe. No one dares. It’s what he’s demanded, both in actions and vows, but it has never sat as poorly with him before as it does now.
“...That scum is dead,” he confides, turning his head to look at her.
He watches her eyes widen, lips parting before her expression is carefully shuttered again. She resumes tracing patterns on his back, more mindless now, gaze fixed meaninglessly on her hand.
He’s always known there was something she wouldn’t share about their Shizun. He knows that lecher treated her with the utmost respect, and he abhorred it. Her feelings for the man have always been conflicted, he knows, but she understands the way Shizun treated her husband as she knows what happens to those who offend him.
He lets his eyes close and appreciates her soft touch.
“Speak your mind,” he requests, almost a growl. “This Lord will not punish Yingying for it.”
Her fingertips come to a slow stop. Her hand presses flat against the small of his back. He keeps his eyes closed. A small mercy to give her courage more than for his own sake.
“This one… That is, Yingying was wondering… Why does A-Luo not seem happy about it?”
Luo Binghe feels his features twist and the tension in her hand. He forces his face to relax, hiding it in his arms.
“I don’t know,” he admits, almost too quiet to hear.
He feels like a boy again, weak and starving, desperate to be recognized. Desperate not to be alone.
His wife, his friend hums, resuming her tracing. Luo Binghe keeps his eyes shut tight, ignoring the hot tears that spill from them onto his folded arms.
If only things could have been different. If only he had a kind and loving shizun like the one he saw in that other world. But Shen Qingqiu was never loving, not even to those he showed kindness to. He was cold and aloof at best, haughty and cruel at worst.
He was more beautiful and intelligent than many of the women in his harem.
Damn it all! What had he missed? There must have been something, some sign that there was more. Was it purely jealousy that fueled Shen Qingqiu’s spite? Spite of Yue Qingyuan, spite of Liu Qingge, spite of his own disciples. Or was there more? There has to be more!
Why did he visit the brothels?! Luo Binghe visited them himself later, freeing the women from their bonds to join his harem. They told him Shen Qingqiu had treated them like sisters and only sought their companionship as friends. It didn’t make sense then, and now it chews at his mind along with a thousand other things. The way he smiled when it rained, how soft his voice could be in the mornings, the dance of his fingers across the qin, how often he suffered from fevers and qi deviations.
What had he missed? What was Shen Qingqiu hiding in all of his dreams? Where are the pieces that explain these strange phenomena as another ploy, manipulation perhaps, selfish and deserving of the ending he got?
Yingying has fallen asleep at his side by the time he sits up. He pulls the covers over her naked body gently and blows out the candles on his way out, already burning low.
His chambers are in a separate part of the palace, the innermost section, and he finds three more of his wives waiting for him there. An attempt to surprise him but for once he’s not in the mood.
He sends them away and sits on the end of his large canopy bed, head in his hands.
Xin Mo pulses across his back.
He raises his head, staring blankly at the far wall. A painting of mountains shrouded in mist hangs across it, shifting slowly with demonic qi. He’s never noticed before how much it looks like Qing Jing Peak.
He raises a hand, preparing to blast it with qi, but hesitates. Slowly, he lowers his hand.
What if he could find a way back? Xin Mo cannot cut through time, but surely there is some tool or creature in this world that can. Maybe then he could see what he missed, find the gaps in Shen Qingqiu’s wretched story and kill him before he has a chance to be powerful. Maybe he could save himself from his cruel Shizun.
Resolved, he draws Xin Mo and slices a rift in the air, taking nothing else with him but his boots and robes as he steps out into the wasteland.
He’ll find something. He always gets what he wants, in the end.
Not even the world itself dares stand against the great Luo Binghe for long.
He finds his savior in the spirit of an ancient immortal combing silver translucent hair that falls over the cliffside as a waterfall and fills the roiling pool below. She smiles at him as he approaches, a small man with a big sword, and the corners of her grey eyes crease as she leans in to hear his prayer.
“Send me back,” he pleads. “Send me back to a time when I could find what I missed along the way.”
She laughs like the crack of thunder but he doesn’t flinch. Not even when her eyes flash and she warns of a price, he tells her there is none he would not pay. He has nothing to lose, not anymore.
He gives her his blood to use, as well as a lock of Shizun’s hair, though jealousy burns hot through him when she touches it. She uses his blood to draw an array on the stone of the mountaintop, muttering to herself in a language he cannot understand. When the array is drawn, she gestures him to it and tells him to blink.
When he opens his eyes, he is lying on his back in a wooded clearing on a soft bed of moss and grass. He can feel the presence of Xin Mo close by but out of sight, hidden away in the timeless dimension between worlds he sent it to before his journey.
“Are we there yet?”
“Not yet,” a young man’s soft-spoken voice replies, gentle. “Just a bit farther, Xiao Jiu.”
“I told you not to call me that,” the first boy scoffs, but it lacks bite with the anxiety laced through it.
Luo Binghe sits up and brushes himself off. His body seems smaller, younger. He must look to be around thirteen.
He straightens up at the rustle of the ferns at the edge of his clearing and blinks at the startled faces of two young men. One, unmistakably the young Yue Qingyuan, appears to be about eighteen or nineteen, soon to be given his courtesy name. The other, Xiao Jiu, is watching Luo Binghe like a wounded animal, guarded and cold. He looks dirty.
When Luo Binghe glances down, he catches dried blood on the edge of the boy’s sleeve before it’s hidden behind his back. Luo Binghe looks up, holding his gaze meaningfully.
Then he bows, saluting them both.
“Hello, young masters,” he greets, the words strange in his younger voice when he’s so used to the commanding timbre of an emperor. “This one’s name is Luo Binghe.”
“Yue Qingyuan.” He steps in front of Xiao Jiu as he continues, watching Luo Binghe carefully as he straightens up. “If you are here to participate in Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s selection ceremony, I’m afraid you’re too early. You will have to wait until the mid-autumn festival.”
“Oh,” Luo Binghe replies, trying his best to look like a disappointed child. “Alright then. Is there a town I can stay in?”
“To the west,” Yue Qingyuan replies, gesturing back the direction he came from. He does not take his eyes off Luo Binghe’s frame. “Are you sure you’re alright on your own?”
Xiao Jiu grants the back of Yue Qingyuan’s head a vicious glare, then turns it on Luo Binghe, daring him to ask for help. Luo Binghe smiles sweetly and offers them another bow.
“This one is fine,” he replies earnestly. “Take care.”
“Likewise,” Yue Qingyuan says, stepping past him with a curt nod.
Xiao Jiu regards him coolly, blood-stained sleeve held carefully out of view. He too nods, somewhat more polite, and Luo Binghe straightens up at last with a grin.
His clothes, thankfully, seem to have been changed to fit his new frame. His cultivation was temporarily sealed. He will need to keep the demonic cultivation that runs so strong in his blood sealed even when he begins to carefully cultivate again.
He summons Xin Mo from the dimension he sealed it in and tests its weight in his hand. It feels different in this body, but he’ll grow used to it once again.
His first order of business then will be to find somewhere to stay, and a way to make some money other than begging on the streets. Someone will surely be in need of a shophand somewhere.
His mind made up, he starts off toward the west, his head held high and a smile on his lips.
Ah, Shen Qingqiu… Looks like you’re already well on your way to condemnation.
Luo Binghe finds a small shop run by an old widow, childless, who sells funeral goods for a living. He only asks for food and a place to sleep, and she is grateful for the company and his help.
It’s not often, she says, that one finds a boy looking to make himself useful instead of going out to play. What a charming young man he is. Surely, he will one day be a very famous cultivator indeed.
Luo Binghe smiles. He thanks her kindly and continues painting his joss paper.
The summer’s heat smothers this town now, but it won’t be long before the tree’s leaves turn gold and children begin flocking to the mountain to seek the teachings of immortals.
Luo Binghe is good at being patient when he needs to.
He has found his cultivation sealed within this body, but he knows now the proper forms and techniques. It won’t take him long to catch up. It may have been difficult with his Shizun’s interference and his own naivete when he was truly young, but he knows better now.
The old woman is sad to see him go when he tells her he must, but she sends him off with a gift of a new cloak to help him on his journey. He thanks her with a bow, knowing it won’t serve much purpose amid the eternal spring of Qing Jing Peak, but grateful for the sentiment nonetheless. There were no longer any in his world who would disrespect him, but he does not yet have the same reputation here.
He will have to cultivate his demonic techniques in secret, away from the peak. He cannot risk discovery and death. Tianlang-Jun still reigns the Demonic Realm yet, and Luo Binghe would prefer to remain unnoticed by his father until the time comes to take his place.
They never fought in his last life, never so much as met, but Luo Binghe knows it took all the great masters of the cultivation world to seal his father. There was a reason he killed them all one by one.
There is worth in acknowledging one’s limitations and in picking one’s battles.
Luo Binghe knows how to bide his time. He knows how to be patient. And when the would-be cultivators and some of their families flock to the little town at the base of Cang Qiong Mountain, he makes his way up the long steps with the rest of them with his head held high. Not too arrogant, but never meek.
When he’s asked to dig, he takes his shovel and ignores the complaints of some of the others as he gets to work.
When the sun is high in the sky and his stomach growls with hunger, a shadow falls over him of a willowy boy with beautiful, scholarly features dressed in light greens and white. He waves a fan before himself, one arm crossed.
“Shidi, follow me.”
Luo Binghe smiles and hurries to obey.
As a disciple the first time, Luo Binghe only stayed in the dormitories for a few months before the older boys banished him to the woodshed. This time, he’s had the chance to stay and find out that Shen Jiu doesn’t often sleep with the other disciples.
One night, when Luo Binghe goes out for a walk because he no longer needs sleep the way the other boys do, he finds Shen Jiu napping in a clearing in the bamboo grove, head resting on his arm. It’s a cool night and Shen Jiu is curled into himself, brow furrowed in his sleep.
Luo Binghe takes off his outer robe―a standard piece of his uniform indistinguishable from any other male disciple’s―and covers him with it. Simply because it wouldn’t do for Shen Jiu, who is prone to qi deviations due to his late cultivation, to die before Luo Binghe can exact his revenge. Simply because of that.
Luo Binghe doesn’t meet the Qing Jing Peak Lord beyond his acceptance as a disciple. Which makes sense; none of his lessons in the past were taught by Shen Qingqiu personally.
Now, all of them are.
Shen Jiu is polite and curt, already well on the path to becoming head disciple despite not having come to the peak much earlier than Luo Binghe. He is a good teacher, strict without being cruel, almost as brilliant as Luo Binghe himself. It startles him a little.
Luo Binghe reforms his core before Shen Jiu. So do the head disciples of the other peaks, or so he hears. Qing Jing Peak is the only one that hasn’t chosen a formal head disciple yet, the decision torn between Shen Jiu and Luo Binghe. Their rivalry is well-known.
Shen Jiu draws Xiu Ya on the same day Luo Binghe summons Zheng Yang. Luo Binghe could feel Shen Jiu’s burning jealousy and flashed him a crooked grin when he did.
Shen Jiu’s natural talent is good. He started late, a fact that Luo Binghe catches others whispering about behind Shen Jiu’s back only to turn and see the boy stalk past them with a sharp, familiar glare, but he works harder than anyone else to make up for it. That he struggles and fails and fights to get back up again.
Luo Binghe keeps his cultivation partially sealed, only slowly allowing others to see his progress. He does not allow even a wisp of demonic qi to leak out, not even when he’s angry. Keeping Xin Mo in the in-between realm helps somewhat, but there are still nights when he needs to sate it to feed its power.
It is on one of these, when he makes his way down to the Warm Red Pavilion in the village below under the cover of night, when he finds Shen Jiu chatting with the women there, his arm around one and his gaze heavy-lidded, robes and hair loose and a warm flush on his cheeks. He’s smiling at the girl who pours his drink for him.
Luo Binghe walks over and Shen Jiu raises his eyebrows when he looks up.
“Luo-Shidi,” he greets with a tilt of his head, his smile widening. To the tittering girls, he gestures for another cup and says, “Pour one for my shidi, he’s come a long way.”
The girls murmur and obey, stealing glances between the two of them as Luo Binghe makes himself comfortable at Shen Jiu’s side. He props his knee up, one wrist resting atop it as he surveys the brothel, watching Shen Jiu out of the corner of his eye.
“Don’t you know the worldly pleasures can damage your cultivation, Shixiong?” Luo Binghe asks conversationally, accepting the cup of wine one of the girls pours for him with a nod.
“My cultivation is already damaged,” Shen Jiu replies smoothly.
Luo Binghe exhales slowly. He downs his cup and sets it on the table, watching one of the women refill it.
Both in his last life and in this, he’s heard rumors of Shen Jiu visiting brothels. It was one of the answers he came looking for. The why. If he never sought pleasure from their bodies, it would not further impair his cultivation, and indeed that seems to be the case. However, why does he seek their company? Why does he look so much more relaxed with them than he ever seems on Qing Jing Peak?
Why is he so warm to them and so blatantly cold to Luo Binghe?
Luo Binghe scowls into his wine cup and swallows his second drink. He can feel Shen Jiu’s heavy gaze watching him as the girls pour his third, clearly happy to be paid for it. This one, Luo Binghe only holds, gazing at it like a particularly interesting treasure.
“Did Luo-shidi only come to question this one’s choice of company?” Shen Jiu asks, turning his head away and leaning further into the girl at his side.
“I came for the comfort of women,” Luo Binghe answers.
Shen Jiu hums. Luo Binghe looks over to find him giving him a sideways look.
“My cultivation is strong,” Luo Binghe reminds him with a sardonic tilt of his head, baiting him. “Shixiong need not worry.”
Shen Jiu gives him a look that bleeds envy and Luo Binghe chuckles, drinking his third cup. He’s already beginning to feel the warm buzz of the alcohol in his body and with it, the lust. The girl who poured his drinks moves closer and he smiles, putting a hand on her waist to pull her in and murmur in her ear.
She giggles and lays her hand on his thigh lightly, nodding before Luo Binghe lets her go with a wolfish grin. She moves away, rising to sway flirtatiously on her feet with his hand in hers, pulling him with her.
“Then, this one will leave first,” he tells Shen Jiu with a grin.
Shen Jiu hums, his eyes sharp as he watches them go.
Luo Binghe turns back to the girl as she leads him upstairs into a private room. He kisses her when she closes the door behind them and takes his time with her in bed until she’s thoroughly satisfied and he no longer hears the distant call for blood. He leaves her payment on the dresser and straightens out his robes before he steps into the hall.
He hears Shen Jiu’s smooth voice through the door to another room and the laughter of the other woman who sat with them earlier and smiles to himself. He heads down the stairs and makes his way out onto the street.
The mission said there was only one large monster ravaging the farmlands nearby. Luo Binghe and Shen Jiu are assigned to lead a group of juniors to track the beast to its lair and kill it. The juniors end up watching them bicker between passive-aggressive and pointed remarks along the way.
They find the entrance of the monster’s den in the hollow of a massive, ancient tree and exchange a silent look, reading their weapons before they leap in.
There are five small beasts in the cave that fall under their blades with ease. They were warned about the beasts’ venomous fangs before departing, but these creatures’ teeth have barely grown in.
Shen Jiu is the first one to realize the ones they found are babies, and the mother will be on her way by now.
Luo Binghe leads the juniors out of the cave as a heavy crash in the dark woods echoes like the sound of a tree falling. The wind picks up, swirling dead leaves in a flurry. Luo Binghe throws one arm out in front of the group of terrified juniors, Zheng Yang gleaming in the dark as he scans the night.
Something big rustles through the forest just out of the circle of Zheng Yang’s light just before the mother saber-toothed chimera lunges at him with fangs larger than his forearm.
He raises Zheng Yang like he would Xin Mo, forgetting in his panic that his demonic cultivation is sealed, and his sword as well. His eyes go wide as the beast’s maw isn’t blocked by the barrier it should have been and begin to fall.
Abruptly, Luo Binghe finds himself thrown backward as Shen Jiu takes his place. The beast’s fangs graze his arm, bloodying his robes, but Shen Jiu grits his teeth and plunges Xiu Ya into the beast’s skull through its mouth with a seal.
Luo Binghe watches its eyes roll back in its head before it falls over, tearing Shen Jiu’s sleeve.
Shen Jiu sways and starts to fall, but Luo Binghe finds him in his arms before he can think.
“Shixiong,” Luo Binghe growls, easing him to the ground with his head in his lap. “Let me see your arm.”
“Go fetch Mu Qingfang,” Shen Jiu sighs, his gaze unfocused.
“Shixiong, we’re too far away,” Luo Binghe tells him. “Even if I went, we wouldn’t return in time.”
He can’t carry him either. This body of his isn’t strong enough to hold him up that long, even if his half-sealed cultivation could carry them the whole way. The only other option would be breaking the seal on his demonic cultivation, but Shen Jiu would never accept the help of a demon then.
Luo Binghe’s eyes burn, his throat choking on his own frustration. He holds Shen Jiu tight and grabs his arm, pulling away the fabric to reveal the discoloration in the light of the juniors’ fire talismans and Xiu Ya’s pulsing blade.
There is a nasty gash on Shen Jiu’s arm, but he’s lucky the fang didn’t pierce through. It cut open his arm from his shoulder to his elbow instead.
Luo Binghe wracks his brain for what he can remember of the beast’s venom. Mu Qingfang sent them a notice before they left with a small vial that he said would dull the pain and slow the damage of the poison should someone be affected. He was very clear that it would be best to avoid it entirely, though.
Of course, Luo Binghe ran into this beast before in his last life. He met the daughter of a farmer who attempted to take one down alone. At that time, Luo Binghe was the one affected by it, and his demonic cultivation made him less susceptible to the venom long enough for him to fuck it out of his system with her.
Not applicable here.
He curses under his breath, fumbling in his sleeve for the vial Mu Qingfang gave him. He presses it to Shen Jiu’s lips with shaky hands and watches him drink, lashes lowered. He looks paler than normal, his black hair long as it spills across Luo Binghe’s white robes as he props him up. His gaze is unfocused.
“Go back to the inn,” Shen Jiu tells the juniors. “I’ll be alright.”
Luo Binghe’s grip tightens subconsciously on Shen Jiu’s waist. Shen Jiu never speaks of himself informally. He never uses that gentle tone. He’s not alright.
“Go,” he echoes nonetheless, head bowed.
With a few nervous complaints, the juniors insist they’ll find a doctor and leave. Luo Binghe knows they won’t. Even if this small farming village has one, they won’t be awake.
So he holds Shen Jiu closer and rests his chin on the top of Shen Jiu’s head where he can’t see his expression.
His voice shakes.
Shen Jiu hums. Luo Binghe knows he must be smiling.
Luo Binghe curses. He doesn’t have a choice anymore.
He shifts Shen Jiu in his arms and brings the meat of his palm to his teeth and cuts his hand open. Shen Jiu barely struggles as he presses the bleeding wound to his lips, shutting his eyes tight against the heat that burns them as he breaks the seal.
Demonic qi floods the clearing and his blood parasites come to life and Shen Jiu screams as they burn through him, devouring the monster’s venom and stitching the cut back together.
Luo Binghe holds him close to keep him from thrashing away and murmurs into his hair, “I’m sorry, Shizun. It’ll be over soon.”