Shen Yuan took another look at the guy who was earnestly trying to comfort Airplane and dab at his black eye with a frown.
Mobei Jun. Mobei Jun?! No, this wasn’t Mobei Jun! This guy was wearing flipflops and a tank top with a stain on the front!
This wasn’t the dignified and terrifying ice demon who said “how high” whenever Luo Binghe said “jump”! This was just some guy! Sure, he was tall, and sure he had piercing blue eyes, and sure his tits could rival Luo Binghe’s, but...
The stranger bowed his head. “Lord Luo.”
Well. Apparently it really was him. Shen Yuan kind of wanted a refund for all the hype he had built up in his head about the guy’s appearance!
Shen Yuan glared at Airplane. “How long has he been here.”
“About four months,” Airplane replied. “Give or take.”
He did some quick mental maths. Four months ago was when the thirtieth Ice Based Cave Monster arc was just about to wrap up. Mobei Jun had been a vital part of it - until suddenly he wasn’t. He just went off screen and was never mentioned again. “Four months... you’re kidding me. That’s why he suddenly disappeared out of canon? Because he literally disappeared out of canon?”
Airplane Bro didn’t look the slightest bit ashamed. “Yup.”
He went for the eyes again, but Mobei Jun was a wall of flesh. He stood in front of Shen Yuan with a warning rumble coming from somewhere in his chest.
Luo Binghe stepped forward too, the playful expression on his face turning dark.
Mobei Jun stared him down. The air crackled between the two demons (ex-demons? temporarily not demons?) as they made direct eye contact. Shen Yuan patiently waited for Mobei Jun to step aside and allow the stronger demon to pick up his incompetent creator and shake some repentance into him.
Surprisingly, Mobei Jun did not back down. He just stood there blocking both of them from getting near the weaselly bastard.
Luo Binghe bared his teeth. "Insubordination? Against me? What a dangerous game we're playing today."
"Let's get out of here," Airplane said, tugging at Mobei Jun's wrist. "I was wrong. They're perfect for each other. They're both insane."
"You're not going anywhere ."
Luo Binghe was wearing a savage, smug grin, teeth fully showing now. He flexed his shoulders.
A very strange feeling ran through Shen Yuan's spine. He shivered as it felt like his heart palpitated several times, his blood churning in his veins. It was like how it felt when the blood parasites helped to relieve his back pain before, except now they were more probing, more prickly, more like the feeling of an intense rash on the inside of his skin.
Mobei Jun blinked once. He picked up Airplane Bro, threw him over his shoulder, and started walking away.
A flash of genuine shock fell over Luo Binghe’s face. The intensity of the weird crawling feeling increased until Shen Yuan had to let out an involuntary yelp, feeling like there were centipedes chewing at his nerve endings.
Luo Binghe’s eyes flickered over to him, and the pain stopped immediately.
[Valued user, this is just a quick note that the Heavenly Demon Blood Parasite ability is currently only enabled between the host and the protagonist!]
WHY. Why just Shen Yuan! He beat against the metaphorical front of the system. What was with this weird selective use?
"Mobei Jun," Luo Binghe called out. His voice rang across the street, a clear warning. "Whatever method you've used to free yourself in this world... you won't be so lucky when we return back home."
Mobei Jun turned slightly. One blue eye did a sweep of Luo Binghe's body, before he turned away with a dismissive shrug that nearly dislodged Airplane Bro.
"I won't be returning."
And then he walked away.
[The system is here to provide 24/7 service for you.]
Explain what he meant just then. About not returning to the novel.
[The number you dialled has not been recognised. Please hang up and try again.]
Hey! Hey, get back online! I have questions! Stupid shitty system!
Beside him, Luo Binghe was standing with his fists clenched and his arms stiff by his side. Now that Shen Yuan was focusing on him, he could see how his chest was rising and falling with alarming quickness.
His teeth were clenched. His eyes were focused firmly on Mobei Jun’s retreating back and the small body slung over its shoulder. Shen Yuan had never seen him looking so tense, his body curling in on itself in a way that was so uncharacteristic that he almost might have thought he was seeing things.
“Mobei Jun!” he yelled. Was that desperation in his voice? Jesus H Christ, was the great and venerable demon lord Luo Binghe genuinely freaking out over something? It was awful to hear. Shen Yuan didn’t know whether to cringe with embarrassment or feel sorry for him.
He suddenly looked so lost.
Deciding to put aside the urge to chase after Airplane and punch him again, Shen Yuan cautiously stepped over to Luo Binghe. Slowly, he put a hand on his arm and squeezed.
“Let’s go home, hm? Don’t worry about them any longer. I’ll sort it out. Okay, Binghe?”
“I don’t understand...” Luo Binghe began saying, before turning his gaze onto Shen Yuan. It was sharp, bitter, pleading. “I don’t understand why he’s here.”
Luo Binghe was certain that Shen Qingqiu was deliberately tormenting him through his dreams.
It started in the chamber where he kept his former shizun. His blade was sharp. He felt nothing but sick satisfaction as he cleaved limbs off Shen Qingqiu like he was a pig on the chopping board. The man was a shell of what he had been. His voice was hoarse from screaming. These things should have made Luo Binghe happy.
That was why he did this, wasn't it? Or was the concept of happiness so far removed from him now that it didn't even factor into the equation?
He felt something when he observed Shen Qingqiu's eyes rolling with mindless fear. It didn't feel good. It didn't feel bad, either.
This man had stolen every moment of happiness he could from Luo Binghe's childhood. There had been precious few to begin with. By simple mathematics, if Luo Binghe paid him back by doing him the same courtesy, then surely it should equal out to something being exchanged, some burden being lifted, some inner peace finally settling in Binghe's soul.
And yet here he was, slicing off an arm with the objective satisfaction of a butcher doing his job, with none of those giddy, pleasant feelings of childhood.
It was at that point that Shen Qingqiu regained some lucidity. Binghe always stopped him from passing out – his blood parasites kept him spitefully ensnared in the clutches of consciousness, never given a blissful reprieve by that dreaming cousin of death.
Shen Qingqiu regained lucidity, and he looked up at Luo Binghe with those clear, cold eyes, and said the words that he would remember every night when he was trying to sleep.
"It doesn't matter. None of it matters."
That was the first time in a long time that Luo Binghe felt real fear. He had everything he could possibly dream of. Wealth. Power. Total control. As many wives as would satiate the inordinate urges of Xin Mo, and then some more, mostly for entertainment. Alcohol, strange and elusive drugs and hallucinogens, adventurous and dangerous sex, and now, the awful, awful thrill of torturing a man's body into a bloody stump, and yet Shen Qingqiu's words had an echo of stark truth to them.
It didn't matter. It wasn't enough.
Oh, god, it wasn't enough.
Where would it stop? No, even worse, could he stop? Did he even know how to stop? And if he did, could he ever again experience what had been so easy when he was a child, the simple happiness of looking at someone and smiling, of having enough food for once, of enjoying a patch of sunshine on a simple wooden floor?
He took everything he could from Shen Qingqiu, and then he took everything he could from the world, and none of it was enough.
When he was alone in his quarters and nobody could see him, nobody at all, Luo Binghe curled up on the floor and wondered, what next?
Was there anything left?
Was there anything left in the world to plunder and pillage and take? No, was there anything left inside himself to enjoy it?
Should he gracefully bow out now? The play had ended, the actors had played their parts, the stage was empty and devoid of warmth, and Luo Binghe was pathetically still there on the empty stage, waiting for a spotlight of joy that would never again come. Perhaps it was time for him to exit stage left.
Perhaps he just needed to keep trying. To keep taking. To keep fucking and killing and fighting.
Quietly, and with all the gentle fondness of a sigh, Luo Binghe slipped into another world without realizing it.
Something felt off. The pressure of the air, maybe, or the sound his breathing made.
He looked up, and found himself in a small room with a double bed and a strange glowing box. In front of the box was a facsimile of the man he had just taken the tongue of, sleeping peacefully on his desk.
What was this? A dream? An illusion? Binghe clenched his hand to summon some of his power, only to jerk in shock when nothing came to his command. He felt for his sword, only he didn't have it. When he felt in his mind for that curling, hungry, obsessive darkness that Xin Mo constantly dug into his mind, there was nothing.
He felt out wider. No blood parasites. No sixth sense. No spiritual awareness at all.
Strangely enough, he didn't feel fear. After all, he had never met a trap that he couldn't escape or an enemy he couldn't defeat. They had somehow suppressed all of his power, but even that wasn't entirely new.
He stood up silently and decided to explore.
The place was small. It was high in the air, like a mountain peak, except it looked like nothing supported it but whatever this building was made of. Luo Binghe found what looked like some kind of bathroom, and a parlour, and then he found the kitchen. In the kitchen, he found the knives.
It felt good to have something in his hand again.
Luo Binghe padded back to where the man who looked like Shen Qingqiu was sleeping and held the knife against his throat. And then, he waited for the man to wake up.
And then he did.
He never expected to be knocked out. Even worse, he never expected the man to try to feed him like a starving orphan. It was humiliating. It was amusing.
It made something inside Luo Binghe keen for attention.
The man was toying with Luo Binghe. He had to be.
Either that, or he was acting like a scared, submissive chimp, letting Luo Binghe take his bed and eat his food and have his money. Binghe was darkly amused. How much would he be allowed to take before this idiot threw him out?
The man – Shen Yuan, what a name, either the most unfortunate of coincidences or a slip up in his games – was easiest to manipulate when Luo Binghe played the part he had never forgotten how to play. It was laughable. Here was a demon lord with a lifetime of destruction and power under his belt, bowing respectfully to some sickly fool like the good little disciple he had always tried to be.
Except... except this time, there was no cruelty. This time, he was even rewarded for his good behaviour. If this man was Shen Qingqiu, it was satisfying to imagine him gritting his teeth and pretending to be kind, forced into this ridiculous farce by whatever kind of trap this was.
This was, Luo Binghe was sure, a trap. Nothing good ever came to him for free. Either he had to fight for it with his own flesh and blood, or the price came later, tenfold, the sweet sting in the hidden scorpion's tail.
So Luo Binghe let himself be played with, and in return, he waited, and watched, and did a little playing of his own.
The fact that Shen Qingqiu was willing to let Luo Binghe leave the apartment unaccompanied was more proof that this was some kind of dream. After all, why would he need to worry about where Binghe was going if everything was in a closed, observable space inside someone's mind?
He tried every trick in the book to see if he could find a weakness in the dream. There was nothing. No strange distortions in the myriad reflections of the glass buildings. People’s faces were perfect, no matter who he looked at or how many walked by. Each person could talk eloquently.
Truly, a dreamscape comparable in power and skill only to his own.
The seed of an idea took shape. An image flashed in his mind - of him, back in reality, slumped in his bed or down in the chamber where he held Shen Qingqiu, sleeping so deeply he couldn’t be woken, as his old shizun invaded his mind and wove a beautiful fantasy designed to keep him there until...
Until, presumably, someone came along to kill him while he was distracted.
Which wife would it be? They were all candidates. To willingly become the partner of an emperor was something that only complete fools or formidable opponents chose. You had to have ambition to want to climb into the bed of a man like Luo Binghe.
Ultimately, when the plot failed, he would reward whichever wife (or wives, plural) for their keen intelligence with his own ventures into their dreams.
Still, if they killed him, would he even feel it?
What a peaceful way to go. To die in his sleep.
What a luxurious concept.
He played nice, for now.
As he wasn’t quite dead yet, he allowed himself to indulge some curiosity to see if he could unravel this plot before it all fell apart anyway.
Without his powers, he was no better than the short lived mortals he used to command. Acting rashly would mean that Shen Qingqiu would be forced to accelerate the plan however he intended. He had to watch and wait.
So he watched.
Odd, for a man that in reality had no limbs, to dream himself a failing body. Was it an attempt to appeal to Luo Binghe’s mercy? To lull him into complacency?
Would the illusion of weakness in his body fade if Luo Binghe tried to hurt him? Because Luo Binghe wanted to hurt him.
Luo Binghe wanted to hurt him so very badly.
Many times, at night, he would stand over the sleeping form of Shen Qingqiu and consider killing him. It wouldn’t really kill him, of course, as this was but a dream - but it would hurt. And it would end this ridiculous farce in a moment. Luo Binghe would wake up, and then it would all go back to how it was before, and he could nip this little scheme in the bud.
But he didn’t.
Every time he came close, something would happen that would intrigue him further. This version of his shizun - soft, weak, kind, pathetic - kept unveiling more and more beautiful and impossible things.
The worst part was that he knew it was all an act. It was clearly a puppet hastily slapped together from vague subconscious urges that he had never really examined in detail, about things like weakness and dependency, about the most important male figure in his life, about things like scarcity and abundance. He got it. It wasn’t subtle.
Anyone could observe him for five minutes in his palace and assume that he had anxieties about letting his wives starve. To provide for him in return was the least subtle way that the imposter could have chosen to appeal to Luo Binghe’s base nature.
So he was waited. He waited for a single crack in the mirror. For a weakness in the illusion, so that he could stop seeing what he wanted to see, and so that instead he could catch the bitter soul hidden deep inside.
Finally, he got it.
“It doesn’t matter,” Shen Yuan said. “None of it matters.”
Like a great dam burst, like all the tension of the last few days had been released, Luo Binghe felt something in him unravelling for good.
Of course, when he first read the novel that Shen Yuan insisted was his reality, he had a moment of unusual hesitancy.
Actually, it was more than that. It was a moment of thinking oh . Oh, so many things suddenly make sense.
He cast the idea aside and examined another possibility, one that had occurred to him many times as he watched Shen Qingqiu try again and again to prove that he was not the man Luo Binghe knew he was.
Shen Qingqiu didn’t know he was dreaming. He didn’t even know he was Shen Qingqiu.
It made him want to laugh. That underneath the cruelty, there had been this tiny little spark of vulnerability and goodness subconsciously buried so deep. Maybe this dream trap had unintentionally drawn him in. Maybe someone was using his old shizun as a pawn, lacing the net tighter and tighter around Luo Binghe while distracting him with this soft creature.
When he eventually found the culprit and eviscerated them, he would take great pleasure in walking through their mind and perhaps learning a few new techniques from them. But most importantly, he would find a way to preserve this side of Shen Qingqiu.
It was the ultimate humiliation for the man, wasn’t it? To have something he clearly buried, some part of him he thought dead, brought forth and preserved like a butterfly in a jar...
For Luo Binghe to hold that jar... to sometimes feel the brush of that butterfly’s wings as it gently, quietly shifted in sleep on the bed next to him, murmuring and frowning...
The idea thrilled and sickened him in equal measure. It was easy to admit to himself that his obsession had warped - or rather, it had always been warped. He just didn't recognise it for what it was before. It wasn't like he ever had the opportunity to compare how he felt when his wives curled up beside him against how he felt when Shen Yuan slowly, cautiously allowed his eyes to droop and his head to rest on Luo Binghe's arm. Now he had, everything was startlingly clear.
It didn't feel like madness. It didn't feel wrong at all. It wasn't as if he was shifting from hate to love, since what he felt for his old shizun was too dispassionate and just to be called hatred. It had been almost chaste, the way he tortured him. And it wasn't love now. And it wasn't chaste, either.
So. This was the situation he found himself in.
Held as a willing hostage in the half formed fantasies of the forgotten corners of the mind of a man he was slowly killing, subservient like a dog and hooked onto every new development as if he were a teenager again, waiting to either wake up or die, or perhaps both.
He could work with this. He was a man used to extremes, used to conflicting ideas settling themselves into his mind two at the same time, oil and water never quite mixing but always there.
Still, he didn’t feel fear. If he was honest, he hadn’t really felt anything for a long time, but the lack of fear had been there longest of all. At one point, perhaps in the back of his mind, it had switched off. After all, pain was just a feeling that went away after a little while. Losing limbs? He could regrow them. Getting poisoned? He would shrug it off. Any kind of torture a person could go through, he had gone through and survived and become so much stronger for it.
No, he didn’t feel fear at all.
But when the uncontrolled variable of Mobei Jun appeared, he felt unsettled. It started casting doubts on the things he convinced himself. He couldn’t control the other demon at all. He couldn’t make him stay.
Luo Binghe was not accustomed to not being able to make people stay.