“What do you mean ‘he’s gone’?” Liu Qingge voice is a low snarl, demanding and incredulous.
Mu Qingfang gazes over at him with a gentle, sympathetic look – it turns his stomach. As does the hand reaching out to touch his shoulder, offer comfort.
“Liu-shixiong, I am sorry, but our shixiong is no longer with us.”
Liu Qingge, forgetting his senses and his tenuous grasp at propriety, yanks Mu Qingfang closer. Almost off his feet. The healer expected such a reaction and places both hands consolingly on the fists bunching up the front of his robes. It cuts deep how they tremble; in anger, in denial. In pain. The mind and body already accepting a grim reality the heart refuses to confront.
“Let him go,” came the quiet command of their sect leader. Though his tone held little weight.
Yue Qingyuan sat at the bedside, stiff and immovable as a statute. There is a fan – Shen Qingqiu’s fan – perched in his lap, fingertips resting feather light on its side. Hesitant to touch something that did not belong to him.
The sight punches the air out of Liu Qingge’s lungs.
It reminds him of a similar fan tucked away inside his robes. An impulsive purchase - just something he saw in passing on the way back to the mountain and thought Shen Qingqiu might enjoy.
Not at all an item he traveled several miles out of his way to seek. And certainly not a gift he agonized over for an hour with the help of an increasingly agitated shopkeeper. It wasn’t something he touched, over and over through the fabric of his robes, trying to soothe the anxious feeling in his heart that it would not be elegant enough for such beautiful hands.
A gift that no longer had a purpose.
His anger deflates and Liu Qingge is staggering backwards. He’s unable to peel his eyes away from the figure lying still on the bed. There aren’t any wounds, bruises, scrapes, or cuts. All of Shen Qingqiu’s graceful limbs are intact. Even his face is set in a serene expression, completely unchanged – no sign of pain.
After a beat of silence, Mu Qingfang answers the unspoken question painted across his pained face. “One of the disciples found Shen-shixiong collapsed on the floor in his home. I have examined him thoroughly, more than once, and I cannot come up with an explanation. It’s- It’s as though his soul simply left his body.”
At those last words, Liu Qingge flinched, struck by an invisible force. He still did not wish to confront the undeniable truth staring him in the face.
“That’s impossible. People do not just-” He snaps his jaws shut and glares at the floor. He cannot bring himself to say it. If he does, everything will become real. That motionless figure on the bed will really be gone and not slipped into some restful slumber.
“Liu-shidi, I have exhausted every resource at my disposal, tested every possible hypothesis – no matter how outlandish. Our shixiong does not react to any stimuli I can concoct.” Mu Qingfang tries to reach for him again, a note of genuine concern in his voice. “I understand this must be difficult to accept. We all know how much you cared for him.”
Liu Qingge jerks away from the hand. He doesn’t want pity or useless words. He doesn’t need excuses, consolation, or these people that gave up so easily.
“I am going to Jing Qing Peak!” he declared firmly, through clenched teeth, shoulders tight.
The last thing he heard before disappearing out the door was Yue Qingyuan dissuading Mu Qingfang with a quiet “Leave him be.”
Most of the sect’s obscure knowledge is stored in Jing Qing Peak. Shen Qingqiu, a scholar and voracious reader, had amassed quite an impressive private collection over the years. He had a bizarre fascination of beasts; their habits, known hunting grounds, various abilities and defense mechanism. A few scrolls here or there might have been acquired from the forbidden archive on the sect leader’s peak; another example of Yue Qingyuan’s blatant indulgence for his shidi.
Liu Qingqiu hopes there is something among all these ancient texts that can unravel this unacceptable mystery. Under any other circumstance, he’d find it torturous to pour over so many wordy, dry descriptions of things he cared very little about. Anything even remotely interesting is usually reduced to the most boring presentation – rambling, lifeless, and striped of any excitement.
He never understood the appeal of reading stories about long dead people and their exploits instead of experiencing things for yourself. It’s infinitely more satisfying to bring down a slathering, man-eating beast with your own sword than stuck indoors reading about it.
But this is different. Liu Qingge isn’t tearing through every single scrap of information stored in Qing Jing Peak for education or entertainment. This is a matter of life or-
This is important.
Liu Qingge wastes away weeks in the stuffy old room, only remembering to eat or drink when Luo Binghe brings him a tray of food and a cup of water twice a day. The disciple Shen Qingqiu once despised - and later came to regard so highly it bordered on favoritism - seems devastated by the news, unable to smile or lift his voice above a miserable murmur. Clever thing that he is, the boy figured out the reason for this madness in the first day and offers several times to help Liu-shishu with his research.
On the third day, his stubbornness at needing to do this himself is worn down and he accepts Luo Binghe’s offer. Being Shen Qingqiu’s head disciple, he knew the archive quite well. It was through his helpful instruction that Liu Qingge found a secret section hidden behind a shelf.
“These are the scrolls shizun never wanted anyone to see. This disciple only knows about it by accident.” Even though one of these scrolls might hold the answer they’ve desperately been seeking, the boy sounds guilty about inadvertently spying on his shizun.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the crushing weight of his ever encroaching grief, but Liu Qingge roughly pats the boy on the head as he begins to tear through these new scrolls. He is so engrossed in the task he misses how Luo Binghe stiffens, staring over at him for a long moment in wonder, the first real shift in his expression in days.
No one had ever done such a thing. Other than shizun.
Together, they shift through the fifty texts in the hidden section. Only a few scrolls remained and both their resolves are starting to flag. Liu Qingge feels a heavy lead weight settling in his stomach, burning cold, as he eyes the dwindling pile.
‘Persevere,’ he reminds himself, with far more tenacity and assurance than he feels. ‘If it isn’t here, we’ll just look somewhere else. I know something is strange about this whole situation. An answer must be somewhere-’
Liu Qingge’s thoughts come to an abrupt halt when he realizes the contents of words he’s reading. With a much more focused expression, brows knitting tight, he rakes over the words one by one, slowly digesting the information.
Everything clicks into place and he’s jumping to his feet, still clutching the scroll close to his face.
‘This. This is it.’
“Liu-shishu? Did you find something?” Luo Binghe hops out of his seat as well, the fierce yet fragile hope in the boy’s voice echoing his own.
He didn’t bother to answer. Laying the scroll flat on the table, Liu Qingge let the disciple read through the instructions for himself while he cleared a large space on the archive’s floor. Luo Binghe’s eyes widen the more he takes in and soon is wordlessly joining his shishu to move all the furniture to one side.
Once that is finished, Luo Binghe brings over the scroll so it’s easier to copy the symbols depicted under the instructions. In an odd bid of solidary, they both cut a small wound on their pointer finger, using their combined blood to form the intricate array on the floor.
“Liu-shishu… You won’t let me come along, will you?” Yes, certainly a clever young man. He understood without being told.
Liu Qingge nodded solemnly but places a hand on the boy’s shoulder, staring at him with the utmost seriousness. “Should things go wrong, I need you to fetch the sect leader. Ten days, Luo Binghe. That’s all I’ll need. Any longer than that and you know what to do.”
Sincere. Trusting. Not at all the empty words used to dismiss a child. Luo Binghe returns the solemn nod and steps back to give the peak lord a deep respectful bow. “This disciple shall not let Liu-shishu down.”
“You will not.” It’s as much a command as a reassurance and Luo Binghe is happy to be bowing to hide the color dusting on his cheeks. He never imagined someone would express such certainty in his abilities other than his dear shizun. The rare warmth blossoming in his little chest spurred him on to answer boldly.
“Liu-shishu will succeed!”
This earned him an even rarer brief smile before Liu Qingge stepped into the array and flooded the bloody symbols with qi.
The entire room explodes in an eerie blue-white light that blinds them both. Liu Qingge alternates between rubs furiously at his eyes and blinking, trying to chase away the afterimage of pure white.
Just as his vision starts to return, there is the sound of porcelain shattering a few feet to his left. It’s quickly followed by an unfamiliar, breathless voice.
He whips his head over to see a petite, slight man sitting at a table amid so many bizarre objects he’s never seen before. He is no longer in the archive but a small room with white walls and a low ceiling. There’s some mild disorientation from the transfer to this other world but when he gazes at this stranger, looks deep into his eyes – he just knows.
“Shen Qingqiu. I’ve found you.”