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Shen Yuan surged up, panic clawing at his senses, not letting him breathe.

His surroundings were dark—not cold. Not like that place, that dark and cold place his soul had been thrust for a moment.

Here it was warm, though Shen Yuan still shivered, and goosebumps covered his arms beneath his inner robes. The air pressing around him was warm, its scent familiar. As the panic slowly faded, Shen Yuan’s vision cleared, and he knew where he was. Where he’d been all night: in his room in Luo Binghe’s underground palace. He let out a shuddering breath, pressing a hand to his heart, which still throbbed in his chest. Thump thump thump it went, like someone had made a drum out of his ribcage.

The room seemed to be empty. He heard nothing, at least.

Shen Yuan didn’t want to be alone. In the dreamscape, he’d been held tightly. To go from that, to this—the blankets draped over him, pooling around his waist, did nothing, they were a bare imitation of affection. Not to mention, he’d troubled his shidi. He really couldn’t take Luo Binghe looking at him like that. How distressed could one person be on his account?

“Binghe,” he whispered.

He expected nothing of it. Wherever Luo Binghe was, it wasn’t in his room. He had no idea where he was, likely not even in the palace.

When the door slammed open, Shen Yuan nearly jumped out of his skin.

A split second later, Luo Binghe stood by his bed, chest heaving, robes and hair in an attractive disarray that would have looked awful on anyone else.

“Shixiong!” he said. His red eyes twinkled in the faint light from the night pearls, and then he sank down next to the bed, grasping for the sheets and Shen Yuan’s wrist. Long, strong, warm fingers wrapped around his arm, taking his pulse.

Shen Yuan shivered again, for a different reason. Luo Binghe’s face was too close, intensely concentrated on him. He could barely feel the spiritual energy passing through his meridians, too enraptured by the fan of eyelashes sweeping along Luo Binghe’s cheek, the soft curl of hair that lay across his forehead.

“For a moment, it felt like Shixiong slipped away to a place I could not follow.” Luo Binghe’s voice was low and despairing. “Shixiong, if I lost you again—”

“You didn’t.” Shen Yuan’s throat itched, and he coughed discreetly.

Immediately, a cup of water was presented to him. He looked up to meet Luo Binghe’s worried gaze, and a warm feeling enveloped him. He took the cup and drained it, but didn’t feel better. When Luo Binghe’s hand slowly, hesitantly slid up his arm to his shoulder, he leaned against it. Shen Yuan had never been so tired before.

“Binghe, what—what happened?” he asked at length, once the silence had stretched and become a little too comfortable.

“My intention was to ask Shixiong.”

Shen Yuan thought back to the pain, the feeling of being pulled far away to a different place …

“I …” he started saying, stopped. “I don’t know.”

Luo Binghe’s gaze was probing, at the same time as worry had settled around his eyes, making him look older than he was—twenty-two? Barely that? Too young, Shen Yuan thought, to bear the weight of so much responsibility on his shoulders. Too young to have been betrayed by his senior, the only person, apparently, he had to take care of him. Shen Yuan’s heart ached again, but it was different, this time.

“Binghe,” he whispered, and felt the hand on his wrist tighten. “Binghe, I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Luo Binghe’s expression had turned confused. “Shixiong has nothing to apologize, I am the one who—”

“For hurting you. Back then. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.” Shen Yuan had just been in extreme pain, and hadn’t managed to put his face back on, which was why he didn’t protest when Luo Binghe surged forward and pulled him into an embrace. It was the reason he melted against it, let Luo Binghe’s arms wrap around him and hold him safe; it was the reason he pressed his head against his shoulder, didn’t say a word when a hand came up to stroke through his hair.

“Shixiong, as I said, has nothing to apologize for. Shixiong’s qi deviation—in the first place, I am the one who caused it—”

“No.” Shen Yuan pulled back sharply. “You’re not responsible, and even if you were … I suffered several deviations when I was younger, Mu-shishu has said I’m prone to them, so unless I’m careful …”

Luo Binghe’s lips parted, like he wanted to say something, or ask something. But he didn’t, pressed his lips back together, and they stared at each other for a long period of time. Shen Yuan couldn’t read Luo Binghe at all anymore, he’d gone contemplative, serious, and the position they were in was slowly growing awkward.

“Who …” Luo Binghe began slowly. “Who did Shixiong mean to hurt? When he attacked me? Shixiong must have … been thinking about someone. If it truly was not this shidi.”

Shen Yuan licked his lips. Luo Binghe’s eyes flickered down, then back up.

“My—jie—Gui Mengyu,” Shen Yuan finally settled on. Just like when Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu had found him, he found the words difficult to say. Not right. He was supposed to be the villain, not his cousin. Even with Shang Qinghua’s explanation, even with him knowing what had happened, it seemed far-fetched, wrong, like a mistake had been made along the way.

“I see.” Luo Binghe’s voice had taken on a strange, cold quality, and the corners of his mouth pulled down.

Somehow he looked more like a demon lord like that—severe, devastatingly, dangerously beautiful. But his fingers played, absentmindedly, with a strand of Shen Yuan’s long hair, which lessened the effect a bit, and after a while, Luo Binghe must have noticed, because his face softened.

“Shixiong,” he said, moving his hand up to, delicately, almost without touching, cup Shen Yuan’s cheek. “Shixiong, I don’t know how to treat your condition. Earlier, when you were still in my dreamscape, it felt like you were suddenly pulled away from me. I … am afraid it will happen again. Would—would Shixiong like for me to call Mu Qingfang here?”

Shen Yuan blinked. Felt the spiritual energy, foreign but warm and comfortable, flowing through his meridians, probing at everything, and wondered what Luo Binghe felt to make that kind of suggestion. How fearful was he, of it happening again? How long would Luo Binghe’s guilt and nostalgia for their friendship last? Trepidation sparked in Shen Yuan’s chest at the thought of Luo Binghe turning away and never looking back.

He nodded.

“If Mu Qingfang does not know how to treat Shixiong, I will find someone who does.”

“I’m sure Binghe will.”

Something bright appeared on Luo Binghe’s face, stunning Shen Yuan for a moment. He almost thought they’d gone back in time to happier days, before everything had gone to shit.

“I won’t let Shixiong suffer anymore,” Luo Binghe promised, his touch light, uncertain, but there regardless.

Shen Yuan could almost believe him.

~*~

It did not take long for Yue Qingyuan and Mu Qingfang to arrive to the underground palace, nor did it take long for them to be standing at the door to Shen Yuan’s room, looking at him like they thought he was a ghost, or like they never expected to see him again.

Shen Yuan hadn’t left his bed much since waking up from Luo Binghe’s dreamscape. On occasion, he’d wandered out into the garden. Sometimes when he turned around, Luo Binghe would be there, watching, eyebrows knitted together, ready to catch him if he experienced an attack again.

In the barely two days since he’d woken up, he’d felt himself slip away three times, that same cold, invisible sword stabbing into his chest before everything went dark, and he was alone in that icy, disorienting space.

Each time, he opened his eyes again to Luo Binghe hovering above him, warm spiritual energy coursing through his body.

Luo Binghe still hovered, now, but Yue Qingyuan paid him no attention when he crossed the room in quick strides and sat down on the bed.

“Shizun,” was all Shen Yuan had the time to say before Yue Qingyuan’s hands were on his shoulders, holding him down against the bed so he couldn’t sit up, keeping him still so he could look at him.

Yue Qingyuan said nothing, expression grave. Shen Yuan waited for a scolding that didn’t come.

“Gui Yuan,” he said on an exhale, eventually—it sounded like a sigh. He took a wrist, probed his meridians, then turned to Mu Qingfang.

Luo Binghe stood just beyond them, like a pop-up window that couldn’t be closed however many times you clicked the x, watching closely.

“Zhangmen-shixiong, if you could move a little,” Mu Qingfang said, coming closer.

Yue Qingyuan slowly released Shen Yuan’s shoulders and moved to the side. Mu Qingfang took Shen Yuan’s wrist, and deftly pressed two fingers to his pulse. Even without any spiritual energy, Mu Qingfang must have gleaned something from just that, because he tilted his head slightly to the side, like he was thinking.

“Your heartbeat is irregular.” After a pause, he continued, “and is too faint. But you do not seem to have a fever.”

A hand pressed to his forehead, and Mu Qingfang nodded.

“No fever. Look at me.”

Shen Yuan reluctantly met Mu Qingfang’s gaze, and held it. At first he didn’t notice the spiritual energy exploring his meridians, but when he did, it felt qualitatively different from when Luo Binghe or Yue Qingyuan had done it, in a way he couldn’t quite explain. Where it had been like water washing over him before, here it was like a scalpel, deftly wielded, everything laid bare. The residual ache in Shen Yuan’s chest jumped at the sensation, like it was prodded awake, and soon enough, his meridians started to hurt as Mu Qingfang pushed and pulled at them.

He shuddered, eyes slipping closed.

“Eyes open,” Mu Qingfang barked.

Ah. Whoever said Liu Qingge or Shen Qingqiu were the scariest peak lords had obviously never met Mu Qingfang on duty.

Shen Yuan didn’t dare even blink for the remaining time Mu Qingfang kept that steely grip on his wrist, and eventually was rewarded with a pat on the back of his hand.

“There. Your meridians were misaligned. This master pulled them back into the right alignment.” He turned to look at Luo Binghe. “Did he suffer from a qi deviation?”

“No.”

“You are certain?”

“Yes.”

Mu Qingfang and Luo Binghe glowered at each other for a moment.

“Is that all that was wrong with him, Mu-shidi?” Yue Qingyuan asked.

“No.” Mu Qingfang turned back to Shen Yuan. “This head disciple of Zhangmen-shixiong’s has qi deviated several times, and I have treated him after each. I always felt that the first time, when you brought him to Cang Qiong Mountain, was strange in some ways, but blamed it on the sheer severity … now I wonder if I was mistaken.”

“How so?” Yue Qingyuan and Luo Binghe asked at the same time.

That, I cannot say for certain. Explain what happened.”

“It felt like Shixiong slipped away. I attempted to pull Shixiong back, and eventually whatever took hold released him.”

“It was dark and cold,” Shen Yuan murmured, without meaning to. His heart spasmed, and he discreetly pressed a hand against it.

Everyone in the room noticed, eyes zeroing in on the motion in a split-second.

“A consequence of Gui Yuan being brought back to life?” Yue Qingyuan asked. “Perhaps his soul cannot coexist with his recreated body?”

“A possibility,” Mu Qingfang agreed. “Though as I said, this is not the first time his soul has been affected in a similar way.”

Mu Qingfang pried Shen Yuan’s hand away from his heart, and parted his robes just so the left part of his chest was revealed.

“This wound,” he said, tapping the bandages. “When did you receive it?”

“At the Water Prison,” Shen Yuan said truthfully.

“And it has not yet healed? May I?”

Shen Yuan glanced at Yue Qingyuan, who gave a curt nod, and Shen Yuan nodded, too. Luo Binghe, in the background, seemed to be torn between worry and indignation.

Mu Qingfang peeled the bandages away, to reveal the sword wound right over his heart. It didn’t bleed anymore, though that was recent, and the edges were starting to pull together. Still, it had been days since Shen Yuan escaped the Water Prison. With his level of cultivation, though lower than everyone else in the room, it should have closed already.

“This was done by a sword? A knife?” Mu Qingfang questioned.

“A sword.”

“Gui Mengyu’s,” Luo Binghe added, voice perfectly even though Shen Yuan imagined he could hear a petulant note in it.

“Poison, perhaps?” Mu Qingfang muttered to himself, as he prodded at the wound slightly. “No, no, that would be noticeable. The cultivation has not been affected, the healing has simply slowed.”

His brow had wrinkled severely, as he studied the wound, lost in thought.

“Perhaps a reaction to being exposed to demonic energy?”

“Zhangmen-shixiong might be correct. Describe the sword. Was it anything like that thing you carried, Lord Luo?”

“Jewel on the hilt,” Shen Yuan answered instead, because Luo Binghe’s eyes flashed dangerously, slipping into a red he’d only just calmed from. “It glows, sometimes.”

Mu Qingfang and Yue Qingyuan exchanged a glance.

“A property of the sword,” Yue Qingyuan said at last, eyes darkening.

“Gui Yuan, you had a scar on your chest last time this master examined you. That was given to you by Gui Mengyu, as well? By the same sword?”

The two images of his cousin standing over him, sword raised, intersected with each other in Shen Yuan’s mind. His throat constricted, and he nodded.

“Gui Yuan had no other scars except that one. I imagine that sword damages the soul in some way, so that even when the body heals, the scar does not.”

“Then Gui Mengyu’s sword is responsible?” Luo Binghe asked. “What is it?”

Mu Qingfang turned to him, shaking his head. “Having not seen it, this master cannot guess. There are countless swords which give spiritual wounds, it could be any one of them. It might, indeed, be responsible for Gui Yuan’s soul rejecting his body, if that is what is happening. That might also be a result of his resurrection, and not the sword.”

Luo Binghe opened his mouth to say something, no doubt rude, and Shen Yuan cleared his throat slightly. Luo Binghe’s gaze snapped to him, irritation fading, turning questioning instead.

“Some water?”

Even though Mu Qingfang was closest to the cup and the jug of water, he stayed still, probably understanding why Shen Yuan had asked. Yue Qingyuan, for his part, had twitched in that direction, but stopped himself from moving.

Shen Yuan watched as Luo Binghe poured water into the cup, as he came closer, still, put the cup down and then helped Shen Yuan sit up on the bed to drink.

He regretted his decision. One thing was to be treated like this in private, which he never gave a second thought, after accepting that Luo Binghe did not hate him. It was completely different to have it done in front of others. The gesture felt too intimate, too tender, and Shen Yuan almost flushed when Luo Binghe held the cup to his lips. He wrapped his hands around it to take it himself, but that only succeeded in him holding Luo Binghe’s hand which held the cup. Luo Binghe’s gaze flickered down briefly.

Both Yue Qingyuan and Mu Qingfang watched intently, odd expressions mirrored on their faces.

Shen Yuan wanted to sink into the earth.

Stupid! He was an S-ranked fool!!

If he backed down, though, it would make him look even worse! So he accepted the drink, after finding it was impossible to make Luo Binghe’s warm hand release the cup, and took a few sips.

Luo Binghe’s black eyes stared into him the entire time, and Shen Yuan lowered his own gaze. Up this close, it was difficult to tell which one of them was more ill. Pale, drawn, the rims of his eyes red, dark circles beneath. Shen Yuan fought the urge to pet his head, like he’d done when he was younger. He could at least save some of his dignity in front of his teacher!

“Your Excellency, if I could have a moment of your time later,” Yue Qingyuan said. “First, I wish to speak with my disciple.”

Mu Qingfang rose and headed for the door. Luo Binghe hesitated, for a moment, but Shen Yuan gave him an encouraging nod. He got up, and left, though he glanced behind himself several times.

Shen Yuan and Yue Qingyuan were suddenly alone in the room. Silence descended for a moment.

“Shizun, this disciple apologizes for—”

“None of that.” Yue Qingyuan came closer, sat down on the side of the bed, and made Shen Yuan lie back against the pillows. “This teacher should have taken more care. Shen-shidi said Gui Yuan refused to leave.”

Ah. No. Not the understanding-but-worried older brother expression! Shen Yuan had never been able to fight it! He could feel his resolve crumbling.

“Is Luo Binghe treating you well?”

“Yes.”

“If anything is wrong, this teacher would of course immediately take you back to Qiong Ding Peak. Gui Yuan, if he is threatening you so you will stay with him, this teacher is not too weak to deal with it.”

He laid a meaningful hand on Xuan Su’s hilt. But that was exactly what Shen Yuan didn’t want! He may have had some issues with Yue Qingyuan, reading Proud Immortal Demon Way, but now he was Shen Yuan’s teacher! Who was nice to him! Had probably made him head disciple against his better judgment! Shen Yuan put his hand over Yue Qingyuan’s on the hilt, and shook his head.

“Shizun, don’t fight for this disciple,” Shen Yuan said, trying to exude as much earnestness as he could.

Yue Qingyuan’s expression flickered.

“Gui Yuan—” he began to say, then stopped. “This teacher—”

He sighed deeply.

Then: “what do you know about Xuan Su?”

Shen Yuan froze. Ah? Ah.

“This disciple—that is to say—not very long ago—”

“What did you tell Shen-shidi, exactly?”

Oh. He cleared his throat. “Was Shen-shishu very angry?”

“He asked about this teacher’s sword.” Yue QIngyuan’s eyes narrowed slightly. “This teacher does not recall ever informing Gui Yuan about it.”

“But was Shishu angry?” He wanted to know how deep he’d already dug his grave.

Yue Qingyuan’s eye twitched. “That is none of Gui Yuan’s business. Speak.”

“This disciple … has heard some rumors, and …”

Yue Qingyuan’s expression was slowly losing every trace of that worried older brother overtone.

Shen Yuan said in a rush, “ShangQinghuatoldme.”

“I see.”

Silence.

“This disciple … Shizun obviously did not want this disciple to tell Shen-shishu …” He trailed off, with no idea how to continue. Yue Qingyuan’s eyes had shuttered, and he was looking out, unseeing, at the room.

He let out a soft breath.

“Perhaps it was time.” He seemed to be speaking to himself, so Shen Yuan stayed quiet.

Shen Yuan wanted nothing more than to not be involved in whatever long-standing feud there was between his teacher and Shen Qingqiu. But a long time ago, he’d gotten sick of Yue Qingyuan’s moping, and had tried his best to patch things up, not knowing it was as complicated (or as serious) as it was. He didn’t want to give up … well, he did want to give up, but Yue Qingyuan looked a lot like a kicked puppy and Shen Yuan wasn’t sure he wanted to deal with that for the rest of his life.

“Shizun, this disciple doesn’t know what happened between Shizun and Shen-shishu to make them constantly at odds,” he started, fiddling with the blanket. “But this disciple is worried that it will only become worse if, if, well, if you do not speak about it.”

“The time for explanations has long since passed. Shen-shidi would not appreciate it now.”

“Is it Shizun’s responsibility to explain?”

“Yes. Shen-shidi did nothing wrong. I … this teacher is the one at fault.”

“Did Shizun apologize?”

“He does not want my apologies.”

“Then an explanation, surely—”

“Would that not merely be excusing my actions?” Yue Qingyuan covered his eyes. “This teacher does not have the right to do so.”

Why had Shen Yuan gotten the most stupid of the peak lords as his teacher?

“Sometimes … knowing the reason is enough.” 

He even knew what he was talking about, when he said that! Sure, Shen Yuan didn’t know if anything between him and Luo Binghe had cleared up, but at least he’d felt a little better personally. 

“If Shizun does not explain, maybe Shen-shishu believes Shizun did it on purpose. This disciple does not believe Shizun would hurt Shen-shishu on purpose. Does he know that?”

The hand over Yue Qingyuan’s eyes dropped slowly, and after a long moment he let out a deep sigh.

“Maybe Gui Yuan is right.” He put his hand on Shen Yuan’s head, and the corners of his lips pulled up slightly, in the barest imitation of a smile. “Next time, though, don’t be so quick to tell anyone.”

Shen Yuan looked down. “Understood.”

~*~

Shen Yuan wasn’t invited to Yue Qingyuan and Luo Binghe’s discussion about Tianlang-jun.

Not that he cared. Who cared? He didn’t! He wasn’t at all interested in who Tianlang-jun was, what he was doing, whether or not he had anything to do with Gui Mengyu, the woman trying to kill and/or do other things to him.

Even Shang Qinghua was probably there. Liu Qingge, definitely. Maybe even Qiu Haitang, even though she wasn’t a peak lord …

Ah. He hadn’t asked where Shen Qingqiu was. Back at Cang Qiong Mountain Sect doing … something? Keeping the peace? If so many peak lords disappeared to the demonic realm, tongues would definitely wag.

To be fair, they were already wagging. Shen Yuan had been saved from the Water Prison by a demon, a demon who seemed to be assisted by Cang Qiong Mountain. Hadn’t everyone he asked said that their reputation had constantly taken hits over the past five years?

It was enough to make Shen Yuan never want to leave his room.

Preferably his room on Qiong Ding Peak, but … Shen Yuan pressed his palm against one of the bedposts, and looked out at the expensively furnished room. So, it was a little darker than he was used to … and he wore more green than he’d done ever before in his life. But he found he didn’t mind it much. The scent was familiar, light, the exact same incense he’d used back home, and the food was much (much) better, and whenever he imagined leaving he’d also imagine Luo Binghe sitting completely alone in his underground palace (ridiculous, Shen Yuan knew, because there were at least dozens of demons there at any given moment) … 

Alone now. Alone, always.

Shen Yuan’s heart did a thing—a little clench, that made his chest ache. He curled his fingers into the fabric and laid back down on the bed.

Okay, so the lack of paperwork and running around and helping junior disciples with stuff, all of that contributed to him not wanting to leave. He hadn’t slept this much since he’d first woken up in this world, and his mother kept him confined to bed.

Ah. His heart pulsed again, and he pulled the covers more tightly over himself.

All those peak lords and demon lords and whatever could talk about current affairs as much as they wanted. Hmph.

He flipped over onto his side, and closed his eyes, ignoring the way his heart had started pulsating.

Fuck off, he told the pain.

A brief draft of air, a warm presence, was the only warning he got before a hand settled gently on his shoulder.

“Shixiong?”

“Mmh.” Shen Yuan had jerked, but seeing it was just Luo Binghe, he settled back down again. “Finished?”

Luo Binghe hummed, hand tugging at Shen Yuan until he turned over to face him. Then he let go, as if he didn’t want to touch him anymore, though he rested his hand on the bed, close to Shen Yuan’s head.

“Tianlang-jun seems to have disappeared. Gui Mengyu, too. There have been no reports or sightings. Perhaps they have run away.”

Shen Yuan snorted.

Luo Binghe’s lips twitched. “That was Shang Qinghua’s sentiment as well.” His expression sobered. “Shixiong …”

“What? Don’t frown so much, your face will stay like that, and what will you do then? No girls will marry you.”

Somehow, Luo Binghe’s frown deepened. “I don’t—want—” He stopped, shook his head. “Shixiong.”

“Mmh?”

“During those attacks … where does Shixiong go?”

Shen Yuan blinked. Where …?

“I don’t know.”

“Would … would it be—could I—do you think, if I entered Shixiong’s dreamscape—”

“Binghe can do that?” Shen Yuan interrupted. Sure, he technically knew he could, but that had only been used for papapa. “Binghe would do that? Why?”

“Mu Qingfang said it was difficult to ascertain Shixiong’s condition with so little knowledge.”

Luo Binghe looked up at him through his (thick! long!) lashes.

Shen Yuan’s throat felt dry for some reason, and he swallowed.

“If you think it would work,” he said. “What would I have to do?”

“Nothing. Sleep. Shixiong has been in my dreamscape several times, so I can access Shixiong’s.”

“Okay.” Shen Yuan cleared his throat. ”Should I just … go to sleep, then?”

Luo Binghe, also, cleared his throat. Maybe the air was a bit dry?

“It would make it easier if we were touching. While asleep.” Luo Binghe was pointedly looking somewhere past Shen Yuan. No doubt embarrassed to be saying such things to his shixiong. Ah, if Shen Yuan had been a shijie, on the other hand …

Shen Yuan moved further to the other side of the bed and patted the mattress. Luo Binghe stared at him. Shen Yuan patted the mattress again.

“You have to sleep, too, right? Isn’t it better if you lie down?”

With stiff movements, Luo Binghe climbed onto the bed, and lay down, equally stiffly, on his back. In the light of the candles, Shen Yuan could tell his ears were red, and he almost laughed. The Luo Binghe of Proud Immortal Demon Way had never climbed into a man’s bed, it was no doubt not something that came naturally to him.

Shen Yuan, trying his best to pretend that it was five years before when he’d done his best to be affectionate in an effort to keep Luo Binghe from wanting to kill him but also because Luo Binghe had been so cute he couldn’t help himself, reached out and put his hand over Luo Binghe’s.

The size difference was disconcerting.

Luo Binghe’s fingers twitched. Froze. Twitched again, moved until they tangled loosely with Shen Yuan’s. He tilted his head to the side, eyes dark. Shen Yuan had to force himself to not turn away. He was calm. Calm. Perfectly calm. Like a … calm pool of water. No ripples. No embarrassment.

Shen Yuan squeezed his eyes shut, because he had to go to sleep so Luo Binghe could access his dreamscape. Yep. Definitely for that reason and that reason only.

Fuck. Luo Binghe’s gaze was so heavy he could feel it against his skin, making it prickle, goosebumps rising.

Luo Binghe hadn’t even taken off his outer robes! He’d regret that later.

Shen Yuan wished he was in something thicker than his inner robes, too. The thin silk did absolutely nothing to keep him from shivering.

He felt the covers being pulled up, over his shoulders, the barest brush of warm skin against his cheek.

Over the years, Shen Yuan had forgotten how to fall asleep with someone else in the room, but to his surprise he slowly sank down into something comfortable and dark.

Whether Luo Binghe intruded or not, Shen Yuan couldn’t tell. His own dreamscape was untrained, only accessible through regular dreams, and he didn’t notice anything very different. In fact, his dreams were hazier than normal, like he was wrapped up in a protective cocoon. They barely brushed past him, flickers of scenes he only barely remembered.

The cocoon wanted something. Shen Yuan couldn’t tell what. Or he could, but that way was dark and cold, and he wanted to stay in the light. So he thought of his mother, and the lullaby she’d sang him once when his fever relapsed.

The cocoon didn’t want that memory, Shen Yuan knew. But it didn’t push it away, and let Shen Yuan stay in his mother’s embrace for a little longer, until the scene ended on its own. He tried to hold on to it, but it slipped through his fingers like water and he remembered what happened after that scene because those scenes were always linked even though he knew they hadn’t been linked in real life—separated by months—but he couldn’t stop that wave of terror that washed over him—no longer trying to cup water with his hands but caught in a riptide in the ocean, pulling him under into the darkness.

The cocoon pushed it away. Pulled him back into the warmth, and held him, even as that darkness attracted other darknesses, one after the other until he was alone in the dark and the cold and couldn’t tell up from down.

Steps echoed around him, and he scraped across the stone, a high, metallic sound, like a blade being sharpened, a flash of light and a voice and a sword thrust right through his chest.

Shen Yuan’s eyes opened. He stared right up at the bedposts, fabric fluttering slightly in an impossible wind.

A hand squeezed around his heart, crushing it, and he took a shuddering, shallow breath.

Another hand—a different hand, surely, because this one was warm like it had been held close to a flame—landed on his shoulder, slid down his arm, then back up.

“Shixiong.” Soft, barely a whisper.

Shen Yuan didn’t turn to look. Was he still asleep? Had he woken up?

“Shixiong.” More insistent, this time.

He closed his eyes, but changed his mind, didn’t want to confront the dark again. Luo Binghe’s face was above him, now, his hair falling like a curtain against the few candles burning and the night pearls, so he could barely make up his features.

“Light,” Shen Yuan begged.

The rest of the candles burst into flame, turning the room gold.

Luo Binghe pulled him up until he sat, swaying. Steadied him with a firm touch, not at all like the gentle, reluctant touch he’d used recently. That was comforting, or maybe not. Shen Yuan’s thoughts were more scrambled than a scrambled egg, and he couldn’t tell what was up or down.

For a long moment, no one spoke.

“Shixiong’s soul is being pulled out of his body,” Luo Binghe said. “Or his soul is connected to something that is in a different location. That is the only explanation I have.”

Shen Yuan made a soft sound of agreement, though he barely heard what Luo Binghe was telling him.

“I believe I know where.”

Shen Yuan made another sound, inquisitive.

“Has Shixiong ever heard of the Holy Mausoleum?”

Shen Yuan blinked, and in his haze, almost nodded, before wrenching himself awake.

“The Holy Mausoleum?” he asked, instead. Of course he’d heard about it. He’d read all of that trashy novel, the word- and flower-padded Holy Mausoleum arc included. But Gui Yuan probably wouldn’t have known anything.

“I have not been inside it myself, but Shixiong’s visions match the descriptions I have read.” He paused. “If that woman is responsible for Shixiong’s injury, perhaps that is where she has gone, and that is the reason Shixiong has seen it.”

That made sense. Probably.

Shen Yuan kinda wanted to throw up for some reason, but he couldn’t tell why. Maybe he’d had a bad dream. He couldn’t remember. Luo Binghe had gone into his dreamscape, maybe he remembered. Maybe he could tell him why he felt so bad.

“You—what did you see?” he asked.

Luo Binghe didn’t answer immediately.

“Shixiong, please excuse this shidi. He didn’t mean to see as much as he did.”

Ah.

“It was more difficult to control Shixiong’s dreamscape than I thought it would be. I apologize.”

“It’s fine,” Shen Yuan said automatically. He’d said it was okay, and as long as Luo Binghe didn’t see any of his memories from his original life, what did it matter?

But the expression on Luo Binghe’s face told Shen Yuan it did matter.

“What is it?” he asked, trying to meet Luo Binghe’s dark gaze and not quite managing. Ah. Actually, weren’t his eyes red, now? “Are you alright? Binghe, did you hurt yourself? Did I hurt you?”

What if he’d aggravated the damage to his primordial spirit or something?

“No.” Luo Binghe’s hands slid down Shen Yuan’s arms until they rested on the mattress, no longer touching, though only a hair’s breadth away.

His hands shook. Slightly. Just a faint quiver. Shen Yuan fought against the inexplicable impulse to—do what? What did he want to do?

Shen Yuan didn’t know.

“I’d heard that Shixiong was not originally a Cang Qiong Mountain Sect disciple,” Luo Binghe said, suddenly enough that Shen Yuan almost jumped. “But I thought … I was not aware of the reason. Shixiong never told me.”

“What did you see?” Shen Yuan asked again, worry rising unbidden to his mind.

“If Shixiong had told me about that person, I—I could have stopped her from hurting Shixiong, and yet instead—” Luo Binghe had pointedly been looking down, but now he looked back up, red eyes fastening on Shen Yuan, holding him in place with his gaze. “If—if that person hadn’t been there, would Shixiong have come to me for help, instead?”

Gui Mengyu?

When?

What had Luo Binghe seen? Everything?

He tried to think. When had Gui Mengyu stopped him from—

Ah. That time in the cage.

If Gui Mengyu hadn’t been there … what would he have done?

Shen Yuan doubted he would have acted any differently. But as for the rest, it was true, wasn’t it? Shen Yuan understood, now, that Luo Binghe had never hated him, though what he actually felt, he had no idea. If Luo Binghe had known about Gui Mengyu … no doubt Gui Mengyu would have been dead. Xin Mo wouldn’t be in her possession. Tianlang-jun, if she was indeed the one who released him, wouldn’t be a problem.

What an idiot he’d been. Not telling Yue Qingyuan, in the first place, either. Not telling Luo Binghe. They both believed him now, didn’t they? If they’d known from the beginning … maybe …

Ah … but what guarantee was there that they would have believed him?

“You—”

Shen Yuan blinked. Luo Binghe’s face had done something odd—anger? Was that anger?

“You think I would not have believed you?” Luo Binghe demanded.

Had he said that out loud? Oops.

“It’s nothing personal. Just …” He thought back to how everyone had been so quick to think the worst of him. “People tend to believe my cousin.”

“Shixiong thinks I would have thought he was lying to me? Or that, if that person told me her lies, I would have believed her instead?”

“I …”

“Of course I’ll always believe Shixiong’s word over anyone else’s. What other people say does not matter to me.”

“What if I had done it? What if it was a lie?”

“Shixiong has no control over his dreamscape, of course Shixiong’s memories did not lie.”

So he had seen it. Shen Yuan didn’t know if he was mortified or relieved. There was a weird stinging behind his eyes. Luo Binghe’s face was still tense.

He couldn’t help his own curiosity.

“Did you ever think I was responsible? That it was true?”

“No!” Luo Binghe’s voice had turned harder. “How could Shixiong think—”

He shook his head, instead.

“Never. I never thought that.”

Oh. That … Shen Yuan didn’t know if he could believe him, but it still … made a weight lift off his chest. They sat in silence for a short while, before Luo Binghe suddenly spoke again.

“I thought I helped Shixiong. That I could protect Shixiong. That I could make Shixiong happy. But in fact, Shixiong was suffering the entire time, and I didn’t know. Shixiong always protected me, despite that, and I never … never did anything for Shixiong …”

“Nonsense, what are you saying?” Shen Yuan snapped. “Helping someone isn’t a transaction. If you do something for someone, it should be without expecting anything back.”

Well, to be fair, Shen Yuan had befriended Luo Binghe because the System told him to, in the first place, and it was mostly to make sure he wouldn’t get his legs torn off … and in the end he hadn’t gotten any limbs torn off, but he’d gotten killed, so that was a lesson learned about trying to avoid fate.

Whatever. If he could just instill in Luo Binghe that he shouldn’t marry every pretty flower he saw just because they said a few nice words to him, that would be fine.

Luo Binghe was silent for a while before speaking again.

“When this is over, I’ll take Shixiong back to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. I don’t want Shixiong’s home to be taken away again.”

~*~

“Shixiong has never been to the Holy Mausoleum.”

“So Lord Luo is saying they cannot be memories? That Gui Yuan must have somehow seen this place in another way?”

“If Shixiong’s soul is being pulled somewhere temporarily, it does not surprise me that it is to that place.”

“Oh? What is the Holy Mausoleum, exactly?”

“It is where demon lords are put to rest. It contains countless precious artifacts.” This was Shang Qinghua, who squeaked when everyone turned in his direction, and went to hide behind Mobei-jun again. “Artifacts which may be capable of bringing the dead back to life, among other things. Potentially.”

What ‘potentially,’ Airplane-bro? Who would know better what was in there??

Everyone in the room turned towards Shen Yuan, this time, and he could see Shang Qinghua let out an inaudible sigh of relief. 

Traitor.

“You are certain?” Yue Qingyuan asked. “That it holds such objects? Even ones that may bring someone back from the brink of death?”

“It may.”

“Tianlang-jun has been imprisoned under that mountain for decades. He is no doubt gravely injured. Gui Mengyu took your Xin Mo sword. Could it be that she allied with Tianlang-jun, and used the sword to gain access?”

“The sword cannot breach the Holy Mausoleum.” That Luo Binghe had tried went unsaid. “It guards itself. It is inaccessible.”

“But Tianlang-jun was the previous demon lord. He probably knows the way in.” Shang Qinghua was invisible behind the icy giant that was Mobei-jun, but his voice was loud enough to make up for it. Slightly muffled, like he was pressing his face against Mobei-jun’s robes.

Mobei-jun’s impassive expression didn’t waver for even a second.

“Sounds like a trap,” Liu Qingge observed. He’d been quiet the entire time, occasionally glaring over at Luo Binghe. Still sour about being knocked off his sword. Luo Binghe constantly refusing to fight him probably didn’t help.

“Are you afraid?” Luo Binghe asked. Shen Yuan mentally slammed his head against the wall.

If Liu Qingge had been holding anything at that moment, it would have snapped in two.

“You—”

“That’s enough, Liu-shidi,” Yue Qingyuan said with a sigh. “It is merely caution, Your Excellency. Even if it is not a trap, if Tianlang-jun is familiar with the Holy Mausoleum, it puts us at a disadvantage. Especially if he possesses Xin Mo. And we do not know how powerful Gui Mengyu is, if she is indeed allied with him.”

“Jie—she was never good at spiritual cultivation,” Shen Yuan said. “She used demonic cultivation, back then.”

“Powerful for a demon?” The question was directed at Luo Binghe.

“Fairly.”

Of course she wasn’t more powerful than Luo Binghe. But at the same time … he’d calmed down, but Shen Yuan could still see that he hadn’t slept, the hint of red in his irises. How unstable was he?

The protagonist was the protagonist, though.

Even Gui Mengyu was powerless before him.

Qiu Haitang, who’d been sitting quietly next to Shen Yuan, patted his shoulder and gave him a small smile. Shen Yuan tried to return it. The conversation continued around them, but he found it difficult to concentrate.

“I’m sure Zhangmen-shibo will fix everything,” she whispered. “And your Luo Binghe won’t let any harm come to you.”

Luo Binghe wasn’t his. He had to clear up that misunderstanding at some point.

“Tell him to hire some human servants, later,” she continued. “None of these demons know how to behave.”

Her glare was very pointedly directed at Sha Hualing, who stood behind Luo Binghe. Sha Hualing’s expression turned murderous when she noticed, even though she couldn’t have heard them.

“Did something happen?”

The fake smile Qiu Haitang put on made a shiver go up Shen Yuan’s spine.

“Not at all. I just don’t understand what Luo Binghe keeps her around for.”

“She is a powerful demon, with good connections.”

“Can’t he at least tell her to file her nails?” she continued, seemingly without having heard Shen Yuan.

Ah.

He remembered one scene, widely considered a fan-favorite, where Qiu Haitang and Sha Hualing had engaged in a cat-fight over Luo Binghe’s favor … or something. Of course it ended with their clothes ripped to shreds, and a full paragraph describing the sexy scratches left on Qiu Haitang’s skin.

What, did she have an instinctual dislike of the woman despite none of it happening in this universe? A kind of shared memory with other versions of herself?

Hm. Maybe she just didn’t like people with long nails.

Shen Yuan zoned back into the conversation when his name was spoken.

“Perhaps Gui Yuan should stay here. If Gui Mengyu is responsible, the effect might heighten if he goes near her.”

“Shixiong would be left without proper protection.”

“His condition is worsening. She might possess the cure.”

“He cannot protect himself at the moment.”

Yeah, rub it in, Liu Qingge.

“I understand that Bai Zhan Peak’s Peak Lord is incapable of protecting anyone other than himself.”

Binghe!!!

Why did he go out of his way to pick a fight??????

Liu Qingge gripped the table so hard it splintered.

Shen Yuan didn’t hear the rest of the argument, because a familiar, aggravating voice popped up in his head.

[New objective! Enter the Holy Mausoleum!]

The System sounded more enthusiastic about it than it had the right to. Shen Yuan had no patience for it, and told it to shut up.

[Silencing mode not available at this moment! All functionality will be available once the newest objective has been met! Host account should be careful to discover and solve all key components in this plotline!]

Shen Yuan wanted to die.

The System apparently wasn’t pissy about the original novel’s plot was no longer being followed.

[On the contrary! These plotlines have become unavoidable, and there is no way for the System to work against them! It is better to encourage their completion, so that work to realign the world of Proud Immortal Demon Way with its original outline can continue as soon as possible!]

Why did he have to do stuff, though?

[Because Luo Binghe is the rightful master of the Holy Mausoleum and the Xin Mo sword! Tianlang-jun’s presence and Gui Mengyu’s actions have caused a severe canon divergence! In this state, these characters are unable to harmonically coexist with the protagonist, so they must be eliminated as soon as possible!]

And he had to do it?

[Host account is here to realign the plot to the original! Good luck!]

The System was just picking on him now.

[If host account performs satisfactorily, the System may consider opening up the ‘Happy Marriage Side Mission!’ Please work hard!]

Shen Yuan sighed.

What kind of world did he live in, where Luo Binghe needed help getting married?

He really had screwed everything up.

~*~

Despite what Luo Binghe had said, he only reluctantly let Shen Yuan come with them to the Holy Mausoleum. Even though he was the one who’d insisted on not leaving him behind, he kept glancing over at him, skittish, like he was afraid someone would come steal him away.

It got annoying after a while, but Shen Yuan didn’t have the heart to scold him. And he didn’t want to do it in front of so many people.

The Holy Mausoleum wasn’t very far from the underground palace. Or rather, it wasn’t very far, as far as Shen Yuan could tell, because his heart had started lurching just as they’d left the underground palace, and when he’d opened his eyes from the darkness, they’d already arrived.

Once awake properly, he realized Mu Qingfang’s serious face was looking down at him, comforting because there was no hint of worry, or sympathy, or relief.

“Back again?” Mu Qingfang asked, checking him over.

He nodded, not ready for words yet.

“Good.”

Luo Binghe didn’t hover, but he’d turned to look at him when he noticed he’d woken up, and his gaze lingered for a long while before he turned his attention back to the door, looking very much like a noble demon lord in his dark robes and with his beautiful face, showing no regard for anyone around him. So cool! Too cool!

It was only after admiring Luo Binghe’s visage for several minutes that Shen Yuan turned his attention to the Holy Mausoleum itself. Above ground, unlike other demon-made buildings, it towered over them like a mountain. The door in front of them was as tall as a normal sized house, and demonic energy permeated the entire area. Just as Luo Binghe had said, though, it was sealed—though it was ancient and weathered, the door didn’t even move when one of the demons pushed at it.

Whatever Luo Binghe had said, Shen Yuan wouldn’t have put it past him to be able to get through if he had Xin Mo with him. For some reason, he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten into it in the novel. Every time he tried to think, passages filled with papapa popped up in his head, and he couldn’t make himself push past them. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t want to think about his shidi having sex with busty women!

And it was a little hard to think when it felt like meat hooks had driven into his flesh and tried their best to rip him apart from the inside out. He could still hear the echo of a familiar voice in his head. Maybe if he’d followed it, he’d find his way back, maybe the pain would stop, maybe—

“Gui Yuan.” Yue Qingyuan was suddenly kneeling beside him, putting a warm hand on his shoulder. “You must hold on to your soul. Do not let it leave your body.”

Easy for him to say!

He looked around. “Why are there so many here?”

“Tianlang-jun is a concern for us all. Just as great as Luo Binghe was. If he has allied with Gui Mengyu, no one knows what the outcome would be for the human realm. We will deal with Lord Luo once he is a current threat. At the moment he is our ally.”

“Shizun fought Tianlang-jun before?”

“Yes. A long time ago.” He didn’t say anything more, turning pensive, staring out at nothing.

This meant Shen Yuan was the one who noticed that Yue Qingyuan was being glared at intensely. It was a wonder the man hadn’t combusted yet.

Shen Qingqiu’s expression was deadly—as if a lifetime’s worth of resentment and anger had overflowed, leaving him completely incapable of hiding behind a calm facade. His fan hung forgotten from his waist, and wouldn’t have done much use anyway, too flimsy to hide the sheer force of negativity he projected.

“Has Shizun had time to clarify anything at all with Shen-shishu?”

Yue Qingyuan stiffened.

“Last time Shizun spoke with Shen-shishu, did Shizun say anything?

Yue Qingyuan cleared his throat, but didn’t speak.

“Did Shizun just leave?” He didn’t know why he was still asking. He knew the answer to all of his questions. “Shizun should go speak with Shen-shishu.”

“This is hardly the time or the place—”

“Shizun should speak with Shen-shishu. This disciple would suggest right now.”

“I—”

“Now.”

Yue Qingyuan sighed. “It will hardly do any good.”

“Maybe it will. Or this disciple will never go as peace-mediator between the two of you ever again.”

Shen Yuan was expecting it not to work. The misunderstanding between Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu had been building for decades, probably (he didn’t know how old either of them was, so he couldn’t say for sure, but they were older than they looked. Definitely older)

But to his surprise, Yue Qingyuan got up and made his way over. Shen Qingqiu still glared as if Liu Qingge had broken his favorite fan and then insulted him for using fans in the first place.

Yue Qingyuan said something, he must have, because Shen Qingqiu’s expression worsened (how did it do that???) and he turned to leave. Yue Qingyuan grabbed his wrist, which opened the floodgates. Shen Qingqiu lay into him.

Despite not hearing a word of what they were saying, Shen Yuan could recognize the stream of insults coming from Shen Qingqiu’s mouth, and he winced in sympathy. Ah, yes, this was how conversations between those two usually went. Badly. After saying between one and three things to each other.

This time, however, Yue Qingyuan seemed persistent, and wouldn’t let go of Shen Qingqiu no matter how hard he struggled. It didn’t make him less angry, but … it was a start? Maybe?

Shen Yuan hoped they wouldn’t start fighting properly. However much Proud Immortal Demon Way kept saying that Shen Qingqiu was only an above average cultivator, in Shen Yuan’s experience that wasn’t the case at all and he didn’t want them to lay waste to the area before any real fighting took place. Their one-sided verbal duel was public enough as it was, and he could see everyone in the vicinity giving them a wide berth, pretending they saw nothing.

At least they weren’t shouting.

Just when it seemed like the conversation was going places, the heat of Shen Qingqiu’s fury had abated and he’d stopped struggling, Luo Binghe stepped in front of Shen Yuan’s view, so all he could see was Luo Binghe’s expansive chest.

When had he grown so big? Who gave him the right?

“Shixiong,” he said. He didn’t continue.

“What is it?” Shen Yuan eventually asked.

“The doors won’t open.”

Luo Binghe looked away.

“But what?”

“I have a theory. I don’t like it.”

“Spit it out.”

Luo Binghe didn’t spit it out, and instead took hold of Shen Yuan’s sleeve and led him closer to the Holy Mausoleum. Up close it was even more foreboding, towering above him, impossible large.

“The seals are ancient, but I noticed an anomaly. I believe someone has tampered with them.” He hesitated. “Gui Mengyu wants something from Shixiong. Perhaps the barrier would let Shixiong pass.”

Oh. Well. Shen Yuan had expected he’d have to argue his way into the Holy Mausoleum. Now Luo Binghe was just suggesting he come in with him. As if the System would let him say no.

[Objective start: enter the Holy Mausoleum with Luo Binghe~ Congratulations!]

For what? Congratulations for what?

The System being in a good mood was never a good thing.

He was about to agree to do whatever Luo Binghe needed him to, when a shout from behind made him look up. 

A wave of gold-dressed Huan Hua Palace cultivators shot down from above. They’d been hiding—or maybe had just snuck around the other side—behind the Holy Mausoleum.

“Wipe the demons and the demon lovers out!” the palace master roared, and they drew their swords as one.

Luo Binghe pulled him closer to himself, as Liu Qingge zipped past them, Cheng Luan out and crackling with spiritual energy. Good thing he didn’t kick the bucket all those years ago. He shot down a dozen with one sweep of his sword.

“Shixiong, let’s go.”

“I—”

“Go,” Yue Qingyuan said, appearing from nowhere. “This teacher will take care of this.”

At Luo Binghe’s gesture, Shen Yuan placed his hand against the door. It burned hot at his touch, and the symbols carved into it started to glow. On instinct he jerked his hand back, but couldn’t—instead it pulled him forward.

Luo Binghe’s hand was wrapped tightly, for once, around his wrist, but just as Shen Yuan felt himself melt through the door, something slammed into his side, and he tumbled forward.

Colors flashed around him. Then everything turned black, and cold.

~*~

Despite the fact that the Holy Mausoleum was one of few structures in the demon realm to lie above ground, the air inside was dank and unmoving, like the entire place hadn’t been opened in decades—which, to be fair, was probably true. It was a bit like a sealed can, or a bunker.

It was also dark. Very dark. And Shen Yuan was alone.

When he’d opened his eyes after his disorienting teleportation (or whatever it was), he’d expected to wake up with Luo Binghe by his side. But Luo Binghe wasn’t there, as far as he could tell.

There was nothing there, except for the darkness, and the solid stone floors and walls.

When Shen Yuan reached out, although he couldn’t quite touch both sides of the walls at the same time, he almost could. So he was probably in some kind of hallway.

It was empty.

Shen Yuan tried to recall everything about the Holy Mausoleum arc from Proud Immortal Demon Way. It had stretched for hundreds of thousands of words, but for some reason … he could only remember vague details. How much of the arc was filler? How many flowers had Luo Binghe brought with him?? It wouldn’t surprise him if it was more than two!!! Or if some damned ghost had been involved!!

Bah. Stallion protagonists.

Shen Yuan had no idea why he’d consumed so many novels with stallion protagonists, he didn’t even like them! Luo Binghe deserved a single wife who loved him with all her heart, not hundreds of women who only liked him for his face or his power!!

Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky had committed a sin, treating Luo Binghe like that … rude.

Anyway.

Luo Binghe was nowhere to be found. And Shen Yuan was alone in a large, dark, unknown place he, by virtue of not being a demon and not being dead, shouldn’t be able to access. That wasn’t a recipe for disaster at all.

He wanted to cry.

Maybe if Shen Yuan just stayed in one place, Luo Binghe would appear.

Why had he agreed to come here? Why had he gotten himself mixed up in this shit in the first place? Gui Mengyu should have just killed him back then, then he wouldn’t be in this mess! He shouldn’t have transmigrated at all!

While complaining to himself, Shen Yuan hadn’t moved at all, except for turning around in circles trying to make out his surroundings. He didn’t really want to use spiritual energy, in case the Mausoleum had some way of detecting it or something, but it also meant he was functionally blind.

A System alert then almost made him deaf, too, the voice going off like an explosion in his head.

[You have now entered the high level instance “Holy Mausoleum.” Objective: Find Gui Mengyu. Objective: Retrieve Xin Mo. Objective: Resolve plot holes in original novel. Objective: Resolve Gui Mengyu’s plotline. Objective: remove interference in Luo Binghe’s plotline. Please attack the objectives eagerly and take initiative of your own accord!]

Shen Yuan sat down and crossed his arms.

[Please attack the objectives eagerly and take initiative of your own accord!]

He wasn’t dealing with that many objectives at once! The System couldn’t make him!

[…]

[Objective: find Luo Binghe.]

“And where is he?”

[The protagonist’s current location is unknown]

[This System suggests following the corridor right in front of you]

Shen Yuan let out a long, deep breath. Suddenly, a candle burst into flame not far from him, and he heard a strange grunting sound. 

He slowly turned his head, and came face to face with a decaying skull.

For a split second, Shen Yuan’s brain flatlined.

Then he shot to his feet and sprinted down the other corridor as far away from the zombie thing as he could get. The candles that lined the walls lit up as he ran past. What the fuck. What the actual fuck. Last Breath Candles??? Of course! Of fucking course! He remembered now!

He ran harder.

But he couldn’t shake it. The zombie followed him. And it was faster!

Whoever said zombies were slow was a fucking liar!!

Shen Yuan summoned spiritual energy and shot it out behind him. The energy threw the zombie hard into the floor, its body bursting at the seams.

Unfortunately, a dozen more were only a few paces behind it and Shen Yuan! Wanted! To! Die!

He didn’t have the spiritual power to keep using that kind of attack! System! For fuck’s sake!

The System stayed silent. Shen Yuan kept running.

And then he crashed into a solid, warm wall. Just his luck. A dead end, of all things— 

He blinked.

Why was the wall warm? Why was it covered in soft fabric?

Shen Yuan reached up to touch it.

“Shixiong?”

Ah.

[Objective complete!]

Shen Yuan looked up, and met Luo Binghe’s large, concerned eyes, which hastily swept over him before going beyond him, to the zombie corpses following. His eyes narrowed, one arm winding around Shen Yuan, and the zombies just … stopped. In their tracks. Like something froze them.

It took Shen Yuan a while to realize Luo Binghe had probably used his demonic aura, because he couldn’t feel it at all. Had he gotten used to it? Or was Luo Binghe shielding him from it, somehow?

Whatever. He didn’t care. He leaned his head forward to rest against Luo Binghe’s shoulder, his lungs still burning from exertion.

“Is Shixiong alright?” The voice was gentle, low, spoken close to Shen Yuan’s ear.

“I want to leave,” Shen Yuan said instead of answering, feeling like a sullen child and not even sorry about it.

Luo Binghe’s arm tightened around him. Shen Yuan didn’t complain, and didn’t feel the need to—who cared what Luo Binghe thought of him! He’d already lost so much of his face around him he probably couldn’t glue the pieces back together!

“Mmh. I’ll retrieve Xin Mo and then take Shixiong away from here.” There was a short pause. “When I discovered Shixiong was not with me, I worried something had happened. That perhaps that woman had taken you. I am relieved to be mistaken.”

“Hold on better, next time.”

Luo Binghe made a soft noise, then another—the first surprised, and the second almost pleased.

“Shixiong needn’t worry. This shidi won’t make the same mistake twice.”

Shen Yuan felt a wave of relief wash over him. He had no reason to doubt that Luo Binghe would keep his word. As long as he felt some sense of guilt or gratitude towards Shen Yuan, he’d protect him. And of all the people in this world to have at your back, Luo Binghe was the best option.

The two of them stood like that in the dimly lit corridor for a lengthy period of time. Shen Yuan was too tired and too relieved to move, and Luo Binghe seemed content to humor him. It wasn’t until Shen Yuan realized what this would look like to someone else, pressed against each other like two lovers who, after being separated for months, had finally been reunited, that he hastily took a step back and cleared his throat. He took a look at him.

He looked good, calm, his face smooth and pale, no tint of red either on his skin or in his eyes. So … he was in control of himself? He’d been separated from Xin Mo for a while at this point, maybe some of the negative side effects had gone away? Maybe whatever damage he’d done to his primordial spirit was healing, too.

“Maybe we should try to find my cousin,” he suggested.

“We should.” Luo Binghe agreed.

Shen Yuan reached forward and found Luo Binghe’s arm, taking his wrist.

Luo Binghe’s eyes dragged down to look at where they touched, then looked up again. Blinked.

“So we don’t get separated again.” Shen Yuan felt oddly self-conscious.

Luo Binghe said nothing, and Shen Yuan thought for a moment he’d overstepped—before Luo Binghe loosened Shen Yuan’s grip on his wrist and took his hand instead.

“More practical,” he murmured, gazing at him through his eyelashes.

Shen Yuan’s mouth went dry. Yes. More practical. Definitely.

They started down the corridor. Neither of them knew where they were going, but Shen Yuan had faith in Luo Binghe’s protagonist halo. He’d either figure it out somehow, or stumble onto the right direction. Shen Yuan didn’t care which one it was.

“Shixiong should breathe as little as possible,” Luo Binghe said, motioning towards the Last Breath Candles, as if his aura wasn’t scaring everything away.

“If they’re attracted to light, isn’t this a bigger problem?” He jabbed at the glowing seal on Luo Binghe’s forehead.

“Is Shixiong teasing me?”

“Luo-shidi is far too accomplished for this shixiong to tease him. This shixiong wouldn’t dare disrespect an all-powerful demon lord.”

“Shixiong is teasing me.” Luo Binghe’s voice was remarkably light and pleased and adorable.

Shen Yuan was reminded of the Luo Binghe from before the Endless Abyss, who’d been so happy … young and healing from the trauma of his youth. Then all of it had been undone. Shen Yuan squeezed Luo Binghe’s hand. If he had any say in it, any say at all, he’d make sure the System didn’t fuck him over again.

Doors lined the corridor, leading to rooms that were mostly empty, with the exception of a few stone coffins. When they were sucked in by the door, they were probably deposited somewhere randomly, and not just right inside. Maybe some security mechanism recognized they didn’t belong there?

The air was heavy, making it hard to breathe, and Shen Yuan felt like he was in a creepy horror movie. Anything could pop out from behind the corners, and he was not happy about it. Luo Binghe was a steady, comforting presence at his side, but the thought that Gui Mengyu was somewhere in the Holy Mausoleum just waiting for them counteracted most of it.

He just. Really didn’t want to see his cousin.

If he could send Luo Binghe there alone, that would be much better.

But Tianlang-jun was an unknown factor—Shen Yuan didn’t know anything about Luo Binghe’s father. Was Tianlang-jun his father, even? He didn’t know, and that frightened him. What if the protagonist halo couldn’t deal with a person who wasn’t in the original novel? What if this world had changed so much from its original state that something like a protagonist halo wouldn’t matter?

When they turned the next corner, Shen Yuan saw light seeping out from the end of the corridor.

Shen Yuan glanced at Luo Binghe, who nodded quietly, before they headed towards it. The sooner they found Gui Mengyu, the better.

Although the inside of the hall was brighter than the outside, it was still dim. A sizable coffin stood in the center of the room, the lid off and leaning against one side of the coffin. Right next to it, Xin Mo strapped to her waist, stood Gui Mengyu.

Her head slowly turned towards them, her eyes dark and deep. A shiver raced up Shen Yuan’s spine, but there was no change in Gui Mengyu’s expression—no recognition in her eyes, no sneer twisting her lips, there wasn’t even a hint of her innocent act. She seemed almost empty.

Shen Yuan took an involuntary step forward.

“Jiejie?” he asked, looking her over, trying to figure out what was wrong. Gui Mengyu was bad enough, if Xin Mo had affected her badly, made her more unpredictable …

Her clothes were the same as those she’d worn last time, pretty, floaty pink, though the sleeves and hem of her dress were torn and stained. A pendant hung around her neck, inlaid with a huge gem that reflected what little light there was in the room, almost like it was glowing.

Instead of answering Shen Yuan, Gui Mengyu’s eyes swept over him until they landed on Luo Binghe. Then her lips curved slightly.

“You look like her,” she said. “Su Xiyan.”

She raised her hand, stroked Xin Mo’s hilt almost tenderly.

“Who is Su Xiyan?” Shen Yuan asked. This woman … didn’t sound like his cousin at all.

“I thought perhaps she lied to me,” Gui Mengyu continued, slowly sauntering forward. “It seems that was not the case. You would have done well, too, if you had arrived a little earlier.”

Shen Yuan felt Luo Binghe’s hand tighten around his own, and then Luo Binghe shifted until Shen Yuan was behind him.

“Ah, well.” She shrugged, as if she didn’t care. “Too bad. But it seems you will not let me leave without a fight, so I will eliminate you first.”

Luo Binghe unsheathed his (Shen Yuan’s!) sword in a smooth motion. His demonic aura grew, strong enough that Shen Yuan could feel it now, but Gui Mengyu made no sign that she’d noticed it.

Shen Yuan glanced over to the coffin, and his heart froze. A half-decaying arm was slung over the edge. He looked back at his cousin, noted the unfamiliar way she moved, the strange expression on her face.

“Tianlang-jun?” he asked, voice far more quiet that he’d meant for it to be. “You’re Tianlang-jun, not Gui Mengyu.”

“Yes.” She— he strode towards them.

“Don’t come closer,” Luo Binghe growled.

Surprisingly, Gui Mengyu—no, Tianlang-jun—did stop.

Shen Yuan’s mind was reeling. Gui Mengyu, gone … just like that? How? In what world would Gui Mengyu give up her body for anyone? She’d done so much, massacred their sect, their family, stolen Xin Mo, caused, no doubt on purpose, complete unrest between the demon and human realms, as well as between the human sects …

Had she miscalculated?

As if he could read Shen Yuan’s mind, Tianlang-jun spoke, “Mengyu’s plan was to bring you here, Gui Yuan. She said Luo Binghe would follow without a doubt, and that I, with Xin Mo in my possession, could defeat Luo Binghe and take his body.”

He smiled, humorlessly.

“Alas. You took too long, and the body I was in decayed faster than we had anticipated.”

“So you took her body?”

“We transferred my soul, yes.”

Shen Yuan’s heart trembled.

“She let you do that?”

“Of course not. It was necessary, however.” Tianlang-jun spoke with no emotion in his voice, as if the subject matter was the weather rather than forcibly taking someone’s body.

That couldn’t be it. 

Gui Mengyu couldn’t have grossly miscalculated it like that. It wasn’t possible. She couldn’t have been defeated so easily. She couldn’t just be gone. All those people, dead, all those years spent afraid, afraid she would suddenly appear in front of him again—for nothing. Had it mattered so little in the end?

Shen Yuan clutched at Luo Binghe’s sleeve. He was relieved. Shouldn’t he be relieved? So why … why wasn’t he? His mind kept telling him it couldn’t be true, that Gui Mengyu had to have some other plan up her sleeve.

But this was Tianlang-jun, not his cousin. Even his cousin couldn’t act that well.

Gui Mengyu had lost.

Gui Mengyu had lost.

“I’m not really interested in either of you. If you let me leave and promise to not interfere, I won’t kill you.”

Luo Binghe took his hand again, and for a split second, Shen Yuan was absolutely certain: if Shen Yuan wanted him to, Luo Binghe would take them away, leave everything behind and ignore the consequences of Tianlang-jun’s revival.

For that split second, Shen Yuan wanted him to.

“Who are you interested in, then?” he asked. “Who do you want to kill?”

Tianlang-jun smiled again, and it turned Shen Yuan’s veins to ice.

“I plan to eradicate the four great sects. For what they did to me. For what Su Xiyan did. At any rate, the reason doesn’t matter. They have to be destroyed.”

“No.” The word escaped Shen Yuan’s mouth before he could stop it, or think about it. But he didn’t need to. He wouldn’t accept that. “Binghe—”

“I won’t let him do anything Shixiong doesn’t like.” Luo Binghe said, his voice firm.

“Do you believe you could stop me?”

Before Shen Yuan had the time to process it, Tianlang-jun and Luo Binghe clashed. Luo Binghe pushed Shen Yuan back just as Xin Mo arched towards them. Demonic energy exploded outwards, so strong he stumbled.

He braced himself, tried to pay attention to what was happening. The two figures exchanged blows, dust and demonic energy mingling in the air, making everything unclear. He could barely tell who was who.

One thing was clear, though. Tianlang-jun and Luo Binghe were more than evenly matched. Without Xin Mo in his possession, Luo Binghe might …

With one more blow they parted, jumping to opposite sides of the room.

“Wasted potential,” Tianlang-jun said, disappointment oozing off his words. “You would have been a better recipient of my soul than this body is.”

Red trailed down from the corner of Luo Binghe’s mouth to his chin. There was an ugly wound on his shoulder, his robes torn, revealing pale skin and scarlet blood beneath.

Shen Yuan ached, wanted to run to his side and check on him—he couldn’t bear to see Luo Binghe injured.

The sword Luo Binghe wielded wasn’t a match for Xin Mo. Cracks were appearing along the blade. Another few hits like that, and it might shatter, even in Luo Binghe’s skilled hands.

Would Shen Yuan just get in the way, if he tried to help? He was just a Core Formation stage cultivator, and not a very experienced one, either—what could he possibly do in a fight between two overpowered demons? And yet his fingers itched to take up his fan, to use it, somehow, to turn the tides in Luo Binghe’s favor.

Just as his hand moved to brush against the guard of the fan, however, a cold and scaly rope wound around him, binding his arms tightly to his body.

“What—”

“You shouldn’t interfere,” a voice hissed.

Not rope. He’d been bound by a snake. A snake demon, half in human form, half in its demon one, separated at the waist. It was huge.

Ah. So when Tianlang-jun had said they had transferred his soul into Gui Mengyu’s body, this was what he’d meant. No wonder they could overpower her. It was two against one.

“My lord, this one—”

“Do whatever you like with him, Zhuzhi-lang. He doesn’t interest me.”

“Shixiong!” Luo Binghe called, discharging a bolt of demonic energy towards Tianlang-jun. He tried to jump towards him, but he didn’t get the chance. Tianlang-jun intercepted him, slammed his hand into his chest. Luo Binghe crashed against the wall.

The wall cracked and crumbled at the impact. Shen Yuan shouted something, struggled against the snake’s hold in vain.

It wasn’t fair. This wasn’t fair. Luo Binghe was the protagonist, it didn’t matter how powerful the adversary. No matter what, no enemy would humiliate the protagonist like this. Shen Yuan’s eyes prickled with frustration.

“Binghe!” he called, trying to get out of Zhuzhi-lang’s hold.

Luo Binghe pushed himself up off the ground.

“Let go of him,” he snarled, wiping the blood from his mouth. “Don’t touch him.”

Red sparked in his eyes, his robes and hair in a disarray, but he was no less handsome for it. His next attack was enough to knock Tianlang-jun off his feet.

“My lord!” Zhuzhi-lang called, coiling tighter around Shen Yuan, tight enough that he could barely breathe.

Luo Binghe crossed the distance between them in a second, sword slicing through the air. Zhuzhi-lang evaded, but his tail loosened. Shen Yuan wriggled one arm free, opened his fan and swept it down. A powerful gust of wind forced Zhuzhi-lang to retreat.

Then Luo Binghe’s arms wrapped around him, pulled him close.

“Mengyu was right,” Tianlang-jun said, as he picked himself up off the ground. “You really do value Gui Yuan highly. It is a shame that humans always betray demons.”

He wiped some dirt from his dress.

“You think you can trust him? He will go running back to his sect the moment you take your eyes off him.”

Though he still kept his tone even and cold, there was a bitterness beneath it that told Shen Yuan he spoke from personal experience. Ah. Su Xiyan, Luo Binghe’s birth mother … had she betrayed Tianlang-jun?

Shen Yuan looked up at Luo Binghe, at the wound on his shoulder still knitting itself together, the blood on his face. He reached up to wipe some of it off. At the touch, Luo Binghe’s eyes darted to him before he went back to watching Tianlang-jun and Zhuzhi-lang.

They could have left, and Luo Binghe would have been spared those injuries. If it wasn’t for Shen Yuan, Luo Binghe would be fine—wouldn’t be stuck in a fight he might not win. One he might not walk away from.

But he’d stayed for him.

That had to mean something. Shen Yuan’s thoughts were too scrambled to figure it out.

Tianlang-jun raised his arm and summoned more demonic energy. The air around Luo Binghe crackled, and he gripped Shen Yuan’s sword tightly enough that his knuckles turned white. Their earlier fight had made the walls crack, and a strange, sweet smell was beginning to fill the room. It made his nose itch, and he wondered if it was bad to inhale it—if perhaps the stone the Holy Mausoleum was built of was toxic in some way.

Luo Binghe stumbled, and leaned heavily against Shen Yuan.

“Binghe?” he asked.

Zhuzhi-lang slowly crumpled to the floor, and Tianlang-jun staggered, his face turning from surprised to enraged.

“Binghe?” Shen Yuan asked again, voice louder.

The smell—poison? Poison that affected demons more than humans?

“Shixiong …” Luo Binghe’s eyes fluttered shut, voice trailing off.

Footsteps echoed in the corridor. Shen Yuan’s eyes snapped up to the entrance.

Huan Hua Palace’s old palace master stepped into the low light. Blood streamed down one side of his face, but otherwise he looked in perfect order—apart from the hatred warping his face, making him look far older than his cultivation otherwise would allow.

He wildly swept his gaze over the room—took in the half-unconscious demons, and Shen Yuan, who supported most of Luo Binghe’s weight—and a mad grin stretched his lips. He started to laugh.

“I see you demons are at a disadvantage here.” His voice was arrogant. He was convinced he’d won. “Not so high and mighty now, are you?”

A familiar expression appeared on Tianlang-jun’s face—not Gui Mengyu’s, but formed on Gui Mengyu’s features, it looked the same. Scorn.

“You,” he spat. “Haven’t you already had your revenge on me?  Twenty years I spent under that mountain. What more do you want?”

The old palace master laughed again, an almost panicked sound, like he was hysterical. “Ah, Mengyu, where is he? Where’s that filthy demon? I knew I could trust you, Mengyu. Did he hurt you? This old master should have taken more care …”

Had he just … ignored what Tianlang-jun said? Was he so out of it he couldn’t understand what had happened? Shen Yuan propped Luo Binghe up further, letting him rest his head on his shoulder, one arm around his back. His skin was flushed hot, eyes bleary—though one hand had curled around Shen Yuan’s fingers, holding on as tightly as he seemed capable of.

“What did you do?” Shen Yuan asked. “Why are they like this?”

The old palace master’s eyes snapped to him, and filled with hatred.

“Is it poison?” he pressed.

“Yes. It weakens demons, not humans.” He sneered. “Though I would have guessed it would affect you, too, demon lover.”

Shen Yuan’s face twitched. For fuck’s sake.

“Don’t—insult—Shixiong,” Luo Binge said, the sentence choppy but actually quite threatening. Something in his aura stirred, and he straightened his back, though Shen Yuan’s arms were still wrapped around him.

The palace master took an involuntary step back, before he regained his senses.

“What do you plan on doing about it, Lord Luo?” he mocked. “The poison severely hampers your access to your powers—you’re weaker than even the weakest human cultivator, at the moment.”

He gave a self-satisfied smile, and then in a split second sent a powerful spiritual attack at Zhuzhi-lang. Zhuzhi-lang careened into the wall with a grunt, the fabric covering his chest ripped apart.

“Nephew!” Tianlang-jun moved forward.

And then the old palace master seemed to put things together.

“You! You! You stole poor Mengyu’s body? Monstrous filth, you deserve to be skinned alive and hung out for the birds to devour! You think you have already been punished enough? You stole my head disciple, disgraced her, turned her against her own people, you think it was enough?”

He practically foamed at the mouth, his anger eclipsing each shred of satisfaction or pride. Whatever affection he’d felt towards Gui Mengyu for helping him, he’d forgotten it now—he sent bolts of spiritual energy at Tianlang-jun without caring for where they landed, steadily stalking closer.

Tianlang-jun couldn’t evade, the poison rendering him helpless. The old palace master wasn’t as formidable as Yue Qingyuan, for example, but he was still strong. Spiritual energy shredded Tianlang-jun’s robes, and dark blood quickly stained them red. He crawled backwards to get away, the old palace master quickly catching up to him.

“You stole her!” he roared, and the walls of the room shook like an earthquake had hit the Holy Mausoleum. “You tainted her! My Xiyan! You made her betray her own master, and you think you have been punished enough? I should gouge your eyes out, tear your fingernails from your fingers, cut each of your limbs off until you can only sit there in agony for the rest of eternity!”

Tianlang-jun brought up a barrier just in time to protect against the next attack. His face twisted.

“Betrayed you? That woman betrayed me!”

“No,” the old palace master said. Some of his hysteria seemed to have faded. “Is that what you think? If only she had! She refused to have that leech, that embarrassment, removed, defied her master at every turn! You bewitched her! You—you!”

The more he spoke, the more it seemed like the old palace master was driving himself from his senses. The hysteria came back and his calm explanation turned into a rant.

“She drank poison and died! You as good as murdered her. You took my Xiyan away from me!”

Tianlang-jun’s expression had grown blank as he processed what he was told. “Xiyan … didn’t betray me?” he murmured to himself. His eyes flitted to Luo Binghe, gaze thoughtful.

But just in his moment of distraction, the old palace master brought his sword down in a sharp arch, spiritual energy slicing through the air straight at Tianlang-jun.

It didn’t hit him.

Zhuzhi-lang stood for a moment, swaying, above Tianlang-jun.

“My lord,” he said, turning towards Tianlang-jun. “Is my lord well?”

Then his legs buckled and he fell to the ground, blood welling from his chest, forming pools on the stone floor. A deep, ugly wound stretched from one shoulder almost to his hip. Tianlang-jun crawled towards him, expression frozen.

“Nephew?” He reached for him, hands pressing against the wound, trying to transfer energy to him, but it seemed to be in vain.

“My lord …” Zhuzhi-lang’s voice was faint, his face a stark contrast to his dark robes. “I don’t … seem to be … healing …”

He coughed up blood.

Tianlang-jun’s mouth opened and closed, not knowing what to say, or what to do. He reached up to touch his cheek. Zhuzhi-lang’s eyes fluttered, and closed.

For a moment, all was still.

Then the old palace master gasped and fell to his knees, Xin Mo buried deeply in his abdomen.

“You filthy demon! You’ll never get out of here alive!” His voice was weaker than before.

He doubled over, pain etched into his features, his eyes losing focus. He raised his arms, head whipping around until his gaze landed on Luo Binghe, and he stretched towards him.

“Xiyan … Xiyan, you came back …” he crooned. “Xiyan, come help this old master …”

Shen Yuan pulled Luo Binghe behind him, shielding his face and bringing him close. Luo Binghe nestled his head into the crook of his neck, breath hot on his skin.

This seemed to distress the old palace master.

“Xiyan, come back,” he called, desperate.

Tianlang-jun’s eyes burned with fury. With a sign of his hand, Xin Mo twisted in the old palace master’s gut, and he howled in agony, before falling into a heap on the cold stone floor. Dead, or unconscious, Shen Yuan didn’t know.

“Do not speak her name with your filthy mouth again,” Tianlang-jun said, sounding more like he sat on a throne in a grand palace than in a tomb, cradling his nephew’s body in his arms. Then he fastened Shen Yuan with an intense stare. “You are unaffected by this poison. Heal my nephew.”

Shen Yuan felt Luo Binghe’s grip on his hand tighten.

“Shixiong,” he said, tone warning. “Shixiong, take Xin Mo. I will bring us out of here.”

Tianlang-jun scoffed. “You are in no condition to use Xin Mo.”

“Shixiong.”

Shen Yuan hesitated. But Luo Binghe was feverish, and he didn’t think he was personally a match against an angry heavenly demon—it hadn’t ended well for the old palace master. He gently lowered Luo Binghe to the ground, and walked over, kneeling down next to Zhuzhi-lang.

Ah. Probably it was much smarter to just let him die.

But, well. He didn’t want another vengeful demon on his trail, especially not if they inhabited the same body.

He’d really turned into one of those gentle, self-sacrificing characters at some point … maybe his character role had changed …

Shen Yuan wasn’t good at treating injuries, but he took Zhuzhi-lang’s pulse, and then pressed his hands to the bloodied, open wound and began transferring spiritual energy. Zhuzhi-lang’s condition was bad. Anyone could see that, but feeling it gave him a completely different perspective.

He was quickly slipping away, the strings tying him to life fraying and snapping by the second.

Shen Yuan tried his best, and watched as the wound slowly began knitting together at the ends. It wasn’t fast enough.

“The poison,” he said, looking up at Tianlang-jun. “The poison is keeping Zhuzhi-lang from healing. If it were removed—”

Before he’d finished speaking, Tianlang-jun staggered to his feet and stumbled towards the entrance to the room. Shen Yuan heard an echoing blast from just outside. Tianlang-jun reappeared, face drenched with sweat.

“The poison should fade soon,” was all he said.

And he was right—Shen Yuan could feel the moment that Zhuzhi-lang’s own healing abilities took over. He stopped passing spiritual energy, sensing his own exhaustion.

It might not be enough. Zhuzhi-lang didn’t stir, and his injury would have meant instant death for a human. Even for a demon, it was serious. But some of Tianlang-jun’s desperation faded from his expression, like a weight lifted off his shoulders.

Then Zhuzhi-lang spasmed once, and stopped breathing.

Tianlang-jun’s relief turned to despair, and the jewel he wore around his neck let out a short burst of light. The despair froze, became confused, and he clutched at his face, letting out a low groan.

“Tianlang-jun?”

“Shixiong, get away from there!” Luo Binghe yelled.

Shen Yuan jumped back just when Tianlang-jun’s hand shot out to grab him. It closed around empty air instead.

Tianlang-jun slowly raised his head. There was a smile on his face.

A smile Shen Yuan recognized, that he hadn’t seen Tianlang-jun wear yet. A familiar look of scorn appeared in his eyes.

Ah.

No.

Shen Yuan was wrong.

This—this was no longer Tianlang-jun.

This was Gui Mengyu.

Gui Mengyu had gotten her body back.

Shen Yuan’s chest squeezed painfully, and he jumped backwards, rejoining Luo Binghe and helping him sit up. Luo Binghe still radiated heat, his eyes unfocused, but he clutched at Shen Yuan’s sleeve, his hands firm.

Gui Mengyu ignored them, and walked over to the old palace master. She wrapped her hand around Xin Mo and yanked it out. The old palace master twitched, and blood gushed out of the wound and over Gui Mengyu’s shoes.

She turned towards them.

But Shen Yuan wasn’t about to wait for her to kill him. He swept his fan sharply down, and a strong gust of wind slammed Gui Mengyu against the opposite wall. Some of the gems fastened in the wall came loose. The woman’s face painted on the wall, which he hadn’t noticed before, opened her eyes, and let out a high-pitched wail that made both Luo Binghe and Gui Mengyu press their hands to their ears.

He yanked Luo Binghe to his feet, put his arm over his own shoulders, and hobbled out of the room. Fuck that. As if he was gonna just wait around to get murdered! He’d read too many webnovels for this!

Shen Yuan walked quickly, but partway down the corridor he had to practically start dragging Luo Binghe. He was still only half awake. Gui Mengyu had started recovering from the poison much earlier—were her demonic genes just less dominant? Or was this a result of Luo Binghe’s wrecked primordial spirit?

If it was the latter, Shen Yuan would be having a Talk with him later. A very long, very thorough Talk.

But for now, he’d be happy if he could figure out how to get as far away from his deranged cousin as possible.

He’d carry Luo Binghe if he had to. No way was he leaving him behind for Gui Mengyu to do whatever she wanted with.

Luo Binghe genuinely did his best. He followed Shen Yuan’s lead, despite stumbling every other step, clinging to him like a small tired child or a koala. If his demon followers saw him now, he’d be ashamed. But Shen Yuan felt only a strange, worried affection for him. He didn’t mind Luo Binghe clinging, as long as he got better, as long as it helped in some way.

He wanted both of them to get out of this alive. If it stood between Luo Binghe, safe, and Xin Mo, he didn’t know what Luo Binghe himself would choose, but Shen Yuan would always pick the former.

“Wait,” Luo Binghe gasped suddenly.

Shen Yuan froze in his tracks, turned towards him. Luo Binghe’s arm slid down from his shoulder as if he didn’t have the energy to keep it up. He bent his head and coughed, blood and spit dripping down onto the flagstone floor.

“Binghe.” Shen Yuan put one hand on his cheek and raised his head.

He was flushed red, but at the same time deathly pale underneath. His eyes were reddish, too, and his lips almost blue. Shen Yuan’s insides clenched painfully.

“Binghe,” he said again, pulling him closer until Luo Binghe’s head rested on his shoulder. “Binghe, are you in pain?”

What a stupid question. Of course he was. But Luo Binghe shook his head, and just leaned against him, as if he thought Shen Yuan really could support him. Shen Yuan, who felt his legs swaying slightly, tried his best to keep standing, and started petting Luo Binghe’s tangled curls.

“This shixiong will take care of things, alright? It’s okay, if it’s painful, it’s painful.”

But Luo Binghe stubbornly shook his head.

“I’ve failed Shixiong,” he mumbled, words almost swallowed by the fabric of Shen Yuan’s robes.

Shen Yuan just sighed. “Take better care of yourself, next time.”

Luo Binghe’s arms tightened around his waist, pulling them almost flush against each other. Shen Yuan felt like he might be giving Luo Binghe a false impression of … something, but he was too tired to care about that kind of thing, and just returned the embrace.

“Who let you grow so big, ah?” he complained. They’d been the same height just a few years ago! Fuck!

“This shidi apologizes.”

Shen Yuan snorted. “I’m sure Binghe is perfectly satisfied, now that he’s bigger and better than his shixiong in every way.”

“No!” Some steel had crept back into his voice, and he shook his head firmly. “Not better. Never better than Shixiong. Shixiong saved me. Shixiong …”

“Hm? When did I save you?” Shen Yuan asked. He was trying to think. When was that? When had he saved the protagonist?? System???

Luo Binghe let out a soft chuckle. “Shixiong doesn’t remember,” he said, almost as if he’d expected it but was still disappointed. “It was a long time ago, so of course Shixiong would forget. This shidi is certain that to Shixiong it didn’t matter, that he would do the same for anyone. But to this shidi, it meant the world. This shidi … really would like for Shixiong to remember.”

Shen Yuan didn’t! Fuck! He was a terrible person! He racked his brains, trying to figure it out …

He couldn’t. What. Had he really forgotten something so monumental?

“That—that time with the Bi-Horned Leeches?” he asked.

Luo Binghe shook his head.

“The, uh, possession case in Liangli Village?”

Luo Binghe shook his head.

“That time you and Ning-shimei snuck out and almost got caught going back in and I distracted the guard?”

“No.” Luo Binghe didn’t sound exasperated, not quite yet.

“The time with that dream demon?”

“No.” There was a pause. “This shidi does not remember thanking Shixiong for that.”

“No need.” If Shen Yuan had a hand free, he’d be scratching his head. “When you lost your guanyin pendant?”

“No, Shixiong. Not then.” Luo Binghe wasn’t annoyed—or at the very least, he hid it well. Instead, he seemed almost … indulgent, like he wouldn’t mind if Shen Yuan kept mentioning various incidents, despite the fact that he obviously couldn’t remember the right one.

“Was it …” Shen Yuan frowned, grasping around for any memory he had that could be right. Then he shook his head. “Was it when—”

He heard a stone clattering on the floor behind them. Fear made Shen Yuan’s chest tighten painfully.

“Binghe, we need to move. We’re not far enough away, yet.”

If Luo Binghe was disappointed that he couldn’t press him for longer, he hid it well. They began walking down the corridor again. But Luo Binghe only made it a few steps before he stumbled, losing some of the alertness he’d wrested back from the poison.

He was too heavy to drag, to continue half-supporting him like this.

So Shen Yuan did the logical thing.

He lifted Luo Binghe up on his back.

“You’re too big for this,” he muttered irritably, shifting his (huge) shidi until it was bearable.

“Shixiong … Shixiong doesn’t need to—”

“Hush.”

Shen Yuan wasn’t the strongest cultivator in the world, he had to admit. But he also wasn’t particularly weak. Something like carrying his too tall shidi, who looked slender but seemed to weigh about as much as a car, wasn’t beyond his abilities.

The problem was that Shen Yuan’s own condition was worsening quickly.

As he walked as quickly down the corridor as he could manage, Luo Binghe like a hot brand plastered along his back, he could feel exhaustion creeping back, could feel the way his chest, his heart, his lungs were beginning to hurt. That pain wasn’t due to strenuous activity.

It was another attack.

Luo Binghe’s feverish heat couldn’t counteract the sensation of cold fingers plunging into his organs.

But Shen Yuan could ignore it. Just a little longer. Just until they got somewhere safe.

Luo Binghe, before he lost consciousness entirely, guided him through some of the traps in the rooms he stumbled into (thank you, golden protagonist halo!!!). At least he could be certain Gui Mengyu should have bigger issues with those.

Except, of course, she had Xin Mo, which … was bad. Definitely bad. Downright terrible.

Shen Yuan would have liked to leave now. Any time, System.

[Objectives have not been completed yet. Please hang in there and do your best!]

“That’s easy for you to say,” he hissed.

“Shixiong?” Luo Binghe slurred.

“Nothing.”

“Shixiong … leave me behind … slowing Shixiong down …”

“And what would I do without you, huh? I’d be a sitting duck.”

“Shixiong isn’t a duck.”

“Might as well be, right now.”

“Not a duck.”

Why did everywhere he went in the Holy Mausoleum look identical to every other part he’d been? It made it kind of difficult to get his bearings! And Luo Binghe wasn’t exactly any help! Who could reduce the protagonist to this state, huh? Why wasn’t his protagonist halo working properly? Wasn’t Shen Yuan the one who was supposed to be useless in this scenario, being cannon fodder??

If only this version of Proud Immortal Demon Way could follow the novel a little more closely in this case!!!

Instead, Luo Binghe was a dead weight on Shen Yuan’s back, and he had to keep stumbling on. He just needed to somehow fix whatever was wrong with Luo Binghe. If he could just find some place out of the way, far away from Gui Mengyu, no doubt that would be possible. Poison didn’t matter. A ruined primordial spirit didn’t matter. Luo Binghe was Luo Binghe, he wouldn’t be defeated so easily.

He couldn’t be.

Despite the Last Breath Candles lining the walls, none of the corpses had come after him—Luo Binghe’s aura still functioned. It wasn’t as difficult for Shen Yuan to detect now as it had been earlier, he could feel the demonic energy swirling through the air, keeping everything away. But he could deal with a little extra discomfort, as long as it meant he didn’t have to waste his energy on taking care of icky zombies.

He didn’t know what Gui Mengyu wanted with him, or with Luo Binghe. He didn’t want to find out. But he doubted she would just let them leave. The only thing Shen Yuan could do, was make sure Luo Binghe’s condition improved.

Shen Yuan wasn’t a demon. He couldn’t face Gui Mengyu, especially not while she wielded Xin Mo. No, he needed Luo Binghe.

The cold, aching pain in his chest suddenly intensified, until great serrated swords sawed at his insides, as if they tried to remove his heart or his lungs from his body—it was agony. Each time the swords plunged in and out of his flesh, parts of him were pulled out. Desperately, he clutched at his chest, but there was no physical sign of any injury. Of course not. It wasn’t his flesh being attacked.

Shen Yuan managed to get to the end of the corridor. A dead end.

Shit.

The only door that waspossible to open led into a long, dark room. There were a few coffins on the floor, all empty of occupants. But at the far end of the room, Shen Yuan could barely make out a dark pool of water, the edge encrusted with jewels, though many seemed to be missing—or like they hadn’t finished it yet. 

He hoped the pool was empty of occupants, too.

Shen Yuan unloaded Luo Binghe, setting him down next to the side of a coffin so he could lean against it.

Then his knees buckled, and he fell to the ground with a gasp.

The pain ripped him apart—tearing through skin and flesh and bone, grabbing at anything it could reach and yanking it out of him. It seared through him like someone had poured fire into his meridians.

“Shixiong,” he dimly heard someone say. A hand touched his forehead, slid down to his neck. “Shixiong?”

Shen Yuan made some kind of noise—he tried for an affirmative, but he was pretty sure he just let out a sob.

Then he felt something warm wrap around him, too warm, but his head was cushioned by soft fabric, and someone stroked his hair and it was fine, he didn’t care that he was on fire, if he could stay like this for a little while. He wanted to sleep, to fall into oblivion and leave the pain behind.

But he remembered oblivion, and it had been cold. He wasn’t sure he’d prefer that to the heat.

Wave after wave of pain washed over him, each wave more intense than the last, until it all reached a peak and Shen Yuan was certain he couldn’t take anymore. He’d die, he’d die if it kept going like this, there was no way—

And then the pain slowly faded, as if the fire had eaten through all the firewood and only embers were left.

Shen Yuan had squeezed his eyes shut, and there was something wet on his cheeks. When he tried to open his eyes, his eyelids were almost glued together. He extracted one hand to rub at his face, and discovered that, most likely, he’d been crying.

Oh.

How embarrassing.

He hoped Luo Binghe hadn’t seen.

Opening his eyes, finally, he thought for a moment that he’d lost his sight. It was all pitch black. But no, he’d only pressed his face against the black silk of Luo Binghe’s robes, and he could pull back a little.

Luo Binghe’s arms were around him, holding him tightly to his chest. Shen Yuan had to wiggle free in an undignified manner, but Luo Binghe didn’t move—didn’t even speak. The reason why became clear once Shen Yuan looked up to study him.

Luo Binghe was unconscious. His face was so pale he might as well have been a ghost, though he was hot, burning up—not dead. But his skin was dry, like his fever was so high he couldn’t sweat it out.

Fuck. The situation really couldn’t get much worse at this point.

Just as he thought that, his heart clenched again, and he swore at himself. Stupid. He knew what death flags were, and he still kept tripping into them! What kind of webnovel connoisseur was he??

The pain came back, but of course that wasn’t the end to Shen Yuan’s nightmare.

Footsteps echoed outside in the corridor, coming steadily closer, until they stopped right outside the room Shen Yuan had sought refuge in.

A pause, and then, “hello, Yuan-di.”

Although he’d heard Tianlang-jun speak with that same mouth, it was a completely different thing to hear Gui Mengyu’s voice. It lilted, like she was singing, self-satisfied and cruel. It was the voice he’d heard in his dreams for years, haunting his waking moments, disturbing his meditation to the point where Yue Qingyuan had been forced to step in—

Shen Yuan could admit one thing, even if it was only to himself: if he had to choose between facing the original Luo Bingge and Gui Mengyu, he’d choose the former every time.

The desire to run away consumed him, but he had nowhere to go, and no energy left.

He raised his head.

Gui Mengyu was a wreck, her dress torn to shreds, blood soaking through it, staining her skin. There was a patch of red on her cheek, and her hair fell loose around her shoulders. She held Xin Mo loosely in one hand, her other blade, the gem on its hilt glowing softly in the dark, strapped to her waist.

Her dark, dark eyes bore into him, swept over him, then Luo Binghe. The corners of her mouth pulled up into a cold smile.

“Yuan-di, won’t you greet your cousin?” she asked.

“… jiejie.” 

Gui Mengyu’s smile widened. “I remember how much Lady Gui hated that you called me that. After your fever, I thought she’d finally ruined everything. That you had discovered my secret, that my days were numbered. That wasn’t the case. You have no idea how relieved I was.”

Shen Yuan struggled to push himself up off the floor, gently extracting himself from Luo Binghe, using the edge of the coffin for support.

“Why say this now?”

“No reason. When I see you, I always feel the need to talk about something, keep you entertained.” Her smile disappeared. “Perhaps I simply want to show you how close I am to winning.”

Well, if she wanted to monologue like your average evil megalomaniac, Shen Yuan wasn’t going to stop her.

“Shame about Lord Luo”, she said, sighing, raising the end of Xin Mo to nudge his foot.

Shen Yuan batted the sword away, spiritual energy tearing through his sore, exhausted meridians.

“I really had hoped to battle him, crush him with my might.” She sneered. “What a pathetic, disgusting creature. So obsessed with you he cares about nothing else. He could have been useful …”

“What … what would you have used him for?” Shen Yuan asked. His throat was tight around the words, and he could barely get them out.

“Conquer the three realms. If only it hadn’t been for you, I’m sure he would have been easy to seduce, to control.”

It wasn’t like the Gui Mengyu of the original novel had been able to control Luo Binghe. Shen Yuan snorted.

The tip of Xin Mo quickly pressed against the underside of his chin. Gui Mengyu’s eyes had narrowed, and anger replaced the earlier satisfaction.

“Don’t laugh at me,” she hissed. Xin Mo lightly sliced through Shen Yuan’s skin, and blood trickled down his neck and into the collar of his robe.

“Binghe isn’t as oblivious as you think he is.”

“All men are oblivious. Lord Luo. Your father. You. You were all much easier to trick than anyone else. If only your father hadn’t felt so sorry for me, I’m sure Lady Gui would have gotten rid of me after just a few weeks.”

“Mother knew you were rotten from the start.”

The insult slid off Gui Mengyu like water through a sieve.

“Yes. She did. I’m a demon through and through.” She lowered Xin Mo, stepped closer and grabbed Shen Yuan by the jaw, forcing his head further up. “I’ll finish what I started, all those years ago. No one will get in my way this time, least of all you.”

Gui Mengyu grabbed Shen Yuan’s spiritual fan, snapped it in half, and chucked it to the other side of the room. 

Shen Yuan’s limbs were all leaden, and he could do nothing. His meridians screamed at him, but he couldn’t summon any spiritual power—he simply didn’t have the energy for it. What had Mu-shishu said? That the attacks misaligned his meridians slightly? It felt more like someone had yanked them out off position.

“You miscalculated.” He could barely speak, but did his best. “Tianlang-jun took your body. How did you take it back?”

“It wasn’t a miscalculation, not really. As if I’d let anyone just take my body for no reason. I needed him and his pet snake to lower their guard. I told them about Luo Binghe, but I knew it was likely he would not come in time. So I made a contingency plan. Just as, if not more, effective as the original.”

“You tricked him.” The accusation was weak. 

Gui Mengyu laughed. “Yuan-di, don’t you know? I trick everyone.”

That was right. Shen Yuan had a bad feeling about it all, couldn’t believe his cousin could be taken out so easily. And she hadn’t been.

“The old palace master, too?”

Her face twisted. “That disgusting brute. Him and his daughter both.”

How far ahead had she planned? Or was she just exceptional at adapting to a situation?

She let out a laugh. “I almost had you back then. When Luo Binghe came to your rescue, I had to leave quickly. But then you separated. I couldn’t believe he let you go so easily. Well, he hadn’t, and he was there to catch you, so I had to give up in the moment.”

Shen Yuan froze, staring up at her. So … she’d been the one who’d shot him and Liu Qingge down?

Then …

“It doesn’t matter now. Everyone I’ve wanted dead, is dead. Except for Luo Binghe. And you.” Her eyes gleamed, amusement and cruelty both shining in their depths. She took him by the wrist. “In this world, the only way to get what you want is to toil and bleed for it. Unless your name is Gui Yuan.”

Her grip tightened. Shen Yuan’s bones protested, groaned, cracked. Pain shot up his arm, and he stared at his wrist as it went limp.

Gui Mengyu let go off his arm, took the other, eyes still shining with an inner light. Shen Yuan tried to crawl backwards, but he was trapped between her, the side of the coffin, and the unconscious Luo Binghe.

The pain surged up like a flood, drowning him—and that familiar, paralyzing fear set its claws in him, too, rendering him useless. He couldn’t fight his cousin. He knew that.

He’d failed. Shen Yuan wasn’t a xianxia protagonist. He wasn’t even a xianxia character. He couldn’t live up to the original goods, either, who’d taken Gui Mengyu out before dying. No, Shen Yuan wouldn’t take anyone out. He’d just die, leave Luo Binghe to his fate, unprotected, all because of him.

His other wrist snapped. The pain was nothing.

Shen Yuan’s lack of reaction made Gui Mengyu angry. Her eyes narrowed, her lips twisted, and she tugged at his broken wrist until agony shot up his arm and he gasped.

She smiled, a heartless smile.

“I always hated you,” she said. “You had everything I wanted, everything I deserved. And you had the grace to offer me some scraps. You think you helped me? You think you were good to me? You only made it worse!”

She pulled him forward by his arm, until they were a hair’s breadth away from each other.

“Do you have any idea how badly Lady Gui treated me? The servants? The other disciples? How my clothes would tear, my things would go missing or break, how they would sneer at me, whisper about me, as if I was below them, as if I was nothing? They just stopped doing it in front of you!”

“You never said.” Shen Yuan could barely get the words out, didn’t know if they were understandable. “I would have done something.”

She let go of his wrist like she’d been burned, and took a few steps back.

“What do you want from me?” he pressed.

Gui Mengyu discarded Xin Mo, and drew her other—her original—sword instead. The gem was glowing, the light pulsating almost like a racing heartbeat, and Shen Yuan could measure his own pulse against it. Too fast. His heart was about to run out of his chest, and escape the pain. Shen Yuan wouldn’t blame it. He wanted to run away, too.

Whatever discomfort Gui Mengyu had felt from his question, she forgot it quickly. Her beautiful face had once again twisted, satisfied and cruel at the same time, like a cat who’d just murdered a mouse and brought it inside to show off to her humans, or like a half-demon who’d just cornered her cousin, giving him no way out, and forcing him to wait for his death in agony.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked, gasping.

“What do I want? Yuan-di, haven’t you guessed?” She slowly raised the blade and pressed it lightly against Shen Yuan’s chest, just above his heart. “I want the world to burn. If I can’t live well, why should anyone else?”

Shen Yuan’s lips parted, but he had nothing to say. Of all the motivations he’d imagined his cousin had to do what she was doing, this wasn’t one of them. Did she resent her lot in life so much she didn’t just want to claw her way to the top, she wanted to push everyone else to the bottom while she was at it?

“Don’t look at me like that, Yuan-di,” Gui Mengyu said. The point of the sword was so sharp it neatly cut through the layers of his robes. “Do you have any idea how much I envied you? You got everything I wanted handed to you on a platter. A loving family, abundant talent, recognition—everything Lord Gui took from me. Did he tell you what he did? No matter.”

She paused, paced back and forth. “So I took everything from you. It was only fair. But even then—a new sect takes you in, makes you head disciple, loves you. It makes me sick how much this world has given you.”

“You … left me alive … on purpose?”

“No. I thought you were dead already, that you were dying. I was wrong. That’s alright. I haven’t been wrong since. And in the end it was for the better.”

“But you want me gone. I was dead. Why go to all that trouble to bring me back to life?”

Gui Mengyu made a vague gesture with her free hand. “I needed you. To deal with Luo Binghe. You’re his greatest weakness. And I needed something else from you, too. Even better, now that your soul has been touched by a powerful spirit.”

While she spoke, Shen Yuan glanced over at Luo Binghe, who still hadn’t stirred. He was completely out, if Shen Yuan didn’t see his chest rise and fall occasionally, he would have thought he was dead.

When he looked back up at Gui Mengyu, she smiled. 

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What?”

“I know you’re stalling, trying to buy some more time. Wait for the pain to pass, for your lover to wake up and protect you.”

Shit.

“I don’t mind speaking to you. I always liked it. You were good at listening, when you didn’t talk my ear off. And there’s no use. It’s started already, whether you stall for longer or not, it won’t make a difference for you. You’re as good as dead already.”

What … what did that mean?

Gui Mengyu’s icy blade slid forward, piercing his skin—and his heart clenched, white-hot pain shot through him like an explosion, like every single nerve in his body was lit on fire, or had turned so cold it burned.

She still spoke, her voice vaguely making its way through the haze of pain.

“And you were wrong, Yuan-di. I don’t want to kill you. I want you to watch.”

Watch what, Shen Yuan wanted to ask. But his mouth wouldn’t cooperate, and then his thoughts became nothing, just a buzz of white noise and pain, never ending pain that washed over him again and again until there was no part of him that wasn’t hyper-aware of the sword slicing through his ribs, his heart, and out the other side, freezing and burning at the same time. He could feel the extremities of his body, outlined starkly against the space he existed in that he could no longer see. His world had narrowed to only this: the pain, the sword, and the short strip of warmth where Luo Binghe pressed against his arm.

His soul—not his heart, not his lungs, his soul—was pulled away from him, no, pulled into something else.

That was the last sensation Shen Yuan felt.

~*~

Shen Yuan didn’t open his eyes, but knew he could. At the same time, he didn’t know whether he wanted to or not. Not facing the world quite yet sounded like a good plan.

After all, he’d figured out Gui Mengyu’s plan. He wondered why it had taken him so long.

But he had a record of not recognizing important plot points before they’d already happened (Gui Mengyu and the massacre of Hong Lian Sect, as an example), so maybe that wasn’t so strange. It was easy to predict stuff when you sat behind a computer screen wearing your critique glasses. It was a bit harder when you were right in the middle of it.

Shen Yuan had unfortunately had the pleasure of experiencing that.

Gui Mengyu’s sword wasn’t just a regular one. Obviously. He should have realized what it was the moment Luo Binghe and Mu Qingfang started talking about his soul being pulled out.

It was a Hollow Sword, and had featured in one of Proud Immortal Demon Way’s arcs … at some point. He’d done his best to pay attention, but at this point it was a long time ago and he’d died twice. So.

Hollow Swords were, well. Hollow. They functioned like a normal spiritual weapon, by drawing strength from the cultivator’s spiritual power, with one key difference. A Hollow Sword could absorb the soul and spiritual essence of another person, which would then become the power source for the sword. Even an untalented cultivator could wield immense power, if they were scummy enough to use one.

Which Gui Mengyu definitely was.

Shen Yuan felt a light kick in his side, bringing him out of his thoughts.

“Wake up,” a petulant, familiar voice said. 

His eyes flew open to a dark hall.

The Dream Demon sat next to him on an ornate chair, glaring at him. Shen Yuan’s mood soured immediately.

“What do you want?” he asked, turning over on his side so he didn’t have to look at him.

“Are all you humans this rude and disrespectful?” Then he muttered, “no wonder those pesky half-humans are horrible to deal with.”

“Half-human s? Not just Binghe?” Shen Yuan turned back. The only other half-demon he knew of was his cousin.

The Dream Demon didn’t answer for a moment.

“… never mind,” he said, voice gruff. “That’s not important. The important thing is what is currently happening to you. The Ho—”

“Hollow Sword. Yes, I know.”

“…” The Dream Demon cleared his throat. “You do?”

“Yes.”

“Is it common knowledge these days?” he mused to himself. “Well. If you die, my student will be very unhappy. I would take it as a favor if you would cease dying.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“That is an answer you must find for yourself. I spent a lot of time attempting to find a way to resurrect you! If your soul is wholly absorbed by the Hollow Sword, that will not be possible. For the past five years, after you had passed, the Sword kept you tied to this plane, made it so that your soul could be recalled.”

“So, it was because of Gui Mengyu that I could be resurrected at all?”

“Yes.”

“If she wants a soul, why did she go to all that trouble? Why not get another one, instead?”

“Hollow Swords can only absorb one soul. Once she started the process all those years ago, that was it. Any other person she kills with the sword will have their soul pulled out of their body, but the sword will reject them, and the soul will perish.”

Ah. Wait. How did the Dream Demon know so much about this stuff?

“Are you working together with her?”

“…”

“Well?”

“No.”

Shen Yuan raised his eyebrows, and stared at the Dream Demon.

“It was a miscalculation.” He cleared his throat. “I thought, if only you were brought back to life, my student would finally stop obsessing over you, among other things. Gui Mengyu wished to bring you back, as well. We cooperated. Then, she had you imprisoned, and stole Xin Mo. I realized my mistake at that time.”

Shen Yuan wondered if he should feel sorry for the old demon. Probably. He knew how easy it was to be taken in by Gui Mengyu’s act. At the same time, he didn’t think he had it in him to forgive anyone who worked with her. He was even still a bit annoyed at Luo Binghe, his Luo Binghe and the original both, for getting tricked like that by her.

Shen Qingqiu wasn’t the scum villain of Proud Immortal Demon Way, it was definitely Gui Mengyu!

“Binghe will be angry at you,” Shen Yuan finally said, lazily picking at his nails.

“I am attempting to make reparations. Wake him up, so I may speak with him.”

“Why don’t you wake him up? We’re in his dreamscape right now, aren’t we?”

Shen Yuan looked around at the burned-out remnants of one of the halls in Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. All the wood had blackened, the stones were covered in a thick layer of ash, and in the little light that came in from the doorway, everything was completely gray.

It smelled like it was burning. If Shen Yuan didn’t specifically recognize this hall, recognize the feeling of Luo Binghe’s dreamscape, that oppressive, dark loneliness that made his heart hurt, he wouldn’t have known.

The Dream Demon’s chair was the only part of the entire scene that didn’t look like it had been set on fire at some point. He imagined that was because the Dream Demon had brought it with him, or something.

“I cannot wake him. He has damaged his primordial spirit to the point that he has become unresponsive. It is like an injury that he has not allowed to heal. Festered, growing worse by the day. This time he pushed himself too far, and he has sunk deep into his own consciousness. He will not listen to me. But perhaps to you.”

Shen Yuan shook his head. “Why did you bring me here? I can’t do anything you haven’t.”

“I brought you here because you were dying. This dreamscape will not easily give up your soul for a second time. It recognizes you well. My student, though half-human, knows what is his.”

“So as long as I stay here—”

“It cannot hold your soul forever. Luo Binghe’s dreamscape is crumbling. Even without Xin Mo pushing him closer to self-destruction, he will soon destroy himself. Then both you and he will perish.”

The pain Shen Yuan had experienced while awake hadn’t followed him there, but his chest clenched and felt agonizingly tight all the same.

Luo Binghe couldn’t die.

Luo Binghe was the protagonist. He couldn’t die. Proud Immortal Demon Way wasn’t that kind of novel. Of course Luo Binghe would survive ‘till the end.

Except …

Except the world Shen Yuan lived in had long since ceased to follow Proud Immortal Demon Way. Well before Shen Yuan even transmigrated, plotlines and characters had changed until they were unrecognizable. Otherwise the System wouldn’t have tried so damned hard to put it back on track.

Maybe, in this world, Luo Binghe could die. Maybe he wouldn’t outlive everyone else. Maybe he wouldn’t gather a harem of hundreds of flowers. Maybe he wouldn’t conquer all realms or extinguish all cultivational sects.

Shen Yuan didn’t want that to happen.

He’d watched Luo Binghe grow up. Luo Binghe was his shidi. He hadn’t spent all that energy for nothing!

… Shen Yuan … didn’t want Luo Binghe to die. He didn’t want Luo Binghe to be unhappy.

But more than anything, he didn’t want to live in a world where Luo Binghe no longer lived, too.

“Where is he?” Shen Yuan asked.

The Dream Demon didn’t answer immediately, but looked him over. “The center of this dreamscape. Go deeper, and you will find him.”

Deeper? What was that supposed to mean?

“If you make him open up, I can use the yin energy the willow spirit resurrected you with to heal some of the damage. But he has barred me out.”

Open up? What did that mean? What yin energy?

But just as he was about to ask for clarification, the Dream Demon disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving him all alone in the desolate hall.

With nothing else to do, Shen Yuan picked himself up off the ground, and headed for the door. He felt strangely light as he moved, like he wasn’t quite there—not so strange, considering big parts of his soul must have already been absorbed by the Hollow Sword.

He wondered how much of him was gone, whether he was still connected to those parts, or if they were gone forever, even if Luo Binghe somehow found a way to stop it from going further.

As it was, Shen Yuan didn’t miss the pain. If he had to die, or alternatively, become a sword, he’d be grateful if it wasn’t all that painful. 

He didn’t like pain, okay! He was a millennial, for heaven’s sake. The only pain he knew was the pain of getting up from his chair to go get more snacks, or the pain of his favorite love interest dying (unjustifiably!!!) before being able to confess her feelings. Even after years of living in a xianxia world where pain was second nature to most people, he still couldn’t accept it.

If Luo Binghe’s dreamscape conveniently let him be comfortable in his final moments, well. He wasn’t gonna complain. (Still didn’t mean he wanted to die!!)

Seeing the destruction of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, however, wasn’t something he could ignore. Even knowing it wasn’t true—that Cang Qiong Mountain Sect was fine, that it hadn’t been razed to the ground, that once this was all over he’d be able to return—a heavy anxiety settled in his entire body as he walked. Seeing the destroyed buildings, their timber frames rising like skeletons in the smoky haze …

It was just as bad as it had been the first time. Hadn’t improved at all. Even though the System said Luo Binghe’s blackening percentage had gone down, that didn’t seem to have affected the state of his primordial spirit.

Fuck. What an idiot. Who hurt themselves like that? Why had Shen Yuan made Luo Binghe hurt himself like that?

Shen Yuan should never have befriended him, if it meant he kept being hurt. In this world, things were different. Before Shen Yuan became involved, chances were everything would have deviated from the plot. Wasn’t that for the better? Wouldn’t it have been for the better, if Shen Yuan never joined Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, if he stayed away from Luo Binghe?

And yet, Shen Yuan couldn’t help but admit to himself, he couldn’t quite convince himself that it would be better. Better for Luo Binghe, probably. But Shen Yuan, selfishly, enjoyed Luo Binghe’s company, his food, the way his expression softened when he looked at him.

He didn’t want to go back and change what had happened, he wanted to make the present better.

He wanted Luo Binghe to stop hurting himself.

If there was any chance, any chance at all, that Shen Yuan had the ability to do that …

Of course that was what he’d do.

The center of Luo Binghe’s dreamscape was Qing Jing Peak. The cluster of buildings that should have stood there had been replaced (or perhaps blasted away) by a crater. Shen Yuan walked up to the edge of it, his footsteps crunching on the ash-covered ground.

Just like before, bones were buried in the ash. But as he looked down into the crater, there were no fresh bodies, no blood. Just Luo Binghe, kneeling, alone.

“Binghe!” Shen Yuan called.

He didn’t move, didn’t make any sign that he’d heard him. He didn’t make any sign that he heard anything.

Worry rose inside Shen Yuan, and he made his way down the slope of the crater. The ash, which had been a thin layer up at the top, became thicker and thicker until it reached his ankles. Ash fell from the sky, too, floating slowly down to the earth like snow. The scent of it coated his tongue, his throat, all the way to his lungs.

It wasn’t so strange that Luo Binghe hadn’t noticed him. In the crater, it felt like the entire world had fallen away, like there was nothing beyond it. No sounds penetrated the falling ash. Everything had turned soft, like a mid-winter night. Except more dead.

Shen Yuan stopped a few steps away from Luo Binghe. His black-robed back looked unusually small and fragile.

“Binghe?” Shen Yuan asked.

No response.

With a sigh, Shen Yuan came even closer, and lightly put his hand on Luo Binghe’s shoulder. At first, there was nothing. They stayed like that for what must have been several minutes. Then Luo Binghe seemed to come back to consciousness. His shoulder moved, flexed, beneath Shen Yuan’s hand.

“I told you to stop coming here,” he said, his voice hoarse.

Shen Yuan didn’t remember Luo Binghe saying anything of the sort to him, so he forged on, fearlessly.

“Binghe.”

He tensed. Slowly, his face turned to look over his shoulder. His eyes widened, then narrowed, and his mouth opened and closed a few times.

“Shixiong?” he finally managed.

“That’s me.” He gently squeezed Luo Binghe’s shoulder, half-expecting to be batted away.

But who was he kidding? Luo Binghe had never rejected him like that before, why would he now? Shen Yuan sank to his knees. They were close enough that if he just moved a little forward, they’d be touching.

He looked like he needed a hug.

Five years ago, Luo Binghe had never hesitated to seek out physical contact. He was sticky, always hanging off Shen Yuan in some way whenever they were in close enough proximity—often he’d make some excuse to come closer, when they weren’t.

So Luo Binghe avoiding him, like he’d been doing since Shen Yuan had been resurrected … Shen Yuan wouldn’t admit it out loud, but it made his heart feel bad.

“Binghe,” he said, softly, his hand moving up to cup Luo Binghe’s cheek.

Luo Binghe went very still. Shen Yuan felt his breath fluttering against his wrist.

“Binghe, ah, what have you done to yourself?”

“What—How—” He struggled to speak, and his eyes were hazy.

“The Dream Demon brought me here.”

“He did?” Luo Binghe’s eyes sharpened. Then he shook his head, and leaned into Shen Yuan’s touch. He looked exhausted.

“He wanted me to help you wake up.”

Luo Binghe shook his head again. “Tried.”

“Mmh. Okay. Then I’ll stay here with you.”

“No. Shixiong will be hurt. Don’t want—”

“Nonsense. I don’t believe that.” Shen Yuan gave a small, slightly bitter smile. “Anyway, it isn’t as if I have anywhere else to go. So if you don’t mind the company …”

“Shixiong’s always welcome,” he whispered. His eyes were drooping.

Shen Yuan knew too little about primordial spirits. He didn’t know what to do—could he pass him spiritual energy? Did he have to unravel some heart demon? Did he have to fix the damage? He had no idea.

He didn’t know if he could do anything. The Dream Demon had said Luo Binghe needed to open up … what did that mean?

But Luo Binghe’s fingers curled into his robes, and Shen Yuan wasn’t about to reject him—he, too, wanted a hug! Everything had gone to shit recently! He needed some comfort, and Luo Binghe was surprisingly comfortable!

“Binghe … could you promise me something?” he asked, gently carding his fingers through Luo Binghe’s curls.

He made a soft, inquisitive sound.

“Don’t punish yourself for my sake. If Binghe has forgiven me for hurting him, then of course I have forgiven Binghe for hurting me. There’s no need for apologies or punishments.”

“Shixiong,” Luo Binghe said, muffled by Shen Yuan’s shoulder. It might have been a protest, or maybe he just wanted to say it—Shen Yuan had realized that ‘Shixiong’ probably ranked as Luo Binghe’s favorite word. It at least topped the board for ‘Most Frequent Utterance.’

“I’m serious. Listen to your shixiong. I want Binghe to be happy.” He smiled slightly.

“If Shixiong stays,” Luo Binghe said, stubbornly clinging to the last of his consciousness.

Shen Yuan pressed his hand to one of his acupuncture points, and passed him spiritual energy. It might not help, but it also might. He wouldn’t know until he tried.

Strangely, he felt that smile still on his face, even as the hazy feeling faded, and the sharp pain from earlier began slicing his heart to pieces.

“I still haven’t remembered when I saved you,” he said, in an attempt at distracting himself. “So you have to wake up and make sure to tell me. And—and you still have to apologize to everyone on Cang Qiong Mountain for your behavior. I can’t believe you invaded.”

“For Shixiong.”

Shen Yuan sighed. His soul felt like it was being pulled in all directions. “I’ll kowtow with you, since I’m responsible, too. But I need you to wake up. Punishing yourself for something that happened a long time ago is pointless. If you have regrets, just do better in the future.”

He tightened his grip around Luo Binghe, almost desperate to stay, to not be pulled out of this dreamscape. However horrible and ruined it was, it was safe, it was Binghe’s, it didn’t hurt. 

He didn’t want to hurt.

“Binghe, ah, I don’t know how long I can hold on. So wake up for me, won’t you? Something like this can’t defeat you. Whatever you wanted to tell me all those years ago, why don’t you say it once you’re awake and all this is over? I want to hear it. So, please, I—”

Whatever he’d meant to say, he never got the chance. Luo Binghe’s dreamscape—his stricken expression—faded suddenly, like someone had switched the tv off in the middle of an episode, and he found himself in a sea of black that stretched on endlessly.

The pain turned on and off haphazardly, waves of pain washing over him and then receding back into the ocean.

A strange sensation. But after a short period of time, it settled into a compromise between extremes, which he was thankful for.

Still, it was really uncomfortable. Shen Yuan wanted to go home and sleep. He wanted to eat congee. He wanted to be lectured by Yue Qingyuan about reckless behavior and how it wasn’t fitting for a head disciple.

He wanted a lot of things he couldn’t have.

Shen Yuan was starting to believe he might never experience any of them again.

What had Gui Mengyu said?

She didn’t want to kill him. She wanted him to watch.

Were souls absorbed by Hollow Swords conscious?

How grim.

The first person he’d kill was going to be Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky, for making up the concept in the first place.

The sea of darkness that surrounded Shen Yuan didn’t stay empty forever. The pain was constant; a little like his body was holding onto one side of his soul, and the Hollow Sword had grabbed the other side, and both were pulling as hard as they could.

In other words, it was unpleasant. Zero out of ten, would not recommend.

But the more it pulled, the more Shen Yuan felt like he was being split in two, and the more he became aware of other things.

And then suddenly he opened his eyes and stared up at the blurry outline of a coffin. The coffin from the room he’d taken Luo Binghe to.

He tried turning his head, didn’t manage. For several minutes, which might have been seconds but they damn well didn’t feel like it, he struggled with himself. He didn’t fit. Everything was wrong and he couldn’t figure any of it out.

Finally his head flopped over to the other side.

And oh.

Oh, of course.

Luo Binghe had woken up.

His wounds had mostly healed, though his robes were still torn. Eyes blazing red, with Shen Yuan’s sword in one hand, blazing with his sword aura—a strange thing, that was unlike the sword aura he’d had with Zheng Yang, far colder and more frightening. Shen Yuan’s sword was a delicate thing, not really meant for extensive fighting, and Shen Yuan worried it really would shatter any moment. He liked his sword, damn it.

Gui Mengyu’s torso was bleeding heavily, her torn dress drenched with flesh blood. She clutched Xin Mo, and demonic energy whipped around them. Shen Yuan couldn’t tell whose it was, or if it belonged to both of them.

The Hollow Sword lay discarded next to Shen Yuan. He still felt that horrible, tearing agony, but there was a wall between the pain and him, and he watched it from a distance. Everything was far away, in fact, and he watched emptily as Luo Binghe and Gui Mengyu clashed.

At any other time, Luo Binghe would have won. Gui Mengyu was good, but she wasn’t good enough to defeat the protagonist.

But Luo Binghe had just woken up, he hadn’t recovered fully. His face was flushed, his eyes red and glassy, and he was agitated. No. Angry.

And Gui Mengyu wielded Xin Mo.

Whatever Shen Yuan wanted to say about her—that she was an untalented human cultivator, that despite her talent in demonic cultivation she didn’t hold a candle to Luo Binghe, that she was obviously a villain and of course she wouldn’t, couldn’t, win against the hero …

That was exactly what was happening.

Gui Mengyu had recovered mostly from the poison. She darted here and there, avoided Luo Binghe’s blows. She sliced Xin Mo through the air and demonic energy cut through Luo Binghe’s robes and his skin.

Luo Binghe’s eyes burned a furious red, and he hurled an attack at her—she couldn’t evade, and it hit her straight in the shoulder. She fell backwards, caught herself on one of the coffins, blood spurting out like in a cheap slasher.

Her lips pulled up in a smirk.

“The most powerful demon in the world, and this is all you can do?” she asked, contempt lacing her words.

Luo Binghe didn’t answer, as he strained to pull himself up. Shen Yuan wanted to go to him, support him, yell ‘can’t you see it isn’t a fair fight? Can’t you see he’s barely conscious?’ at her until she stopped mocking him. He hated it. Hated the way she toyed with him, because she had to be toying with him—otherwise, why were they still fighting?

Gui Mengyu wielded Xin Mo. 

But when Shen Yuan looked closer, her knuckles were white where they clutched the hilt, and sweat beaded on her forehead, soaked into her robes despite the chill in the air.

Maybe she wasn’t toying with him.

Even in such a weak state, maybe Luo Binghe was still too much for her.

They launched at one another, swords ready to pounce, and— 

Shen Yuan’s eyes blurred, and he blinked furiously trying to clear his vision, because he could hear them fighting, swords clashing, a grunt, stone cracking under the weight of the demonic powers unleashed. But he couldn’t see. 

He couldn’t see.

With a deafening bang, the noises suddenly moved closer. Wind whipped through his hair, tore at his clothes. Luo Binghe made a muffled sound, like he’d been hit by something. A grunt? A groan?

And then he felt something wet drip down onto his face.

Shen Yuan’s awareness of the room was strange. He was in his body, and at the same time, he wasn’t—and that other part of him couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything, despite having a sense of his surroundings.

Luo Binghe stood over him, he could almost see that. Gui Mengyu stood a few paces away, on the other side.

Shen Yuan pulled at himself. His eyesight cleared.

He stared up at Luo Binghe. At his straight back, his broad shoulders. The black and silver of his robes. The blade sticking through his abdomen and out the other side, just below his ribs. Crimson blood trickling down the metal, slowly gathering and just as slowly falling, hitting Shen Yuan’s face like a countdown—

tic tic tic

This was how long Luo Binghe had left to live. 

Shen Yuan’s heart turned to ice.

He desperately tried to move, tried for even a twitch of his fingers, but nothing. His limbs were numb, frozen solid and unresponsive, and all he could do was watch.

Gui Mengyu’s words from earlier echoed in his mind, and he wondered. Was this what she’d meant?

The sword wrenched out of him, blood splattering down onto the floor, onto Shen Yuan, like a dam had just burst.

Luo Binghe stayed standing a moment longer, wobbling. His knees buckled, then, and he fell down to them. Kneeling. He kneeled in front of Gui Mengyu. Head bowed, red pouring down his back, the metallic stench mixing with the scent of dead air, and it clogged Shen Yuan’s nose, coated his tongue, his throat, all the way down to his lungs.

Luo Binghe made a sound, then, not anything, really, but it pierced straight through Shen Yuan’s body, straight through flesh and muscle and bone into his heart, and broke it.

Binghe, he thought. Binghe, Binghe, Binghe, the name scrawled itself everywhere, echoed, whispered until there was nothing else in his head except Luo Binghe and the blood flowing from his wounds.

He felt part of himself slipping again. His vision blurred to red, the cold swallowed more and more of him. And the pain—like he was being torn apart atom by atom, each ripped out with only a thin connection to the rest of him left. A vague impression of where he was going. Cold, and dark, and endless.

Shen Yuan’s fingers twitched. The shape he knew was Luo Binghe moved, looked back at him. And he felt something warm grasp his fingers, envelop them from all sides, and then something else, something soft and slightly damp, pressed against the back of his hand.

Luo Binghe moved closer, a furnace compared to the air of the Holy Mausoleum, compared to Shen Yuan himself. He wanted to melt into the warmth, wanted to live in it. Anything to escape the freezing cold that surrounded him.

“Shixiong,” Luo Binghe whispered. “Shixiong?”

A shudder. Not from Shen Yuan, but Luo Binghe. His hand touched Shen Yuan’s cheek, and it trembled.

“The process is irreversible, by now,” came Gui Mengyu’s high, proud voice.

“Reverse it,” Luo Binghe snarled. “Reverse it, release him.”

“I won’t. I can’t, your excellency.” There was a smile on her lips, Shen Yuan could hear it. “A few moments ago, perhaps I could have exchanged your soul for his … ah, but I have no uses for your soul, your excellency. Hollow Swords are picky. They require purity.”

“Save him!” Demonic energy surged, shattered against one of the coffins, or one of the walls. The ground shook.

“You should be careful. Yuan-di is in a precarious position right now. Too much instability, and I’m afraid, well … he’ll just slip away into nothing.”

The careless way she spoke evoked a deep irritation within Shen Yuan, and he felt Luo Binghe tense, his hand tightening around his fingers. The demonic energy died down. Ah, what an idiot. It was never good to listen to anything jiejie said …

He tried to move, again, just his fingers, frustration mounting as he felt more of himself pull further away until the sounds around him grew dim, as his sight went out completely. The only connection he had to the waking world was touch. Luo Binghe’s skin still burned against his own. Was he dying, too? Was the poison, his damaged primordial spirit, enough to hamper his healing, enough to let that sword irreparably tear through organs?

“He’s as good as dead, Your Excellency. And so are you.”

He wanted to pull Luo Binghe into his arms, wanted desperately to protect him from Gui Mengyu.

One of his fingers curled around Luo Binghe’s hand.

“Shixiong?” Suddenly the heat came impossibly closer, slid over his chest and up to rest on his cheek. “Shixiong, I—I—I woke up. I woke up, so Shixiong can’t—Shixiong has to wake up, too. You said you would listen.”

Something soft and slightly damp pressed against his other cheek. Then lower, just brushing the corner of his mouth. Then it pressed against his lips, hesitant, almost shy.

If Shen Yuan had more of his senses present, he would have wrenched himself away. All the blood in his body would have risen to his face. Maybe he would have smacked Luo Binghe over the head and hidden behind his fan, the usefulness of which he’d learned from Shen Qingqiu.

Because Luo Binghe was kissing him.

That must have been it. But why … why was he doing that?

Why would Luo Binghe kiss him?

It didn’t end. An eternity passed. 

Then Luo Binghe pulled back, and whispered against his lips, “Shixiong, Shixiong, please wake up. Come back. I won’t bother you more. You can go back to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, you can do whatever you’d like, so please don’t leave me like this again.”

His breath hitched.

If Shen Yuan had anything left of his heart, the utter desolation in Luo Binghe’s voice would have ground it to dust.

Ah, Luo Binghe, he wouldn’t leave. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t … he didn’t want to leave. He felt himself slipping further away, even with Luo Binghe’s warm hand on his cheek, his warm lips millimeters from his own, that cold darkness swallowed more of him by the second.

He thought back, back to the expression on Luo Binghe’s face when he’d realized Shen Yuan had come back from the dead. He remembered how Luo Binghe had left so easily, just because Shen Yuan had asked him to.

The meals Luo Binghe had taken time out of his own busy schedule to make, every day, without fail.

“I’ll protect you.”

“He’s obsessed with you.”

“Nothing is more important than Shixiong.”

Luo Binghe had held his hand. Luo Binghe had kissed him.

Luo Binghe had tried to bring him back from the dead for five years.

Something clicked into place.

Oh.

Oh.

That—that—did that mean—what did that mean?

Didn’t it mean—that—that Luo Binghe—towards him …

Shen Yuan wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or cry.

Shit. Shit. How … how in the world had he managed that?

How had he …

Fuck. Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky was probably livid. The blackened stallion protagonist from a face-slapping, male power fantasy harem novel seemed to have gotten transported into a genre meant for a different demographic.

No wonder the System wouldn’t leave him alone, and tried to remove him from the story.

The only thing Shen Yuan had wanted to do was avoid his cannon fodder fate, even as he’d gotten used to the thought of his inevitable death.

But Shen Yuan …

He wanted to stay.

He wanted to live.

He wanted to—

Shen Yuan’s awareness had narrowed to a space that contained only him and Luo Binghe. But just as his consciousness seemed to slip away from his body, it expanded out rapidly like an explosion. An image of the entire room presented itself to him. He saw Luo Binghe leaning over his own unmoving body. He saw Gui Mengyu, standing above him, panting from her injuries, the air around her billowing with demonic energy.

Xin Mo rose into the air, ready to strike. But Gui Mengyu had been wielding the sword for who knew how long, and it finally had enough. After all, this demon lord Xin Mo was about to kill was its true master.

It froze in the air, and no matter how much force Gui Mengyu exerted, it wouldn’t budge, until it expelled a shockwave of energy. Gui Mengyu staggered backwards, and the sword fell to the ground.

Shen Yuan couldn’t see his cousin’s face, but her rage was so strong it warped the air. She motioned two fingers sharply, summoning a sword—not Xin Mo, this time, but the Hollow Sword, and sent it swiftly shooting through the air towards Luo Binghe.

He didn’t know what he did—and he didn’t remember it after.

Panic erupted in his mind, in every particle of his being. The fear that overwhelmed him before evaporated, replaced only by the desire to save Luo Binghe.

And then he—the sword—changed direction just as the edge of his blade cut through the skin of Luo Binghe’s neck, and pierced straight through Gui Mengyu’s chest. He felt her heart stutter.

For a moment all was still. Her hand stiffened.

A gasp tore itself out of her throat, and echoed through the hall.

Shen Yuan could sense her, the vitality of demonic energy, the thrum of her soul, just before it shattered into a million pieces. The last thing he felt was all his cousin’s hatred, every last kernel of it, turned towards him.

And she was gone.

Her empty body swayed and crumpled to the floor, empty and limp like a doll.

Shen Yuan, too, clattered as he hit the hard ground, slipping out of wet flesh and hard bone. He was cold and covered in blood—both the sword and the body that he’d mostly abandoned. Luo Binghe’s warmth still touched part of that body, and only a moment later, it flooded into the sword.

Long, strong fingers, calloused from both weapon and brush and zither, wrapped around the hilt. Shen Yuan couldn’t see him, but he could sense his presence, the instability of his meridians, his spiritual and demonic energy. But his hands were gentle as they picked him up, wiped the blood off the blade.

Binghe, he thought.

Binghe was alive. Good. That was good.

That was more than he could have asked for.

“Shixiong,” he heard, vaguely drifting through the air.

And he had the strangest feeling he’d ever experienced. He was laid down on top of his own body, and felt both soft flesh beneath him, and hard blade above him.

“Shixiong,” he heard again, clearer this time.

It was as if the proximity of both parts of himself let him flow more freely between the parts. Some of his sight returned, still blurry, his hearing, though tinny, came back—his sense of smell, too, which he could have gone without because everything stank of blood and rot and god he wanted to throw up.

Shen Yuan’s fingers twitched, curled. But senses were nothing. Luo Binghe leaned over him, desperation clear on his flushed face, red still clinging to his irises, eyes glassy with fever. Blood trickled down the side of his neck, from the wound Shen Yuan hadn’t been able to avoid giving him.

His vocal cords didn’t respond, but he wouldn’t let that stop him. He mouthed Luo Binghe’s name, instead, and the light that entered Luo Binghe’s expression was worth it.

“Shixiong!” He set his palm against Shen Yuan’s cheek, stroked his skin gently, touch so feather-light it barely registered. Again, he murmured, “Shixiong. Shixiong woke up.”

Shen Yuan hummed, and then proceeded to almost cough up his own lungs. Luo Binghe helped him sit up and stroked his back.

At least his voice wanted to work after he was done, and some more of his senses returned to him—for example, the ability to sense that he was in Luo Binghe’s arms, his head cradled against his chest.

Ah.

He suddenly remembered something.

His face heated.

“Shixiong?” Luo Binghe asked, concern lacing his low, honey-smooth voice.

Shen Yuan swiftly and mercilessly eviscerated his first reaction to that voice, and instead said a meek, “I’m here.”

But instead of showing Shen Yuan any kind of consideration for his sudden and inexplicable feelings, Luo Binghe let out a sigh of relief and bent forward until his forehead rested against Shen Yuan’s.

Too—too close! Too close, Luo Binghe, show some mercy!

“Binghe,” Shen Yuan murmured, his hands weakly curling into the ripped, bloodied fabric of his robes, somehow still soft despite the damage.

“Shixiong, don’t leave again,” Luo Binghe said before he could continue. “I don’t have to see Shixiong, but please stay in this world. Please let me exist in this world together with Shixiong.”

Shen Yuan’s heart clenched.

“Stupid.” He gently swatted the top of Luo Binghe’s head. “Stupid, of course I—”

He stopped speaking. Behind Luo Binghe, Gui Mengyu stirred on the ground. Her eyes were unfocused as she slowly sat up.

“Sorry to interrupt, but could one of you assist me?”

Luo Binghe whipped around, Xin Mo flying into his hand, and he pressed the point of it into Gui Mengyu’s neck.

“I’m not her! I’m not Gui Mengyu!”

“Unlikely.” Luo Binghe’s tone had gone colder than ice.

“No, no, Gui Mengyu’s soul was struck by an occupied Hollow Sword, it shattered!” She raised her hands in surrender. “But since the attack was directed at her, it left me alone.”

“Tianlang-jun?” Shen Yuan asked, looking at his cousin suspiciously.

It really did seem like the occupant of the body had changed again.

“Yes.”

Huh.

Oh, Gui Mengyu would have hated that.

She placed a hand over her eyes and sighed. “Really, to be tricked by a child …” Then she looked at Luo Binghe—and Shen Yuan saw none of his cousin in her. “If you do not want your shixiong’s condition to become untreatable, I suggest you take him away from this place.”

Luo Binghe’s expression flickered, but he didn’t remove the sword from Tianlang-jun’s neck. Tianlang-jun’s black eyes bore into him.

“Ah. You really do look like your mother.”

“My mother was a washerwoman,” Luo Binghe said, voice clipped.

“I see.” Tianlang-jun didn’t argue. “If you could use Xin Mo to bring us back to the room we were in before. I must see to my nephew.”

Shen Yuan could see that Luo Binghe wasn’t convinced by this situation. He didn’t care, though, and pressed his face against Luo Binghe’s chest.

“Shixiong?” he asked.

“Mmh,” Shen Yuan said. Fuck, Luo Binghe’s chest was really firm—what had he been eating these past five years?

Luo Binghe’s other arm came to wrap around him. He’d completely lost interest in the other person in the room—whether it was Gui Mengyu or Tianlang-jun didn’t matter. Which was why he didn’t notice the fourth person to join them, but Shen Yuan did, looking past his shoulder.

Zhuzhi-lang slithered through the doors. Though, even if he was a snake, perhaps ‘dragged’ or ‘crawled’ would have been a more apt description, because there was nothing snakey about the movement at all. His expression was labored, and he left a dark, bloody trail behind him.

Tianlang-jun, too, noticed him, and rushed to his side.

“My lord,” Zhuzhi-lang breathed. “My lord is back. Forgive this worthless—”

“None of that. She tricked us both. She took advantage of your loyalty. It’s alright, this lord doesn’t blame you for it.”

Zhuzhi-lang smiled, then, as he looked up at Tianlang-jun. His labored breathing slowed, slowed, until Shen Yuan couldn’t see whether it stopped completely.

“Really foolish,” Tianlang-jun muttered, brushing some hair away from Zhuzhi-lang’s face. “Should have stayed put, your injuries would have healed, then. All for that woman? Women seem to be the death of demons these days.”

He stood up, and gathered Zhuzhi-lang’s limp body into his arms, the snake demon dwarfing Gui Mengyu’s slim, rather petite size.

“I would like to ask you to let us leave.”

Luo Binghe watched the scene, his face blank and uncaring. “You do not intend to destroy the world, then?”

Tianlang-jun let out a short, clipped laugh. “No. I was angry—Su Xiyan’s betrayal made me angry. But now, I do not know whether she betrayed me or not, and I doubt I will ever find out.”

“Fine, then.” 

“Gui Mengyu told me, promised me many things. Ah, nephew, why did you bring her to me? Or did you not listen properly, because she saved your life?”

Shen Yuan couldn’t imagine Gui Mengyu doing that for anyone without a very good reason.

“When did she save him?” he asked, each word heavy and ill-fitting in his mouth.

“He’d gotten into some trouble with human cultivators. They sealed his powers. Gui Mengyu found him in a cave and removed the seals.”

Shen Yuan blinked. Oh.

So it was all his fault. He gazed at Zhuzhi-lang’s smooth, youthful, bloodied face, and wondered how far his gratitude had stretched for Gui Mengyu—wondered at how easily he’d served himself up for her manipulations. What misfortune, to mistake himself for Gui Mengyu.

“My cousin did not save him,” Shen Yuan said, then leaned his head against Luo Binghe’s shoulder, too tired to hold it up himself.

“No, in the end—” Tianlang-jun cut himself off, and stared sharply at Shen Yuan’s face. Realization dawned in his eyes, and he lowered his head. “I see. You and your cousin do look remarkably alike.”

He paused then, as if he was thinking, then he seemed to come to a decision, and turned towards Luo Binghe.

“I have rarely seen a person, demon or otherwise, who has damaged themselves to the degree you have. You must have discovered, now, that this situation would have proceeded differently, were you capable of using your full power.”

Luo Binghe said nothing. In fact, he didn’t even look at Tianlang-jun, like he wasn’t there.  Instead, Luo Binghe looked down at Shen Yuan, his gaze gentle despite his furrowed brows. One of his hands was around Shen Yuan’s wrist, two fingers pressed to his pulse, and he’d been passing him spiritual energy for the past several minutes. Probably to his own detriment.

Shen Yuan didn’t have the strength to stop him, even though he felt like a sieve and most of the spiritual energy was no doubt wasted.

Tianlang-jun let out a loud sigh.

“Since it is what it is,” he said, coming closer.

He said something else, but Shen Yuan couldn’t hear it clearly.

Shen Yuan turned his face into Luo Binghe’s robes, nuzzled against him. Comfortable and warm. The rest of him was just cold and painful. His eyes drooped. Ah. He was so tired.

“Shixiong?”

“Mhm.” Shen Yuan gently patted Luo Binghe’s hand.

“The sword—” someone said somewhere above him, though part of a longer sentence Shen Yuan couldn’t parse.

“Shixiong?” The voice was frantic, now, and grew more frantic each time he said it.

Shen Yuan’s surroundings turned fuzzy, darkened, until finally, everything was black. The pain stopped.

~*~

[Following objectives complete: Find Gui Mengyu. Retrieve Xin Mo. Resolve plot holes. Resolve Gui Mengyu’s plotline. The System thanks host account for his hard work!]

“Wake me up,” he said, in lieu of everything else. “Let me go back.”

[…]

[This System does not have the power to awaken host account, given the current state of host account’s body. The current state of host account’s body was not initiated by the System, therefore the System’s functions are ineffective.]

Oh.

He didn’t want to die. He wanted to live.

But the System didn’t respond. The tinny voice had faded away, and he was alone in the dark.

~*~

For a long time, Shen Yuan felt heavy.

Something pressed him down, or pulled him down, keeping him deep in the cold dark. The feeling eased slowly, sometimes he’d suddenly resurface and be pulled down again, but each time he moved higher and higher until he was light as a feather and floated all the way up towards the light and breached the surface.

His eyelids were a bright red, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the light, to no avail. He was exhausted. He wanted to go back to sleep.

In the end, his eyes opened, and he stared straight up at … the bedposts of his own bed.

His own bed on Qiong Ding Peak.

Sure, he’d been away for a little bit, but he wouldn’t forget what it looked like. He was positive he was right. Unless his memories were starting to get affected …

Well. Either he woke up on Qiong Ding Peak or he woke up in Luo Binghe’s underground palace. Both were fine.

Shen Yuan blinked a few more times to clear his eyes of the gravel that seemed to be stuck in them, then lifted his head to look around. Shen Qingqiu sat by his bedside, which—

Okay.

Uh.

Yeah, that was fine. That was … fine.

Shen Qingqiu had his eyes fastened on a closed fan in his hands, expression mostly blank except for a thoughtful furrow between his eyebrows. It didn’t take long for him to notice that Shen Yuan was awake, though, and his head raised to look straight at him.

“Shen-shishu,” Shen Yuan greeted, his voice too rough to replicate the polite tone he’d perfected over the years.

“You’re awake,” he said, as a statement.

Shen Yuan had no idea how to respond.

“This disciple thanks Shen-shishu for watching over him,” was what he settled for.

Shen Qingqiu’s eyebrows twitched.

“Your shizun needed rest, and Mu-shidi is occupied with other injuries,” he said by way of explanation. He sounded almost self-conscious.

“Is—Is Shizun unwell?” Shen Yuan asked, rising onto his forearms.

“Lie down,” Shen Qingqiu snapped.

He obediently did as he was told. Fuck. Shen Qingqiu may not have been the scum villain he was in Proud Immortal Demon Way, but Shen Yuan wasn’t going to piss him off.

“Yue Qingyuan has perfectly recovered in the time it has taken you to awaken. He simply needed to stop sitting by your bedside for hours at a time without sleeping, so this master convinced him to rest.”

Threw him out, was more likely. Shen Yuan very quickly turned his snort into a cough, but Shen Qingqiu’s glare intensified, and he stood up sharply.

“This master will retrieve your shizun.”

“Ah—this disciple thanks Shen-shishu for—”

The door closed with a click. Shen Yuan stared after him. 

He wasn’t alone for long, but it gave him the chance to look around for a bit. The room was exactly as it had been when he left, which had been exactly like it had been before he died. He wondered who, exactly, had kept the room clean and tidy, and made sure no one else moved in, or started using it for something else.

Although the names of several disciples rose to mind—Luo Binghe chief among them, as well as the most unlikely for a variety of reasons including falling into the Endless Abyss but no matter—the only one who was actually plausible was …

Shen Yuan’s heart did a little flip of some emotion he wasn’t entirely sure what was, and then the door opened and he looked up and Yue Qingyuan looked back at him, his hair crown crooked and his expression not yet composed.

“Ah, Shizun—”

Yue Qingyuan crossed the room with surprisingly few steps, and, before Shen Yuan’s head could catch up, enveloped him in a hug.

Ah.

Uh?

Huh.

It didn’t take long for Yue Qingyuan to stop hugging him, although Shen Yuan didn’t think he would have personally minded if the hug lasted a little longer. Forever, for example. But, actually, he also wasn’t sure he would have been able to take it, considering he could barely keep his expression straight now. He would have inevitably lost all face if it lasted longer.

Yue Qingyuan cleared his throat. He’d collected himself better, now, though his crown was still crooked. Shen Yuan decided not to mention it. Didn’t want his shizun to lose face.

“How are you feeling?” Yue Qingyuan asked.

“This disciple is fine. How is Shizun? What happened with Huan Hua Palace outside the Holy Mausoleum? Did—”

“One question at a time,” Shen Qingqiu said, who was hovering by the door, looking more like a concerned mother hen than a refined peak lord. Mother hen … uh … mother viper? His gaze was still on the deadly side.

Yue Qingyuan glanced back at him, his expression gentle, smiling softly and wow, okay, there was much less tension between those two now.

When had that happened? What had Shen Yuan missed?

Yue Qingyuan directed the smile towards Shen Yuan, too.

“This teacher is well. Once the palace master disappeared, it was possible to reason with most of the other cultivators, and no great harm befell anyone.”

“More like they realized they couldn’t defeat you and fled,” Shen Qingqiu muttered.

“Xiao-Jiu …” Yue Qingyuan reproached.

Shen Qingqiu’s eyebrows twitched.

“Qingqiu-shidi,” he corrected, looking mildly like a kicked puppy, and yep, now Shen Yuan felt a little more comfortable. This he was used to.

Shen Qingqiu lowered his eyes, before meeting Yue Qingyuan’s again.

“It’s … fine,” he said, very slowly.

Shen Yuan felt like he was missing out on a very big part of this conversation. But Yue Qingyuan smiled again, one of his rare genuine smiles, and Shen Yuan was so surprised by it that he had no idea what to do.

Yue Qingyuan cleared his throat again, and turned back to Shen Yuan.

“They calmed down. Huan Hua Palace’s head disciple seemed to be somewhat aware of Gui Mengyu’s true nature, and convinced the rest to stop fighting. Then Luo Binghe brought you out, said he had defeated both Gui Mengyu and Tianlang-jun, though unfortunately the old palace master had been killed by them first. Your condition was … severe.”

Yue Qingyuan looked away for a moment, before he took out Gui Mengyu’s sword and presented it to Shen Yuan. The jewel on the hilt was softly glowing. When he placed his hand on it, the glow pulsated, and he felt the pull inside of him intensify, like part of him was inside the sword.

“Mu-shidi managed to stabilize your condition, release some of your soul from the sword. However, fully reversing the process was not possible.”

“So, this disciple’s soul is—”

“Partially inside the sword, yes. Gui Yuan must keep it close. If it were damaged, or destroyed, it would be have severe negative consequences for you, as well.”

“This disciple understands, and will be careful.” He hesitated, but couldn’t stop himself. “What … happened to Luo Binghe?”

Shen Qingqiu let out a small, irritated sound. “That boy followed you here like an imprinted duckling. Even though he was asked repeatedly to leave, I am certain he is still somewhere close by.”

“This teacher can remove him, if you wish,” Yue Qingyuan offered.

Shen Yuan shook his head. “No, I—this disciple—”

Yue Qingyuan sighed. “This teacher understands Gui Yuan’s feelings. Very well.” He took his hand in his own. “If you desire to leave Cang Qiong Mountain, this teacher will not stop you. You will always be welcome back. Though if you desire to stay, this teacher will not stop you either.”

Shen Yuan floundered, with no idea what to say. 

Did he want to leave? He couldn’t leave, he was Qiong Ding Peak’s head disciple. Did he want to go? Go with Luo Binghe?

He … didn’t know.

But Yue Qingyuan didn’t press. “I will let you think about it. Mu-shidi will want to examine your condition. If you are well, you may leave your room.”

The implication of his words was clear.

“Will that not cause problems for—”

“There will be no problems,” Yue Qingyuan stated, with steel and unfaltering conviction in his eyes.

A shiver traveled up Shen Yuan’s spine. Ah. He’d forgotten. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s Sect Leader was actually a terrifying person, too.

Mu Qingfang checked him over and cleared him without issue, but not before happily letting it slip he’d been out for almost three weeks—suddenly the hug from Yue Qingyuan made more sense.

And Shen Yuan’s worry about Luo Binghe intensified. Had he been hanging around for three weeks, no one telling him what was happening, no one willing to talk to him? Thinking, maybe, that Shen Yuan was going to die once more, and he wouldn’t even be told?

Shen Yuan fled his room after putting on some clothes, and looked around. But of course, given his luck, he wasn’t exactly going to run into the person he wanted to see immediately. Qiong Ding Peak was like it always had been. All signs of the invasion had been cleared away, the buildings had been repaired, the gardens all back to normal.

Shen Yuan spent some time wandering around, with no particular goal in mind, other than giving Luo Binghe enough time to spot him, if he was anywhere close. He really did like the gardens, and it was just the right time of year for everything to be blooming.

Of course, he didn’t get to wander in peace. Almost immediately upon exiting his room, he was swarmed by disciples, who all greeted him with too much enthusiasm. He answered an endless stream of questions about his well-being and what Tianlang-jun had been like, and whether he’d be allowed to stay in the sect finally, now that the trouble was over. Those last questions were all asked by disciples with shiny eyes, and it made his chest feel tight.

He did want to stay. He was Yue Qingyuan’s head disciple. He hadn’t worked that hard for his position just to leave. And yet he remembered the desolation on Luo Binghe’s face, so certain Shen Yuan wanted nothing less than being in his presence.

“Shixiong!” someone else called after he’d extracted himself from one group, and Shen Yuan turned just in time for Ning Yingying to barrel into him.

He was almost knocked onto his ass, but just managed to keep from embarrassing himself that much by grabbing onto a conveniently placed tree.

“Ning-shimei?” he asked, a little confused.

“Shixiong, are you okay now?” she asked, her eyes wide as they looked up at him. “Shizun has been over on Qiong Ding Peak ever since you came back, so no one has told us anything …”

“If you’re not sure whether Shixiong is alright or not, why would you jump him, Yingying?” Liu Mingyan asked reproachfully, then saluted him. “This shimei greets Shixiong.”

“Liu-shimei.”

Ning Yingying mock-glared at her, but released Shen Yuan from her arms and brushed out the wrinkles in his robes she’d caused.

“My apologies, Shixiong.” She pushed something into his hands. “Shizun had this repaired and asked me to give it to you.”

Shen Yuan blinked, and looked down.

Ah.

His mother’s fan. The one Gui Mengyu snapped in half. Repaired … it would have been much easier to just get a new one. He unfolded it, studied it closely, and found no trace of damage on it. But it was the same fan, he knew that—he knew the scuff marks as well as he knew the back of his own hand.

He smiled. “Thank you. Give my thanks to Shen-shishu as well.”

“Considering how much Shizun is here, Shixiong might find it easier to thank him in person …” Ning Yingying sighed pitifully. “We must have done something wrong, Shizun’s hasn’t avoided us like this since Ming-shixiong accidentally set his hair on fire eight years ago …”

Shen Yuan doubted it had anything to do with what Shen Qingqiu’s disciples had done, and more to do with his own shizun, but decided against telling her that.

“Has A-Luo been bothering you?” she suddenly asked. “I’ve seen him wandering around looking like he recently lost his wife.”

“He hasn’t,” Shen Yuan said. “Ah, but do you know where he might be? I’d like to have a word with him.”

Ning Yingying’s eyes suddenly sparkled. “Well, I haven’t seen him today, but I heard some of Qiong Ding’s disciples say that he was over by the western hall.”

“Thank you. I’ll take my leave, then.”

“Of course, Shixiong!”

Shen Yuan hurried in that direction, casting a single glance over his shoulder at the two disciples—and saw Ning Yingying excitedly gripping Liu Mingyan’s hands in her own, practically jumping up and down as she talked about something.

The western hall wasn’t particularly remarkable. It was mostly used for storage, nowadays, and so Shen Yuan had little reason to go there specifically. But a place he did visit often was the small garden that lay close by, the one that Luo Binghe had built a replica of in his underground palace.

Shen Yuan tried to walk at an unhurried pace but couldn’t manage. What if Luo Binghe had left, already? What if he thought Shen Yuan didn’t want to see him, and had gone back to the demon realm? Worry filled his mind, and no matter how hard he tried to banish those thoughts, they wouldn’t disappear. 

It was with intense disappointment that he stepped into the garden and found it empty.

Ah.

He sank down onto a bench, sagging under the weight of his crushed hope.

He’d really … really wanted to see Luo Binghe.

Gravel crunched behind him, and he turned his head quickly.

Clad in black and silver robes, his hair cascading in waves down his back and one shoulder, the red mark gleaming on his forehead—Luo Binghe had appeared right on the path Shen Yuan just walked down.

His peerlessly beautiful face was set in a worried, or maybe hesitant expression, his black eyes not quite meeting Shen Yuan’s.

“Shixiong … did?” he asked, his eyelashes fluttering. “Shixiong wanted to see me?”

Had—had he said that aloud?

Blood rushed to Shen Yuan’s cheeks, and he coughed, just on the verge of saying that, no, of course he hadn’t wanted to see Luo Binghe—

But that wasn’t true. So he stopped those words from escaping. Luo Binghe shifted, as if waiting for his final judgment.

“I did,” Shen Yuan finally said, almost stumbling over the embarrassing words. “I do. I wanted to see you.”

Luo Binghe’s head snapped up, gaze intense, before lowering again.

“I thought you would bring me back to your underground palace,” Shen Yuan said.

“This shidi wouldn’t have known how to treat Shixiong. And … thought Shixiong would like to go back to his shizun, and would be relieved to not be held captive by this shidi anymore.”

Luo Binghe’s adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, and Shen Yuan found the movement oddly entrancing. Was every part of this man perfect? What the fuck??

Also, what was up with Luo Binghe’s defeated mood? Where was the ‘you can’t leave, I have to protect you’ spiel he’d been getting earlier? Hadn’t Gui Mengyu said she’d been the one who shot him and Liu Qingge down? If so, it wasn’t like Shen Yuan didn’t understand why Luo Binghe had brought him to his underground palace instead of to Qiong Ding Peak!

He … kinda wanted to apologize for some of the accusations he’d made.

“…” Shen Yuan sighed. “I wanted to see Shizun. I wanted to see Binghe, too.”

Of course he wanted to see Binghe, too, he added mentally. So what if he’d been dying, he wasn’t letting that kiss slide!

Luo Binghe stared at him, almost stricken.

“Shixiong wanted to see me,” he whispered, to himself. His fingers curled.

Shen Yuan studied him closer. He looked better than he’d been last time he saw him, and his eyes were black which … hopefully meant his primordial spirit was recovering. But there were dark shadows beneath his eyes, like he hadn’t slept in a while, and his pale skin was, well. Paler than was strictly healthy.

He wanted to ask about how he was feeling, but somehow couldn’t manage, and changed the subject instead.

“Binghe let Tianlang-jun escape, then?” he asked.

He got a nod in response. “He helped me. Shixiong would not be here, without him.” The corners of his lips twitched downward. “Otherwise, I would not have allowed him to leave.”

“He’s your father.”

“I have no father.” Luo Binghe’s tone was firm, and he lifted one hand to touch the guanyin pendant around his neck. “I had my mother. And I have—now I have Shixiong.”

Shen Yuan’s insides did a weird flip at that.

“Binghe—”

“Please don’t say anything. Please, if Shixiong doesn’t feel the same way, if Shixiong wants me to leave, please say nothing. I’ll understand. Whatever Shixiong wishes to give me, I’ll accept it gladly. So don’t say anything.”

His voice grew more and more quiet, until it was just a whisper, his head lowering until he was looking at the ground.

Luo Binghe … where had his confidence gone? What had happened, in the five years since Shen Yuan had known him the best?

Silence descended. Shen Yuan’s words failed him, and he could find nothing to say—he could only stare at Luo Binghe’s defeated figure, an uncomfortable feeling flooding his own body. 

Then Luo Binghe moved. He unfastened one of his two swords, and offered it to Shen Yuan.

It was very familiar.

“Shixiong, please forgive me for using it without your permission, all these years.”

He was carrying Xin Mo, now. Good. He’d gotten his golden finger back. Shen Yuan just hoped he’d be better able to control it. But without a harem … without even a hint of wanting a harem …

Shen Yuan felt his new sword at his side, softly humming. Mu Qingfang had explained to him clearly that it might be volatile, but if he learned how to use it, it would serve him just as well, if not better, than a normal spiritual sword.

Luo Binghe’s hands gripped the hilt of Shen Yuan’s sword tightly, and he trembled, slightly.

“Keep it,” Shen Yuan said, not quite hitting the nonchalant tone he meant for. Instead it sounded heavy, almost solemn. “Binghe should keep it. It’s nowhere near Xin Mo in strength, but I’d still like for you to keep it.”

“Shixiong, I—”

“Don’t argue. Just. Listen to me. I want Binghe to have it.” He turned his face slightly, to avoid Luo Binghe’s suddenly very intense stare.

It took a moment for either of them to speak. Then, “is this Shixiong’s parting gift?”

Shen Yuan choked back the scream that threatened to escape his throat, and took a deep breath. Apparently, stronger sentiments were necessary.

“Binghe, will you listen to your shixiong’s words and not jump to conclusions? When have I said I didn’t want to see you? When have I said I wanted to leave? Aren’t these just thoughts you’ve had for yourself, without asking me what I think about it? I said I wanted to see you, too, not just Shizun, after I woke. Do you think that means Binghe is ranked second in my heart? That there isn’t space for you? You’re smart, what is it about this you can’t understand? Staying or leaving, whichever it is, I don’t—don’t want to do either without Binghe.”

Luo Binghe’s lower lip wobbled, and regret washed over Shen Yuan. Oh, no.

His face turned bright red, as his words caught up to him.

He’d gone too far.

How … how was he supposed to recover from saying all that?? He wanted to sink into the earth.

Luo Binghe wasn’t saying anything, and Shen Yuan, after an awkward, extended silence, peeked up at him.

Disbelief was written all over Luo Binghe’s features.

“Shixiong … wants to be with me?”

Shen Yuan’s face heated even more, if possible. “Of—of course I—yes.”  

“Oh.”

Luo Binghe said nothing else, but instead closed the distance between them with inhuman speed, and pulled Shen Yuan into a tight embrace. Despite himself, Shen Yuan’s body relaxed completely, and he let himself melt against Luo Binghe’s firm chest. Soft, unclear words were murmured into his hair, but he didn’t mind. Warmth engulfed him, drove out everything else.

“Shixiong,” Luo Binghe whispered. “Shixiong.”

“Mhm, I’m here.”

“You’re here,” he repeated, as if he marveled at the fact. “You’re here.”

Luo Binghe kissed him—chaste little kisses to his lips, his forehead, his cheeks, his nose, until all the breath had left Shen Yuan’s lungs and he felt like he was soaring. 

Shen Yuan pushed at his chest so he took a step back, far enough that he could look up at his face and the tender expression he wore. His heart skipped a beat.

“Shixiong, before, you asked me to tell you what I meant to say all those years ago,” There was a small, uncertain smile on his lips. “Do you still want to hear it?”

“Do you still want to tell me?”

“Yes.”

Shen Yuan took Luo Binghe’s hand and tangled their fingers together. He returned the smile.

“Then I’ll listen. This time, I’ll listen to you.”