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When Shen Yuan came to, he noticed immediately that something was off. Something about the air, perhaps, the mattress he was lying on, and the sheets clenched between his fingers. His body ached, his limbs felt heavy, but when he opened his eyes, it was to an unfamiliar ceiling, an unfamiliar bed, an unfamiliar room.

He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there.

Decidedly not good. Not good at all.

Little fireworks of panic set off in his mind.

Had he been kidnapped? Had he been in an accident, and some kind soul brought him back to their house?

Had … had he transmigrated?

Shen Yuan lifted his head to get a better look at his surroundings just as the door opened, and in his rush he slammed his head back on the hard pillow on his bed (why was it hard? Pillows weren’t supposed to be hard?!?).

He clutched at his head, clenching his eyes shut as the initial sharp pain dulled. A cool hand pressed against his forehead, and he heard a soft, worried sound. The hand then moved to his hair, and began stroking it gently. He went very still.

“Oh, A-Yuan,” a woman’s voice murmured. “I thought my A-Yuan would never wake up again.”

The last time Shen Yuan’s mother had touched him like this was … a very long time ago. He was on the verge of asking her how he’d ended up in the hospital again, but stopped himself. What kind of hospital was it, that looked more like the set of a Qing-dynasty drama than anything else?

Most importantly, the woman who was currently petting his hair was not his mother. She was just as unfamiliar as the room, and kidnapping seemed more and more likely. There were all kinds of weirdos out there who abducted people, drugged them, and tried to pretend they were their parents.

All of Shen Yuan’s muscles tensed, but instead of letting go, the woman pulled him closer, so his head rested against her collar.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, the worry in her tone so genuine Shen Yuan wasn’t sure what to make of it.

He coughed slightly, throat bone-dry. “Mo—mother?” he tried, hesitant.

“Mm-hmm, it’s me, A-Yuan. You had a terrible fever.” She sniffled. “The physicians … they were uncertain if—if you would recover.”

While she spoke, she relaxed her grip slightly, giving Shen Yuan the chance to study her. His ‘mother’ wore a light purple silk dress with elaborate embroidery and long sleeves, her black hair was put up in a complicated style, several expensive-looking hairpins artfully arranged in it—looking not unlike a character from one of those dramas his sister liked to watch. Though she had a very pretty, noble sort of appearance, she also couldn’t be his mother; she barely looked older than Shen Yuan.

The thing was, the silk didn’t feel like that flimsy, fake stuff they used for cheap costumes, and the embroidery wasn’t glued on, but proper needlework, and Shen Yuan had seen enough cosplay to know those jade hairpins weren’t made from plastic.

He was hard-pressed to think of anyone who’d go to such lengths to kidnap him … unless they really were freaks.

And he definitely wasn’t dreaming, the pain from that porcelain (!!!) pillow hadn’t gone away yet.

Which meant … he’d really transmigrated?

A mix of disbelief, panic, and elation burst inside his chest.

Shen Yuan had read too many transmigration novels to not know what to do, and, with some difficulty, smoothed his face out as he considered the situation. He wasn’t going to blabber about film-sets or how realistic the clothes were, that was the worst mistake a transmigrator could make. First things first, he had to get an overview of everything.

Who was he, where was he? His name still seemed to be Yuan, he had at least a mother who cared for him and who had enough money for physicians, in plural, to care for him when he was sick—did the original occupant of his body die in that fever?

A stab of guilt went through him when he looked up at the relieved expression on his newly-acquired mother’s face.

She hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, but he’d also only been there for what amounted to five minutes. What would she do, once—if—she noticed?

The scent of something bitter, herbal, maybe, was thick in the air, and incense holders emitted a fragrance he couldn’t identify into the room. His mother stood up, and briefly opened a pair of doors, showing off a glimpse of a courtyard garden and gabled rooftops outside. He was in some kind of an ancient setting.

Had Shen Yuan transmigrated into the past? Into a different world?? Into a novel???

Why couldn’t he have gotten one of those systems to tell him what was going on?

Of course the main character of a novel would have an easier time than a real person … what was he thinking?

At least there was a very low chance he’d transmigrated into Proud Immortal Demon Way. Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky would have a fucking field day if he heard his number one anti-fan got stuck in his trashy webnovel.

The last thing he remembered was everything going dark after … what had he been doing? What happened before that?

Shen Yuan had a sinking feeling that even if he managed to return to his original world, there wasn’t anything to return to.

Well. He just had to act natural until he figured out what was going on.

Shen Yuan’s ‘mother’ didn’t leave, and kept looking at him, her dark eyes wide like she couldn’t believe he was still alive. She repeated ‘A-Yuan, A-Yuan’ like that was the only word she knew. She wiped his forehead and brushed long strands of hair away from his face and neck. He was struck with a sudden, overwhelming desire to know what he looked like.

If his mother in this world was this pretty, didn’t it mean he’d be pretty, too?

A bronze mirror stood on a table by the wall, but it was angled wrong and was too far away to give him much to work with—from where he sat, he could only see two pale, dark-haired figures reflected in its surface.

After a few minutes of glancing at it, his mother stood up and brought it closer.

“You look a little tired, since you have been ill for the past three days,” she said apologetically. “But mother is certain you will recover perfectly.”

Why … was she worried about how he’d react when he saw his own reflection? Had he transmigrated into—into some kind of a narcissist?

Shen Yuan couldn’t ask, and studied his reflection, instead. It wasn’t as clear as it would have been in a modern mirror, but it was good enough. This A-Yuan, though he was indeed haggard after three days of illness, was a good-looking young teenager. He took after his mother. They had the same large, dark eyes and gently curved eyebrows, the same thin, straight nose, the same high cheekbones. All in all, A-Yuan was very pretty, maybe even pretty enough to be a main character, or a main love interest!

Although … that was probably way beyond Shen Yuan’s luck …

But he was pretty and obviously wealthy, so unless he was some sort of scum villain, or part of the tragic backstory of a main (female) character, he’d probably have a good life if he was careful.

If he could just figure out what setting he was in …

~*~

It didn’t take Shen Yuan more than a few days to get a rough idea—mostly because his father, Lord Gui, stormed into his room (he stormed everywhere, it was his most notable characteristic) the morning after he woke up.

“Gui Yuan, have you rolled around in bed for long enough now?” he boomed, voice echoing, which was impressive considering he was only a slightly larger-than-average man.

His mother, in a fit of motherly protectiveness that Shen Yuan had never experienced before in either of his lives, verbally tore him to shreds. Lord Gui was successfully cowed, although he still muttered something about ‘lessons’ and ‘sword practice.’

“What will you do if his foundation establishment is harmed by not recovering properly? Are you going to cripple his development? You have the nerve to not give me any more sons, and you still want to hurt the only one you have?”

The entire conversation, which ended in his mother bursting into tears and Lord Gui fleeing, after awkwardly patting her shoulder a few times, told Shen Yuan two things. One was that he was in some sort of xianxia setting, and he buzzed with excitement. Two was that his mother was terrifying, and possibly the best relative Shen Yuan had ever had, cheaply acquired or not.

By listening to people talking (his mother, the servants, others who visited him occasionally), he found out that Gui Yuan was the only son of Lord Gui, the master of a small but wealthy cultivational sect called Hong Lian. It was located on a mountain cliff that stuck out over a large, dark, placid lake. Most of the disciples were Gui Yuan’s cousins, which apparently wasn’t common in other sects in this world. Other than that, most of the gossip he heard was useless. He didn’t know most of the people or places they were talking about! Please … be more considerate of his lack of knowledge …

One day a young woman followed his mother into Shen Yuan’s room. She was beautiful, with a shy smile and softly flushed cheeks, and Shen Yuan had a small, short burst of panic. Was she the female lead? She looked exactly like the traditional white lotus type, which meant she’d have to go through hardships … and weren’t those hardships always ‘her entire family was killed’ or ‘she was betrayed and thrown out by her family because of some scheme set in motion by her jealous step-sister’???

“A-Yuan, your older cousin wanted to pay you a visit,” his mother said, sitting down by the bed. Her expression was cooler than normal.

“Older cousin,” he greeted, keeping his voice calm.

Something flashed in the girl’s eyes—did he not usually call her that? Was his tone too cold? Shit. He hadn’t messed up so far, did he really give himself away with just one greeting?

But she didn’t say anything, only bent her head slightly.

“Will you be returning to lessons soon?” she asked, as she studied him, frowning slightly like she was worried.

“Not until he’s properly recovered,” his mother said.

“Of course! Younger cousin is talented, he won’t fall behind even if he rests for longer!”

The attempt at praise didn’t make his mother react at all. She rifled through the box she’d brought, and let out a sigh.

“I forgot it. Excuse me for a moment. Mengyu, please don’t let A-Yuan get out of bed.”

She left, and the two of them were alone. Neither spoke for a moment, but Mengyu looked like she was waiting for something.

Then, suddenly, eyes tearing up a bit: “Yuan-di, has Mengyu done something wrong? Has … has aunt … I know aunt only wants what’s best for Yuan-di, but has she finally convinced you to distance yourself from me?”

Shen Yuan … had absolutely no idea how to respond.

“Older cousin,” he began, but watched in horror as Mengyu sank to the floor, distressed.

“Yuan-di won’t call me jiejie even in private?”

“Jie—jiejie.”

The smile that bloomed on her face was blinding, which faded into a smaller one the moment Shen Yuan’s mother returned. Ah. There was some kind of story there.

Shen Yuan had always criticized transmigrators in novels for not doing enough research, not asking questions, and just going with the flow. He hadn’t realized how difficult it was to do anything. Most of the questions he wanted to ask, he had no idea if he should already know the answer to. Because he couldn’t return to his lessons yet, he didn’t have access to any books that might give him for information, and his mother had expressly forbidden him from doing anything strenuous while the physicians still had him confined to bed rest. That included reading. How could he find anything out like this?

Every morning his mother would come sit with him for a few hours. She’d read some stories or play a few songs on the guqin, and sometimes, when she couldn’t ignore the restless expression on his face, would let him play a little, too.

Though Shen Yuan had never played a single instrument in his life, Gui Yuan’s talent flowed through his fingertips with such ease it made him regret it. His real parents would have been delighted if spent his time on that instead of on webnovels.

Gui Mengyu, his cousin, would sneak in on occasion, too, and would recite new poetry she’d learned and thought he’d enjoy, and bring gifts—little sweets, pretty trinkets, and the like. Through that it was easy to figure out what kind of person Gui Yuan was. Talented, a bit of a narcissist, with a sweet tooth the size of a small country and a penchant for frequently replacing his things with newer, shinier versions.

The fact that no one realized Gui Yuan wasn’t there anymore made Shen Yuan’s heart ache. Even Gui Mengyu and his mother didn’t seem to know him well enough to notice the difference.

But Shen Yuan could do nothing about it, and he was comfortable. After a few days of this he decided he’d just get used to it. It wasn’t important where he’d transmigrated. If he was going to be treated like a pampered young master, why not take advantage of it, and live a carefree life?

By the time he could slowly start returning to his lessons, he’d almost forgotten that he’d transmigrated at all, and didn’t bother scouring the books and piecing together the information he found. It didn’t seem like he was in any webnovel he recognized (and wasn’t that a blessing), so why worry? He could just live out the rest of his many days in peace and luxury, maybe exorcise a ghost here and kill a demon there, if he felt like it.

It wasn’t until more than six months after his transmigration that Shen Yuan realized he should have been paying more attention.

If he had, things might have ended differently.

One night, Shen Yuan woke up early enough that it was still dark. He frowned and stared out at his room, faintly lit up by some night pearls, trying to figure out why he wasn’t still asleep.

Then he heard muffled sounds from outside, a groan, and just as he was about to get out of bed, someone crashed into his room and collapsed on the floor.

“Young master,” the servant said, gasping, “young master, run, get out of here!”

Shen Yuan jumped to his side, carefully turning him over. Blood streamed from his nose and mouth, and every time he breathed there was a gurgling sound.

“Run!” the servant repeated, eyes rolling back in his skull.

He took one more shuddering breath, and went still.

Shen Yuan shook him. No response.

Blood had soaked into his white inner robes. He felt lightheaded, like the room was spinning, and had to remind himself to breathe. In, out.

What was happening? This wasn’t supposed to happen!

Wasn’t he supposed to live a carefree life?

He stood up, pulled on an outer robe, and rushed out of his room. He had to find his mother and Gui Mengyu. If, if there was some kind of intruder, he had to make sure—he had to make sure they were okay. Lord Gui could handle himself, but what if something happened to his mother? To his cousin?

It was dark, but not quiet; Shen Yuan heard shouting from the other side of the compound, over by the grand Hong Lian hall. Something had attacked, but what? He hadn’t been able to tell from the servant’s injuries. He was still mulling it over when his foot caught in something soft and he stumbled to the ground.

Shen Yuan groaned, hands and knees stinging from the impact, and looked up.

Corpses littered the path, blood flowing freely and coloring the the ground black, pooling around bodies and severed body-parts.

They were still warm.

The metallic stench filled his nostrils and twisted down into his stomach, and he retched.

Something dark and heavy was in the air, and it pressed at him from every side, like he was underwater. He didn’t know what it was, but his insides went cold.

Shen Yuan pushed himself up, and tried to ignore what covered the path as he ran towards his mother’s room.

She was out in her courtyard when he got there, back to him, kneeling next to a body that was chillingly familiar.

“Mother?” Shen Yuan whispered.

Her head whipped around, eyes going wide then narrowing again.

“A-Yuan, you need to run,” she said, voice sharp and detached.

She stood up and marched towards him, pushing something into his hands.

“Run. While there’s still time. Go down into the city and send for help.”

“Mother, I—” he started to protest, he didn’t know who to send for, he didn’t know how far away the city was, but Lord Gui’s unseeing eyes stared straight into him. His throat tightened around the words.

“Go!” Then her tone turned deadly: “You!”

A shadowed figure stood by the gate into the courtyard. Dark energy crackled in the air, and a split second later his mother pushed him to the ground, the attack slamming into one of the walls instead of into him.

“How dare you, you ungrateful whelp—”

Shen Yuan was clutching his mother’s spiritual fan. She didn’t have another weapon. He heard her groan as she used her body to block the next attack, saw her legs give out as she slumped to the ground.

Her torso was almost cut in half.

He crawled towards her and took her hand in his.

“Mother?” he asked. “Mother? Wake up.”

“She’s dead.”

His head jerked up, and he saw Gui Mengyu coming towards him. She was okay. He let out a sigh of relief. The attacker had disappeared.

“Jiejie—”

“You’re still calling me that?” Gui Mengyu sneered, the expression twisting her beautiful face.

Shen Yuan shivered. What … why was she looking at him like that? She stopped next to him, her bloodied sword raised. Her pale robes were stained a dark red.

“You should have listened to your mother,” she said, and ruthlessly drove her sword down, straight through his chest.

He stared down at the silvery blade, then up at her icy, uncaring eyes.

“Jiejie? Jiejie, why …”

And then he froze when he realized, when he realized why, all along, Hong Lian, Gui Yuan, and Gui Mengyu had felt a little familiar.

It was just that it was one side story among thousands, and even Shen Yuan couldn’t remember everything. Especially not the backstories of every single harem member.

Gui Mengyu was the virtuous but ignored half-demon niece of Lord Gui, and the last survivor of the Hong Lian Sect Massacre. She wandered for years, mourning her terrible fate but incapable of seeking revenge due to her pure heart, until she found someone to help her. The one behind the massacre? Her younger cousin—Gui Yuan.

Except … except wasn’t this all wrong?

Gui Yuan was him, right? Right?! And he hadn’t killed anyone!

Instead, Gui Mengyu … Gui Mengyu had killed them …

Hysterical laughter bubbled up in his chest.

Had it been her all along? Had she tricked him? She’d tricked—she’d really tricked him!

The sword slid free from his chest, pain yanking him back to the present. His mother’s cooling corpse lay at his feet.

Shen Yuan’s hands trembled, but he unfolded the fan and sharply swept it through the air. Violent winds burst forth, and Gui Mengyu slammed into one of the walls. Then he sank together, coughing up blood. Everything was starting to go dark.

A sword to the chest really hurt. Fuck.

He wanted to laugh.

Gui Mengyu was the four-hundred and thirty-second wife of Luo Binghe.

And Gui Mengyu had tricked that very same Luo Binghe into killing Gui Yuan for her own crimes.

~*~

Tears ran down Gui Mengyu’s peerlessly beautiful face, her dark eyes glittering like a starry sky, more than a decade of grief obvious in her pale features. But even blood, dirt, and the weight of such a horrifying betrayal couldn’t detract from her godly appearance.

“Yuan-di, why did you do it?” she cried, eyes never leaving the crippled, dying form of her younger cousin, even as death pulled her closer with every moment that passed. “How could you? Didn’t your parents give you everything you could have ever wanted? Wasn’t that enough?”

Her voice broke. Luo Binghe wanted desperately to ask her to stop; she was only hurting herself. But he knew she needed to get it all out before it was too late. Gui Mengyu still wanted to believe he had a good reason to do it, the purity of her heart incredible despite everything.

But Luo Binghe doubted that filth would give her the answers she was looking for.

Gui Yuan’s breaths rattled in his chest as he looked at them, but he said nothing. Luo Binghe knelt next to Gui mengyu, sending her a stream of spiritual power, but her injuries were severe. She might not make it.

“Why didn’t you just kill me?” she asked through her sobs, voice clear like a bell. “If you had to kill someone, why not me? Why did you have to murder your own parents? They took me in despite, despite my parentage, loved me like I was their own. Why did you let your jealousy destroy them?”

His love’s words twisted a black knife into Luo Binghe’s heart.

“You’re dying now, aren’t you, jiejie?” Gui Yuan said, voice cold and uncaring. “If you wanted to die all along, why didn’t you just kill yourself back then?”

Gui Mengyu cried out, her grip on Luo Binghe’s hand tightening briefly, before it went slack. The life in her eyes dissipated. Luo Binghe held her until her body began to grow cold.

Then he gently laid her down, and stalked over to where Gui Yuan was still struggling to keep alive. He’d torn his legs off in the fight, but if only he’d done it sooner, maybe Gui Mengyu wouldn’t have been injured.

If he’d been faster, she would still be alive. His hands trembled with rage, and he swiftly unsheathed Xin Mo.

“Are you satisfied now?” he snarled.

Gui Yuan looked up at him—and Luo Binghe paused. There was nothing in his eyes, like he was dead already. It was almost like looking at Gui Mengyu, so close was the family resemblance. Seeing him hesitate, Gui Yuan’s lips pulled up into a humorless smile, mocking.

“Lord Luo,” he said, voice barely a whisper. “I lost the ability to feel satisfaction on that day fifteen years ago.”

The smile widened a little.

“What about you? Will you be satisfied once you’ve exacted your revenge? An eye for an eye … it doesn’t bring anyone … back to life …”

What little light there had been in Gui Yuan disappeared.

He was dead.

The battlefield was silent.

[Extract from Proud Immortal Demon Way, chapter 946]

~*~

Shen Yuan should have remembered. Gui Yuan especially.

For all that he’d only appeared for two chapters, he’d sparked a wildfire of a discussion, among both fans and anti-fans. A lot of people thought he was just a cheap, knock-off Shen Qingqiu. It was only a few arcs after that scum had finally been killed off, maybe Airplane Shooting Towards the sky missed him and brought back an inferior version.

Some (mostly fangirls) latched onto Gui Yuan’s physical description as a pretty boy and wrote lots of gratuitous fanfiction where, instead of letting him die, Luo Binghe brought him back to his palace and there was lots of angsty revenge papapa. If Luo Binghe’s heavenly pillar could reform villainous women who’d arguable committed far worse crimes, why couldn’t it reform Gui Yuan?

And then there was a small minority that thought there was more to the story, and that Gui Yuan brought up some important moral questions that had been ignored in the narrative up until then. Revenge, and destroying yourself to get it. It was a chance for Luo Binghe to evaluate his own blackened, vengeance-obsessed heart. Maybe it could even set him on the road to rehabilitation, some (very) optimistic readers argued.

Everything that had to do with Gui Yuan was dropped in the next chapter, and the storyline went back on the same track it had always been on—only dipping back around a thousand chapters later to bring Gui Mengyu back to life with some mysterious artefact, after which Luo Binghe finally got to marry her and have some tear-filled reunion papapa. Then she became just one more member of the harem.

At that point, Shen Yuan didn’t even remember most of her backstory.

But as he woke up, a sharp, burning pain in his chest, covered in blood and alone at the scene of the massacre, he really, really regretted not paying more attention.

He stared at the discolored, pale form of his mother, beaten and bloody and dismembered.

Maybe he could have stopped it from happening at all. Maybe he could have done something. Anything. To prevent it from going so wrong.

These people weren’t even his real parents, but he’d spent half a year with them. He couldn’t help feeling horrified, like his entire world had been turned upside down. His insides were burning, like he’d been set on fire, and his mind was spinning.

Shen Yuan hadn’t died.

But with a sword wound in his chest, what were the chances he’d survive much longer?

Ah, fuck, motherfucking Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky and his shitty webnovel.

Was he gonna die? What would happen to him then? Would he go back to his own body? But hadn’t he died as Shen Yuan, too? Did that mean he’d just disappear?

He didn’t want to die!

He didn’t want … he didn’t want to die.

Shen Yuan clutched at the fan his mother had given him, and it wasn’t until he touched his face that he realized he was crying.

By the time the sun was coming up, he hadn’t died yet. His level of cultivation, while not advanced, was enough to keep him alive, and let him heal faster than your average mortal. He couldn’t stay where he was—he’d die from the cold just as easily as from his injury, and the corpses might create resentful spirits or attract human-eating monsters or demons. The world of Proud Immortal Demon Way had those numbering in the thousands.

It took a while for Shen Yuan to crawl to the other side of the compound. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get down the mountain on his own, but he needed help. So he did the next best thing: he set off the entire storeroom of emergency fireworks.

He needed help. He was just a sheltered, second generation millennial. Though he’d transmigrated into a xianxia novel, even the thought of someone massacring his family hadn’t occurred to him.

If only he’d realized which trashy novel he’d transmigrated into, maybe he could have at least prepared himself for the possibility.

Shen Yuan didn’t know what Gui Yuan had done after his family died. None of his backstory was mentioned. What was Shen Yuan supposed to do? Wander around, like Gui Mengyu had done?

Gui Yuan had avoided perishing, had survived another fifteen years—but what if Shen Yuan had changed something in the plot? What if he really did die, all alone on the mountain, without being able to get help?

Panic seized him for a moment, and he sank to the cold ground, limbs no longer obeying him.

What if he really did just die?

Maybe Gui Mengyu wouldn’t have to get Luo Binghe to help kill him.

The pain in his chest flared, and he curled up on the ground. It was cold, and it hurt, and he was miserable—he didn’t notice the approaching figure before his vision went dark.

The next time Shen Yuan woke, he was warm, and everything felt fuzzy. His surroundings were blurry, and he couldn’t make out where he was, but it was inside, which was an obvious improvement to his earlier predicament.

Either he’d been rescued or he was in heaven.

“How are you feeling?” a gentle, male voice asked him.

Shen Yuan’s vision cleared a little, and he stared out into a familiar room. He was struck by a weird sense of déjà vu.

“Where?” he asked, throat too rough to say more.

“We just brought you inside. Do not move. Your injury is severe.”

The man appeared in his line of sight—tall, with broad shoulders, and a handsome face. Something about his appearance, his black clothes, made Shen Yuan feel like he should have recognized him, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why.

“May I ask how you sustained the injury?”

“She … killed everyone,” he slurred. He tacked on “Sword,” because it felt like it was important.

He wasn’t sure his words made much sense, because there was a ringing somewhere in his head, and his veins felt like they were burning.When he closed his eyes, the image of his mother’s broken body was seared into his eyelids.

“Who?” It was a different voice, cold, and Shen Yuan tried to look for the source.

He shook his head. Gui Mengyu, he tried to whisper, but shame coiled around his lungs, his stomach; something sharp and hot stabbed into his eyes, his chest, every part of his body. The next time he opened his eyes, his cheek was pressed against the floor. A cooling trickle of spiritual energy flowing from a hand on his spine, and into his body.

“Breathe,” the first voice murmured. “Slowly. Just like that.”

Shen Yuan’s cheeks were wet, his eyes scrubbed raw.

He recognized the room, now: his mother’s. The painting he’d made for her hung on the wall. Her guqin sat on the floor. He tried to struggle out of the man’s grip, tried to reach for it.

“Cease moving or your injuries will worsen.” The second man’s voice was even, pronunciation cultured.

Shen Yuan turned his head slightly towards him, and found that it was not at all the first man who was passing him spiritual energy, but someone else: a fine-featured, handsome man in green and white robes. The expression on his face was smooth and elegant, just a touch haughty. A fan lay discarded next to Shen Yuan—when he was carefully lifted back onto the bed, the man picked it up, and began fanning himself.

Somehow, Shen Yuan got the feeling he should know who it was.

Green and white … fans …

Fuck.

Was this … real-goods Shen Qingqiu, the one his own character was a poor imitation of?

Shen Qingqiu, Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak, that Shen Qingqiu?? The one that got turned into a human stick???

It took several long moments for Shen Yuan to gather his thoughts after that realization, and possible-Shen Qingqiu’s eyebrows twitched slightly at his stare.

Shen Yuan cleared his throat.

“May I inquire—”

“Shen Qingqiu, Peak lord of Qing Jing Peak, of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.”

Face to face with a first-rate scum villain … it was a bit harder to rejoice at the man’s fate when he was right in front of him. Even imagining him tied up in a cave, limbs torn off, humiliated, made Shen Yuan’s insides churn. This wasn’t a character on a page, but a real person.

If he’d realized he’d transmigrated into Proud Immortal Demon Way earlier, maybe it would have been easier to separate himself from it. After all, they were just characters in a novel. But Shen Yuan hadn’t lived the past six months treating the world that way, so he couldn’t. He was a character in the novel, now, too.

And didn’t they share the same fate? They were both killed at the hands of Luo Binghe, so as fellow human scum (Gui Yuan was innocent though!!!), he felt he was somewhat of a kindred spirit.

(If Gui Yuan wasn’t scum, did that mean he was Shen Qingqiu’s unexplored foil? Or were both of them misunderstood white sheep who’d been mercilessly struck down by the blackened protagonist?)

Shen Yuan pressed both of his hands to his face and tried not to scream.

What kind of a mess had he gotten himself into?

It was all a dream, right? A coma-induced illusion that he’d soon wake up from.

He felt the fire from earlier rear its head again, and took several deep breaths to calm down.

If he’d transmigrated into Proud Immortal Demon Way, then so be it. He’d try to live a good life regardless. His life expectancy in his original body hadn’t been long, either, so what did it matter? Since they were in a novel, that probably meant the future was decided already. He might as well just do whatever he wanted.

No one had survived the massacre, aside from himself and Gui Mengyu. He had nothing to go back to. Forging forward was all he could do.

~*~

The man dressed in black was of course Yue Qingyuan, who lived up to his image as the friendly big-brother type. Honorable and helpful to a fault. Mu Qingfang joined Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu shortly thereafter, and checked his injuries—serious, but no longer life-threatening.

In quiet voices the spoke about how he was lucky to be alive, that he was not stable enough, could not be left alone.

Yue Qingyuan invited him to come with them back to Cang Qiong Mountain. Shen Qingqiu’s expression flickered at the offer, but didn’t protest it.

Shen Yuan was going to refuse. His body’s previous occupant hadn’t become a Cang Qiong disciple in the novel. But he hesitated.

Gui Yuan’s past, other than the massacre, wasn’t outlined in the novel. Regardless of what he did, he wouldn’t really be going against the plot. And he would undoubtedly live a better life as a disciple in one of the peaks, than he would as a wandering cultivator with no family and nothing to his name.

He accepted.

It took a long time before they could leave. The bodies had to be buried, furniture and other belongings had to be packed away, the buildings sealed—no one wanted to live at the site of a massacre, it couldn’t be sold, and Shen Yuan was unwilling to let go of it completely. Thankfully Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu did a lot of the work, because he was barely allowed out of bed, and didn’t have the energy for it. He couldn’t understand why Shen Qingqiu was so helpful, but reminded himself the man was obsessed with his outwards appearance, and ignored it.

Shen Yuan brought almost nothing with him when they left—his sect token, some clothes, his mother’s favorite collection of stories, and her fan. Yue Qingyuan watched him with obvious sympathy in his eyes as he held the fan tightly to keep himself from losing it.

The sympathy was misplaced. It wasn’t Shen Yuan’s family that had just died. It was Gui Yuan’s.

And Gui Yuan was already gone.

~*~

Cang Qiong Mountain Sect was breathtaking.

When Shen Yuan read through the early chapters of Proud Immortal Demon Way, he had imagined it was beautiful, and the fan illustrations gave him an idea of what it might look like. It all paled in comparison to reality.

The twelve peaks rose high and dark against the endless blue sky. Delicate clouds draped like veils over them, and flowering trees dotted the landscape in whites and pinks amidst the young, green leaves.

Shen Yuan forgot the pain in his chest in the face of the majestic scenery, and barely remembered to breathe.

Mu Qingfang brought him to Qian Cao Peak to treat his injuries. He looked gentle, but there was a firmness beneath the surface that made Shen Yuan think that he should probably do whatever he was told.

“Sect Leader hasn’t said anything about this,” he said while rebandaging the chest wound, “but your current state is very fragile. You must take care when cultivating, or you might suffer from a qi deviation.”

“Understood.”

Mu Qingfang’s dark eyes studied him for a moment, as if he was trying to discover whether he was truthful or not. Eventually he nodded, satisfied.

The Peak Lords met with Yue Qingyuan to discuss Shen Yuan’s fate. He didn’t know what they talked about, but in the end, he was taken as a disciple of Qiong Ding Peak. Yue Qingyuan brought him there himself and helped him settle in.

With Shen Yuan’s aptitude, skill, and appearance, he didn’t struggle with his new lessons or environment, despite the fact that they were unfamiliar. It only took a little while before the other Qiong Ding disciples welcomed him as one of their own.

Wasn’t this kind of skill wasted on cannon fodder like Gui Yuan? What use was it that he was beautiful and talented, when he only had four speaking lines, and died pathetically of his wounds, not even having the decency to wait for Luo Binghe to strike him down properly?

It was so upsetting he almost reopened his wound.

Stupid novel! Stupid author! Shen Yuan had never read a worse novel than this one!

Why did he have to transmigrate here, of all places?

~*~

Proud Immortal Demon Way had never described Qiong Ding Peak to any great extent, so Shen Yuan felt like he was experiencing it for the first time. There were countless beautiful gardens, thick forests, large practice grounds, and buildings with elegant, gabled roofs. Disciples in dark blue robes were scattered all around the peak.

He spent his days in various lessons, practicing, and running errands, after he was allowed to run around. The novel only covered Luo Binghe’s experiences, so all he had to compare it to were the lessons on Qing Jing Peak, which the protagonist rarely attended. In other words, it was all mostly new to him.

Qiong Ding Peak was less focused on scholarly pursuits than Qing Jing Peak—more sword practice than poem-composition, though there was still a ridiculous amount of writing and reading and memorization. Thankfully Shen Yuan came from an education system that focused on rote learning, otherwise he’d die from overwork …

So far, everything seemed to go along with the original novel. Nothing earth-shattering had happened as a result of Shen Yuan joining Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.

But the world he had transmigrated into wasn’t quite the one from the novel he’d read.

One day, Shen Yuan was bringing tea to Yue Qingyuan’s room when Shen Qingqiu stormed out and past him, so caught up in some strong emotion that he didn’t seem to notice his surroundings. His normally calm expression had been twisted by fury, and he jumped on his sword and disappeared the moment he could.

Shen Yuan stared after him, frozen in place. Yue Qingyuan appeared in the doorway.

“Xiao Jiu,” he murmured, looking devastated, before he spotted Shen Yuan. He schooled his expression with some difficulty.

“Did—did Shizun and Shen-shishu have an argument?”

Yue Qingyuan sighed. “You do not need to concern yourself. This is a personal issue.”

Shen Yuan couldn’t stand the barely hidden, defeated expression on Yue Qingyuan’s face. Shen Qingqiu really was scum. His shixiong did everything for him, let him get away with anything, even died because of him, and yet Yue Qingyuan wasn’t even treated with any level of respect in return.

“Why does Shen-shishu always argue with Shizun? Shizun does so much for him, why—” He bit his lip. That was an uncharacteristic slip-up. It wasn’t any of Shen Yuan’s business. “This disciple apologizes for speaking out of turn.”

Yue Qingyuan let out a soft sound, and then beckoned him inside.

“You feel strongly about this.”

How much had he messed up?

“Shizun saved this disciple’s life, of course this disciple feels strongly.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Your Shen-shishu is the one who saved your life. He noticed the emergency fireworks, found you, and treated your injuries before I arrived.”

Shen Yuan’s head snapped up. That couldn’t be right. It wasn’t in-character for Shen Qingqiu to save anyone unless it brought him glory, and he hadn’t said anything …

“Please be a little more forgiving of your Shen-shishu.”

Shen Yuan excused himself after agreeing unenthusiastically.

Forgiving? As if.

“Would you mind returning this to Qing Jing Peak?” Yue Qingyuan asked him when he was almost out the door.

Apparently Shen Qingqiu had been so angry he hadn’t even remembered to bring his favorite fan with him.

Did Yue Qingyuan make him do it as punishment? Shen Yuan didn’t have a spiritual sword, he had to walk all the way there! Even with the Rainbow Bridge, it wasn’t a short trip.

He was never going to think that Yue Qingyuan was some kind of pushover ever again. It obviously only applied if your name was Shen Qingqiu!

The walk to Qing Jing Peak, after a long day of practice, consumed all the stamina he had left. At the same time, he couldn’t contain his excitement. Qing Jing Peak was where Luo Binghe spent his time in the early part of the novel, before he became a blackened protagonist! How could Shen Yuan, as Luo Binghe’s number-one fan, not be excited???

Bamboo forests covered the peak, the sound of a softly played guqin floated on the wind, and pale-robed disciples mingled in the shade. Shen Yuan heard a whisper of recited poetry as he passed. Everything seemed much more scholarly than Qiong Ding Peak, and he felt slightly out of place in his darker robes.

One male disciple approached him and sized him up. The boy seemed a little younger than Shen Yuan, and looked fairly respectable.

“Shizun asked me to return something to Shen-shishu,” Shen Yuan explained.

“Give it to me, and I’ll pass it on.”

“Shizun asked me to return it personally.” He hadn’t. But for some reason he wanted to see Shen Qingqiu for himself and reinforce his negative opinion of the man.

The boy glared at him, but reluctantly agreed, and led him through the bamboo to Shen Qingqiu’s bamboo hut. This was where the guqin was being played. An inexplicable longing for his mother overcame him.

“A Qiong Ding disciple is here to see Shizun,” the boy called after knocking.

The music stopped.

“Send him in, Ming Fan.”

Shen Yuan was ushered inside.

He was not prepared for the sight that met him.

Shen Qingqiu was sitting in front of a handsome guqin. He’d recovered from his emotional outburst, and gazed up at him, as calm as the surface of a pond on a windless day. But on a chair just off to the side was a beautiful woman in light blue. Xian Shu Peak …? But no veil, so it wasn’t Liu Mingyan, and it definitely wasn’t Qi Qingqi, so who …?

“Speak,” Shen Qingqiu said, snapping him out of his thoughts.

“Shizun asked this disciple to return Shen-shishu’s fan,” he said, presenting it carefully.

He glanced very briefly up at Shen Qingqiu’s expression, and saw something dark reflected in his eyes. After a moment, the fan was plucked from his hands.

“This disciple also wishes to thank Shen-shishu for saving his life.” Might as well. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

“Did the Sect Leader tell you to say that?” Shen Qingqiu asked, a hint of displeasure in his voice. “Tell him this master will not come to Qiong Ding Peak again unless it is urgent.”

Shen Yuan was dismissed, and didn’t get a chance to say anything more. Through the door, he could hear a small snippet of conversation.

“He’s cute, A-Jiu,” the woman said, laughing lightly.

“Undoubtedly Zhangmen-shixiong sent him to gauge my mood.”

“Don’t be like that. He’s probably sorry you had that argument.”

“Then why didn’t he come himself?” Shen Qingqiu’s voice was bitter. “Leave it, Haitang. I don’t want to talk about this.”

Haitang?

As in Qiu Haitang?

The one whose family Shen Qingqiu killed? The one who presented indisputable evidence that proved to be the last nail in Shen Qingqiu’s coffin, which led to him being imprisoned and turned into a human stick?  

What?

He frowned to himself as he walked back to Qiong Ding Peak. With what he knew of Proud Immortal Demon Way, it didn’t make any sense. It didn’t follow the original plot of the novel at all! Qiu Haitang had never been to Cang Qiong Mountain sect, Qiu Haitang and Shen Qingqiu weren’t friends, and she definitely wouldn’t drink tea while listening to him play on the guqin!

What fucking fanfiction had he transmigrated into? Or was this some kind of first draft version of the novel, that Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky had abandoned when it turned into a male power fantasy novel with daily 10k word chapter updates?

Shen Yuan felt like an unmoored boat lost at sea.

No, no, no.

It was obviously some kind of mistake. Shen Yuan nodded to himself.

That woman was a different Haitang. Heavens knew Airplane was terrible at names. He probably just reused one. Maybe he hadn’t even come up with Qiu Haitang’s character that early.

This Haitang was undoubtedly a Xian Shu disciple that Shen Qingqiu, the pervert, was making his moves on.

Yup. That was it.

Shen Qingqiu was a scum villain, after all. It was one of the indisputable truths of Proud Immortal Demon Way.

But he couldn’t help thinking about it, while he tidied some papers away in Yue Qingyuan’s room, and it must have bothered him enough to show on his face.

“What’s on your mind?” Yue Qingyuan asked. He didn’t seem mad, or like he wanted to punish him anymore, so Shen Yuan only hesitated for a moment before answering.

“There was a woman in Shen-shishu’s room. Haitang? This disciple was merely wondering who she was.”

Yue Qingyuan’s eyes flickered away for a moment, and unreadable expression appearing on his features.

“Qiu Haitang is a senior disciple of Xian Shu Peak. She entered Cang Qiong Mountain Sect together with Shen Qingqiu. The two are quite close. Ah. But there is no need to worry about any kind of inappropriate relationship between the two. They are siblings in all but blood.”

There was something strange about the way Yue Qingyuan spoke—almost like he disapproved … or was jealous. But of what?

Were the Yue Qingyuan/Shen Qingqiu shippers right?

Had they been right all along?

But Yue Qingyuan … no matter where you looked, he was an unbendable straight man! These were brotherly feelings! Definitely brotherly! Yue Qingyuan excused all of Shen Qingqiu’s horrible actions, would do anything for him, even die, because he considered him, undeservedly, his precious younger brother. Nothing more!

Shen Yuan decided to not think about that ever again.

He’d gotten distracted. Yue Qingyuan had called the woman ‘Qiu Haitang.’ Which meant, unless Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky was even worse at names than he’d given him credit for, that woman was the same Qiu Haitang whose family Shen Qingqiu had killed.

Had Shen Yuan really transmigrated into Proud Immortal Demon Way, or into some kind of fix-it fanfiction?

Was Shen Qingqiu blackmailing Qiu Haitang? Was Qiu Haitang blackmailing Shen Qingqiu? Had he tricked her into thinking someone else murdered her family?

Shen Yuan’s head hurt. Answering any of those questions required knowledge he didn’t, and likely would never, have access to.

And Gui Yuan was just cannon fodder. No matter what he did, his interference was unlikely to affect anything.

If this Proud Immortal Demon Way was different from the original, well, he’d find out at some point. Ming Fan was young, which meant Luo Binghe probably hadn’t even become a disciple just yet. If things were different, it would become obvious later.

Maybe Luo Binghe wouldn’t have to suffer so much this time around.

Shen Yuan didn’t dare hope.

~*~

Shen Yuan spent most of his time on Qiong Ding Peak, but once Mu Qingfang said he’d recovered completely from his injury, he was allowed to go down the mountain with some of the more senior disciples.

This was one of those times. They had to take care of a haunting.

It started after the death of a bride on her wedding night. The husband had left the room to pay a clandestine visit to his lover, and when the servants came to wake her in the morning, she’d been strangled until her head was almost cut off from her body.

Though the incident happened sometime between the husband leaving and the servants entering, the husband wasn’t blamed. According to the bride’s servants, she’d been alive after he left. A few days after her death, the people in the house started hearing voices, and seeing a dark figure moving around.

The town was close enough to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect that they were the ones called in to deal with it.

It wasn’t a plot point from the novel, but it had all the hallmarks of a regular haunting. Shen Yuan doubted there was anything else behind it, but he was still a little excited.

“Gui-shidi,” Su-shijie said, “why don’t you go buy something for us to eat? We’ll go around questioning the neighbors, then meet in front of that statue, okay?”

Ah, but what if they discovered something important and finished exorcising the ghost before he came back? Shen Yuan was really looking forward to seeing a real, genuine ghost …

He couldn’t argue with Su-shijie, however, and so he scurried away. The three senior disciples he’d gone with all had widely differing tastes, and he spent a long time choosing what kind of food to buy. By the time he was done, the sun was already lower in the sky, and he hurried towards the statue. The problem was that he couldn’t quite remember the way.

Shen Yuan wandered around the streets, looking at the buildings to see if he recognized any. Just as he spotted a colorful stall he’d walked past earlier that day, he heard a low thud and a pained groan coming from an alley.

He stopped in his tracks and turned towards the sound, but couldn’t see anything. He cursed his lack of survival instinct, and walked into the alley.

When he rounded a corner, he froze.

A group of children dressed in rags stood around one, smaller child laying on the ground. They were kicking him. The boy on the ground whimpered quietly as each kick connected—with his stomach, his legs, his back, some even with his head.

Shen Yuan summoned his most convincing Shen Qingqiu impression.

“What are you doing?” he asked, voice smooth, cold, and hard.

The children whipped around, spotted him and his expensive robes and the sword on his back, glanced down at their victim, and scattered. After just a second, the only people in the alley were Shen Yuan and the boy.

He was still making small, pained sounds, and had curled into a ball, arms covering his head. Fear, Shen Yuan realized.

The boy was afraid, not just of those children, but of him.

Shen Yuan took a step closer, and sat down on his haunches. Bruises covered the boy’s bare arms and his face. His clothes were old and stained, and he was trembling, like he was anticipating another kick.

“They’re gone,” he said, keeping his voice as gentle as he could.

A dark eye peaked out at him from beneath an arm.

“I won’t hurt you.” He hesitated. “Are you hungry?”

Two eyes looked at him, this time. They glanced between him and the food he was carrying. The boy shook his head, cheeks slightly pink.

“Are you in pain? Why were they hurting you?” he asked, though he could guess the reason. The boy was small, and they were big—it probably wasn’t anything more complicated than that.

Shen Yuan didn’t receive a response. Although it didn’t look like the boy’s injuries were worse than some bruises, he might be wrong … but he didn’t have any medicine on him. Healing salve would only help for the bruises, but he took the tin out of his pouch and placed it on the ground.

“Can I touch you?”

The boy shook his head.

“Then, here. Spread a thin layer of this over your bruises. They will heal more quickly.” He put a bag of steamed buns in front of the boy, too. “Eat.”

The scent of food seemed to be too much for the boy—he snatched one of the buns and practically inhaled it. Shen Yuan looked him over while he ate. Some swelling, but he was moving without difficulty. He’d probably be fine When the boy finished eating, he turned intense black eyes towards Shen Yuan. Underneath the dirt and the bruises, his features were pretty—he’d no doubt become very handsome when he grew up.

Shen Yuan smiled at him.

“Eat some more. Why don’t you take the entire bag?” He glanced up at the sky. It was getting dark.

He reached out and very gently ruffled the boy’s fluffy hair.

“Be careful. If you’re outnumbered, you should run away. Your life is too precious for you to hand it over to some bullies.”

He stood up, and the boy did, too, pushing the bag of food into his hands.

“Gege’s,” the boy said, and before Shen Yuan could say anything else, he ran down the alley and disappeared.

He’d left the healing salve behind, too.

Shen Yuan blinked, then turned around to go back. Ah, well. It wasn’t as if he could have helped him much more, anyway. Before he’d managed to take two steps, however, a mechanical voice erupted in his head.

[Activation code: Physical proximity to protagonist]

[Stand by for further instruction]

Protagonist? What? He whipped around, but the alley was still empty. Had that little boy been Luo Binghe? Had he just petted Luo Binghe on the head like he was some sort of dog?

[Welcome to the System. This System operates in line with the concept ‘YOU CAN YOU UP, NO CAN NO BB’; we hope to provide you with the best possible experience. It is our sincere wish that during your experience, you will be able to successfully complete your given assignments to further improve the story of “Proud Immortal Demon Way”!]

Ahhhhh. He did have a System. Where had it been all this time?! If he’d known where he’d transmigrated, wouldn’t things have been different???

[This System could not be activated before contact with the protagonist!]

What kind of trashy System had a received? Who transmigrated into cannon fodder, anyway? If he had to be cannon fodder, why couldn’t he at least have transmigrated into Shen Qingqiu? Then he could have enjoyed his days as a Peak Lord, instead of running around as some no-name disciple! Their fates were the same, anyway, it didn’t matter if he was a whole or a half human stick in the end! At least Shen Qingqiu was punished for crimes he’d actually committed!

[…]

[The System was successfully activated! Role bound: former disciple of Hong Lian Sect, current disciple of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s Qiong Ding Peak, ‘Gui Yuan.’ Weapon: Mei Feng Spiritual Fan, iron sword. Starting B-points: 100. Total B-points: 100]

Why so few points? Hadn’t he survived a massacre, why didn’t he get a thousand points for that?

The mechanical, Google Translate-type voice kept speaking without paying attention to him.

[As the plot progresses, you will receive the opportunity to earn more B-points. Please ensure your total number of B-points does not fall below 0. Otherwise the System will automatically dole out punishment.]

Shen Yuan’s head was starting to hurt.

[Please stand by while the System performs a System update.]

[7%]

[25%]

[53%]

[77%]

[65%]

… what kind of shitty internet connection was the System using?

[100%. System update complete. System update: OOC function unfrozen.]

What? OOC function? Did he have one of those? Why was it unfrozen so suddenly?

[Gui Yuan has suffered a qi deviation. Personality may be affected as a result.]

When had he suffered a qi deviation? He couldn’t remember … after the massacre?

“Did you say I had assignments? What kind?”

[The assignments are meant to realign the plot with the original intentions of the author.]

“Original intentions …” Maybe it meant that famed original outline some readers insisted had to exist, created before Airplane got too obsessed with catering to his male readers? One where all the plot points were resolved, there were fewer harem members, the characters were well-rounded, and things proceeded in a logical fashion?

Shen Yuan had never believed it existed, but if it really was true …

[An assignment has been unlocked]

[New objective: Become the head disciple of Qiong Ding Peak. Reward: 200 B-points.]

“Is it obligatory?”

[All assignments are obligatory. B-points can be exchanged to avoid certain assignments.]

“How many for this one?”

[1000 B-points.]

He didn’t have that many!!!

[If you are unable to complete the objective, all current B-points will be drained, and you will automatically be deported back to your original world.]

Ah. The one where Shen Yuan had already died?

Shitty system!

Shen Yuan didn’t have that kind of ambition! If there were more than ten people in a competition, placing in the top ten was fine! Wasn’t he working hard enough already? Why did he have to work ten times harder and become Yue Qingyuan’s head disciple? In his entire life, he’d never aimed for gold before.

Honestly, he wasn’t entirely sure he could do it.

The System was unsympathetic.

[If you are unable to complete the objective, you will automatically be deported back to your original world.]

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.

~*~

After clearing up the haunting (of course the husband was the one responsible in the end), Shen Yuan returned to Qiong Ding Peak and started working his ass off. Lessons? Attended every single one, answered every question, slaved over his homework. Cultivation? Practiced everything until he could do it in his sleep, meditated every spare moment he had, and by the end of two months he’d already leveled up a step. Other duties? He ran every errand he could, always offered to help regardless of what it was, brought Yue Qingyuan tea every morning …

Almost a year after coming to Cang Qiong, he’d already established himself as the most dependable disciple on his peak.

He was also very close to dying from sheer exhaustion.

No, that wasn’t right, he wanted to die. Having his legs torn off would be a mercy, at this point!

He reiterated: why hadn’t he transmigrated into Shen Qingqiu? Then the work would already have been done for him!

Shen Yuan was currently collapsed over his desk, like a flower that had wilted in the heat. It felt like he was forgetting something, but he couldn’t figure out what …

“Gui Yuan?”

He looked up to see Yue Qingyuan, and jumped to his feet.

“Shizun! Does Shizun need anything from this disciple? Tea?”

Yue Qingyuan let out a soft sigh. “Please sit. You have worked harder than anyone else these past few months. Rest is important as well.”

“This disciple makes sure to sleep eight hours every night.” Well. Most nights.

At least half the time.

The expression on Yue Qingyuan’s face was gentle.

“Do you feel like you have something to prove? Since you joined Cang Qiong late? This teacher hopes none of the other disciples are giving you any trouble.”

“No! No, this disciple is treated very well. It’s just …” Think of a lie, think of a lie. “It helps take this disciple’s mind off of … it is a welcome distraction.”

“I see.” Yue Qingyuan looked at him, a complicated emotion in his eyes.

They were silent for a moment.

“Would you like to come with me to oversee the recruitment of new disciples?”

That was what he’d forgotten!

It was about time for Luo Binghe to join Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.

[New objective: Ensure Luo Binghe is accepted as Qing Jing Peak’s disciple. Reward: 100 B-points.]

Shen Yuan bowed. “This disciple would be honored.”

~*~

The trial hopeful disciples had to go through to join Cang Qiong Mountain Sect really was just digging holes in the ground. Shen Yuan felt aggrieved as he watched rows upon rows of boys and girls doing their best. Digging. Wasn’t it too embarrassing? How could the protagonist show off his cool skills like this? Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky, explain!

Something endurance, something speed, something whatever, all the reasons were bullshit. Shen Yuan couldn’t tell any difference in the skill or talent of the people. But Yue Qingyuan had asked him to observe, and so he wandered around between the rows of hard-working children, face blank. He’d gotten better at controlling his facial expressions. It was vital in his quest towards becoming head disciple, and it was vital now, to stop himself from crying on the children’s behalf.

Yue Qingyuan, Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge were watching from a cliff above the valley, no doubt discussing potential disciples, but they were too far away for Shen Yuan to hear what they were saying.

The System suddenly piped up.

[Warning: Objective failure imminent.]

What? The fuck? No??? How could that be?

Shen Yuan glanced around, spotting a head of familiar fluffy hair, furiously digging holes in the ground. Then he glanced back up at Shen Qingqiu, who was lazily fanning himself, not looking in that direction at all. What had happened?

“Gui-shixiong!” a high-pitched voice called from behind him.

Twin braids, cute face, happy personality … Ning Yingying?

“Ning-shimei,” he tried. Her eyes turned into little crescent moons when she smiled.

“Yes! Is Gui-shixiong trying to find a suitable disciple for Qiong Ding Peak?” She toed the ground with her shoe. “Shizun said he didn’t really want any new disciples this year, but Yingying doesn’t want to be the youngest anymore … does Gui-shixiong think I’ll be able to get a shimei or a shidi today?”

Fuck! Shen Qingqiu, follow the script!

He thought quickly. Shen Qingqiu had always had a soft spot for his youngest female disciple, maybe he could exploit it.

“If Ning-shimei suggests someone, he will undoubtedly agree.”

The boy with the fluffy hair—Luo Binghe—briefly met his gaze, despite the fact that they were far away from each other. He couldn’t have heard, but Shen Yuan could feel the weight of his gaze.

“What about that one?” Shen Yuan said, motioning in Luo Binghe’s direction.

Ning Yingying looked in that direction, and her eyes brightened with excitement.

“Gui-shixiong, thank you!” She said, and then she skipped over to her teacher.

Like he’d predicted, Shen Qingqiu indeed bent to her wishes, and Luo Binghe became a Qing Jing Peak disciple.

[Objective cleared. Reward: 100 B-points. Total B-points: 350.]

~*~

Shen Yuan was too busy to notice time passing. He received a spiritual sword, became the (not quite yet official) head disciple of Qiong Ding Peak, attempted to patch up the relationship between Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan (because Yue Qingyuan looked like a kicked puppy each time the spoke, and Shen Yuan just wanted him to stop!), but other than that, nothing major happened. He tried to keep an eye on Luo Binghe, and managed to a certain extent.

Luo Binghe did not sleep in the woodshed, his senior disciples didn’t bully him, at least not to a large degree, and Shen Qingqiu seemed completely disinterested in him. The disinterest must have been genuine, because Ming Fan told him in confidence that he didn’t understand why his teacher would take a disciple just to ignore him afterwards.

Despite all of this, Shen Yuan hadn’t actually met Luo Binghe in person since that day. He couldn’t be certain that he wasn’t being mistreated, just like he couldn’t be certain he was . Even with all the contact he’d had with Shen Qingqiu, he didn’t trust the man to not be scum.

But the years passed, Shen Yuan grew older, and his days were peaceful.

On one such peaceful fay, Shen Yuan had delivered some papers to Qing Jing Peak and was on his way back when the System blared in his head.

[New objective: Assist Luo Binghe. Reward: 300 B-points.]

Shen Yuan stared at the sword he already had one foot on, before resheathing it and hastily searching the peak for Luo Binghe’s whereabouts. He eventually found him in a small clearing in the forest, surrounded by a group of older disciples from a different peak. Ning Yingying stood to the side, her cheek swollen, and her eyes red. Luo Binghe’s robes were torn, and he was holding one of his arms a little oddly.

The leader of the bullies, a girl around Shen Yuan’s age, with her hair put up in an elaborate hairstyle, was spinning a jade pendant around her fingers. There was a sneer on her face.

“Did you think I’d be satisfied with some trash like this?” she demanded. “Ning Yingying, do you think I’m a joke?”

“Give it back!” Luo Binghe said, one hand clenching into a fist, eyes blazing.

This was the first time Shen Yuan had seen him up close since he was a child. He … far exceeded his expectations!

Luo Binghe’s eyes were as bright as morning stars, surrounded by thick, long eyelashes, his features were handsome, his overall countenance was noble. Definitely an appearance befitting a protagonist. Even anger suited him, and he appeared more like a vengeful god than a fourteen-year-old boy!

“Give it back?” the bully asked in a mocking tone. “Trash like this should just be thrown away!”

She drew back her arm and then tossed the jade pendant as far as she could into the forest, flying directly towards Shen Yuan. Despite the spiritual power she’d used to throw it, he managed to snap it out of the air without anyone noticing.

[Congratulations! You have received a key prop: False Jade Guanyin x 1]

He put the pendant away, and turned back to watch the unfolding scene. Although it was similar to an event that happened in the novel, the characters had been swapped out, so it was a bit different. Not to mention the bully in charge was a girl. How was it possible for any woman to not be enamored with Luo Binghe? Didn’t he have the protagonist’s golden halo? Every woman, even the villains, would feel weak in his presence, and would do anything to please him.

There were a lot of reformed villainesses in Luo Binghe’s harem because of it.

Luo Binghe had tried to run after the pendant, but the other disciples pinned him to the ground. With a grunt, he struggled free, and punched one of the boys holding him.

“What are you doing? Hold him down!”

The girl’s words renewed their vigor, and a brawl broke out. Luo Binghe and two of the disciples rolled around on the ground, their limbs tangling until it looked like a solid mass with arms and legs sticking out. Shen Yuan couldn’t see what was happening.

Compared to the original novel, Luo Binghe didn’t seem to be as weak, and SHen Yuan had a small hope be might win. But with one arm out of commission, and outnumbered, he was soon beaten down.

The disciples loomed over him, fists raised, and Shen Yuan sent a few razor-sharp leaves out to stop them. He’d learned the trick from Shen Qingqiu, and in this case it came in handy. The leaves sliced past the disciples, embedding deeply into the ground.

“Who’s there?” the female disciple snapped.

Shen Yuan stepped out from the shadows, and felt a rush of satisfaction when she froze, eyes going wide.

“Gui Yuan!”

With the disciples distracted, Ning Yingying rushed over to Luo Binghe, gently helping him sit up.

“What exactly is going on here?” Shen Yuan asked, keeping his voice as gentle as Yue Qingyuan’s, but with as much promise of repercussion as Shen Qingqiu’s.

“Nothing. Just a little spar with this junior disciple.” She was twisting her sleeves, sweat beading on her forehead.

“I see.” He smiled. “Three on one? In such an isolated location? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted to seriously harm him.”

The girl stammered, trying and failing to come up with a good reason for her actions. Finally she shot a heated glare in Luo Binghe’s direction.

“We apologize for our rash actions. We were merely a little excited. Please excuse us!”

She took her lackeys and marched off.

“A-Luo,” Ning Yingying whimpered, drying blood off Luo Binghe’s face with her sleeve. “I’m sorry, this is all my fault!”

“Ning-shimei,” Shen Yuan said. “Go tell Ming Fan what happened.”

“But A-Luo …” She glanced at Luo Binghe uncertainly.

Shen Yuan smiled gently. “I will take care of it. Quickly, now. Before those disciples twist the events to suit them, and you two end up in trouble instead.”

“Gui-shixiong, thank you!” She bowed rapidly, and then darted off up the path.

Finally, Shen Yuan looked towards Luo Binghe.

He stared up at him, wide-eyes and—starstruck? seemed to be the only word in Shen Yuan’s vocabulary that fit. Shen Yuan kneeled next to him, dusted some dirt off his robes, before pushing back his right sleeve to look at his arm. Luo Binghe flinched.

“Are you badly hurt, Luo-shidi?” Shen Yuan asked, studying the swelling. It seemed broken.

“… Gui-shixiong knows this one’s name?” he said, almost breathless.

Shen Yuan glanced up at him, meeting those intense, black eyes. “Of course I do.”

“Then does Gui-shixiong also know the names of those other disciples?”

He cleared his throat. “No.”

Luo Binghe’s expression turned pleased, for some reason. Shen Yuan carefully helped him to his feet. He was more than a head taller, and Luo Binghe had to tilt his head back to look at him.

“Luo-shidi, don’t ever fight senior disciples again.”

“But—” He bit his lip, to stop himself from arguing.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. But it is better to run away when outnumbered, if possible.”

Luo Binghe let out a soft noise. Obviously unconvinced, and unhappy. Shen Yuan remembered how hard he’d taken the loss of the jade guanyin in the novel, and was about to pull it out when the System spoke.

[Warning! If you return the False Jade Guanyin now, you will be unable to use it later!]

He mentally rolled his eyes, took the pendant from his sleeve, and pressed it into Luo Binghe’s hands.

“This seems to be precious to you. Take better care of it, next time.”

“Shixiong …” Luo Binghe’s eyes became wet and shiny, and looked like they were reflecting the light of a thousand stars. “Thank you, Gui-shixiong!”

His voice wobbled a little. Shen Yuan’s heart clenched.

The Luo Binghe from before he was blackened really was the best Luo Binghe! So earnest! Such a genuine white sheep! Shen Yuan wanted to ruffle his hair and tell him he was a good boy and keep him safe from all the world’s horrors!

[Objective cleared: Assist Luo Binghe. Reward: 300 B-points. Total B-points: 1205]

[New objective: Befriend Luo Binghe. Reward: 5000 B-points]

Why was the reward so high? To what extent did he have to befriend him? He already looked at Shen Yuan like he was some kind of god, did they have to become sworn brothers, or something?

He didn’t want to put himself in the protagonist’s way, not when he didn’t know to what extent the future was set in stone. Would Gui Yuan be murdered by Luo Binghe in the future, no matter what he did? Or had that already changed in this version of Proud Immortal Demon Way?

He sighed.

“Luo-shidi, is this a frequent occurrence?” he asked. “That older disciples pick on you?”

Luo Binghe shook his head resolutely. Shen Yuan couldn’t tell if he was lying or not.

Had it really been too much to ask for Luo Binghe to suffer less?

“If you ever have problems like this again, either tell Shen-shishu or come to me.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes widened. “I don’t want to trouble Gui-shixiong.”

“Nonsense,” Shen Yuan said. “I’m Qiong Ding Peak’s head disciple, of course it’s no trouble.”

Luo Binghe looked at him with such a tear-filled, grateful gaze that Shen Yuan almost couldn’t take it, and quickly escorted him out of the forest and handed him over to Ning Yingying’s care. It was the future wife who should treat his injuries, not cannon fodder.

Now he just had to figure out how best to befriend him …

~*~

Growing closer to Luo Binghe ended up on the backburner for a while. Partially because Shen Yuan was busy, but mostly because he had no idea how to go about it. Just approaching him wouldn’t have been strange if they were disciples on the same peak, but that wasn’t the case, and Shen Yuan had too many duties to have time to go frolicking with his juniors.

Just when he’d found an excuse to go over to Qing Jing Peak, Yue Qingyuan brought him down the mountain on important sect business. He paid close attention to everything, because somewhere along the line it occurred to him that he was Yue Qingyuan’s head disciple and didn’t that mean in the future, once the Peak Lords retired, that he’d be the new sect leader????

System: [hehe]

It refused to answer any of his angry questions.

He spent the next several days carefully watching Yue Qingyuan’s every move, listening to his every word, trying to figure out why he said what he said. By the time they were half-finished with the discussions, his head was pounding, and he decided to take a walk to clear his mind.

Perhaps that was the reason it took him a moment to react when he came face-to-face with a Twelve-Fanged Fire Dragon Tiger (Airplane, the names … why were the names like that?).

The Twelve-Fanged Fire Dragon Tiger, which looked like a very large, scaled tiger with bat wings, opened its maw and roared. Fire blew out straight at him.

Shen Yuan ducked, unfolded his fan, and whipped it through the air, a gust of wind blowing the flames back towards the beast. It sent most of the fire back at the beast, but some of it singed his robes and his skin.

He didn’t have time to be relieved, and ran around trying to avoid becoming tiger food.

Fuck, what were the Twelve-Fanged Fire Dragon Tiger’s weaknesses? They were covered in scales, had twelve pairs of sharp, deadly fangs, liked to eat humans … Luo Binghe had killed one by putting it to sleep and extracting all of its fangs, which made it lose its spiritual power, but he didn’t have time for that! He wasn’t going to use the fangs to make medicine that could bring his wife number 387 back from the brink of death.

As he darted around, avoiding fire, he remembered that, though the scales couldn’t be pierced by regular weapons, the spot where the neck met the head was much weaker.

Shen Yuan wasn’t entirely sure how it happened, but suddenly his sword was sunk deep in the tiger’s neck, and it fell over, dead.

He looked down at his singed, blood-covered hands, and wondered how he’d managed that. Adrenaline? Was this the power of brain chemicals?

It was just after Shen Yuan had pulled his sword out that Yue Qingyuan found him.

He was momentarily stunned, almost as stunned as Shen Yuan felt, before he composed himself. Apparently he’d heard from some servants that a beast stalked the hills outside town, and, when he’d noticed Shen Yuan was missing, had rushed out to find him—and instead found that he’d dealt with the problem by himself.

“Be careful of which beasts you engage with,” Yue Qingyuan said, as he studied his wounds. “Twelve-Fanged Fire Dragon Tigers are fierce creatures.”

“This disciple only engaged with the beast once it attacked him.”

“I see. Good work.” Yue Qingyuan’s smile was as gentle as always, but there was a hint of pride in his eyes.

Shen Yuan’s cheeks flushed at the praise.

Once the beast had been moved and cut up into pieces for various purposes, and once a feast had been thrown in Shen Yuan’s honor and he’d been thanked by every single important and self-important person in the area, he was ordered to return to Cang Qiong to recover from his wounds.

He felt relieved—at some point he realized that he much preferred being on Qiong Ding Peak than anywhere else. Over the years, it had become his home.

~*~

If Shen Yuan thought that was the end to the trouble, however, he was wrong.

After returning and having his wounds treated, he’d rested for a little while. He woke up, and almost before he knew what was happening, Qiong Ding Peak was set aflame, and alarms were ringing. He hurried towards the grand hall, and saw forces of demons rounding up every disciple they could find.

So it was time for Sha Hualing’s introduction already.

Why hadn’t the System told him?

[… the outcome is considered inevitable. Your assistance was deemed unnecessary.]

Ouch.

The demons were led by the young, lightly clad, barefoot Sha Hualing. Her red clothes barely covered her body, and why wasn’t she wearing any shoes? Didn’t her feet hurt?

No, that wasn’t the point!

Sha Hualing, the number one fan-favorite harem member, was right there!

To be honest, Shen Yuan had never liked her that much, and he was even less impressed by her than he thought he’d be. She was only around fifteen at the moment, though, so it wasn’t so strange Shen Yuan felt nothing more than irritation when he looked at her.

The Rainbow Bridge that connected all the peaks was destroyed by the demons, which left them alone and vulnerable, with no way of alerting anyone who could help. If Yue Qingyuan was there, they wouldn’t be in this mess, but he hadn’t returned yet. Shen Yuan felt oddly compelled to do something, as the head disciple.

[New objective: Volunteer for one of the matches. Reward: 5 B-points]

Stingy!

[… the host is the one who insisted on participating.]

He moved forward to join the other disciples, and spotted the exact moment when Shen Qingqiu arrived—the demons went quiet, and suddenly looked more like admonished school children than fierce warriors.

Sha Hualing, who had just seconds before ruthlessly bullied the young disciples, now smiled sweetly at Shen Qingqiu and said some bullshit about ‘comparing skills’ and ‘exchanging pointers.’

Shen Yuan wanted Shen Qingqiu to just beat her up, but of course that wasn’t possible. Regardless of who was in the wrong, no one wanted to draw the demons’ ire. And the plot was the plot, after all. It had to proceed like it was supposed to. But to his surprise, Shen Qingqiu didn’t resort to underhanded methods to win his match. Instead, he calmly and easily beat up the demon he faced in two and a half moves.

Shen Yuan was so caught up in the difference he didn’t even notice Liu Mingyan volunteering and then being beaten by Sha Hualing. When he glanced up to check what was going on, he found that Luo Binghe was looking straight at him, instead of at either of his future wives.

One match left.

He held his breath, waiting for Shen Qingqiu to volunteer Luo Binghe for the third match. But it didn’t happen. Instead he considered all the disciples with an expression Shen Yuan had long-since learned was displeasure—how could he make a junior disciple without a spiritual sword face the giant Tian Chui?

“Shen-shishu,” Shen Yuan said. “As the head disciple of Qiong Ding Peak, I—”

“How can Gui-shixiong fight those despicable demons?” one disciple cried. “Gui-shixiong is too honorable, even volunteering when he is injured to protect us, but those demons would definitely take advantage!”

“Gui-shixiong, I’ll fight!”

“No, I will!”

“This disciple volunteers!”

A pandemonium of voices had started up, and Shen Yuan blinked. Since when had the disciples of Qiong Ding Peak grown so fond of him? When had it happened? Huh? System??

[…]

The System seemed to be saying: ‘if you haven’t noticed, that’s your problem,’ but Shen Yuan chose to ignore it.

Luo Binghe had gone up to Shen Qingqiu while he was spacing out, and looked at Sha Hualing with an intense, determined gaze.

“I volunteer,” he said, his voice calm and clear.

Sha Hualing seemed taken aback. Shen Yuan was taken aback, too.

“Luo Binghe, you—”

“I volunteer,” he repeated.

“Go ahead, then,” Shen Qingqiu said, displeased. “These matches are not to the death. Forfeit if it proves beyond your abilities.”

Although there wasn’t any obvious concern in his tone, Shen Yuan was familiar enough with Shen Qingqiu to know how to read between the lines. If the original Shen Qingqiu had been such a multi-faceted villain, he would have been much more popular among the readers!

The demon Luo Binghe fought was huge. And spiked. And the spikes were covered in poison. But Luo Binghe was the protagonist. He couldn’t lose. In the end, the demon was pushed to his knees and defeated.

A rush of pride and awe filled Shen Yuan’s chest. Though Luo Binghe’s cultivation hadn’t been crippled on purpose this time around, he hadn’t unlocked his full power, and yet he still managed to win!

Sha Hualing fumed when she realized the demons had lost, but she couldn’t do anything in the face of defeat and Shen Qingqiu’s calm, steely dismissal. She couldn’t go back on her word—that would incite an all-out battle, and she was too young to pose a threat against a Peak Lord of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. On the other hand, leaving would make her lose face with her demon followers.

She lashed out at Tian Chui and scolded him loudly, but even that didn’t calm her rage.

No doubt she’d punish her demons thoroughly after they left.

Shen Yuan didn’t hear the rest of Sha Hualing’s words to Shen Qingqiu as he pushed through the crowd towards Luo Binghe. By accident, he looked to the side, and saw how Tian Chui glared at Luo Binghe, utterly humiliated.

His flashed with an evil light, and he raised his sledgehammer, aiming straight for Luo Binghe’s head. Shen Yuan rushed forward, fingers closing around Luo Binghe’s sleeve, and pulled.

Then the demon exploded into thousands of tiny pieces, the rush of spiritual power so overwhelming Shen Yuan staggered backwards.

Liu Qingge had appeared. With his sword drawn and radiating anger, he cut an intimidating figure. Relief almost overwhelmed Shen Yuan. Wasn’t he supposed to be dead? Nevermind, he was much cooler than he’d anticipated!

Luo Binghe stumbled against Shen Yuan’s chest, and he held him up and wiped the blood off his face—he was covered in it. Bits of flesh and iron armor stuck to his skin. He’d been straight in the path of the explosion, after all, but his eyes were wide as he stared up at Shen Yuan, like he didn’t care about any of it.

“Shixiong,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

“Who are you thanking? Liu-shishu is the one who saved you.”

Without further ado, the two Peak Lords ruthlessly forced the demons out, and the tension in the air eased. But when Shen Yuan looked down at Luo Binghe again, he was leaning heavily against him, and his face seemed unnaturally flushed.

Shen Yuan frowned, and brought a hand up to his cheek. Hot to the touch.

“Luo-shidi, are you feeling okay?”

“Mmm,” Luo Binghe said, and pressed his head against Shen Yuan’s chest.

His skin was warm and pale, and Shen Yuan’s horror was mounting. Tian Chui’s armor had been covered in poison. What if it had gotten into Luo Binghe’s bloodstream somehow? His demonic powers were sealed, and Shen Yuan didn’t know if he was still immune to most poisons. What if he didn’t have his protagonist’s golden halo, either, and he died?

Liu Qingge, you idiot!

With the Rainbow Bridge destroyed, it was inconvenient to transport the injured disciples back to their own peaks, and Shen Yuan brought Luo Binghe to his own room to rest. When he’d told Shen Qingqiu about Luo Binghe’s condition, the man had the audacity to look a little worried!

Shen Qingqiu, worried about Luo Binghe!

How long until the world ended?

No one could find anything seriously wrong with him—a high fever, and his meridians were slightly off, but nothing conclusive. Rest and a standard bowl of medicine were the only treatments prescribed.

Shen Yuan made him take a bath to clean off the blood, lent him some clean robes, and forced him to take the bed. He didn’t have the energy to argue for long.

Luo Binghe fell into a deep sleep, and didn’t wake up for three days.

Shen Yuan took care of him, not sleeping for a moment despite his own injuries. The System didn’t tell him what was happening, but it wasn’t difficult to guess.

After Sha Hualing, the next plot point had been the Dream Demon.

Luo Binghe must have gotten stuck inside his dreamscape.

Shen Yuan wanted to help, he just didn’t know how. All he could do was take care of him until he woke up by himself.

Early in the morning of the third day, before the sun rose, Shen Yuan’s stamina gave out, and he fell asleep. When he woke up, he was in a room with hazy edges, and a small boy was kneeling next to a bed. The woman in the bed must have been dead for a while, but the boy still clutched at her hand.

“Wake up,” the boy begged, voice hoarse.

Ah. Shen Yuan recognized that voice. He recognized the scene, too, from the novel, and before he knew what he was doing, he was kneeling beside Luo Binghe and pulling him into a hug.

He must have ended up in his dreamscape.

Luo Binghe stiffened in his arms for a moment, before he went boneless and collapsed against him, sobbing.

“It’s okay,” Shen Yuan told him. “I’m here. This is just a dream, your dream, it can’t hurt you. I won’t let it hurt you.”

“Shixiong. Shixiong!”

“I’m here. Isn’t it time to wake up, soon?”

He gently stroked Luo Binghe’s hair until he stopped crying and straightened up. He glared at something Shen Yuan couldn’t see.

“Let Gui-shixiong go!” he said, his tone sharp.

A moment later, Shen Yuan felt a jolt, and woke up in his own room. His head was cushioned on the mattress next to Luo Binghe’s arm. Had he really been in the dreamscape, or was it just an ordinary dream? The details were already fading.

An hour later, the fever broke.

“Luo-shidi?” he called. “Luo-shidi, can you hear me? Luo Binghe? Binghe?”

Luo Binghe’s eyelids fluttered, and he groaned softly, turning over on his side.

“Binghe?” he repeated, and black eyes opened and stared straight at him, alert despite the fact that he’d been asleep for so long.

“Where is this?” he asked weakly. “Shixiong?”

“Mm-hmm. Binghe is in my room on Qiong Ding Peak.”

Though he looked pale and exhausted, he came to life when he heard that, and his eyes shone with emotion.

“Shixiong …” It seemed like he didn’t know what to say. “Has Shixiong been watching over me this entire time?”

Shen Yuan smiled at him, and pushed some hair out of his face. This Luo Binghe may not have had quite as many difficulties as the original, he had still suffered too much. And he had been alone in that dream, facing his worst nightmares without help. Ning Yingying must have been too far away to be brought into it.

The urge to protect Luo Binghe overwhelmed him.

“Who else, huh? Would you rather have some beautiful sister taking care of you and wiping the sweat off your forehead?”

Although Shen Yuan meant it as a joke, Luo Binghe shook his head violently, as if despairing at the suggestion.

“No! No! Shixiong … Shixiong is the one …!” His entire face flushed pink, despite the fact that his fever had passed, and he looked like a harassed maiden.

Shen Yuan swatted his forehead. “I was only teasing you, why are you reacting like that? People will think I’m bullying you.”

Luo Binghe glanced around the room.

“There is no one else here,” he said, completely serious.

Shen Yuan hid his face behind his spiritual fan, telling himself not to laugh. What if Luo Binghe started crying? He wouldn’t be able to take it.

Luo Binghe’s intense black eyes stared straight into his soul.

“Next time, I won’t burden Gui-shixiong like this,” he promised. “I’ll be the one to—to protect you. Everyone.”

Shen Yuan patted the back of his hand.

“I’ll be counting on you.” Did that sound too patronizing? “But Binghe can count on me, too. There is no need to face everything alone.”

Though the words felt cliché in his mouth, the smile Luo Binghe gave him made it worth it.

Luo Binghe returned to Qing Jing Peak shortly afterwards,  but Shen Yuan saw a lot of him—whether it was when Luo Binghe came over on an errand, or when he went over on one of his own visits, it was like every time he turned around, Luo Binghe would be right there.

He would ask Shen Yuan for advice, sometimes they would spar (and Luo Binghe was a lot clumsier than Shen Yuan thought he should be … what was Shen Qingqiu teaching him???). Other times they would sit together and simply talk, and Shen Yuan sometimes even played for him on the guqin. For some reason, Luo Binghe was always fascinated, despite the fact that in the future, he’d master the instrument to a much higher degree.

Shen Yuan couldn’t find it in himself to mind, future murderer or not.

Since Luo Binghe knew him, he might even wait to listen to his side of the story when he was approached by Gui Mengyu.

After all, Shen Yuan was a lazy sort of person. He was content with the attention. If he could live well in the moment, wasn’t it fine?

~*~

A few years passed like that—filled with duties, cultivation, and Luo Binghe’s steady presence. Apart from the lack of overt bullying, everything seemed to progress like it was supposed to. Shen Yuan had even seen him cozying up to Ning Yingying, and sometimes Ming Fan would complain about how the two of them were always together.

Luo Binghe was well on his way to capturing the heart of his first wife. Shen Yuan felt almost like a proud older brother!

But there was something dark on the horizon that wouldn’t let him live in peace. The Immortal Alliance Conference was quickly and relentlessly approaching, and with it, the Endless Abyss plotline.

He’s asked the System if Luo Binghe really had to go down into the Abyss, and it coldly replied:

[The ‘Endless Abyss’ is an integral storyline. Attempts at derailing the plot will be punished. If the objective is not successfully completed, all B-points will be deducted, and you will be deported back to your original world.]

“Can’t I exchange my B-points to avoid it?”

[The ‘Endless Abyss’ storyline can be avoided in exchange for 10 000 B-points.]

10 000 … in all of Shen Yuan’s years in the Proud Immortal Demon Way world, he’d only managed to gather around 3000 B-points. That amount was probably impossible to reach in just under a month.

No, strike that, it was 100% impossible.

It was like one of those cut-scenes in a video game—even though you knew what was coming, and that you could have avoided it if you were the one in control, you were forced to watch it happen, completely helpless.

The Immortal Alliance Conference, the Endless Abyss, and then some unspecified time after that when the blackened Luo Binghe came back and had exacted his revenge on Shen Qingqiu (for what?), and Cang Qiong (for what?), he would come after Gui Yuan.

But he pushed those thoughts out of his head, and set off towards Qing Jing Peak. Luo Binghe had invited him there, and he didn’t want to be late.

The weather was beautiful; the sky clear and the temperature warm, even in the shade, where Luo Binghe sat. A blanket was spread out beneath him, and there was an oversized basket next to him on the ground. He looked up, expression bright and excited.

Luo Binghe jumped to his feet and rushed over—and Shen Yuan was reminded of how much time had passed. They were around the same height, now, and Luo Binghe had matured considerably. He was no longer a cute, tiny lamb but an almost fully developed, peerlessly beautiful young man.

Well. He was still a cute lamb, and he was practically vibrating with happiness, like a dog. Shen Yuan could almost see his tail wagging.

“Shixiong!” he called, tugging on his sleeve while guiding him towards the blanket.

“What’s this?”

“Shixiong has been very busy lately,” he said, almost shyly. “I thought I could give Shixiong a chance to relax.”

Shen Yuan sat down on the blanket, and smiled.

“Binghe is very considerate.”

Luo Binghe’s grin was heart-stopping. He began lifting out boxes from the basket, and placed them out neatly between them until there was an assortment of different sizes on the blanket. Then plates and bowls, serving and eating utensils. Finally Shen Yuan realized what they were there for.

A picnic.

Despite being a straight guy, Shen Yuan felt a little touched. So what if his first picnic with someone he wasn’t related to was with another guy? It was still a picnic! And he got to taste Luo Binghe’s legendary cooking! A win-win situation, as far as he could see.

The always-considerate Luo Binghe even served him. The scents that rose when he lifted the lids were heavenly, and if Shen Yuan had died right then, he wouldn’t even have minded.

“This shidi hasn’t had much time to practice cooking, the taste might be bad.”

How could it be anything except delicious? The meat was perfectly seasoned and melted in his mouth, the rice was neither too hard nor too soft, the vegetables flavorful, the tea fragrant and brewed to perfection … there wasn’t a single thing Shen Yuan could complain about, except perhaps that the plates were picked clean too soon.

Throughout the entire thing, Luo Binghe watched him, as if he was afraid of his judgement.

“Binghe is very skilled. I feel much better already.”

The tail started wagging again, and Luo Binghe’s expression turned deeply satisfied. He’d obviously attained some goal—was Shen Yuan being used to test out new recipes for his future wives?

Shen Yuan didn’t have it in him to mind, if that was the case.

At this point, how many people had tasted Luo Binghe’s cooking? They could probably be counted on one hand.

“If Gui-shixiong would like, I could cook for him more often …?”

Shen Yuan had agreed before he knew what he was doing. He cleared his throat.

“Although I imagine there are more important things for Binghe to be doing than cooking for me.”

Like cooking for your future wives.

“How could that be?” Luo Binghe asked, sounding completely serious.

Shen Yuan couldn’t help himself, and let out a quiet laugh.

“Binghe is still young,” was all he said on the matter.

Something flashed in Luo Binghe’s eyes when he heard it, but Shen Yuan didn’t pay it any attention.

He leaned back on the blanket after the dishes were cleared away, and plucked a few flower petals and sent them flying into the air. After a moment, Luo Binghe followed suit, and the petals started fluttering around each other, creating an elaborate, colorful dance.

Once they’d grown tired, they released the petals, and they fell down around them like gently falling snow.

[Objective cleared: Befriend Luo Binghe. Reward: 5000 B-points. Total B-points: 9005]

The System’s voice was so loud he barely managed to keep from flinching.

[New objective: Immortal Alliance Conference. Penalty for failure: all B-points drained]

Shen Yuan’s good mood became more subdued as he thought about the future.

“Shixiong,” Luo Binghe said then, breaking the silence. There was something weird in his voice, and Shen Yuan turned to look at him.

He sat, back straight, with a sincere expression on his face.

“Shixiong, there’s something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time. Will you listen?”

Shen Yuan blinked, and inclined his head. It felt a little like he was walking towards his own doom.

“Gui-shixiong, you have always been good to me. Since the beginning, you helped me when no one else would, protected me when no one else could, and looked at me when no one else wanted to. Even though no one asked Shixiong to, or told you to, you have always taken care of me.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes were soft, as he looked at him through his eyelashes, fingers twitching in his lap. For some reason, Shen Yuan could barely breathe. The air had grown heavy between them.

“I know you will tell me that I am still young, but Shixiong is the entire reason I—”

“Gui-shixiong, Gui-shixiong!” Two disciples crashed through the bamboo forest and into the clearing. “The Sect Leader needs you to come back to Qiong Ding Peak immediately!”

The mood was broken, and Shen Yuan no longer felt like he was nailed in place. He wrenched his gaze away from Luo Binghe, and glanced towards the disciples.

“I’ll be right there.” He stood up. “It seems I must leave.”

Luo Binghe’s expression darkened when he looked at the disciples, but it disappeared so quickly Shen Yuan figured it was his imagination. He got up, and grabbed Shen Yuan’s sleeve.

“Wait, Shixiong, just a moment longer—”

Shen Yuan rubbed his head gently. “Tell me next time. Binghe is joining the Immortal Alliance Conference, right? Make sure to prepare well for it. This shixiong will cheer for you.”

“Shixiong …”

“I’ll be leaving first, okay?”

Shen Yuan jumped on his sword and flew back towards Qiong Ding Peak, leaving Luo Binghe standing alone in the clearing.

There would be no next time.

~*~

Shen Yuan had already made quite a name for himself—the Twelve-Fanged Fire Dragon Tiger may have been the first monster he defeated, but it certainly wasn’t the last. He was quite well-known for his extensive knowledge of monsters, beasts, spirits, and the like, and so he had no reason to personally participate in the Immortal Alliance Conference. Instead, he joined as a spectator.

When they set out, he pulled his horse up next to Luo Binghe’s, still wishing he had an excuse to ride in one of the carriages. Riding was one of those things he’d never grown to like, and he needed a distraction. He didn’t even feel bad about destroying Luo Binghe’s chance to talk to one of his future wives.

It was not the right place to speak about anything serious, so Shen Yuan just casually asked him a few questions. Luo Binghe, even with the seal on his heavenly demon blood, was one of the most accomplished young disciples of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. He’d progressed far in his human cultivation, and no doubt had gotten equally as far in his demonic cultivation, too.

If it was a regular threat, it wasn’t possible for Luo Binghe to lose.

The Conference itself was not what Shen Yuan was worried about.

“I am fine,” he said, smiling. “And prepared.”

“And how is Binghe’s goal of becoming strong enough to protect everyone faring?”

Luo Binghe’s cheeks colored faintly.

“Shixiong is teasing me.”

“Can’t I?”

“Shixiong may do whatever he wants.” That sincere expression was back. “I’ll accept anything, if it’s you.”

Was … was Luo Binghe practicing his flirting skills on Shen Yuan? His face flushed slightly (from the heat), and he hid his face behind his fan. No one had ever flirted with him before. It was an interesting experience. He glanced around, just to be sure no women were preparing to kill him for hogging Luo Binghe’s attention.

Luo Binghe looked at him expectantly. Ah. Did he have to say something?

“As long as you do your best, and never let your goal out of sight, I’m sure you’ll be able to achieve anything you want.”

There. Useless mentor guidance bullshit. If it was said with enough conviction, it even sounded wise and well-thought out, like he knew what he was talking about.

Luo Binghe even seemed grateful for the advice.

Since Shen Yuan wasn’t a participant in the Immortal Alliance Conference, but also wasn’t a Sect Leader or a Peak Lord, he couldn’t follow Luo Binghe into Jue Di Gorge, or follow Yue Qingyuan to the highest viewing platform. Instead he was stuck at a second-class viewing spot. Complaints aside, it was still better than what the members of less influential sects had access to.

He sat down with a sigh among the Cang Qiong senior disciples and various others who’d come along to watch. Qiu Haitang moved next to him.

“How is Head Disciple Gui?” she asked. Though she looked as beautiful as always, there was a wrinkle between her eyebrows. Worry?

“This disciple is well, Qiu—”

“I’ve told you to call me Qiu-shijie.”

He hadn’t even said anything yet!

“Qiu-shijie.”

“Good.”

At some point, Qiu Haitang had taken an interest in Shen Yuan, and he’d started running into her more often. Their visits to Qing Jing Peak coincided so many times it couldn’t be a coincidence, but he didn’t know why. At first she’d watched him closely, and asked him countless questions, but after a while their relationship grew quite amicable. She’d even tagged along once to take care of a Three-Headed Winter Python.

Compared to the Qiu Haitang of Proud Immortal Demon Way, this one was more carefree, which was why it was so strange to see her frowning.

“Is something the matter, Qiu-shi—shijie?”

She let out a puff of air.

“Ah, well. Eh. Not really. Shen-shibo and Luo Binghe had a small argument about the Conference, and he’s been in a bad mood ever since. Don’t tell him I said that.”

Blink, blink.

Why … would Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe argue about the Conference? About what? Did he not want Luo Binghe to participate?

“What was the argument about?”

Qiu Haitang hesitated. “He hasn’t been so involved in the training of the Qing Jing Peak disciples recently. At a guess, he’s slightly unsure of Luo Binghe’s capabilities. Qing Jing Peak is mostly concerned with scholarly interests, after all. He probably thinks Luo Binghe just wants to show off, and will get himself hurt because of it.”

But why would Shen Qingqiu care about that? Sure, he hadn’t shown any obvious dislike towards Luo Binghe, but he ignored him completely. That meant he didn’t care, right? After all, he had no way of knowing that things would go wrong.

Ah, why was the version of Proud Immortal Demon Way he’d ended up in so weird?

“And you may want to stay out of Shen-shibo’s way,” Qiu Haitang said suddenly. “He thinks you’re to blame for his participation.”

What?

How was that his fault? It wasn’t like he could influence Luo Binghe to that extent!

Qiu Haitang didn’t have the decency to elaborate.

Shen Yuan tried to concentrate on what was happening, but couldn’t quite manage. Unlike the others, he knew something was going to happen, he just didn’t know exactly when, because Proud Immortal Demon Way was a shitty novel that didn’t follow a proper timeline.

It may also have been because Shen Yuan had been in this world for so many years that he’d forgotten the plot details, but he decided to ignore that possibility.

They all sat there for hours, drinking tea and munching on snacks as they watched what was happening down in Jue Di Gorge. As expected, Luo Binghe did well—though a handful of other disciples, mostly from other sects, mostly female, followed after him for his protection. He didn’t pay much attention to them.

In his heart, Shen Yuan berated him. All those pretty sisters doing their best to attract his attention, and he just ignored them! The least he could do was look!

His Luo Binghe was still a white sheep, and apparently one without any interest in romance …

Where had he gone wrong, huh? Or was he already seriously involved with Ning Yingying, and wouldn’t look at other women out of loyalty to her ?

But Luo Binghe had a harem in the high three digits! He couldn’t be monogamous!

Hahhhhh.

Shen Yuan almost wished he’d entered the Conference as a participant, as well. He didn’t like fighting for glory all that much, but he might have been able to encourage a more romantic atmosphere …  

Instead, while Luo Binghe treated them courteously and protected them from danger, he was too courteous .

With some difficulty, Shen Yuan reminded himself that the plot of the novel had already strayed slightly from the original novel he’d read—perhaps Airplane hadn’t meant to have so many members in Luo Binghe’s harem? Or maybe he just wasn’t ready for the romance plots just yet?

Shen Yuan frowned at the screen, where Luo Binghe had just protected one of the girls from a low-leveled monster. Weren’t those disciples taking advantage of the goodness of Luo Binghe’s heart, and advancing on Luo Binghe’s merits? If they were so useless, why had they joined the conference at all? What was Huan Hua Palace teaching its disciples?

Whatever. Shen Yuan never liked the sisters from Huan Hua Palace that much, anyway. If Luo Binghe didn’t like them, either, good!

“Gui Yuan, you look like a jilted lover,” Qiu Haitang teased.

“Whose lover, Qiu-shijie?” he asked mildly. “This disciple merely thinks Luo Binghe should leave those girls behind.”

“Mm-hmm, I agree. They slow him down.” She let out a small laugh, but it didn’t quite cover up her unhappy expression.

In the novel, Qiu Haitang was part of Luo Binghe’s harem—perhaps, even in a different world, where Shen Qingqiu seemed to maybe not have slaughtered her family, and they were friends (???), she felt an instinctive attraction towards Luo Binghe …

But he was seventeen! Wasn’t that inappropriate?

He pushed that thought away.

Qiu Haitang often visited Qing Jing Peak, and was no doubt familiar with its disciples. She was probably just upset that he was being dragged down, or annoyed that Cang Qiong couldn’t show off its strength because of people from other sects.

It was fine that sisters threw themselves at Luo Binghe, but couldn’t they wait until after the competition? What if Luo Binghe didn’t win?

Well.

Luo Binghe was going into the Endless Abyss, anyways, so in the end it didn’t matter whether he papapa’d with a sister or powpowpow’d with a monster during the Conference.

It was while Shen Yuan was distracted by his thoughts that things began to go wrong down in Jue Di Gorge. An ear-piercing scream came out of the screens, and—but wasn’t Qin Wan-something one of Luo Binghe’s harem members?

How could she die that easily?!

Several of the disciples in Luo Binghe’s group had gone up to a river, but now there was only one left on the bank, expression pale and horrified to the point that it was easily seen even through the crystal screens.

Something dark moved in the river, and several corpses were spat out from it and floated on the water. The remaining disciples, who’d run up when they heard the screen, scrambled away from the edge of the river. The dark stuff—hair???—moved like it was being controlled.

A nu yuan chan? Wasn’t that too high-leveled to be in the Gorge?

Fire erupted on the riverbank, and the surviving disciples huddled around Luo Binghe. At the same time, dozens of fireworks exploded over Jue Di Gorge. Screams and calls for help came from the crystal screens, while some of the screens went dark, as if something had attacked the eagles carrying them.

[New objective: Help the disciples in Jue Di Gorge. Reward: 200 B-points]

Pandemonium had broken out among the spectators, and Shen Yuan could no longer pay attention to what was happening on the screens. Everyone had jumped to their feet, yelling about what was going on.

Shen Yuan let Qiu Haitang take charge of the situation on the viewing platform, and left to find Yue Qingyuan, who was already heading down towards Jue Di Gorge.

“Shizun, is there any way this disciple can help?” he asked.

Yue Qingyuan stopped momentarily, frowning, but he seemed to realize that there were too few people going into the Gorge, and begrudgingly gave him permission to follow. And no one, even the Peak Lords, knew which disciples from Cang Qiong had joined the Conference better than he did.

“Stay close to the edge of the barrier, and protect those that come your way. Be careful.”

With that, the elders disappeared into the forest, while he was left to deal with the disciples who had already found their way out of the Gorge. A steady trickle of them came towards him—some chased by demonic creatures, which he dispatched easily, while others limped there alone, scared but safe.

It wasn’t until he spotted the remaining Qin Wan-something, and the other disciples who had been with Luo Binghe, that his heart grew cold. He grabbed her by the shoulders, and she looked up at him, eyes red-rimmed and her face pale.

“Luo Binghe, where is he?” he demanded.

She shook her head, tears leaking out. “He—he told us to run, and we, we did, but he didn’t come after us, but he said he’d come after us, I don’t—”

Then she broke down and began to sob, and threw herself into his arms.

No … this was wrong … Luo Binghe killed people who touched his harem flowers …

He shook his head.

Luo Binghe couldn’t already have fallen into the Endless Abyss, right? He hadn’t lost his protagonist halo, and gotten killed, had he?

[Objective cleared: Help disciples in Jue Di Gorge. Reward: 200 B-points. Total B-points: 9765]

[New objective: Find Luo Binghe. Reward: 230 B-points]

He pushed Qin Wan-something away, and smiled reassuringly at her.

“I’ll go look for him, okay?”

She nodded, the gratitude in her eyes obvious.

Shen Yuan wasn’t needed there anymore, anyway, because some of the sect leaders had returned, and he slipped away easily. He remembered more or less which area Luo Binghe had been in earlier, but Jue Di Gorge was a lot bigger than he’d thought it was. It was impossible to know where he’d be now.

A handful of demonic creatures attacked him while he walked, but they were weak, and he had no trouble. Most of the more dangerous beasts must have been killed by the sect leaders already.

The corpses of monsters and unlucky disciples littered the forest floor, and Shen Yuan had to force himself not to look. Luo Binghe couldn’t be dead. He ignored the bodies, and the stench of blood, and focused on going towards the center of Jue Di  Gorge, where the rift was supposed to appear. He hoped he remembered that correctly.

Shen Yuan stumbled into a clearing filled with dead Ghost Head Spiders.

“Luo Binghe?” he called, walking past the curled-up body of a huge spider.

After repeating his name a few times, steadily wandering forward, he crossed some kind of barrier. Within it, the air grew clear, and there was no sign of any monsters.

“Shixiong?”

Luo Binghe, spotless apart from some blood on his sleeves, stepped out from under a tree.

“Binghe,” Shen Yuan said, and had already grasped his arms, studying him closely. “Are you uninjured?”

“I’m fine.” Luo Binghe’s beautiful face was calm; there was even a hint of a smile on his lips. “Was Shixiong worried?”

Shen Yuan swatted the top of his head with his fan. “Of course I was worried, what if you died in here? Or were seriously injured?”

Not that it was likely, but still!

“Then I apologize for worrying Shixiong.” There was no remorse on his face. He even seemed to grow happier.

Shen Yuan sighed.

[Objective cleared: Find Luo Binghe. Reward: 230 B-points. Total B-points: 9995]

So close to 10 000 points it was infuriating.

The ground started shaking beneath them, and he tightened his grip on Luo Binghe. An earthquake? Heavy, demonic energy surged outwards, and a rift opened in the clearing. Whatever calming power had existed there before, it was swept away like a toy boat in an ocean storm.

The Endless Abyss opened. A tall figure walked out, and the air around them grew cold and dark.

That wasn’t a rhinoceros, but Mobei-jun. Five hundred chapters too early!!

Luo Binghe subtly adjusted their positions, so that he was in front of Shen Yuan.

Shen Yuan wouldn’t have it, and stepped right back in front of Luo Binghe.

“Why has Your Excellency come here?” he asked. “Do you have a specific reason for interrupting the Immortal Alliance Conference?”

Mobei-jun’s answer was to shoot out a bolt of black, demonic energy straight at him. It was weak enough that he could deflect it with his fan, though the pressure pushed him back a step, his shoes slipping on the earth.

Ah. He really envied the natural power of demons.

Luo Binghe blocked the next strike, and Mobei-jun’s eyes flashed with interest.

“Cang Qiong Mountain Sect?” he asked, appraising him.

“Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s Qing Jing Peak disciple, Luo Binghe, greeting Your Excellency.” His voice was polite but steely.

“Demonic, yet not demonic. Interesting.”

Although Shen Yuan was only a human cultivator who hadn’t even reached immortality quite yet, the dismissal hurt! He had also blocked one of Mobei-jun’s strikes! What kind of discrimination was this?

“Binghe, we need to leave,” he said, tugging on Luo Binghe’s arm. Even though he knew he couldn’t avoid what was going to happen, it couldn’t hurt to try.

“Shixiong, he won’t let us leave.” Luo Binghe was still calm and steady, gaze fixed on Mobei-jun. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”

What kind of stupid declaration was that? Shen Yuan should never have encouraged him. No, he should never have spoken to him at all!

“Very well,” Mobei-jun said, as if he’d accepted an invitation to do battle, and struck.

How could two young disciples face against a demon king wielding the accumulated power of his ancestors? It just wasn’t possible. Within a few attacks, Shen Yuan sank to his knees, coughing up blood. He wasn’t even at Core Formation yet, okay? A half-step away was still a step!

Mobei-jun gave him no reprieve.

Dozens of black ice swords formed in the air, and shot towards him. With a roar, Luo Binghe threw himself between the swords and Shen Yuan. Power exploded outwards, the ice shattering into dust. It sparkled in the moonlight, and would have been pretty, if Shen Yuan hadn’t been frozen in fear, eyes locked on the battle in front of him.

The aura around Luo Binghe changed completely, and the battle changed, too. The two demons were locked in a terrifying, astounding battle, demonic energy thrown left and right, crackling whenever the attacks connected.

Shen Yuan tried to pay attention, but it was too much—he had to circulate spiritual power through his meridians just to keep himself conscious.

But he did see the moment Mobei-jun shot a stream of red light towards Luo Binghe’s forehead. The seal on his demonic powers broke, and power erupted from him. Shen Yuan squeezed his eyes shut as the pressure forced him against the earth.

“You do not belong in the human realm,” Mobei-jun said, cold voice slicing through the air. “You should return to your origins.”

When Shen Yuan opened his eyes, the demon was gone. Luo Binghe was on his knees, clutching at his head, barely conscious. Shen Yuan crawled over to him. The demon seal on his brow … looked different from the fanart he’d seen.

He touched Luo Binghe’s shoulder, and his hand was grabbed tightly. Burning black eyes looked into his own, slowly gaining focus.

“Shixiong?”

[New objective: Push Luo Binghe into the Endless Abyss. Failure to meet the objective will result in all B-points being drained]

‘Push’ … what???

Shen Qingqiu wasn’t anywhere near them, had Shen Yuan replaced his role in the scene completely? His hands trembled. If he pushed Luo Binghe into the Abyss, he’d definitely hate him, and turn him into a proper human stick in the future.

[Failure to comply will end in all B-points being drained. Your account will be terminated.]

He didn’t have enough B-points to avoid the event.

Even if it was possible, Luo Binghe would end up killing Shen Yuan anyway, right?

If he didn’t enter the Endless Abyss, he wouldn’t find Xin Mo, his golden finger, and he’d miss out on countless other important side plots.  

And with his demonic power unsealed, he couldn’t stay in the human realm. He’d be blamed for the entire incident, his heritage would be revealed. It would hamper Luo Binghe’s quest for power.

How could Shen Yuan let that happen?

He took a shuddering breath, calmed himself as best he could, and turned his gaze back to Luo Binghe.

Luo Binghe … looked like he was about to come apart, like his secrets had all come out at the worst possible moment.

“You … how long have you known?” Shen Yuan asked. He couldn’t quite keep his voice even.

“Shixiong,” Luo Binghe said, grip on Shen Yuan’s wrist tightening and then relaxing. “Shixiong, this shidi can explain.”

Shen Yuan’s heart clenched at his expression, but he steeled himself.

“How long?”

“Two years. Since the demons attacked Cang Qiong.”

“I see.” He turned his eyes away. “You—you really are a demon?”

“I—Shixiong, I’m not, this shidi isn’t, I’ve never—” Luo Binghe babbled, like he didn’t know what to say, distressed enough that his eyes watered. “I only wanted to grow stronger. I only wanted to be able to protect Shixiong.”

Shen Yuan gazed out at the destruction he and Mobei-jun had caused.

“Like this?” he asked. “I never asked you to do this for me.”

Something in his voice seemed to crush Luo Binghe’s spirit. He looked heartbroken.

All of Shen Yuan’s determination was ground to dust.

So what if all of Shen Yuan’s B-points were deducted? He’d already died once before. If he could spare Luo Binghe the pain of the Endless Abyss, of being rejected by someone he obviously valued to a certain degree, dying again would be worth it.

Luo Binghe was the protagonist. It wouldn’t even be a major setback in the end.

He was about to speak, to reassure him, to tell him they’d fix it somehow, when the shrill voice of the System sounded in his ears. He pressed a hand to his eyes.

[Hidden objective: Luo Binghe’s blackening]

Sirens howled inside his head.

[Objective failure imminent. Failsafe engaged]

A burning sensation flowed through Shen Yuan’s body. At first it was only warm, but as it spread, it intensified until it felt like someone had injected liquid fire into his veins. His thoughts whited out, and the ground lurched beneath him.

When he looked up, he was no longer in Jue Di Gorge. He was in the Hong Lian Sect compound.

It was dark, and demonic energy surged in the air, so close it singed his skin.

Gui Mengyu stood above him, sneer on her face, and she reached for him like she was going to pull him up. Rage overwhelmed him, and Shen Yuan expelled spiritual energy straight at her chest. She stumbled backwards, sneer turning into a deadly glare.

Shen Yuan unsheathed his sword.

“Don’t touch me,” he snarled, and launched at her.

His attacks pushed Gui Mengyu back along the path. She blocked his sword desperately, but didn’t have a weapon, and couldn’t return his attacks. Unlike back then, she didn’t have a moment to do anything apart from defend herself. He was stronger now. He could protect his mother. This time she wouldn’t die.

In a moment, he’d pushed her to the end of the path, her back against the wall. He knocked her arm wide, and plunged his sword straight through her shoulder.

“Shixiong?”

The fire in his veins abated, and he stared as Gui Mengyu’s face rippled and morphed.

His surroundings cleared.

“Shixiong …!”

Luo Binghe stood right at the precipice of the Abyss, eyes wide and filled with horror. Shen Yuan’s sword was buried in his chest, and blood bloomed on his white robes. But he’d seen … he’d seen Gui Mengyu so clearly. She’d been right in front of him.

The failsafe … was a qi deviation?

Intense pain suddenly assaulted his senses, and he lost his grip on the sword and he clutched at his stomach. When he looked at his hands, they came away covered in dark liquid.

[Objective 50% complete]

“Shixiong, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean, I didn’t mean to—” Tears streamed down Luo Binghe’s cheeks, streaking through dirt and blood.

Oh, Shen Yuan thought.

Young demons had a built-in safety mechanism.

Before they learned to properly control their power, demonic energy would automatically expel from their bodies if they were seriously injured, in an attempt to protect them from their attacker.

Shen Yuan’s torso was so covered in blood he couldn’t see the damage. His legs gave out, and he fell to his knees.

Fuck. It hurt.

Shen Yuan raised his eyes to look at Luo Binghe, still frozen above him, the sword glinting in his chest still. Luo Binghe reached out, tried to touch him, but everything hurt too much. Shen Yuan flinched, and he retracted his hand like he’d been burned.

He tried to speak, to say, no, it wasn’t his fault, it was okay, everything would be fine, but he couldn’t. He could only look at his white sheep Luo Binghe, and wonder if it was the last time he’d be able to.

[Host account termination in progress. Stand by]

Shen Yuan’s surroundings were turning dark at the edges. His veins were still on fire, everything hurt so badly he could barely feeling anything anymore.

He felt himself slip sideways onto the ground. Then it all went black.

 

 

[Account terminated]

Chapter Text

[Account terminated]




The dark wasn’t so much dark as it was absence. The absence of everything—light, sensation, consciousness, even time. You wouldn’t notice it before leaving the confines of the darkness, and even then, it was more like closing your eyes one second, and reopening them the next; an infinite stretch of nothing in between. Soon forgotten, perhaps never remembered at all.

When Shen Yuan woke for the first time out of the darkness, he was struck by a wave of déjà vu that passed as quickly as it came. It took him a moment to reorient himself, which proved to be difficult. His surroundings were black and cold and empty. He thought they were empty, at least, but since he couldn’t see anything, he couldn’t tell.

Jue Di Gorge had been cold, too, filled with icy demonic energy. For a moment, he thought he was still there, Mobei-jun’s power still assaulting him, giving him no time to breathe, just jump, dodge, deflect. The next moment he remembered hazy, burning pain, spreading from his abdomen and out into his body. He raised his arm to touch, but found he had no limbs to raise. When he looked at himself, there was nothing—only the dark, and the cold, and the emptiness.

Shen Yuan had died. Had been dead.

Then he had woken up here.

Was he still dead?

Some inexplicable feeling told him the black nothing from before he opened his eyes, and the black nothing he experienced now, were two different things.

The afterlife? Or something else?

The System stayed unhelpfully quiet.

Once it woke up, he was kicking its ass so thoroughly he’d be the one saying [hehe].

Shen Yuan floated around without knowing whether he was moving or not, whether time was passing or not; the darkness was endless and unchanging.

Something familiar flickered at the edge of his senses. Before he knew what had happened, he found himself in a place darker than before—darker because of the small lit candle flickering in the center, creating deep, black shadows where it couldn’t reach.

The candle—not a candle, something else, bright by nature but doused, burning low like it was drowning in a pool of wax—had its back turned to him. It hadn’t noticed him yet. Shen Yuan knew that with a certainty that surprised him.

He moved towards it, knowing, now, that he was moving, because the light came steadily closer, until it was so close he could reach out and touch it. Despite the searing heat, he wrapped his arms around the light. Maybe then it would burn brighter again.

The warmth chased away the cold, and the dark receded, too. The light flickered, blossomed first into a bonfire, before it dimmed again.

Shixiong?

Shen Yuan was wrenched away from the light, and tumbled back into the dark.

~*~

When Shen Yuan woke for the second time, he woke slowly. He was warm, pliant, and something thumped through his body like a drum, in stark contrast to the cold silence he’d experienced before. The ground beneath him was soft and smelled of something sweet, and the air was pleasantly cool and slightly damp, like he was sitting on a covered veranda while it rained outside.

He tried to open his eyes, but found he couldn’t—normally that would have made him panic, but the panicky part of him hadn’t woken up quite yet. Instead, he was content to lie there for a little longer, without knowing where he was, or what he was doing there.

Maybe he was home, finally, in his own world. Maybe he’d done his part, and could go back to living a normal life.

Shen Yuan wasn’t left to his fantasies for long. After enjoying another few peaceful minutes, a voice spoke up in his head.

[Initializing …]

He would have slapped himself, if he had any control of his limbs.

[System initialization complete]

[Welcome to the System!]

He’d been through that before!

[…]

[The System has been reactivated. Due to lack of proximity to the Protagonist, some System limitations may be experienced. Certain functions are not available.]

Ah. Luo Binghe!

He’d—they’d—the sword, and then—

Shen Yuan’s insides froze.

He’d tried to kill Luo Binghe. He’d tried to kill the protagonist of Proud Immortal Demon Way. The same protagonist who paid people back tenfold.

Fuck.

Shen Yuan was screwed.

Hadn’t he died already? What was this? Had Luo Binghe brought him back to life just to kill him again? Had someone else brought him back to life to give to Luo Binghe, so that Luo Binghe could kill him again? System?!?

[The System cannot answer user’s questions]

Why?

[Certain System features are temporarily restricted. Please initiate contact with the Protagonist to restore functionality.]

Fuck no.

If Shen Yuan was alive, and not just experiencing some weird afterlife, he wasn’t ever going close to Luo Binghe again. He’d become a hermit, and live on top of a mountain somewhere far away, where he’d grow his own vegetables and live in a primitive hut he’d construct with his own hands. It would be rustic but pleasant, completely unlike the life a second generation millennial like himself was expected to lead, and definitely not the life of a head disciple of the greatest cultivational sect in this world! No cultivation. No going down the mountain. No talking to people.

But. If Shen Yuan hadn’t initiated contact with Luo Binghe … did that mean Luo Binghe wasn’t the one to revive him?

For some reason he felt a dull, hollow sensation in his chest.          

The heartbroken expression on Luo Binghe’s face, before losing consciousness, flashed through Shen Yuan’s mind.

Hah.

Shen Yuan … really messed up there.

He should have just pushed him into the Endless Abyss when he had the chance. Then, maybe … he stopped his thoughts from continuing down that track. What kind of sick person was he, that he’d wish he’d hurt Luo Binghe in a different way, instead of wishing for a third option where none of that needed to happen? Pushing him down into the Abyss, trying to kill him—for Luo Binghe, wouldn’t those two seem like the same thing?

At least he hadn’t pushed Luo Binghe. At least he hadn’t managed to kill him.

Hadn’t he chosen death over hurting Luo Binghe?

He had died. He hadn’t managed the second part. A blackened Luo Binghe … maybe he’d consider Shen Yuan’s death to be some kind of repayment, already, and he wouldn’t bother going after him a second time.

His insides felt remarkably cold and empty, like he hadn’t woken up from the darkness at all.

He thought of that bright, sincere expression on Luo Binghe’s features, the one he’d worn mere hours before everything went to shit.

Luo Binghe had blackened 50% due to Shen Yuan’s (accidental) betrayal. If he ever looked at anyone like that again, it wouldn’t be him. And it probably wouldn’t even be sincere.

Shen Yuan blinked away the wetness in his eyes, and realized he could open them again.

When he did, it was to a lush, green ceiling of woven living bamboo. He was lying on a soft bed made of some kind of moss, wearing nothing except thin inner robes that hadn’t been tied properly, exposing his bare chest—had he really died, or just been knocked out and stolen away by some perverts? But when he pushed open the robes, he found he was in perfect health. The injuries he’d received in the fight against Mobei-jun and Luo Binghe were gone. Healed, but more than healed. It was like nothing had happened at all. The skin that covered his body was pale, unmarred, and smooth. No scars at all, with the lone exception of the one that covered his heart.

He pressed his fingers to it.

Perhaps … if he told Luo Binghe about the qi deviation …

Or would he think it was just an excuse? That unless Shen Yuan had wanted to kill him already, he never would have attacked him, regardless of the deviation?

Muffled voices filtered through a curtain of vines, which separated the small green alcove he was in from what was outside it. Shen Yuan considered his options. Then he sighed, stood up, made himself as presentable as possible, and parted the curtain.

What lay beyond was outside, at the same time as it wasn’t. The ceiling was a thick dome of leaves and branches, and a wall of trees, bamboo, and plants surrounded the clearing he stepped into. The alcove was inside the wall, tucked away out of sight. Grass and wildflowers and herbs covered the ground in a lush, living carpet. A stream, gently whispering, meandered through the miniature hills and valleys of the clearing. It was like a beautiful place one might stumble upon in a forest, but plucked out of its natural habitat and placed somewhere else—the yin energy that permeated the air around him was too strong for this place to be natural.

Shen Yuan was in the domain of a powerful being. A spirit, if he had to guess. But he couldn’t remember reading about anything like this. Not in the books at Cang Qiong Mountain, and not in Proud Immortal Demon Way, either. Or had he?

Powerful spirit who could bring people back to life … it was a little familiar. But it had been so long since he’d read the novel, he couldn’t be sure what he remembered and what he imagined, anymore.

The voices he heard came from the other side of a huge tree, a willow, which grew in the middle of the clearing. As he moved closer, they became clear enough that he could make them out, though he stayed hidden. If it was Luo Binghe, he’d make a run for it.

“Do you think I do this kind of thing only out of the goodness of my heart?” a low, almost sultry female voice said. “My bosom may be big, but I’m not some kind of philanthropist. That’s what gets a lady burned and exorcised by cultivators.”

“Then, then what can we offer you in return?” another voice asked.

It took Shen Yuan a moment to place it, but when he did, his jaw dropped to the ground. Ning Yingying???? What the hell was she doing there??

The unfamiliar voice hummed. “I want to see something I’ve never seen before.”

What kind of request was that?

“What would that be?” There was a note of panic in Ning Yingying’s voice.

“Oh, well, if that other one could merely lift her veil, I’d be quite satisfied.”

Veil?

“That—that’s not—” Ning Yingying began to say, but was interrupted.

“It is fine,” a third female voice said. Though Shen Yuan wasn’t very familiar with her, he only had to sneak a look past the tree trunk to confirm his suspicion. Liu Mingyan.

Ning Yingying. Liu Mingyan. Two of Luo Binghe’s wives. What were they doing there? In his distracted state, he took a step forward, and a branch crunched under his foot.

“Who’s there?” the first voice demanded.

What were the chances he could pretend like nothing?

[Statistically improbable]

Yes, thanks, that was a rhetorical question.

He stepped out from behind the tree. Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan stood on a semi-circle of ground paved with iridescent stones, dressed in pale green and light blue, respectively. At first he couldn’t spot the third person, until he realized there hadn’t been a third person. The voice came from the tree—a tree spirit.

“Awake?” she asked, the voice reverberating strangely from the trunk of the tree and out towards him. She had no face, and yet it felt like he was being closely watched.

Liu Mingyan had lifted her hands to her veil, as if to take it off, but stopped when she saw him.

“Gui-shixiong!” Ning Yingying exclaimed. Then, to his horror, she teared up. “Gui-shixiong!”

“Shixiong,” Liu Mingyan said, saluting him.

Though Shen Yuan was more familiar with Ning Yingying than Liu Mingyan, he still knew both of them. Which was why, when he looked at them, he thought something was odd. Or different.

The two young disciples he remembered, were, well. They were young. Teenagers. The women who stood before him weren’t teenagers. Instead, they looked to be in their early twenties … which meant they could potentially be decades older, if they’d cultivated to immortality.

“How are you feeling?” the tree spirit asked him. “It usually takes a while to feel right again.”

“This one feels well, and is grateful for the concern, as well as the assistance,” he said, bowing. “And wonders how he may address his benefactor?”

The tree laughed. “Sister Willow is fine for you, darling. Never mind, girl, I needn’t see your face. That one is far more interesting. Claimed twice and yet still standing.”

“Many thanks, Sister Willow. You … brought me back to life?”

“It’s been a long time since someone came to me for this reason. It’s been a long time since someone came to me for any reason!” Sister Willow laughed heartily. “I took what was left of you, called your soul back, reformed your body. Lucky, that your soul was still tied to this plane.”

“How—”

“I’m not some old gossip who’ll tell you anything if you just ask. If you want to know more, you’ll have to pay me for it.”

Shen Yuan wasn’t sure he had more to give, and he didn’t want to force Liu Mingyan to reveal her face—she was Luo Binghe’s wife! Or … might be, in the future!

“Now leave my sanctuary. That girl’s hitchhiker is sullying its purity.”

They were thrown outside the clearing without ceremony, and found themselves in a dark forest. Shen Yuan, still dressed only in his thin clothes, had to force himself to keep a calm, unaffected expression on his face despite the cold wind that blew straight through him. This was fine. It was fine.

Ning Yingying cleared her throat.

“Shixiong, I brought you some outer robes,” she said, looking through her pouch. “I borrowed them from Ming-shixiong, I thought his would fit the best.”

She pulled out the robes and thrust them into Shen Yuan’s hands, face slightly flushed.

“We’ll. Just be over here. Waiting. Turn around!” The last was hissed at Liu Mingyan, who was still observing him intently.

Though it wasn’t like he was naked, so it wasn’t exactly a big deal, he’d never dressed quicker in his entire life. The robes were a decent fit, a little tight in places—the strangest thing was the color. He couldn’t remember the last time he wore something so pale. As a Qiong Ding Peak disciple he wore darker colors, and that had been his preference at Hong Lian, as well. In a different world, perhaps he would have worn white and green together with Luo Binghe.

He pushed that thought away. Even thinking it made his heart hurt, and he redirected his thoughts to something more productive.

“Why did you bring me back?” he asked, glancing between the girls. “How long has it been?”

They hesitated.

“Five years,” Liu Mingyan finally said.

Five years … that was how long Luo Binghe had spent away from the Human Realm. Which meant he’d recently returned, if things had gone according to the novel.

It was a long time.

Yue Qingyuan probably had a new head disciple.

“As for why, it’s a bit of a story. There’s a town a few li from here. We can speak on the way there.”

Five years before: the Immortal Alliance Conference. Demonic creatures had poured into Jue Di Gorge, and the Endless Abyss opened. By the time the sect leaders and other elders had cleared the Gorge, countless were dead—countless were missing. Including Gui Yuan and Luo Binghe. Gui Yuan’s body was found in an area overflowing with demonic power, his sword missing, Zheng Yang shattered on the ground. Per Shang Qinghua’s testimony, a demon had come out of the Endless Abyss, killed Shen Yuan, and pulled Luo Binghe back through the rift. Shang Qinghua had arrived just too late to stop it.

Yue Qingyuan hadn’t reacted well, or so it was rumored. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect had lost the fewest disciples, and so there were some accusations thrown around—no one knew what happened at the meeting between the sect leaders, but the Huan Hua Palace Master left it looking very pale, and flinched every time a Cang Qiong disciple even looked his way. The relationship between the two sects wasn’t exactly improved because of it, but none of the other sects ran their mouths anymore. Why would they, when Yue Qingyuan’s precious head disciple had been lost?

Years passed. Things were beginning to go back to normal. And then Shang Qinghua was revealed as a spy for the demons. Everything that happened during the Conference was called into question, and Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s reputation continued to crumble. The trial against Shang Qinghua ended … not well. A demon lord appeared in a swirl of ice and demonic energy, grabbed An Ding Peak’s Peak Lord, and disappeared again.

And then, some time afterwards, Luo Binghe reappeared. Not dead, but a demon—a Heavenly Demon. He’d conquered most of the Demon Realm, and then came over the border to make peace with the humans. But he had an army waiting just behind him. How could he be trusted?

When Luo Binghe was refused, he came with one demand: return Gui Yuan’s body to him, and he would leave them in peace.

Of course he was refused once more.

Luo Binghe declared war on the Human Realm.

That was around two weeks before Shen Yuan was brought back to life.

When Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan had finished telling him the story, he wanted to cry. Although, sure, Luo Binghe had ended up conquering all realms under the sky, he hadn’t been doing that practically straight out of the Abyss! Why was the plot speeding up so much?

They hadn’t even told him why they’d brought him back to life, either!

So he asked.

The two women glanced at each other.

“We, I mean Yingying, I mean this shimei… thought it would be better to bring Gui-shixiong back to life before A-Lu—I mean Luo Binghe had the chance.”

She turned large, burningly sincere eyes towards him.

“After all, who knows what Luo Binghe might want with you!? Towards you, he was always—anyway, since he’s a demon, he’d probably! Probably!”

Her face flushed, for some reason.

Shen Yuan decided to ignore that. Luo Binghe was probably planning on bringing him back to life to, to torture him and kill him again. It wasn’t unlikely at all. In fact, wasn’t the fact that he demanded Cang Qiong Mountain give him his body, in return for not declaring war, proof enough that Luo Binghe hated him? That whatever positive, very platonic feelings he’d had towards him had been twisted by the betrayal, and that he wanted to exact his revenge properly? It probably wasn’t very satisfying to kill someone accidentally, after all!

His insides were growing very uncomfortable. He kind of wanted to throw up.

Shen Yuan cleared his throat.

“But how did you revive me? How did you know where to go?”

“I, uh …” Ning Yingying flushed further, shame coloring her features. “I dreamed it.”

“You … dreamed it,” Shen Yuan repeated, utterly confused. “What do you mean, you dreamed it?”

Liu Mingyan let out a sigh. “It would be easier to tell Shixiong the truth.”

“Ah, well, around a week ago I had a very vivid dream where I took Shixiong’s bones, came here, and revived Shixiong. It repeated the next night, and the next, and then, before I knew what I was doing, I’d stolen Shixiong’s bones and was already on my way.”

“I intercepted here,” Liu Mingyan added. “But I could not stop her, and so I followed instead.”

“I’m not entirely sure what I was doing, but suddenly I came to my senses when we were already here! I’m sorry!”

Came to her senses. Like she woke up from a dream.

Hadn’t Sister Willow said something about a hitchhiker, too? Shen Yuan frowned.

Ning Yingying had vivid dreams … before she knew what she was doing, she’d done what she’d dreamed …

The work of a demon, no doubt, Shen Yuan concluded. But which? There weren’t that many dream demons, not ones powerful enough to do this kind of thing. But Luo Binghe’s Dream Demon was Luo Binghe’s, he would never act on his own.

Did that meant that, while Ning Yingying thought she was sparing Shen Yuan some horrible fate at the hands of her former shidi, she was in fact pushing him into Luo Binghe’s hands willingly???

Shen Yuan felt a headache coming on.

“Ning-shimei does not need to apologize. Why would I not thank you for bringing me back to life?”

They had walked for a long period of time before they came to the edge of the forest, and they stopped for a short while. Shen Yuan was, strangely enough, both tired and not tired. It was like his body was unused to activity—which wasn’t strange, considering he’d been dead for five years and he’d turned into a skeleton— but there was an abundance of spiritual energy flowing through him.

Left over from the tree spirit?

But when he circulated that energy, and really poked around internally, that didn’t seem to be the case.

Shen Yuan was positive that he’d been half a step away from the Core Formation stage before he died … so why did it seem like he’d taken that step already?

More like, why had he leaped over the boundary? Why was he several steps into the Core Formation stage? What was this protagonist-like cheat?? He only had to die to get powerful???

Why had that never happened to Luo Binghe?

He pressed a hand to his chest, just feeling the power that filled him.

If this was even remotely what it felt like to be a peak lord, he couldn’t find it in himself to mind.

It felt extraordinarily good. Like his body was lighter, like everything was clearer and more defined. When he paid attention, he realized he could hear better, see better, move better. The forest wasn’t dead and dark, it was alive. The sound of thousands of insects and animals filled the air.

Huh.

At least Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky hadn’t completely messed up the cultivation aspects of his cultivational novel.

“Shixiong,” Liu Mingyan said, interrupting his thoughts. “It would perhaps be best if Shixiong hid his identity. Otherwise, Luo Binghe might discover what has happened.”

He probably already knew, Shen Yuan thought, but didn’t tell her. He agreed, instead.

What happened next was not something he’d expected.

Liu Mingyan lifted her hands to her veil and began to unfasten it. What. What? Whatwhatwhat??

Was he going to see Liu Mingyan’s face, the face of Proud Immortal Demon Way’s number one beauty, the face barely anyone except her brother and Luo Binghe had ever seen, that face????????? Almost on instinct he closed his eyes, but couldn’t stop himself from opening them again.

Liu Mingyan had removed her veil.

“Mingyan …” Ning Yingying said. “Why were you wearing two veils?”

“For convenience,” Liu Mingyan said, unruffled.

The veil she wore underneath the other one was fastened slightly differently, sheer in a way that blurred the features it covered, and was tucked into the collar of her robes. It reminded Shen Yuan slightly of a ninja mask, if he was being completely honest.

He didn’t even have it in himself to blush when she came closer to put the first veil on him. Whether Liu Mingyan was Luo Binghe’s wife in this world or not, all beautiful women were automatically Luo Binghe’s anyway. If he wanted them, something like a previous relationship didn’t matter. And Shen Yuan found that he didn’t even find the idea of a relationship with one of Luo Binghe’s (potential) wives all that attractive …

Liu Mingyan took a step back to admire her handiwork. Her eyes curved slightly in a smile he couldn’t see properly.

“Gui-shixiong, it suits you,” she told him.

“Ah, let me see, let me see, too!” When they turned towards her, her mouth opened and she clapped her hands together, delighted. “Mingyan, Gui-shixiong, the two of you almost look like siblings!”

Shen Yuan cleared his throat, self-conscious..

“Shall we proceed?” he asked. The feeling of smooth silk on his face was unfamiliar, but almost comforting. It meant his expression was obscured.

What sane person would compare Shen Yuan to Liu Mingyan?

~*~

The town closest to the forest was barely large enough to count as one—two streets that intersected each other in the middle, and a handful of houses and stalls lining them. Though there were people outside, they were all skittish, going about their business as quickly as they could, and sending suspicious looks towards the three of them.

Ning Yingying led them towards the town’s only inn, where she easily paid for three rooms. It seemed there weren’t many travelers in the area, and the place was almost completely empty. After a quick bath (which wasn’t as necessary as Shen Yuan had thought it would be, considering he’d been dead for five years and had then walked through a large forest), they had dinner together.

“Why are there so few people?” Shen Yuan asked.

Liu Mingyan glanced around before answering, leaning forward and keeping her voice low.

“It’s said that the demon army is coming this way. They’re afraid.”

“Of being caught in the middle of a war.”

She gave a curt nod. “There are rumors of people being abducted by the demons, as well. They really are horrible creatures.”

To think that in a different world she’d married a demon.

Their dinner was simple but satisfying enough, and when they parted for the night, Shen Yuan was tired enough that he almost collapsed onto the bed. He stopped himself, though, and began to meditate instead. Despite the fact that he’d leveled up by supernatural means, he had to make sure it had settled properly! What would he do if he was suddenly in a battle and his meridians exploded, or something?

Shen Yuan spent what felt like several hours slowly circulating spiritual power. The town was quiet and peaceful, no sounds to interrupt his thoughts, but people were still close by; perfect for meditation.

It was, of course, right after thinking that, that things started to go wrong. He felt a flicker of demonic energy from outside, and a moment later, Ning Yingying knocked on his door. There was a steely glint in her eyes that caught him by surprise—the Ning Yingying of the novel had rarely been described with such an expression, if ever. She calmly instructed him to get dressed.

“Don’t forget your veil,” she said, and when he was done she pulled him along with her. They joined Liu Mingyan below.

The innkeeper and all the servants were hiding in the back room, leaving the entrance deserted. The three of them stood there for a split second as they listened to the noise coming from outside. Screams, the sound of doors opening and people running, and the marching of a small army. The demonic energy in the air intensified as they came closer.

“Forgive me for not bringing Shixiong a weapon,” Ning Yingying said, clutching her own sword.

The demonic energy peaked just outside the inn, and the doors flew open.

Sha Hualing, the grown-up version this time, walked in, flanked by huge, monstrous-looking demons. She still wore thin silk, accented in black, and there was a symbol emblazoned on her clothes, no doubt Luo Binghe’s. She also still had no shoes on. Who went to war without shoes?

Her gaze swept over the room, pausing on the three of them. Then she smiled wickedly.

“How surprising to find Cang Qiong Mountain Sect disciples so far away from their hiding place—I mean Cang Qiong Mountain.” Her voice was both sweet and cold. “To think that Yue Qingyuan would let any of his people out of his sight again …”

“Sha Hualing, you—” Ning Yingying began to say, but Liu Mingyan grabbed her by the arm.

“Have you multiplied?” Sha Hualing asked, looking from one veiled disciple to the other. “Your brother never had a veil-fetish, did he? Long-lost cousin?”

Shen Yuan saw Liu Mingyan’s grip on her sword tighten minutely, before she relaxed again. Her relationship with her brother was good, she probably found it more difficult to ignore an insult directed at him than at herself. But even if she had gone for her sword, it didn’t matter—whether Sha Hualing had brought an army or just a small group of demons, it was unlikely that the three of them could win in a confrontation. They could only use their words, and words tended not to work on demons.

“We originally came here to look for food.” Sha Hualing smiled. “But it seems I’ve found something better. Tie them up! Let us see if Cang Qiong Mountain will talk to us now. Don’t fight. You won’t need all your limbs to function as hostages.”

Before Shen Yuan could do anything, thin rope shot out and bound his body, and he felt like he’d been doused by cold water. He no longer feel any spiritual power, despite the surplus he’d had before. It wasn’t ordinary rope, but Immortal Binding Cables.

Sha Hualing moved closer to him, one long-nailed finger stroking over the silk veil. She flicked the bottom of it, but not enough to uncover his face.

“Pretty~” she crooned. “I wonder if my lord would let me have you. He probably wouldn’t mind, he’s too busy thinking about that dead shixiong of his to even notice.”

Ahh … did Sha Hualing not know that Luo Binghe had brought him back? Or had the Dream Demon really acted on its own?

Regardless of the fact that his face was half-covered, if Luo Binghe looked at him, he’d recognize him … it was best if Shen Yuan stayed out of sight.

Sha Hualing had, indeed, brought an army. It seemed that Luo Binghe’s promise of going to war against the human realm was something he intended to fulfil. For some reason, however, they had stopped in this town, looking for food … when Shen Yuan saw other humans being led away, a shiver went up his spine. Humans? Had Luo Binghe really sunk so low as to let his underlings eat human flesh?

But no, the humans were all locked up inside the largest building in the town, probably to keep them from running off and telling others a large demon army was moving about.

Shen Yuan, together with the other two, found themselves instead shoved inside a large cage on wheels, where there were several more people also bound by Immortal Binding Cables. They were dressed in various colors, no doubt from different cultivational sects. He wondered why they were there, before remembering … Luo Binghe … had no doubt gotten hold of Xin Mo. For a person with both demon and human energy, it was important to keep them in balance. But Xin Mo, as a demonic sword, could easily upset that balance. Luo Binghe used humans to transfer the excess demonic energy out of his own body …

That was no doubt why the army had brought a few cultivators with them.

It wasn’t something Shen Yuan had thought much of while reading the novel, but the reality of it was far more grim that he had imagined. Being crippled just because a half-demon couldn’t keep his energies in check … it really was an incredibly unfair fate.

If at all possible, Shen Yuan thought, he would help those people escape.

Being shoved into a cage wasn’t something Shen Yuan ever looked forward to, and this one was dirty and foul-smelling. But he didn’t complain outwardly. Both Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan bore the situation with grace; he couldn’t embarrass himself. After all, despite the fact that they were older now than they’d been back then, he was still their shixiong! And Yue Qingyuan’s head disciple, no less! Unless Yue Qingyuan had replaced him … he probably had … after all, it wasn’t like it was normal for dead people to come back to life …

Luo Binghe’s army seemed to have stopped in town for the night, and so Shen Yuan and the others were left to rot until the demons decided to start moving again. The lock was hefty, but while there wasn’t anything other than the lock, the bars and the Immortal Binding Cables separating them from freedom, there were too many demons around.

“Shixiong, I’m sorry,” Ning Yingying whispered. “This isn’t how I pictured things going …”

“Ning-shimei, don’t worry,” Shen Yuan said. He didn’t mean it, but it sounded like the right thing to say.

After sitting like that for several hours, most of which were spent sitting like that in the rain, because the weather decided it was a good time to start pouring water down on them, he started thinking that maybe giving himself up to Luo Binghe wouldn’t be so bad, after all. At least he might be given the chance to take a warm bath before his limbs were cut off.

He wondered if the System knew how angry Luo Binghe was …

[This System cannot access that information at this point in time.]

Could it do anything useful?

[…]

[This System could initiate another failsafe.]

No, nope, fuck the System. Shen Yuan wanted another one. What had he done to deserve this?Why did he get the homicidal one, huh?

‘Befriend Luo Binghe’ … in the end, it had only been so Shen Yuan pushing him into the Endless Abyss would be a worse betrayal. Even though that wasn’t quite what ended up happening. ‘Realigning the plot with the author’s intentions,’ as the System had so helpfully told him the first time it activated, hadn’t been to bring it closer to some illusive, original outline, but to take it back to the plot of the published Proud Immortal Demon Way. Right?

[…]

[This System’s task was to negate the changes already made prior to host’s transmigration.]

If the System had a corporeal body, Shen Yuan would have strangled it. What, had Luo Binghe been too fucking happy in this version? Was all it took that Shen Qingqiu didn’t bully him, but ignored him instead?

Had Shen Yuan transmigrated for the sole reason of making Luo Binghe unhappy again?

[Since Shen Qingqiu no longer suited his original role in the narrative, a replacement was provided]

Shen Yuan told it to shut up.

The System, thankfully, said no more.

He pressed one of his hands over his eyes. He wasn’t sure for how long they sat there, but it was obvious Luo Binghe was nowhere close. Maybe he didn’t care at all that disciples from Cang Qiong Mountain had been taken prisoner. Maybe he hadn’t been told yet.

Maybe Luo Binghe was out there, looking for him, because he hadn’t expected him to wander off so quickly.       

Regardless, Shen Yuan guessed he’d know when Luo Binghe was near. And he was right. The moment Luo Binghe returned, the air changed. The demons all froze and became meek, and demonic energy whipped up like a storm. Even from far away, through the dark night, Shen Yuan could pick out his form—dressed in dark robes, a spot of red glowing on his forehead. His beauty had come to its peak, it seemed. He’d grown out of all his boyish features, and was, well.

The fanart really hadn’t done him justice. Shen Yuan was certain of that, despite the fact that he dropped his gaze the moment Luo Binghe came closer.

Sha Hualing was speaking to him. He heard her voice clearly, telling him about them. But someone else was next to him, too.

Shen Yuan didn’t dare look up to check, but it was a woman.

So … Luo Binghe did have a harem? Sha Hualing and this one? Or didn’t he?

[This System cannot access that information at this point in time]

Shut up.

Weren’t they in close proximity, why hadn’t the System reactivated properly?

[Physical touch is necessary to reactivate the System]

Looked like he had to live with a partially functioning System for the rest of his life.

Then another voice spoke. A terrible, familiar voice. “Perhaps we should not be so hasty. It may be worthwhile to discover what those disciples know.”

Something buzzed in Shen Yuan’s ears, like radio static, and he couldn’t hear Luo Binghe’s reply. His heart thumped in his chest in a wild, uncontrolled staccato, and he knew without a doubt that if his spiritual power hadn’t been blocked, it, too, would be going out of control.

Because.

That. That voice.

It belonged to someone he hadn’t seen in a decade.

He raised his eyes almost on instinct, and saw her, profile outlined by orange light, so similar to his own it was almost like looking at himself.

Gui Mengyu. His cousin. The one person in the world he wanted to see even less than Luo Binghe.

Hadn’t he befriended Luo Binghe specifically to avoid his original fate? No wonder Luo Binghe wanted to revive Shen Yuan—he wanted to let Gui Mengyu get her revenge on him. When had they met? Had she told him her version of events, like she had in Proud Immortal Demon Way, laying her own crimes at his feet? For what reason? Wasn’t he already dead? What did she want with him? Or had that part been Luo Binghe’s idea? To desecrate his bones, so he couldn’t rest in peace, or bring him back to life so she could kill him herself?

It was perfectly in line with Luo Binghe’s character.

Shen Yuan couldn’t help but wonder what he would feel, if he knew who was responsible for the Hong Lian massacre. Wondered if it would matter, after what Shen Yuan did—if he told him the only reason he had a qi deviation at all was because of Gui Mengyu … that it was Gui Mengyu he’d meant to stab, not Luo Binghe …

He doubted it would matter. Luo Binghe didn’t listen to reason, once he’d made up his mind. It helped that he was never wrong, of course. But in this case. In this case, Shen Yuan wished he could march up to him and tell him everything.

Ah, fuck.

Shen Yuan had to get out of there before some idiot pulled off his veil and Luo Binghe discovered he was right under his nose. Or before Luo Binghe came up to them and crippled him by transferring his excess demonic energy to him. Or Gui Mengyu was allowed to torture them for information.

Whatever Luo Binghe decided, it didn’t have any immediate consequences for Shen Yuan and the others in the cage. He stood outside for a moment longer, before walking away, his dark robes swirling around him. If Shen Yuan wasn’t so terrified, he probably would have admired it. As it was, his heart had frozen in his chest, which was a slight improvement over its earlier erratic beating.

It still hurt.

He’d thought he would have a little more time before dying. To be fair, he’d already died, so he messed up that bit thoroughly. But, while Gui Mengyu had been like a permanent rain cloud following him around, it had still been far away!

Though Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky had mentioned something about ‘fifteen years after the massacre,’ he’d obviously messed up the timeline, since in the original version, Gui Mengyu had been younger than Luo Binghe, or at least that was the impression he got, whereas here she was older than Shen Yuan by several years, who was older than Luo Binghe by several years. And that entire mini-arc had taken place quite a long time after Luo Binghe came back from the Endless Abyss …

Had the timeline changed when he’d transmigrated? Had he only had around fifteen years from the start?

Shit.

He should have enjoyed his time better, in that case! What had he been doing? He’d only gotten to taste Luo Binghe’s cooking once! He probably could have gotten a few more mouthfuls, at least!

At some point during his internal tirade against the universe, Shen Yuan fell asleep. The only reason he noticed was that he suddenly opened his eyes to an unfamiliar place—too clear to be a proper dream, but unless he’d sleepwalked out of the cage, it couldn’t be anything else.

“Finally,” someone rumbled. The voice came from everywhere and nowhere at once. “I was starting to believe you’d never sleep.”

Ah. Dream Demon?

“Who …?” he asked, just to play along.

“I am the Dream Demon. Lord Luo’s teacher.”

“I see.”

“I was expecting you to be a little more impressed.”

“My apologies.”

“No matter. Ehem. You must be wondering why you are alive, and why I am speaking to you.”

“I was thinking you slipped into Ning Yingying’s dreams, controlled her into taking my bones to Sister Willow, who then brought me back to life.”

“…”

“Am I wrong?”

“Tch. You humans and your insolence. Yes, yes, you are correct. But you must be wondering why I brought you back. Before you answer, I will tell you. Lord Luo has been searching for a way to revive you for a long time. He thought at first to break into the Holy Mausoleum, after I told him about it, but though there are artefacts within that can restore life, bones are difficult. Especially when the soul is not currently in this realm.”

Ah. That seemed reasonable.

“Lady Willow, however, can revive anyone, as long as the soul has not been destroyed entirely. Unfortunately, no demon may enter her domain. Lord Luo is consumed by rage, I was afraid he would simply break through the barrier by force. Lady Willow would rather burn than help a demon.”

“You tricked Ning Yingying into it? Why did you not simply tell Luo Binghe?”

“… Lord Luo has blocked me from his dreamscape. I thought perhaps this might convince him to forgive this old demon. Especially if you could put in a good word.”

Shen Yuan rubbed his temples. Why did he have to do everything? He didn’t want any part in this! Hadn’t he sworn, when he first transmigrated and discovered where he’d transmigrated to, that he’d stay away from Luo Binghe? Why had he helped him? Why had he befriended him? Why had he thought, considering the original plot of the novel, that he could change the end result?

The Luo Binghe of the novel did not react well to being betrayed. He didn’t have friends, not after he was pushed into the Endless Abyss. The people around him were kept or discarded as he saw fit. Anyone who backstabbed him would be tortured and killed.

Why had Shen Yuan thought he’d be different?

He didn’t know if Luo Binghe hated him, or if he wanted his bones for some other reason. Gui Mengyu’s presence suggested the former.

He did know, however, that he didn’t dare find out which one it was. He was too much of a coward to approach Luo Binghe and ask.

Shen Yuan didn’t want to die a third time. He didn’t want to face the same fate as the original Gui Yuan.

He quite liked his legs.

Most of all, he didn’t want to get any closer to Gui Mengyu.

So, what he said to the Dream Demon was: “Apologize to him yourself. The words will mean little coming from me.”

“No, I brought you back as my apology! You only have to show your face! Be reasonable.”

“I won’t. Now let me wake up, or I’ll tell Luo Binghe you held me in this dreamscape against my will. And I would appreciate if you could give the demons guarding me deep dreams, so I can escape.”

“…”

A moment later, the dreamscape morphed. When he next opened his eyes, it was to the inside of the cage. Ning Yingying’s head was propped up on Liu Mingyan’s shoulder, asleep. Liu Mingyan, on the other hand, was awake and alert. She turned her head to look at him, expression grave.

“I overheard some of the demons speaking,” she whispered, voice so quiet it couldn’t carry further than Shen Yuan’s ear. “They are mounting an attack on Cang Qiong Mountain.”

“To retrieve bones that are no longer there?”

“I do not believe Luo Binghe will be happy to hear they are gone.” Liu Mingyan’s face was pale. “He might attempt to destroy our sect.”

Shen Yuan took a deep breath. “We’ll escape, and warn them.”

“Even if we do, I do not know whether we can arrive there before them.”

Shen Yuan met her gaze, both of them equally serious. “We can try.”

He’d noticed the cables binding him were slightly loose around his wrists. Though they still cut off his spiritual power, he could move his hands a little. Earlier, he had been too exhausted to do anything about it, but after sleeping for a while, he’d regained some strength. Over the course of the next twenty minutes, he worked himself free, discreetly.

Afterwards he helped everyone else in the cave, and they mounted their escape when he was certain the guard demons had fallen into a slumber they wouldn’t wake from. The Dream Demon really did seem to have helped.

Shen Yuan couldn’t say how, exactly they managed to get away. Luck must have been on their side. They opened the cage, stole back their weapons, conveniently held close by, and snuck away. Once far enough from the army, they mounted the two swords they’d salvaged, and flew in the direction of Cang Qiong Mountain.

It was … slightly too easy. He wasn’t going to complain, since it was probably all because of the Dream Demon … was he so scared of Shen Yuan telling on him to Luo Binge?

They flew until they couldn’t anymore. While Shen Yuan probably could have gone for longer, Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan were exhausted—after all, while he’d been dead, they’d transported his bones through miles of terrain, and had little time to rest. They were low on spiritual power. A few hours of rest would help.

Shen Yuan vaguely recognized the forest they were in. It was somewhere close to Huan Hua Palace’s territory, though the formations guarding it were weak and fairly easy to pass through. It seemed like some skirmish had taken place there recently, and they hadn’t bothered to strengthen them again.

After wandering through the forest, rain dripping down on them from above, none of them protested when they stumbled over a dark, wet grotto. Shen Yuan summoned a flame to light their way.

The path was wide enough for the three of them to walk abreast, but the further inside they got, the more it narrowed. Suddenly, Liu Mingyan made a sound, and motioned to the floor of the grotto. Red stained the ground, like someone injured had been dragged inside. Shen Yuan borrowed Ning Yingying’s sword, and took point, moving forward The path narrowed and twisted to the point where even walking sideways was difficult. If it hadn’t been for the blood stains, they would have turned back.

But the blood stains continued deeper and deeper.  

Eventually, they found themselves in a wider cavern, with a deep pool of water at the far end. A snake was lying on the shore, half dead, spell talismans stuck all over its body. It was demonic in origin, but weak, and turned surprisingly emotive eyes towards them when they approached.

It let out a pitiful hiss.

Shen Yuan gripped his borrowed sword.

“Should we kill it?”

“Isn’t it a shame?” Ning Yingying said. “What a pitiful creature.”

“It’s a demon!” Liu Mingyan snapped.

“Still …”

Shen Yuan hesitated for a moment.

“Let us release it for now,” he whispered. “If it attacks, we deal with it then.”

The other two nodded, and he moved closer until he kneeled on the ground next to the snake. It let out a warning hiss, but calmed as Shen Yuan carefully removed the talismans. The snake seemed to quickly regain its strength, and he felt demonic energy rising within the creature. He readied himself for battle.

But it didn’t come. Instead, the snake slithered into the pool of water, and disappeared.

Shen Yuan stared after it. After a long while of no movement, he stood up.

“Let us leave, and find somewhere else to rest.”

As they left the grotto, Shen Yuan turned back once, and saw two glinting eyes staring at him from the darkness.

~*~

After they found another place to rest, Shen Yuan quickly fell asleep—and once more was pulled into a dreamscape. Not his own. This one was different. The Dream Demon was nowhere to be found.

At first everything was dark. He slowly picked his way forward, the ground crunching beneath his feet, like he was walking on gravel or dry leaves. It was a sound he couldn’t quite place. A cold wind whipped around him, carrying no scent, and Shen Yuan couldn’t hear anything other than the crunch crunch of his steps.

It took a long time, maybe hours, before his surroundings lightened to what looked like a black and white photograph. Everything was cast in mostly shades of gray. The sky was gray and stormy. The ground was gray. Everything was gray, even the bones that littered the earth—colored by ash. Skeletal buildings rose around him, the only part that wasn’t gray, but scorched black, instead.

At the bottom of a shallow crater at the center of all the destruction, there was a small form kneeling.

Shen Yuan’s heart clenched.

He knew that person. There was no universe in which he would he not recognize Luo Binghe.

Where Shen Yuan stood, the bones on the ground were all bones. Old, picked clean by the elements. The closer to Luo Binghe he looked, the fresher they seemed—until new corpses, still bleeding, surrounded him, like he’d just massacred a group of people.

The corpses were all Luo Binghe.

The air crackled with anger. Discontent. Luo Binghe’s shoulders were bowed, and he gripped—not Xin Mo. A different, more slender sword. Zheng Yang, perhaps, or—

Shen Yuan’s.

That was—

Shen Yuan’s sword, buried in a copy of Luo Binghe. Younger, dressed in white and pale green. The way he’d been as a Qing Jing Peak disciple.

Shen Yuan stared around at the dreamscape, then back at Luo Binghe.

He was destroying himself. Why? Why was he—what reason could he possibly have to kill copies of himself?

Without noticing, Shen Yuan had stumbled forward towards the kneeling figure. Luo Binghe didn’t seem to detect him, perhaps already too far gone. How long had he been doing this? This kind of destruction didn’t seem like it could have happened overnight. It was like his dreamscape was unravelling, and no longer had the strength to uphold anything but the ruin Luo Binghe had wrought. That kind of thing wasn’t good for the primordial spirit.

Shen Yuan stopped behind Luo Binghe.

The face of the copy was already decaying, losing its form.

Luo Binghe must have heard his approach. He mercilessly wrenched the sword out of the copy’s chest.

“Another one?” he asked, voice rough. Like he hadn’t slept. Like he’d been screaming.

Shen Yuan sank to his knees and wrapped his arms around him.

“Stop,” he whispered.

Luo Binghe froze. The sword clattered to the ground.

Then he began to laugh, the sound hoarse.

“Shixiong …” he said, trailing off. “I haven’t imagined you in a long time. Is this the world being merciful? Am I simply seeking to torture myself further? Shixiong, treat me kindly. Let me pretend …”

Shen Yuan tightened his hold. Luo Binghe didn’t move, just sat there, as if welcoming his presence despite not thinking he was real. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what Luo Binghe wanted, from this, from anything.

“Why are you doing this to yourself?”

“Even an imaginary Shixiong is disappointed in me?” His voice was laced with bitterness. His hand came up and closed around Shen Yuan’s wrist, his grip hard enough to hurt. “That’s fine. Soon I’ll get you back. I will not disappoint you then.”

A chill went up Shen Yuan’s spine. Something about the way he said those words—the darkness underlying his tone, the unyielding grip on Shen Yuan’s wrist—made him very frightened.

“You’re hurting me.”

They were in Luo Binghe’s dreamscape. If he wanted it to hurt, it would. There was nothing Shen Yuan could do to stop it.

Luo Binghe’s patience seemed to have run out, or maybe he could no longer recognize who he was. He roared, and explosion of energy slammed into Shen Yuan, sending him flying through the air and back to the top of the crater. He landed hard, and the breath was knocked out of his lungs. Luo Binghe stood, now, sword in hand, demonic power radiating from him.

When their eyes met, Luo Binghe seemed, impossibly, to become even more furious, as if even seeing Shen Yuan’s likeness pushed him over some edge he’d been balancing on.

The dreamscape around them began splintering, fracturing at the edges. The cracks moved closer rapidly, and Luo Binghe suddenly fell to his knees and clutched at his head. He cried out, in what sounded like immense pain.

The ground dropped out from beneath Shen Yuan, and he fell.

~*~

[Stand by for System update]

[System update download in progress]

[3%]

[7%]

[16%]

[24%]

Slower than last time.

[52%]

[77%]

[100%. System update completed]

[All System functions have been reactivated]

Shen Yuan stopped himself from groaning at the shrill sound of the System in his head. Instead, he blinked, and rubbed at his eyes. He was back where he’d been before falling asleep. Luo Binghe was nowhere to be seen, but Shen Yuan’s heartbeat was still racing in his chest.

Fuck.

Shit.

Luo Binghe was a mess. How long had it taken for him to so thoroughly destroy his dreamscape? Why had he done it? What possible reason could he have?

Had Shen Yuan fucked up that badly?

Had he destroyed Luo Binghe’s mental state, to the point where he killed versions of himself in his dreams, using Shen Yuan’s sword?

This time he did groan.

He wondered how much he’d blackened.

[Luo Binghe’s blackening is currently at 93%]

What, seriously?

[Confirmed. Luo Binghe’s blackening has been exacerbated by his increasing mental instability]

When had it started?

[That information is not accessible]

When had he met Gui Mengyu?

[That information is not accessible]

Could the System tell him anything?

[Host account role bound: head disciple of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s Qiong Ding Peak. Weapons: Mei Feng Spiritual Fan, currently not in inventory. Status: revived. Location: border of Huan Hua Palace]

[New assignment unlocked. Objective: Avoid Luo Binghe]

Shen Yuan thought about it.

Nah. He was returning to Cang Qiong Mountain before Luo Binghe decided to wreck everything.

[…]

[Objective: return to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Avoid Luo Binghe]

For some reason the System seemed to be more amenable this time around. It wasn’t even threatening him with a failsafe.

[The System can activate a failsafe if the host wishes]

It wasn’t a request!!

And where had his B-points gone?

[The B-point system has been deactivated]

How convenient.

[Host may still be terminated due to objective failure]

Of course. Shen Yuan resisted the urge to facepalm, and sat up instead. He felt surprisingly fine, although Luo Binghe’s attack had left his insides tingling. The System … obviously counted meeting in a dream as close enough physical proximity to reactivate.

He sighed. Luo Binghe had thought he was an illusion, despite the fact that he should have been able to tell the difference between something created by his dreamscape and an intruder. That he hadn’t, meant that the state of his primordial spirit was so bad he couldn’t, anymore, or he’d conjured up Shen Yuan’s likeness often enough that it was his first guess.

Shen Yuan wasn’t sure which one was more unsettling.

Luo Binghe was the protagonist. How had it turned out like this? The protagonist of Proud Immortal Demon Way may have had internal problems, but he always dealt with them externally! He turned all of his resentment outwards. For Shen Yuan, that had been part of the novel’s allure, after reading countless stories about protagonists who never stopped complaining about this and that, and never did anything about it, either.

But the Luo Binghe of this world had an objectively better life than the original. The only way it was worse was that, instead of being pushed into the Endless Abyss by a teacher who’d always disliked him, he’d almost been killed by his shixiong who had always treated him well (Shen Yuan made sure of it!!!), and then he’d killed that same shixiong in return … that shouldn’t be such a big difference, should it?

Maybe it was slightly different. A little more traumatic, considering he must have ended up in the Abyss anyway, and Shen Yuan hadn’t gotten the chance to explain that he hadn’t attacked Luo Binghe on purpose. Luo Binghe must have wondered if Shen Yuan’s affection was completely conditional, to disappear suddenly when he discovered his demonic heritage, or if it had been a lie all along and Shen Yuan had deceived him for some unknown purpose.

For someone whose childhood was as terrible as Shen Yuan knew Luo Binghe’s had been, being betrayed by someone he thought he could trust, before spending years in the Abyss, definitely would result in a 93% blackening …

But! Shen Yuan was cannon fodder!! It shouldn’t matter! Cannon fodder always died sooner or later; he was by nature expendable to both the protagonist and the story.

Cannon fodder characters were always forgotten by the narrative within a few chapters. The only ones who were treated as badly as cannon fodder were scum villains, who avoided the fate of being forgotten in exchange for being reviled by all important characters and readers alike.

Had Shen Yuan’s role been upgraded to a scum villain?

[Host account’s bound role has not been upgraded to a scum villain]

Then had he upgraded into anything?

[That information is not accessible]

That again. Shen Yuan questioned, not for the first time, the competence of the System he’d been assigned. Could he exchange it for another one? Was there a System outlet where he could choose a new one based on personal characteristics and preferences?

[There is no such thing]

The System’s google translate voice sounded slightly peeved, and Shen Yuan, who had already been killed once by the System, decided to leave it alone for a while. He didn’t want his next death to happen earlier than it had to.

Whether Luo Binghe wanted him for his own sake, or Gui Mengyu’s, Shen Yuan would do his best to stay out of his way. Considering they were both headed for the same destination, that might be difficult, especially since he’d probably have to show himself to prove to Luo Binghe that he was already alive, but … he’d figure something out.

Maybe.

Or maybe pray that Luo Binghe didn’t want to torture him before dealing the final blow, if what he wanted was Shen Yuan’s death.

Which had to be the case. Otherwise, why would he be with Gui Mengyu? In the original Proud Immortal Demon Way, the reason Gui Mengyu approached Luo Binghe was to get his help with killing Gui Yuan. Why she needed help, he didn’t know, since she’d easily massacred an entire sect on her own, but that was what happened. So, this time, she … what? Wanted to kill him personally? Or was it Luo Binghe’s idea, once she’d (tearfully) told him the true nature of his shixiong?

Had Shen Yuan’s betrayal made Luo Binghe think he was capable of murdering his family?

… He had made Luo Binghe think he was his friend, before rejecting him for being a demon and then sticking a sword through his chest.

It wasn’t exactly a big leap to make.

Shen Yuan wouldn’t even blame him for believing her.

If she could trick Hong Lian Sect for years into thinking she was a white lotus, then it probably wouldn’t be difficult to do the same with Luo Binghe.

Despite Luo Binghe being the protagonist … and that he was supposed to have a higher IQ than everyone else in the entire novel …

Okay, Shen Yuan was maybe a little disappointed that Luo Binghe would believe Gui Mengyu over him.

Just a little. It wasn’t like he’d known him for years, or anything.

He’d known Gui Mengyu for a while, too. Years, if you counted how long Gui Yuan knew her. He still hadn’t noticed any signs of her homicidal nature.

Shen Yuan put his hands over his face and muffled a scream. No. Bad thoughts. No more thinking about anything other than returning to Cang Qiong Mountain. Whether someone had replaced him as head disciple or not, returning was both his duty and what he wanted to do.

Yue Qingyuan was the only person he could think of that he could go to for help. And Shen Yuan had a duty towards his shizun, too. He had to make sure Shen Qingqiu didn’t take advantage of Yue Qingyuan while he was gone.

Yue Qingyuan was like a duckling who’d imprinted—it didn’t matter that Shen Qingqiu obviously wasn’t his mother, he followed him around without question anyway. It was a wonder he ever got anything done at all.

Shen Yuan cleared his head, and concentrated on the journey, instead. He, Ning Yingying, and Liu Mingyan had set off early, as soon as they’d gotten a sufficient amount of rest. Though Core Formation stage cultivators didn’t technically need to eat, he for some reason felt a very strong urge to have congee for breakfast. Unfortunately they had no food with them at all. His craving went unsatisfied.

The journey wasn’t long. Shen Yuan may have been dead for five years, but he hadn’t forgotten what it was like to fly swiftly through the air, and relished in the feeling of wind against his skin. The first few times he’d done it, he’d been absolutely terrified, but he had his pride as a reader of hundreds of cultivational novels. He didn’t care that everyone in this world traveled by carriage or horse—he wasn’t going to disgrace himself or the xianxia genre in that manner! Sword was the way to go, or at least that was what he repeated to himself when they got stuck in another heavy downpour.

The robes that had only just dried, became wet again before long.

Shen Yuan felt more like a sodden cat than a cultivator when Cang Qiong Mountain appeared on the horizon.

He quickly forgot about his displeasure, though.

Because Cang Qiong Mountain was set ablaze.

~*~

Luo Binghe’s demon army surrounded the twelve peaks, and the entire area reeked of demonic energy. It wasn’t long since Shen Yuan and the others had escaped confinement, by all rights they should have managed to arrive more quickly. Yet the demons were already there, and must have been for some time. Was this due to the natural, superior stamina of demons? Or had Luo Binghe used Xin Mo to bring them directly to the foot of the mountain?

All Shen Yuan knew was this: Luo Binghe must have slept at some point, or he wouldn’t have been pulled into his dreamscape, but it may not have been for long. And Luo Binghe wasn’t in his right state of mind.

The fire was proof of that. The army was proof of that.

The Luo Binghe of five years ago would never have attacked first, if discourse was at all possible. Then again, the Luo Binghe of five years ago probably wouldn’t have wanted Shen Yuan’s bones, either.

This was what the Endless Abyss had done to him   

Shen Yuan felt a shaky sense of guilt.

It didn’t quite manage to replace the fear lodged in his chest, filling his lungs with dark sludge.

Ning Yingying’s expression was wide-eyed and horrified.

“A-Luo …” she whispered.

“It seems like Luo Binghe is forcing his way through the formation,” Liu Mingyan said, somehow still calm. “Though he will be stopped by the gates, I fear it will not be enough.”

“Will he talk, or simply take what he came for by force?” Shen Yuan mused.

Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan exchanged a glance.

“We’ll protect you, Gui-shixiong!” Ning Yingying stated. “We won’t let him kidnap you!”

Liu Mingyan nodded fiercely.

Ah … had Shen Yuan really messed up Luo Binghe’s chance of recruiting those to into his harem?

Did he have a harem?

[No.]

Direct and crushing, as always.

[There is no harem extension attached to the host account]

An upgrade, maybe …

Shen Yuan’s group managed to sneak their way around most of the demonic forces. The entire flat area below the peaks was filled with a mass of demons of all shapes and sizes, and the force of the collected demonic energy was so strong Shen Yuan felt it singing the insides of his meridians. It was unpleasant.

No wonder human cultivators didn’t like demons. Not only were they naturally more powerful, they also made humans feel bad.

Even Shen Yuan, who’d disdained the righteous cultivators for their hypocrisy while reading the novel, couldn’t help but think that humans weren’t completely wrong.

Demons were terrifying.

“How will we manage to reach the top of Qiong Ding Peak?”

They stared up at the towering mountain. The steps were covered by Luo Binghe’s forces, as far as the eye could see.

There was no screaming or clanging of metal. For one second, a thought consumed Shen Yuan’s mind: what if they were too late? What if Luo Binghe had already discovered the bones were missing, and he’d killed everyone as retribution?

Then the air around them turned icy cold. A thin layer of frost crept up his wet robes and his skin. When he turned around, Mobei-jun stood only a few steps away. His handsome face was frozen into an impassive expression. He neither moved nor attacked, just looked at them, like he was waiting for something.

“You Excellency,” Shen Yuan said while trying to set his mind into motion, grasping for something else to say.

At that, Mobei-jun’s expression changed.

“You,” he said. Then, after an extended pause: “ Cang Qiong disciples.”

“Yes,” Ning Yingying squeaked.

Mobei-jun shot her a glance and she flinched, though she stood her ground.

“You are familiar,” Mobei-jun said, and frowned. Shen Yuan realized he’d never put on the veil again. Shit.

Mobei-jun raised his hand, demonic energy rising.

“Wait! Wait, wait, my king!”

Everyone stopped and turned towards the shadow who was clutching at Mobei-jun’s robes.

“Shang-shishu, you!” Ning Yingying exclaimed, unfreezing and drawing her sword.

Liu Mingyan gently grasped her arm and pulled her back.

Shang Qinghua. The spy. Shen Yuan was surprised he’d lived this long. Hadn’t he gotten himself killed or something? He couldn’t remember.

“My king,” he repeated, squirming under the demon’s heavy gaze. “That person—he is the one Lord Luo is looking for.”

Mobei-jun’s eyes snapped back to Shen Yuan, and he gave him what seemed to be an appraising look, only slightly more emotive than earlier, before turning around.

“Deal with them,” was all he said, and walked away.

They all gaped after him for several moments.

Ning Yingying pulled out of Liu Mingyan’s hold and grabbed Shang Qinghua by the collar of his robes.

“You!” She shook him roughly.

“Me?” Shang Qinghua’s voice had turned high-pitched. “Please, spare me! I can help! I can help!”

Shen Yuan had never interacted extensively with An Ding’s Peak Lord. At most he’d seen him a handful of times. If he needed to go over to the peak for some reason, he spoke to disciples, not to Shang Qinghua, so he hadn’t had the chance to make up much of an opinion. What he knew came from what he’d read in Proud Immortal Demon Way, and that … to be honest, Shang Qinghua was just mildly useful cannon fodder, like Gui Yuan, so there wasn’t all that much in there.

A lying, cheating, cowardly rat, was what Shen Yuan had thought.

The cowardly part was still right, he thought, as he looked at the squirming man. Rat … in terms of size? Maybe. Definitely a traitor, or he wouldn’t have been hanging onto Mobei-jun’s robes.

“How can you help?” Shen Yuan asked.

“You want to go up to Qiong Ding Peak! I can bring you there!”

“He merely wishes to deliver us directly into Luo Binghe’s hands,” Liu Mingyan said. “We should dispose of him and go ourselves.”

Okay, wow, Liu Mingyan was definitely his favorite of Luo Binghe’s harem members.

Shang Qinghua didn’t seem impressed, but taken aback and very afraid. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead.

“Please don’t. I won’t deliver you anywhere without your consent! There are other ways up Qiong Ding Peak, I can show them to you.”

“The paths up the peak are well-known to me, too.”

Shang Qinghua glanced in Shen Yuan’s direction, and did a double-take, as if he’d forgotten he was alive.

“Of course. But some of them are being watched. I know which ones aren’t.” Then, he mumbled: “as if I’d give up all of Cang Qiong’s secrets just like that! What am I, a snake?”

“Yes.”

Shang Qinghua glared at all of them with accusing eyes.

“Luo Binghe hasn’t gotten through the defenses yet. If we don’t go quickly, though …”

“Fine.”

No one in their group of four was particularly happy about the situation as they crossed over from the loud demon siege into the far more quiet forest that covered the peak. Shen Yuan did know every path that went up the mountain—he’d mapped several himself. But Shang Qinghua also hadn’t been lying. Most of the obvious ones were crawling with demons, and Shen Yuan wasn’t certain he could have avoided them all.

Shang Qinghua led them through a network of hidden paths until they reached one cut into the rock, a tunnel that let out not far from Qiong Ding Peak’s grand hall.

“Why not take us directly to the demons?” Shen Yuan asked.

Shang Qinghua’s eyes darted around.

“Because Lord Luo is at the top of the peak, while you’d have to walk through all the demons to reach him, what would I do if someone hurt you, or killed you? What could I tell him that wouldn’t make him murder me? Oops, the person you’ve been wanting to bring back to life for years was right under your nose, but before you could see him, I accidentally let him die again? Sorry? How well do you think that’d go??? How’d he end up this blackened, anyway, huh? How did you manage that, Gui Yuan??”

“I—” Shen Yuan cut himself off. ‘Blackened’ … “You … Shang-shishu. Proud. Immortal.”

Shang Qinghua jerked, and looked up at him, then looked at Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan, who had wandered slightly further away to check if they were being followed.

“Oh. Oh! Wow. Okay. You know what, that makes perfect fucking sense. Of course you’re—Huh. I figured it was Shen Qingqiu or Qiu Haitang at first, but they didn’t pick up on any of my subtle references. Actually, I think they just think I’m really weird.”

Shen Yuan had no idea why.

“But seriously! Why the fuck did you do that, huh? Luo Binghe was so close to not being a blackened stallion protagonist, then you go and stab him! Did your System tell you to do that? Did you even read the novel? That wasn’t in the novel! What are you even doing at Cang Qiong, you were supposed to wander around listlessly for years after your family was murdered before you were briefly taken in by a teacher who unraveled most of the damage done to your meridians after you had a qi deviation, dude—you are a dude, right?”

“I’m … a dude.” Shen Yuan stared at Shang Qinghua. “You wouldn’t happen to be Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky, would you?”

He jumped. “How did you figure that out?”

“That bit about Gui Yuan wasn’t in the novel.”

“You have read it! You’re a fan?”

“No.”

“Oh. Anti-fan, then …” Somehow he didn’t seem all that surprised.

“And I have some questions for you. Like, why did you make Luo Binghe suffer so much? What’s with all these pointless wives? It’s obvious there’s barely any mutual love, not to mention no attraction, it’s just peerless beauty after peerless beauty, why does he need 600 of them? And not to mention the papapa is so dry—”

Shang Qinghua’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Peerless Cucumber! My favorite anti-fan!”

Shen Yuan felt an instinctive, almost overpowering desire to punch Shang Qinghua in the face. He stopped himself in time, and was about to start ranting about everything Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky had done wrong (writing anything in the first place, to start with), when the girls rejoined them.

“It is safe. Let us continue.” Liu Mingyan had just saved Shang Qinghua’s life unknowingly.

The tunnel led upwards at a steady incline at first. Smooth, even steps were cut into the rock where it was needed, and grooves had been carved into the sides as support at some point long ago. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that the world of Proud Immortal Demon Way existed outside the novel, and wasn’t, as one might think, a blank white slate upon which the badly crafted puzzle of the novel had been arranged.

The air was chilly, compared to outside, and Shen Yuan again cursed his damp robes. But it didn’t take the group long to climb through the tunnel and spill out into the forest behind the hall. There were no demons that they could see, which must mean Cang Qiong Mountain hadn’t fallen yet.

Any hope Shen Yuan had was crushed when they approached the hall. Sneaking a quick glance around the building, he could see the mass of demons congregated outside the gates. The ground was covered in ice and scorch-marks, and several buildings had been set on fire. The air was filled with smoke and orange light.

Both human and demonic energies had already clashed.

Cang Qiong Mountain hadn’t fallen yet, but that was because the fighting was still in progress.

They stayed hidden and watched as both humans and demons seemed to ready themselves for another fight.

“You know what I have come for, Sect Leader Yue,” Luo Binghe said. His voice carried through the night, calm and clear. No sign of mental instability anywhere.

“Your Excellency, I cannot give you what you seek.” Yue Qingyuan betrayed no unease, either.

“Would you rather Cang Qiong Mountain was burned to the ground? What is Gui-shixiong’s body compared to the lives of everyone in your sect?”

“Your Excellency still calls Gui Yuan your shixiong. You must still hold some respect for him. Why go to such lengths to desecrate his bones?”

The air rippled with demonic energy. Luo Binghe’s face had darkened.

“Give him to me, or I will take him by force.”

“Gui Yuan has already been buried. As long as any of us live, we will not let you have his body.”

“Then you can all die.” Luo Binghe raised his hand, and the demons behind him reared up, ready to attack.

Shen Yuan’s heart lodged in his throat, and he prepared to throw himself out there to stop it.

“Luo Binghe, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Shen Qingqiu snapped.

Luo Binghe paused, and turned towards his former teacher.

“Do you resent Cang Qiong Mountain to this extent, that you would obliterate it? Were you treated so badly that you must take your revenge in this manner?”

A smile, cold like ice, appeared on Luo Binghe’s face.

“Then you know you did not treat me as well as you should have? During all my years on Qing Jing Peak, you ignored me as if you could not stand the sight of me, and treated me as if I did not exist. I watched you warmly teach each of your other disciples, everyone except for me. Once, all I wanted was your approval.”

He shook his head.

“But that is in the past. What you did or did not do, Shen Qingqiu, I no longer care. I am not here for revenge, only Gui-shixiong.”

Shen Yuan couldn’t believe it. A world where Luo Binghe didn’t want to cut off Shen Qingqiu’s limbs.

“Your Gui-shixiong is long dead,” Shen Qingqiu said. “What will you do with his earthly remains?”

“I see no reason to answer your question.” Luo Binghe’s eyes narrowed, just slightly.

If Shen Yuan hadn’t been familiar with Qing Jing Peak’s Peak Lord to the extent he was, he wouldn’t have noticed Shen Qingqiu’s reaction. It was so small he doubted anyone else saw it. But he did. Shen Qingqiu flinched. He was afraid. Anyone would be afraid in this situation, but there was something about the reaction that made Shen Yuan think it was more than ordinary fear.

What had Luo Binghe done in this world, to make Shen Qingqiu so terrified of him?

“Gui Yuan would not approve of your actions.” He seemed to have gotten himself back under control, and subtly moved towards Yue Qingyuan. 

“Shut up.” Energy crackled through the air, and the buildings still standing began to shake.

“Perhaps if you had not killed him in the first place—”

Fuck, he’d managed to avoid his fate, and yet he seemed to be doing everything he could to get it back. What was he doing?

“Enough,” Yue Qingyuan said, and Shen Yuan let out a sharp sigh of relief. “Enough. Do not provoke him.”

His voice rang out, and everything went quiet, even the shaking became a gentle tremor.

“Your Excellency, I cannot allow you to take Gui Yuan’s bones. This is non-negotiable. Let him rest in peace.”

The smile that had briefly appeared on Luo Binghe’s face earlier, had by now completely disappeared. He took two threatening steps forward, his entire countenance dark and deadly. If Yue Qingyuan would not give him Shen Yuan’s body willingly, it seemed he really would take it by force.

But before the fight began, a disciple darted onto the scene, and whispered something into Yue Qingyuan’s ear. His face drained of color, and his expression, which had been calm before, flashed with something Shen Yuan had never seen before. Anger?

He turned to Luo Binghe.

“Was this all meant as a distraction, Your Excellency?” he demanded. “Speak to us while your henchmen break into the palace? Did you have any intention of resolving this without further bloodshed, or was that a lie?”

Luo Binghe’s face twisted at the accusation. He didn’t seem angry, but confused.

“What do you mean?”

“He means,” the disciple snapped, a girl from Qiong Ding Shen Yuan knew quite well, “that Gui-shixiong’s tomb has already been emptied.”

For a moment, Luo Binghe showed no reaction. He just stared blankly at her, as if he didn’t understand what she meant. Then his eyes, which had been their normal deep black, turned red. A shockwave of demonic energy burst from him, and Shen Yuan fell backwards. He heard another explosion, loud like a crash of thunder, or a lightning strike. For a moment he couldn’t hear anything but ringing in his ears.

When he picked himself up off the ground, half of the palace had been destroyed, and the rest was on fire. Most of Cang Qiong’s cultivators had been blasted away by the explosion, and were lying on the ground, unconscious. Many demons had suffered a similar fate. The pressure of the energy in the air was intense.

Luo Binghe had seized Yue Qingyuan by the front of his robes, eyes blazing with fury.

He was frenzied, though, like whatever delicate hold he’d had on his self-control had slipped.

“Where is he?” he snarled. “Where are you hiding him? Do you think you can keep him from me?”

“Release him,” Shen Qingqiu said, Xiu Ya unsheathed and pointed at him.

“Unhand me, Your Excellency.” Yue Qingyuan seemed almost as angry as Luo Binghe, and his hand rested on the hilt of his sword.

“Don’t let him pull it out!” Shang Qinghua hissed. “That sword is tied to his lifeforce!”

Shen Yuan’s insides went cold. What?

“Where is he? Where—”

“Luo Binghe, what are you doing?”

It was like time stopped—everyone still awake froze in place. Luo Binghe’s head slowly turned towards Shen Yuan, who had just stepped out from behind the hall. He ignored the dozens of eyes on him, and instead met Luo Binghe’s red gaze.

His grip on Yue Qingyuan loosened.      

“What is this?” Shen Yuan pressed.

“Gui Yuan …” Yue Qingyuan murmured.

Luo Binghe let him go, and took a stumbling step towards Shen Yuan. It seemed like he could no longer see anyone else.

“Shixiong?” he asked. He sounded confused. Lost.

Shen Yuan’s chest clenched.

“Answer me. What are you doing?”

“Shixiong, Shixiong,” Luo Binghe repeated, stumbling towards him still. It was like he couldn’t hear him, and when he got closer, Shen Yuan realized why.

Shen Yuan’s appearance might have broken Luo Binghe out of his bloodthirst, but it hadn’t done much else—he was out of it, barely conscious, his red eyes shiny, his face flushed, like he was feverish.

Luo Binghe stopped when he was close, too close, and Shen Yuan had to crane his head back to look at his face.

“Shixiong.” He reached out to touch his cheek, but curled his fingers before he could. “Shixiong.”

Didn’t he know any other words? Just a second ago he’d heard him say full sentences, was this all he could say, now?

“I’m here, I’m—”

Luo Binghe took his wrist, fingers pressing against his pulse. His red eyes still stared at Shen Yuan’s face, and a wide smile slowly curved his lips.

Ah. He was really out of it.

“Luo Binghe, come to your senses!”

“Shixiong is alive,” he whispered. “Was it you? It must have been Shixiong. Shixiong returned to me.”

He was on the verge of a qi deviation, pain twisting his expression, making his eyes go hazy. Shen Yuan pulled his hand out of Luo Binghe’s grip. Luo Binghe frowned at him, before Shen Yuan took his wrist instead, and sent a wave of spiritual energy through him. It probably wasn’t enough, but if he could at least not pass out any minute now, that would be great. Sha Hualing was already glaring at him, he didn’t want to die again so soon.

“What have you done to yourself?” he asked softly. His heart still felt as taut as a bowstring, quivering with fear, but how could he leave Luo Binghe to his own devices? Even if he recovered, who knew what he’d do to Cang Qiong Mountain. And if he didn’t, those demons would definitely try to destroy everything.

If all Luo Binghe wanted was Shen Yuan, and he took him and him alone, wouldn’t that be fine?

They stood there for a long time, as Shen Yuan passed spiritual energy over. Of course it couldn’t be enough, since Luo Binghe seemed to refuse to pass any demonic energy over to Shen Yuan in return. But maybe Luo Binghe managed to get himself under control again, because his gaze cleared little by little. He didn’t step away, and instead studied him closely, eyes raking over every part of him he could see. He paused slightly when he saw the robes he was wearing.

Slowly he withdrew his wrist from Shen Yuan’s hold.

“You’re alive,” he said then.

“Yes.” Shen Yuan was starting to feel a crick in his neck. Who’d let him grow so big?

“Shixiong.”

That again?

“Are you going to keep repeating that, or say something else?”

Luo Binghe’s eyebrows twitched, but his face was smooth. There was no anger, no hatred, no disgust. No emotion Shen Yuan had expected, but nothing else, either. It was like he’d put on a mask.

“Who brought you back?”

“I would like the answer to that, as well.” Yue Qingyuan’s voice broke through the bubble that had temporarily surrounded the two of them.

Luo Binghe moved back. The fact that he could stand at all, not to mention with a straight back like there was nothing wrong with him, was a miracle. That was the protagonist’s halo at work. Or maybe his demon constitution. He still sort of wanted to ask him to sit down, or something.

“It was us!” Ning Yingying said, stepping forward while pulling Liu Mingyan by the hand. “Me, I mean. This disciple took Gui-shixiong’s bones and brought it to a spirit who managed to revive him. This disciple deeply apologizes for her actions, and for not informing anyone.”

Yue Qingyuan seemed to flounder for a moment, as if he had no idea whether to scold her or not. Shen Qingqiu was torn between irritation and something that looked almost like pride, and Qiu Haitang, who Shen Yuan hadn’t even noticed earlier, had stolen Shen Qingqiu’s fan and was hiding her face behind it. She elbowed Shen Qingqiu in the side.

“You should have asked for permission,” he said. It was half-hearted, at best.

“This disciple is aware.” Ning Yingying hung her head.

“Life and death should not be meddled with.” He glanced between Yue Qingyuan and Shen Yuan. “As it has already been done …”

“Ning-shimei was unknowingly influenced by a powerful dream demon.” Shen Yuan might as well put in a good word, otherwise that thing would keep bugging him in his dreams.

Yue Qingyuan’s eyebrows rose, and Luo Binghe’s expression twitched.

“For a dream demon to control a cultivator’s actions, it must have been very powerful.” Luo Binghe’s eyes were deep and unfathomable, but Shen Yuan was sure he’d figured it out. For some reason he didn’t seem happy, though …

Did he want to kill Shen Yuan, or didn’t he?

Shen Yuan wasn’t sure what was going on. Was Luo Binghe just pretending so he’d, what, go with him willingly, and then he’d be shut up in some dungeon somewhere? Where was Gui Mengyu, for that matter? Had she not followed him here?

“Your Excellency, please vacate Cang Qiong Mountain immediately. If what you wanted was to revive Gui Yuan, it has already been done. If what you wanted was Gui Yuan himself, I still cannot allow you to take him with you.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes were locked on Shen Yuan’s face, as if he was searching for something.

“Does Shixiong wish to stay here?” he asked, finally.

“What?”

“Do you wish to stay? Shixiong only needs to say one word, and I will leave.”

Shen Yuan looked around at the destruction Luo Binghe had brought Qiong Ding Peak. Fires still burned, half of the buildings were destroyed, dozens of cultivators were still unconscious.

“Yes,” he whispered. “I want you to leave.”

Luo Binghe bowed his head for a moment. Then he nodded.

“Then we will leave,” he said. “Shixiong, I …”

Whatever Luo Binghe had wanted to say, he never did. His hands clenched and relaxed, and he turned around. For one second, Shen Yuan thought he looked crestfallen. As if he was a young maiden who had just had her heart broken.

Without saying anything further, Luo Binghe and all of the demons left. Among them, one familiar figure directed a heated look his way, and he stiffened, but Gui Mengyu disappeared without doing anything.

Ah. So she’d been there all along. Watching.

“That woman looked a lot like you,” Yue Qingyuan said, placing a hand on his shoulder.

Shen Yuan made some noise of agreement, he wasn’t sure, though, because of the buzzing in his ears. He swallowed. When he closed his eyes, the image of his mother’s severed body was burned onto his eyelids.

“Did she survive the massacre, or instigate it?” Shen Qingqiu asked.

“That … yes. She—”

“I see.” Yue Qingyuan’s hand tensed slightly on Shen Yuan’s shoulder. “You should rest. You must be tired, after everything.”

“Shizun, I—”

“Rest. We can speak later. This teacher will take care of everything.” He smiled gently, the furrow between his eyebrows the only thing that revealed he wasn’t as calm as he appeared.

If Shen Yuan had been slightly younger, he probably would have clung to Yue Qingyuan. Unfortunately, he was an adult twice over, and his face wasn’t thick enough for it.

“Gui Yuan, come with me.” Qiu Haitang tugged at is sleeve. “Why are you dressed like a Qing Jing Peak disciple?”

“This disciple is at fault!” Ning Yingying said immediately. Shen Yuan was beginning to wonder if she would have claimed responsibility for anything, at this point.

“It suits you,” was Qiu Haitang’s only reply. “I seem to remember Hong Lian Sect wore red, though, I’m sure that would suit you even better …”

“Haitang …” Shen Qingqiu sounded tired.

“My apologies.”

Yue Qingyuan just shook his head, and carefully pushed Shen Yuan in Qiu Haitang’s direction. She took him by the arm, and led him away from the destruction. The buildings the disciples slept in were far enough away to not have been damaged, and soon enough Shen Yuan was in his room.

It hadn’t changed at all.

“This …”

“Sect Leader Yue should have taken a new head disciple, but he’s pushed back the decision countless times. So it’s still you, in case you were wondering. Now sit down, you look like you’re going to faint.”

Shen Yuan let himself be maneuvered down onto the bed.

“Your Shen-shishu was furious when he discovered that Luo Binghe killed you. I think he blames himself for it.”

“Why … would he blame himself? And Luo Binghe did not meant to kill me.”

“You don’t have to defend him.”      

“He didn’t mean to. The responsibility is more mine than his.

Qiu Haitang didn’t look convinced—like she thought he was one of those women who always excused their abusive boyfriends by saying “he didn’t mean to hurt me, I just made him so angry” …

But it really had been an accident. Luo Binghe genuinely hadn’t wanted to kill him. He’d been so horrified, when he realized what he’d done …

Maybe Luo Binghe wanted to bring him back to life out of guilt. Not hatred, not for Gui Mengyu’s sake, but to relieve his conscience. Otherwise, why would he leave? Wouldn’t he have just taken Shen Yuan with him?

He put his head in his hand. He didn’t know anymore! Everything was confusing.

“You should be careful,” Qiu Haitang told him. “I don’t know what Luo Binghe wants with you. You are lucky he left willingly today. Next time, you may not be so fortunate.”

~*~

Being back on Qiong Ding Peak was strange. Shen Yuan hadn’t expected it to go so smoothly. Even while climbing up the peak, he’d thought Luo Binghe would end up dragging him away to do whatever it was he wanted to do to him.

Instead, he was back. He woke up in his own bed, got dressed in his own clothes, and was then promptly shoved back inside his own room when he tried to leave.

“Nope, nuh-uh, you are not going anywhere,” Shang Qinghua said.

He’d been waiting outside his door. What was he even doing there?

“I am under order from Luo Binghe to not let anything happen to you, bro, so you’re staying in bed until you’re needed. Which you won’t be, because you were dead, like, yesterday.”

“Shang-shishu,” Shen Yuan tried.

“No. Stay.”

“I’m not a dog.”

Shang Qinghua shut and locked the door behind him.

“Sit down.”

Shen Yuan refused to sit, but Shang Qinghua seemed to take him not throwing himself at the door as agreeing to not leave, and so he sat down himself.

“Look, Cucumber-bro—can I call you Cucumber-bro?—you messed up my world so much I don’t even know where to start. I mean, sure, okay, it was messed up before you started messing it up, but it was going so well! Now Luo Binghe doesn’t even have a single wife, and it’s all your fault! Instead he’s been obsessed with bringing you back to life for the past five years! What would the readers say?”

“Good?”

Shang Qinghua glared at him.

“Actually, I have a bone to pick with you.”

“Yeah, yeah, Luo Binghe’s terrible life—”

“No. Why did you let him get tricked by Gui Mengyu?”

It took Shang Qinghua a second to answer.

“I honestly thought you were going to ask about your own character, but apparently the obsession goes both ways. Anyway. Gui Mengyu was supposed to be Luo Binghe’s foil. Another half-demon who commits horrible deeds because she’s a half-demon who wasn’t always treated well. But in her case, she did terrible things to people who genuinely didn’t deserve it, unlike Luo Binghe. Most of the time. It would force him to realize some things, but … I just wanted to pay my bills, okay! People thought she was interesting, y’know, a soft demon, unlike all the other demon harem members. I figured I’d lose my audience if I tried to make anything more out of it.”

“I’m disappointed in you.

“That hurts.”

“You’re a terrible person. I can’t believe you sold Luo Binghe out to a snake for money.”

“I’m almost impressed by your dedication. You bought merch, didn’t you?”

“No.”

“Considering you’re completely uninterested in any of his harem members, maybe you even bought one of his body pillows …”

“Absolutely not!”

‘One’ … he had all of them. Even the limited edition ones!

He wasn’t about to admit that, though.

It wasn’t his fault Luo Binghe’s character design was superior to everyone else’s! It was only inferior to his actual appearance, but that was an entirely different conversation that Shen Yuan was never going to have with anyone, ever.

“When did Gui Mengyu approach Luo Binghe?” he asked, skillfully changing the subject.

Shang Qinghua’s eyebrows were still raised.

“Not sure on the exact date, but it was several months ago. Before that, Luo Binghe was pretty unhappy. That’s me downplaying it. But a few weeks after Gui Mengyu arrived, he suddenly kinda … came back to life. Pun not intended. Said he was sure he could bring you back. He’s tried summoning your spirit before, and you never answered, so I figured his demonic attack might’ve eviscerated your soul or something. But obviously not.”

Shen Yuan let the words sink in.

“Luo Binghe isn’t in good condition, though, is he?”

“I don’t know much about that. But no, I don’t think he is.”

There was a knock on the door, interrupting their conversation. They didn’t pick it back up again.

It took several weeks to restore Qiong Ding Peak to even a shadow of its former state, and Shen Yuan spent most of that time in meditation to stabilize his cultivation. When he came out of it, Huan Hua Palace had demanded a meeting with Cang Qiong Mountain Sect.

If Shen Yuan knew what was about to happen, he would have stayed as far away from that meeting as possible.

~*~

Huan Hua Palace set the location of the meeting close to their own territory, but just far enough away that it could be considered neutral. When the delegation from Cang Qiong arrived, Shen Yuan was surprised to find members of several other sects were also there. Shen Qingqiu clicked his tongue at that.

“Whatever they have planned, it isn’t good,” he muttered.

The old palace master of Huan Hua Palace had brought a large party—large enough that it felt more like they were there to wage war than to talk, and suspicion rose in Shen Yuan’s mind instantly.

Yue Qingyuan greeted the old palace master politely, but the man practically ignored him. From the corner of his eye, Shen Yuan saw Shen Qingqiu bristle.

“I thank all of you for coming to discuss this urgent matter.” The old man’s eyes were dark and sharp, and they swept over the crowd, pausing momentarily on Shen Yuan before moving on.

“What matter?” Yue Qingyuan asked mildly.

“That of Cang Qiong Mountain’s alliance with the demon lord Luo Binghe.”

“What does the good palace master mean?” Yue Qingyuan’s serene expression was so obviously a mask that Shen Yuan shivered. “This is a serious accusation, and should not be said lightly.”

“How, then, do you explain that Luo Binghe was allowed into Cang Qiong Mountain? How do you explain that he and his forces simply walked away with minor injuries? Luo Binghe is a demon, and a demon who has declared war against the Human Realm. They should have been obliterated by you, or you should have been obliterated by them. Neither happened. We should be told why.”

Murmurs rose among the spectators.

“The accusation is grave,” someone said. “Perhaps Sect Leader Yue can explain what truly happened?”

Yue Qingyuan turned towards the speaker. “Lord Luo came to us unbidden. Cang Qiong Mountain fought his forces to a standstill. However, as a previous disciple of Qing Jing Peak, he agreed to leave.”

“That is difficult to believe.” The palace master laughed. “His demand, a mere two weeks ago, was to be given the body of Sect Leader Yue’s head disciple. Did you agree to such a thing? Or, perhaps, the lost head disciple suddenly returned to the land of the living?”

Yue Qingyuan may have been able to deny the claim, if Shen Yuan hadn’t been standing just behind him. There were people there who had recognized him earlier, but perhaps thought he just bore a similarity to Gui Yuan—because of the palace master they were now certain of his identity.

“He did.”

“Congratulations, Sect Leader. Have you discovered a way to revive the dead, other than through demonic cultivation?”

The murmurs grew louder. The old palace master knew what he was doing. He was giving Cang Qiong Mountain no way of fighting back—they could deny it, of course, but what could they say? It was true, that the only known way to bring someone back to life was through demonic practices, and there was no way of explaining that he’d been revived through other means. They wouldn’t be believed, and—the strangest thing of all, was that Shen Yuan, Ning Yingying, and Liu Mingyan had all forgotten the way to Sister Willow’s domain. It was like the information had been lifted from their minds at some point. If it couldn’t be proven, it would be taken as a poor lie said only to cover up their evil deeds.

“I understand the pain of losing one’s head disciple, do not be mistaken. But to collude with demons, to reverse the natural order of things … that, I cannot condone. Especially not for a disciple of such character.”

“What, exactly, do you mean by that?” Yue Qingyuan’s voice had taken on an icy tone.

The old palace master gave a sad sigh.

“Is it possible he tricked you, too? I would prefer to think that, rather than that Cang Qiong Mountain would willingly harbor a murderer.”

People gasped, and turned to stare at him, as if they had never been more shocked in their lives.

Shen Yuan felt like he knew where this was going.

“A young maiden came to Huan Hua Palace a few days ago. She had been taken in by Luo Binghe’s charms. She had nowhere to turn, and believed, perhaps, that he could be a source of support for her. More than ten years ago, her entire sect was massacred. To think, then, that she would soon encounter the fiend responsible, Gui Yuan, Sect Leader Yue’s head disciple!”

The gasps were louder this time. Shen Yuan wanted nothing more than to be swallowed up by the ground. The stares had become self-righteous glares.

“Miss Gui, isn’t that correct?”

Gui Mengyu stepped out from among the Huan Hua Palace disciples, her face set into a melancholy, fragile expression. It was an expression that suited her beauty well—no wonder they fully believed her. Who wouldn’t?

When had she left Luo Binghe’s side? Had she abandoned him the moment she realized he wouldn’t help her achieve her goal?

“Miss Gui, could you identify your cousin for us?”

Why did she need to do that? It wasn’t like he’d already been pointed out by everyone, and it also wasn’t like the two of them were similar enough to be siblings!

Gui Mengyu raised her eyes, and let them pause on Shen Yuan, before she flinched and stumbled backwards, like she’d seen something frightening.

If Shen Yuan had been capable of moving, he might have done the same thing. Why was it that he always froze when he saw her? How pathetic could he be? A Twelve-Fanged Fire Dragon Tiger was nothing to him, and yet a woman shorter and smaller than him rendered him completely helpless. He couldn’t even tell what expression he was wearing, but he felt light-headed and about to faint.

“Him. It is him.” She pointed, her face artfully turned away, lips quivering.

“Are you certain?” someone asked. “It is a serious accusation.”

“Yes, it is him. I watched him—watched him strike down his own parents, the wonderful people who took me in and treated me as their own, in cold blood. How could I not remember? Why did you do it, Yuan-di? How could you?”

“There, there,” the palace master said, patting her shoulder as big, fat tears rolled down her cheeks.

Gui Mengyu’s act was believable. He probably would have believed it, too, if he wasn’t the one being accused.

The glares and expressions of disgust and anger thrown his way were heavy to bear. He wanted to throw up.

“Forgive me if I do not take her accusation at face value,” Yue Qingyuan said.

One of the Huan Hua Palace disciples scoffed. “Of course you wouldn’t! Cang Qiong Mountain Sect always protects their own, regardless of their true character or their crimes!”

“You harbored that demon Luo Binghe for years, too!”

“What else are you hiding? How can we trust you when you have proven yourselves to take murderers and demons into your sect?”

“You probably conspired with them to bring your head disciple back to life! Did you kill people to do it?”

“How many cover-ups have you done over the years? Aren’t two members of your sect the only survivors of the Qiu Estate fire? If one of you can kill his family, why not more?”

The air had grown dense with cries and accusations. Cang Qiong Mountain’s reputation had taken a lot of hits over the years, and apparently there was a lot of built-up resentment. Shen Yuan’s hands were trembling. He had to stop this. How could he let them take the blame for something that was his fault? Gui Mengyu was his problem, not theirs, he couldn’t drag them down with him. He should never have come to Cang Qiong Mountain. He should never have followed Yue Qingyuan. He should never have come back to life.

It seemed Gui Yuan couldn’t help but be blamed for a crime he had not committed, in this world or in the original novel.

If he could draw the attention back to himself …

“Jiejie,” he said, taking one small step forward.

She immediately withdrew, eyes wide, arms wrapping around herself as if it would protect her.

“Don’t call me that!”

“Jiejie—”

“Sect Leader Yue, restrain your disciple!” the palace master snapped.

A hand took hold of Shen Yuan’s shoulder.

“I admit to having some questions for Miss Gui,” he said. The even tone of his voice was slightly calming.

“A trial will be set up, and you may question her as much as you wish. Do you seek to traumatize the girl further? Gui Yuan should be confined in the Water Prison until then, so he cannot escape justice.”

“No.”

The palace master’s face went slack.

“What do you mean?”

“I believe he said no,” Shen Qingqiu said, slowly waving his fan back and forth. “I have some questions, as well. How does she explain how Gui Yuan, barely having reached Foundation Establishment at the time, could kill two dozen of his elders?”

There were some murmurs, this time some were not quite as accusing.

“In addition. Why did Miss Gui not report the crime, after she escaped? For what reason did she not ask anyone for help?”

“Does it matter?” the palace master demanded. He obviously didn’t want to listen. “Enough with the questions! Gui Yuan will be held in the Water Prison until his trial in one month. If Cang Qiong Mountain does not agree to this, I cannot help but suspect that they are attempting to shield him, and are allied with that filthy demon, Luo Binghe. Either he comes willingly, or he will be detained by force!”

Huan Hua Palace disciples moved towards them, and Yue Qingyuan’s hand grazed Xuan Su’s hilt.

Shit! No, hadn’t Shang Qinghua specifically said to not let him draw that sword?

“Wait!” he called.

Everyone stopped and turned towards him. He wanted to hide behind something, anything, but he didn’t have that choice.

The thought had occurred to him five years earlier, but it seemed Shen Yuan had taken Shen Qingqiu’s role in the novel. First by being the reason Luo Binghe went down into the Endless Abyss, then now, confronted by a woman from his own past who accused him of terrible crimes. He’d never resented his transmigration as much as he did right now.

“If this disciple’s imprisonment will stop further conflict, then I willingly submit to it.”

“Gui Yuan,” Yue Qingyuan protested, frowning.

“So you admit your guilt!” The old palace master seemed pleased.      

“No. However, this disciple would prefer if the situation could be resolved without bloodshed.”

The old palace master’s face twitched, but he still seemed pleased—pleased, because he knew that if Cang Qiong Mountain didn’t want Huan Hua Palace to take Shen Yuan, there was no way they would be able to. Shen Yuan was serving himself up on a platter, instead. He knew he was. At the same time, however much he wanted to hide behind Yue Qingyuan, he probably couldn’t. If he didn’t do this now, something else equally bad, maybe even worse, would happen later. The world he was in may have been real, but it was still based on a novel, and still seemed to adhere to plot points and storylines. He might as well get it over with—and he wasn’t guilty of the massacre. Yue Qingyuan knew he wasn’t. Even if Huan Hua Palace messed with the trial, everything would be fine. Probably.

He glanced towards Gui Mengyu.

It would maybe be fine, if she didn’t kill him first.

“This disciple has one request.”

“You think you can make requests?” One Huan Hua Palace disciple sneered at him. “You filthy, murderous—”

Liu Qingge slashed his sword through the air, and cut a deep rift into the ground separating Huan Hua Palace and Cang Qiong Mountain. The offending disciple yelped and fell on his ass, and the palace master’s face turned red with anger.

“Huan Hua Palace is treating him as if he’s guilty already. How can you be trusted with a prisoner if this is how you behave?”

That was the most Shen Yuan had ever heard Liu Qingge say, ever. It was practically a speech. If he could, he would have hugged the man. Liu Qingge! He’d thank Shen Qingqiu for not murdering him at some point!

“Peak Lord Liu has a point,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Huan Hua Palace has already decided to treat Gui Yuan as a criminal. If he is to be held in the Water Prison, we must have some assurances. Or can Huan Hua Palace not make such promises, because it intends to carry out punishment before the trial?

“What … what assurances does Cang Qiong Mountain want?” The palace master struggled to get the words out.

“That no harm comes to Gui Yuan from the point of being taken into custody until the day of the trial. If he is harmed, then Cang Qiong Mountain Sect can punish the perpetrator or perpetrators however we see fit.”

“Now, come, Peak Lord Shen—” one man from another sect began to say.

“And what will you do, if the accusations turn out to be false, but Gui Yuan has already been killed, or suffered permanent injuries?”

“That …”

People went quiet. Of course they’d been fooled by Gui Mengyu and probably believed her, but Cang Qiong Mountain was known to viciously protect their own—with or without an agreement, if Shen Yuan was treated badly, there would be consequences.

“If the palace master cannot agree, am I correct in assuming he was intending to torture Gui Yuan? May I remind everyone here that Miss Gui has presented no proof along with her accusation. Peak Lord Shen and I, however, can both attest to Gui Yuan’s innocence.”

The palace master’s lip curled. “Fine. Huan Hua Palace agrees to your demands. Anything else?”

“Miss Gui should not be allowed near him.” Yue Qingyuan’s expression was steely. It was like he’d read Shen Yuan’s mind.

“You believe Miss Gui would want to take her revenge? She isn’t that kind of—”

“How long has the palace master been acquainted with her?” Shen Yuan asked. “A few days?”

Shen Yuan thought of the six months he spent in Gui Mengyu’s company, then of the broken bodies he’d had to bury. Something must have shown on his face, because murmurs rose up again among the onlookers.

“You do not know her. I thought I did. I was wrong.”

Shen Yuan was surprised Gui Mengyu had let him speak at all. She was contemplating him with a look in her eyes that looked heated. She was probably surprised that he hadn’t accused her in return. He’d wanted to—resentment burned like a fire inside him—but he knew those who had already decided on his guilt would only reject the accusation, and their opinion of him would become even more negative.

He said nothing more, and followed Huan Hua Palace when they left. He looked back once towards Yue Qingyuan, and let his gaze linger. He was abandoning his master again.

The he turned around, and walked steadily towards his fate.

~*~

The Water Prison was unpleasant. It ranked very highly on Shen Yuan’s list of ‘least favorite places he’d ever been.’ Before transmigrating, he’d had a few of those, but all of them had been unceremoniously kicked off the list since he came to this world.

He was really starting to regret dying that first time. If he hadn’t, maybe he could have had a nice, normal life. Or at least he could have stayed dead, instead of ending up in Proud Immortal Demon Way.

Shen Yuan had avoided imprisonment at the hands of Luo Binghe, and instead ended up stuck inside the Water Prison.

It more than lived up to his expectations. Maybe following Luo Binghe would have been the better choice. Torn off legs or no, at least he wasn’t Gui Mengyu.

But Shen Yuan had no way of leaving, and no way of knowing if he’d survive the next month.

The Water Prison was dark, except for evenly spaced torches that cast the cave in an orange glow, the light reflecting off the rippling water. Shen Yuan was stuck on a white platform in the middle of a lake—a lake filled with acid, rather than water. The name was misleading. When he’d been brought there, one disciple had demonstrated its power by throwing a rock into it—the rock dissolved in seconds. Once he’d been placed on the platform, a curtain of acid had come down to surround it—it was impossible to escape.  

But for Huan Hua Palace, that wasn’t enough. They’d bound him tightly with Immortal Binding Cables, cutting off his spiritual power, and making it difficult for him to do anything at all. Even sitting or lying down comfortably seemed beyond his current abilities.

Shen Yuan was happy to wait for the trial. If the situation could be dealt with, if his name could be cleared, he could survive the Water Prison.

But he felt it was unlikely that he would live for very long.

For the first few days, he’d been left alone. Someone would come with food occasionally, maybe throw some insults at him, but other than that it was only him and the rippling lake.

A few days seemed to have been the limit, though.

He woke up one morning, and Huan Hua Palace’s young palace mistress stood before him, eyebrows knitted, a sneer on her lips, a metal whip (whip!!!) in one hand. Why were all the members of Luo Binghe’s harem sadists?

“Have you come to interrogate me?” Shen Yuan asked mildly.

“Whether you admit to your crimes or not, don’t think I can’t punish you for them, you vicious villain! You’re here at Huan Hua Palace’s mercy, you should just plead guilty already!”

What kind of logic was she using?

“I believe the palace master agreed that no harm should come to me.”

The little palace mistress lifted the whip and sharply moved her hand forward again. The whip snapped through the air and cracked against the white platform with a deafening sound. Shattered stone flew through the air, some hitting him in the face.

“Beasts like you deserve no mercy! Mengyu deserved it, but you treated her with heartless cruelty. Even today she’s in terrible pain because of what you have done, but will not let anyone share it with her, or help her ease it. A villain like you shouldn’t be allowed to live even a single moment longer!”

Heartless cruelty, huh …

“She has you wrapped around her little finger. Whatever you do, she will not sincerely thank you for it.”

The whip snapped again, and his left arm stung with pain. There was gash in his robes and the skin beneath, and blood welled to the surface, quickly staining the fabric red. The little palace mistress obviously didn’t care about the agreement.

Right before the little palace mistress attacked again, a voice rang out.

“Stop!”

Gui Mengyu stood just inside the entrance, her expression the same pitiful one she’d worn earlier. Something was off though. Perhaps the gleam in her eyes, or the set of her mouth. The little palace mistress beckoned her over, and she crossed the pathway over lake and joined them on the platform.

“Mengyu, Cang Qiong Mountain will definitely forge evidence and make sure he goes free. You should take revenge before it is too late!”

But Gui Mengyu shook her head, unshed tears glistening. “And then they will take revenge upon Huan Hua Palace in return. How can I let that occur, when you have helped me more than anyone could have asked you to?”

“Don’t be like that,” the little palace mistress urged. “No one will tell them who was responsible. They cannot punish all of us. The palace master won’t stand for it.”

Gui Mengyu’s expression smoothed over, her gaze first resting on the little palace mistress’s face, before it went to Shen Yuan. A smile slowly appeared on her lips, and her hand went to the sword at her waist.

Shen Yuan froze when he saw it. That—that was the same sword—

“Go on, Mengyu. If we push him into the lake, no one can trace it back to us!”

She drew her sword, and the sound of metal scraping against metal filled the air.

“Then I will finish what I began all those years ago.” Her tone had shifted, from the pitiful, sweet one from before, to the cold, hard one Shen Yuan still heard in his nightmares.

The little palace mistress was too caught up in her bloodlust to notice, but Shen Yuan did—his fight or flight response kicked in. But tied up on a platform in the middle of an acid lake left him with nowhere to go. The two girls blocked the only exit, and they were armed, one with a whip and one with a sword.

And both of them wanted him dead.

He inched backwards as far as he could, until he was right on the edge of the platform. Some of the shattered stones from earlier was swept into the lake, and they hissed as they dissolved.

“Yuan-di, there is nowhere for you to run,” Gui Mengyu said, sauntering towards him like she had all the time in the world, like she was a predator who could kill him anytime she wanted.

She came closer, closer, until she loomed over him. She raised her sword to his chest. The jewel on the hilt glowed dimly, and her smile widened, showing her white, too-sharp-to-be-human teeth.

The sword easily sliced through his robes and into his skin. His chest contracted, and a short, sharp burst of pain shot through him, spreading like ice from where the blade met flesh. He gasped as the chill swallowed him, drowning out every other sensation.

And then the Water Prison exploded.

Gui Mengyu jerked back and whipped around as huge, broken slabs of rock fell into the lake, sending big waves of acid crashing against the stone platform and the path that connected it to the outside world. Some kind of mist billowed up, and the sound of hissing acid filled the cave as the rocks were reduced to nothing. The little palace mistress flinched and stumbled, barely keeping herself from falling off the platform, while Shen Yuan felt the acid barely graze the edge of his robe that hung over the edge. His sleeve disintegrated in seconds.

The mist slowly dispersed, until light enough that the destruction became visible. One side of the cave had completely caved in—the entrance was gone. Demonic energy crackled through the air.

Luo Binghe stood where the entrance had once been, eyes blazing, demon seal glowing, his robes dark enough that he almost blended into the shadows. The few torches that had survived the explosion cast his face in a golden glow, and made him look ethereal, like a god who had descended from the heavens.

Shen Yuan wasn’t sure if what he felt was relief or fear.  

But he didn’t have time to figure it out. Gui Mengyu snapped out of her surprise, grabbed him by the collar, and set the edge of her sword to his neck.

“I imagine you’re here to free him? Be careful, or he loses his head.”

Another wave of demonic energy washed over them—so powerful it raised goosebumps all over his skin, and terror filled his lungs, making it hard to breathe. With one leap, Luo Binghe crossed the acid lake and landed soundlessly on the platform, his grip on Xin Mo so tight his knuckles were white.

“Release him,” he snarled. Red tinged the outer edges of his irises. Shen Yuan wondered if he was in control of himself, if he had recovered, or if he was still suffering the aftereffects of destroying his primordial spirit. Was he a ticking time bomb, who’d end up killing them all?

Shen Yuan’s throat stung as Gui Mengyu pressed her sword harder against his skin. Luo Binghe’s eyes tracked the motion, and his expression darkened further, demonic energy lashing out like whips.

“If you come closer, I’ll kill him. You won’t have the time to stop me.”

There was a slight shakiness in her voice, but it could come from either fear or excitement, or both, Shen Yuan didn’t know. He had no idea how she would get out of this situation. If she cut off his head, it seemed like Luo Binghe would kill her. Shen Yuan wanted her dead, but he didn’t want to die at the same time. But what other leverage did she have that would let her leave in one piece?

“You! You demon! How dare you attack Huan Hua Palace like this!” the little palace mistress shrieked. She’d recovered from the shock, but took a step back when Luo Binghe glanced at her.

“Release him.”

“No.” Gui Mengyu was smiling, it was clear in her voice. “Not for free, that is. If you give me what I want, I’ll let him go.”

That was unlikely. Luo Binghe must have known that—and yet he looked like he was considering it. After a long pause, he spoke.

“What do you want?”

“Give me that sword. Xin Mo. You can have my cousin in exchange.”

There was no way Luo Binghe would give up the sword, so that wasn’t going to happen—

“Fine.”

What?

“You can have the sword. Release Gui-shixiong first.”

“Give me the sword first, I’m not foolish.”

“Release him first.” Luo Binghe’s eyes flickered dangerously.

Gui Mengyu gritted her teeth.

“Give it to her,” she said then, pointing towards the little palace mistress. “When you do, I’ll let go of him.”

Luo binghe wasn’t an idiot (though Shen Yuan was starting to doubt that a little). He knew the little palace mistress was allied with Gui Mengyu. On the other hand, it seemed like he’d decided there was nothing else he could do to save Shen Yuan’s life (though why he wanted to save him, Shen Yuan couldn’t figure out). He tossed Xin Mo towards the girl, who struggled under its weight when she caught it.

“Kill him!” she cried to Gui Mengyu.

But Gui Mengyu pulled Shen Yuan up to his feet and shoved him in Luo Binghe’s direction, and jumped towards the little palace mistress.

Luo Binghe caught him, hands gentle and warm. Shen Yuan, still tied up tightly enough that standing was difficult, gratefully leaned against him and let himself be held up. Fuck. It was relief. Relief was definitely what he was feeling. He turned his head towards his cousin.

Gui Mengyu had grabbed the sword out of the little palace mistress’s hands. “Thank you, darling. You’ve been useful.”

With a single, smooth motion, Gui Mengyu pushed her off the platform and into the lake. She only had the time for one quick, heart-wrenching scream, before being submerged in the acid, her form rapidly dissolving. Shen Yuan tried, pointlessly, to move in her direction, but Luo Binghe’s arms wrapped around him tightly, holding him in place.

A single, embroidered shoe was left on the edge of the platform.

Gui Mengyu slashed Xing Mo through the air, and a jagged rift appeared—a portal. She stepped through it, casting a self-satisfied smile in their direction, and was gone.

Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe were left behind, alone in the destroyed Water Prison.

Gui Mengyu, Shen Yuan thought, seemed to have gotten exactly what she wanted.

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe still hadn’t let go of Shen Yuan. His arms wound tightly around him, keeping him close against his (firm) chest. When Shen Yuan looked up, it was to see Luo Binghe’s scarlet eyes fastened on him, like he was trying to memorize every detail, or like a predator staring down his prey.

At the last thought, every shred of relief that filled Shen Yuan when Luo Binghe had rescued him, evaporated. Luo Binghe … what did Luo Binghe want with him? 

It reminded him starkly of the original novel, and he remembered very clearly how he’d driven his own sword through Luo Binghe’s chest, after denouncing him. Was he there to take his revenge? Was that the reason he’d wanted to bring Shen Yuan back to life?

There was a crazed gleam in Luo Binghe’s red eyes—because of his wrecked primordial spirit, or because vengeance had come within his grasp at last?

After all, Yue Qingyuan was probably the only character in Proud Immortal Demon Way Luo Bingge hadn’t been able to take down without trickery. So retreating at Cang Qiong Mountain, that had just been smart.

Ah. But—but even if Luo Binghe was consumed by his desire to end Shen Yuan’s short reanimated life, how did that explain his actions? Shen Yuan had no idea what to make of the situation—nothing he’d read in the original novel explained why Luo Binghe would give up Xin Mo of all things for the sake of anyone, much less cannon fodder. 

Luo Binghe noticed Shen Yuan’s gaze meeting his own, and the tightness around his eyes eased, the red around his irises faded a little, and the rest of his face sort of softened.

“Shixiong,” he said, voice low, a little rough, and very sentimental. “Shixiong is safe now. Shixiong should have told this shidi of his cousin, and he would have taken care of it earlier.”

Yep. That really didn’t fit in with Shen Yuan’s whole ‘he was after him for revenge’ idea.

Back to square one.

He had no idea how he’d reason around Luo Binghe staring at him like he was the only person left in the world, but by God, he was going to try.

The Immortal Binding Cables still cut off his cultivation. On top of that, they were uncomfortable because of how tightly they wrapped around his limbs. If Luo Binghe wasn’t going to turn him into half of a human stick, those cables might! 

Shen Yuan shifted. “Binghe.” He licked his lips to moisten them, though it didn’t do him much good, since his throat was as dry as a desert. “Binghe, could you—”

Before Shen Yuan could even finish his request, Luo Binghe unsheathed his second sword and sliced through the cables. Spiritual power flooded back into his body, and he sagged against Luo Binghe. Since he’d been without it for a long time, it felt like he was stuffed full, and his limbs wouldn’t cooperate. Who tied him up? Shen Yuan would like to have a word with them about humane imprisonment!

“Why are you here?” Shen Yuan asked, trying to get his bearings.

“I heard Shixiong was taken prisoner.” At this, Luo Binghe’s mouth twisted in displeasure. “How could I let you stay in this place?”

One of Luo Binghe’s (large) hands slowly caressed Shen Yuan’s back, and a gentle trickle of spiritual energy flowed into him, soothing the aches in his body.

“Who told you—”

“Shang Qinghua, that useless—I told him to keep an eye on Shixiong, and yet—” Luo Binghe took a sharp breath, cutting himself off. “But it’s fine now. I’m here. I won’t let anyone hurt Shixiong again.”

For all that Shen Yuan would have preferred not noticing, there was so much honesty in the way Luo Binghe said those words that all of his alternative explanations for Luo Binghe’s motive fell away. So … he really was there to save him?

But—but Luo Binghe was super blackened, right? Just like the Luo Bingge of the original novel. Why would he want to rescue Shen Yuan?

[The Protagonist’s current blackening level is at 87% and falling]

Ah.

What.

Why was it falling?

[The Protagonist’s blackening was largely due to host account’s death. Host account is no longer dead]

There was somehow something very unwilling in the way the System spoke—like it really hated it had to say those things. It didn’t actually call him an idiot for not guessing the reason already, but it damned well sounded like it did.

Shen Yuan frowned despite himself. So Luo Binghe was … un-blackening? Or something? Because Shen Yuan wasn’t dead?

Wow, guilt sure was powerful.

So the reason Luo Binghe was there was to keep him from dying again, since he still felt bad. That was fine, he could deal with that, especially if Luo Binghe was being brought back from the Bingge edge. He didn’t want his little white sheep shidi to turn into his true form! Luo Binghe had suffered too much already, he didn’t need to suffer more! 

Even if keeping him from that apparently meant losing more face in front of him … Shen Yuan … really was incompetent … ahhh. Luo Binghe must have discovered how stupid he’d been. Giving himself up to Huan Hua Palace even though Gui Mengyu was with them …

Shen Yuan didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or cry.

“Shixiong, are you in pain?” Luo Binghe asked, voice breaking through the dense layers of Shen Yuan’s thoughts.

Shen Yuan started, and tried to take a step back. Luo Binghe didn’t let go of him fully, his arms going up to Shen Yuan’s arms to keep him steady. And okay, he maybe would have fallen on his ass if not for that, but he wasn’t in the mind-space necessary to thank him for it—continually losing face like this, he was never going to reclaim his untouchable shixiong status at this rate.

Luo Binghe repeated his question.

“I’m fine,” Shen Yuan said, by habit raising his head to look into Luo Binghe’s eyes except … he stared straight into Luo Binghe’s chest instead. 

His robes … were slightly open …

Why … were they open? Binghe, propriety! You couldn’t just have your well-sculpted chest out there for anyone to see!

Shen Yuan unhappily raised his head a little more, meeting Luo Binghe’s tense gaze, and was reminded again, like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer filled with all of his stupid ideas, that five years really had passed. This Luo Binghe was, what, around the same age as Shen Yuan had been when he died back then? A little older? He was starting to confuse his own age in this world with his age in his original one.

They were around the same age, anyway. Shen Yuan had always felt weird about disciples his age, or even older, calling him shixiong just because he was from Qiong Ding Peak. And Luo Binghe obviously didn’t consider himself a disciple of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect anymore. By all rights, he shouldn’t be calling him that. It was probably just a force of habit, but at the same time …

Imagining Luo Binghe not running after him, repeatedly calling ‘Shixiong, Shixiong!’ made Shen Yuan’s chest feel stuffy.

“Binghe, we need to leave,” he said, trying to drown that feeling out. He looked over the utter destruction of the Water Prison, then at Luo Binghe’s way in—he’d really just knocked through all the walls to create a straight path in, hadn’t he? “We need to leave, before—”

Shen Yuan was well-versed in webnovels. He knew how they worked. Every time you said something like ‘we need to leave before this bad thing happens’ or ‘let’s talk about this important thing after this other important thing has happened,’ something would suddenly mess everything up. 

Shen Yuan was apparently doomed to put up all the death flags, and he wasn’t really surprised when, before he finished speaking, a mass of yellow-uniformed Huan Hua Palace cultivators swarmed into the room. The old palace master led the charge, and the group filled the shore opposite the platform, stopping them from making a hasty escape.

The old palace master’s eyes burned as he stared them down.

“Aha!” he cried. “You truly are colluding with that demon! There will be no question at your trial, now! I understand why you were so willing to be imprisoned, this was your plan all along, criminal!”

Luo Binghe’s expression darkened, and he shifted so he stood in front of Shen Yuan, shielding him from the old palace master’s view.

“The trial?” he asked, scorn dripping from his voice. “You would have allowed him to live that long?”

The old palace master’s face reddened.

“You dare insult us, demon?” His lips pulled up in a sneer. “We have treated the criminal as is befitting someone who has committed such a heinous crime!”

“Crime? What crime? Do you still have only Gui Mengyu’s word for it?”

“Binghe,” Shen Yuan whispered, tugging at his sleeve. Arguing wouldn’t make anything better!

“Truly a demon, willing to blacken the name of an innocent maiden for the sake of your shixiong! Enough of this, I—”

“Where is Miss Gui?” one of the Huan Hua Palace disciples interrupted. “She was supposed to come down here to look for the young palace mistress, but I see neither of them.”

“Did they come to ‘question’ him?” Luo Binghe asked, and the disciple flushed angrily.

“How dare you accuse—”

“My daughter came here?” the old palace master interrupted. “Where is she? Where is she?”

As he spoke, his voice turned more and more into a snarl. He whipped his head around, like he was trying to find her, before his eyes stopped on the embroidered shoe left on the platform. His face stiffened, then, and drained of blood until he turned a sickly color.

“Daughter? My daughter, where have you hidden her? Where?” The old palace master’s senses had completely left him, eyes rolling in his head. “Enough of this! Kill them! I want both of them dead!”

Without hesitation, the Huan Hua Palace cultivators, masters and disciples alike, charged. 

Shen Yuan’s fingers twisted in Luo Binghe’s black robes, but he didn’t notice—his expression showed no concern at all.  Of course, for him, this was nothing. It didn’t matter how many people attacked him, Luo Binghe could swat them down like flies. But for Shen Yuan, it wasn’t so easy! He was already under suspicion of murdering one sect, he didn’t need the massacre of another one on his back, too!

“Binghe.” He tugged at his sleeve again.

Luo Binghe briefly glanced at him, as he swept his sword down in an arc, and half a dozen of the disciples were blown away.

“You’ll answer for this!” one of them screamed. “You murderer!”

“The little palace mistress only came down to beg you to confess your crimes, and you kill her in cold blood? Truly befitting of a Cang Qiong disciple!”

What ‘beg?’ She’d begged only if that was what these people called whipping innocent prisoners! And also, did these people get off on insulting Cang Qiong Mountain Sect? How big was their inferiority complex??

Apparently Luo Binghe also took offense to the accusations, because the demonic aura he’d suppressed exploded outward. It knocked the people still flying across the acid lake back towards the shore and, hopefully, to solid ground and not acid.

“Don’t kill them!” Shen Yuan hissed.

“As expected of Shixiong, always benevolent.” Luo Binghe grabbed Shen Yuan by the waist and leaped over the spitting acid, landing deftly on the other side.

Benevolence had nothing to do with it! He just didn’t want to be tried for murdering dozens of people! 

The old palace master attacked them before they’d even touched ground, his sword aura powerful enough it scored half a dozen deep grooves into the ground. But Luo Binghe just swept the attacks out of the way like they were nothing. 

The old man’s face contorted with hatred. “You!” he spat.

Luo Binghe stepped forward, sword at the ready, the torches illuminating him clearly. The old palace master’s expression slackened, his eyes turned glassy.

“Su Xiyan?” he asked, then murmured, “no, you can’t be—she drank it, I’m positive …”

Luo Binghe didn’t have the patience to listen, and, while the old palace master was stuck in his reverie, knocked everyone still standing down with a single pulse of demonic energy. It burned, surging against Shen Yuan’s meridians, which were delicate from several days stuck in the Immortal Binding Cables. He wobbled, and leaned heavily against Luo Binghe’s side.

“Shixiong?” Luo Binghe asked, worry clear in his tone. His demonic aura faded.

“I’m fine.” His throat clenched around the words.

“I’m—this shidi acted too rashly and hurt Shixiong again.” Luo Binghe’s hands withdrew slightly, until they only just supported Shen Yuan, like he couldn’t bear touching him more. “Shixiong, flying will be quicker.”

He said it in a reluctant manner. Ah. Of course he wouldn’t want to be on the same sword as him …

Shen Yuan made a vague noise of assent, and soon enough stepped up on Luo Binghe’s convenient second sword. When he looked closer, he realized it was, in fact, his own sword. Huh. How’d he get that? Had he taken it with him into the Endless Abyss? Shen Yuan seemed to remember that Zheng Yang shattered …

When they were both on the sword, Shen Yuan standing in front of Luo Binghe, bracketed by his arms to make sure he didn’t fall, they shot out through the massive hole in the wall without delay. 

It wouldn’t surprise him if more of Huan Hua Palace’s people came after them—after all, Luo Binghe hadn’t knocked on the front door, he’d blown it up. Not there to make friends, that was for sure. 

The long labyrinthine path that led from the Water Prison to the outside was no more, and it didn’t take more than a minute or two to fly through. Luo Binghe was in a hurry, and the sword moved much faster than Shen Yuan had ever made it go. He felt a bit motion sick, actually, but didn’t have a thick enough face to tell Luo Binghe to go slower.

While they flew, Luo Binghe used his demonic aura and bolts of demonic energy against everyone they came across. He didn’t care whether he killed them or not, and Shen Yuan winced a little every time. Just stack the crimes higher, why don’t you, he cried internally. 

Shen Yuan let out a breath of relief when they touched down outside the former front doors and discovered the area was empty. He wasn’t sure he could deal with another bloody confrontation.

He’d expected Luo Binghe to keep going at breakneck speed, but he obviously had other plans, turning Shen Yuan around and asking him to lift his head.

Okay???

Luo Binghe’s eyes, which were still red but not as bright, inspected Shen Yuan’s throat. Ah. Shen Yuan barely felt the mild stinging anymore, but Luo Binghe was apparently affronted by the sight of the blood—Shen Yuan apologized for being so incompetent, okay! It wasn’t like he’d asked for his cousin to almost cut his head off!

Without touching his skin, Luo Binghe dabbed at the blood and cleaned the tiny injury.

“I don’t have anything to bandage it with,” he apologized.

Shen Yuan waved the concern away. Why would he? It wasn’t like it was a big injury, either! He was perfectly capable of ignoring the other, bigger injury on his chest, too!

Luo Binghe didn’t let him.

“Shixiong, are you in pain,” he asked, glancing up at him through incredibly long, thick, black eyelashes.

Shen Yuan’s mouth went dry, and he swallowed. He shook his head mutely. Luo Binghe looked unconvinced, and carefully parted his bloodied robes to inspect his chest. Propriety, Binghe! There was such a thing as—as … there was definitely something that said that a shidi shouldn’t take off his shixiong’s clothes!

Once the wound was uncovered, Luo Binghe’s eyes reddened. It wasn’t very serious, but the gash was about as long as a finger and more than a centimeter deep, a vertical slash over his heart. His old scar had become invisible under the bright red blood oozing out of the wound. 

His robes were drenched with blood, and somehow seeing it made the pain worse and Shen Yuan forgot his embarrassment. 

“I shouldn’t have left,” Luo Binghe said as he carefully cleaned the injury. “It was a mistake. I should have stayed with Shixiong.”

“I asked you to leave. Binghe shouldn’t regret that kind of thing.”

Luo Binghe’s expression worsened even more. Oops. But he didn’t say anything. Once the blood was mopped up, he pressed clean cloth to it, frowning, and he opened his mouth to speak.

“Step away, Your Excellency.”

Shen Yuan’s head whipped around. 

Without either of them noticing, a group of Cang Qiong Mountain cultivators had landed close by, Yue Qingyuan at the front. Severity replaced his normally calm bearing, his gaze fastened on Luo Binghe as if he was a wild animal.

Luo Binghe didn’t move, though he didn’t ignore Yue Qingyuan’s presence.

“Sect Leader Yue,” he acknowledged.

“Lord Luo, let this master look at his disciple.”

Luo Binghe’s eyebrows knitted together.

“Shizun—” Shen Yuan began to say. Luo Binghe’s hands tensed around the cloth he held against Shen Yuan’s chest, and he stopped speaking.

“Gui Yuan, what has happened? Why are you injured?” Yue Qingyuan asked the questions, but seemed like he’d already guessed. Just like Luo Binghe, his expression was dark as he studied Shen Yuan’s injuries, his bloodied robes, his disintegrated sleeve from a distance.

But Luo Binghe answered anyway. “They were about to kill him.” No mercy existed in his voice. It was hard, and cold, and he didn’t hide who he blamed for the situation.

“You broke him out?” Something flickered in Yue Qingyuan’s eyes as he looked between Luo Binghe, Shen Yuan, and the destruction wrought on Huan Hua Palace’s entrance.

“What is Shizun doing here?” Shen Yuan asked. The tension in the air was becoming awkward, and he saw that it lessened slightly as Yue Qingyuan turned towards him.

“This teacher changed his mind, and came to retrieve you. It seems others had the same idea.”

Luo Binghe sneered. “I would not have let them take Shixiong in the first place.”

Yue Qingyuan didn’t take notice of the insult, but others did—Liu Qingge bristled like an angry cat, except more threatening.

“You!” he snapped, and conveyed almost an entire sentence with just that word and one hand on Cheng Luan.

“Am I wrong? Cang Qiong Mountain allowed Huan Hua Palace to take him. If I had arrived a little later, Shixiong would be dead again.”

Luo Binghe’s hands clenched. 

“Liu-shidi, pay him no mind,” Yue Qingyuan said, just as Liu Qingge drew his sword.

Liu Qingge stopped, his expression still angry, on the verge of striking. Since he’d unfortunately passed on so early in the original novel, Shen Yuan had no idea what a fight between him and the protagonist would be like—and though he sort of wanted to see it (two beautiful, he meant powerful, people clashing? With swords??), he also really didn’t want Luo Binghe to get hurt. Or for Luo Binghe to hurt Liu Qingge, thereby further worsening his relationship with their sect.

Almost thankfully, Huan Hua Palace disciples chose that moment to interrupt. Like yellow-robed ants, they surged through the large hole in the wall, swords raised. The old palace master was nowhere to be seen, and instead a young man Shen Yuan was fairly certain was their head disciple was at the vanguard.

“There those beasts are!” the woman from before cried. Shen Yuan had no idea what her name was, but since she was pretty and familiar, she’d probably been part of Luo Bingge’s harem.

Yue Qingyuan’s eyebrows tightened. “What happened?” He directed the question at Shen Yuan.

“My cousin escaped with the Xin Mo sword after killing the little palace mistress.” Shen Yuan winced while he spoke. 

“I see.” Yue Qingyuan didn’t need more of an explanation. “You must leave. Liu-shidi, take Gui Yuan back to Cang Qiong Mountain.”

Shen Yuan said, “but Shizun—” at the same time as Liu Qingge said, “Zhangmen-shixiong—”

“No arguments from either of you. Or from you, Lord Luo. Your Excellency’s assistance is appreciated, but Gui Yuan is still a disciple of my sect, and it is our responsibility to repair this situation.” He ignored the angry set of Luo Binghe’s mouth, and gave Shen Yuan a small smile. “This teacher will take care of it. Go.”

Liu Qingge grabbed hold of Shen Yuan, pulling him away from Luo Binghe’s delicate hold. His eyes had gone back to bright scarlet, the air around him pulsating with power. Shen Yuan met his gaze, and Luo Binghe made to reach for him—only to be stopped. Yue Qingyuan had drawn Xuan Su, and its silvery blade separated Luo Binghe from Shen Yuan.

“Shizun!” Shen Yuan objected.

“I do not want conflict with the demons,” Yue Qingyuan told him calmly. “However, my patience is not endless. Gui Yuan is my disciple.”

Shen Yuan didn’t know whether he wanted to feel sympathy for the unhappiness on Luo Binghe’s face, or feel an upsurge of affection at Yue Qingyuan’s words—he ended up with both at the same time, which made him nauseous.

“Sect Leader Yue,” Huan Hua Palace’s head disciple (Gongyi Xiao? Was that his name?) greeted, polite despite the situation. He seemed like he was trying to calm everything down. 

But before he could say anything else, Liu Qingge lifted Shen Yuan up onto Cheng Luan and took off so quickly he didn’t have the time to see either Gongyi Xiao’s or Luo Binghe’s reactions—it wouldn’t be easy for Yue Qingyuan to fix anything like this …

If Yue Qingyuan got hurt because of him … if he used his sword … at what point had a disciple caused enough trouble that they were kicked out of their sect?

“Shizun!” he called again, in vain. They were already too far away.

When he shifted, Liu Qingge, who was holding onto him to keep him from falling of the sword and to his (third) death, gave him an angry stare.

“Stop squirming.”

Shen Yuan stiffened. Ah. He hadn’t interacted much with Liu Qingge, since he was rarely at Cang Qiong Mountain, but he was mildly terrified of the man.

He stayed very still and very quiet for a long time, even though there were lots of things he wanted to ask about. 

Eventually, he said, “won’t this ruin our relationship with Huan Hua Palace? It would have been easier to simply leave me in the Water Prison.”

Liu Qingge frowned, which was an expression that had apparently been crafted to fit specifically on his face. “Already ruined long ago.”

“Ah.” Shen Yuan lowered his gaze. 

“The sect leader has gone to a lot of trouble for you. Don’t waste his efforts.”

Shen Yuan blinked up at him. What? Where had that come from? 

Liu Qingge’s odd expression, which had appeared briefly in his eyes, disappeared and turned irritable. “Stop complaining.”

Oh. That made sense. Liu Qingge felt that Shen Yuan wasn’t appreciating all Yue Qingyuan had done for him. After all, the person Liu Qingge respected the most in the sect, according to rumor, was Yue Qingyuan—he wouldn’t like it if Shen Yuan seemed ungrateful.

The air between them turned awkward, and neither of them said another word for more than an hour. Cang Qiong Mountain was far enough away that traveling by sword was more arduous than going by carriage, and the discomfort was further intensified by the thought of Yue Qingyuan being hurt. It was pointless. After all, Yue Qingyuan was one of the most powerful characters in the world. Huan Hua Palace wouldn’t be able to do anything to him. Right?

Shen Yuan tried to stop thinking about that, and the fact that his chest injury throbbed painfully every few seconds, by admiring the scenery. Admittedly difficult when it was rainy and everything just looked depressing. He was wet and uncomfortable.

But at least he was looking down when a bolt of demonic energy shot up towards them. 

Shen Yuan yanked at Liu Qingge.

“Wha—” 

The sword careened back, swerving out of the way, but the relief was temporary. Liu Qingge’s grip loosened, and the sword fell out from under Shen Yuan’s feet. 

He plummeted towards the ground, watching as another energy bolt hit Liu Qingge straight in the chest and sent him sprawling into the thick of the forest.

His heart constricted, and he lost consciousness before he hit the ground.

~*~

Shen Yuan’s surroundings were hazy; his head throbbed, and he couldn’t make sense of anything. He’d fallen—Liu Qingge had fallen—was Liu Qingge alright? Was he alright?

He groaned, tried to turn around, but something warm and strong held him in place.

A voice spoke to him, but the words didn’t register immediately. Shen Yuan blinked, tried to focus on the blurry face above him, the red eyes fastened on him. Ah.

“Binghe?” He reached up to pat at his face, to check whether it was a hallucination or the real thing.

“Shixiong,” Luo Binghe said, or would have said, if Shen Yuan could hear him properly. But he could tell that was the word on his lips, recognized the shape of it.

What was Luo Binghe doing there? Shen Yuan had left with Liu Qingge, and someone had attacked them. Gui Mengyu? Was she closeby?

Ice traveled up Shen Yuan’s spine.

Shen Yuan felt himself being lifted off the ground, and then a cool wind against his skin. They were flying, though this time, he was being carried. It was more comfortable than standing. 

He wondered where Luo Binghe was taking him. Wondered what had happened to Liu Qingge. But his thoughts were vague, ephemeral, and he lost his grip on them before long.

~*~

Shen Yuan came to in a vaguely familiar room, although on second inspection, he’d never been there before. The bed beneath him was softer than it should have been, and the drapes hanging from the bedposts were dark, heavier than the gauzy material he expected.

He wasn’t in his room on Qiong Ding Peak. But … where was he, then?

Sitting up slowly, he took in the room around him—or at least, the parts of the room he could see. A screen divider separated him from most of the room. In the light emitted from the two night pearls by the bed, he could see it was inlaid with gold in beautiful, complex patterns.

His head was heavy, but while his chest injury still hurt, it had been bandaged. The gash on his arm had almost completely healed. 

The last thing he remembered was falling. 

No. 

It was Luo Binghe rescuing him. Where was Luo Binghe? Where was this place? 

Shen Yuan swung his legs over the edge of the bed.

“Shixiong shouldn’t get up yet.” 

Luo Binghe’s voice cut through the silent air, and Shen Yuan startled and almost fell out of the bed. Luo Binghe stood just by the screen divider, the red seal on his forehead glowing dimly, casting him in dramatic lighting.

“Binghe.” Shen Yuan didn’t know what else to say.

“Does Shixiong want to eat? Or would a bath be more preferable?”

“I …” He blinked, trying to gather his thoughts. Then, slowly said, “Binghe, where am I?”

“My underground palace.”

That explained some things. Shen Yuan didn’t remember a room like this being described in the novel, but then again, as far as he could tell, Luo Binghe didn’t have a harem—he didn’t seem to have any women at all. It made sense that the rooms were different.

He came closer, and helped Shen Yuan get to his feet. Shen Yuan’s limbs were stiff, and he was cold, shivering slightly. Luo Binghe noticed and put a dark robe around his shoulders. 

“I prepared this room for Shixiong. I hope it’s to your liking.” 

He led Shen Yuan around the screen, and sat him down on an ornate chair. As he walked over to the windows, lights flickered to life, illuminating the luxurious, sumptuously decorated room—all dark fabrics, gold and jade. Luo Binghe, in his beautiful black clothes, fit in perfectly. The windows opened, and showed the garden beyond. Shen Yuan’s eyes widened.

That—that garden—

“Binghe,” he said, floundering. 

“I thought Shixiong would be more comfortable with a garden. Does Shixiong like it?” There was a hint of hope in Luo Binghe’s voice, like he’d worked hard and wanted to be praised for it.

Shen Yuan’s heart clenched, and he couldn’t voice the immediate thought that popped into his mind: for how long had Luo Binghe planned on bringing him here?

Instead, he made a soft, noncommittal sound. “Binghe has gone to a lot of trouble.” There. Neither positive nor negative.

“Shixiong should rest for a while,” Luo Binghe said, and motioned to the table, which was laden with dishes of food. “Eat as much as you’d like. I’ll prepare a bath for you.”

The door opened and closed behind Shen Yuan, and once he was certain he was alone, he let out a deep breath and put his head in his hands. Then, slowly, he lifted his head and looked around the room—mind-bogglingly luxurious and laden with gold and jade and silks, but somehow, Shen Yuan found it to his liking—and felt that it was weird of Luo Binghe to put him in a room fit for a, well. A wife.

No. No, that was obviously wrong. He was a guest. This room was obviously the most convenient place to put him. Maybe he’d even built it for a future wife, one he just didn’t have yet. Soon enough, Luo Binghe would have several peerless beauties milling about his palace …

Shen Yuan’s attention turned to the garden again. A small pool of water, a winding pebble path, and sparse, elegant green-leafed plants growing all around it. It was almost identical to his favorite garden on Qiong Ding Peak. There, it was his preferred place to meditate. He’d never figured out why it put his mind to rest, but because it did, it was one of the only places he liked to meditate alone, without someone else present to keep him company.

Luo Binghe knew that. Shen Yuan had taken him there several times.

It was an elegant garden, but the austerity of it didn’t fit in with the rest of the excess. He couldn’t quite imagine Luo Binghe’s future wife liking the place.

Shen Yuan was struck by the sudden, uninvited, unwanted thought that maybe Luo Binghe had built it for him.

The idea wouldn’t leave, however much he tried to force it out of his head. It wasn’t true.

Right?

Right.

Luo Binghe wouldn’t build him a garden. He might have been a decent shixiong until he ran Luo Binghe through with a sword and then died, but after that … Why would he build Shen Yuan a garden? And when? It wasn’t like plants thrived in the demon realm, that was why there were (according to the books he’d read on the subject) so few trees! Who’d go to such lengths for a tiny garden that only connected, as far as Shen Yuan could see, to one room in the entire palace? No matter who he’d built it for, it was bullshit! Luo Binghe, use your time for better things!

With a frustrated sigh, he got up, closed the window, and sat back down again. He didn’t want to look at the garden anymore. It gave him complicated feelings, and he didn’t like having those.

Since before, the dishes on the table had been spreading mouth-watering scents into the air. There wasn’t time to study the food and identify what the dishes were—Shen Yuan was starving, and wolfed it all down in a second. Delicious! Whose cooking could it be, apart from Luo Binghe’s?

Just as Shen Yuan was about to lick his bowl clean, Luo Binghe returned, carrying two huge buckets of steaming hot water for the bath. For a few seconds they stared at each other, Shen Yuan with the bowl lifted right up to his face.

He used his years of head disciple bullshitting experience to keep his expression composed, and easily placed the bowl back on the table, as if licking bowls was a normal thing to do.

“Shixiong.” Luo Binghe looked at him a beat longer, eyes dark. Then he went to prepare the bath.

After a moment, Luo Binghe’s voice carried from the other side of the second screen divider. “Here, Shixiong. The water is a little hot, please be careful.”

Shen Yuan made a sound of acknowledgment, and walked over to the tub. 

It was absolutely huge. What the fuck. It could probably fit at least two people, probably more. Definitely built with papapa-ing in mind. As long as it hadn’t been used for that yet, he didn’t care.

He reached for the ties of his robes, and began undoing them.

Luo Binghe softly cleared his throat and turned away to give him some privacy.

Shen Yuan stripped, and then stared down at himself. His chest had been bandaged. Right. That might be inconvenient. 

When he poked it, stinging pain shot through him. Hm. Well. He’d just avoid getting that wet, then, he thought, and sank down into the water, listening to the soft sounds of Luo Binghe gathering the plates and bowls together. Everything still felt fuzzy and confusing. But with the hot water cleansing him of the grime he’d accumulated in the Water Prison, some clarity returned. 

He still didn’t know what to make of any of it.

Not the room, not the garden, not the fact that he was in Luo Binghe’s underground palace, when last he knew, he’d been headed for Cang Qiong Mountain with Liu Qingge.

Liu Qingge.

What had happened to him?

Shen Yuan remembered—though his memories were vague and blurred—flying, then being attacked by demonic energy … and then Luo Binghe finding him …

It couldn’t be that—that Luo Binghe had— 

He stared at the screen divider that separated the two of them, as if he could see through it. See Luo Binghe’s form where he sat by the table, and read his mind.

There was no way. Was there?

Shen Yuan’s heart had grown two sizes in his chest, and now threatened to explode. He could barely breathe. 

The hot water no longer soothed him—instead it scalded. His skin burned, and the heat of it spread through his body until all of him was on fire. With quick movements, he scrubbed himself down as best he could, exited the bath and dried himself off. The scent of the water, of the soap, were all familiar to him, just like the room, and the garden. Instead of comforting him, like the familiarity had when he’d first woken up, now it sent shivers up and down his spine.

Luo Binghe had left a clean set of robes for him, and Shen Yuan pulled them on without paying much attention until he caught his reflection in the full-length bronze mirror. Blue, like the color of his Qiong Ding Peak uniform, but accented in green. Shen Yuan was starkly reminded of that time only a month or so before, when he’d worn the robes Ning Yingying lent him. Qing Jing Peak’s green, or close to it, anyhow.

A strange decision. Shen Yuan would have expected black. Luo Binghe didn’t wear anything other than black, as far as he could tell.

Taking a deep breath, Shen Yuan steeled himself and stepped out from behind the screen. 

Luo Binghe stood by the table, hands clasped behind his back, turned away from him. He was almost unnaturally still, though when Shen Yuan moved, he glanced back and then averted his gaze quickly.

“Is Shixiong finished already?” he asked. “If Shixiong wants anything, there—there are servants outside, Shixiong can just tell them what he wants. I. Excuse me—”

“Binghe.”

He froze mid-step.

It was stupid. Shen Yuan should just keep his mouth shut. He didn’t want to offend Luo Binghe. More than almost anything else, he didn’t want Luo Binghe to look at him with that same cold indifference he regarded everyone else with.

But Shen Yuan couldn’t leave it. 

“What happened to Liu-shishu?” 

Luo Binghe didn’t answer immediately, just stared at him. Shen Yuan’s heart turned to ice in his chest. 

“Liu Qingge was none of my concern. I didn’t look for him.”

He took a deep, shuddering breath.

“How did I get here?”

“I brought you with me. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect cannot protect you. Even their War God is less than useless. They failed Shixiong when they allowed Huan Hua Palace to imprison you. Shixiong must have realized that.”

Shen Yuan’s hands were shaking, balled up into fists. But he couldn’t stop speaking. “Why? Why am I here? What do you want from me?”

There was a strange expression on Luo Binghe’s face. Shen Yuan couldn’t parse it. 

“I only want to protect Shixiong.”

Shen Yuan’s frozen heart sent a chill through his body, spreading all the way to his toes. 

“Did—did you attack us?” he asked, not able to keep his words steady. “When we were flying, were you the one?”

Luo Binghe’s eyes widened, and hurt flashed across his features.

“Does Shixiong think so?” His voice was soft, low. “Does Shixiong think I would do such a thing?”

“I don’t know what to think! Someone attacked us with demonic energy, and the next thing I know you’re there—tell me what I’m supposed to think!”

“Shixiong’s opinion of me is bad. That’s to be expected.” Luo Binghe’s hands clenched. “It doesn’t matter. Shixiong may think whatever he wants about me.”

“Then, then when will I be allowed to leave?”

Luo Binghe pointedly refused to meet his gaze. “When it’s safe.”

He was gone before Shen Yuan had the time to react. 

Shen Yuan blinked dumbly at the shut door.

That was a confirmation of guilt, right? That Luo Binghe was responsible, and that Shen Yuan wasn’t a guest, but a captive.

Luo Binghe had (maybe, most likely) knocked him and Liu Qingge out of the sky, picked him up, and brought him into the demon realm to the underground palace. To protect him, or so he said. Did his guilt go this far? To the point where he’d abduct Shen Yuan to keep him from dying again, to keep him safe? Shen Yuan didn’t need, or want, that kind of guilt.

Anger welled up inside him. What did it matter that Luo Binghe wanted to protect him? This wasn’t the right way to go about it! If this was how Luo Binghe was going to act, of course Shen Yuan wouldn’t trust him! Of course his opinion would be bad!

He was worried about Liu Qingge, too. Who knew what his injuries were? Luo Binghe certainly hadn’t cared, that might even mean … 

Though Shen Yuan hadn’t spent much time with Liu Qingge, he was an honest, straightforward sort of person. Exactly the type they needed more of in Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. And considering how protective the peak lords all seemed to be of each other, he didn’t even want to know what they’d do, if they discovered Luo Binghe was behind it.

Because. Because Shen Yuan was angry, furious, and yet Luo Binghe had saved his life. Had saved him from the one person he was most afraid of. If he’d just asked, if he’d just asked him, Shen Yuan wasn’t sure he would have said no. Aside from being afraid of Luo Binghe, of what Luo Binghe could do to him, Shen Yuan just … wasn’t sure he could say no. He didn’t know why.

Gratitude, probably. Gratitude, that this Luo Binghe seemed benign, apart from kidnapping him—saved him, when he didn’t need to, gave up Xin Mo, when he didn’t need to and definitely shouldn’t have. 

Shen Yuan just couldn’t chase away the image of Luo Binghe’s benign expression turning hateful as he stood over him, bloodied sword in hand, Shen Yuan’s legs severed from his body. 

As long as he could avoid that fate—! 

He didn’t want his shidi, his shidi least of all, to look at him like that.

Shen Yuan didn’t know what time it was, but retreated to bed anyway. Exhaustion wore him down, as did the constant, now dull, pain of his injuries. He collapsed just moments after undressing, and sank into an incredibly soft piece of heaven. Groaning, he flopped around a little, just to feel the silk of his sleeping robes and the silk of the sheets slide over his body. He didn’t care if he was sleeping in Luo Binghe’s future wife’s room or what, he was never going back to the hard mattress in his room on Qiong Ding Peak—he’d take this bed with him, if need be. Yue Qingyuan would allow something a little gentler on his head disciple’s back … right?

Luo Binghe provided excellent amenities, unwilling guest or not.

Shen Yuan didn’t shut his eyes, though, and stared up at the ceiling. 

The room was dark and empty, despite the furniture, despite the night pearls softly shining. Empty, quiet, without even the constant hissing of the acid in the Water Prison, or the feeling of life past the door and the walls, like back home.

Was Luo Binghe … just going to leave him there? Lock him up somewhere, just to ignore him, forget about him?

Pay back the debt he felt he owed his shixiong, but not go out of his way to do anything more.

It wasn’t like Shen Yuan needed him. 

But, in such a big room, it would be easy to feel lonely.

~*~

His surroundings faded in slowly, like at the start of a movie. It was nighttime, everything dark, difficult to see. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. 

A shadowed figure stood by the gate to the courtyard. Dark energy crackled in the air, and a split second later his mother shoved him to the ground. The attack slammed into one of the walls instead of into him.

“How dare you, you ungrateful whelp—”

She groaned as she blocked the next attack with her body. Her legs gave out, and she slumped to the ground.

The attack almost cut her torso in half. Blood poured out onto the stones beneath her.

He crawled towards her, took her hand.

“Mother? Mother? Wake up.” She wasn’t gone. She couldn’t be. He touched her cheek and got no response.

“She’s dead.”

His head jerked up, and he saw Gui Mengyu coming towards him. She was okay. He felt a dim sense of relief. The attacker had disappeared.

“Jiejie—”

“You’re still calling me that?” Gui Mengyu sneered, the expression twisting her beautiful face.

A shiver went up his spine. What … why was she looking at him like that? She stopped in front of him, her bloodied sword raised. Dark red stained her pale robes.

“You should have listened to your mother,” she said, and ruthlessly drove her sword down, straight through his chest.

He stared down at the silvery blade, then up at her icy, uncaring eyes.

“Jiejie? Jiejie, why …”

“Die, Gui Yuan.” Her smile was wicked. “You’re worth more to me dead.”

She yanked the sword out of his chest, the pain so sharp and overwhelming everything else ceased to exist.

~*~

Shen Yuan’s eyes flew open, and he gasped. It was dark, still dark, she was going to kill him, panic flooded through him like a rushing river—until he picked out the shapes of the bedposts, the silk drapes hanging from them, and he realized where he was.

A nightmare. Just a nightmare. It wasn’t real.

He still felt the phantom pain of being run through by a sword.

Shen Yuan slowly sat up and looked around. The room was the same as the one he’d fallen asleep in. Nothing had changed—his cousin wasn’t standing in one of the corners. He got out of bed and checked, just in case.

The pale light of the night pearls illuminated the room. Shen Yuan opened one of the windows to check the time, before he recalled that he was in an underground palace. The garden outside wasn’t open to the sky, so looking out was useless.

He let out a soft breath.

It had been a long time since he last had a nightmare. Of course he’d dream about his cousin. She’d stabbed him again, it wasn’t strange that it would trigger memories of the past. He pressed a hand to his sweat-damp face.

Whatever.

He went back to bed and face-planted onto it. He was going back to sleep. If he overslept, Luo Binghe could very well just come and wake him personally.

Luo Binghe didn’t come to wake him.

But he wasn’t left alone to sleep the day away, either.

Just as he was falling back into the fuzzy, comfortable realm of oblivion there was a (loud) knock on the door. It sounded frantic, and kept knocking, so he figured it was important.

“What is it?” he called.

The door opened wide, like it was kicked up, and Shang Qinghua came in carrying a tray laden with food.

Ah. Breakfast time.

Shang Qinghua never got a break, apparently. Shen Yuan didn’t feel an ounce of sympathy.

Shang Qinghua maneuvered the heavy tray onto the table, before turning to Shen Yuan.

“What are you doing here?” He refused to sit up, and stayed sprawled out on the bed, utterly content.

“Are you still mad? Cucumber-bro … you’re as good at holding a grudge as Shen Qingqiu.”

“Let’s see …” Shen Yuan counted all the reasons he had to be mad at the creator of the novel he currently inhabited. He ran out of fingers. “Yup. I’m still mad. Go away, I’m not ready to be annoyed again.”

“It’s been, like, a week since we last spoke!”

What, it wasn’t like Shen Yuan was addicted to being annoyed, he could go without for much longer!

“Come eat your breakfast, at least. Otherwise Luo Binghe will chop my head off and put it on a pike. What am I gonna do then? My neck’s my nicest feature!”

Were there restrictions on murdering fellow transmigrators?

[No restrictions apply. Host account may proceed at will]

Shen Yuan would gladly have summoned spiritual power to remove Shang Qinghua from the world—he definitely deserved a taste of his own medicine. Why, when Shang Qinghua died pretty early in the original novel while the arc during which Gui Yuan had died wasn’t supposed to happen for years, had this Shang Qinghua escaped his fate while Shen Yuan had died, come back to life, and was now hurtling towards his next death at breakneck speed?

But just then, the delicious scent of food floated towards him. 

Ah, well. Revenge could wait.

He slowly clambered out of bed, unsteady on his feet from a night of little rest, and made his way to the table. Sitting was much better than standing or walking or … moving in general. He wasn’t sure what that said about his physical capabilities.

Half a dozen plates and bowls sat on the table in front of him, and his mouth watered. Congee topped with shredded meat, baozi, soup—that was as far as Shen Yuan’s identification went before he just started tucking in. He forgot about Shang Qinghua’s presence, the pain from his injuries, the lingering terror from the nightmare and his own abduction. Flavors exploded in his mouth; some spicy, some mild, some sweet, but all perfectly seasoned. Shen Yuan would have accepted death happily right then, as long as he could finish eating first. 

“Luo Binghe prepared lots of different food ‘cause he wasn’t sure what you’d like—hey! That’s too much food, you can’t eat everything!”

“Try me,” Shen Yuan said.

“I have no idea what you just said, dude, do you know how to chew?” When Shang Qinghua didn’t get a response, he just sighed and shook his head. “It’s so unfair.”

“What?” 

Shang Qinghua nudged one of the empty dishes of food, an expression of longing on his face.

“That my son, my creation, cooks a feast for you and I’ve never tasted a morsel of anything he’s even looked at!”

So Luo Binghe really had made all the food. Shen Yuan wasn’t sure what it meant when someone abducted you and then cooked for you but … he may have been angry, but he could put those feelings away for a bit!

He wasn’t about to waste good food, that was a cardinal sin.

Without caring about the betrayal in Shang Qinghua’s eyes, Shen Yuan finished every last bit of every last dish. Sure, his stomach was about to explode, but he’d never been so satisfied after a meal before.

Shang Qinghua made a noise in the back of his throat. He sounded like a strangled frog.

“If you wanted to eat,” Shen Yuan said, wiping his mouth and hands, “why didn’t you just sneak a taste before coming in?”

“No, dude, I don’t know how, but Luo Binghe would have known. I’m pretty sure he has, like, spycams everywhere.

“Ah … a conspiracy theorist. Maybe if you’d been nicer to him, he’d cook for you, too.”

“Hey, I’m not the one who died in front of him and left him traumatized, I’ve been plenty nice!”

“You wrote his angsty origin story, you don’t have any rights.”

“Oh. Right.” Shang Qinghua looked down at his hands. “Does this mean I’m the scum of the earth?”

“Yes.”

“Cucumber-bro!” He gripped at his heart, as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Then he let out a long soulful sigh. “You’re right. I’m a horrible person. This is what I get for sacrificing my artistic integrity. If I hadn’t, maybe you wouldn’t be here to destroy everything.”

“Excuse me.”

Shang Qinghua let out another doleful sigh, completely ignoring him. He looked like he had a lot on his mind and wanted to talk about it. Shen Yuan’s eye twitched. He didn’t want to talk to Shang Qinghua about anything. Anything. Sure, he was relieved that there was another transmigrator in this world, one that also happened to come from the same place as him, but considering his fellow transmigrator was the one who’d pulled Shen Yuan into this mess, he didn’t feel very forgiving.

To start with, Shen Yuan had never been the forgiving, merciful type! Leave that character archetype for someone else!

Shang Qinghua chose that exact moment to turn big, shiny puppy eyes on him. He even sniffled.

Shen Yuan groaned. “What? What?? Stop sighing and spit it out!”

Shang Qinghua, while fiddling with his sleeves like an innocent maiden in front of her new husband, said, “you know … Gui Yuan and Gui Mengyu weren’t even going to be in Proud Immortal Demon Way … they were for a different project …”

He inhaled dramatically.

“But … I tried to see if anyone would be interested in a new novel, but all my readers were so focused on Luo Binghe’s exploits they didn’t even glance in that direction. The anti-fans also wouldn’t give anything else published under the Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky pseud a read.”

He leaned forward and grasped Shen Yuan’s hands.

“Cucumber-bro, you don’t know the pain!”

Shen Yuan had suffered through thousands of chapters of stallion protagonist harem bullshit, he knew pain on an intimate basis.

“I had to pay rent! I had to eat! I knew, above all else, I had to keep Luo Bingge’s story going … but I lost my outline, and didn’t have the time to develop new ideas, characters, backstories …”

What was this, a villain’s monologue?

“Yeah, I noticed,” he commented.

Shang Qinghua’s grip on his hands tightened, but he kept going like he hadn’t heard him say anything.

“I didn’t remember my outline, I wrote it on a caffeine high running on zero hours of sleep. So I started including bits from other projects. I put them in wherever they’d fit.”

That explained so much. Shang Qinghua, as if sensing Shen Yuan’s internal criticism, let out a pained moan, and his head fell onto the table with a loud thud.

“And then … I accidentally electrocuted myself by way of cup noodles and found myself here …”

Shen Yuan snorted. Shang Qinghua glared up at him.

“Don’t laugh! I died!”

“My apologies.

“How did you die, then, Mr. I’m So Superior?”

Shen Yuan thought back.

“Anyway? So what, you started reusing your ideas? Cheap.”

“You’ve always been one of my harshest critics … but if I remember correctly, you read all of Proud Immortal Demon Way.”

Shen Yuan floundered for something to say. Denial was his first instinct, but he’d left paragraph-long comments on many of the chapters, and Shang Qinghua knew it. He’d even vague about them in his author’s notes, sometimes!

Changing the subject was obviously the best way to go. Shen Yuan cleared his throat.

“So, which project were they from, originally? Gui Yuan and Gui Mengyu.”

Shang Qinghua’s eyes lit up, like someone had turned on a pair of light bulbs on the inside of his skull.

“Are you interested?” He leaned forward. “It was a wuxia setting—Gui Yuan was the pitiful protagonist from a noble background, who was betrayed by his jealous older cousin and had to go through countless hardships to climb his way back up to the top. When he’d finally managed to get somewhere, he’d gotten a new master and several good seniors, even caught the eye of the Emperor … Gui Mengyu appeared and ruined everything. He was abandoned and thrown into the most secure prison as punishment. But the Emperor’s eldest daughter, who’d been sold into slavery by one of the evil concubines, believed in his innocence due to an earlier chance meeting, and managed to break him out from the prison and—”

“They banded together to take revenge on everyone who wronged them, untangling a decade old plot on the way.”

“… I mean, yeah, basically.”

“And then they got married.”

“… I mean, yeah, basically.”

“But not before countless misunderstandings and secondary love rivals for both of them.”

“…”

Shang Qinghua sat back, an odd expression on his face. Shen Yuan got the feeling his life was on the line.

“I guess it sounds decent.” He paused. “Why didn’t a princess save me from prison?”

“I didn’t write her into the plot, but I’m pretty sure Luo Binghe just took over that role. He’s your princess.”

Silence descended upon the room as Shen Yuan tried to wrap his head around those words. Luo Binghe, a princess? Where? Where was he a princess, Airplane-bro? Which part of him? He was a—a guy with—with muscles, and—stuff. And anyway, the princess was supposed to be in love with him! Luo Binghe wasn’t in love with him!

It didn’t fit at all!

He took a calming sip of tea, only to find it had gone cold.

“I can’t believe you made your protagonist into cannon fodder.”

“Fuck off, writing is hard, dude.”

“Did Gui Yuan deserve that kind of treatment? He wasn’t even made into a major character! He literally had, like, half a page of screen time! Don’t you have any shame as a creator?”

Not to mention how difficult things were for Shen Yuan as a result!

Shang Qinghua’s shoulders slumped. “You’re right …”

Ah. Why did he sound so defeated?

Was Shen Yuan being too hard on him? Just because he’d personally never wanted for money didn’t mean other people were as lucky … although, considering he’d died twice because of Proud Immortal Demon Way, he felt he had the right to be a little harsh … ah, or maybe it was his own fault for reading the entirety of that trainwreck of a novel just because he thought Luo Binghe was cool—he meant, a compelling, fairly well-written protagonist.

Shen Yuan was about to speak to break the awkward silence, when there was another knock on the door.

“Shang Qinghua.” The voice was deep, but Shen Yuan recognized it.

Shang Qinghua squeaked out a “my king!” and jumped to his feet.

Ah. Mobei-jun. The demon who was worth betraying an entire sect for.

Shang Qinghua swiftly collected all the empty dishes, piled them onto the tray, and rushed for the door. 

“I’m coming, my king! See ya, bro!”

As the door opened, Shen Yuan briefly saw Mobei-jun and his impassive face. The furrow between his eyes deepened for a moment when he spotted Shang Qinghua, then smoothed out. The door shut with a firm click.

Hm. Shen Yuan didn’t know what the relationship between those two was, but he was hoping, for Shang Qinghua’s sake, that that expression didn’t mean ‘imminent death.’

~*~

Shen Yuan would be the first to admit to, in his past life, not going out much. He spent most of his time inside, playing games or reading—a result of a lifetime of poor health that had done little except stack skill points in his laziness skill-tree. He’d made the act of avoiding social interaction into an art. At his most extreme, he could go weeks without talking to anyone except his little sister (who was a gremlin and also impossible to avoid, so she didn’t count).

After transmigrating into the world of Proud Immortal Demon Way, he hadn’t exercised that skill in ages. The only time he’d been alone was when he went into secluded meditation, or while he slept, or, more recently, during the few days he spent at the Water Prison.

He’d rather not dwell on that.

Regardless, Shen Yuan just hadn’t spent a lot of time alone in a way that was, well, a positive experience. Meditation was fine, but he preferred to do it in the company of Yue Qingyuan or Luo Binghe or one of his fellow Qiong Ding disciples. This was mainly because it forced him to actually meditate instead of fall asleep, but also because there were … certain events his mind would return to again and again, when he was alone. And when he slept, it wasn’t uncommon for those events to visit his dreams. When he didn’t have nightmares, however, sleeping rendered him unconscious of the fact that he was alone. The rest of the time, he spent with other people. 

And so, Shen Yuan discovered to his horror, he was completely unused to spending any significant amount of time without anyone else around. He found he didn’t like it much.

The day after he’d been brought (kidnapped!) to Luo Binghe’s underground palace, though Shang Qinghua served him breakfast, demon servants delivered his other meals. He didn’t exactly feel inclined to speak to them. 

Delicious food notwithstanding, he had no company—his past self would have laughed at him for feeling lonely. 

His past self also died of food poisoning, so Shen Yuan didn’t feel like he had the right to make fun of anyone.

He had no one to talk to, and nothing to do—he’d tried flipping through some of the books in the room, but he couldn’t concentrate on them. The garden outside, too, though it looked like the one on Qiong Ding Peak, wasn’t right. He’d always thought its best feature was its isolation, but that was wrong—without the rest of Qiong Ding Peak just beyond the walls and trees, he didn’t feel comfortable enough there.

Luo Binghe hadn’t said Shen Yuan wasn’t allowed to leave the room. He hadn’t said so, but Shen Yuan was still … unwilling to test of terms of his stay in the palace.

Maybe if he overstepped, Luo Binghe would forget his guilt and tear Shen Yuan’s legs off.

He tried meditation, he tried sleeping, he tried daydreaming, but each time he closed his eyes, he heard the whooshing of the acid curtain on all sides. 

And therein lay Shen Yuan’s problem. When he thought ‘alone’ now, the first thing he connected it to was ‘imprisoned in the Water Prison for crimes he didn’t commit, his continued survival doubtful,’ instead of ‘time to catch up on some reading!’

Fuck it, Luo Binghe! If he was going to bring him to his palace, he could at least have the decency to provide some proper entertainment! He could at least come visit! Who said ‘I brought you here to protect you,’ just to then completely ignore the person he said it to???

What the fuck.

Shen Yuan wasn’t happy.

His first full day at the underground palace ended. His second full day at the underground palace ended. His third full day at the underground palace ended. Restlessness gathered in his bones, even after taking several long, hot baths. He hadn’t done anything except eat and pace and roll around in bed all day, with no company except for the demon servants and a very short visit by some kind of doctor who checked his wounds.

At least the first few nights he’d fallen asleep easily. He’d been exhausted. Now he’d done all of nothing for three days, and he couldn’t.

It wasn’t even late enough to go to sleep, he just had nothing better to do!

He tossed and turned for a while.

Then he got up and wrenched the door open. The demon who stood guard outside actually jumped.

“Does … does Immortal Cultivator Gui require anything from this servant?” the demon asked, the word awkward in his mouth, like he’d been coached on polite speech recently.

“Yes! Yes, I do! You can tell Lord Luo he’s a bastard and I hope he chokes on his salad. If he doesn’t have a good reason to keep me here, then he’ll very well let me leave and go back to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect! If Lord Luo isn’t too busy with other matters, perhaps he could even deign to show his face around his guest—unless he will admit to abducting me and holding me prisoner, in which case he can just put me in a cell and stop pretending!”

The demon stared at him, trying to take his words in.

“Go! Tell him what I said!”

The demon swallowed thickly, unwillingness radiating off him.

“Yes, Immortal Cultivator Gui.” The demon gave a lopsided bow, and scampered off.

Shen Yuan felt pleased he’d caused some disturbance in the palace—the guard would no doubt, to avoid saying it directly to Luo Binghe, pass the message on to someone else, who’d pass it on to someone else, who’d pass it on again, and so on, until it finally reached its recipient—and went back inside and to bed. 

He’d emptied his heart of irritation, and, his exhaustion for his imprisonment again presenting itself without mercy, fell into a deep sleep.

When Shen Yuan awoke the next morning, he had the distinct feeling that he wasn’t alone. He cautiously sat up and peeked behind the screen divider.

A shadow sat by the table. A familiar shadow. Shen Yuan easily recognized Luo Binghe’s fluffy hair, his beautiful profile, his broad shoulders—it helped that the seal on his forehead glowed faintly. Like a glow-in-the-dark tattoo.

Shen Yuan was never going to make that comparison again.

He decided to go back to bed and ignore his visitor, but hit his toe on the side of the screen divider and momentarily felt his life flash before his eyes.

“Shixiong?” Luo Binghe turned around. “Did I wake you? … are you unwell?”

“I’m fine—it’s fine, don’t mind me.” Fuuuuuuck that hurt.

When had Luo Binghe even come in? There were dishes of food arranged on the table, but Shen Yuan hadn’t noticed anything …

Luo Binghe’s hands were balled up and placed on his knees, and he held himself stiffly. He looked up, and even through the darkness of the room, his expression was off. But Shen Yuan couldn’t tell how.

“Shixiong, this shidi has received your message.”

Ah. Shen Yuan thought back to what he’d said, and knew it was probably embarrassing. His face flushed.

“I apologize for not receiving it earlier. It was not my intent to make Shixiong feel imprisoned, or slighted. I apologize.” He began bending forward so he could press his forehead to the ground.

No. Fuck. Luo Binghe couldn’t kowtow in front of him! Unacceptable!

“Don’t do that.” Shen Yuan had just woken up, and the words came out harsher than he’d intended. “Sit up properly.”

Luo Binghe straightened his back. His expression was worse, now. Ahhh. Shen Yuan kept insulting him. Earlier, he must have said something bad, right? He couldn’t even remember what it was! What had he said? Was Luo Binghe mad at him? Wasn’t Shen Yuan the one who should be mad??

He tried interpreting his mood, but all he could come up with was ‘heartbroken,’ which couldn’t be right. Myabe he wasn’t all that good at reading Luo Binghe’s face.

Shen Yuan sighed. He’d wanted to put it off for a little longer, but …

“Let’s talk, Binghe.”

For a moment, neither of them spoke. Then Luo Binghe asked, “does Shixiong have anything he wishes to discuss?”

Couldn’t Luo Binghe show some mercy? Shen Yuan had no idea what he wanted to talk about! Or, rather, he had lots of stuff he wanted to talk about, but he was afraid he’d get skewered for it!

“What is your motive for bringing me here?” Might as well start somewhere.

Luo Binghe’s eyebrows lowered minutely. “To keep Shixiong safe.”

“Did you believe I would not be safe if I returned to Cang Qiong Mountain?”

“They failed to protect you.” Luo Binghe’s hands clenched in the fabric of his robes. “I won’t fail.”

Okay. “So abduction is just … a normal part of demon society, then.”

Luo Binghe’s eyes flashed with hurt, and he looked away. “Shixiong really does hold demons in contempt.”

Well, it wasn’t like Luo Binghe was giving him good reasons not to! For fuck’s sake, kidnapping was a crime, even in this world! 

“Do you think that this won’t have any consequences?”

“The consequences are irrelevant, and nothing I cannot handle.”

Wow. The protagonist really was the protagonist.

“Fine. Then what are the terms of …” Shen Yuan motioned vaguely at the lavishly decorated room, relying on Luo Binghe’s excessively high IQ to understand what he meant.

“Shixiong may go wherever he wishes. My servants have been told to obey your every command, and no one in this palace will harm you.”

“If I wanted to leave—”

“No.” Something red sparked in Luo Binghe’s black eyes. “Shixiong may not leave this palace.”

Shen Yuan pressed his hand to his face, and breathed in deeply. Guilt and over-protectiveness in one … was Luo Binghe his shidi, or his mother? He remembered Luo Binghe had been very protective of his wives in Proud Immortal Demon Way, but not anyone else. He’d used people for as long as they were useful, then easily discarded them. Fairly typical blackened protagonist stuff, to be honest. But Shen Yuan wasn’t his wife! Where did he fit into all this? 

It didn’t matter to him if Luo Binghe wanted to keep him safe, Shen Yuan didn’t want to be locked up! How was it any different from being in the water prison?

“It’s too dark to talk like this,” Shen Yuan said, pulling on his outer robes.

A second later, the room was bathed in light, almost blinding him. He blinked, shielding his eyes until he got used to it. Luo Binghe had stood up, and Shen Yuan remembered why the dark was preferable.

Who could keep calm when looking at Luo Binghe’s peerlessly beautiful face?

And knowing Luo Binghe could see him clearly, too, all his expressions laid bare … he didn’t want to offend him! He didn’t want to humiliate himself, either!

“Shixiong should eat.” Luo Binghe gestured at the table.

Shen Yuan, seeing no way to refuse (would he hurt his feelings? Would Luo Binghe take it as an insult?), sat down. He’d dressed swiftly in the dark, which probably meant he didn’t look as presentable and dignified as he would have liked. But whatever. Luo Binghe had seen him in worse states. He’d get a heart attack if he ever saw the state of his original body, this was nothing.

“Shi—Shixiong.” Luo Binghe averted his face. “Shixiong’s collar is a little uneven.”

Glancing down, Shen Yuan discovered that, indeed, his robes weren’t pulled together properly, showing off more skin than was proper. He retied his robes. When he looked up, Luo Binghe was still looking away. The light made his face seem slightly red.

Shen Yuan reached for his spoon, and began to eat the congee Luo Binghe had prepared. Ah. Really. It was almost enough for him to forget about being locked up. If he could just keep eating this well every day … cultivator or not, good food was good food!

Luo Binghe said nothing for a period of time, though after Shen Yuan finished the congee, he served him some of the other dishes, his gaze almost gentle.

“This shidi still does not know which foods Shixiong prefers. In the future, I will attempt to prepare better.”

Why did he sound apologetic? 

“Everything you make is fine, don’t worry about it,” he said, dismissive.

A beat or two of silence, then, “I see.” More silence. “I didn’t think Shixiong wanted to see me, and so I stayed away.”

Shen Yuan put his chopsticks down with a clink. At the sound, Luo Binghe raised his head.

“Please make up your mind. Am I your prisoner or am I not?”

“Of course—Shixiong isn’t—”

“But you won’t let me leave if I want to.”

Luo Binghe avoided his gaze. “No. Not yet.”

Shen Yuan leaned back. After a pause, he spoke again. “I am certain Lord Luo has more important matters to attend to.”

Luo Binghe’s entire body jerked, as if he’d received a physical blow. His eyes widened, large and black, and his hand moved forward but froze in mid air.

“I don’t,” he said. “There are no more important matters. Nothing is more important than Shixiong.”

The room became deathly quiet as Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe stared at each other. Shen Yuan didn’t know what to say. How did he explain that he couldn’t just lock someone up to keep them safe? Was that just a—a modern sensibility that had no place in a xianxia world? Some things should have been obvious??

Why was Luo Binghe even trying to deny it? He didn’t exactly seem to feel guilty about what he was doing at all!

“Binghe …” Shen Yuan sighed. “Binghe …”

“I understand that Shixiong does not want to be in my presence.”

That wasn’t what he was going to say! Okay, maybe he’d prefer Yue Qingyuan’s company to Luo Binghe’s at the moment, but that was mainly because Yue Qingyuan wouldn’t have abducted him and locked him up against his will!

… wait. Would he? Anyway! Five years before, Shen Yuan definitely would have preferred Luo Binghe!

“I understand that Shixiong dislikes me. I understand that Shixiong would rather be on Cang Qiong Mountain. Shixiong is a righteous cultivator, his feelings do not surprise me.” Luo Binghe bowed his head. “I understand that I have done nothing to earn Shixiong’s trust. But Shixiong must stay here. Just for a little longer. I’ll keep Shixiong safe this time. No one will hurt you here. So please, don’t say you want to leave.”

Luo Binghe raised his head, eyes faintly sparkling, shining with starlight. Oh, no. Please, no tears. Shen Yuan had never known how to deal with crying.

Why did Luo Binghe sound sad? What did he have to be sad about? Had the Endless Abyss been that bad? Had Shen Yuan stabbing him in the chest had such a lasting impact, to the point where Luo Binghe, of all people, would cry?

No tears fell, but Shen Yuan still felt like he’d been gutted, or at least what he thought it would feel like to be gutted. Which was bad. Where was his resolve? Where was all his anger from yesterday? His indignation on Liu Qingge’s behalf? Instead, just like when he’d read the first few arcs of Proud Immortal Demon Way and he’d wanted little more than to protect tiny!Luo Binghe from the world, he wanted to pull not-so-tiny!Luo Binghe into a hug and comfort him …

Shen Yuan was about to reach out and pet Luo Binghe’s head, however stupid the decision may have been, when Luo Binghe’s gaze suddenly sharpened. Shen Yuan quickly pulled back.

Luo Binghe let out a humorless laugh.

“Are you afraid of me? Do you believe I would hurt you?”

“That’s—” not true. 

“Shixiong has good reason to think ill of his shidi.” Luo Binghe’s eyes were red-rimmed, and the expression on his face had gone strange. “After all, his shidi killed him. His promise to not hurt Shixiong is empty. Of course Shixiong wouldn’t believe it.”

“Binghe—”

He got to his feet, and Shen Yuan started. He stared up at him, not sure what to make of the sudden change in his mood. Some of the irritation he’d felt the day before returned, and he rose, too.

“You won’t explain yourself properly, and you won’t listen to reason. What should I think, when you abduct me and bring me here against my will?”

The tenuous hold Luo Binghe had on himself rippled, and demonic energy seeped into the air. His irises started turning red.

“Shixiong may think whatever he wishes. The worst thing in the world is Shixiong being dead. The entire world hates me. If Shixiong hates me too, it doesn’t matter.”

He whirled around. “I won’t hurt him, I’ll keep him safe, this time,” he muttered, quiet enough that he must have been speaking to himself. “Please, excuse this shidi.”

Luo Binghe stormed out. The moment the door closed, Shen Yuan felt the shock wave as demonic energy released, though the barriers surrounding the room stopped everything apart from the tremors.

Ah, fuck. Shen Yuan had done what he told himself not to—he’d made Luo Binghe angry.

~*~

“Is Binghe mad at me?”

[Luo Binghe’s anger value is at 300]

“What … does that mean? Is that higher than average? Lower? Be more specific.”

[That information is not available. Host account’s account level is too low to access it]

Well. That was annoying. Shen Yuan threw himself back on the bed, and stared up at the ceiling. Luo Binghe was mad at him. Of course he was. Maybe he felt guilty for accidentally killing him, but obviously he didn’t like being argued with. Maybe Shen Yuan should have kept his mouth shut.

No. Shen Yuan wasn’t wrong, what the fuck. Luo Binghe was the one who was behaving badly! How blackened was he, anyway?”

[The protagonist’s blackening is at 80% and falling]

That didn’t make any sense. Maybe something was wrong with the System.

[…]

He slapped his hands over his face and groaned. Why did nothing go the way it was supposed to? Why did Luo Binghe keep misunderstanding him? Sure, Shen Yuan was angry. But he didn’t really doubt that Luo Binghe wanted to keep him safe! Most importantly, Shen Yuan didn’t hate him! Genuinely! Was he mildly terrified of him? Sure! Did he still feel terrible that he’d made Luo Binghe upset? Very! Very terrible!

Even though Shen Yuan had enjoyed Luo Binghe’s character in the novel, the steady descent of the blackened protagonist into hatred and moral depravity, their good traits twisting and being annihilated, seeing it happen in real life, to the white sheep he’d helped raise …

Shen Yuan knew Luo Binghe. This Luo Binghe. Or, at least, he had known him. And he didn’t want the boy who’d followed him around like a puppy to be blackened. He didn’t want him to suffer. Wasn’t that why he’d refused to push him into the Endless Abyss in the first place?

He’d failed. But he’d tried.

Luo Binghe didn’t know he’d suffered from a qi deviation, did he? Then he must have thought Shen Yuan did hate him. He didn’t! He didn’t hate him.

Shen Yuan wanted to leave. He didn’t want to be locked up. He wanted to go home. To the Cang Qiong Mountain of five years ago, before everything had gone to shit. Luo Binghe could have come with him, he didn’t care! He just … didn’t want this. 

Even the original Gui Yuan had escaped captivity.

He’d been thinking for a while, that it seemed like he’d taken over several of Shen Qingqiu’s storylines for some reason … couldn’t he have avoided this part of it?

Ah, fuck. He didn’t understand anything anymore. What was up with Luo Binghe? What was up with Gui Mengyu? Why had these things not happened in the original novel? Or would they have, if Gui Mengyu hadn’t been killed while taking her revenge?

Shen Yuan wanted to know what was going on, damn it!

[Does host account wish to exchange 9995 B-points for the Insight Application?]

“What does it do?”

[It applies insight.]

“Sure. Whatever. What do I have to lose, at this point?”

[Purchase complete. Activating Insight Application]

Black spots appeared in front of Shen Yuan’s eyes. His vision began to blur, and go dark. He touched his forehead, closed his eyes tightly, and felt his body go boneless as he collapsed back against the bed.

~*~

When Shen Yuan opened his eyes, his surroundings had grown big and vaguely familiar. He glanced around, trying to place it in his memories. The courtyard was large, with small, flowering trees planted all around it. He held a brightly colored ball, which he threw up into the air on instinct, catching it on its way down.

“Does A-Yuan like the toy?” his mother asked. She towered over him, even seated, and held out her arms, and when he walked over she pulled him up into her lap and held him against her warm chest.

He wrapped his arms around her neck.

“Mother, throw it, too!” he commanded, and his mother obligingly took the ball and copied his earlier motion, and he laughed in delight.

“A-Yuan is the brightest, ah?” his mother said, her eyes curving into crescent moons as she smiled. “He’ll grown up to be the strongest, handsomest boy in the world, ah?”

Shen Yuan grabbed for one of the dangling ornaments in his mother’s hair, obviously much too old to act like a toddler but doing so anyway. His mother just laughed as she tried to distract him from them.

He knew where he was—in one of the original Gui Yuan’s memories.

“Madam Gui, Lord Gui has returned!” A servant, panting like she’d run from the other side of the compound, stood at the entrance to the courtyard.

“Oh?” The smile slid off his mother’s face.

The servant’s voice dropped in volume. “Like the letter said, the child was with—with the thing. They killed it, and have brought the child back.”

“And what has he planned to do with the child?”

The servant’s answer warped as Shen Yuan’s surroundings abruptly changed. The courtyard disappeared, and instead, a classroom came into view. Not on Qiong Ding Peak, though—he was still in the Hong Lian Sect compound, the red symbol of the clan on every surface. He recognized the children around him, too, but they were much younger than he’d ever seen them—seven, maybe, no older than ten.

Shen Yuan sat in front of a low table, the scroll in front of him filled with neat writing. The words were blurry, though, and shifted every time he tried to get a proper look.

He glanced around again. A girl a few years older than him sat at the neighboring table. She was writing, too, but she held the brush wrong and obviously struggled with it. When they were told to stop and take a short rest, the other children swarmed Shen Yuan.

The girl stayed put, quiet, bent over her scroll.

“Look at her, she can’t even hold the brush right,” one child whispered, and the others giggled.

“If her parents weren’t already dead, they’d die of shame!” another stated.

“I don’t know why Uncle let her into the sect. She’ll make us lose face.”

Like children often did, they spoke in a stage whisper, loud enough for Gui Mengyu, because that was who the girl was, to hear. Her grip tightened on the brush, and she hunched her shoulders.

“Her mother’s the one who betrayed the sect, I don’t know why we have to clean up the mess.”

The brush broke in two in Gui Mengyu’s hands.

“Gui Mengyu, if you won’t treat these lessons seriously, get out!” their teacher barked. 

“Yes, Shifu,” Gui Mengyu mumbled. 

The class giggled, and her face flushed. Shen Yuan couldn’t tell whether it was with shame or with anger.

“And sit properly!”

His surroundings shifted again, and now he stood outside the classroom—it was later in the year. The leaves were turning orange and fell from the trees onto the paved courtyard. Gui Mengyu was in the middle of scrubbing the front steps, despite the cold temperature and the biting wind. Her hands were red and rubbed raw.

Shen Yuan walked up to her.

“Why are you doing that?” The words came out of his mouth even though he didn’t mean for them to.

She stopped scrubbing and bowed her head, though she didn’t get up from her knees.

“Shifu told me to.”

“Why? Are you being punished?” Shen Yuan had never been punished while he was in Hong Lian Sect, and he wouldn’t be surprised if that was true for Gui Yuan, too.

Gui Mengyu wrung her hands.

“I punched one of the other disciples.

“Oh. You should be punished for that,” Shen Yuan said in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “Why did you do it?”

“Shifu said I had no good reason.” Gui Mengyu bit her lip hard enough to draw blood. Either she really was that pitiful, or she was playing it up—regardless, Shen Yuan could feel Gui Yuan’s attitude changing.

“Why’d you do it, then?”

“He—he said—he said my mother was—” She cut herself off, eyes turning shiny. Then, in a whisper, “he said she was a whore and a traitor and that I’m worse because it’s my fault she betrayed the sect.”

Shen Yuan balked, then his fists clenched.

“He said that about my aunt? About you? Who said it?”

Gui Mengyu nooded, but didn’t answer. Shen Yuan took her wrist and pulled at her.

“I’ll go tell father, and then that disciple will be punished instead. Father says family always comes first, he won’t stand for anyone insulting you or my aunt!”

“No!” She tugged her arms from his grip. “If you do, that disciple will only take it out on me later. It’s much better if I just accept my punishment. I—I shouldn’t have punched him. Everything is fine, young master.”

Shen Yuan stared at her. Despite her words, she looked very pitiful, tears brimming in her eyes, robes dirty from where she’d knelt on the steps. He wondered how much of what she said was true; wondered if, even this young, she’d begun twisting events and manipulating others into feeling sorry for her. Even if Gui Yuan had gone to his father, to the other disciple, and received a different explanation, Gui Mengyu seemed so sincere, so unhappy—he doubted he would have believed the second explanation at all.

“Don’t call me young master,” Shen Yuan said, “we’re cousins. I’ll stay here until you finish.”

Gui Mengyu smiled.

Everything changed again, and again, and again, and for each time, he grew older—here teaching his cousin how to hold her brush properly, there helping her meditate, or practice sword forms. For each change, Gui Mengyu was less ostracized by the other children; disciples spoke to her, laughed with her. Shen Yuan started calling her ‘jiejie.’ But he noticed what he had in his six months living that life—Gui Mengyu’s talent for spiritual cultivation was low. Her frustration seemed to be mounting for each step everyone else took, which she couldn’t keep up with. 

Again.

Shen Yuan sat at the edge of a pond in one of the gardens. It was early spring, and the water was cold. He reached for one of the fish in the water, and lost his balance—no, something solid pushed against his back, making him tip forward.

Freezing liquid surged around him. He gasped, water forcing its way down his throat, limbs quickly going numb as he tried to fight his way to the surface.

A hand grabbed his shoulder, and pulled until he could clamber his way up onto the grass.

“Yuan-di, are you alright?” Gui Mengyu frantically batted at his clothes and his back, as if it would help.

“Jiejie, I’m fine,” Shen Yuan said, still gasping with every breath.

“A-Yuan!”

Shen Yuan looked up. His mother was running towards them, her blue skirts dragging across the ground without care.

“A-Yuan!” She fell to her knees next to him, pushing Gui Mengyu away roughly, and took his face into her hands, checking him over. “Go alert the physician.”

One of the servants scampered away. Then his mother swept him into her arms and carried him away. If looks could kill, Gui Mengyu would have been died twice over.

“A-Yuan,” she murmured against his hair. “Stop spending time with that girl.”

“She saved me,” Shen Yuan argued, Gui Yuan’s contrariness so clear he could feel it like one of his own emotions.

“She pushed you, first, you idiot child!”

He shook his head. “Jiejie wouldn’t!”

“Stop calling her that!” his mother snapped. “She’s a snake, always trying to get sympathy from people. Just like her mother. If your father knew what was good for this sect, he would throw her out at once. He should never have brought her back here, knowing what kind of a monster her father was.”

But Gui Yuan had already made his mind up about Gui Mengyu. Nothing his mother said could convince him that Gui Mengyu wasn’t a good person, and he refused to listen. Gui Mengyu had been wronged by the world. She couldn’t be bad.

His surroundings changed again, but at first wouldn’t settle, and he flashed between glimpses of other memories, surging until he stood alone in the dark, in an isolated courtyard. Gui Mengyu jumped down from above, and startled when she saw him.

“Yuan-di?” she asked. She held onto a long object bundled up in thick cloth, holding it tightly to her chest. “What are you doing here?”

“Jiejie, what about you?” Gui Yuan’s voice was odd—Shen Yuan didn’t recognize it as his own, this time. “Lately, jiejie has been acting strange.” 

Gui Mengyu must have noticed it, too, because her expression flickered. She opened her mouth, her fingers twitching, as if she hadn’t prepared an excuse and needed to stall for time. But then the scene fractured—and when it calmed, while they still stood across from each other, the scent of blood was now thick in the air.

The bewilderment on Gui Mengyu’s face turned to contempt, a sneer twisting her lips. With a quick, elegant movement, she drove her sword into his chest.

Pain seared through him. It clawed at his lungs, his heart as the sword sliced through flesh and muscle, straight out the other side. Blood flowed down his skin and soaked into his robes. It was agony. His meridians cracked, spiritual power seeping out of him like water through a sieve.

He stared up at his cousin. The jewel on the hilt of her sword glowed bright.

“Die, Gui Yuan.”

He wrenched back. The image shattered, and everything went dark.

[Application suspended]

[Insight Application interrupted before completion. Ins̷i̶g̴h̸̲̄t̶̤̐ ȕ̷̼̥̈ń̸̻̃c̶̢̤̯̥͕̈͊͆̑̀͜ȏ̴̢͓̪̜̭͔̻̮̑͂͒ṿ̷̤̄e̶͕̤̦̩̝̻͍̽̅̎͋̿̉̉͘r̴̽͋̍̑͜͠ͅē̶̠̖̳̹͚̻͐̇̾̎̿̏̾͜d̸̡͖̩͔̙̍̏͑

~*~

Shen Yuan opened his eyes and looked up at the blurry bedposts that surrounded his bed. Ah. They probably weren’t blurry. He was blurry.

No. Wait. That didn’t sound right.

He sat up with a groan. Fuck. His head throbbed, like someone was beating the inside of his skull like a drum. It took him a moment, until the pain ebbed and the room stopped spinning, before he raised his head.

That last memory … had Gui Yuan known something about his cousin? Was Gui Mengyu the reason he’d gotten so sick?

Ah, he didn’t know. That had all been completely useless!

[The System has encountered a bug in the application. Reparation in progress]

Useless. Whatever the System tried to do next time, Shen Yuan was never listening to its suggestions again. Hadn’t he learned that lesson when it killed him five years ago?

Thump.

Shen Yuan frowned. Where did that come from? Outside? He sat completely still, and listened.

The thumping sounded again, and Shen Yuan slowly got out of bed and walked towards the window. It definitely came from outside. He paused by the window, listening again.

The thumping stopped, but instead of everything falling silent, the sound of voices replaced it. Low, inaudible, like whispers, but Shen Yuan’s hearing was good enough to make out part of what they were saying.

“…like Qiong Ding Peak,” a male voice said. “Surprised he wasn’t thrown in a cell.”

A woman scoffed. “Luo Binghe doesn’t want to kill him.”

“You and I both know how possessive that beast can be. I doubt he could help but harm anything or anyone he sets his eyes on, whether he means to or not.”

“Don’t call him a beast. He’s done nothing to you here.”

“Yet you are the one who suggested we come.”

The two stopped speaking, as if they’d arrived at a deadlock. Shen Yuan, who had a very good idea of who these people were, had enough. Instead of opening the window, he opened the door, and came face to face with Shen Qingqiu.

“Sh—”

Shen Qingqiu’s hand whipped out and pressed against his mouth. The intensity of his gaze told him ‘if you so much as breathe, I will skin you alive.’ Shen Yuan, being very intelligent, kept quiet, and tried to convey his own question with his eyes.

Shen Qingqiu, helpfully, ignored him completely, and pulled Shen Yuan out through the door and pushed him in Qiu Haitang’s direction. Then he soundlessly entered the room and looked around. One of his eyebrows lifted—no doubt surprised Shen Yuan really wasn’t in a cell, and that he hadn’t been bound or restrained.

“What is Shishu doing here?”

“Liberating you.” Shen Qingqiu gave him a quick glare, as if to tell him again to shut up. “Though considering how foolish you were to be caught in the first place, I advocated for leaving you here.”

“No, he didn’t,” Qiu Haitang said. “Never trust half the words your Shen-shishu says.”

“What happened to Liu-shishu?” Shen Yuan was almost afraid to ask.

“Pah. Another disgrace. Serves him right.” Shen Qingqiu’s voice was a mix of resentful and gleeful, and Shen Yuan reminded himself to never get on the man’s bad side, lest his own bad fortune be spoken of in the same way.

“He suffered a mild concussion, but was otherwise unharmed. He wished to come here, but felt sneaking in was too dishonorable. I would not be surprised if he broke the front gates down at some point in the near future, and challenged Luo Binghe to a duel.”

Shen Yuan hoped he wouldn’t. Liu Qingge’s status as war god didn’t matter against Luo Binghe’s status as protagonist! It was suicide to fight him! Liu Qingge was lucky he hadn’t died during that attack, he was already living on borrowed time!

His outer robes were thrown at him, and he pulled them on instinctively.

“How did you get here?”

“Is it important? Let us leave before Lord Luo comes.”

Ah. Did Shen Yuan want to leave? More importantly, did he want to leave in the middle of the night, without explaining why? Unbidden, the image of Luo Binghe’s unhappy expression came to his mind. Luo Binghe, saying that Shen Yuan couldn’t leave—and he wondered what his reaction would be, if he really did.

He stopped moving, even as Shen Qingqiu joined them outside again.

“Is Shizun well?” he asked. Shen Qingqiu turned his face back to him. “When he fought against Huan Hua Palace, Shizun didn’t use his sword, did he?”

“He is as well as he can be, with his head disciple abducted by a demon.” Shen Qingqiu’s eyes narrowed. “What does Xuan Su have to do with it?”

Shen Yuan let out a sigh of relief. If Yue Qingyuan was hurt because of him … He decided to ignore the rest of the question. It didn’t matter. If Yue Qingyuan was alright, then, then couldn’t he just stay here? Stop all-out war between the demons and the humans? At least until Luo Binghe calmed down, and he could be reasoned with.

But Shen Qingqiu would have none of that.

“What do you know about his sword that I do not?” Shen Qingqiu stepped up to him, grasping him by the shoulder.

“A-Jiu …” Qiu Haitang glanced at the door. “We need to go.”

“Answer me.” The man’s usually frosty expression had gone intense, as if something was piecing itself together in his mind, and he didn’t much like it.

“This disciple—” Shen Qingqiu obviously didn’t know about Xuan Su. Yue Qingyuan had probably avoided telling him for a reason.

But Shen Yuan also didn’t want to be murdered here, so he’d spill.

“This disciple is unaware of the details, however, it seems Shizun’s sword is somehow bound to his life force and this is the reason he avoids drawing it.”

Shen Qingqiu’s eyelashes trembled. His grip on Shen Yuan tightened, before going slack, and his hands fell down to his sides. His expression turned unreadable.

Qiu Haitang placed her hand on his arm.

“A-Jiu,” she murmured. “We have to go, now.”

“I—” A wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows, and whatever emotion he’d been feeling, he squashed it like a bug. He returned to his normal, frosty self.

Then the door to Shen Yuan’s room opened with a bang. The air surged with demonic energy. Even an infant would have been able to tell who’d arrived. Shen Yuan looked through the room, and straight at Luo Binghe, whose face was deceptively smooth. His scarlet eyes burned with rage. Beyond him, Shang Qinghua cowered.

No loyalty there, huh.

“I see some ants have broken into my palace.” Luo Binghe’s voice was cool. “May I inquire as to who told you how to do so?”

“Don’t think so highly of yourself,” Shen Qingqiu said with a sniff. “It was hardly as difficult as you believe it to be.”

Luo Binghe’s lips curved into a smile. It was an unpleasant one, and Shen Yuan shivered.

“Was it Peak Lord Shang who assisted you?”

The man in question squeaked. “I never—”

“As if this master would stoop so low as to beg a traitor for help.” Shen Qingqiu revealed nothing of what he thought, and yet Shen Yuan had a feeling he was less composed than usual.

Luo Binghe sharply raised his hand, energy gathering for an attack. Shen Yuan stepped in front of Shen Qingqiu. Sure, he probably deserved a beating or something, but Shen Yuan didn’t want him to die! How unhappy would Yue Qingyuan be, then???

The anger in Luo Binghe’s eyes flickered. The energy fizzled out to nothing.

“Binghe, don’t hurt them. Haven’t you done enough to anger Cang Qiong Mountain Sect?”

“I don’t care about Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. As long as Shixiong stays—you can do whatever you want, just don’t leave. Don’t leave again. Don’t get hurt again.”

The look on Luo Binghe’s face made his heart ache. Ah. So he really was still feeling guilty about that day five years ago.

“Don’t listen to him, Gui Yuan.” Shen Qingqiu again pulled Shen Yuan behind him. “You have a duty to Cang Qiong—”

“A duty?” Luo Binghe asked. His voice was quiet but deadly. “You would have let him die. Had I not arrived when I did, Shixiong would be dead!”

Demonic energy whipped up again. It pressed against Shen Yuan’s skin. The walls started shaking. He stumbled, clinging to Shen Qingqiu’s sleeve to keep his balance. 

Luo Binghe’s eyes were fastened on his former master, the irises an even red. His self-control kept slipping—obviously the calm, controlled, black-eyed front he presented was just that, a front. He’d damaged his primordial spirit. A few weeks wasn’t enough to fix that. For all Shen Yuan knew, he still entered his dreamscape every night, killing himself over and over again with Shen Yuan’s sword.

Or maybe he just hated his teacher in this world, too.

“Binghe, calm down!” he entreated.

Luo Binghe’s gaze twitched in his direction, but nothing in his demeanor changed.

“Calm down, I won’t leave!”

“Gui Yuan—” Shen Qingqiu began to say, giving him a warning glare over his shoulder.

“I won’t leave you again, so calm down.”

“Don’t lie to me. You want to leave, so don’t lie.”

Shen Yuan felt a stab of irritation. “I just said I wouldn’t leave. Will you stop misunderstanding what I tell you?”

He turned towards Shen Qingqiu. “This disciple greatly appreciates that Shen-shishu came to rescue him, but at the moment, this disciple has no intention of leaving. Apologies to Shen-shishu for the inconvenience.”

Shen Qingqiu stared at him like he’d grown a second head, then looked towards Qiu Haitang, as if she’d somehow miraculously fix everything.

“Fighting against Lord Luo at this time would be bad for both sides,” Shen Yuan continued. “My cousin currently possesses the Xin Mo sword, and we still do not know what she plans to do with it.”

Shen Qingqiu let out a small breath, his mouth twisting with displeasure.

“Is he threatening you?”

“No.”

The tremors abated, and so did the demonic energy. Luo Binghe’s gaze was heavy, even though Shen Yuan wasn’t looking in his direction. Obviously he was saying something right. Something Luo Binghe wanted to hear.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Shen Qingqiu seemed to be considering everything. “You would betray your shizun like this? You are still his head disciple. Have you, too, defected to the demons?”

“This disciple would like to avoid conflict with the demon realm while my cousin’s motives are still unknown. This disciple wishes to return to Qiong Ding Peak in the future. At this time, however, that does not seem possible.”

Shen Qingqiu’s face smoothed out, and he opened his mouth to speak. Just then, however, a demon appeared in the doorway. The demon was panting, and, when he saw the state of the room, stared in confusion.

“What?” Luo Binghe demanded.

“There—there—there is a human cultivator at the gate!”

“Why have you come to tell me about this? You should be able to take care of a single cultivator.”

“He’s too strong!”

Luo Binghe’s expression didn’t change, but displeasure radiated off him.

“Where’s Mobei-jun?” he asked. He seemed to have forgotten about Shen Qingqiu, or at least, no longer considered him a threat.

“He has only just returned, my lord.”

“Shixiong, stay here,” Luo Binghe said, turning his eyes on him—still red, but not angry. Then he marched out of the room.

Shen Yuan wasn’t sure what to do. Neither was anyone else.

“It’s probably Liu Qingge, that idiot,” Shen Qingqiu eventually said. “Gui Yuan, let us go while the beast is distracted—”

“No. Begging Shen-shishu’s pardon, this disciple gave Luo Binghe his word.”

“You fool.” Shen Qingqiu let out a long-suffering sigh. “Let us go see to it that Liu Qingge does not bring this palace down with him while he fights. I, for one, would prefer to not be buried alive.”

Qiu Haitang snorted, and followed after Shen Qingqiu as he walked out of the room, pulling Shen Yuan along by the arm. For some reason, both of them knew exactly where to go. Shen Yuan didn’t know what to make of that. Sure, he’d read the novel, and in theory should have known the layout of the palace … but to be honest, the floor plan never made sense to him back then, and after so many years, he only had a vague memory of what it was like.

The entire palace shook at irregular intervals, the torches in the hallways flickering, though none of them went out—probably, they weren’t kept lit by normal means.

Shen Yuan’s room was in the innermost part of the palace, and it took a while to get to the front gate—the hallways were mostly deserted, but Shen Yuan’s two companions never diverted from their path. As they walked, the sounds of fighting became louder, until shouts of pain and powerful bolts of energy slamming into stone walls and other, less solid, materials, sounded from all around them.

Turning a corner one last time, Shen Yuan came face to face with the carnage. The front gate had been blown completely apart—splinters of wood and pieces of metal littered the ground. The entire left wall crumbled. Prone bodies were stacked along the walls, or forgotten on the floor.

Liu Qingge stood beneath the destroyed gate, pointing his sword towards Luo Binghe. It seemed he’d only just broken through.

“You!” Liu Qingge yelled.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Luo Binghe asked. He hadn’t drawn his sword, but his eyes had narrowed.

Liu Qingge swept his sword in a downward arch. Luo Binghe raised a hand. The attack hit an invisible wall, and dissipated.

“You know what you’ve done,” Liu Qingge said. “When did you break Tianlang-jun out of his prison?”

Shen Yuan blinked. Tianlang-jun?

Who was that?

But no one else seemed to be out of the loop—Qiu Haitang inhaled sharply, Shen Qingqiu shifted, and Luo Binghe’s hand reached back to touch the hilt of his sword.

“What?” Luo Binghe asked.

Shen Yuan also wanted to know! Please explain!

Liu Qingge’s gaze was drawn past Luo Binghe, and his face turned sour when he saw Shen Qingqiu.

“Liu-shidi,” he said. “Explain.”

“That demon already knows. Ask him.”

Shen Qingqiu turned to Luo Binghe. “Is it true? Have you broken into the mountain and freed Tianlang-jun?”

“No. What reason would I have to do so?”

“Binghe—”

Luo Binghe’s eyes sought him out. “Does Shixiong believe me to be guilty of this, too?”

Shen Yuan’s mouth fell open. For fuck’s sake, he just wanted an explanation!?

“Tianlang-jun, that would be the Tianlang-jun that was sealed under the Bailu Mountain decades ago?” Shang Qinghua had appeared, trailing after Mobei-jun. When he noticed everyone looking at him, he hid behind Mobei-jun’s back. “The—the heavenly demon?”

Luo Binghe’s face darkened. 

The heavenly demon? Wasn’t Luo Binghe a heavenly demon? What … what did that mean? Was Tianlang-jun, perhaps …

“How do you know this has happened?”

“I passed on the way here,” was all Liu Qingge said, as if it explained everything. More words! Use more words, Liu-shishu!

“I had nothing to do with it,” Luo Binghe finally said.

“But Gui Mengyu might.” Shen Yuan hadn’t meant to speak out loud, the words just sort of slipped out, and when everyone’s eyes turned to him, he, too, wanted a big demon to hide behind. “And with Xin Mo, it is likely she has the capability to do so.”

“What reason would she have?”

Shen Yuan looked towards Shen Qingqiu, feeling helpless. “I don’t know.”

There was a moment of silence. The air thickened, as everyone considered what to do, and whether or not they should trust one another. Liu Qingge, especially, had his eyes fastened on Luo Binghe, distrust radiating off of him.

“Maybe someone should inform the sect leader.” Qiu Haitang’s voice broke through some of the tension.

“And the rest should stay here,” Shen Qingqiu added. “To prevent anything … unfortunate from happening. I—”

“Liu-shishu and I will stay.” Qiu Haitang gave Shen Qingqiu a sweet smile. “You carry more weight with the sect leader, and he will take your opinion into account on both issues.”

Then her gaze flitted over Liu Qingge and then Luo Binghe, as if daring either of them to argue.

“Haitang hopes Your Excellency has no qualms with this arrangement.”

Luo Binghe briefly glanced at Shen Yuan.

“I—” Liu Qingge began to say.

“Very well.” Luo Binghe turned around, his glare sending the demons, who’d been watching them, scurrying away to patch of the damage. “Stay if you wish.”

He didn’t leave, but the aura he exuded might as well have said ‘leave me alone,’ and for that reason, Shen Yuan didn’t approach to reassure him that he really wasn’t going anywhere.

“Gui Yuan,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Stop being foolish and come with me back to Cang Qiong Mountain.”

Ah. Arguing with Shen Qingqiu wasn’t something Shen Yuan liked doing outside his own imagination. He steeled himself.

“Shishu, this disciple has said he has already made his decision.”

“Then do not regret it in the future.” Shen Qingqiu obviously wouldn’t comfort him if he came crying. He pressed something into Shen Yuan’s hands.

It was his fan—his mother’s fan.

All of a sudden, his eyes began prickling.

“You should not be defenseless. If that beast does something you don’t like, cut him to pieces.”

Either Shen Qingqiu had a very high opinion of Shen Yuan’s skills, or a very low opinion of Luo Binghe’s—regardless, Shen Yuan had never felt so flattered by the man before in his life. To be fair, given how often Shen Qingqiu praised others (never), the bar was only about a millimeter off the ground.

He clutched the fan to his chest. “This disciple thanks Shen-shishu.”

Shen Qingqiu ignored him. “Luo Binghe, you may not consider yourself part of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect any longer, but since you still call Gui Yuan your shixiong, treat him with the respect he is due.”

Luo Binghe had mostly calmed down from before, but at those words, his expression twitched. Shen Yuan took an instinctive step forward, to calm him down.

To his surprise, Luo Binghe pulled away, and a second later, his face smoothed out.

“I will do my utmost to comply with Peak Lord Shen’s wishes.” There was no sincere respect in his tone, and Shen Qingqiu bristled—at the same time, he didn’t seem insincere, either.

Shen Qingqiu reluctantly left before long, and the rest of them stayed behind in the rubble.

~*~

It wasn’t until Luo Binghe had made absolutely certain that Shen Qingqiu really had left the palace, that he escorted Shen Yuan back to his room. He said nothing, mutely leading him without touching, and when there, mutely stepping out into the garden to discover where Shen Qingqiu and Qiu Haitang had come from. 

When he returned to the door, he looked at Shen Yuan, and Shen Yuan’s heart clenched at the faint expression in his eyes. They were black, now—he must have collected himself.

“If I had arrived a little later, would Shixiong really have gone?” he asked. The hope in his voice was subdued.

“Binghe, of course I—”

“Would have left. I understand.” Luo Binghe pressed his lips together into a thin line. “If Shixiong can stand staying just a little longer, this shidi’s heart would be relieved.”

“Binghe, I said I’d stay. Binghe!”

But Luo Binghe left without listening, or responding.

Shen Yuan sank down onto the bed. Fuck. Okay. 

Not only did he have a most probably upset Cang Qiong Mountain Sect on his hands, he had an upset demon lord, too. 

Luo Binghe was definitely mad at him. He’d gone out of his way to treat him well, then Shen Yuan, as far as he knew, tried to leave … he kept jumping to conclusions, accusing Shen Yuan of things that had never occurred to him. Did he want an apology, for what happened five years ago? That would make sense. No matter how guilty someone felt, getting stabbed for no good reason wasn’t fun.

How long would it take, before that anger eclipsed the guilt?

He sighed, mulling in his thoughts for a long period of time. He’d decided he’d just go back to bed because he was too tired for this shit, when he heard a scuffle outside the room.

He blinked. Before he could get up, though, the door opened violently. Like it had been kicked open. Which??? What.

“Liu-shishu!” Qiu Haitang begged, hanging onto his arm.

“There you are.” Liu Qingge paid his passenger no mind, and instead marched straight up to Shen Yuan. “The demon is gone. Let’s leave.”

What was it with the peak lords and trying to get Shen Yuan to leave the underground palace?

“How rude can you be to Lord Luo?” Qiu Haitang asked. “Gui Yuan gave his word, he can’t leave, now!”

“Demons don’t keep their word. Why should he?”

Qiu Haitang looked like she wanted to smack him. “Lord Luo graciously accepted that we stay here. We can’t steal Gui Yuan when we’re here as guests.”

Liu Qingge’s eyes easily conveyed ‘steal? Gui Yuan is part of our sect, how would it be stealing?’ but seemed to have used up most of his word quota for the day, and didn’t speak. He just glared.

“Are you sure?” he asked, then, turning to Shen Yuan.

“Yes.”

He huffed, and without saying anything else, left the room, probably to go find some hapless demon he could beat up. Qiu Haitang let out a long-suffering sound, and turned toward Shen Yuan, taking his face in her hands and rubbing his cheeks.

“Yuanyuan, are you alright?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“I’m your Qiu-shijie, I can call you whatever I want.”

“You’re—”

“I’m your Qiu-shijie,” she repeated.

“Qiu-shijie.” 

She smiled, and pinched his cheeks. “Has Lord Luo been treating you well?”

Shen Yuan thought for a moment. “Yes.”

“Really?” she prompted. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Really.” 

“That child …” She sighed. “Honestly, I don’t know what he’s doing. His feelings aside, isn’t he acting too strangely?”

At Shen Yuan’s questioning gaze, Qiu Haitang shook her head slightly.

“Don’t mind me. If Lord Luo is treating you well, like you say, then that’s good. Just be careful. People guard most fiercely what is most precious to them, but sometimes that only leads to pain on both sides. Hearts don’t always align with each other.”

Her smile turned melancholy.

“Even one misunderstanding can ruin everything.”

Shen Yuan wasn’t sure what she meant by that. To change the subject, he asked, “how come Qiu-shijie seems to be so familiar with this palace?”

Qiu Haitang blinked. “It’s just laid out like your average palace, nothing special.” She waved one hand vaguely in the air, as if it would somehow account for her knowledge. 

She obviously didn’t want to give him the real reason. 

“Okay …” Shen Yuan said dubiously.

To satisfy Qiu Haitang’s curiosity, he let himself be poked and prodded. The bruises from the immortal binding cables had mostly healed, as had the thin cut on his throat—thanks to Luo Binghe’s transfer of spiritual energy as well as the healing salve. The injury on his chest, though, still hadn’t healed properly. The bandages still had to be changed at least once a day, and each time, they came away stained with fresh blood. Shen Yuan had gotten used to the pain, and at least it wasn’t infected. But Qiu Haitang’s forehead creased with worry, and her touch turned gentle.

Eventually, she ordered him to get some rest, and left for the neighboring room, which she had somehow acquired for her own use.

Shen Yuan was alone.

His heart felt stuffy, like he’d gotten an extra organ at some point that was taking up extra space, but just like the pain, he could ignore it. It was, he was pretty sure, just the remaining guilt he felt over not going back to Cang Qiong Mountain with Shen Qingqiu. Because he did feel guilty. At the question of where his loyalty lay—to his sect or to Luo Binghe—didn’t that decision mean the answer was the latter? Regardless of his reasons, reasons which he knew weren’t nearly as logical as he tried to make them seem, his heart wasn’t comfortable making the choice.

When Shen Yuan lost his real family, then lost his new family shortly after, Yue Qingyuan had given him a home. No matter how hard he’d had to work to become head disciple, no matter how exhausted he felt, no matter how annoying the relationship between his teacher and Shen Qingqiu was to deal with … he didn’t just want to give it up.

Had he given it up? By not leaving as soon as he got the chance? By not even trying? If he’d been dragged back, at least he could say he wasn’t a willing guest. But the thought of abandoning Luo Binghe made him equally uncomfortable.

Why was that?

Shen Yuan spent hours dwelling on those questions, staring up at the dark ceiling above his bed.

He didn’t feel good about it, and he didn’t arrive at a definitive answer.

When he finally dragged himself out of bed, he didn’t know how early or late it was. He didn’t bother checking with the servants outside, and instead sat down and waited. And waited. And then almost jumped to his feet in relief when someone knocked on the door.

Shang Qinghua came in, carrying a tray filled with breakfast, his expression disgruntled.

“What am I, a servant?”

“Haven’t you always been a servant?” Shen Yuan asked, smiling mildly.

“Cucumber-bro …” Shang Qinghua put the tray down and then dramatically threw himself down in one of the chairs. “You’re right. I’ve dedicated my life to serving others, first my readers, then Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, now my king and Luo Binghe … and what have I gotten out of it? Pain? Grief? Frustration?”

“You could have written your character as a handsome, incredibly powerful cultivator who didn’t betray his sect just ‘cause he was a little frustrated. And which readers did you serve? Don’t you know lots of people who read Proud Immortal Demon Way had issues with it?”

“But they still paid for the chapters! Sometimes controversy gets you further than good writing!” The admission brought a frown to his face, and at length, he said, “I’m a hack. A sell-out.”

“Yes, yes, you are.” Shen Yuan reached out to pat his shoulder comfortingly.

“My artistic vision got lost in my greed. I’ve failed my characters, my story … I could have been great! Instead … I was just prolific …”

“The realization of our own flawed existence is usually pretty tragic.”

“You still read my novel.”

Shen Yuan let out a groan and rubbed at his forehead. “Please don’t remind me. I’ve died twice because of you.”

“It’s not my fault you died either time, you dick. I didn’t personally kill you. Fiction is fiction!”

“You might as well have.” He put his head on the table. “Why are all your characters so mean?”

Shang Qinghua scoffed. “They’re not all mean. Ning Yingying, for example. Yue Qingyuan.”

Shen Yuan’s head snapped up. “That reminds me. What the fuck is the deal between Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu? Why have I been dancing around emotional breakdowns and arguments my entire time on Qiong Ding Peak? Why does Shen Qingqiu freak out when he hears about Xuan Su?”

Shang Qinghua scratched his neck, and then, when Shen Yuan’s words sank in, his eyes bugged out. “Who told him about Xuan Su?”

“I may have mentioned it.” Somehow, he got the feeling he shouldn’t have.

“Fuck.” For a moment, he stayed silent. “Uh. Those two were … let’s call them childhood friends. They got separated, Yue Qingyuan promised to come back, accidentally qi deviated himself into secluded cultivation for who knows how long, messes everything up, et cetera, et cetera. Misunderstandings abound. Yue Qingyuan feels guilty but won’t explain, Shen Qingqiu’s bitter because Yue Qingyuan abandoned him.”

Shen Yuan said nothing when Shang Qinghua stopped speaking. Although he’d noticed his teacher’s guilt when it came to Shen Qingqiu, he’d never thought … well, he’d never thought there’d been a real reason for it. He assumed Shen Qingqiu was a bastard who’d manipulated Yue Qingyuan into the guilt.

Shang Qinghua covered his eyes. “Honestly, Shen Qingqiu seemed a lot more well-adjusted when he came to Cang Qiong Mountain in this world. I thought maybe things would be different. But they’re not. It seemed like good backstory at the time. Never even did anything overt with it. A tragic ending only I knew about. But now that I’ve seen it play out, knowing it’s my fault … these are people. And I did that. It feels bad. Real bad.”

It didn’t take long for Shang Qinghua to excuse himself and leave. Apparently their conversation had put a dampener on his mood.

The same could be said for Shen Yuan.

Characters. Real people.

How long had he looked at the people around him as characters, with parts to play in the plot that was unfolding? When had he started thinking of himself as cannon fodder, as expendable, as someone who wouldn’t live for much longer anyway, so he’d cling to what little life he thought he had left?

Five years ago, when he’d sacrificed himself to keep Luo Binghe safe … was that an act of care, or a selfish desire to choose his own end? A way to run away from something potentially more painful?

He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that those first few months after he transmigrated—he treated the people of Hong Lian Sect as real. Sure, he could have ended up in a novel, but he could also have ended up in an alternate dimension, just as real as the world he came from. He felt pain, he felt pleasure; he knew he himself was real, so everyone else had been, too.

But with the revelation of Gui Mengyu’s true role, of who he was—the worldview he’d built up crumbled. Some immediately, some over time, until anyone and everything he met was again made up of black characters on a white screen, rather than flesh and blood.

Luo Binghe was the protagonist. Shen Yuan had intimate knowledge of his inner thoughts, his future actions.

But the Luo Binghe of Proud Immortal Demon Way and Shen Yuan’s Luo Binghe … they were different. Where Luo Bingge had suffered and suffered and suffered some more, this one had been spared parts of it. Didn’t that mean he’d be different? Didn’t that mean he could trust the System, when it said his percentage of blackening was going down?

Didn’t that mean the damage Shen Yuan caused wasn’t irreversible?

He’d befriended Luo Binghe because of the System. But the relationship was real. It felt real. Shen Yuan may have been afraid of his original fate at the hands of the blackened protagonist, but most of all, he was afraid the shidi he’d taken care of was gone forever.

Maybe … maybe, despite what Luo Binghe had done, despite abducting him, despite attacking Liu Qingge, despite … maybe he could believe the person he’d known for years was still there. At least he could hope that was the case, give him the benefit of the doubt.

Shen Yuan picked up his spoon, and started eating the congee his favorite shidi had prepared for him. It had gone cold, but it didn’t detract from the flavor, and for some reason, today it almost brought tears to Shen Yuan’s eyes.

He was still in a novel. There were still plotlines that the world seemed to cling to as desperately as … he couldn’t think of a good comparison. As desperately as a mountain climber held onto the edge of the cliff he’d fallen off, feeling his grip slipping … maybe not.

The System, by its own admission, shoehorned Shen Yuan into Shen Qingqiu’s role as it tried to fix the plot. Maybe the System was behind all of it, and the world didn’t have any plotlines, the characters weren’t characters at all, but normal people in a normal world. 

Shen Yuan didn’t know. He couldn’t say he didn’t care, because he did. His life was on the line, after all. Did the world see him as cannon fodder? Was his fate set in stone? What would Luo Binghe do, once his patience ran out? The answer to all those questions terrified him.

But that kind of existential musing was something he could amuse himself with in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep and the entire universe was big and dark and definitely out to get him.

Right now, he wanted to find Luo Binghe and talk some sense into him. He was going to explain things properly before the misunderstandings ruined everything, as Qiu Haitang had said. He wouldn’t be following in Yue Qingyuan’s footsteps, this time.

~*~

Shen Yuan didn’t see Luo Binghe that entire day. Reason: Luo Binghe apparently wasn’t in the underground palace at all, because he was out doing something about Tianlang-jun.

What Shen Yuan did see, however, were the increased wards around his room—there was no way Luo Binghe would leave him unguarded, and these were probably more effective than the previous ones. 

No one would tell him when Luo Binghe had left. No one would tell him when he’d come back. Shang Qinghua didn’t know, or maybe he did; at any rate, he was very evasive when Shen Yuan asked, and avoided him afterward. Shen Yuan sought diversion with Qiu Haitang, who of course knew nothing more than he did, but was happy to speculate about what was going on, and especially what Yue Qingyuan would do once Shen Qingqiu told him about everything.

Shen Yuan’s plans of clearing things up with Luo Binghe seemed like they’d be pushed up eternally. After his tenth sigh at the unfair situation, Qiu Haitang gently stroked his head, and looked at him with sympathy brimming in her large, pretty eyes.

“I’m sure he’ll be back soon,” she assured him.

Shen Yuan felt they had some sort of misunderstanding between them, but wasn’t sure what it was, exactly. 

And it didn’t alleviate Shen Yuan’s worries at all. Tianlang-jun was an unknown entity. Was he, really, Luo Binghe’s father? Was he just as powerful? Was he more powerful? Did he want to destroy or conquer both the human and demon realms, as Luo Bingge had? Where the fuck did he come from, he didn’t remember him from the novel???

He was worried and anxious and his heart was beating so quickly he was more hummingbird than human.

Shen Yuan fell asleep that night only because he’d overworked himself, and was completely emotionally exhausted. The terror he felt about his fate, his death that must have been rapidly approaching, about Luo Binghe, Gui Mengyu, had done such a number on him that the moment his head hit the pillow he blacked out.

His dream was surprisingly clear—instead of being dumped into a fuzzy, strange scenario, Shen Yuan found himself on Qing Jing Peak. He’d rarely dreamed about the place, and though he’d been there several times, most of its various groves looked the same to him—this clearing surrounded by thick bamboo forests was no exception. Light shone through the leaves above in shafts, turning patches of the grass-covered ground golden and too bright to look at. The wind rustled the leaves softly, and everything was warm and comfortable and peaceful.

Luo Binghe was on the ground beside him, lying with his head right next to Shen Yuan’s lap. Close, but not quite close enough to touch. His eyes were closed, but he wasn’t asleep. Waiting, or meditating, maybe.

“Binghe?” Shen Yuan asked, a little reluctant to break the silence. “Where is this?”

Luo Binghe’s black eyes opened, for a moment bleary and unfocused, before they sharpened and turned intense when he saw Shen Yuan above him. He sat up swiftly, motions elegant.

“Qing Jing Peak,” he answered. “I brought Shixiong here a few times, but it was long ago, and he probably doesn’t remember.”

Shen Yuan felt a stab of guilt at that—he’d had a lot on his plate as the head disciple, it wasn’t weird that he couldn’t remember everything, okay! 

“Shixiong, I’m sorry. I’ve pulled you into my dreamscape again.”

Oh. That made sense. But it was worrying that Luo Binghe would lose control over a power he should have mastered thoroughly. Concern rose unbidden in Shen Yuan’s heart, but he tried to pretend like nothing.

“I didn’t think you’d attached any importance to this place.”

“I … haven’t.” Luo Binghe, who’d been close enough that they almost, almost touched, moved back until there was a respectable distance between them. He hadn’t kept up that respectable distance when they were shixiong and shidi, why was he doing it now? He ruled the demons! Was Shen Yuan not good enough to be close to, anymore? Was he sullying Luo Binghe’s presence? Had he finally run out of patience?

Luo Binghe apologized again. “It was unintentional, Shixiong. I’m sorry for disturbing Shixiong’s rest.”

He really didn’t seem like he wanted Shen Yuan there. 

Well. Whatever. For years, he’d spent time with Luo Binghe, ignoring the fact that he was with his potential future murderer. 

He could ignore Luo Binghe’s feelings, now.

“I wanted to talk to you, anyway. And stop moving away,” he said, as he caught the edge of Luo Binghe’s sleeve tightly. “If you keep going, you’ll soon be on the other side of Qing Jing Peak.”

Luo Binghe lowered his eyes and looked up through his eyelashes in what would have been embarrassment or bashfulness on someone else, but was more … more … Shen Yuan didn’t know what to call it, but it made him want to avoid his gaze, maybe smack him with his fan.

He didn’t, of course—you couldn’t just hit a demon lord. But he felt sorely tempted.

“You,” Shen Yuan started, before letting out a frustrated sigh. “You.”

“Shixiong is angry with me.”

Shen Yuan slapped his hand on his knee, and said, “you know what? Yes, I am angry at you! Is this how you were raised on Qing Jing Peak? Did the Endless Abyss do it? The demon realm? How—how did you end up so different from the young disciple I knew five years ago?”

Luo Binghe jerked at Shen Yuan’s first harsh question, before he went deathly still and didn’t move at all. For several seconds after Shen Yuan stopped speaking, he stayed quiet. Then he let out a bitter laugh.

“How did Qing Jing Peak raise me? Shifu never showed his face around me, and the only one who’d speak to me was Ning Yingying—so tell me, Shixiong, who raised me then, apart from you?”

Shen Yuan blanched. 

“Shixiong told me, a long time ago, that I wouldn’t have to face everything alone. Other than alone, what have I been? On Qing Jing Peak, in the Endless Abyss, in the demon realm … I’ve only ever been alone. Even Shixiong—even Shixiong rejected me and died. No matter how many times I begged, you wouldn’t wake up.”

Luo Binghe’s voice cracked on the last part.

“Why did you enter the Abyss?” Shen Yuan asked hoarsely. “You didn’t need to.”

“What else could I do? Where else could I go? A filthy half-demon like me has no place in the human realm.”

“Binghe—”

“Shixiong should be angry. I took advantage of you, deceived you, murdered you. You’re right, I don’t deserve to be in your presence. I can’t seem to avoid hurting Shixiong, whatever I do. I know Shixiong has no trust in me.”

Shen Yuan was starting to feel really annoyed at being interrupted. Let him speak!!!

“And what about you? Aren’t you angry, too? You certainly went to great lengths to bring me here and keep me here against my will.”

“I’m not angry.” Luo Binghe, who’d had an explosion of emotion, seemed to be retreating into himself again. “I have no reason to be angry. Why would Shixiong think I was angry?”

Shen Yuan blinked at him. “Why wouldn’t you be angry? You think I tried to leave when you told me not to, I yelled at you through your servants, I almost killed you. Of course you’re angry.”

Luo Binghe’s mouth opened and closed several times, before he finally managed to speak. 

“You almost—I have never been angry at Shixiong for that. Not for any of it. Shixiong’s feelings … I understand them, even though I wish they were different.” His brows knitted together. “Does Shixiong really believe I would hold him accountable for something he did during a qi deviation?” 

So he did know about the qi deviation. That was almost a relief—a relief, that he knew, that Shen Yuan didn’t have to tell him and wait for judgment—and yet what did that mean? What did Luo Binghe think about him, then? Why did he obey Shen Yuan’s wishes, save him from the Water Prison, just to turn around and attack him, imprison him, refuse to listen to his requests?

“Shixiong is a righteous cultivator,” Luo Binghe continued. “Of course something like a demon is reprehensible to him. Even so, I always hoped … that Shixiong wouldn’t be disgusted by me when I revealed my heritage. That I would be allowed to explain properly. Instead, I—I—”

Luo Binghe’s eyes were shiny. Shen Yuan swallowed past the lump in his throat. That event was the worst issue that lay between them. If they could resolve it, then half their problems would go away.

“I’m not angry about that,” Shen Yuan said. “What happened back then wasn’t Binghe’s fault.”

Luo Binghe looked up at Shen Yuan, disbelief clear in his expression, like he couldn’t comprehend—didn’t dare believe in—what he was saying. They stared at each other, neither speaking or moving a muscle. They’d reached a stalemate. 

After a very, very long period of increasingly awkward silence, Luo Binghe started, in a whisper, “Shixiong … isn’t angry?”

“Not about that,” Shen Yuan allowed. 

“Oh.” A lot of emotion was held in that simple sound.

Despite everything, hearing that sound, seeing the expression slowly dawning on Luo Binghe’s face, made it impossible for Shen Yuan to regret not leaving with Shen Qingqiu when he had the chance. Of course he hadn’t stayed just because going might cause trouble for Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. He wasn’t some self-sacrificing idiot. The Water Prison thing was a fluke he attributed to adrenaline.

Luo Binghe kept misinterpreting the way Shen Yuan felt about a lot of things. But wasn’t that just because Shen Yuan let him misinterpret? Wasn’t it because to begin with, he hadn’t honestly expressed how he felt? For Shen Yuan, it had only been a month or so since he died. The event was fresh and still quite painful, but at least he knew Luo Binghe hadn’t meant killing him. He remembered the hurt on his face clearly. 

But Luo Binghe had stewed in his thoughts for years, while he was in the Endless Abyss and after—why had his shixiong rejected him? Why had his shixiong injured him? 

Before blackening, Luo Binghe had been a trusting little sheep, always willing to give a second chance despite continuously getting hurt. Maybe some of that had been lost to trauma, but … if he wouldn’t blame Shen Yuan even for the words he’d said before the System stepped in, and definitely not what happened afterwards, then … then who did he blame? It could only be himself. How far had he twisted himself, taking on all that weight? To the point where he tore his own primordial spirit apart? To the point where he’d lock Shen Yuan up to keep it from happening again?

Shen Yuan didn’t know if the misunderstanding could be cleared up. Luo Binghe’s trauma must have settled deep into his bones already. But even if he couldn’t forgive himself, couldn’t Shen Yuan explain everything, lay it all out clearly, so there was no way to misunderstand him?

“And—and about Binghe being a demon, that—I was wrong. Back then, I was wrong. Of course it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry. Binghe is Binghe, no matter his heritage.”

Luo Binghe looked skeptical, and yet something had changed in his eyes. Hope, or relief, or some other such emotion, strangely out of place on his face. 

The relief Shen Yuan felt was small, not enough to break the tightness in his chest. At least Luo Binghe had listened, instead of running away like those other times. But it couldn’t fix everything—especially not the things that had happened between them recently. The friendship they’d had before was probably impossible to get back.

“Shixiong,” Luo Binghe said then. His expression had gone a little soft, uncertain; it didn’t fit in with his unstable demon lord persona at all.

In fact, it reminded Shen Yuan of their days as shixiong and shidi. His heart lurched at the sight.

No.

No, that wasn’t an emotional reaction. He discreetly pressed a hand to his chest. His heart ached, erratic spasms of pain radiated out from the center. Closing his eyes, he breathed in and then out, trying to pretend like nothing, to ignore the pain. But that didn’t work. The pain was dull at first, but it swiftly grew and became overwhelming, until it felt like someone repeatedly thrust an icy blade into his heart.

“Shixiong?” Luo Binghe had moved closer, kneeling right next to him. His hands hovered over Shen Yuan’s skin, still afraid to touch. “Are you unwell? Am I hurting you?”

Shen Yuan shook his head and regretted it instantly as the motion sent another wave of pain through him.

“You’re not doing anything,” he gasped. 

It hurt. It really hurt. It hurt worse than when Luo Binghe killed him—worse than when Gui Mengyu stabbed him.

“Shixiong is in pain, what—is there anything I can do?”

Fuck if Shen Yuan knew. His chest had felt tight lately, maybe he was sick—he’d never had a heart attack before, but this definitely felt like an attack on his heart. He was a cultivator, for fuck’s sake! He didn’t know if Luo Binghe could do anything!

Sensing the urgency, Luo Binghe touched him. Spiritual energy probed through him gently, then began trickling through his meridians, warm and soft.

Shen Yuan didn’t know if it helped, or if the pain subsided on its own. Eventually, it settled into a dull throbbing, and he leaned forward against Luo Binghe’s chest. He was exhausted, and wanted to throw up.

“Shixiong,” Luo Binghe whispered, his hand lightly stroking Shen Yuan’s cheek. He sounded distressed.

The dreamscape had splintered around the edges. Not enough to destroy the image of Qing Jing Peak, but enough to show the mess it covered. The scorched ground, the bones littering it, peaked through the lush grass. Luo Binghe had dreamed the place up as a bandage, not healing the injury beneath but veiling it. Maybe he’d needed to relax. At some point during Shen Yuan’s … loss of focus, the perfection of the veil had faltered.

Shen Yuan shifted, pressed his face into the crook of Luo Binghe’s neck. Warm and smooth. Nice.

“You know,” he mumbled, “for someone who spent five years trying to bring me back to life, you sure are good at avoiding me.”

Luo Binghe stiffened. He didn’t pull away. Without his wives, how long had it been since someone was this close to him? Since someone gave him a modicum of affection? 

Though Shen Yuan wasn’t a beautiful young maiden, he might be able to provide some comfort.

“Since Shixiong was angry, this shidi thought Shixiong wouldn’t want to see him.”

“Being angry doesn’t mean I hate you.” 

Luo Binghe, who’d torn his enemies apart and saved every damsel in distress—had saved everyone, except himself. Maybe Shen Yuan could do some of the saving, this time.

“As your Shixiong, your actions reflect back on me. I am a little disappointed you chose violence as your method.”

“Shixiong—” Luo Binghe started to protest, but Shen Yuan shushed him.

He was beginning to feel light-headed. His heart throbbed.

“Honestly, you could have … simply accompanied me back to Cang Qiong Mountain …”

The light-headedness stopped sharply as the agony from before flooded back. Black spots filled his vision, and he clutched at the fabric beneath his hands.

“I don’t … feel good. Binghe—”

“Shixiong?”

Shen Yuan looked up, but the scene in front of him flashed in and out, like someone was flicking a light switch. Then it all went black. Luo Binghe’s voice faded to nothing. He whipped around, but the darkness was never-ending, and he couldn’t orient himself at all. Cold air pressed in on him from all sides.

A short burst of light. The outline of cut stone. Footsteps echoing through an empty hall. 

He felt himself be pulled back.

The pain in his chest flared, and all sensation left him.

Chapter Text

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.”