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The Cold That Burns

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Mobei Jun looked angry.

Or at least angrier than usual, a mood easily distinguished from his other two of disinterested or asleep.

Shang Qinghua looked at him curiously as he shut the door behind him with his foot. Mobei Jun hadn’t been this upset in a long time, if the tenseness of his shoulders and the temperature of the room were any indication. And they surely were. Mobei Jun had his back to the entryway, staring down at the rumpled sheets of the bed.

“My king?” Shang Qinghua dumped the contents of his arms to the desk below. “You’re early.”

Mobei Jun had been busy since Luo Binghe had all but abdicated the throne in lieu of a honeymoon with Shen Qingqiu, and the temporary nature of the situation didn’t afford any leniency in the workload. Shang Qinghua hadn’t expected to see Mobei Jun here at An Ding Peak for at least another couple of weeks. “Is there something this servant can help you with?” He offered with well-practiced wariness, watching as frost crept its way along the surface of his belongings with a frown he only dared when the others’ back was turned.

There was a noticeable delay before Mobei Jun turned to face him, revealing those handsome and lovingly-crafted features now sharpened into the kind of scowl that nearly sent Shang Qinghua to the floor out of reflex.

“You.” Mobei Jun growled. “You’re alive.” One his hands was resting on the frame of Shang Qinghua’s bed, claws tracing the grooves they had freshly etched into its surface.

“That is always a relief to hear.” Shang Qinghua smiled nervously with a light pinch of his own cheek to be sure.

Something seemed off.

The robes Mobei Jun wore were unfamiliar. They bore an appearance more similar to armor with leather straps crossing his tightly defined chest, further accentuating the garment’s low cut. Accents of red stood out harshly against the black base and navy patterns of the brocade, with Luo Binghe’s sigil prominently visible on the belt around his waist adorned with a prominent jade token. It was surrounded by gold embroidery that bordered the sash, drawing the eye down to where the Mobei clan insignia was emblazoned upon a swash of blue trailing down to hang above worn black boots.

Mobei Jun was taking his stand-in role far very seriously.

The nervousness growing in Shang Qinghua’s gut flexed its years of experience as Mobei Jun swiftly closed the distance between them and harshly caught his jaw between finger and thumb. Shang Qinghua could only squeak in surprise as his hands shot up with no place he felt safe to put them.

Mobei Jun stared at him with a ferocity he hadn’t seen in...ever. Mobei Jun had never looked at him this way. There was no uncertainty, no confusion, no jest, no annoyance. In truth, Shang Qinghua had never been significant enough to warrant this look from anybody—not even when he’d betrayed his entire sect or shackled a faithful reader with a potentially horrendous fate—but he had seen this look directed at others enough times to know what it was.

It was hate.

The door to his Leisure House room was blasted off its frame. Shang Qinghua flinched as it narrowly missed them. The blast of freezing air that carried it sent papers flying and the bamboo shades clacking wildly. He nearly cut his cheek against the claws that held him as he craned his neck to look back at the figure who now filled the empty doorway.

It was Mobei Jun. Another Mobei Jun. His demonic eyes, still aglow with the force he had wielded to enter, were wide at the sight before him—a wordless verification of Shang Qinghua’s sanity.

Shang Qinghua jerked his head back to look at the Mobei Jun beside him, then back at the other, repeating the motion like a madman until a firm hand clasped his shoulder and roughly hurled him into the wall. He collided hard with a shelf, toppling scrolls and books as he fell to the floor in a stunned heap and taking most of the shelving with him. In the time it took him to look up, the two Mobei Juns had collided, palm to palm, clawed fingers interlaced to allow the other no retreat as energy pooled at their feet and whipped around them in a cyclonic display of power.

It was more than the peak lord’s personal little Leisure House could take. Half the roof tore away and the wooden beams that made up its structure cracked and splintered, bowing outwards from the pressure.

Two Mobei Juns?! Shang Qinghua’s mind raced, as he held onto a protruding piece of wood for dear life, preventing himself from being tossed into the sky. He struggled to breath, feeling like all the oxygen had been sucked away as the two demons pressed against the other with unrelenting resolve.

Abruptly one got the upper hand, and the pair crashed out of what remained of Shang Qinghua’s living quarters. The fight moved to the stone pavilion that connected the different dormitories of An Ding Peak.

Shang Qinghua stumbled onto the porch and nearly tripped his way down the stairs. He looked between the two as they traded blow after blow, fist against fist. The air around them crackled with black lightning and became filled with an acrid scent as the stonework beneath them was torn up, dragging along with it root and earth. At this rate, An Ding Peak would be destroyed before one managed to kill the other and Shang Qinghua had no want of either.

“My ki--”

“Shang Qinghua! Don’t dare come closer!” The second Mobei Jun barked, his arm grappled around the others’, locked at the elbow. Shang Qinghua’s heart clenched at the order. That at least was his Mobei Jun for sure!

In contrast, when the impostor stole a look at him, it sent a shiver down the cultivator’s spine. He must be…the original goods?! Had he not heard of something similar from Shen Qingqiu, it was unlikely such a wild thought would even cross his mind. Even the great Airplane had yet to dabble in multiverses.

The severity of the situation was obvious. If this Mobei Jun was here, then the original Luo Binghe, his blackened Bingge, must be as well. It was impossible for Mobei Jun’s powers to match the portal abilities of Xin Mo, or else it wouldn’t be the deus ex machina Shang Qinghua had designed it to be. He had to find Shen Qingqiu, to warn him or maybe just to hide until they dealt with this mess, but first…

“My king!” Shang Qinghua cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, trying to project over the buffeting winds and carnage. “He’s summoning an array!”

This world’s Mobei Jun dropped his gaze to the others’ boots where they shifted on the splintering stone. Recognizing his own tell, he pivoted his stance, angling his form so he could deliver all his force into a single blow against his opponent’s shoulder, knocking him off balance with a rush of demonic qi . Energy that had been collecting behind the other dissipated, the black swords vanishing into harmless mist.

By now a crowd of disciples had begun to form. They tittered with fear and excitement, all wisely keeping their distance from the chaotic scene that roused them from their duties. A loud bell sounded nearby heralding that other peak lords would be arriving soon and how much worse the situation had yet to become.

“Who are you? And how do you wear my face?” Mobei Jun scowled as the dust settled around them. The other merely took the moment for a blatant visual assessment.

“You’ve already claimed our father’s power.” The original Mobei Jun affirmed, then turned ever slightly to look at Shang Qinghua like it was a natural extension of the fact.

“Don’t look at him!” Mobei Jun snapped. “You wish to talk of power, then let’s test your worth and you can see it for yourself.” The clenching of his fists was near audible.

The two continued exchanging banter with the tension of a well-scripted drama before launching back into another fight. It was impossible for Shang Qinghua to miss the glances that the scarier Mobei Jun kept sparing him between blows.

He wrote enough of the originals’ interactions to make a guess as to why.

Shang Qinghua weighed his options. He looked to the mustering disciples, tempted to seek refuge in the mass of armed youngsters, but was forced to dismiss the idea. He couldn’t risk them getting killed if the battle was drawn to him—most had gotten rather good at their jobs and the idea of training that many disciples from the ground up would be enough headache to throw himself between the warring demons for a swifter death.

No, the wiser decision would be to escape and find Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe, with faith that his Mobei Jun could keep the old one occupied without finding himself on the pointy end of Liu Qingge’s sword.

Unfortunately Shang Qinghua reached to his hip and found no sword of his own. He cursed his luck, looking back to the remains of his Leisure House. With his cultivation skills as they were, he couldn’t easily tell if his sword was trapped beneath the rubble or cast elsewhere by the blast that had levelled it.

A flash of light drew his attention back towards the pair before a burst of frigid air nearly knocked him from his feet. He raised his arms to protect his face.

“--hua!”

Cracking open an eye, Shang Qinghua was greeted by an armored torso. He yelped in surprise to the original’s brief amusement.

“So it is true then.” Mobei Jun spoke, but instead of lashing out at the easy target before him, suddenly spun around to catch the other Mobei Jun’s fist in his waiting palm. The original had anticipated the attack to the point of orchestration, and returned the blow tenfold. With the strength of the Mobei clan long since mastered in his veins, his other hand shot upwards with a powerful strike, spearing through the flesh and bone of his opponent’s unprotected abdomen.

Piercing out the other side, he splayed his fingers and released a massive burst of qi . The resulting wall of ice erupted across the courtyard in a terrifying show of strength, and the deadly frozen spears protruding from its surface created a barricade that forced the approaching disciples back.

“What is that?!”

“Shizun!”

“Where is the sect master?!”

The injured Mobei Jun staggered, his face twisted in pain as he wrenched himself back off the hand that bisected his stomach. The other Mobei Jun’s hand slid out smoothly with a sickening squelch, unleashing blood and tissue to gush from the wound, painting the ground between them a vibrant red.

In the same motion, the original took a step backwards and wrapped his blood-soaked arm around Shang Qinghua’s waist. Shang Qinghua, in shock at the sight of his Mobei Jun impaled so effortlessly, gave a startled squawk at the abrupt handling.

He immediately tried to pull away, but his captor simply pivoted on one foot and pulled Shang Qinghua in so his back was pressed against his chest, pinning both his arms in the process. It left them facing this world’s Mobei Jun who clenched at his wound, staunching it with a casing of ice as beads of sweat rolled down his skin.

“Predictable. Pathetic. It is as my Lord said—weakness born of cowardice to remove that which no longer serves.”

Shang Qinghua struggled in his hold, held in place by a single arm of no lesser strength than steel. “What importance am I then, ah? Better I just--” He squirmed as the grip was tightened. “--get out of your way. A cultivator as weak as this can’t offer any sport to such great demons.”

His captor huffed what amounted to a laugh. “Surprising words from someone who has always held his value as far greater than its worth.”

“What do you want from him?” Mobei Jun’s jaw clenched.

“Ask that of yourself,” his double countered. “Then enjoy the freedom this one offers you from the answer.” He touched his fingers to the jade token at his waist.

The space behind him split open, a tear that grew into a tunnel without end. Shang Qinghua looked back, needing to feel little more than the dark thrum of energy to know what it was.

“My king!” He looked back to the Mobei Jun in front of him—the one he had served for decades, who he had rescued from death, who had brought him to a doctor on a rickety old cart, who made terrible noodles, and who was reason enough to stay—and he begged.

“Help me! This servant swore his life to you but if…” His eyes frantically searched for understanding in the others’ eyes, scared to consider why Mobei Jun wasn’t already provoked to action despite the presence of his wound. “...if I go through there, you’ll truly never see me again!” Shang Qinghua’s struggles intensified with his rising panic.

The pair locked eyes. Mobei Jun’s stare was cold and unyielding, and with none of the comfort it once offered. His only movement was the clenching of fingers over the bloodied patch of his abdomen and his hair as it swayed in the mingling breezes of An Ding Peak and the portal’s subtle vacuum.

“He’s made his decision.”

The portal hummed behind them and the armored Mobei Jun moved his arm so Shang Qinghua was pinned at his side instead. The shift caused Shang Qinghua to tip forward enough that his feet fought for purchase on the blood-slick ground, suspended in the other’s grasp.

“Prove you have learned from this lesson, and you may be worthy of what was given.” The doppelganger cautioned, before sparing a final warning over his shoulder. “Or upon my return, it will be taken by one who is.”

“Wait!” Shang Qinghua cried out. “This isn’t right! System-dada?!”

【System error detected. Reboot in progress. We apologize for the inconvenience. System error detected. Reboot in Reboot in progmf3tgn#1b%

Shang Qinghua’s face went white.

A human stick, a lifeless block of ice, lumps of flesh sheared from bone—Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky had never written exactly how Mobei Jun had murdered Shang Qinghua in his novel beyond the implication of its unpleasantness. He had never fully bore the weight of that unknown until this moment.

“My king! My king, please! Have I wronged you so badly somehow?”

The wounded Mobei Jun let his gaze fall to his own feet.

“L-look at me!” Shang Qinghua pleaded. “Look at me!!”

“My king!!” He yelled one last time, before he was carried away from the silence of his sovereign, freely given as if worth nothing at all through a portal that collapsed behind them.

…………

………

……

Shang Qinghua awoke on a firm surface, his limbs sore with a bone deep chill. His last memories were the distant cries of his disciples, Mobei Jun looking away from him, and the suffocating energy of Xin Mo that gave strength to the shadows pulling him from consciousness.

And the other Mobei Jun.

He sat up quickly, swallowing back a throatful of bile. His head was cloudy, white spots dancing in his vision, and he pressed his forehead to his knees until the disorientation settled enough to look around.

The room he was in was lavishly furnished despite its modest size. It was at once both familiar and wholly unknown to him. Banners decorated with the Mobei clan insignia hung from rafters protruding from a stone work ceiling, swayed by the heat of surrounding lamps. There was an ornately carved desk, and beside it a row of shelves littered with books and decorative ornaments. Betraying the room’s use as someone’s sleeping quarters was a sturdy, canopy covered bed with the curtains drawn.

The floor was a rich, dark wood that looked chill to the touch, but he had been left on a rug made of some ill-begotten creature’s thick, white fur. Shang Qinghua could see small clouds of condensation with his every breath.

Throbbing at the base of his skull drew a worried hand, where his fingers came to rest on an startling surface—there was a rope looped around his neck.

For a moment he wondered if he was still back in that inn so many years ago, with everything since simply one long fever dream brought about by starvation and stress seeing to the every need of the pampered Mobei Jun.

The other end was pulled without warning. Shang Qinghua cried out, managing to grab a hold with just enough time to save himself from a broken neck as the rope around him tightened. His other hand slammed onto the ground to catch himself and a jolt of pain shot through his wrist.

A dark chuckle followed and his eyes lifted to meet its source. Mobei Jun—the original he had put to screen—sat on a chair behind him, his legs spread in an arrogant posture that contrasted with the disinterested prop of his chin against a single fist, elbow resting on the arm of the chair. In his free hand was the other end of the rope, red and vibrant against his skin where it was wound.

The rope—the leash —was more than it appeared as well, as Shang Qinghua’s lingering aches confirmed. Immortal Binding Cable.

Another pull nearly forced him face-first to the floor, before suddenly changing direction to hoist him up taut on his knees.

The cable has been tied so that every pull made the loop tighter. Shang Qinghua choked, unable to relieve the tension. The red fibres bit into his skin, threatening to draw blood as it cut off his air. Tears stung the corners of his widened eyes from the struggle to breath, tendrils of black quick to creep into his vision.

Then the leash went slack.

“Explain to me,” Mobei Jun said, lowering his arm. It was almost cordial enough to be taken as a request as Shang Qinghua fell to all fours in a fit of coughs.

“What, my--” Shang Qinghua caught himself on a gasp, barely able to look up. “J-Junshang…?”

Mobei Jun’s eyes darkened, but the leash remained limp.

“My lord speaks of his old master as if reborn. He gave his body to another in exchange for loyalty, like a muzzle to a dog.” He leaned forward to anchor both elbows atop his knees. “This one wonders if you did the same.”

The predatory stare sent a shudder rippling through Shang Qinghua, his meaning apparent. Him and Mobei Jun? Like that? As if he were just some fanboy flying off into the sunset in the arms of his favourite character? There was no way. Shen Qingqiu really was going around giving everybody the wrong idea.

“Would I have been left to your hands if that were true?” Shang Qinghua refuted. It stung more than he expected.

Damn that Mobei Jun—the ungrateful, the cowardly, the…!

Even in anger, he couldn’t convince himself of it. Mobei Jun was anything but a coward. The truth was simpler—if something was of no value to him, then he would not lift a finger for its benefit. Shang Qinghua realized, to his great disappointment, that at some point he had begun to think of himself as something special to Mobei Jun. How stupid! It really was a case of being given an inch and helping himself to a mile. He felt more betrayed by himself than the one who had left him to die.

His captor seemed content to watch him lost in thought in lieu of a response, as if with merely a look he could crack open his skull to see the gears turning inside. Shang Qinghua considered for a moment that he actually could and continued.

“Once a servant is no longer of use, who would let him carry secrets into the world, ah?” He coughed twice, clutching at the base of his own jaw. “A wise ruler would bury them together. This proves there is nothing of value I can provide even if I should think it significant.”

Mobei Jun continued to stare at him until Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but fidget, eyes cast to the floor as he shifted himself to a kneeling position as if this was little more than a debriefing he had done a hundred times before.

“My lord has tasked me with finding what makes your world so different from our own. Neither of us are foolish enough to believe it merely a matter of heart or to go in blindly for its conquest.”

“I...I see.” Shang Qinghua kept his head lowered but looked up through his mess of bangs. “Then why me?”

Mobei Jun returned to propping his head on one hand. “I have no more interest in the games of those in that world than I have in my own, but...” he watched as Shang Qinghua’s eyes couldn’t help but follow every movement of the cable’s controlling end. “I know myself. To keep a liar and traitor at his side, why should I not suspect it?”

“Junshang gives me too much credit.” Shang Qinghua started, biting back a curse at his luck for finally facing the consequences of the original Shang Qinghua’s actions. “Two different worlds, everything must be so different. How could a single person cause such a change? To look for that kind of thing is surely a waste of this lord’s time. It couldn’t possibly exist.” Shang Qinghua babbled, finding it harder to speak through the nervous shaking of his figure as Mobei Jun slowly began to twist his wrist, reeling the leash shorter and shorter.

System-dada, the button that had never been pressed will now be pressed! Please!!

His silent prayers went unanswered. Shang Qinghua truly realized how alone he was in this world of his creation, where even the System couldn’t reach him.

With his last resort a failure, the urge to spill all he knows was a vicious temptation. When cowering was not enough, information was always something he could rely on. Unfortunately a ripe piece of gossip was unlikely to satisfy this Mobei Jun, and to explain that this world was the result of one man’s writing, its tortures fabricated for entertainment, would have him murdered for lunacy as a best-case scenario. Shang Qinghua’s greatest secret, the truth of this world and his identity as Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky, could never be known!

Only one option remained—stall for time. If there was one skill upon which Shang Qinghua has always had faith, it was his ability to survive by whatever means necessary, waiting for opportunity to present itself.

“T-to be honest, the timing is simply poor. To say that I would sacrifice my loyalties to spare myself would be true, but there are many things out of a man’s control! Your lord is my own and if I were to speak of anything of much importance, he would surely kill me!” Shang Qinghua bartered, relying on Luo Binghe’s wrath as leverage. If this Mobei Jun was said to have any weakness, it was one that he shared with many—loyalty to the protagonist. “So you can see why this servant’s lips must remain tighter than a virgin’s chrysanthemum should he ever wish to use them again. If our lord were here then perhaps--”

“You believe I would not kill you?” Mobei Jun asked, halting the slow wind of the rope. His expression shifted to one of irrefutable anger as he stood. “You believe I wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to do it again?”

Panic overcame him as Shang Qinghua waved a hand defensively, fumbling backwards to get away. “No, no, Junsh--”

Mobei Jun wrenched back the leash and lifted his leg, bringing Shang Qinghua’s face to the heel of his boot before thrusting it down.

Shang Qinghua felt something in his skull pop as his head slammed against the floor. The boot remained on his head, grinding his cheek into the fur as something warm began to pool beneath his ear. The reflex to heal was met with only emptiness from his core, disconnected and quiet.

The weight upon him worsened as Mobei Jun knelt down, drawing the leash up to restrict his air. “ Shang Qinghua… ” The name slid so unnaturally from his tongue. “Is it truly my lord you serve?”

“Wh-who else is there?” Shang Qinghua stuttered through a trembling laugh.

Mobei Jun stepped off and dragged Shang Qinghua up by the leash too quickly to get his legs beneath him. He floundered for support, betrayed by the softness of the rug.

The force of Mobei Jun’s fingers suddenly gripping Shang Qinghua’s cheeks nearly broke his jaw and coaxed his mouth to open. “If it wasn’t your body traded, then surely it was your tongue. Still too many secrets.”

Shang Qinghua could only protest with a whimper as Mobei Jun’s eyes bore into him.

“To have compared any part of a snake like you to a fledgling bud is worthy of insult.” Mobei Jun tilted Shang Qinghua’s head, leaning close to his ear. “But I know how to make you bloom.”