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a rat scrabbling for the light

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It took Shen Qingqiu far too long to die.

The habits learned in infancy were always the hardest to break. In the beginning—before Qing Jing Peak, before Qiu Haitang, before his cultivation, even before Yue Qi—all he’d had in the world was his own small life, and he’d clung to it like a scrabbling rat. Faced by the forces of hunger, cold, illness, and pain, he’d clawed after survival, heedless of pride or cost.

He’d risen in the years since, only to fall back down to the same place. No limbs. No speech. No lofty position as peak lord—Cang Qiong Sect didn’t even exist anymore. No power. No freedom.

And no Yue Qi.

Yue Qingyuan was dead—truly dead—and it was all because of him. This time, there would be no bitter reunion. Once more, all he had was his own small life. He didn’t even want it anymore, and yet this useless body of his still clung on, unable to forget its earliest lessons.

He didn’t know how long he remained hanging there in the water prison. The hours blurred together to the tune of dripping water, the monotony broken up only by the beast’s visits.

“You’ve grown so boring, Shen Qingqiu,” that beast murmured during one of his final visits. His fingers lined with demonic energy, he stroked Shen Qingqiu’s cheek, carving a line of gore down his skin. In the beginning of his torment, the pain would have made him scream; now, Shen Qingqiu scarcely felt it against the constant agony wracking his body.

“Won’t you sing for me? Ah, I nearly forgot—you can’t anymore, can you?” He traced Shen Qingqiu’s lips, splitting them open. “I took your tongue, didn’t I?”

Shen Qingqiu stared at him, dull-eyed. Even his hatred had faded into a distant throb; he could no longer take pleasure in the frustration that gripped the beast’s face when Shen Qingqiu didn’t react.

But even that stubborn body of his had its limits. And so, some unnumbered days later, in the space between visits, Shen Qingqiu finally slipped away.

Because fate had ever been cruel to him, that was not the end.

“You finally woke up,” said a voice Shen Qingqiu had not heard in decades. Shen Qingqiu opened his eyes to find Wu Yanzi standing disdainfully over him, prodding his body with the sheath of his sword. “And here I thought I would have to go find a new apprentice.”

Shen Qingqiu wanted to snap back, to unleash his fury on this person who dared treat him this way, as he would have when he’d been a peak lord; he wanted to cower, as he always had faced with his erstwhile master. Caught between two warring instincts, awash in confusion, he bit the inside of his cheek and said nothing.

Wu Yanzi should have been nothing to him; in the end, Shen Qingqiu had risen much further than Wu Yanzi could ever have dreamed of.

He’d fallen so much further too.

This could have been one of the beast’s dream realms, but it wasn’t. No matter how the beast shaped the world around him, he couldn’t change the inside of Shen Qingqiu himself, and he could feel the difference in his cultivation. He had nothing; or, at least, so little remained of what he’d fought so hard to gain that it might as well have been nothing at all.

Wu Yanzi was nothing, but right now, Shen Qingqiu was less than nothing.

He wasn’t even Shen Qingqiu.

“Master.” The word tasted sour, but he forced it out anyways. He lowered his eyes, so Wu Yanzi wouldn’t see the anger and disdain mingled in with his despair. “What happened?”

Wu Yanzi snorted. “Qi deviation, or close enough.”

Unspoken was that if it had been a full qi deviation, Wu Yanzi wouldn’t have hesitated to abandon him. Finding a new apprentice would be no hardship for him; there were always more rats scurrying after dreams of cultivating to immortality.

“Get up,” said Wu Yanzi. “No tarrying. The Immortal Alliance Conference is about to start; I’m not about to miss out on the pickings because of you.”

His words slid into Shen Jiu’s chest like an icy dagger. The last dredges of disorientation fled his mind.

The Immortal Alliance Conference.

Yue Qingyuan.

Shen Jiu got up. And when Wu Yanzi turned his back, he plunged his sword straight in.

He couldn’t meet with Yue Qingyuan.

Shen Jiu had some time to think it over as he disposed of his erstwhile master’s corpse. He hadn’t lied to Yue Qingyuan that day they’d met in the Huan Hua Palace Water Prison. Up until that point, he’d had no regrets for what he’d done. Had he awoken on Qing Jing Peak again, faced with that beast as he’d been as a disciple, he wouldn’t have changed how he treated him. Even now, his only thought was that it would be better if he strangled him in the crib and took care of the problem from the start.

But Yue Qingyuan…

He never should have met that sort of end.

Yet as long as he associated with something like Shen Jiu, no other ending awaited him.

Healthy and awake, his body no longer riddled with the pain that had haunted him for who knew how long, Shen Jiu finally saw it clearly. If not Luo Binghe, then it would be something else. As long as he stayed by Yue Qingyuan’s side, he would only lead him to his death.

For Yue Qingyuan, he was nothing more than a slow-acting poison.

Fine. Fine, then! There were other sects; and even if there weren’t, Shen Qingqiu had learned more about cultivation than Shen Jiu ever could have dreamed of. He needed no master to gain immortality. He didn’t need Cang Qiong Sect; he didn’t need Yue Qingyuan.

Right now, Yue Qingyuan believed Shen Jiu to be dead. It would be easier than breathing to keep it that way.

All he had to do was to avoid the Immortal Alliance Conference.

Shen Jiu’s breath was ragged. A yearning, aching hunger rose up within him; suddenly, despite everything, he wanted nothing more than to go to the Immortal Alliance Conference—not to meet with Yue Qingyuan, but just to see him. Just for one glimpse—one glimpse of that familiar, infuriatingly placid face, one glimpse of him healthy and hale and whole.

Shen Jiu forcefully crushed the urge into splinters within his chest. Taking up Wu Yanzi’s blade—a paltry, pathetic thing, compared to the glory of Xiu Ya, but still better than the scrap metal he had once wielded—he turned away. His fingers went white with the force of his grip.

Sword in hand, he set his feet onto the dusty road.