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Haunting

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Shen Qingqiu had the choice to move on. He didn't know what sort of afterlife awaited one such as him, what sort of next life was available to the sort of scum he'd been first as Shen Jiu, then as Shen Qingqiu. Maybe the way his life had ended had balanced the scales, the torment he'd endured enough to earn something better. Maybe he could reunite with Yue Qingyuan.

He didn't want that. He didn't deserve that. Better to ensure Yue Qingyuan had finally cut that dead weight that had held him back all these years, that had gotten him killed.

Shen Qingqiu—no, Shen Jiu; his life as a peak lord was over—turned his back on the afterlife. He had unfinished business on the mortal plane. Shen Jiu wasn't the only one who deserved worse than he'd gotten. That little monster wasn't going to get away with this.

It took effort to willingly become a ghost. It took not just power, but force of will. It took spite.

Spite was all that had driven Shen Jiu for years.

Luo Binghe had a nice life when he wasn't torturing people. He had fawning courtiers, seemingly endless power, and an uncontested position ruling the now combined human and demon realm. Shen Jiu had gotten what he'd deserved; it was Luo Binghe's turn. Shen Jiu was going to ensure it.

It took effort to become a ghost, but for Shen Jiu, all it took was a decision.

Shen Jiu started small by necessity. As with cultivation, gathering power as a ghost could not be rushed. No longer did he have to worry about qi deviation; if he lost control, he'd lose himself. Any power he'd gathered would risk being wasted, his frenzied mind latching onto the wrong target and venting his rage on some unimportant servant or grasping courtier. Shen Jiu could be patient. He could feed on the energy around him and on the negative emotions given off by those who filled Luo Binghe's palace.

Shen Jiu began his revenge with a lantern, weeks after his death. Luo Binghe was up late, reading. He'd adopted a scholarly bent he hadn't shown in his time at Qing Jing Peak. Ever since he'd come back from somewhere injured and delightfully incensed—his frustration feeding the ember of hate driving Shen Jiu—he'd gone on something of a research binge. He was looking for answers. Shen Jiu didn't want him to have them.

Leaning over Luo Binghe's shoulder, Shen Jiu blew out the light.

Luo Binghe looked around. He frowned. He relit the lantern.

Disturbing sleep was a traditional step in a haunting.

Luo Binghe had full control of his dreams. Shen Jiu left his sleeping mind alone. With his gathered strength, he had power enough for brief, limited corporeality—enough for a hand. Luo Binghe had gone to bed with his hair down.

Shen Jiu crawled into bed with the monster. The covers did not shift. Shen Jiu left no weight on the bed or Luo Binghe's body. He leaned over Luo Binghe's sleeping form. Luo Binghe's face was deceptively soft, sheep-like in repose. Shen Jiu ran his fingers through Luo Binghe's hair, imagining that he could feel the smooth locks that barely shifted under his efforts. Luo Binghe gave a soft sigh. Like this, he looked happy. He looked like he knew peace.

Shen Jiu spooled the locks of hair around his fingers and yanked.

Luo Binghe came awake at once with a flare of qi. He jumped out of bed and drew Xin Mo, never far from his side. Slowly, thoroughly, Luo Binghe surveyed the room with a heavy-lidded glare. He raised a hand to his scalp. He didn't speak.

Shen Jiu, weakened by the qi, but buoyed by Luo Binghe's seething rage, sat on the bed. He watched Luo Binghe until he let out a small scoff, turned on his heel, and left.

It took months for Shen Jiu to gain the strength necessary. In that time, he watched Luo Binghe. He watched Luo Binghe when he was awake. He watched Luo Binghe when he was asleep. He watched him when he ate, when he bathed, when he brushed out his hair. In every intimate moment, Shen Jiu was there.

Luo Binghe didn't seem happy with his nice life, his fawning courtiers, his boundless fiefdom. Whatever he was researching, he was stymied. Sometimes, he visited the unmarked grave where he'd left Shen Jiu's skeleton. Shen Jiu had passed out of his reach, no longer a suitable target for Luo Binghe to vent his boredom or anger.

"Why?" Luo Binghe demanded of a filled-in hole in the ground. "Why could you not spare even the tiniest measure of kindness? What did he do that was so different? Why couldn't you see me, Shizun?"

"I did see you," Shen Jiu answered, though he knew Luo Binghe could not hear him. "I saw too much of you." Shen Jiu directed his own hateful gaze at Luo Binghe's back with the wish he could land a sword there instead. "I still see too much of you."

When Luo Binghe turned, it was almost like he was looking right at Shen Jiu. His sight fixed on something behind Shen Jiu. Leaving the grave, he walked right through the spot Shen Jiu stood.

Shen Jiu didn't sleep. It made no sense that he dreamed.

He stood in a forest of bamboo. Yue Qingyuan was there. He was holding a guqin, a beautifully carved piece Shen Jiu had never seen. He offered it to Shen Jiu. He said, "It's been so long since you've played for me."

Shen Jiu accepted the guqin. He ran his fingers along the strings, feeling the wirelike strength of them, but he didn't pluck them. He breathed deeply the scent of fresh mountain air and green, growing things. It had been a long time. Shen Jiu gave himself one all too brief instant to savor it, this paradise lost to him, the only place he'd ever felt safe.

Shen Jiu smashed the guqin into Yue Qingyuan's beloved face.

"You really are hateful," said the person wearing it.

"You're easy to hate," Shen Jiu said simply.

Luo Binghe smiled, Yue Qingyuan's form melting away. "No love for your youngest disciple, Shizun?"

"Never." Shen Jiu couldn't move as Luo Binghe drew closer. Luo Binghe reached out and cradled Shen Jiu's cheeks, gentle only for a moment before his fingers dug painfully in.

"Then I'll take your hatred," Luo Binghe spoke with eerie calm, "so long as it's mine."

When Shen Jiu woke, he was more powerful than ever. His form had become corporeal his whole body over. Strange ropes bound him, like the immortal spirit binding ropes, but not. They burned where they touched. Shen Jiu was still in the palace, in the bedroom he'd grown so familiar with.

Luo Binghe loomed over him, one hand tangled in his hair. His smile was eager, hungry. "Shizun, you've haunted me so long. Isn't it my turn?"