The cosmos was a dark and empty place. Luo Binghe wandered through the space between shadows and dreams, horribly aware and horribly miserable. For as long as he’d existed, he’d been alone, and in all that time, he’d never stopped yearning for… something.
He didn’t know what it was. The mysteries of the universe were open before him, yet he could not understand what it was that was lacking inside of him. All he knew was that there was something empty within him: a horrible, gaping, yawning, cavernous void that felt as though it would turn him inside out and swallow him whole.
Once, he’d come across another who was almost like him. Almost. He could see the ways in which they did not match: Luo Binghe was too fluid in some ways, too solid in others. Nonetheless, he felt a moment’s hope.
Yet when the Other caught awareness of his presence, it did not react as he hoped. It recoiled from him, stretching its mass across four planes and five dimensions, its voice and being raising in an ever more frantic chant—
W̴̼̬͚̊̂̈́̐̉̒͘r̴͔̽̎͊̒̅̆͝ö̷̢̡̩͚̗̩͓̺̻͕̼̖́̽͛̚͜n̷̼͍̺̹̫̟̟̯̜͐̏̋͌̾̓̑̈́̓̇̎͆̑̌͝ͅg̵̢͎͎̤̘͍̝͗̓̆̍̌̈́͋̀̅͂͊͗͜͠͠ ̴̥̝̯̯̘̭̺̲̓̂̅͛w̸̲̰͍͇̤͇̭͕̦̩̗͒̈̆̃͐̎̐̽̍͜͠r̵̤̳͛̐͗̔͗̄̓̕͘o̴̫̟̮̲̎̈́͋̎͛̾n̵͕̓̓̂̎́͠g̷̨͕̣̫̻͖̤͖̭͕͚̤͒̑̌̉̚̕ͅ ̴̡̦̲͉̘̲͇̻̗͆̇̓̉ẘ̴̛̦̹̟͖͙̞̙̬͚͙̅̓̃͌̓̐̔̓r̵̘̗̫̺͚͖͚͎̫̟͎͐͜ͅo̶̧̥̹̯̱̦̙͕̙̩̓̂̉n̸̺̮̫̪̥̭̰͇͕͔̗̺͚͜g̷̨̳̟͔͑̍͐ͅ ̸̳̝̘̯͇͙͉̮̮͆̑̓̾͐̈̄̑͂̿̕̕Ẅ̶̢̧͙̫̜́̈͊̓̽͝R̷̡̰̗̪̻̩͑̎̔̊̀̿̌̈́̕̕Ô̵̻̟̍̑̈́̿̔̍̚̕ͅN̵̢̡̖̗̱̱̣͈̞͈̩̦͌̒̏̅̓̽̀̈́̅̎̕͜͝Ḡ̴̛̲̟̰̜̓̿̂͠͝ ̶̥̬͎͔̺͔͂̾̿̆̆̏W̶̡̟̖͇̟͔͉̩̻̳̯̌̌͌́̍̅͐̚ ̵̰͚̟͎̙̮͕͍̣͖̞͙̫̒̃̿̅̍̑̏̊͂̏̊͛͝ͅR̷̥̻͉̭͚̝̼̹̦̔̓̔́̅̌̉̕̕̚ ̵̛̩̣͈̦̓̽̈́̊̓̽Ọ̴̳̝̻͂̎̉̓̆̒̂̚ ̶̢̯͚̤̺̱͔̯͍͔̖͖͕͆́̓̅͊̔̒̍͑̀͑͝͝͠N̴̡̧̧̞̣̘͙͖̦̮̪̪̋͊̾̚ ̶̨̡̭̟̩͙͉͘Ĝ̷̟̰̆̇͗̾͝͠͠—̸̞̻̻̉̎̒̒͐̈́̇̾̓̀
The shriek pierced through Luo Binghe’s being. Even for something like him, it was too much.
After that, he knew. Even by the standards of his kind, he was something wrong—something that shouldn’t exist. Whatever had made had put him together incorrectly.
Luo Binghe despaired. If even the beings who were like him shunned him, then how could he ever hope to uncover what he needed to know? How would he ever learn how to fill what he lacked?
It was then, while in the depths of his despair, that he discovered humans. He’d heard their voices in the dreamscape before, loud and echoing, but he’d assumed that their noise was a part of the dreamscape. He’d never realized that there was something behind it.
But now that he looked, humans seemed to be everywhere across the planes. Some were solid. Some were not.
But all of them dreamed.
And some of them dreamed of things like him.
Ablaze with eagerness and hope, Luo Binghe rushed to their minds, greetings and questions spilling out of him.
It… didn’t quite work out as he’d hoped. The first few humans he tried to converse with just... sort of crumbled up inside.
It was a bit unfortunate.
After a while, Luo Binghe figured out how to speak in a way they would understand. A few more attempts taught him how to moderate that voice so that humans could hear it without immediately going mad, but even then, he didn’t meet with much success. Even when they weren’t tearing off their own limbs or screaming the words of ancient, unknowable texts at the top of their lungs, they didn’t tend to react well to his presence.
It wasn’t fair. They were calling him! They wanted him! But when he actually came, they were afraid. They wanted him to go away.
When Luo Binghe first heard the call coming for him outside of dreams, he thought it was going to be only more of the same.
It was strange, though. He hadn’t realized that humans could even speak outside of their dreams. At least, not properly—he did know they had their own languages, though they were little more than awkward, inefficient attempts at cramming concepts into ill-fitting forms. But this call wasn’t like that.
This human called him with the voice of the universe.
Even if his hope had been less than the fragile, brittle thing it’d become, his curiosity still would have driven him to answer.
But that turned out to be a mistake.
The human did something to him. Forced him into physical form, pulled him apart and reshaped him. He put him in a container; he transformed him, shaping him like humans made words, ill-fitting, confined, trapped.
Frantically, Luo Binghe tried to extend his tendrils past the molecules of the glass surrounding him, but something repelled him, kept him there and it was it was everything was everything was too small too small too small
t̷̹͔͚̫ơ̶̛̭̪̒͒̾͌̓̏̽͒ͅ ơ̷̢̧͇͕͍̘̯̻̤̏͋̑̈̈́̊̋̎͑̋̚ͅ ̷̛̮̤̝̲͓̪͙͙̌̒̌̓ͅş̷̒̆͝ ̸̱̦̣͒͆́̎̓͛M̴̗̻̽͋͌ ̵͙̖̭͍̓̂̓̀̓͒͂̔̓̈́̚͘͜͜ ̶̮̼͕͂̆͠A̷̬̽̓̿̓͊͊͋̆̂̀͋͝ ̵̧̩̜̻̺͐̓̚ ̴͍̼͙̞͖̻̭̔̓̇L̵̛̝ ̵͚̤̂͋̚ ̶̖̯̝̬͖͖̬̼̯̯͎̐͒̈́̾̈́̌͜͝L̶̜̹͕̘̭̺͚̪̳̘̫̝̝̓̍̑̄͌̽̒̀
Luo Binghe had never known time before. It had never been something which had bound him. Now, however, it was, and he found himself achingly aware of its passing. For two years, five months, two weeks, three days, thirteen hours, forty-six seconds, and three thousand four hundred milliseconds, it was all he could focus on: that constant, ever-present ticking movement of time.
Other things happened in that period. He was aware of them, as he’d always been aware of all things around him, but in a… limited way.
It was unnatural. It was wrong. Luo Binghe wanted to cry out, uncaring for once about how many universes would shake beneath the weight of his pain. But within the glass, there was no sound.
Slowly, he began to grow used to the limitations of his new form. As he did, he began to take in more of the world around him.
The container his new form resided in was a glass bottle, round and fat at the base with a long and narrow neck. Most of the time, the bottle remained on a shelf in a small, dark room. There were other containers on the shelves around him, some smaller, some much larger, but none of them contained anything like him. Most contained only the carbon-based shells that lifeforms left behind when they shifted from a solid state to a fluid one. Not humans, but other things.
Nothing else in the room had a sense of being as he did.
More time went on by.
Then, one day, a human who wasn’t the human who had called him came into the room. Though, the physical shape this human inhabited did look just like the human who had called him. But the rest of his being was utterly different. The fluid parts of him looked like they’d been squeezed inside that shell and was still adjusting itself to fit.
He’d seen some humans looking like that before, but they’d all been much, much smaller in physical mass. Luo Binghe wondered if he was something newly born.
Immediately, the human’s eyes locked on him. They lit up, and he moved forward, picking Luo Binghe’s bottle up from the shelf. He tilted it one way, and then the other.
“What are you…?” the human muttered. His mouth stretched in that way that humans did when they were happy.
Luo Binghe quivered. Each and every one of his thousands of eyes fixed on that human’s face.
No one had ever looked at him and been happy before.
The human stroked the side of the container with his hand, and Luo Binghe rushed all of his physical mass to press against the glass there, wanting—he didn’t know what. The human started slightly, then laughed. It was a soft, quiet sort of laugh. Luo Binghe knew what the sound was, but he’d never heard it aimed at him before.
What was this human?
The human tugged at the stopper on the bottle, but it didn’t budge. He made a disappointed sound. Luo Binghe was a little disappointed too, but more than that, he was fascinated.
The human had smiled at him. Had laughed.
Had wanted to free him.
The void inside of him shuddered. Luo Binghe didn’t know how to describe what he felt. All he knew was that he needed more.
The human set Luo Binghe down and looked around the room. He made a face when he saw the other jars. Then he began rifling through drawers, glancing occasionally back at Luo Binghe.
Whatever he seemed to be looking for, he apparently didn’t find it. He sighed, slamming the final drawer shut. Luo Binghe felt a brief flash of fear—what if he left? What if Luo Binghe never saw him again?
Then something happened which Luo Binghe hadn’t expected.
The human did leave the room. But before he did, he picked up the bottle containing Luo Binghe, and took it with him.
After that, things changed. Though he was still trapped inside of the bottle, no longer was Luo Binghe confined to that small, dark room and that long and cluttered shelf. Now, he spent his days at the new human’s side—who, as he learned through the two smaller humans who frequently came by, was called “Shizun”.
Shizun didn’t leave the house much. He spent most of the day in the main room of his home, busying himself with various little tasks. Sometimes, he’d be bent over his desk, reading or inscribing things on paper. At other times, he would pull out an instrument, plucking at the strings to make new sounds. Frequently, he would lounge on the soft platform in the room, one of his arms draped over his eyes.
Sometimes, when the air outside was warm and no water fell from the sky, Shizun would go outside to sit in the shade of the bamboo forest surrounding his home. After a while, he began to take Luo Binghe with him.
The first time he took Luo Binghe, his body had been tense, as though preparing himself to run back inside. Luo Binghe had wondered what dangers lurked outside. Keeping his eyes on Luo Binghe, Shizun had stepped into the full light of the sun. For a few long moments, he’d stared fixedly at Luo Binghe, before he’d finally relaxed.
After that, their trips outdoors became a regular occurence.
Once a day, at least one of the two smaller humans—“Ming Fan” and “Ning Yingying”, Shizun called them—would stop by, bringing Shizun sustenance. Some days, they stopped there only long enough to bring Shizun food and to take care of the dishes from the day before. Other days, they’d spend hours there, being quizzed by Shizun over what they’d learned. Listening to their conversation, Luo Binghe learned more about humans than he’d ever known before.
When the sky darkened, Shizun would pick Luo Binghe’s bottle back up again, and carry him to the room where Shizun spent his nights. He’d set Luo Binghe near his bedside, then take off the outer layers of his clothing before crawling beneath the covers on his bed and entering the dreamscape.
Luo Binghe neither needed sleep nor was capable of it. Pressing himself hard against the side of the glass, he spent his nights watching Shizun, his entire being longing to join him. It had been so long since he’d last wandered through the dreamscape; being in the container cut off his connection to that realm, as it’d cut him off from so many other things.
Though Shizun spent most of his days in and around the bamboo house, sometimes, he would go further away—somewhere beyond the bamboo forest. When he did, he would leave Luo Binghe behind.
Luo Binghe hated it more than anything. When Shizun was gone, he would puddle himself at the bottom of the bottle, blinking mournfully in the direction of the door until he came back to him.
The first time Shizun caught him at it, he laughed one of those soft, quiet laughs of his.
"Aren't you being silly now?" he chided, unmistakably fond. “This master wasn’t gone so very long. Is that really any reason to sulk?”
Yes, Luo Binghe tried to say. Yes, it’s unbearable. But the container didn’t allow him to speak; all he could do was blink up at Shizun, nuzzling up against part of the glass closest to him.
Shizun got into the habit of picking up Luo Binghe’s bottle whenever he was bored. He’d roll it back and forth in his hands, watching the way Luo Binghe’s semi-solid body rolled with it.
It was strange. The other human had also poked and prodded at him. But Luo Binghe hadn't liked it like he liked this.
“Shizun…” Ming Fang said once, uneasily. “Should you really be teasing that… thing like that?”
He was still obviously uncomfortable with Luo Binghe. (Ning Yingying, on the other hand, thought he was “cute”. From the way Shizun hummed whenever she said it, Luo Binghe knew he agreed.)
“Nonsense,” said Shizun. “It likes it—don’t you?”
Luo Binghe quivered in reply, staring at him with long, slow blinks.
Luo Binghe never did see the human who had originally called him down again. He wondered a little about it, but mostly, he didn’t care. As long as he could be with Shizun, what did it matter?
None of the other humans he’d ever interacted with had been like Shizun. None of them had had Shizun’s warmth.
At some point, without his noticing it, that void inside him had begun to fill.
Like that, Luo Binghe spent several long and peaceful years in the bamboo house. His shape still felt uncomfortable, but Luo Binghe had grown used to that wrongness, that pain—and anyways, any pain was worth it if it meant he could remain at Shizun’s side.
He never wanted this peaceful existence to end.
Then, one day, the glass bottle began to crack.
The process began slowly. Luo Binghe didn't know how long it'd already been weakening by the time he first took notice. Curious, he sent his tendrils to investigate the cracks, trying to figure out what they were. He discovered little, but over time, the cracks grew. He kept careful track of the expansion, hardly daring to hope.
The final break happened during one of Shizun’s rare trips away from the bamboo house. One moment, Luo Binghe’s awareness was prodding at the edges of the glass. In the next, the bottle exploded.
Crystal shards went everywhere. And Luo Binghe—
Luo Binghe expanded.
He expanded, and he spread, his form dissolving and shrinking into the shadows around him.
Those years in the bottle had changed him; or maybe it was something that other human had done when he’d sealed him. His form clung to physicality, no longer extending beyond a single plane. His awareness, too, did not spread out to the same extent as it once had; the passage of time still bound him.
But he could expand, he could move, he could shift, he could speak, he could—if he thought about it in the way humans would—breathe.
Clinging to the shadows of the bamboo house, Luo Binghe quivered in equal parts fear and excitement.
He would have to be careful. The glass container had imprisoned him, but it had also kept Shizun safe. Now that he was free…
He was less than he had once been, but he was still more than he had been when he’d been in the bottle. He could not risk breaking Shizun like he’d broken those other humans.
If he was careful, if he was safe—
He could be with Shizun the way he’d always wanted to be—with no barriers between them.
Luo Binghe decided against showing his new form to Shizun right away. It was hard, though, especially once Shizun came home and saw the broken remains of the bottle.
First, he looked surprised. Then, once he’d searched around the bamboo house and the surrounding forest, he began to look a little sad.
Luo Binghe wanted nothing more than to rush out and reassure him. He hadn’t abandoned him! He would never! Not ever! But every time he’d shown himself fully to a human before, they’d dissolved into madness. He might have been lesser now, but he couldn’t risk his Shizun that way. Not until he was certain that it was safe.
In the meantime, he settled on allowing his presence be known in other ways. He was determined. All the little things he hadn’t been able to do for Shizun before, he would do now!
The first task, he decided, would be food. It was something that Shizun liked—after all, he went out of his way to consume it every day—but it was also something that Shizun couldn’t take care of by himself. That made it the perfect choice. He would show Shizun that he didn’t need to rely on Ming Fan and Ning Yingying anymore. Luo Binghe would be enough!
There was only one problem.
He wasn’t… quite sure where food actually came from. Or, for that matter, what counted as food.
Obviously, he needed to do some research. It was harder for him to move between realms now than it used to be, especially now that he was bound by the passage of time, so he didn’t want to wander too far. Fortunately, he was pretty sure that there had to be other creatures who also consumed food living within the bamboo forest—he’d heard Ming Fan make mention of the “beasts” dwelling there before. He just needed to find one of them to observe.
He flitted from shadow to shadow, forging deeper into the forest.
Luck was with him. He came across a large, four-legged beast just as it dropped down upon another, smaller creature of a different species. Acid dripped from its fangs, covering the smaller creature. Within a few short moments, the fluid part of the smaller one had fled. Fascinated, Luo Binghe watched as the larger beast then began to tear into the shell it had left behind, swallowing down the meat of its body.
So that was how it worked.
Deciding not to waste any more time, Luo Binghe constricted himself around the larger beast, forcefully tearing the fluid part of its being away from its physical shell. He’d never done anything quite like it before—most of his experiments with other lifeforms had been focused on trying not to harm them—but it worked out well. What remained of the beast collapsed, ready to be harvested for Shizun’s plate.
After removing the pelt—because he’d never observed skin in any of Shizun’s meals—Luo Binghe brought the remains back to the bamboo house. A bit of searching revealed a small half-room that he’d never seen before, mostly because Shizun had never stepped foot in it. When he thought about it, there was a vague recollection of seeing Ming Fan and Ning Yingying going in that direction.
There, he found plates. One wasn’t enough to hold all of the food, so he took all of them, laying them out on the table, their edges bordering one another. Then, he took the meat, bone, and viscera he’d harvested from the beast, and carefully arranged them all upon the plates.
It was perfect.
By the time he finished, it was nearing the hour when Shizun normally woke. Luo Binghe swelled with pride as he looked down upon the tableau from his chosen corner in the room. Ming Fan had never brought Shizun so much food before.
He couldn’t wait to see Shizun’s reaction.
The door to Shizun’s sleeping area slid open. Shizun shuffled out, his movements slow and drowsy. Rubbing at one of his eyes, he looked out over the room.
Luo Binghe’s entire being quivered. The shadows in the room grew, shifted, and shrank with him.
Shizun stared at the pile of food Luo Binghe had prepared for him.
Then he made a gesture with his hand, and a metal object that had always hung on the wall flew to him. Holding the metal thing out in front of him, Shizun’s eyes scanned the room. With slow, careful movements, keeping his back to the wall, he began to pace around the perimeter.
Luo Binghe didn’t understand. Why wasn’t he sitting down to eat? He always sat down when Ming Fan or Ning Yingying brought him his food. And where was Shizun’s smile? Why did he look so grim?
He followed Shizun as he thoroughly searched first the main room, then the rest of the rooms in the house—even the ones he usually never stepped in. The search didn’t stop there, either. He methodically made his way through the area around the bamboo house, delving deeper into the forest than Luo Binghe had ever seen him go before.
Hours went by.
Finally, as the sun edged towards noon, he went down the path leading away from the bamboo house until he came across Ning Yingying.
She looked surprised to see him—something Luo Binghe took comfort in. At least he wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand why Shizun was acting this way.
“Shizun? Why do you have Xiu Ya?”
Shizun ignored her question. “Did you see anything on your way here? Anything strange?”
Clearly confused, Ning Yingying shook her head.
Shizun’s lips thinned. He took the basket from her hands and said, “Come. This master will accompany you on your way down today.”
Shizun never did that.
But Shizun did on that day. And when Shizun returned, he gathered up all the food Luo Binghe had so carefully prepared for him, and threw it all away.
Luo Binghe felt… small. Smaller than he’d been when he’d been inside the bottle.
It took him a few days to recover from the blow, but then he rallied. Clearly, he’d made some sort of mistake with the food—though he didn’t understand what—but that didn't mean that there weren't other things he could do for Shizun.
He could still fix this.
Luo Binghe tried. Then he tried again. Then he tried harder. Cleaning the dust and particles from Shizun’s living areas went well—at first. But then Shizun caught sight of the bits of Luo Binghe’s being he’d sent out to absorb the filth into the void.
There’d been no disguising Shizun’s horror.
It got worse. No matter what Luo Binghe did—how he tried to help—Shizun didn’t react as he should have. He wasn’t happy. He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t pleased by Luo Binghe.
He hated it when Luo Binghe made the shadows move, and Luo Binghe tried to stop, to reassure him, but the more agitated he became, the more his control over the shadows faltered.
Luo Binghe grew frantic. Why didn’t Shizun like anything that he did for him? He’d liked Luo Binghe so much when he’d still been inside of the bottle. So why didn’t he like him now?
What had Luo Binghe done wrong?
Soon, Shizun hung strips of paper inscribed with ink on all of the walls and entryways. Luo Binghe tasted one, striping the text into his consciousness, and found it was something to ward away unnatural things.
He thought Luo Binghe was unnatural.
The pain of it was almost enough to undo him—but what was worse was the way Shizun began to grow paler as time went by, even as the shadows under his eyes darkened. Luo Binghe hadn’t even appeared before him once, nor had he said a word to him, yet he was still starting—slowly—to look like some of the humans he’d broken on accident before.
It was all going wrong.
He’d learned much about humans during his years in the bottle. But now he began to wonder if he still hadn’t learned enough. He didn’t know what to do or where to turn, until, finally, an idea came to him.
Humans liked to write ideas down on pieces of paper, and Shizun liked to read those pieces of paper. So if Luo Binghe took in the information written there himself, then maybe he would understand Shizun better. Maybe he would know what to do.
But he couldn't use Shizun’s books. Shizun liked his books, and once Luo Binghe used them, he wouldn’t be able to read them anymore. He wouldn't like that.
Luo Binghe didn’t want to make Shizun unhappy anymore.
And that meant that he had to leave.
Not forever. Never that—Luo Binghe couldn’t bear the thought of it. But until he learned how to become something that wouldn’t hurt Shizun, he had to go away.
Luo Binghe travelled across the many realms. His first stop was at a massive library in the center of a huge city teeming with hordes of humans. It took him weeks to devour all the knowledge that was contained there. When he finished, he moved on, leaving tomes filled with empty pages behind him as he searched for the next place where he could gather knowledge.
The more he read and listened, the more he discovered just how much he didn’t know about humans. He learned about kingdoms and politics and history. He learned about how humanity viewed the cosmos—their strange understanding of the earth and sky, the stories they assigned to the stars. He learned about medicine and disease and injury. He learned about money and trade. He learned about fashion and food and all the tiny details that made up human culture; and he learned, too, that there were many kinds of human cultures—as many as there were kingdoms, and more.
He learned about literature, about poetry, about art, about music. The instrument Shizun played, he learned, was called a guqin. He learned about cultivation, and in doing so, discovered that Shizun was a cultivator. He learned about ghosts and monsters and war, and in the process, began to understand why his Shizun had feared.
Most importantly, he began to learn about the different kinds of bonds that existed between humans. And he began to understand just what it was that he felt for Shizun.
Three years later, Luo Binghe decided that he was ready to return. He’d gained the knowledge he’d set out to gain; he knew what he’d done wrong the first time. But more than that—
He missed Shizun. Missed the small curve of his smile, his quiet restrained laugh. Missed the way he would tease him, rolling him back and forth in his hands. He missed how Shizun would spend his days lazing about like a cat. The small hum of pleasure he’d make before he took a sip of a good cup of tea. The satisfied look on his face when his disciples had done well.
In learning about humans, Luo Binghe had learned so much about what he hadn’t understood about his Shizun when they were together. He wanted to be by his side again. He wanted to be by his side forever. He wanted to discover everything about him, all the pieces of him that he hadn’t noticed before.
There was just one more thing he needed to do before they could reunite.
He had to be human.
It wasn’t an easy task. He was made to spread, to expand, to be a part of everything and nothing. He wasn’t made to be held in a single form.
But he had been in a single form, more or less, when he’d been in the bottle before. And he needed to do this. He needed to be human, at least in shape. It would be easier for Shizun to trust him if he looked human. More importantly—
He wanted Shizun. To be at his side, to spend his days together with him, to love him, to feel him with no barriers between them. And everything he read told him that only humans could be with other humans in that way.
That meant that he had to transform himself.
He’d expected that it would feel like it had inside the bottle. He’d been ready to accept that pain again, if it meant being at Shizun’s side. But, strangely, it didn’t. Changing had been difficult, but once he’d succeeded, he found that there was something about this human shape that felt almost… natural. It was confining, true, but only in the same way he’d been confined since breaking free of the bottle.
Something told him that wasn’t quite right—that it wasn’t how this should work—but, then, when had anything about Luo Binghe ever been what it should be? He'd been made wrong since birth.
As long as he could pretend, it would be enough.
It had to be.
It was in human shape that he made the journey back to Shizun’s mountain. He could have waited until he was there to make his transformation, but there were tasks he needed to complete first that he could only do as a human. More importantly, he wanted to make sure that he’d done it right—that he’d really, truly succeeded in learning how to imitate a human.
To do that, he needed to test his guise on people who weren’t Shizun.
It worked better than he’d expected. No one seemed suspicious or wary of him. In fact, the opposite was true—people seemed to like him. The older ones, men and women both, seemed to want to take him under their wing, dispensing advice and clucking over his health and the amount he ate—the last of which made him worry incessantly about whether or not he was imitating human eating patterns properly, up until he noticed that most of them talked the same way to their own sons and nephews.
It wasn’t just the older humans, either. The young men admired him. The young women blushed over him. Everyone seemed eager to help him along his way. Perversely, that only made his anxiety grow. If all of these people liked him, but Shizun didn’t—
Luo Binghe didn’t know what he would do.
Before setting off on his journey, he’d studied the maps of the area carefully. So when he reached the last village before Shizun’s mountain, he took the time to rent a room so that he could wash off the dust of his travels. He could have just sucked it all into the void inside of him, but he was worried that if he did, it'd leave traces that would repel Shizun from his human form.
After, he dressed himself in a fresh set of clothing that he’d prepared for that purpose. His Shizun liked clean and neat disciples, he knew. He’d said so often enough to Ming Fan.
Luo Binghe wasn’t going to allow a single misstep to mar their reunion. Everything had to be perfect.
Morning dawned, and with it came Luo Binghe’s arrival at the foot of the mountain. The air was clear and crisp with the faint lingering traces of mist. As Luo Binghe climbed up the path, it grew cooler, and the bamboo greener.
Viewing the mountain through his new understanding of the world, he could now see why Shizun chose to live here and why he so rarely left. It was a peaceful place, the occasional beast aside. For someone like Shizun who liked to live easily, the atmosphere here suited him well.
Luo Binghe had never known how long the way up the peak was. The path winded about the mountain, craggy and steep, and with each step, his excitement and anxiety grew.
Finally, he came to the end. That familiar bamboo house came into view, and Luo Binghe found himself blinking away tears. He hadn’t quite understood the importance of such things back then. He’d only seen it as something which humans used to shelter their fragile bodies from the elements. But now that he’d been gone so long and learned so much, he knew.
That was Shizun’s home. The place where all his memories together with Shizun were contained.
How could it not be unbearably precious to him?
Standing outside of the bamboo house, his back turned to Luo Binghe, was a tall figure. The figure was dressed in flowing pale green robes, his long, dark hair pulled up in a simple crown. He leaned over slightly, his attention fixed on something near the door, but that did nothing to take away from the cold elegance of his bearing.
Luo Binghe made a sound, and Shizun turned his head to look at him.
"Ah," he said, straightening up. There was no change in his expression, but Luo Binghe knew that he had to be taken aback. In all the years he’d spent with him, he’d never seen a stranger come here.
"Could this master be of aid to you, traveler?"
At the sound of his voice, Luo Binghe found himself once again on the verge of tears. He blinked them away, not wanting to frighten him.
The words stuck in his throat.
Luo Binghe couldn’t hold himself back anymore. He dropped to his knees, pressing his forehead against the earth. “This one humbly requests that Shizun take him on as his disciple!”
He’d shocked Shizun. He could see it in the slow way Shizun waved his fan back and forth over his face, attempting to cover his surprise. Was he moving too fast? But he really couldn’t bear to wait a moment more.
After a short pause, Shizun said, “Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself, young man—referring to this master as Shizun before I’ve agreed to it?”
Luo Binghe said nothing. He really couldn’t say anything. He knew by now, that “Shizun” was a title, not a name, but he’d never known Shizun’s name. Even if he had, he would never have dared to use it. And something like "Daozhang" simply felt wrong.
In his heart, Shizun could only be Shizun.
Shizun sighed, and switched to another tactic. “Besides. Aren’t you a little old to be seeking a master? Surely you’ve passed the proper age to begin cultivating.”
Luo Binghe felt a spike of terror. Was there something wrong with the human shape he’d chosen? But everything he’d read suggested that only an adult could be together with Shizun in the way he wanted to be. And this was the form which had come most naturally to him, besides. He wasn’t sure if he would have been able to hold another one so easily.
He thought fast.
“This one…” Luo Binghe swallowed again. “This one was with a master, before. But then... “
He trailed off, allowing Shizun to fill in the blanks as he chose. It wasn’t a lie, precisely. For him, Shizun had always been his Shizun, in his heart—and it was also true that they’d been parted until now. But he knew what that deliberate silence suggested, just as he knew Shizun’s kindness meant that he wouldn’t press Luo Binghe to reveal details about a memory he believed to be painful for him.
It was underhanded of him, he knew. But Luo Binghe was willing to do anything to ensure his place at Shizun’s side.
After he judged that he’d waited long enough for the impact of his silence to dawn on Shizun, he went on. “This one continued on his own, after that. But this one finds that he still needs guidance. So, please. Accept me.”
He peered up at Shizun through his eyelashes. With a burst of relief, he saw that Shizun was wavering.
“Please,” he said, one more time. A tiny sliver of his desperation slipped into his tone.
Even before Shizun spoke, Luo Binghe could see his answer in the way his body relaxed, the tension fleeing as he relented.
He could have wept in relief.
“And what might this unexpected disciple of mine be called, hm?”
Luo Binghe sat up. His back was straight, his hands properly folded on his lap. The sun had now risen above the stalks of the bamboo forest, splashing its golden light upon Shizun’s form. In all the time since he'd gained his human eyes, he'd never seen something so wondrous. His cheeks flushed as he stared up at Shizun, utterly unable to hide the fervency of his devotion in his gaze.
Carefully, he spoke the name he had chosen for himself—the closest approximation he’d been able to find for his true name in this human tongue.
“This one is Luo Binghe.”
“Binghe,” Shizun repeated. Upon hearing the sound of it on Shizun’s lips, Luo Binghe shivered. “Very well then, Binghe. Your first task as my disciple will be to make us a pot of tea.”
Once Luo Binghe had made his vows as a disciple, the next order of affairs, according to Shizun, was for him to become acquainted with his new martial siblings. By the time they’d finished with the tea, it was noon, and time for Shizun’s disciples (his other disciples) to arrive.
The three of them gathered together, and Shizun introduced them.
“Shijie,” Luo Binghe greeted, bowing his head to Ning Yingying, who gasped in delight. “This shidi is honored.”
As he spoke, he offered her a smile. He hadn’t forgotten the way her enthusing had frequently shed light on Shizun’s regard for him.
Next, he turned to Ming Fan, repeating the action. “Shixiong.”
Technically, he should have greeted him first, before Ning Yingying—Ming Fan had been a disciple longer, and so had seniority—but he could use ignorance as an excuse for the lapse.
Ming Fan shot him a suspicious look. "Isn't he a little old to become a disciple?"
“This master has his reasons,” Shizun said mildly. “Please take good care of your shidi from now on, alright?”
“Yes, Shizun,” Ming Fan and Ning Yingying said in unison—Ning Yingying excited, Ming Fan begrudging.
Shizun nodded. “Good. We’ll get started with your training in the morning. For now, Ming Fang will show you where you’ll be staying. You can take the rest of the day to settle in.”
Luo Binghe blinked. Suddenly, he realized that he'd miscalculated.
Ning Yingying and Ming Fan were also Shizun's disciples. And neither of them lived at the peak of the mountain with him.
“This disciple won’t be staying here?” he asked, trying anyways.
To no avail.
“Of course not,” said Shizun. “How would this master ever have his peace if all of you disciples were always underfoot? Now go on, shoo. The day grows short, and you still have much to do.”
The disciples’ quarters turned out to be located halfway down the mountain. Though, really, “quarters” was too grand of a word for it. It was little more than a single, simple bamboo house, even smaller than Shizun’s. Only Ming Fan lived there; apparently, Ning Yingying had a similar set-up, on the other side of the mountain.
Luo Binghe immediately decided that he wasn’t going to spend so much as a single night there. He wasn’t worried about Ming Fan saying anything about it to Shizun. It was obvious that he wanted to share sleeping quarters with Luo Binghe as little as Luo Binghe himself did. So once he could slip away without Ming Fan noticing, he gathered up everything that he needed, and did.
He had to be closer to Shizun. But how? He couldn’t risk shedding his human form. What if he couldn’t put himself back into the same shape afterwards? What if Shizun noticed something was wrong?
Instead, after searching around, he found a little woodshed near Shizun’s bamboo house. There was a lock on it, but that was no trouble—a twist of shadows, and he was inside. He curled up on the floor, his arms wrapped around his knees and his outer robes pillowed beneath his head, and sent his consciousness into the dreamscape.
He didn’t dare brush too close to Shizun’s dreams, lest he disturb him, but he did… hover, just outside the boundaries, at a distance where his presence would have no effect on Shizun’s mind. There, he soaked in the feeling of Shizun’s dreams, his mind, his—as the humans called it—spirit.
He hadn’t even realized how tightly knotted up he was inside until it began to soothe.
When morning began to near, he reluctantly peeled himself away. He remembered there being a stream somewhere in the forest nearby, and he went there, freshening himself up for the day. Once his appearance was neat and clean again, his hair pulled tidily back in a ribbon, he gathered the ingredients he’d brought up with him, and returned to the bamboo house.
He slipped inside, making his way to the kitchen. His body felt awash with nerves as he started the fire and began to wash and prep the rice and vegetables. Memories of the last time he tried to bring Shizun food kept swimming up in his mind.
This time it wouldn’t be like that. It couldn’t. It wasn’t that his instincts last time had been wrong. Shizun did like food; otherwise, an immortal like him wouldn’t bother eating every day. And everything he’d read and seen in his years in the human realm told him that preparing food was a way in which humans showed their affection for one another. It was just that he hadn’t known how to go about it properly back then.
Now, he did. He’d read everything he could on the subject, and during his journey he’d practiced cooking as much as he could. Many of the older women who'd wanted to take him under their wing had been surprisingly willing to teach him their tips and secrets. True, they’d also almost universally teased him about the “precious person” he was learning all of this for, but they’d helped him too.
He'd learned much from them. It also helped that, now that he knew what human food was meant to be like, he could also… encourage the shifting molecules to become the tastiest versions of themselves that they could be.
“Making yourself right at home, I see.”
Luo Binghe looked up, his heart leaping up with him. Shizun leaned against the doorway, giving him a wry look over the opened brim of his fan.
Luo Binghe carefully set the utensils he was holding aside, wiping his hands clean. Then, he bowed.
“This disciple hopes that he hasn’t overstepped. I only wished to show my gratitude to Shizun for taking me in.”
“Mm.” Shizun’s fan waved, once, twice. “Is it ready?”
Luo Binghe checked. “Yes.”
“Then you may serve it to me.”
Shizun disappeared into the main room. Luo Binghe scooped the congee out of the pot, ladling it into a bowl. He tasted it one more time, nervously adjusting the molecules. He thought it tasted good. But what if he’d missed something again?
Arranging everything he’d prepared on a tray, he carried it out to Shizun, who was sitting at the low table waiting for him. He set it down before him, then, after a gesture from Shizun, settled himself down at the other side of the table.
“Binghe isn’t eating?”
Luo Binghe shook his head. “This disciple wouldn’t dare to presume. He already ate earlier.”
At least, he’d tasted the things he made while they were cooking to check on the flavour. That counted as eating, right?
Shizun hummed a little, acknowledging his response. Then he scooped up some of the congee in his spoon, bringing it to his mouth.
His eyes widened.
Luo Binghe leaned in, his breath in his throat. Was that good? Bad?
“Does Shizun like it?” he finally asked, unable to bear the suspense. “Is it good?”
“...Yes. Quite good, in fact.”
Luo Binghe felt ready to cry.
He’d done it!
He’d cooked for Shizun, and Shizun liked it!
“Then, if Shizun likes it, why doesn’t this disciple do this for him everyday?”
Shizun's response was like rain on parched earth.
“If Binghe insists, then this master will leave this task to you.”
Shizun made for a good master. Of course, Luo Binghe had known that before: he’d seen the care he took with Ming Fan and Ning Yingying’s training. But now Luo Binghe got to experience that care for himself.
The first few weeks, Shizun dedicated to discovering the depths and limits of Luo Binghe’s knowledge and abilities. He quizzed him extensively on the tenets of cultivation and cultivation techniques—fortunately, Luo Binghe had raided several sect libraries once he’d figured out that Shizun was a cultivator, so he was able to answer most of his questions well. Additionally, Shizun looked over Luo Binghe’s martial forms, offering corrections where he saw fit, and also checked on the actual state of his cultivation.
The first time Shizun took his wrist in hand to look at his meridians, Luo Binghe thought he would cease to exist. Suddenly, he understood why so many of the books he’d consumed had put such an emphasis on touch. Shizun’s fingers lay only lightly against his skin, but the feel of it raced throughout his entire body, waking up every inch of his flesh—as though he’d only come into being at that very moment.
It was overwhelming. It was too much. Luo Binghe never wanted it to end.
“Near Mid-Core Formation,” Shizun said. “Your cultivation is progressing well.”
He let go, and Luo Binghe wanted to cry. Nonetheless, he forced himself to pull it together.
Those cultivation texts had mentioned masters liked obedient disciples, and they’d mentioned masters liking strong disciples, but no text had ever mentioned masters liking disciples who cried. The… other texts he'd read for advice on his relationship with his Shizun had initially been less clear on the subject—some seemed to advocate crying, others didn't—until he figured out that the ones who were allowed to cry were the women and the ones who shouldn't were the men.
He didn't fully understand why the difference was so important, to be honest, but since both those texts and the ones about cultivation were agreed on that point, he knew it had to be important.
He would be the best disciple possible. He’d make Shizun see that he was the one he should spend his life with.
There were some things, however, that he couldn’t do much about.
Such as his sword.
Shizun clucked a little when he first saw it, clearly dissatisfied. Luo Binghe couldn’t help but wilt.
He had tried to get a proper spiritual sword, just like all the manuals said he should have. But none of them had reacted well to him. It was as though some essential part of them had sensed what he was and recoiled away from him in horror. And when he’d tried to force it, the sword in question had exploded into a storm of sharp metal shards.
It had taken longer than he would have liked for him to reshape his human form back into an uninjured state. After that, he’d settled on an ordinary sword, not wanting to risk any more delays.
After a time, Shizun began making some noises about finding a better sword for him. With a heart full of despairing regret, Luo Binghe turned down the idea.
“This sword suits this disciple best.”
Shizun had sighed at that. “My disciple shouldn’t sell himself so short,” he told him.
Luo Binghe hadn’t wanted to argue, but agreeing also wasn’t possible. Helpless, he remained silent until Shizun, giving up, waved him away.
One day, not long after he'd begun to live on the mountain, Luo Binghe found it more difficult than usual to tear himself away from Shizun’s dreams. He lingered at the edges, yearning, until Shizun woke, and then Luo Binghe’s mortal form woke too.
Even then, he felt… strange. His body didn’t seem to want to move. Only when he heard Shizun’s voice, calling him, did he jolt into motion. But, for some reason, it was more difficult than usual to stay upright.
Luo Binghe stumbled, falling against a stack of wood. A few pieces tumbled to the ground, startlingly loud in the clear morning air.
The door to the woodshed opened. Luo Binghe stared at Shizun, who looked… strangely rumbled as he stood there in the doorway.
Not good! Shizun liked clean and neat disciples, but Luo Binghe was still messy from sleep. He hadn't even dressed yet! He tried to move again, but then his body made a strange sound, before swaying so violently that he had to clutch at the woodstack to keep his balance.
Shizun took in the scene.
“Has… has Binghe been sleeping in the woodshed?” Shizun paused, then shook his head. “No, wait. Nevermind that for the moment. What has Binghe been eating?”
“Enough,” he said, confused. He didn’t need to eat, so it was true. Honestly, in that sense, he was eating more than enough, since he was always tasting Shizun’s meals before he served them.
Though… it was also true that there was something very off about his mortal form at the moment.
Did his human shape need to eat?
Luo Binghe took a moment, trying to rearrange his understanding of his worldview. It… made a certain sort of horrible sense, especially when he compared what he was feeling to what he’d seen from hungry people living on the streets. Was what he was feeling… exhaustion, then?
Shizun lost his patience with him. Stepping into the woodshed, he picked Luo Binghe up, swinging him over his shoulder.
Luo Binghe turned a bright red. “S-Shizun!” he protested. “This disciple can walk!”
This was worse than when Shizun had checked his meridians. He could feel Shizun everywhere, all over the front of his body. Honestly, a part of him just wanted to melt into the touch, but—Shizun couldn’t carry him! This wasn’t right! He was supposed to be making Shizun’s life comfortable, not giving him more work!
“Only a child can’t look after his own well-being,” Shizun declared, unphased by Luo Binghe’s struggles. “If Binghe isn’t willing to take proper care, then he’ll be treated as such until he does.”
It got worse. When they reached the bamboo house, Shizun dumped Luo Binghe unceremoniously onto his bed. His bed! There were certain human wooing rituals that had to be done before he should be allowed on there! Luo Binghe hadn’t completed all the steps yet!
Then, when Luo Binghe scrambled to get back up, Shizun had pinned him into place with his iciest, most disapproving look and ordered him to stay in place. Luo Binghe couldn’t help but crumble and obey.
Still, it was almost more than he could bear, seeing Shizun disappear behind the doorway. He heard movement and clanging sounds coming from the kitchen, and knew Shizun was cooking for him. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Shizun didn’t like to cook. Luo Binghe was supposed to do those tasks for him, not the other way around!
Shizun had already done so much for him. How could Luo Binghe ever repay all of these kindnesses?
Still, Shizun was insistent. Not only did he cook for him, but he didn't allow Luo Binghe to leave the bamboo house or otherwise exert himself until he'd recovered. The only point he relented on was allowing Luo Binghe to move to the couch in the main room instead of taking up space in the bed.
The congee he made for him during that time was undercooked and mostly flavourless, but Luo Binghe ate every bite without complaint. Despite his shame, he couldn’t help but to also feel a little warm.
He hated that he’d put Shizun to so much trouble. But he couldn’t deny that he liked that Shizun would go to so much trouble, just for him.
Overhearing the scolding Shizun gave Ming Fan over “not looking after your shidi properly” wasn’t too bad either.
The body he’d formed for himself was young, and talented in cultivation besides, so it only took a few days for him to recover. When it did, Shizun approached him about the subject of the woodshed once more.
Namely, why Luo Binghe had chosen to sleep on the hard ground in a drafty woodshed instead of taking up sparse, but comfortable lodgings in the disciple’s quarters.
Luo Binghe bowed down to him. “My apologies to Shizun for disobeying. Only, this disciple didn't feel assured, having his master so far."
For several long moments, Shizun said nothing more. Then:
“There’s a storage room to the side of this house. If Binghe is willing to do the work of clearing it out, then he may stay there instead.”
Luo Binghe’s eyes shone. “Yes, Shizun!”
The storage room in question, as it turned out, was the small, dark room where the other human had stored Luo Binghe’s bottle after he'd first been sealed. It was a little strange, returning there after so long, but after he cleared out the jars of preserved monster corpses, changed out the furniture, and cleaned away the thick layers of dust and grime that had settled over everything, the room didn’t look the same at all anymore.
After that, their days fell into a pattern, just as they had when he’d been in the bottle. Except, now, it was even better.
Now, when Shizun spoke to him, Luo Binghe could answer. When Shizun touched him, he could feel it. When Shizun gathered his disciples for lessons, he was included. He allowed Luo Binghe to cook all his meals for him and insisted on the two of them eating together. He permitted Luo Binghe to clean for him, to restock the wood in the woodshed, to heat the water for his baths. Bit by bit he entrusted the care of his daily life to Luo Binghe, and Luo Binghe treasured the gift for what it was.
There was only one flaw in their happy existence.
Luo Binghe still didn’t quite have perfect control over his shadows.
It made sense. This human shape might have been more comfortable than it had any right to be, but, when it came down to it, he was still an incomprehensible mass of existence crammed into a tiny physical form. It was natural that there’d sometimes be… leaks.
Especially when he was agitated or otherwise in the throes of deep emotion.
(In hindsight, he must have been leaking everywhere during the woodshed incident. He was fortunate that neither he nor Shizun had taken notice at the time.)
The problem, though, wasn’t that he sometimes had difficulties with the shadows around him. That was still a problem, of course, but it was also one which was easily solved once he realized what was happening.
No, the real problem was that Luo Binghe didn’t always notice that he was doing it.
In fact, initially he hadn’t realized that he was doing it at all.
The first time it came to his attention, it was a clear, early summer afternoon. The air wasn’t overly hot, like it would be later in the summer, and so Shizun decided that it would be a good time for Luo Binghe to train.
Specifically, training his posture.
“At times, Binghe moves like he thinks he’s made of water,” Shizun said, faintly scolding. “That’s not a poor thing in battle, at least not when done properly, but it’s not suited for daily life. Think about the strain on your spine.”
...Luo Binghe was fairly certain he could shift the spine inside his physical form into whatever shape he wanted. ...He was equally sure that that wasn’t a skill that a normal human was capable of, so he kept quiet.
Besides, Luo Binghe… liked this kind of training.
Truly, Luo Binghe liked every kind of training Shizun set before him. No matter what the task, they were all signs of his Shizun’s care for him—of his desire for Luo Binghe to improve. But he had to admit that he had a special fondness for when Shizun wanted to train his posture.
Because it meant he could throw himself in his Shizun’s arms as much as he wished.
The first time had been an accident. But when he’d realized that his Shizun hadn’t minded—the scolding he’d given scarcely deserved to be called that, it was so gentle—Luo Binghe recognized the opportunity for what it was:
A chance to woo Shizun.
People were always falling into one another's arms in those texts that talked about people who felt what he felt for Shizun. True, usually the one who wanted to do the protecting was the one who caught the other person, not the one who fell into their arms, but Shizun never tripped. Honestly, Luo Binghe couldn’t really imagine it. He wanted to protect Shizun—he might have been sturdier than most humans, but that was like comparing glass to paper—but something about the idea of Shizun stumbling over his own appendages… didn’t really suit him, somehow.
It was a little unusual, but after putting some thought into it, Luo Binghe decided that he could be both the one who fell and the one who protected.
He still hadn’t gotten used to the feel of Shizun’s touch. He didn’t think he ever would. It was too different, too alien from anything he’d ever experienced before he’d taken on this mortal form. His body burned, and his mind burned too.
“How have you lived this long, being so clumsy?” Shizun sighed. His hand reached up, patting Luo Binghe on the head. “Aren’t you an adult? Really, now—”
Suddenly, his body went stiff. Luo Binghe looked up. His face transformed into a grim mask, Shizun stared at something just past Luo Binghe’s shoulders. Straightening, Luo Binghe turned to follow his gaze.
The shadows within the bamboo forest were shifting.
It could have just been the wind blowing through the bamboo. But it wasn’t.
Luo Binghe's heart sank. He still remembered how much Shizun had hated it when he made the shadows move. Even back then, when he’d understood so little about humans, he’d known that Shizun had been afraid.
He forced them still, then looked back at Shizun, anxious.
Shizun didn't answer straight away, his eyes fixed on the shadows. Then he shook his head, some of the tension in his frame leaking away.
"It's nothing. Simply this master's imagination."
The vague answer did nothing to soothe Luo Binghe’s agitated heart. Was that the truth? Had he really been fooled?
Or had Shizun connected the return of those shadows to Luo Binghe’s presence here, and was just trying to hide it?
He needed to know.
“Begging Shizun’s patience,” he said. “But this disciple cannot rest easy when Shizun’s not at ease.”
Shizun was reluctant, but after enough sustained pleading from Luo Binghe, he finally gave in.
"It truly is nothing. Only, this master had some difficulties with a… haunting some years ago. However, the problem was resolved at that time, so Binghe has no cause for concern."
Shizun thought that he’d been a ghost?
It was surprising, but when he thought about it, he realized that it made sense for him to make that kind of mistake. Shizun was very wise by human standards, but it wasn’t his fault that the mysteries of the universe were beyond mortal comprehension. Ghosts were much more common than his kind—not to mention more well-known to humans. In all the books and scrolls he’d consumed, he’d only found a few vague references to his kind, yet the amount written about ghosts could fill valleys and mountains.
If Shizun thought that he’d been a haunting, then he probably wasn’t suspicious of Luo Binghe.
At least not yet.
It was a sobering reminder. No matter how much Shizun trusted and relied on "Luo Binghe”, the disciple, when it came down to it, he still feared the true Luo Binghe.
Luo Binghe still needed to be cautious. No matter what, he couldn’t allow Shizun to learn that he was anything other than human.
(But, then, if he was so afraid of the true Luo Binghe, why had Shizun cared about him so much back when he’d been in the bottle?
It couldn’t have been because he’d been sealed at the time—after all, one of the very first things Shizun had ever tried to do was free him. So why?
Even now, after all he’d learned about humanity, Luo Binghe still didn’t understand.)
It was, then, perhaps ironic that Shizun was so fascinated by monsters.
Luo Binghe hadn’t realized it at first. It wasn't a trait that he'd noticed during the time he’d been inside of the bottle. However, it gradually became unmistakably clear.
The first hint was an incident that occured not long after Luo Binghe arrived at Shizun’s peak—back when he was still secretly sleeping in the woodshed. Circling around the bamboo house, he came across Shizun leaning over something, at the same spot where he’d been standing at the moment of their reunion.
When Shizun saw him, he gestured for him to come over. Curious, Luo Binghe obeyed.
There was a plant growing near the doorway, one with a thick, curvy stalk and clusters of small, deep green leaves. Round, twitching, mottled-brown shapes clung to the undersides of the leaves.
Eggs, the absorbed knowledge in Luo Binghe’s consciousness told him. They were eggs, and they were in the process of hatching.
Quietly, Luo Binghe knelt down next to Shizun to watch with him.
One by one, tears appeared in the eggs. Small, bright red insects crawled out through those holes, leaving the eggs to collapse in mucous-y heaps behind them. Something long and thin flicked out from their mouths. It didn’t seem quite like a normal tongue, but they were so small that Luo Binghe couldn’t make out the details. With the flickering of those tongues, the remains of the eggs swiftly vanished.
Once they were finished with their meal, they began crawling along the stalks of the plant, exploring their new world.
“Snake-Tongued Fire Beetles,” Shizun said, with obvious satisfaction. Taking on a lecturing tone, he continued, “They’re known for their strange, snake-shaped tongues, which almost act as a second head, as well as for their ability to self-immolate without causing harm to their bodies.”
It was at that exact moment that the dozens of baby Snake-Tongued Fire Beetles all simultaneously erupted into flame. The plant their bodies had been crouching on was instantly set ablaze, the flames swiftly spreading as they licked along the dead plant matter on the ground.
In the end, only Luo Binghe’s quick rush for water kept the fire from spreading to the bamboo house.
So. That incident had been a bit of a hint. Shizun had clearly known that they were there, but his instinct had been to observe them rather than to remove the risk they posed to his home.
But what truly made it obvious were the night hunts.
Finally, Luo Binghe learned what had always taken Shizun away from him on those rare occasions when he’d left the peak. For the most part, Shizun was left to his solitude atop the mountain, but every so often requests for help, relayed through Ming Fan or Ning Yingying, would come in from people living in the surrounding countryside.
Shizun didn’t accept all of those requests, of course. Some were for things which did not fall under the purview of a cultivator at all, and so were merely ignored. (There were, for instance, a surprising number of bodyguard requests from presumptuous rich men who thought they could command the attention of a former peak lord.) For the ones that really did need a cultivator’s aid, Shizun often sent one or more of his disciples to take care of it in his stead.
He rarely took on any of those cases personally. But when he did, they were always the ones involving interesting monsters.
It was almost funny. Once, Luo Binghe had hated the absences those night hunts caused more than anything, but now he grew to love them—or, at least, he did once he figured out how easily Shizun caved to requests to accompany him.
After all, it wasn’t the fighting which attracted Shizun. It was the chance to see new and interesting beasts. Shizun had a charming tendency towards laziness. If he could observe unusual monsters without having to do most of the fighting that came with it, then of course he would happily take that opportunity.
A little bit of fighting in exchange for days spent alone in Shizun’s company, without having to deal with his other two disciples barging in and interrupting their solitude?
Only fool wouldn’t leap at that bargain.
As time went by, the amount of night hunts Shizun chose to go on also began to steadily increase.
Luo Binghe… might have played a role in that.
It was just too easy to slink into people’s dreams, encouraging them to come to Shizun’s mountain with their requests. It was easier still to seek out the dreams of beasts. With the knowledge of the beastieries he’d once devoured, he sought out the rarest and strangest creatures, the ones he thought Shizun might like best, and pressured them to make their way towards the region around where Shizun dwelled.
He was careful with how he conveyed those messages, of course—Shizun wouldn’t like it if he went around breaking minds, even by accident. And any trouble he went to was always worth it for that look of poorly-concealed excitement in Shizun’s eyes whenever he saw what Luo Binghe had found for him.
“A Rainbow-Scaled Dragon Tiger?” Shizun would say, the words coming out slightly too fast. “But they’re believed to be extinct—it’s been centuries since the last time one was spotted!”
Then they’d battle, and either subdue or kill, as Shizun judged best. As Luo Binghe rustled up rarer and rarer creatures, Shizun began opting more frequently for subduing. After the encounter with the Rainbow-Scaled Dragon Tiger, Shizun spent the rest of the trip back lecturing on something called “rare species preservation”.
Luo Binghe found it unbearably charming.
In the end, though, he grew complacent. After so many successful hunts, it no longer occurred to him that anything could go wrong.
Until it did.
"A Black Moon Rhinoceros Python?" Shizun repeated.
Luo Binghe bowed his head. "A herd of them, apparently. The letter sounded desperate."
Shizun pressed his closed fan to his mouth, considering. “That might be a little much for your martial siblings. Perhaps this master should look into it.” Another tap of the fan. “It would be best to leave soon, before they can cause too much damage to the countryside.”
“Should this disciple hire a carriage?” Luo Binghe said. “Or would Shizun prefer to take Xiu Ya?”
Both options were good. A carriage meant that they’d be on the road longer, which meant more time alone with Shizun. But since Luo Binghe only had a normal sword which did not respond to spiritual energies, that meant that whenever Shizun took Xiu Ya, he allowed Luo Binghe to ride along behind him. To have the opportunity to hold his Shizun in his arms as the wind blew against their faces…
Truly, it was hard to chose.
He knew, though that Shizun preferred the carriage. He liked comfort. Though it wasn’t that he disliked travelling by sword either, of course. Luo Binghe would never have suggested anything that Shizun disliked.
“Where did the letter arrive from, again?” Shizun asked.
Luo Binghe told him.
Shizun sighed. “Xiu Ya, then.”
Luo Binghe sent word about where they’d be to Ning Yingying and Ming Fan, then busied himself with preparing everything they’d need for the trip. When he finished, Shizun was waiting for him at the doorstep of the bamboo house, Xiu Ya at his side. Luo Binghe stepped on the sword after him, wrapping his arms securely around Shizun’s waist.
“Is Binghe ready?”
Luo Binghe hooked his chin over Shizun’s shoulder, enjoying the feel of his hair against his face. “Mm.”
The sword rose, higher and higher. And then they were on their way, the countryside below dashing by in a haze of shape and color.
It was an ideal day for flying. The sun was bright and warm above them, its heat cut down by the cool pressure of the wind beating against them. Luo Binghe nuzzled his face against Shizun’s shoulder, and he felt Shizun chuckle, low in his chest.
After about half a day, they reached the plains where the Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons had been spotted. Shizun slowed Xiu Ya, and they began circling around in the air, searching the area for their quarry’s distinctive large, black forms.
“There!” Luo Binghe said, pointing. Shizun nodded, guiding Xiu Ya forward.
“Herd” had perhaps been an exaggeration by the locals—there were three Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons in total. But even one could wreck havoc on a human settlement; for three of them to be in one place was—for humans—a disaster.
As they approached, Luo Binghe leapt down from Xiu Ya, already drawing his sword. Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons were aggressive creatures; the moment they spotted him, they began stampeding towards him, their python trunks shrieking into the sky. Luo Binghe’s head rang from the sound, and he spared a moment’s thought to hope that it hadn’t pierced Shizun’s ears.
Then he fell into the dance of battle. It was trickier than he thought it would be, balancing three of those beasts at once, though he still fought well. Blood pounded through his body’s veins, an instinctive reaction from his physical form as he fought. Each one had overwhelming might, and when they fought together, it meant that even a single misstep could lead to doom.
The reactions forced by his body were one thing; the ones felt by his heart were another. When it came down to it, Luo Binghe had never really seen any of the creatures he fought for Shizun as a threat. How could he, when their existence was so much smaller than his? He knew, of course, that he was more limited when in human shape, but somehow, a part of him had never really believed that would make a difference.
In the end, that was his biggest mistake.
“Binghe!” Shizun shouted.
That was the only warning he got. Luo Binghe whirled around, throwing his sword up before him just in time to block the burst of demonic energy shooting out from the beast’s mouth.
But that sword, after all, was no spiritual sword. It had only ever been forged of normal steel, meant for use against minor beasts and normal humans. It certainly had never been intended to hold back demonic energy of this intensity.
The sword vibrated violently, attempting to hold its shape—before shattering into countless pieces.
Luo Binghe stumbled back. The beast pressed its advantage, lashing out with its python-trunk as a follow-up attack. Just before it struck, Shizun leapt in front of him, blocking with Xiu Ya’s blade.
Another one of Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons entered the fray, using the same trick as the first. Except, this time, its target wasn’t Luo BInghe.
Shizun didn’t move fast enough. Its trunk slammed into his side. He flew through the air, crashing hard onto the ground—
—Right next to where the last of the Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons stood, waiting for him.
It threw back its head, its distinctive cry echoing through the sky. As it did, it raised its enormous foot, ready to stomp down.
Beneath that sort of force—
His Shizun’s fragile human body would be crushed. There’d be nothing left but meat and bone.
Luo Binghe raced forward, a scream ripping itself out from his throat.
“Don’t you dare ṯ̷̂o̶͕̎u̴̘̕c̶̺̏h̵͚̕ ̶̙̮̳̾̅̓̋̈́m̸̡̳̳̦̭̮̾y̸̡̲̟̒̔͑̿ ̴̩̯̟̘̪̞̩̭̭̰͙̝̽͌̈́̌̍̈̅͑̐̒̎͘͝S̴̡̫̳̳͚̝͇̈́͒̈́̉̅͂͜ͅH̶̛̛̺̀̂̓̊̿̿͑͗͘͝Ì̷̧͉͖̼̻̠̰̥̂̀̑̾̅̃͘Z̵͙̤̺͙͕̺͕̗͖͇͉̬͎̻̓̑̾̽͒͗̋̒͗̂̑̅̕U̶̧̜̪͔͍͊̎́͝͝N̵̨͇̦̜̩̟̪̙̱̦͍̪͓̝̓̊́̈̏̅̔͒̚ͅ !̷̨̯̜̯̪̺͑̽̓̋̽̾͘!!̷̰̞̈́̑͆”
His mortal form fell away from him. The restrictions it placed on him fell away too. The beast only had enough time to feel a single burst of overwhelming terror before Luo Binghe enveloped it, devouring it whole.
The other two Black Moon Rhinoceros Pythons tried to flee, but Luo Binghe refused to allow them to escape that so easily. He spread and spread, faster than they could move, and swallowed every last one of them down into his shadows.
It was finished.
Only then did Luo Binghe realize what he had just done.
Shizun stared up at him, pale-faced. His lips were faintly trembling.
Shizun knew he wasn’t human.
It was over.
Still, Luo Binghe couldn’t help but cry out to him, mournful. He realized his mistake when Shizun flinched at the sound of his voice, a faint, pained noise escaping his lips.
He couldn’t speak with Shizun when he was like this. It would only hurt him.
He forced himself to shrink back down, struggling to regain human shape. It was hard, harder than he remembered it being. His shadowy mass kept slipping in and out of his human form. Finally, he managed it. Panting, he dropped down to his knees on the earth, and looked back up at his Shizun.
“Shizun,” he said again, desperate. After the brief release from the confines of physicality, the frantic pulse of his heartbeat now felt more immediate than it ever had before, and something about that sensation only increased his panic. He could feel his shadow twisting and deepening beneath him, but he couldn’t stop it.
Tears fell from his eyes, but even though he knew that good disciples didn’t cry, he couldn’t stop that either.
Despairing, he thought: what did it matter? If Shizun already hated him, if he was already ashamed of him, then could simple water really make it so much worse? And yet—
“Shizun, please,” he begged. “Please. Please don’t be afraid of me. Please don’t run away.”
Shizun’s lips moved. A cracked, hoarse sound escaped from his throat. “What…”
“I was wrong. Shizun, I know I was wrong. I shouldn’t have lied. But I—”
Shizun held his hand out in front of him, a silent command. Luo Binghe didn’t even have to think about it before he obediently shut his mouth, though he couldn’t help sniffling a little.
Silence stretched between them. Shizun opened his mouth. Closed it again. Thought about it some more. And then, finally, cautiously, he spoke.
“...There was no dead master, was there.”
It took Luo Binghe a moment to understand what he was talking about. Then he remembered the lie he’d allowed Shizun to believe, back when they’d first reunited.
Why, of all things, would that be the first thing Shizun asked about? Confused, his tears drying up, he first shook his head, then nodded.
“Well, which is it? Yes or no?”
Did that mean he was allowed to speak?
“Not a dead master, no. But... I did lose my Shizun for a time.” Luo Binghe hesitated, but—what did it matter, hiding the truth now? “I lost you. Shizun, don’t you remember me? Your little beast in the bottle?”
Shizun’s eyes widened. “You’re—”
Luo Binghe nodded. “Shizun was so good to me back then,” he said mournfully. “But… this disciple was foolish and didn’t know much about humans at the time. I didn’t mean to scare Shizun, but I did. So I left. But I never stopped longing for Shizun, not even for a moment.”
There was another moment of silence.
“So you’re a…” Shizun trailed off, apparently unable to find words for what Luo Binghe was. “And then you decided to take on human form because you... wanted to be my disciple?”
“Yes.” Luo Binghe’s voice cracked. “And also because I love you.”
It wasn’t how he’d wanted to tell him. The books had all been very clear on that—that such words had to wait until the right moment. But he couldn’t read Shizun at all right now. He couldn’t tell what he was thinking. If Shizun planned on tossing him away… then at the very least, Luo Binghe wanted him to know everything first.
Shizun visibly jerked. He stared at Luo Binghe for several long seconds, his expression strange, before he forcefully smoothed his expression out again. Nonetheless, a bit of red lingered on his cheeks.
“That… Binghe should… be careful about saying things like that. People could misunderstand.”
All the books he’d consumed had seemed to be pretty clear on what such a declaration meant… What other interpretations were there that he didn’t know about?
As Luo Binghe wrangled with this new aspect of humanity’s many mysteries, Shizun got back to his feet. Xiu Ya flew to his hand, and Luo Binghe felt his heart sink again.
Was this it?
Was he finally going to abandon Luo Binghe?
Luo Binghe still remembered the emptiness he’d felt before he met Shizun. He didn’t want to go back to that lonely existence.
Then Shizun said, “Well? Isn’t Binghe coming?”
Luo Binghe’s head shot up. A fragile hope began to sprout inside of him. “Shizun?”
Shizun stood there, impassive. Waiting for him.
Shizun wouldn’t joke. Shizun wouldn’t be so cruel.
Luo Binghe’s eyes filled with tears as the realization dawned on him. Scrambling to his feet, he threw himself at Shizun, clinging to his neck. Sobbing, he cried out, “Shizun… Shizun…!”
“Ai, ai, there’s no need to call. This master is right here. Aren’t you too big to cry like this? Really, now, aren’t you ashamed?”
Shizun sighed and scolded, but he made no move to pull away, and his hand didn’t stop patting Luo Binghe’s head. Luo Binghe’s heart filled and filled. He didn’t know how it was that this human body could hold all of this emotion. The tears kept falling; it was too much.
It was just right.
“Why don’t we go home, hm?” Shizun said, and Luo Binghe cried even harder, his heart overflowing with joy.
The place he shared with Shizun. The place Shizun had chosen to share with him. Even now. Even after knowing what Luo Binghe was and what he felt.
Those words had never sounded sweeter.