The first upset to the scales of the universe is, of course, Shang Qinghua willingly seeking Liu Qingge out of his own accord. Not to sign anything for Bai Zhan, not to inform him of a new mission, not to bring him some package or another...no, when Liu Qingge asks why Shang Qinghua is bothering him, Shang Qinghua laughs nervously and says, "Well, I just wanted to talk, Liu-shidi."
Liu Qingge is not anyone's first, second, or third choice of conversational partner. It would be true to say, even, that since Liu Qingge's arrival at Cang Qiong Sect fewer than ten people have deliberately sought Liu Qingge's company for conversation. Additionally, An Ding disciples avoid Bai Zhan, as a general rule, and Shang Qinghua is no different. Whatever Shang Qinghua has to say, it must be a pressing matter. One that couldn't be delivered in the unnecessarily complicated round-about manner An Ding usually prefers.
Shang Qinghua swallows nervously. He says, "Do you remember that time we went together with Shen Qingqiu and dealt with that haunted well...?"
Of course Liu Qingge remembers.
For a moment, Shang Qinghua doesn't say anything. Then he clears his throat and finally turns the universe upside down by saying, "Ah, Shen Qingqiu didn't want you to know, but when you thought he attacked you...he was actually attacking the enemy coming up behind you."
There's regrettably no reason not to believe Shang Qinghua, who despite his cowardice has always at least seemed an honest coward.
"Why are you telling me now?" Liu Qingge demands. He could have happily gone his entire long, long life without knowing he was in debt to Shen Qingqiu.
"Better late than never?" Shang Qinghua suggests philosophically and then pretends to remember some important appointment and scurries away back to An Ding.
Asking had been a waste of words. Liu Qingge knows exactly why Shang Qinghua had chosen now to tell him: Shen Qingqiu is missing, presumed dead.
Liu Qingge has long despaired that Shen Qingqiu was ever allowed to join the sect—let alone become Qing Jing's head disciple—and with Yue Qingyuan away on a long trip to be introduced to various and sundry major and minor sect leaders and the current Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak in prolonged seclusion, there's no one to turn to Bai Zhan Peak demanding help.
None of Shen Qingqiu's fellows on Qing Jing had even seemed stirred enough by his absence to seek him out themselves. "Who knows what he's gotten up to or what's befallen him," Liu Qingge even heard one of them say, "but in any case, he wouldn't thank us for intruding."
To be sure, Liu Qingge can perfectly picture Shen Qingqiu's bitter and ungrateful reaction to a rescue of any sort—he would be offended, like a cat dunked unceremoniously in cold water who claws and hisses like that could possibly save it the face it's lost. Shen Qingqiu doesn't just hate requiring help; he despises anyone who might offer it to him and loathes anyone foolish enough to do him any favors. Liu Qingge isn't a stranger to pride, but Shen Qingqiu raises it to another level entirely.
Taking into account that Shen Qingqiu wouldn't thank him for a rescue and believing that Shen Qingqiu had once tried to strike him down in the middle of a fight against a common enemy, Liu Qingge had been content to consider Shen Qingqiu's uncertain fate none of his business. But now, with this new information...
Liu Qingge is glad no one on Bai Zhan thinks to ask where he's going while he packs his things. He doesn't know how he'd explain. It's bad enough to have to seek Shang Qinghua and ask him where it was, exactly, that Shen Qingqiu had been sent.
From the description, the mission Shen Qingqiu had been sent on had not been a particularly dangerous one. According to Shang Qinghua, a local lord in a prosperous river valley a few days' travel from Cang Qiong Mountains had requested a cultivator come assess some playful spirits troubling the locals. None of the phenomena described had been overtly dangerous—overturned milk pails, unsettled dogs, doors that wouldn't stay shut, that sort of thing—so of course one capable cultivator had been considered more than enough for the task. An outer disciple likely would have been sent if not for the status of the noble making the request.
"If he's simply enjoying the lord's hospitality—" Luo Qingge begins, but Shang Qinghua shakes his head.
"He wasn't even due to meet the lord, only an attendant who would explain the problem." Shang Qinghua frowns, real worry creasing his brow.
It's not an expression Liu Qingge would have thought anyone would make over Shen Qingqiu.
Shang Qinghua then offers to gather supplies for Liu Qingge, including a horse and cart, but Liu Qingge declines. He'll make better time on his sword and he doesn't like the complications that come with taking more supplies than he can carry. All he had needed from Shang Qinghua was detailed information, and having obtained it he leaves the Peaks immediately.
The inn where Shen Qingqiu should have found a room nearly a month ago has no record of his stay or even memory of a cultivator having been in the area.
"Haven't had any problems like that in near on fifteen years," the innkeep adds. "Can't see why anyone would call for one now."
Everyone else Liu Qingge talks to in the area agrees: Shen Qingqiu had never arrived in this town, and if he had he would have discovered that the request that had brought him so far from Cang Qiong had been fraudulent.
The only thing left to do is trace Shen Qingqiu's likely path to the village. Shang Qinghua had confirmed that Shen Qingqiu had taken both supplies and transport from An Ding, so he would have been using the commonly traveled roads rather than flying on his sword. There are a lot of misfortunes that might befall a traveller, but Liu Qingge can (grudgingly) admit that Shen Qingqiu wasn't likely to fall victim to anything that would catch even an average cultivator.
Much more likely that the false mission request had been a deliberate lure, and Shen Qingqiu has met some uncommon fate.
Even after Liu Qingge finds the An Ding cart half-hidden along one of Shen Qingqiu's likely routes, he doesn't really expect to find Shen Qingqiu. When he does imagine it, he imagines a body—cold and still, maybe even decomposing by now. He thinks of the burden of a life debt unpaid, of the literal weight of carrying home this martial sibling he's never liked, of how a new head disciple will need to be selected quickly for Qing Jing. Liu Qingge will certainly need to leave Cang Qiong immediately after delivering the corpse to find Yue Qingyuan so that the news doesn't reach him in some other manner. It's not a duty that Liu Qingge will enjoy, but he won't allow Yue Qingyang to hear the news from anyone else.
But first he needs to find the remains.
The cart is empty, stripped of nearly anything useful. Notably, it's definitely been deliberately moved off of the road, and the horses are missing. Careful inspection of the surrounding area uncovers a likely set of horse tracks to follow some distance through the woods to a lesser-used country road. Following the road leads first to the pungent scent of strange incense and then to being attacked.
The attackers are human men in rough, simple clothes. They're wielding swords of such poor make that Cheng Luan breaks them on the first strike. But still these rogue cultivators—or possibly demonic cultivators, there's no way to know for sure—keep attacking, driven on by some violent urge.
Liu Qingge can subdue them only through force and, since they appear to be earnestly trying to kill him, he does so without hesitation.
As he follows the strange incense to its source; Liu Qingge is attacked by every upright person he meets, and his opponents grow stronger and more enraged the closer he gets to the source of the strange incense wafting through the air.
Its source, he finds, is an old and overgrown clan compound. In one of the least rundown buildings there's one last collection of poorly equipped cultivators. These ones are half-naked and chanting over an intricate array carved into the half-rotted floor. In the center: Shen Qingqiu's body, bloodied but at least not dismembered or deliberately mutilated.
Maybe Yue Qingyuan will find some comfort in that, at least.
Raw power is no replacement for actual skill; the chanting cultivators prove to be just as violent as their fellows and qi floods out of them like a bucket of water poured into a teacup, but they're just as easy to dispatch. During the fight they overturn their own incense and oil, ruining whatever half-completed disgusting ritual they were planning.
By the time Liu Qingge steps forward to kneel in the center of the array, the power has gone out of it and the floor is inert and cold, no longer discharging qi. That's to be expected. What surprises Liu Qingge is that Shen Qingqiu's body is warm when Liu Qingge goes to slide his hands under the body's shoulder and knees. Too warm to just have retained heat from the array.
Shen Qingqiu is alive.
There's cleanup that should be done here—bodies to give rites to, maybe even some survivors who could be saved if given medical aid and then duly punished or rehabilitated—but that can't be Liu Qingge's priority. After checking Shen Qingqiu for injuries that would prevent him from being moved and finding none, Liu Qingge picks Shen Qingqiu up as he had intended before, with an arm under his knees and under his shoulders. Lifting a living body is different from carrying a corpse, however. Liu Qingge takes care to hold his martial brother close to his chest, supported and protected. Shen Qingqiu's head rests on his shoulder so close to his neck that Liu Qingge can feel the weak puffs of air whenever Shen Qingqiu breathes out.
Cheng Luan comes easily to hover just above the ground. It isn't an ideal way to travel, but it will have to do; Shen Qingqiu is unconscious, at least, and unable to complain about being carried so delicately.
Shang Qinghua had been clear that the region's only decent inn was, in fact, the inn where Shen Qingqiu had been planning to stay, because prosperous as the valley is it was still mostly farms and woodlands. Liu Qingge wouldn't balk at rougher accommodations, but given that Shen Qingqiu is unconscious and injured, a large inn with a proprietor that Liu Qingge has already met is preferable to any of the other options.
The innkeep is surprised to see him, but professional, helpful, and not prone to asking useless questions or second-guessing Liu Qingge's answers. For example, when Liu Qingge says they won't be needing a healer sent to their room, the innkeeper doesn't argue. She only raises her eyebrows and says, "Seems to me you should need one, but I suppose you'd know best. You let us know if that changes," before letting Liu Qingge settle Shen Qingqiu into their rented room.
In truth, Liu Qingge doesn't know whether or not he'll be able to treat Shen Qingqiu here by himself. Medicine is not one of Liu Qingge's strongpoints, and he has no real idea what the ritual had been intended to do, so foreign was the array. But Shen Qingqiu's pulse is strong and his breathing is regular, if weak.
It might be that simply circulating his qi through Shen Qingqiu's meridians will be enough to help him, or at least enough to ease whatever's wrong long enough for the flight back to Qian Cao to seek aid there. Liu Qingge will try that first, then escalate if need be.
Circulating qi is intimate.
It promotes healing, increases blood flow, and eases breathing. In some circumstances, it can warm the body if, say, someone had been dumped in the middle of an array in an abandoned building for an indeterminate amount of time. Circulating one's own qi before, during, and after a fight is advantageous and important. Circulating the qi of a downed ally can be the difference between life and death.
But it's undeniably strange to do it for Shen Qingqiu. Were he conscious, Liu Qingge is certain he would perish before accepting the help. Are you implying I can't do it for myself? Liu Qingge has heard him ask Yue Qingyuan, tone sharp and biting, fan held in front of his face with hands that shook almost imperceptibly. Do you think I'm weak? has always been the implication.
Loath as Liu Qingge is to admit it, Shen Qingqiu isn't weak. Usually. At the moment he's still and silent, unable to even spit acid, and so unable to protest that he doesn't need Liu Qingge's help.
First his qi enters through Shen Qingqiu's fingers, then creeps up his palm. It darts from meridian to meridian, looping and twisting through each. There's no part of Shen Qingqiu that Liu Qingge's qi doesn't touch—his arms and legs, his back and shoulders and heart and lungs. It delicately circles his forehead, descends via his neck, and then runs back down his arm to return to Liu Qingge's body. And then Liu Qingge starts it again, and again, and again.
He spends a day and then a night and then another day circulating his qi through Shen Qingqiu's meridians. Each time he does so, he learns Shen Qingqiu's body a little better. Scars and calluses. He'd been whipped once, Liu Qingge guesses, but he can't picture it.
On their second day at the inn, Shen Qingqiu finally stirs, just as Liu Qingge was beginning to think that they should perhaps make for Qian Cao with haste.
Predictably, the first thing Shen Qingqiu says is an absolutely furious, "What do you think you're doing?" combined with snatching his hand away from Liu Qingge's grasp like Liu Qingge might be employing some kind of contact poison.
"Circulating our qi," Liu Qingge says.
Shen Qingqiu has ceased looking at him. Instead, he's looking around the room suspiciously. "Where are we?" he asks. And then, even more suspiciously, he adds, "And what are you doing here?"
Sensing that Shen Qingqiu might feel crowded—he's always had a need for more personal space than anyone else Liu Qingge has ever known—Liu Qingge sits back. "This was the closest inn. If you're well enough to travel, we should leave for Cang Qiong." There's still enough light left in the day to travel, and Liu Qingge doesn't see any reason to waste their time. He doubts Shen Qingqiu will want to stay at this country inn any longer than necessary, no matter how well-appointed it is.
"Of course I'm fine to travel." Shen Qingqiu shoves himself into a sitting position and then lurches out of bed in what's probably the least graceful motion Liu Qingge has ever seen him make. The clumsiness is further underlined by the way Shen Qingqiu barely makes it upright out of bed before immediately collapsing.
It's easy to catch him, at least, and his protesting struggles are as weak as his attempt to stand was.
"Unhand me," Shen Qingqiu demands. "I won't be carried."
Liu Qingqiu eases him back onto the bed. "Only one sword," he points out. He hadn't seen Shen Qingqiu's blade in the ruined clan compound, although admittedly he hadn't looked for it. There had been other concerns, and although the missing sword is troubling, it's unlikely to stay lost or come to any harm. A blade as strong as Xiu Ya might even reappear by its master's side once its master has recovered enough qi.
"Leave me here, then. Get out."
If they were closer to Cang Qiong, Liu Qingge might do it. Or if he knew with certainty what had been done to Shen Qingqiu. Neither of those things are the case, however.
"I already carried you here."
With startling and somewhat alarming certainty, Shen Qingqiu says, "No one asked you to do that."
"Shang Qinghua asked me," Liu Qingge corrects.
That seems to bring Shen Qingqiu up short, but he doesn't ask for clarification. He just stares for a moment and then seems to put it aside, folding in on himself and looking sourly at Liu Qingge. "I suppose we have no choice," he says, as if being carried back to the sect is a death sentence rather than a minor indignity.
It will probably be fine, though. Shen Qingqiu has apparently never really tried to kill him.