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There was a boy at their usual Peak Lord meeting.   

 

“This is Luo Binghe,” Yue Qingyuan introduced. “He will be a guest disciple in Cang Qiong Mountain starting today.”

 

Shen Qingqiu observed the boy behind his fan. He was still young; a few years older than most junior disciples who entered their Sect. He had bright eyes and a confident air - likely some young noble from a distinguished family. Shen Qingqiu disliked him already. 

 

The boy was to tour all the Peaks. As the Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak, his own was naturally the next stop after Qiong Ding Peak. Shen Qingqiu looked forward to testing the boy. He had no plans of going easy on him. He left the meeting soon after, not interested in mingling further with the rest of the Peak Lords.

 

Yue Qingyuan brought the boy to his Peak nearly an hour later, looking anxious. “Qingqiu-shidi,” he said. 

 

Shen Qingqiu only sneered at him. “Thank you, Yue-shixiong. You may leave.” Yue Qingyuan looked as if he wanted to say more, but only nodded. 

 

“Peak Lord Shen,” Luo Binghe greeted politely, once they were left alone. 

 

Shen Qingqiu only scoffed, and maintained his pace, leaving Luo Binghe to trot after him to keep up. 

 

“This is Qing Jing Peak,” he said, with a flourish. The bamboo forests were lush, and the surrounding areas were neat and serene. “Here we value knowledge above all."

 

The boy nodded, listening as he continued to extol on his Peak’s virtues. Shen Qingqiu led him to the clearing, where his disciples were doing their morning exercises. 

 

They stopped at the sight of Shen Qingqiu, bowing respectfully. “Shizun!” They greeted as one.

 

Shen Qingqiu waved his fan. “Resume your training.”

 

His disciples stood to attention. “Yes, shizun!”

 

Still, Shen Qingqiu could see their attention had been captured by the newcomer. Ning Yingying, one of his female disciples, peeked at Luo Binghe, eyes wide.

 

“Luo Binghe may observe Qing Jing Peak disciples,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

He gestured to his head disciple. “Ming Fan.” 

 

“Yes, shizun!” His head disciple led a quick but impressive demonstration. Luo Binghe’s eyes were bright as Ming Fan lowered his sword, looking liable to clap at any moment. 

 

Shen Qingqiu closed his fan, and nodded. Ming Fan retreated back, looking satisfied. 

 

“Our forms are intended to complement each individual,” he said, with a flick of his fan. “It does not merely rely on raw strength, but on cunning and strategy.”

 

“It was very beautiful,” Luo Binghe said breathlessly. “Like a dance.”

 

Shen Qingqiu scoffed. They were not Xian Shu Peak, to be described so casually. He walked on to the waterfalls by the edge of the mountain, crossing over the water without letting his feet get wet. Luo Binghe stayed at the riverside with awe, eyes wide. 

 

“One who wields power must control it,” he said, turning to face him. Luo Binghe stared back, one of his ankles already knee deep in the water. Shen Qingqiu sighed. 

 

“Focus your qi to your feet,” he instructed. 

 

To his irritation, Luo Binghe was able to succeed in his second try, his face lighting up with delight. “Peak Lord Shen, I have succeeded!” he said eagerly, scrambling up to a rock close by.

 

Of course. Shen Qingqiu scoffed, raising his fan. Limitless talent and a strong foundation for cultivation. His mood turned sour as he leapt back to the ground.

 

The boy had no sword, so Shen Qingqiu was obliged to bring him to the next Peak. Now, if he were to follow the proper order, the boy should be brought to Wan Jian Peak, however… “Has Luo Binghe heard of Bai Zhan Peak?”

 

The boy shook his head no, looking curious.

 

“Their Peak Lord is known as Bai Zhan’s War Lord,” he continued. “Bai Zhan is the Peak known for strength and prowess, making up the bulk of Cang Qiong Mountain’s military arm.” Naturally, Luo Binghe’s eyes were lit up with excitement. Shen Qingqiu had already begun to understand him - all muscle and no brain. 

 

“Would Luo Binghe prefer to see Bai Zhan first?” The boy nodded eagerly. How naive. Shen Qingqiu would give him a taste of his own mediocrity. 

 

The Bai Zhan disciples were running amok as they arrived. Several of them raised their heads suspiciously at Shen Qingqiu; they, too, shared the distaste of their Peak Lord. Shen Qingqiu ignored them. 

 

“Where is Liu-shidi?” he asked imperiously. Bai Zhan had no head disciples. One of them stepped forward. “He has been preparing for his next mission,” he responded with cold civility.

 

“Zhangmen-shixiong has insisted we Peak Lords stay for a month,” he sniffed. “Surely he doesn’t intend to disobey the Sect Master’s orders.”

 

The mood turned even uglier. The disciple narrowed his eyes. “This one will call for him.”

 

Shen Qingqiu sniffed and folded his sleeves. “See that you do.”

 

Meanwhile, Luo Binghe looked at the Bai Zhan disciples in awe. The remaining disciples paid little attention to them, choosing instead to continue their little battles.

 

Eventually, Liu Qingge arrived. He frowned at the sight of Shen Qingqiu. “You.”

 

“Liu-shidi,” he said, snapping his fan closed. “Were you not listening at the meeting earlier? We are to entertain our guest disciple for the time being.”

 

Liu Qingge’s gaze slid to Luo Binghe’s, mouth twisted to a scowl. Good, good. The more dislike Liu Qingge had for the boy, the better. “You brought him here?”

 

“He was eager to know more about Bai Zhan,” he said blandly. 

 

Liu Qingge scoffed.

 

“Peak Lord Shen has told me much about Peak Lord Liu,” Luo Binghe said breathlessly. He supposed it was meant to be a compliment, but it had the opposite effect. Liu Qingge stiffened, his gaze turning cold. Shen Qingqiu had to stop himself from smirking.

 

Now that Liu Qingge was present, the disciples were all clamoring to fight him. “You should allow the boy the same opportunity,” he said lightly.

 

“But I have no sword…” Luo Binghe faltered.

 

Liu Qingge turned to the disciple who had called him. “You. Lend him your weapon.” Reluctantly the disciple handed it over. Liu Qingge jerked his thumb to the direction of the battle square, and stepped forward. Eagerly Luo Binghe followed, unknowing of his fate.

 

Shen Qingqiu chose a shaded area to position himself. He watched, with no little amount of glee, how Liu Qingge beat the boy to the ground. To his disappointment, Luo Binghe was able to stand three times before finally collapsing.

 

“How utterly barbaric,” he said afterwards, voice raised. “Liu-shidi should treat our guest disciples with more respect.”

 

Liu Qingge just gave him a dark look before ordering one of the senior disciples to bring the boy to Mu Qingfang. Shen Qingqiu merrily returned to his Peak, his duty accomplished. He was in such a good mood he only made his disciples run twenty laps instead of the usual fifty that afternoon.

 

A month later, as he was overseeing the delivery arrivals from An Ding, came an unexpected package. Luo Binghe walked up with Shang Qinghua, the latter looking disgruntled. The former, meanwhile, was smiling as he bowed. 

 

“Ah,” Shen Qingqiu said. “You’re still here.” Most guest disciples left after a week or two, their tour concluded and whatever taste they had for cultivation either ignited or dashed. For most young nobles, it was usually the latter. Upon learning how much discipline and hard work it would involve to properly cultivate into immortality, not accounting for actual talent, most would accept their limitations and return to lead their indolent lives. Shen Qingqiu did not blame them. Many would struggle and only be senior disciples all their lives. Greatness did not run in their veins.

 

Luo Binghe’s head was still lowered. “Peak Lord Shen. This disciple has come here to humbly beg to be accepted into Qing Jing Peak.”

 

For a moment Shen Qingqiu was shocked speechless. He turned to look at An Ding’s Peak Lord, who was scowling. 

 

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “He’s made up his mind. When An Ding Peak could very much use a well-organized boy like him!”

 

Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes. Hell would freeze over before a disciple would choose to work in the Leisure House willingly. He, however, did not say this out loud, and only dismissed Shang Qinghua once the other deliveries were properly accounted for. It was rude - other Peak Lords would invite their martial siblings in for some snacks and gossip. But Shen Qingqiu was not like other Peak Lords, and he despised small talk most of all. 

 

He turned to the boy. A million questions ran in his head - he had expected that Luo Binghe, if he chose to stay, would prefer Bai Zhan Peak or Qiong Ding Peak instead. “You have completed your tour of Cang Qiong Mountain?”

 

Luo Binghe nodded. “Indeed it is truly worth the title of one of the Four Great Sects,” he said respectfully. “This disciple is honored to be invited here.”

 

Flattery rarely worked on Shen Qingqiu. “Qing Jing Peak is not for the faint of heart,” he said, drawing his fan. “There will be no preferential treatment for you here, Luo Binghe. This master will judge fairly, and if you are found wanting, you will not succeed as a cultivator in Cang Qiong Mountain, or anywhere else. Take heed.” 

 

The boy did not even flinch. “Yes, Shen-shifu!”

 

His funeral, then. Shen Qingqiu fanned himself. He would enjoy destroying this boy’s lofty ambitions. 

 

--

 

Shen Qingqiu kept his word. Luo Binghe was instructed to join the other junior male disciples, deliberately intensifying their training exercises. 

 

The first few days were a failure. Luo Binghe was energetic and indefatigable, submitting to Shen Qingqiu’s demands without complaint. It annoyed Shen Qingqiu to no end, but Luo Binghe had already proved recalcitrant. He would not break so easily. 

 

The other disciples looked at him with a mixture of awe and resentment. He was still younger than the current generation of junior disciples, and yet he already displayed a strong cultivation. Shen Qingqiu, who was familiar with the cruelty of one’s peers, did nothing to dissuade or encourage any friendly rivalries. To his disappointment, Luo Binghe emerged from such scuffles slightly injured but usually victorious.

 

“Luo Binghe seems to not get along well with the other disciples,” he commented once, after the boy finished his laps a whole turn ahead of the rest.

 

To his surprise, Luo Binghe’s face turned red. “This disciple apologizes,” he said. “This one has not been around many martial siblings before.”

 

A pampered young master, then. Shen Qingqiu snorted. “Camaraderie is a prevailing trait of Cang Qiong Mountain,” he said, with a patronizing air. “Take care you learn the value of it.”

 

Luo Binghe only bowed in gratitude. 

 

Shen Qingqiu amused himself by finding Luo Binghe’s weaknesses. He was solitary, true; Ning Yingying and the other female disciples doted on him, but Luo Binghe seemed impossibly shy. The male disciples, on the other hand, took offense with his aloof nature. There was no winning in that quarter. But Shen Qingqiu, who had spent most of his own years as a disciple keeping the rest at an arms’ length, knew it would not hold back a determined cultivator. And whatever other talents Luo Binghe lacked, he clearly did not lack for resolve. Shen Qingqiu did his best not to admire him. Youth made him full of promise, but the fruition of that still lay in their nurture.

 

What else, then...there was something like impatience in the boy’s desire for knowledge. That Shen Qingqiu could exploit as a cautionary tale. Anyone who rushed in their efforts to reach greatness would often learn that time and experience were better, and often cruel, masters. There were no shortcuts in life, even for fortunate young masters who could get a jump ahead with their family’s connections. The strength of one’s cultivation was the great equalizer.

 

Shen Qingqiu wished to crush Luo Binghe completely, without any bloom of hope in his heart. They would see who between the two of them would succeed. 

 

Naturally, Yue Qingyuan came by Qing Jing Peak soon enough, under the guise of visiting Shen Qingqiu. As they both found any meetings between them an ordeal, Shen Qingqiu could rightly guess at his true motives. He gestured at the disciples as they trained by the bamboo grove. He watched as Yue Qingyuan’s eyes moved to a particular spot, unblinking in his observation. He knew it was time to pounce.

 

“That Luo Binghe is uncommonly talented. From which family is he from again, Zhangmen-shixiong?” he inquired with a pleasant air. Their esteemed Sect Leader stiffened. 

 

“Qingqiu-shidi is very observant,” he said finally. 

 

Shen Qingqiu snapped his fan shut. “Spare me the flattery. Who is the boy?”

 

Yue Qingyuan flattened his lips. Shen Qingqiu internally dared him to end the conversation. It would not be the first time they would part in less than ideal terms, and Yue Qingyuan had been tight-lipped when it came to Luo Binghe from the beginning. It only made him want to learn more. There was a secret here, Shen Qingqiu was sure of it, and he did not enjoy being kept in the dark.

 

He rose from his seat. Yue Qingyuan looked alarmed. “Perhaps I should call him here,” Shen Qingqiu said casually. “This master has the right to know more about his disciples, surely?”

 

It did the trick. Yue Qingyuan clenched his fists and spoke. “Have you ever heard of Su Xiyan of Huan Hua Palace?”

 

The previous head disciple of Huan Hua Palace? She’d been of Yue Qingyuan’s generation - her strength was equal to his, or so they all said. When Shen Qingqiu had finally reached the Immortal Alliance Conference on his own merit, she was no longer with the sect. Rumor was that she had died on a mission to demon territory. Shen Qingqiu did not believe a word of it. He’d seen how that old Sect Master would look at his female disciples - more likely she had run away once she found her own strength.

 

He only inclined his head for Yue Qingyuan to continue.

 

Yue Qingyuan heaved a sigh. “He is her son,” he said quietly. “She has given him to me for safekeeping.”

 

Oh, how rich. “Does she imagine our Peak to be some kind of nursery?” Shen Qingqiu sneered. “Are you to be in-charge of wayward children?” Yue Qingyuan could no better take care of a horde of children than a disabled lout. 

 

Yue Qingyuan looked pained. “Qingqiu-shidi -”

 

“Enough.” Shen Qingqiu turned around. “If he chooses to be in my care, so be it. But he will not be coddled.”

 

He walked off, feeling displeased. Zhangmen-shixiong was always exerting himself for others, as if his kindness was a bottomless well. Shen Qingqiu despised him. A man could profess himself kind and have others praise him, but Shen Qingqiu knew better. 

 

Yue Qingyuan would never trouble doing anything if he did not find it worthwhile. That Luo Binghe was worth any of his efforts -

 

“Luo Binghe,” he snapped. The disciple stopped mid-motion, lowering his bamboo sword as he turned to face him.

 

“Yes, shifu?”

 

Shen Qingqiu would show him just how worthless this brat was. 

 

“Come here,” he ordered. “You have been learning the forms. Demonstrate what you’ve learned to the Sect Master.”

 

Luo Binghe bowed.

 

He began to move through the forms, with distinct grace and elegance. It was a perfect display. Shen Qingqiu scowled.

 

He called on his head disciple. “Ming Fan.” 

 

“That performance is inadequate,” he said coldly. “This is not all that Qing Jing Peak is capable of. Show how it is properly done with our guest disciple.”

 

Ming Fan tightened his grip on his own sword. “Yes, shizun!”

 

As Luo Binghe had only learned the basics, he could only lose to Ming Fan. Still, it was a close thing; Luo Binghe gave it all he got, refusing to back down even though he was already bloody.

 

“Qingqiu-shidi,” Yue Qingyuan said quickly. “That demonstration sufficed. I am glad to see Luo Binghe has been improving.”

 

The boy nodded stiffly, getting up from his knees. 

 

Shen Qingqiu sniffed. “He has much to learn.”

 

Now that Shen Qingqiu knew Luo Binghe’s heritage, he began to watch him more carefully. Su Xiyan’s disappearance had been a subject of much hushed gossip over the years, only waning with time. That her son should reappear now was fortuitous. 

 

Also, there was the matter of who was his father. Yue Qingyuan was not forthcoming in that quarter. Perhaps she’d let herself be led astray - or worse, Shen Qingqiu thought, narrowing his eyes, he was some unholy result of a despicable union. After all, why else bring him to Cang Qiong Mountain instead of Huan Hua Palace?

 

So he began to bring Luo Binghe to some missions, under the guise of observing his skills.  

 

Luo Binghe seemed eager to learn directly from Shen Qingqiu, seeing it as some kind of honor rather than a punishment. 

 

Today, they were at another Peak to observe the Autumn Serpent Tiger. Liu Qingge had captured some alive and Shen Qingqiu had requested for three to be brought to his Peak for the express purpose of training with his disciples. Luo Binghe had gladly stepped up for the opportunity to learn, as Shen Qingqiu had expected.

 

“These are feral demons,” he said, gesturing to the beasts rattling the cage. “To suppress their powers one must strike at their head.” He demonstrated with a flick of his qi. Instantly one of the tiger demons collapsed.

 

“They are little more than beasts,” he added. “But their bite is deadly.” He unlatched the cage. The remaining two Autumn Serpent Tigers sprang out, snarling. “Strength is not the only measure of power. Show me what you’ve learned.”

 

He leapt out of the fray, leaving the boy to deal with the demons by himself. 

 

By some stroke of luck, Luo Binghe was able to neutralize one of the tigers quickly. The last Autumn Serpent Tiger reared its head with an angry hiss, its attacks becoming more desperate at being cornered. Luo Binghe attempted several times to hit it at its weak spot, but the beast’s speed increased, dodging his each strike.

 

The beast charged at him, claws extended. Luo Binghe stumbled back, sword falling from his hand. He pulled out a talisman, but the Autumn Serpent Tiger slashed it to pieces, along with a chunk of his pants.

 

Shen Qingqiu watched with indifference as Luo Binghe rolled to avoid another fatal hit. He was panting heavily now, pupils blown as the demon stalked him on the ground. Still, he did not retreat; he circled around, in an attempt to retrieve his sword.

 

Only, the beast could cover more ground with one leap. It snarled, snapping its fangs, towards Luo Binghe’s arm. There was a scream of pain.

 

Shen Qingqiu dropped down from the branch. He was about to raise his hand, when violent qi suddenly exploded out of Luo Binghe’s body. Instantly, the Autumn Serpent Tiger fell to the ground, screeching.

 

Shen Qingqiu snapped his fan shut.

 

Luo Binghe was writhing on the floor, panting heavily. Shen Qingqiu walked over to his side. “Get up.”

 

After several beats, Luo Binghe managed to pull himself upright. There was a fearful expression in the boy’s face, but it smoothed over quickly. 

 

They stared at each other for a turn. “Stay here,” he said finally, and drew his sword. To his credit, Luo Binghe did not tremble. He only stared up at Shen Qingqiu, gaze steady. 

 

Shen Qingqiu gestured to Xiu Ya, and it cut the Autumn Serpent Tiger creeping up behind Luo Binghe into pieces. 

 

Luo Binghe’s eyes were wide as he glanced over his shoulder at the demon’s corpse. He turned his gaze again to Shen Qingqiu.

 

“Clean up that filth,” Shen Qingqiu told him, before leaping onto his sword. “I must go convene with the Sect Master.”

 

--

 

The boy was a demon.

 

His second confrontation with Yue Qingyuan went as well as the first. “You allow demons into our fold?” he accused. “Have you gone mad?”

 

“Qingqiu-shidi - ” Yue Qingyuan started, but Shen Qingqiu’s glare stopped any more useless words from falling out of his mouth.

 

“And who else knows?” Shen Qingqiu asked. 

 

Yue Qingyuan winced. “So far only you have made the discovery.”

 

Shen Qingqiu scoffed. Of course his fellow Peak Lords could not be bothered to pay attention more carefully. Luo Binghe was just another guest disciple, one that they would allow their Peaks to coddle for several weeks before being forgotten entirely. 

 

“You said he was Su Xiyan’s son,” he accused.

 

“I did not lie,” Yue Qingyuan said. “He is indeed her son.” He hesitates. “His father is Tianlang-Jun.”

 

Shen Qingqiu was struck. “The Heavenly Demon Lord?” Not only was this boy a demon, he was of heavenly descent? No wonder his cultivation prowess was unmatched! In a few years, Luo Binghe could likely overpower Liu Qingge!

 

He amused himself with that thought for a few seconds before returning to the matter at hand. “And why is Cang Qiong Mountain playing host to this demon scum?”

 

“I owe Su Xiyan a debt of gratitude,” Yue Qingyuan said. “It will be kept. And she...we have hopes that perhaps, the human realm and the demon realm can reconcile their differences.” 

 

This time Shen Qingqiu really did laugh. “You never cease to surprise me, Zhangmen-shixiong,” he mocked. “Your kindness will be remembered throughout history.” 

 

He left before Yue Qingyuan could say anything else. There was, indeed, nothing left to say.

 

The man was out of his mind - letting a demon into Cang Qiong Mountain was tantamount to treason. If the other Peak Lords found out - but no. Shen Qingqiu stopped himself. Yue Qingyuan wished to bring shame and destruction upon his own head? Then let him. Shen Qingqiu was done cleaning up his messes.

 

He returned to Qing Jing Peak in a much more tranquil state. However, the sight that greeted him upon alighting from his sword to land by his bamboo hut threw him back into turmoil. 

 

“What, you brat?” he asked, not feeling generous at the moment.

 

Luo Binghe stared at him, impassively. “Shen-shifu knows what I am,” he said quietly.

 

Shen Qingqiu rapped him lightly on the head with his fan. “This master is not easily fooled,” he said. 

 

“Truly Shen-shifu is the most impressive,” Luo Binghe said, his mouth pressed into a smile. “This disciple was right in choosing him.”

 

Shen Qingqiu sneered. “Cang Qiong Mountain Peak Lords choose their disciples, not the other way around. Speak out of turn once more, and I will send you to An Ding Peak instead.” Luo Binghe only bowed deeply at his threat. 

 

“I will do my best not to disappoint Shen-shifu.” 

 

It was much easier to swallow Luo Binghe’s unreasonable prowess, now that Shen Qingqiu knew what he was. It all made sense now - that monstrous strength, that inhuman speed of healing. 

 

Luo Binghe would often glance at him, as if hoping to be praised. Shen Qingqiu found it unnecessary. The boy knew he was special; he did not need to be reminded of it. If anything, Shen Qingqiu began to devise a more difficult regimen for him. A demon could not be held to human standards.

 

The boy endured it without complaint. 

 

Now. What to do?

 

Shen Qingqiu visited the Library often in the coming days, interested in learning more about demons. There was not much information about them that wasn’t on different methods of restraining or killing them. As Shen Qingqiu had no professed interest yet in either - though he could admit it useful, just in case - he could only settle for a select number of pieces, ones that seemed decidedly dubious in nature. 

 

Nevertheless, he took the scrolls and returned to his Peak, spreading them on the table. He was in the middle of his reading when he heard a soft knock on the door. Likely a disciple with his mid-morning tea. He murmured assent without raising his head.

 

The tea set was carefully laid down on the table. The disciple bowed; he caught whiff of the unfamiliar scent and looked up. It was Luo Binghe. The tips of his ears turned red at meeting his master’s eyes, and rose up from his knees. 

 

Shen Qingqiu nodded at him, dismissing him with a wave, but the boy wavered at the door.

 

“Shifu’s research…” he started slowly. Shen Qingqiu pinned him down with his gaze. 

 

“This master would be remiss if he were not fully informed, would he not?” he inquired lightly. 

 

The red crept all the way up to Luo Binghe’s cheeks. “Of course.” He bowed again, but still did not make a move to leave, biting his lip. Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow. 

 

“If Shen-shifu pleases,” Luo Binghe said hesitantly. “This disciple will gladly share all that he knows.”

 

Shen Qingqiu scowled at him. How impertinent. He had half a mind to refuse the offer, regardless of his own curiosity. 

 

They stayed there at an impasse. Shen Qingqiu took a sip of his tea and stared up at the boy again. He remained unblinking. 

 

“Why are you here?” Shen Qingqiu asked at last. He gestured for Luo Binghe to take a seat, and the boy obediently sat across him on the table, hands folded on his lap. 

 

“My mother has sent me here,” he said. “You may know of her - Su Xiyan.”

 

“That much, Zhangmen-shixiong has told me,” Shen Qingqiu said with a hint of impatience. “But why?”

 

“It is different in the demon realm,” Luo Binghe admitted. “They value strength, but little else. My mother...she wished me to have a different kind of education. Also, she wanted me to learn more about humans. I admit, I have never been around so many until now.” He blushed. 

 

Ah. Shen Qingqiu could understand Luo Binghe’s reticence better, then. “There are no other humans with you?”

 

“No.”

 

“They must think you strange, then,” he prodded.

 

“I am not as strong as the rest,” Luo Binghe said reluctantly. “But with an improved cultivation, I can stand among my demon cousins. My father says the only way to gain respect is through my own power.”

 

“What is your father like, then?” Shen Qingqiu has never had the misfortune of crossing paths with a heavenly demon, unlike Yue Qingyuan. Neither did he desire it. While he disliked demons as a rule, he was not the type to seek trouble, like Liu Qingge. Shen Qingqiu would gladly stamp out their evil, but he had no reason to go crusading against them. After all, there were humans who were more vile than they could ever be.

 

Luo Binghe’s eyes lit up. “He is very well-learnt,” he said. “There is a library at home, full of demon lore and human books. I...I read a lot of the latter before coming here. I did not wish to disappoint.”

 

A fish out of sea, then. Shen Qingqiu laughed to himself for a bit, keeping his mouth covered with his fan. It was a wonder Luo Binghe did not asphyxiate in these surroundings. 

 

“And how do you find humans?” 

 

There was a soft smile on Luo Binghe’s face. “Humans are so fascinating,” Luo Binghe said, sounding wistful. “The customs are so different, and so complex; how cultivators come together as their own kind of family, without any blood relations...it is unheard of to demons. That they can freely move from one territory to the next is another. Demons are bound so tightly to their clans and their rulers.” 

 

“I have heard you have festivals,” he continued eagerly. “That there would be lights, and food, and dancing...”

 

Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow. He wondered what kind of literature Luo Binghe was consuming in the demonic realm. Such an idealized vision of humans. Did he not know what humans were capable of?

 

He made up his mind. He smiled as kindly as he could on the boy. “Would Luo Binghe like to go to one?”

 

--

 

Shen Qingqiu, naturally, had ulterior motives for bringing Luo Binghe down the mountain. The boy’s eyes were wide, clearly entranced by the shock of color. “Surely you have celebrations in your hometown,” he said mildly, keeping his tone low. They were, of course, accompanied by other junior disciples. It would do no good if people thought he favored a particular disciple.

 

Especially since he had no such inclinations, himself.

 

Yue Qingyuan had looked positively alarmed when Shen Qingqiu announced his planned excursion. He had laughed himself silly at that expression, pleased to elicit such a response. Let Yue Qingyuan worry himself to death. Shen Qingqiu intended to learn all that he could while the boy stayed in his grasp. Qing Jing Peak, after all, was dedicated to knowledge.

 

“We have some,” Luo Binghe said vaguely. “But none like this. Oh. Shifu, what is that?”

 

He glanced at the useless trinkets on the seller’s table. “Children’s playthings,” he said dismissively. At the brightness in Luo Binghe’s eyes, he relents. “Would you like one?”

 

It was as if Shen Qingqiu had offered him the universe. Luo Binghe’s hands clutched the paper carp with reverence, as if afraid to crush it with his fingers.

 

The lanterns swayed in the background, lighting the street all the way to the end. 

 

“A-Luo is having fun!” Ning Yingying said.

 

Luo Binghe bowed. “Shijie is very kind,” he said.

 

Ning Yingying smiled. She was clearly fond of Luo Binghe, perhaps fonder than the others. Shen Qingqiu wondered how she would react if she learned that she was talking so casually to a half-demon. 

 

They walked around the town some more. The other disciples had broken away from their group, but Ning Yingying enjoyed his presence, and Luo Binghe seemed apt to stay by his side.

 

Ning Yingying stopped suddenly. “Shizun, look!” Shen Qingqiu glanced at the direction she was pointing at. There was a stage set up at the end of the street, and a crowd had begun to gather around it. As Shen Qingqiu was not interested in squeezing himself with other humans, he only shook his head.

 

“Shizun, can we watch the play?” she asked. Luo Binghe looked at him eagerly. Shen Qingqiu waved his hand. 

 

“Thank you, Shen-shifu!” The two disciples scampered off. Shen Qingqiu amused himself by walking along the market, observing their wares from a distance. The sellers all bowed to him respectfully, and some women offered him a drink. He declined it all with a shake of his head.

 

A loud cry suddenly rose from the crowd by the stage. 

 

“Thief!”

 

Shen Qingqiu raised his head. There was a man breaking into a run away in the opposite direction. A dot of green was taking chase. Shen Qingqiu leapt up to the roofs for a better vantage point. 

 

Suddenly, a part of the wall ahead of them crumbled, closing the man’s escape route. Immediately, Shen Qingqiu quickened his steps to arrive at the scene of the crime. 

 

There was an unconscious man on the floor, his face bloodless. The bricks were scattered in broken pieces around him. Ning Yingying was hovering anxiously by the side, a money pouch in her hand. Luo Binghe’s back was turned, but his arm was outstretched.

 

“What is this commotion?” he inquired, as he landed on the ground.

 

Ning Yingying’s face reddened. “A-Luo was only doing it to help, shizun!” she said, inadvertently admitting his guilt. Luo Binghe’s own face had gone pale.

 

Shen Qingqiu clicked his tongue. “I think this is enough excitement for tonight. I will be returning to the Peak. Yingying, deal with this.” She immediately bowed. He turned to the boy. “Binghe, come with me.” 

 

Luo Binghe trailed after him, his expression distraught. “Shen-shifu, this disciple bitterly regrets his interference,” he said anxiously. 

 

Shen Qingqiu had to draw his fan to hide his smirk. How naive and trusting this boy was. How could he not know Shen Qingqiu was testing his skills? Surely demons were a more backstabbing lot. He would be eaten alive.

 

Still, who could have known Luo Binghe was capable of that much destruction? Shen Qingqiu would have to be more careful around him. “This master is displeased at Luo Binghe’s lack of foresight,” he said instead. As a result, his punishment amounted to staying in the mountain, forbidden from participating in any missions, and copying each book within Qing Jing Peak’s library five times.

 

Luo Binghe accepted it with grace. Indeed, he seemed almost grateful to stay within the Peak’s boundaries. He kept himself with training and reading novels atu the library.

 

Most disciples would gladly sneak out of the Peak when they could - Shen Qingqiu had done it himself in his own days as a Qing Jing Peak disciple, primarily because he had never liked spending time with other disciples anyway - but Luo Binghe was uncommonly obedient. Shen Qingqiu supposed the lesson had more of an effect than he’d expected. 

 

It was the weakness he’d been searching for. Luo Binghe was afraid of his own strength, at least here in the human realm. And as he grew stronger, the more he would be unable to control it. 

 

Shen Qingqiu was pleased with the discovery. A cultivator incapable of judging his own capabilities was a bomb waiting to happen. Luo Binghe would explode, one way or another. Shen Qingqiu looked forward to the wreckage.

 

Ming Fan looked disgruntled as they returned. “Welcome back, Shizun,” he said, with a glare at Luo Binghe’s direction. Ming Fan clearly disliked their guest disciple, but his skill was nothing compared to Luo Binghe’s. A pity he could not measure up. Shen Qingqiu rather liked him for his wily ways, regardless of his lack of natural talent. He worked harder than the rest, for sure.

 

No one in Qing Jing Peak could withstand Luo Binghe’s raw energy; perhaps not even the senior disciples. But they did not know it was due to Luo Binghe’s parentage. So the dislike towards him continued, especially as he refused to join the disciples when they went down the Peak. 

 

One day, Shen Qingqiu left on a mission, leaving Ming Fan in-charge of the Peak. He was careful not to announce his return, instead landing lightly in the forests as he conducted an inspection.

 

As expected, he found Luo Binghe training with the other disciples. “Luo-shidi must only defend,” Ming Fan said. “It is to test his tenacity.”

 

To his credit, Luo Binghe did not raise his fists to attack back. 

 

The boy was losing qi fast. Shen Qingqiu wondered how much his little half-demon body could take. He watched as the older disciples continued their relentless attacks, leading him to collapse on the forest ground.

 

Ming Fan laughed coldly. “Is that all Luo-shidi can take?” he asked mockingly. “Shizun will be very disappointed that you can’t last longer than four hours.”

 

Luo Binghe’s eyes flashed coldly. Shen Qingqiu leaned in closer, wondering if he would see another one of the boy’s lapses. He longed to see him lose control, to see if what behind that obedient mask was the monster underneath. 

 

But Luo Binghe stayed his hand, and only staggered to move once his shixiongs had left the clearing. He dusted himself off, and went in the direction of the springs.

 

It was a smart move. He clearly couldn’t return looking all beaten up to the Peak. 

 

Shen Qingqiu visited the dormitories the same evening, under the guise of having returned. The other disciples were still outside, having greeted him properly, but Luo Binghe was huddled under the covers, looking miserable. His eyes went wide when he sensed Shen Qingqiu’s presence.

 

Shen Qingqiu drew himself up as he stood over him. “Luo Binghe, what are you doing in bed so early?”

 

The boy looked stricken, and pulled off the blankets. “I - this disciple was merely resting, shifu.”

 

A pitiful liar. He could do much better than that. “Your martial siblings are outside and enjoying the fresh air,” he said. “Why don’t you join them?” 

 

At that Luo Binghe’s face darkened. “This disciple will join them later…”

 

Shen Qingqiu paused. “I have noticed that Luo Binghe rarely spends time with his siblings. That is not how things are done in Qing Jing,” he said severely. “We honor camaraderie above all. Or does Luo Binghe think he is above the others because he is our guest?”

 

Luo Binghe looked stricken. “No, Shen-shifu,” he said immediately, jolting out of the bed. He winced as he did so. 

 

Shen Qingqiu slid off the robes with his fan, not deigning to touch Luo Binghe’s skin with his own hands. There were bruises, ugly in their coloring, all over the boy’s body. How pleasing to see his body was still fragile, after all. 

 

“Who has done this to you?”

 

He watched the curve of Luo Binghe’s throat as he swallowed. He did not want to tell on the others, but he also couldn’t lie either. “This is…”

 

Luo Binghe, are you picking a fight with the other disciples of Qing Jing Peak?” he inquired.

 

“No!” The boy blurted out, looking horrified at the accusation.

 

He raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

 

“It was training,” Luo Binghe muttered under his breath.

 

“I see. You took many hits,” he remarked. “Have you not been taught to defend yourself? Do you imagine your body capable of sustained injuries?” He scoffed. “How arrogant.”

 

Luo Binghe’s face was pale. “This disciple - ”

 

“Enough.” Shen Qingqiu rapped him lightly on the head with his fan. “This disciple has displeased this master.” 

 

Luo Binghe hung his head, looking shamed.

 

“If this disciple would be so careless with himself, it would reflect on his master,” Shen Qingqiu told him with a sniff. “Come. We will head to Qian Cao Peak.”

 

The boy traveled with him by sword, one arm clinging to his sleeve. Shen Qingqiu led him to the medical bay, where his shidi met them. 

 

Mu Qingfang examined Luo Binghe’s injuries, mouth pursed the entire time. “This will help alleviate the pain,” he said, handing him a small vial for drinking. “Ah - Shen-shixiong, a word, please?” He stepped outside of the room. Shen Qingqiu followed him, keeping his expression neutral.

 

The Qian Cao Peak Lord looked troubled after closing the door. “He was deeply injured, Shen-shixiong,” he said in a low tone. 

 

Shen Qingqiu dismissed it. “Luo Binghe will be fine, Mu-shidi,” he said coldly. “He is a resilient child.”

 

“Still - the boy is not truly of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect,” he said anxiously. “I fear - ” he looked at Shen Qingqiu pointedly. Shen Qingqiu ignored it. He didn’t need censure, particularly from his shidi. 

 

Mu Qingfang sighed. “He will need a few days of rest,” he said. “I will send word once he has properly recovered.” Shen Qingqiu bowed and left Qian Cao Peak.

 

That gave Shen Qingqiu enough time to plan his next move. He’d appropriately punished the other disciples, of course, for harming Luo Binghe. “He is our esteemed guest in Qing Jing Peak,” he said loftily, as he had them lashed for ten times. “Such treatment is reprehensible.” The disciples’ dislike only grew more pointed.

 

By the time Luo Binghe had returned, the reception of most of the disciples were cold and distant. None of them would attack Luo Binghe directly, now that Shen Qingqiu had called them out, but there were plenty of microaggressions that would pile up in time. Shen Qingqiu delighted in seeing Luo Binghe’s hurt expression as he withdrew from the groups, left almost entirely alone. Ning Yingying would occasionally speak with him, trying to integrate him with the others, but in time Luo Binghe himself was keeping his distance from the rest.

 

“Yingying,” Shen Qingqiu said one day. “How is Luo Binghe doing?”

 

Ning Yingying cast her eyes downward. “Oh, Shizun, I’m worried about him,” she said, sounding wretched. “I believe the shixiongs are being too harsh on him.”

 

Shen Qingqiu hid his smirk behind his fan. “Indeed.”

 

“Shizun, won’t you do something?“ she asked anxiously. “A-Luo is very prideful, and he won’t say a word.”

 

“Most men are,” Shen Qingqiu said lightly. “But a woman always sees weakness.” He smiled lightly at her, and Ning Yingying colored.

 

“It isn’t as if A-Luo is weak,” she said after. “It’s just - they’re not being fair, fighting him five to one.” Her eyes turned beseechingly at him.

 

Shen Qingqiu relented. “It must not go on,” he declared, and was rewarded by Ning Yingying’s smile.

 

He called Luo Binghe to the bamboo house early the next day. Luo Binghe arrived ahead of time, back ramrod straight as he waited by the doorway. “You wished to see me, shifu?”

 

“Yes. Come, Binghe.” He gestured with his fan, and together they walked to the depths of the bamboo forest. “Humans do not like those who are different.”

 

Luo Binghe stiffened.

 

“Even if your bloodline is not said directly, anyone can tell that you are not like the others. You are...special,” he said, lowering his voice. Luo Binghe’s eyes were rapt on him, taking his every word. “And precisely because you are special, people will do anything to watch you fail.”

 

“If you fail, then it only means you are like the rest of them. That you belong,” he said. “But if you continue to shine, then you will be disdained by those who are lesser than you.”

 

“But - ” Luo Binghe hesitated. “I thought humans believed in communities.”

 

“Communities are formed by those with common goals,” Shen Qingqiu said. “What is Cang Qiong Mountain’s goal?”

 

Luo Binghe did not falter. “To eradicate evil and instill justice.”

 

“Correct.” Shen Qingqiu fanned himself lightly. “Those who are different, either take leadership roles, esteemed by all...or begin to have new ideas.” 

 

He straightened up. “When one is no longer aligned with their community, they are cast out by the rest.”

 

Luo Binghe raised his head. “This disciple also believes in those goals,” he says earnestly. “This disciple wants to belong.”

 

Shen Qingqiu let his mouth curve upwards indulgently. This boy was already fifteen, and still he thought like a child. “Luo Binghe. If you truly wish to be part of the Sect, then you must take care not to have airs,” he said. “You must foster good relationships with your martial siblings, and learn to humble yourself.”

 

Luo Binghe bowed his head. “Yes, Shen-shifu.” He could tell by the slope of his shoulders that Luo Binghe was dismayed by this order.

 

After their little discussion, they returned back to the main hall of Qing Jing Peak. The senior disciples glanced over them warily. They were on the last day of their punishment, to take their lashes.

 

Luo Binghe stepped forward to join them. “This disciple has seen his mistakes,” Luo Binghe said stiffly. “And should be punished also.”

 

Shen Qingqiu caught Ming Fan’s eyes going wide. He smirked indulgently. “Binghe is a good disciple and martial brother.”

 

He actually did not enjoy using the whip himself, but it wouldn’t do to have the junior disciples carry out the punishment. He let out a small sigh. “It brings me pain to have such recalcitrant disciples in my Peak,” he said loftily. “In the future, I hope you all remember this lesson well.”

 

He made sure that each crack of his whip on Luo Binghe’s back was harder than the rest.

 

Afterwards, the disciples became less irritated at Luo Binghe’s presence. In fact, Shen Qingqiu would catch sight of some of them inviting him to spend time together, having now forged their bond through suffering. More than once did he get caught sneaking out of curfew, carrying in jugs of alcohol.

 

“What is this?” he asked, snapping his fan with a crack. 

 

Luo Binghe quickly got down on his knees. “Shen-shifu...you said I should spend more time with my shixiongs…”

 

“Did I say to disobey the rules of the Peak?”

 

Luo Binghe lowered his head to the ground. “I am sorry, shifu! This disciple deserves to be punished.”

 

Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow. “It can hardly be said to be a punishment when you enjoy it.” 

 

The tips of Luo Binghe’s ears were burning red. He couldn’t even deny it. 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed. He’d already had Luo Binghe whipped twice in the past week. It was starting to lose its appeal.

 

“It helps my control,” Luo Binghe blurted out. “I - the pain clears my mind.”

 

His interest was piqued. “Is that so?”

 

The boy nodded.

 

“Then,” Shen Qingqiu said, with the gears in his head starting to turn, “this perhaps it is time for you to have a more specialized training moving forward.”

 

Luo Binghe raised his head. He looked up at Shen Qingqiu with wide, hopeful eyes. 

 

Shen Qingqiu had the senior disciples prepare the arrangements. “Of course, it would increase the other disciples’ ire if you were having private lessons with me,” he reminded the boy with a serene tone. “That wouldn’t be good, you’ve only started to become friendly with them so recently.”

 

Luo Binghe gulped, and then nodded.

 

It was fairly easy to let the rumor that Luo Binghe was in need of rigorous discipline after such flagrant misconduct. The rest of the Peak all shook their heads at this guest disciple. Their shizun would not be lenient!

 

“Painful?” Shen Qingqiu asked idly, as he stirred his cup of tea.

 

Luo Binghe only shook his head, though his face was red with exertion. He’d been strung up for three hours now, straining against the weight. Shen Qingqiu was curious to see how much his little demon body could take. “N-no, shifu,” he panted. “I can take it.”

 

“Good,” he said. He supposed he could go do other things, but this was almost as peaceful as meditation. He remained on his seat. “Let me know once your body is numb.”

 

He kept Luo Binghe tied up for six hours. They did this every other day, the senior disciples coming in to beat him in turns. Ming Fan stared at the boy and shook his head. He no longer felt any jealousy towards him. Clearly, shizun had lost all of his favor towards Luo Binghe.

 

The boy in question suffered rope burns and skin lacerations, which healed quicker than Shen Qingqiu would like. 

 

“Does Luo Binghe react differently to temperatures?” he asked one day, when it was only them in the woodshed. 

 

Luo Binghe’s mouth opened and closed for several moments like a useless flap. Eventually, he settled on, “This disciple has not noticed.”

 

“Oh?” Shen Qingqiu smiled. “Will you let this master try?”

 

To his amusement, Luo Binghe nodded. Shen Qingqiu took his steaming cup of tea and upended it over his face. The boy only flinched, the skin on his cheeks growing a splotchy red of a minor burn.

 

“Fascinating,” he said. That was made with newly boiled water.

 

The boy only gritted his teeth, eyes scrunched up in pain. 

 

Another day, he had him submerged in a tub of ice, pushing his shoulders down with his own hands before Luo Binghe finally began spluttering underwater. His lips were blue.

 

Shen Qingqiu handed him a towel. “Is it too much?” he asked, with mock concern. “This master will understand if this is Luo Binghe’s limit.”

 

“This disciple can take it!” Luo Binghe insisted. 

 

Shen Qingqiu only smirked to himself. Truly, Luo Binghe was a glutton for punishment. 

 

He had all the laborious chores put under Luo Binghe’s care. The junior disciples were instructed as one to strike at Luo Binghe in turns, forcing him to take multiple hits at once. During missions, Luo Binghe would travel on foot and not by horse. He even had him carry all the packs one time. It took him half an hour to catch up to them in the city.

 

“Shizun, this…” Ning Yingying hesitated, looking worried.

 

“Yingying must not worry,” Shen Qingqiu reassured her, fanning himself. “This is only part of Binghe’s training.”

 

His disciple’s eyes grew wide.

 

“But you must not tell the others,” he added quickly. “This master wouldn’t want to be accused of favoritism.”

 

Ning Yingying shuddered. If this was how shizun treated his favorites, she certainly wouldn’t want it. 

 

But...A-Luo did seem to be enjoying shizun’s attention…

 

Indeed, Luo Binghe had not a word of complaint throughout the months of Shen Qingqiu’s ‘training’ Finally, to Shen Qingqiu’s delight, the boy collapsed one evening after one hundred laps. He’d been tied up just an hour ago, and his limbs were surely sore.  

 

Shen Qingqiu ordered Ming Fan to carry him to the bamboo house.

 

The boy made no sound throughout, blissfully unconscious. Shen Qingqiu loosened his robes, surveying the boy’s body. Most of the bruises on his back were still purpling and fresh. Carefully, he picked up the medicine and slathered it over the stretch of his skin.

 

Luo Binghe came to several minutes later, head turned. “Shifu…?” His eyes grew wide, and he quickly jolted out of bed. “Shen-shifu! This disciple, he - ”

 

Shen Qingqiu only clucked his tongue. “Luo Binghe should also take care of himself,” he said, hands running over his shoulder blades. Luo Binghe shivered at the coldness of the cream. “It would not be good if people thought he was being mistreated in Qing Jing Peak.”

 

Luo Binghe’s face flushed red. “They just don’t understand,” he said quickly. “That Shen-shifu is doing me this favor...this disciple is truly honored to be under his care.”

 

Such a sweet, stupid child. Shen Qingqiu chuckled to himself as he smoothed over the boy’s dirty face. 

 

“Take a bath, Binghe,” he said indulgently. “We will ease your training for a few days.”

 

He supposed he could reward such exemplary behavior. Two days after, when Luo Binghe had lost his limp, he brought the boy over to the bamboo forests to train. By now, most of the other disciples assumed it was another punishment, and stayed out of their way. Shen Qingqiu preferred it that way. Luo Binghe still had difficulty controlling his demonic qi; it was only by masking it with his own that they could go undetected. 

 

It was better to refine such raw power. 

 

He demonstrated his control with the leaves. Luo Binghe watched with awe as Shen Qingqiu manipulated hundreds of them with his qi.

 

“This requires concentration and intent,” he said. Luo Binghe’s power was too wild; the leaves would descend in droves, falling too fast to become razor sharp. 

 

Luo Binghe nodded with determination. The boy was quick to learn, Shen Qingqiu had to grudgingly admit. What would take months for another cultivator to study from a manual, he absorbed in weeks. 

 

It was a pleasure to see Luo Binghe try and fail. Over a month later, he still struggled to replicate the move. Shen Qingqiu twisted his wrist in a distinct motion. “Do better,” he said instead. The leaves cut through Luo Binghe’s skin, raising welts. The boy didn’t even flinch as one cut his cheek.

 

Luo Binghe still struggled with control. Pain clearly was not a good enough motivator. Idly Shen Qingqiu wondered if he should do something as barbaric as what they did in Bai Zhan, attacking Luo Binghe head-on. That would surely leave Luo Binghe with more bruises than usual.

 

He was still amusing himself thinking of new ideas for torture when from the corner of his eye he saw Luo Binghe take a deep breath and mimic his wrist movement one more time. The leaves would usually rebound on him, but this time the backlash did not come. Instead, they went straight to the tree trunk he’d been aiming at for weeks.

 

Luo Binghe’s mouth fell open. “I...did it?”

 

Ahh. Shen Qingqiu snapped his fan shut.

 

“The lesson is over,” he said abruptly, and walked away from the clearing.  

 

It had taken a greater part of three years for Shen Qingqiu to perfect that trick as a disciple. He’d been proud of it, had pulled it out only at the Immortal Alliance Conference, to the delight of his shizun. It was never good enough to stand against Liu Qingge’s bare strength, but it had helped him stand against the onslaught of his attacks.

 

That Luo Binghe should be able to perform it in less than two months’ time left a sour taste in Shen Qingqiu’s mouth. That brat - !

 

He took a deep breath. Luo Binghe was a half-demon, he reminded himself, though it no longer held the same comfort. Of course he would be able to master it so easily. Things must come so naturally to him, with his boundless qi and demonic cultivation. 

 

Luo Binghe chased after him, his footfalls loud against the forest ground.

 

“This disciple has displeased Shen-shifu,” Luo Binghe said anxiously. 

 

Shen Qingqiu only gazed back at him, expression cold. Luo Binghe’s face twisted in panic. “Has this disciple done something -”

 

“Silence.” Shen Qingqiu cut him off. Luo Binghe lowered his head immediately. Shen Qingqiu looked down at him hatefully. 

 

“Luo Binghe’s improvement is evident. Perhaps he would be better off in another peak,” Shen Qingqiu said finally. “This master has nothing else to teach him.”

 

Immediately Luo Binghe was crestfallen. “Shen-shifu,” he said, getting down on his knees. “This disciple is unworthy of your teachings. Please allow this disciple another chance to prove himself.”

 

Fat chance. As of now, Shen Qingqiu no longer wanted anything to do with the boy. He’d gladly let another Peak Lord take him off his hands. Demon or not, Luo Binghe was uncommonly talented. Truly he was meant for greater things. His improving cultivation felt like a slap on Shen Qingqiu’s face.  

 

People like that never had any use for Shen Qingqiu except as a stepping stone. He would be left forgotten in their quest for greatness, while Shen Qingqiu had to crawl on his knees just to even reach the foot of success. 

 

He drew his fan and turned his head away. “Luo Binghe has no obligations to this master,” he said. “And he would certainly benefit from a different perspective. If Luo Binghe were willing, the other Peak Lords would gladly welcome him as their disciple.”

 

The boy’s eyes were downturned. Good, Shen Qingqiu thought viciously. May you experience defeat for once in your charmed life. “If Shen-shifu believes it to be so,” he says finally.

 

Shen Qingqiu only made a disgruntled sound. “We will speak to Zhangmen-shixiong on the matter immediately,” he said. “Come.”

 

They had only arrived at the foot of Qiong Ding Peak when the gongs were struck, the sound echoing throughout the mountains.

 

A demonic invasion? Shen Qingqiu’s eyes widened. A glance at Luo Binghe confirmed he didn’t know either. The boy was hot on his heels as he hastened his pace for the main hall. 

 

It was fortunate they happened to be in the area; the link to the Rainbow Bridge was severed in half an incense’s time upon their arrival. Shen Qingqiu pursed his lips. They were trapped. Clearly the demons had planned this attack well.

 

The disciples were in distress. “What do we do? Zhangmen-shixiong has just gone down from the mountain!” 

 

Shen Qingqiu strode in, sleeves fluttering. The disciples looked up, their faces clearing. “It’s Shen-shibo!” 

 

“Control yourselves,” he said. “Why show such blatant weakness in front of demons? We are cultivators of Cang Qiong Mountain.” 

 

They nodded, looking awed. Beside him, Luo Binghe shifted anxiously, mouth pursed. 

 

Shen Qingqiu looked around. “Who else has come?” The distress call could be heard throughout the Twelve Peaks; surely the others were on their way.

 

“Liu-shibo is still in seclusion at the Lingxi Caves,” they said anxiously. “And only Qing Jing Peak and Xian Shu Peak were able to arrive before the link to the Rainbow Bridge was severed.” 

 

They were the closest peaks, so it made sense. Shen Qingqiu drew himself up. “Evacuate the wounded and the junior disciples,” he said. “The others, come follow me.” 

 

They walked up the steps, swords drawn. The disciples were nervous; most of them were young, and had not faced demons before. Shen Qingqiu sneered inwardly. Yue Qingyuan could do better to train his disciples not to quake in the face of death. 

 

Luo Binghe stopped in his tracks as the oppressive demonic energy spilled out from the entrance of the main hall. His eyes narrowed in recognition.

 

“It’s Sha Hualing,” Luo Binghe murmurs.

 

Shen Qingqiu could now see a young female demon standing in front of the steps, an army right behind her. “You know her?”

 

Luo Binghe’s mouth is flat. “She’s a Demoness Saint,” he says. “The Eastern territories have been rebelling against my father recently. She must not know I’m here.”

 

Shen Qingqiu glanced at him. “Does she know your face?”

 

Luo Binghe startled. “I - no, I don’t think so,” he said hesitantly. “Why do you ask, shifu?”

 

Shen Qingqiu smirked. “Luo Binghe. Show me exactly how much you’ve improved.”

 

The boy stared at him, face pale. “Shen-shifu - you don’t mean - ” 

 

“What are you here for?” Shen Qingqiu asked, cutting him off. “Are you only learning our secrets to trade it with the rest of the demon realm?” He touched the hilt of Xiu Ya, a deliberate enough motion that Luo Binghe’s face went bloodless. 

 

“No!” Luo Binghe’s cry was anguished. “This disciple would never harbor such thoughts. I,” he clenched his fists, “My goal is to see both realms united and understanding one another.”

 

“Is that so.” Shen Qingqiu nodded, and drew his fan. “Then prove it.”

 

Luo Binghe had no choice but to step forward.

 

Sha Hualing’s gaze turned as she caught sight of him. Her eyes narrowed.

 

“You are trespassing Cang Qiong Mountain,” Luo Binghe said coldly. “I must ask you to leave.”

 

She sneered. “And who are you to challenge me?” She looked confident, assured that her attack would be successful. Shen Qingqiu withdrew into the crowd. The other disciples looked at him, confused. They had been expecting the Qing Jing Peak Lord to protect them, and now he had pushed forward one of his disciples instead?

 

Shen Qingqiu smiled thinly. “This matter, this master need not be involved,” he reassured them in a low voice. “I have utmost faith in my disciple.”

 

His voice was quiet, but he saw Luo Binghe’s grip on his sword tighten. He must have still heard his words. 

 

“I am a disciple of Qing Jing Peak,” Luo Binghe said. “And I will not ask again. Leave.” His energy swelled around him, crackling from his core. Some of the demons stepped back, surprised at the ferocity of his power.

 

Sha Hualing only smiled. “Elder Hammer, Elder One Arm,” she crooned. “This young disciple is being very rude. Perhaps you ought to teach him a lesson?”

 

Two larger demons stepped forward.

 

But Luo Binghe was used to being beaten down by groups. He manuevred with ease, wielding his sword gracefully at each turn. Shen Qingqiu was pleased to see him using Qing Jing Peak’s moves. The other disciples also stared, slack-jawed.

 

“Who is that?”

 

“That’s the guest disciple…”

 

“What was his name? Luo Binghe?”

 

“He’s so skilled already! Hasn’t it only been a few months?”

 

He could see the demon girl’s face go from arrogant to furious in a span of minutes. “He’s just a human boy!” she shouted with rage, stamping her foot. “Destroy him, now!” 

 

The two moved to obey. Luo Binghe found himself cornered, a large hammer and a large knife bearing down on him at both sides. It would be impossible to avoid. Shen Qingqiu leaned close.

 

The ground shook with the force of a sudden explosion. The disciples stumbled, losing their footing. “What was that?”

 

It was almost better than Shen Qingqiu had ever engineered. That power blast was not anything a human cultivator could be possible of. All around, the disciples murmured and wondered. Shen Qingqiu only smiled with glee. 

 

When the smoke had dissipated, there was a glowing mark clearly visible on Luo Binghe’s forehead.

 

Sha Hualing gasped. “Who are you?” she demanded.

 

“Leave,” Luo Binghe thundered. Demonic qi surged from his body.

 

The girl hesitated, but the two Elders behind her did not like being ordered around by a brat. Demon or no, they stood their ground, despite the clear injuries they sustained.

 

“That’s Tianlang-Jun’s brat,” one of them said. “If we kill him here, we will finally succeed in the rebellion!”

 

Sha Hualing’s eyes glittered. “The demon emperor’s son, you say?” She leered at Luo Binghe. “A better prize than Cang Qiong Mountain, indeed. Capture him!”

 

The two demons surged forward. They were sent toppling over to the edge before they could even touch a hair on Luo Binghe’s head.

 

Zhangmen-shixiong had arrived. 

 

Immediately the demon girl knew she had lost. “Retreat!” she yelled immediately, turning tail to run. Instantly her demon forces converged around her, even as Yue Qingyuan’s qi chased after them, destroying them one by one. 

 

Once they were out of sight, Yue Qingyuan turned around to address the crowd.

 

“Zhangmen-shibo,” Luo Binghe said, bowing immediately.

 

“Luo Binghe,” he said, expression full of concern. “Are you all right?”

 

“I - “ The boy glanced around him. The faces of the disciples were priceless. No wonder he’d been able to go toe-to-toe with those demons! His strength was monstrous because he was a monster.

 

“Shizun…” one of the disciples said uncertainly. “Luo Binghe, he…”

 

Yue Qingyuan’s face was pale and shuttered. “Luo Binghe has done well,” he said. “To stand against those who seek harm against our Sect.”

 

It was true. The others shifted uneasily. “But, shizun…”

 

Yue Qingyuan stood firm. “You may disperse. Kindly bring the injured to Qian Cao Peak.” 

 

For a moment nobody moved. Then, another demonic portal unfurled before them. 

 

“More demons!” Someone cried out. Yue Qingyuan tensed. Beside him, Luo Binghe looked miserable. Shen Qingqiu stepped forward, one hand on Xiu Ya’s hilt. Really, there was no end to today’s amusements.

 

A woman stepped out of the dark writhing mass. 

 

Ah. The famous Su Xiyan. She looked like a female version of her son; no one could deny their similarities now that they stood side by side. There were gasps all around. Even though they were of a younger generation, Su Xiyan had been immortalized in both face and name, having been lost so tragically young. People could recognize her even from afar.

 

Yue Qingyuan stepped forward, and the noise died out immediately. “Madame Su,” he greeted politely. “It is a pleasure to welcome you here to Cang Qiong Mountain.”

 

Su Xiyan’s mouth curved into a smile, but her eyes remained cold. She bowed. “I am honored to be welcomed in your presence, Zhangmen-shixiong, and your Sect.” She gestured to Luo Binghe. “And I thank you for taking care of my son.”

 

The buzzing started up again, more furious than ever. Luo Binghe held his head up high, but Shen Qingqiu could detect the slightest of shaking in his fists.

 

Yue Qingyuan drew his hand. “Please,” he said. “Come join me.” He gestured to the dais before the hall, and they stepped aside to speak privately, Luo Binghe trailing after them.

 

The rest of the cultivators began to scatter, now that the spectacle was over. They were all still whispering, glancing now and then to where Yue Qingyuan and Su Xiyan were speaking. Shen Qingqiu scoffed, and gestured at his head disciple to call everyone to return to the Peak. Ming Fan snapped to obey, though his eyes were still glued to Luo Binghe in shock. 

 

The boy stood close to his mother, eyes bright as he spoke animatedly. The sight annoyed Shen Qingqiu. He turned his head away and walked away, ignoring Yue Qingyuan’s meaningful glance. He could deal with this himself, now that he had arrived.  

 

His disciples had begun to walk to the direction of the Rainbow Bridge. Shen Qingqiu moved to follow them, when he heard someone call out his name. He turned his head to find Su Xiyan heading directly for him.

 

The woman stopped within speaking distance. “Peak Lord Shen. I thank you for taking my son under your care,” she said, with a respectful bow. “He has spoken highly of you.”

 

“Indeed.” Shen Qingqiu only shrugged to hide his disdain. He held no more ill feelings toward Luo Binghe than any other disciple. 

 

She smiled. “I will speak to Yue Qingyuan soon regarding his continued education,” she confided. “In the event that my desires are granted, I would like to request that Binghe may continue under your tutelage.”

 

Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow. “You must have witnessed his display earlier. There is nothing else I can teach that boy.”

 

“On the contrary,” Su Xiyan argued, “you have taught him restraint, and perhaps even guile. Too long my son has been trusting and kind. Those traits will not help him survive in the demon realm.”

 

“Throw him to a pack of wolves,” Shen Qingqiu advised sourly. “He’ll learn much faster that way.”

 

Su Xiyan only smiled again. “You’re a very heartless man, Peak Lord Shen. Perhaps you would do well in the demon realm also.”

 

“Qing Jing Peak does not coddle its disciples,” Shen Qingqiu told her coldly. 

 

“That is so.” She nodded. “I admit I was worried, sending Binghe here. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect is upright and honorable, but its teachings are still different from what I know.” She fell silent. 

 

“I’m sure Huan Hua Palace would have been pleased to raise your progeny,” Shen Qingqiu remarked, and enjoyed the way Su Xiyan’s face reddened. 

 

“This was the right decision,” Su Xiyan said instead. “I am pleased with my son’s progress here.” 

 

“I hope Peak Lord Shen will consider my request.” With those parting words, Su Xiyan walked away, presumably to return to her audience with the Sect Master. Shen Qingqiu watched her go with some mild annoyance. When he turned to leave, he found Luo Binghe hesitating to walk up to him. 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed. This mother-and-son pair was really such a handful. He gave the boy a curt nod. 

 

“Shen-shifu,” Luo Binghe said as he stepped forward. His face was flushed. The demon mark still glowed on his forehead, and his qi was a writhing mass. Shen Qingqiu frowned at him.

 

“Control yourself,” he said. Luo Binghe’s eyes widened, and he made a visible effort to clamp down on his energy.

 

“This disciple apologizes,” he said quickly. “This one had only hoped to prove my worth to shifu, but had misjudged his strength.” 

 

“Luo Binghe,” he said. “Spare this master your excuses.”

 

Luo Binghe instantly closed his mouth, fidgeting.

 

“That display was an embarrassment to Qing Jing Peak,” he said coldly. “Next time, I expect a more graceful result.” He turned and walked away, though he caught the comprehension slowly dawning on Luo Binghe’s face.

 

“Yes, shifu!” 

 

Shen Qingqiu snorted. If Luo Binghe was so eager to be punished, who was Shen Qingqiu to deny him? 

 

--

 

Naturally, the truth of Luo Binghe’s heritage couldn’t be stifled. Disciples whispered it to one another, and the Peak Lords were shocked to learn about it. Liu Qingge, just having emerged from his seclusion, was particularly irritated, and kept sending glares to Shen Qingqiu. 

 

Shen Qingqiu ignored him. He watched as Yue Qingyuan attempted to soothe the other Peak Lords with his vague excuses.

 

Now that the secret was out, Shen Qingqiu had to deal with even more scrutiny. That Luo Binghe had insisted on staying under his tutelage did not go unnoticed.

 

“Perhaps he chose Shen-shixiong because his training is similar to what he has experienced at home,” Shang Qinghua suggested, an undercurrent of nastiness in his tone. Shen Qingqiu only smiled at him. 

 

Let them talk. It was not unlike the rest of the gossip they said about him, anyway. 

 

His other disciples were pleased and awed. Ning Yingying had a great many questions for her dear A-Luo, and the senior ones were now proud to say that they had once gone toe-to-toe with a half-demon and emerged alive. To cross swords now with Luo Binghe was a badge of honor, and Bai Zhan Peak disciples dogged their steps each day.

 

Luo Binghe seemed rather overwhelmed with the attention. Shen Qingqiu had imagined he’d delight in it, until he found him one day perched high on one of the bamboo trees, his disciple robes cleverly camouflaging him with the leaves. 

 

“Shifu!” he said quickly, nearly falling over at seeing Shen Qingqiu peering at him. “I - this disciple was only resting,” he babbled. 

 

Shen Qingqiu waved his fan. “There is no need. Come down from there, Binghe.” Luo Binghe leapt down immediately, knees on the floor. 

 

He had to suppress his laughter. Luo Binghe was amusing, if nothing else. “Qing Jing Peak is very lively nowadays,” he said smoothly. “Luo Binghe is much sought after.”

 

There was a flash of annoyance in Luo Binghe’s face. He was still too young to learn to suppress his emotions.

 

“You must be patient,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Bai Zhan Peak follows an entirely different culture. Perhaps if you joined them, you would understand more.”

 

Luo Binghe was silent. Then, “Does Shen-shifu still wish me to leave Qing Jing Peak?” he said anxiously.

 

“This master only desires what is best for Luo Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu said smoothly. He doesn’t particularly enjoy being beholden to Su Xiyan. And Yue Qingyuan would not ignore a direct request from the boy, if Shen Qingqiu could only plant it in his head. Truly he was a favored child of the heavens.

 

“This disciple believes Shen-shifu to be the most promising master,” Luo Binghe says bravely. “Shen-shifu is cunning and capable.” 

 

Despite himself, Shen Qingqiu’s mouth twitched to a smile. “I fear not many share the same opinion.”

 

“They simply do not appreciate Shen-shifu,” Luo Binghe said, with uncharacteristic insistence. “He is harsh and exacting, but he only has great intentions for his disciples...” he trailed off, turning red.

 

Shen Qingqiu himself had gone speechless. He’d never been in the habit of flattering himself, but to hear his own virtues be loudly defended to his own face was too much. He turned his head away, taking a moment to compose himself. 

 

“Is Binghe truly your name?” he asked after. It was a thought that had niggled in him, ever since Su Xiyan had appeared. Luo Binghe blushed and nodded. 

 

“I took my mother’s name,” Luo Binghe explained. “The demon world - there are titles you assume once you have attained enough power.”

 

“‘Luo’ came about when we needed a front,” Luo Binghe admitted. “My mother said, she gave birth to me by an icy river up in the north.” He sounded wistful. 

 

“Your mother is quite a character,” Shen Qingqiu said next. 

 

Luo Binghe’s eyes lit up. Clearly, he adored his mother. “She is the most powerful woman I know,” he said breathlessly. “Even demons quake in her presence.”

 

To be the darling son of the most powerful demon and a venerated human cultivator. Truly Luo Binghe’s life was charmed. Shen Qingqiu’s mood soured.

 

His feelings for Luo Binghe often ebbed and flowed. Shen Qingqiu still could not discern how he truly felt for the boy on a daily basis. 

 

“Let us return,” he said abruptly. “Come.”

 

They walked back to Qing Jing Peak in relative silence, Luo Binghe close to his heels. 

 

To his surprise, the Bai Zhan Peak Lord was scowling outside his bamboo house, arms folded. 

 

“Liu-shidi,” he said slowly. “What brings you to my Peak?”

 

Liu Qingge looked at him with distaste, before his gaze slid over to Luo Binghe behind him. If anything, his scowl darkened. Shen Qingqiu stepped forward, brandishing his wide sleeve. He should be the one glaring at Liu Qingge, for all of his disciples’ bothersome antics. 

 

“Zhangmen-shixiong has a mission for us,” he said, through gritted teeth.

 

Shen Qingqiu frowned. Missions with Bai Zhan were his least favorite, and Yue Qingyuan had endeavored to lessen them after they’d become Peak Lords. It was only when it couldn’t be avoided that they had to go. “Is that so.”

 

“It’s a mission to the demon realm,” Liu Qingge added.

 

Ah. So that explained it. Shen Qingqiu snapped his fan shut. “I will make my preparations,” he said smoothly. “Is there anything else, Liu-shidi?”

 

Liu Qingge’s eyes were narrowed so much they were practically slits. “The boy goes with us.”

 

Shen Qingqiu glanced behind him. Luo Binghe’s eyes were wide. “I get to go with Shen-shifu?” 

 

“He’s already proven himself capable,” Liu Qingge said sourly. “Hurry up. We leave at sunset.” 

 

Without another word, Liu Qingge left. 

 

“Liu-shishu is very succinct,” Luo Binghe remarked. 

 

Shen Qingqiu shrugged carelessly. Their mutual dislike was well-known amongst the Peaks.  “He is a simple man,” he said. “Luo Binghe, have Ming Fan assist with the preparations.”

 

“Yes, Shen-shifu!”

 

Luo Binghe was clearly excited as he prepared their necessities for the journey. Ming Fan looked torn between being jealous or relieved that he was not included in the mission.

 

“I expect you to take care of the Peak while I am away,” he said loftily. Ming Fan nodded smartly. “We will await your safe return, shizun!” 

 

The rest of his disciples waved as they descended down the steps, wishing them luck and success. Beside him, Luo Binghe practically vibrated with glee even as he carried a heavy pack.

 

Shen Qingqiu’s gaze, however, made him visibly tamp down his cheer. “It is natural to look forward to a mission,” he said lightly.

 

Luo Binghe blushed. “I have not gone on any missions in the demon realm,” he admitted in a low voice. “My parents do not approve of me venturing into other territories without bodyguards.”

 

How fortunate to have protective parents. Given the display with Sha Hualing the other month, there was no doubt many demons who would gladly cut off Luo Binghe’s head if they had the chance.

 

Liu Qingge looked disgruntled when they both arrived at the foot of the mountain. Shen Qingqiu only sneered at him. “Luo Binghe,” he said in a low voice. “You must stay close to me once we are at the Forest of Claws and Fangs.”

 

“Yes, shifu,” Luo Binghe said obediently. 

 

Liu Qingge, he knew, often ventured to the demon realm. His desire to fight was great, and his only goal was to improve his skills. 

 

Privately, Shen Qingqiu only imagined him as a man with a death mission. But Shen Qingqiu would let him do as he wanted. If things went well, Shen Qingqiu would not have to lift a finger more than necessary. 

 

Together the three of them headed to the demon realm, through the nearby boundary at southern territories. They were met by a snake demon, who bowed at their arrival.

 

“Uncle,” Luo Binghe said joyously, waving at the snake. 

 

Shen Qingqiu schooled his distaste at Luo Binghe’s greeting. Truly, demons could get up to all kinds of things.

 

The snake allowed them to ride on his back. He moved at inhuman speeds; faster than they could have on a sword. In what seemed to be a blink of an eye, they arrived at the demon emperor’s palace. The place stretched out in all directions. Shen Qingqiu supposed it was three times the size of Cang Qiong Mountain. Luo Binghe strode in confidently, as servants greeted them left and right.

 

“Welcome home, Your Highness,” they chanted. Luo Binghe smiled and nodded. 

 

Su Xiyan was there to welcome them as they stepped inside the palace halls. 

 

“Unfortunately, my husband is not home,” she said. “He would have been delighted to meet Peak Lord Shen and Peak Lord Liu.”

 

Liu Qingge already looked bored with the pleasantries. It fell to Shen Qingqiu to smile and bow. 

 

“Thank you for allowing us into your home,” he said. “This is a step towards mutual cooperation between the realms.”

 

“Indeed.” Su Xiyan nodded. “We are honored to assist Cang Qiong Mountain in their mission to retrieve the Six Petal Vermillion Queen. My son will be there to assist.”

 

“The Forest of Claws and Fangs is dangerous,” Su Xiyan said anxiously. “I will have the general join you.” The snake demon Luo Binghe had called Uncle stepped forward. 

 

Liu Qingge frowned. “No need,” he said. "We can handle it by ourselves."

 

“Peak Lord Liu, I insist,” Su Xiyan said. “He will be able to aid you and provide protection if necessary.”

 

Liu Qingge clearly was unhappy. Shen Qingqiu could understand. This seemed fairly straightforward - to employ the Bai Zhan Peak’s War Lord’s energies on such a simple mission could be misconstrued as an offense.

 

Perhaps Zhangmen-shixiong only wished to demonstrate his Peak’s strength also. Either way, Shen Qingqiu thought, with a hint of irritation, it hardly needed both of them.

 

Luo Binghe seemed unaware of their feelings. He was constantly alert, glancing around their surroundings as they traipsed into the The Forest of Claws and Fangs.

 

The place was aptly named. Every now then, some demonic creature would come wriggling up, baring its sharp appendages. Liu Qingge dealt with all of them accordingly. Shen Qingqiu kept his eyes up, flinging his qi at any airborne would-be attackers. Liu Qingge glared at him suspiciously, but they arrived at their destination without any mishap.

 

“This area…” The snake moved to a stop. “Only those with Heavenly Demon blood can lift the barrier.”

 

Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow, and turned to glance at his little disciple.

 

Luo Binghe stepped forward. He sliced his palm with his sword, and let it drip down on the ground.

 

Perhaps this wasn’t such a simple mission after all.

 

Once they crossed the barrier, the demonic energy amplified. Shen Qingqiu shivered from the weight of it. The sky was a dark red above them, almost ominous.

 

“Where is the Six Petal Vermillion Queen?” Liu Qingge asked.

 

The snake demon pointed. “It grows in the patch by the clearing.” A few more steps and the they found hundreds of flowers blooming from the earth.

 

Shen Qingqiu hurried his steps. The faster they retrieved this, the better. 

 

The flower in itself was innocuous - the petals were a deep blood-red, with golden leaves furled around it. But it was a rare blossom that only grew in the demon realm. Dried properly, they could be used to create a truly powerful cultivation pill. Its distinct color helped Shen Qingqiu pluck it from the rest.

 

Shen Qingqiu kneeled on the ground, opening his qiankun pouch, when he felt the ground tremble. 

 

The snake demon sucked in a worried breath.

 

Instinctively Shen Qingqiu knew something was wrong. 

 

He leapt up instantly, pulling Luo Binghe to his sword. “Keep still,” he ordered.

 

The ground split open, miasma spilling forth. Shen Qingqiu lifted his sleeve up to his mouth, disgusted by the stench. 

 

A gigantic insect-like beast came bursting from the ground, hundreds of legs crawling up. On its head were a dozen tusks. Shen Qingqiu had only read of the Thousand Legged Boar Worms in books. They were dangerous predators in the demon realm.

 

“They should still be hibernating,” the snake demon murmured. “How can this be…”

 

Liu Qingge was already swinging for an attack, hacking it into pieces immediately. Shen Qingqiu moved Xiu Ya to rise higher out of reach. One monster was already dead, but three more crawled out of the ground at terrifying speeds.

 

“Get out of here!” Liu Qingge yelled. The monsters were hissing angrily, filling the air with their furious chattering noises.

 

Shen Qingqiu didn’t need telling twice. “Hold on,” he said to Luo Binghe, and maneuvered his sword out of the way. The demon worms didn’t seem inclined to let them escape. They jumped high into the air, their spindly legs stretching out to grab. 

 

One of the legs twisted around the boy’s ankle, pulling him down. Shen Qingqiu cursed, and bent down to grab his sword.

 

Luo Binghe’s face was pale with fright, but Shen Qingqiu caught him before the demon’s legs could fully wrap around him. He slashed at them, cutting off half a dozen legs in the process. The worms opened their mouth to an inhuman scream. Shen Qingqiu frowned in distaste, making one final jab to behead it before landing on the ground. 

 

“Shifu!” 

 

“I told you to hold on,” he chastised. Luo Binghe clutched at his sleeve tightly, looking apologetic. 

 

The snake demon was channeling his energy. The rift on the ground began to close, but there were still half a dozen Boar Worms still wriggling around. 

 

“Your Highness must leave this part of the forest immediately,” he said to Luo Binghe, moving to step in front of him. Liu Qingge was still charging forward. 

 

Shen Qingqiu nodded. “Stay behind me,” he said, and he cut open a path as they headed back where they came. The snake demon was bringing up the rear, so Shen Qingqiu was left to focus on breaking through an opening.

 

He scowled at the severed legs splattering in front of him. These were annoying mindless creatures. Luo Binghe was also striking each time they came too near, but Shen Qingqiu wasn’t planning to let him out of his sight. If the precious little demon prince got injured, it would be on Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s head.

 

They were already close to the entrance when the ground split in front of them, forcing Shen Qingqiu to push Luo Binghe out of harm’s way. Another Thousand Legged Boar Warm crawled up, this time larger than the last. The worm’s head slammed right into him, too fast to avoid. Shen Qingqiu deflected the attack, wincing.

 

“Shifu!” “Peak Lord Shen!”

 

The left side of his abdomen had been pierced. Blood dripped onto his robes. The pain brought him down to his knees.

 

Liu Qingge was already in front of him. “Fall back,” he hissed. 

 

“I’m fine,” Shen Qingqiu said. His shidi’s face was ominous. “Shen Qingqiu, stop being stubborn for once in your life!”

 

Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth to retort, but a stab of pain coursed through his veins, making him stagger. Liu Qingge grabbed him by the shoulder.

 

“Shifu!” 

 

“Get him out of here,” Liu Qingge ordered Luo Binghe. The boy hurried to comply, gathering Shen Qingqiu in his arms. His hands were pitifully small as they wrapped around Shen Qingqiu’s forearm. 

 

The snake demon had moved forward, shielding them from any further attacks. “Your Highness,” he said solemnly. “You must try.”

 

Luo Binghe bit his lip and nodded. “Shen-shifu, hold on to me,” he said softly. He took a deep breath and raised his hands. A swirling black vortex began to materialize in front of them, growing from a small ball until it encompassed both of them in height.

 

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes widened. A portal? Luo Binghe had powers like this? He glanced at the boy; the mark on his forehead glowed red as he clenched his outstretched fists.

 

The darkness swallowed them. Shen Qingqiu felt dizzy; the only thing that kept him tethered was Luo Binghe’s touch. The image before him was hazy, before slowly solidifying into the dark walls of the demon palace. 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s body hit the cold floor.  

 

“Mother!” Luo Binghe yelled. He’d also collapsed on the floor. Whatever he’d done clearly drained him of all his energy.

 

Su Xiyan came running from another room. Her jaw dropped open at the sight of her son. “Binghe!” 

 

“I’m fine,” Luo Binghe said, panting. “Please, look over Shen-shifu!”

 

His mother turned to Shen Qingqiu, eyes going wide at the severity of his wound. She stood up immediately. “Have him brought to the healers,” she ordered to the attendants. Several demons arrived, lifting Shen Qingqiu up and bringing him to a different wing of the palace.

 

Shen Qingqiu controlled his breathing as the healers examined him. Su Xiyan arrived presently, with her son in tow. Luo Binghe still looked pale, but at least he was standing upright again. Meanwhile, all Shen Qingqiu could feel was a consistent stabbing pain. He doubted he could get up on his own two feet, though he wasn’t interested in letting anyone see him stumble. 

 

The demon healer had a grave expression as she lowered Shen Qingqiu’s wrist. Carefully she stepped back and whispered something into Su Xiyan’s ear.

 

The woman looked stricken at the news. “Peak Lord Shen…” her voice trembled. “Those tusks that have pierced you...it is the Poison With No Cure.” At that, Luo Binghe’s face grew even paler. 

 

That certainly didn’t sound good. 

 

Luo Binghe hung his head. “Shen-shifu saved my life,” he said quietly. 

 

“Don’t be stupid,” Shen Qingqiu told him. “You wouldn’t have died.”

 

Luo Binghe only looked anguished. “It is my fault that shifu has been poisoned.”

 

Shen Qingqiu snorted. “This mission would have been my duty regardless as a Peak Lord. You think so highly of yourself, Luo Binghe.”

 

The boy clenched his fists and said nothing else. 

 

“This master requires rest,” he said, turning his face away. “You may leave.”

 

Su Xiyan had their healers look over him. “We will do our best to drain the poison,” she said anxiously. For several hours Shen Qingqiu laid there, being pawed by demons who all had increasingly grave expressions.

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed and closed his eyes, feeling irritable. Clearly they were aware exactly the extent of the damage, but were too afraid to say so out loud. He stayed there, trying to even out his breathing, even as his qi pulsed and spiked in worrying ways. It had a similar feeling to a low-grade qi deviation, persistent like a headache.

 

Liu Qingge seemed to have arrived. Shen Qingqiu knew the sound of his footsteps even from a li away.  

 

“How is he?” 

 

There was a moment of silence. He heard one of the healers scurry away. Presently, another person joined them in the medical bay.

 

“Peak Lord Liu.”

 

“Enough with the pleasantries.” Liu Qingge was always so impatient. “Tell me his condition.“

 

There was a sigh. “There is no cure for the poison,” he heard Su Xiyan’s soft tones to Liu Qingge. Shen Qingqiu kept his eyes closed but discreetly shuffled closer to listen. “However, there can be remedies to balance out his qi, to keep him stable. He can live as comfortably as possible.”

 

He could imagine the snap of Liu Qingge’s jaw. He never did well with failure. Shen Qingqiu, on the other hand, had tasted it enough times to know how to circumvent it. Poison running through his veins was just the next thing in his long streak of hardship. Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t let such a little thing like that kill him.

 

“We will return to our Peak,” Liu Qingge said gruffly. 

 

“I apologize for this, Peak Lord Liu,” Su Xiyan said. “I will join you in your journey. I will explain to Sect Leader Yue personally.”

 

He heard them leave. Shen Qingqiu sighed, stretching a little, before attempting to sit up. His body protested at the movement, making him wince. 

 

The poison was clearly running its course. The effects were muted, likely thanks to the medicine administered to him earlier, but he could feel it tainting his energy. Shen Qingqiu clicked his tongue in distaste, annoyed at himself for his own miscalculations. 

 

He laid back down, closing his eyes and breathing in deep to soothe his irritation. It always seemed no matter what, he was doomed to encounter setbacks in his cultivation. 

 

Perhaps he would seek to cultivate in seclusion at the Lingxi Caves after this. With his next step in mind, Shen Qingqiu eased his concerns, letting his consciousness drift.

 

Some time later, a prickling sensation brought him back sharply. Shen Qingqiu hissed as he opened his eyes. The anaesthesia must have worn off.

 

“Awake?” Liu Qingge demanded. Shen Qingqiu only drew himself up. In the light, Liu Qingge’s face was drawn. He scowled as Shen Qingqiu shifted his legs off the bed and to the floor.

 

“Really, Liu-shidi,” he said patronizingly. “You are being very rude. Aren’t you aware that I’m injured? You could improve your bedside manner.”

 

Liu Qingge only folded his arms and turned his head away. “We’re leaving,” he said. “As soon as you’re able.”

 

Shen Qingqiu contemplated making him wait a little longer, but he’d already had his nap. He nodded and stood up, carefully smoothing over his crumpled robes.

 

His qi was circulating poorly, as expected. Reluctantly he rode back on Liu Qingge’s sword to Cang Qiong Mountain. Luo Binghe had wanted to come with them, but his mother strictly forbade it.

 

“You must recover also, Binghe,” she said to him softly, brushing away his hair. “I will return soon.” 

 

Luo Binghe turned his eyes to Shen Qingqiu, another apology clear in his expression. Shen Qingqiu had no time for it, and only turned his head. He had no need for dramatics. 

 

The journey back to Cang Qiong Mountain was quiet, in sharp contrast to their arrival. Mu Qingfang looked concerned as Liu Qingge hauled Shen Qingqiu in. Shen Qingqiu glared at his shidi, but submitted to his examination regardless.

 

Su Xiyan repeated her findings, glancing at Shen Qingqiu with deep regret. Mu Qingfang took it as well as he expected. His forehead was deeply furrowed as he examined his meridians.

 

Yue Qingyuan arrived midway her explanation, looking pale. “Qingqiu-shidi,” he said, and he had the audacity to reach out for his hand. Shen Qingqiu nearly snatched it away, incensed at the display. Yue Qingyuan could be so careless. “Are you in pain?”

 

“It’s nothing more than I’ve endured before,” he snapped. “Get a hold of yourself, Yue-shixiong.” Yue Qingyuan only looked wretched. He turned to Su Xiyan.

 

“I take full responsibility,” Su Xiyan said. “Peak Lord Shen was in our domain, and he put his life in danger for my son. Sect Master Yue, I deeply apologize for this.” She actually got down on her knees to kneel, to Shen Qingqiu’s amazement. 

 

“Madame Su,” Yue Qingyuan said beseechingly, shaking his head. “Please...there is no need.” He looked at Shen Qingqiu again, his expression full of regret. “It is this master’s negligence. I should have not - ”

 

“Not what?” Shen Qingqiu said icily. If Yue Qingyuan said something stupid like Shen Qingqiu was not meant to join the mission, he would stab him with Xiu Ya right then and there, audience bedamned.

 

Yue Qingyuan only hung his head. “This master knew the dangers. It should have been my responsibility to retrieve Six Petaled Vermillion Queen,” he said. “Qingqiu-shidi should not have been grievously injured if not for this.”

 

He snorted. “The Sect Master overreaches. Your fellow Peak Lords are here to support Cang Qiong Mountain. Surely you do not intend to do everything yourself.”

 

“It is my fault,” Mu Qingfang said, in the same self-denying tone as Yue Qingyuan’s. “This one is not skilled enough to cure Shen-shixiong.”

 

“Must you all fuss so?” Shen Qingqiu demanded. “I’m not dying, clearly.”

 

Yue Qingyuan still looked upset. 

 

“I was with him. He was also my responsibility,” Liu Qingge said gruffly. “Shen Qingqiu was only keeping his disciple safe."

 

“Yes, my shidi failed to protect me,” Shen Qingqiu said sardonically. “You will blame the boy, Zhangmen-shixiong? He is hardly capable of going into such places. It was your oversight in letting him join the mission that led to this.”

 

Liu Qingge’s glare could have killed a man. “Zhangmen-shixiong is not at fault.”

 

Shen Qingqiu ignored him. “We’ve retrieved the Six Petaled Vermillion Queen, a rarity other Sects have never had in their hands. The mission is successful. And while there is no cure to be found, both Madame Su and Mu-shidi have already assured me that there will be remedies to alleviate the poison.”

 

“It will cause irreparable damage to your qi,” Yue Qingyuan began.

 

Shen Qingqiu laughed harshly. His cultivation was already poor enough as it was. What was another thing to plague him? “Zhangmen-shixiong thinks so little of my fortitude.” At this Yue Qingxuan shut his mouth, though Liu Qingge looked highly tempted to continue arguing on his behalf. 

 

“If Qingqiu-shidi insists,” Yue Qingyuan says finally, his mouth drawn in a thin line. “Please stay under Mu-shidi’s care for a little longer.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu watched him go. As always, the joy of victory was bittersweet.

 

A decision was made as he lay recovering in Qian Cao Peak. Luo Binghe, it seemed, would not be returning to Cang Qiong Mountain. Having succeeded in his original goal, Shen Qingqiu could only ponder if the price paid was too much.

 

He wondered if he regretted it. He’d let his guard down and misjudged completely. Still, not only was Luo Binghe out of his hair, he’d also proven Yue Qingyuan’s judgment as faulty. He’d known the boy would bring trouble to their Sect, and if it had to rebound on him personally, then so be it. Yue Qingyuan would not be so reckless now in owing debts to women who had no business of holding anything over his head.

 

Su Xiyan herself came to Cang Qiong Mountain to reassure him of their support. “We will not rest until we find a cure for your condition, Peak Lord Shen,” she said, determination set in her jaw. “I will not forget your kindness to my son.”

 

Shen Qingqiu only smiled thinly. There was no kindness in his heart for Luo Binghe, but if people were to assume so, then let it be so. It wasn’t a hardship to have the family be indebted to him - she was married to a Heavenly Demon Lord, and Luo Binghe would one day rise to the heavens with his power. Shen Qingqiu would have remained only some forgotten master as he became stronger, but to save his life was a completely different thing. Shen Qingqiu comforted himself with that fact.

 

The poison running through his veins was not as malignant as he expected. Mu Qingfang’s concoctions worked remarkably well, and as long as Shen Qingqiu did not use his qi wastefully, he could retain his energy at the same level to accomplish his usual tasks. Yue Qingyuan helped him clear his meridians, and this was done in silent, monthly intervals. The Sect Master attempted conversation, but Shen Qingqiu ignored him at every turn. 

 

An unexpected upside was that he no longer had to join any missions with Bai Zhan Peak. Shen Qingqiu was thankful for that. Time spent with Liu Qingge only made his blood boil. If they had gotten together poorly before, now it was positively awful. Peak Lords avoided being stuck with only the two of them. Liu Qingge seemed to think Shen Qingqiu had intentionally gotten himself poisoned to ruin Yue Qingyuan’s reputation, and Shen Qingqiu was close to skewering him with a sword with each dismissive scowl. 

 

Life at Qing Jing Peak normalized. Ming Fan was even more attentive than before, and even Ning Yingying would cry for her shizun, clinging to him closely. His disciples all looked reverently at him, word having spread that he had risked his life to protect Luo Binghe. “Truly, shizun is kind and loving, unlike the rumors,” they would say, ignoring any other whispers from the other Peaks. So now Shen Qingqiu had the fortune of improving his reputation. It pleased him. He had really maximized Luo Binghe’s usefulness.

 

Shen Qingqiu could admit, he rather missed the boy now that he was gone. With no one to torture, he was left only to deal with his own disciples. He had not chosen any during the last time hopefuls had arrived at the foot of the mountain. Perhaps once the next time came, after the Immortal Alliance Conference, he would do so. Teaching was not his preferred pastime, but a sharp mind that he could mold would be of interest to him. Ning Yingying was too soft, and Ming Fan, while crafty, lacked the exemplary talent. Luo Binghe would have made an interesting successor, if only he had more ambition. Alas, it would not be so; his mother clearly wanted him to inherit his father’s throne, and what was the seat of a Peak Lord to an Emperor of the Demon Realm?

 

In the meantime, he kept himself busy with improving the rest of his disciples. Qing Jing Peak  was now far too engrossed with training for the Immortal Alliance Conference to bother with anything else. Shen Qingqiu oversaw their attempts from afar. None of them struck him particularly. He disliked this. If those disciples from Bai Zhan reached the Conference and his didn’t, he would lose face. So he began to revise their training, intent on driving them to their limits. More than once he saw one of the disciples struggling to hide his tears as he went through the daily exercises. Shen Qingqiu sneered. “Take them off the list,” he told Ming Fan coldly. A disciple like that would not survive the monsters in the Immortal Alliance Conference.

 

The day of the event dawned. Ming Fan had made the preparations; Shen Qingqiu was to travel by carriage, citing his poison. Liu Qingge had snorted as he settled on his horse. Shen Qingqiu ignored him. 

 

Qi Qingqi looked up as he joined her in his seat. “Shen Qingqiu,” she greeted, with her eyebrows raised.

 

“Qi Qingqi,” he returned, with a nod. “This shixiong will be joining you.”

 

She gestured at the seat across him. They settled in silence, as Shen Qingqiu preferred. He was never one for small talk, particularly with his own martial siblings. Qi Qingqi was sharper than most, and Shen Qingqiu supposed if he had to suffer one of his fellow Peak Lords, it would be her. 

 

The journey was as comfortable as it could be. They took a break at midday at the designated camp areas to Jue Di Gorge, where some other smaller sects and rogue cultivators also rested. Shen Qingqiu looked out of the carriage window, intent on judging his disciples one last time. If any of them displayed fatigue as early as now, they would not deserve to participate.

 

As he carefully scrutinized them, he caught sight of a young man speaking to Ning Yingying. His heartbeat quickened. He was dressed in Qing Jing Peak’s robes, but he was not in the roster he’d approved.

 

He opened the carriage door and stepped out, heading directly for them. Ning Yingying had already stepped away, attention distracted by a Xian Shu disciple. The young man bowed as he approached.

 

“What are you doing here?” he blurted out, almost scandalized. It had been more than a year since he’d last seen Luo Binghe. He’d grown somewhat from a child to a more slender youth. 

 

Luo Binghe’s head was still lowered. “Shen-shifu.”

 

Shen Qingqiu raised his fan. “This master will not accept any apologies,” he said sternly. 

 

Luo Binghe only lowered his head more. “Then this disciple will seek for his master’s punishment instead.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed irritably. This boy was clearly a masochist for pain. He would not enjoy inflicting it on someone who wanted it so badly. “You have not answered my question,” he said instead.

 

“Mother said it would be good to test my skills,” he said. “The Immortal Alliance Conference gathers the strongest of cultivators in each generation.”

 

She wasn’t wrong. And yet -  “You do not come here as your own,” he pointed out. Many a rogue cultivator came to the Immortal Alliance Conference seeking to make a name for himself, to distinguish beyond the Four Great Sects.

 

Luo Binghe’s mouth twitched upwards, but he did not smile. “It would give me great pleasure to bring honor to Cang Qiong Mountain,” he said seriously. 

 

Shen Qingqiu raised his eyebrow. “Oh?”

 

“Yes.” He bowed again. “But only if Shen-shifu allows it.”

 

He gestured with one hand. “Do as you like.” If Luo Binghe were already here, that meant Yue Qingyuan had already been informed. He felt irritated at that. 

 

Luo Binghe straightened his back. “This disciple will not fail you,” he said, finally breaking out into a smile.

 

Shen Qingqiu only nodded, and returned to his carriage. They moved out in a matter of minutes. They had only begun to increase their speed when Liu Qingge’s horse came rattling up on Shen Qingqiu’s side, lifting the window’s curtains. “That boy is here,” he said, with a scowl. 

 

“Indeed,” Shen Qingqiu said, sinking into the carriage seat with a smile. “Worried he’ll show up your disciples?”

 

Liu Qingge snorted and rode on.

 

“That Luo Binghe really is quite a character!” Qi Qingqi mused, smiling brightly. “Shen Qingqiu must tell me more about him.”

 

“What does Qi-shimei wish to know?” Shen Qingqiu said indulgently.

 

Her eyes gleamed. “Is he truly as strong as they say he is?”

 

“His parentage gives him many advantages,” Shen Qingqiu replied. 

 

His shimei laughed. “True, but some do not always live to their progenitor’s potential.” She lowered her voice. “Zhangmen-shixiong was very wise in striking up this arrangement, don’t you think? I wouldn’t have thought he had it in him.”

 

“Yue-shixiong is hardly the type,” Shen Qingqiu said tranquilly. He wasn’t interested in defending their Sect Master, but he did understand him better. “I would say Su Xiyan approached him first. It was the most probable choice,” he added. She would not have gone to Huan Hua Palace. She’d left it in the first place, after all. “He’d crossed swords with Tianlang-Jun himself. And if something were to go wrong…” he glanced at the window meaningfully. “Then he can do something about it.”

 

“Shen Qingqiu, you think so meanly of Zhangmen-shixiong!” Qi Qingqi said. Her voice was teasing, but Shen Qingqiu knew it was dangerous waters. He didn’t care. The rest of the Peak Lords knew of his opinions of Yue Qingyuan. 

 

“I know what he is capable of,” was all Shen Qingqiu said, and he tossed his head. The rest of the journey was spent in silence.

 

Regardless of how cruelly Shen Qingqiu had put it, he didn’t utter a single lie. This was how he really felt. Luo Binghe still had the blood of a Heavenly Demon. He was young and malleable now, but he could say what he would become in the future? A man with unlimited power would soon realize that the world was his for the taking. Demons were known to be greedy and power-hungry. If he sought too much power, then, Yue Qingyuan should stand in his way.

 

Privately, Shen Qingqiu thought he’d like to see it. Luo Binghe’s potential might be limitless, but Yue Qingyuan’s strength was beyond anything he’d ever seen. It was a summit Shen Qingqiu would never be able to climb, so at most he would rather witness it for himself. 

 

Of course, nothing much stood in Yue Qingyuan’s way, as the Sect Master of Cang Qiong Mountain. Even Su Xiyan respected him. And Shen Qingqiu, for all his distaste, did not wish to see any true calamity to befall on Yue Qingyuan’s head, if it would endanger the Sect. 

 

They soon arrived at the Jue Di Gorge. There were thousands of young cultivators, all eager to display their prowess. They would be smarter to be careful. This would make or break their reputation in the cultivation world.

 

Luo Binghe’s eyes somehow found him up in the dais. Shen Qingqiu nodded imperiously at him. The boy returned his nod, before heading off inside the venue.

 

Once the Conference was well under way, Shen Qingqiu went to rest inside their Sect’s appointed pavilion, ignoring the rest of those who were gambling on their disciples’ prospects. He was a little annoyed to find Liu Qingge already there, having the same idea.

 

They took up opposite sides of the room, meditating in the quiet. Or at least they tried to. Every now and then some cheer would break out.

 

“You’d think they’d keep it down,” Shen Qingqiu snapped, opening his eyes.

 

Across him, Liu Qingge snorted, but he remained seated nonetheless.

 

Qi Qingqi entered the pavilion a shichen later. “Shen Qingqiu,” she said, her mouth curved to a smile. “You and Liu Qingge never change.”

 

Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes.

 

“No interest in the talents at all? What about your own disciples?”

 

“What’s there to be impressed about?” he sniffed. “It’s only the first day. Those children are likely still frolicking about.“

 

Qi Qingqi laughed. “You may be right.” She settled beside him, taking up a cup of tea. They were unbothered for quite a while, until several masters from Huan Hua came to their pavilion with Yue Qingyuan.

 

Shen Qingqiu raised his fan. Several of the cultivators were praising Liu Mingyan. “It seems your head disciple is doing well, Qi-shimei,” he said lightly.

 

Qi Qingqi glanced at the mirror and smirked. “Yours isn’t doing so bad either. Ah - and your other one, too.” Her eyes gleamed. Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes. 

 

Ming Fan indeed was in the top twenty. But Luo Binghe was inching up the gold-inscribed tablets. 

 

Huan Hua’s head disciple was leading at the beginning, but in a few hours Luo Binghe was soon close to his rank. Shen Qingqiu suppressed a smile. Luo Binghe seemed to have improved more in the months they had not seen each other. 

 

“That boy is very good,” one of the masters said. “He is your disciple, Immortal Lord Shen?”

 

Shen Qingqiu only nodded.

 

“A great talent,” another said.

 

He noticed the Huan Hua Palace Master observing Luo Binghe intently. Shen Qingqiu hid his sneer behind his fan. Likely he noticed the similarity to his former head disciple. 

 

Soon night had fallen. As cultivators, they did not need to eat or sleep, and interesting things happened during the evening of the Conference, so there was even more buzz. Shen Qingqiu remained in his seat, ignoring Yue Qingyuan’s pointed glances. His hovering had only worsened since the poisoning incident.

 

He passed a cursory gaze at the mirrors. Luo Binghe was being trailed after a number of female cultivators. Clearly he was too polite to shake them off. He snorted. He’d have to give him a lesson on that next time. 

 

Suddenly, a larger monster leapt out of the river. 

 

He frowned. Something was wrong. He rose up from his seat to look closer. It was a Nu Yuan Chan - something that was not in the approved list.

 

Luo Binghe was able to slay it, but a quick glance at the other screens showed there were even more deadly demons inside the gorge. Sparklers filled the air as terrified shouts, magnified throughout, came through the mirrors. The one Shen Qingqiu was looking at smashed after a particularly mournful shriek of a demonic bone eagle, turning black.

 

He tensed. Demons? Infiltrating the Immortal Alliance Conference? He turned his head again to the previous screen, where Luo Binghe was now fighting another demonic creature while protecting other cultivators. He couldn’t have known about this.

 

But why would they come now?

 

The masters were all panicking. The Huan Hua Palace Master was ordering for the barrier to be raised, but the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect Master intervened. 

 

“We cannot raise the barrier,” Yue Qingyuan said gravely. “It will be too dangerous for the nearby areas.”

 

“Then…”

 

Liu Qingge snorted. “We go in, of course.” Some of the cultivators paled. Clearly they came here to relax and to enjoy the show, not to be thrown into a sudden battle.

 

Several others stood up. Shen Qingqiu did also. “Yue-shixiong, I will enter the arena,” he announced. Yue Qingyuan looked alarmed. “Qingqiu-shidi, I do not recommend it,” he said immediately. “Your other Peak siblings are at hand.” Liu Qingge had already unsheathed his sword, as well as Qi Qingqi.

 

“Nonsense,” Shen Qingqiu said sharply. “My disciples are there. I dare not stand by and watch them get hurt.” 

 

Yue Qingyuan pursed his mouth. Clearly he longed to stop him, but he could not mention the poison in public. Other Sects were already staring at them.

 

“If Qingqiu-shidi insists,” he said finally. “Liu-shidi, please watch over Qingqiu-shidi.”

 

Shen Qingqiu only glanced at Liu Qingge, who looked annoyed at being made to babysit. Shen Qingqiu shared the same sentiments. Together they headed for the entrance of Jue Di Gorge.  

 

The minute they crossed through the barrier, Shen Qingqiu swerved to the general direction of the river where the Nu Yuan Chan had showed up. Liu Qingge followed suit, hovering beside him. 

 

“You’re looking for that boy,” Liu Qingge said, frowning.

 

“Naturally,” Shen Qingqiu said, with a roll of his eyes. Luo Binghe was usually where the trouble was at, most likely. “Make sure the other disciples are safe. I’ll be fine.”

 

“You - ” Liu Qingge growled. “Zhangmen-shixiong told me to look after you.”

 

“Zhangmen-shixiong is overbearing,” Shen Qingqiu snapped. “Do you believe I am not capable of taking care of myself?”  

 

He ran off to where the demonic energy was strongest.

 

Sure enough, when he arrived, Luo Binghe was in dire straits. He’d seemed to have successfully evacuated the other cultivators, but he was now engaged in combat not with just some demonic creature, but an actual adult demon.

 

His suspicions were right. They had come here for Luo Binghe. 

 

He drew Xiu Ya, jumping directly into the fray and blocking the attack for Luo Binghe. 

 

“Shifu!” Luo Binghe cried. His mark burned brightly on his forehead.

 

“Stay back, Binghe,” he ordered. This was nothing like the mindless monster they’d tangled with at the Forest of Claws and Fangs. No, this demon was fully ascended into his strength. Luo Binghe would not stand a chance. 

 

How truly cruel they were, he mused, as the wind roared around them, leaves cutting into the demon’s skin. They would gladly cut down a child. Surely they knew what a nuisance Luo Binghe was to their aspirations.

 

The demon smiled as his blood trickled down the ground, as if amused by his little trick. His mouth was full of sharp teeth. “Not even a warning? I thought you human cultivators were honorable men.”

 

Shen Qingqiu sneered. There was no honor in battle, and even less so in death. He moved to strike; the demon blocked it with terrifying speed, claws extended. 

 

“Demon scum,” he spat out, and before clenching his fist, gathering spiritual energy and punching it straight into his opponent’s sternum.

 

The demon’s smile dimmed as he went careening in the distance.

 

Years of fighting Liu Qingge had taught Shen Qingqiu how to battle an opponent much stronger than his own. In the end, it came down to dirty tricks and stamina. He hauled Luo Binghe by the arm. “You need to get out of here,” he said. “They came here for you.”

 

He stopped, his breath turning cold. Snow began to blanket their surroundings.

 

An ice demon? Shen Qingqiu tensed.

 

Luo Binghe’s eyes were wide. “He is a pure-blooded demon,” he murmured. “From the Northern Clan. He must be Linguang-Jun!”

 

That was not good. Shen Qingqiu’s grip tightened. “Can you form a portal?” he demanded.

 

“I - ” Luo Binghe took a deep breath. “I can try.”

 

But he’d only managed to draw his qi to a sizable amount when it was interrupted by a dozen ice swords directed towards them. Shen Qingqiu had to draw in from all his qi to set up a defensive barrier, which collapsed under the brunt of the attack.

 

Linguang-Jun materialized in front of them with a sneer. “Did you really think I would let you go that easily?”

 

He spread out his claws. Shen Qingqiu moved to intercept him, pushing Luo Binghe out of the way.

 

“Shifu!” 

 

“Get out of here now,” he growled. “Find Liu Qingge.”

 

Tangling with the demon was more difficult than he’d expected. His strength and speed were a notch above Shen Qingqiu’s own. Even worse, Shen Qingqiu could feel the circulation of his qi stutter each time he used another wave of an attack to counter his opponent’s endless stream of demonic qi.

 

The poison was acting up. Shen Qingqiu winced. Now of all times? He didn’t need it. 

 

“Step aside, human,” the demon said, smiling, as his ice swords rained down on them. “I only came here for the boy.” He clearly seemed assured of his victory. Rage quelled in Shen Qingqiu’s heart.

 

Indeed?” Shen Qingqiu sneered. “Go and try, then.”

 

Amusement glinted in the demon’s eyes. “Oh? Then shall I make him watch as I crush you to death?”

 

“You talk too much,” Shen Qingqiu told him, and finally drew Xiu Ya in his own hands. The demon’s eyes followed the curve of his sword, before pouncing into action. 

 

Shen Qingqiu deflected his attack, fighting the wave of nausea. Even at his peak strength he could hardly do more than defend. And now he was hampered by this blasted poison. He cursed under his breath.

 

“Weak and useless,” the demon sneered, as he tossed him to the side. “Mediocre cultivation.”

 

Shen Qingqiu seethed. Oh, it was personal now.

 

Luo Binghe was stepping forward, his own sword unsheathed. “Shifu - ”

 

“Get out of the way,” Shen Qingqiu snapped. “I’m going to teach this fucking piece of shit a proper lesson.”

 

It was his last chance. Shen Qingqiu drew on all his qi, and charged into relentless attack. He was able to push the demon back several steps. Before the demon could claw at him, Shen Qingqiu flung up a kick at the ground, hurling crushed dust up at his eyes.

 

The demon roared with rage, stumbling back. Shen Qingqiu took the opportunity to stab him in close quarters.

 

Demonic qi rebounded on him, sending him careening.

 

“You dare - ” The demon was bleeding severely now, Shen Qingqiu noted with satisfaction. But it was short-lived. The demon leapt at him, grabbing him by the neck. “You’re going to regret the audacity.” Shen Qingqiu was lifted off the ground, Xiu Ya falling from his grasp. Shen Qingqiu choked, black spots dancing behind his eyes. 

 

“Let him go!” 

 

Suddenly the demon screamed in pain, his grip on Shen Qingqiu going lax. He crumpled to the ground, crawling backwards as he blinked away the pain.

 

Luo Binghe was standing in front of him. His demonic energy swirled around them, almost as potent as Linguang-Jun’s. The temperature of their surroundings seemed to drop several degrees.

 

“Oh?” The demon’s eyes flashed. “You might not be as useless as I thought, brat.”

 

Luo Binghe’s hand was trembling with fury. “I will make you pay for hurting shifu.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu watched with some bitterness as Luo Binghe engaged in battle with the demon. What was this boy doing? He’d told him to run. Even from afar he could see Luo Binghe’s face was twisted in pain. Shen Qingqiu gritted his teeth. Luo Binghe was strong, but he was no match for a fully grown demon. 

 

The sword in his hand broke and scattered into pieces, unable to handle the force of the demonic qi. Still, Luo Binghe continued the battle barehanded, feral and vicious. Neither of them were holding back. If this kept on, Luo Binghe would lose! 

 

Shen Qingqiu tried to stand, but his feet were unsteady on the earth, making him stumble.

 

No - the earth was moving. Shen Qingqiu’s eyes went wide as the ground began to split in front of him. The Endless Abyss? That had not been seen in centuries. He glanced over at Luo Binghe, who was still fiercely battling Linguang-Jun. 

 

This demon would drag him where even his parents could not find him fast enough. Luo Binghe would not stand a chance.

 

He took up Xiu Ya again, and dove straight into the battle, cutting into Luo Binghe’s side.

 

Luo Binghe, upon seeing him, instantly changed tactics, shifting his demonic qi to a barrier instead. “Shifu?”

 

“Luo Binghe, I already told you to get out of here!” He roared at him. “If you have this much strength, use it to escape!” 

 

“But - ” Then Luo Binghe’s eyes went wide. “Shifu, no - !”

 

He tried to push Shen Qingqiu out of the way, but he wasn’t fast enough. An ice sword stabbed Shen Qingqiu straight into the chest.

 

“That’s payback for earlier,” the demon said behind him.

 

Blood pooled up in his mouth. Shen Qingqiu collapsed to his knees. Fucking pure-blooded demons. Shen Qingqiu cursed all of them to hell.

 

His vision swam, and grew black. He heard Luo Binghe shouting his name. This scene felt annoyingly familiar. 

 

The last thing he saw was the two demons plummeting down into the Abyss before losing consciousness.