In all fairness to Shang Qinghua, Peakmaster of the least famous of the Nine Peaks, in his last life as Airplane-Shooting-Towards-the-Sky, he would have noticed time repeating immediately. His entire life had been scheduled around updating his various web novels of dubious quality, and if time had repeated—well, he’d have one day in his life where he wouldn’t be hounded by the relentless reviewers, chief among them the Peerless Cucumber.
Alas, in this life, there was nothing as regular as the upset readers who complained about his writing pace even when he updated at 8 pm on the dot, let alone when he was a few minutes late. Nobody complained incessantly, at all, if you didn’t count Shen Qingqiu, who would stand on the stoop of his hut complaining about dereliction of duty for hours whenever Shang Qinghua was late with his monthly tea and art supply delivery. His life in the past hundred or so years had been regular, due to first cultivating and then being a cultivation master, but it hadn’t been timed in hours. When you could spend years in closed-door cultivation, the minutes didn't matter so much.
The warehouse was dusty and full of cobwebs, which would have been normal. Shang Qinghua wouldn’t have cared if it was, if he hadn’t spent the entire day yesterday sorting through the content to find the one bauble he could regift without causing offense. He had managed to find one, even, which was impressive, as everyone who usually gifted the useless baubles in this warehouse would be present at the Sect Master’s cultivation soiree, and one never knew who of these old bastards took rigorous notes. (Shen Qingqiu, for example, who then liked to remind the gift giver and the receiver where exactly the last exchange took place.)
Yesterday, during his gift finding session, a disciple had managed to topple over a jar full of finest eastern winds, which cleared out all the dust and cobwebs in addition to shattering the five Crystal vases standing slightly behind Shang Qinghua’s current position. He turned his head, and yes, there they were. Five crystalline vases standing there, untouched and beautifully intact.
Shang Qinghua looked away. Maybe it was a mirage. Maybe he was going insane. Maybe Shen Qingqiu had drugged his tea with hallucinogens. Shang Qinghua waited a second for the pink elephant in the room to materialize--and then, when that appeared to become ineffectual, went out of the warehouse in search of some unlucky discipline.
A few hours later, Shang Qinghua had successfully convinced at least himself: The days were repeating. This set up another conundrum for Shang Qinghua, because in his infinite wisdom and with his slapdash writing, he remembered setting up at least three different time travel plots, all involving a variety of Luo Binghe's wives. Therefore, they were mostly solved with papapa.
A second problem had arrived along with the first. Luo Binghe couldn't have been the origin of that time loop. Shang Qinghua was not one of Luo Binghe's wives. Luo Binghe was maybe five years old, and currently still safely at the bosom of his adoptive mother.
If Luo Binghe wasn't the catalyst of the unexpected time loop, then who was? Shang Qinghua tried to think back on who he had met in the past week or so. He hadn't seen many people -- and no strangers, not even hidden behind a cloak or a facemask.
What had he been doing the past few days? When did the time loop start? Had he been eating the exact same meal for the past five years? Briefly, he wondered if time had passed at all since he had come to the Seven Peaks-- but that was more delusional than time loops in the first place. Then, he remembered the peak-wide intake of new disciples and Yue Qingyuan's disappointed face if he should have missed it accidentally, and calmed down. He probably didn't spend more than a week caught in a loop.
"System?" he said to the void. He didn’t get an answer. His system has been quiet for months now, ostensibly updating to adjust for an unexpected logic parameter, not that Shang Qinghua understood anything of its technobabble. As usual, the system was even more of a disappointment than his own memory of the world he had created. The many times he had cursed himself for not remembering where he had put the demon treasuries and jade stone deposits!
A disciple ran past, stopped, and bowed. Su Tang was one of his more promising disciples, and although she was much too pretty for Shang Qinghua's comfort (what if she was one of Luo Binghe's wives that he'd forgotten??), he was reassured to see her. Before she could rush away again, Shang Qinghua called out. "Say, have you seen--" he asked, before he interrupted himself. He would have asked her if she knew what he'd been doing yesterday, but amnesia and weird behavior were the first things disciples were taught to watch out for, in case of an unexpected skinchanger. Shang Qinghua didn't want to risk it. "Nevermind," he shook his head.
There was really no way to find out when exactly he was looping back in time. At least modern-day timepieces could have told him that he was waking up at the same time every day. He could've been greeted by the same melody on his radio clock, or by the same noise of construction. Here, it was day-in, day-out the same pleasant atmosphere of quiet calmness and serenity. It really sucked.
"Shifu," Su Tang said, very respectfully. "If you are asking about the golden haircrown, this disciple wouldn't be bothered. The workmanship of the artefact was exceedingly fine and the matter of its disappearance is particularly strange. This disciple would never touch a gift for the peak lord, but I don't mind asking questions."
'Amnesia!' was Shang Qinghua's first thought. 'The time loops must have induced amnesia!' Then, once he thought a little further, and rummaged on his own writing abilities -- which may be bad, but not that bad, I mean, he got Peerless Cucumber to read his story for the worldbuilding-- and then vaguely remembered a haircrown that dropped on his little toe, only to ignite into starburst when it touched the ground. The bleeding toenail on his pinky toe had healed exceedingly fast, now that he was thinking about it, but he had blamed Mu Qingfang's supernatural healing abilities, which he took pains to describe for three pages.
If only he could remember all his idiosyncratic plot elements as the 48 adjectives he’d used to describe Mu Qingfang’s dexterity with his hands, and his almost clairvoyant ability to prescribe the right medicine, then he wouldn't need so long to think about why he was repeating his days. "No, it can’t be," he mumbled into his non-existent beard he couldn’t stop trying to grow.
Only after Su Tang carefully shifted from one foot to the other did he remember that his disciple was still waiting for his input. He had trouble thinking back to the conversation at hand— golden haircrown?!
"Say, remind me again, where did we get that golden haircrown again? Bring me the inventory list where it was registered, I just want to double-check an idea."
Su Tang saluted, then rushed away.
He remembered only one haircrown in the past week, and curiously enough, it was laying on his bedside table. Maybe he should not admit to that, call it an exquisite trinket, but nothing more sentimental than that, because he was sure it was falsely delivered to An Ding Peak.
The golden haircrown, an heirloom from the demon realm, had been a plot point after all. Shang Qinghua walked forwards into the meditation garden, cultivated with the Five Arts to achieve the best balance to aid learning and concentration. (Shang Qinghua could always use more of that.) It had something to do with Luo Binghe’s ascent as tyrant, and possibly something to do with one of his wives, if only Shang Qinghua had his notes—or even the ability to make a forum post on qidian and have Peerless Cucumber respond with even those details he didn’t make notes on.
Shang Qinghua wandered along the exquisite pathways and gazed at the carved stones and beautiful horticulture and tried to find even one ounce of the inspiration of the sect’s forefathers. Unlike him, they hadn’t been frauds, right? They probably must have known more things than he did.
Unfortunately, the ghosts of his forebears didn’t come down on him to solve all of his problems. Su Tang, however, did come back with the entire inventory book, the one that listed both the recipient and also the origin of all the gifts sent to the Seven Peaks. This was one of Shang Qinghua’s own innovations, as he had gotten tired of buying fancy cultivation trinkets about one year into his foray as a succeeding disciple. Everyone and their horse wanted good gifts from him, and it had just been more efficient to reuse them than to have them gather more dust in his warehouses. Only once Shang Qinghua had accidentally set off a feud-- he had neatly managed to place the blame on Hua Palace, but the fear sat deep.
Since then, he had trained all his underlings in proper logistical management and made them write endless lists on all the goods going in and out of the peak, be they gifts or otherwise. They had almost caught up to his strict standards, and soon Shang Qinghua would have the manager’s privilege of just sitting back and watching his work get carried out automatically. As of right now, it was very easy to find the entry for one golden haircrown.
It had been addressed to Shang Qinghua himself, apparently, and the haircrown was of sufficient splendor to have its own name: Crown of the Northern Desert Sun, which, speaking off, did sound like something Shang Qinghua would name a plot-relevant trinket. But it was the name of the gifter that really brought things home. Mobei Jun, it said, in beautifully round letters.
Shang Qinghua froze. He didn’t drop the heavy inventory on his foot, which should have been celebrated, but he was too busy panicking.
There was no better man he could imagine than Mobei Jun, who had been created to fit all of his aesthetic and personal requirements—he’d been thinking about the old adage that the Main Lead had been created for the love interests, and the second lead for the readers—but really, he’d not written him for anyone but himself.
Mobei Jun was beautiful and tall and cold on the outside, and a bit weird and gooey on the inside, dominating and yet kind enough to deal with some puny nerd—Shang Qinghua knew his type, okay, and he didn’t see the need to accept anything lesser just to compromise.
That had been, of course, back when he thought his creations were just fictional, and would always stay that way. Since then, he had met Mobei Jun twice in person, and both times he had made an absolute fool out of himself. What else would have been expected?
Getting a gift from Mobei Jun in return for behaving like an absolute madman seemed like a miracle. He hadn’t believed it at first, and while investigating it closer for traps he’d managed to drop it. The sharp edge had nicked his foot, and his toe started bleeding—and so he had stopped looking for the other shoe to drop. He had suspected the crown to be cursed, maybe make the wearer more unlucky, and had gone to lick his wounds in peace.
Who knew that this was what the haircrown for the spouse of the Demon Lord would look like! He remembered giggling into his keyboard when he had written the scene where some third party had given it to Luo Binghe who had accidentally bled on it, activating its power.
Shang Qinghua had thought he was adding a bit of clever worldbuilding. He had wanted demon society to seem strange and enticing, and one of his methods for inducing those feelings had been the way that demons would protect their spouses. The famed haircrown of the Mobei Clan would activate itself whenever the prospective spouse was wounded or blood dripped on it—and then, would activate an array to bring Mobei Jun to wherever they were to protect him. This of course only worked if the spouses had been wedded with the traditional demon ceremony. In the case of Luo Binghe bleeding on it, well, the timelines started unraveling. Universes overlapped, chaos reigned, and Luo Binghe got trapped in an endless loop. Only through the help of one of Luo Binghe’s clever wives could they find a solution; the two of them had to do some super brotherly kissing.
Shang Qinghua had taken that out of his published drafts before someone like peerless cucumber could read it, but he had kept it in his heart, mainly because he too, wanted to kiss Mobei Jun, quite desperately.
Oh hell no.
Time would repeat until he kissed Mobei Jun! With tongue! On the mouth!
Why had he ever decided to write a stupid book like Proud Immortal Demon Way!
"Oh my god," Shang Qinghua said out loud, and then plopped down on the ground without care for where he stood. He could not believe Mobei Jun, who was practically his ideal husband, had been trapped in a wife plot by him! Him! The worst top-selling author of that one specific web novel site! If Peerless Cucumber ever heard of this...!
Mobei Jun had been waiting for a while. He’d fallen in love at first sight—an affliction he shared with many of his brethren. He was the only one he knew who had quite so much trouble confessing his love to the chosen spouse. After trying to follow him home to sleep in his bed and being unceremoniously kicked out of the peak with nothing more of a "See you soon!", he had presented Shang Qinghua with the dead body of his most feared creature (the largest spider demon Mobei Jun could have possibly found), and Shang Qinghua still hadn’t realized what exactly he was going for.
And so Mobei Jun had become more elaborate in his affections: He’d brought gifts, made armor. He bought a house, as that seemed important to humans. He unified his palace and cleared out all his relatives. And yet Shang Qinghua continued being oblivious.
But he was Mobei Jun, he couldn’t yet give up on his chosen spouse, even though that spouse was a bit dense about things. Out of the heirloom vault, he took the only object that might lead even someone as dense as Shang Qinghua to the right solution. Then, he carefully wrapped it in silk and packed it in a jade box, to have it personally handed only to the Peak Master of An Ding.
Meanwhile, he sat himself on the ice crystal throne and waited.
He didn’t think he would have to prepare himself for a rejection. Shang Qinghua was clearly so into him. Whenever Mobei Jun extended his presence, Shang Qinghua had kept looking at him. Gazing lustfully, if not drooling outright.
He could not believe none of his wooing was successful.
When Shang Qinghua finally appeared in his throne room, looking rushed and disheveled, Mobei Jun thought he was a mirage. Nobody could look like such a soft, cuddly person in real life. Shang Qinghua had to be a hallucination. He closed his eyes. If he didn’t see him disappear into thin smoke, then he could still imagine having a chance, right? If he could only ever be with his own fantasies, then that fantasy could stay forever, couldn’t it? He pressed his eyes closer together—and then he felt it. Soft lips were pressing on his, a small touch igniting his frozen heart. His eyes went open, wide.
“Shang Qinghua,” he said with a voice that couldn’t hide his longing. “You came.” His hands had moved without him noticing, one pulling him ever closer, the other sliding to his neck, stroking the fine strands of silky hair. The touch grounded him, centered him in reality, and yet Mobei Jun could barely believe his luck. He had tried so hard, unsuccessfully.
And now Shang Qinghua was kissing him back, sliding his tongue in his mouth, dancing, playing together until Mobei Jun forgot all his ails. He even had the crown with him, and yet Mobei Jun could focus on nothing more than his shining brown eyes so very close to his face, and the lips he had dreamed of for so long. He would need more time to admire it later, he decided, before sinking into a second kiss and then a third. At last, he had succeeded tricking him into his lair. Now... how to keep Shang Qinghua there forever?