Cries fill the air as a dark-haired demon breaks through the rank of men with a mighty swipe of his claws. The force of his strikes sends them flying through the air. Grinning savagely, the demon leaps over their heads and breaks into a run towards the temple. The talismans on the door are unable to stop him from entering as he kicks down the door. Dust and wood chucks rain through the incense-filled air as the demon takes a step inside.
He’s here for one thing, and one thing only. His red eyes glow with greed when he sets his sight on the bead necklace a few meters away from him. Snatching the necklace from its stand, the demon lets out a cackle of glee. With this item in his possession, his powers would increase by hundredfold and he could become a full-fledged demon.
The harsh voices of men and thundering footsteps break the dark-haired demon’s temporary moment of triumph. His upper lip curls with distaste, baring his sharp fangs as one of the men aims an arrow towards him. A pathetic attempt, as the demon is able to dodge the arrow with ease. Not wanting to waste any more time, the demon throws himself against a wall nearby. He smashes through it, along with the temple's foundation, causing the building to implode on itself and crush his pursuers.
The demon laughs with glee when he hears pained screams behind him. Serves those filthy townspeople right , he thinks as he makes a run for it, away from the temple and towards the forest.
The demon falters long enough, turning his head to see an arrow zipping towards him. In the blink of an eye, pain explodes from the left of his chest. He’s flung back against something solid, the impact leaving him gasping for breath. The arrow has pierced through his chest right over his heart, pinning him to the tree behind him.
“You.” Luo Binghe growls as an injured cultivator, the person who shot him, stumbles towards him. His gaze seethes red with hatred and betrayal. “Shen Jiu —” The rest of his sentence is lost as the spell takes effect, sapping his strength and sealing his essence at once. His eyes close for the last time and all becomes still.
Shen Jiu collapses onto knees, his bow clattering to the ground beside him. Between the open gash on his shoulder bleeding him out and spending nearly all his spiritual powers in that shot, Shen Jiu wants nothing more than to close his eyes and lay on the ground. Footsteps and panicked voices rush towards him as his vision blurs and the world sways around him.
Yue Qingyuan’s pale face swims into view when he opens his eyes again; Shen Jiu is vaguely aware that he’s being cradled against Yue Qingyuan’s body. “Qi-ge,” he manages, the taste of metallic blood filling his mouth. He coughs, a spurt of the red liquid spilling from his lips. Yue Qingyuan blanches even more but Shen Jiu grabs his collar, breathing hard. “I’m sorry. I was a fool.”
“Shh, don’t say anything,” says Yue Qingyuan but Shen Jiu knows from the tremble in his voice that he’s terrified out of his wits. “The healers should be here soon—” he breaks off when his eyes travel towards the slow-spreading red bloom staining Shen Jiu’s robes. He swallows hard, carefully brushing away the strands of hair from Shen Jiu’s face. “Xiao-Jiu, stay with me,” he pleads.
A hollow laugh rattles out of Shen Jiu as he looks down at the bead necklace clasped tightly in his hand. The Shikon jewel, a lilac-colored crystalline sphere, pulses faintly amongst the other beads on the necklace as if illuminated from the inside. Curse this jewel, Shen Jiu could only think as he raises his gaze towards the figure clad in black and red robes pinned to the tree.
The sacred arrow holding Luo Binghe should last till the end of time, preventing the half-demon from awakening and harming any more innocent lives in his pursuit for the Jewel. Shen Jiu smiles, but it’s a bitter one. He’d been such a fool for trusting that half-demon, Luo Binghe. There was no demon in this world that didn’t want this cursed Jewel for their evil and selfish desires; why did he think Luo Binghe would be an exception to that? Being a half-demon didn’t erase the fact that he still had the potential to act on his demonic tendencies. Why did Shen Jiu think Luo Binghe could change for the better?
And curse you, Luo Binghe, for fooling me with your beautiful lies.
“Qi-ge,” Shen Jiu wheezes as he turns to Yue Qingyuan. He presses the Shikon Jewel into the other man’s hand. “Take this godforsaken jewel and burn it with my body.” When Yue Qingyuan doesn’t reply, staring at him with shock beyond words, Shen Jiu forces the jewel into his palm with the remainder of his fading strength. “Promise me, Qi-ge, that you’ll do it!”
“Good.” Shen Jiu’s eyelids are already growing heavy, the pain that wracked his body growing less and less with each weakening heartbeat in his chest. With his final breath, he whispers, “I intend to take it with me to the next world … where it will never harm anyone ever again.”
If anyone asked how Shen Yuan would like to spend his birthday, he’d tell them that he wasn’t too particularly fussed about the celebration as long as it was lowkey. Shen Yuan wasn’t a fan of throwing big parties under his name, nor did he like having too many people over. If it were entirely up to him, he’d rather eat some cake, open presents he bought for himself in advance and then call it a day. Nothing too fancy for him, no thank you!
But of course, it’s not like his parents listened to him anyway. Even though they asked him how he’d like to celebrate his birthday a week earlier, they decided to surprise him this morning with the news that they’d be throwing a huge feast for him at home, inviting an extensive list of relatives Shen Yuan didn’t know he had, as well as his friends.
“You’re going to love it! It’s your 18th birthday after all,” Shen Yuan's mother had said cheerily when she broke the news to him over breakfast this morning, and made Shen Yuan wish he could crawl into a hole.
“Your mother and I put a lot of thought into it so we sure do hope you’ll enjoy it!” added his father in the same tone his mother used, although Shen Yuan had to be as dumb as bricks to miss what he was implying.
“I even went through the trouble of inviting all your relatives! You know what they say: the more the merrier!” Shen Yuan’s grandfather chimed in, driving the final nail into the coffin.
His siblings could only shoot him sympathetic looks, although he gave his two older brothers envious glances. They didn’t go through this when they turned 18! In fact, their parents didn’t make this much of a fuss and even let them throw their own parties. Why was he, the youngest son of the family, the one who had to suffer this? Shouldn’t it be the older siblings who were supposed to suffer?
(Perhaps this was their way of expressing some form of parental guilt? After all, Shen Yuan’s two older brothers sometimes lamented about how their parents were never really there for them when they were growing up.)
Anyway, Shen Yuan really thought he’d have more say in the matter, since it’s 18th birthday and he’s legally an adult, yet here his family was suffocating him with what they thought he wanted. But as much as Shen Yuan wanted to put his foot down and say no, he didn't. Besides, what could he do about it now, anyway? The catering was booked, the relatives invited and the venue prepared for tonight.
What a wonderful 18th birthday this turned out, thinks Shen Yuan this evening as he stares wistfully out the window.
For generations, the Shen family were caretakers of this shrine. Shen Yuan’s grandfather is a priest although if Shen Yuan were to be honest, he doubts the credibility of his grandfather’s occupation. Hardly anyone visited this shrine, much less prayed to whatever deity of his family’s shrine was — Shen Yuan himself doesn’t know if there's supposed to be a deity associated with the shrine.
Anyway, what he does know is that there’s a really old tree, probably hundreds of years old, on the grounds that is supposedly sacred and a well that’s associated with some sort of legend. He isn’t too clear on the details since he doesn’t believe in things like these anyway. And besides, Shen Yuan’s grandfather was always rattling on about the history of random things around the house that Shen Yuan chalked it off to his grandfather growing senile.
From where Shen Yuan stood by the window, he could see the set up for tonight’s feast at the usually-empty shrine pavilion. Rows of buffet tables serving food of all kinds were set up, with decorative lights strung here and there, and people Shen Yuan has never seen before milled about the grounds. If he pressed a little closer against the wall, he could see the tiny figures of his parents greeting visitors at the shrine entrance as they arrived.
Shen Yuan catches the faint strains of music and voices from outside, and his chest tightens anxiously. He never liked crowds and the reason why he was still in his room under the pretense of getting ready is because he doesn’t want to go downstairs and greet all these people. He doesn’t want to mingle with relatives he never met before, or say hi to his Great Aunt Mei or whatever. He’d rather stay in his room where he isn’t obliged to meet anyone and read trashy stallion webnovels till three in the morning.
Shen Yuan sighs and lets the curtain fall back in place. If he stayed here any longer, one of his family members would surely come knocking at his door. The only thing he can do now is show his face, smile pleasantly at everyone and stay downstairs for as long as he can before retreating back to the comfort of his room. Away from all these people. Yes, that was a sound plan.
After checking his reflection in the mirror one last time, Shen Yuan deems his appearance socially acceptable and moves to open his door. Only for the door to fly open before his hand can touch the doorknob. He leaps back right before it hits him in the face. “What —”
“Xiaobai is missing!” It’s his younger sister, Shen Ying1, looking breathless and distraught, as she steps into his room. “Gege, you have to help me find her!”
A missing cat was hardly any reason for his sister to work herself up about, and besides Xiaobai would always come back if you called her or rattled her food bowl. Shen Yuan tells his sister as much but his sister gives him a stink-eye and yanks him by the collar. “Come on, Cheng-ge2 won’t help me to look for her because he’s busy messing around with his fiance and Yu-ge3 is trying to make connections with the relatives. Besides, I have to keep Xiaobai inside or otherwise the kids might bully her!”
Shen Yuan sighs and glances at his phone for the time. Although he’d probably be late for the party if he helped Shen Ying find Xiaobai, at least he’d have a good excuse for his absence. His parents nor his grandfather would scold him for wasting time and hiding from his relatives. “Okay fine, let’s go look for Xiaobai.”
Even though they aren’t successful at avoiding these unknown relatives, Shen Yuan manages to get away from having a conversation with them by promising that he’d talk to them later after helping Shen Ying out (which he has no intentions to uphold, and besides, they’d forget anyway). They search the shrine grounds high and low, visiting Xiaobai’s favorite hiding spots, when Shen Ying suggests they check the well.
“The well?” Shen Yuan glances at the small wooden building that houses the Sacred Well. Grandfather has warned them not to go near it for any reason, but he remembers the one time his grandfather went down there to bless the building, the well was boarded up. “I don’t think Xiaobai would’ve gone in there,” he says to Shen Ying when she drags him towards the building. “Doesn’t Grandpa keep it locked?”
“Last I checked, no.” Shen Ying frowns. “Anyway, go inside and have a look!” She pushes him towards the door, much to Shen Yuan’s chagrin. Shen Yuan wriggles away and the two of them grapple in front of the door when his sister glares at him. “What? Don’t tell me you’re scared! Aren’t you a man?”
“Me being a man has nothing to do with courage!” Shen Yuan glances at the building. “Anyway, this is your idea!”
As much as Shen Yuan loved his sister, he’d rather not be the one to check the well. Though he never mentioned this to anyone, the well and its building gave him the creeps. But one look at his sister’s pout and he thought, Ah, she’s right. It’s just an old, dried up well anyway. Not like there’d be anything hiding inside the place or anything . With a resigned sigh, he pushes open the door and looks inside.
It’s too dark to see anything so he pulls out his phone and turns on the flashlight, shining the beam of light around the building. A faint musty smell of old wood and the rich scent of earth pervades the air. Shen Yuan approaches the well, the wooden boards creaking under his footsteps. There’s a set of wooden steps descending towards the ground where the well is located, and after testing it to make sure it won’t break under his weight, he approaches the well.
“I think Xiaobai might be at the bottom,” calls out Shen Ying from behind him.
Shen Yuan frowns at his sister over his shoulder. “Why are you so far away?”
“I’m just a lookout! In case we get in trouble.” When Shen Yuan says nothing and contiues to glare at her from below, Shen Ying waves a hand impatiently. “Aiya, look for the cat, not at me!”
Shen Yuan rolls his eyes and turns to the well. There’s no way the cat could fall into the well as planks of wood have been nailed securely over the mouth of the well. Still, he needs to make sure that the cat isn’t in there otherwise his sister wouldn’t be satisfied.
He takes a tentative step forward.
The temperature here is a few degrees colder than outside for some reason. The uncomfortable sensation in his gut twisted the closer he approaches the well, his pulse hammering in his throat.
About a foot away from the well, Shen Yuan hears a faint scratching noise from inside the well. He sucks in a startled breath, his heart leaping in his throat. His mind flashes a series of horrifying imagery that he barely gets rid of with logical reasoning. “X-Xiaobai?” he calls to the well but dares not take a step closer.
The scratching doesn’t stop, in fact, it becomes louder.
Shen Yuan swallows. As he reaches to touch the wood, something brushes against his leg without warning. He screeches in fright, leaping from the spot, and hearing his sister scream as well. He looks down and finds his cat looking up at him with wide, curious eyes. Xiaobai even has the audacity to stare at him with that confused look on her face!
“Don’t scream like that! You scared me!” cries his sister from the entrance.
“Hey, Xiaobai scared me, alright?” Shen Yuan retorts before directing his indignant glare at the cat by his feet. He bends down and scoops Xiaobai into his arms. “There, she’s here now. Let’s go —”
The scratching noise comes back again, louder and more frantic. Xiaobai, spooked by the noise, yowls and scrambles out of Shen Yuan’s arms, her little claws drawing blood. Shen Yuan lets her go with a yelp. He whips around, terrified, when the wood over the well splinters.
Before he can react, something long and unnaturally pale shoots out of the well, yanking him forward.
The last thing he hears as he falls into the darkness is his sister crying out.
Shen Yuan tumbles through the air, the heavy grip around his shoulders digging hard into his skin. He struggles against the hold, kicking and screaming when he twists around to meet the face of the person grabbing him. Or maybe person is not the right word; the face he sees is unnaturally pale, sunken skin and hollow cheeks.
Several all-black eyes eyes glitter with delight at Shen Yuan’s horrified expression. It grins at him, the corners of its blood-red lips pulled terrifyingly wide to bare sharp fangs. A forked tongue flickers between the rows of teeth. Had it not for this monster’s arms around him, and his fear locking his limbs, he would’ve pounded his fists against this thing and cried bloody murder.
“I can feel my strength returning to me,” the creature screeches in joy. “My true body is returning to me! You have it, don’t you? Give me the Shikon Jewel .” It’s long pink tongue flicks over Shen Yuan’s face, leaving disgusting trails of saliva all over his cheeks.
Shen Yuan reacts in the most natural way possible: “Ew, fuck that’s gross!”
Seized by a sudden burst of strength, he wrenches his arm out of the creature’s grip and shoves his hand in its face to push it away.
A blinding purple light explodes from his palm, causing the creature to recoil in pain. It releases him at once, and Shen Yuan screams as he plunges through the darkness, away from the creature. As he falls further away from it, he realizes it’s a sort of human centipede creature, the upper half of its body resembling that of a human’s yet not quite, and the lower half made of bones and exoskeleton.
Wind roars past Shen Yuan’s ears louder than his screams, his hair whipping around his face. Shen Yuan has ridden rollercoasters but none of them compared to the experience of falling through the air. It was like all his internal organs were trying to fly out of him. His arms and legs flail around uselessly as he hurtles through air.
Then, he crashes painfully against something solid, the impact of the landing knocking the air out of his lungs.
Shen Yuan wheezes, trying to catch his breath before rolling onto his side with a groan. Once the world stops spinning around him, he opens his eyes. Underneath him is solid ground, earth, but littered around him are bones. None of them look human although they don’t seem to belong to animals either.
Slowly, he pushes himself up to his feet and looks up.
Up at the mouth of the well, Shen Yuan can see clear blue. He frowns; that doesn’t seem right, although he can’t recall whether the building the well was located had a skylight. Moreover, it seemed to be daytime outside the well.
Shen Yuan glances around him. Could this all be a bad dream? Did he knock his head hard enough from the fall that he passed out the whole night? Did his family go to look for help getting him out of the well? Ah, better check the time —
Shen Yuan’s heart sinks when he pulls out his phone from his pocket to find a long crack spreading from one corner to the other. It refused to turn on, even when Shen Yuan clicked the On button several times, smacked it against his palm and yelled at it.
Ok, Plan B: Yell for your family members like an idiot.
“A-Ying!” he calls out. “Gege! Ma! Ba! Is anyone there?” His voice echoes off the damp stone walls around him. After a heartbeat or two, Shen Yuan begrudgingly accepts the fact that no one’s going to help him.
Climbing out of the well has got to be the most tiring physical activity he’s ever done. He isn’t as active as Yu-ge or as strong as Cheng-ge, so the effort of going against gravity and trying to find handholds in the stone wall, grabbing vines and generally supporting his own body weight with his weak hands and arms takes everything out of him. He makes a mental note to work out more often. After what felt like a million years, Shen Yuan emerges from the well in the most undignified manner, his body half-in half-out as he clambers over the edge of the well’s mouth and collapses in a heap on the ground.
He takes about a minute to catch his breath, wincing at how hard his heart is pounding in his chest, before noticing his surroundings.
No longer is he in the dark and musty building of the Sacred Well. All that surrounds him is grass, trees and the clear blue sky overhead. Shen Yuan frowns, sitting up and pushing up his glasses up his nose.
Wait, what? Where the fuck am I?
After patting the grass of his butt and cleaning his glasses, Shen Yuan turns around in a full circle. There’s no use calling for his family or anyone. There isn't a single soul in sight, only nature. Frightened, Shen Yuan stumbles around trying to find a path.
Fuck, what the hell? Where’s the shrine? Where’s … modernity? Why does it feel like I’ve gone back in time? Oh god, don’t tell me I’ve ended up in a time before civilization —
Shen Yuan stops when he comes across a familiar sight: a tall tree with a broad and dark trunk growing above the treeline of the forest around him. The Sacred Tree! Although Shen Yuan’s grandfather has warned him never to play around the tree, Shen Yuan decides to ditch his grandfather’s warning in favor of the idea of climbing the tree. A vantage point is what he needed to find his way out of here! Sorry, to whatever spirits might be living in the Sacred Tree, Shen Yuan absolutely had to get out of here.
He runs towards the tree, pushing away the bushes and shrubs in his way when he breaks into the clearing.
Whatever idea he had of climbing the tree disappears from his mind when he notices a figure leaning against the tree trunk. No, not leaning, Shen Yuan realizes with a start as he approaches the figure. The person is pinned to the tree about a feet above the ground by an arrow. How that thin and flimsy looking shaft of the arrow was holding the body there, Shen Yuan didn’t know, but what he does know is that a strange feeling overcomes him when he looks at the face of the person.
Shen Yuan is certain he has never met this person before yet something deep in his chest aches with familiarity and a sense of crushing regret. Before he is aware of himself, his feet move on their own and he finds himself climbing those weird gnarly buttress roots to take a good look at this person.
The person looked about Shen Yuan’s age, a fellow youth who just entered adulthood. He was dressed in black robes with red accents and a silver outer robe, the kind of outfit Shen Yuan associated with all those xianxia dramas his grandfather enjoyed watching. Long silky dark hair framed his handsome features. There was an intricate-looking red mark on the boy’s forehead, like a huadian, from the looks of it. His lips were parted slightly and his eyes were closed, as if he was asleep except Shen Yuan knows he isn’t asleep thanks to that arrow protruding from the left side of his chest over where the heart should be.
The only thing amiss about this boy was the pair of pointed furry black ears sticking out from his head; they remind Shen Yuan of that of a dog’s. Out of curiosity, Shen Yuan reaches out and feels them between his fingers, making a funny expression when he realizes the ears are real. He plays with them a little bit more before shaking his head; he shouldn’t be touching a stranger’s ears like this without their consent.
But they’re real! Honest to goodness animal ears! Shen Yuan stares at the ears then brushes away the hair on one side of this boy’s face. In place of where the regular human ears should be was the base of those dog ears.
OK, this is weird, Shen Yuan thinks. There’s an actual dogboy. Stuck to a tree and possibly dead, but he isn't rotting and there's no sign of blood. Can this day get any weirder?
The universe answers his question swiftly.
“You there!” yells a harsh voice from behind. “What are you doing?”
Shen Yuan decides this is probably the worst birthday ever. Not only did he get transported back in time to god-knows-what-era, he’s also been tied up and tossed on the ground in the middle of this town as if he’s some sort of freak on display for people to stare at.
And they do stare at him, these townspeople crowding around him and looking at him as if he has an extra arm stuck on his forehead.
The ropes binding his wrist and ankles are tight, chafing against his skin and cutting off his blood supply. He tries to wriggle his fingers and toes just to keep the blood circulating but his extremities have gone numb.
“Mother, what’s that boy doing there?” asks a child among the crowd, looking up at the woman beside her. “Why does he have strange hair and clothing?”
Shen Yuan glares at the child, startling him into hiding behind his mother’s skirts. He opens his mouth to give him a piece of his mind when the woman says, “Perhaps this person is a foreign land.”
“Huh? From a foreign land at this time of the year?” exclaims an old man nearby. “We’re already shorthanded on men, we can’t possibly have a spy.”
“Perhaps it’s a Huli Jing4?” suggests another woman. “Better a shapeshifter than a spy from a foreign land, I say.”
“What?” Shen Yuan’s eyebrows pinch together. “What are you guys talking about? I’m human, not a demon. And certainly not a spy from a foreign land.”
The townspeople exchange uneasy looks among themselves and whisper to one another. Their disbelief is understandable however Shen Yuan will not tolerate being treated like this when he was innocent. He opens his mouth to argue on his case when somebody calls out, “Make way for the Chief Cultivator Yue Qingyuan.” He turns towards the direction of the voice and spots a man approaching him.
Like every man in this town, Yue Qingyuan’s hair was long, tied in a topknot and secured with an elaborate-looking hairpiece. His dark blue robes flutter in the breeze, his expression calm, and his gait steady as he nears Shen Yuan. Despite his youthful-looking face, this Yue Qingyuan person carried himself with such a stately aura that it gives Shen Yuan the impression that Now, this is the man I should be talking to, he looks like he’s in charge. He opens, ready to speak, when a talisman smacks in his face.
Silence descends on the townspeople as they watch in morbid anticipation for something to happen.
Shen Yuan exhales, causing the talisman to flutter upwards from the force of his breath long enough to glare at this Yue Qingyuan person before it covers his face again. How the fuck is this talisman stuck to his forehead without any adhesive?
“What’s going on here?” he demands just as Yue Qingyuan sighs and says to the townspeople, “I was told there was a demon in the forest but it seems you have brought me a boy.”
“That’s right! I’m just a boy!” Shen Yuan agrees indignantly.
“Then is he a spy?” asks the suspicious old man from earlier.
“I doubt it,” says Yue Qingyuan. “What use would there be to spy on Cang Qiong?”
Shen Yuan bites back a grin of satisfaction when the old man doesn’t say anything in reply.
“My apologies.” The talisman is promptly removed from Shen Yuan’s forehead and Yue Qingyuan’s face comes into view. Shen Yuan, who was about to question his unfair treatment, stops short. That strange feeling of familiarity and aching regret he felt earlier around the boy at the tree returns when he meets Yue Qingyuan’s gaze.
Yue Qingyuan regards Shen Yuan for a few seconds before his eyes spark with recognition. He reaches out to hold Shen Yuan by the chin, turning his face here and there as he examines Shen Yuan’s features. “Xiao-Jiu?” he breathes.
The townspeople around them murmur in confusion, shifting uneasily.
“No, my name is Shen Yuan, daozhang5,” Shen Yuan clarifies. He tilts his chin away from Yue Qingyuan’s fingers. “I don’t think we’ve met before,” he adds with a small frown.
Yue Qingyuan pauses long enough, staring at Shen Yuan with a thoughtful expression before saying, “You bear a likeness to him, my Shen Jiu, though he passed away fifty years ago.” Shen Yuan doesn’t know what to say to that; it was weird enough being approached in public by girls who said he looked like some celebrity, but it was even weirder that this man who looked like he was in his early thirties said that Shen Yuan looked like one of his dead friends. Also, how the heck does he look so young for someone so old?
Yue Qingyuan cuts off his bindings, flashing Shen Yuan an apologetic smile when he notices him rubbing his wrists with a wince. The cultivator invites him over to his place, and while Shen Yuan knows better than to accept offers from strangers, a strange gut instinct tells him this man can be trusted.
Yue Qingyuan brings him back to his residence, which was a short walk from the town square. His house was a modest-looking building that came with a handful of servants. Shen Yuan barely had time to thank the cultivator for his hospitality when he was whisked away by the servants to treat his wounds.
After a few applications of healing salve on his chafe wounds, and turning down the servants suggestions to bathe him, Shen Yuan finds himself seated in some sort of tea room with Yue Qingyuan. An assortment of cakes sits on the low table between him and the cultivator, while a steaming cup of tea rests in his hands. Shen Yuan takes a few sips, looking at the decor and basically anything other than Yue Qingyuan staring at him like that.
“I’m sorry, Yue-daozhang, but is there anything I can do to make up for the trouble I caused earlier?” asks Shen Yuan, finally raising his gaze to the cultivator across him.
Yue Qingyuan’s eyes widen slightly, as if he hadn’t expected Shen Yuan to notice he was there, before smiling pleasantly. “Oh, not at all. I was wondering if the refreshments are to your liking.”
“Mm, they’re good,” Shen Yuan hums. Truthfully, he’s never tried them before but hopes Yue Qingyuan doesn’t mind him trying one of everything.
“One of the men mentioned you saying that you were from the future.”
“Oh!” Shen Yuan nods. “Funny story, actually.” He launches into an explanation of what happened, how he was supposed to be celebrating his birthday today before he ended up being attacked by that human-centipede creature and dragged into the well.
“Ah, the Bone-Eater’s well,” says Yue Qingyuan as he fills his teacup. “That’s where the bodies of demons are discarded or when the men encounter a demon they can’t defeat. The soil works in strange ways, consuming bones of demons completely within three days.”
Shen Yuan shudders at the thought of the well acting like some sort of Dumpster for demons. Why was it even deemed sacred by his grandfather and his ancestors before him when all it was for was getting rid of dead demons?
“There was also a boy in the forest too," Shen Yuan adds. "Pinned to the Sacred Tree by an arrow.”
Yue Qingyuan’s eyebrows lift in mild surprise. “Is that what people of your time call it?” He sets the teapot down. “Here, that tree is known as Luo Binghe’s tree. And Luo Binghe is that boy you saw.”
“That’s horrible!” Shen Yuan blurts out before catching himself. He wipes off the crumb that flew out from his mouth hastily. “Sorry, I just think it’s horrible that Luo Binghe is nailed to the tree like that. Shouldn’t someone come and get him down from it or something?”
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible.” Yue Qingyuan takes a sip of his tea. “Fifty years ago, it was my dear friend, Shen Jiu, who put that arrow through Luo Binghe’s chest,” he explains and Shen Yuan almost drops one of the cakes.
Yue Qingyuan allows him a moment to regain his composure before continuing, “You see, Luo Binghe is a half-demon who came to steal the Shikon Jewel, which possesses immense power, so that he could become a full-fledged demon. But before he could make his escape, Xiao-Jiu shot a sacred arrow imbued with a spell to force him into a deep slumber till the end of time before succumbing to his injuries from his fight with Luo Binghe. With his dying breath, Xiao-Jiu made me promise to burn the jewel with his body so that it would never fall into the wrong hands ever again as he passed on to the next world.”
A nasty sour taste rises at the back of Shen Yuan’s throat, which doesn’t diminish as he tries to wash it down with the sweets and tea. It sounded bad enough that a close friend of yours made you promise to burn his body along with whatever that Shikon thing is but it was also another thing for Yue Qingyuan to call that Shen Jiu person with such intimacy in his tone while looking at Shen Yuan like that. It was making him feel tingly all over in a weird way. Perhaps Yue Qingyuan and Shen Jiu were lovers?
God, it didn’t make it any less weirder that Shen Yuan supposedly looks like Shen Jiu either. Awkward, too awkward.
“I seem to have made you uncomfortable,” says Yue Qingyuan. “My apologies, Shen-gongzi.”
“No, it’s —” Shen Yuan breaks off with a sigh. “I look like him, don’t I? Like that Shen Jiu person, right?”
It’s Yue Qingyuan’s hesitation and apologetic smile that tells him as much; Shen Yuan wishes he didn’t smile like that as it only makes him feel guilty in a way he can’t put his finger on.
“It’s not just in appearance.” Yue Qingyuan reaches out. Shen Yuan blinks before realizing Yue Qingyuan is asking for his hand. With a small frown he puts a hand out to him, forcing back a flinch when Yue Qingyuan turns it over so his palm is facing up. Yue Qingyuan studies it for a few moments, running a finger over the lines of his palm gently; somehow, Shen Yuan feels his own cheeks heat up from his touch.
“You even have his spiritual essence …” murmurs Yue Qingyuan after a moment. He raises his gaze towards Shen Yuan. “Could it be you’re his reincarnation?”
Shen Yuan shrugs. He’s a man of science, not someone who believed in superstitions and religion. Reincarnation sounded like a cool thing, but not a real thing. “Daozhang, I —”
A sudden crashing noise from outside interrupts Shen Yuan, causing the two men to jump to their feet. They rush outside to the courtyard where the servants are running about in panic. “What’s going on?” Yue Qingyuan calls over the sound of a tolling bell (a warning system?) when they reach the streets.
“Demon attack,” explains one of the men from a passing group; Shen Yuan recognizes him as the man who tied him up earlier. “Human-centipede by the looks of it.” As soon as he finishes his sentence, the loud crashing resumes, sounding like it came close by. They turn in time to see a segment of the giant centipede whipping to crush one of the houses.
“Stay inside,” Yue Qingyuan tells him, gently guiding him back into the compound with the sweep of his sleeve. “It’s best if you stay out of this —” The rest of his sentence is lost when a horse crashes through the roof.
Yes, a horse. Shen Yuan wishes he was hallucinating but to see an entire horse be flung to the ground as if it were a mere ragdoll isn’t something he can imagine on a mere fancy.
Above them, the Centipede demon cackles with glee. “Shikon Jewel, I found you!”
“Shikon Jewel?” Yue Qingyuan echoes and turns to Shen Yuan. “You have it with you?”
“If I did, trust me, I’d hand it over to you in a heartbeat!”
The demon rears up and thrashes around, shattering buildings and deflecting arrows aimed at it. Shen Yuan watches in horror as a man foolishly charges towards it, only to be flattened in a by the demon’s abdomen. Yue Qingyuan throws an arm out, probably to push Shen Yuan back into the safety of his residence or something.
But Shen Yuan shoves his arm away and steps forward. He isn’t as brave as any of his brothers or as smart as his sister but one thing’s for sure is that he will not allow such damage to be heavily inflicted on these innocent townspeople if he could do anything to stop it. “Hey, wormface!” he yells.
The Centipede demon stops and turns to him, its blood red lips twisted in a rictus grin. Shen Yuan almost shits his pants there but has enough sense (or no sense of self-preservation at all) to shout, “You want the Jewel? Then come and get it!”
He hears Yue Qingyuan cry out in protest as he spins on his heel and takes off.
The heavy slithering noise behind him startles his fight-or-flight instincts, flooding his limbs with adrenaline as he runs away from the monster in the most undignified manner possible. Shen Yuan doubts he’s ever run as fast in his entire life, the world blurring around him as he sprints through Cang Qiong with the demon in his wake. Part of him doesn’t know where he can run to, while another part is cursing himself for suddenly wanting to be a hero.
Who was he kidding?
Shen Yuan may not even survive this day. Ah, what rotten luck! To have lived short 18 years achieving nothing notable at all. For the end of his life to be getting eaten by this Centipede demon for something he didn’t have. Nothing matters now, right? If he just stopped there and let the demon take what it wanted, the least he could hope for is for the demon to make it quick. After all, it was after the Shikon Jewel and not for his body.
Just as he was considering just giving up then and there, Shen Yuan notices the forest from where he came from emitting a strange glow. It couldn’t possibly be from the sunset, which painted the sky in shades of orange and pink, as the light coming from the forest shimmered with an iridescent hue. Although the logical part of him is screaming for him not to go running towards the unknown, Shen Yuan does it anyway; besides if his luck was already bad, how much worse can it get from this point onwards?
Shen Yuan crashes through the foliage, flinging his arms out wildly to shove all the bushes and branches out of the way.
“Give the Jewel to me!”
“I don’t have that thing!”
The Centipede demon releases a cry of anger and lunges towards him.
Shen Yuan barely screams as he leaps forward in a jackknife motion several metres through the air. In that moment, he knows he’s done for, that this is probably his last move, when he lands in a sprawling heap across the forest floor.
“Hm, not very graceful are you, Shen Jiu?” sneers a voice above Shen Yuan.
Biting back a groan, Shen Yuan gets up on all fours to find a pair of glowing red eyes watching him. His lips part in surprise but no noise comes out of it as he realizes it’s that half-demon boy, Luo Binghe; no, wasn’t he supposed to be asleep?
“What are you doing wasting your time with the Centipede demon?” Luo Binghe continues to mock him, his face twisted with cruel amusement as if the only thing that he could bring himself to be amused about is Shen Yuan gawking up at him.
How are you alive? With that whole arrow sticking out of your chest? Hello, are you for real ?
“Why don’t you kill them with one shot like you did with me?” suggests Luo Binghe, his silky voice dripping with sweet poison. “Shouldn’t even take more than a breath to take them down, don’t you agree, a-Jiu?” He pauses, a crease forming between his eyebrows. “What’s the matter? Why are you looking at me as if you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about? Have you lost your mind, a-Jiu?”
After being called by the wrong name so many times (and so intimately) by this Luo Binghe, Shen Yuan’s patience snaps. Forgetting that he has more pressing matters to worry about like the Centipede demon behind him, he pushes himself to his feet and marches right up to the half-demon. Cheeks flushed with anger, Shen Yuan clambers onto the gnarly roots and grabs Luo Binghe by the collar. “Listen here, you. Stop calling me Shen Jiu! My name’s —”
Before he can finish his sentence, a series of cracking sounds come from overhead. Shen Yuan looks up just to see the dark mass of the Centipede Demon’s body crashing towards him. He screams, losing his balance on the gnarled roots. At the very last moment, his right hand grabs at something long and thin only to yank whatever that object is out with his fall.
He lands on his bum when the demon lunges at him again. Blinding pain explodes from his left side as the demon sinks its claws into him, tearing something out of his body. He cries out and clutches his side when the demon withdraws. His hand comes away stained red in the moonlight. He nearly throws up at the sight.
“There it is! The Shikon Jewel!” exclaims the Centipede Demon in glee. Shen Yuan follows its gaze to the object lying a feet away from him in the grass, a sphere glowing faintly in the moonlight. How the fuck was that object just in his body without him knowing all this time?
Cackling in triumph, the Centipede demon snatches the Jewel up and pops it in its mouth in a single gulp.
Horrified, Shen Yuan watches as the demon undergoes metamorphosis, like some freaky Pokemon evolution in fast-forward. Its pale human upper body turns black, hardening into a carapace. Huge fangs sprout from its mouth and those eyes turn round and red like that of a fly’s. Its tongue lolls out of its mouth flicking around like a snake. The demon throws its head back and laughs, a high and unearthly sound that raises goosebumps all over Shen Yuan’s skin.
Without warning, the demon turns to him and lunges. In that split second, Shen Yuan watches the scene unfold as if in slow-motion. The glistening white of the demon’s fang in the moonlight, the reflection of his terrified expression in the demon’s eyes, the iridescent gleam of the demon’s carapace and the whisper of the wind in his ears. Shen Yuan knows his death will be quick and painless and somehow the thought is morbidly comforting.
Then everything happens too quickly.
A force slams into Shen Yuan, strong arms sweeping him up in the air as the world turns into a blur. He hears the demon collide with the ground with a screech, feels the wind rustling through his hair before he registers the very solid chest the left side of his face is squished against. He looks up, mouth parting in surprise, to see a handsome face painted in the moonlight.
“L-Luo Binghe?” As soon as he utters the boy’s name, Luo Binghe looks down at him with a careless smirk; had circumstances been different, Shen Yuan would’ve swooned from it and he isn’t even the swooning type! Nevertheless, Shen Yuan’s heart fluttered upon receiving such a look from Luo Binghe, only for it to leap into his throat when Luo Binghe threw him aside unceremoniously. Rubbing his poor bottom, Shen Yuan almost yells at Luo Binghe for dropping him when Luo Binghe springs at the Centipede demon.
The sound of two powerful demons clashing drown out the noise of hooves and men shouting as they approach the clearing; it’s only the illumination of firelight breaking through the darkness around them that snaps Shen Yuan out of it. Yue Qingyuan appears, hopping off a horse and rushing towards Shen Yuan with a panicked expression. “Are you alright?”
“Y-yeah, I think.” Shen Yuan looks down at himself and nearly faints; there’s so much blood staining his clothes, especially that new and expensive beige cashmere sweater he bought for his birthday party. Gagging, he squeezes his eyes shut and looks away, trying to steady his breaths. Over the ringing in his ears, he hears Yue Qingyuan’s worried voice, the demon’s screeches, the harsh voices of men and horses, and the clash of weapons.
Luo Binghe is a force to be reckoned with. The men’s spears and arrows hardly make a dent in the demon’s exoskeleton, merely acting as mild annoyances to the demon, but Luo Binghe’s rapid attacks tear gashes in its carapace. He isn’t even armed, Shen Yuan observes before realizing Luo Binghe’s fingertips are glowing — Are those claws?
He’s using his claws to slash at the demon? How is that even possible?
The demon thrashes about, growing furious. It whips its heavy tail towards the men, sweeping them and their horses off their feet but Luo Binghe leaps through the air with ease to avoid it. The demon rears itself up and strikes, like a cobra. Shen Yuan catches the glimpse of a round glowing orb-like object in its body as it stretches.
“Go for the midsection!” Shen Yuan cries out though with all the noise, he wonders if Luo Binghe can hear him.
Luo Binghe hardly spares him a glance but twists midair, miraculously dodging the Centipede’s strike and dives straight for its body. His claws flash silver in the moonlight as he rips the demon to shreds before the demon’s abdomen explodes with a bright light. The demon lets out a terrible wail as it collapses in pieces.
Luo Binghe lands lightly on his feet, his hair cascading around him in a black silky sheet (Shen Yuan thought that sort of thing only happens in shampoo commercials.)
“It’s right there. The Jewel thingy.” Shen Yuan whispers to Yue Qingyuan, pointing at one of the twitching sections of the demon that fell before his feet.
“You can see it?” Yue Qingyuan turns to him, eyes wide.
Shen Yuan nods. He pulls himself to his feet, ignoring Yue Qingyuan’s noise of concern, and approaches the section. Black ichor pools around the severed chunks of demon on the grass. He steps carefully around it, drawing a sleeve over his nose and reaches over with his free hand. His fingers connect around something fleshy and gross — Shen Yuan fights back the urge to gag and recoil — before wrapping around a cool spherical object. He yanks it out, the Shikon Jewel, impossibly clean of any ichor or tissue. The demon’s body turns to ashes almost immediately, leaving behind its bones (now why does it even need bones if it already has an exoskeleton?)
“I got it!” Shen Yuan turns to Yue Qingyuan only to notice the alarm rising in the cultivator’s expression. He opens his mouth to ask what’s wrong when men cry out behind him. He turns in time to see trees, slashed at the trunk, collapsing in front of them. A large black blur crashes into him in the blink of an eye.
Shen Yuan is dragged around like a ragdoll through bushes and trees, leaves smacking in his face and branches cutting into his cheeks. He tries to twist out of the strong grasp only to be slammed against a tree in a heartbeat. A gasp of pain rises in his throat when the grip tightens. “ You ,“ he wheezes as his teary vision swims into focus to reveal a pair of malevolent red eyes staring at him.
“Hand me the Jewel, a-Jiu,” says Luo Binghe, no longer speaking in that scornful yet silky tone but with brusque impatience. “And this one will spare your life.”
Shen Yuan chokes out an inaudible reply; Luo Binghe frowns at his pale hands clawing at his wrist and loosens his grip.
“I’m …” begins Shen Yuan, coughing in Luo Binghe’s face. “I’m not Shen Jiu!”
How he has the capacity to be annoyed at someone who literally has his life in his hands, Shen Yuan doesn’t know. But he’s sick of being mistaken for a dead person, how does anyone make that mistake when that Shen Jiu person has been dead for fifty years?
“My name is Shen Yuan!” he continues angrily, nails digging into Luo Binghe’s wrist in the tiniest but most significant form of retaliation. “Shen. Yuan. Got it?”
“Don’t lie to me,” snarls Luo Binghe, baring his fangs. “I know the scent of the man who killed me and you smell just like a-Jiu did —“ He breaks off, frowning. Then he leans in.
“No —!” Shen Yuan almost screams bloody murder but stops when he hears … sniffing ? No way, was Luo Binghe sniffing him like a dog ? Putting that fact aside, why the fuck did Luo Binghe think it was okay to nuzzle his nose against Shen Yuan’s neck, letting his warm breath ghost over his skin and lips brush against that spot? Shen Yuan fights back the urge to shiver; this isn’t the right time to think of such things!
“You’re right,” acknowledges Luo Binghe when he pulls back, his features pulled into a thoughtful frown; thankfully he doesn’t notice the flush on Shen Yuan’s cheeks. “You smell a bit different.” Then he raises his gaze to Shen Yuan’s face, studying his features carefully. “My a-Jiu was a beauty too. And much more courteous than you as well.”
“Oi, gege! ” Shen Yuan snaps and Luo Binghe’s ears twitch. “Who are you calling ugly and rude?”
The smirk that appears on Luo Binghe throws Shen Yuan off, butterflies erupting in his stomach. “Gege?” he repeats, amused. “You’ve never called me that before.”
“Luo Binghe!” Yue Qingyuan storms into the clearing, his expression red with fury.
Aiyo, what took him so long to get here? Isn’t he a cultivator with meta-human powers or something? He should’ve been here minutes ago when Luo Binghe was wringing Shen Yuan’s neck like a stress ball. Despite his annoyance, Shen Yuan is relieved to see him. “Yue-daozhang!“
Luo Binghe twists him around so that it’s like he’s being given a back hug … except it’s obviously not a back hug because Luo Binghe has one of his sharp claws pressed to his neck, over where his pulse is fluttering like panicked bird, and the other arm clamped over his mouth. Shen Yuan doesn’t try wriggling for fear that the claw could cut him and leave him bleeding to death.
“Luo Binghe, let Shen-gongzi go!” Yue Qingyuan looks like an angel of fury, robes billowing around him with a powerful aura while his sword glows silver in the moonlight.
Luo Binghe laughs. “I will, if he gives me the Shikon Jewel.”
Shen Yuan scowls. Now why was he trapped in Luo Binghe’s arms like some helpless maiden and used like a bargaining chip? Damn, his parents didn’t send him to self-defense classes for him to be thrown around like this. Before Luo Binghe realizes what he’s doing, Shen Yuan raises his foot and stamps down on Luo Binghe’s with all his strength, crunching Luo Binghe’s toes.
It works like magic; Luo Binghe releases him with a growl of pain.
Shen Yuan stumbles forward, twisting around and landing on his butt again. Luo Binghe darts towards but not before Yue Qingyuan flings something towards him; it explodes in a shower of green lights circling around Luo Binghe like a swarm of wasps before wrapping around his neck — a bead necklace? Daozhang, now’s not the time to give Luo Binghe jewelry!
“Quick!” Yue Qingyuan turns to Shen Yuan, who was scrambling backwards from Luo Binghe in fear. “Recite the Word to subdue Luo Binghe!”
“Anything! A simple command would do!”
“Command?” Luo Binghe chuckles harshly. “You think I’m just a stupid dog who’ll roll over when asked to?” He turns to Shen Yuan, fangs flashing in a wicked grin. “Give it to me!” He springs forward.
An idea occurs to Shen Yuan in a split second; it sounded absolutely ridiculous in his head but now wasn’t the time to think about it, not when Luo Binghe was about to rip his throat open for whatever this Shikon Jewel is.
“Sit!” Shen Yuan cries out.
The beads around Luo Binghe’s neck light up in response and, with an impossible amount of force, Luo Binghe’s face smacks into the dirt with a loud thump!
“Oh my god,” Shen Yuan breathes out in horrified amusement.
Enraged, Luo Binghe spits out leaves from his mouth and tries to lunge again, only for Shen Yuan to cry out the Word and force him into the ground again. “What have you done to me?” he demands, eyes blazing with anger.
Wide-eyed, Shen Yuan points quickly at Yue Qingyuan who approaches them with his hands folded behind his back, a picture of calmness. Shen Yuan scrambles to his feet and darts behind the cultivator.
“Those are the Beads of Subjugation around your neck,” he explains. “When Shen-gongzi says the Word, you will be subdued. It’s no use trying to remove them by yourself,” he adds when Luo Binghe tries yanking the necklace off his neck. “Only Shen-gongzi can do that.”
“And I’m definitely not going to, not with a crazy dog like you running around!” says Shen Yuan, from behind Yue Qingyuan.
Luo Binghe scoffs, pulling himself up to a sitting position.
Shen Yuan hisses in pain, eyes squeezing shut as Yue Qingyuan dabs some healing salve on his side. “No, no keep going. I’m just sensitive. Don’t mind me,” he says, waving off Yue Qingyuan concern. With a terse nod, Yue Qingyuan continues as gently as possible. It would’ve been pleasantly ticklish if not for the sting.
Shen Yuan tries to distract himself, doing his best not to think about how he was just casually shirtless around this possible ex-lover of Shen Jiu and letting him treat his wounds. Look, he knows that he should trust Yue Qingyuan to be as professional or whatever, but it’s just weird. Especially when Yue Qingyuan asks him in that soft and concerned tone whether he feels alright — the answer is No, I’m really flustered that this really hot dude who’s actually super old keeps looking at me as if some part of me will turn into his ex and tell him everything’s okay but yeah, it’s whatever but of course Shen Yuan tells him, “I’m fine, thanks,” while looking away from Yue Qingyuan’s face.
What’s even weirder is that Luo Binghe is in the same room as they were, watching with those dark eyes — apparently they, and his huadian, lose the red glow after the heat of the battle. Shen Yuan wonders if it’s like an Ultraman thing.
Despite the danger he poses, Yue Qingyuan allowed Luo Binghe to follow them back to his residence last night, which was both dumb and generous of him. Letting an enemy into town was one thing but Yue Qingyuan seemed perfectly fine with Luo Binghe being in the same room. In fact, it was almost as if Luo Binghe wasn’t there at all.
However, Shen Yuan can sense the waves of malicious intent rolling off Luo Binghe as he watches Yue Qingyuan treating wounds. It’s got to be those dark and jealous eyes, watching them as if he was waiting for the right time to rip them to shreds.
“By the way, why are you here?” Shen Yuan asks once Yue Qingyuan is finished. “Do you want to get your wounds treated too?” He accepts the outer robe Yue Qingyuan wraps around his bare upper body for modesty. (Shen Yuan would’ve been fine with his own clothes, except they were taken away by Yue Qingyuan’s servants for cleaning and mending.)
Luo Binghe’s eyes narrow with displeasure at the sight for some reason. “I’m here for the Jewel,” he states.
Shen Yuan frowns at him then looks down at himself where the Shikon Jewel rests on his sternum; he didn’t know how but Yue Qingyuan managed to string it on a pendant. “You can’t have it,” he says. “You’re just going to take it for yourself and do evil things with it.”
Luo Binghe scoffs. “And you think your dear Qi-ge won’t do the same either?” he retorts,
A loud clatter cuts into the exchange. Yue Qingyuan offers an apologetic smile as he arranges the medicine in a box but Shen Yuan can see that his hands are shaking.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Shen Yuan but glances at the cultivator.
“Qi-ge was what Shen Jiu called me when he was alive,” explains Yue Qingyuan. “And to clear up your suspicions, Luo-gongzi, I do not have any use for the Shikon Jewel.” Though his voice sounds as calm as usual, Shen Yuan thought he could hear the faint tremble of anger underneath it. “Shen Jiu has passed on, and his soul now lives in this Shen-gongzi.”
Somehow, Luo Binghe looks amused with his reply. “Oh? Then I suppose the Honorable Yue Qingyuan of the ‘Xuan Su’ won’t use it to awaken his dear Xiao-Jiu in this boy’s body? Or at least attempt to split his soul and bring him back to life?” At this point, Shen Yuan was convinced that if he met Luo Binghe in the modern world, he’d probably be some gangster or an internet troll. Goading Yue QIngyuan like that and striking all his sore points with no mercy and laughing with scorn while he was at it. How scummy!
And what was with that ‘dear a-Jiu’ comment? Did that confirm Shen Jiu and Yue Qingyuan had some sort of history? But then there was also Luo Binghe referring to Shen Jiu as ‘my a-Jiu’ too and calling him ‘a beauty’. Shen Yuan is overcome with horror at the possibility that his past life had been a philander of sorts, seducing these two handsome men with his beauty and character, then breaking their hearts by shooting one with an arrow and dying in the arms of another. And that was only two of them Shen Yuan knew! What if Shen Jiu had also charmed the hearts of other men in Cang Qiong?
“How shameless!” Shen Yuan exclaims, his comment snapping the two men in the room out of their vehement but silent exchange. “Ah, it’s nothing.” He shakes his head when they give him questioning looks. “I think I need some air.”
Ignoring Yue Qingyuan’s concern, he excuses himself from the room. He hears footsteps following him but pretends not to. Thankfully, whoever it is stops following him.
After cleaning himself up (he had to firmly tell the servants not to help him as he liked his privacy), Shen Yuan finds a pile of neatly folded robes waiting for him when he returns to his room, or rather Shen Jiu’s old room. They seem to be just about his size, which was great but at the same time not really. The fact that the robes would fit him meant he had more similarities in physical appearances with Shen Jiu.
Since he had no idea how to put on the robes by himself, he waits until he hears a servant passing by and asks for help.
“Pardon me, gongzi, but you look just like the previous Shen-gongzi,” remarks the servant, a stout old woman who gave off a kindly grandmother-like air, as she helps him into his robes.
“Ah, yes I’ve been getting that a lot lately,” Shen Yuan sighs. “Thank you for helping me. People in my time don’t need to wear so many layers unless it’s for fun or whatever,” he explains, thinking of that time he saw a clip of that Hanfu Movement group on the internet. The old woman gives him a curious look but says nothing about his remark but leaves him be.
When Shen Yuan is left alone to his own devices, he takes a good look around the room as he didn’t have a chance the night before; he had zonked out from exhaustion the moment his head hit the pillow. Unfortunately there aren’t any paintings of this Shen Jiu person although, Shen Yuan could understand, as someone who hardly took selfies because he didn’t like the way he looked. Although it felt a bit wrong snooping around his past life’s belongings, Shen Yuan wanted to know what sort of person he was like. Shen Jiu didn’t have many possessions, aside from a collection of fancy-looking paper fans, cultivator stuff like talismans and whatever they needed for demon slaying, a bow and sheath of arrows, and a couple of manuals about cultivation and demon-slaying — Shen Yuan managed to find what seemed to be a collection of romantic, though very heterosexual, poems.
Damn, did Shen Jiu swing both ways?
Once he accepts that his search is fruitless, Shen Yuan decides to go outside, get some air, or whatever to clear his mind. The room is kinda stuffy, after all. When he slides open the doors, Luo Binghe is waiting for him on the other side.
“Oh, you.” Shen Yuan frowns. “You’re still here?”
“This one has no intentions to leave until you give me the Shikon Jewel.”
“Not likely,” says Shen Yuan, but his hand reaches to where the necklace is hidden underneath the robes. “Maybe in your dreams.”
Luo Binghe lifts an eyebrow at him. Up until now, Shen Yuan hasn’t had a good chance to properly look at him, aside from that time at the tree earlier today. Luo Binghe was handsome in the same way a wolf was: breathtaking but deadly. With his thick and long hair, high cheekbones and straight nose, dark starlight eyes framed by long eyelashes, and his clear jade-like complexion, Luo Binghe reminded Shen Yuan of those evil prince-type from his sister’s favorite novels, the ones that the protagonists knew were bad for them but couldn’t help falling for. He was also tall — Shen Yuan was considered tall by modern standards but even he had to crane his head to look at this terrifying guy from ancient China in the eyes. Shen Yuan also knew that, under those robes, Luo Binghe was probably well-built too.
Even though Shen Yuan isn’t much of a romantic, he’d really like to know how Shen Jiu managed to attract the attention of such a handsome man. Besides, he finds it difficult to believe that he bears a resemblance to Shen Jiu himself yet has never had much luck with catching anyone’s eye; everyone was always going on about how handsome his brothers were and how pretty his sister was so Shen Yuan felt like the good genes skipped him during his development.
Luo Binghe turns to him, lips parting as if to say something before stopping. Surprise flashes across his expression as he looks Shen Yuan up and down; Shen Yuan thought he saw the faintest hint of color flushing his cheeks as Luo Binghe quickly turned away. “Are you leaving?” he asks.
“Er.” Shen Yuan looks down at his robes. Despite the layers, the robes were surprisingly breathable and quite breezy down there, and were made with the softest silk Shen Yuan has ever touched in his life; the colors were pretty too, white and pale green, with intricate designs of cranes and bamboo. He’s certain he looks amazing but there’s no way he could return home in this getup, not without questions. No, he needed to wait until his original clothes were mended.
“Not anytime soon,” says Shen Yuan. He regards Luo Binghe thoughtfully. “Do you want to come with me for a walk?” He doesn’t know why he even asked that. It was a stupid question; perhaps he got hit real bad in the head last night because who in the right mind would an enemy to accompany them on a walk?
Luo Binghe narrows his eyes at him. “A walk?” he repeats, and Shen Yuan is somehow relieved that he too thinks it’s a dumb idea. “You treat me like a common dog.”
What? You’re mad at that? Shen Yuan stares at Luo Binghe incredulously. Shouldn’t you be more excited that you now have an opportunity to rob me of the Shikon Jewel or something?
“I didn’t mean it like that,” says Shen Yuan.
Luo Binghe snorts. “Of course you didn’t,” he replies sarcastically before, with a swish of his robes, he stalks away.
Shen Yuan stares after him. Part of him hoped Shen Jiu really didn’t actually take this man seriously because Shen Yuan is starting to think Luo Binghe has a whole tree up his ass. “Fine. Don’t come then,” he snaps at Luo Binghe’s retreating back. He doesn’t catch Luo Binghe’s ears twitching at his voice as he turns around, scowling. “It’s not like I wanted your company anyway.”
If Shen Yuan thought he could explore Cang Qiong by himself, he found out he was severely mistaken. People kept staring at him and pointing at his hair, and if his hair wasn’t the issue, they’d come up at him and tell him how much he reminds them of Shen Jiu. (Was Shen Jiu really this well known?) They even tried to give him offerings of fruit and vegetables, which Shen Yuan couldn’t really say no to because they were so insistent, shoving it in his hands and looking at him with such awestruck expressions.
Shen Yuan would admit it’s a nice change from being accused of being a foreigner spy or a Huli Jiang, but he really couldn’t eat all these by himself. He decided to give some of them to the less fortunate to lighten the load, and because he felt bad walking around with all this food and these people didn’t have enough to eat, before wandering around. It was a nice day to be outside, the weather cool and not too hot, but Shen Yuan keeps looking over his shoulder, the back of his neck prickling with discomfort.
The repairs for damaged buildings in town have already started, people hauling construction materials here and there. Shen Yuan watches them work for a few minutes, intrigued by how they got things done around here and asking questions. The townspeople seem confused that the reincarnation of their beloved cultivator was interested in such affairs but were pleased.
By the time he finishes exploring the entire Cang Qiong (it’s not as big as he thought), Shen Yuan decides to rest at a secluded spot in the outskirts of town. It was a nice place, with a bench under a shady tree and bubbling fountain nearby. Exhaling as he sits down, he checks the food in the basket before saying, “I know you’re here somewhere, Luo Binghe.”
When he doesn’t hear anything except the rustle of leaves in the breeze, Shen Yuan continues, “I have some bao here. A merchant gave them to me for getting rid of the demon but I think you should have some too. I mean, you did do all the dirty work of killing that overgrown worm and all I did was be useless, scream and get in the way.” He pauses, straining his ears.
It’d be pretty embarrassing if Luo Binghe wasn’t actually here and he was just imagining things.
A heartbeat later, he catches the faint swishing of fabric when Luo Binghe lands in front of him. Shen Yuan almost screams but stops when he notices the frown on Luo Binghe’s face.
“You weren’t useless,” says Luo Binghe, his voice strangely gentle.
Shen Yuan snorts. “Oh, right. I was just there to dig out the Jewel. Nothing else.” He moves and pats the empty spot next to him on the stone bench. “Here. Eat with me.”
Luo Binghe’s eyes widen before he mutters something under his breath. With hesitation, he sits down beside Shen Yuan although puts a respectable but excessive amount of distance between them. Shen Yuan refrains from making a comment about it, instead places the basket between them. Luo Binghe doesn’t take any food for himself for some reason, so Shen Yuan takes it on himself to give it to him.
“Do you like them peeled or unpeeled?”
Luo Binghe takes a long time to answer the question. “Peeled, please.”
Shen Yuan hums under his breath as he carefully peels off the outer layer of the bao, unaware of Luo Binghe’s watchful gaze. “Okay, I think I might have peeled a bit too much on this side —”
“That’s alright. This one doesn’t mind.” Luo Binghe holds out his hand.
Shen Yuan passes the bun to him and in the process, their hands brush together. Now, he was no romantic but he could’ve sworn there was some kind of spark he felt from their fleeting contact. He draws his hand back hastily, cheeks flushing.
Luo Binghe notices and smirks. “Does my touch repulse you?”
“What? No! It’s just —” Shen Yuan closes his mouth; no, there’s no point of explaining himself since it even sounded gross in his head. “Forget it.” He tucks into his bao, ignoring the heat rising to his face in response to Luo Binghe’s satisfied gaze. The bao is delicious, the savory flavor of barbecued pork melting on his tongue as he chews. Shen Yuan can’t recall the last time he’s ever eaten one that’s tasted so good.
“Anyway, why are you following me around?” Shen Yuan asks. “I thought I pissed you off or something.”
Luo Binghe narrows his eyes at him. He reaches out a hand — Shen Yuan’s heart clenches, thinking he might snatch the Shikon Jewel off his neck — when a thumb swipes over his cheek. Wide-eyed, Shen Yuan watches as Luo Binghe, not breaking eye-contact with him, licks off the sauce from his tongue. Shen Yuan would rather die than to admit the sight made his heart stutter. “I have said it before: I’m here for the Jewel and I have no plans to leave your side until you give it to me.”
Squeezing his eyes shut so Luo Binghe doesn’t see him roll his eyes at that, Shen Yuan exhales before finishing the rest of his bun. This guy’s weird, Shen Yuan thinks, getting mad at me because he thinks I treat him like a dog yet here he is following me around like a stray puppy. “You know I’m not going to hand it over to you, right? Even persistent guys get turned down because they don’t know when to stop.”
“A-Jiu hardly turns me down.”
“Well, he should’ve done it more because you really don’t know how to respect boundaries,” Shen Yuan huffs; in his irritation, he doesn’t catch the flicker in Luo Binghe’s expression. “Look, if you wanted to come with me, you could’ve just said so. I don’t mind if you’re going to sulk behind me the entire time but following me around like that is kinda creepy.”
Luo Binghe stares at him for a few seconds. “This one does not understand you very well but I will take it as a sign that you are displeased with my behavior.”
“Yes,” says Shen Yuan. “I am … very displeased.”
“Yet, you still insist on sharing a bun with me, even going as far as fulfilling my request.” Luo Binghe points out. He leans towards Shen Yuan; even though he’s still at a respectable distance away, Shen Yuan almost panics seeing his face this close. “What are you planning, Shen-gongzi?”
“N-nothing!” Shen Yuan tears his gaze away, his cheeks hot. “Look, I know you don’t like me very much but suck it up, okay? I’m just here until my clothes get fixed then I’ll hand the Jewel to Yue-daozhang for safekeeping then I’ll be out of your hair. I won’t bother anyone anymore.”
Luo Binghe sighs. “It’s not that I don’t like you,” he says and Shen Yuan pauses. “You put me in a very difficult position,” he says.
“Is it because of what past my life did to you? Shen Jiu, right?”
Luo Binghe glances at him, dark eyes thoughtful but doesn’t reply.
Shen Yuan frowns. “Well, on behalf of that Shen Jiu, I’m sorry for what he did to you. For every bad thing he did to you.” He crosses his arms and turns away.
Shen Yuan’s heart is pounding and his face is hot. He doesn’t know why he’s so worked up over something like this and he’s not even the kind of person who’d lose his cool outwardly like this. Maybe the whole thing wasn’t a coincidence, and that Shen Yuan was really the reincarnation of Shen Jiu, and that the anger he feels now is caused by whatever leftover feelings his soul carried over from his past life to this life he had now.
Shen Jiu, why did you have to be so complicated? Why couldn’t you have lived a simple and unassuming life, much like the one Shen Yuan plans to live? Why did you have to rope the handsome cultivator and the dark demon prince into your drama before dying? Why did you have to leave it all to Shen Yuan to clean up your messes? Shen Jiu, don’t you think you’re being inconsiderate?
Luo Binghe rises to his feet; once again, his expression is unreadable. “I seem to have angered you. My apologies.” He bows.
Taken aback by the gesture, Shen Yuan shakes his head quickly. “No, you don’t have to. It’s … ah, just forget I said anything.” Shen Yuan picks up his basket. “I should probably get back. Yue-daozhang has to look at my wounds — Eh?” He looks at the arm offered by Luo Binghe then at the man’s face. “What’s this?”
“Allow this one to walk you back,” says Luo Binghe. “To make up for ruining your pleasant mood.”
“No, it’s alright. I think I can find my way back, thank you very much,” says Shen Yuan, waving him off. Luo Binghe refuses to budge, still holding his arm out, his jaw set and eyes glittering stubbornly, even when Shen Yuan tries to push his arm down.
Sighing, Shen Yuan tries to negotiate with him. “Look, I’ll be fine. If you want to help, you can point out the way —”
“Please allow this one to walk you back,” repeats Luo Binghe as if he didn’t hear Shen Yuan’s protests.
Shen Yuan stares at him, and he stares back. Honestly, why is this man so stubborn? Shen Yuan thinks, sighing. He really does have a whole tree — no, the whole Sacred Tree — up his ass.
The corners of Luo Binghe’s lips quirk upwards as Shen Yuan takes his arm with some hesitation. Although Shen Yuan is pretty much safe as long as the Beads of Subjugation are around Luo Binghe’s neck, he can’t help the pinch of suspicion towards Luo Binghe’s gesture. After all, this is the same person who wanted to steal the Jewel for his own selfish ends. No matter how handsome or gentlemanly he is, Shen Yuan can’t afford to trust him like that. Besides, the whole ‘switching my murderous personality on-off when needed’ thing he was doing was sketchy.
Shen Yuan decides he will, figuratively, hold this man at an arm’s length.
Luo Binghe remains oblivious of Shen Yuan’s wary glances, or maybe he’s just good at ignoring it. He keeps his gaze ahead, his gait never faltering, as he leads the way.
The good favor Shen Yuan gains from the townspeople today is short-lived, for the moment they see him in the presence of the half-demon who ravaged Cang Qiong fifty years ago, their gazes turn hard with apprehension, suspicion and even hostility. (Shen Yuan hopes it’s all directed to Luo Binghe and not him; Shen Yuan wouldn’t associate himself with bad guys if he had a choice). Somehow, Luo Binghe ignores the looks he receives, his posture straight with a confident air.
Shen Yuan has to give him credit for his incredibly thick skin.
Either Luo Binghe has excellent navigational skills or the town hasn’t changed much in fifty years because they arrive at Yue Qingyuan’s residence within 10 minutes, which Shen Yuan begrudgingly acknowledges that if Luo Binghe had let him go by himself, he’d take a whole hour and still wouldn’t find himself standing outside the gates within that time.
Shen Yuan turns to Luo Binghe. “Are you coming in?”
Luo Binghe shakes his head.
Shen Yuan purses his lips. “Then, take this.” He offers the basket to Luo Binghe. “No, don’t give me that look. It’s a thank-you gift, I guess, for bringing me back here.” And not murdering me in cold blood for the Shikon Jewel, he adds inwardly. “Also, I didn’t see you at breakfast this morning so I don’t know if you’re getting your meals. And, I don’t know about you, but a pork bun won’t last you a day, and besides I don’t need these offerings but I’m sure you need it more than I do so please —”
“This one does not require sustenance.”
Shen Yuan stops rambling immediately.
“My cultivation level is advanced enough that food is merely —” The rest of Luo Binghe’s explanation is cut off when Shen Yuan shoves the basket towards him, his cheeks flushed.
“Oh, just stop talking and take the basket, will you? Honestly!” Releasing a loud sigh of disgust, Shen Yuan spins on his heel and storms towards the residence, leaving the half-demon staring after him.
This world, full of monsters and cultivation, is not for Shen Yuan. As much as he enjoyed the whole premise of magic, beasts and adventure, he only enjoys them in stories where he is far removed from the danger of that sort of world. If anyone asked if he’d live in this sort of world, he’d say “No,” because obviously who would want to be in a world where the possibility of death hung over your head like a cloud? Shen Yuan wanted a comfortable and uninteresting life, which he was very happy with at home.
And yet here he was in this land he didn’t know the name of, in a time he didn’t belong to.
This morning, on his second day in this strange world, he decided to go on a walk to clear his head, wandering beyond the Cang Qiong’s gates towards the forest; he thought of finding the Bone-Eater’s Well in hopes of coming across clues that could help him return to his world while waiting for his clothes from home to be mended properly.
(He told Yue Qingyuan that it’s alright if they couldn’t salvage it all, especially his sweater which probably wasn’t washable with their methods.)
Besides staying indoors and snooping around Shen Jiu’s belongings, it’s not like Shen Yuan had anything better to do. So rather than staying indoors and while time away, he might as well familiarize himself with this place lest he’s unable to return home, which he hopes won’t be the case.
After wandering through the forest, Shen Yuan finally comes across a familiar landmark: the Sacred Tree. Signs of battle from two days ago were still visible, from the fallen trees and churned earth. Shen Yuan thought he saw a spot of grass stained dark red; that must’ve been where he bled after the Jewel was torn out of him. At the thought of the Jewel, he reaches up to his neck, clasping the Jewel between his fingers briefly to assure himself that it’s still there, before looking around some more.
The spot where Luo Binghe used to be was devoid of any markings showing a person had been stuck to the tree for fifty years, not even an area free of the algae on the bark where Luo Binghe’s back had once rested. Shen Yuan puts his hand on the bark and feels the rough surface under his fingertips. Nope, it felt like regular bark, nothing special.
With a sigh, Shen Yuan hops off the roots and continues his way through the forest. It’s a nice day today, clouds floating lazily past the blue sky with a cool breeze. The air smelled clean too, free of the stench of modern-day pollutants — maybe that was the appeal of driving hours away from the city to hike in the mountains for some people.
Perhaps Shen Yuan might try hiking some time when he returns to the modern world.
As he was deep in thought about the things he’d do when he gets back, he doesn’t notice the forest changing around him, how the trees are now taller than earlier with their shade blotting out the sunlight, the birdsong growing distant until all that is left is the crunching of leaves under his footsteps. Only when a branch snaps somewhere behind him, he snaps back to the present. Startled, Shen Yuan whips around to the source of the noise. It’s a bush, a very big and suspicious bush. Shen Yuan squints. No, it’d be best if he pretended not to hear anything and walk away quickly; after all, his superstitious grandfather did say if he encounters anything out of the ordinary in nature he should ignore it and get the hell out as fast as he can.
Shen Yuan takes one step back when heavy arms wrap around him. He opens his mouth to cry out, only for something blunt to hit his head. The world blinks out.
“Where is he?”
Yue Qingyuan’s fingers rest on the strings as he looks up. Luo Binghe is standing in the doorway, his silhouette outlined by the sun shining from outside. As usual, his face is like cold marble, aloof and detached, but the way his dark eyes smolder gives his emotions away.
Yue Qingyuan had always wondered what Shen Jiu saw in this man. Luo Binghe was nothing more than an arrogant halfling, who took too much pride in his own mediocre skills yet often eyed other humans and demons with envy. He seemed like the sort who, if he had everything in the world, would still covet for more to fill the void. But around Shen Jiu, he was different. Those hateful eyes turned soft, the cruelty in his smile disappeared, and his actions became gentle.
Sometimes, Yue Qingyuan wondered if Shen Jiu truly loved him. Being the guardian of the Shikon Jewel meant he could trust no one, not even the person he considered the closest to him. Shen Jiu had always been a distant person, always looking at someplace far away, and locking up all his minute expressions behind a flick of his fan. Yue Qingyuan had known him since they were children on the streets, so he was used to it.
Around Luo Binghe, Shen Jiu was different. Not in a drastic way but in the subtle ways that only Yue Qingyuan could pick up. How he seemed to smile a bit more when Luo Binghe was around, how he’d come home a couple of minutes later when he went to meet the half-demon, and how he seemed to be lost in his thoughts when they were apart. Once when Yue Qingyuan asked Shen Jiu what he thought of Luo Binghe, he laughed and said, “He thinks he can fool me with his sweet words and devotion but do not worry, shixiong. I can hold myself in a fight if it comes down to it, and Luo Binghe was never much of a challenge anyway.” It was because of that answer that Yue Qingyuan thought he only kept Luo Binghe because it amused him.
But for Luo Binghe, Yue Qingyuan thought Shen Jiu’s company meant something else to him. After all, the way he looked at a-Jiu was the same way Yue Qingyuan looked at him too.
“You mean Shen-gongzi?” asks Yue Qingyuan and he knows from the way Luo Binghe’s ears perk up that perhaps he and the half-demon were two sides of the same coin.
Smoothing down his robes, Yue Qingyuan rises to his feet. Luo Binghe doesn’t move, his chin set stubbornly, even when Yue Qingyuan stands before him. “He’s out on a walk. Hardly nothing Luo-gongzi should be worried about.”
Luo Binghe narrows his eyes. “Are you not afraid of losing him again?”
“I trust him to keep himself out of danger.”
Luo Binghe laughs, a harsh caustic sound. “The boy is a naive fool. He is too trusting towards anyone who so much as looks at him and has no sense of self-preservation. It would not be difficult to take advantage of him. He is nothing like Shen Jiu.”
“Do you think I’m not aware of that?” asks Yue Qingyuan. “He has the same soul as Shen Jiu but his heart and mind is different. You must remember that Shen Yuan is his own person, not a shadow of Shen Jiu.”
A vein jumps in Luo Binghe’s temple and for a moment, his eyes and demon seal glows red. Yue Qingyuan’s muscles tense, bracing himself for a fight. But Luo Binghe doesn’t jump to it, instead draws a deep breath and looks away from Yue Qingyuan.
“He also has the Shikon Jewel,” adds Luo Binghe. “Why give him the Jewel when he is not fit to protect it?”
Yue Qingyuan would never admit it to this half-demon but he realizes this was an oversight on his end. It was true that Shen Yuan lacked skills necessary to defend the Jewel yet some foolish part of him believed that it would be safe in his possession. Ah, it seems that he should’ve taken his own advice as well.
Luo Binghe notices his silence and the cruel amusement flashes across his features. “You are a fool, Yue Qingyuan.” And he sweeps out of the doorway.
The blindfold over Shen Yuan’s eyes is yanked away from his head. The sudden light flooding his eyes causes him to recoil and squint. There are rough hands on his hands and back, holding him fast against the floor. As his eyes adjust, he sees feet in view — gross-looking feet caked in dirt — and gags inwardly at the realization that his face is squished on the very same floor they’re stepping on.
“We’ve captured him like you asked, Boss,” announces a gruff voice somewhere behind Shen Yuan to his left. “This is the boy with the green robes.”
Shen Yuan is hauled to his feet and shoved towards a man sitting in the shadows of the hut. Though his features are obscured by the shadows, he was a broad and large looking man, with biceps the size of Shen Yuan’s torso and hands as big as his face. He was very pale too, and when he spoke, his voice bearing an unpleasant quality like metal dragging over asphalt, “Give me the Shikon Jewel.”
Despite his fear that he could be crushed like a toothpick by this man, Shen Yuan finds himself shaking his head. “I left it at home,” he lies. “So, I can’t give it to you even if I wanted to.”
“Hey, don’t lie to Boss! He knows you have it.”
“Yeah, give it over to Boss or else he’ll cut your pretty face up.”
The men grab him by the arms, holding him fast. Shen Yuan struggles to no avail, yelping when they tug him hard enough to nearly dislocate his arm. The boss rises to his feet, lumbering over him with a terrifying grin on his face. His hand reaches for his sword, drawing it leisurely out of its scabbard.
Shen Yuan can only stare, his limbs locked in fear, as he watches the man raise the blade high above his head. He brings it down in a slicing arc and Shen Yuan squeezes his eyes shut.
A strangled cry rises from the man next to him and the hands on his shoulders and arms release him. Shen Yuan opens his eyes only to see a dead man lying in a pool of blood at his feet and the shocked faces of the others staring in horror at their boss.
“Boss, what are you doing?”
The boss grins; something about him isn’t quite right, the way his eyes appear dull and the awkward jolt of his limbs as he moves. Shen Yuan scrambles back and bumps against the chest of the men behind him. Big mistake.
“He’s right here!”
Shen Yuan is shoved forward once again. He falls on all fours, knees knocking against the hard wooden floor and the impact jolting up his hands. The boss slashes his sword again. Shen Yuan barely rolls out of the way as the blade embeds itself on the floor with a thunk.
“Fine! Fine! I’ll give you the Jewel —” Shen Yuan breaks off when the boss turns towards his own men. He watches, in a mix of morbid fear, as the boss chases his subordinates around the hut. The men shriek in terror, crying for mercy but their pleas fall on deaf ears. The boss kills them anyway.
In the midst of the chaos, Shen Yuan crawls towards the exit when something whistles past his ear, nicking the skin. He screams to find a dagger point down on the floor next to him, pinning his sleeve to the floor. Just his luck! He whips around to see the boss, covered in scarlet liquid. His subordinates are all dead, their limbs mangled and bodies strewn across the floor like unwanted dolls.
Shen Yuan frantically reaches into his robe before his hands close around the Jewel. He yanks it out, the cord snapping off his nape, and holds it high. The boss stops in his tracks. “You want the Jewel so bad?” he calls out shrilly. “Then go get it!”
With all the strength he can gather, he flings it out the open window.
Was it stupid? Yes. Will Yue-daozhang kill him if he found out Shen Yuan had discarded the Shikon Jewel he was supposed to be looking after? Definitely. Does this mean Shen Yuan will make it out alive? Probably.
Ah, once I get out of this world, I’ll have to fill the stupid well with cement.
The boss turns towards the window then turns back to Shen Yuan. He approaches him, steps slow and deliberate, as if savoring the fear draining the blood out Shen Yuan’s face.
“Ack, go for the Jewel not me!” Shen Yuan shouts as he scrambles to his feet. There’s a tug on his sleeve followed by a loud Riiiiip. Shen Yuan remembers the dagger from earlier. Hurriedly, he yanks it out of the floor and throws it in the general direction of the boss. With his horrible aim, of course the boss steps aside.
Frantic, Shen Yuan darts around the room away from the boss. He grabs the closest weapon he can find, a qiang6. He spins around to face the large man, brandishing the weapon. He knew nothing about weapons but at least this qiang will keep some distance between them. However it's is heavier than he thought, its point shaking in his hands. “Stay back!” he yells as loud as he can. “Or I’ll stab you!”
The boss laughs, as if he knows Shen Yuan doesn’t have the heart to do such a thing, before springing forward. With a cry, Shen Yuan thrusts the qiang forward, impaling the boss where the heart should be.
The blood drains away from his face.
Yep, there’s definitely something wrong with the boss because how the fuck is he still grinning and standing there like he doesn’t have a whole shaft sticking out of his chest.
The boss snaps the qiang through the shaft through the middle before swinging his sword out towards Shen Yuan.
Shen Yuan curls on himself, eyes squeezing shut, when the sharp clang of metal shattering rings through the air. He opens his eyes to see a figure clad in black and red fluttering robes in front of him and almost sobs in relief. “Luo Binghe?”
Luo Binghe gives no indication he heard him but lunges towards the boss with his claws out. The boss has brute strength on his side, easily deflecting Luo Binghe’s blows, but Luo Binghe is lighter and faster. No matter how the boss tries to defend himself, Luo Binghe’s claws rip gashes into the pale skin, drawing blood.
How the boss was still fighting and not roaring in pain, Shen Yuan doesn’t know.
The boss, growing frustrated, bellows in outrage. Shen Yuan sees the flash of Luo Binghe’s grin when the boss throws a forward punch. Luo Binghe catches his arm as if it were nothing, letting the force of it throw him forward and hops. Using the momentum of the boss, Luo Binghe kicks off his chest and tears his arm off.
The arm flies away as Luo Binghe backflips to his feet. It would’ve been an impressive sight if not the arm landing in front of Shen Yuan’s feet, fingers still twitching.
This was truly too savage!
The boss stumbles, the grin now replaced with an expression of shock. Luo Binghe cackles and springs again. This time, he punches a hole through the boss’s chest, a spray of black ichor staining the wall behind the large man.
But then Luo Binghe yanks his hand out, pulling something black and slimy that screeches in his fist and tosses it to the floor. He leaps back to Shen Yuan’s side, kicking the arm out of the way. His eyes are glowing red, ears folded flat against his head. “Where’s the Shikon Jewel?” he demands.
“You ripped his heart out!”
Luo Binghe scowls. “He’s already dead.”
“But still!” Shen Yuan exclaims, stricken. “You’re a monster!”
A loud screech interrupts their exchange. It turns out the thing Luo Binghe pulled out of the boss’s chest was a demon, a crow with three glowing red eyes. It rises to its feet, glaring at the two of them and unfurling its wings threateningly. Shen Yuan quickly ducks behind Luo Binghe, an undignified whimper escaping from him. Luo Binghe tenses but holds an arm out protectively.
The crow demon sizes up Luo Binghe, cawing and puffing its feathers out. Luo Binghe snarls in reply, complete with the low threatening rumbling sound and bared fangs.
This would’ve been funny to Shen Yuan if not for the fact that he was in this terrible situation.
The crow demon stops, weighing its options. With an irritated screech, it launches itself out the window.
Immediately, all the tension drains out of Shen Yuan as he collapses to his knees on the floor. He clutches his heart, panting hard. “I thought I was done for!”
“Where is the Jewel?”
Shen Yuan glares up at Luo Binghe incredulously. “What? I nearly got stabbed to death like a shish kebab and all you care about is that stupid rock?”
Luo Binghe’s high cheekbones flush red. “The demon is after the Jewel, foolish boy!” he snaps. “Where is it?”
Shen Yuan stares at him, jaw agape. “I threw it out the window.”
Luo Binghe’s mouth falls open. “What?” He seizes Shen Yuan by the collar, yanking him roughly to his feet. Ignoring Shen Yuan’s cry, he leaps out of the hut, Shen Yuan in tow. They land on the grass outside in time to see the crow demon pick up a lilac orb in its mouth. It screeches as if mocking them before launching itself in the air.
Luo Binghe curses in a strange, harsh-barking language Shen Yuan hasn’t heard — a dog demon language? — before turning on him. The look Luo Binghe gives him is frightening, as if he might rip Shen Yuan’s arms and legs off before tearing his heart out with his teeth.
Shen Yuan yelps, falling backwards on the grass as Luo Binghe looms over him. His mind flashes his memories of when Luo Binghe held him against the tree by his throat, the savage way he tore through the Centipede demon with his claws, and how he tore out the man’s arm without flinching a minute ago. Overlaying those images is the thought of that charming, silky-voiced man whom he shared a bao with and walked him back to Yue Qingyuan’s house.
Oh, why did Shen Yuan think Luo Binghe wouldn’t hurt him when he mentioned several times that he’s after the Shikon Jewel? Shen Yuan is such a huge dumbass!
Luo Binghe’s robes sweep past him. Shen Yuan’s eyes widen, turning to see Luo Binghe grab a sheath of arrows and a bow. He opens his mouth to ask what’s going on when the weapons are thrown unceremoniously at him.
“Get on your feet. We have a demon to chase.”
Shen Yuan doesn’t even have time to protest or tell Luo Binghe to go on his own when he finds himself riding Luo Binghe’s back in pursuit of the crow demon. Why Luo Binghe insisted on bringing him along, even after Shen Yuan told him he didn’t know how to use a bow and arrow, was a mystery. Besides, bringing Shen Yuan along brought no benefit! He was only dead weight.
“I have myopia and astigmatism! There’s no way I can make the shot!” Shen Yuan yells over the wind rushing past their ears.
Luo Binghe was running at a terrifying breakneck speed. Even his jumps could clear tens of metres in a single bound. But they weren’t getting any closer to the crow demon.
“This one does not understand what nonsense you’re spouting. Just shoot!”
Overhead, the crow demon caws in amusement before tipping its head back. The Jewel rolls down its beak and disappears in its throat.
“It swallowed the Jewel!” exclaims Shen Yuan.
“Then you’d better hurry up!”
Shen Yuan has never wanted to cry more than he did now. He unslings the bow over his shoulder, nocking an arrow on the string. Somehow, he manages to stay on Luo Binghe’s back as he takes aim.
“A-Jiu was a master archer,” says Luo Binghe.
Shen Yuan grits his teeth. “I’m not Shen Jiu, I’m Shen Yuan!” Even though he’s sick of people expecting some part of Shen Jiu to be alive in him, Shen Yuan finds himself hoping desperately for the same thing.
Shen Jiu, forget about the unsavory names I called you for a moment and hear me out! Lend me your strength!
Shen Yuan pulls back the bowstring, sighting the point of the arrow at its target before letting it fly.
The arrow barely reaches the demon, landing pathetically in the dirt ahead of them.
Shen Yuan could sense the waves of malevolence radiating off Luo Binghe at his incompetence. “I’m sorry I’ll try again!” And so he did, but the arrows completely miss their targets, either going wide or the crow demon casually soars out of reach.
“Forget it!” Luo Binghe snaps before Shen Yuan can use his last arrow.
Just then, the crow demon’s body swells alarmingly before its body bursts in a shower of feathers, revealing a larger and more serpentine-like demon. Shen Yuan gapes in horror; did this demon seriously undergo a Pokemon evolution just now? It wasn’t even a full crow anymore, more like a crow-snake!
“We’re getting close to a neighboring town so I’ll drop you off there and chase the demon myself,” says Luo Binghe.
“You think I can trust you to play fetch?” retorts Shen Yuan. “You’ll just steal the Jewel for yourself.”
Though he can’t see Luo Binghe’s face, Shen Yuan knows he’s grinning.
As they approach the neighboring town, the crow demon suddenly nosedives through the air. Screams rip through the air when the demon snatches a child from a bridge crossing a stream running through the town.
Shen Yuan’s stomach twists when the demon toys with the child in its claws. “We have to save the child!”
“I’m going to jump!”
Luo Binghe stops, the inertia nearly lurching Shen Yuan off his back, when he leaps, the dry earth under his feet cracking from the force of it. As they sail through the air towards the crow demon, the stupidest and most desperate idea comes to him. Using all his strength, Shen Yuan clambers up on Luo Binghe’s back and uses him as a springboard to launch himself at the child.
He overshoots slightly, crashing into the demon in a painful impact of feathers and outraged cawing when he starts sliding off its back. In desperation, he digs his fingers for purchase when he slips down beside the child. He latches an arm around the child and hangs on tight. The demon, even with its new body, barely holds the weight of two of them and releases.
Both Shen Yuan and the child scream as they plummet through the air. In the fall Shen Yuan twists around to protect the child when he hits the water hard. He gasps, choking on water. In his arms, the child struggles.
Shen Yuan breaks the surface of the water, him and the child sputtering and coughing. Half his brain is working at this point but thankfully, it’s the sensible part of his brain; he swims towards the bank. A crowd of townspeople have gathered there when he drags the child to shore, still fighting for his breath.
Shen Yuan’s body racks with coughs as he tries to expel all the water from his lungs. His glasses have managed to stay on miraculously but it’s speckled with dirt and water and there’s a crack running across one of the lenses. He tries to rub it off with his sleeve but that only smears the dirt over the lens. With a frustrated sigh, he takes his glasses off and shoves it in his robes; thankfully his eyesight isn’t bad enough that he’s helpless without it. He just had to live with the less than crisp-clear HD vision for now.
Shen Yuan notices the claw from the demon is still attached to the child’s arm, twitching as if trying to return to its body. He pries it off as gently as he can before turning his attention to the child.
“Are you okay?
She nods, shivering from the cold and the fright. It seems she didn’t swallow as much water as he did. “Thank you, gongzi,” he stammers as her mother appears, pale-faced but relieved.
Shen Yuan waves the townspeople off before pulling himself to his feet. His robes are heavy from the water so he tears them off, stripping down to his inner layers. He tosses them in a pile and chases after Luo Binghe and the demon a hundred metres ahead.
The crow demon has stopped flying away from them and is instead, fighting Luo Binghe by swooping and clawing him. Luo Binghe seems to be having some difficulty with fighting it, probably because of the Shikon Jewel giving the crow demon more power.
A slope rises to Shen Yuan’s left. He runs towards it with the idea that the height may give him an advantage. “Please stop fucking around and help me out, Shen Jiu,” he mutters as he slings his bow off his back, cresting the hill. “You need to save the Jewel. And your ex, if he is your ex,” he adds as an afterthought when he hears Luo Binghe snarl at the demon. “He seems like a terrible ex though, even with the pretty face.”
He hopes badmouthing Luo Binghe could appease Shen Jiu’s spirit somehow.
Shen Yuan has to squint but he can make out the faint lilac glow of the Jewel in the demon’s body. He slaps the twitching claw on his last arrow, relieved when it grips the shaft like a baby’s hand around a thumb. Inhaling, he notches the arrow and pulls back the bowstring. The world seems to quiet down, his focus sharpening as he takes aim.
Detachedly, he wonders if this strange feeling is because of the adrenaline pumping through his system or if it’s Shen Jiu’s spirit helping him. Or maybe it’s because he’s standing on solid ground and not on someone’s back, or that that dark-prince type Luo Binghe wasn’t there to distract him with his silky voice and his solid body underneath him.
Agh, stop thinking of that stupid jerk!
Shen Yuan shakes his head and tries to concentrate again. The razor sharp focus returns to him; he holds his breath, waiting for the right moment when the demon soars upwards, wings outstretched. A huff of his breath and the arrow flies.
Though the trajectory of the arrow is nowhere near the demon’s body, the claw attached to the shaft drags the arrow towards the demon’s body. The closer it gets to the demon’s body, the stronger the pull and the faster the arrow flies. It was kind of like putting two magnets together. Then, the arrow hits the demon square in the chest right on the spot where the Jewel was located.
The demon cries out. A bright light explodes from its chest, sparks flying like fireworks. Shen Yuan watches it all, entranced by the sight, when a feeling of wrongness seizes him.
The sparks arc away from the explosion site, spreading across the sky like shooting stars.
Below the hill, Luo Binghe whips his head towards Shen Yuan. He’s too far for Shen Yuan to make out his features but he can tell that Luo Binghe would like nothing more than to strangle him. The bow drops to his side with a clatter. “No no no no,” Shen Yuan whispers as Luo Binghe comes closer.
His demon seal and eyes are glowing a fierce red, fists balled at his sides, his ears laid flat on his head and his features twisted in a scowl.
Shen Yuan cries out, “ Sit! ”
Luo Binghe face-plants into the ground. He growls, actually growls like a dog, when he pushes himself up. There’s grass stuck in his hair and dirt smears on his cheek. Without a word, he gets to his feet and continues his approach. If anything, he looks even angrier that Shen Yuan used the Word.
Ah, Yue Qingyuan, didn’t you say the Word would stop him? Shen Yuan stumbles back in fear as Luo Binghe looms over him.
“I’m gonna say the Word again —”
Luo Binghe thrusts a hand at him. Shen Yuan yelps, throwing his hands up to protect himself from Luo Binghe’s wrath. After a heartbeat passes, he opens his eyes. Luo Binghe hasn’t laid a hand on him. Heart racing, he looks at Luo Binghe, who was now kneeling on the grass beside him, and holding out his hand. On his open palm lay a small crystalline shard, pulsing with a soft lilac light.
“Oh,” says Shen Yuan stupidly. “What’s that?”
Luo Binghe’s expression didn’t change at the question but something about his eyes flashing red told Shen Yuan that one wrong word and Shen Yuan was a goner. “I don’t know,” says Luo Binghe, the faintest tremble in his smooth voice scaring the shit out of Shen Yuan. “Why don’t you explain it to this one?” he suggests.
Shen Yuan blinks. Hesitantly, he picks the shard out of Luo Binghe’s palm, careful not to touch his skin for the fear that Luo Binghe might explode or something. Then he examines the shard. Realization causes his insides to shrink abruptly. Swallowing, he raises his gaze to Luo Binghe’s.
“I,” he begins, his mouth going sandpaper-dry, “I think I broke the Shikon Jewel.”
It was a miracle how Shen Yuan wasn’t gruesomely murdered on the way back to Cang Qiong. Perhaps it was because of the Beads of Subjugation and the threat of the Word hanging over him, or that Luo Binghe probably still had some lingering feelings for Shen Jiu (hence when he looked at Shen Yuan, there’s no way he’d be able to kill him, right?).
The worst treatment he gets from Luo Binghe is a ride home on his back. He even threw his outer robes over Shen Yuan’s body to protect his ‘modesty’ but hey, it’s not like Shen Yuan was naked but — Ah, wait his inner robes are white and they were wet …
The only indication of Luo Binghe's anger was his silence, and the dig of his claws on Shen Yuan’s legs as he carried him on his back.
Shen Yuan wants to ask if Luo Binghe is truly mad at him but he decides against it for the fear that Luo Binghe might rip his legs off. So he apologizes silently and buries his face in Luo Binghe’s shoulder, arms tightening around him.
He feels even horrible having to explain the entire ordeal to Yue Qingyuan when he returns. With Luo Binghe sitting behind him in the corner, radiating waves of malice, and Yue Qingyuan staring at him with wide-eyed disbelief, Shen Yuan couldn’t even explain himself properly without feeling like he was close to tears. The last time he felt like this was when he brought home his Maths test results back when he was in 5th grade. The whooping he got from his father couldn’t compare to the experience of having to explain how the Shikon Jewel was reduced to a single shard because of him.
“I’m sorry,” he could only say uselessly as his hands shook on his lap. He thought not looking at Yue Qingyuan as he explained would help but he could feel the weight of his disappointment bearing down on his being. “I thought it was a good idea but turns out it wasn’t and I feel so awful —”
Hands come to rest on his shoulders. Shen Yuan looks up to see Yue Qingyuan shaking his head. “No, it is alright. The most important thing is that you’re safe,” he says.
Behind them, Luo Binghe snorts.
Shen Yuan draws a shaky breath and nods. The weight of Yue Qingyuan’s hands on his shoulders is somehow comforting, and the gentle way in which he spoke earlier eases a little of the guilt constricting his chest. He looks up at Yue Qingyuan again; something about his kindly features and the general Da-ge vibe he radiated broke something in Shen Yuan. “Y-yeah, I guess,” he mumbles.
Yue Qingyuan’s lips part, like he wants to say something, but thinks better of it. Shen Yuan can’t help wondering uneasily whether that had anything to do with the whole ‘You remind me of my dear Xiao-Jiu’ thing but is grateful he doesn’t do anything more.
With a reassuring squeeze of his shoulders, Yue Qingyuan lets Shen Yuan go.
“So, where are you going to stay?” asks Shen Yuan when Luo Binghe walks him back to Shen Jiu’s room. Of course, it’s suspicious and it’s not like Shen Yuan would be attacked about ten metres along the way, and besides wasn’t Luo Binghe mad at him, but he lets Luo Binghe do what he likes. It’s the least he can do for pissing him off. “I mean, you do have a place to stay, do you?” he asks when Luo Binghe doesn’t reply.
Luo Binghe is staring at him. “You need not concern yourself over me. This one will be alright,” he answers. At least he doesn't sound angry anymore but the softness in his tone rubs Shen Yuan the wrong way.
A furious Luo Binghe would somehow be preferable over this gentle-sounding Luo Binghe. The least Shen Yuan could do would be to use the Word then he could run for Yue Qingyuan for protection. But this Luo Binghe? Looking at him with those dark eyes that seemed so close yet so distant, doing absolutely nothing yet tugging all of Shen Yuan’s heartstrings and causing him to ache so badly in his chest with just a look, Shen Yuan truly didn’t know what he should do to make Luo Binghe stop.
No, wait, he did!
“Ah, right, your jacket — robe, I mean.” Shen Yuan hastily attempts to remove the mentioned article of clothing. Only for Luo Binghe to stop him by placing his hands on his arms. Even with the layers of fabric between their skin, it still feels like Luo Binghe is touching him directly. His warmth seems to seep through the fabric and melt into Shen Yuan’s skin.
Shen Yuan freezes.
“Keep it,” says Luo Binghe, low enough for only the both of them to hear. He leans close to Shen Yuan's ear and whispers, “And please refrain from stripping in front of others next time.”
Shen Yuan blinks. Then frowns as Luo Binghe’s words sink in for the next few seconds. His jaw falls open and his cheeks heat up. “Luo Binghe, you shameless —”
But Luo Binghe was already gone.