Shen Qingqiu sips his tea in the silence of his bamboo house and tries not to shiver. He'd spent too long in his Quiet Pool, scrubbing and scrubbing to wash off the dirt on his soul, to drown out the voices (“I’ll come back and get you out!”) and rinse away all the wretched, torturous feeling that made his eyes sting and his inherently unstable qi roil in his ruined pathways, stripping him of his rightful tolerance to the chill of the water and night.
Mouth twisting unhappily, Shen Qingqiu finished his tea without tasting it and changes into a simple (but soft) sleeping robe, curling up on his cold, hard slab of a bed (good, familiar, stopped him sleeping too deep to react to a threat
now that no one guards his back) with a blanket pulled over. Ignoring the ache in his eyes and the painful thrumming in his head and meridians, Shen Qingqiu gently held a small black and silver fan close to his chest and drifted into a restless sleep.
His head thrashed to the side, skin cold and clammy as ice surged up his spine.
An old man with cold eyes who smelled of bitter pipe smoke -cry. Cry and wail and beg with the blood letter spread around you. Lie to them. Steal through their goodwill. “Earn your taels you worthless rat. Your life is mine!”-
A Brother -"Qi-ge!”- reassuring pressure against his back, a kind smile, warm eyes and calming balance in his soul, steadying and soothing the hotcoldhotcold in his brother’s soul -"Xiao-Jiu!”-
Heat roared along his nerves, fierce and bright like blistering rage. Burning.
-"No one can stand you!”- Cruel -bright eyes in too thin too young faces, loyalty, a flex of will and sharp blade, a dead horse, mercy for a rat. Treachery. Changing hands like a piece of meat but less desirable. The cruel-kind mask of scum in pretty colours.
Cold water swelled, an unstoppable tide. Drowning.
A bright smile, a sweet scent, a light, bright laughed gentle touch. Safety. Softness. (Ignorance. Naivety. Lies.
-"I fell down running to fetch groceries from the market"
“Ah! A-Jiu, so clumsy! Be more careful, I don’t want to see you hurt!”
“Yes Miss Hai... I mean, yes... Haitang"- )
Fire flared, scorching, consuming, deadly and unquenchable.
Lashed on his spine, ripped skin raw and healed, mottled and ruined. A branding iron pressed to the small of his back, white hot agony as it dug in deeper, a scream ripped from his throat, a monster’s face dripping with sick satisfaction.
An estate set alight.
Ash in his lungs, blood on his hands, betrayal in her eyes.
Leaving the wolves for the tiger.
Fire and water clashed. Ice crackling, steam billowing, fractures spreading, swirling energy spinning out of control, a firestorm, a whirlpool, violent and powerful stabbing into internal organs and spiritual veins, chaos and desperation and destruction.
Something cracked apart.
Something tugged loose.
Blood spread on his lips.
Something caught on the jagged edges, something foreign and broken and familiar, with fire burned out and water long dried up, with shatter patterns of desiccation and a smothering sooty ash.
He stilled and sunk into the centre of his Self.
Shen Jiu opened his eyes. It was dark, more than dark. There were shadows but shadows like ink, like smoke, shifting and swirling and shifting randomly, light up intermittently with bright bursts of two distinct energies; angular flames flaring in sweeps of heat as if riding the motion of a wing; cold fractals shimmering like tortoiseshell, undulating like light through water. It, it was beautiful... but it was vicious. Every overlapping wisp between detonations reacted savagely, equal and opposite but instead of balance they obliterated each other.
And it hurt.
The flares came faster, hissing like hot steam filling the shadow world, boiling water and struggling fire clashing and aching, but snatches of... colour, images, impression fell through the wound-like voids before the shadows engulfed them. A man. Sly eyes, sharp grin, manic black tainted orange-red energy masked with predatory care. Deadly hidden claws, camouflaging stripes, yellowed fangs. A Tiger.
Shen Jiu tried to move. He tried to curl his shoulders and bend his knees because this one meant danger, but he couldn’t react, couldn’t move. He panicked but didn’t, the fear was far away, didn’t touch him, like the shadows were smothering him too.
Shards fell faster, piercing his eyes, his ears, his skin; fragments of experience, flashed of sensation, overwhelming and unstoppable, blades stabbing too fast to really experience but leaving... parcels of, of knowledge like sinking stones in his gut.
(Qi-ge... you didn’t come. I waited but you never came. You promised... are you... a-are you dead? ...please don’t be dead... there’s people dead and ash building where you left me, is it my fault you didn’t come back? Qi-ge it hurts, brother it hurts, I’m breaking, they hurt me, I killed them, I’ve never seen them but I know their names, I hate them, I killed them, do you hate me?)
He saw a boy that looked like him staring back from the water, he was heaving and gasping and vomiting blood. -He was older, a teenager, he was him, he was not. - A Deviation of his Qi, he’d tried a trick in the book the Tiger showed him, only half readable from the brown stains of old blood. Life blood. It burned cold and hot worse than any human fire and dug into the cracks in him, splitting them wider not sealing them shut. (Why are you doing this? It hurts! Idiot! Don’t trust the Tiger, he’s poison!). Water bloomed red.
He saw a face in the slit of a blade, it was him but older, his eyes were harder and darker. The dagger was tipped in crimson blood, he'd killed a boy in golden robes for the bags at his waist and the sword at his hip. The boy had bright eyes before the light went out and a happy smile before his lips went slack. -There were wounds on his soul like tiger’s claws and they festered. - There was a girl in gold that came into view, she looked and smiled, her eyes were hard and dark and sharp. She spoke, the boy listened, they bared their fangs and went Hunting.
(Shen Jiu knew death, but those people didn’t need to die! His stomach convulsed with horror as teenagers were slaughtered for Golden beads and ordered goods by monster who wore his face and a girl who was his kind)
The Tiger sneered and clawed and laughed and mauled and spilled blood like wine until he stalked a boy who didn’t draw his sword who was strong and balanced and
Was going to die.
He saw his estranged face in the shine of the eyes of the scum who walked like a rabid Tiger, saw his Master's blood on pale skin, saw dark shade in leaf green eyes with bright sparks that burned like hope.
-"So you became Qiong Ding’s head disciple? Not bad. Why didn’t you come back for me?”
“Why aren’t you continuing? I’ll wait. I’ve already waited for so many years anyway, waiting a bit more won’t hurt.”
I know what the answer is but you’ve got to say it to kill me. –
(Qi-ge... I thought you died... you didn’t come back. You promised... why didn’t you come back?! Please! I’m sorry! Don’t leave me! I’ll be good! I swear-! Why didn’t you come back?!)
“Qi-ge let you down. I’m sorry.”
He saw the boy in the metal rib of a fan. He was older and colder, the brief bright hope dead and eyes empty and dull under sharp glint of hatred. His lips scowled and eyebrows creased a deep cleft of stress and he hid from martial family who should be his but hate him, fear him, scorn him, so he hides behind silk and metal and paper and wood and spits poison to keep them controlled and keep them protected. All as guilty eyes sear his soul and make him feel how shamed he makes them.
(...Qi-ge... I’m sorry, I gave you my loyalty, but you... you don’t... don’t have to keep me. I’m-I’m s-sorry to be a such a shameful burden on you...)
Studies, lessons, days and days of work, glimpses in cold tea show stress lines carved deeper, bruises shadowed in bathwater from mistakes and fights and spars, a clear cool voice intoning derision, dark marks the only remains of weakness and failure as poisoned nature slips out and
elicits disgust in those who would be family.
(...I never got people to like me really, but... please, can’t I have just one friend...?)
He sees the strangers face softened in the polished wood of the guqin, sees painted lips smile as notes form songs and hesitancy grows into elegance as eyes warm with fondness and softness guards his back to sleep.
(...Women are always kinder...)
He sees the man (grown up and stepped out of time -We made it Qi-ge! -), with a Name. A cursed name bestowed with love (spite?) from his Shifu, who showed him how to be better, a set position of respect, of power,
...of freedom but unrest is stirred by the Golden Palace and all he sees is red again (the girl is ‘gone'... and something in him aches at the loss of one who saw him and smiled). The war is won and the martial family is close knit with trust and affection... just not for the man with empty eyes and weak cultivation.
(It’s no use is it Qi-ge. It’s true; no one can stand me.)
He watched decades pass in glimpses and snatches, with numbness creeping through his heart at the vile thing that wears his face. He guides the pack, the flock, the pride he was entrusted with (the first trust placed in him) and tells them the world is cruel and shows them masks and lies and cold sophistication, arts and forms and strength that can never be taken from them. Few realise this. Most hate him. He tells himself that’s fine, in the reflection in their resentful, tearful eyes.
Then he sees them man see the boy. The one who burns with potential like a new star, who comes from the dirt of the streets like a boy he saw in a reflection once, who bears the face of a Hunter whose soul mirrored his, she who was one of his kind. The child lies (he denies relation to that Hunter with golden beads up both arms, even as her the strength of her sacrificed core powers his mask, his protection, he kneels willingly with eyes shining soft and bright with innocence). The child is treated like the scum the man has always been, he’s pushed ad bullied and sneered at like all the pack members are in time, but the child has never known different here. With the face of a predator, his manner of prey enraged the man, makes the pain on that face that is Wrong quite satisfying, even as the family stare disapprovingly and comment with disgust and complete lack of surprise.
The horror is dull and hollow in Shen Jiu's heart. The man with his face is made up of everything in this nightmare, with a broken soul and hidden claws and stripes to hide his nature, with malicious satisfaction at pain inflicted and a tongue that spits poison and even a name to match. He’s scum that can’t get anything good right.
Maybe that’s why he’s not surprised when he fails everything that really matters.
His martial family (a brother dead from Qi Deviation, always so strong, so weak in death, weak like the man who tried to help and instead destroyed him, who saw the hatred and a flash of fear in the eyes he made dull).
His position (cheap, dirty tricks to win the match. Scum tactics ingrained like the street filth on his skin as a child. Shifu would be ashamed, his teachings gone to waste, the Sect represented by a Peak Lord who faught without Honour).
His students (a boy with a will to go far, brutally killed by a monster of the man’s creation, a girl who’s mind was bright faded into obscurity on a shelf with countless other treasures, a single bloom in a summer meadow, a fiery soul stifled into a sweet demure plaything as the flames died behind the mask).
His fellow Hunter (a stolen face shocked with hurt and betrayal, the remaining vestige of protection stripped away, a mark shining on pale skin, amber and ruby energy swirling, a child too strong and too honest to hide and survive, a push over into the Abyss. Years passed, worlds merged and the one who slew her living pretty).
His home (ash. Flame and pain and smothering ash dusting blackened earth and charred bodies with soft, immeasurable regret).
And worst of all when he fails to protect the one to whom he swore fealty (black shards scattered carelessly in a pool of the blood that lured the Xuan Su sword to his death).
Shen Jiu cried. He cried and cried and cried, for the twisted horror of his end, for the all encompassing hatred and disgust of all who knew him, of the toxic villain he was doomed to become, of how alone he was, had always been and how much that hurt.
(Qi-ge... you should never have picked me up you know? You should have left me to die in a back-alley ditch, everything would be better don’t you see? I’m scum that taints everything I touch, I’ve only ever made you miserable... most of all I’m sorry I made you hurt so much. ...I’m sorry...)
The shadows changed, darkened, became heavier, something foreign-familiar as they drew closer, swallowing bursts of shell-light and feather-flame, closer and closer until they swallowed Shen Jiu with the sound of a sigh.
I really shouldn’t start something when I’m already low on motivation, but I’ve been sucked into svss and... here we are. Fair warning: Sporadic updates, motivation is truly a fairweather friend.
Also, Su Xiyan is a vicious Warrior Queen and we should have learned more about her.
Leaning heavily into elemental affinities with cultivation bc.... I like it? Sticking to Chinese 5 elements. That's what the fire/water stuff is about. Human spiritual qi is whiteish blue, demonic is orangy red with possibly purple tints, idek. Affinities detetrmine shape, expression and function i guess?
Pairings: Way off yet, not actually sure where I’m going with this, but: what do u want to see? Leaning towards multiple partners whether for romantic relationships all round or not idk. At the very least, this boy is gonna have a friendship CIRCLE.