It’s a pleasant day at Qing Jing Peak. The bamboos sway by the breeze as disciples go through their morning exercises. Shen Qingqiu oversees them with a lofty air, correcting a stroke or two as he walks by.
He even takes his tea by the pavilion overlooking the Quiet Pool, the refreshing weather complimenting his easy mood.
His head disciple soon arrives. Shen Qingqiu waves him in with a flick of his fan.
“Shizun, have you already decided on who will be joining the Immortal Alliance Conference?” Ming Fan asks respectfully.
Shen Qingqiu pretends to think about it. “Prepare a list of outstanding junior disciples,” he orders. “I will review accordingly.” Ming Fan nods and leaves quickly to do as he’s told. Shen Qingqiu knows his head disciple’s attention to detail will not fail him. Though he already knows which disciples will go, it’s always good to establish the proper hierarchy among the Peak.
Shen Qingqiu sighs softly, stretching his legs with ease. It is peaceful and quiet at his Peak, just as he prefers. No nuisances to bother him, no unnecessary tasks to be handled, no unruly disciples to be expelled.
Naturally, someone comes to ruin it.
Hardly a shichen later, Ming Fan returns with his requested list. Shen Qingqiu inspects it with a brisk nod, and removes a name or two before returning it. “File it for Qiong Ding Peak,” he says.
Ming Fan bows. “Right away, shizun!”
But the boy doesn’t leave. Shen Qingqiu raises an eyebrow. “Is there anything more?”
His head disciple hesitates. “That is...shizun, Zhangmen-shibo has just arrived in Qing Jing Peak.”
Shen Qingqiu releases an irritated breath. He has no interest in dealing with Yue Qingyuan at the moment. He takes a sip of his tea.
“Shall I let him in?” Ming Fan ventures.
He puts his cup down. “This master is busy,” Shen Qingqiu says coldly. “Sect Master Yue should have sent word that he would be visiting.”
He can sense Ming Fan’s unease. His dislike for the Sect Master is known throughout the peaks, but he cannot outwardly decline a visit without causing offense.
Before Ming Fan can utter another word, the aforementioned man comes sweeping into his pavilion, pausing at the steps.
“It will only take a minute of Peak Lord Shen’s time,” Yue Qingyuan says, in that genial way of his own. Ming Fan nods with some relief, and scurries away.
Yue Qingyuan turns to him. “Qingqiu-shidi,” he starts.
Shen Qingqiu only offers him a curt bow, opening his fan to hide his face. “Sect Master Yue.”
Some of Yue Qingyuan’s warmth falters. Shen Qingqiu longs for the day it will completely vanish. To put a kind face for him, as if he weren’t merely forced out of some misguided sense of guilt.
“The Immortal Alliance Conference is drawing near,” Yue Qingyuan starts slowly. “Has Qingqiu-shidi finished his list?”
Shen Qingqiu nods. “My head disciple shall send it over to Qiong Ding Peak this afternoon,” he says coolly.
“Qingqiu-shidi is indeed well-prepared.”
Shen Qingqiu refuses to be distracted with flattery. “Will that be all, Sect Master?”
Yue Qingyuan’s smile dims a little. “Yes.”
He flourishes his fan. “Then you may take your leave.”
Dismissed, Yue Qingyuan has no choice but to go. Still, he wavers for a moment. “Xiao Jiu, I - ”
Shen Qingqiu narrows his eyes, and pivots on his heel to walk away. It’s the height of rudeness, and he knows the disciples will whisper about it. No matter.
The only thing that matters is that he succeeds in pushing Yue Qingyuan away completely.
Dealing with the rest of his martial siblings remains the same arduous task. The regular meetings are held, with Shen Qingqiu commenting on each item at every opportunity. For too long their Sect has been so negligent, unguarded and sloppy. Shen Qingqiu will not stand for this. He will whip them all to shape even if he has to do so literally.
He sneers at the Bai Zhan Peak Lord beside him. Liu Qingge frowns back, but says nothing. He’s been decidedly less caustic since Shen Qingqiu has saved him from his qi deviation from the Lingxi Caves. Good. He should show some respect.
“The Immortal Alliance Conference draws near,” Yue Qingyuan is saying. “Qingqiu-shidi has shared his list. And the rest?”
They all grumble and grouse, but with Shen Qingqiu’s shining example, his other martial siblings dare not outwardly protest.
“He’s even more uptight than usual,” Qi Qingqi sniffs, nose scrunched.
“Don’t fuss,” Wei Qingwei murmurs. “You know Shen-shixiong is vigilant. He’s taken care of that demon invasion just last year by himself.”
“Hmph. He still shouldn’t be so tyrannical,” Qi Qingqi says tartly. “He’s not the Sect Master.” Nevertheless, she heads off to her own Peak to prepare.
Shen Qingqiu ignores their comments. None of them will ever thank him for his vigilance, and neither will he ever need their gratitude. As long as his plans succeed, then Cang Qiong Mountain will properly flourish, becoming so powerful that no other Sect will dare try to topple them.
The first step, of course, will be establishing their superiority at the Immortal Alliance Conference. Only the best and brightest can go. Shen Qingqiu has planned it accordingly - judging the Annual Spars, improving their cultivation manuals, even giving pointers to other Peaks. His meddlesomeness is often frowned upon, but with his apparent intentions to seek improvement, Shen Qingqiu’s scrutiny is grudgingly allowed.
Either way, Shen Qingqiu believes it will be a success.
They reach the Jue Di Gorge. Huan Hua disciples swarm around, bowing to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect members in greeting. Shen Qingqiu gives a terse nod, and then ignores the rest of the proceedings. After all, this is hardly new to him.
He’s made sure that this time, there won’t be any unnecessary happenings. He glances over to his left. The An Ding Peak Lord only smiles nervously at him.
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t even glance at the leaderboards - he can hear them oohing and aahing over Huan Hua Palace’s head disciple. With any luck, Ming Fan or any of the other Cang Qiong Mountain Sect disciples should beat him. Even Liu Mingyan is a serious contender - a pity Liu-shidi, for all his strength, has no talent at all in raising proper disciples.
By mid-afternoon, however, the murmurs grow frenzied; other cultivators are crowding around, irritating Shen Qingqiu. He opens his eyes from his meditation to snap at them all, before he sees exactly who they’re all fussing over.
His heart jolts. Luo Binghe? But there he is, striding into the screen, visible even as dozens of younger cultivators trail after him. He looks up his name in a panic - he’s a rogue cultivator, unconnected to any sect. Shen Qingqiu’s stomach plummets.
Why is he here?
His eyes remained glued to the sight. The young man defeats demon after demon, accumulating beads until his name is at the top of the list. The other cultivation masters are all in shock. “Who is that young man?” one of the mutters.
The Huan Hua Palace Master’s eyes are also wide, and his mouth has fallen slightly open.
Shen Qingqiu gnashes his teeth and says nothing.
It is impossible to remain disinterested now - Shen Qingqiu watches the contenders like a hawk for the next few days, barely interested in eating or drinking. On the sixth day of the Conference, a few hours after night has fallen, the terrifying screech of a bone eagle echoes throughout the venue.
Like clockwork, the demons come pouring in. Shen Qingqiu curses, and then glances at Shang Qinghua.
His shidi shakes his head at him, looking aghast. Shen Qingqiu frowns, and decides he’ll deal with it later.
Is this fate inescapable? He thinks grimly, as he draws his sword.
“What are you doing?” Liu Qingge asks, frowning.
“What does it look like?” Shen Qingqiu snaps. “Those weaklings will be culled if we don’t do anything. My disciples are there.”
His shidi looks at him with incredulity. Shen Qingqiu ignores it, and heads directly to the arena. Once there, Shen Qingqiu heads straight to where he remembers the Black Moon Rhinoceros Python had attacked.
Before, when he’d arrived, the beast had already been slain, with a rampaging Luo Binghe standing before the carcass.
This time, however, the beast is still alive, roaring and stamping angrily. Shen Qingqiu draws Xiu Ya, and directs it to the monster’s weak spot with accuracy.
Another sword comes careening to the same area. The demonic beast stands no chance; quickly succumbing to his wounds.
Shen Qingqiu raises his head; his eyes meet Luo Binghe’s own. Shen Qingqiu immediately tears his gaze away, drawing his fan to keep half of his face hidden.
This close, the young man does not reveal any demonic energy. That was how Shen Qingqiu had found him then; that broken seal on his forehead, the whole damned place stinking of his demonic signature. Like the little beast that he’d been, forced to reveal his monstrous self at last.
Now, however, he only smiles and bows at him, completely unruffled. “This lowly cultivator thanks the immortal master for his assistance.”
Shen Qingqiu fights off an involuntary shudder at the sound of that voice. It has long haunted his nightmares, taunting and mocking him in turns.
If he had any doubts that the person before him is anyone other than Luo Binghe, they are surely broken by now.
And yet - it should be impossible for him to be here. Shen Qingqiu had made sure that Su Xiyan had survived her ill-fated pregnancy, had ferried her personally to the demon realm to take refuge with her lover. She would have brought him to the demon emperor, and raised him there as well.
Why, then, is he here?
He startles when he realizes that Luo Binghe has approached him during his reverie, eyes bright. “This one is called Luo Binghe. May I ask the immortal master for his name?”
Shen Qingqiu only snaps his fan close. “There is no need for the likes of you to know it,” he says, and strides away.
There’s a group of young cultivators cowering in the area. Shen Qingqiu flicks his hand. “Return to the entrance,” he orders. “The Conference has been compromised. Your masters are at hand.” They all nod gratefully, getting up to their feet and fleeing in the direction he’s pointed. After Shen Qingqiu has ensured they’ve all gone, he continues on the opposite path, intent to slay any more wayward demonic beasts.
He’s taken about ten steps when he senses someone following him. Shen Qingqiu turns around, and to his disbelief, Luo Binghe is right behind him.
“Are you deaf?” he asks. “Did you not hear me say that all participants are to withdraw all at once?”
“This one only hopes to assist xiansheng in his business,” Luo Binghe says.
Shen Qingqiu snorts. “Brats like you will only get in the way. If you want to help, take care of those other incompetent fools.”
A group of injured cultivators come running in their direction, chased by a female Ghost Head Spides. Shen Qingqiu sneers, before leaping up to attack it. With one hit it falls down from the sky, the innards spilling out.
“Shizun!” Ning Yingying goes straight up to him, eyes wide. “Oh, Shizun, thank you for saving us!”
He can feel Luo Binghe’s eyes on them. Shen Qingqiu quashes down the irritation. Luo Binghe had chased his shijie in his previous life. It wouldn’t be a wonder if she catches his attention again.
His disciple deserves much better.
“Come, Yingying,” he commands. “Where are your martial siblings?”
Ning Yingying leads him away, though he doesn’t miss her curious gaze towards Luo Binghe. Shen Qingqiu resolves to correct it as soon as possible. They gather the remaining disciples of Cang Qiong Mountain - fortunately with less casualties than before, and ferry the wounded to be treated before returning to the Peaks.
Once he’s safely alone in the Bamboo House, Shen Qingqiu hurls an empty inkpot at the wall, taking joy in the way it breaks upon contact. He would scream, but Shen Qingqiu has long ignored any need to vocalize his frustrations.
His hands are itching. He wants to fight something.
The next day, he makes an offhand comment about Bai Zhan, which sends their Peak Lord hurtling to Qing Jing Peak in protest.
“Shen Qingqiu,” he growls.
Shen Qingqiu lets himself smile. If all things in the world were as predictable as Liu Qingge, he would be a much happier man.
It’s easy enough to draw him to a fight. They cross swords at his clearing, destroying over a dozen bamboo trees in the process. It ends as it always does; Shen Qingqiu with his back on the floor, a sword pointed at his throat. Two lifetimes of advantages, and he still cannot defeat the Bai Zhan War God. He clenches his fists; Xiu Ya had fallen out of his grasp minutes ago, and he’d been forced to only fight barehanded.
Still, he had given it all he got. There’s a cut on his cheek and a gash on his arm, but Shen Qingqiu ignores it as he pushes Cheng Luan away, rising up to stand unsteadily.
Liu Qingge stares at him, panting. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” Shen Qingqiu sneers, and he arranges his robes back properly. “Liu-shidi should be more mindful in the future. One will think he is trying to kill him.”
He feels much better when he returns to his bamboo house, brushing away the hair that’s fallen from his crown as he ignores Liu Qingge’s shouted protests. It is only a mere coincidence, encountering Luo Binghe. He will never see him again.
Unfortunately, Shen Qingqiu is proven entirely wrong. He and Liu Qingge are sent on a mission together several weeks later, much to their mutual annoyance. They’ve only finished speaking to the town magistrate and have gone to the inn to wait for the proper time, when Shen Qingqiu spots a familiar face sitting on one of the tables.
His heart tightens. The man looks up as they enter, and he smiles directly at him.
Shen Qingqiu ignores him and heads up to the staircase. “This shixiong will be resting,” he tells Liu Qingge. “I will see you at nightfall.”
He hears Liu Qingge’s noise of derision just before he shuts the door. Once inside, Shen Qingqiu lets out a very small scream.
Perhaps he had been born under an ominous star. Shen Qingqiu does not know his exact date of birth so he is unable to divine this information. Still, it would explain his horrendous luck, following him all the way to another lifetime.
He takes a deep breath, choosing to clear his mind instead with meditation.
When he goes back downstairs, Luo Binghe is still there.
Even worse, he’s speaking to Liu Qingge.
Shen Qingqiu has no choice but to join them at their table. “Luo Binghe,” he says coldly.
Luo Binghe’s face brightens. “The immortal master remembers me,” he says. “I am honored.”
Shen Qingqiu sneers. “What brings you here?”
“I have encountered the same creatures plaguing this town before,” Luo Binghe explains with a smile. “Therefore, I came to offer my assistance. It would be an honor to work with the Peak Lords of Cang Qiong Mountain.”
Across him, Liu Qingge is frowning, visibly displeased. “Our Sect is perfectly capable of dealing with this disturbance,” he says.
Luo Binghe bows. “Indeed. Only, this one is familiar with the terrain of the nearby forest.” His smile is light, unwavering. So his skill at being charming has not diminished. If anything, he’s become much more polished in the art of flattery.
Of course, such a trait would go completely over Liu Qingge’s head. Sometimes, Shen Qingqiu really does appreciate his shidi. Liu Qingge is as unmoving as ever, annoyed at being forced to work with others.
Still, Luo Binghe insists on joining their party as they head to the forest. Shen Qingqiu suppresses a scowl, choosing to walk behind. Luo Binghe walks on confidently, undeterred by neither the darkness nor the rocky footpath.
Shen Qingqiu leaves Liu Qingge to deal with their unwanted companion. He surveys the area; there’s not a single trace of demonic qi.
“Are we sure this is the place, ” he asks sarcastically.
“The Five Heart Leopard Chameleon are creatures capable of masking their demonic signatures,” Luo Binghe murmurs. “Peak Lord Shen, please take care.”
He sneers. Who does this boy think he’s talking to?
He feels the flash of resentful energy just as they cross over to the glen, powerful enough that it solidifies hazily around them.
Liu Qingge stiffens, and unsheathes Cheng Luan in a flash, giving chase.
“Look out!” Luo Binghe’s voice is clear, and Shen Qingqiu leaps out of the way.
Out of the darkness, spots of color materialize, crawling all over the trees. Each branch it touches quickly decomposes.
This is no regular demonic beast. Shen Qingqiu draws Xiu Ya, but Luo Binghe is quicker.
The sword he draws is not the demon sword Shen Qingqiu remembers him wielding; but it is a fearsome weapon nonetheless; cutting through the swathes of demonic energy in a single sword glare. The bright colors fade into nothingness.
Luo Binghe sheaths his sword, smiling pleasantly. “Spiked Chroma Insects,” he says. “They are only sentries for the Five Heart Leopard Chameleon. Peak Lord Liu, Peak Lord Shen, we must remain vigilant.”
Liu Qingge’s eyes are wide.
“He’s strong,” he murmurs.
Shen Qingqiu rolls his eyes. That boy would have been a mere junior disciple in Cang Qiong Mountain! He thinks angrily. He would have brought destruction to our Sect!
And yet now you see him as an equal? Truly Liu Qingge has soup for brains!
He sheathes Xiu Ya and walks on.
They find the nest of the monsters that they seek soon enough. The Five Heart Leopard Chameleons leap at them without care - the part about having five hearts, Shen Qingqiu thinks grudgingly, is that they imagine they have infinite lives - growling and clawing like mindless beasts.
His shidi has charged straight ahead, leaving Shen Qingqiu as usual to have to watch out for any of his attackers. He activates a spiritual array, striking down any beast who comes near his blind spots.
Luo Binghe is in the thick of the battle as well. Now that he can see Luo Binghe’s moves - Shen Qingqiu admits they are unlike any Sect he knows. Not even a shadow of Huan Hua Palace can be traced from them. Truly, Luo Binghe has covered his tracks well.
The beasts seem to have identified him as the more urgent threat, surrounding Luo Binghe. It would be easy to just let him be injured; a Five Heart Leopard Chameleon can induce slow acting poison with a strike of his claws, and Luo Binghe’s method of fighting is even more reckless and maddened than Liu Qingge’s, as if nothing could harm him.
And perhaps nothing can, but Shen Qingqiu isn’t going to sit here and have him be injured on his watch, when Liu Qingge already thinks he’s a backstabbing traitor. The last thing he needs is more unseemly gossip from his shidi’s mouth. So Shen Qingqiu strikes , begrudgingly slices through the beasts that have surrounded the boy, carving a path for him to escape.
“Fool!” Shen Qingqiu admonishes.
Luo Binghe glances behind him, eyes wide at the fallen monsters. His gaze turns to Shen Qingqiu again, expression inscrutable. Shen Qingqiu shivers and focuses his energies instead on attacking the rest.
Together, they clear the entire nest. In a matter of minutes, the place is littered with corpses.
Liu Qingge sheathes his sword, looking pleased. He turns to nod at Luo Binghe. “What Sect did you say you were from?” he inquires.
Shen Qingqiu watches Luo Binghe, but the man does not hesitate. “I am only a mere rogue cultivator,” he says graciously. “But my mother is one as well, and our family lineage resides in the south.”
Liu Qingge pauses. “I see.” Then, to Shen Qingqiu’s utter horror, he bows low. “Then, take care.”
Luo Binghe glances up at Shen Qingqiu, eyes bright. “Take care also to Peak Lord Shen.”
Shen Qingqiu only jerks his head in acknowledgement.
He had thought that would be the end of it. A second meeting can still be counted as a coincidence.
However, when he descends the mountain again with another mission with Liu Qingge and finds Luo Binghe waiting for them at another inn, Shen Qingqiu is starting to feel suspicious.
He wants to chalk it up to mere paranoia, but nothing is ever as simple with a scheming viper like Luo Binghe.
Liu Qingge, on the other hand, actually looks pleased that Luo Binghe is here, acknowledging him with a nod. Shen Qingqiu scoffs and walks away, but Luo Binghe is close to his heels.
“Peak Lord Shen,” he greets eagerly. “What an honor it is to have the opportunity to work with you and Peak Lord Liu once more.”
“Silence,” he snaps, not in the mood for his flattery. “If you’re in the way, I’ll leave you behind.”
“I would not expect anything else,” Luo Binghe demurs.
The mission this time is to rescue some captured women from the clutches of a foul beast. Shen Qingqiu is eager not to waste any more time with pleasantries; such demons are known to feast on the bodies of young females.
He eyes Luo Binghe with some suspicion. He would not be surprised if he had a hand in this situation.
They arrive at the top of the hill where the beast was last seen, but it’s suspiciously silent. Shen Qingqiu turns to interrogate Luo Binghe, when the ground quakes beneath them. Shen Qingqiu quickly leaps up onto his sword. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Liu Qingge and Luo Binghe doing the same.
The very earth is collapsing, swallowing up even the trees. Shen Qingqiu watches with some alarm as the branches begin to rain down on them dangerously from above.
“Watch out!” he says, maneuvering his weapon to fly higher.
However - it’s no use. Leaves cut through his skin as he’s besieged in all directions - his sword dips, and his feet slip, making him curse loudly before he plunges down into the sinkhole.
“Shen Qingqiu!” he hears Liu Qingge yell above him.
Strong arms catch him before he hits the ground. Shen Qingqiu gasps, startled at the sudden warmth.
When he opens his eyes, however, it is not to Liu Qingge’s dour scowl.
Instead, he is faced with Luo Binghe, ponytail falling gently over his shoulder.
“Shen Qingqiu is all right?” Luo Binghe murmurs. His arms are wrapped tight around Shen Qingqiu’s waist. Gone is that irritating smile on his mouth. On the contrary, his eyes are narrowed with unease.
Shen Qingqiu extricates himself from his grasp. “This master is fine,” he says. He looks around. “Where is Liu-shidi?”
They’re in complete darkness. He glances up; there’s no light to be found anywhere. The rocks must have covered the opening after the earth collapsed. Quickly he uses a talisman to set up a light source.
Luo Binghe shrugs. “Peak Lord Liu Qingge must have been left on the other side,” he says.
coincidence. Shen Qingqiu glowers at Luo Binghe, though the effect is diminished in such dim light. Instantly he grips his sword’s hilt, senses alert.
He will not let the wool be pulled over his eyes once more.
There’s no path to lead them anywhere. The wall is rock solid. Shen Qingqiu has no doubts that Luo Binghe can destroy it in a snap. But he seems determined to maintain the pretense of being a mere human cultivator. It irritates Shen Qingqiu.
Luo Binghe exhales softly. “Shen Qingqiu should stay here,” he says, and he unsheathes his sword to fly up.
Fat chance! Shen Qingqiu gets on Xiu Ya as well to catch up with him. He’s not letting Luo Binghe out of his sight.
“And what does Luo Binghe intend to do?” he inquires.
Luo Binghe only smiles easily. “This one will look for our way out,” he says.
Shen Qingqiu folds his arms. “And how will you do so?”
“The rocks that caved in must be weak. We can punch a hole through.” He pauses. “Peak Lord Shen need not concern himself with this task.”
“Are you implying my presence is unnecessary?” he asks coldly.
Luo Binghe only shakes his head. “Hardly. This is beneath an immortal master’s notice,” he says. “It would be better for him to reserve his strength once we have escaped. Please allow this lowly one to work on your behalf.”
Shen Qingqiu won’t believe a single word that falls from this liar’s mouth.
“Luo Binghe seems confident in finding an exit,” he says. “Perhaps he should demonstrate his skill to me.”
At that, Luo Binghe’s eyes brighten. “This lowly one would be happy to show Peak Lord Shen his skills.”
Luo Binghe quickly rises even higher, hurtling straight towards the wall. Shen Qingqiu does not dare look away from him even for one moment. If he lowers his guard, the young man will probably do some malevolent kind of demonic technique.
The next moment, Luo Binghe has punctured through; rocks raining down on them. Shen Qingqiu has yet to ready a defensive spiritual array when an arm wraps again at his waist, pulling him close. Shen Qingqiu finds himself in Luo Binghe’s grasp once more, as he gently directs his sword to climb past the exit as the walls crumble around them.
“I won’t let any harm befall Shen Qingqiu,” Luo Binghe softly, his voice warm in Shen Qingqiu’s ear.
Shen Qingqiu snorts. “I hardly need your protection,” he sneers.
Still, the young man refuses to let him go until they’re back on solid ground. Luo Binghe keeps close to his side as they traverse the rest of the area together, enough that their shoulders brush once or twice. Shen Qingqiu tries not to shudder. What a sticky little beast! Shen Qingqiu wants to push him down the ravine at the earliest opportunity.
Finally, they reach the top of the hill. There’s a cavern before them, full of lingering demonic energy. Shen Qingqiu slows his footsteps, wary.
“The beast is here,” he says. “Be careful.”
He has hardly finished speaking when the beast comes hurtling straight at him.
Luo Binghe leaps in front of him, slicing the demonic beast in two before Shen Qingqiu can hardly raise his fan. Show off, Shen Qingqiu thinks furiously. This boy is even worse than Liu Qingge.
“Is Peak Lord Shen unharmed?” he asks courteously.
He holds out his hand, but Shen Qingqiu doesn’t take it. Instead, he brushes past it, marching straight towards the cavern entrance where a soft crying can be heard.
There’s a group of women all huddled together, clothes torn apart. One of them raises her head, her face tear-stained.
“Who…?” she trembles.
Quickly Shen Qingqiu helps her up. “You’re safe now,” Shen Qingqiu says, gently patting the maiden’s hair. She sniffs in her arms.
“Thank you, Immortal Master,” she cries. The other women do the same, clinging to Shen Qingqiu.
Luo Binghe steps forward to pull them away from him. “These must be captured women,” Luo Binghe says. “We must return them immediately.” He takes another woman in hand, and leads the whole gaggle out of the woods. Shen Qingqiu watches him with mounting suspicion. None of these women look like any of his previous wives, but Luo Binghe must have had hundreds. No doubt he intends to ensnare them into his grasp once more by engaging their pity.
Clearly, the real danger here is Luo Binghe.
He must ensure they are safe from his nefarious plans!
When Shen Qingqiu tries to speak to any of the women, however, Luo Binghe would wedge himself into the conversation. Shen Qingqiu grits his teeth, about to scold him, when someone comes crashing down before them from the air.
“Shen Qingqiu!” Liu Qingge pants. His robes are stained with blood. “Luo Binghe!”
“Peak Lord Liu,” Luo Binghe greets politely.
“I see you’ve both escaped,” Liu Qingge says. “I’ve gotten rid of the beast, but it had its mate guarding the cavern…”
Luo Binghe smiles. “Peak Lord Liu is truly efficient. No need to worry; we have also dealt with its mate, and have retrieved the women.”
Liu Qingge looks particularly pleased. “Good.”
Shen Qingqiu eyes him critically as they pass by the uprooted trees. “And you’ve destroyed his whole nesting grounds, for sure.”
“It’s dead, isn’t it?” Liu Qingge says.
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t bother arguing further. There’s never any winning with fools.
The mission is completed. Liu Qingge turns to bow to Luo Binghe in gratitude, but Shen Qingqiu is already walking away. They don’t owe that little beast anything. In fact, he probably had something to do with all the kidnapped women to begin with; perhaps staged such an incident to gain their sympathy. Shen Qingqiu refuses to give him the benefit of doubt.
He heaves a sigh of relief once they’re back in Cang Qiong Mountain. At least here, he can rest assured that Luo Binghe won’t be hovering in the periphery.
But it turns out his troubles are far from over. The following week, unfamiliar footsteps come striding inside his library. When Shen Qingqiu raises his gaze, about to berate the intruder, he nearly stumbles over in shock.
Luo Binghe again? What is this blasted demon scum doing here?!
“What are you doing here?” he asks coldly.
Ning Yingying smiles at Luo Binghe, but the man doesn’t even spare a second glance at his disciple. Shen Qingqiu is almost stunned into silence. Hasn’t he chosen her as one of his wives? Why the sudden coldness now?
“Peak Lord Shen,” he greets instead, his gaze steadfast on him. Shen Qingqiu stiffens under the scrutiny. “This one is pleased to see you in good health.”
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t return the greeting. Instead, “Why are you at Qing Jing Peak?” he asks again.
“This one has come in search of information,” he says. “Cang Qiong Mountain has been kind enough to extend their assistance to this lowly one.”
Shen Qingqiu glares at him, turning away abruptly. Yue Qingyuan has no business exerting his efforts for this man. “And who gave you leave to enter my Peak without so much as a by-your-leave?” he says. “Get out.”
He shoos Luo Binghe off Qing Jing Peak, leaving him at the Rainbow Bridge until he can step on his sword and stomp straight into Qiong Ding Peak.
“Ah, Qingqiu-shidi,” Yue Qingyuan says. His smile falters when he sees Shen Qingqiu’s glower.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asks. “Since when was the library of Qing Jing Peak open to outsiders?”
Yue Qingyuan hesitates. “The young man who’d come said you were quite familiar with him - was I mistaken?”
Familiar! Shen Qingqiu seethes. Luo Binghe would dare use him as an opportunity to worm his way into Cang Qiong Mountain again? Shen Qingqiu should strike him for the audacity!
He has yet to reproach Yue Qingyuan for his shortsightedness when Liu Qingge arrives at Qiong Ding Peak as well.
“Liu-shidi,” Yue Qingyuan says, sounding relieved. “I fear your guest is not so welcome…”
Liu Qingge frowns at Shen Qingqiu. “I vouched for Luo Binghe,” he says. “He assisted us in the previous mission. It’s only right that we offer him the same courtesy.”
Shen Qingqiu scowls. Fucking Liu Qingge and his honorable bullshit.
“The library is a matter guarded heavily by our Sect,” he says icily. “And that duty falls under Qing Jing Peak.”
“Qingqiu-shidi, it should not be much of a hardship to allow the young man access to our records,” Yue Qingyuan says anxiously.
Shen Qingqiu grits his teeth. The Sect Master overrules him, at the end of the day. “You would let any ruffian come barging in here to steal our secrets,” he snaps.
“Shen Qingqiu!” Liu Qingge growls. “You go too far. Luo Binghe has done nothing to offend you!”
Shen Qingqiu only gives him his coldest glare, and snaps his fan shut.
Luo Binghe is at the foot of the bridge, looking apologetic. “I have troubled Peak Lord Shen,” he says. “I apologize. If this request is inconvenient, then I will not bother you any further.”
Shen Qingqiu sneers. “You’re already here. Hurry up and take what you need.”
He supervises Luo Binghe himself as he scours the Library. Ning Yingying had offered to watch over him, but Shen Qingqiu isn’t taking any chances. And he won’t let his other disciples do it, either. Considering what Luo Binghe had done to Ming Fan and his other martial brothers before, he refuses to let his guard down around this man.
If Luo Binghe is surprised that the Qing Jing Peak Lord himself is accompanying him in his simple research task, he says nothing. Indeed, he seems to be uncommonly pleased the entire time. Shen Qingqiu glares at him.
“What is it that you need?” he asks abruptly. The faster Luo Binghe gets what he needs, the faster he’ll be out of his hair.
“That is, the Sutra of Blood & Bone,” Luo Binghe replies.
Shen Qingqiu frowns. It’s a rare book, true, but certainly something he should be familiar with in the demonic realm. He glides to an aisle, and locates the scroll after several minutes. Luo Binghe moves close, their shoulders brushing, as he leans in to inspect the text. Finally, he nods.
“I’ll have a copy prepared for you,” Shen Qingqiu says. “After that, you may take your leave.”
Luo Binghe bows. “Peak Lord Shen has been very helpful to me,” he says, bowing. “I will not forget it.”
Shen Qingqiu just sneers behind his fan. He hands the task over to the first disciple he sees, and makes Luo Binghe wait in the Bamboo House, where he can’t cause any trouble. The less he’s seen, the better. The ink has barely dried when Shen Qingqiu tosses the copied scroll into Luo Binghe’s direction, and herds him out of Qing Jing Peak in the same moment. He makes sure the boy has disappeared into the distance before returning back to his Peak.
“He’s so good-looking, isn’t he, shizun?” Ning Yingying says dreamily, gazing at the distance. His other two shimeis nod, sighing lightly.
Shen Qingqiu gives them all a sharp glance. “Yingying. You are not to associate with that boy in the future.” He glances meaningfully around the room. “That goes for all of you as well.”
“But shizun - ”
Shen Qingqiu only glowers, and his disciples shut their mouths.
He won’t have Luo Binghe stealing away any more of the Peak’s disciples. They are all to stay in Qing Jing Peak until he is sure that the danger has passed. Surely Luo Binghe will move on to other women in time.
Whispers abound that he’s become even more strict than Xian Shu on his own female disciples.
It’s another ugly rumor, but compared to the alternative, Shen Qingqiu will take it. What does his reputation matter to letting his own disciples suffer by being in Luo Binghe’s harem? He won’t let a single soul in Cang Qiong Mountain fall into his hands again!
Due to this particular directive, Shen Qingqiu finds himself obliged to handle missions he would have normally sent his disciples to in their stead.
And yet, more often than not, he encounters Luo Binghe wherever he goes. It cannot be a mere coincidence anymore. The boy must be following him.
He grits his teeth.
In a flash of panic, he considers the possibility that Luo Binghe also remembers their past life, and his heart stutters. Is he planning once again another way to drag his name in filth? Is there no end to Luo Binghe’s depravity? Shen Qingqiu has done him a kindness; he should bow down his head and thank him for his mercy!
He breathes deep. He won’t fall into that same trap again.
“I wonder how it is that our paths cross so often,” Shen Qingqiu remarks coldly, on the third time they happen to be in the same city. Behind him, his disciples peek at the sight of Luo Binghe, awed by his exquisite robes and impressive visage.
“It is merely fortune,” Luo Binghe says, his eyes merry. “To always see Shen Qingqiu in good health is a blessing to me.”
Shen Qingqiu sneers. “On the contrary, Luo Binghe’s presence means nothing to me.”
Luo Binghe is hardly deterred by his rudeness. If anything, he looks even more delighted. He actually reaches out to lower Shen Qingqiu’s fan.
“Or perhaps…destiny?” Luo Binghe is smiling, but Shen Qingqiu’s blood runs cold. He tries to find the threat in those red eyes.
He wears that sheep face of his so well. Shen Qingqiu clenches his fists. “This master has no ties with Luo Binghe. In the future, I hope he will refrain from such ludicrous statements.”
Luo Binghe only responds with a soft sigh. “Peak Lord Shen is very reserved,” he says. “I hope he finds our encounters as pleasing as this one does.”
Shen Qingqiu orders his disciples to proceed with the reconnaissance after briefing them. While he would have preferred to oversee them, with Luo Binghe around, it is imperative that he keeps him distracted. Until he discovers what it is that the beast wants, he won’t give him the opportunity to threaten Ming Fan or any of his other disciples.
Luo Binghe has many questions about Cang Qiong Mountain and Qing Jing Peak. Shen Qingqiu responds as curtly as he can, baffled by this line of questioning. Perhaps he is only comparing what he remembers from before.
“If Luo Binghe were so interested, he should have joined Cang Qiong Mountain,” he says sharply.
“This one is not inclined to such large sects,” Luo Binghe says.
“Afraid you won’t be able to distinguish yourself?” Shen Qingqiu asks snidely.
Luo Binghe only smiles. “On the contrary. This one does not get along with others,” he admits freely. “My path is my own. I would feel far constricted by such customs.”
Shen Qingqiu scoffs. “It is good Luo Binghe knows himself well,” he says. “He is not qualified to belong to Qing Jing Peak.”
To his surprise, Luo Binghe nods in agreement. “My skills do not lie in the Four Arts. How could I possibly compare to Peak Lord Shen?”
“Shizun, we have come to share what we’ve discovered…” Ming Fan arrives, and then hesitates before bowing deep. “Luo-langjun.”
“Disciple Ming,” Luo Binghe says, looking amused. Shen Qingqiu scowls at him.
“We will be going,” he says pointedly. “Goodbye, Luo Binghe.”
The next time they encounter each other is at a nighthunt, with hundreds of other immortal masters present. By now Luo Binghe’s name has spread far and wide; he has distinguished himself by ranking first at the Immortal Alliance Conference, and now he is known throughout for vanquishing evil beasts in even the most faraway of places. There’s even talk of Huan Hua Palace inviting him to become a guest cultivator - one which he has politely rejected.
Shen Qingqiu had not participated in the nighthunt, but Liu Qingge had. When the competition is over and the numbers are tallied, Luo Binghe emerges as the victor, with Liu Qingge as only a close second.
Liu Qingge actually nods at Luo Binghe during the evening banquet. “You have caught the Nu Yuan Chan,” he says, and there’s actual admiration to his tone.
Luo Binghe nods back at him. “It was merely a stroke of luck,” he says. “Peak Lord Liu was only talented, defeating three Autumn Serpent Tigers at once.”
“Are you not afraid to lose face to such a young man?” Shen Qingqiu snaps once Luo Binghe has finally walked away.
Liu Qingge scoffs. “My pride is not so fragile that I cannot acknowledge a fellow cultivator,” he returns. Incensed, Shen Qingqiu stands up to leave. He doesn’t need to sit here and listen to Liu Qingge defend Luo Binghe to his face. Surely he’ll be singing a different tune when the boy comes swanning for his sister’s hand in marriage.
Yue Qingyuan seems to be just as taken with Luo Binghe as Liu Qingge, offering him smiles each time they encounter each other in a formal capacity. Beside him, Shen Qingqiu stands stiff, not a word said throughout. He doesn’t have to pay civility to this two-faced beast, regardless how everyone is willing to fall for his lies.
He grits his teeth. Why is everyone so blind.
“Qingqiu-shidi, Luo-langjun does not mean any harm,” Yue Qingyuan says entreatingly. “He is simply paying his respects. What could Qingqiu-shidi have against such a bright young man?”
Shen Qingqiu glowers at him. “Zhangmen-shixiong has already proclaimed his support,” he says. “This shidi will not dare contest the matter further.”
So it seems that once again, Cang Qiong Mountain has united against him in favor of Luo Binghe. Shen Qingqiu should have expected no less.
Sometimes, he wonders why he even bothers. Perhaps it is destiny for the sect to fall under Luo Binghe’s illusions, and he is only railing uselessly against a pre-ordained fate.
But Cang Qiong Mountain is still the safest place for him. As long as it stands strong, then Shen Qingqiu can remain undisturbed.
He doesn’t have any illusions on whether Luo Binghe will make his move soon. The boy wants something, and clearly he’ll stop at nothing to get it. He’s determined to disturb Shen Qingqiu’s peace, but Shen Qingqiu won’t dare let him.
Shen Qingqiu changes tactics. He refuses all new missions and sends Ming Fan instead - armed with dozens of talismans to ward him from demonic energy, of course. “You will send a signal flare immediately if you encounter any powerful demons,” he says sternly.
His head disciple looks dismayed at being seen as incapable, but Shen Qingqiu would rather let him suffer the indignity than let him die needlessly again.
Meanwhile, he needs to improve on his cultivation. He applies to Yue Qingyuan to go into seclusion in the Lingxi Caves. A month or two might benefit him. Perhaps a year, even. Shen Qingqiu has never been in the business of running away, but this is merely a tactical retreat. He needs to calm his mind and prepare himself for whatever Luo Binghe is plotting. Shen Qingqiu refuses to be caught unaware again. He’ll meet this beast with his head raised high.
But for now, the less he sees Luo Binghe, the better.
And yet - even in seclusion, the damned beast somehow manages to haunt him.
Shen Qingqiu is deep in meditation when he hears a voice whispering in his ear.
“Shen Qingqiu,” and his skin crawls at that deep baritone.
Hands are touching his waist, climbing up to his chest. An overwhelming warmth is pressing down on him, keeping him still.
Shen Qingqiu feels hot , skin tingling. There’s a pleasant excitement building up in his abdomen.
Stop, he wants to say. Instead his mouth murmurs, “Luo Binghe,” in a breathy moan.
His body is not even his own. His hands are caressing Luo Binghe’s face. The boy is watching him with unbridled lust, mouth leaning forward to capture his lips -
Shen Qingqiu opens his eyes abruptly, horrified.
What was that? Thinking of Luo Binghe in such a way - it makes him want to retch.
He takes a deep breath. Is the beast even invading his mind? Will he bother him no matter where he is?
There’s no peace to be found even in seclusion. Every time he closes his eyes, he sees Luo Binghe looming over him hungrily, his expression twisted in desire.
Shen Qingqiu shudders. He’s seen many of Luo Binghe’s expressions - obedience, fear, hatred and disgust, but never that naked desire. It makes his skin crawl. Luo Binghe has no reason to pant after him like a dog in heat. Isn’t he fated to have hundreds of women in his thrall? He can sniff around them as much as he likes. Shen Qingqiu will only keep the women of Cang Qiong Mountain safe from his grasp. Liu Mingyan, thankfully, seems less inclined to him now that her brother remains alive. Ning Yingying will have to be swayed properly.
Everyone else can fall into his trap. He can start with those bastards in Huan Hua Palace.
By the time Shen Qingqiu emerges from the Lingxi Caves, he feels stilted, uncomfortable in his own skin. He keeps expecting to see Luo Binghe jump out at him from the shadows.
His disciples welcome him as he returns, but seem to sense his unease.
“Shizun?” Ning Yingying looks at him, concerned. “Are you all right?”
Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. “This master is fine,” he says abruptly. “Resume with your duties.”
He stays sequestered in his Peak for more than a year, unwilling to step a foot out of his Bamboo House. The only cry for help that makes him leave is from the Warm Red Pavilion; one of the girls has been captured by a Skinner, and Shen Qingqiu owes them far too much.
Except when he arrives at the demon’s hideout, not only does he find his friend, he finds Luo Binghe as well.
“You again,” Shen Qingqiu growls.
“Peak Lord Shen,” Luo Binghe says. He looks thrilled, even though he’s currently tied up with Immortal Binding Cables. “I have not seen the immortal master for such time. Are you well?”
Shen Qingqiu is spared the answer when dozens of Skinners come crashing down the ceiling.
“Oh,” one of them says hungrily. “An intruder!”
“So beautiful…” another murmurs. “Take his skin as well!”
Shen Qingqiu picks up the unconscious girl, before unsheathing Xiu Ya, forced to focus on defending. He manages to lop off the head of two Skinners after a quick skirmish.
When he glances up, he finds that Luo Binghe has been cornered by more than half of the demons - clearly he’s the target. Luo Binghe moves without abandon, but he’s clearly at a disadvantage being restrained like that.
This boy has a death wish! Does he think he is invincible simply because he is a demon? Shen Qingqiu longs to run a sword through his chest just to teach him how it feels to be vulnerable.
Instead he leaps forward, joining him in the fray.
Luo Binghe looks concerned. “This is dangerous, you must be more careful - ”
“Shut up,” he snarls, and he slices through his bindings, freeing Luo Binghe from the grips of the Immortal Binding Cables.
“Peak Lord Shen - ” Luo Binghe starts, eyes wide.
Shen Qingqiu pushes him aside. “Stay still and don’t get in the way!”
He raises Xiu Ya and moves; the spiritual array captures the Skinners all at once.
By the time Shen Qingqiu has stomped them all to the ground, Luo Binghe has already gotten back to his feet.
“Is Peak Lord Shen all right?” Luo Binghe says hurriedly.
Shen Qingqiu sniffs, and says nothing else, moving back to pick up his friend. He’s unwilling to spend a second longer with Luo Binghe.
“But how did Peak Lord Shen know to come here - ”
“It is only a coincidence,” Shen Qingqiu interrupts. “I came here for her.”
Luo Binghe glances at the girl, as if he’s entirely forgotten her existence. Then he turns back to Shen Qingqiu, starry-eyed devotion bright in his eyes.
“I am indebted to Peak Lord Shen,” Luo Binghe says, suddenly changing his tone. “I am deeply thankful to him for saving this one’s life.”
“Is that so,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Then,” he steps forward. “I only have one request for Luo Binghe.”
Luo Binghe’s throat bobs up. “Anything,” he says, voice low. “I will give anything Peak Lord Shen asks…”
Shen Qingqiu leans in close. “Stay away from Cang Qiong Mountain.”
It’s the clearest threat he can give. Luo Binghe’s eyes stay still, unblinking. “If you touch a single disciple of mine, I will make you live to regret it,” he says coldly.
And then he leaves.
That’s as clear as a warning he can give.
For a time, Shen Qingqiu is not plagued by Luo Binghe’s presence.
It’s the most pleasant month he’s had in years. Shen Qingqiu almost feels at peace, the closest he has ever been since he’s changed the past. He returns to working on his bestiary, happy to pursue his own research. It had been left unfinished in his previous lifetime. Now he can finally finish it.
“Ah, Peak Lord Shen!”
He very nearly drops his cup. Shen Qingqiu raises his head, flabbergasted.
He clenches his fists.
“Have you not heard me before?” Shen Qingqiu says tersely.
Luo Binghe only smiles as he takes the seat across him. “I am keeping distance from Cang Qiong Mountain, as my benefactor has requested,” he says. “But I hold Peak Lord Shen in such high esteem. There must be more ways for me to repay his goodwill. Allow me to pay for his meal.”
“No need,” Shen Qingqiu says sharply. “Your company is unnecessary.”
Still Luo Binghe does not falter. He calls for a waiter and orders half a dozen dishes. The sheer amount of food makes Shen Qingqiu feel ill.
“Luo Binghe,” he says curtly. “I grow tired of all this song and dance.”
Luo Binghe stares at him across the table, unblinking.
“Be honest with me,” he says. “All our encounters are no coincidence.” You are stalking me, he thinks viciously.
He would rather demand a fight to the death than be a cornered rat to be played with.
Luo Binghe coughs. For some reason, his face reddens. “I...Peak Lord Shen is truly straightforward.”
“I have no time for your games,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Say your piece. I am not a patient man.”
The boy is silent for a moment. “Then, I hope Shen Qingqiu will pardon my next words,” he says.
“From the moment I met Shen Qingqiu, I knew you were different,” Luo Binghe begins, eyes bright. “You were so cold, unfeeling and unkind - like a statue of jade, aloof and unattainable, a treasure not so easily captured.”
“And yet you have saved my life, not once but twice. You are my protector and superior in every way.” He swallows, looking up at him with false humility. “You must be aware of how much you’ve bewitched me completely.”
Luo Binghe holds out his hand. “Shen Qingqiu, it is this lowly one’s desire to seek your hand in marriage.”
Shen Qingqiu gapes at him.
This - this little beast! How shameless! How mad! Who does he think he is? Shen Qingqiu isn’t going to be tossed over his shoulder and taken to be part of his harem!
He glares at him hatefully. “Asking me to marry you, does Luo Binghe think he is qualified? I refuse!”
At that Luo Binghe only smiles, as if he’s expecting such a response. “Shen Qingqiu truly is a heart worthy of being conquered.”
In his eyes, Luo Binghe is still a hateful disciple who’d plotted his downfall. This person may not have the same memories but he’s capable of the same ruthlessness. Shen Qingqiu had been a fool to be civil to him!
He stands up, knocking over a pair of chopsticks. “You have wasted my time long enough,” he says angrily. “Do not ever show your face to me again.”
But Luo Binghe stands up as well, grabbing his wrist. Shen Qingqiu hisses, trying to pull away, but the boy refuses to release.
“I will not stop,” Luo Binghe says in a low voice, “until Shen Qingqiu changes his mind.”
“My heart is decided.”
If Shen Qingqiu thought his last lifetime was awful, this is much worse! Luo Binghe has the persistence of a mad dog. Even in Cang Qiong Mountain, he’s plagued with nightmares! Shen Qingqiu wants to cry. This beast will not even give him a moment’s respite!
The pressure is almost intolerable. The gossip that Shen Qingqiu is truly a cold and hard-hearted man travels throughout the cultivation world, whispered in both temples and seedy brothels. Many women sigh with jealousy at the recipient of Luo Binghe’s affections.
He decides to stay in seclusion for the time being, in hopes that Luo Binghe’s ardor will cool. Surely in a year or two he will find another skirt to chase. There were hundreds of women for him to take to bed. Surely one of them will come forward and steal his attention!
Even dangling Ning Yingying in front of him doesn’t work. In fact, his disciple has finally changed her mind about Luo Binghe, exactly what he’d have wanted before, but not like this! “Shizun is truly the man for Luo Binghe,” she says, smiling brightly. “I wish them great happiness in the future!”
Even his fellow Peak Lords are not above it.
“If you like him so much, why don’t you marry him,” Shen Qingqiu retorts, slamming the fan at Liu Qingge’s chest.
Liu Qingge frowns. “Impudent! I only asked why you find him unsuitable,” he says sourly. “Such a wonder he is even taken in by the likes of you.”
Shen Qingqiu feels his ire rise. “Watch your mouth, Liu-shidi,” he snaps. “Luo Binghe is the one who is beneath me.”
“He is a powerful cultivator from a noble family,” Liu Qingge defends, with a fold of his arms. “There should be no reason to refuse his hand.”
He’s a demon! Shen Qingqiu wants to scream. If it were so easy to rip Luo Binghe’s mask off, he would have done it ages ago. But he keeps himself well protected, almost terrifyingly so. Shen Qingqiu cannot not find a hole to poke at in his web of lies.
He has even gone above and beyond in his treachery - inviting Cang Qiong Mountain to his family estate, where a whole city is willing to vouch for their young master, praising him in the streets.
His martial siblings sit there, awed, as dozens of servants carry in courting gifts, a procession rivaling royalty. The Cang Qiong Mountain Peak Lords look in amazement at the piles beneath their feet. Meanwhile Shen Qingqiu is stiff on his own seat, unmoved by such an ostentatious display.
Luo Binghe seems truly intent on moving heaven and earth for his hand.
“I have only one request for Cang Qiong Mountain,” Luo Binghe says. “I would like permission to court Peak Lord Shen.”
Shen Qingqiu nearly crushes the cup with his hand. “You dare?” he asks coldly.
“Shen Qingqiu has refused my offer as it was not properly conveyed the last time,” he says amicably. “It was wrong of me. I should have applied to his Sect as is custom. Begging Shen Qingqiu to consider my proposal.” As he says so, he bows low, forehead touching the ground. Shen Qingqiu had not seen such a display of deference since Luo Binghe’s days as a Qing Jing Peak disciple.
Shen Qingqiu scoffs. “I have already spoken of my refusal,” he says coolly. “This master will not change his mind.”
And yet even Yue Qingyuan comes to question him on his decision.
“Qingqiu-shidi, about this match - “ Yue Qingyuan freezes when Shen Qingqiu turns on him, furious that the Sect Master would even attempt to change his mind about this.
“Well?” Shen Qingqiu says sarcastically. Luo Binghe is not incorrect - the Sect Master does have some say on the point of his martial sibling’s marriage. It is a decision he can make, though Shen Qingqiu wants to believe it won’t come to that point. “Do you intend to sell me off as some kind of maiden?”
Yue Qingyuan balks. “I only wish to know why the courtship is unwelcome,” he says.
Shen Qingqiu grips his fan tight. “Do you want me to marry that man?” he hisses.
Yue Qingyuan pauses - far too long. Shen Qingqiu laughs bitterly, and walks away.
“He is a respectable gentleman and a prominent cultivator,” Yue Qingyuan says, voice tiny behind him. “And I have reason to believe he will treat you well - ”
Shen Qingqiu grits his teeth. Even in this lifetime, Yue Qingyuan has still not learned how to discern whether a person truly has good intentions! No wonder he’d been so misled before!
His other martial siblings find him unfilial.
“Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, from the most marriageable bachelor in the cultivation world, and Shen Qingqiu chooses to squander it,” Qi Qingqi says patronizingly.
“If you have no interest in him romantically, then perhaps consider it politically,” Wei Qingwei says, with a disapproving tone. “The Sect will greatly benefit from his support.”
Only Shang Qinghua has nothing to say - and that is because he owes Shen Qingqiu for his current respected standing in Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Not that his words will have any weight, anyway - in this lifetime and the last they have both been sneered at by their martial siblings.
It seems everyone wants him to marry Luo Binghe.
Even worse is when Juizhong-jun launches an attack on Zhao Hua Temple; an incident that has also happened in the previous lifetime as well. Naturally Cang Qiong Mountain comes to their aid, though the demon army this time is even more ruthless than expected. Shen Qingqiu had imagined the scales would be tipped in their favor this time around with Liu Qingge’s presence - and yet at most they are only able to defend to keep them from advancing further.
Luo Binghe had arrived when they were cornered, and staunchly fought back the demonic invasion. Notably he’d come just when several Elder demons had cornered Shen Qingqiu; a shining moment that many people would recount, breathless, of their savior.
By now Luo Binghe has reached the height of fame, even among the common people. He has been found in both small towns and large cities, working tirelessly to defend them from evil demons.
And of course, his suit is much spoken about. Many lament how he has set his sights on such a cold-hearted man.
“The Qing Jing Peak Lord is so rude to poor Luo Binghe,” one of them says.
“That man’s cruelty knows no bounds. After Luo-gongzi has saved his life!”
“They say Shen Qingqiu is unpleasant even to his own Peak. He is disdainful even to their own Sect Master.”
“Preposterous! That man has no shame!”
Shen Qingqiu’s grip on his fan is so tight it nearly snaps under his fingers. Truly, Luo Binghe pollutes his reputation no matter what lifetime! Shen Qingqiu has never been beloved by the masses, like Yue Qingyuan, but this slander really is too much!
He’s a demon! He wants to scream. He’ll kill you all with that smile on his face! Of course, nobody will believe him. Whenever he so much as hinted about Luo Binghe’s heritage they only accuse him of spreading lies.
Shen Qingqiu hates him from the bottom of his heart.
A year into this ridiculous courtship, Luo Binghe arrives at the foot of the mountain with the seeds of a Thousand Leaf Cleansing Snow Lotus. It’s an extravagant gift, but Shen Qingqiu brushes it aside.
His mouth twists to an ugly expression. “Will you not stop?”
“Never,” Luo Binghe promises.
“It is the chase you enjoy, not my own self,” Shen Qingqiu tells him bitterly.
Luo Binghe’s lips quirk up. “I do not deny it is thrilling,” he agrees, seemingly coy. “It is unlike what I’ve been used to. Others are so easy.”
“However, you underestimate your own charms as well, Shen Qingqiu.” Shen Qingqiu shivers at the intimacy, and narrows his eyes. “I have no need to please everyone. My heart only longs for you.”
“You are a dog begging for a bone,” Shen Qingqiu tells him.
“On the contrary. I am a wolf seeking my treasure,” Luo Binghe returns. “And I will have it.” He smiles. “There is not a heart on earth I am incapable of conquering.”
“You think so highly of yourself,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Such arrogance.”
Luo Binghe only tosses his head back to laugh. “In truth, I believe I am soon to victory,” he says slyly.Shen Qingqiu wishes he could throttle him.
“Oh?” Shen Qingqiu says. “And what would make you say so?”
Boldly Luo Binghe steps forward and takes his hand, despite Shen Qingqiu’s noise of protest. “Whenever I am close, Shen Qingqiu’s heartbeat speeds up,” he says in a low voice. “At least your body is honest.”
Shen Qingqiu would rather die than let Luo Binghe know that his reactions stem from fear instead of the wilful passion the boy is imagining. Even now he can barely resist that jolt of panic whenever those hands touch even his sleeves. He’d brutalized him completely - Shen Qingqiu has not even a shred of goodwill for Luo Binghe in this lifetime or even the next.
He glares at him. “You must be simply imagining things,” he says coldly. “How can Luo Binghe presume to know my heart?”
He knows that Luo Binghe must suspect him, even just a little. Why else has Shen Qingqiu not fallen for his charms like the rest?
But Luo Binghe only smiles at him, refusing to release his hand. “If Shen Qingqiu were to say what he dislikes about me,” he says, as if in challenge, “then I will forfeit. Anything that is odious about me - anything that will prove me unfit, and then I will concede to his wishes.”
“If not,” he says, “Shen Qingqiu must agree that our pairing is well-matched, and that this marriage can only promise harmony and good fortune.”
This beast is mad. “I know what you are,” Shen Qingqiu hisses.
Luo Binghe’s expression barely flickers. Instead, his lips curve to a smile. “Do you.”
“Demon scum,” Shen Qingqiu spits, and he’s rewarded by the slightest widening of Luo Binghe’s eyes.
And then - the man starts to laugh. “Shen Qingqiu,” he says, breathless. “Truly...you are beyond my hopes and dreams.”
“You can see through me completely,” he continues, voice trembling with glee. “Not once have you fallen for my disguise and charms. How incredible you are!”
Luo Binghe takes a moment to compose himself. “So you know. I had hoped to reveal it to you at some point, when your heart is more softened.”
“...is this why you refuse me?” Luo Binghe mutters, as if to himself. He raises his eyes. “My mother is human, you know.”
“I know who your mother is,” Shen Qingqiu sneers. “And who your father is, even. Do you imagine me ignorant?”
Luo Binghe shrugs. “My mother has long left the cultivation world. I would have imagined she has been long forgotten.”
Shen Qingqiu refrains from insulting Su Xiyan to her son’s face. “Clearly you do not have your father’s charms,” he says instead, and is rewarded by an ugly expression flashing in Luo Binghe’s face. “Regardless, I have no interest in some demon scum.”
“We are not so different from humans, you know,” Luo Binghe says. “Shen Qingqiu, if you will let me prove to you my devotion, then I will lay the demon realm at your feet. Whatever you desire, I will give it to you.”
“I do not care for it,” Shen Qingqiu says. “I am not marrying a demon.”
For the first time, Luo Binghe falters. “Is it so impossible for you to look beyond my heritage? Am I unsuitable simply because of the blood that runs through my veins? I have done nothing cruel. My greatest wish is to unite the realms, as my father hopes. I aim to keep peace and justice, to protect humans from any harm.”
“Demons are demons,” Shen Qingqiu retorts, knowing it’s a flimsy argument, particularly as his own prejudice is not as deep. His only hatred is for Luo Binghe specifically. “You are greedy, violent creatures who will never be satisfied. Your promises mean nothing, Luo Binghe.” Another lie. There is no promise that Luo Binghe had not seen to completion. He’d whispered to Shen Qingqiu his plans to destroy everything that had ever mattered to him, to repay every hurt he suffered tenfold, and did it so methodically Shen Qingqiu almost felt impressed.
This, though - Shen Qingqiu refuses to let it continue. Luo Binghe can win every heart there is in this realm except his own.
Luo Binghe’s expression is inscrutable. “You doubt my intentions,” he says abruptly. “You think me fickle.”
“I think you mad,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Go send your promises of marriage to another, Luo Binghe. I trust they will not refuse you. You are a remarkable young man, with a promising future.” His mouth twitches. “I have no interest in being a part of it.”
But Luo Binghe shakes his head. “Shen Qingqiu is the only one for me,” he declares. “If I must court you for a decade, then so be it.”
If only he could trap this man in a mountain and keep him locked away there forever! Shen Qingqiu clenches his fists. He should have pitched that child into the icy river when he had the chance. “You will not take no for an answer,” he says. “You have continued to ruin what little peace I have, and you call it admiration?”
Luo Binghe frowns. “There is nothing false about my attentions,” he says. “Your Sect has been the one to allow me entrance. If I have wronged you in any way, then I will stop. But I have respected your customs and courted as proper.”
Shen Qingqiu scowls. In a way, Luo Binghe is correct. He has always been so shrewd in his tricks. Is that not why all his martial siblings vouch for this man?
But Shen Qingqiu has always been good at railing against fate. “Once they learn you are a demon, my Sect will end this courtship,” he says coldly. “I suggest you stop now, rather than force me to ruin your reputation.”
Instead, Luo Binghe looks delighted at such a challenge. “I would love to see you try,” he says. “Come, Shen Qingqiu. Shall we have a wager?”
“If my heritage remains undiscovered in a year from now,” Luo Binghe says. “Shen Qingqiu must receive my hand in marriage.”
Shen Qingqiu sneers at him. “Do you think it would be so easy?” he said. “Even if one person believes me - then your wager will be forfeit.”
Luo Binghe nods.
He has incredible belief in himself. Fine. Shen Qingqiu scoffs. If this will rid him of this beast forever, Shen Qingqiu will take it. “All right,” he says. “If I win, you must never show your face to me ever again.”
The first step is to find someone likely to believe in him. Shen Qingqiu goes to Yue Qingyuan first, detailing all he knows about Luo Binghe to prove his parentage.
The Sect Master stares at him as he’s grown another head.
Shen Qingqiu bristles. “I am telling you, Zhangmen-shixiong,” he says. “That wretch is a demon. He is born of Tianlang-Jun and Su Xiyan.”
Yue Qingyuan shakes his head at him. “I know you dislike him, Qingqiu-shidi, but to drag his reputation in the mud…”
“Yue Qingyuan! Stop being so blind!” he screams, throwing the cup on the ground. “We have not met his parents even once. His story is suspect! We cannot even trace the roots of his family.”
“Then is Qingqiu-shidi insinuating that he has lied to us?” Yue Qingyuan looks at him in disappointment. “This is unnecessary. We both know it is possible to rise in strength even without a powerful family.”
“Besides, does not his disposition speak for himself? If he were not truly born of a noble family, what should it matter. But to insist he is a demon! You dishonor him, for all he has done for us - for you .”
Shen Qingqiu is shaking with rage. Why won’t you believe me? He wants to shout, but he restraints himself.
Yue Qingyuan had never believed him when he claimed that he hadn’t killed Liu Qingge. Why had he been stupid to think he would change this lifetime around?
He leaves Qiong Ding Peak in a rage, ignoring the burning wetness threatening to build up in his eyes.
He goes straight to Bai Zhan Peak after, unwilling to be defeated so easily.
“Liu Qingge!” he hollers, uncaring that he’s making a ruckus.
The Bai Zhan Peak Lord arrives after several minutes, frowning. “It’s you. What are you so mad about?”
Shen Qingqiu grits his teeth. “You’ve seen Luo Binghe fight many times.”
Liu Qingge nods. “I acknowledge Luo Binghe is a fine cultivator,” he says. Indeed, ever since learning that Luo Binghe is from a noble family, he seems to have risen in his shidi’s eyes. How odious of him.
“He certainly has his advantages,” Shen Qingqiu says snidely.
His martial sibling narrows his eyes. “What are you implying?”
Shen Qingqiu doesn’t answer the question. Instead, he asks, “have you ever crossed swords with him directly?”
“No,” Liu Qingge says, with a hint of regret.
Of course. Liu Qingge has never had the opportunity.
“Allow me to arrange it for you,” Shen Qingqiu says, in a magnanimous tone.
“However,” he says, leaning in close. “I want something in return.”
Liu Qingge scoffs. “As expected. What do you want? Do you only wish to test your suitor? Do you think if he were less powerful than I it would make him unacceptable?”
Amazing, how this man can praise himself and his opponent at the same time! Shen Qingqiu only glares at him. “Do you want to fight him or not?”
Fortunately, Liu Qingge is so battle-hungry that he agrees regardless, though still suspicious of Shen Qingqiu’s intentions.
He has no need to expound further. Liu Qingge may be an idiot, but he will instantly notice if his adversary is using demonic energy.
The match gathers a whole crowd; all the disciples of Cang Qiong Mountain are present to witness such an exchange. Luo Binghe had been more than eager as well after receiving the invite, smiling widely as he walked up to the battle square of Bai Zhan Peak. Shen Qingqiu only averts his eyes with his fan, unwilling to be made a spectacle. Fortunately, Liu Qingge hasn’t revealed the reason for seeking a match, and Luo Binghe had only been pleased for a chance to demonstrate his prowess.
Shen Qingqiu watches attentively, not daring to look away for a single moment. Luo Binghe cannot possibly win against Liu Qingge unless he uses his demonic tricks!
What he doesn’t expect, however, is that Luo Binghe will allow himself to lose! The sword he uses is fine, but it is no match for Cheng Luan. Eventually he is beaten down to his knees, Liu Qingge holding the sword at his throat.
Luo Binghe only smiles, rising up to bow. “Thank you for your guidance, Peak Lord Liu. This lowly one will remember your advice.”
Liu Qingge bows back, looking every bit like the dignified War God they all claim him to be. The viewers all sigh; how lucky they have been to see such a wondrous match!
Shen Qingqiu, however, doesn’t care for all that. “Well?” he says impatiently, once they are alone in his residence.
Liu Qingge has a faraway look in his eyes. “He is a very powerful man, strong and skilled,” he murmurs. “An excellent talent, who only blooms in a century. I daresay in time he may be able to challenge Zhangmen-shixiong himself.”
Shen Qingqiu is more than aware of Luo Binghe’s capabilities. “I did not ask for a litany of his talents,” he says. “Did you not notice anything as you crossed swords? Something demonic, perhaps?”
Liu Qingge gives him a look of disdain. “He may be powerful, but he is no demon. Cheng Luan would have responded to his blood if he were. Why are you so insistent on this?”
Shen Qingqiu nearly shakes him out of anger.
His other martial siblings are likely even less discerning - they have only met Luo Binghe once or twice. They can’t be relied on to help him, either.
Shen Qingqiu decides to switch tactics.
“What are the marks of a demon, Ming Fan?” he asks. If he’s going to win this wager, he will need to stop relying on his peers and direct his disciples instead.
His head disciple straightens his back and rattles off information, all learned from scrolls.
Shen Qingqiu nods. “Good,” he says. “And what do we know of demon temperaments?”
“That they are greedy and always ready to trick humans…” Ming Fan swallows. “That they cannot be trusted.”
“Correct,” Shen Qingqiu says. Still, Ming Fan looks at him uneasily.
Shen Qingqiu raises an eyebrow. “Is something the matter?”
“Er...” Ming Fan says hesitantly, “they say that shizun has become obsessed with demons, and has been possessed....”
Shen Qingqiu closes his fan in a snap. “Is that so?” he says icily.
His head disciple quails. “T-They’re only rumors, shizun!”
Shen Qingqiu scowls.
Even now, he is being made a fool by that Luo Binghe!
“You will take the senior disciples with you to observe the boundary,” he says. “There will be demons. You must take care not to be discovered by them.”
“Everyone who comes and goes, you will report to me,” he says.
Shen Qingqiu will show that little brat.
Shen Qingqiu grits his teeth.
Six months, and still Luo Binghe has not blown his cover! Shen Qingqiu has him tailed on all hours. His disciples faithfully send him reports, but all it does is make them admire him more, as they see him as a hero in the cultivation world.
Whatever glamour he’s using, it’s powerful. Though of course, the only time Luo Binghe’s seal had flared back then had been during the Immortal Alliance Conference. He’d learned to control it when he returned; no doubt in this lifetime, he’s even more skilled at hiding his demonic powers.
Shen Qingqiu clenches his fists. He refuses to give up. It isn’t just his freedom at stake once more.
His pride, as well.
How can Luo Binghe defeat him a second time? Shen Qingqiu won’t suffer another humiliating loss!
Perhaps he should march all the way to the demon realm and drag Su Xiyan to recognize his son. After all, if there is one thing that beast cannot deny, it is his own parentage. Shen Qingqiu is to do anything, if it gives him the victory he desires.
He has reached one of the cities by the borderlands after a day of travel. Shen Qingqiu walks through the marketplace, ignoring the merchants calling him to hawk their wares.
Luo Binghe’s voice cuts through the bustle. Shen Qingqiu stiffens and turns to the sight of his most hated man.
Luo Binghe is smiling, a woman clinging to his arm. She is looking up at him adoringly, but Luo Binghe does not even spare a glance for her.
Instead, his smile is directed only at Shen Qingqiu.
Shen Qingqiu grimaces, and looks instead at his companion. And then, his face turns ashen.
Qiu Haitang stares at him, mouth open. “Shen Jiu,” she says slowly. “You - you are Shen Jiu!”
Shen Qingqiu feels hatred burn in him. “Luo Binghe, you - ” he starts, furious. Something in him breaks. Why had he ever trusted Luo Binghe to ever treat him well? In the end, he will torment him still just to get what he wants.
But instead of threatening him - “Are you acquainted with Peak Lord Shen, miss?” Luo Binghe’s voice is pleasant, but there’s an edge to it that Shen Qingqiu doesn’t like.
Qiu Haitang’s gaze is desperate, clutching closer to him. “Luo-gongzi! You are a righteous cultivator, you have saved my life just earlier, I hope you can help me once more!”
Her hands are trembling as she fists Luo Binghe’s robes. “This man, he - ” She begins to speak haltingly of Shen Qingqiu’s crime, her burning eyes occasionally turning to Shen Qingqiu.
“Please believe me, gongzi!” she says wildly. “This man has killed my entire family! He has no honor. He cannot be allowed to go unpunished for his crimes.”
Shen Qingqiu watches, numb, as Luo Binghe removes Qiu Haitang’s hands from his side.
“Is that so,” he says.
His words bring a chill up to Shen Qingqiu’s spine. So this is not Luo Binghe’s plan, he did not bring her h to condemn him -
Then, his happenstance is even worse.
Shen Qingqiu watches, horrified, as Qiu Haitang looks at him defiantly, very much convinced her protector will take her side again.
Completely oblivious to the fierce glare in Luo Binghe’s eyes.
He had said those words to her, before he’d killed the rest. He wants to do it again, to warn her of this man.
Luo Binghe had married her before in a previous lifetime, but now he can see how little she means to him. If another person dies by Luo Binghe’s hand because of him -
“Luo-gongzi,” he hears himself say, distant and meek. “Will you allow me a moment in private?”
Luo Binghe startles. Something like displeasure crosses his face, and he nods.
“Miss Qiu,” Luo Binghe says gently. And then - with quick fingers, he hit her key acupoint. Immediately she fell unconscious, Luo Binghe barely catching her in his arms.
“I could kill her,” Luo Binghe says. “She is only from a minor sect, and she had wandered too far into a demon’s territory. No one will know what happened.”
Shen Qingqiu feels sick at his words. “Don’t you dare,” he says, through gritted teeth.
Luo Binghe frowns at him. “Why not?” he says. “She is a threat to your reputation. A woman who dares slander you to your face, how can she be allowed to live?”
“Luo Binghe, you fool,” Shen Qingqiu snarls. “Do you think she is alive out of my own negligence?”
Luo Binghe stares at him, expression inscrutable. He glances at Qiu Haitang, and the look turns even colder.
Eventually, Luo Binghe closes his mouth. “Peak Lord Shen is truly merciful,” he says. He tosses her into his arms, and leaves.
Only when he is finally gone does Shen Qingqiu exhale. Gently, he carries the unconscious Qiu Haitang to a nearby inn before waking her up.
Qiu Haitang glances around the room in fear. “You - !”
Shen Qingqiu only shakes his head, standing up. “Don’t go with that man anymore,” he tells Qiu Haitang. “He’s dangerous.”
Qiu Haitang laughs coldly. “As opposed to you, Xiao Jiu?”
Shen Qingqiu purses his lips. He doesn’t regret killing Qiu Jianluo and every single man in that household. It was what they had all deserved, to burn in hell.
“If Haitang wants me to take my life, then I will,” he says. By now he has lived two lifetimes, and neither has given him true peace. He’s done the best he can - if this scandal should once again explode, it will not ruin Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. The sin will be his own alone, and - with his already ruined reputation, thanks to Luo Binghe’s suit, it will be a good enough reason to disown him.
Besides, he has already outlived his expectations.
If this should be his end, then so be it.
“I want you dead,” Qiu Haitang hisses. “I want you - ” her eyes are wild and hateful, the way her brother’s had been. Shen Qingqiu aches to see it. In his last lifetime, she had called for his death. It had been the only accusation Shen Qingqiu had willingly confessed to.
Shen Qingqiu nods. “If my blood will appease you, then it should be so.”
With a soft exhale, he takes out Xiu Ya, and puts it in her hands.
Qiu Haitang stares at him, disbelieving. Then she takes his sword and unsheathes it, her grip on the hilt trembling, before it grows tight with resolve.
But before she can swing it down, a hand catches it mid-arc. Shen Qingqiu opens his eyes to see a large cut on Luo Binghe’s palm, red dripping down in rivulets
“Shen Qingqiu,” Luo Binghe says. “This is not allowed.” His eyes are dark and angry. Qiu Haitang makes a shocked noise at seeing him appear out of nowhere.
Shen Qingqiu tilts his chin. “My life is my own. I have offered it to here.”
“No,” Luo Binghe growls, and slowly his eyes glow red. Finally, the demonic seal breaks, a red sigil lighting up on his forehead. Demonic energy fills the room, heavy and suffocating.
Qiu Haitang’s hands shake as she stares at him. “You - ” she looks at Shen Qingqiu. “You consort with demons! You really are a monster!”
Shen Qingqiu can only shake his head helplessly. The outcome he has wanted, but not like this.
The next moment, Qiu Haitang drops Xiu Ya and darts out of the room. However, Luo Binghe raises one hand; she collapses to the floor before she can reach the door. Shen Qingqiu hurries over, and is relieved that she is still alive.
“I win,” he says, dully.
Luo Binghe’s mouth twists. “And so you do.” He looks at the woman in his arms.
Shen Qingqiu swallows. “I changed my mind,” he says. “For the terms.”
“I wish for you to spare her life,” he says. “To - to erase the memory of me. You can do that, can you? Marry her to someone of good standing. Give her a good life.” He feels desperate, all of the sudden. Luo Binghe is capable of anything; if he can fool the entire cultivation world, then he should be able to give Haitang the happiness she deserves...
Luo Binghe frowns. “It can be done,” he says. “But why - ”
“If you do all this, I will give you what you want,” he says. He laughs bitterly, the sound empty in his ears. “When Haitang is settled, I will marry you.”
For a moment, Luo Binghe can only stare at him. His fingers clench into a fist. “This is what you desire?”
“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu says in a low tone. “This is all I ask.”
Luo Binghe sets his jaw. “So be it.”
He lifts Qiu Haitang on his shoulder, and then holds out his hand.
Shen Qingqiu has no choice but to take it.