Shen Qingqiu's body is one that often experiences qi deviations.
In another world, an ideal world, opportunities would be handed to him on a silver platter. His pride and stubbornness would prevent indecisiveness and uncertainty. His hatred would be pointed at the unjust. His natural talent would blossom and form a strong unwavering core.
In reality, everything points inwards. Self-hatred is refined to a tip, wielded by heart demons in a never-ending internal war. Empowered by his pride, the thought of I should be better turns every carefully clawed level of cultivation into a setback. It fights with him on the best of days, the ringing cries of not enough not enough constantly tormenting him during the worst.
And this is before external factors are accounted for.
The training mission he's requested from the Sect Leader is a simple one. A large town, not quite a city and just barely to the edge of Cang Qiong's sphere of influence, had recently been afflicted by pests of a possibly demonic variety.
Travelers near their borders have been turning up dead—large caravans are untouched but individual merchants and peddlers have been attacked. Normally this would be dismissed as the activity of bandits, a mission for the local lord's militia rather than esteemed cultivators.
However, upon seeing the claw marks and bites that the bodies were littered with, that option was soon out of the running. It was hypothesized then, by a scholar who knew the habits and hunting patterns of the local animals, that this must have been the work by either a demon or demonic beast.
They pointed out the increasing numbers of the deer population and the places where the merchants were attacked. They argued regarding the state of the remains—even if their dietary preferences changed, why did they not eat at least some part of the bodies?—until the town relented and sent a missive to Cang Qiong Mountain.
The mission was quickly earmarked for Qing Jing Peak. There were few humans more knowledgeable than the Peak Lord in matters of a demonic nature and it was assumed that this would be a quality he wished to impart onto his successors. Additionally, given the rather volatile relationship that Qing Jing had shared with the other peaks following the death of Liu Qingge, the Sect Leader had unofficially given Shen Qingqiu the right of first refusal for missions of this type (even if, as the An Ding disciples gossipped, he was helping his murderer of a shidi run free).
It was three days of travel from Cang Qiong to the town. Horses were procured, one short as was customary when traveling with Luo Binghe. As customary, Ning Yingying offered to share hers but unexpectedly Shen Qingqiu, for the first time, did not raise his voice to object. And Ming Fan, instigator of this situation, spent those three days watching in envy at how Luo Binghe clung to his favorite shimei's back.
They arrive bright and early on the fourth day, Shen Qingqiu having decided to rest at an inn not too far from the town the night before to ensure that those from Qing Jing Peak looked immaculate upon presentation.
And it's in robes of crisp white and pale green that they greet the local lord. Their shizun sits while his disciples stand at attention behind him, offerings of tea and snacks untouched, as an old retainer recounts the information in the missive.
"Where is the scholar?" Shen Qingqiu asks, as the explanation winds down. "They are the expert in this case, no?"
The retainer looks troubled. "They went out to obtain more evidence three days back and nobody has heard back since."
He spares a glance at his lord. "If the Immortal Master is able to find them, we would be immensely grateful but we are prepared for the worst."
Shen Qingqiu taps his open fan against his chin. "That's all you know?"
The retainer kneels. "My apologies, Immortal Master, but we are in desperate need of your aid."
With a hmm, Shen Qingqiu rises. His fan snaps open and he waves it in front of himself imperiously. "Many thanks to the lord for his hospitality, my disciples will pick it up from here." And with a nod, he's off, his disciples trailing obediently after him.
"Ming Fan," Shen Qingqiu says once they're sufficiently far away from any listening ears. "What do you make of this situation?"
Ming Fan bows lightly. "This disciple believes that the enemy is a singular being or a very small group, at the least. The people attacked were defenceless while larger groups went untouched."
Shen Qingqiu dismisses him with a gesture, turning to his more junior disciples. "Does anyone disagree with this theory or have any other ideas?"
Silence meets this inquiry. The other disciples either believe in this wholeheartedly or do not wish to speak up against Ming Fan. Luo Binghe fidgets for a moment, but decides to hold his tongue.
Shen Qingqiu looks at them neutrally. "This master expects you to find evidence of this, then. Start at the city and report back at the blue roofed inn at nightfall."
The disciples kowtow and then break into pre-assigned groups as they run off. Shen Qingqiu, lightly fanning himself, leisurely makes his way to the central market.
The day passes with little fanfare. While the ladies at the brothel had appreciated the jewelry—Shen Qingqiu had long since learnt that coin was not the best way to go when dealing with a Madame of an unknown temperament, gifts could fly under the radar much more easily and could be exchanged for money when needed—they had little in way of details.
"My apologies to the Lord Cultivator," a young woman skilled at the dizi says, eyeing the jade bangle Shen Qingqiu slid towards her. "They've been keeping quiet to avoid panic."
"That's fine." he says. "Keep it."
After dinner, Ming Fan presents him with notes from their interviews with the populace. Shen Qingqiu skims them quickly. They're detailed and summarized effectively, the conclusions simplistic but well reasoned.
"The local militia?"
"This disciple was unable to contact them. It seems that they returned from an expedition last night and will be heading to search for the missing scholar the day after tomorrow. This disciple believes that there will be available time to question them tomorrow."
Shen Qingqiu stares him down. "It isn't enough to believe that they might be available. The town sent a request for help. You must make sure that they are available."
"Y-yes, Shizun!" Ming Fan stutters. "Understood!"
Shen Qingqiu turns away from him.
The next morning is a flurry of activity as the Qing Jing disciples are directed through a set of different groups and tasks by Ming Fan. Luo Binghe is assigned to a staggering number of chores to keep him busy and far away from Ning Yingying, who would include him in her group without a thought. The little beast finishes in record time but it's still well after the others have left.
Luo Binghe realizes this soon enough and with a glare and demand from Shen Qingqiu to scram, he's dragging his exhausted body out of the inn to chase down his fellow disciples.
The rest of the morning is quiet. Shen Qingqiu watches those who attempt to discreetly watch him, making plenty of observations along the way.
Around noon, he decides to head out to assess the perimeter of the town, only to be met with the sight of a rather familiar figure.
Her hair messed up and ribbons askew, Ning Yingying runs towards him with tears in her eyes.
"Shizun!" she cries out, latching onto his hand as soon as she reaches him. "He-shijie is in terrible danger! I don't know how long she can hold on!"
"Lead the way." he demands.
The path Ning Yingying takes is winding a right turn here, a left there, a duck into the alleyway. Not for the first time, Shen Qingqiu regrets being too easy on her in her cultivation training. If she could consistently apply qi to speed up her movements or enhance her leaping ability, they'd be there so much faster.
When Ning Yingying leads him to the forest, Shen Qingqiu feels as if the last piece of a puzzle has finally clicked into place. He stops running and lets go of Ning Yingying's hand.
"It seems my misgivings were correct," he says. He stretches his qi perception to its limits, turning it to the direction Ning Yingying was leading him to.
There is nothing. No demonic beasts. No cultivators. Nothing.
Ning Yingying grabs his hand again, tugging on it. "Shizun?" she asks, confused.
Shen Qingqiu turns to face her.
"Head back, Ying-er." he says. "Tell Ming Fan to have all of our fire talisman stock at the ready. If I do not return by sundown, he is to pick ten of the senior disciples to scout the forest. If there are any signs of danger, he should retreat immediately."
Ning Yingying nods and lets go of his hand. Good, Shen Qingqiu thinks. He doesn't like her in the thick of danger—a talent she seems to unfortunately have been developing—but the experiences themselves have done much for her maturity.
Shen Qingqiu hears her footsteps behind him as he heads towards the direction she was pointing him to earlier. He feels around for the qiankun pouch in his sleeves, unfastening the drawstring, and reaching until his fingers press against familiar textures of talisman paper and the clay of his emergency vials.
He lets out a breath. He should make this quick.
Back when Shen Qingqiu was Shen Jiu, serving under a scumbag for a teacher, he had learnt one cultivation skill of value.
Wu Yanzi was a disgusting excuse for a human being, the crimes he was accused of were numerous, his sins even more so. Few people knew that better than Shen Qingqiu—the knife in the back was well deserved and more than once, Shen Qingqiu wished he was in the frame of mind then to enjoy it—but one did not need to know Wu Yanzi to know of his notoriety.
Demonic cultivators were one of few beings hated more by the Jianghu than demons themselves. You see, while many sects considered demons cultivating to be against the will of the heavens, they also acknowledged that on some level, there weren't many other options for demons.
They learnt about them as beasts to be put down, but can a beast help but be a beast? In the dog-eat-dog world of demons, where might was the only virtue, what other options did they have to survive?
It stood to reason then that beings that had options, namely demonic cultivators were even more hated. Humans who spit on the righteous path to slink in the shadows and gorge themselves on forbidden arts in a mad rush for power—what decent person would permit that?
It was a good thing, then, that the only person who knew of Shen Qingqiu's affinity for these arts was dead.
Further into the forest, Shen Qingqiu finds He Huiyin tied to a tree. Red immortal binding cables criss-cross over Qing Jing green, keeping her immobilized and more importantly, her qi signature impossible to detect. She's been knocked out, completely in the open and alone. One would assume her caring master would run towards her, immediately working on breaking her bonds—leaving that master open for a surprise attack.
It isn't hard to surmise where such an attacker would be hiding, despite there being plenty of trees around. An ideal vantage point would allow an attack at the target's unguarded back and also be in a perfect spot for follow up attacks as well, should their target dodge or fail to be subdued easily.
With that in mind, an analysis was simple. The person responsible for this was obvious. They believed that their people could not overpower Shen Qingqiu normally so a trap like this was their only option. With that in mind, it would stand to reason that there would be more than one assassin in the forest. If their original plan was to have him enter with Ning Yingying, they clearly intended on making her a liability. And no matter your power, one would need at least three bodies to threaten himself, Ning Yingying, and He Huiyin simultaneously.
Approaching closer, Shen Qingqiu pulls out a stack of exploding talismans. And before anyone can react, he tosses them towards a cluster of trees directly in front of his disciple. There is a satisfying crack as the trees collapse after the explosion, curses flowing from the general area.
The smoke and fire is a good enough distraction to free and fetch his disciple, her snoozing form now flung over his back. Her sleep is far too deep to be natural. And given how the assassins would be directly in her line of sight, added to the fact that they had no idea of telling exactly when Shen Qingqiu would arrive, the dose must have been rather heavy.
At the very least, it guarantees she won't move around too much should he have to fight.
After fastening his disciple to his back with the plain rope Shen Qingqiu kept on his person, just in case, he approaches the bodies of the assassins carefully. One is dead while the other three are just barely clinging to life. Give it a night and they would all bleed out in short time. It was an easy ending but it was not enough.
Among all of the guidelines assigned to righteous cultivators, one of the most enduring was to not get involved in the affairs of this world. Several different sects interpreted this differently, for example the Zhao Hua Temple would extend this to mean that one shouldn't overindulge in this world's pleasures, while the Huan Hua Palace, embodiment of excess, would disagree. What all righteous cultivators did agree on though was that it meant that a cultivator should only seek to fight demons, demonic and spiritual beasts, and other cultivators. Attacking mortals should be done in only the direst of circumstances, essentially forbidding cultivators from thoughts of kingship, of raising armies for conquest, or of working their way up the social ladder through the military.
Now, this situation would easily fit the definition of "dire circumstance". A cultivator was attacked and kidnapped, her master targeted for death. A clean open and shut case unless your name was Shen Qingqiu.
While he still held the trust of the world outside the Cang Qiong Sect, the fact remained that he was not trusted by those in it. After decades of disapproval for his demeanor and actions, Liu Qingge's death was the straw that broke the camel's back. While Yue Qingyuan was shielding him for now, the man's affections had proven to fickle in the past. When he inevitably gave up, it would leave him wide open for other peak lords—notably Qi Qingqi and her beloved head disciple, Liu Mingyan—to target. Any doubt towards Shen Qingqiu's conduct could and would be used as ammunition. A peak lord had no choice but to kill a few mortals? The only people alive to testify were the peak lord and his disciple? Who would believe that?
Therefore, Shen Qingqiu had to make sure they would not register as ordinary mortals.
Uncorking his emergency vial, Shen Qingqiu kneeled down to pour a few drops of its contents into each of their mouths. The three still living began to breathe a bit more easily, color returning to their faces. He supplemented that with some light healing, the force of the explosion tore a few organs apart—Shen Qingqiu was not skilled enough to fix such an injury but if he could direct his qi to lighten the worst of it, that should be enough.
By the time Shen Qingqiu rose again, he was out of a significant amount of qi, his still living assassins now looked like they could survive a few hours without medical attention.
With a sword seal, Shen Qingqiu carefully directed Xiu Ya to stab them each in turn, corresponding with the worst of the damage on their bodies. Such a trick wouldn't pass inspection from someone like Mu Qingfan, but the less skilled cultivators of a smaller sect would easily corroborate Shen Qingqiu's story.
He wipes his brow and turns around—to the sound of applause.
Shen Qingqiu's body jerks, turning around quickly, a shiver running down his back at being caught so unaware. Engrossed as he was in his work, no ordinary person should have been able to slip past a peak lord's senses like this.
And upon closer look, it appears that the "no ordinary man" qualifier held true. While his shape was human enough, little details would throw that off. His teeth were a bit too sharp, ears a bit too pointed, and his eyes were glowing a bright unnatural red.
"Demon," Shen Qingqiu hisses, forming a sword seal to direct Xiu Ya hover right next to him. He secures the rope keeping him and He Huiyin attached, adding an extra knot as a precaution, and then takes the emergency vial, pouring the remainder down his own throat.
Sometimes Luo Binghe can't figure out whether he's fortunate or unfortunate. His birth parents are likely long gone but he was blessed with the most loving mother in the world. He's accepted into the strongest sect, under the tutelage of the renown Shen Qingqiu but he's openly despised. He is met with trials that would have killed any human boy many times over but he isn't one.
His human cultivation suffers setbacks, another path opens. He is spit on and called a half-breed; he is one. He wants to be a righteous cultivator; he is a demon.
Every day he waits for the other shoe to drop, for the abuse to turn into a murder attempt so that he can finally stop being a fool and leave. Every day he tells himself that his day will come, if he keeps on working hard, he will be acknowledged.
Every mission could be the chance at something new. Every mission could be his last.
The one he's currently on is a convoluted mess in every possible way. It was obvious immediately that the lord was up to no good, the glances between him and his retainer rather telling. Unfortunately the only people who seemed to catch them were Shizun and himself.
Ming Fan kept looking at the wrong pieces of evidence—if a corpse was decorated by animal bites without the usual behavior of animals associated, wouldn't the immediate assumption be that they were planted? There was little information to go around to prevent public fear? Wouldn't the lack of information contribute to it more? With the influence it would take to enact such a thing, with the scholar disappearing so close to their arrival, with the fact that the town had petitioned them and not the lord—everything really did point in one direction.
The question was what to do about it. Generally dealing with such matters as soon as possible was the best way to go, but Shizun seemed content on letting Ming Fan stumble around on his own.
Luo Binghe knew that Shizun cared about Ning Yingying and Ming Fan, even if the sentiment wasn't spared for himself, and thought that everything would be fine. Nothing would go wrong.
That is, until it did.
With Ning Yingying barging in on their meeting with the local militia, talking about kidnapping and danger and how Shizun had gone off alone, it had stirred the militiamen into quite a frenzy. Leaving Ming Fan with the unenviable task of calming them down.
In the end, it was decided that the locals would stay put, but in exchange, Ming Fan would move his scouting mission up a few hours. After all, his shixong had reasoned (sweating all the while), someone had to help He-shijie should Shizun be too busy fighting.
Per Shizun's implication, they were to stay as one group for safety reasons. A large group had never been attacked before, even though it seemed more and more likely that it was for camouflage rather than a lack of ability. Of course, this hypothetical safety in numbers did not apply to Luo Binghe, whom Ming Fan wanted both away from Ning Yingying and himself. He is to head out separately and alone.
Luo Binghe sighs, he might as well throw them a bone while he's at it.
"Ning-shijie," he asks, turning to address her. "Who told you about He-shijie being in danger?"
"Oh that's simple, A-Luo! The retainer said he saw he–"
Ning Yingying pauses in the middle of her answer, realization dawns on her. Luo Binghe takes his meager stack of talismans and heads off. With any luck, Ming Fan will direct the local militia at the lord, saving them all some trouble.
Luo Binghe isn't skilled enough to follow qi traces or track down signatures the way his seniors are, but that doesn't mean he's got nothing.
The forest is thick, therefore the few established paths are well-worn. Whoever set a trap for Shizun is a professional and therefore unlikely to leave obvious tracks. Shizun, himself, is an Immortal who possesses grace from the heavens, so that crosses him out as well.
Ning Yingying, however, is a different story.
It takes a while but eventually, Luo Binghe finds it. A few shoe prints too heavily pressed in to be from a normal person's stride. The tracks are fresh and with Ning Yingying's habit of inconsistently applying qi to her movements, a little too much force while running is natural.
Luo Binghe continues following the footprints until they run out and then continues heading in the same direction.
It is not long before he reaches Shen Qingqiu.
The man is more worn out than Luo Binghe would expect. Blood drips down a furrowed brow, traces lingering near his mouth. His robes are torn, He-shijie is strapped to his back, and Xiu Ya is drawn.
This close, Luo Binghe can feel the waves of volatile qi rolling off his Shizun's opponent. He doesn't need Meng Mo to know that it's demonic.
Shen Qingqiu notices Luo Binghe before the demon does. He breaks away from the fight, leaping back until he's next to his least favorite disciple.
"What is the meaning of this?" he asks, eyes blazing.
The insubordinate brat stutters, mentioning something about Ming Fan, and Shen Qingqiu immediately puts the pieces together. How could he forget? That this head disciple of his idolized Liu Qingge?
Was he waiting for Shen Qingqiu to slip so he could take advantage? Did he have insight into his master's secrets? His access to Shen Qingqiu's home wouldn't make that impossible. He sent Luo Binghe, who he knew his master hated, whom his master was unlikely to believe, so was he testing the waters? Was he, could he-
Shen Qingqiu forces himself to calm down. These were questions for another day, when a distraction couldn't get him killed. Xiu Ya was parrying the opponent for now but wouldn't buy him much time.
Shen Qingqiu reaches for the rope, and pours in a little qi to disintegrate the knots. He passes He Huiyin to Luo Binghe, dropping her into his arms. "Get your shijie out of here," he commands. "Do not return."
The demon finally manages to shove away Xiu Ya and lunges for Shen Qingqiu. The cultivator gathers qi to his palm to shove the other back but finds his arm shaking.
He pushes through, flinging his opponent back, only to be met with a rapidly spreading numbness.
Poison? No, that was impossible. He rarely ate and took incredible precaution otherwise. A backlash seemed the most likely explanation but he only took one vial. It was far too soon!
The demon, noticing the other party, charges towards the fleeing Luo Binghe and He Huiyin, and Shen Qingqiu finds himself forced to intervene. In any other circumstance, he'd happily use the beast as a decoy, but—Shen Qingqiu grits his teeth and places himself in the path of an incoming blow—now was not the time.
The demon's fist hits Shen Qingqiu's abdomen, forcing him to spit out a mouthful of blood. "It's over," he says. "If you stop, I'm willing to talk. My employer is doomed anyways."
"No," Shen Qingqiu rasps out. His body is sluggish but he concentrates on the pain, uses it as a focus to drag his useless arms up and around the demon. There's a sound of surprise. Shen Qingqiu leans towards that unguarded neck and bites.
His teeth rip through flesh, tear into the muscle, his tongue laps at the blood. A rush of power fills his body, he growls as his prey frees himself. Shen Qingqiu needs more. He needs more, more, more.
While years of cultivation could grant a human immortality and an enhanced body, this generally had limits. With a few exceptions, a powerful cultivator's blood would be the same as any other human's blood. Their children would still need to cultivate to achieve immortality, instead of being born that way.
Demons and demonic beasts were different. Their physiological changes were limitless. Their flesh held mystical properties, there was power in their blood. Power passed from parent to child and from prey to predator.
It was this, combined with the volatile nature of demonic qi, resulting in frequent backlashes, that led cultivators to conclude that their cultivation was against the will of the heavens.
Demonic cultivators came in many types but at their core, were mere imitators. There was no wide pool of shared techniques, nor were there competitions where they could pit themselves against each other. This led the practice to have many differing branching paths. Some focused on imbibing themselves with enough demonic essence to use their ancient artifacts. Some sought rituals to turn themselves into demons. Some shaved off demonic qi to store and use later.
And some fed from the demons themselves, taking that power that thrummed in demon flesh and blood, for themselves.
Bile rises in Shen Qingqiu's throat as they separate. He had only gotten a mouthful or two at most, unrefined and unconcentrated, dissimilar to the emergency vials he prepared himself.
Regardless, it should do. Or rather, it must. The little beast had seen his last actions but they could easily be misconstructed for an attack of desperation. While a careful inspection would give him away, it was much harder to detect demonic essence in a human body. Shen Qingqiu had made sure that his talented disciples, Luo Binghe included, were at a level where they couldn't.
Unfortunately, the backlash will not subside. His last action was the equivalent of pouring oil on fire. He has little time to waste.
He runs forward, his fist meeting the demon's face. Blood splatters at the hit. He's broken his nose. He follows it up with another. Slender as Shen Qingqiu may be, he has no shortage of brute strength. He punches. He kicks. He tears at hair and he claws at skin. His actions resemble a street brawler more than dignified immortal but he has little qi to waste and many things to lose.
He pushes him far back enough to reach Xiu Ya. He kicks it up, grabbing it with a hand, preparing to end everything in one final stab—when it falls from his hands.
And then, he too, begins to fall.
As he topples over, he sees the demon rapidly scrambling back.
His vision blurs. He tries to lift himself back up but his body is completely devoid of strength.
Luo Binghe approaches, his arms free of his shijie. Shen Qingqiu curses him. Shen Qingqiu curses himself. Once again brought low by his own inability—how amusing was the life of Shen Jiu.
The little beast reaches for Xiu Ya and Shen Qingqiu's thoughts, previously raging, still. Oh , he decides on, the weariness overpowering his anger. This is how it's going to be. In the end, he thinks, this was inevitable. Shen Qingqiu knows who he is. He knows what he's done.
There is acceptance on his face as Luo Binghe raises the sword—that turns into shock as he turns it on himself. Xiu Ya, a spiritual blade that never dulls, slices through Luo Binghe's palm with ease.
Shen Qingqiu cannot help but notice the sheer terror on the boy's face as he leans down, placing his bleeding hand in front of Shen Qingqiu's face.
"It's not…" demon blood, Shen Qingqiu can't find it in himself to let those damning words slip. "It won't work," he says instead.
Luo Binghe, whose mind is being bombarded by Meng Mo's demand to run away quickly, you have to run, whose heart is beating maddeningly in a never-ending rhythm—smiles bitterly.
"It will," he promises, as he smears his master's lips with his blood.
"What do you want?" Shen Qingqiu asks, afterwards. He stands over the body of the now dead demon, staring at the point where Xiu Ya met flesh, yet it's clear whom he is addressing.
"I just wanted to help–"
"Don't lie to me." Shen Qingqiu cuts him off. "You want this master to do something for you, correct? I never took you as someone willing to die."
Luo Binghe clenches his fist. The wound has yet to heal over, the open flesh stings where his nails meet it.
"I want to be a cultivator. And…" he hesitates for a moment before continuing.
Luo Binghe is fifteen and more than anything, he is scared. He almost died when demons invaded the sect and here almost again. He knows that only Ning Yingying will shed tears at his death and that the majority of Qing Jing would do nothing to stop it. He knows this all and yet.
"I want you to protect me." He tries his best to keep his voice even.
"N-no matter what. I'll give you all the blood you need so please….“