You are that space that's in between
Every page, every chord, and every screen
You are the driftwood and the rift
You're the words that I promise I don't mean
~ The Horror and the Wild by The Amazing Devil
Not many people knew that Proud Immortal Demon’s Way started out as something of a project. Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky had a setting, he had a main character whom he could turn into a worthwhile protagonist, he had the time and the resources to write whatever he wanted.
And he did… at least for a while.
It turns out sometimes what one wants to write isn’t necessarily what others want to read.
That was the first lesson he had to learn.
The next was that free time and resources were fickle things.
Proud Immortal Demon’s Way back then didn’t become popular after the first few chapters and that wasn’t an issue first. It was a passion project, not something he did out of obligation to pay his bills. That attitude changed when he realized that he needed the income from it to be able to pay his bills and eat for another day.
Once upon a time, when he was a teen, he remembered seeing a funny sign of sorts. It had three overlapping circles with the words: time, money, energy on them and the innermost overlap had been scratched out. That was the implication that you could only choose two.
The other three overlaps had been clearly labeled.
Time and energy - kids.
Energy and money - adults.
Money and time - retirees.
Well, Airplane-bro knew that there were people out there who could definitely have all of those but sadly, he had never been one of them. It seemed like a good idea to try to monetize his hobby and he thought that he had cracked the code when he started writing and sharing Proud Immortal Demon’s Way.
He imagined that he would gain a large following easily and that he would never have to worry about his bills while doing something he liked.
However, things didn’t go according to the plan. One evening, when he looked at his dwindling bank account and then his abysmal viewer count for the latest chapter of his masterpiece, he started browsing different genres to see what the top titles with the largest reader count were like… It was easy to see where he went wrong.
So, he went on a short hiatus, trashed a lot of his future plots, and rewrote the already posted chapters, some of them extensively, some of them not so much. And with that Proud Immortal Demon’s Way v2 was officially launched.
In a way, it was good that he had so few readers because nobody mourned it when he deleted the original.
In the end, Airplane-bro wrote a stallion novel, but the original’s foundations still showed through. More so in the first hundred chapters, but the rest too.
The premise was simple.
Luo Binghe was a peerless immortal cultivator who was hiding some big secrets about his origins during the entirety of his centuries-long life. He was a prodigiously strong cultivator, a well-respected Peak Lord from the strongest sect but that meant there were many who envied him. And those people descended on him like vultures the moment one of his secrets was out and Luo Binghe fell from grace.
It was supposed to be a story about his disgrace, his humiliation, his suffering... and finally his revenge.
After changing the main genre, Airplane-bro wrote thousands of words daily, updated again and again until he was well into the 6000 chapters category. He dragged out plots, he added new and new villains to be defeated and women to the harem the blackened Luo Binghe amassed as he became the Emperor.
Not many people remembered the first villain of the novel after the first thousand chapters. And even less cared to know the real reason why Shen Qingqiu did what he did when he betrayed Luo Binghe and led the accusations against him.
So, Airplane scrapped his original outline for his first antagonist, and he left Shen Qingqiu as the one-dimensional jealous disciple... and that was one of the many decisions that he never regretted because Proud Immortal Demon’s Way was just a novel.
Nobody would be hurt, right?
Shen Yuan came to in the back of a cart, sleeping in a pile of hay, being awakened by the bumpiness of the ride. He shot up from his seat, rubbing his eyes half-awake trying to understand what happened to him. It was clear that he wasn't in his room anymore but in the countryside.
Did he get kidnapped or something?
Looking down at his dirty and mish-mashed clothing, Shen Yuan furrowed his brows trying to figure out why he was wearing such things when he suddenly remembered everything.
He was in Proud Immortal Demon’s Way, the hit novel where Luo Binghe the Peerless Immortal was dragged through dirt and mud by the machinations of his vengeful disciple. The so-called Shen Qingqiu, a demonic cultivator, who hid himself amongst the righteous cultivators of Cang Qiong for years before his evil nature couldn’t be suppressed anymore.
And now Shen Yuan was Shen Qingqiu.
Or at least he thought so?
He wasn’t sure, it wasn’t like he met people who could clarify his theory when the name Shen Qingqiu didn’t even exist yet. Shouldn’t even exist yet.
It was the name of Luo Binghe’s head disciple who became his successor after the cultivator’s fall from grace. Not that Shen Yuan knew exactly what happened around that time, the novel pretty much skipped the exact nature of accusations brought against Luo Binghe so far.
Granted, Shen Yuan hadn’t finished reading Proud Immortal Demon’s Way yet, he hadn’t even been a quarter-way through when he… when he died.
He couldn’t recall from what.
It might have been one of his many health conditions, it might have been an expired cup of yogurt signing his death warrant. It might have been a rage-induced heart attack when he finished another chapter of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way.
He didn’t know how he died, and in the end, it didn’t matter at all. He was dead in his original world and now he was alive in a new one.
Also, he wasn’t a human anymore.
[Standby. Sys̵t̷e̴m̴ ̵̧̗̑i̸͓̟͘n̴̨̬̯̓̉i̵̻̟̚͝t̷͇͒̂̄i̸̭̘̅a̶̲̓̑ḷ̴͛̄̈́i̶̩̙̜z̴̧͉̗͗̉͌ï̵̞̺̓ñ̵̥ͅğ̴̫̘.̷̰̎̈̿]
It all started when he first woke up in a cave dressed in layers of ancient robes and - what was probably more pressing - in a large puddle of blood. He ached everywhere, his skin itched from the dried blood sticking to his face, hands, and a few other places that should have been protected by all that fabric.
He managed to sit up after a few tries and eventually found himself next to a small stream. It had crystal clear water that almost shined in the darkness around him.
[Error Log: Unk̴n̵o̸w̴n̷ ̷e̴r̵r̵o̵r̶ ̵encountered during ̵̛̳̔͆̐ḅ̶̏ö̸̤̫́̾͐̕ǒ̵̮̣̦̞́̕t̴̔̐͂́ͅ-̶̹̩̫̩̐̒̉͆ų̷̠͙͌̈p̵̥̰̍̇̐ ̶̧̯̰̍s̶͇͉͚̗͆̈́͝e̷̲͗̑̌q̸̱̐͋̈́u̸̬͔̞͋̑͒͛ȇ̴̫͆ṉ̷̳͋c̶͕͒̅̀̔e̴̛̺̥̲.̵̨̩͛̊͌͠]
He startled badly at the strange voice, but he was tremendously thirsty, his throat was too raw and parched. However, he knew that he had to wash his hands first before he dared to use them as a cup to drink, no matter how inviting the water looked. He didn’t look down as he dipped his fingers in, giving them a cursory rubbing in his impatience, and within seconds he was gulping down the cool water. He was both trying to fill the void in his stomach and to soothe the pain in his throat. It only barely helped, but it was better than before and he dipped his palms into the stream once again.
[S̴̨̩͂͂͒y̷͉̆s̷͓͌̀̎͠t̷̖̮͖͍̾̑͂ě̷̘͙̾͐͊m̶͎͍̊ ̶̝͚̜̦̋ḯ̵̜̬̟͔͊̒̂s̶̻͌̊̎ ̸̥̊̏̄c̴̐́ͅo̶̪̙̐̍͘͝m̵͎̔p̴̮̠̂̕r̸̭͆̒̂o̸̬̠͖̿͛̓m̸̧̻̙͊͌͝ï̴͇͓͍̯̈̊s̵̬̜̯͐͊é̶̺͌d̷̨̃.̵̳̥͎̼̑̀̎͝]
He heard the screechy, distorted mechanical voice one more time before it went silent and only left the sounds of the stream and Shen Yuan’s wheezing breath. He had to admit that even to his untrained ears, the noises he was making sounded really bad.
He was going for a third palmful when a different voice spoke up and scared him enough to slip and fall halfway into the small stream. “As amusing it was to see you drag yourself through your own filth like an insignificant worm...” There was a hand in his hair, grabbing him by the roots causing pinpricks of new pain to shoot through his scalp and then a gleeful voice speaking into his ears. “You should be dead.”
He tried to twist out of the hold on him, but it felt like he was railing against solid steel. Nothing he did even remotely affected his captor and Shen Yuan was tiring out fast. He still tried to fight even if felt kitten-weak.
He only went lax in the stranglehold when the other person shook him like he was a misbehaving dog and snapped at him. “Settle down!”
Shen Yuan did, his eyes watering from the pain he could feel now properly. It wasn’t just his scalp or his throat, no, it was something in the middle of his body, centered around his abdomen of all places.
His captor patted him with their other hand smearing more blood onto his face. There was a strange golden glow coming from their closed-up fist though and aside from the sparkling stream, it was pretty dark in the cave, so, it was quite noticeable. Shen Yuan was mesmerized by it like a moth followed a flame.
“See something familiar, little worm?” His straying attention was noticed by the other too, and their mouth must have widened into even more of a grin. He couldn’t see it but he could guess from the undisguised mirth that he could hear in their voice and the laugh that shook his hurt body.
They opened their hand and a small orb rolled around in their palm, making Shen Yuan feel utter panic at the careless way they handled the small object. He didn’t know why but that little sphere was important to him. His whole body strained once again to get it away from them.
“Oh, yes, you recognize a part of yourself, little worm.” The voice cooed, seemingly ignoring his struggling, but Shen Yuan could feel the grip tightening until he was at a risk to snap his neck if he tried to move. “Such a pretty golden core. So small, so shiny.”
Even if he was half-delirious with pain and on the edge of madness from the panic churning in his gut, Shen Yuan could hear every word out of their mouth and he could understand the situation he was in well enough.
The implication that the sphere was part of him, the golden glow… he knew what it was without a doubt no matter how fantastic the idea was. A golden core, the golden core of a cultivator.
And if their words could be believed then it was Shen Yuan’s core.
He pushed the thought to the back of his mind, knowing that he couldn’t freak out at that moment. Later, once he was safe, he could and would do it.
But he could understand why his body hurt so much and he risked a glance down at the red-soaked robes at his front, spying the frayed edges of the torn material.
Oh, he thought.
“So bright…” They said, sounding as enthralled as Shen Yuan had been previously. Shen Yuan watched as they raised the sphere and felt the way they leaned heavily over his shoulders, putting a lot of their weight on him, pushing him down. He could see a fair face at the corner of his eyes before their jaw split open from mouth to ear revealing rows and rows of needle-like teeth. A purple and green tongue flicked out, long and dripping noxious saliva, and wrapped itself around the glowing golden core, hiding it from sight.
There was a phantom pain in Shen Yuan’s abdomen as it was swallowed, that radiant golden light blinking out of his sight.
“Now… What do I do with you little worm?” They asked and Shen Yuan could only feel despair at that moment. He was not in his old world, he transmigrated like many of the protagonists of the novels he had read before… but he was in a quite dangerous situation. And with the golden core gone, he knew that any chances for his survival were gone too and he was just a normal human like he was previously.
Maybe if he woke up earlier, maybe he could have prevented the monster behind him from digging into his body, maybe… if… but he didn’t. He woke up in this situation and he couldn’t have changed a damn thing or done anything differently. He didn’t have the time or the skills. He still didn’t have either, but he would be damned if he just gave up.
This was the hand he was dealt with and he could accept it and die or he could try to do something.
“Such a strange little thing you are, I’d have sworn that you were not breathing anymore.” The monster cradled him close and brushed his hair out of his face in a facsimile of caring and Shen Yuan shivered. “But that issue can be remedied very quickly.”
Shit, Shen Yuan let out a breathless curse, feeling fingers, and claws root around in his body. So, this is what it feels like being impaled by something, he thought faintly, trying to claw at his belly, not daring to look down.
He knew that he might have fainted if he saw the mess the monster was making of his gut.
Shen Yuan whined, feeling every tiny little movement and the warmth from his blood soaking through his clothes again. It cooled quickly in the chill air becoming wet and tacky against his skin.
He was dying, he realized abruptly when he started losing the feeling in his limbs. He was dying and his window of frame to do anything was rapidly shrinking into nothing and Shen Yuan would be gone from this world as quickly as he arrived.
A small candle that was snuffed out by a careless breath.
“You will be the perfect body for me to wear, little worm, I knew it from the moment I first smelled you.” They continued and the juxtaposition between the cheerful tone, the nuzzling, and the hand still deep in his insides was so strong that Shen Yuan felt nothing but growing nausea. “Granted, I should have realized how special you were when you survived the core extraction.”
Their long tongue furled out and he would have marveled over its length if it didn’t immediately try to slither into the gaping hole at his front. So disgusting, he shuddered in revulsion, smelling the stench of the appendage.
Shen Yuan had the distinct urge to shout that he didn’t. That he didn’t survive and to leave him alone. He wasn’t special.
No matter who he was before, they were dead and Shen Yuan was shown into their body for some reason. He wasn’t special in any way and he didn’t want to be special either especially when being special made the monster behind him so excited.
He gasped in agony as there was a hand squeezing around his heart and the pain became blinding. With growing black spots overcoming his sight, he tried to stave off losing his consciousness knowing that fainting would surely mean his death.
But his body didn’t obey him anymore and he could faintly hear a few words before everything went black. “... poisonous blood?!”
He returned to the world of the living once again though he was sure that he would not be long for this world. Shen Yuan blinked up at the cave’s ceiling in surprise, noting that things seemed brighter but he dismissed it soon. Maybe dawn came and it had been hours since his untimely deaths.
What deaths? He asked himself and his eyes widened.
First or second?
Did he die?
Belatedly he looked around for the monster that hurt him so much and could only see a slumped-over figure almost blending into their surroundings. Shen Yuan scrambled back trying to keep his ragged robes closed, while he also tried to put enough distance between them in case they were planning to attack him again.
Seconds then minutes passed and nothing happened. He struggled to stand up and wobbled his way to the monster, then pressed one booted foot against their clothing. He immediately drew back, losing his balance, once again crab-walking back in a hurry.
He psyched himself up once again to approach them, it, whatever, and managed to resist running away - hobbling more like - again, only to get spooked when the monster fell over at his slight nudge.
It didn’t move again and that was the only reason that Shen Yuan dared to push it on its back so that he could see its face. Thick purpling and red veins dotted its skin, and its mouth was stretched into a scream. The long tongue that feasted on his bloodied insides flopped out, and the monster’s eyes were filmed over.
Dead, it was dead.
It died and he didn't.
He was alive and it wasn’t.
Shen Yuan let out a sob, only feeling relief at that moment.
He rubbed his nose and his eyes, and then had to squeeze his eyes a bit to ride through the pain he caused himself. He couldn't help but wonder if his skin got more sensitive when he lost his golden core… shouldn’t the opposite be true?
And that was when he noticed the way his hands ended in claws. Wickedly curved, sharp-looking claws one that greatly reminded him of a predator bird. Something made to rip, render, and tear open.
No wonder his face hurt from the rubbing he just did. Once again, he used the stream’s clear surface as something like a mirror.
It wasn't only his nails that changed and he didn't remember the markings being there previously either. Nor the feathers almost hiding in his long hair or the way his very bone structure looked different too.
He still had some baby fat on his face, but he was already pointier… if that was a good description to describe the sharpness present on his new features.
(Well, mostly new, he recently saw photographs of himself around the same age and whoever he transmigrated into... the two of them looked quite similar to each other.)
Shit, he thought and watched as his pupil contracted in a way like no human’s should be able to.
Double shit, he decided as he hastily pressed a trembling hand against his belly where a golden core should have pulsed before he remembered that it was ripped out and eaten right before him.
Almost like his heart was.
He was a cultivator based on the golden core he lost. Emphasis on the past tense, because he wasn't a human anymore, so golden core or no golden core, cultivation was out of the running. He picked at his robes, noting that under the blood, the tears, and the wear it looked suspiciously familiar.
Maybe there was something about the dark color scheme or the cut? He didn’t know jackshit about the material, whether it was expensive or not. He couldn’t even name what the thing was made of. It could have been cotton, canvas or hemp clothing, or any number of other fabrics for all he knew.
It looked like a uniform, like something a disciple of a cultivation sect might have worn in a xianxia setting for example.
If Shen Yuan had to guess the age of the face he saw in his reflection - even with the changes - he would put the boy around 14 or 15. Though he might have been just small for his age, so maybe something closer to 16, 17?
And once again his musings didn’t matter, because he was something that was plainly not human wearing what most likely was a cultivation sect's robes while sitting next to the corpse of a monster. It looked bad no matter how he looked at the situation.
He couldn’t stay, it was likely that the energy-rich air only covered up things for a while, or the monster did something to avoid detection. Or this might have been even normal in this world.
Like he didn’t even know whether the boy was always nonhuman and hiding or whether it was all Shen Yuan’s fault somehow?
Did something go wrong while he transmigrated or was this just how things were supposed to be always like?
Finally, after a few more minutes of debating and panicking, he stood up and started walking away from the corpse.
The conspicuously absent mechanical voice that he faintly remembered was another issue. He thought it was the Transmigration System... which threw a wrench in any plan he might come up with. Without it, he didn’t have an idea of the setting he was in or his role.
Would he get penalties upon penalties if he strayed from the plot? How could he even follow a plot if he had no idea what was going on or where was he?
There weren’t any useful signs around, it was just a damp cave with some glowing lichen in some places.
He tried calling for the System, but there was no answer even when he actually called out loud with a roughened but still high voice. He mentally revised his estimate of his new body’s age again based on the fact that his voice hadn’t dropped yet. When did his voice drop in his original life? When he was 14, maybe? He remembered his sister making fun of him whenever his voice cracked in the middle of a sentence, but the years kind of blended together.
Did it even matter in this case?
Who even knew whether the species he was now even aged in the same way as humans did or had the same development milestones for maturing?
Speaking of which… how did he even know if he was a guy this time?
He tried to loosen his layers so that he could peak at what was between his legs, but he couldn’t quite manage without further shredding his clothing with his claws, so he gave up trying and concentrated on getting out of the cave. System of caves, as he found.
He thought he could feel subtle digs in the stone but he couldn’t make heads or tails of them.
Stumbling around in the dark, even with running his hands along the walls he must have got turned around a few times but eventually, he saw a light at the end of a tunnel and it wasn’t just a small crack in the stone. No, it was much bigger, and he guessed that he could easily wiggle his way out though an adult would most likely be unable to do so.
Good, he thought with a short nod. If somebody was trying to come after him if the monster wasn’t as dead as he thought, it would make him harder to follow. Or at least in theory.
He had no idea whether punching through a thick stone wall like this was a possibility or not in this world, but he couldn’t dismiss that it could be.
He squinted against the light, his eyes trying to adjust to the sudden brightness after spending a good chunk of time in the caves’ darkness.
When he could keep his eyes open without them watering, he looked around only to see trees and more trees. Some rather rocky terrain too, one which he mostly saw in photos previously. He was never too big on camping in his old world, his health didn’t allow for stuff like that and to be honest Shen Yuan didn’t really want to either. He liked being comfortable a lot more than he would enjoy being out in nature like that. Just one word: mosquitoes.
He looked up and saw that he got out from the side of a mountain rather than being underground. However, that didn’t offer much information either, he could still be anywhere. It wasn’t like the mountain itself had its name helpfully engraved somewhere for lost travelers or it had specific, easily recognized shapes like an eagle or a giant middle finger.
He absently pressed a hand against his middle and felt the wet clothing on his skin. He picked at it, looking at it in better light he could see that it was not simply dark; black and red instead. That instantly raised a few red flags in his mind because he knew that the usual color coding said those colors were more of a demonic cultivator thing.
Then after looking at it a bit longer and from a lot closer, he realized that no, it wasn’t really a pure red either, but a mix between reds, pinks, and browns. Just a white material painted with his blood - old and new.
It still hurt and he was still sluggishly bleeding, but it was already closing up at a rate that could be actually seen. In seconds the garish wound was barely a gash. It was almost disconcerting to see his flesh knit together in such a way.
Shen Yuan still released a relieved sigh, happy that he didn’t have to worry about bleeding out at least. Now he only had other concerns like finding food, water, and shelter… maybe civilization just to see whether his not-quite-human features were the norm in this world or not.
He drew his somewhat tattered dark over-robes as closed as he could and started walking away in a direction opposite of the mountain he had just crawled out from.
After walking for a while, he stumbled on a village but he didn’t dare to approach, especially when he saw that all the people he had seen so far were completely human-looking.
Not one horn, tail, or wing was in sight.
Not even a single scale or a claw.
So, Shen Yuan most likely couldn’t just waltz in there without possibly causing mass hysteria. Or without being attacked or chased away, he knew how unlikely it was that physical attributes like his would be accepted by humans… That was also a recurring trope.
He waited until the sun went down and it got dark enough and then he sneaked in. He didn’t dare to stay too long, he just grabbed something that he could use as a cape to cover himself with a few muttered apologies to its previous owner. This would be the first time he stole something in this world, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Then he proceeded to wander along the road, avoiding people as much as he could and trying his hands at foraging with mixed results. He had never been a survivalist to know what he was doing and he had no means to learn other than at his own expense now. When it felt like the hunger settled too deep, he risked going into smaller villages and he nicked food from here and there. Nothing big enough to miss, just some fresh produce.
Sometimes from the fields or trees.
He was incredibly lucky that it was some kind of a harvesting season and not like winter because he would have been fucked otherwise. Still, there was always a low level of hunger in his belly, no matter how many raw vegetables or fruits he ate.
And on the way, he heard things which made him conclude that he was in the world of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way, and most likely in a time when the plot had already started because he heard Luo Binghe’s name mentioned once or twice. Always with awe and respect, so whatever happened to tarnish his reputation hasn’t occurred yet.
He came from the general direction of the Cang Qiong Sect and he was still wearing the remnants of a tattered black and white uniform edged with red. And there was only one Peak that had that exact color combination if Shen Yuan remembered correctly, and he did remember something like this correctly, so he was most likely a Qing Jing disciple too. Or the original could have stolen a Qing Jing uniform.
If Shen Yuan realized that earlier he might have waited to see the protagonist of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way, just to see the famed Luo Binghe. The peerless immortal whose face was like the first sight of dawn after a long and dark night, the number one stallion of the site Zhongdian Literature.
However, there was no mention anywhere in the text about someone resembling his new body meeting Luo Binghe either. To be honest, the only one Shen Yuan could remember being mentioned by name to stay secluded at the spiritual caves for a while was Shen Qingqiu… but that couldn’t be.
Shen Qingqiu was a demonic cultivator, yes, but he had been a human. Not whatever Shen Yuan was.
So, Shen Yuan walked and tried to figure out whose role he took over with little success. He didn’t even really know where he was going, he had bare inklings of going towards the border between the Human and Demon Realms but no actual goals or destinations.
This was how he ended up hitching a ride on the cart once it started raining as the Sun came up and an old man took pity on his drowned-rat impression.
“You awake, boy?” The old man asked when they stopped to water the mules pulling the cart filled with hay and Shen Yuan. He nodded then realized that the old man couldn’t see it from his position at the front.
“Yes!” He clambered over the pile and slid down to stand before the old man bowing quickly before it occurred to him that the rules of etiquette might have been wildly different. But so far, he had seen no signs that things were vastly different here from his old world’s customs and he was suddenly very happy that Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky was lazy enough not to bother with quite a lot of world-building matters. “Thank you for letting me sleep on your cart, Uncle!”
The old man looked at him for a few seconds before he nodded with a smile. “Nothing to thank me for, boy.”
“Still, thank you, Uncle!” Shen Yuan answered and to his surprise his voice slipped into a higher register, almost sounding like a sharp chirp. He slapped a hand immediately against his mouth.
The old man either didn’t notice this slight strangeness or didn’t want to mention it, but he also offered to let Shen Yuan ride the carriage to the nearest village and Shen Yuan agreed.
Little did he know that his disappearance made some very large waves back in Cang Qiong.
Cang Qiong Sect was the strongest of the sects in their world and one of the four great sects. However, the other three couldn’t hold a candle to them and the only area Huan Hua Palace defeated them was in richness.
In every other thing, Can Qiong stood a head and shoulders above the rest of them.
They had Peak Lords who were masters of their chosen fields, disciples who became legends and power beyond belief in both spiritual, political, and physical meaning of the word. So, when one of the alarms started blaring about corruption in the energy of the spiritual caves, Cang Qiong mobilized two entire peaks and their Peak Lords.
Liu Mingyan, the Peak Lord of Xian Shu Peak, and Luo Binghe, the Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak.
They quickly and efficiently explored the cave and found the source of the alarm; it was a rotting carcass of a demon who somewhat go through the extensive warding of Cang Qiong and found itself in one of their most secure places. Somehow without raising any other alarm.
There was no way it was an accident.
Neither of the Peak Lords thought that was possible without someone powerful planning this out and they would mention their suspicions to Sect Leader Ning who would order an investigation into the matter. Leaving no stones unturned.
They took care of the corpse, took it to Qian Cao Peak, and there they got their second surprise.
The autopsy performed showed that the beast had a golden core in its stomach. It didn’t take too long for them to figure out that one of the few disciples serving their punishment in a certain part of the caves most likely met their untimely end at the claws of this beast.
After a quick headcount, they identified that Disciple Shen from Qing Jing was missing… presumed dead.
Everyone thought that was it, not noticing Peak Lord Luo’s strange expression at the time. A few hours later, after conferring with Sect Leader Ning, the Peak Lord of Qing Jing hurriedly left Cang Qiong.
The rumor mill of Cang Qiong had a lot of theories on his reasons but even the most outlandish of them couldn’t predict that he would be back a few months later with a miraculously still-alive Disciple Shen.
It was inevitable that Shen Yuan would eventually get caught.
Though, he had to admit that he thought he would be better at hiding. He had played a lot of hide-and-seek as a kid but he had been going up against clumsy children with shitty senses… not whatever he was up against here in this world.
And as they say hindsight is 20/20 and apparently being stealthy and trying to cross an unfamiliar terrain that he had only vaguely read about was a lot harder than he thought it would be.
Reading about something and actually doing that thing was not the same, which was an understatement and he should have realized sooner that it would apply a hundred times more in this strange new world too. Proud Immortal Demon’s Way didn’t really focus on making the geography realistic or making anything else realistic. For a lot of people that was its draw, being able to get lost in its fantasy setting. An escapist power fantasy indeed.
When he was reading Luo Binghe’s adventures he didn’t have to worry about figuring out how he would eat, he wouldn’t have to figure out what he could drink if he was in his place. He didn't have to worry about being chased out of a town by a pitchfork-carrying mob. He was safe in his own home, his extremely comfortable home with all amenities modern life offered. Consequently, Proud Immortal Demon’s Way didn’t really delve into how or why certain things happened. It could have been called lazy worldbuilding on one hand.
On another, it was not a survival guide and Shen Yuan never really subscribed to reading or watching those shows where the host was playing at being stranded in some remote place with only a few things at hand.
He had no idea how to hunt and he wasn’t yet comfortable in his new body so he was quite a lot clumsier than he ever remembered being. Except maybe when he was 15 and had his first and only growth spurt and he was falling all over himself because his gravity shifted too much at such a short amount of time. So, Shen Yuan tripped a lot over his own two feet, and he still got startled when he saw how his hands looked. Trying to avoid thinking of the wickedly sharp talons he now sported was an exercise in futility but Shen Yuan was nothing if not stubborn in his attempts at denial.
And his abdomen where the remains of his wound were still red and almost inflamed looking by then hurt at every move he made. Adrenaline only went so far and he had no idea why that injury didn’t want to heal as fast as any other scrape he had since his hasty departure from those caves.
Shen Yuan was also the spoiled third son of a very well-off family. Maybe others his age experienced living with their grandparents or something during the summers where they helped out with certain chores and the like, but Shen Yuan never had to. The only summer camp he had ever been to had been about relaxation. Mainly swimming and spending time at a beach rather than actual camping or learning anything useful about survival.
Or even roughing it a bit.
That is to say, Shen Yuan couldn’t light a fire without a lighter, he couldn’t distinguish edible and toxic plants or mushrooms - even in his old decidedly not magical world which wasn’t filled with aphrodisiacs masquerading as normal looking things just waiting for the lucky wife/protagonist to stumble into - and he never killed anything larger than a bug. He couldn’t navigate using the stars or moss or anything like that. He didn’t have any money, nor did he dare to show his face in larger towns.
So, he did what he could.
He sneaked into villages and borrowed clothes that possibly wouldn’t be missed when the cold started getting to him. He layered up because that was a lesson he learned at his own expense back in his original world whenever winter came and he inevitably caught his first cold because he was an idiot.
He also stole whatever he could from the harvest, but that didn’t make a balanced meal. He foraged for wild fruits he actually recognized and remembered as being benign or non-lethal whenever he could. Both options offered a quickly dwindling supply of food for him unless he wanted to try his luck at actually breaking and entering homes as the cold started getting worse.
He didn’t have a qiankun pouch, but at one point he looted a sack that he used as a bag. He nabbed a bottle gourd to use as a water bottle that he filled almost religiously whenever he found a clear stream. Thirst was a lot harder to bear than hunger.
He remembered something about the importance of purifying drinking water but he had no idea how to do that other than boiling it for a bit… and once again his inexperience with making a fire became an issue. He also didn’t have a pot to heat up water so it was a moot point anyway.
A few days in his new life as a runaway he stumbled into another problem, and this one was a bit more pressing. The wound that still sluggishly oozed blood if Shen Yuan moved in the wrong way. Not having access to hot water meant that he needed to get clean in streams, which in the increasingly cold weather was becoming something of a challenge.
Shen Yuan was dirty and he probably stank to high heavens, but there was nobody to smell him so even if something shriveled inside him to be so dirty, it shouldn’t have been an issue.
But not bathing also meant that he couldn’t keep his injury clean properly.
He realized he was utterly fucked when he woke up after a morning and his vision swam in and out of focus. He was cold, almost freezing but he could feel the sweat on his skin too, which just made him even more chilled whenever there was the slightest wind between the trees. Teeth chattering, he managed to sit up and get out his gourd. Drinking from it was a bit harder as he overbalanced at one point and spilled some of the precious water inside on his chest instead, further drenching his haphazard clothing.
Shen Yuan lifted one trembling hand after dropping the gourd to his side and shifted his over robes until he found his last rather ripped layer, the only full layer left of his original robes. He peered down at the wound, its ragged, raw, and bleeding edges and he didn’t have the energy to curse. He let his head thunk against the tree trunk behind him with a sigh instead.
“Fuck,” he whispered then repeated it a bit louder. Nobody was there to hear him anyway; nobody would look at him strangely for his rudeness or attempt to discipline him for his language.
It figured that whatever was up with his new body and accelerated healing didn’t quite work with blood poisoning after an impromptu abdominal surgery.
However, moving around so much and so abruptly wasn’t the best idea and he could see the edges of his vision going strange. He tried focusing on a tree in the distance, willing the feeling away because he knew he needed to stay conscious.
He should have known that it was not something he could control.
Shen Yuan thought he saw a flash of red but it could have been his imagination when everything else went black.
There was something wet and so terribly cold on his face and Shen Yuan tried to twist away. His teeth chattered and he started saying something even as he pushed the thing away. Or attempted to push it away, because he couldn't actually do it, he didn’t have the strength to properly lift his arms.
Whatever was against his face was persistent though and much stronger than Shen Yuan’s kitten-like attempts at getting away. “No.”
He thought it was a hand dabbing a wet rag against his fever-flushed skin. At one point, he could feel an arm that his fingers couldn't quite circle around but that realization was gone in a second. “No, no! No.”
It was like that was the only word left in his vocabulary, same as he could only feel that terrible cold thing touching his face and his neck and even under his arms. And then his legs and if he was more aware, he might have recognized those spots as places that could be used to bring down someone’s core temperature.
He would have remembered that time when he was six and he had a dangerously high fever that saw him hospitalized after nothing worked at home to make him better. He would have remembered the tear-stained face of his mother as she had to hold him down so that they could get him into a lukewarm bath despite his howling and flailing.
He survived and he could barely remember a thing… except how his mother looked and how cold the bath felt.
The rag was back and it was so cold, so much colder than before that it almost hurt. “No, don’t. Cold, no.” He repeated the only short words he managed to chatter out, but his pleas fell on deaf ears no matter what he said or did. The rag was back again and again not allowing him any respite.
After a while he drifted away.
Shen Yuan resurfaced a few times in the next few days, each time a bit more coherent than the last and then the fever finally broke.
He opened his eyes to darkness. He wasn’t blind, or at least he really hoped he wasn’t, but he wasn’t in the forest anymore but rather in a cave once again. He was getting kind of fed up with waking up in strange places and most of all caves.
It wasn’t pitch black inside, there was a small light source to the side and he looked at the device that looked a lot like a portable stove he had seen in his old world.
Of course, those weren’t powered by spells and their flames were never hot enough to reach that almost white color either. A small smokeless furnace used in pill making if he wasn’t mistaken… though Shen Yuan couldn’t be called an expert to tell whether it was a good furnace or not. Or whether it was indeed a pill making furnace.
Maybe it really was just this world’s version of a portable stovetop.
It was warm and heated up the cave very well even if that wasn’t its intended use.
He was lying on some furs, the likes of which he had never seen before, covered with a deep red blanket and there was a bowl with some rags half-submerged or drying next to him. Shen Yuan lifted his hand out from under the blanket only to rear back a bit when faced with its appearance once again.
Oh, right, he thought. He forgot for a second that he was half-bird now.
If he didn’t turn his head much, he could see the feathers in his hair from the corner of his eyes. He should have got more used to it since it had been a few weeks since he transmigrated but when he woke, he almost always got startled by the differences.
Other than the occasional small noise coming from the pill making furnace, there was silence in the cave. No breathing, no movement, nothing aside from Shen Yuan’s own. He managed to sit up after a few more minutes of staring at nothing, scooting back on the makeshift bed.
The blanket fell down into his lap and Shen Yuan duly noted that he was almost completely undressed under it.
Bandages were wrapped around his middle and he tapped the pads of his fingers lightly against the place where he remembered his wound was. It didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would and he settled back down.
He couldn’t stay still too long though, there was nothing in the cave and he grew bored quickly. Tired too, but mainly bored. He couldn’t fall back asleep; if his guess was right, he had been sleeping for days. He definitely felt like he had slept for days, fevered, all crusty and sweaty.
Shen Yuan looked at the blanket, tracing the swirling design at first with his eyes only, then with his fingers absently. It was pretty, almost hypnotic with its gold embroidery looking like liquid metal in the strange light of the furnace. He couldn’t quite recognize what the patterns depicted but it was very warm under them.
Almost like an electric blanket.
Minutes passed or maybe hours, Shen Yuan wasn’t sure, but eventually he realized that he couldn’t just sit there, wait and doze. Certain urges couldn’t be postponed indefinitely… In short, he needed to go to the bathroom. Or, in this case, find a spot a bit farther away where he wouldn’t be terribly exposed to the elements.
He debated briefly about taking the blanket before leaving it where it was. He didn’t want to get dirt or other things on it and he wasn’t coordinated enough to ensure that.
He almost changed his mind the moment he got off the bed because the floor was cold, but why wouldn’t it be cold when it was nothing but stone in a cave?
Still, Shen Yuan’s bare feet didn’t appreciate it and he made the mistake of looking down only to see black talons instead of normal human toes and toenails. That was new, he thought with a small frown before dismissing his impending panic knowing that it wasn’t the time for a breakdown.
There was a pile of fabric near him and he staggered over to it, hoping that he would find some clothing there. For once, he was lucky and he shrugged on a few layers though he didn’t even try to tie them. He picked a direction and started walking, one hand on the wall as support and lead. There was only one tunnel out.
The cold air slammed into him the moment he stepped out of the mouth of the cave and Shen Yuan hissed at what felt like were icicles digging into his face. He shuffled to the side until he found a small alcove, did his business before turning around to walk back to the entrance of the cave.
He found nothing.
It was like the cave was just a figment of his imagination, nothing more.
There wasn’t much Shen Yuan remembered from his old biology lessons in high school. He remembered a bit more from his university days, but he wasn’t exactly a biology major.
It could be said that he was woefully inadequate in trying to deal with being half a bird.
So, what did he remember?
Birds had a higher metabolism than humans which meant that they maintained a higher body temperature in general. They also needed to eat more frequently and a large amount of food to keep their energy.
They were also capable of regulating their body temperature when food was scarce like in winter.
And while that was something, he had no idea how much of it applied to him, because the worldbuilding of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way never really delved into how demon physiology worked. Bird demons might just look like birds without actually having bird-like characteristics on anything other than surface level.
Shen Yuan however didn’t fail to notice that he was getting incredibly cold and he was almost always hungry… but, in the end, did it matter why? Winter was setting in in the human world and while there was a plethora of other issues in the demon realm at least the weather was almost unchanging. And there was less chance of an angry human mob chasing him all over the countryside or him stumbling into a trigger-happy cultivator.
He was getting close to the place where portals to the demon realm opened frequently.
The forest gave way to a desert.
It was essentially a no-man’s land with miles and miles of space with nothing but ruins and old bones. Whatever charms the view had, it lost it all after the first few hours he spent there.
The first night Shen Yuan bunkered down in the shadows of a mostly collapsed building, and slept fitfully, waking up at every little noise close to him. During the day the weather wasn’t hot, not like how it was in the most well-known deserts in his old world, but the sunlight was blinding enough that Shen Yuan couldn’t quite travel. And even if it was cold, Shen Yuan still sweated a lot.
It was kind of a catch-22 situation.
Travel during the day and bunker down for the night and he would go through his water supplies far too quickly. He also couldn’t really sleep at night because everything else came out around that time to play.
Travel during the night and bunker down during the day and he would have to be really careful with all the animals out hunting. He also needed to find or make a very specific shelter if he wanted to sleep during the day because of the scorching sunlight.
He was fucked either way, only a bit differently depending on which he chose.
But he knew that something like this was going to happen once he got close enough. It was just… When he read Proud Immortal Demon’s Way these parts were glossed over, usually by a sentence or two if Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky was feeling generous enough to describe the environment. Luo Binghe was a cultivator, he didn’t need to walk through a desert even at his worst.
And Shen Yuan couldn’t follow in his footsteps, he couldn’t fly. Despite the feathers on him, he didn’t have wings and he didn’t have a sword either. Nor a golden core to use spiritual energy. One of the strange things about the novel was that there was an abundance of horse and carriage-riding that was atypical of the usual cultivation settings. Supposedly, it should have been relatively easy to find a caravan or a carriage if Shen Yuan had the funds for it and if he wasn’t in the middle of the desert leading to the border between the two realms.
No self-respecting merchant would venture into this place without a good reason.
So, Shen Yuan walked and walked, trying to find the few oases in the desert to fill up his gourd while trying to stay alive and out of the way of anything too dangerous. Which was pretty much every animal because he couldn’t really decide which one of them was harmless and which one of them was not.
Like, there were several (supposedly) rabbit-like beasts in Proud Immortal Demon’s Way and some of them were prey animals, like the rabbits back in his old world. But some of them were like those deep-sea fishes that had body parts that looked like other animals to lure in an unsuspecting wanderer. And some of them were poisonous as heck.
And of course, let’s not forget about all the different ways aphrodisiacs worked in this world, Proud Immortal Demon’s Way was a stallion novel.
Sometimes the difference between the poisonous beast and the harmless one was like the order of their color stripes or something else that was barely mentioned in the novel. Sometimes it was whether they radiated a certain type of elemental energy or not, which wasn’t helpful to him as someone unfamiliar with using those senses of his.
So, Shen Yuan was a bit fucked, because his knowledge couldn’t be completely trusted not to kill him if he made a tiny mistake.
It was lonely out there but he had been lonely since he transmigrated.
Back in his old world he had been well on the way to becoming a shut-in, but he still saw his family regularly… and he always had the internet. Older folks in his family didn’t quite understand how one could make friends on it without ever meeting them face to face but that wasn’t… nevermind. None of that mattered anymore.
Shen Yuan had never felt as alone as he did in that moment.
It was just him, the Sun beating down on him and sand everywhere.
Shen Yuan eventually reached the portal and decided to stand at a respectable distance and just observe for a while. It would be unfortunate if he managed to get there only to get immediately killed by a demon coming through or hiding in plain sight.
And he also needed to figure out a way to get to the portal because it opened up in a kind of inconvenient spot. Deep in the ravine, near the jagged walls.
He would probably have to climb down while avoiding the sharp rocks and trying not to fall down. The drop would kill him for sure, stronger demon body or not.
It made him hesitate and start reconsidering going through that specific portal. He could see the edges flickering and after sitting in a somewhat shaded spot for a few hours he was sure that it was getting smaller. It was closing, this tear into the veil between the two realms and it would be gone in a few hours at the rate it was going.
So, he had to get going soon, or he would have to find another portal because at any given time there was only one active. Which could open at any other part of this desert and he might not be lucky for a good long while to find it again so soon.
To go through the portal or not? That was the question. He wiggled closer to the edge of the ravine trying to see whether there was an easy way down. He never really tried rock climbing in his old world, never really felt the urge to scale anything higher than a fence or a small tree.
He remembered that in movies whenever people climbed tall things, they had these picks? He looked down at the claws on both his hands and feet and wondered if they could be used like that tool if he slipped?
Idly scratching his cheeks, he turned around to watch the blue sky for a bit as he thought about it. He squinted off into the distance noticing something. There on the horizon, a growing black speck that was too big to be a bird.
Shen Yuan felt his eyes grow wide in surprise. “Shit.”
They were still far away, but Shen Yuan could see the glint of the sword they were travelling on and he could put two and two together. Flying on swords at a rapid speed, unbothered by the high winds of this inhospitable desert. A strong cultivator.
Just his luck.
Hopefully they would stay far away from the portal, but who was he kidding? Shen Yuan’s luck has been horrible so far and he could only hope that on their way to the portal they wouldn’t notice him. He thought he must have done something truly horrible in a previous life when the figure seemed to turn enough that he would be in their direct path soon.
If he stayed there, he would be seen eventually when they passed over his head, and he couldn’t start moving until they were out of sight.
Within those seconds, the choice was made for him and he peered into the ravine once again before slipping down with one last look at the flying cultivator who was so much closer than before. Something niggled at his mind but he dismissed the feeling and concentrated on getting down as soon and as smoothly as possible.
Once or twice his feet slipped, but it turned out that his claws were capable of carving through rock, so he didn’t fall. His arms were hurting after a few minutes, but he expected that. He wasn’t used to this kind of exertion.
He wasn’t used to any kind of exertion period even on his good days and he hasn’t had one of those for a while by then.
And he still continued on, step by step until he was right next to the portal on this tiny ledge and he just had to swing himself through it. A shadow passed over him, blocking out the sunlight for a few seconds and everything went perfectly silent.
The cultivator passed over the ravine.
Shen Yuan clung to the wall, praying to whoever was listening that he wasn’t spotted, but almost immediately he realized it was futile when he could hear the cultivator double-back.
He scrambled at the portal which was just big enough for him to squeeze through if he was quick enough. He went in feet first, his arms shaking from holding him up and he realized halfway that it was kind of a stupid decision. He should have gone in with his head first so that he could see where he would be landing!
Or maybe he would fall and instead of landing on his feet he could have broken his neck. That was an option too, he reminded himself.
“Fuck!” He cursed once most of his body was through with just his head and shoulders left and he could see the cultivator descending. They were wearing red and black and Shen Yuan couldn’t quite see their face because he was blinded by the glaring sunlight that haloed their figure. However, he had a gut feeling that he knew exactly who this cultivator was.
Shen Yuan was treated to the nauseating feeling of being both excited and terrified at being in the presence of his favorite character in Proud Immortal Demon’s Way.
Luo Binghe himself, the protagonist of this stallion novel.
Excited, well, that went without an explanation; who wouldn’t be excited to meet their favorite character? Terrified, well, that didn’t need much explanation either; who wouldn’t be terrified when their life was in mortal danger?
His head slipped through the portal with his eyes connecting with Luo Binghe’s for one second before he was gone. Shen Yuan looked down the second he could and saw that he was going to be okay. Managed to get his elbows through too after some careful maneuvering. One hand left and there was a pressure clamped around his wrist and a tug that had him pressed against the surface of the rapidly shrinking portal.
“Shit, fuck, let me go.” He mumbled, increasingly panicked as the tugging got stronger. He planted his feet into the coarse gravel, yanking his hand out and bringing Luo Binghe’s hand through with it.
The size of the protagonist’s hand dwarfed his. His wrist looked like a fragile and dainty little teacup in comparison to the calloused grip he could feel burning hot against his chilled skin. “Let me go! Do you want to lose a fucking hand now?!”
It was utterly useless to shout, Luo Binghe obviously couldn’t hear him, but Shen Yuan felt better after doing it. The portal was just the size of a smaller melon; nowhere near large enough for even a child to crawl through. If Luo Binghe didn’t withdraw his hand, he would lose it, the portal didn’t care if something was stuck in it, it would close and saw through whatever got caught in it.
This was one of the dangers of such portals, they were unpredictable and prone to collapsing on their own without any warning signs once they got unstable.
‘It wouldn’t be the first time he lost a limb, wouldn’t it be, right?’ Shen Yuan thought almost hysterically, but he didn’t voice that question out loud, suddenly aware that someone or something could very well be listening to him.
And anyway, it was kind of a running joke at one point for the readers of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way from what he had seen on the forums that Luo Binghe lost limbs like a lizard lost its tail. Frequently.
He would find a way to regrow them quickly but there was a running tally of how many times it happened and another counter that counted down how long it had been since Luo Binghe lost a body part.
The grip slackened and the hand withdrew and Shen Yuan could breathe again. He fell back on his ass and watched the small portal get smaller and smaller.
Something flew through before it closed completely and he reflexively dived for it to catch the thing before it crashed into the ground and possibly broke into a thousand tiny pieces.
He opened up his clenched fist to see a small jade token and he almost had a heart attack before he realized that it probably wasn’t that jade token. It was such a silly thought, because the false jade token from his mother was Luo Binghe’s most important treasure even after he became a Peak Lord.
That sentimentality was something Shen Yuan always liked about his character. If someone was good to him, Luo Binghe gave them every kindness, but if they slighted him once? They would have to get ready for a world of pain.
Such was Luo Binghe’s way of life.
The demon realm was both less and more than what Shen Yuan expected.
After the fright that was his arrival to it, he eventually managed to stand up, dust himself off and take a look around.
Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky wrote this part of the world with no regards to laws of nature or how an ecosystem would work like that. It made absolutely no sense when one looked at it as a whole. But who even cared, it sounded really cool when he wrote about Luo Binghe fighting above a tropical jungle only to blast his opponents into a wall of ice. Polar opposites were next to each other, be it never-cooling lava streams and glaciers or lush jungles and bone-dry deserts.
Where the portal opened, everything was covered in ash. In the distance he could see some volcanoes, spewing out a steady stream of lava and billowing smoke. There was also a thick rainforest near them and an icy wasteland close by.
It was like the checklist for a videogame.
Icy planet, check.
Lava planet, check.
Jungle planet, check.
Beach planet, check.
Only these were not planets but rather terrains in one realm.
The main difference between the human and demon realm though was in hospitality. Namely that while the human world had its dangers, the demon world was on an entirely different scale when it came to inhospitality and it showed.
If the human realm had beaches with crystal clear water and white sand, the ones in the demon realm were murky and dirty. If the human realm had a forest it was filled with beautiful green trees and amazing beasts. The forests in the demon realm were always sinister or dying or both.
In a nutshell, take anything pretty and the opposite of it would be in the demon realm.
Well, excerpt the ladies. Demonesses were at least as beautiful as their human counterparts - or even more - if they were slated to become part of the harem. Pretty much every woman who met Luo Binghe fell in love with him, but not all of them had the honor of becoming his lover.
Shen Yuan picked a direction and started walking. It was easy to describe the political climate of the demon realm in the novel; it was a regular shitfest. But before Luo Binghe threw a wrench into it, things supposedly were pretty straightforward.
Two Demon Lords ruled most of the place and while there were smaller factions outside of their purviews, they usually didn’t bother anyone. Shen Yuan’s best bet was reaching out to those two big bad demons… namely Mobei-jun and Sha Hualing. However, in the novel Mobei-jun had a spy in the human realm and in Cang Qiong which could already be a thing.
It was never cleared up when the An Ding head disciple betrayed his sect.
So, the other option was Sha Hualing, Demon Saint who lived to challenge Luo Binghe. The fights between them were like catnip to her, and there were many times even in the scant chapters he read where she appeared where their spars turned into something more carnal.
He had to keep in mind that one day in the future, Sha Hualing would become one of the main wives of Luo Binghe, which would mean that even if Shen Yuan could convince her to shelter him, his time under her protection would be temporary.
That was a problem with Mobei-jun too, because the ice demon would become Luo Binghe’s right-hand man… but if the spy issue wasn’t there, he would have gone to him a 100% sure.
Because Sha Hualing was in love with Luo Binghe and she was fanatically devoted to him.
Mobei-jun was loyal, but he was also reclusive and he only showed up if Luo Binghe asked for his presence or a plot demanded it. Which became rarer as the harem grew and there were more named characters to juggle than ever before.
His only real choice was Sha Hualing, so he was off to find her territory and hopefully he could get her to agree to house him or something for a little while. Just until he figured out what was the deal with his body, for example.
“Well, shit.” Shen Yuan said as he was sitting down next to a foul-smelling spring that spewed dirty brown water. If it was just foul-smelling, he would have drunk from it, because he could recognize the smell of rotten eggs anywhere. That didn’t necessarily mean the water was undrinkable; plenty of medicinal springs had smelled positively foul because of the high concentration of chemicals in them.
But it was also such a strange brown color and that didn’t bode well for consuming it even if he boiled it. Which once again was not a possibility, so… He would have to either find another source or risk it. He wasn’t sure he wanted to try it, especially not after the whole brain-meltingly high fever he had, but soon he wouldn’t have any other option.
Water was life, no matter what species you were and that was true for the world of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way too.
He would really like to have a map or someone who could point him in the direction of Sha Hualing… He had been wandering around the demon world for what felt like days, though he couldn’t tell with the sky being the exact same all the time.
It didn’t matter that he left behind the volcanic landscape and he was halfway to the jungle, the clouds above him - covering whatever sunshine there was - were always roiling and red.
Shen Yuan didn’t even notice he had company at first.
He turned his head to the side to idly look at the trees in the distance and he came face to face with… something. It was an animal, or at least the closest equivalent that could be found in the demonic realm, so it was probably a demon.
A cross between a bird and a lizard with a feathered tail. Like a peacock dinosaur.
It looked at him with enormous eyes, its head twitching slightly too in that distinctive way a chicken’s did. Whenever Shen Yuan moved it moved too.
It was both cute and creepy at the same time.
"Shoo. Go, go away." Shen Yuan made the shooing motion with his clawed hand and the little beast only chirped a few times and craned its head to look at him a bit more like it was fascinated by him.
No matter how many times did he try to shoo it away, it didn't leave. Did it see him as a big bird and was that why it didn't flee immediately?
Prey animal or not, it was small and lacked a lot of characteristics that made the most well-known beasts of the novel memorable.
No armored hide, no razor-sharp claws, no enormous fangs. Of course, it could be hiding something similar, but at first glance it seemed harmless.
Shen Yuan figured that he accidentally wandered into its territory and that it wouldn't leave because of that. It seemed as logical an explanation as any.
He stood up and walked away only to look back and see that it wasn't following him but rather seemed to be stuck like it was frozen in its spot.
'Good,' Shen Yuan thought with a short nod and kept walking only to stop in short order as something scaly and feathery brushed against his legs through his ruined pants.
The little beast was back and it looked up at him questioningly when he suddenly stopped. They looked at each other for a long while, holding a little staring contest that Shen Yuan had to admit he lost. Thankfully there was no one to witness his shame of being outmaneuvered by something that was just a fraction of his size.
It was herding him, he realized after a few more similar interruptions. Once, when Shen Yuan tried to go in the opposite direction it chirped at him then tried to bite his legs. Luckily, the scales on them were pretty tough, so he barely felt it, but there was also a flash of annoyance accompanying the sensation.
Shen Yuan had truly nothing better to do so he decided to follow it. What was the worst that could happen? Maybe, it would lead him to its bigger and scarier daddy that would try to make a meal out of him?
He wouldn’t be much of a meal; he was all skin and bones and feathers. Plus, there was that pesky poisonous blood thing that saved his life in the spiritual caves of Cang Qiong.
If there was a bigger and meaner demon at the end of their walk, he could probably outrun it. Or at least he hoped so.
Sometimes he could hear odd chittering sounds around them and it felt like he was being watched but soon enough he found himself before a small stream and a pond. It looked like something out of a dream. Clean and clear.
There was also a lot bigger version of the little beast perched on a rock in the middle of the still water.
Shen Yuan froze, but aside from staring at him for a few seconds with unblinking eyes like it was staring into his soul, the bigger beast did nothing. Shen Yuan barely managed to stop himself from running, some instincts screaming at him never to run from a predator – because it was a predator based on the finger-long razor-sharp claws on its limbs – before it let out an odd rumbling sound before it turned its head away and tucked it under its wings.
It fell asleep or it looked quite convincingly like it had fallen asleep.
Shen Yuan leaned down and keeping a careful eye and ears both on his surroundings and the slumbering beast before him and filled his gourd to the brim from the stream. Under the pointed poking of the little beast, he also drank a few mouthfuls when it looked like it would start to make louder noises.
Once those were done, Shen Yuan backed out from the clearing and followed the little beast as fast as he could until they came across a break in the tree line.
It was the edge of the forest, only a thin strip of grass separating it from the jungle next door. The little beast stayed behind in the bushes and Shen Yuan could see hundreds of eyes staring at him suddenly from the darkness.
He waved at them once, feeling stupid but it worked because soon enough him and the little beast were the only ones left. They were still not alone, the persistent feeling of being watched never abated but on the surface they were.
"Thank you." Being polite probably wasn't a bad idea especially as he still didn't know what it was.
The little beast looked at him, bopped its head a few times before it turned around in a sinuous move and left the way it came.
The little episode with the little dinosaur-like beasts showed Shen Yuan that maybe not everything was out to get him in the demon realm. It also made him realize how unprepared he was to actually stay in this part of the world without any help or knowledge that he could trust to be accurate.
And what happened next hammered that detail home.
Shen Yuan was still in the jungle part of the demon realm, as a rather large part of the southern hemisphere was covered with the thing. By his estimates, he should have been in Sha Hualing’s territory already… but he couldn’t say for sure whether she ruled all of these lands already or not.
If he was lucky, he thought, he would find her seat of power. If he wasn’t lucky, he would forever wander the jungles or well… until he was either mauled by something that did want to harm him or he died from exposure.
In that moment, the former was more likely.
There was something sitting on his back which made it impossible for him to see anything other than the dirt his nose was grinded into. It hurt a lot, especially when the thing on his back put its claws into his hair and pulled hard on the roots, uncaring whether it was ripping out feathers or entire locks of hair while trying to bend him. Shen Yuan gritted his teeth at the pain in his scalp and felt his teeth ache in need to tear into the limb holding him down.
He had the urge to rip and to tear and the realization brought him up short.
Yes, sometimes he had thoughts that he wouldn’t ever voice and he had almost instinctive responses to things that he never actually did. But this was the first time in his life that he truly felt the urge to kill something. To maim, to make it hurt, to make them rue the day they ever met him. He had been running so far, his fight or flight instincts always staying on flight except now.
It was sobering.
He swallowed as deeply as he could and tried to go lax against the hold on his head. It confused his assailant, loosening its grip and he threw his entire body weight into the movement when he bucked off the thing attacking him.
It flew with a sharp cut-off squeal and Shen Yuan scrambled up. His feathers puffed up without conscious thought to make him look bigger than he was and his eyes flitted between the half a dozen demons around him.
They were a haphazard bunch. A few of them had some reptile characteristics like scales for skin or their entire head looking like a lizard’s, one had eight chitinous legs, another had shell-like armor(?).
One of them was constantly salivating while watching him, leading to frequent swallowing sounds.
“Hello?” Shen Yuan eventually asked in the waitful silence, trying to figure out whether they were sentient or not. There was no reason to think that even if they were intelligent, they would answer him, but he wanted to try. It didn’t seem like a bad idea.
Of course, he didn’t know what he would do if it turned out that they were sentient and still wanted to kill him.
He would protect himself; he would fight. He just didn’t know if he was capable of actual killing directly even if this was just a novel. Shen Yuan could tell himself that these beings before him were just characters on a screen, cannon fodder beasts who had most likely no relevance to the plot and yet what was Shen Yuan if not another character on the same screen too now?
There was a lump in his throat and his mouth dropped open to breathe. There was a taste to the air that he didn’t recognize, a sharp thang that set his nerves on fire.
That was when the spider-like demon struck from slightly to his left. It was a feint and Shen Yuan fell for it. Barely half a second later he was tangled up in a web that was halfway behind him. The more he struggled, the tighter the sticky silk was and Shen Yuan couldn’t stop himself even when he tried. There was another spider demon crouched on the tree that he had been sleeping against and it blinked multiple eyes at him.
The rest of the demons advanced on him and Shen Yuan knew without a doubt that he was utterly fucked. He was as good as paralyzed with the web wrapping him up and the only thing he could do was to bare his teeth at the approaching demons. He wanted to say something, he wanted to scream and shout but he only found himself frozen in the face of his impending death.
"I just have one question." The voice suddenly came down on the jeering demons' heads like the hand of a god. "Who the hell do you think you are to mess around in my territory?"
Speak of the devil and she shall appear.
Sha Hualing was not a woman to be described as unassuming.
Even if one didn’t notice the demonic energy cloaked around her form like a warning sign or her not quite human features, like how her teeth and ears were just a tad more pointed than the usual or her claws barely masquerading as simple nails; she was just as dangerous as she was beautiful.
A femme fatale, one could even call her so.
Shen Yuan disliked her character, to be honest.
Out of all the wives who had been so far introduced in the novel, Sha Hualing had a pretty steady fanbase… It was also a pretty big one too and there wasn’t a day when there wasn’t a new scantily clad fanart produced.
Maybe it was because of the fans, maybe it was something else, but yeah. Shen Yuan didn’t really care for her character much and he didn’t care to read Luo Binghe’s steamy scenes with her either.
He didn’t like reading those scenes with most other wives either, because despite it being a stallion novel, Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky was kind of really bad at writing sex scenes.
(Every year there was a site-wide award ceremony and Worst Romance Scene was a category that Proud Immortal Demon’s Way has won 3 times out of 4. They were that bad.)
Shen Yuan was the only one standing before her, the demons who accosted him were either kneeling on the ground or choking on their own intestines and Shen Yuan wondered if he should do the same or not. Then he remembered about his tied-up state and he stopped thinking about that and started trying to figure out her intentions.
One of the less talked about customs of the demon realm was that often it was eat or be eaten. The other lesser mentioned custom of the demon realm was that they also ate humans. Of course, neither of these were demonstrated by any of Luo Binghe’s harem members but Shen Yuan wasn’t about to dismiss the suspicion that Sha Hualing would eat him.
“I’m poisonous.” Maybe that was why his first words were those to her.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the greatest opening in any conversation much less one where one of the participants was still tied up after being rescued by the other in a world where any show of weakness could be a fatal mistake.
Meanwhile, he managed to rip some of the spiderweb around his hands slowly while the beasts were occupied with Sha Hualing and vice versa and he dropped to the ground. Sha Hualing just watched him, without lifting a finger to either help or hinder him and Shen Yuan was both grateful and annoyed. Mainly with himself, but there was a tiny little spark of ire against Sha Hualing too that Shen Yuan didn’t care to try to interpret.
For whatever reason, she saved him.
Shen Yuan was already in her debt and he held no cards in this situation.
He was at eye-level with her after standing up, which sucked because it just showed him how short he was. Sha Hualing was the shortest of the main wives, according to the data Airplane gave out after her first few appearances.
He was in a child’s body, he reminded himself.
He would have a growth-spurt one day while she was an adult demoness.
Sha Hualing watched him with dark eyes, her braided hair slipping over one slender shoulder as she tilted her head to the side. “And who might you be, little bird?”
Shen Yuan felt a shiver travel down his spine and he hesitated for a second before giving his name. “Shen Yuan… my lady?”
The second hesitation and then the address that tumbled out of his mouth made her eyes narrow before it widened. She threw her head back and laughed, until there were tears in her eyes and Shen Yuan shifted from one foot to the other.
When she turned back to him, ignoring the sniveling and trembling demons still on their knees around them, she smiled. A slow, wicked curve of her mouth, the painted red lips stretching wide to show her fangs.
If it was an intimidation tactic, it succeeded.
She was like the cat that got the canary and Shen Yuan had the distinct feeling that in that analogy he was the canary about to be eaten.
But she would play with him first for hours, delighting in his suffering.
Unless, he offered her a better deal first.
Shen Yuan had never really fished aside from the few times when his grandfather was still alive. He still knew that to make fish bite, one had to use a good enough lure.
Only, he still wasn’t sure what he could offer to her that would make her take his bait.
Shen Yuan tried not to show his fear as she circled around him, a clawed hand touching his spine pointedly before she stopped in front of him. He could still feel her cold eyes moving over his body, seeing and cataloguing every little twitch that he couldn’t suppress. “My name is Sha Hualing, little bird… but you already knew that didn’t you?”
He had to wonder what gave him away. Maybe nothing and she was just fishing; in that case, he all but confirmed it with the way his eyes widened at her question.
“So, what does such a pretty little bird want with little old me, hm?”
She grabbed at his face and forced him to look up and into her eyes with a strange smile on her face. She opened her mouth to speak again when there was a flash at the edge of his vision and the remaining demons all fell to the ground one by one, their heads separated from their shoulders. Shen Yuan wanted to look, but Sha Hualing still had his chin in her grip and her claws at his throat.
This wasn’t his best idea; he knew from the moment he almost fainted from the pressure in his head. Sha Hualing was angry at being interrupted and he realized that he had seriously miscalculated about her temperament. She was much too volatile, too instinct-driven, too easily enraged.
Just a bit too impulsive.
Spy or no spy, he should have gone to Mobei-jun instead.
Only… there was another pressure hammering at his brain and it wasn’t coming from her. He clawed at her shoulders while he was lifted in the air by the steel-tight grip around his neck.
“My, my, my. Such a forbidding expression!” Sha Hualing laughed and tapped her mouth with one slender finger. “Be careful, otherwise your lovely face might get stuck that way, master cultivator.”
Sheen Yuan gasped and tried to turn his head to see if his guess was correct, but she didn’t allow him. She shook him like he was nothing but a sack of potatoes with no signs of exertion.
Sha Hualing continued to radiate just sheer glee and bloodlust but it didn’t seem to be aimed at him any longer.
There were three people who could get this reaction from her in the novel.
Mobei-jun, Liu Mingyan and Luo Binghe.
She said cultivator, so the first was out.
She tossed him away and Shen Yuan crashed into a headless carcass cooling on the ground, almost slipping in its spilled and coagulating blood. He didn’t care, he just snapped his head up to look at his unknown savior.
Luo Binghe stood a few meters away, with his hand on Zheng Yang, but he didn’t draw his sword yet. He looked… good.
If Shen Yuan was feeling petty - and after being choked he was feeling petty - he would say that his face was more beautiful than his future wife’s. He was wearing the customary red and black of Qing Jing, the style he favored before his blackening.
He didn’t have a hair out of place and Shen Yuan became oddly conscious of his own less than stellar appearance. He huddled into himself for a little bit more and tried to scuttle a bit further away. He was in the line of fire, though even if he managed to run away for a few hundred meters, he would still be in the line of fire. The tension started ratcheting up and Shen Yuan hoped they wouldn’t notice if he put some more distance between them. In a pinch, he could probably use the corpses as shields, though they wouldn’t save him if Sha Hualing and Luo Binghe started battling it out right there and then.
He would be toast then.
It was such a useless thing, but it was also instinctive to try to get away from those two sizing each other up. Nevertheless, the movement drew Luo Binghe’s attention to him for a split second, before it snapped back to Sha Hualing who shifted on her bare feet, the bells around her ankles chiming softly.
“Is he your prey, pretty cultivator?” She cooed with a grin that could possibly be called cute and innocent if one was utterly oblivious to the suggestiveness in her tone and her body language. Shen Yuan almost snorted but he managed to reign it in when he realized that the he in question was him.
And how he last saw Luo Binghe and how he barely managed to slip through his fingers. How the protagonist almost lost his hand because Shen Yuan got away.
It was not a good reminder and he gulped in panic.
Luo Binghe glanced at him and then Sha Hualing started cackling like a demented witch or a hyena. “Oh, he is!”
‘How did she know that?’ He wanted to ask but he didn’t need to. Her sharp eyes were on him, glittering with amusement and something dark that made him want to curl up and hide until she was far, far away. It was an instinctual response, an almost primal fear. Like he was only prey to her and she could gobble him up any second. “You stink of fear, little bird. Even a human could smell it.”
Sha Hualing took a step towards him and Luo Binghe stepped into her path. Coincidentally, he was now the only thing between her and him and Shen Yuan didn't know how to feel.
It was like he got out of the frying pan and managed to fall into the fire.
And yet… Luo Binghe made no other move; he didn’t look threatening to Shen Yuan. He looked - did he dare to say it - almost protective?
“Demon Saint Sha.” The Peak Lord spoke up suddenly and Shen Yuan wanted to weep. Such an amazingly beautiful voice, so powerful! Deep and commanding! So suitable for a protagonist of Luo Binghe’s caliber, 10/10! “What business do you have with him?”
Shen Yuan couldn’t see her but he could imagine what she looked like. She probably pouted up at Luo Binghe’s unflinching face and then smiled when she realized that it made no difference to the peerless immortal. Pre-blackening Luo Binghe was a tough nut to crack, both polite and charming if the situation needed it. And yet he was almost always aloof, and kept himself apart from the masses.
In short, he was fucking cool.
Shen Yuan liked post-blackening Luo Binghe well enough but he still read rapturously for any glimpse of pre-blackening Luo Binghe. The former was cool too, of course but there was something about the latter that just made Shen Yuan want to pay more attention.
It looked like a fight was inevitable and Shen Yuan watched them both with bated breaths and then it was over. Whatever passed between them without words, Shen Yuan wasn’t privy to it and it looked like Luo Binghe won?
At least, that was Shen Yuan’s interpretation after Sha Hualing suddenly left with a wave.
Though not before she grabbed one of the corpses - the ringleader - and dragged it away with her.
For what reason, Shen Yuan had no idea. However, he didn’t have much time to contemplate it either as Luo Binghe turned to him after she was completely out of sight.
“You shouldn’t have run, Disciple Shen.”
Shen Yuan froze at the protagonist saying his name in such a way. He couldn’t really read it, he could only guess based on his reading experience but he didn’t think Luo Binghe was angry? Or happy. Or sad. He had to admit that he absolutely had no idea what Luo Binghe could be feeling under the veneer of calm that seemed fake to him and the more he looked the more he started second-guessing even his own guesses.
Fat load of good it did to him to pay for and read 200 chapters of Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky’s garbage writing; it was like he was faced with a wall.
Luo Binghe didn’t continue and Shen Yuan realized that he was waiting for an answer. “I’m… I’m sorry?”
It was more of a question than a statement but he had no idea what he could say to that.
'Sorry for running, I was afraid you would kill me on sight? Why are you not killing me, by the way?'
'Are you angry?'
'Did you get whammied by something on the way here? Sniffed some suspicious pollen?'
'Did you hit your head? Is that why you are not trying to separate my head from my neck?'
Apologizing seemed like a good enough idea at the time… and Shen Yuan’s mother raised him to be polite to his elders. And Luo Binghe was his elder in this world, he was sure of that, though he absolutely had no idea how old the cultivator was.
Sometimes, he thought that Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky deliberately avoided mentioning his age, which caused endless despair to those who were trying to write up a timeline of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way.
Putting aside the hack writer’s various deficiencies, it looked like Shen Yuan’s answer was the correct one as Luo Binghe seemed somewhat mollified. Or at least less likely to become angry if the disappearance of the small furrow between his brows was any evidence.
Then Luo Binghe suddenly held out a hand without saying anything and Shen Yuan stared at it questioningly before he looked up at the cultivator watching him with an air of amusement? It looked like amusement but he didn’t think the Peak Lord showed such emotions before his unfortunate descent into the Endless Abyss.
Shen Yuan opened his mouth to ask what he wanted, when the other man wriggled his fingers and all of Shen Yuan’s courage fled him. Still, he had no idea what Luo Binghe wanted.
His hands were large with strong fingers and he had to wonder; were they calloused from learning sword fighting from an early age or did the cultivation take care of those little blemishes?
It would make sense if the calluses remained, they protected the hand from repeated stress in those spots though sensitivity might be reduced in Shen Yuan’s understanding. Cultivators had accelerated healing and they could make themselves heal even faster with some concentration and applying their spiritual energy to the task.
Thus, they rarely had scars or other imperfections like calluses.
Luo Binghe wiggled his hand once more and Shen Yuan was drawn out of his thoughts sharply. “Give it back.”
Give what back? Give what back, oh mighty protagonist?!
Shen Yuan wailed inside his head while trying to wrack his brain about what the man could have wanted. For a second he even contemplated if the man wanted to hold his hand, before dismissing the preposterous thought when the cultivator spoke.
‘Think, Shen Yuan, think.’ He told himself and started to take stock of what was on him. Then he realized what Luo Binghe most likely wanted… what else could it be when there was only one item on his person that he got from the protagonist?
He drew out the jade token that he deliberately tried not to touch too much after packing it away so that he didn't accidentally dirty its pale surface. At that point, he didn’t know how long he would have to scrub himself to get the dirt out from his pores or from under his nails.
He also had no idea how Sha Hualing could smell his fear because he was completely sure that he reeked.
After all, he had weeks and weeks of dried sweat and dirt and other things on his person and he hadn’t had a bath for a very long while. He probably stunk to high heavens and cleaning his face whenever he could didn’t help shit with that.
He fished out the token from the small pocket near his heart and placed it into Luo Binghe’s palm carefully, trying not to touch him any longer than he needed.
His caution was unnecessary because at the same time Luo Binghe’s hand curled around the jade, covering it from his eyes, his other hand shot out and grabbed onto Shen Yuan’s wrist. Shen Yuan tried not to panic, but he didn’t succeed, especially when the protagonist tugged him forward until he was only a step away.
Luo Binghe was incredibly tall, easily the tallest male character in the setting of the novel. Which made sense as he was the protagonist and the harem master. The only characters who were taller than him were in no way a threat to him or his macho man status.
In this case, Luo Binghe being one of the tallest men in the novel meant that Shen Yuan actually had to crane his head to be able to look in the direction of his face as he barely reached his chest otherwise.
“Now, Disciple Shen. Tell this Lord what happened in that cave.” The grip around his wrist tightened and Shen Yuan couldn’t stop the small wince when he felt his bones grind together from the force behind it. “And leave nothing out.”
Even if he said that, even if he ordered that, there was no way Shen Yuan could tell him everything. He was sure that was one of the rules of transmigration, don’t tell anyone you are a transmigrator, especially not the overpowered protagonist interrogating you when they (probably) didn’t have any evidence about that fact.
He was not an inner disciple, he reminded himself. Luo Binghe surely didn’t know every disciple on Qing Jing Peak, hell, not even a fraction of them were ever named in the novel.
There were probably ways to tell if he was lying to even the uninitiated and Luo Binghe always had the uncanny ability to sniff out falsehoods. But, would it be lying if he just omitted some things?
What Luo Binghe didn’t need to know; Luo Binghe didn’t need to know.
“I’m… This lowly disciple was meditating…” Shit, shit he thought, trying to figure out how to continue when he could see the protagonist’s eyes narrow. He had no idea what the original had been doing in that cave.” ... attempting to strengthen my cultivation.”
“I… this lowly disciple had no idea what happened but woke up injured.” To tell whether he was attacked, or not to tell. But if there was any chance someone stumbled upon that spot in the caves, they would find the body of that… thing and he would get caught, wouldn’t he? “There was a beast and it dug out this disciple’s golden core.”
A flicker of something ran through Luo Binghe’s eyes but it was gone in a heartbeat.
Shen Yuan was sure he imagined it.
He hesitated for too long. “Continue.”
“It tried to kill me, I mean, it tried to kill this lowly disciple?”
“After it has already dug out your golden core?”
Luo Binghe frowned before he waved his hand and Shen Yuan continued his halting recollection of the events that happened after his arrival.
“It died? And then I managed to get away?” Abruptly, Shen Yuan realized that he made a mistake. But it was kind of hard to adjust his speech patterns when it came to himself and he knew how strict Cang Qiong could be about social hierarchy.
He couldn’t afford to provoke a fucking Peak Lord, especially not when he was weaker than a child with no leverage of any kind in this world that valued power above all else.
“How did it die?” Luo Binghe pressed him for an answer and Shen Yuan knew that he had to tread lightly.
“This lowly disciple doesn’t know?” Alarm bells blared inside his head, but he barreled on. Staying silent would be worse than hesitating so much. Luo Binghe already suspected him of lying, he wouldn’t wait around until Shen Yuan was good and ready with his perfectly crafted answers. “This lowly disciple was unconscious after being attacked and woke up to the beast dead already.”
Luo Binghe frowned and looked into the distance. Shen Yuan would have given anything to be able to read his mind at that moment.
His hand was dropped without another word and Shen Yuan massaged the darkened skin and scales surreptitiously. The protagonist then turned around and started walking before he stopped and looked back at him with a raised eyebrow.
Shen Yuan just stood there, staring back at him confused.
“Does Disciple Shen need a written invitation?” The frown didn’t leave Luo Binghe’s face, but his voice was perfectly level. “This Lord does not like to wait.”
And what else could he do?
Shen Yuan followed him without a word.
The next few days were one of the most surreal experiences Shen Yuan had ever lived through.
He followed Luo Binghe, motherfucking Luo Binghe, the protagonist of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way like he was a lost puppy and it was… actually not that bad. Nothing dared to attack them, nothing jumped out at them. The only living thing he had seen in the demon world took a sharp turn once they were in sight, avoiding them completely.
Luo Binghe didn’t leave him alone and every time Shen Yuan flagged, he waited for him. He didn’t use his sword to fly either, though that would have drastically cut down on traveling time.
Shen Yuan spent every waking second with Luo Binghe and went to sleep right after Luo Binghe decided to stop walking after hours of grueling pace. He ate and drank whatever Luo Binghe gave him, which was, while simple fare, were honestly loads better than anything he came up with on his own since he transmigrated.
They didn’t talk at all; however, Shen Yuan could feel Luo Binghe watching him almost constantly when he wasn’t scanning the horizon. Probably looking for signs of him planning to run or something?
To be honest, aside from the first few seconds when he started marching after him, Shen Yuan had no such plans. Luo Binghe found him multiple times already, he had nowhere to run and he had nowhere to hide where the golden child of this world wouldn’t find him.
What the protagonist wants, the protagonist gets, and for some reason, Luo Binghe wanted to find him and to keep him in sight.
At least this way Shen Yuan was watered and fed and safe.
In the end, he might also be killed, but why would Luo Binghe waste so many resources on him if he was planning to kill him? Maybe it was a false sense of security, but Shen Yuan was starting to think that Luo Binghe might not want to kill him.
Although, that raised the question: why?
It could be because he was the only witness to that creature? He tried not to think too much about that encounter but it was so odd that something like that could get inside the wards of Cang Qiong without anyone noticing. Truly strange, it didn’t make sense.
‘Maybe it was the work of Mobei-jun’s spy?’ He thought after a while, weighing the pros and cons of that theory.
Not much was known about Shang Qinghua, other than the fact that he betrayed his fellow cultivators for Mobei-jun. He was the head disciple of An Ding Peak and someone who had access to a lot of areas that others wouldn’t.
He was unassuming, easily blending into the background; quiet like a mouse.
When the Endless Abyss scene happened, he was revealed to be a spy and he disappeared and despite Mobei-jun showing up later and turning into Luo Binghe’s underling, there was no mention of what happened to Shang Qinghua. Not that many people cared about his fate or even remembered his name after a few thousand chapters later.
Maybe the beast was one of their plans, to help them get ready for the Immortal Alliance Conference and the subsequent fallout. It was really hard to figure out a reason without having anything other than the basics, but it filled his time.
Shen Yuan was bored now that he was a lot less worried about his impending death and it showed. Luo Binghe didn’t really seem to want to interact with him and Shen Yuan was used to an almost constant bombardment of information. TV, the internet, radio… he came from a world where the only time he wasn’t reading, listening to, or doing something was when he was asleep. So, boredom hit hard eventually and it might have made him less cautious than he should have ever been.
It started with asking questions, but it quickly devolved into a lot more.
“Where are we going?” He blurted out after another quick meal where Shen Yuan ate some yummy roasted meat and a bag of nuts while Luo Binghe was staring into the distance apparently unbothered by his messiness.
The Peak Lord turned to look at him and there was a flash of distaste in his eyes, so maybe he wasn’t as unaffected as he appeared and Shen Yuan couldn’t quite untangle the complicated mess of emotions inside him. “Excuse me?”
“Where are we going…” He repeated and then figured that once again he missed something important from that sentence. “Where are we going, Shizun?”
The title rolled off his tongue without much thinking. It felt strange to call Luo Binghe Shizun and the Peak Lord seemed as surprised as he was for a second or two before the mask was back.
There weren’t many times he was addressed as such in the novel, though he was a Peak Lord and thus the teacher of the disciples on Qing Jing Peak. And still, almost no named character called him that.
Luo Binghe, however, didn’t correct him and Shen Yuan made a note to himself about it.
“Back to Cang Qiong. Your martial siblings are eagerly awaiting your arrival.” It came out almost embarrassed and Shen Yuan’s eyebrow lifted before he could stop it.
Fuck, he thought. He didn’t count on having to deal with his martial siblings who could potentially suss out that he wasn’t the original.
He had hoped that he could get away without that complication making a mess of his second life… weren’t the outer disciples supposed to be really cut-throat? He distinctly remembered reading that while the inner disciples were more familial, the outer disciples were always more competitive because they were all fighting for a chance to become inner disciples on their merits alone.
They didn’t have the necessary family backing or the once-in-a-lifetime cultivation potential that could guarantee them a spot as an inner disciple from the first day into entering Cang Qiong. Shen Yuan didn’t know the numbers of how many of them actually became inner disciples, there never was much focus on them. They were canon fodder of the worst kind, just a mob of insignificant bystanders jockeying for scraps of power.
Competition like that didn’t foster friendly relations, so why would Luo Binghe say that?
Did he just lie out of his ass?
And could Shen Yuan call him out on it?
The idea was instantly shot down and Shen Yuan didn’t comment on it aside from a short nod and thanking Shizun for his… generosity. It was the only interaction between them for the next few days, Shen Yuan thanking Luo Binghe whenever the latter gave him food or something to drink.
Luo Binghe didn’t answer, he didn’t speak up, but there was some new consideration in his eyes that told Shen Yuan that this status quo wouldn’t last long.
“What will happen when we get back to Cang Qiong…” He asked, then belatedly added a Shizun at the end.
Luo Binghe didn’t say anything about the slip, he didn’t even look at Shen Yuan. “You go back to studying hard.”
Which was a terribly unhelpful answer and Shen Yuan felt his feathers shift in agitation. Did Luo Binghe not realize that he was half-bird or what? It wasn’t something easy to miss, he thought and looked at his bare clawed feet or his similarly clawed hands.
Did he just not care? Shen Yuan would be killed if he dared to step into Cang Qiong before he even managed to say one word.
“Um…” He started trying to figure out how to question if the Peak Lord had actually hit his head or took leave of his senses not to see the very obvious problems before them. “Shizun?”
“How am I going to do that?”
A raised eyebrow. “This Lord imagines Disciple Shen will use the manuals available in the Qing Jing library to do so and attend his lessons.”
Was he kidding? Was Luo Binghe taking the piss out of him?
“I mean… this disciple just wondered about how his current appearance would work with… that.” He didn’t mean to imply with his tone that he was seriously questioning his new Shizun’s sanity and starting to get really worried for his life.
It still slipped through a bit.
Luo Binghe didn’t smile, he didn’t do much but look him over from top to bottom then back again. It was clinical, like how one would look at an interesting specimen or an object. “Of course, this Lord has a solution for that.” And then nothing.
He didn’t elaborate and Shen Yuan was in no position to ask.
They stared at each other for a few long seconds, Luo Binghe inscrutable as always and Shen Yuan very, very worried by then and he didn’t even try to hide it. He had the fleeting thought that his expression amused Luo Binghe, but he couldn’t really tell whether that was true or not.
Was Luo Binghe always a bit of a sadist…?
Once again, he cursed himself and everything in the world to get thrown into such a situation.
The answer to his dilemma came a few days later when he finished eating and getting ready to sleep wedged between the roots of the gnarly tree they made camp next to. Luo Binghe didn’t say anything but suddenly there was an object flying towards him and Shen Yuan caught it before he could think better.
It was similar to the jade token he carried around after the portal but it was also markedly different. It was something he had seen Luo Binghe fiddle around with before he fell asleep, carving into the jade and so on.
“I, um… Shizun, may this disciple ask what this is?” He managed to blurt out after a while and Luo Binghe leaned back against a large stone downwind from him. Shen Yuan would have felt mortified about that but he refused to think about it so that he could claim to not see how his stinky self fared against Luo Binghe’s enhanced senses.
It was better for the tattered remains of his dignity.
“A jade token, Disciple Shen. This Lord thought that was obvious from one look.” Shen Yuan was quickly realizing that while reading Luo Binghe’s snarkiness and frankly sarcastic thought process was very entertaining as a reader, it wasn’t that much fun when talking with the man.
It made him want to strangle him to death and he had a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening.
He bit down on his tongue and at that point, he was sure that Luo Binghe was only amused by him. He felt like the class clown only there was no class, just him and his teacher who didn’t need to worry much about keeping up the facade of being above it all. It wasn’t like Shen Yuan would be able to tell anyone what he was discovering, and not be looked on as someone who was touched in the head.
Luo Binghe was kind of a dick even before his blackening.
Shen Yuan turned his attention back to the jade and looked closer at it. The carvings seemed familiar but didn’t immediately ring a bell and it took him a few minutes to remember what it reminded him of, some odd monster he has seen occasionally in his old world.
Seen in paintings and carvings as is, not like seen seen.
It was a spell array, carved into the jade by the protagonist’s own two hands. The characters were ridiculously tiny and Shen Yuan looked at Luo Binghe in utter astonishment. To think that he carved all those details so quickly and without magnifiers or any other modern tools was amazing!
He was truly the protagonist!
Accomplished and powerful and handsome, the complete package.
Nobody could compare to him!
But, that was half of the fun wasn’t it? Yanking him down from his throne to see him suffer and then make his victorious come back stronger than ever!
“Come here.” The order was quiet and Shen Yuan heeded it without thinking, only to freeze when he was standing right before Luo Binghe. The other man held out his hand and Shen Yuan placed the jade in it without words, already familiar with this song and dance. Luo Binghe did something and the jade suddenly had a thin strip of leather to hang from.
Luo Binghe quickly tied a knot on it before tossing the newly made necklace back to him. Shen Yuan scrambled to catch it and Luo Binghe made a gesture to put it on. The cord slipped over his head and there was a strange sensation when the jade settled against the skin of his chest after Luo Binghe told him to tuck it inside his clothing.
There was a considering humming sound coming from Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan waited for him to say anything. “Good enough for now. Go to sleep, Disciple Shen, growing boys need it… or something.”
Shen Yuan looked down at himself but saw no difference so he just shrugged and went back to his spot. He was almost asleep when he heard Luo Binghe’s voice again.
“Always keep that necklace on, even in your sleep or when you are bathing.”
Shen Yuan barely managed to get an affirmative noise out before sleep pulled him under and he was off to the land of dreams.
It took him several days to realize what the pendant did and it happened after a rather embarrassing incident.
The two of them traveled on foot for a while and Shen Yuan didn’t have much of an idea where they were going aside from the general answer of back to Cang Qiong.
Luo Binghe clearly had a destination in mind and it wasn’t the nearest portal to the human world. The demon world was a desolate place, home to the hardier and cruel demon races so Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky’s writing reflected that with every new location introduced.
But from what he gathered, there were the occasional spots where Luo Binghe’s wives tried to seduce him later on, so a few of those were written in eventually too. Hidden spots, small pocket dimensions where one could relax, little pockets of paradise in living hell.
They were almost impossible to find unless one knew where they should look so it didn’t even cross Shen Yuan’s mind to try to search for one.
Unless you were the protagonist, you didn’t have much chance of stumbling into one by accident or following the incredibly vague descriptions and directions others might have left. No, that was the protagonist’s privilege only.
Shen Yuan didn’t recognize the place for what it was at first, only that they were deep in the jungle and standing before a vine-covered wall of stone. Luo Binghe was tapping a hand against it in seemingly random patterns until he stopped like he found what he was looking for. The vines rustled but nothing else changed and Shen Yuan was oddly disappointed.
He didn’t know what he thought was going to happen but this was anticlimactic.
Luo Binghe, however, didn’t share his sentiments and Shen Yuan was quickly dragged through the wall. Like this was a fucking Harry Potter book.
His cry of alarm was muffled as he immediately bumped into Luo Binghe’s hard back. It was like running into a wall; Luo Binghe was apparently built like a brick house under all those layers and Shen Yuan rubbed his aching nose. He didn’t get to ask why they stopped, he just looked up and saw the sight before him and his mouth dropped open in surprise.
A hot spring. It was a fucking hot spring.
In the middle of the demon realm, there was a perfect-looking hot spring.
He didn’t even notice the hand on his neck, only when Luo Binghe grabbed him by his clothes and tossed him into the water. Shen Yuan didn’t even have time to screech in indignation and terror, he was already in the steaming water fully dressed. He broke the surface and paddled to the edge of the pool where Luo Binghe sat down primly on a nearby stone.
“What if I couldn’t swim?!” He bit out while he felt like he was going to hack up a lung with all the coughing he did.
Luo Binghe didn’t seem to be too bothered, though he raised one eyebrow at the accusing tone and Shen Yuan shut up. Right, he forgot for one second that he shouldn’t just mouth off. “Swimming has been part of the entrance exam for decades now… do you not remember, Disciple Shen?”
Shen Yuan sweated for a second before he dared to look at Luo Binghe again only to snatch it away immediately at the keen focus on him. “This lowly disciple apologizes, Shizun, he spoke out of turn.”
“Indeed, you did.” Luo Binghe let him stew in his panic for a few precious seconds before he sighed like he was disappointed. “Get clean, Disciple Shen.”
He heard the clink of glasses and turned towards the sound only to see a few small vials rolling to stop near him. There were other supplies too. He looked up at Luo Binghe who turned away completely, giving him some privacy, which was a lot more than Shen Yuan thought he would get.
He started shrugging out of his water-logged clothing until he was completely bare and pushed the dirty robes to the edge of the pool. He could see the dirt dissolve in the water but it was instantly cleared away.
A magical self-cleaning and heating pool.
Shen Yuan grabbed the first vial and looked at the label on it. It was a handwritten one, but the writing was barely legible to him.
Something, something, hair.
The other vial was similar; something, something, soap.
He took out the corks and smelled both, one smelled like sandalwood to him, the other kind of minty so he wasn’t much ahead with that. He poured some of the one that said hair in his palm and tested if it lathered up. It did though nothing like the shampoo in his world. Shen Yuan tried the other too and that had similar results.
In the end, he just shrugged and decided to use them as he would use shampoo and soap.
He was scrubbing at the accumulated dirt on his arm with the brush when he noticed something rather strange about his reflection. It showed a perfectly human-looking teenager.
Shen Yuan must have made some noise because Luo Binghe asked. “Is there a problem?”
His hands still had those black claws but, in his reflection, he had ten perfectly normal fingers with ten perfectly normal nails. There were no feathers in his hair and no scales on his limbs.
Even the scar on his abdomen was missing; just smooth and pale skin everywhere he could see.
“I… I look like a human again?”
Luo Binghe didn’t snort but his voice held soft laughter. “Only to those who don’t know any better.”
His reflection flickered and once again Shen Yuan was looking at himself as he was.
“So, it’s just an illusion.” Shen Yuan deflated a bit at that, but then he remembered that this meant that he could go into human settlements again without any issues.
“Once the demonic inheritance awakens there is no way to return to being human.” Luo Binghe mused and Shen Yuan listened while he continued scrubbing himself clean. “Atavism brings an irreversible change to your body.”
Atavism. He had a name for what happened to him.
Too bad that he didn’t have the internet to look shit up.
Shen Yuan washed his face too, the hot water stinging his cheeks and covering up the tear tracks. He didn’t know why he was even crying.
Was he that weak?
“I’m finished.” Shen Yuan said once he managed to clean everything that he could reach. Part of his back needed a good scrubbing too, but he couldn’t really ask Luo Binghe to wash his back. He didn’t need to ask.
Luo Binghe turned to him already unlaced his armguards, then proceeded to tie up his sleeves leaving his thick forearms and hands bare. He crouched down next to the pool and held out his hand with an imperious air for Shen Yuan to surrender the brush.
Next was the single most humiliating example of him getting bathed like he was an unruly puppy, Luo Binghe going as far as to check behind his ears for anything he might have missed. And then he checked his hair carefully for lice too.
Shen Yuan was blushing as he clambered out of the pool when it was all finished only to get an armful of clothes while he was drying himself with the towels left out. It was a Qing Jing uniform, or at least it looked a lot like what he remembered he was wearing in the cave before it got all ripped and dirty. When he managed to get on his underclothes, it was clear that there were several more layers to it than before and Shen Yuan had to scratch his head trying to figure out the order he should put them on.
Luo Binghe has already turned away once again, back in his spot on the stone.
His claws didn’t quite cooperate with the ties and so on, but he managed not to rip any of it and Shen Yuan thought he did his best. Luo Binghe’s face spasmed once when he saw him and there was a brisk and perfunctory explanation that made Shen Yuan feel like he was five again and learning how to dress himself.
After it, everything was tied perfectly and Shen Yuan was directed to sit before Luo Binghe who got out a comb from who knew where - from his qiankun pouch of course.
Most of Shen Yuan’s hair was quickly tamed into a high ponytail and Luo Binghe was infinitely gentle with his feathers, making sure not to tug on them as he made a hairstyle out of the birds' nest that was on Shen Yuan’s head.
It was surprisingly relaxing and Shen Yuan almost felt like he was melting into a puddle of goo.
They slept in the hidden spring for a few hours, or at least Shen Yuan did while Luo Binghe meditated or did whatever he was doing while Shen Yuan slept like the dead.
In the morning they got out of the cave and Luo Binghe drew Zheng Yang and Shen Yuan stepped onto a blade for the first time.
It was exhilarating and he decided then and there that he couldn’t wait until he had his own sword!
The wind whipped one of his longer feathers into his face and Shen Yuan suddenly remembered that he didn’t have a golden core and that he was only an outer disciple. He would never get a sword from Wan Jian Peak and even if he somehow managed to get one, he would never be able to use it as a cultivator did.
It didn’t matter that now people looked at him and could only see another human, truly he wasn’t one.
He was demon-blooded and it was very rare for hybrids to be able to develop a golden core even at a young age.
“Over there.” Luo Binghe pointed somewhere to the right and Shen Yuan’s eyes followed his hand only to see something strange in the distance. It was like a funhouse mirror, distorting the air around it. “That’s how a portal looks like in this realm.”
It was actually beautiful from the angle they were in; the lights broke on the shimmering surface in an almost dizzying way.
“It looks different.”
Luo Binghe only hummed in answer at first as he concentrated on getting them closer without being unbalanced by the sudden harsh winds. If Shen Yuan looked closer at the gate between the human and the demon realm, he would have noticed the strange dark ice growing in patches around it.
“Only way to see what’s on the other side of a portal is to be in the portal. It’s not a window into another realm, it’s not even a doorway.” Luo Binghe started telling him and Shen Yuan listened carefully. “Think of it as a corridor instead because every gate between the two realms goes through the Abyss.”
Shen Yuan looked up at the protagonist, to only see the jaw of the cultivator because of the height difference between them. “The Abyss?”
Luo Binghe spared one look down at him and raised one of his eyebrows. “Yes, the void separating the human and the demon realm.”
The Endless Abyss.
The place where Luo Binghe was sent to be punished for his crimes, whatever they were, before breaking out and swearing revenge on all of those who were part of that matter.
“Is it possible that one falls into the Abyss while traveling between the realms?” He asked instead of the question he wanted to ask so much.
Something starting with: why would you be pushed into the Abyss, what was your secret, what was your crime?
“Yes, there is always a chance though it’s rare…” Luo Binghe’s mouth twitched and a hand carded through his clean hair in a soothing manner. It felt nice and Shen Yuan almost pressed his head into the large palm before he barely caught himself. “And nobody comes back right if they ever come back, so it’s even rarer to get a full account on how that happens.”
Oh, Shen Yuan thought and swallowed, watching the protagonist’s half-lidded eyes that looked strangely red in the demon realm’s light. The protagonist, who would spend years if not decades in the Abyss, wandering around and trying to survive.
It was a lot faster traveling on a sword in the open air than trying to sneak around in forests and avoiding villages and the human populace in general.
Shen Yuan enjoyed the clear air and the gentle sunshine but he was also terribly cold. Winter was in full swing by then and if there was one good thing about the demon world when he was there that it was a lot warmer than the human one.
Luo Binghe explained to him how the seasons mirrored each other in most areas.
When it was winter in the human world the demon world went through summer. When it was autumn in the human world, it was spring in the demon world. And so on.
It would have been fascinating but it also meant that Shen Yuan went from spring to howling winter with just a few steps through the portal. Luo Binghe too, but he was obviously unaffected enough not to show anything even resembling discomfort.
Meanwhile, Shen Yuan could barely stop himself from trying to burrow into the Peak Lord’s side. Luo Binghe was like a walking, talking space heater. Only, he didn’t speak much so Shen Yuan was fairly certain that he was feeling the cold too.
Or maybe the inedia and the not-sleeping while walking and flying for hours at a time was starting to take its toll. Theoretically, Luo Binghe could go a long time without having to worry about human needs.
In practice, Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky wrote in a ton of meals and sleeping (around), so it was never clear to Shen Yuan how Luo Binghe’s endurance for non-bedroom matters was like.
And now Shen Yuan’s cheeks were a flaming red from something other than the harsh and cold winds.
He wasn’t a prude and he wasn’t a blushing virgin either, no matter what his social circle back in his old world might have thought. But it was one thing to read a novel with bad smut and it was another thing to be essentially hugging the protagonist of said novel with the bad smut.
When Shen Yuan had read several sex scenes starring the same man he was all but cuddling with. The realization made things awkward for a few minutes but quickly the cold won over whatever embarrassment he might have felt.
The blush still didn’t leave his face, but Luo Binghe didn’t ask and even if he did, Shen Yuan would have blamed the winds.
When he was running from the mountain, trying to get as far away as possible, he didn’t really look back. He didn’t dare to stop; the flight or fight response was fully in effect and he was full-on panicking at the time come hell or high water.
So now that he was back, he took the time to look his fill.
This was Cang Qiong, the strongest sect in the world until Luo Binghe reduced it to ash. Full of so many well-known characters such as Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan.
Sadly, he didn’t see any of them because Luo Binghe pretty much took him straight to Qing Jing Peak. They descended next to Luo Binghe’s house on the peak, which was in a somewhat more secluded corner where disciples rarely went.
Luo Binghe looked at him with an expression that Shen Yuan could only categorize as lost before he looked like the aloof immortal again.
“You will stay in the side room until you learn to control your new heritage.”
Shen Yuan nodded and tried not to fidget too much, aware that Luo Binghe’s sharp eyes were on him. “Thank… this disciple thanks Shizun.” He said and bowed. Luo Binghe put a hand on his shoulder and all but pulled at him until he stood straight.
“Come, we will eat now.”
And that was the first time Shen Yuan truly ate food Luo Binghe made in a proper kitchen, tasting and appreciating every morsel with barely hidden relish if Luo Binghe’s amused look was any sign.
Shen Yuan studiously avoided looking into the Peak Lord’s eyes, and this was the reason he missed the way the man tracked every bite going from his bowl to his lips with precision while he didn’t touch his own portion at all.
It was beyond good food with an almost spicy taste to it that stood out in its complexity.
(It wasn’t a spice, nor an herb.)
It quickly became known along the other peaks that Luo Binghe chose a personal disciple after years of refusing to do so despite the constant urging of his Sect Leader.
Qing Jing Peak already had a head disciple, but Ling Guang wasn’t trained personally by Luo Binghe. Said Peak Lord always guarded his privacy and no one was allowed to bunk near his home, so the fact that he returned with his wayward disciple who was presumed to be dead and he moved the boy into his side room became the hottest piece of gossip in the area.
That meant that in a few days not only the entirety of Cang Qiong but that even the commoners living at the foot of the mountain knew.
Shen Yuan didn’t quite know what his duties were supposed to be if he was a proper personal disciple trained to take over the Peak Lord’s position one day but he didn’t think that was expected from him by Luo Binghe. The man made it absolutely clear that he didn’t intend to make him his successor and Shen Yuan was completely fine with that.
The position of being the master of Qing Jing always brought misery and pain on its Peak Lord and Shen Yuan had no desire to test his luck any further. Shen Yuan often thought he lived on borrowed time. That he couldn’t be as lucky as to have everything he ever wanted dropping like this into his lap. Safety, food, all the books he could read.
As long as he stayed on Luo Binghe’s good side.
So, yes. Shen Yuan was determined not to test the protagonist’s patience by asking questions needlessly, demanding things, or being constantly underfoot.
Luo Binghe took his inelegant shrug as his acceptance and Shen Yuan started serving as his personal disciple.
Only… things weren’t quite what he thought they would be.
Every morning he woke up and stumbled out of his bed trying to simultaneously dress up and get ready for the day without being too late for his morning classes and chores and every morning without fail Luo Binghe would be already up too.
They would eat breakfast together after Luo Binghe helped him tie his clothes properly – as his claws often snagged on the various fabrics - and Shen Yuan left the house just barely before he could be called to be late.
He spent his morning learning from the senior disciples and occasionally Luo Binghe himself when a lesson had to be taught by the Peak Lord himself, he ate with the rest of the inner disciples who still didn’t know what to make of him, and then they had their chores for a few hours. Nothing as hard as he had seen the outer disciples do.
A lot of the inner disciples came from privileged backgrounds… so at least Shen Yuan didn’t look too out of place when he didn’t know how to do something.
After he completed whatever chore he was assigned that week, he did his readings or practiced what he was taught. He usually had an hour or two before Luo Binghe wanted him back home in time for dinner, so he spent that time reading in the library. He would have liked to read everything, but he knew that would be an undertaking that would take centuries if not more.
The library of Qing Jing was massive.
Centuries and hundreds of cultivators built its knowledge into an almost terrifying form.
It was such a shame that it would all be destroyed when Cang Qiong was going to be burned.
By the time he was finished with his daily routine he went back to Luo Binghe’s home and the Peak Lord would serve him dinner that was a hundred times better than whatever they served for lunch in the mess and Shen Yuan would be sent to bed.
Luo Binghe cooked, Luo Binghe helped, Luo Binghe served.
Somehow, Shen Yuan didn’t think that was how things were supposed to be like.
He could understand Luo Binghe cooking for him too, though that was more because he could imagine how picky the protagonist could be. After all, he had been feeding himself for decades and Luo Binghe’s cooking abilities were said to be legendary in the novel. He was.
An actual true master of cooking.
If he lived in Shen Yuan’s old world, he would have been a Michelin starred chef at least - and yeah, Shen Yuan knew that the restaurants got the stars not the people cooking in them, but still. He didn’t have any other comparison he could make other than that.
Shen Yuan would say that if he wasn’t pitted against Luo Binghe and his inhuman mastery, his cooking abilities were rather average. Like many university students before him, he cooked a lot of instant noodles and such, but he fucking knew how to make a few dishes by himself too.
Cooking was more of an art than science and Shen Yuan had always been better at baking where he had strict instructions and measurements.
So, yes, Luo Binghe probably didn’t want to eat Shen Yuan’s sorry attempts at trying to cook with unfamiliar equipment.
He could also understand the helping him tie his clothes thing, it would reflect poorly on him if Shen Yuan looked like a complete slob because he couldn’t tie a knot to save his life with his centimeters long claws on every finger… which also couldn’t be cut and wasn’t that a fun thing to find out?
Shen Yuan was half-convinced that one day he is going to wake up to Luo Binghe trying to give him a manicure with Zheng Yang because the only thing that was even capable of cutting a little bit into the thick keratin covering his fingertips was the Peak Lord’s spiritual sword.
And they only figured that out because, after the training where Zheng Yang glanced off of his claws, they tried to trim his broken nails.
But Luo Binghe absolutely didn’t need to serve Shen Yuan his breakfast, nor his dinner, nor tea during those meals and Shen Yuan didn’t really know how to bring that up. Every time he tried to reach for the teapot or the ladle Luo Binghe would look at him so strangely that Shen Yuan settled back down immediately and let him do whatever he wanted.
And let’s not even talk about doing laundry or cleaning the house or any other chores that personal disciples might have had.
So, Shen Yuan was a personal disciple living next to his Peak Lord who was serving him and didn’t allow him to take over any of the chores.
Needless to say, Shen Yuan was waiting for the other shoe to fall, because this was completely unreal.
While the situation inside the house wasn’t known to anyone outside of Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe, there were a lot of assumptions made even in Qing Jing about him.
The rumors about Shen Yuan’s arrival were vicious especially when it came out that he went from a nobody outer disciple to the Peak Lord’s personal disciple after disappearing for a few months and Luo Binghe having to chase him down.
Nobody knew what happened exactly but everyone had their own versions they liked to tell to anyone who listened to their gossiping so Shen Yuan would hear all kinds of speculations about himself.
It was a careful balance these gossiping disciples had to maintain, they could only besmirch Shen Yuan’s name so anything that would blacken their Peak Lord’s would be out. Luo Binghe’s reputation was an untainted one and nobody dared to throw dirt at him. It wouldn’t even stick at this point, but nobody wanted to earn the ire of their Peak Lord.
But Shen Yuan’s was a free estate compared to that.
Shen Yuan heard a lot of name-callings, he had heard a lot of outrageous stories on what he had been doing for the last few months while away from the sect, each newer one was more scandalous than the previous. Shen Yuan thought it would eventually run its course, that it would all die down and he would be left alone.
The disciples around him might have been older than him, forever young with their developed golden core, but mentally they all seemed like children to him.
This wouldn’t be the first time he was wrong, but it was something that he didn’t want to repeat. It started small at first, almost unnoticeable.
Less food for him during lunch than others, bumping into him as he was walking, an accidental elbow to his ribs when they were learning forms, and so on. A whispered conversation that seemed to have his name but nothing clear.
A scrape there, a bruise here, nothing that would register as anything other than an accident.
It took him a few weeks to see that nothing happening to him was an accident and by then he was sporting an impressive black eye that he got from one of his seniors who accidentally hit him during a demonstration.
“Where did you get that?” Luo Binghe asked the moment he was through the door, his strong hands moving Shen Yuan’s face gently from left to right to take it all in.
“There was an accident during training.” Shen Yuan offered him in the blandest tone he could muster. It was not an accident, it couldn’t be with the spiritual energy pushed into the wound to make it stay, to make it hurt more.
They were learning to be cultivators and in Shen Yuan’s age range everyone had their golden cores or they were in the process of forming them. A bruise like that would hurt, yes, it would leave a mark but it would heal after a few days. Faster if someone had a strong golden core or good foundations.
Shen Yuan was a demon.
He had no golden core and, in a way, his demonic energy was the direct antithesis of a cultivator’s spiritual energy. Blows made with spiritual energy hurt more and they took longer to heal on him.
Luo Binghe let it go, but after that, there were a lot of times when he felt the Peak Lord’s gaze on him. With the added scrutiny of their teacher, the attempts dropped down to almost nothing. That didn’t make Shen Yuan feel safer.
It just made him even more aware of his surroundings whenever he was out of Luo Binghe’s sight. It had been strange how he always seemed to know where the Peak Lord was standing but it became a necessity.
In the end, Shen Yuan was right. The harassment didn’t stop, the bullies tried to find a new way to mess with him. It was bound to happen, Luo Binghe couldn’t always watch over him and it was rather unfortunate that all of this started because of the other disciples’ jealousy of Luo Binghe’s attention being on him of all people.
A nobody from nowhere with nothing.
Shen Yuan got his schedule for several days and he was surprised to see his chore for those days. There was an odd alarm bell in his head but he tried to ignore it. It worked for a few days and he grew complacent.
Chopping wood wasn’t usually a job for the inner disciples, it was usually left for the outer disciples for one or if someone messed up. It was hard work, but luckily Shen Yuan gained some muscles and weight after months of training and eating Luo Binghe’s cooking. Compared to when he transmigrated, his new body was visibly healthier and stronger than ever before.
The head disciple looked at Shen Yuan and offered him a shrug and a few words about how winter was coming so they wanted to help stock up on wood just to be safe.
Shen Yuan took the explanation with a nod and didn’t notice the glint in the senior’s eyes.
He went to his lessons, he ate his lunch, he chopped wood, he went to the library, he went home to Luo Binghe who was frequently absent during the previous week because of a hunt in the North. Shen Yuan was almost worried about him especially when he caught the always collected Peak Lord suppressing a yawn while pushing his food around.
It wasn’t even the yawn that he noticed but rather that Luo Binghe didn’t finish his food.
Luo Binghe never liked wasting food.
Shen Yuan kept his worries to himself and asked the Peak Lord to leave the cleaning to him. Luo Binghe looked over him critically before he shook his head and sent him off to bed like he was a child. Which Shen Yuan was, kind of, but it still stung.
He went to bed even more worried and his sleep suffered for it.
Rinse and repeat.
Lessons, lunch, wood chopping, library, dinner.
Lessons, lunch, wood chopping, library, dinner.
Lessons, lunch, wood chopping, library, dinner.
Lessons, lunch, wood chopping, library, dinner.
Lessons, lunch, wood chopping…
He was in the middle of splitting another log when he felt a strange wobble in the axe that he dismissed. Yanking it out of the log, he placed another piece of wood on the trunk they used as a chopping board and raised the axe before bringing it down. The log didn’t split and Shen Yuan got ready to try again and again until it would.
Some logs took a while, the wood they were from harder or rubberier to chop through.
Shen Yuan assumed that was the case with this log too, not realizing that the issue wasn’t the log.
After the third chop, he went to get out the axe from the wood, straining with all his weight when the axe’s head flew off the handle. Shen Yuan barely managed to move to the side before it hit his face, the sharp edge cutting into his chin, mouth, and nose.
“Fuck!” He shouted in surprise, not feeling the pain at first.
The axe’s handle was still in his hand, while its head was somewhere to his right in the grass. He looked at it and the way his blood dyed the green a dark red. Shen Yuan dropped the handle and raised a hand to his bleeding face, both trying to guess the damage and not wanting to know.
The white of his uniform became red too and Shen Yuan was jolted out of his thoughts by that realization.
“Right,” he mumbled and grabbed the rest of his uniform that he took off when he started chopping. So, they didn’t get sweaty… He had to bite back a laugh, knowing that he was going to get an entirely different kind of body fluid on them because he couldn’t just drip his poisonous blood all over Qing Jing Peak.
It was something of a hassle to light a talisman to burn away his blood on the ground and Shen Yuan barely managed to stop it before the logs went up in flame too. And then he was off to the rainbow bridges to Qian Cao Peak before he realized that was not an option for him.
The healers would realize that he wasn’t a human faster than he could say ‘fuck’.
He turned around to go to Luo Binghe’s house and his room, hoping that the Peak Lord would have some kind of a first aid kit there, no matter how unlikely that was. Luo Binghe wouldn’t need such things, but maybe he had some kind of a pill or medicine on hand that Shen Yuan could safely use.
He didn’t get far.
Luo Binghe slammed his door open and took two steps outside before they saw each other. The Peak Lord’s nostrils were flaring and Shen Yuan ducked his head in instinct trying to avoid his wrath. He didn’t know what put Luo Binghe on a warpath, he had never seen the man so angry before.
With his head down, he didn’t notice him coming close until the Peak Lord lifted his chin and turned his head to stare at the cut. Shen Yuan barely managed to grab his wrists, dropping the bloody cloth to the ground before Luo Binghe’s skin made contact with Shen Yuan’s blood.
“Don’t, Shizun!” He choked out a warning cry and Luo Binghe frowned at him before his expression smoothed over.
Oddly enough, his calmness only made Shen Yuan’s anxiety ratchet up to a dangerously high degree. “What happened?”
“I had… this disciple had an accident during his chores.” It was the wrong answer. The way he echoed this same excuse every time he came home with a new bruise usually made Luo Binghe’s brows tighten and his teeth clench and it wasn’t any different this time.
“An accident?” The question was quiet and calm on the surface. Shen Yuan still felt like it was the echo of a bell over a grave. Whose grave? He couldn’t guess.
He nodded quickly, blood almost flying in his haste before Luo Binghe pressed a tissue against the wound. The fabric was quickly turning red too and Shen Yuan was starting to feel faint. “Yes! The axe’s head just flew off.”
“I see.” While Luo Binghe said that, he obviously didn’t think it was an accident and it made Shen Yuan hesitant too. It was strange.
That right as he was assigned to wood chopping duty, when he was the only one in that spot regularly, using that axe regularly, that something like this would happen.
When he took the axe back to the tool shed every day after carefully checking it for damage. He had seen nothing the previous afternoon.
But it could have been just an accident, he told himself over and over again. Just like every time he had an accident in the last few months.
Luo Binghe watched him carefully before he nodded and Shen Yuan felt the ground disappear under his feet. “Shizun!” He cried out, trying not to get blood on the Peak Lord’s robes.
Luo Binghe carried him inside the house and put him down onto a small stool while disappearing into his room only to return with a few vials and bandages.
It hurt when the older man started to clean his wounds, it hurt when he applied the cream that sped up his healing. “You won’t have much of a scar.”
And despite knowing that, Shen Yuan still felt like shit. “I… This disciple thanks Shizun.”
Luo Binghe waved a hand and put away the salves and didn’t watch as Shen Yuan swallowed down the medicinal pill Luo Binghe handed him when he was finished.
“Now, tell me everything that happened today.”
And Shen Yuan did.
Ling Guang was thrown out of Cang Qiong along with a few other disciples after Luo Binghe talked with Sect Leader Ning.
The axe in the toolshed was also replaced by a new one and the axe that scarred Shen Yuan was whisked away by Luo Binghe and put into his armory. It appeared, that Shen Yuan’s blood and the fire he used to burn it away imbued the metal and now it was poisonous too.
After that rather unfortunate accident, Shen Yuan had been largely left alone. Anyone else who disliked his presence on Qing Jing Peak wisely kept their mouths shut when it became clear that Luo Binghe didn’t care about their families’ power or money when it came to Shen Yuan.
Shen Yuan tried not to worry too much and he had almost the entirety of the Qing Jing’s library at his disposal. He spent a lot of his time reading there after his lessons and a reduced number of chores. The librarians working there watched him with eyes like hawks at first but soon left him alone to do whatever he wanted.
They struck up something of a friendship based on their shared love of the written word… it was fun. Both librarians were ancient even by cultivator standards and Shen Yuan thought they might have been married though one couldn’t guess that based on their explosive arguments.
It was almost cute and Shen Yuan hid his smile behind a scroll he was only pretending to read as the two esteemed cultivators argued about chickens of all things. To be exact, they were arguing about how to rear them so that they would produce the best eggs… neither Qing Jing nor any of the other Peaks kept chickens by the way.
Shen Yuan was sure that this was their version of flirting which was both nauseating because they were older than dirt and adorable because they were older than dirt. Two extremely different emotions, same reason.
Shen Yuan felt something at the edge of his senses and he tilted his head to the side to eye the entrance. Luo Binghe walked in, with an armful of scrolls and Shen Yuan stood up immediately to help him carry them even if the Peak Lord could carry up to a ton or more without breaking a sweat. It was just good manners, Shen Yuan thought, and not because Luo Binghe flashed a small smile at him in thanks.
His Peak Lord rarely smiled outside of their home and each small quirk of his lips made Shen Yuan’s heart beat faster for some reason. He usually dismissed the feeling as heartburn after the luxurious breakfast or dinner Luo Binghe cooked without thinking much further on the topic.
He might have had a dream or two starring Luo Binghe smiling, but he usually forgot about them after waking up vaguely flustered. Once Luo Binghe caught him when he was still flushed after a quick morning bath and he only chuckled and said something about spring dreams.
Shen Yuan had been a teenager once already so he had his fair share of wet dreams and embarrassing crushes. At one point, even the slightest brush of something against his skin could get him horny and he didn’t miss the feeling once he was an adult.
It turned out that no matter how ready he thought he was to be a hormonal teenager again, he wasn’t ready to be a hormonal demon teenager. Especially not a teenager who lived sharing a wall with a cultivator whose hearing was exceptionally sensitive.
He refused to be caught masturbating by Luo fucking Binghe and there was no way in hell he was going to seek relief by spending time with his fellow disciples in a carnal way. It wasn’t because of his demonic blood, which he was getting better at controlling by day, but rather because he could never forget all the bullshit they threw at him when he came back to the sect with Luo Binghe.
Shen Yuan wouldn’t call himself vindictive but he wasn’t the type to easily forgive and forget.
So, no knocking boots with the other disciples and no masturbating in the house when Luo Binghe was there or could show up any second.
There was of course the red-light district too, but Shen Yuan wanted to avoid it. He knew exactly how much a visit like that could cost him in the long run if it got out. Even a pristine reputation couldn’t save the saintliest person when it came to rumors of that nature. And there were a few other points.
It was a hard few years, he had to admit.
But Shen Yuan preserved and Shen Yuan grew.
And all the while Luo Binghe watched over him like he was the carefully cultivated orchid in his little garden.
Shen Yuan wasn’t hiding.
He just retreated strategically while his nemesis left the area he previously occupied then hastily exited once he realized that his traitor of a Peak Lord left him alone with the head disciple of Qiong Ding Peak.
He might have liked Yue Qi if the other disciple wasn’t so dead set on trying to speak with him at every opportunity. Thankfully, he rarely had the opportunity to do so because he was incredibly busy as the head disciple of their leading Peak and Shen Yuan was suddenly incredibly busy every time the other man showed up on Qing Jing Peak.
Luo Binghe found it all amusing; Sect Leader Ning usually giggled behind her hand while the rest of them made bets on when their wedding would be.
If it was up to Shen Yuan only, that wedding would never happen and every one of them who betted against him would die a horrible death.
When he first transmigrated into this world years ago, Luo Binghe tried to feed him that line about his worrying martial siblings. Shen Yuan was quite worried at the time whether there was someone who was close enough to the original to call him out as an impostor but he was safe.
Only he celebrated too soon, it appeared, because there was one person who seemed to be worried about the original and that was Yue Qi. A prodigious disciple coming from nothing too, to rise to the top of Qiong Ding Peak and be the most likely candidate of taking over the sect leader mantle once Luo Binghe’s generation decided to relinquish their control.
Of course, Shen Yuan knew that would never happen.
Cang Qiong would get destroyed before the current Peak Lords would decide to step down.
Since Shen Yuan’s miraculous return and meteoric rise, he had been fending off Yue Qi’s attempts at reconciliation. It turned out that the original was being punished for getting into a fight with him and they also had some previous history before they came to the sect.
Childhood sweethearts, Liu Mingyan crooned with glazed eyes while Shen Yuan was still in hearing range after their monthly Peak Lord meet-up and he couldn’t leave the room fast enough.
Liu Mingyan, famed cold beauty and Peak Lord of Xian Shu liked to write erotica as it turned out. Gay erotica mainly, but she branched out a lot into other fictional settings too.
Nothing in Proud Immortal Demon’s Way ever hinted at her having such a hobby.
There was a light tap on his blanket and Shen Yuan stuck out his head like he was a turtle to look at the only person allowed into the house. Luo Binghe grinned down at him and once again Shen Yuan was struck by the handsomeness of the protagonist.
He was truly a peerless beauty.
“Rough day?” He asked and Shen Yuan remembered that he was angry at Luo Binghe who was a dick of epic proportions and no, Shen Yuan didn’t mean his heavenly pillar this time.
He glared without answering and snuggled deeper into his blanket nest. On the top, there was a red blanket with gold embroidery that Shen Yuan got from Luo Binghe when he turned 18. He didn't know why the Peak Lord gifted him such a thing but he couldn't deny that he loved it. Maybe because it was a gift from Luo Binghe, maybe because it was useful.
He didn't know, he didn't care but he made sure to take good care of it.
“Should I speak with Sect Leader Ning?” Luo Binghe asked idly and Shen Yuan shivered. No, nothing good would come out of it if Luo Binghe spoke on his behalf with Sect Leader Ning on Yue Qi’s behalf, no matter how much Shen Yuan wanted to wash his hands off the entire matter.
He shook his head then closed his eyes at the feel of Luo Binghe’s strong fingers brushing through his feathered hair. Always gently, never pulling. It felt good, but it always did and Luo Binghe rarely did it. Especially as Shen Yuan grew up.
It made sense that he wouldn’t be as tactile as he was when Shen Yuan was younger. There was a difference between patting the head of your disciple when he was 14 and when he was 21.
Not that Shen Yuan had been either of those ages in a long, long time but Luo Binghe didn’t know that. Luo Binghe couldn’t have known that the young demon he brought back to his Peak years and years ago was actually a 20-something transmigrator.
And Shen Yuan had no reason to tell him… though sometimes he wanted to come clean about everything. It was an idea that rattled through his mind occasionally.
“I could.” Luo Binghe offered him once again and it took a second for Shen Yuan to remember what they were talking about. What made Shen Yuan attempt to choke himself in his bedding.
“Thank you Shizun, but this is something that I have to do myself.”
It was only that he didn’t know what to do about Yue Qi. The other man was stubborn as an ox and Shen Yuan was so tired of lying all the time. And yet, it was a lie that kept him safe and alive, so the fight between his guilt and his self-preservation continued on for another day.
Meanwhile, Shen Yuan was so deep in his misery and his blankets that he didn’t notice the dark look passing through Luo Binghe’s face as he sat on Shen Yuan’s bed with his hand on his shoulders.
Shen Yuan couldn’t really go to Qian Cao Peak if he got injured in a way that his accelerated healing couldn’t take care of, so he had to learn how to patch himself up on smaller scrapes.
Luo Binghe helped him learn, he taught him what he knew and when it came to wounds that he couldn’t take care of by himself, his Peak Lord was the first person he turned to.
Over the years, these occurrences became rarer and rarer but Shen Yuan often found himself in the company of Luo Binghe even if his wounds were superficial. The Peak Lord did his paperwork or something similar but Shen Yuan knew that some of his attention was always on his injured disciple. Keeping careful watch and offering a helping hand if Shen Yuan needed one.
“How many of them did you incapacitate this time?” And sometimes he just asked inane questions instead of reading the report submitted to him. Shen Yuan rolled some bandages around his biceps where the sword nicked him relatively deeply. If he was a human, he would have a pretty bad scar because the wound was deep enough to glance off the bone.
He got off lightly compared to that, and by the next day, most of his wounds would be completely gone.
“Only those who deserved it, Shizun.” He could see Luo Binghe make an aborted movement in the periphery of his vision and Shen Yuan stopped spreading a cleaning ointment on the last of his injuries on his thigh. “Are you okay, Shizun?”
Luo Binghe nodded jerkily and Shen Yuan followed his gaze to the wall. There was nothing there, just the same old knick-knacks. Strange, he thought, then went back to rubbing the cream into the wound, folding his pants higher to get easier access. Luo Binghe let out another noise that sounded like a dying animal and Shen Yuan looked at his Peak Lord with some concern.
At his level of cultivation, common cold and other such illnesses shouldn’t be an issue for Luo Binghe, but it could be something else. Shen Yuan put the lid back on the small pot and stood up while cleaning his hand off the paste with a wet rag. He stepped forward and felt the leg of his pants bunch up around his injured thigh. He scowled and wiggled around a bit to get it to fall down properly.
Luo Binghe’s throat must feel horrible, he thought when he heard the Peak Lord choke on his own spit. He went to the kitchen and found a pot of medicinal herbs that would soothe an aching throat. He returned to the room with a full pot of steeping tea and offered one cup to the other man.
Luo Binghe nodded wordlessly and drank it down like he was dying of thirst which made Shen Yuan’s brows furrow, truly worried now. This brew was very bitter and you couldn’t put in honey to sweeten it because that would reduce its effectiveness.
Luo Binghe’s palate had always been more sensitive than others’.
He didn’t have the sweet tooth that Shen Yuan did, yet excessively sweet, bitter, or sour things were always refused with a derisive snort. Usually, the Peak Lord would make a point of serving whatever the thing was at dinner but prepared by his expert hands, flavors now perfectly balanced to please even the pickiest eaters. Not that anyone other than him or Luo Binghe would eat the fruits of the Peak Lord’s labors, but still.
Luckily, Luo Binghe rarely got ill or injured enough that he needed to eat medicine which seldom tasted good.
Shen Yuan put his hand on Luo Binghe’s forehead, feeling the usual heat but nothing that could be called out of the ordinary for the Peak Lord who always ran hotter than other people.
He chuckled at the memory of thinking of him as a space heater and Luo Binghe raised his head in question. “I just remembered thinking that Shizun was warm like a stove when we traveled back from the demon realm.”
Luo Binghe smiled and Shen Yuan’s heart skipped a beat. He tried to remember what they ate for dinner but it was all fuzzy and becoming fuzzier the longer he stared into dark eyes. He let go of the protagonist’s face and turned back to hide how his hands trembled as he picked up the pot to pour another cup.
Maybe he should drink some too because he was starting to think that he was coming down with a fever.
“12 disciples injured, really?” Luo Binghe returned to his reports, grumbling as he was reading through the latest casualty list of the age-old Qing Jing and Bai Zhan rivalry. “Only three of ours? Good job.”
Shen Yuan hid a smile behind his hand wishing that he had one of his fans, but they were all strewn around his room. “All thanks to the guidance of Shizun.” He offered demurely and Luo Binghe released a sound that could be categorized as a snort.
Shen Yuan totally counted it as one.
“My guidance?” He asked with humor in his eyes and Shen Yuan nodded quickly.
“Everything this lowly disciple knows is by the grace of his esteemed Shizun, so, it was only possible because of the guidance of Shizun.”
Shen Yuan widened his eyes trying to look as innocent as he could while that flowery bullshit left his mouth and Luo Binghe had to look away first. It was an old argument; the entire matter of Bai Zhan raids was something they had been arguing about for years by then.
It was an old argument, rehashed hundreds of times already.
It was still amusing, or maybe it was amusing to Shen Yuan because it was a rote they both knew by heart.
Their philosophy in fighting was very different and this was something they realized early on.
Luo Binghe never retreated, he never backed down unless he was forced to stand down. He didn’t believe in withdrawing; he was always fighting even if the fight was hopeless. Shen Yuan on the other hand understood the importance of a strategic retreat, he knew that sometimes a battle must be lost if he wanted to win the war.
Before Shen Yuan took the Bai Zhan raids in his hands, the Qing Jing Peak disciples tried to stand their ground against them, but it was next to impossible for them against the Bai Zhan disciples whose idea of fun was fighting until every one of them ended up in Qian Cao’s care.
Qing Jing was the home of the sect’s scholars and strategists, not exactly the prodigious fighters.
So, Shen Yuan decided to turn their disadvantage into an advantage and since then Bai Zhan has been hit hard for the first time since this whole feud between the two peaks started.
After all, fighting wasn’t just about brawn.
It was a good life.
One could even call it an easy life.
Amidst the learning, the teaching, the getting back at Bai Zhan Peak, Shen Yuan almost forgot that his transmigration happened for a reason.
That he was in the world of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way to fulfill a role.
It was a hard realization.
But for now, things were alright.
Things were not alright.
Shen Yuan didn’t think himself a stupid man, but he had to admit that sometimes he missed obvious things.
It wasn’t always an issue, but it propped up a few times over the years in both of his lives.
Shen Yuan usually managed to work around it with very few issues but yeah, the intricacies of certain situations still slipped his notice. Especially when it came to himself and how others saw him.
“You are not right.”
The voice from the crowd of contestants spoke with surety, clear and cut and Shen Yuan looked around to see what the disruption was about. He didn’t have to look too far; the speaker was standing right next to him.
“Excuse me?” He asked with a raised eyebrow, ignoring the murmuring of his sect mates behind him. Rarely came up a complete stranger from another sect and start making trouble like this with one of the most influential sects with so many people around. “What did you say?”
In Shen Yuan’s opinion, it was because most people tried to avoid offending Cang Qiong or at least avoid obviously offending Cang Qiong. There were a lot of ties between them and the other sects, decades and centuries of traded favors, alliances, and so on.
And then there was the general view that one shouldn’t provoke a sleeping bear… Cang Qiong was the strongest sect around, while Huan Hua was the richest. Both of those facts offered them some leeway when it came to being accosted by others, be it disciples or actual cultivators.
“What?” The young man who stood right next to him asked with a frown and his voice was different from the one Shen Yuan just heard. Shen Yuan looked around trying to find the original one but there was no one else close enough to sound so intimate and everyone else around him he knew.
He would recognize their voices in a heartbeat.
He waved away the disciple wearing the uniform of Tian Yi Overlook, telling him some excuse about hearing something, about making a mistake. The other left without grumbling, going back to his own folk, and Shen Yuan listened to the opening ceremony of the Alliance with half an ear only.
His eyes still searched for someone, but he let it go after a few minutes.
Huan Hua’s Old Palace Master left the stage and soon enough they were all herded through the barrier that separated the arena of the actual competition and the outside world. It was one of the several security measures taken so that no surrounding villages would get caught in a demon stampede or in the middle of a crossfire between the attending cultivators tasked with security and an escaped demon. However unlikely it was that one would get out, even one demon escaping the encirclement could cause a lot of chaos in a human settlement before the cultivators from one of the sects could be called in. Especially if the demon in question was one that bred fast.
Sheer numbers could be just as dangerous as higher intelligence.
Shen Yuan continued looking around trying to catch a glimpse of their Shizun, but Luo Binghe was nowhere to be found. Probably back in the observation platform that Shen Yuan had seen briefly when they’ve arrived.
He tuned back in as the organizers from Huan Hua Palace repeated once more what the rules were. Every group that passed through listened to the whole spiel one more time before they were allowed inside before the gates would be shut down until this part of the tournament ended.
Simply speaking, it was a monster hunt.
Various beasts were released inside for the disciples to hunt down. Every monster killed released a small beastly core that they needed to collect. They got points based on those cores and the highest scoring disciple would be the winner.
Shen Yuan heard whispers that Luo Binghe placed a hefty amount of spirit stones on him, and he was both flattered and nervous at the trust placed in him by the protagonist.
Looking around the same trust shined in the eyes of his peak mates, the rest of their sect attendees converged around Liu Qingge, Bai Zhan’s head disciple. It made sense, Shen Yuan himself would bet on the other boy too by reputation alone.
He smiled at Liu Qingge who scowled back before turning away. His ears were red.
“Oh, so spring is here for the beauty of Bai Zhan too… I wonder who caught his eye.” He mused quietly before shelving the thought and checking on his peak mates. Some of them were already inside and Shen Yuan would be one of the lasts to go in with the other head disciples.
Privately, Shen Yuan thought it was just another attempt of Huan Hua to make sure that they got a head start in the arena while they kept the heavy hitters of Cang Qiong outside a bit longer. Intersect rivalries were sometimes petty and immature, but nobody would say so in the presence of the two most prestigious sects.
That didn’t stop Shen Yuan from sighing and rolling his eyes at the stupidity of it.
It seemed like a simple thing.
‘So, how did it all go wrong?’ Shen Yuan wondered with his broken and bleeding body laid in a gorge as predators and scavengers started circling around him.
Waiting for his death.
It occurred a little too late to Shen Yuan that the Immortal Alliance Conference that year would have had a special significance.
He had read Proud Immortal Demon’s Way fast, almost hyperfocused, but Shen Yuan died before he could finish reading the whole novel. There were a lot of things that he didn’t know and while he had a lot of theories about how the plot would take shape in the future a lot of things got jossed almost immediately.
Shen Yuan knew what world he had fallen into from the first days after his transmigration and yet he was still flying blind about most events.
Conferences happened every few years and while he remembered that something important in Luo Binghe’s journey happened during one of these, he had not arrived at that part yet. He went into it reasonably calm, thinking that there would be a sign?
Something that would tell him, that this was it. The pivotal moment of Luo Binghe’s fall from grace, anything. But no, there was nothing. And in the end, it didn’t matter, because Shen Yuan wouldn’t see what happened next.
He would be too busy healing and then fighting for his life in the Endless Abyss as a storm raged on above him.
Demons fared a lot better than humans in the Endless Abyss, Shen Yuan learned that within minutes after he regained consciousness. After all, he was a lot hardier to blunt force trauma than humans of his age.
From the few disciples from various sects only a few were still alive, some of them were killed on impact, but some of them managed to survive.
Not too long, the critters around didn’t care whether their prey was still alive or not as they tore into them. A few tried to take a bite out of Shen Yuan too, to lap at the blood he spilled on the cold sand, but they died before they could do any real damage to him.
There were only a few spots from where he could bleed out before his healing kicked in and compared to the children wailing around him, Shen Yuan got some of his mobility back a lot faster than they did.
Once he was up and about, he settled on trying to help those who were still alive, shooing away and killing the scavengers and predators he could. Luckily for him, those that didn’t run at the sight of him were few and far between, so he escaped without heavy injuries.
“Demon… demon!” The disciple from Huan Hua Palace, based on her yellow robes whimpered at the sight of him, no matter that he dragged her away from the other carcasses. It wasn’t just her, every survivor called him that no matter if they were delirious with fever or not.
And none of them survived long in the Abyss.
How could they? There was no healer, no medicine, no clear water, or a good meal.
There was something so much more insidious instead.
A miasma hovering over them all. Coating them all.
Eventually, the skin of the survivors flaked away slowly, leaving rot behind. It was disgusting to smell, to watch and it was painful beyond anything Shen Yuan had ever seen. It wasn’t just the skin; he came to find out when the girl from Huan Hua started coughing up blood.
Everything that the air touched suffered the same fate. Skin, eyes, the inside of their nose, their throat, their lungs…
It was an inhuman death and it happened to all the survivors one by one. Shen Yuan watched his own skin obsessively, tried to guess if the feeling in his throat was just thirst or the same illness.
The girl from Huan Hua died last and her voice screaming accusations echoed in his ears for a long time after.
He didn’t know how long he had been there, time passed strangely in the Endless Abyss. There was no Sun, no day, only eternal darkness lit up by a few stars.
Shen Yuan tried not to stare too long up at the sky as there laid madness… he knew that from experience. Once he got lost watching it, entire galaxies were born and entire galaxies died before his eyes, and yet he couldn’t look away.
And then a critter started chewing on his legs, biting out a meaty chunk of him - then promptly dying - and he could finally tear himself away only to find himself almost stuck to the ground.
He could barely free himself from the vines and stone that swallowed his feet up till his calves. He shook himself free of sand, feeling his feathers flutter in agitation too, more of them than before.
He cursed that he could have died a few days later in his original world and then he might have got to the part where Luo Binghe was stuck in the Abyss. That way he might have known how the protagonist got out; he might have figured out a way that Shen Yuan could replicate too.
He could only hope that he accidentally stumbled on a way out because he knew that his days were numbered.
The Endless Abyss was changing him, he could feel it in his bones.
There was something in the air, aside from the wailing coming from before him, something that seeped into his skin, into his body slowly. Any control he might have gained over his demonic appearance was now gone, eroded in the darkness.
Shen Yuan saw the strange beings inhabiting this plane and he knew without a doubt that was his future too. If he didn’t manage to find a way in time, he would never leave.
He would become part of the Endless Abyss too.
He still couldn’t figure out how he fell, but everything was very chaotic at the time, so Shen Yuan figured that he might never know.
However, he could still remember Luo Binghe’s voice calling out for him.
He knew that when he forgot everything, that would be the last memory that would go.
No matter which way he walked, there was only endless sand before him with the occasional fossilized tree or stone worn smooth by the shrieking winds. Shen Yuan knew that the screaming was coming from one direction, and he was determined not to follow it.
He went to sleep once he got tired, bundled up in the robes he took from the dead disciples, but he was always cold. The wind found every little pocket and ice seeped into his bones. He couldn’t remember what warmth felt like anymore.
He missed sunlight.
He missed the greenery around Qing Jing Peak.
He missed the taste and smell of rice.
He missed his Shizun.
He daydreamed about what his Shizun would make of the beasts living inside the Endless Abyss if Luo Binghe would be able to make a delicious meal out of the tough and stringy meat they had. He could probably do it.
There was only walking and sleeping and eating. It was survival, not living though it could be barely even called survival.
His breakdown came suddenly, because of such a small thing, just a stone in his path.
He didn’t see it and his feet snagged on it and he fell, landing on the hard ground and he didn’t even realize at first that he was screaming. It didn’t hurt that much but he couldn’t stop the noises he made nor the tears that he definitely couldn’t spare.
And yet, he couldn’t calm down no matter what he told himself.
After it passed, he lay exhausted on the ground, carding a clawed hand through the mess on his head that was more feather than hair at that point. The cold stung his wet cheeks and he knew that he needed to get up and get going as his tantrum wasn’t quiet.
Shen Yuan hadn’t been face to face with one of those massive beasts yet, but he knew they were out there and he didn’t think he had a chance if he ever did. Luckily for him, they didn’t seem to care too much about him, but he didn’t dare to bet on that not changing. Instinctively he knew that they were predators and there wasn’t much prey in the Abyss.
Except him and the few others he occasionally had seen or fought if one didn’t count the critters. And he didn’t count them, because even for him they barely constituted enough to fill his stomach so small, wiry, and full of bones they were.
He should get up; he thought and watched his dirty claws instead of staring up at the sky. If the yawning Abyss up there looked back at him, Shen Yuan wouldn’t ever leave the Endless Abyss, that much he knew.
He ran a hand over his face, smoothing the ruffled feathers and the dried and irritated skin before he curled up into a tight ball. He didn’t want to go to sleep yet, he got nowhere, but he was exhausted.
What did it matter anyway?
He was starting to think that no matter how long he walked he would never find an edge. He wasn’t even sure where he was going, for all he knew he could have been going in circles all this time.
Just him and an endless stretch of desert and the wailing noises on the wind that he tried to always put at his back. Maybe that was the only reason why he knew that he wasn’t walking in circles. Still.
Shen Yuan heaved himself up and rubbed his eyes with one of the layers closer to his original Qing Jing uniform. Those were relatively cleaner than the others as they were mostly covered by the ragged fabric left from the other uniforms.
He had been walking away from the wailing ever since he had arrived at this plane, and he was nowhere, found nothing.
Not even a proper landmark.
The wailing continued.
Shen Yuan stayed.
He looked in the direction of the noise and with one last glance in the opposite direction, at the same nothingness behind him, he started walking.
He walked and walked and walked. Met nothing and no one.
Same old, same old.
The wailing grew louder once he started going into its direction which might have been a surprise because the volume stayed exactly the same as he was walking away previously. No matter how far he got, it was the same level.
But now it was louder and louder and Shen Yuan’s ears started hurting eventually. By the time the noise was deafening, he saw something strange in the distance. Something red, rhythmically pulsing but not moving otherwise.
He crept closer, keeping low, but nothing attacked him.
Soon enough he realized that the red was from the vines growing out of the ground, thousands of them wrapped into a tight ball. And the wailing came from it. Shen Yuan looked at his claws, slicing through the closest one but even as it fell severed, another took its place in a heartbeat.
The cut of the red vine decayed too, the vivid red giving way to a grey husk. If Shen Yuan blinked, he would have missed the change too, it was so fast.
The wailing picked up in volume once again like whoever or whatever was making the noise knew that someone stood close. It was still not as loud that he couldn’t think but it was certainly distracting enough. Shen Yuan tried talking but nothing helped. There was a push against his leg and he could feel the rusted remains of his sword press into the skin of his thigh through the rudimentary sheath to Xiu Ya.
The blade was a lost cause, most of it had been broken however many weeks or months ago after he fell. It was still useful sometimes though it would never be used as a proper blade again, the miasma made sure of that. It could never be reforged, not even if Shen Yuan was able to leave the Endless Abyss.
When not if, he tried to tell himself that. The sentiment became an empty platitude by then if he wanted to be honest. Some of Xiu Ya’s edge was still there and combined with his claws he could keep down the regrowing vines enough to get a hand inside the growing hole he made.
His hand barely fit inside and he knew that it was beyond reckless to stick his hand into a hole of all things. A large part of him screwed his eyes shut getting ready to lose said hand, to feel the snap of teeth in his flesh but no such thing happened. His fingertips brushed against cold metal and he could barely stop himself from falling over as the vines crumbled away to dust rapidly. His hand was wrapped around a sword’s handle and he blinked in shock a few times.
What just happened, he asked himself while staring at the sword he was gripping. It looked… dirty. Old. With his other hand, he unsheathed it only to see a rusted blade.
“You are not him.” The voice was barely a whisper and Shen Yuan whipped around to see who was talking. It was still only him standing alone in the darkness in the middle of the shriveled vine pile. Nothing moved, and the wailing stopped too.
Shen Yuan thought the sound stopped the exact moment he touched the sword but he couldn’t be sure.
“What are you doing here, brat?” It asked him and Shen Yuan still couldn’t see anyone. And still, the voice continued, intimate like whoever was speaking did it next to his ears. “I’m talking to you! Stop ignoring this Elder!”
It was the sword. The sword spoke and for a second Shen Yuan let that knowledge surprise him before he remembered that it shouldn’t be such a surprise. Granted, by the time he died talking swords weren’t part of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way but maybe things changed after a few hundred chapters. Sentient swords were very much a possibility in the genre, weren’t they? Maybe Airplane added them later.
“Brat! Didn’t your parents teach you that it's rude to ignore your betters when they are speaking to you?!” It was rushed and loud like a shout right into his ears and Shen Yuan cringed away, letting go of the sword. The wailing immediately started up again, only to stop when he touched the rusted blade again.
Or maybe it didn’t stop, just Shen Yuan couldn’t hear it anymore.
“... the nerve! Not only a traitor but a coward too! Oi, oi! Are you listening now, brat?!”
“... Why am I a traitor?” After a few moments of silence but before the sword could restart whatever tirade it went on, Shen Yuan asked the first question that came to his mind.
It sounded like the sword blew a raspberry and Shen Yuan felt almost offended. Almost because he was still mostly completely bewildered by this turn of events. “A traitor is a traitor! This Elder is calling them as they see them!”
Shen Yuan pursed his lips, looking down at the sword. He wanted to drop it, but then the wailing would start again.
(He tested this a few times just to be sure, much to the sword’s ire.)
“Who are you again?” He interrupted the next rant and he simultaneously had the feeling that he was talking with a cranky old person and a cranky toddler.
‘How can a sword splutter?’ He asked in his mind while the sword did exactly that. ‘Why would it splutter, it doesn’t have any lips to make that noise? Or body?’
“You do realize that this Elder can read your every thought, you brat!”
Shen Yuan barely managed a wince at the pure outrage he could hear and started to reconsider dropping the sword and just walking away. Even if that would just hurt his ears once more. “Once again, who are you?”
“This Elder is the one and many, the beginning and the end…” The sword spoke, and Shen Yuan could only blink at the mystical babble. It was cool and Shen Yuan would appropriately fanboy or freak out if he wasn’t beyond exhaustion. But now he could barely muster up mild curiosity. “... a demon of heart.”
“Xin Mo?” Shen Yuan asked after a few seconds of silence realizing that the sword finished speaking and was waiting for a reaction from him. The name was familiar, though Shen Yuan couldn’t remember why. It was an important name; he was sure of that.
He just didn’t know why was it important.
“Xin Mo? Good enough.” The sword agreed to the name with a strange echo in its voice. “Now start walking towards your right.”
It was a good idea. Xin Mo was a sword yes, an old and rusty sword, as such it couldn’t wield itself. But it had its uses, namely, pretty much everything avoided them.
It was a double-edged sword though because it also meant that any prey alive in the Abyss avoided him too, which made hunting nearly impossible. It wasn’t the noise, though Shen Yuan couldn’t know for sure that Xin Mo continued to wail because as long as he was touching the sword, he couldn’t hear it.
It was almost anticlimactic the way he (they) got out from the Abyss. It was a day like any other, Shen Yuan woke up from a fitful sleep, Xin Mo was its usual charming self, they argued while he walked and they met nobody.
It would have been like any other day except for one thing.
Shen Yuan ran into something.
He sat on the sand, one hand still clutching the chatty sword that went suspiciously silent while the other held his smarting nose. It was bleeding but it wasn’t broken as far as he could tell and there was nothing that he could see. He lifted the hand that was wet with his blood and touched something.
His blood smeared on seemingly thin air. Glass maybe?
“Good!” Xin Mo’s exclamation caught him by surprise and Shen Yuan couldn’t suppress the flinch. “It’s as this Elder remembered.”
What? Shen Yuan didn’t have to ask, the sword answered like it heard anyway. It probably did. “Look at it carefully, kid. This is going to be our way out.”
Shen Yuan stared up at the bright sky, blinking blearily up at the eye-searing blue and the blinding white clouds. It was picturesque.
A perfect sunny day.
His eyes watered, they hurt so much and he could feel the start of a headache beating around inside his skull. The Abyss among many other things had been dark and he got used to it.
And still, he couldn’t take his eyes away from the sight.
Xin Mo was staying quiet, which might have been suspicious at any other time as the sword loved to hear its own voice but for once Shen Yuan thought that he could ignore it. No matter how much of a ruckus it made.
The loud rumble of his stomach interrupted his appreciation of the sky and he felt hunger like nothing he had ever felt before.
He spent the rest of the day hunting for food.
Once his needs were all met, Shen Yuan sat on the forest floor idly scratching at his feathered cheeks. Xin Mo was still silent at his side, the sword popped up against a tree trunk, with Shen Yuan’s other hand loosely curled around its scabbard to keep some contact just in case.
It was strange how quiet it was.
If it didn’t speak up once when he got back to this realm, he would have started thinking that the sword could only communicate in the Abyss. But no, this silence was almost willful, and the longer it went on, the more Shen Yuan felt that something was wrong.
“Xin Mo?” He asked and there was only silence.
He didn’t think he could hate the silence so much.
He tried a few more times, but the sword didn’t answer.
Maybe it went to sleep, Shen Yuan thought with a small frown while staring up at the green canopy over his head. The sky peeked through the small holes between the leaves and branches and it felt nice. Of course, Shen Yuan knew that he couldn’t stay there forever.
He had to find out what to do now that he was free of the Abyss, that he had his life back. But did he? The question almost haunted him. Back when he was in the Abyss, he had only thought about getting out before his time ran out and the Abyss consumed him. He didn’t even dare to think about what he would do once he was out and away and because of that, he had absolutely no idea what to do now that it happened.
What did he want to do?
It would be nice if he had a safe place to stay, good food, and all the books to read he could ever want. If there was someone who would care for him, with whom he could talk whenever he wanted. He thought he could be alone but the time he spent alone in the Abyss disproved that.
There was a voice inside him that whispered about how at Qing Jing Peak, in Luo Binghe’s territory he had all of that.
Yes, Shen Yuan thought. Qing Jing Peak had all of that but could he go back there as he was? He looked like a demon more than ever and it took him years to gain enough control to appear mostly human without Luo Binghe’s spells. And he had no idea how much time has passed since he fell into the Abyss… for all he knew it could have been entirely possible that it has been years, maybe decades.
He could have been already forgotten by his peak mates, by his peak lord. Just one of the many fallen disciples mourned for a day or two then forgotten for eternity. He had to remember, that this was a novel. A novel that had thousands of chapters, a novel that he didn’t finish reading, a novel that by its genre probably had hundreds if not thousands of supporting characters who helped or hindered the protagonist.
Maybe Shen Yuan was just a drop in the ocean that was Luo Binghe’s immortal life.
That thought hurt a lot more than he thought it would for some reason.
“Go North.” Xin Mo’s voice was soft, missing the sword’s usual boisterousness, but Shen Yuan didn’t care about that in his happiness that it spoke. And then the words sunk in.
Xin Mo repeated those two words and nothing else and Shen Yuan sat there puzzled for a while. His best guess would be that the sword heard his musings about his future and offered him an alternative. Going North could mean safety, there were enough mountains that he could claim one and build himself a home. He didn’t spend the last years under Luo Binghe’s tutelage doing nothing… He could survive. He could possibly build himself a cottage.
Abruptly he realized that he was much better off than he was back when he first transmigrated. He wasn’t a scared kid who knew nothing about this world, who had no idea how to defend himself. With that realization fueling him, Shen Yuan stood up, tied Xin Mo to his side, and set off towards the North.
He had at least an idea now and that was enough for the time being.
There were a lot of things that Luo Binghe regretted.
Once upon a time, decades and decades ago when he was just a disciple learning under the previous Qing Jing Peak Lord, their Shizun said something that he wouldn’t forget possibly ever.
Cultivators were human and humans failed. If one wanted to survive, they had to learn from their failures and try not to repeat them if they had a choice.
Luo Binghe lived a long life, he had successes and failures and many things that he wished he did differently. Events where he could have changed things if he was just a bit faster, stronger or smarter.
Or if he was just less of a coward.
Whenever he managed to fall asleep, he would remember his disciple’s wide eyes, his Xiao Yuan’s wide eyes as he fell into the Abyss. As Shen Yuan reached out towards him, only to be met with empty air because Luo Binghe was a fucking coward.
He could have done something.
He could have done something.
He could have saved Shen Yuan… but that would have meant revealing himself.
Luo Binghe knew without a doubt that Shen Yuan forgave him for his role in his fall.
But could Luo Binghe forgive himself?
Seasons came, seasons went.
Shen Yuan got used to living in the mountains again after a while.
He was thankful to wake up each day and see green forests, wildlife, and blue skies. He made himself a cottage, small and simple, and filled it with things he found on his daily walks.
An odd feather, a shining stone, anything that caught his interest, not just herbs and other useful stuff. He had a pretty large selection of those too, his 'pantry' was full of preserved or frozen meat and the bounty from the forest.
His control over his demonic form got better. Not enough to go into a city but he dared to visit the nearest settlement to trade in the winter when it wouldn't be strange to see a man covered almost head to toe.
Everyone else was wearing warm clothes, furs too; he wasn't special. Of course, his chosen dress of style hid the more eccentric signs of his origins.
Nevertheless, he tried avoiding spending too much time there and only visited rarely. Every once in a while though, he spent a few hours listening to the latest gossip… not that anything he heard was up-to-date or accurate in his little corner of the world. Rumors tended to get warped by more than time and distance there.
Each retelling changed something until nothing was recognizable anymore. They made mountains out of molehills and left out the most important elements.
There was always a lord who got accused of preferring the concubines over his main wife, there was always a young man who came back from certain death to win back his true love.
The storytellers weren't much better but Shen Yuan learned to take his comforts in whatever way he could.
It was a rather lonely life at first, especially with Xin Mo going into hibernation. Shen Yuan had no idea why and he had no idea what to call the fugue state other than hibernation so there it was. Each day he woke up - and he was at home - he would press a finger against the scabbard only to feel Xin Mo the same as the day before.
Aside from his sword, he eventually made a friend too.
If a bird could be counted as a friend if what they had could be counted as a friendship. A few weeks in, Shen Yuan started noticing that he had a new shadow.
Every time he went out to check the snares for small game, some kind of a black bird was following him. He dubbed it a raven and largely left it alone after becoming sort of sure that it was truly just a bird and not like a demon. After that, he made it a point to throw some food when he was outside. Soon enough, the raven was a permanent addition to his home as it made itself comfortable in the trees surrounding his shabby, little cottage.
One day Shen Yuan woke up to double the amount of cawing and he looked out to check what the racket was about… and then he had two bird friends.
Was this normal raven behavior? Did they have mated pairs? He had no idea and no way to look them up, so he just shrugged and let them be.
(Soon enough there were eggs and little chicks who were one of the ugliest sights Shen Yuan had ever seen and they were still the cutest too.)
He was essentially one of those hermits living on a mountain and eschewing connection with the mortal folk… though not on a whim but rather for a very good reason.
It would be easy to say that his life was peaceful and happy. He had food, he was warm, nobody tried to kill him in months.
Still, Shen Yuan frequently found himself looking towards the South.
He wondered how they were? Did they mourn him? Did they have a funeral for him?
How was Luo Binghe? Did he have a new head disciple? A personal disciple like him? Did he start on his path to become the ruthless tyrant he would become?
Did he fall from grace already?
Was he happy?
Some days the urge to just grab Xin Mo and go South was almost physically painful… he still didn't go.
It was like any other day. Shen Yuan woke up early, blinking a few times blearily, trying to figure out what exactly woke him up when the earthquake struck again.
Everything shook around him and Shen Yuan mourned his poor mugs that fell and broke. They were a bit lumpy, but he didn't have the necessary equipment to make them look perfect. Still, they were his and it would be a pain in the ass to replace them. It wasn't like he had easy access to a kiln to fire whatever dishware he wanted.
There was another tremor and Shen Yuan realized that this was no earthquake or at least not a normal one.
He dressed hastily and he stood outside for a second, trying to figure out the source. He just had to look from where the animals and beasts were running from and there, he saw him.
The Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak was fighting something and to Shen Yuan, it looked like he was losing. There was a second where he fell and the Moonshine Steel-Clawed Panther stood on his chest with its jaw preparing to bite down on his vulnerable neck, uncaring of the arm in his way and Shen Yuan moved without thinking.
Luo Binghe hissed from the pain as the enraged beast finally bit through the enforced hide of his armguard and Shen Yuan barely registered the distance shrinking between the other man's vulnerable skin and the metallic teeth as he barreled into its side.
The panther was almost as surprised as Shen Yuan was to be so easily unbalanced but Shen Yuan recovered much faster than it. A fraction of a second later, he and the beast were both several steps away from the prone body of Luo Binghe.
Shen Yuan almost slipped on the blood covering the ground around the unconscious cultivator while he placed himself between the panther and his old teacher. He didn't have to look to know that Luo Binghe still lived, he could hear his heartbeat even if it was a lot fainter than what Shen Yuan would be comfortable with in any other situation. Anyways, he didn't dare to take his eyes off of the prowling beast that seemed to be limping even if it was trying not to show it.
Shen Yuan's eyes narrowed realizing that his little push might have been stronger than he first thought. He hadn't fought much since he got out of the Abyss… the corruption of the void still lingering in his body has been enough of a deterrent so far for most animals and beasts not to fight him.
Things tended to flee when faced with him. There was a pressure in Shen Yuan's head and his hand jerked a bit. He glanced down only to come up short when he saw that he brought Xin Mo with himself. He didn't really remember grabbing the sword because he usually left it at his home on the sword stand. It wasn't like he could use the sword properly… he couldn't even unsheathe it anymore since they got out of the Abyss.
When he tried asking it, there was only a hum but nothing else. No boasting words of wisdom, no annoying one-liners.
Nothing that he got used to in the Abyss, his only and constant companion in there. Just silence and silence and even more silence.
But now, the sword started reacting again. Strange, but given the situation, not entirely unwelcome.
Shen Yuan drew out the rusted blade, his mind already running through the inventory of tools he would need to clean the sword, and the panther seemed to hesitate before it started growling.
An animal that wanted to kill didn't growl.
An animal that wanted to kill made no sound because sounds like that were warnings. Sounds like that gave away positions, sounds like that revealed vulnerabilities.
An animal that wanted to kill made no sound because that would alert their prey to their presence and the possibility of a fight instead of a clean and quick kill was a risk to the predator. Injury, loss of food, loss of energy that could be used for something better. The predators that Shen Yuan had seen on this mountain had been one of the laziest creatures he had met in this world so far.
Shen Yuan didn't back down, he didn't relax. The panther had a certain stillness to it that Shen Yuan always associated with an animal planning to pounce again. He never had a pet before but he could remember seeing cats hunt before. And despite the fancy name and its otherworldly appearance, this beast was just a very big cat after all.
Posturing, that was what it was doing, trying to make itself seem bigger so that its kill – and most likely its dinner – wouldn’t be taken. Unfortunately for it, that was exactly what Shen Yuan wanted to do.
He didn’t know how such a beast got the drop on Luo Binghe who was the protagonist. Shen Yuan couldn’t figure it out, no matter how hard he tried.
However, he didn’t have much time to contemplate how any of this could have happened, not when he was in the middle of a staring match with something that almost killed the protagonist. The very much overpowered protagonist. Shen Yuan thought an enemy like that required all of his concentration.
Xin Mo in his hand vibrated almost and Shen Yuan could feel his own demonic nature respond. There was something else too on the edge of his senses, but the almost disconcerting way he could feel his own features shift took up most of his attention. His claws sharpened, the feathers all along his hand started to gain a sheen that looked like an oil spill. Something dripped from his body and he didn’t dare to look.
The panther’s whiskers quivered as its nostrils flared scenting the air. Barely a second later, it slunk away with its tails between its six legs.
Shen Yuan scratched his head, smearing some of the Abyss-given miasma into his hair. It didn’t bother him, not anymore, but he had spent so much time with it in the Endless Abyss that it seeped into his skin, changing him.
Now, the miasma was just another fucked up thing about him like his appearance or his blood. It still made things harder whenever he had to touch something or someone that couldn’t handle the miasma like him and Xin Mo… not that he had to do that much in his self-imposed exile. He looked at Luo Binghe’s prone body, wiped the black fluid on his palm and arms into his clothes – Shen Yuan’s not Luo Binghe’s – and then bundled up the man as much as he could so that his skin couldn’t touch Shen Yuan’s directly.
He didn’t notice the small streak of black he accidentally brushed against the cultivator’s throat, nor did he notice when the miasma was absorbed without any issues. There and gone again and no one was any wiser.
Shen Yuan took back his precious cargo to his small hut, placing Luo Binghe carefully on his cot after carefully sweeping away all of the pillows and blankets he managed to make and use as a nest.
Luo Binghe was still as beautiful as he ever had been, unchanged and pristine even with some of his clothing torn and dirt clinging to him. Shen Yuan knew he was alright, that he was only sleeping. Most of his wounds had already healed but the Moonshine Steel-Clawed Panther had a very powerful sleep-inducing toxin in its saliva. It also liked its meat fresh, still living, which wasn’t a coincidence.
And there was him, standing vigil over his old teacher’s body. He sat in his door, keeping a watchful eye on the horizon; he didn’t even know what he was watching out for. Maybe for a horde of cultivators from Cang Qiong ready to slay the beast that had taken their own.
He chewed on a handful of nuts from a small clay bowl. It was chipped like most of his cookware, but he liked it. If he squinted, he could have sworn that part of its glazing looked like a cucumber. It always made him smile, remembering his old username.
Shen Yuan spent the next few hours keeping an eye on Luo Binghe while also keeping a watch and making some tea. He didn’t have proper tea leaves, he couldn’t justify the expense weighed against everything else he still needed, but there was an abundance of mint a few minutes away in a clearing, so Shen Yuan could drink his mint tea without any guilt whatsoever.
“What… where am I?” The groggy voice might have been a surprise if Shen Yuan hadn’t been acutely aware of Luo Binghe’s heartbeat and breathing change before he woke up. It was still not enough time for Shen Yuan to gather himself, but he was starting to think that no amount of time would be enough for that.
“In the North, Peak Lord Luo.” Shen Yuan didn’t know how to address him. He knew that he most likely lost the right to call the man Shizun but Luo Binghe was still someone who was obviously above him in prestige and rank. Shen Yuan was just a demon who masqueraded as a human and now Shen Yuan was just a demon who couldn’t hide what he was to save his life.
Luo Binghe’s eyes snapped to him, more red than black and Shen Yuan’s breath caught in his throat at the desperation he could see in their depths.
“A-Yuan? Is that you, A-Yuan?”
Oh, Shen Yuan thought.
It turned out that Luo Binghe searched for him, that Luo Binghe didn’t think him a failure.
There were no tears shed when they reunited, nor did they say much in the first few hours.
The venom of the panther dragged Luo Binghe back down to sleep quickly and it didn’t let him go for several days because Shen Yuan didn’t want to bleed him. It was so much easier to just let him sleep it off even it took longer than trying other methods to flush it out of his bloodstream.
He was already shrugging it off a lot faster than Shen Yuan remembered from a bestiary in Qing Jing’s library, but it has been some time he read that. He could have been remembering certain details wrong as Luo Binghe’s quick recovery was any indication.
“What happened to you?” The question still hurt, no matter how much Shen Yuan knew that it was coming nor how he braced himself for it. Only an idiot would not notice the difference in him compared to anyone else around.
He couldn’t even pass a simple demon anymore, not with the Abyss still clinging to him after making its nest inside his bone marrow.
Shen Yuan took his time cleaning off the utensils he used to feed Luo Binghe who was still mostly on bed rest. They just had lunch, or well, Luo Binghe had lunch while Shen Yuan fed him spoon by spoon. It was just some watery congee, the best he could make it with his limited supplies and with Luo Binghe needing something simple.
It was still not up to standards, but there wasn’t much distaste on the cultivator’s face when he took the first or the second bite. Shen Yuan felt oddly relieved at that.
“What do you mean, Peak Lord Luo?” He tried stalling; however, he knew that it was useless. Luo Binghe let out a sound that could only be described as a snort.
“A-Yuan.” The name was said like a reprimand and Shen Yuan had to turn away, afraid to see something on Luo Binghe’s face that he wasn’t yet ready to see. This entire conversation was something that he wasn’t ready to have.
He didn’t want to tell the story of his time in the Endless Abyss nor what he had been doing since he escaped from the void. He didn’t want to answer the inevitable question of why he didn’t try to find Luo Binghe, not when he couldn’t even tell the honest answer to himself.
“A-Yuan, what happened to you?” It was still so gentle, with layers of pain and sadness that Shen Yuan could barely sense in the question. It still hurt.
He couldn’t look at Luo Binghe. He couldn’t look and he couldn’t answer and he couldn’t lie to him.
“… Can we talk about this later?” Shen Yuan managed to ask in a small voice and he could feel Luo Binghe’s eyes on him even if he didn’t dare to look at the cultivator.
“Of course. Would you like to hear about your martial siblings?”
Shen Yuan nodded with his head still down feeling only gratefulness while Luo Binghe told him stories about Qing Jing Peak and the rest of the sect.
It was peaceful, it was calming. It was warm.
It was everything Shen Yuan wanted.
“Standing in the Abyss was like being trapped in a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from.”
“Did it hurt?”
“Yes, but not in the way you think so…” He stopped trying to figure out how to say what he wanted to say. Luo Binghe waited in silence, handing him another bundle of herbs to tie up. “The physical pain of it faded away after a while. No, that’s not true. It was always there, I just stopped feeling it after a while.”
“What about the others?”
“Did anyone else survive in there?”
Was it just you who lived?
Did you kill those disciples who fell in with you?
Of course, the last two questions were only in Shen Yuan’s mind. Luo Binghe would never ask such a question, Luo Binghe would never imply such a question.
“No, the Abyss corrupted or killed everything else eventually.”
Shen Yuan was coming to find that Luo Binghe didn’t care much about what Shen Yuan had to do in the Abyss to survive. The Peak Lord only cared that he did.
There had been no judgment at any part of his story that he choked out in the darkness of the night in the isolation of his little hut.
“The only thing I met with any sort of sentience was Xin Mo.”
When Shen Yuan came back from checking the snares in the forest for any game, Luo Binghe was waiting for him in the doorway and staring at his family of ravens. Shen Yuan looked too for a cursory moment before looking at Luo Binghe who reached out the moment he was within his reach.
“Good morning. Did you know that some of your birds have three legs?”
Shen Yuan froze from his spot at being tucked into Luo Binghe’s side looking over his ravens with a critical eye. He could see the chicks and their three legs and then he saw the way the biggest raven of them shuffled before them. From its plumage, a third leg came to stand on the nest too and Shen Yuan huffed in amusement.
So, not simple ravens then. Good to know that he had been playing host to a bunch of Three-Legged Crows.
“No, I didn’t realize that. Now a few things make a lot more sense about them.” Shen Yuan couldn’t see Luo Binghe’s face from his position – he was woefully short compared to the cultivator - but he could feel the quiet laugh reverberate through him. Luo Binghe always smelled of sandalwood and jasmine and something almost spicy that Shen Yuan could taste in the air. It was a scent that Shen Yuan associated with safety and happiness for a long while now.
“You could control them.” Luo Binghe mused out loud, ignoring the largest crow giving him a stink eye at the suggestion. “Your demonic heritage would most likely allow something like that.”
Shen Yuan shrugged in answer. “I don’t want to control them.”
If he took that step if he tried to use some kind of a mostly dormant power of his bloodline that Luo Binghe seemed to think he had and he succeeded, the crows wouldn’t be the same anymore. Shen Yuan wouldn’t be the same anymore.
He didn’t want to exert control over another being’s life and mind in such a way.
Even the mere possibility was upsetting and Shen Yuan pressed his face briefly into Luo Binghe’s body to feel some of that tranquility again. Luo Binghe said nothing about it and maybe Shen Yuan should have wondered why the Peak Lord allowed him such liberties. He didn’t allow himself to linger on that question.
He often felt like he couldn’t get enough of Luo Binghe’s close proximity like he also couldn’t get enough of Luo Binghe’s touch. Shen Yuan made sure that he didn’t show how much he craved those things. Just like how much he wanted to hoard Luo Binghe’s smiles and laughs to himself.
It would only hurt more to be left alone once the cultivator decided he wanted to go back to Cang Qiong. Even if Shen Yuan wanted to follow him with every fiber of his being, he couldn’t do that. He didn’t have to be told explicitly that he had been outed as a demon during the Immortal Alliance Conference before everyone to know that he had no place in Cang Qiong anymore.
Luo Binghe didn’t tell him outright what happened but he still slipped up and Shen Yuan could put two and two together when he combined those little slips of the tongue with his own fragmented memories.
When the Abyss opened during the Conference and the beasts who gathered up around the crack came pouring out, some of the Abyss’ influence also slipped through. Shen Yuan, who had been on the edge of a cliff was too close to the opening and he got the full brunt of it. He wasn’t a cultivator with spiritual energy coursing through his veins, but he had a few objects on him imbued with spiritual power, like the charm that Luo Binghe insisted he wore since they found each other in the demon realm.
So, the Abyss burned through the charm, shattering the jade, and then it turned toward the disciples close to him. It shouldn’t have been an issue, back then Shen Yuan had more control than ever over his demonic self but such close proximity to the Abyss made him mess up and there was no charm to hide behind.
He had been pushed into the Abyss and Luo Binghe arrived too late.
Shen Yuan’s last memory of the event was indeed Luo Binghe’s cry of his name.
It was also clear to Shen Yuan that Luo Binghe did blame himself for his fate. It was a bit blurrier for exactly what? Luo Binghe didn’t push him down personally, Luo Binghe didn’t call him a demon and did nothing as he was pushed in the Abyss.
Ah, Shen Yuan thought the night he remembered that part. That was it.
Still, Shen Yuan didn’t know how to broach that realization.
He would have to do it eventually, one day, but that day hasn’t arrived so far. For now, everything was peaceful.
It was almost off how easily they got settled back into their weird domesticity. Luo Binghe didn’t seem to be in much hurry to leave and Shen Yuan wasn’t in much hurry to bring the subject up. He liked his quiet nights and mornings with Luo Binghe.
He always liked spending time with the man even when he was his Shizun and Shen Yuan his disciple.
That didn’t mean that they didn’t clash at times.
They were two very different people, with very different world views and pasts. Secrets that they couldn’t quite tell for one reason or another. All of those, their pasts, and their presents shaped them to be what they were at that moment.
Sometimes that meant that one thing which seemed like a foregone conclusion to Shen Yuan didn’t even cross Luo Binghe’s mind and vice versa. When they were teacher and student they still argued, often with Shen Yuan getting what he wanted despite the fact that Luo Binghe was the Lord between them. They both bent, always found a solution that they could both live with.
Thinking back, Shen Yuan had to admit that his victories were small things while Luo Binghe had his way in more important matters. It wasn’t that Shen Yuan was helpless or mistreated, often he just didn’t have all the necessary information to make a truly informed decision. Luo Binghe did.
Shen Yuan forgot how much older the cultivator was but, in those memories, he felt like something utterly alien.
But now Shen Yuan had been fundamentally changed too.
Their first big argument had been about Xin Mo of all things.
It started raining and they were both staying in because of that. They wouldn’t get a cold, neither of their constitutions was weak enough for that but also neither of them wanted to be out in the downpour.
Shen Yuan was mending an old shirt badly and Luo Binghe meditated on the bed. It was peaceful, it was quiet; only their soft breathing and the sounds of rain broke the silence. Right until it wasn’t.
Shen Yuan pricked his finger on the bone needle, a drop of blood welling up before the wound closed. And that was when all hell broke loose because Xin Mo went absolutely ballistic.
Luo Binghe reared back like he was struck when the shrieking started and Shen Yuan winced in sympathy at having his meditation interrupted in such a way from so close. That must have been like having a train horn blasting in your ears out of the blue.
Shen Yuan scrambled up from his spot in front of the fire, hurling himself at the wailing sword, almost falling over the rickety chair that was in his way. Luo Binghe grabbed Xin Mo and the noises stopped like they were cut off.
Only Shen Yuan’s harsh breathing and Luo Binghe’s more mellow one could be heard instead. Shen Yuan righted the chair in a hurry and then he hesitated once he was a step away from Luo Binghe and Xin Mo. Luo Binghe… Luo Binghe didn’t look too good.
He had a very tight grip on the sword, the sheath almost cracking from the force he was exerting. His eyes were wide open, more red than black and there was a tick in his jaw from clenching his teeth so hard. Shen Yuan placed one hand lightly on Luo Binghe’s fist and waited.
The cultivator blinked once, then twice before he released a shuddering breath. Shen Yuan withdrew his hand only to get caught by his wrist before he could get too far. “Why do you have this… thing?”
It was more of a demand than a question with layers of emotions too complex for Shen Yuan to recognize them all. There was anger too, but worry and fear and something else were under it, fueling it in a way.
“I… what? What thing, do you mean Xin Mo?” Shen Yuan asked, confused first but also feeling some trepidation too.
“Did you name that? Did you name this damned demon sword that, Disciple Shen?” The grip tightened around his wrist and it was starting to get uncomfortable. Painful, really.
Shen Yuan felt his eye twitch. “Luo Binghe, let go of my hand.”
“Did you or did you not?” There was something wild in his eyes and Shen Yuan felt his feathers move. He knew that if he was looking in the mirror, his face wouldn’t have been called pretty.
He was a demon and an adult. He wasn’t a disciple playing around at being a human anymore and he hadn’t been that for a long time. He wasn’t the frightened child that Luo Binghe met years and years ago. “Luo Binghe.” He said with an eerie stillness. “Let go of my hand. Right now.”
The cultivator did immediately, with a brief flash of confusion. He also looked down at his hand that had Xin Mo halfway out of its sheath. Only, the sword was different from what Shen Yuan could see. Gone as the rusty blade and in its place, there was a bright shine. Luo Binghe dropped the sword to the floor and the sound of it was almost an echo in Shen Yuan’s head.
“Why… why do you have that sword?” Luo Binghe’s voice broke in the middle of the question and Shen Yuan was already reaching for their pitcher of water to give him a cup. “Why would you make a deal with it?”
Shen Yuan watched him drink the water and thought about his answer. Why did he make a deal with Xin Mo? “Because I had no choice.”
“You always have a choice.” It was harsh. It was the truth, though it was a somewhat naïve one. Luo Binghe wasn’t in his place, Luo Binghe didn’t live his life. Luo Binghe didn’t have his experience just as Shen Yuan didn’t have his. “You brought it to this world, allowing it to taint you.”
Shen Yuan couldn’t help but scoff. “It did nothing that the Abyss didn’t do already. It was either a deal with Xin Mo or dying in that void.”
Luo Binghe looked like he was breaking apart right before his eyes and dissolving into thin air. Like Shen Yuan was something unknown suddenly. “It tricked you.”
“It didn’t trick me, Luo Binghe. It wanted to get out of the Abyss, I needed to get out of the Abyss. We both got what we wanted; it was a fair deal.”
Luo Binghe looked at him like he was seeing him for the first time and Shen Yuan tried not to let is show how much that hurt him. To see the man he cared for look at him like he was some stranger. He didn’t want to hear any more; he didn’t want to look at him and wonder if this was it.
The day he would be left alone again.
So, he went outside and stayed there for the rest of the day. And when night came, he put on his big boy pants and went inside to speak with Luo Binghe.
No good would come from allowing such things to fester in silence for too long, after all.
Shen Yuan was going through his stores in the back, thinking about digging another cellar so that come winter he would have an easier time than the previous years. He went back to the hut where Luo Binghe was stirring a pot of something.
He looked both strange among Shen Yuan’s slapdash kitchen with its chipped mugs and ugly dishes and right at home. Luo Binghe had always been like that, he adapted to his surroundings in every way he could.
Be it the meeting of Cang Qiong Peak Lords, eating the occasional lunch with his disciples, showing villagers what they wanted to see when they were scared. Cooking restaurant-worthy dishes in Shen Yuan’s little hut dressed in a mix of Shen Yuan’s and his clothing. Just that should have been ridiculous on any other man… on Luo Binghe, it looked like he walked out of a fashion show.
He could make a burlap sack look good, so, it wasn’t much of a stretch that even worn and old clothing was not a challenge to his brilliance. For real, he had to borrow Shen Yuan’s only spare pair of pants and Luo Binghe was more than a head taller than him. His legs were longer, the pants were too short.
Shen Yuan felt like dying every time he saw his ankles flash. He couldn’t help but feel like it was something scandalous, like something that he wasn’t supposed to see and he had no idea why. He never thought that he had any kind of a foot fetish.
It probably wasn’t that, he came to the conclusion as he looked Luo Binghe over another time, ignoring the warmth in his cheeks as he saw the man in his clothing.
Luo Binghe had always been this untouchable and composed figure in his mind. Even when they were sort of living together in the past, Shen Yuan could count on one hand how many times he had seen the Peak Lord less than perfectly dressed. Not even in the biggest heatwaves or the longest trainings has Luo Binghe ever shed a layer or has shown skin. Never a hair out of place.
In a way, Shen Yuan thought the man’s clothes were his armor in a metaphorical sense too. And sometimes that thought made Shen Yuan stop and think for a bit.
Because why did Luo Binghe need something like that? What secret was he hiding?
These days, in his little hut in the middle of nowhere far away from proper civilization and other concerns, Luo Binghe relaxed. And Shen Yuan frequently found himself choking on his own spit at each inch of revealed skin. If he didn’t know any better, he would have thought that Luo Binghe was doing it deliberately.
But he did know better.
Why would Luo Binghe want him in that way when he could have anyone else?
They went into town a couple of days later, agreeing that they needed more clothes for Luo Binghe.
“We should get another bed too,” Luo Binghe told him while they browsed one of the only stalls offering clothing. “Yours have been a bit too cramped lately.” The merchant girl spluttered and went red and Shen Yuan looked at her in concern from under his hood.
Luo Binghe took over his bed and Shen Yuan made himself a new one from the remaining furs and his pillows next to the fire. It wasn’t a proper bed, but Shen Yuan slept in worse places. A lot worse. He could deal with being a little uncomfortable.
“Oh, it wasn’t made for quite your size… You are probably right.” The cultivator smiled down at him and Shen Yuan felt himself flush.
The girl suddenly spoke up. “I’m sure that Auntie Mei would have the necessary supplies for a new mattress for you two.”
Shen Yuan looked at her, not quite sure about the strange blush on her face, nor the breathy giggle that accompanied her offer. Luo Binghe took it in stride and placed down his selection. Shen Yuan took out his money pouch, ready to fork over the money when Luo Binghe’s hand stopped him. “A-Yuan, how about you buy some of those seeds we talked about for spring?”
Now, Shen Yuan recognized a dismissal when he heard one and he left Luo Binghe alone with the girl. At the edge of his hearing, he could have sworn he heard Luo Binghe ask for the whereabouts of Auntie Mei.
With the almost constant rain, a few glaring faults of Shen Yuan’s little hut became very obvious. Namely that his roof leaked in several places and that they needed a bit more space. After all, Shen Yuan didn’t build it with housing two people in mind.
He woke up one day to Luo Binghe standing outside and glaring at the roof, pointing at a spot. “We need to patch that up.”
Shen Yuan scratched at his collarbones, ignoring the way Luo Binghe’s eyes bore into him like burning brands as he squinted trying to see what was the issue. He found the hole quickly, but he would never be a morning person, so it took him a while to actually recognize what he was seeing.
If he had some tea, it would have been so much easier to wake up. Sadly, clothing Luo Binghe took up most of his funds and he didn’t dare to think about what deal the cultivator made with the villagers for them to give them what they needed to make new bedding for example. It wasn’t finished yet, but they had almost everything ready for it.
Luo Binghe said he would start making it soon, but then the storms hit, and then they had bigger issues.
“Look on the bright side, we can also do a little expansion.” Luo Binghe told him when some of the roof caved in under the weight of a fallen tree. Shen Yuan wanted to cry when he saw the damage in the morning.
They were both safe, they got out unscathed but not everything inside was so lucky. It would take a while to repair or replace anything that got broken or soaked through with rain. And that was just the objects inside, there was still the hut's entire structural integrity they had to worry about. Or at least, Shen Yuan worried about it, Luo Binghe took a look from the outside, checked on the supporting beams inside before declaring them as 'not-completely lost causes'.
And as it turned out, rebuilding his home went a lot quicker with two people. Even better, Luo Binghe actually knew what he was doing. He had previous experience and not in the way like Shen Yuan had.
“I built the house on Qing Jing Peak.” The Peak Lord shared while they were both almost choking on sawdust cutting down some of the giant trees around their house. Because it would be their house in all the way that counted, not just Shen Yuan’s anymore.
If he was honest, it hadn’t really been his house only for a long time by then.
Luo Binghe made his mark in every aspect of his life, be it his home or his…
Nothing, Shen Yuan chided himself. It all meant nothing. Just two bros spending almost every moment together, cooking for each other, taking care of each other. Giving small gifts they knew the other would like. Doing small chores that they knew the other didn’t like… which was a perfectly normal thing between flatmates. Roommates.
But wouldn’t it be so different if they were something more? Would it change anything?
Was Shen Yuan happy with what they had? Was he happy enough not to want more?
Shen Yuan grimaced and spit out some of the leaves that smacked him in the face because he wasn’t watching what he was doing. Luo Binghe took no notice of his occupation which was for the best.
Daydreaming about such things wasn’t a good idea.
It was downright stupid. Luo Binghe was the protagonist of a stallion novel with a harem that would go into triple digits. Shen Yuan had no chance against that. A fool’s hope only… and Shen Yuan couldn’t bear the thought that if Luo Binghe knew their friendship would change irrevocably.
No, it was better to leave such things alone, Shen Yuan decided and went back to sawing.
They had to go to town one more time before winter arrived because they ran out of a few supplies while finishing their house. Shen Yuan peeked out from under his fur-lined cloak watching the sky and waiting to see if there were any changes to it that could herald incoming snow.
He didn’t think there was, but he had been surprised before so he learned to be wary since he came to permanently stay in these mountains. Or as he permanently as he thought he would stay.
Luo Binghe was off haggling and Shen Yuan spent most of the time people watching. A few people greeted him and Shen Yuan made small-talk with them. It blew his mind that they would talk to him in such a friendly manner because he knew that they most likely knew that he wasn’t human. He caught the occasional glance at the hair that was visible from the darkness of his hood and the odd feather that was there. The way he was always wearing gloves even on the brightest summer day.
Simply put, if Shen Yuan was just an ordinary citizen of this world, he would call himself suspicious at first glance, so it must have been something else.
Or someone else.
His eyes strayed to Luo Binghe without his input and watched the taller man effortlessly charm men and women alike. If Shen Yuan had to guess, it was probably his influence that allowed Shen Yuan to come to town and be left relatively undisturbed. Such was the power of the protagonist.
Uniting humans and demons in their adoration for him.
Shen Yuan turned his head away, realizing that he was once again staring, caught in the orbit of Luo Binghe and his inescapable gravitational pull. Sometimes Shen Yuan felt like Luo Binghe was the Sun and he and the rest of the inhabitants of this world the galaxy revolving around Luo Binghe.
It could have been terrifying. It should have been terrifying.
At least to Shen Yuan, it wasn’t. It was a feeling that he couldn’t describe.
Luo Binghe seemed to sense the eyes on him and turned around to look before catching Shen Yuan in the act and smiled at him. Then he turned back to the conversation between him and the two aunties. Shen Yuan felt the blush heat his cheeks and turned around once again. He was hopeless and he knew without a doubt that in a few minutes he would be back to watching Luo Binghe.
There was a noticeboard at the edge of the small market and Shen Yuan walked up to it to see if there was anything useful up there. Sometimes it was just a sale that reminded him of the garage sales in his old world. Sometimes it was a notice from the governing lord of the area. Sometimes there were job postings though those were rare as most were filled and shared by word of mouth. And sometimes there were jobs for cultivators passing through.
Those notices were always recognizable at first glance. The paper was either specially made to endure longer stretches of time without being dirtied or tearing or there was a care to keep it in good condition. Replacing the paper whenever it started becoming too grimy and stained. Shen Yuan read through it, tapping a gloved finger against his lips in thought.
It spoke of a monster in the area and dead bodies. Twisted dead bodies, each one more horrifying than the last. And at the end there was a line to go to the local hunter for more details.
There was suddenly a hand on his shoulders and Shen Yuan would have startled if it was anyone else other than Luo Binghe. “What is it?”
“A plea for help.”
Luo Binghe hummed and took down the notice to read it through before he turned it around to see if there was anything else written down on the paper. A signet or a signature for example, but there was nothing. It was a straightforward request and that was it. Of course, there were nearly not enough details so Shen Yuan left it to Luo Binghe to decide what they would do. “Should we do something about it?”
Luo Binghe looked to be in thought before he looked in askance at Shen Yuan. “Do you want to see what this is about?”
The question threw Shen Yuan off the loop. He thought it would be a gone thing that Luo Binghe would want to investigate. That the cultivator would be eager to return to his duties. He should have known by now to never assume anything when it came to Luo Binghe. “If it’s killing in the area, it might be a good idea to check it out.”
Maybe it was just a human serial killer. Not likely but it could very well be something that wasn’t a cultivator’s business even if the notice was addressed to cultivators. Luo Binghe nodded and with that, they were off to the hut on the edge of town to see the hunter who could offer some details.
An old man was sitting outside eating melon seeds and watching them approach with a distrustful frown. “What do you want, boy? We have no meat nor furs left for sale, come back tomorrow if you want that.”
Shen Yuan stifled his giggles into the fur around his collar avoiding Luo Binghe’s knowing look. Luo Binghe being called a boy by someone who was most likely his junior by decades. That would never cease to be funny to Shen Yuan but he had been always somewhat easily amused like that. “Greetings, we saw the notice on the board and wanted to see if we could help.”
The old man squinted at them. “You a cultivator, boy? Where is your sword then?”
“It broke.” Luo Binghe grinned then patted at his empty waist where only their groceries sat in a bag.
The old man’s mouth quirked up at that. “A rogue one, then? Want some board and a meal in exchange for your help?”
Shen Yuan shook his head, the movement catching the old man’s half-blind eyes. “No? We don’t have the money to hire anyone.”
Luo Binghe tugged at Shen Yuan until they stood only a hair-width apart with Luo Binghe standing a bit more to the front to avoid the old man lingering on Shen Yuan’s covered body. To catch and hold his attention instead, because it was safer that way for them. “Don’t need the money and we don’t need boarding either.”
The old man huffed and looked at them more critically, obviously writing them off as con artists. He still told them what he knew and that was more than enough to see that they were starting to get desperate.
“What do you think it is?” Shen Yuan asked once they were out of earshot after they listened to the old hunter’s tale. It was a gruesome one and Shen Yuan was grateful that they only had to hear about it and not see the victims’ corpses. It has been two weeks since they found the last one and it wasn’t fresh even then. Maybe it was Shen Yuan’s modern sensibilities but every time he saw a dead body that had been dead for a long time, he wanted a box of latex gloves and a few gallons of industrial-strength disinfectant. Maybe a hazmat suit.
Neither of which was possible to find in this world. Shen Yuan still remembered the first time he went with Luo Binghe on a night hunt where there were a lot of dead commoners and they needed to dig around for clues.
That was an adventure that taught Shen Yuan that he could never be a healer. Not as long as he got sick at the heady cocktail of smells that accompanied such a profession.
“Hard to say without knowing more. There doesn’t seem to be much connection between the victims aside from how all of them were found in the forest.” Luo Binghe mused as they walked back home to put away what they bought.
“The hunter said they were all mauled, but that could have easily been the local wildlife after they died.”
So, they had no possible motive, no common link and no idea what had been haunting the area for the last few months. Because it had been going on for months and at first the villagers blamed the odd disappearances on the wildlife. Then whatever it was, it started escalating as the weather got colder and most villagers no longer dared to go into the forest either during the day or night.
Except, the killing didn’t stop.
Luo Binghe stoked the fire in the oven, checking the temperature inside before placing a covered dish inside. It was the fish Shen Yuan caught on their way home. Luo Binghe hummed as he worked on making their dinner and Shen Yuan knitted. The bone needles in his hand clicked rhythmically and their home slowly filled with the smell of herbs and spices. They still didn’t have much of those, certainly not the variety that was available in Luo Binghe’s house back on Cang Qiong, but they were satisfied with what they had.
Shen Yuan had made a deal with Auntie Mei when Luo Binghe was off speaking with one of the uncles about trading for a few bigger jugs so that they could store more water. Auntie Mei had promised to bring back certain spices for a price and Shen Yuan also gave her a new set of knives he made for the trouble. It was expensive, it took weeks and, in the end, Shen Yuan was only a few packets of spices richer.
But it made Luo Binghe smile so it was also completely and utterly worth every hassle.
The next day they went back down the mountain to the hunter as the old man promised to show them where they found the last victim. To the casual observer, there wouldn’t be much to find. Most of the tracks were already trampled over by the villagers or gone because of the rain.
But neither Luo Binghe nor Shen Yuan was the average human.
The old man stood a few steps away as Luo Binghe went down on one knee to do his thing. Shen Yuan stood to the side too, trying to take deep breathes covertly. It wouldn’t be a good idea to showcase his demon status by sniffing around a murder scene too obviously. It was one thing to have suspicions and it would be an entirely different thing to have those suspicions be proven right.
Luo Binghe took out some paper and a brush and started painting a spell while the old man watched warily. Shen Yuan thought he could sense something demonic at the edge of his senses and he turned around but it was gone quickly. Shen Yuan didn’t think it was just his imagination.
Then what could it have been?
“It’s a demon of some kind.”
“The one killing the villagers.”
“Ah. What do you want to do?”
It should have been a simple hunt. Get someone to act as bait, then wait until the demon shows up, and then kill it.
In reality, the plan was a total bust because they still couldn’t figure out what was the common thing between the victims, and it was clear that the demon didn’t kill indiscriminately. It was choosing its victims in some way.
A week passed and they weren’t any better with the clues when the next body was found. They arrived in town early to check-in and they were immediately greeted with a group of villagers searching for one of the teenagers who went missing during the night.
“She was supposed to be in bed!” The girl’s mother repeated the same words again and again.
The whispers between the group were informative; most of them didn’t think that this was anything other than a young girl running away to be with her lover whose family disapproved of their match. That theory went out the window when they found her body on the outskirts of the village, much closer than any other.
“Everyone, go back to your homes!” Luo Binghe’s order was followed without question and the grieving mother was taken away before she could see her daughter’s remains. Shen Yuan watched them all leave until it was only him, Luo Binghe, and the old hunter. “She wasn’t alive when it did that, right?”
It was a gruesome sight, just as the old man described the previous victims and Shen Yuan could barely look at her without feeling nauseous. The thought that she might have been alive as the demon essentially turned her inside out only made his nausea worse.
Luo Binghe didn’t answer and for once, Shen Yuan wanted him to outright lie to him. The older man never did. Sometimes there were lies of omissions between them, but Luo Binghe always went quiet or deflected instead of telling Shen Yuan something blatantly untrue.
There was something in the air, a scent that led away from the body and Luo Binghe found some tracks too. Mainly splatters of the girl’s blood and after the old hunter went back to the village, the two of them set off to follow it.
The tracks, the blood, and the smell led them to an abandoned cave with a small shrine next to its entrance. Luo Binghe went inside while Shen Yuan looked at the shrine with the small trinkets on it. There was a small ring that had a familiar scent from frequent use under the metallic scent of gold.
Luo Binghe came out of the cave within seconds and Shen Yuan looked at him. “It’s a dead-end, there is nothing inside.”
Shen Yuan tilted his head in the direction of the shrine in answer. “The ring there smells of the girl. I think…” At Luo Binghe’s look who took a step closer, Shen Yuan sighed. “I think we might find the other victims’ valuables here too.”
The common denominator.
If Shen Yuan’s theory was correct, they might have found the reason why exactly those people were killed.
“This isn’t the work of a minor god or a spirit.” Luo Binghe summarized after checking over the altar. As far as they could tell, it was a real shrine but with no power on its own yet. It wasn’t dedicated to any deities or spirits. But something, a demon as they figured, found it and used it as its hunting ground. The lingering energy they could feel only reinforced that idea.
They went back to the village and asked around about the shrine.
Surprisingly, once they figured out all that and most of their theory was confirmed by the villagers – there was apparently a legend around these parts of the land that offering a precious item at the shrine on the bottom of the mountain would grant your deepest desire.
Every other man or woman would be able to tell a story about an old family friend or acquaintance who got their wish and lived happily ever after. The first time Shen Yuan heard those kinds of stories he looked at Luo Binghe with a raised eyebrow who looked back at him with some confusion.
Shen Yuan remembered tales like that too from his old world.
Stories of wishes that came true, yes, but also stories of wishes that came true only to cause troubles later on for the maker of the wish. Wishes that came true but in unexpected ways. A lot of folklore that Shen Yuan remembered was centered on the unreliability of wishes and their unintended consequences.
He told so to Luo Binghe once they were back in their home and after they warned away the villagers from the shrine. They still needed to catch the killer but without people sneaking out they should be safe for the time being.
And Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe would be free to try to find this demon hiding in the forest.
Saying that they would find it and then actually finding it was a lot harder than Shen Yuan thought it would be. Maybe he should have guessed that it wouldn’t be a cakewalk.
The forest was old and deep and stretching on endlessly. Primeval almost. And the wish-granting demon had been obviously doing this for a long time. It was like trying to find a needle in the haystack… or it would have been if it was just Shen Yuan doing the searching. But he wasn’t alone.
Luo Binghe was with him.
Luo Binghe, who was the protagonist of this world.
It was a given that their search wouldn’t be fruitless with the protagonist on it too. It was just a question of time when they would catch it.
Shen Yuan’s crow perched on their windowsill, sitting in Luo Binghe’s pot of mint and knocking on the wood with its beak. Shen Yuan woke up from his sleep, looking around for Luo Binghe who must have put him to bed but there was only a note left that the cultivator went out to the nearby stream to top up their water jugs.
He grabbed a wrinkly apple from the table and a handful of seeds to share then went outside. The crows all but mobbed him and he sat down with a huff to eat his breakfast watching the flock of black birds eat their fill. They weren’t starving, they had a few feeders that Luo Binghe set up next to the tree their nests were in; they were just dicks.
His crow hopped over to Shen Yuan and looked at the apple in his hand with a soulful stare and Shen Yuan threw it to the ground with a scoff. “Where did you learn how to beg?”
He wrapped the heavy blanket around himself and watched as the sun came up. In the golden light, a figure appeared and Shen Yuan swallowed hard as Luo Binghe carried home two full jugs the size of a man on his shoulders like they were nothing but feathers. There was a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead and Shen Yuan had to duck his head as the older man stopped before him once the jugs were in their proper places and used the edge of his robes to wipe away the sweat.
Shen Yuan was sure that his blush could be seen from space and that the way his suddenly dry throat clicked when he swallowed could be heard from miles away.
“Good morning, A-Yuan, what would you like for breakfast?”
Shen Yuan shrugged and stopped himself before he could blurt out something completely inappropriate. It took all of his willpower and it felt like Luo Binghe took his sweet time getting back to the house.
Shen Yuan hid his face in his hands and muffled his groan in them too. Would it be impossible for someone to sneak into their home and smother Shen Yuan with one of his pillows before he did or said something stupid and ruined the best thing in his life? He didn’t know how long he could hold out.
He didn’t even notice when his feelings for Luo Binghe took such a turn, it was such a slippery slope. The crow pecked at his bare feet and while it didn’t hurt, Shen Yuan still felt the pressure against his scaled skin. “What do you want?”
It blinked at him before cawing twice mockingly.
“Harr, harr, yeah I know. Stop laughing at me.”
Then he stood up and went inside grumbling about disrespectful birds. At least it managed to take his mind off the predicament he found himself in.
Months and months ago when Luo Binghe brought up his demonic heritage, Shen Yuan told him that he didn’t want to control his crows any more than he wanted to control anything else.
That conviction didn’t change and would never change.
It still gave Shen Yuan an idea and they experimented a bit and now Shen Yuan had an army of birds that would look for things in the forest and bring him back small objects. Or they would alert him if they found something important.
Now, a bird’s definition of important and Shen Yuan’s were vastly different things, but it was still a system that worked, and once he had set them on trying to find the wish-demon they had results. Nothing groundbreaking at first, but they covered a lot more ground than Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe did on their own.
Just a few minutes before, Shen Yuan’s crow dropped off a broken horn and Shen Yuan had been turning it over in his hands, feeling the groves in it. Something was familiar about it; he knew the energy emanating from it from somewhere. There were other demons in the mountains aside from him, it didn’t mean that whoever or whatever was the original owner of the horn was also their wish-demon, and yet, the thought niggled at him.
Luo Binghe came up from their small garden, putting away the last of their harvest before the temperature started dropping below freezing and the ground froze over. “A-Yuan, what is it?”
Shen Yuan willed away the blush and threw the horn to him; Luo Binghe caught it with effortless grace. “The crow brought it just now.”
Luo Binghe’s eyes glazed over in thought and Shen Yuan felt his strange spiritual energy swell as it washed over the piece of keratin and bone. “Feels familiar.”
“Do you think it could be our killer, or is it from one of our neighbors?”
They never talked about the other demons living in the same area, they didn’t have tea together or visit them for a cup of sugar. They kept to themselves and neither had any desire to reach out to each other.
“Killer.” The verdict came swiftly and Shen Yuan stood up and whistled once with his arm held out. His crow perched on him, its mate watching them from a nearby branch too. Luo Binghe gently touched his other side and Shen Yuan turned to him with a small frown, noticing how quiet he was.
“When we go… bring Xin Mo just in case.”
They set off within minutes, jumping from tree to tree while the crows flew before them. Xin Mo was a warm weight against Shen Yuan’s back, the sword wrapped up in layers of fur and fabric.
Shen Yuan couldn’t decide whether he liked bringing the sword with him or not. Luo Binghe was right that as a sentient demon sword, Xin Mo was dangerous even if it was very picky with whom it interacted. Shen Yuan still didn’t know what made the sword speak with him and he didn’t think it was simply boredom anymore.
No, Shen Yuan knew that Xin Mo had an important role in the story of Proud Immortal Demon’s Way, he just didn’t know exactly what. He had his suspicions though he didn’t want to voice them because that would give them form.
On the other hand, if Luo Binghe wanted the security of having a proper sword with them then something unsettled him about this wish-demon.
Maybe it would be a recipe for disaster to take a demon sword to a fight like that but only time would tell.
They camped out in the woods for the night before they approached its home. It was an abandoned building something ancient and built to last that still couldn’t stand against nature and the passage of time.
Most of the still-standing walls were crumbling and covered in all manner of plants. Shen Yuan circled around to see if there was anything else to it and there was an entrance to a cellar that seemed more intact. He showed Luo Binghe and they managed to get it open with a barely a creak of the hinges.
Down in the basement, it was much warmer than outside and there was a damp smell of something rotting. Not vegetation but meat, which stunk so much worse than rotting plants did. Shen Yuan wrapped the scarf more securely around his nose and mouth so that he wouldn’t get an entire lungful and he could see Luo Binghe doing the same from the corner of his eyes.
They kept their steps quiet and slow to avoid stepping on anything crunchy or crumbly. There were small pieces of bones here and there and they didn’t have to think too long about its diet. That was proven when they found some broken human skulls both older and newer and bones broken with the marrow sucked or scraped out.
Luo Binghe stopped him from walking further with a hand pushing against his chest and placed a finger over his mouth before pointing over to a corner. Shen Yuan leaned out to see better and there was something breathing, curled up on the floor. It was big even laying down and there were curved horns on its head. One of them was missing its tip. Something creaked behind them and then there was a loud bang and Shen Yuan remembered that they didn’t close the doors in case they needed to make a quick getaway.
The demon snoozing on the floor woke up and Shen Yuan felt his eyes widen at the sight. It was still hunched over because it was too tall for the cellar. Four hands, two legs that looked more like hooves. It was also covered in jewelry and Shen Yuan could see mounds of valuables strewn carelessly in the corners from countless people offering their precious items hoping for a wish.
The demon smelled them before it saw them.
Five eyes turned towards them after it took a deep breath and Shen Yuan was yanked back by his scarf out of its charge. It fought like a stag, horns forward, ready to skewer the intruders. It didn’t try to reason with them, it went for the kill immediately.
They were at a bigger disadvantage in such close quarters and they needed to lure it out in the open. Shen Yuan shouted at it, called it names and the angry growl showed that it understood him. It just didn’t care or want to answer or speak. Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe ran through the small corridor leading out, the demon hot on their tail. It needed to crouch down and crawl essentially but it was still very fast and Shen Yuan almost lost a few feathers when he slipped on some moss and Luo Binghe barely had a split second to haul him up and away from its snapping mouth.
Shen Yuan was grateful to be outside because at least the air was clearer even if he couldn’t enjoy it for too long because the demon was almost on them. Luo Binghe made an attempt to kill it while it was climbing out of the cellar and halfway-stuck in the door but his long bone knife broke when it struck its skin. The cultivator scowled and threw the broken handle away while bringing out the other blade he had on him.
It would be most likely useless too; the steel was of low quality and it probably would snap before piercing the demon’s hide. Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe played off on each other, Shen Yuan distracting it while Luo Binghe made a strike then Luo Binghe dodging its retaliation, and Shen Yuan attacking. It was a good strategy, only it was ineffective because nothing they did hurt the demon. It just got more enraged, which made it sloppier, but they couldn’t use the numerous openings it gave them in a way that would matter.
Shen Yuan jumped back from another swipe that would have split him open and he unwrapped Xin Mo. “What do you need now, brat?” It asked, like a cranky old man, but clearer than any time he heard it speak since they got out from the Abyss.
“There is this demon that is trying to kill us.” He said out loud, avoiding the next attack as Luo Binghe tried to divert its attention away for longer than a few seconds.
“What’s in it for me?” Xin Mo asked and Shen Yuan couldn’t answer because the moment the blade slid out of its sheath; the wish-demon seemingly went wild. Its eyes turned in their sockets in a truly alarming way before settling on Shen Yuan and after no matter what Luo Binghe did, it only cared about eviscerating Shen Yuan. It was like drawing Xin Mo painted a giant target on his back.
Under such constant assault Shen Yuan didn’t have the time to think, he could only react. And he couldn’t keep that up forever, something had to give soon enough.
Shen Yuan tripped on a root that was sticking halfway out of the ground; he was just a second too slow in dodging and Xin Mo was knocked out of his hands. The beast was on him, pushing him into the dirt with all its not inconsiderable muscle mass and Shen Yuan struggled to breathe under the weight. Two large hands wrapped around his throat and Shen Yuan clawed at them, gouging into the skin, bathing him in the demon’s blood.
It screamed in pain and if he had enough air Shen Yuan would have wondered whether this had been the first time in a long while it got injured by something.
It still wasn’t enough to stop it.
And then there was a blade sticking out of its throat. It didn’t die, but it let go of Shen Yuan to try to grab at Xin Mo. Luo Binghe was on its back hanging from Xin Mo’s grip before he had to let go to escape its trashing.
He landed on his feet then sprinted to Shen Yuan to help him up. The demon was turning around in circles trying to reach it with its upper arms, the lower ones flailing in aborted movements.
“We got to get Xin Mo back!” Shen Yuan rushed out through his aching throat and Luo Binghe nodded. He was angry, Shen Yuan could tell as the older man checked his throat quickly. Shen Yuan would have one hell of a bruise in the shape of the demon’s hands but he would live. “Not my blood, don’t worry.” He said and patted Luo Binghe’s hand.
With that short interlude done they threw themselves back into the fray, now with a new goal: getting Xin Mo back then going to town on it.
To be honest, now that they knew that Xin Mo could hurt it, it was a rather quick fight. Within minutes they had the demon sword back and Luo Binghe chopped off its head cleanly. Maybe it would have eventually bled out because for some reason neither the wounds from Shen Yuan’s claws, nor the one from Xin Mo healed properly.
Only after its head rolled on the ground did Shen Yuan become aware that it had black streaks from him all over its hands wherever Shen Yuan touched it. “No. No, no, no.”
The miasma from the Abyss seeped into its skin making black lines spread following the blood vessels. Shen Yuan looked up in horror at Luo Binghe who touched him during the fight, whom Shen Yuan touched too carelessly. There was a black smear on his skin too.
The cultivator looked at him in confusion, not understanding Shen Yuan’s mounting horror. The miasma corrupted all demons it touched and devoured spiritual energy.
But Luo Binghe was still standing. He wasn’t screaming from the pain of starting to rot from the inside out. He showed no signs of hurting.
“Are you alright? Luo Binghe, are you alright?” He asked, hands hovering over the cultivator’s arms, not daring to grab him. Shen Yuan was beyond aware of the black liquid he was sweating from his pores.
“I… yes. I’m alright? Are you alright, A-Yuan?” Luo Binghe grabbed his hands in his and Shen Yuan watched the smear of black do nothing when coming into contact with Luo Binghe’s skin. It even seemed to absorb it slowly now that Shen Yuan saw things from a step away. “What’s happening, A-Yuan?”
Shen Yuan had an idea. It was preposterous.
“Why did you take me back to Cang Qiong back then?”
The question obviously came out of the left field for Luo Binghe but Shen Yuan wanted to know the answer. That was a question that haunted him day and night in the first few years he was Luo Binghe’s personal disciple and he never dared to ask.
“What, A-Yuan? Why ask this now?” Luo Binghe didn’t answer. He was confused but there was also a note of panic in his voice.
“Can you tell me why did you take me back to Cang Qiong? Why did you take me, a demon to a cultivation sect, why did you help me hide, why did you teach me?” Shen Yuan asked and watched Luo Binghe try to find the words.
“I… I don’t… Why is it so important to you now?” Luo Binghe never really lied to him; Shen Yuan remembered thinking. He just avoided answering questions that he didn’t want to answer.
“Oh.” Shen Yuan let out a breath and sagged in Luo Binghe’s hold, ignoring the way he scrambled to hold him up. He could see Xin Mo on the ground, carelessly tossed away.
Oh, he thought. Luo Binghe wasn’t human.
That was the big secret.
In hindsight, it should have been obvious.
The strange feeling to his spiritual energy, how he reacted to certain stimuli, how Xin Mo let him unsheathe it, how the demon sword looked like it was forged anew the first time Luo Binghe held it.
The fucking title of the novel.
Proud Immortal Demon’s Way.
It was a groundbreaking realization and yet it changed nothing.
It changed fucking nothing.
Shen Yuan was still in love with his old Shizun who would never look at him as a romantic option. Shen Yuan was still living together with a Peak Lord who also seemed in no hurry to return to his home in Cang Qiong.
And it changed nothing about the events that followed their triumphal return to the village with the demon’s head. Word was already out about the murderous shrine and a team of disciples from Huan Hua Palace arrived to take care of the matter.
The story started like this.
There was a small village close to the mountains in the North where only the hardiest could survive. These mountains often gave home to lost souls and those who wanted some peace and quiet. Most of the villagers who lived in this small village minded their own business, except for one or two who didn’t exactly choose to live there but didn’t have the means to leave the only home they knew.
When Shen Yuan arrived for the first time, everyone realized that he wasn’t completely human from the first few visits he made to the market. Consensus varied between him being a half-demon or a full one, but the villagers didn’t care. He was polite, didn’t trade in stolen goods, and never stayed longer than he needed to get what he wanted.
The philosophy of everyone should worry about their own business only held true in their minds.
When Luo Binghe turned up, they also took notice. He was head and shoulders above the tallest man in the village and it was clear by just one glance at his perfect skin that he wasn’t a commoner either. Cultivator, Auntie Mei told them with a nod as she puffed away on her pipe.
"Why do a demon and a cultivator live together," the younger ones wondered.
"Star-crossed lovers," said the old hunter with a decisive nod.
Neither of those was ever questioned; all signs pointed to the rumor being true. The nicknames they slipped up with occasionally, the new bed where both of them would fit, A-Yuan asking for rare spices to give to Luo-gege as a present.
To the villagers, it was all clear as day.
The villagers didn’t care, the villagers minded their own business… except for one or two of them. Every few weeks merchants and such would leave for the neighboring villages to stock up on supplies and to share news about recent events.
Who married who, who broke up with who, who came into money, and so on. Idle gossip, nothing more. Only, when they ran out of their usual fare, someone mentioned the new handsome residents on the nearby mountain and their story.
It wasn’t done maliciously, but as rumors usually did, the simple story twisted and changed with each retelling until it was almost completely unrecognizable.
And that is usually when the trouble starts.
“Did you hear it? Someone says a cultivator had been kidnapped by a demon and held captive in the mountains!”
“Nonsense, it wasn’t a cultivator, it was a prince!”
“Bullshit, it was a cultivator whose own disciple kidnapped him to sacrifice him to a Demon Lord!”
Shen Yuan ducked under the awning of the closest house to avoid the boisterous yellow-clothed cultivators. It had been a few weeks since they killed the wish-demon and Shen Yuan was supposed to receive a package from Auntie Mei.
Only the moment he stepped into town, one of the kids grabbed his hand and dragged him to the side to tell him that she was out of town and wouldn’t be back for a week because her sister fell ill.
That was when Shen Yuan noticed the place swarming with Huan Hua Palace disciples. “What are they here for?” He asked with a nonchalant nod at them and the kid brightened up.
“They finally came because of the notice!”
Shen Yuan snorted. This part of the world wasn’t officially under any of the bigger sects’ territories. If the locals had any issues, they had a much better chance of a rogue cultivator passing through than any of the sects sending someone to investigate. It didn’t matter how many letters were sent or how many people died.
Entire villages could go silent at the drop of a hat and sometimes nobody would care.
Cultivation sects had to worry about their own territories, the villages there first and foremost. Not even Cang Qiong had the manpower to answer every call for help. Seeing Huan Hua Palace disciples in this remote place was almost unheard of, much less the number that currently tore up the place.
Something was strange, Shen Yuan thought and thanked the kid before turning around. If Auntie Mei wasn’t in, then Shen Yuan had no business to stay for any longer.
He tried to stay out of sight of the disciples milling around, greeting the locals when they came upon him hiding in their bushes. One or two even ushered him through their homes to let him out in the back. He almost felt like he was a mistress hiding from the wife.
It was a strange morning.
When he got home, he would tell Luo Binghe that the town was crawling with disciples from Huan Hua and the older man would get a strange look on his face. Shen Yuan didn’t quite know what to do about it, so he started telling him about his mad dash through town.
It dispelled the strange tension, but Shen Yuan wouldn’t be able to forget that moment.
Shen Yuan tried to put it all out of his mind. They didn’t go into town, stayed at home to get ready for winter.
Shen Yuan finished the harvest and the groundwork necessary for planting in the spring. Luo Binghe canned and pickled what they still had, cured the meat they had from hunting.
They built up their stores of firewood, secured their newly built cellar. Shen Yuan knitted clothing, blankets, and whatever he decided they needed while Luo Binghe tanned hides.
It was peaceful.
And then they woke up one morning to a bunch of people camping on their doorstep and threatening to burn their house down ‘if the demon didn’t release the esteemed Peak Lord Luo immediately’.
It put a little damper on the mood.
Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan watched the mob from their window, trying to decide whether to worry about the threats they were hearing.
“We did fireproof the house, right?” Shen Yuan asked as he blew on his steaming mint tea counting how many yellow robes he could see within a minute. Whatever this was, it was most likely orchestrated by Huan Hua Palace.
Which made no sense, because the ‘esteemed’ Peak Lord he supposedly kidnapped had never been part of Huan Hua Palace, thus they had no reason to demand his release.
“We did.” Luo Binghe confirmed. “We carved those waterproof spell arrays into the foundation at the same time.”
Shen Yuan took a sip and then accepted Luo Binghe’s offer of more honey while nodding to the yellow-robed cultivators outside. “Have any idea what is that about?”
“Other than meeting during the Immortal Alliance Conferences and the occasional run-ins during hunts, I had no business with Huan Hua Palace on my own.” Luo Binghe admitted then dropped a bomb that made Shen Yuan almost spit out his tea. “However, my mother had been their Head Disciple before I was born.”
Shen Yuan coughed, trying not to choke while Luo Binghe rubbed his back. “What do you mean your mother was the Head Disciple of Huan Hua Palace?”
“It just wasn’t something important. It doesn’t matter, it had been a long time ago.” Luo Binghe didn’t shrug but it was a close one, Shen Yuan thought.
Luo Binghe had been an orphan when he had been taken in by Cang Qiong. Shen Yuan didn’t remember his mother being mentioned in the chapters he had finished reading, but maybe it became an important plot point later. “Would they nurse a grudge that you joined Cang Qiong and not Huan Hua?”
It didn’t seem like a grudge, but Shen Yuan had to ask.
“Lao Gongzhu had always been kind enough to ask about my health.” Luo Binghe shook his head. “And he offered me a position in Huan Hua Palace a few times.”
Nope, Shen Yuan thought. That wasn’t a grudge at all. It was an entirely different beast. Outwardly he tried not to show anything and asked idly. “How often?”
“Once or twice…” Then under his breath, he continued. “During every conference.”
“Excuse me, what? Did you just say the Old Palace Master of Huan Hua offered you a position in his sect every four years for the last century and you declined it every time?”
Another mumble and Shen Yuan looked at his old teacher who had a very pretty blush on his face. “Twice.”
“What do you mean, twice?”
“He offered me a position during every conference twice.”
They stared at each other before Shen Yuan looked out the window with a long-suffering expression at the highest-ranked yellow-robed cultivator. “A-Yuan, what is that face for? A-Yuan!”
Who would have thought that the Lao Gongzhu, a man older than dirt, would be his biggest and most persistent rival for Luo Binghe’s affection?
A commotion broke out an hour in and Shen Yuan watched it all go down from the window. Luo Binghe didn’t let him go out alone and neither of them thought it to be a good idea to verify that Luo Binghe was inside the house too.
From what they heard; they weren’t sure about that despite Luo Binghe standing right next to him the whole time in plain view. People really got stupid when it came to the protagonist.
Luo Binghe froze and then suddenly walked to the door. Shen Yuan scrambled to catch up. “Luo Binghe?”
He walked right out, Shen Yuan following him behind still wrapped up in his knitted blanket. In times like this, he missed his old blanket back in Cang Qiong. The one that Luo Binghe gave him years ago, the one that was like an electric heater. He never asked what happened to it after he fell into the Abyss.
It was almost blinding outside and Shen Yuan had to shield his eyes for a few seconds before he could take a look at all those assembled outside. It was a legitimate Immortal Alliance Conference in the making. And right in the middle stood the Old Palace Master and Sect Leader Ning arguing with each other, the mob of commoners carrying pitchforks off to the side observing the much shorter woman tear the old sect leader a new asshole.
“Ning Yingying?” Luo Binghe took a step forward, bringing all the attention to him.
“Peak Lord Luo, you are safe!”
The two sect leaders both spoke up at the same time; the old man’s booming voice attempting to drown out Sect Leader Ning’s. Shen Yuan wasn’t aware that she was capable of showing such distaste towards anyone with just one glance.
Then it was just a cacophony of sound with a bunch of people speaking over each other, but Sect Leader Ning managed to cut through it all with just three quiet words. “Peak Lord Luo.”
“Sect Leader Ning.” Said cultivator bowed before his sect leader and Shen Yuan belatedly did it too, though he probably wasn’t a disciple of Cang Qiong Sect anymore.
“I’m happy to see you safe, Peak Lord Luo. I trust the rumors of your kidnapping have been somewhat exaggerated?”
Luo Binghe looked as baffled as Shen Yuan felt like and the two of them shared a look. “Yes, I haven’t been kidnapped at all.”
There was an outcry from the Huan Hua side of the gathering, but it was quelled by one sharp look from Ning Yingying. Peak Lord Liu glowered at those that didn’t heed her Sect Leader’s chiding and that shut up the rest.
“I see. Shen Yuan… It’s good to see you safe too.”
Shen Yuan had to be nudged by Luo Binghe to figure out that he needed to say something he was so surprised. “I… yes. Thank you, Sect Leader Ning.”
He pinched himself just to see whether he was dreaming or not. It hurt and still nothing made any sense.
Sect Leader Ning turned around and looked at the commoners. “Go back home, this matter doesn’t concern you.” Then she looked at the disciples from Huan Hua. “Cang Qiong Sect would like to thank Huan Hua Palace Sect and its Sect Leader for their concern regarding our Peak Lord but as we have found out, Peak Lord Luo of Cang Qiong Sect is here by his own free will.”
‘So, leave as this matter doesn’t concern you.’ She didn’t say so but it was heavily implied and from the shifting of the disciples, it was a message received.
They waited until everyone else left and then the disciples from Cang Qiong made sure that they really did leave. Sect Leader Ning and Peak Lord Liu stayed behind.
“Vultures, all of them.” Peak Lord Liu spat out once they were far away and Luo Binghe laughed. Shen Yuan just felt relieved that no pitchforks were used against him in a way that was different than their intended use. Sect Leader Ning was watching him and Shen Yuan froze like a deer caught in headlights.
“You caused us some troubles, Disciple Shen.”
“I didn’t kidnap Luo Binghe if that’s what you meant.” Maybe the denial came a bit too quick, but it was the truth. “I found him injured in the forest and helped him.”
“And he never left.” Ning Yingying’s voice was dry as a desert and Shen Yuan found himself unthinkingly echoing her. “And he never left.”
“A-Yuan!” Luo Binghe’s voice was wounded and Shen Yuan abruptly figured out where the crow learned how to beg. And then he saw Ning Yingying’s face and the only thought running through his mind was ‘oh, shit’ when he saw the pure glee she was staring at them with.
“A-Luo, you should have at least invited us to your wedding!”
Shen Yuan spluttered, Luo Binghe was suspiciously silent and Sect Leader Ning smiled like a cat that ate the cream then caught the canary too. It was kind of hard to see what was going on behind Sect Leader Liu’s veil but she was obviously very amused too.
It was starting to feel like the circus was in town and Shen Yuan and his unattainable crush was their main attraction. “Would you like some tea?” He asked in a rush then didn’t wait for an answer as he hurried inside to boil some water.
It was the only way to stop them all from seeing his full-body blush.
Not much changed once Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan were gone with the rest of the mob. Not much changed but some things did.
They started getting letters and messages regularly, Luo Binghe got entire stacks of paperwork from his second-in-command. Paperwork that made Shen Yuan’s normally unflappable Peak Lord almost pout, which made Shen Yuan try everything he could to make him smile again.
Luo Binghe stayed. That was maybe the biggest worry of Shen Yuan right after he realized that Cang Qiong was there to take back their Peak Lord, though Shen Yuan didn’t want to admit it. Not even to himself in the safety of his thoughts.
But Luo Binghe stayed.
“Would A-Yuan like me to leave?” The cultivator asked once they were alone and Shen Yuan dared to bring the topic up. To tell the cultivator that he could go if he wanted.
Shen Yuan couldn’t say what he wanted to say with those soulful eyes on him, looking so hurt and questioning.
“No, of course not!” He ended up blurting out much to his mortification but it was all worth it when Luo Binghe smiled at him in such an unrestrained way. Shen Yuan mourned his own dignity in the face of such joy and knew that he would do whatever he could to keep the older man smiling. “I want you to stay! I want you to stay…”
He couldn’t finish the sentence. He couldn’t finish it; his skin wasn’t thick enough to bear it.
But then, Luo Binghe looked at him and Shen Yuan ended up forgetting all about his embarrassment. “… with me.”
Luo Binghe cradled his face gently, oh so gently, soft bare fingers against Shen Yuan’s mix of feathers, scales, and skin, smoothing over and over his jaw without saying anything. Shen Yuan felt his eyes close as he whispered, just for the two of them. “I want you to stay with me.”
Luo Binghe didn’t answer but his smile widened and Shen Yuan watched from under his eyelashes as Luo Binghe’s eyes flickered red briefly. “Let’s go inside… it’s getting late.”
Shen Yuan nodded, letting out a yawn as he did so, feeling drained after the rollercoaster of emotions they went through after so many peaceful days. Luo Binghe didn’t hesitate to bundle him up and lead him back to their home with a hand on his back.
The next time they went into town most of the residents they met apologized for not stopping the cultivators and assured them that none of the locals were part of the mob. Shen Yuan – without wearing some sort of hood for the first time in public in a long while – told them they didn’t begrudge any of them for not going against cultivators and that they noticed that the mob surrounding their home was full of strangers.
That there was no need for apologies because there was nothing to forgive.
Maybe in a few years down the road that would change, maybe the locals would eventually grow tired of living in the close proximity of a well-known demon like him. Maybe not.
It was just one more thing that Shen Yuan didn’t want to worry about at that moment and he would put it out of his mind as long as he could. He wouldn’t be able to delay the inevitable if it came down to it, but he could enjoy whatever time he had until then.
After all, he was fairly sure that his lifespan vastly outstripped theirs.
Unless something truly catastrophic happened to him he would outlive them all.
Winter came quickly and with heavy snows.
The first time, when Shen Yuan woke up in his little nest, he only noticed that it was so much colder than on any other morning. The fire was almost out and all his fingers and toes felt like icicles, so he put more wood on the glowing embers and hoped that it would be enough to get it going again. Then with a sigh he crawled out of the small mess of pillows and furs and sneaked a glance at Luo Binghe whose bed was a bit further away.
It was already empty, which wasn’t much of a surprise, the older man was an early riser. If the fire wasn’t in danger of going out, Shen Yuan would have slept a few more hours.
But now he was awake because he woke up from the cold and there was no chance of him going back to sleep as long as their home wasn’t warm enough. Shen Yuan didn’t do well with the cold; not after everything that happened to him.
His arrival in this world, the Endless Abyss… no, Shen Yuan didn’t care for the cold.
He was in the middle of wrestling thick socks onto his feet when the door was slammed open.
Harsh winds shrieked and there was a flurry of snow as Luo Binghe shuffled inside, arms heavy with piles of wood. He wasn’t wearing much and Shen Yuan resisted the urge to wrap him up in a few blankets in place of the sweaters that he didn’t dare to knit.
Luo Binghe didn’t seem to be bothered about the cold, nor the rapidly melting snow that settled in his hair during his short walk to the woodshed. Luo Binghe usually ran hotter than anyone else Shen Yuan knew, pun intended.
“At the rate this is going, we will be snowed in shortly.” Luo Binghe said as he dropped his armfuls next to their fire. He was visibly trying not to get too much cold water on anything inside, but it was sort of inevitable. “I’m going to bring in more wood, do you want anything else, A-Yuan?”
Shen Yuan shook his head. “I’ll go with you.”
Luo Binghe lifted Shen Yuan’s chin with his knuckles. His hand was still cold and Shen Yuan shivered. “No, stay inside.”
He leaned down, pressed a kiss against Shen Yuan’s forehead before he grabbed an empty bucket to put outside to collect some of the falling snow. Shen Yuan hummed and shifted through the woodpile to find a few smaller pieces to throw on the growing fire, warming up slowly.
It was finally starting to get cozy again inside. Shen Yuan thought about breakfast, about starting on heating the water for some tea when he suddenly froze. “Did Luo Binghe just kiss me?”
They didn’t talk about it.
By the time Luo Binghe finished running to and from the shed to bring in enough firewood for weeks, Shen Yuan managed to get his blush under control. He also stopped himself from throwing a torrent of questions at the older man.
He didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. It was an incredibly smooth movement he had to admit, it felt natural. Like something that they did frequently.
Like any type of kissing was just another part of their daily routines.
Shen Yuan found himself oddly aware of every move the older man made, which wasn’t something new precisely, but he also did it with the knowledge of how soft Luo Binghe’s lips were. In a way, it almost felt like sacrilege that Shen Yuan knew that.
It certainly played havoc on Shen Yuan’s concentration for the next few days. Sometimes he found himself touching his forehead, trying to feel that phantom of warmth and pressure again. Sometimes he found himself watching Luo Binghe, his strong hands, his back… his lips. Sometimes he couldn’t tear his gaze away at all.
Luckily, Luo Binghe didn’t notice his housemate’s occupation with his… well, his everything. Shen Yuan was old enough to admit that his fascination with Luo Binghe went over a simple crush a long-long time ago. He just didn’t think there was any chance of his interest ever being returned.
Luo Binghe was so out of his league that Shen Yuan might as have been on another planet… or so he thought.
The next few days were beyond tense.
Shen Yuan wanted to ask, then he talked himself out of it, again and again. The tension between them, while they were both stuck inside the house as the blizzard raged outside, grew almost suffocating. Luo Binghe didn’t show that he was affected, but Shen Yuan managed to catch him watching him once or twice.
And there was that small seed of hope growing inside Shen Yuan that those glances meant something more.
Shen Yuan found himself watching the cultivator a lot lately, almost constantly.
The demon. The cultivator demon.
That reveal was another thing that they most likely needed to talk about before... but did they really need to talk about it? Did it matter that Luo Binghe was a demon hiding as a cultivator? It didn't change anything about how Shen Yuan saw him. It just made a few things clearer and that was it.
Shen Yuan spent most of the day knitting next to the fire, a long shawl spilling over his lap and onto the thick fur under him. Luo Binghe did some paperwork, made food, and settled in to read once there were no more chores left.
There wasn’t much left for them to do aside from that.
Shen Yuan often found himself standing near the window trying to see anything outside. Except there was only white everywhere. During the nights when the sky went dark, with the way everything was covered by layers upon layer of snow and the wind shrieked outside, Shen Yuan would be reminded of the Endless Abyss.
It was disorienting.
After a while, Luo Binghe started pressing a warm drink into his hands or asked him to help out in the kitchen. It was obviously a ploy to get him away from the window because Luo Binghe needed no help in the kitchen but Shen Yuan was grateful for it.
It seemed like the blizzard was calming down at first and then it just became more vicious.
“Do you think it will stop soon?” Shen Yuan asked when the snow piling up outside made it all-but-impossible to open the door one night. Luo Binghe ushered him closer to the fire after activating some of the spells they added when rebuilding to help with insulation and such things.
“Hopefully.” Luo Binghe’s voice was doubtful. “Help me get the bed closer to the fire, A-Yuan.”
Shen Yuan went without a question, thinking that Luo Binghe must have started feeling the cold too. They moved the frame as close as they could before Shen Yuan went to the closet to get out every spare blanket and fur they had. He piled everything up and took the bundle back only to freeze when he realized that Luo Binghe started placing Shen Yuan’s bedding on the bed too. “What… what are you doing?”
“We should converse heat and sleeping together is a good way for that.” The answer was nonchalant. Shen Yuan could see the logic in that but there was also a little voice screaming inside his mind.
Okay, it wasn’t a little voice.
He opened his mouth to answer and barely managed a squeak. Luo Binghe was fussing with the bedding while Shen Yuan was fiddling with his clothes. They were going to go to bed soon and Shen Yuan felt dread for the first time in a long while. He couldn’t think of this as just a sleepover. He would be in extremely close quarters with his… crush. A man with extremely strong senses and Shen Yuan couldn’t play it cool, not on his life.
So, he looked over his clothes and decided to layer up. If Luo Binghe found it strange that he would wear so many clothes to bed, he could just say that he was cold. He always ran colder than Luo Binghe, it wouldn’t even be a lie. Of course, the main reason this time wasn’t that but rather trying to cover up any possible reaction his body could have.
He climbed up on the bed and rolled around in the blankets until only his face was visible. Luo Binghe laughed as he climbed in on the other side away from the fire. Shen Yuan didn’t dare to wiggle around to look and he could feel Luo Binghe move around before settling down.
He thought that he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep but the warmth around him, his full belly, the merry crackling of the fire, and the faint sounds of Luo Binghe’s breathing lulled him to sleep faster than he could snap his fingers.
They quickly developed a routine.
Shen Yuan bathed first and went to bed earlier, but Luo Binghe followed him closely behind. They spent some time doing other things too, Shen Yuan’s needles and yarns migrated to his side after a few days while Luo Binghe always had a book or scroll at hand on his side. As the weather went way below freezing and the spells started straining to keep the warmth in fully, they started spending more and more time in bed. It was just easier to stay bundled up in there and only leave for a few things, like going to the bathroom.
The first time Shen Yuan woke up with Luo Binghe molded to his back, he went rigid with panic. He didn’t know what woke him up earlier than Luo Binghe but he had a suspicion.
He would have sworn if he wasn’t worried that he would wake up the older man using him as some sort of a teddy bear. He could feel every inch of Luo Binghe’s body, from his arms wrapped around Shen Yuan’s waist to his legs that were entwined with his. One of Luo Binghe’s thighs was pushed between his, making it look like Shen Yuan was riding on his thigh.
The warm pressure, the strong muscles under his ass and between his legs, and Shen Yuan had a bigger growing problem than just being spooned by his old teacher.
It was exactly as he feared when they started sleeping together. He knew that this day would come.
He tried to wiggle out from under Luo Binghe’s hold on him but it was useless. Even when he was asleep and fully relaxed, Luo Binghe was much more powerful than him. The more Shen Yuan tried to move the more Luo Binghe seemed to cling to him.
Shen Yuan had wet dreams like these once upon a time… but the reality was so much better and worse at the same time. He could only hope that Luo Binghe didn’t wake up until Shen Yuan had his body a bit more under control.
The moment the thought ran through his mind, he could feel Luo Binghe stiffen behind him and the need to swear got a lot stronger. He was debating whether to pretend that he was asleep or just bite the bullet when Luo Binghe moved. It was just a minuscule movement, but something hot and hard tilted away from Shen Yuan’s body. Oh, Shen Yuan thought and blushed.
Luo Binghe’s mouth was next to Shen Yuan’s ear. “Are you awake, A-Yuan?”
He could lie, the thought ran through his mind quicker than lighting, and Shen Yuan hesitated for just a second too long. Luo Binghe started drawing back, smoothly, carefully; making sure not to wake him up and that was what decided it for Shen Yuan. He twisted around and feeling bold reached out for Luo Binghe’s hands.
“Yes.” He said and watched those beautiful eyes widen. The older man looked down at their hands, the way Shen Yuan’s clawed fingers were delicately wrapped around his though they both knew such care was unnecessary. Then Luo Binghe looked up into his eyes, flicking down to his lips just once.
There was something hungry growing in Shen Yuan’s belly and it made him daring. “May I kiss you?”
There was a very fetching dusting of red across Luo Binghe’s cheeks before he smiled. “Yes.”
Shen Yuan leaned forward, catching the corner of Luo Binghe’s lips and the older man turned his head slightly so their lips could properly meet. There wasn’t much thought in Shen Yuan’s mind after that, just heat and the overwhelming safety and love that he could feel in Luo Binghe’s every movement.
They spent the rest of the morning trading slow and lazy kisses and their hands wandering around each other’s bodies.
It was as close to perfection as they could come.
Their wedding – when they finally had one – was a private affair… so, of course, the entirety of Cang Qiong Sect showed up to celebrate with them.