Shen Qingqiu knew what this was. What else could it be except qi deviation? He’d entered the spirit caves not too long ago, to cultivate and to gain insight about his disciples. Whatever people thought of him, if he had truly left his students’ development up to chance Qing Ding Peak would never have retained the standing it had. In truth, he bothered with them quite a lot, which was why their showing in Shuang Hu City was so disappointing. He needed to rectify his failures with them as soon as possible, so he’d left them polishing their basics and entered secluded cultivation.
It had been a good plan. Only, there were other people elsewhere in the cave system also doing secluded cultivation, and their number included Liu Qingge. This would prove to be his fatal error.
Upon entering the spirit caves, Shen Qingqiu had made note of where noise was coming from, pursed his lips, and chose a path that would leave him a reasonable distance away from it. He intended to cultivate alone, and anywhere Liu Qingge was would be emptier than other spaces. None of the disciples doing sword meditations would take up anywhere near him, and the only thing less likely than his approaching Liu Qingge to meditate was the man approaching him.
The cavern he’d chosen was adequate, containing a small reflective pool and a clear space he could set up beside it, amidst a group of sharp stalagmites that would prevent undetected intrusions and ensure his security. Meditation came quickly, though progress was sure to be slow. It had been some time since he had last been alone with himself like this. He had a lot to work through.
And then a short while later there was a noise he was not expecting, which broke through his trance—the sound of a human in great pain. That, unfortunately, was a noise a peak lord could not afford to ignore in this space, even if it turned out to be nothing.
Not that there was much it could be. There were no enemies in Lingxi Caves except the demons its visitors brought in with them, and there was only Liu Qingge in the vicinity. The noise came again, and Shen Qingqiu broke into a jog, barely avoiding catching the edge of his robes on the sharp stone. Few knew the dangers of qi deviation as thoroughly as he, and time would be of the essence. There would be no going for other help.
It was only a few moments before his worst instinct proved correct, as usual. Cheng Luan lay bloodied on the floor beside Liu Qingge, and for a moment Shen Qingqiu wondered if the man was already dead. He approached with haste.
If his reflexes had been any slower he would have been slaughtered halfway into the room as Cheng Luan flew up towards him on its own. Shen Qingqiu deflected with an energy blast, reflecting that any damage done to the caves could not be worse than what they had already been put through. Though with his cast used on the sword, the human had the first blow against Shen Qingqiu.
He’d had worse from disciples. Liu Qingge must be far gone if this was his best attempt. Shen Qingqiu moved with the force of the blow to put himself in Liu Qingge’s space, grabbing his shoulder. “Stupid man,” he muttered. “Don’t fight this, for both our sakes.”
Liu Qingge’s qi was a roiling mess, and it bestirred itself worse as the man tried to attack Shen Qngqiu again. Shen Qingqiu tried to ignore it, instead focusing on calming his qi. This deviation, it was bad, worse than anything he’d faced in himself in years. It could easily prove fatal if proper care was not administered, and Shen Qingqiu was the only one here who could try.
So he did. Liu Qingge did not attack again, though he also did not speak or give any outwards signs of recognition. His qi was not calming, however. Not quickly enough to stop it from burning through his body. He coughed up more blood onto himself and Cheng Luan stopped attempting to rise through the air.
Shen Qingqiu gritted his teeth and put his back into it, but it wasn’t enough. Liu Qingge coughed again, more weakly, and his breathing grew labored. His qi started to calm, but that would not repair the damage it had caused.
“Shen—” Liu Qingge asked, confusion clear.
“Quiet, Liu Qingge. Try not to die.” Shen Qingqiu said, marshalling his qi again.
And that was the last thing Liu Qingge ever heard as he faded away.
Shen Qingqiu didn’t even realize for another minute that his martial brother was dead, and when he did, he wept tears of bitterness. What use was he, if he could not come quickly enough either to save his martial brother?
There would be next steps in a moment. Several moments. No one must know that he had failed here, or the other peak lords would hang him over his own bamboo. A cultivator’s hardiness would make that worse torture than any Emperor’s best gardens. His own qi swirled up threateningly, and Shen Jiu picked up Cheng Luan, turning it over in his hand as he tried to battle it down.
He shut his eyes, put down both Liu Qingge’s blade and his own, and took a deep breath to calm himself.
And when he opened his eyes, he was once again walking into the caves.
So yes, this must be qi deviation. Either Liu Qingge’s or his own, or both. Shen Qingqiu proceeded immediately to the part of the caves where Liu Qingge had been cultivating. There were noises that echoed faintly through the halls from that direction, just as when he had first arrived.
Was this a dream or a nightmare? He would soon find out. Xiu Ya was already out and in his hand when he turned the final corner and peered into the cavern Liu Qingge had chosen for cultivation.
It was—it wasn’t good. Liu Qingge twigged on to his presence immediately, despite the walls showing deep gashes that echoed just how long he must have been in this state while also presenting a picture of a Liu Qingge who still had the strength to hit him with his full power and lacked the faculties to remember why he didn’t want to.
This time when Cheng Luan attacked, Shen Qingqiu tried to deflect it with Xiu Ya, and he almost wasn’t strong enough to remain on his feet. A second blow was aimed his way before he’d even recovered from the first. It wasn’t that he did not practice diligently with his weapons, but more that this was Liu Qingge’s battlefield. For all that the man was an idiot meathead, Shen Qingqiu had to respect his martial abilities as being a cut above.
Or, in this case, a cut through. “Liu Qingge, remember yourself,” he gritted his teeth as his arm was slashed open by the edge of a powerful blow. But Liu Qingge did not answer except to swing again.
The body was stronger, but so was the qi that had sickled. This fight was not one Shen Qingqiu could win like this, underprepared and overmatched. And yet, failure was still not an option.
Shen Qingqiu was felled shortly after, driven to the ground when his weakening arm could not hold a parry and Cheng Luan bit down into the meat of his thigh. On the ground, he abandoned his sword and grabbed for the nearest part of Liu Qingge, an ankle, and tried. This was not how either of them were meant to die.
The opening of the Lingxi Caves was a familiar sight. It was also an unwelcome one.
Was this death?
Shen Qingqiu considered going in. He could just, find his own corner, and surely if the gods wished to punish him with a qi-deviating Liu Qingge then one would show up wherever he went. It wasn’t like he was good enough to fix that problem. But he found that he did not care to continue enduring it.
His hands were shaking, hard enough that his sword fell from limp fingers. This was shortly followed by him falling to his knees. Shen Qingqiu remained wholly unaware of this, however, as the world reasserted itself with the image of a man bent on destruction, the one he could not save coming right at him. Shen Qingqiu readied a spiritual attack, any basic technique he could do with his eyes closed, and let loose. It had no effect. Typical.
He did it again, and again, growing desperate and scared. He did not let these show, only channeling his emotion into greater and greater attacks. He no longer heard anything outside of the blood bolting through his ears, no longer saw anything except the threat in front of him.
It was not until his own body began to fail that he recognized what had happened to him. And surely if he was dying of this, then Liu Qingge was long gone, if the man was in trouble at all.
It…could have been worse, he supposed.
He opened his eyes again, to the view of Lingxi Caves and the memory of his mind folding under the strain. If this was real, Liu Qingge was inside, and there was nothing Shen Qingqiu could do to help him. Not when he felt so shaky in his own cultivation. Not when he wasn’t sure he wasn’t just dead.
Mu Qingfang would be able to help, if only Shen Qingqiu was quick enough.
He hadn’t even found the man when—
He blinked and saw Lingxi Caves again.
Fine. Mu Qingfang was too far. The nearest peak was Qiong Ding.
He knew better even as he tried. Yue Qi would never get there in time to help his shidi. He never did.
It was never fun to be proven right about such a thing, but if this had re-taught Shen Jiu one thing, it was that one could not rely on others during times of great need. If you could not handle yourself, you were already lost.
And so Shen Qingqiu died, and died, and died.
Lingxi Caves loomed large in his sight, this private hell of his. If Shen Qingqiu ever got to live a different day, he would never come back to this place again. There were other places he could go to work on his cultivation. This one was hardly worth all this trouble.
And yet, the gods had clearly set him a task. A hundred times now, Shen Qingqiu had fought for Liu Qingge’s life. He has tried to rush in while the body was less damaged, and been patient to push the spirit back into shape when it was weak. He has become accustomed to fighting in close quarters, at every disadvantage except sense, grown weary from all the heightened awareness and lack of rest. He has never been as good at keeping an even keel under pressure. He had even developed a new technique or two when he saw the specific ways his usual choices were failing against the man, for all the good it did either of them.
He could not abandon Liu Qingge any more than he could abandon his pride or his bitterness, and he would not. There was no concept of an ‘after’ or a ‘next’. There was only the moment.
The plan was simple enough. Shen Qingqiu settled into a cave near where Liu Qingge still fought with his qin and began to play a melody he knew would drive the other man to him. Once the bait had been taken, he would add in a spirit-calming harmony, as one might do for any badly injured creature. Then, when Liu Qingge had gotten in near, and was close enough to be more confused than anything, he would strike properly with a spiritual technique to disable Cheng Luan and grab the man and not let go until his meridians were clear.
Even if it took all day. Even if it took his life.
He was ready. The noises of fighting were soft, but they pounded in his bloodstream, every moment one he couldn’t afford to waste. Every note that came out of his instrument was perfect, and all seemed to be going to plan. The noises grew closer to him and then fewer between. His timing, switching instruments, was impeccable. Long experience had taught him exactly which furrow in Qingge’s brow to look for, the calm before the storm.
And then he missed a parry. All he could think as Cheng Luan came to bite him in half was that it was his fault, for never being perfect. And that he would try again, in just a few moments.
Of course, perfection was a pipe dream. Exhausted from all that had come before, something always seemed to go wrong. Shen Qingqiu would play the notes in the wrong orders, or miss his cue, or fumble with clumsy fingers.
Eventually he realized that Liu Qingge barely felt like a person anymore, but more of a goal, or a penance. He hated himself more in that moment than he had ever before: the notion that he might have turned out, despite his best efforts, exactly like Qi-ge. But Liu Qingge would never remember all of his failures, if the gods were kind and they ever got out of this qi spiral.
He could no longer look at this like a puzzle he was trying to piece back together. No, he went back to the basics. Liu Qingge was a martial brother, one of his people despite himself, and he would not die under Shen Qingqiu’s watch.
There would be no going for help. No grand puzzles. There was just qi and death. Shen Qingqiu walked in to the Caves, holding neither sword nor qin, and walked directly to the place where Liu Qingge was.
He’d been stabbed so many times by Cheng Luan at this point that he barely even noticed, and even considered it just for the handfuls of flesh he had managed to grab onto in the bargain. Like this, he pulled down every barrier between their qi and breathed for him. Like this, either they both would live, or they both would die and if unlucky be reborn as a single person between them in their next life.
And, somehow, it was working. Liu Qingge was breathing again on his own, despite being curled over Shen Qingqiu’s injured shoulder.
“Don’t fight this, brute,” Shen Qingqiu whispered, though his tone did not match the tenor of his words. Liu Qingge’s brow furled, but didn’t fight it. Maybe he could feel, as Shen Qingqiu did, the depth of this connection, or maybe he was just too far gone. A long minute passed without a sound, and then ten more. It was approaching the longer of Shen Qingqiu’s previous attempts when Liu Qingge stirred properly.
“Shen Qingqiu?” he asked.
“Don’t get up. You’ve managed to cultivate into qi deviation, and if I have to try to save you from it one more time I may as well throw myself on my own sword.”
Liu Qingge shifted, and made as if to stand. Shen Qingqiu kicked one of his legs out from under him. Did the man not understand? No, of course not. It wasn’t like he ever seemed to remember what had come before.
A long moment passed. “You never call me ‘shidi’,” Liu Qingge said.
Shen Qingqiu hummed and nearly responded offhand when he realized that this was it. He’d survived. He’d won. Liu Qingge didn’t die, and neither had he. His body wanted to collapse in relief, but he held onto his composure. Liu Qingge was the same bonehead that he’d always been, and being in a vulnerable position for once wouldn’t be enough to change that. Shen Jiu may have changed his thoughts, but that was private.
“Then forgive me for misspeaking, Liu Qingge. I believe you are well enough to drag yourself over to Qian Cao Peak now. Do not undo my hard work.” And then he turned to leave.
A hand grabbed onto his ankle, surprisingly strong given the state of its owner. “….you too.” Liu Qingge spoke into the ground.
“Qian Cao. We should both go. If you stopped my qi deviation, then you must have put yourself at risk. If you suffer qi deviation yourself…”
Shen Qingqiu nearly snapped back that he knew his limits. Besides, he knew his value. He was not the kind of person that anyone would go after someone as esteemed as Liu Qingge for revenge over his death. Not even Yue Qingyuan. He could cultivate himself into a deviation if he damn well pleased, having earned the time apart and having the experience to handle one.
But, somehow… “Fine. I’ll let Mu Qingfang check my meridians. Now, walk.”
Liu Qingge scowled at him, and stumbled forwards.
Maybe this would change nothing between them. Surely, Liu Qingge would just take this for what it was, perhaps call them even for the crime of protecting him that one other time. At worst, Shen Qingqiu already knew what it was like to have a misunderstanding about where he stood on Liu Qingge’s continued lifespan. If anyone throught to call foul play, they would have something new coming.
The entrance to Lingxi Caves was as bright and glittering as ever, but Shen Qingqiu was getting to leave them this time. It made for such a better view.