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lonely little heartbeat

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe sleeps lightly and wakes fast. He understands what’s happened almost as soon as he comes into awareness. The floor is hard under him, and Shen Yuan’s soothing weight is nowhere to be found.

Shen Yuan often drowses in the morning, taking a long time to throw off the weight of sleep. Luo Binghe wishes he could do the same. He would give anything to drift back into sleep and delay the truth.

Instead, he scrambles to his feet, every familiar sight causing a ripple of panic.

It’s not fair. He only just learned to value what he had. He was taken from Cang Qiong Mountain at his moment of greatest despair, deposited into Shen Yuan’s apartment like a benediction. But this time he was torn right from Shen Yuan’s arms, after Shen Yuan whispered forever in his ear.

Luo Binghe, Qing Jing Peak disciple, would usually wake earlier than his peers so they couldn’t berate him for sleeping in. He would leave the woodshed immediately to make himself harder to find and use the early morning solitude to train. He would be as quiet as possible. If anyone noticed him, they would see him doing chores or practicing with his sword. Dutifully contributing to the peak.

But now the idea of doing these things makes him furious. He looks at the piles of wood that he himself split and stacked against the wall, and anger fills his spiritual veins like power.

How could he have been made to do this? How could he have devoted so much time and effort to this place and people who have never loved him? What was all that suffering for? It’s hollow now that he knows he could exert himself for Shen Yuan instead.

He understands now that whatever force brought him to that world was not Shen Yuan’s doing. Because Shen Yuan would not have sent him away. He said he wouldn’t, and his still-fresh injuries were a warning not to doubt him again. So that means someone, something, some power he doesn’t understand took him away from Shen Yuan. The thought causes an upwelling of hate, black as char.

The inside of him is so dark and violent sometimes, a storm that could swallow him. It’s the opposite of that pure kindness and light that Shen Yuan radiates. Luo Binghe needs him.

And he needs Luo Binghe. Luo Binghe never got to hear the extent of his injuries, but Shen Yuan couldn’t even stand when he left, and his right hand was useless. He won't be able to take care of himself, all because of Luo Binghe’s suspicions. Shen Yuan was so generous to Luo Binghe that he nearly shed tears over Luo Binghe’s minor cuts and scrapes, that first day. Luo Binghe repaid that kindness by leaving him in a much worse state. Tending to him while he recovers is the only way Luo Binghe can think to redeem himself. Without that option, he’s left to imagine Shen Yuan’s suffering—he doesn’t even like to eat anything not cooked by Luo Binghe—with no way to help. He must be alone as well as in pain—or with someone else to tend to his needs. The way that possibility hurts worse makes Luo Binghe hate himself more.

He’s long known that fortune does not favor him. But it would have been easier to just resign himself to being fate’s kicked dog, never given a scrap. Instead, he’s been allowed to know two precious people—his mother and Shen Yuan—only to have both taken from him.

In a fit of rage, he turns to the piles of stacked wood and pulls them apart, throwing them into disarray all over the small shed. He usually keeps it neat, not only as part of his duties, but because it’s the one space that might charitably be considered his own. If he’s to be confined, he can at least take pride in his cell. But it’s all useless now. Nothing good he has can last. This dark, cramped room is nothing to be proud of.

He wants to end all of this, the depressing routines of his life here. Every small, inadequate defense against despair he’s managed to construct. It’s all worthless. He draws his sword and hacks at the logs, splintering them into kindling.

When his appetite for destruction finally wanes, he stands in the center of a maelstrom of wood and sawdust. It occurs to him then for the first time that he will be punished for this.

The thought makes no impact. Nothing can be worse than losing Shen Yuan. He gets back down on the floor and curls up in the tiny space where he’d been standing.

He told himself after the tea incident that he’d never let Shen Qingqiu make him cry again, and he’s kept that promise. But if he cries now, it’s not for Shen Qingqiu’s cruelty, but for Shen Yuan’s kindness. He doesn’t want to close himself to that; he gives consent for it to hurt.

Luo Binghe puts his face in his hands and cries until his eyes are sore. If Shen Yuan were here, he might wrap him in his arms again, like he’s done every time Luo Binghe has cried in his presence. Not having him hurts, but knowing that he would helps a little.

The thought of never seeing him again is unbearable, so Luo Binghe refuses to bear it.

He will not live without Shen Yuan forever. Some force brought them together, which means that a form of magic must exist that bridges their worlds. There must be some secluded sect, some demon clan with closely-guarded family secrets, some rare spiritual artifact—something in some corner of the world that can take him back to Shen Yuan. So he needs to do everything he can to find it.

Shen Yuan wanted him to be a good cultivator? Luo Binghe’s going to become the best. He’s going to read every book on the Twelve Peaks. He’ll travel to every remote wasteland, talk to every renowned master. Whatever it takes, not only to get back to Shen Yuan, but to be what Shen Yuan wants him to be, the version of himself that Shen Yuan thought he saw and loved.

He’s not good, and Shen Yuan knows that now; he knows what Luo Binghe did. But he promised to care for Luo Binghe anyway. Luo Binghe wants to deserve it.

-

The next few days pass in a blur. Luo Binghe does his duties as needed. Because he is the one who most frequently enters the woodshed, what he did in rage is not discovered right away. So Luo Binghe cleans it up himself, restacking the wood he didn’t break to pieces and sweeping out the dust. He complies with what’s expected of him, not out of fear as before, but out of shock. Like an animal with its leg caught in a trap, he just doesn’t know what else to do.

But he observes the trap, trying harder than ever before to learn its weak points.

From the perspective of those around him, it’s only been a few days since Luo Binghe won the fight that sent demons running from their mountain. The shine of victory still clings to him, making his fellow disciples hesitate before treating him as they’re accustomed, but he knows nothing has changed in Shen Qingqiu’s dead heart. His shizun may be biding his time now, while Luo Binghe’s name is being spoken with approval all over the mountain. But his opinion of Luo Binghe remains the same, and the Qing Jing Peak disciples take their cue from him. Shen Qingqiu may even resent him more now for not dying when he was meant to.

For three nights, he sleeps dreamlessly. On the fourth night—several days after the demon battle—he finds himself dreaming of a desolate wasteland, the soil dry and infertile, unable to nourish any plants to break up the expanse of the horizon. The landscape before his eyes, strange patterns flickering against the gray sky. He turns, disoriented, and sees that he’s not alone. The person standing near him is unmistakably Shen Yuan.

“Yuan-ge!” Luo Binghe sprints to him, not sparing a moment to think before throwing himself into Shen Yuan’s arms. Shen Yuan laughs and pats his head.

When Luo Binghe peers at his face, he’s not quite solid. There’s a soft, blurry quality to him, the details fading when he looks too closely. It must be a dream, but seeing him like this has Luo Binghe’s heart running wild with hope. Dreams can be strange; they say some demons even have the power to enter them. There is magic in the world that pushed Luo Binghe and Shen Yuan together before. Mightn’t it be possible for Shen Yuan’s soul to be able to communicate with him this way? Couldn’t the insubstantial quality be due to Shen Yuan’s body residing in another realm? Stranger things have happened.

Even if it’s only a dream, Luo Binghe is so glad to dream of him.

“Binghe,” Shen Yuan says warmly. “Binghe, it’s so good to see you. Should we look around a little?”

“Yuan-ge...” He wants to be doted on and fed spicy snacks, but he lets Shen Yuan gently prise him off and push him to start exploring.

It’s so good to walk by his side. It’s not only Shen Yuan’s kindness he loves. Being with him gives Luo Binghe a respite from his darkest feelings, the ones that stalk him like nighttime monsters when he’s curled up with only his thoughts. He spends his days under the shadow of Shen Qingqiu’s hatred, with only his resentment and anger to keep him alive. But it feels so much better to be Shen Yuan’s Binghe, praised and petted. He’s lightheaded with relief, buoyant as they wander together.

Where they started was nothingness, but as they walk, a city takes form around them. Luo Binghe thinks at first that the dream is recreating one of his outings with Shen Yuan, until he gets a closer look at the people passing by. Where their facial features should be is smooth skin.

A nightmare after all. Luo Binghe clings to Shen Yuan’s hand. “Yuan-ge, who are these people?”

“I don’t know,” Shen Yuan says. “Stay close, Binghe, okay?”

Luo Binghe happily listens. He’ll endure any nightmare if it means staying close to Shen Yuan.

Then the dream goes wrong.

It’s recreating Luo Binghe’s memories. They start badly and only get worse. He’s forced to watch himself being beaten and humiliated on the streets; failing his dying mother; losing his precious jade Guanyin.

He doesn’t want Shen Yuan to see these memories. Luo Binghe’s past is so shameful. He's always been too weak to stop these things from happening, always at the mercy of whoever decides to be cruel to him.

In the way of dreams, nothing he does seems to have any effect. With the training he has now, he should be able to pick off the older boys who bullied him over stolen congee; his improved speed should be enough to get him to his mother’s door before she passed. But nothing works. His attacks do nothing but distress Shen Yuan.

“Binghe, it’s okay,” Shen Yuan says, reaching out to hold him back as he tussles with his fellow disciples. “Don’t be upset.”

“Yuan-ge, I can’t...” He can’t just watch these things without doing something. He tears away and leaps toward the illusory Ming Fan. Ming Fan smirks and pulls his elbow back to throw a punch, which Luo Binghe prepares to absorb, but at the last moment Shen Yuan shoves him aside.

The moment hangs in the air. Luo Binghe freezes as he realizes what’s happening. The memories started with his early life and moved forward in time. Now the dream is shifting into his most immediate nightmare, forcing him to relive Shen Yuan getting hurt on his behalf. Just as before, he’s too slow and too late to stop it.

The instant the blow makes contact, there’s a feeling like glass shattering around him. The dream Ming Fan disappears, and Luo Binghe runs forward to catch Shen Yuan as he falls.

Shen Yuan looks up at Luo Binghe tenderly, and for a moment Luo Binghe thinks he’s done it—he’s finally changed something. But Shen Yuan fades under his hands, unraveling into clouds of smoke that slip through Luo Binghe’s desperate fingers.

“Yuan-ge!” He doesn’t want to lose him again—the pain of it is so fresh, blood still pouring from the wound. But Shen Yuan is already disappearing along with everything else. The city around them collapses to dust, and Luo Binghe ends up in the same wasteland he was in before, still curled around the absence of Shen Yuan’s body.

Once again, he’s not alone. There’s an old man facing him with his arms crossed, eyebrows raised appraisingly.

“Very good,” he says. “Surprisingly good.”

Luo Binghe jumps to his feet, clenching his fists. “Where’s Yuan-ge?”

“Who—the construct you made?” The old man laughs. “Very good. I’ve never seen anything like that. I hope you don’t mind me dismissing him so we can talk.”

“Give him back!”

“Calm down,” the old man says, amused. “There will be plenty of time to dream whatever you want to dream. Typically, you know, there are two ways to respond in a dream trap. The first is to fall for the illusion and lash out at your memories until you fall into a coma and die. But some knowledgeable cultivators can recognize the nature of the trap and ignore it, maintaining their inner peace. I’ve never seen anyone respond like you—you fell for it completely, but broke the trap through sheer force. And you even made your own construct to help you! Which he did, of course, because you cared enough for him to tear apart the illusion.”

Luo Binghe doesn’t know what any of this means.

“It shows natural talent,” the old man says, “for the demonic arts.”

And he offers to make Luo Binghe his apprentice.

Before the demon battle, Luo Binghe would have said no. For all Shen Qingqiu’s cruelties, he was a loyal disciple of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. But he understands now how completely Shen Qingqiu has failed him as a teacher. The thought of betraying Shen Qingqiu behind his back—and how could Shizun find out what happens in dreams?—gives him a vicious stab of pleasure. Besides, he can’t shy away from the demon realm. The key to returning to Shen Yuan’s world may well be there.

“You said that I created a construct. Does that mean he also came from my memories?”

“He must have,” the old man—Meng Mo—says. “You have a natural affinity for dream magic. When your mind felt itself being pulled into the trap, it reached out for something to protect itself, and stole some of my power to manifest it. Now, no more answers until you agree to be my disciple! I can’t just explain dream manipulation to anyone who comes asking!”

So no part of it was real. He imagined Shen Yuan there because he wanted him.

He’s still learning the shape of the wound that Shen Yuan left. It’s not yet old and familiar like the rest. It hurts inside him, raw and ruinous.

The illusion was almost right, the heft of Yuan-ge’s arms around Luo Binghe almost solid enough. Luo Binghe could nearly smell him. If Luo Binghe can learn this power... It’s only a dream. But he wants to dream of Shen Yuan as often as possible.

At least it gives him something to do, something real he can work on. He’s given up on learning anything from Shen Qingqiu.

“Yes, Shifu,” he says. He gets to his knees and prostrates himself in a bow.

-

The agreement with Meng Mo gives him the first spark of excitement he’s felt since returning to this realm. He feels a little better for the next couple of days, knowing that whatever happens on Qing Jing Peak, he can learn and train in his dreams.

It lasts until he manages to run afoul of Shen Qingqiu again. Shen Qingqiu finds some flaw in materials Luo Binghe delivered from An Ding Peak, after choosing him for the errand likely so that he could find a flaw.

Shen Qingqiu has him tied to the ground and beaten bloody. He doesn’t cry or scream, just absorbs it, his body and mind hardening against the pain. All the blackness in him swarms to the surface, poisoning his thoughts like spilled ink.

He’s long learned to expect this treatment. But lying on the ground after, he worries for the first time about what thoughts come to him when Shen Qingqiu punishes him: violent urges, fantasies of lurid gore. He wants to be Shen Yuan’s little sheep, a good companion for sightseeing and watching anime. Shen Qingqiu scours all of that out of him, turning him into an incubator for hate.

He remembers the suspicion and hostility he directed toward Shen Yuan when he first came to that realm. How could he have treated Shen Yuan that way? How could he ever have suspected Yuan-ge was anything but perfect? It was because of this, because of the way the world darkens around him and within him when Shen Qingqiu hurts him. He doesn’t want to get back to Shen Yuan only to find himself ruined, the good parts of him already beaten to dust.

And now that he knows his cultivation is being sabotaged, he can’t stay here. He needs to learn cultivation properly. Everything depends on it.

He tells Ning Yingying as much when she comes to check on him: “I’m going to leave Qing Jing Peak if I can.”

“A-Luo, no!” She bursts into tears. “You can’t!”

“Shijie, I have to.”

Yingying reaches for his hand, squeezing it. “I know it’s hard, but—Shizun has to see that you’re improving. He’ll get better. He’ll stop being so mean to you.”

If there’s any form of him that would please Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe doesn’t want to warp himself into it. He just wants to go back to where he’s already welcome.

Yingying really does care about him. He heard her protest when Shen Qingqiu sent him out to fight. It just wasn’t enough. Just like she’ll come to check on him after Shizun is done hurting him, but she can’t do anything to stop it.

It’s better to have her, his only real friend, than no one. He really does love her. It’s just not enough.

He lets her put her arms around his neck, carefully avoiding the fresh welts on his shoulders, and fuss over him. His bruised heart soaks in every drop of affection it can get. She kisses him on the cheek and then pulls back, blushing and looking down. He'll take that too. Whatever she can give him. He puts his head on her shoulder while she cries, everything in him wanting to be close.

In Shen Yuan’s world, the qi exercises he did seemed to have little effect. But here, where his qi flows more freely, his cultivation is finally working as it should. For once, his injuries improve significantly overnight, the skin knitting itself back together. He’s only a little sore when he goes over the rainbow bridge to Cang Qiong Peak and asks for an audience with the sect leader.

“Tell him it’s about Shen Qingqiu,” he says. Everyone knows the sect leader has a soft spot for him; some say it even goes back as far as when they were training together as head disciples. Sure enough, Luo Binghe is ushered into Yue Qingyuan’s small but opulent residence.

It’s more lavish than Qing Jing, where the peak’s reputation for ascetic study outweighs any need to demonstrate the wealth of Cang Qiong Mountain. Luo Binghe kneels and presses his forehead to the floor, his stomach fluttering at his own daring for coming here.

If it weren’t for the fight, he wouldn’t have come, because Yue Qingyuan would likely never have even heard his name. But everyone now knows that there exists a disciple named Luo Binghe who resides on Qing Jing Peak.

The sect leader mentions it right away, saying, “I heard we had Luo Binghe to thank for chasing a whole army of demons away.”

“Zhangmen-shibo, I did nothing but my duty,” Luo Binghe says without looking up. “But if I’ve earned even a moment of Zhangmen-shibo’s time, I would like to spend it.”

Yue Qingyuan gestures for him to sit up. Luo Binghe settles in a kneeling position, head still bowed respectfully. His hands tremble with nerves, but he has nothing to lose.

“I would like to train at Bai Zhan Peak,” he says.

Yue Qingyuan regards him coolly. “I believe the Peak Lord of Qing Jing selected you as his disciple personally. Isn’t that right?”

Luo Binghe swallows. “That is right. I... no longer believe I can reach my full potential at Qing Jing Peak.” He takes in a breath, pushing past the rapid pound of fear in his chest. “Zhangmen-shibo, there are... things about Qing Jing Peak that are not clear to outsiders. There are things only Shizun’s disciples know of him.”

That Shizun’s cultivation is unstable, resulting in frequent qi deviations. That Shizun returns from town at late hours, or early in the morning, smelling of rouge. Shizun’s volatile temper. All the secrets that Qing Jing disciples keep for the sake of the sect. Surely Yue Qingyuan must know.

“I wish to train at Bai Zhan, but if it can’t be permitted, then I plan to leave the sect and seek instruction elsewhere. So then... the things that I’ve learned here in Cang Qiong Mountain... might leave the sect with me.”

Shen Qingqiu will hate it if he tries to leave Qing Jing, and Yue Qingyuan dotes on Shen Qingqiu. So if he doesn’t get the sect leader’s assent, he’ll only be forced back into Shen Qingqiu’s clutches.

His strategy has long been to avoid bringing attention to himself, so this meeting goes against all his survival instincts. If Yue Qingyuan is as cruel as Shen Qingqiu, he might simply decide to kill Luo Binghe for, essentially, blackmailing him. But remaining on Qing Jing Peak is killing him in a different way by ruining him for Shen Yuan. The risk is worth it.

Yue Qingyuan takes a long time to respond. “It’s a terrible thing for a child to be kept from his best chances,” he says finally. And then: “Don’t speak to your shizun about this. I’ll tell him myself.”

-

Bai Zhan Peak has no Peak Lord. The man died in a qi deviation only a few months ago, and has not been replaced. Moreover, he never chose a head disciple to be his successor, so Bai Zhan disciples are left to learn from each other. Bai Zhan students have a fearsome reputation, but the peak’s lack of a shizun was Luo Binghe’s main reason for choosing it. The last thing he wants is to be stuck with another Shen Qingqiu. If he can improve his combat skills, all the better.

Where Qing Jing Peak disciples mostly studied, Bai Zhan Peak disciples mostly fight. Luo Binghe doesn’t prefer one or the other. Both are ways to keep his mind occupied for some precious time—maybe even half a shichen—not thinking about how much he wants Shen Yuan.

As he grows used to being back in his world of origin, it starts to feel less wrong when he wakes up every day not in Shen Yuan’s extra bedroom. He spent five months there, but he’s spent fifteen years in his own realm. But becoming more accustomed to being without Shen Yuan doesn’t mean it hurts any less. After all, there’s no one who could possibly replace him, no one who will treat Luo Binghe like a precious thing to be sheltered and guarded.

Certainly no one would shelter a Bai Zhan Peak student. Still, something lifts from him when he moves to Bai Zhan, leaving him lighter on his feet. Shen Qingqiu will not come here.

He doesn’t have his own room with cloud-soft blankets and a mountain of pillows, but he gets a small, sturdy wooden bed in the disciple dormitories. And when he’s hurt, it’s from training, not punishment. It’s not an easy existence, but no one hurts him with malice. Yingying even comes to visit him sometimes, although it makes him nervous. Not that Shen Qingqiu would ever really punish Yingying, but Luo Binghe doesn’t want to remind the man of his existence at all.

Bai Zhan Peak disciples are always fighting each other, but also sharing knowledge. If you are beaten in a fight, it’s acceptable to ask the victor to explain where you failed. Luo Binghe is already better off now than he would have been half a year ago, thanks to his improved qi circulation. With people willing to teach him, he learns fast.

He improves even more quickly under the guidance of the only shizun he has now: Meng Mo. Luo Binghe is ravenous to learn dream cultivation, not least because he is starting to be able to manifest a watery version of Shen Yuan on his own. It’s essential that he learns this now, while the memories are fresh. This way, he can preserve them. He can hold in his mind the fall of Shen Yuan’s hair, the shirts he wore most, the way he always laughed as if startled by his own enjoyment.

A month passes. Luo Binghe still loses almost every fight, but he’s getting stronger. Whatever the outcome, every night he dreams of crawling into Shen Yuan’s lap and telling him about it. He makes Shen Yuan pet him like a scared animal and tell him he’s done well.

It’s childish and weak, but Shen Yuan really does care for him. Luo Binghe won’t ever doubt it again. So perhaps he wouldn’t hate Luo Binghe too much for using him this way.

He can’t bring himself to make his dream Shen Yuan do anything they haven’t done in the waking world. It would be disrespectful. But the desire for it is there, weighing heavily on the atmosphere of the dreams. In daylight he thinks about it constantly, in terms so explicit that at first he’s ashamed knowing Meng Mo can read his thoughts. But the old demon has seen so many lurid thoughts, dreams and memories that nothing phases him. So Luo Binghe’s fantasies grow bolder.

He doesn’t know much about physical pleasures; none of the books on Qing Jing Peak or the techniques practiced on Bai Zhan have given him any information on the matter. He picks things up from rumors, conjecture, bawdy songs and his own imagination, and every tidbit he learns is immediately integrated into his thoughts of Shen Yuan.

Luo Binghe is carrying water up the mountain and deep into a daydream involving the Shanghai metro when Meng Mo finally speaks up. “Hell’s demons, kid—that’s not even how any of it works!”

"That is how the metro works," Luo Binghe says loftily.

After that, Meng Mo outlines some basics for him, complaining all the while. “Not at all what I signed up for—I’m meant to be training you in dark demonic arts! Not my fault you don’t have any older brothers to tell you—”

Despite his grumbling, Luo Binghe is grateful. He courteously makes sure his subsequent fantasies are as detailed and accurate as possible, to spare his teacher any further trouble.

After he’s been at Bai Zhan for a while, he starts to notice something unusual. There’s a young woman who sometimes shows up to watch the students spar, wearing the colors of Xian Shu Peak. He recognizes her, not by her face, but by the fact that it’s covered. She participated in the demon fight too, squaring off against the Saintess, although he doesn’t recall her name.

She watches the fights coolly, her dark eyes following the movements with ease. Luo Binghe knows she’s an excellent fighter herself, although the style of Xian Shu is unlike anything he’s been trained in.

So after a fight that he loses, he approaches her and asks if she’s noticed any weaknesses in his technique. She stares at him, her arched eyebrows drawing inward.

“Are you mocking me? I know you’re Luo Binghe. You won your fight after I lost.”

He’s in no mood to dole out flattery. “Come spar with me and we’ll see.” After a moment, she nods.

They fight. By the end of it, her expression—what little of it he can see—has loosened. She is more comfortable speaking with a blade than with words. As Luo Binghe expected, his fighting style is not well matched to hers. Although he wins in the end, he can barely land a single blow without her spinning sinuously away.

Luo Binghe has no need of friends, but he can’t ignore a path to improving his skills, not when he’s betting everything on becoming powerful enough to discover this world’s hidden secrets. So he bows his head and tells her he would be honored if she would continue sparring with him on her visits to Bai Zhan Peak. She inclines her head in return, not wasting any more words on the matter.

For several months, it goes on like this. The young woman comes every once in a while to watch the daily goings-on of Bai Zhan Peak, and then she and Luo Binghe fight and she leaves. They barely exchange a word; he doesn’t even know her name.

But eventually, they do start to talk about the fights. As with the other Bai Zhan disciples, Luo Binghe occasionally asks her for training advice, which she gives openly and directly. He treats her with the respect she shows him and answers her questions the same way.

One day, Luo Binghe starts explaining a scholarly work he read regarding the timeline of core formation, and the girl says bluntly, “Did you learn this at Qing Jing Peak?”

“Yes.”

“From Shen Qingqiu?”

Luo Binghe hesitates. Of course, after the demon battle he was well known as one of Shen Qingqiu’s disciples. Although he left the peak, it would be better not to speak disrespectfully of his former teacher. But he’s never minced words with his Xian Shu sparring partner before.

“I learned nothing from Shen Qingqiu.”

Her eyes narrow just slightly, as if she’s smiling.

“You don’t like him?”

Luo Binghe shakes his head. “He’s scum.”

She likes that. He watches her run a finger down the hilt of her sword in its scabbard. Then she says, “I think Shen Qingqiu killed my brother.”

He abruptly remembers her name.

They end up talking for a long time, until the shadows are long and the sun is threatening to sink behind the mountain. Luo Binghe’s never met anyone who hates Shen Qingqiu, truly hates him. Yingying didn’t like what he did to Luo Binghe, but she still respected him, like all the Qing Jing disciples. Luo Binghe never wanted to talk to Shen Yuan much about it, preferring to hide Shen Qingqiu in as dark a corner of his mind as possible. But he can tell Liu Mingyan everything Shen Qingqiu did, every piece of evidence of what a vile, petty, hateful man he is, and she takes it in seriously.

In return, she tells him about her brother, the target of Shen Qingqiu’s jealousy. She says she didn’t think anyone would believe her. Luo Binghe believes her.

"I want him to pay," she says. "I want everyone to find out about what he's done, and for him to die in disgrace. Don't you think about revenge?"

Of course he does. Even now, away from the man's influence, his thoughts turn violent when they turn to the Qing Jing Peak Lord.

"I'd help you," he promises. "I would help you expose him, and then I'd gladly run a sword through his heart."

He has fantasized about doing much worse. But now that he's met Shen Yuan, seeing Shen Qingqiu suffer no longer feels like the most important thing. Shen Qingqiu just needs to die, his life like a candle that's burned too long and should long have been snuffed. But the answer satisfies Liu Mingyan, whose eyes glitter in the waning light.

After that, she stays away from Bai Zhan for half a month. When she comes back, Luo Binghe is eager to spar with her and talk some more. But when they get away from the other disciples, instead of drawing her sword, Liu Mingyan says, “When we get older, I think we should get married.”

Luo Binghe freezes, stunned.

“Now that my brother is gone,” she continues, “I will be expected to find a husband. We’re both smart and good in combat, neither of us has any close family, and we share the same sentiments. A strong marriage alliance could benefit us both. I think we could find each other very tolerable.”

The idea of marrying her is unthinkable. But what she says makes sense. Luo Binghe does want to consolidate power, and having a wife confers status. Marrying into the Liu family would be an especially valuable connection. Does he really think he can gain the kind of power he wants on his own?

But his foolish heart doesn’t want anyone but Shen Yuan.

“You may consider it,” Liu Mingyan says, and pulls her sword on him. He draws his own in response, deeply relieved.

That night he lies awake in his dormitory bed, sleep evading him. He doesn’t want to betroth himself unless it’s to Shen Yuan. But is it arrogant to think Shen Yuan could desire him in the way Luo Binghe wants him to? And Luo Binghe doesn’t know how long it might be before he sees him again. Isn’t it even more arrogant to expect Shen Yuan to remain unmarried? He’s beautiful and wealthy, with an exceedingly alluring personality, and already twenty years old. His parents must be flooded with offers.

The thought of it makes Luo Binghe half-crazed. He’s powerless to stake any claim on Shen Yuan—even if they weren’t in separate realms, Shen Yuan made it clear he saw Luo Binghe as a child. He can’t expect that Shen Yuan will wait for him.

And he doesn’t know how long he will have to wait for Shen Yuan. The thought of a romantic attachment to anyone else makes him sick. But the thought of being alone for so many years floods him with panic. Just as with Ning Yingying’s blushing gestures, there’s a part of him that can’t turn away from any offer of companionship. Like a plant under the shade of a spreading tree, growing toward any hint of light. Liu Mingyan is offering to stand by his side. Luo Binghe is ashamed of how appealing an offer it is.

Marrying Liu Mingyan would give Luo Binghe access to wealth and influence like nothing he can reach now. If he distances himself from her after he finds Shen Yuan, she’ll still have the security of being a married woman, and his support against Shen Qingqiu.

It’s an option he can’t afford to refuse without considering. Still, he is paralyzed with fear, curled up on his sleeping mat with his face buried in the crook of his elbow. If he marries, will Shen Yuan be angry?

He likes Liu Mingyan, but he feels no urgent need to be close to her, no dizzying euphoria. His heart has committed no infidelity, and it never will. Is that good enough? He’s terrified of making the wrong choice, changing too much from the child Shen Yuan liked.

Even if he says yes, it will be a few years before the issue is raised again. Liu Mingyan is a year younger than him, and they are both too busy right now with their cultivation training to think of marriage.

When he sees Liu Mingyan again, he agrees, on the condition that they keep it between them until it’s necessary to announce. He can’t stand the thought of being congratulated on the engagement.

To his relief, Liu Mingyan doesn’t try to kiss him, or even lift her veil. She just nods, pleased. To seal the agreement, they switch the tassels on their swords.

A little after that, Liu Mingyan is officially selected as the head disciple of Xian Shu Peak, and her duties ramp up. She doesn’t have as much time to spend hanging around Bai Zhan Peak. Luo Binghe is horrified to find that he misses her.

He didn’t think he was that attached to Liu Mingyan. Can anyone who simply becomes familiar to him have the power to hurt him by drawing back? He can’t let that be true and survive. When she does come by, he tries to speak to her as little as possible.

-

After a year at Bai Zhan Peak, something strange happens. Luo Binghe starts winning fights.

In the year since he left Shen Yuan’s realm, he’s had a growth spurt. As he’s grown taller, the benefits of being fed regularly and training properly have started to show on his body. His arms and legs develop some bulk that he puts to good use in combat.

He trained just as hard at Qing Jing Peak, but he was constantly being set back by injury and sabotage. But once his strength starts to build, all the theory he learned in Qing Jing’s library starts to make sense. His muscles and his spiritual power grow in tandem.

When it’s time, he draws Zheng Yang from the cave at Wan Jian Peak. This feat causes his name to once again be whispered around the twelve peaks. Luo Binghe’s not conceited, but he can tell that the matches he has with other disciples are becoming fiercer and more competitive. He can feel the difference in strength. And he notices the way women look at him—and some men, too—nudging their friends and whispering.

His dream cultivation has improved in leaps and bounds, even after only two years. He’s only a little behind the skill of Meng Mo himself. Luo Binghe is almost certain that he has a good chance to make a name for himself at the Immortal Alliance Conference.

It’s the first chance he’s had to earn any real prestige. What’s more, everyone from Cang Qiong Mountain knows that he was once Shen Qingqiu’s student and chose to leave him. He’s not arrogant enough to think he might win, but if he makes an impression, it will be humiliating for Shen Qingqiu. Luo Binghe’s most powerful motivation is Shen Yuan, but he can’t let go of his spite.

He intends to move quickly through Jue Di Gorge, destroying every monster in sight, but he’s soon weighed down by a retinue of weaker cultivators who flock behind him like ducklings. Luo Binghe has no intention of wrecking his chance for the sake of others, but he’s stilled by something he hears one of the Huan Hua Palace sisters whisper to the other: that Luo Binghe is so kind for helping them.

Most people would not say that of him. He gets along fine with the other Bai Zhan disciples, but no one’s ever accused him of being kind, much less selfless. The only people who might think that are his late mother and Shen Yuan.

It keeps him delaying the moment he has to cut them loose. They see him as some kind of hero. Isn’t that what Shen Yuan would expect of him? Being near these grateful women gives him a shameful, weak hit of that feeling, like being looked at through Shen Yuan’s loving eyes.

He’s close enough to leap into action right away when things go wrong, rescuing Qin Wanrong from the powerful demon lurking in the river. Qin Wanyue clasps his hand in gratitude, her eyes shining with tears.

What she’s seeing isn’t him. He is not someone to act out of the goodness of his heart, or graciousness towards the weak. But if he must wear a mask, at least someone finds it pleasing. He’s startled to find himself smiling at her in return, the moment only made headier by the way she blushes.

Many of the weaker disciples scatter after that, in the confusion of violence breaking out in the gorge. Qin Wanyue, though, just sticks closer to him. Luo Binghe is by far her superior in combat, but Qin Wanyue is smart and fast, quickly proving her worth. They do their best to cut down any demons who come near, but eventually they’re forced to run for cover.

In the darkness, surrounded by screams echoing off the sides of the gorge and masking everyone’s location, they get separated even from Qin Wanyue’s sister. She cries when she realizes, and leans in close to Luo Binghe, offering herself to be comforted.

Her vulnerability strikes him as familiar, and when he recognizes it, he nearly flinches with humiliation. It’s like the way he seeks comfort from his dream Shen Yuan. The only person he can be so unguarded with is a construct of his own creation. He embraces Qin Wanyue, filled with pity for her and for himself, and she clings to him like he’s done something right.

They manage to rest in a clearing for some time before they're thrown back into combat. This time the demonic beast they face catches Qin Wanyue’s cheek with the tip of its barbed tail, leaving a needle-thin scratch. Luo Binghe kills it quickly, but it doesn’t take them long to realize that Qin Wanyue’s qi is blocked. She is unable to summon even enough of it to make her hand glow. The beast must have been venomous.

If the venom is strong enough to stagnate her spiritual power so quickly, it must be potent. Neither of them has to say it, but Qin Wanyue’s eyes are round with fear. Luo Binghe starts to panic.

He's not afraid of facing these monsters alone. But Qin Wanyue likes and trusts him. There aren’t enough such people that he can afford to be careless with their lives. Qin Wanyue held him in the dark, preferring his company to anyone else’s. He can’t stand the thought of failing her.

He let his mother die before he could run back to her. He let Shen Yuan get hurt, and was torn away before he could repay the debt. Is caring about him such a death sentence? Can he not protect a single person who loves him?

Luo Binghe has an excellent memory. Even years later, he remembers seeing “Jue Di Gorge” in a book he read on poisons. It is the native habitat of the Thousand-Leaves Fresh Snow Lotus, a flower that acts as a panacea. Even if they don’t know the nature of the poison, it should save Qin Wanyue.

They’re already a day and most of a night into the conference. Finding the flower takes the rest of the night and well into late morning. Between fighting off creatures and Qin Wanyue’s worsening condition, they don’t have a single moment of rest.

By the time Luo Binghe presses the little white bloom into her hands, Qin Wanyue is fading. His panic has been mounting for hours with the helplessness of knowing he’s not doing enough to save her. But it’s done. He found it.

He cups her jaw in his hand as she swallows it down, feeling oddly tender. In all of this chaos, Qin Wanyue has given herself to him as something to protect. As terrified as Luo Binghe is of failing her, he is grateful. It’s something, for someone to stay by his side and put their faith in him. He doesn't want to lose it.

But to his horror, the flower has no effect. Qin Wanyue’s qi is still blocked, her face bloodless and drawn. She stumbles, her legs too weak to hold her. Luo Binghe catches her and guides her to the ground.

“We can—” he starts. “This valley is full of strange magic. We’ll keep looking. There has to be something—”

“I can’t,” Qin Wanyue says gently. She reaches up to brush his hair behind his ear. He swallows, thinking of Shen Yuan.

“Luo Binghe, you’ve done everything you can for me,” she sighs. “I wonder if it might be too much to ask for one thing more.”

They’re kneeling close together on the grass, concealed by the white trunks of birch trees around them. Qin Wanyue presses her forehead to his.

“What do you need?” he says.

She kisses him.

The only thing he feels is foolish. Of course that’s what she meant. They are a young man and woman traveling together. Qin Wanyue has stuck closer to him than to her own sister. Why didn’t he realize?

But it's different for him; his heart is not free to give. As she kisses him, he feels nothing but the familiar dullness of nothing and no one in this realm being what he wants.

He pulls back, but is stopped by the sight of her, so weak and fading fast. Can he really reject a girl who is dying? He’s already failed to save her. Does he have to hurt her too? Luo Binghe knows what it’s like to feel unwanted.

As she looks at him, her eyes flicker with tender apprehension.

No one has wanted Luo Binghe in this way before. Qin Wanyue is the only one who has ever looked at him like this. Not even Shen Yuan has.

He is Shen Yuan’s, in his heart, mind and body. But Shen Yuan isn’t his, not yet. What might it feel like to lie in the arms of someone who really desires him? It might not be so bad. Better than turning away a dying girl, and watching her affection for him vanish.

“I’ve never shown anyone such favor before,” he whispers.

She shakes her head. “Me neither. Shall we try together?”

He doesn't like how she says it, as if they're united in purpose. But when she pulls him toward her, he can’t bring himself to say no.

It’s not so bad. Qin Wanyue likes him so much.

The act itself is short and would be unremarkable but for one thing. Despite her eagerness, Qin Wanyue is very weak. Luo Binghe passes her qi throughout, trying to ameliorate her condition as much as possible. To his shock, after some time, the blockage in her meridians begins to clear, and her qi circulates back to comingle with his.

It’s this startling recovery, rather than any physical completion, that ends their liaison. As they share energy back and forth, the poison miraculously, inexplicably, cleanses itself.

They cling to each other in the grass. Qin Wanyue buries herself in his arms and weeps with relief, no longer on the point of death. Luo Binghe is filled again with that gnawing tenderness. He didn’t fail; everything he’s done for her has been right. She never hit the point most people do, where they suddenly realize that Luo Binghe is too much, too dark, too desperate. To her he is still a hero and a protector. He clutches her to his chest, struck with the urgent desire to bind her to him, to make her always look at him with the sweetness she does now.

She responds, pulling him close in kind. He is guilty with the knowledge that she thinks his sudden outpouring of emotion is due to passion or love, when really he is so relieved he can barely stand it, just to have someone look at him that way.

They are not yet out of danger, still trapped in the gorge with countless beasts, but both of them are exhausted. Without meaning to, Luo Binghe slips into an uneasy sleep.

When he drifts off, he manifests Shen Yuan immediately. It should shame him to run straight into Yuan-ge’s arms after lying with another, but he wants it so badly he doesn’t even bother hating himself for it.

His height has shot upwards in the past two years, and he must be taller now than Shen Yuan was when they parted. But in his dreams he’s still small. Shen Yuan easily gathers him into his arms.

“You did well,” Shen Yuan murmurs. He presses a kiss to the top of Luo Binghe’s head. “My Binghe is good.”

Luo Binghe clutches at him. He’ll never regret meeting Shen Yuan, and he’ll never give up trying to find him. But the yearning is so painful. Sometimes loving Shen Yuan hurts more than anything else he’s experienced.

He and Qin Wanyue are only able to rest for about a shichen before the trees explode with the approach of another beast, a creature so massive that at first Luo Binghe can’t even make out what it is. It charges forward with lethal force. Qin Wanyue pulls him out of its path, but it’s moving fast and erratically, churning up the trees and dirt everywhere around it. It won't be possible to avoid or hide from it for long.

Luo Binghe takes a moment to observe the animal. The beast is black as night, four-legged with leathery skin and huge, powerful haunches. A sharp, cruel-looking curved horn juts from its forehead. As Luo Binghe watches, it lowers its head and rams the horn into a stand of trees, reducing them to splinters. Then it opens its mouth and howls, its tongue sinuous and writhing like a snake.

Now that Qin Wanyue is cured, she should be able to help him fight. But when Luo Binghe looks over at her, she’s still pale, her sword shaking in her grip. Exhaustion can be as deadly as poison. Luo Binghe feels it too, but he has to go on. He draws his sword and leaps at the beast.

It takes everything Luo Binghe has, every last ounce of his flagging strength, to take the monster down. It is seemingly tireless, its hide so thick that Luo Binghe can barely damage it. The beast throws him off more than once, flinging his weary body into the hard ground, where he’s forced to scramble to his feet before it can trample him. He loses track of Qin Wanyue at some point in the fight—she must have fled while he kept it distracted. He doesn’t have the energy to feel hurt.

It reaches a point where he can barely lift his sword, his muscles too worn out to obey him anymore. He thinks of Shen Yuan living out the rest of his life alone, not ever knowing what happened to him, and something snaps.

A moment ago, he was down to the last sputter of qi in his veins. Now, a dark energy floods him, filling him with power like he’s never known. It feels like a hallucination, the kind of dream that comes upon a man when he’s dying, but it continues. The power spills out of him and warps everything around it, wreaking pure destruction on everything it touches. The monster falls to the earth, dead.

When it all clears, Luo Binghe finds himself at the point of Shen Qingqiu’s sword.

“Shizun,” he says, the word tumbling out reflexively through numb lips.

“Don’t call me that.” Shen Qingqiu always looked at Luo Binghe like he was nothing. It’s only now that Luo Binghe sees real hate in his eyes.

“You’re a demon,” he snarls. “I always knew there was something wrong with you.” He jabs forward with Xiu Ya, forcing Luo Binghe to stumble back.

At Luo Binghe’s back is a wall of heat, the air filled with crackling and hissing.

Even against his former Shizun, Luo Binghe could probably put up a fight. But he’s exhausted, physically and emotionally, and barely lashes out at all before he falls.

-

Shen Qingqiu is right. There is something wrong with him. Luo Binghe’s always known it, and people have always been able to sense it.

So he’s a demon. Half-demon, Meng Mo suggests, after explaining the broken seal. Maybe that’s why so many people have been repulsed by him. But he can’t quite believe that that’s the whole reason. Is it more loathsome to be a demon, or Luo Binghe?

He doesn’t care what Shen Qingqiu thinks of him. He burns with hatred for the man for sending him to this hell, especially when he was on the verge of making a name for himself: glory from the conference, and a potential marriage alliance with Huan Hua Palace, after he made good on his promise to Liu Mingyan. Down here he’s barely surviving, the frantic pace of the Immortal Alliance Conference now his everyday existence. Yes, Shen Qingqiu will pay with his life. But the fact that Shen Qingqiu rejected him for his blood is no surprise and no great sorrow.

But Shen Yuan?

Luo Binghe is not supposed to question Shen Yuan’s loyalty to him, not when that’s what got him hurt in the first place. But he didn’t know that Luo Binghe was a demon. What human’s feelings could remain unchanged?

For the first week in the Abyss, Luo Binghe doesn’t sleep at all. He tells himself it’s out of vigilance, even though rest would help him fight. In truth, he’s afraid of facing his dream Shen Yuan.

He can’t stand the thought of making a construct of Shen Yuan embrace a demon without his knowledge. Not when the thought might horrify and disgust him. But neither can he face the thought of not dreaming of him again.

Eventually, Meng Mo gets fed up with him.

“I’ll never understand,” he says, “how you can have such control, and such a limited imagination! If you don’t want to dream of him then maybe we can do something interesting for once.”

“I want him,” Luo Binghe says miserably.

“Then sleep, and dream him.”

“I can’t.”

“Then don’t! Either way, stop making me listen to it.”

He’s not such an accomplished cultivator that he can put off sleep indefinitely. He tries not to dream, but perhaps his control isn’t as good as his master thinks.

He’s endured so much, and he can’t stand to lose even the illusion of Yuan-ge. But it’s tainted, even Shen Yuan’s comfort now illicit and shameful.

He can’t stop himself from changing, growing further away from the child that Shen Yuan held and petted. Physically, he’s already different, so much taller and stronger than before. Slowly every part of him is eroding. Soon he won’t be the same person at all.

The only good thing about the Abyss is that it forces him to concentrate on nothing but his survival.

The Abyss is monotonous, all black craggy rock and burning sky. He quickly learns how to stay alert. How to go from fight to fight as if he’s never known rest. With his demonic abilities unlocked, he has more power than ever before, but more to learn, too. Any time he spends not fighting or grabbing sleep and food where he can is dedicated to training demonic cultivation.

Time stretches on. He’s not sure how to measure it here, with no moon or seasons, but he can measure it in his own development. His improved cultivation. The way the last of his body’s teenage awkwardness firms up into adult strength.

And as time goes on, he learns something else about the Abyss. There are beasts everywhere, and there are also women. There are women everywhere he goes, succubi and fox demons and princesses and spirits made flesh. He is thrown together with women with baffling frequency, and somehow they always end up sleeping together.

At first, he tries to resist their advances. Promising himself to Liu Mingyan was sensible. A favor to a dying girl was benevolent. But no woman—or man—could possibly compare to Shen Yuan. Yet circumstances often make it difficult to turn them down, and after he’s acquiesced a number of times, it seems like hollow pageantry to act unwilling.

Sometimes it happens due to poison or a curse, or an obligation Luo Binghe must fulfill to move on, but sometimes they simply want him. He still can’t stop himself from wanting to be wanted. And despite everything wrong with him, women continue to want him. For so long he wanted to be liked, and now he is, as long as he is compliant.

Luo Binghe’s will is strong enough to have carried him through the fight with Tianchui all those years ago, and strong enough to puppet him through this hellscape. But when the raw loneliness in him rises up in his throat, his conviction to stay chaste dissipates like smoke in the wind. He tells himself he is making himself into the perfect lover, honing himself into a tool for Shen Yuan’s satisfaction. But even the long-held fantasy of existing for Shen Yuan’s use, which once made him burn with desire, loses some appeal as he starts to realize something awful.

Luo Binghe spent so long picturing all the things he wanted to do with Shen Yuan someday. But by the time he’s spent a year in the Endless Abyss—by the time he’s slept with a number of women that makes him blush to count—he’s realized he doesn’t particularly like sex.

It’s fine for his purposes. But the rush of heated lust, the overwhelming passion he anticipated does not materialize. What he likes is everything around it. Being looked at with desire and spoken to with affection. Someone taking pleasure from his touch. Lying close afterwards, basking in the feeling of connection, that fragile strand of silk linking two people who have shared something.

As he approaches eighteen, then nineteen, then twenty, he starts to think it must have been the lusts of youth that had him lying awake at night dreaming of Shen Yuan’s body.

But he will have sex with Shen Yuan, of course. If it’s Yuan-ge, it doesn’t matter if Luo Binghe likes it or not. He will be whatever Shen Yuan wants him to be. And if his willingness with his body is his most appealing quality, then he will use it.

And despite his many indiscretions, he is determined that Shen Yuan will be the first man he lies with. At least he can save some part of him for the only person he wants to have any of him.

In leaving Shen Yuan, Luo Binghe was torn from his home. Cang Qiong Mountain was the location that felt foreign, the sounds and smells all wrong. As if he could have turned and run and found Shen Yuan right behind him. He wanted to always feel that close to Shen Yuan, but after two years at Cang Qiong Mountain, his memories were not as fresh as they once were. And then the Abyss ripped him from everything else he’d ever known.

Down here he is a new person entirely, his identity, abilities, fears and priorities all burned away and built anew. And although he still dreams of Shen Yuan nearly every night, the dreams are murkier than ever before, Shen Yuan’s presence not the relief it once was.

After three years in the Abyss, it’s hard to imagine ever leaving it. But he refuses to give up. Shen Qingqiu might have done him a favor—he expected to be restricted to the world of righteous cultivators, needing to maintain a good reputation. Here, in the sordid seam between worlds, he can investigate all kinds of strange rumors and artifacts. If there is a way to access the third world that only Luo Binghe seems to know about, it’s more likely to be found here.

He follows every lead he can, but most turn out to be nothing, or introduce him to a woman. It’s Meng Mo who tells him about the Xin Mo sword. The old man wants to escape the Abyss, claiming that it’s making Luo Binghe even more tedious. Luo Binghe has tried many times to open a crack between worlds like the one he fell into at the conference, but even all his power is not enough. Meng Mo tells him that there is a sword that can greatly increase his demonic power and even, according to legend, cut its own path between realms.

It takes a long time to track it down, following rumors, hints, and any trace of energy that might herald its presence. At long last, Luo Binghe slashes open the corpse of a primordial behemoth and finds the sword buried deep within.

But he can barely use it. His own Zheng Yang has always been straightforward and dutiful, happy to do his bidding. Xin Mo seethes with malice. The sword hates him, and it will only respond to hate.

Luo Binghe knows he has to conquer it, but its energy feels polluted. Everything in him resists taking it in. The first time he tries to use it, the backlash hurts him badly enough that he has to hide out, defenseless, for a day and a half, while Xin Mo’s black aura poisons the surrounding air.

Xin Mo is powerful, but that’s not the problem.

For five years now, Luo Binghe has been trying to keep alive the small amount of brightness in him. He was already a suspicious, underhanded person when he met Shen Yuan, warped by a life expecting cruelty and receiving it. But he was a child. He was still vulnerable, weak to the slightest gestures of kindness. He mistreated Shen Yuan horribly, but when Shen Yuan forgave him—embraced him—he felt that he could still be saved. He’s never been the person Shen Yuan thought he was, but he wanted to become that person.

And since returning, he has tried. He removed himself from Shen Qingqiu rather than simmer in his hatred. He tries to help people when he can, but it’s so hard without Shen Yuan’s faith in him, and without anyone Luo Binghe can put his own faith in.

Xin Mo will only obey him if he can overwhelm its darkness with his own. There’s no doubt that he’s capable; the amount of loathing and spite within Luo Binghe could level a city. He just doesn’t want to gain Xin Mo and lose Shen Yuan.

But he needs the sword. He has to master it.

The darkness within him is as deep as the Abyss. He needs to believe that if he gets lost within it, he’ll be able to find his way out. With Shen Yuan’s help. With his love.

As is his habit, he uses the dream Shen Yuan to give himself permission. In his dream, Shen Yuan lies with him in a meadow full of wildflowers, plucking one and tucking it into Luo Binghe’s hair. He tells Luo Binghe that everything will be okay once they’re together.

It’s shameful to use Shen Yuan like that, but Luo Binghe’s already so disgusted with himself that shame rarely stops him from anything anymore.

So he dedicates himself to mastering Xin Mo, whatever the cost.

When the sword lashes out at him, he responds with his own darkness, infusing his demonic qi with malice. That satisfies the sword, tempering it to his will. Even so, it’s another year before he can use it very much at all.

The sword does greatly increase his power, but it violently unbalances his qi. It’s not a trait of the sword itself, but a problem with being Luo Binghe. It’s a sword meant for demons, and when he wields it, it fills him with its vicious demonic energy. But it drains his human spiritual qi like a broken dam. In theory, if he can maintain both sources of energy, then he could be stronger while wielding Xin Mo than any purebred demon could be. But for a long time it’s like trying to make a pet out of a rabid dog.

Finally he figures out the trick of it. It takes a long time because there are so few humans who stumble their way into the Abyss, and that turns out to be the answer: sharing power with a human cultivator through dual cultivation. That way, he can restore his spiritual qi and bleed off some of the excess demonic qi, providing the person is strong enough to handle it. With that breakthrough, he is able to use the sword more and more.

Xin Mo submerges him in his worst impulses. A mild irritation turns quickly to anger, then to violence. His blackest thoughts are manifested by the sword’s power before he can think to soften them.

The more he uses it, the harder it is to remember how to be without it. After returning to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, it was hard to believe he’d ever experienced the fragile contentment of his life with Shen Yuan. In the Abyss, even the tiresome routines of Bai Zhan Peak were unimaginably distant and longed for. Now he would settle for the early days of the Abyss, when he was terrified, but full of hope and love. His days now are filled with darkness, the satisfaction of his victories like drops of water in a cistern of ink.

All the while, even in the Endless Abyss, he is laying the ground for his planned rise to power. Making connections with the groups of demons who frequent this place, with their own methods of traveling in and out. Rescuing the few humans trapped here from the ravaging beasts, and then receiving their favors in gratitude. Promising himself to such and such daughter of a prominent house in exchange for her family’s support. Always, he can feel Xin Mo’s power, too fierce yet to be fully wielded. But surely enough for what he wants, if anything is.

Despite everything—all the time now he spends marinating in hate and rage, all the sex, how much of his life has been swallowed up by this hellscape until it feels like the Abyss is all that’s left inside him—still, he wants Shen Yuan. He can’t live and not want him.

Until finally, five years after Shen Qingqiu pushed him down here—seven years after leaving Shen Yuan—he is able to use the sword’s powers of transportation. With Meng Mo’s help, he learns to make portals, over small distances at first but quickly improving.

And then one day he is able to rip a hole in the air that leads to the human realm. He stumbles out onto the grass, breathing in the scent of it, astounded by his first sight of the sky since he was seventeen.

He’s run out of patience. It’s time to use the sword for what he intended.