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It Makes a Fiery Ring

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Next time Qingming suggested they go somewhere, Boya was going to tie him to their bed.

He ducked, crouching away from the swipe of one spindly leg as the young spider demon he was fighting attempted to hit him. It hissed, opening its wide jaws to snap instead. Thankfully, the thing appeared entirely spider in shape, even if it was nearly the size of a large dog.

Not like it's mother.

A horrifying shrill screech echoed behind him as something weighty swung past his head to smash into the torso of his opponent.

"Boya-daren!" Killing Stone called as his heavy sword crushed bone and flesh into wet, smelly pulp. He resisted the urge to cover his nose but only because his hands were covered in the same. A low hiss came from their left as more shapes emerged from the undergrowth. For each one they killed, it seemed to spawn ten more.

A cold wind swept past as Snow Hound sped by them in the sky. Icicles flung almost carelessly impaled half a dozen demons as he wheeled around to go back the way he came. Boya looked around quickly and when nothing emerged again, he spun around to try to find Qingming.

The Yin Yang Master stood tall and proud against the awful mother of these beasts, a gargantuan blood-red spider with the torso of a sickly pale woman where its head should be. Her face was horrifying, bent out of shape by sharp, clicking mandibles and a mass of bulging eyes covering the top half of her face. She screeched again, lunging forward to smash her crushing weight into him and bouncing heavily off of the golden light of his protection spell. More and more of her spawn rushed from the forest around them. 

The moon was invisible, blocked by tall trees, so the only light was the ones provided by the fight itself. Boiling earth, lit by heat underneath, followed Killing Stone as he slaughtered. Snow Hound's wings glowed faintly with internal power. Qingming's barriers produced the most light, of course, and in the distance between the leaves, the faint shine of Mad Painter's barrier could be seen. He hadn't wanted to go but Qingming ordered him to stay hidden and power a spell circle large enough to contain the spider demon and her brood in this section of forest. If any of the brood escaped, they would never be able to find it.

Boya took a moment to lament his bad luck as he beheaded another spider. This hunt was supposed to be easy. Boya had arrived through a portal to spend the next couple of days with Qingming. Their relationship was still new. Only a couple of weeks had passed since their first explosive night together and each encounter burned inside him like wildfire. Qingming had smirked and teased at his appearance and Boya had delighted in shutting him up by revealing that he'd managed to arrange a whole two days of leave.

Unfortunately for them, Qingming had been contacted for help. A small village with no suspicious incidents until the entire thing and nearly fifty residents were mysteriously gone. Qingming's invitation for Boya to come along had been motivated entirely by a desire to spend time together. But it was a good thing he came because the situation turned out to be much worse.

A spider demon had infested a nearby forest. Based on her size alone, she was very old and very powerful. She could have been there for months or years, undetected until she massacred an entire village to fuel her spawning.

Boya snarled, fire growing in his belly, as he killed demon after demon. Each hit brought him closer and closer to Qingming's side. Killing Stone guarded his back and Snow Hound supervised from the sky as he attempted to regroup. The fire in his breast, fueled by love and bond, flared in time with someone else's heartbeat. 

Qingming chanted something with a yell and blinding light filled the clearing. The mother spider demon skittered away from him, shrieking as a hoard of smaller spiders went up in burning light. She would recover quickly but it was enough time for Boya to dash to Qingming, Killing Stone on his heels. Snow Hound swooped down on his other side. Qingming wobbled a little bit, blinking dazedly, as Boya reached him.

"Qingming," he hissed, "You must summon me. Before we are overwhelmed and you haven't the strength."

He could already hear the forest rustling. The damn woman must have hatched hundreds or even thousands of eggs. How no fashi had noticed the sinister energy of the forest before now was a mystery. Boya intended on investigating personally to find just who had let such an oversight occur. 

If they survived.

But they weren't beaten yet. They defeated the Evil Serpent. No spider demon would be allowed to kill them, no matter the size of her brood. Boya let his love see the determination in his eyes and felt nothing but gratification as it was reflected. Qingming brought his hands up, wiping blood from a scratch on one cheek. Boya braced himself for the burning pain, infinite and consuming, as his body burnt away to make way for his soul.

The spider matron cackled, chittering and wheezing, as she raised her head. Her eyes were mesmerizing and impossible to count in number.

"Will you burn your love, little fox?" She asked, endless eyes fixated on him, "Will you burn and burn and burn him for the sake of your own whim?" 

Qingming blinked stupidly, mouth open and fingers slackening.

"What?" he breathed. 

"Qingming!" Boya snapped at him. Every demon hunter knew not to let the damn things start talking. Boya didn't know whether it was shock or Qingming's natural inclination that slowed him but letting her keep going would get them both killed. The fact that she was dangerously close to revealing truths that he didn't want Qingming to ever know wasn't relevant.

"Now!" he hissed again, gripping one of Qingming's arms and shaking him just enough to try getting his attention.

"He burns," crooned the spider woman, "His flesh burns away and leaves his soul exposed. Such a bright soul he has, shackled to a broken little half-thing. Not good enough to be human but too tainted to be a real demon."

Qingming flinched away violently and Boya followed. He opened his mouth to speak, to say anything -

He couldn't.

There were cobwebs in his teeth and magic on his tongue. The damn bitch had locked his tongue somehow. He looked around for the others, but Killing Stone and Snow Hound were gone. He could hear fighting behind them and knew they must have gone to slow the remaining brood's attempts to escape. Boya tried to move next. If he could just grab Qingming and turn him away from her hypnotic eyes-


Qingming was alone with a witch who could read his deepest insecurities and a partner who couldn't stop her. Boya howled, silent and livid as the woman cackled,

"Did he leave? Your father, once he knew the monster your mother was? And he couldn't even bear to take you with him. He left you, to be jeered and sneered at while your poor mother tried to smile. She couldn't leave, not with you dragging her down. And then the village ran her off and she died in your master's arms."

Boya tried to scream as Qingming's face crumpled like broken glass. The other man was breathing heavily, hands shaking. Boya could do nothing . His fire, usually a burning inferno in his body, was ashes and smoke in the face of Qingming's devastation. Qingming was shaking, tears leaking down his face. The spider demon made a mock-shushing noise even as she slowly stepped closer.

"She died, leaving you with a stranger in a school full of strangers. And none of them liked you. They knew what you were," she crooned, low and fakely sympathetic, "You trained and studied but it wasn't enough. No one wanted to be friends. Your master's pride in you made them hate you more. And then you killed him too."

Boya felt like he was going to come out of his own body in rage. He could feel fire welling in his throat. The spells on him were strong but he hit them with all of his spiritual power. He could feel his own power tearing his body in an attempt to batter the spell apart. The ring of burning heat that separates him from Vermilion Bird stood steady and strong without Qingming's will to break it but Boya had power long before he met the man and he would not let her -

"And now you torture your love to save your own skin," the demon hissed with glee, her words the final nail that would shatter Qingming's heart. Boya would have given anything to keep him from ever learning the truth but right now he couldn't think about it. The spider was getting closer and her brood could only be held back for so long. If they didn't kill her now , the truths learn today wouldn't matter because they would all be dead.

Blood trickled from Boya's mouth as he desperately shoved raging fire against the gossamer webs of the spider's power. He couldn't look at Qingming right now or he would surely lose all will. Looking at Qingming without being able to do something about his devastation would break Boya quicker than any cruel words from some monster. Finally, after what felt like days and years, he could feel the iron threads fraying in the face of scorching heat. The spider demon grew too confident, perhaps, too certain that she'd ensnared her prey to pay attention to what she perceived as a lesser threat.

He'd show her.

The spell shattered just as she tensed her legs. Boya leaped, smashing directly into the insensate shape of Qingming and rolling them both as she landed right where they had been standing. She shrieked in fury behind them but Boya paid no attention. Qingming was unnaturally pale, shaking, and tear-stained. His lips were bleeding, punctured by canine teeth too sharp for his mouth. Boya didn't have time to look but he would bet anything that Qingming's nails were sharp as well. He wanted nothing more than to bring the man close and hide him away but they didn't have the time .

The spider shrieked again and Boya could hear her turning her great weight toward them.

"Qingming," he yelled, shaking him furiously, "Call me!"

"Boya," Qingming whispered in return, still dazed and unaware of what was happening around him.

It was enough.

Fire and flame erupted in his body, burning Boya in a glorious immolation of power and purpose. He spun, knocking the demon back as she sprung toward them. Her shriek of pain was music to his ears. The smell of burning flesh was less pleasant but Vermilion Bird cared little for the agonies of unworthy creatures. There was only the Vessel and the Master, together to make him fly and fight and bite and burn.

He leaped, wings flowing into existence like woodsmoke, and dived, smashing into the spider that would dare to harm his precious things. She screamed as he clawed at her, sharp talons raking across bulging eyes. Let her try to hypnotize and hurt his love with her sight now. Vermillion Bird launched himself away, avoiding her attempt to grab him with her human hands. He spun and weaved away. Diving again, he brought fire and power together against his palm. He didn't have the magic sword Master gave him anymore but he could imitate the shell of power it had been encased in well enough.

The spider screamed again as several of her thick, hairy legs were sliced off and she unbalanced, falling on her side and kicking like a flipped turtle. The Vessel knew that the easiest way to kill spider demons was to remove all of their legs and then their head and heart. Doing anything less meant they could potentially regrow the missing parts of themselves. 

This creature would burn in cleansing fire for its crimes.

The spider demon died with a final yell and her corpse burst into flame. Vermillion Bird's wings faded away like smoke as he landed between the carcass and Master's still prone shape. A cold wind brushed against his face as he felt the other shishen return to the clearing. It was interesting to sense them both like this. It felt both the same and different as sensing them as the Vessel.

Snow Hound nodded to him stiffly, ice and wind swirling in his aura. Mad Painter looked slightly surprised to see him but said nothing and felt like paint splashed across skin. Killing Stone felt as steady and inevitable as his namesake but had none of his companions' decorum. The young shishen rushed to his master's side with a cry as Qingming began to blink rapidly like he was coming out of deep sleep,


Vermillion Bird felt his fire dimming slowly as the Vessel came back to the forefront and Boya huffed,

"Don't shout. He probably has an awful headache." 

The fire behind them continued to burn cheerfully and Boya could feel it catching on the grass around the corpse of the spider woman. Mad Painter snorted softly and grabbed Snow Hound to tug the other toward the rapidly spreading fire. The ice shishen, for his part, raised a brow as he went past Boya and said,

"You're going to learn to control that."

Boya flushed slightly. He was uncomfortably reminded of his masters at Jingyun Temple, each one less inclined than the last to deal with any student's tomfoolery . Shaking that thought away, he approached Killing Stone and Qingming. The shishen was frantically patting his master, nervous energy clearly grating on frayed nerves despite Qingming's love and affection for all of his guardians.

"Hey," Boya said, tapping the young demon's shoulder, "We need to gather the corpse of the brood before they poison the ground. You're best equipped to sense where they all are."

Technically, that was true. Killing Stone's inclination toward the earth element let him sense disturbances in a wide area. It was how they'd discovered the cave lair where the Spider had her brood. They hadn't been able to set it alight before she discovered them but the pre-warning was the only thing that let them set up the barrier before she dispersed her children far and wide.

Boya probably shouldn't be ordering around someone else's shishen but he tried to be as reasonable in his orders as he would be when commanding members of his own temple. Besides, neither Qingming nor the guardians themselves had complained yet. 

Reluctantly, Killing Stone scurried off the coordinate with the others. The fire was gone, smothered under ice, leaving only a foul-smelling pile of gore to permeate the clearing. Boya grimaced, crouching down in front of Qingming, who'd slid bonelessly to the ground at some point. His white robes were covered in dirt and grass stains and his collar was soaked in sweat. He honestly looked like he was going to pass out at any second. He'd looked more composed after fighting the Evil Serpent. Boya waited for a second for Qingming's eyes to focus on him but that turned out to be a mistake, as the Yin-Yang Master's face crumpled into distress at the sight of him marked by his Vermillion Bird form.

"Qingming," he says urgently, trying to insert all his authority into his voice. Not that that authority ever worked on Qingming but they needed to finish here and return home before he could let him break down. Qingming took a deep breath, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, they were clearer. Still devastated and watery but clearer and filled with purpose. He stood stiffly. Boya resisted the urge to hold him or just carry him away. It wouldn't be fair to abandon the other shishen and they still had to clean up the mess in the forest. The Spider had too much malice and so her corpse and her children's corpses would surely poison the forest if left unattended.

Clean-up was a slow, laborious project. Although Mad Painter's barrier had prevented their escape, the bodies were strewn across a decently sized area. Fashi were stronger than ordinary men and most shishen were even stronger. Still, the five worked in tandem and as dawn approached, they had a mountainous pile of corpse after corpse in the clearing. Snow Hound created an ice wall, tall cylindrical, and reinforced by Mad Painter. Killing Stone moved the earth all at once, creating a sizable pit in which the bodies fell like stones. They were very convenient, these shishen. It would have taken hours longer for disciples of his temple to do the pit by hand. Normally, he would have lit the fire with mundane methods but Boya was, surprisingly, still manifested as Vermilion Bird. On the scant other occasions of his summoning, Qingming always returned him to his mortal form after the fight was won. 

Boya tried not to think about why he was so reluctant to do so now. Instead, he took flight and pushed fire into the cylinder from above, catching the corpses easily. He came back down as small gold portals sprang into existence, each one no bigger than a hand and dispersing the potentially poisonous smoke into a dozen locations simultaneously, preventing it from gathering in dangerous quantities.

Snow Hound was watching him again.

"What?" he asked, trying not to snap. The shishen hadn't been rude or anything.

"You fly like a baby bird," the tengu said, "Like you're going to wobble to the ground at any second."

Someone snorted, trying to cover it up. It sounded like Killing Stone. Mad Painter hid behind one of his companion's white wings as he tried to smother laughter. Boya blinked stupidly at Snow Hound. He hadn't had much chance to interact with the other shishen, despite the new development to his relationship with Qingming, but none of them had spoken so bluntly to him before.

"In my defense," He pointed out slowly, "The flying is very new."

"We'll fix that," Snow Hound said, like it was already decided and didn't require discussion, "You fight well. Your instincts as Vermillion Bird are strong and honed. But you struggle otherwise, in controlling your new shape."

Boya hadn't noticed but he had also only fought this way a couple of times. The fire inside him was a raging inferno of power but the first thing a fashi learned was how dangerous it was if that power became uncontrolled. So he conceded to the tengu's superior knowledge with a respectful nod. Snow Hound returned the nod, Mad Painter still snickering into his shoulder blade. Killing Stone wasn't even paying attention, back to fussing over Qingming while he concentrated on his spells. Boya couldn't even hide the smile he made at the sight. 

If there was ever evidence that he had erred in painting all demons with the same brush, it was Killing Stone. Rather than being a nasty little monster that stole a sacred instrument for fun, the former pipa thief was in fact a ridiculous mother-hen that doted on Qingming like he was a small child. Snow Hound and Mad Painter were subtler, but also adored their master. Boya knew that they had been Zhongxing's shishen as well, although only Snow Hound had known him as an actual child.

The spider corpses finished burning as they watched and Boya lay purifying talisman, just in case, over the mound of ashes before signaling Killing Stone to bury it. The ice came down as the gold rings of Qingming's teleportation spells faded away. The man stumbled and Boya rushed forward to catch him. He tried to contain his panic as the other's eyes slid shut and he slumped. He heard two cries of distress behind him but the other shishen quieted as Snow Hound stepped gracefully to Qingming's other side.

"He's fine," the tengu said, fingers gripping his master's pulse point, "Just magically and emotionally exhausted." 

He said the last part with a pointed side-eye toward Boya and the fashi couldn't contain his wince. He knew exactly what had so destroyed Qingming's control and apparently the shishen had been close enough to know too. He couldn't say anything but Snow Hound didn't make him. Instead, the shishen flicked one hand out and gold light burst forth as a teleportation seal appeared.

"You can make a teleportation sigil!" Killing Stone huffed, saying what Boya was thinking, "No fair! I can't do that!"

Mad Painter grabbed his shoulder and shook the young demon slightly,

"Don't worry. I can't either. It takes a strong and deep and usually old bond to use your Master's magic that way. Snow Hound learned from Master Zhongxing, but I wasn't his shishen very long before his death. You and I haven't been with Master Qingming long enough."

Boya filed that information away as he picked Qingming up. He hadn't really thought about how much he didn't know about the shishen bond. The temple educated their disciples in the basic abilities of all other fashi but many of the details were considered secrets to the school they belonged to.

He carried his lover through the portal into the front courtyard of the house, followed by the others. The familiar form of Honey Bug hurried out one of the doors. Behind her, two young women Boya hadn't met followed. Both were spirits and not demons, he could tell. One wore a crown of blooming peach blossoms and a similarly pink dress. The other appeared to have butterfly wings in her hair and wore pale green.

"Momo! Chocho!" Mad Painter said, which answered the question of who they were. The three women fluttered close and tried to take Qingming. Boya couldn't help tightening his grip on the body in his arms but Honey Bug smiled reassuringly at him and he reluctantly let go. He still hasn't apologized for trying to kill her. He should do that.

The three shishen bustled Qingming away, carrying him between them easily. Boya wanted to follow but knew he would just be in the way. Killing Stone tried but Mad Painter grabbed his coat and drug the young demon away, ignoring his protests. Finally, only Boya and Snow Hound were left in the courtyard. The tengu said nothing, calm as untouched snow, as Boya resisted the urge to fidget. He became abruptly aware that he was standing around with only a pair of pants on. Blinking down at his torso like it belonged to someone else, Boya heard Snow Hound snort,

"Finally noticed, have you? Let's go find you some clothes."

Boya followed the shishen into Qingming's home and down several hallways to a storage room that appeared to be full of high-quality clothing and sundries.

"Many of those rescued by Master Qingming come to use with nothing," Snow Hound said, "So Master puts aside much of his salary for their care."

Expertly-trained fashi were paid quite handsomely for their services, especially those of the four schools formally recognized by the Court. The increase in salary given to him and Qingming after they killed the Evil Serpent was obscene, in his opinion, but one didn't say no to Imperial Edict.

Imperial cousins had crawled out of the woodwork after the death of the 'empress' and princess Changping, each one certain that they had the strongest claim. Many of the former emperor's relatives and their descendants had been discreetly killed or banished in the years after his death. Whether such a thing had been done on Changping's orders or by He Shouyue to protect her was something that they were unlikely to ever know. Fortunately, few of the remaining options were close relatives so, after a brief investigation, his only living brother was crowned Emperor.

That the current emperor was in fact Boya's mother's father was something he avoided thinking about. Going to Jingyun Temple meant forfeiting all rank and inheritance and Boya's father had made that decision for him long ago.

"Don't look so maudlin," Snow Hound interrupted, "Qingming will be well soon. And bring your shirt."

Boya shook himself and dressed quickly. Snow Hound left the room with the clear expectation that Boya would follow.

"Where are we going?" Boya asked after a moment.

"The West Courtyard. It's the largest, on the side of the house opposite the lake. I'm going to teach you how to fly properly before something hits you that you don't have the dexterity to dodge properly."

The tengu led him through the house to a wide-open space set up as some sort of training yard. A trio of shishen, in the shape of large ferrets, spotted them and dashed away with things clutched in their paws. Snow Hound sighed and called out,

"Put all the valuables back, please! If no one's using it, you may keep it. If I send someone to go through your room, there better not be someone else's belongings in it!" 

The three ferrets stopped to chitter angrily but dashed away when Snow Hound's wings flared slightly.

"The ferret brothers," he gestured, "Mostly harmless. Mischievous and partial to shiny things, but benign. Qingming found them terrorizing a city with petty theft and brought them here to terrorize us." 

Boya couldn't help the snort of laughter that erupted. Snow Hound began unbuttoning his clothes and laying them on some empty weapon racks to keep them clean.

"Off," he said, "Wings out."

"Why tell me to put on a shirt if you were going to have me take it off right after?" Boya muttered. He wasn't some new disciple that couldn't tell their sword from their shoes.

"I told you to bring your shirt. Not put it on," Snow Hound said with a smug smirk. Boya couldn't even dispute that so he said nothing. Snow Hound gestured and a wall of crystal-clear ice ascended in front of them like a mirror. Boya eyed it. What on earth was the shishen doing?

"Wings out," the tengu ordered, demonstrating with his own, "Stretch them as far as they will go."

Boya obeyed, his wings manifesting in smoke. Looking at his reflection next to Snow Hound's made it easy to see how much more fluid the motion was for the tengu.

"Rotate them, one muscle at a time. Feel how they are connected to themselves and you," he continued, "Now ask your questions. I will answer what I can."

Boya blinked,

" wings?"

"If you like," Snow Hound replied, which really wasn't an answer either way. Boya stopped, thinking carefully even as he slowly cataloged the motion of his wings. It was very strange, suddenly having a set of limbs that didn't exist before, but it felt much like any other sort of leg or arm movement. The kind that disciples repeated over and over and over until it was muscle memory. The range of motion was surprising as well. Boya had always pictured wings flapping up and down but they could be moved in very subtle ways back and forth and even somewhat sideways. He imagined that these small changes could affect one's flight in big ways. 

"Why does Qingming live outside his school?" Boya finally asked, "I mean, I can guess the reasons but it's unusual."

Snow Hound sighed again, clearly gathering his thoughts,

"It's complicated. Master Zhongxing made him a disciple despite opposition from the other masters. They did not think it appropriate to teach a half-demon. Unfortunately for them, he proved a brilliant and gifted student. Despite his... difficulty in performing a protection spell, he excelled in all other subjects. He faced resentment on all sides. The other teachers resented him being there but couldn't defy Master Zhongxing. The students bullied him, resented his skill, and hated that he was the favored, personal student of the much-lauded Head Teacher."

Boya nodded at his quiet words. This was information he already knew, from the little Qingming would tell him about his childhood. Not that he had told the other man much about his own youth. Despite the instant nature of their connection, he didn't expect either of them to spill all of their secrets. That rapport will only come with time. Snow Hound continued to speak,

"Shishen are central to the Yin-Yang school of magic but they do not summon their first one until late into training. It is a rite of passage, of sorts."

"Is it really so momentous?" Boya asked, debating whether to say the next part, but Snow Hound hadn't gotten offended at his blunt nature yet, "With the way Qingming gives out bonds like candy to young children, I thought-"

Snow Hound interrupted him by laughing. Boya felt a little proud.

"He does do that, doesn't he?" the tengu said, "I've never heard it described so perfectly."

They shared a smile before Snow Hound sobered and kept talking,

"Despite Master's behavior, the summoning of shishen is a momentous occasion. They are not considered masters until they succeed at least once."

"Were you Master Zhongxing's-?

"No, that was Gold Spirit," he glanced at Boya, "You never met. He was killed in the same incident that poisoned Master Zhongxing. "

"Oh, I'm sorry," Boya said politely. It was never easy to lose a comrade.

"Don't be," Snow Hound seemed to swell a little with pride, "He was my friend, but he lived long and died well." 

It was a noble sentiment and one anyone who lived to serve others could aspire to. Boya could only hope that others would say the same about him after he had gone. They stood in silence for a few moments as Snow Hound showed him more wing movements, this time an awkward opening and closing that got smoother each time he did it.

"Yin-Yang masters are expected to try summoning new shishen periodically although most attempts fail. Many, despite being considered masters, never gain beyond their initial bond. Two is considered impressive. Three is a legendary feat. The most famous Yin-Yang Master had four shishen. Master Zhongxing was expected to succeed that master in number but his life was cut short. Although, I suppose he did, if you count He Shouyue. He summoned me shortly after his defeat of the Evil Serpent and Mad Painter only a few months before his death."

"Is power a factor?" Boya asked, "Surely not all shishen are equal."

"You are correct. It is a complicated mixture of the power of the Spirit and the power of the Master. The school has Masters who dedicate their entire lives to predicting shishen but even they can only guess. Qingming was, of course, expected to fail, despite the proof of his suitability."

Boya raised an eyebrow,

"I'm guessing he didn't?"

"In an utter scandal, Qingming managed to summon two spirits in half the time it took most to manage one."

Boya burst into laughter. It was such a Qingming thing to do. How the man managed to so often show up other people even when he didn't intend to, Boya would never guess.

"It was hard on him," Snow Hound frowned, "Master Zhongxing was perhaps inappropriately proud but Qingming resented another thing setting him apart. In truth, it was only partially a result of his power. You saw the spirits earlier today. It was Chocho and Momo. Momo is the spirit of a very old peach tree. When she was young, a lovely butterfly landed on her branches. So enamored were the two of each other's beauty, they stayed together. But butterflies do not live very long and when Chocho died, Momo brought her body into the safety of her trunk and gave her half her life force so that she would live. And so they lived and lived together, until one day, they felt the pull of a Yin-Yang Master. To this day, they refuse to reveal if only one of them truly felt his call, but since they refused to be parted, they came together to answer the summons."

"And that upset the Masters?"

"Deeply." the tengu grimaced, "They refused to believe he hadn't cheated although they could never explain how he could have done so. Master Zhongxing began to take him out on longer and longer trips after that. It was on one of those trips that he met Honey Bug."

"She was his first demon shishen?" Boya wasn't surprised, "They seem very close. He is fiercely protective of her."

"Yes, she was. Qingming found her stealing honey from a baker during a hunt for a demon that killed several people. He convinced her to come with him, that he could protect her as a shishen, and tried to hide her but once the killer was gone and we could still sense yin energy, he confessed."

The tengu smiled at the memory,

"Master was more interested in how he'd managed to bond with a demon than hurting her. It was clear she was harmless. But creating a shishen bond with a demon was believed impossible."

Snow Hound reached out with a wing and batted at Boya, prompting the fashi to readjust his stance. He'd gotten distracted by the amount of information the tengu was willingly telling him.

"Master Zhongxing believes," he paused, "Master Zhongxing believed that it is Qingming's half-demon nature that allows him to form such connections. He possesses the unique ability to convert the yang energy of his human half into the yin energy of his demon half and back again."

"Fox demons are known for their particularly strong yin energy, even in comparison to other demons," Boya remembered. It was the reason they tended to manifest as female. He had done a lot of research on fox demons in the wake of his mother's death and his father's abandonment. But something else was bothering him.

"Why did you tell me that?" he asked angrily, "That's dangerous information! It could put Qingming in danger if you tell the wrong person!"

"And your first thought was the danger it poses to Qingming ," Snow Hound pointed out smugly, “I am a very good judge of character. I assume you, I don't go telling secrets to everyone I meet.”

Boya accepted the polite reprimand without complaint. 

“I bet the Masters were angry again,” he prompted.

“Oh, they were furious , again . They threatened to kill her if she ever set foot on the school grounds,” sneered Snow Hound, obviously disgusted, “Qingming was heartbroken. He felt like he’d failed her. Even Master Zhongxing got angry. He lectured the other masters for hours and proceeded to go out and buy a house, which was a scandal in and of itself. The Head Teacher, living off-property?”’

“A house?” Boya looked around, “This house?”

Snow Hound nodded, looking around with a fond smile,

“I’ve never seen either of them happier. Qingming wasn’t allowed to live here but he stayed often to visit Honey Bug and his Master. There were a few close calls because it didn’t occur to him to give shishen bonds to every prospective resident. A few tried to use him to get past the wards, but Master Zhongxing caught them before anything bad happened. Qingming began to offer bonds and filled the house with the lost and abandoned. The other masters have no idea how many shishen he has because Master Zhongxing purposely didn’t tell them, after Honey Bug.”

Boya could imagine the shitstorm that would erupt if they ever found out. They clearly hated him and would be enraged if they knew the half-breed they despised probably had more bonds than their entire order combined. Many of Qingming’s shishen were unlikely to be as powerful as his combat companions, but it was still a staggering accomplishment.

“How can he have so many?” he asked, “Even with the ability to convert energy…”

“In truth, it is the initial summoning that takes so much of a Master’s energy,” Snow Hound held up both hands, one filled with ice and the other with a tiny whirlwind of snow, “Spirits have no physical shape. The Yin-Yang Master must contribute a massive amount of energy to create a body for them to inhabit.”

“Demon already have bodies,” Boya said, eyes on the solid lump of ice.

“Correct. Whether born like mortals or born from an accumulation of negative energy, demons come into the world with a physical shape. Other masters could do the same, if they bonded to demons, but Master Zhongxing was uncertain if they would be able to deal with the exchange of energy that happens between master and shishen. It is why he never attempted to do so himself. He felt it would be unfair to his shishen, the demon, and himself to risk the slow poisoning of his own energy.”

Boya nodded but didn't feel it necessary to talk as Snow Hound continued,

“The Palace called for the names of the masters to deal with the Evil Serpent and Master Zhongxing nominated Qingming without discussion, to the upset of the other masters. Some wanted to try themselves or nominate their own students or even for him to go again himself, but Master Zhongxing avoided the Imperial City for reasons that are, of course, only clear after recent events. Then he got poisoned by the shadow of the Serpent caged in northern ice and the others blamed Qingming.”

“For what?” he cried, “It’s not like he wanted to kill him!”

“Qingming still could not do the protection spell,” Snow Hound pointed out, “And Master Zhongxing chose to shield him instead of himself. The masters blamed Qingming, although they could do nothing, and grew angrier when Zhongxing transferred his remaining shishen to his student.”

“That’s bad?” Boya asked. Based on the amount of effort and skill it apparently required, Boya could see why they would dislike it, but they seemed to hate Qingming no matter what he did anyway.

“It is not done,” Snow Hound agreed, “Breaking a bond is taxing and painful to both master and shishen, and having a shishen not personally called lowers the chances of compatibility. It is also seen as greedy, although perhaps they just thought Qingming was undeserving and covetous.”

“Breaking it?” Boya asked, horrified. Just the thought itself made him quiver nervously, something deep inside of him screaming at the notion. Snow Hound actually shuttered, eyes shadowed as he said,

“Mad Painter is young and was eager to experience the world, so his bond was not as deep, but he still cried for days after.”

“And you?” Boya asked, even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.

“It was the most painful thing I have ever experienced,” Snow Hound whispered, his eyes lighting up with pain and determination, “But I watched Qingming grow up. He hid in my wings to weep when the bullying grew too painful. It was not an easy choice, but I know it was the right one. Zhongxing did too.”

They sat in silence for a few moments. Boya was no longer paying attention to his training and his wings faded away in dark smoke. Snow Hound said nothing about it, tucking his own wings flush against his back. He waited to catch Boya’s eyes, despite the man doing his best to avoid them.

“I tell you these things because I love Qingming,” the tengu said, holding his gaze, “I told you, I am an excellent judge of character, and what is happening here will be good for him. And you. And us all.”

Boya failed to fight a blush. He felt joy from being told he was good for Qingming but it felt uncomfortably like getting lectured by a young maiden’s father to make sure to take care of her . Snow Hound laughed again and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Now go rest,” he said cheerfully, “We’ll practice again tomorrow. And Qingming will probably wake up the day after, so you two can discuss things. Maybe we’ll even convince him to put you back in your human body!”

The tengu spun, wings spread, as he wheeled away into the noon sky. Boya sighed and went back inside to crawl into the nearest bed he could find.