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Into the Abyss

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Upon transmigrating into the world of Proud Immortal Demon Way, Shen Yuan makes two mistakes. The first mistake goes something like this:

"Shen Qingqiu? Are you kidding me? No, I don't want my role to be bound to fucking Shen Qingqiu! Fuck that! He's the villain, the scum villain! He gets his limbs chopped off in the end! Who the hell would want to be playing his role?! No, no, thousand times no!"

And the second, shortly following the first:

"What kind of System are you - aren't you supposed to be, like, helping me - what's with these shitty options? Either become Shen Qingqiu or die? You're the one that dragged me in here! I don't have to deal with this - no, absolutely not! A System is supposed to aid the transmigrator in becoming stronger and eventually ruling the world or whatever - you're supposed to be serving me, not whatever this bullshit is! I mean, come on, why even bring me here unless it's to aid me in becoming the strongest in the world, huh? Come on, you shitty System, give me something better than fucking Shen Qingqiu!"

His error, mainly, is in expecting that he has any choice in the matter, and that the System is on his side. In Shen Yuan's defence, he'd read several transmigrator stories, and most of them followed a certain pattern, of the main character being able to use any number of cheats to rise above the common plebs of the story they now inhabited. The System was either an OP servant that saw to the main character's every whim, or it was a neutral type of videogame menu with point stores and stat options. Shen Yuan, erroneously, expected his System to be something to that effect.

He was wrong. Those transmigration stories aren't guidelines or advertisements for how a System should operate. They are, in fact, propaganda.

And his System is very much not on his side.

[User 002's failure to comply with basic instructions has resulted in activation of a Punishment Protocol! Maximum survivable punishment! User 002's role is automatically bound, "Scum Villain Double". Location automatically bound, "The Endless Abyss". Title automatically bound, "The Cursed One". May User please get ready. Penalty will load in 60 seconds.]

If a floating Windows XP system window could breathe malice, this one did. Shen Yuan gets only enough time to sputter incredulously and then demand answers, much good that it does him. "What the hell do you mean, Scum Villain Double - the Endless Abyss? You shitty System, what do you mean, the Cursed One? You aren't sending me anywhere until you explain this! You piece of shit! Answer me!"

The System doesn't answer him. Shen Yuan thinks briefly of how miserable his death was - he'd barely gotten the time to register that he had actually died, choking on spoiled noodles behind his damn computer desk like the worst sort of shut-in, and, damn, his last words, his last thoughts, his very last action on earth, had been to read and complain about goddamn PIDW! What kind of death was that? What kind of afterlife is this! Someone had better answer for this!

And then the Punishment Protocol grabs him and sends him to hell.


 

Shen Yuan had lived a fairly average sort of sad life. Born into a decently wealthy - okay, more than decently, closer to uncommonly wealthy - family, with parents who were politically powerful enough to get away with some shit, and who spoiled their three children without shame. Shen Yuan, as one of those spoiled children, lived a life of luxury, in a sizable condo in Beijing, doing nothing much at all with his brief life. Mostly he stayed indoors, played video games and read shitty web novels.

Proud Immortal Demon Way was one of those web novels, and easily the longest, shittiest, most aggravating piece of work he'd ever had the misfortune to follow and pay money for. Not that his donations to the author made much difference one way or the other, it seemed. Great Master Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky seemed to only spiral further and further down the drain of smut and filth with each instalment, turning what started out as an interesting concept of an abused half-demon disciple rising to power and getting his revenge... into a tiresome marathon to fuck as many uninspired stereotypes as possible. Literally. A decent action monster-fighting story, turned into a stallion novel. Over twenty million words of crap.

Shen Yuan spent over five years of his life reading it. It was fine when he was a stupid teenager of barely fifteen years of age who didn't know any better - but by the time he was eighteen, he'd invested too much of his time, money and energy in the piece of crap called Proud Immortal Demon Way to give up on it. He'd made monthly donations, he bought merchandise, he participated in discussion, he'd edited the wiki! By the time it became clear that the thing was never going to get any better, sunk cost fallacy had him by the balls, and he had to see it through. And he did. For another two, almost three years, he'd kept up with it out of pure damn spite.

And then it just… ended? Without even a satisfying conclusion?! Hundreds of characters whose stories never got a resolution, never mind some actual character arcs. Dozens upon dozens of side plots and loose ends and plot hooks that never went anywhere. Instead what they got was chapter upon chapter of Luo Binghe deflowering scrumptious virgins and fixing issues with either miraculous talents he pulled out of his ass, or once-in-a-thousand-years treasures and plants that seemed to sprout out of fucking nowhere when the protagonist needed them! Luo Binghe, who started out as a sweet, interesting, tenacious kid, turned into a bland mass of clichés wrapped in a million layers of plot armour, with a harem of hundreds, armoury fit for a small army and a vault full of priceless treasures he never did anything with.

And then it ended with the smallest hint, barely implied, that his harem, who'd spend the last several hundreds of chapters very spicily infighting, might finally turn their claws on him and then - then! Then it just ended! Without even telling if Luo Binghe turned Xin Mo against his harem, or if his harem succeeded in assassinating him, if they even attacked him, or - or anything. Just, Luo Binghe lounging about on his stupid throne, surrounded by his brainless court, and Ning Yingying coming to him with gaze full of knives, to air her grievances and - ugh. What kind of ending is that?!

What kind of thing is that to die from.

The last chapter was so long and so aggravating that Shen Yuan forgot to eat. He was still spitting mad, writing his final review while shovelling stale noodles into his mouth. Five years of his life wasted on complete nonsense - he wanted his time, his brain cells, and his money back! What a shitty story. What a shitty author, to let everything descend in quality that badly!

And then Shen Yuan actually tasted the noodles, felt the mold on his tongue - and in his attempt to hack it out, he ended up inhaling it instead. And that was it. Shen Yuan, the youngest son of the Shen Family, died at his keyboard, choking on spoiled noodles, like an absolute loser.

He's still mad about it, when he wakes up to a blaring siren and a System notification.

[Warning! You are being hunted!]

"Wha -" Shen Yuan groans and then winces at the feeling to his body - namely, the pain coursing through it. He feels bruised all over, worse than after his sister's 18th birthday, when she decided she wanted to have her party in a crossfit gym, followed by a bar crawl through the city. Afterwards Shen Yuan woke up feeling like he'd gotten into a fist fight with a bus. This is a little like that, but worse. Did he fall…?

With a shaking hand Shen Yuan reaches for his glasses, lying on the ground in front of him, and then hears a wet, nasty sounding snarl of some kind of animal. By a reflex he didn't even know he possessed, his body automatically rolls out of the way, his wide, bleary eyes seeking the threat out without his say so. It isn't until he gets his glasses on that he can make sense of it - and even then it barely makes any sense.

It's a rat the size of a dog, with a spiky tail and tusks like a boar, with foaming spittle spilling from it's disgusting jaws - and it's already coming at him again, screeching, nasty looking talons scrambling over the crusty, blood red dirt.

"What the -!" Shen Yuan cries and scrambles away, stumbling to his feet - just in time for the damn thing to latch onto his leg, tearing at the soft fabric of his sweatpants. A new source of pain spikes through his already aching body as the rat's teeth sink into his flesh and reflexively Shen Yuan kicks with all his might, his sock-clad foot colliding with the rat's ribs, his toes complaining severely with the impact. But it gets the rat off him, if only for a moment.

Shen Yuan gets a moment to look around, his eyes taking in the landscape wildly without really comprehending any of it. He's outside, there's dirt and rocks everywhere, but there's no sky - he's not sure what it is above him, but it's not that. It's not a ceiling either, or some sort or roof, it's just - a weight, like the empty space above had been condensed into a physical thing. As his mind gibbers over the sky-that-isn't-sky, his eyes take in a dry desert landscape full of jagged rocks without any plant life in sight, just red dust and sand and stones. Like scenery from Mars, except somehow bloodstained.

And then the rat comes at him again, tail swishing, jaws clattering, hissing. There's madness in its eyes and blood on its jagged teeth. Shen Yuan's blood.

Not thinking - there isn't time to think - Shen Yuan goes for another kick, and almost loses his balance - the rat skitters to the side, avoiding the hit. Before he can regain his balance and try again, the rat is upon him, taking a leap to try and get at his torso - no, at his neck. Desperate, Shen Yuan swings his arm, gets it in the way just in time to stop the damn beast from biting something vital - and of course the rat latches onto his arm, jaws closing around his wrist.

"Son of a - fuck!" Shen Yuan cries out, the pain of having his wrist chewed rising above the rest.

There's no thought, no skill, to his counter attack as he begins beating the side of the rat's head, trying to get it to release - but it's latched on tight, his blood spilling from its nasty maw. Together, they tumble to the ground, the rat's paws - hands? - scrambling at Shen Yuan's legs and waist as he tries to pry the fucking thing off. The fingers of his bitten hand are convulsing in pain, and he's already losing sensation - the beast is really trying to bite right through his wrist!

Desperate, Shen Yuan scrambles to reach something, anything, and his hands find a jagged, sharp rock, closing around it tightly. The rat, lost in its blood lust, doesn't react to the first time he slams the rock against its head, so he hits it again, and again, shouting in anger and pain until the rock starts getting bloody and the rat releases him, letting out a pained, high-pitched whine.

"You - fucking - fuck!" Shen Yuan shouts and doesn't stop hitting the beast, grabbing his make-do weapon in both hands and slamming the rock with all his might against the rat's head again and again… until it stops moving it, it's twitching limbs and swishing tail all falling still, it's bloody head lolling to the side, tongue hanging out. It's disgusting.

There's a little mechanical jingle and a distinctively red-hued Windows XP pop-up appears.

[Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations! Against all odds, you have survived!]

"Oh, fuck you," Shen Yuan pants, dropping the gore-covered rock and grabbing his throbbing wrist, thinking to stop the bleeding, only… "Ow, fuck -!"

It's not bleeding, which would be a good thing, if it wasn't for the reason. The skin around the bite mark is already red and swollen, throbbing with every beat of his heart. Just like that, it's infected, blood no longer flowing where it should.

"What the hell was that?" Shen Yuan grounds out, gingerly examining the injury. It's one solid mass of pain, but he can move his fingers, even rotate his wrist a little. It isn't broken, at least. "System, answer me, what is this?"

With another merry, sinister jingle, the System answers.

[You have suffered an injury that has become infected! If you do not find a cure within 12 hours, you will die.]

"What?" Shen Yuan asks, looking at the window in horror. "But I just - are you kidding me?! I just got here, and I'm already -? What's the cure, where is it? Is there a map - point me where it is!"

The System does no such thing, of course. Instead, utterly unsympathetic, it offers him;

[Alert! You are being hunted!]

Shen Yuan stares at the window, uncomprehending, for a split second - and then he hears it. Another wet, nasty sounding snarl, the scrape of nails on dusty, rocky earth. More gigantic rats coming his way.

Clamping his mouth shut on all the curses that want to spill out, Shen Yuan stumbles up to his somewhat shaking feet, and turns to run. Fuck this shit - he's out!

The rats, guided by a sadistic System that's clearly trying to kill him, follow.


 

Shen Yuan has two new scrapes and a bad case of exhaustion and dizziness by the time he gets away from the rats enough to actually take in his situation. They're still following him, he's still got the you are being hunted tag on him - but it turns out the rats aren't too good climbers. He nearly got himself killed, falling off the spire he'd ended to seeking shelter in, and he's now lost all feeling in his bitten hand… but he made it.

First thing he does with his break is panic and throw up. There's nothing in his stomach, and it comes out as nothing more than burning stomach acid, another bit of pain to add into the growing collection he's carrying. It does nothing to clear his head, and only leaves him feeling more lightheaded, gasping back tears and furious screams.

What the shit is any of this supposed to be? What kind of transmigration story is this?!

At least now he knows - or rather, has been forced to accept - where he is. The Endless Abyss of Proud Immortal Demon Way, the Hell of Hells, the worst place in the known universe. Chaotic in-between-dimension where already mutated monsters mutated only more, and where beasts grew only beastlier. Even demons didn't come here willingly, it was that bad - and Shen Yuan was in one of its least chaotic places. The Rock Desert was, as the Endless Abyss went, almost pleasant. No poisonous lakes, no acid rain, no million billion plants looking to fuck anything living over - sometimes literally! The only thing there was in the Rock Desert was rocks, dust, and minor beasts, like the Bloodthirsty Tusk Rats he'd been running away from. Airplane's imagination at its finest.

In the web novel, after being cast into a dimensional rift by his scum villain teacher Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe spent years in the Endless Abyss - and they were, almost universally, horrible. He'd levelled up in power - and begun losing his sanity. It's not exactly a shining review for the place.

Shen Yuan has eleven hours left on his death timer, and the System is doing its utmost to not help him at all. In fact, it's clearly looking to make things worse for him, sending more and more beasts after him and offering him no aid whatsoever. It could be mistaken for a beginner quest, sure, - it was just rats, after all, barely tutorial level monsters. For Luo Binghe this place had barely been a pit stop on his way to a more interesting location - by that time he was OP enough that the beasts of the desert didn't even bother him. 

For a very human, very mortal Shen Yuan, it is actual hell, and the rats are a very real threat to his life. He didn't even get any experience for the ones he'd killed! And if he somehow managed to kill all of the over twenty rats after him, the System would probably send something worse after him. There are Demon Vultures and Hell Scorpions in this desert too, and probably half a dozen other things that could kill him. 

[Warning! You are being hunted!]

Nervous, Shen Yuan looks around - and up - just in case, but it's just the rats, gathered around the base of the stone spire.

"You're such a shitty System," he groans, wiping at his mouth. "Who the hell authorised this, huh? I want to talk to a damn administrator! System, are you listening to me?!"

The System doesn't answer, except to flash the you are being hunted window again, a bit more insistently this time.

Shen Yuan flips a finger at it and then inspects his arm again. It's… already looking kinda bad. He's never been this badly injured, never even seen anyone be this badly injured, but… human skin isn't supposed to be that colour, he's pretty sure. It's also swelling up, by a lot. It's the sort of thing you rush to ER for. The sort of thing that even today might cause someone to lose their arm, even with all modern medicine and antibiotics.

"Fuck," Shen Yuan murmurs, bowing over the throbbing arm and then drawing a breath and straightening up again.

Eleven hours to find a cure. He's in the Endless Abyss, he's infected, and there are no antibiotics in this setting, and there are absolutely no hospitals either. During Luo Binghe's time the Endless Abyss only had about half a dozen sapient occupants - of which five were fuckable, and the last one the protagonist killed. Shen Yuan couldn't get to any of them in time, they're all too far away, and even if he did, the rats would probably keep following him, until the System sent something worse after him. It was probably expecting him to die in short order.

Well, sucks to be the System, because the Endless Abyss was Shen Yuan's first favourite arc in Proud Immortal Demon Way, and he wrote most of the wiki pages about it - he has this place memorised.

There are a few ways he could deal with this infection that he could think of from the top of his head. There is the All-Cleansing Fruit of the Corrupted Nymph, a tree that tried its best to tentacle-hentai anything with two legs that got near. There is the Purifying Water of the Crystalline Spring, which was a trap and would probably end up with him being eaten by transparent demon piranhas. There is the blood of the Four-Winged Phoenix, but even Luo Binghe couldn't catch the thing. The Void Egg of the Abyssal Ouroboros is supposed to renew the body to its purest, healthiest state, but the Abyssal Ouroboros is also too high level for Shen Yuan to even think about it. And then there are the Rejuvenating Grapes of the Climbing Pleasure Vine… which dusted everyone that came near with sex pollen - one of the deadliest sex pollens in the story, at that, deadly unless dual cultivated into submission over two weeks.

"Fuck fuck fuck," Shen Yuan murmurs, clutching his hand to his chest, trying to stop it from hurting so damn much.

Of all the potential cures for this level of infection, the Climbing Pleasure Vine was the closest, though, just in the Leaking Flower Meadow, which was on the other side of the Rock Desert. Problem is, the Leaking Flower Meadow got its name from all the papapa plants in there - the whole forest existed to trap people into pleasurable haze of hundred different sex pollens. It was like the worst aspects of the world of Proud Immortal Demon Way condensed in one place - it was downright prophetic, in a way, for what would come in the story hundreds of chapters later. The forest knocked unsuspecting travellers over the head with an aphrodisiac, and then - well.

Luo Binghe got to taste the forest personally, spending weeks trapped there, fucking his two companions senseless. It was… kind of tiresome to read, really. And not something Shen Yuan is interested in experiencing.

However… there is something he'd always wished someone would've thought to try in Proud Immortal Demon Way, when it came to all the sex pollens. He'd written several forum posts about it, to no avail.

Not a single one of the many women victimised by the plant life, not Luo Binghe or any of his servants or lieutenants, not even the few incredibly talented healers and doctors, thought to try, you know… not breathing it in. No one tried to cover their nose or mouth, no one thought about using a mask. Or even some kind of seal, talisman, anything. Not a single one did anything other than brace for the effects, when encountered with the threat of date-rape-drug-plant. So stupid.

Shen Yuan is desperate and hurting, but he's spent five years theorising about all the things people could've done in the world of Proud Immortal Demon Way, if they had even two brain cells to rub together. Eleven hours isn't a lot of time to work with, especially when one is being hunted by evil rats. But near to the Leaking Flower Meadow, there is a swamp with Gaseous Squids - Airplane's knock-off Octorocks. It would be a little bit of a detour, but if they worked like they did in Zelda…

It's probably an insane plan, but… "Fuck it," Shen Yuan groans and gets up. What else is he going to do - sit here and die? Fuck that.

First things first though. Rats. There is a whole damn horde of them out there. He couldn't - and probably shouldn't - kill all of them, but he would need to cut a path through them if he wanted to get out of there alive.

With a grunt, Shen Yuan picks up a rock and tests its weight. Hefty and sharp.

Well then. Time to test the time-honoured method of heavy objects thrown from high places.


 

Somehow Shen Yuan makes it out of the Rock Desert alive and with minor extra injuries. The ones he has are all throbbing now, all of them to some extent infected, though none as badly as the arm. But he's alive, and that's a damn accomplishment, no matter what the System says.

He has six hours left. Six hours to get to the swamp and figure out how to hunt Gaseous Squids and then make his way to the Leaking Flower Meadow and get the grapes.

It would be easier if he wasn't starving.

Six hours in this world, and Shen Yuan has run into nothing edible. Which isn't that surprising, actually - it wasn't like Luo Binghe enjoyed regular meals in the Endless Abyss either, suffering hunger and starvation before he finally resorted to eating his kills. He was half-demon, though, with half-demon's stamina and constitution - Luo Binghe could eat just about anything without getting something as inconvenient as food poisoning. So even though he still has a horde of Bloodthirsty Tusk Rats following him, Shen Yuan isn't even a little bit tempted.

Besides, water is a way bigger issue than food.

Endless Abyss as a whole doesn't have a lot of water. Drinkable water is even rarer, and it's always guarded by some beast or another. The Leaking Flower Meadow would have some, but it would be absolutely full of sex pollen. Again, Luo Binghe got to experience that personally, too. The most dehydrating drink ever, really.

The list of things Shen Yuan therefore needs is growing.

First, he needs something to hunt the Gaseous Squids with. His current best bet is a well-aimed rock throw, because he has no weapons. Maybe if he found a sharp enough rock he could take a branch or something from the Leaking Flower Meadow and turn that into a spear, but that's… unlikely too. 

[Warning! You are being hunted!]

Tsking with disgust, Shen Yuan gives the window a glare and then keeps moving.

The Leaking Flower Meadow is within sight now - and it's a very out of place sight indeed. The trees are every colour of rainbow, reds and pinks and purples and blues, with greens and yellows here and there - and they're shimmering. It's like there's a heat haze over the place, or like it's some sort of hologram, a mirage - it looks otherworldly and magical. It looks inviting too, which is just insidious.

Luo Binghe had, erroneously, thought it was a place of great natural Qi, that it might house some great spiritual weapon or artefact - but no! It was just drugs.

Shen Yuan eyes the hazy shimmer surrounding the place and decides he's not going anywhere near it without a gas mask. So, to the swamp he goes, exhaustedly jogging on already aching feet to keep ahead of the rats.

It feels almost like the distance gets longer the further he goes, every step taking more effort. His arm throbs, every cut and nick pulsing with worrisome heat, and underneath it all, he'd bruised all over. He really fell into the Endless Abyss, and the System didn't cushion his fall at all.

Shen Yuan pushes through it with a sort of mental fortification only lethal danger and pure spite can give. His socks are ruined, and his feet are probably bleeding, and he's shaking with feverish chill, but he keeps going.

He's going to fucking prove his idea works, to the System, if not to the message boards.

And there, finally, the rocky landscape of the Rock Desert stops and the swamp comes into view. It's a bit unnatural - it's like the world is cut with a knife. The desert just ends, as dry as ever, and then there's wet, spongy moss everywhere. One biome changing and another beginning, with no transition in between.

Whatever, Shen Yuan is beyond caring. 

At the border between the biomes, he collects good-sized rocks into his hoodie pockets, as many as he can carry. Then, wincing at the feeling of the swamp muck against his scratched feet, he steps into the swamp.

[Warning! You are being hunted!]

"Yeah, yeah, I know, you shitty piece of -" Shen Yuan shuts up sharply, seeing something in the mossy water - moving under three swamp's surface. A rough shape like a log, but sinuous like a snake.

There are more beasts here than just the Gaseous Squids. And the main threat is the Thousand Tooth Alligators.

And one of them is coming right at him.

"Fuck!" Shen Yuan shouts, and scrambles, barely in time to avoid losing his leg, as a long, narrow maw with many teeth comes at him with speed. Swampy water splashes on him a the Thousand Tooth Alligator slams back into the water, jaws closing on nothing.

For a moment Shen Yuan just stares at the murky surface, his heart pounding.

Then a pair of malicious eyes pierce the surface and narrow in his way, considering, plotting. Behind them more rough, log-like shapes move in the water.

"Yeah, fuck that," Shen Yuan decides and backs away hurriedly.


 

Without the air bladders of Gaseous Squids to use as air tanks, braving the Leaking Flower Meadow becomes a little riskier. Though in hindsight, using the air bladders probably would've been a bad idea anyway - breathing whatever lingering fumes of the gasses the squids used to hover? That sounds a bit like giving yourself some kind of poisoning. Probably just as well.

"Filter," Shen Yuan murmurs, wiping sweat off his eyes and knocking his glasses askew. "What I need is a filter mask."

But that's pretty far beyond his means right now. His steps are starting to stumble, and his head swims, and his arm…

He's trying not to look at it - trying not to think about it. He thinks of nothing but. It's no longer throbbing. Now it just - hurts. Hurts, hurts, hurts…

With clumsy, shaking hand, Shen Yuan strips out of his hoodie and then awkwardly ties it around his face, bunching up the fabric best he can so that it's thickest around his nose and mouth. Then, with eyes burning from both dryness and sweat, he turns to the meadow.

It's like walking into a garden made of rainbows. Between one step and another, everything becomes psychedelically vivid and iridescent, like there are prisms everywhere and he's walking through a colourful fog full of their refractions. An acid trip, but make it a physical place.

Shen Yuan had been properly high only once in his life, when his tonsils had been removed. He doesn't remember much about it, except how the lights looked like - multilayered and so much more than they should've been. Like they came through dimensions, like there was more in them than there should be. He remembers staring at the fluorescent rods overhead and trying to see them, until their shapes were burned into his retinas and he couldn't see anything else for what then felt like days, but probably was only minutes. His mother fed him ice chips, and they tasted blue, like the sky.

Shen Yuan's eyes burn, and everything turns into astigmatic smears and starbursts - the glowing flowers around him like little explosions, unbearably bright. He's hot all over, all of a sudden, hot and - and -

Climbing Pleasure Vine, he needs to get to the Climbing Pleasure Vine, and get the Rejuvenating Grapes. Because they would fix him. Fix his arms, and hopefully everything else too. Fix his arm. Just the one. He only has the one? No, he has two, but one of them doesn't work. Can't jerk off with just one arm.

Fuck, he wants to jerk off. So bad. Worse than when he'd first discovered that one fanartist who did PIDW weird niche smut so good and -

"Fuck," Shen Yuan groans, muffled by the hoodie, squeezing his eyes shut. Can sex pollen get you through the skin? Through his eyes, maybe? His eyes are itching, rubbing them would feel so good, but all his shrinking germaphobic modern soul can see the colourful smears on his hand - where did those come from? - and knows that getting that shit into his eyes would be a bad thing. Getting it on his dick would probably also be a bad idea.

That doesn't stop him from rubbing himself through his sweatpants, cursing at how it just makes it feel worse. No wonder all the characters in PIDW are just fucking bowled over by papapa pollen - fuck, if there was someone around, like Binghe always had, then, fuck -

Shaking his head to clear the mental image of Binghe in the throes of this stuff, Shen Yuan tries to concentrate. He isn't sure why he's here anymore. Where the hell even is he? When did he leave his condo? It's like a garden - can't jerk off in a garden -

Is that flower… dripping? And why does it look like…?

Fuck, fuck, right, Leaking Flower Meadow, named for its signature flower, the Maiden's Secret, which not so secretly looks like a wet, glistening pussy. The fan artists had a damn field day with that one. Not his proudest wank.

Damn they really look like you could just stick it right in and it would feel so good, so wet and -

Shen Yuan bumps blindly into a low branch in his way, and the pain that flashes through him is like being hit with a thousand volts - pure white flash that turns every nerve in his body up and high to the station of white noise. His whole body buzzing with pain, he automatically goes to clutch at his arm - and that cranks it up to eleven.

In an instant his head clears. Everything feels soupy, and he's rock hard in his sweats, the head of his dick feeling raw and tingly where it pressed against the taut fabric - but his brain drops right out of horny town.

Before him there's a wall of Maiden's Secrets, dripping golden nectar. The smell is -

"Eurgh -!" Shen Yuan gags and backs away, feet clumsy and his stupid dick like a damn magnet, trying to pull him back in. His head is clear now, though, and even if his body is right there with the flowers, well, he is sure as hell not fucking a damn flower! Especially since he knows they're flesh-eating plants! Well, technically, Qi-eating - but same difference!

No, no, absolutely not - no. He needs to find the Climbing Pleasure Vine and get the grapes and get the hell out of here before he's really fucked. Maybe literally! The forest trapped all kinds of creatures and monsters, and Great Master Airplane teased all kinds of monsterfucking possibilities here, and - and Shen Yuan totally did not check out those discussions nor the art, and - and he definitely doesn't want to experience anything like that personally! Hell no!

Fuck, if he gets out of here alive, he's turning his glasses into goggles. And he's definitely going to make a proper gas mask. And he's going to burn this forest to the ground!

… No, he isn't, there are too many interesting plants.

Fuck, he's throbbing again. 

Not stopping to examine which part of him hurts more - his arm or his dick - Shen Yuan stumbles away. He has a fucking vine to find. Focus, focus, he's gotta focus…

Shen Yuan is feeling tingly and dehydrated and very bothered by the time he does, and only by periodically squeezing his arm does he keep his mind on track. His body is confusion of pleasure and pain by now, he can't tell where one ends and the other begins or maybe it's all the same thing. Probably is, with how these things were described in text. Pleasure like pain, pain like pleasure. Nerves firing every which way. Doesn't matter.

The Climbing Pleasure Vine isn't that difficult to recognise - it's tangled around a cluster of trees and doing unimaginable things to them. Actually the trees kind of look like bodies - humanoid bodies. Like just being near the vine, being trapped in its invasive branches turned all victims into receptive, uh, receptacles. Airplane's writing at its finest - papapa vine infestation turns trees into porny statues.

Shen Yuan doesn't have enough blood in his brain for this.

Nor does he have enough strength to try and climb the vine to try and get to the grapes hanging from above. With the pollen hanging in the air he can't get close without risking his life and his dick, and with his luck he'd just end up tangled and - yeah. Climbing Pleasure Vine got its name for a reason. Death by endless, ever increasing pleasure might sound like one hell of a way to go, but Shen Yuan has come too damn far to die here.

Half an hour left on his timer, Shen Yuan does what he screamed at Luo Binghe to do in the comments, to no avail.

He finds a long branch to whack the grapes until they loosened and fell. And damn, if that isn't a metaphor. They even look like testicles, for fuck's sake.

"I hate this book so damn much," Shen Yuan groans, and bites in with a vengeance. At least they have the decency to taste good. Creamy and moist. Yeah.

Fuck Airplane, seriously.


 

Shen Yuan comes out of the Leaking Flower Meadow with a belly full of grapes, more packed away into every pocket and hanging from a ripped bit of vine just in case, and a serious case of blue balls. His arm is better, though, as are all his other injuries. The bite mark and all the others had left scars, because of course, but the infection is gone. He's going to live.

He's not particularly relieved though. He's fucking furious.

[Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations! Against all odds, you have survived!]

"Yeah fuck you too," Shen Yuan growls and points at the window with a grape smeared finger. "You know what, you shitty System? I'm going to fucking beat you."

He knows so much about Proud Immortal Demon Way, and he knows just about everything that was ever written about the Endless Abyss - all the dangers, yes, but also all the beneficial things. There's so many weird plants and beasts whose parts have all kinds of beneficial effects - from Luminous Lizards who make you glow, to Bull Wyrms, whose hearts double your physical strength. Luo Binghe had dismissed a lot of the Endless Abyss' enticing treasures because of honour, because he wanted to be strong on his own merit, because there was someone around to fuck and he was too busy. Whatever. Shen Yuan just got though the fucking date rape drug forest, he has no use for honour.

"I'm going to beat this game," Shen Yuan snarls. "I'm going to beat this book, and if I'm ever running into Luo fucking Binghe, I'm going to beat him too! Just fucking watch me!"

One day he would find the whole Bull Wyrm flock and eat all their hearts, and so what if righteous cultivators thought it was a demonic technique? Shen Yuan doesn't give two shits!

[Warning! You are being hunted!]

"Tch!" Shen Yuan scoffs, grabbing his grape-whacking branch. "Fucking bring it!"

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe doesn't know what he did wrong. What was his mistake, what great crime did he commit, what mortal flaw did he possess? What made his Shizun hate him so much?

"I always knew you were a beast. Now you reveal your true nature - as demon spawn. You treacherous disciple, to hide it from your teacher for this long is almost commendable - how long have you known? Years? No wonder you grew in leaps and bounds."

There was nothing Luo Binghe could do or say, Shen Qingqiu would hear none of it and instead pulled his sword, Xiu Ya, and prepared to strike him down once for all.

"Beasts such as you do not belong in the human realm. I will send you where you belong, demon. Never again show your face to me - for next time I see it, I will kill you."

Why, Luo Binghe wanted to scream as he was pushed away. Why do you hate me so much? What did I do to you, what did I ever do to you except try to please you and be a good disciple? I know I am a demon, but I am human too - I've lived as a human until now! Why couldn't you ever be the good Shizun you were supposed to be?!

What did he do wrong?

He doesn't think Shen Qingqiu would've answered even if he had gotten to ask. But he doesn't.

He tips backwards and into the howling rift awaiting him - into the Endless Abyss, and the last sight of the Human Realm he sees is the way his Shizun coldly turns away, not even deigning to watch him fall.


 

Luo Binghe is a half-demon. This he has known for over two years, ever since a Dream Demon attacked him and instead of finding a weak prey to feast upon found a well of sealed energy and a suitable host. Meng Mo claimed him as his student, but Luo Binghe knew better - knew the Dream Demon sustained himself on that sealed energy he held within him. It was a suitable enough trade for tutelage.

As it was, it wasn't as though he was getting much of an education at Qing Jing Peak.

From Meng Mo Luo Binghe had learned not only the art of dream manipulation, but also about demons in general… and about himself too. The flashes of unsightly emotion and barely restrained urges, the ugly glee he felt in battle, how he revelled in victory, all unseemly for a righteous cultivator… for years he'd thought himself wrong and twisted and pushed it down as best he could. Meng Mo taught him better.

He's a half-demon - and those dark impulses are natural for that side of him. Suppressing them he only hurt his own potential. And he has so much potential as a demon.

Though they couldn't figure out what kind of demon Luo Binghe was behind the seal, Meng Mo was of the opinion that it was one of the stronger sorts. His was the blood of demon lords, perhaps even the Saintly Demons. They had their ways with humans occasionally, and the chances were that the one of Luo Binghe's parents who was demon was the mother. Human woman would have trouble carrying something so demonic - and it's not as though they could've sealed his power until after he was born. Saintly Demons were largely female - and Luo Binghe was certainly pretty enough to be born of one.

One day his seal would break, once he reached his maturity, and then they would know for sure. Until then he would remain by all appearances human and remain on Qing Jing Peak, enjoying its… hospitality and education. And once his seal did break, then… then…

Luo Binghe had never given enough thought to what would happen then. He hadn't expected it to come along so soon, either. Certainly he hadn't ever thought the seal might break in such a public setting, right in front of his Shizun, who already hated him so much.

He should've thought about it. He should've planned for it. He should've ran when his voice broke, when his last growth spurt came in, when his shoulders widened and he grew taller than all his Shijies. He should've seen his own adulthood coming and planned for it. But he hadn't.

Maybe he had been too afraid to.

Now he pays the price for it, in pain and blood. In exile.

He's still regretting his own inaction when he crashes down into the unforgiving ground, down in the Endless Abyss. The fall rattles his entire being, and pain courses through him like a lightning strike, leaving him feeling bruised and battered. Breathless with pain, he gasps, his eyes wide.

Above him, the rift leading back to the Human Realm closes.

For a moment, he just lies there, staring into the strange, squirming nothingness above him. For a moment all there is is pain and his own pounding heart, rattling in his chest. Every beat of it hurts.

Luo Binghe refuses to cry. Crying wouldn't help anything, it had never helped anything, and it definitely wouldn't help here. He will not shed a single tear over his Shizun's actions, no matter how his eyes burn. He's not betrayed, you can't be betrayed by someone who'd never done anything but torture you. He's not hurt.

He's furious.

… Luo Binghe is hurt, though. Every part of him aches, and he's sure he has at least two broken ribs. 

Sitting up hurts and standing up makes his ankle want to twist with fresh new agony. Somehow, it had gotten badly twisted.. And his blood, it's… it's burning, still burning, like acid, inside him.

His Qi - his Demonic Qi - churning and scorching his spiritual veins as his inheritance makes itself known, just like Meng Mo warned him it would.

The Endless Abyss stretches before him, hellish and strange, with a sky - ceiling? - that feels all at once heavy and intangible. Though the ground under his feet feels real and solid, he's not sure it's dirt and rocks he's walking on. Maybe it's just blood, layers upon layers of dry blood, turned solid and chunky, petrified over time. It smells wrong, too, like spoiled meat, like the fumes of exploded pill furnace, like that expensive paint the senior disciples of Qing Jing Peak sometimes used. It makes his skin crawl.

Luo Binghe covers his mouth and nose with his sleeve and grimaces at it. The previously pristine Qing Jing Peak's pale green is already stained with dry blood and dirt, smeared with rusty brown. He stares at the fabric for a breath or two and then resolutely looks away.

He should've seen Shen Qingqiu's actions coming. There was never a chance he could've stayed on Qing Jing Peak once the truth came out. If it wasn't The Endless Abyss, it would've been some other cliff his Shizun would've cast him from. He should've prepared, but he hadn't.

That doesn't mean he's going to lay down and die.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Luo Binghe looks around, picks a direction, and begins to walk.


 

Luo Binghe had read about the Endless Abyss, and Meng Mo had told him about it, so he knew some of what to expect. The unnatural landscape, the monsters, the poisons, the many dangers. Any moment he could be attacked by any number of things, so he remains on guard, constantly on alert, expecting the worst.

What he didn't expect of the thirst. And then, hunger.

They creep up on him. He'd been a little hungry to begin with, the Immortal Alliance Conference had been long, and he'd given most of his food to a disciple from Huan Hua Palace, Qin Wanyue, who didn't have any, and who had then gotten poisoned and weakened further. Luo Binghe had done his best to look after her and make her comfortable, and it had spent most of his stores.

What he has left sustains him for half of a day only. At least it feels like it's about five, six sichens. It's hard to tell, without sun or even stars. Time feels suspended here, stuck in place, but not enough to keep him from getting hungry again, from getting thirsty.

At least his ankle had stopped hurting, and even his ribs feel better. His blood, though, it feels… not worse, exactly, but more. He can feel it. Like the breath in his lungs and the weight of his body as he moves, Luo Binghe can feel his own blood, squirming in his veins.

He thinks it's fixing the cut his Shizun left across his chest, but it's hard to say with the dry blood covering his front.

He's so thirsty, his tongue like a chunk of leather in his parched mouth. He thinks it might be getting hotter. He's sweating, and it's just making the thirst worse. His stomach rumbles.

Luo Binghe knows he can take it. The hunger is an old friend he knew well when he'd been young - one day without food is nothing. There's been times when he'd gone for a week with only water and grass, and he'd managed. On Qing Jing Peak he'd learned that even non-cultivators could go up to three weeks without food - so long as they had water. Without water, though… three days.

He hadn't managed to learn cultivation to the extent where he could practice inedia, so he has two days to find water. Two days… unless his blood now makes him different. Demons are hardier, after all.

Better not chance it.

Licking his parched lips, Luo Binghe searches for a vantage point in the dry, rocky landscape and then aims for a hill with a sharp, rocky top. If there were any rivers or lakes near by, he would be able to see them from there.

Navigating his way through the craggy rocks is half a sichen's work, and he almost sprains his ankle again on his way. By the time he reaches the top, he's tired and dusty and panting for breath.

The air is definitely getting hotter. Maybe the Endless Abyss has a sun after all, and it's about to rise? The air above is still dark, though - it's shifting like a mass of snakes, but it hasn't gotten any lighter.

Luo Binghe blearily gazes up at the sky and tries to figure out what shade it is and why it is moving like that, is it clouds? Then something in the corner of his eye catches his attention. Something bright.

Sunlight reflected on the water's surface, is his first thought.

But there's no sun.

It's an intense golden gleam in the distance - no, it's emitting its own light, whatever it is. A fire? Luo Binghe has never seen fire that bright, yellow so brilliant it's almost white. It has to be something with spiritual power, or demonic power, or -

Then he realises that whatever it is, it's moving - it's coming towards him.

Squinting into the distance he tries to see, concentrating. In his veins his blood stirs, his heart begins to beat harder.

There's a… bird above the golden fire. It's flying just above the flames. Or… it's… casting the flames in its wake?

A fiery bird with four wings. With each beat of its wings, it sends a gust of flames into the ground below, gliding on its own self-made thermal winds as it rains destruction onto the earth below, casting swathes of it in flames. And it's flying right at Luo Binghe.

He realises this too late to get away, to get down from the hill he's climbed. In a few wing beats, the bird is upon him and hot wind slams into him like an attack, and air turns from sweltering to boiling as it begins to flicker with the heat. 

Stunned by the heat, astonishment and awe, all Luo Binghe can do is stare up. The firebird is massive, as large as Shen Qingqiu's Bamboo House, with feathers of vivid red and orange, beak as black as coals.

It's also injured - and what he thought was some natural skill of it isn't. It's the bird's blood, dripping from its feathers, from its wings, and catching fire as soon as it falls. There's a spear stuck into its side, and the incandescent blood trickling down the shaft is made of pure heat.

Luo Binghe gapes - and is then bowled over by something more physical than just the temperature, hitting him. A large - though much smaller than the firebird - shape slams into him and then crawls over him - chasing the bird.

Luo Binghe scrambles for balance, turning his eyes to see. It's a demon, it must be - some sort of bird demon, with strange bulbous eyes on a leathery face and long, drooping peak. It's covered in thick, partially matted fur - except for its feet. They're bare, black and look disturbingly like human feet.

It's holding a spear, and while Luo Binghe stares at it in wide-eyed shock, it winds back its arm to throw the spear at the gigantic firebird.

The throw misses and the firebird keeps flying, right over the hill and beyond.

"Fuck!" the Bird Demon cries in frustration. "That was my last spear! Come back here, you fucker!"

Luo Binghe gasps for a breath. It can speak! "Excuse me -?"

The Bird Demon tenses and whirls around, a vicious looking black knife appearing in its hand as it crouches, ready to attack.

And then the incandescent droplets of firebird blood finish their descent from above and begin raining fire down on the hill they're both on.

Luo Binghe's world dissolves into pure agony.


 

Luo Binghe comes in and out of consciousness in fits and bursts.

He thinks he screams. Something is stuffed into his mouth, a thick wad of cloth. He can feel his own blood soaking it through.

A flash of pain, the Bird Demon peering down at him with its strange, enormous eyes. Luo Binghe can feel himself gasp for a breath through burned nose, his mouth full as he whines in pain, and then he's gone under a wave of pain.

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts…

He comes to the feeling of being jostled by the surface he's lying on. His skin feels like shredded paper, and pain waxes and wanes endlessly. The thing he is lying on rises a little and then falls in a rattle. He can see rock on the left of him, moving. He's moving - he's being moved. The cloth in his mouth is soggy with half dry blood, and he can't lift his hands to get it out.

Luo Binghe wakes up to a fall, to his face smashing against dirt. "Damnit," someone mutters and then there's more jostling, more pain, as he's dragged back onto the stretcher, his pained gasps and muffled cries ignored. The bird demon hovers over him, and Luo Binghe wonders if it's going to kill him. He can see himself reflected on its enormous black eyes. It takes the stretcher by one end, and continues hauling him away.

"I know you're not going to die on me, that's just not an option, but you could start healing a bit faster. You're leaving a trail half the Abyss can follow!"

Luo Binghe wakes up to his own miserable moaning. The noise drones on and on, and he can't seem to stop it. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realises he's burnt, his whole body is burnt, every bit of him, burned. His whines go unanswered for a long while, until…

"You are going to attract every monster from here to the Oil Bog," a voice mutters and Luo Binghe moans as his weight is let none too gently down. "I can't help you if you get both of us killed."

Luo Binghe peers up through tearing eyes as the Bird Demon shuffles closer. It's holding something like an earthenware jar in hand, and as Luo Binghe struggles to speak with the blood sodden rag in his mouth, the Bird Demon opens the jar lid before sticking the pot under his nose. 

"Breathe it in, there's a good boy," the Demon coos, and no matter how long Luo Binghe tries to hold his breath, he eventually has to inhale. Whatever it is that's in the pot, he can't smell it over the burnt flesh smell of his own body. That doesn't seem to matter.

Luo Binghe can feel himself sinking fast and deep into sleep.


 

"Finally!" Meng Mo sighs as Luo Binghe's consciousness crystallises into awareness within his dreamscape. "I have been trying to reach you for more than a day, boy! Did you forget how to put yourself into a healing sleep?"

"I -" Luo Binghe starts and then hurriedly checks himself over. Though his dream manifestation of himself is whole and healthy, it's also a reflection of his real self, and he can feel the extent of his own injuries, even here.

Almost every cun of his skin is burnt. Only bits of him that had survived were those protected by other parts of his body - his armpits, part of his groin, the soles of his feet. Even his -

"Boy," Meng Mo says with a pained tone of voice as Luo Binghe wincingly clasps a hand over his crotch. "Don't… despair. Now that your seal has broken, even this kind of injury won't be an issue for you. You will recover, in time. Even your manhood will recover."

Looking up with wide eyes, Luo Binghe asks hopefully, "Really?"

Meng Mo sighs. "You're a Heavenly Demon, boy. This is bad, but you're not dead yet - and what doesn't immediately kill you, you can heal from. All you need is time and energy."

Breathing slowly in and out, Luo Binghe removes his hand. "I don't know if I have the time, Shifu. I've been taken by some kind of Bird Demon."

With a wave of his hand, Luo Binghe conjures an image of his captor. The Bird Demon appears before them, standing slightly crooked with a great mass of fur around it, with its strangely human legs looking almost spindly under all the mass. Its face, examined close up and with time, is even stranger than Luo Binghe had first realised. Not only does it have strange eyes, but it has enormous nostrils down its beak - and they look like they've been stuffed full of grey wool. It also looks almost stitched together. Like it's not a face at all but a -

"Mask," Meng Mo says just as Luo Binghe realises it himself. "It's a mask. And the legs have been painted with something - something fireproof, I should say, considering that they were hunting a Four Winged Phoenix."

"That's what that was?" Luo Binghe asks.

"Mm-hmm," Meng Mo agrees and considers the fur. "Fire rat. Tch, it could be anything under all this, but whatever this hunter is, they certainly know what they were up against, going after a Four Winged Phoenix."

Luo Binghe frowns, considering the bird-masked hunter. "What do you think they will do with me?"

"I don't know," Meng Mo gives him a grim look. "But considering that they're not only confident enough to hunt a beast that strong, but also have a call for it…I think you might be lucky that you got so burned. Maybe they didn't see your curse mark and so didn't yet realise what you were. If they have use for a Four Winged Phoenix, I would hate for you to find out what they might do with a Heavenly Demon."

"My… curse mark?"

Meng Mo shows him via a reflection and Luo Binghe stares, surprised, at the red, swirling mark on his forehead. "Inheritance from the age when your bloodline was first cast from heaven," Meng Mo explains. "Also called a demon mark. It's how I know what you are now - all Heavenly Demons have it."

Luo Binghe swallows, rubbing his fingers over the mark. "Is there a way to hide it?" he asks hopefully.

"There is, but whether you can learn it on time is another thing," Meng Mo says.

"You can stretch the time here, though, can't you? So that minutes will be like hours, hours like days…?"

"Not without expending your energy, boy, and you need every drop of it to heal yourself," Meng Mo scoffs.

"Healing won't help me if that hunter decides to chop me up for pill ingredients before I even recover," Luo Binghe says determinedly.


 

When Luo Binghe wakes up next, he's no longer moving. Instead he's lying on something solid and unmoving, but soft - a stone bed covered with furs. And the furs are definitely needed too, because the air about him feels shockingly chill - so much so that his breath comes out in a foggy cloud.

That's not nearly as important as the fact that his arms, legs, even his face have been bandaged up with leaves bound up with woolen strings. Underneath the leaves he can feel some kind of sticky ointment, covering all his burns. And the burns themselves, his scorched skin feels… better. It tingles and itches, but instead of all-consuming pain it just feels cool. Someone had used a proper healing ointment on him, and they'd used a lot of it.

Careful not to move and so give away his wakeful state, Luo Binghe glances around. He's in a cave, unsurprisingly, a large one with stalagmites hanging from the ceiling, and sand on the floor. The pile of furs he's lying on has been set along the longest side, and across from him is a line of roughly hewn tables, covered with… stuff.

Moving very slowly, Luo Binghe turns his head to better see what's piled on the tables. The tables are low to the ground, and lack all the delicate artistry of Qing Jing Peak work tables, but they're clearly work tables anyway. There's a myriad of tools spread across them, pots and baskets full of dry plants, wood, bones, fur and many other things, surrounding a roughly crafted but clearly well used alchemy set, with mortar and pestle and earthenware cauldrons of varying sizes.

There's also the body of some kind of six-limbed beast hanging from a rack not far from the work tables. It's in the middle of being taken apart, cleanly gutted, skin removed and flesh mostly sliced off. Not far from it there's a stack of about twenty wooden poles, their ends sharpened into spear points, their shafts dark with blood.

Luo Binghe's eyes glide over a stack of firewood, more baskets, and a rack with some dozen bunches of herbs hung up to dry… to a pile of skins. 

He swallows and tries not to shake. He's in the hunter's lair. Wherever this is, it's where the hunter takes apart their kills to make… whatever they make from them. And judging by how cold it is, it must be fairly deep underground.

The hunter had seen to his wounds, though. He'd been not only bandaged, but he'd been given medicine - effective, maybe even life-saving medicine. One doesn't do that unless they want the patient to live, right?

… Unless the hunter wants his skin to recover so that he too can be skinned. Judging by the pile and the number of furs Luo Binghe is swaddled in, the hunter must've killed and skinned half of the beasts in the Endless Abyss! If they'd seen his demon mark…

Lying very still for a moment, Luo Binghe swallows again, wincing at the sting of it, and then glances around once more. It doesn't look like there's anyone near. Maybe he could escape...?

Sitting up turns out to be impossible. It's not just that it hurts - though it hurts a lot. When he moves, it feels as though his skin is splitting open, and there's a stabbing pain in his chest and throat that seizes his whole body and forces a pained whimper from him.

With a gasp and a groan, Luo Binghe collapses back down, pulsing black and white spots dancing across his vision and obscuring it so that he doesn't see where the hunter comes from. Between one blink and the other, they're just there, at his side.

"You're awake," the hunter says, muffled by the mask. They sound almost relieved. "Of course you're awake - right, um. Better not move, you're covered in burns, you'll probably end up hurting yourself. How do you feel?"

Blinking through the pained haze, Luo Binghe stares up at them, uncomprehending. "W-what?" he asks and his voice comes out as a raw croak.

The hunter's masked head tilts at that, the lenses covering their eyes, blank and impossible to see through. "Right," they say and move back.

There's something unsettling about how the hunter moves, movements strangely jagged, limber, and absolutely silent. The mass of fur covering their body and how naked their feet look doesn't help it, making them look uncannily, inhumanly… human. They even have human hands. Maybe it is a human under the mask - one that moves like a nervous beast. Luo Binghe isn't sure if that'd be any better, though.

A moment later the hunter is back with an earthenware cup that even through Luo Binghe's nose smells minty.

"Drink," the hunter says and shoves the cup at his face.

"What is it?" Luo Binghe struggles to say. The minty smell is so strong now it stings his nose.

"No idea. I call it mint-spike. Grows by the Frost Laguun, very resilient, kills you by stabbing you with needles," the hunter says. "It'll soothe your throat."

Having no strength to struggle and figuring that someone that had gone through so much trouble to bandage him up probably wouldn't poison him, Luo Binghe drinks.

It's like liquid ice, and it stings his nose even worse going down his throat - but it helps, easing the scraped feeling of his throat immensely. Clearly, rough alchemy set aside, this hunter knows his business.

"Better?" the hunter asks.

"Yes. Thank you " Luo Binghe sighs with relief, and this time his voice comes out as a husky whisper instead. His empty stomach grumbles as the liquid settles in, but the taste wasn't bad.

"Good," the hunter says, nodding and looking at him for a moment too long for it to not feel awkward. Then, before Luo Binghe can find enough breath to ask, the hunter jerks away, taking the cup with them.

Swallowing around the stinging, Luo Binghe watches the hunter move, placing the cup aside, grabbing a sharp looking knife with a black blade from the alchemy set.

"Food," the hunter mutters, the knife moving restlessly from one hand to another. "Yeah. You must be hungry - soup would be best, right? With a burned throat. Yeah, I'll make soup. Should have time for that…"

"Thank you," Luo Binghe says again - his chest still hurts, but not enough to cover the plaintive complaints of his stomach. "Who are you?"

The hunter moves to the hanging beast carcass and cuts generous chunks off it onto a wooden plate. "Shen Yuan," they say.

Luo Binghe stiffens and it hurts. "Shen?" he croaks and winces as something under the bandages splits.

The hunter glances at him and then turns to the work table. "You should rest," they say and begin preparing the soup. Even at a distance and with blurry vision, Luo Binghe can tell it probably would be a very… simple soup. The hunter simply chops the meat, grabs some dry herbs and what Luo Binghe hopes are vegetables and throws them all into a pot, pouring a measure of milky looking liquid over them. Luo Binghe can't decide if it looks appetising or not, but he definitely wouldn't be turning his nose up at it, no matter how it came out.

The hunter gets halfway into setting some logs into a ring of stones to use for cooking, when something happens and their head comes up sharply.

"Shit, out of time," the hunter mutters and drops the pot on top of the half made fire and stands up, his feet looking strangely spindly under the mass of furs. "Got to go." Then, grabbing a spear on the way, the hunter just… leaves.

Luo Binghe blinks after them, surprised. He waits a moment, then another, but the silence stretches and soon it becomes clear… he's alone.

What even…?

Blinking, Luo Binghe turns his gaze on the fire. It's already going out, stifled under the pot - which is precariously balancing on the logs, tilting to the side. Inside he can see the sad excuse of a soup, ready to spill over.

With a pained grunt, his skin screaming in protest, Luo Binghe sits up.


 

He has the soup bubbling gently by the time Shen Yuan comes back with a spear covered in sticky black blood - and a nasty looking lump of flesh hanging from it. Luo Binghe hasn't ever seen anything like it up close, but he's pretty sure it's a heart.

It's the size of Shen Yuan's head, so whatever it came from must've been big.

The hunter freezes at the sight of him. "What are you doing?"

Luo Binghe, sitting on a fur he'd dragged from the bed with another slung over his shoulders to keep him warm, looks back down at the pot he'd been stirring. "It was going to spill over," he says. "I saved it."

The beak of the hunter's mask wobbles little and then he looks around, at the bed, the work tables, the rack of herbs. Checking if Luo Binghe had poked around? He hadn't. His feet wouldn't carry him that far - even going back to bed to get the furs had been a stretch.

Shen Yuan hesitates and then goes to the rack where the beast carcass hangs. He slides the heart off his spear and hangs it, too, on the rack. It starts to drip slowly oozing blood into an already bloodstained jug Shen Yuan puts under it, which has clearly been used for the purpose before. That done, the hunter cleans up his spear and then himself, rubbing his hands clean with a dirty cloth.

Under the grime, his skin is startlingly pale, almost white, and lined with scars. His forearms are tight with corded muscle, the look of strength and dehydration warring each other.

"I think the soup is done," Luo Binghe says with a dry swallow, stirring the pot again.

"I'll get bowls," the hunter says and does just that, bringing two ceramic bowls and sitting down across from Luo Binghe.

Then, as Luo Binghe pretends not to stare, Shen Yuan takes the mask apart, detaching the beak and seeing it aside. It reveals the lower half of the Hunters face to be… human. A little dirty with chapped lips and bruises on one cheek, but human.

Also, male, judging by the stubble and the Adam's apple.

Shen Yuan hands him a bowl, and Luo Binghe accepts it. It's… shockingly companionable. They share the milky soup, which turns out not all that bad in the end. The meat is a little weird and vegetables taste just a little off, but overall the concoction is edible, warm and more than filling. Luo Binghe immediately feels much better, so much so that he has a suspicion that none of the soup ingredients are… normal.

Mystery food aside, the quiet is almost nice, as they eat by the simmering fire. It's definitely not what he would have expected from a denizen of the Endless Abyss.

"Why did you help me?" he asks, while Shen Yuan scrapes the last of the soup from the bottom of the pot.

The hunter glances at him and shrugs. "Because," he says and tilts the pot over their bowls, making sure they both got an equal share.

"You must have a reason," Luo Binghe presses. "You could have just left me. You didn't need to bandage me or give me medicine."

"Eh," Shen Yuan says and hands him his bowl. "I did actually - have to, I mean. Orders from on high."

"... What? Orders from who - why would anyone -?" Luo Binghe stops and thinks, Shen Yuan. The feeling that rises is a mangled thing of hope and disbelief and suspicion. "Did Shen Qingqiu send you?"

"Ha!" Shen Yuan barks. "No, definitely not. It's no one you'd know. It's not really anyone anyway - oh shut up."

Luo Binghe blinks - that last bit wasn't even aimed at him. Shen Yuan is talking to thin air now.

"No, fuck you, you drop him in my lap, you can fucking deal with what I tell him. Yeah yeah, sure, punish me all you want, you dick, what's the worst you can do at this point -" the hunter growls into a stop, lips pressing into an unhappy line that looks… familiar. The way his upper lip tilts in disgust… "Oh, yeah? Fucking do it then. Go on. I'm waiting. Delete me, bitch."

Uncertain, Luo Binghe looks between Shen Yuan and the air. There's nothing there.

"I didn't fucking think so," Shen Yuan says, lifts a fist, and sticks a middle finger out. "Suck it. Yeah, yeah, fuck you too."

"I… don't understand. Who are you talking to?" Luo Binghe asks, frowning, lowering his bowl slowly.

"The cosmic entity of a vindictive assholery that has cursed me," Shen Yuan scoffs and turns back to his own bowl. "Consequently, the reason you exist. Congratulations, the powers that be have deemed you entertaining, you poor bastard."

Swallowing around the tingling feeling on his tongue, Luo Binghe gives him a worried look. Either the man is insane, or he's speaking the truth. Neither idea is particularly appealing. "Do you know who I am?" he asks slowly.

Shen Yuan slurps the last of the soup from his bowl. "Sure," he says and stands up. "Don't go getting attached now, Luo Binghe - the moment you're healthy, I'm kicking you out. Now excuse me, there's something coming, and I need to go kill it."

And with that, he goes to grab another spear before he heads out, again, leaving Luo Binghe gaping after him.


 

That first day pretty much marks how the rest of Luo Binghe recovery would go. Shen Yuan comes, acts unsettlingly, and then heads out to kill something that's supposedly after him - something that the cosmic entity of vindictive assholery sends after him.

He'd also eaten the heart he'd brought in - raw. He's used a knife to cut it up into pieces and ate it from a plate with some semblance of civility, but he'd still eaten some beast's heart raw.

And now there's a fist-sized eyeball sitting in a solution that smells like vinegar that's probably going to get the same treatment.

"Do you think he's insane?" Luo Binghe asks hopefully, the next time his sleep is deep enough for communication with the Dream Demon

"Oh, he's absolutely insane," Meng Mo says without hesitation. "But that doesn't mean he can't also be cursed. He's definitely done something to himself to mess himself up. His energies are all chaotic."

"My strength hasn't yet returned enough to tell - chaotic how?" Luo Binghe asks curiously. 

"Chaotic like he's a keg of gunpowder, about to blow," Meng Mo scoffs. "At a guess, he eats a lot of spiritually strong… things."

Things. "You mean demons," Luo Binghe says quietly. "Like that carcass in the cave. It was a demon, wasn't it?"

"Probably," Meng Mo shrugs. "The vegetables were spiritually imbued, definitely, but there's not that many things that grow in the Endless Abyss that aren't."

Luo Binghe nods slowly, thinking. Whoever Shen Yuan is, he's clearly learned not just how to survive in the Endless Abyss, but he's grown strong doing it, hunting and fighting and eating things that tried to kill him. That… would be a useful skill to learn.

"What do you think he is?" Luo Binghe asks thoughtfully. "He doesn't seem demonic, regardless of what he eats."

"Appearances can be misleading, especially when it comes to demons. Human, probably, originally," Meng Mo says dismissively. "I have no idea what he is now. Nothing stays normal for long in the Endless Abyss, and his eating habits definitely haven't helped there. I suggest you treat him as an unknown demon - he's definitely at least halfway there."

Luo Binghe frowns. He'd thought as much, but having his suspicion proven correct doesn't really help him. If anything, it makes things a bit worse.

Shen Yuan hasn't fully taken off his mask, and with the furs it is really hard to tell, but… Lue Binghe can't shake the suspicion that Shen Yuan and Shen Qingqiu have something to do with each other. Shen Yuan knows Shen Qingqiu, enough to feel derision at the suggestion of working for him. He knew Luo Binghe's name. And what little he'd seen of the man's face, the pointed chin, thin upper lip, the way the hunter scowled…

Shen Yuan's and Shen Qingqiu's sneers are almost identical - and Luo Binghe is very familiar with that sneer. Only where Shen Qingqiu aimed his scowls at Luo Binghe, Shen Yuan aims his at thin air.

One Shen kicks him into the Abyss where another picks him up. It can't be a coincidence, can it?

"So, boy," Meng Mo says. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to get into the bottom of this," Luo Binghe decides, frowning with determination. "I'm going to figure out who Shen Yuan is and what he knows. And then… then I'll see."

"And if he tries to eat you in the meantime?" Meng Mo asks with a scoff. "As a Heavenly Demon, you have the potential to become the strongest demon in Endless Abyss. He ate the heart of a Bull Wyrm - imagine the strength he'd get from eating yours."

Luo Binghe looks up seriously. "I'll eat his, instead."

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe is probably going to try to kill him. Shen Yuan accepts that as par for the course. Shen Yuan is very male, messy, probably ugly too, after all this time, and all around unappealing in every way. At some point he's going to either piss Luo Binghe off in some way, or he's going to scare some flavour of Damsel in Distress, and Luo Binghe will try to kill him in service of the promise of papapa in his immediate future. That's just given.

And Shen Yuan can't preemptively kill him, because the System won't let him. Not that Shen Yuan really wants to kill Luo Binghe. Even aside from the fact that the Protagonist is the battery for the entire existence of PIDW and without him the universe collapses, he's still, somehow, Shen Yuan's favourite character. Killing him would be like killing a Pikachu or something, murdering Donald Duck. That's just not cool.

He contemplates poisoning Luo Binghe just a little. Heavenly Demon blood would heal him, of course, but right now it's busy with the burns and other injuries. A mild sedative mixed in with a little bit of this and that could keep Luo Binghe nice and docile for a while, slow down his healing without really hurting him. Enough to give Shen Yuan time to set up a new hideout, and then…

Yeah, doing something like that would just get him killed by vengeful Luo Binghe that much faster. He'd be just asking for it, at that point.

So, Shen Yuan settles on trying to make sure the Protagonist heals as fast as possible and leaves. And then, for a good measure, Shen Yuan would get the hell out of dodge. He could stay at one of the camps for a while, maybe, until he was sure Binghe was well away and then he could go back to living his life.

[Warning! You are being hunted!]

"You don't fucking say," Shen Yuan mutters and grips his spear tighter, his bag of bombs at the ready, waiting. Last thing that came after him was a Spear Beak Albatross, so either it would be some sort of status effect thing next or a swarm.

A status effect swarm, it turns out - or Tri-Horn Acid Beetles, because the System really fucking hates him. They darken the already murky skies above, and then comes the rattling of horns and sizzling of acid that begins to drip down from their asses.

Well, he could collect a few dozen glands and use them on Binghe if it came down to it - in a pinch some corrosive metal-eating acid thrown at his face should at least slow the Protagonist down a little. 

Tugging his bag open, Shen Yuan rummages through the earthenware orbs inside until he gets to one that feels like wet, cold glass. The Ice Breath bomb is, as per usual, slippery with the acummulation of ice around it, like a secondary shell, but that's fine. It's not too thick yet.

Shen Yuan waits until the swarm gets in range, swooping down towards him, trying to rain their acid on him. They're pretty cool, as calamitous entities in the Endless Abyss go - one of its biblical plague analogs. In chapter 3848 a demon had used them to attack Binghe's realm and almost succeeded in causing some proper damage. It was a really cool arc for, like, three pages.

Of course, Binghe immediately discovered a spell that made it so that the acid wouldn't affect living flesh, and so the apocalyptic plague of beetles turned a whole town of Amazonian cultivators into a nudist colony, rather than turning them into soup. Airplane doing as Airplane does.

Oh well. 

Shen Yuan hurls the Ice Breath Bomb at the swarm with all his might and follows it immediately after with the spear. Thankfully this time his aim hasn't been thrown off by random Protagonist-shaped obstacle in his way, and both the bomb and the spear fly true, the much faster spear cutting right through the bomb and cracking it wide open.

In an instant, the swarm is covered in an icy cloud of death that fills the air with diamond dust. A moment later, frozen bodies begin raining down, dead beetles piling and clattering against each other like discarded toys.

Sweet, he got the formula right this time - none of them shatter on impact.

Satisfied, Shen Yuan takes out a knife and gets to harvesting.


 

The Protagonist is awake when Shen Yuan gets back, and it looks like he's beginning to itch - Binghe is trying to scratch under the Crystal Lotus leaves covering of his left arm. 

Damn, his skin is already healed to that point, huh? His face looks better too - of course it would heal the fastest. Can't have the Protagonist looking like pepperoni, can we? Wonder how the heavenly pillar is doing…

"What's that?" Luo Binghe asks, his voice still a little husky, but already stronger than before. He nods at what Shen Yuan is carrying - a beetle carapace hoisted up on each shoulder.

"Acid and food," Shen Yuan says and drops them on the cave floor. One carapace has the acid glands, which despite all his care in tying the ends, are leaking. The other carapace has beetle legs. "Have you ever had crab?"

Luo Binghe looks partially disgusted and partially fascinated. "Um, yes?"

"They're a bit like crab," Shen Yuan says. "The legs, I mean, don't eat the acid. It'll kill you."

"... I won't."

Shen Yuan nods and then looks at him. The Protagonist is starting to look a bit messy, and the leaves covering his skin are going brown. About time to switch the bandages, maybe.

Ah well, Binghe is tough and pretty much impervious to infection, he can wait.

Luo Binghe watches silently as Shen Yuan chops the beetle legs up and throws them into a pot to steam. Then, taking out his Iron Chameleon globes, he starts preparing the acid glands, draining them into a kettle to distil them.

Maybe he should work out a proper injector this time. He has a sort of makedo syringe thing, but a squirt gun would be more useful, or a spray bottle… there was that time with the fucking ant-eater thing with the shell, being able to just spray that thing with acid would've been so useful -

"What do you use it for?"

Shen Yuan startles a little - fuck, he forgot Luo Binghe was there. "What?" he asks without looking away from the work.

Luo Binghe is scratching himself again. "The acid - what do you use it for? Do you kill things with it?"

Lifting his head a little, Shen Yuan shifts his weight. "Sometimes," he says and glances at him over his shoulder. "Why?"

Luo Binghe smiles awkwardly. It looks painful. "Only trying to make a conversation."

It's - uncomfortable. What is he supposed to say? What is he supposed to do with the guy? In the book Luo Binghe had gotten pretty fucked up early on, as Airplane really hammered in how much the Endless Abyss sucked - for months he'd been alone, hurt, barely surviving. There hadn't been anyone for Luo Binghe to talk to until he ran into the Elf, and honestly, they didn't do that much talking. This early, with Binghe fresh from the human realm…

"I do kill with it," Shen Yuan says. "When I need to. It's pretty wasteful, though. I mostly use acid when I need to break something apart, cut my way into things."

"Like hidden places?" Binghe asks interestedly.

"Not that many places in the Endless Abyss worth it. A few nests. Mostly acid is good for cracking tough outer shells and natural armour," Shen Yuan answers, shifting again. "Getting at the squishy stuff underneath."

"Oh," Luo Binghe says, thoughtful. He's clearly taking all this talking as a good sign, because he keeps talking. "You know a lot about the Endless Abyss, don't you? How long have you been here?"

"I don't know. Years," Shen Yuan mutters. Keeping track of time in a place that has no day and night cycle had been a lost cause, and he just hadn't bothered. "How long have you been here?"

"A few days, I think. Maybe a week?"

Damn, he really is early.

"It was my teacher," Luo Binghe says, unprompted. "He threw me down here. There was an Endless Abyss rift, and he cast me down."

"Yeah," Shen Yuan agrees and pokes another sack until it starts leaking acid into the kettle. "Sucks to be you, you soon-to-be-OP-bastard."

"What's that?" Luo Binghe asks, confused.

Shen Yuan scoffs. "Nothing."

There's a moment of silence and then Luo Binghe asks, rather awkwardly. "How did you end up here?" 

"I was cursed by Sy-"

[Warning! Revealing unnecessary things to the Protagonist will result in a Penalty!]

"Fuck you," Shen Yuan growls at it and then feels Luo Binghe, "I was cursed by a cosmic entity of vindictive assholery because I told it where to shove it."

"The - entity sent you here?" Luo Binghe says slowly.

"Yeah."

"Why? I mean, what happened to make it do that?"

Shen Yuan blows out a breath. "It wanted me to take over a life I hated. I refused. It decided to be a dick. End of the fucking story."

Luo Binghe falls silent and Shen Yuan finishes draining the acid glands in peace. By the time he's done, the pot of beetle legs is steaming nicely.

Shen Yuan cleans up, considers helping Luo Binghe with the bandages - the guy is scratching himself again - but decides he doesn't want to.

There's not much he can do with Luo Binghe there, though. If he wasn't, Shen Yuan should be using the opportunity to catch up on sleep, but it's not worth the risk, and he can manage without sleep for a good long while now. He can't concentrate on tinkering with Luo Binghe watching him either, though, he can just feel the guy staring at him. 

The silence stretches. It's distracting, feeling Luo Binghe just… breathe.

Ugh. Why won't be just heal and fuck off already? Maybe Shen Yuan can shove a Rejuvenation Potion down his throat and be done with it.

… No, it's not worth it. It's awkward enough when he has to use the stuff, watching Luo Binghe go through the aphrodisiac side effects would be infinitely worse. Pretty on brand for the book, but not without a convenient wife candidate around to tend to his needs.

Maybe he should go get one of the wife candidates. The Banished Vampire would set Luo Binghe straight. Or the Elf. And the Succubus owes Shen Yuan a favour anyway… if anyone could fuck Luo Binghe to health, she could.

That's a several not-day's journey, though. Not worth it.

Would be just easiest to make him drink the potion and then knock him out until the side effects wore off. Except that then Luo Binghe might be too strong to be knocked out. Yeah, no, never mind.

Maybe Shen Yuan could knock him out until he just healed. Nice healing coma for a few days - it'd be a win-win! Luo Binghe would heal and wouldn't be staring at him, and Shen Yuan could -

"Shen Yuan - uh, Master Shen?"

"What?" Shen Yuan snaps, turning his head enough that he can see him through the lenses. "What is it?"

"I think the food might be done," Luo Binghe motions at the pot.

Ah. So it is.

Shen Yuan detaches the gas mask portion of his mask and then gets them plates. Luo Binghe watches him handle the beetle legs and then mimics his actions, cracking the legs open to get at the meat inside. It's not exactly a gourmet meal, but better than Six-Footed Demon Badger.

Damn if Shen Yuan wouldn't have killed for some proper spices. And butter…

"This is… good. What is it?" Luo Binghe asks, ripping a piece of pink meat with his teeth.

"Tri-horn Acid Beetle."

Luo Binghe hesitates before swallowing. "This is insect meat?"

Shen Yuan hums in agreement. "Better than actual crabs around here. Their flesh is poisonous. Or stone."

Luo Binghe swallows and looks at the beetle leg. "It seems I have a lot to learn about the Endless Abyss," he says slowly and gives him a look through his eyelashes. "Master Shen, may I ask for your guidance in -?"

Oh, hell no. 

"Would you look at that, something coming to kill me, gotta go kill it back," Shen Yuan says, grabs an armload of beetle legs, and runs.

He does not see the disappointed look Luo Binghe sends after him, absolutely not, pure imagination, that.


 

Eventually, Luo Binghe's bandage situation grows bad enough that it can't be put off anymore. By then he's healed enough that the process shouldn't be excruciatingly painful, but still… Shen Yuan definitely preferred it when the guy was unconscious.

It's like a goddamn wife plot at this point. Luo Binghe doesn't just need a bandage change - he also needs a bath, because, surprise surprise, having bandages made of leaves makes a mess before long. And no way is Shen Yuan getting him enough water for a full bath - it's going to be a wipedown with a wet soapy cloth and a rinse at most. And since Luo Binghe is still mostly scar tissue, he can't exactly reach pretty much anywhere by himself. It's just the sort of thing you need an eager dainty wife for, really.

Well, Shen Yuan isn't like that.

"Ow!" Luo Binghe winces and then bites his lip, as Shen Yuan begins scrubbing his scarred back. "Master Shen -"

"You can take it," Shen Yuan scoffs, because he definitely can, and Shen Yuan is damn well going to get this done and over with as quick as he can. "Just sit still."

Luo Binghe whines, his shoulders coming up to his ears, defensive. It does nothing to protect him from the rough washcloth.

All in all, his skin is coming along pretty good. When Shen Yuan had first bandaged him, he'd been so much cooked meat, really. Now he has some actual skin - it's still red and raw and clearly hurts, but it's getting there. Couple more days, and he'd be mostly fine. Couple of weeks, and it would be like nothing happened. Couple of years, and his regenerative abilities would get good enough that nothing like this would happen again.

It's really fucking unfair. Thankfully he has his full mask on - heck knows what kinds of expressions he's making at Luo Binghe's back here.

Ludicrously, Luo Binghe's hair had survived the ordeal. It's a dirty curly mess right now, but still a proper young cultivator length, because of course it is. Fucking xianxia priorities - can't do anything to hurt the Signature Status Symbol. Ridiculous.

It looks very soft and supple. Wonder if he could make yarn out of it. Maybe if he sheared Luo Binghe like a sheep, his hair would regenerate too…

"Master Shen?" Luo Binghe asks, giving him a look over his shoulder.

In answer, Shen Yuan dumps a bucket of barely heated water over him. "Wash your front while I'll get your hair."

Luo Binghe sputters but says nothing as Shen Yuan lathers his hands with soap before sticking them into the Protagonist's normally perfect dark tresses.

They are soft and pretty long too, almost reaching his waist. Hm. Luo Binghe wouldn't notice if some went missing, would he…? While he's at it, Shen Yuan should get some fresh blood. That might be a bit harder to swing, though. Not sure what he would do with Luo Binghe's blood anyway, honestly the stuff is more detrimental than anything to other people - but it's still Heavenly Demon blood. Shen Yuan figures he could think of something it would be useful for. Deterrent for other demons, maybe. Hmm…

Between them they get the Protagonist all clean, including the bits of him Shen Yuan won't touch and which Luo Binghe winces to even look at. While the guy shivers miserably in the aftermath, Shen Yuan gets the healing salve and then sizes him up. There should be enough.

"Did Master Shen make the salve himself? It's very effective," Luo Binghe comments in a feeble attempt of flattery, the effect ruined by how badly he's trembling in the cold cave.

"I did and it is," Shen Yuan says and then holds out the pot. "Here. Smear it everywhere that's still healing. I'll get your backside."

It's almost more intimate to apply the salve than it had been to wash Luo Binghe, even with the scars and healing tissue. Now that he's clean and Shen Yuan is pretty much rubbing him all over, it's impossible to miss just how… well formed Luo Binghe is under his skin. Narrow waist and hips, wide shoulders, well defined muscles… once his skin finished healing he'd be so good looking. Ugh. 

Seriously, where's a wife when you need one?

Shen Yuan resentfully slaps a fresh leaf of a Crystal Lotus over Luo Binghe's scarred - perky - ass and then gets the twine.

Luo Binghe gives him an embarrassed look. "Why the leaves, Master Shen?"

"Does it look like I have access to bandages?"

"Ah. I see," Luo Binghe murmurs and then stands as still as he can while Shen Yuan covers him up like the worst kind of piece of zongzi ever. He's swaying on his feet, his strength waning.

"There, that'll keep the salve from smearing everywhere," Shen Yuan says after giving him a collar of leaves. "Go lie down before you fall down."

"Thank you, Master Shen, this one is in your debt," Luo Binghe murmurs tiredly and then crawls into Shen Yuan's bed, curling into the furs exhaustedly. He's out like a light within minutes.

With his curly hair splayed out everywhere, he looks like a little black sheep, swathed in wolf skins.

Shen Yuan sighs, turning away. "Don't get attached," he mutters, too quiet to be heard through the mask, and then goes to get rid of the old bandages before they start stinking worse.


 

There's another attack by the System, but it's barely worth even mentioning. Three Wolf Harpies attack him while he's getting materials for more healing salve. They hurtle razor sharp feathers at him from above until he kills one of them with a spear and skewers another's wing. As the dead one crashes down and the wounded one tries desperately to stop itself from falling, the last one turns and runs - once the System compulsion passes, they're generally smart enough to figure out they're outmatched.

Shen Yuan kills the injured Wolf Harpy with a knife and then considers the bodies. They don't have enough fur to make skinning them worth it, and he doesn't like the taste of their meat… but the feathers look useful. Maybe it's time he tries his hand at making a bow and some arrows again…

He takes the wings off with his obsidian knife and then finishes gathering the Starlight Bells that are the main ingredients of the healing salve. One good thing about living in a place without time - everything is always in season. They're in every season, really. Plants are growing and flowering and bearing fruit and going to seed, all the time.

And how are plants growing in place without sunlight? Who knows. Magic is spiritual essence, probably. Don't think about it too hard, just enjoy the smut.

Binding the wings with some twine, Shen Yuan hauls them over his shoulder and then turns back to the cave.

Luo Binghe is awake, again, looking grumpy and confused. He hadn't slept long.

"What is it?" Shen Yuan asks, dropping the wings by the meat rack.

"I feel like I'm late for something. What time is it?" the Protagonist asks, frowning a little and looking put off.

"Hell if I know o'clock," Shen Yuan says with a snort, turning to his alchemy set. "You get used to it. Just embrace all the sleep you can get and don't worry about it. There's literally no schedule here - can't be late for training here."

"... Master Shen knows this one comes from a cultivation sect," Luo Binghe says slowly, watching him with red tinted eyes.

"Was that a secret?" Shen Yuan scoffs. Everyone who's anyone in a xianxia setting comes from a cultivation sect - even if Shen Yuan didn't know who and what Luo Binghe is, he would've known he was a cultivator. The hair and the clothes alone said as much. Not that there's much of anything left of the latter.

Luo Binghe sits up with a grunt and pulls the furs tighter around himself. "Where does Master Shen come from?"

"Another world," Shen Yuan answers and then leans away from the blaring System window, flashing a warning at him. "Literally no one cares, shut up," he grunts at it and tries to push the damn thing away. "Reality travel and transmigration are common as shit in these settings. Piss off!"

Luo Binghe says nothing to that, watching and waiting until he's done flailing at the System. "Master Shen isn't a cultivator then?" he asks almost like nothing happened.

Shen Yuan grunts in the negative. He'd tried - after all the things he'd partaken that boost cultivation, he figured he would be able to manage some kind of skill. But no, the best he could manage was give himself a headache and various cramps.

Plus every time he sat down to really try, the System immediately sent something after him, the dick.

It's whatever at this point - he's levelled up his physical attributes and survival enough that it doesn't matter. Anything the Endless Abyss throws at him, he can take on with a reasonable expectation of survival.

Luo Binghe is quiet for a while, watching him, scratching his cheek where a bit of scar tissue is peeling off to reveal healthy skin underneath. Then he asks, "Did Master Shen ever wish to be a cultivator?"

Shen Yuan, busy getting out his grinding wheel to begin processing the Starlight Bells, pauses. Did he? Sure - didn't everyone who's ever read a cultivation novel? And ever since ending up in one - the worst one… yeah.

"Why do you want to know?" he asks suspiciously - this is Luo Binghe asking leading questions from a man, after all - he's undoubtedly scheming something.

Luo Binghe smiles and looks away. "Though this one's training is still somewhat incomplete, he's been training as a human cultivator for many years," he says and the smile slips from his lips, his expression growing colder. "Those teachings mean little now, but as this one is in Master Shen's debt and thought maybe some of that knowledge might serve as payment."

Shen Yuan turns to look at him, squinting through the darkened lenses of his mask. Luo Binghe looks sincere enough… but also expectant in the way that makes it very clear he has an angle. Of course he has an angle. He's gotten all polite and flattering too, with his humble this one and Master Shen shit, trying to ingratiate himself to Shen Yuan. It's the stuff that won Meng Mo over - that tricked him and ultimately trapped him. Luo Binghe acting all subservient and nice is always a manipulation. There's something he wants.

"You think you can pay me back with cultivation knowledge?" Shen Yuan asks slowly.

Luo Binghe looks down, diffident. "This one has little else to offer."

Oh, Shen Yuan's ass he does. If one could really expect to rely on Luo Binghe word, just having him in a debt alone was worth fortunes. Just the idea that the Protagonist thought he owed something to Shen Yuan and might sincerely pay back…

Yeah. As if!

Thing with Luo Binghe is that becoming the man's enemy tended to null his debts - and men had the sad habit of becoming his enemies just because they were men. Of course, men in Airplane's world tended to come in two flavours only. There were benevolent old masters who housed great wisdom to be imparted upon the main character - before their eventual death, of course - or enemies. Be they two bit bullies, scum villains, rivals in love or legitimate political enemies, they eventually all deserved their ends at Luo Binghe's tender mercies.

Shen Yuan had no intention of being anything to Luo Binghe. He intends to fucking live, after all. And the debt, psh, yeah, right. What Luo Binghe wants is knowledge about the Endless Abyss, which Shen Yuan has. It's really Meng Mo all over again. Please let me be your disciple, I will be loyal, I will serve you well, Luo Binghe said and then drained his teacher dry of everything he had to give.

Tch.

"Not interested," Shen Yuan says and looks away. "Just recover and get out, Luo Binghe. I'll consider your debt paid once you're out of my hair."

He doesn't look at Luo Binghe, he can't see his expression - but he can feel his gaze in the back of his head. "That doesn't sound fair at all. Surely there is something this one can offer Master Shen to repay his kindness."

Shen Yuan scoffs. "You can be quiet," he says and starts grinding the flowers.

Luo Binghe falls quiet - but damn if the strength of his gaze doesn't speak volumes.


 

Shen Yuan is getting the feeling that the System is going easy on him. Usually he gets about two attacks per day, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the difficulty. And when he goes out, whatever beast or demon is the nearest to him gets hijacked by the System to attack him. Some of those attacks are just nuisances, but there's usually on average at least three seriously hellish encounters per week, as the System adjusted the difficulty and counteracted whatever tools he had.

Last time, before the Four Winged Phoenix, it had been a Lava Rock Crabs with a twist of a Cursed Emerald stuck in their shell, negating most of his attacks. Shen Yuan had nearly lost a leg there. Before that, two Zombie Bull Demons, and they just didn't care at all about what he threw at them - in the end he had to trap them in the Oil Bog to stop them from hunting him. And before that, Bone Dragon, and yeah. That was. Tough.

Ever since collecting Binghe though, the beetles were as bad as it got. And nothing tried to burrow into his cave either. No Corrosive Slugs, no Giant Worms, no Devil Rabbits, nothing.

It's making Shen Yuan a bit suspicious.

[Warning! You are being hunted!]

"Am I now," Shen Yuan murmurs, eyes narrowed, and then does nothing. 

On the bed of furs, Luo Binghe looks at him. "Master Shen?" he asks. 

"What?"

Luo Binghe hesitates and then sits up. "Is there anything this one can do?"

Shen Yuan looks away from the System warning and at the Protagonist. "Heal and get out?"

Luo Binghe smiles awkwardly. "I know Master Shen is impatient to get rid of this one," he says, dry, and examines his hands. They're mostly healed and he can freely wiggle his fingers, but the larger areas of his body are still mostly scar tissue. "This one is sorry his rate of healing disappoints. But perhaps in the meantime he can be of some use to Master Shen? This one can at least use his hands."

He's still doing the whole polite humble schtick, even though it's not working for him. Also Shen Yuan is pretty sure Luo Binghe used that last line on a succubus once after suffering some vague injury that supposedly kept him from walking. Of course, it turned out he could do more than use his hands, after a little bit of fingering. Ugh.

… Why the hell did remembering that make him feel horny? Damnit. Another thing having Luo Binghe here deprives him of - chance to vent his frustrations in the easiest way possible.

Turning away, Shen Yuan ignores the System warning that's flashing again at him and looks over his workbenches for anything he could throw at Luo Binghe to distract him. "Sure," he then says and reaches for Wolf Harpy wings. "There's something you can do for me. What do you know about making arrows?"

It ends up being something of a mistake. Or… not. It's a flaw in Shen Yuan's plan of distracting the Protagonist and being able to safely ignore him, anyway, because it turns out Luo Binghe knows more about making arrows than he does. Though not a class taught on Qing Jing Peak, he'd read about it and he'd seen disciples from other peaks doing it.

"And disciples from Qing Jing Peak are taught how to craft brushes, fans, instruments," Luo Binghe explains while plucking the most useful looking feathers from the wings. "The skills used are similar. Does Master Shen have arrow shafts, and perhaps some soft metal to use as arrowheads?"

"Soft metal?" Shen Yuan asks dubiously while getting his bundle of sticks he'd been saving for arrows. "I don't have any metal."

"I see. Some flint then perhaps? And may this one trouble Master Shen for a knife? And some twine? The finer the better."

Shen Yuan is then treated to the process of Luo Binghe carefully fletching an arrow and using his Qi to shape a piece of flint into a very sharp looking arrowhead, which he fixes on the arrow with twine. He makes it look easy. Last time Shen Yuan had tried he'd ended up burning the arrows out of pure frustration.

Luo Binghe offers him the finished arrow almost demurely. "Does it please Master Shen?"

Shen Yuan, who's hovering over him like a vulture, scoffs. "Stop that," he grabs the arrow and turns it in his hand, looking it over closely. It really looks like something you might fire from a bow. If you had a bow.

… Shen Yuan really would like a bow.

The System flashes its warning at him again, and Shen Yuan snorts at it. It's been half an hour and there's been no attack. 

He looks back at Binghe, who's watching him carefully, trying to figure out his reaction. There's calculation in the Protagonist's eyes, expectation. He's already figured out that this isn't a skill Shen Yuan possesses.

"If Master Shen wishes it, this one can show you how it's done," the Protagonist says slowly, a carrot on a stick.

Shen Yuan gives him a look through the tinted lenses and harrumphs. Fuck it. "Did you see those other disciples make actual bows?"


 

While Luo Binghe tinkers with random pieces of wood Shen Yuan has been collecting and the System threatens but fails to send anything after him, Shen Yuan turns to his store of skins and picks a few of the tanned hides to work with.

It's - fuck. It's almost amiable? Luo Binghe does something to one of Shen Yuan's obsidian knives and uses it to begin carving the wood like it's nothing but butter, while Shen Yuan is stuck with normal obsidian to cut the tanned leather with. That bit of unfairness aside, they work in silence, Luo Binghe slowly shaping a bow while Shen Yuan measures him with his eyes and cuts the leather and gets his bone needle.

The result of his work is ugly, of course, especially compared to the fine robes Luo Binghe showed up in. But it's better than the nothing Luo Binghe is currently wearing.

"Here," Shen Yuan grunts and shoves the leather tunic at the main character. "Put this on."

"Master Shen made clothing?" Luo Binghe asks, amazed, accepting the dark brown leather tunic.

"You're almost healed, can't have you go around butt naked," Shen Yuan mutters and turns away before he's forced to watch the Protagonist shuck off the furs from around him, revealing his mostly healed skin to the world. "I'll get you a belt…"

He watches as Luo Binghe ties the belt around his waist and nods. It's not good, but it covers the guy almost down to his knees. Luo Binghe needs some trousers and armour too, but it would do for a start. There's less bare flesh, anyway, and that's an improvement.

"Shouldn't Master Shen make clothes for himself first?" Luo Binghe asks, tugging at the tunic to adjust it under the belt - somehow making the getup look actually almost good. How the hell does he do that? 

"Master Shen?" Luo Binghe gives him a wary look.

Shen Yuan grunts quizzically and then looks down at himself. He's still wearing the Fire Rat fur, and though the Iron Tar has mostly worn off his legs, they're still as good as covered. He's probably not going to be hunting the Four Winged Phoenix again anytime soon, though, is he? Hell, he isn't sure how he would drink the damn thing's blood anyway, since it was basically molten metal…

Shrugging the Fire Rat fur off, Shen Yuan rummages the pile of skins into he finds the skin of the Bronze Scorpion Porcupine and pulls that on instead, switching fur to armoured spikes. "There, I'm changed," he says, scratching at his calf.

Luo Binghe clears his throat, his eyes wide as he looks down. "It seems - excessive for this one to be wearing such a finely made garment when Master Shen wears animal skins."

What finely made clothes? It's just a stitched piece of leather. "That's animal skin too, just with sleeves," Shen Yuan says with a snort and shakes the pelt around him. "This is better armour though."

"Master Shen uses pelts as armour?" Luo Binghe asks, leadingly.

"Well, yeah," Shen Yuan says and gives him a look. "Natural armour is the best armour around here."

Luo Binghe hums in understanding. "But why doesn't Master Shen wear anything underneath? Surely it would be more protective, if he too had a tunic."

Shen Yuan blinks and then looks down at himself again. Then he shrugs. "After you get your clothes torn to shreds by the beastly flavour of the week a few dozen times, you just sort of stop bothering," he says and knocks his knuckles against his thigh, where the Iron Tar has hardened to scales. "Can't rip this stuff off me that easily though."

Luo Binghe looks somewhere between disturbed and fascinated. "The beasts here… rip your clothes off?"

"Beasts, plants, landscape features, weather phenomenon…" Shen Yuan shrugs and gives him a look. "You probably don't have to worry about that. Don't think this place will try to fuck you quite as hard as it tries to fuck me."

Luo Binghe chokes at that. "Master Shen is joking," he says faintly, his voice trying for humour and failing.

"Yeah, I wish," Shen Yuan mutters and throws a glare at the window still flashing its warning. "We can't all have plot armour, unfortunately."

[Warning! User is in violation of System terms and conditions! Violations will result in punishment!]

"Sure. Bring it on then," Shen Yuan says and grins. "Punish me. Go on. Do it."

The System window flashes angrily at him. Usually when he pisses the System off, it will do something like cause a cave in or just insert a wraith in his space or whatever. Punishment is, generally, instantaneous and random, the rocks-fall-everyone-dies sort.

But this time… nothing. Not so much as a blip.

"Ha! Can't do it with the protagonist's bubble, can you?" Shen Yuan asks and grins, giving the window a double bird. "Haha, fuck you, you useless piece of shit, can't get me now!"

Luo Binghe watches him warily with the half made bow resting on his knees. "Master Shen -" he begins and Shen Yuan's hubris backfires on him.

[User 002's failure to, once again, comply with basic instructions, has resulted in activation of a Punishment Protocol! May User please get ready. Penalty will load in 10 seconds!]

Beneath their feet, the cave floor trembles.

Shen Yuan drops everything and moves. He grabs his go bag and slings it around his neck and over his shoulder. Then he grabs his secondary go bag and slings that over his other shoulder. Then be grabs a spear, though fuck knows if that would do him any good.

"Master Shen?!"

And then he remembers and immediately drops the spear to get his hands free. Beneath his feet the cave floor roils like the surface of a boiling cauldron.

The timer runs out.

[Warning! You are being hunted!]

The System window slides shut like a slow, evil, blink, as Shen Yuan grabs a confused Luo Binghe into his arms and runs, just barely in time.

The cave floor blows outwards in a geyser of rock and sand as the Eater of Worlds erupts from the depths, destroys his whole hideout in one swell swoop, and makes chase.

 

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe's head spins as a monster the likes of which he's never seen destroys the cave that had been his recovery room for the past several days. He can't wrap his mind around its sheer size. Just its head is enough to swallow a horse whole, and by its movement alone it's causing utter devastation. In the dark dust cloud roused by its arrival, its dozens of different-sized eyes gleam with manic, evil, bloodlust.

Shen Yuan's arms around him are like iron bars as the hunter runs - and if Luo Binghe hadn't already assessed the man to be much stronger than he appears, that would've proved it. With physical strength alone, Shen Yuan handles the weight of him as though Luo Binghe weighs nothing, taking lengthy strides and making long leaps like he's weightless. The man's long limbs prove themselves as well with the length of his frantic steps, eating distance at speed no galloping horse could've kept up with.

There's no time to appreciate the full implications of the hunter's hidden strength and speed, however. Ahead of them there are more caves and behind them the enormous worm-like monster roars, an angry guttural sound that feels like it's coming from the earth itself, and makes pursuit.

Over Shen Yuan's shoulder and the spikes that cover it, Luo Binghe sees the cave collapsing, sees the beast push through, coming at them at a speed Shen Yuan's running pace can't outstrip.

"Master Shen -" Luo Binghe gasps, thinking rapidly. "If I attack it -?!" It has so many eyes, maybe if he hit one of them…?

Just as it seems as though the colossal worm with many eyes is about to catch them, Shen Yuan makes a sharp turn to the left. The monster crashes into a cave wall and sinks into it as though it's roiling water and not solid rock. The noise is overwhelming.

"Hit the end of the tail!" Shen Yuan barks. "If you hit the middle, it'll split and then we'll have two of them after us!"

… He thinks Luo Binghe can cut through the thing?

Twisting in Shen Yuan's hold enough to get his arm over his shoulder, Luo Binghe tries to get a better look, his blood pounding in his ears like war drums. Aiming while the hunter runs is nearly impossible and he can't see the monster's tail - it's all tail - and then they're around another bend and the monster is out of sight.

"Can we lose it?" Luo Binghe asks, uncertain.

"Don't count on it," Shen Yuan says darkly - and there's another literally earth-shattering roar that makes the caves tremble and sand rain from above. "Hold on -"

Luo Binghe grabs his shoulder as the hunter puts on a burst of speed - but it's not enough. Before then the cave shudders and a wall bursts open as the beast makes its appearance, it's passing like an earthquake, making everything around them vibrate like leaves in wind.

"Fuck!" Shen Yuan shouts, and then with a head-spinning move swings Luo Binghe on his shoulder. Spines digging into his stomach, Luo Binghe can't see what happens, but he can feel the hunter twisting, taking out something from his bags, tensing as he throws whatever it is with all his might.

Then there's an explosion.

And another roar, this one right in front of them. Luo Binghe grits his teeth and claps hands over his ears, and it still feels like it's splitting his skull apart. His whole body is buzzing now, his skin tight and aching, he can feel his blood pounding even in his toes. It hurts.

It feels good.

"Ha, don't like that, do you?" Shen Yuan taunts, and then wraps both arms around Luo Binghe's thighs, pinning him in place over his shoulder as he dashes forward, past the wailing, writhing monster.

Luo Binghe gasps for a hungry breath. Something about all of this, the burned oily smell, the way the monster is obviously weakened even if only for a moment…

Everything feels so much. His head. His heart.

Luo Binghe grunts with effort and pushes his torso up as much as he can with a hand grabbing spikes of Shen Yuan's cloak. There's a hand on his ass, it's grip almost clawlike, it's distracting, but not distracting enough to not see it - the end of the monster's squirming trail. He can't possibly miss it - it's as big as its front, and it's lashing at the walls  gouging enormous holes into them.

His blood roused now, Luo Binghe licks his teeth, his vision red, his body burning with all the energy he'd spent the past few days suppressing. There, he sees it - there -!

There's a swell of power inside him like a black tide and Luo Binghe can see it around his hand as he reaches out, as he aims. The Qi he shapes isn't anything like it used to be. Gone is the gentle green glow, the feeling of a mountain breeze that Qing Jing Peak had instilled in him. What rises from within him is instead black and red and bloody - and devastating.

Under the shapeless blast of demonic Qi, the back end of the monstrous gigantic worm is splayed open like a rotten fruit thrown at a wall.

Luo Binghe gapes, breathless, as the cave is filled with gore and monstrous screaming.

Shen Yuan doesn't even pause - he keeps on running and so takes them away from the sludge Luo Binghe has made of the monster that destroyed his home.


 

Luo Binghe is exhausted and still burning with demonic power, utterly unable to stamp it down again, by the time they - or Shen Yuan - stops.

They're on the surface now, and it turns out the colossal worm wasn't taken out by a single strike. Though it no longer makes chase, they can see its angry flailing in the area as it breaches the earth's surface like a jumping fish and then crashes back down. It looks… absolutely unharmed now.

"Dropped its tail end," Shen Yuan muses. "Nice, there might be something useful left. If we can find it again."

He doesn't seem to even notice that Luo Binghe is surrounded by a flame-like aura of dark energy, busy peering at the destroyed valley below them. Though it… probably wasn't a valley before this.

"Master Shen," Luo Binghe says, trying to gather his thoughts and calm his racing heart. His blood is burning in his veins, and everything he'd done to suppress his natural regenerative abilities has come undone - under the few bits of leaves still covering his skin, he's fully healed now. He can tell, even the bruises Shen Yuan's grip had left in his backside are already gone. "What - what was that?"

"The Eater of Worlds " Shen Yuan says without even looking at him and scoffs. "Or I guess it's supposedly called the Thousand Eyes Colossal Worm, but it's totally the Eater of Worlds. Airplane sucks at coming up with cool names."

That's… what? "This one doesn't understand," Luo Binghe says slowly, trying to parse the words.

"It's whatever. Big worm," Shen Yuan says and crouches down to watch the last frustrated flails of the beast below them before it sinks into the trembling ground. "Nicely done there, a couple dozen more blasts like that and you maybe could've even killed it."

Luo Binghe gives him a look. Just one more blast like that, and he'd pass out. "Master Shen doesn't seem surprised about this one's power." Nor does he seem surprised by the demonic mark simmering like a hot coal on Luo Binghe's forehead. Nor does he seem to care.

"Was it supposed to be a secret?" Shen Yuan asks, tilting his helmeted head at him and then looking at his legs, bare to mid thigh. "Hey you're all healed. You can go now."

… Go? Go where - leave? With his knees shaking, his blood burning and that thing still out there?

Luo Binghe falls to his knees beside him. "Master Shen, please!" he says. "This one is obviously unprepared and knows little, he begs for your guidance! If Master Shen teach this one, he promises -"

"And what the hell do you need me to teach you?" Shen Yuan asks him flatly. "You just blew up the back end of an Eater of Worlds with one hit! What do you need me for, huh? And stop it with the humble crap, you're creeping me out!"

Luo Binghe smothers the urge to snort - he creeps Shen Yuan out? Quickly he schools his face to be as serious and earnest as he can and looks up. "Master Shen is very knowledgeable about the Endless Abyss and clearly a great warrior and alchemist. There's much one could learn from him."

"Uh-huh and what after you're done learning? You'll fight me to the death over a pile of demon skins? Tch," Shen Yuan rises angrily to his feet - though not to his full height. Luo Binghe has seen him near naked and the man crouches and slouches enough to take off nearly a quarter out of his height.

Luo Binghe looks at him, remembers the feeling of iron-like strength of his arms, and steels his resolve.

"This one - I," he says. "I swear I won't ever harm Master Shen. I'll diligently learn all Master Shen has to teach and then I'll leave and you'll never see me again."

Shen Yuan scoffs at him - but he's not leaving. Luo Binghe knows how fast he is now, and with his knees feeling so wobbly Luo Binghe has no hope of keeping up with him. Any moment the hunter could just leave him behind - but he doesn't.

"Yeah, right. And what do I get from it?" Shen Yuan asks dubiously.

"Anything this one can give," Luo Binghe promises recklessly. "I don't have much, but I can work for you. I'll make you as many bows and arrows as you wish and anything else I can."

He has the man tempted. By Luo Binghe's reckoning, Shen Yuan is a good alchemist and hunter, but he's not a craftsman by nature - just the fact that he had wood and animal skins and never managed to make himself a bed proves that. His alchemy tools had been serviceable, but rough and crude. His spears were rudimentary and simple, made deadly by his sheer strength, not their craftsmanship. 

Luo Binghe on the other hand had been, if begrudgingly, trained in the arts of Qing Jing Peak. He can not only make things - he can make them beautiful. Admittedly, building an instrument or putting together a screen to be painted isn't the same as building a shelter - but he knows he can do it. He has the basic skills to figure it out.

If Master Shen will let him, Luo Binghe can improve the man's life, he knows he can. And in return, Shen Yuan can teach him not only how to survive in the Endless Abyss but how to grow strong. And then, one day…

"Please, Master Shen," Luo Binghe says, pleading shamelessly - he'll grovel if he has to. "I'll do anything."

The hunter snorts at him. "That's a stupid thing to offer and also a lie," he says and looks away. He's thinking about it. Luo Binghe holds his breath.

"... Fuck it," Shen Yuan finally mutters. "We figure this shit out later. Come on - let's get out of the open while the bastard is still in cooldown."

Luo Binghe bounces to his feet with a victorious grin and then schools his expression. "But where will we go? Master Shen's home was destroyed."

"Don't keep all your eggs in one basket," Shen Yuan says and picks up a rock from the ground. "I have a camp nearby. Let's go."


 

The Endless Abyss remains very… strange. The sky-that-isn't-sky feels heavy above them. There's no light and yet there's no darkness either - everything is shrouded in eternal dimness, and it sets Luo Binghe's teeth on edge. The terrain makes no sense - it's disjoined and rocky, with sudden cliffs and ravines, patches of forest, plains, even a piece of a swamp. It's as though the world was a shattered plate someone had tried and failed to piece back together again. In one place the pass by, there's a stream of water that flows upwards.

Luo Binghe is somewhat comforted by the fact that although Shen Yuan doesn't seem to find any of it strange, he's far from at ease. The man walks silently in the balls of his oil-clad feet and tilts his head this way and that, listening, watching, constantly on guard for any threats. Beside his spike-clad figure, Luo Binghe feels bare in his leather tunic, arms and legs completely exposed. It doesn't help that with his healed skin, he seems to glow with how pale and unmarked he is next to Shen Yuan's darker form more befitting of the area.

Walking barefoot hurts and Luo Binghe isn't sure how Shen Yuan does it. He resolves not to complain, his new demonic regenerative abilities will take care of any injuries anyway. Surely his soles will harden. So he bears it with what he assumes is stoic silence.

Shen Yuan notices anyway.

"Stop," the hunter says. "Sit."

"Master Shen?"

"Sit your ass down," Shen Yuan says, rummaging through his bags. "And give me your foot."

Luo Binghe hesitates. "It's alright, Master Shen, I'm not injur -!"

Shen Yuan crouches down and just grabs his bare foot, almost sending Luo Binghe crashing backwards and into the ground. Hurriedly Luo Binghe takes support from nearby rock as the hunter pulls his foot up, eyeing the dirty but unharmed sole.

His nails, Luo Binghe notes, are not only dirty, but uneven and sharp.

Then Shen Yuan takes out an earthenware pot of something dark and oily and sticks a tightly wound bundle of dry grass inside it. Using the grass bundle like a brush, he smears the oil into the bottom of Luo Binghe's foot.

Luo Binghe just barely keeps himself from yanking his foot out if the man's hold. He can tell the oil is the same substance Shen Yuan's body is painted with. That doesn't make the feeling pleasant. "What is that?"

"Iron Tar," Shen Yuan says while painting the whole bottom of Luo Binghe's foot with it, sticking his grass brush between Luo Binghe's toes and covering them utterly while he tries not to squirm at the feeling of it. "You make it from the sap of the False Sword Trees that grow in the Battle Field. Flex your foot and wiggle your toes."

Luo Binghe makes a face but does as ordered while Shen Yuan takes out a leather pouch of ash and blows some of it into the oil. As he does Luo Binghe can feel the tar thickening, solidifying into a consistency of thick, soft lacquer.

The feeling is still strange, like the bottom of his foot is covered in sticky drying mud - but Luo Binghe understands the point of it now. It's definitely odd, but suddenly he's as good as wearing a slipper, his feet protected by a tough, barely yielding shell.

Shen Yuan repeats the process on Luo Binghe's other foot, explaining, "It'll be good for a week or two. Then it will start flaking off with your skin."

"My skin is going to come off?!" Luo Binghe asks, alarmed.

"With natural skin shedding " Shen Yuan clarifies with a snort and throws his brush away. "You'll be fine. Try them out."

Luo Binghe tentatively tries, and it really is like he's wearing a shoe - or like his skin has thickened tenfold. He can barely even feel the sharp gravel under foot now. "That's incredible, Master Shen! How did you figure it out?"

Shen Yuan shrugs. "Some people make war paint out of similar stuff," he shrugs and stands up. "Now come on, before something attacks us."

Luo Binghe nods and moves to follow him. It takes a bit to get used to the feeling of the tar covering his feet and between his toes, but it's definitely an improvement. "What is the Battle Field, Master Shen? I assume it isn't just a place where a specific battle happened."

"No, it's…" Shen Yuan stops to think about it. "Do you know what a mimic monster is?"

"A beast that disguises itself as something else to attract prey?" Luo Binghe answers.

"The Battle Field is like that, but it's a biome. Entire ecosystem of plants and animals pretending to be an ancient battlefield," Shen Yuan explains.

Luo Binghe arches a brow at the words he uses. Biome? Ecosystem? "... Why?"

"To lure scavengers in to be eaten? Maybe an old curse that caused the environment to evolve?" Shen Yuan shrugs. "Either way, you go in looking for treasure, and you'll end up eaten by mushrooms that look like jewel-encrusted shields. Honestly, one of the most straightforward traps in Endless Abyss."

Luo Binghe hums, trying to imagine it. "I think I would like to see it one day. Would Master Shen mind showing it to this one?"

"Sure, we'll make a day of it," Shen Yuan snorts. "Nice little school trip to the local death forest."

Luo Binghe gives him a thoughtful look. "Master Shen went into a school?" he asks interestedly. Is that where he learned alchemy? And things about biomes and ecosystems?

The hunter pauses and then scoffs and lengthens his stride. Luo Binghe looks after him and then sighs. Some personal questions are still off limits, then.

Fine. He can build up to it.


 

Though Shen Yuan's camp isn't as well established as the cool cave, it is still clearly often used and lived in. It's another cave, smaller and warmer than the cold one, with a curtain of spiky vines hiding its entrance. Inside there's some furs for bedding and a fire pit with a ceramic pot for cooking - and of course a rack of spears. Though there's no alchemical workbench, there's another kind of bench, a smooth round log with various curved stone knives lying beneath it. There's also a set of empty frames, leaning against the back wall.

"Master Shen processes the furs here?" Luo Binghe asks, looking around curiously.

"Mh," Shen Yuan agrees with a grunt and eases his leather satchels off and onto the cave floor, crouching down to pick through them. They're packed full of tools and packets of wrapped leaves and jars, the Iron Tar jar among them. 

Luo Binghe takes a seat on the furs, watching him. "What are we going to do now?" he asks.

"I'm going to get us something to eat," Shen Yuan says and glances up at him, his masked face unreadable. With the spiky fur he looks even more like a bird, somehow. "You will stay here and make me a bow."

He motions a pile of firewood, none of them long enough for the task. Luo Binghe tells him as much. "I would rather come with Master Shen and learn to hunt," Luo Binghe says hopefully.

"... Fine," Shen Yuan says and stands up, hauling the bags onto his shoulders again. "Grab a spear. There's a forest nearby we can probably find some wood in, and there's usually something to eat. Be ready, though - the moment I'll enter, everything in that place will come after me."

Jumping back up, Luo Binghe grabs a spear. None of them have spear points exactly - they're little more than sharpened poles. But judging by the dried gore staining their shafts, they've served their purpose well enough.

How much of that was because of their sharpness and how much of that was due to Shen Yuan's enhanced physical strength, though…

They head out, and Luo Binghe finds that Shen Yuan isn't exaggerating - the moment they cross from the blocky plains and step into the forest, it feels like a thousand eyes turn on them, and none of them mean well. It's almost as though they cross over into another world. The forest is like a scene from a nightmare, foggy and full of shadows, with trees that look like monsters and distances that don't make sense.

Luo Binghe loses his bearings instantly, and almost his footing too - the ground is covered by a layer of thick mist, and the moss underneath is deceptively soft, hiding uneven ground beneath.

"And I'm being hunted again," Shen Yuan mutters, and grabs something from his bags. "At a guess, it's going to be a wraith. Don't try to attack it, and definitely don't touch it, it'll try to suck the life out of you."

Luo Binghe frowns, thinking. "How can Master Shen tell it's a wraith?" 

"The temperature dropped, and my skin is crawling," Shen Yuan explains. "And wraiths are the biggest threat this place has to offer."

Ah. Luo Binghe presses it all to his memory. Though he's never fought a wraith before, he's read about them.  Pure spiritual attacks and silver are the only things that will work on them. "Does Master Shen have silver?"

"Nope," Shen Yuan says and takes out a small earthenware phial. "I’ve got the next best thing, though. Let me know if you see anything - I do not want to waste this stuff unless it's really a wraith."

"What is it?" Luo Binghe asks, eyeing the phial. He has a potion that works on wraiths?

"You do not want to know," Shen Yuan snorts.

"Master Shen, how am I going to learn if you -"

"Fine. It's unicorn come."

Luo Binghe blinks, taken aback. "It's. What?"

"Unicorn come," Shen Yuan says and tilts his head towards him. "Told you."

Luo Binghe looks between him and the phial, not sure if the man is making fun of him or not. "And it - works? On wraiths?" he asks slowly.

"Oh yeah. Pure life essence of a purebred unicorn. Undead things cannot stand it - it's almost as good as a holy symbol from the heavens, or whatever. Except, you know. It's spunk," Shen Yuan scoffs as though disgusted by his own methods. "Airplane-logic at its finest. I don't have a lot of it, and I don't want to waste it, so. Not using it until I'm sure what we're up against."

Luo Binghe nods slowly. "Airplane-logic is… your survival knowledge?" he asks then.

That earns him another snort. "Sure. If you know Airplane-logic, you can master the world," the hunter agrees wryly. "Though it should probably be Airplane-illogic instead… yes, yes, I know," he then says to the air. "Fuck off, please and thank you!"

Luo Binghe glances at where he's looking, but, again… there's nothing there. "So, Master Shen," he says and offers him a crooked smile. "How exactly did you get a unicorn's, uh, life essence?"

Shen Yuan gives him a look. "How do you think?"

"You… killed the unicorn, didn't you? Did Master Shen also eat it?"

"Ha," Shen Yuan barks in answer. "I'm not that stupid."

Luo Binghe blinks at him, but before he can ask for a clarification, there's a noise, a reedy, cold wail like wind in pain, sounding through the strange forest, and they both tense at the chilling sound.

"Wraith it is," Shen Yuan then says with grim satisfaction and uncorks the vial. "Hold out your spear."

While the hunter smears just a little bit of silvery essence on their spear points, Luo Binghe smothers a shudder and tries to figure out which way the wailing is coming from. There - no, that way? No -

Above.

Luo Binghe whirls the spear in his hand just as Shen Yuan turns. There's a shadow above them, reaching down, and they both thrust their spears forward at the same time, and they both hit… but nothing happens. 

Speared through and yet seemingly unharmed, the faint figure disappears before their eyes.

"Shit, it's a levelled up one, can make illusions," Shen Yuan mutters and shoves the phial of Unicorn life essence back into his bag. "Be careful, it might be able to make itself invisible."

Luo Binghe lifts his spear and scans their surroundings. The mist swirls and twists, and his eyes play tricks on him, turning every curl of fog, every distant shade, every vague suggestion of a tree into a potential threat.

The air grows colder, and there's another reedy wail, crawling up his spine like frost up a window pane. It's close, getting closer… 

"He-ere, ghosty-ghosty-ghost," Shen Yuan croons as if beckoning a cat, and Luo Binghe glances at him incredulously - and that's when the wraith attacks.

A screaming shape, vaguely feminine under floating rags and ectoplasmic smoke, comes at them from the mist. With fingers like talons, the wraith reaches for his eyes, toothless mouth sucking at air, draining all warmth and light and -

Luo Binghe thrusts his spear, and it goes through the wraith, doing nothing - another illusion.

On the other side, Shen Yuan waves his spear through another illusion almost lazily, like trying to swat a fly - and in so doing hits something that causes a spark of light shine through the misty darkness - the unicorn essence on his spear point is glowing.

"Got you," Shen Yuan's voice crows, a grin in his tone, and goes to pull his spear back for a proper stab, when an invisible hand grabs at the shaft and gives it a yank. "Son of a -"

Luo Binghe moves. If there's a hand there, and Shen Yuan hit something there, that means the main body of the wraith is - there.

Luo Binghe thrusts his spear forward, and light tears through the invisible figure, revealing its shape, its body run through, and this time it's not like just stabbing air. There's resistance as the spear point digs into something that's almost physical. Inside it, the spear point glows, light spreading through the wraith's body.

With an ear-splitting scream the wraith wrenches itself off and then flees, its insides still gleaming with the infection of unicorn life essence.

"Nice," Shen Yuan says.

Luo Binghe feels, strangely, like he needs a bath. "Was that good, Master Shen? We didn't kill it."

"Without a silver sword to cut its head off, sending it running is the best we can do, and I don't want to waste the unicorn stuff," Shen Yuan shrugs and rests his spear over his shoulder. "Now come on, let's go find something living to kill before something else comes after me."

Luo Binghe nods, looking at his spear. The gleam of silver has worn off. "Would unicorn blood work like that?" he asks curiously. Surely it would be easier to get.

"Nope - it has the opposite effect, actually. Turns anything living into undead," Shen Yuan says. "Or anything dead to undead, can't remember which. Divine punishment for killing something pure, and so on."

"I see," Luo Binghe muses. Already he's learning more about fighting beasts than Qing Peak ever taught him.

"You know," Shen Yuan says thoughtfully. "Your spunk would probably work too."

Luo Binghe almost chokes on his tongue and trips over his feet. "I'm - sorry? What - what does Master Shen mean?"

"You're a Heavenly Demon. Dual cultivation with your kind is pretty much a universal cure for everything. Some of that has to be in the juices. Just look at what you can do with your blood," Shen Yuan says, nonchalantly conversational in the worst way. "It's ridiculous, the things you can do with Heavenly Demon blood."

Luo Binghe gapes at him. "My… blood?" he asks feebly.

"Mm-hmm," Shen Yuan agrees thoughtfully - he's really thinking about it now. "Huh. Maybe your come even comes without the side effects."

And just when he'd started thinking Shen Yuan wasn't interested in eating him! "I - this one - I don't - side effects?"

Shen Yuan gives him a look, the tilt of his masked head unnervingly calculative. "Hm. Actually, never mind."

"Master Shen -"

"Would you look at that, a distraction," Shen Yuan says with nothing there, and then sets out faster, leaving Luo Binghe staring after him in a vague sense of doom.

His - his fluids? Luo Binghe knew that his flesh, his heart, could be used in some way, all demons are naturally powerful as potion ingredients, and it makes sense that his blood could be useful too, but his… his essence?!

He needs to ask Meng Mo about this, though he isn't sure he has a thick enough face for that.

Then Luo Binghe realises that Shen Yuan is almost out of sight, the mist like a curtain, swirling shut behind him. If he loses sight of the man, he'll never find his way out of this forest again. "Master Shen, wait!"

What they hunt in the end is some kind of deer… maybe. It has three eyes and tusks like a boar, and it tries to gouge Shen Yuan's belly open with them, before falling with both their spears through its neck. Shen Yuan guts the thing right there and then with his obsidian knife, picks through its insides and makes Luo Binghe carry most of it hanging from his spear. The deer Shen Yuan throws over his shoulder like it weighs nothing, though he's forced to stand up straight to carry it comfortably.

He's even taller than Luo Binghe had realised. There's something strange about it - something a little… inhuman. Like he's not just a tall person, but like he's been forcibly stretched. He's definitely taller than Shen Qingqiu, maybe even taller than Yue Qingyuan. Why does he slouch so much all the time - to make himself a smaller target, maybe?

And yet all Luo Binghe can think about is that the man might want his -

"You're not squeamish, are you?" Shen Yuan asks, giving him a look.

Luo Binghe, realising he's just standing there holding a spear loaded with deer organs, clears his throat. "I'm not," he says and rests the spear over his shoulder, quickly looking away. "Are there any edible plants here, Master Shen?"

"Depends on what you consider edible," Shen Yuan muses and scratches at his neck. "There's not that many good ingredients around here, this place is a low-level dungeon at best. Guess I can show you as we go."

Luo Binghe follows him and learns the names of three edible plants and one mushroom that apparently has pleasant hallucinogenic side effects - if one is into it - and none of it distract him from the knowledge and feeling that his pillar is fully healed and barely protected under the hem of his tunic. Nor does it distract him from the knowledge that even if Shen Yuan might not want to eat him right now, that doesn't mean he can't think of other uses for Heavenly Demons.

Now that Luo Binghe is no longer suppressing his power, he can almost taste it - the chaotic energy coming from Shen Yuan. From what he remembers from the bestiaries in Qing Jing Peak, a Bull Wyrm heart that Shen Yuan had eaten can double a man's physical strength when eaten raw. According to Meng Mo, eating a Bull Wyrm heart should've been at least a little uncomfortable for a human, but Luo Binghe hadn't noticed any kind of change at the time… Shen Yuan hadn't even looked like it was anything special, to eat something cultivators might kill to get their hands on.

How many of them has Shen Yuan already eaten? What might make someone grow taller? And… if he ate Luo Binghe's… what, what would that do to him?

That's nothing particularly special about their next meal. They have Three Eyed Tusk Deer spit roasted with a side of greens and herbs that give Luo Binghe a tingling feeling around his body, but that's it. Spiritually strong, but otherwise mostly benign herbs.

Shen Yuan then begins fleshing and preparing the deer hide for tanning, utterly unaware of Luo Binghe's chaotic thoughts, and with slightly shaking hands Luo Binghe restarts the slow process of figuring out how to make a bow. And that's how Luo Binghe's first "day" as the man's disciple ends.

He tries to not sleep that "night", painfully aware of the fact that while he's been there, Shen Yuan hasn't slept once.

But eventually, inescapably  the day's exertions catch up with him.


 

Meng Mo laughs at his thoughts, enormously amused by his anxiety. Luo Binghe faces it with as much dignity as he can - and dawning indignation.

"Your blood, boy, is a medium of your power," the Dream Demon explains. "Heavenly Demon can wield his blood like a weapon, shaping it according to his will. And should that blood get inside another - should they eat it, for example, it would give you access to their body. You could spread your blood along their limbs and control them like a puppet."

Oh. Oh. "Master Shen seems to believe my blood might have beneficial qualities."

"Naturally. Heavenly Demon regenerative abilities are powerful, and you should be able to use your blood to impart them on a host, mending their injuries, perhaps even curing their ailments," Meng Mo muses. "It would be a proverbial deal with the devil, of course, making them your slave."

Luo Binghe swallows. "So if Master Shen drank my blood…"

"It would be worse for him than you. If you lived through the process, anyway," Meng Mo says and gives him a look. "If he killed you and ate your heart before that… well, he might just gain the ability to control the blood himself."

Nodding slowly, Luo Binghe steels himself. "And my - my -?"

"Your semen, brat?" Meng Mo scoffs. "Now that I have no idea about. Dual Cultivation practices aren't exactly common knowledge among demons, and they're definitely nothing I've ever looked into. You will have to figure it out yourself."

Luo Binghe looks down, and only the fact that this is a dream keeps him from blushing.

Though, thinking back, when Qin Wanyue was hit with a poison at the Immortal Alliance Conference… The Thousand Leaf Cleansing Lotus did nothing to help her, and they'd both thought she would die of the poison. But then they'd - they'd…

They'd had sex.

Luo Binghe hasn't exactly been trying to avoid thinking about it, what happened, what they'd done. In light of his Shi - no, that man isn't his Shizun. After Shen Qingqiu had sent him into the Endless Abyss, what happened before just wasn't that important. As it is, it has been… he isn't sure. Qin Wanyue seemed to enjoy it. And she felt much better afterwards!

At the time, Luo Binghe had thought it was the dual cultivation that cured her. It wasn't like he thought dual cultivation would feel like, nothing at all like cultivation usually feels like. There was no concentration of energies, no activation of meridians, nothing like that. Mostly it was just awkward and a little embarrassing and messy, and most of all physical. It had cleared his mind, sure, but… mostly he'd felt vaguely ashamed afterwards.

Your first time should be nicer, he'd thought. You should feel good about it once you're done, right? Instead he'd just been distracted by the feel of awkward wet stickiness on his pillar and a twig that had been digging into his knee.

It wasn't the dual cultivation that cured her. It wasn't dual cultivation at all. It was just the fact that Luo Binghe was a Heavenly Demon and his vital essence was a panacea. He'd saved her life, and he's happy about that, but…

He'd always wished his first time would be with someone he actually loved, not this random, kind of manipulative girl he wasn't even sure he liked all that much.

Not that any of that matters now.

Meng Mo is watching him, and so Luo Binghe schools his thoughts and his expression, setting the discomfort aside. "Thank you for your guidance, Shifu."

"Mn," Meng Mo answers. "You should take the hunter's advice, boy. Leave him, before he finally gets it into his head to eat you."

Luo Binghe shakes his head. "I don't think he's going to eat me. At least not before I make him a functional bow and arrows," he says. "And I have other things to offer besides. I'll make myself useful until I'm worth more to him alive than dead."

"You have a long way to go, then," Meng Mo says gruffly. "Heavenly Demons are vanishingly rare and worth ten times their weight in silver as potion ingredients."

Luo Binghe sets his jaw. "I need to learn what he knows. I will make myself his apprentice."

The dream demon snorts. "On your own head be it," he says. "Just remember that even if he starts with your manhood, he probably won't end there."

Like slamming the shutters on a window, Luo Binghe ends the dream there.

Chapter Text

Rebuilding and replenishing his stores back up is a bitch. It's nothing Shen Yuan hasn't had to do before - the System tends to wipe his slate clean every now and then to bring him down a peg or whatnot, so he'd used to the setbacks. It's never not incredibly annoying though.

He needs new ingredients, he needs to make a new alchemy set, find a whole new base, he needs to restock on furs, he needs just so much stuff. With his luck the System will throw Hellfrost at him before he's ready to try and freeze his ass, again. And this time he doesn't have an elemental cave to hide away in! The hideout had been cold as balls, but not as cold as Hellfrost. During the worst of it, it was actually almost warm.

But it was only a matter of time before the System took it away from him, so Shen Yuan doesn't let himself get hung up on the loss. Instead, he's hung up on this new strain on his resources.

With Luo Binghe there, Shen Yuan needs to get double of everything. Twice as much food, twice as many potions. Shen Yuan is not getting the guy any bombs, but he needs weapons.

And he needs to stop staring at Shen Yuan like he's grown a set of horns!

"What?" Shen Yuan grunts, giving the Protagonist a narrow look through his mask's lenses.

Luo Binghe motions to the fur he'd been spreading on a frame to treat. "Can I help? I would like to learn."

Shen Yuan looks down at the salted and washed pelt and then leans back. Well. "Fine, come here."

Luo Binghe comes closer promptly and then waits for his direction like an eager puppy, eyes shining with interest. It's. Disturbing. "Just - here," Shen Yuan says and shows him how it is done. Not that there's much left to do, the hide is almost pinned.

"Does that look good, Master Shen?"

"It's fine. Now get the head," Shen Yuan motions. "And crack it open. We want its brains."

Luo Binghe pauses just for a moment and then gets to work, using a rock to crack the skull while Shen Yuan gets a pot to scoop it in. It's disgusting work, if you're squeamish, and there's still a modern man in Shen Yuan who shirks away from it. But damn if it hasn't saved his life, more than once.

Tanning hide is one of the few things Shen Yuan didn't learn from PIDW - even if Airplane included something like that into the webnovel, he definitely would've gotten it wrong. Shen Yuan had instead learned it from his activist of a sister, who at one point had gone into a hyperfocused anti-fur-trade binge. It has been very informative, as she unearthed all the horrors of it and made it the problem of everyone around her.

One of the things Shen Yuan's brain had decided to store in its long term memory was that animals have just enough brains to tan their own hides.

Luo Binghe, if he finds the work questionable, doesn't complain. At Shen Yuan's guidance he goes through the motions of mixing the brains into a slurry, which he then rubs into the flesh side of the pelt.

"Don't get it on the hair, it'll ruin it," Shen Yuan directs, though he doesn't really have to. Luo Binghe has the concept down and is well on his way to mastering it.

The Protagonist is a sponge for everything around him. Of course, he'd been that way in the novel too, but to see it in action is a different thing. Every slip, every word, every new skill he just soaks up and apparently never forgets. 

Shen Yuan wonders if Heavenly Demons have eidetic memory. Considering all the shit Luo Binghe went through and had to endure, that would probably suck for him.

"Is that good, Master Shen?" Luo Binghe asks once he's done.

Shen Yuan looks down at the pelt. The brain slime has been spread in a perfectly even layer. Of course it has been. "Yes, good, fine," he agrees and swings to his feet. "Well done."

Luo Binghe looks up, his eyes widening a little, and then he looks down at the pelt. He swallows. "I'm glad my work pleases Master Shen."

Ugh. Shen Yuan turns away. "Come on, we need to collect some spirit herbs."

"What about the pelt?"

"Just leave it to soak up the oils," Shen Yuan waves a hand. "It'll be done by tomorrow."

Luo Binghe nods and then follows, eager and way too close. "What will we use the herbs for?"

"Everything," Shen Yuan grunts. "They're base ingredients for pretty much everything."

Of course, after he's taught the guy what to look for and how to collect the herbs, Luo Binghe excels at that too, going totally overboard and collecting about ten times as much as Shen Yuan, and of course they're all perfect too. In the face of his eager-to-please expression, Shen Yuan swallows the irritation and accepts the bundle.

"Are we going to process them right away, Master Shen?" Luo Binghe asks excitedly.

"Guess we might as well," Shen Yuan mutters. "Need to make a grinding wheel first, though."

"I can do that!" Luo Binghe says immediately and jumps to action. With Shen Yuan's make-do stone chisel coated in simmering energy, he shapes a flat piece of rock into a grinding wheel, just shaving pieces off it until it's perfect. It takes him like a minute.

"Will this work?" the Protagonist asks, looking at him hopefully.

Shen Yuan wants to kick him. Last time it took him days of awkward chiselling to do the same, and the result wasn't anywhere as even and smooth.

"It's - fine," he grunts, swallowing his irritation - Luo Binghe human-sticks abusive teachers, he can't kick him. "Good, excellent. Now make a bowl."

Luo Binghe does, and it's disgustingly effortless for him. Shen Yuan isn't even sure the chisel is needed - Luo Binghe could've done it with bare hands, probably, the stone bending to his will like putty. Once done, the Protagonist offers the result to him like a gift. It's perfectly arched to fit the grinding wheel. It even has little legs to hold it in place!

Shen Yuan hates him a little.

"... Nice," he says resentfully.

Luo Binghe preens smugly. "Is there anything else this one can do for Master Shen?"

What a brat! But as much as he hates the Protagonist's cheats, Shen Yuan is not above making use of them - and this ability Luo Binghe has to just shape rock… it has potential. He can use it. And if all Luo Binghe asks as payment is inane praise, Shen Yuan can do that too.

"Mortar and pestle," Shen Yuan says decisively and Luo Binghe jumps into action. "Good work, good work. Now make some more bowls."

At the end of it, Shen Yuan has the best tool set he's had so far, and it took Luo Binghe maybe an hour to make. And as much as he wants to wring that pleased smug look from Luo Binghe's face, Shen Yuan is sincerely impressed.

"... Good job," Shen Yuan says and scoffs at the way Luo Binghe's eyes brighten up. What is he, a puppy? Does he want pets next? "Right. I guess I'll show you how to make the healing salve I used on your burns."

Of course, Luo Binghe figures out the whole thing with only half the instructions, and the end result is much smoother than anything Shen Yuan had ever made. That perfect asshole.

Luo Binghe's behaviour is all the more grating for how fake it is. Like Shen Yuan can't see the calculative looks, can't feel the eyes on the back of his neck whenever he turns. Luo Binghe watches him like a hawk getting ready to strike. And Shen Yuan can't call him out on it, because he's all smiles and obedience when he turns. Ugh.

It's almost a relief when the System throws an attack his way.


 

Black Moon Python Rhinoceroses. A whole damn herd of them rampaging through the Shattered Plain, tearing through rocks and taking trees off by their roots.

Never let it be said that System isn't a dick.

"What are we going to do?" Luo Binghe asks, his eyes wide as they watch the oncoming herd from one of the higher pieces of blocky terrain. The earth rumbles, and there's a rising dust cloud - it's like a scene from a movie. "These spears won't be enough to pierce their hides!"

He's not wrong, the spears are useless, as are most of Shen Yuan's bombs, the Black Moon Python Rhinoceros hide is too hard for mere explosions to do any damage. Freezing them would barely slow them down…

"We'll lure them into the Oil Bog," Shen Yuan decides. "This way."

At least now that Luo Binghe isn't pretending to be weak, Shen Yuan doesn't have to carry him. As a cultivator and a growing Demon Lord, Luo Binghe keeps up with minimal problems, only the terrain causing him to trip sometimes. 

It's really something, watching the Protagonist grow right before his eyes. As much as Shen Yuan wishes he could trip him into the Oil Bog too, it's really amazing. Already, Luo Binghe is so much more powerful than you'd expect! It's infuriating!

"Master Shen!" Luo Binghe gasps. "How far is the Oil Bog?"

"Far enough," Shen Yuan answers. "Few hours. Why?"

Luo Binghe's gait falters a little, but he pushes forward. "Okay," he says determinedly. "Okay. I can do this. I can do this."

"Huh?"

Luo Binghe's body answers for him - it turns out, he can't do this. He doesn't have it in him to sustain a superhuman sprint yet, and eventually he starts lagging behind.

Right, Shen Yuan thinks. The time skip sections did mention that Luo Binghe had to actually build up his stamina through vigorous trials and by building up his body. Airplane hadn't ever lingered on those parts, too eager to get to Luo Binghe's successes, but he did occasionally play lip service, pretending there was some character growth somewhere behind the scenes. Luo Binghe, rising from the ashes as a new man after Shen Qingqiu's betrayal, and all that.

Plus, as much potential as he has, wasn't Luo Binghe's training in Qing Jing Peak really poor? Even the technique he uses to carve stone is just brute forcing it, in a way.

Shen Yuan slows down, and Luo Binghe gasps for breath. Behind them the dust cloud rises like an oncoming sand storm. 

"This one apologizes," Luo Binghe pants. "He is slowing Master Shen down."

"Whatever," Shen Yuan says and grabs him by the arm. Then he throws the Protagonist over his shoulder again, and runs.

"This one is -" Luo Binghe tries.

"Save it," Shen Yuan grunts, grabbing him by the backs of his thighs. "Just tell me if they get closer."

"They're getting closer," Luo Binghe reports obediently and Shen Yuan runs.

It's slower with Luo Binghe's weight. Shen Yuan wonders resentfully if he could just drop the Protagonist - Luo Binghe has plot armour, it's not like he would die. It might even slow the herd down a little. 

And then Luo Binghe would come after him to kill him. Yeah, no.

"Master Shen," Luo Binghe grunts, trying to shift into a better position over his shoulder. "This one doesn't wish to be a burden."

"Tch," Shen Yuan answers and with a running leap gets them over a ravine.

"Are there any potions that will make this one stronger?"

Shen Yuan snorts. "Sure, but you won't need them."

Luo Binghe's weight shifts at that. "What does Master Shen mean?"

"You're a Heavenly Demon. Your natural potential is greater than any potion. You don't need them."

Luo Binghe is quiet, his hands gripping at the fur on Shen Yuan's shoulder, trying to keep his balance. "Master Shen knows much about Heavenly Demons."

"Sure," Shen Yuan grunts and grips him tighter to keep him in place. "There's a fall coming up. Hold on!"

Luo Binghe grips the spines of his fur cloak and holds on, and the fall still knocks the breath out of him. Shen Yuan scrambles down the side of a cliff, careful to make sure Luo Binghe doesn't get too badly banged up, and then looks over his other shoulder.

The Black Moon Python Rhinoceroses are already coming down the cliff like gravity isn't even a thing that affects them, just running down the steep wall like a black swarm of death and destruction and dust.

[Warning! You are being hunted!]

"Yeah, no shit!" Fucking System.

Shen Yuan turns and keeps running. It's still ways to go. Here's hoping the Zombie Bull Demons sunk far enough down that he doesn't need to worry about them too.


 

Shen Yuan is finally approaching his limits. Even with stamina potions, the days running, hunting and not sleeping are making themselves felt, by the time he finally reaches the Oil Bog. Luo Binghe is quiet too, desperately gasping for breath as Shen Yuan drops him down on the edge of the bog, where the ground turns into a lake of black tar.

"Right," Shen Yuan pants, rubbing at his stinging side. "If we're lucky the Sys -" warning flashes red across his vision. "The fucker will keep it's grip on them and they'll just run into the bog. If not, then - then we're fucked."

Luo Binghe looks up, his expression stained as he looks around. "Master Shen -" he says and then coughs. "How are we going to get them into the bog?"

"There's a few places to stand - see those rocks?" Shen Yuan points. "If we can jump there, we'll be pretty safe. Probably."

The Oil Bog is one hell of a sight. It's basically a lake of black oil slowly bubbling away before their eyes. The air above it is a sickly sort of yellow with all the gasses. The place would be worth a fortune if the right industry existed in this world. Or it would be an unmitigated environmental disaster. Neither really applies here, so the place is just a fancy piece of deadly terrain - and a handy way to trap things that are too hard to kill. Even the greatest monsters can't swim in oil for long.

The Black Moon Python Rhinoceroses are catching up with them.

"Come on," Shen Yuan says and grabs Luo Binghe by the arm. "Up you get."

Luo Binghe coughs again and then struggles to his feet. He's swaying. He didn't even have to run all the way, what if be swaying and gasping for?

"What's wrong with you?" Shen Yuan demands

"Apo-pologies, Master S-Shen," Luo Binghe wheezes. "I - I can't seem to - to breathe -"

… Oh. Shit.

Shen Yuan looks at the bog again - and the gasses just idly milling above it. "Well, fuck," he says and detaches his gas mask. "Exhale - empty out your lungs, completely."

Luo Binghe looks at him through teary eyes, confused. Then he exhales. As he does Shen Yuan fills his own lungs, and then takes the mask off, shoving it over Luo Binghe's mouth and nose.

"Breathe," he orders and holds his own breath.

The Protagonist looks a little ridiculous with just the lower half of the mask on, his eyes big and dark over it. It helps, clearly, the first breath rattling slowly in his throat, his eyes widening further with realisation.

"Again. Deep breaths," Shen Yuan orders, trying to let as little of his own air out as he can. "Keep breathing."

And then the herd is upon them.

Shen Yuan has just enough time to grab Luo Binghe up into his arms again and spin out of the way, before the first one of them comes barreling at them, head bent low and horn pointed forward. And fuck, he'd forgotten how massive the damn things are. It's like being faced with a rampaging tank.

The rhinoceros opens its maw, spits out a blood red python, and then rams right through the empty space where Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe had just been and over the edge and into the Oil Bog.

What follows is not at all what Shen Yuan had planned. The noise is incredible as the shoreline is utterly overtaken by the herd, an overwhelming melee of dozens of massive bodies trampling the shore and clashing into each other as they single-mindedly try to gore him. There's no way to jump into safety, Shen Yuan can't get the running start to make the distance. The best he can do is weave between the rampaging beasts, ducking their attacks, trying to desperately bait them into running into the oil. Even if they don't sink completely, it slows them down, might make them slip, maybe -

But there are so many, and Luo Binghe is an awkward weight in his arms, throwing Shen Yuan's balance off. He can't move as fast as he needs to, he can't get as far, can't - he can't -

He can't breathe without the mask.

Shen Yuan's field of vision dims around the edges, and then he's hit.

It's like being clipped by a bus - it's just a touch, a Black Moon Python Rhinoceros brushes past him, its massive leg touching his shoulder. Shen Yuan is instantly sent spinning, his body ragdolling like a discarded toy. A moment later he crashes down, and Luo Binghe flies out of his arms.

What a pathetic fucking way to die, Shen Yuan thinks as he hits the ground.

But it doesn't knock him out.

Light bursts across his vision as his chin hits the ground first, and he inhales convulsively, gasping for a breath. It's not the gasses that fill his lungs, though, but familiar stuffy, filtered air, just barely fit to breathe.

Luo Binghe is holding the mask to his face, tugging Shen Yuan up by his arm, his eyes huge and red and fucking amazing. The Heavenly Demon's signature mark glows like red flames on his forehead.

Then Luo Binghe yanks him to his feet and motions wildly. They're just at the edge of the bog. There's a rock there, flat and inviting, just across from them. And there's at least three Black Moon Python Rhinoceroses coming right at them.

There's no way they can make that jump. 

They jump anyway, Luo Binghe tugging Shen Yuan's arm over his shoulder and forcing him into it. And it must be Protagonist plot armour in action, because it's just not doable otherwise, their combined weight and pathetic windup should've made it impossible.

They make it, landing on the rock and barely keeping their balance on it by grabbing a hold of each other… but they make it. On the shoreline the Black Moon Python Rhinoceroses begin in mindless fury throwing themselves over the edge and into the bog.

Shen Yuan falls on his ass on the rock, and for an exhausted, adrenaline-driven moment he loves Luo Binghe almost as much as he hates his life.

And then, the weeks catch up with him.


 

When he wakes up, Luo Binghe is sitting cross-legged beside him, holding the mask to his face again, and everything is quiet. Shen Yuan inhales and the mask lifts, the Protagonist using it to inhale quickly before putting it back to Shen Yuan's face.

Shen Yuan blinks behind his lenses and takes a moment to compute the situation, to internalise the knowledge that they're in the middle of the Oil Bog and Luo Binghe has been keeping them both alive by switching the mask between them. It's.

Unexpected? Is it unexpected? He isn't sure. He can't think of a time Luo Binghe would have done this for a guy. For a wife candidate, sure, there was like three different occasions where the Protagonist had literally shared the breath from his lungs with a woman that couldn't otherwise breathe - subsequently making out with them in the process, of course. But sharing a life-saving device with a dude?

"Master Shen is awake," Luo Binghe comments, holding his breath.

"How long was I out?" Shen Yuan croaks into the mask, trying to understand.

"Two sichen maybe. It's hard to tell time here, I'm sorry," Luo Binghe says and looks up, coughing a little. "The herd left. The ones that didn't drown in the bog, anyway."

Shen Yuan sits up and carefully turns to look, keeping the mask on his face. The shoreline is empty, with maybe three indistinctive masses floating in the oil. Guess the System let them go after Shen Yuan wasn't awake enough to appreciate how fucked he was. Hooray.

"How is Master Shen feeling?"

Shen Yuan looks back at the Protagonist and then runs a tongue around his mouth. He can't taste any blood, but Luo Binghe could've fed him some and then marched it down his throat so that no taste was left behind. If he did, then… fuck. What could Shen Yuan do about that, other than bitch about it? Die, maybe.

Fuck it. Luo Binghe kept him alive, and he's starting to look a little green behind the gills, holding his breath.

"Good," Shen Yuan says, breathing deeply. "Don't talk without the mask, you'll end up breathing in the gasses," he says, and then thrusts the mask at Luo Binghe's face. The Protagonist inhales gratefully, eyes closing. He looks exhausted. Shen Yuan waits until he's had his fill and then takes the mask again. "You're unexpectedly reliable," he comments, watching him with fascination.

Obediently, the Protagonist waits until he has the mask on before he talks. "This one is just happy to be of service," Luo Binghe demurs and then snaps his eyes open as Shen Yuan slaps him over one ear.

Shen Yuan takes back the mask. "Stop that. You did good, stop acting all humble."

Luo Binghe's eyes flash with a little bit of red, the corners squinting. He's smiling beneath the mask.

… Cute.

"Master Shen saved my life," Luo Binghe says quietly. "Again."

"Master Shen almost got you killed, you mean. If you'd stayed in the cave you would've been fine," Shen Yuan grunts on his next inhale, standing up. "Think you can make the jump back to shore?"

Luo Binghe looks at the shore and hums, noncommittal, and stands up as well.

So, Shen Yuan hands him the mask, hoists him up and carries him. The drowned Black Moon Python Rhinoceroses make good stepping stones, slightly slippery as they are. Once on shore, Shen Yuan gives them a look. One of them has its horn sticking out of the oil. Hm.

Black Moon Python Rhinoceroses' skin is too tough to do anything with, but the venom and the horn… Oh, he could think of a few uses for a Black Moon Python Rhinoceros horn. 

"Master Shen?" Luo Binghe asks tiredly behind the mask. "What is it?" He hands the mask back.

"Just thinking about how to get them back on shore," Shen Yuan hums thoughtfully and makes a face. The mask is getting all damp, and it smells like the bog with all the switching. Ugh. 

They really need another mask.

"Master Shen is going to…?" Luo Binghe asks once he has the mask again, giving him a look over it. "This one can help."

Shen Yuan accepts the mask again and inhales. This is ridiculous. "I'm just going to get one of the horns," he decides, takes a couple of breaths and then thrusts the mask back to get his hands free. He should've packed the spider silk rope… yes, he had, excellent.

Lassoing the rhinoceros by the horn, Shen Yuan digs his heels and begins pulling. The damn thing is almost impossible to move, not only is it unspeakably heavy, but it's very firmly embedded in the bog. The weight barely budges.

Holding his breath, Shen Yuan grunts with effort, refusing to give up.

Luo Binghe looks between him and the horn and then holds the mask to Shen Yuan's face for a moment. Then the Protagonist takes hold of the silvery rope and adds his strength to the task.

Between them, they just barely get the massive body moving. Not enough to get it on shore, that's beyond even Luo Binghe right now, but they get it close enough to reach the horn, and that's all Shen Yuan needs.

"Isn't Black Moon Python Rhinoceros horn one of the toughest materials there is?" Luo Binghe asks worriedly, taking his turn in the mask while Shen Yuan gathers the rope. "How is Master Shen going to cut it?"

Shen Yuan takes the mask with one hand and an Ice Breath Bomb with the other - one of his older versions - and grins. "I'm not. Back up, like, a lot."

Luo Binghe accepts the mask, looks at him, at his grin, and then the bomb. Then he backs away hurriedly.

The oil of the bog doesn't care at all about the bomb, of course - black oil doesn't freeze, it just thickens. The rhinoceros is a different thing. As the Ice Breath washes over it, a diamond dust cloud sweeps through the whole area, the visible parts of the Black Moon Python Rhinoceros turn completely white, like snow.

Shen Yuan waits until the deadly ice cloud dissipates. Then he grabs a rock and shatters the base of the horn, grabbing the point before it falls into the oil.

"Ha! Got it," Shen Yuan grins, hefting the frozen, rock-like horn in his hand. "Fuck yes."

And then he's coughing again. Fuck.

Luo Binghe hurriedly puts the mask to his face until he's caught his breath and then asks, "Master Shen can make a potion out of the horn?"

Shen Yuan nods with a grin and accepts the mask back. "It's going to be great. Come on," he shoves the horn into his bag. "Let's get the hell out of here before we both choke."

Luo Binghe nods, casting a look at the bog. "Shouldn't we collect the oil?" he asks once he has the mask again. "Can't it be used for something?"

Well. It could be. Burning mostly. "I guess," Shen Yuan says. "I don't have an empty container, though."

"I can make one," Luo Binghe says and hands the mask over. Then does just that, making a lidded jug out of stone. Right. Cultivator with cheaty Qi powers.

So their haul for the day is several litres of crude oil and the horn of a Black Moon Python Rhinoceros. And no one broke anything.

Not too shabby.


 

Shen Yuan has a pretty simple approach to alchemy when it comes to Airplane's stupid world: grind it down to powder, steep it in hot water and drink it like a tea. If that doesn't work, start adding spiritual herbs of this and that nature. And as a final resort, add something suitably awesome and magical of similar nature, and that should do the trick. The whole thing is just stupid make-believe anyway. If it sounds right by Airplane-illogic, then it probably works. Plus, he can't remember any actual incident where someone was seriously poisoned by medicine or potions. Either stuff worked, or it just… didn't.

It hasn't failed him so far. It's how he came up with most of his effective potions and medicine, and it's what he does with the horn this time too, shaving pieces of it and grinding them to powder while a pot of water heats by the fire.

It's still a bit awkward, having Luo Binghe watching him bullshit his way through the whole process.

"What?" Shen Yuan asks, giving him a look.

"I'm wondering what Black Moon Python Rhinoceros horn is used for," Luo Binghe says, like he doesn't already know.

"Strength of the body, stamina, yadda-yadda," Shen Yuan says and adds another sliver of shaved horn into the mortar.

"Master Shen intends to use it on himself," Luo Binghe guesses, arching a brow.

"Obviously," Shen Yuan agrees and then gives him a look, remembering Luo Binghe asking about it. "I can make some for you too, but I wouldn't hold my hopes up. Heavenly Demon Blood might just negate the effect."

Luo Binghe looks at him, surprised. "Master Shen would share the potion with this one?"

"Stop it," Shen Yuan scoffs. "It's whatever. There's a whole thing of horn, I won't be using all of it. And you helped me get the thing."

Luo Binghe's eyes are shining - it's unnerving. "Master Shen is very charitable," he says, very grateful, looking like he wants to bow. Ugh. The Protagonist leans in. "What does Master Shen mean, though? This one's blood will negate the effect?"

This brat. "It might," Shen Yuan grunts, turning his eyes back to the mortar. "Heavenly Demons are impervious to most poisons, and I can't remember any of them -" Luo Binghe to be exact, "using potions to grow stronger. They don't usually need to bother."

"Because Heavenly Demon's natural potential is so great?" Luo Binghe asks, looking down at his own hand. "I don't feel that great."

"You blew up the back end of an Eater of Worlds," Shen Yuan reminds him with a scoff. "And that was with barely any training and probably no idea what you were even doing. Give it a few years and a bit of practice, and this sort of shit won't even get on your radar."

"My - what?"

"You won't care," Shen Yuan clarifies, shaking his head, and grinds the pestle harder.

Luo Binghe is quiet for a moment, considering him and then leaning back a little. "I am a half-Heavenly Demon, though. One of my parents was human," he says then. "Maybe I don't have that much potential."

"Are you fishing for compliments or something?" Shen Yuan asks incredulously. "Seriously. Back end of an Eater of Worlds. You were there."

That makes the Protagonist smile a little. "Without Master Shen there, I would have died," he comments, propping one knee up and leaning his cheek on it. "I wouldn't have been able to run away. Master Shen saved my life."

Shen Yuan eyes him warily. Is he… acting cute? His head tilted and cheek smushed against his knee, eyes all big and bright, curly hair spilling everywhere - if it was a girl, it would've been downright moe!

"Master Shen has saved my life many times now," Luo Binghe says quietly, watching him, something unnameable in his eyes. "I don't even know how many. I don't know how I will ever repay - "

"You can start by stopping that," Shen Yuan says, giving him a disturbed look and leaning away from him. "You are creeping me out. Seriously. Stop that."

That makes the Protagonist grin a little - the little bastard is enjoying this. "I just want to show Master Shen I am grateful -"

"You little shit, I swear to -"

Luo Binghe actually laughs a little at that, and Shen Yuan freezes. Luo Binghe just laughed. And it was nice laugh. He's smiling, and it's - it's - hell if Shen Yuan knows what it is. It's soft? What the fuck.

Terrified for his life, Shen Yuan turns his eyes back to the rhino horn, and tries not to implode.

"Master Shen," Luo Binghe says quietly, not quite looking at him, his eyes low lidded and simmering. "You know I come from a cultivation sect. I come from the biggest of them all. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. I was a disciple of Qing Jing Peak. I… wasn't a very good disciple."

Shen Yuan swallows, biting his tongue. It isn't that Luo Binghe was a bad disciple - he just had a shitty set of Shixiongs and even worse Shizun. None of them ever helped Luo Binghe realise his true potential, all their did was hold him back. "Okay," he says and continues grinding the rhinoceros horn desperately. "Sure. What about it?"

Luo Binghe sighs. "When I joined the sect, all I wished was… was to learn, to become a good disciple. I didn't even know what Cang Qiong Mountain Sect was like, I just wanted to learn something, anything," he says quietly. "I wanted to be part of something. A student of a master. A good master."

Shen Yuan bites his tongue on about six thousand word forum post about just how much Cang Qiong Mountain Sect fucked up with Luo Binghe. "Mm-hmm," he grunts. "Sure, sure. Very admirable."

"I didn't get that. My teacher, my… Shizun… hated me at first sight," Luo Binghe says, his voice just a whisper now. "Nothing like you."

I don't like you that much either, Shen Yuan wants to argue, but can't. Luo Binghe is probably going to be the death of him one way or the other. Shen Yuan is going to end up dying either at his sword point, or doing the whole teacher's sacrifice thing to give his student motivation to move on with a plot. It's stupid. It's ridiculous. He doesn't want any of it.

Is this what Luo Binghe did to Meng Mo? No wonder one of the supposedly strongest Dream Demons, a Demon Lord in his own right, ended up waiting the Protagonist hand and foot for absolutely no gain. The Protagonist is seriously too powerful.

"Master Shen… can I call you Shizun?"

Shen Yuan exhales. Fuck. "Did you somehow miss the fact that I'm not even a cultivator?" he asks with a snort. "Do I seem like a respectable old master to you?"

Luo Binghe looks at him with eyes that seem as though backlit from within by red. "Yes," he says seriously. "More so than Immortal Master Shen Qingqiu ever did."

Not as great a compliment as he might think. Being in any way compared to that child-abusive piece of shit lecher is not exactly a high praise! "Tch," Shen Yuan answers and keeps his eyes firmly fixed on his work. "You're delirious. Go take a nap. Maybe you'll make sense afterwards."

Luo Binghe doesn't budge, watching him. His gaze is like a radiator, it feels hot on Shen Yuan's cheek. "Master Shen might be unconventional and a little rough around the edges. But in just a few days he's taught me more than the Peak Lord of Qing Jing Peak ever did," the Protagonist says and lifts his head a little, giving him a level look. "And I can tell there's much more to learn. I would be beyond honoured to learn at Master Shen's feet."

At his feet, like hell! System, now would be a good time to throw an attack his way!

Of course the System, being a dick, does no such thing.

Shen Yuan grits his teeth as Luo Binghe's gaze bores into him. Can he do mind control with his eyes? Did Shen Yuan end up drinking his blood anyway? What is this? "And what if I don't want to teach?"

Luo Binghe hesitates at that, looking down just for a moment. "Then I would be happy to serve Master Shen in any way I can, until Master Shen no longer stand - "

Shen Yuan exhales a heavy sigh. That's even worse! "Okay, okay, fuck, I'll… think about it, okay? I promise I'll think about it." He'll think about an exit strategy, anyway. "Now stop looking at me like that, it's giving me the creeps. Go mind the fire, or something. Leave me alone."

Luo Binghe smiles and shifts to his feet. "As Master Shen wishes."

This guy…

Keeping his eyes nailed on the mortar, Shen Yuan waits until Luo Binghe is out of his personal space and then releases an exhale. The fuck, did the guy imprint on him or something? What is he, a chick? Shen Yuan isn't a mama bird! He eats mama birds! What even is this?!

At this point Luo Binghe should be beyond done with teachers. After Shen Qingqiu, he barely endured Meng Mo, and that's because he had power over the Dream Demon. No one else ever got that kind of respect from Luo Binghe again - not unless they were of the sexy milf variety and down to clown! The Endless Abyss was Luo Binghe's journey to become a man - in more ways than one! He should be past wanting anything to do with male teachers!

Shen Yuan shudders, feeling Luo Binghe still watching him from the sidelines, and then continues grinding the rhino horn. He needs to get stronger. Fuck, he really needs to get stronger, if he wants to survive the fate of possibly ending up being Luo Binghe's teacher. Betrayal, revenge, or sacrifice, Shen Yuan is not dying to make Luo Binghe stronger. No fucking way.

With a burst of furious energy, Shen Yuan finishes grinding the horn slivers into fine white powder. Without pausing to think about it, he gets a pot of boiling water from the fire, and begins mixing the most basic of medicines, powder dissolved in hot water.

"Do you want some?" Shen Yuan asks awkwardly.

"Master Shen thinks it won't be of any use," Luo Binghe points out, watching him. "I will take his word on it."

… That is so going to bite him on the ass if Luo Binghe ever got it into his head that Shen Yuan was lying and holding back a power-up potion from him. It's just the sort of thing done by a teacher that ends up being killed by his vengeful student. Tch. 

"I don't think it will do anything for you, but it probably won't hurt," Shen Yuan says, gritting his teeth. "Have some anyway."

Luo Binghe's expression brightens, his smile like a ray of sunshine, and he quickly stands up. "If Master Shen doesn't mind," he says and gets his cup, holding it out eagerly.

Fuck, why is he acting so cute? Argh!

Shen Yuan makes a face at him and dishes out the horn soup for them both. He lives to regret it - because while the Black Moon Python Rhinoceros' horn really does nothing for Luo Binghe, strength-wise, it has another quality, which Shen Yuan had been blissfully forgetting. It's not just yet another bullshit potion to increase one's vitality and strength.

It's also a fucking aphrodisiac. 

Chapter Text

At first Luo Binghe feels nothing, just the warmth of the mostly tasteless potion in his stomach. Then it's like that warmth spreads in a sudden rush, and he's warm all over from his toes to the top of his head. Curious, he lifts his hands, feeling tingling in his fingertips as his blood rushes in his ears. It's taking effect, after all. And it feels… rather nice?

Strange, all the stories he heard the descriptions in, they all said that potions that affect your body to this extent all feel a little uncomfortable. It makes sense, when you're essentially making alterations to your very foundations, it should be monumental, shocking. But this is nice.

It's actually really nice. A warm tingling flush is spreading all over him, and he feels, he feels…

"Fuck," Shen Yuan says. "Fuck, fuck, fuck. I'm sorry. I forgot, I fucking forgot - no, wait, fuck, I'm just going to -"

Luo Binghe looks up just as the hunter runs out, stumbling on his way. Everything looks too far away and very close, and there's a smell that's lovely, and why is Master Shen leaving?

"Master Shen?" Luo Binghe asks, his voice like syrup, and by the time he's done marveling at how strange he sounds, he's alone in the cave. Strange.

It's warmer - is it warmer? It feels warmer.

Confused, Luo Binghe tugs at his tunic and looks down as the sensation bursts through him, hot and startling and good.

Oh. He's hard.

And then he's burning.


 

Luo Binghe has been under the effects of aphrodisiac three times in his life. 

The first was when his Shixiongs doused his food with it in secret, laughing at his plight and telling him afterwards that it was an initiation ritual, every new disciple went through it. That, he learned later from Ning Yingying, was a lie, they just wanted him to suffer. He'd never accepted food from his fellow disciples again.

The second was during lessons in Qian Cao Peak, where Peak Lord Mu Qingfan taught them the dangers of certain plants and then offered each of them the chance to experience it first hand by taking a mild aphrodisiac, so that they would know how to recognize the effect later in life. Luo Binghe had been forcibly volunteered as a test subject, though thankfully Peak Lord Mu had him go through the process of taking the aphrodisiac, and eventually its counteragent, in a private room.

The last was during a night hunt a little before the Immortal Alliance Conference, when he and another Qing Jing Peak disciple were sent to clear away a demonic plant that had spread to some farm fields. It used aphrodisiac as a defence mechanism - thankfully, his shixiong was busy with the farmers and Luo Binghe had been able to crawl into a nearby forest to deal with the effects.

None of those incidents have anything on the Black Moon Python Rhinoceros horn's effect.

Luo Binghe goes from feeling nice and loose to needing at a neck-breaking speed, and then he's brought to his knees by the sheer weight of the ache between his legs.

It feels like he would burst if anyone touched him.

It feels like he will die if no one will.

"M-master Shen?" Luo Binghe calls, but he's been abandoned, the cave is empty. His roiling blood and swaying head can't decide if he's sad or angry about that, the noise he makes is somewhere between, a pained frustrated keen that echoes in the cave.

Touching himself doesn't help. It hurts, more than anything, he's so hard it feels like his pillar is about to split at the seams! But after he's put his hand around it, he can't stop.

The noises that echo in the cave are inhuman, and they're coming from Luo Binghe. Later he would be mortified by them. Later he would be ashamed. Angry. Maybe humiliated.

Right now all he can do is sob into the hard, unyielding ground, and pull at himself. It doesn't help, it doesn't help at all, it hurts. But he can't stop.

His pillar feels so heavy and unwieldy. It's throbbing like something swollen, broken, infected. He can't even get his fingers fully around it anymore, it's so engorged.

Luo Binghe has always been big, he knows that, he's unusually big. Ming Fan told him he must have some kind of disease, it wasn't natural. It made Qin Wanyue hesitate, and Luo Binghe knows it hurt her at first, how big his pillar is, but eventually she warmed up to it. She liked it. The way she moved upon him, grinding down into his lap, so wet and tight -

There's an animal noise of agony, a horrible ugly noise, and Luo Binghe's cheek grinds into the cave floor. He's on his knees, bent over, both hands around his pillar now, and he's not so much stroking as he's just squeezing it, strangling it. It feels strange and alien in his hands, too big, too heavy.

He needs - he needs, he needs, he needs -

He hadn't looked when Qin Wanyue had taken him in - it had seemed impolite, and she said teasingly, "A-Luo, don't just stare!" and so he hadn't, but he remembers the feeling. What had been so awkward then now feels like his best greatest memory, that tight warm clutch - only, only -

His hands feel nothing like it. They're dry and rough and rub him raw. And as much as his mind tries to find purchase in the memory… Ah, it's - it's not enough, memory of her isn't enough. He needs more. He wants so much more than her.

Looking up with frustrated tears in his eyes, Luo Binghe takes in the cave. Still empty, because Master Shen left. Master Shen - his new Shizun… left.

The thought twists in the heated swamp of Luo Binghe's thoughts, until he barely recognizes the shape of it. It's outrage and anger, and lust and fury and sadness, and -

Suddenly he sees it again in his mind's eye, Master Shen shucking off the fur and the shape of him underneath it, elongated and all elbows and knees, awkward like a crane with its feathers plucked. Master Shen is weird. Luo Binghe remembers his narrow waist, the jut of his hipbones with crystal clarity that makes his mouth water. He's so strange. And dirty. He shouldn't be appealing.

He'd given Luo Binghe his mask, his air. For a while, they'd breathed as though with the same, shared set of lungs. He'd been able to taste Master Shen in that mask, his breath, the warmth of his body heat.

It was the most intimate thing Luo Binghe thinks he's ever done with anyone. He had Master Shen's scent in the bottom of his lungs, creeping into the crevices of his nose. He could smell the man's breath for hours after.

It smelled mostly like blood.

Ah, Luo Binghe wants to touch him desperately. Scrape off the Iron Tar covering him and see what's underneath. Rip off his mask entirely to see what kind of eyes he has hidden. Luo Binghe doesn't even know what the man's hair looks like. He thinks it's short. He wants to feel it in his hands. He wants to smell it.

Did Master Shen smell him in that mask? Did he taste him? Did he lick his lips and -

Groaning needily, Luo Binghe pictures the man's mouth, thin lips and white teeth, pink tongue, all shockingly human. The line of his pointed chin. The long, slender neck. He wants, he wants -

And Master Shen just left.

The throb of his body turning into sudden urgency, Luo Binghe struggles up to his feet. 

Master Shen left… but he drank the potion too. He can't have gone far. He must be in need too. Maybe on his knees, desperately pawing himself. What does his pillar look like? Long and narrow like his body? Or maybe like something unusual. Something monstrous and strange.

Luo Binghe must see it. Feel it. Drink the scent of it.

He only makes it to the cave mouth, however. It turns out Master Shen didn't just leave. He'd blocked the entrance with a boulder.

Luo Binghe is trapped in the cave.


 

Luo Binghe doesn't know how long the aphrodisiac effect lasts. All he knows is that after a while, it becomes completely unbearable. Even the suggestion of pleasure fades, and all there is left is the mindless sensation of need, the drive to release. Utterly lost to it, he strokes himself, strangling his pillar into a release, and then does it again. And again. Not a single time feels satisfying.

He's still stroking himself, now wet and messy but still hard, when he can finally sort his thoughts out enough to figure what is even happening.

He's lying on the floor, his body aching and straining as it writhes into his hand. He's come at least trice. He's still hard. He's coming down from the aphrodisiac, but still…

He's under the effect of an aphrodisiac.

Master Shen doused him with an aphrodisiac.

And then left.

There's a slick sound, Luo Binghe's palm moving over the head of his pillar, and he looks down. It still looks red and overly engorged, but not like it has an infection and is about to burst. Still too heavy to stand up on its own, though. It's also incredibly messy, slick and glistening with his essence, completely covered. So is his lap. And his inner thighs. And his lower belly. The tunic has been rucked up to his armpits, and it's still stained.

He's filthy.

And he still can't stop his hand from moving, pulling at his aching pillar, squeezing at the head. It doesn't even feel good at this point, but it feels better than not doing it.

Master Shen left him with this. Master Shen also drank the potion. Is he also -?

There a spurt of fluid over his hand, and Luo Binghe feels his cheek heat up with embarrassment as his belly clenches and his balls tighten - but the thought runs is course without his say so, picturing She's Yuan on his back like this, knees bent, thrusting into his hand, long fingers with a grip like hard steel, working over - over -

Then the pillar in Master Shen's fingers turns into Luo Binghe's own. The hunter's fingers would be long enough to go around. His grip would be hard enough to break Luo Binghe in two. His nails would be able to shred his skin by accident. Oh, oh, it would be terrible, and, yet - and yet…

Luo Binghe throws his head back, almost knocking himself out on a rock, cupping his balls with one hand as he comes again in a burst that turns into a slow, lazy gush over his fingers, pooling at his lap, adding into the mess.

"... Fuck," Luo Binghe murmurs, humiliated, and then lies limply in the cooling pool of his own spend. The aphrodisiac effect is finally passing, and it's leaving behind a hollow feeling he can't quite name.

Dropping his wet hands on his belly, Luo Binghe thinks… nothing. His head echoes with memories of indecent thoughts, but nothing passes through his mind. He's completely wrung out.

It's a while before he can bring himself to get up and take stock of the mess. Longer still before he can deal with it and clean up.

And much, much longer before he starts wondering worriedly if Master Shen is ever going to come back.

Eventually he crawls into the furs, curls up, and tries to sleep.


 

Meng Mo takes one look at him and sighs. "Boy," he says and nothing else.

Luo Binghe hugs his knees, glaring at him, and with a shake of his head, Meng Mo weaves him a shapeless dream of comfort and warmth and leaves him to it.

Luo Binghe still manages to sleep only fitfully.


 

"So. I guess sorry doesn't cover it. Still. Sorry. I forgot." There's a sigh. "You live in this place long enough, with half of everything trying to fuck you, and you just… learn to roll with it. If it doesn't kill you, it's good enough. You know?"

Luo Binghe keeps his eyes shut and his breathing even. There's a smell in the air, the sound of bubbling. He's making soup.

"I should've remembered," Shen Yuan mutters. "It's fucking rhino horn, of course it works like fantasy viagra from hell. Like, what else could it be? Black Moon Python Rhinoceros' horn, gives you the strength of ten men and all their boners too!"

He sounds so disgusted, so exasperated, that Luo Binghe has to smother a grin.

"This fucking world, I swear," Shen Yuan grumbles. "I'd say it gets better, but nope, it just gets worse from here. Welcome to PIDW, where we fuck! Oh, fuck off and die. No, I will not, I accidentally roofied the Protagonist, I will not shut up!"

Luo Binghe dares to peek one eye open to see Shen Yuan swinging a fist at nothing. The hunter is sitting by the fire, wooden ladle in hand. He looks like a mess, the spiky fur dirty, sticking every which way.

"Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you," Master Shen says to the air, his tone flat. "Burn in a fire and perish. Yeah."

He turns back to the food, grumbling, and then tenses. Luo Binghe closes his eyes just as the hunter turns to look at him, and somehow keeps his breathing going and even until eventually Master Shen turns back to face the fire.

"Fuck this place," Master Shen whispers wretchedly. "I hate it so much. I can't believe the Endless Abyss used to be my favourite."

Luo Binghe swallows, opening his eyes carefully to see Shen Yuan hanging his head.

So… that answers the question of whether it was intentional. Luo Binghe had wondered about it, Master Shen did want his essence - or he'd talked about it, anyway, and he's weird enough that Luo Binghe wouldn't have been surprised if this was his way to get it easily, but… 

He's glad that's not it.

Shen Yuan is quiet for a moment. He hums an absent tune and then falls silent. A moment later he leaves the pot simmering over the fire and gets a roll of smooth, hairless leather.

Then he turns sharply around again, and Luo Binghe quickly pretends to be asleep again.

There's a touch on his face, at the base of his ear and tip of his nose. Then the fingers move and touch the bridge of his nose and bottom of his chin. And then at each side of his jaw. It's he checking his breathing?

No. Master Shen is measuring his face.

"Eh, should be enough," the hunter mutters as he turns away again, and Luo Binghe risks a peek.

As he watches, Master Shen begins marking and cutting the leather for another mask. The leather is darker than Master Shen's own mask, and it looks like he's just doing the bottom half - and even that's different. Less of a drooping beak and more of a… muzzle.

Luo Binghe watches in silence and swallows around the strange blockage in his throat. It's probably for an apology, Master Shen feeling sorry for accidentally dosing him with an aphrodisiac, but even so. He's making a mask for Luo Binghe.

And Luo Binghe pictured him, his hands, his mouth…

"Master Shen?" Luo Binghe calls, and his voice comes out rough.

"Aw, shit," Master Shen murmurs, takes a deep breath and turns to him. "Hi, Binghe. How are you feeling? Please don't kill me."

Luo Binghe almost snorts at that. There's a lot he can and should say and ask, he should make use of this and of Master Shen's guilt, he should take this opportunity to press his case… but what comes out of his mouth instead is a pathetic, "I want a bath."

Master Shen tilts his head, growing still and quiet for a moment. Then jumps up. "That can be arranged."


 

Master Shen takes him to a crystal clear spring hidden amidst the blocky terrain of the Shattered Plain. It's so perfectly unseen that Luo Binghe can't figure out how he could've found it in the first place, but it's a perfect place for bathing, enclosed almost like a room. It's also, apparently, a place Master Shen visits often. There's a bench, a couple of buckets and even a washcloth and soap…

If Luo Binghe wasn't so exhausted, he thinks he would've appreciated the thought of Master Shen's private place of relaxation, but Luo Binghe is too relieved at the prospect of getting clean again. He'd done his best in the cave, but there wasn't any water or towels, so it was a lost cause.

"I'll leave you to it," Master Shen mutters and turns to leave.

Luo Binghe makes a quick decision. "Doesn't Master Shen also need to clean up?"

Shen Yuan shudders. "This is so awkward!" he says, an explanation and a complaint all at once. "Figure you'd want privacy. And what if I get attacked again - wouldn't be the first time. Better not. I'll leave and -"

"I'd rather you didn't, Master Shen."

Master Shen shudders again, lowering his head. "What is this, revenge?" he asks plaintively.

Yes. No. Mostly it's just that - Luo Binghe had gone through the aphrodisiac alone, and he didn't like it. Being left alone in the aftermath, again with nothing but his own thoughts as company, seems like just prolonging the experience. "I - have questions," he says.

Master Shen hangs his head at that. "... Yeah, yeah, okay," he says. "Guess that's fair."

Luo Binghe smiles, relieved, and then takes his leather tunic off. Master Shen hesitates, his head tilting, not quite facing him. Then he turns away entirely.

Luo Binghe rinses himself while his teacher teeters on the edge - of what, Luo Binghe isn't sure, but it sure looks like he's struggling with something. Later he'll care more, right now the water is fresh and cool and lovely, and Luo Binghe is tired.

"Master Shen, how do I remove the Iron Tar?"

Master Shen flinches and then takes a phial from his bag, offering it backwards to him blindly. "Rub this in, and it should come off."

Luo Binghe looks at the little bottle.

There's still a strangely hangdog look about Master Shen's posture, and there's a part of Luo Binghe that thinks he should let it go, let the man leave and let the awkward mood run its course. They'd probably end up acting like nothing happened, and maybe that would be for the best.

But somewhere beneath the exhaustion and emptiness there's still a spark of anger too. Not just because Master Shen had doused him with aphrodisiac.

But because man had then left him and locked him in a cave to suffer alone.

And that spark of anger is twisting into something ugly and daring.

"Will Master Shen help this one?" Luo Binghe says and sits down on the rough-hewn bench, lifting one tar-clad foot. His voice sounds almost like someone else's, sweet with a hint of vindictiveness. "Since Master Shen was the one to apply the tar. This Luo Binghe is so tired, and he doesn't know how to do it."

"Stop it," Shen Yuan says, annoyed, and sways a little on his feet - to run or to stay. "You just want me to go down on my knees and grovel, that's what you want me to do."

Luo Binghe hadn't thought that far, but - yes, part of him wants that. Most of him just wants to make the man even more uncomfortable. He doesn't think Shen Yuan will actually do it. He just wants to dig into the awkward atmosphere until something gives and the tension breaks.

And then Shen Yuan sighs shrugs, mutters, "Fuck it," and turns to him. There's a pause, and then the hunter shakes himself and steps forward.

Then he's crouching by Luo Binghe's feet to clean them. He's not gentle about it, handling Luo Binghe's foot with the same practical roughness he had when applying the tar in the first place. His nails are still dirty and hard and sharp.

He's so strange. A ball of spiky fur with a leather face and dark glass lenses for eyes. There's nothing appealing about any of it, he's in no way lovely to look at. He's not even kneeling, staying crouched on the balls of his feet instead, and not giving Luo Binghe that satisfaction.

So why… why is there a curl of heat in Luo Binghe's gut? Is he still affected…?

Shen Yuan uncorks the phial. The liquid in it smells sharply like wine, and it washes the tar right off, like it was nothing but mud. Underneath it Luo Binghe's feet come away clean and uninjured, with black lines of the stuff still clinging under his toenails. Master Shen doesn't seem to care.

Nor does he seem that ruffled by the process.

"Was Master Shen at all affected by the aphrodisiac?" Luo Binghe asks and it comes out sounding… petulant.

"I get doused by the shit so often that I'm used to it. Plus, you're written funny," Shen Yuan scoffs. "Heavenly Demons, impervious to most poisons, weak to aphrodisiacs."

Luo Binghe blinks slowly. He's… written funny? "I'm weak to aphrodisiacs."

"Well, they affect you. By all logic they shouldn't, since almost nothing else does, but… Airplane-logic."

"And… Master Shen is doused often?"

"All the time," Shen Yuan agrees and lifts his foot up to check the sole. "It's the most common variety of poison in this damn place, half of everything here has fucking sex pollen. Most of my own medicine has the side effect of sudden debilitating boners. Trust me, it loses its shine real fast."

Luo Binghe watches him as he works, trying to wrap his mind around it. If it's commonplace, why is Master Shen so embarrassed? Or is he embarrassed? Maybe he's just annoyed. "Why?"

Shen Yuan scoffs at first. Then he lets out a thoughtful hum, switching to Luo Binghe's other foot. "Actually a pretty interesting question, if you ignore the fact that this world just fucking sucks. Why sex pollen instead of just lethal poison?" He picks at the tar between Luo Binghe's toes. "I guess because in this world most creatures aren't after just your meat. They're after your energy. And during arousal and release, all creatures tend to let loose with their control. Evolutionarily and ecologically it almost makes sense. A natural process to force someone to release nourishing Qi. And if you leave them alive, so much the better, you might be able to ensnare them again one day."

That's… that's actually really informative? "I didn't know that," Luo Binghe admits slowly. "I don't think that's taught on Qing Jing Peak."

"It'd be surprising if anyone even realised," Shen Yuan scoffs, and scrapes at Luo Binghe's heel with his thumbnail. "I don't even know if evolution and ecology are things that people in this world know. You," his voice turns into a growl and he looks to the side. "Shut up. Protagonist is getting a bath. You're not going to interrupt some good old Hurt and Comfort, are you?"

As things Master Shen had said to the thin air go, that's… almost the strangest.

"I know what evolution and ecology are," Luo Binghe says slowly.

"... Yeah, Airplane is a hack," Master Shen scoffs. "Anyway, better get used to it. You'll be doused with sex pollen like half a dozen times before we're through. It's just fucking unavoidable here."

With that he drops Luo Binghe's clean feet to the ground and stands up.

"Thanking Master Shen for the lesson, then," Luo Binghe says and flexes his toes, no longer restricted by the tar.

"Yeah, sure. Lesson, fuck," Shen Yuan mutters and scratches at his neck. "See, this is why this whole teaching thing is a crock of shit. Obviously, I'm not cut out for it. You should probably just forget it."

Luo Binghe looks up at him and smiles. "I don't think so, no."

"You are such a - I just accidentally drugged you."

Yes. And Luo Binghe is not exactly happy about it. But he can think about a dozen ways it could've gone worse. If it had been Shen Qingqiu, if it had been Ming Fan - hell, if Shen Yuan had been a little less scrupulous… the situation could've been taken advantage of in many ways.

Instead Master Shen had immediately left and locked Luo Binghe up. And as much as Luo Binghe thinks the man could've just stayed… he'd made sure Luo Binghe stayed safe. And he didn't humiliate Luo Binghe at all. Of course, he was affected by the potion too, but…

"I have decided," Luo Binghe says and nods. "Master Shen is my Shizun."

The hunter groans. "No."

"Yes, Shizun."

"Ugh!" Master Shen throws up his hands. "I'm not a teacher!"

"But this one has learned so much already," Luo Binghe says with a beatific smile. "Shizun is a great teacher."

"Stop it," Shen Yuan groans and leans back. "You - you're totally enjoying this."

"Yes," Luo Binghe agrees without shame and stands up. "Shizun doused this one with a sex pollen. He deserves little bit of needling."

"Ugh," the man says, but his shoulders slump. "Guess I do. Fuck. Fine. But I absolutely refuse to die for you, I've survived in this hellhole for too long to just give up now."

"This one would never ask Shizun to do such a thing," Luo Binghe assures him quickly. Fine, fine, he said it was fine! Master Shen is going to teach him!

"Yeah, right," Shen Yuan grumbles. "Go bathe or whatever."

"Will Shizun not bathe?"

"And waste good Iron Tar? Ha. You have any idea how hard this stuff is to get? I'll wash up once it starts flaking off," Shen Yuan says, waving a hand.

Luo Binghe suppresses his disappointment poorly. "But isn't Shizun also filthy?"

Shen Yuan snorts. "After years of this shit I know how to deal with a fucking apphrodisiac without coming all over myself," he says and sits down on the bench Luo Binghe just vacated. "You need to learn to aim. With that thing you shouldn't have any issues with that."

Luo Binghe feels his cheeks heat as the fact that he's naked before Shen Yuan catches up with him. He'd been trying to make the man uncomfortable, but clearly the man doesn't think much of these sorts of things. Now Shen Yuan is considering his pillar with the same interest he'd given to the dead Black Moon Python Rhinoceroses.

Luo Binghe clears his throat, considers jumping into the spring and then stops. "Is it - unusual?" he somehow manages to ask without stammering too much and looks down. "A Shixiong said it was too much, that I must be deformed."

"Nah," Shen Yuan sighs. "You're fine. It's just the way you're written."

Maybe it's his way of saying made and created. "It's not… too big?"

"It's definitely too big," Shen Yuan snorts. "But there's nothing wrong with it. Look at you, you're not even chafed! Just be careful with other people, and you'll be fine. Use oils, maybe. I even have some aphrodisiac ones."

Luo Binghe looks up. "Shizun has… aphrodisiac oils."

"Of course I do," Shen Yuan snorts and then thinks about it. "... No, I don't. I did, but then then the Eater of Worlds - ah, fuck. Well, I can make some more."

Luo Binghe makes an incredulous noise. "What does Shizun need an aphrodisiac oil for?"

"I need oils for a lot of things. The aphrodisiac is just a side effect from using the seeds of Laughing Lady to make the oil," Shen Yuan shrugs.

"And Laughing Lady is…?"

"A flower that lures you in with the sound of young woman's laughter and then douses you with sex pollen."

Of course it is. "This one really has much to learn from Shizun about the plants of this world," Luo Binghe murmurs, shivering.

Shen Yuan sighs. "Yeah. Wash up, and we'll get right on that."


 

And, surprisingly… they actually do. Master Shen wasn't just talking - it seems now that the decision has been made, the hunter isn't just going to merely tolerate his presence. No. When they head back, Master Shen sits him down and then shows Luo Binghe all his medicine and explains what it does and how he made it.

And its side effects.

"This is my most powerful healing potion," he says, showing it to Luo Binghe. "I call it the Rejuvenation Potion. It's the last resort thing, fixes just about everything from deadly poisoning and infection to broken bones. It's made from the grapes of the Climbing Pleasure Vine, basically a concentrated extract, and the stimulating effect is… potent."

"More or less than the Black Moon Python Rhinoceros horn?" Luo Binghe asks, morbidly fascinated, eyeing the phial.

Master Shen hums thoughtfully. "About the same, but different. The horn made you hard, right? Yeah, this stuff just makes you come, untouched, for about four hours straight - or, uh, two sichens."

Oh. That… would certainly be something to see. "Shizun has used it?" Luo Binghe asks, giving him a wide-eyed look.

"Well, I didn't make it to be decorative," Shen Yuan mutters and sets the bottle down. "Anyway, if you ever need to use it, make damn sure you're somewhere safe, because you won't be able to get off the ground for a while. Next up, the ointment I used on your burns…"

Not all of Master Shen's medicine doubles as aphrodisiacs - though from what Luo a Binghe can tell, most of the more potent ones do have that effect. The ointment he used on Binghe is a low-grade one - but Master Shen has one that alters the sense of touch so that pain turns into pleasure. His simple painkillers are fine - the one he uses to do surgery on himself apparently gives one a hard on that lasts for half a day.

"Which is fun, because at that point you can't even feel it," Master Shen snorts, setting the little satchel of pills aside. "It's like having a stick between your legs - all hardness, no sensation. It's ridiculous."

Luo Binghe wonders how long until he too would be able to talk about things like that without feeling self-conscious - right now it feels like he will never stop blushing.

"I heard there are aphrodisiacs so strong that if you don't, ahem, have a partner… you could die," he says slowly. He'd heard his Shixiongs talking about them. "Is that true, Shizun?"

Master Shen leans back and blows out a breath. "Yeah, they exist. And they're a bitch. There's a few ways to handle them, outside dual cultivation. Usually the Rejuvenation Potion is enough, but if it isn't…" he tugs something from beneath his spiky fur cloak and pulls out a small leather pouch hanging around his neck.

Inside there's two round pills, white and red.

"Concentrate of the root of Maiden's Secret," Shen Yuan says, pointing at the white one. "One of the worst things you will ever feel - basically a temporary chemical castration, it will cut off all activity down there for about two weeks. Should be enough to knock most sex pollens out of your system. And this is a poison from Four Eyed Hypno Toad. It will put you into a coma for three days." 

Luo Binghe swallows, staring at them in something like horror. Master Shen thinks they're vital enough that he carries them around his neck. "And if they don't work?"

"Then you either fuck someone or die," Shen Yuan says frankly. "Though if you have the option of fucking someone that's honestly the easiest option. But, anyway, nine times out ten the Rejuvenation Potion is enough. Might take a couple of doses, but it'll probably do the trick."

That said, he hands Luo Binghe a phial of the stuff. Luo Binghe accepts it like the treasure it is. "Thank you, Shizun, this one will treasure it."

"Just don't misuse the stuff," Shen Yuan says. "We only have three phials now, and until we make a trip to Leaking Flower Meadow there won't be any more."

Luo Binghe nods. "This one will be careful," he says and then considers Master Shen's assortment of medicine. "Shizun, are the aphrodisiac ones stronger because the plants they're from eat energies from people?" he asks, trying to put the thoughts into order. "Climbing Pleasure Vine has an aphrodisiac pollen, and it ensnares victims in its vines, right? So the Qi it drains from them goes into its fruits - the grapes?"

Shen Yuan gives him a surprised look. "Yes!" he then says and slaps his hand on his knee. "Yes, yes, exactly! That would make logical sense, right? For the evolution of plants of this nature."

Luo Binghe blushes. "Is it Airplane-logic then?" He asks shyly.

"Pfft no," Master Shen snorts. "No, that's just cause and effect logic. Airplane-logic is that if a life-saving medicine can also make you horny, then it will. If it rouses your blood, it will make you horny. If it's sweet, it'll make you horny. And the hornier it makes you, naturally the stronger it is."

"... I think I understand," Luo Binghe says, though he isn't sure he does.

Master Shen snorts again. "Imagine there's a sword, the strongest sword ever made, strong enough to cut through the fabric of realities and bend the universe to its will. By Airplane-logic, what will that sword also do?"

Ah. "It makes you horny," Luo Binghe says slowly. A sword?

"A quick student, I love to see it. It doesn't just make you horny - it will make you insane if you don't satisfy it's needs. Fuck or get fucked," Master Shen says and begins collecting the medicine back into his pouch. "That's Airplane-logic."

Luo Binghe hums dubiously and yawns. "Does the horniness make it strong or is horniness a side effect of the strength?" he asks thoughtfully.

His master considers it for a moment, and then nods. "Yes."

Luo Binghe snorts at that. "This disciple thinks he understands."

"Good," Master Shen says and stands up. "Now get some rest. I have an attack coming I need to go handle."

"This one can help Shizun -"

"Stop that. You look like you're about to keel over," the hunter snorts. "Don't worry. There will be attacks in abundance in the future."

Luo Binghe sighs. "Fine. Thanking Shizun for the lesson. This humble one is ever grateful."

"You are such a brat," Shen Yuan says, and maybe it's just that Luo Binghe is tired, but he could swear the man sounds fond. "Get some sleep."

Luo Binghe nods and then remembers. "Wait, Shizun, I almost forgot!" he turns and rummages through the furs, looking for - there. "I collected it for you!"

"... What?" Master Shen asks, giving the little stone jar a look. "What is it?"

"This disciple's, ah, emissions?" Luo Binghe explains with a blush and holds out the jar. "When I cleaned up before, there was so much, and I remembered you talking about it, and I didn't know what else to do. There's not much to clean with here, so… this disciple collected it for Shizun."

For a moment Master Shen just stares at him. Then he says, his tone completely flat, "Oh my god," and walks out.

He doesn't take the jar.

Luo Binghe sighs, his shoulders drooping, and sets the jar down. "I don't understand him," he mutters and lays down on the furs with a sigh, the phial of Rejuvenation Potion still in his hand. "I don't understand Shizun at all."

With a heavy sigh he lets his body relax. Though he doesn't feel quite so wrung out anymore, and food helped bring his strength back up, he can't deny that he's still kind of tired.

Just how many times has Master Shen gone through similar things that he can walk it off as if nothing happened? And how is he still embarrassed by Luo Binghe's offering? He's the one who'd talked about it before! Is his face thick or thin?

Luo Binghe can't figure Master Shen out at all.


 

Meng Mo is quiet as Luo Binghe enters the dreamscape, less of a mess this time. Luo Binghe clears his throat, a little awkward.

"Well, that could have gone worse," Meng Mo muses. "I suppose that man isn't looking to eat you, after all."

Strangely defensive, Luo Binghe says, "Senior can't know that. He still might."

Meng Mo scoffs. "If he didn't take the opportunity while you were laid low, and he didn't take your seed, then I think it's safe to say it's not a priority for him. It seems you were right to ingratiate yourself to the man. You'll benefit from it greatly."

Luo Binghe hums in agreement. He would, and it is what Luo Binghe had set out to do, but when Meng Mo just says it, Luo Binghe isn't sure he likes the sound of it. Shen Yuan and his knowledge should only serve as means to an end, but somehow… that's not it anymore.

And whenever Meng Mo approves of something Luo Binghe does, it's usually a bad thing.

"Shifu has figured something out," Luo Binghe says warily, watching him. "What is it?"

The Dream Demon hums. "That little sword tale of his is based on reality," he says. "And a real blade. Xin Mo… was indeed such a sword, strong enough to tear through realities."

Luo Binghe frowns. He figured Master Shen had made the whole thing up on the spot as an example. "Shifu knows more about it?"

"I have fought against it in the past. It was a formidable weapon," Meng Mo says reminiscing. "Nigh unbeatable, except for the weakness of its wielders. The demon that held Xin Mo ruled the realms."

Luo Binghe waits - Meng Mo never tells him these things without a reason.

"It was thought lost centuries ago," Meng Mo continues thoughtfully and strokes his beard. "Several mortal generations ago, certainly. For your new Shizun to know it…"

Luo Binghe's brows arch. "Master Shen has seen it and might know where it is? It's here, in the Endless Abyss?"

"If it is, you must do all in your power to find it," Meng Mo says seriously. "That sword, if it's here, is your way out."

Chapter Text

Somehow they get over the hump that is the accidental roofie incident. Not without aftereffects, no. Luo Binghe might let the thing slide for now, although Shen Yuan is under no illusions about it being forgotten. But after a couple of days it's no longer this awkward unwieldy blockage they have to work around.

There's a couple of attacks to handle, and there's stuff to do. Food to preserve, ingredients to collect, pelts to flesh and salt and tan… things to make.

While the Protagonist makes some basic oil lanterns from stone, Shen Yuan finishes making him a breathing mask. It'll probably be just something to start with, it's pretty ugly, but Luo Binghe seems happy with it. Shen Yuan shows him how to adjust it so that there's at least a suggestion of an air seal and how to use the Crystal Wool as a filter.

"Technically it's not actually wool. It comes from Blue Winged Spiders in the Jewel Jungle," Shen Yuan explains, replacing the wool in his own mask. "But it's one of the best air filter materials I've found."

"And it cleans poisons from the air you breathe?" Luo Binghe asks, considering his mask and making a thoughtful face at its blunt shape. 

"Poisons, lethal gasses, sex pollen," Shen Yuan agrees. "Not every place in the Endless Abyss is looking to kill you, but… they'll definitely incapacitate you if they can."

"So this one should wear the mask always," Luo Binghe nods. "This disciple understands. What about the eye mask Shizun wears - should this one get one like it?"

"If you'd like, though it's not that important. I just wear it so that I can see," Shen Yuan mutters and then sighs. He'd lost all the eyes he'd collected with the hideout, damn it. All his attempts at making an eyesight-correcting potion had failed so far, but he'd thought maybe with the Demon Cyclops eye he finally had enough materials for another try. He'd have to start that over again.

"Shizun needs it… to see?" Luo Binghe asks slowly.

"Yeah. I'm nearsighted," Shen Yuan says and taps the tinted lense of his mask. "These are from my eyeglasses."

Luo Binghe looks shocked by that. "I thought Shizun must have sensitive eyes or something. I didn't realise his eyesight was bad."

"It's not that big of a deal," Shen Yuan scoffs. "A lot of people have bad eyesight."

"None this disciple knows."

"Well, you're a cultivator," Shen Yuan snorts and then thinks about it. Cultivation is all about using internal and external energies to hone your mind, soul and body, so… "Can you use cultivation to fix your eyes?"

"Begging Shizun's pardon, this one doesn't know," Luo Binghe says apologetically. "It wasn't a technique Qing Jing Peak ever taught me."

Oh well. "Anyway," Shen Yuan says. "Wear your mask or don't, it's up to you. I'm heading off to hunt."

"This disciple will join you " Luo Binghe says quickly and puts his mask on. It… it's not a good look on him. "What are we hunting?"

"Something with nice, big, thick fur," Shen Yuan says, and stands up.

As much as it seems like sacrilege to cover the Protagonist's pretty face, it's better than him choking to death. And honestly, it's probably a good thing to cover him up a bit.

He's a little less distracting that way.


 

In the following week, Shen Yuan and Luo Binghe hunt. Occasionally they go after something Shen Yuan wants, and occasionally it's just whatever the System throws at them. From Swarm of Wasp Pixies to Three Headed Gecko Leopards, their haul swings from side to side, and Luo Binghe learns like it's a race and he has to win.

He's already better at fighting than Shen Yuan was to start with. Even if Qing Jing Peak went out its way to sabotage the Protagonist, Luo Binghe is too clever by far to not have learned something just by watching others. His demonic nature is showing more too. He's getting faster and stronger, growing with each fight.

And, man… It's something else to watch Luo Binghe take down a hell beast with nothing but a spear and his bare hands. Even with the muzzle-like mask and dressed up like Conan the Barbarian, he's a sight to behold. Shen Yuan could swear his shoulders are growing wider each day.

And then the Protagonist turns to him after killing something impressive with one hit, and with shining eyes goes, "Shizun, did you see that?! Was that good?"

Ugh. Shen Yuan wants to dump him in a lake. Or maybe ruffle his hair. What a puppy. "Yes, fine, good job."

Praising the Protagonist is easy, everything he does is always well done. Handling his glowing expression after is harder. Seriously, had none of his teachers on Qing Jing Peak ever praised him for a job well done? He's literally incapable of doing badly!

It's bringing up the difficulty as the System dials the challenges up to match the Protagonist's level, though. From Razor Tailed Goat Wolves to Ice Breathing Cougar Bears, the things they face here grow increasingly tougher. And. Fuzzier?

Mountainous Devil Mammoth is their biggest haul by far. It's also a warning sign.

"What is it, Shizun?" Luo Binghe asks, wiping hair off his face between trying to saw the thick hide off. "Is something wrong?"

Shen Yuan has his breathing mask off and is sniffing the air. His nose is stinging, and it smells like getting your tongue stuck on a frozen metal. "Hellfrost is on the way," he says grimly and takes out his knife.

"Hellfrost?"

Nodding, Shen Yuan starts cutting off chunks of meat and fat from their kill, stuffing them into a sack made of the mammoth's small intestine. "You could call it the winter of this place, but it's more like a hurricane mixed in with ice age. Double time, Binghe, we don't have a lot of time. Get as much of that hide as you can - we're going to need it."

Binghe looks up, trying to sniff the air and smell what he had. "Hellfrost. How bad is it?"

"Bad."

They gather what they can carry - which between them amounts to several hundred kilos now - and then head back to the camp. While Shen Yuan starts salting and smoking the meat in a hurry, Luo Binghe begins the arduous task of fleshing the massive mammoth hide clean. Shen Yuan is almost out of salt at this point, and there's no time to visit the Salt Desert, but he does what he can. All he can do is hope it's enough.

Shit, they really should've stocked up on firewood. At least they have enough to keep an oil lantern going almost indefinitely…

"Shizun? What is the Hellfrost like?" Luo Binghe asks with a grunt, working on his knees over the mammoth pelt. "What will we do?"

"Hunker down and hope we don't freeze to death," Shen Yuan says grimly. "It'll get too cold to go outside, too cold to breathe. Most everything caught outside will die. Ice will cover everything. Anything the cold doesn't get, the storm will."

It was one of Airplane's most… Airplane inventions, the Hellfrost. It was so cool as a concept, and it happened once in the original novel, and the only purpose it served was to give Luo Binghe the excuse to huddle for warmth with a sexy tsundere wife candidate while they got snowed in. Now, just because Airplane couldn't think of a better way to get Luo Binghe together with Wife Number 6, Shen Yuan has to deal with it on a semi-regular basis. Which is fine when he has materials for it. He actually really likes it!

But now there's two mouths to feed, and he only has a fraction of his usual supplies, and this cave is too close to the surface and much smaller than the old one, and he has no idea if it's going to be enough.

At least the Hellfrost doesn't usually last too long, two or three weeks. Just enough to convince a reticent woman into warming little Binghe up with her supple body. Ugh.

… And now Shen Yuan is thinking about Luo Binghe's massive cock again, great.

"Shizun?"

"What?" Shen Yuan snaps.

The Protagonist gives him a wide-eyed look. "Since it's going to get cold, should we try to at least make shoes? There's enough here for that." He motions to the mammoth pelt.

"You try it with that thing and they'll rot on your feet," Shen Yuan says with a snort. "We need the thing to block the entrance, anyway, you can't cut it."

"One if the wolf pelts then? The one with a hole in it, it's not going to be useful for much, right?"

"Yeah, sure," Shen Yuan waves a hand. "Do what you want, after you finish fleshing the mammoth pelt. I'm going to go get more firewood."

"Yes, Shizun," Luo Binghe says and gets back to work.

Already it's much colder outside, cold enough that Shen Yuan actually feels cold. The leaves are falling off the trees, and it's not particularly pretty - the Endless Abyss doesn't get an aesthetic autumn period with colourful leaves gently drifting in the wind, no. The leaves just freeze, die, and fall still green, and it makes everything look and feel off and unnatural.

But then there's nothing natural about the Endless Abyss in the first place.

Shen Yuan tears through a few tree trunks and snaps them into more manageable length. By the time the air above starts getting ominously lighter, he has a decent enough pile. With the oil lanterns Luo Binghe had made… it might be enough to keep the cave warm.

It'll have to do.

Luo Binghe has finished with the mammoth skin and is working on the wolf pelts when he comes back.

"If you go now, you can watch it start," Shen Yuan says, dropping the logs into a pile. "Just stay under cover."

The Protagonist looks up, interested. "Shizun isn't going out to see?"

"I've seen it before, and I need to start a fire," Shen Yuan says. "Go now or you'll miss the hail."

Luo Binghe blinks and then sets the furs down, heading outside. Shen Yuan glances after him and then turns to their fire pit. Some more stones around it wouldn't go amiss, and he should bring the water buckets closer, if it gets really cold those might freeze over…

Luo Binghe comes back inside with a red nose, steaming breath and wide eyes. "It's raining icicles!" he breathes in amazement. "And the - the sky's turned white!"

"Time to block the entrance then," Shen Yuan says and hefts the mammoth pelt. Though it hasn't been salted yet, the cold should do most to preserve it. And even if it didn't, there's not much they can use a pelt that thick for. "Give me a hand with this."

They pin the pelt over the cave mouth with spears and rocks, stuffing it into the crevices on the walls until the cave is almost fully sealed with only two holes on top and bottom to permit airflow.

Pity there's not enough space for an airlock of sorts. Two sets of skin would've worked much better than just the one.

"Will it stay in place if there's great wind?" Luo Binghe asks worriedly.

"We'll check it periodically. If we're lucky, it'll freeze over eventually," Shen Yuan shrugs. "Now, let's ration the firewood. The less we have to do when the storm hits the better."

Luo Binghe watches and listens and then mimics him as Shen Yuan tears the firewood into smaller pieces, measuring them by the load into sections. Something about it makes the Protagonist laugh.

"What?" Shen Yuan asks suspiciously.

"This used to be my chore on Qing Jing Peak," Luo Binghe explains. "Every day, I had to get firewood for the halls and dormitories, and for the Bamboo House. I hated it. It was so hard, chopping wood. That axe was so dull, and the head anyways wiggled on the handle. Now…" he looks at his hand, fingers curling into claw shape. "Now I'm doing it with my bare hand like it's nothing! Just with my fingers!"

Shen Yuan looks at his hand. Luo Binghe is already growing demonic nails, sharp and dark. "You probably don't even need to use your hand, you know."

Luo Binghe blinks, and then his eyes widen. Concentrating, he stares at his hand and then coats it in a dark flame of Qi and aims it at the nearest log.

It bursts along the middle into splinters.

Shen Yuan snorts, and Luo Binghe blows out a shaky breath. "It feels like cheating," the Protagonist admits.

"Your ability to carve rock with Qi is cheating. This is just practicality," Shen Yuan snorts. "Use a little less force next time. We want firewood, not saw dust."

"Yes, Shizun."

By the time Luo Binghe has gotten his Qi blast under control, the mammoth pelt by the cave entrance has fully frozen in place. Beyond it, they hear the first strike of thunder.

[Warning! The Hellfrost event is now in effect!]

"Yeah, thanks for the warning, jackass," Shen Yuan mutters and goes to get him and the Protagonist some furs to cover themselves with.


 

Then it gets cold. Very, very cold, and it happens fast. There's no creeping chill with the Hellfrost, there's no build up - it just starts, and then it's upon them, the storm raging in like something from a movie. Thunder roars in constant cacophony, and the wind outside howls like a wounded beast. Inside the air glitters with diamond dust and the floor feels like a block of ice under their feet. 

In between listening in awe, Luo Binghe tries to work on his boots until his fingers turn white and stiff. Then he, like Shen Yuan, comes to huddle by the fire with the Cougar Bear pelt pulled around him.

"Shizun, have you ever been outside during the Hellfrost?" Luo Binghe asks, pulling his knees up to his chest, his toes nearly in the fire. "What is it like?"

Shen Yuan hums, staring at the fire. "The first time it happened, I didn't know what it would be like, how quickly it hit. I stayed out too late," he answers. "The icicles you saw are just the beginning. By now it's raining ice lances. They tear through everything that's not hard enough to withstand it. The trees outside will be completely destroyed by the time we are through. If the wind doesn't pull them off the ground first. Eventually the shattered ice will cover everything, and then it'll freeze solid."

Luo Binghe's eyes widen. "We'll be trapped inside."

"Yep."

"... Shouldn't we do something about it?"

Shen Yuan looks at him. "Why, do you have some other place to be? We have food and water here, and hopefully enough firewood to keep ourselves from freezing. We're better off here than anywhere else."

Luo Binghe nods slowly and tucks the fur tighter around his neck. "And if we're attacked?"

Shen Yuan smiles grimly. "The only good thing about this - nothing will be moving out there right now. There's not going to be any attacks until the Hellfrost passes."

Luo Binghe relaxes a little. "I see. Then - how long will it last?"

"A few weeks. Best you settle in and get comfy. We're not going anywhere for a while."


 

Usually Shen Yuan uses the Hellfrost to brew potions, seeing as it's the longest period of time guaranteed to be uninterrupted he can dedicate to the job. Right now, though, he has a rather severe lack of ingredients and the basic herbs, and things they've managed to gather so far aren't useful for much. So he's a bit at loose ends, quickly growing bored.

One thing he kinda dislikes about himself these days - he used to be able to just sit around doing nothing for days on end. Now not having a project makes him feel antsy, like he's wasting time.

Luo Binghe meanwhile keeps working on his boots, slowly sewing the fur under the cover of his Cougar Bear pelt. It's kinda cute, like a little kid hiding toys beneath the covers. It also looks pretty awkward. Shen Yuan can hear the Protagonist's teeth clattering together.

Shen Yuan watches the bundle of fur that's hiding Luo Binghe almost completely from view, and then looks at the furs they have. There's a pile, maybe enough for… yeah.

Shen Yuan rises to his feet with a stretch, and immediately Luo Binghe pops up his head. "Shizun?" he asks, shivering.

Shen Yuan grabs a few spears. "Hang on a bit."

Taking one of the furs, he spreads it out on the cave floor and then pitches the spears over it as makeshift tent poles. Tying them up with a bit of string he then takes a couple more furs and spreads them over the poles, creating a little fuzzy tent, facing the fire. 

"There," he says with satisfaction. "Go in there."

Luo Binghe stares for a moment and then looks up at him. "What about Shizun?"

"I'm not that cold," Shen Yuan says, waving a hand. "Go in, you'll be warmer there."

"... Thanking Shizun," Luo Binghe murmurs and then crawls into the little tent, dragging the Cougar Bear pelt and his wolf skin project with him. 

Shen Yuan sits down and tries to think of something else to do. He picks through his ingredients, but there's nothing useful he can make from them without more stuff. There's not enough skins to waste on making something else out of them, either. And unlike Luo Binghe, Shen Yuan can't just shape stone into whatever he wants with his bare hands.

Speaking of which, there's Luo Binghe's little jar of -

Nope. Nuh-uh. Absolutely not.

In the end, there's only one thing to do.

After adding another log into the fire, Shen Yuan makes his way to the remaining furs and curls up in them to sleep.


 

He should've known it would happen eventually. Honestly, it probably would've happened sooner if Shen Yuan's sleep schedule hadn't gotten completely messed up years ago. Before, there hadn't been any opportunities - now…

Now there's a pair of demons in his head.

"Well, he has one hell of a personal image," Meng Mo comments to Luo Binghe, both of them considering him like he can't see them. "Bringing that mask even into his dreams."

"Maybe Shizun has forgotten what he looks underneath it? He wears it all the time," Luo Binghe muses.

… Don't they know he can hear them and see them?

Meng Mo crouches down beside Shen Yuan and gives the mask a tug, but it doesn't come off. "Hmm. Well, no matter. Let's see what he knows…"

Shen Yuan knows this - it has been used in the novel many times. It was Luo Binghe's go-to method of interrogation, especially with his wives and wife candidates. He'd weave a dream of their memories and watch them like in a virtual movie. And, inevitably, he inserted himself into their wet dreams, but that's beside the point. As a method of unearthing secrets, it was unbeatable.

What Shen Yuan doesn't know is what they want. He doesn't even have any secrets! Nothing that's worth a dream interrogation, anyway. What do they want, his potion recipes? His many awkward encounters with various flora and fauna? The locations of Luo Binghe's future wives?

Shen Yuan lies still and only moves his eyes, trying to see what memory they would try to see -

And then he's suddenly upright, holding a spear, walking in a forest. It looks like any random patch of forest in the Endless Abyss, but there's a feel to it - a miasma of hunger and thirst and lust that's instantly recognisable.

… Ah, so that's what they're after.

Shen Yuan tries to turn and tell them they could've just asked, but he can't, his body won't obey him. Instead it moves towards the heart of the forest. The deeper he goes, the more twisted the trees become. The ground turns mossy, wet and then bloody under his feet. Everything is damp and smells of iron.

And there, in a clearing lit by an impossible ray of nonexistent sunlight is Xin Mo, stuck into a flat piece of rock maybe two meters wide. 

"Real fucking original, Airplane," Shen Yuan of the memory mutters and looks down.

The forest floor is covered by bones. Animals, demons, humans… many creatures had tried to take the sword in the past, and they'd suffered lethal consequences, adding their flesh and blood to the already red and rusty forest floor, feeding the sword in the meantime. It's… pretty gruesome, seeing it as opposed to reading about it.

One set of those bones belonged to Xin Mo's last wielder, the Demon Lord who, after having sated Xin Mo's hunger on the flesh of his own loved ones, did his best to cast it away in a place no one could ever find it. Xin Mo killed him in revenge.

Shen Yuan can feel Luo Binghe and Meng Mo watching him as his body moves on its own, walking up to the sword. It's not exactly how it happened in reality - for one, Shen Yuan was still wearing his old pants back then, what little there was left of them. He hesitated at the edge of the clearing for a lot longer, probably an hour. He didn't go to the sword first. He never stepped up on the stone.

And there was a System window leaning over him like a vulture, which is nowhere to be seen now, of course.

Dream Shen Yuan jumps on the rock, and for a moment his hand hovers over Xin Mo's handle, ready to pull it. Then he looks at all the bones all around. He says, "... No. I'm not the Protagonist."

And then he jumps down again.

That's… that's not what happened. That's not what happened at all! Like he would make his way all the way to the Vanishing Forest and not give it a proper fucking try! He'd almost died trying to pull Xin Mo from the stone! What is this?!

"Protagonist," Luo Binghe says. "That's what Shizun calls me. What does it mean?"

"I don't know," Meng Mo admits, stroking his beard. "Another name for Xin Mo's destined wielder perhaps?"

Psh! Shen Yuan would be happy to tell them if they hadn't frozen him up!

"Shizun says it when he's speaking to the curse. Maybe they're related," Luo Binghe muses. "Xin Mo and Shizun's curse. They're connected somehow."

"Could be," the Dream Demon agrees, his eyes on Xin Mo. "Well, now we know where the sword is. Once the Hellfrost passes, you can go find it."

Ha, good luck with that.

Luo Binghe bites his full lower lip, uncertain. "Shizun said it's bad for you. The sword makes you go insane if you don't sate its needs."

"Most likely," Meng Mo agrees almost flippantly. "But it's also the only way out of the Endless Abyss. Unless you want to stay here forever, you will need to get that sword. You can cast it aside afterwards."

Yeah, no, he probably couldn't, not if Xin Mo had anything to do with it. But Meng Mo is most likely right - Xin Mo might be the only way Luo Binghe in particular can get out of the Endless Abyss. It is destined, after all. It's demanded by the plot, such as it is.

Luo Binghe still doesn't seem sure about their plan, at least, giving the bones in the forest floor an uneasy look. "Well. I don't have to do it immediately," Luo Binghe says. "There's still a lot I can learn from Shizun."

"You do realise that after you get out of the Endless Abyss none of it will be useful, don't you, boy?" Meng Mo scoffs. "Not unless you're looking to visit."

Luo Binghe lowers his gaze, making an unhappy face.

"Well, you have until the storm passes to think about it," the Pocket Grandpa sighs. "Is there anything else you'd like to see about your Shizun while we're here?

"... Yes," Luo Binghe says, looking up. "I want to see how Shizun ended up in the Endless Abyss in the first place."

"Hm. I admit, I'm curious myself," Meng Mo hums. "Let's see…"

[Warning! Breach of System Terms and Conditions detected! Unless this action ceases, you will be subjected to a penalty!]

It isn't Shen Yuan's doing! He's doing nothing, it's the Dream Demon - Shen Yuan has no control here!

The forest around them blurs away into mist, which then disperses to reveal a starlit universe and a distant world beneath. The waiting room mid-transmigration where Shen Yuan had first told the System off and incurred his first penalty.

And Luo Binghe and Meng Mo are right there with him.

[Warning! Breach of System Terms and Conditions detected! Unless this action ceases, you will be subjected to a penalty! This is your last warning!]

Oh, come on, he can't even tell the damn thing off!

"What - what?" Luo Binghe asks, amazed. "It's that - what is this, where are we? It's that - is that the -"

"That's the world below us," Meng Mo says. "Which means we're in -"

"Heaven," Luo Binghe breathes in amazement.

Shen Yuan's brain does a funny little jolt that feels a bit like a stroke. Oh. Oh, they think -?

Then he's moved, turned around, scattered into glitching pixels - and arguing with thin air. "What kind of ∆π are you - aren't you supposed to be, like, helping me - what's with these shitty options? Either become π∆×√ or die? You're the one that dragged me in here! I don't have to deal with this - no, absolutely not! A ∆π is supposed to aid the ~×π•∆ in becoming stronger and eventually ruling the π•∆ - you're supposed to be serving me, not whatever this bullshit is! I mean, come on, why even bring me here unless it's to -"

[User 002's failure to, once again, comply with basic instructions, has resulted in activation of a Punishment Protocol! May User please get ready. Penalty will load in 5 seconds!]

Luo Binghe looks utterly shaken. "Shizun was cast down from Heaven!"

"And it sounds like he deserved it," Meng Mo scoffs, though he looks a little uncertain now, casting him a look. 

Oh, this is going to be fun, Shen Yuan thinks, as the System puts an end to their shenanigans and plunges Shen Yuan straight into a punishment.


 

It's a fun one, the punishment. There's not much the System can do that really has an impact on Shen Yuan anymore, he's been through just about every form of torture the damn thing can dish.

So it gives him the opposite and shows him Shen Qingqiu instead. Not the original Shen Qingqiu, no. It shows him the Shen Qingqiu he could have become.

A peerless immortal with luxurious green robes and priceless hair crown, wielding a spiritual sword and cultivating like he was born to it. A luxurious life on Qing Jing Peak, eating handmade snacks from the Protagonist himself, as Luo Binghe adored him utterly and did everything he asked.

"This disciple likes Shizun the most!" Luo Binghe hums happily, hugging Shen Qingqiu without hesitation or shame.

Behind a fan, kind-eyed Shen Qingqiu smiles. "This Master is fond of his disciple also," he says and then runs his hand through the Protagonist's hair, petting him gently. "Now tell Shizun what you have learned today."

He looks healthy, happy, human. There's not a mark on him, he's not had a hard day in his life, and he's loved. Not just by the Protagonist, but by other characters too, his disciples, his sect siblings. Yue Qingyuan dotes on him, Liu Qingge - who's apparently alive in this alternate reality - brings him gifts, Mu Qingfan and Qi Qingqi look after his Peak when he's away.

Shen Qingqiu lives everyday basking in the goodwill of others, like a cat in a kindly beam of a benevolent sun, not a care in the world.

See, the System all but crows at him, See, this is what you could've had, this is what you could've been, if you weren't a fucking idiot.

It makes Shen Yuan want to throw up blood out of sheer hatred.


 

Upon waking up, Shen Yuan has a choice. He has several choices, actually. Judging by the way Meng Mo and Luo Binghe had talked around him, they didn't know he was aware of what they were doing. Luo Binghe would probably pretend nothing even happened. So what to do, what to do…

Shen Yuan isn't exactly mad. Mostly he's just annoyed. Not by the invasion of privacy, there's no such thing when it comes to Luo Binghe, after all, the Protagonist has too many methods of control, manipulation and mind-reading for any informed reader to ever assume him to respect someone's privacy. It was only a matter of time. He's just peeved by the pointlessness of it! If Luo Binghe had just asked, Shen Yuan would have told him about Xin Mo!

Mostly he's annoyed at himself for ever thinking it was safe to sleep around Luo Binghe. He wasn't even that tired, for fucks sake. Why did he go to sleep? Sure, he passed out at the Oil Bog and Luo Binghe had left his mind alone, but that's no assurance of things being that way the next time! Luo Binghe couldn't go to sleep back then anyway, he had to mind the mask.

Ugh, whatever. Either way, Shen Yuan could also go on pretending nothing happened and let the whole thing slide. Probably best he does. What else can he do? Ask Luo Binghe to apologise? Demand recompense? Kick the Protagonist out? Tch.

Shen Yuan could tell Luo Binghe that finding Xin Mo wasn't going to be that easy. The forest it was hidden in moves around. It has no set location in the Endless Abyss. Honestly, most things don't! By the end of Hellfrost, the Shattered Plains probably wouldn't even exist anymore, and something else would take their place. Knowing where Shen Yuan found Xin Mo three years ago isn't going to help Luo Binghe now.

He could also tell him that the energy Xin Mo threw at him almost flayed him alive, and that when Luo Binghe took it, he would temporarily lose his mind to Xin Mo's lust. In the book he had four eager women with him to sate him and get him through it, and if he went alone this time without powering up properly, without gathering at least a fraction of his harem to take that heated blow for him…

ShenYuan could also tell Luo Binghe that no, he isn't from Heaven, that was just the desktop background image of the System, not the actual outer space or whatever…

He decides, nah. He's not going to any of that. Luo Binghe broke into his dreams, and Shen Yuan suffered a penalty for it. So, yeah, fuck that!

He entertains the thought of leaving instead. Just walking away into the Hellfrost still raging outside and forgetting about all of this. He could probably take the storm now. The event is pretty localised, if he is fast enough he can get out of what remains of the Shattered Plains and out of the Hellfrost's range. Maybe he'd be hurt, but fuck it, that's what he's got potions for. He has other camps, and he could always set up a new one, far away from here.

"Shizun?" Luo Binghe's voice calls, and Shen Yuan turns his head. The Protagonist is sitting by a recently relit fire. He's got a pot set upon the flames, and there's a smell of food in the air, meaty and lovely. 

"This disciple made food," Luo Binghe says unnecessarily and smiles. "Is Shizun hungry?"

Shen Yuan turns to lie on his side, leaning his masked head against his palm and considering the Protagonist at length. The way Luo Binghe is watching him, innocent, earnest and oh-so-calculating, hiding the interested gleam behind his smile…

Shen Yuan smothers an amused snort. Little shit. Wonder if that alternate white lotus version of Luo Binghe was as sneaky with his peerless jade of a Master. Did that man forgive him, if he was? That Shen Qingqiu certainly didn't seem capable of lifting a hand against his Protagonist.

Shen Yuan just kind of wants to shove his Binghe's head into the cooking pot.

… No, he doesn't.

Maybe a little.

Ah, fuck.

Sitting up, Shen Yuan turns away, looking at his bag. He has a heat potion there that would get him through the storm, probably. Rejuvenation Potion would fix all damage. Hmm.

What to do, what to do…

"Shizun? Should this one get your bowl?" Luo Binghe asks hopefully.

"Yeah, sure, fine," Shen Yuan says. "What is it?"

"The mammoth, Shizun," Luo Binghe says eagerly, getting the bowl and the soup into it. "With the dried lotus root and some herbs for taste. I ground up some of the lotus root to thicken the soup as well."

"Hm," Shen Yuan answers and accepts the bowl. It looks amazing. Of course it does, Luo Binghe made it. It tastes great too, and he's pretty sure there's no blood in it either. Though it could be that he's already ingested some earlier. Luo Binghe has cooked for them before.

Whatever.

Shen Yuan eats the soup in awkward silence and tries to make up his mind. He just doesn't know what to do with this vague betrayed feeling he has. There's no point to it. Why should he feel betrayed? He never should've expected anything else. Luo Binghe did this to everyone. The men he did it to rarely ever survived. 

He looks up at Luo Binghe, who's hiding a small secretive smile into his own bowl, taking little sips of it. The Protagonist is sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest with the Cougar Bear pelt drawn tight around him, his dark, curly hair spilling everywhere. He looks like a little black sheep.

This disciple likes Shizun the most.

Tch.