After her mistress and teacher, Lin Chaoying, had died, she had felt dead in this life. She continued to follow her teacher's principles, and took on a disciple, a young girl called Li Mochou, so that Lin Chaoying's arts would not be lost after her own death. But without Lin Chaoying, her world felt empty, and she suspected it would never be filled again. How appropriate it was that, in accordance to the vows she made to Lin Chaoying, that she would spend the rest of her life in or near the Tomb of the Living Dead.
Then Aunt Sun brought a baby who had been abandoned at the Quanzhen Monastery into the tomb.
She was scared for the baby. The baby was so vulnerable, so delicate, so helpless. How would such a fragile being survive in this cruel world?
She was also scared for herself. She had long ago accepted that Aunt Sun would die before her, and would not be left alone in this world. She chose Li Mochou as her student because, even though she was so young, she already had a fierceness beyond even most grown men, the very thing she would need to carry on Lin Chaoying's legacy in this troubled land. Furthermore, though she would sacrifice herself to save Li Mochou, that fierceness also helped her keep her feelings distant from her student. But this baby? This baby was already drawing her heart out, reversing the work she had done to cut her attachments to this life.
However, she could see that Aunt Sun would never leave this baby. Even Li Mochou, the little girl who delighted who delighted in killing the sparrows she caught in her qinggong practice, clearly loved the infant. And she knew that she herself could not hold back the love she felt. There was no question that this little one would grow up in the Tomb of the Living Dead.
What name would be best for the baby? If she was to live long, she would need to become nimble and strong - like a dragon.
"You are Xiaolongnü - Little Dragon Girl," she softly told the baby.
Three years later, Xiaolongnü took her vows as a disciple of Lin Chaoying's heritage.
The teacher brought her new disciple to the chilled jade bed.
"Little Dragon," she said, "you will sleep on this bed now."
Xiaolongnü nodded. She lay down on the bed, and then immediately leapt off.
"Teacher, it's cold!" she said.
"Yes it is," she said.
"I can't sleep on it!"
"You will. Because your teacher told you to."
Xiaolongnü looked up at her with abject terror. She could not make this innocent little girl suffer like this, she would never make her -
The chilled jade bed was cold, but harmless to Xiaolongnü. If Xiaolongnü could not even cope with this, how would she ever be able to handle true danger?
"Little Dragon," she said. "Sleeping on this bed will make you stronger."
"I don't want to become stronger!"
"Do you watch your sister Li Mochou?"
"Do you want to do what your sister does?"
"Then sleep on this bed."
"Did Sister Mochou sleep on this bed too?"
"Yes. She was older than you." She wondered how she could explain to Xiaolongnü that, if she used the bed at this early age, her body might remain young for as long as she lived. "Start now, and you might be pretty forever."
"I don't want to be pretty! Grandma Sun isn't pretty. I love Grandma Sun!"
Ah yes, Xiaolongnü was still innocent of the ways of the world. She still did not know that, outside of the Tomb of the Living Dead, a woman's worth was often measured by her beauty. Perhaps, if Xiaolongnü kept her vow and stayed within the vicinity of the tomb, she would never need to know about the horrible ways that men used women.
Perhaps, in her ignorance, Xiaolongnü was even wise. She knew from her own painful experience that beautiful women were no happier than plain-looking women. Yet youth was not just about beauty - youthful bodies could do some things more easily than aged bodies. After Aunt Sun's death and her own death, when Li Mochou and Xiaolongnü would be all alone, a body which never aged could help her defend herself.
"Little Dragon," she said. "Sometimes we do something bad now so that something good will happen later. Sleeping on a cold bed is bad, but it will make something good happen." She focused her neigong and let a sliver flow into her right palm as she extended it. "Put your hand in mine."
Xiaolongnü put her little hand into her teacher's. She felt it instantly.
"How does it feel?"
"It feels good."
"Sleep on that bed, and then you can keep that feeling."
Xiaolongnü got on the bed again. This time, she stayed there.
Xiaolongnü was in tears.
She was teaching her Little Dragon how to hunt. However, Xiaolongnü could not bring herself to hurt the rabbit. When Li Mochou went ahead and cut its throat, Xiaolongnü screamed.
"Little Dragon," the teacher said softly. Xiaolongnü continued to cry. "You have eaten rabbit before. This is where rabbit stew comes from." The little girl wailed even louder. "We kill to eat."
"And killing rabbits is fun!" Li Mochou declared. "Try it! You'll like it, sister."
This was no consolation to Xiaolongnü.
If this was how the death of a mere rabbit affected her, what would happen to Xiaolongnü when Aunt Sun died? When she herself died? Staying in the vicinity of the Tomb of the Living Dead could protect her from much of the world, but it could not protect her from that. And if she were to ever leave the tomb - no, she would not. She had taken the vow, and the only condition which would let her leave the tomb while keeping the vow was impossible.
Still, Xiaolongnü was so sensitive that she was going to hurt herself. If she could not hunt because her heart bled with the animals she killed, then she would starve. And far worse things could happen to someone with such a sensitive heart. She would have to seal it.
"Everyone dies," the teacher finally said. "This rabbit was going to die. Even if we did not kill it, the rabbit would just die later."
"Am I going to die too?" Xiaolongnü asked.
There was no point in sheltering her from this inevitable truth. "Yes."
"Then why should I eat the rabbit? Even if I eat the rabbit, I am just going to die later," she said.
Li Mochou laughed.
"You took a vow, to obey your teacher. I am your teacher, and I am telling you to live now, and to eat this rabbit."
It occurred to her that Xiaolongnü herself might be a teacher one day. How would she find a disciple? Would another child be abandoned at the Quanzhen Monastery? She would have to have some contact with the outside world - and that was all the more reason to blunt her sensitivity, to turn that softness into stone.
"Death is not good or bad. It is just death. You must learn to destroy these feelings. That you understand that you will also die is a good start."
As she said these words, she realized she still had too much attachment to life. She would have to teach Xiaolongnü to be better than her, to become indifferent to death. Otherwise, when death came for them, and Xiaolongnü survived, her spirit would be destroyed.
Li Mochou was teaching Xiaolongnü how to catch sparrows.
Killing the sparrows was not at all necessary for the exercise. Xiaolongnü knew that. She also saw Li Mochou kill them, and then Xiaolongnü had to go out and catch more sparrows. Xiaolongnü felt nothing. Her teacher had taught her that every creature dies. It did not matter whether the sparrows died now or later.
When Li Mochou told her to kill the sparrows she caught, she refused. She did not need to kill the sparrows. It did not matter whether the sparrows died now or later. No matter how Li Mochou taunted her, that did not change. Her teacher had also taught her that she should never let other people make her have feelings, not even her sister Li Mochou.
Li Mochou gave up. It would have been fun to watch Xiaolongnü kill the sparrows, or to watch her break down into tears, but watching Xiaolongnü do nothing was boring. It was more fun to just kill the sparrows herself.
She was also becoming increasingly envious of her little sister. She was Teacher's perfect student, learning how to have an absolutely still heart. Teacher was a hypocrite, teaching them suppress their feelings while it was obvious that she loved 'Little Dragon' far more than Li Mochou. Li Mochou had loved Xiaolongnü too, but now that she was turning into Teacher's ideal of a heartless vessel for Lin Chaoying's legacy, she hated her little sister.
Li Mochou's heart was never going to be tamed like that.
"A woman is supposed to bloom, not sealed inside a tomb, her growth stunted until she emerges as nothing more than a perfect dream!" Li Mochou yelled.
She was shocked. Her own student, Li Mochou, had dared strike her. She would recover in just a few hours, but she was unable to pursue Li Mochou as she ran away.
When she went back inside the Tomb of the Living Dead, she explained to Aunt Sun and Xiaolongnü what happened. Aunt Sun began to weep, but Xiaolongnü did not seem to react at all.
"What do you think of what your sister Li Mochou did?" she asked.
"She broke her vow. That is wrong. She is a bad student." Xiaolongnü's response did not contain any detectable emotion.
She was grateful that she was not heartbroken by her sister's departure, but ... for the first time, she wondered if training Xiaolongnü to extinguish her feelings had been the right thing to do.
At first, she had been afraid for Li Mochou's safety. Even in times of peace, the world was a dangerous place. But now, when Aunt Sun went out to trade for supplies, she heard the most horrible stories. The Jurchen kingdom had fallen, which was a boon for the Song Chinese, but then the Mongols had turned on their Song Chinese allies and attacked the city of Xiangyang. The Song Chinese held on, but the Mongol Empire was growing stronger and stronger. Who knew when they would strike again?
Then Aunt Sun came back with stories of all of the innocent people that Li Mochou had slaughtered.
She knew that her student took great pleasure in killing animals, but she had not realized she would take as much, if not more, pleasure from killing people. She was shocked.
Xiaolongnü was not shocked. The stories hardly seemed to affect her.
Would Xiaolongnü become another Li Mochou? No, she only killed animals when she needed food. She found no pleasure in killing - in fact, she did not take pleasure from anything. And she was an obedient student. She was so obedient, that she had taken all of her teacher's guidance to heart - including the guidance which taught her to seal her heart off from the world.
For all of Li Mochou's wickedness, she was still her student. So when she was out of the tomb, and heard her cry for help, she did not hesitate to respond. Neither of them were a match for that dreadful man, but as her teacher fought, Li Mochou escaped.
She did not notice Li Mochou come back and release that man's pressure point, but she must have. How else could it have been released? Why would she do that? Did she hate her teacher that much?
He was gone, but she knew that, however much Aunt Sun took care of her, her injuries were fatal. She could feel Aunt Sun's warm tears.
"It was Ouyang Feng!" she said. "It was Ouyang Feng!"
She saw Xiaolongnü come in.
"Who did this?" she asked. She seemed curious, nothing more.
Oh, that Xiaolongnü would feel nothing more than that! But for all of the lack of emotion her Little Dragon showed in everyday life, she suspected that, in extreme circumstances like this, her little student's heart was not entirely safe.
"I am not going to tell you, Little Dragon, because if you knew who did this, you would never forget," she said. "I know that you care about your teacher, and I am afraid that you may feel anger, and that you may seek revenge."
Xiaolongnü said nothing.
This was the day that she knew would come, when she would have to leave her Little Dragon. But why had it come so soon! Xiaolongnü was only fourteen years old.
As the great Lin Chaoying's disciple, she had never mastered the wonderful techniques of her mistress, but all of what she had learned, she had already passed on to Xiaolongnü. After this day, without her teacher and without her sister, it would have to be enough.
"Your sister Li Mochou is no longer one of us. After I die, you will be the mistress of the sect that Mistress Lin Chaoying founded."
It seemed that Aunt Sun would outlive her after all. And when Aunt Sun died, her Little Dragon would be all alone in the Tomb of the Living Dead.
Seeing her Little Dragon's indifference to her teacher's death, she knew that her spirit would not be broken by this, nor would the inevitable death of Aunt Sun break it. She was even envious of her student. She had mastered cutting off her attachments to the world in ways that her teacher never had.
Yet, at this hour, she feared that she had made a mistake in teaching Xiaolongnü to destroy her feelings. In trying to protect her from the cruelty of life, had she also taken from her the things in life which were most precious? Would Xiaolongnü ever learn to love another the way that her teacher loved her?
She did not know whether to hope that Xiaolongnü's heart would stay sealed forever, or that, some day, someone worthy of her student's love would come and unseal it.
After her teacher died, Xiaolongnü helped Grandma Sun place her cold body in a casket, and seal it. After that, Xiaolongnü went into an empty casket herself. If a casket was good enough for her teacher, it was good enough for her. The fact that she was alive, and not dead, did not matter.