Qing Jing Peak stood, not as the tallest peak of Cang Qiong Sect, nor the strongest, but definitely as one of the most tranquil and picturesque of the 12 peaks. Second only to Xian Shu Peak in terms of beauty, it was known in the cultivation world for its grand, lush bamboo forest; its boosting spiritual properties were truly an ideal place for young disciples to practice cultivation. Of the Peak’s accomplishments, Its Heavens and Earth library stood as a key central piece of the Sect, exquisite and imposing, incomparable among libraries. If Qing Jing Peak were to say they were second in knowledge in the cultivation world, no one would dare to claim to be first. Of the four great sects, Cang Qiong Sect’s Qing Jing Peak boasted the largest and rarest collection of cultivation manuals, pill recipes, heaven and earth defying techniques, and so on. From all corners of the cultivation world, year after year, many rogue and established cultivators kneeled at the base of the mountain to beseech the Peak Lord to grant them knowledge.
As for those lucky enough to be disciples of this illustrious Qing Jing Peak?
Qing Jing Peak’s disciples strived for mastery of the Four Arts; their hard won image was that of perfect and graceful gentlemen and ladies, neither lacking in strength nor manners, dutiful in their studies and filial to their master.
Or, at least, such was the image they aimed for.
But never mind that. Shoo! Shoo! Shoo!
A point of pride for the disciples was that, compared to their neighbor division disciples, their Qing Jing Peak produced the least headaches for the Sect Head. Compared to their neighborhood peaks to the left ― talismans and alchemy ― which would often cheerfully go up in flames or something tragically similar; and their neighborhood peaks to the right ― Bai Zhan Peak ― notoriously famous for their bloodthirsty disciples’ numerous (and explosive) martial arts tournaments; and never mind the unspeakable Peak everyone stood clear off for fear of losing life and limb … the degree of magical beasts that often broke free from said Peak and ran rampant were … Moving on.
The disciples of Qing Jing peak could not help but often wonder if the Sect Head had purposely placed their peaceful Peak in between these disastrous neighbors to help balance the harmony of the mountain region.
Regardless of baseless suspicions and unruly neighbors, Qing Jing Peak disciples greeted every sunrise at the same time (well, most), mind and soul ready for learning (well, mostly). Perhaps once (well, more than once) it could be said that the Qing Jing Peak disciples spent half the day whittling the hours away on useless pursuits. It was a known fact that many of the second, third, and so on sons and daughters of proficient cultivation clans chose to try their luck on Cang Qiong Sect’s Qing Jing Peak, known for its scholarly pursuits and peaceful lifestyle.
In other words: EASY.
Thus, a path to, if not greatness, enough achievements to grant their family some face could be guaranteed if one put enough effort to pass merit. For the sons and daughters of established cultivation clans who, despite falling short of inheriting their family’s patriarch title, passing merit was easy enough. So long as they upheld their division’s reputation and didn’t blow up their side of the mountain, the Qing Jing Peak disciples were like sheep left out to pasture on their own.
Therefore, it would not be untrue to say Qing Jing Peak disciples were neither the weakest nor the strongest of Cang Qiong sect. Somewhere in the middle, not too high and neither too low, a perfectly acceptable position for the elegant and studious (well, mostly) disciples who refrained from violence in pursuit of loftier achievements. Lofty people were above trifle matters, after all. Yes, even ‘friendly’ pointer matches with their neighbors from Bai Zhan peak. Yes, even requests to collaborate on new and exciting medicinal pill recipes. Yes, even then. No, they would not elaborate.
However, recently the Peak Master …
Recently, the Peak Master …
Who did not know of Cang Qiong sect’s famous and sophisticated Xiu Ya sword? A plum blossom atop a mountain, aloof and remote, entirely indifferent to the earthly matters of the secular world. The savant of Cang Qiong sect; the Elder of the Clear Calm peak; Shen QingQiu embodied the meaning of his title. To his disciples, he was a majestic and pure figure they could only strive to emulate; towards his disciples, Shen QingQiu was distant and formal, even more so if said disciples were below his standards. The senior disciples who had gone on to close cultivation to develop their own techniques would often look upon their new juniors’ worshipful expressions and sigh in commiseration. Once upon a time these seniors were the same as them, blinded by adoration, unaware that behind their master’s graceful and scholarly face laid … a demon!
Their Master was neither kind nor the nurturing type, rather, their Master was unsparing, inflexible, and uncompromising. His teaching methods were of a similar vein. The high standards he held for himself, his students were expected to follow without exception. In this manner, it would not be unfactual to say that behind closed doors, Qing Jing Peak disciples wished for death whenever the mood struck their Master to pull them aside from their habitual leisuring for a formal lesson. As rare as such circumstances were, each and every disciple from smallest to biggest dreaded such days. Not a single one of them was spared their Master’s sharp, cutting critique. If a disciple didn’t leave the Peak in shame and tears after one such lesson, it would be a rare thing indeed.
However, in front of outsiders, especially their neighbor division disciples, they could not afford to damage their reputation, much less lose their Master’s face. Therefore, Qing Jing Peak disciples were efficient at presenting the aloof and elegant persona they so admired on their Master to the outside world.
The famous and sophisticated Peak Master of Qing Jing Peak had seemingly turned over a new leaf!
In the past, the Peak Master would leave them, his Peak’s lowly disciples, to their cultivation alone; a disciple would be given the proper cultivation manual and with a few simple instructions, the disciple would be thrown out to sink or swim. The hallmasters were in charge of weekly text lessons, but these classes ran more in line with scholarly pursuits such as music, calligraphy, and the like. It usually fell to the Head Disciple to keep watch over their juniors’ progress and intervene whenever necessary. Whether a disciple would lose their way or emerge victorious was for the Heavens to decide. If a disciple was lucky enough to achieve a breakthrough and garner the eye of the Peak Master as someone worth nurturing ― a similar step to the previous one would follow. Higher level cultivation manual, a new field to pasture. Rinse. Repeat.
Qing Jing peak was truly as peaceful and simple as its reputation claimed.
Yet, recently, Qing Jing Peak had gone through a earth-shattering event.
The odd, mysterious, suspicious and strange case of Luo BingHe!
This junior disciple … who in Qing Jing peak did not know of Luo BingHe? The senior disciples who rarely left closed cultivation, their opinion of this junior was neutral. They had no time to waste on others when they were at such crucial points in their development. What little they saw of the boy, Luo BingHe was always found working hard, so these seniors’ thoughts were along the lines of: ‘not bad.’ The Peak’s inner workings and gossip were beyond them, and so they didn’t concern themselves with their juniors much. The hallmasters rarely saw Luo BingHe formally sit for lessons, and so their opinion of the little student was quite low.
But if one were to ask Luo BingHe’s generational martial brothers, they would of course say: Luo BingHe is a stain on the Master’s reputation, an ugly blotch of ink on the Peak’s otherwise peerless history! Pathetic, useless, good for nothing, a no talent, wretched waste! Even the Master thought so! Why else would the Master order his Peak’s disciples to run the little brat to his last breath? It must be so! To the disciples who similarly disliked Luo BingHe, it was easy to unflinchingly carry out the Master’s orders to torment him.
Why did they similarly dislike their littlest junior disciple? What was not to dislike? That little round face, as soft and pretty as any sister’s despite how many bruises it bore … that foundation, so envious, even with the wrong cultivation manual, the little pest dared to still advance … during the Cang Qiong Sect entrance exam, did the little beast not perform better than many of them had during their own exams … bah! He was just a waste, how dare he think himself better than them!
As to why the Master didn’t just expel Luo BingHe if he disliked the mere sight of him so much? Fool! Who were these lowly disciples to question the Master? Pass, pass, pass!
Only a true idiot would incite the wrath of the Master from another onto oneself!
It was normal in Qing Jing Peak to bully Luo BinHe. It would not be a normal day in Qing Jing Peak if Luo BingHe were not seen running back and forth carrying out errands, washing clothes, cutting firewood, getting his due whippings from the Master, and so on. This was to be expected. This was the natural course of the world!
But suddenly, everything changed.
Their stern, unperturbed, and aloof Master changed.
First on the list of these disciples’ grievances was ― who had ever dared to ride in the Master’s carriage?! Who dared?! The Master disdained skinship to the highest degree, not one disciple in his history as Peak Lord could boast ever receiving even so much as a pat on the back for a job well done. Yet the Master had dained Luo BingHe (that cur) to ride alongside him in his private carriage, and even went so far as to call the ugly sprout so familiarly too ― it was enough to twist one’s intestines!
Second, the Skinner incident ― never before had the Master taken the initiative to so gallantly aid his Peak’s disciples. If one did not understand the first time, could they dare to ask the Master to repeat himself? Even less, to help them in their assigned tasks? Impossible! This was an opportunity for the disciples to gain experience, not a family outing! But not only did the Master help them, the Master even took the initiative to pursue the demon himself and sent them away for protection. The disciples were deeply touched, nevermind how unlike himself the Master’s actions were.
Furthermore, the disciples gleefully believed that surely now, now that Luo BingHe (that waste) had nearly cost their dear martial sister Ning YingYing her life, the Master would surely get rid of Luo BingHe (that trash). Perhaps allowing Luo BingHe (that parasite) to ride alongside him in the carriage was the Master’s funeral rites for a dead man.
Were they wrong?
They were wrong!
Not only were the disciples forced to listen to their martial sister laud that little cur with praises over having helped the Master defeat the Skinner, they were also forced to witness the Master personally hand over a cultivation technique manual to said cur. Who in the Peak could boast being singled out so favorably? Was it not the Head Disciple’s duty to assign such things?
Said Head Disciple could only watch with his fellow martial brothers as the Master instructed Luo BingHe (the beast) to practice diligently using this technique manual unique to his constitution. Their mouths eventually caught flies.
Wasn’t it just recently that the Peak Master, these lowly disciples’ elegant Shen QingQiu, ordered this Head Disciple to lock Luo BingHe (that worm) in the woodshed without the three daily meals after severely punishing him until his own mother wouldn’t even recognize him?
This tender and harmonious scene … a master and disciple exchanging words of advice and filial acquiescence … where was their indifferent and aloof Peak Master!?
Ning YingYing rushed to Luo BingHe's side, her pretty eyes shining with joy. “A-Luo! Shifu has acknowledged you!” she cried. “Did I not say, that Shifu could not possibly hate you?”
Luo BingHe did not hear her words. The cultivation manual in his hands held all his attention. His hands trembled slightly. When Shen QingQiu ordered his disciples to gather in the training grounds, not a single one of them could have predicted this outcome.
“This master will be going into secluded cultivation in Qion Ding Peak’s spiritual caves after today. You are all expected to keep up your daily practice.”
With an elegant flick of his trademark fan, their Master pivoted on his feet and walked away. His disciples were left flabbergasted behind him, their hearts and minds in turmoil.
“If any of this teacher's disciples need help, look to your seniors.”
The disciples were so shocked, so frozen, their brains rapidly trying to process the past couple of minutes, that they didn’t have the thought to confront their littlest junior about the cultivation manual (the treasure!). Taking advantage of this opportunity, Luo BingHe clutched the cultivation manual to his chest and promptly ran away before his seniors could realize he had left.
He ignored Ning YingYing’s shout for him to wait for her. The manual in his hands crinkled from the force of his grip. Leaving behind the training grounds, Luo BingHe ran down the pebbled stone path past the bathing facilities, the agricultural gardens, and the the pagoda Heavens and Earth library their Peak was most proud of. He sped past the Peak’s courtyard house and ran all the way around the Bamboo Forest to the pier of the tarn facing Shen QingQiu's bamboo house. The Peak Lord was currently gone, the house stood empty; still, Luo BingHe slowed down to a respectful walk.
Breathing heavily, but not from exertion, Luo BingHe brought the manual up to his face. The lake breeze did nothing to cool down his flushed cheeks. As for the matter of his deeply shaken heart, Luo BingHe neither had a solution.
To me … Shizun …
Luo BingHe’s heart trembled. He carefully straightened the crinkled cover of the manual, not daring to peek inside. Suddenly, a thought rose in his mind, and his spirits dwindled.
It would not be the first time he was tricked by his seniors. Perhaps this time they had managed to involve the Master in their new cruel prank.
Miserably, he opened the manual.
Luo BingHe let out a gasp of surprise, and then breathless laughter. He clutched the manual to his chest yet again, unmindful of ruining the pages.
“Hey! There he is! Catch him!”
Breaking into a run, Luo BingHe sped past the solitary bamboo house in the direction of the Bamboo Forest behind. He had no destination in mind, only the thought that he couldn’t let his senior disciples take this manual away from him ran through his head.
This was a cultivation manual personally given to him by Shen QingQiu. The Master he looked up to and respected, that aloof and remote, distant and untouchable immortal, Luo BingHe knew perfectly well he was disliked by him. This was a barb in his heart he was well acquainted with by now, the pain of it a familiar constant.
If a student was disliked by their teacher, could they still call themselves their student? Luo BingHe was a disciple of Qing Jing Peak in name only. For years, ever since he passed the Cang Qiong Sect entrance exam, Luo BingHe had made no progress in his studies. He was slow, clumsy, and stupid, but how could he not keep trying? Burrowed deep inside his heart, there still existed the hope that if he could only improve himself, if he could make those cold eyes look at him with something other than dislike … but time and time again this hope was extinguished to ashes.
The beatings, the endless chores, the drafty, dusty storage shed ― Luo BingHe bore them for years without complaint. Shen QingQiu was his master, the person Luo BingHe owed for saving him from dying a waste in the streets. He was the ideal Luo BingHe strove towards: an elegant, radiant, and righteous pillar cultivator. A master was not required to show affection to their students. Shen QingQiu was beyond the reach of a lowly person like him; he did not owe Luo BingHe his time or care. Luo BingHe only wished … he wished …
Luo BingHe would settle for being treated the same as everyone else. He knew he could never be special to someone, much less to his unattainable master.
But … he really was as stupid as everyone said. Even knowing he would be burned, he still reached out like a moth to a flame, enchanted, unable to break away from his heart’s desire. How many years had it been? He should know well by now his aloof, icy master disliked the mere sight of him.
Luo BingHe could simply not forget the debt he owed, nor the kindness he received; once given, his gratitude was near impossible to rescind.
So, he lived his days one after another, enduring, surviving, waiting for the most opportune time, or perhaps better said, the day he could finally bear no more. The desire, the yearning, for those cold eyes to look at him differently kept him rooted to this place, to the Qing Jing Peak he would never be able to forget, even long after he left it behind him.
Don’t let others see and think my Qing Jing Peak abuses its disciples.
The bottle of medicine he was given that day, the sound of his name coming from that stern mouth … it was the first act of kindness he received from his Master. Later, when he sat across from Shen QingQiu in the carriage, shrinking into himself, trepidation and wariness in his bones, the gentle laugher that broke through his mental-preparation for what he thought would be a beating was so unexpected that Luo BingHe looked up directly at his Master.
For the first time, Luo BingHe saw a different expression from the usual dislike on his Master’s face: light and warm where he was always severe and cold, his icy elegance softened into something more inviting and approachable. In that single, brief moment, he was not unlike a frozen lake thawed out to a gentle and beautiful summer stream.
Luo Binghe felt a strange prickle in the space between his ribcage.
Like a fool, hope arose once again in his heart.
One who is unaccountably solicitous is hiding evil intentions ― this was a lesson Luo BingHe should have learned, and learned well by now. But his character was too soft; he could only hope the best of people, choosing to trust rather than be skeptical. This was his downfall. Towards the Master he respected, despite the wounds and many hurts, both physical and emotional, Luo BingHe was weak. Like a dog that had been beaten, but who knew no other type of master, he stayed. This was the hand that fed him, and it wasn’t in Luo BingHe’s character to bite back.
That sweetly fragrant and soothing salve, how could it mean anything?
When Shen QingQiu offered Luo BingHe in his place to the Skinner, Luo BingHe was shocked at himself for still being disappointed. He wanted to scold himself for being so stupid!
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!
It would be a lie to say Luo BingHe wasn’t afraid when they were captured by the demon. Not only for himself or shijie Ning YingYing, but for his Master as well. His Master was an aloof, unapproachable man; his image was clean and pure, untouched by lowly mortal troubles. Seeing the great cultivator laid low like this, bound, hair in disarray, clothes perturbed … Luo BingHe felt his throat clog up. Strangely, his face grew warm, and a bizarre itchiness rose in his chest. When Shen QingQiu woke up, he immediately looked away, feeling oddly guilty.
The guilt soon gave away to a familiar feeling of pain. This hurt was indeed very familiar, Luo BingHe was a repeat customer. It was a bitter, bitter medicine, not at all sweet, not at all fragrant.
The salve and that beautiful smile, they really were nothing.
When the demon launched its attack at him, Luo BingHe inwardly thought to himself:
See? Will you finally grow up now? Stupid, useless crybaby! If you can’t abandon your fragile heart, you will never grow stronger.
I want to be strong, he thought in his last seconds. Stronger than anyone. So strong, that no one will ever be able to betray me again!
Even if it means giving up this fragile heart?
If I can have the strength to keep anyone from ever hurting me again, if I can have the strength to take what I most desire without anyone stopping me ― this fragile heart, I do not need it!
Luo BingHe refused to cry. Didn’t he promise that day? The happiest day of his life since his time with his mother, his heart full of hopes and expectations — a child’s silly dreams that were shattered by a cup of tea. More than the burn from the hot water poured down his head, or the humiliation of the act itself, it was his heart that was cut deepest.
He swore that day, even if he couldn’t change his weak self, he would never cry again. Not in front of anyone, not for anyone, no matter how badly he was cut again. The look of complete disgust on that proud visage at the sight of Luo BingHe’s tears stayed branded in his memory. It shamed him to the core. No one liked a crybaby. His master already hated him, he couldn’t give him any more reasons to disdain him.
Luo BingHe really was a fool, to continue to care for someone who only treated him coldly.
Miraculously, he did not die. It was so unexpected that Luo BingHe was momentarily stunned.
“If you want to be someone who can protect, you must first be willing to kill.”
Luo Binghe was shaken. It was his first time experiencing such a close call with death, and his first time seeing his Master kill. The previous disheveled appearance vanished as if it were a mirage, replaced by the cool elegance Luo BingHe was most familiar with. He felt an unexplainable sense of loss when his Master neatly redressed.
However, the strange emotion was pushed down by his strong feeling of hurt, the betrayal still fresh.
Even if he lived to see tomorrow, what guarantee did he have that the same could be said for the day after tomorrow? Next week? Could he continue to live as he had in the past?
But despite his willingness to change, Luo BingHe could not help himself from desperately wanting to know ― why exactly did his master hate him so much? If he knew … if he knew … if he could only change the weak him this person hated …
“If I can give up my life to protect Shizun, it would be an honor for this lowly disciple.”
His words were not false. His sense of gratitude towards this person was immeasurable, and his respect and admiration vast. To the Luo Binghe who had experience so little kindness, who only knew the warmth of one person, how could he be disdainful toward the person who saved him? Even if he was treated cruelly, even if he was hated, in the end, Luo BinHe had still been saved, and so far continued to live by the will of his Master. Even if they were scraps, were they still not better than what he had before he came to be his student?
Why couldn’t he just settle with what he already had? Why couldn’t he be happy with what he was given?
Was it really selfish to want more? Was his wish, his heart’s deepest desire, truly impossible?
“Even if something does happen, nothing will happen to you.”
Shen QingQiu’s face was open and honest like never before, his voice like a song as he said, “This truth is certain.”
Luo BingHe felt his heart tremble, that soft, weak part of himself unfurling like a shy flower yet again, yearning for the warm rays of the sun.
Stupid, he scorned himself as he ran, but a smile tugged at his lips.
Their Peak was famous for many things, but the Bamboo Forest the master and disciples made into their home stood out amongst the top. Towering green stalks of the versatile plant swayed in the wind; creaking, they collided and twisted, leaves rustling, creating a tranquil, soothing sound. The sun filtered through the densely packed grove, projecting thin slashes of light onto Luo BingHe’s face.
It was the beginning of summer, the beautiful red-crowned cranes would soon return to the mountain for their mating season. He would have to put up a fence to protect shixiong Ming Fan’s tea garden. Sitting down on the soft grass in the lotus position, he opened the cultivation manual.
Before, whenever he tried to absorb the natural Qi of the world and refine it inside his body, he was met with a blockage, and so could never advance past the beginning Qi Condensation stage. Unlike him, his disciple brothers and sisters were already in the late stage of Qi Condensation, and were expected to break into the Foundation Establishing stage sometime in the future. It was easy to believe he really was a no-talent waste when met with these results.
Luo BingHe took a deep, steadying breath. He closed his eyes.
When he next opened his eyes, it was already sunrise of the following day. Luo BingHe had never felt lighter. Incredibly, he had broken through his blockade and advanced two whole levels! Despite it just being the beginning stage, his body felt stronger.
Grinning widely, he jumped to his feet. Carefully holding the cultivation manual as if it were a priceless treasure, he ran through the forest until he exited in the opposite side. Behind him, Shen QingQiu’s bamboo house stood separate from the walled compound and other facilities where the disciples lived. The Bamboo Forest served to divide the two, each standing on opposite ends of the mountain.
From there, he returned to the pebbled stone path that lead to the vast compound, slipping through the main gate. He walked through the outer courtyard into the larger, central garden courtyard and paused to drink a mouthful of the Quiet Pool’s water. The water was full of spiritual properties, and helped replenish one’s strength. Disciples were allowed to drink from the pool once per week to boost their foundations. Luo BingHe did not dare to drink the water in front of his martial brothers, he only dared now because he had not eaten since yesterday morning. Walking past the Quiet Pool, he passed the third, fourth, and final fifth rear courtyards, until finally he reached the storage room.
His seniors had yet to rise. Usually, whenever the Master left the Peak, they slept past sunrise.
Dropping to his knees next to his ratty straw cot, Luo BingHe pulled out the small bottle of salve from inside his clothes. He set it next to the cultivation manual. Looking at them, Luo BingHe was filled with warmth.
Maybe his Master didn’t hate him.
Maybe he could stay after all.
Unbidden, he thought back to the day he lost his mother’s pendant. It was a bitter memory, one he was reluctant to remember, not only from the pain, but also the unfamiliar black, hot anger that seemingly burned through his whole body. It was not a feeling he was eager to recall, much less relieve. But, that day, the Plucked Leaves Flying Flowers spell, how could Luo BingHe not recognize it?
The sharp, blood-stained leaves he clutched in his hand left faint cuts on his palm. At that time, he assumed Shen QingQiu simply did not wish to see his top disciple implicate himself further in something he thought lowly of. If a disciple stole, would that not implicate the master? Such tactics, an immortal would not tolerate them. Furthemore, no matter how much he may dislike Luo BingHe, shijie Ning YingYing was a young maiden; toward the martial sisters, their Master behaved cordially and gentlemanly. Violently fighting in front of their martial sister, even frightening her, of course Shen QingQiu would punish them for behaving like little beasts in his graceful Peak.
He had thought as such, and didn’t think much of it later either. It was a memory he would rather forget. Now, he couldn’t stop thinking about it, along with Shen QingQiu’s past, uncharacteristic actions. His mind and heart were in disarray.
Staring at the two items for a bit longer before he hid them inside his clothes, Luo BingHe stood. He made his way out the compound and cut through the Bamboo Forest back behind the mountain to the cenote he used for bathing. The sinkhole was full of groundwater, clean and fresh. Undressing, he set aside his folded clothes alongside the bottle of salve and manual. His hair ribbon he took off last, thick wavy hair falling down from its tight knot to brush his shoulders. This done, he jumped into the water.
It was peaceful here, away from his seniors and the rest of the Peak. Luo BingHe liked to come here on his free time, the little he had anyways. Not in the winter. He made do with washing with the leftover water from rice washing. There were communal baths and a natural hot spring near the training grounds, but he wasn’t permitted to use the facilities. Other than heating water for his seniors, Luo BingHe made do with this sinkhole.
His Master was away, gone for the foreseeable future. Luo BingHe was half torn, half relieved over the matter. Part of him wanted to confront his Master and demand why, why now, when it had been so many years already, did he bestow kindness on Luo BingHe. Didn’t he hate him? Was it a trick?
The other half was too cowardly to ask, afraid to be met with rejection again. Luo BingHe didn’t know what he would do if his Master’s apparent kindness was revealed to be false. Even so, even knowing this could once again lead to him being hurt, his fragile heart couldn’t help but continue to trust in his cold Master. Was he just a glutton for punishment?
These conflicted feelings swelled inside him. He submerged his body up to his nose, frowning.
Suddenly, without cause or reason, an image rose in his mind. The memory was fresh, the picture clear and bright before his eyes: his Master’s bare chest, his ink-black hair free from its half-up topknot and crown, the pink flush on his white skin from the bruises of the the Immortal Binding Cable …
On his left shoulder, Shen QingQiu had a small constellation of freckles.
With a gasp, Luo BingHe sank under the water.
Re-emerging, he coughed roughly, water up his nose. His hair clung to his flushed face in tangled strands. Behind his dripping hair, his eyes were as wide as pinwheels.
What … what was …
Squeezing his eyes shut, he took a deep breath before swimming down to the bottom of the sinkhole. When that wasn’t enough to dispel his full-body blush, he swam several laps. He swam until he could put the strange racing of his heart behind him when he left the cenote.
Upon returning to the compound, Luo BingHe headed to do his daily chores. The warm feeling in his chest had not abated since yesterday afternoon. It was not a bad feeling. On the contrary, Luo BingHe liked it very much.
Miraculously, he was not hounded by his seniors like usual. Shixiong Ming Fan took one look at him after the first meal, gnashed his teeth loudly, and after giving him a sound verbal tongue lashing and a firm clap to the back of the head, Luo BingHe was ordered to perform his usual long list of chores.
When shijie Ning YingYing found him later that afternoon, he was on his way to his usual spot deep in the Bamboo Forest to practice his cultivation. At this time of the day, Luo BingHe’s body was normally near its limit, but today, he felt unusually energetic.
“A-Luo!” Ning YingYing greeted him as usual.
She hurried to catch to him, falling into pace with him.
Luo BingHe felt conflicted. He was grateful to shijie Ning YingYing for treating him kindly, and even sometimes standing up for him; but he didn’t wish to cause her trouble and create a drift between her and their fellow disciples. She was liked amongst her peers, even thought well of by their Master.
Ning YingYing bumped her shoulder against him.
“Well, tell me! Tell me! Ah, no, come here!” She pulled him back to her side, clinging to his arm. “All the disciples are talking about it! Shifu gave you a special cultivation manual just for you! Everyone is so jealous!”
The warmth in his chest spread to his face. It was such a wonderful feeling, that warmth, that it was nearly enough to make him dizzy. Luo BingHe wished it would never go away.
Shizun, to me …
Luo BingHe had never been the cause of envy before. He honestly didn’t know how to feel toward his seniors. He felt that the chores and tasks assigned to him by his seniors was because he was the smallest of them; as their junior, it was his duty to be obedient and respectful to his seniors. Being the smallest and youngest, he had to work hard to earn their respect and recognition. As for the beatings and harassment, it was not like Luo BingHe had not suffered a similar fate in his village before he came to Qing Jing Peak.
However, he was determined not to let the precious manual his Master had bestowed on him fall onto their hands. The thought of his precious manual ending in a similar fashion to his past belongings — like his mother’s jade Guanyin pendant — left him distraught.
Ning YingYing poked his cheek again and again. “A-Luo, let me look at it, too! Shifu never pays special attention to anyone. I wonder, what could Shifu have given A-Luo?”
Squeezing his eyes shut, clutching his chest not unlike a bullied maiden, he cried out, “Shijie, I’m sorry!” and promptly ran away off the beaten path.
This precious manual … Shizun gave it to him only.
Surely, surely, somewhere deep in his heart, Shizun must think something of him other than disgust. It had to be. It had to be true!
Please … please.
If Shizun doesn’t hate me entirely, even if he treats me coldly …
Choosing to trust even when one had been betrayed again and again … was it hopeless?
Spreading open the manual before him, Luo BingHe knelt determinedly.
“Shizun, I will work hard. When you return, I will be different from before.”
So please, please, don’t hate me anymore.
Summer gave way to autumn, the seasonal trees turning beautiful rust and warm colors beneath the sunlight. Luo BingHe surprised everyone by successfully breaking through the bottlenecks prevalent in the 3d-4th and 5th-6th levels of Qi Condensation, peacefully advancing to the later stage. If he kept up his current smooth pace, it would not be unrealistic to reach Foundation Establishing by next year. Sometime in the future, he would be able to enter Cang Qiong’s central area and choose his own unique sword. From there, developing his own unique cultivation technique would no longer be an impossible dream.
From sunrise to well past dawn, Luo BingHe dedicated himself to improving his constitution. His seniors could only watch enviously, intestines green. Other than running him ragged with more and more ludicrous chores, occasionally giving him a good thrashing or two, what else could they do? They couldn’t very well steal the brat’s cultivation manual (the treasure!), no matter how much their hands itched. This was the special cultivation manual their Master had specially given to their little junior. If the Master returned and found them with the item in hand, they dare not think what punishment would befall them. If it were before, if it were the Master who rejoiced in Luo BingHe’s suffering, they would steal the brat’s manual and sleep easy over it. But the Master was different, the Master had changed. There was a different air to the Master, still as elegantly aloof as always, but his eyes were less cold. It was … not a change the disciples hated.
But it was definitely strange!
“D - do you think Shifu may be … possessed?” asked a brave brother during the third meal.
Immediately, all sound in the dining hall vanished, as if sucked into a vortex.
“Y - you, you dare question Shifu!?” spit out a second brother, but with so little conviction he was easily steamrolled by a third brother.
“How else can you explain Shifu’s, Shifu’s change of personality overnight!” His expression was an ugly one, made doubly worse by his unfortunate appearance. “Treating that brat so favorably, even calling him so intimately to his side before leaving … when has Shifu bothered to explain to us his actions, much less his whereabouts? It could be a curse! What if that wretched little beast ― ”
A older sister disciple barred her way into the conversation. “Are you three as dumb as you are ugly?”
Mercilessly, she slapped the back of their heads twice each.
The three dared not say anything. This sister’s cultivation was not only a level above theirs, but her martials arts also far exceeded theirs.
“Have you forgotten Wei-Shishu's famous Hong Jing sword?” She scoffed. “If Shifu is changed, it must be because Shifu is ill. Or did you forget Shifu fell unconscious from a fever before leaving for the Spirit Caves?”
This was in fact true. The three disciple brothers lowered their heads in embarrassment.
Suddenly, a beautiful cry like a lark’s sounded in the hall. It was sister Ning YingYing. Pretty face furrowed into a deep frown, she cried: “Why must Shifu be possessed? Why must Shifu be sick? Even daring to accuse him of ill will towards Shifu … all of you, always bullying A-Luo! Just because Shifu gave the special manual to him? Shameless!”
The older sister disciple with strong martial arts scoffed. She folded her arms. “It’s just you boys who concern yourselves with that little shidi. Fooling around, bullying the weak, you should improve your constitutions!” She went on to add, “Instead of gossiping like washerwomen, you should rejoice. Shifu is our master, of course we respect him, but who in this Peak does not fear him?”
She glared at everyone present in the hall. “If anyone here can wring out a drop of affection from Shifu, I will take your family name as my own!”
This was true, the truest of truths. No one in the hall could deny otherwise. It was not that the disciples disliked the change in their Master’s temper, but that they found it too odd! It was only the younger generation of disciples whose time was freer than the seniors busy with their close cultivation who disliked Luo BingHe out of jealousy, spite, or whatever reason. These disciples were particularly incensed by their Master’s complete change in behavior regarding their littlest junior. They simply could not bear it!
The sister’s eyebrows narrowed. “If Shifu is ill, when he returns from the Spirit Caves, all should return to normal.”
Sister Ning YingYing slammed her hands on the bamboo table. “You lot … you will see! When Shifu returns, lets see if you still dare bully A-Luo!”
Clicking her tongue, the sister said, “You little juniors, so troublesome. That shidi has a good foundation, why shouldn’t Shifu change his attitude towards him? He is a good little junior, ah. Never complains, does his work, studies hard. Unlike you lot!” she shot at the three disciple brothers in front of her, pulling up her sleeves.
Covering the back of their heads protectively, they yelled back, “What good little junior! That face … what good foundation! Shixiong Ming Fan is Shifu’s Head Disciple, who cares if that sprout works hard!”
Sister Ning YingYing raised her fist threateningly. From the Peak’s resident beauty, it came off as charming and endearing; but with the older sister with strong martial arts standing behind her with a dark face, the rowdy disciples could only shut their mouths.
“A head disciple is not set in stone!” she said passionately. It was so rare for sister Ning YingYing to raise her soft, girlish voice that the entire hall watched in a trance, eyes glued to the drama “A-Luo has won Shifu’s recognition, can you say the same? Can any of us? Just wait and see, I believe in A-Luo!”
Unable to bear the public shaming any longer, even if it came from dear sister Ning YingYing, the third brother said between clenched teeth, “Fine! We will wait for Shifu at Qiong Ding Peak and see who’s wrong!”
“You lot, shut up and go practice!”
As for Luo BingHe ― the protagonist of this tale, apparent scourge of Qing Jing peak, and perpetrator of his martial brothers’ copious amounts of jealousy― he was unaware of the ripples he was creating. His entire focus was on furthering his cultivation, completing his chores, and equally dreading and awaiting the return of his Master.
The day the demons attacked, Luo BingHe was dragged to Qiong Ding Peak by shijie Ning YingYing. At this point, he had been bullied to come here numerous times in the past months. As for the reason? He was unsure. They were not the only ones; numerous Qing Jing peak disciples accompanied them.
“A-Luo, you’ve grown so big! This older sister remembers when you were so small, smaller than her!” Ning YingYing said excitedly. She clung to his arm, as was her habit. As was his habit, Luo BingHe allowed it for a short minute before carefully pulling away, afraid of offending his older martial sister. “Hurry, hurry, maybe today will be the day!”
Unfortunately, whatever Ning YingYing was excited to see was put on hold due to the demon invasion. The Rainbow Bridge uniting the Tian Gong Twelve Peaks was under siege; amongst the commotion, Luo BingHe and his fellow Qing Jing Peak disciples scurried away from the danger with the rest of the gathered sect students.
The disciples cried in horror and tried to hide, desperately hoping to come upon an Elder to bestow order and reason, and most importantly, safety. Alone and without a leader, the poor disciples were bullied and cajoled.
In front of the resplendent and magnificent Qiong Ding Entrance Hall, a legion of demons stood malevolently.
Amidst the chaos, Luo BingHe tried to console Ning YingYing, eyes darting back and forth along the crowd. A good, honest and simple young boy with a sensible head over his shoulders, he held no delusions over his abilities. The best course of action would be to remain calm and wait for the Peak Elders to arrive.
Then, he saw him ―
Luo BingHe meant to call out when their eyes met, but he hesitated, unsure what to say, nervousness weighting his excitement down into low burning simmers.
Shen QingQiu: his aloof, remote, distant and untouchable master. Descending upon the chaos like an otherworldly immortal, Shen QingQiu pushed back against the demons with a simple yet powerful sweep of his arms.
Luo BingHe felt his breath swept away.
He’d always know his Master was strong, but it wasn’t until now that he realized just how amazing and strong Shen QingQiu truly was. His immortal Master was the famous Xiu Ya Sword of the cultivation world, which demon would dare to stand in his way? Amongst the Twelve Peaks, his Qing Jing Peak was ranked second in qualifications; even if he did not boast the power of Bai Zhan Peak’s War God, his Master’s strength and achievements were highly regarded by the Sect and the world beyond.
“Why don’t we each choose three representatives and hold three matches right now?”
It was his first time seeing Shen QingQiu fight. His style was unequivocally elegant, bringing to mind the beautiful dancing cranes Luo BingHe fed behind the mountain. Their long, graceful necks, their charming, fluttering wings and arresting, floating footwork ― Shen QingQiu embodied them all.
Mouth agape, Luo Binghe felt warmth suffuse his face.
Ning YingYing screamed next to his ear, crushing his arm between her hands. “Shifu won! Ah, our master is really amazing! Those filthy demons won’t dare mess with us again after losing so miserably!”
“Hmph!” Beside her, Ming Fan cheered just as loudly. “Of course Shifu won’t lose to these lowly demons! He is our Qing Jing Peak’s Xiu Ya Sword!”
To win with such a stunning performance … Luo BingHe’s heart swayed.
Shizun really was amazing.
Luo BingHe was so entranced by Shen QingQiu’s beautiful and domineering strength that he nearly missed the start of the second match. It was only because he felt Shen QingQiu’s eyes fall on him again that he snapped out of his daze.
To be noticed so much by his cold and indifferent Master … could it be that the crazy and unrealistic thoughts that troubled Luo BingHe these past few months held merit?
Could Shizun actually look … favoringly on me?
“Luo BingHe, you come out.”
Terrified but unwilling to lose his division’s face in front of so many eyes, much less his Master’s honor, Luo BingHe endured the demon’s ruthless onslaught. His cultivation was shallow, his physical strength small, his experience nowhere near enough to allow him to even dream of being a match to his opponent.
If not to cause trouble for him, why else pick him to go onstage?
He was worthless in his Master’s eyes.
Amidst the hurt from his injuries, Luo BingHe’s heart throbbed painfully.
Confident and calm, with utmost faith ―
“He will win.”
The spoken words deeply shook Luo BingHe.
He will win.
To entrust Luo BingHe with such an important task, one where failure would dishonor not only their entire Sect but Shen QingQiu himself ― the belief Shizun placed on Luo BingHe could only be real!
Aside from his mother, no one had ever believed in him before.
Was he wrong, all these years?
Did his Master in fact … not hate him?
Were all the past hardships actually … Shen QingQiu testing him? Like he was doing now? Believing Luo BingHe would prevail, trusting him to endure and come out all the better for his pains? All this time, was his Master actually … testing his mettle?
At this realization, a dam seemed to burst from deep inside him, wonderful and unlike anything Luo BingHe had ever experienced before.
Even if it was only for the sake of the trust given to him, no matter the odds, Luo BingHe would not lose!
All the jeering and booing from before came to a frozen stop. Amidst the stunned crowd, only Shen QingQiu stood with a tranquil appearance, as if he had expected this outcome from the very start.
Suppressing the blood clogging his chest, Luo BingHe breathed raggedly, knees shaking but legs firmly refusing to bend. With great difficulty, his head rose. Sweat and blood dripped down his eyes, blurring his vision, but his eyes did not betray him.
Not a single trace of disgust or hatred marred his Master’s graceful face.
For the first time, Shen QingQiu’s eyes were neither cold nor indifferent when they looked at Luo BingHe. An unknown emotion surged in Luo BingHe’s chest, but just when he grasped the words he wanted to say, from the corner of his eye, he saw the demon he had only just defeated launch himself at him!
There was no time to even close his eyes to brace himself for the pain. In the next second, the demon was kneeling before him, his shock no doubt mirroring Luo BingHe’s own. Swallowing thickly, Luo BingHe looked at his Master standing beside him.
“My division isn’t for you to bully!”
That strong back … the white and green robes fluttering elegantly in the wind … the peerless countenance of an immortal … Forget words; Luo BingHe could barely process his own thoughts.
The harsh and disdainful immortal who Luo BingHe thought hated him, but who actually thought highly of Luo BingHe and protected him at the last critical moment ― this was Luo BingHe’s Master!
“Nothing wrong?” Shen QingQiu asked coolly.
His Master's tone lacked concern, but Luo BingHe knew better now. His Master’s words and actions may not always match his real intentions, but his regard for Luo BingHe was true. Touched beyond belief, Luo BingHe could only foolishly nod his head, his words slow and clumsy from holding back his emotions.
“Many thanks to Shizun for saving me.”
If Luo BingHe cried now, would he not lose Shizun face? He didn’t dare!
Feeling his words were lacking in expressing the gratitude he felt, not just for saving him, but for everything else too, Luo BingHe furiously thought how to better convey his current feelings. He dared not look at his Master’s face, feeling oddly shy. Neither did he move away from his Master, content to remain standing under the shadow of that heroic figure. This feeling of being protected … Luo BingHe rejoiced in it.
Suddenly, he was roughly pushed behind that same heroic back. Everything happened too quickly. When Luo BingHe next righted himself, it was to the sight of Shen QingQiu blocking what would have been a devastating blow from striking him.
Xiu Ya’s beautiful white blade dripped viscous hot blood.
Face draining of all color, Luo BingHe clutched his Master’s injured hand. “Shizun, you … were pierced by his armor?!”
His Master barely spared his injury a second glance.
Unbothered, Shen QingQiu disregarded Luo BingHe’s concern. “It is nothing. I was not pierced. Don’t listen to him exaggerate only to alarm people.”
“If I say the poison has no cure, then there is no cure.” The Elder demon laughed, deranged. “Peak Lord Shen, peacefully await your death!”
Eyes burning with the telltale sting of tears, Luo BingHe grit his teeth. That frightening, hot black fury from before began to boil in his chest, unrelentingly pressing against the surface, threatening to break free.
Pushing himself to the front to stand protectively over Shen QingQiu, Luo BingHe drew Xiu Ya from the demon’s breast and held it against the beast's throat, livid.
This lowly demon dared to harm his Master!
He did not deserve to live!
“Impossible! There must be a way, only you’re unwilling to give out the cure.”
The dark, furious and turbulent emotions bubbled hotly under his skin. Before, that day on the clearing, Luo BingHe had been frightened by himself and by that terrible anger, having never felt such negative and poisonous emotions before.
His mother was the only light in his otherwise bleak existence, the memory of her warmth what he turned to when he needed the strength to keep going. Luo BingHe did not care what miseries and pains he suffered so long as the image of her in his heart remained unblemished. She was gone but he would never forget her love and kindness. Neither would he allow anyone to speak or think ill of her.
Luo BingHe thought he was alone after he lost her, but he had been blind. The Master he thought hated him, actually risked his life not once, but twice, to save him. All these years, there had been a person by his side who cared about him and looked at him favoringly.
Shen QingQiu’s past bad treatment, it was all erased from Luo BingHe’s heart. His Master only sought to make him stronger. Shen QingQiu would not give Luo BingHe a task he didn’t believe Luo BingHe could not accomplish. Everything had been for Luo BingHe’s sake.
Without A Cure: starting from the wound, the injured party’s spiritual power circulation would be interrupted; slowly, it would spread to the entire body; finally, not only spiritual power but even blood would stagnate and cause the person to die.
Listening to the demon’s words, Luo BingHe’s lips trembled. Fear and self-blame choked him.
To protect him, his Master's immortal body and cultivation could be wasted, even his life could be forfeit!
“I invite Elder Shen to use his right hand to try a strong spiritual attack. You will be able to see the outcome.”
Holding back tears, Luo BingHe grit his teeth and glared hatefully at the demon’s representative.
This wretched demon, this horrible woman, if she had not come …
At that moment, Luo BingHe felt that if he were given the opportunity to kill this demon, he would not hesitate in the slightest. The terrible feeling inside him rose, a near unstoppable tidal wave rolling to a crest.
The hand holding Xiu Ya stood firm.
All of this … was all for him.
“No need to worry.”
The gentle touch on his head was so unexpected, but so welcomed, that the dark desires vanished like mist under a strong sun. From head to toe, Luo BingHe was warmed.
The touch vanished too soon for his liking, but it did what it set out to do. Luo BingHe’s pitch-black anger was placated. Apparently pleased with Luo Binghe’s obedience, Shen QingQiu moved him aside and stepped forward to face the demon. Luo Binghe pressed his mouth shut and stared at his Master with worried eyes.
Because of him, because he was weak, his Master suffered a grievous injury.
Guilt churned in his chest, heavy and vast.
Uncharacteristically, Shen QingQiu laughed. “It won’t hurt to give it a try. But this matter can’t be tried without anything in return. Miss Sha, you entered and created chaos in Qiong Ding Peak and this Shen QingQiu always keeps his forbearance. Now I’ve changed my mind; you can’t just come and go as you please. How can I let my Cang Qiong Mountain Sect be laughed at by others?”
Strong and foreboding, standing tall and straight, unwilling to bend even under such dire circumstances! His Master really was too amazing! Luo BingHe felt entirely inadequate to stand beside him.
This was his Master, such a dignified person actually had Luo BingHe in his sight. How could Luo BingHe let his Master face that wretched demon alone when he was injured? An injury he bore in Luo BingHe’s stead.
Pushing down any trepidation, he pulled at his Master’s robe and said lowly, “Shizun, this disciple is willing to receive the attack in your place.”
Shen QingQiu’s expression remained unchanged, unflinchingly calm and blase. He pulled his sleeve free from Luo BingHe’s grasp. “Since when has the student stood in stead of the teacher?”
Luo BingHe was cut short by the words, but preserved nonetheless, his concern for his Master’s safety stronger than his fear of insulting Shen QingQiu. “Shizun was injured because of this disciple … ”
Dark eyes glared at him, that stern mouth a thin line of displeasure. Luo BingHe immediately swallowed the rest of his words. If his Master’s previous cold and indifferent attitude was difficult to bear, he now realized that there was something even worse: Shen QingQiu’s anger.
In all the years he had been a Qing Jing disciple, he had never provoked his Master to anger. The tasks and lessons Shen QingQiu dealt out, they were all given with an inscrutable expression, his aura impossible to read. If Luo BingHe pushed his Master to anger, would Shen QingQiu turn his back on him?
Luo BingHe deliberated, conflicted.
It took him so long to understand his Master’s feelings. If he were in his Master’s place, he would have long lost patience with such a slow, stupid disciple. Luo BingHe feared losing what he finally realized he always had. He feared pushing his Master’s limits.
“Since you know this injury is because of you, you should properly protect your own life!”
Luo BingHe could barely keep his tears at bay. He struggled to speak but couldn’t. Uselessly, he was kicked to the side and out of harm’s way.
Before, he intended to leave Qing Jing Peak and carve out his own path, become strong, strong enough for ― for what? He could no longer remember. But now, watching his injured Master prepare to fight to protect him, Luo BingHe was struck by a strong feeling of inadequacy.
He failed at protecting his mother. She died after tirelessly working to provide a better life for him, to put food in his stomach, to ensure he could survive. Luo BingHe never got the chance to say goodbye to her. She was stolen from him.
Would the past repeat itself?
Enviously, Luo BingHe watched Liu QingGe easily defeat the demon invaders. He could only stay on the sidelines as his Liu-Shishu protected and took care of his Master, the casual intimacy between the two making something inexplicably sour inside him.
“How am I?” Despite asking for his well-being, Shen QingQiu remained unconcerned, as if the past recent events had never even transpired.
In Luo BingHe’s eyes, LiuQingGe looked particularly vexed. Clicking his tongue, Liu QingGe said, “You won’t die.”
Bain Zhan’s Peak Lord grasped his Master’s injured hand, his previously annoyed expression turning deeply serious. He inexplicably pulled Shen QingQiu closer, his grip on Shen QingQiu’s hand visibly tightening. “What I owe you back from the Spirit Caves, I’ll return to you!”
These past several months, they had been together in the Spirit Caves? Luo BingHe ignored the odd cocktail of feelings bubbling in his chest and forced himself to ask: “Liu-Shishu, this strong poison, Without a Cure, is it truly without a cure?”
Being stared at by the Sect’s famous War God, the pressure was immense. Luo BingHe swallowed dryly and would have continued to wait expectantly for an answer had Shen QingQiu not suddenly collapsed.
“ … let me lie down for a moment.”
Liu QingGe made an abortive moment, as if he had been about to reach out, but Luo BingHe moved faster and without hesitation. He caught his Master around the shoulders before Shen QingQiu could drop. They descended down together.
Luo BingHe’s eyes burned, his throat unbearably itchy. He had never seen his Master look so frail. Even during the Skinner incident, Shen QingQiu had not been seriously harmed. His Master’s face was deathly pale, sweat dabbing his forehead. He looked extremely poor, strands of hair sticking to his fever pink cheeks, the two solitary bright spots of color solely helping him look sicker.
Uselessly, Luo BingHe could only kneel by his side and weakly call, “Shizun.”
His Master struggled to raise his arm. Luo BingHe’s guilt rose higher as he saw how much such a simple motion cost his Master. “Shizun, Shizun … ”
Gasping softly, Shen QingQiu rubbed Luo BingHe’s head affectionately.
“I knew … you would definitely win.”
When Shen QingQiu coughed up a mouthful of blood, Luo Binghe could no longer hold back his tears. Cradling his Master in his arms when Shen QingQiu fell unconscious, Luo BingHe wept miserably.
“Shizun! Shizun!” Big, fat tears poured down his cheeks without stop. The tears dripped all the way down to his Master’s face. “I’m sorry! I was stupid, I didn’t understand Shizun! This disciple … he will do better!”
“Idiot!” Liu QingGe said between clenched teeth. His face looked terribly angry. “You, give him to me!”
Abruptly pushed away, Luo BingHe was once again relegated to the sidelines.
Shen QingQiu was pulled into Liu QingGe's arms, his long unbound hair and loose, light-colored robes adding an air of tragic fragility to the scene. Without so much as a backwards glance to the crowd of pale faced and worried disciples, Liu QingGe mounted his sword and took off.
In the back of his head, Luo BingHe knew his martial uncle must be taking his Master to safety. The demons who weren’t killed on the spot or managed to flee were quickly and efficiently incarcerated by the experienced senior disciples of Bai Zhan Peak. Shijie Ning YingYing found him in the crowd and together they followed the hallmasters’ directions and took the long road back to Qing Jing Peak to await news of their Master’s condition.
In a daze, Luo BingHe could only follow.
Because the Rainbow Bridge had been compromised, the hallmasters and disciples stranded in Qing Jing Peak could only bite their tongues and stand watch over their side of the mountain range. What if the demons launched an attack on their Peak while their Master risked his life protecting the Sect's main headquarters? They absolutely could not let that happen! The older senior disciples whose cultivation allowed them to fly on their personal swords stayed for that same reason. Who would protect their juniors if they left? Together, they were forced to wait until the group of juniors who left earlier for Qiong Ding Peak returned with terrible news: the Master had been injured during the demon invasion!
Seeing her juniors’ pale and frightened faces, the sister with strong martial arts could not bring herself to scold them them too severely.
She promptly smacked Ming Fan on the back of the head. “Head Disciple? Some kind of Head Disciple, letting our Shifu be injured!”
Immediately, several of Ming Fan’s martial brothers came to his defense. “Shijie, it was impossible for any of us to help! Those wretched demons only know to pull tricks and fight dirty!” Tears welled up in the eyes of these sorry disciples. “Our Shifu only just began treating us nicely, what if he dies?”
The weeping disciples were also smacked.
“You dare to say such stupid words? Go to the Hall of Repenting and kneel until midnight!”
Even if she was not yet a hallmaster, they dared not disobey. The sister was too scary and strong.
At that moment, Ming Fan exploded. Toward the quiet and morose Luo BingHe, he pointed an accusing finger and said, “If Shifu is injured, it is this one’s fault! To protect him … to protect this dirty brat ...Shifu, Shifu, he … ” He looked hatefully at Luo BingHe, pained by the words he had to say. “To protect him, Shifu was injured! You dare remain in his Qing Jing Peak after failing so miserably as a disciple? You have some guts!”
Bristling, Ming YingYing said, “Shixiong, how could you say that? A-Luo won his match fair and square against that demon! It was the demon who played dirty and hurt Shifu!”
What match? The stranded hallmasters and disciples were promptly filled in on the events that transpired in Qiong Ding Peak. The three matches, the terrible demon girl, and Luo BingHe’s heroic win. Upon learning how the Master was injured, the disciples all wore distraught looks,
“No cure? How can that be! Our Shifu … ”
“Our Cang Qiong Sect has Mu-Shishu! Mu-Shishu will definitely cure Shifu!”
“But if it has no cure … ”
“A-Luo, are you alright?” Ning YingYing asked, pulling him away from the crowd.
Listlessly, Luo BingHe nodded his head.
Luo BingHe was just a lowly junior disciple. He had no rank or privilege to know the whereabouts and condition of a Peak Lord, even if said Peak Lord was his own master. He could only wait with the rest of his martial brother and sisters for news. The Qing Jing disciples waited all night, unable to sleep.
Sitting morosely with Ning YingYing’s head resting on his shoulder as she lightly dozed, Luo BingHe clenched his hands on his knees.
He was weak. He couldn’t protect his mother in the past, and in the present, he couldn’t protect his Master.
In the future, will he lose his Master like he lost her?
Unwilling to sleep or rest his aching body, Luo BingHe was haunted by horrible visions of Shen QingQiu dying. Each time, Luo BingHe was unable to protect him.
His mind was only put at ease when finally, news reached Qing Jing Peak.
The disciples rushed as a whole toward the Master’s bamboo house. As the top disciple, Ming Fan pushed himself to the front to formally greet the Sect Head and their elder martial uncle Mu QingFang and martial uncle Liu QingGe. The disciples followed suit after him, each one looking ragged and sleep deprived.
“Sect Head, this small disciple asks Sect Head, our Shifu, is he … ” Ning YingYing tearfully spoke, voicing everyone’s concern. Bursting into tears, she cried, “T - this disciple heard that wretched demon say that, that the poison has no cure … will our Shifu, will he … ”
Unable to continue, she threw herself at Luo BingHe’s chest, sobbing piteously. Luo BingHe could barely pay her any mind, bloodshot eyes staring expectantly at the Sect Head.
He refused to believe his Master could be dead. He absolutely refused to believe it!
Those foul demons, they could not be allowed to keep their lives!
“Junior martial brother Shen is lucky to have such filial disciples,” the Sect Head said, smiling, the sincerity of it immediatly putting many of them at ease. “Rest assured, your master is alive and well. The poison has been dealt with. Your elder martial uncle Mu will be taking care of Shidi, but he will need some time before he can return as your master. I hope you can support him during this time.”
“Yes, Sect Head! These disciples will take care of Shifu!”
Despite how badly Luo Binghe wished to meet Shen QingQiu, his rank did not allow him to simply march inside the bamboo house. He could only wait. He couldn’t be reassured by the words of the Sect Head, and neither could his heart settle until he saw his Master alive and well with his own eyes.
Before martial uncle Mu QingFang could leave, Luo BingHe wrestled down his crippling shyness and self-consciousness to run after him.
He wished he could believe in his martial uncle Mu, but Luo BingHe had been right next to his Master when Shen QingQiu collapsed. While the crowd of disciples easily believed the Sect Head’s words, Luo BingHe still held doubts.
“Mu-Shishu!” Luo BingHe called. To his surprise, Mu QingFang stopped, turning to meet him. Bravely, Luo BingHe asked, “Mu-Shishu, Shizun, is he really alright?”
Luo BingHe could not forget the dead weight of his Master in his arms, nor his sickly pale face and bloodstained mouth. The terrible memory haunted him.
Mu QingFan, famous for his serious and strict no-nonse temper, stared at him silently. After a long pause, in which Luo BingHe’s palms sweated nervously, Mu QingFan spoke. “You … you’re the disciple from the third match. But you’re … ” He gave Luo BingHe a cursory glance, clearly struggling with something unknown. With a click of his tongue, he said, “Your master wagered his life for yours. You would not know it by looking at you. Immediately have your injuries checked!”
Taken back, Luo Binghe’s eyes widened. He had completely forgotten about his own injuries. As for the pain, it had slipped to the back of his mind. Since his Master was injured the day before, the sole point of his focus became his Master’s wellbeing. He dared not leave to wash and clean his injuries for fear of something unexpected happening to his Master.
Luo BingHe was a rational and sensible youth, he knew well if something were to happen, such things would be beyond his means, but it did not matter to him. Luo BingHe simply and honestly followed his heart: he would not leave his Master’s side.
Mu QingFan narrowed his eyes, his famous temper obviously being needled. “How do you expect to look after your Master if you cannot even take care of yourself? Go. Senior martial brother Shen will not wake up any time soon. Do not let him wake up to see the disciple he fought so hard to protect look so pathetic.”
With every word spoken, Luo BingHe’s shoulders drooped more and more. Lowering his head, he could only let himself be reprimanded.
Looking at the boy’s sad state, Mu QingFan bit back his words. This disciple, did his senior martial brother Shen not hate him? Strange, very strange. Sighing, Mu QingFan could only say as much:
“It was your Master’s wish to protect you. Take care of your body, your Master would not wish to see you purposely worsen your injuries out of guilt.”
That’s right … for me … Shizun, for me …
Luo BingHe could only do as his martial uncle said. Mu QingFan was correct. His Master risked his life to save his. It would be dishonorable to pay back his Master with ungratefulness.
The following days, Luo BingHe woke extra early to dutifully and diligently practice his cultivation, finish his chores, and wait for his Master to wake up. His senior martial brothers paid him little mind aside from shixiong Ming Fan, who as usual, scolded him for being a terrible disciple. His scoldings were halfhearted. He, like everyone else, was waiting anxiously for Shen QingQiu to awaken.
Once his his practice was done, and after completing his chores, he would head to the kitchens.
In the past, his mother had fallen ill. Once, a young Luo BingHe had tried to do his mother one simple kindness: a warm bowl of congee. The memories he had of his mother were priceless treasures, but this memory was one full of regret and pain. In the end, Luo BingHe was unable to give this plain bowl of congee to his mother before she died.
For the past days, Luo BingHe made a bowl of congee for his Master. The feelings he couldn’t express to his mother in the past, he wished to give to his Master in the present.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for caring about me.
The dish was simple and easy to cook, but one he could not afford to feed to his ill mother, who worked laboriously day and night to care for Luo BingHe. Luo BingHe was never able to repay the kind, loving woman for taking him in and giving him a home. She died alone, never knowing the taste of a single kindness in her life.
Thank you for acknowledging my existence.
Thinking about the warm food left behind in the kitchens, Luo BingHe followed behind shixiong Ming Fan to check on their Master. He ignored his martial brother’s dirty looks and pretended he was right where he belonged.
“Shifu, you’ve finally awoken!”
Heart in his throat, Luo BingHe rushed after Ming Fan's heels, but hesitated, not daring to enter his Master’s bamboo house. As top disciple, Ming Fan was given leeway, but Luo Binghe did not hold the same rank. He did not want to offend his Master by being presumptuous. Shen QingQiu adhered to rules and social rank, and was disdainful of ill manners.
“How come you’re still standing here?” Ming Fan squinted his eyes at Luo BingHe. “Don’t you know Shifu hates the sight of you?”
For the past few days, Ming Fan had been at a loss on what to do with this troublesome junior. How could Ming Fan dare to string up the little beast by his toes (again) when the Master had been injured protecting him? Would he not then be spitting on the Master's face? The Master considered the little beast worthy of sacrificing his immortal body! Ming Fan could only cry bitter tears of blood inside his heart.
His martial brother’s discourteous words (and silent wishes) flew over Luo BingHe’s head; instead, he stared at Shen QingQiu, looking for any visible sign of his injury. His Master looked better, but tired. His skin had a healthy rosy tint, and his eyes still held traces of sleep, damp and unfocused. A stray lock of hair was casually tucked behind a round ear. The simple motion was tracked by Luo BingHe’s eyes, his gaze stupidly falling to his Master’s bare neck, pale and elegant.
Rather than the many white and green layers of his usual robes, Shen QingQiu was dressed in his thin inner garments, disheveled by sleep.
Warmth creeped up Luo BingHe’s face.
Weakly holding up a hand to stop the barrage of words coming out of Ming Fan's mouth, Shen QingQiu said, “ … might as well. Up to him.”
Luo BingHe brightened, strange feeling immediately forgotten.
Throwing a baleful glare at him, Ming Fan turned back to Shen QingQiu and said he was ordered by the Sect Head and martial uncle Liu and elder martial uncle Mu to inform them as soon as Shen QingQiu woke up. WIth that, he bowed to their Master and rushed out the door as quick as his legs could take him.
However, even after his older martial brother left, Luo BingHe couldn’t force his clumsy tongue to form any words, nor did his body move from its spot outside the door. Faced with his Master, aware of his Master’s true feelings, Luo BingHe felt embarrassed and conscious of his previous desire to abandon Qing Jing Peak like a traitor.
He watched as his Shen QingQiu carefully sat up, noticing the slight tremble in his hand. The hand injured by the demon’s poison.
If he was in pain, his Master did not show it. Shen QingQiu folded his hands on his lap, back straight. “Do you have anything to say? If so, come in.”
Luo Binghe’s conviction was firm, and his decision would not change. With a clear goal in mind, he stepped inside the bamboo house for the first time and dropped to his knees in front of Shen QingQiu.
He knocked his head on the floor. Taking a deep breath, he looked up with reddened eyes at his Master. “Asking Shizun to forgive this disciple’s past ignorance.”
Shen QingQiu remained silent. Fortifying his courage, Luo BingHe said, hoping to convey the sincerity of his words, “From now on, this disciple will wait upon Shizun with all his heart, obey all your commands and instructions.”
Touching his forehead to the floor again, he clenched his hands.
Luo Binghe had been ignorant for so long, blind to his Master’s true feelings. He could only honestly and openly profess his loyalty and hope his vow would be accepted by his Master.
After a moment longer, his Master’s words drifted down to him. “As long as you understand, it’s fine. You get up first.”
Heart fit to burst with happiness, Luo BingHe rose. Before he could leave, a thought rose in his mind.
His mother, dead, who never ate the bowl of congee.
His Master, alive, willing to still accept Luo Binghe.
The past and the present, different but similar.
Bashful, he wondered if his Master would be willing to eat the food he made. He did not think much of his cooking, but it could be a small way to begin paying back his Master’s kindness.
And, if this time, he could finally be the one to do the caring … if he could feed Shen QingQiu that simple bowl of congee … despite all the hardships and cruelty Luo BingHe had suffered until now, he was still a young boy, with a tender and fragile soul. In his heart, he believed if he could accomplish with Shen QingQiu what he could not do as a child with his mother, the tragedy of the past would not repeat itself.
Dark eyes cut him to the quick. “Is there anything else?”
Summoning his courage, Luo BingHe blurted out, “Shizun slept for many days and just woke up. I don’t know if Shizun has any appetite?”
He was expecting his Master to decline. After all, he was an all powerful cultivator, abstaining from worldly desires, diligent in following the simple lifestyle of his Clear Calm Peak.
However, unexpectedly, his Master’s face lit up in interest, quickly answering, “Very much. You bring it up, then.”
Staring dumbly, a stray, unbidden thought drifted in Luo BingHe's mind:
Shen QingQiu’s face was very nice to look at.
Shaking off his strange thoughts, Luo BingHe rushed to the kitchens. His heart beat a little too fast, and his face was a little too warm, but Luo BingHe’s innocent happiness outshined any and all strange, unfamiliar feelings. He cut through the Bamboo Forest to half the time it took to reach the kitchens and returned to his Master’s side with a piping hot plate of food.
Carefully, he helped his Master sit up, prepared to feed him back to health, unconsciously performing the same motions he did as a child at his mother’s sickbed. Shen QingQiu halted his actions, taking the bowl and spoon himself. Luo Binghe stood at his bedside, nervous.
Shyly, he looked through his lashes.
His Master ate slowly, taking small spoonfuls. The livelines from before left no trace, his face the perfect picture of mature elegance. Recalling the bright, vivacious dark eyes from minutes ago, Luo BingHe couldn’t help but impetuously think again: his Master’s face was very good to look at.
The strange feeling of guilt made a comeback. Immediately bowing his head, Luo BingHe felt his ears grow hot.
He scolded himself. Such disrespectful thoughts! Luo BingHe swore to burn incense at the Hall of Repenting that night.
“The taste isn’t bad.”
Like a flower warmed by the sun, Luo Binghe felt buoyant. “If Shizun likes it, how about having this disciple make new things for you every day?”
Shen QingQiu choked. Alarmed, Luo BingHe rushed to his side and attentively patted his Master’s back. Was it the food? His mood plummeted.
Covering his mouth, Shen QingQiu’s slender eyebrows furrowed. His color waned, the rosiness gone. Panicked, Luo BingHe took the bowl and spoon away and had half a mind to throw the food away immediately.
Uneasy, fearing he’d done something wrong to offend his Master, Luo BingHe nervously asked, “Shizun, do you not like it?”
Clearing his throat, Shen QingQiu raised his head to meet Luo BingHe’s worried eyes. His expression was genial and kind, as beautiful as a blossom unfurling in the warm spring. His dark eyes looked at Luo Binghe with fondness. “This Master really likes it. These duties will be given to your care from now on.”
Luo Binghe felt lightheaded. Rendered completely useless by the sight of his Master’s usual cool, academic bearing transformed into such an open, friendly and genial expression, he could do nothing but smile in return.
With that same warm mien, Shen QingQiu dismissed him.
Luo Binghe left in a happy daze.
Full to bursting with his Master’s good intentions and wonderful smile, he made his way to the kitchens to plan out tomorrow’s meals. The congee was essential; it was good, healthy, and the perfect comfort food for the recovering patient. The rice, onion, cabbage, garlic, and stock were cooked until the rice was perfectly soft and the congee had thickened. His Master said he liked it, of course Luo BingHe would continue to cook it for him.
Suddenly, he was confronted by a red-faced Ming Fan stomping behind him. His senior martial brother advanced on him while furiously shouting, “Go chop firewood for me! Chop eighty bundles! Fill the storage-shed! Go fetch water! The water jars in your apprentice-brothers’ rooms are all empty, are you blind and can’t see?!”
Blinking widely, Luo BingHe puzzled, “But, apprentice brother, where do I sleep if the storage-shed is full?”
His shixiong’s red, angry face and abrupt commands were normal to him. Luo BingHe simply wondered what would become of his ‘accommodations.’
“Isn’t there flat ground right here? Can’t you sleep here?!”
It would be more convenient to stay near the kitchens if he was going to be cooking for his Master from now on, and it wasn’t like moving his few possessions would be a hassle. He made a note to ask the cooks if he could stay in the kitchen’s storage closet.
“Apprentice brother, I just filled the water jars in the rooms today … ”
“The water isn’t fresh, redo it!”
Before, though he understood the hierarchy and completed all his tasks without complaint, he nevertheless felt some bitterness. But that was before. Now, there was very little bitterness Luo BingHe wouldn’t willingly swallow. His Master was so good to him, and cared for him to the point of willingly risking his life to save Luo BingHe. Truly, he was the luckiest disciple in the world.
Luo BingHe smiled inside his heart and obediently turned to complete his chores.
He stumbled when, behind him, he heard his martial brother curse under his breath:
“ … what part of this stinking brat came into Shifu’s eyes, for Shifu to treat him with such special interest. What great achievements, what dog shit difference from others! Even if Shifu has been blinded by this stinking brat, Martial Uncle Liu won’t guide him …”
Luo BingHe was enveloped by a warm, wonderful feeling. Like a tender little sprout, carefully and lovingly watered, he felt his strength soar by leaps and bounds. Similarly, his heart rose as high as a kite, lifted by the strong winds of his Master’s affection.
Shizun really favored him!
For the Master who deemed him worthy of his consideration, who even went as far as to talk so favouringly of him to martial uncle Liu, Luo BingHe would not dawdle.
Working through the afternoon to complete his chores, Luo BingHe at last could return to the kitchens to do the prep work for the following morning’s breakfast. The cooks kindly agreed to let Luo BingHe stay in the adjoined storage room, confused but weak against the honest youth’s enthusiasm. Throughout the day, their Peak had been extra lively, all 11 Peak Lords visited with their top students to extend their appreciation towards Shen QingQiu.
Tired in body but not in spirit, Luo BingHe laid down to sleep.
He woke up to a vast nothingness, a lonely horizon in the distance.
A sensible and simple youth, Luo Binghe of course did not know where this was. His only guess was that he was probably dreaming, but he had never dreamed something so bizarre before. No matter how much time passed, or how long he walked, the decreasing horizon stayed far beyond his reach. He grew neither tired or hungry, and after an unknown amount of time passed, he began to grow worried. If this was a nightmare, surely he would have woken up by now.
He continued to walk, unsurprised when vegetation and trees took root and grew at extraordinary speeds. Steadily, he walked and walked through the wilderness. A creeping fog descended, obscuring the far away horizon.
Swallowing nervously, Luo BingHe stopped. Fear began to take root in his heart.
It was at this time that he saw a spot of white in the distance.
Heartbeat rising, he quickly rushed toward the familiar figure.
Relief poured through his body like a sweet balm.
“Shizun!” Excited, he called several times. He didn’t know why his Master would be in this strange place, but that concern was obscured by the comfort of seeing Shen QingQiu. “Shizun!”
Whatever this place was, his Master’s presence was a great reassurance.
Looking usurprised to see him, his Master held up a hand to stop Luo BingHe from running into him. Calmly, Shen QingQiu said, “I heard, you don’t need to call so many times.”
Chagrined, Luo BinHe skidded to a stop before his Master. Bowing his head, he quickly said, “Yes. Shizun, how come you’re here too? Do you know where this is?
Shen QingQiu serenely answered, “Of course I know. This is a dream realm.”
Luo BingHe frowned. He took in his Master’s unperturbed bearing and took a long look at their surroundings. The scenery continued to change. Time didn’t exist in this place. It definitely was not something he would dream. As for his Master … perhaps this was some type of new training lesson?
Confused, and emboldened by his Master’s patience, he asked, “A dream realm … then why am I here?”
Directing his sharp gaze at him, his Master said, “It would be strange for anyone to be here. Only your presence here is normal. This is inside your dream.”
Stunned, Luo BingHe looked again at the desolate wasteland, and then toward his Master. His Master stood tall and steady, completely sure of himself. “My dream realm … it’s actually like this?”
This place … it felt incredibly lonely.
Listening to his Master’s words, Luo BingHe learned that this was indeed his dream realm, and that it had been interfered by outside evil forces, causing it to become unstable.
“This Master was unknowingly pulled in by you.”
Guilty, Luo BingHe rushed to apologize.
In the privacy of his own head, Luo BingHe took himself to task. Stupid! How could he put his Master in danger yet again? Useless!
Deeper inside his heart, he cursed the foul demons once more. His hatred aroused, he doubled his promise to one day eradicate them all.
Smiling lightly, Shen QingQiu continued to patiently explain their current predicament. Luo BingHe stood at attention, dismayed when he learned the depths of his fault. He really was no good, and his Master too kind. Shen QingQiu did not blame Luo Binghe for dragging him into this mess.
Following his Master, together they walked to the edge of the dream. As they walked, Luo BingHe sneaked peeks at his Master’s face, as tranquil and cool as an unperturbed river stream. Seeing his Master’s calm demeanor, Luo BingHe did not doubt he would find a way to break them free from the dream scape.
But as they walked and walked and walked, Luo BingHe could not fully repress his worries. This was his dream world, but he was completely helpless. If his Master were injured again because of him, he would not be able to bear it. He was still too weak, he couldn’t protect Shen QingQiu. As he was, Luo BingHe would only get in his Master’s way.
Looking again at his Master’s face, Luo BingHe could not unravel his Master's unfathomable expression. Shen QingQiu's eyes were as deep and dark as the bottom of a frozen lake. Could it be his Master was troubled? Concerned, Luo BingHeasked, “Shizun, what’s wrong?”
Shen QingQiu came to a halt. His eyes closed briefly and opened again. He replied, gently mollifying, “Nothing. This master is thinking, dream demons usually attack the weakest part of a demon’s heart. You should make preparations."
Luo BingHe was right to think his Master was troubled by something. His Master was worried about Luo BingHe! Why wouldn’t he be? Luo BingHe wasn’t up to his Master's standards yet. If worse came to worst, he would drag Shen QingQiu down in a fight. While he was warmed by his Master’s concern, he was equally dejected to be such a liability. The best he could do was: not cause trouble and listen to his Master’s instructions without fail!
Decisive, Luo BingHe nodded firmly. “This disciple won’t let Shizun be implicated again,” he promised.
Accepting his resolve, Shen QingQiu motioned for them to continue their journey. Following behind his Master’s back, Luo BingHe watched the clouds in the sky change colors and the wilderness wilt and return to the earth. After an unknown amount of time passed and countless of steps were walked, the black clouds before them parted to reveal a town.
From somewhere above him, he heard his Master solemnly warn him to prepare himself, but Luo BingHe’s attention was on the familiar town gate, the familiar roads, the familiar market. All around them, figures of men, women, and children buzzed around the streets. Despite the bustle and bumble, there was no sound. No wind, no animal noises, there was even the distinct lack of a crowded town smell.
Upon closer inspection, Luo BingHe made a horrible discovery: not a single one of the people in this town had faces. Shivering, fear clawed up his throat. Voice rough, Luo BingHe nevertheless asked, “Shizun, what are these?”
Unfazed by the situation, Shen QingQiu took the time to thoroughly explain. Only a specific demon of special origins could have created such an intricate dreamscape.
Humbled by his Master’s vast knowledge, Luo BingHe asked, “Which demon?”
“A Dream Demon.”
Prepaped to ask more questions, Luo BingHe suddenly halted. From the corner of his eye, several figures in the crowd with definite features rushed past.
“What’s the matter?”
Luo BingHe turned to his Master to quickly answer his question, proud when Shen QingQiu, without hesitation or doubt, gave a crisp, curt agreement and followed his directions. They hastened to make chase.
The feeling of trust was truly wonderful. Luo BingHe had never tasted anything as sweet. He was no longer as worried, confident that whatever they faced, they would face it together. Even if he couldn’t help as much as he wanted, Luo BingHe fully believed in his Master’s strength.
Luo BingHe just never expected that the obstacle standing in their way would be himself.
As if from far away, he heard his Master softly say, “BingHe, this is only an illusion,” but he couldn’t break free from the spectacle taking place before him. Luo BingHe clutched his head, tears prickling the corners of his eyes.
This familiar town, this familiar scene …
“Step on him to death. Isn’t he pitiful, doesn’t he have nothing to eat and is hungry? If he’s beaten to death he won’t have nothing to eat anymore!”
This familiar boy, dirty, pathetic, weak, unable to do anything.
When his eyes met those of his younger self, the pain in Luo BingHe's head rose to a splitting scream.
The pain burned, bubbled, turned into that ugly, black anger.
Gasping uncontrollably, Luo BingHe clawed at his chest.
There was something hot inside his body, something unknown, something terrifying and uncontrollable.
It felt like hatred.
He felt someone grab him, their touch cool against his burning skin. “See, you can’t touch them. This is only the Dream Demon’s trap.”
The voice was familiar, and Luo BingHe knew that the person speaking was important, and that he should listen to them — but he was catching fire and he didn’t know how to stop.
Deep inside his heart where even he himself had nearly forgotten, Luo BingHe had buried these memories. It’s not good to hold onto grudges. Wasn’t that what his mother had taught him? She was a humble, kind and honest woman. She worked hard day and night, never once complaining, never once regretting taking in a stray mouth to feed. Luo BingHe sat at her side every day while she did her women's work and admired her character. She was pure, unsullied by the world’s evils and corruptions, strong in ways no one but Luo BingHe would ever know.
Luo BingHe would have done anything for her.
“BingHe, you’re really obedient.”
The intimate sound of his name, the warm touch on his head ... no one would ever treat him so kindly again, just like he would never again be special in someone’s heart after her death.
Just once, just once, he wanted to do something kind for her. All these hard years, she raised a child that wasn’t her own, loved him like he was her own flesh and blood. Their life was difficult but she never let him go hungry or cold, preferring to suffer in his place.
In all the world, there would never be a love as good and as selfless as hers.
If given a choice, Luo BingHe would happily return to those days.
Distantly, he felt a cool hand tightly envelop his own. “Luo BingHe! Look clearly, this isn’t your mother, you aren’t that weak child unable to fight back anymore!”
But he couldn’t, he could never return to the days where he was happiest.
She was stolen from him, robbed by the selfishness and cruelty of people. She, who was kindest, who was so good, who deserved a warm bowl of food and chance to finally, finally rest … such a person would never exist again.
Because people were cruel! Because people were selfish! Good honest people like his mother could never survive in this kind of ugly world! She never blamed anyone for her circumstances, she never once held a grudge against those that hurt her! But what did that give her? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! She died and Luo BingHe was left all alone to bear the cruelty and selfishness of others!
He tried so hard, every day he tried so hard, but he couldn’t be like her! Be kind, be honest, never desire what you can’t have, don’t hold animosity, don’t keep grudges, simply work hard and you will be rewarded. But no matter what Luo Binghe did, it was never good enough!
Why should he swallow every bitterness? Every hurt? Every desire? Why couldn’t he … why couldn’t he have …
Someone who loved him! Someone who put him first in their heart! Someone who would willingly suffer to protect him!
This kind of person, why shouldn’t he have it? Why couldn't it be his? Because he wasn’t worthy enough? Just a short few years with his mother, is that all he deserved?
Not good enough!
If such a person couldn’t exist in this world, then this world didn’t deserve to exist!
Inside his heart, the black, hot fire burned brighter and brighter, waiting to erode everything in its path, when suddenly ― cool and soothing, a balm spread over his every cut, his every hurt, and over every little wound accumulated in his heart.
Then, the scattered, painful memories shattered.
Abruptly. Luo BingHe found himself in a cold, remote forest, the only light the solitary moon above his head. Breathing raggedly, he felt confused at his surroundings. Were they not just entering the familiar town gates?
Realization poured over Luo BingHe like a bucket of freezing water. He immediately sobered up and looked for his Master.
He didn’t have to search for long.
Visibly struggling, Shen QingQiu kneeled not far from him, gingerly holding his stomach. His face was ashen, a painful grimace distorting his elegant scholar features. Luo BingHe’s hand still held traces of a spiritual attack. It wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together.
He rushed to Shen QingQiu's side, painfully dropping to his knees. He hastily wiped his hands on his pants before carefully supporting his Master. Choking on his guilt, Luo BingHe could only offer useless words in repentance, “Shizun! Why didn't you strike back!”
With his current level, that he was able to hurt Shen QingQiu was a joke. The difference between the two was as vast as a mountain range. Shen QingQiu could have easily defended himself from Luo BingHe's attack. Even if Luo BingHe would have suffered from the backlash, it would have been a better alternative than his Master being injured yet again!
Smiling weakly, Shen QingQiu shook his head. His eyes were entirely blameless as they looked at Luo BingHe. “Silly child … the original purpose was for you not to be hurt. If I striked back and injured you, would there be any meaning?”
Someone who loved him
Luo BingHe’s guilt was incomparable. From beginning to end, it was he himself who kept dragging his Master into danger. First, because he was too weak, his Master was poisoned and suffered a great injury. And now, because he was too weak to resist the Dream Demon’s trap, his Master was hurt again by his hand. Luo BingHe was so miserable he would have gladly killed himself as penitence, but he couldn’t simply abandon his Master as he was, not when the Dream Demon’s spell still trapped them.
Bitterly, he exclaimed, “But the one hurt right now is Shizun … this disciple should be dead ten times over!”
Luo BingHe was too weak. He was too weak to protect his mother. He was too weak to protect his Master. He was a failure. If he didn’t change, if he stayed the same … he would lose the only person who cared about him again.
Shen QingQiu’s face inexplicably softened. “This master’s cultivation is strong, being hit a few times doesn’t matter.”
It certainly did matter!
Luo BingHe would prefer Shen QingQiu punish him severely as he once had in the past. It would be a thousand times more preferable to his Master’s attempts at placating him.
Someone who would put him first in their heart
But he couldn’t lie to himself. His Master’s gentle words, his warm, indulgent attitude - Luo BingHe liked them all. He liked them so much. He greedily took Shen QingQiu’s smiles, words, and beautiful warmth in his hands and tucked them deep inside his chest, where his helpless heart cried out for more, more, more.
Even if Shen QingQiu was hurt because of him, Luo BingHe was unable to let him go now.
“It’s all my fault,” he said lowly, hiding his bitter smile.
He looked down at the hands supporting his Master and thought, these weak hands, will they one day push his Master to his death? The thought was unbearable, but just as equally unbearable was the thought of leaving Shen QingQiu’s side after knowing how his sweet his affection could be.
Obviously trying to soothe his young disciple, Shen QingQiu patiently said, “It’s not your fault. Demon Realm people have despicable methods that cannot be avoided. However, if you don’t want to have something similar happen in the future, you can only become strong.”
Luo BingHe quietly gasped, quickly looking back up at his Master’s face.
Of course, of course!
If he didn’t want to continue losing the people precious to him, the only path left to him was to become strong.
He couldn’t remain as he was, weak, pathetic, unable to do anything when he most needed to do something.
He would change, he wouldn’t let himself stay the same as he once was. Luo Binghe would not relive the past. He would become strong enough to protect his Master and his home. He would not lose the person he cared about again!
To pay Shen QingQiu back for looking after him all these years, for caring for him when no one else did, from now on Luo BingHe would dedicate his life to protect his Master’s beloved Qing Jing Peak. He would never let an incident like the Qiong Ding Peak invasion happen ever again; he would never again allow his Master to come into any harm. Luo BingHe would conquer those detestable demons that dared hurt his Master and pay them back tenfold!
For Shizun, to make him proud, to protect him, Luo BingHe would become invincible!
Kneeling in front of Shen QingQiu’s fallen form, he steeled his heart and firmly said, “I understand.”
If in the future he could not become a man strong enough to protect Qing Jing Peak, Luo BingHe would not be worthy of being his Master’s disciple. He would study and practice hard every day, so as to one day reach his dream.
Protect Qing Jing Peak and forever guard Shizun ― this was Luo Binghe’s resolution.
He clenched the hands on his lap into fists, carefully enunciating each word, “From now on these things … I definitely won’t let them happen a second time.”
If he let his Master suffer injury and pain again in his stead, Luo BingHe would completely fail as a man and as a disciple. He absolutely would not allow it. Moving forward, he would become Shen QingQiu’s sword and shield.
This body, his life, his strength ― he would dedicate his all to Shen QingQiu.
Directly meeting Luo BingHe’s determined eyes, Shen QingQiu stayed silent for a long moment. His pale face regained some color, his dark eyes understanding. “Mm.”
With trembling fingers, he raised his hand to softly touch Luo BingHe’s head.
Gently, his smile warming Luo BingHe from top to bottom, he said, “However, you don’t need to dwell on it too much. If you have no way of becoming strong, I’ll be by your side and protect you.”
The affectionate touch from before had cooled Luo BingHe’s fervent determination. His helpless heart was struck dumb every time his Master showed him affection, but hearing Shen QingQiu’s words, Luo BingHe was directly stunned.
Someone who would willingly suffer to protect him
There had never been someone who had expressed such a straightforward and warm commitment toward him before.
Though the world was large, how many people could say ‘you don’t need to become strong, I’m here and naturally won’t let you be bullied?’
The overwhelming emotions in Luo BingHe’s heart were almost impossible to hold in. The flood of affection he felt for his Master nearly drowned him, but it was such a sweet feeling that he would have happily died at this moment without any regrets. Shen QingQiu’s words, how could he not believe them? Hadn’t his Master proved again and again that he would rather risk his life than let Luo BingHe come to harm? His Master’s affection for him went beyond what he could ever imagine.
He indulged in the idea, living the rest of his life at his Master’s side, cocooned in the safety of his Master’s protection, a life not much different from the years spent with his mother. Luo BingHe would be happy to live such a life, but he couldn’t go back on his promise. While his heart wished for the indulgence of a coddled life at the feet of his Master, Luo BingHe’s fear of losing his Master was far greater. Twice he had nearly lost Shen QingQiu, he couldn’t let there be a third time.
Only the strong could protect what they most cherished.
However, while getting himself in order, Luo BingHe couldn’t help but recall his Master’s affectionate words, and his face suffused with heat.
For me, Shizun … he really values me ...
Clearing his throat, Shen QingQiu held his arm out to him. “Well. First, help me up.”
The skin of his wrist where his Master held onto for support burned hotly, the sensation spreading all over Luo BingHe's body. He was clueless as to what it could be, and could only wonder if it had to do with his Master, but he immediately shook away such disrespectful thoughts. It seemed he owed the Hall of Repentance more incense.
Focused on walking at a steady, sedated pace so as to not agitate Shen QingQiu's injury, the master and disciple duo were suddenly interrupted.
“This brat was actually able to break this old man’s enchantment. Definitely not a simple person.”
The demon responsible for trapping them in the dream realm had at last revealed himself.
Luo BingHe, who was wholly prepared to lay down his life to ensure his Master’s survival, was instead forced to watch as his Master was rendered unconscious. Watching protectively over him, Luo BingHe faced the demon’s poisonous words and stood firm against his lowly tricks. Trying to turn him against his Master, this demon was too daring!
It didn’t matter to him how others saw their relationship, to him, Shen QingQiu had become his most precious person. All of his Master’s past actions were clear to him. All those tasks, all those punishments, they were his Master’s teachings. Lessons and experiences to make Luo BingHe stronger!
To forever protect his Master, this was Luo Binghe’s ambition. He would not be led astray from his path.
“This old man feels that on your body, there is something very extraordinary. I don’t know what it can be.”
Outwardly, Luo BingHe perfectly projected the cool and indifferent aura he respected in his Master, while inwardly, he was furiously thinking about how he was going to get his Master to safety. But, upon hearing the Dream Demon’s words, his thoughts came to a screeching halt.
That mysterious, burning something inside his body, the terrible, awe-inspiring anger that sometimes threatened to take over him ― all along, and he had never known, Luo BingHe was of the same ilk as those demons that hurt his Master.
His thoughts became extremely muddled, and he would have fallen into a deep panic had he not remembered that laying behind him, depending on Luo BingHe to protect him, was the unconscious Shen QingQiu. That singularly important priority became his focus.
It didn’t matter.
It didn’t change anything!
Luo BingHe’s heart remained the same. The demons that hurt his Master, he would never have any ties to them.
Gloomily, the Dream Demon reproached, “Brat, do you dare say three words without mentioning that Shizun of yours?”
Luo BingHe grew less agitated the more they went back and forth. It was obvious the demon wanted something from him, and would not dare to attack him and risk angering him. The demon had revealed its major weakness to him, either to placify Luo BingHe or to win his trust, it didn’t matter; whatever the demon wanted, Luo BingHe would not allow him to harm his Master.
Loftily, the Dream Demon finally grew tired of tricks and got to the thick of it, “This old man can not only teach you how to suppress him, but can also teach you even more things.”
To cultivate the demonic path and incur the wrath and disdain of his Master, as if Luo Binghe would dare!
His heart was tempted by the Dream Demon’s words, how could it not? What Luo BingHe needed most was strength, the power to keep his Master safe, but the risks were too great. His Master hated demons. It was enough to know he carried demon blood; since he learned of his heritage, the fear that his Master would discover this secret and reject him was growing more and more.
How could he face his Master if he fell into the demonic path as well?
“No,” Luo BingHe flatly refused.
The Dream Demon was angered. Unwilling to give up, he coldly warned Luo BingHe of the repercussions of his actions, threatening, “Wait until one day the seal is broken, the evil comes out, and a band of demon slayers surround you including your good shifu; how will he treat you?”
The blade drove straight into his weakest, softest part. Luo BingHe's mood plummeted, but he refused to yield. He could not call himself Shen QingQiu’s disciple if he admitted defeat here!
Leisurely, he struck back with his own parry, ruthlessly aiming for the demon’s own weakness. “Why is this Elder so anxious to teach me? I’m afraid it’s not only because you aren’t willing for your lost body of knowledge to be without a successor?”
He wouldn’t let the demon gain the upper hand. Staunchly refusing no matter how much the Elder Demon cajoled, lied, coerced and tempted him, Luo BingHe held steady til the very end. Allowing a demon to pervade him, furthering corrupting him beyond his sin of already carrying demon blood, Luo Binghe would not allow it. No matter what the demon decided to do or say to him, Luo BingHe would bear it.
However, threatening his Master, this Luo BingHe would not allow!
Whoever hurt his Master, he didn’t care about their background or qualifications, he would end them all equally without discrimination!
Before the hot, growing-familiar surge of black anger could be stirred to awareness, with the Elder demon’s booming laugh resounding in the back of his head, Luo BingHe’s eyes startled open.
Alert and completely soaked in cold sweat, he found himself back in the storage shed.
Immediately jumping to his feet, he was running out the high double wooden doors of the compound’s first gate before he could fully catch his breath. Breathing raggedly, he cut through the Bamboo Forest and burst into the solitary bamboo house, likely damaging the finely carved entrance door but paying it no mind in his haste.
The simple but elegant bamboo house stood in the shape of a large square, with a small personal room inside that acted as Shen QingQiu’s private bathing chamber. Rushing past the two person sitting table and nearly knocking over a bookcase, he hesitated slightly as he came upon the beautifully carved six-panel folding screen obscuring his Master’s private bedroom area. With more care than he paid the entrance door, he pushed aside the screen to reveal the bed laying behind.
The large canopy bed was draped in exquisite veils, casting the sleeping person into blurry, soft shapes. Luo BingHe didn’t hesitate to rip aside these gauzy curtains, hurriedly flinging himself to his Master’s side.
“Shizun, how are you? Is there discomfort anywhere?”
Shen QingQiu was not asleep. With his back braced against the headboard, he had his eyes tightly closed. His loose hair stuck to his pale cheeks in inky clumps, perspiration beading his forehead. His expression was one of deep discomfort, lips tightly pressed together.
Before Luo Binghe could ask if he should immediately send for martial uncle Mu, Shen QingQiu shook off the last vestiges of whatever troubled him and put on a more relaxed expression. However, he couldn’t fool Luo BingHe. His Master was obviously suffering the the aftereffects of the Elder Demon’s dream realm.
“All is fine with this master,” Shen QingQiu said, moving to get up.
Luo BingHe held out his arm for support, but was summarily rejected. Wilting, Luo BingHe stayed silent, lowering his eyes to the floor.
Fear stagnated his heart.
It couldn’t be that his Master had discovered his secret, could it?
Looking up, he was met with the sight of Shen QingQiu leisurely combing his long black hair with his fingers, sliding the loose collar of his thin sleeping robe back into proper place. The image made Luo BingHe’s throat inexplicably dry.
“Did that Dream Demon give you any difficulties?”
Though his Master was neither proving him for answers or accusing him of colluding with demons, Luo BingHe nevertheless felt guilt. He hesitated a moment longer before replying, the lies heavy and bitter on his tongue.
None the wiser, his Master easily believed his words.
Testing the waters, Luo BingHe asked after Shen QingQiu’s own wellbeing. Shen QingQiu found his concern unnecessary, but his body language was strange and evasive. Luo BingHe felt anxious, halfway to believing that his Master was simply humoring and he did, in fact, know of his secret and was stalling before thoroughly rejecting him for carrying demon blood. How could he be sure that in the dream realm, his Master hadn’t uncovered the truth of his lineage? Or, could his Master simply be suffering from his injuries? Luo BingHe didn’t know what to do make things better.
When Shen QingQiu took hold of his wrist, surprising him, Luo BingHe could only honestly and willingly allow his Master to inspect him. Fearing the worst, Luo BingHe obediently stayed still.
Would his Master reject him? Would he turn his back on Luo BingHe and cast him out? His Master hated demons …
Dejected, he asked in a small voice, “Shizun … are demons all unpardonably evil and should be absolutely killed?”
If his Master rejected him … having now experienced his Master’s affection, only to again taste the loneliness of his reproach … Luo BingHe didn’t know if he could survive being cast away by the person he most trusted.
He wanted to become strong, stronger than anyone, but if becoming strong meant falling into demonic cultivation, causing his Master to hate him … Luo BingHe’s mind and heart were at odds. He couldn’t do anything about his demon blood, he didn’t choose to be a demon. Was he inherently evil simply because of the circumstances of his birth?
“There is no one in this world who is intolerable by both heaven and earth.”
Luo BingHe felt the heavy weight in his heart immediately disappear.
“As long as nothing deliberately wrong is done, as long as the heart is righteous, there can be friends on that side.”
His Master didn’t hate demons.
If he honorably pursued the righteous path, even as a demon, and used his strength to fight for a just cause, he could live with his head held high. More importantly, he could remain at his Master’s side.
If even his Master admired the demons’ inherent spiritual abilities and proficiency for learning, there was no ill in accepting his inborn abilities and using them for the better. His cause was good and just, and his upright actions would prove his integrity.
In the future, once he became a man Shen QingQiu could depend on, Luo BingHe would invite his Master to sit down with him, and reveal his demon heritage to him. There would be no lies or barriers between them.
Until then, he would use every advantage given to him. So he could become strong, strong enough to protect Shen QingQiu from anyone who dared to hurt him. So he could make sure his Master wouldn’t suffer ever again.
Looking at Luo BingHe a while longer, as if to make sure he had thoroughly processed his wise words, his Master dismissed him. Shen QingQiu had dark bruises under his eyes, exhaustion plainly written on his face and on the stiff way he held himself. The dreamscape's aftereffects were rougher on him than he was willing to show. Putting on a brave face to reassure his young disciple, he really was the best master Luo BingHe could hope for.
Luo BingHe would make a delicious and nutritious breakfast for him tomorrow.
He couldn’t escape his Master’s sharp eyes. Honestly relaying his intentions, he was touched by his Master’s concern for him, but nevertheless planned to stay up to prepare tomorrow’s menu.
Holding up a hand to stop him from leaving again, Shen QingQiu said, “Tomorrow, gather your things and move over here.”
Luo Binghe was thoroughly puzzled. “Shizun?”
Looking at him with half-lidded eyes, Shen QingQiu’s lips curved slightly. “Outside my bamboo house is a room to the side. Starting tomorrow, move over there to live.”
It felt like his heart would burst from happiness. Was it possible for a person to feel this strongly and still live?
Tears gathering in the corner of his eyes, he couldn’t hold himself back from leaping at Shen QingQiu and wrapping his arms around him. His Master’s body stiffened, but he wasn’t rejected nor pushed away, not that Luo BingHe would have let go. He squeezed tighter and tighter, overwhelmed with joy. His Master was so warm, and his smell so soothing, like fresh, energizing mint and the airy, sweet water lilies that grew in the mountain lake in front of his bamboo house.
Ecstatic, he could only continuously call, “Shizun! Shizun! Shizun!” while burying his face in the curve of his Master’s neck.
Gently, a hand carded its fingers through his hair. “All right. Aren’t you embarrassed, you’ve already become so big and aren’t a ten-year-old child anymore, what kind of appearance is this?”
Daring to act so shameless and inappropriate toward his high and unattainable Master, of course Luo BingHe was embarrassed; but he was so happy and excited that he reluctantly pulled away from Shen QingQiu and assumed a more respectful attitude.
“Yes, this disciple went beyond himself,” he apologized, ignoring his red cheeks and madly beating heart.
Hands behind his back, he nervously fiddled with his fingers, but soon remembered that his Master was still not fully recuperated. He should excuse himself quickly and allow Shen QingQiu to rest.
His Master’s face was so wan, even for an immortal like him, being poisoned and injured so many times in such a short span of time couldn’t be good.
“Ah, you get some proper rest. This master will wait for you tomorrow,” Shen QingQiu dismissed him, turning his back to his young student and returning to bed.
The canopy drapes were pulled close behind him, but because they had previously been ripped by Luo BingHe, there was a small sliver left open. Luo BingHe stared at the slender hands gathering Shen QingQiu’s long black hair to one side, displaying the pale nape of a long, graceful neck.
“T - This disciple wishes Shizun a good rest!”
Luo BingHe hastily cupped his sweaty hands and bowed, but instead of returning to the storage room, he spent the majority of the night in the kitchens. After tonight, he could make use of his Master’s facilities, and bring over stock and ingredients from the kitchens to lessen the waiting time. His Master would surely enjoy having fresh food at the ready.
Buoyed by his good feelings, he replayed his Master’s words again and again, his face growing hotter and hotter.
Starting tomorrow, move over there to live.
Ever since his mother died, he didn’t have a place he could call home.
Starting tomorrow, move over there to live.
Granted entry into his Master’s house, to stay, to live with him for the foreseeable future, Luo BingHe could hardly believe it. For the first time in a long time, he burned himself while cooking.
The next day, the weather was good; Luo BingHe personally set up a table on Shen QingQiu’s courtyard and served a breakfast of delicious and nutritious foods. To his great surprise, his Master motioned for Luo BingHe to sit beside him and partake as well. His chopsticks missed halfway to his mouth when Shen QingQiu took several meats and veggies and put them in his plate.
“A growing boy, you need to eat well,” he said seriously. Luo BingHe still hadn’t recovered from the shock. “Next time, make enough for four.”
“F - four?” he asked stupidly.
Shen QingQiu’s chopsticks wavered over Luo BingHe’s plate for several seconds before fishing out one of the steamed buns he had previously deposited in the plate himself. “This master knows, growing teenage boys must eat enough for two people. Of course I won’t allow my students to starve.”
So why four? Watching as his Master joyfully ate his plate clean, Luo BingHe suppressed the urge to laugh. If his Master enjoyed his cooking this much, then he could only make enough food for five people from now on.
At dusk, Luo BingHe moved himself to the bamboo house’s adjoined room. Through it all, he felt several pairs of vicious eyes staring at him, but he paid them no mind. The side room was separated from Shen QingQiu’s bamboo house by a thin screen door, a small world of its own, with clean and simple bamboo furniture; a bed, a writing table, and a closet. Luo BingHe hadn’t slept in a real bed in years. He stood awkwardly for a long moment before Shen QingQiu peeked inside and imperiously said,
“Toss me those old robes. Don’t let me see you dressed so shabbily again.”
That night, garbed in new soft clothes, on a comfy and warm bed, Luo BingHe laid down to sleep.
He was consciously aware of Shen QingQiu sleeping just a door away, and tossed and turned for a long while, feeling unbearably hot. His mind was plagued by thoughts of his Master.
The Elder Dream Demon did not appear, not that Luo BingHe expected him to. He could wait patiently.
He spent the following days happily serving his Master, waking up early to make breakfast, taking breaks to prepare tea throughout the day, and sitting down together with his Master to eat dinner. The bamboo house was cleaned from top to bottom, the floors polished, the creaky door reset, and the courtyard swept and deweeded.
“Where are you going?”
On his way to wash, Luo BingHe was stopped by his Master’s slender figure stepping in front of him.
Shen QingQiu’s brow narrowed at his answer. His fan flicked open in front of his face. “Do you not live with this master? Winter is but a few short months away, yet here you are courting sickness.”
The fan snapped shut and promptly tapped him on the forehead. Before Luo BingHe could open his mouth to try to give an explanation, the same fan prodded and poked him back inside the bamboo house. In the blink of an eye, Shen QingQiu’s hands reached for the belt tying Luo BingHe’s robe and pulled open his clothes.
A furious blush overtook Luo BingHe’s face. “Shizun!”
This time, he was flicked on the forehead by a long slim finger. Casual as can be, Shen QingQiu huffed. “Must this master also teach you how to bathe? Quickly take off your trousers.”
Clutching the hem of his pants as if his life depended on it, Luo BingHe scurried away. “Shizun! T - this lowly disciple can wash himself!”
His mortal soul just about jumped out of his body!
Crossing his arms, Shen QingQiu made a low humming sound. “Is that so? Don’t let me find you washing outside again like a little stray dog. You are a Qing Jing disciple, my disciple to be exact. Outsiders will say my Peak lacks the resources for me to take care of my own.”
Just when Luo Binghe felt it was safe to lower his defenses, his Master struck again. Gasping, he found himself dumped in the smooth wooden bathtub, naked, his Master’s agile hands pulling his hair ribbon loose.
Luo BingHe was completely mortified. “Shizun!”
A bucket of hot water was dumped over his head. Sputtering, he could only protest weakly, “Shizun.”
He miserably curled in on himself, submerging his body as much as possible in the water. Squeezing his eyes shut from the shame, he felt his Master’s deft hands scrub his hair, nails scratching at his scalp.
His left ear was pinched, a smooth voice caressing the delicate lobe, “Hygiene is very important. I won’t allow dirty disciples in my presence.”
Shivering despite the hot water, Luo BingHe felt his whole body flush.
Sniffling, he piteously said, “I wash.”
His ear was pinched again. “Outside in the dirty water? Do you take this master for a fool?”
Luo BingHe just about curled up into a ball. “N - no! Never, Shizun, this disciple ― ”
More water was poured over him. Next, fragrant oils were were worked into his hair. The soothing and relaxing mint fragrance of his Master's personal scent filled the small room.
“BingHe, a clean man is a wealthy man. You will frighten your martial sisters if you go around looking like a ruffian.”
Luo BingHe’s shoulders were up to his ears. He was so embarrassed he refused to look back at his Master. The water was hot, but not hot enough to make him dizzy, which was why he couldn’t explain why he felt so muddled; and so hot he feared steam would pour out of his ears like a boiling teapot.
Leaning over Luo BingHe's shoulder, Shen QingQiu said, “Does this master need to wash the rest, or can this disciple be trusted to wash thoroughly?”
Luo BingHe covered his burning face. His Master’s long hair trailed over his bare skin, tickling. Begging for mercy, he mumbled, “This disciple promises.”
Being washed like a child by his aloof, illustrious Master … he feared he would never recover.
Peeking through the gap between his fingers, he watched Shen QingQiu leave with a flick of his long sleeves. He let out a breath of relief, sinking in the bathtub until only the top of his head broke the surface of the water.
Later, sitting down for dinner, he still couldn’t bring himself to look directly at his Master. The shameful bathtub scene replayed again in his mind.
“Tomorrow, go over to visit your martial uncles and aunts to pay thanks for their thoughtful visits.”
Absentmindedly nodding, Luo BingHe picked at his food.
“Bring some of those sweets you made yesterday.”
Luo BingHe continued to agree. “Yes, Shizun.”
Dabbing at his mouth with a handkerchief, Shen QingQiu stood up from his seat. His plate was empty, not even crumbs left behind.
Gathering his courage, Luo BingHe gingerly looked up.
Shen QingQiu was staring thoughtfully at the table. Empty dishes covered the whole expanse. Covering his lower face with his long sleeve, he gave a small cough. “BingHe, I leave my house to your care. This teacher will be retiring to bed.”
With that said, he crossed his arms behind his back and retreated to the far most area of the bamboo house behind the folding screen.
In the past few days of living together, Luo BingHe had discovered that his Master … was a tad disorganized and prone to leaving messes. Before Luo BingHe put the house in order, the bookcases had been crammed with books and manuals in complete disarray, the little kitchen had been full of spiderwebs, and even his paperwork had been thrown every which way.
Every morning Shen QingQiu would wake up in a daze, his hair a tangled mess, pitifully calling for Luo BingHe to brew him a strong cup of tea. He would not move from the bed for at least an hour after waking up. It was strangely endearing. Luo BingHe developed the habit of waiting for him with a fresh pot of tea and a peachwood hair-comb.
As soon as his hair was in order and the tea was summarily drinked, Shen QingQiu would transform back to the elegant Peak Lord. Mornings were spent making rounds in the disciples’ compound house; afternoons were for sitting in his bamboo house’s courtyard drinking tea, watching over Luo BingHe’s training, occasionally calling over the younger disciples for lessons; and nights were for laying on the couch reading over his paperwork, enjoying the day's leftover sweets.
Slipping into bed, Luo BingHe closed his eyes with the image of his Master’s sleep rumpled face dancing behind his lids.
He woke up to an expected guest.
“Brat, what did you decide after these three days?”
Luo BingHe had no desire to play around this time. While he enjoyed spending time leisury with his Master, he hadn’t forgotten his goal. If the Elder Demon stayed true to his word, Luo BingHe would dedicate himself fully to his teachings. He had no interest in glory and fame, only the desire to protect what most mattered to him.
But first things first.
“Shizun’s grace to me is as heavy as a mountain. I truly cannot disrespect his discipline and acknowledge someone else as a master … ”
Even without a body or facial expressions, the Elder Demon perfectly displayed his anger and frustration, insulted beyond belief. He was a grand and powerful dream demon, he had probably never suffered such impetuous behavior before. Luo BingHe smiled inside, holding back the desire to laugh.
Theirs would be a mutually beneficial relationship, but he didn’t owe the Dream Demon any esteem or loyalty.
Luo BingHe wasn’t the least bit willing to call anyone else but Shen QingQiu his master.
“Then many thanks to this Elder.”
Satisfied with the turnover, he turned around in his sleep and woke up to the sight of his little room. It was still a novel experience. Yawning into his hand, he sat up and stretched his arms above his head.
Right on time, he heard the low, mournful call of his name from the other side of the sliding door.
“... ugh … BingHe … tea!”
Smiling from ear to ear, he gathered his hair up in a quick knot and slid the door open.