The Soul Shredding Whip lashed against my back, the pain comparable to my soul being torn apart. In a trance, I could hear the sect master angrily denouncing me. “This is for defying sect rules and rashly indulging in vulgar thoughts.”
What appeared in my mind was the handsome face of a man dressed in white robes. He loved to sit beneath the peach tree atop Bamboo Peak, listening to me play a long, drawn-out melody. Every time I finished, he’d look at me half-smiling, half-helpless, and say, “Qin’er, you played in the wrong key again.”
Another lash struck me, its noise echoing through the open, spacious expanse of the Everlasting Hall.
“This is for the worst offence of heresy and treason, improper thoughts towards your own master!”
My fingers curled up involuntarily from the pain, but my eyes refused to admit defeat as they rose to meet the sect head’s angry ones. The corners of my mouth drew up slightly. “Master…so he is. Improper thoughts or not, Ziqin was merely attached to, to…to Mu Jin as a person. What does that…have to do with you, sect head?”
Beneath the punishment terrace, Celestial Sect’s elders gasped with rage at these words, their faces turning green. Only auntie Qi Ling’s eyes were red as she mouthed at me to say no more, say no more.
Even she thought I had made a mistake. All of the Celestial Sect thought that I was wrong and guilty of the most heinous crimes. But where was I wrong?
If anything, perhaps it was the wrong fate.
“Bastard scoundrel! Things have gotten this far, but you still don’t know how to repent!” The Soul Shredding Whip lashed down viciously again as I gritted my teeth and held back my cries. “Do you admit your mistakes?” the sect head demanded.
“Great! Great! So this is the good disciple that Mu Jin raised!” the sect head’s rage turned into laughter. “To steal the miracle medicine of the Immortals, you incited your fellow disciples to go to Death Gorge, resulting in heavy injuries for that disciple. Isn’t this true?”
I remained silent.
After Master was heavily injured, he fell into a coma without waking up. With his life in imminent danger, only the Death Gorge’s miracle medicine could save him, but that was a place where anyone who went in never came out. Master’s temper would never allow anyone to go there on his behalf for medicine, so my only chance was to go while he was unconscious. Unexpectedly, senior sister Fu Shuang followed me inside as well.
In the end, the medicine was found and Master saved, but senior sister incurred heavy wounds while shielding my way out of the gorge. I could only beg the elders to help. When the matter of sneaking into Death Gorge to steal the medicine was exposed, so were my feelings for my Master.
That was because the Death Gorge’s miracle medicine, although capable of treating tens of thousands of poisons and rejuvenating the dead, was only effective for saving the ones its user loved.
An elder spoke from beneath the terrace. “This evil disciple stubbornly sticks to her perverse views. She cannot stay within the Celestical Sect. I respectfully ask that the sect head clean up in place of Honored Mu Jin!”
“We ask that sect head clean up the sect!” the crowd chorused.
The sect head stared at me, killer intent flashing through his eyes. My heart felt a sudden chill, because cleaning up the sect would mean I was no longer Master’s disciple.
“Sect head!” Aunt Qi Ling stood up, her eyes red. “Qin’er…Ziqin is still the Honored’s personal disciple. Why not wait for his Honored one to wake and take care of the matter then?”
“You mustn’t!” another elder stood up. “The Honored one possesses a compassionate heart. I’m afraid that he’ll only let her go. If anyone notices Ziqing after she leaves the Celestial Sect, I fear the Celestial Sect will lose face and prestige!”
Aunt Qi Ling glared at that elder before flicking her sleeves and walking away.
Silence fell upon the Everlasting Hall before the sect head’s voice turned grave. “Evil disciple Ziqin violated the ethics of acceptable relations…for refusing to repent, she shall face 50 lashes and be expelled from the Celestial Sect.”
50 lashes were enough to sent my soul scattering, but it was his last words that scared me the most.
I said, “Ziqin is Master’s disciple. As long as Master doesn’t expel me, I’ll remain his disciple.”
There was an elder who laughed coldly at my words. “Hmph, Celestial Sect has never accepted demons. If not for the Honored one’s compassion, a half-spirit half-demon monster like you never would’ve been accepted.”
Those his words were full of scorn, they were also the facts. I used to be a guqin that carried traces of spiritual qi until an Immortal refined me into human form. But because my qin’s spiritual qi wasn’t sufficient to support my new shape, the Immortal could only mix it with some demon qi to complete my transformation.
Half-spirit, half-demon, I had no one of the same species or a common clan. Even that solitary Immortal eventually passed away with the years.
I lived through countless years in ignorance until I met Master. As the bright moon rose over the sea, he stepped over by cover of moonlight just like the gods of legends. I grabbed onto him without letting go, so he asked me with a soft smile, “Not going home?”
“If that’s so, do you want to come back with me to Bamboo Peak, become my disciple, and take that as your home?”
All of my memories became bright and distinctive beginning from that moment. He gave me a name, taught me techniques, and showed me how to recognize words. Atop Bamboo Peak, he accompanied me to watch the rain, snow, wind and frost of the celestial mountain and led me to traverse over every inch of the peak.
In their eyes, he was the lofty and far-removed Honored Mu Jin, who showed compassion to all and was yet emotionless. But I knew he had mood swings too. He’d smile softly when I was joyful, grow angry when I was mischievious, turn anxious when I was hurt.
“There’s no need for more words,” the sect head cut off my train of thoughts. “Start the punishment at once.” So speaking, he handed the Soul Shredding Whip to an execution elder.
The Yin stone on my wrists and ankles had sealed off all my energy, making it impossible for me to resist.
The execution elder differed from the sect head in that he personally dealt out many of the Celestial Sect’s punishments. He could whip a person 100 times without ever seriously injuring them, or take away half their souls with just a single lash.
When the first lash fell, I knew that Celestial Sect was going to be my final resting place.
Master…when you know I’m dead, will you be sad?
I don’t want to see you sad.
I don’t know how many times I’d been hit, but I only knew I couldn’t feel any pain anymore. My vision flickered in and out of darkness, but a single voice seemed to grow clearer and clearer. ‘Qin’er, Qin’er,’ it kept calling, as if it’d never stop.
“Stop!” a stern cry burst into my hearing. I could faintly discern it as Aunt Qi Ling’s voice.
Didn’t auntie leave…?
I lifted my head to look about hazily. Someone had broken the stone doors of Everlasting Hall. Auntie’s expression was indiscernible against the backlight, but I recognized the silhouette of the figure by her side.
My eyes stung with sudden heat as my heart throbbed in pain. I trembled as I stuttered, “Master…”
“Mu Jin was unaware that the sect head was fond of meting illegal punishments.”
His voice was filled with a fierceness that had never been present before. I was only conscious of the Yin stones breaking around my wrists before I was taken into a warm and familiar embrace.
By now, my vision was too blurry to see his features clearly, but I could feel his hands were shaking. It wasn’t anything like the smooth and steady way he used to carry me before.
“Qin’er, it won’t hurt.” His voice was as soft as it used to be when I was young. Back then, he’d used this tone to coax me into taking my medicine.
“Go home, let’s go…home.”
“All right, Master will take you back to Bamboo Peak.”
“Hold it!” the sect head cried out. “Mu Jin, do you know that your disciple…”
“How Mu Jin’s disciple is, Mu Jin is naturally well aware. There’s no need for the sect head to take the trouble.”
The sunlight from outside Everlasting Hall fell on my numb face. I thought, the expressions on those elders’ faces must be even more stiff than mine.
Snow must have fallen recently on Bamboo Peak, because the air was cold enough to seep into one’s body. I think the top of Bamboo Peak had to be covered in white right now, enough for Master to leave deep prints in the snow with every step.
There was nothing but darkness before my eyes. A droning hum sounded by my ears, the results of the executioner’s whip. Much of my soul had already been lashed away. Soul Shredding Whip, Soul Shredding Whip, those who died by its lash would never be reborn again…
“Master…” my voice was already hoarse. “Is your injury well?”
He squeezed my hand as he held me. “It’s well. Qin’er medicine was very effective. When your Aunt Qi Ling came to find me, I had already woken up.”
“Do you blame me?”
He fell silent.
“Do you blame me for liking Master?”
His silence stretched on. Because I couldn’t see his expression, my heart grew alarmed. Then he said, “I don’t.” And yet, his voice carried an indescribable grief.
I smiled. “Master, I want to play the qin.”
“Qin’er, be good. Treat your injuries first.”
“This is the last time. Let Qin’er play for Master to hear.”
I bluntly pointed out the reality he refused to acknowledge. He gave a sudden pause, his chest heaving up and down, before his steps finally changed directions. He carried me next to the qin, but I had no strength to set my hands on the strings. My heart gave a sigh as I strove to squeeze out a smile. “When I got injured in the past, Master always steeped tea for me to drink. That tea seemed to have curative properties. Master, brew me tea one more time today, all right?”
I felt the warmth by my side leave me and did my best to sit upright. When I heard the sound of the door opening, I guessed that Master had already went inside the house. Unable to support my own weight any longer, I slowly leaned forward and rested my face against the strings. They were stretched taut, almost tight enough to cut through the skin on my face.
“Starting from today, you’ll be called Ziqin, all right?”
In a daze, I seemed to hear the first words that Master had spoken to me on Bamboo Peak. “In the future, tell Master whenever you’ve been bullied or mistreated. Master will protect you.”
I didn’t know what my purpose for living was in this life. But it really was my great fortune to earn your protection.
Abruptly, my heavy, stiff, and cold body seemed to have lightened significantly. I lifted a hand and placed it on the qin’s strings, my thoughts drifting farther and farther away without my say…
“Master! I can play the qin now!”
“Oh? Let Master have a listen.”
“Qin’er…do your fingers hurt from using so much strength?”
“But as I see it, these qin strings won’t be able to bear more than a few times of your playing.”
“The strings won’t break! As long as Qin’er is alive, the strings will never break…”
I smiled slightly as my index finger lightly brushed a string.
Twang! The snapping sounds that followed was like that of a cuckoo crying blood.
With the strings broken, my eyes gradually closed.
Faintly, I seemed to hear the sound of a teacup shattering before a deathly stillness settled upon the world.
 Ziqin (梓琴) – Zi is Chinese catalpa, a type of tree known for its creamy white flowers tinged with yellow. Qin is the same as the seven-stringed plucked instrument similar to a zither.
 Soul Shredding Whip (散魂鞭) – sanhun bian, in which san is to “scatter, break up, disperse, dispel,” hun is “soul, spirit,” and bIan is “whip.”
 Qin’er (琴儿) – Qin Is the name, Er is an affectionate diminutive, usually added to the name of someone younger.
 Qi Ling (祈灵) – Qi means “pray, entreat,” Ling means “quick, clever, sharp.”
 Fu Shuang (扶霜) – Fu is to “support, assist with the hand,” Shuang is “frost.”