Luo Binghe is willing to die for Cang Qiong Mountain. They saved him from the streets; his life already belongs to the sect, and it’s the only thing of value he has to commit. For all that he’s tried, missing sleep and meals to practice, his cultivation has not progressed. Since Shizun chose him based on his natural potential, the failure must lie in his ability to realize it. He is failing to live up to his promise. Shizun, never a warm man, sours on him every day.
Even so, it stuns him when Shen Qingqiu flicks his sleeve, raises his chin to the Demon Saintess and says, “Luo Binghe, come forward.”
Even as he stumbles forward, sword in a clumsy two-handed grip, he can’t believe it was his own name he heard. It so rarely falls from Shizun’s lips. The surrounding crowd is as silent as the space inside him, holding their breath as one. He tries to ground himself against the cold steel in his hand, the biting mountain air at his throat.
The demon Tianchui rises before him like a great tower. The hammer, despite its heft, is no greater a weapon than the demon’s massive limbs, each large and heavy enough to kill even without cultivation. The spikes covering his armor glisten wickedly.
A whole mountaintop of people. A mountaintop of witnesses. There were startled murmurs when Shen Qingqiu called for Luo Binghe, and Ning Yingying cried out in protest, but even she is quiet now. Every disciple on this peak is willing to stand by and watch Luo Binghe die on Shen Qingqiu’s command.
Luo Binghe is accustomed to being singled out. Shen Qingqiu does not dirty his own hands. He’ll simply wave his fingers and watch, face placid and cool as a winter lake. After two years, Luo Binghe is quite used to it: the sawdust smell of the woodshed, light barely reaching through the slats; the taut, sharp sound of being hit. It’s often cold on Qing Jing Peak, but when he curls up on the floor after, it burns hot everywhere he’s been struck. He should be able to use his cultivation to heal fast. Since he can't, he works hard to conceal his injuries.
That is Qing Jing Peak. Shizun’s will becomes the will of his disciples. It’s natural, no different from how rain follows from the swelling of the clouds.
This is different. They’re on Qiong Ding Peak now, and the majority of the disciples here are not from Qing Jing. They don’t know Luo Binghe or his poor cultivation, or how he never meets Shizun’s inscrutable standards. And they are facing demons who threaten the prestige of the sect. Shen Qingqiu is standing by to watch Luo Binghe be hurt, not in discipline by his own subordinates, but by an enemy of Cang Qiong Mountain. And the complacency of the crowd proves that it’s his right. They may find it unfair, uncouth even, for Shen Qingqiu to send out such a young, untested student. But they will not object. Luo Binghe’s death is Shen Qingqiu’s to dictate.
He may be inadequate, troublesome, disgusting in Shizun’s eyes, but in his foolishness, he never once expected public execution.
Tianchui hefts his hammer, and Luo Binghe mirrors the action with his sword.
Once the battle starts, there’s no more time to think. The blows come fast and hard, and even someone small and agile like Luo Binghe cannot dodge all of them. He can’t even think of fighting back. His qi responds sluggishly to his call, overtaken by the panic that trembles through his body. A swing of the hammer knocks him flat on the ground. He glances back to the little clump of Qing Jing cultivators. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t look malicious or triumphant. He looks bored.
That hits Luo Binghe harder than Tianchui. He spares enough attention to roll out of the way as the hammer crashes to the ground at his side, and scrambles to his feet while Tianchui pulls it back up. His sword jerks unsteadily in his grip.
He’s been making excuses for Shizun all this time, telling himself that Shizun is simply strict. That it’s all been some kind of test he keeps failing. Reminding himself that someone as revered as Shen Qingqiu, entrusted with a twelfth of the world’s greatest sect, must be acting on deep wisdom. Wanting to believe that what Shen Qingqiu does to him is education. An act of care.
His shizun sent him out here to die, and he’s barely even watching.
Luo Binghe snaps. All the anger he’s kept tight under his skin when Shen Qingqiu beats him spills over, a buried spring deeper than he thought possible. Rage tightens his muscles and swells his mind, dark and heavy like he hasn’t felt since he was kept from bringing his dying mother her congee. He turns back to the demon, all fear extinguished. His qi has always been unreliable, but now it burns so hot in his veins that he knows he could burn the world to dust. He raises his sword and slashes it diagonally in the air, sending a wave of qi at the demon strong enough to make him stumble backward.
There must be scores of people here: demons, Qiong Ding disciples, Xian Shu, Qing Jing, the Demon Saintess herself, Ning Yingying, Shen Qingqiu. None of them will lift a finger to save him. The lofty world of the immortal cultivators has the same rules as the streets he wandered as a child: Luo Binghe can only rely on himself. And he will not give up.
The battle ends quickly after that. Later, Luo Binghe barely remembers how he did it. When awareness of his surroundings returns to him, everyone who had been standing by to watch is cheering for him. Only Shen Qingqiu barely spares him a glance as he finishes chasing off the demons.
Luo Binghe is the hero of the day, the only disciple to win his battle. But he ends up back in the woodshed, curled up on the floor as always, shivering as the energy of the battle drains away from him.
How could he have trusted Shen Qingqiu? It was stupid to make such a mistake. He squeezes his eyes shut, all the anger still coursing through him turning inwards towards himself. It pools in the center of his chest, his body curling around the weight of it. Throughout his life, the only person who’s ever been truly kind to him was his mother. Was he so spoiled by her love that he forgot the rest of the world? He thought immortal cultivators would embrace him like a parent?
Why hadn’t it occurred to him before? The reason he can’t seem to do anything right is because there will never be a right way, not for him. There is no correction he could make to his form, no talisman he could study that would make up for being Luo Binghe. It’s a simpler explanation than the ones he came up with to rationalize Shizun’s behavior. Shen Qingqiu simply hates him, and no one cares enough to stop it. It’s as clear and sharp as a knife’s edge. He puts his fingers in his hair, making his body as small and tight as possible to try and contain the hurt that feels as big as the twelve peaks.
If there’s not going to be a hand reaching out to him in kindness, then he has no choice but to keep fighting. The anger of the battle ate up every part of him, obliterating him as thoroughly as it defeated Tianchui. And yet it protected him more than Shen Qingqiu ever has.
If he won against Tianchui today, then there is nothing inside or outside of him that he can’t fight. He just has to be prepared to do it on his own.
[[Ding! System automatically initiated. Activation code: “Fucking hell, poor kid.” Welcome, User 001! This System operates in line with the design concept: THEN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. We hope to provide you with the best possible experience. It is our sincere wish that you can fulfill your desire and complete the mission A Lost Lamb in a Cruel World: Mend the Protagonist’s Broken Heart! Please work hard to complete your quests to reduce Luo Binghe’s Heartbreak Points by at least 95%. We hope you enjoy your experience!]]