Jing Lin dispatched the remaining disciples to protect the commoners and move them south, then established a spiritual talisman to obstruct the Blood Sea. Once everything was in order, he took off his sword, surrendered, and let Li Rong detain and escort him back to the sect.
The evening rain pitter-pattered down. Autumn was about to end. Before entering the compound, Li Rong stood for an hour. Finally, with reddened eyes, he instructed Jing Lin in a hoarse voice, “When you see Father later, remove your crown and kneel.”
Without his silver crown, Jing Lin’s black hair was scattered over his shoulders. Apart from Tao Zhi’s dagger, which he wore at the side of his waist, he carried no other weapon. Even Yan Quan had been taken away by Li Rong. On hearing this, Jing Lin nodded to indicate his understanding.
They still had yet to be summoned into the compound. The bronze gate remained tightly shut, and the heavy rain continued ceaselessly. Both of them stood side by side in the rain. Li Rong looked ahead and continued to ask in a hoarse voice. “Do you realize your mistake?”
Jing Lin did not answer.
Gradually, Li Rong’s voice choked up with emotion. He suddenly turned around with his back to Jing Lin. After a long time, he said, “Although he deserves death for his sins, you should have handed him over to Father to deal with. Even if you do not think it as beneath your dignity, you still should not have done so. “
Jing Lin said, “How would he have gotten to this point today if it weren’t for Father’s shielding him every single time? You beat him until he’s covered all over with cuts and bruises. Wasn’t that in itself a stop-gap measure to appease Linlang? If he manages to return home, he will not die.”
Li Rong turned back at once in the rain with reddened eyes. He choked back his words. “We are brothers of the same family. How could you bring yourself to kill him?!”
Jing Lin turned aside slightly. His hair was already soaked through, and they covered his eyes messily. He did not quibble or explain himself. Instead, he said tiredly, “I can.”
Li Rong gritted his teeth. He suddenly pressed in a step closer and stared fixedly at Jing Lin. Jing Lin’s expression turned livid as he traded stares with Li Rong for a spell.
At this critical juncture, the bronze gate suddenly spread open. In the rain, the abode seemed to be covered in a layer of ash. The various brothers stood under the eaves and looked towards them in unison, but no one said a word. The doors and windows in the compound were wide open. Lord Jiutian sat alone on the seat. The recently taken down white lanterns1 were hung up again. They cast deathly pale light onto Lord Jiutian’s face, illuminating his deep sorrow.
Li Rong strode in first. Lord Jiutian waited until he had paid his obeisance before pointing a finger to motion for him to stand to the side. Li Rong originally had something to say, but on seeing this, he could only kowtow without a word and retreat to the veranda.
Several pairs of eyes looked at Jing Lin. Jing Lin slowly lifted his robe and strode through the door. He walked down the stairs in the rain and kneeled alone to pay his obeisance. His knees knocked against the slabstone and were quickly soaked through. There was nothing shielding his back from the rain, and his hair cascaded down to the ground.
Lord Jiutian did not tell him to get up. Instead, he turned the teacup around and around, as though he was sorting out his mood. Once Jing Lin had soaked long enough, Lord Jiutian lifted it to take a sip and said, “I am not worthy enough to have Lord Linsong kneel to me.”
Jing Lin’s heart felt as heavy as a stone. He had expected his father to shield Tao Zhi. No matter what misdeeds Tao Zhi did, he was always seen as the youngest son still unfamiliar with the ways of the world. He could not be counted as a heretic of the evil path, so naturally, he would not be punished. It wasn’t the first time Lord Jiutian had spoiled Tao Zhi.
Lord Jiutian did not need Jing Lin to answer either. He was good-looking and carried with him an air of scholarly elegance. Because his cultivation had recently broken through the Great Accomplishment Stage, he looked a lot younger, so much that one could not tell who was the father and who was the son at a glance. Although he said that he did not deserve to have Jing Lin kneel to him, he still sat upright as he drank the tea that had already gone cold. His expression was so imposing and intimidating it would strike fear in the hearts of others at just a glance.
“You are so mighty now that you no longer need others’ guidance. Lord Linsong has such an impressive reputation that his father and brothers are now all nobodies.” Lord Jiutian lamented derisively. “Killing whoever you want is as simple as killing poultry.”
Li Rong suddenly kneeled on the ground, kowtowed heavily a few times, and said, “Please have mercy, Father. Although he… he did so, he had the best interests of the Ninth Heaven Sect at heart. Each and every of the sect’s actions is being watched by all. Tao-di committed a grave mistake. Even if Jing Lin’s method was a little ruthless, it was not without reason.”
“What an eye-opener!” Someone under the eaves said. “We are all brothers, and yet you want to protect Jing Lin against your conscience! Then what about Tao-di? As much as Tao-di may be immoral, he’s still Father’s son! Jing Lin is so audacious to kill at just the drop of a hat. Does he still have any respect for Father?! Don’t tell me we are all going to be at Jing Lin’s command in the future? Father is still here!”
“Shut up!” Li Rong partially turned back. “Confine the discussion to the matter at hand today. Why go so far as to lash out like this?! Jing Lin has always been prudent and steadfast. He might have been lacking in some parts, but he has no major flaws. He’s also one whom Father has personally raised and taught. Would Father not understand his thoughts? Is there a need for you guys to keep rubbing it in?!”
“Dage is so unreasonable. What do you mean by ‘you guys’? Or perhaps us brothers not of one heart? We still have to be split into ‘you’ and ‘me’ cliques?”
“How can you even speak of rubbing it in?! Tao-di’s action might be inappropriate, but the sect has its own rules, doesn’t it? Doesn’t Father have his own methods? Is there a need for Jing Lin to kill him with his sword? Exactly who is the one hitting a man when he’s down? Xiongzhang, why don’t you examine your own conscience and answer it yourself?!”
“Since we are all brothers, then why push each other into such corners?” Yun Sheng bravely stepped forward. “Everyone knows what Jing Lin is like. Just get him to explain his rationale to clear it up!”
“Fine!” A man stepped out quickly from under the eaves to stand before Jing Lin. He flung his sleeves and interrogated him, “Tell us yourself! Why did you kill Tao-di? Did you truly not act out of your own selfish interest? You are clearly afraid he would leave behind a word or two to make people think, right?!”
“Why would you say that?” Yun Sheng turned his head to the side. “Don’t make groundless accusations based on rumors to make a dig at him!”
“Father!” Li Rong suddenly bellowed, his voice surpassing the surrounding din. He kowtowed, knocking his forehead against the ground. “Please listen to Jing Lin’s answer!”
Upon hearing him, Lord Jiutian looked out into the distance. The teacup he was holding in his hand remained still.
Jing Lin removed the dagger on his waist and put it in front of his knees. He kneeled in silence for a moment. When he lifted his eyes, he felt as though the heaviness in the air were all crammed into his chest, crushing him until he almost gasped.
“Father.” Jing Lin said, “This dagger was forged by Lan Hai with all the care and attention of a master craftsman. It’s incomparably sharp. I brought it back because I couldn’t bear to see this treasure dagger tainted and fallen into the way of evil. Tao Zhi killed humans like flies while he resided in the north, so I executed him—Should I not have killed him?”
Dead silence descended upon the courtyard. Then, countless sounds of discussion broke out.
“You are really…” The man before Jing Lin retreated in alarm. “You are really the most hard-hearted person in the world! How could you dare to say that? How dare you…”
“I dare to.” Jing Lin abruptly shifted his gaze. He propped himself up on the ground and rose to his feet, like a pine standing upright amid the night rain on the edge of the sheer precipice. His words were sharp and cutting. “Tao Zhi raped and killed a woman and seized what’s others’ by force. The few months he resided in the north, all the commoners suffered unspeakable misery! As the garrison general, he embezzled funds and secretly skimped on construction materials. In face of a great catastrophe, he abandoned the commoners and fled! Where does my fault lie in killing him? The death of such a despicable person who breaks faith and causes the north to be thrown into turmoil is not to be regretted! Any other brothers who degenerate into evil in the future – regardless of how close I am with them – I, Jing Lin, will draw my sword and face them off, never to let it rest.”
Li Rong immediately had an ill sense of foreboding. He lifted his body, only to see Lord Jiutian flinging down the teacup in his hand. The porcelain cup instantly shattered into pieces, and cold tea splashed over half of Jing Lin’s body.
“Someday.” Lord Jiutian held back his fury. “Are you going to kill me too?!”
Everyone under the eaves all fell to their knees in unison. In an instant, the courtyard fell into absolute silence. Lord Jiutian’s chest heaved as he supported himself with the table and staggered half a step. Hardly able to restrain himself, he slammed hard on the table.
“How very heartless of you!”
“How can an unfilial son be compared to Father? Tao Zhi committed all kinds of evildoings and got his comeuppance! Jing Lin is doubly guilty for taking the decision into his own hands! “Li Rong said quickly. “I implore Father to flog him as a punishment and let him self-reflect on his mistakes in solitary!”
“He was at fault first for killing his younger brother, but you want to let him get away with it with a mere flogging. Then all the disciples in the sect could follow his example in the future!” San-di raised his arm up into a level position to point towards Jing Lin. “Besides, there must be some inside story for him to act this way! He would not even let Tao-di say a word. Dage, what is he afraid of? What is he hiding?!”
“What nonsense!” Li Rong reproved him. “Every one of Jing Lin’s words and actions is watched by Father. What can he hide?! Tao Zhi had the great responsibility of securing the north, yet he indulged in the pursuit of petty pleasures and disregarded his duties. He was devoid of conscience, and caused seething discontent and resentment among the masses in the north! Jing Lin is focused on cultivating the righteous way. Overcome by rage, he acted first and reported later. What’s there for him to be afraid of? He is merely afraid that the public grievances would end up causing trouble. Heaven and Earth may vouch for his sincerity!”
Li Rong moved forward on his knees in the rain and choked with sobs as he kowtowed down, then kowtowed again and again without pause.
“Father! I have conclusive evidence that Tao Zhi massacred the innocents! He committed a grave mistake, and as his elder brother, I can hardly be absolved of blame! I am willing to remove my crown and receive my punishment!” Li Rong braved the rain to look up. Dark red trickled down his forehead as he choked with sobs, “Tao-di sank to such low all because I failed to supervise him well. This feels like a stab to my heart! In just a few short months, I have already lost two younger brothers. And now, rumors and slanders threatened to drive a wedge between the rest of us brothers. How would this not make the hearts of the sect disciples go cold?!”
“I ask of Father to act wisely.” Yun Sheng followed after him and kowtowed.
Lord Jiutian sat back in the chair in dejection and covered his face. His body trembled, unable to control his emotions. “Father and sons, brothers and brothers… How have we been reduced to such a state?!”
On hearing this, his various sons at the bottom all shed tears. For a moment, the sound of rain intersected with the sound of sobs. Set against the backdrop of white lanterns, it was a mournful and miserable scene to watch. After a while, Lord Jiutian composed himself and gave his orders in a heavy voice while covering his eyes.
“Tao Zhi stirred up trouble and endangered the commoners. Ninth Heaven Sect will not associate with such evil. His wooden plate2 shall be removed, and he shall be expelled from Ninth Heaven Sect with immediate effect and never be allowed access again! Jing Lin took things into his own hands. He is heartless and cold-hearted, and he overstepped his boundary and disregarded rules of the sect. But on account that he actually did it to eradicate evil, he shall be given the penalty of a hundred lashes and detention in his own courtyard for half a month to reflect on his actions!” After saying so, Lord Jiutian seemed as though he could not bear to look at them. He simply said, “All of you may leave!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin took off his outer robe and kneel on Ming Jin Stage. The brothers and disciples of the sect all stood at the foot of the stage. Li Rong held on to the whip and swept a glance below.
“Everyone present should take Jing Lin’s mistake today as a warning. Father has always been compassionate, and the sect rules are pretty much relaxed. But we cannot tolerate anyone treating it lightly.” Li Rong’s eyes swept across his brothers’ face. He continued, “Spreading gossip is the most low-down thing to do! Baseless talks are preposterous and ridiculous! At this moment of crisis where lives are at stake, I hope everyone here can keep your mind together and compose yourself to ward off evil — Jing Lin, do you realize the error of your ways?”
Jing Lin closed his eyes and did not respond. Li Rong lashed out with a lightning move of his hand, and that thin garment on Jing Lin’s back split open all at once. A bloody wound instantly materialized. Jing Lin swallowed back the sound bubbling up in his throat and remained still. Every one of Li Rong’s lash drew blood. He did not hold back or show any mercy. Jing Lin’s back was a bloody, mangled mess after dozens of whips. The heavy rain washed the blood down to Jing Lin’s knees before spreading out in trickles on the ground. Soaked hair covered the front of his forehead as he stubbornly refused to say a word. The sound of whip striking flesh even drowned out the sound of the rain.
Li Rong asked without warning. “Do you realize the error of your ways?”
Blood oozed out between Jing Lin’s teeth as he held back his voice. Li Rong struck even harder, and Jing Lin’s words suddenly spilled forth.
“I did nothing wrong.” Jing Lin stared blankly ahead as he spat out the words through clenched teeth, “I did nothing wrong!”
Not long ago at Ming Jin stage, he could still see the figure of another man laughing heartily. The cold rain purged away all his remaining warmth. Jing Lin was icy cold all over. He could not swallow this unfairness, and he actually looked strangely aggrieved in this familiar night rain.
He did no wrong in killing Tao Zhi!
If he had spared Tao Zhi back in the north, then Tao Zhi would have used hundreds and thousands of ways to absolve himself of blame upon returning home. Would Lord Jiutian bear to kill him? Would Li Rong bear to kill him? And would various brothers bear to kill him? As long as they took their brotherhood into account, they would have countless reasons to absolve Tao Zhi of guilt!
Li Rong’s hand stalled for a moment, and then he lashed down hard on Jing Lin. Jing Lin could not tell his sweat from the rain. His forehead was soaked through as he propped himself up without dodging the blows.
Someone at the foot of the stage kneeled down, and then a bunch of them followed suit. Yun Sheng looked back and saw a meandering line of white robes extending below the stage and onto the stairs. Although no one spoke to intercede, the momentum in itself was imposing.
“As a survivor of Huaishu.” Hui An suddenly raised his neck and shouted, “I obeyed Lord Linsong’s command. And thus, I’m also guilty of overstepping my authority!”
“As the garrison of Beicheng.” A man behind him shouted in the rain, “I’m guilty of the same!”
Following that, countless disciples all kowtowed in unison. Their shouts simultaneously rang out in the rain.
“Although we are minor disciples of the sect, we all obeyed Lord Linsong’s commands in time of crisis! We should receive the same punishment for our crime of overstepping our authority. May we implore Eldest Young Master to treat us all equally before the whip!”
White robes were taken off at the same time silver crowns were taken down. The rain poured as thousands kowtowed in unison and raised their heads again to shout.
“May we implore Eldest Young Master to treat us all equally before the whip!”
The shout thundered in the sky, over and over again.
Dong Jun opened his fan to shield himself from the rain and muttered, “If you guys have done this earlier, we wouldn’t have needed to get drenched in the rain.”
Yun Sheng heaved a sigh of relief and smiled a little as he stepped forward to say to Li Rong, “Dage…”
“Since you ask to be treated equally.” Li Rong’s expression was terrifying. “Then I’ll fulfill all your wishes. Three Thousand Warriors of the sect, come forth to receive your orders. All those kneeling are guilty of wrongdoings. They shall all receive fifty whips and take their punishment together with Jing Lin!”
Sounds of whipping instantly erupted, and all the men who were kneeling remained still. Their muffled grunts continued in the downpour, only coming to a halt in the wee hours of the morning.
- White paper lanterns with the word “奠” dian are usually hung up to indicate a death in the family.
- Wooden name plates or tokens with names of members that are hung up in the sect’s or clan’s ancestral hall (or something similar) to indicate that the person is a part of the family/sect/clan. Removing it would mean that they are no longer part of the family/sect/clan.