The lecture hall was much busier than it had been yesterday. The large board which had held the welcoming banner was now covered with notices written on its polished surface. Even as Han Jian and Ling Qi searched the board for the information on the Elders’ lessons, some notices vanished while others seemed to write themselves. It was an impressive bit of magic.
It seemed that the two Elders who had made themselves available had scheduled their lessons such that it was impossible to attend both on the same day. It was a bit frustrating to Ling Qi, but she supposed they must have a reason for it.
For now, she chose to head to the spiritual cultivation course. Han Jian had mentioned during their chat that physical cultivation could not be properly started until a potential cultivator’s qi had been unlocked. Presumably, the spiritual lesson would teach her how to unlock her qi.
The lecture hall they were directed to had perhaps thirty students in it, a far cry than the number in the one she had entered on her first day. Another difference made itself apparent when a sharp female voice stopped her dead in the doorway.
“Unawakened disciples on the left. Awakened on the right.”
It seemed the instructor was already here. The Elder was a short woman with gray hair done up in a simple and utilitarian bun. She stood behind the lecturer’s podium with her arms crossed over her chest, a no nonsense expression on her severe features. Her tone brooked no disagreement so Ling Qi split from Han Jian there with the boy mouthing a silent ‘good luck’ to her as they did. She appreciated the sentiment as she found a seat with her back to the wall and no immediate neighbors.
Once she was settled in, she studied the instructor. The Elder’s appearance was a bit strange. She seemed like an old woman in demeanor, and her barked orders and severe expression would fit right in with the elderly women from her hometown. Yet, despite her grey hair, her face had an ageless quality to it - not unlined, but certainly not old either - and her full figured body did not give the impression of being withered with age.
Considering what stories she had heard about Immortals, that would make sense, she supposed. It was a bit exciting to see proof of the slowed aging that awaited her with success as a cultivator.
A few more students trickled in over the next few minutes until at last, the matronly elder made a sharp gesture with her right hand and the door snapped shut.
“Consider this my first lesson. Lateness will not be tolerated,” she said crisply, sweeping the room with an intimidating stare. “If you are late, you will not receive my instruction that day. There will be no exceptions. Nor will I allow interruptions. Any purposeful disruption of my lesson will result in your immediate expulsion from this room. You will not be allowed back.”
The few whispers and sounds from the students presented ended immediately. The Elder regarded them silently for a beat. “Good. You can follow instructions,” she said with a small amount of satisfaction.
“I am Elder Hua Su. I am the Head of our Medicinal department. You will refer to me as Elder Su, Physician Su, or Instructor, and nothing else. You are here because you have had no instruction in the spiritual arts for whatever reason.” There was no judgement in the Elder’s words, only a statement of fact.
“Or because you desire expert advice in setting your foundation. In that case, I applaud your humility. All cultivation is rooted in the spiritual. One cannot begin to improve the body with qi before that qi itself is unlocked, and the concepts necessary for all cultivation are by their nature, ephemeral.” Ling Qi leaned forward slightly in her seat, not wanting to miss a single word.
“But before we begin, it would be best to split the class as I Intended.”
Ling Qi blinked in confusion as the Elder flicked her wrist, drawing forth a silver needle and pricking the thumb of her opposite hand. She didn’t understand what the older woman was doing until the bright droplet of blood that fell from her thumb swelled and grew on its way to the floor. It shifted through a kaleidoscope of colors as it did and seemed to pull in heat from the room going by the sudden chill. Within seconds, an identical copy of the Elder stood at her side.
“And now, to avoid distraction.”
It was odd hearing two identical people speak in perfect unison as both raised their left hands and gestured again. The room filled with cloying mist which quickly congealed into a barrier right through the center of the room that blocked Ling Qi’s sight of the other side. It also left them once again with only one instructor. The original, she thought, though she wasn’t certain.
“Qi is the root of a cultivator’s power,” Elder Su began immediately, easily pulling Ling Qi’s attention back to her.
“When you awaken it, you will begin the path to shucking mortal concerns. Food, drink, sleep... All of these can be replaced with qi given sufficient cultivation,” she said evenly, panning her gaze over those left in their half of the room. “And a good thing it is. Walking the path of cultivation does not afford us the time to spend on such things every day.”
“That is not to say that mortal pleasures should be abandoned entirely,” she continued. “That is a common misconception and a foolish one. Your qi is colored and shaped by your experiences and personality. Those who abandon everything in the pursuit of power will find their path to be a narrow one indeed.” Her lip curled slightly, a display of contempt that seemed out of place on the woman’s stern face.
“Of course, such narrowness does not mean a lack of power, and I expect some of you will fall to the temptation.”
She paused then as a thin girl with light blue hair raised a trembling hand near the front of the room. Ling Qi was surprised at the girl’s boldness. Elder Su regarded the girl silently for several moments, but the girl’s hand did not lower. The Elder’s stern expression cracked and she smiled. “Yes? What is your question?”
The girl lowered her hand, the line of her back shoulders suggesting startlement.
“Ah… I just wondered if you could expand on what you meant? I never - I mean - Your instruction is… different than what I have heard before,” the girl stammered.
“What is your name, girl?” Elder Su asked neutrally
The girl shifted uncomfortably but answered. “Li Suyin, Instructor.”
“I see,” Elder Su responded thoughtfully. “I had intended to expand on the point regardless, but as Miss Li has shown, I am willing to allow questions… should you not be disruptive in the asking.
“There are distinct elements to qi and how easily one can channel a given type is largely dependant on the individual and their mindset. It is all too easy to say that a clear and emotionless mind is for the best as it provides a fair baseline for many elements, but one loses something in this practice.
“Heaven, lake, fire, thunder, wind, water, mountain, and earth... These are but a few of the many aspects qi can conform to. Each element is associated with several concepts, emotions, and effects.
“Those who devote themselves to the well being of others find the qi of the earth flowing more easily. Forget joy or pleasure, and your lake qi will grow sluggish. “Such things are beyond the scope of this introductory lesson. Should you wish to learn more, I strongly suggest you continue attending,” she said sternly.
“More importantly, those who forget the mortal world entirely too often hole themselves up in caves. This does no good for anyone; hermits are hardly a boon to the Empire.” There was a touch of humor in Elder Su’s voice, but while Ling Qi laughed politely along with the others, she had the feeling there was more to the older woman’s words than the light explanation given.
“Now, more relevant to newcomers are the stages of cultivation. All of you are, in effect, still mortals although I see that some of you have begun to awaken your qi.” Ling Qi fidgeted in her seat as the instructor’s gaze briefly rested on her.
“The first stage of spiritual cultivation is the Red Soul realm. This realm is then divided into early, middle, and late stages. The next two realms beyond are the Yellow and Green realms. For most cultivators, the Green realm is the limit of what they can achieve. Advancing beyond it requires a great deal of talent and dedication, as well as significant physical cultivation to survive the strain such large amounts of qi put on the body.”
The lesson went on like that with the older woman helping greatly in expanding Ling Qi’s understanding of just what she was doing when she filled her dantian and how to more efficiently guide the energy from a spirit stone to her dantian.
With her eyes closed and concentrating on her internal energy, Ling Qi could almost feel what she thought were her meridians. It was as if her dantian had dozens of veins branching out from it, but every single one was clogged by... something. The weak energy within her couldn’t even begin to shift the blockage in the meridians.
She still felt refreshed, her energy bolstered, by the time the lesson let out. She felt thoughtful as she returned to the little stone home she shared with Bai Meizhen and settled in to cultivate for the evening. Thinking of how much of the previous stone she had wasted turned her stomach.
This time, when she clasped the stone in her hands and closed her eyes, she settled her breathing into the correct pattern and drew only tiny threads of the stone’s warm natural qi with each breath to trickle into her slowly filling dantian. Time faded away until only the flickering warmth in her hands, her breathing, and the growing seed of power within her existed.
Her candle burned out and Ling Qi did not notice.
The sun set and Ling Qi did not notice.
The moment she broke through, Ling Qi did notice.
As the energy circulating within her dantian pulsed unaided for the first time, everything changed. Her breath was the wind, her bones were the earth, her blood was fire, and she felt like her thoughts could expand to cover the heavens.
She felt complete like she never had before. Her dantian burned with energy, and although the stubborn obstructions prevented her from drawing the energy out, the warmth and comfort she felt from simply having it was all too real.
Then the exhaustion hit, a bone deep tiredness that nearly made her fall asleep where she sat as her dantian hungrily drew on her body’s energy. She staggered to bed and blacked out.