Linq Qi awoke the next morning feeling full of energy despite her exhaustion the night before. She did need a change of clothing as she had fallen asleep in her uniform. She had a few additional sets so she didn’t have to worry about laundry just yet. She would have to find a place to bathe soon though.
...Was it strange to be concerned about something so mundane when she had just taken her first step into the world of Immortals? Ling Qi thought so, but hadn’t Elder Su said yesterday that neglecting mortal concerns entirely was a bad idea? Ling Qi finished changing and left her room. Bai Meizhen was awake and already seated cross-legged by the hearth, sipping from a cup of water again. There was no sign of a breakfast tray or any other food.
In retrospect, Ling Qi had never actually seen Bai Meizhen eat. Perhaps the other girl was using her qi to suppress her appetite? Elder Su had explained that it was possible to expend qi to suppress or even satisfy the body’s need for food and water. Ling Qi didn’t think she could manage to do so for very long yet. She didn’t want to stand there staring so she stepped out and nodded to the girl.
“Good morning,” she greeted cautiously.
Both Meizhen and her pet looked up in unison, and the pale girl dipped her head in response. “Good morning, and congratulations on your awakening. I take it your lesson was fruitful?”
Ling Qi seated herself across from the other girl. “It was. I guess you didn’t need the lesson? I didn’t see you there,” Ling Qi responded, idly smoothing the fabric of her uniform as she got comfortable.
“I attended Instructor Zhou’s lesson,” Bai Meizhen said calmly. “It was… intense, but I feel I benefited from it.” The little snake coiled loosely around Meizhen’s neck twisted its head to look up at its owner, flicking its tongue out several times. Bai Meizhen glanced at it with a slight frown.
Zhou… that was the name of the instructor for physical cultivation, Ling Qi recalled.
“I don’t know if it’s rude to ask but… what stage are you at?” Ling Qi asked after a few moments of companionable silence. The question had occurred to her later in Elder Su’s lesson, and it hadn’t quite left her mind.
“Second Sin Shedding,” Bai Meizhen immediately answered. She must have noticed Ling Qi’s confusion because an expression of chagrin crossed her face. “... Middle Yellow stage spirit cultivation,” she amended. “I am not yet used to using the… standardized terms.”
Bai Meizhen was very far ahead then. Ling Qi was a little discouraged to know she was so far behind.
“Are most of the other disciples that advanced?” Ling Qi asked, somewhat dreading the answer. “And what do you mean by standardized?”
“No. Those in the Yellow stage can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” the pale girl responded dismissively. “Most of our peers are no higher than the middle of the Red Soul Stage.
“Old families such as mine have their own traditions and terms for cultivation. The terms disciples are taught to use here are only a handful of millenia old. The standard terms were coined during the establishment of the current imperial dynasty.”
Ling Qi nodded, feeling relieved that she wasn’t trailing quite as far behind as she had feared. Her roommate was simply… unusual. It seemed strange that someone as strong as her would be ostracized. She would think that everyone would want to be friends with the most powerful people. She didn’t want to press the other girl for information on something that might be personal though.
“Is that why you came here with a spirit beast already?” Ling Qi asked, searching for a thread to keep the conversation going. She could sense the qi in the little snake now. “I’ve seen a couple others who have them too. Do your families give them out?”
Bai Meizhen frowned harshly at her, and the snake’s head twitched toward her as well, leaving Ling Qi subject to two baleful and unblinking stares. What did she say? After a moment, the other girl sighed, glanced at her pet, and made a brief, soft hissing sound, reaching up to stroke the serpent’s bright green scales.
“I will forgive the insinuation since you are not aware. It is partially my fault as well for not introducing her properly.” Bai Meizhen fixed Ling Qi with a serious look.
“This is my cousin, Bai Cui. Please do not refer to her as if she was a pet.”
Ling Qi stared blankly at her.
“How does that even -t - She’s a snake. How is she your cousin?” Ling Qi asked incredulously.
The snake - Cui, Ling Qi reminded herself - hissed softly in what could almost be mistaken for laughter.
“I know it is not an approved practice anymore, but really, how can you not know such things?” Bai Meizhen huffed in annoyance. “She is my cousin because our Sublime Ancestor is the White Serpent of Lake Hei. We are from two branches of the same family.”
Ling Qi closed her eyes, trying very hard not to picture the… mechanics of such an arrangement. Did that mean that Han Jian too… she couldn't help but picture the tall boy with a pair of fuzzy cat ears atop his head.
“I… right, sorry?” Ling Qi eventually managed. “You just don’t really hear about that kind of thing in the little city I came from,” she finished a touch lamely.
Bai Meizhen simply nodded, not appearing to hold it against her.
“I think,” Bai Meizhen began slowly, “I should attempt to educate you on a few matters if only to ensure you do not offend someone unintentionally in the future.”
Ling Qi blinked in surprise, even as she felt a hint of dread at having to learn a bunch of information not even related to her cultivation. Still, she had been intending to spend time with the other girl this week. Despite her unsettling presence, Bai Meizhen had already helped Ling Qi once.
“That could be useful,” Ling Qi hedged. “What did you have in mind?” Ling Qi did not have the luxury of being choosy when it came to friendly contacts.
“Nothing complex,” the other girl assured her. “Just a bit of history and some knowledge about the nobility. Enough to prevent you from making a fool of yourself.” Ling Qi did not trust the way Cui appeared to be doing the serpentine equivalent of laughing aloud.
“That sounds fine…” she responded despite her better judgement.
Really, how bad could it be?
Quite bad, she thought gloomily as she trudged across the plaza to her first lesson on physical cultivation. Bai Meizhen was not a gifted teacher. Her diction was dry, and her dispassionate tone made it all too easy to nod off. Still, she couldn’t say the information was useless. Despite the dryness of the lessons, Ling Qi found herself remembering most of it, which was strange. She had never been particularly great at academic learning before.
Maybe it was a side effect of her awakening? Her thoughts had felt clearer since she had broken through, and it felt much easier to recall information. She could ask Elder Su tomorrow. For now, she had a lesson to get to and she had no intention of being late.
Once again, she was walking alone. Bai Meizhen had declined to come along, citing the need to perform some kind of personal meditation. Ling Qi slipped through the crowds with practiced ease and soon found herself on a new path. It spiralled up the east side of the mountain and ended on a smaller plateau with a number of wide fields divided by posts and rope barriers. Each field was equipped with racks full of practice weapons, weights, and other equipment reminiscent of the guardsmen’s drilling yard back home writ large.
She saw various older disciples scattered about, performing exercises, running, and other slightly incomprehensible things. Was that boy balancing himself on the point of one finger? Why? Shaking her head, she hurried past to the field at the end where a crowd of disciples her age were waiting. There, she saw the boy with the burn scar she had noticed the first day, as well as that loathsome ‘Yu’ fellow.
Peering into the morning fog as she got closer, she searched for the instructor. She saw the silhouette of a taller figure standing beyond the crowd. She stopped dead as she got a good look at him. The first thought and indeed the only thought that came to Ling Qi was… muscles. The man standing with his arms clasped behind his back was shirtless and looked like he had been carved from a block of solid bronze. His biceps were easily as thick as another man’s thighs, and she had no idea that it was even possible to have that many clearly defined abdominal muscles.
Ling Qi flushed scarlet and averted her eyes when she noticed that she had been staring in a rather undignified manner at her instructor. Luckily, no one seemed to have noticed her losing her composure. When she looked back, she focused on his face. He looked as she would expect: stern expression, a wide square jaw, and short, evenly cropped hair tied back in a top knot. Still feeling slightly ashamed of her initial break in composure, Ling Qi did her best to fade into the crowd and not draw attention to herself until the lesson started.
She did not have to wait too long. Only a few other students filtered in to join the murmuring crowd standing before the utterly silent instructor. She might have thought the man a statue were it not for the rise and fall of his chest. She wasn’t staring. She wasn’t.
Then he spoke, and the disciples quieted immediately.
“Those who were here yesterday. Begin running.” His voice held an authoritative tone that brooked no argument and set Ling Qi’s instincts on edge. A good two thirds of the students immediately began to move away, toward the well beaten dirt track around the edge of the field.
“Those of you who remain,” he continued without once looking their way. “I expect your full effort for the length of every session. Disciples consistently giving less than that in tasks I assign will be expelled from the lesson. I will not provide second chances.”
Ling Qi was feeling a bit of deja vu at the similarity to the other Elder’s speech.
“I will not mince words. I am only here at the direct request of Master Yuan, the Sect Head. Most of you will never serve in my unit on the border. Most of you do not have the resolve to be a part of the Empire’s Bulwark. I train those who act as the wall which keeps the Cloud Tribes from our towns and cities. A single failure of attention can bring ruin to entire settlements.
“I am not in the habit of training those who only intend to be here long enough to gain some piddling strength to establish themselves in court or clan.”
Several disciples shifted on their feet, and Ling Qi saw some angry and indignant expressions, as well as worry and other emotions. The Instructor pushed on, as implacable as a glacier.
“I am Zhou the Indomitable, commander of the Sect military, and for some reason, the Sect Head thinks you have the potential to be taught by me,” he barked, voice carrying over the field. “I expect most of you will disappoint him.”
One or two of the crowd were looking rather mutinous, but Ling Qi noticed that those who had been here the day before had their eyes firmly fixed ahead, not reacting to his words as they ran. She caught a mutter from one of the boys in front of her, one of a handful of young men standing in a loose group near that bastard Yu.
Of course, if she heard it, she was not surprised that the Elder heard it as well.
“Repeat what you just said, boy,” the instructor commanded, moving for the first time to point an accusing finger at the speaker. The boy immediately went pale, looking around for support only to find his companions conspicuously turning their faces away. He swallowed, but seemed to find his spine a moment later.
“I said… I said that fighting nomads was not so impressive,” he said miserably. “They are just… just barbarians, you know. Any decent imperial soldier should be able to crush them.”
“Is that so,” Zhou responded blandly. Pivoting on one foot, he reached over to a nearby weapon rack and tossed one of the blunted practice spears on it at the boy. To his credit, the boy caught it with barely a fumble.
“You have a mid-gold rank physique. As I understand it, that is roughly average for most interior cities’ guard officers. Correct?”
The boy nodded with a hint of pride.
“Very well. Strike me.”
The boy blinked. “Sir…?”
“Did I stutter, boy?” Zhou asked coldly, taking a step forward. “I said: strike me. Strike as if you were trying to kill.” The boy continued to hesitate and Elder Zhou took another step forward.
“Strike. Now. Or I will have you expelled from the sect.”
That seemed to break the boy’s hesitation, and he stabbed forward toward the instructor’s throat. It appeared like a skilled strike to Ling Qi’s inexperienced eye. Zhou made no effort to dodge, stepping forward to meet it. The iron tip of the spear struck against Instructor Zhou’s neck and bent for an instant before the pressure snapped the wood haft, and the instructor’s hand swept out in a blur.
The next thing she knew, the boy was rolling across the field a half dozen feet away, whimpering and clutching a rapidly swelling cheek. Zhou looked as impassive as ever as he withdrew his extended hand.
“I did not use my qi in any active way,” he explained clinically. “Nor did I strike with even a fraction of my strength.” He fixed a glare on each of them in turn as he continued.
“I have met several nomad Khans who could match me in combat. I have met more still who could at least put up a fight. To underestimate the Empire’s enemies is to invite death to our people. Am I understood?”
Ling Qi found herself nodding, along with the other disciples present. Not a single one hesitated when he commanded them to run and to not stop until he commanded it. What followed were the most miserable and grueling hours of exertion that Ling Qi could recall. Instructor Zhou was utterly without pity for any of them, but at the same time, he seemed to have a preternatural sense for when they genuinely couldn’t be pushed any further.
Those that had reached their limits with more conventional exercise were set to meditating under his watch, while being instructed to… ‘diffuse’ their qi throughout their bodies. This would allow the qi to soak into their flesh and bones rather than gathering in their dantian. They were to practice the qi exercises until the instructor decided they had recovered enough to resume the more physical exercises.
Unlike her earlier efforts at cultivation, Ling Qi felt that her progress was quite slow. She could definitely feel something happening, but it was frustrating feeling most of the qi she attempted to diffuse simply wasting away into the air. Her mood wasn’t helped by the soreness of her muscles as she trudged back home for the evening. Yet despite her exhaustion, Ling Qi found herself feeling a bit of wonder.
By cycling her qi according to the freshly mastered first stage of the Argent Soul Art, she had been able to run faster and longer than she could have managed even just days ago. When she stumbled and fell, her qi flared instinctively to shield her palms against the scrapes she would have normally received. If she was already capable of this after only two days of cultivation, just what wonders would the future hold?