It was very easy to fall into a routine. Wake up, cultivate, share a few words with Meizhen, attend lessons, and spend time with Han Jian here and there. After just a week, it felt like she had been doing this forever.
Her newfound ability to retain information really was a boon. She could not imagine actually remembering most of the minutiae Bai Meizhen discussed with her or the dense lectures of Elder Su without the clarity of thought cultivation had brought her. She shouldn’t have been surprised; Immortals were supposed to be superior to mortals in every way.
Her rapid awakening had actually brought a brief smile to the strict Elder Su’s lips. It was the first time in years that Ling Qi had felt genuinely proud of herself.
Now Awakened, she was able to join the other half of the class. Han Jian was a great help in getting her through the material she had missed; most of it was an expansion on what he had been teaching her in their brief meetings.
The second half of the spiritual class was focused on the opening of meridians.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Ling Qi admitted. “What exactly is an impurity?” she asked Han Jian as they rested on the bench beneath one of the plaza’s trees after a lesson. Despite her earlier resolve, she still lacked the confidence to ask questions in the lesson itself.
“You could probably debate a scholar about that for weeks,” Han Jian said with a chuckle. “Basically, it’s all the toxins and impure materials that poison our bodies and spirits. We’re born with them, and they only get worse with age. Everything in the world has impurities in it, but the closer you come to the peak of cultivation, the less you have.”
That explained why she felt like she had been crawling through a sewer pipe after a long afternoon trying to work a meridian open, Ling Qi thought sourly.
“So meridians are actually in the body?” She asked. “Because last week, we learned that our dantians were wholly spiritual.”
“Your meridians are what bring your qi into the physical world so they exist both physically and spiritually. But you can’t physically interact with the channels themselves except with the aid of certain arts or talismans. Where you carve the channels in your body also decides what type of energies they can carry.”
“I suppose that makes sense.” Ling Qi sighed.
As they parted ways, his words echoed in her thoughts. Ling Qi had advanced to the point where she would have to choose what kind of meridian to work on opening, and that would affect what arts she would be able to use at first.
Meridians were defined by the part of the body their exit points manifested in. Meridians in the legs were primarily used for movement techniques, while arm meridians were best for energy projection and techniques focused on direct harm. Spinal meridians were primarily used for techniques which enhanced or modified the self, and the heart meridians were best used for techniques which created various effects in a field around the user.
One could also open meridians which emerged from the head and affected the senses or those from the throat, which were associated with the lungs, and allowed the creation of qi constructs. However, Elder Su had warned the disciples that head or lung meridians were poor choices for their first because a misstep in opening those could cause major harm.
It was just one more concern among the others that were piling up.
Even with her quick advancement, Ling Qi was still among the weakest people on the mountain. She had never really been strong, but in her home town, that hadn’t mattered much. There were enough people that she could always slip away and vanish into a crowd, and few people - aside from the owner - really cared if several loaves of bread or a bag of rice went missing. Here, there was just over a thousand people on the outer sect mountain.
Only one resource, the spirit stones, mattered. Ling Qi herself was beginning to feel the pinch of their limited supply. True, if she didn’t foolishly glut on the energy held within like she had the first night, a single stone could provide for a week of cultivation… but she knew instinctively that she could advance faster with a greater supply. More than once, she had found herself considering if she could acquire more, at her peers expense.
Of course, she wouldn’t consider doing that to Bai Meizhen. Despite the taciturn girl’s ‘friendliness’ toward her, there was always a feeling of danger around the other girl. No, she wouldn’t even dare to place herself within Bai Meizhen’s personal space without a direct invitation.
On the other hand, some of the other girls she passed on her circuitous route out of the residential area were sloppy and inattentive in the same way that the wealthier inhabitants of her home town could be. She was fairly certain she could filch from them without being noticed.
However, it wasn’t a step she wanted to take without thought. If she did get caught, the consequences would probably be unpleasant. At the very least, it would earn her a bad reputation, and her standing wasn’t exactly very high to begin with.
Her standing was something else that did little for her mood. Even here, she was mostly sneered at and ignored by so-called peers; only Han Jian and Bai Meizhen treated her politely. It was beginning to bother her in a way that she had a hard time articulating.
Those thoughts returned to her again the next day as she sat beside Han Jian in the plaza gardens. She had been working on stabilizing her cultivation, smoothing out the few imbalances that her rapid growth had left in her energy.
As the two of them meditated under the eaves of one of the entry plaza’s scattered trees, she found her thoughts bubbling with a simple question. Why was he doing this? She couldn’t really offer him anything, and yet he was helping her anyway. It was suspicious. He hadn’t even alluded to her owing him, which only increased her wariness.
She glanced over at where he sat cross-legged in the grass, hands on his knees and eyes closed. The tiger cub Heijin was with him today although the lazy feline was asleep in his lap as Heijin was most times they did this. Finally, she could stand her own distraction no more.
“Why are you still meeting me?” Her voice broke the tranquil silence. She wasn’t good at subtlety when it came to this kind of thing. “I appreciate the help, but it doesn’t make sense.”
Her words pulled Han Jian out of his mediation, and he cracked open an eye to regard her curiously. “What brought this on?”
“I’ve seen you around. You never lack someone to talk to or to partner with in exercises,” Ling Qi responded, doing her best to avoid sounding accusatory. “You have higher cultivation than me as well. So - why are you helping me?”
She didn’t exactly stalk him, but she had… hung around after their meetings a few times and kept a surreptitious eye on him during lessons. It seemed Han Jian knew many people, and most of them were if not friendly, then at least accepting of his presence.
He relaxed from his stiff mediation and leaned back against the tree trunk behind him.
“Do I need a reason?” he asked lightly, reaching down to scratch Heijin behind the ears. “You aren’t totally unpleasant to be around, you know?” he added with a hint of teasing.
Ling Qi frowned, watching him out of the corner of his eye. There was something slightly off about his expression.
“No one does something without a reason,” she replied stubbornly. “I know I am not… popular, and I lack the power to make up for that. Spending time with me must degrade your own reputation too.”
Ling Qi saw a flicker of something angry in Han Jian’s expression, a crack in his friendly demeanor, but it disappeared too fast for her to be sure she had even seen it.
“I think you’re underestimating yourself. You broke through to the first stage in less than a week. That earned you some positive attention,” he said. Ling Qi didn’t miss the deflection in his words. “Besides, everyone can use a little down time, you know?”
She considered his words for a few moments. “So, I’m an excuse to get away from others?” She might not be the best at social interactions, but she liked to think she was reasonably perceptive.
He sighed, glancing up at the sky. “Don’t read too much into things, Ling Qi,” he responded tiredly. “It doesn’t do any good to get hung up on the little stuff.”
He was right on that much, and she was better than this. She hadn’t lived as long as she had by moping about silly things even if she wished that he had said that he enjoyed spending time with her.
“Right,” she said, not quite agreeing but unwilling to argue with him over it. “Ah, I had almost forgotten. There was something I wanted to ask you about that Instructor Zhou seemed to leave out of his lectures.”
Han Jian smiled, relaxing now that she had changed the subject. “What’s that? He’s pretty thorough.”
“He never explained what the levels of physical cultivation are,” Ling Qi responded with a frown. “There was some mention of a Gold rank, but I don’t know what that means.”
“Ah, I suppose that makes sense. He probably mentioned it the first day and simply didn’t bother repeating it the second,” Han Jian responded reasonably, eyeing Heijin as the tiger cub bounded off of his lap to chase after a passing butterfly.
“The progression is Gold, Silver, and then Bronze. There are realms after Bronze but like the spiritual realms after Green, we don’t need to worry about that for awhile.”
“Isn’t that backward? Why is Gold the lowest realm?”
“Let me see if I can remember how my tutor put it,” Han Jian said, humming thoughtfully to himself.
“Gold is a malleable metal, easily shaped, just like a young cultivator. Yet it is also soft and easily damaged.” He put on a slightly mocking ‘serious’ voice as he recited the words, causing Ling Qi to smile slightly.
Returning to his normal voice, he added, “It’s also the least valuable metal for Immortals. It isn’t particularly good for talismans, and accumulating a mortal fortune is pretty trivial for any Immortal with decent skills. It just isn’t important to us in the same way as it is for mortals.”
Ling Qi nodded thoughtfully, her smile fading. It made sense she supposed. She still couldn’t see herself turning down a pile of gold coins. She had other things she needed to ask though.
“Thank you. On another note, would you mind if I asked you for advice on clearing a heart meridian as well? Now that I’ve reached the first stage, I want to be able to actually use my qi.”
Surprised, Han Jian raised an eyebrow. “You’re going for heart? Most people go for an arm or the spine for the first meridian.”
Ling Qi gave him an unsure look. “Is there something wrong with opening the heart first? You have heart meridians open too.”
“Well yeah, but I’m expected to lead,” he responded easily, wincing as Heijin returned to nip at his fingers. He glared down at the kitten before continuing.
“I didn’t take you for the leader type.”
Ling Qi hunched her shoulders a bit. She didn’t really feel like she was a leader either, but she was not going to catch up in raw strength any time soon. Increasing her value as a support-type would make it easier to keep Bai Meizhen’s goodwill - or some other group’s if it came down to it.
“I have my reasons,” she responded stubbornly.
Han Jian regarded her quietly for a moment but then shrugged slightly. “Well, alright. First thing to keep in mind is that you need to time the qi pulses to your heartbeat. If you don’t, you’ll risk making your heart seize up. The more precise the timing, the better off you’ll be…”
Ling Qi leaned forward, listening intently. She would do this, and she wouldn’t fail.