The qi that now thrummed through Ling Qi’s dantian filled her body with energy. Her muscles tingled and her heartbeat thundered in her ears, making it difficult to remain still. The qi washed away the fatigue and thinly stretched feeling that followed a day spent in intensive effort.
She had mastered the second stage of the Argent Soul Art and the depth of her well of qi had grown by nearly half. Letting out a breath, she performed another cycling of her energy and felt wonder at how smoothly it flowed and how swiftly it responded to her thoughts.
This… This had been worth it. She would need to dedicate herself to training hard, but she could instinctively feel that she now had enough qi to put into practice Elder Su’s lessons on using qi to reduce the need for sleep. It would leave her drained of energy, but she could train longer and harder if need be. With her increased stamina, she might even be able to begin seriously mastering the first techniques of the Zephyr’s Breath Art.
With her success buoying her, Ling Qi left the meditation room feeling ready to take a well-earned break. When she found that her oft absent roommate had returned home during her cultivation, she was even more pleased. She hadn’t had a chance to speak to Bai Meizhen in a couple of days, and she wanted to discuss the possibility of teaming up for Elder Zhou’s test.
“What do you mean you don’t intend to participate?” Ling Qi asked in distress as she looked across the fire at Bai Meizhen.
The pale girl sipped quietly from a steaming cup of tea as Cui lazily slithered up from the collar of her gown, coiling around her neck in a loose loop.
“Just as I said. I have no intention of joining the Sect military beyond training exercises. Elder Zhou’s instruction is valuable, but in the end, it is not the path I wish to take. My own physical cultivation is sufficient for my needs.”
Ling Qi grimaced. So much for the hope that she could succeed by relying on Bai Meizhen. There was still the possibility of trying to join Han Jian… but she felt less sure of her chances of successfully doing so. The boy had quite a few other friends from her observations.
“Do you at least have an idea of what the Elder’s test will be?” Surely Bai Meizhen knew more of the various elders’ reputations than Ling Qi did.
Bai Meizhen’s thoughtful hum had a slightly unnerving hissing quality to it, but Ling Qi was used to it by now.
“Guan Zhou is a man dedicated to the Empire through and through. It is likely he will test for cooperation, coordination, and ability to synergize one’s skills with others. I expect the test will take the form of achieving various military objectives. Other elders may have input into the test however, which may change the form the test takes.”
Ling Qi clutched her knees in worry as her thoughts spun through the possibilities. She might not have much combat ability… but she was fairly good at sneaking and survival. Scouting was an important part of army operations, right? She hoped so. Her only experience with soldiering was listening to drunk city guards bemoan their superior officers.
“Ugh. I wish I had more time and resources to cultivate with,” Ling Qi lamented. “There are so many things to do, and I’m still so far behind. I can’t afford to lose out on an Elder’s lessons.”
Bai Meizhen regarded her emotionlessly over the rim of her tea cup as Ling Qi spoke to herself. Cui was staring at her too, tongue flickering in and out.
“I had noticed that your cultivation has stopped progressing. Have you reached a block?”
Ling Qi shook her head. “No, I’ve been cultivating the Argent Soul Art instead. It’s my… foundation, right? If I strengthen it, everything that comes after will be stronger.” The explanation sounded better in her head, especially now that she was regretting the lack of immediate combat gains.
Bai Meizhen nodded, a hint of approval flickering in her golden eyes. “That is a good way to think, but I can understand why you are distressed. Building a foundation is important, but it lacks immediate returns.” She glanced downward thoughtfully, meeting the eyes of her ‘cousin’, who merely flicked her tongue lazily in response as far as Ling Qi could tell.
“Would you like some tea?” The question was bizarre and made Ling Qi blink in surprise as Bai Meizhen looked back up to meet her gaze.
“… Sure?” Ling Qi responded a bit awkwardly. Was the other girl trying to comfort her?
“What does that have to do with what we were talking about?”
Bai Meizhen pursed her lips. “I am no herbalist, but I do have some small supply of spirit herbs. Several of the herbs are no longer useful to me.” She said this as if it explained everything. Bai Meizhen frowned at Ling Qi’s lack of understanding and expanded on her previous statement.
“The tea will allow you to cultivate longer and more efficiently. It cannot be used too often though. Once a month at most, lest you risk poisoning.”
Ling Qi’s eyes widened. Even with the limitation, the tea would be an amazing boon. She hurriedly ducked her head thankfully to the other girl.
“Oh! Then yes, please. Thank you very much.”
Bai Meizhen waved her hand dismissively. “It is nothing. As I said, the herbs in question are not useful to one above the Red Soul realm.” She sounded pleased at Ling Qi’s acceptance.
Later that night, Ling Qi was not regretting her choice even if the tea had been so bitter she had nearly spat it out. As horrible as it had tasted, it had left her qi practically crackling within her dantian, straining at its confines as if to expand her capacity by itself. In a single night, she felt as if she had made up for at least a few of the days lost struggling with art cultivation.
When the tea’s effect faded and exhaustion set in, Ling Qi found herself toying with her flute for the first time since she had come to the Sect.
Everything was changing so quickly. Ling Qi might not have true strength yet, but she was achieving something. It hadn’t really sunk in how different things were now. She had friends, if tentative and eccentric ones. She knew things that she could never have imagined having the time or energy to care about. She was seriously considering competing in a military exercise!
As she brought the flute to her lips and closed her eyes, she could only think of one thing. She wouldn’t fail. She wouldn’t fall behind… and she wouldn’t be a burden on her housemate forever.
The other girl had helped her greatly tonight and in the past weeks. Their conversations had given her the basic understanding she would need to get by among the other disciples.
She would pay Bai Meizhen back for her kindness.
She played until tiredness finally stole her skill and laid down to sleep.
Days passed. Ling Qi found herself spending more and more time on cultivation and using her qi to avoid the need to sleep. Every time she found her eyes drooping or her thoughts becoming clouded with exhaustion, she would breathe deep and cycle the qi in her dantian. The tiredness would fade, and she would resume cultivating.
She could feel that she would not be able to keep this up forever. Every day that passed without sleep increased the slight feeling of strain and emptiness that she had begun to feel behind her navel as her efforts sapped the internal well of energy she was carefully cultivating. But for now, it would have to be enough.
Not all of her time could be spent in solitary meditation. She still had lessons to attend and… meetings with her friends for one reason or another.
Things were also beginning to change in the lessons. Instructor Zhou grew harsher and more demanding, and the class began to slowly shrink as individual disciples gave up in the face of his harsh criticisms.
Elder Su did not allow things to remain routine either.
“I am glad to see there are none left who remain unawakened at the end of our first month together.” The matron opened the class on the second day of the week with an unusual statement. With the exception of her speech on the first day, she had always moved directly into her lecture the moment the the door closed.
“It would have been unfortunate to have to expel such layabouts from my course,” she continued pleasantly, eyes scanning the room.
Ling Qi noticed several of her classmates shifting uncomfortably, likely those who had only recently reached their awakening. She wasn’t sure; she had been so focused on her cultivation that she hadn’t paid them much mind. The only ones whose names she knew in Elder Su’s lessons were Li Suyin and Han Jian.
“Going forward, I will have to be somewhat more strict in my requirements.” Ling Qi’s attention snapped back to the Elder, who handed out her ultimatum with a pleasant expression.
“First, after this week, if you do not have at least one of your meridians cleared, you will not be welcome in this class. The exercises we will be performing next week require that you be able to affect the world around you.”
Ling Qi caught Li Suyin shooting her a look of gratitude to which she responded with a weak smile. She was glad she had focused on clearing a meridian so early.
“Similarly,” the Elder continued, unperturbed by the unhappy looks on a few disciples’ faces, “if you have not achieved the mid-Red Soul stage by the end of the next month, I will ask that you not return.” She paused to give a moment for that requirement to sink in.
“I am confident that there are no slackers who will fail to achieve such a simple thing.” Ling Qi’s spirits sank a bit at that. It was something else she also had to worry over. At least this task seemed doable. With her meridian open and her Argent Soul Art improved to the second stage, she could now focus on raising her cultivation base.
“Demands are not all I have for you,” the Elder continued.
“Beginning next week, I intend to reward those who I feel are working the hardest and improving the most.” That drew an excited murmur.
“Each week, I will provide those five students with a medicinal pill from my department.” She flicked her sleeve and held up a softly glowing blue sphere the size of a thumbnail between her fingers.
“This is the Qi Foundation pill. For cultivators of the Red Soul realm, it provides a significant boon toward cultivation, greatly increasing the rate and efficiency of your qi absorption and meridian opening.”
Ling Qi fixed her eyes on the pill before it disappeared back up the Elder’s sleeve. She… didn’t really know how impressive her growth rate was. Li Suyin had seemed to imply that it was high, but the other girl was likely flattering her so that she would continue with their study sessions. Ling Qi would have to think about how she could acquire one of those pills; she needed every advantage she could get.
For now, she needed to pay attention to Elder Su’s lecture. The Elder had moved on to outlining the day’s topic. The class would be studying the various effects environment could have on qi and how to identify sites which had a strong energy and were thus helpful for cultivation.
Apparently, this entire mountain was selected as a training ground for this reason. The spirit stones it had once contained were long mined out, but the lingering energy still provided an ideal environment for new cultivators.
Ling Qi made a note to look into the mines at some point. Even if the mines had been stripped bare, they might still hold something of value. Finding even just a handful of extra spirit stones could be really useful.
It was doubtful that she was the only one with that thought.
... A darkened mineshaft was also almost as good as a cluttered alley for the purposes of getting the jump on someone. Perhaps seeking out more trouble wasn’t the best idea with Elder Zhou’s upcoming test, but it was something to consider.