That was as far as she could take the training alone. The second technique, Against the Wind, didn’t simply enhance her throws; rather, it used the connection formed by a successful attack to hinder the opponent, battering them with gusts of wind that could slow and throw off their movements. To make progress, she would require someone to practice with.
... She also needed a team.
There was less than a week left until Instructor Zhou’s exam, and while she could simply wait and fall in with some random stragglers, it seemed more prudent to group up with someone she knew. With how busy she had been, meetings with Han Jian had fallen by the wayside. She wouldn’t be able to speak with him after he returned to the boys’ residences so she would simply have to do it now at the end of training.
Unfortunately, he was standing with two other disciples, one of which was that irritating Yu.
The other disciple was a girl with pale skin and delicate features subtly painted to accentuate her beauty. Her long, straight black hair gleamed like silk in its simple braid. She was also rather obviously gifted in all the ways that Ling Qi was not, and the sweat worked up by today’s lesson was doing little to hide that fact.
A splash of color drew Ling Qi out of her envious study. On her right hand, the other girl wore a red leather glove.The glove’s bright, crimson shade caught the light as the girl waved a hand dismissively at something said by the boys. Dozens of black characters were embroidered on its surface.
Much like that Yu, she seemed friendly toward Han Jian. And if Ling Qi were to judge, the girl was also standing closer to his side than was strictly necessary. She found herself scowling at the girl’s back. Just what she needed. Another complication.
The crowd was thinning out. Ling Qi would need to either approach or leave. As much as she wanted to wait until Han Jian was alone… she didn’t want to put this off either. Every day that passed brought the test closer.
Ling Qi took a fortifying breath and began to walk briskly toward them, doing her best to put on a friendly expression despite the churning in her stomach. She did make sure to adjust her approach so that Han Jian would likely be the one to notice her first. Sure enough, she saw his eyes shift to hers as she raised a hand to wave to him. His attention made the other two look at her as well. Yu’s look was brief and dismissive, but the girl regarded her with narrowed eyes for a moment before the expression smoothed out into a welcoming smile.
“Ling Qi. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you lately,” Han Jian said in greeting as she came into earshot.
“How’d things go with… ah, Li Suyin, was it?” Ling Qi had let him know why she was going to be busy.
Ling Qi dipped her head slightly in greeting, giving the other two a polite nod despite her irritation with Yu.
“We have both made some good gains from our cooperation. I reached the second stage of Argent Soul. I’ve also been able to reach the first level of mastery with the art I received from the Archive.”
Ling Qi left out her lack of practice on live targets. She wasn’t certain how to feel about the considering look this earned her from Yu, but she was glad Han Jian had given her an opening to talk herself up without it seeming awkward. She wondered if he had done it on purpose.
At this point, the other girl cleared her throat politely and spoke up. “Jian, are you going to introduce us?”
Han Jian laughed sheepishly, scratching the back of his head.
“Oh, right. I suppose I forgot that. Ling Qi, you’ve already met Yu… Fan Yu, even if the introduction wasn’t the smoothest.”
“I have,” Ling Qi said sourly, unable to keep her dislike from her tone. The short, muscular boy seemed unbothered by her dirty look.
“I said nothing untrue,” Fan Yu responded with a snort, “even if it turns out you have a little talent. At least Jian was not totally wasting his time. I suppose everyone must have a good point.” Ling Qi wasn’t sure if Fan Yu expected her to be infuriated by his bluntly unapologetic statement or flattered by his compliment.
... Definitely infuriated. Han Jian’s smile grew strained as she glared at Fan Yu, a slight breeze coincidentally kicking up and sending the hem of her gown fluttering.
“… This is Gu Xiulan, Yu’s fiancee, and one of my other friends from home,” Han Jian said.
“My condolences,” Ling Qi said dryly, drawing a scowl from Fan Yu.
Gu Xiulan just laughed lightly, covering her mouth with the back of her sleeve.
“That isn’t necessary,” Gu Xiulan responded sweetly. “My Yu is just a little too blunt for his own good at times.” There was an edge of something in her tone as she looked Ling Qi up and down before turning her gaze back to Han Jian.
“Where did you meet her, Han Jian?”
“Oh, we just had a chat during orientation and I thought I’d help out,” Han Jian said cheerfully. “Turns out she didn’t really need much help to get going,” he added kindly, smiling at Ling Qi.
Gu Xiulan sighed. “You are so kind, Jian. It is lucky that it paid off this time. I suppose you do have an eye for talent.”
“Thanks,” Ling Qi cut in, feeling slightly irritated at being talked over. Dealing with Fan Yu and Gu Xiulan was making her less comfortable by the moment, and she wanted to get this over with.
“I wanted to ask if you wanted to group up for the test, Han Jian. My art is good for support and ranged fighting and defense, but…”
“Well, at least she knows how to make herself useful,” Fan Yu interrupted.
“But you shouldn’t bother wasting the instructor’s time. Just be content with getting a month of his training. It’s already more luck than someone like you should expect.”
Ling Qi bristled, scowling at the other boy, but Han Jian managed to speak up before she could.
“No need for that,” he said warningly. “Besides, it’s not a bad idea. You’re a close up fighter and so is Fang, and Xiulan is not much on defense. We could use another supporting fighter to round things out.”
“But a barely trained peasant? I know you’re enamored, Han Jian, but this is ridiculous.” Fan Yu threw up his hands.
“Have you ever even been in a fight, girl? I refuse to lose my place because we took on an amateur.”
“I’ve been in a few fights,” Ling Qi responded defensively, glaring at him. She left out that it hadn’t so much been fair fights as taking advantage of drunks or tripping up angry marks to get away.
“Now, now. Let’s not get too worked up,” Gu Xiulan said placatingly, glancing at Ling Qi out of the corner of her eye. “Han Jian’s judgement is good, is it not? Why not trust him?”
Fan Yu looked rebellious but eventually dropped his gaze, grumbling under his breath.
Ling Qi gritted her teeth but refrained from speaking. Instead, she looked to Han Jian, whose expression was neutral.
“I think we could use a fifth person. Weren’t we talking about that before Ling Qi came over?” Han Jian asked lightly.
“That is the standard squad size. She fits the bill of what we need, if not perfectly. It’s not like any first year disciple will have a healing art at this point.
“Unless you want to go try and chat up Sun Liling again?” Han Jian asked Fan Yu.
The other boy shuddered, rubbing his chest as if remembering a phantom pain. “...No, not again, I think,” Fan Yu grumbled.
“Fine, I’m outvoted since Fang will go along with whatever you say, Jian. It’s on your head if she ruins this for us.”
“I can pull my own weight,” Ling Qi responded irritably. “Thank you, Han Jian,” she added in a softer tone. That was one less worry she had to deal with.
“Who is Fang though?”
“Ah. That would be my cousin, Han Fang,” Han Jian replied. “He’s gone into closed door for a few days to finish breaking through to Mid Gold.” He must have spotted her confusion at the term “closed door” immediately because he continued, “Fang’s cultivating non-stop.”
Ling Qi nodded in understanding. She had been doing something similar, but now she had a name for it. “I guess I’ll meet him soon then,” she said.
“... Is there a time where the group trains together or…” Ling Qi trailed off.
“Afternoons on the days after Jian’s spiritual lessons,” Gu Xiulan said. “We’ll have to make sure you’re up to standard after all.”
Fan Yu snorted, and Han Jian cast a suspicious look at Gu Xiulan, whose expression was the picture of innocence.
“Yeah. We meet up at a field at the mountain’s base. Let me give you directions…”
With her worst worry resolved, Ling Qi found her thoughts turning back to Bai Meizhen as she trudged home that night. She wanted to pay the girl back for the tea, which had already helped her and would only help more in the future.
Ling Qi had not seen even a glimpse of Bai Meizhen in days though. It struck her just how little she actually knew about the odd girl despite nearly a month of semi-regular interaction. Bai Meizhen simply didn’t talk about herself or even emote much. She had no idea of the girl’s likes and dislikes beyond the fact that she got irritated when Ling Qi didn’t pick things up quickly. Well, Ling Qi could probably say that she knew the other girl had a great deal of affection for her ‘cousin’.
This was why when she opened the door to her house, she was brought up short at the sight of the little green serpent curled up by the hearth alone.
“...Bai Meizhen?” Ling Qi called out. She didn’t hear her housemate moving about, but the girl could be disturbingly silent at times. Closing the door behind her, she continued to peer around. “Are you here?”
Her only answer was silence so despite the oddity, Ling Qi sat down to get the fire going so that she could fix herself dinner. As she busied herself with those tasks, her eyes drifted to Cui again and again. It was so weird seeing them separate.
She was careful not to tread on Cui, and the little snake didn’t pay her any mind. As she was boiling water for the tea, an idea occurred. Bai Meizhen had assured her once or twice that Cui understood them and was capable of speech even if Ling Qi had never heard the snake do so.
Who would know what the pale girl liked more than her constant companion? Ling Qi still felt a bit foolish when she cleared her throat and spoke up. She couldn’t quite get over the impression that she was talking to an animal.
“Bai Cui, do you know where Bai Meizhen has been?” she asked awkwardly, deciding to be respectful. “And why aren’t you with her?”
The thin green coils didn’t even twitch at her words, and as the seconds stretched on, Ling Qi’s feeling of foolishness only grew. Finally, she sighed and looked away, preparing to set the pot containing the water out over the fire.
‘Cultivation. Winter. Dark. Fear.’
Ling Qi jerked in place, looking back at the little green snake. That… hadn’t been words. It was more like… a foreign thought directly pushed into her head.
“… Was that you?” Ling Qi asked, feeling even more foolish as the words slipped out.
The snake raised her head from her coils to flick her forked tongue irritably up at Ling Qi. She got the impression that Bai Cui thought her question silly. Still it was… garbled, and the feeling stopped.
‘Not Understand. Not Speaker.’
That was a little clearer. It seemed like simple concepts were easier to convey. Cui was lowering her head again, apparently intending to go back to ignoring Ling Qi.
Ling Qi felt rather out of her depth but decided to push on anyway. She had already embroiled herself in this bizarre situation.
“Wait, please. I… want to do something for your cousin, but I don’t know what she would appreciate. Could you tell me something she might like?” She felt rather awkward asking this, but she was out of ideas.
It still seemed to catch Bai Cui’s interest, and the tiny snake stared at her, tongue periodically flicking out.
Ling Qi scowled at the spirit beast’s disparagement, but the snake wasn’t done. What came next was hard to understand, but she thought Cui was suggesting that she just keep doing what she was currently doing.
“That’s not enough,” Ling Qi disagreed vehemently. “There has to be something.”
The little serpent stared at her until Ling Qi began to fidget. Finally, Cui sent an image of a necklace. It was made of fine silver links with a dark green jade pendant in the shape of a coiled dragon. The pendant hung from a girl’s chest, bouncing as she walked. Along with the image came a feeling of covetousness.
“Bai Meizhen wants jewelry?” Ling Qi asked, bewildered. Why hadn’t the other girl just purchased the piece then? It was pretty, but she was sure that Bai Meizhen’s family was absurdly wealthy.
Her comment earned her what she was fairly certain was a look of supreme irritation from Bai Cui.
Was it something Bai Meizhen was actively trying to get or had Cui simply noticed her wanting it? It was so frustrating that she couldn’t properly communicate with the spirit beast.
Said spirit beast laid her head back down, and all further attempts at speaking to Bai Cui were ignored. Ling Qi wasn’t quite certain she wanted to start thieving at the Sect yet if only because she wasn’t sure if she could pull it off without getting caught. She was also a little dubious that she was interpreting Cui correctly.
She would just have to explore other options for now. She couldn’t afford to get distracted with Elder Zhou’s exam looming.