There were only two months remaining before the truce ran out.
If Ling Qi had not gained the ability to defend herself by then, things would go poorly for her. She needed every single advantage she could get. Passing Elder Zhou’s test was her best hope for advancing quickly, but that did not mean that she had to place all of her hopes on it. Ling Qi was sure that Elder Su’s lesson on qi loci was meant as a hint that the mountain held sites of power that could enhance cultivation. The trouble was that she couldn’t afford to waste time wandering around the mountain at random. Time was a precious resource even with her new ability to cut her sleep time in half.
But did she need to do it alone? No. Thinking about the problem, Ling Qi quickly came up with an alternative. She would need to get Li Suyin and her roomate to agree to help her. After receiving her monthly supply of spirit stones, Ling Qi hunted down Li Suyin in the crowd.
“Li Suyin,” she called out, raising a hand to get the other girls attention.
The smaller girl stopped walking, turning in surprise to face Ling Qi. “Ling Qi?” Li Suyin asked, glancing nervously at the crowd. “Did you need something?” She sounded befuddled; Ling Qi was not the one who approached typically.
“I have an idea,” Ling Qi said as she stopped near the other girl, scanning the crowd for a messy mop of bushy hair. “I need to talk to your roommate too… Su Ling, right?”
Li Suyin’s eyebrows rose. “What? Why?” she asked, even as she followed Ling Qi back into the crowd.
“You remember the lesson we were talking about before and finding something for ourselves?” Ling Qi replied vaguely, not wanting to be exact with so many people around. “I think Su Ling can help give us a good lead.”
Li Suyin was falling behind, too polite to weave through the crowd properly. After a moment’s hesitation, Ling Qi caught the girl’s hand in her own to keep them from being slowed down. “... I do not think that is the best idea,” the blue-haired girl hedged uncomfortably, glancing down at their hands. “Su Ling is very… private. I am not sure she will take well to the idea of being a guide.”
Ling Qi was glad Li Suyin was sharp enough to pick up on her intentions so easily. “Maybe, but it can’t hurt to ask,” Ling Qi responded impatiently. Spotting Su Ling’s bushy head through the crowd, she gave Li Suyin’s hand a tug. Their target was quickly moving away. “We all stand to benefit here. She didn’t seem that unreasonable.”
Ling Qi barely registered the scholarly girl’s incredulous look. Li Suyin followed anyway, clearly resigned to being pulled by Ling Qi. Given their hurry, the two girls’ passage was anything but subtle. It came as no surprise to Ling Qi that the animalistic girl noticed their approach.
Su Ling’s pointed, furry ears twitched in agitation as she glanced back and scowled. “Oh. It’s you again. What do you want?” She turned to face Ling Qi and Li Suyin with her arms crossed, ignoring the people forced to go around her.
“I wanted to offer a deal we can both benefit from,” Ling Qi responded carefully, keeping her eyes fixed on the feral girl’s to avoid appearing weak. “It’d be better to talk away from the crowd,” she added. No one seemed to be paying attention to them, but Ling Qi knew better than to take that at face value.
Su Ling narrowed her eyes, looking from Ling Qi to Li Suyin then agreed. “Fine. Come on then. I know a good place.”
Ling Qi glanced back at Li Suyin, who smiled nervously.
“Sure. Lead the way,” Ling Qi responded confidently. She wasn’t worried about conflict yet; not while the Elder’s decree was still in effect. They followed Su Ling out of the plaza and toward the training fields. Si Ling’s ‘place’ turned out to be a small clearing in the lightly wooded cliffs that surrounded the path further up the mountain, a decent distance from the actual road.
“So?” Su Ling asked archly as she came to a stop in the middle of the clearing. “If this is just some dumb trick to get me alone, you’re gonna regret it.” Su Ling flexed her bony fingers, drawing attention to her sharp black nails.
“I would not help someone trick you like that,” Li Suyin mumbled from behind Ling Qi, sounding hurt.
Su Ling glanced at the short girl with a complicated expression and then huffed. “Not on your own, but I’m pretty sure you’d cave in real quick to a threat,” she said mercilessly before turning her attention back to Ling Qi. “So what do you want?”
Ling Qi frowned as Li Suyin stared at the ground, shoulders hunched. Su Ling was even blunter than Ling Qi was. While it was true that Ling Qi wasn’t sure that Li Suyin could be trusted in the face of pressure, there was no point in saying it straight to the girl’s face. “The two of us are going to search the mountain for a qi locus,” Ling Qi said. It was a little gratifying to see someone else wearing a blank look of incomprehension for once.
“It’s a location filled with potent qi that lets you cultivate faster.” Ling Qi figured Li Suyin could explain in more detail later if Su Ling wanted to know more.
Su Ling continued to regard Ling Qi suspiciously. “Yeah? Good for you. What does that have to do with me?”
This would be the hard part, Ling Qi knew. She took a deep breath, drawing on her experience convincing fellow gutter urchins to play patsy for more complicated thefts. It shouldn’t be hard, right? She was even intending to treat honestly this time. “The first thing you should know is that we aren’t just searching around at random. Elder Su all but said there would be places like that on the mountain.” Ling Qi felt confident that this was true. “And Li Suyin has a really good feel for qi. It’s why we’re cultivating together.”
“I’m still not hearing a reason why this should involve me,” Su Ling said dryly, but Ling Qi could see that she understood where this was going. The girl wasn’t dim. “I’m not interested in letting Li Suyin paw at me like you do. I like men.”
Despite her focus, Ling Qi stuttered for a moment and flushed slightly. The absurd accusation simply came out of nowhere.
“It’s not like that at all!” This was enough to finally break Li Suyin’s shell of meekness. A glance confirmed that Li Suyin had gone red with embarrassment. “There’s no need to be so rude and to imply something vulgar about our study sessions, you… you ruffian!” Li Suyin angrily pointed a trembling finger at Su Ling. “Is it really so difficult to just be polite!”
Su Ling and Ling Qi blinked almost in unison at the other girl’s outburst. Su Ling seemed slightly bewildered.
“Whatever,” Su Ling finally huffed. “It was just a joke. Make your pitch, will you?” she added, sounding troubled.
“... Right,” Ling Qi cleared her throat, deciding to ignore the awkward atmosphere. “The point is spirit beasts supposedly congregate around these places. We were hoping you would show us where you’ve been hunting. In return, you can use the place too when we find it. You might stumble on it on your own, but we’ll all waste less time looking together.”
Su Ling bared her teeth, but as she glanced between Ling Qi and Li Suyin again, a low uncertain growl escaped her throat. After a moment, she scuffed her foot against the grass, looking frustrated. “... Fine. Beast cores and elixirs aren’t letting me keep up alone anyway,” Su Ling grumbled. Jabbing a finger at Ling Qi, she added, “You aren’t allowed to talk about my hunting spot with anyone else though. Swear it.”
Ling Qi shared a look with Li Suyin.
“I swear I won’t mention your grounds to anyone else,” Ling Qi said. It was an easy enough thing to promise. She even meant it.
“I swear as well,” Li Suyin said. “Um, sticking together will benefit all of us, right?”
Su Ling grimaced, her tail flicking back and forth. “When are we doing this?”
Ling Qi sighed. Now came the really hard part. Scheduling.
Once they had hashed things out, they agreed to meet again a few days after the Elder’s test. Ling Qi and Li Suyin headed off to their spiritual lesson, and then afterward, back to Li Suyin’s hut. There, sitting in silence save for the breathing of the other girl in front of her, Ling Qi found herself losing track of time as she cultivated. The energy of a fresh spirit stone pulsed in her hands, filling her dantian with warmth.
Cycle and Expand.
The core of spiritual cultivation was the expansion of one’s dantian. It was an oddly relaxing exercise. The feeling of rough stone beneath her faded, the whistling of the wind through cracks in the stone faded, the warmth of Suyin’s hands on hers faded, and even her nagging worry about the coming test faded. All that remained was her heartbeat and the pulse of her qi, slowly rising in tempo as she circulated the stone’s qi and assimilated it into her own.
Today, there was a feeling of constriction, like being forced into a pair of shoes a size too small. It only grew worse as she continued to cultivate. Ling Qi felt her breathing hitch and her heartbeat grow erratic as a great weight seemed to press down on her from every direction. She knew somehow that if she just ended her circulation, the feeling would end. She almost did… But something in her rebelled at the idea of giving up and at allowing herself to be restricted.
Hadn’t she suffered worse to do what she wanted? Endured freezing nights and an empty belly for years on end? Risked death or worse as a young girl living on the street? Would she really give up and be held down by just a little pressure? No. Ling Qi would be free in the end, no matter the trial, no matter what she had to sacrifice to obtain it.
The pressure vanished like a dam burst by floodwater.
Awareness returned to her, along with all of her doubts and thoughts, shattering the moment of utter clarity she had just experienced. Even as she opened her eyes and smiled weakly at her excited partner, accepting Li Suyin’s praise and congratulations at breaking through to the Middle stage of the Red Realm, that final thought lingered.
Was that really who she was when everything else was stripped away?
Somehow, it made her feel a little hollow.