The following day, Ling Qi set out early to meet Han Jian and his friends as they had discussed. She could not say she was looking forward to it, but it made sense to spend more time with the people she would be taking the test with even if Fan Yu was an ass and Gu Xiulan put her on edge. So despite her misgivings, Ling Qi descended through the morning mist, self-consciously adjusting the wrist sheath holding her knives.
She didn’t think Han Jian would attempt anything untoward but… she had been wrong about people before. She still felt frighteningly vulnerable.
Regardless, she didn’t allow her doubts to slow her pace. Soon, she came to the field and found the group waiting for her. The fourth member of their cadre was here today, and Ling Qi could not help but pause and stare as the last of their number came into view through the mist.
He was… big. There was no other way to describe him. He was a head taller than even her and twice as broad at the shoulder. She briefly wondered if he was related to Instructor Zhou somehow. He was thankfully fully clothed, unlike said shirtless instructor, even if his disciple's robe was stretched distractingly over a great deal of muscle for a boy who was presumably her age.
She pulled her eyes upward at that point and resumed walking. The new disciple, who must be the Han Fang discussed last time, had a clean-shaven head and rough, blocky features with sun-darkened skin. As he turned to look at her along with the others, she noticed one final detail. He had a massive ropey scar stretching all the way across his throat like an ugly grin.
“Ling Qi. Glad you could make it,” Han Jian said with an easy smile. He nodded to the new boy, who was examining her in a way that left her feeling defensive. “This is my cousin, Han Fang. Unlike my lazy cat, he’ll actually be helping us out. Don’t be fooled by his looks. This guy is still a first year disciple like us.” He added the last while clapping the other boy on the back.
Ling Qi glanced between the two Hans doubtfully. The two looked nothing alike. She was aware of how little that meant when a golden tiger cub was also related to Han Jian, but she thought it strange anyway. She bowed in greeting to Han Fang. “It is nice to meet you. It seems I will be in your care.” She did her best to speak politely as she usually did around Han Jian.
Ending his examination, Han Fang met her eyes, only to scratch his cheek awkwardly. He ducked his head politely but remained silent before glancing at his cousin.
“Fang can’t really speak much so don’t mind him. We’ll show you some of the signals we use for communication later,” Han Jian explained patiently.
Ling Qi’s cheeks heated slightly, and she shot the other boy an apologetic glance. That really should have been obvious given the scar.
“Ah, of course,” she responded awkwardly, casting about for a change in subject. “Why…”
“If the introductions are over, then shouldn’t we move on to practice?” Fan Yu asked gruffly from behind the two boys. “We don’t even know if she can fight without freezing up.”
Ling Qi shot him an irritated look, but Han Jian nodded, looking apologetic.
“Yu’s right. Sorry, Ling Qi, but we really do need to get to work. Do you mind having a spar with Xiulan first so I can see where you stand? I need to know what you can do to plan around it.”
Ling Qi felt as if the bottom of her stomach had dropped out. The other girl was smiling sweetly in a way that didn’t make Ling Qi comfortable at all.
“I… Yes, I can do that,” Ling Qi responded hesitantly.
“Try not to worry too much,” the other girl said sweetly as she moved toward an open part of the field and gestured for Ling Qi to follow. “I’ll just test your reflexes a bit. I need to make sure that you’re able to properly watch Jian’s back beside me, you know?”
Ling Qi nodded stiffly as she took up a position a good eight meters distant from the other girl, all too conscious of the three boys watching them. There were no obstacles in the grassy meadow the group had chosen for practice so she would have no choice but to face the other girl openly.
Ling Qi did her best to ignore the instincts that screamed at her to run, instead sinking into the low, defensive stance she had learned from the Zephyr’s Breath Art. She stared at Gu Xiulan, who bounced energetically on the balls of her feet, gloved right hand extended forward with her palm out.
Han Jian took up a position about halfway between them but out of the way. Ling Qi couldn’t embarrass herself here if she wanted to work well with this group. Even if she couldn’t win, she could at at least give a good showing.
That was the last thought she had before Han Jian chopped his hand down.
Gu Xiulan was moving before Ling Qi could so much as blink. Her left hand blurred forward, curled into a fist before the echo of Han Jian’s words could fade. Sparks erupted from her knuckles and the air distorted with heat as Gu Xiulan launched a bolt of superheated air that screamed like an overheated kettle.
Ling Qi barely had time to widen her eyes before her instincts and feel for the currents of wind howled at her to dodge. Desperately, she rolled to the side, barely fast enough to avoid the missile.
Then, she was forced to dodge again, this time beneath a fan of heated air as the other girl danced backward and swiped her gloved hand through the air in Ling Qi’s direction. Ling Qi could smell the tips her hair charring as she rolled under it and sprang back to her feet. Her every instinct cried out to flee and escape danger, but she forced herself to ignore them. She had to stay close in this fight, or she would have no chance at all.
The third attack came in the form of a rising wave of heat kicked up by a sweep of the other girl’s leg, carrying grit that stung and burned whatever it touched. Ling Qi jumped, forcing wind qi out into the air around her to boost her leap and carry her over the worst of it. She landed hard, wincing at the jarring feeling in her knees as her legs bent to absorb the impact.
A flick of her wrist brought one of the blunted training knives to her hand, and she flung it, the wind carrying it unerringly at her smirking target. Surprise flickered in Gu Xiulan’s eyes, and her gloved hand rose to deflect the knife. Ling Qi saw a wince cross the girl’s expression at the impact before the blade bounced away. All told, it had only been a handful of seconds since the fight had begun. Ling Qi locked eyes with the other girl, tensing as she planned her next move.
“I think that’s enough to get started on,” Gu Xiulan said with a smile, relaxing her stance. “You’re pretty rough, but we can polish you up a little,” the pretty girl added cheerfully. “You would have been in quite the trouble if I had been using real fire.”
There was an edge of warning in the other girl’s tone. Gu Xiulan was right though. Even now. Ling Qi’s legs stung from the painfully hot grit that had gotten under the hem of her gown.
“Thanks,” Ling Qi responded slowly as the other girl crouched to pick up her knife. She toyed with the idea of shooting back a quip about the other girl being wounded too if her knives had been sharpened, but she decided that it was better not to push things. “You were almost too fast to follow,” Ling Qi added after mulling it over.
“We’ll have to work on that then,” the other girl said sweetly as she handed Ling Qi’s knife back to her. Han Jian had a satisfied look on his face as he observed the two of them, Han Fang was unreadable, and Fan Yu was scowling at her, ass that he was.
“A little dodge training is just the thing for you, I think,” Gu Xiulan continued, her smile taking on a sharp edge.
Ling Qi felt a shiver go up her spine at the girl’s words and expression. Why did she have this strange impending feeling of doom?
As it turned out, it was because Gu Xiulan was absolutely brutal in her teaching. Ling Qi lost count of the number of times that she caught a dainty fist with her short ribs or was laid out by a jab to the jaw. Gu Xiulan hit like a full-grown man twice her size. Ling Qi was just surprised at how few bruises she had by the time she parted ways with the group that afternoon.
Although Gu Xiulan seemed to take a personal and sadistic pleasure in putting Ling Qi in the dirt over and over again, Ling Qi decided that she didn’t care. She was getting stronger and whatever else she could say about Gu Xiulan, the girl’s advice was sound. Ling Qi had been able to block or at least avoid some of Gu Xiulan’s hits by the end.
Despite that resolution, she could not quite decide if she was grateful or hated the other girl. She would decide after the test.
However, Ling Qi had not spent the day just being beaten by a girl several centimeters shorter than her. She had also taken part in a few drills with Han Jian and the others and learned something of their own styles.
Han Jian was a swordsman, perhaps unsurprisingly, but he preferred to stay behind the other two boys and direct their actions, flickering about with preternatural speed on bursts of heated wind to avoid being entangled in melee. Fan Yu wielded a a short-hafted spear and fought defensively using earth qi to harden his skin and bull through opponents and obstacles with brute force. Han Fang had a very large hammer and a talent for thunder qi. Fighting near him often left Ling Qi with a ringing headache, but Han Jian had assured her that she would become acclimated to the boom of his strikes.
The week blurred by between cultivation, training, and lessons. Focusing on improving her fitness, Ling Qi found herself advancing impossibly fast. The qi she gently disseminated throughout her body seemed to multiply the effects of her exercise a hundredfold. She hardly had any fat to lose, of course, but her muscles grew more solid by the day.
On the last day of Elder Zhou’s lessons before the coming test, Ling Qi felt a change as she meditated. The daily exercise of working qi into flesh and muscles began to grow more difficult as if she were trying to pack more loot into a bag already bursting at the seams.
Growing excited as she recognized the feeling from the Elder’s instruction, Ling Qi eagerly pressed forward, even as a painful ache started taking root deep in her bones. She could feel her fingers clenching on her knees as she powered through the pain to surpass her own limitations.
After a moment of blinding pain, she trembled as she felt something snap - and the pain vanished, taking with it all the aches of the day’s training.
Then the stench struck her.
Looking down at herself in dawning disgust, she nearly retched. She had somehow become covered in some kind of disgusting black gunk. It clung to her skin and soaked through her clothes. Her eyes watered at both the smell and the stinging feeling of the gunk getting into her eyes.
“Good work disciple,” Elder Zhou’s deep voice shook her out of her horrified fascination. He loomed over her, his stern expression approving for once.
“You are dismissed for the day. Go and cleanse yourself. You have expelled a great deal of impurities.”
Nodding shakily, she stood. This was what Elder Zhou had meant when he said that the Mid Gold breakthrough would begin removing the body’s impurities? Her cheeks burned with humiliation, but… looking around, she did not see the smirks and mocking looks she had expected. Instead, there were looks of sour envy or wary appraisal.
“Thank you very much, Elder Zhou,” she said hastily. “Ah… is there anything I should do specifically or…” She still wanted to run and get this filth off of her quickly, but she did not want to make a mistake.
The older man simply raised an eyebrow, a twinkle of amusement in his dark eyes.
“I would suggest burning that gown. The smell will never leave it. Be off with you, disciple.”
Not needing any further encouragement, Ling Qi rushed from the field to seek a long and well earned bath.