It was like having cold water splashed in her face.
Ling Qi blinked as her vision swam and the opulent temple interior she had glimpsed was replaced with a plain stone room with a bright bonfire burning in the center. The doors she had just passed were closed, and beneath her, the lines and characters of a formation flickered.
“You have passed the second stage. Calm yourself and rest.” Instructor Zhou’s deep voice rang out from the raised stage at the other end of the room. He stood there, arms crossed, his expression just as hard and stern as ever as he looked down at her from over the bonfire, and yet, she couldn’t help but feel that there was the tiniest hint of approval in the man’s steely eyes.
Ling Qi did her best to ignore the warmth she felt on her cheeks as she hurried away from the door. She didn’t want to end up getting bowled over by another entrant from behind, certainly not in front of Instructor Zhou or the… another person on the stage? She squinted. There was a man lounging against the wall on the left side of the stage.
It was the Elder from her very first day in the Sect, only this time, the odd man was wearing a minister’s robe that was a horribly eye-searing shade of orange. As she looked at him, he raised his head, apparently awakening from the light doze he had been in and looked back at her. Ling Qi felt pinned by his gaze, but the thin-faced man smiled as if at some private joke and glanced to the side, freeing her from his regard.
Ling Qi quickly averted her eyes, taking in the other occupants of the room. There were surprisingly few of them. There were only six… no, seven disciples here already. She had been the eighth to make it to the temple. Among them, she recognized only three.
Gu Xiulan and Han Jian stood near the fire, and Han Jian raised his hand to wave to her when he saw her. He looked a bit crispy around the edges, his robe blackened at the hems and an ugly burn marred his cheek. In contrast, Gu Xiulan looked like a waterlogged cat, irritable and miserable. It made Ling Qi feel somewhat better about her own state.
The last person she recognized was no surprise. Sun Liling sat cross-legged in a secluded corner of the room with a scowl on her face, otherwise looking none the worse for the wear. The room was quiet. Even those speaking were keeping their voices down to a low murmur. It seemed she would have to wait a while yet.
With the glow of victory fading, Ling Qi felt rather wrung out. The encounter with that damn spider had been mentally exhausting, and the stress of sneaking through the outer city had not been restful either. Frankly, she could see the appeal of doing as Sun Liling had and just finding a quiet corner to sit down and meditate in. Who knew what the Elders would have them doing next?
It might seem rude though. Han Jian and Gu Xiulan were both present, and if both she and they passed, they would be the only ones in the class that would be friendly to her. She had a feeling that her efforts to stay unnoticed would be for naught after this.
It wasn’t as if she disliked them either. Well, she liked Han Jian; her feelings about Gu Xiulan were more complicated. The other girl intimidated her if she were honest, and Ling Qi didn’t quite know what to think about the girl’s actions toward her.
She found herself recalling the mocking words of her reflections. It would be better to have allies. The Sect wasn’t like the city. The rules were different, and so was she, and even if she was still weak… well, she had proven that she had some value, right? Making it here had to prove that.
Ling Qi walked toward her two teammates, attempting to appear unfazed by the appraising looks she was receiving from the other disciples in the room. For better or worse, she had done something to stand out, and people would be paying attention to her. She couldn’t just run to another district this time. She would have to be much more careful in the future.
“Ling Qi. Looks like you made it. Great job,” Han Jian greeted her warmly, smiling despite the burn on his cheek. She gave him a tentative smile in return, allowing herself to relax.
“Congratulations,” Gu Xiulan added. Ling Qi thought she detected a bit of surprise in the other girl’s demeanor, but she wasn’t sure. The way the other girl’s cosmetics had begun to run and smear made it harder to read her expression. “And you made it through unmarked as well. How did you manage that?”
“I… managed to surprise the boy who had my sun token,” Ling Qi admitted sheepishly. “He thought I was just a mortal.” She plucked at the frayed cloth of her new clothing for emphasis. “It’s how I got past the others circling the inner city gates too. No one pays attention to commoners,” she added wryly.
Han Jian chuckled, and Gu Xiulan looked thoughtful.
“I had wondered why you changed into such dreary rags,” the other girl said, looking Ling Qi up and down contemplatively. “I cannot say that I would employ such methods myself, but I can see the use in them.”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” Han Jian interjected dryly. “You could never avoid the spotlight for that long.”
Gu Xiulan pouted prettily at the taller boy, crossing her arms under her chest as she turned back to face him. “And what is wrong with that? No one should ever forget encountering me.”
Ling Qi let out a small sigh. It was a little irritating that even with her make-up running and her clothing in disarray, Gu Xiulan was still so much more attractive than her. She didn’t miss that Han Jian’s gaze had flickered down, let alone the way Gu Xiulan drew attention from the other boys in the room.
... Not that she wanted that sort of attention. It was just annoying that some people had all the luck when it came to appearance, talent, and wealth.
“So, what happened with you two?” Ling Qi asked. “Why did you end up taking the lake path, Gu Xiulan?”
“Hm? I did not have much choice in the matter. I was forced to travel between a number of small islands,” Gu Xiulan responded, turning her attention back to Ling Qi.
“That miserable excuse for a watercraft I was provided with capsized several times,” she added darkly. “I do believe I hate the ocean. It is going to take ages to fix the damage done by the saltwater.”
“Oh, have you managed to learn how to swim in the last couple years, Xiulan?” Han Jian asked, sounding amused. “I seem to remember…”
“Hold your tongue, you terrible man. What of you then? I suppose you managed to trip into a campfire?” Gu Xiulan said hastily, looking genuinely embarrassed. Ling Qi had a feeling that it was only because the one poking fun at Gu Xiulan was Han Jian. Anyone else would probably have gotten a less pleasant response.
Han Jian laughed, sheepishly rubbing his hand on the back of his neck. “Well, something like that. I got… entangled with a flame spirit while searching for my star token.” His smile faded, and he seemed a bit distant.
Ling Qi was distracted then by the arrival of another disciple. It was a broad-shouldered boy with short-cropped golden hair and darkly tanned skin. By the time Elder Zhou greeted him he had left the entryway to join a sharp-featured girl with luxurious waist-length black hair and a disproportionately long sword sheathed in a blue scabbard on her shoulder.
“So, Ling Qi.” She blinked in surprise as Gu Xiulan turned to address her, pulling her from her observation of the other disciples. “I do believe we have earned ourselves some luxury. There is a hidden mineral spring on the mountain that my Elder Sister deigned to inform me of. Would you care to join me after this is all said and done? I am not the only one who looks like she could use a warm soak.”
Ling Qi stopped herself from frowning. She supposed she was still a bit muddy and damp, but the other girl’s little offers and gifts were starting to bother her. She didn’t know why Gu Xiulan was being so amiable.
“Maybe. Why?” She asked, almost wincing at how bluntly it came out.
Gu Xiulan gave her a slightly exasperated look. “It is hardly a good idea for a lady to bathe alone in such a setting. Who knows what might happen? Besides, it only makes sense for us to get to know one another better, does it not? Unless you intend for this to be the last time we work together.”
Ah, did Gu Xiulan just decide to be blunt right back? Ling Qi wasn’t really sure how to respond.
“Well, no. I - I think we made a good team.” Ling Qi hated the way she managed to stumble on her response. “I think I need to cultivate tonight, however… Maybe another day?”
Gu Xiulan pursed her lips but eventually nodded. “Very well. I suppose we all likely have some things to meditate on after today.” Thankfully, Gu Xiulan didn’t seem to be angry at Ling Qi’s refusal.
Ling Qi noticed Han Jian giving Gu Xiulan an unreadable look while the girl was focused on her, but when Gu Xiulan’s eyes shifted to him, his expression had relaxed back into a smile.
“Ling Qi probably has the right idea,” he added supportively before glancing toward the entrance.
“I hope Yu and Fang make it through as well, but I admit I’m worried that we’ll have another test if too many people succeed.”
Ling Qi frowned at the thought. She had hoped that maybe enough people would fail that a third test wouldn’t be necessary. As if to mock that hope, the entrance formation flashed then, and another disciple entered.
This time, it was a short and rather effeminate boy with long, silky hair. Half of the upper part of his robe was missing, leaving his shoulder and part of his chest exposed. There were a series of wounds across his torso that made it look like he had been clawed by some huge beast.
Ling Qi frowned at the newcomer as he stumbled his way across the room… to Sun Liling. Huh. Ling Qi hadn’t thought much of it, but the red-haired girl hadn’t gone into the test alone. Sun Liling’s dark expression lightened a tad when she saw the boy enter, and he smiled weakly at her. Ling Qi couldn’t hear whatever was said between them, but it ended with the redhead cuffing him lightly on the back of the head and evidently ordering him to sit down and clean up.
She shook her head and turned her attention back to her own group.
“We’ll make it through even if there’s another test. I didn’t go through all that for nothing,” Ling Qi said with more conviction than she really felt.
“A good attitude to have,” Gu Xiulan said absently, shifting closer to the fire. “Obviously, we aren’t going to fail at this point,” she added with a more genuine confidence.
The three of them continued to chat idly while Ling Qi sat down to rest her feet. She stayed quiet for the most part as disciples continued to trickle in. She didn’t have context for a lot of the things her two teammates spoke of, but it was nice regardless. She almost felt like she actually belonged.
Ling Qi did manage to pick up a few things about her companions from context. Han Jian was an only child, but Gu Xiulan had a number of older sisters. Han Jian’s father was a general, and the relation Gu Xiulan’s family had to his was unclear but subordinate. Gu Xiulan’s family were also apparently very, very wealthy.
Han Jian did his best to include her in the conversation when he could, which she was thankful for, but in the end there simply wasn’t much for her to say. The room steadily filled up as the remaining time ticked away, and Han Fang finally emerged from the formation some thirty minutes into the wait, making him… the seventeenth in if her count was correct. The tall boy looked significantly worse for wear with both sleeves reduced to tattered shreds and his muscular forearms looking as if they had been scoured bloody with sandpaper.
He came over to them without hesitation and sat down heavily, letting out a raspy sigh as he gave her a nod of acknowledgement. His presence didn’t do much to change the conversation; Han Fang seemed content with Han Jian’s initial congratulations and little else. She hadn’t really noticed it before, but Gu Xiulan seemed almost dismissive of the large boy, offering him a polite greeting and then largely ignoring him. Ling Qi wasn’t quite sure what to make of the attitude. It didn’t seem malicious, but it was strange. Unfortunately, she didn’t really have a polite way of asking about it so she let it go.. The rate of disciples finishing began to increase steadily after Han Fang’s arrival though those who came in at this point were in rather poor condition.
By the time Elder Zhou clapped his hands together to draw everyone’s attention, there were more than forty disciples in the room. Fan Yu was not among them.
“The second phase has now come to an end.” Elder Zhou’s voice overrode any lingering noise from the crowd of disciples, and those sitting down moved to stand at attention. “Through wit or strength, you have succeeded at the trials placed before you. I have no doubt that every one of you has gained something of value in this test. However, I have one final task for all of you. In the first test, I saw which of you could lead and how well you could function in groups of your own devising. In the second, with help from Elder Jiao, I saw what you could accomplish with your own power.”
The gray-skinned man in the hideous robes smiled lazily in acknowledgment of Elder Zhou’s words.
“In this final test, I will see how well you are able to cooperate with those who are not friends or allies. A soldier of the Empire must put aside personal grievances and rivalries when in service. This will be the final test.” Elder Zhou scanned the room, meeting each disciple’s gaze in turn.
“Mm. Hold on a moment, will you, Sect Brother Zhou?” Ling Qi blinked as the moment was broken by the other man speaking up. Elder Jiao pushed himself up from the wall, an amused expression on his face.
“Since I so graciously provided my expertise for your second test, I’d like to make a suggestion.”