For just a fraction of an instant, Ling Qi was certain that she saw an expression of irritation cross the implacable Elder Zhou’s face.
“... Yes, Sect Brother Jiao? As you will be providing the opposition for the coming exam, it would be rude to refuse your input. Could you not have done so earlier however?” There was a distinct note of exasperation in Elder Zhou’s tone.
As Elder Jiao chuckled merrily, moving to stand next to Elder Zhou, Ling Qi frowned at the implication in Elder Zhou’s words. They weren’t going to have to fight an Elder, were they?
“No, not really. It only came up recently,” Elder Jiao said, maintaining the same unconcerned demeanor despite the look Elder Zhou was leveling at him. “It’s only a minor thing anyway. I simply suggest that you pass that one immediately instead of putting her through another test.” Elder Jiao raised his hand as he spoke, pointing down into the crowd of disciples.
... Right at her.
Ling Qi blinked and swallowed nervously as she felt everyone in the room look at her. She very much wanted to sink into the floor and disappear. Gu Xiulan’s expression was calculating, and Han Jian’s surprise quickly faded into curiosity and contemplation. Even Han Fang was eyeing her with interest. Many of the other gazes were less friendly.
“Sect Brother Jiao,” Elder Zhou spoke up after a short, uncomfortable silence. “I will not refuse you if you desire to select one of the disciples for your personal tutelage, but that does not seem to be your intention.”
“You’re as perceptive as always, Sect Brother,” Elder Jaio said, folding his arms behind his back. “She’s not quite ready for that. I suppose that depends on how well she manages to take advantage of the good fortune she encountered in my Hidden Soul's History Formation.” Ling Qi’s eyes widened as gazes on her grew greedy.
As she stared at Elder Jiao, she glimpsed something strange. It was only the briefest flicker, but she was sure she saw the face of the moon spirit, Xin, appear over Elder Jiao’s shoulder, giving Ling Qi an apologetic look before shooting Elder Jiao an exasperated one.
Elder Zhou stared at his fellow Elder hard, having either not seen or not reacted to the image. A surreptitious glance around showed that no one else seemed to have seen Xin either. Elder Zhou turned his eyes back to her, and Ling Qi straightened her shoulders, swallowing nervously.
“... Ling Qi.” He actually knew her name, which was shocking in its own right. “This is unusual, but as poor as his sense of timing can be, Elder Jiao is one whose opinion I respect. I will leave it to you. You may participate normally in the third exam or pass on his word. Make your choice.”
Ling Qi felt that if she let her eyes grow any wider, they would roll out of her head. She should have been overjoyed to pass, but the feeling was drowned by the avaricious atmosphere that had come over the room. What was she going to do? Everyone would… Ling Qi felt a hand on her shoulder and glanced back to see Han Jian giving her an encouraging smile. To her left, she saw the huge shadow of Han Fang shifting to stand behind her as well. Even Gu Xiulan, for all that her gaze was cold and calculating, hadn’t moved away from her.
Right… This... She would still be fine, but she had to make a choice. Taking the pass guaranteed her a position in Elder Zhou’s class, which she would need to get ahead, but it would also raise the ire of disciples who might otherwise be willing to leave her alone. And even if he said he would respect the other Elder’s words, would Elder Zhou really be impressed with someone who coasted by on a recommendation?
More than anything else, Ling Qi felt frustrated. That encounter had been the first real glimmer of good luck she had in years, and it was getting flung back in her face, causing her more problems. The resentment she felt for the loudly dressed elder up on the stage was difficult to keep off her face. After everything she had dealt with today, she absolutely didn’t want to have to fend off other thieves during or after the test.
That was going to happen regardless now so she would accept the silver lining and take her pass. Rejecting a free victory would be an absurd and pointless show of pride.
Despite the anxiety she could feel at being the center of attention, she straightened her shoulders and back and bowed politely to Elder Zhou and Elder Jiao.
“Thank you very much for your recommendation, Elder Jiao. I humbly accept your offer, Elder Zhou.” Her voice sounded stiff and unnatural to her own ears, tight with ill-restrained nerves, but she managed to avoid making a fool of herself.
Her words brought more than a few discontented murmurs from her fellow disciples, but she saw no recriminations on the faces of her team… and for the moment, that was enough. Elder Zhou silenced the murmurs with a single stern glance before looking back at her, expression neutral.
“Very well. Come up to the stage. Elder Jiao will release you from the formation.”
Ling Qi let out a low breath but managed to keep her posture straight and unworried. She nodded politely to Han Jian and the others, murmuring a quiet wish for their good luck before proceeding up to the stage where the Elders stood. She saw plenty of resentment along with greed on the faces of the disciples around her, but to her surprise, it wasn’t omnipresent. A few of her fellows seemed ambivalent or looked at her with interest and calculation instead.
The most obvious was the girl she had noticed earlier when the first disciple to arrive after Ling Qi had gone to her side. The immaculately dressed girl stared at her with furrowed brows, studying Ling Qi with uncomfortable intensity as if the girl was committing every detail of her face to memory. At least the girl’s face was easy to remember as well, completely unadorned by the cosmetics the other obviously wealthy girls wore with thin lips and sharp features that made her more handsome than pretty.
As Ling Qi ascended the shallow stairs to stand beside Elder Zhou, she dipped her head respectfully to the older man. She resolved to work twice as hard as before to make sure she was ready when the truce came to an end. So focused was she, she almost startled when she heard the instructor’s voice, pitched low so as not to carry down from the stage.
“Retreat is not always cowardice but can become it if relied on overmuch. Think hard on what stands to be lost before choosing to cede ground.” Ling Qi nodded rapidly, relief bleeding away some small part of the tension she felt. Elder Zhou didn’t think she was a coward for taking the pass or resent her for the decision.
As she moved past Elder Zhou, Elder Jiao gestured for her to follow him and walked toward the far end of the stage. It made her nervous to follow someone who clearly didn’t have her best interests at heart out of sight of everyone else, but there wasn’t much choice.
“You chose wisely,” the amused elder commented as the two of them reached the rear wall where a single silver character was emblazoned on the stone. “Do try not to get trampled in the coming days. It will be ages before I hear the end of this as it is.”
Ling Qi kept her expression carefully neutral, but she had a feeling the Elder could detect the resentment she was doing her best to hide going by the merry twinkle in his color-shifting eyes.
“... Why?” she asked quietly, drawing on her last bit of courage.
The spindly man hummed thoughtfully to himself as he traced the character on the wall with his finger, leaving a dull glow in its wake.
“Because it amused me, girl,” he said lightly, shooting her a warning look. “And perhaps because you caused my companion the discomfort of being subsumed by her greater self, if only for a short time.”
Ling Qi frowned, not understanding what he was talking about. Did he mean the moon spirit? What did he mean by greater self?
“... I’m sorry?” she tried, not really feeling sorry at all. She could tell he was lying, which probably meant he wasn’t even trying.
Elder Jiao chuckled quietly as he finished tracing the character. The wall in front of her warped, becoming a doorway filled with shifting fog.
“Don’t worry yourself. I’m not the sort to hold a grudge.” He looked her way once more, the same infuriatingly lax expression on his pallid face. “Well, as long as you do not slack on your studies. I would be most offended if you manage to be merely average.”
Ling Qi set her lips in a thin line but nodded The older man wasn’t going to give her any further answers. Elders were beyond her. Being angry at one was as pointless as raging at a thunderstorm and about ten times as likely to get her struck by lightning. All she could do now was to deal with the fallout.
As she stepped through the fog filling the gate, his voice reached her one last time.
“Oh, young lady. Neither those garments nor the silver in your pockets are real. I suggest you find a change of clothes before they fade away.” Her eyes widened. She tried to turn back, but it was too late.
Ling Qi found herself being quickly drawn forward as if an invisible rope had been fastened around her waist and pulled by a team of horses. Phantom wind roared in her ears, and she felt her eyes watering from the sensation of being pulled rapidly through space, only to stumble as she came to a sudden stop. Her vision swam as she regained her balance.
Ling Qi stiffened immediately as she took in her surroundings. She was back at the site of the formation that they had begun the test at, with the sun sinking under the horizon. All around her were other disciples, presumably the ones who hadn’t made it through the test. Thankfully, she didn’t see anyone she had directly confronted.
However, she was once again the center of attention, and she was getting very tired of that indeed. She glanced back at the formation she had emerged from to find it still lit and active. Ling Qi hurried to step away, hoping she could merge with the crowd of failed students and observers, but even that was denied to her.
“You! Peasant girl. The third test has already begun. Did you see Xiulan? Was she well?” Ling Qi found herself confronted by Fan Yu, who had pushed through the crowd to approach her. One side of his face was swollen with bruises, and she could see more such wounds under the collar of his robe. He resembled those poor souls who managed to draw the ire of an entire gang and survive, beaten black and blue.
The way he referred to her was irritating, but she was too tired to argue with the lout. He did seem genuinely worried about Gu Xiulan. Maybe she could just answer quickly and move on.
“Gu Xiulan was fine. She wasn’t wounded as far as I could tell. The others are still taking the test,” she said while glancing over his shoulder, trying to find a path through the crowd that she could take.
“Han Jian and Han Fang were fine too, just a little banged up,” she added as an afterthought.
The squat boy’s shoulders sagged in what she thought was relief. It was hard to read the expression on his swollen face, but she thought that she saw some bitterness briefly flash in his eyes.
“That is… good. If she’s fine then…” he muttered, seemingly to himself. As she began to try and edge around him, his eyes snapped back up.
“So what of you? Did it simply take a bit longer for them to fish you out of the second?”
Ugh. Why did he want to talk to her now? And to just assume she failed like he had when she had done the opposite and been one of the first to make it through... She could feel her already frayed temper slipping her control.
“No. I’m the first to pass the third,” she found herself snapping. “Elder Jiao let me out of the formation early.” She almost immediately regretted saying it as a few of the disciples nearby looked to her in surprise, and whispering began to quickly spread. Fan Yu looked poleaxed for a moment, but his expression quickly twisted into a sneer.
“What a ridiculous lie. A commoner like you who can barely fight being the first one to pass Instructor Zhou’s test? The test that I failed?” His voice gradually rose, growing angrier with each word.
Ling Qi grimaced. She was done with this. No longer attempting to be subtle about it, she sidestepped Fan Yu and made to pass him without saying another word. It wasn’t to be. Maybe it was her mental exhaustion or maybe she had just been too surprised by his action, but when he reached out and seized her wrist, she didn’t avoid it.
“I did not say you could leave yet,” the battered boy growled. “Apologize for lying to my face right now.”
Ling Qi tried to pull herself free but found his grip on her wrist inescapable. Her struggling only caused him to tighten it. She could still get away, but it would involve hitting or tripping him up. Would that count as attacking another disciple?
“I’m not lying,” she responded angrily. “Now let me go. That hurts, you oaf.” Ling Qi knew she shouldn’t insult him further, but her temper was up at this point.
“I won’t just…” he began, expression darkening. Ling Qi prepared to do what she needed to in order to escape, but then the disciples around them, who had been watching their argument with interest, went pale and silent. Ling Qi’s eyes met a pair of gleaming gold ones over Fan Yu’s shoulder. Fan Yu went pale when a dainty white hand clamped down on his shoulder, quite painfully from the way he winced.
“Ling Qi has asked you to release her. Do so this instant,” Bai Meizhen said frostily. “And think, the next time you choose to be so boorish.”
Fan Yu let her go as if she were suddenly aflame, stumbling back and clutching his arm. Resentment stewed on his features. Bai Meizhen did not even look at him, stepping past with a swish of cloth to gesture for Ling Qi to follow.
“Shall we walk home then? I completed my meditation somewhat early so I thought that I would come observe your success,” she said as Ling Qi quickly fell in beside her. Bai Meizhen ignored the disciples clearing the path around them.
Ling Qi almost laughed, although she suspected the sound would have been closer to a sob. Just like that, she was safe to reach their home. It really was that easy when you were strong, wasn’t it?
There was something different about Bai Meizhen now; she managed to seem even more casually ominous than before.
“Thanks,” Ling Qi managed. “I guess your cultivation was a success?”
Bai Meizhen’s eyes flicked up to meet hers before she nodded shallowly, returning her gaze to the path leading out of the formation plaza.
“Somewhat. I have broken through to the next stage of the Imperious Serpent art. Unfortunately, I have not yet reached the next level of cultivation. It seems something yet holds me back. What of you? I imagine the Elder’s exam was not easy.”
“It wasn’t,” Ling Qi admitted. “But… I think I did well, and I have many things to meditate on.” Everything she had experienced recently swirled in her mind’s eye. She really needed to get her thoughts in order. “I should thank you. Knowing how to beseech a water spirit properly really saved me in the second test.”
Bai Meizhen raised one perfect eyebrow questioningly. “Is that so? Well, I am glad that some part of my words remained with you. I had worried that you were not truly listening at points.”
Ling Qi flushed. She knew her attention had wandered a bit during some of those conversations, but she hadn’t thought that Bai Meizhen had noticed.
“I was,” she responded quickly. “So thank you… and not just for that.”
The other girl simply nodded slightly. “It was a trifling thing. A man should know better than to lay hands on a lady outside of combat,” Bai Meizhen responded with a dismissive gesture.
“I’m hardly a lady,” Ling Qi responded wryly, rolling her shoulders only to wince as her damaged one twinged slightly.
Her housemate shook her head. “Nonsense. You walk the Way. You are as much a lady as any of those back there - if a somewhat crude one for the moment.”
Now, Ling Qi really did laugh, drawing a questioning look from the girl beside her. “Sorry, I guess I’ll just have to work on my manners then when I’m not cultivating.” Was it really that simple in Bai Meizhen’s view?
The two of them returned home in comfortable silence, and by the time Ling Qi retired to the meditation room, she felt much more settled. Finally, she would get to see what all this trouble had been for. Sitting down, she carefully withdrew the narrow jade slip from inside the moon-scented bottle and let her qi flow into it.
As the world around her faded, she found the meanings held within the tiny piece of jade impressing themselves on her mind. It still felt strange to her. She had only done this once before with the Zephyr’s Breath art. However, if Zephyr’s Breath had been a pamphlet filled with exercises and diagrams, this jade slip was a tome big enough to brain someone with.
She felt instinctively that only the the most basic surface understanding of its contents was open to her. There were depths of knowledge hidden far beyond her reach. Yet even what content she did have access to was enough to shock her. The slip contained not one art but three: a movement art; a cultivation art; and a combat art.
The movement art, Sable Crescent Step, exemplified elegance and subtlety, allowing the user to step through shadow and moonlight as a blur barely visible to mortal eyes. It required an open leg meridian to begin practicing and cultivated a ‘darkness’ element. Curious, Ling Qi pressed further, trying to understand this new concept. From the depths of the jade slip, words churned up to meet her questing thoughts.
‘Darkness has no form nor presence. Those who master it learn to cast these things aside and embrace the absence and silence of the empty night.’
Even this idea felt incomplete, like seeing only a single facet of a gem. However, she put it aside for the moment. She still had two other arts to review.
The cultivation art, Eight Phase Ceremony, allowed the user to absorb the light of the moon and stars into their dantian. It granted great speed to cultivation performed at night and improved the cultivation of Yin-aspected arts. There was a deep well of further meaning there, but Ling Qi could not comprehend it. She understood then that her spirit and body were not yet ready for this art. As she was, stellar and lunar qi would only poison and sicken her.
The final art was Forgotten Vale Melody. It was part of the chronicle of a long dead wanderer, composed into music and offered to the moon. It spoke of mist-covered valleys hidden deep in the mountains, the mischievous and hungry spirits that waited in the dark, and of the loneliness of the wanderer’s path. It brought to mind images of wild, untouched places where spirits roamed free in the damp mist under the light of the moon. The art worked to obscure and confuse the senses of those who could hear the melody. It required the opening of both heart and lung meridians to channel the darkness and water-natured qi the technique required.
The last bit of information she was able to extract from the slip was the use of the pills. Each of the Sable Light pills would not only greatly increase her ability to open new meridians or cultivate Yin-aligned arts, but it would simultaneously expand her qi pool. It was a little overwhelming. Was this what it was like for wealthier cultivators? Why someone like Bai Meizhen was so far beyond her?
She put that thought aside for the moment and returned the slip to its bottle. Right now, she needed to meditate on what had happened to her during the test.
By the time she opened her eyes, it was late at night, and Ling Qi felt refreshed. She was still worried and still nervous, but... she would survive, just as she always had before. The bundle of clothing and coin she had acquired had all vanished. The only things that remained from the test were the staff, the moon spirit’s gifts, the things she had taken from the boy, and strangely, the tokens.
Ling Qi gathered it all up and stood to go to bed. She had passed her first obstacle, but things were still just beginning.