The days that followed were a blur of training and cultivation, and for the first time, Ling Qi had some room to experiment with her resources. Lessons with Elder Su had indicated that a cultivator could begin using more than one spirit stone at a time as they advanced through the stages. Each stone added after the first up to the number equivalent to one’s stage gave a more potent boost to the user’s cultivation.
Although the increased flow of energy was uncomfortable at first, Ling Qi found herself acclimating quickly. She was careful to follow the Elder’s instruction and was cautious with the intake lest she rupture and damage her single channel or dantian. At only the Mid Red Soul stage, two Spirit Stones remained her limit.
Her mornings were consumed by Elder Zhou’s instruction and her evenings by Elder Su’s class. This left her only a few hours of the afternoon and the length of the night to herself, forcing her to put off her planned exploration with Li Suyin and Su Ling until she could adjust to her new schedule.
In those days of adjustment, Elder Su made her first announcement of those who had won her reward pill for the week before. Ling Qi was not among them. The award went to the boy with the burn scar on his face from the first day, Cai Renxiang, the girl who had stared at her during Elder Zhou’s test, and a tall, whip-thin boy with silver hair and a slightly unsettling mien.
Ling Qi did not allow her failure to bother her too much. She was confident that she would be able to earn Elder Su’s reward once she began using the pills given to her by the moon spirit, Xin.
The trouble was that unlike her other lesson, she had the unwelcome attention of many of her fellow disciples. It made sense in a way. Those who had made it into Elder Zhou’s class had less need to be greedy since they had already gained quite an advantage. Everyone else? Well, she wasn’t surprised that she had come under scrutiny.
It didn’t make it any less irritating when she found herself swatting away the third amateurish attempt at filching her belt pouch. She didn’t even have the jade slip or pills stored in it anymore, having hastily stitched a pocket into the underlayer of her gown using the scraps of her ruined one. It was still frustrating.
“Keep your hands to yourself!” Ling Qi snapped at the boy who had ‘accidentally’ bumped into her while they were leaving Elder Su’s classroom.
The boy flushed in shame at being called out but quickly rallied and sneered at her.
“Do not flatter yourself, peasant. A servant should be more polite,” he huffed, sweeping past her into the hall.
Ling Qi clenched her hands before she did something unfortunate, like slapping the pride out of his obnoxious face. It seemed that was her reputation now. The snake’s maid. Of course she only had any success because she was playing handmaiden to Bai Meizhen. How that worked when Bai Meizhen hadn’t even been involved in Elder Zhou’s exam was beyond her, and frankly, she didn’t really care about whatever stupid logic they were using. She was going to surpass these petty idiots.
Going by the worried look Li Suyin gave her, she must have looked to be in a foul mood when she met the other girl at the gates.
“Um - Congratulations on entering Elder Zhou’s advanced class.” Li Suyin sounded nervous as if her words might irritate Ling Qi. “I am sorry for not saying it earlier. You have just been so busy…”
On the contrary, after dealing with the implied deprecations and exhausting lessons over the past few days, Ling Qi was pleased to hear something positive.
“Thank you,” she responded quietly as they set off down the path toward the residences to meet up with Su Ling.
“Has anyone been giving you trouble since then?” It wasn’t something Ling Qi would have thought to ask before the test, but the words of the spider’s illusions were stuck in her ear like an irritating melody. She could easily see someone like Li Suyin being bullied for associating with her. The girl was probably the easiest target outside of herself.
Li Suyin shook her head, and Ling Qi didn’t think she was being insincere. “No, not really. I mean… It’s not as if most of the other girls were very friendly to begin with, b-but nothing important. May I ask why so many people seem upset with you?”
Ling Qi noticed that the other girl was practically jogging to keep up with her longer strides, but she couldn’t bring herself to slow down. She didn’t ever really feel safe or relaxed except when Bai Meizhen was home or when she was in a lesson.
“I had a bit of good luck, and Elder Jiao decided to announce it to everyone. I figure they’re also embarrassed to have lost to a commoner.”
“O-oh, I see,” Li Suyin said, growing a little red-faced from the effort of keeping up with the taller girl. “Um… Mother said that Father had to deal with some resentment for his lower status when he entered the ministry as well... It got better with time.”
Ling Qi appreciated the sentiment and nodded in acknowledgement. They fell into comfortable silence as they approached the residential area.
“I actually wanted to ask you for something,” Li Suyin broke the silence as they turned down the street her hovel sat on. At this time of day, there were few people around, but she sounded nervous.
“I know it is presumptuous, but… Willyoupleaseinstructmeinphysicalcultivation!”
Ling Qi blinked as the other girl halted in front of her and bowed her head, words coming out in a near unintelligible rush.
“I’m not exactly a teacher,” Ling Qi responded dubiously after she had deciphered the other girls request.
“N-not for free!” Li Suyin hurried to add. Ling Qi could tell that the other girl was flustered from the way the usually polite girl had interrupted her.
“I-I acquired these pills from a production disciple.” Li Suyin said, rummaged in her bag, removing a small clay bottle and offering it to Ling Qi. “It’s only a small thing, but the pills are supposed to aid students in cultivating the Argent Soul…”
Ling Qi took the bottle in bewilderment. She plucked the cork out, and sure enough, there were four shiny silver pills gleaming like droplets of metal inside.
“How did you even pay for these?” she asked somewhat incredulously, glancing around to ensure no one was nearby.
“I sold a few copies of the treatises on herbal lore that father bought for me,” Li Suyin responded self-consciously. “I am not a real scribe, but, um, I suppose the other disciples found my paltry copies sufficient? I was a little surprised. I do not even have the resources to bind them properly, let alone…”
Ling Qi shook her head, feeling self-conscious herself. This was where a better person would probably try to hand back the gift and to tell their friend that she didn’t need to pay them just to get a few pointers… Ling Qi quietly tucked the pill bottle into her sleeve instead.
“It’s fine. I can try to teach you a little. Just keep in mind that I’m not really a teacher.” Ling Qi glanced away from the other girl.
“And raise your head, will you?”
Li Suyin straightened up immediately, smiling with relief. “Of course! Thank you so much, Ling Qi!”
“Sure. Let’s find Su Ling though. We don’t want to be out all night,” Ling Qi replied uncomfortably. Li Suyin’s earnest gratitude gave her an odd feeling.
Ling Qi caught motion out of the corner of her eye and looked up in time to see Su Ling approaching.
“Then you’re probably gonna be disappointed.” The bushy-haired girl stalked toward them, irritation clear in her demeanor. “We’ve got a long hike ahead if you wanna do this.”
Ling Qi sighed. It looked like she would be burning qi to replace her sleep tonight. There was little more to say as the three of them set out. The trip up the mountain left Li Suyin huffing for breath, and neither Ling Qi nor Su Ling were inclined toward unnecessary speech.
The physical cultivation and training Ling Qi had gone through since her arrival at the Sect paid dividends here. The difficult hike barely winded her, and she found herself able to scramble up even sheer rock faces with little trouble. It made her smile.
Li Suyin was another matter. As much as she was coming to like the girl, Li Suyin was not very athletic, and her performance showed how much she really needed the lessons she had asked for. They were slowed greatly by having to help the blue haired girl keep up.
Eventually, the three of them reached their destination, a thickly forested plateau halfway up the mountain. They paused at the the edge of the plateau, mostly to let Li Suyin catch her breath. In the awkward silence that followed, Ling Qi voiced a question that she had been mulling over as she climbed the mountain beside Su Ling.
“So… Why did you decide to go so far out of your way instead of just attending the lessons with everyone else?” Ling Qi asked, crossing her arms to tuck her hands into her armpits. It was chilly up here.
Su Ling shot Ling Qi a sour look over her shoulder as she peered deeper into the woods. “Because I don’t want the attention, and I don’t want the crowds. Besides, my cultivation is different.”
Ling Qi frowned as she kept a wary eye on the trees beyond the frost-coated meadow.
“My roommate is…. different too,” she said haltingly, glancing at the girl’s bushy tail. “She still goes to the lessons occasionally. What’s the difference?”
Su Ling snorted incredulously even as Li Suyin looked uncomfortable.
“Snake girl?” Su Ling said. “She exists ‘cause some ancient cultivator decided he’d rather stick it in a snake instead of marrying a human and got his descendants to do it too.
“Me? I exist ‘cause a hungry fox decided to play with her food. At least people are too afraid of the snake’s family and power to try shit with her. I don’t have that advantage.”
That was… explicit. Li Suyin chose that moment to speak up in a halting voice.
“W - well, it’s true that there’s some stigma against spirit born individuals, but I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you say - at least among cultivators.” It was difficult to tell how much of Li Suyin’s stuttering was from hesitance and how much was from her teeth chattering.
“But… um, I don’t mind sharing my notes with you. If you’d like.”
Su Ling shot the blue-haired girl an unreadable look and mumbled something unintelligible before turning away.
“Let’s get moving,” she grunted, heading toward the woods.
“What?” Li Suyin asked, hurrying to follow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you!”
Su Ling’s shoulders stiffened, her agitation clear.
“I said I can’t read. So just drop it,” she said harshly. “We’re here anyway.” Su Ling gestured toward a pair of tall evergreen trees that had grown together high above their heads, forming a ‘natural’ arch. “If we pass through here, we’ll access a pocket of woods with a bunch of spirit beasts. There’s a few stronger ones as we go deeper in, but if we stick to the outskirts, the worst we should run into is some territorial Azure Hawks.”
Ling Qi glanced at Suyin, trying to silently convey to Li Suyin that she should drop the other line of inquiry for now. Li Suyin seemed to take the hint and nodded, but she seemed sad.
“Well… I can feel veins of qi flowing from these two trees so if we follow them, we might find something.”
Trudging through the forest with only the light of the mostly full moon was a tense experience. Though the whispers Ling Qi had expected were absent, the darkness felt like it could be hiding any number of dangers. She glimpsed eyes in the underbrush and pale shapes fluttering among the canopy, their soft cries echoing in the dark.
Ling Qi and Su Ling kept Li Suyin between them, and their presence seemed enough to deter any hostility. Hours passed in their search.
Ling Qi had just begun to wonder if they should start heading back when Li Suyin stopped, her head turning toward a hill rising to their right.
“Ah! There is something there!”
“You’re sure?” Ling Qi asked, fingering her knives and keeping her eyes on the shadows around them.
“Yes, the mountain’s qi is much closer to the surface here.” Li Suyin replied.
“Better not be another false alarm,” Su Ling grumbled. She followed the blue-haired girl without any resistance though.
Searching around the perimeter of the hill, they soon found a root-choked crevice in one side, just barely wide enough for them to shimmy through. The sound of bubbling water reached them as the passage opened up, revealing a softly lit chamber under the earth.
“Looks like you were right, Li Suyin,” Ling Qi breathed as she observed the clear spring bubbling in the center of the chamber. The water glittered with the light of the dull crystal growths emerging from its banks. She could feel the potent qi in the air and earth. Standing this close, it tingled on her skin.
“Guess this was worth it after all,” Su Ling added grudgingly. “Woulda never found this place on my own. Couldn’t scent a bit of this till I was already inside.”
Despite their success, Li Suyin was frowning.
“Yes, this is definitely a locus, but…”
“Something wrong?” Ling Qi asked warily, peering around. “Was there a spirit here?”
“No, it’s just… I can definitely sense a connection to a more potent site. It’s … somewhere in the deeper forest,” Li Suyin replied.
Ling Qi and Su Ling shared a look.
“I think this is enough for tonight,” Ling Qi said gently. “We can come back another day, right?” She should probably give Li Suyin the physical cultivation lessons before they did.
It was another goal to work toward.