As Ling Qi stood and walked to the front of the lecture hall, she wondered how she had forgotten the part where the ones who earned the prize were called down to receive it in front of everyone. She supposed even more attention couldn’t exactly hurt at this point, but she could do without the feeling of multiple hostile looks burning a hole in her back.
At least she wasn’t alone down here. She fell in beside the first person to be called down, Ji Rong, the shaggy-haired boy with the burn scar on the side of his face.
As the Elder called out Li Suyin’s name, Ling Qi studied the boy. She had first noticed Ji Rong in the hall on the first day at the Sect as a fellow “street” kid. Since then, Ji Rong had been called down the previous week in Elder Su’s class. He stood with a slouched posture, hands tucked into the pockets of his robe, looking for all the world like he didn’t want to be there. It was a sentiment that she could share.
He glanced her way as Li Suyin stuttered out a thanks and began to come down the same stairs Ling Qi had. He didn’t look for long, simply rolling his shoulders and going back to looking ahead.
Ling Qi could interpret the gesture well enough. ‘Keep to your own business. I’ll keep to mine.’ He didn’t want to catch any residual attention, which was fair.
She turned her attention to Li Suyin, doing her best to smile encouragingly as the other girl, looking flushed and nervous, sidled up to stand next to her. Ling Qi was pretty sure her own expression was a little anemic.
The next name Elder Su called was Huang Da. Ling Qi didn’t recognize it, but she had never been great at keeping track of names. The name’s bearer turned out to be the boy with short silver hair and an unsettling air who had received a pill last week. She was fairly certain he didn’t even blink once on his way down from the back row of seats. Now that she got a closer look, she could see that his eyes were oddly misted over. Was he blind?
His blank eyes swept over her without pause, narrowed at Ji Rong, and stopped on Li Suyin as he reached the bottom of the lecture hall. It was the closest thing Ling Qi had seen to a real reaction from the boy. He took up a place next to the fidgeting, blue-haired girl.
“You have lovely hands,” Huang Da commented quietly in a perfectly toneless voice.
“E-eh?!” Li Suyin looked befuddled and embarrassed, quickly slipping her hands behind her back. Ling Qi shot the boy a suspicious look as well. What kind of comment was that?
She almost missed Ji Rong glancing their way and muttering under his breath. “Fucking creeper.”
Whatever else might have been said was silenced at a glance from Elder Su as she called down the last of the winners, Gan Guangli. It was the tall, broad shouldered, and tanned blond boy who she had grown used to seeing in Cai Renxiang’s company. He marched down the stairs with military precision and stood ramrod straight, hands clasped behind his back, beside the strange blind boy. His gaze was fixed firmly on Cai Renxiang, who sat regally in the back row, her hands in her lap.
Ling Qi shook her head slightly as Elder Su removed a small jade case from her sleeve and began to hand out the pills. Was every notable cultivator weird in some way?
Ling Qi tucked away the pill she received, using sleight of hand to make it appear as if she had put it into her belt pouch when she had actually placed it in one of the increasing number of hidden pockets in her sleeves. She returned to her seat along with the others.
Li Suyin was still fidgety and nervous, probably because the weirdo was staring fixedly at her even after he had sat back down in his own seat. She hoped her friend hadn’t picked up a stalker. The girl’s nerves wouldn’t handle it well, and Ling Qi was hardly in a position to be helping out others with their problems given her own.
“You are all progressing acceptably well,” Elder Su began. “Some much better than others, of course. I do not find myself too disappointed with the progress you have all exhibited so far.”
A handful of students squirmed uncomfortably under the Elder’s gaze. Ling Qi felt a stab of vindication when she noted that one of them was the boy who had tried to steal her pouch the other day.
“I imagine a fair number of you will be reaching your breakthrough into the Yellow Soul Realm in a matter of months.”
Ling Qi wasn’t sure she numbered among those. She had so many things to cultivate that she didn’t know when she would be ready. According to previous lectures, breaking through to a new realm was an intense and time-consuming endeavor.
“You have all mastered the basic exercises I have provided so I believe it is time that we moved on to other subjects.
“Today, we will be discussing spirits and their binding.” As Elder Su lectured, she gestured with one voluminous sleeve. A dull red mist began to seep out of her garment, gradually solidifying into a crimson-furred ape. Even seated on the floor and hunched at her side, the ape towered over the Elder by nearly a meter. The thing was big enough that Ling Qi thought it could probably wrap one of its leathery hands around her waist and touch finger to thumb.
It bared its teeth at the disciples staring at it and let out a low, threatening growl, causing several of the closest students to lean back nervously. It ceased the moment Elder Su gave it a quelling look.
“This is one of my spirits, a fifth grade beast from the western jungles. Her species, as listed in the imperial bestiary based on her natural abilities, is Heart-Rending Ape.” Elder Su didn’t seem to feel the need to elaborate on that. “As you can see, despite being a spirit beast, the most physical of their kind, I am still able to store her essence within my dantian when it would be inconvenient to walk about with her at my side.”
The ape gave an irritable grunt at her words but calmed down when Elder Su rested her hand on its massive forearm.
“The ability to store a spiritual essence in one’s dantian is the key to spirit binding. A cultivator below Yellow Realm simply lacks the capacity to bind even the weakest spirit. Without sufficient cultivating foundation, even a Yellow Soul cultivator might fail.
“In truth, one’s cultivation art is a large factor in the type and strength of spirit one is able to bind. For example, Argent Soul, when mastered to the fourth layer, will allow for the binding of most first grade spirits once the cultivator has reached Yellow Soul Realm.”
Ling Qi blinked, leaning forward in interest. This was another reason to keep mastering Argent Soul. It made her wonder what kind of spirits she could bind with the Eight Phase Ceremony cultivation art in the jade slip from Xin. The idea of being able to materialize a displeased spirit bear out of thin air would do a lot to ease her paranoia about getting trapped alone and away from potential allies.
“The best method for binding a spirit is one where both parties enter into the contract willingly,” Elder Su continued. “Binding an unwilling spirit or beast is possible with the correct formations and sometimes necessary when dealing with entities below human intelligence, but a struggling spirit will tax your qi considerably more than a quiescent one. A bond of genuine respect and partnership will produce the least strain of all.”
Ling Qi felt frustrated. Why did things keep coming back to her social abilities?!
“I have prepared a number of tame Root Tunneler Rats for today’s lesson.” As the Elder spoke, a cage full of bright green rodents appeared atop the lectern. The massive ape beside the Elder eyed the cage hungrily. “Though many of you cannot yet form a binding, you may still practice the qi exercise necessary to form a bond…”
Ling Qi listened carefully as Elder Su continued to discuss the finer points of binding spirits and the technique involved in doing so. It seemed Elder Su was focusing only on willing bindings for this lesson, and she would discuss the basics of formations and spirit traps in the following lessons.
It was a good thing that she was used to the presence of rodents, Ling Qi mused as Elder Su began to call them up to get their ‘practice spirit’. Some of the girls, and even some boys, looked positively distressed at the idea of handling rats.
Slipping out of the lecture building at the end of the lesson, Ling Qi’s thoughts turned to a troubling matter. Having gained the Qi Foundation pill, she now had a bounty of medicinal aids and other resources, most of which she wasn’t even sure how to use. The other disciples were currently stymied due to the ban on physical confrontation, but she had no illusions of what would happen if she was still sitting on her resources when the end of the truce came.
Luckily, she did have someone who could give her some advice on the matter.
Opening the door to their home, Ling Qi searched for signs of Bai Meizhen. There was a fire burning in the hearth, but she couldn’t see her housemate anywhere.
“It’s just me!” she called, not wanting to alarm the other girl if she was in the kitchen or her room. After shutting the door, she collapsed next to the fire with a groan. Between Elder Zhou’s lessons in the morning and the impromptu rock climbing sessions to avoid her fellow disciples in the afternoon, she was quite tired.
Ling Qi allowed herself to relax while she contemplated if she wanted to bother cooking or if she wished to simply eat some of the fresh fruit she had picked up from the storehouse the other day. Just as she was considering standing back up, Bai Meizhen emerged from her room, looking as pristine as ever.
“Good evening, Ling Qi,” she said with a slight nod as she began to move toward the kitchen. “You should not sit in such an undignified manner.” The pale girl wasn’t even looking at her.
Ling Qi looked down at herself and grimaced. Her gown had ended up hiked almost to her knees due to the lazy sprawl she had collapsed into. She supposed it was a little indecent, but it wasn’t like there was anyone but Bai Meizhen here to see it. She drew her legs in and tugged the cloth down anyway.
“Good evening, Bai Meizhen.” Ling Qi returned the girl’s greeting politely, mindful of her housemate’s position on manners.
“Hey, do you think I could ask you to take a look at a couple of things? I have some pills and a couple of talismans I picked up during the test that I’m not sure about.”
“I am no apothecary, but I will look them over. You would be better served going to the market for this, however,” Bai Meizhen called back from the kitchen.
Ling Qi didn’t even know that such a place existed. She hadn’t exactly ranged very far on the mountain, sticking to only the necessary areas. “Well… I don’t really want to go out too much. It’s kind of related to what I wanted advice on.”
“Oh? Are the other disciples still troubling you? They cannot do any harm for another month yet. Such trash is better ignored.” The pale girl returned with her tea set in hand and gracefully knelt down across the fire from Ling Qi.
Ling Qi thought Bai Meizhen’s views were a little skewed. She might be able to ignore the other disciples, but Ling Qi couldn’t.
“I know they can’t. I’d rather not deal with confronting them though. Wouldn’t it just be a waste of time?” she asked as she fished around inside of her gown for the hidden pocket containing the pills. The cards were tucked under her sash between the outer and under layers of her gown.
Bai Meizhen eyed her critically as she removed the loot from her hiding places then pursed her lips and averted her eyes until Ling Qi finished laying out the items.
“I suppose you are not wrong,” she mused as Ling Qi handed her the container holding the blue pills. Bai Meizhen took a moment to tap one out into her palm, studying it carefully before raising it closer to her face to sniff. She lowered her hand to let Cui study it as well. After holding a silent conversation with the snake, she nodded.
“These are common pills. The quality is a bit amateurish, but they are serviceable enough,” Bai Meizhen said dismissively.
Catching Ling Qi’s raised eyebrow, she added, “Gushing Spring Pills. They are primarily used by beginners to aid in the cultivation of water arts.”
Ling Qi wasn’t sure how useful the pills would be. It would help with Forgotten Vale Melody but nothing else. It wasn’t really surprising that the random pills she had looted weren’t a perfect match for her arts.
“How about the cards?”
“Qi Cards, if somewhat ornate ones,” Bai Meizhen responded immediately.
“They can be charged with simple techniques to be used at a later time. They are empty at the moment, but they are of decent quality. “Do you mind?”
So she could store a technique and use it later? That could be useful.
Ling Qi shrugged and gestured for Bai Meizhen to go ahead. Bai Meizhen picked up one of the cards and stared at its reflective surface. Ling Qi felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as Bai Meizhen’s intimidating aura seemed to flare, making her breath catch.
“Hm. It seems these cards can hold techniques of reasonable power. But the cards were quite heavily used before you acquired them. Each card will crumble after another activation.”
Ling Qi blinked as Bai Meizhen handed her the card. She could feel the power from the stored technique humming in the metal, and a simple understanding of the effect entered her mind. Imperious Serpent’s Majesty focused the user’s will upon an enemy, freezing them like a mouse before a snake.
“H-hey, are you sure it’s fine to give me this?”
“It is a trifle. I will have recovered the qi spent in a matter of hours,” Bai Meizhen responded dismissively, already moving on to the staff. Bai Meizhen turned it over in her hands, studying it with considerably more interest.
“Now, this… is definitely of acceptable quality as a talisman. It is quite old as well. A few more years of use and it will likely develop a heirloom spirit.”
Ling Qi thought back to her lessons with Elder Su.
“That’s… when an object or a building develops a mind of its own through continuous exposure to human qi, right? “Doesn’t that take a really long time though?”
Bai Meizhen nodded and Ling Qi was glad to not disappoint her with ignorance once again.
“Typically, it takes a century or so to begin the process and much longer to achieve real power. In any case, the staff’s use is simple enough. It empowers wood techniques and provides some of the energy required for them through its own internal stores. It is also rather sturdy. I doubt a cultivator below the Third Realm could break it through brute force given the durability enhancing formations etched into the wood.”
Ling Qi let out the breath she had been holding. That pretty much confirmed her worry. It was unlikely that the girl who had lost this would just let it go. If she held onto it, she was going to have to prepare herself for the inevitable attempt to retrieve it. Pawning it off for something useful before that would probably be for the best.
“Thank you very much,” she said as the other girl put the staff down with a clunk and busied herself with preparing tea.
“I feel like I have had so much more to worry about since the end of that test. It’s good to have one less. Maybe now I can finally make use of my good fortune.”
“I am interested to see what has the worms so agitated,” Bai Meizhen admitted, looking up from her tea. “Envy for another’s success and fortune are powerful motivators for that sort. Just what did you gain in that test?”
Ling Qi grimaced. Even now, she couldn’t quite bring herself to show off her prize. Still, Bai Meizhen deserved an explanation.
“I… acquired a jade slip with some arts. The problem started because Elder Jiao announced it. He convinced Elder Zhou to give me a pass on the third part of the test and implied that I could become his personal disciple if I took advantage of it.”
Bai Meizhen’s eyes widened slightly as the words spilled out of Ling Qi’s mouth in a rush. She stared at Ling Qi as Ling Qi fidgeted as if she were Li Suyin.
Was this it?
Was Bai Meizhen going to reach out and disable her then search her for the jade slip? Ling Qi would try to get away, but she knew she didn’t have a chance.
“I see,” Bai Meizhen finally said.
“I suppose I can understand their envy somewhat. Sima Jiao was a venerable and respected director of the Ministry of Integrity before his retirement. A position as his apprentice would be much sought after.”
Ling Qi thought Bai Meizhen sounded rather unhappy.
“It…” Bai Meizhen pursed her lips in a displeased manner as she broke off and went silent.
“I hope you will not allow yourself to focus over much on that. You are young, and I am sure you will have many other, better opportunities,” she finally said.
That wasn’t really what Ling Qi was expecting at all. Bai Meizhen didn’t seem jealous or envious of the chance. If anything, she seemed frustrated and unhappy.
“Well… I don’t know about any apprenticeships or anything like that. I was just going to focus on learning the techniques on the jade slip that I received.”
“That is for the best,” Bai Meizhen replied, seeming slightly relieved.
Ling Qi nodded, glad to have headed off whatever that was. “Thank you for all your help.”
“It was no trouble. Perhaps once you master these arts, you might share an insight or two with me.”
“Oh? Um…. sure,” Ling Qi responded with surprise and warmth. She had no idea where the other girl’s confidence in her came from, but she was glad for it.