Ling Qi found it hard not to be distracted.

Those two were glowing for goodness sake! She glanced nervously again at the wide section of the field reserved for the two strongest girls in class.

Sun Liling had a savage grin on her face as she faced Cai Renxiang. For once, her stance wasn’t lax and loose but taut and ready, her hands splayed out like the claws of a beast. Red mist seeped from the girl’s pores, lazily twining around her limbs.

Her opponent stood straight and tall, the hilt of her long, curved saber clasped in a ready stance. Cai Renxiang looked as if she were standing in a shaft of bright sunlight, which formed a white corona behind her head and cast a long, ominous shadow across the field in front of her.

“Miss Ling!” She twitched as a booming voice called her attention back to her immediate surroundings. She refrained from grimacing as she turned back to meet the reproving gaze of Gan Guangli, her partner in this sparring exercise.

“While I understand the desire to gaze upon Lady Cai’s resplendence, I must ask that you not allow your attention to wander so!”

The boy’s voice was loud, and she winced when she saw gazes flicking their way. Still, she was glad that Instructor Zhou had taken their abilities into account when setting up spars. Now, if only her melee partner wasn’t so… bombastic.

“Hmph. Don’t you have it backwards there, big guy?” A relaxed voice called from across the field where their opponents stood.

The one who spoke was Lu Feng, the effeminate boy she had seen with Sun Liling before. She found him kind of irritating, partially because despite being a boy, he managed to be significantly prettier than her. His shoulder length black hair was shinier than Gu Xiulan’s, and that was just unfair.

“She was obviously captivated by the princess, not that ice sculpture you call a lady.”

Gan Guangli swelled with fury, and she meant that literally. She had thought she was imagining things the first few times it had happened, but seeing it up close confirmed her thoughts. When the blond boy became emotional, he literally grew. He was normally the same height as her, but he was now several centimeters taller. It seemed there were some strange arts out there.

“Still your forked tongue, western devil, else I make your beating all the worse!”

Spirits, did he have any volume below shout?

Ling Qi looked to the other girl present, a noble armed with short, paired guai made out of pale white stone. Hong Lin was short and petite with streaks of cherry blossom pink in her dark hair. Given the way she turned up her nose at Ling Qi, Hong Lin was uninterested in providing any solidarity in response to their bickering male comrades.

That was fine, Ling Qi thought. Gan Guangli might be obnoxiously loud, but at least he was unfailingly polite. He hadn’t once referred to her as anything but Miss Ling although that felt more strange than good. When had she ever been called something like that?

She put that out of her thoughts, focusing on the upcoming spar. The scenario was simple. They were to fight until the other team was disabled while staying within the confines of the painted box on the field they had been assigned.

Instructor Zhou’s voice rang out, signalling the beginning of the match.

Gan Guangli barreled forward with a shout, the heavy iron gauntlets on his hands shimmering with metallic qi, and Hong Lin darted forward to meet him. His swinging fist passed over her head as she ducked, and her stone guai rose to strike him in the ribs. He merely laughed at the blow, swelling up another centimeter in height and bulk.

Ling Qi caught movement in the corner of her eyes and flicked a knife into her hand as she turned her attention to her own task. Lu Feng was circling the battle in the center, eyeing the two combatants as he raised his black gloved hands. Ling Qi caught the barely visible shimmer of the wires which extended from the tips of his gloves and threw her knife at him.

She grimaced as Lu Feng leaned lazily out of the way as her wind-coated knife flew by him. His right hand gestured, and Gan Guangli let out a shout of frustration as gleaming wires wrapped around his forearm, preventing him from bringing his fist down on his much smaller opponent.

Ling Qi let another knife fall into her hand as Hong Lin executed a rapid combination on her bound partner. The other girl’s stone weapons drove Gan Guangli back as they cracked repeatedly against his ribs and free arm, drawing a grunt of pain from Gan Guangli even as he continued to grow bigger.

Another knife flew as she dashed toward Lu Feng, but he again swayed to the side, easily avoiding her technique, and danced backwards, not giving her more than a glance.

Ling Qi’s only warning of what came next was Gan Guangli’s shout as his leg was yanked to one side, and the towering boy fell to the ground with a crash. She glimpsed a blur of black and pink, and then, her world exploded in pain.

Everything spun as she felt herself flung backwards to land in the dirt, reflexively clutching her ribs as she wheezed in pain from the blow the other girl had landed. At least one of her ribs was broken, Ling Qi thought dizzily, probably more. Looking through eyes tearing up from the throbbing pain, she saw her opponent looking down at her before turning away with a haughty sniff to show Ling Qi her back.

Ling Qi struggled to reach for one of her knives, to sit up, to do anything, but it simply hurt too much. She could feel something wet bubbling in her throat, and a groan escaped her lips.

She was helpless again, and she hated it!

They lost after that, of course. Gan Guangli struggled, but with his limbs bound, he couldn’t really fight back.

Luckily, Instructor Zhou had called an older disciple from the Medicine Department down to provide healing after the spars. Instead of three broken ribs, Ling Qi merely had to deal with some incredibly painful bruises across her chest.

The lengthy spars broke up the physical training now, and despite her feelings about her loss, she knew they were helping, Her reflexes and handling of her weapons was improving. It grew easier to draw her knives and she found the blades fitting much more easily in her hands. She began to notice the little tells that told how a person was going to move, both in herself and others. She did better in other bouts, but never great.

Elder Su’s lessons were less painful but all the more crucial. If Ling Qi was to avoid being humiliated like that again, she would need to be able to use her new arts.

She had begun feeling out the channels she would need to open during the lessons’ meditation sessions, slowly tracing their paths with her mind’s eye. The channel she had already opened wove a lazy course around and through her heart, shining brightly in her perception. Picking out the path of the three channels she planned to open was far more arduous. However, she had not used her medicines yet so she did not begin carving.

Besides, before she threw herself fully into cultivation, she had a question to ask. Ling Qi didn’t feel comfortable derailing the class with an unrelated question, but Elder Su typically remained behind for a few minutes after the lessons ended on the first and second days of the week.

As the other students filed out, she murmured a goodbye to Li Suyin and slipped down the stairs to approach the Elder, who was watching the others leave with a small smile, hands clasped loosely behind her. Her expression didn’t change when Ling Qi reached the bottom of the stairs, doing her best to ignore the looks from the remaining students. Ling Qi stopped a respectful distance from the older woman and bowed politely, drawing on half remembered lessons from Bai Meizhen on proper etiquette.

“Did you have a question about what we covered today, Ling Qi?” Elder Su asked kindly. She had been lecturing on the nature of environmental qi and its effects on cultivation. Ling Qi actually felt she understood it pretty well; she had to be careful if she cultivated in areas with strong environmental qi to avoid having it warp and unbalance her own. She had mostly grasped the exercises Elder Su had given for that too. “I am afraid you should have asked during the lesson. I have many tasks to see to.”

“I am sorry for delaying you, Elder.” Ling Qi internally cheered as she managed to avoid stumbling on the formal words.

“I actually have a question regarding my personal cultivation,” she continued, keeping her voice steady. She could feel the eyes of others on her back, but there was nothing she could do about that.

Elder Su regarded her quietly, her expression still friendly and open, but Ling Qi felt an unsettling pressure as if the matronly woman was looking through her.

“You have not advanced much of late despite your diligence. Have you found yourself in a bottleneck then? I suppose I can spare a moment to aid a promising student, particularly one willing to provide teaching to another.” Elder Su sounded approving. Ling Qi didn’t even bother wondering how the woman knew about her tutoring Li Suyin in her physical cultivation, just relief that she wasn’t being dismissed out of hand.

“Not... exactly?” Ling Qi said unsurely. “I slowed down this past week to prepare. I had some things to take care of before I could really focus.”

Elder Su raised an eyebrow curiously. “Oh? Well, I will not say cultivating in such a way is wrong. I did encourage other pursuits. I will have to ask that you speak your question though, young lady. I was not jesting when I said that I still have many tasks to see to.”

“Of course,” Ling Qi hurried, keeping her head bowed. “I just wanted to know if there were any drawbacks to reaching the Yellow Soul stage before fully mastering Argent Soul or the reverse. The scroll does not specify so I wanted to make sure I was cultivating it properly.”

Elder Su’s smile grew slightly warmer, and Ling Qi thought she sensed more approval. “That is a good question,” Elder Su began. “And an ambitious one. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is advisable that you reach the late stage of the Red Soul before attempting to form the next layer of that art - if only so that you do not fall behind your peers. The Argent Soul and its more advanced forms are one of the foundations of our Sect, but it is important not to forget practical matters.”

Ling Qi nodded in understanding. “So I should try to complete the next layer before breaking through?”

“It will improve such attempts,” Elder Su concurred. “While even cultivators of extremely low talent can expect to break through to the Yellow realm in time given sufficient resources, it is still no easy thing.

“Certain benefits will be lost if you choose to break through first, but it is a matter of weighing your desires and needs. To go beyond the fourth layer will not provide benefits at the Red Soul realm.”

“Thank you, Elder Su,” Ling Qi murmured, finally raising her head and straightening her back.

“It was no trouble. Go on, now. I will be observing what your preparations accomplish this week,” Elder Su answered simply, stepping gracefully past Ling Qi with a whisper of silk.

Ling Qi nodded and turned around to find the older woman already gone. She really wished she could do that. Hopefully, the Sable Crescent Step art would be the start.


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