The Gushing Spring pill tasted of clear fresh water, the Qi Foundation pill of some spicy herb she didn’t recognize, and the Sable Light pill tasted of fresh cream… but the flavors were quickly forgotten in what followed immediately after. A painful surge of energy filled her dantian, straining its confines, even as her limbs jumped with sudden energy, her nerves sang, and her senses almost overloaded. She felt like she was aflame from the inside, the light from the candles in the meditation room lanced painfully into her eyes, and the sound of her own heart was almost deafening in her ears.
Letting out a trembling breath, Ling Qi closed her eyes and slowly forced her breathing back under control. She needed to cultivate.
The next few days were a blur in her mind.
Ling Qi vaguely remembered showing up for her lessons. Sneaking in and out of the residential area. Stumbling on the steep cliffs. The worried expression on Li Suyin’s face and a curious glance from Bai Meizhen as they passed one another in the hall leading to their rooms. The feeling of the pool of energy at her core deepening, expanding, and stretching the limits of her dantian, making her ache in a way that she hadn’t since her first growth spurt.
What she truly remembered, however, was the sharp feeling of carving new channels for the surging qi within her, one coiling through her lungs and out through her throat and the second spiralling down her right leg.
The days following the opening of her first and second channels released some of the pressure clouding her body and mind, and Ling Qi found herself growing coherent once more. A cup of Bai Meizhen’s herbal tea, left out for her on the table one evening, soothed the raging energies surging through her body even further, and its flavor seemed to be less bitter to her tongue than before. Opening the final channel, another winding meridian extending outward from her heart, reduced the burning in her core to manageable levels.
It allowed her to remember her obligation to Li Suyin. She was coherent enough to feel guilty about the concerned looks the other girl had given her throughout Elder Su’s lesson that evening.
“Are you feeling better today, Ling Qi?” Li Suyin asked as she caught up with her in the hall, glancing at her nervously. “It’s just… um, you kind of… growled at me yesterday when I tried to talk with you. I couldn’t really understand what you were saying. Are you feeling ill?”
Ling Qi winced internally. Li Suyin had tried to talk to her yesterday? She didn’t remember that all.
“I guess I am,” she responded neutrally as they exited the building. “I’m sorry, Li Suyin,” she apologized after a moment. “I used some medicines to help my cultivation, but it looks like I might have taken a little too much at once.”
She would definitely space out her dosage in the future. That or do the whole ‘closed door’ cultivation she had heard about. Was that why people shut themselves in meditation rooms for days at a time? To work through the drug-induced haze in peace and quiet?
“O-oh, I see,” Li Suyin replied, seeming relieved. “I was a little worried that I had done something to make you angry. Did it work?” she asked, drawing a confused look from Ling Qi. “I-I mean, did you accomplish what you were trying to do?”
Ling Qi glanced around, noting that there were still plenty of others in earshot. She then decided that she didn’t care, at least when it came to this.
“Yeah,” she said with only partially false confidence. “I got the three meridians I was working on open, and I even managed to almost double the size of my qi pool.” She deliberately pitched her voice to carry. Let the assholes eyeing her like prey chew on that.
“Really? That’s amazing! I’ve only recently gotten my fourth channel open. And you’ve done so much else besides,” she added under her breath, almost too low for Ling Qi to hear. “I haven’t even properly mastered an art yet.”
“Why is that anyway? Why open so many channels without even learning an art?”
Li Suyin looked glanced around the plaza at the other people present, some of whom were occasionally looking their way.
Ling Qi got the picture.
“Well, I guess it’s none of my business,” she said instead. “We can get back to practicing together if you want.”
“That’s fine,” Li Suyin replied hurriedly before clamming up, fidgeting with her bag and keeping her eyes on the path ahead.
Ling Qi eyed her for a moment and shrugged, falling silent as well as they proceeded back to the residential area. As the two of them entered Li Suyin’s home, the other girl finally spoke up.
“I… do have a good reason,” Li Suyin murmured as she shut the door behind them. It looked like Su Ling was out again today.
“I wasn’t going to say anything. If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to.”
“It’s okay. I trust you,” Li Suyin said looking down and shuffling her feet. “It’s just - I don’t like fighting,” Li Suyin admitted, looking back up at Ling Qi. “So I know I don’t really… fit here. I wanted to be a scribe or maybe a physician’s assistant.”
Ling Qi shifted from foot to foot. She probably wasn’t the best person to trust, and she had a feeling Li Suyin was going to reveal something personal.
“I can understand that. I don’t really like fighting either, but I’d rather not get pushed around, you know?”
Li Suyin nodded unhappily.
“Yes, I understand. That’s why I asked you to help me cultivate my body.” She sighed before straightening her shoulders and visibly steeling herself.
“Mother is from a cultivating clan that was eliminated some time ago. They lost all cultivation resources… but great-grandfather managed to hold onto one of the family arts even after his dantian was broken,” Li Suyin said in a rush.
Ling Qi looked at her blankly. She wasn’t sure what kind of reaction the girl expected.
“Alright. I guess you need a lot of channels open to practice it then? It must be a pretty complex art.”
Li Suyin seemed nonplussed at her lack of reaction, but then, she smiled weakly.
“R-right. I also, um… need someone to practice on. It’s a medical art.” Her eyes widened. “Just the diagnostic part though! I asked Su Ling to capture a few animals to practice the other parts on.”
Ling Qi felt like she was missing something.
“That sounds fine. It’ll pretty much just be what we normally do then, right?”
The other girl nodded in relief, and the two of them got started with their practice.
However, despite the fact that Li Suyin had revealed that she had her own valuable art - which, on reflection, was probably why she had been nervous - Ling Qi couldn’t bring herself to share knowledge of her own ‘secret’ techniques. Instead, she waited until the dead of night, her newly expanded reserves burning away her fatigue, and practiced then.
The first part of Sable Crescent Step, she came to understand, was a manual on leg movements and techniques for moving silently as well as qi exercises for drawing the cool, calm qi of night and shadows around herself like a cloak. Darkness was absence, and by becoming one with it, she could be wherever she wanted. What were barriers and obstacles to something which had no form?
Simply mastering the movements quickened her steps and sharpened her reactions, and the night sky overhead only made her feel more alert and energetic. Of the actual techniques she mastered in secret, the Trackless Step allowed her to move without trace, her footsteps bending not so much as a blade of grass in her path. Crescent’s Grace let the cool, comforting dark qi she had cultivated flood through the channel in her legs, blurring the edges of her form and allowing her to move short distances in bursts of great speed.
Ling Qi knew she was far from the understanding that which would allow her to truly become immaterial as she moved, but even the occasional glimpse allowed her to simply flicker from one position to the next with no intervening motion when she executed the qi flows perfectly.
It felt very strange.
Forgotten Vale Melody came easier to her but was strange in its own way. Sneaking out to the mineral spring she had shared with Gu Xiulan with her flute tucked into her sleeve was odd enough on its own. Actually playing on her flute once she was there, sitting on one of the flat rocks that jutted from the water, was stranger. She was no great musician, and she had only grown rustier over the years since she left Mother, but the music sheet laid out in her mind by the jade slip seemed to come to her naturally.
Perhaps it was misplaced pride, but she found the song she played as she worked through the internal exercises eerily beautiful - at least when she wasn’t making mistakes. The feeling of the icy qi flowing through the channel in her lungs to charge the air around her mingled with the water qi drawn from the pool. It allowed her to flood the cave with a thick and cloying mist that moved with her as she played.
With some effort, she could charge the mist with further power, confusing the senses of those within such that they would find themselves unable to leave it.
With her qi flowing through her channeles, old and new, and the knowledge of her techniques in the back of her mind, Ling Qi found herself looking out over the deep night of the mountain wilderness and found it as bright as if it were lit by the noonday sun. The colors were washed out, but darkness no longer hindered her sight.
Was this what it felt like to be a real cultivator, she wondered?