Ling Qi once again found herself standing at the front of the lecture hall. The line up was rather different this week. She supposed it had been last week too; she had learned from Li Suyin later that Li Suyin and Ji Rong had managed to get it again the past week.
This week, it was Ling Qi, Ji Rong, that creepy and possibly blind boy, another girl she vaguely recognized from Zhou’s lessons, and Han Jian, who offered her a friendly nod over the others’ heads as she took up a place at the far end of the line.
He had probably broken through to the Yellow Soul realm then. She eyed him out of the corner of her eyes He didn’t really seem different, maybe a little more confident? She turned attention back to Elder Su, bowing her head and murmuring a thanks as the older woman passed her the reward for her hard work.
Returning to her seat next to Li Suyin, she acknowledged the girl’s quiet congratulations with a nod. Anything else that might have been said was silenced as Elder Su began to speak.
“Today begins the final month of the lessons offered to new students. My colleague has already winnowed away much of his class as is his wont.” Her words caused a slight stir that might have turned to grumbling in another situation. Ling Qi certainly saw a lot of unhappy looks, some of them directed at her and the other students who were in Elder Zhou’s class.
“As I am sure you have concluded by this point, I am not quite so harsh in my standards or prone to dramatic shows as he.” Elder Su paused, seeming to briefly lose herself in thought before sighing wistfully as if from a pleasant memory.
“But, all the same,” she continued, “I also believe that the drive to improve oneself is the most important factor in a cultivator’s success, and thus, for some of you, this will be your last day in my lessons.”
That stirred up some murmurs that were swiftly silenced by a look from the Elder. Ling Qi was suddenly glad that she had won a pill this week, and Li Suyin began to nibble her lower lip nervously. She was… pretty sure she was safe from the upcoming expulsion.
“While I have encouraged your success with rewards, I prefer to see how my students can motivate themselves. How far they will push themselves even when crises do not loom.” The older woman’s gaze grew cold, and the strict tone she had taken in the early lessons returned.
“Some of you have disappointed me greatly, meandering along your path with little ambition, almost idle in your cultivation. Compared to others in this lesson - to those who have put their full effort into improving themselves in some way every day - you do not deserve my teachings any longer. Perhaps in the future, when you have reflected upon and corrected your flaws, we will speak again.”
Ling Qi wouldn’t lie to herself and say that she didn’t feel satisfaction as the Elder began to list off names, one after another. She did glance at Li Suyin and bump their shoulders to draw the other girl’s attention and give her a reassuring smile. Ling Qi felt the blue-haired girl was being a little ridiculous to worry about her own position; she strongly doubted that anyone who had earned a pill would be among those kicked out.
Sure enough, she was right. The room was emptied by half when the Elder was done. Elder Su’s pleasant countenance returned as the last of the disciples she had named slumped dejectedly out of the room.
“Now that we have resolved that unpleasantness, allow me to describe the curriculum for our final month together.”
“First, I intend to ensure that each of you becomes grounded in the knowledge of the three thousand common characters of the formation arts as a cultivator should always be able to perform at least basic identification of talismans and wards in the field.”
Ling Qi felt some dread along with anticipation. It would be one more thing she didn’t need to rely on Bai Meizhen for, but on the other hand, she was only barely literate as it was. Even if her time here had dusted off the rust that had accumulated on those skills, learning three thousand more characters was daunting.
“Secondly, we will be reviewing the necessities and difficulties of breakthrough to new realms of cultivation and the basic structure of the eight realms which comprise the Path of Cultivation,” Elder Su continued.
“Much of our effort shall be spent on your cultivation of the Argent Soul Art. All of you have progressed well in forming an understanding of the foundations of the art, but as a master of our school’s techniques, I do have certain insights that you will find of use.”
Ling Qi felt excited about that. The next stage of the technique had seemed quite daunting, and she was worried about how long it would take her to ‘mold the foundation of her World’, particularly since she hadn’t yet been able to puzzle out what that meant.
“Lastly, to further encourage you, in addition to the weekly prize of a Qi Foundation pill, a permanent pass to the first floor of the Outer Mountain’s archive shall be given to the three students who have impressed me the most at the end of this month. Do work hard.”
Did that mean they could go in and use the jade slips in the archive whenever they wanted? That sounded really good. Ling Qi glanced at Li Suyin, and sure enough, the scholarly girl’s eyes were burning with determination.
... It was honestly kind of weird seeing that kind of expression on Li Suyin’s face.
When the lesson was over, Ling Qi left with Li Suyin. Walking openly as she did with the other girl made her nervous and twitchy, but at the same time, it was nice to not have to skulk. The other disciples had ceased much of the open hostility by this point, and she hadn’t had to fend off a pickpocketing attempt in some time. Still, she could feel the dislike in their gazes and could hear the disparaging comments directed her way.
It seemed they were simply holding off until the end of the truce when they could put some actual force behind their attempts to bully her.
She put it out of her mind for the moment. While the end of truce was fast approaching, right now, she needed to focus on preparing.
Li Suyin seemed to be of the same mind. She agreed far more easily than Ling Qi expected to another forest expedition later this week.
Ling Qi would need to finish up the other girl’s physical cultivation lessons first though. Hopefully, the practice with the other girl would also help her figure out what was holding her back from achieving the next level of Zephyr’s Breath. As Ling Qi was not quite ready to openly show off her new arts from Elder Zhou’s test, she needed to further polish the one which everyone knew she had.
While training Li Suyin, something finally clicked, and the part of Zephyr’s Breath that had been out of her grasp came to her. She understood the corrections she needed to make to her stance, breathing, and qi circulation, perfecting the timing of the pulses of qi to guide the wind around her. Zephyr’s Breath was much less limited now with the doubling of her control range.
While she liked the sound of the ‘Shielding Gale’ technique left in the art, Zephyr’s Breath, even with the improvement, wasn’t as impressive as the new arts she had gained from the moon spirit. There did seem to be more advanced arts that built on it though.
Feeling that her combat arts were polished enough, Ling Qi threw herself into her lessons and the cultivation of her foundation. She was close to the late stage of the first realm in both body and spirit. If she was going to make it through the coming storm, that was the least she needed to achieve to be able to stand up in the face of her fellow disciples without having to constantly rely on Bai Meizhen or Han Jian and his friends.
Her efforts were rewarded soon enough. Surging qi and the feeling of broken barriers filled her as she finished her weeks meditations. Reaching the late Red Soul and Gold Physique stages were not as dramatic as previous breakthroughs. Instead, it felt as if she had simply reached the end of a path well paved… and now stared up at a sheer cliff. The true difficulty and change would lie ahead when she prepared to breakthrough to the next realm.
She wasn’t going to have to run and hide forever.