Ling Qi’s lesson with Elder Zhou that morning was a bit of a disaster. Seeing as she had only had a few hours to rest after their battle with Huang Da, she was still sore, tired, and numb from his poison. She had recovered some motion in her right arm, but it still made the exercises she was expected to perform incredibly painful and awkward.
She powered through, gritting her teeth and forcing herself to keep up with the rear of the pack on the morning run. She avoided being reprimanded by Elder Zhou, and that was all that mattered. She didn’t care about the assholes who sneered at her struggles.
The spars were pretty brutal that day, and with how many times she ended upon on her back in the dirt, she wanted to scream by the time they were done. She had not had the time to recover her qi so she could not use her techniques. Soon, she promised herself, she would wipe the smug off of a few faces.
Ling Qi was interrupted from her brooding thoughts in the aftermath of the lesson by Han Jian’s voice.
“Ling Qi. Hey, Ling Qi.” She startled as she looked up from the weapon rack she had been leaning against as class dispersed for the day to find Han Jian and Han Fang looking down at her with concern. Gu Xiulan stood a short distance behind them with her arms crossed, studying her intently.
“You doing alright? I saw you favoring your left side,” Han Jian continued when he saw that he actually had her attention.
“I’m fine,” Ling Qi responded instinctively, forcing herself to straighten up despite the pain in her ribs. “Just… had a couple rough encounters while I was out exploring last night. I didn’t get back till a few hours before training.”
She didn’t explain the Huang Da encounter because it would almost certainly involve mentioning the vent, and she hadn’t run that by Li Suyin and Su Ling yet. This was mostly because Su Ling had almost collapsed when they got to the bottom of the cliff, and Li Suyin had to support her for the rest of the trip back to the residential area.
Han Jian peered at her with a frown on his face, and she squirmed under the inspection. He could probably tell that she was hiding something.
“Alright, if you think you’ll be fine. I was going to ask if you wanted to come train with us. I wanted to work on my Dawn’s Courage technique now that I’ve broken through and opened some more meridians, but if you aren’t up for it…”
That was his heart technique if she remembered correctly.
“Thanks for offering,” Ling Qi said regretfully. “I’m going to be really busy for awhile though. I’m aiming to win a spot in the top three in Elder Su’s lessons for the Archive prize so I’ll be studying and cultivating with Li Suyin a lot this week.” Ling Qi paused, feeling awkward as she recalled an issue. “Ah. Have I introduced you to Li Suyin? She’s my friend in the spiritual lessons.”
Gu Xiulan gave Ling Qi a reproachful look.
“You have not nor have you even mentioned her previously,” Gu Xiulan said irritably. “I believe I have seen her around. Is it that waifish girl with the blue hair? I had noticed you speaking to her, but I did not know you were so close.”
“I’ve seen her,” Han Jian said, shooting Gu Xiulan a quelling look. “That’s fine. Just make sure you’re careful with what you’re doing. If you hurt yourself badly, it can set you back a lot more than moderating your pace will.”
Ling Qi nodded and gave Han Jian and Gu Xiulan an apologetic look.
“I’ll be careful,” she said to Han Jian then turned to Gu Xiulan. “Sorry. Studying with Li Suyin just never came up. I just… I really need all the advantages I can get, you know?”
That seemed to mollify Gu Xiulan, who sighed theatrically.
“I suppose it would be hypocritical for me to tell you not to strive for high rewards, but you must stop being so reticent.” The reproach returned to her tone. “Really. You hardly say a thing about yourself.”
“Sorry,” Ling Qi muttered, lowering her head. “I’ll try to be a little more open.” It felt wrong to say that given what she was currently hiding from them, but what else could she do?
They parted ways after that, and Ling Qi began the trek back to the residential area. She needed to speak with Su Ling and Li Suyin about the possibility of bringing Bai Meizhen to the vent. It would make cultivating there much safer.
Ling Qi’s trudge back to the disciple housing was less than pleasant. She still felt sore and sluggish, and more than one of her fellow disciples seemed to take that as a sign that it was fine to ‘accidentally’ bump into her or otherwise cause her trouble. One asshole even knocked her down as he pushed past her without a word in the plaza.
She committed his ratty face to memory along with the faces of the girls off to the side tittering at her plight. Nothing truly concerning happened beyond that, but Ling Qi still had a scowl fixed firmly on her face by the time she was rapping her knuckles on Suyin’s door.
“Li Suyin! It’s Ling Qi. Can you let me in?”
There were some shuffling sounds from the other side of the door and a clattering of clay bottles before the door cracked open a notch, revealing a scowling Su Ling. Her expression eased up a little when she saw Ling Qi’s face.
“Come in,” she grunted grudgingly, opening the door a little wider and stepping aside.
Now that Ling Qi got a better look at the feral girl, she could see the bandages swathing her upper body. They were easily visible under the girl’s gown. Su Ling’s hand kept twitching as if she wanted to scratch at it before the girl would stop herself.
The interior was messier than usual with a pile of bloody bandages in one corner that Ling Qi recognized as the field dressing Li Suyin had done on the mountain. There was also a scattering of clay bottles on the floor around Li Suyin, who sat in the middle of the room with her head down. Li Suyin looked like she was about to pass out where she sat.
“So what is it?” Su Ling asked bluntly as she kicked the door shut behind Ling Qi. “I don’t think we’re getting back up there today unless you want to carry her.” Su Ling, jabbed a thumb in Li Suyin’s direction. The blue-haired girl jerked slightly as if startled by Su Ling’s voice.
“Hm? Yes… I’m sorry. I just… I only just finished cleaning and dressing her wounds properly,” Li Suyin murmured tiredly. “Getting the salves and medicines from the market took some time.”
Ling Qi glanced over at Su Ling as she leaned against the door, arms crossed. The other girl simply shrugged, looking uncomfortable.
“I figured cashing in some savings to make sure I healed up right was worth it. I needed Li Suyin to come along so I didn’t get cheated.”
“I kind of assumed we all needed a bit of rest,” Ling Qi responded neutrally, eyeing Li Suyin with some concern. “I actually wanted to talk to you two about what we’re going to do about Huang Da though. He isn’t going to drop this.”
Li Suyin’s face fell and she hugged herself.
“Are you certain? I… we beat him. That should be enough, right? The damage I did shouldn’t heal easily. I-I targeted his lungs...” Her voice was barely audible, even in the tiny room.
Ling Qi saw Su Ling’s hands clench into fists and heard a low growl escape the girl’s throat.
“I’m sure he can get medicine too,” Su Ling said bluntly. “You did good. But Ling Qi’s right. We can’t assume he’s gonna stay down. We don’t go up there alone, I assume. Gonna be a pain in the ass for my hunting.”
“I was thinking something a little more,” Ling Qi admitted carefully. She liked to think that she had gotten slightly better at talking to people since she had come here. “I think we should tell my housemate, Bai Meizhen, about the vent. If she cultivates up there too, we should be safe from Huang Da.”
Su Ling looked distinctly unhappy, but Li Suyin simply continued staring at her lap.
“Yeah, fine, snake girl is strong, I’ll give you that. We can’t just go handing our prize out like that though. She didn’t do anything to help us, and who is going to stop her from just sharing it around with whoever she wants?” Su Ling said angrily. Ling Qi noted that Su Ling didn’t completely reject the idea though.
“That card I used to make him freeze was something she gave me,” Ling Qi admitted quietly. “He wouldn’t have run if not for that.”
Ling Qi wasn’t dumb. She had been one good hit from falling over. If he had continued fighting, there were good odds she would have also gone down. Ling Qi shuddered to think of what might have happened. “And I don’t think she would share the vent’s location. As far as I know, I’m the only one she really talks to.”
“I am fine with telling her,” Li Suyin muttered. “If… if it means we don’t have to fight over it again, isn’t that better?”
Su Ling tensed, her knuckles going white before she let out a long breath, forcibly relaxing herself. “Fine. If you want to trust her, we will. Whatever happens is on you.”
“Right. We should probably head over to my place then,” Ling Qi replied, relieved that they had agreed to it. Ling Qi did her best to conceal the wobble in her stance. The numbness was still fading slowly.
“I figured you two should be there when we talk to her about it.”
The two of them agreed easily enough, reluctantly in Su Ling’s case and listlessly in Li Suyin’s. Ling Qi really hoped that the other girl would be in better shape once she got some sleep. A short time thereafter, the three of them arrived at Ling Qi’s home. Ling Qi knocked twice on the door before opening it.
“Bai Meizhen, I’m home, and I have a couple guests. Is it ok to let them in?” she called as she opened the door a crack and peered in.
“Guests?” her housemate called back as she exited her room, a slight frown on her fine features. Her hair was still slightly damp, even if she was otherwise as impeccable as always, so she must have been washing up. Ling Qi wasn’t sure how Bai Meizhen bathed in her room given that she’s never seen a basin or a tub in the few times she’s glimpsed the inside.
“I suppose that is fine. I must ask that you refrain from using our meditation chamber. I currently have some effects in place for my own cultivation,” Bai Meizhen said as she shut the door to her bedroom.
Ling Qi stepped inside, leaving the door open for her other friends.
“That’s fine,” she replied. “We actually wanted to talk to you about something. Well, more like, I wanted to offer you something, and it wouldn’t be fair for them to not be here.”
Bai Meizhen cocked her head to the side curiously as she regarded the two girls Ling Qi had brought. Su Ling looked both tense and uncomfortable, her pointed furry ears laid back flat against the side of her head as she stubbornly met Bai Meizhen’s slit-pupiled gaze. Li Suyin looked to be doing her best impression of a frightened mouse although she, at least, made the effort to bow her head respectfully and mumble an unintelligible greeting.
“...I see,” Bai Meizhen replied neutrally. “Do close the door,” she added in the same tone, moving off toward the merrily burning fire in the hearth. “I suppose this has to do with why you are wounded, Ling Qi?”
“It does,” Ling Qi admitted as she followed her roommate. She gestured for Su Ling and Li Suyin to follow them once the duo had shut the door behind them. “We were doing a little exploring last night and searching for better places to cultivate.”
“A worthy pursuit,” Bai Meizhen said. “You came into conflict with another disciple over it then?”
“How do you know that?” Su Ling snapped. “What, you get some divination in the package too?”
Bai Meizhen gave Su Ling a reproachful look, which stopped her in her tracks.
“The poisonous qi clinging to the two of you is artificial in design. Obviously, it did not come from a spirit beast. It is beginning to fade already. It will not linger for more than perhaps another half-day.”
“T-thank you. I had thought so as well, but I wasn’t sure if I had made a mistake or not.” Li Suyin flinched when Bai Meizhen’s gaze landed on her but continued, “U-um… may I ask, do you think we should go to the Elders about this? I… he attacked us. Isn’t that supposed to be against the rules?”
Bai Meizhen’s expression was unreadable. “I would not expect much, no. I assume this happened well off the primary paths?”
“Yeah, it did,” Ling Qi agreed. “He even said that he doubted the Elders would do anything about it.”
“He is somewhat correct,” Bai Meizhen replied as she gracefully sat down by the fire, folding her hands in her lap. “The ‘truce’ is not ironclad. The Elders of the Sect are far too busy to watch every part of the mountain at once. They would investigate a killing, of course, or perhaps even serious and permanent injuries if the disciple in question held their interest. But no, the Empire’s justice is far from absolute, whatever its proponents might say.”
Li Suyin’s shoulders sunk further and she stared down at the floor from where she stood behind Su Ling.
“That sounds about right,” Su Ling grumbled, her tail wriggling in an agitated manner around her waist. “You gonna tell her or what?” she asked, shooting Ling Qi a look.
Ling Qi nodded and took a deep breath. She was going to feel really foolish if Bai Meizhen didn’t agree to come.
“We found a natural spirit stone deposit. It had both yellow and red veins of crystal and was venting some kind of mist that reacted to our Argent Foundations. I was hoping that you might be interested in cultivating with us when we go there.”
Ling Qi was treated to the sight of Bai Meizhen’s snowy white eyebrows climbing high as the other girl stared at her.
“The three of you found one of the mountains vents? I had been…” Bai Meizhen trailed off, shaking her head. “Your fortune is rather amazing… but I suppose one with a fox’s blood would be useful in penetrating illusions.”
“What do you mean?” Ling Qi asked before Su Ling could say something rude.
“There are a handful of such sites on every one of the Sect’s mountains. This mountain has the smallest and least potent deposits. It is why the Outer Sect is located here. On this mountain, they are hidden as prizes for enterprising disciples,” Bai Meizhen explained. “I had thought I was on the path to one of them, but I was not been able to penetrate the illusory formation around it.”
That would explain the ease of the cliffside path, Ling Qi thought. She had wondered why no one had found it from that side, but she had been too distracted to really think about it. She glanced to Su Ling, who shrugged irritably.
“I could smell a bunch of qi in the air meant to lead us off track. Figured it was some beast marking its territory,” Su Ling mumbled self consciously.
“I believe I will find the time to join you,” Bai Meizhen mused. “It would prove a boon in allowing me to complete the Argent Soul and move on to other tasks.” She seemed pretty pleased to Ling Qi.
The four of them spent some time afterward discussing when the best time to cultivate at the vent would be, and in the end, they agreed to meet after Ling Qi’s morning lessons. That decided, they broke up and went their separate ways.
Ling Qi went to bed. She needed to rest lest she risk nodding off during Elder Su’s lecture.