“Is that offer of training with you all still open?” Ling Qi asked after Elder Zhou’s lesson had ended for the day. She had drifted over to where Han Jian and the others stood at the base of the cliff that formed one of the borders of the training field.
She wanted to work on strengthening her arts this week, and practicing with Han Jian and his group was her best option for that. She wasn’t quite ready to begin using the new techniques in the class spars, but she wanted to start by the end of the week, which meant polishing her skills beforehand.
Han Jian paused in signing something to Han Fang and looked over to her with a smile. “It is. Got things polished enough that you’re willing to show off a bit?” he added, making her flush slightly in embarrassment. Of course Han Jian would be perceptive enough to tell that she had learned a few new tricks.
“Something interesting, I hope. You will need it to keep up,” Gu Xiulan interjected from where she sat on one of the benches nearby. “I wouldn’t want you to be left behind. I intend to complete my breakthrough to Yellow Soul by this time next week.”
“And Fang and I should both be reaching Silver by the time the truce ends or soon after,” Han Jian said. Han Fang grinned widely at this, straightening his shoulders proudly.
“With your new techniques, I figure you’ll be fine as well,” Han Jian added reassuringly.
“I do have some pretty good options that I haven’t shown off,” Ling Qi admitted, feeling some worry. The ranks of those who had reached the second realm in one or both forms of cultivation was growing, but she still felt like she wasn’t quite ready to break through. “They do need some polishing in real combat though.”
“Well, that’s what these sessions are for,” Han Jian said, studying her carefully. “That said, everything going well for you? I heard you had an argument in Elder Su’s lecture hall the other day.”
Ling Qi scowled at the reminder of that encounter. Every time she thought of it it just made her angrier. Huang Da didn’t have any right to talk to her like that or act like they were anything other than enemies.
“Yeah. I actually wanted to warn you about that. That Huang Da guy and I had a disagreement over some resources, and that somehow turned into him deciding that he…” Ling Qi trailed off, expression screwing up in disgust.
“He decided that he’s going to… pursue me. He’s a creep. He was stalking my other friend, Li Suyin, before he switched to me. You might want to watch out for him. I don’t really know what he’s going to do.”
“You’re not interested then?” Gu Xiulan asked curiously. “I suppose he is hardly your type. And pushy men are so boorish.
“Still, the Huang family is quite wealthy and prestigious as I recall, if a little odd. You could do worse.” Gu Xiulan paused thoughtfully then amended, “Perhaps not if he really changed his mind so quickly.”
Ling Qi stared blankly at the other girl. “No. I’m not interested at all. He tried to get Li Suyin and I to split up and choose him over each other and Su Ling like the arrogant jackass was someone we should have fought over. He then attacked us when we didn’t oblige.”
“Ugh.” That seemed to convince her, going by the way Gu Xiulan made a face.
“Even so, you should try not to dip into vulgarity like that,” she chided. “No one will respect a lady who speaks like that.”
Han Jian coughed to draw their attention. Both he and his cousin had awkward expressions, likely at the direction that the conversation seemed to be heading. “I’ll keep an eye out for him. Don’t worry. I’ve started working on my family’s sword art, and I’m not exactly helpless in a fight. None of us are.”
“I know. He’s just a sneaky bast…” Ling Qi glanced at Gu Xiulan’s raised eyebrow and huffed irritably. It wasn’t like the girl was wrong about talking like a commoner; it made other people look down on her. “He’s stealthy and has some kind of poison effect on his weapon. That might be a technique. Just keep your eyes open.”
“We will,” Han Jian replied. “If you want to join us, head down to the training field we met at before in about two hours. We start around then and go until Elder Su’s lessons start.”
Ling Qi nodded. That would give her some time to cultivate at the vent with the others and talk to Li Suyin and Su Ling about possibly joining Han Jian’s group to train. She wanted to make sure they were interested before trying to convince Han Jian and the others. If the joint training session went well, maybe she could convince Li Suyin and Su Ling to let Han Jian’s group share the vent in return for further training sessions.
There were so many things she still needed to do.
Ling Qi’s stress levels were not helped by the atmosphere on the mountain. Everywhere she looked, there were the signs that her fellow disciples were training furiously and otherwise preparing for the end of truce. The greedy looks she had gotten in the immediate aftermath of Elder Zhou’s test were returning. More and more, she felt hemmed in and surrounded by enemies.
It didn’t help that her ears caught the word going around. That stupid conversation with Huang Da in Elder Su’s hall had apparently fueled all sorts of rumors, most of which painted her as the spirit stone-digger for leading on a wealthy scion for her own gain. It looked like the bastard even had fans among the other girls, going by the cold looks she got and the muttered words she heard in her passing.
By the time she joined up with Bai Meizhen and the others to head up to the vent, Ling Qi was definitely in the mood to hit something despite having just been in Elder Zhou’s lesson.
Ling Qi ended up leading an impromptu lesson in physical cultivation for Li Suyin and Su Ling, who were both looking to make improvements in that regard. Bai Meizhen was content to simply sit beside the vent meditating, the silvery mist swirling about her in a wide spiral.
Su Ling took to it more; while Li Suyin listened in, it seemed she was focusing on reaching Late Red Soul for the moment. It seemed that Li Suyin had been neglecting her base cultivation in favor of expanding her qi, opening meridians, and learning arts.
Ling Qi raised the idea of group training during her time at the vent. Li Suyin had been receptive to the idea, but Su Ling had been more reluctant. Between the two of them and Su Ling’s own worries, Su Ling eventually agreed to give it a try.
Despite feeling a bit better, Ling Qi was still feeling high-strung and agitated as she descended the mountain afterward. When she arrived at the concealed training field and passed through the barrier, she was surprised to find that she was early. The only one there was Han Jian, who was crouched in the middle of the field, talking to the tiger cub she had seen with him a few times during their initial meetings.
“Heijin, we’re really partners now, aren’t we? You have to start working with me here. I need to be able to work you into my tactics.” The handsome boy pleaded with the cub, who was curled up at his feet, apparently ignoring him.
Ling Qi cleared her throat awkwardly. “Hello, Han Jian. Am I… interrupting something?”
Han Jian blinked and looked up, hands resting on his knees.
“Ah, Ling Qi, No, you’re not. I’m just trying to get this lazy bones to work with me,” he said with a note of frustration. “I already had to carry him here, and now…” Han Jian stopped as the tiger cub stood up, still with his back to the boy, and padded over to Ling Qi.
Ling Qi looked curiously down at the cub, which had paused at her feet, looking up at her with feline arrogance. The cub stared her down before sitting down again and brushing a paw against his ear before beginning to groom it.
‘The female may pet me now.’
Ling Qi twitched as a voice that sounded like an arrogant young boy seemed to echo in her ears. Having ‘spoken’ to Cui before, she wasn’t completely taken off guard, but she was surprised at how clear his voice was. Was it perhaps because she had grown closer to Yellow realm and had mastered the fourth layer of Argent Soul?
“Why should I? You’re giving Han Jian trouble, aren’t you?” Even knowing that bound spirit beasts understood her, she still felt rather silly talking to an animal.
Heijin seemed nonplussed. ‘Pet me. The slacker has naught to do with it.’
The little feline was definitely demanding.
“Sorry about that,” Han Jian said as he approached, shooting his ‘cousin’ a dirty look. “He always was spoiled along with the other cubs at home so…”
‘The slacker is merely jealous, and wishes his fur was silky enough to be petted,’ the cub cut in haughtily. ‘Now, pet me, Cold One. It is hot.’
Ling Qi bit her lip, holding in a laugh at Han Jian’s expression, but attempted to look sternly down at the cub.
“If I pet you, will you listen to what Han Jian is saying?” Ling Qi asked. She felt like she should be more annoyed by the spirit’s demanding and haughty tone, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to be. He was only a kitten after all.
Ling Qi got the impression that the tiger cub was pouting at her despite the limited expressiveness of his face. ‘...That is acceptable,’ he replied with great dignity.
She sighed and crouched down to scratch behind the cub’s ears before giving Han Jian a pointed look. Heijin’s fur really was amazingly soft and silky, and the cub pushed his head up against her hand as she petted him.
Han Jian roughly scrubbed a hand through his hair.
“Thanks,” he said, glancing to Ling Qi before focusing on Heijin. “Now, look. I get that you don’t really respect me, but this has to stop. I need you to work with me. Do you really just want to laze around all day without getting stronger?”
‘The slacker cannot say such things,’ the tiger cub replied, peering up from under Ling Qi’s hand with disdain. ‘Where were those words when you wasted away your time under your Father and mine?’
Ling Qi felt uncomfortable as Han Jian’s expression contorted into a frown.
“...Yeah, I wasted some opportunities,” he replied evasively. Ling Qi didn’t miss the way he looked briefly at her. “But I told you I wanted to start making up for that, didn’t I? How am I supposed to catch up if you won’t even give me a chance to try? I’m responsible for the ones around me: Xiulan, Fang, Yu, and others too once I get back. I need your help with that.”
Ling Qi wasn’t entirely sure how she felt to be left out of that list so she concentrated on the soothing feeling of soft fur as she brushed her hand down the cub’s back.
Heijin did not reply immediately, nuzzling at her hand. ‘I suppose I have been bored. Very well. I will grace you with my presence,’ he answered imperiously. ‘Besides, it would not do to deny the others my magnificent presence.’
Han Jian rested his face in his palm briefly, giving the tiger cub another frustrated look, before looking back at Ling Qi. “Sorry you had to hear that, but thanks for getting him to hear me out.”
“It’s no problem,” Ling Qi replied awkwardly. “That said… do you think I could ask you for a favor?”
Han Jian nodded easily. “I suppose I owe you one. go ahead,” he replied, gesturing for her to continue even as Heijin butted his head against her hand to remind her to keep petting.
“I was hoping I could bring by Li Suyin and Su Ling, my other friends, to train here too sometimes. We could all use a little work on our fighting skills.” That was an understatement, particularly in Li Suyin’s case.
“Well, I don’t mind you using the field. But I assume you mean training with us.” Han Jian grimaced, scratching the back of his neck as he often did when thinking. “Let me talk to the others about it. Give me a day or two, alright?”
“Sure,” Ling Qi responded, scratching Heijin behind the ears one last time as she heard the sound of others entering through the barrier. It was time to get started on the actual training.
It was a little nerve-wracking to be at the center of attention. Facing them, Ling Qi could see Han Jian’s and Han Fang’s curiosity, Gu Xiulan’s calculated interest, and Fan Yu’s dour dislike.
“So, this first art is…” Ling Qi began nervously, letting her flute drop into her hand. “Area control, I guess? It makes me harder to hit and confuses people’s senses. I can include others in it, but it’s more tiring.”
Han Jian hummed thoughtfully, giving her flute a curious look. “Don’t tire yourself out. Fang, you want to try and tag her?”
The bald boy nodded amicably, stepping forward and adjusting the practice wraps across his knuckles. As the others retreated, he fell into a neutral stance, fists raised in guard.
Ling Qi studied him, Elder Zhou’s lessons allowing her to pick up the nuances of his starting stance. It leaned defensive, but he could snap into a more offensive mode quickly if he got the opportunity. Ling Qi held back a self-deprecating laugh as she raised her flute. It felt strange to know even that much.
Mist billowed from the gaps in her flute as the first melancholy note of the Forgotten Vale Melody rang out. In mere moments, the field around them grew as dark as an overcast spring morning, the light mist swirling outward to engulf them both. Han Fang’s expression grew tight with concentration as the mist rolled over him. Ling Qi began to circle him as she continued to play, and Han Fang’s narrowed gaze hesitated before flicking to follow her.
Cautiously, he advanced on Ling Qi, quickly eating up the short distance between them. The faint sound of thunder rumbled in her ears as a shimmering heat haze began to arise from his bare scalp, pushing away the cloying mist. When he seamlessly shifted to an offensive stance and lunged, she was ready.
Cool, dark qi flooded through the meridians in her legs, and the edges of her being grew fuzzy as she flowed around his opening strike and the one that followed it, gracefully dodging with barely a stutter in her song. As she leaned out of the way of his third punch, she dodged to the side, disengaging from melee range impossibly fast as her limbs blurred and wavering shadows trailed from the hems of her gown.
As Han Fang spun to face her new direction, already moving to close the distance she had made, she began the second technique of the Forgotten Vale Melody. The mist grew dark and thick. Han Fang jerked, glancing around in bewilderment as the shifting shapes in the mist drew his eye and allowed Ling Qi to slip away even further, fading into the misty shadows. Her song echoed, seemingly from everywhere now, and gave little indication of her position.
Still, she found herself at an impasse. Han Fang advanced cautiously through her mist, searching for her, but she had little in the way of offensive options if she wanted to attack while maintaining her mist. In a real fight, that would be a problem, but in a simple demonstration spar…
Her song cut off, and Han Fang immediately fell into a defensive crouch. It was not enough as a blunted training knife struck between his shoulder blades with a thump.
“That’s my hit,” Ling Qi said impishly as the mists began to dissolve under the light of day, revealing her position.
Han Fang gave her a chagrined grin as he bent down, picking up her knife. He gave her a friendly bow as she approached and took it back.
“Looks like we need to get you started on a perception art, Fang,” Han Jian’s voice rang out from outside the clearing mist. “That’s a good art,” he added, complimenting Ling Qi
Ling Qi smiled, warmth budding in her stomach. Fan Yu was still glowering at her, of course, but both Han Jian and Gu Xiulan looked mildly impressed.
“Shall I provide her with some power then?” Gu Xiulan asked lightly, glancing at Han Jian.
“If Ling Qi’s ready for a full match,” Han Jian agreed.
Ling Qi nodded decisively as Gu Xiulan sauntered over, a slightly cruel smile blooming on her lips.
She almost felt a little bad for the boys in the coming spar.