Between Elder Zhou’s lesson, continuing to cultivate her physique at the vent, and practicing with Han Jian and the others, Ling Qi was feeling quite bedraggled by the time she slumped into Elder Su’s lecture hall. She suspected she looked it too given the sweat-darkened spots on her gown and the scuffs, dirt, and other marks of heavy exercise she had picked up. Ling Qi was thankful that the rose scent that Gu Xiulan had bought her was strong enough that she didn’t smell completely terrible on top of that.
Ling Qi was relieved to be called down at the start of class despite the disdainful looks she received from the other disciples. They could look down on her all they wanted; she was the one getting the prize. Both she and Li Suyin had made the cut again, along with the seemingly undefeatable Ji Rong, who shot her a pitying look as she moved down to stand beside him.
Ji Rong’s reason became clear when Huang Da joined them at the bottom of the hall and shouldered his way between her and Li Suyin. She scowled at him, but he just smiled back and brushed his hand against hers. She snatched it away before he could do anything more. The last of their number was Gan Guangli, who was apparently working hard in these final weeks.
Once the actual lesson had started, Ling Qi was able to relax and actually focus. They were finishing the formation characters today and moving on to the meanings of basic character chains and combinations. Ling Qi was glad Elder Su had decided to teach this. Now that she had some basic understanding of formations, she wouldn’t have to rely on Bai Meizhen to identify any talismans she found.
Perhaps if she got the archive pass reward, Ling Qi would consider looking into the art more. At the very least, being able to set up alarms around her home seemed like a good idea… and she might need to know how to disable such things if her half-formed plans for revenge on her detractors were to bear fruit.
The next few days passed in much the same manner, a constant blur of cultivation, training, and practice. She could feel her body continuing to grow stronger, absorbing the qi she dispersed into her skin and muscles. She was growing closer to some sort of limit, qi starting to press against the outer bounds of her body.
When she was too tired to practice any further, usually well after nightfall, she would sit and practice with her flute, slowly mastering the next measure of her Melody. It was hard, but she felt she was progressing quickly. She could see and feel it in her mind’s eye, the trials and travails of a new traveler, lost in the dark, surrounded by hungry eyes. It seemed the second measure was meant to show that anxiety and fear and bring it into the world within her mist.
Ling Qi decided then that she would begin using Forgotten Vale Melody in Elder Zhou’s class when she fully mastered this new verse of the song. Until then though, she had other concerns.
Han Jian had said that it would be alright to bring her friends along to training today. She really hoped things went well, but it was starting to look unlikely given the increasing reluctance and tension Su Ling was showing as they approached the field.
“Will you just relax already,” Ling Qi said irritably, glancing at the girl on her right. Su Ling’s ears twitched violently at the sound, and the fluffy tail waving agitatedly behind her stiffened. “Even if this doesn’t work out, no one is going to hurt either of you. Han Jian wouldn’t do that.”
“Says you,” Su Ling snorted. “You think you’re the first girl to believe a pretty noble was a nice guy? The only reason I’m here is because you two kept badgering me about it.”
Li Suyin also looked nervous, wringing her hands as she peered at the formations on the gate. “If Ling Qi says it’s fine, I’m willing to trust her, and we really do need some more practice with … this kind of thing.”
Ling Qi was glad she had talked to Li Suyin last week. The other girl still didn’t want to hurt anyone, but Li Suyin was at least willing to learn to better defend herself.
“Like I keep saying, it will be fine. This is just training, and the field doesn’t lock or anything. You can leave whenever you want.”
Su Ling still looked reluctant, her ears falling flat against her head as she glared at the gate, but she didn’t continue to object as Ling Qi lead them onto the field. This time, everyone was already present and waiting. Han Jian and the other boys were in the midst of chatting about something, and Gu Xiulan was seated on a wide stone, meditating. They all looked up when she and her friends entered.
It took all of her willpower not to hunch her shoulders defensively, but she managed it. The reactions were largely what she expected: a scowl of dislike from Fan Yu with a healthy helping of disdain; neutral friendliness from Han Jian and Han Fang with a hint of wariness in the mute boy’s narrowed eyes as he regarded Su Ling; and Gu Xiulan studied both of the new girls with sharp eyes, her painted lips set in a thin line. Ling Qi held in a sigh as she heard the low growl coming from Su Ling’s throat behind her.
“Good afternoon, Ling Qi.” Han Jian was the first one to break the silence, his tone upbeat. “Same to you… Su Ling and Li Suyin, was it?”
“U-um, thank you very much for your invitation,” Li Suyin responded, dipping into a hasty and somewhat clumsy bow.
“What she said, I guess,” Su Ling grunted, crossing her arms and looking anything but grateful.
“Tch. Well, at least one of them is polite,” Fan Yu snorted as he glared at Su Ling. “Expecting more from a beast was probably futile.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Su Ling snapped. “I’m no more a beast than you are.”
As Fan Yu puffed up furiously, Gu Xiulan spoke up. “As vulgar and unnecessary as her words were, there was no need to get worked up over it, Yu dear.” Gu Xiulan stood up, brushing off her gown.
“Right. No need for things to get heated,” Han Jian replied, his tone slightly strained. “Why don’t you two tell us what you do? We can figure out how to work you into our exercises.”
Ling Qi’s friends were both silent until she looked back at them with a pleading expression. “Guys, please. We aren’t going to get anywhere if they don’t even know what you want to work on.”
“I intend to focus on healing arts,” Li Suyin replied in a small voice. “I haven’t quite mastered it well enough to fix anything more than minor scrapes yet. I have been practicing a water-based movement technique as well. It, um, is rather simplistic though.”
Han Fang looked interested and even Fan Yu nodded in her direction, although he continued scowling at Su Ling. Gu Xiulan simply smiled enigmatically.
“Illusions and foxfire,” Su Ling said shortly. “The fire’s stronger if I have the target under my illusion.”
“As expected of a fox,” Fan Yu sneered. “Little use except for leading men astray and playing trickster.”
“You wanna try it, fatty?” Su Ling replied darkly. “I’m sure you’d make a good meal.”
“As if I would even be tempted,” he scoffed, turning to Han Jian. “Must we waste our time with this? The other girl I can understand - healers are useful and require much talent - but is this rude creature to join us?”
“S-she’s my friend. Please don’t speak of her like that,” Li Suyin said with only a bit of a tremor.
“I can see Yu’s point. Between Ling Qi and I, she has little to offer that we do not do better,” Gu Xiulan said clinically. “I’m not certain about the other either.
“Are you certain you even have the nerve to stand on a battlefield?” Gu Xiulan asked, turning to Li Suyin. “I understand you have been leaning on Ling Qi to advance as far as you have and wish to remain with her, but perhaps you would be better suited to a role in the background.”
Li Suyin’s shoulders slumped, but before she could reply, Ling Qi cut in.
“Gu Xiulan, please don’t be rude to my friends,” she said flatly. “Li Suyin stood with me when we fought Huang Da. She’ll do just fine with some practice. Su Ling too.
“I’m not asking you guys to let them join your group permanently. I’m not even asking you to be friends with them. I just want to help them practice and polish their skills.”
Gu Xiulan’s sharp gaze met hers, but Ling Qi didn’t waver, staring straight back at the other girl.
“I suppose I can trust your judgement on this,” Gu Xiulan replied slowly. “Really though. The girl is shaking like a leaf. You will have to let her stand on her own at some point.”
Ling Qi nodded once, getting the picture. She was going to have to talk to Gu Xiulan later. She had expected the other girl to not like her other friends, but there might be something more to her dislike.
“Fan Yu, I understand your objections, but I ask you to trust my judgement in this. As Ling Qi said, they are only temporary sparring partners. There is no need to get so worked up about this,” Han Jian said soothingly to the other boy. “The more opponents we practice against, the stronger we’ll be, right?”
“Fine,” Fan Yu ground out in defeat. “As you say, Han Jian. It is not as if I have any right to contradict you,” The boys shoulders slumped, but his blustery scowl was back a moment later.
“Thank you,” Han Jian said, seeming relieved. “Anyway, for the first round, let’s split up like this…”
The following training session was awkward and difficult, but she felt like Li Suyin and Su Ling at least got something from it. Between her and Gu Xiulan’s coaching as well as some advice from Han Jian, Li Suyin began to incrementally improve at avoiding attacks, and Su Ling seemed interested in the way Han Jian wielded his sword. By the time she left, Su Ling was glancing down at her sheathed knives thoughtfully.
When they showed up to train the next day, Su Ling had acquired a sword and set to practicing with it, studiously ignoring Fan Yu and the others in favor of prodding Han Jian for advice. The fox girl’s close attention to Han Jian put Gu Xiulan in a poor mood, and when the two were on opposite sides of a spar, things got heated rather quickly. Su Ling’s tail ended up on fire that day, and Gu Xiulan lost one of her sleeves to the other girl’s embers.
Li Suyin suffered from more than one waspish comment about her lack of confidence and physical fitness. Although she improved, Ling Qi noticed her becoming more withdrawn as the week went on.
The results were mixed at best, but Ling Qi believed the joint training sessions to have been worthwhile. However, she couldn’t in good conscience try to set up another session
With how much training and cultivating Ling Qi was doing, it was late in the week by the time she got around to the final thing on her to-do list for the week, namely, heading down to the market to take a longer look around and finally offload the staff. Her time was cut down even more when she decided to try and find out the status of the original owner. She had no doubt that the girl was going to want the thing back, but she had had so many other things to worry about that investigating the matter had slipped her mind until now.
It took some poking around but eventually she learned a few things. The girl who was the owner of the staff had survived their encounter and was named Zhu Mei, and the boy who had been with her down there was Zhu Fong, her twin brother. The both of them had disappeared into near isolation in the wake of the test, which was why she had not seen either of them out and about.
The new information didn’t change her calculation so she simply brought the staff to market to sell. Ling Qi had spent the entire afternoon dithering back and forth on the possibility of trading the staff in for a single expensive talisman or as collateral for a custom item, but in the end, she chose to simply shore up her immediate weaknesses with the proceeds from the sale of the staff: a set of fine steel knives inscribed with formations for sharpness and durability; a protective vest similar to what Su Ling had worn under her gown; and a defensive talisman. Ling Qi spent the rest of that afternoon trading for various pills to help her with her planned training in the coming week.
Finally, as the week was coming to a close, Ling Qi mastered the second measure of the Forgotten Vale Melody, which enabled her to use two new techniques, Diapason of the Lost Traveler and Dissonance in the Night. Her first match the day afterward found her in familiar company. She and Gu Xiulan were paired as the support and range for Gan Guangli. They were facing Lu Feng, Hong Lin, and a third boy whose name she didn’t know. The unknown boy was armed with a bow and hung behind the other two.
“Did you really have to pick up such a plain piece of equipment?” Ling Qi sighed as Gu Xiulan spoke, looking her over with frustration. “I understand that you think they are useful, but plain brown leather? And the feather patterns are so uneven - clearly amateur work - not mention how thick they make your wrists look...”
“I told you they’re just temporary until I can afford better stuff,” Ling Qi replied, fingering the flute in her hand as she eyed their enemies across the field. “Besides, you wear a glove too.”
Gu Xiulan sniffed haughtily. “My glove is the finest of Ashwinder skin, cut to be perfectly form-fitting and not impede my range of motion in any way. It does not compare at all,” she replied, sounding affronted.
“Miss Ling, Miss Gu,” the tall blond boy standing in front of them rumbled. “This is not the time to converse about such things. While it is true that the importance of good accessorization and coordination of equipment cannot be understated, now is the time to focus. I will require your full attention to watch my back while we battle that devious western devil and his vicious compatriots.”
Gan Guangli’s stern and serious expression were the same as ever. He was actually serious.
“Oh, I am certain that Ling Qi will be keeping a very close eye on your back,” Gu Xiulan replied brightly, shooting Ling Qi an amused look.
Ling Qi flushed, glaring at the other girl. Gu Xiulan just would not drop that idea.
“We won’t lose today,” Ling Qi confirmed, pointedly turning away from the other girl. “I have some new techniques to try. They won’t know what hit them.”
Gan Guangli eyed her curiously but nodded as he turned back to face the other team. “As you say, Miss Ling, Miss Gu. I shall entrust the rear of the field to you! None shall pass nor touch a hair upon your heads while I yet stand today!”
Ling Qi winced. There he went getting loud again.
The match started soon after, and Ling Qi began to play. An arrow was sidestepped, pushed aside by her refined control of the currents of air around her, and her music rose in volume, carried on that same wind to overcome even Gan Guangli’s battle cry. The mist rolled forth, and she grimaced as she felt the qi drain from excluding both Gu Xiulan and Gan Guangli from her mist’s effect.
She heard the rumbling crack of Gan Guangli’s oversized fist cratering the ground, and the the metallic clangs as Hong Lin struck him a half dozen times in turn. Gu Xiulan’s lances of flame cut burning lines through the mist as Ling Qi moved for a better vantage to control Lu Feng’s movements.
Steadily circling away from her starting position, Ling Qi shifted into the next verse and let herself flow with the mist. This time she wouldn’t be taken out so easily. Completing the second technique, Diapason, and darkening the mist, she felt a jolt of satisfaction as she saw the archer boy try to retreat from the mist only to find himself running in circles.
Then, for the first time in true battle, she began the third technique of the Forgotten Vale Melody, Dissonance in the Night. A high, sharp note heralded its beginning, and the mist came alive. Clumps of roiling fog darkened, forming frightening beastly visages and tearing claws. The shadowy phantoms swarmed her enemies, eyes aglow with a dull red light.
Their immaterial claws and fangs were weak yet, barely doing more than tearing cloth and scratching skin, but the distraction of being mobbed by shadowy foes was more than enough to give her team the advantage.
Hong Lin fell first, grabbed bodily in a gigantic hand and spiked into the ground like a child’s ball. Lu Feng and the other boy fell thereafter, weathering withering bolts and bursts of flame from the laughing Gu Xiulan, and unable to do more than annoy the juggernaut that Gan Guangli had become by the end of the fight.
Ling Qi hadn’t noticed before, but it seemed that his art grew stronger the longer the battle went on with corresponding effect on his height and mass. Gan Guangli had been nearly four meters tall by the end of things.
It was one of her new knives though that had ended the battle. She sent Lu Feng spinning to the ground with a blade buried in his shoulder.
Ling Qi felt exhilarated with the victory. She could do this. She might not be the strongest… but she wasn’t weak anymore either.