The rest of the week passed in a blur of training and cultivation. Ling Qi’s meditations opened one channel after another, her surging qi burning new paths outward through her body. With the opening of the channel in her head, her eyes and ears burned with new sensation. Even the taste of food seemed to grow stronger, and her thoughts seemed clearer than ever.
The new meridians in her spine and heart also had noticeable impacts. Her body tingled every time qi flowed through the new channel in her spine, and the beat of her heart was ever stronger and steadier.
With Han Jian’s help, she mastered the second level of the Sable Crescent Step, learning the trick of activating its full power in an instant while channeling other techniques. This, in turn, helped her complete her mastery of Zephyr’s Breath, allowing her to reactively pulse her qi and kick up furious winds to push foes and missiles alike away.
All the while, she could feel the still lake of her qi growing deeper and wider, filling her body with more power even as the excess medicinal energy soaked into her flesh and bones, leaving her feeling strained and… full in a way she couldn’t quite explain. She had felt something similar when breaking through to the higher levels of gold, but now she felt a strain as if any more qi would cause her veins to burst apart and her bones to break.
Ling Qi felt awkward as she explained the feeling to Han Jian at the tail end of their training session. His expression was hard to read like he was carefully keeping his reaction in check.
“Have I run into a problem with my cultivation?” Ling Qi asked carefully. “I don’t want to hurt myself this close to the end of the truce.”
She shifted nervously as she noticed Fan Yu’s dark expression and the way he clenched his fists until the knuckles turned white. Han Fang gave her an encouraging smile from where he sat, pausing in polishing his warhammer. Han Jian smiled as well, but the smile was strained.
“No, it’s the opposite really,” Han JIan said jokingly. “You’ve reached the peak of this realm. You’re ready to work on advancing your physique to Silver.”
“Really?” Ling Qi asked in surprise. She hadn’t even really put much focus on cultivating her body outside of lessons. She had thought it would take much longer to reach the peak given how everyone else seemed to regard it. She knew many people had retreated from public this week to attempt breakthroughs to Yellow Soul or Silver Physique, but they had all been cultivating for years. She couldn’t help but smile.
“That’s great,” Ling Qi added, feeling a little giddy and no longer worried about the odd reactions of the others.
“It is,” Han Jian replied, his smile a touch more genuine as he chuckled, seemingly amused by her good humor. “Anyway, want to help me finish up advancing my Dust Devil technique? The wind resistance you can cause really helps. I’d like to have the next step mastered before I start my own breakthrough to Silver.”
Ling Qi nodded, shaking herself out of her thoughts. “Of course. Just give me a second to prepare.”
The final day of the truce came all too quickly. Ling Qi trained alone as Han Jian and Han Fang followed Gu Xiulan’s example and retreated for their breakthroughs, only emerging for Elder Zhou’s lessons.
On the last day of Elder lessons, Elder Zhou stood before the assembled class in his signature pose, straight-backed and with his arms clasped behind him. The difference between today and the first day Ling Qi had seen him was in his expression. That first day, he had been disdainful, giving them neither regard nor respect. Today, his face did not exactly show pride, but it did hold a certain satisfaction.
“Each of you who stands here today is one who has a chance to truly make something of yourselves in the Sect,” Elder Zhou began without preamble. “You have worked hard and diligently, keeping up even as I have pushed you to your limits day after day.”
Ling Qi straightened up, feeling pride from the instructor’s words. It had been hard; the long runs through the mountain paths, climbing sheer cliff faces weighted down by heavy packs, and numerous other difficult physical exercises flashed through her memory. The spars might have been the most memorable part of the training, but the rest was certainly just as grueling.
“Yet today is still the last I will see of many of you,” he continued on evenly. “I am not unaware of the internal workings of the Sect. Some of you will fall at each other’s hands. Some will give up, and still others will end their Path due to the numerous dangers one runs across while training.
“I have been away from the front for too long, and I no longer have the time to guide you. I remain confident that one day, I will see at least a few of you again. Perhaps, at that time,we may strike down barbarian scum together as the fist of the Empire.” Ling Qi liked to think his panning gaze had paused on her for a moment, but she knew well enough that it was simple wishful thinking.
“You are dismissed, disciples. Good luck to you.”
Ling Qi took a deep breath as the instructor turned away and vanished in a plume of kicked-up dirt.
She wouldn’t be one of the ones who fell.
She might not look forward to having to fight, but she thought it would be nice to meet the older man again as a grown woman and a cultivator worthy of his respect.
There was absolutely no need for Gu Xiulan to smirk at her like that. For all her good breeding and status, that girl’s mind was a gutter.
Only a few short hours later, she was seated in Elder Su’s class, awaiting the arrival of the second of her teachers for the final lesson. She felt more nervous here as today, she would find out if all of her hard work had been enough to satisfy Elder Su.
The archive pass represented a vast resource. For one such as her, who had nothing but what she could scrounge together and who often simply didn’t know things that her fellow disciples took for granted… She wanted it.
It wouldn’t be the end of the world if she failed to do so, but it would be a disappointment, particularly if that creepy ass Huang Da won and she didn’t. She would also be much more reliant on whatever she could “acquire” in the coming weeks.
“Good afternoon, my students,” Elder Su greeted them as she appeared in the lecturer’s pulpit. Her expression was somewhat wistful today. “I shall not tarry overmuch on introductions as I know what you are waiting for.
“First, I would like to state that each one of you who has managed to stay in this class is a diligent cultivator deserving of respect. However, the world is not fair. Whether it is talent, good fortune, or simply an unusual drive, some will always advance leaps and bounds above their peers. Today, I will be awarding those whose performance has impressed me most of all.”
Ling Qi held her breath, clutching her knees with her hands as Li Suyin beside her chewed on her lower lip. The whole room was silent as the gathered disciples waited on the Elder’s word.
“Ji Rong, your growth has been truly phenomenal. Reaching the peak of both Red and Gold from nothing within three months time, mastering three separate arts to their fullest extent, as well as your other accomplishments… You have earned a pass to the archives,” Elder Su announced. “I would suggest that you take some time to settle yourself. A prodigy who burns out does nobody any good, particularly themselves.”
The scarred boy’s lips twitched into a scowl, but he bowed his head from where he sat in the front row anyway.
“Thank you, Elder Su. I will heed your advice.” The formal words seemed awkward coming from Ji Rong’s lips. The older woman’s gaze flashed a trace of pity.
“The second pass belongs to one who has been just as inspiring in her growth, if a bit differently so. Ling Qi, you have earned your pass. Though you have not mastered as many arts as Ji Rong, you have grown the base of your qi more than any student I have seen in years while still rising nearly as quickly as Ji Rong in other areas.”
Ling Qi’s breath caught in her throat, and she had to fight down a silly grin as she bowed her head. “Thank you, Elder Su,” she quickly replied, wincing at the sound of her too loud voice.
“Of course, young lady,” Elder Su replied cordially.
“For the last pass, I found myself deliberating over the decision for quite some time. Many of you have done very well, but in the end…” Li Suyin was trembling beside her, her grip on the desk in front of her turning her hands white. “I believe Huang Da has earned it.”
Ling Qi’s stomach dropped as she saw the proud smirk light up the silver-haired boy’s face. Li Suyin slumped beside her with a pained expression.
“Through mastery of several difficult and esoteric arts, as well as reaching the Yellow Soul realm with such a solid foundation and fully mastering the Argent Soul, I have found you to be deserving of a pass.
“However, one’s attitude reflects on their cultivation.” Elder Su shot the boy a stern look. “It is important to learn to temper one’s pride as well.”
“Of course, Elder Su,” Huang Da replied smoothly, bowing his head. “Thank you very much for this opportunity.”
Ling Qi patted Li Suyin’s shoulder, scowling as Huang Da shot her a bright smile. Great. Now he would be even more insufferable.
“All three of you will receive one final Qi Foundation Pill,” Elder Su continued. “Li Suyin and Hong Lin have earned the remaining two pills.”
That announcement hardly seemed to comfort her friend. Her own happiness at winning was damped by Li Suyin’s failure and the looming knowledge that the truce would end the following morning.
Ling Qi was dreading the day and wondering just how she should handle the inevitable outbreak of violence. She did not want to stay around Li Suyin and Su Ling since she would only draw more ire on them. Similarly, she did not want to get in Bai Meizhen’s way if - or when - the most powerful disciples came calling to challenge her.
This left her with very few options.
So, when she was caught up in the wake of an exultant Gu Xiulan on her return to the residential district and dragged off to celebrate the proud girl’s breakthrough to the Yellow realm, Ling Qi was pleasantly surprised.
It seemed like her luck just might hold out - at least for awhile longer.