Ling Qi startled, nearly dropping the cup in her hand when the sound of a warhorn blared violently, rattling the window panes in Gu Xiulan’s home. The first rays of dawn were just beginning to shine through the panes.
Elder Jiao’s voice followed, magnified to an ear-splitting volume.
“GOOD MORNING, OUTER DISCIPLES OF THE ARGENT PEAK,” the man’s obnoxiously cheery voice announced, practically vibrating the air. “TODAY, I SHALL EXPLAIN THE CHANGES IN THE RULES FOR NEW DISCIPLES! DO PAY ATTENTION.
“FIRSTLY, NEW DISCIPLES ARE NOW ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE MOUNTAIN AND MAY GO AS FAR AS THE TOWN AT THE BASE AND THE SURROUNDING FOREST. GOING BEYOND SECT BOUNDARIES REMAINS PROHIBITED. YOU WILL KNOW THE BOUNDARIES WHEN YOU SEE THEM.” Ling Qi groaned as the voice pounded on her ears.
“IN A RELATED MATTER, NEW DISCIPLES... WHAT. Xin, stop that. Tch. Ruin my fun, will you.” The voice suddenly decreased in volume to a more normal one, taking on a petulant tone.
“Hmph. In any case, new disciples may now make use of the Request Board in the primary lecture hall. Simply take the request note from the board and bring it to the disciple in charge of the Payment Hall once the request maker has stamped it complete for you.”
The Elder’s voice took on a slyer tone as he continued, “But that is all rather minor, is it not? Allow me to explain the more important changes. While killing or maiming your fellow disciples remains prohibited, you are now allowed and even encouraged to challenge one another. The only exceptions as to where you may do so are inside the Sect buildings, such as the main hall, the archive, and the market. All violence remains against the rules in such areas.
“While a victor does deserve some spoils, it is highly frowned upon for violence or other untoward harm to be laid upon your fellow disciples after they have been defeated. We are not barbarians after all.” Elder Jiao’s voice was amused despite the dire subject matter. “Now, please report to the plaza to pick up your spirit stone allowance. As of today, stones will only be handed out from dawn until noon. Do not miss yours.”
Ling Qi grimaced as the Elder’s voice died down, staring into the cup in her hand. Gu Xiulan had acquired some kind of strange fruity wine from somewhere for her ‘celebration’ and cajoled Ling Qi into drinking it. Ling Qi didn’t care for the overly sweet drink much, and the announcement only made the aftertaste sour in her mouth.
“Why so glum?” Gu Xiulan asked brightly, swirling the liquid remaining in her own cup from across the polished table the two of them were seated at. Gu Xiulan occupied one of the larger homes, and as such, she had a separate dining room appointed with comfortable cushioned benches.
They had stayed up through the night chatting and eating sweets. Well, Gu Xiulan had done a lot of chatting. Ling Qi had just been doing her best not to think about the following morning and Li Suyin’s disappointment.
“We can finally stop restraining ourselves. Don’t tell me you don’t wish to have a few of those ruffians who have hassled you at your feet.”
Ling Qi gave Gu Xiulan a sour look, setting down her cup to instead pick up her mostly finished bowl of grass jelly.
“I wouldn’t mind a humbling a few of them, but I don’t care much for the idea of everyone being allowed to attack me,” Ling Qi said flatly, downing the last of her portion of the night’s sweets. The sticky, syrupy drink was more to her taste. It had gotten a little warm, but she still enjoyed the soothing flavor. She wondered if it would be rude to use her fingers to scrape up the last traces from the bottom of the bowl.
“You really do worry too much,” Gu Xiulan replied. “Once you have proven yourself strong, most of the yapping dogs will fall silent. It is the way of things. Now is the time to stand out and gain glory.” Gu Xiulan nibbled daintily on her last piece of crystal cake.
“I’d rather just stick to the shadows until the worst of it blows over,” Ling Qi said dryly. “I’ve never had much use for glory.”
After deliberating, she decided that being a little uncouth was fine. She scraped a finger along the bottom of the bowl and popped the resulting dollop of jelly into her mouth. Gu Xiulan gave her an amused but long suffering look as Ling Qi licked her finger clean.
“Well, that was when you were a mortal, wasn’t it?” Gu Xiulan responded chidingly. “Mortals have a use for obscurity, and I will not lie and say that there isn’t a time for your talents in that regard. One cannot expect to go everywhere in the world in obscurity though. You cannot mean to tell me that you wish to languish at the bottom forever. I refuse to believe that I have misjudged you so badly.”
Ling Qi glanced to the side, not quite meeting the other girl’s eyes. It was true that she had a temper, and these last few months had made her more prone to indulging it than her previous years. The other girl… wasn’t wrong. What was the point of gaining strength if you were just going to cringe away and let yourself be bullied anyway?
While she didn’t dare compare herself to the top disciples, why should she just allow people who weren’t any stronger than her to do as they liked to her? To talk about her like she was still just gutter trash?
Hadn’t she been in the Elders’ advanced classes? Hadn’t Elder Su acknowledged her specifically?
“There it is.” Gu Xiulan smiled savagely. “You like to play at being reserved, but there is a fire inside you.”
“I’m mostly worried about getting ganged up on,” Ling Qi admitted. “What’s to stop a dozen people from getting together and deciding to put me in my place?”
“I will do my part to help, of course,” the other girl preened. “I have reached the Yellow realm and have mastered the next technique of my family arts.”
“As you’ve said a few times already today,” Ling Qi replied dryly.
“Must you? Allow me my pride, you cruel girl.” Gu Xiulan pouted at her and huffed. “In truth, I doubt such a large group would form unless a stronger disciple instigated it. Who would get the spoils from such a thing? Who would get the glory? That is another reason you should stand out and accept challenges from your peers. It will deter such scavengers.”
Ling Qi sighed. It went against years of instinct, but Gu Xiulan knew more about cultivator culture than she did. It also helped that after weeks of being whispered about and snubbed, she dearly wanted to slap a few people around. She could use their spirit stones better than they could.
“Fine. So what do we do?”
“We walk down to the lecture hall with our heads held high,” Gu Xiulan said cheerfully as she stood up. “I doubt we will have to wait overlong for a challenge. But if their courage fails them, I’m sure I can arrange something.”
Ling Qi stood up herself, expression set in one of determination. She had to face a fight some time.
When the two of them left Gu Xiulan’s home and set out into the street, the other female disciples were already out in force, clustered in groups of three or four. Each group eyed each other warily. It was an ominous atmosphere, charged with tension and anticipation.
Then the earth rocked under their feet and a boiling hiss like a thousand teakettles screaming at once sounded from further out. Ling Qi startled as a wave of icy cold and familiar qi washed over her, and a bright red figure shot from the dust cloud now roiling over the rooftops.
Squinting, she could see that the figure was Sun Liling. Malevolent and spiked crimson armor was forming over her torso even as the red mist she emitted in sparring fights erupted and spiralled into her hands, forming a thorny, twisted black and red monstrosity of a spear. It was the first time she had seen the girl with a weapon.
“Someone is starting early,” Gu Xiulan mused beside her, squinting upward as the red-haired girl slammed back to earth with a thunderous crash and kicked up another plume of dust, passing back out of sight. “Did you want to go see?” she asked, eyeing Ling Qi.
They both knew who Sun Liling’s opponent was. Ling Qi swallowed and shook her head. A fight between Bai Meizhen and Sun Liling? She would just get in the way.
“No, Bai Meizhen can handle herself. I need to deal with my own problems first.” Even if Bai Meizhen was wounded in this fight with Sun Liling, she couldn’t see her housemate having any other challengers today. Bai Meizhen would be fine.
“Very well. Playing spectator has never been my preference,” Gu Xiulan replied with a shrug. “Shall we be off then?”
Ling Qi nodded as another icy cold breeze washed over them and the other nervously chattering disciples. The terrifying hissing sound erupted again.
The two of them set off down the path, leaving the battle in the distance. Ling Qi was glad that she kept all of her important things on her person. She wasn’t certain how intact her house was going to be by evening.
The plaza was much the same as the residential area save that the clumped groups were not exclusively female. A great number of disciples were streaming in and out of the lecture hall. Gu Xiulan and Ling Qi passed several other duels in progress, none as flashy as the fight that had broken out between the two top ranked girls. They were able to reach the lecture hall and collect their spirit stones with little trouble.
Ling Qi had her suspicions about that, and they were born out when they left the hall.
“Ling Qi and Gu Xiulan. A beggar and a desert rat. I suppose I should not be surprised to find the ‘nobility’ of the east keeping such poor company.”
The two of them were halted by a loud voice cutting over the chatter of the surrounding crowd. The speaker was Hong Lin, the girl with the pink-streaked hair who had crushed Ling Qi in her first sparring match. Hong Lin stepped out of the crowd, her arms crossed under her modest chest. Stepping out behind her were two faces Ling Qi vaguely recalled. The staff in the hands of the scowling girl was rather more familiar.
“I wouldn’t expect scum to keep good company, no,” the boy said tightly, his twinned swords already in hands and a scowl on his handsome face.
“You will both pay for humiliating us and blinding Lei Qing,” the girl with the staff added quietly, determination on her face.
“I’m sorry. Who are all of you?” Gu Xiulan asked blithely, making the two bristle and Ling Qi shuffle nervously. This scene screamed of being staged to Ling Qi. In the open plaza, the two of them were surrounded by enough watchers to make retreating difficult.
“No, my apologies. I believe I have seen you in Instructor Zhou’s training. Fong, was it?” Gu Xiulan added in a sweet and entirely insincere voice.
The pink-haired girl scowled at them. “I see poor memory is among your flaws,” Hong Lin replied tartly.
“Trash like her never should have wasted the Instructor’s time merely due to a little good luck,” Hong Lin added, glowering at Ling Qi. “Nor should she even be in the Sect making pretensions at things she does not deserve. Now that the truce has ended, I no longer need tolerate it.”
Hong Lin seemed to have a personal grudge with Ling Qi. This was strange given that Ling Qi had hardly given the girl a thought outside of sparring.
“And you picked up a couple of failures with a grudge to distract me while you fight my friend, Ling Qi? I suppose that is what I would expect of a girl from the core provinces. Your kind have never been much good at fighting your own battles,” Gu Xiulan sniffed.
This was what Ling Qi had been afraid of. She couldn’t run without leaving Gu Xiulan behind, and she couldn’t be certain that some members of their audience wouldn’t jump in given the chance.
Still… this was an opportunity too, wasn’t it? If she fought off another member of Elder Zhou’s class in public, that would warn off weaker disciples.
The other two… She had put them out of her mind after her initial check-up on their status post-Elder Zhou’s test. While the girl’s speech had relieved her assuming ‘Lei Qing’ was the girl she thought Gu Xiulan had killed, she couldn’t really afford sentiment here.
“I don’t know what has you so angry, but I’ve beaten you before in training,” Ling Qi stated flatly, doing her best to sound confident. “I don’t have any quarrel with you, but I won’t hold back if you start this.” That sounded suitably threatening, didn’t it?
The twins were too busy glaring at Gu Xiulan to look her way, but Hong Lin bristled.
“You… You wretched little gutter rat. Do not pretend that we have no quarrel even ignoring that you have no place here,” Hong Lin snapped.
“I genuinely have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ling Qi snapped back. “What - are you that angry that Gan Guangli put you in a crater last week?”
“No,” Hong Lin said coldly. “I am furious that an ungrateful little harlot of a commoner has been leading my fiancé along.”
Ling Qi blinked. She blinked again as the other girl’s guai appeared in her hands.
Hong Lin couldn’t mean… No...
Dammit, Huang Da.