Ling Qi found that unlike her previous breakthrough to Yellow Soul, this one was an intensely material experience. There were no fuzzy dreams or vague thoughts, only an awareness of every inch of her own body. It had suffered much in her time in the streets, from poor nutrition to ill-healed wounds from old beatings. She could feel the effects of all these things as her qi circulated through her flesh and bones. Layer upon layer of qi, carefully soaked into her tissues through months of physical cultivation, pulsated in time with her heartbeat. The muscles were at the limit of what they could accept, mortal flesh unable to hold a single drop more of enhancing qi.
Ling Qi didn’t often think about it, but she knew that she was far beyond what she was three months ago. She could now dash as fast as a horse, lift her own weight or more with a single hand, and suffer blows that would crack stone and merely be wounded. She could, she thought, as she felt her awareness soaking into her every vein and tendon, probably shatter a grown man’s sternum with a simple palm strike.
And Ling Qi had just begun to walk her Path of Cultivation.
She could almost understand why cultivators looked down on mortals so for all their talk of protecting them. Mortals were so easily broken and withered so quickly. The spans of years Bai Meizhen had mentioned in her lessons came to her. It hadn’t sunk in properly until now, but she knew if she avoided a violent death, she would live more than a hundred years. That lifespan would only increase if she continued cultivating.
How old was Elder Su? Two hundred? Three? The woman had a matronly air, but she was still young and beautiful. All but her eyes and demeanor were largely untouched by time. What did it even mean to live for so long? Ling Qi could hardly even wrap her mind around the idea.
She felt something change within her. A poorly healed fracture in the bone of her upper arm shifted, sending a knife of pain through her body as it realigned, and the bone grew smooth and straight once more. Another needle of pain followed, then a thousand more, as the effects of years of malnutrition began to reverse. The qi in her body began to surge riotously, sending painful shudders through her frame.
Ling Qi almost screamed as the barrage of sensation crowded out all conscious thought. The qi she had built up was draining away precipitously, no longer simply layered within her bones and muscles, but instead fusing and becoming part of them, forcing out mortal impurities as it did. She felt like she was baking beneath a high summer sun, drowning in her own sweat.
When she came to herself, the first thing that struck her was the smell. It nearly made her gag; it reminded her of a middenheap in summer, and it was coming from her. She struggled to open her eyes, gummed as they were. When she managed to do so, she found herself covered from head to toe in something sticky and black like smelly tar. It was so much worse than her previous realm breakthrough.
Gu Xiulan had warned her of something like this, she remembered. She had even prepared washing water for it. That preparation seemed woefully inadequate now. Her eyes watering from the smell, Ling Qi hurried to clean herself as best she could.
Thankfully, the gunk covering her came away easily despite its stickiness. It was almost as if the stuff was repelled from her skin. As she cleaned herself up and the smell began to fade, she began to wonder at how light she felt and how easily she breathed, the absence of a thousand little aches and pains that had been with her so long that she didn’t even notice them save by their current absence.
Of course, she still found herself disappointed. Her skin was clear and smooth, but it was still dark. Her limbs were not slender and graceful as Gu Xiulan and Bai Meizhen’s were but instead showed well-defined and sleek muscle. Her ankles were still too thick, and her feet too large, and if anything, she was even taller now. She didn’t often think of her appearance but some part of her had hoped that she might at least become a little prettier like the immortal ladies in stories. The lack of anyone truly unattractive among her fellow disciples had buoyed that hope.
It wasn’t to be though. She was still the same plain and boyish girl she had been before her breakthrough. Ling Qi scowled at her reflection in the mirror as she brushed her fingers through her long hair. It had grown out greatly during her breakthrough, hanging almost to the middle of her back in a wavy, curly curtain. At least the breakthrough had finished the job Gu Xiulan’s efforts had started.
Her fingernails were a few centimeters long now too, and her toenails weren’t much better, which was more annoying. She would have to cut them along with her hair.
Ling Qi paused, looking into her own bright blue eyes in the mirror. Did she need to cut her hair? She had kept it short before out of practicality. She had no time on the streets to care for longer hair or put it up with pretty ribbons and ornaments like Mother had enjoyed doing to it. She idly fingered a few of the lengthened strands … Maybe she could do something with it. Arrange it in one of the ways Mother had shown her when she was young.
She turned away from the mirror. Something to consider later. She still had to dispose of the buckets of filthy water and at least trim her toenails so that she didn’t trip.
Ling Qi didn’t like the attention she drew when she finally went out to dispose of the buckets and her old clothes. She had been shut in for days again. The fighting had died down, but that just meant that there were more people in the streets. More girls whispering behind their hands as she passed, even if most of them lowered their eyes when she glared at them.
It was unsettling. She had grown used to spiteful looks and disdain. The lack of it made her nervous.
In the wake of her breakthrough came less exciting things. Organizing her time and resources came first. The storage ring she had acquired had swiftly grown full, carrying everything. She did not forget Elder Zhou’s words. She was progressing quickly, but she still had so much ground to make up. Going through her things brought Ling Qi a surprise however. While she was sifting through the jumbled contents of her storage ring and deciding which of her meager possessions she wanted to leave at their new home, she came across the tokens from Elder Zhou’s test.
She had forgotten about them, those three symbol inscribed discs. She found herself idly turning them over in her hands as she recalled the test.
The light caught on a scratch in the smooth metal of the sun token as she did, and she paused. That wasn’t a single scratch.
Squinting at it, she found that the token was covered in dozens of tiny characters, some of which she recognized from Elder Su’s lessons. Bemused, she recalled the only real practical part of formations the Elder had covered, that being the activation of dormant symbols. She fed a bit of qi into the token and watched as the character lit up faintly.
Nothing else happened though, and after a moment, the character faded. A second attempt showed that she could light up as many as five characters at a time to seemingly no effect. She spent a bit of time trying different combinations but eventually stopped. She only recognized perhaps half of the characters. This seemed like a good use for her archive pass, she supposed.
With that in mind, she left the residential area, shifting uncomfortably as she found people getting out of her way. It wasn’t like Bai Meizhen where the street ahead would clear entirely, but Ling Qi didn’t have to weave through the people in the streets as much. Many of her fellow disciples would simply take a step to the side or turn to give her more room.
It was weird.
Ling Qi pondered her different reception by her fellow disciples as she made the trip up the winding path that lead to the archive. It had to be her participation in that meeting. Nothing else really made sense. Remembering Gu Xiulan’s words, it could also be a result of her breakthrough. She supposed it would be difficult to miss her suddenly lengthened hair or even more unwieldy height.
Halfway up the path to the archives, she heard a massive crash and and a rumble as a plume of dust rose from the path ahead. Ling Qi stopped, craning her neck to see further up the switchback, but all she was able to catch sight of were several flashes of dark green light and a sudden burst of silver.
Was someone having a duel on the path to the archive? She had been desensitized to such things since the end of the truce, but the next rumble and the rain of stones and dirt falling from the higher path seemed a little more intense than the usual violence. Ling Qi mostly felt only curiosity as it was unlikely to have anything to do with her. She continued up the path at a slightly faster pace, hoping the duelists wouldn’t put the path out. Having to climb the cliffs to reach the archive would be annoying.
Ling Qi was almost blinded by the brightest flash yet as she reached the same level, and when her vision cleared, it was to a disquieting sight. In the middle of the now badly pockmarked path were two figures, both male. One, Ji Rong, stood frozen in absolute stillness, one foot off the ground and his fist extended for a punch. Burning stakes of viridian light seemed to puncture straight through his limbs and torso, but she saw no blood or wounds.
The other figure slowly straightening up was the Xuan boy she had first seen at Cai’s meeting. He was dressed much the same as then in a thick, dark green robe patterned with geometric shapes. His shell-patterned conical hat still concealed much of his face. He held a weapon now, a tall xizhang capped with a silver hoop cut in half by the continuation of the staff’s haft. A half dozen rings of varying metals jangled musically as Xuan removed the hoop from Ji Rong’s forehead.
Ling Qi eyed the scene cautiously as the odd boy turned to look at her in an unhurried way. She could tell that he was at least somewhat winded from the way his shoulders rose and fell. Meanwhile, Ji Rong was eerily still, the glow of the stakes thrust through him casting his frozen face in sickly relief.
“Sister Ling,” the Xuan boy greeted her. What little she could see of his expression was even as he nodded in her direction once before looking back to Ji Rong. Xuan reached into the collar of Ji Rong’s robe and plucked out what she recognized as the archive pass granted to Ji Rong.
Ling Qi eyed Xuan warily. At this distance, she was confident she could have her mist up before Xuan could reach her if it came down to a fight.
“Brother Xuan.” Ling Qi mirrored his polite greeting. Xuan’s choice of address was odd as few others used the formal terms. It also occurred to her how strange it was to be holding a normally pitched conversation with someone over thirty meters away. It was times like this that made her wonder at the enhancement of her senses.
“Might I ask what happened?” Ling Qi asked cautiously. She would like to know if the other boy was in Kang Zihao’s camp or if this was something unrelated. Ji Rong had been pretty antagonistic to both Kang Zihao and Huang Da after all.
The pass vanished from Xuan’s hand, presumably into a storage ring.
“The untamed wolf bites all hands, knowing no loyalty nor gratitude. The cur’s insult to Lady Cai could not be brooked.” Xuan replied, turning away from the frozen boy to begin walking toward Ling Qi at an unhurried pace. “A lesson was administered.”
Ling Qi stepped to the side of the path, ready to draw her flute or her knives at a moment’s notice. “How long is he going to be stuck like that?”
Xuan cocked his head to the side slightly, pausing in front of her.
“A season perhaps?” he answered, sending a chill down her spine at his casual coldness. His strange eyes flicked back in the frozen boy’s direction. “Nay. Without intervention, a full cycle of the moon more like. Does Sister Ling object?”
His way of speaking was a little grating. “Isn’t a month a bit much? He’s helpless like that, isn’t he?” Ling Qi hated to think what would happen to her if she were to be frozen in place for a month.
Xuan’s wide shoulders rose and fell in a dismissive shrug. “No touch can reach but mine. A lesson - not an execution.” Xuan resumed his walk, the top of the xizhang jangling as he moved past her. “Good fortune, Sister Ling. Convey my greeting to Sister Bai.”
Ling Qi watched his back as he walked away, perturbed by the encounter, before testing Xuan’s claim. Sure enough, when she cautiously poked at Ji Rong, her finger was stopped a half meter away. It felt as if she were prodding smooth stone rather than air. Ling Qi could see faint viridian characters glowing in the dirt in a circle around Ji Rong, and a single black character meaning punishment on the frozen boy’s forehead.
She grimaced and withdrew her hand. She supposed she would find out more at the next meeting... if there was one. There was little she could do either way. Casting one more cautious look around to search for any hidden characters on the ground, she hurried on to the archive.
Thus began her routine for the first part of the week. In the mornings, she would go to the archive, studying formations and attempting to decipher the symbols on the tokens. In the afternoons, she would head to the vent to cultivate and train with Li Suyin and Su Ling. They were both doing relatively well as far as she could tell although Su Ling was absent more and more often, citing a need to gather materials for some kind of arrangement she had with a crafting disciple.
Ling Qi’s training with Han Jian would then continue in the afternoons. The boy seemed to have shaken off his gloom, and he apologized for how short he had been with her the previous week. But… Ling Qi felt that he was still growing more distant to her. It wasn’t out of any malice, she thought, but he had an ever increasing focus on the others in his group. Han Jian spent more time drilling and encouraging Fan Yu than he had ever done before.
She caught Gu Xiulan giving Han Jian the occasional worried look, and the other girl’s interactions with her had become… awkward. When she had shown up at the first training session, Gu Xiulan’s expression had been greatly conflicted. Fan Yu avoided even looking at her.
It seemed that even her successes could have negatives.