Ling Qi forged on, determined to keep improving as the days passed. Soon enough, her efforts began to bear fruit. Her study in the archive had allowed her to recognize more of the symbols and allowed her to puzzle out the combination for the star token. The token itself had pulsed with soft light and then disintegrated, leaving behind three wax stoppered bottles. A hurried check of the bottles’ properties revealed the liquid inside to be a potent elixir for the enhancement of physical cultivation.
So too did her training advance in other areas. Ling Qi was growing closer to a complete Argent Foundation, and every day, the air she breathed and the qi she circulated seemed to become a little clearer and a little fresher. Another week, or perhaps two, of effort and she would have it.
Her skill with the mystical melody of her arts grew as well. The mist spread further and lasted longer, the weave of qi holding it together growing more potent. She had also found the trick to weaving the the first two melodies together in order to activate both techniques at once. As her understanding grew, a new tune was revealed to her. Starlight Elegy was a slow, sad piece of music that left those lost in the mist exhausted and lethargic, sapping their vitality and qi.
All her training and study could not keep her mind off the past though. Ever since the issue had been shoved in her face during Elder Zhou’s test, she found her thoughts occasionally turning back to her mother. Ling Qi’s feelings toward the woman were mixed. Mother had been strict and often highly critical, only rarely having a word of praise. Yet despite her profession, Mother had done everything she could for Ling Qi. In hindsight, it was easy to see that her mother had obviously spent most of what she had on Ling Qi’s education, such as it was, despite Ling Qi’s failure to absorb most of it.
Ling Qi had had good reasons for staying on the mountain these past few weeks. Her breakthroughs were critical to her continued safety, and there was just so much to do… but could she honestly say that her mother didn’t at least deserve to know that her daughter was alive? Perhaps it was insight granted by long hours of cultivation, but her past assumption that her mother’s continued fretting over Ling Qi’s manners and appearance were due to wanting Ling Qi to follow in her footsteps seemed foolish.
After all, an escort didn’t have much use for literacy. It made her wonder where Mother herself had learned.
That night, she resolved to write a letter and go into town the next day. It was no easy thing to complete. What did one say to a family member that she had abandoned years ago? The candle she was using for light burned down twice as she wrote a few lines only to hastily scribble them out again and again. Finally, she was able to compose something passable.
I hope you are still well.
This is from Ling Qi, your daughter. It seems a little silly to write that, but I would not blame you for forgetting me. You will be surprised to see this letter, I am sure.
I am sorry. You did not deserve to be left alone without a word. I know it cannot make up for leaving you to believe me dead for years on end, but I hope you can accept this small gift as an apology.
That seems rude. It likely isn’t a small gift to you, but I might already be forgetting the worth of silver. I’ve joined the Argent Peak Sect. I have become a cultivator.
I will not ask that you write me back. I do not deserve that, but know that I will continue sending similar gifts when I can.
Thank you for taking care of me.
It seemed stiff and formal to her, but Ling Qi didn’t know what else to write. What could she do but apologize? Ling Qi stared at the letter for a long time before she finally went to sleep. She just hoped it was possible to send it; she would feel awfully stupid if she couldn’t have it delivered after spending so much time on it.
The next day, she left bright and early, departing through the front entrance of the sect. Ling Qi chose to head down the path at a jog, her command of the air currents keeping her gown from flapping unnecessarily. It was a good, light workout.
Just another strange thing since becoming a cultivator. A jog of several kilometers on a steep path barely left her breathing hard. There were a handful of other disciples going back and forth, but none paid her much mind. The town at the base of the mountain soon came into sight, an island of stone and cleared land in the midst of a sea of trees. The air was cool and crisp from the early spring, and a light mist hung over the sprawling farmland that surrounded the shining stone walls that encircled the hub of the town. The walls bristled with towers and their accompanying war machines, net casters and other more deadly things for fending off barbarian and beast incursions, and the sun gleamed off the helms of the guardsmen atop them.
Ling Qi slowed down to an energetic walk as she approached and passed the gate without issue, her head held high. It was a lesson from her old life that still held true. The appearance of confidence and self-assurance quelled many suspicions. She had to pause to give her name at the gate and get directions to the local Ministry of Communications building, but there was no further hold up.
Her walk through the tidy streets was enlightening. It was strange to walk among mortals again. The projections in the test had not been real people, and besides, she had barely begun to cultivate at that point. Had… everyone she knew really been so slow and graceless? It wasn’t as if the mortals were moving in slow motion precisely, but to her perception, their every motion was obvious and telegraphed. That man would stumble on his way through the door. That woman would shift the basket in her hands to adjust for the weight in three more steps.
The obvious respect in the eyes of the townsfolk as they parted to make way for her was unsettling. She hid her unease and soon made it to the office of the Ministry of Communications. The easy part was changing a spirit stone for silver, ninety five coins for a single stone with the remaining five being the office’s fee.
It had taken longer to set up the delivery because even though she only had to wait in line behind other cultivators, the Ministry was busy. It had been awkward to explain to the Ministry worker that she needed her letter and package delivered to a Ling Qingge in Tonghou city and that no, she didn’t have an address.
Somewhat alarmingly, once she made it clear the recipient was her mother, the whole process was smoothed over. Apparently, the Sect had records on such things. Ling Qi wasn’t sure how she felt about that. In the end, she sent the letter and a pouch of thirty silver off. Now that she knew what to do, it wouldn’t take nearly as long to accomplish in the future.
Ling Qi wasn’t sure whether she wanted her mother to respond to her letter or not.
With the lingering weight of worry over her mother’s condition lifted for the moment, Ling Qi recalled the other obligation still waiting for her to fulfill, namely, her promise to Bai Meizhen. The taciturn girl had helped her a lot since she had begun here, and now, she should be strong enough to actually help Bai Meizhen in return.
Ling Qi didn’t get a chance to speak with Bai Meizhen until later in the week though as her housemate had secluded herself to cultivate. When Bai Meizhen finally emerged from the house’s meditation room, it was late at night on the fifth day. Ling Qi had fixed herself a small dinner of rice and fish and had been eating in the dining room when Bai Meizhen entered, swaying tiredly on her feet. She looked wearier than Ling Qi had ever seen her before.
“Welcome back to the world of the living,” Ling Qi greeted the other girl wryly as she paused in eating her meal. “How did your cultivation go?” She knew the proud girl wouldn’t appreciate an offer of help when Bai Meizhen was merely tired.
“Well enough. I will be ready to begin the breakthrough to the Green Soul Realm within the month,” Bai Meizhen replied as she sat down at the table across from Ling Qi, expression drawn and tired. “Has anything of interest occurred while I was secluded?”
Ling Qi considered the last few days, thoughtfully chewing on a bite of well-roasted fish.
“Well… Ji Rong apparently got in a fight with that Xuan guy. He ended up frozen in place up by the archives. He’s still up there.” Ling Qi actually felt a little bad passing him every day. Was he aware when he was like that? “Xuan asked me to say hello actually,” she added. That request was kind of strange in hindsight.
Bai Meizhen’s expression grew puzzled. “Odd. Xuan Shi has never been particularly aggressive.”
“Do you know him?” Ling Qi asked curiously.
Bai Meizhen made a dismissive gesture. “Not as such. I met him a few times as a child. There were some talks of a betrothal, but it never bore fruit. Neither the Bai nor the Xuan could agree on the details,” she explained matter-of-factly.
Ling Qi’s eye twitched, and her threat estimation of Xuan Shi rose a notch given that the Xuan family could apparently bargain at least somewhat equally with her housemate’s family. Sometimes, she wished she had better knowledge of her peers, but she didn’t have time for that sort of comprehensive education right now.
“Right. Why don’t I get you some tea? You look like you need it.” Bai Meizhen’s eyelids were drooping, but Ling Qi still wanted to talk to her.
Bai Meizhen blinked in surprise. “Would you? That would be most appreciated.” Her cool voice was touched with gratitude. “Thank you, Ling Qi.”
Ling Qi nodded, pushing the scraps of her meal aside to head to the kitchen. She would make enough for both of them. Even if the tea didn’t benefit her anymore, she had come to enjoy the taste of it. It had a certain spice that just perked her right back up even when she was tired. Several minutes later, she returned with a pair of steaming cups in hand and set one in front of Bai Meizhen, who offered her a tiny smile before taking a sip.
Bai Meizhen didn’t quite sigh in relief, but Ling Qi nonetheless saw the way her stiff, tired posture eased slightly. Ling Qi took a tiny sip herself, enjoying the warmth of the tea.
“Do you think I’m strong enough to help you yet?” Ling Qi asked. “I’d like to think that I kept my promise on not taking too long,” Ling Qi added with her best try at a teasing smile. It probably wasn’t very good; she wasn’t Gu Xiulan after all.
Bai Meizhen looked up from her cup as Cui peeked out of the collar of her gown to steal a sip of her tea. The pale girl shot her cousin a reproving look and shifted the cup out of reach in response.
“I think so, yes,” Bai Meizhen responded slowly, the fatigue she had shown fading. “You held up well enough against those ruffians, and that was before your breakthroughs. You have become quite strong.”
Ling Qi looked away, feeling awkward at the praise, and fidgeted with a strand of her lengthened hair. “I still have a long way to go.”
“As we all do,” Bai Meizhen said with a hint of amusement. “Very well. In my initial survey of the mountain, I discovered a curious chamber deep in a hidden cavern. It was sealed by a pair of bronze doors engraved with fortifying formations. Sadly, even the surrounding walls proved to be fortified as well.”
‘Rocks should not resist my venom,’ Cui interjected sulkily while staring at Bai Meizhen’s cup.
“So it’s probably another thing like the vent. A miniature test set up by the Elders?” Ling Qi asked thoughtfully. “What do you need my help with then?”
“The formations upon the door require the cooperation of two second realm cultivators to open,” Bai Meizhen explained. She met Cui’s longing gaze with her own and lowered the cup with a soft sigh, letting the tiny snake drink. “I expect whatever trials beyond the door to reflect that.”
Ling Qi nodded in agreement. She had been curious what Bai Meizhen had wanted her help with. She was glad it wasn’t something more violent. “When do you want to go then?”
Bai Meizhen pursed her lips. “Nearer to dawn, I think, to preserve secrecy and give me some time to rest.”
“Oh, I had meant…” Ling Qi floundered. “You wanted to do it tonight?”
“Yes, if you are ready.” Bai Meizhen peered at her with slight curiosity. “Do you already have plans for the evening?”
“No, I was just surprised,” Ling Qi replied quickly. She had made the offer. She wasn’t going to back down now.