A little more preparation for the potential trial might not go awry however.
Once Ling Qi finished her meal and her tea, she slipped out to pick up an extra dosage of healing salve and stored it away in her ring. The spatial ring remained her favorite talisman. The ability to simply store things away without care was incredibly useful.
Ling Qi was careful to keep from the main roads and to keep an eye out for any potential watchers. She didn’t much care for the idea of being followed by Huang Da again. She didn’t see so much as a hair of him though. Eventually, she snuck off the beaten path, cutting through the scrubby woods on the lower mountain slope to reach the crossroads Bai Meizhen had asked her to meet at.
“Did anyone follow you?” Ling Qi asked as she stepped out from beneath the darkened eaves of the trees on the right side of the path. Bai Meizhen stood near the lone marker placed at the path’s splitting point, her arms folded over her chest.
“Not that I am aware of.” Bai Meizhen seemed to have no more trouble seeing in the dark than Ling Qi did going by the way her golden eyes tracked Ling Qi’s movement. “There are few who would dare, and of those, fewer still who would opt for such tactics.”
Ling Qi cast a wary gaze around. “Where are we going then?”
“The chamber lies near the base on the south side of the mountain,” Bai Meizhen answered, turning to set off on the path leading in that direction.
“Opposite the entrance, huh,” Ling Qi mused. She hadn’t had any reason to look at that part of the mountain before. All the facilities were higher up; even the vent was closer to the peak. She followed Meizhen in companionable silence. She thought they made a visually interesting pair. Bai Meizhen’s snowy white hair and skin along with her bone-colored robes made her stand out in the dark whereas Ling Qi was very much the opposite, a dark figure blending into the night’s shadow.
Given that they were still on the path, it seemed like Bai Meizhen had no intention of actively sneaking anywhere. “Bai Meizhen, do you mind giving me some advice?”
Her friend glanced over at her without slowing her pace. “I suppose not. What troubles you?”
“It’s just… Now that I’ve broken through to the second realm, I’m unsure as to how I should proceed with my cultivation going into the third,” Ling Qi admitted. “Do you have any tips? Anything in particular I should do?”
Bai Meizhen hummed thoughtfully, hands clasped loosely behind her back as they began to descend the increasingly steep and rough path. “Each person’s Path is different, of course, but I suppose there are a handful of commonalities. Your qi pool is impressive given your current level, but I would suggest expanding it significantly before entering the third. Half again as large as what you have now - at the very least.”
“How do you know how much qi I have?” Ling Qi asked, filing away the information. “Is it something to do with how Cai Renxiang could tell I had broken through?”
Bai Meizhen gave her an unhappy look, and Ling Qi abruptly realized that she had interrupted the other girl. She still felt a thread of fear at the powerful girl’s disapproval, but it didn’t reach her face. She dipped her head in apology.
“My perception art grants me such sight. You have seven meridians in use, two of which are devoted to wind, one to water, and the rest to darkness. You should be careful not to unbalance yourself toward a single element so much,” Bai Meizhen answered Ling Qi’s query. “I assume Cai Renxiang has a similar art. Such things are hardly unknown.”
“Guess I won’t be able to do the same then,” Ling Qi responded, feeling put out. She would have liked to be able to get such detail about her enemies.
“Returning to the original query,” Bai Meizhen continued with a disapproving huff. “I can only suggest that you diversify your arts further. I have mastered four arts to the limit of my cultivation and four others to a lesser extent in the interest of utility and a well rounded skill set.”
Ling Qi had been thinking much the same. Her current techniques were good, but she could do to have more options than simply playing her flute or throwing knives.
“What do you mean about unbalancing? Gu Xiulan uses nothing but fire, and she seems fine.”
“Does she now?” Bai Meizhen asked tartly, a hint of arrogant condescension returning to her tone. “Tell me, does she lose her temper easily? Pursue her passions with far more than appropriate intensity?”
Ling Qi fiddled with a strand of her hair. “Sometimes,” she admitted. “But she is not as bad as you make it sound.” Ling Qi felt the need to defend her other friend.
“I did not say that she was. Some clans choose to accept the… quirks that come with such specialization. For the Bai, we focus our arts around water, darkness, and the more yin-aligned aspects of wood. It is best to use at least three elements in abundance in order to keep a degree of personal balance.”
“I see,” Ling Qi murmured. “Is that…?”
Bai Meizhen raised her hand for silence as they reached the end of the path proper. There was only a narrow, crumbling cliffside ahead and dark trees below.
“We may continue this discussion later,” Bai Meizhen said. “For now, let us concentrate on the path. The way ahead is treacherous.”
Ling Qi straightened up and nodded. Time to focus on the task at hand; she could consider the advice Bai Meizhen had given later. The two of them descended the cliff carefully via a narrow ledge barely wide enough to walk one at a time. Ling Qi was certain that were she still a mortal, she would have slipped several times or fallen when a bit of stone crumbled under her feet, but as she was, descending was easy enough.
What came after was far more difficult. Despite the fact that the darkness was no hindrance to her, the paths through the thick trees and undergrowth seemed to shift slightly each time she blinked, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose with the feeling of being watched. Bai Meizhen lead on confidently, unaffected by the twisting of perceptions. Several times, Ling Qi almost lost sight of her companion only to be guided back by Meizhen taking her hand in her own, seeming to simply melt out of the twisted landscape from nowhere.
She needed to work on her ability to resist such illusions, Ling Qi thought. She wouldn’t always have Bai Meizhen with her. Perhaps she could ask later what a good method for training her perception would be.
In any case, that was what lead her to walk hand in hand with the pale girl by the time they reached the wide mouth of the cave her companion had mentioned. Unlike the crevices that she had seen up to now, this opening was a yawning hole in the side of the mountain twice her height and nearly eight meters across. Ling Qi took one last glance over her shoulder at the twisted forest but now, it only showed a normal nighttime scene.
Wordlessly, the two of them descended into the cave, following the shallow, sloping tunnel down into the lightless underground. She could hear the distant dripping of water, and her breath came out in wisps of steam as the air grew cool and moist.
Her grip on Meizhen’s hand tightened as they reached another chamber, the simple beauty of it stealing her breath away. Her night vision was colorless, but the elegant natural artistry of growing stone was a sight to see. The ceiling was a honeycomb of free hanging and joined stone growths, and many twisting and smooth pillars of rock rose from the damp floor. This place was alive, and the qi in the air was thick and cloying.
Meizhen didn’t pause save to cast a brief look Ling Qi’s way before tugging on her hand. She thought she saw the other girl’s lips quirk upward in amusement though. Ling Qi flushed; she must have been gaping like a fool. She hurried to follow her companion across the rounded stones that formed a path across the small, still lake in the center of the cavern.
They left the beautiful cavern behind, taking another exit down a narrower and steeper tunnel, which soon opened into a much more unassuming round chamber. A pair of great bronze gates were set in the far wall, coiling dragons carved along the edges. There were four indents, two on each door in the shape of spread human hands, each pair surrounded by a complex circle of characters.
She supposed that explained why Cui couldn’t do this for Meizhen.
“I do not know what lies beyond,” Bai Meizhen said, finally breaking the silence between them as she released Ling Qi’s hand and stepped toward the door. She saw Cui slither down to the floor from under the hem of Meizhen’s gown, growing larger with each passing second. “The door requires that we activate each pair at the same moment. It is simple enough, but be prepared for the unexpected.”
Ling Qi nodded cautiously, stepping up to the door alongside Bai Meizhen. “Alright, let’s do this.” This would be easier with arm meridians, but presumably Meizhen would have mentioned if that was needed. She could still direct qi into the structure in front of her. She hoped she was ready for this.
“So, on a three count?” Ling Qi asked, placing her hands in the cold metal indentations.
Bai Meizhen nodded, Cui now at full size and coiled around her feet. “That would be appropriate, I think.” Ling Qi could see the eagerness in the girl’s golden eyes, their glow making them the sole spots of color in her vision.
“Two,” Ling Qi murmured in time with her, steeling her nerves.
“One,” they said together, and as one, they pushed their qi outward, the vast, cold pressure of Meizhen’s energy erupting beside her as her own less obtrusive qi awoke. As Ling Qi exhaled, a thin stream of blue-black misty energy enveloped her hands.
The doors lit up, a dozen characters then a hundred and then two hundred making themselves known on the mirror sheen of the doors. Ling Qi shuddered as she felt her qi connect to something vast and aware. She felt the crushing, impossible weight of its attention, a mountain pressing down on her shoulders, bowing her knees from the weight.
She had an instant to see Bai Meizhen’s shoulders shaking from the pressure, expression drawn into one of defiant determination, before darkness consumed Ling Qi’s vision.